Rajisthan Desert Project, with RealGap
Jaisalmer Travel Blog› entry 2 of 52 › view all entries
Ganesh meets me at the airport. Ganesh looks disconcertingly like my friend Alex - they could be different colored versions of the same person! And Ganesh has the same lingering, calm way about him. I'm completely weirded out and spend the the next few days trying in vain not to stare; totally reversing the notion that it's the Indians who gawp at the blondes.
Mona & Dipan
En-route from Delhi to Jaipur in a banged out jeep: I share the journey with Mona and Dipan, who are Californian siblings, turns out they are the nicest people on the planet & later that night (my first in India) when everything about me is strange and challenges my concepts of normality, we stay together in the same bare, noisy house. I mentally cling to their presence, finally drifting off into unsettled sleep wishing that I'd chosen to holiday in Florida instead.
For four nights in Jaipur Mona, Dipan, Andrew & I stayed with a host family in Jaipur. Each evening they fed us with traditional Rajisthani food and chatted, in remarkably good English, about their family and the local customs. We had been pre-warned that the mother may not join us at the dinner table, but would remain in the kitchen after serving us the food as this is often the traditional way in Rajisthan. Thankfully the Singhs must be very progressive, because Mrs Singh (Krishna) did sit with us at the table and partcipated in the conversation freely, sometimes even correcting her husband.
Mr. Singh is an amazing man. He is a direct descendant of the Rajput dynasty, which means his great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a decorated warrior noted in the history books. Mr. Singh deals in property and politics in Jaipur.
Mr. Singh’s mother and father also stayed in the house. Although they spoke less English they were equally smiley. One evening I’d been struggling to make conversation with Mr. Singh Senior and as a bit of a last ditch attempt to find something engaging to talk about, I mentioned a Massey Ferguson tractor I’d seen in the street.
It was sad saying goodbye to this lovely family, knowing it’s unlikely I’ll ever see them again. But I’ve taken their address and intend to send them a glossy Massey Ferguson brochure as soon as I can.
Sleep deprived & stroppy
I'm much happier now, but on days 2 & 3, having not slept in as many days my good humour had not so much worn thin as worn out. I felt I'd been constantly blared at by our volunteer organizers (Idex) & a gazillion other Indians, and I just want to scream 'time out!' & have a few moments peace & quiet on my own.
I wrote the following in a moment of self pity: "woke at 1.15 immediately aware of foreign surroundings, before completely emerging I allowed a moment of homesickness and imagined that instead of lying on a bed as hard as a concrete slab, with 100 decibel air-con raging around the room, I'm cool and comfortable on cotton sheets in Southfields"
Jaipur - Jaislamer by train: hell
7 of us knee to knee in a compartment of an archaic sleeper train which would probably not qualify for transportation of cattle in the UK. On the far opposite bench, Mona (USA) is sobbing delicately into a Kleenex. To her left is a space recently vacated by Gisela (Switzerland) who is currently vomiting in the cess-pit-esque toilets having eaten half a sandwich covered in green mould (graciously provided by Idex). Opposite me sits Andrew (UK) who's looking quite awkward after his gallant suggestion to 'look on the bright side' has had little uplifting effect.
Jaipur to Jaislamer by Train: Heaven.
Soon after this very grim moment it all started getting better, and for the most part has continued to do so.
In a moment of extreme boredom we'd ventured past the cess-pits to the carriage end and found the train doors wide open to the elements. It was bit precarious to sit there alone, but by wedging ourselves side by side in the doorway; we could sit with legs dangling out of the carriage with fresh (if somewhat sandy) air buffeting us from all angles. We must have sat like this for at least an hour, excitedly pointing out goats and huts in the otherwise barren landscape of sand and bushes. Occasionally we passed individual farmers and groups of men having a smoke - each waved & we waved back, wondering how on earth people could survive in such a place. I then realized I’d been fully exposed to the sun for ages & ought to get some sunscreen, but the train had accelerated to top speed by now & showed no signs of stopping; Dipan and I were likely to pitch into the desert at 100 mph should one of us de-wedge, so to avoid certain death I tried to delay the burn by alternating my pashmina between my face and arms.
On the morning of my 30th, three of our guides gave me a home-made birthday card with this message inside, which I love to bits:
Happy birthday to Nitsha
It is a pleasure to great you and with happiness at this occasions brightens up with promises downs. may all your plans and memories you hold dear. bring you more joy with every passing day. we all most wishing you happy life and wish you happy birthday.
From Veena, Manu & Naveen.
At night, just before going to sleep I was reading ‘The Art of Travel’ in which the author includes this sobering quote. Which I felt was cruelly apt, given my transition into old age:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
Our first assignment after the orientation sessions was to teach at a disabled school in Jaislamer.
The classroom itself was an assault to the senses: my nose reeled at the smell of unwashed bodies as my eyes took in the room which was a bare concrete box, devoid of any colour save for the faded blue rags on the floor.
If the volunteers all looked horrified, so did the sea of young faces staring back at us.
Of course, those that were blind could not see us, but the teacher had barked a sharp command and all sat to nervous attention. Our introduction was made in Hindi and then the teacher turned to us and said ‘ please, pick your children’. Pick your children!! What was this? some sort of grotesque lucky dip? I felt physically sick and every atom in me wanted to turn heel and walk outside. Luckily a few leading atoms adhered to good manners, so instead I sought out the most awkward looking boys and sat down with them.
The boys were Shaom & Hajara Ram, brothers.
The boys taught me sign language and I learnt the letters of the alphabet and signs for popular things, like cows and airplanes. I'd bought a number of ‘teaching aids’ with me; far and away the most successful was an etcher-sketch board which the boys thought must be powered by magic. Through the etcher-sketch we were able to do spelling, drawing, maths and simple games. Over the course of my time with the brothers I discovered that Hajara was the quicker learner, and especially good at maths whilst Shaom was more artistic and openly expressive.
At the end of the week, we all gathered out in the yard for final goodbye photographs. The children were so happy and excited by this that they sproinged about like little Tiggers. The vocal ones yelled ‘hello-goodbye, hello- goodbye’. Then, when the volunteers finally climbed into the jeep, the more able kids banged the vehicle & ran after it still waving and smiling as we drove away.
This experience was the first of many occasions in India where I learnt to reserve my opinions and in doing so those opinions changed. Whilst there remains much about the school system that still distresses me, I soon realized that these kids represent the lucky ones.
On a sadder note however, I saw no girls at the disabled school, and then I noticed that there were no females among the disabled beggars either. I may be wrong but I suspect that imperfect baby girls rarely get to see their first month birthday in Rajisthan.
The remainder of our volunteering was spent at Akal Scool, a remote outcrop of concrete buildings seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
The children come and go as they please, so often you see kids for the first time mid- week. On one such day a well-dressed older looking boy joined us and was clearly super smart. He’d finished his drawing exercise ahead of all the others, and then helped the slower ones; he’d spoken first and loudest when we played spelling games... but it was in Maths that he really blew us away.
Andrew was teaching quite simple division sums and this boy (whose name I forget) had answered each equation before the question was completed. Andrew was so excited by this that he handed me the chalk and said:
‘Take over, I want to work separately with this kid to see what he can do’
‘No Andrew, please not maths, I’m really crap at it’
But Andrew wasn’t listening and was already doing some sort of complex formula on the other black-board.
‘Andrew! I’m stuck, I’ve run out of sums and they’re all smarter than me’
‘Move onto long division then’
‘But I don’t even know what long division is, please help me!’ (giggles from the class)
Thereafter I was demoted to playing ‘throwing and kicking the ball’ in the desert with the girls. Which suited me just fine.
Food Porn in the Willage
Our camp is literally in the middle of nowhere; all you can see is sand and scrub in every direction.
USA: God I miss peanut butter
UK: Mmmmmm, peanut butter!
Germany: I like Peanut butter, but also Nutella, you have Nutella?
USA: Nutella? Like chocolate? Yeah that’s goo-hood……costs more than peanut butter though.
UK: I love those peanut butter cup things
USA: Oh yeah! Like Reeces Pieces!
UK: Yup, they’re made by them.
SWISS: We don’t have.
USA: But I guess you guys are like world leaders in chocolate right, so why would you? I mean, Swiss chocolate the best…
GERMAN: .. and Belgian. Belgian is good too.
UK: What I’d really like though is a Magnum.
UK#2: Mmmmmm Magnum! I like the white one.
USA: what’s a Magnum?
UK#2: A really good ice cream, covered in chocolate, there’s 3 flavours…
UK: I think there’s more now, like caramel and mint…
USA: We don’t have that, but ice cream would be sooo great right now
SWISS: Haagen Dazz! Cookies and cream!
UK: Ben & Jerry’s!
UK#2: Phish food!
USA: Phish Food! Chunky Monkey!
The other great thing bonding us all is English, which is the common language. I'm a complete heathen, and utterly ashamed to be in the minority (i.e one of the brits) who only speaks their home language. So it's really not fair of me to find amusement in the language of others..... however neither the Indians, the Swiss or the Germans can pronounce the letter 'W', so every day we hear - "The Wolunteers will go go to the Willage' and every day I have a guilty chuckle.
The Phantom Wall.
Nights in the desert camp usually consist of a group of us sat on plastic chairs outside of our camel-poo huts.
On one of these nights we were having an in-depth conversation about serial killers, going over their crimes in gruesome detail, and then deliberating ‘what made them do it?’ Someway through this conversation I realized I’d been subconsciously aware of a small Cotswold stone wall, just by my feet, that undoubtedly wasn’t there.
Earlier that day on a trip into Jaislamer I’d noticed a shop with a sign outside advertising ‘Government Authorized Banga’. Whilst the others were in the nearby internet-café I popped in and bought myself 10 banga cookies. The shop keeper had proudly told me that these cookies were completely approved by the government; he held one to my nose and exclaimed ‘ See no smell! Sniffer dogs no know!’ It crossed my mind legal products had nothing to fear from sniffer dogs, but I didn’t quibble and said 'Thank you' and 'Goodbye' to the nice man.
Naturally I assumed that any government approved bhanga would have little or no potency, so I ate three in quick succession and forgot about it. I suppose this is how, 2 hours later, midway through a debate as to whether Stephanie Slater had been imprisoned in a wheelie bin or a fridge freezer, I noticed that I was properly tripping out.
I’d spent an uncertain amount of time mentally fighting the desire to prop my feet on the imaginary dry-stone wall. Once I realized what was going on I told myself not be so daft and tried to concentrate again on the conversation, but try as I might, my mind kept drifting back to the wall and how nice it would be to rest my feet there.
I met Debbie on arrival at the camp. Debbie would say that she’s ‘quite gobby’, which if you go by first impressions seems to be true. I heard Debs before I saw her. She was talking loudly on her mobile to someone who I guessed was back in the UK:
‘It’s like Camp bloody Colditz! ...if I see another place of sodding curry……Thank God I’ve booked a flight to Goa in a couple of weeks…I can’t wait! And guess what? I’m going to stay at the Taj Palace in Mumbai, It’s stupidly expensive but I need it after being stuck here, I’m going to have the longest bubble bath and satellite TV!
The thing about Debs is that she’s the sweetest, funniest person and is actually quite shy.
‘Why are you having a beer?’
‘Um… just felt like it really, it goes quite nicely with the curry…’
'But it's wednesday!'
‘Why don’t you have a beer on Friday..….Friday's party night?’
‘Um… well maybe I’ll have one then too.’
(Look of abject disproval.
Debbie and I decided to make the trip to Goa together. I knew I’d found great traveling companion when at Delhi airport I was flapping around frantically collecting up my e-ticket, changing cash, re-booking my flight to Heathrow: generally getting increasingly wound up by Indian backward bureaucracy and blatant disregard for the concept of queuing. Debs just stood watching & smiling; responding to my blustering with an Indian head-wobble and shrugs of ‘ This is India’ (which we’d heard a thousand times when we’d questioned something that didn’t make sense)
People in Rajisthan (for benefit of my memory)
Big Amit • Bramin caste with singsong voice.
Skinny Amit • Looks disconcertingly like the squirrel out of Disney’s Ice Age (in the nicest possible way)
Mantu • Sweet young guide who wore a T-shirt saying ‘ No Girlfriend No Tension’
Naveen • Painfully thin, especially good friends with Katja.
Manu •Classical face which resembles paintings of Indian Goddesses.
Veena •Under-employed as a guide: Has a masters in computer science.
Annalisa • Broader Norfolk accent than Bernard Matthews. Has an admirable ‘grab life by the balls’ attitude.
Roshni • very serious about the India experience. I managed to insult her twice in our first conversation by being flippant about the bindi spot, and by saying that her employers ‘Phones 4U’ were the absolutely worst company I’ve ever had to deal with.
Wille • From the Netherlands. Precise and enjoyed taking photographs. A lot.
Andi & Ellie •Petite & perfectly matched couple
Mita • Blonde Kirstin Dunst. A new soul to whom everyone gravitates.
Gislea • Bambi-like physique belies a tough attitude.
Katja • Born to teach.
Lena • A young & innocent girl for whom the project was too much too soon.
Johanna • German but everyone thought she was French. All eyes!
Julia • Deservedly popular - unaffected & attractive.
Andrew • 100% English bloke. Always found something to do.Soundtrack & Reading
On The Radio:
• Dance on The Floor by Hamesh ????
On The Pod:
• Marylin Manson - Sweet Dreams
• Art of Travel by Alain De Button • Mr Nice by Howard Marks • Elephant Song by Wilbur Smith