Misspent Youth

The other day, for a few, terrible minutes, I found myself possessing a copy of the Da Vinci Code. I wanted that about as much as a dose of the clap.

The result of a bungled book-swap deal, I had to get rid of the damn thing as soon as possible. Two or three years ago, someone lent me a copy, and I squandered a couple of precious, precious hours enduring Dan Brown’s obnoxious drivel when I should have been enjoying my otherwise excellent Spanish holiday.

Unlike critics who find fault with its crackpot history, ludicrous plot or even the ‘controversial’ religious content, I have no problems on that score. It’s just the way Dan Brown mangles the English language to such an extent I could feel my IQ dropping as I moved from one page to the next. Yes, you guessed it. I didn’t enjoy it much. Howard, my old Amarpurkashi parner-in-crime, writes a far more lucid critique here. Read it. He’s right on all counts.

Those wasted hours I will never have again. They’re gone for ever! Dan Brown, I want my life back! On my deathbed, I’ll be cursing my misspent youth. Along with those bloody Matrix sequels, countless pointless trips to Selhurst Park and my one visit to Ipswich, the time I spent with the Da Vinci Code will go down in my personal history as yet one more monumental waste of time. And don’t even get me started on Dude, Where’s My Car.

That is all.

British Garrison Cemetery

Today I went for a walk around Kandy, and found myself strolling up to the British Garrison Cemetery. Now I don’t normally tend to lurk around graveyards, but since the National Museum was closed I thought I’d take a look. It was actually very interesting. As I wandered around the well-kept grounds, I met the afable caretaker, Mr Charles Carmichael, who took time to explain many of the stories behind the inscriptions.

Mr Carmichael
Mr Carmichael

For example, take Captain James McGlashan (1791-1817), who fought with distinction at Basaco, Albuera and Waterloo before turning up in Ceylon. A confident fellow, he made the mistake of walking to Kandy from Trincomalee through the jungle, getting repeatedly soaked in the process and ignoring advice to take shelter from the mosquitoes. As the register states, “He was seized with violent fever and accepted his end with manly fortitude.”

Another is A. McGill (1837-1873) who died in Ambegamuwa from sunstroke. This was unusual since Ambegamuwa is in the hill country; according to Charles, the poor chap ran for seven hours to escape a wild elephant, before dropping dead from exhaustion.

What of young William Mackwood, who died in an accident in 1867, aged just 20? He was supervising the clearing of trees when he leapt from his horse to avoid a falling branch, only to impale himself on a stake left in the ground as a marker.

One thing very noticable about the cemetery is how young most of the people were when they died. Many were in their early twenties, succumbing to malaria, cholera, diarrhoea or jungle fever. I’m glad I’ve had my jabs and that I’ve got access to clean drinking water.

Continuing the slightly maudlin theme, I saw a sign today in the window of the ‘Wine City’ bottle shop, which also – fabulously – trades as ‘Kandy Medical’:

IF YOU DRINK YOU DIE
IF YOU DON’T DRINK YOU DIE
SO WHY NOT DRINK AND DIE

Interesting philosophy.

Sri Lankan snaps

Pablo looks thoughtful
Pablo looks thoughtful

Me looking thoughtful. I’m actually cooling off in the ruins of an ancient bath in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. Sadly there’s no water there anymore.

Stupa at Mihintale
Stupa at Mihintale, near Anuradhapura

Stupa at Mihintale, near Anuradhapura. The pictured monk was a serious-looking fellow.

5th century urinal stone
Fifth century urinal stone

Fifth century urinal stone from a monastery in Anuradhapura. The monks carved the image of another monastery on it, which – they felt – housed fun-loving monks who lived it up a bit too much.

Moonstone, Anuradhapura
Moonstone, Anuradhapura

Spectacular example of a moonstone in Anuradhapura. Amazingly, these beautifully carved stones were doormats upon which the monks wiped their feet before entering the temple.

Hello and welcome

Hello everyone! Welcome to worldofpablo.com

It’s been a long time coming but I’ve decided to relaunch the website with a new look and new address. I was getting sick of all the spam postings on the old site. Time will tell whether we have any more luck over here…

The new worldofpablo.com is supposed to be more of a blog than an online diary, so I’ll attempt to write shorter, more frequent posts. And with less of a limitation on pictures (the old site supported only ten) it should be more interesting to look at too.

According to my calculations, the last time I posted was in May. I know, I know. Since then I have:

Watched England lose on penalties… again
Topped the class for the Journalism diploma
Begun – and completed – a two month course in Technical Writing from the same department
Attended a one week course in Film Appreciation at the National Film Archives of India
Got soaked in the monsoon rains… repeatedly
Appeared in a least three newspapers (as subject not journalist, hey ho)
Grown a beard…
… and shaved it off again
Been galavanting around Maharashtra with Matt Hinde
Left India for Sri Lanka… temporarily

As usual I’m beginning with an apology for not having posted in ages. The longer I leave it, the more I have to write about, so I put it off for a bit… and the cycle continues. It’s like with emails. Sometimes I receive these fabulous long messages and I don’t have time to reply right away, knowing they deserve a proper response. Then I seem to let them pile up until they become rather intimidating and I suffer from a kind of email paralysis. Hopeless.

One of the reasons I left the UK was because everyone had heard all my anecdotes and I needed to rustle up some new ones. Suffice to say, that hasn’t been a problem.

DGS wise, I somehow found myself writing the script for the new Deep Griha DVD. Hopefully it’ll help with fundraising and awareness building. It was an interesting experience but took several attempts as I had to produce the first draft before I’d even seen the visuals. In fact, there’s been so much going on at DGS recently. For the most part I’ve been a witness rather than being right at the heart of things, but I continue to be amazed by these experiences time and again. There’s been a really good mix of volunteers recently – international and local – who’ve complemented the permanent staff really well. Shazma from Kenya, Laine and Aisha from Canada, Mo and the 2005-06 Link crew from Scotland, Sara and Kate from England, Jane from Canada, Aislinn from Ireland, Paul and Coco from France, all mixed up with lovely locals such as Meeta, Cheryl, Natasha and Sonu. And what with Sharon returning for yet another crack at DGS, it’s been wonderful to interact with so many interesting characters. I’m definitely starting to feel like an old hand, especially when Sharon and I sit around trying to come up with wind-ups for the new batch of Link volunteers. “Wear only purple on Thursdays” is my current favourite. Although I’m arguing that they should address the Volunteer Coordinator as “Oh Captain, my Captain”.

Deep Griha volunteers perform Kajra Re
Deep Griha volunteers at DGS birthday

The Deep Griha 31st Birthday Celebrations on July 5th were fabulous. There was a big get-together at the YMCA, and many staff members came up and performed songs and dances. The female volunteers devised a fabulous dance routine to Bollywood smash hit ‘Kajra Re’, which was VERY popular. There was even a memorable encore in a Pune nightclub a few days later…

In the past couple of months, I’ve visited Sahara Aalhad Residential Care and Rehabilitation Centre a few times. It’s a care hospice in Pune for people living with HIV / AIDS, and has developed a close relationship with DISHA (Deep Griha’s Integrated Service for HIV/AIDS). Anyone who goes there will confirm that it’s an extraordinary experience. The dedication of the staff (who often go unpaid due to lack of funds) is enough to restore your faith in humanity. Working in the slums is really less about starvation and disease so much as a lack of education and opportunity. But when you visit Sahara the situation is completely different. People who have been often been abandoned by their families – frequently they’re just dumped there – and have typically only come forward at a very late stage, typically at HIV stage 4 (i.e. clinical AIDS) because of high levels of stigma and discrimination within the community. I’ll post some more about Sahara soon, but please read Hans’ ‘Chaos Within’ posts on the Deep Griha blog – www.deepgriha.blogspot.com – for further insights. Hans has just returned from the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto and has some fabulous stories to tell… I’m sure more will emerge in due course. Hans usually leads the English-language awareness sessions but whilst he was away, Mo and I stepped up to the plate and gave a talk about HIV/AIDS to a whole host of international girl guides. It was a new experience for us both but I think we managed to pull it off.

It’s strange. I’m not sure at what point I stopped being a visitor to Pune and at what point I realised I was actually living there… Perhaps it was when I signed the renewed rental agreement for my flat. Either way, my (twice-extended) visa just ran out so I’ve come to Sri Lanka for a month’s holiday / visa run. After obtaining a fresh six-month tourist visa – hopefully a routine procedure – I’ll return to India. I’m not sure yet how much of that I’ll spend in Pune and how much I’ll try and travel around a bit. I’m still very keen on visiting North India, perhaps Himachal Pradesh, Varanasi, and maybe revisiting Amarpurkashi too. After that visa expires it’s time to return to Plan A: hit the road for New Zealand, although perhaps with an illogical but exciting detour via Nepal. Basically by that stage I’ll be properly strapped for cash so will need to start earning as soon as possible. Admittedly I’ve been proceeding a little slower than originally anticipated, but who’s counting?

Monsoon season is upon us again. Last year Tadiwala Road suffered from severe flooding and we had to get cracking with relief operations. There were some exceptionally heavy rains in July but nothing as bad as last year. Nevertheless, many people from all over Maharashtra were displaced from their homes, including many families in Tadiwala Road. Things have eased off for now but there’s always the fear of water-borne diseases such as leptosperosis. Naturally, the roads have all been washed away, making for a spine-shattering experience when negotiating the traffic. An innocuous looking puddle can turn out to be a metre-deep crater, and rocks and gravel seem to be scattered randomly across the roads. It’s interesting to be in Sri Lanka right now, where the climate is quite different. More on that soon.

Back in June the exam results for the Journalism Diploma were released. As luck would have it, I managed to top the class, just scraping a First with Distinction by a few marks. I hadn’t realised that being the class topper was such a big deal here, but it’s been lovely. There’s a tradition in India where you have to buy everyone pehda (a special type of sweet) to celebrate exam success. Let’s just say I never knew I knew so many people in Pune. It cost me a small fortune, but was well worth it. I even ended up in several of the papers – Times of India, Loksatta and Sakal – and consequently have been receiving random congratulations from all over the place, including the watchmen in my building.

It’s actually slightly frustrating because I’m not allowed to work here, which is a shame since I’d like to pick up some more experience.

Since Pune is – after all – the ‘Oxford of the East’, I decided to study a little more and signed up for a two-month Technical Writing course, offered by the same department. Jasmeet and Susham, both fellow diploma students, also took part. I enjoyed it, and somehow found myself agreeing to take a session on ‘British English’ for the Society of Technical Communicators (Pune branch) a couple of weeks back. Random? Yes.

Back in June I also attended an eight day Film Appreciation workshop organised at the National Film Archives of India, based here in Pune. It was great. We got to see some classic movies along with some wonderful short films. I was worried that film appreciation might end up like GCSE English Literature, overanalysing everything until pleasure goes out of it. But it wasn’t like that at all. My favourite session was from a Bollywood screenwriter, who gave us some fascinating insights into how the industry really works. Hmmm have some ideas for the future there…

Matt Hinde came over for 10 days in August – top stuff as he might say. I’ll post a full report soon, photos included. Suffice to say it was a riot. Just never drink ‘Stud’ beer if you can help it.

Thanks to everyone for being so patient. I really hope you’ll enjoy the new blog and would like to encourage you to contribute whenever and however you feel like. It’s very important for me to keep in touch… a very dear friend recently said that sometimes I was often more like a character in some faraway legend rather than a real person these days, so I’ll endeavour to keep you posted with my comedy antics…

Love to all, Paul xx

First proper update

Well after nearly a month in India, I’ve finally got around to setting up some kind of online diary thing… my earlier attempts in Moradabad where thwarted because the PCs weren’t up to it but with any luck I should fare better here. This could be a fairly lengthy entry – perhaps a bit about my journey via Delhi, my time in APK and my plans for the next month or so. Here goes…

1-13 October 2004 : Delhi

Flew into Delhi via a quick stopover in Amman… two flights each of around 5 hours but not too bad. Gallantly gave up my aisle seat to a lady with a bad back on the second leg of the journey – meant I had even less legroom than usual but it’s probably the right time to start acquiring some good karma.

Laura was right about Delhi’s taxi drivers – at least those who hang around the airport. However after a slightly circuitous route I got to the YMCA without getting ripped off. The hotel was OK – nothing special and not rock bottom prices but convenient and well known (except to my taxi driver perhaps). I managed to meet up with married couple Howard and Tracy – fellow Project Visitors (PVs) – the following morning and we popped out to check out India Gate and Connaught Place. Delhi definitely has that capital city vibe about it – everyone rushing around everywhere – and there are certainly a lot of people who want to talk to you… some genuine, some not. I’d like to go back and spend a bit more time there at some point, especially to see Old Delhi – perhaps I’ll swing by later on my travels. India Gate was impressive though, although attempting to cross the 7 or 8 lane highway (nobody really seemed to know) surrounding it required skills straight out of 80s videogame classic Frogger. We also stopped of at Palikar Bazaar – I was hoping for something colourful and lively with rolls of cloth everywhere, fruit stalls and pickpocketing trained monkeys but it was exactly like Tooting Broadway Market – i.e. dodgy electricals and knockoff DVDs. Never mind – have seen plenty of proper markets since. In the afternoon we tracked down Harry (another PV) and she joined us for dinner at the Y’s glamorous buffet restaurant… well the food was included in the room rate so mustn’t grumble.

On the 13th we got up at some ludicrous hour (4am I think it was) and hopped in an auto rickshaw to Old Delhi Station. After a bit of fiddling round at the ticket office (once we found it) we all had tickets to Raja Ka Sahaspur, for the princely sum of Rs57 – about 75p. Not bad for a 5-hour trip – Virgin Trains take note! On the platform we hooked up with Becci, Roger and Sophia – more PVs. Howard commented that the way our group assembled was like the Magnificent Seven – I baggsied James Coburn but probably best not to ascribe roles to everyone… Once at our destination we met PVs Stephanie and Clara (OK, it’s Claartje really, but play fair) on the platform. The girls – from Holland – had been on the same train but in a different carriage. From the station we got a lift straight to Amarpurkashi (APK) courtesy of Rameshi, the in-house jeep driver. Getting 9 PVs (plus ridiculous number of bags) and the driver into the jeep was quite a feat but somehow we all squeezed in.

13 October – 4 November 2004 : Amarpurkashi

Upon arrival at APK we tucked into some food – thalis with dhal, veg curry, rice, fruit and chapattis. Lovely – and a selection which we would get to know very well! A quick tour of the project followed, and we were shown to our accommodation. I was sharing with a really nice guy called John, a 50-something who had visited the project a couple of times in the past – once as a PV – and who had stopped off on his way to Bihar.

I don’t want to give a daily account so I’ll try and give an idea re a ‘typical’ day at APK.

0600: Alarm clock. Cold, foggy, oh to have a lengthy lie-in, but…
0630-0730: Yoga with Pushpa (our ever-capable, ever-dependable, multi-talented Project Coordinator). Amazed at how unflexible I am – still Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.
0730: Shower. Fill bucket with cold water from handpump, pour over self. Repeat. Shiver a bit.
0815: Breakfast. Usually a variation on porridge with bananas, crumbly biscuits and a cup or two of chai. Amazingly I am now drinking tea (after 26-odd years of steering well clear) but whether I continue the habit after India is uncertain. Quick perusal of the Hindustan Times (“36 bus passengers killed in mishap”, that kind of thing).
0930: Conversational English with students from the degree college. The class in question are studying for a Postgraduate Diploma in Rural Resource Management (PGRRM) with a view to being employed by NGOs upon graduation. Standards of English range from reasonably good to non-existent, but definitely better than my Hindi. Cricket comes up quite a lot.
1030-1300: ‘Activities’. This really varies but examples include visits to the primary school, painting educational murals on the walls, producing teaching aids and educational materials, knocking up charts and pictures for the annual Science Fair, working on a report for the research journal etc. Whilst I was at APK I produced a load of A2 charts for Kumarpal Singh (English teacher, 10th class) which featured illustrated poems – ‘The Fountain’ by James Russell Lowell (not bad) and ‘The Mountain and the Squirrel’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson (absolute drivel). Look them up with Google and judge for yourselves… Becci and I also made a load of flashcards for teaching English – a picture of an apple for ‘A’, a ball for ‘B’ etc and lots of individual words for making sentences. Some of us also got involved in writing up the INTAF conference (more later).

Speaking about poems – here’s one I prepared earlier… inspired by the river outside APK village and which is not at all polluted by the bloody great paper factory nearby [ahem]

‘The River’ (with apologies to James Russell Lowell)

Beautiful river
Your fragrance so sweet
Every morning
Our senses you greet

Into the sunshine
Into the light
Seeping and oozing
From morn till night

Ever in motion
First straight and then wavy
Your once crystal waters
Now the colour of gravy

Shrouded in wonder
Your banks are so fair
But to get any closer
Radiation suit I’d wear

Full of strange matter
My problems you’ll solve
For if I bathe in your channels
I’ll surely dissolve

Glorious river!
Let my heart be
Fresh, changeful, constant
Most unlike thee!…

Anyway. You could say “don’t give up the day job” but it’s too late.

1300: lunch.
1400 – 1600: Activities. A good time to do some work in the library as it’s nice and cool, plus the intercollege (high school) kids leave around 1500ish.1600: Hindi lesson. A teacher like Pushpa really deserves slightly better students, but we gave it a go! Howard was the class swot – Stephanie and Clara giggled at the back etc. It’s amazing how when you get in a proper classroom (blackboard, wooden desks etc) you regress about 15 years. Or more in some cases.
1700: Chai and biscuits on the terrace. Bahut atchaa!
1800-1915: Group discussion with all PVs and Mukat Singh (Project Director and all round boss-man). Topics varied from Development, Education, Indo-Pak relations, Hinduism and general gossip about life in APK.
1930: Dinner. Another thali, head cook Lalaji makes great mashed potatoes…
2000: General chitchat and walks on the terrace.
2100: Retire.
2200: Lights out (literally – the generator goes off and that’s your lot).

There’s plenty of variation on this theme – side trips to Bilari (local town), Moradabad (local big town), holidays, festivals etc. Early on we got a load of clothes made up in Bilari – us boys picked out material for kurta pyjamas (two pairs each) and the girls spent hours cooing about fabrics for salwaar kameez and the like. I should have a photo of us all in our gear so I’ll try and post it up.

Roger, Me, Becci, Stephanie, Clara, Tracy, Sophia, Howard, Harry
Roger, Me, Becci, Stephanie, Clara, Tracy, Sophia, Howard, Harry

31/10 and 1/11 saw the INTAF (International Taskforce for the Rural Poor) India Prepatory Committee Assembly, hosted at APK. INTAF attempts to get global recognition from political institutions for those who work for and with the rural poor, and the purpose of the PrepCom was to formulate the Indian response on the topic ‘Investing in the Rural Poor’ to be discussed at the international conference held next year in London. Harry, Becci and Howard produced a press release and some of us drafted the ‘Amarpurkashi Declaration’ at the end of the first day. Watching the discussions at first hand was a very interesting experience, although most of the proceedings were conducted in Hindi… the evening was enlivened by some live music, and a succession of delegates took the stage to sing songs, tell stories etc – fantastic.

On 3rd November, the annual Science Fair took place. Basically it’s an expo for the schools and intercollege – every class comes up with some kind of stall / exhibit and it really was great. Lots of dressing up, plays, songs and even some science tucked in there… I’ve got loads of great pictures so will try and get them up on Yahoo or something before too long.On the 4th it was time to move on to pastures new. The rest of the PVs were moving on (the Dutch girls had nicked off a couple of days early to pack in a busy tourist schedule, and Tracy had to leave after two weeks because of work commitments), either to return to the UK (Howard) or continue travels (everyone else). Personally speaking, I really enjoyed APK and it was a fantastic experience. Even so, we’d bonded so well as a group I didn’t fancy sticking around once everybody else was heading off… fortunately there are several other projects I’m planning on visiting (in Pune, Bodhgaya and Orissa) but these are a long way apart (and a fair way from APK) so I thought I’d make my way via a few tourist destinations… that’s my story anyway.

So here I am in Agra – I got an overnight train from Chandausi (near APK) and spent Friday checking out Agra Fort, the tomb at Itimadu’D-Daula and a few other sights. Then yesterday I visited the Taj Mahal. It’s amazing – undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world and certainly the most impressive building I’ve ever seen. Whisper it quietly, but it even trumps the Brighton Pavilion. I spent most of the day there, enjoying the gardens and savouring the peace and tranquility – it really is a haven from the pollution and bustle of Agra outside the walls. Last night I got a great meal and even a Kingfisher so all’s well with the world!

This afternoon I’m planning on hopping on a bus to Fatephur Sikri to check out the abandoned city, and from then the plan is to head for Jaipur. With any luck I’ll catch up with Becci and Roger and Stephanie and Clara in Pushkar in a week or so – there’s the international camel fair so I’ll be on the lookout for some bargains.Technically I’ve left out loads of details but once I post a few photos it should jog my memory… watch this space for occasional updates…

You’ll be pleased to hear that thanks to a combination of the BBC World Service, text messages and the internet I’ve managed to keep up to date with Norwich City – we’re drawing more often than Rolf Harris at the moment but hopefully we’ll get there soon… keep the faith!

More next time – TTFN xx

Just a lot of stuff and nonsense

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