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Authenticity in Travel

It’s authenticity that we have always been in search of:  The search for ‘cool’, the declaration of ‘pretentiousness’ and the smirking at hipsters are all about our definition and acceptance of authenticity. 

In the fast moving pace of urban western society this is a subjective minefield and the very search for authenticity, by definition, becomes the very opposite.  But authenticity isn’t a modern trait and neither is it confined to the realms of western society.  When we travel, I have noticed, we are continually searching for the ‘real’ country, authenticity it seems, consumes us even abroad.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a real (authentic?) traveller.  Is it in search for people, societies or cultures that have yet to be assimilated into the fold of the mono-cultural, homogeneous society that we are converging into?  A lot of people I met would agree with this, they would argue that that is to experience the ‘real’ country; an ‘authentic experience’.  To be honest with myself, this was something that attracted me to travel too.  The farther away these societies are from our own, the greater these differences, means the greater our awe, the more we’re entertained and quite possibly, more we learn.  But is the search for this authentic?  I might’ve been in agreement with this question in the past, but now I would disagree.  To be a real traveller is to see what is there, without any preconceived notions or ideas of what to find.  As soon as we are in search for something we are no longer open to other experiences, to other ideas, we have already narrowed our mind and by that we are no longer seeing the ‘real’ country, blind to the reality that is before our eyes – whatever it may be.  That is how I define the difference between travelling and tourism, it’s a mindset, and is brilliantly phrased by G. K. Chesterton with his quote ‘The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.’

This is not to put down tourism or to revere travel.  Sometimes when on a trip I grow tired of ‘travelling’ and I become a tourist for a few days/weeks, deciding what I’m seeing beforehand.  In doing so I might learn more intellectually, satisfy a curiosity and quite frankly have a far more enjoyable time, but none of these lessons cuts as deep as that of an experiential learning that comes from experiencing the world from a traveller’s perspective.  During my trips I am both a traveller and a tourist, the former being the real work which is often tiring and the latter being, in a way, a type of rest and relaxation.

Authenticity in travel is not thus defining oneself as a traveller as opposed to a tourist, but is, in fact, just the same as authenticity in every aspect of life – It is to be true to oneself.


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Farewell India

The evolution of emotions on the last few days of a trip typically follows the same pattern.  It starts of with excitement, following onto the planning stage, then as the flight date moves ever closer, melancholy sets in and finally weariness.  The last stage can lead to some rash decisions being made and in these cases, expensive decisions (for which I am far too sensible to do).

It's hard to separate oneself from these emotions and tap into the endless inspiration that they can give to the writer.  These emotions are a literary fountain but the plug is often sealed and the writer, weighed down with weariness does not having the strength to pull.  I don't have the strength to pull even though this time I told myself it would be different.  Alas all I have left is a trickle from this fountain.

I have survived India, pretty much unscathed.  I have no terrible stories to tell but hell do I have some exciting ones.  I said once that India confused me into silence, that was at the beginning of the trip, the beginning of a journey.  This has been a journey of discovery more than of the usual sort;  discovering not only my ancestral past, but my own past, answering questions I have had since childhood.  And in this respect India does not disappoint.  Yet it is not India that has done the work.  India is, just as a mountain is.  The beauty in the poetry etched out from mountaineers has come from within, squeezed out by their experiences and hardships on the mountain and that is what India does to the traveller.  I have expressed some of these profound moments in photos and texts, others remain tucked away in my diary but the vast majority remain within me, dissipating slowly into the ether with time.

Now as I sit in Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi and my laptop battery slowly dies I bid farewell to India and prepare to be transported into a different dimension and time.  I hope some of the lessons I have learnt stay with me.  Tolerance.  Patience.  Impermanence.

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Wedding Crashers

Like the side alleys of main shopping streets, the valleys off of the main touristed routes in the Indian Himalayas remain innoncent of the humdrums of mass tourist transport.  A refreshing breath of crisp mountain air after the stale smell of towns competing for the tourist dollar and offering not much else. And like the side alleys off of the main shopping streets they are actually very easy to get to.  Welcome to Chamba Valley.

As we walked into the village of Kugti at 2600m which clings to side of a steep gorge we had actually stumbled into the middle of a great wedding celebration.  During the celebrations the organisers feed the entire village.  It goes without saying and a true testament to the hospitality of the mountain follk that we were immediately asked to sit and that we MUST eat with them.  Rice and curries were piled onto our thin throw away plates in such frequency and quantities that had we not insisted for them to stop the mountain of rice would have been higher than the 6000m snow capped peaks towering all around us. 

Another adventure awaited us that evening when we left to climb up to the 3000m Hindu temple that was meant to be open and well supplied for cold and weary travellers needing a place to sleep and another wedding we ended up in the following day... but that story is for another time.

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Self Immolation

Yesterday I joined a candle light vigil in memory of two monks who self immolated the day before (24th April).  The two young monks, both in their twenties, died at the scene from their injuries.  Since 2009, as many as 117 Tibetans living under China's rule have set themselves on fire demanding freedom and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from exile. McLeod Ganj, India, the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in exile is probably the the only place that such a large gathering of Tibetans can happen without fear of oppression to pray for the fallen and protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

We met at the main square at 6pm and walked around the city with candles singing prayers before ending up at the Tsuglagkhang Temple (residence of the Dalai Lama) where more prayers were sung and commemoration was given to the two young monks.

It was impossible not to sympathise with the dispair amongst the Tibetans.  They are not just fighting against an all powerful overlord but an increasingly indifferent international community

I will let these few photos that I took (with my broken camera) speak the words.

More information on the Free Tibet movement and how you can participate at (www.freetibet.org).

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Where are you from?

How can such a simple question lead to such trauma? Not other people's trauma, but my trauma, trauma to my well being. There are several answers I could give, each one correct yet wrong. Taking the question literally I would answer, London, UK. That is where I was born and raised, home for the first eighteen years of my life. But the question is never just simply asking that, it is asking a lot more. Locked away in that small question are numerous questions all being asked at the same time: Where do you live? What is your background? What culture are you from? Tenuously it is even asking 'what languages do you speak?'

Answering London, UK as I normally do leads to much more misinformation than answers. Each encounter other than the most briefest of meetings inevitably ends up in a long monologue qualifying my answer giving my whole history right back to where my grandparents are from to answer that small, simple question. In the end I actually end up disqualifying my own answer.

The monologue starts with the geographical location of my birth: London, UK. Then the fun begins... 'I was born and raised in London, UK in a predominantly Indian culture smattered with some East African and an ever increasing chunk of English-ness. My parents are from Kenya and my grandparents (all of them) are from Gujarat, India. I spent the first eighteen years (about 60%) of my life in London. Due to university and work the following 20% was spent dotted around the UK (one has to differentiate London from the rest of the UK because for all intents and purposes London may as well be a separate country). 10% of my life has been spent travelling and expeditioning around the world and 10% has been in France. The answer to where I am now living? 'Nowhere'.

But no one wants a long answer to that question. What is the short answer? I don't know. The dilemma! The trauma! Maybe the only short, truthful answer I can give is exactly that: 'I don't know'. Oh, but then more times than not I would be dubbed as a pretentious 'new-found-hippie-child-of-the-world'. Any ideas?

Answers on a post(card) please...

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The Darkness of the Mind

I am in a dark place. Physically and psychologically. My eyes are closed to the world and it is only the darkness that is showing itself. The past: things I haven’t thought about for years. The future: Cohesive plans forming. And these words too, inscribed onto my memory to be transcribed later. For I have no hands to write with, nor eyes to see with or ears to hear with. I am but a mind. My body is trapped in a prison now for six days and the darkness is closing in. Memories upon memories, I cry, I laugh, great emotions stir within me. I am in a dark place. Am I the darkness that is enveloping me? A moment of doubt, but profound and soul shaking – a powerful shudder from the subconscious.

I shake my head and come back to the task at hand, to feel the sensations on the body. Bit by bit I move my concentration through the various parts. Starting at the top of the head and moving my attention downwards. I pause at my shoulders, I fail to feel even the touch of my clothes on the skin. I wait there, but my mind doesn’t. It has gone back into the realm of dreams: Thoughts about love, work and family. I realise where it has gone and I wrench it back into the present. I concentrate once again on my shoulders waiting for a sensation to emerge but my mind has gone off again like an unwatched toddler. This time the past turns into the future by some spurious linkages in the sub-conscious. I find solace in the plans of the future, of seeing my girlfriend after three months apart, about starting a new life together, in a new country with a new job, learning a new language. Once again I realise where I am and bring my mind back to the present. I scold myself for enjoying such thoughts for the object of the exercise is to develop an indifference to all things that change. And everything changes.

I leave my shoulders and move my attention to the torso, to the arms and to my legs. My bottom and legs are in pain, I have not moved since starting this exercise and I have no idea how much of the one hour sitting has passed. I fight the impulse to open my eyes and try to view the pain objectively to accept it as it is knowing that it will not last forever. The pain subsides for a few seconds but is soon back in full strength.

I notice the darkness again, it has been with me all day. Right from the wake up call at 4am to now, somewhere between 6-7pm and the last hour of ten hours of meditation. I fight against it, accepting for what it is, a darkness can only be darkness if we take it as such. ‘Equanimity to all sensations’ we are told, ‘to all thoughts’… ‘to pain’. The pain, the darkness is all too strong. I find solace once again in memories. Then the static of the tape starts and the silence of the meditation is broken by the chanting coming from the speakers and the hour is up.

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After the Vipassana

“I’ve just been released from prison.” I leave the prison with wide eyes open to the wonders of the outside world. I talk to everyone I see, the fellow inmates and the prison staff most for the first time. It’s been a tough sentence, not so much physically but mentally I’ve been through a washing machine.

At the prison one cannot talk to the other inmates or prison staff, inclusive of body language, facial gestures or any other form of communication. No reading or writing material or music is allowed inside either. Even eye contact with others is prohibited; a sign reading ‘eyes downcast and you’re bound to be successful’ is displayed on the ground in line with downcast eyes. The inmates are only permitted two meals a day with a small snack in the evening. Sleep is limited to 6 hours of day and the small cells are not much larger than 2x1m. The worst of it though is that the prisoners have to perform ten and a half hours of meditation a day, every day. Three of these hours are in forced discipline where one cannot move for the entire hour. Fortunately the sentence is only ten days long.

That is the best way to describe entering one's first Vipassana course. Prison. That is even how the teacher described it: A self-imposed sentence in a prison with rules harsher than the most severe penitentiaries’. The harsh rules are there for a reason and as this is a sentence one has subject on oneself the prisoners/meditators mostly follow them willingly. I did, finding the inner strength during the darkest hours to continue. Even when some of the inmates started talking clandestinely after day 5 I avoided eye contact with them to prevent any unwanted interaction. That was when the prison analogy was at it’s most exact. The said inmates would stand nearby each other about a metre apart during the short recess recess periods between meditation sessions or after meals. They would look in parallel directions into the forest or far into the horizon apparently unaware of each other’s presence and have hushed conversations in secrecy. When one approaches they stop talking and start again only after one has passed. But in the enforced silence of the place they were not fooling anyone, for there is no other reason for meditators to stand so close to each other and sound travels.

The vow of silence that we took is there like all the rules for a reason. The meditation course is a huge journey within the depth of the mind or as the teacher put it a major operation into the mind. Each meditator is embarking on an individual journey into the darkest corners of their mind and everyone experiences it differently. Discussion and sharing of these experiences can easily lead to confusion, false expectation and ultimately failure in the meditation. But what is this meditation technique?

Vipassana meditation means ‘to see things as they really are’. It is a process of self-observation that was discovered by Gotama the Buddha 2500 years ago in India and the path by which he attained enlightenment. However the technique was very nearly lost to humanity and only by what appears to be a series of coincidences over the millennia the technique survived to today. The technique was preserved in a handful of teachers in Myanmar and handed down orally from teacher to student over hundreds of years but ultimately was limited to within Myanmar. Again by what appears to be a fortunate coincident a promising young student well established in the technique found himself in India to see his parents. A single isolated course given by this young teacher snowballed with an unstoppable force. People travelled from all over India and further afield to learn the technique and in a space of 50 years Vipassana centres have been created all over India and all over the world. After a gap of almost 2000 years this technique that had gained so much popularity in the time of the the Buddha has once again returned to it’s motherland.

The theory behind the technique states that all events are neutral. When they come into contact with the body through one of the six sense organs (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and thought) they create a sensation on the body. This sensation is itself also neutral but through ignorance we all have developed a habit of associating these sensations as a pleasant or unpleasant. One could see, smell, hear, touch, taste something pleasant or unpleasant or have a pleasant or unpleasant thought. And that, the Buddha says, is the start of all our miseries. When one evaluates a particular sensation as pleasant or unpleasant one develops a craving or aversion to that sensation which themselves are both forms of misery. When one has a craving for something but does not receive/attain it they become disappointed – misery. On the other hand when one develops a dislike to a particular sensation and they are subject to it they will too become upset, become miserable. The other important facet to Vipassana is accepting that nothing is forever. Everything changes. Thus a pleasant or unpleasant sensation has only one true characteristic: That it will change. With everything changing all the time any value we give to these cravings and aversions are bound to result in misery.

This evaluation of sensations happens deep within the unconscious layers of the mind and whilst we are all only aware of the surface (conscious) level of the mind we are locked into this cycle of misery through our ignorance. But what Gotama the Buddha discovered was that we do not require to be a slave to these evaluations. We can reach into the depths of the mind and change the nature of it and the way that it reacts to these bodily sensations. Once craving and aversion has been eliminated one will no longer be upset by whatever external event that passes but will always be happy and at peace with the world. That is the path to real happiness and harmony and the path that led Gotama the Buddha to enlightenment.

All other searches of happiness, through material gains or diversionary means only strengthen the cravings and aversions our minds have and thus only strengthen our misery.

The method by which the Buddha discovered to change the nature of the mind was by making the conscious mind aware of all the sensations that the body feels that were only previously evaluated by the deep unconscious. That is done by deep meditation.

And deep meditation is what we did. Starting at 4.30am we meditate until 9pm, every day. Three one hour sittings, one after breakfast, lunch and dinner were sittings of ‘strong determination’. One could not move at all during the hour and during the first couple of days the physical pain during the sittings were excruciating. After the sittings we left the hall limping off with stiff legs and backs. These were the hardest tests to control the equanimity of our minds to these sensations, but eventually the pain subsided as our control of the sensations grew stronger. Ten and a half hours of meditation everyday however took it’s toll. Each morning as I woke up I felt my body had been beaten up the previous day. But the physical duress was small compared to what the mind goes through. To be alone with one’s thoughts for so many hours is very revealing. The mind jumps to the past, to the future in an endless foray of thoughts and plans, of happy thoughts and melancholy. One tries to concentrate on the meditation and within seconds it has departed on some journey deep into the past. The greatest lesson on the first couple of days is how wild the mind is. Little by little over the first days the mind is tamed somewhat and concentration appears easier. It is only then that the real work of changing the deeper layers of the mind begins and the vipassana meditation starts.

The course is tough, but the fantastic support of the teachers and support staff makes this personal journey possible. As the days go by one realises that the physical prison that we have subjected ourselves to is nothing compared to the mental prison we are always in.

Alas 10 days is nowhere enough to transform the mind and no one pretends it is. Instead the 10 day course is an introduction to the technique and a tutorial of how to practice the technique oneself. There are years of work ahead to reach the goals sought but every step has its benefits and even after 10 days the effects are already felt. I’m happier as a result.

I'm off to meditate now.

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Welcome to Backpackerstan

Backpackerstan. I love this term. I'm not sure where it originated from but it describes some places perfectly. The name invokes something exotic and edgy yet with all the fluffiness and comfort of 'back home' - a one word oxymoron. One of these places is Mcleod Ganj where I have just arrived. If I had done some research I would not have been so surprised at arriving here. But as it is I hadn't and all I knew was that this was the seat of the Tibetan Government in exile, home of the Dalai Lama and most important for me where the Vipassana centre is located where I am due to start a ten day silent meditation course. It is fascinating how each of these independent travellers, bent of discovering somethng 'new', something 'real', contributed to the creation of a Backpackerstan. Probably the very thing they were trying to avoid. It is also fascinating how such a place is created in the first place: A trickle of early explorers/travellers discovers a place, a community that accepts them, allowing them to live amongst them, cheaply and with some spiritual or environmental depth. These travellers tell their friends about this place and as the word is passed around the traveller grapevine the trickle turns into a stream. The path becomes troddenand soon enough the guidebooks get hold of it, as it is their job to do. The stream turns into a river as more laid back, less hardy travellers arrive. Businesses emerge catering for thier needs: Toilet roll, biscuits, crisps and beer. Inevitabely, the chocolate banana pancake is served and once the trance parties start the transformation is complete.

But the Backpackerstans of the world are not all the same and they are not necessarily a sell out to the 'true' traveller. There is a real reason why the place became a Backpackerstan in the first place it's not all coincidence.

Mcleod Ganj's allure is twofold. It lies at just below 2000m in the Indian Himalayas. The beauty of the Himalayan valleus topped by 6000m snow capped peaks and a temperate climate make it a haven from the rest of India. But more importantly (for the creation of a Backpackerstan) it is the home of the Tibetan government in exile and the home of the highest spiritual leader in Buddhism , the Dalai Lama. The popularity of Buddhism amongst western travellers need not be stated and they originally came here for the chance to commune with the great leader. In the streets of Mcleod Ganj, marron robed buddhist monks and Tibetan clothed westerners dot the streets in equal numbers amongst the more western dressed Tibetan and Indian residents. In the background in a plethora of signage restuarants claiming they make the best pizzas in town and guest houses delcaring the best and cheapest rooms vie for business. This is not how the town would've evolved without the backpackers. But it would be wrong also to attribute all the changes of Mcleod Ganj to backpackers. The seat of the Dalai Lama and the beautiful mountain scenery makes it a destination also for the more traditional tourist, foreign and Indian alike as well as a pilgrimage for Buddhists the world over. They too have affected the evolution of the town considerably and many businesses cater for their needs instead: Shops selling expensive Buddhist and Tibetan trinkets, statues and singing bowls line the streets leading to the main temple. However although these tourists have had some affect on the town and the numbers of Indian tourists alone easily outnumber the other type of tourists it is the backpackers that stay long term and have made the biggest differences here.

Once a Backpackerstan is born there is no going back. The culture of the place changes, the young , influenced by their western (richer) visitors fuse their culture with their own to create a hybrid culture sometimes combining the best of both cultures, often combining the worst. But that does not make travellers bad or irresponsible. It would be dishonest to the host for the traveller to pretend to be something they are not in order to prevent cultural changes. That is social engineering in itself. Cultures change all the time, influenced by everything they come in contact with. The fusion of cultures and it's evolution, happening faster here than other places is fascinating to watch.

A message for those that spurn such environments looking for the 'real' India, stop looking and start seeing because this is as real as anything else. Welcome to Backpackerstan!

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Ski Touring in the Himalayas

The shock is almost as pressing on the mind as on the body. Travelling from the tropics of the Andaman Islands into the mountainous regions of Himalayan India is a change worthy of planetary distances. The change certainly took its toll on my health: I immediately came down with a cold and a rogue sand fly bite on my ankle got so badly infected that I couldn't walk. Alas all that mended and I was right as rain (if not a little cold) for a ski touring exped I had organised. When organising such trip it always comes down to a roll of the die if you end up with a good group, of people that get along, of the right fitness and skill level. I rolled a six! Our group consisted of the Swiss/French guide and owner of the company, a Quebecoise and myself. Two cooks made up the base camp staff and looked after all our affairs leaving us free to only contemplate the mountains. I've never taken part in a 5* all inclusive camping trip - but I bet it doesn't get any better than this... one day there was a steaming hot pizza waiting for us as we descended the last slope into camp.

Before I start digressing too much, the mountains were free of any tracks, of any people and we had it to ourselves for the four day expedition. We reached our maximum altitude of 4300m on the third day. Absolutely amazing!

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Andaman Islands: Weeks 3-4

The Andaman Islands are the tropical paradise that they are made out to be. The fine, white, sandy, palm tree fringed beaches are heavenly and the sea a balmy 28 degrees. Although the archipelago consists of hundreds of islands only about 17 are accessible to tourists (without their own boat), Indian and foreigner alike. Geographically the islands are more south east Asia than India, anthropologically they are even further removed - the indigenous population are neither South East Asian nor Indian. Their language descends from a unique historical tree as well as their genealogy. Sadly the cat and mouse games played by the various super powers over the ages have rendered these populations insignificant and their numbers remain in decline. Recently attempts have been made to repair the damage that colonisation has wrecked on these populations and certain measures have been put into place: tourists can only travel to only a few islands, contact with indigenous populations is prohibited and so too is venturing into their territories. But as is often the case, these actions are too little and too late and the majority of the indigenous populations are on a downward slide. Just recently their was the much publiscised case of the last surviving member of the Bo tribe passing away, taking with her a 65000 year of language and history. Instead the main inhabitants of the islands these days are immigrants from the main land. Some have moved over as refugees, others as a deal with the government. These second and third generation immigrants provide all the businesses on the tourist islands. Although tourist numbers are increasing, it is still fairly easy to find a piece of paradise for yourself. :-)

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The Kite Flyer's Reward

As the sun decends below the horizon and twilight turns to night only the most enthusiastic and skilled continue to fly their kites. The rest of us, on the roof terraces of Ahmedabad, pack up our kites and carefully wind up our kite strings. But before we even had a chance to reflect on the amazing day of kite flying and battling, another more spectacular image appears over the walled city of Ahmedabad: Chinese light lanterns fill the skies in their thousands, pin pricking the dark canvas background with light. Our eyes get to feast upon this never ending peaceful formation of light, steadily rising and disappearing off into the distance. Fireworks and crackers intersperse the calm display with powerful shows of light and sound and the whole scene, a 360 degree theatre, leaves us in awe, unrivalled by anything we have seen in the world.

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The Kite Cutter

"Here, take the line." Dipak said in earnest.I immediately stood in position and took the string from him with both hands, my right hand leading. The glass coated string slid across my taped up fingers with the satisfying taughtness of a well balanced kite. The wind was good in the setting sun and the kite flew well and free. That had become the habit of our Uttarayan (kite festival) experience up to now: Dipak would get the kite in the air and sufficiently high before passing control to our novice hands.

I surveyed the scene as the kite flew itself. We were three stories up on top of a small pol house in the densely packed walled city of Ahmedabad, the best place to experience Uttarayan. All around us, on every roof top and every terrace, families gathered to fly kites, eat and celebrate. Flat rooftop terraces hosted parties of extended families and friends whilst the slum houses of slanted, corrugated iron had smaller groups, precariously balanced children flying their kites with no safety net between their roof and a ten metre drop to the streets below. Thousands of kites filled the skies around us, the air filled with the sounds of celebration. War cries followed by shouts of joy as a kite is cut down merged together into a continuous hum and only the blaring radios pumping out bollywood songs could be distinguished over it.

"Look! There! Careful! He wants to cut your kite." Dipak exclaimed seeing the threat with an experience honed from a lifetime of kite flying and well before I registered the attack. The attacking kite had moved into position about twenty metres away from mine to my left in a purposeful move. I followed the almost invisible line down to the hands of its owner. It belonged to a rival roof terrace, a man in his thirties. The small terrace not much larger than six square metres was, much like ours, crowded with kite fliers, reel holders and spectactors. He saw me looking and grinned knowing full well that his kite was in a better position and that he was the better kite flier. "Let out some string." Dipak said over my shoulder. My attention was brought back to the urgent moment. I let some string out letting the kite be blown into a new position. The kite flitted around in the wind, being drawn further away but to my horror also dropped a few metres in altitude. The kite itself was circling around in a tight circle, facing downwards then upwards. The string was not taut and I started to panic: I was losing control of the kite in the most crucial moment. The other kite, now in a dominant higher position to mine, noticed the distress of my kite and moved in for the kill. The attacker flicked his kite to face downwards in a sweeping motion directly into an interception line of my kite string.

"What should I do?" I asked Dipak, panic rising, evident in my voice. "Wait." he answered, calmly and patiently, his eyes carefully surveying the scene, calculating. The attacking kite was now closing in at a ferocious speed leaving only a few metres between our sharp glass coated kite strings. "Now! Pull up!" shouted Dipak without any warning. I immediately flicked the string and the struggling kite faced briefly upwards. It was enough. I tugged the string with all my might and the kite shot upwards towards the intercepting kite. "Pull in, pull in!" Dipak and Molik, my reel handler, shouted in chorus. With all the speed I could muster I began pulling in the kite string. The sharp string was sometimes sliding across my taped hands and sometimes over unprotected patches of skin. I didn't care. I pulled and heaved the string, the world melting away in insignificance. My kite reacted like a waking giant, shooting upwards at the approaching kite. Our strings locked. I felt the contact in the string, adrenaline surged and I pulled again with everything I had left in my aching arms.

"KAIPU!!" shouted Dipak and Moloki, arms in the air in celebration. I continued pulling, not knowing what had happened. A second later, I saw what they had already seen: The attacking kite with all its speed and control was now floating aimlessly like a falling leaf. "YES!" I shouted in joy, joining in the celebration and euphoria. Our kite had sliced through the attacking kite's string. We ran to the side of our terrace facing our adversary, "Kaipu!" our fists pumping. The defeated kite flier, busy pulling in his limp kite string, acknowledged our success with a sheepish smile and a wave. He will have another kite in the air soon and he'll be going for revenge.


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Volunteering in Africa

The basis of volunteer work is to do work that requires to be done for the benefit of society or the environment without any financial recompense. It is a socialist concept and one that isn’t tremendously popular in our predominantly capitalist society. Whilst living in north-eastern France for the last three and a half years, I discovered that the concept of volunteering is at the heart of their society. I too participated and was a member of a particular group that organised music festivals and cultural events in the local area. There was no financial reward and if you were to break it completely down we were typically out of pocket due to travel expenses and such. But the sense of achievement and fun we had typically made up for losing our weekends and evenings to long hard days of cooking food, pulling beer and being on our feet for 15 hours at a time. But this article isn’t about the wonders of volunteering in France but what we were astounded by when we went to Southern Africa this year. My girlfriend and I have just returned from a three-month trip in Southern Africa. We hitch-hiked from Namibia to Zimbabwe and continued through Zambia into Malawi. Our journey covered thousands of kilometres, meeting hundreds of people along the way. The cultures and languages within countries and across borders are fascinating and vary to a greater extent than those between neighbouring European states.

What we found in southern Africa was that ‘volunteering’ is a massive industry. But the definition of volunteering is different. What we discovered was that the premise of most ‘volunteer’ projects is that the locals are incapable of developing themselves because they are inherently incapable or culturally inept in making the necessary changes. This premise has to be true in order to justify, say, an eighteen year old, with no previous experience of development work nor knowledge of African culture or history to start telling communities what to do in teaching or health or construction or whatever projects he might be involved in. It is quite simply absurd to think that untrained westerners have a better idea of how people from a different continent, culture, lifestyle, climate should live their lives than they do, or what is best for them in terms of development. Even the experts are continually getting it wrong.

I have seen ‘volunteer’ projects advertised for teaching assistants, sport teachers, medical projects, helping to build a school/hospital or helping to look after animals. Expertise required to join these projects? None. The volunteer does not have to be an expert in his field. The teachers do not have to have any previous teaching experience, the medical helpers no medical or nursing experience and the one helping to look after animals, no zoo-keeping experience or zoology knowledge.

These projects are funded by the volunteer who makes a payment of between hundreds to thousands of pounds to attend a project of duration of typically two weeks to two months. I find that a simple way of determining who is the real beneficiary is by following the money. Whoever is paying is the ultimate beneficiary.

The volunteer benefits from learning about a new culture, experiencing a different lifestyle or close interaction with children or animals. In comparison, the communities that the volunteer has come to help in put up with the westerners with bemusement and with the infinite politeness that is common in these parts.

One day, we inadvertently overheard a conversation between a volunteer agency and leaders of the local community. The volunteer agency stated that they had X number of volunteers arriving soon who want to be involved in teaching sports. They asked the local community leaders whether they could accommodate this. It seems that the ‘need’ for volunteers has not come from the community but rather it is suggested to them from savvy volunteer tour agencies. The link between supply and demand has been lost somewhere in the world of business.

I believe it is important to think about what sort of volunteers are required for a particular need. Wouldn’t, for example, asking a group of professional teachers to lead a course to train local teachers who will stay in the community their whole lives be more beneficial for the long-term development of a school?

Nevertheless I must finish by saying that most of the volunteering programmes are not inherently bad. From my point of view they are tourism trips and should be labelled as such. They are rewarding to the participant and if managed properly the projects may benefit the local community. However they can be detrimental to development when communities stop doing things for themselves: We came across one village chief who mistook us for volunteers. After greeting us he declared that it is good that we are there and that he is relying on us to develop their country for them.

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Malawian Sachet Culture

The sachet, as it is popularly known, is a small transparent plastic packet containing about 60ml of cheap, hard liquor. They are available in all the popular brands of alcohol common in these parts as well as other sachet only varieties with fancy names and colourful packaging. They cost as little as 15 kwachas (five pence) each and are typically bought in packs of five or ten. It has become the drink of choice for the poor, young, uneducated or vulnerable. Such is their negative effect on society that Zambia has recently created a country-wide ban on the sachet industry. Just three months after the ban came into force, when we passed through Zambia we didn’t come across their existence. However when we passed across the border into Malawi, the sachet culture slapped us in the face. We first come across the discarded empty sachets littering the dirt road and countryside. They are everywhere and littering the towns, countryside, beaches and forests. The litter problem, typically a Western defined problem (Malawians don’t share the same values on litter) is not the main problem of the sachet-culture, the effect on certain social groups is debilitating. More than once we were harassed by men, madly drunk, incoherent and dangerous.

The affordability and availability of this cheap and potent alcohol means that life even in the most idyllic and rural settlements is being severely affected. Men, who are typically the main consumers, are drunk before midday. Teachers and parents are complaining of the effect on teenage boys who are dropping out of schools to drink sachets. Even children under the age of ten are known to be drinking the substance. Others complain of a rise in domestic and sexual violence. The sachet culture also affects those not directly connected; the transport system based around private mini-buses are becoming increasingly more dangerous as drivers keep themselves awake with the use of sachets.

For a country with a high unemployment rate, such an increase in unproductiveness of the population paralyses development.

Malawi has tried banning the product but a labyrinth of free business, vested interests and long legal processes means that the government required great political will to pass a ban. They do not (yet) have the will. A small success has been had from the Malawian government as they have increased the taxes on alcohol to 250% in the latest budget with the idea to price out school children from the market and make it uneconomical for others. Sadly it still remains too cheap and the sachet problem will not be solved until a total ban is enforced.

Further articles: http://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi/2012/11/04/malawis-chanco-student-dies-after-consuming-alcohol-sachets/




Young man drunk on sachet

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The village of Chona (no electricity, no running water) PRESENTS: A special lecture on Aeronautics

The village of Chona, Zambia is not really a village at all but more of a focal point, a place of infrastructure where the wider community gathers. It has a health clinic, a school, a small market and a well meaning everyday the community for miles around descend to Chona before heading back to their small plots of land and huts in the evening. It is here at the local school, with so many pupils that the school starts at 7am to 5pm working in two shifts, where I offered to give a lecture on Aeronautics to the eldest math and physics class. The small classroom, packed with fifty Grade 9 pupils wait patiently as I am presented. As with the impeccable politeness of all Zambians they stand when I enter the class room, greeting me formally yet warmly. I forgot to ask them to sit and they continued standing until the head teacher intervened and gave the instruction.

As with schools in the UK, all the pupils wore a school uniform, shirt and tie for boys and skirt, blouse and jumper (?) for the girls. At this age in school, their shirts were not torn or over used and almost all had a note book to write in.

I started at the beginning. The most that any of these children had ever gotten to an aircraft is seeing the large airliners silently cruising through the blue skies kilometers above them. Had they ever asked themselves about how it could fly? Or even how big these aircraft were? From their astonishment I would say no. Their initial shyness, coupled with ignorance soon gave way to intrigue and fascination. Aircraft, aeroplanes, helicopters are understandable to small villagers like themselves who may have never even been in a car before.

They started answering the questions I posed them. One boy, even answered correctly as to why the aircraft needed a tail using his knowledge of the large African birds around them. Another correctly answered to what would happen if the aircraft started to go too slowly. Their questions too became more sophisticated, 'Sir, how do you get oxygen into the aircraft?', 'Why can't you open the windows?'

The greatest part of the lesson was taken up by practical maths. They were to work out in relation to other modes of transport how fast an aircraft travels at. Speed is not something they are accustomed to. The question 'How fast can you travel by bike?' Was met with shrugs until they could think about how far their house was and how long it took to get to school. 30 minutes to travel 7km equals 14km/h. The car, which most had never travelled on, was worked out to be at 120km/h. But how do you work out the speed of an airliner?

I gave them a few clues: 1) Airliners cruise at roughly Mach 0.9, 2) Speed of sound is roughly 300m/s. A few brave children, came to the black board to work it out. Having no calculators all calculation must be done long hand or mentally. When they worked out the speed at 972km/h they were astonished! Shouts of surprise and murmurs of disbelief filled the classroom and exploded to a raucous when they found out that fighter jets can travel at 2-3 times that speed.

Hands were shooting up now and the questions flowed one after another non-stop. But time was now over and I left them in a state of wonder.

As Mr. Moses, the senior teacher, said as we left, "Thank you. It is inspiring to the young village children to realise where they can emerge with studying and the usefulness of it."


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