A Travellerspoint blog

Reflections

14 °C

Last night we marked our re-entrance into impolite society by turning up unannounced at Fiona’s 30th birthday party. Someone else of different disposition to our hostess might have accused us of trying to upstage them, but instead Fiona seems as thrilled as everyone else to see us. But nothing can compare to how pleased we are to be back amongst so many friendly faces. We’ve totally missed everybody, and even this gloomy but action-packed city.

That was last night. Today is different. There’s no party tonight, just the prospect of tons of dirty laundry and work tomorrow. Today is the day when we start the process of looking back, taking stock and deciding what it all means. There’s no doubt that the whole experience has changed us both, changed our outlook on life and how we want to approach whatever comes next. The only question is to what extent. Ask us in a few years when we’ve had a chance to work it out ourselves.

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Posted by PipandJim 08:06 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Being Back

sunny 13 °C

Landing at Heathrow and being back was strange, but perhaps not as profoundly dislocating as we expected. When you are in London, going to work on autopilot, entire weeks can slip by unnoticed. But when dozens of amazing things can be packed into a single day, time can seem to travel very slowly. We have to remind ourselves that we’ve only been away for three months, even though it sometimes felt like three years.

Mr and Mrs Greayer snr turned up at Heathrow Arrivals hoping to surprise us. Unfortunately a suspicious amount of questions about our flight over the last few days raised the alarm. Either way it’s a lovely touch not least because we’ve missed family, and familiar faces generally.

The strangest thing we notice on the drive back to Oval is the almost oppressive quietness of London. I never thought I’d write that sentence, but yes, where were all the car horns? Where were all the street hawkers? Even the smoothness of the road under the car was disconcerting. Next thing to surprise us was quite how white and clean our flat is. For once London marked our return from a trip abroad with a glorious sunny day, and the light streamed in and glinted off the glass and white painted surfaces. Ok, so maybe coming back is going to take a bit of getting used to.

Posted by PipandJim 08:04 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Going Home

sunny 26 °C

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The reality of us going home is slowly beginning to dawn on us. There were times when we were up in Ranikhet when it felt like we were never really going to leave the mountainside. But that really did eventually come to pass, so maybe we will tomorrow jump in a cab and head to Indira Gandhi International Airport? This creeping sense of time running out unleashes a whirlpool of emotions. For a few weeks we have been longing for friends, family and certain comforts, to the extent that we were really looking forward to going back to London. These feelings remain, but are now overtaken and overwhelmed by a profound sadness about what and who were leaving behind. The atmosphere is a weird mixture of excited and maudlin.

We try and take our minds off these thoughts by going to see Slumdog Millionaire at the local multiplex. Our reaction to the movie seems to reflect our mixed up emotional state. On one level we absolutely love this colourful, beautiful masterpiece, but at the same time it reminds us of the seemingly intractable nature of the desperation of Indian poverty and the corruption that feeds and is fed by it.

Posted by PipandJim 07:54 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Friends Reunited

sunny 25 °C

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Inspired by that man Dalrymple again we sent off this morning for the Sufi shrine in Nizamuddin. Sufism doesn’t have a very high profile in the West, which is a shame because if more people knew more about it them perhaps Islam wouldn’t have such a PR problem. Essentially Sufis share with Christians a certain veneration of their saintly religious figures, and a belief that God can be attained through love, music, poetry and even art. The shrine itself is devoted to Hazrat Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya, and the welcome that we receive is in stark contrast to the passive hostility that we faced the previous day at the Jama Masjid. The whole scene is one of peaceful devotion as worshippers sit and contemplate to a background accompaniment of three musicians.

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After a quick visit to the oddly underrated and largely ignored Humayan’s tomb (which despite being almost the equal of the Taj Mahal in scale and beauty is almost entirely free of tourists), we set off to meet Harshit from Grassroots, who’s in town catching up with his finance. Tanuska is as lovely and laidback as her betrothed, and we pass the afternoon chatting over lunch and then perusing and haggling (them on our behalf) in a local market. Since we’ve been in Delhi we’ve been calling lots of people we now seem to know in the city. Although most of them have turned out to be too busy to squeeze us into the working week (understandable, we know what it can be like in London), we nevertheless feel like we’ve carved a tiny but unmistakeable foothold in the city, and indeed in northern India in general.

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Posted by PipandJim 07:51 Archived in India Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Sahib & Memsahib

sunny 26 °C

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Qutb Minar

India is a country of stark contrasts. Last night we tumbled out at Nizamuddin station into our own chauffeured car and were whisked to Faridabad to stay at Kalyan and Anita’s Delhi pad. We were greeted by their son Dhruv, or Jo Jo as he’s known to family, and flop back into marbled floor luxury. The Delhi pad is technically in Haryana, 7kms south of the centre of Delhi so they book us a car and a driver for a day of sightseeing.

Delhi has been built and rebuilt some eight times. Fortunately our drive to the centre takes in four of those historic settlements: Qila Rai Pithora in the 12th century home to the spectacular Qutb Minar; Tughluquabad, settled by Central Asian Turkish conquerors in the 14th Century; Edwin Luytens’s 1930s New Delhi and Shah Jahan’s 17th Century Shahjahanabad or Old Delhi.

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Shah Jahan's private rooms

Emperor Shah Jahan, architect of Taj Mahal built the largest and most opulent of all the Moghal palaces with Lal Quila or Red Fort. Sadly the fort was razed to the ground by vengeful Brits after the failed 1857 mutiny or first war of independence. Only six marble structures survived the destruction and those together with the memory of the much better preserved Agra Fort give a mere hint of its former glory. What’s more, the British army built ugly Victorian barracks and a hideous concrete water tower within the grounds. It’s a haunted and sad place.

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Barracks at Red Fort

We cross Chandni Chowk, once a grand boulevard with magnificent havelis and a canal running through its centre. The British ransacked the havelis and poured concrete over the canal. Today it’s a filthy crowded bazaar and nigh on impossible to detect Chandni Chowk’s illustrious past.

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Jama Masjid

Retribution for our colonial sins is doled out across the road at Jama Masjid, where all western female tourists are forced to wear huge bright pink kaftans in order to enter the mosque, while Indian tourists waltz in wearing t-shirts & jeans. Despite the cumbersome and humiliating attire, I manage to climb to the top of the minaret for an aerial view of Old Delhi. It was incredibly windy, billowing the pink sack up over my head, rendering it completely useless. That said we still managed to appreciate India’s largest mosque, yet another example of Shah Jahan’s architectural genius.

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That's the camera bag under there and not the result of too many creamy curries. Promise!

Posted by PipandJim 08:48 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Akbar’s Escape

sunny 26 °C

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Emperor Akbar moved his capital out of Agra in the late 16th Century in order to escape the dust and the noise of that town and I can utterly sympathise. It’s my third and hopefully last visit. What is less clear is why he chose the site of Fahtepur Sikri as the spot to build an entirely new city. Right in the dusty semi-desert with little or no water supply evident it’s little wonder that his new capital, architectural masterpiece or not, was only inhabited for twenty short years.

These days the city is marked by an alarming contrast – deserted and peaceful inside the royal apartments, but the approaches are guarded by the worst hawkers and touts we have yet encountered in India. The closer we get to the main walls of the city, the more reckless become the assaults so that the whole experience begins to feel like a platform computer game. On entering the city palace itself we half expect to encounter a giant guide-tout with six arms and shooting thunderbolts from his fingertips. We try not to let them spoil the entire experience, but I’m not sure if we succeeded.

Later Backpacker Boy can’t help himself and books 2nd class tickets for our last train journey in India on the aptly named Taj Express to Delhi. Our compartment is quickly overrun with boisterous Indians initially none of whom sit in their reserved seats, as dust billows in from the open windows. Chaos ensues at the next station where even more feisty dames board the train and as the only white people in the carriage naturally we’re to blame for the problem. Several seat swaps later, the three hours passes in broken Hindi sharing saffron curd and comparing Shaadi (wedding) jewellery, which locally consists of two silver toe-rings, two silver anklets, a nose stud, a gold necklace and a pair of gold earings. The look of pity at my one ring is soon followed with recriminating stares at Jim.

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Posted by PipandJim 08:37 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Mughal Country

sunny 25 °C

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Agra has a poor reputation given its former glory as the seat of the Mughal Empire and now home to one of the most renowned pieces of Mughal architecture in the world. Jim has been here twice before and it takes some talking to convince him to return. We arrive around 8am and head for the Taj Ganj, the budget back-packer area that surrounds the Taj Mahal. Although we’ve savoured the luxury of hot-water showers at our Palace on Ganges hotel, one more bucket-bath seems a reasonable concession to make to enjoy the best views in town of the Taj Mahal from the rooftop restaurant.

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Two buckets of hot water ordered from reception later, we’re clean and ready to visit the world-famous tomb Emperor Shah Jahan built for his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. A thousand curry-house calendars bearing its image, unsurprisingly don’t do this amazing structure justice. Even the photos we took, look like well, all the photos of the Taj that you’ve seen a million times. And yet in its 360 degree, real life glory, it’s awe-inspiring. The thousands of tourists milling about its base are completely dwarfed by its sheer size, and despite these hoardes there’s a wonderful feeling of quiet peace. The tomb itself isn’t white but a marbled stone, in part inlaid with semi-precious stones from across the Mughal Empire in swirling floral patterns. The walled garden surrounding it was based on the descriptions of paradise in the Quran. It’s so perfect and so distinct from its garish imitators. How do you hold onto its memory without losing any details?

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From Agra Fort, built by Akbar with extensions bolted on through the ages by son Jahangir, grandson Shah Jahan and great-grandson Aurangzeb, we took in more views of the Taj. And later being the infidels that we are, we climbed back onto the hotel roof top to further contemplate the magnificence of the Taj over a bottle of local beer, as the muezzins let out the call to prayer, kabooter baz (pigeon fanciers) flew their flocks and the sun set over Agra.

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Posted by PipandJim 10:41 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Last Puja

sunny 25 °C

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It’s Sunday and regular readers may be aware that we’ve developed a bit of a Sunday Puja habit. This Sunday is also rather significant, being our last Sunday in the subcontinent. So after a breakfast on the leafy terrace of Café Vaartika on Assi Ghat where we’ve become regulars in just 5 days – we really are creatures of habit – we head out onto the ghats in search of some temple worship. Varanasi being like a Hindu amalgamation of Jerusalem and Rome this shouldn’t be hard at all. Except it is. The temples are either too busy, too modern or too inaccessible. We end up visiting the historic Nepali temple and then next store to Ganpatti guesthouse to worship at the altar of Coke – who quenches the thirst of the noonday sun.

It’s disappointing, but as William Dalrymple, whose books we’ve devouring in anticipation of our arrival in Delhi – says Hinduism always feels more authentic in a simple rural shrine as opposed to big, urban temples. For Muslim places of worship the opposite is true, as we’re eager to discover as we board the night train to Agra and the Taj Mahal.

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Posted by PipandJim 10:38 Archived in India Comments (0)

Buddha Bites

sunny 25 °C

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Over the last few days we’ve debated if a 10km rickshaw ride out to visit the Buddhist ruins of Sarnath – purportedly where the Buddha himself gave his first sermon – would be worth it. By Saturday we give in and go with the first rickshaw-wallah on the rank and immediately get stuck in heavy traffic. Bullock carts of farm produce jostle with cycle rickshaws stacked with all kinds of appliances from colour Tvs to AC units. While festively decorated Tata trucks thunder past heading for the Grand Trunk Road that stretches from Pakistan to Calcutta – or at least used to before Partition closed the most western patch of the route. Our driver attempts to avoid the worst of it by ducking in and out of tight alleyways clipping the edges of paan stalls and narrowly swerving cows as he does it. Despite his dexterous efforts it still takes the best part of two hours to reach our destination.

We emerge calm and undeterred by the delay that at home would send us apoplectic with rage. Instead we waft into the cool marble of the Sarnath Archaeological Museum and contemplate the serenity of the various Buddha statues and stupas. Could it be that being in India these past 3 months we’ve become more patient or more tolerant?

Minutes later our zen-like smugness is violently unmasked when we order a coffee at the nearby café, and then walk out in a loud huff when it doesn’t appear after 15 minutes, much to the surprise of the laconic Indian waiting staff.

The Sarnath site itself is a pile of red rubble, and bright green lawn awash with Japanese tourists wearing white masks. We take the requisite photos and head back to Varanasi.

Posted by PipandJim 21:03 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Om Shiva Namay

sunny 23 °C
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As a confirmation of faith, Hindu teens are taken by their parents to visit a Hindu Sage or Sadhu who selects and presents them with their own unique diksha. A diksha is a Sanskrit mantra or prayer to be meditated on daily. We’re clearly not Hindu, Jim’s not Catholic and in fact I’m not even confirmed but I feel like Mother India has picked out our diksha – Om Shiva Namay.

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Everywhere we go from Rajasthan to the Kumbah Mela on the banks of the Tungabhadra in Karnataka to Kasar Devi in Almora to right here in Benares – our soundtrack is the varied chant of this mantra. Benares is Shiva’s City of Light and the crescendo of the aarti or worship on the banks of the Ganges is a tumultuous group sing-a-long of Om Shivah Namay.

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Bankside ceremonies start punctually every sunrise and sunset at 6.30am/pm. We enjoy two evening events, one from the side of the ghats under the speakers and the other from a boat bobbing gently on the inky black Ganga aglow with banana leaf tea-light candles. And now we’re back for thirds, setting the alarm for 5.30am and heading out to hire another boat for a 2 hour cruise to watch the sunrise over the Ganges, bathing the aarti and ghats in a golden light.

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Posted by PipandJim 04:51 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

India in extremis

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We arrived in Varanasi late last night and weary from two days of travelling and two months in the mountains we opt to start our holiday with an Ayurvedic message. A whole body Indian Ayurvedic massage is a little like going to a mechanic, being dissembled, oiled, cleaned, and put back together is exactly the correct alignment. Much needed after eight weeks in the world’s worst bed.

Even after the massage and sleep we are barely able to get out of second gear today. This not too much of a problem in Varanasi because the charms of the town come to you, so to speak. All you do is walk into town and the town walks up to you, grabs you by the lapels and punches you in the nose. Repeatedly. Varanasi really is India in excelis, in extremis. It’s filthy, stinking, overcrowded, chaotic and utterly compelling. We love it. If someone says to you “India, Hindu, Ganges” your mental images are all of Varanasi. What you won’t have seen unless you have been here are the Burning Ghats, because cameras are strictly taboo. An entire ghat is stacked with huge pieces of timber and a steady stream of barely shrouded bodies are carried into the Ganges before being burned on giant open pyres. The process is continuous and it feels like you have wandered into a Hieronymous Bosch painting.

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Posted by PipandJim 04:48 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Back to School

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I’ve been to Lucknow before. Long suffering Jim watchers will recall that I arrived here fifteen years ago, almost to the week, armed with a sack of books and very little idea how to teach English. We have nine hours here between trains and I have a vague intention look up my old school and have a look around. To my delight and surprise the place we have selected for breakfast turns out to be bang next door to St Francis College Lucknow. I barrel in, Philippa trailing sheepishly behind, and head straight for the Principal’s Office.

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My memory sometimes lets me down when I return to places but all this is weirdly familiar and I know exactly where to go. Anthony D’Souza is long since departed, and in his place is a man as large and forbidding as an Easter Island statue. I take my turn in the line of scared looking boys outside his office. When he rings the bell for my turn I rush in, breathlessly tell him my story and wait for the back slaps, the high fives and the invites to dinner. All I get is a look that says what is this unshaven but excitable Englishman doing in my office and how do I get him out as quickly as possible? Unsmiling assent granted I’m off round the campus gabbering excitedly and pointing as if I’m Geoff Hurst revisiting the old Wembley. I taught in that classroom a lot. Really. I played football with some of the boys over there sometimes. Riveting. Striding purposefully cross the quadrangle to have my photo taken with the statue of St Franny I strike up a conversation with a chemistry teacher (he started it honestly). How long have you been teaching here? Fifteen years. A-ha! Maybe he’ll remember me! Sadly it turned out that he had joined a few short weeks after I left. Running out of things to point at, I agree to leave. I loiter outside the gates taking photos of the junior school arriving in their little blazers before I realise that doesn’t look good.

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My school reunion has used up a good twenty five minutes of the nine hours we have to kill, so we set off looking for a further seventeen things to do before we can board our train. The highlight turns out to be the ruined British Residency, a monument to the Indian Mutiny / First War of Independence of 1857. As that sentence implies, the Residency is a deeply ambiguous and thus fascinating place. Originally it was preserved by the British as a tribute to their tenacity and as a memorial to the two thousand Brits and Indian loyalists who died in the three month siege. Now the Residency is celebrated by Indians as one of the crucibles of freedom. As luck would have it we are both reading or have just finished The Last Mughal, William Dalrymple’s account of 1857, so we’re captivated by the place. The buildings themselves, from ballrooms to St Mary’s Church, have been preserved in exactly the state they were in at the relief of the compound and the whole area has been turned into a beautiful garden. Many of the dead were buried in situ and the grounds are littered with tributes to victims of gunshot wounds and cholera. The overall effect is eerie and we spend hours wandering around mentally putting the broken shards of history back together.

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Posted by PipandJim 23:41 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Samosa Send-Off

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Living in the mountains is hard. Working in the mountains is hard. Living in a shack is hard. Working in a place where the internet is elusive and electricity supply capricious is hard. Even Leaving, as we discovered, is hard.

Our final day in Kalika got off to a touching start when Colonel VP arrived at out shack at 9am to take us on a surprise little treat. We piled into his car (as compact and tidy as his golf swing) and set off for the KRC. The Kumaon Regiment Community Centre is a factory and shop set up in an old English parish church to provide jobs for war widows. The ladies sit in rows hand looming tweed.

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Tweed is big up here. You have to admire Indians for the bits of Britishness they have hung on to. Cricket, whiskey, impressive moustaches and tweed, to name a few. VP wanted to buy us some parting gifts and had a tweed jacket in mind for me, but sadly the orangutang arms put me as usual outside the standard Indian sizes. Instead I select a length of raw tweed for tailoring back in London, and predictably Pips opts for a shocking pink shawl. Genuinely touched by this show of friendship from this undemonstrative but lovely man we headed back to the office.

The New Media Department spent the rest of the morning dotting “i”s and crossing “t”s whilst the Film Department kicked his heels around the office and tried not to be too annoying. Then after lunch Kalyan and Anita called us into what seemed to be a totally extraneous debriefing summary of our work. This turned out to be an elaborate cover for our little leaving party that was being assembled downstairs. Suresh was busy churning out about a thousand samosas whilst everyone from Grassroots and Umang were assembling from far and wide.

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There followed a series of embarrassing speeches by mum and dad, whenever they got to the really cringey bits they would swap into Hindi but I’m afraid we understand enough of that to flush nonetheless. Tears prickling the corners of eyes we mumbled a few unprepared words of thanks and appreciation but I must admit that we were probably a little too overcome to say anything especially meaningful.

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Then came the final goodbyes. I think I could write a short thesis on Indian social etiquette, but to cut a long story short it goes like this: a handshake is good, better is join your plans together as if in prayer, smile and give a shallow bow. All this went out the window. We both hugged Kalyan and Anita even though we are seeing them in Delhi next week, Jagdish ambushed us both with giant bear hugs befitting the giant bear man and I got in a strike of my own by hugging the Colonel.

Hugs and tears finally all over we got into our cab and started the long descent down the mountains to the train station on the plains. When we made the journey in the other direction eight or so weeks ago we made the climb as the sun was rising. Fittingly as we started our return the sun began to set on our little Himalayan adventure.

Posted by PipandJim 23:39 Archived in India Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Sunday Puja IX

sunny 12 °C
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One of our few regrets is how little we have explored whilst we’ve been up here in Kumaon. Even Kalyan and Anita have been encouraging us to get out a little more, but the simple truth is that we just haven’t had the time. When you are working six and half days a week trying to get everything finished there isn’t the time especially given the large distances, steep climbs and bad roads.

Today though we are determined to squeeze in Jageshwar Temples, about an hour from our overnight stay in Almora. The long drive and the even longer return to Kalika are rewarded by the evocative and even slightly spooky 8th Century cluster of temples.

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Posted by PipandJim 23:37 Archived in India Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

Going Live

www.grassrootsindia.com

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Last night we had a bit of a late night. We went for a final beer and curry session at the Windsor (we’ve become very good at thinking up excuses not to eat in our shack) and Navnit Talwar was in residence and in one of his story-telling moods. He was still in full flight well past midnight as we backed out the door. Now it’s 8am on Saturday and we’ve got a breakfast meeting with mum and dad who got back from their latest Delhi trip last night. We’re here to get the final sign off on the final two movies and then we can get them up on Youtube and go live with the website.

Approval given, we’re out their house and down the hill to the office as fast as our legs can carry us. We’ve got the rest of the day to get things sorted before we’re off for a farewell dinner with the Shakti crew in Almora. A car comes to pick us up at 5pm just as we’re uploading the final hyperlinks. Another boisterous dinner with Charlotte and the guides helps us to celebrate another staging post on the way to finishing our work with Grassroots.

You can check out the fruits of our labour at: www.grassrootsindia.com

Posted by PipandJim 23:36 Archived in India Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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