Saturday, May 31, 2008

Introduction to Clean Himalaya

It is a delightfully hazy, cool morning. The only sounds outside are those of droning insects, chirping birds and barking dogs before the day gets fully underway and the honking traffic is back on the road.

First stop this morning is to meet Jitendra Kumar, the man responsible for starting off Clean Himalaya (CH). He is responsible for the day-to-day running of the project and it is him we need to check in with.

The CH workshop is up a steep, stony track, set some way back from the road snaking away below. It is basically the collection and sorting point for all the waste that the Clean Himalaya staff pick up during the day.

Under the shade of trees hanging with mangoes, lychees and jackfruit there is rubbish everywhere! When sorted it is left in piles before being sealed into sacks to await transport to the local recycling centre. The unsorted rubbish is in a large metal, monkey proof (!) shed. When we arrived, there were 3 people literally sitting amongst all the unmentionable junk, sorting it. There was a fourth worker who was having first aid on his hand, after he had cut it open on a broken bottle left unprotected in the sack he was sorting.

Jitendra gave us a quick run down on the day to day activities of Clean Himalaya. There are daily pick ups from local businesses and homes that pay for CH to come and take away their waste. Also, what they term, public services, which is clearing up rubbish and tidying roadsides or other designated areas. There is constant activity in trying to get new businesses signed up and also a programme for local schools, to teach them about the value of recycling, dangers of pollution and climate change. Clean Himalaya posters are in evidence all over the town and the rubbish collectors are instantly recognisable in their Clean Himalaya tops.

It does not take any time at all in Tapovan to know that Clean Himalaya faces an uphill battle. And it takes some pretty special people to take this seemingly impossible task on at all! There is junk everywhere, every single slope is covered with a cascade of multi-coloured rubbish. Littering is against the law, but is never enforced. The environment, pollution, climate change are just not on the agenda in India, seemingly for anyone, in the same way that they are in the West. The whole area around Rishikesh and the Ganges is some of the holiest in India, but this does not stop anyone, from the most well-do-do, educated tourist to the poorest tea stall holder, from just chucking their rubbish down, wherever they may be!

We also met Swami Susan, from the Divine Life Society, who is the CH secretary. Together, she and Jitendra told us how different this project is for India. First of all, the whole organisation is run with integrity and clarity. This, in practical terms, means that they do what they say they will and everyone knows it. They were first met with suspicion – after all, anyone could say they were collecting waste for recycling and then tip it down the nearest convenient hillside along with the rest of the junk. This is the regular method of waste disposal, even by the local council….Who would know? The CH answer was to ask people to come and see what they were really doing.

A completely revolutionary aspect to Clean Himalaya is the way they treat their staff, and in return, how they expect them to behave. They are the process of introducing a contract, making clear they hours they are expected to work, bonuses they could earn, fines that will have to be paid for lateness etc etc. This is a totally new concept for the workers.

After lunch, we went out on a regular daily pick up run with 2 of the Clean Himalaya collectors, Sanjay and Arun. Sanjay has been with CH for 2 years, Arun for 2 months.

By this time, it has got really hot. In the sweltering heat in downtown Laksman Jhula, we spend the afternoon following Sanjay and Arun in and out of shops and hotels, watching them cheerfully rummaging in bins, separating out food and non-food waste, tipping the results into separate sacks, hoisting the sacks on to their backs and moving on to the next place.

In the process of putting a festering, slimy dustbin back where it belonged, Arun trips up and manages to the spray the nearest person with some vile, yellow slops from the bottom of the bin. The nearest person???? It was Marc!! He received a good splattering of the disgusting substance – all down one side from chest height to his ankle. Arun was mortified (Marc was not too impressed, though took the whole thing very well!) and insisted on wiping Marc down with bottled water and the only clean paper available, some loo roll…

Back on the route - Up and down slopes and alley ways, through stinking puddles of unmentionable filth, weaving in and out of the heaving crowds (who might have been a bit quicker to move out of the way if they had any idea what was in the sacks they were pushing against…) . It is a smelly, sweaty, disgusting job and my respect for these 2 men grew with every step.

There were a few reactions to Marc and I following the Clean Himalaya trail. Some were encouraging and supportive, realising that this is a job that really needs doing. Some were incredulous that anyone, let alone foreigners, could be interested in this small project in a tiny, though not insignificant, place in India. At one hotel, they did not think we were with the Clean Himalaya boys and asked if we would like a room for the night!

At the end of the collection, the Clean Himalaya truck comes to pick up the bulging sacks and take them back to the workshop. They will join the pile of rubbish to be sorted in the shed.

Shattered and grubby, we stagger back to our room, reflecting on the monumental task ahead of Clean Himalaya and how we can play our part.

Off to Rishikesh

It’s a hazy early morning (6am) in Dehli. Peaceful after the din of the night before, but still pretty noisy!

We have only a few hundred yards to go to the railway station, but it has been raining and the streets are rutted and filled with puddles. Neither of us fancy dragging our cases through the mud. The taxis are too small to get 2 cases in, so we take a taxi each and head for the station.

Long before we enter the station gates, the traffic is at a standstill. This looks like a very popular time to travel! We are sitting ducks as the red shirted station porters do their best to grab our cases out of the taxi and ‘help’ us into the station! It takes a great deal of firmness to resist their attempts and be able to manoeuvre our cases ourselves.

We set off for the station building, pursued by porters outraged that we are depriving them of carrying our bags! The next hazard awaits inside…. Unbelievably, there are a hundred people or so, asleep on the floor. Not just the old, but mothers with babies too, wrapped in shawls and seemingly oblivious to the feet passing inches from them. They are not neatly tucked away around the edges, but lying right in the middle of the dusty and muddy floor, with all the travellers stepping over or around them. It is not an easy task to thread the suitcases between the sleepers.

We stop to check the signboards to find out which platform our train is leaving from. The porters stop with us too and try to advise which platform we need while making a fresh grab for our cases. Choosing to believe the signboards rather than the different opinions we are being given from the porters and some not-so-helpful passers by, we set off for the platform. Of course, our train, no. 2017 Shatabdi Express to Dehradun, is leaving from the furthest platform. Here we go again, dragging our heavy cases up 3 flights of stairs, followed by a remarkably persistent and annoying porter who still won’t believe that we are not going to let him take the cases, pushing through the crowds to the other side of the station, down 3 flights of stairs, to the relative peace of our train, standing ready on platform 11.

We are taking the train to Haridwar from where we will have to take a bus or taxi to Rishikesh. Our names are posted on the list of passengers for carriage C3, we find our seats and settle down to watch India pass by during our 4 ½ hour train journey.

The day is quite drab and the scenery not particularly appealing as we pass through the suburbs of northern Dehli. All sorts of shanty towns, piles of rubbish line the tracks. Cows and dogs, both tethered and roaming free. The rural areas are pretty flat: green or brown muddy fields but there does not seem to be any great activity going on in them. A few open spaces have impromptu games of cricket being played on dirt wickets. With the cool and rainy weather, we don’t even have the benefit of looking at the scene in the sunshine. With the air conditioning on the train going full blast, we are absolutely freezing!

Arrival in Hardiwar is complete pandemonium! Just as frantic as the scene we left behind in Dehli. Once again, we are descended on by porters and taxi drivers in equal measure, all demanding, virtually bullying us into taking their services. They surround Marc, ignoring me… but he stands firm and we are eventually able to make our own way to the bus station to see if a bus journey to Rishikesh is a good option. After looking at the state of the bus, and remembering the state of the roads, we decide that another taxi would be the better choice. Once again we set off on another ‘your-life-in-their-hands’ journey with our taxi driver weaving in and out of oncoming traffic.

After a nerve-shredding hour or so, we drive through the main town of Rishikesh, up the road a little to our final destination of Tapovan. It is a tiny place, a tarmac road with dirt edges that serve equally as a pavement or grazing ground for the cattle that roam free in the streets. There are small shops on each side of the road that all have open fronts. There are also a maze of guest houses, tiny restaurants and temples, alongside, behind and above the shops, that all supply the needs, physical and spiritual, of the myriad of pilgrims that have descended on this area.

Yes, it is the Indian holiday season. It is packed in Tapovan, not only with people, but also the accompanying vehicles that bring them here and take them up into the mountains on their pilgrimage. There is a motorized taxi dropping off area – they also serve as the local buses. When a few of them are trying to manouevre at the same time, it is just like watching the dodgems at the fair!

Marc recognizes it all, and just as we are looking around deciding where best to go, Steve Brett, who runs the EnlightenNext centre here, and is expecting us, walks past.

We are home! Steve shows us to our room, then as we have lunch together, he gives us some background on the Clean Himalaya project. It seems that there is a lot more to it than we thought – it is not just another recycling or tidying the environment project. It has the involvement not only of EnlightenNext, but also the local Divine Life Society. Clean Himalaya seems to be making progress, not only in making small but significant inroads into the huge pollution problem, but also in the way that everyone, from the top downwards, is working together. We will be joining them and finding out more tomorrow.

Another evening walk finds us acclimatizing to our new surroundings. We follow another road downhill to a narrow bridge, called Laksman Jhula, the literal translation of which is ‘Bridge of the God Laksman’, which spans the Ganges. This bridge is no more than 5’ wide and packed with people trying to cross the river both ways. Add to this, mopeds and motorbikes being ridden through the mass of humanity and you have a fair idea of the chaos created. Meandering through packed alleys of tourist shops, the scene then opens up on a wide path that runs parallel to the river and down to the second bridge, a little further downstream, called Ram Jhula. This is the brother bridge to Laksman Jhula, named for Laksman’s brother, Ram. We stop to buy the essentials – water and loo roll, cross Ram Jhula and turn for home.

First day of work tomorrow!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Day in New Dehli

Our day in Dehli – starts late. Tired after our journey from London and with a certain amount of nervous exhaustion after our first few hours in Dehli, we sleep until midday.

First things first – the railway station is down the road. That is where our journey to Rishikesh will start tomorrow, so we go to get our tickets and check the time of the train.

With that out of the way, it is time to explore a little in what time we have available.

Daylight reveals just how contrasting Dehli is. There are splendid colonial buildings alongside homes that are no better than single room mud covered huts. There are parks with tended lawns sitting next to stinking piles of rubbish. Wherever you look, though, it is vibrant and colourful. Especially the women – there seems to be no such thing as a dull-coloured sari. Every single one is a bright shade of yellow, pink, orange, red, purple, turquoise. Every woman wears jewellery, with multiple bangles on each wrist and further adornments on ears, fingers, wrists and toes. Even the tiniest baby girl is bejeweled with tiny bangles and earrings.

The noise of the traffic can be deafening. Not just the hum of the engines or the revving up of the vehicles, but virtually every single one will keep up a constant stream of beeping or honking. Occasionally, a particularly loud bicycle bell will join in too.

Another note on the traffic – it is a common and strange sight, to western eyes, to see whole families riding on a motorbike or moped. Dad will be driving, usually in a crash helmet that would be more use to Bob the Builder, than as a life saving device. Riding pillion will be the rest of the family, with anything up to 3 children, all cheerfully bare headed, with Mum riding side-saddle right at the back. There seems to be no quarter given for the number and nature of the passengers as Dad will still be weaving in and out of the rest of the traffic in the most alarming fashion!

In the centre of Dehli, the main tourist, shopping and business area is Connaught Circus. We head there for a look around and some lunch. Even the most modern building or shop has taken on a dirty and uncared for look on the outside. Cars are parked 3 abreast – no idea how anyone would try to make a quick trip to the shops or make an early get away from the office….

Once again, the contrasts of India are very much in evidence. Unwary shoppers, exiting the air-conditioned environment of Nike or MacDonalds, will immediately trip over the goods for sale outside. There are street traders on every available inch of pavement. Lots of book and magazine stalls, jewellery and toys are on the floor awaiting buyers. Shoe shiners and barbers are waiting for the next customer. Every corner has motorized rickshaw drivers trying to tempt the next customer into their cab. There was even one man who was selling ear-cleaning! We did not find it too hard to resist that tempting offer, though!

We decide to leave Connaught Circus behind and caught a rickshaw to the south of the city, to the Bahai’s Lotus Temple. This was a half hour ride, with a splendidly turbaned and bewhiskered Sikh as our driver. It was fairly testing on the nerves, but really worth the journey.

The temple can be seen from a distance. It is gleaming white in the shape of a lotus flower, hence the name. It stands at the edge of a busy financial district and had the usual Dehli chaos going on at it’s doorstep. As soon as you step through the gates to the temple grounds, though, all the chaos drops away. And I mean instantaneously. A sense of peace takes over immediately.

Once we have removed our shoes, there is a short walk through the lawns and trees up to the temple. Once again, it is a very colourful scene, with the queue of brightly clad people, winding through the grounds up to the temple entrance. Surprisingly, the queue is very patient and quiet – maybe this is something that the Indian people picked up from the British during the days of the Raj! But more likely it is the serenity and atmosphere around the temple taking effect on us all.

Inside, the temple is very simply furnished. There is a white marble floor and wide marble benches arranged in rows under the towering summit of the lotus flower. There is peace and silence, except for the quiet slap of bare feet on marble, the rustle of clothing and tiny chink-chink noises of the ladies’ bangles and decorated saris. Most people file in, sit down for a few minutes and then head outside into the gardens again. A few stay longer to pray or meditate .

Leaving behind this quiet scene, it is time to head back into central Dehli. We decide to stretch our legs again in the market place of Paherganj. Having said that, it is difficult to stretch anything with the crush of people around us. It is also difficult to know where to look – on the floor to see what you are about to step in, in front to see who or what is about to walk into you, or behind to see who is about to run you down!

That evening, the noise is even more raucous than before. A deafening mixture of speaker announcements from the railway station, loud music being played from roadside stalls and cries of the stall holders trying to attract some trade. Add all this in to the cacophony of horns, beeps and bells from the traffic and you have some idea of the decibel level.

The mixture of smells is almost undescribable. Virtually every market stall, whatever it is selling, is burning its own type of insense, there are cooking smells from pans of hot oil or ovens making their own kind of Indian fast food. On the not-so-good side, there is the stench from piles of rotting rubbish, animal dung and blocked drains. It is not particularly savoury, but all part of the what makes up the Dehli atmosphere!

We are off on the next step of our trip in the morning. An early start to Rishikesh ….. so we decide to get some sleep - decibel level permitting!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Arrival in New Dehli

Stepping stiff and weary off the plain at Dehli Airport, India shakes you out of your comatose state very quickly.

The airport is in the process of a total rebuild and so is pretty shambolic. There are several clocks on the wall which are labeled with the names of capital cities, but showing all the wrong times. However, on switching your mobile on, it quickly tunes in to the local network and automatically adjusts its time to the local hour. Passport control, collecting luggage and customs are all managed with the minimum of fuss. What awaits us is test no. 1 – the taxi to the hotel…..

Avoiding the numerous touts offering rides in to the city, it is relatively simple to get a taxi from the official taxi rank. Tell them where you want to go, pay the money and find the cab. Our cab is a rickety, old fashioned, grubby affair. We only have one suitcase each, which should fit easily in the boot. No, it doesn’t… When the boot is opened it reveals a big tank, which we assume is for fuel, taking up half the space inside. One case goes in, the other will just about squeeze on top of it – but the boot lid will not close. There is no rope to hold it down, so we just have to leave it as it is and hope for the best.

We hop on board. The long-haired rug-like cover on the back seat looks as if it has had the whole population of Dehli sit on it at one time or another, without ever having had any kind of clean. I shut the car door – the handle to close the window falls off. It immediately starts to rain. There is nothing that I can do to close the window, so sitting on a flea ridden seat, getting wet, we are now ready to hit the road to town.

As we start off on our journey, we bounce along over the ruts and potholes that are unavoidable on the road leaving the airport. There is a slight, but definite, uneasy feeling that we are sitting on a car bomb, as thoughts turn to that tank in the boot. But at least we don’t part company with the luggage!

The road to the centre of Dehli looks pretty new and seems really good. The driving, however, is atrocious! And I mean, completely, unbelievably, atrocious. There are 4 lanes, all clearly marked, but completely ignored by everyone on the road. If any space opens up for a second or two, it will be immediately occupied by one of the swerving, honking vehicles. Due to the sheer volume of traffic and the state of repair of most of the vehicles on the road, progress can only be made at a fairly sedate pace. This is just as well as there would be multiple fatalities if it was any other way. The countless vehicles are a mixture of battered taxis, like the one we are traveling in, dirty, dusty, packed buses, 3 wheel motorized rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, mopeds, and smattering of newer cars, which are not destined to stay new looking for very long!

To my eternal joy – there was an elephant!!! It is the equivalent driving into London from Heathrow and passing an elephant in the slow lane of the M4! I wish I had had the camera ready…. The elephant was plodding along, seemingly unconcerned by all the chaos going on around. We had enough time to see it’s beautifully decorated face and trunk and we put-putted by in our ancient taxi, before it disappeared into the distance behind the mechanized hoard.

The closer we get to Dehli, the traffic gets slower and more cramped. There is a sense of a seething mass of humanity being squeezed into a tiny bottleneck, simultaneously passing, jostling, shouting, honking, arguing, scraping, braking……

At one point, while at a complete and utter standstill, there is a very vocal argument between the driver of a bus stopped alongside our taxi and some of his passengers. While the bus creeps forward, inch by inch, the voices get louder, decibel by decibel. Very soon there is no room to move and the bus is literally an inch away from our taxi. At this point, the bus driver’s patience seems to snap and he expresses his displeasure by standing full on the accelerator and revving the engine as hard as he can while going absolutely nowhere. He could shoot forward any second, obliterating anyone and everything in his path.

It is about now that our driver reveals that the price we have paid for the taxi will get us dropped off in the centre of Dehli, but if we want to be taken to our hotel, there is an extra fee to pay…. It is raining and chaotic, we are tired and dirty, so agree to the cash-in-hand supplement. It is not too long before we are dropped off outside the Raja Hotel – home for 2 nights.

I won’t dwell on the hotel – it worked out at approximately 9 pounds each per night. There was a relatively comfy bed and hot water, and we were so tired we weren’t too worried about anything else!

A little later on, we were back out into the streets of Dehli, this time on foot.

Pedestrian Dehli is not that different to traffic Dehli…. There is another massive crush of humanity, men, women, old, young, loads of kids - now add to this mangy dogs and cows wandering loose through the streets alongside the 2 legged population.

It is night time in an area called Paharganj. It is a fascinating stroll up and down the road. It is completely dark and there is no street lighting, but everything and everyone is lit up by the towering neon lights from the hotels, single light bulbs dangling over the roadside stalls, along with the fires under the food sellers pans of bubbling oil. There is the impression that you could buy virtually anything you could ever need, clothes, housewares etc, from the side of the road, but we settle for some bottles of water.

Not to be outdone, the sky now joins in as flashes of lightening are added to the other lighting effects. We can feel big, fat globules of rain starting to splash our faces. A storm is coming – time to get inside and prepare for tomorrow.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Story Begins.......

I heard about Clean Himalaya about this time last year, Marc, my partner, was asked to help create a website for the project. The project was created as a response to the overwhelming pollution problem in the in the holy town of Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Recycle your rubbish - don't just throw it on the ground. It immediately struck me that this is something we should get involved in - hands on, if possible, not just long distance moral support. In India, the environmental, not to mention aesthetic, effects of this wholesale and catastrophic littering are monumental. So here we are in Rishikesh - mucky, sweating and meditating! Please join us on our journey during the next 2 months.