A Day at the Taj

I almost got through another summer in India without somebody suggesting a trip to the Taj Mahal. I first went in 2005 and it was by far the most stressful day of the trip. The world’s most beautiful tomb is in a city called Agra that seems to be just a little bit hotter than everywhere else, and full of people trying to sell just about anything small enough to carry to the visitors. I spent the train ride back to Delhi that year throwing up in a sink that was inside our carriage, in full view of all the day trippers, so I wasn’t too excited to be returning.

But this time I was armed with two Taj essentials; Indian citizens. Everything was different with my colleagues Ina and Yusra. When the camel ride man came over offering us a lift on his camel, I was thinking it would cost maybe €5 or so. With a little haggling my Indian buddies got it down to 50 cents. They’ve changed the rules at the Taj since 2005, now no taxis are allowed near it as their exhaust fumes were dirtying her, so now one has to chose from a range of environmentally friendly options.

Before entering the Taj Indians and non-Indians have to be separated. Indians get to see the Taj for 10 Rupees (about 15 cents), and us outsiders must pay €15. But for this high fee we get a bottle of water (I think they feel sorry for us melting) and plastic shoe covers. In the end, €15 was a steal for shoe covers. No shoes are allowed in the area around the Taj, so us shoe cover owners could walk comfortably in the almost 50 degree heat, while my dear Indian friends had to hip-hop across the scorching hot marble barefoot. Below is us trying to share myself and Yvonne’s shoes between four people.

Rationing shoes at the Taj

In this next photo you can really see the wonderful show covers.

I miss those pants a lot, they don’t go down as well in Ireland.

My nifty shoes

The Taj, now leaning a little to the left.

Delhi: Sweaty but Sweet

View from my jogging route

I’ve decided I really like this city. I always knew I liked it, but while strolling around yesterday evening I decided I really like it. It’s like a year round carnival here; people are pushing around carts with umbrellas selling ice creams and drinks. The tourist attractions are really just attractions. I live by one of the biggest, India gate and it’s mostly local people who go there with their entire family to eat ice cream and jump in the pond.

Delhi makes me laugh when I don’t think it means to. As I got on the underground metro last night I joined the 200 metre queue for the security check and all the men around me excitedly told me to get out of the queue, it’s just for men. Less women use the metro it seems and the free space to my left was the ladies queue. I skipped past them all, and past the guard who’d made a fort for himself out of sandbags and went straight to the airport-like security. Every bag gets scanned and regardless of the outcome every person gets searched.

While I was behind the curtain getting poked and prodded by the security lady I noticed a sign with all the items banned from the subway; corpses, decaying animals, bones (unless bleached), human skeletons, manure (of any kind) and dirty t-shirts. Thankfully I had none of those on me yesterday so I passed the inspection.

Delhi is becoming more similar to its western counterparts the whole time. The newest addition is chain fitness centres with the tag line ‘It’s not just for movie stars’. I wandered in for the first time after my metro ride. It may actually be only for movie stars; the visit cost half my weekly salary. The upside is the gym comes with free soft drinks, so I made some of the money back, but then it may have defeated the purpose of the visit. I tried a spin class, which was just like a spin class back home. Except for the amount of mobile phones on bikes and people mid way through a sprint hopping off to take a call. When it was all over and time to stretch half the class decided that was unnecessary bending and so left! Most made their way to the Pepsi machine before moving on to the treadmill. That must have hurt.

Random person on the street gave us this plant and asked us to take good care of it

Our field work is now over and we have four weeks to write a 30 page report on how the water and sanitation programme is being maintained…..or not as we may write. I don’t think I’ve ever been lied to as much in my life. It was clear nothing was happening in most schools, often due to no fault of the staff, but they saw us coming with the government officials in tow and told us what they thought we wanted to hear.

Thing is, children rarely lie. Especially about water and sanitation issues. The schools seemed to have anticipated some of our questions like ‘Who maintains the bio intensive garden’. Don’t think they were expecting us to ask the little ones ‘When was said garden built’. A lot said two to three days ago. One little chap was even more direct and answered “When we heard you were coming”.

After our two weeks in rural India we’re back in the big city. The weather changed since we’ve been away, the monsoon came (although thanks to Mr. Global Warming that no longer means rain – just humidity) and now it’s sticky and sweaty here.

Speaking of global warming, the papers this week have been documenting the fall in tourism in Udaipur. I hope you can see the picture below (I’m using my phone as a modem here….)

Well nowadays tour operators use motorbikes and cars instead of the boat you see in the picture. That photo was taken just last year and somehow one missing monsoon has dried the whole place up! I can’t find the photo of the dry lake but I’ll get it.

My own photos are on route to this blog. They should be here any day now. Once this internet connection speeds up I’ll show all the great photos of the fake gardens, the 3 foot health monitors who I’m supposed to believe administer first aid and the game of snakes and ladders that includes a drop of eight places if you are caught relieving yourself in the open.

My Life as a Toilet Inspector

My Life as a Toilet Inspector

I bet the title just made my mother well up with pride. Before you get weepy mom, I’m not actually a toilet inspector but everyone here seems to think I am. And it looks like a great job!

We’ve arrive in the southern state of Karnataka. Plan is to spend two weeks travelling around to see if a program UNICEF had from 2003-2007 changed anything among village folk. Seems toilets are not too popular here, the people have their own traditional ways and don’t like officials from the big smoke coming along and telling them to confine themselves to a small cement structure.

This is what we were looking for


The program covered more than just toilets. It also aimed to provide clean drinking water, create gardens in schools so the meal they all get at lunch time has some vegetables, install separate toilets for girls and boys, promote ‘Nali Kali’ (Joyful Learning) and the big one; convince people to wash their hands after going to the toilet and before meals.
Our main issue so far has been that the schools all know that we were coming. We were meant to be testing UNICEF and seeing if their intervention worked. But the schools saw us as inspectors so what we observed may not have been the school on an average day.

The second school we visited was very impressive. We had only just started on school No. 1 when word came through that No. 2 had a fancy meal prepared for us and so we had to get there immediately. Being humongous India ‘the next school’ was an hour away, but we reached and were greeted like returning war heroes. Just as we sat down to eat the entire staff squealed “Hand washing!” and we were paraded out to a bucket they had prepared in the centre of the school courtyard, on an elevated plateau so everyone could see, and right next to the national flag, which made for some lovely photos.


Question is - do they always line up like that for some hand washing?

They sat us down and for almost an hour served us a variety of things that I will never be able to describe properly. There was the doughy chilli thing, and the round sweet piece of something. Lots of rice with accompanying coloured water. I was the unfortunate centre of attention as I was eating my one tiny piece of food extremely slowly and guarding my plate from anything anyone would try to put on it. My colleagues noticed the first hygiene strike against the school during the meal; the principal dirtied his hands serving us, grabbed the nearest student and scrubbed himself clean on her skirt! And a clean uniform is something that they are meant to monitor every day!

Next the team split to check out the school and interview different people. I was sent off to do worksheets with the tiny tots on whether they take a bath, wash their hands, that sort of thing. One guy proudly announced how he always uses the toilet and washes his hands with soap. Things were looking good for school No.2, especially when I looked outside and saw the garden and separate boy/girl toilets. Another thing the schools are meant to have are cabinets (of the governmental kind, not wooden). One student is meant to be health minister and together with his team check all the students daily for clean nails, hair, that kind of thing. We were really not expecting anyone to still be doing that 2 years on. But when we mentioned it the health minister jumped up and grabbed his crew.

Things started to unravel when the proud boy who uses the toilet asked to go and Yusra saw him leap up and take off out the school gate. On his return she asked what that had been about. He just shrugged and said how he went on the road, why wouldn’t he? Did he wash his hands? He might have done had he had the school had running water. I went to visit another team mate, Ina, to see how she was getting on with the school cabinet. She whispered “It’s all fake” and suddenly the dream was over. She had heard people congratulate the health minister on his new position. One of his cabinet; the tooth brushing checker had been asked how she checks whether or not people have brushed. She almost started crying; no one had prepared her for that question.

We're washing!

We got a little curious about the separate toilets. Yusra searched out a student who spoke Hindi so we could avoid interpreters (another major problem is having an interviewee who knows nothing of the interventions and an interpreter who not only knows it inside out – but was in charge of the whole thing). We gave up on interviews and just asked the kids casually what the story was with the toilets. They said there are no toilets. What I’d been looking at were some storage rooms with a girl’s head painted on one and a boy’s head painted on the other to give the impression of a toilet.

Next we had to find out about the ‘bio intensive’ garden that looked so pretty. I never questioned why it was just a square piece of soil. I presumed the seeds had just been planted and that in a few months something would be visible above ground. Some students rushed over and asked if we liked their new garden. How new? About 6 hours.

In a way I was impressed, in a day they had cleaned the school, elected a cabinet and made them learn off some detailed answers, installed a ‘Nali Kali’ classroom and taught the kids songs, made the storage room look like a toilet and dug the garden. The sad part was that the kids still had no toilet, and diseases from water with human excrement in it are rampant. Most of the schools we’ve visited have no water, the kids bring from home or else go all day with none. The craziest thing we’ve seen has been a school with three toilet blocks made by three different water and sanitation schemes, and none are in use because there is no water in them. A field is much preferred to a toilet that is stinking from having no water to flush.

Right now we’re over a week into this field work. We’ve just moved to the next district and so far things are looking much better there. The biggest problem in this area is water. When we asked state officials about that they said there is no problem; every village has a well, which is true. But the schools have never installed a mechanism to direct it to their building or store it there. And national level programs seem to keep hearing “Schools have no toilets” and so build more!

So now all that needs to be done is to make the toilets workable, convince the people to use them, and get some soap for after and we can tell UNICEF that Gulbarga is a happy little town!


Living in Delhi

Two weeks in I suppose it’s time to write! Already I’ve been socially faux pas-ing all over the place. Yvonne and I became the two most unpopular girls in school yesterday when we sat at the warden’s table for lunch. All the other people in our hostel were sitting at the tables for regular folk and the only two foreigners in the building strutted right up to the top to sit with the bosses. Not a good move for making friends.

I should probably back up a little bit and introduce the people I will be rambling on about for the rest of the summer. Yvonne is my team-mate, from Hong Kong, currently studying in the US. We’re living in the Indian All Women’s Conference Centre, a place where working women from all over India (and now with us – the world) come to stay when they’re working in Delhi. Our other two team mates are Delhites so they stay at home and we all get together Monday to Friday in our shared office to try and write a case study for UNICEF.


The team - with the project that ended in 2008 that we will now be evaluating

We’re working on toilets at the moment. It’s supposed to be a general health type programme for schools but toilets seem to be the only thing anyone’s interested in around here. Clean drinking water is often forgotten about when someone visits to brief us on the programme. One chap got so excited he spoke to us for three and a half hours when he was supposed to have been on a day off.

Our job seems to be to go to the countryside and see if SWASTH+, which was part of UNICEF’s programme in two Indian states, has made a difference to the hygiene standards in some schools. I say ‘seems to be’ because no one seems sure. Our plan is to head down to Karnataka next Sunday, find some people who may not have washed their hands before this programme came riding in to town, and see if they are now scrubbing after using the facilities. Also have to check if the school still has ‘facilities’.
By the end of this summer I will be full of funny toilet stories, my friends will be amazed. Our research supervisor, Sindhu, has been telling us great tales of how when she was a student they used go to the villages to see how the people there were getting on with their newly constructed toilets. These people have only ever had mud huts and when some billy from the city came along and built a cement structure next to their house they rejoiced that they now had a cement home. And so the toilets were rarely used as toilets. The villagers used pull a slate over the latrine so the unsightly toilet could not be seen and then use their new room for a host of other activities. By August we will hopefully be saying that this is no longer the case, and that the people of Gulbarga have embraced the new technology.
Being back in India is great fun. Yvonne now knows to run away quickly whenever anyone asks me where I’m from. It usually goes a little like this:
“I’m from Ireland”

“Oh! The UK!”

*Loads shotgun*

Ok, so I haven’t loaded my shotgun yet but I’m getting there. I like to ask the Indian people how they’re getting on with the British Raj these days and generally they get the idea.


I passed a pop quiz on my first day here. Every time I got a taxi into town I passed the President’s palace and India Gate, a lovely arc type structure. And every taxi driver likes to take a few moments to explain both to me. Instead of being rude I sit there and nod. Once I may have nodded with too much enthusiasm. The guy pulled over, whipped out a photo album and went through all of Delhi’s famous sights. He wouldn’t believe that I’d seen them all before and just wanted to go to town so I started naming them all as he flipped. After getting about ten in a row correct he finally gave in and were on our way again.

I passed a pop quiz on my first day here. Every time I got a taxi into town I passed the President’s palace and India Gate, a lovely arc type structure. And every taxi driver likes to take a few moments to explain both to me. Instead of being rude I sit there and nod. Once I may have nodded with too much enthusiasm. The guy pulled over, whipped out a photo album and went through all of Delhi’s famous sights. He wouldn’t believe that I’d seen them all before and just wanted to go to town so I started naming them all as he flipped. After getting about ten in a row correct he finally gave in and were on our way again.

Photos will be up once I get another break from toilet training.

Award for Worst Blogger Ever goes to….

I know, it’s been about 5 months since I’ve blogged. I came home from my 15 months of travelling in September. I really wanted to write about a wedding I went to before I left India. That has been what delayed my ‘I’m back home’ post, and then essays and deadlines delayed that…..and now I’m incredibly behind! So I’m just going to use some photos to describe the end of my trip.

This is our gang at Christine and Banshan’s wedding. Christine is one of the teachers at the school.

Photos from Shillong

Alright, so I’m kind of cheating here. I’ve left India, am now in Milan. Found some exchange students and I’m following them around for a few days before I head off to Sweden; the last and 19th stop on my trip. I haven’t had internet for a very long time. I find it very hard to write in internet cafes. hence the slowness. I’m sure everyone who used read this has given up on me by now anyway. Oh well, I’ll carry on alone here. Only a few more entries then I’m finished!!

But first, some more photos:
Not sure who lives here, but this is the kind of house my students live in:

One of our guides, Marius, with a lovely house on stilts behind him.