Monday, January 16, 2012

New Blog

I'm starting a new blog, called Uphill. You can also find me at caitlinmyles.com.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Recap

This blog covers my eight-month internship in Zanzibar, Tanzania, from July 2007 to March 2008. You can find me in the present on my website. If you're interested in reading about my time in Zanzibar, here are a few highlights:

If you want to skip the reading, my photos from India and Zanzibar (as well as a few other places) can be found here: http://picasaweb.google.ca/caitlin.travel.

You can contact me at caitlin.blog@gmail.com.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Home!

After a four-day journey, I am finally back in Montreal, which, compared to Africa and India, is very chilly and grey - except for all the Habs flags! One of the meals I had on my 18-hour train ride from Delhi to Bombay last Monday unfortunately made me ill, meaning the trek back to North America felt even longer than it had to (though really, the most tragic part is it meant I wasn't able to take full advantage of the open bar services on the four international flights I took since Tuesday).

I spent Monday afternoon wandering around Bombay in a haze until I realised I was ill; I visited the very interesting principal museum, formerly called the Prince of Wales Museum, and currently called something I can't pronounce, much less spell. On Tuesday "morning" at 2am after sleeping for about an hour, I just barely managed to stumble out of bed and wake up half the hotel staff demanding that they unlock the front door and wake up a taxi driver for me. Somehow, I made it back to Dar es Salaam without causing any major incidents (I had images of myself sprinting out of secure areas to find a bathroom, customs agents in rapid pursuit). 36 hours, one box of Digestives, and a package of oral rehydration salts later, I boarded my 10:50pm flight to Amsterdam. 24 hours after that, I landed in Montreal!

I won't write an insightful conclusion to this blog firstly because I am too jet-lagged to do anything of the sort, secondly because I'm still in denial about the eight months being over, and thirdly, because it would be far too formal for the hodge-podge of random musings, tourist snapshots, and mini-essays on development issues that this blog has been. Instead, I will redirect you to something much more amusing: my photos from India.

India

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Beauty and Pandemonium in Agra and Delhi

It's a minor miracle I've made it back to Mumbai, the fates seemed determined to leave me stuck somewhere; things started to go somewhat less smoothly once we attempted to leave Jaipur. Our intention was to take an overnight train to Agra on the night of April 1. We dutifully lined up at the train station, where the person behind the desk mutely handed us a form to fill out in response to our questions. We filled out the form and received our tickets.

What we didn't realise was that our train actually departed at 2am... on April 1 (a salient deail the apparently dumb ticket man omitted to mention). As a result, we found ourselves attempting to usurp some poor gentleman's bunk in the wee hours of the morning (after having camped out on the railway station floor for a few hours). When we realised our mistake, we dashed out of the train (it was scheduled to make only a ten-minute stop in Jaipur), and desperately searched for a bureaucrat of some sort - something usually not very difficult to find here, as we've discovered. Naturally, as with auto-rickshaws and McDonald's, the ubiquitous suddenly becomes non-existant when you really need it. Finally, we found a conductor, and fell upon his mercy - luckily he took pity on us, and found us two bunks, though we did have to pay a penalty fee amounting to twice the original ticket price.

Agra is much less dirty and its touts far less aggressive than I had been led to expect, though the air pollution is quite intense. This is bad for my asthma, but it's even worse for the city's many monuments. The most famous of these, of course, is the Taj Mahal, which most certainly lives up to all expectations - we even managed to pry ourselves out of bed at 5am and get there at sunrise. We also saw the Red Fort, and the "baby Taj," a mausoleum designed entirely by one of the Mughal princesses for her parents. We also made our way through a residential and very un-touristy part of town to find yet another Mughal tomb, though we did pick up a crowd of young children along the way (not the first time I've felt like the Pied Piper in the last nine months).

Our train trip to Delhi was made much less chaotic than it might have been by a very kind gentleman who helped us upgrade our tickets from "unreserved" to second class - "unreserved" means you squeeze yourself onto a wooden plank beside two or three families, or, if the train is crowded, you sort of dangle out the side somehow. This morning while pulling into Mumbai at rush hour, I saw inter-city trains with people literally sitting on top of the trains, clinging to windows on the outside, and even riding between the cars.

Interestingly, our friend on the train worked for a large American bank at its call centre, and he had several amusing stories to tell involving cultural differences and American slang and idioms. My favourite was a woman who was trying to delay payment on her credit card because her dog had died - to which my friend answered, perplexed, that he didn't understand why she was so upset about a dog, that in India several people die every day from starvation. Naturally the lady got quite upset, and my friend is now careful to express deep sympathy every time a customer reports the death of a pet...

Delhi was much more intense than Mumbai, even though it is apparently the smaller of the two cities. We were staying in New Delhi, the part of town built by the British after they razed part of the old town they didn't like. This area feels a lot like a North American city, but somewhat dirtier and with more beggars and way more people. Every large international store you can think of has found a spot somewhere in Connaught Place. The mandatory fast food chains are also there (as an aside, there is not a single McDonald's in Tanzania), as are an abundance of very good upscale restaurants, mostly filled with Indians, part of this country's booming middle and upper-middle class. Old Delhi, on the other hand, lives up to the image of India painted in movies - very crowded, extremely busy, dirty, and exciting.

Despite the fact that I like to consider myself a relatively seasoned traveler, I found Delhi quite stressful (though perhaps if I hadn't just come over here from eight months in Africa I would have found it less so). One major plus in Delhi was the metro system, which is very new, and rivals any of the European systems I've been in, though it's still quite small, as it's still being built.

Leaving Delhi was also challenging. On Sunday, Mahmud and I booked a hotel room for myself in Mumbai - I traveled back here alone, since Mahmud will be staying on in Delhi for some time. The next day, we phoned to confirm my reservation, which had somehow disappeared... I spent half the morning on hold with KLM attempting to reschedule my flight back to Canada (ironically, though the call centre was almost undoubtedly in Delhi and it was 10am, I was calling during off-hours, Eastern Standard Time, so it took me about half an hour to get through to someone). The other half of the morning was spent trying to reserve a room in Mumbai.

Finally, Mahmud and I made our way to the New Delhi train station, one of India's main stations, expecting to find a relatively calm square meter or so, and perhaps a restaurant to have lunch at (as had been the case in Mumbai). Instead, we found ourselves in a gigantic, packed, open-air railway station with no restaurant and definitely no calm square meters. We wandered around the maze-like grounds for a while, desperate at this point even for a McDondald's, before finally caving in and going all the way back to Connaught Place, where we did eat at the Golden Arches, I'm ashamed to admit. We then dragged ourselves all the way back to New Delhi train station, where we managed to find our way to the first class waiting room.

At about 4:00 (my train was to leave at 4:55), Mahmud offered to go into the main station to check which platform my train was leaving from. He came back somewhat confused, since my train number didn't appear to be on the board. After another trip into the station and back, we finally scrutinized the cryptic train ticket more closely, only to discover (of course) that we were at the wrong station. A mad dash across town in a tiny taxi ensued (with me laughing somewhat hysterically in the back seat - at a certain point there's just really not much else to do). We pulled up at the much nicer and correct train station, where there was a large restaurant area with several very decent-looking lunch options, and I made my train with about fifteen minutes to spare.

Eighteen hours later, I arrived in Mumbai. Tomorrow morning, I'm flying to Dar es Salaam (via Doha), and I'll be back home, nicely tanned, in (snowy?) Montreal on Friday evening. I have lots of nice photos from India which I will post once I'm home (and have a good internet connection). It feels very strange that my nine months abroad are nearly over - they've been everything I've expected them to be. But I'm also very happy that I'll be at home on Friday...

Monday, March 31, 2008

Jaipur

After an 18-hour overnight train ride in second-class sleeper which was surprisingly less painful than I expected, partly thanks to the lovely family we met who fed us, we landed in Jaipur. The last three days have been a blur of forts, temples, and palaces, accented by a myriad of bright colours and incredible food. The state of Rajasthan is known to be one of the more colourful parts of India (literally), and it certainly lives up to the reputation: the entire old city here is painted pink, the shops are overflowing with beautiful fabrics, and there are plenty of curbside spice, vegetable and fresh flower vendors to brighten up the streets themselves. I've also seen a multitude of elephants (brightly painted and generally used to cart tourists around, though I also saw one ambling through traffic in town), camels, and monkeys. 

I find the skills I acquired in Zanzibar warding off touts and haggling to be very useful - at one point I haggled with an auto-rickshaw driver (sort of a three-wheeled mini car) for about twenty minutes because he was trying to charge us more than we had agreed upon for a very bogus reason. Luckily some random passerby who was a self-described social activist assisted us in arguing our case, and I finally extracted the 10 rupees from the driver - about 25 cents - which was rightfully Mahmud's. That's 2/3 of a bottle of water or 1/5 of a cheap lunch he was trying to swindle us out of.

Despite the stress of the touts, the business of the traffic, the dirt and grime, and the large preponderance of beggars, I'm really enjoying India. The cost of living seems to be significantly lower than in Africa as well. Lunch in a clean, decent local restaurant costs about 1$, and a fantastic and large dinner in an upscale restaurant costs about 5$. In Zanzibar the same would be about 3$ and 8-10$ respectively.

Another highlight of the past few days was going to see a Bollywood movie yesterday in a beautiful old movie theatre; it really lived up to the word "theatre," too, with a huge lobby intricately decorated in art-deco style, and a seating capacity of 1,500 people. Despite the lack of subtitles and thanks to Mahmud's basic knowledge of Hindi, I mostly understood the plot of One, Two, Three, a comedy based on mistaken identity (with the mandatory musical interludes).

Tomorrow evening we're taking another sleeper train to Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. I very excited to see this monument, which everyone says absolutely lives up to its reputation. After that we'll head up to Delhi for a few days, after which I will take an overnight express back to Mumbai to catch my flight back to Dar es Salaam, which feels worlds away now... 

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bombay

Yesterday at 4am I landed in the biggest city in the world, which most people here still call Bombay (the less Anglicised name "Mumbai" was adopted a few years ago). My flights with Qatar Airways was pleasant, and my two hours in the airport in Doha were mostly occupied by me staring open-mouthed at the goods in the duty-free -- there was just so much for sale, driving home how much less developed the economy is in Tanzania (if "developed" means having access to a slew of consumer goods). I even got a glimpse of the golden arches as we were taxiing after landing (there is not a single McDonald's in Tanzania, miraculously enough); ironically, it was poised just beside a huge and imposing mosque. Seeing The Simpsons on the flight to Bombay just capped off the feeling of familiarity - strange that I felt more at home as I headed East.

Bombay is significantly cooler than Dar es Salaam in March, thank goodness. I met up successfully with my friend Mahmud, and we both stumbled around the city somewhat dazed yesterday and today, both suffering from sleep deprivation and jetlag. The part of Bombay we have stayed in is the rich, business district, though there are still entire families living on the sidewalks. My initial impression (after a day and a half here) is that this city is a place of extremes. Poverty is much more "in your face" than in Dar, with homeless children and ramshackle huts everywhere, but it's also much richer than Dar, with a larger proliferation of European, North American, and Indian chain stores, expensive hotels and restaurants, etc.

Our wander through Bombay was colourful and interesting, the food is amazing, the shopping incredible (though I've been restraining myself in anticipation of Jaipur), and thus far, I haven't been ill. I was told that people either love India, or they hate it -- so far I'm in the former category.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Race against Time

I had intended to start writing blog entries about the books I’ve read here, but I haven’t had nearly as much time to read as I had anticipated. However, I did finally read Stephen Lewis’ Race against Time last month, and it touched me profoundly. It was perhaps a crazy idea to read a book on the bleak topic of HIV/AIDS in Africa during my last month in Zanzibar (and in fact I started reading it while sunbathing in Nungwi, of all places), but instead of bringing me down, I found the book inspiring and hopeful.

Lewis is beautifully articulate and very thoughtful. By no means does he sugar-coat the HIV/AIDS pandemic, a crisis the likes of which the world has never seen before, and in many cases his descriptions and anecdotes are desperate and tragic. However, while remaining firmly down-to-earth, he manages to remain hopeful and even idealistic. Many of the people I have met who have worked in development for twenty or thirty years seem jaded or cynical; somehow, Lewis has eluded this.

Race against Time is the text of the Massey Lecture Series which Lewis delivered in 2005. He touches on a wide array of issues which are intricately tied to HIV/AIDS, but one of the issues he is most impassioned about and keeps coming back to is gender. It is his conviction that were women and men equally empowered in Africa, then HIV/AIDS would still exist as a disease, but it would not be a pandemic; as the former UN envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and hence one of the world’s leading experts on the pandemic, I am inclined to believe him (and there are a slew of arguments in favour of this theory, which I won’t launch into right now). For many reasons, I have a great admiration for Stephen Lewis, but I admit that his position as a staunch feminist is what endears him to me the most; to have such an important, articulate, intelligent, knowledgeable person (and a man, to boot) openly and energetically fighting for women’s rights gives me renewed hope and motivation to attempt to do the same.

If you have not yet read Race against Time you should do so. Wrapping one’s mind around the extent of the crisis of HIV/AIDS in Africa is practically impossible, but somehow, Stephen Lewis manages to bring the story home with grace. This book eloquently addresses an issue that is defining the future of a very large portion of humanity, an issue which it is critical for us all to understand.