The fabled land of Persia!

Parade Ground Tehran

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks touring Iran, a country I knew little about and one that I visited with more than a little trepidation.

What a surprise! Contrary to popular western media portrayals of a country filled with angry militants brandishing AK47’s in the air while dancing on a burning US flag, in fact the people are the most welcoming, friendly and hospitable people I have come across for a long time.

I lost count of the number of times we were welcomed and thanked for visiting the country. We were constantly invited to join people for meals and repeatedly told to tell our friends to visit as well and experience the real Iran.

The country is one of contrasts. Where women have to cover their head with the hijab, but have turned it into a glamorous fashion accessory coupled with makeup worthy of a Hollywood red carpet. Where much of the countryside is desert but the cities are veritable Gardens of Eden filled with flowers and fruit trees. Where politicians have historically spouted anti-western rhetoric yet the populace drink Coke and Pepsi and wear Abercrombie & Fitch. Where FB is banned but everyone wants to “friend you”.

The fact that both the Boss, a stunning beauty of South Indian descent, and me, a ruggedly handsome Caucasian ;-) from the Antipodes, were often mistaken for Iranians speaks volumes about the ethnic diversity of the country.

It’s truly a fascinating country and has a long and varied history stretching back thousands of years.
Everywhere you look you see beauty, whether it is the strikingly attractive Iranian people, the stunning and incredibly varied countryside, or the cities themselves. Tehran with it’s backdrop of snowclad mountains, Esfahan with it’s beautifully lit bridges and avenues of Mulberry trees, Shiraz with it’s streets lined with orange trees, Mashhad with miles and miles of rose gardens lining it’s roads.

Art seems to run in the Iranian people’s veins, evident by the public sculptures and artwork you see everywhere, whether it be on the roadside or within public parks. Colorful lights decorate most parks and gardens at nights and people spend time in the cooler hours picnicking in the parks, singing Iranian folk songs, while sipping tea and smoking from the qalyan or hookah.

Despite family members concerns for my safety I felt safer here than in many a European city at night.

A country I would love to revisit and if you haven’t been already, one to put on your bucket list.

Watch this space as I will be posting more about my travels in this fabulous country over the coming weeks

The World’s Politest Policeman!

Tamil Nadu Police

Pondicherry is an Indian Union Territory next to Tamil Nadu.  It enjoys a tax free status and what many people don’t realize is that India has quite a prohibitive tax regime. There are hidden taxes on everything and one of the highest taxes is on alcohol.

Consequently many tourists come to Pondicherry to stock up on booze and then head back across the border into Tamil Nadu.

To make sure they don’t miss out on this lost tax revenue the Tamil Nadu Government has the police set up “Prohibition Checkpoints” on the main roads out of Pondicherry where they flag down vehicles with outstation number plates to check if they are carrying alcohol.

We were staying in Auroville just outside Pondicherry but often went into town for dinner as there are some lovely restaurants in Pondicherry and the ones in Auroville while good, are vegetarian and Tommy needs a good feed on meat every now and then.

Going from Auroville into Pondicherry entails crossing through one of the check points. Going into town is ok but coming out, the cops always want to stop us.

Now normally I am a law abiding citizen but sometimes the keepers of the law are not always law abiding themselves.

Two weeks previously I had been in Mysore, Karnataka, when I was flagged down at a police checkpoint, ostensibly because there had been a lot of vehicle thefts in the town and the police wanted to check my ownership documents. Fair enough, but after satisfying himself that the ownership documents were in order the policeman then proceeded to ask for every other document he could think of to try and catch me out and supplement his income with some “Chai-pani” money ( an expression used when asking for a bribe. Meaning money for tea and water). Fortunately all my documents were up to date, but I was irritated by having to waste 15 mins smiling politely and pretending to be friendly.

With this in mind , when the Tamil Nadu Police waved at me to pull over I pretended I didn’t see them and carried on, thinking that they can’t chase me so they will just wait for the next person.

The next day the same thing happened again, this time a policeman waving his torch at me in the dark. I drove past him and ahead another policeman waved his torch at me more vigorously. I ignored him too and continued merrily on my way, the sound of his shouting receding in the distance.

Turning off the main road and into Auroville, windows down, enjoying the cool evening air, I heard a motorcycle honking at me from behind before pulling out to overtake. I thought nothing of it until I looked out my side window and saw an angry looking policeman riding beside me on his motorbike gesticulating furiously with one hand and shouting at me in Tamil. Pulling in front of me, he stopped, blocking the road, giving me no option this time but to stop as well. Dismounting from his bike he approached my window still shouting angrily in Tamil, the only thing I could understand were the English words, “Police” and “stop”.

Feigning ignorance, and assuming my most innocent expression, I said “I am very sorry but I don’t speak Tamil”, which promptly took the wind out of his sails.

“Why didn’t you stop” he switched to English.

“Stop where?” I asked. “I didn’t see anyone” hoping that he wouldn’t call my bluff and wonder how I could have missed the giant yellow police barriers blocking the road and two policeman shining torches through my windscreen.

“We are staying in Auroville” I explained, hoping that he would think I am a tee-total vegetarian Auroville resident.

He looked inside the vehicle and saw The Boss smiling angelically at him, my 8 year old niece sitting behind, looking like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

His manner softened, anger dissipating rapidly.

“Where have you come from” he asked.

“We just went to the beach to visit a friend and now we are heading back to the guest house in Auroville”

“Ok, ok, I am sorry” he said, then lowering his voice so no-one else in the car could hear, he whispered apologetically, “do you have any liquors?”

“No, no” I assured him, assuming my most horrified expression, and he smiled, apologizing again.

“Very sorry, please go ahead.”

I thanked him and waited for him to climb onto his bike and ride off, however he insisted on moving his bike to the side to allow me to move off first.

I smiled and waved to him, wishing him goodnight.

As I drove off I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the world’s politest policeman waving and calling out “Sorry sir, thank you”.

A Light At The End of The Tunnel

Mural at Christel House

Mural painted by students at the Christel House School

 

Sometimes life can seem bleak, frustrating, full of unnecessary trials and tribulations. But there is always a light at the end of the tunnel and out of the blue something happens to give you a newfound hope and faith in humanity.

I had the opportunity to experience this the other day.

We paid a visit to a school called Christel House in Bangalore.

Christel House is an organization founded by Christel DeHaan to provide education for poor children around the world. As well as Bangalore, there are schools in Mexico, South Africa and Venezuela

Now there are a lot of schools and orphanages in India providing for the poor but what makes this one stand out is that you can see the incredible results they are getting, not just in terms of the academic performance but also in the transformation of the children.

Christel House

To put things in perspective, consider this. Christel House only accepts children from families who are living below the poverty line. So what The Boss and I would spend on a good meal and a bottle of wine in a fancy restaurant, these families, often 4-5 people, have to live on for a month. Makes you think twice about that evening out, doesn’t it?

The Bangalore school has now been running long enough for the first batch of students to graduate from college and find employment. These children have gone on to be doctors, engineers, software technicians, even pilots. If it wasn’t for a school like Christel House these children would not have been educated and would have seen no way out of the grinding poverty that makes up their lives.

We walked through the school and were struck by how happy and bright the children were. Smiling and laughing they would walk past on their way between classes, greeting us in fluent English, asking our names and how we were.

We popped our heads into a classroom where tiny children sat cross legged on the mat, unable to read or speak anything but Kannada (the local language) 6 months ago when they joined and now reading aloud in English.

The lunch bell sounded and children streamed into the large dining hall, washing their hands, before sitting down to one of the two meals the school provides, thereby ensuring the children get at least two hot meals a day, reducing the incidences of malnutrition and disease.
We joined them for lunch, a delicious meal of rice, vegetables, sambar, and boiled eggs.

Christel House Dining Hall

Lunch completed, we sat for a presentation by senior students, viewing some documentaries they had made and discussing with them how they went about producing the films. Bright, intelligent confident kids, enthusiastic about what they are doing and filled with excitement about the future ahead.

Maybe I would have taken all this for granted if we hadn’t then gone to visit their homes in a nearby slum. What I was to see next filled me with sadness and then anger. Sadness that people in this day and age still live 5 persons to a single room, a room constructed out of cardboard, plastic and salvaged tin sheets. Their belongings in plastic bags hanging from hooks on the wall, no toilets or bathrooms, the kitchen just a fireplace outside. The hut abutting the railway line and soon to be demolished to make way for further development in this rapidly expanding city. Anger at the corrupt and inept government more interested in lining their own pockets than looking after the health and well-being of their citizens. The only time politicians visit these areas is during elections when they come to buy votes with free saris and a bottle of liquor.

Slum dwelling

But then I remember the children in the school and how they, through hard work , dedication and the diligent efforts of the School staff , have transformed themselves and by doing that will change the lives of their families forever. Their view of the world has expanded to encompass experiences they would never have imagined before, living beside the railway line. The money they will earn, enough to rent a proper house with electricity and running water and separate rooms. 3 meals a day. Eventually their children too will be educated and go on to earn a decent living ending the cycle of poverty.

This has made me realize that because of the efforts of a few good people, who put the lives of others before their own, there is still hope and the future is not entirely bleak. Governments may never change, corruption will no doubt continue, but these children are the hope of the future and through their improved lives hopefully the world overall will gradually become a better place.
For more information on this wonderful school and their great work please visit:

Christel House

The Day A Leopard Ate The Boss For Breakfast – Almost!

Leopard

The time came for us to leave Kaziranga in Assam and take the 6-7 hour drive into the hills of Nagaland for our next stop in Kohima.

However our dashing and fearless tour leader, Rohan (rumored to be the inspiration behind the Jason Statham – Transporter films), had a little detour planned for us. While out “networking” the night before, he had bumped into some staff from the Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and using his considerable silver tongued charms had managed to wrangle an invite for all of us to visit.

Kaziranga Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation

The Centre does a lot of great work, rescuing, sick, injured and orphaned animals, nursing them back to health, before releasing them back into the wild.

A young volunteer gave us a tour explaining what they were doing and the processes involved, before finally leading us to the leopard enclosure where 3 leopards were being cared for, one baby and two adults.

The Boss, unable to contain her excitement upon spying the ‘big fluffy pussycat’ had to be restrained from putting her hands inside the enclosure to pat the animal. After all what use would The Boss without hands be to me? Who would massage the knots out of my tired shoulders after a day spent thumbing through the books on my Kindle?

One of the adult leopards was quite docile, but the other was angry and distinctly annoyed at our presence, constantly pacing back and forth in it’s enclosure, snarling away.

After a few minutes spent taking photos and marveling at the majesty of these big cats, we prepared to leave and it is then that I witnessed a sight, the memory of which has woken me on many a night, bathed in sweat and shaking with fear.

The Boss strayed a couple of feet too close to the angry leopard and in a split second the cat had covered the 10 meters from the other side of the enclosure in a single silent bound. Thankfully the first the Boss knew of it was not a pair of sharp incisors sinking into her neck but the sound of a huge adult leopard bouncing off the wire link fence that made up the leopard’s enclosure.

The speed and sheer power of the cat’s movement was an incredible sight to behold as I stood frozen in awe, The Boss making her exit as fast as her gazelle like legs would allow.

I will never forget that sight (the leopard, not the Boss’s legs) and it has given me new-found respect for this majestic animal.

A change of underwear all around, we thanked the staff and headed off on our journey to Kohima.