Mumbai, India

 I am writing this in Mumbai. Husband has to work in India for a few days, and travelling on work expenses is always rather nice (I pay for my travel & food, but the hotel is no extra, and they’re nice!) so I tagged along. Plus I love India, it’s possibly my favourite country (not that I have seen more than a snippet of it -but what I’ve seen, I like.)

We arrived late Wednesday night, having woken early that morning (left home 5.45 am), so I was tired. We had to go through different immigration, as I was travelling on a tourist visa, and husband had a work one. The woman at the desk was very pleasant, and when husband pointed out for the sixth time where he would meet me, she laughed. When he went off to his work visa desk, she commented that he seemed very worried about me.

“Yes,” I smiled, “he thinks I’m incompetent.”

Immigration officer then asked for my visa. I gave her the print out with the hotel details on. (They look the same, both printed from the computer.) She politely asked if I also had a visa.

She then asked where I had come from. I was surprised, but gave my full postal address. I even remembered the postcode, which often defeats me, so felt rather pleased with myself. Immigration officer looked confused and asked for my boarding pass. It was somewhat crumpled, but I dug it out from the bottom of my bag, then realised my mistake. “Heathrow!” I said, ” You wanted me to say Heathrow, not my address, didn’t you!”

Immigration officer continued to smile. We then had trouble making the fingerprint machine work (but I don’t think that was my fault.) Eventually I was allowed into India. I think Immigration Officer went for a tea break.

We’re staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. It’s beautiful. There was a mix up with our booking (also not my fault) and as a goodwill gesture, they upgraded us to a suite. The hotel really is beautiful. There are flowers and candles everywhere, and the corridors are all open, with lots of carved lattice work.

When we returned yesterday evening, there were patterns of flower petals everywhere, so pretty. (Romantic husband referred to them as ‘vegetation on the floor’ ).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walked to Gateway to India. Lots of people there, some were catching ferries across the sea. It was previously owned by Portugal, (the Portuguese for good is ‘bom’ and its a bay, hence was called Bombay).

 

 

 

 

We went to a market and bartered for some trinkets. I am not very good at bartering, especially when the crafts are actually very pretty, and the price seems to be low to start with. Tradesmen smile a lot when I shop (and tell me not to bring my husband next time, because he’s cannier than me!)

Wandered around the city. I love the faded colonial buildings covered in vines, the huge plants, the colour everywhere. Every sense is bombarded, so much noise and smell (not always pleasant), and so hot. We met some friends for lunch. They said that in a couple of weeks the rain will come, sometimes raining for several days continually, which cools everything down.

I also visited the slums on the mainland, where I was shown around by Sahaara, one of the projects Tearfund works with. I went on my own, as Husband is working (very brave of me!) I will write up what I saw and post it later this week. Right now, I need a shower!

Excuse the bleary photos -all taken with my ancient phone.
Take care,

Anne x

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anneethompson.com

 

London : Sayings and Stories

A friend called and asked if I’d like to join her on a guided walking tour of London. It was organised by Sevenoaks School, so we were slightly bemused as we’ve had no links with the school since our sons left nearly 5 years ago. However, we haven’t seen each other for ages and it sounded quite fun, so we signed up.

We met near Tower Bridge. Our guide was a nice man, short, carrying a briefcase and umbrella (he looked like the accountant in The Untouchables, but I didn’t mention it.) I was worried he might stick the umbrella into the air for us all to follow – at which point I would’ve left – but it stayed safely in his bag. He was actually very interesting, he remembered a huge number of facts, and told little stories as we walked around. The walk took 2 hours, mainly because we walked very slowly. I thought I’d tell you some of his stories, about the origins of sayings. They might, or might not, be true, but they were interesting.

Near the Tower of London, is the spot where they executed people who were not considered royal enough to be killed within the walls. There were a few plaques, one of which commemorated the husband of Lady Jane Grey (but I’ve forgotten his name. I would not make a good guide!) Lady Jane Grey was queen, after Henry VIII, for 9 days. After this, Mary (Henry’s daughter) rode into London and had Jane locked up in the tower. Hence the saying, “a nine day wonder”.

We also passed the pub, ‘The Hung, Drawn and Quartered’. It’s possible the owners have very bad grammar (paintings are hung, people are hanged). However, on the side is a plaque with a quote from Samuel Pepys, which includes the same words. So perhaps it was Pepys who had bad grammar and the publican was being ironic.

We passed Bakers Hall, owned by the guild of bakers. When they used fire-heated bread ovens, they got it to temperature, then shoved a piece of elm across the opening, to keep the heat in. This was the “stop gap”. The underside of the loaf would be covered in ash, so that was sold cheaply to the poor. Only the rich could afford “the upper crust”.

We went to a small lane, called Lovats Lane (used to be called Lovers Lane). It was very narrow, and led away from Eastcheap (which is where the meat and fish were sold). ‘Cheap’ was the word for ‘exchange’, or a market. In the past, horse-drawn wagons would have used the lane, going from the river to the market. It would be difficult to pass as it was so narrow, and often the wheels would touch and get stuck. Sometimes though, they touched but managed to keep going, hence the saying, “touch and go”.

We walked down to the river, just below Monument (great tall monument which my son has walked past many times without ever noticing! It’s a monument to the great fire of London). Next to St Magnus the Martyr church, you can see the remains of previous London Bridges. There is a lump of wood which was from the original Roman London Bridge. There is the stone that replaced the wooden bridge, which was destroyed in 1014 when London was attacked, and gave rise to the song, “London Bridge is Falling Down”. There is also the stone from the bridge that was replaced in the 70s because it was too narrow. Apparently we sold it to a chap from Arizona who bought the wrong bridge, as he thought he was buying Tower Bridge. Easy mistake. I was quite surprised the current bridge has only been there since the 1970s, I had assumed it was older.

We walked towards St Paul’s Cathedral, passing other guildhalls on the way. All the guilds used to take part in the Lord Mayor’s Show each year. It was held on the Thames, hence each guild entered a “float”. Two of the guilds constantly argued about their position in the procession, so it was decided they would alternate each year between the places six and seven. Hence the saying, “at sixes and sevens”.

We came to Cheapside, which was where in the past you could buy a piglet. So it didn’t escape, it would be sold, wriggling, in a tied sack. Sometimes the dishonest farmer would substitute the pig, and you’d get home, open the sack, and find not a piglet but a cat. If you checked when at the market and opened the sack in the market, you would “let the cat out of the bag”.
During the reformation, Westminster Abbey, which was catholic, was emptied of everything valuable. At the time it was called St Peter’s. The poor people didn’t gain from this though, as all the icons were carried to the anglican church, which happened to be St Paul’s. Hence, they “robbed Peter to pay Paul”.

We went behind The Old Bailey, and peered through some gates to where you can see a wall, which is all that remains of Newgate Prison. Prisoners to be executed would have a last confession to a priest (called shrift), but as they were deemed to be going to Hell anyway, the priest wouldn’t waste too much time on them, so they would receive “short shrift”. They could then have one last drink in the pub on the way to the gallows – hence “one for the road”. The cart that carried them was called a lurch, hence you could be “left in the lurch”. Anyone who didn’t go into the pub to drink was left “on the wagon”.

There was one guy (name escapes me, I’ll call him James) who was stuck for a few years in the debtors prison. He got to know many of London’s criminals. When he was released, a new law was passed, increasing the penalty for buying stolen goods. This meant few people wanted to buy them, and the price went down. James figured that the people most likely to want to buy the stolen goods, were the people who had had them stolen. He therefore set up a system whereby, if you were robbed, you could go to James with a list of stolen goods and he would find them and sell them back to you. When the items were reunited with the owner, James put a cross next to the robber’s name. Sometimes James discovered a robber hadn’t been honest with him, and so instead of buying the goods and selling them back to the original owner, James would tell the police where to find the robber. When that happened, he put two crosses next to the robber’s name. Hence, the robber was “double crossed”. Eventually, James himself was caught and hanged. (But not hung, because he wasn’t a painting…..)

xxxxxx

Thank you for reading.

PS. The first of the young hens laid an egg this week. It was brown and speckled. She’s 4 months old now.

xxx

Instow: The Beach for Dog Lovers…

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We came for a mini break to Instow, near Bideford in Devon. It is, by far, the most dog friendly place I have ever visited. In fact, if you don’t like dogs, you will find this a difficult village to visit. We loved it.

We hired a cottage (through English Country Cottages) right next to the beach. We looked out, across the estuary, watching as the tide filled the bay and floated the boats, then went out again, leaving them stranded. When the tide was out, the expanse of hard sand was immense. Every dog owner in the world seemed to arrive – I never saw less than 20 dogs on the beach at any time. There were the early morning walkers (who tended to have annoying yappy little dogs) and the midday walkers with children. There were even ‘after dark’ walkers (they tended to have the big dogs).

Husband had brought his gym kit and persuaded me to bring mine. So we could go for runs along the beach. He has recently watched ‘Chariots of Fire’. I fear his image of young men training for the Olympics by running through sea spray was not going to match the reality of a couple over 50 staggering along, trying to avoid tripping on the dog lead. We never went.

Across the bay was Appledore, a pretty Devon village with cottages scattered up a hill. It looked like Toytown from our cottage. Bizarrely, although we could walk to fairly near it when the tide was out, the river was always too big to cross, so without a boat it was unreachable (unless you drove for miles to a bridge, I suppose).

Even the pubs and restaurants were dog-friendly. They also all displayed 5* hygiene ratings (when you feed the public, you start to take note of these things and avoid places with a low star rating.) We ate in a variety of pubs, all within Instow, all very friendly and with excellent menus. If you go in the summer, you probably need to book. We could even take the dog into the cafe on the front, as long as she sat quietly under the table.

Instow has quite a big military presence (as I discovered, if you read yesterday’s blog!) This is due to the US and British military using the Devon coastline to practice for the D-Day landings.

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Last Day in Delhi

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We walked to India Gate. Lots of families and school children were sitting on the grass, and taking photos. Street sellers had stalls of food and drink. Some men sat next to stoves and kettles, selling cups of chai (tea). Women walked through the tourists selling bangles. They were almost aggressive – at one point I realised a bracelet had been clipped to my wrist as I walked and she was negotiating the price!

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Walking is quite difficult for white tourists because the tuktuk drivers follow you, offering to take you. They don’t believe you want to walk. After a while, they drive to the end of the street, and offer again when you get there.

Near to the President’s Residence are roads of large bungalows. Each property had a guard on the gate and high walls topped with spikes – only the monkeys could climb over. The gardens were green – lawns and trees and shrubs (didn’t see any flowers.) It was lovely, but easy to be lonely if you lived there I expect, especially for the wives, it was very enclosed.

We saw more monkeys. There was a huge male sorting through the rubbish. We stopped to take his photo, but a man walking past told us we weren’t allowed to. Apparently we were in a military zone (though there were no signs up.) I like that in India, when we do things wrong, people tell us – they don’t shout or fine us, they just inform us we’ve done something wrong. (Shame though, it would’ve been a good photo.)

We went to Janpath Market. There were a mix of stalls in the street, and shop fronts with goods spilling into the road. At one point, everyone began to quickly collect together all their things and move them off the road. I thought perhaps a rainstorm was coming. They laughed, and told us that no, someone had spotted a policeman! Apparently, they are meant to keep all their items within the shop, they could be fined for displaying things on the street.

I wanted a photograph of a man frying potatoes, so asked his permission and offered him a few notes (bout 40p in value.) He laughed, and said no. When I walked away, a man rushed up, told me that the food man had changed his mind, then told the food man that he should accept. I have noticed things like this before in Delhi. There is a sort of ‘Mafia’ which runs everything. It isn’t necessarily sinister, but there is definitely an organisation that runs below the surface, mostly unnoticed by tourists. People who run the market, and will direct you towards certain stalls and find change if you have the wrong money. Or taxi drivers who only know the way to certain hotels. Or information offices, who tell you everything is shut except for certain places. It makes you feel slightly wary.

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I like India. Delhi has been very different to what we experienced a few years ago in Mumbai – it is less intense, fewer random people on the street touched us, there were very few children begging, the traffic seemed less chaotic (it mostly stayed on the road.) But both cities were busy, full of colour and decoration, and the people were polite. You feel that people TRY in India, even in the slums, they weren’t sitting back, waiting for aid, they were actively trying to survive.

The only thing I found really difficult, to the point I don’t think I could live in India, was the pollution. There was a thick haze everyday, and I found walking fast uncomfortable. It actually hurt to draw breath. I’m not sure what India is doing to address this, nor what part Europe and America play in causing it. But something needs to change. On our last morning, there was the Delhi half marathon. I looked online for the route, but mainly saw posts from medics, warning people to be careful if they wanted to run, and advising people with asthma or heart problems, to stay at home. I hope the air pollution can be sorted. Before it’s too late.

img_5440 img_5437 The round parliament building.

These white cars were everywhere!

img_5433 People enjoyed being on the grass, watching all the tourists.

img_5419 img_5418 Schoolgirls and street sellers

img_5411 img_5416 India Gate, inscribed with the names of martyrs.

 

xxxx

Thank you for reading.

You can follow my blog at: anneethompson.com

xxxxx

From Delhi to the Taj Mahal

If you like monuments, you should visit the Taj Mahal. If you like seeing different cultures and people, the drive to Agra is fascinating!

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Woke at 4am. The bed had jolted, so I assumed it was D returning (he sometimes wanders off at night, if he can’t sleep.) Sat up, and realised I was alone, then bed jolted again. Wondered if Delhi was having an earthquake. Located wandering husband and told him he should sit under table if there was an earthquake (which I know after doing online research following earth tremors when we were in Italy 2 years ago.) Husband looked at me as if I were mad. Went back to sleep.

Later, I looked online, and read that Delhi had felt tremors measuring 4.5 on Richter scale.

Car was booked for 7am. Arrived in lobby. Was told, “Yes sir, your car is ready. Please take a seat.” Waited for a while before driver actually appeared. I think, in India, it is considered polite to tell people what they want to hear. It is sometimes almost true.

Drove through Delhi traffic. This is a lot like dancing a tango, lots of tension and near-misses. Seat belts are a necessity. Drove on freeway to a toll booth. Everything completely stationary. Many people honked their horns (no idea why, but Indian drivers use their horns a LOT.) Several people got out of their cars and had a look around. Then the barriers opened, cars surged forwards, people ran back to their cars, avoiding all the lane changing traffic, we were off.

We drove through fields. Passed hundreds of chimneys in a brick making area. Passed green fields with neat crops, people working on ancient tractors or horse and carts. People walked with great sacks on their heads. When we left the freeway, the traffic became more eclectic. Oxen tethered on the back of a too-small truck, tractors pulling trailers stacked high with sacks, lorries with great mounds of grain. All the time bikes and motorbikes and tuktuks, weaving through the traffic, horns sounding.

The drive through Agra was another world. We crossed the wide Yamuna River. On the grassy banks oxen and donkeys grazed while people washed their laundry. Fields of linen were stretched out to dry in the sunshine. Pigs and goats wandered freely, while water birds floated on the river. In the town, the roads were a tumble of traffic, cows, people carrying sacks on their heads. And monkeys scampering across roof tops. I don’t know if the monkeys were introduced by people, perhaps one of the temples, but now they were everywhere. I didn’t entirely trust them when we walked around – they watched us with their clever eyes, darting behind walls then jumping up unexpectedly. It was us who were the novelty, the monkeys were comfortably free.

Left the car in the carpark at Taj Mahal. We had to leave bags in the car, though could take cameras and a handbag. Our ticket price included a bottle of water (which I didn’t trust enough to drink), a bus ride to the monument (though we could have walked, it wasn’t far) and shoe covers. If you don’t have shoe covers, you have to remove your shoes and leave them in an open cubbyhole.

The Taj Mahal is beautiful. Made of white marble, inlaid with precious stones that form floral patterns, surrounded by gardens and fountains. It is the tomb made for a loved wife of an historical ruler. She was the second wife (bit of an insult to the first wife) and she died giving birth to their fourteenth child (so I figure she deserved a nice tomb.) The entrance gate was engraved with an extract from the Koran, written in increasingly large letters as it got higher, so when standing on the ground, it all looks the same size. Clever.

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All the architecture and craftsmanship was clever. But for me, there was no atmosphere. Perhaps you need to be the only visitor. I would suggest that everyone should first visit Huymayun’s Tomb, so you appreciate how it is meant to feel. But the photos are pretty….

img_5409 Traffic at the toll booths.

img_5396 Lots of milk churns being carried as we drove into rural areas.

img_5390 p1100161 People washing laundry in the river.

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The Taj Mahal

 

Who helps the poor in Delhi?

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We visited the offices of Pardarshita. Pardarshita means ‘transparency’. They have partnered with Actionaid, and are striving for transparency within society. They want basic human rights for women and children in India. Although laws are in place to help people, in reality, many people are unable to claim their rights.

For food, poor people are given ration cards. In theory, there is a basic level of nutrition. However, the scheme is not adequately organised, so many people cannot access it. The same is true of pensions, education, health care. The main problem seems to be administration.

The charity runs workshops, informing women of their rights and helping them to access them. These include:
Enrolment in school for children.
Ration card.
‘Kerosine Free Delhi’ ( they can claim free LPG for cooking, if they have a ration card.)
Voter card (for elections.)
Pension
Birth Certificate.
Income certificate.

The people need to queue for many hours to obtain the above certificates, and they need the certificates to claim their rights. Or, some people pay for a counterfeit one (this apparently, is very common.)

The ration card is given to people ‘below the poverty line’. I think, whatever the country, this is always going to be a difficult one. Who are the ‘poor’ in England? They have far more than these people even dream of owning! Previously, in India, poverty was assessed by calorie intake. I think this seems an accurate guide (often, especially when people are subsistence farmers, the whole “less than a dollar a day” standard is meaningless, as they wouldn’t have anywhere to spend a dollar even if they had one. Money only works in Western countries as a guide to poverty, in my view.)

However, the last census in India took possessions into account. So, if a domestic worker had been given a television to watch, she was considered ‘not poor’. This allows the government to count fewer people as ‘poor’. Which means fewer people can claim their rights.

India has lots of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. If you are a Muslim and speak Bengali, people will assume you are an illegal immigrant, even if you’re not (in the slums, there were a lot of Bengali speaking Muslims.) They tend to have to bribe an official to be issued with an ID card. If you can prove you have lived in India for 10 years (so have documentation) you can then stay legally.

The rights of domestic workers is another issue. India is famous for cheap labour – everyone in the world wants to take advantage of this. Including Indians. So, most people, even ‘ordinary’ people have domestic staff. They are paid below the minimum wage (because no one checks) and are sometimes treated almost like slaves. No one really wants to change this, because no one wants to pay more for their own cleaner, child minder, cook…. The pay is about 2,000 rupees a month ($30) They are also very vulnerable to abuse. A rich person, with guards on his gate, sometimes feels he is above the law (remember, women have very few rights in India, and courts rarely rule in their favour.) There are some sad stories amongst the women in the slums.

All children have the right to free education in India. The quality of this education varies. We visited a school in a resettlement area. It was a bizarre experience.

We were shown into the headteacher’s office and given chairs to sit on. The chairs were dusty, and I felt I needed to keep moving my feet because as the headteacher (a sensible, intelligent, woman) spoke, mice scuttled about on the floor. Do mice run up trouser legs? I wasn’t sure, but didn’t feel especially relaxed.
The school had 2,000 pupils. There were 15 toilets (you can imagine what that means…) We were told the ratio of teacher to pupil was 1:70 (though actually, the classes we saw were much smaller than this.) The building is used three times during the day, two shifts in the morning and one in the afternoon (completely different head, staff and pupils attend each shift.) This makes for difficult administration when things like budgets are planned.

The women in the slums told us that by age 9, most children could only read very simple Hindi, so they questioned the point of them attending school. If children don’t attend school, they can help their parents, or care for younger siblings so their mother can work. The headteacher told us that teaching quality was variable, because many teachers were demotivated. Paid by the government, they put in the hours, but had no motivation to actually teach. They also are expected to do admin, such as ensure children have ID cards, which takes time, so teaching gets relegated. Another problem is that very few of the pupil’s parents could read or write, so there was no reinforcement at home. This is huge. In England, children take home a book every day, so they can practice at home. Without this, it is much harder for a child to learn to read, especially if their role models never read or write.

I found the school visit to be a rather depressing experience. The classes we glimpsed seemed completely unstimulating, even the rooms were drab, with nothing displayed. I might be judging unfairly – we only saw a glimpse; and I don’t like mice – but I’m not sure I would have bothered to attend that school. In the slum, we passed a house where a woman was reading to a whole room full of children. We were told it was ‘an education room’. It seemed much more child friendly than the school.

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Thank you for reading.

anneethompson.com

Into the slum….

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Today we went to the slums (which officially are illegal.) The resettlement areas, where the goverment have housed the poor people, were very poor. The slums are worse. Hard to get your head round the poverty, these people have nothing.

We left our bags in the charity office, though could take our cameras as people are used to the charity taking photos to use in campaigns for help. We left the lanes and walked into the slums. Unfinished buildings in haphazard places, sometimes so close together that it was like walking through a dark tunnel, a 2ft wide pathway with sewage in the open ditch next to you, fat electricity cables in a tangle above you. We had to walk in single file. The houses leant towards each other, there was almost no light, a foul smell, and children playing at the corners.

Their homes were a room in a concrete building, with a rug on the floor and a few possessions heaped into the corners. No furniture at all. It makes you feel a bit lost as to how they can best be helped.

We saw a woman through an open door, sitting on the floor, beating wet washing with a stick. We saw several groups of ‘rag pickers’. They have bought huge sacks of rubbish, which they then sort into bags of paper, plastic, metal. They can then sell this for a small profit. Whole families sat on the ground, sorting rubbish.

There was a park/children’s play area. A square of litter strewn hard earth surrounded on all sides by buildings. The charity had bought two climbing frames and children hung upside down from them, watching us walk. Three women sat in the corner on a dirty rug. They had bought a sack of nuts (300 rupees – £3) and were sorting the husks from the nuts. It would take them all day. They could sell the sack of sorted nuts for 400 rupees. It cost them 50 rupees in transport, so 50 rupees for a days work (about 60p).

Several buildings had electricity meters on them. The goverment had provided these, to try and prevent the fires breaking out, which were common. In the rainy season, the area floods, carrying the sewage and rubbish into the houses.

The area is home mainly to Bengali speaking Muslims. Some would be immigrants from Bangladesh, some were Hindu Indians. There was a Hindu/Muslim ‘temple’ – a room decorated with fairy lights and flowers and brightly painted pictures. It wouldn’t have been out of place in Vegas! It was a symbol of unity, showing that Hindu and Muslim people were tolerant of each other, trying to work together. It surprised and impressed me.

There is a huge bond between women. I felt exactly the same as the women we met, I kind of knew what they were saying as they showed us around. We had met them at the charity office, and now they were showing us where they lived. They hugged me when we left – I dont know why really, I didnt help them in any way, I just shared a tiny bit of their lives. But I think women recognise something inside of each other, a shared understanding that transcends culture or language or possessions. When I stroked their babies or they held my hand so I didnt trip near the open sewer, we were equal, the same. Not sure if I’m describing it properly, but I hope you know what I mean.

There were lots of children and lots of animals. Goats and dogs mainly, but a few birds too – even a dusty duck searching through the rubbish.  There were chickens, many to a wire cage, stacked on top of each other. You wouldn’t want to be a chicken in India.

The children were playing. They would be holding a stick, or a piece of rubbish, but you could see they were making up some story in their head. Or else they were teasing each other and laughing. They were, bizarrely, happy. They wanted us to photograph them, and punched the air in triumph when we took one! They were very funny.

So how can these people be helped? Tomorrow I will tell you about the school we visited, and what the charity is actually doing to improve the situation.

Thank you for reading.

anneethompson.com

p1100051 p1100058 The play area.

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Rag pickers, sorting the rubbish into type.

p1100065 The narrow lane –  like a foul smelling tunnel, so narrow it was almost dark.

p1100069 Piles of tar and litter and excrement, next to the open sewer.

p1100078 The women sorting nuts from husks. The husks can be burnt for cooking.

p1100087 Wherever we went, there were children playing.

p1100085 The Muslim/Hindu temple

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p1100093 Boys having a laugh.

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A rubbish tip – but if you look carefully, you can see the children playing. Barefooted.

xxxxx

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