Visited Madrid

Not long after returning from Sicily, my father and I visited Madrid from Friday 19 October to Monday 22 October. Because the flight from Dusseldorf to Madrid departed in the evening and the return flight on Monday also departed in the evening, it was three days in practice.

Saturday: El Escorial

The first thing we decided to do is visit El Escorial, a palace and monastery at 45 kilometers distance from Madrid. Getting there was not east for us. You have the option to take a bus, but we decided to take the train from Atocha station.

Two platforms (1 and 5 if I remember correctly) had descriptions that trains to El Escorial left there, but after a long wait on platform 1 we figured out they depart from platform 5. The information on which train would leave when and where wasn’t provided well. But after a delay of more than an hour we finally got our train.

The train isn’t fast because it makes quite a few stops, but it’s very scenic route along the countryside outside Madrid. When you get out in San Lorenzo de El Escorial you can take a bus to the palace, but it’s not necessary as the distance isn’t long and the bus stops at a notable distance from the place anyway.

The visit to El Escorial (on the route we took) starts off with seeing a few paintings (the best stuff was moved to other museum such as the El Prado if I recall correctly) and some relatively plain rooms. Later on I was very impressed when I saw the larger rooms with lavish decorations and the pantheon with the royal graves. Later on we also noticed some more memorable paintings, but I’m not sure what the name of that room was. The library amazes with all its frescoes.

Later on we entered the basilica. As I tried to take a photo of the dome (without a flash) I was asked not to take pictures. This made me wonder why museums make up such rules. While the rule seems very strange if it concerns a photo of the undecorated dome without using a flash, I can imagine how it’s relevant for paintings, mosaics and frescoes. But even then it’s only the flash which is harmful according to this source. However, there is also evidence to the contrary that flashes have no negative effect.

My conclusion is that it’s definitely worth a visit. When we got back to Madrid with the train most of the other interesting places had closed, so we walked around a bit from the Parque del Oeste to the center of Madrid. If we hadn’t been delayed because we missed several trains we might have had more time to visit other places later during the day.

Sunday: Museo del Prado

This was a rainy day, so it was convenient we had reserved this day for the museums. The other days had better weather, but even so the irony was that on Monday the Netherlands had a record temperature of 21,8 ℃ while in Madrid the temperature was around 15 ℃. Climate change I guess?

The Prado museum was our first stop. For me this was the high point of the whole trip, so many of the best paintings concentrated in one museum. Besides all the Spanish and Italian artists it also possesses many paintings from the Low Countries. We spent at least half the day here and it was totally worth it, the museum is on par with the Louvre and British Museum if you ask me.

Later that day we visited the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, it has a few nice paintings as well but most of it was not very interesting. That’s what you get if you’re spoiled by all the beauty of the Museo del Prado.

Monday: Palacio Real

The first stop of this day was the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. This is a modern art museum notable for having Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica in its collection. It is definitely worth seeing, just like some of the paintings by Salvador Dalí which are exhibited there as well, but the rest of the museum failed to capture my interest. By the time we had reached the third floor we were just quickly walking through every room, giving every work of art no more than a gaze lasting for two seconds.

We went in expecting to see the whole museum as usual because it would be worth it, but in the end we felt no more than the compulsion to get the maximum value out of the entrance fees we paid. We gave in to our disinterest because there simply was no value for us in seeing the rest of the collection, and we didn’t bother to see what was on the fourth floor. Why does 95% of all modern art suck?

Next on the list was the Palacio Real. This royal palace more than compensated for our slight disappointment in the previous museum. We had to wait for the entrance for a while, but the line was not as long as when we had visited Versailles in Paris. The Palacio Real is able to compete with Versailles if you ask me, with a floor area twice as much as that palace. It is huge and has very intensively decorated rooms. It has a very interesting collection of early modern period armor, weapons and firearms.

Opposite the entrance of the palace is the entrance of the Almudena Cathedral. The interior is not notable, but it does allow for a climb to the top of the dome, which offers a good view of Madrid’s center. After all this we wanted to visit one last museum, the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, but this archaeological museum was closed for restoration. This is something which is mentioned on the museum’s (Spanish only) website, but not in its Wikipedia entry.

Before we went to the airport, we saw the Parque del Buen Retiro. I’m jealous we don’t have such amazing parks so close to the center in most Dutch cities. And Madrid has many other large parks such the Parque del Oeste I mentioned earlier, and the Casa de Campo. I like that Madrid is not a city which is built very dense and that some parts of its center resemble Paris with its wide avenues. The subway network is well developed, too.

Reflections on my trip to Sicily

I reasonably enjoyed my trip to Sicily, but at the same time I think it could have been better. Using the bus to visit the larger cities worked well, but primarily dedicating the travel plan to the larger cities left something to be desired. I was jealous of other tourists I met and who described to me how they found very nice deserted beaches with their car. It was a bit frustrating that I couldn’t easily get to the beach to take a swim after a hot day.

While the large cities certainly have some interesting sights, it was unfortunate that I didn’t see more of the countryside. And some sights such as Mount Etna weren’t worth it. While I did manage to travel on a budget and spent no more than € 700 in total, I would have spend less if I had been hosted by Couch Surfers.

It would have been better to travel in company, with another person I would have paid less per person if we would have chosen rooms for two persons. Besides saving money, being hosted by Couch Surfers would have made the trip a lot more enjoyable, which is even more important.

The next time I’d visit Sicily I would hire a car and avoid these pitfalls. And there will be a next time, because there so much more places I want to see, such as Selinunte, Erice, Segesta, Gela, Taormina, Messina, Val di Noto and more.

Now, I have some more things to say on the Sicilian food, public transport and couch surfing so that other travelers might profit from my advice.

Food

As I was on a budget I decided to spend no more than € 20 for dinner. I could order two or three dishes for that in almost every cheap restaurant I’ve been to. After dinner I liked to sample some Italian ice cream, so I often spent a bit more than my budget each night.

Breakfast was included with my stay in a B&B, hostel or hotel most of the time. When it was not, I often visited a ‘panineria’ or other small fast food establishment where you can buy a panino or a pizza slice for € 2 or € 3 usually. But a much cheaper and better solution is to buy fruit at the fruit and vegetable stalls near the road.

I loved the peaches and grapes they sell. You can buy a branch of grapes and maybe a peach as well for less than € 1. Of course you would have to wash the fruit yourself if you desire so, but I ate them right away. Maybe out of a desire to test my constitution after my food poisoning disaster in Nepal. Apparently the fruit was not sufficiently contaminated or my immune system is adequately strong as nothing happened to me yet.

There are a few specific dishes I’ve tasted which I liked a lot. Spaghetti alla Siciliana and Pasta alla Norma are nice vegetarian pasta dishes, with a good tomato sauce and covered with grated cheese heavily contributing to the taste. The Insalata di Arance e Cipolle, or salad of oranges and onions, was an unusual combination for me, but tasted good. The prickly pear is the fruit of a cactus you can frequently see growing in the wild in Sicly. It’s a sweet fruit somewhat reminiscent of a pear and a plum with some large (edible) seeds.

The Sicilian cuisine is famous for its sweets. Cannoli is a delicious Sicilian sweet snack which everyone visiting Sicily should try. Granita is a very nice type of frozen dessert. Because it is water-based instead of cream-based I guess it is healthier as well, even though it still uses a lot of sugar.

There were also a few dishes which I didn’t like, possibly more due to the ingredients used for them than the quality of their preparation. The Sicilian pizza has a topping which consists of beaten egg, which tasted really strange. The Napolitan pizza (like many other kinds of pizza) is topped with anchovy, which is way too salty for my taste.

To find restaurants I had variable tactics, I followed recommendations of Lonely Planet and the hosts of the places where I slept and walked around myself to find places which had a good menu. Some of the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet were nice, such as Trattoria Manhattan in Agrigento and Toto in Piazza Armerina. However, Casa del Brodo in Palermo had a bad price to quality ratio.

The best restaurant I’ve been to is the trattoria De Fiore in Catania, which was recommended to me by the owner of the hotel where I stayed. Not only is the food great but it’s cheap as well. I’ve photographed their entire menu so I can imitate their dishes at home.

Now that I’m back home I’m curious to figure out if there are Italian restaurants close to my place which can serve the same dishes as I ate in Sicily and match the quality of the Sicilian restaurants. Judging from their menu, I should probably try La Grotta in Utrecht. I haven’t been able to discover any other restaurant in Utrecht yet which has Spaghetti alla Norma on their menu.

Public transport

After spending a lot of time and getting advice from a Sicilian I know from my master’s program I figured out how to travel through Sicily with public transport. First you have to know which bus companies operate where, and the Lonely Planet guide is not helpful at all with that. That’s why I mention the relevant bus companies here: Salvatore Lumia, SAIS Trasporti, Salemi and Interbus. I’ve travelled with all of them.

Another problem is that Italy doesn’t have the equivalent of the Dutch 9292.nl website which allows you to plan a trip from door to door with all public transport companies. All the bus companies operating in Sicily have their own website which is in Italian. Only Interbus thought it would be adequate to include a link to automatically translate their website through Google Translate, which it is not of course.

Even so, using the bus worked well for me. I only had minor problems twice, a strike during my stay in Agrigento and the bus from Palermo to Monreale which was slightly delayed. The bus tickets for the longer trips cost me € 10 on average, so I probably spent a bit more than € 100 on bus tickets. Cheaper than hiring a car and paying for petrol, but with more persons the balance would shift more in favor of the latter.

More importantly, a car would have given me more freedom to go to the remote places which are barely served by the bus companies. I would have preferred to find more beaches and see more of the countryside. Even if I had a car I would still use some public transport though, you definitely don’t want to go to Palermo with a car.

Couch Surfing

It was the first time for me to use CouchSurfing in order to get hosted by locals in Sicily. Unfortunately it was an abject failure. I didn’t expect to find a host in every place I’d visit, but I was surprised to find none at all.

Of my couch requests, 14 are still unanswered (even after more than 10 days now), 7 were declined and 3 I canceled myself because they were on very short notice. I sent everyone a personal message explaining why I’d like to meet them. I fully understand hosts who decline a request, but if you don’t bother to respond to your requests at all then why is do you still indicate you can host on the CS website?

I did meet a lot of people to chat with when I waited for or traveled with the bus, in restaurants and hotels. They included the British, Americans, Germans and Russians. That was a nice experience, but it can’t compare with meeting locals through Couch Surfing.

My tour of Sicily’s large cities and World Heritage

On 1 October I departed for Sicily for a nine day visit. The choice for Sicily was motivated by two reasons. The first was that a return ticket from Eindhoven to Trapani with Ryanair cost me € 50, which was convenient as I didn’t want to spend much money. As a consequence I decided to travel through Sicily with public transport. The second was that Sicily contains a lot of sights related to Classical Antiquity, which interests me much as a historian. This first post contains the day to day travel report, a second post discussing other matters follows.

Day 1 and 2: Agrigento

After arriving at Trapani Birgi airport I took a bus all the way to Agrigento. It’s a long trip because the bus makes quite a few stops along an indirect route, but this didn’t bother me. The bus rides offer a nice opportunity to see the unspoiled countryside with its agriculture, hills and mountains.

Modern Agrigento was built on a hill, a few kilometers away from the Valle di Templi (not actually a valley) at a lower elevation. After arriving I walked around the center a bit, which doesn’t have anything interesting to offer, determined to get to the Valle di Templi on the second day.

On the second day I bought a bus ticket at the central bus station, but the guy behind the counter failed to tell me that there was a strike that day, either deliberately or unknowingly. Fortunately the bus tickets cost me no more than € 2 or € 3. I finally figured out why the bus wasn’t coming after asking around and decided to walk.

Walking that distance proved to be very detrimental to the rest of my vacation. I might have walked 15 kilometers or more that day, but the real problem were my shoes. Maybe they weren’t the best choice for traveling long distance in the first place, but as they had just been repaired they weren’t very flexible. The end result was blisters, as of day 10 my left foot still hurts constantly. Buying thong slippers (couldn’t find normal slippers in my size) in Siracusa did not reduce the discomfort.

The Valle di Templi was one of the first places which made me question if physically visiting the place provided added value over looking up photos of the temples on the Internet. The temples are an impressive sight to be sure, but you can only view them from a short distance. Not that I wanted to enter their interior, there is simply not much to see there as that was not preserved. You walk around them for a bit, make some photos and move on, no more.

Between the temples and Agrigento you can find the Museo Archeologico Regionale. I liked this more than the temples themselves, the well preserved Greek painted pottery is much more fascinating art than the temples which, even if they are in a relatively good state compared to most other temples, are merely shadows of their former glory.

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Day 3 and 4: Siracusa

If you think they’re right to do this, my friend, I suppose you disapprove of Syracusan rations and the wide variety of savories that can be found in Sicily.

Socrates speaking to Glaucon, Politeia 404d.

I’m sure Glaucon would have disapproved of the Siracusan mosquitos as well. The LoL Hostel where I was staying was really nice, but somehow it was the only place I visited which was infested with mosquitos. I got bitten like twenty times all over my arms and it itched terribly.

The archeological park of Siracusa contains the ruins of a Roman theater and a Greek theater. While both are impressive sights, you could just as well look at their photos on the Internet. The ear of Dionysus is just a very short cave which is not worth your time, closer to home in Belgium or France there are many caves which actually are worth a visit.

The Necropolis of Pantalica is a part of Siracusa’s inscription as a World Heritage site, but those are located further outside of Siracusa. I did not get to see them because I didn’t figure out how to get there. Apparently it’s not possible to get there with a bus.

I rate the crypts of the Basilica di San Giovanni and the Museo Archeologico Paolo Orsi as the most interesting sights in the city. I had never seen anything like the extensive network of crypts before, which are visited through a nice guided tour. The archeological museum is very large and also has plenty of beautiful painted Greek pottery.

Finally I went to the beach of Fontane Bianche, a short bus ride away from the Siracusa’s central station. I’m envious of the clear blue waters and the absence of nasty jellyfish, two things the North Sea doesn’t offer.

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Day 5 and 6: Catania

Originally I intended to stay in Catania for one day and visit Mount Etna, but it soon turned out that the only way to get to Etna with public transport was a bus which leaves early in the morning. Because I had never visited a volcano before in my life I decided to extend my stay in Catania with one day.

The rest of day 5 I walked around in the center of Catania. The Greek theater is worth a visit, as is the botanical garden. The Catania Cathedral was apparently not open during the afternoon, which was strange. I had the impression there was not much else which was interesting.

In the morning of day 6 I took the bus to Rifugio Sapienza, where you can take a cable car to the top of Mount Etna. You can walk instead of taking the cable car, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I paid € 60,50 for the cable car, the minibuses taking you to highest point near the top and a guided tour. If I wouldn’t have had blisters and bad shoes, I would have walked all the way instead of paying so much.

At the last stop before the top everyone got a short guided tour around two boring craters with some steam coming out of them. The highest craters were visible from that point, but going any higher was prohibited. As no one enforced this rule, many people went slightly higher up anyway. Going all the way to the craters at the top yourself didn’t seem possible to me without equipment to climb them and I saw no one else doing it.

What I did do was following a trail and some other people taking it, to end up at a stream of dried lava. At some distance from the path I could see a heat haze of rising hot air, so I believe the warning that you should watch your step. From that point I went downhill alone to the cable car on foot. At some places you sink into the gravel on the slopes, so expect to throw it out of your shoes.

My conclusion was that Etna was simply not worth the time and money. If you want to see Etna just look up some of the videos and photos of the volcano and its eruptions on the net, that’s a more satisfying option. In retrospect it would have been better to spend that time on swimming, diving or snorkeling.

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Day 7: Piazza Armerina

On day 7, Sunday, the first bus to Piazza Armerina would depart later at 12:30. Because I couldn’t think of anything else to do and wasn’t keen on walking with the state my feet were in, I decided to wait for two to three hours at the bus station. When I got out of the bus in Piazza Armerina there still were some kilometers to cover to get to the Villa Romana del Casale, the most important sight in the vicinity of the town.

Fortunately a group of four Russians also needed to go there. We decided to share a taxi, so the fee was only € 10 for a round trip. The villa is one of the best sights I saw in Sicily. The individual mosaics are amazing, but what is even more amazing is that the whole villa had mosaics on practically every floor. Not surprisingly, the owner was likely quite rich.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to see more of Piazza Armerina itself, by the time I got back it was getting late and after having dinner the cathedral of the town was closed. The next morning I had to take an early bus to Palermo. It’s a pity, because Piazza Armerina is the most authentic Sicilian village I have seen. And B&B Giucalem was certainly the best bed & breakfast I encountered in Sicily, with very hospitable owners.

Day 8 and 9: Palermo

The first things I noticed when I walked out of Palermo’s central station are that it’s a city with a lot of traffic jams, stench, trash and dog shit in its center. A rude awakening after coming from Pizza Armerina. The sights are worth it though, the Palazzo Normanni with the Capella Palatina and the Cathedral of Monreale are stunningly beautiful. Just about every square meter of their interiors is meticulously decorated.

The free city map of the center alone counts around fifty churches in the legend. A few of those are certainly worth a visit, such as the Chiesa di Santa Caterina. Unfortunatly the museum which I would have wanted to visit, the Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, was closed for renovation.

I conclude that instead of getting a hotel in the center of Palermo like me, it might be a better idea to look for a nice place to sleep in the outskirts of Palermo or farther away and take a bus to the center.

Day 10: Trapani Birgi Aiport

I arrived at the airport on day 9 around 18:30, but my flight back to the Netherlands would leave at 6:30 on day 10. I was lazy and didn’t want to spend more money. I also thought it would be difficult and expensive to arrange for a place to sleep in Trapani and then leave very early with a taxi to the airport (assuming the bus doesn’t go so early).

So I spent the night without sleep on the airport, which allowed me the time to write this post and make some progress with reading Politeia. Now that I’m back I miss the nice weather, but on the other hand it’s convenient that I’m no longer sweating constantly.

Visited the Desktop Summit 2011 in Berlin

A year ago I visited the GUADEC in the Hague. This year however GNOME and KDE decided to join forces for the second time in organising their conferences, and organised the Desktop Summit as a joint conference for both organisations in Berlin this year. Berlin is relatively close by for me, so I decided to take the train to Berlin to visit the conference. I decided to stay only for three days because the conference started with three days of presentations, for the rest of the week the programme provided for opportunities for contributors to collaborate on the work they do. That part was not interesting for me because I work on the Commit Digest and we don’t have much to discuss. I did meet one other person who also works on the Commit Digest, Marta Rybczyńska, on the conference however. It’s good to meet the person behind the name appearing on the messages received through the mailing list we use to collaborate on the Digest for the first time. Unfortunately others working with us were not there, but I hope to meet them on a future conference, the GUADEC/Akademy/Desktop Summit are held every year.

The journey with the train takes around six to seven hours from Utrecht Centraal to Berlin Hauptbahnhof. I was annoyed by the expense of a ticket, the cheapest return ticket cost me € 128. Yes, a car would have been more expensive, but a flight from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to Berlin was just a few euros more expensive. In my mind I can’t justify paying more for a train journey than a flight because the train is much slower and should have lower operating cost. Another Dutch KDE contributor I met at my hotel. Niels Slot, lives in Amstelveen close to Schiphol and decided to take a flight. When I went to visit London discounts for the train were not available so a ticket for the train was much more expensive than a flight. We decided to take a flight to London so we could get there a lot faster and cheaper. The pricing of train tickets should get back in touch with reality. Once I was in Berlin I started to miss the Dutch OV-chipkaart and London’s Oyster Card, but other than that Berlin’s rapid transit system works nicely and fast.

First I went to my hotel south of Berlin’s centre. I had booked a dormitory for € 11 a night because I thought the train ticket was expensive enough already. This dormitory had eight beds and it turned out that my roommates were four French women, probably a few years younger than me. I didn’t talk with them much and they were okay, except for the mess they made and their sleeping habits which were a total opposite of mine. Their belongings were spread all over the floor instead of in a locker, so I had to watch out for stepping on one of their bags. They were probably partying all night long and would go to sleep at 7:00 in the morning when I woke up. Later they were joined by two other French women, they had a normal sleeping pattern and they studied Archaeology so we had a lot to talk about. Seems like I’m a lucky man to receive such company again after my experience in Nepal. The last roommate was another guy, when we talked for a bit he turned out to be a Kubuntu user just like me .

After dumping my stuff in the room I went to the centre of the city again, to the museum island where the Pergamon Museum was to be found. Besides this museum I wanted to see more of Berlin, but it turned out there was not enough time for that, so I’ll return to Berlin another time for a proper visit. The Pergamon Museum was certainly worth my time, the very large structures rebuilt in the museum were amazing. After the museum I went to the pre-registration event and party.

The three days of conference were great, lots of interesting presentations, and because four presentations are often held concurrently I hope to download some of the video recordings of the presentations I have missed soon. Especially the presentations on the third day in room 3038 interested me because those focused on the usage of free software by large organisations. I think that subject is important because free software has a lot to gain in adoption there, it’s very important for expanding the market share of free software. I especially liked the presentation of Gijs Hillenius which had the adoption of free software by public administrations in the EU as it’s subject. The notion that interoperability is not as important as a reason to switch to free software, but that instead the greatest advantage is that free software enables vendor independence is noteworthy. On the other end the presentation delivered by Thomas Thwaites was one of the funniest I’ve seen for a long time. Apparently in some presentation related to GNOME which I didn’t witness a Downfall parody was shown making fun of the transition from GNOME 2 tot version 3. This caused quite a stir, personally I wouldn’t have done it, certainly not considering the conference was in Berlin, but I think the parody is quite funny.

I was present at the presentation about Marble. I had read about the search for voice actors to make native language voice commands available for Marble before visiting the conference. I expected that with so many Dutch people contributing to KDE that some would soon record their voice and submit it, but during the presentation I learned that a Dutch voice was still missing. The reason I didn’t volunteer in the first place is because I think that my voice isn’t pleasant to hear at all. When I hear a recording of my own voice I even think it’s a horror to my ears, but that might be because many people are inclined to dislike their own recorded voice. Anyway, I thought my Dutch voice is better than no Dutch voice at all. At the Desktop Summit Torsten Rahn, who gave the presentation on Marble, had arranged for a recording room. So together with some people speaking other languages I recorded my voice. I think my performance could have been better, because I tended to employ an undesirable emphasis in my voice commands when I did it for the purpose of recording them repetitively instead of speaking the sentences as a part of a normal conversation. Now all I need is a smartphone running Meego (possibly the N9) and a future version of Marble running on it to enjoy hearing my own voice commands.

Visited London

I visited London before when I was around twelve years old, which is twelve years ago now. I visited London again a month ago with my father just like then, he likes to do city trips as well. Back then I visited the most popular places of interest, such as Buckingham Palace, the Palace of Westminster, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London. When I started studying History I learned about the British Museum and it’s location in London much later and I was anxious to visit London again to see it. So we decided to catch a flight on Thursday the 14th of July and return home again on Sunday the 17th of July. Effectively this amounted to a stay of three days, because of the flights the day of arrival and the day of departure count for half. I would have preferred a longer stay, but that was not possible for my father. With today’s knowledge of hindsight I’m glad we visited before London was broken down by rioters. We visited the following places:

  • Thu 14th: Kew Gardens
  • Fri 15th: Hampton Court Palace and the British Museum
  • Sat 16th: Canterbury Cathedral and Canterbury Roman Museum
  • Sun 17th: British Museum

I had never heard about the Kew Gardens before I started planning the trip. I noticed it when I was searching Wikipedia for UNESCO World Heritage sites the United Kingdom. It’s easily reached with the subway. We expected that we could see everything in a two hours or so, but it took us a whole afternoon because it was far larger than expected. The Kew Gardens probably have the greatest variety of flora I witnessed in a single place. Because of the greenhouses they can even grow tropical plants. They even have sequoias which I witnessed in their native habitat in California during my holiday in the USA. The state of the greenhouses, built in the 19th century, shows that it’s not easy to keep it well maintained. We were fortunate to experience nice weather with sunlight during our visit, we were not so fortunate during the rest of our stay, especially with all the rainfall in Canterbury. While it’s a beautiful place, I think Japanese gardens would be even better, judging from the photos seen on the Wikipedia article covering those. I’d highly recommend Kew Gardens for a visit to anyone going to London.

The Hampton Court Palace requires a train ride. I expected to visit a palace which remained close to the state in which it was originally constructed, but after reading the Wikipedia article I learned that it saw quite a lot of change in later centuries. Most of the interior wasn’t what I expected it to be, it didn’t look, how should I put it, authentic? That is with the exception of the Chapel Royal of course, which is gorgeous. The kitchens were very interesting by contrast, those did look authentic and they even had a huge fireplace in operation. The the very large and old grapevine was also remarkable. I like the elaborate chimney designs characteristic of the Tudor architecture which can be seen at the Palace.

Then we went back to the centre of London to visit the British Museum. The afternoon wasn’t enough to see everything in the museum, so we later visited again on Sunday morning, but even then I had to rush through the museum at the end to see a large amount of the remaining exhibits. There is a lot to see and it will take a long time, especially if you like to read a lot about what you’re seeing like me. One of the highlights of the collection are the Elgin Marbles. In the explanatory text the Museum emphasizes that Lord Elgin was such a nice guy to save these marbles, which come from the Parthenon in Athens, from vandalism. While I agree with that to a certain extent, what’s important is that Greece was at that time occupied by the Ottoman Empire. I think they should be returned to Greece considering the current situation. While the Elgin Marbles may have been acquired in an honest way just like many other works of art, we wondering how much of the art was robbed during the days of the British Empire. A good example of that would probably be the Koh-i-Noor. The Parthenon Marbles are certainly one of the most beautiful sights in the museum, but they were also slightly disappointing because they are so damaged. Some of my favourites are in the rooms showing Assyrian art, specifically the siege of Lachish and the hunt of the lions and onagers. My favourite Egyptian art would be Nebamun hunting in the marshes, because it so colourful. The East and South(east) Asian art present in the British Museum wasn’t as good as the collection I had seen in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco however, possibly because I became spoiled after seeing all the beautiful jade objects there. I also spent a lot of time looking at the Greek pottery at the Museum, it has a large collection of those.

On Saturday, the last complete day, we went to Canterbury with the train. Canterbury Cathedral is another UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s well deserved. Even on such a rainy day there were still a lot of visitors. The cathedral is massive, with plenty of decoration on the walls and with a lot of stained glass. The Roman Museum in Canterbury is a small museum which is not spectacular when it comes to it’s collection but which still manages to give an interesting reconstruction of what Roman Canterbury had been like.

We were staying in a hotel in Tooting which is south of London’s centre, close to the subway station Tooting Broadway so that we would be able to travel to centre of London fast. It cost us £ 160 for three nights including breakfast, which was cheap compared to other hotels. But wasn’t exactly a hotel, it was an ordinary house repurposed to house temporary occupants. Bathrooms and a living room had to be shared with other guests and the house also had a kitchen. Other guests included Indian expatriates, a British and an Australian couple who were tourists too. It was nice to have a short chat with these people and our stay was satisfactory. One night we were disturbed however when the loud lovemaking of the Australians woke us up. Since then my father tells about this incident to everyone when he talks about our visit to London. He does this with so much enthusiasm and employs a comparison with the grunting done during tennis matches which cracks up those listening to his story time and time again.

While the hotels in London are expensive – London is one of the most expensive cities to live in – the restaurants are relatively cheap. The first restaurant we visited in the neighbourhood was Sree Krishna. This restaurant serves nice food but the personnel was not interested in us at all and I couldn’t understand their English when they gave an explanation about the dishes when I asked. Another restaurant called Radha Krishna is closer to the subway station and had more hospitable personnel and better food. What I liked about these restaurants is that main dishes are priced at less than £ 5. The Netherlands doesn’t have as many Indian restaurants, and a good one in Utrecht charges € 15 on average for a main dish. Most Indian restaurants I know of in the Netherlands focus on North Indian cuisine, while the two restaurants in London are South Indian. Sure, they also had a lot of North Indian dishes on the menu, but it was very interesting to taste those South Indian dishes which we don’t find in the Indian restaurants in the Netherlands. I’m impressed by the use of coconuts in South Indian cuisine. These two restaurants also had a lot more vegetarian options than in the Netherlands where Indian restaurants tend to have menus leaning more towards meat dishes. We also ate at an Italian pizza restaurant called Franco Manca in Brixton after reading a recommendation in the blogosphere. Don’t be scared off by it’s location next to a fishmarket, the food is worth it.

Volunteering in Nepal: the evaluation

At this moment I’m back in the Netherlands, it’s great to be back after two months, after being away for so long I appreciate the luxuries we enjoy in the Netherlands much more because I’ve learned not to take them for granted. Overall, I think the two months I spent in Nepal as a volunteer were a great experience. I have evaluated what I think was good and what was bad. Because this was such a valuable experience I have intentions to work as a volunteer again when I have finished my master’s degree. I shall describe how I’m going to approach the next time I will be doing volunteer work. But first let’s mention the good and bad experiences.

The good:

  • I went outside my comfort zone and got the culture shock I was looking for, I responded to this well and that was exactly what I hoped for. I’ve never been away from home for so long without my parents, nor did I visit Asia before. I gained some valuable experience in life.
  • While it was only possible for me to teach English at a school for a little bit more than a week, I managed to keep a positive attitude and adapted and improvised succesfully.
  • I met a massive amount of new friends, mostly other volunteers but also Nepalis.
  • I’m careful not to generalize, but other volunteers and I think that the Nepali people are very hospitable. While you have people like that in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the West as well, I think it’s less common.
  • The shalwar kameez is an item of clothing which is very colourful and nicely decorated. The photos shown in the Wikipedia article don’t do it justice, but I thought it looks better than Western fashion.
  • AIESEC dismissed me for the reason that they didn’t expect me to possess enough independence. The irony is that working as a volunteer here probably demanded more independence than any internship offered by AIESEC. Teaching children (and adults) English was something I completely had to figure out for myself for example.
  • Maybe this subject is a bit odd compared with the other ones, but I felt I should mention it. In Nepal squat toilets are used most often, which provide several advantages over Western toilets, even if you need to get used to squatting for longer periods of time as a Western person. Another great difference is that, like in many parts of Asia, the left hand is used to clean the nether regions with water after using the bathroom, toilet paper isn’t used like in most of the Western world. This is also why the Nepali eat only with their right hand (cutlery is not used to eat). I liked to use water to clean because toilet paper is not so effective or hygienic, but using the hand to do this might be objectionable for Westerners. I think bidets, health faucets or Japanese toilets are a good compromise in this regard. We should be using these in the Netherlands too.

I did some things I thought I would never do any time soon and experiences I had for the first time in my life, including:

  • Giving English classes to these children all alone with a reasonable degree of success, even if it was only for a little bit more than a week. I expected to be asked to assist a Nepali teacher, certainly on my first day. I insisted that I would assist Collin first for a few days because he had some experience so that I could learn from him before I started teaching classes on my own.
  • Another first and unexpected experience was singing songs with children at school as a method to teach them English.
  • Reading fairy tales to the children at the foster home and orphanage, taking them to the park to play with them. I never saw myself working with children because I don’t like doing it, but I did so succesfully and with satisfaction.
  • It was great to walk through Pepsi Cola and have kids from school who I taught notice me and call ‘Hello Alexander!’.
  • I’m a bit ashamed to mention it, but using an iron on my shirts was a first experience for me too. I did live on my own for a year when I studied in Rotterdam, but my mother told me I could take my laundry back home during the weekends so she could wash and iron it for me.
  • Doing rafting and paragliding.

The bad:

  • VSN didn’t inform me of the longest school holiday taking place during the length of my stay, even though I communicated the length and purpose of my stay three weeks in advance. Hopefully VSN can prevent this from happening to volunteers in the future after mentioning this in the feedback I gave to them.
  • Nepalis like to spit, in a very loud manner. I almost get idea that they deliberately want to simulate sounds which are as disgusting at possible, similar to puking, for no reason. If I spit toothpaste after brushing my teeth for example, I have no difficulty doing it silently. I don’t get why anyone would need to spit out the slime from their mouth anyways, I never feel the need to do it. Sporadically a person was spitting while I was talking with him/her, which is even more disturbing.
  • Another annoyance I have as a Western person is that Nepalis don’t bother to keep their lips sealed when they chew their food. This produces some unpleasant noise.
  • Pollution is almost everywhere and they don’t care much about the environment. This includes waste lying scattered almost everywhere and some trucks which are like moving chimneys.
  • Dogs and mosquitos seriously disturbing your sleep, depending on where you stay.
  • I was properly prepared for Kathmandu’s colder nights with warm clothes, but insufficiently for the warm daytime temperatures and the warmer climate in Pokhara. I had only one shirt with short sleeves and many shirts required ironing. I should have taken along more shirts or t-shirts which have short sleeves and don’t require inconvenient ironing.

When I finish my master’s degree, which is in one and a half year, I intend to visit India both as a tourist and a volunteer. I came here to Nepal with the intention to work strictly as a volunteer, and encountered many volunteers which combine their work with holiday. They have visited more interesting places such as Chitwan and done more interesting activities such as trekking than me, and also combined their stay in Nepal with trips to other countries in Asia. I decided against this because I was on a budget and intended to work strictly as a volunteer. I probably spent € 200 or € 300 maximum during my stay when I exclude my flight ticket, the fee for VSN and money spent on charity. When I’d visit India I’d reserve a few thousand Euros for all expenses I’d make.

I decided on India because of my cultural and culinary interest in that country. Also, because Nepali is so similar to Hindi, I would have an easier time learning Hindi. While VSN did give me a language course for five mornings, my level of proficiency in Nepali is still very basic. After that I could learn from the book provided for the language course, but I didn’t invest much time in this because I wasn’t motivated to so. That’s why I want to follow a course in Hindi in the Netherlands before I would visit India.

I hope I could be doing the same over there as I did in Nepal, teaching English. Probably in the more remote villages or slums where there is a need for it, because India is more developed and in general has better education than Nepal.

Volunteering in Nepal: last days in Pokhara

After taking the cooking classes and teaching English at the second private school for three days, I decided to quit learning and teaching there. I already gave an indication of my reasons for doing so in my previous post.

The first dish and food item which was taught in the cooking clas was Palak Paneer and naan, which were quite interesting. I like Palak Paneer and was interested to see how they made it, and I never knew a method for making naans is to stick them to the interior wall of a tandoor. The recipe book they used was in Nepali, and while the cook commented on the recipe in English specially for me, I didn’t take much note of it. The recipe, albeit probably a little bit different, can always be found on the Internet, I just wanted to see how it’s done.

Unfortunately during the second and third day it wasn’t interesting anymore as they taught how to make dishes which didn’t capture my interest at all. Almost all of them were quite unhealthy with either lots of sugar, oil or deep frying, so I probably wouldn’t make those at home. And if they were not unhealthy they would be Chinese dishes with noodles, not my favorite either. I had the wrong expectations, I expected to learn more about Indian food, but they teach Continental, Chinese and Indian to their cooks in training.

I thought that they, being experienced cooks, would also make interesting food for themselves to eat for lunch and dinner. I was around there all day and in return for my services in assisting them with teaching English, I could get lunch (at 9:00, so it’s more like breakfast) and dinner over there as well. It turned out that dal bhat is practically all they eat, and the rice was also sticky with big lumps rather than loose. I wasn’t expecting any meat dishes because meat is expensive, but anything different from dal bhat which I get at the foster home would have been good.

Even if I’m a little bit disappointed with the dishes and food I learned to prepare, I did learn some valuable skills. I learned how to cut vegetables, but don’t master the technique with the large knives yet. At my request the cook also showed me how to peel and cut onions, garlic and ginger quickly. By now I’m not sure if I still remember how to do it, but there also should be some instruction videos on the Internet which deal with this subject to fresh up the memory,

During the English class I felt quite redundant, while in Meena’s class I did all the teaching myself. When I asked Meena why she let me do the teaching she told me it was because she could learn from me as well, I’m more proficient in English. On the other private school a much more experienced teacher, Udaya, was working. The students there have a much lower level of English proficiency, so Udaya does a lot of teaching in Nepali, making it difficult for me to follow. Basically I merely helped with pronunciation and correcting student’s writing, but even then I felt unnecessary.

Udaya claimed the contrary was true when I told him my thoughts, and at his request I helped him out at another (third) private school a few meters away from the second even after stopping the cooking classes. But the feeling that I couldn’t make myself as useful as I wanted and the awkward feeling of working for private schools as a volunteer while students pay a market fee to learn there, made me decide to stop.

A day later I went paragliding. D.B. managed to negotiate a small discount of 500 NPR at a paragliding company so I paid 6500, which is a lot of money but probably still cheaper than doing it in Europe. The paragliding company also gives D.B. a small commission for bringing customers to them so he can use the commission for the foster home. However, a day later my friend Meena told me, after hearing how much I paid, that she could have negotiated an even greater discount as she had worked at a paragliding company and has some connections.

Nevertheless, the paragliding was another great experience I’ve had here for the first in my life. I went to the paragliding company’s office in Central Lakeside at 13:00, to be driven to Sarangkot at 13:30 in a truck with four other foreigners and five pilots. The weather was sunny and there weren’t much clouds, but visibility was not good enough to see the most distant mountains. We stopped on a clear slope close to the top of the mountain where we would take off. I would fly for half an hour using a paragliding harness with two seats, with me in front and the pilot in the back to do the steering.

After two failed attempts at taking off, the first due to me not running forward fast enough for the ‘sail’ to catch enough wind, the second one due to the absence of enough wind, we ran forward from the mountain slope and took off. During the flight you have your hands free so you can take photos all you like. It was great to glide in the sky and to pick up the winds by turning around and gaining the lift. It feels great to be like a bird, to experience the feeling of freedom, to be able to see so far in the distance. We landed again on a patch of grassland near the northern side of the lake. The landing wasn’t rough, it did require you to start running a bit and slow down as soon as I touched the ground.

Just before the last week of my stay in Pokhara, the children in the foster home started going to school again. This meant that the children in the foster home – who already had two new volunteers, Greicy and Glacia from New Zealand, anyway – would have even less opportunities to enjoy the things I could do with them. That’s why I decided to look for a school somewhere in Lakeside where I could teach English again for the last week of my stay.

This last week was reduced by one day, because a holiday called Democracy Day was held during the week. So I had only five days I could possibly teach and when I asked some people to help me find work at a school they told me the school where they enquired didn’t take volunteers for such a short period of time. I thought this was understandable, and ceased my effort to find a school. Instead I decided to continue helping Meena with teaching English at a private school, and to teach English to a friend and a relative of Meena in the afternoon. This provided me with enough things to do during the day and satisfied me.

The people who we’ve been teaching English at the private school, Samjhana, Sunita and Sujata, became good friends of me. Samjhana invited all of us to have dinner at her house after we visited the Mountain Museum in Pokhara. I was also given a khukhri as a present by the Sunita and Sujata. In turn I invited them over to Uttam’s house to prepare the easy Dutch dish, spinach mashed pot, for them.

I haven’t involved myself much with the orphanage which I left prematurely during the last week I was staying in Pokhara. When I talked to L. she told me that C. had complained about her to the police, who came to her hotel to take her to the police station for questioning. Fortunately it had no consequences as her Nepali friends told the police that L. had done nothing wrong, but L. was quite shocked by the ordeal. Fortunately the advisory board had taken notice of C.’s destructive behavior to everyone around him and asked him to step down as the manager of the orphanage, to which he agreed. His wife J. is in charge of the orphanage now, but I do not know if everything is all right now because I don’t trust C. for one cent, even if he apologised to me and L. for his behavior

My departure from Pokhara was marked by farewell ceremonies at both D.B. and Rekha’s foster home and at J.’s orphanage. I was given a lot of flowers by the children and now I probably have more than six of those yellow shawls. Uttam’s hospitality is infinite as he kept telling me how sorry he was that he couldn’t take good care of me, for example because there was no emergency battery-fed light for power cuts at night.

Telling him that my flashlight was sufficient for those situations didn’t convince him that he needn’t do anything more for me. I also offered to clean the house a bit so I could do something in return for his hospitality, but he would have none of it. Meena certainly inherited some of this attitude from her father. She insisted that she would roll my bag to the tourist bus stop on the day I left, as she accompanied me there at 7:00 in the morning with her friend who I taught English. I will never forget them.

Volunteering in Nepal: review of Pokhara’s restaurants

Pokhara’s Lakeside area is highly touristic and this means that there are a lot of restaurants, cafés and bars as well. Because Pepsi Cola in Kathmandu barely has any serious restaurants and because eating out here is a lot cheaper than in the Netherlands I decided to eat out regularly. I did have the possibility to eat with D.B. and Rekha who were paid by VSN to provide meals for me, but the cheap food here was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

To help other visitors of Lakeside and Pokhara to choose good restaurants to eat, I will give my recommendations in this blog post. First of all, even though Lakeside is a very touristic area it doesn’t mean that all restaurants are expensive. If you look for restaurants in the periphery of Lakeside you can find restaurants which charge prices equal to other restaurants elsewhere in Pokhara. Generally, these restaurants are recognized by their smaller size (smaller number of tables and seats) and their more basic exterior and interior.

Don’t concern yourself much with the restaurant recommendations of the Lonely Planet guide for Nepal. Some of their recommendations might be good, such as the Punjabi Restaurant, but the food served over there is not significantly better than at several cheaper restaurants where you can order the same dishes. A higher price doesn’t always equal more tasty food. For example, I ate pizza in Moondance and Caffe Concerto which are both recommended in Lonely Planet. In Moondance it cost me a bit more than 300 NPR probably, but the one I ordered at Caffe Concerto cost me almost 500 NPR.

I didn’t like them at all, they were boring and deep frozen pizzas from a Dutch supermarket would have tasted better. By contrast, a pizza Margherita I ordered at My Favorite Restaurant and Bar cost me 170 NPR and was delicious. But the reverse is also possible, for example a pizza Margherita at Lumbini (to the west of hotel New Winds) cost me 150 NPR, but it wasn’t topped with real tomatoes but with tomato sauce. It was baked in a gas oven and came out with the pizza bottom half charred, and it was probably one of the worst pizzas I ever ate.

Besides a few pizzas I ate Indian food most of the time because I like that most, but many restaurants here are a jack of all trades. Many restaurants serve both Indian, Nepali, Chinese, Continental and Italian food for example. At the restaurants which I’m recommending many main course dishes can be ordered for a cost between 100–200 NPR, so I could eat out two or even three times a day with my 500 NPR daily budget. To stay within my budget I had to restrict myself to just a main dish without any drinks on days when I ate out more than once though.

The restaurant in Lakeside which I like the most is My Favorite Restaurant and Bar, which in the far north of Lakeside near hotel Supriya. What makes this restaurant so good is that they offer an adequately fast free WiFi connection, they have a view on Phewa Tal and their price to quality ratio is very good. I ordered butter chicken here which came with rice and two chapatis included for 160 NPR. You can expect to pay to ten times as much, or € 16, in an average Indian restaurant in the Netherlands. A few days later the price was increased to 250 NPR though, not surprising because 160 NPR seemed far too cheap for them to make a reasonable profit, but still very well affordable of course. The chicken biryani for 180 NPR is good and as I already said, the pizza Margherita here is also great. The only disadvantage was the limited selection of vegetarian Indian dishes.

There are quite a few other small, cheap Indian restaurants and generic restaurants which serve Indian food which are probably worth recommending as well. There are simply too many restaurants to test, but there’s a specific place which deserves to be mentioned because some of them are clustered there. In southern Lakeside there’s a street meeting the central road running along Lakeside just east of Hotel Glacier. If you enter this street you can find a collection of six cheap restaurants close to each other. All seem to be interesting choices.

One of them is Sanju’s Restaurant, where I’d recommend the simple breakfast. It’s a Continental breakfast which includes tea or coffee (I like milk tea), two eggs prepared in any style, toasted white bread with jam or butter and hash brown potatoes for just 80 NPR. This simple breakfast features on almost every restaurant’s menu with exactly the same composition (why they copy each other in this regard is beyond me), so there aren’t many reasons not to order it at the cheapest restaurant. Just to the opposite of this restaurant is a restaurant called Kabab King which is also good.

The restaurants I have discussed so far have interesting menus, but their menus pale in comparison to what the New Marwadi Sewa Bhojnalaya restaurant has to offer. This restaurant is located in Mahendra Pul on the street going east from B.P. Chowk, on the northern side of the street. The locals seem to eat here a lot and given the location far away from Lakeside you’d expect significantly lower prices, but that is not the case when you compare to the cheap restaurants in Lakeside. The massive menu with exclusively vegetarian food which is mostly Indian certainly makes it worth a trip to Mahendra Pul.

Unfortunately their menu might be too elaborate for it’s own good, because the cook obviously doesn’t know how to make authentic, good Kashmiri pulao and Kashmiri naan. I noticed these items on the menu the first time I ate there and because I never ate these before I looked them up on the Internet to see what they were. Then I ordered them the second time I went there. The naan was not a naan with filling as described by various sources on the Internet, but a plain naan topped with banana, coriander and other stuff. The pulao was similar, it was topped with banana while the real dish uses dried fruit and lots of nuts. Better stick with the well-known Indian dishes because they are ‘safe’ choices; the samosas, palak paneer and jeera (cumin) rice were very nice.

None of these restaurants demand a 10% service charge which I despise so much, but I recommend one restaurant for which I allow myself to oversee this evil. It’s a Japanese restaurant called Momotarou which is at the front of hotel Mountain Villa. It was recommended to me by Luke, a Briton living in Japan who I wrote about earlier. It’s quite a lot cheaper than the other Japanese restaurant in central Lakeside which is called Koto, and you can order multiple dishes here without spending more than 500 NPR. The tendon dish which was recommended to me by Luke was quite good here, it consists of rice topped with tempura. The vegetarian options are a bit limited unfortunately.

However, the downside is that I really hate noodles, which are prominent in Japanese cuisine. I tried the tempura udon dish as well, a noodle soup topped withtTempura. I didn’t finish this dish, which I almost never do unless my dislike for the food is really serious. Just like Italian spaghetti and Tibetan thukpa noodle soup, the noodles had no taste at all and were inconvenient to eat because they are long and slippery. I don’t get why people like noodles. Disregarding the noodles, the food served here has sparked quite some interest in Japanese cuisine with me, because I’ve only visited a Japanese restaurant once back in the Netherlands. I might be buying a Japanese cookbook when I get back home.

There are also some Chinese restaurants in Lakeside with very large menus. I tried Lan Hua and the Chinese restaurant in Central Lakeside once, and respectively ordered mapo tofu and Kung Pao chicken there. Many Chinese tourists eat there so I thought they would be okay, but the mapo tofu was not as good as how I, having very little experience with preparing Chinese dishes, can prepare it at home. My version of it is vegetarian because I’m too lazy to add the meat, and I thought the minced meat which was included with the version served by the restaurant added nothing to the dish. The Kung Pao chicken was boring, not as good as when I ate it during my holiday in the USA almost a year ago.

Unfortunately I didn’t take the opportunity to taste the vegetable dishes, this is unfortunate because the Chinese restaurants I ate at in the Netherlands barely offer vegetarian dishes. I didn’t try China Garden because that’s more expensive than both of the other restaurants and seems to serve the same dishes. Lan Hua is my favorite and has good WiFi.

A restaurant which I frequent more for the WiFi than for the food is Sweet Memories in northern Lakeside, south of the Blue Heaven hotel. Some restaurants don’t have good, adequately fast WiFi which works all day long because of the power cuts, but this one apparently has a WiFi router running on a backup battery. Unfortunately the food isn’t so good. It’s better than Lumbini, but the mango lassi there was not good and sometimes it tasted really strange. The banana lassi had crudely blended large pieces of banana in it. The chicken biryani here, which has become one of my favorite dishes since I’ve encountered it in Nepal, was no good either.

One last restaurant I’d recommend is called Oh la la, which is located half way between Sweet Memories and My Favorite Restaurant. The vegetable biryani for 125 NPR here was brilliant, just as good as chicken biryani, and they serve good banana lassis for 55 NPR in really big glasses.

What I will certainly be going to prepare a lot when I get to the Netherlands are banana lassis. Back home I would prepare mango lassis occasionally, but only occasionally because mangoes are relatively expensive in the Netherlands and because it takes so much time to prepare them. They have a hard kernel in the center of them, so you have to cut around that to get the mango pulp which is inconvenient work. By contrast bananas can be peeled in seconds without any knife. I never heard about hash brown potatoes either, and will be making those as well when I get home.

Volunteering in Nepal: meetings and my activities in Pokhara

Right now I’ve been staying for a few days already in the house of Uttam, the father of my friend Mina. Earlier I wrote about how I had no experience yet of the hospitality of the Nepali people some other volunteers told me about, but I’ve definitely experienced it now. Never before in my life have I met people such as Mina, her father and the rest of her family who have been so hospitable to me.

When her father offered me his house to stay in, I was surprised that he didn’t ask any payment for my stay. I told him that VSN could pay him a fee for my stay, as I first paid VSN in advance after my arrival and VSN then in turns pays the host family or orphanage where I stay. He didn’t accept it, even though he has good reason to do so. All his three children are studying and it’s not easy for the family to live on the money they have, Mina told me.

Mina’s family lives together with their uncle in his house most of the time, so they barely use their new house where I’m staying right now. And it certainly is a very nice place, it has a ground floor and a roof and looks better than most of the houses I’ve seen here. It’s also relatively quiet, last night I went to bed at 21:00 and then there still was a dog (I’ve developed a very deep hatred of dogs by now) and some children making noise at the orphanage next to my bedroom window and a radio was on, but a bit later it was quiet. So much better than the hotel where I had a lot more noise and less rest. If I hear ‘I shot the sheriff’ which they would repeat at the bar next to my hotel every night, I’ll go crazy.

I had some interesting conversations with Uttam. He has served in the Indian army for thirty years, retiring with the rank of subadar. I asked him if he was sent on any missions during his military career, he answered positively but did not elaborate; maybe it is because of the language barrier (his English is okay though) or because it is a sensitive subject for him which he’d rather not talk about, so I didn’t inquire further regarding that. He was quite talkative about his religious views, he doesn’t adhere to one of the major religions but is a follower of the teachings of Radha Soami Satsang Beas.

According to his teachings every organism has a soul, which after death reincarnates in a newly born organism. After a cycle of reincarnation the soul is to be finally reunited with God. This principle of reincarnation sounds quite similar to Buddhism as far as I know. Therefore, a person following the teachings should not eat animals or eggs because animals have souls, and they should not smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs. They, just like money, are desires of the material world, which is not real, only the immaterial world of God is real.

While I may not agree with religious views like this entirely (I like the scientific method more), I think these teachings are more sympathetic than some of the other (major world) religions. These beliefs about non-violence might be found in other religions to a certain degree, but their dogma contains a lot of nastiness as well. Uttam is a great person, he told me ‘I am happy when you are happy’. Their hospitality is beyond imagination and did not only include making their house available to me but also inviting me over to eat with them a few times and a lot of interest in my well-being.

What might have motivated their hospitality is that Mina knew about my negative experience with C. at the orphanage where I was previously staying. If C. was the rain, they are the sunshine; there’s a Dutch saying ‘After rain comes sunshine’ which means that good experiences come after bad ones. I’ve asked Uttam and Mina if I could do anything in return for them, but they said it was not necessary. Being on the receiving end of so much hospitality is a bit difficult for me because it makes me feel bad that there seems to be no way to repay their kindness. I should definitely think of a gift for them before I leave Pokhara.

I have met many more interesting people besides them. One of the things which is attractive about being in a foreign country which is not Western is that you can make acquaintances with other Western people much easier, as you both feel like strangers in that country. While I do occasionally initiate or get into interesting conversations with random strangers in for example the train back in the Netherlands, I feel the barrier to do so in Nepal is lower. Certainly Nepalis themselves are even more likely to start a conversation with you if you’re the only Western person in the bus here in Pokhara for example. While doing this I met a few interesting people.

When I went to a restaurant to eat and all tables were occupied, I was given a seat at a table for four persons where another Western man around my age was already seated. I started a conversation with this man, who was called Luke if I remember correctly. He is originally from Britain, but has been living in Japan for some years now with his wife. His wife works as a school teacher in Japan and she decided to work as a volunteer in Nepal, so he joined her. We talked about many subjects and figured that we had many interests and opinions in common, such as a love for computer games, which bordered on addiction in the past but has now reduced in frequency. We talked some more about liberalism and Japan (he and his wife live in Osaka so they weren’t affected by the recent disasters).

On a more serious note, we also talked about our work as volunteers. In the remote village were he and his wife stay and Japanese and Western people are an unusual sight, the locals stare at them a lot which can make you quite uncomfortable. He also experienced that at the school where he was teaching the students were not used to interactive teaching and that the school personnel was demanding him to spend an unreasonable amount of time working at the school, which is fortunately not like my experience at the CBIA. Concerning the effectiveness of volunteer work, he talked about research done on the subject which concluded that the volunteer gains more benefit out of the experience for their own than the people the volunteer helps.

I will look for research done on the effectiveness of volunteers later, but if the conclusion is true, I still feel my contribution made a small difference. But I agree that my volunteering here is a serious benefit for my CV. After finishing our dinner at the restaurant I felt like I had made a new friend in just one conversation and tried to find his Facebook account and his own website for which he provided me the name and address, but to no avail. I did give him my website’s address as well, so please add me on Facebook if you are reading this Luke, maybe we could meet in England, Japan or the Netherlands some day.

About a week ago some other volunteers visited D.B. and Rekha’s orphanage while I was reading the children a fairy tale. One of them was Vittoria, who was born in Italy but has been living in England for most of her life. She is considering to study Philosophy or Liberal Arts in the USA. Given her interest in philosophy I asked if she had read the Republic of Plato which I’m currently reading, and this turned out to be the case. I was glad to have met an interesting Western conversation partner, which are more scarce here in Pokhara than in Kathmandu’s Pepsi Cola with it’s horde of Western volunteers.

We discussed our experience with volunteer work, and she told me that she wasn’t satisfied with her work at an orphanage. One of the girls asked her if she could have one of the bracelets she bought; when she gave one she broke it very soon and immediately asked for another one. As Vittoria put it, ‘I’m not here to be Santa Claus’. This got me thinking. I’m playing Santa Claus in a certain way as well. While I think the two whiteboards I bought serve a justifiable educational purpose, my decision to buy the DVD-player still bothers me.

Right now I’m teaching English to a group of adults at a private school and I’m teaching English at another private school where I get the opportunity to follow the cooking classes for cooks for free. In both cases I’m working for free to assist Nepali English teachers who might not be as proficient in English as me, but are adequate to do it on their own. And the students I’m teaching are paying a market fee for their classes because the schools are private schools, not charities. This is different from the CBIA, where VSN provides lower fees or no fees at all for education to children whose parents can’t afford it.

And even then Kassie, an American volunteer I met while in Pepsi Cola, was critical of VSN because she worked with a volunteer organization in Pune in India. Her organization provides aid and education to people living in the slums who really need it. So yes, I feel like I’m playing Santa Claus for the private schools now. If I were to volunteer again, I’d look for the type of volunteer organization like Kassie was or still is working with in India.

I have been considering other opportunities for making a valuable contribution to the people who need it. Maybe a week ago I got into a conversation with another British man called Olly in a restaurant. It turned out that he was a volunteer as well, and when I told him I was looking for ways to spend my time as a teacher of English, he recommended me a monastery where I could possibly teach, further up north from northern Lakeside. I didn’t investigate further because it is quite some distance away from Lakeside and because monasteries in general probably receive many volunteers already anyway.

A few days ago I met Tara, a random Nepali woman who was standing in front of her house when I walked by. She asked me to talk with her under the enjoyment of a cup of black tea. She asked me what I do here, and I told her that I work at orphanages. She told me that she is looking for a job in child care, but I had to disappoint her because the orphanages I work at don’t have any personnel, just the father and mother managing it. Then she told me how difficult it was for them to make a living, and asked me if Dutch people were all rich. Because I anticipated were this was going, I lied and said I was poor student who had trouble to repay his student loan, and that I had already made a lot of expenses in Nepal (that was not a lie). When she asked me if I could help her with donations from the Netherlands I said it was not possible.

While requests like this didn’t give me much trust, I insisted that I would love to help her as long as it involved teaching English to her or her family. After talking with her brother as well, they told me that her brother’s nephew who just finished her final exams for English would like to learn some English from me, and I made an appointment to come the next morning. It was an opportunity for me to teach English for free after all. The next morning her brother told me that the nephew had done enough learning already for her final exams which she had finished and wanted to enjoy her free time. This sudden change of plan or lack of coordination didn’t really surprise me anymore, and they didn’t live far from the house where I stay anyway, so it didn’t bother me. I told them they could ask me to come back anytime.

Today (on Saturday the 16th) I met Jeanette, a Dutch women working for the Dutch-Nepali volunteer organization SEWA. I heard about her when I ordered some food at The Wooden Coffee House, a café which is a non-profit project for women run by SEWA. The man running the place noticed I could talk some Nepali, and as we got into a conversation and mentioned I’m Dutch, he mentioned Jeanette is also Dutch. I decided to talk with her to see if I could do anything for SEWA. This turned out to be difficult because I only stay in Pokhara for two more weeks, while SEWA expects volunteers to work for them for several months because they want to know who they are dealing with and because the children they work with need to become accustomed to the volunteers helping them.

Jeanette studied SPH in the Netherlands and worked in the field of mental aid, but seems to have gotten a bit disillusioned with it. That’s why she is in Nepal for nine months in a year, apparently for a few years already, because she thinks the people here can use the help in acquiring basic needs for living better than the people she helps in the Netherlands. Even though the meeting was short and didn’t result in interesting opportunities for me to help, it was an interesting meeting nevertheless.

So now I’m spending almost the entire day on teaching to adults and the cooking class, so I have little time for other things. I’m okay with that for the moment as reading fairy tales for the children is not as rewarding as I expected it to be. Some of the children show with their body language that they are not interested but bored, even though they thank me for reading to them afterwards. I guess that is because of their short attention spans or the sentence by sentence translation which needs to be performed. While I will probably use the last week as an opportunity to relax a bit more and do the paragliding, I will most likely be quite busy with teaching adults and following the cooking class in the coming week of Sunday 17 April until Saturday 23 April.

This week the day before the start of the Nepali New Year (Thursday 14 April) was a free day, so I decided to walk all the way from Lakeside to the World Peace Stupa which is on top of a mountain to the west of Phewa Tal. It’s a long walk, but it’s manageable. Based on my reading of the map I expected some kind of path through the forest on the mountain leading to the stupa, but in fact there were no waysigns and many different paths. Many times I found myself walking through the wild forest to find the correct path going uphill, and I caught many spider webs in my face in the process. I also stepped in quite few piles of cow dung which were covered by fallen leaves, left there by the wild cows grazing in the forest. After reaching the stupa at the top I went down again via the road for the cars, as I had my share of forest for the day. The view from the top was certainly worth the trip.

Somehow I only felt it necessary to drink some water after I got down again, even though I was sweating quite a lot for hours during the trip uphill. Other volunteers noticed that I barely drank any water during the trip to Shivapuri’s top as well, and thought it was unhealthy. I guess I can wait a bit longer with drinking sufficient water than the average person.

Volunteering in Nepal: entertaining orphans

When I first got here to Pokhara I asked myself the question how I’m supposed to entertain the orphans living at the two orphanages were I work in the best way. In Pepsi Cola I worked for one afternoon at an orphanage when there was a holiday and there was no other volunteer to play with the orphans, but before that I’d never worked in an orphanage before. And that was just for one afternoon, which was easy to manage. I took them to a small field behind the orphanage where they played football and managed the application of the rules by themselves, which is good because I don’t know the rules of football. All I did was watch over them and especially the youngest orphans to make sure they weren’t doing any crazy stuff. When they got tired of football after an hour or so, the power came back on and they used the opportunity to watch TV. At that point they didn’t need me to entertain them anymore and I left.

From when I got here in the end of March and until when I leave Pokhara again at the 30th of April, I will probably be working with at least D.B. and Rekha’s foster home here. I intend to keep working at the other orphanage I just left as well, but that depends on if I find any other work that needs more time and how well I can cope with C. All this time the children have a school holiday which ends somewhere near the end of April as far as I know. So most of the time they’re around the foster home and orphanage for the entire day and they appreciate it much if I can spend some time with them, even if in principle they can entertain themselves.

Volunteers can take them to the park or another playground near Lakeside where they have a lot more room to play, doing things such as football and badminton which are not really practical to play in the very confined exterior space of the orphanages. I’ve accompanied them to the playground only once so far, when I wanted to take the iniative for a second time the weather didn’t allow it. When I accompanied them to the playground I decided to teach some of the children some basic kickboxing moves, which I practice myself. They liked to copy my moves.

An important improvisation which I came up with myself and which I’m quite proud of is my idea to read them fairy tales. I remember being read the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm by my parents and caretakers when I was a kid, so I decided to use that to read to the orphans as well. The advantages of using Grimm’s Fairy Tales include that it (the original and some older English translations) is very old and that copyright no longer applies to it. This means that you can simply go to the Project Gutenberg website and download an English translation legally. So there is no need to buy a book which I need to carry around, which is convenient, but it might also be available in some Nepali bookshops which I’m told can be surprisingly well-equipped.

Another option is the Russian Fairy Tales which I downloaded just to be sure, in case Grimm’s Fairy Tales might not be enough. I learned about this work when I read the article about fairy tales on Wikipedia, and downloaded it as well from Project Gutenberg as I thought they might come in handy. However, Grimm’s Fairy Tales contains 210 fairy tales already, which would mean that I would need to read more than almost eleven stories every day if I wanted to finish reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales to them before I leave. So while some stories are very short and some are not suitable to be read, I think Grimm’s Fairy Tales alone will suffice to provide enough reading material.

With not suitable I mean that some fairy tales feature Western culture quite heavily, so that they cannot be understood by the children over here, especially if you need an additional step of translation to Nepali by the oldest children because the very young orphans can’t understand English. For example the third fairy tale, Our Lady’s Child, requires some knowledge about catholicism to understand. The first fairy tale, The Frog King, by contrast, is suitable for a multicultural audience.

My method of reading the fairy tales so far has been to take my notebook to the orphanage, open the HTML-document of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and start reading fairy tales sentence by sentence while pausing in between so the oldest child can translate to Nepali. It is quite distracting to follow the text with your eye while pausing and keeping up the tempo of reading at the same time. What makes it even more difficult is that the English used can be a bit difficult for my translator, so I had to simplify the English as I was reading it. Nevertheless, my first attempts so far were reasonably succesful and the children liked it. But to avoid these problems I think that from now on I’m going to read the fairy tales in advance and memorize them, so I can tell them without having to read at the same time.

When the two whiteboards I bought for both the foster home and the orphanage were ready another opportunity presented itself to me to play some games with them. As I had already written, I use them to play some hangman, but I also play a word game which was suggested to me by Patrick when I was teaching at the CBIA. First the children have to make up a three-letter word, and then they need to think of another three-letter word which starts with the last letter of the previous word. Then the next word has to be four letters, et cetera.

Most recently I also practiced the alphabet with the children, because some new orphans apparently didn’t get much education yet. I practiced pronunciation of the letters with them and asked them to give words starting with specific letters, which was a good exercise.

However, I want to play more different games with them, but unfortunately I don’t know any more. While I will search for ideas on the Internet, suggestions here in the comments would be appreciated.