Couldn’t go to Pune

Last Thursday 3 January I arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and handed over my boarding pass and passport at the bag drop. To my surprise the British Airways employee asked me if I had a visa for India, which I didn’t have. After making some calls, they told me I couldn’t board my flight to Mumbai from London Heathrow without a visa.

Forgot the visa

During my planning it never even occurred to me that I might need a visa. I might have gotten too accustomed to all the visa-free traveling in the Schengen Area. Certainly the fact that Nepal grants tourists a visa on arrival made me assume that India would be no different. Because Deep Griha Society never even mentioned visas in its volunteer handbook I assumed I didn’t need one (the organisation I worked with in Nepal, VSN, did mention it on its website).

Nevertheless, I have myself to blame for this the most. I feel like an idiot for not considering the visa requirement during all the weeks I’ve been preparing for the trip. Nevertheless, it was possible to rearrange the departure and return dates for my flight for an approximate fee of € 380 (bye bye cheap flight). Getting a tourist visa for India would likely take no more than five working days, so I decided to get to it ASAP so I could still go in the second half of January.

Because you need a passport which is valid for at least 180 days to apply for a visa I had to get a new passport first. On Friday I paid double the normal fee of € 50 to have it ready this Monday. Today I picked up my passport, went back home to fill in all the visa application forms. After answering some strange questions about my religion (which should be none of their concern) and if I had Pakistani grandparents I drove to the Hague to submit my visa application.

No volunteer work on a tourist visa

After waiting one and half hour for my turn I handed over the forms and was asked some questions by the VFS Global employee. When she asked for my purpose of stay and I answered I would do volunteer work with Deep Griha Society, I was told this was not possible with a tourist visa. I would need an employment visa, which would ten workings days to process. And I need an invitation letter from Deep Griha Society.

I blame VFS Global for being unclear, on their website they write a tourist visa is suitable for “those visiting India for tourism or other non-business related purposes”. An employee visa is described as being necessary for those employed by a multinational or Indian company in a for-profit context. I would consider volunteer work a non-business related purpose. I don’t have an employment contract with Deep Griha Society, so how should I have known I would need an employment visa?

If an employment visa would be necessary, I assume Deep Griha Society would have known and sent me the required invitation letter in advance. The fact that they didn’t can mean only two things: either they are negligent, or the Indian Embassy in the Netherlands has a visa policy which is different from the one implemented by Indian embassies elsewhere in the world.

That was the limit

Right now I’ve had enough of this turn of events and I’ve canceled the plan. I can’t take it anymore to wait passively at home for another ten working days plus the time it takes to wait for a flight before I get to India. It’s a shame I had to postpone my search for a full time job since my graduation in August until my return from India. All that time has been wasted. I had been looking forward to this so much, but it’s better for me to move on now. Both me and India loose in the end if I’m not able to spend my money there. The only winner here seems to be British Airways.

How India should improve its visa policy

Take a look at the Wikipedia article on India’s visa policy. What bothers me is that if I had a French or German passport they would have given me a visa on arrival. Only tourist visas valid for thirty days, which wouldn’t have helped me, but that’s not the point. The choice of countries for the visa on arrival policy seems rather arbitrary, they include Russia which has an Islamist insurgency going on within its borders but they exclude many member states of the European Union?

France, Germany and Russia were included in the policy only quite recently to increase tourist inflow. If that was the reason there should be no difficulty in including many other developed nations. Even the security conscious USA has a more lenient Visa Waiver Program. India should take an example to Nepal’s visa policy, which grants visas on arrival to tourists of almost every nationality for up to 90 days. And in Nepal doing volunteer work on a tourist visa wasn’t a problem.

When I look at the visa requirements for Dutch citizens I think I’d rather visit South America as an alternative to India. I won’t be going there any time soon after this ordeal.

Update 11 January

It turns out that all volunteers of Deep Griha Society work there on a tourist visa. An employment visa takes a lot more time, so effectively I should have lied at the visa center about my purpose of stay. They did not tell me this before I went to the visa center because they assumed I would know.

Volunteer work in Pune for ten weeks

Almost two years ago I decided to work as a volunteer in Nepal for ten weeks. It was a good experience which left me desiring for more. When I graduated for my master’s program in August the opportunity arrived to arrange for volunteer work a second time. As a consequence I had to postpone my search for a full time job until I would return home, but I think it is worth it.

Where I’m going

This time the choice has fallen on Pune in India. I’ll depart on 3 January and return on 15 March. I decided to go there because Deep Griha Society (DGS) operates in that city. I first learned about this organization from an American volunteer who I met in Nepal, she had worked there as a volunteer herself and was positive about the work done by DGS. After considering the alternatives I decided to work for them.

Actually there weren’t much alternatives because it was surprisingly difficult to find Indian charitable organizations. I was looking for organizations similar to Volunteer Society Nepal (VSN) which I had joined in 2011. They provide good assistance to foreign volunteers, and that’s what I was looking for in other organizations.

I considered Netherlands-based travel agencies offering volunteer work such as Het Andere Reizen and Kilroy, but I prefer to deal with local organizations directly. Finally, the fact that the American volunteer recommended this organization convinced me.

Besides the volunteer work I also intend to travel in India. I might reserve the two weeks of March to do this, so my volunteer work could take eight weeks instead of ten. I’ll make definite plans later. The American volunteer also travelled India, I asked about her experience. Based on her recommendations, I’m tempted to visit the state Rajasthan, but I might also go south to Kerala. And there is plenty to see in Maharashtra, where Pune is located, too.

How I’m going

Pune has its own airport, but for international flights Mumbai’s airport seems to be the best option. I remember my flight to Nepal (with two transfers) which cost me more than € 800, but once you pay € 50 for a flight from Eindhoven to Trapani you don’t take it for granted anymore that tickets cost a fortune.

After some searches on CheapTickets.nl steep fees of € 700 to € 800 were presented to me initially, but after digging through the options for flight on other dates I finally found a cheap flight with British Airways. First I depart from Amsterdam and have a short transfer on London Heathrow for a direct flight to Mumbai. Somehow it was not possible to book this flight for the same price on the website of British Airways itself.

When I proceeded to pay, I didn’t like how CheapTickets.nl started adding administrative fees to the ticket price. I also remember how they screwed up a booking with Ryanair for my father because they e-mailed a wrong check-in code. I decided to search for cheaper alternatives, it turns out that CheapTickets.nl is just one of the websites who use the same ‘engine’ for bookings. Vliegticketszoeken.nl is another one and their fees are € 5 cheaper.

The flight set me back € 545, which is quite a good deal I think. Pune isn’t far away from Mumbai, it should take four hours to get there with a train.

Why I’m going

When I look back at the post I wrote about my plans to work as a volunteer in Nepal, my motivation is still partly the same. I want to experience life in a foreign country with a very different culture. Just travelling in a country as a tourist doesn’t cut it for me. My failure to find hosts for CouchSurfing in Sicily was one reason I didn’t enjoy that trip as much, I want to get to know local people.

If I really wanted to see more of the world I should have probably gone to Africa or South America because I haven’t visited those yet, but the reason I’m attracted to India in specific is because I love its (vegetarian) cuisine so much. I hope to pick up some more culinary skills during my stay there.

The most important reason is that I want to help. I feel that I have a privileged position as a highly educated citizen of the Netherlands. This gives me an obligation to help the less fortunate. Were I born in a slum in Pune, I’d hope for solidarity from those who are better off too. But this time I’m giving more emphasis to this goal than in Nepal.

Since I returned from Nepal I’ve been concerned about voluntourism. This article in The Observer describes it well (and more extensively here). While I’m convinced that VSN had good intentions and I don’t think my presence there has done harm, I question the benefit of my work there.

I was put in front of a class of children alone without being a qualified teacher and having no knowledge of the curriculum. With some improvisation I certainly managed to teach the kids something, but I was in over my head. A qualified Nepali teacher would have been better.

Concerning the orphanages, a stream of volunteers staying for a short time to help the children is not ideal. I don’t think it’s necessarily damaging the children, all orphanages I’ve seen had loving, permanent caretakers. Volunteers can be beneficial for funding, but the sustainability of orphanages being financially dependent on volunteers can be questioned.

I want to avoid falling in the voluntourism trap. I have confidence in DGS in this regard because in their opinion volunteers should support staff and not replace them. I think I will be able to make a meaningful difference with my skills. I intend to help with teaching English and my ICT-skills. No more orphanages. Possibly also other things which might cross my path and where I’m able to contribute.

Finally, I deliberately chose to stay in India in January and February because these are the coldest months in the Netherlands. Of course it never gets really cold in the Netherlands, but I do get tired of the constantly overcast sky. Compared to the Netherlands the climate of Pune is like a paradise with 30 ℃ and sunshine in abundance.

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.

Temple of Concordia

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.

Roman amphitheater of Siracusa

Greek theater of Siracusa

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.

Me in fron of Etna's summit

View from Etna

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.

Floor bordering the inner courtyard of the villa

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.

Greenhouse in Kew Gardens

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.

Hampton Court

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.

Stained glass in Canterbury Cathedral

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.

Paragliding

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.

Lakeside seen from the sky

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.

Meena's family

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.