Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Oscar moment...

So this is it. My last blog post. I promise I won’t do a Gwyneth and cry too much. So after 42 blog posts, 13 months, 10 days and 6 hours, my time as a VSO volunteer is over and I will return back to civilian status on the stroke of midnight.

I can’t believe it’s over. I’ve had the most incredible year that has actually felt like three year’s worth of experiences, fun, learning, adventure and madness that only India can give. So I’d like to use my last blog post to say thank you to everyone who has helped make it such an amazing experience in true Oscar style.

No Oscar winner can do their job without a best supporting actor/actress, so in this category I would firstly like to nominate my family. I’d like to thank my parents who have been their usual wonderful supportive selves. My father, who has been my very own Miss Moneypenny for the last year sorting out all my admin, my mother for sending me wonderful packages, Marmite supplies and newspaper clippings, my sister and brother in law for finally getting married, flying me home for the wedding of the year, wonderful phone chats, treats, ongoing support and all for visiting me.

Next up are my friends, both home and away. I can’t tell you how great it’s been to get snippets of news from home, pictures of little ones, packages of treats, updates on love lives and Skype chats over the course of the year. Thank you for keeping in touch and being there for me. To all the new friends I’ve made over the last year, especially fellow VSO volunteers, thank you for being part of the good times and making me laugh in the bad times. To everyone who I’ve reconnected with through my blog thank you for just saying hello and seeing what I’m up to.

For best actor in the leading role I would like to nominate George, the CEO of my NGO. The thing that makes your VSO placement is the placement itself. I have been extremely lucky to have volunteered at Score Foundation and hope I’ve managed to contribute as much as I’ve got out of the experience. George is a bit of a legend in my mind. Anyone who can run a half marathon in three hours, let alone be visually impaired deserves more than a medal. I’ve really enjoyed working with him over the last year and his drive, energy and determination to help those living life with blindness in India is a true inspiration.

For best visual effects well, the award has to go to India itself. I’ve been lucky enough to travel in thirteen different states over the last year. India really does live up to its tourism tagline and it’s truly incredible. From the majestic Himalayas to the madness that is the metropolis of Delhi itself, India at times is overwhelming in its colour, chaos and lack of consistency but will always be beautiful to me. For best sound editing, well if you’ve been here you will know there is no editing. Every time I hear a honking horn I’m going to think of India.

It may not be an Oscar category but for the best audience award I would like to nominate you, dear reader. Thank you for reading my blog, it started out as a bit of a diary for me so when I looked back I would remember everything, both good and bad. Never did I expect for so many people to read it and to get such lovely comments. Thanks to some rather clever Google tracking technology, I’ve discovered people are reading my blog everywhere from Australia to Zambia, so thank you whoever you are. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my adventures as much as I’ve enjoyed having and writing about them.

So what’s next? Well tomorrow morning, I’m getting on a jet plane and heading to Sri Lanka. I will be spending Christmas and New Year with my gorgeous cousin at the beach. And then because January is such a cruel month, I’ve decided to fulfil one of my life long ambitions and learn to surf. I’m heading to Indonesia for a month (a girl’s got to mentally and physically prepare herself for a return to London town...). So, full civilian life awaits for February when I get back to Blighty and enjoy a good fry up, glass of wine, decent cup of Yorkshire tea, glass of tap water, roast beef, cheese, high heels, a hairdryer and catching up with everyone. There’s only one more thing to say, don’t forget to honk... if you like curry!

Highlights: Everything. It’s been one of the most; interesting, frustrating, liberating, repressive, challenging, educational, athletic, restful, creative, adventurous and exciting year of my life so far.

It’s been a blast and I’ve had a ball, now where is my bikini..?!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A weekend in the Himalayas with TED...

So, who is this TED I hear you say? An attractive UN peacekeeper in need of heading to the hills? A charming South Asian correspondent researching his next headline? Well, sadly none of the above as TED is actually a website.

Well more than a website. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about living in India, is having the time to read and learn lots about new stuff. TED has been one of my favourite finds, it’s a website that is devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ and showcases riveting talks from remarkable people. Some of the talks are filmed at TEDx events which are held all over the world. Getting a ticket to one of these events is a bit like winning a golden ticket Charlie & The Chocolate Factory style. So, when I saw that tickets were up for grabs for TEDxKumaun, an event focused on development issues in India which was being held in the foothills of the Himalayas, I got pen to paper pronto.

I could think of no better way to spend one of my last weekends in India, in Uttarakhand, a beautiful region that I had visited before in June when I had my weekend in Jilling. To have the opportunity to learn more about development in India with the magical view of mighty peaks like Nanda Devi (7816m), was certainly not something that I will get to do back home in London. The event was over two days and involved 2x eight hour night trains and 2x three hour drive up very winding hills. One of the great things about living in India is that I’m now totally immune to long journeys. So it turned out to be 24 hours of travel for 28 hours at the event but it was so worth it.

The topics discussed ranged from growth, governance, health, education, corruption to food security. As my work has concentrated on disability, it was really interesting to find out more about other key development issues that I knew a bit about. One of my favourite slides had to be from a presentation called ‘The decentralisation of corruption through the corruption of decentralisation’ (try saying that after a few Kingfishers...) which showed the complexity of all the different government schemes to get funding to local communities. The chart was mind boggling and you could easily see how corruption could happen. Especially when I found out that in Uttarakhand out of 45,000 registered NGOs only 15,000 were legit, so that’s why fundraising can be tough in India...

As with all these events, it’s the people that really make it. The whole atmosphere was very informal and it was easy to chat to the speakers. Everyone was bundled up in layers as it was very chilly at 2,500 metres, to the point where we looked like we were at a snowmobile conference. I had some great chats with a range of people; some had travelled all the way as far as Bombay and Chennai to be there. Everyone had diverse backgrounds and it was great to meet other foreigners who were in India doing some really interesting work. One of my favourite chats had to be with Anne, a spritely septuagenarian who had lived in the area for a while. She used to work in advertising in Delhi in the ‘70s and it was really interesting to hear her stories about dealing with clients in such a different culture.

As with any Indian event, the food was fantastic. Grown in such beautiful surroundings the vegetables were extra tasty and it was nice to get a final fill of curry whilst sitting around a fire chatting away. The hotel I was staying in had amazing views but had to be one of the coldest places I had ever stayed. Despite donning three layers, a hat, a sleeping bag and two duvets, when I lay in bed I could still see my breath in the air. But mountain air always sends you off to sleep and it was worth some shivering for the early morning view of the rose tinged glow on the Himalayas that I woke up to.

We got back to Delhi at 4.30am this morning, in the rickshaw home cruising on the empty streets lit up by fires and swaddled figures trying to keep warm, the weekend seemed very surreal. It was a nice feeling to get home, shed a layer of fleece and jump into bed for a few hours kip before work. So, an average Indian weekend? An above average one, thanks to TED.

Highlights: being a loser and a winner – with the festive season in flow party season has arrived, last weekend it was off to the Australian Embassy for their 80s fancy dress quiz, we may have got the boobie prize in the quiz but we won first prize for our amazing Flashdance outfits – a proud moment, no pleasure without pain –in preparation for my travels it was off to the Dr for jabs, what I thought may only be one small injection turned out to be five (ouch!) but worth it for some tropical time, public transport – my new commute to work involves going on the metro which I have to say is very enjoyable in the ladies only carriage (a semi stare free environment) and some sort of training for getting on the tube again I guess, comfort food eating time – it’s so cold it’s time to keep warm through the power of eating, what’s not to love about this time of year..?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Incredible India – by plane, train, automobile and running shoes...

No pain, no gain they say and I definitely have to agree with that, especially on Sunday when I was puffing my way through 21km of pain, AKA the Delhi Half Marathon. Over the last three weeks, my training schedule had become a bit more exotic, as I got the chance to run across India in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Rajasthan courtesy of my lovely family who came out to visit me and whisked me away on a very jolly holiday...

I think the one thing that all volunteers miss the most is family and friends. The longer you live in a developing country as a volunteer the harder it gets. I’ve certainly found the last few months tougher and reached what I like to call my ISP (India Saturation Point). I think it’s quite natural when you only have a few more months to go and civilisation awaits (decent coffee, high heels, a soft bed, wine, a good hug and cheese) you start to become more irritated with the rhythms of life that can be India on some days (honking, no rules when it comes to anything, groping, staring and harassment) so I was greatly looking forward to seeing my family, showing them around my home for over a year and getting a good hug or two.

Adventure seems to be in our DNA and we had an ambitious itinerary starting in South India ending back in Delhi. We must have travelled over 4,000 miles by various mode of transport over the three weeks, but I have to say it was one of the most relaxing holidays I have been on. It certainly was an upgrade in travel style from the usual volunteer mode (let’s just say one night we stayed somewhere there was a bed made of marshmallow, a bath and a roaring fire in my room... heaven!). In the South the highlights were Ooty a picturesque hill station (cold enough to wear jumpers and I got to run on a treadmill as the early morning mist rose off the tea plantations) and Hampi, stunning fourteenth century ruins situated in lush plantations which could have easily been the set of the next Indiana Jones film.

By two overnight trains and a plane we got back to North India and to Rajasthan which was truly magical. We firstly stayed in Udaipur in a picturesque hotel looking over the lake which was the film set of Octopussy and had lost none of its Bond charm. I had some very memorable runs in Rajasthan, the peak of my training was a 1hr 55min run which I was not looking forward to. But as I headed off at 6.30am from a remote village in Rajasthan (and from the comfort of a bed made of Angel Delight in a very nice boutique hotel) to run on sandy tracks around a lake as the sun rose, the pain seemed worth it. When you are lucky enough to run with the soundtrack of the tweets of the three Ps of the bird world (parakeets, peacocks and pigeons of course) and cause most of the male members of the local village to nearly fall of their motorbikes in shock of seeing a puffing blondie saying ‘namaste’ you can’t help but fall in love with India again.

We then headed into the desert and even did a camel trek. Rajasthan is truly enchanting. With palaces, fortresses and legends of princely maharajahs worthy of a fairy tale book, you see a side of India that is straight from a Merchant Ivory film. By the time we reached Jaipur and had reached out TSP (Temple Saturation Point) we were joined by my sister and brother-in-law who had just spent their honeymoon in Bhutan. It was lovely to get more hugs and catch up with them both. We ended the trip with a dawn visit to the Taj Mahal which was definitely worth the 5.30am wake up call.

As everyone headed to the airport early Sunday morning to return back to London, I was shivering like a whippet in a hail storm as we reached the marathon start line at 6.45am. Delhi has suddenly got cold, so I had an incentive to keep running. But as soon as the sun came out it was baking, 40 minutes into the marathon when the lithe elite runners were 6km from the end and passing me in the opposite direction I realised the heat was not going to help. My only aim was to run the whole thing, which I managed to do but it got tough after 12km. I don’t know how anyone does a full marathon, I have complete respect for anyone who is brave enough to give it a go. But after 2hrs 30mins I made it across the finish line, slightly delirious and relieved it was all over. We rewarded ourselves with a slap up afternoon tea at the posh Imperial Hotel and despite the fact I’m still walking like a robot and stairs feel like climbing Everest it was all worth it.

Highlights: it’s a family affair – a big thank you to my parents in particular, for coming out to visit me, treating me to an amazing holiday and it was so nice to all catch up together (thanks also for sharing your final bit of honeymoon with me sis!) and to have the chance to show everyone around India, surviving an earthquake – it was only 4.9 on the Richter scale but it rocked and rumbled in Rajasthan one night and has to be one of the weirdest ways to wake up at 4am, money, money, money – I am truly chuffed at the amount we all raised for the marathon of just over Rs10 lakhs (that Rs 1 million!) and that we beat last year’s total by 100%, I think I am now officially a true fundraiser, a slap up tea and a sighting of Bob – it’s not often you get to have a guilt free afternoon tea post completing a half marathon, nor is it that often when the conversation randomly turns to celebrities and Bob Geldof get’s a mention that 5 mins later Sir Bob walks into the hotel to be greeted by three volunteers laughing like hyenas, I blame all that sugar..!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to be a domestic goddess VSO style...

With just over a month until I have to move out of my flat and my placement comes to an end in December, I’ve started thinking about the everyday things in my life that are essential features of domestic living as a volunteer. Below are my three top tips for being a domestic goddess VSO style...

#1 Find your inner MacGyver
Living on a budget and in the developing world really makes you good at the ‘make do and mend’ philosophy of life. In India, you don’t need much to live on and I’ve definitely enjoyed the challenge of spending a year without lots of stuff and home comforts. My proudest, most practical and most used MacGyver creation has to be my ‘home entertainment unit’. My laptop is; my office, TV and telephone back home for Skype chats so it gets used a lot every day. With the dust and heat of Delhi the fan was starting to go into overdrive. So for a bargain Rs200 I got a laptop fan and thanks to a wonderful care package from my sister, recycled the box into my home entertainment unit. My favourite MacGyver trick around our flat is courtesy of my flatmate who has created an art installation out of our sofa worthy of the Turner prize. Having bought our furniture second hand, we knew we had to find a cheap and easy way to fix the crack in the middle, so it wasn’t like a game of Buckaroo every time you sat down. I think the installation of a brick to prop it up adds a modern art chic worthy of a Tracey Emin installation any day.

#2 Plastic is your friend
I don’t think I have ever owned or used so many plastic items in my life. We eat off plastic plates and everyone I know has a bucket and jug in their shower. The bucket is perfect for washing clothes, the jug is the only way to wash your hair as Indian showers sadly lack power and are as effective as an Evian facial spritzer. Everyone brings their own lunch into work in a tiffin and I’ve had several compliments on my Tupperware (double side clips don’t you know). And then there are plastic chairs. Seriously they are everywhere and I swear my backside is more toned on the account of not sitting on soft furnishings for the last year. Everyone has them in their house or in every NGO office. Here’s a little insider tip, having been stuck in a few three hour meetings the trick is to definitely get one with arm rests to enable you to levitate for a few seconds using your arms, in order to regain circulation for minimal numbing of buttocks.

#3 Cook up a storm with only a pan
One of the hardest challenges I knew VSO was going to bring, was not having an oven or Waitrose down the road. Food as you may know is very important to me, so the thought of not being able to bake some brownies, whip up a lasagne or create a quiche for a year was going to be tough. Standard VSO issue is only a two ring gas hob so your weapon of choice is only a frying pan or saucepan. My culinary skills have had to be adapted. Let’s just say I won’t be cooking stir fry, chilli, curry or omelettes for a while when I get home. But, I’ve rediscovered recipes from my childhood and student days. Can’t bake brownies? It’s time for Mars Bar crispie cakes. Dreaming of creamy linguine with scallops? Well tuna, sweetcorn and mayonnaise pasta is nearly the perfect substitute.

Highlights: tourist time – I’m using my last few weekends in Delhi to see all the sights I haven’t got to yet, this weekend I did Humayun’s Tomb a stunning world heritage site (accompanied with a large mango kulfi, India’s most delicious ice cream), beauty on a budget – I’m really going to miss the Rs200 (£2.77) pedicures in my local salon, getting a big hug from home – I have friends from London arriving on Friday so enjoying plotting a gourmet weekend in Delhi with them and most excitingly, my family arrive next week so I’m a really, really excited about spending some time with the Mellor Massive and getting a big hug off them all, breaking the 60 minute mark – I am now running for over an hour a go and no longer sound like an elephant with emphysema or look like I’ve had a beetroot facial. If you need a reason to donate to my NGO for the marathon which you can do so here, it’s about 34°c when I run at 6.30am so I’m truly sweating for the cause!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

To boycott or not to boycott...

So finally they are here. The Commonwealth Games (CWGs) have landed with all their opening ceremony pomp along with the scandals of snakes in stadiums, collapsed ceilings and bridges, paw prints on athletes beds and of course tales of corruption.

I’ve been amazed at the amount of coverage in overseas press and comparison with organising a big Indian wedding, chaos until the last minute and then it all comes together. Well, having lived here for the last 11 months I’ve witnessed more chaos than ceremony and I’m not quite convinced Delhi has reached its desired world class city status or that everything was going to be ready in time, but it is.

One of the reasons I was keen to take a VSO placement in India was to have the experience of living in a BRIC developing country that is on its way to developed status. The CWGs have been hailed as the event that would reinforce that India is on track for developed nation status, hand in hand with its 7.4% economic growth in 2009-10. Surely with all this growth, poverty must be reducing? Well, India ranked 67 out of 84 countries for having alarming scales of hunger in the 2010 Global Hunger Index, so guess not. Urban poverty is increasing at a disturbing rate, so living in Delhi you see poverty against the backdrop of contrast, slums next to shopping malls and migrant workers including female labourers building the so called world class facilities for the CWGs whilst their children play on the side of the road.

In a country where out of a population of 1.2 billion, 830 million Indians earn less that Rs20 (28p) a day, is it right that I attend, support and enjoy an event that has cost India $6 billion when I’m here to do my bit towards fighting global poverty?

I personally don’t agree with any country spending billions on a one off sporting event when there is no investment in sport at a grass roots level, in particular at schools. Let alone when that money could be used on basic education, infrastructure, healthcare or stop people going to bed hungry at night. There are more poor people in eight Indian states than in the 26 poorest African countries combined. Delhi has amongst the lowest occurrences of poverty in India, while at the other extreme, 81% of the state of Bihar’s population is poor. It’s ironic that many of the 100,000 labourers who worked for unfair wages to prepare Delhi for the CWGs were from Bihar.

There are two sides to every story and Delhites will benefit from the CWGs even if the rest of India won’t. The opening of the metro has definitely made my life easier. I can now spend Rs12 on a journey rather than Rs60 in a rickshaw. The city is a lot quieter as most people have escaped and the alleged thousands of tourists have not arrived so the traffic is marginally better. The whole place is on lockdown this Thursday for the closing ceremony so we all get a day off work. But there also have been disruption and disease. Schools have been shut, shops and markets are closed and there has been a mass outbreak of dengue as the construction sites have been a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. Last week I was with a fellow volunteer when she got admitted to hospital with dengue and sitting in the waiting room with a lot of other sick people I doubt anyone would have got enthusiastic about the CWGs.

So, for the first time in my life I’m officially boycotting something. I roar in the face of Shera the mascot, who according to the official CWGs website is, “a ‘large-hearted gentleman’ who loves making friends and enthusing people to ‘come out and play’”. Well sorry Shera, I love your country but this volunteer isn’t going to come out and play.

Highlights – being dazzled by bureaucracy – from banks to hospitals I’ve seen it all now and last week at a face/off with a bank teller whilst trying to explain to her what the principles of customer service are I got firmly told “well Madame, that’s just the way we do things in India”, the Axis of Evil Supper Club tour continues – Delhi just has the best restaurants, we tried a good Iraqi the other day but it was out trumped by an amazing Afghani (melt in the mouth meat including beef), next on the list to try is Iranian food and can’t wait, being a fundraiser – it has to be No. 1 for job satisfaction when the money finally comes in, my weeks started by going to pick up a fat cheque from a new donor and thanks to them my NGO can employ two new people to help with research and advocacy, keeping running – well I’m up to week 10 in my training, with five more to go I’m hoping I avoid any mosquito based diseases or injuries to make it to the start line.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Goats, golden temples & gourmet treats...

So how was your weekend? Pretty average? I’m not too sure what an average weekend in Delhi or being a VSO volunteer actually consists of or, what I thought it would consist of when I was in London. If you had said to me, “your Friday night, which you will look forward to all week, is going to involve a BBQ goat” I don’t think I would have believed you...

But that’s where my weekend started and there was much excitement about the goat. So for all those who know me or have read a few blog entries you will know how important food is. Being a volunteer in India is great if you love curry, which I truly do, but I had perhaps not been prepared to eat a mainly vegetarian diet. Being veggie most of the week has not been too much of a problem but sometimes I get carnivorous cravings. When we first arrived in India we did some touristy things which involved a visit to Old Delhi and Karim’s restaurant. It’s a traditional Muslim restaurant which serves great food and mainly ‘non-veg’ dishes. Its piece de resistance is a BBQ goat (stuffed with biryani) that feeds twelve people quite happily. So as one of our fellow volunteers was leaving the fold we decided to go out for a meat feast to say goodbye.

And my, was the goat good. We feasted away and it was the perfect start to a weekend which revolved around more delicious food. So Saturday morning I was up early on a six hour train to Amritsar for a weekend away with a friend. Amritsar has been on my list of places to visit for a while. It has two main attractions the famous Sikh Golden Temple and the highly entertaining border ceremony where India and Pakistan have a very engaging face/off to much cheering and jingoism. We arrived just after lunch in time to get a quick plate of kulcha channa. This is a traditional Punjabi delicious dish of very flaky, spiced bread that is generously slathered in butter which you dip into chick pea curry. My, it was yummy. We then jumped in a taxi to go to the border ceremony an hour’s drive away. The road to the border was probably the smoothest I had ever been on in India. We worked out the reason for its lack of potholes was that it needed to be in tip-top condition to send in the tanks if things got a bit nasty with Pakistan. Green fields flanked the road and it was nice to see more green than rubbish/construction work for a change.

We arrived at the border to what looked to be the opening of a carnival. The route was thronged with popcorn sellers, groups of excited school children were milling with families and everyone was rushing to get a prime position in the stadium seating that lined the border gate. Due to our tourist status we got a good spot near the front. The atmosphere was incredible. It was like being at the final of X-Factor. Bollywood hits were blasted out, whilst school children ran up to the border gate with oversized Indian flags, then gangs of kids got up and danced school disco style as the compeer cheered on the crowd. Soldiers in their fancy hats (adorned with napkins and a lot of starch it seemed) had whistles to herd the crowd into some submission but were very jovial. What was particularly bizarre was that the same thing was being replicated on the other side of the gate in Pakistan in a slightly tamer form.

I felt sorry for the Pakistani side at first. There was less of a crowd, the women were separated from the men and sat high up in the stand. Their Bollywood tunes weren’t as tuneful. It was all a bit more sedate and there were fewer tourists too. Then the ceremonial pomp started. It involved a soldier from each side power walking up to the gate that had been opened, saluting and high kicking to much shouting. It was straight out of Monty Python but the crowd on both sides loved it and continued to cheer through the whole hour. The flags on both sides were lowered as the sunset and as we left it was like leaving the end of a rock concert. We got back to Amritsar tired and delighted to see our guesthouse had an excellent menu so we ordered cheese toasties and finger chips (that would be chips) and sat in bed watching particularly trashy American TV. With no access to TV and cheese being a luxury item it was my idea of a perfect Saturday night in.

The next day we got up early to visit the Golden Temple which was stunning. We wondered around watching young Sikh boys and old men have a dip and prayer in the waters surrounding the temple. I don’t think I’d ever seen more Indian men in their pants in my life. We sampled the free food cross legged in the dining room, the temple serves food to up to 80,000 meals a day and there was an impressive washing up chain gain. Then we of course tracked down a renowned kulcha channa road side stand for more eating. After a bit of shopping and a good piece of chocolate cake it was time to get back on the train and we headed home back to Delhi after a more than above average weekend.

Highlights - traffic lights – my pedestrian woes seem to be easing as thanks to the CWGs my six lane highway of death that I have to cross everyday now has traffic lights, jumping red lights are fairly normal in India but now I have an extra 0.007 seconds to cross the road, hello Mr Sunshine – the monsoon is finally over, blue skies and sunshine are here to stay so here’s to no more running in the rain. Work – with only a few months to go it’s really rewarding to see funding coming in and our marathon campaign pulling in lots of support.

Monday, September 20, 2010

“Dear Jim, please will you fix it for me... be a backing dancer in the next Five Star pop video as I think they are fab.” Well that’s the letter I meant to get around to writing to Sir Jimmy Saville back in 1985 when I was aged 7 years but never did. So I was more than delighted when back in July I wrote to someone called Jimmy and he fixed it for me to go to Hong Kong.

Why Hong Kong I hear you say? This time around was my plea to star in the next Jackie Chan film after my recent Bollywood debut? Sadly no, it’s actually more to do with life post VSO. So with only a few months to go my thoughts have naturally been on what’s next? I sadly cannot sustain my volunteer lifestyle and the honourable world of employment beckons once again. So my cunning plan is to go into CSR so I can still be part of the development world but use my corporate skills for the power of good. For all those not hot on their acronyms, CSR is Corporate Social Responsibility, nothing to do with CSI Miami as someone asked me the other day.

Whilst researching the world of sustainability and CSR in July, I noticed there was a big CSR Asia Summit being held in Hong Kong which looked really interesting. So using my new fundraising skills of ‘you don’t ask, you don’t get’ I applied for a scholarship to attend and won. All I had to do was cover my flight and accommodation costs. So as VSO is all about flexibility and adaptability, I flexed my credit card for the flight and got in touch with some wonderful friends who had another wonderful friend who lived in Hong Kong to request the use of his sofa for a few nights.

To say I was more than excited about going would be an understatement. A few weeks ago I think I had reached a natural stage in the VSO lifecycle where, with only a few months to go I had reached my saturation point of India. If I heard one more Bollywood ringtone or honking horn it was going to get nasty. So civil society beckoned, and my how life is civil in Hong Kong. Firstly it’s the easiest place to get around. You can go on public transport and not get groped. Everything is clean, from the money to the pavements, I felt like I had been transported to the future. I could wear a dress in daylight, high heels, use my credit card to buy a train ticket, not eat curry for lunch and most importantly drink wine. The sofa I was supposed to be surfing on turned into a luxury bedroom with my own bathroom where the bed was made of marshmallow. I don’t think I have slept that well in 10 months. That might also have something to do with the free drinks reception on the first night.

The conference was very interesting. I had really lucked out to get a place as it was sold out and there were 400 people attending. It was really well organised and I met a lot of lovely people so it was easy to network. I had my first cultural induction to the business world in Asia outside of India when I realised I need to bow slightly and present my business card with both hands. I learnt lots about sustainability (CSR is so last year darling) and particularly enjoyed the talks on how business can get involved with solving the Millennium Development Goals, providing support in disaster preparedness and sustainable value chains - did you know that P&G recycle old shampoo bottles into plastic tiles? Amazing.

The conference was for two days and I had a day either side to explore Hong Kong. My mission was to eat everything and anything but curry. By the first morning I had tracked down Pret A Manger and had my very own When Harry Met Sally diner moment over a latte and ham, cheese and tomato croissant. I had the most amazing dim sum, sushi, beef, prawns and lots of delicious glasses of wine. I explored the city on foot, ferry, tram, metro and bus. My gracious host took me out to dinner and to a night at the famous Happy Valle races so I got to experience life as a local. My favourite area had to be Hollywood Road which is the old antiques quarter, with incense full temples, quite local parks with coy carp filled ponds and some great local graffiti.

So at the end of my four days, it was with a slightly heavy heart and full belly that I boarded my Kingfisher flight back to Delhi. But, I was invigorated by the whole trip, I arrived back to the sparkly new International terminal just opened in time for the Commonwealth Games and all was well. The smell and heat of India hits you within seconds when you arrive, I was comforted by the sound of honking as I walked to my taxi and thought that curry for dinner would be a nice change...

Highlights – seeing another side of Asia – learning about life for NGOs in China, Indonesia and Malayasia it was great to understand more about the region beyond India, being part of the VSO mafia – sitting down for lunch on the first day next to a chap, asking him what he did to find out he worked for VSO in Beijing it’s a small world, networking – until 4am, hitting the dance floor in high heels with fellow CSR conference buddies the next day I could hardly walk but all for the cause, running in the rain – the monsoon lingers so marathon training carries on and it’s actually really lovely to feel cool for a change after pounding the park, listening to 100 percussionists – I attended a great event on Saturday to raise awareness of the Millennium Development Goals it was called ‘Stand up and make some noise’ and 100 percussionists from all over India played in the historic ruins of Purina Quila at sunset which was breathtaking.