This is a (late) translation of a text posted on the French blog on 21 March 2011
28 February, around 5 am, the night is black and freezing cold… The night bus between Delhi and Kullu just broke a record, covering the distance in just 11 hours instead of the usual 15 hours (how is this possible?). Tired and cold, we quickly settle in the « River Site Guesthouse », which was selected for us by Ajay and Catriona, and slip into our sleeping bags, not giving much attention to the doubtful cleanliness of the heavy quilts. We had to shake the guesthouse manager from his bed, and as he does not really care about wearing warm clothes but was nevertheless shivering without control, we did not really feel comfortable calling him again and again to get extra blankets.
I have new companions for this short two-week trip: Guillaume Legendre and Thomas Roy, plus Sara Vinther Fredslung, the new OT volunteer from Denmark who will take over from Catriona for a new six month mission (see previous posts).
The transit through Delhi was, this time, very pleasant: the hotel was up to our expectations (with a lift in good working condition – in between power cuts! – and doors large enough for Thomas’ wheelchair), and the temperature was quite ideal for a short touristic tour in the afternoon. The Qutab Minar and Humayun tomb both had excellent access for wheelchairs and it was difficult to say who was most surprised: the four of us and particularly Thomas enjoying so many ramps, or the mob of Indian tourists staring at such unusual foreigners... Before taking the bus, we even had time to take a cup of coffee with His Excellency Jigmed Namgyal, the heir of the royal lineage of Ladakh, who was our guest for our annual association festival in France in October.
View from the Handimachal Unit, with the sky clearing up at last...
The grip of winter was still very much upon us during our first days in Kullu, with cold and rainy days in Kullu, snow in Manali, with the usual landslides blocking roads and people not daring to leave their homes – the major consequence for us being a very low attendance rate in the Handimachal Unit.
Sara was paralysed with the cold (which we found so surprising, considering she does not really come from a warm country!) but we were not feeling much prouder, keeping several layers of clothes on during the day and night... But “Beyond the clouds shines the bright sun” and so the sun did gradually break through, and we were able to breathe and live normally.
On 3 March, which was the last day for Catriona in Kullu, we organised a small farewell party with a group of children, their parents and the staff of the Nav-Chetna school where Catriona had spent so much time during the first three months of her mission. Catriona and Sara had been able to spend a few days together, sharing the flat that we rent for volunteers, so I was not worried about the proper communication of information. I had never met Catriona before (except on Skype before her mission) and I was charmed by her dynamic and cheerful attitude, her communicating smile in all occasions, and the positive impact she evidently had on everybody. Sara, on her part, seems to have an outstanding capacity for listening and observing children, putting all her sensitiveness and patience into building a relationship with them. Within the first few days, she had already picked up some basic phrases and sentences which will enable her to communicate with the kids in Hindi, which is essential.
Team management was of course one of my main priorities during my stay in Kullu: discussing with Kanica about the end of her contract and the necessity for her to expand and diversify her young capabilities through new job opportunities, either in Kullu or in Delhi. She will be with us long enough to ensure a proper take over with the new PT, i.e. probably till 7 or 8 April.
On 5 March, interviews were organised in the Handimachal Unit with HPVHA Shimla, our local partner for this project. A few PT candidates attended the interviews; our choice went to Mayur Sharma, a young physiotherapist from Harayana, who seems quite (pro)active and already has a good knowledge of the local community through his involvement within a project developed in Katrain by HelpAge India. He will be part of the Handimachal team as of 4 April.
A special mention should be made to the efficient contribution and capabilities developed by “Auntie” (Kirna devi), our peon, in assisting the team in all logistic matters, in welcoming children and their parents and even in therapy sessions: a salary increase has been proposed and will be sanctioned by HPVHA as of April, as a testimony of our gratitude and encouragement.
All our hopes now lay on this new team (Mayur, Ajay, Sara – and of course Kanica till her departure) to bring the number of children attending the Unit back to expected standards and to implement new ways of approaching and motivating the local community. Our last awareness camp in February was organised in co-operation with some local Welfare Office representatives, a local general practitioner, assistants from the Rotary Eye Hospital, special educators from other NGOs, which allowed us to attract a large crowd in Jaa village (Bradha panchayat, in Manikaran valley). Organising future awareness camps with this type of co‑operation, in order to reach as many people as possible, would be perfect ‑ but during our last camp a few days ago, again our team was alone in spite of promises and good intentions…
A reasonable attendance level in the Handimachal Unit still remains our main challenge and is the condition to the construction of the future Handimachal Centre, which has been planned since the beginning of the project. Even if all parents express their wish to improve the situation for their children, for the moment very few do understand the necessity of being involved in an active therapy process on a regular and continuous basis: there is always a good reason for not taking the child out of the house, always some good reason not to make this effort, always some other imperative requirement which finally comes against the “aggressive” attitude which would be required to fight fate… Nothing surprising in this: such “conservatism” is part of the local mentality, which was forged by remoteness, education deficiency, lack of involvement from authorities, and these pitfalls were duly identified before the project was engaged. This is why perseverance and resolution will be our best assets in creating new habits and establishing the sound foundations of the future Handimachal centre.
Fortunately, we do come across some courageous allies from time to time: such as the owner of our beautiful blue house, Mr Brij Lal, a generous and enlightened man who has accepted to rent the house for two or three additional years and who promises to provide his help in getting the NOC for the small plot of land adjacent to the Handimachal Unit: this plot belongs to the local government and makes a perfect location for the construction of the future Handimachal Centre. All our gratitude goes to you, Mr Brij Lal.
Allies again in all the volunteers who have been taking part in the project since September 2009, and who did not fear to take up the challenge of expatriation, giving up their salary, comfort and convictions.
Again we have new allies with Guillaume and Thomas, who had to push down a few barriers (both physical and psychological) to make themselves useful on our side: I am totally confident that their small programme based on rehabilitation through sports will gradually become indispensable in Kullu. During their short visit, they could meet the necessary people to organise this programme as from September; in France, they are now contacting universities to identify a young graduate in adapted sports, who would be able to join the project for three to six months. During their spare time in the Unit, they engaged their energy in painting the walls of the back room, which we want to turn into a space for games and activities for kids. Never complaining about the difficulties met during their everyday life, Guillaume and Thomas have been attentive, enthusiastic and funny travelling-companions. When in the street in Delhi, Kullu and in all the places we visited, their presence always generated expressions of surprise, and very often questions too, testifying once again how invisible most disabled people are in India, how surprising it is for everybody to see someone in a wheelchair daring to come into restaurants and visiting places ‑ with the underlying truth that disability is still one of the unspoken subjects within Indian society.
Our Indian tour reached its peak in the small village of Rewalsar, one of the local pilgrimage places of Tibetan Buddhism in India: on that day, thousands of villagers from the Buddhist valleys of Lahaul-Spiti, of Kinnaur, even from Kullu, and of course from nearby Dharamsala, were gathering to celebrate Guru Rimpoche’s birthday. In the 8th century, this “Second Buddha” (Padmasambhava) spent several years meditating in a cave above the village and a recently-built gigantic statue of this legendary figure now presides over the small lake of Rewalsar, equally sacred for Hindus and Sikhs followers. The place is usually quiet and serene, but with the mob of colourful Buddhist worshippers, all of them saying mantras while endlessly walking round the lake, the scene becomes totally extraordinary. With old friends met by chance, the magic of colours and devotion, the breathtaking panorama of snow-capped mountains all around, this was a perfect day which we silently kept as a treasure on the long and hectic road to Delhi airport.
Dominique Dufau, President, Association Handimachal
More photographs in the "Spring 2011" album