TEN: ASIA AND THE USA

Previous chapter: NINE: AFRICA SURVEY

Our ship entered Bombay harbour late one afternoon. Exotic India lay ahead and beneath me, as I stood on deck, cooks in the ship’s galleys were tossing kitchen waste into the water where sharks turned belly-up to snatch mouthfuls, their tails lashing the mix of food and water into foam. And a few yards away, quite unconcerned, young children jumped between the moored fishing boats, chasing each other about. To me, it seemed tremendously dangerous, but perhaps no more so than it is for children to cross a road in heavy traffic, in India or at home.

Once ashore, I looked up Tamus Kareghat – an Indian with whom I had shared a room at the Bede House Settlement in Bermondsey during my last two years at the LSE. It may be recalled that Tamus had studied architecture, also at London University, and had always been most imaginative and artistic, producing amazing drawings and models for the building he dreamt of erecting. Unfortunately, his maths fell far short of his artistic ability and he failed his structural exams time after time. But there he was, in the Bombay telephone catalogue: Tamus Kareghat, Architect, so I went to visit him. It was great to meet up with an old room-mate, now on home territory, and he soon dragged me off to see his latest edifice in the final stages of its construction.

We entered a large building site, in the middle of which rose an eight-storey building clad in scaffolding. The ground swarmed with labourers wielding tools, mixing concrete, carrying loaded baskets on their heads, trimming the branches off long saplings – and for the first time I noticed that the network around Tamus’s building was not of steel, but of wooden poles and saplings lashed together with rope – and looking decidedly wonky.

‘There are no lifts,’ cried Tamus cheerfully, ‘but stairs are reaching up to very top. Mind how you go after the third floor!’ He raced off, and the first two floors were pretty normal, if dank, gloomy and sour with the smell of newly poured concrete. As we got higher I saw that many internal walls had yet to be built, and higher still there were pillars but no exterior walls to hold the floor above – just a dizzying view of Bombay in the sun through the twisted scaffolding. Up again, and now the stairs themselves lacked walls, while portions of floor were also missing. I called to Tamus to ask if he ever did pass those exams in structural loading, but he was several steps ahead and seemed not to hear me. The seventh floor was partially finished, and lay quite open in the sun, though already several concrete stair treads led eagerly upwards to the sky. I kept close to one such piece of masonry while Tamus wandered about the unfinished, unprotected floor elaborating his ideas for future buildings. I accepted gladly when he suggested we get down to ground level once more.

jantar mantar delhi january 1965
The Janta Mantar, Delhi, January 1965

 

A third-class railway ticket got me to Delhi where, once again, I visited the offices of the main international volunteer agencies in order to work out an itinerary for my research. Much of my time was in the crowded city itself, a chaos of forts, mosques, temples and dwellings, markets, shops, railway stations and ancient ruins. Particularly intriguing to me was a large instrument from Moghul times, the Janta Mantar, surrounded by dusty office blocks. It had once served to make precise astronomical calculations, either as a sun dial or by making celestial observations with the naked eye. It seemed worth making a water colour sketch of its remarkable shape.

One afternoon, though, I took a bus to the southern outskirts of the city and then set off walking between fields and roadside villages, ditches, piles of cow dung “pancakes” stacked by the roadside drying and ready to sell as fuel for the kitchen. The self-same cows lay under trees, chewing their cud in the oppressive heat.

purana qila jan 1965

Purana Q’ila, Delhi, January 1965

 

I came eventually to what I took to be a deserted, stone-built town. It had a great gateway, with towers on either side, one of which had lost its top. Inside, were buildings, some quite ornate, which were obviously ancient. But strangest, was that I could wander from one to the other completely alone, which after a while began to feel unnerving. Naturally I got to thinking of cobras and other unpleasant possibilities, so I left, but once outside the gates, I paused and painted a watercolour sketch of the gateway and outer wall. Then I wandered back to Delhi in the evening sunlight, overtaken now and then by creaking wooden carts pulled by lumbering oxen.   Little could I imagine that I had been within a few yards of the spot where Adam, Anne, Magnus and Edvard would have their home nearly fifty years later.

I went on to visit volunteers in Chandigar and the old hill town, Simla, and then took a bus across a mountain range to Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan followers in exile had found asylum. Walking up a long wooded road from the coach station to their settlement, I was relieved when a sleek black car drew up and a well-dressed woman in the back offered me a lift. She asked me where I was going and I explained that I wanted to interview a Canadian volunteer who was teaching science subjects to Tibetan monks – well read in their own ancient religion, but less knowledgeable of modern science and technology than an English ten year-old. ‘Well, I think they might still be able to teach their teacher a thing or two,’ said the lady as her car came to a halt at the settlement. ‘By the way, I am the Dalai Lama’s sister.’  Oops!

canadian volunteer teacher dharamsala
Canadian volunteer teacher

 

The Canadian volunteer readily confirmed her opinion. ‘They are so bright and quick to learn,’ she said, ‘and they’re often ahead of the game. For example, this morning I told them about the difference between radio waves which can reach antennae in many directions, and TV waves which are straight or line-of-sight, and the problem this causes for TV reception. Immediately, one of the monks put up his hand and said, “But you told us last week about those satellites that circle the Earth. Why not send up a TV ray and reflect it back to receivers located down here?” Which is, of course, exactly what happens. It is a sheer joy working with these guys.’

Back from the mountains and on the train heading east I had the chance to stop off at Agra and see the exquisite Taj Mahal, but I wanted to save this wonder of architecture until I could see it together with Sigyn, and so passed it by on my way to Benares with its world-famous Ghats on the banks of the River Ganges. These, I found pretty dismal and sordid, though had I been in the company of someone who could explain their history, the role of the yellow-clad sadhus and the rites, I might well have left Benares with a completely different impression.

Calcutta, too, was pretty grim, mainly because I visited volunteers in some of the city’s most impoverished quarters, and I was glad to cross the massive iron bridge over the Hooghly River and head to Orissa and an ashram that housed a leprosy colony.  This, too, was very poor, but at least it was in the countryside and there were no milling throngs of people that crowded every street and alley in Calcutta. In fact, very few people seemed to come near the ashram, as leprosy was still feared as an illness of an almost supernatural nature.

The first week, I felt slightly superior, being the only European on the whole ashram. Not that I felt superior to the others there, but that I myself was living a truly “ethnic” life, eating and sleeping just like anybody else, almost “truly” Indian.  Each day we ate rice, dal and vegetarian stew and I slept in a room with little furniture and no electric light. I had cast off the trappings of modern civilisation and felt slightly proud of it. By the second week, though, as I continued digging a huge, circular water tank to be filled by the coming monsoon, my pride began to weaken. I began to long for some little comfort; I became consumed with the idea of a tin of condensed milk. Part of me resisted the idea; it would be to betray the hundreds of others on the ashram who could not afford such a luxury. But the temptation was too great and I weakened. I walked to a nearby town, bought myself a tin, and feeling very guilty returned to the ashram with it concealed under my jacket. That night, in the dark, I pierced two holes in the lid, slid in a straw and sucked the delicious, creamy contents.

I rationed myself to five long sucks per evening, and was puzzled after a couple of nights to find it increasingly difficult to get any condensed milk out, though what did come was very tasty and somehow crunchy, as condensed milk or honey gets when it ages and crystallises. Extra delicious, I felt. But later still, nothing more would come out, though the tin felt half-full. Next morning, I opened the tin with my penknife, and solved the mystery: it was an inch deep and seething with tiny black ants.

Back in Calcutta I took the train first to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to visit a world-famous community development programme at another ashram, Comilla, several hours’ boat ride from the capital, Dhaka. My vessel was magnificent and looked rather like the 19th century paddle steamers that plied the Mississippi at the time of Mark Twain. And it was just one of dozens berthed at Dhaka that left each day for different river and coastal destinations. They sat flat on the water, several storeys high, with ancient mahogany-lined saloons and tall, straight funnels that poured out clouds of black smoke. Some had propellers, but others had the old fashioned paddle wheels, one on either side. They had immense character and looked stately as they steamed along low-lying water channels between the vast paddy fields – rather as ships do in Holland between the fields of tulips.

paddle steamer dhaka to comilla

Paddle steamer: Dhaka to Comilla

 

Then it was back across the Brahmaputra River, on a night of the full moon and the river flowing vast, some miles across, to Calcutta and onwards towards the hills. At one point I paid a few rupees to a Sikh lorry driver to take me in his cab up into the mountains to Kathmandu in Nepal. We climbed and climbed and the road became narrow and twisting, with frightening drops to the mountain torrents far below. Of course the driver had to point out various spots where other vehicles had left the road and sometimes we saw the mangled wreckage on rocks and bushes. What I hadn’t reckoned on when I struck the deal for this trip was that I would be trapped between the driver and another chap on the cab seat (with no chance of getting out fast in an emergency), that this joker would retail one funny story after another in Hindi and that the Sikh would then explode with laughter, his eyes filling with tears, both hands fluttering in the air until he wiped his eyes and once more gripped the steering wheel. It was truly a nightmare journey and I vowed not to repeat it, but to fly back to Calcutta from Kathmandu.

Kathmandu was lovely, quiet and relatively empty. The hordes of Western backpackers, loafers and scroungers that later settled there, had still not arrived and one could walk the streets unnoticed and marvel at the wood carvings on the temple facades, many of which were hanging loose or just lying in the street rotting away. After meeting some volunteers, I headed out of from the city to the nearby town of Badgaon. From there, they said, if I got up really early, I would be able to see Mount Everest. I spent a cold night there and early next morning climbed to a ridge above the town peering eastwards towards the sunrise and – yes, technically, I could see Mount Everest, but it was no more than a pimple set in a panorama of more majestic snow-clad peaks.

Back in Calcutta for the third time I had a crucial decision to make. My pre-paid air ticket said ‘Calcutta-London’, but I found that if I cashed it in I could fly from Calcutta to Bangkok to Hong Kong to Manilla, to Tokyo and across the Pacific almost to San Francisco. For a few dollars more, I could reach San Francisco itself. A couple of hundred dollars would see me across to New York, visiting Peace Corps training courses and their headquarters in Washington. Once in the Big Apple, I would be completely broke, but what the heck – something would surely turn up. It was a gamble, but life is a gamble and the chance of going right round the world was just too tempting. I cashed in my ticket.

Bangkok was golden temples and kite flying in the evening sunlight, the “male” kites with shards of glass in their tails to cut the lines of others, quick but difficult to handle, competing with “female” kites, which are more airworthy and easy to fly, but slower.

A young staff member at the VSO office in town invited me to join him on a visit to his Thai girlfriend’s family home in a village an hour north of the capital by train. Late on Friday afternoon the train stopped at a platform in the middle of nowhere and we set off walking along the ridges that divided field after green field of paddy rice. Now and then we reached a cluster of houses and where the ground was slightly higher children were flying their colourful kites, but turned, shouted and waved to us as we passed by. We arrived, not as I’d expected at a village, but at a lone cluster of huts on the bank of a considerable river. The largest hut stood on wooden stilts, giving it a slight advantage at flood time and we reached it through a back yard or allotment in which scrawny hens were still scratching about, though the evening sun had now touched the western horizon.

To my disappointment, the Thai girlfriend – who I’m sure was gorgeous – was not around; nor did she materialise at all during our short stay; I never quite understood why. But, by smiles, bows and the translating skills of a teenage brother, her parents made us welcome. Meanwhile, various smaller offspring leapt about and urged us to fly kites with them. Their mother shooed them off, and indicated that we could swim and then rest until food was ready. I hesitated about a dip in the main river, partly through fear of currents, but mainly because we were to swim in sarongs – wrap-around cloths almost like long dresses. Below the house lay a small inlet with two or three slender boats moored to the bank and we slipped between them into the warm, muddy water. Immediately the sarong clung to my legs and I could only keep afloat by thrashing with my arms and finally grabbing a boat. There must be a way to swim in a sarong, but to date I have not learnt it.

swimming spot thailand

Our swimming spot

 

The evening meal turned out to be something of a speciality, though with very basic ingredients. A large bowl of rice stood in the middle of the table and each of our plates was already loaded with white meat in a creamy sauce and steamed greens. Rice, meat and greens were tasty, though I was less taken by the sauce.  Concentrating on the meat and avoiding the sauce, I heard the son ask my VSO friend, ‘You like?’

‘Oh yes, very nice.’

‘Yes. Is cobra meat. Very nice.’

COBRA?!

It seems the snake had slithered into the back yard several times in past weeks and killed their hens. Nothing unusual about that, it seemed, but it had become too much for the lady of the house and early that morning she’d waited for it with a big stick. Rather shaken, I toyed with my food, finally finishing the rice, greens and cobra. But I still couldn’t get on with the sauce and left most of it on the plate.

Hong Kong was still very much a British Colony in 1965; everything running smoothly; immaculately dressed policemen ensuring that the traffic flowed as it might in Cardiff – in contrast to the motorised chaos I’d seen in every African and Asian city over the previous fifteen months. What specially intrigued me though was the floating village of Aberdeen on the south shore of Hong Kong Island, with six hundred or more rickety wooden junks moored together, home to perhaps 10,000 people. What a contrast to the few boats lining each side of the Seine in Paris, which I was finally starting to miss! But I did not have a completely romantic view of this huge water-based community, knowing of the problems it must experience with overcrowding, illness, poverty and the seasonal hurricanes that sweep the coast of China.

On my way to Hong Kong airport, to catch the plane for Manilla in the Philippines, I found myself counting the Victorian railings of a little park and stupidly made an internal forecast. ‘If I end on an even number,’ I told myself, ‘the plane will crash’. It ended even; so I quickly thought up some other silly test with which to “neutralise” the first ill omen. But the second test only confirmed the first. I thought about a third test, but then chided myself for being so ridiculously superstitious. Yet even common sense could not quite suppress the sick feeling in my stomach. I decided not to try any third experiment for fear that if that, too, prophesied doom, I might actually take it seriously and miss the flight. And if I missed the flight – and the plane landed safely – I would be utterly ashamed of my irrational behaviour. To make matters worse, the sky was now darkening over and the ferry from Kowloon had to force its way through mounting waves.

Let rationalists everywhere rejoice! I took the flight: and it was, thanks to Philippine Airlines, one of the best I have ever enjoyed. For some reason, we were all treated as Club Class passengers (or the 1965 equivalent), with free everything and the prettiest and most attentive hostesses imaginable. I stepped off the plane at Manila re-energised and, admittedly, quite tipsy.

In the Philippines it was, yet again, a matter of meeting international voluntary agencies and collecting the views of the volunteers and the local people who employed them, so I will skip all the details here. But walking down a street in Manila I did experience one strange feeling and, paradoxically, that was one of utter normality. Remember, I had been travelling almost non-stop for sixteen months, with one “exotic” setting replacing the last in rapid succession. Many a night I had half-woken, unsure of where I was – even of which country I was in – and had then forced myself to wake up fully in order to get a grip on my situation. In Manila, for the first time, I had half-woken, had no idea of where I was, but decided that I felt warm, dry and comfortable, I had no pain and no niggling fears – so wherever on earth I might be, things were OK, and I drifted off again.

Walking down that street, the only European in view and with the temperature well up into the thirties, it suddenly felt “normal” and as “at home” as if I had been in Paris or Manchester. I could not decide whether to be pleased by this feeling of normality, as I had become a citizen of the world, or disappointed by my loss of the thrill of experiencing a new, strange place.

Something similar happened in Japan. Much of Tokyo seemed very ordinary, cramped and grotty – with its lack of pavements (just a line painted on the tarmac to separate cars from pedestrians) and ugly lines of poles at all angles, drooping with black electric cables. Then someone advised me to travel to Miko, a town some hours from Tokyo, to see a festival, a historical pageant celebrating a battle hundreds of years ago. I arrived following a hefty downpour to find the procession well under way and it was certainly impressive with its battalions of samurai marching side by side, followed by archers, all in ancient combat gear. Then came lumbering elephants, also dressed in armour, foot soldiers, farmers carrying ancient implements… it seemed endless. The whole was made even more impressive and theatrical by shafts of sunlight piercing the falling rain and illuminating a group of samurai here, an elephant there.

miko pageant

Miko pageant

 

The crowd stood three or four deep and many of the onlookers had dressed in traditional costume. I found myself next to a woman, the very model of a Japanese lady: jet black hair framing a chalky white face with dark eye-brows and bright red lips; she wore a flowery kimono of pink and white, plus a broad sash tied behind in a large bow. Next to her, her daughter, aged perhaps three, looked like a doll in an identical miniature costume. Both were immaculate. In contrast to the normality of Manilla, this Japanese setting felt totally alien, light years from the world I knew. I felt that the people around me were strange and somehow not on the same wavelength.

The little girl was bored. Because of the crowd, she could see nothing of the spectacle that captivated her mother so she looked about for something to do. She found it in the shape of a muddy puddle. In three seconds she was in it, stamping happily, her black shoes, white socks and kimono instantly spattered and sodden. It took another few seconds before mother noticed what her pretty one was up to. And now I come to the point: the look on that Japanese mother’s face, of disbelief, shock, despair – what you might now call an OMG look – was one than any mother in the world would have given. It brought home to me the one-ness of the human race; it confirmed that what we have in common is so much deeper than all the outward differences.

Crossing the Pacific, I spent three days in Hawaii, or rather Honolulu, meeting American Peace Corps personnel. I found Honolulu town totally commercialised, a phoney tourist trap. Everything was available – if you paid – from the dearest hotels to a single can of “Hawaiian air” (US$1.00 – a fifth of my daily budget). If I had been able to visit other Hawaiian islands with their beaches and active volcanoes, and to meet ordinary people going about their work, I am sure Hawaii would have left a far better impression, but as for Honolulu town – you can keep it.

In San Francisco, $90 of the $200 I had to see me across the USA went straight on a Greyhound ticket. ‘Go anywhere you like: $90 for ninety days unlimited bus travel.’ I visited acquaintances in San Francisco and across the bay at Berkeley University and then headed down to Los Angeles to stay with Gil and Herschel Shorr, good friends from CCIVS-Paris years. Herschel had tried his hands at many things and now ran a small clock repair workshop. In the 1960s people still thought of repairing things that broke, but the Throw-Away Society was on the horizon. As the repair business began to dry up, Herschel found a new source of income. The Hollywood film studios were just down the road and often needed clocks as props in historical movies. Of course they had to be of exactly the right era: if the film portrayed life in 1928, you could not stand a clock dating from 1935 on the mantelshelf. Luckily, Herschel had accumulated scores of old timepieces; they had stood around for years; but now they came into their own as Hollywood paid hundreds of dollars apiece to hire them for films. Times were good for Mr and Mrs Shorr.

(But Herschel had his bad times, too. On 17th January 1994, a major earthquake hit Los Angeles. Fifty-seven people died and nearly 9,000 were injured. Houses, fly-overs and freeways collapsed, including the Santa Monica freeway – supposedly the busiest freeway in the United Sates. The earthquake had its epicentre just 14 miles from his workshop and when Herschel finally managed to reach it, five miles from the house, all his clocks had tumbled from their shelves, glass faces smashed, woodwork splintered. Worse, perhaps: all the filing cabinets – each one with its partitioned shelves holding springs, cog wheels, pendulums, escape mechanisms, nuts, bolts, washers, glasses, screws – for specific clocks of specific vintages – all had been shaken out and mixed together on the floor. Then, each day for four months, Herschel sat with a pair of tweezers extracting item after item from the mess – and replacing it in its proper little box.)

The Greyhound bus to Albuquerque in New Mexico took me fairly close to the Grand Canyon, but as with the Taj Mahal, I left it until I could see it together with Sigyn. Sadly, that was never to happen with either one. At Albuquerque, I stopped off at a Peace Corps training course where young Americans were getting ready to leave for two years in Africa, Asia or Latin America. I was able to pass on to them some of the findings from my travels, and made a special point about them not slipping into a ‘master-servant’ relationship with any local people they might employ overseas.

Next, to Dallas and a special pilgrimage to the spot on Elm Street where President John Kennedy had been killed only eighteen months earlier. Kennedy, of course, was closely linked to the Peace Corps and had inspired many of us (at that time, at least) to believe that the USA was taking a more principled and even idealistic course in its foreign policies. As I stood on the pavement a few yards from the Texas School Book Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots (others may also have been involved) a large man came up and asked ominously what I was doing in Dallas. ‘Obviously an F.B.I. agent,’ I thought. ‘They’re going to drag me in for questioning!’ So, in the mildest of tones and putting on what I hoped was an endearing British accent, I explained my connections with the Peace Corps, a programme that President Kennedy had fully approved. His next remark left me in no doubt that he was an undercover agent leading me into a trap. He asked, ‘What are your politics? I’m a socialist myself.’ ‘Yeah – and I’m the Prince of Wales!’ I thought. ‘How many socialists are there in Dallas, and who would admit this to a complete stranger?’

The funny thing is: he was a socialist and one of the nicest and most courageous men I ever met. He organised trade union action in some mid-Western city and, with his wife and two children, had come to Dallas for the same reason as I. We spent the whole afternoon together visiting some kind of amusement park and he told me of the union work he did and the threats and other problems he faced in organising labour in a violent, right-wing community. Before my Greyhound left town we exchanged names and addresses and, later, I deeply regretted that I never kept up contact with him as he was one of the most impressive people I met on my 18 months’ journey. (Or was he just a very smart F.B.I. operative? If so, his wife and kids deserved Oscars for best supporting roles.)

As the bus drove on day and night through Oklahoma, Arkansas and Tennessee a new worry began to preoccupy me: just how was I going to get back across the Atlantic? In far-off Calcutta, the matter had seemed academic, but now – with $100 to my name and New York only a few days away– it had become crucial.

I stopped off in Colonial Williamsburg, where the 18th century houses and streets had been conserved to a very high standard – in contrast to many of the ugly, run-down urban areas I had also passed through. In Washington I met up again with Peace Corps staff and volunteers and went on to see the White House, the US Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial with its huge carving of Abe, reclining and gripping the arm rests of his seat. It was from the steps of this Grecian-style temple that Martin Luther King had made his “I have a dream…” speech two years before my visit. But even in the midst of all these meetings and sightseeing the question kept niggling me: How do you plan to cross the Atlantic Ocean?

Still without an answer, I stepped off the Greyhound bus in New York, made for the Empire State Building (then the tallest building in the world) and looked out from its 102nd floor at the blue Atlantic. Even in the remotest Congolese village, England and France had never felt so far away. A day or two later, I gave a final talk about volunteers in Africa and Asia to a conference in the United Nations building and found myself chatting to an old friend from the American Friends (Quakers) Service Committee. We had known each other in Paris, and he was now about to come up with a wonderful solution to my problem. He told me of a ship that made several transatlantic crossings each summer, taking thousands of young Americans for a Summer Programme in Europe. I should phone the headquarters and see if they needed a speaker for the afternoon educational talks given on board. No pay, but food and passage would be free.

I prepared that phone call carefully, then dialled and offered to speak about volunteer projects around the world, about choice spots to visit from northern Sweden to the beaches of Valencia – and about the romance of Paris and life on the river. It did the trick and they told me to be ready to sail in four days. Three other speakers and I would have eight hundred college students to entertain.

The crossing itself was out of this world – with any number of young women (and, indeed, men) wanting to meet me. Celebrity? Apart from a heady half hour of fame years later at Hanoi Central railway station, I was never so popular, before or since.

We landed in Cherbourg and I went straight to Paris and a great party organised by friends at CCIVS. Sigyn was there, of course. She had been working for a year in the Paris secretariat of the American Friends Service Committee, helping to place volunteers on work camps. At the party she looked fantastic – younger and more beautiful than ever, slimmer and with an unusual radiance. She told me she had been following a macrobiotic diet, starting by eating only wholegrain brown rice for two weeks and then slowly introducing other foods, following a special routine. She followed the advice of a small book, Les Quatre Merveilles Végétales that proclaimed the virtues of carrots, lemon, garlic and thyme. Whatever it was, I was bowled over, and I naturally thought: what a wonderful wife to have!

But then something sad and perverse happened: the thought of marriage, of being tied down to one person for the rest of my life, suddenly repelled me again. Perhaps it was the loss of freedom. Perhaps it was the thought of getting a paying job and leading a conventional life. Perhaps I was just exhausted. Whatever it was, I told Sigyn that I had no plans to marry her or anybody else. She was bitterly disappointed, having waited for me all that time – and of course today I still feel guilty at causing her such hurt – but I hardened my heart, left Paris next morning and headed home to Manchester.

My mother was shocked when she first saw me, as I was skeletal thin and had a huge mop of thick black hair. She tried to feed me up, but I was often travelling that autumn, getting my booklet (Volunteers in Africa and Asia) printed and twice visiting Rome for conferences at the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). Both brought together young people from around the world who had something useful to say about poverty and development – and both left me disillusioned. We debated and we signed International Charters deploring poverty and injustice, but we were housed in posh hotels and ate the best of everything. It felt quite hypocritical and added to my growing conviction that the big international aid agencies were, if anything, benefiting the rich at least as much as the poor.

On one occasion we were all invited to the Vatican for a special audience with Pope Paul VI. He congratulated us on our commitment to work for a better world and shook us each by the hand, but the very next day the Vatican sent a message to the Catholic participants at our conference instructing them to oppose any mention of birth control from our final report.

My findings from this round-the-world-trip were published by the CCIVS in various newsletters and I, too, published a booklet, Volunteers in Africa and Asia. Perhaps the most telling conclusion – having seen such a range of volunteers and work projects – was that successful placements seemed to depend less on the volunteers themselves and more on the character of the person(s) overseeing them. If this person had the imagination and empathy to sense what makes volunteers tick, they would respond well and give of their very best; but if the person treated them as cheap labour, commitment soon waned and things fell apart. Pretty obvious, really, but a lesson that many volunteer agencies seem still to need to learn.

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