I admit it, despite having a good couple of months to prepare, I have left some of my shopping for Heathrow Airport. I still need a sun hat. But I arrive in the departure lounge, secure in the knowledge that there is always a little traveller's shop to be found in these places.
It turns out I am somewhat misguided. Should I have wanted Beluga caviar, a Rolex watch, or anything from the vast Harrod's outlet, I would have been alright. The Prada, Gucci and Tiffany & Co shops all sit in a row, completely devoid of customers (for some reason this makes me feel just a little bit smug). After my second circuit of the duty-free shopping area, I give up and get a pint in the pub. I can find a hat in Delhi.
The flight is comfortable but sleepless. The obligatory 30 minute delay is in effect, and combined with apathetic Delhi baggage handlers, I am almost two hours later than my poor taxi driver anticipated. He takes it in good humour though, as you would hope from a man who regularly braved the traffic "system" of Delhi.
He drops me at an unexpectedly nice flat, which I have all to myself for the next few days. It is next door to the main MSF guesthouse, and after a much-needed shower, I meet some of the people working in the capital. MSF is big on acronyms. The pre-departure course I have just attended barely let a sentence go by without mentioning a TESACO, FinCo or IMO. In the classroom, it was bewildering, but now the acronyms start to crystallise into real life. For example I meet the FinCo (Financial Coordinator, nothing to do with sharks or aqua sports) who turns out to be a lovely lady from the Phillipines bearing a homemade blueberry cheesecake.
The cheesecake and I are escorted to the Head of Mission's place, where he is hosting a Sunday brunch. I have tried to be careful not to develop expectations for this trip. But I would have been surprised to say the least if someone had told me that on Day One I would be eating French toast topped with maple syrup, while playing with some of the MSF employee's toddlers. Everyone is incredibly nice (as is the cheesecake and French toast), but sleep deprivation has taken a big bite out of my social skills, so I am glad to get back to the flat for a little nap.
The next few days pass in a flurry of briefings, registrations, hat shopping and particularly fine currys. Before long I find myself on a plane to Patna, the capital of Bihar state. Depending on exactly what you read, if Bihar were a country in its own right, its per capita income would be the third lowest in the world. About 30% of the population live below India's poverty line, which means they earn something like 12 pence per day or less. The population is a little over 100 million, with 58% of these below the age of 25.
From Patna, it takes no less than three MSF vehicles and seven hours to get me to Biraul, my final destination. As the journey progresses, the roads get progressively bumpier, and the children get progressively thinner. Eventually, myself and a large refridgerator with which I have shared most of the journey, are dropped off at the ex-pat's house on the outskirts of town. I am greeted with a smile, a wave and a paradoxical "bye bye" from a little gaggle of children who cannot be more than five years old. I get a pang of the very familiar "what the bloody hell am I doing here?" feeling. I suppose the next six months will tell.
This post was first published in Spanish in 20minutos.es