Friday, 28 May 2010

South-east Asia

Time to think
I arrived in south-east Asia almost two months ago and it has passed by both quickly and slowly. Quickly, because I have not had much time to be bored as I have raced from one place to another, and slowly because it has been both expensive (compared to India) and often tiring. Unlike India, where I was travelling nearly always alone and would rarely meet another traveller to talk to, in south-east Asia I met many people, both foreign and local and sometimes it was hard to say goodbye. Right now I am hurtling along in a train with an average speed of less than 30 mph to the south of Vietnam on my way back to Bangkok, from where I plan to catch a flight back to India. Leaving India two months ago was almost a relief as I was tiring of being caught in a sea of people desperately pushing others aside so that they can "reach the top". But I now feel drawn back to the rat racing roads, partly so that I can continue my adventure on my own motorcycle and partly, I must admit, because I miss my bestest friend in the world, back in the UK. Returning to India will be the last stepping stone before I head back to England after being on the move for probably 10 months.

The prospect of returning is, though, also a little daunting because I still don't know what I will do when I get there. And I can't really say I'd be returning home because I don't feel I really have one. There is my parents' place but no job opportunities so I can't be more than a squatter. There is Brighton, which used to be my home but I don't want to work in a call centre. Then there is London where there is probably a temporary floor or bed I could use while I find a place of my own. In London I am sure there is a job to be found, but as expected, travelling has not brought me any closer to knowing what sort of job to look for. Right now, and I expect it might be the same in two or three months, I don't yet feel like settling down to a long term serious job. Maybe I need to find something part time where I can use my spare time to explore other interests such as sculpture. However, having a little money for a change also sounds appealing. With a job I would be able to afford to make more of my weekends: maybe buy a motorbike and ride anywhere in search of adventure. Windsurfing, kite-surfing, skiing - all those things that I couldn't do a lot of as a student with a near empty wallet. But I'm not sure if they really excite me as much as they used to. Am I getting old or am spoilt by my exotic adventures? What I dream of still is dramatic landscapes with high mountains towering over beautiful sea bays. Put me in such a landscape and it doesn't matter so much what work I do. The only problem is that such landscapes are a long way from friends and family - whom are good to see once in a while!

The train I am sitting in at the moment is taking me from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. I just returned from an adventure on a Russian Minsk motorcycle so finding myself back in an expensive hostel full of rich rowdy young people was a bit of an anti-climax. I wanted to catch a sleeper train south but I was not prepared to wait an extra day for an available birth so I have hopped on the next train where I'll only have to endure one night sitting on a wooden bench. The journey should take 35 hours. The floor looks quite clean so I expect I'll manage to stretch out for a few hours when it gets quieter. What I am impressed by and should tell Southern Railways - that even the bottom class of the trains seem to have electrical power points available to use.

Bangkok to Chiang Mai
After flying from Kolkata, India, I stayed a little over a weak relaxing at a friend's house in Bangkok after which I caught a train to Chiang Mai. There, I stayed longer than expected since, so it turned out, there was a water festival celebrating the Thai new year. Everyday for a week everyone goes crazy throwing water at passer-bys and many people ride their motorbikes or pile onto the back of pick-up trucks throwing and firing water at the crowds on the street. The jolly atmosphere makes it easy to make friends and I had a lot of fun riding a rented mountain bike around shooting with my water pistol at people.

At first I couldn't see what attracted so many tourists to Chiang Mai but by the end of the week I could see that it had a little for most people. It has quite a modern vibe where Thai and Western cultures intermingle. It took a little getting used to the seedy old men with young women on their arms but in the end I accepted them, as one couldn't say who was being taken advantage of more as both got what they wanted. The men get their pretty girl and the girls get access to money. The main negative aspect of such relationships is, as a man told me with a young girl on his arm, that it can feel like entrapment for the girl as she has everything to lose if the relationship turns sour. I think it is common for the Thai women to become a sort of servant. Having said that Thai women are not stupid and not as innocent as they might look. They know what they want and constantly use their charm that you spend more money than you intended. But they play the game fairly and usually genuinely become emotionally involved. I am speaking more generally now. An example of how it applies with their guest houses: where I was staying my host was very friendly and frequently provided us with free food and snacks, knowing all too well that her guests will probably stay longer and order more drinks. The drinks were not expensive - so why not? Female friends of the host would also drop by and chat with the guests, probably being compensated by the host with the occasional free drink and of course they have potential access to a "forang" lifestyle.

My favourite place I liked to eat was because, apart from the fact that tasty satisfying brown rice was served, the lady who runs the place is so warm hearted. Jacky's Place - check it out if you are ever there. On her sign board outside it says "Food made with [heart]" and it feels like it is, which is why I wasn't the only person to come back for more and I miss eating there.

My favourite place to have a drink, not for the prices but for the music, was the North Gate Jazz Bar. Whenever I went and they had some locals jamming with the leader from a band called the New City Gurus (which unfortunately I missed). I thought they were absolutely ace. The second time I wish I could have recorded them. There were some beautiful parts where they really came together, but being created at that moment will probably never be repeated. And no, I was not drunk - I had only had the cheapest drink - ginger ale.

Renting a motorbike in Chiang Mai was cheap, at less than £2 per day, but it took a long time for me to find a bike that I liked to ride that was not much more expensive. I wanted a fully manual bike with, ideally, a gearing system of one down four up. I eventually found one, a Honda Sonic - although it was shaped like a scooter. It was a bit sportier than most scooters having a liquid cooled 125 cc engine and although it felt a bit small for me but was a nippy machine to ride.

The long way to Pai
On a day trip I had spotted a sign to Pai being 170 km away. It was clearly a different route to the main road and about 60 km further. Pai is another popular tourist destination so I decided to ride there to see what all the fuss was about. The road was not marked on my google map so right from the beginning it looked like I was in for my first adventure since India. The first 80 km the roads were superb - winding higher and higher into the mountains. Then without warning the road suddenly turned into a dirt track and progress became slower and slower. On my Eee I could see that I was heading west and not north west in the direction of Pai. I began to feel a bit foolish as I found myself an hour from the last village in the mountains with lots of small forest fires burning around me and only a quarter of a litre of water in my bag, no food and a dwindling amount of fuel. I was usually in sight of a remote house or two down in a valley but it did feel very remote. I took some comfort in the fact that every half an hour I had passed someone going the other way - also on scooters. When I stopped them to ask the way to Pai they always pointed in the same forward direction. What I couldn't tell though is if they thought I was a nutter or that I special survival powers.

Eventually I passed through a village that consisted of about 10 wooden houses, a shop, a restaurant and a petrol station consisting of a couple of barrels and hand pump. I was glad to restock with fuel and provisions, particularly fuel, as my petrol tank was only large enough to take me 120 km. I pressed on and passed through a couple more villages as the track condition increasingly degraded. On the steep inclines there was sometimes almost a foot of fine dust hiding ruts and pot holes. Progress was very slow and it increasingly looked like I would have to ask for a place to sleep in one of the remote villages. In a few hours I had only covered 30 km and still had another 60 km to do. But again without warning I suddenly found myself back on fresh tarmac and the remainder of the journey, which was all down hill, took no time at all. The whole journey had taken about 7 hours. Compare this to the return journey on the normal route, which took me 2.5 hours. The return journey, although less of an adventure was actually extremely fun, with very steep bendy roads where I could safely chase and over take the tourist buses.

Beyond Pai and bad observation
When I arrived at Pai I met an Indonesian girl who was also looking for accommodation and we became travel buddies for the next few days, exploring the surrounding area with my motorbike. On one day we accompanied another male motor biker a further 125 km north-west to visit some villages that continued the long-neck tradition, which involves placing as many metal rings around the necks of the women, forcing their shoulders to drop - apparently originally to safeguard a families gold and silver. We only had time to visit one village and it was a bit of a strange tourist trap, but just the ride made the trip worth it. Normally I try to ride as fuel efficiently as possible but this didn't enable me to keep up with the other rider, particularly having a passenger. I was careful to break early as I didn't feel the grip of the tires were particularly good and I didn't want to risk slipping on a bend. So it was here that I grew a liking to pushing an engine to its limits. I was surprised how much power I could get out of the bike with sufficient revs. The European made Honda engine also sounded so much smoother than my Indian built Yamaha, which sometimes sounds like a spoon being scraped over a cheese grater. With revs close to maximum we were able to keep up with the other rider by being quick out of the bends.

Unfortunately, though, my inexperience of Thai roads showed up half-way through the ride. Up until then the roads had been perfect, save for the odd sandy patch, which I am accustomed to spotting. For some reason there are two hazards that fail to register quickly with me. One is pot-holes and the other is speed bumps that are not marked with paint. Perhaps it is because I am used to riding by myself and don't worry if I fail to spot them in time since by simply taking my weight off the seat enables me to glide over them - so I don't normally consider them a hazard. Unfortunately it does not work like that with a passenger for whom it is a lot more difficult to stand up. Perhaps it was that I was too relaxed having just five minutes earlier tasted some locally produced rice whisky and then glanced too long at the beautiful view. Whatever the reason, I spotted the pot-holes too late. By the time I had registered where and how deep they were I had no time to swerve without risking losing control or break without coming to a stop inside a hole, which would certainly have sent us head over heels. The hole we were heading for was big and deep enough for the whole front wheel to fit inside. My mountain biking experience instinctively told me to maintain my speed and to throw my weight back to limit the impact on the front wheel. Our speed was not so great and I had a vision in my mind of the weighed down suspension popping the front wheel into the hole and sending us flying. My evasive actions worked for me as I easily took the bike over the pot hole with no damage to myself or the bike. Unfortunately I can't say the same of my passenger. By throwing my weight back I almost knocked her off and when the back wheel passed over the pot hole the pillion handle badly bruised her bum. It was the first injury I had caused someone or myself since the start of my motorbiking adventures, which I am not proud of. But perhaps it will serve as a useful reminder of how dangerous motorbiking can be. My friend was sweet and said she trusted me not to make another mistake, but if I did that she'd ride on the other guys bike. We passed more pot holes after that and thankfully those times I was looking. Although I still think I am the safer rider, I let her do much of the riding after that to help take her mind off the pain and maybe give her an opportunity to get me back!

After Chiang Mai I continued on the tourist trail to the Laos boarder and caught the slow boat to Luang Prabang. The town was pretty with its French colonial buildings but it was difficult to find anything of interest that had not been turned into another way to capture some tourist money. Every building in the centre was something like a guest house, restaurant or internet cafe. Any bridge that led anywhere more interesting you had to pay a tourist fee equivalent to about $1 to cross. It was a taste of things to come. I paid about $5 to see a waterfall, which I must admit I was impressed by, but soon felt, "get me out of this tourist trap". What was clear to me was that I required a motorbike to explore more rural areas, but I couldn't even find an expensive one that I was prepared to ride.

Nearly all Laos motorbikes are semi-automatic, that is, have no clutch and also the gears increase in the opposite direction to the bikes I'm used to and after you hit forth or fifth they go back to neutral! I can never make those bikes change gear smoothly, particularly going down gears to help control my speed before entering a bend. It is not that I can't ride them, its that I don't find them enjoyable to ride. They are clearly designed for ladies. With the rear break operated with the right foot like a normal motorbike the left hand is completely free and is usually used by the ladies to hold an umbrella to shield against the sun or rain. Otherwise the free hand is used to hold a mobile phone and I've even spotted someone picking their teeth with a tooth pic. Come on, give me a man's bike! In my desperate search for something better I heard about the Minsks of Vietnam. There, I was told, they have male bikes with clutches and gears of 1 down 3 up. I had to go to Vietnam.

I headed in that direction stopping off on the way to view some boulders carved into jars. There I was surprised to find a proper motorbike, but I don't think it was quite the man's bike I was looking for. It was a Shineray from China that looked a bit like a Royel Enfield but the steering did not feel balanced and it felt a bit cheap and ponsy to ride. At $10 per day I decided not to make it my own and would have continued on to the Vietnamese boarder if I hadn't discovered that I could not get a visa at the boarder. Durr.

I back-tracked a bit down to the capital Vientien, but not before stopping off on the way at the famous village, Vang Vieng, where everyone gets drunk and floats down the river, stopping at bars along the way to swing on massive swings into the water, drink more and eat mushrooms and then watch videos of themselves in the Q-bar in the evening. The perfect place for the typical Westerner, but by myself I felt a bit old and boring for it. I joined a day tour where I was taken tubing in a cave and then kayaking down the river having a taste of the swings. The trip took longer than needed because of long periods waiting to be carted about, but in the end I felt it was worth the money. Another day passed with a cycle ride into the countryside in search of a blue lagoon, which was also worth the entrance fee. There you could swim in a crystal clear mountain stream with fish and there was also a swing and tree to jump from.

From Vientien I could have caught a tourist bus for $20 straight to Ha Noi, Vietnam. The journey would have started early in the morning and I would have arrived the following day in the evening, interrupted by an hour or two break at 5am at the boarder. I decided against it and tried to see if I could make the trip in my own time for less - not including accommodation. It also took me about two days not including a days break to see a 7 km cave carved by a river through the mountains. Most rewarding about my journey was having my freedom back. It felt great to be finding local buses by myself and sharing them with friendly local people and chickens. I began to feel a lot more positive about Laos, but my sights where now set on Vietnam. Getting across the boarder turned out to be a challenge if I wanted to beat my $20 target, because local buses, of course, don't cross the boarder! When the cheapest I could find to go just 100 km to and passed the boarder was $13 I decided to hitch. I think I was lucky as I only had to wait 3 minutes before I was sitting in the cabin of a giant truck - almost as big as the ones they have in the USA. I say I think I was lucky because I tried to catch another lift at the boarder that was going more in my direction and nothing came in the two hours I waited while my truck driver had his lunch. Eventually my old truck came round the corner and I was given a lift to a point where I could catch local buses. Actually the last bus I took was a "VIP" bus which cost me $5, but in all my journey still cost me less than $15, so I won!

Minsk spotting
In the final bus to Ha Noi I was straining to catch a glimpse of one of those magical machines I heard were in abundance. At least a motorbike with a clutch. But everywhere I looked I saw that strange naked looking left hand grip. Then, as we headed north, I suddenly spotted one. An unmistakeably old fashioned looking bike with beautiful curves and round headlight. After that I saw a few more but more often caught sight of small Honda motorbikes, similar to the previous generation of bikes they had in India with the square headlights.

Clearly the Minsks were not as in abundance as I had heard. I discovered they were mostly being kept alive by tourists or the occasional local in the countryside that probably had never ridden anything else. Even in the countryside most people ride semi-automatic scooter bikes and those who want a bit more control ride small manual 110 cc Honda's.

I had come so far now to ride a Minsk that I was not going to be put off. I was even too impatient to shop around for the best deal and having decided to rent and not to buy that I could return the bike quickly and continue my travels I went for the first bike I liked the feel of, which was a slightly painful $10 per day. It was not quite the classic bike, but a sportier version with customised larger Japanese suspension that was much more suited to my size. And actually, food and accommodation probably came to $10 per day and fuel was even more expensive so the rent was not the largest chunk. But then it probably was the ride of my life, so what ever it cost it was worth it.

My Minsk motorcycle adventure
The ride was fantastic. The scenery was quite impressive, but for me the best part was riding the bike. Minsk motorbikes are designed to be tough and reliable as well as perform well off road. Although the suspension was little bouncy at times for the roads it handled beautifully and due to its good size and large tires I always felt in control when breaking. Having just a 125cc engine with no fancy electronically controlled fuel injection or timing I guess it is not surprising that it did not feel very powerful going up hill. Particularly in the thin mountain air the engine struggled to get out of second gear and on many occasion on the steeper gradients I had to drop down to first. Having been told the engine is indestructible - to get the most enjoyment out of it I pushed it to the limits, frequently reaching maximum throttle as I tried to gain sufficient revs that the engine could cope with the next gear. Minsk motorbikes are ridiculously noisy when you push them so I tried to ride politely in villages. Out on the open road my engine was constantly screaming - making an easy 30 mph feel supersonic. On the down hills I mostly ruled the roads, still with screaming engine as I accelerated and then braked quickly between the bends. I wish I had a video camera attached to my front wheel recording some of the views, the corners, the ease at which I felt I flipped the bike from side to side as if skiing down the mountain, and of course the sound of the engine. Because the distance between each bend was frequently short, with one bend leading into the next (hence the feeling of skiing), I was never actually going very fast. However, it required my complete and sustained concentration and my adrenaline levels were probably continuously high, that afterwards it left me with a sensation of being spell bound. All I could think was, "wow... ...that was fun!".

Of course I was never quite the fastest. There was always one Vietnamese riding a scooter or driving an empty truck who would pass me - doing their best to maintain their speed on corners. It was keeping an eye out for such drivers that I tried not take any chances on the bends. Even at a slow speed, reactions had to be almost instantaneous to head for the grass verge, as frequently, particular car drivers, would cut the corners leaving very little space for one to pass. Being really tight on the right bends (in Vietnam they drive on the right) I think was essential to staying alive. Yet, so frequently I would see locals casually taking a corner really wide. No wonder so many people are supposed die here on the roads. People of course receive little or no training and knowing where the dangers are is not always obvious until you meet them.

Not a great deal unusual happened on my biking adventure, and as I said, it was more about the thrill of riding a great bike in some beautiful mountains, which is very hard to write about. One memorable occasion was being out on a mountain road, it was raining with thunder and lighting, which added to the drama that it had just got dark. Because of the poor road conditions the next town with accommodation was still two hours away. But I was not really phased by it. There were villages everywhere and I was equipped with a special water proof. It is a poncho with two head holes and a clear piece of plastic in the front. This gave me the opportunity to hire a guide for the rear seat and a lookout for the front. Seriously, though, it was a dramatic environment, but when I decided it was time to give up I simply asked at a restaurant for somewhere to sleep and they offered me a bed.

At first it sounded like a good offer and they provided me with rice, locally caught river fish that I was amazed how good it tasted and a beer - all for just $1 equivalent. Then, when it was obviously too late to continue my journey they announced that the bed, which consisted of a wooden platform and mat that I had to share with another man, would cost me $10. I laughed and drew them a picture, trying to explain that a hotel with shower, TV soft bed and air conditioning would be worth $10, but not their half open air shelter. I didn't wait to bargain because I no longer felt I could trust them, so I collected my things and headed back out into the darkness. I had not gone 20 meters before I was stopped by a local who had heard I was looking for accommodation and he offered me a nicer bed (still no mattress) but in a proper stilt house for $2.50. These guys I felt I could trust and I didn't worry about my things while I played a game of pool with them on a table that had a habit of collecting all the balls in the centre. That night I slept well and was refreshed and ready at sun rise for an enjoyable 10 hours on the bike.

Another memorable moment was waiting on a mountain pass for explosives to be detonated where they were widening the road. I didn't realise that the site was literally just around the corner and was taken by surprise by the sound and the force of the pressure wave that hit my chest. I thought of all the people who had experienced such an explosion in a city. Immediately afterwards we were allowed to continue. The road was strewn with rubble, but being on an off-road bike I had no difficulty in passing and was the first to ride across.

Not all of my trip was by road. At one point I found myself on a track going over the mountains which was marked in the wrong place on my google maps. I was making very slow progress because there were many unmarked turnings and few people to ask for directions. Eventually I was overtaken by three French men on a guided tour on Minsk motorcycles and they kindly let me follow them through the winding mountain pass. My engine struggled more than theirs, but save for a couple of times where I had to get off to push I was easily able to keep up. This pass wound very high with dramatic views of the valley below and the track was sometimes a mere path cut into a steep mountain slope with nothing to stop you from slipping over the edge. I was glad then to have some company as having an accident there would have been difficult to get out of alone. After reaching tarmac I rode on ahead as they had not slept well and were taking it very slowly and I had ambitious plans to make it halfway back to Ha Noi.

My motorbike adventures took me on probably about a 1000 km loop, but I can't be sure because I had no speedometer. From Ha Noi I headed west into the mountains, passed through Sa Pa and a bit further to and along the Chinese boarder, down again to Ha Long Bay and back again to Ha Noi. Sa Pa and back took me about five days. I read that going to Sa Pa in 3 days was suicidal but I don't think that is really the case if you are alone as riding by yourself you have little for company other than your motorbike and from India I was used to riding all day.

Ha Noi traffic
Back in Ha Noi, riding is a different experience. Someone used to highly regulated traffic, such as in the UK, might think that it is chaotic and confusing. However, I very much doubt that the 40 or so road deaths that are supposed to occur in Ha Noi every day happen in the centre where the traffic is busiest. I suspect most deaths happen on the dual carriage ways that look like they are designed for higher speeds but still allow people people to filter through at right angles to the traffic. Speed and filtering don't mix. In the centre of Ha Noi maxim speeds are about 15 mph. At such speeds you have plenty of time to monitor the traffic around you, adjust your speed to slip behind someone crossing your path, or, which shouldn't be necessary if you were looking, slam on your breaks in any uncontrolled manor. At these speeds you are unlikely to damage much, so relax and do it like the locals do it - just keep your eyes open and you automatically adjust your speed and position like a fish in a school or a bird in a flock. When an object such as a motorbike or person intersects the flow you pass around the object like water, but always provide enough space in front of the object so that it can continue moving slowly onwards. I found riding in Ha Noi a rewarding experience!

I don't think that the scooters people ride are best suited for such ballet though. I was certainly a lot more nimble on a bicycle and could easily keep up with the traffic. However, I admit I did get somewhat sweaty in the humid heat. When they are more affordable I see electric bicycles or lighter electric motorbikes ruling such city centres. I hear they are already becoming popular in China.

I am now in Siemreap, Cambodia. The train to Ho Chi Minh city, or Saigon, as the locals call it was surprisingly pleasant apart from my company who was a little too friendly and had no concept of personal space or manners. I got used to my wooden seat and had a good nights sleep on the floor. I think I slept eight hours!

I noticed that there are many more cars on the road in the south of Vietnam and even more so in the Cambodian capital, Phnum Penh. Just a few of the clumsy monsters bring everything to a frustrating crawl. To me it is obvious that cars should be taxed out of city centres. There is no space for them they are simply too clumsy to play the game of dodgems.

Here in Siemreap the main attraction is Ankor Wat. However, on a typical daily budget of less than $10 per day I found the government's asking price of $20 to see an old ruin a bit excessive. Partly in protest I decided not to pay, suspecting that the money will either be used to make a few people rich or spoil the surrounding area or temples themselves with more tourist infrastructure. I decided instead to rent a bike for $1 and see what I could see without a ticket. Each temple was closely guarded to make sure you could not enter without paying and apparently slipping past could have risked being fined $100. However, no one stopped me from cycling through the main complex where I could see temple after temple on either side of the road and what I saw was well worth my dollar. Perhaps I will return one day when I am more wealthy like other tourists here seem to be and explore it properly.

Next stop Bangkok and then hopefully India.

  • Railway into Ha Noi - I wish I had taken a photo of the train passing so close to the shop.
  • Firing a water pistol on my rented bike at new years in Chiang Mai.
  • My Thai motorbike on the dirt track to Pai. Sorry not a particularly interesting shot but I had to include a picture of the bike. :)
  • A long neck. I didn't actually take this photo but it was taken with my camera.
  • Slow boats used to ferry tourists down the Mekong river into Laos.
  • Not a very impressive picture of the waterfalls at Luang Prabang but a great one of my hat. Unfortunately I left it in Ha Noi.
  • Me on a Shineray.
  • My Minsk.
  • Me on my Minsk.
  • Terracing. I had never covering the tops of hills before. I assume that this is something new with the in introduction of powerful water pumps.
  • Colourfully clad women of the Vietnamese north-west mountains.
  • A busy junction in Saigon, Vietnam. I regret not taking a picture of the Hanoi traffic with only motorbikes.
  • A temple at Siem Reap.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Sadhana Forest

More than a month has passed already since my last blog post yet it feels to me more like two weeks. I arrived at Sadhana Forest all too ready for a break from travelling and with expectations of what I could achieve and learn while I was there. I leave now, happy, particularly at the prospect of new adventure, but a little disappointed in what little I managed to achieve.

There is no doubt that when you enter Sadhana's gate that you are entering somewhere special. You approach it via a bumpy dirt track that appears to go nowhere, but when you step into the compound it feels like entering a little paradise. Nearly everything looks alive or natural and pleasing to look at. The effect it had on me was to relax, do my required chores and laze about in the warmth - and be quite unproductive. It also didn't help that, like most people who come to Sadhana Forest, I developed a stomach bug. When I lived off a diet of oranges for a while I didn't mind the bug much because I was not running to the toilet and was just a little sleepy.

Between the banana and papaya plants is a village of thatched buildings, unequally designed to optimise ventilation, strength and durability. The structure of the buildings are made using improved local techniques from locally sourced timber and bamboo and tied together with coconut fibre string. The roof is made first with a layer of coconut leaves and then thatched with a thick layer of reads. Flooring is made from bamboo segments and reed matting. Attention is made to limit the environmental impact of the community by only allowing soap free from environmentally harmful additives and the night soil from the composting toilets is used to fertilise trees and non food plants.

Water is pumped from the ground, partly by hand and partly by electricity, which is produced by two small solar arrays that also power lighting, laptops and a projector. Backup electricity is produced with peddle generators.

What is Sadhana's agenda? What is it like?

Sadhana Forest advertises itself as a reforestation project and yet its name means spiritual path. To me it felt a little like nice eco holiday camp but for others it is a lot more. What it actually is I think is hard to define, because what it has evolved into seems not so much lead by the people who carry it but by the people who come to visit. It has been said by a visitor and is repeated many times that Sadhana not only grows trees but, perhaps more importantly, grows people. Many people come to Sadhana a little lost and I think many people leave, psychologically, a little stronger.

The amount of reforestation work being performed is actually quite small. Generally speaking, mid week between 0800 to 0930 is assigned to reforestation work and 1000 till 1130 is assigned to maintaining and running or expanding the community. After that people are free to do what they like. When I arrived there were 160 volunteers at Sadhana and only about 20 or 30 of them would come to the "forest" to take part in the conservation work. The others were either busy with more chores to do with the daily running of the community or were off sick or something.

The conservation work involved loosening compacted earth with a crowbar within a hole, shovelling the earth using a mumpty (large short handlef hoe) into plates and passing the earth down a chain of people to be stumped into walls of earth, or bunds, to prevent water running off the land. This will allow a top soil to re-develop and the water table to rise - both of which are important for the trees that are planted during the monsoon season. Of the people that come to the forest the efficiency of the potential work force was also poor. This was sometimes due to a shortage of tools or a lack leadership that would result in many people standing around - passing a plate of earth a few feet every 20 seconds. Because everyone of all abilities are placed together the weight of a plate of earth would be only a half or a third of the weight that could be easily carried by stronger members of the team.

During my stay at Sadhana the conservation work was dropped on Monday to make way for a period in the beginning and end of the week where the community would spend the time sitting in a circle in silence. Also introduced while I was there was 15 minutes of silence before the evening meal. This would be announced by banging a chime loudly many times and shouting out that the silence time was about to commence. It would be ignored by small children, dogs and anyone who didn't hear the announcement. Considering that only some people take part in the conservation work but most people (including people who would otherwise be performing chores) take part in the quiet periods, probably more man-hours are spent being quiet than performing conservation work. Clearly Sadhana is more about changing people or personal development than reforesting a small patch of land.

Spreading love and "good energy"

So in what way can people expect to change? People who come to Sadhana are not taught how to meditate or about what Auroville is trying to achieve. People are not told what to think. What people are asked is to abide by a number of requests, which include only eating vegan food within the community site and not bringing in any refined sugar, flour or anything synthetic. People are asked not to eat any stimulants, including all legal and illegal non medicinal drugs. This includes chilly, which I have not perceived to be a stimulant any more so than ginger or garlic. And finally, no competitive games are allowed. The vegan food is about being ethical and avoiding stimulants is, I think, to help the body become more susceptible to spiritual experiences. Competitive games such as card games and chess are banned because such games create a winner and loser and produce feelings opposite to compassion.

Midweek in the mornings people are asked to attend the "morning circle" at sun rise. This is a bit of a ritual where everyone holds hands and are asked to look around and observe the people around them and then also the surrounding environment. They are then asked to close their eyes and reflect on themselves and perhaps given a challenge: to be aware of one aspect of themselves that day or make an effort to get to someone you previously hadn't noticed. Everyone is then asked to breath deeply and hum three times before being invited to sing a song or play a game. The circle then ends by claping one's hands against each other's and giving your neighbour and anyone else a hug.

Some people, particularly those who are wary of religious cults, are uncomfortable taking part in this circle. It can also be awkward for those not used to hugging strangers. But give it a go for a while and the wariness eventually rubs off and it becomes pleasant, peaceful and innocent ritual. Such a simple ritual I believe has also a lot of power, so perhaps it is not so innocent as it feels. What it achieves is to bring everyone together that they feel a sense of belonging and part of the community. Achieving this can obviously be a challenge if you have 100 or more new faces coming and going within a month. It reminded me, strangely, of the team building techniques used by the military. Or perhaps not so strangely, considering that the man behind Sadhana has military training and also a masters and work experience in psychology. But in this case, rather than toughening people up and desensitising them from empathetic feelings, such as combat training can achieve, people who come to Sadhana Forest open up to spreading that "hippy love". People often talk about generating "good energy". I write about it a little mockingly and perhaps I should not. Apparently many people leave Sadhana forest with ambitions to be more conscious of the the impact they have on their environment. To work harder to do something positive for the world and be less selfish. This can only be a good thing I believe. So, if the progress of reforestation work at Sadhana is slow, this is not important if people leave and start their own environment-, animal- or human-sensitive (life-sensitive) projects elsewhere.

Other rituals include a another shorter circle before second work. A recent alteration to it is that people are called into the centre of the circle before they head off to their chores. This was probably introduced to discretely name and shame those who would turn up late or not at all for their second shifts. Then before each meal is a moment of silence before anyone can eat. The meals could also count as rituals because they are taken together and one meal per week is also in silence.

The moments silence before eating each meal is a nice idea, particularly if there are fewer than 40 or so people, but waiting for 160 people to be seated and served could take 30 minutes of sitting with a plate of food going cold in front of you that you have to defend from flies. This period, before the everyone eats, is also used for announcements, of which there are many. With so many new people each week many announcements are repeated every other day, such as, to remember to clear up after yourself if you make a mess in the kitchen. Thus, it shows that the the rate at which Sadhana has grown recently has been faster than solutions could be made to keep the place peaceful and positive without threatening to overshadow the good vibes it generates with bad ones from frustrated people. So far Sadhana has never turned away people because it already has too many people (however, during the busy months the shortest period you can stay is one month), but I doubt Sadhana can grow any more without segregating people into eating slots and introducing more security measures.

Sickness and hygiene

I wonder if falling physically sick at Sadhana is also partly a consequence of the psychological journeys people make. I was more sick at Sadhana than before India, like many others. This could be simply a consequence of relaxing after times of constant travelling when falling sick is not an option. However, I also wonder if there is a problem with hygiene. I and others have put forward some suggestions that are already in the pipeline to be addressed so I expect if there is a hygiene issue that it will soon be found. Some aspects of hygiene is clearly over done, as if just to keep people happy. One example is the spraying of eating utensils with a similar strength vinegar solution to the final rinse.

Apart from the pointless spray, I really like the washing method. It consists of four pots of water with the fourth containing 10 or 20 per cent vinegar. In the first pot the dishes are scrubed with coconut husks and ash, which helps to remove grease. Dishes are then rinsed out in the remaining three pots in a consistent order. The advantage of such a system is obvious after more than 100 have washed up their dishes. Where the first pot is almost black with ash, the last pot containing vinegar is (if people have been rinsing correctly) quite clear and is not usually necessary to change even for the next meal. Thus, in terms of water use, dish washing is very efficient.

Because of the number of people on such a small site, hygiene is paramount to prevent illnesses from spreading like wild fire. For this reason the vinegar dip is probably a good precaution. For individuals I expect it would unnecessarily raise the acidity of the local soil and the carbon foot print of the vinegar is probably also not small.

Composting toilets

The toilets at Sadhana are an experience, and in my view not the most pleasant. They are dry composting toilets where solid waste goes in one hole and liquids go down another. This is a challenge for many people, particularly men who are used to independently urinating while squatting. Thus, a metal pan with a handle is required to catch the number one during the number two procedure. This, if one is not careful, can result in accidental splashing or touching of the inside of the pan. The urine is then either put in a tank so that it can be diluted and used as fertiliser, or can be put in hole number one, which is a squatting toilet, also known as the "bum wash station". Here the liquid waste enters a storage tank where it eventually finds it way out through a reed bed, after which all nutrients should be extracted and safe to enter a stream. The solid waste is covered with saw dust, which provides the optimum moisture conditions for composting. The toilet requires stirring occasionally and allowing to partially decompose before it is emptied onto a large pile for two years before it is safe to use in the garden.

The simple design of the toilets are probably well suited for such a large number of people when construction costs are limited, but I think such toilets have little chance of becoming popular due to the mentioned reasons and the following:

1) The toilets are not exactly scent free. Due the hot environment and heat generated during decomposition, when the lid to the solid waste toilet is lifted one is greeted by a puff of warm smelly steam. [Excuse me, I hope you were not just eating!] The smell is not terrible and reminds me of playing in a sandpit as a child that was also used by a cats. More importantly, I am interested to know if it is theoretically possible to catch an infection through inhaling the steam after someone who has previously visited the toilet that was sick. If so, taking a breath before opening the lid and then breathing through your T-shirt limits your exposure. However, I think a simple chimney, as is used in domestic composting toilets, would provide sufficient draft to remove all smells.

2) The quantity of saw dust used by the system meant that it could not sustainably be used on a large scale. Something like 200-300 g of saw dust is required after each number 2 visit. Although the saw dust was a byproduct from a local saw mill, if everyone required that much saw dust when ever they went to the toilet we would have to chop down trees to make it. Compared to toilet paper, which is blamed for cutting down forests, I think a couple of sheets require only a few grams of wood. Paper requires fresh water to produce, which is an increasingly valuable resource, but just growing trees also requires a lot of water as well as land. I hope to find some numbers for these when I have time on the internet. I would be interested to find out how easily the sawdust could be replaced with shredded biomass collected from Sadhana Forest.

I understand that there now exist commercially manufactured composting toilets that monitor the temperature and humidity electronically and stir and ventilate the material to optimise the decomposition times with minimal use of electricity. I have yet to see and use one, but such toilets I have read do not smell, look clean, are easy to use and the only additives is a small quantity of powder containing bacteria. Perhaps a DIY kit exists that would enable a demonstration toilet to be built at Sadhana that is more inspiring to visitors that they might consider having their own installed at home.

Projects and community living

Before I arrived at Sadhana Forest I already had plans to use my free time to explore what sustainable technologies were being developed in Auroville, as well as trying to keep up my hobby in sculpting. For the first two weeks I couldn't motivate myself to do much. I was constantly feeling sleepy, which could be attributed to many things, including not being used to the 6 am starts, no longer drinking 8 chai's a day to keep myself alert on the India roads, the heat which felt greater without the breeze from riding a motorbike and my stomach problem that came and went and came again, which I partly blamed on not being used to the diet of predominantly rice and lentils. Sometimes I fantasised that Sadhana Forest was about using people to milk them of some special energy with which they use to operate their mysterious space craft - the Matrimandir. Once they have accumulated sufficient energy I imagined that they would control the ship with their minds in the central meditation hall and take off to return to their galaxy from which they came.

Then there was also the aspect of not being used to community dwelling with a lot of free time on my hands. Having been travelling by myself for the last month, meeting few people who could speak English well enough to hold a conversation with them, and previously working alone on my volunteer projects, being plunged into the deep end where you are expected to be sociable and spread your love was a little disorientating. I found myself happier going into my own little familiar world with my Eee PC and the internet and escaping with my motorbike when I felt like some space to breath.

As my energy returned and became a little more sociable and adventurous and I ventured as far as the Centre for Sustainable Research (CSR). It was interesting to look around their energy department and observe what projects they were working on. The two main are currently a solar cooker and a solar powered compressed air electric generator. It was also interesting to see how the Auroville solar kitchen worked but I was disappointed to learn that it could only provide a third of the energy requirements of the kitchen, the rest being provided by diesel. The use of sustainable technology was harder to find in Auroville than I expected and I didn't feel there was going to be much I could learn without first commiting myself to a project.

A project of my own that I soon started was to learn how to use the wood oven to make bread. The oven consisted of a brick and mud dome in which I fire had to be lit and then allowed to die down. I had three attempts. The first I used ordinary brown wheat flower (atta). The second two loaves where a mixture of atta and raggi flour, which is a local millet. The loaves were of mixed success as it was difficult to get the oven the correct temperature at the time it was needed, particularly when the temperature was not even known.

Finally, I did manage to do a little sculpting. As it happened I came across some clay in one of the holes we were digging in the forest. I retrieved some of this, soaked it in water, filtered it through a sieve to remove the stones and through layers of mosquito netting to remove the grit. It was thus satisfying to be working with locally dug clay, which had a nice smooth but a little sticky feel. Finding someone with a face I wanted to sculpt was not so simple as people tend to like to go out in the afternoon, so I made do with my imagination and just asked for two different people to sit for me that I could copy their neck and ears. It was actually interesting to see what I could do from memory and compare that to what I came up with the first time I tried sculpting a head out of clay 14 years ago. Although there is still much room for improvement, I don't think it looks less realistic than sculptures I have made by copying a model.

Without testing the clay I do not know if it would be possible to fire or at what temperature and I did not have enough time to attempt making a cast. Thus, the sculpture will probably not last long before it is chipped or completely broken. But seeing so many different faces from all over the world at Sadhana Forest does give me the inspiration for when I return to attempt an array of busts that I could fire and leave in the garden - if I find time.


Currently my plans are explore North Thailand and Loas while I wait for two months to pass before I can apply for a new Indian visa. I just guzzled lots of fuel by flying from Kolkata to Bangkok and am now sitting in Jame's house whom I went to school with. After my exclusion period from India has expired I shall return to continue my motorbike adventures. Thus, how much volunteering I'll feel like squeezing in before I return to the UK - I'll have to see. I expect funds will dwindle more quickly in East Asia. Even India is becoming more expensive by the day while the value of the rupee increases and Indian tourist's spending power over shadows foreign tourists.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ooty to Pondicherry and many adventures in between

So, I have finally arrived in Pondicherry, without losing any parts of me on the road. I have had many more adventures along the way but have been too tired to write about them in the evenings. I shall try and catch up a little now before it is too old to be news.

Ooty to Coimbatore

The ride from Ooty to Coimbatore was great. I meant to plot my route out on a google maps to highlight all the roads that I took that were not on the map, but now I don't have time. I tried to take the most direct yet most "off-piste" route I could find and was actually heading to Palakkad but never made it. The mountain roads were tiny and the only traffic for most of the way was the occasional motorbike. The scenery was stunning, particularly when I headed off the map into what appeared to be national park and I had the impression I was going places I was not supposed to be. I conveniently picked up a hitch-hiker just before I passed through a check point and they probably didn't stop me because they thought my passenger was my guide. My passenger warned me that there were elephants about. Although the roads in the park were very good, the last 200 meters leading onto a main road was just a dirt track that passed through a badly maintained fiord. I had the impression that the badly maintained section served to protect the tribal communities within park from tourism or something. The route that I took was actually a great short cut and could shorten someone's journey from a couple of hours to just half an hour. I had asked in Ooty if there was a pass through the mountains there but no one seemed to know about it and only found it by studying my google satellite images.

I next attempted a short cut through some mountains that I had not identified on my maps but it unfortunately fizzled out to a track after 20 km, just 10 km from Palakkad. A local told me I could go no further and because it was getting dark in a couple of hours I thought I'd take his advice. He offered me a place to stay for free and at first I accepted but then I realised that he had been drinking and didn't feel I could trust him. When I drew out of him that he would be expecting a Rs. 500 donation I told him that was not acceptable to make such demands after being told I was a guest, so took my opportunity to escape before it got too dark to leave.

Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC)

I learned about this NGO in Mysore from another guest at the youth hostel I was staying at. I found them very welcoming and they even offered me a room for the night and I ended staying for two. The place has a positive feel about it, which has much to do with that many people, young and older, live on campus so that care is taken to provide a pleasant atmosphere with seating, plenty of vegetation for shade and the buildings are artistically designed. As the name suggests, the institute focuses on improving rural lives with the application of science, in similar way to ARTI, which I visited in Phaltan. Its campus is extensive, with departments for every discipline. They also believe in organic agriculture, although I had the impression that bringing money into the countryside took presidency over issues of sustainability and the environment. An example of this is their animal breeding department. I felt that their rabbits and pigs were kept in too cramped and dull conditions and reflected too closely practices of intensive meat production, which I consider unsustainable and unethical. Questions of sustainability arise from the inefficient use of land and energy if the animals are fed on crops grown on land that otherwise could be used to directly produce food. There is also an increased risk of creating new diseases due to cramped breeding conditions. I feel such practises are mainly unethical due to the level of boredom experienced by the animals being deprived of their natural activities.

One area of research they are undertaking that interested me is in the use of bacteria to help in the uptake in phosphates and minerals by plants. Enabling plants to be grown in lower nutrient conditions sounds like a good thing, however, it does not get around the problem that if you remove nutrients from a farm that you have to bring them back again. Perhaps the research will help in understanding how organic composts can be improved. Other areas they work on is teaching local people how to make soap, how to grow a popular variety of mushroom and how to improve the value of locally produced pots with colourful glazes. They also take part in a government watershed project, that is, to create a database of the available water and its current use so that the government can make recommendations about what crops are better to grow in which regions so that water is shared more fairly to improve productivity.

Further South

From IRTC I travelled through Eravikulam National Park in which I was told I wouldn't meet any more elephants. However, only after about 5 km into the park I spotted movement in the bushes and quickly stopped when I realised it was another herd of elephants lurking by the road side. I waited at a safe distance on a bridge for 10 minutes for them to go. I imagined they were waiting to ambush me, but after a short trumpet they disappeared into the jungle and I slowly and, as silently as my motor allowed, slinked passed.

The ride up to Munnar was again stunning. Partly, in fact, due to the tea plantations that created many views and an interesting patterns. At a tea factory museum I met my first lone motorbike traveler and we decided to travel the next day together. He was an experienced motorbiker from the UK and was riding an Royal Enfield Bullet. The next day was also a stunning ride to Thekkady, which is the most South I reached. It was nice to ride with someone else for a change, but his speed, mostly because he had better acceleration than me, was somewhat faster than I liked and I also felt a bit restricted, being slower, in stopping too frequently to take photos. Thus, although it was nice to have some company for a change I was quite happy to go separate ways and headed off down the mountains to the exciting sounding place of Cumbum. It was not actually a pleasant place and I couldn't even find any budget accommodation. To make things harder, all the places that said "hotel" were in fact just restaurants - unless they were keeping a different side of their business secrete. I eventually found a place to rest for Rs. 120 out of town on Cumbum Road.

An unexpected break

The next day I tried to make some progress and hurried North-East towards Pondicherry but after an hour or two I was tempted to go exploring by mountains I was passing. I followed a small road into the foothills, pretty sure that it would be a dead end yet amazed at the quality of the road, including road signs warning one of sharp bends despite that there didn't seem to be any traffic. Low and behold the road suddenly ended in a small path which I didn't feel like following any further considering I was running on my reserve tank.

On my way back to the main road I was, unusually, hailed by a woman in a field. She seemed very keen to talk to me so I guessed she probably spoke English and I obliged and stopped. She spoke English well and asked the usual questions as to where I was going and where I was from. She then offered me a coconut to drink which she knocked from one of her trees and invited me back to her house. I agreed and also agreed to wait for her to cook some lunch. She didn't want any payment and just seemed keen to practise her English and for the company. I learned that she was 58, was a widow having been divorced because (I think) she could not have any children. She had been an English teacher in a college when she was younger and had plenty of money at the time and even built a house. But for whatever reason she seemed to have lost most her money and the rest was tied up in the house she had given to her brother. She had returned to a farming life, partly to save money, partly to experience the simple life she had known as a child and partly as financial security because she had no children. She had just planted some coconut trees, which, within five years will provide her with a steady income. All she has to do is turn on a switch to irrigate the trees and employ a local lad to pick them. She also had two cows and a calf, a number of chickens and a cat. Both of the cows look like Jerseys (but are probably not) and are producing milk, which provides a daily income. They are milked twice a day by a milk boy that visits on a moped on which he carries two milk urns, a milking bucket, a measuring jug and a sieve.

Time passed as I walked with her to move her cows to a new grazing area and she told me the uses of different plants on the way and eventually I had to make up my mind if I should leave. She invited me to stay a night in her one room house and I decided to take up her offer with the promise of more tasty food. It was a lazy pleasant evening with intrigued neighbours dropping by to visit. The night was a little uncomfortable sleeping on a wooden board but I slept well and didn't notice when the women lay down to sleep her on usual mat on the floor, or when she got up. In the morning I learned that not all neighbours were so friendly, with the neighbour opposite apparently accusing us of stealing another neighbour's coconuts and for having an affair. She told me she was often having arguments with the neighbour, because, she claimed, that he was jealous and particularly now that I was visiting her. He thought, as did other neighbours, that I would be sending lots of money to her when I got home. It is a pity, but I guess it is expected. She was upset by the neighbour and that I was leaving after a brief moment of pretending that I was her son. Since she did not accept any payment I guess I am obliged now to send something.

River crossing

My next adventure was when I tried to follow a minor road that was clearly marked on the map but turned out to be missing a bridge. Perhaps the old one was washed away because they were building a new one at a different location to that marked on the map. I managed to find a local that could talk English to ask if there was another a bridge that I could cross. There was not, without extending my journey by three hours or going back and neither options sounded appealing because I did not know if I had sufficient petrol. However I was told that the river was only shin deep and that some people did manage to take their motorbikes across. I decided to have a look to see if it was as deep as they said. I was instructed how to make the crossing - that was to run next to my bike with the engine running. I tried this at a walking pace across some shallower water to a sand bank a short way across, but found the water in fact in the centre of the river was knee deep. I was about to turn back when a local confidently said that he could take my bike across. I decided to risk it and swapped my bike for his bag of rice. He did an impressing job, splashing through the water with my bike's engine racing and the water coming well over the exhaust and up the engine. If he had made a mistake and stalled the engine I don't think it would have been possible to start again and I don't know what would have happened to it and my bag. It was a big crossing as you can see from the picture. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the heroic moment because I didn't dare drop his bag of rice to remove my camera.

The rest of my journey was quite uneventful and I arrived in Pondichery on Wed 17 February and arrived at Sadhana Forest, Auroville, the following morning. It is really quite a special place. I no doubt will write a lot about it shortly.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Charged by an Elephant

6 February 2010

When I decided to take a main highway through some jungle at Bandipure National park, I did not realise I would be in more danger from the wildlife than from the Indian lorry and bus drivers. Having passed halfway through the jungle I only saw a few deer and a number of monkeys. Then, as I came around a corner I met a herd of elephants crossing the road. An Indian family were stopped a little back from them in a car and were taking photos. I turned my engine off and rolled up a bit back from the car and took out my camera and took a couple of photos. I don't know how close I was, but close enough as you probably can gauge from my photo taken with my camera that has very little zoom. All seemed quite safe because the elephants just minded their own business and continued into the forest, until, that is, the car in front decided it would continue. When the car passed behind the elephants it angered a young bull elephant and it ran back to see the car off. It was then that I realised I was very exposed, but my keys were not in my ignition - I had no quick escape!

I didn't waste any time and started pushing my bike around back the way I came while I desperately thought what I could have done with my keys. Without my engine I could not outrun the elephants. I saw that the elephant had seen me but he didn't look like he was angry enough to charge just yet. I was contemplating whether, if he did chase me, if I should ditch my bike and run to climb up a tree. Suddenly I remembered where my keys were: in the lock of my panniers where I kept my camera. Now I really felt stupid. "He was killed by an elephant because he disobeyed the signs not to take photos". These thoughts probably only took a few moments to go through my mind, and once I had my keys back in my ignition I felt safe again because I had confidence in my engine to start quickly and take me safely away. By this time the elephant was distracted by another car that approached and stopped on the other side, so I didn't need my engine and rolled my bike gently to the bend in the road. A park ranger passed in a 4x4 at this point and asked what was the problem and I pointed at the elephant that was standing guard by the roadside. The ranger drove up to elephant and reved his engine in attempt to drive it away but it only receded a little way back into the woods. A number of cars also arrived from both sides and whenever they passed the elephant would race back, trumpeting angryly. I continued to wait until the elephant ventured further back into the forest and someone waiting to pass in their car suggested that it was my chance to go. I would have waited longer, but also feeling pressure from the fading light I decided to go for it. As soon as I approached the crossing point the elephant saw me and started charging back. I had a moment to think whether I would still go for it or turn back and I decided to race the elephant to the crossing point. Having had a head start I was easily able to beat him, as long as I continued to accelerate, but I did wonder what would happen if my engine suddenly failed. As I raced away and the elephant trumpeted after me, again, I felt a bit foolish and felt as if I had a dogs tail between my legs. I hurried to the next village closely following a car for protection and booked myself into the first available room. This evening I learned that motor bikers have been killed by elephants in the forest. Now why didn't the rangers tell me at the check point I passed?

7 February 2010

I am now in Ooty, pretty a town 1350 m above sea level in the Western Ghats. There seems to be a competition between churches, temples as well as mosques here, with some churches it seeming to broad cast their sermons over load speakers - not to be out done by the temples that play their traditional religous music and the mosques that try and hypnotise you with their chants.

I am deciding where to go next. Since my last post I have been in Mangalore for a night and in Mysore for three nights. It was tempting to stay longer at Gokarna since I was beginning to make friends and it was a relaxing pleasant place to stay, but I felt I had plenty more to see in India so left again after just three nights (or was it four). Mysore was again a pleasant place to stay with its wide streets and less traffic. There were many no-horn signs about the city so it was also a lot quieter. It feels like a very new place because there are so many new fancy buildings. Even the palace is only 100 years old and much of the iron work manufactured in Glasgow.

I have begun to accumulate a number of photos I'd like to share but haven't had much time to organise them. Why, when I have taken a whole year off to explore a country am I always in a hurry?! A few sights that interested me was a lonely tree covered with bee hives - I have no idea why they liked that particular tree so much - perhaps they enjoyed being neighbours. I found another tree that seemed to be home to about 10 eagles - I don't know what kind. They had white heads. In Mysore I was amazed by the the housing estates of uniquely built expensive mansions.

From most of India I have the impression that they don't really care what their homes look like on the outside, but give them a bit of call centre money and it is amazing what they come up with! Sorry, I probably sound a bit patronising. But the truth is that I find most Indian people very funny: They approach a problem in always twos and threes, enthusiastically, and create so many bodged jobs. I have learned not to ask for any help fixing something because I can guarantee that it will be tied together with a warn out piece of string and it will take many attempts to make it work. Their building techniques look a joke when they are a mess of wonky sticks and rope supporting concrete moulds and everything is carried on the heads of a hoard of labourers. Not an energy saving pulley or wheel barrow in sight. Yet anyone with a bit of money is able to create themselves most impressive looking houses such that you would rarely see in the UK.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Good bye Goa

25 January 2010

Today I am staying again at my favourite point at Devbag Sangam, which is where the Kurly river meets the sea. Yesterday evening I impressed, or maybe more amused, the locals by climbing up a coconut tree to pick a coconut because I was thirsty. It is amazing how different a really fresh coconut water is compared to one that has been picked days if or hours before. The water is almost fizzy and tastes alive. I'm sure it must be more healthy to drink that fresh - it at least feels so. Later that evening I played cricket with the local boys. It was a lot of fun to practise my catching skills, which I had not done since school. It has also been very nice how welcoming the family has been that has provided me with a room. I have been watching how they cook with a traditional chula. It was obvious to see that a simple fan could have greatly improved the efficiency and heat output of the fire, but I was surprised how little smoke there was at ground level where the mother and niece were cooking. Based on my observations of chulas I must agree with someone else I have heard suggest that the claims that indoor fires are seriously affecting peoples health are probably over exaggerated. My experience of frying a chapati is that the smoke was as easy to avoid as if you are sitting by a camp fire. I could easily hold my breath when the smoke came in my direction but it did sometimes smart my eyes.

Far more important for health reasons is to solve the problem of burning plastic. In built up areas it can be difficult to get a breath of fresh air between the stench of smouldering plastic. Burning the plastic in a properly ventilated stoves might help as more of the toxic gasses would be burned. Such stoves could be made locally from used cooking oil tins of which there are many. Ideally all the plastic bottles should be recycled but this only accounts for some of the plastic. All the crisp packets and food wrappers are thrown on the ground and are mixed up with leaves that are swept in piles and burned on every corner. I wonder if all of these piles were collected and incinerated how much electricity could be produced.

27 January 2010

I am back in Goa trying to decide if I'll leave tomorrow morning and where I shall go. It is a bit of a bother that my visa ends on 13 April which does not give me much time to travel around the South of India and help out at the tree plantation at Auroville, let alone to volunteer on an organic farm. New emigration rules say I have to leave the country for 2 months before I can return. I considered going to Sri Lanka but I don't think I am ensured for that as the British government recommends against it and I wonder if it would feel a bit trapped being on an Island for two months.  Nepal is a long way away and also feels a bit like an island because the only country I can enter from it without paying bribes is India, to which I will not be welcome. I think I would be allowed travel through India though if I wanted to visit Bangladesh.

28 January 2010

I am still in Goa. I managed to lose my key last night and could not break into my room till this morning so I decided it was my sign that I should stay another day. The problem was that the key was only attached to a piece of string, so being very light it must have slipped out when I took my bike keys out of my pocket. Despite having only visited two places since having the key last I could not find it. Luckily, despite the impressive size of the lock, it was just a cheap Indian lock made of soft iron that was not difficult to cut with a hacksaw blade. I think my own miniature locks are harder to break.

There is not a lot to keep me here yet it is a hard place to leave with my host and cafe staff on the beach asking me to stay a little longer because they want my custom. The sales women on the beach have also been fun to talk to. They too mainly want me to buy things but I have only bought one over priced shirt as I don't need anything else that they have. But I have been happy to buy some food and drink for them. It has been interesting hearing about their lives. I have mainly been talking to three sisters. Not surprisingly perhaps I have learned that they are quite well off with a new big house about 400 km from here where they come from. They are beautiful girls and having been working on the beaches since they were children and have mastered the art of charming single men that they are happy to pay extortionate prices. One of the first questions they asked me was if I was single and were very friendly when I said yes. One of their tricks is to ask for some foreign money as a souvenir and gifts of £10 or £20 worth equivalent from such men seems to be quite common, which is big money in rural India. You have to feel a little sorry for them because they have been denied an education by their parents (unlike their brothers) and now are being forced into arranged marriages and have babies with men they don't particularly care for. Because they observe the freedom foreign women have here I think they don't accept Indian traditions like their parents did but tell me that arrange marriages provides them with much greater security.

Tomorrow I plan to leave for Gokarna.

29 January 2010

For some reason I forgot to bcc my blog with this post. I am now in Gokarna on Om Beach. First impressions is that I will find it hard to leave. It is a pretty chilled place that is still less comercial compared to Goa and people seem much more friendly. :)

Thursday, 28 January 2010

A mango farm that uses biodynamic techniques

25 January 2010

On the 23rd I visited a new mango farm near Devgad. It uses biodynamic techniques as prescribed by Rudolf Steiner. The man behind it is a physicist in Devgad whom I happened to meet on the road between Devgad and Malwan when I stopped to take a photo. He, like myself, believes that the current chemical farming techniques are not sustainable and that biodynamic farming techniques can be. He, you could say, is an entrepreneur, because he is also looking to make money from his enterprise and already has an organic store in Mumbai to sell his produce and hopes to export some of the mangos he grows in the future.

His choice of land to start the farm was a desert-like rocky landscape, save a number of mature mango trees further down the hill. The choice of land was down to the high level of iron in the ground which is important for giving mangos their flavour. The total area of the farm occupies 3 acres.  Most of the trees he is planting himself giving him a total of 150 mango trees, many banana trees and a handful of coconut trees - I forget the precise numbers! He is also growing pineapples and rice in the monsoon and watermelons in the dry periods.

In order to plant his trees on his rock and desert farm he had to blast holes in the rock and fill the holes with soil. This might sound a bit drastic but what he is doing at the same time is creating an ecosystem capable of supporting more wildlife, and of course, generating more food.

When I asked about disease and pests he said that it can be minimised by boosting the plants natural defences by ensuring it had all the correct nutrients to grow. These he provided with a cow dung compost from his two oxen, to which he added plants that were particularly good at extracting the required nutrients, such as sulphur, from the ground. He was able to able to point out indications of different deficiencies in Mango trees from either the yellowing of leaves or knotted flower growth. A particular insect pest he was able to control by spraying with the bacteria Rhisorbium, Azatobactor and Nitrococcus. The bacteria sprays  last three times as long as chemical sprays so are not more expensive to use. These, and small quantity of apparently organic fertiliser called NaturaLife SuperCrop, I understood, are the only external inputs (apart from electricity and the occasional use of a tractor and tools) that he requires. I have yet to find out if their use has any negative impacts and what their embedded energy, water and land use is in their production.

If the techniques used conform to organic and biodynamic standards such as of The Soil Assiocation and Demeter respectively, I am most impressed by what he claims, that his mango trees can achieve two to three times the yield compared to a conventional chemical farm with up to 500 mangos from a mature tree. The reason for this he claims is that his methods boost the number of micro-organisms in the soil that aids the trees with their uptake in nutrients.

I think clearly his methods will be better for the environment but I question whether it is sustainable. My idea of sustainability is that the nutrient inputs must match the outputs and that the inputs must not depend on the use of oil (which is a non renewable resource) and should not require a large amount of land or water that it impacts on food production elsewhere. I intend to write to the NaturaLife company to see what they say as their website is not very informative.

Photo: mature mango trees - about 30 years old,  with the typical walls surrounding them that protect the soil from erosion during the monsoon.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Malwan to Goa

[Sun 17 January 2010]

Tonight I am staying at the tip of, effectively, a sand bank, near Malwan. It is very pretty here and I went for a swim in the sea just as the sun was setting. The sea was neither too warm nor too cold. I am staying in a big house all to myself, which probably usually sleeps 10-20 Indian tourists. I paid Rs. 400 for a night and a meal, which is more than I can afford to pay every day. Last night I stayed in Devgad for Rs. 200 and paid Rs. 30 for a meal.

Yes, as you see, I have not exactly stuck to my plan of heading to Goa from Ratnagiri in one day. I have found, that despite all the locals telling me that there is no coastal road, that in fact there sort of is and it is the MSH4, and there are many pretty places to visit along the way. I only once had to make a diversion because a bridge was not complete and I had missed the 7am ferry. Another location where the bridge was also not complete the small passenger ferry was willing to carry my bike on board. I was greeted by a policeman coming the other way at this point and he asked me where I was going and to see my documents. I was happy that they were complete as I expect to meet many more inquisitive police entering Goa.

Tomorrow I shall embark on the rest of the supposedly non existing coastal (or best kept secret) road to Goa. I'll also be hoping not to be bitten too much by mosquitoes, which are also not supposed to exist here - hence the glass and mesh free windows. I think I shall burn some insect repellent just in case. I have already killed two mosquitoes.

[Tue 19 January 2010]

So I finally arrived in Goa yesterday. I had no difficultly in following the MSH4 and there was only one ferry to catch where the bridge was not complete and the ferry was big enough to take a few cars. I'm not sure what to think of Goa now. It is very exciting returning, trying to remember my way. I thought that my memory of where everything was was more complete, but things have changed so much in five years I wonder how easy I would have found it if I had been here just the day before. I am staying in Vagator in the North of Goa. When I explored North of Vagator five years ago there were very few tourists about and I'd pass an Indian on a motorbike just every couple of minutes. Workers along a river bank were intrigued to see a foreigner. Now the roads North of Chapora have lost their innocence and there is a constant stream of foreigners whizing about on scooters and motorbikes, lorries kicking up dust  and a new bar or small hotel on every corner - already looking weathered. Chapora, itself, has been further developed into a commercial trendy image. In many ways it reminds me of Newquay in England, which I think has lost its charm and is more of drinking hole were people go to get laid.

Most people here seem to be concentrating so much on their image that they never look around and smile. Where as five years ago most tourists here were Israily now they are 70% Russian. Maybe the Russian don't smile much!

Perhaps I am biased, coming from rural India where I am accustomed to being a celebrity. There I am obliged to wave to the children and call out "numuskar" (greetings) in order not to be rude. Greeting the locals usually has the effect of turning the most suspicious stare into a big smile. In Goa of course every one is used to seeing foreigners, and I expect many either are annoyed with them or simply see them as prey - or a way of making money.

I took my bike for servicing today and they adjusted the idle speed, which was set to high, and it now is running very well. I could have done that! I also ran out of petrol which enabled me to get my mileage, which I am proud to say was an impressive 87 km per litre (kmpl). I can't quite believe it because my total average is just 61 kmpl so I hope I haven't made a mistake. If it is correct I expect it is down to my free-wheeling down all the hills!

I am staying with my old land lord's house, which was a challenge to find even with my GPS, amongst a maze of other other houses. It was nice to meet him again. He now has a 5 year old daughter who was born shortly after I left. If anyone is passing through Goa and wants a cheap simple room call Sam on +91 9881201127.

[20 January 2010]

Today I explored Goa a bit, where I saw a lake and many many churches all on the same hill. I've never seen so many in once place before. I think they must have been having a competition with the temple builders who had also gone crazy on the neighbouring hill. I also returned to the seaside restaurant, now called the Fish Tail, then called the Disco Valley Restaurant, which was my old haunt five years ago and has also become more trendy. I was surprised that the landlord instantly recognised me and he gave me a free cocktail. It was even more nice of him when he insisted that I should not pay for my salad or mineral water! I guess he knows that I will feel obliged to continue to be his regular customer. :)

Photo: where I was staying near Malwan with a river on one side and the sea on the other side.


Friday, 15 January 2010

Motorcycle Diaries

[14 June 2010]

I have now left Phaltan and am finally embarking on my motorcycle adventure. The journey started in Vashi, Mumbai, where I received my Yamaha Crux with just 3 km on the speedometer. The speedometer is now reading 1060 km at Mahabaleshwar. Since leaving Mumbai I travelled south along the west coast, saw in the new year at Murud and then headed inland over the mountains, the Western Gahts, to Phaltan. There were many pretty parts on the way, particularly in the Western Gaghts. Travelling up hill was very slow though, since although the motorbike has plenty of power to take me and my luggage, the motor tends to overheat if I go faster than 30 km/hr up hill, and requires a rest every half an hour. I can tell when it gets too hot because it starts losing power, probably because the pisten head gets stiffer in the cylinder and if I use more throttle the egine gives a clattering sound. I hope I have not pitted the pisten head already and that the overheating will sort itself out in another 1000 km when the engine has warn in a bit.

I stayed in Phaltan until the 13th of Janurary  while I rounded things off and met a new volunteer from Germany. The first weekend (i.e Sunday, which was the only day off in the week) I explored the local area and found a winding track up the side of a mountain that I had spotted on Google maps. It was quite a challenge to find because there are so many dead ends near the mountains, so taking the wrong turning usually means you have to go all the way back, as opposed to finding an alternative route. I even had to travel along a river bed for a while because the road and been washed away. But it was worth it for the views and it was fun knowing I couldn't have found the track up the mountain without the GPS. it is inacessible by car and only a few locals seems to use it as a short by motorbike

The next weekend I travelled to a fort 100 km away with the new volunteer on my bike and a four Indian friends on two other bikes. So when it came to leaving Phaltan I had already covered 900 km and was already comfortable on the bike and with the Indian style of driving - which is very similar to the way one might walk. Indian drivers and pedestrians have a tendency to not to look sideways before they change direction. Particularly in the countryside, people are not used to the concept that they might get hit by a fast moving vehicle if they suddenly change direction. It is for this reason that the continuous sounding of car and motorbike horns has become so common and is a practise I am mastering too. It is sometimes quite difficult to know if it is a good time to use the horn, or when using it is only a poor excuse to go faster and rudely push people aside. In India you have extremes of very timid drivers, crawling along at 30 km/hr, and those that seem to be in a hurry to go to hell, usually driving an SUV and overtaking recklessly. I think I probably fall somewhere in the middle, typically doing somewhere between 40-60 km/hr, and I like to think, filtering through junctions with a relaxed but confident speed and power. Another trick is to use your headlights to intimidate oncoming overtaking traffic to let them know that you don't intend to be driven off the road - but of cause, you always have to be prepared for a quick stop in the gutter!

[15 June 2010]

I spent two nights in Mahabaleshwar, exploring the sights during the day and watching the sun set from Bombay Point with the 200 other Indian tourists. I was told about 70% of the tourists at Mahabaleshwar come from Pune. It was actually nice to be able to interact a little with a couple of female Indians, since the Pune people are a little more modern or liberal. In the country you won't get more than a quick glance and smile from women. Not because they are not as interested in seeing a foreigner as the men, but because it is not a done thing to for them to interact with strange men. The Indian men make up for this though, reminding me that I am beautiful, asking what hair products I use (occasionally a bit of soap and plenty of natural grease!) and of course asking for my photo and even sometimes my autograph, because they think I look like someone famous from the movies. I know what you are thinking: he loves the attention!

Today I travelled from Mahabaleshwar, and of course India showed again that it is bigger than it looks! I made it to Ratnagini, about 200 km from Mahaleshwar, and is a busy, but not a very touristy sea side town. The journey only was harder than expected, because I am disappointed to say, the motorbike is not quite coping. It eventually over heats going just 50 km/hr on undulating hills. This ain't good enough because it takes half an hour to cool down a little and I can't be stopping for half and hour every hour or two! Consequently I have had to be creative to make the most of what it can give: using only the smallest amount of throttle and changing up gear as soon as possible to keep the engine revs low and, more recently, I found that doing the dis-advised thing of disengaging the engine on down-hills  (that don't require the breaks) and letting the engine idle for a while, greatly improves things. Free-wheeling down a hill I can often achieve the same speed as if I have the engine engaged and applying a reasonable amount of throttle. It just shows how much energy goes into vibrating the little engine. Even on a genital slope I have found that accelerating slightly and then free-wheeling helps keep the engine temperature down.

On the up side, these techniques will also save me fuel! I shall try and find a Yamaha Showroom when I can, to see if this is normal for a new bike and if it is likely to improve. Perhaps I'll need to invent a water cooling system.

[photo taken somewhere on the Mombai-Goa highway. I had to resist the temptation of explore the pretty region if I was to make any progress today]

Ok, that's all I have time for now. The battle with the bike is only adding to my adventure at the moment and I am in good spirits. I shall get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow and seek out some small country roads. The road here was fine, only if I can't go any faster on it I might as well use slower roads. I am heading for Goa. Of course might not make it in one day if I take back roads as I'll probably get lost!

I am aware that I have not kept the blog up to date with what I have been doing in Phaltan. That is because I was both very busy and was trying to decide what I thought of it all. I want to finish a long report of my what I have done and have been thinking, but until it is done I shall post a short version - maybe tomorrow.

The bed bugs bit again last night. Serves me right for staying in the cheapest places, I guess. Still, I hope they won't bite another night tonight.