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.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Me and my new mobile home!

Hi, sorry for the long blog silence. I shall soon start writing again when I have written my report for NARI. In fact I may post some or all of my report on my blog. But I can't help just sharing this news, even if I don't have anything creative to say.

I finally have a Yamaha Crux! It is such a pretty bike and a lot of fun to ride. Its not very powerful - just 100cc, but my bag is light and it takes me up all the hills no problem. I have yet to find out how efficient it is, but it is supposed to do about 70 kmpl. I am currently staying here in Mudud, which is a tourist town full of Indian tourists, but not a single westener it seems. I think they are all in Goa.

Happy Blue Moon New Year!

I'm heading back to Phaltan tomorrow via a mountain pass.