Mia and Beckham

In the last few days, this Bachhuber family has received not one, but two new additions: Mia Hamm and David Beckham:

David and Mia

As my sister gets ready to go off to college, my mom thought it would be best to make sure the house stays lively.  We visited the local animal rescue shelter, and Maggie picked out her favorite: Mia.

Madeline, envious of Maggie’s new friend, decided she wanted to get one too: David.

Lively it’s been, too, as these two dynamos never stop.  Personally, I’ve never thought myself much of an animal person, but the two new kittens are growing on me.

David

Somedays you just have to take a break from the work to capture the beautiful things around you.

Ideas for a UO Sustainability Conference in October?

Steve Mital, Sustainability Director for the University of Oregon, recently sent a call for ideas to help guide a Sustainability Conference tentatively planned for the 23rd and 24th of October, 2008.  It is being organized by Sustainability Directors at Portland State University, Oregon State University, and the University of Oregon, and the second day will reportedly be “entirely devoted to students and sustainability.”  My suggestions for the conference, written in full on the Oregon Direct Action blog, revolve around these ideas:

  • Planning this conference digitally and in the public eye so that students can be a part of the entire process
  • Adding an international component to help bridge the local-international sustainability gap
  • Networking with local sustainability non-profits
  • Drafting a set of sustainability guidelines for campus community to voluntarily adopt (i.e. minimizing paper use, using Tupperware instead of styrofoam, etc.)
They are looking for ideas on “workshops, themes, keynote speakers, etc.” until July 3rd.  Let’s make this conference worth attending!

Shooting in the mirror: India

Shooting in the mirror

I left for India young, naive, and partially unprepared for the extraordinary series of events I was about to experience.  My bag wasn’t packed until late the night before I left, and it didn’t hit me that I was spending three months photographing in a completely foreign country until two weeks in to the journey.  By not thinking too much about it, and being entirely focused on what I was trying achieve, I think it was better this way.

Nike has the motto, “Just do it.”  Cliche, yes, but it is one which wholly encompasses every lesson I learned while traveling to capture a story on the cultural, social, and religious constraints to clean water access in India.  Always do what you’re most in fear of.  Feel uncomfortable shooting in the crowds of Magh Mela, the largest annual Hindu gathering on the banks of the Ganges? Just do it.  Uneasy about experiencing poverty in the worst slums of south East Asia?  Just do it.  Worried about the security situation in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan?  Just do it.  The first situation I wimped out on, a hundred thousand people in one stretch of river sounds like a lot of bodies, but it’s been at the back of my mind ever since.

Of course, any advice I make should be taken with a grain of salt.  Pushing boundaries just isn’t for some people.  For all the others, though, keep doing it.

Being a networking madman also has its advantages in putting together a story.  If you see an opportunity to shoot something you hadn’t thought of before, take it.  Don’t hesitate.  It’s difficult to do in an alien environment, especially when you would like everything to be normal, planned out, and calm, but certainly worth the effort.  Furthermore, tying journalism with development also will score you a number of connections, particularly in India.  The people behind the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are generally more than happy to talk to you about the issues they are combating.  The government, not so much.

With all of that being said, there are a number of things I’ll be making happen next time. 

For one, rethinking my adoption of technology.  Oddly enough, the trip journey was partially intended to give me a 90 day hiatus from being digitally connected at all hours of the day.   I made a decision to leave my MP3 player at home, which lasted until two weeks from the end when I broke down and bought a Chinese knockoff, as well as to take time off Twitter, a micro-blogging service.

Next time, I’m twittering the whole trip.

Not only is it a cool way to report interesting things you come across hour by hour, but also a cheap way to keep in contact with friends and family.  The price of telecommunications is dropping quickly; to send an SMS cost Rs. 3.75 (around 10 cents) and receiving messages is free.  These astounding developments allowed me to even publish my experiences as I was in the middle of the Thar Desert, an arid expanse of land on the Pakistani border.

My goal was to go light and cheap.  Pack my backpack with only the things I really need, and then just take half of that.  Next time probably won’t be so light or cheap.  Even though I had to sell two pairs of skis and my kayak to afford this one, I would sell even more to bring a few more items:

An audio recorder.  India is rich with sound.  For the same reasons I brought earplugs, I need a device to archive the myriad of noise happening at all hours of the day.  Every train station has a unique announcement tone unforgetable to any traveler who has spent a lengthy period of time in one, whether waiting for an afternoon city commuter or spending the night curled up on a freezing platform.  Bus rides also offer the cacaphony, let it be a screech of tires as the vehicle races along a narrow, cliffside road or the horn which a driver can commonly lean upon for minutes at a time.  It never ends.  For this story, however, the sound of water is the most valuable component I missed.  Each region has its own footprint, the tap empties in the pot to a different rhythm, the bucket clangs against the dug well to its special beat, and the conversations surrounding these activities are in their own local language.  Sure, photography is rich as a visual medium, but audio definitely helps to complete the circle.

I could also have taken better interviews with a recorder by taping them instead of frantically trying to take notes.

A GPS.  Also known as a global positioning system, such a device has the ability to track where you’ve been and when you were there.  Of course, I can always do this manually by dropping images on the map, as I do with many of my Flickr photos, but automating the process would be a huge timesaver, as well as lowering the barrier to entry.  Geo is the next big thing, and geo-aware news even more so.  Tagging my images geographically would not only provide an interesting way to keep track of them, but also allow any story I create to be geographically interactive.

More memory.  Duh.  Sixteen gigabytes is enough to shoot for just few days tops.  Stretch that over a month, and the photographer is struck with an inability to make images.  I’d like to call it photographer’s block.  When you have to edit on the fly, or at least while driving between locations, it makes you think twice about whether you’d like to shoot 20 or 60 frames on a particular scene.  Furthermore, processing as you go doesn’t give much perspective on the set.  Often when I’m in the States, I’ll go back to my images at a later point only to find I like best a photo I was close to deleting earlier.  Considering I only kept a tenth of what I shot between February and March, I can only hope I didn’t kill too many Pulitzer winners.  This problem of a memory shortage can easily be remedied in these ways: bringing more cards, bringing a laptop, or a combination of both.  Unfortunately, these two solutions require funding.  Students are often short of funding.  My solution: sell more of the junk you don’t really need.  Some call it minimalism; I like to call it keeping to my roots.

Quite possibly the strongest, most poignant lesson I learned was that, to last three months in a country, I need a constructive project to do.  Building upon that, it is also wise to approach a country with multiple story ideas in hand.  With the way my planning worked out, I was done shooting what I had outlined for the water story by the second week of April, leaving me with nearly three weeks free.  I can’t stand the “tourist thing” for more than a few days.  As a result, I came up with a cockeyed notion to photograph people under occupation in Kashmir and Ladakh, with the intent of comparing and contrasting the two regions.  In Kashmir, there are reportedly 1.2 lakh (million) security forces for between 10 and 12 million people.  On nearly every street corner, there are bunkers with intimidating soldiers, intimidating machine guns, and intimidating barbed wire.  Needless to say, it has an effect on the local population.

Research beforehand might’ve helped me refine the second story enough to realise Ladakh is still covered in snowed at the time I wanted to hitchhike there by truck. For all of the regions I missed though because of access, Ladakh, the Kinnaur Valley, Pakistan, Tibet, and Bhutan, there’s always next year, right?

Onward and forward.

Adhoc transportation

Here’s the problem: I, like many people I know, drive too many places all alone in my car.  One person in a three ton metal vehicle that could easily transport five.  To move all of that mass around, with such unused, waste internal space, is an inefficient use of energy.

Money is made by identifying and capitalizing on inefficiency.  Inefficiency in the market, inefficiency in a business, and inefficiency in moving humans to where they want to go.

Here’s one solution: ad-hoc transportation.  Capitalizing on the triple convergence between location-aware devices (iPhone 2 on June 9th, anyone?), social networking (Facebook, Twitter, et al), and an absurd number of nearly empty cars on the road (suburban America), the goal should be to connect people with people who are pointed in the same destination.

We’ll call it Me Drive We for the time being.  It’s the most creative, available domain I could find in 30 seconds of searching.

Say, for instance, I have a ’99 Subaru Outback Legacy, Forest Green, and want to go out to Hood River for the day to photograph a windsurfing competition.  To get directions and a forecasted drive time on the day of the event, I’d most likely use my GPS-enabled device to search up the destination.  After I’ve decided on a route, Me Drive We could give me a wee little pop-up asking if I would like to publish my trip to the public.  Me Drive We would then send me a text message with the names and numbers of people either in my area or along the way who are interested in making a similar trip.  Or it could send my contact information to them, it doesn’t matter how the connection is made so long as it is made and made effortlessly.

It shouldn’t need to be limited to one platform, either.  If I had rock-solid information on what the wind conditions were going to be the week before (and we’re speaking a lot of hypotheticals here), I would be able to use a website to report where I’m going and when.  The value in having at least one mobile tentacle, however, is that I’ve never seen something like this done, and I read a lot of tech news, and you can make it brain-dead simple with one device: the cellphone.

Apple’s new iPhone is highly likely to be released in the next month with these features:

  • 3G high-speed internet
  • An official SDK (Software Development Kit) with first-round applications
  • GPS

It’s always going to know where I am, and I might just want it to also know where I’m going.

Wait, what if I don’t want to drive or ride with complete strangers who might axe me to steal my wallet?

This is where the social networking should poke its head.  Leveraging a social graph already created with Facebook or, heaven forbid, MySpace, I could choose to ride or drive with people I already know who have shared where they want to go too.  The service (ideally) would only reveal my location and travel plans to the circle of friends I’ve already identified.  If someone I didn’t know wanted to get a ride with me, I could again capitalize on the social graph to see if we know anyone in common.  

If I ended up riding with some I didn’t know, Me Drive We could even give me suggestions for ice-breakers, based on data culled from other social networks.  For instance, 90 percent of the music I listen to is scrobbled to Last.fm, and leads to very interesting charts.  This week, my top artist seems to be Gangstagrass, who released a stellar hip-hop/bluegrass album I would highly recommend downloading if you haven’t already.  Me Drive We could take this information, or knowledge of the recent books I’ve enjoyed from Good Reads, and give me and my passenger quality cultural artifacts to discuss. 

The most obvious constraints are usability and critical mass.  By riding on the shoulders of two giants moving through the forest at the moment, Facebook, or Facebonk as I call it affectionately, and Apple’s iPhone, I think Me Drive We could easily overcome them.  Integration with existing devices and sites would super necessary for successful adoption.

You build it for us lonely drivers and I will use it.  It’s time to be more efficient with our energy.

Chai man

These past few weeks have been ones of reflection. Having photographed the regions I initially outlined for my project, I’ve been bumming around, trying to find another story to pick up, reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, and thinking.

Moving some too. After Rajasthan, I continued north to Amritsar, holing up for two days with a fever, visiting the Golden Temple, and then, finally, trucking on to Jammu. I recuperated further and then took an amazing Jeep ride to Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir.

There I tried to launch another story comparing Kashmir and Ladakh, and how occupation in the 21st century by the Indian security forces affects the people’s daily lives. Snow in the pass killed the idea so, after a week based in a houseboat, I journeyed on to McLeod Ganj, location of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Many stories, of course, and many experiences to share. One, from a few days back, had me drop everything to write it in my journal.

***

On the bank of the sacred Dal Lake, there is an chai and omlette stand. Well… not quite on the bank but on a road leading off the main and so close I can justify calling it the banks. I drop down to the basin after hiking some kilometers from McLeod Ganj. Having had no lunch, I spot the modest carton of eggs casually on the small sill and amble over.

“Omlette?,” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, pointing to the eggs and a loaf of cheap white bread.
“Two piece egg, two piece toast. How much?”
“10 rupees.”

Wow, a steal I think, and readily agree to the deal.

As he cooks, I become lost in my thoughts, hastily scribbling down ideas which came to me during my walk. One page filled, I move on to the next. I am in lala land often, daydreaming about this and that, and what I might do in the near future. Impervious to the outside world, and distracted by a vivid desire to create concepts. Many people are, I believe, but I won’t personally draw judgement as to whether it is good or bad. It just is.

Yesterday, I met a man named Klaus at my “Tibetan cooking course.” An astrologer from Denmark, he seemed quite normal with his feet on the ground. For me, he became a person of interest, someone who occupied a number of brain cycles, because he had just finished a ten day mediation course. Conducted in complete silence. No talking, no conversation, just listening to your thoughts for hours on end. If you ask me, it sounds like a gnarly way to discover yourself. I would go insane after day two. And yet, shortly after our exchange about his experience, he pulls out a cell phone to see if he has any messages from family back home. The same addiction I left the States with. I think we only try to escape it, and can never succeed.

The omlette is ready. The chai man brings it out to me, I’m sitting on a simple wood bench, the type which would break if your weight is too much, and I’m struck by how generous of a portion it is. On a simple white plastic plate, the kind from my childhood, the omlette takes up so much space that the two small, square pieces of toast have to be piled on top. I cut the egg into two pieces, divy up my toast, and dig in. The meal is delish.

Watching me from his quilted stoop inside the telephone-sized stall, he asks, “Israeli?”

I’ve been getting more and more of this recently. It might be my stubble of a beard, but I can’t be sure.

“No, United States,” I reply.
The chai man looks at me confused, obviously not understanding.
“Amerika,” I add, emphasizing the “k” which seems to me the trick at the beginning of anyconversation.

“Oh, America.”

A couple of moment later, he asks another question. “Chai?”

It’s been my goal for the last few weeks to cut back to one cup a day. If I drink too much, I only sleep five or six hours each night and wake up at four AM. With my mind racing about where I’m going to go, what I’m going to photograph, and which emails I’m going to send, it’s nearly impossible to get back to sleep. Plus, it’s bad news for whomever has to be the recipient of those emails.

But heck, I’ve fallen in love with this guy’s stand so I think why not. “Yes, one cup,” I say, and see him move his pan off one single burner to make way for the pot.

The man’s business is the quintessential Indian chai/omlette/samosa shack. I can’t put it any better than that, as the beauty of the moment struck me like a lorry. It’s painted bright yellow, similar to an STD point, and the side is emblazoned with “Lay’s Potato Chips.” There is a sill in the front at chest height with forty or so eggs, that loaf of bread with flies buzzing around it, several samosas in a pan, and a small bottle of red-ish, ketchup-y sauce for whatever you’d like to put it on. Sure, the stands come in many shapes and sizes on the sub-continent, with different types of foods, drinks, plates, and cups, but at this moment I notice it in its entirety. To me, the stand is a profound statement of my travels. This is India, and this man sells omlettes and chai for a living.

As he’s heating the chai, I suddenly want to capture the process. I whip my camera out of the bag, spilling another set of notes in the process. As I peer through the viewfinder, though, I see I’ve been inspired at the end of his work. He pours the drink through a strainer to my cup. The chai is ready.

Near the end of my caffeine and sugar elixir, I talk with a man from Delhi. We cover the basics, and then I rattle off the whole list of places I’ve seen this trip. The businessman appears disinterested this development of the conversation, but the chai man speaks up. “Chamba?”

I repeat the question back at him, not understanding its nature.

Then I do realise and ask, “Chamba Valley?”
“Yes,” he replies.
“No, not his trip. From Jammu to McLeod Ganj.”
“Oh…”

I finally understand why he asked. “Are you from Chamba Valley?”

Whatever connection we made when I first arrived at his humble stand is magnified, enhanced. He gives me a “yes” with a broad smile and proceeds to show me a picture, worn and weathered, of him on the bank of Dal Lake. He is standing in front of a sign, and looks quite proud in a blue and red vest.

“Dal Lake,” he points, indicating something in the picture. I obviously don’t understand why he’s mentioning this. Again he says, “Dal Lake. In Hindi.”

I look closer and can see he’s pointing at script on the sign. Ah, that makes sense. It says “Dal Lake” in Hindi.

Putting the photograph down, he rolls up his sleeve to show me something else: a tattoo on his forearm. I glance at the body art and the side of his stand he points to as well. Both say “Krishan Chana.”

Ah, his name. That make sense too. “I’m Daniel,” I forward while holding out my hand.

He has one last tattoo to show me, the holy Om on the back of his hand. I don’t recognize it at first, but then I do. I pull out my Om, the one Kip brought back two years ago, from under my shirt and show it to him. “Shiva,” he says, pointing at my neck.

“Yup.”

And that’s the magic. That’s who he is, or a part, and that’s who I am. Or a part. Our conversation is limited because of language, but we’re both eager to learn about one another. India, although rapidly “modernizing,” is still about people. It affects me, irrovorcably I hope, every day I’m in this country.

Having finished my chai, I pay the six rupees and wander on.

Chai man

How do you define your reality?

This came to me, as many ideas do, at 5 o’clock in the morning:

Google Earth now has Street View. To many, it comes as no surprise; Google has many web properties which will work quite well in unison once they are integrated. With the addition of Street View, though, the company is well on its way to creating a static, visual representation of the physical Earth. Furthermore, as technology progresses, a human’s ability to interact with this digital “environment” will be greatly enhanced. At an intersection in the near future, the boundary between the “analog” and “digital” worlds will be seemless. A person will be able to transition from one to another, with no conscious observation of the technology in between.

To quote my friend Shane out of context, the seeds for this future are already sown. Barring a complete collapse of civilization, it will happen and it will happen soon. Communication is taking the same route too, coincidentally enough.

One big question, however, is this: how do you make the “digital” representation of the “analog” environment dynamic and live? Is it a matter of everyone having embedded video sensors and GPS receivers which broadcast realtime to a connected web? Will the future be in nano clusters, swarms of technology which capture the environment for us? Or will there even be a need or desire move around in an “analog” world if we can manipulate far more in its “digital” counterpart?

Now take one step back. Who else in the blogosphere has already “created” these worlds, this idea? When will I be able to be aware, to be conscious of that knowledge without having to search?

AI is soon.

Book club

Having no iPod this journey, I’ve relied on a number of books to provoke my thoughts and imagination while stuck in various places, a gnarly dust storm most recently. These are a few I would highly recommend:

  • Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, L. Hunter Lovins, and Amory Lovins [Amazon | Google Books] – A testament, and blueprint, for how we should really be living: in harmony with our ecology. Otherwise, as the book points out, the life support systems of our planet, our ship through the desolate space, are going to cease functioning as we need them to. It holds an optimistic view of the future, though, and argues that by recognizing “natural capital” as limited and valuable, we can actually solve most of the issues humanity faces, climate change and social justice for instance, and live better at that. Personally, it has made me wonder why we don’t have hypercars and closed-loop domestic waste systems already. I’ve got a few projects for home in mind when I return, although I’m going to need to buy another copy because Anat has mine in either Pune or Israel.
  • Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource by Marc de Villiers [Amazon | Google Books] – As I’ve discovered and rediscovered this entire trip, water access issues aren’t publicised to the degree they need to be. Or at all really. Being from the Pacific Northwest and all, I’ve always assumed water flows naturally from the tap everywhere and always. That’s not always the case. Although it starts off slow, the book is definitely worth finishing. For instance, one of the many interesting theses is that the conflict between Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan is territorial largely due to water access. All three nations face water scarcity, and control of supply is integral to national security. As with so much development coverage though, India is nearly completely missed.
  • An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire by Arundhati Roy [Amazon | Rediff Books] – In a vein similar to John Perkins’ Confessions of An Economic Hitman, Roy lambasts the United States, IMF, World Bank, Bechtel, and team for being authoritative, oppressive, and imperialist the world o’er. She argues that Empire, by causing social injustice and benefiting few, is weak. Her essays offer interesting perspective into how India fits into the picture.

Manoranjan! (“Enjoy” for those non-Hindi speakers like myself…)

India at the core, abridged

It’s been a long, short time since I wrote last. At the point where your life intersects completely with you work, it is quite difficult to take a moment and reflect on what you’ve accomplished. The writing in my personal journal has suffered too; only ten entries dot the pages from the last few weeks. 98.3% begin with how tired or worn out I was at the time of writing. This recount/ fictionalised drama will require a lot of thinking hard and looking back. As I have done some pretty “damn ballin'” things, as Joey would put it, maybe the narrative can be spun interesting enough.

To begin where I left off.

Traveling from Kodaikanal back to Pune for the Appropriate Technology Study Group (ATSG) ended up requiring two overnight bus rides, instead of a 28 hour train, because of the wonders of online rail booking. The first one I took dropped me on my head in Bangalore, where I was fortunate enough to spend only an hour and a half navigating the city for an 11 o’clock meeting with Vijay of Arghyam. His organization runs the India Water Portal, a project I am excited to see develop. After an hour long conversation about some of the technical aspects of our project, Daniel the masquerading altruist stuck again, first crashing their blog and then setting up syndicated subscription, RSS or email, via Feedburner. Productive afternoon for a tourist, eh?

A significant chocolate fudge chunk of the past weeks has been dedicated to achieving some sort of success with this study group. I partially documented this along the way in an update for the team and one for my faculty sponsor. It would be an understatement to say the project has been huge and there might not have been enough time planned for it; many times I would work seven to midnight one day and then do it again the next. For all of the effort involved, however, I’m immensely glad I did it. If the opportunity arises, I would surely go right back to the Kolwan Valley [Google Maps] and continue ours and everyone’s work in improving the region. The guiding research question has evolved since the beginning of the project but remains essentially the same: what are some of the socio-political constraints to clean water access in the Kolwan Valley? Following general conclusions from the 2006 UNDP Human Development Report, the water crisis around the world is not an issue of physical availability, but rather of “power, poverty, and inequality.” Our hope for the report is to document enough of these challenges for the next organization working on water access to achieve greater success.

My first week in the valley, but without the rest of the WDA team, started an hour after I arrived at Mahindra United World College of India with a quick drive back down the hill to Sadhana Village. It was time to debrief on the surveys and start thinking about how short time planned for research should pan out. I journeyed with two MUWCI (mew-key) students, Maya and Samir, and was fortunate to hear first-hand what they and others had gained from implementing the questionnaires. It, and other anecdotal information, began my crash course on the specifics of what we were working with. Hard data was also important for understanding what the study group needed to get out of the focus groups; Sunday consisted largely of sifting through 40+ surveys to gather some insight.

This specific project, and, well, any in a foreign country, requires an extraordinary deal of spontaneous optimism and naive steadfastness. There is only so much you can prepare for at home. The mold we created for the focus groups has to be broken completely and then quickly recast to different shapes. As it turns out, it is not quite as easy to go willy-nilly through a valley and have whomever you want participate in a discussion whenever you please. Especially in India. At one point, I was even dreaming of buses for transportation to a central location, microphones and speakers for communication to large crowds, and cater meals. Oh the ambition! If that’s how it actually ended up, I’m quite sure I would’ve had a mental breakdown. The trove of information we collected in the focus groups that did come together, including ones with scheduled caste (SC) women, village elders, and school children, is proving valuable enough.

When I did have time free, I was very fortunate to be able to spend it with some of the kindest people on Earth who just happen to live in a slice of Heaven. On a couple of nights, I was treated to Nandita’s wonderful home cooking. As the head of the Triveni office at MUWCI, the study group would not be where it is today without her generous assistance; without her food, I’m not sure I could’ve survived the week of caf fare. Anat, one of the student leaders of Community Development, was the best possible host and completely set me up when I arrived. Her company, as well as from a number of other students, was a welcome relief to countless hours of organizing, planning, and mind-numbing data entry. I must also give a shout out to Ben who has given me the inspiration for what I am considering doing near the end of my little foray into to this wee-tiny country. Hopefully an engaging photo essay will come out of that.

Now is where I really have to reconstruct from memory. There is a 10 day gap in my journal because of project overdrive. It’s unfortunate WDA didn’t get much of a spring break in terms of relaxation

On Monday, 11 March, Jessie, Yukta, and Raechelle, our faculty sponsor for the project, arrived in the afternoon looking frazzled. A couple hours later, we went down to visit Mr. Deshpande and Medhathai at Sadhana Village to give them a brief introduction to the valley and go over the plan for the week ahead. A large part of the days following consisted of surveying the villages for the specifics of each regarding water systems and availability, Tim and Joey arriving, testing the water of 15 points in 11 villages for basic indicators of quality, Yukta and Joey leaving to go work on the conference, conducting even more focus groups and interviews, and synthesizing the information for a presentation of preliminary results on Sunday. It may not seem like much condensed into one sentence, but the schedule kept us well-occupied. In some ways, though, this is where I wish we had more time. Every single day gathering data was a lesson in just how many complexities there are in the valley and with any social issue. We may be able to write in generalizations for the report, but the goal of understanding the dynamics of each village completely before implementing a water access project should be the goal of any organization following up.

I will be the first to admit there are times I can be a workaholic. The lines from Bob Marley’s “Catch a Fire” resonate in my head when I think about this statement of truth. Thankfully, Tim, Jessie, and company are better grounded in reality. The lulls while they were in India included frequent dips in the MUWCI pool and walks around the Biodiversity Preserve. On a side note, I rediscovered the sheer brilliance, literally, of putting a flashlight in a cell phone when Yukta and I became stuck in Paud after dinner one night and had to walk 6 to 7 km back in the dark. Over the weekend, or rather Friday and Sunday night because Saturday was spent preparing our presentation, we did us some cultural tourism to Pune to see what Bollywood (dancing) was like. As you may be able to see on the runaway YouTube hit titled “El Ostrich meets the Robot,” I am not a dancer and Tim could be a rising star.

Only after eight short, long days in the field were we then in Mumbai for the Safe and Sustainable Water Conference. Which went alright, in my opinion. There were a lot of good things which happened, but still many I wish had; my reflection essay will likely be tens of pages long. To keep it short this time, we had an all-star cast but a significant part of the “confirmed” audience didn’t show. Even some of those who had been granted travel scholarships didn’t make it. A learning experience, for sure.

Since the WDA team left last Thursday, I’ve been off and on by myself. Part of the time, I’ve slept at the Salvation Army Red Shield Guest House, which offers dorm rooms at Rs. 150/night, and have had the opportunity to meet some really cool people including Ravi, a philosophy teacher in the UK, Francis, a “dude I would not think is a web designer” from Australia, and Jana, a German girl working on her Masters thesis on soil conservation in Gujarat. Conversations with them have helped ward off missing the WDA crew and yearnings for home. Last Friday, I was fortunate to go to see an exhibit titled “The Photograph: Painted, Posed, and of the Moment” organized by India Photo Now at the NGMA in Colaba. It showcased work from the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Bartholomew, and the Magnum Photos group. Can I say super inspiring? I was especially struck by an image from Raghu Rai, an Indian national who is doing amazing work of his country. His image of a ship worker against the Calcutta harbor is absolutely stunning when viewed large. While in Mumbai, I also snagged a connection with Apnalaya to get a better understanding of the water access issues in the slums. Tuesday morning found me up at 445 so I could make it to the suburbs, not in the American sense, to get some images.

For meals, I’ve stuck largely with paneer makhani and naan, and then resorting to dal fry and chapaati at a local stand when I only feel like paying Rs. 25. Mumbai is a really expensive city; I will be quite glad when I am able to branch out.

With that, I embark on stage two: the north.

ATSG technical update

One aspect of Whitman Direct Action’s (WDA) 2007-2008 Sadhana Clean Water Project is the Appropriate Technology Study Group, looking at the socio-political constraints to clean water access in the Kolwan Valley of southern India. Traditionally, WDA has been an implementing organization, generally working with an in-country, non-governmental organization (NGO) to bring a piece of technology to a community or region. In early conversations with one of our collaborating partners, Sadhana Village, we determined it would be more poignant to rather work to understand why water access projects aren’t adopted to the degree hoped, and establish some of the challenges they face.

The Kolwan Valley [Google Maps], where we conducted our research, is an area an hour drive from Pune. It is comprised of 17 villages, or 19 if you count the larger Paud [Google Maps] and Kolwan [Google Maps]. The large majority of households earn their income through subsistence farming, with wheat and sugarcane being the primary crops, and everyone else through a small variety of other means. At this point in time, there is almost zero industry in the valley. This could soon change because of the proximity to a rapidly expanding urban center (Pune). Village size is generally between 70 and 400 households, which are then commonly split into between two and five “wadis” or pockets including the village proper. Composition of the wadis is, for the most part, determined by socio-economic background; for instance, in many of the villages we worked in, there was a “harijan vasti” scheduled caste (SC) families. Governance is done on a local level by the Gram Panchayat, a “democratically” elected body responsible for the basic issues of each village, and on a wider scale by the Gram Sevaks and regional Indian government. The structure of these villages, and of the valley, is as such to provide characteristics unique to the area and threaded throughout India.

Data collection done on the ground by participants in the study group consisted first of surveys coordinated by two partners, Mahindra United World College of India and Gomukh Environmental Trust, and implemented by high-school students of both MUWCI and the valley. Over two hundred responses from nearly all of the villages were collected. A second, preplanned component of the research was a series of focus groups and/or discussions with different types of groups from the valley, including scheduled caste women, school children, and the Block Development Officer (BDO), an official responsible for the government-sponsored water management projects. With one of our goals being to collect information on the same topics related to water availability, water quality, water quantity, and sanitation from different stakeholders, we found it was also wise to interview some member of the Gram Panchayat to get an “official” view of those aspects in each village. This detailed information on where certain wadis get their water, how much they get, and so on proved to be crucial in determining which water sources, or points of distribution, we should test.

Our guiding focus for the Water Quality and Quantity Addendum was originally to determine whether the water in the valley is generally safe to drink or not without further treatment, as well as to collect the supplementary data to establish a need for better water management. One reason for this is to partially substantiate the report produced by the study group; it will be important when we pen the paper to prove there are both socio-political constraints in the region and that the valley has a water problem to begin with. Although much of this type of information should be available from the Indian government, we decided, with more explanation later, to go ahead and do independent testing of the basic indicators of water quality:

  • pH
  • Temperature (C)
  • Fecal coliform
  • Turbidity (NTU)
  • Dissolved oxygen (mg/L)
  • Total nitrate and nitrite (mg/L)
  • Biochemical Oxygen Demand (mg/L)
  • Chloride (mg/L)

The tests were done through a variety of means. Dissolved Oxygen, pH, and temperature were all done in the field, as well as total nitrate, nitrite, and chlorine when the Lifewater kits showed up, and we took samples for the rest. On returning to the lab, the water for fecal coliform tests was placed on a culture of McConkey’s Agar for 24 to 48 hours. They were then assessed for growth of lactose and peptone-producing colonies, indicative of E. Coli, Salmonella, and other bacteria potentially harmful to human health. The pros and cons of each testing method will be documented in the full report.

As with working in any foreign country, there were, and still are, many challenges to getting the necessary hard data required for such a report. A significant amount of time, anywhere between one and four hours per village depending on how many cups of chai forced upon the team, was required to do a Village Water Source Worksheet [HTML], the first step towards understanding where we should test. Another timesink was that each one of these worksheets required at least one and sometimes two or three translators. This can easily magnify the amount of time needed as a question must first bounce from person to person and then the answer back the same path. One justification for why these questions have been necessary is that reliable information from the government is notoriously difficult to get, in both time consumed and accuracy. For many complex reasons, very basic data on water quality, quantity, and access sometimes either does not exist or is falsified. On top of that, there is an extraordinary bureaucracy to work through in order to obtain stats. The first person you talk to will pass you on to the next, and so on and so forth.

Regardless of these difficulties, we were still able to test 15 points in 11 villages assessed.

By testing for basic indicators of water quality, and surveying for hard data about the water sources in each village, we will be able to establish far more than just whether the water is generally safe to drink or not without further treatment. For instance, determining whether there is a presence of fecal coliform in the water can validate the accuracy of statements on both how often the water is treated and tested. If the man in charge of treating the water says he puts TCL in every day, but there is bacterial growth in the sample taken, there we will be able to document that there is a disconnect somewhere along the line. Furthermore, if the water source is being tested regularly, and there are indicators that the water is unsuitable for human drinking, then there should be action by the local and regional government to correct the problem. A presence of bacterial growth in the water could indicate some breakdown in the societal mechanisms required to provide safe drinking water. It is in ways like these that the hard data we’ve collected on the ground is proving to be a valuable asset.

With all of that being said, a fair bit of work still needs to be done. The collection of raw data from the Appropriate Technology Study Group is only just now being synthesized for analysis; through this project, we’ve been able to come to the overall conclusion that data collection is a time-consuming process. If it is at all possible, we would like to obtain the official water quality data from the government to see how it compares to our information, as well as use it to describe the long-term trends of the valley. It’s accuracy, of course, would have to be taken with a grain of salt. We made a request for this information to the BDO a couple of weeks back, and promised we could get it, but it has yet to come. It will also be important to continue tracking down the appropriate climate and water availability information to be able to compare how much water villagers perceive there to be compared to how much there actually is in each season, in addition to being used to depict the characteristics of the valley. Furthermore, it could be interesting to get hard data on how much water is being used for what, including what quantity is diverted away from the valley for use in Pune. The other data required to support certain arguments in the report will likely arise as we continue to figure out which specific dynamics in the Kolwan Valley inhibit access to clean and reliable drinking water.

Spot the giraffe

From my experiences thus far, the most crucial supplies a traveler must carry are good earplugs and a cheap bike lock. India is a cacophony of horns, whistles, clangs, and shouts. These sounds have a kinetic quality which drives them perpetually throughout the day, regardless of hour or location. Earplugs allow an intelligent human being to tone the racket down a notch and catch a few hours of sleep periodically. A chain provides the unquestioning service of sanity, assuring the traveler his gear won’t grow feet and walk off into the night, let he be in the dormitory, riding the train or bus, lying on a platform, or huddled on the street corner.

Kolkata is a huge, boisterous city with a Communist government in place for the past few decades. I noticed this only in a few subtle ways: the utilitarian design of the metro and university, signs proclaiming “A state of West Bengal Enterprise” on nearly every business, and the general antiquity of the city buses. While there is a fair bit of old stuff in this far off land, these buses had wood paneling. It took me straight back to the British Colonial period, ten or so years after I was born. If it hadn’t been so packed, I would’ve half expected the ticket taker to whip out a china set for afternoon tea, only to have the pot and cups break 15 seconds later. That’s how often there is an accident in the city. Actually, surprisingly, I haven’t seen a crash yet.

Thursday the 14th, aka Valentine’s Day and what already seems like eons ago, scored me the brilliant opportunity to travel with the executive leadership team of Water for People to West Bengal’s Nadia district. The point of their visit was to see some of the arsenic filters the organization has helped fund and install over the past five years, and the reason for my tagging along was to see if I can capture the cultural, social, and religious barriers to making sure people are drinking safe water. As with any shoot, there are images you hope to make and others you just accidentally happen across like an old man in the Thomas Crapper out back. Including my discussions with a former World Bank-er and other members of the team, I think I compiled enough to count that region a success.

Much of India’s public automotive transportation is also based on millions and millions of autorickshaws and taxis. In probably my most notable Bengali event, the Ambassador I hired just past dusk on Friday the 15th was dealt a fatal blow as we crossed the VIP Bridge. On the way to interview a Dr. Gupta of the BECS, a section of grated road right before the toll both tore the poor machine to shreds. I heard a metallic “clink” during 30 seconds of intense vibrations we confirmed not much later was a mission critical component of the car. Although I did feel a bit sorry for leaving the driver, he only received Rs 100 for making me walk the last 3 KM to my destination.

A tall beer certainly makes journal entries quite a bit more interesting to write. And read, looking back on that night. After sitting in the Victoria Memorial Gardens late Saturday afternoon, waiting to photograph the building at sunset and trying to explain to every visiting Indian IT student why I’m not with my girlfriend making snooky under a tree like everyone else, I took the advice of the Lonely Planet and took my supper on Park Street. For those who are not familiar with the area, this is a length of road where everything is a bit more expensive. Especially the meals. At the beginning of the entry, I write:

If I am to blow all of my money in the first month and a half, I might as well blow it in style. The meal hopefully won’t be any more than Rs 250.

and I finish it with:

Fuck, Rs 289. Man…

To take this in context, I spent one and a quarter what I was spending on my hotel room that night. Comparatively, it is as if I were traveling in the states with the budget for a $100 hotel room and then decided to go spend $200 on myself for dinner. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but I’ll bet it makes it more of an adventure near the end of a trip if you pretend it does.

Kolkata seems to be a mecca for the 25 year-old in search of his or her place in the world. It was my first time coming across so many travel bums in one square block. First, while wandering after returning from the Water for People excursion and apparently looking lost, I ran into Katie, a graphic designer and photographer who works until she has enough money to set off. You can imagine my relief in being able to have a conversation of more than three sentences. At the restaurant she recommended, which coincidentally costs alot and is called the “Blue Sky Cafe,” I sat across from a dude who was definitely hardcore and definitely not 25. Names must be meaningless if you’re 18 months into a six year trip; he didn’t ask for mine and I did not ask for his. Early into the conversation I learned he was on an overland trek from England to Tokyo, a journey I hope to take when I become crazy enough. One or two more years of school should do it. I asked him if he had read Danziger’s Travels to which he replied, “oh yeah, he’s an amateur.” For those unfamiliar with the story, Nick Danziger is a dude who did the same trip for 17 months in the 1980’s lying and stealing his way into countries, including Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. I wasn’t about to argue with him. The coolest guy I met, however, was a German photojournalism student named Andy. Not much for tourism, he is in India putting together a story on four Muslim girl boxers. Boxers as in the fighters, not the underwear. When I asked him how he managed to come up with such a subject, he said, “YouTube.” The wonders of modern technology!

Flexibility is obviously a required trait for those who want to avoid a mental breakdown. My stay in the smoggy city lasted two days longer than I had hoped because of an unintended consequence of India Railway’s decision to launch online booking. Nearly every single train, and I do mean 99.83%, are wait-listed for at least five days. This single fact is likely killing the boutique tourism of backpackers who don’t know where they want to be in the next week. There’s more than one of us, mind you, and it is a realistic impossibility to book your ticket to an unknown destination. After spending my last night in the Salvation Army Guest House dormitory building structure because I would be beaten, robbed, and raped if I slept in Howrah Station instead, I was off to Hyderabad.

Traveling by train for a single stretch of over 24 hours is an experience required of every visitor to this country. It gives you exposure to the myriad diseases and disfigurements beggars seem to have, is the only method of transportation in the world you can hear “chai, coffee; coffee chai” from a sing-song voice every 3.2 minutes, and lets you meet the type of people you wouldn’t normally sleep across from on a SpiceJet flight. Furthermore, going by second-class sleeper will be the only opportunity most will have to experience sheer and utter boredom. At least twice the type you thought you felt as a young child. India Rail should even mark up the absurdly cheap tickets and bill it as an amusement park ride. They could call it “Journey to Mars” but in small print mention the ride replicates what it would be like to get there using 1960’s technology. Like the lunar lander with hella tiny rockets. The “flight” would take absolutely forever, and when you have to go wee or throw out your leftover food it gets ejected into “space.”

On a somewhat related note, the India Railways company is the largest, non-military employer in the world. It transports over five billion passengers annually. If an organization such as Whitman Direct Action or, uh, UO Direct Action were to negotiate a recycling program with the head office, I think it would have the impact of single-handily ending pollution in all of Southeast Asia.

The 10 or so hours I spent in Hyderabad can be summarised by a single compound word: food-hospitality. It is the way of the true people. An extraordinary amount of treats, fried things, and fresh fruit was pushed my way as I sat on the floor of the Tajuddin house after delivering Kip’s mom’s package. After politely accepting a third and forth plate, my gut busted all over the floor. Not really. I had to keep eating. The gut-busting happened after I stood up.

As another word of advice from the open spigot known as my mouth, don’t ever buy a waitlisted takal fare from a booking office 1000 KM from your point of departure. They may appear to know what they are talking about but, if you hear those words, just say “no” and back slowly through the door. To leave Hyderabad, I had to cancel my train ticket and pay almost double for an A/C Semi-Sleeper bus where, in typical Indian fashion, they sell as many tickets as possible. I woke up at one point during the overnight ride to a TV show I really didn’t want to listen to. Hindi slap-stick comedy makes you want to punch the overhead speaker out. I now see why only the newest buses are in good condition.

The reason for my detour to the Kolwan Valley was to assess how the team at MUWCI was doing with implementing our mutual survey. A summary of several lengthier updates I wrote to the rest of the team, including a description of the difficulties MUWCI is having, is as follows:

  • We are a in a bit over our heads

The next few weeks will definitely be the most interesting of the project.

When I made it back to Pune Junction this past Thursday, my mind was a flutter with revelations of the deepest ocean trench. As a disclaimer, “every truth I write is a complete and utter lie.” This is what I came up with:

Life is not intrinsically “good” or “bad.” Events that happen in life are not “good” or “bad.” One’s opinions of the events depend exclusively on how one assigns value to an event. If, for instance, one were not to get a part in a school play, that person may establish a negative relationship to the event. To the other person receiving the part, the event would be seen as “good.” As such, in that simple proof, the event itself solely exists. It is, and has no intrinsic value.

Understanding the relationship between a person and an event is a key to enlightenment. Acting upon this understanding is one step towards achieving enlightenment. The trick is to separate one’s self from any emotion attached to an event and then recognize the opportunities stemming from an event like thin threads of light.

All events have these opportunities to take advantage of. Whether a person’s relationship to an event is positive or negative, there are always opportunities to move forward and progress. Again, the key is to look past the emotional relationship to the event, look through the cloud, and see where it will take you next.

Many times, the phrase “Nothing is Impossible” is said. In thinking about this, I believe the common reaction is one of inadequacy. Other people can do “great” things but it impossible to do “great” things yourself. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible do other people’s “great” things. You do not live their life flow, as they do not live yours. What should be said instead is “Dream. And do.” This phrase recognizes the unique values of each person, and their ability to do a multitude of “great,” impossible things, while emphasizing the need to look past their emotional attachment to the past. We must see, imagine, and dream the opportunities for progress.

Ironically enough, I woke up the next morning in my upper berth with a bitchin’ headache and gnarly fever. Natural Capitalism only ceded 55 pages of its sweet, recycled post-consumer content to me. Ye basta!

The area surrounding Kodaikanal at this time of year brings me to memories of the high Pacific Northwest during late May or early June. Under a stunning blue sky, the dark forests and meandering trails call my name in a way only the purest siren can. The air is often crisp and always clear; taking a gorgeous image is generally only a matter of pointing your lens. A chance encounter with Jeannette of Human Resources in front of the Kodaikanal International School on Saturday morning provided the opportunity to go on a stellar six hour hike to the highest point in the Palni Hills, a peak I can’t recall the name of, with her and a few friends. Along the way, the trail flirts with the edge of the mountain which drops thousands of feet down to the plains. Hot air rising from below offers priceless views of clouds forming in an endless dance. When we arrived at the top, we could see for miles and miles and miles and miles. Or kilometers, rather.

This past week has brought a wide range of experiences. While crossing the Bendy soccer field Sunday, I was nearly destroyed by a pack of wild dogs. My life was spared by five seconds of stupor and then an adrenaline-fueled sprint to the gate. For dinner that night, I was invited to the Shelton Cottage, the current residence of Tim and Katie Waring. Tim is a PhD student looking at, among other things, the traditional organizations which monitor fair distribution of irrigation water. Over left-over pizza and a delicious rhubarb dessert, we had an extraordinary conversation on topics ranging from Ghandi’s legacy to India, cultural as a method of evolution, and the SDK for the iPhone. They were, by far, the best dinner company I have had yet in the country. Monday and Tuesday were dedicated solely to producing as many images as I could for the KIS Development office. The current count tops out around 867 frames of French, Hindi, art, drama, and the “dish,” or dispensary. My mind has become numb to photographing. And writing, for that matter. This is the update that never ends.

One last thing. Today I escaped from campus for several hours to visit one of Tim’s small villages to photograph. It was dope. Dinner at the Royal Tibetan reminded me of good times with the Beckwiths.

Tomorrow I plan on running a double loop around the lake which will hopefully make my legs sore enough for the next few days of travel. Back to the Kolwan Valley and Appropriate Technology Study Group!