Friday, February 26, 2010

Gandhi Ashram

Hey all,

I don't want to stay in this little internet place for too long, and I have to try to tackle doing my taxes (for the past three years :-) ). But I felt like posting some quick photos from Gandhi Ashram which is where I am staying now. It's a lot like a WWOOFer situation; do about four hours of manual labour per day, and get the rest of the day off. The difference is that it's more political; I'm here to learn about the organizing that's going on now and the philosophies behind it.

I just finished reading Hind Swaraj which is one of Gandhi's defining works. I'm starting to read Unto This Last by John Ruskin, which was a defining influence in Gandhi's life and his view of economics. And I'm learning a little Hindi and about organic farming too.

It's lentil season apparently. Here's the crew threshing the lentils. It looks like a terribly boring task thumping away at lentils all day. But this entire pile was processed in one day so it's not so bad. I tried it for a while, long enough to get some blisters and realize these people must have quite the calluses on their hands to keep at it for so long. After threshing there is a big electric fan used for winnowing. I think we'll be doing the same with mustard soon.

This is a cotton flower! It was a fun moment when I was standing in front of this plant wondering what it was and saw a boll of cotton staring up at me. So that's what a cotton plant looks like :-). The seeds are pretty tasty too. But I read now that they're toxic so it's a good thing I didn't eat too many!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Organic Agriculture Conference, Indore!

I busted my ass to get to Indore for the North Indian Organic Farming Conference on Feb. 7-10 and succeeded! First I had problems with my visa, because there is a new rule by which people with multiple entry visas must be outside of India for two months each time they leave. I didn’t know this and it doesn’t say that on my visa. The rule was created in December last year. So I showed up at the Bangkok airport and they wouldn’t let me on the plane. Fortunately (after much running around and stress) I was able to catch the plane the next day after getting an exception from the Indian embassy in Thailand.

Indore is a famous place which many organic farmers know about because of the experiments of Albert Howard. He was one of the first agricultural researchers to seriously challenge chemical farming. His experiments were conducted in India after he rejected the British research systems.

I’m actually not going to go into the technical issues of organic farming that I learned at the conference but if anyone reading is interested I did write a kind of briefing afterwards which I can send.

When I got to Delhi there were no trains to Indore. It turns out bookings fill about two months in advance. So I had to pay about $200 for a flight. It seemed like a lot at the time considering how cheap the train is, but it worked and really $200 is a fairly small amount to spend to go to a conference.

Once in Indore, had some tense moments trying to find a guest house but ended up staying in the Hotel Chananya which insisted on charging me a mysterious tax that no other guest house charges. They wanted to append some other ridiculous amounts but I protested. I find that protest goes a lot further in India than in Canada, although in Canada presumably they don’t try to pull this crap. In the morning I made my way to the Indore Agricultural College borrowed a student’s cellphone to contact the conference organizers. Once Dr. Prakash and friends got ahold of me it was smooth sailing :-).

They set me up as a special guest in the DAVV University guest house which was a surprise. I thought I would just be a conference attendee like everyone else but they treated me as if I were special, presumably because I was the only person at the conference from far away. I stayed with some very knowledgeable scientists, farmers, professors and organizers. The university guest house was an oddly chilled out place. Many people don’t lock their doors. We didn’t even receive a lock. And when I wanted to stay a few days after the conference they weren’t going to charge me any money (eventually I prompted them enough and they took Rs.125 for two days! That’s about three dollars.)

At the very start of the conference they set up a red ribbon to cut and symbolize the opening of the National Center of Organic Farming. I didn’t learn too much more about the center but it sounds pretty awesome :-). I suppose they timed the opening to coincide with the conference.

They opened the conference with some sort of ceremony, I’m not sure what. The conference had sprinkled throughout some singing and ceremonial burning things going on. The guy in the black vest in front is Dr. Prakash, one of the organizers. He is wearing khadi clothing, produced by villages in rural India.

The many important speakers assembled at what looks like pretty much any other speaking panel. There was only one lecture hall for the conference which makes it different from every other conference I’ve been too. The whole conference was super simple: go to the trade show area, meet people, and listen to lectures in the one lecture room. There were a few question but not many, they seemed to be rather discouraged actually. Every speaker gave his mobile phone number after speaking which impressed me. It’s nice to see people breaking through that “personal barrier” that sometimes exists and really getting into organizing.

The food was all vegetarian which was awesome. See details on my future post about Indian food :-).

I met lots of different characters at the conference. There was the ICICI bank manager who walked out of his job to start organic farming and wants to produce herbs for pharmaceutical companies. There were quite a few people wearing all khadi. I met a number of professors as well a few activists who reject the academic system. There was the farmer researching which kind of sweet potatoes make the best sweet potato chips. The new age fellow who was convinced in the healing powers of crystals and gave me some amethyst and turquoise. A couple agricultural students who attend the college, one of whom took me out to tea. (They do that a lot here, “take tea”. I guess some British things are good enough to keep.)

A lot of my time I spent sitting around the trade show reading really interesting books, organic farming newspapers and talking to people because the lectures were all in Hindi. I sat through some but didn’t catch a word really. Some had english powerpoint slides.

On the last day of the conference the provincial (I think, or was it federal?) government announced a moratorium on genetically engineered brinjal. Yay, what a great way to end an organic farming conference :-) !. Mahyco, partially owned by Monsanto, was trying to sell their GM product BT Brinjal. Brinjal is like a small eggplant. The weird thing about their BT Brinjal is that brinjal doesn’t seem to really suffer from low yields from insect attack. That is, their product doesn’t have much to offer. So maybe it would have gone the way of the antifreeze tomato and nobody would have bought it anyways. Politically, it is an important and encouraging victory nonetheless.

The day after the conference the board of the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI, sponsors of the conference) had a meeting. I got to stick around and go for dinner with some of them which was awesome. Then the next day I hung around the college while their meeting was on, read books and checked out the rose growing operation that the college has going on.

A gorgeous rose, brought to you by Indore Agriculture College. The only pretty picture in the whole post :-).

I went for tea with a new random friend and bummed some lunch from the OFAI. In the afternoon when the meeting was over I went with some of the OFAI members on a tour of an factory that creates mostly biological pest control agents. The company is called Indore Biotech Inputs and Research. As one of the OFAI folks said after the tour “He’s a good chap because he encourages people to do it themselves.” That is, the company encourages people to breed and reproduce the biological control agents on their own rather than continually pay the company for a product.

Indore Biotech Inputs and Research has a small lab which reminded me of a glorified personal laboratory. They have quite a collection of products, including pheremone traps, parasitic wasp populations, worms for vermicompost, various bacterial control agents like BT, funguses including mycorrhiza, “Effective Microorganisms”, neem extract (pesticide from the neem tree), and growth stimulants. You can apparently also send them a sample of your soil and they will culture the stuff in it and send you back a culture. I guess it’s kind of like compost tea only they do it without pumping air through the mix. I’m not sure quite what the point is but they have a whole collection of “cultures” from different soil samples people have sent them and they keep them in a bank. It seems to me that the culture must change over time because the bank is just room temperature. But what do I know.

Agricultural Conference.
The lab has a bunch of posters inside it, here is one of them. The title is “The Guardian of the World Crying Out for Protection!” It shows the farmer getting roasted by politicians and bureaucrats on one side and agro-chem companies on the other. The text underneath reads “During the Period between 1993 to 2003, 11 indian farmers committed suicide every week.” Then it shows how between 1951 and 1996 the non-farming sector: farming sector income ratio has gone from 1.4 to 10; farmers, compared to everyone else are making far less than they used to. The woman is saying “The Guardian of the World has become prey to chemical farming”.

I mentioned neem extract as a pesticide above. Incidentally the neem tree is a fascinating and highly useful tree. Gandhi had a bit of a preoccupation with it, and conducted many experiments with it. People who have access to a tree and are so inclined often brush their teeth with the twig of a neem tree. I got a chance to try this after the conference.

After the conference I chilled out and dealt with the police for a couple days then for four days I attended a meeting for families who homeschool their children. It was set in a lovely farmhouse outside the city. I was a bit of an odd one out but I was invited during the conference so I pretended to fit in :-). They talked about organic farming as well, and visited two farms. It was an interesting and relaxing few days but I don’t plan to make a post about it yet. Maybe later.

I’m in Chhatarpur now. I’m here earlier than planned because I got run out of town by the Indore police. According to my visa I am supposed to register with the police within 14 days of arriving in India. The police in Indore hassled me about registering. It was a weird situation. I think the officer was just really paranoid, didn’t know what to do with me and wanted to cover his ass. He said that I could either come back to Indore every time I change towns (totally ridiculous, considering the distances involved) and accept other draconian conditions on my stay, or register in Chhatarpur. The police in Chhatarpur are much more chilled out. They told me that if I wasn’t staying here for more than three months don’t even worry bother to register. If I decide to stay longer than three months I’ll contact them. This is in contrast to what it says on my passport but I can’t make them register me if they don’t want to. Something tells me if I had just ignored the requirement like a clueless tourist it never would have been an issue.

Until next time, goodnight and good luck.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gandhi Smriti

Wow it seems like a lot longer than 7 days since my last post.

I'm going to cut short the agonizing details on my travel difficulties and post about Gandhi Smriti in Delhi. I didn’t have much time there because I needed to get to Indore for the organic farming conference. But it was amazing. It’s a beautiful testament to Gandhi’s life and the history of India. It felt really good to do something which fits so perfectly with the reasons I came all the way to India.

This monument is to mark the place where Gandhi was shot. In fact it is expressed in the text surrounding the monument as “achieved martyrdom”.

I was a little bit surprised by the large size of Gandhi’s house. It has been turned into a museum with the most amazing interactive displays. They’ve used technology and sensors to create some very artistic and functional displays. For example there is one where as you walk down the hall it plays a video of Gandhi’s life. The computer tracks you as you walk; walk faster and it plays faster. If you stop the movie pauses. Another example is a set of cubes. The cubes have a screen on their surface. By placing the cubes next to each other in different configurations a different quote will scroll across the screen each time. Each permutation has a different quote associated with it.

This is Gandhi’s bed, where slept during the last days of his life. They were very busy ones, doing lots of organizing. The room next door is his receiving room where lots of meetings happened.

A constant theme at the Smriti was the spinning wheel which Gandhi advocated as a way to bring rural villages out of poverty. It’s not that there was anything holy about the spinning wheel, Gandhi just appreciated its practicality. He saw its simplicity and ability to challenge British cloth imports while at the same time providing an income to rural people during times that they weren’t involved in farming.

Honestly I’m not sure how it works. I think it is meant to produce thread from cotton. The whole process of growing to producing cloth is rather complex but a spinning wheel is a core part. I was able to buy a shirt made in a village, according to Gandhi’s program. The fabric is known as khadi. After putting it on I can see that it’s unusually well suited to the hot Indian environment. The shirt has a loose weave that allows air to blow right through. Khadi can take warmer forms as well of course. At the agricultural college in Indore people sported warmer vests etc. made of khadi.

Here I am wearing my khadi shirt, looking ridiculous in front of the first train to ever roll into Indore. My new friend Shialendra is the one who took the photo.

The site has a book store where I was able to buy a couple of things that Gandhi wrote. I bought Self Restraint Vs. Self Indulgence, a book written my M.K. Gandhi, and also a collection of his works put together by UNESCO called All Men Are Brothers (“Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as Told in His Own Words”).

Just like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi was aware that he was likely going to get shot. Days before Gandhi was shot, someone tried to kill him with a bomb. Both Gandhi and King gave speeches shortly before their assassinations and in those speeches they spoke of their own deaths (by the way King also asked people to boycott Coca-Cola in his last speech!). In All Men are Brothers the Navajivan Publishing house publishes Gandhi’s speech. Here is a section of it to share:

“I believe in the message of truth delivered by all the religious teachers of the world. And it is my constant prayer that I may never have a feeling of anger against my traducers, that even if I fall a victim to an assassin’s bullet, I may deliver up my soul to be written down an impostor if my lips utter a word of anger or abuse against my assailant at the last moment.

Have I that non-violence of the brave in me? My death alone will show that. If someone killed me and I died with prayer for the assassin on my lips, and God’s remembrance and consciousness of His living presence in the sanctuary of my heart, then alone would I be said to have had the non-violence of the brave.”

It is written at Gandhi Smriti that Gandhi died with the word “Rama” on his lips, which is a holy utterance.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Indore, India

I don't have a spot to hook up my laptop but it's been a while since I made a post. And I won't have a chance to hook up my laptop for a while probably. So I might as well go ahead and post sans photos.

Last time I posted I was in Vang Vieng, Laos. Laos is communist by the way in case you didn't know. When the US lost the "Vietnam" war Laos became communist too. They didn't have the same brutal stuff going on as the Khmer Rouge was up to a little further south but some of the hill tribes were badly persecuted. Especially the Hmong who fought on the side of the US. The communist party also meddled with the monastic order, even changing the texts.

Anyways I escaped the drug den of Vang Vieng where the opium, meth, weed, mushrooms and of course Beerlao flow freely. Just joking it's not really a drug den but there are rather a lot of intoxicated tourists around and I learned the term "alcoholiday". I took the bus to Vientiane which is the capital. From my departure from Vang Vieng until landing in Indore I was on the move almost all the time, rushing around from one thing to the next. Not really my idea of a good time but I wanted to make it to the organic farming conference in Indore. I crashed in Vientiane before taking the bus across the border into Thailand.

Immediately after getting into Thailand I got to share a tuk tuk (three wheeled taxi) with two monks to the train station! The train station website apparently does not work with Safari because I sat around for about two hours while the officials fiddled about in confusion about my online ticket. I ended up buying another one just with cash. The overnight train with groovy folding out beds was a nice way to get to Bangkok.

In Bangkok I was lucky enough to wander across Siam Classic guest house a short walk from the railway station. It was a bit expensive at 450 Baht per night (~$15) but very nice. I chilled out, walked around Chinatown for a bit. Saw a huge 5.5 ton gold Buddha. Things were going well. I spent the night in Siam Classic and the next day got up in time to see the monks collecting alms. It's quite interesting to watch. Each day the monks go out and collect alms from people. It's how they have food to eat. Each monk has a bowl. As they walk through the street the come across people who offer them food. People wait with their bags on the sidewalk, looking to catch a monk. Or the food vendors set up little plates of food ready to go for them. They are carefully packaged in single serving sizes, which generates an enormous amount of garbage. Donations include little bottles of water. I think people also put out food for the spirits in much smaller portions. When the monk and the food meet at the same point in time and space the monk opens his bowl and the donor places the food into his bowl one item at a time. Then they kneel down, put their hands together and thank/show respect to the monk. The monk smiles at them, maybe gives them a blessing. The whole thing is a very happy process, people wanting to give their food and the monks smiling and happy to recieve it.

In the afternoon I visited a Buddhist univerisity. I was hoping for a bookstore but there wasn't one. It was lovely to sit in front of the Buddha though. My plane was leaving at 6pm and I though I had time...

I had a hard time getting to the Buddha because I wasn't very good with the public transit system. Then there was heavy traffic on my way back to the hostel. I had to get out of a taxi and go find another one we were so stuck. It sucks to sit in traffic and watch the meter run. Then the taxi driver didn't know where the train station was (wtf?). Eventually I nabbed a tuktuk and someone nearby helped him to know where I wanted to go. I grabbed my bags and hopped on the subway. Then found out the train to the airport, although shown on the map isn't built yet :-(. I hailed a taxi, with time running out...

The airport is really freakin far away. It took about an hour to drive there. I ended up getting there in time though, with 20 minutes before the check in gate closed. Whew. But, as I like to say it's never over until it's over. I.e. you're not in Delhi until you step out of the airport in Delhi. The check in agent told me that there is a new rule, specially for multiple entry tourist visas. The tourist has to be gone for 2 months before they return! I had only been one month and so could not board the plane... I spent the next 20 minutes frantically trying to call the Indian embassy, not that it would have done me any good.

Eventually I gave up but the airline company said that they are making a special exception for people like me, and would let me reschedule....

It's getting late and I have more visa adventures tomorrow so the saga will have to Be Continued...