Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bullshit, Cow Shit and Building Houses

Indian people in rural areas just love shit :-). It’s used in ceremonies, fermented to make biogas for cooking, put it in the garden. It’s dried out and used in the fireplace for cooking and to make the fireplace itself. They plaster their walls with it, and cover the floor with it too, both inside and outside. It’s even mixed with urine and used in some medicines! Yep, people love shit. A few Indians I met were pleased to proclaim that Indian cows make the best shit and urine in the world.

When Vandana Shiva was given the Bullshit Award she was happy to receive it. Actually it’s a great, funny example of the difference between the organic mindset and the mindset of the World Bank guy who gave it to her. He didn’t mean it in a nice way, but unknowingly she took it as a complement! It depends on how much you value shit from cows and bulls :-).

People only do these things with animal dung of course. I’ll be polite and not talk about the human waste disposal issues. Cow dung, as far as I can tell isn’t used for anything irreplaceable but it sure is an omnipresent material in rural India. It turns out it’s the same in rural Nepal.

Today we spent part of our day flinging shit at the walls and smearing it around :-). We plastered the outside of a building with a mix of cow dung, rice husks and silt/clay. This is the normal plastering material for houses in rural Nepal, as in India. In India the material is being replaced by cement and some sort of low quality paint that has to be frequently re-applied. The cow dung looks much better, and the well maintained houses in this area of Nepal look quite smart with their smooth beige walls and thick strip of red paint around the bottom.

The inside of the walls in this area are often made of mud and stone, two age-old and time tested materials for building houses out of. In my travels I’ve seen a mixture of composition ranging from almost entirely stacked stone in Almora to pure mud in Bengal.

Rural Canadians are not such lovers of cow dung and I haven’t ever seen it used in this way there. I have seen a couple of people using a mud and chopped straw mix though. People call this cob, and if made and used correctly it can be quite a useful building material.

I think my favorite houses are made entirely of bamboo, thatch and coconut husk. It is possible to make the entire house (in a warm climate) out of these two materials! This is done in parts of Laos. The walls are woven bamboo strips, the floor split bamboo, and the roof is thatch although I suppose it could be bamboo shingles. Bamboo can be used to make the gutters, and used as piping and electrical conduit also. Rope made from coconut husk is used to bind it all together. This rope is soaked in water then tied. It shrinks when dry, making a solid joint. These houses are so simple they can be made by children, as shown in the photo below :-).

Good Night and Good Luck my friends!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome to Nepal!

Hello all! Unlike most of my other blog posts I haven’t been inspired to write this one about something specific. I just have some spare time :-). Internet access is good in Kathmandu and I’ve decided to spend a few days in the city just hanging out, meeting some people, trading books, getting a haircut etc. before going to the farm I’ve chosen.

I will be going to HASERA farm 40 km to the east of Kathmandu. It’s a permaculture farm run by someone who seems to really know what he’s doing. I went to the Nepal Permaculture Group office and he was there so I met him and we talked about the farm. Unlike a typical WWOOF situation where you trade labour for room and board at HASERA you pay for room and board and there is more focused learning which may or may not include the usual farm work. I like situations like this because I feel more free, even though they are quite a bit more expensive than WWOOFing. HASERA is charging 450 Rs per day which is about $6.50.

Two days ago I learned about something which may disrupt my pleasant farm stays and romps through the Nepali Himalayas. A Latvian woman is being held incommunicado and without due process as a prisoner in a Nepali jail. She has been held there about 5 months after what seems to essentially have been what Amnesty International would call an “enforced disappearance”. Nepal is known to have a problem with enforced disappearances, as reported in the AI 2008 Annual Report. We only learned about her existence through informal channels. She was apparently arrested for being in a national park without a permit. Because she doesn’t speak English she cannot speak to her jailers and it seems they have decided to simply keep her in jail because of it. Obviously I want to learn more about what’s going on and see what I can do, including contacting Amnesty International. The Russian Embassy has known about her for two weeks or so, and has not freed her. There is no Latvian embassy in Nepal so this is another problem for her. Her family has sent the Russian Embassy money to buy her a ticket home and help with getting her out, but the Embassy apparently has just kept the money. Yesterday I was supposed to have had a meeting with a Russian/English speaking tourist who has spoken to her but it didn’t happen. I hope I don’t have to stay in Kathmandu any longer than I already have because I am getting anxious to go to a farm after almost 20 days in cities and travelling. But I can’t just leave her to the mercy of the nation states who would apparently just as soon let her rot in jail than go home. If I don’t hear from the person who has spoken to her by tomorrow I will go to the farm and be in touch as much as possible from there. When I remember what the Canadian state does, torturing people in specially built torture prisons in Syria apparently for kicks or electrocuting Polish people at the airport because they don’t speak English I am concerned about this person who has wandered into the grip of an irrational, powerful, brutal and uncaring organization.

On the bright side Kathmandu is much nicer than Delhi. The streets are more thoroughly paved which cuts down the choking, eye itching dust. There is a level less honking although it’s still annoying. The streets tend to be smaller and more pedestrian friendly, at least in the Thamel neighborhood where I’m staying. The food is less greasy and less spicy (spicy food makes me sick, I've discovered). Accommodation is a bit cheaper. It’s just generally smaller, quieter and more functional. Although taxi transportation is a lot more expensive you can generally walk where you want to go. This is the relatively nice area.

When I’m in some of the bad areas of the city I begin to compose poems in my head about the bad things and the insanity of city life, the rotting rats on the street, the masks people wear to escape the pollution and the con artists who will take advantage of your vulnerable and confused state to steal whatever they can.

Like most asian cities I’ve been to, locals in the tourist areas love to play Harass The Tourist. The goal of the game is twofold: make tourists dislike being in the tourist area, and get money from the tourists. Players are stationed every 10 to 5 meters and their goal is to thoroughly badger any foreigner to buy a tibetan violin type instrument, umbrellas, hash, hire a rickshaw or any number of other things which they probably have no interest in. I’ve realized that communication with such players or “touts” is not on a conscious level. If you look at them in the face and say “I’m not interested in buying what you’re selling” then this will actually encourage them, even though they understand English perfectly well. Paying attention to them at all is taken as a signal to become more persistent. This is really unfortunate because it shuts down rational language-based communication. I can dream up a number of humorous counter-games to play with the touts because their behavior is so predictable but I try not to be a jerk like that :-).

If you score well in the Harass The Tourist Game then you can play the Rip Off The Foreigner Game. Fewer players get to this level but it is also a popular national past-time. Rickshaws take you to (closer) places you didn’t pay them to take you to, and people are constantly trying to charge inflated prices or lying about various things, coming up with various schemes. The goal is to try to get as much money as possible for as little effort, of course. I come across this sort of thing at least twice a day. No wonder I don’t like cities. I think these negative social behaviors which appear in the city are symptoms of something really wrong with this way of organizing a society. Of course people who follow Buddhism don't do these things and I've met some great people in Kathmandu. Approximately 11% of the population identifies as Buddhist.

Note: When I speak about “India” or any other country name in the following writing, I mean the government of the state, which I don’t assume even represents the interest of the majority of citizens.

Through the Couch Surfing network I’ve been able to meet some interesting people, including some Nepalis who know a bit about the political situation here and a French person working on political documentaries about the country. The recent political situation in the country is very unstable. It seems that India wants to control Nepal so they have killed the royal family in an attempt to set up a puppet government, (in concert with the US; India and the US seem to work together). It is in India’s interest to keep Nepal politically unstable with a crippled economy and therefore a dependent trade partner. China and Russia are concerned about the threat of a strong US (Indian) presence right next to them so they have started meddling in Nepali politics as well.

India is a controlling power in Bhutan as well. I had an image of Bhutan as rather picturesque, with a benevolent King interested in “Gross National Happiness” rather than GNP. But I’m told that Bhutan’s Finance and Defense departments are almost completely controlled by India. The Royal Family has a deal where they can have their family, wealth and image of control as long as India can control these two key departments. In the early 1990s many people were ejected from Bhutan because they did not support the King; India was a major force behind this ejection because India to a large extent controls the King.

Someone I met yesterday shed some light on the Tibetan situation. He said that the main reason China invaded Tibet was to prevent it from being controlled by the US. So the idea of a Free Tibet, is more complicated than simply ejecting the Chinese. Any sovereign Tibet would have to defend itself constantly from incursions both by the two giants US and China.

On the relatively bright side if people in Tibet can manage to escape into Nepal - although many of them get injured very badly crossing the mountains - then they are generally given sanctuary here. Also they can freely enter India, going to Dharamsala or a different place. Recently the Chinese has put pressure on Nepal to send Tibetan people back for imprisonment/torture etc. but the Nepali people have protested and so far have sent nobody back.

I’m getting to try some Tibetan food which has been interesting. Momos are like a thin walled perogie. Thukpa (pronounced more like tukpa) is a noodle soup with lots of garlic, and Thenthuka (pronounced more like tentukpa) is another kind of soup with flat, square noodles, sliced potato, greens, onions and grated carrots. Momos are generally steamed and often not very spicy.

The number one thing to do in Kathmandu as far as I’m concern is to go to the Garden of Dreams. It’s a fairly small walled-in garden which you have to pay to enter and it is beautiful. There are so many little beautifully designed areas, with waterfalls, stepping stones leading through ponds, huge trees, and beautiful flowers. It reminds me of the scene in Lost in Translation when Scarlett Johansson walks through a beautiful park in Tokyo. The whole garden is has Wi-Fi access.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


So I got kicked out of India. And so did my German friend Jens. For him his visa was up and extension refused. For me it was a bureaucratic error.

To make a long story short, people with visas over 6 months are supposed to register with the government within 14 days of entering India. Registration is supposed to be done with a major office specializing in registration, or with local police in the area you're staying in. The police in Chhatarpur, M.P. are incompetent and didn't know how to register me. They refused to do so when I asked them to, actually. The Indian government has decided I am responsible for their incompetence and is deporting me for not registering. I did everything I was asked to do and could do but apparently that's not enough. It took them 9 days and 4 office visits in Delhi to decide this.

I'm sad that I won't be able to visit my friends in India as planned. But, as Vinod Bhave said, It is good to flow like water and not get stuck in one place.

Last night I took a 15 hour train to Gorakhpur and will take the bus to the Nepal border tomorrow. I hope to become involved with WWOOF Nepal and do some trekking to experience some of the "wisdom of the mountains" (as John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, would say). I will likely have to take some down time in Kathmandu which is fine. It will take me time to decide which trek to go on or to obtain a WWOOF host. Maybe I can try my hand at couchsurfing.

It's a big decision for me in the next few months which direction to go in after Nepal; to New Zealand and Australia for a taste of home and some serious farm studying from people who know their stuff or to Isreal/Palestine area to get involved in a different kind of non-violent activism?

Any suggestions dear readers?