Thursday, 26 April 2012

How to make Picasa name tags be indexed by Spotlight

I recently rediscovered Picasa and am impressed with its new features - considering it is free. Thanks Google! Picasa is a photo organising and touch-up software and is available for Windows, Mac and Linux (with Wine). However, you still need to be a bit of a geek in order to not get trapped. 

What I particularly like about it is that it leaves all photos in the place I put them and does not store copies in its own folder - as iPhoto does. This makes it easier to share my photos between computers, be able to mange the photos with other software at the same time and allow me to keep the photos in a file structure that is sensible to me - namely in folders by the year in which they were taken and then in a folder for the location or trip to which they belong. Importantly, it has a small footprint on your RAM.

tagging...

What brings me to write about Picasa is its nifty naming and tagging features. Thanks to demand, if you choose so in the preferences, you can now save the names of people to the EXIF data of each JPEG. As I described in my last post, I like to be able to use my operating system to quickly search/display photos and produce slide shows based on the tags they contain. Correctly tagging all of your photos that you have accumulated over your life - if like me you have gone to the trouble of scanning them - can take an equally endless time. The Picasa facial recognition tool makes this task so much easier, if not fun. 

It sometimes comes up with amusing suggestions, particularly if it sees a face on a train or in a plate of food, but really its down side is that it does not recognise your pets and, particularly, people who are not facing the camera! It also tends to miss some people that are facing the camera. And don't bother scanning folders that have many photos with strangers in the background or you'll be up all night ignoring/hiding their faces!

When you first set Picasa up you'll be bullied into agreeing that it scans for photos in a couple of default locations. I forget if there is a way out of this, but I recommend going afterwards to Tools>Folder Manager and selecting only those folders you actually want it to manage. If you would like it to save the tagged people to the EXIF data of your photos (JPEGs only I think), go to Preferences and the Name Tags tab and select "Store name tags in photo". Note, that even if you don't select this option, if you assign any tags or comments to a photo, Picasa will anyway leave its print in the EXIF data of the photo and a unique ID number, which helps it link the photos to its database.

indexing...

Picasa stores the name tags under a tag name that is not indexed by Spotlight or, probably, the Windows indexer. Thus, it still traps you into using their software so that you are more inclined to upload your photos to share on their server. My solution to this, as before, is to duplicate the name tags to OpenMeta and Windows format tags. And here is my Bash script, that does just that, on my Mac. 


picasa2tags.sh

#!/bin/bash

usage="

NAME

    picasa2tags -- copies Picasa Region Names to OpenMeta and Windows tags


SYNOPSIS

    picasa2tags [OPTION] [DIR/FILE]


OPTIONS 

    -r   recursively copy tags for files in directory

    -n   non recursively copy tags in direcory

    -p   path to single file to copy tags

 

"


if [ x$2 = "x" ]; then

echo "$usage"

exit

fi


if [ $1 = "-r" ] ; then 

    fileList="$(find $2 -name *.[jJ][pP][gG])"

elif [ $1 = "-n" ]; then

    fileList="$2/*.[jJ][pP][gG]"

elif [ $1 = "-p" ]; then

    fileList=$2  

else

    echo "$usage"

    exit

fi


for file in $fileList; do

    regionname=$(exiftool -regionname $file | cut -d : -f2 | sed 's/, / /g') # get names

    #regionname=$(exiftool -regionname $file | cut -d : -f2 | sed 's/, /,/g') # handle spaces

    read -rd '' regionname <<< "$regionname" # cut preceding space

 

    if [ x$regionname = "x" ]; then # only change photos that have a regionname

        echo "unchanged:$file"

    else

        #echo "|$regionname|"

        openmeta -a $regionname -p $file # save to openmeta tags

        #openmeta -a "$regionname" -p $file  # handle spaces

        om2exif.sh -p $file # update EXIF data using other script which is in your path

done




To use the script, copy and past it into a text editor, save it as picasa2tags.sh where you saved the other script, also make this script executable by going to the location in Terminal and entering chmod +x picasa2tags.sh and running the script as, e.g, picasa2tags.sh -r DirName

Warnings
  1. Make sure you have backed up your photos just in case something goes wrong!
  2. The script will only work properly if in my other script, om2exif.sh, you replace the exiftool option -overwrite_original  with -overwrite_original_in_place. If you don't, the new OpenMeta tags mysteriously disappear if you view them with Tagit.
  3. Unfortunately, because my om2exif.sh script does not handle spaces in tag names, this script will not either. Perhaps someone can help me sort that with a line or two of code. To enable this script to handle spaces as far as transferring the tags to OpenMeta, simply uncomment the two lines marked with "use to handle spaces"  (delete the first "#" in the line) and comment out each previous line. This apparently is not recommended by the OpenMeta help file but I think the help file is probably either inaccurate or out of date! Otherwise, in the mean time, tag names are just as search able if you enter them as AlbertEinstein or ChrisR. 
  4. Close Picasa before running script otherwise it might not recognise all of the changes you have made to the tags.

Happy Tagging!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

How do you find your favourite photos?

So, you've been won over by digital technology and, on holidays, find yourself endlessly snapping away with your camera. It does not matter how many photos you take, because it is free and you can delete the bad ones later. But what about the ones that are not bad and not that good? Ten years later you find that you have accumulated between 10 and 100 thousand photos. The few slide-shows you put together to show your mother were created with software on another computer, which you gave away when you had a brief fling with an iPad. How do you find the best photos of you and your dog? Good luck! 


Entrapment
The problem with using software to organise your photos is that it either costs money, is not available for all operating systems and most importantly you are trapped. All that work you did organising your photos is locked away in a piece of software that you might one day not like or could be discontinued or not supported on your next computer. Your photos should live longer than your computer. We need a better way. 

Tagging - its all about tagging!
In case you hadn't noticed, Windows 7 and Vista have tagging facilities built in. What you may have not known is that there are many free programs to provide this feature to other operating systems, such as Mac OS. Tagging is here to stay and one day tagging will be as standard as tabbed browsing. This is what tagging is:

Many computer files, such as photos and movies, enable one to hide written text inside them without it being normally visible. This enables one to set keywords and even descriptions and ratings to help one find them again. For example, if you went on a trip to New York you could enter the keywords "New York" and USA. On photos that contained you or your dog you can enter your names. Rating your photos might seem a faff, but if you rate the best with 5 stars and the better ones with 4 it makes setting up a slide show a doddle.

On Windows and Mac, by simply typing tag:USA Rover in the file browser search box would almost instantly bring up all the photos on your computer (or specified folder) of your dog, Rover, in the United States. On Windows, to show only the best photos, also enter something like rating:5 stars  or rating:>=4 stars, start a slide show and enjoy.

Tagging on Linux, XP and Mac
I haven't set up the use of tagging on my Linux netbook yet, but solutions exist, such as using Tracker and digiKam. I also gather that it will not be long before solutions with come bundled with the popular Linux distributions. There is TaggedFrog for Windows XP users, but again I have not used it. 

I usually use a Mac that is running Leopard and, unfortunately, I am disappointed that Apple are behind in the tagging game - probably because they want to trap their users in iPhoto, which I no longer want to use. I am not going back there. Particularly, as I like to sync my Linux netbook before I take it on an adventure. I still use it as my gps navigator!

Currently my favourite tagging software for Mac is Tagit, where one can drag selected photos to its icon in the Dock to set their tags and rattings. When the tags are set, as above, 
  • Enter something like  tag:USA Rover, in the search field in Finder. 
  • To select the best photos the command is starrating:5 or starrating:>=4  
  • To start a slide show in Leopard, select all of the photos you want to view and hit the space bar!
Sharing Tagit tagged photos with Windows users
The limitations of Tagit are that it does not support comments, one cannot easily review all of the changes one has made and it uses another method of storing the meta data than Windows that seems get lost more easily. For example, by attaching a photo directly to an email to send to another mac user the tag data is lost. To preserve tags when emailing you should zip the photos up together with the folder that they are in. I presume, because will include the hidden .DS_Store file. 

If you are happy always sticking with a Mac for now, you might be ok with only using Tagit. However, if you'd like to be able to share your tags with Windows users, the good news is that is already possible if you are prepared to learn a bit of Bash. You'll need the following command line programs
  • openmeta - to read or modify Tagit tags
  • exiftoool   - to set the EXIF data of photos
Both are free and easy to install and straight forward to use if you are familiar with using Terminal. To save you the time, I'll share my Bash script that copies Tagit tags to the EXIF data of photos so that they are also visible on Windows. Feel free to use and modify it as you like. I am no expert and can't guarantee it will do as expected so I recommend you always back up your photos before you run it. 

Novis instructions for how to use the following script:
  • You can copy/past it into a text editor and save it, perhaps in Pictures as om2exif.sh
  • Open Terminal and change directory to Pictures (or wherever you saved it) by entering the command: cd Pictures
  • Make the script executable by entering the command: chmod +x om2exif.sh
I organise my photos first by year and then by location or event. To copy all openmeta data to EXIF format for the year 2012 and recursively for all contained folders type the following command:
  • ./om2exif.sh -r 2012

Note
  1. to access the script from any location you can add it to your path, such as putting it in the folder /usr/bin/ or by specifying your own user path
  2. When I need it, or if any one requests, I shall write a similar script to copy the tags in the other direction.
  3. The title of this post was a genuin question. Please let me if you have any better (free) solutions!

om2exif - the script

#!/bin/bash

# BUGS: does not handle spaces in file names with -r and -p options
# NOTE: does not delete existing tags or rating if not set by openmeta

usage="
NAME
     om2exif -- copies openmeta tags to exif data readable by windows

SYNOPSIS
     om2exif [OPTION] [DIR/FILE]

OPTIONS 
     -r   recursively copy tags for files in directory
     -n   non recursively copy tags in direcory
     -p   path to single file to copy tags
 
"

if [ x$2 = "x" ]; then
echo "$usage"
exit
fi

if [ $1 = "-r" ] ; then 
fileList="$(find $2 -name *.[jJ][pP][gG])"
elif [ $1 = "-n" ]; then
fileList="$2/*.[jJ][pP][gG]"
elif [ $1 = "-p" ]; then
fileList=$2  #$(echo $2 | sed 's/ /\\ /g')
else
echo "$usage"
exit
fi

for file in $fileList; do
i=2
echo updating "$file"
omkeywords=$(echo $(openmeta -p "$file" | grep tags) \.) 
omrating=$(openmeta -p "$file" | grep rating | cut -d ' ' -f2 | cut -d '.' -f1) 
echo $omkeywords
echo rating: $omrating
# translate keywords
while [ $(echo $omkeywords | cut -d ' ' -f$i) != "." ]; do
newtag=$(echo $omkeywords | cut -d ' ' -f$i)
if [ $i = 2 ] ; then
subject="-subject="$newtag
lastkeywordxmp="-lastkeywordxmp="$newtag
xpkeywords=$newtag
else
subject=$subject" -subject="$newtag
lastkeywordxmp=$lastkeywordxmp" -lastkeywordxmp="$newtag
xpkeywords=$xpkeywords";"$newtag
fi
i=$(( $i + 1 ))
done
# translate rating
if [ $omrating = "none" ]; then
rating=" "
else
rating="-rating="$omrating
fi
exiftool -overwrite_original -xpkeywords=$xpkeywords $(echo $lastkeywordxmp $subject $rating) "$file"
echo "done"
echo " "
done


Useful commands
When you view the photos as described above they can be ordered by date or name. Ordering by name does not work if you have more than one type of camera. Ordering by time does not always work as the creation and modification times can/will be changed when edititing or if you scanned the photos from film etc. exiftool is useful here in that it can recursively rename your digital photos to incorporate the time and date they were taken. The following are the options I use. A comprehensive list of examples, such as for correcting creation or modification date given in exiftool's manual and online.

exiftool -r -ext JPG -d %Y.%m.%d_%H%M.%S%%-c.%%e "-filename<CreateDate" Dir/ # rename pictures

exiftool -r -ext MOV -ext AVI -d %Y.%m.%d_%H%M.%S%%-c.%%e "-filename<CreateDate" Dir/ # rename movies

NB: these are two commands spread over four lines. Replace Dir with your own directory name


Thursday, 15 March 2012

Why don't I eat meat?



I wrote this in India before riding a motorbike over a 20 meter cliff. Don't ask me why I did it as I don't remember, but I believe I was pushed - by a bus. I am grateful to be alive but no clearer what I want to do with my life. Many people have suggested that I survived because I have something to achieve on Earth. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is to spread my philosophical ideas! Please read.


I have been asked many times in India why I don't eat meat, so I thought I would explain. Having been brought up a vegetarian I never gave it much thought whether I wanted to continue being a vegetarian all my life. As an undergraduate student I couldn't afford to buy meat. As a post graduate I eventually thought through my reasons as to why I should or shouldn't eat meat. The advantages are obvious. Being a vegetarian is difficult because you have to be careful to eat a balanced diet, otherwise you become deficient in something. Every vegetarian needs to be a bit of a nutritionist. As a vegetation you have to be particularly careful to eat enough iron, B-vitamins and omega-3. Actually, as a vegetarian I was a bit of a cheat by supplementing my diet with a little oily fish about once a week (omega 3 and 6) and unlike Indian vegetarians I also eat up to a few eggs a week (includes B-vitamins) and regularly drink Guinness (iron!).

My conclusion was that I wouldn't be a true vegetarian. Although I am a little uncomfortable and even feel a little guilty if I eat meat (not being used to putting animal inside my mouth and chewing on a piece of leg), I am not strictly against the idea. If we look into the animal world, animals eating other animals seems to be the worlds natural way of keeping the population of vegetarian animals in check. But what happens nowhere in nature, other than with us humans, as far as I know, is the imprisonment, or the farming of animals, for consumption. If a pig was human, this would be no less than slavery, but far worse: the animals life is always cut unnaturally short. Many meat eaters point out that if it wasn't for us that the animals would never be given a chance to live. That is the very answer that points at the crux of the problem: does the animal “have a life”? If the animal could ask itself, is it happy, and understand what happiness means, would it say yes? Of course it is difficult, if not impossible to answer this question precisely. But we can at least try and answer the question by learning an animal's body language and comparing its behaviour to how how we feel when we give similar body language. I believe that people who know an animal well can already do this.

I then put forward the question: What nature of a world would I like to live in? One that is based on greed and on a simple philosophy of survival of the fittest, or one that is based on thoughtful decisions that include a sense of responsibility for other human beings, animals and the general environment? I believe that if we are to demonstrate that we have a more intelligent lifestyle than animals, our lifestyle should be sustainable. It is my hypothesis that we can only achieve a sustainable lifestyle if we base our decisions not just on our needs but on the impact they have on the world. I believe that empathy is fundamental for a sustainable future - a lifestyle that does not collapse because it has taken too much too quickly. If we can learn to feel responsible for the welfare of all animals we are well on the way to being capable of living sustainably.

I believe that keeping animals in cages, restricting their freedom such to impact on both their physical and mental health in order to maximise meat production, throws dirt in the face of empathy and cannot be considered part of a sustainable future. There are so many secondary problems that arise due to our greed for meat: obesity, energy inefficiency and the frequent creation of new diseases such as bird and swine flu, to name just a few. Thus, I believe there should not be any space on our plates provided for meat bred on misery, dripping with crude oil, drowned in much needed drinking water and at the cost of dwindling rain forests. If we can happily say that our food does not come with these high price tags, we should not be eating it. Consequently, in the UK, I now only consider eating meat or animal products from free range organically reared animals where the animal is more likely to have been sensitively cared for. I think game, such as venison from wild dear can fit these criteria, but can only sustainably contribute a small part of our diets. If I can't afford to buy such meat, I am happy to live without it and believe anyone can do the same. Meat production should not be included in the food shortage debate.

Photo is of dolls I found above my bed in my guest house room.
It is the last photo I have of my adventures in India.

Friday, 28 May 2010

South-east Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next stop Bangkok and then hopefully India.

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

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Sadhana Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spreading love and "good energy"

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

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

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

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

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


Sickness and hygiene

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

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

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

Composting toilets

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

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

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

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

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

Projects and community living

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


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

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

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



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

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

Plans

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

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ooty to Pondicherry and many adventures in between

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

Ooty to Coimbatore

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

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

Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC)

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

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

Further South

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

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

An unexpected break

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

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

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

River crossing

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

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