Saturday, November 5, 2011

Tamil Nadu, new forests, child labour

In India every day over 6,000 new cars and 100,000 new motorcycles are being bought.
In Mumbai there are more dollar millionaires than in New York.
These are a couple of statistics that rather struck me and I can see this country exploding economically. The reality is that the poorest are having as difficult a time now as they ever have and the contrast with the rich only makes this gulf all the more striking.

So many Indian NGOs have historically looked to the 'Developed' world for funding. They still do, but the need for India's own social responsibility to develop further will be more and more important as they get richer and the 'west' has to deal with more of their own problems. The many religions and sects do support the population to some extent and it may well be through these channel that this urgent evolution can be accelerated. ...That is just H having a bit of a spout...

Dindigal is the town I had planned to meet Abdaheer. He is the chap I had been corresponding with about the WeForest project in the area. Till now this journey had been about an approximate route, a few places to see and a lot of opportunistic meetings of people along the way. Pretty self indulgent and self feeding you could say.  So this was a new short phase of the trip where I was to see on the ground some actual day to day life in the workings of a great cause that resonated with the trip I was doing.

Abdaheer had kindly arranged a hotel and met me there with his colleague Farukh. It is worth saying that my timing was very selfish in that it was the first day of Diwali and like asking someone to come out on Christmas Day. They made no issue of this and said that it was really for the children, but I knew it was also a work holiday at the very least. They took me to one of their projects which was a new school for the Dalit community. They are the lowest of the low in this land and education is rarely successful via the state.
                                 The New School....ready next spring and funded largely by a German charity

I should explain that Abdaheer started his NGO whilst still at college 15 years ago, by helping to train impoverished women to earn money making clothes and the like. This expanded and The Sawed Trust now runs many projects that self enables, empowers and ultimately  enriches the poorest and most wretched in Tamil Nadu. And that tends towards the women and children. More recently his attention has broadened to include agricultural and environmental essentials. Hence the Weforest connection. Abdaheer is a remarkable social entrepreneur, who with his colleagues is giving a lot of people a much greater chance in life. The fight against cynicism and greed, set against the delight in seeing real and positive change for many, is his daily bread.

They run courses for small local farmers, which will see 40+ every week turn up to learn about new techniques and crops that will lever their circumstances very favourably. It was interesting that the clinching incentive was the free grain and fruit tree saplings that are given out after each lesson. That is what I call positive arm twisting that works because the farmers are implementing what they are learning and getting hugely increased yields.

The Classroom with Farukh at the board
Local ladies preparing tree seedling bagsAbderheer (centre) with his colleagues

On returning to the hotel, having dined on a famous Vanu Biriyani, I bumped into Mags and Joost at reception. A quickly interesting chat lead to a plan to meet for a drink a bit later. They are making a film about the horrors of the child labour in the cotton industry here. It was extraordinary to hear their tales of the tortured life these kids are put through. The lady who was helping them, would not show her face to the camera, as she would have more likely than not been killed by the mafia type bosses that run the cotton industry.

My mouth was almost on the floor by the time I had heard all this, but they seemed completely relaxed....  I then realised that they do this all the time and are well known film makers with such hits as 'Saving Africa's Witch Children' shown on Channel4 dispatches which even I had seen. is their company and they are delightful and fascinating. A fine crossing of paths from my point of view and ones that will cross again I hope.

The next day Abdaheer, Farukh and I went up onto the hills above Dindigal in the Western Ghats to visit some of the plantations that he is doing with WeForest. So far their plans are for 600 hectares of 75000 new trees and that will absorb about 10,000 tons of CO2 per annum. An average car produces about 6000kg of CO2 per annum. (in simple terms we worked out that the annual carbon absorption of the new trees would about cover one days emissions from the new cars sold daily). 1 Euro buys and plants 6 trees, so off setting one's 'footprint' does not have to be too expensive. Weforest has a €3 a month campaign that I do, which may interest those who like the idea of replanting the forests of the world; click here.

I will add the video in due course, butthis is the area that the planting is to be done.

WeForest had asked if I would write a small report for them and perhaps take some video. It became rather apparent that it would be easiest if we filmed a sort of interview covering all the topics surrounding the project. Messrs Humphreys and Paxman are very safe in their jobs, but it is a very good way of getting information across efficiently. I will post it here once the heavy edit is finished.

Before I left Dindigul, I had mentioned the need for better water proofs and Abdaheer took me to the brand new 'Selfridges' of Dindigal, which had everyone there very excited. To my mind it had more the styling and layout of a multi floor Aldi. On the top floor there was great range of rain coats etc. I was then astonished by Abdaheer as he refused to let me pay for them. My attempt at insistence started bordering on rudeness so I gave in and accepted this kind and most welcome of gifts.

Azim, Abdaheer's son on Batty, just before I left

For the next 2 days of travel, I put them on about 5 times as the cyclone reminded me that Mother Nature was boss, but I at least was dry.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Coorg, Mysore, Ooti, Kochi, Fort Cochin. Sodden and Broken, delicious food and good good company

The thing about reading a good book is that it fills one's head with pictures of somewhere. Tiger Hills by Sarita Mandanna is just such a book and as opportunity allowed me, I left Goa for the Coorg Hills a couple of days south. The book is set over a hundred years ago and is a sort of a 'Thornbirds' of India and runs over 3 generations. The depiction of amazing landscape, lovely climate and beautiful people did get to me and I couldn't wait to see it.

It was not everything that my imagination had conjured up, but very beautiful and lush. Unfortunately the rains got me both days that I was there which tampered my feelings a bit.

I didn't take that many shots around Coorg, but this hints at this lovely place. There are loads of tea, rubber and spice plantations

I loved Mysore and the Palace there is worthy of any journey. Made from materials and fittings from around the world and the paintings of all the State occasions, depicting thousands of actual soldiers, local ministers and Royalty, as well as all the Colonial officers from England,  were just amazing. It was rebuilt after a fire at the beginning of the last century and must have been a wonder of the 'palace' world at the time.
Couldn't resist a carriage to the Palace

One of the Palace Gates

The front of the Palace 

There is a lot about Tigers here and these are by British sculptor Robert Williams Colton

I was trying to leave by the wrong gates apparently, and the guard said that if I wanted to see the Princes' private Elephants I could do that and then leave by the 'wrong' gate. So I did, and they were lovely elephants that made me a little nervous. It was a way that the Guards and the keepers made extra money on the side. My 200 rupees, had them grumbling I am afraid.

Ooty, isn't that a fantastic name for a town. It is about a day's Batty ride south east of Mysore and halfway to Cochin.

The road there starts through the great plains around for Mysore and the rises sharply as one enters the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in the Blue Mountains National Park,  Western Ghats.  I stopped to get a few snaps at one point and got back on Batty when she just felt weird, sort of floppy as I took her off the stand and took hold of the handle bars. Flat tyre I thought, nope, nothing to see. Must be my imagination I thought, so I moved off. But there was something very wrong and I pulled up after a few yards. Off I got and went around the bike wobbling the handlebars as I went, and at last I saw the problem. The 2 frame bars that come down from under the tank and then under engine had completely sheared apart and the only thing holding the engine in place was the added on crash bars.

I asked the inevitably gathered throng where there was a welder locally. A walking pace ride to the next village 5 miles on found one and he did a great job. I asked for some extra strips of steel to be welded on to strengthen it all the more. I doubt and assume this break will not happen anywhere else again. The roads for the last 3 months have been very hard and the non stop banging and vibrating have taken their toll. I guess luck played it's part by the final failure happening at a very slow speed and the proximity of ever ready welders, who have now helped me 4 times. Each time the charge is £2-3, which immediately redeems any feelings of frustration etc.

This happening also brought happy circumstance as it forced me along a quieter and less direct road to Ooty, which turned out to be the one I had heard tell of for it's beauty and with a climb to 2000m through what must be a near world record of 36 switch back corners. A great ride up through tea gardens and the like,  but half way up the heavens opened and I got my now customary afternoon soaking.

I think he realized there was no room for him on the back...nor any snacks.

Ooty was rather like Shimla, and had many echos of colonial planters in the town buildings. I found a nice but damp hotel and rather went to earth trying to warmed up under the extra blankets that I had requested. I really have not got the timing completely right for biking here, not that I can do anything about it now, and the guides do say October should be a good time. On the up side it has meant that I have not had to compete with thousands of other tourists, and it also means I will be in SE Asia for prime season, so I hope it all balances out. On the down side I have got wet quite a lot.

Our next quarterly meeting for work was coming  up so I set off for Cochin where I had booked a supposed good hotel with a strong Internet connection. A few days of catching up and then a very good meeting had me back into work mode and all the exciting things going on are quite a pull, but it is amazing not only having great colleagues, but also what you can do sitting in a beach hut miles from home and still hopefully be useful.

The other big draw to Cochin (Kochi) was my favorite Tea trader was there on business and we managed to have a dinner or 2 and spent the weekend catching up. She also replenished me with a replacement iphone, sim cards,  and maps etc the list is long but invaluable.

A bit of Kayaking on the back waters
Fisherman standing up sorting out their catch in these tiny unstable boats...years of just doing it I suppose.

It is a great city and the Fort Cochin area is a heady step away from the norms of India and combines a lovely cocktail of multiple European architecture harking back 400 years, lovely shopping, fab
restaurants and great boutique hotels.
Well it was just one day, and I was seeing if the camera on my replaced iphone still worked

The lovely Old Harbour Hotel that Sophie was staying in

I have been to Cochin before with Caro over Xmas 2006, it started off as a brilliant holiday which we were both enjoying immensely, but suddenly it turned and all the horrors of the Tsunami on the Boxing Day ruined so much for so many. The local damage was significant with 100s of local fishermen killed, but nothing like what Sri Lanka etc (where we had planned to go on to) had suffered. Anyway, not that anything seemed important to us by comparison to the scale of things that others had to deal with, we saw a lot less of the town or the back waters than we had intended.
I seem to have a number of friends in the travel business and that holiday was put together by Fiona Brijnath, who I went to six form college with in Exeter. We were both doing a business studies course, after which we shared a flat together in London. She took the traveling route and I the illustration agent one. Her excellent firm, Far Frontiers, is the sum of her own extensive travels, a few years at Abacrombie and Kent, and then Steppes East. Much recommended for the discerning traveler, it is her quality and friendliness of service, which is only surpassed by the glorious places she sends you.

I write from the El Paradiso guest house in Thekkady. I was recommended to it by Antony the tourist driver at the hotel I was staying in Cochin. I had 3 days to get 180 miles so it was great idea to come to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. My plan to spend a night, go off on a 1/2 day trek and then head on collapsed as the morning trek was in the clouds and rains, so there was nothing to see really and returning to the GH soaked and covered in leaches persuade me spend the rest of the day here and catch up.

Some shots on the way to Periyar

There I was sheltering under a tree taking pictures of Batty out in the Rain

On leech patrol

Soggy at the top

My guide, Augustus,  praying at the top of the hill he had taken me too. There was so little to see that he and I talked about arranged marriages, church, politics and how little he earns...a regular guide topic and a way of reminding you to tip them, I guess

I had only met a leech once before and that was about 10 days ago when in a down pour on the bike I felt something moving about on my lip. I thought it was a bit of material from the helmet strap, and kept trying blow it away. Eventually I had had enough and stopped to re adjust things. That is when I saw what it was....luckily I had bitten it in half so it was sort of dying, and I never found the other half.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Work, Prostitutes, Work and Play. Mumbai and Goa

  • Two 10 hour long days from Rajasthan to Thane, which is just north of Mumbai. It is Mumbai's St Albans, or something like that. It was not particularly a place of required visitation, but it is a place of importance as far as I am concerned in that it is where some of the growing team of colleagues who work for Bikini Lists Ltd operate from. Bikini Lists is a firm started 10 years ago that provides mailing lists of all the international creative/media commissioners. It was something the our industry desperately needed then and with some help we started it. My involvement is not that great nowadays on a day to day level, although I am on the board. It was good to meet Vaibav again after 6 years and the team that he has built. They are so friendly and enthusiastic for what they do. The very idea that any of their data on Bikini is not right they find a personal insult…thus it is way over 99% accurate and never the cause of complaint.
VB and some of his team

Durga Festival Temple. It was all going on as I was in Thane
A snap VB took of Batty and I from his bike as I left for Mumbai

I had a great dinner with VB, as he is known, and his Parents. A lovely evening that tested VB's translation skills to the limit, but I got a clear sense of pride and delight at the deserved success that he is now having.

On to Mumbai. Again it was work related as we (Illustration Ltd) want to try and find an agent there to represent our interests in India. Next year it will be the world's third largest economy and in a few decades probably the largest, so it is important to start learning their ways and to start educating them about our service etc. We have the honour and delight to represent India's foremost illustrator, Shailesh Khandeparkar, and we had a very enjoyable lunch discussing many matters.
An amazing bridge they have just build going around the out side of the city in the sea

This is the house you build for your family when you make it big in India...worth billions

The Prostitutes in the header was just to get you to read this far…it was nothing that juicy, but an observation that the 3 taxi's I took, all drivers asked me if I wanted a woman. I am sure it will happen in Thailand as well, but I had not ever had it offered quite so blatantly before. My single bed in the humble hotel was a very peaceful and comfortable place…no such complications I assure you.

I enjoyed leaving Mumbai as much as I enjoyed being there. A great city, but I was really looking forward to Goa.

The road to take is the old road, the N17, which is beautiful from only a few miles outside Mumbai. I was not necessarily expecting this, but it was a delightful 2 days drive to Goa.

Early morning valley view on the road south
Had to have the top box rack welded for the 4th with great struts supporting it.

More Lushness

And More Nh17 delights 

One night in Palolem, the capital, before heading on to Agonda. A small peaceful resort in the south. The season had only just begun and the resort I found was the only one open. That was fine and they were great people running it.

My hut was on stilts nearest the sea and gave a perfect home for 4 nights. The bar was a stumble away, the food delicious and the sea a lazy 1 minute walk across the beach.

View from the little balcony

The Catch, I lent a bit of a hand as they hauled the nets into the beach.

I was tinkering with Batty on the first morning there, tappets, clutch sort of things, then I was bid good morning by Susana, as it turned out to be. A short chat and a suggestion to join for a beer when I was finished was made. About 1/2 an hour later I took my oily black hands to the bar and joined Susana.

It was a great meeting as for the next couple of days she became my local guide and companion, all innocent you understand, but it was great to have the good company of someone who has been here for 6 years and knows all the best local sites and places to eat, to say nothing of local gossip etc.

She is a fabulous clothes designer and sells them in her shop in Agonda. There are 3 rules for her clothes, you have to be wealthy, slim and sexy, otherwise she wont sell them to you…nothing discriminatory about that.

The shop is not open yet for the season, so lucky H had her trailing me around her favourite bike rides (she has a scooter), up in the hills, game parks and beaches…It was really living the life for a couple of days.

Susana on Batty