Archive for March, 2011


Sun, sand and sea

Skin cancer costs an arm and a leg, man
People on the beach self-harming to get tanned
Laid out flat like an army of dead mans
Red necks, red bellies than expand
Like jellyfish on the wet sand
Very Engurlish, suncream and sweaty hands…

– Dizraeli, ‘Engurland’

When we were in Orissa, there was a sign on the wall with a quote from some wise ancient. It said, ‘A traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving’. This basically summarises our experience of trying to do anything in India… Don’t have a fixed plan, and don’t expect your vague expectations to materialise any time soon either. When you don’t try and do anything, when you spend your time eating fruit salad every morning, swimming in the sea, and lying on golden-sanded beaches, then you’re fine. But as soon as you start trying to organise anything, discuss going anywhere, plan anything, catch transport, in short when you try to achieve anything, it all becomes a bit difficult and stressful. Someone who said they’d email you back by Wednesday hasn’t contacted you by Tuesday the next week, the computer full of your data is broken and won’t be fixed until an unspecified date referred to most days as “tomorrow”, someone advised you not to run for the bus as there will be another “soon” only for you to wait a whole hour for the next scheduled bus which incidentally is running on time… I could go on. Speaking to our Mumbai CouchSurfing host (who we’ll tell you about in a later post), he just nods and laughs – it’s the same for him – and explains that it’s part of the joy (or frustration) of India.

Having basically travelled for six months without really stopping for a break, the stress was starting to mount. Since Josh recently cut off most of his hair, I was beginning to worry that he would start pulling out mine. His mate even emailed us suggesting that we “do nothing, literally NOTHING for a while”, so we thought we should take heed of that advice. So we did, and this is the first time that we actually achieved everything that we had set out to since we entered India.

Having left the hills, we made our way back into Kerala and plonked ourselves on the beach near Kannur. Retrospectively, it wasn’t the greatest of beaches, but at the time it was exactly what we needed. While it takes an hour to get there from town, if you’re after a basically empty beach (literally there must have been three other people on the 100m long beach most of the time we were there), no hassle when you’re there, white sands, palm trees but a rather rough sea, this is the place to go. Josh taught me how to throw a ball properly and I taught him how to do front crawl properly. It was a learning experience for all. One of the days we were approached by a bunch of Indian lads and instead of it being the usual perve-hassle, they joined us in our throwing game – they seemed surprised that I was capable of catching. That was basically all we did for a few days, which was more than pleasant.

Then we made our way to our next beach. Gokarna in Karnataka is definitely THE most touristy place we have been in the whole of India. We spent ten days surrounded by Westerners, which usually would have made both Josh and myself cringe, but it was a welcomed break before plunging back into the sometimes-organised chaos of the next three months travelling (we’ll be home on the 17th June for anyone who’s interested). There was a large contingent of dreadlocked, spiritual, circus-skills, alibaba pants (no Indian actually wears these) types. It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever heard a sentence like this: “Hey! Guess what? She’s an Aquarius with Scorpio rising!!!!” Someone actually said that.

When you choose to ignore such things, the place is lovely. As suggested by the introduction, we spent our days eating fruit salad and indulging in non-Indian food, swimming in the sea and generally chilling out. The most stressful thing that happened for the whole time we were there was that I stood on a sea urchin or something that’s built so that things don’t eat/stand on it, and spent several days trying to remove the splinters from my toes. One day we walked through some jungle to a beach a few beaches along, where we shared the 70m stretch of sand with one other person, and occasionally Indian tourists who would dash in in speedboats, stare at us swimming and then dash away again.

We had arrived at a pretty good time – at the end of the season, just before many guest houses pack up for the summer, so accommodation was brilliantly cheap.

It’s kind of part of the point, as Josh points out, that there isn’t much to say about our time there. It was a time of relaxation and of doing pretty much nothing, which I’d never really done before. I felt like I should balance out the total relaxation by stretching my mind a little, and read about Israel’s war on Palestine in Pappe and Chomsky’s Gaza in Crisis and Ghada Karmi’s Married to Another Man. Made me feel ever so slightly less indulgent!

Our only stop in Goa, the usual stop for beach-seeking India travellers, was a train change. We spent a luxurious few hours in the Air Conditioned waiting room – spend a pound for four hours in light, chill, with cable TV and a western toilet, which was a relief to my legs as I had an upset stomach (it’s never fun to spend long on a squat toilet).

Now we’re in Mumbai, experiencing the contradictions of India at their most obvious – the largest slum in the world, and the world’s largest number of millionaires in one city. We’ll tell y’all about it in the next blog.

The Egg Blog part 2

Our faithful followers will remember the Egg Blog (part 1) – an egg in China, deshelled and vacuum packed, summarising for us much of the consumerist and wasteful practices in the Chinese system as we saw it.

In India we have found another egg which similarly suggests towards various generalisable things.

India is the world diabetes capital, which is unsurprising due to the high levels of fat, sugar and carbs that make up day to day food intake for many of the people here who are not starving.

Deep or shallow frying everything seems to be a specialty. This apparently includes already boiled eggs. Curious as to the taste, I tried one of these eggs – hard boiled, stripped of its shell, battered then deep fried. It tastes like a hard boiled egg, battered then deep fried. It really tastes no better than a healthy egg boiled only in water.

To me, it really did represent why so many people in this country have diabetes…

Have you ever met a reactionary, nihilist, self-centred, ignorant and spiritual primitivist anarcho-capitalist? Last week I would have answered no as well. Today I have the misfortune of sleeping under the roof of one.

WWOOFing (the Worldwide Organisation of Organic Farming) is a mixed kettle of fish. While there are almost always many positives, they normally come with negatives. Unfortunately, one of the more consistent negatives is the hosts. It seems the majority of the people that host wwoofers either come from the minority perspective of simply seeing this as an opportunity to get free labour. The other group are more complex, but are basically fallen lefties. They normally come from an anarchist school and due to lack of coherent and sophisticated theory have become disillusioned and retreat to “living outside the system” and often find spirituality on the way.

Before departing on the trip, Lucie and I excitedly decided upon a farm in Kerala which we would work on in order to save money, meet people and learn more about agriculture and farming (not in that order of importance). While we may have saved some money, we have met no-one really (the farm only has one guest room), and I have learnt very little past the initial basics of picking coffee. This is bearable, however. What is not is working for a man who believes that “capitalism is the best system, it is people that are the problem”, that “any problem an individual may have is their own lookout”, that “if you are sick or if you are healthy, it is down to karma”, that “life is a transition from [unspecified] place to place”, that “all political parties are the same” whether this be the fascist Front National or the Socialist Party in France (all parties are racist apparently). A man who believes that “ideology means nothing, the only thing that matters is practice” (which is why we should except his ideology) whilst simultaneously dismissing any practical examples I offer as to why his ridiculous beliefs are wrong; that “nothing ever changes” and , best of all, that “all Muslims are the same”. Oh yes, and that the Poll Tax riots were organised by a bunch of foreign anarchists and culminated in things burning in Trafalgar Square.

When we first arrived, I remember telling Lucie how excited I was to work here – I had just spoken to Bruno (our boss)’s brother Pierre (who is very interesting), who had told me that they had both lived in a squat in London during the Poll Tax riots. This excitement was extinguished faster than a match in a hurricane when Bruno told me that “it doesn’t matter what happens in Egypt, it will not change a thing”.

At first, we simply believed that he was a fallen anarchist who, disillusioned, had turned to India and nature for solace. Having struggled to remember the name of the group with which he was involved in the UK – Class War – he proudly told us how he used to be an anarchist, how he’d been on the barricades teaching the stupid English how to make a Molotov cocktail… At this point I almost looked forward to talking to him –  I saw this as an opportunity to put my theory into practice. To test my belief  that without an adequate theory you will eventually fall.

I had spoken too often to people about how if you do not understand the nature of the State, the nature of power, if you do not understand what the USSR, China etc truly was (ie State capitalist), your perceptions would be skewed and your determination hindered. This analysis is almost certainly still the case with Bruno, but Bruno as a “fallen anarchist” quickly turned in my mind into Bruno as a reactionary conservative, followed shortly after by my current view of him. This man is a walking contradiction. He is like an angsty thirteen year old boy who is more concerned with winning an argument than with coming out with anything coherent. He is amusing in a tragic sort of way, and not tragedy in a Shakespearean sense – he has no noble tragic flaw, just a total lack of analysis and coherence.

Food seems to be one of his favourite subjects. “In Europe they eat sheet” he told us almost every day. The irony of this was that he eats 2 meals a day, one at 11am (this being 5 hours after he woke up and 3 hours after he started doing manual labour) and at 9pm (one hour before going to bed). On top of this, his diet (and ours while we were there) consisted almost exclusively of carbs. The first meal would be Indian bread of some kind, butter and what can best be described as veg stew, followed by a curd drink and dinner would probably be the same, replacing the curd drink with rice pudding (ie rice cooked in milk and sugar). He rarely drank water, instead filling himself with coffee. So for him to claim that “in the west they eat sheet” seemed quite ironic. The other irony was that he never mentioned the diet of Indians, which seems odd given India has the highest level of diabetes in the world. When I asked him why he thought people in the west eat “sheet” he would say “because they like it” and when I asked him why he thought it was that as a general rule the richer you become in the west the better your diet he would respond “because they are rich”.  This incoherence was a consistent feature of our week there. Social movements apparently changed nothing, but when I asked him how all the positive social changes in the C20th had occurred he would say “through popular movements obviously”.

I could go on, but as a friend of mine said, this man matters very little, and come the revolution, his opinion might even change. So, with this relationship failing, we cut our 17 day farming experience down to 8 days, taking refuge in the hills of Tamil Nadu.

Kochi to Kannur

Kochi

We were given mixed advice about the pleasures of this town, ranging from ‘my favourite place in India’ to ‘a bit of a tourist shit-hole’. Our experience is somewhere inbetween, tending less towards it being a favourite… Fort Cochin, which is the tourist bit and on a separate island from the mainland, has an incredible flair for colonialism – Dutch, Portuguese and British. Especially the churches. At first, we assumed they must be Protestant, given the fact that the British arrived in this part of India after the Reformation – this would explain their whitewashed walls and general lack of enthusiasm. Not for all of them, though – the Santa Cruz Basilica instead went for tacky kitsch, with lovely pink statues of Jesus, etc. How Indians can relate to a religion which is based on a ‘white’ man nailed to a cross, I find even more confusing than for white Westerners. What a clever way for imperialists to establish racial supremacy, though, eh?

Having not really gone in for “Experience the Culture” events, we decided to experience one. Kathakali, the ancient dramatic art, was simultaneously fascinating and unbelievably boring. Our friend described it as “a bit like pantomime”, but while this might be the closest thing to it in the UK, it’s basically nothing like it! The performance began with an hour-long makeup session which was actually quite interesting – the men (all men, even playing the female role – got to keep these things traditional…) lay down as someone made fins on their faces made from rice paper and rice paste. These added detail to the red, black, green and yellow of their faces – each colour has its own significance. Green means good, red means bad, black is demonic and yellow feminine.

This was followed by an introduction to the language of gesture that Kathakali uses – facial expressions, twitchy face muscles, eye movement, hand gestures. I think I took in approximately one meaning from the whole thing.

Then we were treated to a grim tale involving betting wives away in games of dice, murdering enemies gorily and then wiping their blood through the reclaimed wife’s hair. Unfortunately, one figures this out from the leaflet provided rather than the action on stage, as Kathakali for us was a bit like watching a play in a foreign language where even the body language means something totally different.

Kumily

Our time in Kumily will be better described in a following blog. It is safe to say that we were hoping for more than we experienced when we were there. We had gone to Kumily to work on an organic farm through WWOOFing – we were going to help with the pepper and coffee harvests. We did help with the coffee harvest, but it was all a bit less enjoyable than we had hoped, so we did not finish our proposed two weeks there and left after 8 days.

On our day off, we went to a Tiger Park, and although of course we didn’t see any tigers we did catch glimpses of wild elephants hainging out around the water. There were unidentified grazing animals, wild boar and of course loads of monkeys.

Having acquired an extra few days, we decided to return to Tamil Nadu as Kumily is literally on the border – Tamil Nadu starts just after the post office – and spend some time in the hills.

Kodaikanal

Great views and colonial heritage.

We met some travellers for the first time in a while – it’s good to have company other than ourselves sometimes! The views here are absolutely spectacular. You can see across the entire plains of Tamil Nadu. This is also apparently why our hotel felt justified in charging Rs500 a night (the expensive end of our budget) for a grim room, although it did have a fire place.

As the picture demonstrates, there is a resounding feeling that you could be in Dorset or something – quaint little cottages, sculpted lake, pine trees. It was a very odd experience.

The nicest part of being in this town was meeting other people, especially a Czech man who had lived in London for four years and is an Arsenal supporter. I think Lucie had become bored of me discussing the fine details of tactics and strategy with her, so this was a welcome opportunity to talk football with someone who actually understood what I was going on about.

Ooty

2,500metres above sea level, Ooty is the highest hill station in Tamil Nadu. It is also refreshingly cool and, outside of the town, extremely beautiful.

We trekked through tea plantations, through villages and up to the top of a mountain, enjoying the company of a Bristolian anarchist whose grandfather had fought for POUM in the Spanish civil war. I had to change my initial impression of him – I heard on the bus that he had come to India just to follow the cricket, which did not gain my immediate respect. However, after classic lines such as, “I always told my kids not to join the army. I didn’t spend money on raising my kids just so they could grow up and kill other people’s kids. It’s a waste of money”, and, “if Pakistan win against India in the final [Cricket World Cup taking place in India], I reckon they [India] might just nuke Kashmir or something”, I changed my mind about him.

One of the ironic highlights of Ooty, and one of the kitschiest things I have ever seen (I think Lucie was more impressed than me), was the Thread Garden – the only one in the whole world, they proudly declare. This is unsurprising. It took a whole bunch of people 12 years to accomplish this bizarre feat – everything in the garden, and they all look pretty convincing as flowers, is made from thread wound around canvas. What a waste of time…

Kannur

Having been in India for over 2 months and having not had a real break since we set off from London all those many months ago (nearly 6 now by the way), we are having a long and overdue break. My mentality in particular has increasingly become overly negative, and as a close friend of mine emailed me to say, I am in need of some time where I just don’t do anything. So we are spending four days on a beach in Kerala, followed by seven days on a beach in Karnataka.

I intend that it be as uneventful as possible and horribly relaxing.

 

This one isn’t really an interview as such, more a QandA session where a big group of people chatted and we wrote down what they said. Again this was a farming community in Orissa, west of Bhubaneswar.

Due to the nature of the discussion, this article may seem disjointed – this is because the meeting was disjointed…

“GM seeds create negative impacts. More than this, they cross-pollinate with traditional varieties and so destroy them.”

“Once you start hybrid farming, it isn’t easy to go back. It is much easier to shift to hybrid than away from it. Farmers for commerical purposes (big farmers) are interested in traditional seeds, but marginal farmers are. It is these farmers who are the direct victims of climate change.”

How they organise

The group explained how they organise demos and rallies at Block level (a Block is local self-governance in tribal belt areas of small marginalised farmers. Leaders are both male and female and there are approx. 170,000 people in each Block. Communities in the area are approx. 80% Adivasi). Through this they have been successful enough to get a national consultation on Bt brinjal (aubergine). Due to the pressure, the Environment Minister of India has written a letter stating that he will not introduce Bt.

Bt seeds vs. traditional varieties

Officially, all farmers in Orissa do not grow Bt Cotton. Before Bt was unofficially banned through the letter, packets had to be labelled. Now there is no such label. It is unknown whether this is because it is no longer used (which is unlikely) or because it doesn’t need to be labelled because it isn’t supposed to be there.

Traditional varieties of seed are promoted by the group. They have seed exchanges in villages at district and Block level. At the last one, there were 123 varieties of paddy (rice), veg and pulses exchanged. Since 2006, there has been an emphasis in the group on organic farming and traditional seeds. At the last seed fair, the seeds were 70% organic, 30% mixed and none exclusively intensive.

Because of popular mobilisation and knowledge transfer, farmers have agreed that Bt seeds should not be sold in the local market.

Perceived dangers of hybrid seeds

Through eating hybrid crops, people have perceived health hazards and diseases. They believe that hybrid crops increase likelihood of cancer, TB, malaria, skin diseases, stomach problems, diabetes and blood pressure. Traditionally these types of diseases occurred in cities and not villages, this is now changing. Immune systems are also being affected. Antibiotics are not as effective as crops are now full of them.

Hybrid crops also kill useful insects such as earthworms which are beneficial to farming. This reduces soil fertility.

How to fight

The struggle over seeds and farming is different from other struggles such as land grabs and water privitisation. When a mining corporation rips up your land, you know who the enemy is. But with seeds you cannot see the enemy.

While there is support coming from the rest of the world, ultimately change must come from the farmers. They must realise that intensive farming isn’t good for them or the environment.

Reasons gathered from the group as to why they farm in an organic way

1. Their ancestors did it.

2. They couldn’t meet the costs of hybrid farming.

3. They learnt about the negative impacts of chemical fertilisers and intensive farming methods from meetings and so started organic farming.

Further privatisation

The government is interested in registering traditional organic seeds through scientists linked to MNCs. There is a plan to document all seeds which is very dangerous as it allows others to take control of the seeds. Farmers have the right to this information, not governments and MNCs. Let them document their own seeds!

Comments from individual farmers

The individuals we interviewed have been farmers for 10-50 years. Their ages ranged from the 30s to the 60s. They grew a variety of things from paddy to millet and pulses. Some had previously used hybrid methods, others had used traditional methods their whole lives. They all agreed that there are not many difficulties with traditional farming, especially when compared with intensive methods. They were also all of the belief that while intensive methods generally produce high yields in the first couple of years, the returns reduced as the years went by – as soil fertility decreases, useful insects are killed and bad pests become resistant to the pesticides.

“The first year was good, the second year was okay, and the third year was bad. The soil required more fertiliser, and the beds became dry and rocky – the plough could not work as well. This is why I went back to traditional methods.” – RK

Is this a battle you are winning?

“I hope so. I hope by arguments can win. Lots of people are joining. I strongly believe we can win this battle.” – GD

What are the best tactics?

“The unity of farmers through mass organisation. We must motivate, have seed fairs, have hope and meetings. And we shouldn’t purchase any seeds from the market.” – GD

Why do people turn away from traditional farming?

“Farms want to use modern agricultural practices because it yields more, but they are not analysing the cost/effectiveness of the crop properly. They analyse for one year, but if they compare for 2 or 5 years, they will see the negative impacts of modern farming”. – RK

Does the government support your struggle?

“There is no government support promoting traditional organic agricultural methods” – KD