UMT to India

Video diaries

30 01 14 - 07:54

On the way home, students reflect on their India experience


FLAME and the village

21 01 14 - 02:32

FLAME, Foundation for Liberal Management and Education, has a lovely, new campus that we've been privileged to be cocooned in for the last 10 days. It has a stunning new library, with study carrels looking out on the manicured and well-used cricket pitch.

it has reflecting ponds

and fountains,

elegant academic buildings

and residence halls surrounded by greenery.

But there is a world of poverty outside its closely guarded gates:

where water comes from a tanker truck,

firewood is collected in the hills

and people work in brick yards

or in the fields with their patient bullocks

and schoolchildren walk to the nearest village

and men hang out in teashops watching the goatherders

while women wait on their stoops

or perhaps visit a nearby temple

and watch the sun set.


Our day with Hector

19 01 14 - 02:36

Well, first, a few shots of Itchy, or Rusty as I call him, a flea-bitten little campus pup who has wormed his way into our hearts. He's one of several dogs that have been adopted by FLAME students,  and vaccinated against rabies and distemper. He's a bit of a pest, but I would bring him home in my suitcase if I could:

OK, so dusty Rusty followed us around as we visited Hector's campus projects. Hector Andrade is an associate professor at FLAME who teaches philosophy, but he has a special interest in organic gardening and ayurvedic medicinal plants. He and students have recently created a butterfly garden (sorry, no pix as it was early and the butterflies are late risers). But we also saw the organic gardens near the center of campus and then the ayurvedic plants.

We learned about the mosquito plant, a sweet geranium that secretes a substance that skeeters hate, about Stevia rebaudiana, a natural sweetener 300 times sweeter than cane sugar, Spilanthes something or other, the toothache plant whose leaf instantly numbs your tongue and gums ( I tried it and it really does), Withania somnifera, which, as the name implies, induces sleep, and Kalanchoe pinnata, the "miracle plant" used for skin lotion used to treat bacterial, vital and fungal infection. And plenty more. Makes you think about Western medicine and giant pharmaceutical companies.

In the afternoon, we went on a field trip to see three sacred groves west of here. These are small bits of residual forest protected only by the resident deity

and the nearby village, not by the government. Think of a beautiful state park or forest near you. These are not them. They are a few acres in size, if that much, with some tall forest trees, vines and climbers.

And its hard for us Westerners to understand the reverence in which they are held by villagers when so much trash is strewn around.

Hector told us the story of a man, maybe from northern India, who saw a cash opportunity in a few toddy palms in the grove. Toddy palms have a liquid which can be dialed into a sort of moonshine. So he set up camp in this tiny grove for almost a year, trashing the place, cutting down trees and keeping his operation going by bribing villagers and police until he finally was chased away. Sad.

We walked around this tiny vestige where tigers had once roamed and tried to understand.

One of the student groups is doing a story on the sacred groves, and they'll probably be able to make more sense of them than I could. But hats off to Hector for caring about these bits of wild and we are grateful for his enthusiasm.



15 01 14 - 22:06

When I lived here as a kid in the Fifties, it was a quiet little town of maybe 300,000 people. It had been popular with the British, as the Deccan plateau provides some relief from the blazing temperatures on the coast. We lived just off the two-lane Poona-Bombay road, as those cities were then known, in a small subdivision. Behind us, there were fields, hills and a quarry we swam in. In other words, sort of an idyll.

Today, Pune is a metropolis of 4.5, 6, 9 or 13 million people, depending on where you draw the boundaries. It is a teeming, crowded city. Its streets are filled with motorcycles, autos, buses, three-wheeler rickshas, oxcarts, trucks, a few bikes, and hand-drawn carts. The noise is overwhelming to our American senses. The air pollution from engine exhaust and dust can be stifling.

How Pune got that way is really a story of the rise of India's middle class. Starting in the mid-1980s and accelerating after 1991, India broke away from the socialist style planned economy and leapt into the global market economy, yet still controlled by an enormous bureaucracy. Pune, which had already established itself as a center of higher education, benefited from the educational aspirations of thousands of young people seeking skills to thrive in the new India. It also became one of India's centers for information technology, as the Internet came into existence and computers became essential to business, industry and home life. A nearby community called Pimpri Chinchwad became a model industrial park attracting giants such as Tata Industries. That lonely two-lane road became a four-lane expressway. The trip to Mumbai was cut to three hours, practically within commuting distance for some. Highrises, office buildings, apartments and shopping centres sprouted. Auto and motorcycle ownership soared, to the point that now the average family owns 3.3 vehicles and every day, vehicles in Pune travel more than 25 million kilometres or about 16 million miles.

Under the umbrella of environmental reporting, our students chose eight different topics to report on in Pune: the growth of recycling by garbage pickers who have won some dignity for their previously scorned, lowest-of-the-low job; the political economy of clean water in the slums; air pollution and rickshaws; cyclists and bike shops who survive and thrive in this internal combustion mad city; how migratory birds are affected by noise, air and water pollution; whether "sacred groves" outside the city that shelter birds and animals can survive as the city pushes outward; how local tribal groups have been displaced to make room for dams and development, and how some of the city's thousands of stray dogs are cared for in shelters.

Each of our groups has been joined by at least one FLAME student, who has helped as a translator, guide, interpreter, fixer and communication point with a cell phone. They have been fantastic and have become fast friends with us. With their help, our groups fanned out to different parts of the city in rickshaws and taxis, and came back with great material. We're doing the same thing today and tomorrow. You're going to see some really good stuff, but what's really priceless is the personal impressions they will share with you. Enthusiasm levels are high. Knock on wood, intestinal upset has been pretty minimal. We're at the stage where a lot of students are telling me they wish they had more time. Their worldview is undoubtedly being expanded.


Animals, animals, all day

13 01 14 - 23:16

Each of us went on three 4-hour safaris, so the chances of seeing wildlife were very good. We traveled in six-seater gypsies, open jeeps, with a driver and guide, like this man, who was very knowledgeable. Remind me to tell you his Bill Clinton joke...

So here are some of the critters we saw:

First up, and this was really exciting, was a leopard walking down the road. Leopard sightings are rare, because they are most active at night. They sort of share top predator status with the tigers.

The green or common Indian bee-eater catches insects in the air, in frequent forays from its perch. Then it thrashes its prey senseless by beating it on the branch.

Next up, the aptly named mugger crocodile. From Wikipedia: "The mugger crocodile is a skilled predator that preys on a variety of species. Like other crocodilians they are ambush hunters and wait for their prey to come close. They wait camouflaged in the murky waters to launch the attack in the suitable moment. They mostly prey on fish, reptiles, birds and mammals. Reproduction takes place in winter months. Females lay eggs in nests that are holes dug in the sand. Temperature during incubation is the determinant of sex in the young."

The gaur, or Indian bison, is a wily and elusive critter, despite its size. I once spent a week in Thailand tracking these guys and never saw one, so I felt vindicated when we saw this cow and calf on the edge of the dense forest:

Hanuman langurs, named after the Hindu monkey god, are the most common subspecues of langurs and are widely found in forests, fields,  villages and even cities. At Tadoba, they like to hang out with the spotted deer.

Spotted deer, also known as chital (Axis axis), are among the most elegant and graceful of all. They make high-pitched chuckles when grazing, and bow to each other when they pass. Young bucks travel in packs and frequent microbreweries.

This is a sambar fawn emerging from the bamboo forest. Bucks are huge, with impressive racks and like to forage for aquatic plants like moose. Again, from Wikipedia: "Sambar are nocturnal or crepuscular. The males live alone for much of the year, and the females live in small herds of up to sixteen individuals. Indeed, in some areas, the average herd consists of only three or four individuals, typically consisting of an adult female, her most recent young, and perhaps a subordinate, immature female. This is an unusual pattern for deer, which more commonly live in larger groups. They often congregate near water, and are good swimmers. Like most deer, sambar are generally quiet, although all adults can scream or make short, high-pitched sounds when alarmed. However, they more commonly communicate by scent marking and foot stamping."

This is a still frame from a video Denise shot of a dhole or wild dog dragging a young spotted deer it had just taken down. When it got to the evisceration part, she stopped filming. Wuss.

And finally, the umbrella species in the forest, the regal Bengal tiger. Well, this big gal wasn't so regal when we saw her snoozing off a big meal in a bamboo copse. Less than 24 hours later, a 60-year-old man illegally harvesting bamboo in the core zone near here was killed by a tiger. They only found his legs. Because he was in the reserve illegally, his widow and four grown children will get no compensation. We were told that it was the first tiger killing in the core, but there have been some in the buffer zone surrounding it. Tigers will be tigers.

The most dangerous species of all--Homo sapiens safariensis