Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hampi Boulders

Chaco heel hook, originally uploaded by wanders.

rock climbing til the new year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Coast to Rock

Fed up with the hardships of my volunteering, to simplify my reasons, I left Avani, finishing a three month tenure, and flew, first time since I arrived in Spain six months earlier, to Goa, a tourist hotspot with beaches and parties, that are reported to have been shut down due to safety concerns. After a twenty hour bus ride and a very short plane trip, I arrived at the beach just as the sun was setting over the water, meanwhile tourists flew through the air hanging from parachutes pulled by boats. I didn't explore the night life, going to bed around 8pm, but did appreciate some fine coffee in the morning, and watched the locals pulling in their nets with some modest catches.

colva beach, goa, originally uploaded by wanders.

I then departed for Hampi, a famous rock climbing destination, surviving another long bus ride, but not before I wandered through town, got a pizza, and watched Transporter 3 (first Indian cinema experience - intermissions?). Arriving in Hampi, I met a few foreigners, found out that a once-every-twelve-years festival was going on, making it a crowded place. I eventually discovered the rock climbers, and have been hanging out in "the heart of nature" at a fine guest house, which pampers us with pancakes, beers, and a goat-roast for Christmas - the non-exclusive occasion is supposed to be referred to as "Goat Day". I got to the top of egg boulder and have a few more problems to work on before I go back to the beach from here, returning to Delhi early January 1st to meet my first visitor, my dear mother.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Beeswax Crayon Wedding Dance

I can now admit to having seen an Indian meeting, a hand-made pit loom for weaving, a full Kumaoni music and dance "talent show," the entire Hindu wedding ceremony, and finally an American film in Hindi.
In an attempt to bring the community back together, I organized a meeting to discuss "programming" with the man in charge of community events. This turned into a large circle of chairs and many participants, destroying any chance I had of actually controlling the input. The first issue of giving the children something to do errupted into an enthusiastic rumble of game ideas and an impromptu hopskotch demonstration. I let things go their way, trying to steer us towards the idea of a "talent show" and that was a meeting - the dinner bell rang.
Meanwhile, I continued with my small projects, completing a comic book cover for the first issue of Kumaoni-man and nearly burning down the dying room when my beeswax ignited, ending my all natural crayon tests and filling everything with smoke. A trip to Dharamghar to see the looms was extremely slow, but after sunset, we wandered downhill, to a few humble homes, only to view a spectacular ancient looking pit loom made from crooked branches held together sparsely with string and nails - the artisan sits in a pit and weaves thread through the intricate set-up by hand. Turned out it was barely two years old. After a slow night, interrupted by some animal scratching at the ceiling, a cold morning made warm chai all the more tasty, along with some rhoti and chickpeas very kindly whipped up for us over a propane stove. The staff were extremely kind despite some grumbling about conditions, particularly the salary for the night watchman - new understanding is that the organization's finances are stretched thin to provide income for as many people as possible, though it may be meager.
Returning a day later, the 4th day of the month meant all the leaders came to our center for a meeting and that night we had our "talent show," which was more a series of stories (it took 10 minutes for me to tell the joke "what's worse than finding a worm in your apple?"). After the stories came Kumaoni singing, with drumming and harpsichord and invitations to dance - I kicked it with 5-year-old Comu, learning a few (Kumaoni?) dance moves along the way.
Last weekend I finally witnessed the full wedding tradition with my friend Nermal, starting at 10 am, and pushing on through til after dinner - we retired at 8pm, though I think the music and dancing continued. Highlights included the bands, one in the local, Kumaoni tradition, with a few drummers, flaunting women's dresses, while the band explained to be from the plains' tradition boasted two clarinets, drums and a three-man horn section, though only one euphonium (ie small tuba) actually worked. The trumpet never made a peep, and the other (broken) euphonium blasted the only note it could play from time to time. The hills' band seemed more about impressing people, with their non-mnusical members and marching band-esque outfits of bright blue and red. The music was awful, but full of cheer and got the crowd moving, the lead clarinetist full of energy and smiles despite the drunks repeatedly bumping into him.
After hoisting up the groom, we trekked from Nermal's town to the bride's home, an hour or so along the road and creek, the groom now riding donkey-back, stopping in her town for tea and snacks. We arrived at her house, nearly 100-strong, only to face her hundred guests, packing us all into a small three-family estate. I had never thought of a seat at a wedding as a luxury before. The bride came out of her house after an hour of groom preparation (reading in Sanskrit) and wowed us all with her beauty. They put flower wreaths around eachother's necks and we broke for lunch, sitting on the ground in a circle, while servers scooped for us from buckets of rice, veggies, paneer (Indian cheese!) and some too-sour chutney. Back to the wedding rites, I failed to get any kind of detailed explanation of what was being recited and performed with some water and fruit and spice and... The two families then pulled out large metal trunks and exchanged fruit baskets, shawls, Timberland shoes, and finally a gold chain, back and forth, pausing for the camera-man mid-hand off, smiling uncomfortably, meanwhile two camcorders rolled, capturing video for a later highlight clip. As this concluded and they moved on to another ritual, the bride and groom now seated side by side rather than across from eachother, Nermal and I headed out, hoping to hike back before dark.
Back at the groom's home, we waited for the wedding troupe to return, then ate an even finer buffet dinner to the sounds of clarinets tooting and drums banging.
That night we again crossed the creek to return to Nermal's house, calling it an early night.
On my uphill bike ride back to Avani, I stopped and bought "Viaje a Darjeeling" (Darjeeling Limited) and after teaching my first computer class, I watched a familiar film in an unfamiliar tongue, with unaligned subtitles. Newest goal is to get a sweater vest knit for me, all the rave out here, though the yarn available has a bit of a sparkle to it, so I may be too shy to wear it back in the states.
As I scramble to finish a few projects in the next weeks before the year ends, I hope to complete some testing for our solar water heater and at least get one stove-heater built for the office here.
So, what's worse? Answer: finding half a worm.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Shiva's Cave to Hope

After a late night wedding viewing, the directing duo - the director and his wife - returned to motivate, inspire, and employ various techniques to bump productivity out here, accompanied by an old, long-winded, engineer. I ate the freshest chicken of my life with a few shop workers, celebrated Thanksgiving with the meager supplies available (flour, eggs, water), then recently trekked out to Patal Bhuwneshwar, a famous Hindu cave that supposedly connects underground to Tibet.
Direj (who's name means 'patience' I recently discovered) works in the dying department, using tumeric, indigo, rust, and other natural pigments to color the fabric produced here. He invited myself and Jessica, our British volunteer, out to his young sister's wedding last week, and we were reluctantly accompanied by other Avani workers, hesitant because they claimed it was too cold to go to a wedding... After waiting in the nearby temple for half an hour, the wedding band arrived, having driven in decorated cars and vans from the groom's village 100 km away, carrying around 100 of his guests, and a team of male dancers dressed as women. We drank tea at the temple, watched the dancers and then headed off to Direj's village for the ceremony. After a lot of standing around at the road, we stumbled in the dark to his house, which was prepared to host the 200 or so guests. Waiting and waiting ensued, during which the numerous stories of my misadventures were told and I was requested to call someone a "mutt" in Hindi - my most recent entertaining skill. Since the congregation was all male ("the wedding will be 10% women" they said), Jessica and I went up to the attic to meet the bride, who looked terrified but smiled when we told her she looked beautiful, decked out in brilliantly colored clothes and an ornate nose ring (traditional name?). After the groom was carried in on a hoisted chair, we all went to eat, and stuffed ourselves with amazing spiced vegetable dishes and the most incredible chutney I have ever had. We left around 11 pm, waddling back downhill along the road, nursing engorged bellies. Turns out Direj ended up with leftovers and I recently managed to get a jar of chutney from his mother.
The directing duo returned to get things moving, and I finally realized how much of my own initiative will be required to get things done, hearing that with coaxing/vigilance, the machine shop productivity can jump to five times the normal pace. The solar hot water heaters made here must be certified so that they can sell to the government, and I had numerous conversations with a 60-year-old mechanical engineer Delhi-ite about what was required, every time entering some philosophical discussion of anything I wasn't interested in, at one point causing me to scowl for 10 minutes straight at the old fellow, who would not stop talking and interrupting. Later he asked me about the hostility, I tried to explain his rudeness, only to be interrupted again with "Now we're trying to retaliate. You really need respect and patience..." blah blah. Cultural differences come out in many situations, but I managed to glean a bit of useful advice from him, and following the travesty of Mumbai, we (he) had a long discussion about the history of terrorism in India.
After they left, I enjoyed a 'non-veg' meal with a few guys from the shop, personally purchasing the meat from the town up the hill. I ordered one kilo of chicken from a man in a shack with no shoes - he pulled a chicken out of its cage, killed it on the spot and I watched him strip and prepare the meat on a huge tree stump, as he squatted on the floor. I was amazed, walking away with a bag of warm meat, later to eat the freshest non-veg dish of my life, doused in local spices, a mere two hours later.
Following a Thanksgiving breakfast feast, with yours truly cooking up pancakes to be covered in local honey, we had a modest, but delicious curry for dinner, and I even managed to wrangle a Brit into celebrating someone else's holiday - we said thanks for the local chocolate cream filled cookies and chai.
For a break following the burden of the directors, with their oversight and wailing child, we went to a famous cave nearby, which supposedly housed Shiva, the Hindu god, during his adventures. There are numerous stories about dogs entering the cave and coming out in faraway places, and I was instructed to bring my passport, since the cave also had a path to America. We walked 8 km from the roadhead, since no jeep passed by to give us a ride, surrounded by "jungal" (Hindi for forest) and magnificent views of the Himalayan peaks. Jitu, a young solar technician (fixes solar panels) told us numerous stories about fighting monkeys and seeing tigers as we walked. Sure, Jitu. When we arrived, Jessica and I forewent a cave tour for a potato pancake breakfast, stomachs growling, and when we finally went down to look, we discovered an absurd 10X markup for foreigners. Unhappy with our treatment and the prospect of paying a fee that we doubted went towards anything at the temple, we waited for our guides to return from their tour, meanwhile spotting some gorgeous bright green parakeets, then headed back up the road. We did get a jeep this time, cramming 15 people into an nine-seater, stopped at the road junction for some tea, and returned in time for lunch. After some rice I resumed reading "The Celestine Prophecy" which preaches of the interconnectedness of the world's energy and wondered if positive energy from here could put some hope into citizens of Mumbai.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thinking Weaving Eating Heating

As November passes quickly, I figured out what they do at one of Avani's (NGO) remote weaving centers, found my balance in the words of Osho, the profound talker, welcomed a new volunteer, wolfed down a special meal in secret, and witnessed the local office heating method.
When Purunda, our weaving expert said he was headed to Sukna, a weaving center about 2 km from the nearest road, I begged him to let me come and scrambled to pack my bag with a toothbrush and a few books, including a new comic in Hindi that I am nowhere near understanding. After a packed jeep ride filled with the popular smell of lemon aftershave, we hopped out and descended down a trail, past a few homes and trellassed vegetable plots, meanwhile Purunda's radio blared the India-England cricket game. I guess the got a few hundred points and won. For more on cricket, watch "Lagaan" which I can't seem find a copy of.
At Sukna we were greeted with rice, which my already upset stomach happly accepted. I watched the spinners that afternoon as they transfered treads, dyed naturally back at my center, to spindles for easy loading onto the weaving looms, meanwhile Purunda examined the fabrics being woven. That evening we walked out to watch the sun set on a full Himalayan panorama, collecting acorns on the way back for a fire. I tried to talk to a tree as Osho had suggested. We ate yams, big mistake, and my night's slumber was frequently interrupted by freezing trips to the outhouse - higher altitute means lower temperature. After sleeping all morning, thus cancelling a temple visit, I helped sort scrap fibers, learning the difference between silk and wool threads and honing cross-legged sitting technique on the ground (or at least a tolerance numb feet). The next morning, our last, I sat in the sun with Purunda, reading the thinker, Osho, on Taoism and leaning left and right, to eventually come back to the center. Envy crept up on me as I watched Purunda sit idly, but content, in the sunshine, happy with his own thoughts or inner peace, or whatever held him in his seat, while I sought the distraction of texts.
Back at the main center, three foreign visitors had come and gone, and a new volunteer had come to stay for her three month tenure. Trying to help Jessica settle in, a recent textile graduate from southern England, I felt very established here in my habits and interactions, even if my stomach remained unsettled. I was even invited to an evening meal of chicken, cooked up in the machine shop, keeping the veg kitchen clean.
The official auditors, stealing my red pen for their two day visit, brought the rain with them, which caused the temperature to drop drastically. While my ground-breaking heater-radiator design goes unbuilt in our workshop, the office was heated with a pan full of coals and an open window to ventilate. The auditors took a break from work to watch an Indian war movie, peering through a smoky room into a smoky battlefield of explosions and gunfire.
Films have increased in interest tenfold since I discovered subtitles available for download online. Reading subtitles trumps reading body language like a full house to a pair of queens, I say, as I read reviews of the gambling James Bond's newest film I am unable to watch... yet. It's only a 60 km hike, or 100 km jeep ride, to the nearest movie theater and my feet are starting to itch.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Arrows from a local Ramlila

As time flies by, I maintain the laid-back working atmosphere that every volunteer should aim for. I have survived the ten night Diwali epic staged in our town, listened to Obama's acceptance speech through an international phone call, welcomed the long-awaited return of Avani's director and wife, and just today ate half of a lemon, sprinkled with chili salt while we tried to change the motor on a solar-powered machine.

Kailas collects silk cocoons, originally uploaded by wanders.

Following the celebration of Diwali, a local troupe set up a stage, collected a few locals to act and began performing a section of the Ramayana from 8-12 pm (no daylight savings in India) every night for ten consecutive nights. I only sat through four evenings of mainly songs accompanied by two hand drums and a hand pressed accordion type keyboard - once I only watched from the cold grass slope, cracking and eating peanuts for an hour before returning to my room. The last night I went, I met an energetic fellow who ranted about Obama and Khali (an Indian wrester in the WWE) and eventually declared he himself was both Napoleon and Bruce Lee, and a robot, to top it off. I am slowly learning the Indian sense of humor.

Ramlila Performance, originally uploaded by wanders.

The high point of my stay here occurred when Obama claimed his victory, and in the morning that was an American evening of epic proportions, I made them turn on a small black and white television for news about the election, to no avail. As I tried to get my tiny slow laptop to stream radio reports about chad counting my big brother came to the rescue and I was summoned to the office to take his call. I stood outside on the plastic phone, staring at a clear Himalayan morning as he told me the news, announced McCain's concession to me and eventually, after some patient conversation about St Louis county and how my unsent absentee ballot had not prevented Obama's victory there, Jess held his computer mic up to CNN and I listened to a pride-instilling acceptance speech, giving my fellow workers thumbs ups as they walked by. Elated all day, I learned important Hindi words like "election" and "president" but was unable to properly rant about the wonderful opportunity to turn a new leaf on domestic and international policy. I simply said that maybe now I'd be able to get a job and health care when I got home.
Rajnish and Reshmi, the founders of this organization, returned from almost two months away, which included presenting products at a French fair-trade craft exposition, and I received a boost in motivation. I learned a bit about the history of the work here and jumped headlong into projects for community radio permission, to find funding for a digital camera to produce local videocasts (ideas?), and figure out how to make crayons and/or chalk with natural dyes and local beeswax/soapstone.
Less from a logistics perspective, I was sitting reading an old New Yorker, which duly arrived in my Halloween package three days after the holiday along with some candy tastefully familiar to my tongue, and an old man walked up, sat down and began conversing with me in English. Having had numerous boring conversations about how many siblings I had and how much money I made, etc, my gut urged me to return to my article. I decided to be respectful, however, rather than reclusive, and ended up learning about his military service (he knew "one percent Chinese"), the strange diet of foreigners visiting the Indian beaches of Goa ("fish and bread"), and after being recruited to work for the local government, he offered me guava and lemons from his home if I stopped by sometime.
I have almost completed a small pine needle cutting machine, more done to learn what tools we have access to (lots of metal chisels and hammering) than for its usefulness. I am learning slowly that sharing my ambitious projects with Chanchal, the head of the mechanical workshop, gets the ball rolling much faster, as compared to my futile attempts at securing things such as machine part catalogs, etc. Plans are in full swing to build a test heater for the office, using an old car radiator to distribute heat, maybe even incorporating a home-brewed stirling engine fan - Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway) has come up with a stirling engine car that can run off anything combustible for ThinkCity. Google it. I didn't. I'm still reading last month's magazines.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Kaddu

Jono and Camu, originally uploaded by wanders.

I guess I picked a ripe pumpkin instead of an old yellow one (whoops!) - no one told me. So I carved her up and a celebration it is, minus the costumes, candy, or general spirit since people are mostly returning from Diwali, maybe not ready for another wild celebration of... GHOSTS and GHOULS!
Maybe I'll go try to haunt people tonight, but at the risk of being attacked my the local man eating tigers, I may stay in bed. Until the spirits inspire me...

Pedal Inspired Holiday Machinist

Diwali has in fact come, and remains for four days, at our empty NGO complex, where most everyone has gone home to see their families. Many people "commute" or work here most of the time, sending money back to their spouse and children, residing with a parents or brother or sister. Most of them have returned to celebrate the epic return of Rama (King from the Hindu tale of the Ramayana) to his kingdom after recovering his wife from his evil enemy in Sri Lanka = Diwali. That leaves us three volunteers as well as a mother and her five-year old son, another two families and one cook, which inspired me to cook the rhoti's this morning, proving my worth by successfully rolling flack flour-dough pancakes to be cooked on our propane stove.
Last night was the big celebration, with fireworks on the horizon and Rashmi's treat (volunteer) of her bag of gunpowdered packed excitement. I tried to set off a firework with a sparkler, but couldn't tell it was lit and as a consequence still can't hear out of my left ear - all digits are accounted for, however, so I'm still typing along without problems. Camu, the five-year old, jumped around with joy, lighting tons of black cats, meanwhile I cowered in the corner and hoped he kept both his hands. My stomach continues to recover from my cheese experiment (home-made pizza may have to wait), aided by two Mountain Dews I purchased on a recent trip to Almora, a four-hour-away city haven with cheap sweets and broadband - I loaded up on a few albums, one episode of the Colbert Report, and a description of how to make a Stirling Engine with a coat hanger, a balloon and  soda cans - so I do the dew. I also stocked up on Bollywood films, sadly unable to find the Hindi version of Oceans 11 that was recommended to me by a visiting Delhi-ite. I stayed with Purunda, my guide on our previous trek to Digoli, who's family lives ten kilometers outside the city - he was quite busy, but treated me (fed me) like a king, and I did my best to help out with Diwali cleaning and work, painting one section of wall in his 80 year old house his greatgrandfather had made. As soon as I returned, a little jostled by a crammed jeep ride that took me two hours to find, I received kind greetings from the few workers remaining around, before they pilfered my collection of cheap films. I thought about being irritated that they were mostly interested in borrowing from me, but I have come to realize even from people wandering into the office that my posessions often prove more interesting than my conversation, clumsy and unintelligible as it still emerges from my foreign tongue.
With a new vigor, I attack my designing challenge, coming up with a machine to be made entirely from bike parts. I had been stuck trying to figure out what materials I really have access to and in conclusion sheet metal and bike wheels seem the most useful. A few groups make numerous machines from/powered by bikes ( & which is pretty inspiring. I wish they could send me a machine or two, but alas, my Halloween package from Mom has yet to arrive (sent over a month ago)... Tonight we're eating fried spinach and onion pakora with daal and rhoti as always. The fog has settled in and we're looking at a cold night, but the snow doesn't come until January.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Traditional and buffalo

Traditional and buffalo, originally uploaded by wanders.

Settling Pine Ash

UPDATE: After watching another Bollywood film last night ("Race" and yes it was on my 7" screen), I have to admit success in understanding all four twists that occurred throughout the film, full of plotting and scheming over deaths for insurance money, though lacking the incredible dialogue that the classic "Double Indemnity" featured, at least to my undiscerning ears. I reached a conclusion in my readings on gasifiers and general research - I need a focus. So I'm presenting some ideas when the director returns, including one to establish innovation centers to give locals the tools to invent their own solutions to rural problems. Meanwhile, I spent two nights at a secluded, solar powered center three hours from the nearest road, rode to a few towns on my bike and just recently hiked down from our village to the convergence of two rivers, where my guide smashed a fish with his hands - don't be too impressed, it was only about a half-pinkie in size.
Following my general routine of working in the mornings and reading, studying Hindi, or exploring in the afternoons, I headed downhill - really you can either go up or down from here, about 5km in each direction - and stomped around a stream til I found a nice looking rock to climb on. Returning once, I have now mapped out two climbs, pedalling fiercely uphill back before sunset each time. One day I biked 20 km out to Chaukori, the most popular tourist spot nearby, where hotels were under construction and I met a nice woman who ended up being from Dubai - she met her husband while he was studying hotel management, and they just recently set up there. She teaches English at the school and he makes pizza and pasta. Yes, I did find pizza in the middle of the Himalayas, but I haven't tried it yet. She said it was the "Second Switzerland" and showed me an orchid that some "scientist" tourists had brought back from the nearby forest. My other trip was 20 km downhill, to Gangolihat, home of a temple to Kali, a god that merits goat sacrifices, which happen often there. After seeing a white faced monkey that was at least 4 feet tall on the road, I entered town and ate a delicious omlette before getting very angry with everyone's questions and curiosity when I just wanted to explore. I realized that I'm still on the cultural learning curve.
The two design students working here next to me in our office were headed to Digoli, an Avani weaving center, to learn more about the spinning process and I tagged along. We crammed 5 people in the passenger seat of the front (3 kids) and many more in the back and drove an hour and half til the road was no longer navigable. Men carried bags of rocks on their backs to keep continue the construction and repairs. We walked by them and up, through pine infested forests and in the drizzle for three hours til we reached the center. There was one umbrella, but I was the only person of the six of us to have a raincoat. We cooked vegetables we had been given during the walk as we squatted on the floor of the kitchen that night. The next morning, armed with potatoes, the center staff - two guys - made potato pancakes laced with Hindi spices, wrapped them in newspaper and we trekked off to a temple, eating guavas as we collected them along the walk. We made it there some three hours later, and I contributed to the purchase of some incense for the temple. After a holy rinse under the waterfall that spouts from the base, we climbed back up to the temple and rang the numerous bells, lit incense, left a guava for the gods, and talked to the local religious 'pandits', meanwhile the women sang songs to the gods inside the temple. We made it back by afternoon and I asked numerous questions about the workings of the foot powered weaving looms, learning a bit about the silk and wool patterns being produced. That night, reading Krishnamurti's writings, I pondered all my motivations and considered giving them up to become a magician to better share the message of world peace through card trick banter. Meanwhile our staff cooked some Maggi's instant noodles as an appetizer - I was impressed. I thought we'd be there for one night, but two days later, we began our return journey, despite the aches of our design students, and back at the road we were greeted by our congenial cook who I've nicknamed Rambo cause he calls me some Indian star's name. We crammed in the jeep again (why did they bring 4 people to pick up 6?) and arrived in time to have an Avani lunch.
A recent attempt at alternative stove fuel by packing ash and buffaloo poo into briquettes and drying them failed when they refused to catch fire and turn into coals. We will try again, but until their local briquette compactor design is complete I ran off into the surrounding forests, hiking with one of the workers down and down to the junction of two rivers. We splashed around, I impressed him with my breast stroke and got in one front flip before we relaxed and ate the four buns and chutney we had brought for lunch. He kept trying to catch fish with a stick and his hands, eventually smashing one on a rock with his fingers - he didn't eat it raw like he promised and tried to throw the plastic bag that carried our lunch into the stream. When it wouldn't float away, I pocketed it and brought it back with me, unable to explain in my poor Hindi why it was a bad idea to leave it in the water. We made it back to his house by 3pm and he was surprised by a new calf in his shed. This enormous thing had been birthed that morning as we walked through the forest, dodging spider web after spider 'jal', and I only believed it because his umbilical cord was still dangling from his belly. I did not think that was in the cow I had seen that morning. I returned late, and tried to make myself some bread for lunch, but Rambo stepped in, ordered me to sit down, and cooked up some delicious rhoti and daal to nourish my aching muscles, followed by some extra spicy tea to warm my bones. Counting down til Divali (Oct 28th) and the fireworks that are said to come with it. They are going to act out the Ramayana in town for the six nights following Divali and I am scheduled to attend and learn a bit about Hindu epics.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Broadbanding my Horizons

Armed with a laptop and broadband I am almost unstoppable, until I recently realized that few of the organizations around here have web sites describing their pine needle briquetting machines for clean burning or whatever else I am looking for. My new task is that of networking, both in setting up these computers here into some kind of system that will share internet (currently using the one-computer-at-a-time method of updating virus software) and compiling a list of other organizations in this area doing similar work. I managed to talk to the director of NARI, a group south of Bombay doing really cool work, who I found through the free online lecture notes for D-Labs, a course for designing appropriate technology for developing countries at MIT (see OpenCourseWare) and his advice was to devote all my time here to learning the gasifier machine and maybe getting it a bit more efficient. I hope to put a lot of time into understanding it, but I think I could contribute more if I focused on a few less demanding projects (ie portable heaters for the winter).

Another turn of events is that the dsl connection we have (government provided) limits us to 4 gb per month, meaning that my 500 mb first day download of a few new albums (Beck, the Verve, Kings of Leon, and TV on the Radio), a program (Wenlin to review Chinese), and a comic book (Kabuki), I have way overdone my contribution to bandwidth usage. Ooops.
I took my mountain bike out for a spin two Chaukori few back, now running without my lowest gear - need to replace cables - and climbed a few hills to get to the closest touristy village around - 12 km. I drank tea and talked to the women at the restaurant, complimented her English, and then discovered that she was an English teacher from Dubai, recently relocated there to run a hotel with her husband who could cook pasta and pizza - I may have to go back. She showed me the orchid that some 'scientists' had brought her from the surrounding forests and told me that Chaukori is called the second Switzerland. She later called Nainital, her previous home, the 2nd Switzerland as well. I told her she had been to Switzerland a lot and she said, "Yes, my brother was even married there." When I asked where, her response was "Australia."
In preparation for winter, I'm off to cram info down about "Cooking Energy in India" and "Biomass: Thermo-Chemical Characterisation" - two books I found on a shelf here. I would appreciate a good recent youtube video recommendation so I can get a little pop culture running in my veins. I tried to watch a Bollywood film, "Singh is Kinng," yesterday and realized that I'm out of touch with both US and Indian culture.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Kumaoni on the Mind

After two days of research, reading downloaded web sites and articles on biomass, biogas, and gasifiers of all sorts (many of which are in India - ie the one already on this site), I have come to really miss that internet access so easily taken for granted. How did people used to research if they weren't constantly in a library - it's hard to have to wait for the answers to your questions - and without wikipedia? I could make a killing if I just sold wikipedia on DVD to foreigners so that they wouldn't have to wait for the articles to load...
Avani has a practice of using the invasive pine tree's needles to produce gas, removing a ground cover that causes forest fire and rain water runoff problems. My current engineering volunteer work involves attempting to design a new pine needle cutting device and contemplating my grand idea to fill the locally popular propane tanks (hauled at least 500 km to get here) with our locally produced pine needle gas. My conclusions, however, have disheartened my effort with a final figure of 150 lbs of pine needles to fill one propane tank, worth roughly $10 on the local market (that's like 4 big bags full, more than most black sheep have).
That's a wrap for the morning, and now I'm off to lunch - probably rice and lentils in the kitchen, which most people eat with their hands off our metal trays - then waiting til after chai to fix the shifters on my bike, study hindi, and read a bit on this warm sunny afternoon. Allergies have receeded, after I had to spend one night on the floor of my office because there is less pollen at a 50 meter-higher altitude. Yesterday, I looked up and said there was a rock in my rice, after finding the third one, and was asked "a big one?" to which I responded "no, a little one." And that was that. A day later - after one day of failed internet and a morning of stomach ailments, I return to explain the question I'm sure you are asking: What is Avani?
Avani is a Non-Governmental Organization that started in the Barefoot College (teaching people skills for adapting technology to suit their needs out in Rajasthan, NW India), when the founders decided that in order to have a more lasting impact, they should set up shop in the Himalayas and work directly with the people there - now they install and fix solar panels, microfinance local entrepreneurs, and oversee the production of textiles (clothing, mats, etc) which take advantage of the local spinning tradition. While spread out in the counties of Pithoragarh and Bageshawar to something like fifty villages, there are five centers, and I am at the biggest, with forty people residing here. There are a few families around us and in the complex, but most people eat in the cafeteria (our tea is made with on-site buffalo milk, some produce is from the fields and greenhouse, and our metal trays dry out in the sun after we wash them ourselves). They sleep in the dorms and work on fixing solar panels, weaving, or in the office, run entirely off the solar array installed here, drinking filtered rain water, collected and stored in underground cement pits on site. Actually, I think I will learn more than I will contribute, but since I'm paying my own way here I hope no one complains. I am cruising through Teach Yourself Hindi so that I can communicate more readily with the less-English-speakers, though they occasionally converse in Kumaoni, a Tibetan-Hindi conglomerate that over 3 million people speak up in these mountains. Any hope I have of staying up to date on the news also relies on my Hindi as English publications don't make it this far from the large cities, but there is hope - I heard that we are on the list for broadband; who knows how long that could take. I'm relying on 2 kb/s from my volunteer office at this point.
Thus, I spend my morning working on my tiny laptop, reading articles on gasifiers and biomass that I've downloaded and developing my scheme for biogas propane tanks (new development - 150 lbs of pine needles can be bought for roughly $3, putting my scheme in the range of "somewhat reasonable"). I also hike up and away a bit and jot down ideas for machines or just general transcendentalist thoughts (still picking up my tattered copy of Whitman from time to time) surrounded by the rolling hills and the far off snow capped mountains - roughly 100 km from Nepal and around that to Nanda Devi (7800 m?), one of the tallest mountains in the world.
And it takes three days of patience to publish this.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Avani's Little Boy

So, working on the smallest laptop known to man (seven inches for the
monitor and less space for my fingers), I am reconnected to
technology. I have invested, hoping to receive some money back with
resale at the end of my volunteering tenure, in a small, portable,
energy efficient 'laptop', more like right-thigh-top, and am ended up
armed and ready to return to Uttaranchal, after one tiring day in
Delhi. (I ended up staying for three days), but cities are expensive
and exhausting, and I skipped the site-seeing, crammed in all the
shopping I could and headed back to the mountains. I decided
Well, I look quite goofy here with my light blue encased technology on
my lap, as the cleaning guy comes in to sweep dust off the floor of
this overpriced motel room (couchsearching tonight?). The day's plan
is to steal enough wireless to get my $400 back, though that could
take some time and a lot of coffee. Plenty of research to do though,
and I must soon begin the task of designing my pine needle cutting
machine, to improve upon the current inefficient machine actually for
cutting up wood.
To update, and steal from my journal, we have the following exciting story:
After leaving Lahore, Pakistan and stopping in Amritsar for four
hours, just enough to wander around the Golden Temple, which really is
made of gold, I set off again on an overnight sleeper to the nation's
capital. Heading out of Delhi, I skipped the train, they were changing
the rails, and followed a Bombay businessman to a rickety bus he
considered a desperate mode of transportation, but thats what he and I
were that morning. So, crammed in, with people sitting on bunkbed like
constructions above us (Indian double decker?) we cruised the bumpy
road toward Uttaranchal, my Himalayan province of choice. In the
meantime, however, this unexpected guide filled my ears with his
passion-conspiracy theories, specifically of the historical variety,
and I learned that ancient reptiles developed humans through genetic
experiments and plan to return in 2012, as per Mayan predictions of...
I looked out the window, saw the biggest cow of my life, actually a
buffalo, and then, bump bump bump, we pressed on. A road block.
Police? No, a train crossing, and we continued and then a man casually
rode by going the other way on an elephant. I turn back, and unfazed,
Bombay continues about crop circles being invitations for reptilian
extraterrestrials to return... back to the window and three monkeys
sit on the side of the road and I realize that I really am in another
part of the world, not just China this time. We stopped again, a man
with mangos for sale boarded the bus and I finally caught a glimpse of
the full moon overhead. The tides have changed. Two days of travelling
and I finally met Avani's director, who I was volunteering for, he
gave me a big friendly bearded grin, and I set off for Tripuradevi,
the small town of Avani's headquarters, as I peered out the window for
nearby rocks to climb on and ate Indian chow mein and drank the ginger
and green tea over-sugared chai that I have become accustomed to by
now. This place set me up with a room, but no key, so they sawed off
the lock, a fine lunch of lentils and rhoti (Hindi bread) and a calm
afternon tour of the facilities with a stop at the neary store for a
SIM here, requiring extensive paperwork, passport copies,
signatures... and a picture! The next day I walked to Berinag, the
nearby town of population 10,000, for honey to combat local allergies,
rolled my ankle again, and continued my pursuit of Hindi vocabulary. I
saw the pine needle gasifier in action the next day and noted that
while I known next to nothing about gas-powered generators, I know
even less about the gasification process and equipment, but I asked
and drew and intend to find answers somewhere (one of the numerous
softback engineering books around here?).
Finally, I took a two hour jeep ride down what have proven to be some
of the worst PAVEN roads I've seen to Dharamghar, another village
Avani center, where I witnessed their first collection of oak tussar
silk worms in their coccoons.
After all this excitement, I still decided to run off to Delhi, taking
the 9 hr jeep ride followed by 9 hours train into a crazy city of
honking cars. Two nights was enough, and after the train back and only
4 hrs on a bus, I attempted to bike the rest of the way. One night up
on a hill and the next day I couldnt move my legs, so when I reached
the bottom of the valley, I hopped in a jeep. Now, I am actually back
at Tripuradevi, hoping that this will get sent through the internet,
repeatedly interrupted at the one moment in which I finally got
internet for two seconds.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Karakorum High

Crossed into Pakistan without any problems or rock slides or snow leopard attacks, I sighed for relief and finally cracked someone else's Lonely Planet to figure out what this country offered a man just travelling through. We all went to Passu, a nearby town surrounded by glaciers and peaks, and I slowly realized that Pakistan's Northern Areas were my paradise. I cursed myself for only getting a fifteen day visa but commended my purchase of two trekking poles back in Urumqi. I slept outside our first night, set up my poncho/tarp tent to try out the cold, drank tea with a kind fellow who offered me a job teaching English right there surrounded by mountains, and the next day headed off to see the famous foot bridges nearby. Scary enough under normal circumstances, these bridges were particularly frightening when crossed toting a 30 lbs bag, but I made it across the first one, got lost on the other side of the river, and eventually made it back across, one foot slipping off a plank to make me really feel like Indiana Jones.

Passu Bridge East, originally uploaded by wanders.
I trekked through town and then up to the Balthus Lake where I finally got some cookies for breakfast. As I came down the hill from the lake and its view of nearby glaciers, a bus pulled up. I ran down the hill, threw my bag up and hopped ontop of the bus, as instructed, to hold my pack down. I couldn't really ask for a better introduction to the mountains than a bus-roof-top ride along the windy Karakorum Highway, which was spotted with Chinese workers - rumor has it the highway will be expanded to four lanes in the next three years to further allow trade between the two countries.
I made it Karimabad, suggested by a German trekker, and I strolled through the town after dropping my bag at the Hunza Inn. The Hunza is another group of people in an area smattered with different folks with their various languages and traditions - they had an amazing pastry cake with walnuts that tasted almost like pecan pie. I met my German friend again and signed up for a day hike up to the Ultar Meadow and to the Hon Pass, at 4300 meters. We got up at 6:30, ate a delicious omelet each, and set off on our 1900 meter ascent for the day, with my bold self toting nearly everything I own, save my blue corduroy jacket from Beijing, in an attempt to "condition" myself for future treks. We made it, munched on some cookies and tuna fish, and I tried front handsprings on my trekking poles that a Canon point-and-shoot was too slow to capture. I stayed at the Meadow to acclimate to the altitude, and was invited to stay at the hut there, which had a bit warmer floor than my sleeping pad. The fellow who offered me tea said that a Japanese alpinist had died a few years earlier attempting to reach the Ultar Peak, and afterwards his wife established a school there for the locals, which partly explained the surprisingly high number of Japanese signs and tourists in Karimibad.

Karimibad arrival, originally uploaded by wanders.
The next day, after an early rise, I headed onwards, to Gilgit, base point for another number of treks, and again rode ontop of a bus, this time by a few monumental peaks, such as Rakaposhi an Diran, meanwhile a fellow rider got sick on top of the bus and my batteries ran out in the middle of Bob Dylan - "how many roads must a man walk down..." I made it to Gilgit and finally felt the full force of Ramadan - more than half the stores were closed and no restaurants served food until after 7:30, when the sun went down and the fasting ended. My British acquaintances from Karimabad had already showed up, and we went out and ate Pakistani food, munching almost as hungrily as the Muslims that filled the place. After a day of sitting around as it rained, cleaning clothes, and hearing the numerous stories of travellers in Madina, the paradise of a hotel, we headed out, joined by Cody, the Icelander, and two Polish girls, for Fairy Meadow, and area with views of six peaks over 7,000 meters. We crammed six passengers into a jeep, and rolled out despite the drizzle, stopping once to see the junction point of the Karakorum, Hindu Kush, and Himalaya mountain ranges. A smaller jeep carried us off the paved road, but it proved less prepared than we were for the road ahead. Around twenty minutes up the steepest, windiest, scariest road I've ever ridden, our wheels lost the battle against gravity and began sliding towards the edge. We all jumped out, pulled off our bags, and piled rocks behind the underdog wheels, prayed, and then yelped for joy as the jeep lurched forward.

Fairy Meadow Jeep Trouble, originally uploaded by wanders.
We got out a few more times in the hairier spots, but arrived, two hours later at the base of the hike, to set out amidst drizzle for our meadow goal. We found a campsite - the place is overridden with money-seeking hostels, guides, stores, restaurants, and whatnot - and relaxed until sundown, when a warm fire and some instant noodles put us all at ease. I finally learned the value of my fork-potholder invention when it dropped half of my dinner into the fire as I went for a reheat. I disassembled my device and shared the forks with my needy friends. The next day, Cody and I hiked to the Nanga Parbat base camp, got a cloudy view of the eighth highest peak in the world, and then descended. I had thus far drowned my left foot on every hike I had done in Pakistan, but at Fairy Meadow, it remained dry, that is, until I rolled my ankle returning from base camp, and had to voluntarily stick my foot into a glacial stream to ice my swelling joint. Luckily I had my trekking poles, and once we finally arrived at our campsite, the clouds had parted and we had an impressive view of Nanga Parbat with a sliver of moon on top.

Moonlit Nanga Parbat, originally uploaded by wanders.
The next day we trekked down, after our two night stay, hopped in our jeep, and returned to the paradise of the Madina Hotel, where the owners told us stories of wild foreigners and an American who travelled with three swords for wild animal attacks. I set off, a day later, well fed from an after sunset feast - much better than instant noodles and tuna - and took the 24-hour, gut wrenching bus ride to Lahore, the cultural capital of Pakistan, which involved a stop at 3:45 am to eat before morning prayer and sunrise, and another stop at 7:30 pm for dinner, mingled with numerous traffic stops and police checkpoints along the long Karakorum Highway which takes you all the way to Islamabad. Upon arrival in Lahore, everyone at the Regal Internet Inn, rushed off by rickshaw to see music played in the Sufi tradition, meanwhile hash was passed around like candy and sweat beaded like dew drops on everyone's brow. After returning late in the night, yours truly was happy to sleep on a bed and not a bus seat, before the adventure continues on through Delhi to Kathgodam by train and then a taxi ride to Berinag, my final destination where I hope to heal my ankle, volunteer my skills and assimilate some culture.
"We convince not by our arguments, similes rhymes.
We convince by our presence." -Whitman "Song for the Open Road"

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Headed West

A 44 hour train ride delivered me to Urumqi, the largest city in Xinjiang, a very different province of China. As I rode through the vast countryside West of Beijing, I read the insightful Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler (thanks John Jennison), well in the moments between those in which my fellow passengers were perusing my English book or quizzing me on my studies. I passed a bit of time just reading/reviewing my 2nd Oxford Concise dictionary, and some jamming out to tunes from my new Texan friend Trip, who let me raid his laptop before I left the capital city - where else would I find Austin-local country-singer Pat Green for my listening pleasure? When I reached Urumqi, with little over four days til my visa expired, I convinced myself to cram all my experiences into one afternoon. Hessler had talked a bit about the Uighurs, a Turkish people that inhabit the western most province of Xinjiang, controversially part of China or the Republic of East Turkestan, depending on which side of the line you stand, and I was eager to encounter a few. I barely missed the museum, having closed 15 minutes before I got there, which was said to house three mummies, very caucasian in appearance, that further demonstrated this area as part of something forever Chinese.

Urumqi Museum, originally uploaded by wanders.

My next move was to load up on cheap imitation Olympic paraphenalia and a few DVD's, but my naivety proved endless when I learned that noone dared copy Olympic merchandise, and this area was notoriously low on movies. As I sulked, ate some delicious local grapes, and wandered, I ended up in a nice simple kebab restaurant. I met a man there, a polyglot trader, and was reminded strongly of a character from Hessler's book - sadly though well connected, this fellow was unable to find a place for me to exchange my Mongolian currency - yes, I do still have about thirty dollars worth of tugreeks on my person.

I caught my bus out the next day, sadly saying goodbye already to an interesting city with a good feel to it, and mistakenly bought a can of coffee for my ride. I was nearly in tears when we made out first stop after two hours and ran to the gas station restroom. The sleeper bus was quite comfortable, showing a few awful Hong Kong films, making me regret leaving my poor copy of "Dark Night" back in Beijing. So from Urumqi, I made it to Kashgar, a main stop on the Silk Road, my bus rather than train choice saving me four dollars. I met almost joined a bus full of foreigners headed to the beautiful Karakoul Lake in the next two minutes, but instead slowed down and ate noodles with a few Americans staying in the same place. Turned out they were all outdoorsy English teachers out in Yangshou, which houses the best rock climbing in China. I met my counterpart, Jose, who liked This American Life and TV On the Radio and Harpers and we traded books. I enjoyed following this four person crew around in Kashgar and we spent one or two nights sitting on the steps by the road drinking ice cold local beer. At one point, we all went to a hotel to use the restroom and I found an old battered copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and as my last two books in a row had mentioned this work, I felt it was a sign and bought it on the spot.

One night, following a few beers on the steps, we decided to check out a Uighur dance bar. A traditionally conservative Muslim people, the Uighur's attend a dance bar that translates into a floor, half the time open to the masses, half the time hosting multi-cultural performances (we saw Flamenco and Indian dance performances). When the floor was open, barely anyone touched anyone else and guards stood around watching us look silly, at one point wagging a finger at Colin and a drunk Kyrygz man who were dancing together a little too closely. We followed a crew of Russian speakers to a nice hotel and some secret Karaoke rooms, whereby their leader ordered a slew of beers and everyone began dancing on the tables. We ended the night with kebab from the street.

Uigur Bar, originally uploaded by wanders.

Monday, when the border was once again open, I said goodbye to my friends and caught the bus to... Pakistan. I got my visa back in Beijing after discovering that the cost of a flight was about the same as the travel and visa total, and everyone I talked to said it was a safe place as long as you avoided the Afghan border. I joined two Hungarians and a Frenchman on a two-hour-late bus to Tashkurgan, the border town, to push on til Sost, the Pakistani side the next day. In Tashkurgan, we strolled around, snuck into a fort without paying, got yelled at for not paying but taking pictures anyways, and then ate some noodles while our beers got warm because we were not allowed to drink in a Muslim restaurant. As soon as we got to our hotel, I got a text message, thus using my last chinese SIM card credit, that the Yangshou crew had made it to Tashkurgan! They had planned an elaborate bike trip back to Kashgar - I haggled for their bikes ealier - and it all worked out. Permits and such had become a hassle since the political unrest in Kashgar that started right before the Olympics - rumor had it that there had been 20 more bombs following the one reported that the Chinese media had covered up. I took my friends to the same noodle shop, feeling cold at this high altitude, with my jacket held hostage under straps on the top of our bus, and we somehow found another dance bar, this time with a new Tajik friend, who refused my no's about ordering chicken and covered out table in food after we had just eaten. Strange night ended in repeated goodbyes, and the next morning, our bus cruised over the 4900 meter Khunjerab Pass - my head was pounding during our five minute stop at the the official border where many many Chinese workers lost their lives constructing the tallest highway pass in the world to enable trade across to Pakistan.

IMG_1685, originally uploaded by wanders.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Goodnight Ceremonies

Not going out without a bang, I made it more Olympic event before the disappointing song and dance of the closing ceremonies. Men's mountain biking on Saturday morning was actually more like afternoon so I didn't have to get up that early. I headed out there after some noodles with John Jennison, my kind host, and his friend who was sad to leave his tickets to me so he could catch some track and field in the Bird's Nest that evening. During my 50 minute train ride out to the Western outskirts of town, I rocked out to a remixed War of the Worlds (summer mix series) and rolled up half an hour late but ready to watch some dirt get trampled by high speed bikers. I trekked through the park, pretty full of people and a few cheerleaders doing strange dances near the drink stalls, and finally found the steep section I had been encouraged to view from. I approached two guys wearing USA hats and slowly realized that they were mechanics for the US Olympic team. I lot of gear talk was swapped, and I listened in and picked out half the words, cheering for whoever rode by as they barrelled down a steep section halfway through the course on their fourth of seven laps. After following this more knowledgeable crew to a get a few more perspectives on the race, we discussed the performance of Adam, USA's no. 1 who didn't have a great race. Meanwhile I slowly realized that Mary, my other new friend, had actually placed 7th that morning in the women's race, and Mike, with the USA hat, was on the Olympic Team as an alternate - the couple was headed to Sydney in three days for another race and to check the area before the World Championship was held in Australia in 2009. They let me follow them around after the race ended, discussion which line was the best and actually sounding impressed with China's ability to throw together a startling challenging course in the middle of a park, with the help of some concrete for the looser areas and some logs to spice up the easier turns. I eventually turned down championship baseball tickets (Cuba v. N Korea) to go have a backstage beer with my new friends, eventually realizing that even though baseball bores me I should try to go - alas, the ticket was gone by then, and I strolled on to the unenterable Tiananmen Square, having exhausted my social skills and met some cool people as a consequence - I walked away from the backroom of the bike shop where the US team and friends were hanging out with my second Corona quenching my thirst.

Mountain Biking Turn, originally uploaded by wanders.

That night, I went out to the bar district, hoping to take advantage of the outgoing mood as the Olympics came to a close to meet a few different nationalities. I met some nice people from Greece, a few disappointingly lame Americans, one Lithuanian pentathlete, a guy on the Italian water polo team I had watched a few days earlier, and... I was waiting on some new German friends when I sat down to take a break at a french fry joint. The guys sitting there looked European so I struck up a conversation and lo and behold, I had found three Basques in the middle of Beijing. We immediately started yelling in Basque (they were even from Gipuzkoa, the same province where I had lived and started this journey) and the came with us to another bar. I was so psyched to have managed to find someone speaking every language I knew in the city that I ended up staying out til sunrise, standing on a rooftop bar as the sun started to light the cloudy sky.
Sunday, John invited me out to his friend's place to watch the closing ceremonies, have some food and meet a few kind foreigners - Robbie, from Dallas, ended up knowing some people in India I'm looking forward to contacting when I get there, and hosted a fine collection of interesting people to share the closing ceremonies with - plenty of insight into who was who and what meant what from ex-pats living in China. Monday, I said goodbye to the splendid new Beijing and to my wonderful host, who treated me to some Starbucks by his office on my last morning.

Goodbye Apple, originally uploaded by wanders.
I loaded up my new Chinese memory card with a few fine tunes from John's friend Trip, a Texan, meaning I would later rock out to some Pat Green, ran a few errands, and finally invested in second pair of pants. I made it to the train station just in time to purchase two Snickers bars, three Bananas, and 3 L of water for my 44 hour trip. I walked along counting train cars as directed, to the soft seater car - I didn't see a single foreigner, but was very ready to fall asleep to the sounds of Johnny Cash, who I had recently loaded onto my phone. "I'm gonna break my rusty cage and run..."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Splendid Olympic Games; Fascinating New Beijing

I made it China! They somehow quickly forgave me for arriving in Mongolia with a car and leaving without one - "Your car really broke down?" and a "Yes, it really did" later I was free of that snag - and we stepped off the train in a foreign land, I somehow raised in status immediately by speaking some of the local tongue and led our group of Beijing seeking foreigners around from train station to bus station. Our ride was decently comfortable - bunk beds!; a little surreal - we drove by a dinosaur sculptures in the middle of nowhere?; and slow - five to eight police checkpoints that each checked our passports and two of which had to go through our bags.

I stumbled around Beijing Saturday morning at 4:30 am, eventually calling my new friend John Jennison to help me find his apartment, which I was unlikely to be but in fact located around the corner from when I called. He rolled off to some Olympic tennis and some wrestling match, meanwhile I found some markets (wool sweater and new shades!), a replacement pocket dictionary, and a modern movie theater under a bar district I'd never seen - Beijing has changed. The city surprised me numerous times, differring immenseley from what I came to know just three years ago (a lifetime for this city) but proving very awe-inspiring with its new architecture and attitude. The streets are lined with volunteers (something like 100,000), including "Beijing Old Women Volunteers", every beggar and street pedlar has either been arrested or crammed into some tiny neighborhood I have yet to find, and foreigners pop up like corn kernels at the nearest cinema.

After using my passport to get internet access (freedom of information?), I contacted a few friends and somehow ended up getting into a beach volleyball match (China rocks US), diving (China takes #1 and #2), soccer (Argentina beats Brazil?), and just this morning water polo (Canada smokes China - finally) all in different venues.
The volleyball court was very pretty, though half the crowd left after China won, not sticking around to see Brazil versus Finland. The bikini toting cheerleaders did some funny dances, especially to the 90's mix of pop rock songs (Reel Big Fish?), inviting us to bring back the monkey and a few other simpler dances - China didn't allow cheerleaders til 8 years ago, and making up half of every cheerleading squad, they slow the pace down a bit. Diving was in the water cube, up in the roped off Olympic Green, where I got to see the Bird's Nest by moonlight and their garden, tower, pond, and a million things that I could not have imagined when I visited the site three years ago. My good friend Rob Struck helped me into both events, connected through Coca-Cola who even let him go on the clock to diving.
The soccer game was in the Worker's Stadium, a fun venue that seemed overly infatuated with the wave, and hosted some of the world's best soccer players between the two South American teams we watched with jaws dropped. Had a good night celebrating the game afterwards up around the stadium, meeting someone from an Olympic event and at least five different countries in every bar. Today's water polo was amazing - never seen that before - and after China was done losing, Italy and Australia took the stage only to give us an amazing show that made it past overtime to a shoot out, speakers blasting the Jaws theme between breaks.
Once you've got that ticket, doors open left and right, and you even get free subway passes all day just by flashing your that Olympic VIP pass at the stations. I've heard many stories about getting into stuff with enough sweet talking, but this guy got turned away at Club Bud, which was rumored to be housing Phelps after he broke the gold record - he wasn't there. I'm planning some more adventures still to come, sticking around til Monday to catch some night life and closing ceremonies with the crowds.

Fishing Not Flying Around

Now, much further ahead than I should be, I must recount the wanderings in Mongolia that lead me to this Olympic Paradise I now enjoy. Visa secured, well, receipt in my pocket, which assured me I would be welcome to pay $130 a few days later in return for my passport with its new stamp, I wandered out of the city to find some of the vast Mongolian steppes and mountains and rivers and streams I had driven through but not explored. Finally, after three hours wandering through town in failed attempts to catch the right bus, I arrived, via paved roads - surprise! - to a monastery south of town, carrying my backpack through at sunset and arriving atop the southern mountain just at dusk - I experienced the Buddhist flags and stone piles in the dark and then made my bed under a tree. I walked back to town the next morning, laughing about all the fuss over this visa - they really only wanted to see a few things, ticket in, ticket out, bank statement, letter of invitation from my friend, copy of his passport, copy of his lease, copy of my uncle's youngest daughter's catholic sunday school diploma. In town, I headed to the British pub, rumored to have some Mongol Ralliers, but not before a nap back at the guest house because my tree had been less than five star. I ran into a British chap who we had seen on the road about 1500 km back, arrived and alive and headed out that evening, securing my final picture for Chris, to prove I was still sporting the reverse mohawk.

Next step, buzzers, and it was great to lose the hair beard and grease that had accumulated over the years of not showering. That night I met a Chinese-citizen-British-marine who had hitchhiked across the US to prove to his friend that On the Road was still a liveable dream. We managed to find a really good local rock band jamming out with traditional instruments, followed by a US trouncing of Lithuania in basketball (prelims), which got me excited to get down to some celebrating soon in Beijing.
Despite my attempts to find other climbers, I headed east of Ulan Bataar to the national park alone, staring in awe as we passed boulder after boulder and eventually trotting off the bus when the rocks disappeared behind us. To my rescue, Chook strolled up and convinced me to come to his gher village to stay and fish and hang out with his broken English, scribbling something about two dollars and fifty cents in the dirt. I wandered through stream after stream - bridges were not a luxury expended by this area - and found a fishing pole, kindly offered to me by a man who, as it happens was disassembling a cow with his family when we stopped by. I failed to catch any fish, but I was more interested in standing around than really triumphing over nature, and had the surprise of a lifetime when three white guys rode up on horseback and also happened to be Mongol Ralliers. Whoops?! That evening I was treated to dinner by Chook's family - some delicious noodles fried by his father because his mother had broken her arm in an accident in town. A night in my own gher - I couldn't quite believe it, the coziness, the warmth, my own fire - and it was in fact too good to be true because the next day, good old Chook dropped the bombshell that it was in fact twenty five dollars for my night, claiming that a hangover had impaired his speech the night before... I wandered away after an hour of arguing with seven dollars less - not bad for a gher, fishing and dinner.

I found a boulder - maybe "Turtle Boulder" as someone else's Lonely Planet had recommended but I failed to get to the top of it - my climbing stamina is much weakened and I had nowhere to warm up, but did snap a few pics. I saw a black squirrel as I trekked around, assumed it was good luck, and ran into a local who gave me a ride, advice on where to hike, and dropped me right by some more beautiful rocks. More hills than I had asked for separated me from the final town of destination, but wearily I arrived, stuck out my thumb, and got driven the last mile or two to the Air Adventure Camp, where Alex had promised me an affordable morning of paragliding. This ex-special force sniper told me story after story about taking down animals from far away distances - 1500 meters - and in the dead of winter - a huge red wolf - and with his bare hands - a bear? Not quite.

Alas, it wasn't in the cards and after sitting around for a day, waiting for the right wind, I headed back to town, and found myself a bit under the weather - maybe it was my four polish candy bars that got me through my waiting. I sucked it up, loaded my fancy Swiss phone and its super tiny memory card with mix tapes from my friends, and managed to interview a non-profit (Asia Foundation) about river water quality in Mongolia. The day passed quickly with the help of naps and some conversations in the guest house, but suddenly I was late, somehow with only twenty minutes to catch my train. Stupid twenty four hour clock. I hopped on, just in time, and took off toward the Chinese border with a multicultural car of Japanese, Swiss, Australian, and the newly hairless Texan fellow. China here we come!!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

China Bound, Mongolian Mountains to be Found

The haircut remains, and this lonesome Texans looked like a fool strolling up to the Chinese Embassy for the second time today, only to strut off like a cowboy into the sunset after, what's that? you accept my paperwork? I don't have to bribe you? I'm not being rejected for having too much facial hair? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a visa receipt has been issued, and unless they disqualify me before Monday morning, I shall soon have that stamp and passport in my pocket, arming me with all the weapons necessary to conquer that border and make good on the train ticket I already bought but feared was a waste, but not use the fake plane ticket I showed the consulate.
I have now passed three days in Ulan Bataar, tearful goodbyes to the Kelly-Lieb brothers, and a bhuz later (Mongolian dumpling), I visited every outdoors store possible, found no trekking poles, and a few cheap sleeping bags that I still refuse to buy, but made some progress in seeing rentable canoes and devising a scheme to hit a river for a few days, shut down today by two Dutch women who said the rivers were very low.

Bus ride sunset, originally uploaded by wanders.

I met up with an NY-er living in Dalian, moving to Beijing soon, so I might have more than two friends in Beijing during my stay. We cooked a beastly meal of pasta loaded with three onions and a lot of garlic, impressing my taste buds but also those of our guest house host. We almost got our pockets picked trying to go the black market here, but planned ahead, by bringing only $10 each, and witnessed, as the pickpockets departed at a stop, one rough punch delivered to an old lady's face, something I did not expect from that 12-year old hoodlum. Sounds like Mongolians can be very violent - I've already heard of two people getting assaulted in early evening - so my gruff look and beard might be to my advantage while here. I also smell quite bad most of the time, though I did do some sink washing to rinse out the layers and layers of dirt that a 70 hour bus ride across Mongolia incurrs. I'm off though, enough of this city, to hike and cook rice, and get lost and found, and maybe even climb a rock or two if Im lucky.
Stories to come.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Losers Pay

IMG_1420, originally uploaded by wanders.

Chris guessed the closest on the mileage our odometer would read out when we stopped driving- consequence was too hideous looking travellers.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Kazakh with a Yak

Tai, our older brother host here in Olgii, one of the first cities once you enter into Mongolia from the Russian Altai Republic, has showed us a lot in the past few days. After seeing the city, it's market and some great deals, including a far-too-elegant cashmere hat for me, we headed out of town in a borrowed SUV, to stay with his Kazakh friends in some ghers near the border, the traditionaly Mongolian hut, unknowingly entering a no-entrance zone for foreigners. Along the way we shot at marmots with a 22, hit every bump we could and stopped a number of ghers along the way for tea and some fermented mare's milk, or airag, which was even harder to stomach when ever you spotted horse hair in it.

Shooting Gophers, originally uploaded by wanders.

I became a professional photographer overnight, taking pictures of every family and set of women or old men Tai knew, later to develop and have him return with, but a little to my dismay. I wonderful countryside was not as accessible as I hoped, when we were afraid of breaking some kind of tradition so we rarely ventured out and away from the ghers. Chris and I did get to ride horses for like ten minutes, but it was not as illustrious as my dreams of riding up into the mountains with Tai as our guide. We sat, watched Tai tell countless stories in his foreign tongue and absorbed our surroundings, until some border police came along and started asking what we were doing there. A bit of negotiating slash arguing later, a guy nearly walked off with our passports, not cool, and finally agreed that we could just come by the next morning. We watched as a goat was killed, its throat slit, and they prepared it on the spot, meaning the freshest meat any of us had ever eaten was prepared an hour an a half later. We munched on the freshly stewed meat, trying to avoid bits of liver, and stay awake, now midnight in our gher village. The Kazakh population here is very large, being the Western part of Mongolia, and Olgii is said to be 80% Kazakh. The next morning, we drove all over the place, stopped near the border, and worried as the rest of the crew, including Tai's friend Jurman, my least favorite person on this entire trip, took our passport and walked off into some building for almost an hour. Supposedly all was sorted out, Tai took the blame and paid some $20 to get off the hook and we were off again, back towards town, one adventure and some exotic food under our belts. I stiffled the unhappiness of my tummy for an hour or two, took a few more pictures, and am now back to that semi-normal state I always seem to find myself in when travelling Asia.

Olgi Sunset, originally uploaded by wanders.

So, why the kind hostliness here? Probably has something to do with the fact that we in fact caved and are selling our poor Leo off to this Kazakh businessman, Tai, who is in the process of building a three-story autoparts store here in Olgii. We ruined the suspension and don't want to fix the car, nor do we want to get super lost for three weeks trying to drive ourselves to Ulan Bataar. So rather than trash the thing, which is an option, we are in fact doing something illegitimate and giving this 'broken down' car to Tai in exchange for some money that will help us get to Ulan Bataar. We see this as more of a recycling effort than anything else, since Leo really should be put on the fritz just due to his poor suspension, which gets him around this city fine. So we should roll out this evening, after buying some souvie gifts and a bag to haul our crap to Ulan Bataar, touting the haircuts of imbeciles, that story to come, and a head full of stories. We saw two Mongol Rally drivers on our way back to Olgii, around the time of that solar eclipse, indescribeable, but pictures to come, and hope to find more in the Mongolian capital. More stories and some photos soon, if I ever remember my memory card reader.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ghengis Would Be Proud

And the Texan team rolls across the border, much less triumphantly than we expected, having already celebrated our arrival into Mongolia without realizing that there are a good 20 kilometers between the borders....
But first, we catch up because while less has transpired than one might expect between the Romanian-Ukrainian and Russian-Mongolian border, our adventurous selves have encountered quite a bit. After waiting in Romania, and waiting, we managed to track down our package (who's ever heard of TNT shipping?) and jumped for joy (literally) when the package was delivered via an orange hatchback VW as promised. We then sped off as quickly as possible, now down to two weeks to arrive at Ulan Bataar, hoping that we could gun it to the border and take 8 days to cross the slowly developing mountains and deserts of Mongolia. We said goodbye to the incredibly helpful Peace Corps Volunteer, Jack, to whom we owe immense gratitude for the help, hospitality and opportunity to shower, and made it to the Ukrainian border by nightfall, stopping to argue only a little about the validity of our note, giving us privelege to drive a car in someone else's name, since it was not in Russian, or English, but rather Spanish. The border guards asked us if we had narcotics, inquired when the last time we were in Paraguay was, chuckled and waved us by, without any need to bribe them, as every local had done, or the need to strip search our car.
Upon crossing the border, we immediately stopped to ask about car taxes or vignettes or whatever they wanted to call them, and the first gas station attendant we found
directed us to a police officer, the last person we wanted to speak with, and his response? No, no need if you'll only be here for two days, but if a cop stops you, and here he pointed directly at his own badge, just pay them off with a little bit of money, he said. Very surprising indeed, but we didn't question his authority, and drove on, reaching the nearest town, an ATM and a gas station for directions and a map. There, already nearing 11 pm, one attendant was drunk and we got along well in Russian, while the other kind woman, a linguist, kept James and Chris conversationally engaged for nearly an hour. We parted ways, having gained one map, three sodas, and directions on our map to the border.
One night's rest later, having slept in our ever comfortable car to avoid dogs and drunks, we began the longest trip of our lives, to continue for nearly 100 hours. We hit the highway to Kiev and spotted the Mongol Rally travellers with drivers on the wrong side of the car and large stickers touting their adventure. We stopped with them for a few minutes, telling our story and hearing about misadventures and plans - pretty exciting for us, who are somewhat of Mongol Rally lackies, never getting into the race but being all about the spirit of it. People planned to stay in Kiev and we planned to drive on through the night into Russian and wherever the highways took us, so we pushed on and said our goodbyes, reaching the border around 12 am, after a stop for dinner and another interactions with more ralliers.

Other Ralliers, originally uploaded by wanders.

The border went more smoothly than we imagined, with a cute and kind passport inspector laughing at James' moustache and waving us on, but alas we reached the car customs sections where the first response to our Spanish note was "No, back to Ukraine" which we continued to hear for 45 minutes as I stood there and asked every question I could possibly think of to postpone that trip back across the border. Finally, somehow, miraculously, when all the correct stars had aligned, and I looked more pathetic than one of those cats in a jar, the officer more sincerely considered our note, asked me to translate a bit, which was hard with such rusty Russian still spewing out of my mouth. Then, despite all odds and rational thoughts, he says OK, he says we can pass, he says he shall spare us our lives, on the condition that we get a translation in Russia, otherwise the police will arrest us.
We pass, we cross, we cheer, we roar, we are pulled over for speeding. Here-in lies the smooth talking and the swindling they do because it took an hour to agree that 500 dollars was a ridiculous fee and that we should be allowed to go for $50, an ipod nano, and a digital compass. Little did he know, despite his attempts to scare me with the threat of taking my licence, he could easily have arrested me for not having a car in my name, so I personally think we did alright, considering all the factors at play there.
This, however, scared the bejeezuz out of all of us, and inspired the following three day straight drive across Russia. We saw a few cities, but only when we couldn't go around them and got lost inside, almost feinted every time we saw a police officer, and ate whatever junk food the gas stations sold, luckily open 24 hours, so we needn't stop to wait for gas ever.

Russian Gas, originally uploaded by wanders.

We got to the border of Mongolia Monday at 6:30, only to discover that the border closed at 6pm and that lines were long and slow. We finally stopped, slowed down, and even ate some food at the local shack/restaurant, hanging out with an incredibly cool Swiss couple who were first in line. Well, to shorten the story for now, we crossed the Russian border at 11am on Tuesday, waited again for four hours at the Mongolian border, and managed to clear customs without a single snag around 5pm, hauling ass towards the nearest town where we could refuel on gas and food. The roads, or not-roads as we might as well call them, proved too much for poor Leo, who had already taken a beating when we sped down bumpy asphault in eastern Russia. Suspension did not make it. I drove the first 50 kilometers, averaging around 12 miles an hour, meanwhile Chris and James climbed on top of the car, finally discovering that our suspension was shot and it would be impressive to make it to Olgii, 100 km past the border, without the back axle falling off. We drove slow, stumbled upon some young men hunting on their day off, and after they somehow borrowed our battery to start their car, we rolled off with them and the possibility to ditch our car with them. Since then we have worked out a deal for a ride to Ulan Bataar on Saturday, and tentatively planned to stick around here til we see the reported solar eclipse that should occur Friday night, something we didn't expect but don't plan on missing - once you pass the mountains east of is, you can't see it, so we don't want to head off to the capital of Mongolia too soon, but still soon enough for Chris and James to catch their flight on Wednesday.
For now, we have been invited into the home of an older brother, who has helped and fed us, Chris is sick, James and I just tried some Mongolian Marmot meat, and everything is new and amazing, at least until I get those stomach pangs myself. Cheers from the over-hospitable world of Mongolia.