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.