Friday, 16 July 2010

Decisions, decisions

It's been a while since I last blogged. That's not because I have had nothing to say or tell you about. It's had more to do with my internal processes and thinking.

I've been looking back on where I've been, the people I've met, the experiences I've had and most of all the two amazing countries, India and Uganda that I've been to.

It's a continuing wonder to me that human beings from different cultures are so similar and so very very different. We all started from the same place, just a few hundred miles from where I'm sitting right now, yet Nature and evolution has worked on us to create different skin colours, facial differences and physiques to enable us to survive in different places around the world. But on top of Nature's work lies layer upon layer of humanity's own development work, religions, colonial domination and most recently, the money driven Western culture-based economic model that shapes us now.

The similarities and differences between Uganda and India are many. The superficial differences like the lack of continual honking of car horns in Uganda that dominate the roads and cities of India, the more laid back attitude of the Ugandans and the open, Western dress of the women as opposed to the more traditional dress of Indian women are what immediately show up.

The roads in both countries are full of potholes. In the cities of both countries, the roads are dominated by cars, motorbikes and public transport, auto-rickshaws in India and 15 seat mini-buses in Uganda. Both are developing their infrastructure and roads. India's economy is growing faster because of its size and influence and its world markets. Uganda's economy is more reliant on Africa and Europe. Somehow this seems more inclusive whereas India's economic boom seems to me to be devisive amongst its people.

Both countries share a history of British colonialism and have kept the education and administrative systems imposed upon them. Both are democracies. But in Uganda, western Christianity has become the dominant religion whereas in India it never really took hold. This seems to me to be the reason for the fundamental cultural differences between the two countries.

The bombings in Kampala have had the same reactions as happened in London. People are very wary, phoning the police if they see a lonely pastic bag. Security in the city centre is highly visible. The papers carry warnings of more bombings to come. There is a lot of criticism of the security services failing to pick up many warnings of potential bombings because of corruption and internal jealousies. Most of the warnings have been aimed at the African Union Conference that starts in Kampala next week.

The bombings shook me up mainly because I am a stranger in this country, don't know my way around and how people will react.

But what binds both India and Uganda is the extraordinary kindness, friendliness, understanding and willingness to discuss and talk that I have experienced from people in both countries. I will never forget Alex who helped me find a seat in the stadium in Kampala to watch the World Cup Final and who insisted on coming back with me to my guest house to ensure I was safe after the bombings. And the woman in the local shop who reminded me not to flash the money in my wallet. 'I want you safe!' she said.

I set out on this trip to give myself some time to review what I was going to do next, to get to know India and Africa better, to find out more about organic farming and the effects of the 'Green Revolutions' and to have time just for me. I gave myself six months to do this but after two and a half months I feel I've discovered enough to want to review my thoughts in the comparative cold light of the UK. So, I've booked a flight home on Sunday to do that just with family and friends and will take whatever time and space I need to ensure I have it right.

Small steps before the big ones.

Thank you to everyone who has followed the blog. This may or may not be the last post. Watch this space!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Kampala bomb blasts

A quick note to let you know that I'm ok.

One of the bombs has gone off close to my guesthouse. Sadly a friend has lost two of her colleagues in the blasts. It really brings it home.

I'm watching the FCO travel advice.

I'll resume the blogs again soon.

Friday, 2 July 2010


I'm having lunch today in a small, basic restaurant on one of Mysore's main streets. Sitting outside, cross-legged on the pavement is an elderly white-haired woman. She is dressed in a simple orange and fawn coloured kurta. In front of her is a large, round, shallow wicker basket from which she takes jasmine flowers and, knitting with her fingers, creates garlands for other women to put in their hair.

People walk past her. Some stop by her to chat with each other. With nothing more than an occasional glance, she lives her gentle life, earning a few rupees a day. I have no idea if she has a family, a husband. But the aspirations of the new India are passing her by.

And I wonder if it matters.

She gets on with her work, her life and others around her, me included, get on with ours. She does not appear to strive for success or power or money. She sits, present in the moment, focused on stringing her flowers, surrounded by the scent of jasmine.

What could make her happier? The chances are she doesn't read or write. Does she miss great literature and music? If she could read would she be more content? Quite likely. If she had a new sari would she feel better about herself? Possibly. If she had the money to buy the new iPod, would that complete her life? No way.

I'm making a huge assumption here but I reckon she's content as she is.

And I wonder what makes her content, happy even? Certainly not striving for bigger and better. The same things as me? To live in the moment, to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted, to give and be given, to hold and be held, to respect and be respected, to share a good wine, a cheese, bread, to share a life with family and friends and to love with physical and mental connections, to talk and laugh and cry together? I suspect she needs little else herself except perhaps a better education.

Someone is buying the garland she has just woven. She smiles.

And just what is this great economic miracle providing that is passing her by? Great art, music and literature? No. That bottle of wine, cheese and bread? No. Love and loving, friendship and laughter? No. They all exist without it.

So, what is it really for? To enable those who want to push the boundaries of humankind's need to know, to control, to discover, striving for the next frontier? And when that is found, what next? Do we just go on and on until our planet and ourselves are worn out, burnt out? Why?

Someone has bought another garland. She smiles again. She has enough. And so do I.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Teaching, cheese and massage

For every evil in India, whether it be in education, corruption or the greed for power and money, there is a good. Maybe it's not a full counter-balance but it's there.

On Friday, my flatmate Stephen invited me to run an afternoon workshop on developing partnerships for a course he's running for marketing in NGOs. The students are postgrads, all of whom want to work in NGOs. The nine students, seven women and two men are bright, articulate, keen to learn and above all committed to working for the good of their communities.

I started by getting them to discuss the nature of partnerships, why NGOs needed them, who with and the actions needed to ensure they could run smoothly and meet agreed aims. I then split them into three groups of three, each group being responsible for developing an outline plan for attracting and developing relevant partnerships for an NGO working with the environment, another with children and the third with animals.

Their presentations were thoughtful and clear but what intrigued me was that each of them concentrated on partnerships they would NOT have; government because it was corrupt, corporates because the were corrupt and wealthy individuals because they were mostly corrupt. One of the students in the discussion that followed, said that his charity would have to pay bribes because their money would not otherwise come through or at best be very slow if they were funded by government. I challenged him on this. Wasn't he part of the corrupt system himself? Wasn't his NGO part of the problem? He looked startled and shrugged. 'It's what happens.'

It made me angry and I laid into him. As a future leader of NGOs, he should be working to ensure that every NGO has written into its constitution that they would NOT pay bribes. If he and others stood together and kicked and screamed and shouted publicly, getting local and national publicity, reporting the bribe takers, surely he and they could help to rid India of this cancer. Someone, somewhere has to stand against it and a lot of people are. Many of the newspapers and magazines carry highly critical articles on politicians and business people. Surely it is this generation that needs to develop that fight. We had a meeting of minds. They knew they needed to take action. Let's hope that they do.

Earlier in the week, I met Sham Sundar who was working at the National Institute of Engineering in Mysore, heading up the Centre for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technologies. His passion for his subject was palpable and he introduced me to Chida Shivanna a Mysorian who had set up a successful IT software business in Mysore and Seattle. Chida was passionate about cheese and India has practically no cheese other than paneer.
Using much of Sham's technologies, especially in building, he has set up an organic dairy farm a few miles outside Mysore on which he is creating a cheese making plant where visitors will be able to watch the processes and learn about different cheeses.

He is trying to persuade his neighbouring farmers to become organic but they are frightened that their yields will drop even though their soil is now dead and they are having to pay more and more for even more chemicals. The grass yields Chida is getting through organic methods may yet persuade them. In time.

Yesterday I had lunch with two friends, Payal and Sanjay. Payal runs Go Wild, a small NGO working with children in schools to help them to learn about the wildlife around them and the importance of biodiversity and the environment. Sanjay is an environmentalist, the Deputy Director of Zoo Outreach Organisation ( and Founder Editor of The Journal of Threatened Taxa ( They had just returned from Nagaland, a state in north-east India where they had been working with villagers to help them understand why they should stop the killing of all their wildlife for meat. They have beautiful forests but there are no birds in them. They have all been killed.

After our lunch, I decided to treat myself to a massage. Ayurvedic massage is a Mysore speciality. I had been recommended a place to go to. The building was somewhat run-down but that's ok....small cubicles for consultations, plastic chairs, rather dirty looking sliding doors. I paid my 500 rupees for an all-over body massage and steam bath and followed the masseur up three flights of stairs to a small room with a well-oiled massage table and a box into which I was supposed to squeeze myself for the steam bath. I got undressed, no modesty towels here. For those of you, dear readers, with a squeamish mind, look away now.

Ayurvedic massage is done with special oils....lots and lots and lots of oil. I was pummelled and pushed and rubbed back and front for 45 minutes, feeling like a slippery eel. Every time he pummelled me, I slid up and down the table. Let's just say that it was somewhat stimulating and move on to the steam bath.

The steamer is a box which you sit in with your head sticking out of the top. The steam for this box is provided by a plastic pipe connected to a pressure cooker on a one-ring gas burner. No sophisticated technology here. It was scary but efficient and I was duly steamed alive. For fifteen minutes. Never was a cold shower so welcome.

I have booked my flight to Uganda for July 8th.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Education, corruption and money

One of the great joys of experiencing a new culture, a new place, is that practically every conversation I have is with a new, different person who brings their own perspective to the views and opinions I have formed myself and gleaned from others.

Three things seem to dominate conversations. That may be of course because I ask about them, but many thoughts and opinions are volunteered.

The first is education in India. Practically everyone I talk to is in despair at the standard of state run schools, especially in the North and East. I heard horror stories when I was in Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh. The standard of teachers is low and all of them are terrified that the children will not pass their exams. If this doesn't happen they are sacked and sent to another school in the back of beyond. So they show the answers to the children before they sit the exams and even then if they don't reach the pass mark of 30%(!), they give the children a certificate to say they have passed. The children therefore leave school with certificates but little or no real knowledge and think that the way to succeed in life is to cheat. They apply for jobs and are amazed that employers don't take them on when it's discovered they can't read, write or do basic maths.

The second is corruption. Everyone says that corruption is endemic here from the little favours that are asked for to do a small job or provide a certificate to the very top of Government. Even if all this isn't true, there's a belief that it is and therefore it might as well be true. It's a cancer that is preventing a properly functioning society and despite India being the largest democracy in the world, whichever political party comes to power, it makes little difference to the levels of corruption. It's like the education. Cheating and buying favours is what people have been taught to do.

The third is money. The last two generations since Gandhi's death have set money as the goal, the be all and end all, the one thing to strive for in life. As in practically every country, this is fuelled by television which shows the latest gadgetry and instant comfort available if only this or that product is bought. It's short term gain of money that matters. And if you can get it without working and by cheating then that's the way to do it.

There are of course those who fight against this and there are many of them. But there is a sense of despair that it is too late, that the cancer has caught hold and all that can be done is to await the inevitable end.

What comes after the fire has burnt out is the critical thing. Thankfully there are many people here and around the world innovatively developing different ways of living with values that are based on long-term, sustainable, holistic growth, where the short-term fix is anathema. It's difficult to know whether to hope that the fire starts soon and we can go through the crisis and move on or we live with what we have as well and for as long as we can, getting whatever comfort is available.

I want to correct one thing from a previous post. The Indian government has now repealed the old British law making homosexuality illegal. However, individual States can still have their own banning regulations.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Racing from Mysore

Mysore has a racecourse on its outskirts which couples up with the golf club but today it was all horses and jockeys and thousands of people intent, not on watching the horses on the track but on the television screens that filled the central area and where the bookies make their money.

There is no alcohol on sale, just snacks and chai but it is the betting that dominates and seems to be all the race-goers are interested in. Opposite the finishing post there are two stands, one for members and one for trainers and owners.

I've paid to be a member for the day.

It is only here that the races are actually watched but even so there is little cheering or people jumping up and down in excitement. It's a muted affair. The going is good and the oval racecourse too. There are eight races on the card, each race with eight or nine horses and riders. The first race starts promptly at 2pm with music announcing the start of the race more suitable to the Raj.

Horses and riders are urged and pushed and pulled into the stalls and they're off!! The race commentator keeps us all up to date and the television screens show the horses coming closer and closer. The favourite is fourth but with a burst of speed takes the lead and wins the race by a nose. Right in front of my nose. From my horse.

I get my revenge. A beautiful, sleek filly with a long mane of hair and fire and life in her eyes called Feel My Heart is in the next race. I watch her as she parades around the ring and she fixes me with her eyes. That's where my money is going. Everything I've brought. I know we'll win together. She canters past the stand I'm watching from on the way to the start and I'm sure she winks. We're ok. We'll do it.

The race starts far away. The commentator makes no mention of her. What has happened? Did she fail to start? She's there. Tucked in on the rails lying fifth. She's moving easily, confidently. Three furlongs to go. Still no move. I yell. FEEL MY HEART!! She responds and surges towards me waiting for her at the winning post. She's ahead, free of the pack, in my arms....oops ok...that last bit wasn't true. But the rest was and the bookie gives me a knowing grin as I take his money.

I'd take her out to dinner tonight with the winnings if only I could.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Jazz on a Monsoon Eve

Last night I went with my flatmate Stephen to see a live jazz band, the Maarten Visser Trio. Saxophone, drums and an electric stringed something that transformed itself from a violin to double bass and all points in between.

The venue was a second floor night club, reminiscent of the 70's with rock icons in big montages round the walls. The event had been sponsored by Alliance Francais and it had a strangely Parisian feel, like a smokey, dark, intimate club on the Left Bank. The clientel here however were mainly Mysore's young media set, all western clothes and strappy bare shoulders, definitely not what you see on the streets. A group of gay men were letting whatever hair they had down. Sadly homosexuality is still officially illegal in India.

The music was modern, sultry, moving from long, lingering longing to fast intricate, surprises carefully and freely improvised by the saxophonist who switched easily from tenor to soprano sax, the audience very appreciative and involved.

The band played for about two hours and left. On came the video rock bands on big screens, loud and head banging, Guns 'n' Roses, Jethro Tull and the one and only amazing AC/DC with Highway to Hell.

Outside, the moonsoon was building as the auto rickshaw staggered us home through Mysore's deserted late night streets.

In a few days it will be here full on.