Archive for October, 2010

G’day

There’s a gecko on my ceiling.

Gecko
And someone told me the first animal I’d see in Australia was a man-eating spider. Shows what you know, cobber.

Off to Kakadu national park in the Northern Territory now  for three days, so see you when I get back. TTFN x

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Singin’ Singapore’s praises

When I was 17 and applying to go to university, I remember having a flick through the University of Luton‘s prospectus (my school really encouraged us to aim high).

The prospectus has stuck in my head for the decade or so because I remember being amused by the university’s list of reasons why I should study there, particularly reason number six:

“Luton has an airport.”

It shows what kind of state my mind’s in at the moment that I have somehow connected Luton with Singapore in a blog post, but heck, I’ve managed it. Give me a second to explain why.

Singapore’s a fantastic example of what can be achieved through clever promotion, branding and creating a ‘story’.
Initially just a trading post, in just over a century it’s managed to turn itself into a vibrant, multi-cultural city full of businessmen, tourists and other rich people ready to splash their cash.

Singapore didn’t really have anything except a busy port, and later on an airport used by travellers as a brief stop-off while their planes refuelled.

Seeing the potential market, but not really having anything to lure the travellers to the city, the clever tourist board set about creating an identity for the place to make it a ‘destination’.

Merlion

They’re pretty honest about what they’ve done too – the Merlion, the symbol of Singapore, was created in 1964 as an attempt to give the city a symbol, the tourist board says. Having created it, it’s now splashed across every bit of tat you could imagine. Merlion on an over-sized paper clip anyone? Go on then.

The streets, shops and malls have all been created to seemlessly lead shoppers from one place to the next, where they can get out their credit cards in air-conditioned comfort to buy anything from a Luis Vuitton bag to a Hello Kitty dinner service or a lizard on a stick (nope, no idea what these are for either).

Lizard on stick

It’s a perfect example of being entirely market-focused and creating the best from the little you have. Its blatent consumerism is probably not to everyone’s liking, but you can’t deny they’ve managed to make it work.

So anyway, that’s how, in a roundabout way, I started thinking about Luton. Admittedly Singapore has more space and a better climate going for it, but they both essentially started with the same aeronautical focal point.

As it happens, I wasn’t lured by Luton University and it’s airport – instead I went to Sheffield where the promise of old steel works and cutlery factories won out. I wonder if it’d have been a different story if Luton had a giant cat with a fish’s tail outside it’s town hall….

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Fish with legs

Look, look – legs!

Feet

After two weeks of having to cover them up and being ferried around all the time by drivers, I’d almost forgotten I had a pair of these. Not that I’m one for flashing flesh, but it was so nice to get to Singapore this morning and dress a bit more comfortably for the heat.

Anyway, you’ll be no doubt pleased to know I didn’t just include a photo of my pasty pins for gratuitous purposes. Have a look at the picture again. Go on, look especially closely at my feet.

What do you mean, they’re just a couple of dodgy-looking, stubby-toed, Hobbit feet? I paid $30 to stick these in a bucket of fish for half an hour, y’know – that’s as good as these babies are gonna get.

I didn’t put them in a bucket of dead fish, you understand. That would be weird. No, the little fellas were alive and flipping, and apparently hungry for dead toe skin. The idea is they smooth and soothe your feet – something I needed after a long day walking around Singapore.

I love Singapore. Yes, it’s a place obviously developed purely for parting tourists from their cash as they make a two or three-day stop off on the way to Australia, but it’s just so nice and clean. It has pavements and roads and a policing system so strict that if you aim incorrectly in a public toilet you get fined. Can you imagine? They’d have a bloomin’ fit if they went to India.

Anyway, I had a smashing day wandering around China-town, checking out some temples:

Temple
Then I managed to just be caught on a picture in front of the Merlion (seriously, why take a picture of someone like this? Why on earth would I just want to be a floating head?)

Terrible photo

And eventually (via maybe just one mall), I ended up at the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest observation wheel. I won’t bore you with the photos here. Needless to say, I took a lot.

At the exit to the wheel is the Kenko fish spa – home to a load of tiddly-little Turkish fish who promise to turn your feet into softened things of beauty. Or something like that, the translation board in the salon was a bit ropey. Anyway, I thought I’d embrace my touristy side and give it a go.

It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, but neither was it the nicest feeling. It was kind of like a bad case of pins and needles, or a continuous mild electric shock for 30 minutes. I’m not sure my fishy friends managed to exfoliate my feet too well either – they still look as dodgy as ever. They did manage to fetch a scab off my leg though, so I had to walk home with blood trickling down my leg, paranoid that every mosquito in a five-mile radious was heading my way.

I’m not sure why I’m sharing this much detail with you. This post’s gone from bad to worse, hasn’t it…. To completely finish you off, here’s photo of my toes and legs being eaten alive. Enjoy.

Fishy feet

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Ta-ra t’Raj

So my sojourn to India has come to an end. I’m currently writing this sat at a bus stop outside Mumbai airport – I’ve arrived a tad too early for my flight and the man with the machine gun at the door won’t let me into the terminal.

I have mixed feelings about my time here. I completely agree with the Indian tourist board’s slogan about the country being ‘incredible’. The history, the buildings, the people and the culture have all been fascinating to see and to attempt to get immersed in. Having said that, the people, the culture, the history and the poverty have also been incredibly frustrating, upsetting and often downright despairing.

I’m proud of myself for coming here and proving the helpful people back home who predicted I’d sustain some kind of horrific accident/illness wrong. I’d even go as far as to say I’d come back – but definitely not by myself, and I’d probably go to the more picturesque bits around Rajasthan rather than the middle-of-nowhere farming villages.

Anyway, I know a few of my other Nuffield chums are thinking about coming here, so to help prepare them for the experience ahead, I’ve come up with a few tips to survive a stay in the sub-continent:

1. Toilets tend to come in two categories. A hole in the floor, or a bit of scrub behind a bush next to the road. Actually, most people dont even bother trying to find a bush to hide behind. The world is their urinal.

In some of the smarter places, you might be lucky enough to find an actual toilet, which look something like this (you’ll just have to imagine the aroma coming from them):

Delightful Indian toilets
Toilet roll isn’t really used here, instead you are helpfully provided with a shower head, a bucket and a jug.

My tip? Well if you can’t get by without drinking anything all day, or trying to make yourself sweat so much that you never need to use the loo, I’d recommend always carrying an emergency face mask and a bottle of very strong alcohol (both for cleansing and for knocking back to try to remove the memory of the experience).

2. One for the ladies, perhaps.

In Indian culture, the done thing is to eat with your right hand (your left one is used for unspeakable business). You are given a fork at mealtimes, but hosts tend to prefer it – or rather, it provides them with some amusement – if you have a bash at eating as they do, sans cutlery.

I have two tips here. Firstly, until you get the knack of scooping up soupy curries with thin bits of bread, wear dark colours. Spillages are common.

Secondly, tumeric is used in most dishes, meaning your finger nails end up being dyed a delightful shade of yellow. Unless you want to look like a 20-a-day smoker, I’d recommend wearing nail varnish to cover it. Bourjois’ So Laque in ‘Rose Vamp’ should do the trick.

Nail varnish
3. Be prepared to eat some weird stuff.

I love spicy food. I’ve actually got by okay eating curries for breakfast, dinner and dinner (I’m from the Midlands, we eat dinner twice a day).

The problem arises when hotels attempt to cater for western diets. I didn’t have the heart to say anything when a proud waiter presented me with a breakfast of dry spaghetti and chips. I had to draw the line when he brought over a pot of jam to go with it though.

Armed with these pieces of information, I reckon Helen and Mike, or indeed anyone thinking of coming here, will be a-okay.

If I ever get into the terminal, I’m heading on to Singapore tonight for a few days of chillin’ before I fly to Australia to wrestle with crocodiles, run away from massive spiders and encounter other dangerous stuff (i.e. Aussie Nuffield chums).

Speaking of dangerous things, I’m off to try and get past the man with the gun. Catch you later.

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Slow mooving traffic

I’ve mentioned earlier how crazy the traffic is in India. Aside from the bonkers car and rickshaw drivers, the roads have to contend with beggars, street hawkers, families piled onto motorbikes and, most randomly, cattle.

Cows are bloomin’ everywhere. They’re grazing on the motorway verges, they’re having baths in the canals where people are doing their washing and they’re hanging out on street corners like naughty teenagers who should be given asbos.

cow in road

I’d initially thought the gals were wandering around because they’d managed to become untethered from their farm stalls, but it turns out these are vagabonds on a religious basis.

You see, cows are sacred animals in the Hindu faith. I went to a Ghandi museum back in Delhi which had a quote from him about just how special they are in the religion (I can’t be bothrered to type it out, if you click on the photo you’ll be able to read it more clearly):

why cows are special
In a nutshell, this means cows can’t be slaughtered and they definitely can’t be eaten.

So if they can’t be culled because of reglious beliefs, what happens when a cow becomes too old to be productive anymore? Does a farmer just carry on feeding old Daisy, putting her into retirement as a thank you for being a smashing milk-producing machine over the years?

Erm, no. Daisy is surreptitiously turfed out onto the streets and left to look after herself. It might not be legal, but everyone does it and everyone turns a blind eye to it.

The cows eat anything they can get their hooves on, rifling through rubbish for food, often ingesting plastic bags and often suffering slow deaths as no one bothers to fetch the vets out for an ill ‘wild’ bovine. I was told that men with trucks patrol the roads so that, once they’ve popped their clogs, the cows are taken to a feed mill where they’re incinerated, made into chicken feed, are eaten by poultry and eventually – in a roundabout way – make it into the human food chain anyway.

According to another chap I spoke to, there is some shipment of cull cows closer to the Indian border to non-Hindu countries and states, but that practice is fairly limited. Some farmers even dare to risk a Hindu god’s wrath by running undercover slaughter houses, but apparently no one really acknowledges the practice is going on.

Even cows at big dairies will be let loose after they’ve stopped being useful, which means as European genetics start becoming more widespread, there could well soon be a load of friesians strolling down the streets.

Let’s just hope Indian farmers don’t get any ideas about Nocton-esque super dairies. I don’t think the roads could cope with that many cows being turfed out onto them.

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The opposite of slumming it

For the first time in nearly a fortnight, I managed to sleep properly last night. Partly it was because there was a bolt on my bedroom door (I’m paranoid about sleeping in hotels by myself, regardless of which country I’m in), but mainly it was because I wasn’t attempting to rest my head on a pillow that smelt like it had been stuffed with something that had died several weeks earlier.

Being away for over three months, I’m having to be careful with my dosh to make sure my Nuffield Scholarship grant goes as far as possible. While I’ve not been crazy enough to stay in hostels, I have reigned in my hotel costs to about £60 a night – nothing fancy, but enough to make sure I got somewhere which I hopefully felt safe in. And boy, has £60 bought me some smashing places. I can’t wait to write my Expedia reviews….

Having spent a couple of nights in fairly basic lodgings out in the country though, I decided to splash out when I got back to Mumbai and up my limit by a tenner. I tell you now, it’s the best £70 I’ve ever spent.

Someone warned me about the social disparaties I’d see in Mumbai, but I didn’t think they’d be illustrated quite so well by my hotel room. This place puts my flat back in London to shame.

Room

Not content to loll about on the king-sized bed, pick your clothes out from your illuminated wardrobe or kick back on the leather sofa? Well that’s okay, you can just watch the 32″ TV through the window in the marble-finished bathroom as you soak in the bath:

bathroom

All pretty snazzy hey? I just wonder what my neighbours directly below my window think of it all:

Shack

These shacks are actually pretty salubrious compared with some of the slums I’ve seen today. The slums are such a huge part of Mumbai that you almost become immune to the squalor once you’ve driven through them for an hour or so. I’m almost ashamed of myself for being able to get over the shock of them so quickly.

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Taxing taxi talk

Having spent the last two weeks practicing it, I’ve become rather adept in the art of pidgin to try and make myself understood here in India. So adept, in fact, that I’ve inadvertently started speaking in loud, slow, broken English all the time. Which is why today’s exchange outside Mumbai’s Gateway of India was a little embarrassing.

Gateway of India
Me: “WHERE. BUY. TICKET. FOR. BOAT?” [jabs finger at couple’s tickets and waves arm in direction of the jetty]

Unsuspecting western couple: “Erm… O-over there, by that Coke kiosk.”

Me: “YOU. KNOW. IF. NEXT. BOAT. LEAVING. SOON?” [points at watch and does inexplicable windmill motion with arms]

Couple: “Erm, yes, in about five minutes.”

Turns out the nice man and his wife were from Stockport and even given my dodgy Nottinghamshire accent, they could probably have managed to understand me without me shouting at them like an idiot.

In my defence, when you spend seven hours in taxis with drivers whose first language is Hindi, or one of the regional variations, you happily start talk like this if it means getting a bit of conversation.

Most of the drivers have seemed pleased to have someone to chat to and are pretty inquisitive about where I come from, what I’m doing in India, and what my husband is thinking of letting me come to India by myself (I don’t bother correcting their assumption that a woman of my age should be married by now, it raises too many other questions that even pidgen can’t explain).

One of the more awkward chats I’ve repeatedly found myself getting into though is religion. All of the taxi drivers have little models of their respective holy symbol/favourite five-armed god/religious leader stuck to their dashboard, and they’re always eager to point out every place of worship we may pass on our travels.

Yesterday my driver asked me what my religion’s god was called.

Me: “He just called ‘God’.”

Driver: “No, but what his name?”

Me: “Just ‘God’, that is his name.

Driver: “Yes, but what you call him?”

Me: [exasperated] “Jebus. We call him Jebus.”

Driver: “Ahhh. Jebus. Ok.” [nods happily to himself and carries on driving]

praisejebus

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Chasing developments in animal genetics

Apologies for ruining Mr Geography’s pen pal dreams, but I didn’t come back from the sticks married to an emu farmer.

I did, however, learn some interesting facts about Rod Hull’s special friends:

Emu
1. They are growing in popularity in this region of India because they are incredibly efficient animals. More than 90% of every bird can be used, from the meat, to the skin (used for bags and shoes), to the bones (which are rendered for bonemeal)

2. Emu’s feathers can apparently be plucked and then spun into wool. The emu farmer I met reckons emu wool makes smashing shawls.

3. Emu meat is incredibly good for you. It’s low in fat and high in iron, and is being touted as a health food here in India.

and finally: 4. Emu meat taste like chicken. Though doesn’t everything.

I’ve been pretty impressed about the type of livestock I’ve seen being reared and bred here in India. From the buffalo and chickens I saw around Delhi, to these birds and the cattle I saw yesterday in Maharashtra.

These dairy cows, at the KVK research centre, are bred from Australian and Canadian genetics.

Cows

They’ve also been mixed with a native breed (I can’t remember the name off the top of my head, if anyone’s desperate to know, email me and I’ll make something up for you), meaning they’re high-yielding milkers, but able to cope with the 45 degree+ temperature it reaches in summer over here .

And the developing interest in animal genetics doesn’t stop at bovine. These fellas on the left have been imported from Australia. Famed for growing a lot of flesh quickly, their semen is being turkey-basted into the scrawny-looking gals on the right, who are rubbish at producing meat, but nimble enough to walk the rocky land in the region and and can handle the heat.

goats

The result? A hardy goat that offers more milk and more meat, helping farmers become more profitable.

It’s really interested me to see just how much technology from Europe, Australia and the US is being used in India. Before I came here I assumed the majority of farmers were working on a subsistence basis and wouldn’t be as developed as they are. Admittedly, they still have a long way to go and there are lots of farmers who still just have a couple of scrawny heifers  tied to their front door, but most of the farmers I’ve met know a great deal about international markets and the technologies they are developing and using, and they want to catch up.

If only they could harvest some of their emu’s speed, they’d be a force to be reckoned with in no time at all.

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Agriculture’s a scream in Maharashtra

I’ve never had to repeatedly bite back a scream when I’ve been interviewing someone before, but then this has been a trip of many firsts.

I had a pretty jam-packed day yesterday as I was given a whistle-stop tour of agriculture in Maharashtra state and the work being done by KVK, a quango which helps producers transfer the latest research and ag developments onto their farms.

I started off back at KVK’s main headquarters, where I was shown the organisation’s eco-tourism centre. For 2000 rupees a night (£29) you can stay in one of these fancy tents, eat out in the open, exercise in the gym and join in with the work being done on KVK’s farm.

Eco-tourism

Interestingly, this type of holiday doesn’t just appeal to foreign tourists – about 1000 Indians come to stay here every year too. Apparently city folk are as disconnected with food production as they are in the UK, and KVK is doing a lot of work trying to education urban populations about where their food comes from.

Afterwards we took a quick trip around the centre’s trial plots. They have everything here, from sugar cane and soya to gooseberries, mango, banana. The centre takes varieties being developed by universities and breeds them with native varieties to make them hardier, before selling plants or seeds on to local farmers. Most of the farmers come here for crops because they know the varieties are the best-available and will help them improve their yields.

Crop trials
Having seen the science, I was then taken to meet some of the farmers who were benefiting from it. Sangram Taware, the lovely chappy showing me the book on the right here, is head honcho of his club in a town called Malegaon.

Farmers Club
He told me how he and his 40 members meet once a month to chat about their farms and their problems, host talks and information evenings, and plan trips to research centres to learn about all the latest crop technology.

As well as collecting 500R a month from each member that they put towards a fund to lend to new entrants and people who want to invest in their farms, the group also works as a producer group, pooling their high-quality soya beans (high quality because they are grown from one of the new varieties from KVK) so they can have more power in the market place and demand higher prices. This way, since the group formed in 2006, they have managed to command at least 20R/kg more than the average market price.

Having so far only been shown top-notch farming enterprises, it was great to meet actual farmers who were probably more representative of the country’s agricultural community, and who were so keen on working together to do the best for each other. Sangram and his chums were brilliant too – they were fascinated about UK agriculture and couldn’t get to grips with the fact I live in country where it’s too cold to grow mangoes.

The one bad thing about the trip was that, throughout my entire chat with him, Sangram had the biggest spider I have ever seen crawling up his leg. Bearing in mind the extent of my arachnophobia, it was a miracle I managed to carry on asking questions or stop myself from yelping every time the hairy monster put on a burst of speed. I’ve noticed many cultural differences between the UK and India, but I’m guessing screaming at people you’re interviewing is a no-no in every continent…

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Using larvae to help India’s farmers

Have you missed me? I’ve been out at the sticks checking out farms and they don’t tend to have much tinterweb access there. Or electricity, for that matter…

I know I’m pretty lucky to be seeing parts of India that your general tourist wouldn’t have a chance to see, but I wish visiting these places didn’t involve staying in ‘hotels’ with doors that weirdly only bolt from the outside and open onto a street like this…

shack

Or eating by yourself in dodgy restaurants who seem angry about having to serve outsiders and give you an extra bit of protein baked into your naan:

Tasty

I’d travelled just over 300 miles east of Mumbai to a place called Baramati, in Maharashta state. Maharashta is a key agricutural region, with farmers here taking advantage of the warm, tropical conditions to grow things like mangoes, bananas and sugar cane

The six-hour journey through the mountainous, jungle area and then on through grassland was much smoother than the drive in Delhi. Traffic seemed calmer and the roads were pretty decent – there were men quarrying (by hand) at various intervals, with the stone being mixed with tar and poured into the potholes caused by the monsoon rains.

The mammoth drive was in aid of visiting somewhere called Krishi Vigyan Kendra – a government-supported but otherwise independent farm science centre which offers help, training and advice to farmers in the region.

The idea is the centre takes all the latest crop science, technological advances and scientific research from universities and research institutes and passes it on to farmers through workshops and training days.

Experts in the centre all also involved in something called the aAqua scheme – a portal providing information and advice to farmers who post questions online. Through the scheme and the work at centre, KVK helps out about 60,000 farmers every year.

The centre has various faculties looking at different areas of production such as soya, pomegranate and figs. The idea is the 30 or so researchers here test out the latest science and work out how producers can quickly apply it to their farms and help boost production.

On Thursday I stopped off at the sericulture unit to look at the work being done there. For those of you who aren’t big on your larvae cultivation, sericulture is the rearing of silkworms for the production of silk. Farmers have between 0.5 acres and 5 acre sheds with wooden bars where they let the little moths hang out and pupate before they are picked, boiled and unravelled to be spun into silk thread. Each cocoon produces about 700m of silk thread, which is spun on a loom and then sent off to be dyed.

Silk production
KVK has it’s own little silk production unit (it’s one of the ways it helps raise money to pay for the centre), taking cocoons from 1000 farmers in the area and producing 16m of silk a day. All the silk is sold at the centre, mainly to the farmers who come here for training or to buy the fertiliser, seed and pesticide the centre also produces. Any profits go back to the government, who in turn (supposedly) pump it back into the centre.

It’s a nifty idea and one that – set within the entire KVK structure –  really seems to be making a real difference to farmers in the region.

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