It’s all about disobedience

I was recently nominated by a young Indian man for an award which is called “Disobedience Award”. I have no idea about the results and I do not even dream of having a chance to play any significant role in the outcome – I just love the text he has written. From my point of view it really captures perfectly what we’ve being doing over the last two years in Janwaar. This is why I decided to publish it here on my own blog.

The reason why he nominated me: “I’d like to nominate Ulrike Reinhard (Janwaar Castle) for this award. She has lived her entire life without complying to the rigid norms of society and has utilised the power of the network to promote growth in a truly emergent manner. Her work with Janwaar Castle in India is a true reflection of the same and I’d like to nominate her for it.”

And what follows is his text … The most important paragraph for me is the last one about identity.

What disobedient work are they doing or have they recently done?

Janwaar Castle is an idea that sparked in the heart of rural India in a small village called Janwaar. A skatepark is built to be the central piece in this open sandbox project that aims to bring exposure to a village in the extremely backward Bundelkhand region. The construction of the skatepark started in December, 2014 and the skatepark was open by April, 2015. In making Janwaar Castle work, Ulrike has had to constantly fight against the norms of this very challenging society. Norms that she has had to work against include:

Breaking the existing caste barriers

India has a well-documented history of being a very discriminatory society, with caste being the forefront of it. Some of the worst affected castes are the tribals in various states. The Janwaar region also has two castes – Yadavs and Adivasis (tribals) – with the tribals being stigmatised against. Ulrike and Janwaar Castle have had to persistently disobey the existing structures to break these barriers and ensure that the tribals and the Yadavs would see eye to eye – something that spread from the skatepark to the entire village.

Being a woman leader in a heavily patriarchal society

In the village, the role of a woman in a family is typically limited to being the caregiver of the family. They do not step outside without covering their faces. The chief of the village who happens to be a woman in many villages (because of a quota laid out by the government) often just tend to be figureheads controlled by the husband. In such a society, a woman being treated as an equal is a rare occurrence, let alone her being listened to as a voice of change.

Xenophobia

For someone from outside the country, not just from outside the village, to come in and advocate changes in existing structures is an extremely challenging process. Tie this to an uprising of nationalism and it isn’t uncommon to find people asking her regularly to go back to her own country. In what I can assume to only be a gruelling everyday battle, Ulrike has disobeyed every single voice that has tried to discourage her – via threats of violence or general causticity – to see through the vision that she had for the village.

In other villages, these core challenges are surrounded by many contextual challenges depending on the landscape of that part of the country. Having created a model with Janwaar, Janwaar Castle has begun working on the same concept across villages in different parts of the nation, and continues to disobey norms and unspoken rules laid out by society to act as catalysts for change.

How is their work making the world a better place?

With the skatepark being the catalyst for change, the children of the village are now exposed to possibilities that they would never have dreamt of. Some direct outcomes of the project include:

Increased attendance in schools

The children of the village embraced the skatepark immediately. And with the ‘No school, no skateboarding!’ rule, it meant that the children needed to attend school more regularly in order to be able to take part in their favourite activity. This resulted in huge increases of attendance percentages within months, which is crucial in a country where illiteracy and dropouts are a major hindrance to the growth of the society.

Building a common playground for life

For all children, skateboarding has now become the common religion with the skatepark being the temple. This religion has no untouchables and no hierarchy – the young teach the old; the girls teach the boys; the Adivasis teach the Yadavs. The ‘Girls first!’ rule specifically ensures that if a girl is ever on the skatepark without a skateboard and asks a boy for his, then he has to give it up.

The children of previous generations grew up in rigid mental frameworks that were divisive. Janwaar Castle is ensuring the rise of a more accepting generation.

Exposure & Ambition

With the network model that Janwaar Castle incorporates, everyone who wishes to contribute or carry forward the idea of Janwaar Castle can do so. This directly results in limitless opportunities for children to explore opportunities they would never have dreamt of. Children of Janwaar have made money from their own art exhibits, have attended concept schools in different parts of the country, are familiar with technology, and have even visited countries other than India.

Skateboarding has also become more than just a hobby for some. A few children have found new dreams of becoming professional skateboarders. The children of Janwaar regularly travel to other skating destinations in the country to interact with skateboarders from across the country.

Janwaar Castle therefore is also building an ecosystem by getting in the right schooling, infrastructure, and nutrition to enable children to pursue their dreams – skateboarding and otherwise.

Clean drinking water & clean energy

The village usually runs out of drinking water in May, which forces the women to walk an extra 4.5 KMs to get drinking water, and that too of poor quality. Via the network of supporters for Janwaar castle, self-sustainable water systems were constructed that pump up 5000 liters of water twice a day. These water pumps are powered by solar energy and there are filters in place ensuring clean water supply.

Internet Connectivity

The process has begun to make the village completely internet enabled. Computers and tablets were already present in the village but the lack of internet access was limiting their potential. Within the next 3 months, 20 MBPS lines will have been setup and connectivity dependent ideas such as the ‘school in the cloud’ will begin running via contributors of the Janwaar network. This will truly open up the village to the world.

An identity

Most importantly however, it gave the village an identity. The villagers are now proud to be a part of Janwaar. Migration from rural to urban areas has always been a problem. With more than 700,000 villages in the country, it is important for the economy of the country that the villages thrive. This is a step towards ensuring that the villagers are proud of where they’re from, and make an additional effort to build the economy of the village.

All of this made possible with just the vision of one woman, with multiple people across the world believing in it, and having the willingness to execute it.

Kaziranga – lost with the one horn rhinos and elephants

I love elephants – close to where I live in Madhya Pradesh, at Hinauta Gate at Panna National Park, we have an elephant camp. There, all the working elephants of Panna National Park “live”. I go there frequently, sometimes I even stay there – they have cottages and tents. On February 25, 2017 a baby elephant was born there. I saw her when she was two days old … still very fragile.

Baby elephant at Hinauta Gate, Panna National Park
Baby elephant at Hinauta Gate, Panna National Park

When I arrived in Assam I was pretty ignorant – I have to admit. I didn’t know anything about Kaziranga, never heard of it before. A world heritage site, the home of two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinoceros. The “Royal Bengal” tiger lives also in Kaziranga – but it’s rarely seen because of the high grass, even though density is high.

The moment people told me there was no doubt that I wouldn’t go there. And I didn’t regret. It was so beautiful. The landscape along the Bhramaputra, the lawns, the forests, the tea plantation, the grass – stunning. And so clean.

—————-

Travel details

Distance from Guwahati: ca. 240 km
Travel time: 5 hours plus pauses, easy ride
Type of vehicle: Royal Enfield 350 ccm
Rental: INR 1250 / day (Guwahati)
Road conditions: For the first 100 km very good (4 lane highway), then good.
Network coverage (Airtel): 3G all the way.
Places to stay: Plenty of places just off the main road in Bagori, Kohora and Kaziraga itself. All price ranges.
What to bring: Binoculars
Costs: Entrance with jeep into the National Park INR 2.500-3.000, depending which gate you will enter.
You can enter until 10 am in the morning and then in the afternoon, from 1.30 – 3 pm.
Other things to do: Visit the tea plantation and the orchid park.

—————-

When you reach the area of Kaziranga National Parl area the landscape really becomes stunning. The park area is between the Bhramaputra River in the north and the AH1 in the south over a strech of roughly 40-45 km. Heading towards Kaziranga from Kaliabor there are plenty of tea plantations on the right hand side of the street. Lush green colors (in late March).

Tea plantation close to Kaziranga National Park
Tea plantation close to Kaziranga National Park

I stayed in Kaziranga itself and I entered the park through the east and center gate. The safari jeep picked me up at the hotel. Besides the driver no other guide is needed. The safari takes a bit more than two hours, the roads are quite bumpy. Sights are plenty. The one horn rhinos you see often, though only three of them I saw close. Very majestic, just like rocks, always eating. The driver said they eat 16-18 hours a day!

Wild elephants we haven’t seen that many, all in all five and only from the distance.
You also see many birds … I am not very interested though in birds.

It’s mostly marshland inside. Many water spots, hight elephant gras …

elephant gras

One horn rhino
One horn rhino
Three rhinos grazing
Three rhinos grazing
Evening ambient – just before we left the park
Evening ambient – just before we left the park

Paradise is here: Umngot River, Meghalaya, NorthEast India

Quite some people have asked me to write a bit about my travels, maybe provide some tipps … so I decided to give it a try. I am currently cruising India’s Northeast on a rented motorbike – this might be a good start! Let’s see how long it will last and if it will help a few people 🙂

It has been a dream for a while now, I always wanted to travel to the Northeast of India and here I am now. And I love it!

So here are fotos/details of my trip from Guwahati, Assam to the Umngot River in Meghalaya. I encourage you to follow the links as well.

—————-

Travel details

Distance: ca. 200 km
Travel time: 5 hours plus pauses, easy ride
Type of vehicle: Royal Enfield 350 ccm
Rental: INR 1250 / day (Guwahati)
Road conditions: Very good, except 15 km just before Dwaki
Network coverage (Airtel): Pretty good all the way
Place were I stayed: Shnongpdeng, bamboo house, INR 500
What to bring: torch, towel, bathing costume and warm jacket for crossing the Shillong peak

—————-

The ride from Guwahti to Shillong (110 km) takes 2.5 hours – it is an easy ride once you are out of the city. Slowly you climb up the road and you pass through completely different fauna and flora on your way. Just out of Guwahati you have light green colours. Bananas, pineapple you will find along the streets. Maybe 20 km before Umiam Lake the scenery is changing. Coniferous forest starts.

Umiam Lake – view from above
Umiam Lake – view from above

And it really became cold. Shillong’s elevation is roughly 1500m, Shillong peak is almost 2000m high. It was surprisingly cold in mid march. One really needed a warm jacket. From Shillong down to Dwaki the India / Bangladesh border, it takes another 2.5 hours. Beautiful road except of the last 15 km down to the border town. It gets narrow and bumpy … dancing over pot holes!

The way down leads you through the Khasi and Jaintia Hills with stunning views. And it gets warmer again 🙂

view on the way

The moment you reach the banks of the river the “catch-a-tourist” guys try to sell you a boat trip … very hard to resist when you see this water …

Umngot River at Dawki, India / Bangladesh border
Umngot River at Dawki, India / Bangladesh border

… but you really should wait … it only gets better. Drive through the small city (no hotels/homestays available) and take the road towards Shnongpdeng. It’s 10 km … 3,4 km out of Dwaki you have to make a left. The road leads you through rainforest, it’s jungle. Lovely. We’ve reached Shnongpdeng when it was dark … so all we did was to check in. There a couple of very basic homestays available – on the main road as well as down at the river. We opted for the one at the river – it is good for 3 people, better for two though and costs INR 500 per person. Wash- and bathroom is 20 m away. Clean.

Bamboo guest house right next to Umngot River
Bamboo guest house right next to Umngot River

The next morning it was very windy, only around 10 am the wind stopped.
The view was stunning and the water EXCEPTIONEL. Just have a look at the following fotos.
No more words needed.

Suspension Bridge over Umngot River, inaugaurated in 2016
Suspension Bridge over Umngot River, inaugaurated in 2016
Bamboo bench right next to the river with pretty good network coverage! 2 bars of 3 G!!!
Bamboo bench right next to the river with pretty good network coverage! Two bars of 3G!

The following foto I’ve taken from the suspension bridge …

river2

And the next two fotos I’ve taken from a local canoe – it’s a 1.5 hours trip and costs INR 100 a person. A must when you are there!

fishermen

river1

Mawlynnong – Asia’s cleanest village

Mawlynnong is a small village in Meghalaya. Northeast of India. In 2003 it was awarded the ‘Cleanest Village in Asia’ by Discover India Magazine. Since I was only 45 km away I took the chance and visited the place.

—————-

Travel details

Distance: I came from Shnongpdeng 45 km, from Guwahati it is about 200 km
Travel time from Shnongpdeng: 1.5 hours
Road conditions: Very good, except 15 km just after Dwaki
Network coverage (Airtel): completely sucks
Place were I stayed: Ha-La-Tyngkok homestay, small room, toilette attached, INR 1500
What to bring: something to read 🙂

—————-

It’s an 18 km long strech off the main road down to the cleanest village in India. Green scenery, very – I mean – very clean. Just like Switzerland 🙂 The road is very good and – for a change – surprisingly good signs showing directions. You can feel that tourists are coming here … no doubt.

My friend Mirra, who was travelling with me, raised a very valid question: “How has someone ever found this village?”. It’s at the end of a dead end road; rural in its purest sense. Every morning shared taxis are leaving from the main square to Shillong (ca. 90 km, INR 220).

For a small village there are plenty of homestays – nothing spectacular though. As the entire village the homestays are clean and the people are welcoming. For what they offer – it is not really cheap though. Our room was really small, but we had western toilette and they brought a bucket with hot water.

Our homestay in Mawlynnong
Our homestay in Mawlynnong

The village is “pretty”, nice to look at. It is NOT lively at all. It’s truly lacking life! There are no places to eat (except in the homestays). Around the main square of the village there are a few stalls where you can buy the local “tourist stuff”. All made for the visitors.

To put it in one line: If you are close by, go and visit. I felt it’s not worth a longer trip.

IMG_6263

IMG_6267

IMG_6271

IMG_6280

IMG_6287

The Living Bridge, 4km away from the village, I personally found much more stunning and interesting. From the parking place, a little market square, probably 500 steps lead down to the bridge. It is 170 years old, two trees were planted by a local family, one at each side of the small river and then constantly trimmed … I’ve never seen anything like this before! And: entrance is free!

Here are a few fotos.

IMG_6261

IMG_6244

IMG_6246

A pearl in Calcutta

I love Calcutta. It really gives me a city-feeling – something which I rarely have in India’s cities. Maybe in the old part of Pune or Chennai … It was my second time in town, only a short visit though, 24 hours, but absolutely worthwhile. Especially because of the hotel we stayed in: The Fairlawn Hotel. Thank you Mirra for choosing this one!

There is a lot said and written about this 200-year-old building on Sudder Street in the city centre, a green-painted refuge of calm from the noise and dust, fringed in its front courtyard by palms, and offering old-fashioned pleasures such as gin-and-tonic taken at sundown on the veranda 🙂

It’s a place I truly fell in love with and where I will always stay when I come back to Calcutta. In every square feet of this place you feel the history, and the walls are fully decorated with memories of the English past … not at all heavy, the surprising mix of fotos, paintings and newspaper articles makes it “easy to take”.

The location is ideal, walking distance to the New Market, Park Road and The Victorian gardens. Some wonderful local restaurants are very close by … packed with a good mix of locals and “free” travellers, meaning not trafelling in groups 🙂

The rates of the hotel are decent (single starts at INR 2.500, double at INR 4.000).

Here are a few fotos:

The dining hall
The dining hall
View from the top to the reception
View from the top to the reception
Stairs up to the first floor
Stairs up to the first floor
View to the breakfast area
View to the breakfast area

we_India #2 – Stories

This we_magazine is different from the ones we’ve published before.
It’s much less Internet related.
It focusses much more on stories.
Stories about various “We’s” I’ve encountered over the last 4.5 years living in India..
It’s also a very personal edition because all the topics we’ve covered are covered by people with whom I have a personal relationship – we’ve worked together, we travelled together, we became friends.
They all have a somehow special place in my life in India.
And I actually didn’t realize this until I saw the entire magazine.
It took me almost one year to complete.
That’s my very first project were I was absolutey running on Indian time … 🙂
Too many things happened that kept me away from finishing it.
But now it’s there and I am very happy with the outcome.
I love the stories – they show India like I experience it on a daily basis.
I hope you have fun reading them!

Here you can flip through!

The Barefoot Skateboarders

This is what I do in India …

“A sport which has long been identified with urban neighbourhoods across the world, is being used in a village in central India as a trigger for social change. Ulrike Reinhard – a German national – established a skate park in Janwar, Madhya Pradesh in February 2015, with the help of a few Indian and international skateboarding organisations. The region to which the village belongs is notorious for being one of the most socially and economically backward areas of the country. Untouchability, gender inequality, illiteracy, and alcoholism are rampant here. Through the voices of Ulrike and the children of the village, the film documents how the skate park is gradually changing the social fabric of the village and addressing some of its most deep rooted issues.” 101india.com

Trance & Icecream

I’ve spent the last week in Varkala, Kerala. It was my third visit – I just love the Kaiya House and the cliff tops and the endless walks on the beach. For the first time I went with Debra, the owner of the Kaiya House to experience Kerala festivals. I’ve had seen Debra’s posts on these before – but never participated in one. Off we went one early morning. We left the house on in auto rickshaw at 6 am and arrived at the temple 25 minutes later … we were early, hardly anyone was there yet.
IMG_5285

It was a very peaceful atmosphere. The celebrations were devoted to Shivas youngest son, Muragon, the god of war. We learnt from Pappu, our rickshaw driver, that devotees will start from 14 different temples and all join at one major temple. We were at one of these 14 spots. You have to know where they are – way off the main road, down on unpaved winding roads until you reach a wonderful temple. Unexpectedly. Slowly the men in the village gathered, had their breakfast and got ready for the procession.

IMG_5299

The place was pumped with energy. I could feel – I couldn’t explain though where it came from. When the drums started all men went inside the temple for their prayers – the women were bystanders outside. While the men were completely relaxed and at the same time excited the women were rather looking scared. Two completely different groups. And then there was us – the foreigners watching the celebrations.

At 7 am it was already hot and very humid. I really had to get out of the sun and had to find a place in the shadow to watch the spectacle.

When the men came out of the temple they were in a different stage of awareness – completely focussed and all in one as a group. Everything one single person did was obviously part of the bigger picture. It was some kind of routine what was happening inside this group. Almost like a theatre play. The young men were almost ready to get pierced. The piercing was done by elders. Before the young men laid down on their ballies on the table to get pierced (meaning getting at least 4, some of them 8 hooks pushed through their flesh on the back, wade and thigh) they put themselves in trance – in no time! This was the most amazing part for me at the festival. The way these young men went from one stage of awareness to a stage where they obvioulsy didn’t feel any pain any more. It happened in no time.

One of the guys completely “passed out”, it looked like an epileptic fit what he went through and people had to lay him down on the floor. As you can see in these pics everyone of the participants had one person who specifically took care of them. People say – according to Debra – that these young men get a special training – physically and mentally – two month before the festival starts. Every time they do it – I haven’t seen one men who didn’t had any scarves on his back. No “fresher” was there.

When the men reach this stage of trance the elders first pierce a litlle speer through their cheeks and then they lay down and their backs and legs get pierced. I couldn’t watch this …

IMG_5307

The moment they stand up and walk away from the table they are “normal” again – very proud. Very proud.

IMG_5320

At this place 10 people got pierced.
It didn’t take longer than 20 minutes.

Then the next chapter of the ceremony unfolded.
The hooks in their backs were now used to hang these young men on pales in front of trucks, raise them and drive them in this position to the main temple – where later probably 30 trucks all came together! The men war hanging there for 4-6 hours before – in the bright sun, swinging proudly and happily in front of the trucks … until they reached the main temple. There they were freed from the pales, they went inside the temple for prayers and left through the back exit where the hooks and lances got removed. I’ve seen this as well (my battery was dead by this time, so I couldn’t take any photographs). Again it all happened very fast, max. 2 minutes per person, no blood, maybe be once in a while a little drop – but that was is. The moment the lances were removed they got an ice cream and they walked away … Happy and proud.

IMG_5322

Truly incredible India.
I haven’t seen anything like this before.

I still don’t know how to deal with this experience.
It was amazing and disgusting at the same time.
A lasting experience – no doubt!