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.

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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.

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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 …

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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.

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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

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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 …

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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!

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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.

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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 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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

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.
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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.

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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 …

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

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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.

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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!

Delhi’s Bad Air …

Air pollution is reaching peaks in Delhi and the city – citizens and government – have finally started to fight it actively. One major cause for the bad air is of course traffic. In the first two weeks of January 2016 the Delhi government was running “odd-even” –  meaning one day all “odd-mumbered vehicles” were allowed to drive in the city, the next day all “even-numbers”. The campaign achieved a lot of media attention and a website for commute partners was launched by the government.

After the two weeks the environmental impact of the campaign was discussed manifold … political games on all sides. It would be insane to expect a significant reduce of air pollution after two weeks but what the intervention proofed is that the citizens are ready to take action and that the overall traffic situation was extremely relaxed. Everyone I have spoken to said this. There was no one complaining of not having been able to take the car. And most of Delhi’s citizens would do it again … So there is hope on the horizon.

What also became obvious during odd-even is that there aren’t enough measurement points in the city to serve all citizens equally. Now there is some kind of pressure to install more units and also to push the citizens somehow to action. This can only be done when they are somehow actively involved. Knowing about bad air is one thing – doing something actively against it is something different. The streets in Delhi are packed again and odd-even is almost history in this sense.

I’ve wirtten earlier on this blog that I am involved in an environment open data project which actually would close exactly this gap. While I was in Delhi the last 10 days I took the chance and spoke with Mrutyunjay Mishra (M2), co-founder of Juxt Smartmandate, a data analytics company based in Delhi and Hyderabad, and driving force behind the India Open Data Association – a non for profit company which believes in the open hardware and software movement and is promoting “open” as the secret for success to tackle the massive environmental issues in  Delhi and the rest of India is facing.

With M2 I’ve talked about the status of Open Data in India in general, about potential open data business models and what it takes to make a real impact – meaning not only collecting data but also creating communities and drive action. The first 15 minutes are about India in general, the last 20 minutes we tackle the other issues!

(Just click the play button and the audio file will start)

 

Just this morning I was reading an article featuring a French woman residing in Gurgaon (South od Delhi) who has started going around town, taking photo portraits of common Delhiites, making them pose with masks and X-ray films of a pair of lungs. As a matter of fact the air pollution is heavily affecting people’s health. The numbers of patients with breathing problems and many other symptons of pollution are skyrocketing!

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Here is the interview in an abbreviated form:


Ulrike Reinhard: You’ve started this initiative India Open Data Association (IODA). What is it all about ?

Mrutyunjay Mishra, IODA (MM): Our cycle is so to speak Data.Knowledge.Action. We collect data. We make it publicly available in an easy-to-use and easy-to-understand way and – knowing what the data is all about – we trigger action to solve problems which are of public interest. Let me give you one example. Our environment project. We started it last year at Kumbha Mela. Back then we’ve tested our open hardware machines for collecting various environment data such as dust, …. . The results of this field test helped us to fine-tune our machines, make them more accurate and sustainable and we optimized our software – meaning sending the data to the server and make it available. The new prototypes were ready for the odd-even experiment in Delhi in the first half of January 2016. There we’ve had the chance to compare at specific locations the measurements of our machines with those cost-intensive machines of the government. And it turned out we were absolutely competitive – not as precise as the high-end machines which cost more than one cruore INR, but within an tolerable variance. Government officials told us this.

Our next step is to cover with at least 40 of our machines more locations in Delhi, send the data to our server and make it available on our website. We visualize the data so that it is easy to understand for the public and we provide it in cvs-format so that everyone who wants to play around with the data can use it. With more machines out there and with more location-based data coming in we can serve the public better and provide knowledge how good or bad the air in Delhi is. We assume once people know how horrible air quality at their own place is and how it affects their health – they will chance behavior. This is when our cycle Data.Knowledge.Action. is completed.

So the India Open Data Association functions as a platform …

MM: Yes, I’d like to call it a platform. Because its role is to connect ideators, makers, financiers and users. We’ll be able to very clearly show that Juxt SmartMandate, which is my existing business and one of the founders of IODA, led the role of the ideator in this environment project and also brought in some seed funding. We connected with makers in China, where we bought the open source hardware for the machines and we found makers in India who assembled the hardware and designed a handy box. A new start-up is selling these boxes out of Gujarat. Other makers were working on the software and developed a mobile app which users can download to receive real-time environment data of various locations. So this model is working. What we need to do now is to scale it. For this we need more money … but we believe we delivered a strong proof of concept.

… and IODA is setup as a membership model, a non–for–profit company. Why have you chosen this structure? Why would a for profit company join?

MM: The organizational structure allows us to have maximum 200 members – these can be individuals and these can be organizations who are really interested in the open data ecosystem in India. To become a member you pay an annual fee and the one-time joining fee which is very nominal – I think it’s 5000 INR one time and 10.000 INR annual. So it is affordable for many. And because the legal structure only allows 200 members we’ve created one additional layer called “associate members” which allows us to include more if needed. Members have one voting right. So the structure is a more democratic one. We’ll see how it evolves. Initially we are looking for academics who are working in this field. We are looking for organizations and open data enthusiasts who have been doing groundbreaking work. We are looking for mentors, people who can guide us in this whole initiative. So there is a set of initial 15-20 members coming in. Hopefully also some financiers who provide a small fund to initiate projects. That is the answers to the first part of your question.

The second part – why would a for profit company join? We truly believe in the power of networks and in the power of many. The problems which we are planning to address and hopefully solve – as I said earlier – are problems which are relevant for the public. For all us. These are BIG problems like air pollution, waste, network-coverage – problems which can’t be solved by a single company, a single maker or even a single government. They can only be solved when we collaborate and co-create in a transparent manner – the ideaters, makers, users and financiers. And this is why we’ve chosen exactly this structure – it’s for us the best existing legal structure to achieve all this. That’s our basis. So now suppose you are the ideator of an open data project – and “open” is the premise – and you run your own private for profit company. Just like my company Juxt SmartMandate does in the open environment project. You define the skill set needed to make this project possible. The goal is that within IODA you’ll find the makers who are interested in your idea, you’ll find scientist who evaluate your data and so on. If the idea is good enough it will be translated into a product and/or service and we’ll find funding – meaning all the people will get paid. Everyone is working for profit. So the people who are making this project happen are all for profit. But the frame set in which all of this happening is a non-for-profit entity – it provides the basic management and the platform. So it’s a fairly good structure that way.

Where are the potential revenue streams for a company?

MM: For us at Juxt SmartMandate we see various revenue streams. Our core business is data analytics – so for us it’s business to analyze big data streams, to reduce complex data and translate the emerging patterns into easy to understand graphics and visualizations (meaning not losing any information while reducing the complexity), we structure data and provide downloadable data-packages and we might even develop desktop or mobile applications for the end-user. The person who developed the environment monitoring kit for our first project started meanwhile his own business and sells these boxes. So there are plenty of revenue streams … I am sure.

You were also saying that everyone can use the data – meaning also people/organizations who are not member of IODA?

MM: Yes, that’s true. We’ll provide all the data we are collecting on our internet platform in cvs-format. Everyone can download the data packages and play around with it and explore and build. All the data collected in any of the IODA-projects will be published under the a Non Commercial 4.0 International Creative Commons license, which allows the data to be shared and adapted as long as the appropriate credit is given to the creator and all the changes made are clearly mentioned. Commercial usage remains with those who initiated, collaborated and funded the project.

What is the current status of IODA?

MM: Regarding IODA as an organization I can say, that it is registered under Indian law and ready to practice. The bank account is opened and we can now invite the first members to join. We’ve already spoken to a few organizations and people and we are happy to announce our first members soon. Our website with the basic information is ready for launch.

Juxt SmartMandate will bring in the environment project I was talking about earlier. The status is that 40 boxes including the software are ready to be rolled out all over Delhi. The project website is ready for launch and the mobile app can be downloaded. For a successful start it’s crucial to increase the number of users.

What other projects can you envision ?

MM: I can only speak for my own company. We are planning to bring in at least two more projects once the environment project is up and running. One is the crowdsourcing of network coverage problems and analyzing the main reasons why in India the network is so fragile in order to achieve a more stabled infrastructure. Another one is the mapping of crimes let say in the city of Chennai. The data is publicly available but it is provided in a way that it is basically of no use. We are planning to visualize it in a way that let’s say women can see on a map which areas in Chennai are known for which kind of crime at a certain time of a day. So they simply can avoid going there. This doesn’t mean that they can’t become victim in a crime – but it can certainly increase the chances NOT to become a victim. I am sure other people / companies have many more ideas … I am really curious to see IODA taking off.

Janwar Castle needs a Bamboo House

The children in Janwar Castle have never seen a skateboarding instructor – nevertheless they’ve made it within five month to skateboarding champions. Just look at the pictures.

Now we want to move on and add a bamboo house for further actvities to our learning environment – and we need it before winter sets in. Therefore we decided to run this foto campaign. Vicky Roy, whom I know for many years now, is a well-known and established Indian photographer. The pictures he takes of children always reflect a very special atmosphere and ambiente … same holds true for his pics from Janwar, the village where our skatepark is located. He connects with the rural and he connects with the kids. I am very happy that Vicky Roy is supporting us and gives us these pictures for free for this specific campaign.

Thank you Vicky Roy!

His work has traveled around the world and his photographs are meanwhile a good investment.

We only fixed a minimum price for each picture which covers printing and shipping – otherwise the price is really up to you! Please help us to make this bamboo house become reality!

On the Road

For the past three and a half years I’ve been exploring the roads, the highways and byways, of India on my motorbike. I’ve probably traveled more than 50,000 km all over the country – the only area I haven’t been to is the north east. I usually go on longer trips, 4 weeks or more, and I try to avoid the sterile and boring to ride highways and look for the lonesome roads, the country tracks. To put it mildly, these are not always in tip-top condition – but most of the time it’s well worth investing that extra time and effort. Simply because it’s here that you can dig deeper into the country and get a real feeling for it. I believe it’s on roads like this that India shows its true face: beautiful but sometimes very unforgiving. The landscape can be stunning but all too often it’s scattered with litter and scarred with garbage dumps. The people you meet are among the most innocent and curious that you’ll find but they’re horribly left behind. All these are pictures that we don’t usually find in Western media which pushes the image of an emerging, rapidly growing economic power.

I started to ride a motorbike a few months after arriving in India. Before that I had 20 years devotion to the humble motor scooter and my longest trip on the 50 ccm two wheeler was from Berlin to Heidelberg – a grand total of 650 km! It took me three days and what a great way it was to explore the country roads of my home land away from the straight and narrow of the Autobahn. But motorbiking in India is a different story. Upgrading from a scooter to a motorbike wasn’t so much of a challenge – the real challenge was how to cope with the sheer unpredictability of any kind of Indian traffic situation. Whether on a four lane highway where on-coming traffic shouldn’t be so surprising, not even on the fast track, or arriving in an urbanized area where the density of everything suddenly and dramatically increases. In less than a minute you move from the free breeze in your face to jostling crowds of people, an exploded zoo of animals, swarms of children and jostling competitive traffic: anything from bicycles and auto rickshaws, to oxcarts, pick-up trucks and motorbikes. And the noise is simply ear-splitting. There seem to be simply no rules – it’s freestyle, self-organized traffic where each driver seems to take his life in his hands and act like there were no tomorrow.

My first long tour was on a Honda Hero Impulse 125 ccm – a dirt bike – from Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh all the way up to Manali in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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Climbing up to Manali

On my way back I went through Rajasthan and Gujarat. The same bike took me to the south of India. Climbing up the Western Ghats was one of my most memorable experiences – it was like driving through the lands of the Avatar movie. Spectacular landscape, fascinating light and lush nature. And plenty of tea plantations.

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Western Ghats in the early morning

After a year on this very dashing bike I bought a new one that was a bit faster when I decided to go on a four month trip to Kashmir and Ladakh. Now the 200 ccm KTM is a very speedy bike, but for me – who had to endure it on long rides – it was simply too small and too tightly upholstered which made for a very ass-numbing experience at the end of a long day.

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And then, last year in Diwali I had this Eureka moment. I was on a tour with a friend going from Bombay to Goa (again on the KTM) when he offered me to ride his “Bullet”. So I got my first taste of how it feels to ride a right Royal Enfield – the supreme incarnation of the motorbike in India that’s been in continuous production now for 75 years. Only my first taste was disappointing. I felt it was way too heavy for me and that I couldn’t handle it properly. So I gratefully hopped back on my KTM. But two days later temptation overcame me and I tried again, and that was the start of a beautiful friendship. I’ve bitten the Bullet ever since. It’s like a luxurious sofa on wheels … and once it starts rolling, believe me, it really does roll.

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Exploring India by road has given me a pretty good sense of how just huge, wild and diverse this country is. Distance has taken on a new meaning here where I can drive 500 km but when I look at the map I’ve hardly moved from my starting point. Using Google maps in India – which is what I do while traveling – can turn out to be tricky once in a while because, as I’ve found to my cost, Google maps don’t scale right. Very often distances on the map might look the same but in fact can vary from between 50 km to 150 km which really screws up your day’s travel schedule. And Google won’t show you how winding the roads are either which is another important factor when you’re calculating travel time.

Usually with the Bullet I do 350 km a day, and rarely stretch myself to cover a grandiose 600 km. If I have to, it means I’m KO in the evening – because 12 or more hours on the bike on bumpy roads is definitely too much. It only happens when I want to reach a certain place or when I’m forced to continue because I can’t find a decent place to stay for the night. There are no hotels or homestays in the villages and small cities. There might be places where you can sleep – but seriously after a day on the bike I do need running water (preferably hot water which is a challenge in itself) and I do need a toilet. My face is a mask of dust and dirt, my clothes are ready for laundry and my hair – even though most of the time I’m wearing a helmet – is so stiff with filth it can hardly be brushed. So sometimes the only option is to move on. Over time I’ve developed a routine where I check out various places online for my next destination – but this doesn’t always work out.

When I finally reach my destination it’s always an adventure finding the place where I plan to stay. Hardly anyone in the streets speaks English and, on top of that, hardly anyone can read – so my Hindi written papers are no help either. It’s pretty much trial and error until I find someone who understands what I want. In the bigger cities it’s slightly easier to find someone who speaks English and I’ve discovered that auto rickshaw drivers have some very basic understanding and at least some sense of direction. So very often I let an auto rickshaw driver be my guide. Sometimes I ask the policemen standing along the road and to my surprise three times a police guy jumped on his motorbike and showed me the way. Probably a special gallant service for lone western women on motorbikes!

The wildness and diversity of India is a continual source of fascination and inspiration. But sometimes it also frustrates me and makes me angry. I see the wildness in the ways the trees grow and the forests and lawns are “not maintained”. I see it in the way the waters flow and fall and how the mountains are shaped.

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Doodhpuri, Kashmir

The co-existence of nature and humans – sometimes brutal, sometimes harmonious – adds its part to the picture. The endless bright colors of the saris with the brownish and greenish shades of the landscape in their background are stored in my memory for ever. The eyes of the children, sometimes empty, very often curious and astonished to see “something like me”. The huge number of wild animals roaming around: tigers, leopards, hyenas, jungle cats, snakes, elephants, camels, donkeys, monkeys, goats, buffalos, pigs, cows, insects and endless number of birds, the infinite variety of sounds you hear – all this expresses India’s abundance and messiness and its beauty. The women working in the fields, taking care of their children and carrying home water and other goods on their heads have become a very familiar scene in my life. But what frustrates me and makes me aggressive is the way that men are absolutely dominant in the rural parts of the country – and by “men” I mean bunches of mostly uneducated, unemployed guys hanging around acting macho like little lords of creation but not moving a muscle to make a more decent life for their villages. On the contrary they make things much worse. In the early hours of the evening they start drinking their local wine and rum, and when they’re pissed out of their tiny minds they’re in a fit state to go home and beat and abuse their wives and very often their kids too. It’s disgusting, abominable but unfortunately way too often just part of the fabric of daily life. Women count for less than nothing in these rural areas.

I don’t know how many of India’s 700,000 rural villages I’ve passed through on my travels. This is where most of India’s population is living, probably some 800 million people. And this is where India is the most exploited. These villagers live without any water supply and electricity. They’ve hardly any health coverage and no kind of sanitation. Malnutrition is chronic and just part of life – they have too much to die but too little to prosper. Yes, government schools have arrived in some parts, but often enough teachers don’t show up or children don’t attend because they have to work in the fields. There’s no TV and if a village has a phone it’s simply one very basic cell phone for receiving in-coming calls with no chance of making an out-going one. The homes are mostly just one room with no furniture where three generations of the same family plus an odd goat or two sleep on the ground. They carry cans of water to wash themselves after they’ve emptied their bowels somewhere else. Sometimes they’ll follow the call of nature right next to the road, sometimes along the railway tracks, sometimes in the fields, and very often kids will squat down on heaps of uncollected garbage where pavements should be. Right next to the chickens, pigs, donkeys, goats and cows looking for something to eat. This mixture of rotting garbage and excrement sends out an acrid nauseous smell which hangs in the air and sticks in your throat. When they set fire to it, which they very often do, it becomes truly excruciating.

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Bophal, MP

But still these people laugh. They are very friendly. They are happy – much more happy than many of the people I see in the streets of Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi. Or back home.

Why is this?

This is a question that puzzles me and that I often mull over while crossing India on my motorbike. So far I haven’t found an answer. But I think it has something to do with NOT having access to the Western or the so-called developed world. These people accept their lives for what they are and enjoy what they have. For “us” it seems like nothing – for them it might be a hard life but it’s a happy one. There is an innocence and a curiosity about them which urban culture has lost.

Riding my bike is a form of mediation for me – my mind becomes free. Many of my best ideas were born on these trips. There’s no tension. No phone-calls. No e-mails. Nothing to worry about. The roads and nature are wide open. All you need to do is to go. And you can go endlessly. I become one with the bike and the road and the surroundings. I don’t count the kilometers I am riding, I simply enjoy the NOW.

I feel the country.
The sun. The dust. The rain. The dirt. The air. The noise. The smell. The density. The wildness.

(Thank you my dear Paul Morland for adding some “Shakespearean Art” to my text)

Open Environment Data

These sensors pick up bits of information that cameras and microphones never could: they smell the air, they taste moisture, and they feel the sting of pollution. Though a camera can give you a general sense of how a place looks, these sensors can tell you very precisely about all the complex networks — from weather to social groups — that make a place what it is.

Six weeks from idea to prototype – now we are waiting for Kumbha Mela to start in order to collect for the first time ever environmental data in realtime from a pop-up city in India.

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First time when the data came in from our sensor box

Here is how the entire story started.

Six weeks ago I’ve sent the link of data canvas to a friend in Delhi who is running a data analytics company, a brief note attached: “Do this in Delhi” and the PR will be yours!”. The idea of the data canvas in short: Install sensors all over the city and measure in real time the city’s environmental data (air quality, noise, light, temperature, CO2 ….) and visualize it. It was laid out as an art project. And it was sponsored by Seeed in Shenzen, a company I had just visited. This was actually what caught my attention. Seeed provided the Arduino boards and the sensors for the project.

My friend, M2 and his business partner, immediately got the idea and jumped on it.
And then the story evolved.

I connected M2 with Seeed, they figured out what kind of sensors would be the best for getting an overall idea about the quality of the enironment in a city like Delhi, I went to Shenzen MakerFaire two weeks later and ordered the sensors while I was there. Another week later M2 and Srinivas Kodali (an open data expert) applied for the MIT Kumbhathon, they got accepted and they went. I was there as a mentor.

M2 and Srinivas introduced the idea and immediately four hardware students from Pune joined the team.

With MIT Kumbhathon the focus had changed a bit – we were much more practical and focussed now because all of a sudden we had an ideal test market – the Kumbha Mela – right in front of us. During this huge religious gathering more than 20 million people will come Nashik. This would give us the chance to measure environment data under “regular” circumstances, but also when the city suddenly pops up to 10 or 20 times its size. What would change? Are there any changes at all? How ould environmental data correlate with health data?

For the very first time we will be able to measure this kind of data (we have 9 different sensors) in real time. This will enable authorities and government official to achieve alerts when an alert case occurs and it will provide the baseline for predictions for any future pop-up situation in any Indian city.

During the MIT Khumbathon the newly founded team of volunteers finished the first 6 prototype boxes, we got the datastream running and the very first sensor box is already sending data. There are a few bugs which need to be fixed, but the system is up and running. The website and an app will provide realtime visualization within the next 2 weeks. In mid August the team is planning to return to Nashik and to implement and install another 45 sensor boxes.

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Our first prototype from the inside

During the MIT Kumbhathon we also defined our open data strategy and outlined how we are planning to move forward:

Our goals

  • To achieve a better understanding of how environmental paramenters change during pop-up situations.
  • To gather a sandbox full of data which make pop-up cities more predictable.
  • And – since data is publicly available – to make citizens and its authorities smarter. Smart citizens for a smart city.

Our business modell

  • All data will be published in a well structured format under a creative commons non-commercial share alike licence.
  • Commercial use and specific analysis and visualization will be chargeable.

Our organizational structure

  • Currently we are a loose structure of volunteers committing our time to this project.
  • Midterm ideally the organizational structure is transfered in some kind of trust or society where individuals and companies can become members.
  • We want an advisory board with a diverse range of people (data & environment scientist, MIT Media Lab, authorities, ….)

Our partners

  • Other MIT Kumbhaton projects (cloud steering and epidemic tracker)
  • Nashik officialsand authorities as well as government
  • Outside MIT Kumbhathon: Seeed, juxt smart mandate, Janwar Castle

The plan with “my” Janwar Castle is to assemble the 45 boxes with the kids in Janwar and teach them slowly how to do this. It will be th ebeginning of the first maker space in rural India, right next to the first skateboarding park in rural India;-)  The bamboo house which will be the home of the young makers will be ready by the end of August … another milestone in Janwar. I believe a good way to link urban development with rural India – for the benefit of all!

The entire project is set up as a sandbox – meaning we are providing the data pool, we structure the data and provide it in an easy to use way – all this for free as long as feeds into a non commercial use-case. We lay the ground and open up to the collective intelligence of all how to make sense and use out of this data.

After the Kumbh we will think how to move forward.

The learnings will help us a lot – I am sure.

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These are the parameters we measure:

Temperature
Humidity
Pressure
Oxygen
Carbon Dioxide
Air Quality
Dust (PPM)
Multi Gas (Ammonia, NO2, CO)
UV
Sound

 

 

We are on – Kumbhathon 5 (#K5)

Last week we were on for the 5th time over the last 18 month. Kumbhathon 5 or #K5. I was there in late January 2015 and it felt like coming back to a huge family. Read my blogpost from #K4 here.

It’s only a few weeks to go and the Kumbha Mela will start. It’s the biggest religious gathering on this planet – and here is where the pilgrims will take their dip into the holy water at three specific days in August and September: Ramkund, Nasik. Hard to imagine that millions will do so! It will be a very very crowded place then, no doubt.

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The Kumbhathon is an iniative of the MIT Media Lab which started out almost 2 years ago at inktalks, when Ramesh Raskar, born in India and currently professor at the MIT, announced it. It’s a year-round initiative to identify and address the challenges of a pop-up city like Nashik when it will grow from its “normal” 2 million inhabitants to 15 million a day during the celebrations. Kumbha Mela will give innovators, change makers, entrepreneurs and corporations the opportunity to learn, develop and test solutions to “pop-up city” problems at scale, instantly, so they can be mapped to large gatherings and emerging cities worldwide.

I was very keen to see what happened between #K4 and #K5 – what would be the status of the projects? Would new projects have been added? How would the students and young entrepreneurs have been developed and moved forward? With some of the participants I kept interacting after #K4 and three of them even came to visit me at Janwar Castle. At #K5 again there were 150+ participants there – students, innovators from all over India. Most of them with an IT or engineering background. There is / was a lack of management, administrative and creative people  … I would assume diversity would drive this initiative even further.

The first three days I was counseling and mentoring the various projects under the lead of innovation strategist Beth Zonis who was hired by the MIT Media Lab to guide the students and innovators through this crucial process of really getting things done and getting things ready for Kumbha Mela. From 10 am to 6 pm we listened to all the groups and advised them in the following key issues:

  • to get their project explained in a few compelling words.
  • to describe its benefits for Khumbha Mela.
  • to identify a business model.
  • to schedule and prioritize the process and streamline it.
  • and to share it with others in order to find synergies and identify common challenges.

Once we broke the ice and they accepted us not as “Yes, Madam” or “Yes, Sir” the presentations of the groups became much more like conversations. It took us a while to make them understand that it is them to make the decision and it’s us ONLY to give advice. Our advice should been taken into consideration but it shouldn’t be accepted as a task to follow up with. To achieve this understanding among the students was a tough job.

For some of them it was also hard to understand the 3 layers – the bigger picture – of the Kumbhathon:

  • having personal goals and reasons.
  • dedicating time and resources to a very specific project.

And on top of these two things

  • understanding what it means to be part of an open platform like Kumbhathon where you first put in before you can pull out.

Some of the projects evolved and developed since #K1 and those were the ones which were very much advanced and ready – so to speak. Actually at the last day of the Khumbhathon one group founded a company;-) During our hearings and conversations it became pretty clear that not all projects will make it. A few were still in a kind of “dreaming status” where one would think that Khumbha Mela will happen next year. There was no urgency and no will to get things done – and it was kind of hard to tell this to the students and innovators. I believe if more management and administrative people would have been in the groups they would have sensed this urgency and they would have understood how to get things done. The lack of design people also became obvious … no really compelling designs and presentations were seen. But these are all things which can be added easily.

This might sound a bit negative – but I wanted to point to some critical points which open the space for improvement. I want to see this process growing bigger … and this is why I am participating and hopefully adding value. The best things which happened over these 2 years are that the MIT Kumbhathon has really established a PLATFORM, a SANDBOX where many stakeholders have bought into: authorities of Nashik, government, universities and colleges, international, national and local companies, citizens and young students, innovators and entrepreneurs. And this is a very precious thing …. the platform / the network is set-up out of which more things will evolve. A lot of friends have been made and even more like-minded people found each other. It’s almost as like a movement has started, a movement for

  • spotting problems,
  • finding and prototyping solutions,
  • and then translate these solutions into valuable products.

A movement to think and act like innovators and the realization that this can only be achieved when as many people as possible collaborate. It can’t be achieved by one company or one institution alone.

And if only a few of the existing solutions will succeed during Khumbha Mela the system is proven right. And I am sure a few projects will succeed and help to understand situations in which cities suddenly grow at large scale much better – high among them the Kumbha Mela app, the epidemic tracker, the media tracker, the crowd steering project and maybe one of the housing projects.

I am tempted to return to Nashik during the Khumbh – not sure though if I really want to face that huge crowd;-)

Thanks to Ramesh Raskar and John Werner for letting me be part of this!