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

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.

IMG_3579
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.

IMG_5605
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.

IMG_8385

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.

IMG_2668

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.

IMG_7867
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.

gabag
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)

DIY Ready To Scale?

MF2015发布banner2

Kevin Kelly, senior maverick at Wired, has his doubts on this. David Li, the guy who opened up the first maker / hacker space in China, interviewed Kevin at the MakerFaire in Shenzen. Being asked if open source and DIY products will replace or challenge traditional mass prodcution Kelly replied very hesistant: “DIY and open source products enhance the number of possibilities and this by itself is a very good and positive thing. But today I cannot foresee any scenario that DIY and/or open source products will ever vanish mass production for consumer and/or industrial goods or even challenge it in a significant way.” A bear hug for the world capitol of mass production in electronics, an embarrassment for the fairly new and quickly growing community of young innovators which was just recently ennobled by none less than the Chinese Prime Minister himself. China’s new innovators embody the DIY culture and I do believe that their biggest gathering and get together has a very specific reason to take place in the world centre for mass manufacturing – and this reason is explicitly mass manufacturing. So what happened when DIY and mass manufacturing meet? Is Kevin Kelly wrong?

It was my third visit to Shenzen, the second one in this year. You can almost see the city changing during a three month period. And it was my second visit to a MakerFaire. The first one I attended was in Accra, Ghana, West Africa. It was the first African MakerFaire and it was in 2009. In Accra everything was about prototyping. Prototyping products which eventually would improve the daily lives of the people. We saw prototypes such as a cooler for tomatoes or an irrigation system for farmers or clothes made out of old plastic bags and newspapers. A broad variety of daily needs. In Shenzen there weren’t any prototypes – almost each and every showcased DIY product and gadget was ready for mass production.

Shenzhen was built from scratch exactly for the reason of mass production. Mass production of electronics. It became well-known as THE copy-cat center of the world – but this is changing rapidly. Not only do the manufacturing lines change towards more qualitative products, e.g. Leica is supplying its objectives and lenses for the Chinese version of the gopro camera, we also see the rise of an entire new service industry around the manufacturing processes: consultants helping people to design their manufacturing outlets – very flexible, very fast and still very cheap. You basically come with a prototype and they design the facilities or adjust existing ones. It’s what’s called an “absorptive state” – it’s getting better and better at combining its own local capabilities and infrastructure with foreign technologies and knowledge. And when you walk around in the electronic malls in Shenzhen you experience the international business crowd looking out for exactly this. Basically each vendor in the mall is associated with at least one or two manufacturers. And this is the feeling I had when I strolled around at the MakerFaire in the midst of Hardware City – the district in which most of the multinational IT hardware companies have their offices. The only difference: the international business crowd at MakerFaire were the young makers. Unlike in many other MakerFaires the DIY spirit and the presence of art-tech mash-ups were lacking. Instead the makers were equipped with order sheets and product catalogs – the things I saw most were robots, drones and 3D-printers. And I saw guys from the manufacturing firms walking around and looking for interesting prototypes ready for their mass production units. And at quite some office buildings you could see the logos of international accelerators.

david
Kevin Kelly (left) interviewed by David Li

So coming back to Kevin Kelly – yes, I’d argue he is wrong. What I’ve seen in Shenzhen is “Maker to Market” – fully supported and in line with the Chinese government claims. What this basically means is that “weird prototypes and gadgets” which were developed in the grassroots communities of hacker and maker spaces in Shanghai and Shenzhen and elsewhere now become commercial products.

And what you can also already sense and already see in Shenzhen – many of these young makers and innovators set up their own companies. They want to become entrepreneurs. This will certainly fuel Shenzen’s economy further and add a new component to its industrial landscape. And when you walk through OCT Loft, a very surprising quarter of Shenzhen (at least to me), you’ll get a sense of what this means … just click through the pict below and you feel you are in Amsterdam, Berlin or Barcelona. OCT Loft – surprise, surprise – is also home of the first maker space in Shenzhen: Chaihuo – the cell and first office of seeed studio. And it’s also the place where the first Shenzhen MakerFaire took place. Seeed studio in turn is the main sponsor and organizer of the Shenzhen MakerFaire and the world’s biggest online platform selling everything what maker need. Mostly open source hardware components – made by makers for makers. And with their own production facilities – which are open and transparent – they are closing the gap between prototype and mass production by manufacturing up to 1000 pieces.

IMG_0727
OCT Loft in Shenzen

Currently the “Maker to Market” products are quite simple – in comparison to sophisticated and specialized technologies – and they are mostly built on open hardware technologies such as Arduino and low cost labour force. But having seen the transformation in Shenzhen’s industry in the last decade it’s hard to imagine that it will STOP here. And the first glimpses we could catch already: students from Hunan University showcased an electric car that runs 300 km per charge. Others showed a fuel-efficient vehicle which could run 1000 km with 1l of gasoline. And this vehicle only scored second best in a Honda competition for fuel-efficient cars. The big companies have realized the potential of the makers – and they are embracing it. Sony and Samsung for example have opened their research labs for the makers in Beijing. A bold move.

But does all this mean at a wider level that the manufacturing practices in Shenzhen, in the Guandong region and in entire China will even get worse? More unfair pay and harsh working conditions in the factories? Already many strikes for better salaries are going on and Foxconn, one of the MakerFaire’s main sponsors, is subject to interrogation about the working conditions in its factories. And the question of what kind of impact these factories have on the environment (air, water, nature, health …) isn’t part of a public debate yet. This opens a wide area for speculation.

For me the Shenzhen MakerFaire shined a light on the potential of the DIY ecosystem and ways to move forward, the political regimes which more or less regulates it, the infrastructures which supports it, the forms of work that drive it and the culture and history that shape it.

Iran – How to deal with Khamenei’s open letter to the youth in the West?

On January 21, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei wrote an open letter addressing the youth in the Western world. He invited them to read the Koran and to go to the sources to achieve a better understanding of what Islam is all about. The letter – I think – has a perfect tone and language.

A few hours after the letter was published I’ve received an invitation from my friends in Iran, whom I travelled and worked with last April during our Peace Pilgrimage to Syria (via Iran), to answer a few questions regarding this very letter. Mmmmhhh, what to do? I was somehow in a double windmill – I love the country, it’s beautiful and the Iranian people are warm, welcoming and very well educated. I always sense a kind of education in the humanities and classic traditions we in the West have almost lost. And for all of this I love this country. I also have to say I like the way Iran and its leaders act in the current Middle East conflict zone – in comparison to the U.S and the West they do have a strategy and position – whether one like it or not. Iran took its stand and is acting wisely. But there are also things I really don’t like about Iran – high among them the way they treat women (women need permission from a male if tehy want to travel!!!), the way they “force” foreign women to wear the hijab, the way they practice freedom of expression and the way they censor (there seem to be a decline in censorship these days as well) and especially the way they treat people who do exactly what Khamenei is asking the Westerners to do. Double-dealing?

So I didn’t want to offend them but I also thought one should support this initiative to reach out and understand each other better …

To make a long story short; I didn’t answer but I decided to publish a letter Amir Maasoumi wrote to one of our delegation members of the Peace Pilgrimage to Syria – Amir was asked if and how one should reply to this letter … below is his answer. I’ve chosen to publih it because it’s reflection the same tensions I felt … So please take Amir’s take instead of mine!

Amir is born in Iran. He is now living with his family in Montreal. He is a peace activist and intellectual.

Thanks Amir for having giving permission to re-print this.

supreme-leader-waving-to-crowd
Khamenei addressing Iranians

Very dear …

Thank you for your kind e-mail.

I have read your exchanges with …

I’m not at all surprised by this reach-out of Khamenei and the efforts and initiatives being made to gain support for it – especially support from well-known international peace and social justice activists; the prominent Western celebraties. I also know that they’ve contacted other friends and colleagues. A clear-cut answer to your question is “Do you think it would be helpful if I wrote something on this development?” is not easy to give!

I’ve read the letter of Ayatollah Khameneii the moment it was published. It’s a very good letter with a truly surprising invitation, thesis and approach. But the important question in this context is not related to any good words or wishful thinking. Unfortunately the experience has taught us that beautiful words and ideas do not go very far in the real life of the Iranians. There is a “double discourse”; soft speaking and harsh acting are the very nature and deeply rooted in the identity of the Iranian pragmatic politicians.

We – you and I – are the people who celebrate peace and dialogue. And we live up to it. Therefore any occasion to establish the contact between them and us will reduce the tensions, will build the bridge and encourage the dialogue towards durable peace. It is the most welcome for all of us. But a real and genuine dialogue, a dialogue based on respect for one another is something different. A dialogue with clear objectives and not a dialogue which is exploited for political means while in reality life as usual continues, it sometimes even gets worst. Or did Israel’s continuous talk about dialogue, negotiation and peace with Palestinians change anything in the daily lives of millions of Palestinians? No, their horrifying tragedy, the occupation, massacres, apartheid and ethnic cleansing are going on – in fact it’s getting worse. And everybody knows it, sees it – but nothing stops it. Or do the same warmongering attitudes of all other US, EU and NATO’s ‘’human rights and peace lover’’ leaders make any sense?

Please allow me to be more clear.

You know that I’m working in this field since more than 3 decades. In the aftermath of 9/11 early 2000 when President Khatemi (a “reformist” who is actually almost banned in public, muzzled and practically in danger in Iran) made the “dialogue among the cultures and civilizations” the central axe of his foreign policies, it was then when I asked him in an open letter: “Why do not we start at home, in Iran, the inera-Islamic dialogue with our Sunni minorities, the Sufis (the mystical dervishes) … and the inter-religious dialogue with others such as Bahaiis, different Christians denominations etc … ? I do not mention here the cultural dialogues, the relations with cultural and linguistic minorities within the country … Why do not we start this dialogue at home?” For instance more than two million Sunnis in the mega city Tehran do not have one Mosque and are not allowed to build one. They are Muslims as well. And they are by far the largest minority in this country. At that time the supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameneii and his powerful institutional and individual supporters were totally against Khatemi’s policies. Against any kind of dialogue! And now – at least officially – they take the same stand.

At the same period, I received an invitation from the U.S Senate Foreign Policy Comity as well as the General Consulate of the U.S in Montreal to help to build the relations and create “dialogue groups” with Muslim communities in the U.S and Canada. My answer was simple and clear: “A genuine dialogue is based on mutual respect amongst equal partners. It starts by and materializes in concrete actions. Dialogue is much more than sitting around a table and chatting. And it is definitely not possible when at the same time one side is persistently looting and burning Iranian homes, killing Iranian families and destroying our countriy…!” I also remember, at the very same period, G. W. Bush manoeuvring repeatedly with the same rhetoric of “dialogue with Islam and Muslims” in his speeches and declarations … Well, in order to address all these recuperations, these empty discourses “on dialogue” aiming particularly to thwart a real desire among the peoples for a genuine “dialogue in action” and as the alternative to permanent confrontation, to the “global wars” based on lies and manipulations. I published several papers and gave numerous lectures on the minimal requirements of a reel dialogue. Unfortunately they are all in French. Please see an example here.

As to me, I do not have any problem to inter in dialogue even with my “enemies”. But I do not want to be manipulated. I do not want to “serve” and become the instrument of the agenda of others which has nothing to do with “dialogue and rapprochement”. In contrary it very often goes in opposite direction. Thus, before saying “yes” to their invitation I would like to ask several simple questions why these notorious and persistent “opponents of dialogue” became so suddenly the new apostles of it – but only with the foreigners.

How come the regime expresses its wishes, its warm and irresistible desire for a constructive dialogue with the Western youth but it refuses to do so with its own? In Persian, we have a very good expression. It says: The lantern which is needed at home is not even allowed to be given to a Mosque!

How come, they invite and ask the Western youth to read the Koran and discover the true meanings of Islam without any intermediary, without interferences and influences of the negative propaganda or violent readings and practices of some groups … , but when the Iranian youth or Muslim intellectuals do the same thing, they go to jail, to exile, or they will be tortured or executed?

You know why?

Because they are not honest! Because for them, the only “authority” who has the right to talk about Islam is the clerical establishment, and the only authorized readings of Islam are their readings. Not even the readings of all other clergies out of th einner circle of power, even the most prominent once like late Ayatollah Montazeri; the designated successor of the “leader of the revolution” Ayatollah Khomeini, was discarded from power and died in house arrest. This is a very disgusting hypocrisy. The last young intellectual has been executed only four months ego, simply for his innocent interpretation of a very anecdotal Koranic verse, without any social or political implication, was Mohsen Amir-Aslani. He is one among the almost five hundreds executions since the new president Rouhani (so called moderate) has been elected – more executions than hardliner Ahmadi-Nejad had in the same period of time.

Well, if some Muslims among these “young Westerners”, after their own quest for the true meanings of Islam, reach the conclusion that Islam it not a convenient spiritual path for them and as the result they decide to convert to another religion or simply become atheist, what will be their sentence? Are they considered as “apostate” or “abjurer” as the case may be, with “capital punishment” applicable to them as demanded by Iranian so called “Islamic” based laws? If not why do not they abolish these inhuman and archaic “sacralised” jurist-opinions-of-another century and release all “new-Christians” and other conscious and faith based prisoners from Iranian jails? Why is the “freedom of conscious” only reserved for others? Why do they continue to apply these inhuman punishments to the Iranians?

Most of these young Westerners are very joyful and happy! They love to listen to music. They love to dance. Will they be questioned and eventually punished for doing what they love? If not, why are these simple activities judged as a crime when Iranians do it? Why must the Iranian youth pay such a high price for doing the same things? Being happy, dancing in private, film it and eventually share it on YouTube?

From a “theological” point of view the Ayatollah’s proposition, as I said before, is even more interesting. It has high significance and implications if it’s real and not only for short term political marketing operations or cosmetic purposes. Recognizing the legitimacy of everybody’s right to go directly to the “sources of Islam” and having his/her own understanding of the sacred texts – which is a basic principal of Islam. A principal that Iran is insincerely denying in the name of Islam since centuries, implies de facto that the entire clerical establishment (especially the Shiite branch of Islam) is nothing more than a guardian of the traditions without any “divine” power, without any specific authority to guide or control forcefully the lives of other believers. It implies that they don’t have any monopoly of the Islamic discourse or privilege access to the “unique and true sense of Islam and its texts” as they always pretended to have. In this case, the position of the “Supreme guide”, justified by the theological assumption that he has direct link and “connection” to the “last hidden Imam” and ‘’ his representative on the earth, with all his divine authorities, doesn’t have any base nor any raison to be. Therefore and in order to be coherent, at a very first step, these people must amend the Iranian Constitution and simply abolish the “Supreme guide’s” position with all its disproportionate and despotic powers. Even further, they must rewrite and reform the theological and ideological corpus of the theory of the “Absolute Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists” – the very core of the regime and the system.

On the other hand, how come that the famous Iranian philosopher and theologian Abdol-Karim Soroush (we can see him also in some episode of the “Salam Iran a Persian letter’”, a film based on my life) who suggested exactly the same ideas more than fifteenth years ago – has to live in exile? I’m neither talking about “radical pluralistic anti-clergy theologians and thinkers” nor about the human rights activists, leftist students, lawyers, dissident intellectuals – no. I’m talking about Soroush, a semi-liberal Muslim thinker who was for longtime amongst the “collaborators” and official intellectuals of the Iranian regime. Well, if the Iranian regime is really ready to accept this simple point or at least having a serious dialogue about it, then why they do not start this dialogue with people like Soroush? With Shirin Ebadi and many many others?

How many Christians, Baha’is, Sunnites, Dervishes even Shiites and among them the Ayatollahs with deviant readings of Islam and Koran have we in Iranian jails? Is it not better to start first or at least at the same time the respectful and constructive dialogue with them as well?

The two Candidates of the 2009 presidential elections: Mir Hossien Moussavie (with his wife), the “beloved” PM of Khomeini in the eighties and Mehdi Karroubi, a clergy and ex-president of the Parliament, also very close to Khomeini are currently under house arrest. Since 5 years, without any charges or leave alone a trial. Each one backed by millions of voters and supporters, especially by the youth and women. So, why not release them and start a dialogue with them and by doing so addressing the Iranian youths who massively voted for them?

I could go on and on and on …

Dear …, as I wrote to you and Shirin Ebadi in last April, after our second humanitarian and peace missions to Syria via Iran: “(…) This schizophrenic duality, this institutionalized hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, generally progressive and defendable in foreign policies but very repressive, reactionary, autocratic and violent within its own boundaries, this unimaginable inhuman and paternalistic contempt towards its own people must stop! Iran can’t continue to pretend to be a part of the “axis of resistance” against U.S imperialism and Zionism on the one hand while on the other hand doing the same things, acting with the same logic against their own people. Exactly the same way their “opponents” in the opposite axis are doing to other peoples and nations. …

… the respect of human dignity and human rights in general and the rights of women and minorities in particular lacks dramatically in Iran. Millions of men, women, especially the young generation, have paid with their lives to achieve the minimum of respect, dignity and freedom. And the sacrifices are going on. As I told you before, in this country apparently the freedom of expression and choice exist but the freedom of “after” expression and choice, does not! And this is not a funny rhetoric game. It’s an unbearable reality of daily life in Iran! One must live in this country to understand it. One has to feel it!(…)”

I firmly believe that these guys are manipulators – very clever and skillful manipulators (The Persian Vizier!). And we have to be very careful in dealing with them. I think the idea of a respectful letter to the Supreme guide in support of “his initiative” is a good thing but in my humble opinion this letter must include at least the crucial and basic questions mentioned above. And it should include as well the issues of the fundamental rights, discrimination and apartheid against women, minority rights, politically controlled and arbitrary judiciary system, executions, torture, freedom of expression and “after-expression” – among many other issues. Otherwise, we are an instrument of the propaganda and manipulation of the regime who will not hesitate to use the gained credibility it has gained to accentuate the repression against its people.

With my best wishes.

Amir

Experimenting …..

Slowly, slowly I am getting ready for another motorbike tour up to the Himalayas … final destination: Leh where I will stay with a friend and do some writing. Some stories of my life;-) But I am also planning to climb up a few passes (while Thomas is writing;-), Khardung La Pass and Chang La Pass are definitely high on the list.

So I am trying to figure out what is the best way to fix the camera on the bike … I want to get some video footage, not sure what for right now … Here is the first attempt. It’s filmed in Jhansi, leaving the town towards Gwalior (both MP) … the camera was (loosely) fixed in my pack back which I had above the tank … not ideal but the result is not too bad …

Deo Bagh

In God’s garden I was in heaven 😉 Literally.

Deo Bagh is one of the BEST hotels I ever stayed! It is located in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, and it is the most perfect stop in between Ken River Lodge (where I stay in Khajuraho) and Delhi on a motorbike ride. It’s almost half way and it’s an oasis of silence. Just the perfect spot after 5 or 6 hours on the dirty dusty roads;-)

IMG_7547
“Hallway” to the rooms

I arrived around 1 pm after a beautiful ride from Ken River via Orcha and Jhansi. By now the new motorbike was MINE;-) It was a bit tricky to find the place since I entered Gwalior at the complete opposite side, but with the help of an auto ricksha driver I made it through the busy, loud and chaotic center of Gwalior.

The moment you enter Deo Bagh you are in a different world.

picture15
Entrance of Deo Bagh

After a long hot shower in the HUGE bathroom I slept for 3.5 hours and when I woke up I felt like a newborn.
I walked around the temples of the Maharatsha which are part of the hotel property and enjoyed that NOBODY was there.
A quite unusual thing for India.

A light dinner in the evening and a good book to read was all I needed.
In the next morning I left for Dehli (via Agra) at 5 am.

And all of this for 40 Euro a night!
Not bad.

Here is a short video of the place – outdoor.