Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Indian Standard Stretched Time

It’s been a slow week this week. The guys here say that India works on Indian Standard Stretched Time, and it seems this is definitely the case for steel workshops. With none of the prototypes ready for testing, I’ve spent the week looking at the other projects that SELCO have on the go and have actually made some good progress in places but none of the other projects are likely to have as much potential as the de-husker.

Fortunately for this blog I took a slightly longer weekend away in Mysore so might be able to fill the space with that instead... We arrived in the dark and rain at about 5am after the overnight bus ride and got to watch the town wake up before being met by Kishor. Kishor is a mechanical engineering lecturer at the National Institute of Engineering, based in Mysore, and met Lincoln on a visit to the SELCO office. I was struck by his incredible generosity as he essentially gave up his entire weekend to give us the full tour and let us stay in his house, despite the fact he’d never met me before and had only met Lincoln the once.

Although not the most conventional tourist stop, one of the most fascinating parts of the visit was a trip round the mechanical engineering department at the university. A lot of the labs looked quite similar to those in the Cambridge Engineering Department and the level of teaching was clearly very good. They also had a section looking into rural technologies to help alleviate poverty which I was very interested to look round. There were some really neat ideas on display there but as with so many of these projects, none of them had been taken on to the next stage of being properly tested or actually put into production. I sort of suspect they were never fully researched either and may well not provide the most practical solutions.

             A pedal powered water pump

The main tourist attraction of Mysore is the Maharajah’s Palace which is the official home of the Mysore Royal Family who used to rule over a lot of South India. We got there a bit before dusk to look around the inside and then sat on the paving in front to watch as the sun went down and the lights came on. It was an impressively elaborate building but I couldn’t help feeling a bit sad to see so much extravagance in a place so surrounded by poverty. And I saw my first westerner here (apart from Lincoln of course) since leaving the airport!

We visited the zoo which had some impressive animals including elephants, tigers, giraffes and (mating) lions. I was actually surprised by how good the conditions were for the most part but things like moody chimpanzees and fettered elephants meant you didn’t quite get the feeling the animals were better off there than in the wild that English zoos manage to give off. But it was quite good fun and we found it hilarious to see so many Indians crowded round an enclosure of pheasants.

On one of the evenings Kishor took us to the closest thing Mysore has to a pub with some of his housemates. It was probably more like a rock-club actually: dark, seedy and playing very loud rock music, but it was good fun and I had my first beer and first ‘non-veg’ there since arriving. I don’t know if it was the music or the alcohol but there were virtually no girls there, and apart from the odd head-banger getting up for his favourite song there was no dancing either.

             Kishor decided to stick to the 7up

I had my first experience of Indian church at a St Philomena’s Cathedral, which holds a weekly mass in English. I was amazed at how similar the service was to a Catholic one back home, and the interior looked almost the same, with the exception of the rope lighting around the crucifix perhaps. Catholicism is the main branch of Christianity in this part of India, and I think that probably has a lot of benefits. I realised in Kenya how easily doctrines get distorted in a place where a lot of the congregation don’t have easy access to books and other recourses where they can explore things themselves, whereas the heavy focus on liturgy in the Catholic service means there’s not actually much space for heresy (beyond anything within the liturgy of course but this probably isn’t the place to discuss that).

We also visited a museum about Mysore, a railway museum, a huge market and a few temples, and saw a play about a man who bought a temple elephant to use on his farm but it got bitten by a mad dog and went on a rampage around the village. I didn’t actually realise that’s what it was about (the elephant was played by an umbrella) till Kishor explained it at the end as it was performed in the local dialect of Kanada, but it was very interesting to see how it compared to an English play.

On the way back we decided to get the train, which takes the most spectacular route through paddy fields and then on into rainforest covered mountains.

On Tuesday it was Raksha Bandhan, a day when girls give out rakhi bracelets to certain boys as a way of saying ‘I love you as if you were my own brother’. This sounds like a lovely gesture but has come to mean ‘I like you as a friend’ or ‘you don’t have a chance’, and is feared by all the boys; some here even missing classes to avoid getting banded. I realised the actual significance of the tradition when Manjesh (one of my friends from the hostel) pointed out one particular band he hadn’t expected to get with a genuine guttedness. I think I must be doing something wrong here as I managed to pick up three myself.

                        (Apologies for the facial hair by the way: I thought it might be interesting
                        to stop shaving for a while. We’re yet to see if it will ever progress
                        beyond the ‘he needs a shave’ stage to a ‘beard’.)

I also had my first lesson in washing clothes on an Indian washing stone this week. It’s supposed to get your clothes cleaner than a conventional washing machine but I’m not convinced it's worth the extra effort.
                       I hope you're reading this Mum.

I was afraid I’d miss my guitar so brought a ukulele along to learn. A couple of the guys at the lodge have guitars and we’ve spent quite a few fun evenings playing around with them since my first week. We’ve just recently found a drummer too so may well be touring the Ujire rock scene by next week’s blog.

And as before, here are a few more nice photos which don't really tell you a lot about my week but hopefully you'll enjoy anyway:

             It's supposed to be a good idea to ask for a blessing on your new car and so the
             first trip that a lot of them make is to the nearest temple for a mini ceremony.

                        I don't know if these cows thought that the motorbikes were part of the
                        herd but I've often noticed that they like standing next to them

             One of the warning signs in the zoo. I like how they decided that getting mauled
             by a tiger wasn't quite off-putting enough to keep people out of the enclosures.

                    Another picture of me looking windswept. This time on a very long train.

             Some farm workers planting out paddy

             We’re very fortunate to have a western style toilet in our bathroom.
             Unfortunately the mice here aren’t so used to them and this one clearly
             had some difficulty getting out.


Hmmm... so it turns out I actually had quite a lot to talk about this week despite the lack of project progress. Thank you for reading to the bottom; maybe I’ll try to do a bit less next week.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Prototypes, flags and waterfalls

Last Sunday (15th) was Independence Day, where the whole of India celebrates being rid of us guys. The engineering college held a special ceremony which Lincoln and I thought we should probably attend. I had imagined it to be a day of jubilation but in fact it was a much more sombre occasion; remembering those who died for freedom. The ceremony involved the raising of a flag (which we saluted), a minute’s silence, the national anthem and a patriotic speech from the principal. I enjoyed the speech but lot of the students seemed to be less enthusiastic about it all and see the story much more two sided. They realise the great advancements that the British brought with transport and technology, even if we did rob India’s resources, and are disillusioned by the corruption present in the government since we left.

             This is a photo I managed to sneak during the ceremony. The guys assured
             me it was OK to take a photo

Later in the day we made it to Didupe waterfalls with some of the guys. The hostel places incredible strict rules on the students compared with what we’re used to including strict curfews and the students need special permission to leave Ujire at all during term. This makes getting away for a day trip more involved than you’d expect, but after a cunning operation 11 of us made it out to a Jeep and we set off.

The 2km trek from the road took us through some amazing jungle following a path up the river. The route crosses the river about half a dozen times for no obvious reason, which made for some good water fights. And the falls themselves we spectacular. We spent quite a while playing around in them.

Most of my week at work has been spent coming up with some new prototypes for the de-husker. Wanting to hedge my bets I’ve come up with three different designs based on some of the old patents I’ve looked through, two of which are currently being made. The language barrier makes it a lot more difficult to explain to the steel workshops what you're after, even with an interpreter, so we’ll see how things turn out. To be honest I’m not expecting any of them to work well but I hope they will give some useful insight into how the de-husking process works and which will be the best route to pursue.

On Thursday I went with Lincoln and Sandeep to nearby Dhamastala to meet with the agricultural director of SKDRDP, India’s fifth largest NGO, who have contact with a lot of rural communities. They seemed very keen on the projects and offered to carry out a survey for me to help understand what farmers would want from a small scale de-husker. They also offered a chance for me and Lincoln to showcase our projects at one of their project’s monthly federation meetings to get some more feedback from farmers. It's going to be on 15th September and so I now have my first official deadline.

One of the students took me to his maths lecture this week. The teaching style was very different to lectures back home; most of the time was spent copying down what was dictated or written on the board, and there were a lot more examples.
             I managed to sneak this photo when teacher wasn’t looking. Spot the
             other differences between this and an English lecture.

The rugby boys will be pleased to know I’ve found a gym where I can put in my pre-season training. One of the guys I met there was very insistent that I should train three times a week but we’ll see how that goes.

And a few more photos from the week:

             Having a waterproof camera came in pretty handy on this trip

        Some additions to the rulebook, posted on the hostel noticeboard.

             For a few rupees, this elephant will 'bless' you with its trunk. Hindus believe it to
             be a god, along with some other animals that can be found around the temples

Monday, August 16, 2010

So I'm here.

I made it to India and have started work for an engineering NGO called SELCO. It’s this sort of spiritual, social, political exchange thing. Yah. SELCO’s main thing is setting up photovoltaic systems in rural parts which don’t have access to electricity. They have innovative methods to help the villagers pay for the systems and to maintain them, and have won several prestigious development awards. For the last few years they’ve been developing other projects to help alleviate rural poverty and it’s one of these that I’m working on.

There are various methods people here use to remove the husks from rice (including throwing it on the road so the trucks drive over it), although most farmers travel miles to large processing plants in order to get it done. I’ll be trying to design a smaller, cheaper version of this de-husker that can be bought by a farmer or village entrepreneur. I take the project on from two interns who worked on it previously but despite their efforts they haven’t managed to achieve anything that works. I’ve been warned that the odds are against me, but they obviously think it’s worth continuing. I’m also likely to get involved in some of the other projects they have on the go.


I arrived into Bangalore at 5.30 local time on Tuesday morning. After a day spent visiting the SELCO headquarters and various other sights of Bangalore I took an overnight bus to rural Ujire where the innovations lab is based. It’s monsoon season and almost 100% humidity but all the locals tell me it’s the best time to visit: it gets a lot hotter without the clouds and the rain is beautiful as long as you don’t mind getting wet occasionally.

The lab is on the top floor of an engineering college and has spectacular views out onto the tropical forests surrounding. I share it with another intern from England called Lincoln and two local employees: Sandeep and Manju. The guy in charge is called Anand and seems to be very switched on.

I’m sharing a simple room with Lincoln in the college accommodation, which means we’re surrounded by students and I’ve become quite friendly with a lot of them already. We end up spending most spare time with them: eating in the college mess; going to the shops in the town and spending most evenings chatting or playing cards. I was expecting to have a lot of time to myself here and sometimes find myself feeling a bit crowded. I’ve found a rock 10 minutes from the hostel that looks down onto a semi-clearing in the forest where I’m enjoying my quiet times, but I feel I haven’t really had time to digest where I am and a lot of the things I’ve seen. As I write this (Saturday evening) the others are upstairs in someone’s room but I decided to be antisocial tonight so I could start this blog. I have a great time with them but I may need to take a bit more time out next week.

             Our room

The food here is actually very nice, especially considering it only costs 50 rupees (72p) per day for four all-you-eat meals (they have the additional fun-named ‘snack time’ at 5.30pm and then a late dinner). Although every meal is curry. Even breakfast. The food is entirely vegetarian and eating meat here is considered a bit rebellious, in line with smoking or getting a tattoo in England. And drinking alcohol is even worse, but I hear there are some seedy bars in the cities if I get desperate. The curry is a lot more watery here in the south than curries we get in England although I’m becoming better and better at eating it with my fingers thanks to my daily tuition.

Work so far has mostly involved looking at old patents and playing around with rice grains for de-huskers although it’s so far taken me to some interesting places outside of the office including a rural farm, a steel workshop and a rice mill. Hopefully lots more visits to come.

And here are a few more photos:

             My first Indian curry. Tasted a lot nicer than it looked.

             My first ride in a rickshaw

             The SELCO paddy de-husker so far. Those things that have just come out are
             grains of rice with the husks still on by the way.

                          And this is what a commercial paddy de-husker looks like

                          A local helping build Lincoln's prototype food dryer

             On my fourth day they decided that I was ready to give my first presentation
             on the project. Unfortunately there wasn't a lot of progress to report but they
             seemed interested in the idea.

             There have been a lot more signs of Christianity here than I was expecting,
             although many have been in an unorthodox form. Some Hindus have
             adopted aspects of Christianity on top of their own beliefs and hold Jesus
             as one god among many.

             The best way to get around on work visits

             Ice creams in Ujire

I don’t have internet access at the weekends so I plan put new entries up every Monday morning. Stay tuned.