Tuesday, December 20, 2011


As previously mentioned, I was definitely not ready to leave India and no other place had clearly called out to me as a next destination, so it was with a fairly glum spirit that I flew from Kolkatta on the very last day of my visa to Bangkok, the capitol of Thailand. I mainly came here because A.) it was a very cheap flight, B.) I had some contacts in the northeast of the country who were working on community rights for mining-affected areas, and C.) I had read that there was at least some amount of work happening around small-scale gasification plants in rural areas.

I somewhat purposely didn't read up on Thailand or try to find out very much about what it was like before going. I thought that it would be better to just immerse myself in the place and learn as I went rather than have preconceived notions, although I later realized that subconsciously I had assumed that it was a "developing" country in a somewhat similar condition as India. Not at all. If entering Delhi had overwhelmed me with the chaos and insanity of a megacity that thought it was a ramshackle village, Bangkok underwhelmed me with a sea of bland new modern construction and efficient, comfortable transportation systems. I didn't realize how much I loved the total craziness of India (including the ultra-competitive rush to get on the general class trains) til I had to sit through an hour of air conditioned bus rides with the same obnoxious Thai commercials playing on nice new TVs over and over and over and over.

I spent a couple of days in the city to give it a chance, but Bangkok found no place in my heart. Yes there were some big Buddhist monuments that were nice to look at and maybe I missed the more interesting parts (supposedly there's a floating market that's pretty sweet), but I just couldn't get over the huge fancy shopping malls, blandness of the residential areas (I Couchsurfed with a local Thai person), and the caliber of Western tourists the place attracts. Certainly it's no good to judge people you haven't met, but I had zero desire to interact with 99% of the Westerners I saw walking around in this place. Let's just say the city's reputation as the world capitol of prostitution and partying brings a certain element of grossness that I hadn't encountered so far on the trip; my 30 minutes or so on Khao San road were probably the most obnoxious minutes of the past year.

Luckily I was able to escape before too long, but I consistently got sticker shock from the price of bus tickets after the super cheap rides in the last country. Of course India didn't have double-decker AC buses with video games built into the seat and robot-looking bus attendants (yes, just like flight attendants), but I didn't actually need any of that. As I came into Khon Kaen, the small city where my contacts were based, I came to realize that this is in fact a quite "developed" country with more similarities to Europe than India. This was another very bland modern city, though without the intensity of slutty consumerism I'd experienced in Bangkok. Unfortunately the nasty cold that Deepa's mother had cured me of was coming back with a vengeance, and I was also realizing that I was not a huge fan of on-the-ground Thai food. I love Thai restaurants in the US, but it seemed like almost everything here was some combination of oily/slimy, containing lots of pork, over-fried, and generally not too appetizing. I already missed those huge mounds of steamed rice and lentil soup I'd gotten so used to.

However this was largely made up for by the generosity and helpfulness of my contacts at CIEE/Engage, a student-based effort to connect study abroad stints with real-world insights into globalization and community empowerment. These folks had actually come to my neck of the woods in Floyd County, Kentucky and written up a human rights assessment dealing with the abuses of extractive industry there which was directly compared with similar communities near the Thai border with Laos in the Loei region. I would be going to these places along with an American guy (Sam) who helped coordinate the student program and a Thai fellow (P'Kovit) who mainly worked as a community organizer.

We spent about a week hanging out in Na Nong Baan, Naan Jon, and a few other locales in the area. These were fairly remote rural villages, but for the most part they had much more modern construction and the residents were a lot more likely to own cars or trucks than in the villages I'd been to in India. The exception was Naan Jon which was in one of the most "undeveloped" parts of Thailand; it was no coincidence that the people were the friendliest here as well. There was quite a bit of mining for precious metals (copper, gold, silver, etc) in these otherworldly looking mountains. In general the place seemed like something out of Avatar, complete with huge weird insects, highly poisonous critters, and other rainforesty weirdness. We spent time with a family that had been fighting to expose the intense poisoning of their village's water supply due to cyanide runoff from a nearby gold mine that looked like a mountaintop removal operation, and were taken by some other villagers to a site that they were fighting to save from strip mining for copper.

These were definitely serious issues that were being faced by communities here, especially the amount of human damage already caused by cyanide poisoning in Na Nong Baan. The scale of destruction was quite a bit smaller than what we face back home since it takes much longer to mine a much smaller area for gold or copper, but the effect on the local population was at least as direct. Of course nothing can compare to the outright warfare happening in Jharkhand and other parts of India over communities affected by mining, but that makes the suffering in these and other areas no less real. It was a pretty surreal moment when I went to a community organizing meeting and saw a Thai woman in a KFTC "Save the Mountains" shirt; I guess somebody had brought it back from Floyd county and it ended up in a random Thai village!

The highlight of this foray for me was the time spent in Naan Jon, one of the few remaining villages that doesn't have grid power or running water and still uses mostly traditional natural building techniques. There were quite a few organic farmers here as well using biodynamic fermented concoctions as fertilizers and pesticides, ingredients including waste sugar, cow dung, rotten food scraps, and other yummy things. We went into a truly amazing natural cave complex with bizarre stalactite formations that resembled ice palaces and to the top of the highest mountain around. P'Kovit had taken off at this point but Sam's excellent Thai language skills and preexisting relationship with the community made it all possible, and for this I'm still very grateful (not to mention putting up with me in my head cold-influenced sour mood). The food was a bit different in this part of the country, especially with the very gross fermented fish sauce (apparently a whole fish is ground up, allowed to ferment, and then used to pickle cabbage or whatever. gag) and the less gross but still weird sticky rice. I should also mention my other main observation, that for some reason people really like to sit on very hard tile surfaces. All the time. No cushions whatsoever.

I had been carrying an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach about Deepa during our Loei village foray where I didn't have internet access or phone reception, and when we finally reached back to Khon Kaen and I could call her phone with Skype this feeling was substantiated. It really wouldn't be appropriate to give the details to the WWW via this blog, but basically she had been in the hospital for a very surprising reason and I received a great shock to the system. I can explain in person if I know you and you're interested; I only mention it because my time with her and her family in Sikkim had been a significant part of my trip and this experience largely affected my mood for the rest of the trip (and after).

Without much direction or interest in what would happen next, I visited a small gasification plant in another region in Thailand on my way to Chiang Mai, the main city in the mountainous western region near Burma/Myanmar. The plant was not too different from what I had witnessed in India, and I was a bit frustrated by the fact that I had assumed I would find quite a few installations like this in Thailand but basically all of the places I had emailed (except this one) had never gotten back to me. After some confusion and miscommunication I was given a nice tour by a fellow who spoke pretty good English. This was another Thai surprise; despite being much better off economically than India, barely anyone spoke any language other than Thai and I actually had much more difficulty navigating around in rural areas here. Add to this the fact that Thai is a tonal language, in that the same word can mean something totally different depending on how you say it. I was a much more frustrated traveler here though obviously it would be asinine to think that they should know English just because it would be easier for pouty tourists.

And then on to Chiang Mai. It was pretty, I spent a few days riding around in the mountains on a rented motorbike, went to the Highest Spot in Thailand, almost got in a fight with a cab driver (you're supposed to haggle over the price in India; this guy was about to start a public Muay Thai match!), visited a kind of hippy-dippy organic gardening/natural building/intentional community kind of place (thought it was more of an indigenous seed saving and farmer empowerment project, oh well), met some nice Americans, ate gross food, checked out a big old temple, and was generally a typical tourist. I had prided myself for the vast majority of the trip on how atypical I had been, and that I was a traveler, not a tourist. Not so in Thailand, where the country is tailor-made to suck you into the tourism industry whether you like it or not.

I did manage to get ahold of and visit a pretty awesome organization in the far northwest near the border with Myanmar (Burma) called Upland Holistic Development Project. They primarily work with Burmese refugees who flee to Thailand to escape ethnic persecution in SE Asia's longest running military dictatorship (though apparently as of last year the situation in Burma is starting to get better). These refugees are scarcely tolerated by the Thai government and end up eking by in ramshackle rural slums with little to no support. UHDP, a Christian-based initiative, mainly works with them to establish organic family subsistence gardens and agroforestry approaches to restoring denuded hillsides while also generating cash crops such as coffee, mango, etc. A very nice Thai fellow showed me around the UHDP organic training center and seed saving site, as well as to a nearby "hilltribe" village where they're implementing several of their project aims. We also visited his home which was nicely done up with permaculture gardening all around it, complete with a mix of different kinds of birds to pick off any bugs that might crop up.
And that pretty much wraps it up for Thailand. Once again I had a hard time deciding where to go next, and in this case it would be my last stop since I had just over a month to go before being due back home in the USA. After pondering over which places I had really wanted to go but hadn't been able, would be fairly easy to travel around in and get something out of in a month's time, and would be fairly cheap to fly in and out of on my way back home, I settled on Romania.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Meghalaya and Sikkim Revisited

I promised to keep in touch with Deepa and the fam while 640km away in the Meghalayan coalfields, and then I was off for a part beautiful/part dusty-as-hell motorcycle ride to Siliguri to embark on the train and jeep rides that would eventually land me in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. The cramped, bouncy jeep ride from Guwahati was informative in a few ways. First, I kept noticing the Jhue form of slash-and-burn hillside agriculture that I had briefly read about on the internet. While it has been officially outlawed, as with most things in India enforcement is virtually nonexistent. This traditional tribal practice made sense when population pressures were much lower and before modernization brought things like chemical fertilizers and pesticides, but the method of cutting and burning all the vegetation on a steep hillside and then planting in rows that run down the slope is wreaking havoc on soil and water quality throughout the region. Second, I almost couldn't believe the intensely congested traffic, and the fact that it seemed to be almost solely due to the number of ridiculously painted coal trucks trying to squeeze past each other on the pathetically underbuilt roads.

After taking 4 hours to drive about 60 miles, I finally reached Shillong and met up with Bijoyeta (check out her work at www.bijoyetadas.com) and spent the night with her awesome friend David and his family. Bijoyeta is originally from Guwahati and makes a living by creating photographic stories on everything from Bangladeshi sweatshop workers to the mines we were about to go to, and David is a Khasi who teaches at a nearby college. The Khasi people are the natives of this part of Meghalaya and look very distinct from other peoples; somewhere between Burmese and Indian with something else thrown in. They're also a matrilineal group that has historically given females much greater power and responsibility than many other traditional societies. We started off toward the coal-producing Jhantia Hills the next morning to meet with the contact who would be putting us up.

Bijoyeta's father, a lawyer, had a client who apparently owed him some favors so this coal trader fellow from Bihar agreed to put us up and take us to one of the mines that he buys coal from. I can't remember his name, but I came to know him simply as "The Loudest Man in the World" due to the extreme volumes at which he normally talked. He wasn't shouting or angry, he was just really, really loud. The hovel of an apartment he shared with us was surrounded by a very weird little outpost of a town that consisted of a state-of-the-art petrol station, a constant stream of wildly painted coal trucks passing by, piles of coal everywhere, and a handful of liquor stores, knick knack shops, and brothels. Lots of people could be seen loading the piles of coal into trucks by hand throughout most parts of the day, many of them women in the local traditional dress which (no offense) looked oddly similar to a checkerboard table cloth.

We went straight to the coal mine the next morning, and I'll be damned if it wasn't the craziest looking mine I'd ever seen. A 300ish foot deep vertical shaft with a makeshift bamboo ladder led down to the coal seam, and a very simple diesel engine-operated crane lowered a giant metal bucket down into the mine which the workers filled by hand. It was then lifted out, dumped on the ground, and hand-loaded into the waiting trucks by the three or four dozen workers standing around. Why they didn't just dump the coal directly into the trucks, I'll never know. This was all surrounded by something of a ramshackle rusty tin slum that served as worker housing.

Bijoyeta and I climbed into the bucket and were lowered down into the pit; it was pretty amusing to see how scared she got while I attempted to play it cool (the rust holes in the bottom did freak me out a bit though). We must have hung out down there for 4-5 hours. She took a lot of pictures, and I ended up feeling bad for the workers as I knew they were getting paid by the bucketload and our intrusion was basically lowering their wages for the day. I tried to allay my guilt by grabbing an unused shovel and working as hard as I could to help load the coal. The one manager-type guy did his best to convince me not to do it as they were convinced that a white European fellow would get injured trying to do this kind of work, but I assured them I'd done this before and that I'd be fine. It had actually been about 5 years since I'd worked in the mines, and I could definitely feel it the next day! I could tell that the other shovelers appreciated it, and I wished that we didn't have a language barrier between us.

As Bijoyeta and I talked to the workers, owners, and locals to investigate the issues around this recent boom in mining, it turned out to not be a very black-and-white story. The Indian constitution guarantees that tribal lands in the Northeast territories can only be transferred to other tribals, so outsider interests are basically unable to come in and snatch up the land the way they have in Appalachia and Jharkhand. The Jhantia (closely related to Khasi) families who have leased their land to be mined have benefited greatly economically, and most of them have built newer, nicer homes near Shillong and let managers from Bihar and other plains parts of India come in to manage the actual mining. All of the underground workers are Bangladeshi or Nepali migrants (probably illegal), but according to them their daily wages (about $17) were way higher than what manual laborers make in almost any other part of India (around $3/day). No locals worked underground, but quite a few Khasi and Jhantias worked aboveground loading the trucks alongside the Bangladeshis; weirdly, all of the local laborers I saw were women. Of course according to the managers there's no environmental damage from this mining whatsoever, but I'm sure the water quality is being wrecked at the least. With Bijoyeta as translator I asked one of the loader girls if she thought this whole coal boom was good or bad for the area; after some uncomfortable hesitation and looking out past a panorama of coal piles atop orange-stained earth, she said that overall it's not good.

We spent the rest of the day hanging out with and taking pictures of the coal loaders back near the apartment, and they were awesome. Super friendly, funny, and obviously getting a kick out of being rock stars for a day. Back in Shillong by the next morning, I had to figure out what to do with myself for the next few days while Bijoyeta went off on an unrelated shoot. I went to a nearby museum focused on the tribal history of the region, but it quickly became apparent that this was a very missionary-centric establishment. Nevertheless it was interesting despite some fairly condescending moments and a very annoying endorsement of chemical-based agriculture as an improvement. I'd heard about a "sacred forest" in the nearby area which was supposed to be very eerie; I once again lucked out by getting hooked up with a friend of a friend who would take me on his motorbike for the cost of gas and a meal. This place was definitely weird; it's hard to describe the haunted feeling I got from the bizarrely twisted roots, ancient stone monoliths, and a charred, gnarled, blackened tree where no other evidence of fire was present.

I should point out that my geeky video game-saturated childhood caused me to constantly think of myself in the middle of a Legend of Zelda world as I navigated through all of these random places in rural India. The next day only augmented that experience as I caught a couple of jeeps into the south to see a living root bridge in "Asia's cleanest village" (not sure how that rating system worked out). Somehow people realized hundreds of years ago that they could train the roots of living trees to traverse the span across a river, and the result is otherworldly to behold. I traveled from this to a treetop viewpoint platform made only of bamboo that looked over into Bangladesh, and from here into a random village that had a weird little hut that sold homemade rice liquor through a window with metal bars. A friend of mine did a painting of something very similar that we used to have in Appalachia for selling moonshine, called a Blind Tiger. I finished the day off with an Indiana Jones style foray to find a mysterious waterfall I'd been hearing about; apparently there was no marked trail and you had to know just the right place to veer off the main road and then trudge through some leach infested jungle. Somehow I found it and managed to not even get a single leach on me and met a really nice local dude who surprisingly spoke fairly decent English.

The very last stop on the Meghalaya tour was the Rural Resources Training Center, a very inspiring project that was another example of the unexpected indigenous missionary work that was much more about community benefit than indoctrination. A priest from Jharkhand who was closely affiliated with the Kurux school I visited near Dumri had started this project several years ago, and they've evolved into teaching innovative organic farming and social entrepreneurship skills to young people throughout the Northeast. They had a very impressive campus with several different growing and processing centers for everything from trees, vegetables, livestock, and fish. All of the teachers and staff that I saw were locals, and it seemed to be mostly people from nearby Nagaland that were staying in the dorms at the time. Father Cyril gave me an excellent tour of the place and I only regret not spending more time here. I'm still hoping I can make some connections between this place and Berea College, maybe even for some study abroad internships.

A few more random notes about Meghalaya and the Northeast before I finish with it...One of the weirdest trends I saw here was the tendency to put reflective tinting on your car's front windshield to the point that you only had a tiny Robocop-style slit to see through. I cannot understand why this is cool or legal. Like Jharkhand, this was also a highly missionized "tribal" area, meaning that there was a major Christian influence in the area. It certainly played out differently though, largely because the indigenous people had never been Hindu and never had such a rigid social structure, especially regarding coupling and marriage. Similarly to Darjeeling, there seemed to be a lot of Western-style hipstery folks here too, and I'd been told this was common to other Northeast states such as Nagaland and Aranuchal Pradesh. Unfortunately I wouldn't get to find out as my visa ended in a week.

Yet another harrowing train adventure delivered me to my waiting Bullet motorbike in Siliguri, though this time I got to share the tiny wooden luggage rack with another fellow as a sleeping surface. Moral of the story: you can't travel seat-of-the-pants in India and not expect to have somebody's feet in your face while you sleep (i.e. general class SUCKS, book ahead at least 2 weeks on www.cleartrip.com). I made my final voyage on the lovingly titled Shit Rocket (the motorbike) to spend my last week with my adopted family at Banjakhri Falls. Besides giving some final renewable energy museum tours and hanging out a bit with the saintly but slightly mentally handicapped family gardener Gophli, I went with Deepa to meet her parents in a small mountainside village about 20 miles down the road. I couldn't imagine a more beautiful place to grow up. Her family's house overlooked a deep Himalayan gorge with snowcapped mountains rising in the distance, and her father's side of the family had organically farmed this terraced hillside for many generations. All of the nearby extended family was extremely warm and generous, and somehow her mother completely cured me of a nasty cold I was developing with a homemade tincture.

Nothing I can say at this point would do the experience justice or seem uncliched. Basically I was strongly invited to come back there once my wait period was over (India makes you wait 2 months before reapplying for a visa) and live there permanently. I can't describe how tempting this was, and is. Sikkim is probably the most beautiful place I've ever been, with equally beautiful people. The entire state uses almost only organic farming and almost all of their power comes from renewable sources. I could have joined the family tradition of being a mountainside farmer, or even kept working on and improving the renewable energy aspects of Banjakhri Falls. And yeah, Deepa had a bit to do with it.

Regardless, I sold my motorbike, got a jeep to Siliguri then a train to Kolkatta, and spent an unfulfilling touristy day looking at the remains of the pompous British legacy in their former colonial capitol. I didn't know where else to go and had found a cheap ticket to Thailand a week or so ago; I had some contacts there from a human rights project in my home of Floyd County, Kentucky, so I figured I'd go see what's up with the mineral mining in north Thailand. With a heavy heart I boarded the plane on the very last day of my 6 month visa.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Darjeeling and Sikkim

Jharkhand had been the most intense and exhausting part of the trip thus far, so I felt somewhat justified in going to a couple of pretty and somewhat touristy areas directly afterward. Darjeeling was the first stop on my way back into the Himalayan mountains. Once the favorite vacation spot for the British Raj overlords, it has continued the legacy of an economy dominated by outsider-owned tea estates and tourism but politically is more concerned with domestic squabbles over a separate state for the indigenous Gorkha people (the Gorkhaland movement).

Darjeeling itself is a strange mix of newish cobbled-together concrete construction, beautiful old British buildings, dozens of souvenir shops, and a big gross new Western-style shopping mall, all built into the side of a very steep mountain. My agenda was basically to look at some big mountains and check out some small scale hydropower energy projects, but the 5 days I spent there ended up being a bit more interesting than that.

I made my first friend by asking a random rocker-looking dude for directions to the jeep stand, and he ended up introducing me to his friends in the local punk band DaPrimitive Future and taking me to the best spot to see the sunrise over the world's 3rd highest mountain, Mount Kanchenjunga (the spelling is flexible apparently). He was a Tibetan refugee, marking the second time I'd made such a friendship in the Indian mountains. Darjeeling surprised me in what I began to uncover as a fairly active underground music scene. Apparently there's a few dozen punk, metal, and experimental bands from this smallish Indian city which seemed odd since I hadn't come across this subculture anywhere else in the country so far. I seemed to be encountering much more youth that were conscious of western "hipster" fashion, as well as quite a bit of ethnic diversity that tended toward more Asian features. My new friends informed me that the entire mountainous northeastern region of India is like this, even in the "remote, tribal" territories near the border with Myanmar where everyone has a Justin Bieber haircut and speaks fluent English solely from watching American TV and movies.
I did manage to hook up with a representative of the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency for a tour of a functioning small-scale hydropower project attached to an organic tea estate. I've had an interest in small and micro-scale hydro for awhile as a potential part of the answer for a sustainable energy future in Appalachia and other regions with lots of small streams and elevation drops. Although I'd heard that the Himalayas are home to many examples of hydroenergy projects that don't require huge dams and therefore massive ecological destruction, I'd been having a tough time getting in touch with anyone to actually show me a project. I was very grateful to Mr. Chakrabooti for giving me a private jeep tour of the Ambootia organic tea estate and the state-run power plant at the base of it for no charge. While there had been some earth moving and concrete structures built to make this possible, it appeared to overall be much more environmentally benign than large scale dams or any form of fossil fuel energy. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take pictures due to government paranoia around the Gorkhaland conflict.

It seemed like I'd taken in the majority of what Darjeeling had to offer, so I hopped in a jeep and rode over to Gangtok, the capitol of the neighboring state of Sikkim. This place is billed as India's "mountain paradise," with official permission required to even enter the state for a two-week stay. Similar to the neighboring country of Bhutan in many ways, Sikkim was an independent country up until 1975 when it peaceably merged with India, and it's native ethnic types bear little resemblance to the vast majority of plains Indians. The entire state is mountainous, and some areas are highly restricted to foreigners, such as the controversial Nathula Pass on the Tibetan/Chinese border.

After a typical night in a typical cheap hotel, I woke up with a strange feeling of positivity. I had absolutely no idea what to get into, so walked down the very steep streets to the tourism office and started leafing through a booklet on various attractions in the state. I was immediately mystified by a place called "Banjakhri Falls and Energy Park," with a brief, vague description of a place based around ecotourism, renewable energy, and shamanistic traditions that was only about 6km away from Gangtok. I asked the lady at the counter if it was within walking distance, and after she drew me a crude map I started on my way down the mountain.

What followed was a mostly amazing 2 hour walk down very steep concrete staircases and paths that meandered almost right through people's homes, and luckily everyone I met was very friendly and eager to help the random foreigner who was actually trying to walk somewhere. At one point a horde of grinning, jumping, laughing school kids chased me down a hillside, right before I found myself surrounded by beautiful terraced hillside farms and handmade wood and mud thatch houses. Eventually I found my way to the entrance of the park and paid my 35 rupee entrance fee (equivalent of about $0.80) and proceeded to wander around this very strange place.

Words can't really do it justice, but basically it was a mishmash of lifesize displays of local shamans (the Banjakhris) casting out demons and such, a few souvenir shops and food stalls, a fairly janky tiny "renewable energy museum," tons of solar panels, random things to play on (including a zip line across some river rapids!), and finally the majestic falls themselves. After wandering through all of this I noticed a neglected building which contained both a wood-fired gasification system on the top floor and a micro hydro system in the bottom. I had to jump over the railing to check it out, but I could tell that no one there minded too much. Intrigued by the hydro system, I decided to go up the river to see what kind of diversion structure they were using. After reaching this point I noticed a picturesque cable bridge just up the way, so I climbed up the hillside to check it out. Once there I turned around to find a terraced mountainside organic farm and started checking it out to see what methods they were using.

Before long some people in a nearby house had noticed me and sent a young woman to go find out what I was up to. Deepa turned out to be the niece of the people who lived in the adjacent house, and she invited me back to meet her family. I arrived to the scene of a freshly killed goat that was being expertly hacked up and pieced out for consumption and sale, and they were nice enough to let me watch the whole thing and take about 3 million pictures. I was invited to stay for dinner which I of course agreed to (various goat parts stew!), but before this Deepa took me on a tour of the surrounding hillside village, including across the cable bridge that had initially attracted my attention. Her little cousins Samson and Susmita came along and a good time was had by all, especially me.
During dinner I found out a bit more about the family and was eventually invited to stay with them for as long as I wanted. Moni (husband) and Menuka (wife) had moved here after marriage as this was Moni's ancestral family land, and about 10 years ago the Sikkimese state government approached them about using part of their land for a state park. They agreed, and the state then set up Banjakhri Falls park with the agreement that they (Moni and Menuka) would manage and run the park, keep the proceeds from admissions and vendor space, and submit an annual payment to the state. They had a fairly small staff of mostly young folks from the area, and Deepa was working at the ticket counter and renewable energy museum as a first job out of college. The organic farm I'd noticed earlier was theirs also and was mainly worked by the quietly saint-like Gophli. If it's not obvious by now, I was very smitten at this point.

I agreed to stay for an undecided period of time, and promised to help with anything I could. I ended up working in the funny little renewable energy museum fixing broken interactive energy demonstrations, making labels and explanations for the displays, giving interactive tours to Indian tourists (strangely I never saw a single foreign tourist here, only Indians on vacation), and hanging out with Deepa and the others as they took tickets. I got to be pretty good friends with Moni and Menuka's son Narin who ran the zipline, and generally settled into a little bit of a routine for a few weeks. However, against Deepa's wishes, I ended up buying a Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle from an American in Gangtok so that I could visit the nearby area of Pelling in West Sikkim.

This was my first experience of personally owning a motorcycle, and despite a few initial technical aggravations it was actually pretty awesome. The trip to Pelling and then to Yuksom was breathtaking as it wound through about 90 miles of intensely curvy and steep mountain roads that sometimes abruptly transformed from fairly decent pavement to absolute rubble. Although I nearly got hypothermia from a sudden intense cold rainshower, I made it intact to the touristy little town of Pelling which is reputed to have the best Kanchenjunga views in India. Unfortunately the weather was not on my side the following morning as the sunrise and mountain peaks were shrouded in clouds, but it was still awful perty. Next stop was Yuksom, the historic capitol of the old republic where the first king (temporal and religious king as it was a Buddhist republic) was crowned in 1642. I visited Phuntsog Namgyal's coronation throne site as well as a natural lake completely encircled by prayer flags before getting back on the road toward my adopted family in Gangtok.
As I was biking up the steep windy roads back into Gangtok, I received a very unexpected call from an Indian photojournalist. She had gotten my number from someone who I had emailed at some point to suss out mining areas to visit in the Northeast, and lo and behold she was planning to do a story on the recent upsurge of unregulated coal mining in the nearby state of Meghalaya and was inviting me to come along. Within minutes I was in a mad scramble to find a train ticket from Siliguri (the nearest station to Gangtok) to Guwahati, the capital of neighboring state Assam and the launching point for jeeps that go into the more remote Northeast territories.

Deepa and the rest of the family were a bit upset to hear that I'd soon be running off again just after getting back from Yuksom and Pelling, but I promised to come back for the last week of my time in India. I had hoped to get a visa extension to be able to more thoroughly explore the Northeast and spend more time with my adopted family, but after the 2008 Mumbai bombings the government doesn't allow any extensions for tourist visas. Truthfully I was having a very difficult time deciding where to go after India; I had stayed too long to leave enough time for a really worthwhile trip to China, I wasn't terribly interested in the nearby Southeast Asian countries, and all I was really interested in was spending more time in the Indian Northeast. Despite several attempts at haggling with the authorities, I accepted defeat (though I halfway thought about intentionally overstaying my visa and haggling over the fee at the airport).

Wild and Wonderful Jharkhand, Part 2

After a few weeks of nagging my hosts to help me visit a very "sensitive" bauxite mining area called Lahodaga I'd been hearing about, I was sort of haphazardly put in contact with some people at a missionary school near Dumri. This school was chartered by a local Adivasi priest to educate a couple of local tribes, one of which had never had its language put into written form. I'll say a quick word about the nature of Christian/missionary work, schools, etc in this part of India...To my understanding, German, British, and Belgian missionaries came to the interior tribal areas starting in the mid 1800s and over the next several decades set up quite a few schools and ended up intervening on tribal peoples' behalf when the British government was trying to impose laws that would have stripped them of their ancestral land. This was probably the most Christian area I visited in India, and it wasn't uncommon for a single family to have both Christian and tribal religion members. I didn't see any white clergy on several visits to churches, nunneries, and other religious institutions; it seems to be perpetuated solely by the local Adivasis themselves.

Back to Lahodaga...After a chaotic series of minibus transfers in the absolute middle of nowhere in rural India, me and my "guide" (who turned out to not know any more about the place or the situation than me) were let off at a dirt road junction where the driver pointed in the direction we'd have to walk another few miles to get to the school. We arrived just after sundown to a fresh chicken dinner, and it turned out to be a very nicely designed school though it could use a bit of financial help to finish the last bit of construction. The next day was a bit of a miss but interesting nonetheless. I tried to explain that I really wanted to see some areas with large scale hill-top bauxite mining and speak to people who had been affected by it, but we ended up having a bunch of sisters (as in nuns) jump in the jeep and direct us to a convent for our first stop. It was a very lengthy tour of a big pretty Catholic campus, then they wanted to go stop at one of their parents' homes for lunch, and while it was very tasty and I really appreciated the hospitality (and they strangely insisted that I let the matriarch of the house wash my feet) it also knocked out any real chance to see strip mining affected communities that day.

Before going to bed for the evening (and after dropping the sisters off), we made a detour to the jeep driver's home village which was just down the road. Here I got to see mahua liquor being made for the first time, and it was pretty awesome. I also got to see some really drunk villagers, how people steal electricity from government power lines, and one dude demonstrated how they make their clay roof tiles which is something I'd been pretty interested in. The next day proved to be much more fortuitous almost right off the bat.

No one had told me there was a model solar energy village right down the road, so needless to say it was a massive surprise when we suddenly rolled into a remote hamlet that had a very impressive photovoltaic array, not to mention a community-owned rice mill and a state-of-the-art water purification system. Apparently someone from the village ended up being a well-known priest out in the greater world and was able to secure some government funding for this model village project. Obviously I was stoked to just randomly happen upon this seemingly very well-functioning example of how rural India could sustainably become a bit more modern, though it seems pretty doubtful that this will become a widespread phenomenon anytime very soon.

After dropping off a sick kid to his family somewhere outside Lahodaga, we finally made it to the super-devastated site I'd been looking for. Several miles before actually coming to the Hindalco bauxite mines at Bagru Hills, I started noticing these elevated cable cars carrying something or other above the arid farmlands of western Jharkhand. A hair-rising ride ensued up and around the side of a mountain on a road that was not unlike the road up to a strip mine in Eastern Kentucky. At the top was a guard gate, and for some reason they were willing to let us come onto mine property and wander around. It was very, very much like a big mountaintop removal site from Appalachia on the top, complete with random pieces of rusting heavy machinery, apathetic security guards, and of course huge gourges of destruction where the earth had been laid bare to get at whatever of value was inside it. But one main difference with back home was that quite a few people seemed to be living here. Not just any people, but the people who had been here before the mining ever started, and who were now the ones operating the machinery at best or doing grunt labor at worst. The story here was that this community didn't know it was even possible to organize against a mining project when Hindalco first came around back in the 1960s with orders that they had the right to mine the land and that the people who had traditionally lived on the land would either have to find somewhere else to live or could work for the company and live in company-built housing. According to the very friendly, hospitable fellow who befriended us and became our unofficial guide, they would have definitely resisted back then (when he was just a boy) if they'd known they could. They used to have diverse forests and rich farmlands that they could easily support themselves with; now they only had the meager earnings from the company, which was barely enough to pay for basic schooling for his kids. He was one of the main guys running the miles of cable cars that I had seen on the ride up here.

Well, that had all been a pretty intensive series of experiences, so I reckoned I was due for something a little more recreational. I had met a young woman at the Netarhat firing range rally a week or so ago who was from a town in this area where I now found myself, and we'd made plans to hang out if I ever ended up over her way. I spent a few days with Nisha and her family in Gumla, which is really not a very interesting place in and of itself but I did enjoy riding a moterscooter with her and one of her friends waaayy out into the hinterlands to visit her mother's village. I don't think they had electricity there whatsoever, all of the buildings were traditional earthen structures (very durable, weatherproof, and naturally air conditioned), and we had a very nice hike along with her beautiful and tough single mother cousin up to the top of a hill overlooking the area. Once we got there she told me that this was one of the main forest hideout areas for the Naxalites (remember the anti-government guerrilla force?), but we shouldn't worry because they knew her and wouldn't want to mess with her dad. OK.

Nisha and I had some other random adventures in the following weeks, such as happening upon a place of worship on this remote rock outcropping where we witnessed a nearly naked Sadhu rescuing a calf from drowning in a pool, inviting me back to Gumla where I was some kind of special guest along with her father (apparently the guy was some sort of mafiesque Don Corleone political figure but I could never ascertain his exact position) at the massive Sarhul festival, and a special trip to the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh where we were hosted by her aunt's monastery/school and went to go check out the nearby mega-industrial town of Korba. Needless to say, I could nearly write a book on these exploits alone, but that probably wouldn't be the best use of blog space.

I finished off my "really screwed up places in Jharkhand" tour in the infamous coalfields of Dhanbad and Jharia. The underground mine fires have been blazing in the Jharia district for nearly 100 years, and they're showing no signs of stopping. Dhanbad was a fairly decent-looking modern Indian town, but just behind the facade were apocalyptic mountains of destruction, smoke and gases spewing out of the ground just feet away from houses, abandoned old megalithic industrial structures, little kids carrying big baskets of coal on their heads, and coal dust absolutely everywhere. Just googling "jharia coal fires" should give you enough to go on for awhile, and although I had read about the place and even seen a documentary about it, it's really something else to physically feel the immense heat of the ground and then to see kids and women scavenging coal from huge open pit strip mines in either bare feet or tattered flip flops so they can have something to try to sell to be able to eat that day. I honestly don't know how they do it; I couldn't keep my hand on the ground for more than a few seconds. Maybe I'm naive, but I think you'd be hard pressed to find more abject forms of poverty and tougher overall living conditions anywhere else in the world, excluding actively war-torn areas. Obviously the government should be doing something to not allow this situation to perpetuate especially when India is making so much money from haphazard industrial expansion, but once again we see what really matters in mining areas when people are pitted against minerals in terms of value...

My last official stop in Jharkhand was a bit more of an uplifting example than the most recent visits. I had connected months ago with a fellow coordinating the Jharkhand Alternative Development Forum, and from our emails it sounded like we had very similar interests and goals in terms of promoting local sustainable development. He and some others would be traveling to a remote hilly area in the south to visit a community bioenergy and organic farming project and I was invited to come along. It was definitely remote, and I surely enjoyed the windy, bumpy, hilly roads on the way out to the village site. I was told at a certain point that state vehicles wouldn't travel any further than here for fear of Naxalite ambushes, but the Naxals were aware of and very supportive of the project we were going to visit. It was basically a big firebox that would have huge chunks of wood shoved into it to convert water into steam in a compartment within it, and this steam would be used either to turn a small generator that powered lights throughout the village or it would power an oilseed press. They were using the oilseed press when we arrived, and it was honestly pretty awesome to see these folks take organic mustard they had grown, use fallen timber they had gathered as firewood, and process mustard oil that they could sell at local markets or use for their own cooking. In the background a building was being constructed that would later house a seed saving bank and an organic farming training center, not unlike some of the other projects I'd visited in Orissa and earlier at Navdanya.

Thus concludes my month and a half in Jharkhand. While this is a very long entry, I feel like I just barely skimmed the surface of what was probably the most intense and impactful of any place that I visited during this entire year abroad. Part of me still wishes I could go back there right now, part of me is very glad that I'm not there, and part of me might still be there. I feel like I should have some kind of wise conclusion to all of this, but for some reason I still don't feel terribly wise...Jharkhand to me represented most concisely what India as a nation is going through right now, which in a way is what the world has been going through since the Industrial Revolution. India is racing headfirst toward being a "developed" country with malls, cars, cell phones, and semi-regular electricity, and the fuel for that is coming most directly from places like Jharkhand. The Adivasi people are the ones most intimately affected by the ugly side of industrial capitalism, though many of them openly embrace the coming industrialization as the best way forward, including current chief minister Arjun Munda who hails from the same village as the afore-mentioned bioenergy project.

Of course I have my own opinions as someone who deeply respects and reveres traditional, "tribal" ways of living that don't rely on external inputs and are very resilient; in fact I think the "developed" world could learn a lot from the few people who still practice this lifestyle. I definitely had some interesting exchanges trying to explain that to tribal youth who just want to go to college, get a good paying job, have nice clothes and a nice motorbike, and who accept the industrialization that will displace their families as "the price of progress." This place is the battleground at which the raw things that modern society needs to survive clash directly with the sustainable societies who had lived on top of those resources for thousands of years in relative contentedness, and it literally is a battleground as evidenced by the Naxalite insurgency. I would like to be a resource as much as possible to connect people abroad with folks on the ground there who are doing good work, so please contact me if you would like to somehow support any of these people or spread the word about what's happening there. CLICK HERE TO SEE THE FULL PHOTO ALBUM ON FACEBOOK