By Mark Bessen, International Climate Champion, USA
30 January 2011
After the Climate Camp officially ended, I wanted to spend a bit more time in India before flying back to Los Angeles. Using the International Centre Goa as a home base, I promptly began my adventuring. I stayed in Goa for a week, and then took the train up to Mumbai and stayed there for another three days. This was the first time I had travelled alone – much less traveled internationally at all – so I was understandably nervous. But I found the friendliness and willingness to help from almost everyone in Panjim and elsewhere to be very comforting.
On day one I decided to do the typical Goan touristy thing to do – go to the beach. First on my list was Calangute. As it turns out, the beaches of Goa are just about the only part of the state I did not like at all. Maybe I don’t appreciate them fully because I live near the beach, but they are just overwhelmingly overcrowded and strewn with garbage everywhere. Every two meters you walk, someone is trying to convince you to participate in some form of water sport – parasailing, jet skiing, wind surfing, tubing. Finally I gave in and decided to try the parasailing. As it turns out, it was great! Definitely worth all the hype, even though I was only in the air for 30 seconds or so. It felt like I was floating, drifting away from the concerns below me. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to find a place to go paragliding.
From Calangute I ventured a bit north to Anguna beach. I bumped into a man who was just starting a “paraboating” company, and decided to give it a try. If you’re as confused as I was about the difference between parasailing, paragliding, and paraboating, here are the basics: parasailing is when you’re pulled by a boat with a round-ish parachute; paragliding is where you go off cliffs with an elongated parachute and “glide” along the wind currents; paraboating, paradoxically, is more like a small plane – you have an elongated parachute, but there is a large fan and motor on the back to blow you whichever direction you choose. As I said, I tried paraboating. I was in the air for about 20 minutes total, and the view was breathtaking. I could see the whole coast of Goa, all the beaches, all the landscapes.
The next day I went to the Spice Farm in Ponda. I was taking buses everywhere in an attempt to reduce my carbon emissions, so due to a combination of my getting lost and the changing of bus routes, it took about 3 hours to get there. The spice farm was fascinating, which was a pleasant surprise (I expected it would be generic and somewhat unexciting). I had a one-on-one tour with a guide who was able to answer my exhaustive list of questions, and I learned quite a bit. Did you know that nutmeg and mace (the stuff in pepper spray) come from different parts of the same fruit? After my tour, I wanted to check out the main attraction of the farms – the elephants. It was terribly depressing. The conditions of captive elephants are absolutely atrocious. The two elephants I saw – one female and one bull – were chained up so tightly they couldn’t take more than two steps in any direction. The bull had his tusks hacked off, and both were being brutally screamed at by the people in charge. Every time they screamed, I could see the elephants flinch in anticipation of being whipped again and again. I asked if I could spend some time with the elephants and have them unchained for a while. They told me the only way to do so was to participate in one of two activities – an elephant ride, or an elephant bath. I didn’t want to subject an elephant to carrying me, so I went with the bath. Those in charge coaxed the elephant to the watering hole with a series of commands and physical abuse, at which point I was able to pet and spend time with the elephant. I just wanted to be near it, but the guides were intent upon having the elephant “perform”, showering me with water and splashing with its trunk. All in all, I highly recommend the spice tour, but if you’re any sort of animal activist, as I very much am, the elephant escapades are a bit traumatic.
On Monday I went to visit Aayush Surana, International Climate Champion, India at his university, the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS). I got a taste of authentic Indian dorm food, and I was thoroughly impressed. Aayush tells me that meat is only served once a week – the other 6 days are purely vegetarian! I’m envious of the ample availability of vegetarian fare in India. I learned to play carom, a game similar to American billiards. On Tuesday I went out in the field with Parag Rangnekar. Most of you know Parag as “the butterfly guy,” who led us through a nature preserve where thousands of butterflies saturated the air. However, wildlife (primarily butterfly) preservation and research is only a hobby for Parag. Professionally, he works for the Mineral Foundation, an organization implementing grassroots projects in communities surrounding mining sites. The Mineral Foundation receives subsidies from mining organizations, including Sesa Goa (where we saw the building made entirely out of bamboo) to fund projects relating to how the local communities are affected by mining. Parag’s work focuses mostly on water management. Mining dramatically disrupts the water table and diverts the natural flow of rainwater (particularly in the monsoon season). Since much of Goa’s population relies on agriculture – primarily rice farming – the issue of irrigation is critical for their livelihoods. The Mineral Foundation has funded the building of walls to normalize water flow, regulated wells which can be used for fresh water, and even funded the development of preparatory schools in local communities. These projects both improve the villages around mining sites and provide jobs to villagers. I got to see some of those projects firsthand.
The following day I met with Dr. Banakar of the National Institute of Oceanography. NIO is run by the government, and security is incredibly high. It seems almost like some sort of CIA operation when you get through the three levels of doors into the main office complex. It was nice to be able to see some of the research used in current research, but my visit turned me off a bit to working in a lab. The cold, windowless labs were not too welcoming. While I was visiting Aayush at BITS, I noticed that there was a conference going on regarding Wastewater Treatment and Energy Production. As my Champions project was on Microbial Fuel Cells, I was very excited. I very infrequently find any active work going on surrounding this topic, and it was heartening to see some of the innovative research going on. I was inspired to pick up my research (which I had previously put down for a while due to lack of resources, i.e., a lab) upon my return home. The conference was a great networking experience, and I met experts in the field from around the globe. It was a bit intimidating, though – I felt like I was the only one there without a Ph.D.!
After a 12 hour train ride, I was in Mumbai. I loved the city. Yes, it was chaotic and congested. But everything felt so active and full of life! It was fun to spend time just walking around to try to get a sense of what everyday life is like in such a populated city, which consists of so many economic groups. I visited some of the slum areas of Mumbai, which were quite heart wrenching. The children begging were the most upsetting. I felt somewhat helpless, as I couldn’t just keep handing out money to everyone. I also went on a boating tour to Elephanta Island, which I saw some of the caves created to honor Hindu gods and goddesses (the main cave depicted Shiva). It was great to see one of the religious sites in India, and presented a very different viewpoint. After all of that gallivanting, I was ready to get on the plane back to Los Angeles.