I spent most of yesterday trekking through the jungle at Ananthagiri Hills with about ten people from the GHACand my two children. In between climbing old-creek beds off-trail, hiking through fields of torturous thorny grasses, telling stories to keep the kids happy and uncomplaining, and looking for and at stones, bees nests, peacock feathers, and even one scorpion, I found myself ruminating about the many relationships I and those around me have to the jungle here.
My friends and neighbors view even the small patches of jungle (Hindi for “forest”) near my quarters as dangerous and not to be entered. When the children play there, a neighbor calls me warning of snakes. The children and adults do not enter the forest. When I invite them to learn more about snakes (through the GHAC’s collaboration with the “Snake Sense” organization), the children jump at a chance to join me, but the adults will not accompany them. I must request permission to bring 5 children along with me, with no other supervisors. The event, associated with India’s wonderful “Children’s Day” holiday turns out to include a hike. We trek up and down a local hill, slide down a crack between boulders, challenge ourselves to pass along the edge of a large, highly angled stone, climb a tree. The children with me alternate between fear and enchantment, feelings of prowess and worries of inadequacy. At the end, each child receives a first aid kit and a reminder that they gain much from pushing their limits. Will they keep their adventurous nature?
Clearly, the GHAC views the jungle as a place for fun, adventure, exercise, and comradeship. On our hike yesterday, we launched ourselves from the edge of a hill up a mountainside through brush, thorns, and rocks. In contrast to my neighbors, concerns about snakes were not prominent. Indeed, from what I learned at snake sense, a dangerous encounter is unlikely (and likely to be precipitated in part by a lack of sense). The excitement of discovery, and the challenge of hiking these non-trails sustains my children through the beginning of the hike. As they begin to tire, I begin to notice that many trails snake through the woods and fields and across or along our path. Soon we are passed by herders walking their cattle down the trails. White birds fly among the cattle clearly benefiting from their presence. To these herders, the jungle and fields are not adventure but home and land. We continue on our way, unremarkable to those who share the space with us. Eventually, as we return, we pass the only “wildlife” we’ve seen besides a single scorpion: A lost goat bleating for its pack, unaccompanied.
At home, just down the road from our quarters, the workers who are helping with the campus expansion enter the forest frequently, it is their bathroom, washroom, and perhaps more. Behind the residence, the local organic farm is engaged in transforming parts of the forest into food. The forest sounds, smells and sights reflect these activities. It is clearly lived in, not just because of the trails that run through it and the plants that grow in it, but also because of the pervasive presence of garbage. In contrast, during our hike, garbage was rarely sighted: Those living on the land preserved its cleanliness. Why, I wonder? Fewer people? Different lifestyles? Perhaps a sense of environmentality that grows from using and being responsible for the land, benefiting from its preservation ?
At the end of our hike, we traveled to a local lake to relax, cool off and play. We share the surrounding coastline with those who simply live there and other visitors, but we have managed to find a corner of the lake that only one other person, a man chopping wood. The adults in our troupe of adventurers spend hours sharing food and playing in the water. We have brought no toys, boats, or other equipment. A half-full water bottle doubles as a ball for a while, then the play turns to tag. Meanwhile my son repeatedly splashes at those he knows will react by chasing him, throwing him into the water. I am struck by the sense of playfulness and community among this group of strangers who have just met and spent the day together. I think an american crowd might have more quickly run out of things to do, perhaps splashing, then splitting off into small groups swimming. I can’t remember the last time I saw adults playing tag.
At the end I am left with a question: What creates these different relationships to the jungle, and how might they change? Agarwal’s paper describes a particular transformation in one community’s relationship to the Jungle. From viewing the forest as something that must, by necessity, be pillaged (and that is big enough to take it), one informant says “We protect our forests better than government can… For us, it is life… Just think of all the things we get from forests. If we don’t safeguard the forest, who else will?” [1, p. 2]. After presenting this initial transformation, Agarwal spends much of the rest of his article deconstructing its genesis in the varied regulatory structures and enforcement mechanisms put into place in the decade over which the transformation takes place. He argues for the role of “intimate governance”, rather than “government at a distance”, in creating environmentality. What is promising about the specific success he observed is the way in which it “led to a cascade of changes in institutional, political, and social domains connected to the idea of community” [1, p. 21].
While my observations lack the scale or depth of Agarwals, it seems likely that the different relationships, ownership, and upbringings I observed also have a direct impact on the preservation and use of the forest. Given the interdependency of these factors, as well as the impact of relationships among stakeholders, community attitudes and identity (e.g., ), lasting behavior change seems unlikely without multi-faceted, multi-level solutions1.
1I have argued elsewhere that there are multiple reasons to consider multi-level, scalable projects that engage with governments, organizations and individuals in sustainability research (and, as an aside, that much of the research we do now on sustainable HCI may be lack valid motivations). The analysis here seems to provide additional evidence for the need to think more broadly about the work we do.
 Agarwal, A. (2005). Environmentality: Community, intimate governance, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology, 46(2).
 T.Dillahunt, J. Mankoff, E. Paulos. Understanding Conflict Between Landlords and Tenants: Implications for Energy Sensing and Feedback. In Proceedings of Ubicomp 2010.
We began our two weeks in China on the outskirts of the city of Xi’an. China came across to me as much more western (in terms of cleanliness, architecture, goods for sale, fashion, and so on) than India does. However, it is also clearly an ancient country with a rich and very different culture from the West. One big difference was immediately obvious on arriving in China: Unlike every other country I’ve visited in recent memory, English was not going to be of much use. Since I couldn’t read the writing, this meant that a great deal of preparation was required, something I don’t excel at with travel. Luckily, we had a printout with the hotel name on it, and were able to procure a taxi (though we were charged twice the normal rate, we later learned). Later in the trip we would discover that Taxi drivers mostly didn’t like us — one time Anind was forced to hail 42 cabs before one took pite on him and brought him home.
Our hotel in Xi’an was situated near a mountain near a natural hot spring, among fields of ripe pomegranates. The hotel had a spa, with 40 or 50 separate stone pools of hot water containing diverse “soup” and “tea” concoctions such as lemon, cucumber, aloe, jasmine, carrots, marbles, and many I
could not recognize spread out among peaceful walkways surrounded by greenery, flowers, and ripening fruit. Unlike spas in the US, this one welcomed children (for free), and had a special larger pool intended for a play space. The kids loved the spa, and we spent several half days bathing in pools,
playing, resting on hot stones (heated from underneath), and eating snacks at the spa’s small snack house. Afterwards, we would go to the hotel’s excellent restaurant and fill ourselves with delicious chinese specialties. Since it was raining most of the time we were in Xi’an, this was a perfect way to pass our first few days in China.
In between spa visits, we also did some sightseeing. We spent a half day in Xi’an, biking around the top of the city’s large old wall. We also had the unexpected opportunity to view a concert in the city’s bell tower, where women danced to the sound of traditional chinese instruments. The instruments included bells, a flute, a bowed single string, and a plucked string instrument. The children were entranced. We also spent half a day at the Terra Cotta warriors, tromping from building to building in the pouring rain to see one of the greatest archeological finds of the last century. The detailed carvings of the warriors and their sheer number were both impressive.
After about four days in Xi’an we headed by overnight train (always an adventure) to Beijing. Our goal there was to attend parts of the Ubicomp 2011 conference, but we also had a great deal of sightseeing planned. These plans were waylaid in part because every one of us got the flu, one after another, during this trip (ending with my husband having it on the flight home). However, as there were a few days where no one was sick, we still managed to do some sight seeing.
My favorite thing by far was the great wall of china. We went to the MuTianYu section of the wall. Our driver encouraged us to arrive there early (it was over a 1 hour drive), so at 7:30, when the shops were just opening, we found ourselves eating freshly made dumplings for breakfast at the base of the wall. I somehow never realized this, but the wall is built along the peaks of a mountain chain, so we had to take a cable car up to the wall itself. We were the only people on the wall for the first few hours of our hike, which made it a very special, peaceful experience. We had intended to walk toward the flatter section of the wall and head down after an hour or two, but the children saw the wall rise along the side of a a nearby mountain through the mist in the other direction and insisted that they wanted to scale that peak. After passing turret after turret, we finally reached the section of
the wall that rose to the peak, and we worked our way up the stairs. My son was especially brave, alternating between hugging the ground and forcing past his fear of heights to scale the next few steps. At times, when we encountered stairs that were especially steep, he clung to my back, eyes closed, as I walked up (or, earlier in the walk, down them). The view from the top was beautiful, as was the sense of accomplishment that we all felt. Amazingly, my son had no trouble at all going back down, his fear conquered by his own success. Following this, we retraced the route and began to walk toward our original goal. My daughter ended up scraping her knee and we carried her much of this way. Finally, we reached the way down: A toboggan with a brake lever and room for one adult/child combination that traveled down a metal track to the bottom. We ended with more dumplings for lunch, and a purchase of the obligate tourist trinkets.
Although the wall was my favorite, we did see some other beautiful sights. We spent a day wandering around the Forbidden City (prelude: A bicycle rickshaw ride and an attempt to change the price from 6 yuan to 600 yuan at the end of it!), followed by the notorious 42 taxi refusals and a visit to one of the top acrobatics companies in China. The feats we saw on stage were impressive, including bike acrobatics, a ballet dancer who danced point upon the shoulders and arms of her partner, tumblers, balancing acts, juggling of balls by foot, and more. We also visited the summer palace, during the evening reception of Ubicomp, which included a series of performances, including a sampling of the Beijing Opera and a mask dance that ended with firebreathing.
We topped off the trip with a special visit to the musical instrument sales district of Beijing, promised to my son who was missing having a cello. We took a 45 minute taxi ride to an obscure section of Beijing, and found ourself on a street filled with stringed instruments of all kinds, both western instruments (cello, violin, even viola) and traditional chinese instruments (a ceramic type of whistle with finger holes, a reeded bamboo instrument with a drone and fingered section called a Hulusi, a bowed string instrument, and more). Our first goal being a cello, we stopped at the first store that had child-sized instruments and I encouraged my son to try more than one. It was an eye-opening experience for him to compare the sound and feel of more than one instrument and see how much they differed. However, the price was high and the instruments out of town and badly made, so we kept looking. We quickly discovered that the highest quality instruments (both traditional and western) were found at shops where skilled musician played music to attract customers and display their wares. One shop even specialized in baroque instruments, including an (unfortunately out of tune) 6-stringed Arpeggione, which they let me try. In the end we settled on a beautiful, well-made 1/4-sized cello with a nice sound, and a Hulusi for my daughter. After a comedic visit to about 10 banks with no success in retrieving money, we ended up having to go back to the hotel and purchase the instruments the following day.
In the end, our time in China, despite having many “wasted” hours waiting out sickness in hotel room, was a wonderful success. In between spa visits, we were lucky to enjoy much music, acrobatics, and dancing. We ate a huge variety of food in dinners both in Xi’An, at our hotel in Beijing, and thanks to the conference at two separate conference events. We saw palaces, nature, and city walls. We bought blatantly overpriced tourist tchochkas, paintings, and even a chess set. And to top it off, I had the opportunity to attend a conference I rarely can (though I often submit to it and read its papers). The day I spent at Ubicomp 2011 was intellectually stimulating and full of wonderful discussions with friends and colleagues.
Today was a day of firsts in India (and in some cases ever) for me. A wonderful day of firsts. I had my first motorcycle ride (without a helmet, no less, as I don’t expect to do this often and don’t own one). It was an unexpected feeling. The power of the machine underneath is inescapable, and the seat is wide and comfortable so it requires little concentration to stay on board. Yet there’s a sense of balance that engages similar to a bike, and a need to stay seated as speed changes and over bumps. Then as a passenger there’s a lack of warning or control that adds to the overall need to stay focused. Throw in the Indian traffic, and the ride gets quite interesting at times (video below). Speaking of Indian traffic, I’m pretty sure I observed traffic stopping at a red light for the first time every today. I suppose a day I’m on a motorcycle without a helmet is a good day to see traffic laws obeyed (sort of) though.
The reason for my ride was a trip far out of the city to take a first aid class thanks to the GHAC (updating my knowledge from the baby-focused class I took when my son was born). My driver was unavailable and a GHAC member kindly volunteered to give me a ride. Have I mentioned how much I love this club and the people in it? Ok first aid is more of a pun than a first, but it still fits the theme.
Another first — first violin in India. After the class we stopped by a music shop that had violins in Secunderabad. I put one together (bridge was down, bow needed rosin) and played my squeaky heart out for a good 30 minutes before the owner had to close up. I didn’t realize how much I missed my viola until I saw that instrument and set bow to string. It was glorious, even with the cheap ingredients and need for transposition.
Final first, which I will enjoy with the kids tomorrow: I saw a pork shop on the way to the music shop, and bought bacon. A whole kilo. With a huge smile on my face, thinking of how happy it would make the whole family.
A reminder that when far from home, sometimes a mix of totally new and totally familiar can be exactly what one needs.
*Photo credit: All photos by GHAC. Thanks for sharing!
I have been hoping for an opportunity to join the Greater Hyderabad Adventure Club (GHAC) on an outing ever since I discovered them two weeks ago. They have meetups ranging from local bird watching to multi-day trips that all seem exciting and fascinating. Today I finally was able to follow through. The meetup was slightly later than the usual 6:30 meeting time, and on a weekend when the kids were free. Equally important, the kids were excited: It involved both a hike and a chance to do something for mother earth (pick up litter). Both kids have been asking about volunteering recently and how children can be involved, and my son seems especially intrigued by the concept. Both children were very excited when I told them about the meetup, so we signed up. The day began with an alarm clock, a little horlicks (ovaltine) and a long wait at a local bakery after we were dropped off. Luckily, new friends showed up shortly and introduced themselves — both were as new to GHAC as us, and very friendly. Good thing too, as the usual hurry & wait of travel set in. Once we were settled in the bus, we were surrounded by friendly faces, many of whom offered the children food and drink as we drove. The GHAC is an organization that started three years ago. Because of the special nature of this trek (cleaning up), there were many folks involved who had helped found it or been involved for some time. Most other events have two organizers (a leader, and someone to mop up the crowed at the back end), who have been extensively trained in safety, outdoor survival knowledge, and so on, and are limited in size to a manageable number of folks accompanying those leaders (around 15 maximum). The club started small, but about a year ago began growing dramatically and now has over 5000 members, only about 100 of which are trained leaders. As a result, most meetups book up very very quickly after they are announced, even though there are many each week. This meetup, again unusual in nature, had no limit. In fact, a group of about 30 college students met us there and helped tremendously with the cleanup. After a quick stop for Idli and other breakfast yummies, and a long drive, we finally arrived at the temple marking the start of our walk. We headed down a set of steps into a valley near the temple and began picking up garbage.
The GHAC leaders helped to organize us (and the students when they arrived a few minutes later), provided special gloves and facemasks to anyone who wanted them, provided garbage bags, and generally kept things moving. The kids documented what we did with videos and photos, and had a great time exploring the forest. We helped make sure they avoided any spiders and snakes. The kids were far too noisy for me to worry much about the bears, boars, and other animals that live in the surrounding forest. I did run into one spider web myself, and discovered a VERY large spider walking down my neck a few minutes later. After seeing me doing a bit of a dance, someone suggested I just hold still and calmly grabbed its silk and moved it. Wish I’d had the presence of mind to think of that myself! It was BIG, though.
Although we didn’t spend much time touring, the organizers were kind enough to take us around a bit. We were surrounded by the constant sound of birdsong, and drank in the beauty of the surrounding forest while trying to ignore the litter that hadn’t yet been cleaned up. Most beautiful of all to me was the eucalyptus grove. We did try to look for birds, but we heard them far more than we saw them. Instead, we saw boar tracks, a toad, a very large spider, and many kinds of plants. The organizers of the event did a great job of using it to educate as well as clean up. After the main cleanup, we piled the bags high and joined in a circle to pledge to protect the earth.
Next, we piled back into buses and traveled on to a beautiful overlook, where we discovered more litter. This time, we were able to gather more than half as much litter in 10 minutes (there was a lot, all in the same area) as we had in 3 hours before. The kids delighted in taking on the role of time keeper as we cleaned.
The event ended, after lunch and relaxation at the hill station’s main resort hotel, with a long ride back to Hyderabad. This was a chance to talk and make friends with the wonderful group of people who helped the cleanup to happen. The children were playful, as were the grownups and we shared a great deal of laughter during the long drive home.
When we finally got back to our flat, it was long past dark. After a quick snack, I put the children to bed. When we stopped as usual to make wishes and thanks, the importance of an event like this was made abundantly clear. My children had absorbed its meaning far more deeply than I had imagined. Both children talked about how bad litter and plastic were. My son wanted to organize a cleanup of the play area near our flat that all the children use. My daughter planned to invent a special device the fairies could use to tell everyone on earth never to litter again. However, after finding out that plastic takes a long time to degrade, she wanted my reassurance that we would not gather the litter up simply to throw it in a landfill where it would continue to bother mother earth. Her fairies, she told us, needed material to make there houses, and couldn’t we use the plastic for that and other projects?
Despite the joys of the day, there was one thing about the event that concerned me. My son refused to take an oath to help the earth when others did. Later, as he went to sleep, he asked me how he could possibly make up for all the bad things he does to mother earth (especially driving so much). It breaks my heart to think that by letting the kids know when we decide to take a train instead of fly, or bike instead of drive, I may have led my son to feel he was doing so much bad that he couldn’t promise to help her. Perhaps I should never have done more than show the kids how beautiful the earth is at this age, letting the rest come when they were ready. For sure, striking the best balance is difficult.
Since I can’t undo what’s been done (and I’m not sure I know a way to describe the choices we’ve made in the past that’s truthful without creating guilt), I tried instead to explain that the impact of what we did today was far greater than the garbage we picked up: If what we did ensures that the students and others who attend never litter again, or stops other visitors from littering, we’ve saved lifetimes of garbage from being thrown out. That sort of impact is bigger than any one person.
So my hope for my son (and all of us) is that we can again and again create the kind of waves that today’s event did. If that happens enough, if enough people create waves, perhaps each of us can “make up” for the negatives inherent in today’s lifestyle, or better yet change lifestyle and culture enough that living on this earth is once again a shared act of creation rather than destruction.
We’ve been busy teaching, working, and relaxing, but we’ve also managed to squeeze in one or two sightseeing trips. Vempali is a busy little village (of 100,000 people!), about 16 kilometers away from RGUKT. There, we bought some fabric to make much needed clothing for the kids (we seem to have left too much in Hyderabad) and ate a delicious lunch of chicken Biryani. Mostly we just took in the sights — oxen, tricycles, motorcycles, tractors, and cars shared the road (and the burden of moving goods around). Children ran happily by with a clear independence we are still trying to teach our kids. Despite the prevalence of mobile phones, the town sported a payphone that we actually saw being used. The buildings are colorfully painted, the streets and shops narrow.
A few days later, we visited a local (new) temple. Surrounded by rocky outcroppings (temples are usually on/among hills here), it hosted a busy market and a steady stream of visitors. Monkeys ran in and around the people and trees, while music filled the air. The atmosphere was both festive and peaceful. We experienced a personal Puja for the family thanks to our RGUKT hosts and enjoyed the Prasad (blessed sweets) afterwards. We ended our temple trip with a visit to the tomb of the former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh (the state RGUKT is located in), who helped to make RGUKT possible. RGUKT is located on land that he donated, and he helped to ensure substantial funding for the university as well. Unfortunately, he was killed about a two years ago under suspicious circumstances. As a result the university is struggling to find more funding.