Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Sun, Moon and Stars

Exactly two years ago, we were introduced to Inti Wara Yassi (translated the Sun, Stars and Moon, respectively). This small animal refuge in Bolivia is located in Villa Tunari, a little town in the Chapare region, along the Cochabamba - Santa Cruz highway.

The 36-hectare refuge was founded by Juan Carlos, who is a role model in conservation to many underprivileged children in Bolivia. Juan Carlos was recently named as one of The Planet’s Heroes by Jane Goodall for his work with animals, the environment and children.

IWY rescues birds, monkeys, wild cats, and other small animals from markets, circuses, private homes, and other abusive situations and brings them to the refuge for rehabilitation and possible release back into the wild.

The refuge is run by Tania Baltazar, several permanent Bolivian volunteers, and with the help of other volunteers who are there for 2 weeks to several months at a time. There is a vet’s office on site, with a veterinarian and a couple of interns as well. The cafe (below) serves food just for the volunteers, and they serve only vegetarian food! :)

I spent two weeks volunteering there exactly two years ago, and my mind has been wandering back there very often this week. I spent that time entirely in the monkey quarantine, which had 40 monkeys at the time - capuchins, and a few spider monkeys and squirrel monkeys as well.

It was my first time doing something like this, and was very educational and interesting. So I thought a post about them would be the best way to celebrate this anniversary!

Capuchin monkeys were the most numerous in the quarantine area, and they each had their own individual personality. I could tell them apart within a couple of days!

Cola was the sweetest one - pretty and happy, she loved people. Would smile wide and ask to be picked up as soon as anyone came near. Very hard to resist that!

Miel was the most intelligent one. She could untie ropes and shoelaces, wash clothes and learn all kinds of things really quickly.

Cici was the baby - her mother had died and since volunteers typically stayed 2 weeks, she had to keep readjusting to a new "mother" every two weeks. Poor little thing. I heard that a baby had died in the quarantine area after I left, and I try not to think about it because that could be Cici.

Aley was the mother-figure to several younger monkeys, but a mother who would steal everyone else's food!

Claudio came down to the rain forest from cold cold La Paz, and slept a lot at the beginning.

Bimba was new too, and a little apprehensive. Licking calmed him down!

Aturo was very inquisitive and loved to run away and be found - it was a game!

Baska was a silly girl - she fell in love with one of the male volunteers and got really jealous and coquettish! It was hilarious. Here she is, smiling at him and flirting.

The quarantine had three spider monkeys, and Patricio here was the most needy one. He had diarrhea the whole time and was really smelly, but loved to cuddle, so it was a tough one!

The little squirrel monkeys were so cute! They liked to nibble grass, and all you had to do was pluck some out and hand it to them and they would stay occupied for a while.

I miss these little ones quite a bit, and wonder often about what's happened to them since I left. Since very little news can be obtained, it makes it harder ... but the experience was definitely one to cherish!

While I was there, I saw truckloads of felled trees going out of the rain forest. Habitat for these precious monkeys is disappearing rapidly. Even small, under-funded refuges like this one are crammed with rescued monkeys, pumas, jaguars, exotic birds and more. Unless deforestation is stopped, there will soon be nowhere to release them after rehabilitation.

Friday, September 26, 2008

An obsession with gourds

Atlanta has this lovely art festival every spring called Dogwood Festival. This is held in Piedmont Park near downtown Atlanta, which has a profusion of dogwood trees. All the trees are usually in full bloom during the festival, and artists from all over the country bring their creations for display and sale in small stalls. With live music, food and as many dogs milling around as people, this festival is very popular in the city, and we always made it a point to go during the years we lived there.

It was there that I first saw crafted gourds and have been wanting to learn to do it myself since. There are a couple of gourd farms in the Georgia mountains north of Atlanta. We visited one of them and bought several dried gourds there, along with some books on the subject.

Outside, they had these huge, funny gourd masks that Raghav just had to try on.

Since then, it's been an ongoing effort to learn this art form, and I've been making slow progress. This first piece is called Women of the World and I copied it from a book by Dyan Mai Peterson, trying to figure out how it all works.

I really like the effect when pine needles are woven along the top of the gourds. This is a very common technique, and was fun to learn.

I also bought a Native American pattern book, modified some of their basic designs, and combined with some of my own for this gourd.

This plant holder was easy to make, and has been put to good use too!

The smell of burnt gourd when I use the wood burning tool to first draw on the designs is pretty intoxicating! There's only so much time, and there are all these lovely gourds still waiting for an identity!

If any of you carves gourds too, I'd be very much interested in talking to you about it. I'm still trying to figure out the best tools to use and where to get them cheap. I've just been using the most basic tools from Home Depot, and there's only so much you can do with those. Before investing in better tools, I need to do some groundwork. If you can give me any tips (or even if not), would love to hear from you!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

From Photographer to Environmentalist

More on photography and activism ...

With the first presidential debate coming up on Friday between Obama and McCain, one of the hot topics is sure to be energy. The candidates will elaborate on their plans to make America more self-sustaining in energy, and will most certainly talk about drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

An interesting point here is that both Obama and McCain have opposed the plan to open the ANWR for drilling. However, Sarah Palin is from Alaska, and she supports this plan. So this issue is sure to again come to the forefront.

A couple of years ago, we went for a talk by a young Indian - Subhankar Banerjee - who had given up a conventional career in engineering/computer science, to become a photographer. We were curious to hear his story, and came away thoroughly impressed.

He had taken a year off some years ago, to drive around the US, taking pictures of wildlife and wilderness. Unsatisfied with the quality of pictures he could get of polar bears, he went into interior Alaska, to the ANWR, and lived there through the long and cold winter, taking photographs of everything he saw, including caribou migration (in picture below), and polar bear cubs being led out of their den by their mother for the first time!

At that time he was not aware of the problems the region faces, and was only interested in capturing the life that he saw around him even in the harsh winter.

What he came away with is a breathtakingly beautiful collection of photographs, showing in delicate detail, the multitude of life that exists in that part of this country even through the winter.

The ANWR region has been called "a barren winter wasteland", where there is no life, and so there is no reason to not drill there. However, Banerjee's photographs captured caribou migrations, migratory birds, life around hot springs, little winter flowers, and much more during the winters that he spent there. His collection of photographs has subsequently been used as visual proof that life does exist in this "barren winter wasteland".

We bought the book - his collection of photographs - and had him sign it for us. He has since moved on to other projects, but all of them have an environmental focus to them. We are truly impressed!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Points to ponder

It's been an interesting week. One of the best things about being with an organization like AID (Association for India's Development) is that we get several speakers every year who share their experiences of working at the grassroots level in India, or being the voice for those who need it the most. This week we had the opportunity to listen to and interact with three speakers.

P. Sainath is a journalist, photographer, and the ONLY full-time appointed Rural Editor in the country. Some years ago, he wrote a series of essays for the Times of India on poverty and rural issues. These essays were compiled into his book Everybody Loves a Good Drought, which won him the Magsaysay award. The stories are deceptively simple and humorous, but leave you with a clear picture about the reality of every day life for the majority of Indians who don't see the benefits from rapid and reckless globalization.

Also, his series of photographs titled Visible Work, Invisible Women - about the reality of life for women in rural India was used as the theme for the AID Calendar in 2003, and his pictures traveled through North America in an exhibition. (This year's theme for the calendar is food, and they should be available shortly).

I have this collection of photographs in the calendar - the pictures are powerful and moving. But can't find them anywhere online. Here's one that I found.

So though I knew about P.Sainath, and had read his book, it was a different and interesting experience to hear him speak. He is a very intelligent, forceful speaker. He has lived in villages for several years, with the people about whom he writes, and knows them and their lives intimately. More recently, he has been the voice of farmers all over India who have been committing suicide due to the effects of the global, monopolized agricultural practices that are sweeping across the world.

I wish I could start all over again and take courses in journalism and history from him, and do something substantial with my life. He is very inspiring, and if you haven't already, you should check out Everybody Loves a Good Drought or his other essays.

Ravi and Aravinda were the other speakers, the founders of AID, who returned in India 10 years ago after graduate school here, to work full-time at the grassroots level, living in rural India and working to find sustainable, intelligent and environmentally friendly solutions to problems faced by the majority of Indians who are being left behind in this scramble for "development".

They showed us their latest invention - a bamboo hot pack lined with hay and jute, which cooks rice and keeps it warm for up to 8 hours, with 60% less fuel use and time commitment! This amazing invention is fully biodegradable, local and efficient!

BTW, the movie Swades was partially inspired by Ravi's path in life - check out this wiki entry and you will see! We have met and listened to them several times, and as always, their talk was full of information that left us pondering, and re-evaluating our lives.

So it's been a very interesting week so far! Interactions like these reinforce our conviction to live as lightly as possible on the planet, to always be aware of the ecological consequences of our actions, and to take a stand against issues that are close to our hearts and be vocal about them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Late night inspiration

I concentrate best late in the night, after everyone has gone to bed and it's dark and quiet. Now with the readings piling up for my classes, I've gone back to this habit of staying up late and reading. But the distractions don't seem to stop! :)

Last night as I sat reading at our dining table with a glass top, I noticed how well things were reflecting on the glass surface with the one overhead light, and had to bring out my camera!

This little pot-bellied terracotta Ganesha is one of my favourites because he's so pudgy and cute. Some selective color on Picasa made the pictures a little more interesting ...

A few nights ago, as I sat reading on the couch very late in the night, our schizophrenic cat Shadow decided to join me. He has his moods, so when he wants to cuddle, you feel privileged and oblige. :)

I ignored him for a while because he can get very demanding and I didn't want to get distracted. After a while he settled down with his head on my feet and fell asleep! He was so cute that I wanted to take a picture to show Raghav in the morning. But I couldn't get up to get my camera, so I ended up making rough sketches with my pen. It was really comforting to have his company as I studied.

It's hard to stay focused and not get distracted ... !

Sunday, September 14, 2008

One man's trash is another's wealth

When we first moved into our house, we found that the previous owners had left several pieces of wood of various shapes in the garage - probably left over from projects around the house.

I didn't feel like throwing them out, and decided to paint some of them to make wooden wall pieces. I found three of approximately the same size and have been working on them on and off the past few weeks. I finished the work over the weekend.

As a final step, I sprayed them with varnish finish for acrylic last night because the wood (which is a little rough) was catching too much dust that couldn't be easily wiped away. This morning I found that the varnish had dried into pale colored patches. :( The patches are especially visible on the green piece.

I thought I was finished with this project - but looks like I will have to do something to fix this mess now. The paint doesn't go on the wood as well anymore, so I'm still wondering how to fix it. Ideas are welcome!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Nostalgia for busier times?

Fall semester has started and the work load has descended with force. After a relaxed summer, I'm trying to get into a routine of teaching, grading, reading papers for my classes, homeworks and labs, and it's not easy!

I asked for this - my second round of grad school, 'coz I went back to it knowing what I'd be getting into. I think back on grad school round #1 and wonder at how much workload I handled then, without too much fuss. That's the difference between being 20-something and 35-something, I guess!

Still, fun and largely carefree though those days were, without family responsibilities and a home to care for, there were still stressful times when research wasn't going anywhere and there seemed no end in sight.

My paintings from those days reflect those dark moods.

This time around, though I have less of a workload than I did then, I certainly have too many more distractions. There are concerts, speaker events and documentary screenings to attend, friends to hang out with, blogs to read and write ;), a good camera to experiment with, etc. etc.

In some ways I miss those days though, when I was totally broke and so couldn't afford any entertainment or travel on my grad student paycheck; when all my possessions could fit in a couple boxes, my most valuable objects were those that were of value only to me; when I was single and didn't have too many friends - and so had a lot of time to wander in the woods near the university and think thoughts. Am nostalgic for those days ... :)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

We have no time to stand and stare

Summer is over, and it's time to get busy again. Time to juggle work, fun, exercise and entertainment to make sure life is lived well even during busy times. I remember this poem; one of my favourites, when ever I feel life's rushing by ...


by W.H. Davies

WHAT is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

This picture was taken half way through a hike on the South Rim trail on a trip to Big Bend National Park in Texas.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Pink dogwoods and Spring colour

I know this seems like an out of season post ... but hey, it's Spring in Australia!

As the weather cools down and gets pleasant again the brain can be tricked into thinking the soft breeze and cooling rain signify Spring. Or maybe it's just wishful thinking ...

Which is your favourite Spring spot?

Mine is Atlanta. Spring in Atlanta is absolutely magical. It starts tentatively with the yellow sprays of forsythia, and then erupts into colour with dogwoods, azaleas, pear trees, cherry trees, dandelions, red buds, and more. The heat of summer brings more colour in the blue bunches of hydrangeas, pink and white crepe myrtles and the heady fragrance of magnolias, gardenias, and honeysuckle. I'm in a trance during Spring in Atlanta!

The year before we moved from there to Texas (where Spring is much less ostentatious), I took lots and lots of photos of the flowers. While they bring back the vision, they cannot replace the reality.

Enjoy the season of flowers and showers - those in the southern hemisphere!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Phenomenal concert

We attended an incredible carnatic vocal concert by Ranjani and Gayatri this evening. The sisters originally started out as concert violinists, and transitioned into vocal performances in '97. The concert was absolutely amazing! Their voices are incredibly sweet and their modulation when they hit higher notes was superb.

I am not classically trained, so I can't go into details about their rendition. But they are one of my favorite vocalists now. They finished the concert with a couple of hindustani pieces which were perfect. I could listen to them all day!

They were accompanied by H.N. Bhaskar on the Violin and Delhi Sriram on the Mridangam.

At one point though, Ranjani stopped singing - while she was exploring the nuances of a raaga, because of the amount of disturbance in the auditorium! We were amazed at how chaotic the first half was, with noise and movement.

Carnatic music concerts are special because of their informal air, and because the audience is able to interact with the artistes, passing along requests etc. The artistes enjoy this as well, but while this can be a strength, it could also lead to people feeling too relaxed to the point of being inconsiderate.

So what's the worst you have experienced in a concert? Here's my list.

1. People (sitting next to you) humming tonelessly with the artistes.

2. People walking in and out between pieces, allowing the doors to BANG shut!

3. Children walking about wearing loud anklets - anklets are cute on kids, but this is not where you want to hear them - not their fault; parents need to watch for this!

4. Parents bringing along lap-sized DVD players for their kids, so that the flickering screen with cartoon characters next to you distracts you for the whole concert - esply if it's a packed concert and you can't move.

5. Small children cannot be expected to sit still and silent for over 3 hours. So parents shouldn't expect them to! They should get a baby-sitter, or they should leave as soon as the kids start to lose interest and fuss. We did see some kids there though who were totally absorbed and enjoyed the music - so parents need to be able to gauge their kids' interest.

6. People treat the solo pieces by the mridangam or violin artistes as their chance to take a break and go to the bathroom!! This is so rude. This evening the mridangam artiste was a very young man, on his first concert tour outside India, and he was incredible! He was looking around at people strolling out as he played his solo piece, and I felt so bad! This kid was really good too.

Despite all these disturbances, the concert was absolutely phenomenal. They are performing in Dallas next weekend, and we are tempted to drive over there too!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Run for India!

It's marathon season again! Around this time every year, thousands of folks in Austin hit the Town Lake trails to start their training for the February marathon.

This lovely trail around the lake is a 10-mile loop at the max. There are shorter loops of approx. 3.5, 4.5, 5 and 7 miles as well. As temperatures drop and the weather becomes pleasant again, Saturday mornings start to look something like this ...

* the alarm goes off at 6am and is greeted with disbelief that it's already morning
* it's pure torture to get ready, get a little food down and leave while still half asleep
* Town Lake is already buzzing with activity as we get there in the pre-dawn darkness
* we stretch by the lake as morning sunlight filters through the trees and lights up the waters
* a pleasant breeze stirs the leaves overhead and brushes your face and finally you fully wake up
* what a joy it is to be alive!
* once we start to run, conversations die down and a quiet rhythm falls into place
* the camaraderie of silent runners joined by a common zest for life is exhilarating!

Last season Raghav and I trained for 5 months and completed the Austin full marathon in Feb '08. We run with our volunteer group Association for India's Development (AID), and raise money through the run, for sustainable development projects in India. This is an annual event, and this will be our second season.

This year I plan to train for just the half-marathon. Years of running has taken its toll on my knees and I have some fluid leak in there and some cartilage damage, which makes running painful over longer distances. Those days are gone when it was pure joy and an addiction. Now I have to run slow and step carefully so that I don't aggravate my knees. If I could change one thing about my body, it would be my joints - I'd ask for stronger knees so that I can run again as I used to. But that's enough whining ...

We ran 3.5 miles today and it was great. I'm looking forward to this season - training for the half marathon is pretty relaxed and so it should be more fun than work.

Let's hope we raise some money for India, attract some new volunteers in the process and have a blast!

P.S. That was my design for the Run for India 2008 t-shirt ...