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Nepal Day 8 - Chitwan, Lumbini

September 6th, 2013

Woke up before the alarm at 6.20, cold shower (no hot water) then down to breakfast.

Mary and Rob had been bitten to death by mosquitoes so gave them some of my Piriton (antihistamine). We left Chitwan at 8am bound for Lumbini, home place of the Buddha.

Stopped at a little village about 10 minutes away. The village had been there for 1200 years. The villagers survived the malaria epidemic by smoking the cannabis which grows locally all around the village, well that was their excuse! The houses or huts were made from mud and clay.

On arriving at the village 2 boys came to say hello and then they said “Candy". What a cheek! Had a rummage around my bag and found a chocolate bar from the last road trip that I hadn’t eaten yet, and gave it to the boys. I gestured that they had to share it. They scampered off a couple of meters and after struggling to get into the packet, the eldest split it into two and they started happily munching away.

At the back of the village there was an animal pen and a vegetable patch. A little girl came to watch us watching the pigs. After two minutes she said sheepishly “Candy". I had another look in the bag to see how much lunch I had left. Found a bag of sweet croissants and in the time it took to get up the girl had been joined by six other children including the two from earlier. I split them so they could share the food equally amongst themselves. Rob made a joke that if we came back in a year, they would have got rid of their village statue of Shiva and replaced it with a statue of me handing out chocolate and cakes to the children!

Back in the coach for 2 hours. After we had a rest stop there was a quiz. Steve is by far in a way the worst quiz master ever. It’s so bad it’s good! Yet again the quiz was full of ambiguous multi-choice questions which we all had a laugh about.

Stopped for lunch at a school about an hour from Lumbini. There was a shaded area outside the classrooms so we sheltered under there while eating our pack lunches. Quite a crowd of women and children started watching us from doorways and other shaded areas. Various people in our group had left overs, so walked over to the onlookers and distributed them.

The area was very rural and I think foreigners were a bit unusual. In spite of being a very poor area all the school kids had a school uniform. Most of the uniforms were western in style: shirt, tie, trousers (or skirt) and in some cases a jumper, blazer or both - yes a jumper in 32°C! but they didn’t seem to mind. Back in the coach for the final leg to Lumbini.

We stayed in the Buddhist pilgrim monastery on the edge of town. Tourists are usually not allowed but Losan knew some people in monk-world and so was able to get us in. After arrival we unpacked and relaxed for a bit before meeting in the lobby.

Today was a cycle tour of Lumbini: Development Trust. It was a 1.5km by 6km square block of land which was devoted to Buddha. Bab’s had popped her knee getting down from her bathing elephant so Mary and her were met by a Rickshaw outside the monastery and the rest of us had to walk down to the cycle hire shop. My bike had a dodgie seat and only one break but it seemed to work ok. It was nice to see I could still cycle with no hands when the road (or path) was flat enough.

Losan (our friendly neighbourhood monk) and Steve guided us to the centre where Buddha’s birth place was. The actual spot was enclosed in a white castle building. We had to take our shoes off, so I was getting smiles from everyone because I wear odd socks and they were more obvious now. There was a pool at the back called “The Puskarini, The Holy Pond“. Steps led down to the murky light jade coloured water. Visibility was only a few centimetres and after seeing a turtle we starred in contemplation wondering how deep it actually was. At that point an absolutely monster fish appeared from no where and then was gone. I think the pond was an up-side-down pyramid and the steps to it were just the first steps of many to the bottom.

The whole park was very relaxing and we sat in a semi-circle surrounding Losan while he talked about Buddhism. He explained how to sit and hold your hands. Then we started to meditate. After listening to Losan talking us through meditation for about 30 minutes I realised that I actually meditate quite regularly at home and in my normal life, I just never referred to it as meditation. The were various members of the group who were very spiritual and bought into the whole ethos of relaxing and sitting around doing nothing, but I’m sorry it’s not for me! I use it for sensory exercise - “use it or lose it” (I’ll probably get another blog article out of that when I’ve finished my trip articles.)

During Losan’s meditation under the trees in Buddha’s garden a lot of people came and sat in our semi-circle. I think they thought “our” monk was a general monk for everyone which was okay at the beginning but the numbers soon grew to include hordes of Indian children who were fighting and disrupting what we were doing so we called it a day. We had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves on the proviso that we had the bikes back by 6.

The park has a long channel of water (or canal) that connected Buddha’s birth site in the Sacred Garden to the World Peace Pagoda about 3 km away. Along the canal were the various headquarters of Buddhist factions from around the world. At the end is a World Peace monument with an inscription along the lines of “…Buddha freeing us from the shackles of Gods…". It reminds us that fighting and killing each other over made-up space fairies was no way to behave and we should all just concentrate on keeping ourselves happy by being nice to each other. I had a lot of exposure to Buddhism when I was travelling around Japan and if I had to choose a religion to follow this would be it.

Back on the bikes and the scenic route back to the hire shop. I had caught the sun so I risked an ice lolly! before heading back to the monastery for a shower and dinner.

Drinking and smoking were forbidden at the monastery so a small contingent of people decided to venture out to find somewhere for a post-dinner pre-bed drink. By a strange coincidence the only people who stayed out were from science related professions (engineering, I.T. and analysis). All the nurses, environmental health officers and accountants stayed in. Just had one bottle of Gurka beer (650ml) for 180rs (£1.65).

There was a huge Hindu festival on in the park. A man’s voice came over the public address system when we dropped off the bikes. The voice sounded like it was announcing something but then the drums came and the announcing changed into manic Indian ranting, almost like he was trying to whip the audience into a frenzy. Tractors with trailers full of revellers had been driving up to the festival site and back all evening and at 10pm when we wanted to go to bed it was showing no sign of stopping, even manic Indian man was still ranting down the P.A. only now he was banging drums too.

Jon and I had checked the room for mosquitoes before hitting the lights but it was still really hot. The extra noise wasn’t helping me sleep. After about an hour the manic Indian shouting and drumming was replaced by 2 voices monastically chanting. This was much easier on the ears and I soon fell asleep.

Photos on my Facebook page.

The magic bullet of health is exercise

August 27th, 2013

Featured in BBC2’s Dara O Briain’s Science Club on 22 August 2013. Dara was interviewing Professor Dame Sally Davies the UK Chief Medical Officer.

Dara: What are the major health challenges that we face?
Sally: Well, clearly there’s always what we call health protection. Infections, and we’ve talked already about antimicrobial resistance and that going to become worse. We’ve had a pandemic in 2009, we know there’s flu in China at the moment, we know there’s a novel coronavirus coming out of the Middle East. But as well as that, we have new epidemics and people talk about the non-communicable diseases but there are lifestyle ones. There are size, because we like food. It’s an abuse of alcohol particularly in our young and our young women and it’s a lack of exercise.
If there’s a magic bullet, it’s exercise.

Nepal Day 7 - Chitwan, Elephants

August 19th, 2013

Up at 6am for breakfast at 7. We were in Southern Nepal now so the temperature was a few degrees more, we were in the malarial zone and the humidity had increased. The hotel ran on its own generator for about 6 hours each day, usually during the evening. There had been no air-conditioning in our bedrooms so the night had been a little bit hot and sticky.

Buffalo sausages and toast for breakfast. We also listened to some of the other guests showing off the mosquito bites they got during the night. Jonathan and I had yet again escaped unharmed.

The first activity of the day was crocodile and bird spotting on the river. There was a mist on the early morning river which gave quite a calming feeling. The only noises were the natural sound of the river and odd splashes from boats and birds taking off. It was quite eerie. The river was very clear and reeds flowed by. You kind of wanted to put your hands in the water and feel its cold loveliness but I had to keep reminding myself that it was full of crocodiles and bugs designed to give me the trots!

The boats were made out of hollowed out trees and felt distinctly unstable. It didn’t help that there was a man standing on a little ledge at the back steering with a gondola style stick and a man standing on another edge in front of us describing what we were seeing. It took quite a while for us passengers to get used to riding in the boat. It was a little bit like riding pillion on a motorbike. You had to let the boat rock naturally which was very unnerving. There were quite a few fast deep intakes of breath as people thought the boat was going to tip over, but after about half an hour I think we’d all got the hang of it. This was lucky because that’s when we hit the rapids! I’m not talking New Zealand white water rapids but when you have 12 people sitting on a stick moving through crocodile infested waters then it was just as scary.

I caught a glimpse of a baby crocodile poking its head out of the water so the trip was a success. It was a lucky sighting as we had arrived at our stopping point at the edge of the jungle. We de-camped, added more sun-cream and deet and headed into the jungle in search of rhinos, tigers and other jungle beasties.

It was really hot, walking around the jungle for 2 hours especially as the only thing we saw were a few tiger tracks and a few bugs. At one point everyone had to go quiet as the ranger moved stealthily in for a closer look but it turned out to be another party who thought we were a tiger too! We walked all the way back to the place we had climbed into the boats.

The next activity was elephant bathing. We had to sign a disclaimer for this activity but Steve said it was fun. He’d done it and said it was great fun but couldn’t do it with us because it’s too dangerous. It took a while to work out what he meant: it’s ok to do it as a one-off but doing it each time would increase the risk. Everyone was a little bit apprehensive but Rob and I had seem some people doing it as we walked back through the jungle and thought it looked all right. We bravely stepped forwards as first to have a go. Or more, they asked who wanted a go and I foolishly jumped in and made Rob follow me!

I climbed on to the bare back of the elephant. It was a lot warmer and hairier than I had imagined. The elephant man stood on its back behind Rob and me and walked us all out into the river where it was a bit deeper. The elephant slowly bent its head down slurped a considerable volume of river water up its trunk, then raised its trunk up over its head and expelled all of it at a considerable force straight into my face. From that point I could not stop laughing. It was pure fun. After a couple of blasts I predicted when the next one was coming and at the last moment I bent forward over the elephant’s head, the jet of water completely missed me and hit Rob in the face. After the usual complaints about not being ready he was laughing uncontrollably too.

Babs popped her knee when she came down from the elephant and there were a couple of other minor injuries as people fell off the elephants but all-in-all it was well worth it. Left the elephant men with a little tip and went back to the hotel for a shower and lunch. Lunch was pretty nice, some kind of clear vegetable soup and a mixture of eastern and western food. Pabi was sitting on her own so I sat with her. I explained to her that leaving someone to eat on their own was considered rude, so we had a little food related-cultural exchange over lunch which was interesting.

No time to rest and we were back in the Jeep travelling to the Elephant Reserve. We spend the afternoon riding elephants through the jungle looking for tigers, rhino and deer. 4 people per elephant sitting in a metal poled box with our legs dangling over the edge. Once you got used to the walking motion of the elephant it was okay. Still didn’t see any tigers but we did get quite close to a rhino. The park ranger told us that rhinos were more dangerous than tigers so that made us feel better!

One thing that we all commented on was how rude we thought the Indian people were. They turned up tried to jump the queue and left a trail of litter behind them. It was clear that the park rangers had a lot of work to do and we could tell that they were very disappointed with the Indians casually discarding their litter into the river or where ever they were standing. There were litter bins all over the reserve but they just couldn’t be bothered to use them.

We had a free night and we had all thought that it was so nice sitting next to the river that we went back after dinner. I spend a bit more time chatting to Julian and played with the sunset settings on my camera.

Photos on my Facebook page.

Setting up a Raspberry Pi to run a Finch Robot

August 14th, 2013

Half the battle is getting the Raspberry Pi up and running with Java installed. Once you’ve done that, the rest is pretty simple.

  1. Firstly Install Rasbian wheezy on your Raspberry Pi.
  2. Then install Java 8.
  3. Create somewhere nice for us to work.

    mkdir /home/mrn/dev/finch
    cd /home/mrn/dev/finch

  4. For the latest version of the Finch development kit go to http://www.finchrobot.com/raspberry-pi. Search for BBTechSoftwareForPi and download it.

    wget
    https://dl.dropbox.com/u/9303915/BBTechSoftwareForPi.zip

  5. They’ve done that thing where you don’t get a containing folder inside the zip, so we’ll have to make it.

    mkdir BBTechSoftwareForPi-9303915
    cd BBTechSoftwareForPi-9303915
    unzip ../BBTechSoftwareForPi.zip

  6. Zips don’t hold unix permissions so we’ll have to add execute permissions to anything we want to run.

    chmod +x Configure

  7. We need to run this as root because it copies libraries into protected places.

    sudo ./Configure

  8. That’s kind of it. Make sure the Finch robot is connected.
  9. Enter the Java folder

    cd FinchJava

  10. Compile the sample program

    javac -classpath :finch.jar Code/simpleInput/LEDSetter.java

  11. And run it

    java -classpath :finch.jar Code/simpleInput/LEDSetter

Nepal Day 6 - Drive to Chitwan

August 12th, 2013

Up at 6.20am for breakfast and we were all packed and on the coach bound for Chitwan by 8am. As the crow flys Chitwan is about 100km from Kathmandu but the road is very narrow and cuts through the treacherous mountains. The drive was amazing. I passed more burnt-out wrecked cars that had fallen over the edge that I’d care to mention. The majority of the road was B-road standard (one carriage way in each direction, narrow in places).

At 11.30am we stop for lunch. This was our first meal outside the tourist-safe areas of Kathmandu. We were in the frontier now so Steve gave us a list of foods to avoid which turned into a short list of things we could eat. Basically anything pre-bottled like Coke and anything deep fried like chips, so chips and Coke it was!

After lunch we drove for about 10 minutes and stopped at a rope bridge style crossing. It was made of metal and was about 2 people wide spanning the 150 meter turquoise river. Took a few photos and got back on the bus for the quiz.

Steve is a legendary quiz master. Questions were clearly taken from a crumby “make your own quiz” book with the questions he thought were too hard replaced by James Bond questions. Quite a few of the questions were ambiguous like “Which is the biggest tea producing country? A) Sir Lanka B) India C) China". Well they are all tea producing countries so the question became which is the biggest country to which the answer is obviously China. Nik pointed this out and argued the toss, but Steve knocked a few points off him for cheekiness and said “Do you think you can do better?". Nik said “Yes” without even hesitating (see later).

I was writing this journal on my phone but due to an unfortunate USB disaster I had to switch to a pen and paper. The USB charger plug socket on the phone broke. So when the battery ran out of juice I couldn’t charge it up. Looking back, while this was a bit of a pain, being phoneless in another country, it did force me to not do any work. I had to enjoy my holiday instead of picking up emails and checking things, not easy when you run your own company. Pens and paper didn’t go very well with the extremely bumpy road but after a while I kind of got used to it.

We had left the Professor behind and along the way we picked up Losan who was to be our guide for the rest of the trip. He was a bonafide Buddhist monk with the maroon outfit and everything. Although he did wear Nike trainers and shorts underneath!

We arrived in Chitwan and checked in. The accommodation was a bit like a colonial hunting lodge. We had a quick de-camp then it was a jeep ride to the Chitwan National Park and the Elephant Breeding Centre. This is the only reserve that boasts twin junior elephants and a calve less than a few months old; he was still having trouble balancing.

It had been a really long day so after the reserve we went and sat by the river with a Gin & Tonic,.. and then a couple of beers. There was traditional dancing back at the hotel but I ended up talking quite late with Julian who had done a computer science and image processing degree. So we indulged our techie’ness and chatted away most of the evening. Got back for the final dance which was one of those “get the tourists involve” type-things. Lot’s of fun especially as my balance was a bit off!

Jonathan (my room mate for the trip) and I were paranoid about mosquitoes. Luckily we were both practical people and so instigated measures to protect ourselves. Before going to bed we’d make sure all the windows had mosquito nets that weren’t damaged. If they were we closed the window. We then did a thorough search of the bedroom and bathrooms and executed anything that had more legs than us. No one was going to sleep until we were happy we weren’t going to get eaten during the night. We had done this each night but I’m mentioning it here because we were now in the malarial zone and it some how seemed like we were doing it “for real".

Photos on my Facebook page.