tuque /tūk/ n Canadian English, var. toque [19th c. Canadian French, from the French toque, from the Basque tauka] 1 A close-fitting knitted cap, often with a long tapering end or tassel or pompom. 2 fig Something quintessentially Canadian.
souq /sūk/ n from the Arabic سوق var. souk 1 An open-air marketplace. 2 fig A central meeting place for the circulation of news and ideas.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Vote for 'Adivasi Community Preschool'

There are still two more days to vote in this year's Click About It international photography competition, in partnership with OxFam. Your humble blogger is in the running, with an exhibit called Adivasi Community Preschool.

Click here to see my entry, all entries and more information about the contest. Public voting ends October 3, after which the contest's own judges weigh in. The winner is announced October 12.

[Update Oct 12: The winners have been announced and can be found here.]

Friday, September 30, 2011

101 Icelandic: A Thorough Tongue-Twisting Trek Through a Thwarting Language

It is entirely possible that the most garrulous person in all of Iceland is a man who spends most of his day alone on a mountain ridge between two volcanoes. Sigurður Sigurðursson is a seasonal warden of a lonely trekkers hut at a place called Fimmvörðuháls, and if you think you can hike up to his domain for a cozy night underneath the aurora borealis without learning how to pronounce Fimmvörðuháls--and without developing an affinity for the Icelandic language--you are sorely mistaken.

It's simple when you chop it down to the roots, he says (and given the lunar landscape of his realm he's certainly not talking about trees). Fimm is five. Vörð (pronounced vordh) is cairn. Háls is neck. The Neck of the Five Cairns. That's where we are.*

As he pours a cup of tea from the snow he kindly melts for all his guests (the nearest stream is about 2km away), Sigurður continues the lesson. He is wearing insulated snow pants held up over his robust middle with suspenders, and his high, round cheeks are rosy from a long day spent hammering trail-marking stakes into the ground; there is a semblance of a bald, beardless Santa Claus about his presence. It's a mid-September afternoon, but it's only three degrees at Fimmvörðuháls.**

Over there, he points out the window, is Mýrdalsjökull. Mýr is a wetland. Dal is a valley.*** Jökull is, of course, a glacier. The Wetland Valley Glacier. Behind it is þórsmörk, the Forest of Thor.**** Nearby is Goðaland, Land of the Gods. And of course on the other side is Eyjafjallajökull, Island Mountain Glacier.

Now you see how we Icelanders name our places.

Many travellers find Icelanders to be quiet. People of few words. Lukewarm and distant, like the local sun. But the irrepressible Sigurður would not shut up about the joy that is the Icelandic language until we had tied our tongues in knots and surrendered from the lesson. 

The cosmology of a place as small (pop. 320,000), as rugged (63% of the surface area is classified as "wasteland") and as isolated (no continent to call its own) as Iceland is by necessity both simple and puristic. After all, following its initial settlement era in the ninth and tenth centuries the country was set upon and dominated if not outright ruled by Norwegians, Danes, Scots, British, French, Spanish, Basques, Germans, Russians, Japanese, Americans and even Algerian pirates; by their fishing fleets and military alliances and political tyrants.

Apropos of which, the naming of places in Iceland has long been marked with utilitarian strokes, almost as if to convince outsiders of their insignificance, or to convince Icelanders not to get too sentimental about their homeland.

And further, the Icelandic language beginning in the nineteenth century went through a purist movement (which evolved into a full-fledged government language committee and language institute) both to protect and to cultivate the Icelandic linguistic heritage. Among its sphere of influence is the coining of neologisms and the, er, Icelandicizing of loanwords. 

In an oft-cited example, the Icelandic word for computer, tölva, is a portmanteau of the word tala ("number") and völva ("oracle"). An Oracle of Numbers, not a kömpútur.

In 1973 they even banished the letter z from the alphabet. Why? Not Icelandic. (Thanks but no thanks, England.)

So perhaps it was no coincidence that the ostensibly hermitic Sigurður (who actually spends most of the year living and working in Reykjavik) was the most talkative person we encountered in Iceland. He sits at a crossroads of some of the simplest, most unutterable toponyms in all of the country, and most of his interactions are with thrill-seeking volcano trekkers from far-flung lands, most of whom only half-heartedly attempt to pronounce Fimmvörðuháls before giggling and sighing, cute little Iceland.

Sigurður has heard it all. And like others before him, he's determined to Icelandicize your tongue, to send you on your way with a bit more respect for this rugged, hardly diminutive country than when you arrived.

We thanked him and trekked down the mountain. A few days later we found ourselves at Snæfellsnes. Snow Mountain Peninsula. We hiked up to Djúpalonssandur and down to Önverðarnes. And yeah, sometimes we wished there existed a Sigurður iPhone app to help us. But we sputtered Icelandic place names into the wind and giggled slightly less. He'd taught us well.

* To clear up the confusion, the sign in the photo points to Fimmvorðuskáli. Skáli is the Icelandic for hall or hut, which here means Sigurður's hut on Fimmvorðuháls.
** Celsius.
*** Mýr and Dal, if you look closely, resemble the English words "mire" and "dale." Not a coincidence.
**** The runic þ is an awesome letter and should be Iceland's next export, after the haddock run out.
This way to Thor's favourite Peninsula.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I, uh, Felt a Jokull (and other Icelandic things)

It had to be high on the list of places to visit in Iceland: Eyjafjallajökull, the ice cap and eponymous volcano that just a year ago erupted with more fury than a stampede of sheep, spewing clouds of ash across Europe and sending air-traffic controllers on a long-sought holiday (by train, of course).

How could one visit the land of jökulls and not deposit a soft, black footprint on the slopes of this tongue twister ("aye, if yet, la yokel"), if only to ensure that, at least at one particular moment, nature has relaxed its cycle of self-correction long enough for us humans to venture out of our caves?

In Iceland the natural world certainly has a way of reminding us not to take it for granted. Maybe it's the way the sun always seems so distant, at a languid low angle, as though Terrence Malick is in control of the lighting. Maybe it's in the wind, which blows up, down, warm, cold, east and west, seemingly all at once. Maybe it's the absence of trees, a taut lesson that what goes down doesn't always come back up.*

Terrence Malick was here.
Or maybe it's the way those infamous volcanoes keep all but the most brennevín-sodden of Icelanders (and the rest of us) continually on their toes.

Thus, climbing up and setting foot on Eyjafjallajökull is sort of the human way of letting nature know that, hey, point taken.

The ice and volcanic dunes of Eyjafjallajokull, 13 September 2011.
Last year a small chunk of the world fumed right back at the Icelandic volcano, angrily protesting the flight delays and the soporific haze drifting through all that clean, human air. But in fact, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (c'mon, you can say it) was one of the drowsiest by Icelandic standards.

If you want to talk about devastation, look no further than Lakagígar, the largest volcanic eruption in history.** In the summer of 1783 this twenty-five-kilometre long hole in the Earth exploded, darkening the skies of the world, blighting harvests, decimating flora and fauna, emitting rivers of fire and clouds of poisonous sulfuric gas continuously for eight months.

Lakagígar was so colossal it lowered the mean atmospheric temperature of the planet by nearly five degrees Celsius over a year. Its devastation of crop and livestock in Iceland was responsible for the deaths of 10,000 inhabitants; one-fifth of the entire population at the time. It also got me an A in freshman-year volcanology.***

Being that the deadly Icelandic eruption that caused Benjamin Franklin to posit an early theory of the delicate relationship between atmospheric composition and climate change also got me through that rough first year of university, I'd have been remiss if I didn't pay homage to this volcano, too.

Iceland is like nature's geological laboratory, an open-air museum of Earth's majestic, barely comprehensible dynamism dedicated singularly to making us feel very, very insignificant. A simple footprint is a supreme act of reverence. Point taken, world. I'll never complain about a delayed flight again.

* Just as Jared Diamond foretold.
** By volume of effluent, not by number of flights cancelled.
*** That course, Geosciences 1303, is still offered. Also, the grade was actually an A-minus, which is to an A what Eyjafjallajokull is to Lakagigar; differently uttered but similarly impressive from the vantage of something small, like a bee.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Discovery with a Paddle: Canoeing the Restoule and French Rivers

When Samuel Champlain paddled down the Restoule River with a party of Ottawa nation aboriginals in the early sixteenth seventeenth century, he believed he was beating a trail of discovery to a great, westward river that would lead to the mer de l'ouest, the ocean on the far side of what was, to Europeans, a new found land.

In the Canada of Champlain's peers, the frontier emerged from obscurity beneath each footstep and paddle stroke of he and his men. What became known as the French River was the first of many underestimations of Champlain, who was by all evidence one of the more gifted of the early European explorers of North America.

Champlain stood at the confluence of the Restoule and French Rivers and believed the latter flowed over the western horizon to the salted sea. (No doubt his indigenous guides, who may never have come across anything but fresh water during their inland lives, struggled in translation with this alien concept of saltwater.)

Champlain was wrong. But in his wrongness, he made if not a discovery then at least a revelation.

It may have dawned on him that he was experiencing the seduction of terra incognita. It's what we draw on maps before we ever experience the place to be mapped. It's what we claim as our own before we know if it can even be gained, let alone held and owned. It's what traps us into confusing our passion for discovery with a conquering of nature.

So powerful is the force behind exploration that it can place a child's imagination inside the cunning mind of a man.

As Jean Baudrillard wrote of cartography in the postmodern age, "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it.... It is the map that precedes the territory."[2]

The map, like Champlain's belief in a river to the sea in the middle of Ontario, is our imagination, our longing to explore. It is in some ways essential to our path. But it--and not the wilderness--is what must be gained and held.

What drives us to discover that which we do not know cannot be placed on a map. No matter what it promised on his map--no matter that he ended up with Georgian Bay instead of the Pacific Ocean, which turned out to be of no small import to Europeans--Champlain's only real discovery was that in going beyond his known frontier, he released the child inside him to explore a true wilderness.

What Francis Younghusband humbly wrote about the Himalaya applies well to the wilderness discovery narrative in general: "To those who have struggled with them the mountains reveal beauties they will not disclose to those who make no effort. And it is because they have so much to give and give it so lavishly to those who will wrestle with them that men love mountains and go back to them again and again."[3]

And so seduced, eager and aware, our group went a-paddling where Champlain had dreamt of reaching the far side of the world.

Our Route
The Champlain Loop along the Restoule and French Rivers we did in five days (many do it in four).[4]

Day 1: Approximately 46° 4' 2'' North latitude by 79° 46' 24'' West longitude is the starting point. From the south shore of Stormy Lake in Restoule Provincial Park paddling westward into the Restoule River, via the Scott's Dam portage (270m), and into a beautiful campground with good fishing on the south shore of Lennon Lake, which is no more than a widening of the river. 11km plus 1 portage.

Day 2
: The remainder of the Restoule River westward with a portage (270m) around MacArthur's Rapids (CII; too low in August to run) and another portage (700m) around the series of falls down to the French. Out into Restoule Bay and the French River, through a small maze of islands and bays to a peninsula campsite (by far the least attractive of the trip) just opposite the bridge over Chaudiere Rapids. 14km plus 2 portages.

Day 3: Chaudiere portage (600m) leads into the southern bay of the Upper French River. Paddle hard (in headwinds and a downpour of rain, for us) around the islands east of the First Nation town of Dokis all the way up to Satchel's Bay, then to a glorious and surprisingly secluded campsite at the eastern tip of Sumner Island. 12km plus 1 portage.

Day 4: Back into the French River toward the vast expanse of Lake Nipissing, around into Frank's Bay to find the mouth of Shoal Creek. A 3.5-hour zigzagging course through the creek's marshes (and over nearly a dozen beaver dams) is exciting but ultimately exhausting, and involves three short portages (90m, 45m and 50m) around rocks. Over the final beaver dam is found the clear waters of Shoal Lake, with a large campsite near plentiful fishing holes on the far eastern shore. 15km plus 3 portages.

Day 5
: The day of four lakes, from Shoal Lake to a portage (800m) that leads to Bass Lake, across which is another portage (900m) that ends at the western shore of Watt (sometimes called Clear) Lake. Traversing Watt Lake to its end the waters open up southward into Stormy Lake, heading back to the starting point at Restoule Provincial Park. 11km plus 2 portages.

Photographs copyright Richard A. Johnson. Taken with the great Holga 120N plastic camera, with Ilford HP5. Click here to view the full photo gallery

Oh, and there are other great photographs by fellow expedition members Dean and Mike.

[1] Inspired by chapters 2 and 7 of Where is Here?: Canada's Maps and the Stories They Tell by Alan Morantz, a book I kept closed until I could take it on this trip, and which is highly recommended as a companion read to this particular expedition.
[2] Quoted in Morantz's book, p.147
[3] From Mount Everest: Reconnaissance (1921); quoted in Sierra Nevada by Ansel Adams, 1938.
[4] Our guidebook was A Paddler's Guide to Killarney and the French River by Kevin Callan, which unfortunately was of little use beyond whetting our appetites for the trip. Though it contains a few snippets of advice regarding portages and campsites, those snippets are maddeningly incomplete by guidebook standards, and most of the narrative is narrowly anecdotal of a trip the author took many years ago. An internet search for trip advice and the purchase of topographic maps were more essential to planning. 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Blazing Paddles

The Tuque Souq is pointing its compass north by northwest by slightly southeast with a right turn in there somewhere, on a bit of a hiatus. Everyone should believe in something, said Thoreau. I believe I'll go canoeing.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Markets of the World: A fresh take on food, photography and book publishing

Anyone who finds sterility and repetition lurking in the food-and-foodie assault on popular culture, or perhaps a fetid insouciance in photography book publishing--one pass by the bookshelves at the mega chain stores reveals that sellers have not lost their desire to peddle large-format photo spreads on Tuscan herb gardens or the Earth as seen from a rich man's helicopter--is likely to be refreshed by a new book, Markets of the World, by Toronto photographer Dean Bradley.

For an audience that doubtless craves an authentic, humble take on the photographic discovery of the simple pleasures in life, the book is an exhibition not just of talent and creativity but also of exploration and connection.

The market in Mr. Bradley's vision is a community crossroads, both a vibrant intersection of social threads and a common starting point for diverse moments of inspiration, from an evening meal to a flower arrangement to a special gift. The market is colour (p50), conviviality (p32), craftsmanship (p47), enthusiasm (p37), discovery (p71), simplicity (p39) and raw beauty (p27).

Part imaginative travel memoir, part photography exhibit of markets as far flung as Australia (the Sydney fish market), Spain (Valencia's
mercado and Barcelona's boqueria), Cambodia, Vietnam, Morocco, Istanbul, Amsterdam and a dozen more, Markets of the World is truly an exploration of quotidian adventure.

(Mr. Bradley's YouTube channel contains a short video of himself eagerly opening the initial shipment of first editions outside his Toronto home. No doubt we can all identify with and admire the child inside this moment of discovery.)

Last week the intrepid photographer launched the self-published book at the classy, clean-lined
Miele Gallery in the upstairs Market Kitchen of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto (St. Lawrence Market is also featured in the book), where dozens of guests and photography enthusiasts mingled among the exhibit of Mr. Bradley's work and sampled fresh hors d'oeuvres made from produce from just downstairs. 

It's a rare treat to find a photography book whose essence is no more or less than the artist's passion for his craft and the life in what surrounds him.

Markets of the World ($29.95; hardcover; 103 pages) is available at independent GTA bookstores such as Another Story, Nicholas Hoare, Type Books, Ben McNally, Book City and A Different Drummer Books, as well as at Ten Thousand Villages. It can also be purchased online from the photographer's website www.photosbydean.ca

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bill Moyers reads Magazines Upside-Down

"Lying in bed at night, reading. Magazines mostly. It's amazing how many places you can go with a stack of magazines while flat on your back."

--Bill Moyers, quoted in the July 2011 issue of Vanity Fair, in the back-of-book Proust Questionnaire; asked what his favourite occupation is. The veteran American journo also professes his love for Dr. Seuss, Steinbeck and his Peace Corps days. Seems to have the important things in life sorted out.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Brain-Eating Zombie Fungus is Selfish SOB

"Tropical carpenter ants who are zombified by brain fungus are thereafter compelled, at solar noon, to latch on to the main vein on the underside of a leaf, readying them for death in a spot ideally suited to the fungus's well-being."
--Harper's magazine, "Findings"; July 2011

This is simply a fantastic sentence. And its subject matter reminds one of the spectacular clip of the ant-eating brain fungus from the Planet Earth series. 

: A mature brain fungus clings to a tree. And to think, it all started with one brainy ant.)

And with that, I'm finally caught up on six months' worth of Harper's

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Oh Aubergine: Etymology of an Eggplant

In India I learned most of the local language at the School of Hard Knocks, otherwise known as the vegetable market. Elbowing my way through the horde of pickers, it was:

"I'll take that one, what do you call it?"
"Ach-cha, I'll take chaari
What do they call them in your country?
"Aubergine. Or sometimes eggplant."
Egg. Plant?

The vegetable in question is native to southern India, where it was originally known as vatinganah (in Sanskrit). Legend holds that this word, broken up, literally means "fart, go away!
" But this ain't true.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Behind the Scenes at the 34th National Magazine Awards

Last night Canadian magaziners feted themselves with due and tasteful pomp at the annual National Magazine Awards.

For my multi-pronged role* as the NMA show stage manager, program editor, script composer and ticket-queue improv greeter, I was rewarded with backstage access which, coupled with the sobriety that outlasted most others in attendance, has yielded a few memorable impressions of the soiree.

Jacqueline Hennessy absolutely rocked the MC gig, employing the best kind of wit for this crowd (the succinct, self-deprecating kind; and all the funny bits were of her, not my, writing).

And she ran the tightest show on the NMA stage perhaps since Pierre Berton brandished a cane
and aimed it at anyone who got within 10 feet of the podium to attempt a thank-you speech.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Magazine Week in Canada

What's better than a warm spring afternoon in the park? How about a warm spring afternoon in the park with a large stack of magazines that has been quietly, patiently yet doubtless eagerly awaiting my return from India.

And what beats the heck out of that? Having a [part-time*] job that encourages one to spend his afternoon in the park reading a large stack of magazines.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Farewell India

So long, India. It's been real. (Sometimes a little too real, like that time you sent your monkey scout into our bedroom.)

We enjoyed your food. Sure, it's oilier than a walrus reunion. And yes, once in a while we took your food and turned it into our food or at least into Middle Eastern food, which was a half-step toward home. But nobody complained about the Tiffins. And I love what you do with eggs.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Shrine of the Holy Mother in Dantolingi

In Dantolingi in northern Ganjam district, near the border of Kandhamal, stands a hilltop shrine to the Holy Mother Mary. Legend has it that an elderly Hindu woman was returning home over the hill with a load of firewood, when she became ill and faint. The Virgin Mary appeared to her in a vision and led her to a spring which had never flowed before. The woman drank and regained her strength. The Roman Catholic Church investigated the miracle and consecrated the site of the spring. Each year since, on February 11, thousands of Christian pilgrims visit Dantolingi and climb the hill to pray at the shrine and wash in the spring, which is believed to have remedial powers.

Click here to view the full photo gallery

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tibetan Monastery of Chandragiri

In 1963, about 600 Tibetan refugees arrived in the southwestern Orissa hill country of Gajapati district, in a fertile valley known as Chandragiri. It seems an unlikely spot to run into Tibetans, what with our being a long thousand kilometres from Tibet, as the kingfisher flies.  

Those first refugees arrived here in the early 1960s after fleeing into exile with the Dalai Lama, following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959. The Indian government resettlement program for refugees established a number of camps around India; today the refugees number between 110,000 and 120,000 all over the country. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Monkey High Jump

Actually more like a not-so-high jump. Scene from our balcony, Berhampur, Orissa, India.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday Night = Egg Roll Night

Ah, the Calcutta Egg Roll stall in Annapurna Market, Berhampur. They serve up a one-egg omelette, wrapped in a chapati, stuffed with chicken masala, onion, chilli sauce and another kind of chilli sauce. Garnished with lime and served in a paper napkin, this ain't your ordinary Egg Roll. It's just not a Friday night out on the town without Berhampur's #1 street snack. Just twenty rupees (or about 44 cents).

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chilika Lake

Chilika is the largest brackish water lake in Asia, measuring about 1000 square kilometres. The NGO I’ve been working with, PREM, supports development in 153 villages around and nearby the lake, where the population is mostly comprised of Fisher People communities whose social status is essentially equivalent to Dalit (formerly “Untouchables”). 

Friday, February 25, 2011

Buffalo Time

In Mandiapalli village, almost any time is buffalo time. You can set your watch—as much as you’d need to around here—to the events in the daily routine of Bubalus bubalis, the Indian domestic water buffalo: an animal responsible for most of livelihood around this village in southwestern Orissa.

At dawn, they’re on the move, herds as small as ten or as large as thirty, heading for pastures of dried paddy-field hay or fresh green grass. Late morning, their single-file parade moves from the heat of the field to the damp coolness of the wallow; a shady stretch of mud perhaps, or even a pond.

There are two kinds of animals in this world: those who wallow, and those who don’t. We who don’t might not know what we’re missing, until we see a herd of buffalo wallowing.

Afterwards, it is buffalo nap time. That’s the afternoon gone. Then comes the magic hour before sunset, when the herds are on the move again, crossing roads, blocking rush-hour traffic, moving with all the urgency and purpose of Grateful Dead concert.

The other day I was riding on the back of a motorbike through a herd of buffalo as they crossed a narrow road en masse at a lazy twenty-degree angle. Imagine a game of Frogger, only the obstacles have horns and large, bony asses. We maneuvered between tail and nose in a prize-worthy attempt, and just barely emerged on the other side of buffalo stink in time to reach a nearby tea stall.

People around here love the buffalo for its superiority to cattle and oxen for ploughing paddy fields. Hides are sold for leather. Chiseled bones and horns become decorative jewellery and amulets. Dung makes excellent cheap fuel and fertilizer. But most beloved of the buffalo’s attributes is the healthily high fat content of its milk.

Yes, even tea time is buffalo time.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The National Egg Co-ordination Committee

It all started about a year ago when my friend and I went up to work on his motorcycle, when I first noticed—off the side of a side road, about a half-mile from the railroad tracks in fact—a peculiar building. And this building, wouldn’t you know, had a chain across its entrance and a sign over top that read “National Egg Co-ordination Committee.”

Well I had never heard of a National Egg Co-ordination Committee before, so with a gleam in my eye, I rode off into the sunset in search of someone who could explain what it was.*

Turns out that none of my colleagues at the NGO I work with—almost all of whom pass this derelict building on the way to the office in a jungle village—knows what goes on at NECC. But they must have thought about it before, because when it piqued my interest, it was an opportunity for all of the jokes to come out of the bag.

One person said it was a government agency, set up within the bloated bureaucracy to count and tax the passage of eggs along the adjacent highway.

Another claimed it was a front for the mafia; albeit—I added—a front at which other mafia would, no doubt, derisively snicker.

Egg Pakoda:  Can't get this at Alice's Restaurant
Still a third person cracked wise that NECC exists to maintain the balance between omelettes and pakodas (well that's a hard-boiled egg, rolled in spicy, glowing-orange batter and deep fried), two opposing methods of egg preparation endemic to the local cuisine.

But the most resilient refrain for explicating the National Egg Co-ordination Committee is that, well, it must be an NGO—Non-Governmental Organization, that is—engaged in the work of taking grassroots egg coordination among the poor and marginalized people to the national level.

Presumably, this very minute, the coordination of eggs on a national scale is being done by a committee whose success at the village, block, district and state levels has been proved beyond question. With S.M.A.R.T. objectives, systematic Monitoring & Evaluation and a full-proof plan for Sustainability, the international donors have been boiling with optimism, scrambling to fund this innovative project; over-easy—you might say—in the yoke of their, um… souls.**

Yes, whether poached, sunny-side-up, or Benedictine, egg coordination is going national in India. Next up, the world.

Delicious organization
Remember, one egg is, well, just an egg. But three eggs, why three eggs is an organization. And fifty eggs, can you imagine fifty eggs all getting together for change? Friends that would be a movement.

And that’s what we have here: The National Egg Co-ordination Committee anti-uncoordination movement. And after all, that’s what development is really all about.

* With all due credit to Arlo.
**The author of this blog has just been whacked by the pun mafia.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Saora Tribe of Gajapati

The Saora are one of the oldest and most numerous of the 62 scheduled tribes of Orissa in southeastern India. The so-called Hill Saoras reside mainly in the remote district of Gajapati as well as neighbouring Ganjam and Koraput in the hilly region of the Eastern Ghats, near the border with Andhra Pradesh.

It is believed that the name 'Saora' derives from 'Sawari' (also found as 'Seori'), an elderly woman who gave refuge to Rama during his journeys in the Hindu epic Ramayana.1

Their exact numbers are not known but it has been estimated that the population of Hill Saoras is approximately 300,000 in all areas. Relatively unique among Orissa tribes the Hill Saoras maintain a casteless society; this independent of the fact that over the past few generations a large minority of them have converted to Christianity (Baptist or Roman Catholic). Others practice a traditional though unorthodox fusion of Hinduism and tribal spiritual beliefs (often characterized as ‘animism’).

These Saoras maintain permanent settlements in pastoral villages surrounded by steep hills which are terraced for paddy and vegetable cultivation. They supplement their food supply with forest-produce gathering. Their social culture, far from being primitive (a term often ascribed—wrongly—to Orissa’s tribes), is remarkable for its sophisticated governance, communalism and gender equality.

Many Saoras in Gajapati district are now engaged in employments schemes such as NREGS and OREGS2, and often entire villages work together quarrying rocks, building roads and check dams, setting up community centres and clearing land for new cultivation. Many groups, especially women, engage in micro-finance livelihood initiatives by local NGOs.

Despite these developments, the Saora remain under the omnipresent threats of soil erosion and desertification, corruption, extreme poverty, lack of access to education and health care, forced migration, and nearly futile battles with government and the mining industry over land use and rights.

These photographs were taken over the course of several visits in 2010 to Saora communities in Mohana, Chandragiri, Tabme Gorjang and Gumma.

Click here to view the full photo gallery

1-Verrier Elwin, Tribal Myths of Orissa (vol. 1), 1954
2-National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and Orissa Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

Friday, January 28, 2011

Himalaya Redux

Khangchedzonga (8598m; 28,200ft), south face from Thangsing valley, 12 Oct 2010.
To view full photo gallery click here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

What's in Your Tiffin? [a.k.a. A Week's Worth of Lunch]

Lunch time is tiffin time--the lovable, stackable, put-it-on-your-headable lunch pail of India. Everyday at work around two it's waiting for me in the canteen. PREM's kitchen staff keeps me well fed, sometimes a little too well. Here's a pretty typical week.

Roti, rice, potato-garbanzo curry, mixed-veg curry, dhal, cabbage curry, omelette.

Roti, fish curry, rice, aubergine curry, fried green beans & potatoes, dhal.

Roti, rice, onion omelette, fried beans & potatoes, bitter gourd & potato curry.

Potato-aubergine curry, green bean curry, dhal, rice, omelette, roti.

Roti, tomato-gourd curry, omelette, dhal, green beans, rice.

Peanut butter! By the spoonful. A man doesn't live by curry alone.

 Out on the street for some mutton kebabs. Tomorrow is another tiffin.