Category Archives: IDM

3 months in India

*Wow, I’ve been sick than travelling and haven’t had time to write this article! Now it’s been over 4 months but this is about my third month living and studying in India!*

Hey! It’s been 3 months that I have been living in India, and I am really feeling now all the contrasts that so many people talk about… especially when that feeling that the place is stuck 50 years back in time while people have access to technologies, smartphones, etc.  I used to notice the litter and be “sad but whatever” and now I feel so disgusted by all the trash in nature, especially along roads and railways… how could this ever be fixed?

Becoming local celebrities at a university festival...
Becoming local celebrities at a university festival…

I spent most of this last month in another campus near Coimbatore. With Simona, we were staying at the girls hostel, which was awesome for meeting some very cool Indian girls, making friends and learning more about the culture!

Going to a local beach

The beach was nice, the pervy staring not so much...
The beach was nice, the pervy staring not so much…

One day, we decided to go out and have a swim at the nearest local beach: Dolphin Beach. We had a lot of fun surfing the waves and getting washed out by a few washing machines. The Indians on shore seemed impressed by the fun we were having in the sea, as most of them don’t know how to swim.

While we walked on the beach, we noticed how the thin sand was sticky under our feet, and hoped it was indeed the sand and not something else. The beach was a local toilet; people come here to poop with a view!

When we were about to get dry and dressed, a man lay down a few metres away, tongue stuck out, staring at us. I was feeling totally uncomfortable but didn’t know what to do and turned to my guy friends in despair: “this guy is totally staring at us, it’s disgusting!” To which they replied: “Which one? The guy laying in front of you or the three hidden in the bush?” I thought it was a pretty good joke until I realised it wasn’t a joke…

Maybe it's better to stay in full clothing and fly a kite instead of swimming... There was a nice atmosphere with beach stalls and kites for sunset!
Maybe it’s better to stay in full clothing and fly a kite instead of swimming… There was a nice atmosphere with beach stalls and kites for sunset!

We decided not to change and stay in our wet clothes, and I covered up with my sarong. We walked to the end of the jetty, where people were casually eating ice creams and throwing the wrapping into the sea. Dolphins popped in and out of the waves, as well as cameras around us of local people suddenly feeling an urge to take selfies with a nice background (the Westerners, not the sea!)

3D printing a hand

Look! I made a hand!
Look! I made a hand!

I had a lot of fun 3D printing a hand! It was meant for a prosthetic for a kid in my village who has several limb differences. I started by printing out the fingers, then the palm and then connected everything together with the help of my friend Chris. It was awesome to see it come to life! Well not literally, but it was definitely a cool project to carry on. In the end, I decided not to complete the project as I was missing technical support, medical expertise and experience. If I had at least one of these I think I would have tried taking the project further but I didn’t want to risk hurting the kid or giving him hope and then abandoning him. But it is a project I’d love to try again back home!

Staying in an Indian campus

I was supposed to go to Ettimadai, near Coimbatore, for a couple of days to a week to complete my prototype and testing. Due to unforeseen circumstances such as the death of the Chief Minister and several days of strike, I ended up staying for over 2 weeks! Meanwhile, I made some very good friends on the campus and had a lot of fun with them and Simona!

Travelling with Simona was loads of fun on the train!
Travelling with Simona was loads of fun on the train!

On the day we arrived, there was a “curtain raiser” for a festival happening later in the academic year. There were some food stalls, live music and hundreds of crazy students who taught us some Bollywood dance moves!

I ended up being totally fed up with Indian food. There was no Western Café to cater for our Western cravings and meals were not as enjoyable as before!

Yay, we had pizza! And it was COLD! So cool!
Yay, we had pizza! And it was COLD! So cool!

I wrote about my experience living almost like a student on this article (and scandalised quite a few locals).

We also went out for one day in Coimbatore with Simona and greatly enjoyed our day out!

At the girls’ hostel, we learnt a lot about the Indian life. Especially about arranged marriages, we didn’t think it was that common! Our friends also loved dressing us up in sarees and we also got some beautiful henna tattoos on our hands!

Our new friend Deekshita doing a henna tattoo on my hand!
Our new friend Deekshita doing a henna tattoo on my hand!
I tried to wrap my saree myself: not easy!
I tried to wrap my saree myself: not easy!
Cooking noodles, Indian style!
Cooking noodles, Indian style!

I went with Simona to her village and it was a great experience, I also wrote about it here!

Death of the Chief Minister

Suddenly everyone was watching TV: a lot was going on related to the death of the CM!
Suddenly everyone was watching TV: a lot was going on related to the death of the CM!

While we were in Coimbatore, we learnt that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was in hospital, dying. Suddenly, at meal times, the TV was on and girls gathered around the screen to hear the latest news. On the pictures, there was a huge crowd in front of the hospital. We couldn’t understand what was going on. We did some research on the internet, and learnt that if she died, there would be a several day strike, people would burn cars and buses, some would even commit suicide! Needless to say, when her passing was announced, we were locked up in the campus and our projects were on a halt for a few days. Unlike the rulers of our European countries, the chief minister was lovingly called Amma and people were so upset by her death they would actually commit suicide!

Project?

With all of this going on, my project got late with the prototype building and testing. We had done a first trial that failed. Instead of testing first the tractor then the trailer we tried all the system. A bad idea: the trailer broke and then we couldn’t even test the tractor, which broke too! At that point, I was really annoyed by the quality of the prototype.

I was told the rice seedlings weren’t grown enough for trial of transplanting, so we would have to wait an extra 10 days. But after these 10 days (and the death of the CM) my prototype barely got fixed and we didn’t even go out to the field and try it! This was extremely disappointing for me as I hoped to see my prototype work (or not) but also see the reaction of the local female farmers to it.

With nothing else to do, I also learnt a few new ukulele songs!

I taught a girl how to play while the train was stuck in the middle of nowhere!
I taught a girl how to play while the train was stuck in the middle of nowhere!

And on the train trip back, I played them to some pilgrims while we were stopped in the middle of nowhere!

Back to Amritapuri!

Being gone for that long, I felt like I was coming back home when I reached Amritapuri! Most of my friends were still there and we had plenty of stories to share. It was a great feeling to meet them again!

Amma was back too, and the place was very busy, especially with the Christmas celebration to come! I had loads of things I still wanted to do before my departure, but unfortunately, I got sick…

One morning, I woke up with some terrible stomach cramps. My friend Peppiina was leaving that day, so I tried to go downstairs to say goodbye. But after one flight of stairs, I nearly fainted and retreated to my bed, where I stayed for the following 24 hours. As soon as I got up, I was on the verge of fainting. Whatever I had, I couldn’t get out of bed or eat anything.

I had already been sick in Coimbatore, and for a few days I felt extremely tired and even sleeping 10 hours a night wasn’t enough.

I am still grateful I didn’t catch the worse bugs around!

Once I was feeling better, I attended the RAHA conference about humanitarian robotics and presented a poster about my project, and then my mom came to visit for two awesome weeks of travelling Kerala!

7 reasons we wouldn’t want to live in an Indian university campus

Edit: I reverted the title to its original one: “7 reasons we wouldn’t…” instead of “7 reasons not to…” as this article is entirely about our opinion and shouldn’t be understood as an advice article.

Edit 2: I had a great discussion with some important people from the uni, who explained many things I would never have guessed otherwise. I changed once again the title from “we wouldn’t study…” to “we wouldn’t want to live…” as I have rightly been pointed out, most of this has nothing to do with the quality of education but with the accommodation and lifestyle. Once again, this is from a Western perspective and experience so it probably wouldn’t apply to Indian students. I have been told that some people have felt offended by my post: I wasn’t aware of some sensitivities and would like to apologise for being hurtful. I have written this as an insight of what we felt living in this campus and discussing with local students, but did not want to hurt anyone, please do not take this personally , I really do not mean it. 

With Simona, we have been staying at Ettimadai campus of Amrita University for almost 3 weeks. It is about one hour away from Coimbatore (if the train isn’t too late), and basically in the middle of nowhere. We had a lot of fun with the local girls we met at the hostel, who were really cool and taught us a lot about Indian life, even dressing us up in the evening! Although we found it fun to discover hostel life, we often talked about why we could never do what they are doing now: voluntarily put ourselves in this kind of campus for 4 years of studies.

Chloe and Simona with local friends
Getting dressed up by a full team of professional saree fitters. These girls are awesome!

Warning: this article has been thought up by Simona and myself during our long complaints about what we don’t like here; what we say here is from the perspective of us as people used to a certain level of comfort and freedom, and if you don’t come from the same background you might not understand why we’re complaining and there’s a possibility you find this insulting. Sometimes we’re being sarcastic; sometimes we believe there’s a real problem behind.
So hey, whether you feel offended or you totally agree, let’s have a discussion about this!

1. Being denied any kind of responsibility

Students at Amrita University stay in “hostels”, but not our kind of warm and welcoming European hostels with a party atmosphere. Here, the word “hostel” refers to the massive buildings with loads of single rooms or shared dorms. First year students share a room between 3 or 4 people, then they get individual rooms. Students have to be back early in their hostels, depending on the year of studies and gender (see picture below), and are not allowed to stay in friends’ rooms after 9:30pm.

Amritapuri Hostel
Here’s the hostel we’re staying at, with nice mountains in the background! Our hostel has 2 of these kind of wings on either side, and in rows from A to H. That’s approximately 800 rooms! We’re on the furthest side and there’s only one entrance to the building so it’s a long walk around…

Students are generally not allowed to go outside of campus. The campus is surrounded by walls 2 metres high, complete with barbed wire on the top. I know, I know, it’s to protect us from the elephants. But still. If students want to go outside, they need to ask several days before, with written permission from their parents.

Basically, we feel like students are treated as children here.

Edit: cut out some unnecessary complaints. Also, I learnt more about Indian culture, and the kids (as people under 18 years old) don’t have the freedom and responsibilities that we have in Europe, also because of safety considerations. I still feel that student are treated like kids instead of adults, but now I kind of understand  why.

2. Rules are more restrictive for girls

As if it weren’t enough to have super-restrictive rules for students, they make it worse for girls! For example, first semester female students have to be back in their hostel by 8pm, while guys are allowed to stay out until 9pm! Also, these first semester girls are not allowed to go outside AT ALL while guys can ask for a pass. Nope, no days outside in the city, no going back home, please stay inside of your hostel for a semester!

Hostel rules at Amritapuri
A sample of hostel rules. Notice how most time restrictions are more restrictive more girls… I know, the picture is terrible, I’ll try to get another one!

Come on, it’s 2016! The campus feels overprotected and super-secured, why wouldn’t girls be allowed to stay outside of their dorms as long as guys can?

Edit: I could make it more “politically correct” but haven’t received any satisfactory explanation on this one so I’ll leave it like this for now. I still cannot understand this kind of rules. Please comment if you can tell my why it is so!

3. Comfort, or rather the lack of

The hostel rooms are very basic. We were lucky enough to get our own attached bathroom, but this is not the case of most girls here (I’ll just switch to speaking about girls as we didn’t experience the “Boys Hostel”!). Our attached bathroom has a western toilet and a shower above it, with no hot water (well it does get tepid around 11am). The other girls have 3 even more basic bathrooms at the end of each corridor, with an Indian toilet and a tap. A tap. No shower for them, they have to bring their own bucket to “take a bath” as they say.

hostel comfort
What you can expect from your hostel room. We didn’t know about the hot water though!

The beds (“cot”) are basically an elevated sheet of metal with a hard mattress on the top. Some Indians seem used to this, many complain about as much as we do.

There are bugs all over the place and they seem to love our room. We realised that despite being beautiful creatures dragonflies are as dumb as moths when they come hitting our lamp in the evening. Trails of ants cross our room and the corridors. We discover new bugs almost daily! And the mosquitoes definitely love our exotic blood.

Yeah, sometimes the bugs we get are pretty rad.
Yeah, sometimes the bugs we get are pretty rad.

Nothing seems to be ever clean, everything is dusty, even when we try our best. Back at the Ashram, we laughed at the “perfectly engineered stone” a woman was using to smack her clothes clean. But when it was our turn to wash our clothes, we were clueless about how to use this wonder of technology. Give me back my washing machine!

Edit: once again, cut out some unnecessary complaints.

4. Currycurrycurrycurrycurrycurrycurrycurry

You name it. Spicy is on the menu for lunch, dinner and breakfast. I managed to keep up with the breakfast for a while when I had big days at work. But now I can’t do it any more, and we skip breakfast most days. The other options are some terribly un-nutritious white bread with super-sweet jam or biscuits and fruit.

It’s not that the food is not good. But for us, it is always the same thing. Curry and rice. I did come to the point where I recognise the different kind of curries and would be excited if my favourite was served, but it is still the same thing. Rice and curry. We’re craving vegetables by themselves, without being drowned in some spicy sauce. I didn’t miss Western food as much in countries where there was more varieties in the dishes, but here I would love to have a “regular” sweet breakfast and some non-spicy food with fresh veggies from time to time.

campus food with papaya and pineapple
The first meal we got on this campus was delicious, but we never had fruits ever since.

In tea and coffee there is always milk, no way no get your hot drink black. I have to deal with my unhappy stomach quite often as a milk-intolerant-and-mostly-vegan person.
We are not the only ones to complain about the food: most girls, especially from other states, complain about the food. They don’t like it; find it too spicy, or not spicy enough.

Last but not least, we students from EPFL miss our beer after a hard day at work! Alcohol is forbidden on campus, and in some occasions we couldn’t imagine what would happen if it were allowed 😉

5. “Modest” clothing

In Ettimadai campus, the dress code is more relaxed than at the Ashram. However, women are still expected to cover their legs and shoulders outside of the hostel. Inside the hostel, many girls seem to spend days in their pyjamas and never leave the hostel; I would do the same if I had to put on “appropriate” clothes to go outside!

For the guys, it seems to be acceptable that they wear shorts, and some of these look more like underpants! Once again, even though the rules are same for everyone, the guys seem to be freer than the girls in clothing options. The girls complain about their uniform, they say it is not comfortable.

Indian in puffer jacket at 24°C
It was funny to notice that when the temperature drops, Indian pull out their puffer jackets. Even if “cold” is 24°C! That day, we were so happy to feel cool!

The problem with the clothing is the heat. If there wasn’t any dress code, it would make the heat more bearable. And if it wasn’t that hot, I would still be annoyed by having these rules but I wouldn’t complain too much about having to cover myself up.

6. Gender separation

I’m glad I came with a girl-friend here, but we heard many stories about girls coming to uni with their best (guy) friend, and not being able to sit on besides another without being scolded! One girl told us about the “one laptop” rule, which is the distance to be kept between friends of opposite genders.

Simona and guys in the background at Anokha
The moment we experience the most “mixity” between genders was at Anokha festival (see video below!). Girls and guys were casually hanging out and dancing together. We still laughed when noticing the physical proximity with guys 🙂 Also, an hour later (around 8:30pm actually), guards walked through the crowd blowing on their whistles and yelling “Girls back to hostels!”. As usual, the guys were allowed to stay outside and have fun later in the evening.

The girls also told us about arranged marriages. They told us, defeated, that their parents will find a suitable husband for them soon. Our friends don’t seem happy about it, rather resigned. Next generation might be freer to marry whoever they chose in a “love marriage” at least they hope it for their children.

7. The great Firewall of Amrita

Once we managed to get internet access, we discovered there was a great censorship on websites classified as “entertainment and arts”. That means no ukulele tabs, no “opinion” websites talking about the news, no sports coaching websites… I couldn’t even access my bank or the Creative Commons website when I was looking up open source licensing! Surprisingly, we could still access Facebook, YouTube and eBay… but not Skype, WhatsApp pictures, etc.

censorship at Amrita university
Seriously, not even this website about Open Source licensing? I am very disappointed…

As I had to go to IT to ask them to unlock my bank’s website, I asked them what the firewall was for: “to block porn”. Okay. Even though I find it abusive, I could understand the block on “entertainment”. But arts?! What is that for?

Anyway, the wifi often happens to be not working at all, and with the frequent and long power cuts we have other problems too.

So these were our main reasons for definitely not wanting to study here for an extended period of time! I hope you are not too shocked or upset about what you just read! Please feel free to comment 🙂

Edit: more than feel free, please do comment if you can explain any of these things that we couldn’t, or if I said something very offending without realising it!

Village Visit #2

Today I had the great opportunity to go to a nearby village with my friend Simona, who is studying medicinal plants in rural areas. A local student was escorting us for translation, as the villagers speak Malayalam and Tamil but no or little English. He addressed us as “sister”, maybe our Western names were too complicated?

Children presenting plants to an old man in rural india village while international and local students do research about plants
While Simona was interviewing this old man (he is 100 years old !), the kids were running around teasing me and picking up the plants the man asked for. And I had nothing else to do except taking pictures 🙂

Not long after we sat down at the medicine man’s place, we saw kids approaching the hut to have a look at us then run away. Slowly, the approached us, sat down a dozen of metres away, and yelled at us, pointing at the dog: “very danger! very danger!”. We laughed, the dog hadn’t moved since we arrived. Growing bolder, a kid more fluent in English asks us “What’s your name?” to which we answer “Simona and Rosanna!”. I have taken the habit of switching names according to countries, especially here as almost all Indians, even those who are fluent in English, can’t seem to be able to pronounce “Chloe” properly. I always end up being called with a name that I can’t recognise, and that actually sound closer to the Swiss-German word for “toilets” than my own name.

But the kids pick up Rosanna easily, and call me around: “Rosanna sister! Come!” and proudly show me plants, friends and siblings. The kids were very welcoming and want me to take pictures of everyone, as they recognised me as a “photographer”!

henna tattoos on girl's hands
This girl was beautiful, but didn’t want her picture taken. Here she shows the henna tattoos on her hands, which looks way more colourful than ours we had done last week!

Once the interview with the old man was concluded, we walked into the village, following the kids. On our way, we met a lady in her 90s, who was the medicine man’s wife. She was energetic and smiling, proud of having her picture taken.

We were stunned to learn that the life expectancy in these rural villages was around 90 to 100 years old! In our “modern” societies, we always crave for a healthier life, and want to live older while remaining in a good shape. Who would have guessed these people from some of the poorest places on Earth would have figured it all out? Even though they have very basic facilities and almost no sanitation, they must be living a very healthy lifestyle, and most of all, they aren’t under much pressure like we can be.

old indian lady posing in front of house in rural village
93 years old and still energetic! How amazing is she?

The kids lead us to the baby’s classroom. They came out to greet us, and looked like baby models. The tiny kids stared boldly into our cameras, smiling, while their siblings teased them and lifted them up in their arms. The caregivers observed from a distance, happy to see us but shying away from our cameras.

Baby girl carried by her brother, wearing a nursery necklace
Even though they couldn’t speak English, the kids were proud to introduce us to their siblings with the words “brother” and “sister”.

Unlike the adults, the younger kids do not try to display a very serious face on pictures: they laugh, they pull faces and make rabbit ears to each other. I taught them how to take pictures with my camera, and press on the big button until the “click”. I try to hold the camera with them, and sometimes I trust the older ones to take pictures on their own. The most difficult is to get them not to touch the camera lens, but it always happens. Terrible kids.

rural boy smiling, standing against a wall
This naughty boy managed to sneak up to my camera and stick his finger on the lens. But anyway, the pictures are worth the annoyance!

We ended up taking many pictures and selfies with the kids, they loved following us around and showing us interesting thing to see. They even managed to find a turtle and bring it to us! When it was time to leave, the kids waved us goodbye: “Bye Rosanna! Ciao ciao Simona!” We drove away from the chaotic road, we were still amazed by these super cool kids, who welcomed us as sisters for the day.

Women in sarees sitting in front of their house in rural india with woman photobomb in the background
Even in rural India you can get photobombed when having your picture taken in front of your house.
Group of Indian kids in front of school
When we started taking pictures, they called in all their friends and siblings for a group picture!
Row of indian babies eating with their hands
On our way back, the babies were back in their classroom, all aligned, eating their lunch surprisingly cleanly with their hands.

And just as I write this article, I realise how cheesy it sounds and how I have just became the “Instagram volunteer”, or the white girl going to a poor country just to take profile pictures with the kids and saying how happy they are despite having nothing. Well to be honest I did not have anything to do there. Anyway, it was cool!

Two months in India

I feel like I have barely written my post about my first month in India, and now it has been two months today already !

Even though I miss most of them, the sunsets are still really nice over here.
Even though I miss most of them, the sunsets are still really nice over here.

Since last time, I calmed down about some things that annoyed me most, but some others annoyances are getting worse. Many events have occurred over these last four weeks. Amma has left the Ashram, I went on a couple of girlie escapes from there too, I went swimming in the Ocean and made some new Indian friends. My project started happening, the 500 and 1000 rupee notes have been declared illegal and Trump got elected. I started working again on some projects from back home, I moved into a new room and new students arrived.

Project Time in Coimbatore

One month after starting my project, the designing session was over, and we started production. If you’re curious about the manufacturing, have a look over here.

The Ricycle's first prototype bike
With my Ricycle bike and manufacturer after our first 4 days of work.

The manufacture workshop we were working in is located on another campus, 300 kilometres away. Don’t be fooled by the “short” distance, it actually takes 10 hours to get there.  In my new flat, I was happily surprised by finding two Dutch students in the living room. They were also doing a project here and it was nice to meet some new friends, and watch movies in the evening.

Amritapuri Ettimadai surroundings
The campus in Ettimadai (near Coimbatore) is surrounded by mountains and has a friendlier atmosphere than Amritapuri. It is also cooler in the evenings and has less mosquitoes, which is also enjoyable.
One great thing about the Coimbatore campus is the Swimming pool... until dozens of kids jump into the water for training along the width of the swimming pool. The Ashram swimdress also makes training more intense!
One great thing about the Coimbatore campus is the Swimming pool… until dozens of kids jump into the water for training along the width of the swimming pool. The Ashram swimdress also makes training more intense!
odissi dance
We were lucky to attend the Odissi dance performance at uni. The dancer was also very pedagogic and explained the meanings of movements and songs.

Ashram Life

Since Amma has gone, the Ashram is calmer, there are less people around but also less activities and shops closed most of the time. The swimming pool has been closed for technical problems. One day, after meditation, Amma scolded her swamis and devotees who arrived late, and sent them to run around the meditation as a punishment. Since then, devotees walk or run around the hall “for fitness”, because Amma told them to do so and her intention makes the action stronger. I find it hilarious to see the Indians in shirt and dhoti (“skirt”) run around the hall barefeet. But I joined them by doing 10 laps every few days followed by strengthening exercises, and it is a soothing practise. I hope to heal my knee who hasn’t recovered from the unexpected marathon in June (Run24Dorigny).

robots and food, two of my faves
One day, a colleague from the lab invited me to have a dinner he cooked in the lab, from Northern India.

New friends arrive, and old friends left. We have been playing music after dinner, eating loads of cake to finish our food cards and eating enough watermelon with Chris to carry baby watermelons in our full stomachs.

Akshay with a snake
The Ashram is sometimes like a zoo… after rats, pigeons and crows in my room, cockroaches, ants and millipedes crawling all around, here is a snake found just outside the building.

Sweet Escapes

Don’t ask me why I hadn’t escaped the Ashram earlier. Once I did it I was asking myself the same question. Part of the answer comes from numerous bank holidays and strikes we were not told of, otherwise we would definitely have gone on a week-end somewhere!

Houseboat in Alleppey

With 3 other girls from the Ashram, we decided to take 2 days off from spiritual life and go on a houseboat tour. The backwaters of Kerala are a very famous network of canals and lakes where houseboats can be rented overnight.

Justine, Lise, Teresa and I, enjoying the cruise. How great to find ourselves in a girls group on the backwaters!
Justine, Lise, Teresa and I, enjoying the cruise. How great to find ourselves in a girls group on the backwaters!

Beach time in Varkala

Another escape from the Ashram, just a few days ago, was to the beach in Varkala. My new friend Khan had told me about a music and arts festival he was organising, and as I was coming back from Coimbatore it would be the occasion to visit this beach resort.

gigantic jellyfish
Simona and a gigantic jellyfish. Loads of them were washed up on the beach, and many others stinged us while we were swimming. No jellyfish fights like back in New Zealand here!

I had too much to say about these adventures so read more about the houseboat tour and Varkala here!

Trump, feminism, shitty feelings, etc.

When the US elections were going on, I was in the workshop in Coimbatore. I was looking at the ongoing results with fear. When Trump was declared next president, I didn’t know what to think about the situation. I was in shock.

“To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” Douglas Adams (thanks Johann!)

I didn’t think Clinton was the best candidate, but I believed she was infinitely better than that misogynist, racist and islamophobic  guy. I felt terrible because as a women, I felt personally attacked by his repeated offences on women. I felt terrible because society didn’t care that much about sexual assault, and thought it was ok to have a president who could do such things to women. I felt like crawling in my bed and crying, waiting for the storm to go by.
I felt terrible because these elections were bringing up bad memories of harassment I had tried burying deep inside,  and I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Women were hurt all around the planet. I felt hurt not only because of the guy I feared, but also because I somehow identified as the woman I realised I admired, because she came so far and a white man less qualified got the job: “I cried because it does things to you to always come second.”

The only thing I hold to know, is the hope that you sometimes need to take a great fall to get back on your legs. Lets do this together.

Illegal Tender

Just the day before Trump became president, we had another piece of bad news. It was after dinner, the Dutch and I were watching a movie. Jelmer suddely rises and pauses the movie: “Guys, are you ready for this?!” and he reads the news about the new money situation. The government had suddenly declared that all notes of 500 and 2000 rupees (approx 8 and 30€) were worthless pieces of paper, from midnight the same day.

Our first reaction was: “Should we get a taxi to Coimbatore and get drunk?”. But we quickly resumed our movie, confident that we would soon be able to change our old notes into new and withdraw money from the ATM.

One week later, the situation was slightly getting better: after waiting in line for 2 hours I was able to withdraw 2000 rupees from both of my cards.
One week later, the situation was slightly getting better: after waiting in line for 2 hours I was able to withdraw 2000 rupees from both of my cards.

That was, we were thinking in our European mindsets. We didn’t expect banks to be locked down for 2 days and ATMs empty for a week. We didn’t expect the banks to refuse to serve foreigners. And we definitely didn’t expect a maximum amount of 2000 rupees (15€) to be withdrawn per day.

Luckily, at the university and Ashram, we didn’t have to pay for anything, and the situation could’ve been far worse. I couldn’t imagine being travelling around or having to pay for my stay somewhere and catch a plane with no money. We even managed to escape to Varkala with almost nothing, as we heard that the tourist spots accepted old bills. We also hoped that the money situation would be better in a city than in a village: it wasn’t.

In Varkala it became a joke: “No money!” we told the vendors, “No money no problem!” they answered, “come tomorrow!”. When I couldn’t afford soap, it was suddenly less fun.

At that moment, I realised it was a real serious situation. Government was fighting corruption, but wasn't able to foresee the consequences of taking out all the biggest notes. People didn't have money. Banks neither. There were people queuing in front of each bank for hours, not even sure to be able to deposit their old currency or withdraw from their bank account.
At that moment, I realised it was a real serious situation. Government was fighting corruption, but wasn’t able to foresee the consequences of taking out all the biggest notes. People didn’t have money. Banks neither. There were people queuing in front of each bank for hours, not even sure to be able to deposit their old currency or withdraw from their bank account.

Spiritual Pause

With Amma gone, the spiritual vibe of the place lessened. With all this travelling around and a new flatmate, I was practising less meditation and yoga. Now, with more uni students around, the conversations are more about fun facts about India rather than spiritual discoveries. I have read a few great books that helped me understand what is going on, and I’m looking forward to Amma’s return to get back into spiritual mood.

Monkey sitting on a branch.
Pensive monkey in his monkey tree… picture taken in the village where I will implement my project.

Not “Finding myself in India”

So many people talk about “finding themselves in India”. I was feeling like I lost myself. With all the rules from uni I didn’t dare break, and all the fear instilled in me by people who had never been to India themselves, I didn’t recognize me in my habits. Add to that the discovery of spiritual stuff and I was getting lost, not found.

I walked in the street gazing down, afraid of the disgusting dirty looks I once noticed when I walked past Indian men. I was staying in familiar places, not even trying to explore. I was locked by a fear that wasn’t mine, the fear people had for me when I said I was going to India. Just like in Brazil, I wasn’t scared, but people made me feel insecure.

Where did my inner explorer go? Where is the crazy girl who keeps running away on adventures? I haven’t even climbed up the highest building of the Ashram, and that’s a mere elevator ride.

Getting high, on 14th floor, but still not on the rooftop.
Getting high, on 14th floor, but still not on the rooftop.

When we went outside for the first time, and I could pull out the GPS on my phone to check the directions or train stop, I was back into my normal self. Not lost, confident, and having loads of fun. It was a great way to prove myself that I could do it, I could travel India with my friends and I could do it alone. These baby steps proved me that India wasn’t that different from countries I’ve travelled, I know how to be safe, and I’m not afraid.

After a MONTH AND A HALF, I went swimming in the sea. It was awesome, and I caught the cutest sunburn I've ever had. I can't believe I waited this long.
After a MONTH AND A HALF, I went swimming in the sea. It was awesome, and I caught the cutest sunburn I’ve ever had. I can’t believe I waited this long to go to the beach.

Manufacture

Barely a month ago, I started working on the idea of a pedal-powered tractor for rice transplanting. This was for my Live-in-Lab project in India. I have just spent four days in the manufacturing workshop in a campus in Tamil Nadu, a 10h trip from my main campus. This post is tells how the manufacturing went on.

Manufacturing overview document and CAD drawings...
Project presentation and blueprints for manufacturing…

Day 1

After a short month of design work on my project, we are already starting manufacture! Aymeric, who is also doing a project in my lab, and who has already started manufacture announces in a stern voice: “one centimetre”. That is the precision with which our projects are being created. I’m not sure whether I should laugh or cry. As a microengineering student, I feel kind of sad.

In the manufacturing workshop, as well as the “Indian precision”, I also notice the Indian safety standards, or rather the lack of any. Here, the workers are bare feet or wearing sandals, and none of them is wearing safety gloves or glasses. The noise of the machines is deafening, and I often find myself plugging my ears while averting my gaze to avoid the bright flashes from the welding. I would be happy if I don’t become deaf and blind by the end of this project!

The Indians don’t have workbenches: they work directly on the ground. To discuss the design, we crouch besides the parts we’re talking about.

Discussions à propos d'une pièce. accroupis dans l'atelier de manufacture.
Discussing the design of a part, crouching on the floor.

My project is a rice planting machine. When I started doing my research about what already exists, I was disappointed to discover many machines already existed. From cheap machines to massive agricultural monsters, the subject seemed under control. Additionally, while checking out Youtube, I found so many student projects it seemed like all Indian MTech students have to build a rice planting machine. What is the purpose of my project then? I couldn’t see how my work could serve the subject. So I decided to take a radically different approach. Rather than building an average machine that farmers would push or pull across the paddies, I decided to create a pedal-powered machine. Based on a bicycle, with a transplanting trailer, I am convinced that my design could do the job. With countless hours of pedalling in mud as a mountain biking competitor, I knew it was possible to ride through a thick layer of mud. Now I had to prove them.

On rencontre l'artisan/ouvrier qui va construire la majeure partie de mon vélo...
First meeting with my project’s maufacturer…

Apparently, manufacture starts with a prayer. I join my palms in front of my chest, close my eyes, and listen to the prayer in Malayalam. I even recognise some sentences after a month and a half in the Ashram!

We start by building the back wheels. Soon enough, the long strips of steel get bent and welded together as tractor wheels. Yesterday, we went to get a second-hand bike. I like its “old school” looks, but it will soon be disassembled by a gang on young Indian workers.  Only the main parts are kept for my design.

Mon nouveau vélo... qui sera vite démonté !
My new bike… while it was still in one piece!
Voilà comment on fabrique des roues ! Des grandes bandes de métal sont courbées à la main, puis soudées aux rayons et au centre de la roue.
This is how wheels are made! By bending strips of steel then welding everything together..
Construction des roues. La précision : pas plus que la largeur du trait à la craie.
Building the wheels. Precision? Not more thant the width of a chalk mark.
Tout feu tout flammes : qui ne voudrait pas être ingénieur quand son équipe de manufacture fait cracher du feu à un simple bicyclette ?
Who wouldn’t like to be an engineer when your manufacturing team can turn your bike into a fire-spitting dragon?

Day 2

The manufacturing is going well, and my Ricycle is starting to take shape! When I arrived in the morning, I discovered with awe that my back wheels were almost finished, and they are impressive. But when I try to lift one up, suddenly, it isn’t as stylish: they are almost as heavy as my travel backpack. At 13kg each (ok, a bit less than y backpack), I start to lose faith in my project… How will my small farmers manage to pedal this prototype through the fields?! A sturdy mountain biking wheel weighs less than 2kg, I would never have imagined mine weighing more than double this figure! My supervisor tries to comfort me: “worst case, we give your system to an ox, it will be able to pull it!”. Cows are sacred in India, the ox gets all the work. I still haven’t understood the difference, but if they say so…

En arrivant les deuxièmejour, mes roues sont presque terminées ! A l'atelier, il n'y a guère d'équipement de sécurité, et mes yeux souffrent à chaque fois qu'ils s'arrêtent par mégarde sur un poste de soudure. Comme il y en a partout, c'est très dérangeant. Je ne suis là que pour quelques jours, je me demande comment les ouvriers font pour ne pas encore être aveugles !
When I arrived on the second morning, my wheels were almost finished! In the workshop, there is almost no safety equipment, and my eyes suffer every time they fall upon a welding station… As they are everywhere, it is very uncomfortable. I am only here for a few days, and I’m wondering whether the workers are turning blind!

The explanation for this general overweight is the materials used for prototyping. While mountain biking wheels are made out of lightweight aluminium, mine are in made out of heavy mild steel. I’ll have to write down the exact name of it. If we use less material, they would not be solid enough… So they’re heavy. Very heavy.

The other materials and parts used for my Ricycle are mostly second-hand and scrap parts from whatever lies around the workshop. For the gears, we swap the front chainrings and back sprockets. The bike will be easier to pedal with this configuration. For the transplanting system, we find some scrap sawing bands and cut them out. I was imagining having flexible blades, but that was in my ideal designer mind. When I see them hammering the strips to flatten them, I understand they won’t be flexible any more. We learnt in first year’s material class that if you work the metal it won’t be as flexible. Oh well…

Contrairement à l'atelier de mécanique où j'ai fait mon stage d'usinage en deuxième année, ici, tout semble être rouillé. Les matériaux sont les moins chers possibles, ce qui change la donne au niveau du poids, de la résistance, etc.
Unlike in the workshop where I did my metalwork course in second year, here, everything seems to be rusty. The materials are cheap, which changes everything regarding weight, strength, etc.
J'avais fièrement décidé d'introduire des lames flexibles dans mon mécanisme afin d'éviter l'utilisation de ressorts (spéciale dédicasse au Professeur Henein). Je trouvais ça très intelligent jusqu'à que je voie comment ils tapaient sur des bandes à scier le bois pour les rendre droites avant de les retordre et espèrer qu'elles soient toujours aussi flexibles...
I was proud to use flexible blades in my design to avoid using moving parts and springs (special thoughts to Professor Henein!). I thought it was very intelligent… until they started hammering the blades in shape, believing it wouldn’t change the material’s flexibility!

Day 3

My prototype is looking more and more like my computer designs, and I’m impressed. Until now, the biggest project I had made was my robot for the Robopoly contest, which had to fit into a cylinder of 30cm in diameter. The Ricycle isn’t anything alike! The bike is elevated by a dozen of centimetres and the back wheels are one metre apart.

Certaines pièces sont très semblables aux dessins que j'ai fournis, d'autres n'ont absolument rien à voir. Tous ont un point commun : un surpoids manifeste qu'en tant que microtechnicienne, je n'avais pas imaginé !
Some parts look very much like the ones I’ve drawn on my computer, other seem to be nothing alike. All have one thing in common: a considerable overweight that as a microengineer, I would never have imagined!

As the day goes on, the project is getting fine-tuned. At first, we set the parts in the right disposition, then we partly weld them (careful with the eyes!), and afterwards the position is adjusted according to additional parts. Everything is getting together thanks to the manufacturer’s work and it is an awesome thing to see. When I have a close look, I notice that it is far from being precision work, and when “fixed” parts are more that one centimetre lose, my microengineer soul dies a bit but then I take a step backwards and am still quite proud of my project.

Ca commence à ressembler à mes dessins 3D sur l'ordinateur !
It is beginning to look like my 3D drawings!
La mise en place des éléments est aussi soumise à la précision
The disposition of parts is also subjected to “Indian precision”! As one of my metalwork teachers would say: “there’s a shitload of sideshift!”.

I feel like a site supervisor, being a snob hidden behind my sunglasses. I have decided to cut myself out by wearing earplugs. My ears thank me for this but the already limited communication is further degraded. The workshop is so noisy that I hurt my ear. And the welding flashes are still as aggressive on the eyes. As I start coughing, I am thinking that with all these metal dust particles in the air I might replenish my iron deficiencies!

During the day, many Indians come to have a look at my tricycle. They try to spin a wheel, to understand how it works… They smile and nod in the typical Indian fashion, and my supervisor explains them what it is. In Tamil. I am almost never included in these conversations, or at the most with a slight nod towards me.

Les indiens sont curieux de mon projet et semblent heureux de le voir prendre forme.
The Indians are curious about my project, and seem to be happy to see it take shape.

Despite the language barrier, I feel some complicity with the other women in the workshop. They are five, two of them are working on machines. We curiously look at each other, and try a shy smile while nodding our heads. Yesterday, at the tea break, they asked me if I spoke Tamil. Unfortunately, I haven’t tried learning. At the chai break, they show me where to get my cup and make a sign to tell me to sit besides them. One of them speaks a bit of English and asks me some questions. Where I come from and for how long am I here. Even if we don’t speak I appreciate this outreach which makes me feel more accepted than in any of the technical conversations about my project in which I was barely addressed.

Day 4

The project is being brought into life! With pride, I get on my tricycle and start riding… before derailing after a few metres.

Une prière s'impose avant de tester le Ricycle pour la première fois.
Of course, we pray before testing the Ricycle for the first time.

The Ricycle has made its first steps! Or rather, its first wheel rotations. I can’t even imagine the efficiency of the machine, every part is lose. We spend the day assembling and disassembling the wheels and axle to align every part and tighten everything up. Little by little, the parts are welded and lined up with washers, and the wheels don’t have a path difference of 10cm when turned in in opposite directions.

My supervisor brought the axle to the lathe workshop to thread its extremities, and the wheels can now be tightened. This also allows the bike to turn, as one wheel slips while the other is rolling forward when the handlebar is turned. Now the bike is not limited to straight lines! Well this might not be a sufficient permanent solution, as when the bike encounters resistance both wheels slip and the bike gets stuck.

Une étudiante indienne a essayé le Ricycle, et ça a l'air de fonctionner aussi pour elle ! Dans ma conception, j'ai voulu prendre en compte la morphologie des fermières indiennes, qui font en moyenne 1m50, afin que le vélo soit adapté à leur taille.
An Indian student tried the Ricycle, and it seems to work for her too! In my design, I wanted to take account of the Indian female morphology, who are around 1m50 heigh.

Besides building the tractor-bike, we build the seedling tray. But with the change in dimensions of the back wheels and sprocket, we now have to adapt the length of the connecting parts between bike and transplanter. To solve this problem, I feel lost without my computer, I cannot manage to visualise the best bay to rearrange the parts so that they fit together. Luckily, we move on to another problem, which gives me more time for thinking about the former one.

Une fois boulonnées en place, ça tourne mieux, et en plus on peut faire des virages !
Once the wheels bolted on the axle, it moves more smoothly, and we can even take turns!

The bike moves, but is often derailing. Once all the parts have been fixed, it is better, but to guarantee parallel parts when no measurement is precise is a big challenge. We fix small pipes to the frame to align the chain with the sprockets, so it doesn’t derail from the back any more, but from the front! At least now we can pedal a bit further.

Avec l'artisan/ouvrier qui a fabriqué la majeure partie du Ricycle :)
Me with the manufacturer who built most of the Ricycle!

Work in progress…

Maintenant, il ne reste plus qu'à fixer le mécanisme de transplantation... et ça va pas être une mince affaire !
Now, we only have to attach the transplanting mechanism! Well, only… it will definitely be a difficult task!

In four days, we managed to build a mostly functional bicycle-tractor! Now that the biggest part of the job is done, the most challenging part stays ahead: linking the transplanting mechanism and make it work!

One month in India

So I’ve been in India for a month, and I have to admit that this place has it’s own way of getting on my nerves. These days I’ve been rather pissed of by so many things that my project supervisors got worried and tried to understand what was going wrong to try to fix the problem. So I tried to make a list of what was annoying me, and then finding out what annoyed me most. I’ll have to make a post when I’ll have sorted out my most important annoyances. But most of the things on the list are things that can’t be changed.
Guys, if you’re up to fixing gender inequality in your country that’s one thing very high on my list!

The Ashram

I made some very good friends in the Ashram on my first week there. They introduced me to more people, and some of them just seemed to pop up whenever I needed help.

They always laughed at me for not knowing what this place was when I first got here, and said that when they would come back they would find me with a dot on my forehead, in a white sari, running after Amma.

The Kali temple, first thing I saw when arriving at the Ashram at 3am. I didn't bother trying to understand what was going on yet.
The Kali temple, first thing I saw when arriving at the Ashram at 3am. I didn’t bother trying to understand what was going on yet.

So what is an ashram? It is kind of like a Western monastery, a place where devotees live close to their guru and where people come for spiritual practise and teachings. Here, the guru is called Amma, which means mother in Malayalam, the local language (and also a palindrome). I only knew Amma as “the chancellor of our university and spiritual guide” before arriving here, I didn’t expect 50k people showing up for her birthday a fortnight after my arrival!

The Ashram where I live in India
The Ashram where I live in India

Our Ashram is located in between the Arabian Sea and the Kerala backwaters in southern India, a couple of crazy taxi hours south of Kochi. When Amma is here, there are up to 2000 residents. The people living here do Seva, selfless service for 2-6 hours a day and this is what keeps the place running. As students, our internship is kind of considered as a seva so we are not expected to do any more work.

The Ashram day starts with a Puja before breakfast, a religious ritual honouring Amma, and ends with bhajans, some devotional songs before dinner (which do get me very annoyed because all I want at 8pm is food, not some weird singing). When Amma is here, she guides meditation on the beach twice a week and spends hours giving darshan (read: free hugs). In between, people do meditation, yoga, seva, and whatever they please.

The university – AMMACHI Labs

The engineering building of the university, casually lit up for Amma's birthday.
The engineering building of the university, casually lit up for Amma’s birthday.

Amrita University is the number one private university in India and in other places like South Asia or BRICS according to various rankings. I came here for their humanitarian robotics lab called AMMACHI. More about my project and the lab on this page.

Daily routine

Once I got introduced to my lab, and got to understand how the place works, I got into a kind of routine that doesn’t change that much from one day to the other.

7:30am: I wake up and do some yoga routine and/or “I am” meditation practice that I have learnt here.

9am: I go for either Indian breakfast (yay, curry!) or “Western” breakfast (Ragi/millet pancake with bananas or cake or toast) when I’m early enough

9:30am: Our working day starts at the lab, and I get my brain working hard on designing my rice planting machine. I meet my friend and colleague Aymeric who is from EPFL too and enrolled in the same program.

12:30pm: Lunch time, we have curry (how surprising!) served in huge metallic plates (we wash them before and after eating), and we eat with our hands. My right hand always feels “spicy” after eating like this. Most students eat separately: girls on one side and boys on the other. Even the plate-washing is separate-gender.

1pm: Aymeric and I go for a nap, then back to work at 1:30pm

5:30pm: End of our working day. I would either hang around in the lab for wifi or go back to the ashram and read, do yoga, play the ukulele, eat, nap, meditate, watch the sunset, or a combination of all of that. Maybe one day I’ll get to enjoy the bhajan songs but not yet.

8:15pm: Dinner time, guess what we’re having? Yeah, curry! We sometimes eat at the student’s mass (canteen) which usually has good food, but except on days off it is separate genders. So we eat at the general canteen and the food is not as good but at least we have friends to share our meal with. Sometimes we indulge in western food and go for a veggie burger for the horrendous amount of money of about 70cts. Very expensive for India.

9pm: We have tulsi (holy basil) tea and cake for desert and spend hours talking about sometimes normal things but usually weird spiritual stuff. Here come energy, vibrations, magnetism, fairies and demons, people coming from other planets etc. These discussions usually last late into the night and blow my mind every time. I’m not as crazy as these people but I’m slowly getting there.

 * * *

In my daily life there are also pigeons entering my room and shitting on my belongings when I forget to close the window, trails of ants across my room, voracious mosquitoes that love my exotic blood, geckos all over the place and rats loving my peanuts. My room is a zoo.
There is red tap water staining everything, drinking water available at some places in the ashram (pfew, no need to buy plastic every day!), crows eating our unattended western meals, daily power cuts and dogs and kids in the lab.

Usually the evenings are cool enough to be comfortable and the days are too damn hot for me. Especially with the Indian “modest” clothing. I have to cover my legs, my chest and bottom have to be covered with at least two layers of fabric. No wonder I’m hot! Meanwhile, guys are free to bumble around in their mini-skirts dhoti folded up above their knees.

curry eaten with hands
A typical meal: rice, curry and chapatis (but with biriyani rice instead of plain white rice, a treat !) eaten with my hands.
Slowly getting to understand Indian fashion: your shawl has to match your trousers.
Slowly getting to understand Indian fashion: your shawl has to match your trousers.
chloe in her PJ's
That day I showed up at uni in my PJ’s, because nobody told me that beautiful dress I just bought was a nightie.
Yoga daily practise, even more fun with friends!
Yoga daily practise, even more fun with friends!
Hari, the lovely guy from the coconut stall which will welcome you in your own language, whatever it is.
Because in Kerala the sky and sea compete in producing the most beautiful lights: bioluminescent waves.
Because in Kerala the sky and sea compete in producing the most beautiful lights: bioluminescent waves.

Spiritual Journey

My first week was kind of hectic, trying to understand what the hell is going on in this place that is actually not just an university as I first thought it would be. Luckily, my friends helped me understand who is Amma, why they are here and why I arrived here. It was easy to just think that everyone here is crazy, but then I realised that all these crazy people were telling the same stories. Maybe I’m the crazy one here. So here begun my spiritual journey. As my nutcase friends tell me, I’m here for a reason.

These guys welcomed me in the Ashram as a family and really helped me through my first weeks there.
These guys welcomed me in the Ashram as a family and really helped me through my first weeks there.

The first step was understanding who is Amma. I get it like she is Jesus, or God, or something like that. I watched a movie about her early years in life, and it way showing that she has always been connected to God (Krishna for her), then started helping many people in her village until doing a miracle and being recognised as someone very special. Now she has hundreds of thousands of followers who go all crazy about their guru and sing devotional songs and wash her feet and run after her when she walks around.

Every evening after dinner, I hang around the “Western Cafe” where there is always someone interesting to meet, and makes up most of my spiritual instruction. People talk about energy, different dimensions, the vibrational energy of this place (apparently high) and angels. The most interesting is that all the people I meet say the same kind of things. I guess they’re all connected to the same spiritual dimension.

I compare my mind to a monkey in its monkey tree. My monkey is very happy on its branch. It doesn’t know if anything else exists in the monkey tree. But one day, the leaves get blown off the monkey tree, and my monkey suddenly realises there are many higher branches where other monkey seem to be very high.
These high monkeys are my new friends, and they’re teaching me how to reach a higher consciousness in the spiritual monkey tree.

With my daily yoga and meditation practise, I am starting to open up and feel things, like energy in my hands and a vast nice emptiness when my monkey mind dares shutting up in meditation. I keep having “deja-vu” and having flashes of dreams I have had years ago. Everything is so new to me, and I don’t understand much of it.
But I’m slowly getting to understand that maybe there is another dimension that my scientific mind doesn’t want to accept, maybe I will end up like my friends said, as a crazy devotee running after Amma in 2 months. See you then!