What We're Up To

The three of us -- Karan Chhabra, Katie Swails, and Sandeep Prasanna -- are Duke students spending eight weeks in the south Indian rainforest working on a series of short documentary films about environmental issues in order to aid the outreach programs of SAI Sanctuary, a wildlife sanctuary in the Western Ghats region. In the process, we'll also be organically farming, aiding in the construction of biogas plants, and chasing rare plants and animals.

Follow us as we navigate through the jungle and much more!

You can learn more about the DukeEngage program at dukeengage.duke.edu. You can also find out what the SAI Sanctuary, our hosts, are working on at saisanctuary.com.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Duke News... and thank yous

We've been featured again!

A Duke News article about our use of technology during our project: http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/2009/08/ddisummer.html

And the back of my head (... is ridikalus!) is on the Duke Digital Initiative website: http://dukedigitalinitiative.duke.edu/

Cheers! We're really that the Duke Digital Initiative and the Biology Department sponsored our equipment this past summer. And, of course, it wouldn't have been possible at all without DukeEngage and their amazing support: before we left (heck, before we even fleshed out our project), during our trip, and after we returned.


- DukeEngage
- The Bio Department (Dr. Reynolds and Terry Corliss, especially!)
- The Smith Lab

and, of course, any amount of thanks is never enough for what you gave us -- a wonderful home-away-from-home, unbelievable sights, smells and sounds, and incredible lessons about life and nature:

- SAI Sanctuary
- Pam and Anil
- All the wonderful community members we worked with (Firoz... this one's going out to you)
- Mother Nature (is this too cheesy? still, she's awesome)

And here are our videos again. Remember, you can still catch them on iTunes U: Duke: Science: News & Notes: The Jungle Blog.

Junglecast 1 (An intro to our project): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Xbooi6HuzQ
Junglecast 2 (Welcome to India): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hQUvnuMJ_0
Junglecast 3 (Jetlag): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7CTYs-lL-0
Junglecast 4 (Frogging): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB__pS4KV_8
Junglecast 5 (Building a biogas plant): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JF-dNyFwAQ
Junglecast 6 (Organic Farming): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uyi7SFHZTJQ

From Grass to Gas: An Intro to Biogas (English): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YY-TzycYWU4
From Grass to Gas: An Intro to Biogas (Kannada): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FvSavnme8M
SAI Sanctuary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6LsGrqGX34
How to Destroy a Fragile Ecosystem in 8 Simple Steps: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6e--Ey2Q3U
DukeEngage Reflections: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hCJguknWB8

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Another feature and pictures

We've been featured again! Duke's Office of Undergraduate Education has posted our "8 Simple Steps" video on their website. Awesome!

Also, if you're interested, we have also put up a number of pictures of us "in action" during our project. They're available on Flickr here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Featured on Duke News!

Our project and The Jungle Blog are featured on Duke News today:


The article talks about our biogas project and links to our Junglecast on Youtube and iTunes. Cool stuff!

(In other news, I'm still in Bangalore and I'm really sad that Karan and Katie aren't here...)

Goodbye India

There are times in life when one simply must reflect—and here, sitting in the Delhi Airport waiting for my connecting flight to take me away from India, is one of those times. My first trip to India was full of surprises, and I learned so much that it is strange sometimes to think that I am returning. As short as 8 weeks is, this DukeEngage experience has felt like a mini-life within my real life, and returning, as excited as I am, doesn’t really feel like an option. But, as I am leaving, it feels like just about time to say a few words, as a guest saying goodbye. So, here it goes.
India has been extremely good to me, and I will miss it terribly. I will miss paneer and gobi and masala and dosa… (I guess I’ll just miss all of the food—I better find good Indian restaurants pronto), I will miss seeing cows carefreely trotting on the streets while the crazy Bangalore traffic respectfully zooms around them, and I will miss being able to say the few Kannada and Hindi words I learned. But most of all, I will miss these people. Indian hospitality made me feel so welcomed when I expected to feel like an outsider, and I am extremely grateful. Families opened their homes to us, feeding us and letting us in on the beautiful family relationships they share. I was consistently blown away as I realized that the grandfather and aunt were just as involved in the care and love of the children as the mother and father, and that families, including distant relatives, were such an active part of daily life. These experiences taught me the cliché traveler’s lesson: We are more similar than we are different. And as much as it is a cliché, it is also the key to solving so many of the environmental problems we face. We can set aside political, economic, social differences and unite in a cause that affects every inhabitant of earth, and only once we do that will we begin to see results.
This trip was hard in ways I didn’t expect, full of surprises, and because of that I learned much more than I expected. I learned that it is possible to spend two full months exclusively with 2 people, learn all of their silly ticks, and still come away missing them just a few hours after leaving. Karan and Sandeep became my family-away-from-home, teaching me and guiding me, and learning to work as a group was such a challenging and rewarding accomplishment. I learned to remove snakes from my room, and to live with spiders in my bathroom. I learned to eat with my hands. I learned that I could do the things that I’m most scared of and live to tell the tale. We are all stronger than we think, and I hope that I will have to courage to push myself again.
So, although I’m sure much smarter and wiser people could figure out all of my lessons when they were much younger than I am, I leave feeling extremely enriched. I hope I can return to India soon, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed our stories. If you really want to know what we’ve learned and experienced, come to India and get your hands dirty—in the twisted weeds of Cardamum fields, in a steaming pot of paneer butter masala, in cement from a biogas plant, in the slobber of the neighbor’s puppy. You will love it. And let me know if you have a blog because I will surely read it!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Some fauna

I thought it would be fun to post some pictures of animals we came across on our treks around the sanctuary. (And no, although we saw plenty of evidence of them [i.e., plenty of fresh dung] we didn't run across any wild elephants...sad). The above picture is a very rare creature.... known as Leela, it's been known to terrorize many a cat and person.

Praying mantis

Water Buffaloes

Unidentified frog (and human!)


Horned spider

Tree frog


GIGANTIC roly-poly

Barking deer

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Project Update: Done with Presentations!

Great news: in this past week, we finished all our presentations!

On Tuesday, Pam spoke at the Indian Institute of Science, the foremost scientific institution in India. The program was about the "Nature Crunch"---the scary state of the environment today, why it matters to us, and how we can fix things before it's too late. Even though we'd seen Pam's slides many times before, she managed to add new information and tie everything together in a way that kept it new even to us. Much of our audience was from IISc's Management department, so it was especially interesting to see the reactions from people who hadn't spent six weeks in the jungle.

Then we spent the weekend at the School of Ancient Wisdom, right outside Bangalore. This was a more comprehensive, spiritual program about "returning to Nature" in order to heal ourselves and grow as humans. Pam spoke for most of Saturday (it was a marathon), and on Sunday the program took a lighter turn---Sandeep sang, we all answered questions about our experience living in Nature, and we showed our films to a live audience for the first time!

The whole weekend was really fulfilling. The audience managed to stay interested the whole time, and they were unbelievably friendly too: between sessions, people would come up to us, share their experiences and wisdom, and even thank us for our work and our presence. It's a beautiful, tree-filled campus with colorful lizards and aphorisms lining the walkways; people come from all over for lectures, workshops, and weekend-long programs like ours. The School reminded me a lot of Duke, because at such places you can learn just as much from the people attending as what's being "taught"---whether it be an impromptu discourse on spirituality, a surprising story, or the contagious warmth and openness coming from every direction.

An Intro to SAI Sanctuary


Saturday, July 4, 2009

A Must-See Film (That Isn't Ours)

We're screening the film HOME tonight at the School of Ancient Wisdom. It's a phenomenal film about the history of our relationship with Earth and what has taken place during that short time---really comprehensive in the topics it covers, with breathtaking footage to boot. You can watch it for free right here -- www.youtube.com/homeproject -- and I'd recommend it to anyone who lives on Earth and has an Internet connection.

The film progresses by telling the story of the Earth with lots of unique aerial footage from all over the world. It was funded by a large network of environmentally conscious clothing designers, believe it or not, and all its carbon emissions are being offset by---imagine this---a biogas project right near Bangalore!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Biogas: From Grass to Gas

Find out why biogas is the most sensible solution for India's rural poor. Our first bilingual video, written by Karan and translated into Kannada by B.N. Pemmaiah, filmed by Katie, and narrated by Sandeep.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YY-TzycYWU4 (English)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FvSavnme8M (Kannada)



Wednesday, July 1, 2009

So.... you want to destroy a fragile ecosystem!

This is our first video, "How to Destroy a Fragile Ecosystem: 8 Simple Steps!" We loosely based it off of a chapter in Mohan Pai's book about the Western Ghats.

You can watch it in HD here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6e--Ey2Q3U

Or here:

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reflections on SAI Sanctuary

These are some reflections we had about our experience living at SAI Sanctuary for 6 weeks.

Also, just a note -- the YouTube videos are too wide for the blog on some browsers, so if you can't see the full width of the movies, then you can view them directly on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/deepo521

Monday, June 15, 2009

Caption Contest

What is going on in these pictures?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Junglecast Update #6

NB: Katie is not being crazy and calling me her father; "papa" is what people say in Kannada when they feel sorry for someone (in this case, Katie feels sorry for herself, how selfish).

Sorry about the late posts -- we've just gotten internet and we're working on updating this blog ASAP!

In the next few days, look out for:
- Sweet pictures
- Awesome reflections
- Our finished biodiversity videos

A Discussion of Indian Manliness...

Today, we watched as a dead tree by Pam and Anil’s house was cut down. Sounds like it would be boring, but it was actually the manliest thing I have ever seen. Now in America, this would not necessarily be something that I would watch—it’s the fairly simple use of a chain saw chopping down branches from a large crane. But here in India, it is a totally different story. All of the male servants congregated by the tree and watched as one particularly brave soul shimmied up the 50 foot tree trunk—with a MACHETE hanging out of his pants. Once he was up there, he (his name was Jimmy I later found out) tied a rope to large tree branches and used the machete to cut them down one by one. Not only was he 45 feet from the ground with no safety rope, but he was chopping the very tree he was standing on from under him. Very intense. Then, when the tree was completely naked, he shimmied back down and they started using the ax to cut down the whole tree. Karan, Sandeep and I even got to chop a little. When the tree finally started to fall, it looked promising for a split second and then got stuck on another tree. So of course, they sent Jimmy back up, machete in tow, to chop down the branches that it was caught on. This would be the climax of the movie: Jimmy at the top of a waving tree, chopping as the men continue to pull the dead tree down. Danger zone. But, all was well in India, the tree fell, Jimmy shimmied, and they all went to lunch. And I went to write this blog.
Anyway, this was just one more time where the true differences between America and India showed themselves. Here, a worker is not only expected to tuck a machete into his pants and climb up a 5 story tree, but he is also expected to do it without any sort of protection device. Next time you talk to your Dad, you should ask him if he would do that. My guess is that he would laugh, and MAYBE pull out his cell phone to call a maintenance man to do the job. The crazy thing is that these actions aren’t even considered machisimo—it’s everyday. But it will never feel everyday to me-- I remain as wide eyed as ever.

Monday, June 1, 2009


This is a leech. They like me a lot. When it rains and the leaf litter on the ground is moist, they are everywhere -- they crawl up your boot, down your leg, and bite you wherever they can find exposed skin. If they manage to make a cut, then they'll suck your blood until they're full, and then fall off in a food coma. Leeches have an enzyme in their mouth called hirudin, which causes the bite to bleed for much longer than a normal cut would. But leeches are pretty harmless otherwise -- if you get over the creepiness factor and their texture (slimy), they don't really do anything that bad. And if you want to spend any time in the jungle, I learned, you have to be able to cope with a couple of leech bites now and then. Just pull up your socks over your pants, tuck your shirt in (see below) and take plenty of leech checks on your way.

This is what happens when you don't tuck your shirt in: