Friday, 19 December 2008

CEPT University - venue for APSA 2009

It's been decided. Mark your calendar for November 24 - 27, 2009. The Asian Planning Schools Association (APSA) will hold its biennial Congress and Conference at CEPT University in Ahmedabad, India. The first announcement and call for papers will be 1st January 2009 with dateline for submission of abstracts being 1st April 2009. Notification of acceptance by 1st June and full paper submission by 1st August. Only full papers submitted by 1st August will be considered for the Best Paper which be submitted for publication in the "Dialogue in Urban and Regional Planning".

The APSA EXCO at its meeting in CEPT on 8th December 2008 have decided to launch a membership drive through several activities including offering one complimentary (free) conference registration to APSA 2009 for each current Full Member Schools as well as those who submit their application for full membership by 1st August 2009 (subject to approval of admission by the EXCO).

The Steering and Coordinating Committees of GPEAN (Global Planning Education Association Network) are also scheduled to have their annual meetings in Ahmedabad in conjunction with APSA 2009.

The theme for the conference is "Future of Asian Cities". There will be numerous parallel tracks and sessions so I am sure you will be able find one which fits your area of interest. If you are in a hurry, you can contact Prof. Utpal Sharma (, the Chair of the local organising committee. The conference website will be up by 1st Jan 2009.

CEPT (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology) started with an architecture school in 1962 while the planning school was started 10 years later. Since 2005, it has become CEPT University via an Act of law introduced by the Government of Gujarat.

The campus is very compact and lively. I love the relaxed atmosphere with the soft winter sun providing a feast for your eyes. The campus was designed by a famous architect Doshi who was student of Le Corbusier. Here's a few pictures to vet your appetite.

You can see more photos in my online photo album.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Amdarvad - the city that Ahmed flourished

This was my first trip to India (6 Dec 2008). Be prepared for some "culture shocks". Immigration was pretty straight forward but the queue was long. The first thing you might notice is that the immigration staff might be "telling each other off", through head and hand movements accompanied by verbal remarks ... if one or the other is a little slow. You wouldn't see this in Changi - everything is orderly and friendly, remember?

Then waiting for the bags was just as long, with some tempers flaring ... and these are by the returning Indians screwing up the local airport staff ... "I have been standing here for half and hour and the same bags are moving around and around" (probably a slight exaggeration). The few who had "priority" tags on their luggage seemed the most irritated. Next comes customs. There's the green lane and there's the other lane. Makes no difference because they x-ray every single bag, including handbags. They are looking for money ... i.e. tax dollars. And people jump queue, of course. When it was my turn (I think after some 20 minutes in line), the taxman detected some batteries in my backpack - asked me if it was digital camera or camcorder. I said "digital camera". Apparently not satisfied, he sent me to the counter to have my bag opened up. I waited patiently and the second taxman was apparently surprised to see me and asked quizzically why I was there to see him. I said the other guy asked to me to show him my bag. He asked "what's inside"? I said "digital camera" and "notebook". He said "one digital camera"? I said "yes". And he said "one is allowed". This was followed by hand movements and verbals remarks directed at the first taxman.

And so I cleared immigration and customs - after more than one hour. Welcome to Gujarat, India.

The next culture shock is the driving. There is constant honking but that's not such a shock - nor the speed of driving. The shock is when you get to a junction. Nobody stops. Syed Aidid (lecturer from UTM who happened to be also in Ahmedabad) and I agreed that we Malaysian drivers will never get pass a major road junction here. We would be waiting until all the cars have cleared! And in the meantime everyone will be giving us INTENSE direct stares. So that's the next culture shock. When my driver was zipping through an intersection, another car was coming from the other direction. The other driver obviously thought he had the "right of way" (not sure there is such a thing here) so he accelerated and came right into the path of my car - and all the while he was staring intensely at my driver - not sure how to interpret that - was it a dare, wanna see who's chicken kinda thing? Well, my driver was "chicken" (and I was glad for that) 'cos he slowed (almost stopped) to let the other daredevil pass. And all this near midnight. Meanwhile you can't talk to the driver because he doesn't understand English ... or Chinese or Malay.
This was the construction worker at the CEPT. See the stare? Multiply that a few more intensity.

Generally, I find that most people on the streets are happy to have their picture that. In fact, this old gentlemen came shuffling over when I was taking photos at the Jami Mosque and pointed to himself to have his picture taken. The hawkers on the streets are also very delighted when you make them the centre of your attention.

This young lady went out on the boat on the Nal Lake to fetch water and when I saw her coming back I jumped up and went shooting. In fact, she was a little self-conscious but put up a show for me, trying not to smile.

Kids are generally less self-c0nscious. Found these brother and sister (and another little tod) playing with a kite at the CEPT University. Their parents were working on a construction site nearby. Yes, they don't have the luxury of going to daycare or being left with extended family. Kite-flying is a big thing in Ahmedabad come January. Everyone is on the roof top flying kites - so, you don't need a big open space to enjoy kite-flying.

Want some more culture shock? On the day I was to catch my flight back, I went to buy some stuff (including a tiffin) and was in shop looking for a t-shirt for my son. All of a sudden an older guy came in and started having a heated exchange with some younger people in the shop. It was actually "shouting" conversation in the small confines of the shop. I debated whether to walk out or just play cool. By that time, I was already getting a little comfortable with this intense relationships. It seems the older guy was the boss screwing up his young staff (or sons?) - right in front of a potential customer. And the youngsters didn't meekly put their heads down - they shouted back. Well, I stayed and bought a t-shirt. Before that, we had witnessed a neighbourhood conflict on the streets in the old city - and our local guide refreshingly said that conflict is essential. I was also stared at when I took photos of a women construction worker all dressed up in sari. And when Utpal took me and some students to Nal Saravor (Lake Nal) to see the birds, some scruffy looking locals welcomed us with - what else, long deep intense stares. As it turned out, they were the owners who operate boats to ferry eco-tourists to see the birds.

But India is really a fun place. So rich in history, culture, sights, smells, sounds, traditions and ... very friendly people! I am not kidding.

On the first morning, after a hearty breakfast at the hotel, I decided to follow the instructions and walked to CEPT University where our meeting (and APSA 2009) would be held. Unlike Hanoi where you get a continuous annoying stream of trishaw riders bugging and following you, the rickshaw (motorised) drivers here are not so persistent or annoying. I asked how much for the ride and was told 20 rupees for 8 kilometres (or something). So damn cheap. But for only one or two rupees (yes, 1 or 2 rupees), locals will cramp into and share a rickshaw. I have seen a ricksaw with 5 adults and 4 children in it. One of my worries was that the rickshaw driver won't have change for my 500 rupee notes. Anyway, I walked, and walked and walked. I visited the CEPT campus (more of this later) and then started walking back, heading for the old historic part of the city. One thing about Ahmedabad - the tourist info sucks. So I had a very basic map trying to figure out which road to take. Road signs are almost non-existent except at major roads and intersections and mostly not in English.

So, I was at an intersection trying to figure out which way to go and then a car stopped, reversed and the driver asked where I was going, sensing I was "lost". I said the old city - for some history, culture and shopping. Guess what? He asked me to get in the car. Now, he speaks really good English. He's wearing khurta pyjamas (all cotton, white). Medium-sized car. Hhmm, should I? My instincts, from years of travelling, said "OK". So, I got in the car. I can't even remember his name (he didn't have a card with him). He said he had just gone for a haircut and that's why he was in his pyjamas (they call it pyjamas but you can wear it outside the house, very cooling). He suggested dropping me off at a place where I could do a self-walking tour of the old city. That would be great! And then at one roundabout, he pointed to a huge billboard and said "I put that up!". "Oh, you are in advertising", I ventured. "No, that's my social message to the people". So, sitting next to me was the owner of an ice-cream company (Havmor) and he changes the billboard frequently with such messages. When we got to the heritage hotel (The House of MG), he gave instructions to the hotel staff to get me on the self-guide tour. You pay a 100 rupee for the MP3 player and a small map and you take your time enjoying the sights. The major problem is that on the streets, the ambient noise is very loud so it is hard to listen to the narrative, which was actually very good. I never found out, but am not sure if non-hotel guests are allowed to use this service. According to Debashish, a local heritage advocate, when the owner of MG started out on his project to restore the building into a heritage hotel, he faced opposition from his family and people thought he was crazy. Now there's a long queue to eat at his rooftop restaurant serving traditional vegetarian food. Incidentally, the heritage tour ends at another heritage building - by the same owner of course (smart marketing) - called the Mangaldas ni Haveli. This latter is an old family house in the old walled city now converted into a shop (rather pricey clothes) and a rooftop restaurant which is also very popular at night. I had my lunch there on the first day - vegetarian of course. Ah, now you get it. Yes, Gujarat is vegetarian country, but you can still get meat here. There are no bars or pubs, alcohol is banned in public places and you even need a permit to have liquor or beer in your own house.

Back up a little to that bit of about social responsibility. Gujurat is actually full of very very rich people. The history of Ahmedabad itself dates back 600 years and it used to be called the Manchester of the East because of its booming textile industry. So what do you do with all that money. Giving is an embedded culture here, amongst the rich that is. And they gave back by funding many community projects especially education. For instance a huge area around the CEPT University (including the university) was donated in trust by wealthy industrialists for various educational institutions. The original owner of the CEPT property was a Jain so he degree that there shall be no meat on campus (Jains are strict vegetarians). I have been reading Ghandhi's autobiography and he talked about his trials and tribulations, tempted by a cousin to try meat and told that you have to eat meat to be strong like the English. Oh, yah, I think he said that one of the reasons he set up the Ashram in Ahmedabad is because of the culture of giving by the rich - the Ashram runs on donations. For those of you history buffs, this was where Ghandhi started his Salt March which broke the back of the British Empire in India.

The divide between the have and the have nots is huge. Right in the city you will also find slums. Over tea and coffee at the Haveli, I was quite surprised to learn that running water in the city is supplied only for 2 hours or so in the morning and I think an hour in the evening. "What, you have a problem with water supply"? Apparently, the supply is enough but not enough to supply to the slum areas. In the slums, water is supplied through communal taps but the tap heads are always stolen so the water will be continuously flowing. The solution? Restrict water supply to the early mornings. So the city folks have to store water in the mornings and I saw an amazing 40-foot well built into the side of the Haveli. So I guess the slums have been around for centuries? I am told that in one of the cities, they even have a heritage tour of the slums. Huh? Well, they will bring you to visit the houses of the gangsters in the slums. Reminds of Capital Chung Keng Kwee.
The Mangaldas ni Haveli, a restored heritage building. I liked the way they don't brush a new coat of paint over the wooden beams and windows. Gives it a really old-world feeling. Notice the narrow streets and the buildings almost touching each other? Amazingly, there has never been any fires. And these old buildings still stood after the recent earthquake while modern buildings cracked or tumbled down.

The hanvdov, a vegetarian snack. Had this for lunch on my first day.

The Mangaldas Haveli at night with Utpal, Debashish, Syed and Yukio

Shopping - I had to contribute to the local economy, right? Consumption, the root of unsustainability. I was told that the traditional khurta, make of 100% cotton, are very comfortable and cooling. Ghandhi also promoted these traditional clothes to support the local industry. You can get very expensive ones but generally they are very cheap. A whole suit (pyjamas) for ladies can be as little as 200-300 rupees (thats about RM20-30). I see that it is still the clothes of choice for most Indians but popular culture is catching up with the younger, richer people wearing designer jeans and shirts.

Emmh, before I end this long piece, I must mention Salim. He's rickshaw driver - rents the rickshaw for about 300 rupees a day (can't remember). Speaks a bit of English but a survivor. After my heritage walk (where I got lost despite having a map), the hotel staff took me to the roadside where the rickshaws gather to help "negotiate" a trip to the Ghandhi Ashram. The driver wanted 350 rupee for three and half hours including a 2 hour stop at the Ashram and to take me shopping for traditional clothers. I said how much just to go just go the Ashram? 50 rupees. OK, let's go. Smart driver. Along the way he lowered his price to 300 rupees so I said, well, why not. I spent only a little over one hour at the Ashram. He met me when I was about to exit. Have you seen this? Have seen that? Take a picture with Ghandhi. Hey, I know what you are doing, but I am cool. Yes, yes, I have seen all those but yes you can take a picture of me with Ghandhiji.

Me and Ghandhiji. The rickshaw driver-cum-photographer asked me to put my arms around Ghandhi's shoulders. I thought that might be inappropriate, given his esteem status.

Let's go shopping, now. Along the way, he suggested this, and that. I said no, no, no - just take me shopping. And then he said "City Museum" - and I said OK. Turns out it was a building designed by Le Corbusier the famous French Architect who also "originally" designed the new city of Chandigarph. There are quite a number of buildings by such famous architects including Walter Gropius. The CEPT University was designed by an Indian (named Doshi who is now 84 years old and healthy revered in CEPT) who studied under Corbusier. After the museum, he took me to a shop - I said I don't like the clothes. We went to another - and I bought like 5 or 6 sets! All for less than 2000 rupees (less than RM200). When we went to pay, I took out my cloth bag and asked the cashier to put all the clothes in it. "You don't want this PVC bag? Very good quality" the cashier looked at me quite incredulously. My driver stretched out his hand to take the plastic bag. Seems have some value or status with that bag. Then the driver said he will catch with me. It's the same everywhere. These guys get a bit of a kickback from the shop. I don't begrude him that. He earned it. So he tried to drag the time a little and when we got back it was four hours of his service. I asked him at the hotel doorsteps "How much?". He smiled and said "up to you". Smart isn't he? I gave him 350 rupees. "Please, give me 400". I smiled. Very smart guy. He asked whether I was happy with his service. Yes, very happy. "Tomorrow again?", he smile widely. I said tomorrow "whole day meeting", sorry. Before I could get out of the rickshaw, a couple was already booking his next trip. Good luck, Salim.

On the boat at the Nal Lake. The driver came late so we missed the flamingos. It seems that in the early mornings the migratory birds will be close to the shores. We spent about 3 hours on the boat looking for the elusive birds. Wished I had more powerful telelens. Oops, 3 hours is a long time to be sitting on a boat, isn't it?

Lunch after the boat ride, cooked in the open with fire from dried twigs and cowdunk. I can't remember the type of flour, a bit darker than wheat. Water for cooking and drinking supplied by the lake.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Making friends with a little bird

This little noise maker is only about 3 or 4 inches in size but makes one heck of a noise. He's been keeping me company everyday, caught here sitting on my bougainvilla plant outside my kitchen. Right below that is my compose heap for yard waste and you can see the healthy green heliconia in the blurred background.

Since coming back from Ahmedabad (pronounced as Amdavad) last wednesday, I spent about a day with my sisters, brother and in-laws who came to visit (to see my new house). Then it was off to the beach again for another weekend workshop, this time on university-community engagement or projects. There's always new things to learn and new connections to make and new ideas to pursue. We learnt that there is community service (at the basic level), moving up to community outreach, then to community engagement and ultimately engaged scholarship.

And since coming back from the workshop I have been on looong vacation leave until next year. Ah, if you must know, I am just having lazy days (Omar said that my "inertia" will inspire the others), making friends with the little bird, reading (Thomas Friedman's "Hot, Flat and Crowded" and Ghandi's Autobiograpy bought at the Ghandiji Ashram), refusing to take phone calls, going bicycling at the padi fields, gardening of course and ... cooking!

I facilitated my group's discussion with this concept map. But when it comes to the presentation, they preferred the powerpoint's linear, point-by-point style.

This is what we call an "energiser". After sitting and listening passively for 2 hours, all our blood sinks to our bottoms so we need a "rush" to wake up our brains. I thought that quite a few participants were not very comfortable doing the energiser.

Me in my jeans and T-shirts with slippers. The chairman said I was too informal. Well, next time don't bring us to the beach. When I saw the picture displayed on the screen during our group's presentation, I suddenly realised I have lost a lot of weight. The secret? Oats in the morning, brown rice for dinner, vegetarian for lunch (with half rice), cut the sugar wherever possible and ... etc.

My daughter Vivian wanted yam cake so we went to the market this morning. Its not difficult really but it's been a long time so we tend to forget the proportions. Turned out OK though. Could do with a little more salt and perhaps a little more rice flour (note to self : 650-700 gms of flour to three-quarter water in 12-inch diameter 2.5 inch high tray).

I know, I have not written on Ahmedabad yet. Will try to do that tomorrow.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Friendly, Clean, Orderly and still a little kiasi

So, guess I am and where I have been. Sitting here at Gate 54, Terminal 2, Changi Airport watching the long queue going into the holding area for SQ530 to Ahmedabad, using the Free WiFi. Been in Singland since noon, took the 2-hour city tour, supposedly to the Heritage and River enclave. Started out very exciting, appreciating the rain trees along the highway from the airport, the crowns meeting in the middle of the highway. Long stretch of seaside park with extensive bicycles tracks and lots of seafood restaurants. The highlight was to have been a 20-minute walk along the river but we were warned that "if it rains", we stay on the bus. As with all tours, after 10 minutes you start to switch off, you just can't absorb all that information. My wife and I love the food channel on satellite TV, especially the two programmes which feature hawker food. If you believe what the hosts tell you, hawker food in Singapore is not only heavenly, but damn cheap. And the tour guide talked about everyone in Singapore eats out because it is too much a hassle to cook for one or two people (yes, family structure has changed alot) and also too expensive. So, most just go and eat out and be done with it. Some more got endless choices - Malay got, Chinese got, Indian got, spaghetti also got.
Rain trees reaching out to touch each other.

Well, we got to the city, got off the bus and it started to rain! The tour guide shooed us back into the bus. So what's a bit of rain? We live in the tropics. Must be old wives tale - you know you mum yelling at you not to play in the rain or you will get sick. Well, it seems the people in Singapore still stick to their traditions. I think the organisers should go the extra mile for this. Provide umbrellas or risk people like me giving them a thumbs down, despite all the friendly and good intentions. Lighten up guys. Along the way back, we were too early for our drop off so the bus driver was really slow going about 55 kph and we made a slight detour to see one of the "towns". I jokingly said they should drop us off for lunch at one of their famous markets (the tour guide talked about how convenient the shopping and facilities are). She was apologetic but firm - she has 38 other tourists to take care off. I think they should be send for some training on how to enjoy some light moments.

Well, I actually wanted to ask them to just drop me off in the city and I will make my own way back. What do you think would have been their reaction?

Anyway, we got back to the airport, and I still had about 3 hours to kill. So it was either the airport with my notebook and free Internet or back to the city. Guess which one I chose?

I went to the Tourist Information Centre again (a different one, they are everywhere, really everyway; I think KL and Penang can learn from these guys). And the guys (mostly ladies) are very very helpful - but again, quite "follow the book" type. They suggested I take the free shuttle to Bugis Street but looked at my departure time and their bus schedule and said "no, no". So I asked about going my MRT. One young lady gave me detailed instructions, together with a map, and on marked with a big X at the junction of South Bridge Rd and Maxwell Rd and said that the Tian Tian Chicken Rice is super nice. I had told them I wanted to go to Chinatown for some noodles or something. How long would it take? About one hour she said. Some one esle said the same thing to me earlier. I said, wah, Chinatown must be very far away, MRT should be fast, right? Many stops mah.

So, I timed the journey. It actually took only 40 - 45 minutes. So one hour is not far off.

On the train I hesitated about getting off at one stop. A young couple coming in saw my hesitation and asked "where are you going?". I didn't even asked. "Chinatown", I said. "Next stop", they replied. Nice, aren't they. The young people have lost their culture.
Chinatown is all about the tourist dollar.

Chinatown. Man, they have done a superb job if you look at it purely from the tourist attraction point of view. Will post pictures later.

So I went hunting for my heavenly chicken rice. Found it at the Maxwell Road Foodcourt. Saw a queue, not too long so I joined in and ordered a small chicken rice. Which turns out to be a generous portion of rice. And only 2.80 Sing Dollar. And the verdict. Very good lah. The kicker is the chilly. Walking out I counted another 2 chicken rice stall at the foodcourt. No queue. And then I looked back at the Tian Tian stall - 15 people in line.
Tian Tian (Everyday) Chicken Rice.

Time for me to go catch my plane. 6.29 pm.
If you are looking for the free city tours at Changi, go the Fern Garden.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

USM's Eco Team a.k.a Eco-Busters

I recently sent an email inviting more than 20 lecturers to the UKM-USM Dialogue on sustainable campus. Only about 6 showed up. After lunch, I was left to hold the fort. I am not complaining. Everyone's busy. To top that, I am a mere "coordinator" sandwiched between a Dean (or Director) and a Deputy Dean/Director. Ah, the pecking order is such a powerful tool. I cannot "order" the Deans/Directors around of course - I have to rely on my persuasive powers and charm. I often have to wait patiently for things to happen. Take for instance my little effort to rehabilitate our two lakes on the main campus. I have been pursuing it for more than a year and everytime I ask about it, the response is "coming". But when the Vice-chancellor asked about it, it was wrapped up within three days. Again, I am not complaining. There must a very good reason why someone invented bureaucracy.

And then there's the Deputy Vice-Chancellors. If they say "jump", you don't ask "how high". Just reach for the sky. Sorry, lighten up.

Case in point. When the DVC for Research and Innovation called up about 30 experts for a workshop on Eco-systems, Landscape and Heritage over the weekend at the Batu Ferringhi Beach (28th -30th Nov), they not only showed up but stayed until the end, working until past 1 am and 3 am. Yes, you are reading that right. What more if the DVC said that "no one is going home" until she gets the plan for action. So Mashhor equated the DVC with the Iron Lady of England. Of course Asma was sporting about it. We actually had a lot of fun, the way academics know how to have fun - Listening to lectures! But these experts were so full of passion and love for their area of expertise you couldn't help being infected. And we learnt a lot.

The workshop in progress. If you notice the plastic bottles of water on the table, I have already "scolded" (nicely) the organisers. They promised that if they ever invite me to their workshop again, they will make sure that there will be no plastic bottles of water. I wanted to tell them "hey, you are still not getting it", but patience, they will eventually come around.

Here's the USM Eco Team at the conclusion of the workshop.

What's this thing about the Eco-Busters? Well, the DVC was having a hard time making decisions on projects related to eco and landscape and heritage buildings and didn't know who to call. You see a ghost, you call the ghost-busters, right? You have problem with termites and fungus and water monitors or pigeons and snakes, who do you call? The Eco-busters of course.

Out of this workshop, some ten projects have been suggested including documentation using state-of-the-art software, an Eco House near the Durian Valley, restoring a couple of heritage buildings, research and management of fungus in buildings, infestation and diseases on trees, and an Eco Trail with information on medicinal value of trees, ants moulds (yes, they give you an itch for a week but are vital to the eco-system), coffee table books and others.

Here's breaking news. USM will be rehabilitating the two lakes (Tasek Aman and Harapan) and the river (Sg Gambier) over the next nine months as part of the celebrations for our 40th Anniversary. One of our problems is how to deal with the huge water monitors (biawak). They are thriving because of the Tilapia fish in the ponds. And the Tilapia is thriving because no other fish can survive in the oxygen-deprived water in the lake. Got any bright ideas - on how to deal with the biawak or lake?

Don't throw away your future

One week ago I went to the Dell factory in Bukit Minyak to give their staff a talk. Their Environmental Health and Safety unit had contacted me earlier about collaborating with them to help reduce the use of plastic bags. The factories in Penang with the help of the Department of Environment has been carrying out campaigns to "Say No to Plastic Bags".

When they asked for a title for my talk, I thought I should be creative so suggested "Don't throw away your future - Stop using disposable containers". So this is going to another of my trademark thingy.

Dell's staff listening to my one-hour presentation.

I love this gift set they gave me after the talk. Not sure if I can carry it into the plane. Will try it when I fly to Ahmedabad this weekend. Flying again? Yah, what to do. We have so be 'international'.
Notice anything else about the gift set?

After the talk I walked to their canteen for lunch. They have stopped using polystyrene containers. I sort of instigated them to ban straws as well. Everyone bus their used plates and cups to a conveyor belt where a box is placed to collect the tabs from aluminium cans and a plastic bag for the cans itself. I peeked into their thrash can (seriously I did) and saw a polystyrene container. Yes, people still do sneak them in when no one is watching.

That place is very security conscious, to prevent pilferage of parts and also theft of computer notebooks. Each of the staff's notebooks have a hologram sticker with a matching sticker on the staff's badge (name tag). To bring out any notebook, the stickers must match. Its not really for data security. I speculated to the Dell staff that very soon each notebook will have an embedded RFID chip for inventory control (USM uses barcodes now) as well as to speed up assembly. The downside? Job loss.