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Overland Journey to the Top of the World (Social Forum) - part 1

My name is Cyprien. I am a volunteer for The Green Silk Road in Auroville. During this past month, I had an amazing first overland travel experience! I went all the way from Auroville to Nepal, and the way back, with trains and buses.

It all began with a hectic Sunday February the 11th. I left Auroville late in the evening to catch a bus from Puducherry that would get me to Chennai. When I arrived, around 3 am, I was supposed to get a train 2 hours later; unfortunately, it was delayed… for 10 hours! Not the best start… but I was told what to expect!

After spending some time finding a place to end the night without success, I ended up at the train station and got as much sleep as I could on a bench with my sleeping bag. A good beginning to improve adaptability and improvisation through the GSR traveling mindset!

Then, I walked randomly in the city to find a place where I could do some computer tasks before the train arrives. Chennai did not appear very appealing to me: chaos, honks, pollution… that was a quick reminder of how wonderful the quality of life in Auroville is!

In the train station, I saw some kind of advertisement for Mr Modi’s success about the launch of hundreds of satellites for India… I found it a bit awkward; the place does not seem relevant for that. I could not imagine the same with Emmanuel Macron! It is not the first time that I was surprised with these “ads”: there are many weird pictures a bit everywhere of people, probably local authorities, which promote their action, I suppose. Strange!

The train eventually arrived. I experienced Indian train for the first time! I was happily surprised to see that it was designed to sleep! There is space to lay completely, bed sheets and blankets are provided. It is not the same in France!

I felt that the speed was quite low. It reminded me of a similar feeling when driving on the highway: passengers that I drove were afraid when we were at 80 km/h, whereas the speed limit is 130 km/h back home!

On the other hand, the doors are often open while the train is moving. Therefore, I enjoyed fresh air and nice contemplation of Indian landscapes through them. It was surprising of course, as there are so many messages of security in Europe telling people not to open the gates even if the train is at the station, before it is motionless. But I did not feel unsafe at all. It is another example that shows that people can manage by themselves when they are being trusted and given responsibility.

I was surprised to see people selling food directly in the coaches. There is a dedicated coach for that in European companies. It was good for me actually, because I did not plan much for food during the train journey!

I was fed up with passengers watching videos full volume without earphones in the coach. I felt that it was next to my ear. But it looked like I was almost the only one to get disturbed by that, as many people were doing so, and those who did not were apparently not bothered. Still, I felt that there was a lack of respect. In addition, these videos sounded so childish, with dumb sound effects; adults were watching these!

The train reached Prayagraj during the night; eventually, I found a place to sleep. Unfortunately, the delay made me miss the next train and forced me to wait the next day to continue my journey. Therefore, I spent the day in Prayagraj.

It was Ash Wednesday. Being a Roman Catholic, I wanted to attend the mass. I found a church on Google maps and was surprised to see that it was under high security control: there was a checkpoint, a security officer, barriers… eventually, I could access, and then was asked for a lot of information about my purpose here, my identity, my religious status. I was told that these measures were due to regular clashes that occur with the Hindus. Never before have I felt such level of fear and mistrust for religious practice. It was sad to see that religions create struggle and division in this place. I did not get a word of the mass that was given in Hindi, but it was still beautiful and funny to see!

In the evening, the next train arrived, where I spent the night before reaching my next destination, Gorakhpur. As soon as I arrived, I got a bus that drove me to Sunauli border to enter Nepal. The immigration matters were done quite easily, and I eventually crossed the border by foot! On the other side, administrative matters again, and bus afterwards to Kathmandu. It was quite a long journey across the nice landscapes and mountains of Nepal. I was tired, but proud of my achievement!

Once more, I reached my destination at night. I found a hotel for the night and could rest for the upcoming day: I came to attend the World Social Forum! I missed the first day due to the initial delay, but there were still 4 days to go.

The next day, I went to the forum and met GSR partners and friends: Mugdha and Ashish, from Vikalp Sangam and Global Tapestry of Alternatives. They organized, with other comrades of theirs, several events during the forum. The first one was about Radical Democracy and Autonomy. There were several speakers from different backgrounds related to the topic who shared insights on the issue of democracy.

There was a group of activists of the Kurd movement who talked about the failure of the state as a relevant model for society governance and shared some insights about what they try to do: it is about “confederalism”. Actually, they seek recognition but not as a nation state. Unfortunately, the format of the event prevented them from providing many details about it.

A man gave a quick presentation of the Zapatistas in Mexico, who rule themselves by themselves for years and without a traditional model of representation. I would be curious to know more, and this could be a relevant opportunity for a future trip back to Latin America!

A teacher from China spoke about rural communities model in the country. A Finnish man shared insights about studies of his organization on the European Union and how it is the prey of lobbies from big corporations. An open discussion with the public concluded the event.

The event was interesting and put light on many significant alternatives that already exist and try to find their way out in the mess of the world. Unfortunately, the schedule makes it too short to get into details, hence the presentations lack consistency.

We went for lunch and the second session occurred. Then, I met another friend for the first time: Shail, whose organization had an event about cars and capitalism. It stressed the fact that cars are very recent in human history: about 100 years. Yet, cars invaded our space everywhere. It seems common whereas it has disastrous consequences on health and the environment, and it cannot remain produced at this scale indefinitely.

After this intense day, I changed my accommodation and went to a hostel in the middle of the touristic district of Katmandu. The city surprised me: far from the natural, preserved, open spaces, genuine and simple life that one would imagine about Nepal, I was in the middle of a big “mainstream” town, gnawed by consumerism, filled with superfluous, polluted as ever, with motorbikes driving in the streets about 3 meters large, honking you if you don't get out of their way instantly when they show up.

Fortunately, the hostel was cool and I could meet some nice people over there with whom we had great discussions. I enjoy this atmosphere a lot. The dorm is the place where people are genuine.

The next days were similar. I went to the other events of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives, one about Food Justice, another one about extending the Vikalp Sangam network in South Asia. I hope for my friends that all this was useful to them. To me, this kind of event lacks efficiency.

I knew what to expect, as I attended similar events in the past. I was not disappointed: the place was a mess and overcrowded. There were stalls everywhere and numerous events happening simultaneously. The topics were long and the schedules were short. The public comes from all kinds of backgrounds. We already know what the speakers will talk about. At the end of the day, it is a lot of talking with few outcomes afterwards. The most relevant thing to do to benefit from all this chaotic gathering is to meet friends and make some informal contacts.

World Social Forum has been criticized for this for a long time. However, it does not succeed to try to be something else. As the other kind of big institutions, it is rooted in its subject and has no agility to evolve and meet ground realities. It cannot be hands-on. That is not how it was designed. There is not much to expect from big organizations, either public or private, in terms of innovation. They cannot rethink themselves in depth naturally. The impact occurs on the ground. The change comes from the local.

Once it was over, eventually I decided to enjoy the extra week I had left. Indeed, the minimum duration for a visa in Nepal is 2 weeks. I spent only 1 week so far; let's go for the second!

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