Asia-Pacific tour post #2: Chaotic, colourful Pune

After flying over GuangZhou (southern China), one of the largest cities in the world, the tip of Vietnam and stopping shortly in Kuala Lumpur, I reached Pune, southeast of Mumbai on my first ever trip to India. I’d always wanted to go and discover this thousands of years old culture but never had the opportunity before.

Pune is not a small city even in India, home to some 50 “lakh” people (5 million). It is a bustling, lively and chaotic city full of bright colours and flavours, with a long history. Most of the population is hindu, with also lots of muslims. It was great seeing veiled women dressed in bright colours, sunglasses on, skilfully driving scooters between cars, honking their way through crazy traffic.

A visit on Sunday by rickshaw took me to the main sights across the city, witnessing first-hand the chaotic and fascinating life on the streets of Pune. Cars, rickshaws, scooters, bicycles and brightly coloured trucks all fought on the streets, narrowly avoiding pedestrians, stray dogs and cows. Countless shops selling everything you could imagine lined the sides of the streets.

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Traffic in Pune

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A hindu temple in Pune

And yet, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the temples were quiet and peaceful havens where people went to relax, pray and catch a breeze from the hot humid monsoon weather. Again, brightly coloured paintings greeted the visitor, as well as the strong smell of incense and the lonely sound of bells resonating in the temples.

Work-wise, I went to visit the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA), which recently became a full member of the SKA project. NCRA is a division of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, which is itself part of the Government of India’s Department of Atomic Energy. That’s the same one responsible for India’s nuclear programme…I heard it could sometimes be a good thing with large budgets and with the department reporting directly to the Prime Minister, but also a bad one, when restrictions were placed on India, affecting travel and the import of hardware.

Like in China last week, we discussed with our Indian colleagues communications and local outreach opportunities and worked to adapt the SKA global communications strategy to the reality on the ground. There is great excitement and enthusiasm around the SKA and many great initiatives were discussed. More to come in the next few months!

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One of the dishes of India’s GMRT telescope

NCRA operates GMRT, the Giant Metre wavelength Radio Telescope, composed of 30 45m-large dishes. Built of mesh rather than solid surface, they are lighter, less affected by winds and less expensive to build too. Smart design.
Located in the Indian countryside, which is almost like a jungle to me, it is home to cobras, scorpions, and even leopards apparently…Civilization isn’t far though with villages all around, and the observatory has a radio-frequency interference (RFI) monitoring team, which goes out regularly to monitor and when possible, resolve RFI, which can come from mobile phone antennas, cheap quality TV signal boosters, etc. which easily swamp the faint signals coming from the Universe. When GMRT was built 12 years ago the site was “radio-quiet” but the team is fighting a losing battle against development. A reminder of the importance to establish areas in the world protected from not just light pollution, but also RF pollution. Quiet national parks of sorts. The sky is a natural resource that belongs to all, and as such should be protected in some areas from light or radio interference.

With hectares of wild growth on site due to heavy rains, GMRT did the smart thing and allow nomads access to the site to feed their herds. Free food VS free lawn-mowing, which helps maintain the grounds and protect against wildfires. Smart and a great way to engage with the local community.

The drive to and from the observatory (90km, 2h30) was fun too, sitting in a “Government of India” Jeep, with our driver honking his way through heavy traffic, overtaking overloaded trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles on single lane roads in seemingly impossible situations. The best thing to do is not look at the road and trust the driver’s local experience!

Leaving Pune with a great first impression of India, I headed to my final stop on my Asia-Pacific tour: Perth, Western Australia.

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Hindu temple on Parvati Hill, Pune, India

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