Thursday, May 6, 2010

Andy and I just finished our 10 day meditation retreat at the Tushita Center for Meditation. It was an absolutely amazing experience, and probably the most valuable that I've had during my entire stay. I found it so inspiring, that I've decided to stay on in McLeod Ganj and become a Bhuddist nun.


Totally kidding.

Actually, the opposite is true. While Tushita was the most valuable experience I've had (my brain is totally flipped and I have a whole new perspective of looking at the world) Andy and I have decided to return to the states about five weeks sooner than our original plans. Here's the story:

I went into the course last Tuesday morning feeling like India had turned me into a cruel, angry and depressed person. Every little thing was upsetting me. Some examples follow:

The streets in McLeod are narrow and (as in most Indian cities) there are no sidewalks so pedestrians and vehicles must share the lane. We were walking up a steep hill, when we encountered a traffic jam since there was a city vehicle that was parked (as much to the side as possible) in the lane. Cars were trying to pass the city vehicle and pedestrians were trying to pass the cars. When this sort of thing happens, an Indian driver's immediate response is to lay on the horn (not helpful). I was getting so frustrated with the honking, that I began to walk slowly (on purpose) in front of the car going up the hill. So, of course, the driver starts to honk at me. Instead of moving out of the way (like a sane person) I (am now a crazy annoyed at India person) instead shouted: "If your country had sidewalks, this wouldn't be a problem!". I know. not helpful at all, but like I said, India turned me into a crazy person. So, there was that incident. This was soon followed by a beggar (or maybe a salesman, I can't even remember now) trying to get our attention by calling, "Friend! Friend!". As usual, I ignored him but then went off on a rant:"No, I am not your friend. You don't even know me. You just want to be my friend because you think I have money and you want it. I do not want to be your friend..."(to clarify, I wasn't actually saying this to him, but now talking to myself angrily like a crazy person).

So, here I was in India and feeling like a terrible person. I was getting upset by the smallest of things and I had become so cruel as to completely ignore the beggars and the poverty that was right in front of my face. I was getting depressed just thinking about it.

The good news is that 10 days later, after doing the retreat, I feel like a changed person. I would certainly not consider myself a Bhuddist, but the 6 hours/day of teaching for 6 days followed by 6 hrs/day of meditation for 2 days provided me with new insight on myself and a new perspective on life.

Despite this, the morning before we left for the retreat, Andy and I bought new tickets home. We feel like we have done everything we came here to do, and now we (well, more I) can leave India on a positive note rather than on a negative one.

I am SO EXCITED to be home. I now have a new found appreciation for the United States and I can't wait to have all the luxuries of sidewalks, real mattresses and working toilets (with toilet paper!) . We are going to make the most of our last few days in India by traveling to Delhi, hopping on a day long train ride to Mumbai, and spending some time there before we fly home on the 12th!

Can't wait to see you all!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Himalayan Photos

Monkeys run around like squirrels. I noticed this one walking out of the room next door to ours in the guest house we were staying at.

Looking up at the farm from the mango orchard. Devinder built a system of terrace gardens. This is where his rat problem comes into play.

There is a glacial spring that comes down from the mountains. In the foothills, they are lucky to not have a water issue like elsewhere in India (or even higher up in McLeod). The villagers in Bondi Chowk divided the river into smaller streams, allowing farmers like Devinder to create an irrigation dike system on their farms.

'Farming' in the Himalayan Foothills

It has been a long time since we last posted (besides Andy's today). We just returned to McLeod Ganj after spending nearly 2 1/2 weeks on a farm just down the hill from Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

Dev Bala farm was a pleasant enough place. It's a small, three acre farm run by Devinder and his wife, Brijbala. Devinder is about 60 years old, and often told us stories of how Dharamsala used to be ("I remember when McLeod Ganj had only one guesthouse) and how global warming is affecting this part of the world. The farm overlooks a large field of barley at the base of the gorgeous Himalayan mountains. They have mainly mango and lychee orchards and a small plot of barley and wheat below. They also (and this was our favorite part) own two cows which provide the family and their guests with fresh milk to make yogurt and butter (the most delicious yogurt we've had in India!).

Dev Bala farm, however nice, turned out not to be the place that we were looking for. Devinder rarely gave us work to do beyond weeding (the name should be changed to Willing Weeders on Organic Farms) and told us to rest us a lot. This was perfectly fine for the first week, as we were tired and needed a rest after 6 long weeks of traveling. Weeding turned out not to be our most favorite task, and after completing the natural farming workshop in Auroville, we now have our opinions about the necessity of weeding which unfortunately do not coincide with Devinder's. But after the first week, we began to get a little bored, and ansty. Anstyness is perhaps one of the worst feelings to experience because even though we are in a wonderful place, all we can think about is going home. It did not help that we were the only WWOOF guests at the time, so we didn't have anybody else to distract us from our ansty thoughts.

Depsite the antsyness, I was lucky enough to be able to learn a little bit of yoga from Brijbala in the mornings and am now looking forward to continuing that practice when I get home.

While the family is wonderfully kind and hospitable, we started to feel a bit uncomfortable about the money situation. Dev Bala farm asked for a Rs 300/day/person 'donation' (this is a bit steep for WWOOF guests in our experience). Devinder seemed to be a bit uncomfortable asking for this and often said "we are just living simply. We do not have a lot." We felt that this was a bit of bullshit, since Devinder and his family owned a washing machine, a tv (with a satellite dish) and a computer with internet. They live more luxuriously than the majority of Indian families we've seen and even more so than John, the American owner of our first farm. Not only that, but we would participate in things (such as yoga classes) with the assumption that this knowledge and experience would be shared freely only to be asked for money (another 'contribution') afterwards.

In the end, we decided to leave a few days earlier than originally planned. We are to WWOOF (meaning that we work for our accommodation and food) not to spend weeks away at a homestay retreat (however nice it may be) and be badgered for money all the time.

Good news is that Andy and I will be beginning 10-day residential Introduction to Buddhism course in McLeod Ganj on Tuesday. I am really looking forward to learning some new things. More will come on this later.

One more thing....Devinder was telling this story and it was all I had to not crack up laughing at the dinner table...
Devinder's response when I asked him why he doesn't just get a cat to take care of his rat problem:

Well, you see, there was this man, you know, from England or somewhere, yeah? And he had this problem with rats. So he got a trap, that didn't kill them, you see? It just caught them. So, he kept catching all these rats and he put them in the cage. Pretty soon, he caught 1000 rats all in this trap. Then, he stopped feeding them, you see? And pretty soon, the rats, they start to kill and eat each other. And then at the end, there were only two rats left. They all killed each other, you know? So, there are two rats left and one eats the last one (Me: so that's the King Rat?). And he was a big rat you know, (he holds out his hands about 2 feet apart) and so then, this man, he sets that rat free. And then he has no more problem with rats because they are all afraid, you know? (I am now imagining a huge, two foot long rat roaming this English guys house and wondering 'why the hell would he want that around instead of a cat?)

*Pictures of the farm to come later (because it really was a beautiful place)

Observations on Labor in India

On the farm we're staying at the owner Devinder--Papaji (Papa G) for short--got his hands on some avocado trees and wants to plant them.

Exhibit A

It's not a big thing--the container is maybe only a foot and half tall. But Papa G wants us to dig a big fucking hole for the avocado:

Exhibit B

A little unnecessary perhaps but Papa G knows what Papa G wants. Two feet down we hit soft granite bedrock. Most people I know would dig a different hole or grab a stick of dynamite. Papa G grabbed his pickaxe and set to work--with short pauses to tell me how he once dug through 10 feet of this stuff when he was younger and stronger and about how this sort of work requires great patience. Indeed.

Ruminating on this, I had a revelation. There are a fuckload of people in India so labor is much cheaper than capital. It's cheaper to hire a dozen guys with shovels and pickaxes for a week than it is to hire a bulldozer for a day. Some other examples: Road crews we've seen shoveling out ditches have two guys to each shovel. One guy pushes it into the ground and another pulls it up with a rope... Paige and I were collecting dead leaves as mulch in Devinder's orchard and rather than sending us out with rakes--there are no rakes on the farm...--we and a bunch of other people used ghetto stick "brooms" to collect the leaves. When you gots to employ a billion people, you can find a lot of ways to stretch the work.

Honestly, the inefficiency and lack of adequate tools infuriates me. Half the time I'm given a job in the morning and I'll spend until noon coming up with a better tool or method to do it (which infuriates Paige :-D).

Given that, I'm incredibly impressed with the workers here. They are enthusiastic and work far harder than I can--and they have shit for tools and live off rice and lentils! Their patience even when progress is crawlingly slow is... impressive. Ants are lazy by comparison. Tour guides'll tell ya: "monks took 100 years to carve this temple out of a single rock with nothing but hammers and chisels." You'll never see something like that in the States.

Sidenote: this unthinking enthusiasm is why it's a bad idea to outsource software programming to India, but that's another rant.

On balance the slow pace is a good thing--even if it annoys me at times.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Downs

For the past three months (yep, it's been that long already!) we have been sharing bits and pieces of our journey with you. We've shown you places we've been, monuments we've seen and people we've met along the way. We recently realized that we've really only told you about our ups. Here are some of our downs:

1. The Beggars.
The beggars in India are unlike any we've seen before in the U.S. First of all, the sheer number has been overwhelming. In every town we go to and on every train we ride, we are asked for money. If they have a deformity (clubbed foot, no hands, a hunchback, a blind eye and on and on...) they are not shy about shoving it in your face to let you know just how bad their life is compared to yours.

Sometimes, they 'work' for our money. Young boys on the train will crawl on their hands and knees on the disgusting floor to sweep up trash from underneath our feet with the shirt off their backs. Afterward, they hold their hand out for payment for this service.

Women carrying infants will point to the sleeping child and then to their mouth as if saying 'feed my child because I cannot.'

We are still frustrated that beggars seem to only hold out their hands when they see us, the white people, approaching. We are automatically assumed to have more money than anyone else because of the color of our skin. It is true, that relatively we possess extreme wealth compared to slum dwellers, but we have also met many Indians who have a lot more money than we do.

There are so many beggars that we can't possibly give every one of them enough. Early on, I would give someone a few rupee coins and still they held out their hands wanting more. Children tugging on my pant leg staring up at me with huge, sad, brown puppy dog eyes was enough to make run to the other side of the street in tears because I didn't think there was anything to do to help them. I was overwhelmed with guilt as I clutched the days souvenirs in my hand, thinking that with the amount I just spent I could have fed that child for a week.

I started following a self-made protocol in which I would give children biscuits or fruit and ignore the adults. This worked for a while, until we were at the train station in Hospet. There was an elderly woman walking from person to person. When she came to me, I gave her a piece of fruit that Andy and I had bought earlier that day. She accepted it into her apron and continued on down the line of people. A few minutes later, my conversation with Andy was interrupted when I felt a slap across my face and shoulder and realized that woman had returned to throw the fruit back at me! Her was twisted in anger as she grumbled something at me before leaving. Apparently food wasn't she wanted even though she held out her hand and pointed to her mouth signalling 'food'.

Since this incident, I have not given another beggar anything. The longer we stay, the more desensitized we become to the poverty.

2. The Cities.
Indian cities continue to be a source of frustration, annoyance and disgust for me. It is in the cities where my American arrogance really shines. The streets are jam packed with trucks, busses, rickshaws, bicylists, motorcyles, cows and (because there are often no sidewalks) people. I will be so happy to get back to the states and have sidewalks! Since traffic laws seem to be non-existant there is constant congestion and endless honking. So noisy! Always the honking that never makes any difference anyways because you can never tell who is honking at whom.

Trying to cross the street is a real life version of Frogger which leaves me digging my fingernails into Andy's arm as we dart into oncoming traffic like a pair of squirrels.

There is trash everywhere: on top of roofs, in the gutters and the ditches. People will just throw their plastic cups or food wrappers right on the ground.

We often pass through areas that have the nauseating smell of human waste. The lack of proper waste management is why India struggles with issues of poor water quality.

It is for these reasons that we have avoided cities at (nearly) all costs.

3. Diet.
Diet has been more of an issue for Andy than it has been for me. Andy seems to get sick every new place we go, while I for some reason have survived without any stomach issues. We don't know what causes Andy's stomach issues but we think it may have something to do with his radical diet back home. This trip has generated much discussion on the state (liquid, solid or gas) of our poop.

While I do not suffer from stomach issues I am more than ready to return home for some American food. Around the half-way point in our trip. I realized that I could no longer eat another dosa, idly, chapati or any more rice, curry, sambar or chutney. We have many conversations about what we can't wait to eat when we get home. Like the Indians, Andy and I admire cows-but only when on a plate covered in A1.

We are counting down the days 'til we return home...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

We left Bhuj on Saturday morning for a VERY long train journey to Agra. After reaching Delhi on Sunday afternoon, we took a very crowded 3 hour train ride down to Agra where we got to our guesthouse and collapsed on the bed from exhaustion. We had been on a train for 36 hours and traveled over 1500 km.

We woke up early (6:30 am) so we could get to the Taj Mahal as soon as possible (it's best to see it earlier in the day when it is not so hot and not quite as many people). The Taj is every bit as breath taking in person as it is in pictures. We walked around and enjoyed the view for a while before heading back to the guest house and packed up to leave. We were in Agra for a grand total of 12 hours.

Our train took us back to Delhi where we had to wait for a few hours in the dirty and decrepit Inter-State Bus Terminal. The place is a multi-story concrete building that looked like it came from a post-apocalyptic world. Delhi was the most polluted city we had been in yet. You could see the smog hanging in the air and the terrible air quality mixed with the heat made it a less than desirable place. We were happy to get on our bus that would take us to Dharamsala.

We are getting used to long and cramped bus rides now. But when we woke up on Tuesday morning, we were basking in the cool, refreshing air of the Himalayan mountains! I almost cried I was so happy to be here. The weather here is much more comfortable for us mid-westerners. Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj is the home of the Tibetan Government in exile so there are many Tibetan refugees and Buddhist monks that live here.

We will be exploring the town for a couple days before we head to our next farm!

All is good in India.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Wow! It's been a while since we posted! Indian computers/internet have not been our friends for the past couple weeks.

When we last left you, we were headed for Ahmedabad, a city in the western state of Gujarat. We reached Ahmedabad from Hampi after three nights either on a train or a bus. It was a long trip.

Ahmedabad was our first north Indian city and the change from south to north was quite the culture shock (at least for me). The city was bustling with people, noisy rickshaws and the streets were crammed to the brim with markets and stands. We visited several historical and folk museums and Ghandi's ashram.

Ahmedabad's polluted river divides the city in half. Slums line the river banks and people sift through the trash looking for useful things. This boy is on a raft and is using his flip flops for paddles.

We left Ahmedabad for Bhuj on an overnight bus. Bhuj is the capital of the region of Kutch. Kutch is known for its traditionally made handicrafts such as embroidery, hand block printed fabric, and weaving. Bhuj was an awesome town with narrow streets that were packed tightly with stores selling textiles, textile trimmings and interspersed throughout were tailors who would make clothes with the textiles you just bought.

We took a rickshaw tour that took us through some villages were tribal people still live and produce their handicrafts as a way to sustain themselves. We were invited into many homes and shown many beautiful pieces of work and unfortunately, we could not buy everything that we saw.

This family of brothers runs a woven shawl business. They are the 15th generation of their family to carry on the craft. Weaving is traditionally passed down father to son, while embroidery is passed down mother to daughter.

Uh oh. Truck tipped over. Many of the men in the villages work as truck drivers or farm hands while the women stay at home to embroider.

We had the opportunity to visit two different festivals while in Kutch. At the first, we stopped there for a lunch break. Here, all the different tribal people had gathered together under a large colorful tent to honor the monkey-god Hanuman. There were tables along the sides of the tent serving foods of the traditional Thali meal. We definitely stood out and people cleared way for us to sit on the ground as they watched us eat the delicious food with our hands. Afterwards, we went to the temple to make our offering in exchange for the food that we were given.

Our second festival was in the village of Kera, just 20 km south of Bhuj. We have no idea what the festival was for, but we do know that there was wrestling involved. There were tons of people crowded into the clearing in front of the temple. Since we were the only white people there, we turned heads wherever we went. Everyone wanted us to sit by them like we were the popular kids at lunch. We ended up being pulled in two different directions: Andy went with the men and the women took hold of me. Andy had a front row seat to the wrestling and was able to take pictures while bidis (small cigarettes) were passed around. I sat above with a bunch of women and quickly made friends with some girls who asked me many questions and talked a lot about clothes and make-up. They admired my fair skin, but thought that I should use cream because my forehead had broken out in acne.

Men stood on top of buildings and even in the trees for a good view.

Our ride back from the festival was certainly in interesting one. We took a share jeep (basically the same as taxi that just takes a lot more people) back to Bhuj because it was cheaper and faster than a bus. We climbed in and the jeep was already reasonably full. Or so we thought. A couple stops later, a large group of about ten people tried (and did) climb into the back of the jeep with us. This brought our jeeps capacity to a total of no less than 26 people. To say the least, we got to know our seat mates very well.

Hybrid motorcycle and lorry.

We ran into a farmer on of our tours and he brought us to his 70 acre farm with orchards of mangoes, chickoos, lychee and pomegranate.

Camel. Gujarat was the first place we saw camels pulling carts down the streets.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A west Indian hodgepodge

They call a hodgepodge a "thali" here.

We're in a Jo-Ann Fabrics the size of a town in western India (also known as Bhuj). Mom, you would love it here. Except at this Jo-Ann's they also retail ice cream and tobacco products and if you look at any one thing too long the attendants swoop down and engage you in bargaining over something you probably don't even want. But more about this place later.

More pictures of Hampi, 'cause it's really a sexy place.

The big temple. It's old but serviceable when it comes to worship and holding elephants.

A temple elephant getting painted. It'll "bless" you (bop you on the head with its trunk) if you give it a coin. Paige got blessed. Her neck is uninjured.

I think Paige mentioned that we were going to the Ajanta caves. Well, we did. There's actually two sets of caves about 3 hours apart. The city (read, staging area) in between is called Aurangabad and it sucks in a soviet bloc sort of way. Wide, dusty, hot streets with no evidence of people around--except for their trash.

The caves are much nicer. They're mislabeled though--they're giant temples carved into a mountain which is that much more impressive. On the way to the Ellora caves (the ones to the left of Aurangabad), we saw a water park in the middle of the desert...

I lack the camera equipment to really capture how crazy this place is.

Sir Mix-A-Lot and Indians circa 800AD had similar taste in women.

Go blue!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lungies and Lugies

Our last weekend in Kerala was spent in the city of Kochin. Kochin was a nice city with friendly people.
A large majority of the men in India wear what is called a 'lungi'. It's basically a few yards of cloth (about the size of a beach towel) that is wrapped around the waist like a sarong and can be pulled up to wear short. Andy had been playing around with the idea of getting one for awhile. Luckily, there was a man selling them on the street in Kochin! After purchasing the lungi, we then had to go on an excursion to find out how to tie it. Seeing as how nearly every man wears one, this wasn't a hard thing to do. The group of men seemed really amused that this young white guy wanted to wear lungi, and they happily started to tie it around Andy's waist. It wasn't until after it was tied on that he was told his lungi was too short. Apparently, Andy is taller than the average Indian man.

It was a long train ride (actually two) up the coast from Kochin to Hampi. We had a 4 1/2 hour layover in Goa (at 3:30 am!) before catching the bus to Hampi. Hampi is a beautiful place nestled between large boulder hills and coconut, banana and rice plantations. Strewn about the rocks and plantations are ruins from a 14th century empire. We were really pleased to find a super cheap (but very nice) double room in a guesthouse for only 200 rupees! Our pleasure soon evaporated when we learned how overbearing the guesthouse landlady was. Everyday she would ask us to eat at the guesthouse for dinner and everytime we said 'No, thank you' the less she liked us. It's not that the food was bad (we ate there our first night) it was actually quite nice to have homecooked food again, it was that she charged 80 rupees per meal. 80 rupees per meal is a lot when you consider that we can eat at a restaurant for 70-90 rupees for both of us. Unfortunately, she didn't seem to want to understand the concept of 'budget' traveling when we tried to to explain it to her. I think we must have offended her in some way. Besides the constant badgering to eat her food, we were also put off by her incessant spitting. A lot of people spit in the street here (more than in the States) but this woman hacked up lugies about as often as a chain smoker lights a cigarette. I was often woken up to the sound as early as 6 am!

Despite our landlady (who really was just trying to make a living by feeding on the blood and wallets of tourists) we enjoyed Hampi. We took a really nice bike ride through the hills to see some of the ruins of temples and former kingdoms.

If you want to know what it's like to be a celebrity and plagued by paparazzi, come to India. At one temple, we were swarmed by a large family that was very excited to see us and consequently wanted to have their photo taken with us. But it wasn't just one photo. We ended up having several group shots (one with Andy, and one with me) and then there were individual shots. We finally had to pry ourselves away by saying we had to go on to the next ruin. The next day, I felt particularly diplomatic when a couple walking by me shoved their toddler into my arms so that I could pose with her and the mother as the father took a snapshot with his cell phone. In addition, I have now had my picture taken with several Indian men and a group boys (about the age of my eleven-year-old brother) who also asked me for my phone number.

We are continuing our journey northwards (and west) towards Gujarat with a quick stop at the Ellora caves on the way. Traveling and sightseeing has been nice, but we are getting anxious to return to the simple (and cheaper) farming life!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Backwaters, tea and a buffalo skull under the bed.

Well, our two week whirlwind tour of Kerala is just about to come to an end. Just to clarify-we haven't been farming while we've been here. We're taking about a 6 week hiatus to be tourists and see some sights on our way up to the Himalayas where we will begin farming again. The weather in southern India is starting to get very hot. Today's forecast: 90 degrees farenheit but feels like 99 with humidity.

We took a short train trip from Varkala to Kollam. In Kollam, we stayed with a man named Ramesh and his family who we met on Ramesh was wonderfully hospitable. He opened his home up to us and we ate wonderful homecooked Keralan meals (fish and beef curries in coconut sauce) with his family.

On Sunday, we took a canoe boat tour of the back waters. On the tour, we drifted lazily through narrow canals lined with coconut, cashew and banana trees.We saw some local people crafting a large canoe made from coconut wood and coconut fiber rope.As we drifted further back into the canals, the hustle and bustle of Indian city life completely disappeared. It felt as though molasses was in the air. You could tell that the people in the villages here live simple and relaxed lives. It was quiet and serene, the only interruption being the moaning of a cow or cackling hens. Our guide spoke only a little English, but he excitedly pointed out things as we passed them. Things like: "Madame, pineapple!" or "Kingfisher!" and "My house!" (evidently, we were passing through his neighborhood). It was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.

After the backwaters, we headed for the cool relief of the hills in Munnar. The Munnar area is popular for its tea plantations.We took a 5 hour bus ride from Kottyam on twisting roads through rolling hills covered in tea plants. The weather there was glorious! The cool mountain air felt so refreshing. On Wednesday we took a public bus (much cheaper than a taxi or rickshaw) up to Top Station. The drivers in the mountains aren't any less crazy than they are in the city. We went careening around hairpin turns and came to screeching stops in every village along the way to pick up or drop off more people. The nauseating ride was worth it, we had spectacular views of the mountain range once we got to the top. On Thursday, we took a tour through the tea plantations (and watched as women clipped and collected the tea leaves into bags), saw some waterfalls (with very little water since it's not monsoon season yet) and Andy tried toddy (a palm liquor) for the first time! It was a fairly rushed tour, but we got to see a lot.

Apparently our hotel room in Munnar doubled as a spare storage closet. Andy found three water buffalo (?) skulls under our bed. So strange...

We are in Kochin for the weekend before a long train ride to Hampi on Monday. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ah, to be in God's own country! (Keralan slogan...)

Wow, it's been too long since we've had a chance to post. Now Paige and I are posting from the comfort of a freaking awesome home in Kerala. Let's get the pictures rolling!

Near the end of the permaculture workshop at Solitude Farm in Auroville, we got to harvest rice. Running around with little hand-held scythes you cut down the rice stalks and collect them into piles. Then, taking great handfuls of rice, you beat the **** out of it against a barrel, loosening the rice grains. Enthusiasm is a must, or at least a little bit of rage to let out. Harvesting a staple crop adds to our farmer street cred, dont'cha think?

The Sunday before we left, we made a day trip to Fertile Farm, run by an old Aussie guy named Johnny. He's been there since basically the start of Auroville in 1972, and has been tinkering there ever since. His constraints (no electricity) lead to quite a lot of creativity. Johnny hosts a potlucks, and he always makes the dosa (fermented rice pancakes) for them. Of course, you need a lot of dosa for a potluck, so he made a dosa mixer powered by a sterling engine. A fire is started, cold water is piped through the engine, and it runs off the difference in temperature.

Last Monday we departed for Kerala on the southwest coast of India. While waiting for the train--in the middle of a city--a cow walked down the platform with no apparent owner, took a moment to browse a trash bin full of empty paper tea cups, then walked on. After arriving in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala (also the head of the communist government here!), we partook in what seems to be a ritual now: we went to an Indian Coffee House, the best damn breakfast and coffee franchise this side of the Ganges. Jumped up on caffeine, we explored the city. Lots of coconut trees. We went to the natural history museum (admission: 5Rs or 12 cents). Turns out natural history museums are the same everywhere: dead things in jars. They also had a very nice zoo (admission: 10Rs or 25 cents). In the evening, we went to see Avatar--in 3D (admission: 65Rs or $1.50)! It was awesome! Some luxuries are not lost on us.
Having worked our asses off on a farm we decided to go to a beach, a town just north called Varkala. It was a bit touristy, but damn it was pretty. We got a cavernous room in the government guest house--normally for politicians when they travel--for super cheap, then hit the beach. It's separated from all the restaurants and hotels and such by a giant cliff.

An elephant in some dude's yard.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Shit and pee wherever you like"

Andy + Coconut tree = <3
We have been at Solitude a week now and we are much happier here. Sadhana Forest had many rules including: no competitive games or sports (including card games), no non-vegan food allowed on campus and (possibly the worst) a very extensive toilet procedure. Using the compost toilets at Sadhana Forest was a non-trivial procedure. There were at least two different holes, and three different buckets per cubicle. One hole was for liquid and only liquid waste, the second for solid and only solid waste. If you went poop, you had to scoop one scoopful of sawdust into the hole and then waddle over to the liquid waste hole in order to use the bum wash because no liquid could be in the solid, dry waste hole. If you had to pee while you pooped, you needed to use a pan with a handle on it to catch the pee and then dump that into a second bucket that was used to water the flowers. Needless to say, this was more complicated than necessary (especially when suffering from diarrhea). When we arrived at Solitude Farm and the owner, Krishna, was giving us an orientation, his description of toilet procedure were music to our ears: "Yeah, so basically you can shit and pee wherever you like." We knew right away that we would like our stay here at Solitude.

The windmill pumps water from the well. At the top, it says "varagu"
a local millet that Solitude is trying to re-establish.

We are lucky to be at the farm during this time because Krishna is hosting a 9 day workshop on Natural Farming and Permaculture techniques. We read aloud from the book, One Straw Revolution and discuss the techniques that are used on the farm. Our work so far has involved some weeding, mulching, planting in the nursery and harvesting dahl (lentils) and rice. Middays get pretty hot and sticky, but that problem is easily solved by taking a dip in the well.

This is a maniac Italian named Devid. The water is about 20 ft down!

Milling varagu the old fashioned way.
Andy and I are finally getting used to thin mattresses, and have come to the terms with the rats that share our hut. All is going well in Southern India!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Auroville Part 1: Our first community attempt

Last Monday, Andy and I left Pondicherry with high hopes on our way to Auroville. Auroville is a planned community just outside of Pondicherry that was founded in 1968.

"Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity."

Auroville is made up of 100 different communities each with a mission that they hope to accomplish. Many are farm based, some are about environmental living and sustainability and the rest cover topics in between (health care, women's groups, information technology, etc). We were headed to a community called Sadhana Forest, which focuses on environmentalism (reforestation) and sustainable living. They were listed on the WWOOF host list and we had heard some okay things so we thought we would give it a try. The commitment there was for 4 weeks but we didn't have a problem with this as it fits in with our travel plans.

So, we arrive at Sadhana Forest on Monday morning before lunch. The place is HUGE.We thought we walked into a hippie commune by accident. Shirtless men with long beards, hair pulled back in ponytails and girls with thick dreadlocks and Indian style pants. Over 160 people live there (both permanent residents of the community at volunteers) from all over the world. Never have I been in one place and heard so many different languages. We were immediately impressed with the gigantic main hut with multi levels (like the one that Andy and I stayed in at our first farm times 100). Volunteers are expected to work 4 hours per day (6:30-8:30 am and 9:30-11:30 am) and then the rest of the day is free to do as you wish. Volunteers lead workshops on a variety of topics in the afternoons. Sadhana Forest follows a strict vegan only diet which meant we were not allowed to bring in food of our own (we cheated on this one and hid our contraband in our sleeping bag). On paper, this sounds like an awesome way to learn about reforestation, sustainable living and meet people from all around the world along the way. In practice, this works for some people. But we quickly found that it didn't work for us. At all.

Andy and I were impressed and also immediately overwhelmed by the size of the place. New volunteers come and old volunteers leave each day, so the amount of people never seems to get smaller. The size of the place was growing more rapidly than the owners had expected or planned for so there were not enough compostable toilets and they were being filled more quickly than the waste had time to break down. As Andy and I know from living in the co-op, it can be difficult to make good tasting meals in large qualities (and this place is Mich House times 3!) and it can be equally as hard to keep a kitchen clean when so many people move through it each day. A lot of people were sick with diarrhea and vomiting. Andy was one of them. We went to work on Tuesday and Andy got sick on Wednesday putting him out of commission for two days. We felt that the community was too large and as a result, the sanitation, hygiene and food safety suffered. So we decided to leave. We took a rickshaw into Auroville on Thursday to find a different community.

The farm we found is called Solitude, and it was actually recommended to us in the first place by John (the owner of the farm near Bangalore) who had worked there in the past. Andy and I immediately felt much better vibes from this place. It is smaller (only 16-20 volunteers) and the people are much more like-minded to us. We feel like we have found a good place for us to stay for at least the next two weeks.

We will keep you posted on how our days at Solitude go!

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Little Rikshaw that Could

After a quick overnight train ride, we're now in Pondicherry. It's a former French colony on the east coast of India so the French quarter has a nice feel to it. Occasional conversations are overheard, but I haven't yet had to say "Je ne parle pas!"

It's 90 degrees F here.

The trip to the train station through Bangalore was probably our most epic journey yet. After working for the last few days on creating a flat area to thresh millet, Paige and I said our goodbyes. I'll miss John.

Babina greatly enjoyed riding the ghetto smoothing sled.

That awesome dog at the bottom is named Nipples.

We got on a bus headed in the right direction and I swear we were on it for an hour and a half. We could go to either of two places on the bus which were close to the train station; our bus was going to neither, but like I said, right direction. That's Indian transportation. On board, a couple of the women took an interest in where we were going and disagreed about where that was with the bus conductor. They argued our fate with him and we sat, without being consulted, and spectated the traffic.

After making it approximately to our even more approximate midway point we switched to traveling by rikshaw. None of the drivers were willing to go by the meter, so we did what the travel guide advised not to do: just bargained with them. I don't think we got ripped off too bad.

Better than Mario Kart.

The rikshaw ride had two distinct stages. First, insane traffic. Imagine canned sardines. Now imagine them moving at 40 mph and jockeying to win a race. A rikshaw racing league would be so awesome. The second stage was a dirt backroad that bypassed traffic. It was nice, but we were going at about 5 mph. The riskshaw was struggling and chattering and sputtering and at the last hill to rejoin the freeway, I thought I'd have to get out and push.

The train station was relaxing at about 1/8th the level of insanity of the roads. We made it ok and the train lulled us to sleep overnight.

A mobile phone ad on the train. It has a guy with a gun!

Out the window of the place we're staying in Pondi.