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Winding Down

Not a lot has been going on in Rishi Valley the last few weeks – I’ve been spending most of my time finishing up my reports and wrapping up my project. The kids arrived by the bus load in a flurry (literally) last week and classes have started up again in full force…somehow, I got roped in to doing a few assembly presentations about what exactly I’ve been doing here the last year. I’ve also been able to squeeze in a few mini-adventures of last minute things I’ve wanted to do like a (successful) hike to Rishi Valley’s Three Sisters and tasting true Andhra Pradesh biriyani. Tonight’s adventure involves a stashed-away bottle of wine and a local, roadside dhaba (think: greasy diner)…oh, the scandal.

 

I officially have about two weeks left of my fellowship – one more week in Rishi Valley and then I head north to meet up with the other fellows for our final week in India. It’s really unbelievable to think about how quickly this year has gone by and how much has happened. In some ways I’m sure I’ll head home and it will be like nothing has changed…in other ways I know many things – particularly many aspects of myself – have changed considerably. I can’t help but think about how familiar and comfortable this place has become for me, how much I’ve settled into the pace and lifestyle, and the family that surrounds me here. India has slowly become sort of like a second home for me and it’s going to be extremely hard to say good-bye to everyone and everything that has filled my life this year. I hope I figure out a way to come back at some point.

 

Sending love to all…

Connections

Last weekend I returned safely back home to the Rishi Valley after my travels up north. The final route: Bangalore-Delhi-Dharamsala-Dehradun-Rishikesh-Uttarkashi-Gangotri-Uttarkashi-Rishikesh-Dehradun-Delhi-Bangalore. Whew. I went from sweating through a light, cotton kurta to freezing in four layers and a wool hat and took just about every form of transportation possible including a hitch hike in the back of a grain truck. It was a whirlwind of a month and went by in the blink of an eye – it was exactly what I needed.

 

Returning to RV has been pure bliss. The last few months were a definite low for me – I was consumed by problems with my project, with next steps, with saying good-bye and returning home – and I felt this overwhelming urge to simply…go. And so I did. A lot. I’m learning that as much as I need balance, center, and peace in my life, I also need movement. Every once in a while I need to test myself, take a few risks, and be totally immersed “in it” – in the world, in humanity, in life. It’s this instant reminder of our own impermanence, how beautiful the simplest of things can be, and the kindness of strangers.

 

When I was a kid one of the best feelings in the world was to cannonball into a pool and scream at the top of my lungs under the water where nobody could hear me – it was this fantastic feeling of freedom and relief all at once. This time I cannonballed into India…and it felt good.

 

So, I’m back – 100% of me – mind, body, and soul. I have a month to wrap up my project and write my reports but, more than anything, to be with my community here and honor the love and support they’ve given me. Having ditched the grey cloud of self-inflicted stress above my head, I feel like I can clearly see these amazing people that have filled my life and welcomed me into their family.

 

A few days back a beautiful thing happened: I got to witness true “development” in action. Some of the biggest consumers of pesticides in the area are flower growers. Flowers are an extremely lucrative market in India so farmers are very resistant to alternative methods or reducing their chemical use. But it’s not impossible. A connection of a connection of a connection led to my supervisor contacting a farmer from a village several hours away that grows roses naturally and is said to have fantastic soil. He agreed to make a visit to the valley on his own dime to speak with a few of the flower growers in our area. Well, word got around (as it does) and a few turned into several, which then turned into several more…the day of our meeting we had nearly 15 participants in the discussion – it was fantastic. Questions were asked and everyone was engaged and eager to share information. At the end of the discussion our guest farmer was invited out to some of the local farmers’ fields to discuss the soil quality and flower varieties. The local farmers then collectively decided that they would, in turn, make a visit to his farm this month to see all that he was talking about. A relationship bloomed and we had relatively nothing to do with it. It was totally inspiring.

 

A good friend of mine and advisor from grad school used to proclaim “Power to relationships!” whenever a good connection was made. I can’t help but carry on the tradition in my own head. What perplexes me about the development world is how many programs are created, initiated, and then scaled-up that completely and entirely overlook this factor. To me, this is the absolute core of successful development…why then, don’t we acknowledge this? Because of funders? Grant requirements? Efficiency? This concept isn’t rocket science…it’s so basic and simple it almost seems silly that it has to be even written out. Everything – everything – starts with relationships.

 

 

I’ve been (clearly) reflecting a lot about this – of the genuine, solid connections we make. These people pass in and out of our lives and we can either welcome them in – truly – or we put up a slight wall and remain at a safe distance that is still socially acceptable. Yesterday I had four people stop by my home to welcome me back…three of which were under the age of 15 and promptly cleaned out my cookie/chocolate stash. But my last unexpected visitor was a woman who works as a maid on campus and is from a nearby village – she had never been to my home and was curious how I live (not an uncommon occurrence…). I had been to her home several times this year for festivals, but there was something about her coming to me that was different and special. So, I welcomed her in, sat her down, and made her tea….just like so many others have done for me. We chatted a bit about her brother-in-law’s upcoming marriage, my holiday up north, and I showed her pictures from home. She laughed at how horrible my tea was. When she left, I had this overwhelming sense of sadness – without even noticing, she and I had become friends. She had become more than an acquaintance to me, and maybe I to her…and now I was going to have to say good-bye. But thinking about it more, I wouldn’t have it any other way – because this is it. These connections we make – the deep, true, genuine ones – are what it’s all about. It’s why we are here. Forget job requirements, projects, and everything else – this is what this year has been to me. This is what I’ve learned and contributed. It’s rather unlikely that the two reports I’m writing are going to amount to much…but the relationships I’ve developed, the friends I’ve made, and the community I’ve been a part of – that’s golden.

Up the River Ganga

I’m currently back in the town of Dehradun, sipping coffee in an air-conditioned haven, killing a good five hours before my train departs tonight back down to the sweltering plains. My time in the north has come to an end – tomorrow morning I’ll arrive in Delhi to be greeted by my good friend and her mother. I’ll stay two days with them and then Sunday make my final journey south to Rishi Valley. I can’t believe how quickly this month flew by.

This past week I ventured to the far north to spend time with my dear friends, RV neighbors, and Indian-adopted-parents, Vijendra and Nimla Ramola. During the holidays, they head back to their home in a small village outside the town of Uttarkashi. I’m not sure I have the words to describe how special these last few days were for me – they have been such a support system for me this year and welcomed me into their family whole heartedly. They are truly special people.

I left Rishikesh early Saturday morning via the “shared jeep” option. I hadn’t had that experience yet, so figured I’d give it a go. For about $5 I squeezed into the back seat of a jeep (safely) built for five…in India, however, it’s a jeep built for 10+. For the next 5-6 hours we wound our way up, up, up the narrow roads into the hills with the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas off in the distance. After thoroughly evaluating every escape route out of the vehicle in the event of plummeting off a cliff, my fears and nausea subsided and my mind drifted away in the spectacular scenery as we followed the river Ganga north.

About 15km south of Uttarkashi, I was dropped by the side of the road (literally) near the small village of Dunda. With the help of a few locals, I walked to the river, crossed over a small, suspension footbridge strewn with prayer flags, and followed the rocky path back up the hillside to the even smaller village of Ranaldi. Along the way I accidentally wandered into a Tibetan nunnery but was greeted by a few women who kindly offered me some water and re-pointed me in the right direction. I found the small rocky path again and wandered along the ridge overlooking the river below. Finally I spotted Nimla who gave me a fantastic hug and led me to their little farm – home to all the Ramolas, Indian joint-family style. It was perfect.

The next few days were filled with good walks, delicious food and coffee, much needed hugs, and the best conversation. On Sunday I joined the Ramolas + friends on a “pilgrimage” to the Ganga-Ramola temple – a temple that supposedly dates back to their ancestors. It was quite the adventure and, according to the whispers overheard on the hike up, apparently I was the first foreigner to make the visit. Alas, I forgot my flag.

On Monday the Ramolas suggested that I continue north on my own along the Ganga and visit the little town of Gangotri – the place where it is said that Lord Shiva sat and his hair became the river. At this point I was only about 80km from it…I had ventured up the river this far so though I might as well go as close to the source of it as I could. So, once again, I decided to have another shared jeep experience. It’s hard to describe public transportation in India…chaotic, intimate, sardine-like…but so far, it’s always gotten me where I’ve wanted to go. The journey from Uttarkashi (4000 ft.) to Gangotri (10000 ft.) took us about 4-5 hours and cost me a mere $3…and it was incredible. I made a short video of the two jeep trips I took to go from Rishikesh to Gangotri – hopefully it allows you to visualize the experience a bit better…

When I finally made it to Gangotri (less than 100km from the China border), I checked into a guesthouse, visited the temple, and then (of course) put my feet in the holy river while basking in the immense beauty of the mountains looming overhead. There were people absolutely everywhere – the rich and the poor from all over India – came to take a bath in the water and be blessed by the many priests wandering the ghats. I spent that evening and all of the next morning taking photos, talking to people, and watching all the activity. Around 10am the next day I jumped on a bus packed full with devotees singing prayers and headed back down the hills to Uttarkashi to spend another few days with the Ramolas.

This morning I drank my last cup of Ramola coffee, said my good-byes to the whole family promising to visit again, and then hopped on a bus back to Dehradun to await my train. It was a good trip – a really good trip.

On Wednesday I left the farm and made my way slightly south to the city of Rishikesh – the Hindu holy mecca on the banks of the Mother Ganga. The harvest was finished and although the heat was increasing, my energy was not. My mind had drifted to aryurvedic massages, sunset yoga, and dipping my feet into the cool river. But before I left – I got one last surprise at Navdanya that made the experience incredibly special to me: Vandana Shiva made a brief visit to the farm Tuesday night to check in on things and held a sit-down discussion with the small group of us that were there. It was perfect – she is as brilliant and passionate in-person as she is in her books.

So, with my visit about as complete as I could have ever imagined it to be, I packed my bag, wished everyone well, and took off through the mango groves and down the road along with a few other farm volunteers that decided to tag along for a couple of days. A quick hitchhike in the back of a grain truck heading to town, a two hour bus ride, and we were there.

I’ve been here three days now and my opinion about this place is, simply put, this: Rishikesh is strange. It’s this bizarre mix of devout/semi-devout/not-really-devout Hindus, Western hippies and backpackers, yoga-fanatics, and religious nuts…throw in the old, run down ashram of the Beatles and a few hundred stray cows into the crowded, narrow streets and you’ve got yourself a unique India experience. I’m glad I’ve gotten to see it…but I’m about done.

Aside from sipping my favorite GLH (ginger lemon honey…mmm) tea and wading in the Ganga, I have spent my days having the strangest conversations with random sadhus and devotees on the street, attending the sunset puja services led by crazy-haired gurus, and psychoanalyzing from a distance the Westerners I see dressed in saffron-colored robes and white sarees singing along perfectly to prayers in Sanskrit. This place is total bananas.

Today I did get my massage…which was amazing…but, once again, it’s time for me to move on. Tomorrow morning I’m heading to the way north via bus or shared jeep (TBD) to spend my last week of travels at the home of my RV neighbors in Uttarkashi. I’m hoping that I’ll finally be able to put my hiking boots to use and stuff my face with mangos.

Sending love to all…

The Mighty Sickle

It’s wheat harvesting time here on Navdanya’s farm so I’ve spent the last (full) five days in the field using every bit of my body – squatting, chopping, hauling, bundling, and balancing more wheat on my head than I ever thought possible. My hands are cut up, my feet are dirty, my thighs, back, and arms are sore… and it feels amazing.

Everything on the farm – and most of India – is done by hand. It’s been an interesting experience learning to cut wheat with the mighty sickle doing the “squat and waddle” (as I’ve termed it) – you squat, grab and handful of grain at the base, give it a quick blow with the sickle, pile it to the side, and then waddle ahead…all day long. It’s exhausting yet strangely addicting.

Aside from my adventures in the field, I spent a bit of time cleaning the grain this morning with Bija Didi – the grandmother-like guru of seeds and all things related. After the grain is bundled and threshed, they lay it out to dry and then sift through it to clean it off before storing. It’s phenomenal that despite how labor intensive agriculture here is, so much gets done. I’m not saying that the team of Indian workers I’ve gotten to know in the field could rival a combine…but they certainly impressed me.

I’ve been constantly in awe at what the human body is capable of doing and how far away most of our jobs in the West take us from experiencing that. The sense of satisfaction I’ve gotten this week is one that I certainly don’t get from sitting in front of a computer, finishing up a report – not to discredit report writing. What made the satisfaction so unique was that at the end of each day, I got to share it with others – because with every task we had to rely on each other for help.

But what has left the biggest impression on me this week was the sense of community that gets instantly built when you’re faced with a physical task no one person can accomplish. There wasn’t competition to see who was the fastest or the strongest and there was this general recognition that each person had different strengths and abilities to fill different roles. Extra hands were gladly welcomed and chai and water breaks are as important as finishing. Obviously, I’m overlooking how hard – on so many levels – farming is be it by hand or machine…but, regardless, it’s been a good week of learning, of helping, of doing. I dig it.

(FYI: These next few posts are a bit back-logged due to lack of internet access….)

It’s been a week of pure bliss – snow-capped peaks, cool mountain air, and the sound of water rushing down the hills to the river below. It was a week of good conversation, good food, serenity, peace, and reflection – it was the exhale I needed.

But tonight I move on to my next adventure: getting my hands dirty on Navdanya’s farm! This place has been on my “list” for several years now and I’m so excited to get the chance to experience it. Another overnight bus ride to the town of Dehradun (this time accompanied by my friend who’s decided to tag along) and then a week and a half of planting, weeding, seed sorting, and whatever else comes my way.

Sending love, peace, and good things to all.

Himachal Bound

Around 3am on Monday morning as I lay awkwardly across two seats in the back of the bus desperately trying to shove my feet into anything that will keep me from bouncing off my makeshift bed, I remembered making this same, sleepless journey nearly 2 years ago and thinking to myself “that was one of the worst nights of my life…I will never do it again.” And yet, there I was…the passenger, once again, on the non-AC, government bus between Delhi and Dharamsala – a 14 hour journey from the sweltering, Delhi heat up the winding cliff roads to the magnificent base of the Himalayas. A ride that gives “like a bat out of hell” a whole new meaning.

The previous night I landed in Delhi – feeling free and ready to move. I arrived at my friends’ home just in time to catch the tail end of a delicious roof-top potluck followed the next morning by ginger-banana pancakes topped with the jaggery I brought from Andhra Pradesh. Later in the afternoon I was still waitlisted on the northbound train I hoped to get on that night so, dreaming of the snow-capped peaks I could be standing under rather than the blazing 100+ degree weather in Delhi, I decided to suck it up and just take the bus…again. With a belly full of Delhi street chaat I re-stuffed my pack, hugged my friends, and made it to the bus station just in time to get the last window seat in the way back. But the next morning as I gazed out the window as the first rays of morning sun lit up the snow-capped peaks towering above the winding mountain road…I realized I’d do it again in a heartbeat. No problem.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of being back in this place. Aside from vividly remembering my treacherous bus ride, I also remember thinking that I’d most likely never see these mountains again. When I arrived here before I was coming at the end of my time in Delhi where I had spent months feeling like my identity and sense of self was squashed, squelched, and stamped out. For some reason this place made me feel whole, healthy, and myself – I felt totally at peace. Maybe I’m romanticizing it in my head…but this place is special to me – special to a lot of people – and it’s such a fantastic feeling to be able to experience it again, at a different time in my life, and in a different mental place.  

So, this week I’m staying in a village just outside of lower Dharamsala and a quick ride away from Mcleod with my good friend and fellow Fellow, Andrew. Aside from the great company, fantastic walks, and surreal front-window view, I also get to tag along with him at his NGO, Jagori, to learn about his work with farmers in the Konga district of Himachal Pradesh. It looks like most of the farmers in the area are just getting ready to harvest their wheat (which they alternate with paddy)… and I’m told I may get to help one farmer with this tomorrow. I can’t wait to tell them all my Dufur stories 🙂