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Archive for October, 2010

A Walk in the Valley

To the outside eye, the city-dweller, or passer-by, the Rishi Valley may seem like a fabulous weekend retreat – a breath of fresh air from the toils of urbanization and industrialization. One can bask in the beauty of the hills, be immersed in the sounds of children laughing, rest in peaceful solitude beneath the wisdom of the banyan trees….and then peace out before their inbox is flooded or they’ve had enough of the “RESTRICTED MOBILE PHONE USE” policy.

To those of us who are here on a more permanent basis, I’ve come to learn that the Rishi Valley isn’t so much a place, but a way of thought. There is a certain kind of individual who consciously and voluntarily moves out of urban India to the middle of nowhere – far away from the globalized epicenter of “India 2010”. These individuals come to this place as much to teach as they do to learn. They bring with them their education, new ideas, and respect for traditional knowledge. They have a shared love for humanity, for nature, for their country. They are proud of their heritage, firmly grasp the realities of the present, and instill hope for the future. And they walk….a lot.

Walking has become a part of my life here. Fresh out of grad school and an American pace far away from the Rishi Valley lifestyle, I’ve personally challenged myself to learn to love the silence, the solitude, and the resulting thoughts that flow in and out of my head. We’ll call it a work in progress…but progress, none the less.

This morning I went on a walk with a legend named Mr. Naidu. Mr. Naidu has been a part of the Rishi Valley School since 1960. He began as a Phys Ed teacher and ended as a nationally recognized ecologist. Much of the environmental restoration of the Rishi Valley from the past half-century can be attributed to his work. An old man now, he invited me to “take a walk” with him up into the hills as he recalled the last 50 years of his life.

Watching Mr. Naidu slowly make his way up the dirt path behind the school – passing rock walls he built around the land he worked to protect, taking careful steps on the stones he’s walked thousands of times, and naming every tree in sight along with the dates his students planted the seeds – was beyond inspiring. Here was this man from the nearby town of Madanapalle who simply wanted to save the valley and community that he was a part of. The solutions he created didn’t come from text books or conferences, they came from simply watching what was happening around him. 

As we walked up the hill, we came to a densely, forested area that he called “the air-conditioned room”. Perpendicular to the path and downward slope of the land, were long, carved-out trenches – one after the other. He began a story about watching the water during a heavy rain rush down the hill one day on a walk. He decided to build ditches – on top of which his students planted native trees – to divert the water from the main flow and act as a storage container for the plant life. Totally fascinating.

The morning went on like this – story after story of the systems he created to conserve the scarce water supply of the valley. When we finally reached a clearing near the top, we looked out over the Rishi Valley and his life’s work was visibly apparent: a line of green stretched clear into the distance and then abruptly stopped at the edge of the Valley. Beyond lay the barren, rocky hills of draught, over-grazing, and stripped land.

Mr. Naidu instructed me to read chapter 24 out of the book “The Ends of the Earth” (R. Kaplan) prior to our walk. The author had made a visit to Rishi Valley some years ago, taken a similar walk with Mr. Naidu, and written about his experience more eloquently than I ever could:

“Rishi Valley shows that there is hope, that we as a species will not necessarily destroy ourselves. But it also taught me that if these hopes are to be realized, then solutions must emerge locally. Hope and solutions cannot be imported by big government or from international bureaucracies thousands of miles away” (p355).

Sit on that one, folks.

In other news, this small-town girl will be venturing off to the big city of Chennai in the morning to get in some Fellow love. As excited as I am to see friends and soak up the city for a few weeks while all the kiddos are on holiday, I’m a bit sad to leave this place as well. I’ve gotten into a routine here and things have begun to feel familiar and comfortable. But then I remind myself, “Ummm…you’re in INDIA!” So alas, India, here I come.

I thought I’d close with a few of my most recent monkey stories…seeing as how they’re such a big hit with Grandma and the rest of the fam.

Monkey Story #1: It was snack time one afternoon and I was having my E.T.T. (evening tea and tiffin) with an eight-year-old friend of mine. Suddenly, the thunderous sound of monkeys scrambling across the tin-roof of the Dining Hall made us both jump in our seats. “Monkeys,” I mumbled under my breath. “I hate monkeys.” My small friend stared at me aghast. He was outraged.

“What??! You don’t like monkeys? But they’re Gods!!”

It was as though I had just sat on his pet puppy. I felt horrible for demonizing his beloved monkeys. I was about to retract my previous statement when the conversation abruptly shifted (mid-samosa bite) to whether or not Tarzan was, in fact, a true superhero.

Monkey Story #2: Saturday evening I had just returned from a walk and stopped to chat with my roof-top neighbors through their screen door. Their 2-year old daughter suddenly pointed at me and made the Indian sound of a dog (English translation: woof woof), which I soon realized in 2-year old speak actually meant “monkey”. I turned around and there was a giant mama monkey sitting comfortably on the ledge less than a foot behind me. I screamed, the 2-year old laughed, the monkey stared awkwardly at me for a minute and then walked away.

The end.

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Greetings friends! Each month I’m required to post on the American India Foundation’s Fellow Blog site about some of the experiences I’m having at my site.

You can access my October post here: http://www.aifclintonfellowship.org/blog/?p=1082

Additionally, if you’ve got the time you should check out some of the posts from the other Fellow’s here in India at: http://www.aifclintonfellowship.org/blog. As our year begins, each of our experiences are totally taking on a life of their own. I’m excited to make visits to some of the other sites at some point….

Hope all are well and thinking of you all!

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When in Rome-aku.

With my hair in a braid and kurta-clad the other morning at breakfast, my hands deep into my samba with a bit of dosa, I looked up and noticed the old woman sitting across from me at the dining hall table studying me quite intensely. After a rather long moment and with a slight smile on her face, she exclaimed “You’re looking more and more Indian every day!”

I have been here in the Rishi Valley approximately one month now and, in celebration of the fact, I thought I’d highlight some of my personal accomplishments. Seemingly small steps for some, but giant leaps when you’re in the thick of it.

  1. I feel I have finally mastered the South Indian art of eating with one’s right hand only. This custom typically doesn’t exist in more urban settings, but in the rural areas using your left hand to shovel food in your mouth is a big, fat eww (think…no toilet paper). I can tear roti, pass the curd, and wave to a student without forgetting which hand goes in my mouth and which stays in my lap. (*Note: I have not yet mastered the South Indian art of eating rice with my hand…yet.)
  2. I no longer gag at the taste of masala spice first thing in the morning and have actually acquired a fondness, dare I say craving, for curd and glasses of buttermilk.
  3. After a tireless battle that raged on through the long days and nights, I have (with mild certainty) defeated the ants in my room…for now.
  4. I can read about 30% of any sign in Telugu (sans actual meaning).
  5. My personal life history is known by most everyone I have encountered for more than 5 minutes.
  6. I have recently been given the important task of unofficially naming the giant she-spider that lives in the trees near the office. I’m going to suggest that it become the school mascot.
  7. After nearly an hour of questions and confusions about the purpose of the sport, I successfully got approximately 1 full game of ultimate frisbee going with my personal following of 7th-year boys.
  8. I unexpectedly gave an impromptu lecture on the importance of creativity, a critical-outlook, and determination to a Design and Technology class (long story…) and have been asked to teach a lesson on data collection and survey design to 9th-year students next term.
  9. I was taught by students the golden rules of maintaining peace with RV fauna: stomp loudly with your feet when you walk to scare away the snakes, never look the monkeys in the eyes, and watch out for frogs.
  10. I have stood at the top of the Valley on a granite boulder, beneath a coconut tree amidst field of rice paddy, in the middle of a tiny village and witnessed some of the most fantastic sunsets I have ever seen.

In other news, the RV School is closing down for their biannual holiday. The kiddos are all packed-up and have begun to leave for their month+ of vacation. The volume in the Valley will be turned down a good 20 notches, for sure. Most of the teachers can’t wait for the quiet…I miss the kids already.

In celebration of the holiday (and because his wife had already left for home so there was nobody to yell at him), my downstairs neighbor decided to cook dessert for all 30+ girls in the dormitory below me. Lucky for me, I was not only invited to join in on the festivities, but I was also insited that I help cook/blow up the kitchen and serve the girls. With a few extra spoonfuls of sugar on the finished product, a good time was had by all.

The Health Clinic will be shutting down October 28th – November 7th while my supervisor and his family take their vacation. Alas, as I have no place to work, I’ll be venturing off to the big city of Chennai (Madras) to start in on my page-long shopping list and soak in a bit of noise, pollution, and Fellow love. I’ll be staying with a friend of mine from the program and word through the AIF listserve is there will be sort of a Fellow mini-gathering in Chennai during that time. The holiday, Deepvalli, falls on November 5th and several of the other Fellows have family in that area that they will be visiting. I can’t wait. I’ve got more fresh air here than my lungs know what to do with, but 1 month in and I could use a breather.

As fantastic as this experience has been for me so far, the icing on the cake and chutney on the dosa is that I have this whole crew of amazing people that I get to share the ups & downs with. Doing the solo-thing was also a good experience – it forced me to develop a confidence in myself and trust my gut on all sorts of levels. However, having people to swap stories about transportation mishaps, digestive woes, and cultural barriers with is like this giant hug at the end of a particularly rough day. When you feel like you’re paddling upstream, it’s a pretty good feeling to know you’ve got someone else in the same boat with you that understands where you’re coming from.

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Photos Up!

I’ve gotten back into my photography-groove  and have posted a bunch of pictures on my site. You can access the photos through the “Photos” page on the tabs up top. I’ll keep updating this page as I go along.

Will write more soon!

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Holy Cow

It’s official: I am now one with Mother India. People venture to this country en masse in search of enlightenment and spiritual clarity. They pay a fortune to lock themselves deep in ashrams expecting the mystical, magical, and metaphysical. Maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t. My opinion? You don’t need to come to India to feel a connection to humanity and beyond…but in the off-chance that you are in this incredible place, step out of the ashram, open your eyes and you’ll find it everywhere. More so, you’ll find it in everyone and everything.

Sunday afternoon, I found it in a cow.

Sunday is my break. It’s my day to sleep in (the breakfast bell clangs right outside my window a whole 30 minutes later than usual), my day to wander around outside, to wash my clothes, and to clean up (more or less). It’s my day to visit with people if I want, or to read, write, or lay around and think in private.

This Sunday, I went in search of “my spot” to read, as I haven’t declared it yet. I’ve found a lot of good spots around the school’s campus, but I haven’t found “my spot”. So, I wandered to the courtyard area near the library in the Senior School. It was too busy. Next, I tried out a group of stone benches concealed by a group of trees. It was too hidden. Finally, I parked myself on a bench under a small Banyan tree, in the middle of an open field at the far end of campus. It was jusssst right. I laid down on the bench, opened my book, and began to enjoy my Sunday.

A chapter or so in, I looked up, and a calf had wandered away from her mom and over to the Banyan tree to graze. I sat up and watched her, wondering if this in fact was her spot and not mine. She studied me intensely, and then without any hesitation walked over and put her head on my lap. Never having this kind of intimate experience with cattle before, I contemplated what to do. I was hoping for a puppy, but thought that perhaps a cow could also do just fine. So, like I would do with any dog, I gave her a good head scratch. She nuzzled my leg with her horn stubs and gave me a slobbery lick on the arm, the stench of manure wafting towards my nostrils. We became friends. It was beautiful.

In addition to traditional farming practices, biodiversity, and seed saving, I’ve been learning a considerable amount about cattle as well. Last week I met with Rishi Valley’s Estate Manager to begin learning about the organic farm, dairy, seed bank, and orchards for the work I will be doing here. As he spoke about India’s tragic agricultural history – biodiversity and traditional practices replaced by monoculture and government subsidies spawned by the Green Revolution – he motioned towards a poster hanging on the wall of his small office. The poster had pictures of over 30 different species of cattle that were native to India. Today, most are rare or gone entirely and replaced by a non-native, western breed that has to be pumped full of higher rates of anti-biotics in order to resist disease they are not accustomed to. Additionally, I was told that because of all these factors, many farmers only keep their cattle for 4-5 lactations, since the quality of the milk deteriorates more quickly and it’s cheaper to just buy a new cow and ship the old one off to the slaughter house. What makes this an even more tragic story is hearing about the important role cows traditionally play in Indian society. In India, a cow gives nutrients to a family, power to a farmer, and then returns it all back into the soil. The cows here are like members of the family, and rightly so.

(*Note: I am absolutely not claiming to be an expert at any of this – I’m a total beginner/enthusiastic learner. Please do correct me if I mix up my facts.)

Agriculture here is a mess. Farmers grow rice paddy in a high draught-prone area because it’s a guaranteed paycheck from government subsidies…nevermind the water. The green covered hillsides owned and conserved by Rishi Valley School is a stark contrast to the desolate hills directly opposite. The nutrients in the soil is depleted from poor cropping patterns and patients come into the clinic day after day with health issues from spraying pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides. No masks or gloves are typically used… people will even use the empty containers for water and food storage.

But, the positive piece of all this is meeting people, like the Estate Manager, who have such a passion for change. There are amazing individuals all over this country who are working to restore India’s agriculture to what it once was. In just the 2 years that Rishi Valley School has been working on this issue, they’ve helped 5 farmers in the surrounding villages shift to totally organic farming – changing their cropping patterns and using biopesticides.

So, just being surrounded by all these amazing people with this wealth of knowledge is like a big, fat learning lesson for me. Those of you that knew me in grad school know that I’ve been more into studying the people-side of things than the environmental-side of things…not that I place a greater importance on either. What’s super cool about this project and learning all this new stuff is getting to see the immense overlap between it all. The bottom line seems to be poverty…which will take another blog post to appropriately delve into. In the meantime, this experience just keeps getting better and better. India is in the thick of it – restoring traditions, sifting through Western influences, and developing systems that are their own. I’m surrounded by some of the most fascinating people who are as excited to share their world with me as I am to experience it.

In conclusion…by popular demand, here are two more short movies for everyone to watch from wildlife-themed clips I’ve taken entitled “Monkeys” and “Ants”…I won’t give away the plot. Lucky for you, I also just figured out how to add background music! Enjoy!

(I am working, I swear.)

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In the News

Hey folks –

I was just sent this article about AIF alum. Thought you’d find it interesting: AIF article.

Additionally, on Thursday afternoon the court just announced the decision on who to give the sacred land in Ayodhya to – the Hindus or the Muslims. This has been a largely disputed issue all over the country and some people I talked to thought that this was going to spur riots throughout India. After putting the decision off over and over again, the court finally ruled that 1/3 would go to the Muslims and 2/3 to the Hindus. The tension between the Muslims and the Hindu fundamentalists is like a boiling tea kettle…eventually it’s all going to erupt, just not sure when. Ayodhya article.

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