Friday, December 24, 2010

A Conclusion of Sorts

Here are some pictures from our last days in India. Nathan and I met up in Goa, the seaside state colonized by the Portuguese rather than the British or the French. The difference is astounding. Benaulim, where we stayed, is what I imagine would happen if someone put a bit of Santa Cruz into India. It's clearly a real town--cowsheds and cucumber vines and dry rice paddies attest to the existence of agriculture--but there's also a tourist facade over the main streets, lots of European tourists, a supermarket selling dusty containers of soymilk, a German bakery, and an intense beach culture. Boys approached us on the beach, calling "Water sports!" which means, as far as I can tell, sitting on a jet ski behind them or parasailing (the latter was tempting, I must admit.) We rented a couple of bikes from our hotel (which, by the way, was nice, clean, had a neat little restaurant and cost seven dollars a night.) We biked down to Mobor, at the end of a small peninsula. It was a nice exploratory venture and so nice to be on a bike.

The bike ride was lovely--rice paddies, either dry and full of buffaloes grazing contentedly or flooded and now home to pink lotuses, and bungalows set back from the road with coconut orchards in front. There were also a lot of things that reminded me forcibly of Latin America, which is perhaps not strange given the Portuguese influence: whitewashed churches "Our Lady of the Rosary," "Saint Sebastian" and "Holy Trinity;" very frequent Coca-Cola signs, and women wearing not saris but skirts and a jacket or blouse. The little roadside shrines held crosses, not Ganupatti or Saraswati or another god/goddess, faceless with age but no less revered. It made me think of the versatility of human faith, and the need that people have (some people descended from some cultures more than others) to put faith in something, anything. Life of Pi, in which the protagonist, an Indian boy from Pondicherry, is determined to be Hindu, Christian and Muslim, made more sense.

That night, while eating dinner at the hotel, I watched a scene that I have often witnessed in Latin America: a long procession of women, girls, and boys too small to resist, dressed nicely, heading for church. After they had passed, a raucous chorus of "Jingle Bells" burst out of the night. Thinking I was about to see what the men get up to while the ladies are at church (getting drunk) I peered around the corner. Lo and behold, not a staggering drunk tourist or Goan, but a leaping Santa Claus sprang up the steps. He was followed by a procession of children carrying candles and wearing Santa Claus hats. I had to laugh at Santa Claus, dressed for the North Pole, running about in the eighty-degree Goan night--that kid must have been roasting! It's funny what traditions look like when they're transplanted--where did Santa Claus originate? Scandinavia? Germany?

However, on day three of our Goan adventure, I remembered why I choose to travel the way I do. I like to have a project to work on or someone to visit--some means of belonging and contributing to a place. Otherwise I kind of go stir crazy, with all the people trying to sell me stuff and not speaking the language (Kannada is no good in Goa, they speak Marathi and Konkani.) I suppose if my job was to be a nomad, be on the road and travel to a new place every couple days, it might not be that way. But in any event, Nathan and I both got a good case of the Tourist Blues. Even Mr. Resplendent Rat-tail (a tourist from the Netherlands who sported the most intese rat-tail I have ever seen, like unto artistic renderings of Sumo wrestlers, and who one morning burst into a rousing chorus of "What would you do with a drunken Belgian?") ceased to be very amusing.

I spend a lot of time wondering if tourism is good for places. Of course, it's a pretty ideal income source, because if done well, it doesn't directly require exploitation of the place's natural resources. And there are lots of good points--tourists, especially people from very different places, can bring in new good ideas, much-needed money, environmental appreciation of a different kind, and intercultural friendships. But some kinds of tourists bring in cultural and environmental diseases--rudeness, waste, toilet paper, insistence on soft, spoiled lifestyles, a desire to just float along and experience the place without its people, and desires for drugs and sex. In Benaulim I saw evidence of both. In my second quarter of college I read a book on this subject, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. The rhythm of her story pulsed through my mind as I walked in Goa, I just couldn't remember the words. I'll have to read it again. Because as a traveler, this is another very important question.

Here are some pictures. Nathan took almost all of them.

 Please pass the salt and Piper nigra...yes that's right, that's a pepper vine!
 A nice Goan pig. I didn't see any pigs in Sirsi--Muslims consider the pig unclean and do not eat it, and most Hindus eat either vegetarian or eggs and fish, but not pigs. Incidentally, traditional Goan toilets are pig loos, which means that you do your business and the pigs clean up after you. We did not encounter any, but nor did we look very hard.
 Fish drying in the sun. Lots of local fishing boats can be seen on the beach, and families turning their catch over in the sun to dry. The dogs, amazingly, don't eat the fish when it's spread out like this.
 A very friendly Tropical Dog.
 The Blue Whale Cafe (yes, I found it in the Lonely Planet, and I'm glad I did. The proprietor was very nice and told us a bit about the fishing--he tries to buy from local fishermen. Other tourist restaurant owners have deep-sea trawlers.)
 The restaurant is at the very end of a peninsula. The owner used to have a restaurant in Palolem, the more popular beach town further south. But then some Hollywood people wanted to film The Bourne Identity in Palolem, so they bought a huge chunk of the town, and then he could not afford to keep his restaurant. On the up side, his spot now is sweet.

In which I reveal that I am (and perhaps all naturalists are!) sometimes still four years old.
 Mouth of the Sal River

I'm back in Bellingham now and have been for a week or so. Possibly the strangest thing about being back is that it's so not strange. Bellingham is the same, and I feel almost the same here as I have upon returning from other journeys. There are little reminders that I've been gone: the neighbors' garden, which when I left was bursting with green peas and beans and other leafy things, now holds only spindly raspberry canes, a few leaves clinging. The alders on Galbraith Mountain, whose leaves whispered in the summer breeze last time I saw them, now clack their bare branches in the winter wind. The days are short. The water in the tap is startlingly cold. There is cheese. Little things remind me that I'm back in, in Sunita's words, "a spoiled country": being able to jump in a car or on my bike and go anywhere, the absurdity of having the option to ignore the wind and rain around me, because it doesn't get in my house or affect my ability to get food. India seems a bit like a very vivid dream that keeps popping into my thoughts.

I learned that I have a very American view of success--that as I grew up, I determined to become the sort of woman that learns what she wants and fights to get it. I am still determined to do this. But now I have equal respect for another sort of success: the strength of mind and will to, upon finding oneself in a situation one does not like, make a good life of what one is given. So many women have to live like this, and they do it with such honor and grace. Some men do, too. It's partly something that women everywhere have had to do, and partly the Hindu idea of living your life that you're given the best you possibly can in order to enrich your next life. Which I think is a good idea for anyone, no matter how you choose to go about it.

I also learned, perhaps most encouraging of all the things I learned, that people want to be farmers and can be, not filthy rich, but comfortable economically. Of course, modern economics try to make this as difficult as possible, which in a way is also encouraging--that farmers are not poor just because they are farmers, but also because agricultural policy tends to favor what Alan Richards would call "modern stationary bandits."

I also learned a lot about the threats that Indian agriculture is facing. But I'm not sure that I'm the one to do something about it on the ground. In three months, trying hard, I learned only a tiny fraction of the intricacies of Indian culture, politics and ways of thinking. I also have this sense that people from a place know best how to change it for the better...but of course, if I can, I will help my friends.

Many Indian friends and acquaintances also told me various stories of the journey of seeking oneself. Until now I guess I had thought of looking directly at that journey and making that your purpose as something that psychologists and therapists encouraged (and I have mortal scorn for Freud and all his lackeys--there is NOTHING WRONG with me or any of my friends, we just haven't got enough land to roam on or enough confidence, and only going to the mountains and the fields and toward meaningful work, toward "outliving the bastards," as Ed Abbey would say, will fix that.) I still think this. But now, I also think that looking directly at your life as a journey toward your best self once in a while is kind of a good idea. A good thing to keep in the back of your mind, helping you to make decisions.

Of course, I have no idea what this means for me. I want to be a nomad, an agroecologist, a musician, camp counselor, bike traveler, bike mechanic, field ecologist, fish wrangler, botanist, farmer, teacher, builder, forester, activist. I want to go all over North American, all over Latin America, to Italy and Scandinavia and of course back to India. I also know more than ever that I am inextricably tied, by the deepest part of myself, to the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes all I want is to be like Jim and Christy of Robbinswold--to know one piece of land better than I know the map of my own head.

And thanks to all of you and your encouragement, I'd like to write. So, thanks. I mean it more than that, of course--but somehow I used to think that if I looked that sort of dream in the face it'd go away, like a mirage or something. Thanks to India and to you, I think I can try on purpose now.

Finally, I hope I've left as much in India as I've taken away--that somehow I've managed to leave as much in the way of knowledge, hope, and kindness behind as I am carrying forward. And a HUGE Thank You, Dhanyavada, Rhuma Nandri, so much thanks to Sunita for luring me there in the first place and for guiding, teaching and setting me loose. Thanks also to Nathan for coming, and to Steve for connecting, and to all of YOU for reading and supporting. I am blessed and lucky and grateful, all right.
Wishing you Love, happy holidays, and the proper balance of comfort and adventure,

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Finished Oven!

Here's what the oven looks like completed. We'll try it tomorrow. Lalita did all the decoration--she's a master!
 Reppin' PICA--I always try to wear my PICA shirt whenever I do anything really cool. I have just cut the door out of the oven with my favorite large scythe-like knife.
Me and Sunita and oven!

Today I rode on the back of a motorcycle with the wind in my face, past cows and buses and grubby buildings and well-kept schools with pounded mud playing fields out front, past areca orchards and rice paddies and stretches of forest. I would like to learn to drive the motorcycle. It really is a shame to go home so soon...but at the same time, I think half the reason I travel like this might be to go home. To go home to the things I'd like to be doing, digging and planting and living at land-pace, and then to physically go home, to fly into Seattle and see the just-right colors appear under the plane, to know that soon I'll be walking in wet forests and lighting candles and knitting and all the proper winter things.

Meanwhile, I have ten more days in India to live to the very fullest!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Where did the three months go?

It's November 29th. This is remarkable because I suddenly realize I will be going home in two weeks.
The rice has grown from green shoots reaching to my knees to drooping golden heads that brush my shoulders. Everywhere both men and women are stooped in the fields, harvesting. In a way, this is my best way of marking time's passage in a land where I'm unfamiliar with the seasons. There are other clues: the rains have stopped, mercifully taking the leeches with them. The river has dropped, revealing more carvings of gods in the black rock. Areca nuts are being laid out to dry. How much I would give for a whole year here—to see the seasons go around, to have a hand in the very cyclic agriculture of the Malnad. “I wish you are here in January, Sarah,” Manoramakka says to me. “That is when we plant vegetables in the paddy-field, and all my friends come, and we...we just laugh all the time.”

I'm searching for the answers to two questions. The first is, should I leap into international agroecology, into an attempt to insure that those agricultural cultures that are still holding on keep the threads of knowledge, community, and land woven together? Or should I go home and work to preserve the integrity of the place that raised me to love the land as I do, to re-weave some of those frayed threads?

The second is, if I am taking the international agroecology road, do people want to be farmers? Or do people want it all done by machine? Will there always be children who grow up like me, who find that land-work is laid in the foundations of their souls, who are happiest when up to their elbows in compost or racing the dusk to get seeds planted? I have found people like this here. But not young people. India is intent on getting its youth into six-day school weeks and then into high-paying IT jobs. And I can't say I blame those who do go that route—you can do so much more with money than you can without it. So this, too, will have to change, the fact that farmers are poor by profession.

Does anyone else find it strange that we pay the people whose jobs are most necessary—the people who grow our food, make the bricks and planks that build our houses, cook our food, care for our children, etc.--the least, while we pay those people who do the least necessary work the most? If CEOs and executives and pro sports players quit working, would there be any real impact? Whereas if farmers went on strike...
Anyway, enough musing.

I went to Ankola to see Rama Nayak's work in two schools and help her with various tasks. Rama is an amazing person with an amazing story. I could write so much about her, but that is her story to tell. Basically she teaches in an English medium school and does school garden work in a village school. She is one of those rare teachers whom the students seem to respect for her conviction, knowledge and integrity alone; she is not flashy or young and even encourages unpopular things, such as the giving up of fireworks. Yet still the students, even boys, flock to her natural history club, even coming to school early for birdwatching.  Gesturing wildly, one girl told Rama a story in rapid Kannada. Apparently a poisonous snake had got in her bed, and because of what Rama has taught them about not killing animals, she and her father removed the snake in a pair of trousers. The father said he would kill the snake if it was still there in some more time, and this girl and her sister prayed for the snake to leave. It did. (I later learned that she and her friends were Girl Guides! This was actually not all that surprising, but so great! that they have that!)

This girl promptly approached me as soon as we headed for the bus. “Akka, I am very happy to see you,” she said. I told her I was impressed with her snake skills. “That is because of Akka,” she said. “Because of her, I have guts. I did not have guts before. And also now because of you I have a little more guts.”

Seeing as I just met her, I think she said that to be nice. But I certainly have more guts because of this girl, not only for her snake skills but for, as a thirteen-year-old, just coming up to a stranger from another country and striking up a conversation.

And I'm sorry to keep bring up this gender thing, but here it matters SO MUCH. From the boys in this class, though they study in English and can speak it, the only attempt at conversation I got was “Which game you like?”

Nicholas D. Kristof, in this book Half the Sky, said something to the effect that if one sex is taught from birth that they are better merely because of what's between their legs, they will not try as hard, they will become lazy in their assumed superiority. This imbalance of power is not good for them—where is the incentive to strive for anything at all, if what determines your status is just there when you're born? Needless to say, it is also not good for those who are put down, hassled, whistled and leered at, legally disempowered, beat up by drunk husbands, forbidden to be what they want when they grow up by fathers, and abandoned as babies because of what's between their legs. Yet despite all of that, these girls try so hard and are so smart. Though creativity is not emphasized at all in the Indian-modeled-after-British education system, because these girls have to struggle against such odds, they must exercise creativity. It literally shines out of them.

Kristof's point is that equality is good for everyone. Of course I agree on principle, but now even more so. When I go in a classroom, the thing that makes me saddest (and mad, too) is seeing all the boys slouched in a clump, looking out from under their eyebrows, trying to look cool or something. Because they have nothing else to try for. The guys on TV are just slouching around looking cool and being jerks, and the men in town are just chewing betel leaves and smoking little cigarettes (or they are hardworking farmers and kind, but poor) while the girls have these role models, teachers like Rama, doing real, snake-chasing, bad-ass work.

OK OK, and maybe girls just are intrinsically more inclined to communication and sitting still in school and all of that. I also think when education changes to be more hands-on and participatory, boys will be much better off in school. But still, no matter how good your education, if you're taught from birth that someone else will wash your clothes and do your dishes and make your food in addition to their fair share of agricultural or other paid work—in other words, if someone else is expected to do half your work in addition to their own—where's your incentive to try at all? Where is your incentive to be a better person if you are already better than half your community in that community's eyes, no matter how much of a jerk you are?

So you men and boys whom I love—give these boys something else to look up to, will you please? I can praise them to the skies for kindness, for knowledge of nature, for a good eye for birds--I can't show them how to be men in a way that is kind, strong and wise. But you can.

 Building a Cob oven at Sunita's with students from the Mahindra United World College of India. Here we're making a form of sand to put the mud around.
 It's a Turtle! I'll post a finished picture when I get around to it. The students had a lot of fun doing this, I think. I did too!
 A selection of Malnad homegrown vegetables
 Open windows, empty doors...soon I won't be here anymore
 Trying to capture the lovely evening light
 At Gundbala Village School, making beds ready plant: chilis, amaranth, radish. That's Rama on the left.
 Gobra, or compost--someone's dad brought a huge load in a bucket on his head. The school garden has been incredibly well received by the community, but then Rama has great cred here: she has been working with this school for about 20 years. Her husband started a very democratically-run cashew resin factory in Gundbala after having gone to this very village school, risen academically and gotten a PhD in the US. Then he came back home. So there are also this kind of men in India. And the policeman who told Sunita he would be truthful, and my friend Poppy's dad, and Manjunath. But they are not the loud ones.
 Rama has written "street plays," an old tradition, with an environmental message. This one, about the dangers of plastics and the alternatives, was highly entertaing. Here, this Plastic Rakshasa (demon) kills wildlife, cattle and tourists alike...and then laughs manaically. The students performed very well.
 Areca orchard. Look at the canopy structure! From the top, areca trees, coconut palms, banana trees, and then vanilla climbing the areca trees as well as cardamom, ginger and other spices growing low to the ground.
 The rice paddy which I cross to get to the bus. To the right, sugarcane. I like pictures of paths and roads.
 Harvest time is soon...
 Can you spot the snake?
 A message from presumably teenage boys...but in this context, true, culturally enforced, and grim. Sirsi new bus stand.
 Rice, stacked to dry, along the estuary where the Gangavalli River meets the Arabian Sea. These "huts" of rice prevent some water from entering...but the rains have been so long and irregular in Ankola this year that much of the crop has been lost. This is who bears the cost of climate change.
Village school kids performing a traditional dance. It looked like so much fun! I wanted to learn!
 English medium school students going to do Beach Monitoring: seeing what species live on rocks, with quadrants and everything. Science practice!
 The Western Ghats over the Arabian Sea
 School as it ought to be!
And some buffaloes.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Seed Saving Workshop

We had a seed saving training at Sunita's house. As far as work goes, mostly I've been working in the vegetable garden, pulling weeds, helping write reports, putting together gardening and seed saving advice, and working on education/camp projects. So it's nice to be brought back to the original reason I am here.

First there was a thanksgiving puja. Puja is difficult to explain. Basically it is a prayer with flowers, foods, oils, and fire. Every day flowers are placed before the god of the house (usually the jolly Ganesha, remover of obstacles) and coconut water is also given. Lamps are lit. But on this day, a priest (who is also the village postman) dressed in saffron dhoti came and cooked special paysa to be blessed and eaten by people and gods alike. The women all came in their best saris, and for a while I was wrapped up in the priest's voice chanting Sanskrit prayers, working Vanastree's work into the prayer, and the women's singing in the pauses.

 Pre-puja, everything ready. Also important was remembering Savithriamma, a seed leader who died of cancer last March. She was brave and a seed leader till the end--addressing a new seed group from her hospital bed!--and she is loved and missed.
 Post-puja: flowers and coconuts.
 Some of the vegetables whose seeds were being exchanged: bottle gourd, gherkins (I think that's the English word) brinjal (eggplant) and a relative of the jackfruit
 Rangoli in turmeric (haldi)--turmeric is very integral to rituals and to food here
 Savitri carrying the GIANT pumpkin, which we made into sambar and ate! Its seeds were given out to everyone. It was quite a full-circle sort of experience...are you PICAns out there getting ideas? :)
 Seed saving training: hands-on
 Sunita trying to explain the Annadana seed saving techniques.
 Planting a coconut tree in Savithriamma's memory...the Siddi seed group brought the tree the 30-odd kilometers from their village to plant at Hutthina Betta at this meeting.

 Some seeds to be saved: pumpkin, okra, big bean, cucumber (on paper.) The beans and okra can just be dried in the pod and then taken out; pumpkin seeds must be washed; cucumber seeds must be soaked and washed; and everything must be stored in dark airtight containers. Fungus and moisture are huge challenges to seed savers in the Malnad.

 Now to Matthigatta, the Siddis' home. A very attractive rooster belonging to one of the ladies.

 Post-kokum balm training. These ladies were so excited to have a training in their own village, their own houses. A note about this: someone coming to your house means they respect you. These Brahmins will not eat in the Siddis' houses, so it means a lot that these ladies have come to them. The Siddis have been picked upon, looked down upon and heckled by the Havyik Brahmins, the high-caste farmers; their men are often troublesome; and tragedy seems to follow them. They are foreigners with no home, in a sense; their ancestors were slaves brought from Africa by the Portuguese. They do not know their original language or place of origin; I hear they have intense and wonderful dancing. But for all the obstacles they face, they are some of the most beautiful people I have met. I am sure there is much I do not know; but there was something about the very neat mud houses and the community living on such steep land, amid such natural beauty, that struck me. The following photo doesn't really show the steepness...and then the camera battery died.

Once again, thanks for reading!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Little Art...

All pictures are taken from various vantage points at a location called the Mother's Guesthouse, an establishment connected to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. As can be seen it is a rather sought-after location in which to lodge while staying in Pondicherry. I am not staying here but for some reason multiple people have told me to visit and get familiar with it, and now I understand why. All is well here, I hope all is well with you all. My fond thoughts are with you all.