Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Conservation Education Network in Kotagiri: Kind of like PICA on a Larger Scale, at least in terms of Inspiration

A tight cluster of people, some with binoculars pressed to their eyes, some squinting up at a tiny flash of orange amid the branches above, whispering so as not to disturb the subject of their awed ogling.
“The scarlet minivet?”
“Haa. Yes, the scarlet minivet...”
“Haa, yes...”
Where are we? Natural History Field Quarter? Wrong. (hint: scarlet minivet is not found in California.) Sunita has wrangled it so that I can come along to the Third Annual Retreat of the Conservation Education Network, which as I understand it is a bunch of people doing a great diversity of awesome environmental education work. These people are working for the most part in ones and twos to play a vital part in conservation and education: leading a garden class in a school, sneaking environmental lessons into textbooks, teaching about snow leopard conservation in Ladakh where snow leopard conflict poses risks to livestock, villagers and leopards alike; a guy from Auroville who has school kids conduct water audits in the surrounding villages and then helps the villagers to fix leaky taps (saving some insane amount of water in a water-poor area); people who work at the Bee Museum in Ooty; people who work with indigenous communities on sustainable harvesting, help elders to be recognized as teachers, and teach communities to advocate for themselves and their rights. I am quite humbled by the volume of vital, good, grassroots work these people are doing. Storybooks and teacher-training books on conservation, with lessons that we might teach at camp, they're so well thought out; Sunita's good work that I get to help with; I wish I could tell all the stories the way I heard them. Someday, will we inspire enough people that we will tip the balance in favour of sanity, of wonder, of hope that is not flashy and grand but works? Here, I am most hopeful.

The amusing cultural similarity of bird lovers the world over was made plain to me on a hike in Longwood Shola, outside of Kotagiri. Kotagiri is a former British hill station. Its more popular lower neighbor, Ooty, is the subject of a thoroughly entertaining David Attenborough movie about Ooty's steam engine. Back in the day the British came to these mountains and, finding that they were mercifully cool, tried to rebuild Olde England in them. The photos will explain. If they love home so much why didn’t they just go home after a while is my question...but one of the good things they left is a great naturalistic appreciation.

This place is in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which contains a baffling assortment of towns, villages, indigenous communities, tiger reserves and small places like this Longwood Shola. It is managed by the Forest Departments of three different states. And this Keystone Foundation, which is hosting the conference, is working to get it legal status as an independent reserve. Should that happen, they have the perfect staff all ready, trained and working: representatives of the tribes who live in the reserves doing a mixture of education field work and botany, writing or whatever their specialty is; professional people from other states; and a great network of local people with various sorts of expertise. India, if I haven't said this already, is all about networks. And this Conservation Education Network is a good one, boy. Many of these people work in isolation amid skeptical local populations (more on this later) and sporadically grateful schoolchildren; the relief and gratitude at being among like-minded people, able to ask for counsel, and merit congratulations was quite striking for me.

The last night, some folk dancers from the Kurumba tribe show up to teach us some dancing. They bring a sheet of corrugated tin and some rocks; upon this they light a fire. Portable fire pit! Brilliant. They are all drunk as skunks and grinning. One tiny little man has exactly one front tooth. He is wearing a beanie and smiling so drunkenly and happily, playing a drum. He looks just like a gnome. But can he ever play this drum! Once in a while he holds it over the fire, to heat the leather so it tightens. That music, drums and little nasal-sounding horn-flutes, will echo in my head for a long time to come. Nor will I easily forget the sight of all these Indians, of all kinds of castes and backgrounds, attempting to follow a lithe, graceful little man in dance. I still have not grasped the reality of how far India has come, that this caste-blind sort of interaction can occur.

Then to Ooty, where we eat Chinese food, buy chocolates, and check out the Botanical Garden. I steal some seeds. From Ooty we drive through a tiger reserve (no tigers, but we did see two tuskers—big bull elephants with long tusks and men on their backs, carrying huge loads of bamboo, tusks under, trunk on top. If I were a park ranger in India...)

We reach Mysore just before dark. Sunita's aunt from Chennai wants her to check out this house that needs renovation, so we take an auto to some other family member's house, get the key to the house in question, go see the house, meet another cousin, and go back to the family house. An old auntie named Aka (older sister) Pati lives there. Aka Pati has had a hard life, but she is the best kind of old lady. When I am old I would like to hold myself like Aka Pati. She has a long, long braid, and she's sitting in her sari in a plastic chair on her porch when we first arrive. She's there when we return. Everyone presses her hands, hugs her around the shoulders, speaks loudly for her benefit. I say “Nimma nori santosha”--happy to meet you in Kannada and she laughs—a warm, kindly cackling, unstoppable toothless laugh. This old woman loves, is loved, is love.
It makes me happy to know that this sort of family may continue to exist in a city, not just in communities where everyone lives together because they always have. It makes me glad to know that people keep it on purpose. It makes me glad to know that Sunita, who lives alone in the Western Ghats, has this sort of family to come home to one day.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Flowers at Pondicherry hotel, Auroville

 Part of a huge vine trellis.
Lone crow awaiting a coming thunderstorm.
 Sun-break as a storm rolls by.

Flowers on the road to Auroville, city belonging to no particular nationality, faith, political orientation, but to humanity as a whole
 Flowers on Auroville road.
Auroville road. (a note: since 1968 when Auroville was founded on a barren sandy plateau in Tamil Nadu, South India, there have been 2 million trees planted and extensive efforts to retain ground water (i.e. soil work, bunding, etc.). This has ultimately resulted in a general change in climate temperature to several degrees cooler, making Auroville and the surrounding area quite a pleasant haven).
 Flowers on Auroville road.
 Flowers on Auroville road.
 Flowers on Auroville road.

Last night there was a terrific thunderstorm at 1:30 am which kept me awake until about 3:30. I ended up going onto the roof when the storm had passed out over the Bay of Bengal, and I just watched the constant flickering of far off lightning in a murky distant night sky. It was very quiet then, something which cannot be said for most times of day in Pondicherry. I have been spending time with an Indian man who works at the Sacar hotel at which I am staying. It is definitely nice to be able to interact with places in the area with the experience of someone who lives there. My internet time is running out, but I will write more soon I think. Best to all of you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A couple more photos of Pondicherry

 Rangoli designs, made in the street with amazing precision, freehand, by seemingly every lady in Pondicherry (and many in Sirsi, too, although in Sirsi they are in the house, because the streets are made of red mud.)
 One of many local temples

The street on the way to our hotel from central town

A Turning of Ways

This is Nathan writing. So it has been a little while since I've posted words and I think that has to do with the fact that I've been evaluating things for myself, here in India. As it stands, I am deciding that I need to pursue other things than the internship I originally set out to participate in. I will be staying in Pondicherry while Sarah returns to the state of Karnataka to continue her endeavors with Vanastree. I may not contribute as regularly to the blog but I do intend to stay connected; I will post photographs and occasionally some text. Anyone wanting to know details is totally welcome to e-mail me, I'd just rather not take up blog space. I hope everyone reading this is well and I thank you all for showing interest in our journeys in the Great Subcontinent.

Wishing each other all the best in our separate journeys from our comfortable guest house in Pondy, where I will be staying.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

 Bunny rabbits leer at litterers. He sees you. and he has four ears. Watch out. (This is in Bharati Park, which looks absurdly European, complete with white temple-ish arch and motto in Latin, and fountain shaped like a giant snail. What they say about India being a land of contrasts--it's true. Because in the park, you also have men in dhotis sleeping, tropical dogs, and, despite the bunnies, lots of trash. Pondy is as if France dropped a small community into India, forgetting some details like sewers, and then left India to take it back. India has done so, creatively.)
 Fishing boats
 The fisher folk catch not only fish in their nets.
 A lunch guest...street food?
 Cloudy day on the promenade, a 20ft statue of Gandhi in the background.
 pomegranate (they are super super tasty here)
 Scene from the hotel window #1. (note the dragonfly, it is one of fifty million within a 1km radius.)
Don't determine the sex of your baby and abort it if it's a girl, that is. A message with a grim past, a sort of hopeful future, and a lot of work in between. Work that Vanastree is doing in one way, by providing girls and women with employment opportunities, a place to gather and affirm their worth against a culture that has denied them those things. In Pondy I see signs of hope...women driving motorcycles, riding bicycles and owning businesses, small shops and hotels. And this sign--an acknowledgment.
 Puppy season in Pondy. There are many furry little whelps lounging about.
Scene from the hotel window #2.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Pondicherry, Also Belated

Bear with me while we go back in time a bit here. I had wanted to write about all these places when I got back to some free internet, but we all know what happens when “I'll do it later” comes in...later gets real later. And I'll be the first to admit I'm not the best at after-the-fact journalish activity. But here goes, with help from my real journal....

11 October 2010
Nathan and I are staying in the Scholars' Home, which is run by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It's nice, with lots of practical conveniences: clothesline, washing machine, drinking water faucets, kitchen. For Rs. 200 a night for the two of us. That's about four dollars. I think the ashram must subsidize it somehow...?

Pondy is—I don't know what to think yet. The first thing that happened to me, really, was that a woman with a baby came up and asked for food as we were buying samosas. We haven't encountered much of this, as Sirsi is a town of working people, and I suppose those without work are taken care of by their families. And it's not particularly a wealthy town and not touristy at all, so there is little money to beg for, I guess. So I am somewhat fazed by this; I wonder if I should give her a samosa; Nathan says “Come on!” and walks off and I follow. The woman gives me a look and walks away.

I hate looking at those people like I don't see them. I hate acting as if I am fine with the haves and the have-nots. I think of karma, of stories of kindness to strangers. I don't want to be a stingy rich American. But I don't want to be preyed upon, either. And in the stories, there aren't rackets and drugs. But it doesn't make it any easier to walk away.

Other than that, Pondy is interesting. The streets have French names and lots of autorickshaws, honking their squeaky bike-horns. Kids all smile and say “HI!”

Day 2 in Pondy: We bought tomatoes and onions at the street market—a bunch of rickety stick-and-tarp awnings under which women sit selling vegetables and fruits and fish. One of my favorite things about this part of Pondy is that everyone (actually I take that back—all the ladies and some of the men) is doing something—selling, cleaning, building, driving, riding, carrying, sweeping, eating, chatting.

Two blocks over, on Rue de la Catedral or Mission Street, we try to find a store that the hotel lady said was the place to buy spices. Nilgiris, it's called. This street has large signs hanging almost out to the middle of it. Parked motorcycles line either side. Nathan laughs. “Are we in Reno?”

We find the store, which turns out to be a...supermarket. I must have gotten used to the markets, to all the foods acting as themselves, to seeing the food and not its plastic wrapper, because I am thoroughly tripped out. I can't handle all the products. I stare around as if I have suddenly landed in Barstow, California, or as though I have never seen Kinder eggs and plastic-wrapped cheese before. Also I'm not that used to seeing white people, and this place is full of French-speaking ladies, with the worn faces of white people who have lived long in a place where...evolution did not put white people. They don't smile back, that's the weirdest part. We buy some stuff hastily and walk out of the universal supermarket back into Tamil Nadu. I am relieved. But I have questions. Where does all that stuff come from? Who grows it? Now I am used to seeing the farmers with their produce, it seems weird that the food is there without them. How quickly we humans adapt to things...Will more and more of India's food be purchased like this soon? Will India do just what we have done, eliminate the small farms, make a few people wealthy enough to live western lifestyles while shutting out many? Are farmers educated enough to fight for their rights, and most importantly, will they want to?

And the watercourses—milky gray and full of scum and trash. I am particularly bothered by this treatment of water. It is a precious resource, it makes up 75% of each and every one of us, and it's so pretty and full of life when it's cared for...and can be a killer if it isn't. (I have long been an advocate of not shitting in our freshwater resources; check out the Humanure Handbook. When I get some land...) And then if you think how we treat the land, which makes up the rest of our bodies—and our mothers and grandmothers who give us our shapes before we're even born—What are we taking care of?

That said, I think mothers and grandmothers have it somewhat better in Pondy than in other places. I see lots more women riding bicycles and motorcycles and owning shops. I think the large foreign presence and progressive ideals of the Ashram have something to do with this. Still—I have never been to a country where gender divides were more evident. More on this another day.

And language! India is made up of states. When you travel from one state to another, the language changes. Imagine if, for example, to move to California, you had to learn Californian. So having struggled and struggled with Kannada, I now find myself needing to know Tamil. We pick up a phrasebook and learn a few words: rhuma nandri=thank you, vanakum=hello, yellani=coconut, pattu=ten.

We go out and smile at the first old lady who looks at us. “Vanakum!” I say. She gets the biggest smile on her face and says “Vanakum!” back. Then she turns to a bunch of other ladies, who all smile at us and say Vanakum too. Nathan has also perfected the universal Indian acknowledgement, a sort of sideways wobble of the head. We clumsily try to buy rice and laundry soap at a shop. Most people know numbers in English...but it's the “Rhuma nandri!” at the end that makes people grin at us. I saw this in Mexico, too: people SO STOKED that I tried to speak even a few words of botched Maya. I couldn't figure it out, but now I think I know: it's a respect thing. An acknowledgement that we're in a place not our own, and we're willing to try to learn the ways of that place out of respect for the people of the place. It's valuing someone else's culture. It puts people at ease: we know we're foreign here, how are things done? We're here to learn.
So friends and family, when you travel, try to learn a little of the language. Out of respect, out of interest, out of curiosity, out of wanting the real experience of a place. Because you will make people happy. Just a few words—thank you, hello, goodbye, I don't understand—it will make you friends and it will make people less shy to talk to you.

I liked Pondy, and I liked my week of being a tourist, and I liked having a traveling buddy. But now it is time for me to go to the Conservation Education Network meeting in Kotagiri. To do this, I have to take a night bus from Pondy to Coimbatore, and another bus from Coimbatore to Kotagiri. Nathan leaves me at the bus stand. I ask for the Coimbatore bus and a Tamilian family adopts me—a man and a woman and the woman's mother, who has huge holes in her earlobes but no earrings...perhaps once a tribal girl from the Nilgiri Hills. They speak no English and I speak about five words of Tamil, but we get along.
The bus is like a school bus. I have my backpack on my lap. Mercifully, I fall asleep, a strange numb half-sleep. Next thing I know the bus is stopped, loud Indian pop music is giving the night a heady rhythm, a chai-wallah is hawking chai, and most of the people are getting off the bus. It's dark. I look at my watch: 1 am. This is one of the most surreal things I have experienced since about eighth grade. How do you say “Are we there yet?” in Tamil?
The woman next to me says the name of a city. It's not Coimbatore so I stay on the bus. I half-sleep some more. It gets light.
The bus pulls over on the side of the road. Five men take turns poking at the engine. Everyone gets off the bus. “Next bus! Bus broken!” a girl says to me. We all wait on the side of the road next to our broken bus. Buses pass and buses pass. At last a bus stops. Half of us get on—my adopted bus-mom drags me with them—and the other half keep waiting. 45 minutes later we are in Coimbatore. Miraculously, I arrive just in time to catch the bus to Kotagiri...and sleep all the way into the mountains. When I wake up, I am surrounded by tea plantations, rolling hills, and red-roofed houses that look as though they belong in Europe. The air is a cool that I haven't felt since home. Here, I will meet Sunita and the rest of the Conservation Education Network for a 3 day conference on conservation education in India. On the way to the guest house, the auto driver keeps pulling over and yelling, “Northern Hay guest house??” In this way I make friends with an official of the Kotagiri Womens Welfare Trust...who shows up at the guest house an hour after I get there, just to make sure I got there safely. India!

Oh! And we jumped in the Bay of Bengal. Very important, this. Joy has swum in all the oceans...maybe one day I will, too.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Here are some things you might see if you were in South India with me:
Dragonflies flying in squadrons, all in the same direction across the evening, and green bee-eaters, little iridescent birds with long, thin tailfeathers, catching them out of the air. Birds of all shapes, sizes and colors, with intricate patterns and fancy feathers and wild calls (the Western Ghats are one of the eighteen Biodiversity Hotspots of the World); green and brown and black frogs ranging from the size of a thumbnail to ones I could barely hold in both hands; the rat snake, six feet long and black, and the vine snake, bright green with a head shaped like a little leaf. Langurs and rhesus monkeys in the trees, leaping, growling, chuckling and screaming. Cows and water buffalo in all the streets, with cars, autorickshaws (three-wheeled black and yellow vehicles), motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, buses and schoolchildren streaming by them on all sides. Crows that look a bit like they're wearing gray hooded vests. Women dressed in all colors, shiny designs woven into their saris; crowds of school children in uniforms, riding the distinctly gangly Indian bicycle.
You might smell woodsmoke, cows, spices, coconut oil frying, incense, wet tropical forest and leaves turning quickly to soil, to be quickly taken up again in the cycle of life (which moves so much faster in the tropics than at home, so fast that there is little time for topsoil to form and the ground is red, clayey mud. Soil must be cultivated using a compost, "gobra" in Kannada, of cow dung and leaves.) If you were helping Manoramaka to dry bananas, as we've been doing, you would be hard pressed to get the banana smell off your hands.
You'd hear a lot of honking in Sirsi, or along any road. Cows mooing, children yelling, people trying to sell things, vehicles, crows. If you look like you speak English, you hear "Hello! How are you?" In the country, on the farm, insects and birds are constantly singing. If you got to go to Keshinmane school, you'd hear kids singing beautifully in Kannada, their voices taking on the classical Indian music voice lilts as well as the simple beauty of children singing. Hoots, calls, yelps, and firecrackers cut through the forest. Why the firecrackers? "Monkey-bombs," Suryana, our host dad, says. They scare away monkeys, which are a great plague on crops. Think deer that can climb all over your fence and then your bean trellis, knock it down, and eat all your plants--and that stare at you with an eerily human "whaddaya gonna do?" expression. 
You might get soaked in a monsoon rain: not a dry spot, warm rain. You might feel blood sliming your shoe and find a fat leech. You would touch everything you eat. As Maya's dad reported an Indian chef saying, "eating with silverware is like making love through an interpreter." I haven't tried the latter, but I would say that eating with your hands is a different, quite rewarding experience.
And taste--come over sometime when I get back, and maybe I can show you, only in that it-never-tastes-quite-right-out-of-place way. Everything is cooked in coconut oil or ghee. We eat rice every night, and often have roti or chappati, thin, flexible, delicious wheat flatbread. Maybe I'll post a recipe sometime...but let me just say the food is so good. Food is eaten with the right hand, which then proceeds to smell tantalizingly of the just-right blend of spices: coconut oil, mustard, chili, cumin, turmeric and any number of others.  
The custom is to call older people "aka" or "ana" after their name--older sister, older brother respectively. Children who speak English say "auntie" or "uncle" instead. It makes people, both older and younger, seem instantly less foreign, or less...far away. We saw the endangered Malabar Giant Squirrel (photo below.) 
I am seeing more and more just how important the work Vanastree does is. The crop biodiversity is astounding: different varieties for all possible conditions and dishes. The rains have been unthinkably long this year--everyone is talking about it--and this year, those species that do well with excess rain are thriving. But what about next year? It could be vastly different--no one knows. The challenges to agriculture are immense, beginning with monkeys. 
More about agriculture when I have done more of it. Last week we were staying with Manoramaka and Suryana, helping with their dried banana business, learning about seed saving, cooking, laughing, sneakily doing the dishes, and playing lots of chess. Now we are headed to Bangalore and then Pondicherry for a week, while Sunita (our Vanastree mentor) travels on business. I am looking forward to jumping in the Bay of Bengal! and renting a bicycle. And some ice cream, and visiting a place I read about in a book (Life of Pi.) 
Got to go catch the bus. Best to you all, and thanks for reading. Love from Sirsi,

 A well taken care of cow, belonging to the Joshi family. She is feasting on banana skins.
 The ubiquitous pack of tropical dogs, going about their Very Important Dog Business.
 Ball beetles: like GIANT PILL BUGS. Those are Nathan's hands.
 "Lizard on a Wire", a brand new theatre production, now on tour!
 Learning to make jasmine garlands: Manoramaka and Lakshmi are good teachers.
 Seed germination: A handful of compost (gobra) is placed on thin cloth. Seeds are worked into the compost with the fingers, because if you try to germinate them in a tray, ants will eat them. The cloth is then tied into a ball and hung from the rafters. It is dipped in water once a day; sprouts are planted out into trays after 4 days or so.
 The endangered Malabar Giant Squirrel!
Toad in the kitchen, shoo toad shoo...Sarah to Nathan: Do they keep it in that little bowl of water on purpose? (Indian women, especially who live in rural areas, spend monumental quantities of time cleaning. Keeping a tropical house clean is about a million times more work than keeping a temperate house clean.)

Monday, October 4, 2010


                                          Sarah grating coconut in the kitchen.

                                          Blue mormon butterfly on a leaf.

                                          Yana Mountain.

                                          Karnataka forest sunset.

                                          Chiti, the friendliest and most well
                                          cared-for dog in all of India!

                                          Devara Holay (holy river).

                                          Resident gecko in intern sleeping quarters.

                                          Rare giant lunar moth in the kitchen.

                                          Intern sleeping quarters.

                                          Monsoon clouds from the air.

There will be more in the way of text very soon, but we thought this would whet everyone's appetite for a little bit. Hope you all are well, we are :)