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,


  1. Sarah! Thanks for the update! You write beautifully... I can almost smell the spices and hear the sounds. What a great life-changing adventure for the two of you! Keep the images coming... much Love & Peace to you and Nathan, Joanie

  2. Sarah I love the imagery and descriptions. Wow that moth is huge. the biodiversity is so amazing, the gecko looks super cool. Let us know about the seed saving going on with Vanastree. Tell Sunitao we say Hi from CAN and FoCAN. cheers! Danny