Tuesday 13 October 2015

Photo-essay- The Rainforest Retreat

When the bug for volunteering at a coffee plantation bit me, Sujata Goel of the Rainforest Retreat was the only one who promptly reverted from the 10 odd mails I had sent to different plantations. And I'm so glad she did. Since the coffee harvesting season was over and April would be the time for vanilla pollination, she asked me if I would be okay to club volunteering for vanilla pollination and art work in one of their cottages. I screamed a 'yes' over email and did a little jig!! This was the cherry on the cake!! The owners, Sujata and Anurag are such warm, loving and wonderful people and that adds to the charm of the place. The plantation is like a fairy land, with exotic flowers, trees with gnarled roots and vines and creepers adding an asymmetric beauty to everything around. The accommodation too has a rustic charm, blending in perfectly with the surroundings. A special word of mention for the staff, Ravi, Mariamma and Subbu who go out of the way to ensure that your stay is comfortable. I saw them attending to the other guests with impeccable courtesy and promptness and with me too. The food is sumptuous, hearty and organic, and most of the ingredients are straight from the farm and I overate each time. I was touched and inspired by the enthusiasm and the love that Sujata and Anurag and the staff have for the plantation. They also explained various aspects of bio-diversity that left me amazed at Nature's intelligence. If you happen to stay at the Plantation lodge, you will see my wall-art inside the cottage, signed off as Purple Soul. Read my post about vanilla pollination while I take you through my most memorable stay through these pictures..:-) 

At the gate of the Rainforest Retreat, which is in a small village called Galibeedu, near Madikeri district in South Karnataka in South India, which has around 25 acres of organic coffee, vanilla and cardamom plantations co-existing with rainforest trees.

My cottage from the outside

Inside my room. The right wall is where I painted. 

The fire-place.

The dining area

The day first day I landed there, there was a wolf snake no bigger then a big earthworm curled up in the dining area near the food labels. I was in their territory, I reminded myself without freaking out!

Giant ferns

Cardamom plants. The harvesting happens in winter. 
Me hand-pollinating a vanilla flower. 

Vanilla beans.

This is the nest of the white crab.

Kiri, the dog, very friendly and caring too. Sometimes, she would come and accompany me to the dining area, from my cottage.

Wild brinjals/eggplants. Yes, even I thought they were lemons!

Wild jasmine.

This is an ant's nest, woven from leaves and water proof. I was told that if you poke a hole in the nest, the ants would again cover up the hole in a matter of an hour or so. So lovely!

On the way to the dining area

These geese had their house just close to the gate and every time they would hear the gate creak open, they would call out for attention..

Coffee berries.

Coffee flower buds

Coffee flowers. They were so fragrant. Wish someone made a perfume out of it. I would surely buy! While working in my room, the breeze would bring the fragrance of these flowers right up to me.

Log bridge over a stream inside the plantation

Wholesome breakfast of ragi bread, home made mango jam and upma...Yummm!!

Pumpkin creeper.

The ground was covered with these leaves. Such a lovely color.

Pineapple!! I was ashamed at my abysmal ignorance when I saw this, as I had thought that pineapples grow on trees!! The flowers of the fruit are a beautiful purple color.

The goats and calves on the farm were very friendly. Whenever they would see me coming down from my cottage, they would look up at me all at once. I spent some time with them each day and also fed them banana and orange peels from my breakfast.

They took a fancy to my pink shoes

And my pink bag...

and when they couldn't chew on it, they butted me with their heads..and I would burst out laughing!!

One day the kids of the staff found a crab...they later let it off into the stream.

The whole place was full of exotic flowers and birds and of course many creepy crawlies!!
This is a spiders nest

Golden sunlight streaming in.
Fog outside my cottage early in the morning

I offered to bake a ragi cake one day

I baked it in a fire oven
Wild plants but they look so pretty with their pink spots.

lazying on the hammock

Rice puttu and kadalai with potato salad and cucumber and goat cheese salad with cherry tomatoes.

Ravi, one of the staff on the plantation. He had to quit school after class 8 due to financial circumstances. But he has an eidetic memory and knows the latin and botanical names of every flower, weed, bird and creature on the plantation. He also reads up research papers on his own to further his knowledge. He also made sure that my stay was very comfortable.

Mariamma, the loving cook who whipped up delicious food. She was so loving that on the day I was to leave she made a bottle of lemonade and packed some cake and fruit for me.

An atlas moth I painted as part of the mural in my room.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Travelling in a Local Bus in Himachal.

I’ve been in Pune for over 4 years, but I’ve never travelled by a local bus, though I intend to very soon. But on the very first day I landed in Himachal Pradesh, I took a local bus to the Mall road in Shimla to meet a friend. I was told that local buses are usually crowded in Himachal. And I hate to travel in crowded public transport. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. The bus was crowded, but as soon as I boarded, a girl sitting next to me, offered to hold the bag I was holding, so I could stand steadily as the bus negotiated the bends and curves which is typical on mountain roads. In the next 5 minutes, a gentleman who was about to get off at the next stop, called me and offered me his seat.  Wow! And when my stop came and I got down, another gentleman called out to me to caution and inform that if the cops see the plastic bag I was carrying, I could be fined. He said plastic bags were banned in Shimla. That was such a thoughtful gesture. He could have easily ignored and walked away, but he chose to inform me about this.

The next trip on a local bus was on the second day, early in the morning at 6.30. This was a longer ride for 4 hours. We had got the last seat and I was asked to be mentally prepared by several people for the bumpy ride ahead. Well, the ride was bumpy for sure. The roads were, well, not roads at all, but more of a dirt track. In some places, it was so bumpy, that we were flying high on our seats, at every bump. I was told that this ride would leave me extremely fatigued. But that was not the case. The reason being, instead of tightening my body and going stiff, in order to not fly and oscillate, I let my body relax, breathe deep and allowed it fly and oscillate. That really helped, or else, my back would be borne the brunt of it all on the last seat. So just relax your body instead of tightening up on bad roads. That’s a tip I discovered and you may try that as well!

The road being more of a dirt track, there was dust all over, outside as well as inside the bus, though the glass panes were shut. So much so that the color of my maroon jacket turned a pale grey!!
The next ride I took in a bus, we had to get down at Hatkoti, where we visited the Hateshwari temple, and again board another bus to our final destination. As soon as we boarded the next bus, within 5 minutes, the tyre got punctured and people got down without a murmur. Had the same thing happened in a city, people would have grumbled with an irritated expression plastered over their faces. But here, people got down with a sign of resignation to move on to other things. I had observed the same thing while I was in Spiti too. Road blocks due to bad weather, accidents, etc is a usual thing and people just resign to Nature and Time without any anger.
I had another opportunity to travel to the Mall road, Lift stop, from my guest house. This time as soon as I boarded, a gentleman gave up his seat for me. To return his kind gesture, I offered to hold his bag this time. I am not sure if he was worried I may fall, seeing the way I was trying to find my balance, but I thanked him profusely.

The last trip on the road, again, the longer one, was not by bus, but in a car, but it deserves mention here. In some places there was muck due to rainfall the previous day, and we saw trucks and buses stranded on the way. On that stretch, the other passengers in our car got down, so the car would be lighter and we walked in ankle deep muck and slush. Luckily, the muck had dried a bit, but we had to watch our step.
This is not in any way to complain about bad roads. Hats off to the local people who travel often on these roads without complaining! It was an experience for me. I saw people cheerfully greeting each other in the bus. Women with colorful head scarves called ‘dhaatu’ and interesting patterns on their sweaters and jackets and men with the traditional Himachali topi and traditional but stylish jackets boarded and un-boarded. The bus journey was almost a metaphor for life. Be undeterred by the bumpy roads, because life goes on, no matter what!! 

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Life in a Himachali Farm.

Since my childhood, I’ve always fantasized living on a farm. May be it had to do with the fact that I grew up on Enid Blyton books, where kids go for fruit picking and chase geese and calves and carry pails on milk. That’s one of the reasons I seek out farm stays, to live out that fantasy, albeit for short periods.
Homes in a picture postcard-like setting!
I got the opportunity to stay on 2 orchard-farms during this trip to Himachal and loved every bit of it. All houses in Kharapathar and Ruhil-dhar, where I volunteered for apple harvesting and grading, are farms too.
Traditional Himachali Home. 

The houses in the villages I visited were made the traditional way, primarily of wood and stone. That’s because wood was in abundant supply in Himachal, which had and still has a dense forest reserve. The houses are two storied with the lower floor housing the cows, called the ‘gaushala’ and the upper floors serving as the residential area, the store-room and for the kitchen. The roof is sloping allowing the snow to fall off and is made with slate stone which also serves to weigh down and protect the structure against strong winds and storm. Traditionally, bathrooms and toilets were constructed outside or detached from the main residential area of the house, although now-a-days, they are constructed at one end of the house.
The 'Gaushala'- a prime place in a Himachali home.

Every house has a minimum of 2 cows, which supply abundant quantities of milk, thanks to grazing on rich grass growing on rich soil. If there is milk, there has to be butter and ghee, which are used in copious amounts at every Himachali meal. Butter and ghee is served with almost every dish and ghee is poured from a kettle not with a spoon!!
A motorized equipment to churn butter and buttermilk.

I noticed that cows occupy a prime position in Himachali homes. A member of the family or a hired person is dedicated to taking care of the cows. Duties include taking the cows out for grazing and milking them twice a day, cleaning the cow shed, ensuring that grass is given when cows are in the shed and attending to miscellaneous needs of the cows. The first flat bread (roti/chapatti) that is cooked at home, each day, is fed to the cow. Also vegetable and fruit peels, but never left over food, is collected and give to the cows. Taking care of cows is not an easy task in terms of the energy and money spent, but still people keep them and they are well taken care of. In the farm at Ruhil-dhar, there are 6 cows, out of which only 2 give milk. But they are lovingly taken care of as much as the milk giving cows and there is a reluctance to give them away.
A bottle gourd on the plant.
Now, to talk about the vegetables grown in the farm. I think that’s the best part of staying in a farm. You reap what you sow, literally, and eat food fresh from the farm to your plate. Almost all vegetables that can be grown in these areas, are grown on the farm. Potatoes, colocasia, tomatoes, green chilies, brinjal, bottle gourds, cucumber, pumpkin, bitter gourd, not to mention apples, apricots, and also other things like beans, corn, etc. It felt so wonderful that you decide what you want to eat in the morning and just go and pluck vegetables behind your house and cook it in the kitchen. 
Corn cobs harvested from the farm being dried on the roof. This will be ground later to make flour for makkai ki roti.
The taste of the food prepared from ingredients fresh from the farm is beyond description. It exudes a freshness and taste that is sorely missing when I buy from my vegetable vendor in Pune. And the same food drizzled over with ghee and butter made from your own cows, takes the taste meter shooting up to the sky!

Freshly plucked rajma beans.
So for aloo parathas for breakfast, potatoes were dug out from the farm that very morning, for pathroru in the evening, a dish made with colocasia leaves, the leaves were cut in the afternoon, for karela fry or pumpkin curry for dinner, the respective vegetables were plucked in the early evening.
Cucumber, apples, apricots freshly plucked from the farm.
Winter is a difficult time for people. In Kharapathar, situated at a height of 8000 feet above sea level, there is 4 feet of snow everywhere in winter, thus making it impossible for people to move out of their homes. In the absence of a central heating system, people gather in the kitchen, around the hearth, for warmth and bond over steaming cups of tea and piping hot food.
What a variety of colours.
Winter is also the time when leopards, foxes and bears come down from the forests to residential areas in search food. One evening, I sat and listened wide-eyed, as my friend’s grandpa narrated stories, Jim-Corbett style, of his encounters with leopards and bears. The animals usually come for cattle, fowl and dogs and also attack humans when the former are scarce. With his wrinkled face, weathered by the hard mountain life, the smoke from his cigarette forming curls around his face, he replied calmly, “What is there to be scared of wild animals?”, when I asked if he was scared of the leopards and bears.
Colocasia leaves.
Farm life in the mountains may seem romantic to a city bred girl like me who occasionally visits, but there is no denying it’s a hard life out there. In the absence of proper public transport, people are required to walk long hours. It’s better now, with some families owning cars, because in earlier days, walking to the next village, for 4-6 hours was no big deal.  And it’s not just walking straight down the roads. It’s walking either up or down on rough terrain, equivalent to a difficult trek. Taking care of the kitchen garden, tending to cows, the household chores, cutting grass for the cows, stocking up on dry wood for the winter, for the hearth and fireplace, everything involves physical stamina. But there is no substitute for clean air, fresh spring water from the melting glaciers, food from the rich soil in your own kitchen garden and splendid views from anywhere you look. And that is what makes life on a Himachali farm fantastic!
Splendid views all over. 

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