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. 

Wednesday 30 September 2015

Climbing the Apple Tree!

Cluster of apples
When I first got the idea to volunteer for apple harvesting, my heart and mind were already dancing with the apple fairies whom I would meet later. I even played one of ABBA’s songs ‘Me and Bobby and Bobby’s brother’, on loop, just because it had a line ‘climbing the apple tree’!! I had no doubt signed up for apple harvesting, but without asking myself if I would be able to do it! You know that’s typical of me. There’s a saying, “Look before you leap”. More often than not, I do the other way round. I leap, then look and then think!!
Apple plucking is good exercise. 
Tickets booked, arrangements made, a few weeks before I was to leave, a friend sent me a picture of a worker, standing high up on an apple tree, plucking apples. That was the first time I realized that I would have to climb on high branches too. Having climbed the only guava tree in my compound in my growing up years and that too, 20 years ago, I was wondering if I’d be able to do it now! Images of me clumsily climbing and even more clumsily falling down from a tree and people giggling away daunted my mind.
Single apple from a bud.
But there was no need to worry so much, I realized after reaching there. The first day I had to pluck apples, the owner of Sai Orchards, Mr. Shiv Kumar Sharma accompanied me and himself taught me the knack of plucking the fruit the right way. So, apples hang to the bud (the place from where fruiting happens), by a stalk. So care must be taken to pluck the apple with the stalk and not the bud itself. If the bud is plucked along with the stalk, it would mean one less apple or apples the following year, for there would be no fruiting since the bud is absent.
Cluster of apples from the same bud.
The fruit has to be snapped away from the bud at a slight angle and promptly. In some cases, there are multiple apples growing from the same bud. In this case, while you are snapping away one apple, the other apples must be held on to, to be plucked instantly, or else they will fall to the ground.

My illustration of myself on a apple tree :-) 
I joined a group of Nepali women for apple plucking. They were really sweet and taught me how to reach the top most branches and stand confidently on them, by leaning against braches and plucking fruits. They also gave me tips on where to place my feet and which angle to stand in so that I would be comfortable. Climbing trees in itself is no big deal. But when you have a bag around your neck, and you have to pluck apples and fill up the bag and the weight around your neck increases, that’s when you realize it is a work that involves skill. Once the bag around your neck is full of apples, you pass it on to a person standing down who will then empty the bag into a crate and then pass on an empty bag again.
Taking a break! 
The workers there are expert climbers and I marvelled at the way they climbed on to the slenderest of branches and plucked apples dangling from the very tip of each branch. I had underestimated the apple tree. The branches look pretty slender but were able to take the weight of 2 or 3 people without snapping. The workers climb on to the uppermost branches in the blink of an eye and they were also very deft in plucking. In some places where the first branch to climb on to itself was high, I used an upturned crate to stand on and then climb. I saw, and that was seconded by my new friends, that I steadily improved my climbing skills with each tree.
One of the kids of the workers. Each time I saw him he had a apple to his face! 
I felt so happy up there, perched or standing on one of the branches, surrounded by clusters of apples and green leaves, with the view of the mountains at a distance. It was as if the apple tree fairy was embracing me with her magic.
I wish there was an apple tree in my house. Climbing and plucking apples is a complete form of exercise, I realized. I involves complete stretching, twisting, turning, bending and each muscle gets stretched in the process. I did sustain scratches and insect bites, but the joy of climbing trees made me ignore those.
Look carefully, there are few leaves on this tree!
The hired workers start plucking from 7.30 in the morning until 6.30 in the evening with a one hour lunch break and 10 minute rest periods. I, of course, did not work that long. I worked for 5 hours each day I was there and thought my city bred body would not be able to work more than that.
Some trees were heavily laden, and I was surprised to know that it’s the 3rd round of plucking from those trees. From some trees, we plucked as many as 6 crates full of apples, with each crate containing around 80 apples. So that’s around 480 apples from one tree, in the 3rd round of harvesting!! I was told some bigger trees yield as many as 16 crates. Do the math!! I also saw that younger trees yielded bigger fruit than the older trees. It took approximately half hour to one hour depending on the size of the tree to pluck all the apples. The long bamboos that you see around the tree are for supporting the branches which snap due to the weight of the apples in peak season.
The best part was plucking the best fruit from any tree and digging your teeth into it. I am not exaggerating, but with each bite I took, from most apples that I plucked directly and ate, there was juice squirting all over my face and hands. There were that juicy and crunchy, especially the golden variety.
I took this picture from one of the top most branches! 
I am so glad that I have ticked tree climbing and apple plucking off my long list of many things to experience and enjoy! But then, there are other fruits to pluck and so many more trees to climb!

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Monday 28 September 2015

The Journey of an Apple from the Tree to your Kitchen!

A heavily laden apple tree
Actually, apple isn't my favourite fruit. But the very thought of climbing apple trees and plucking apples seemed very romantic, so I set out looking for volunteering options for this year’s apple harvesting season. I found a Banjara Orchards in Thanedar, whose family has been into apple cultivation for many generations. But they were taking volunteers for taking care of guests who come during the apple season and not for apple harvesting itself. Luckily, I enquired with a friend whose family owns apple orchards in Himachal Pradesh and he graciously invited me to be a guest and volunteer in apple harvesting.
A fully laden golden apple tree.
For the uninitiated, did you know that apples are not native to India? An American called Samuel aka Satyanand Stokes started apple cultivation in Thanedar in the early 1900’s and it is from there that apple cultivation spread to other areas in India.
The apple harvesting season begins from early June until early November depending on the altitude of the region. Higher the altitude, later will be the harvesting. The same goes for apple flowering too. Flowering begins in April until June depending on the altitude. By May, the petals fall and June onwards the fruiting season begins. The flowering as well as the fruiting happens first on the tree tops which is more exposed to sunlight and then proceeds downwards. Bees are the pollinators for apples. In some orchards which are sprawling, swarms of bees are released to increase the chances of pollination. In some others bees naturally thrive and pollinate.
Sai Orchards overlooking the mountains.
In Sai Orchards, Ruhil Dhar, where I volunteered, apple harvesting begins around August 15th and ends by October 20th. Sai Orchards is a sprawling orchard spread over 100 bighas. The owner, Mr. Shiv Kumar Sharma, an engineer by education, saw the potential in being an orchardist and returned to his home-town, Ruhil-Dhar, after his studies instead of taking up a regular job, to improvise and modernize the operations of the orchard started by his equally visionary father, Shri Roshanlal Sharma. The senior Sharma ran a grocery store in nearby Sawra and hearing about the new business of apple cultivation in Thanedar, decided to start the same in Ruhil-dhar around 57 years ago. Ruhil, with its location at a height of 7000 feet above sea level and rich soil seemed perfect for apple cultivation. Now, Mr. Shiv Kumar along with his brother Mr. Pawan, oversee the operations in the orchard.
The orchard has a one kilometre road cutting across it to reduce time and increase efficiency in loading the trucks after harvesting. So now, trucks drive up to the cluster of trees from where apples have been plucked, so loading is easier and faster. It’s a great deal given the fact that apples are a perishable commodity and the price of apples fluctuates like stock prices in wholesale markets, so time is precious. This is one of the many innovations that Mr. Shiv Kumar has introduced in the orchard.
Apple varieties- clockwise from top Left- Rich Red, Red Gold, Royal and Red Royal
The varieties that are grown here are Royal, Rich Red, Golden, Red Gold. And the newer varieties recently introduced are Super Chief, Top Red, Jeromine, Red Velox, etc.  
Apples being packed.
Every year, workers from Nepal are hired for the harvesting season. Work includes plucking, loading crates into trucks, lugging crates uphill or downhill for loading, sorting and grading of apples, etc. The workers are sturdy and very hard working. I was almost stunned to see them carry 2 or 3 crates, totally weighing 30- 50 kgs strapped to their backs and walking uphill for a kilometre to load the trucks! Sai Orchards has permanent workers who reside on the orchard and work throughout the year. During off-season, there is other work like cutting the grass, pruning the trees, grafting and other miscellaneous work. On the other smaller orchards, workers migrate to the apple growing areas in July and stay for 3-4 months often moving from one orchard to another, for a daily wage of Rs 300. I was happy to see that in Sai Orchards, Mr. Shiv Kumar has provided basic amenities for sanitation, drinking water and food even to the daily wage workers, which is not the case in many other orchards.
Apples come in all sizes, hence need to be graded and sorted. 
Once the apples are plucked from the trees, they are put into crates and then taken for grading and sorting. On any tree you will find apples of all sizes and varying shapes too. So they need to be sorted based on their size, before they come to the markets because profits are based on uniformity of size like any other fruit. 
A crate of apples being emptied on to the conveyor belt.
In the bigger orchards like Sai Orchards and another orchard in Kharapathar, called Sai Rattan Orchard, where I assisted in grading and sorting, this process is mechanized. Crates of apples are emptied onto a conveyor belt which carries it on a bed rolling brushes to brush off dust and other particles and then a bed of velvety rollers to give it a mild shine. 
The roller and polishing brushes on the machine
This lot then passes through an outlet with an opening that increases gradually along the sides, from where apples starting with the smallest to the biggest roll out onto the trays along the sides of the outlet. These apples are then collected and sorted and packed. 
Bite sized apples like these are cute to look at but don't have a market so are sold to juice factories.
Apples which are out of shape, too small, or with dents from hail stones, birds and any such are collected separately. It is these fruits that are sold to the juice and jam factories.
Apples on the grading machine
The grading is based on 6 sizes, XL, L, M, S, XS and a size smaller than XS. The first 5 sizes are packed in 5 layers in carton boxes and the last one in 6 layers. So typically if you buy a whole carton box at the wholesale, this will be the arrangement.
Layers in a box
No. of apples

Apples packed and marked ready to be transported.
The packed boxes are now ready to be sold. Wholesale buyers come directly to the orchards where they negotiate the price and arrange for the transport or orchardists load trucks and take the apples for auctioning in huge ‘mandis’ where wholesalers bid the price and then it is sold to the highest bidder. 
An apple before and after it goes through the grading and polishing machine. Notice the shine?
Good quality apples are sold anywhere in the range of Rs 1000 –Rs 1500 per box, and a box contains 25 kgs of apples. On the way to Shimla, I saw many trucks from distant states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which had come to directly transport apples to their respective states.
Golden apples being hand graded and sorted.
The process differs a bit for the golden apples (green apples) which I found to be juicier and crunchier than the red ones. The skin of the golden apples is given more to getting damaged easily and even while plucking a lot of care is taken to see that it is placed very carefully into bags after plucking. A temporary shelter is created near the cluster of the golden apple trees and the apples once plucked are got in crates to this shelter. A group of people then grade and sort it by hand and then pack it. The golden apples are not graded on machines as that may create blemishes on its skin. I was surprised to learn that golden apples are sold much cheaper than the red ones at the orchards, between Rs 500-Rs 700.
From the wholesale markets it is then bought by distributors and then the retailers, from whom you and me buy apples at Rs 250 a kilo and 10 days after the apples have been plucked from trees!!
So next time you bite into that apple, if you've read this post, you’ll hopefully eat it with more awareness of the whole business of apple harvesting!

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