That’s the title of this photo. I didn’t take it, nor did I label it. But I do support the idea. After chips and salsa, this is what I miss most about home, specifically San Francisco. But ‘miss’ is a lame word. Lust is much better. The morning bun at Tartine bakery on Guerrero St. is a thing of beauty, dream-worthy for those of us living in cities where the closest we’ll get to a proper pastry is a bowl of cornflakes. I’d really like one. And so, without a camera or photo to provide visual aid to yet another blog post, I decided to build it around something that I like looking at. And found this photo. With a simple title – Lust. Warning: the rest of this post has nothing to do with pastries.
Back to Pondicherry, India. While I wasn’t psyched by all I saw at the Sri Aurobindo ashram (see previous post for info), I was interested in learning a whole lot more about the community that ‘the Mother’, as she is affectionately known to her devotees, started before she died.
My friend Bryan from Clif Bar told me about Auroville years ago and I’d been wanting to check it out ever since. Started 40 years ago by a group of people from all over the world, the goal was to take a big plot of land in India and create a community owned by no one; a community of people who believed there was a better way of existing, interested in living in social, spiritual, artistic and environmental harmony with each other and nature. Where commerce and money would not reign. Where people could pursue what made them happy, supported by others in the community and teaching outsiders about their simple (but revolutionary to some) lifestyle. I’m not capturing all of it, but hopefully you get the gist. A bunch of progressive hippies. Or something. Check out their website for info. Forty years later, they are experiencing growing pains but there’s still a ton of amazing stuff happening.
Part of my original travel plan was to stop here and there and get my hands dirty with volunteer work. Five months into the trip, my hands were still very clean. I’d somehow gotten caught up in the excitement of packing in as much as I possibly could (quite the opposite of how many do long term travel – sanity, a novel concept) and hadn’t found a place or project to sink my teeth into. After learning how much amazing work was being done at Auroville, and that I’d never be able to truly experience all of it in a few days or even a month, I decided to stop for a bit and learn by getting involved. I was interested in anything sustainability-related and did a bit of research on everything from organic farming to renewable energy research happening on site.
But the most interesting and welcoming was a project I found in the outskirts of town called Sadhana Forest. For the last four years, a couple from Israel, Aviram and Yorit, has been inviting volunteers from all over the world to help them reforest a 70 acre plot of land southwest of the main community of Auroville. Their goal: replant the 100+ species of indigenous Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest that has been all but wiped out in the area by generations of clear cutting. They sunk all of their savings into the project and were scoffed at by many who figured they’d get 5-10 volunteers a year. They expect 500 this year.
When I arrived, there were about 60 others, mostly mid-twenties, from all over the world – Sweden, France, Germany, Russia, Canada, America, Australia, England, India, Israel and a few others – roaming around the communal living area in the heart of the forest. While the reforestation work is what the project is known for, the living conditions for the volunteers is an equally impressive model for sustainable living. All volunteers are given free accommodation – a bed in one of a few huts handmade from all natural local materials and covered with thatch roofs (think Gilligan’s Island but super comfy and durable). Two massive solar panels provide what little electricity is needed on site, and a battery-charging stationary bicycle set-up allows volunteers to give the compound its juice during cloudy conditions (a rarity).
Volunteers all cook for one another 3x a day, creating amazingly tasty vegan dishes from produce grown in the area. All of it cooked on handmade ‘rocket stoves’, designed to be incredibly efficient, burning something like 10% of the wood that normal stoves used in the surrounding villages need. While I was there, a professional gardener took up residence and was helping to build an organic garden which should provide all of the food they need in the next few years. I spent my mornings in my last week watering an amazing array of tropical goodness – mangoes, papayas, pineapples, aloe, guavas, bananas, tapioca, lemons and a few I was more familiar with – beans, squash and tomatoes.
They’ve designed dry composting toilets that actually turn the poop and pee from that amazing vegan diet into fertilizer for the forests. I’ve never seen anything like it. (Skip ahead of you don’t like talking about feces.) I knew you’d stick around, Jim. In order to avoid the problems normally plague composting toilets (who knew there were multiple kinds?), they designed a system that separates poo and pee (okay, so it’s just two different holes), eliminating the need for any chemicals or the nasty stink that normally surrounds any kind of outdoor toilet. Throw in a little sawdust in the poo hole when you’re done, stir daily (seriously), cover it after two weeks of constant use and voila’ – you have nutrient-rich compost for your fields that you can scoop up with your hands. And it looks and smells like dirt. No flies, no stink. No disease. Amazing.
They’ve even figured out how to eliminate the need for chemical clothing detergents on site. They use ‘soap nuts’, seeds from a local tree that produces a soap-like surfactant when you soak it in water for 12 hours. Squeeze ’em on your clothes and scrub. It works, I shite you negatory. Instead of installing waste-prone water taps, they’ve placed big water urns around the area with ladles attached. Scoop some water up and into a little bowl tied to a tree and just enough leaks out a hole in the bottom to wash your hands. No waste. No need for pipes.
Sorry if I’ve bored you, but I thought it was all amazing. And as Aviram put it, it’s all born from the idea that ‘radical simplicity’ is often the best solution – especially when you’re in the middle of the woods and on a tight budget as they are. An American university professor visited while I was there and decided to send his students here each semester to have them live, work and learn about how it’s all done. News of what they’re doing is spreading through environmental circles.
When I wasn’t peeing in one hole and pooping in another (3 uses of the word ‘poop’ so far if you’re counting at home), I and the rest of the volunteers were working around the property. We each worked about four hours a day and had the rest free to explore all that was happening in nearby Auroville. We’d usually get up at 5:45 (one person’s weekly ‘duty’ was to walk around singing, playing guitar or something else soothing to wake everyone up – sounds silly but was amazing) and head out to the forest to work. During this part of the season (pre-monsoon), the focus turns from planting to water conservation. We’d spend about two hours a day building ‘bunds’, big dike-looking things that capture the torrential monsoon downpours, encouraging the water to soak into the soil instead of washing it away. And another two hours working around the living area, cleaning up, cooking meals, building compost bins, digging irrigation ditches etc.
All of the efforts of the last four years have been hugely successful. They have planted over 17,000 indigenous trees resulting in the return of much of the previously incredibly rich biodiversity (birds are back and singing their lungs out constantly). And they recently learned that the water table in the area has been raised by almost 20′ because of their water conservation efforts. That’s a lot and has made believers out of the local villagers who are all now benefiting from the work of the formerly crazy-white-hippies-playing-in-the-dirt-down-the-road.
One great big green gob of greasy goodness. But that was only the half of it. The people weren’t bad either.. The whole ‘vegan eating, living in a hut, using composting toilets, two week commitment, getting dirty’ filter in place on the project seemed to attract only the most interested and committed. The fact that ‘Sadhana’ means ‘spiritual practice’ didn’t hurt either. It was like a magnet for right-brained personalities – and a place for the rest of us left-brained people to embrace our other half. I don’t remember ever being around such a creative, open, honest, generous, approachable, big-hearted and awe-inspiring group of people in my life. Each day was like an exercise in holistic living and every day brought new amazing adventures with this crew.
There were quite a few musicians in the group, almost always serenading the the others with a mix of guitars, harmonica, hand drums, sitar, digeridoo, ‘mouth harp’? and other instruments. There were juggling lessons, family constellation/therapy and ‘rebirthing’ workshops (incredibly powerful and cathartic by all accounts), charades around bonfires, tribal belly dancing lessons!, group chanting in the morning, yoga sessions, group meditations and all sorts of other good stuff to help rid ourselves of our normal social starchiness (at least mine) and allow us to truly connect with one another. I know what some of you must be thinking.. All I can say is it was one of those experiences you must have to understand I guess. It was amazing. A unique mix of people, nature and openness that is sorely lacking nowadays. If you ever make it to India, YOU MUST GO to to Sadhana Forest.
Even if you don’t go, you can do something that will make you feel good right now – helping the whole thing move forward. The project is in need of financial support and any amount, large or small, can help. They’re trying to thatch the roofs of the new volunteer huts they’ve just built to house the growing number of people eager to help. Monsoons are coming soon and they are without the funds ($9,000) necessary to thatch them (done by the few remaining village elders nearby that still know the craft) before July when the rains start. If you’ve got a few bucks you can spare (even $1,000 isn’t too small..), please take a second to send them something. They’re hoping to start the work in the next few weeks. You can send a tax-deductible contribution in seconds via this Auroville website which includes an explanation on the tax exempt status of the community and the project (you’ll also get a letter for tax purposes). Just be sure to include ‘Sadhana Forest’ in the Project Allocation field on the donation page of the site if you do.
And with that, I will conclude this ramble. Next up: back to Chennai and wild and wonderful Calcutta, India.