Here are my Kerala Pictures - some aren't half bad!
More to come soon from Mumbai
Since I run the risk of alienating my small group of blog readers with two picture-less posts in a row, I have added some images from Google to spice up this post. My past week has not involved much "sightseeing" so my camera stayed in the bottom of my backpack. Rather than sightseeing I have spent the past week mulching trees, spreading compost, and sleeping in a thatched hut. Jess and I spent five days at Sadhana Forest in Auroville volunteering, although we felt more like guests in a low-rent guest house than full-fledged volunteers.
Before I give my impressions of Sadhana Forest, I should step back and try to describe the "universal community" of Auroville. Founded in 1969 and based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, a British educated Hindu guru, Auroville is an attempt to build a spiritual and universal community from the ground up - a very admirable goal born out of the 1960's counterculture movement. The community's mission is:
"To be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity."
This is a lofty mission and, with the risk of being called cynical, I have to label as a naive. There is also a new age-y feeling to which I have a difficult time relating. A prime example is the shown in the adjacent photo. This is the "Matrimandir" - a space age structure that is the "soul of Auroville". This over sized golden golfball holds the world's largest crystal which is used to facilitate meditation. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. Despite my pessimism, I respect the work that is taking place in Auroville. The community is full of alternative schools, artists’ enclaves, environmental programs and alternative energy projects. My only reservations are based on my limited observations of the "Aurovillians" and their relationship to the local people who inhabit the villages surrounding Auroville. True to its mission, Auroville is home to people from over thirty nations. This makes for an interesting intercultural mix, but it is not as diverse as one might assume. Due to its spiritual roots, the community's inhabitants are all very like-minded. There is no problem with that, but the structure of Auroville also results in a community that is socio-economically homogeneous; becoming an Aurovillian requires money, more money than I or many Indians are able to obtain. I am not aware of the financial details involved in becoming an Aurovillian, so I don't want to defame it with a label of "classist" or "economic discrimination", but not just anyone can show up at the town hall and become a member for a variety of reasons. Over half of the community is of European descent, giving it a flavor that is different than anywhere else in India. Not that you don't see many Indians in Auroville, the town hires over 5,000 villagers a year as staff and contract labor. It just doesn't sit well with me, call it white guilt or the residue of colonialism, but after a week it still looked like economic exploitation. I hope I'm wrong, but no one convinced me otherwise.
Sadhana Forest is one of Auroville's newer environmental projects which aims to reforest a badly degraded tract of land. The project began in 2003 and has already made a huge impact on the landscape; once desolate land is now green with foliage and the water table has risen an astounding 6 meters. The knowledge of this success gave Jess and I high expectations for our proposed 2 week stay, but unfortunately the reality wasn't as grand as we had hoped. Unlike most WWOOFing farms, Sadhana Forest charges guests 150 Rupees ($3) a day to cover food. Fair enough, no one wants to be a financial drain on a philanthropic organization. The facilities, which utilize alternative energy sources and environmentally sustainable features, are very interesting. All the electricity is generated through photovoltaic panels, no waste water is wasted, food waste is used as compost, and human excrement is used as fertilizer. Yes, human poo on the garden, which means no toilet. Honestly I didn't mind the composting system, when used properly (keeping urine and feces separate and using sawdust to absorb any excess moisture and odor) it is not as unpleasant as it may seem. The best part of the entire experience was the work. We spent the early morning, before the southern sun heats things up, mulching trees and planting vegetables in the garden. The work was not too strenuous and it was very rewarding.
Unfortunately, the rest of our experience was not so positive. The project is quite large by most standards with over 50 volunteers currently living, working, and eating at the site. I found this troubling for two reasons. First, it makes the entire experience rather impersonal. We never got a chance to meet many people and many interactions were anonymous and detached. This is not what I expected at an organic farm/reforestation project. Second, I am not convinced that the facilities are ready to handle so many people. Illness seemed to be quite common (although we were reassured that this issue was being dealt with) and space was a little tight. All in all, Jess and I didn't feel comfortable and decided to leave early.
Our disappointment was very short lived as we hopped on a bus and arrived in one of India's most beautiful beach side communities - Mamalapurim. The beach is long and clean and there are more cheap seafood restaurants than you can shake a prawn at - but the best part is our room overlooking the beach with a constant sea breeze and veranda. How much will this gluttonous luxury set us back? Less than $10 a day (meals and all) for the both of us. God bless India.
Happy New Year and I promise to have pictures next time!