The End of Part One

And so, after my rather stressful 5-day fiasco at the organic farm, I was fully recovered with a little help from my friends – and a little yoga too. I decided to end my trip in the one place in India that will always remain close to my heart: Sadhana Forest. I felt the love flowing again from the moment I reached the forest track and started to see familiar faces passing by and smiling. I knew I had made the right decision, in going back there. Being amoeba free this time, my energy levels were higher, and I naturally jumped out of bed before 6 o’clock for our morning circle of stretches and hugs – what better way can there be to start the day. I was showing my love again by cooking for the community. I was back playing songs at our open stage night and sharing my thoughts and feelings at our sharing circle. During this time everyone sits around in a circle and takes it in turn to express anything that they are feeling or thinking about in that moment. Everyone else just listens – it is not a conversation, and feedback is never sought. I always feel lighter when I share and I always feel closer to others by listening to their thoughts. If you ever want to bond with someone, ask them to join you in a sharing circle. It does not have to be a big group – it can even work with just two. I was beginning to see the people here as part of my family now. One of the volunteers even hosted a hugging workshop, which ended in one big cuddle puddle on the floor. Some people still write this kind of thing off as a “bunch of hippy nonsense” but the therapeutic effects of touch have long since been demonstrated scientifically, and I was certainly all the better for it. At morning circle one day, I looked down at my knee and noticed an open pus-filled wound on the back of my knee. I had no idea where it came from. There was no shortage of suggestions: a cut, a burn, an insect bite, a cockroach licking a cut while I slept, a tropical skin disease, a snake bite. The next day the wound did not appear to be getting any better so I visited the doctor. He happened to be Russian, and he had a strange habit of making jokes at the most inappropriate times. “Ah we will have to amputate” he said with a cheeky smirk after examining the wound. When I told him I had no idea what caused the wound he said: “So you are drinking too much vodka I think?” An Indian friend, Suresh, brought me to the clinic where I would have my wound dressed for the last time before flying home. On the way back through the village, Suresh pointed at a big poster that hung over one of the houses. There was a huge picture of a young girl and some writing in Hindi. Suresh told me that the banner had been erected by the girl’s father. It said that she had come of age and had begun her period and was now ready for marriage. Applicants were urged to contact her father. I’m not sure if it was the  bizarre nature of the banner, or the bizarre phrasing of Suresh’s translation, but I could not stop laughing all the way back to the forest. It was a very random moment, in a very random village, in a very random country. Somehow even the random Russian doctor fitted it perfectly here. In a way it summed up my time in India – random. My final act was dinner at Auroville’s visitor centre, where I was surrounded by my new family and the people I love for one last time. I arrived at Chennai airport with a warm heart and soon touched down on home soil. My bike was in a box now. I was a little battered and a little weary, but excited at the same time. No more heat rashes and no more infected wounds. Everything seemed calmer, quieter, cleaner. India had been a  kaleidoskopic rush which had become normalised in my mind. Now I had to adjust to the new normal. I watched television for the first time in almost a year. I switched on the heating for the first time in almost a year. I wore socks for the first time in months.  I logged into Facebook and updated my status: After near on a year of trekking across Europe and Asia I have landed back on home turf again. A little more ragged, a little more wounded and a little more shaggy compared to when I started out. Wiser, calmer and more expressive too. I have cycled across Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, UAE and India and have pottered around Sri Lanka. I have passed the Black Forest and the Carpathian Mountains, the banks of the mighty Danube, the wonderful geologic formations of Cappadocia, the spectacular mosques of Iran. I have bathed in the Danube, Lake Van, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Sea. I have suffered saddle sores, amoeba, infected wounds, sinusitis, diarrhea, fever, vomiting and sunburn. I have crashed and I have fallen. I have taken a blow or two and shed a tear or two. I have made new friends all over the world; Irish, English, Welsh, German, Austrian, Dutch, Belgian, Swedish, Finn, Croat, Serb, Greek, Bulgarian, Turk, Iranian, Indian, Sri Lankan, Israeli, Russian, American, Canadian, Colombian, Spanish, Brazilian, Japanese, Korean (wow Korea so many!), Taiwanese, Australian. I have received inexplicable gestures of kindness from perfect strangers. I have dined in many homes along the way. Sometimes a cup of tea, sometimes a wedding lunch. I have new favourite flavours; the coconuts and mangos in Sri Lanka, the sangak and the anar in Iran, the dosa in India, the czay and the olives in Turkey, the melons in Serbia. I have learnt yoga, meditation, how to ride a bicycle (no really how to ride a bicycle), how to communicate without language, how to hug, how to eat a pomegranate and a jackfruit, how to cut a coconut, how to part ways, how to sweat without moving, how to play. The world keeps turning and the wheels keep rolling. Thanks to all the beautiful people that made it happen. Another time and another place… I recalled the joy of eating an Irish apple, Irish oats, an Irish carrot. I was bumping into familiar faces in the shops and hugging people I had not hugged in nearly a year. I felt that I was leaving one big family and returning to the arms of another.

Farm Nightmare

There was one last discipline which I wanted to sample before leaving India, and that was organic farming. Maybe I would grow my own food one day and so I wanted to see how it was done.I arrived at Solitude Farm on my fully loaded bicycle and asked to volunteer. The deal was straightforward. I was directed to a small hut (which I might have had to share at some point) and was asked to work from 8 am until 4.30 pm every day except Sunday. I would receive a lunch from the cafe during my hour long afternoon break. I would need to pay 250 Rupees a day. Now, paying to work on a farm may seem a little odd, but I wanted to learn the techniques, so I went for it.

The farm steward was Krishna, a heavy-joweled Englishman with a great passion for the permaculture and the works of the Japanese farmer, Fukuoka. He had the face of a bull dog and the build of a heavyweight boxer. He clearly had a domineering personality, and was rather pushy, but appeared friendly enough at first. I had visited the cafe previously, and had chatted to Krishna. He persuaded me to come along and volunteer rather than pay money to take a Permaculture Design Certificate. He claimed that I would learn just as much by working on the farm.

I lasted just five days. On my first night I did not sleep due to a bout of diarrhea, and the next day I was exhausted, barely able to pick the leaves from bunches of mint. On the second day, there was a frantic rush to get food to the local distributor in time. I was ordered to sit on the back of Krishna’s motorbike with a crate full of lettuce heads, facing backwards to the road. Krishna accelerated away towards the gate and I felt myself slipping off the back of the bike. I had visions of death by lettuce. After two or three shouts, he finally stopped and afforded me some more room at the back. I pressed the crate into the rear seat rail, using it as an anchor and held on tightly.

On the following day, Krishna asked for my help. He had been in an argument with a new volunteer from Germany, who also happened to suffer from artrithis.

You seemed to have some kind of a rapport with her. I’m just asking that you give her some support. She’s disappearing during field work and she’s not communicating it to anyone. She’s is in her own little world. I can’t run a farm like this”.

I told him that she did take breaks during the day and sometimes felt tired. He agreed that this was understandable, but he wanted it to be clearly communicated. Later Judith explained the situation in her own words with watery eyes. She tried to smooth things over with Krishna, but her efforts were in vain, the conversation degenerating again intoan aggressive diatribe.

Agree that I am right and then start over again” Krishna admonished.

As she turned away, contemplating the advice, Krishna shouted at ther again:

Watch out for the cow”.

An Indian farm worker was gently leading a cow along their path with a rope. Judith’s reaction time seemed to be too slow for an ever more infuriated Krishna.

This is what I mean” he bellowed. “Youre not present in the here and now. You need focus”.

Judith summoned up the strength for a rejoinder and suggested that if she had shouted “Pass auf die Kuhe” he might have been equally slow in his response. Krishna was now enraged and insisted that if she could not understand English there was no point on her staying on the farm.

The following morning Krishna barrelled into the kitchen agressively, hectoring the volunteers, some of whom were still shovelling breakfsat into their mouths.

I cant keep coming in here at 8 o’clock every morning asking if you are ready. Im going to the field now. You know where I will be. You need to be ready to go, I cant wait”.

He stormed off and I followed his tail with two other startled volunteers.I was struggling with the midday heat and was developing blisters from swinging the mumtee (a short reverse-handled Indian spade). I had also developed cuts and wounds on my feet from walking on the mulched ground (which was sometimes decked in thorny branches). I began to see how lucky I was to be born into relative affluence in the West. The old Indian ladies were bent over the soil all day, hacking with their trowels, singing the mumtee, or picking weedswith their hands. They maintained a particular posture by locking their knees, spreading their legs wide, and raising their tailbones to the sky. This meant they remained close to the ground at all times.

On the fourth day, I was ordered by one of the longer term volunteers to move into the dorm to make way for a newly arrived couple. I had not expected to be forced into moving out and asked if this had been an order form Krishna. Eventually Alin told me it was not, but that we had to make our own decisions sometimes. She did not like the fact that I was challenginfg her authority.

Later that day Krishna came marching into the kitchen again and insisted that Alin knew how it worked around here. These were the rules of the farm. I had already been thinking about leaving that day but was delaying the inevitable head-to-head with Krishna. Now it was forced upon me.

Ok maybe it’s best or me to leave then” I suggested. Krishna nodded, slightly taken aback. I told him I wanted to talk about a refund first, as I had already paid an advance

So when do you want me to leave?”I asked.

We’re not asking you to leave man. You are twisting it in you rmind. It’s all in your head”.

Ok so when would suit you best for me to leave?”

As you like. I dont have the money now anyway. Stay a two days, three days, whatever”.

I left the farm to get some personal space and on my return spoke to Krishna again, asking him when I might get my money back. I asked if I could pitch my tent in a field but he declined telling me I would have to leave straight away. I was somewhat surprised by this about-turn.

Well I can’t leave now, its getting dark”.

Finally he agreed that I could sleep in the dorm for one night but would need to leave the following morning..I asked again for the money but he just became angry, telling me to come on Wenesday morning to pick it up.

You’ve got issues man. Youve got angst. Your’e too judgemental. You come into my home with your pissed off attitude. You are a guest here. You have no idea what its like to build something like this. I have been here twenty one years”.

I told him that I would not feel comfortable returning to the farm.

Look Fearghal, I’m just about ready to kick you out now. Don’t push me”.

Rather than push him into a physical confrontation, I agreed to overnight in the dorm and to return for a partial refund later int he week.

I had not been so stressed in years, and was rocked by the verbal onslaught. I spent the night at a local concert with the other volunteers and managed to relieve some of the tension but still barely slept that night, and did not relax until I reached a guesthouse the next morning, falling straight into a long sleep.

I woke after lunch and visited my Irish friend, the local restaurant owner. I sat for two hours talking through my series of encounters with Krishna. Francis had been around Auroville for a long time and was married to a local woman and knew almost everyone in the area. It seemed that Krishna had garnered himself quite a reputation and was not well-liked and known as something of a mercenary. I discovered that he kept two-thirds of the farm’s profits, witht he remaining one-third allocated to the Auroville communtiy. According to Francis , it was also quite simple to inflate the cost base and reduce the Auroville contribution. In a place that was founded on principles of oneness, human unity and co-operation, it seemed that Solitude flew in the face of this – a bastion of capitalism, and more mercenary indeed than some businesses in the West. The treatment of paying volunteers on the farm shocked me. Francis even told me of incidences as recent as twenty years ago, whereby the early aurovillians would prod local hired workers with sticks – this was apparently on video footage somewhere.

I slept soundly again that night and finally returned to normality after a morning yoga class where I was surrounded by goodwill, smiling faces and positivity. What a difference environment makes to the soul. Just to round off the bizarre week, a goat dropped out of the sky in front of me, falling to his knees, as I cycled through the village. I swerved around him and looked upwards. A woman looked back at me from the upstairs floor. It looked like she had thrown the goat over the side of the railing. You need to be prepared for anything here. 


Notes on India

Villagers go walkabout herding goats with a staff. As I pass by I wonder why the goats do not simply run away. Even if the goats are enslaved and ultimately killed for their meat, they do seem to have a happier life compared to western farm animals. Its a pleasure to watch the kids goats bouncing along the road as I bike approaches, and I wriggle my way through the mass.

Another thing I have noticed here is that Indian barbers only seem to have knowledge of one specific way of cutting hair. Every Indian male I see invariably has his hair neatly combed across the top of the head, with a obvious parting at the side of the head. It did not matter how many times I ruffled my hair in front of him, the barber still gave me the Indian cut. Afterwards, I re-styled it and ended up with a weird thin quiff at the front, and short everywhere else.

Back at the Francis(the elderly Irishman)’s restaurant , an argument broke out when Francis asked for the toilet to be sluiced. He took umbrage to the fact that three of the male staff stood around with their arms folded. He finally lost his cool when his Indian wife told him that the men in these parts would not do that sort of job (and would not pick up any litter either for that matter).

“Right”, he cried, “I’ll do it myself”, and in to the outhouse he marched with a bucketful of water.

Although Indian people tend not to be overly welcoming or friendly, there is very little that seems to ruffle them. Maybe it is their spiritual dimension at work, or maybe they have just become de-sensitised by the noise and traffic of India’s streets. I dropped my bicycle into the local shop for a service and while walking back to my guesthouse, I decided to chance thumbing a lift. Within seconds I was on the back of a stranger’s motorbike who dropped me half way home. Thinking this was a fluke, I walked on, holding my thumb out again just in case. A moment later and another biker (himself running a solar-lighting business) picked me up and dropped me back to the village. Here it is normal but in the west, the default assumption is that hitch-hikers are dangerous, and people who pick them up are clinically insane.

If there is a moral to the story it must be to go with the flow of the world around you, take the positives, shrug off the negatives, keep doing whatever makes you happy and enjoy the ride.

Amoeba Free

Stool test number five, and finally I am amoeba free. Naturopathy and self-medication has proved more effective than two rounds of allopathic drugs. For those of you interested in this remedy I adopted the following diet for two weeks:

  • For lunch and dinner I ate dosa (a kind of pancake made from rice flour which I asked to be dry-fried) and vegetables, served with coconut chutney and sambar (a mix of toor dahl, veggies and spices).
  • I swallowed 3/4 raw cloves of garlic daily
  • I sucked on a few cloves after each meal.
  • I ate 5/6 neem leaves a day.
  • I took probiotics.
  • I took 3 herbal preparations from the local naturopath (concoctions of herbs and spices including ginger, cumin, black cumin, long pepper).
  • I also drank coconut milk, flesh and oil.
  • I ate some papaya (including the seeds which are known to powerful amoebacides) and pineapple.

After 1 week, the amoeba cysts had been reduced to a small number and after 2 weeks they were completely clear. The final kicker may have been the litre bottle of water with the juice of 2 squeezed lemons and a pinch of hot cayenne pepper. This had my stomach in ribbons for a day or two but afterwards I felt much better.

I am very pleased with this news and will take more hygiene precautions in future.

Hanging Out in Auroville

The notion of the Indian cow being sacred seems long gone. According to some sources, India is the largest exporter in the world of both milk and leather. The cows roam the streets here in great numbers and are a serious hazard for cyclists and other road users, especially during the night when they lie silently in the roads. With little or no street lighting they are often only spotted at a very late stage.

While vegetarianism has traditionally been closely coupled to Hinduism, the reality is that more and more Indians are embracing the Western lifestyles and thereby gorging on animal flesh. Of course the fall of religion from the people’s minds has also played a role here.

According to Will Tuttle (author of the World Peace Diet), a carnivorous diet actually causes us to be less compassionate and more violent, and there may be some truth to that. I was walking back to my guesthouse after a yoga class last week, when I noticed a cow sauntering across the path. An enraged gardener followed rapidly behind with a load of bricks under his arm. He was cursing this cow with such ferocity that his face seemed likely to implode at any moment. He summoned all of his strength and launched a brick at the poor cow, landing it directly on the cow’s rump.

“Whoa” I shouted, with a look of astonishment on my face.

He seemed befuddled by my presence and hesitated, as he prepared another brick for launch.

“No it’s ok” he insisted. ” Cow killing all the garden. Eating the bananas”.

He looked somewhat rueful, but did not wish to lose face completely, so he gently lobbed the last brick towards the cow, landing it again on target. He then returned to his garden and said goodbye.

On a separate note, I spent yesterday evening at the local restaurant where the Irish owner has organised an impromptu music gig. The musicians delighted the small crowd with their mandolin-driven raggas. As I left, I watched with a mixture of amusement and inspiration as the 72 year old proprietor danced to an Irish ditty – and collapsed on a chair half way through in utter exhaustion. His Indian wife, sons, staff and friends cheered and applauded in unison. Respect to Francis – the dancing Irishman in India.

As a n endnote, the war with the amoeba rages on, but I have been making progress. I am quietly confident ahead of my fifth stool test.

Auroville Redux

After two rounds of amoebacide pills and three separate stool tests, there was still no sign of the amoeba infection disappearing from my stomach. They were apparently amoeba cysts or eggs and took roughly three months to develop into full-blown parasites depending on conditions within the stomach.

I visited a naturopath in Pondicherry who simply felt my pulse a few times and asked if I  had stomach problems. He prescribed 5 herbal remedies at a cost of more than 600 Ruppees. After a brief negotiation, I left with 3 remedies at 190 Rupees. I was also researching natural remedies and started to pop whole cloves of garlic and papaya seeds and I was even grazing on the local neem leaf.

According to one website I visited, something like 85-95% of Americans actually had amoebas inside them, and most did not even know about it. Many of the infections are asymptomatic or produce mild diarrhea only. I suppose I should be thankful that my evacuations were not bloody, which was a sure sign of full-blown dysentery.

Amoeba is passed on via human and animal faeces and contaminated water and it is no wonder it is rife here given the lack of hygienic practices. One day my landlady was manually spreading a brown watery mixture across the path of her front garden. Upon enquiry, I discovered it to be cowshit. She was due to wash my clothes later that morning.

Restaurants generally dont have soap and most just have a bucket of water outside as a token gesture. When you compound this with the fact that bums are wiped only with the hand (and the left hand only for that matter), you quickly end up with a veritable amoeba riot.

I decided to give the natural treatment a week and head back for my fourth stool test thereafter. Stay tuned for more stool news.

Out of the Forest

It was a sad day for me when I finally brought it upon myself to leave Sadhana Forest, but I felt it was time to move on.  Some of the petty rule-keeping and the manner in which these rules were being enforced began to grind. I had been reprimanded for moving during the “moment of silence”, been told rather condescendingly to dig trenches further away from the tree plantation mound, and been barracked for being a few minutes late with breakfast cooking. It was starting to seem too much like a job, and the layers of hierarchy within the community were becoming more apparent. The ultimate insult was being denied dinner for not hearing the “final call”. I left the following day and rolled into the town of Auroville looking for a room.

All of the guesthouses were full but I followed a tip off from a fellow volunteer and was shown to a comfortable looking room. I asked merely for a mosquito net (the gaps in the walls above the shower were not screened off) and an extra bedsheet but that appeared to be beyond the means of the family and anyway there were “no mosquitoes” here.

I spent the evening in the restaurant in front of the house,where I was annihilated by swarms of mosquitoes. The friendly owner as it turned out hailed from Ireland and was married to a local woman. They had spent half of their lives in Ireland where he had been known as the “husband of the Indian woman” and not by any other name. He thankfully provided me with a mosquito coil, and suggested I keep the fan running overnight. This seemed to do the trick, although I was surprised to find a new room-mate in the form of a massive cockroach.

It felt nice to be my own master once again and to spend the morning in bed rather than digging trenches for the man. During the days, I visited some of the local farms, tried out some new eateries, watched the free movies at the local cinema and sampled some of the many classes and workshops that abounded in the area. Auroville’s mission is as follows:

Auroville wants 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.

While falling short of these ideals, it is an interesting concept and a living experiment. I decided I would stay a while to find out more.