The biggest non-violent gang you haven’t met yet. Notice I am getting my beard braided while this picture was being taken.
Photo credit: Brian Foose
After my 42 hour train journey, I arrived in the south in a city called Chennai. My first taste of the Indian south and to say the least, it was a very wet taste. Chennai was experiencing a once in 100 year flood and if I’d have arrived one day later, I wouldn’t have made it out of Chennai to get to Sadanah Forest which is close to Pondicherry and part of the famous community of Auroville. I stayed overnight in the bus station in Chennai in a dorm for 250 rupees. I was thinking I was just going to sleep on the floor in the bus station but when this thought came to me, I was thinking of bus stations back in the US. In India, there were already loads of people sleeping on the floor and I decided to spend the 250 rupees and stay in the dorm. Still well below my lodging budget, so why not? This made me think about something when traveling and that is the constant worry about your stuff aka money and valuables. Even when you are traveling with the bare minimum as I feel I am, I am constantly somewhat on guard so that I don’t lose anything or I’m worrying that something will be stolen. It’s something I never thought about growing up in a town with a few hundred people and where I never had to lock my car. Realizing that if I were to lose this little piece of plastic aka my atm card or that little book known as my passport, I would find myself in a bad situation. It’s just something to ponder. Anyway, when I was sitting in the bus station before I went into the dorm a small fight broke out between some people and the police came to sort things out. There are always police around, so it wasn’t like they had to be called. They ended up deciding who was the “bad” person. A skinny and I’m guessing homeless man who they told to leave. When he didn’t they hit him with these sticks that most of the police have. When he didn’t leave fast enough, they gave him a sort of goodbye whack on the way out the door. Needless to say, this made me very sad and again, I questioned the situation and life in general. How did the police come to be the police? When you take away the uniform, is the man with the stick any different than the man being hit? Though I’m not blaming the police at all and I imagine this is a fairly routine situation for them to deal with, it was really hard to watch. Since when is it ok for one person to hit another person with a stick, almost like some sort of animal? What is wrong with the society that we live in, where a situation like this can even occur? What has occured in this man’s life that has brought him to this exact moment where he is getting chased out of a bus station in the middle of torrential rains with possibly no place to spend the night or call his home? Again, I don’t blame the police, but couldn’t there be a better way to handle this? Has society gotten so used to this, that everyone just accepts this as “normal”? It was alarming and really, really sad for me. I am not putting India down either. I realize that this probably happens all over the world in some form or another. I just happen to be in India and witnessed it firsthand.
The next morning, after asking the man who was supposed to know and getting the classic Indian head wiggle, I got on what I hoped was the right bus and headed for Sadhana Forest. (So a word about the Indian head wiggle: In India, when you ask somebody a question, you often get this sort of wobble of the head and you never really know if they are saying yes, no, or maybe. Some of my traveling friends and I started referring to it as “the Indian head wiggle” A place I had heard about several times in my travels. People spoke about it so highly that I felt I needed to check it out. It is a sort of ecologically sustainable, reforestation, vegan community that was started by an Israeli couple 13 years ago. Though the planting trees part didn’t really interest me, the aspect of community life and working to do good seemed like something I would like. Getting there was a bit tricky as I had been told that somebody would pick me up from the toll gate where I got off the bus, but when I called, they told me that nobody could pick me up but I should just come. I had no idea where this place was, so I started wandering around in the pouring rain and asking people. Finally, I found the right dirt road and after 40 minutes of walking in the rain, I reached the forest. There was a policeman at the entrance who asked if I had any alcohol or weapons and then I was allowed to go inside. I found my way to the main hut where everybody was eating lunch. I saw this young couple from the U.S. who looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t remember why, but they remembered my right away. Apparently we had met thousands of miles away while we were both in Dharmkot. They were doing a yoga teacher training in the guesthouse next to the guesthouse where I was staying. I guess India isn’t that big after all. They would become my new best friends. The sweetest, most caring people ever!
I ate with the community and then did the required check-in procedure. Basically paying for my food which is 400 rupees a day for really good, fresh cooked vegan meals 3 times a day. PLUS, the most important part, which is the banana cupboard, which is open 24 hours a day, for those late night banana cravings. They went over all the rules and the schedule. Pretty much, no violence of any sort or competitive games and no intoxicants. We wake up every morning at 5:30 and then have a sort of morning circle where we do some light stretching and then the morning hug where everybody (yup, you guessed it) hugs each other. Then it’s off to the first round of work which could be preparing breakfast, planting trees, or taking out the compost. Then breakfast at 9:00. Back to work at 10 until 12:30 and lunch at 12:45. The afternoons are free unless you are assigned to cooking dinner or some other task.
I really got a good feel of the place when I first got there, but then I had a hard time. First it was the rain that never seemed to stop. Every day for the first week it just poured and poured. Half my clothes started getting black mold and everything I owned was wet. In turn, the mosquitoes were really bad and we were all a bit nervous about getting the dreaded dengue fever. Also, the only power source in the forest is solar, and since it had been raining, there was no power. It was a bit ironic because the wifi somehow was working and it was some of the fastest wifi I’d had in India up to that point. With no power though, I couldn’t use the wifi because I couldn’t charge anything.The other thing that really bothered me in the beginning was the sort of hierarchy or power structure. The way it is set up, they have us, the short term volunteers who stay for 2 to 4 weeks and then you have the long-term volunteers which are people who have committed to stay for 9 months to a year. For some reason, I was under the impression before I got there that it was going to be a sort of utopia where everybody was equal and no matter who you were or how long you stayed there, it didn’t matter. I got more and more frustrated because of this sort of divide between the long and short termers. They were always having these long termer only meetings. There was the long term hut where only the long timers were allowed. The long timers were allowed to charge their devices while the short-termers looked sadly at blank phone screens that forgot what it felt like to have a power cord plugged into them. OK, I’m being a little dramatic. The long termers have more responsibility and are actually living there so it makes sense that they would have “special privileges”
After about a week, I came to understand the system better and see that it was really up to me to be miserable and upset or try to accept things as they were and try to understand them better. I started connecting with different ones individually. One of the long termers was an Indian, with the most peaceful smile you’ve ever seen. A former financial analyst with offers from lots of big companies, he threw his career to the wind and came to the forest. I ended up really liking him and respecting him so much. I became friends with one of the mid-termers. She had been a short termer but had just made the commitment to become a long-termer. She was kind enough to listen to some of my complaints and understood where I was coming from. She said she was going to try to bridge the gap and I think she’s doing a great job!
I was really impressed by the founder who wasn’t all big and important the way some founders can be. Still very much involved and making himself available to anyone who wanted to talk to him. Sometimes he would have an open discussion where we would talk about all sorts of things. I really enjoyed getting to know him and learning from him. I felt a connection with him because he is Jewish too, but one time I asked him how he relates to Judaism. I was curious because I knew he doesn’t really celebrate the holidays or put much importance on the sort of Jewish things like celebrating Shabbat etc. This upset me somewhat and I was seeing a parallel between this situation and me getting upset with the lady who ran the program I was on in Israel. She was also Jewish, but didn’t make a big deal out of Shabbat or being “religious” in the way I thought she should be. This sort of self-righteousness sprang up in me as if I’m the model Jew or something. As I type this, I see how ridiculous it is and I know it’s just some insecurities I have being projected onto the people around me. After talking to him though, I understood more about why he is the way he is. Instead of making sure to celebrate every holiday down to the letter of the law, he sees it more important to exercise nonviolence and kindness and understanding to all living beings. Hence the veganism so as not to harm any living beings. It clicked for me and in my humble opinion, he is being a better person than somebody who merely keeps the letter of the law and then ignores it in his daily life. He really believes in action and doing what he says. It made sense with the way I’ve been thinking lately too. I think it’s fine to be part of a religion, but at the end of the day, we are all part of the same human family.I feel people spend too much time fighting about religious differences. I want to try to be more inclusive and never think that I’m somehow better than others because of my religion or social status. It’s a slippery slope when one starts claiming their religion or belief system to be the only right way. Just look at history.
They are big on sustainability and conserving energy in every way possible. The handwashing station is really genius with a metal cup that has a hole drilled in the bottom of it. you take a bit of water from a big tub of water and it comes out the bottom of the metal cup much slower than a typical faucet which in turn conserves a lot of water. The showers worked in a similar way plus having to hand pump your water and carry the bucket to the showers definitely helps one be more mindful of how much water one is using. We cooked with very efficient wood stoves called rocket stoves. Though I’m not a vegan, (more hovering on the vegetarian fence right now) it’s amazing how tasty and creative you can get, even as a vegan. Eating a healthy diet was great for the digestion which leads, of course, to the toilets. We used compost toilets but they go one step further which is to separate the pee and the poop. They even have a handy-dandy little pan to pee in if you want to poop AND pee at the same time. Brilliant! I don’t totally understand the reason behind separating them but I suppose they break down differently and have different uses. They use the compost to aid in the planting of new trees. Sometimes, when the mosquitoes were bad, I had to do the bathroom dance so they didn’t totally eat me up while doing my business. Same goes for the shower, though it’s called the shower dance of course. In India, you wipe with your left hand and eat with your right. The hand wiping is something I’ve struggled with, but after spending 2 weeks in the forest, I feel I’ve finally perfected the technique. I won’t go into it here, but let me know if you want a tutorial. Eating with your hands is actually really fun and there is a technique for that, too. As I mentioned earlier, the power is all from the sun, which is why it was very limited the first week I was there. There are no power appliances in the kitchen, but if you want to blend something, they have a bicycle powered blender. Everything else is done by hand. The food compost is also separated between cooked and uncooked food, citrus, and pineapple tops. The top of the coconuts are used as sponges to wash the dishes and no dish soap in the forest. We use ash from the wood stoves to clean the dishes. There are 4 basins at the dish washing stations. The first one for gross dirt, the second one a little cleaner and then your dish should be clean by the 3rd one. The fourth bin is where the dishes soak in iodine to be disinfected. Again, conserving water and improving dish washing efficiency.
On Thursday nights, we didn’t have dinner in the community so we would head out on our sometimes working bicycles to a nearby village for all you can eat 60 rupee thali. Thali is rice with dal and vegetables and always a sure bet if you are hungry. Or if you were feeling fancy, you could pedal a bit further to the fancy Italian gelato place and get the Milky Way, which is 5 scoops of handmade Italian ice cream for a whopping 300 rupees. I only did this once, as the pain of spending 5 dollars on ice cream in India lingered with me for days. Though I have to admit, the ice cream was pretty amazing. We didn’t work on the weekends or have lunch in the community but we still had breakfast and dinner. Of course, you might have to help cook on the weekend but that’s about it. It was funny having an actual weekend again because after not working for almost a year now, every day is like the weekend to me. It made me appreciate the weekend more. Wednesday night was the non-talent talent night. Wanting to focus on free expression and encouraging people to participate. It was always a good time and it’s always surprising and exciting to see what people have to offer. There were a few different families staying there and I really enjoyed playing with the kids. Somehow having kids around lightens the mood and I think reminds us all that we are all still kids at heart. Monday was feeling sharing night and a good time to express how you were feeling in a safe space. Friday was movie night where they invite anybody who wants to come to see a movie and then eat dinner together. Definitely a good time and a way to meet more new people.
The community also believes in un-schooling which I found to be quite interesting, though I admit, I don’t totally understand. They don’t yell at their kids or really punish them in any way. The idea being that kids need to find out on their own the consequences of their actions. I still don’t quite see the difference between un-schooling and totally spoiling your kids but I kind of get it. Kids don’t go to school unless they ask to. You don’t teach them to read or write unless they ask to. You pretty much don’t do anything but be supportive of whatever they want to do. The idea being that kids intuitively know what is right for them. It brought up thoughts about my childhood which was probably the furthest thing from un-schooling and though I’m not hung up on my childhood, I wonder how I would have turned out if I had been un-schooled. A part of me thinks I would have just played with legos all day but on the other hand, maybe I would have been naturally lead to my true interests. I had a lot of structure and rules and shoulds and shouldn’ts. I never cared for school much because I had to work so hard at it, but I didn’t have a choice. I can’t even imagine being allowed to do whatever I wanted. No sense in dwelling in the past. I still think kids need some discipline and rules to follow, but I’m open-minded. I suppose all kids react differently to this method. There was a family there whose kids were quite well behaved and then another family and the kids were, well, how do I say this nicely? More active. Anyway, it brings up the whole idea of good and bad. This conditioning that our parents passed to us because it was passed to them by their parents so we in turn, blindly, pass it on to our kids. Maybe it is better to trust in kids innate knowledge of what is good for them and let them be free. I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.
It was a bit sad leaving the forest, but at the same time, I’m excited to be going home and seeing some friends and of course my family. If I make it back to India, I want to spend more time in the south and I’ll definitely spend some time at Sadanah.
Really throwing myself into the laundry process. I’m not sure how clean the clothes were after this, but my feet sure got clean.
Photo credit: Moa Burger