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Posts Tagged ‘environment’

The Ashram

The posts have been sparce lately because I’ve been at Amma’s Ashram in Amritapuri on the Keralan coast.  Internet time here is limited to half an hour and I’ve been spending most of my time learning about meditation and observing the fascinating community that’s grown up around this woman.

There’s more community here than I ever felt at Auroville.  Whether this is because of the size of the ashram- thanks to ashramites being housed in high rises, you can walk from one side to the other in less than five minutes- or because of the common devotion to Amma that everyone here shares, I don’t know.  But I had a conversation with an ashramite who said that she’d lived in communities her whole life and now has been living here at this ashram for five years.  One of the major difference between ecovillages and ashrams is that there’s no consensus.  Amma has the last word on everything, period.  There’s no mediated discussion or talk of how the community will grow, but then most people only spend a few months here and then go home.  They don’t live here permanently, and their purpose for being here is inner spiritual growth, not socializing.  Although plenty of socializing does go on (something this woman complained about).

When I left Auroville, Priya left me with a nugget of wisdom: For a community to be successful, it needs to be united by work.  At this ashram, there’s a practice called ‘seva’ where everyone does two hours of volunteer work a day.  Seva varies from washing dishes to doing laundry to working in the recycling shop. Priya’s words seem to ring true here, where everyone is on the same level, working together and contributing to the ashram.

The environmental awareness within these walls is also pleasantly surprising.  The recycling is sophisticated- with food waste collected separately and everyone encouraged to use reusable bottles and bags.  Signs about conserving water and energy abound in the visitor dorms.  The ecology center shows environmental films twice a week.  Though this is a place for spiritual growth, awareness of our connection to nature seems to be a big part of it.

Well, I need to run!  I’ll be at the ashram for a while longer, and will try to post about some of the really interesting things I’m learning here.

Until next time.

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A ferry in the backwaters

A ferry in the backwaters

I came here from Allepey, a typical south Indian town that reaches to the edges of the Keralan backwaters, a maze of canals with rice paddy gold and green grass borders. Houses line the waterways as they would on suburban streets, but instead of cars in driveways, there are small coffee colored canoes tied to hunchbacked coconut trees.

A palmthatch roof shaded the reed mat and ruby pillows that graced the center of a dirty wooden canoe, just a hand narrower than my arm span and long enough to hold two lounging tourists and a single rower who sat in the sun at the back.  His name was Pushparajan and he’d lived in the backwaters his entire life. Fishermen and ladies washing their clothes in the river yelled greetings to him in Malayalam as we floated past.

Lazing against my cushion while Pushparajan paddled, I wondered if this would be the closest I would ever come to feeling like royalty. Armadas of motorized luxury houseboats, complete with brass railings, man-sized windows, and lacquered sun decks, gurgled past us. There was certainly plenty of regality to be found on the backwaters. But there were moments when I could have sworn that I was on a street, the canal was so congested. Horns blared and the air conditioned four-bedroom houseboats pushed our little canoe into the green growth that hid along the sides of the canal

In this boat-swamped area, it looked like we were canoeing along the edge of a giant soap bubble.  Turning around I asked Pushparajan about the water.  He frowned and put his hand to his ear. I pointed down at the water and asked again.

“Motor oil,” he said, waving his hand  “but no problem.”

I tried to ask him again about it later, but the language barrier rose up like an iron fence that was inches too high to climb and I got the impression that he didn’t want to worry me.  So I let it go.

A head emerged from the water in front of us, and then a torso.  At first I thought the woman was bathing, as many of the people who live here do.

“Fishing for oysters,” Pushparajan said. And the woman opened up both palms to study her coal black catch of shellfish. Unsatisfied, she took a deep breath, grabbed onto the bamboo pole that jutted out of the water like a flagpost without its pennant, and dove back down again.

Then Pushparajan took me behind the main waterways to where his home was, where there were no road signs or huge houseboats or noisy ferries.  And no oil-slicked water.  Here the air stood still so that time moved with the pace of the imperceptible river current, and you could almost hear the cashew leaves falling onto the water. The people of the backwaters live with the river, as a shepherd lives with grassy hills or the Iroquios lived with their forests of Oak and Hemlock.  Because of this, even though these Keralans are removed from the chaos of the wider canals, they live among a different sort of danger.

A thin green layer of vegetation blanketed the canal. With no motorboats to sweep the growth to the sides, there were parts where I couldn’t see any water at all.  My rudimentary knowledge of ecosystem science warned me that this was not a good sign.  Pushparajan led me into the rice paddies behind his house, and told me about the “little bottle of poison” that they use to make sure that the rice grows.

“Not a problem,” he said.  And no matter how I asked him, he assured me that this was the case.

We went back to the canoe.  By this point I’d left my shaded cushion to move into the sun, where there was an extra paddle under the front seat.  It didn’t take long for lounging to get old. Paddling together, we went back to the main waterway, past rice paddies that were golden and ready for the cutting machines to harvest their grains, past the ostentatious houseboats and the people sitting out on their ostentatious houseboat verandas, through the rainbow oil water and back to Alleppey.

And now I’m at Periyar, the wildlife sanctuary without any wild animals, the home of the living plants and trees that are the source of so many things that we use every day; cocoa trees, vanilla vines, cinnamon trees. Today I had fresh, homemade chocolate, made from a cocoa tree that grows in the chocolate maker’s back yard. One more day here to see a tea plantation, and next is Ama’s ashram in Amritapuri, to continue the search for the answers of community living.

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Chinese fishing net in Cochin, Kerala

Chinese fishing net in Cochin, Kerala

 

 

At first glance they look like trebuchets, slingshots the size of a house that were used before the days of gunpowder to launch boulders over medieval city walls. Hardly meant for war, the Chinese fishing nets stock the wooden stalls that hug Cochin’s concrete walkway along the Arabian Sea. Fishermen here have relied on the large wooden levers to bring in fish, and their source of livelihood, for hundreds of years.

When it’s time to raise the nets and bring in a catch, four men each grab onto a vertically hanging rope and wrench them down toward the ground, their arms moving as fast as a sprinter’s legs. Once the net is up, one of the men runs along the trebuchet, past the stony fringe where land meets sea, and dips a hand net into the bigger one. He keeps his arm steady against the eight or ten hand-sized dancing fish.
After reading so many news stories about the oceans’ fish population rapidly depleting, I had to ask one of the vendors if he noticed less fish coming in. Panjeer, whose display sported the small silver fish and the pink ones with eyes the size of peacoat buttons, told me that he caught the large fish out at sea, from a canoe-like fishing boat. Only the smaller fish came from the nets on the shore. I asked Panjeer whether or not he was catching less fish than usual, and he nodded as if he’d been asked the question many times before.
His explanation was not that commercial fishing vessels were gobbling up too many fish for them to repopulate themselves. He said that there were less fish after the Tsunami of 2005. It didn’t actually hit the western coast of India, he said, but Cochin was still affected. I was about to mention that I’d read over fishing was the reason that fish supplies are dropping, but instead I thanked him and moved along.
Maybe every story has many truths. Panjeer’s truth is that the Tsunami is to blame for the fish dying out. Another truth is that bad commercial fishing practices are wrecking an important source of food for millions of people. It could be that both are true. Or it could be that Panjeer is simply an uneducated fisherman who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. My instinct is to put more faith in the man who has been fishing for his entire life, who is using a technique that has been used for years. And after all, so long as Panjeer holds his truth to be a fact, then so it is. We have a tendency to find scapegoats for all of our problems–bad corporations are to blame for killing off our piscine food source. But what if it’s not that simple? To complicate things further, what if it is that simple and commercialized fishing is the real reason that Panjeer has less fish to sell?  When not only a tradition that spans generations, but also a truly sustainable way of fishing (the boats they use aren’t even motorized) is at stake, who is it up to to tell Panjeer that maybe his truth is the one that needs to be questioned? 

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Traditional buttons.  Ananya's working on the design for packaging these.

Traditional buttons. Ananya's working on the design for packaging these.

Village women weave the fabrics using techniques that have been passed down through generations. The silk, cotton, or wool from villages across India get wrapped up in brown paper and mailed to Auroville, to a business called Upasana. In Upasana’s airy sewing rooms and sunlit design offices, the traditional fabrics are transformed into modern saris, pants, and dresses. The clothing is eco-friendly, better than fair trade, and is preserving India’s rich yet waning textile tradition. And yet, none of those things seem to be Upasana’s purpose.

 

Lacey and Ananya with a shoe that Ananya designed and made from palm leaf

Lacey and Ananya with a shoe that Ananya designed and made from palm leaf

I found out about Upasana from my roommates Lacey and Ananya. Lacey is a fashion journalist from Louisiana, doing an internship at Upasana for ‘ecological design.’ She does the PR stuff for the different clothing lines and initiatives (Upasana also has an eco-bag campaign). Anaya is an industrial designer from New Delhi, and is one of the few young people (both her and Lacey are 22) who gets paid for her work at Upasana. I’ll definitely be writing more about both of these girls later; they have such interesting stories.

 

10am tea time.  Everyone was really nice; I got invited to come back whenever I wanted!

10am tea time. Everyone was really nice; I got invited to come back whenever I wanted!

One of the things that makes Upasana special is its unique working environment. There’s a meditation room for group meditation on Thursdays, or for workers to use whenever they need a moment to relax. At 10am everyone stops what they’re doing and has tea and snacks together. At 12 is lunch, and at 3pm is another tea break. There’s no rush to get as much done in as little time as possible, but Lacey says that the workers have an amazing output of products. Upasana’s clothing gets sold at retail stores all across India and Europe.

 

Ananya with her favorite piece; a mini skirt that has the story of the Hindu gods painted onto it.

The most eye-opening part of my visit at Upasana was the short talk I got to have with Uma, a woman from Northern India who is on the board of governors here at Auroville and who founded and runs Upasana. She said that it was inner development that needs to come first. All of the good things that come out of Upasana are a side effect of focusing on spiritual self-development. Yesterday Ananya said that everything that Uma does; the group meditation, the tea times, etc, it all comes down to people being able to live lives that are centered on spiritual growth. When I stupidly said something like, ‘In the US, we are super individual and tend to be isolated from people. Focusing on yourself can be good and bad, right?” She said, “You need to remember that the US is not a reference point for the rest of the world,” and then proceeded to both compliment the individuality of Americans and critique it.

I agree with Uma; I have to stop using the US as a reference point for everything else that I learn. But then, should I look for different references, or stop comparing everything I learn to something else? Upasana can be a good reference point when it comes to clothing and the atmosphere of a workplace. Whether it’s a reference point or a source of enlightenment, I have a lot more to write about it.

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In the US, it seems like we do all that we can to separate ourselves from nature.  Apples don’t come from a tree, but from a bin in the supermarket.  Milk comes from a carton, and no one ever has to think about the cow in Wisconsin that produced it.  The shirt on your back?  It was made by a young woman in China, whom you will never meet or speak to.  It’s not only nature that we’re removed from.  But this isn’t something we do consciously. We do not grow apple trees along suburbian streets, nor do cows roam in Central Park.  We do not know the parts of nature that we depend on to live any more than we know the people whose labor supports our lifestyles. 

In Auroville, things are slightly different. 

cows roam freely

cows roam freely

 on a practical level, this also reduces the need for lawnmowers.  There’s a little trouble when the cows decide they want to cross a road, but I haven’t seen any serious problems.

bugs are a part of everyday life

Admittedly, not every part of being so close to the natural world is appealing.  Bugs are a part of everyday life here, both inside and outside.

my friend Lea, from London, stopped to say hi to this baby goat on our bike ride to the beach

my friend Lea, from London, stopped to say hi to this baby goat on our bike ride to the beach

Nowhere is perfect.  Auroville has a lot of blind consumption too. But maybe we can learn from the little things that they might be doing right.  If we live near our apple trees, will we make sure that the ground they’re growing in isn’t polluted?  If we see the cows that give us milk every day, will we make sure that they’re not tortured or abused?  If we know the people who make our things, will we start to care about them?  We won’t know until we try…

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A shared vision

One of the best things about being here at Auroville is all of the interesting people that I’m meeting.  Today I was hanging out at La Terrace (the place that feeds my espresso addiction) and started to talk to my friend Diana from Germany about the evil of globalization, how we both hated Starbucks, etc etc.  We complained about lack of youth activism for a little while, and compared how the U.S. addresses the problem versus how Germany does.  Eventually we got to the place where all conversations like this tend to lead, to the point of,  “Yeah, globalization (or global warming, or hyperconsumption, or whatever else) is horrible.  But what can we really do about it?” 

But then Diana started to talk about how she wanted to open up a restuarant in the city in Germany where she was raised.  It would serve food grown on farms surrounding the city and be a place where people have healthy, delecious meals without having to worry about whether they were contributing to water pollution from pesticides or to global warming from transporting the food halfway across the world.  As soon as Diana started to talk about the restauraunt, she lit up.  The sighs against the impossibility of facing huge social problems were long forgotten as she started to explain the type of food she wants to serve and how she’d let local artists display their work there.  She never said that this would be her way of fighting globalization.  While she was talking about it, it didn’t even sound like a fight. 

It was great for me to hear her talk about this, because it reminded me why I’m so interested in ecovillages.  A lot of people assume that it’s impossible to do anything about the things that they know are wrong with the world.  But maybe we’re assuming we have to fight when fighting isn’t called for.  The first step is figuring out where you fit into the picture.  For Diana, it’s providing people with local food.  For one of my roommates, it’s designing ”eco-friendly” clothes.  For someone else it could be converting their car to biodiesel, or putting solar panels on their roof.  We can shape the world that we live in, but first we have to imagine it.

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Healing Water

It doesn’t come in an array of pretty colors like Coke’s Vitamin Water- to the naked eye it looks no different than ordinary H2O. Nor does it come in a plastic bottle that you have to pay $1 to use and then trash (or hopefully recycle). It’s called “dynamised water” and it’s produced by an Aurovillian company called AquaDyn. Supposedly it cleanses your body and can heal serious health issues.

I came across this special water on my way back from the farm this morning, when I stopped at the Visitor Center’s cafe for some hot chai and a bit of quiet time with Namoi Klien’s No Logo, the book that got me through my 22 hour plane ride over here. All of the public spaces around Auroville have plenty of water on tap, but when I went to get a glassful from here, my eye caught a display that briefly explained how this particular faucet dripped water that was bio-dynamic. I was hooked.

According to an article in The Hindu, an Indian newspaper, besides for filtering water, AquaDyn’s purifiers inject a cocktail of electrodes from various metals into the water. These electrodes help to treat different diseases and improve bodily functions such as eyesight. But Aquadyn doesn’t just sell their purifiers to customers all across India and Europe; they’ve set up a research lab here in Auroville to study water purification, and the different effects that sound vibrations and these electrodes have on it. I have a feeling there’s even more to it than that, so I’m going to e-mail the person who runs it here and see if he can give me a tour of the research center and a heads up to what they’ve found so far. In the meanwhile, I’m going to see if there’s been any other water research like this. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Click here to check out their Auroville website, and here’s another one that’s more in depth.

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