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Having had travelled to many destinations across India in the past, the craving in me to find a unique and exciting travel experience had been higher than ever before. The first time I heard about the ‘Off the Grid’ Exploratory trip, I had an inkling that this was going to be all I had wanted and more. It wasn’t too often that one gets to visit a quaint little farm nestled within the forests to participate in a workshop that focussed on introducing hardened city folks to the nuances of building cob structures. In simple words, this trip promised to be muddy, wild and exciting!

It would not be possible to start talking about the trip without talking about our fabulous hosts and the one man who made all the hard work seem so easy.

John Pollard, our host, happened to chance upon beautiful five and half acres of land within the Western Ghats in the quiet little town of Castle Rock in Uttara Kannada. The site, a ten kilometre scenic drive from the Castle Rock railway station, has everything that one might need to call a place ‘heaven’. Blessed with beautiful densely forested hills around it and a perennial stream that also creates a stunning waterfall within the farm, John and his wife Sylvia, a very talented potter, have patiently over the years made this a sustainable ‘off the grid’ home for their two children and themselves.

The accommodation available at the farm consists of two roof top rooms with almost panoramic views of the surrounding greenery, two simple tents with wooden decks looking over the stream that flows adjacent to the farm and two spacious tepees with a small sit-out at the entrance of each. Even during the summers, these options remain very comfortable and the need for fans is hardly noticed.  The small water tank outside the hosts’ house allows visitors to cool off during the afternoons to beat the summer heat. The tank, the opening dining area, the wood-fire oven, the barbecue and the spot where campfires are lit on cool starry nights are all located close by and help create the most beautiful and fun-filled evenings spent listening to the many stories that John and his guests love to share.

John and Sylvia’s beautiful home with the Western Ghats and the beautiful majestic Mango tree forming a stunning backdrop

Tents with wooden decks projecting over the stream and open-to-sky bathrooms

One of the tepees that we stayed in and these also came with open-to-sky bathrooms

Water from the stream kept the tank full and the water clean

Solar powered lights that were used at the farm being recharged

The group of fifteen who were put together by Santosh from Getoffurass got a chance to interact during the overnight train journey from Krishnarajapuram to Castle Rock railway station. The anticipation of this being a great trip was only increased by the fact that the group consisted of a few techies, a photographer, an interior designer, a graphic designer, an artist/educator and last but not the least, our mentor for the workshop, Jackson Porretta, an expert at bamboo and mud structures. Jackson, also known as Mudjack, has been actively involved with rainwater catchment systems, grey-water recycling, micro-intensive gardening, organic design and natural building.

On reaching the Castle Rock railway station, we found our welcoming hosts John and Sylvia waiting for us with their SUVs. After managing to pack ourselves and our bags into the two vehicles, we were off on our short but beautiful drive to the farm. What was unique about this drive was that after having driven a couple of kilometres away from the station, there was hardly any suggestion of inhabitation all along the route. John later told us that this was a very sparsely populated region and the farm was part of a village that was formed by only 3 houses. Being away from the normal barrage of societal interaction that one gets used to in a city was in some senses a very special experience.

Once at the farm, we took a little time to absorb the freshness and tranquillity that the place had to offer. We set our bags in the allocated accommodation and gathered near the dining area where John briefed us about the farm and all that we would need to be comfortable during our stay.  The short informal Q&A session that happened next allowed us to know Jackson better and also understand what this workshop would be all about. We would be building a cob bench, a cob chulha (stove) and a sweat lodge during our stay at the farm. Jackson would guide us through the cob building parts of the workshop and John would lead the sweat lodge building exercise.

Project 1 – The Cob Bench:

The workshop began with the digging and sifting of mud that had been excavated and dumped by John close to where we wanted to build the bench. We needed soil that consisted of slightly grainy mix of sand and silt particles. After having collected the necessary amount, Jackson displayed how by doing a few simple tests, we could check if the collected soil had the right proportions of silt and sand. Simultaneously with this, the area where the bench would be positioned was roughened up with a shovel and then stones of approximately 9” to 12” diameter were placed to form the foundation. The next step was to mix the soil and straw with water on a tarp laid on the floor to create the cob that would be applied over the stone foundation of the bench. This is known as the ‘stir and tread’ process which involves mixing the soil, straw and water by stomping on it with bare foot and then pulling the sides of the tarp to turn the mix over into itself. Repeating this process a few times for every batch gave us batches of uniform homogenous cob of the right consistency.  Once the cob was ready, balls made from this were placed over the foundation and pressed with the hands to help fill the gaps in the stone foundation bed. The pressure applied with the digits also created an undulated top surface which allowed for the layers to mesh well with each other. The layers were added till the height of the seat was around 15”. This had to be left to dry for a week or two before the final finish of smooth mud plaster could be applied and hence it was decided that John would finish this part of the exercise later. The work on the bench was spread out over our three-day stay at the farm and the result was most satisfying. It was great to know that we could actually sit on the cob bench that we had created for our final group photograph that was taken just before we left the farm.

Sifting the soil used to make the cob

Foundation of rocks for the cob bench

The bench taking form and ready to take the first coat of cob plaster

Cob bench backrest detail with embedded wine bottles

Project 2 – The Cob Chulha/Stove:

The requirement for this project arose from the fact that cooking on a low stove while squatting was not easy and there was a need to build something that would allow people to stand and cook. The process of building the chulha was similar to the cob bench, the difference being that the foundation was made of bricks and not rocks. The design allowed for two burners which could be used simultaneously.

Mudjack and the team working on the cob chulha

Creating the base mud mortar to hold the foundation bricks for the chulha

The cob chulha almost ready to take the coats of mud plaster

Project 3 – The Sweat Lodge:

As a location to build the traditional Indian sweat lodge prototype, John had identified a clear piece of land in the small dried piece of paddy field next to the house and close to the water tank. The idea was to use thin but strong and pliable branches of trees to form the segments of the base structure of the dome that would be the sweat lodge. The frame structure would then be covered with blankets, sleeping bags, etc. to insulate the structure and to allow for a breathing structure that would hold steam inside. The important thing here was to use materials that would not suffocate people inside the structure when it was in use.

After clearing the area, we marked the profile for the sweat lodge which would be about 16 feet in diameter. A small 6 inch deep trough of about 2 feet diameter was dug in the centre. This would hold the hot stones that would help create the required steam to make the sweat house work. A channel was made that would allow us to drag the smouldering stones from outside to the centre of the structure. After having marked nodes at 3 feet on the perimeter of the circle, we dug 10 to 12 inch deep holes that would become the foundation that held the structural wood segments forming the dome. The broader end of the branch was then placed into the hole that had been dug and this was then filled with soil and small stones to create a foundation that it was firmly set into. This was done in two diagonally positioned nodes of the marked circle simultaneously. Once this was done, the narrower free ends of the branches were gently bent towards the centre and the overlapping ends were tied together. This created an 8 feet high arch the centre of which was right above the central trough that had been dug earlier. Repeating this process in progression resulted in a dome with the branches acting as the segments. The overlapping parts that were tied at the centre created a strong structure which John tested by hanging from it. We were now confident that if the structure could hold John’s weight, it could withstand everything that nature could possibly throw at it!

Finally, ready to cover up the exposed frame, John and Jackson used up all the available sheets, blankets and sleeping bags and the sweat lodge was finally ready for the smouldering stones to go in. The stones were laid in a pyre with wood logs beneath and above them to heat them uniformly. As the stones were getting heated, John created an amazingly ingenious basket to drag the stones into the structure without having to get too close to them. By the time we got the stones into the lodge, we were already sweating like crazy and couldn’t wait to reap the rewards of the hard work that was put in.

After a short ‘traditional tribal dance initiation ritual’ led by John, all the sceptics (to a certain extent, this included me) followed John and Jackson into the sweat lodge to take our places around the sacred red-hot stones. The steam that filled the structure once the lemongrass oil infused water was poured over the hot stones made everything worth it. It was for sure, one of the best experiences I’ve had. The feeling of relaxing in the cold water in the tank after having sweated inside the sweat lodge for almost 15 to 20 minutes and then repeating this a couple of times has to be felt to be understood. The drinks and the dinner with all the chatting that followed sitting under the beautiful night sky just made the day complete!

Working on the structure for the sweat lodge

John working on covering the structure of the sweat lodge

The almost ready cob bench and the fully functional sweat lodge

Another project that Sylvia guided was to bake some bread. The results of this project were devoured by everyone in a little more than 15 minutes the next morning at breakfast.

Having described the projects that we undertook over the 3 days of our stay at the farm, it seems like I might have projected the workshop as an ‘all work and no play’ episode, but that is far from the truth. The work in itself was a lot of fun which involved getting dirty in the mud and jumping around in slush. But what really made our stay very enjoyable was the fact that amidst all the fun we had doing the work, we managed to swim and have a great time in the waterfall that was close to where we were working. The short early morning trek through the forest surrounding the farm was as refreshing as the unending supply of coffee and tea that was available while we worked. The bread baking, awesome pizzas from the wood-fire oven, the raw mango pickle, the beautifully sweet ripe guavas that were straight from the tree and the time spent chatting after sundown discovering the pleasures of drinking Goan Urak with some great people for company only made the stay more wonderful.

The stunningly beautiful waterfall

Another picture of the waterfall

Crossing a stream while on the early morning trek through the forest

Guavas plucked straight from the trees at the farm

The team striking a pose with the cob bench and the sweat lodge

The one thing that comes to my mind as I end this post and think about the fabulous time spent at the Off-the-Grid farm is a quote by Mark Twain…

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

I remember, my first visit to Auroville many years back, like it was yesterday. A friend who was working at an architect’s studio there invited me and that was the beginning of a long and fascinating love affair with this beautiful place. I was overwhelmed by the cordial smiles and the very affable nature of most of the people I met there. But what amazed me the most was how the early settlers had worked on a dream to transform what was once a barren and dry stretch of land into an oasis of green. Sustainability and eco sensitivity were the key words all through those years and even today. Over the past 44 years, Auroville has now grown into this green forested expanse with over a hundred settlements nestled amidst this landscape.

The Banyan Tree, the center of Auroville, 40 years back.

The Banyan Tree, the center of Auroville, with Matri Mandir behind it, today.

On the 28th of December this year, Cyclone Thane, with wind speeds of 85 mph and tidal surges of about 1.5 mts, hit the east coast of south India. Auroville was right in the path of the cyclone and had to bear the full brunt of the winds. I reached there on the night of the 30th of January and even on my way from Chennai, I could see the dark silhouettes of fallen trees all along the east coast road. It seemed a lot worse than I had expected. But then it was dark, I could hardly see anything much through the tinted glass window of the bus and the drizzling didn’t help either. In Auroville, the night seemed to make everything calm and peaceful, like before. Standing on the terrace with the gentle breeze for company and listening to the sound of the waves, I somehow felt a sense of relief assuming that the cyclone hadn’t changed things too much there.

The next morning though was different, very different. I decided on taking a long walk, a walk down memory lane, it had been more than 4 months since my last visit. As I walked through those places which had been so familiar to me for years now, I couldn’t help but feel this enormous sense of pain and grief. The place had changed. The trees which had made everything else seem more beautiful were now lying dead against the land. They had been uprooted or had been bent and disfigured after being hit by the winds. The ones that stood tall seemed to be depressingly lonely with most of the others around them having fallen. Later on in the day, an Aurovillian I met at a café told me that almost 40% of the trees had been hit.  All through the day, I started looking for signs of this devastation wherever I went. Houses which had no roofs, fallen trees, lots of chopped timber lying in huge piles everywhere, shut shops and sudden empty looking patches of land.

The devastation the Cyclone Thane caused in Auroville.

Piles of chopped wood from uprooted trees…

But as always, Auroville didn’t fail to surprise me this time too. Nobody there was really discussing the cyclone and its aftermath. People seemed to have understood that the only way out was to stop cribbing and move on. It was quite evident that the work to restore Auroville had begun and that it was being done quietly and efficiently. Everyone knew that it would be a long process and there was a lot of work involved but then Auroville always believed in working together towards a larger goal. Over the next 3 days, the cheerful faces ensured that the signs of devastation became blurred backgrounds to all that was beautiful there. The fallen trees suddenly became like huge canvases which fostered and brought to life paintings full of beautiful flowers and young saplings in bright shades of green. People working on new and better housing or even repairing their houses seemed to be brimming with energy that was not seen before. It for sure was going to be a long and arduous road and there might be many setbacks on the way, but then what other option did they have? The enthusiasm of the people there and there stunningly positive outlook immediately after such a crippling natural disaster made me believe that optimism and faith would never let us down.

I spent three days working there out of an office in a community named Progress and to say the least, it was a beautiful and phenomenally productive experience. Eating a basic Indian meal for lunch at Indus Valley was more fulfilling than the food that I have eaten at some fancy restaurants in Bangalore. Playing basketball with a ten year old boy on the dusty uneven half-court at Certitude, one of the worst-hit communities in Auroville, on a hot Tuesday afternoon was most definitely more enjoyable than the games I’ve played in some of the air conditioned indoor courts across the country. Chatting with people there and seeing them look at the future with so much hope was better than going to some of the best clubs and spending time with people who were trying to drown their struggles with alcohol only to wake up the next day with bad hangovers.

An architect’s studio in Auroville.

The bright green of the bamboo leaves against the clear blue sky.

After my stay in Auroville, I am now pretty sure that I too would want to struggle all my life but not to earn loads of money or to fit into a system which only demanded more every time. The struggle I want to be in would be the attempt to stay away from the demanding and eternally dissatisfied parts of the machine that we call society! The struggle, for me, began a couple of years back but conviction and belief may have come only now. This might be like a never-ending road trip and may not even make sense to everyone around me, but to me, it will be a wild ride on the highway of life going towards a destination called joy. My glass is half full and it will remain that way. As American author Ursula K. LeGuin so wisely quoted,

“It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

For someone like me who has always had a secret fascination for gadgets but has been ‘technologically-challenged’, surviving development seems to be an everyday issue. The barrage of apples, ice cream sandwiches, chocolates, éclairs, donuts, etc. that have taken over my menu today has actually left me with no appetite! (All those among you who thought I was talking about food, believe me, you are not alone!) It would not be fair to discuss my personal struggles here, especially when the impact that these have on my life is almost insignificant.

I always thought that development meant gradual improvement or growth and that might have been something that I was comfortable with. The last decade has shown that this was not the case and that growth or improvement at a comfortable pace could never be comforting to the world. From landlines to cell phones to smart phones to tablets, it’s been a rather quick journey.  It all seemed to be fascinating when it started, if only the starting point could be defined, and then it started becoming maniacal and now it’s almost devastatingly detrimental. I am not going to discuss the very obvious pros and cons that are not alien to most of us. What, to me, is more important is the impact that this development has had on the real owners of this beautiful planet.

I’ve been reading this book about a man’s attempt to observe and document the lives of some of the remotest tribes of the world. Tribe by Bruce Parry takes you from Arunachal Pradesh in India to the Darhad Valley in Mongolia, from the Omo Valley in Ethiopia to West Papua, Indonesia. The admirable, and in today’s world of popular television ‘reality’ shows, unbelievable feature of this book is the fact that it tries to present these indigenous people in an honest, real and unaltered manner.

There is no attempt to conceal the impact that visitors from the modern, so-called-civilized populations of the world have had on these tribes and their ways. It isn’t surprising anymore to see tribes deep in the ‘untouched’ forests of the world wearing Nike tees and smoking Camel cigarettes. These people did not crave for these ‘pleasures’ of the modern world, they were content wearing nothing and wanting nothing more than what they needed. The many explorers who travelled to these far flung and isolated corners of the world ended up bartering products in exchange for captivating stories or footage. In the process, not only were many ancient traditions and rituals lost in this exchange, these tribes were also introduced to various illnesses to which they had no cure! Many of the tribes that existed have now gone extinct or have moved away from their traditional way of living.

The speed at which populations across the world are growing and the necessity to satisfy the cravings of these growing numbers has resulted in the wiping out of millions of acres of pristine forested lands. While we wait for the doomsday predictions to come true, we have not noticed how unknowingly but shamelessly we have brought doomsday to so many animal species, languages and indigenous tribes that called our world their home. We’ve managed to push species like the regal Caspian tiger, Mexican grizzly bear, Chinese river dolphin and many others to extinction. In the last century, we have lost tribes like the Bo, the Sirenik, the Kamasin, and the Jangil. Most of the surviving tribes are now left with a couple of hundred members and there are many tribes were the number of surviving members is as low as one or two. I wonder how intimidated I would feel if I was the last living person from India.

Boa Sr, the last member of the Bo tribe, died on 4th February 2010

The Caspian Tiger, a tiger sub species, last recorded in the wild in the early 1970s

I don’t think there is any way in which the damage can be reversed, but then we could always prolong the inevitable! Being sensitive and knowing the impact of our actions would be great for a start. I wouldn’t want to come across as a person who saw only the down-side of things and the reason for me to write about this issue was the fact that I see hope. To begin this process of rebuilding, it is important for each one of us to be aware.

I’d like to share a few links which, in one way or the other, are related to what this post is about.

http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/5509

http://www.truthabouttigers.org/home/

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/tribe/

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Sunrise at Bandipur

A dawn full of hope, that is what I hoped for when I woke up on the 1st of January, 2012 and it was nothing short of that! I spent a lot of time, last year, contemplating a deep desire to start blogging, a desire that arose from the multitude of experiences that I had gathered in solitude and with company and the conversations that I had had with myself sitting alone on my terrace. There was a need to share some of these experiences and more importantly to create a vent!

As 2012 dawned, I could think of nothing better to start writing about than the surreal last week of 2011 that not only gave birth to a few new personal aspirations but also brought about a new sense of clarity to my perception about my life and what I wanted from it.

It all started with a chat with Santosh Kumar (http://www.getoffurass.com/) over a cuppa at Java City. He shared with me a dream that he had been holding on to, a dream that seemed so close to what I had been aspiring for too. Before I knew it, we were off one morning, off riding to 10 Degrees Off placed beautifully in the serene Bandipur reserve forest. I can’t say that the ride was the best I’ve been on, it was hot and we faced stretches of busy traffic at Mandya and Nanjangud, but then riding out was always something that I preferred to riding within the city!

The stay there was spent in quiet ease amidst the surreal landscape of shrub forests with the hills of Ooty framing the horizon. Waking up to the sounds of the birds outside and seeing the brilliant azure blue sky while sipping on a hot cup of coffee, was something that I had dreamt of every morning in Bangalore! Chandra and family made sure that we were looked after well and that every meal was as fulfilling and delicious as it could possibly get. The week was sprinkled with sightings of a gaur, wild elephant herds, a magnificent lone tusker, herds of Cheetal, a couple of wild dogs and a beautiful Travancore Wolf snake.

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Wild Tusker at Bandipur

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Spotted Deer at Bandipur

A large part of my time was spent lazying on the bean bag and reading or chatting away with my more than generous hosts, Santosh and Indu. We discussed and sometimes even argued about everything from Gandhiji to Anna Hazare, from the conservation of the Tiger to the grandeur of the forests! It always amazes me how it becomes exceedingly difficult to sit peacefully in the midst of the chaos of a city and hold a conversation about these seemingly random issues and how , in some unexplained manner, the wilderness fosters the same.

I could keep writing about the days at Bandipur but then that would still not be enough. From my experience, I only hope that everyone gets the opportunity to travel and find peace. I could not end this without mentioning the great company that I had at 10 Degrees Off and without thanking everyone who shared this experience with me. It was fabulous to usher in the new year with Reena, Athreya, Manu, Nisha, Gurpreet, Praneet and Minky and I hope 2012 is a year that sees everyone fulfill their dreams.

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