Friday, January 12, 2018

Organic Magic

Well, folks I’m at my second farm experience in Nepal. You can call this “total immersion”.

Eco-organic Farm in the Kapan district of Kathmandu is the complex enterprise of Sangham Sherpa and his family. (The “Sherpas” are a Buddhist tribe/caste in Northern Nepal that we associate with trekking porters.) 

I’m not quite sure how to describe this far-reaching undertaking. It’s an organic farm, the produce of which we package each morning for sale in upscale markets. We sort mong bean sprouts. Measure out kim chi.

It’s an organic restaurant for those ambitious enough to ride up the pot-holed lanes. 

Combined with the Himalayan trekking company he and his wife lead. Here they are dressed in their Sherpa finery with a Belgian tour group after the Anna Purna Base Camp trek with their two daughters.

And they have plans for supplying organic food to trekkers, maybe an organic garden at Kopan Monastery, etc …. 

He is an ambitious man! Always on the phone, planning, influencing, helping...

But that’s what it takes to rise from what we could call poverty in a small village, to organizing better conditions for trekking porters, to having connections in the Agriculture Department and lobbying for more organics in Nepal.

His Mother is a case in point. She didn’t seem to be a happy woman, always yelling shrill instructions. But at night when she enjoyed the local brew, we could get her to reminisce.

 I asked the 12 year old to ask her grandmother what it was like growing up. The jist of it was:
No schooling, reading or writing. Her father would walk 7 days each way barefoot to fetch bags of salt. At age 9 woke up at 4 AM to haul fodder for the animals. Age 12 married. Husband left the country for work and she raised her son Sangham by herself, being a porter, growing food, etc... Husband came home and died. She worked hard and survived. She taught her son ambition.” Wow!!!

I had hoped to get more instruction in organic growing here but what I got again was an education in living. 

My rendition will seem a little hodge-podge but that’s is how it evolved, or assaulted me, each day.

Here is the Earthquake House where I slept.

There are many such structures in Nepal. Because there were many aftershocks after the initial destruction in 2015 and because the family home often needed reconstruction, families lived for months in these tarp or zinc roofed, bamboo framed and dirt or tarp floors. (And for those poor enough not to have the resources to rebuild the house, they still live in their Earthquake Houses. My driver from the hotel, Deepak, says that’s all his Mother will ever have.)

At first I recoiled to the label of Earthquake House. Do these people want to be reminded of that death and destruction? One daughter remembered sounds like many buffalo stomping, water shaking and then houses collapsing. But after hearing stories of this neighborhood, I feel privileged to sleep here. I am told that neighbors without houses slept on the grass here and in these organic gardens. They played volley ball here in community solidarity. Who cares if there are rat droppings on the floor! 

This is a place of safety, a place of refuge, where a family slept together and celebrated survival.

You could call this organic living! 

Picking green beans and bok choi for dinner. Walking past odiferous cowsheds and scurrying chickens on the way to the outdoor toilet. Trying not to slide off the 1 foot wide path in the middle of the night. Washing clothes and food in the same unfiltered not-fit-for-drinking outside spigot.

And organic magic! The first night I was awakened by grunting squealing behind us. The next morning? Placenta still trailing,  the mother and wobbly gaited babies. Each morning they greeted me, each day fresh new life.

And here two are of the workers in the green tarped dining room  as we listen to the ultrasound heart beat of my tiny fetus granddaughter! Sent by wifi!

And although I had missed the Dashain goat-sacrifice festival, I did partake of three days of the Tihar Festival.  

Five days of celebrating different life forms. The first, crow (takes prayers to heaven?) 
The second, dog — see these street dogs enjoying the attention of adornment and extra food. (Honored for protecting the home.) 

And the third, cow (prosperity.) . Wow! What a big to do! Necklaces, foot anointing, tail and forehead painting, incense ... (And I wasn’t around for the next two days…)

I wish this family well. I hope organics succeeds in Nepal. I’m so glad girls can go to school. Here the are the children on their school-bus.

And I’m grateful to have slept in an Earthquake house next to baby goats. Organic magic.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

What did I Learn at Hasera?

One goal of this trip around the world is to learn 
organic gardening techniques in different countries.

Another is to keep my mind curious and aware by writing a blog. Of course the grandest aim of all is probably an unconscious process related to personal transformation, and certainly won’t be understood until the trip is over!

But I am an annoyingly curious gardener and incessantly bugged all who could speak English about the growing practices here. What I did learn is that this is not an efficient process. If I could just sit someone down for one hour I could get the questions answered! But that’s not how it works. 

I did learn by observation of how vegetables are grown on terraces, and in fact how terraces are hacked out of hills. How trees and bushes are planted on their edges to minimize landslides during rainy season. 

How soil is “grown” with sheet mulching and composting — and how often the mound is covered with soil and directly planted into. 

How Kali’s cow urine is drained from the stall into tanks.

Then when bitter, astringent, aromatic and spicy leaves are added, and the whole thing well fermented, voila! Instant pest repellent on the vegetables! 

How some vegetables are sown in the ground in the tarp-roofed “nursery” and transplanted. How some seeds are directly sown in beds. How companion planting of different species confuses the pests and covers the ground against most weeds. 

How mulching isn’t done much because of lack of resources. How composting with cow manure is done because of immediate resources.

I learned how rice is winnowed by hand.

And easy places to dry clothes.

So, I guess I learned a lot! But at the end Govinda and his wife did apologize that they didn’t have time to answer my questions … I wish I had told them that this is also what I did learn:

I did learn to appreciate the horns below. 

I had to walk the highway to buy more toilet paper (not part of a home-stay in Asia). Hair-raising! Several blind curves on the road. Sheer drop-off on one side with some concrete barriers. Motorcycles, buses, and cars, honking before they passed on the wrong side around the curve. The horns were saving their butts! If they didn’t honk they would die and maybe take us off the cliff with them!

I did learn what a happy Nepali family is like. 

Caring for each other and extended family and friends. When one family visited we did a round-table — each person getting a chance to talk uninterrupted about their life. The young people were passionate about their service and teaching projects. And then with genuine interest they asked me about my journey.

They did care for me too. When some bug lodged in my gut and I took up lodging next to the pit toilet, the farm manager/chief cook Bishnu brought me electrolyte solution and a hot water bottle. 

This family is committed to service and education.

They provide the land and provide lunch for the women for this project. Started by a Taiwanese woman, these women make cotton washable sanitary napkins that are sold world wide and help support their families. 

They also are involved in Menstruation Education Programs. Evidently in the past, some women were locked into sheds during their periods, and several died each year in Nepal.

Here is one day of a children’s summer program where they are given English books to read.

Mitta and other village women have a women’s group — they pool small amounts of money to lend for other women to start small businesses. They will even visit a couple in trouble, for example with alcohol or abuse or communication, and help prevent divorce. For free!

Like many Nepali families they are devoted to educating their two sons at the University, one in agriculture. They are committed to educating the Nepali farmer about organic practices (many of which are their historic normal practices) and not listening to the agriculture school’s teachings about pesticides and fertilizers. 

And definitely not ending up like the southern Indian farmers who are committing suicide in alarming numbers because their soil is depleted and they can’t afford fertilizers! Actually a visiting woman told me of the Indian Government’s commitment to organic because of this disaster. And it is so ironic, because in 1968 I was there, in India, as the Green Revolution with tractors and fertilizers was being proclaimed as the end of hunger!

And I loved this sign at the entrance to Hasera! 

About getting guestions answered? Or about cultivating the questions relevant to our own situation? Relevant to this trip around the world?

At the foundation of all this family does is Hindu spirituality. A small shrine is anointed in the kitchen. 

And at the end of a lovely week, I was thanked for my “postive attitude and enthusiasm.” And I was annointed.

With oil and pigment. With a draped scarf. With a sweet goodbye. Realizing what I did learn. More than gardening facts — values and inspiration.

Thank you Hasera!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Hasera — Simple Pleasures

My friends are texting— are you having fun?

I don’t think “fun” at this point would describe my Nepal experience. If “adventurous” means uncertainty, noise, chaos, foreign, interesting, getting lost,  etc… then that would describe the center of Kathmandu (Thamel). 

But fortunately now I’m in the country. At Hasera Agricultural Research and Training Center (, Govinda Sharma, the founder and well-known Nepali teacher of permaculture, had answered my inquiry about organic farms on which to work and stay. Just one long taxi ride from Kathmandu.

Whew! This feels so much better since I am a “country girl.” But also one can breathe here, high above it all and away from the pollution and noise and tourists. 

Here is Govinda teaching, always teaching...

Well, sort of away from the noise. 

Below the hill on the highway, musical horns  play while passing around a blind curve next to a cliff.  (Apparently horns playing a tune are outlawed in Kathmandu so the bus owners enjoy their individual musical statement below me.) So I awaken without an alarm at 6 AM to the sound of horns, the mooing of Kali the cow and the chopping of vegetables in the kitchen. Actually those sounds are now simple pleasures. Life awakening.

My days here at Hasera are unstructured

Sometimes they have work for us, sometimes not. Here we are planting.

Picking tea leaves.

We don’t even know when mealtime is. We just wait for the”Yodelyodelyodelwho.” Apparently a Swiss girl once tried to teach them how to yodel.They didn’t master the technique but retained the sounds as a meal call. And if you don’t appear for the meal they come find you.

And the meals? 

“Dal Bhat Power, 24 hour” T shirt describes the basic meal. 

A little bowl of lentil soup and large plate of rice. (I begged for less rice.) On the side are are sauteed vegetables and if you lucky fried bitter gourd,   curried balsam apple, and other exotics from the garden. So good!!

Even the spices they use are grown here — pepper, chili, cumin, garlic, ginger… For breakfast often roti (like Indian chapati), banana and apple. 

Actually the fruit is a luxury because it is grown here only in season and often has to be purchased.

So, when the basic meal is supplemented with something special, that is a “simple pleasure.”

Like when Begin, the older son, went to the city for errands and came back with peanut butter. Add that to the roti and banana — wow! Or when I gave him 1000 rupees to buy chocolate for everyone. (I thought he’d come back with change for the $10 but chocolate here is expensive.) What an after dinner treat! 

And mo mo’s. A traditional Nepalese dish. See  us here taking the rounds made from just flour, water and salt and stuffing them with a curry mixture. One has to do it just so or they will fall apart while steamed. 

Or the samosas! A lot of work, made with more of a pie crust dough, again stuffed just so, and deep fried. A luxury high calorie snack!

 In addition there are dipping sauces that I have yet to make. The simplest is tomatoes and salt and chili, cooked 5 minutes. Or the same with tomatillos (called tree tomatoes) here, with their skins first boiled off. To each of these ground roasted sesame seeds are added.

The best so far? Well, a slightly adulterated Western version of mo mo’s. Shaved chocolate, mashed  banana and chopped apple. No cinnamon? No problem. Just add black pepper. Maybe deprivation makes something this simple more precious. If so, deprivation occasionally is a good thing.

Case in point is the most delicious sensual experience yet at Hasera. A shower! 

See Rebecca blowing on the fire after feeding it cardboard and wood. (Of course we can’t heat water when rice bran is being cooked for Kali the cow.)

 See Josh pouring water to be heated. 

See the shower stall — a short walk up slippery steps while carrying the bucket. Ahhh… Even hooks to hang a towel, clean clothes and the underwear one washes in the warm water. Simple pleasures!!!

Clean body, full tummy and sunset. 
Or in the early morning, if you are very lucky, a  view of the Langtang Range of the Himalayas. Ahhh…

Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Hair-Raising Journey to a Holy Place

I’d wanted to go on a beautiful ride to a peaceful oasis

By now I’d realized that I can only do so much of the chaos, mess and sound of certain cities. I crave peace! Maybe I’m a country girl?

So I asked Deepak to drive me to Namo Buddha, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery two hours out of Kathmandu. Once we got out of the city’s outskirts, I could finally stop holding my breath against the dust and pollution. The traffic still drove me crazy but I stopped gasping once I realized that Deepak was going more slowly and aggravating everyone behind him because he knew I was scared. It was simply death defying, this intermingling of busses, cars and motorcycles, men from India pushing bicycles laden with fruit  and cows in the middle of a 6 lane highway!

Deepak soberly told me that you would get 10 years in jail if you deliberately kiilled a cow. Afterall it is the incarnation of Lakshmi! And she is the goddess of prosperity so you want to stay on her good side! He then said he read that the penalty for rape was 10 years (really, the same as a cow?) And murder 16 years. Wow—that would save on death row appeals…

He also told me I shouldn’t take a bus, that I was “too old.” 

What! But after the two hour trip I totally aggreed. The potholes, cleared mudslides, wandering animals, pollution and kamikaze motorcyles would have sent me flying back to Portugal. At least I got nice calm Deepak who answered all of my personal and social questions. 

He then threw in an aside that he deserved a greater tip than the one I was told to give him yesterday and also would I consider helping to send his daughter to school? OK… I never know where I stand with these money issues with the Nepali. He did talk the cell phone vender down $50 just by casually not giving the man the full amount he asked for. 

But he was my Prince Valiant behind the wheel!

The scenery got more peaceful.  Shiva on the hill.

Terraced gardening scenes. 

A man asking for a road tax and Deepak not giving it because he looked like an alcoholic. An old woman filthy lying by the road—alcohol he pronounced. Apparently this is a home-grown millet and rice booze which a few people are addicted to.

Then we had to get out and walk. 

The road turned to ruts and mud, although motorcycles braved it. 

Marijuana casually grew as a road-side weed.

And finally Namo Buddha. An oasis high above the fray. 

A place of escape, of refuge, of committed spiritual practice.

See the prayer wheels which I turned and prayed for family, friends, this poor world ... for all of us.

And the tiger on the lawn?

According to tradition this is the very site where an earlier reincarnation of the Buddha came across a starving mother tiger and her hungry cubs. Out of pure compassion (more than I could ever muster) he bled and cut himself so they could eat. 

They lived and he was reincarnated as the historical Buddha. Left me wondering how much sacrificial compassion lives in me?

I couldn’t take pictures of the very inner sanctum. Just trust me that Tibetan Buddhism is over-the-top ornate!

I did enjoy talking to the monks. 

Monks on motorcycles, monks on cell-phones, monks happy to answer my questions. (For some reason, nophotos.)

“What does Buddhism say about saving this poor world? How do we pray for this?”

Well, his Holiness the Dalai Llama says that the only prayer that really matters is for your own inner peace.”
Maybe because that’s all I really have any control of? Not over the traffic, dust, poverty, greed, ignorance, fear, illness or death?

The picture of the still living founder of the monastery is laughing. “Of course,” say the monks.

But all they really want to talk about is the American election! “Why did you vote for Trump?” Hmmm...

The journey home was the same, with mud, traffic and dust. 

But I was safe. I’d made a pilgrimage of sorts, remembered peace and was advised of a doable prayer.

When I told the hotel clerk Prakesh (who had up-graded my room after the airport snafu) of the “hard journey”, he replied, “Yes, life is hard. But it is worth it.”

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas in a Campground

For my friends who think I’m still in Nepal, because my blog is, let me update you—just for Christmas. 

I’m writing this in a very noisy game room at a caravan park by a beach at South West Rocks in North New South Wales, Australia. It’s the only place with wifi. Kids are playing the TV at full volume and pingpong games are slamming. But it’s Christmas! Time to be with family, friends and tradition.

So, what do you do when you’re traveling alone and those you love are back home?

Well, you celebrate the small things:

Like, these are happy kids on holiday. Its summer in Australia!
The caravan park, unlike my usually roughing it in the woods, has wifi, water, toilet and a shower.
The family next camper over just invited me to share in their Christmas dinner. And when their little son Jack saw I was a little tearful after a call back home, offered me some M&M’s.

I bought a dozen oysters from a truck last night and cooked them in ramen noodles for a solo Christmas Eve dinner. A relative yummy!

My family will skype me for their Christmas dinner.

And you celebrate the small things in advance leading up to Christmas:

This lovely lady, Bronwen, helped me celebrate Christmas a week early. She and her husband took pity on me at a restaurant and invited me home for a shower! Did I smell that bad? No, she was just passing on some kindness that someone had done for her a week earlier. (Generosity is generative.) Yay!! What a gift! And a hand-dyed washcloth by her daughter of an apple orchard in Bilpin.

My own Christmas basket, from produce and apple cider in the Bilpin area.

And a special snuggle with an orphan. (What big knees you have!)

And you appreciate the decorations, which in rural Australia are sparse but unique.

You rejoice in not dealing with Christmas cards, shopping, and the overstated commercial hoopla. Camp living is simple.

And you celebrate the big things, like … I survived!

The workman cleaning up the debris this morning called last night’s storm “cyclonic!”  This neighbor who had camped here each Christmas for 20 years said, “It was one in a million.”

There were dead cicadas littering the ground, kookaburras looking disheveled and disoriented ducks. Last night my tent shivered and shook. I was seriously worried about lightening striking the trees above, as one did nearby. (Right, I picked this site because of the shade.) I should have been more worried about the falling branches! Eucalyptus trees are notorious for shedding their branches in the wind!

But… it didn’t leak. Yay for not buying a cheaper Kmart tent! 

See the big branch that just missed me.

So, as the storm wound down in the afternoon, we celebrated in Aussie style. 

Turkey, ham and prawns. Beet-root salad. Ending in home-made boiled Christmas pudding with mince pies, custard and cream. 

And cracking “crackers!” Little explosions with these English treats, toys and silly hats. 

And jokes—“What does an angry kangaroo do? Get hopping mad!”

So, my friends, my Christmas in a campground was “one in a million.” 

I learned to appreciate dry shelter,  generosity, little hoopla, a sweet little boy and the kindness of strangers. Maybe a little like the first Christmas?

Wishing all of you the heart warmth and inner light that this Season offers!

Now, back to Nepal…