The Life Cycle and Farms in Nepal

I’m reading a book at a nice overlook of Dhunkharka, a farming village in the foothills of the Himalaya. It’s warm out and the flowers are bright orange. I’m surrounded by bees that pollinate the flowers and then return to their nest in the side of the farm house. The valley is vast, yet steep and farms traverse the mountainside. It is tranquil here and I am soaking in the peace after spending five weeks in India. Children run past and see me, yelling “Namaste!” and then asking me what my name is and what my parents names are. They laugh at how strange all of the names to them and then run off. One of the girls is holding her baby brother on her back in traditional Nepalese fashion. In the distance farmers are cutting down the rows of corn they have grown on the terraces or weeding the newly planted fields. This reminds me that I am suppose to be weeding. The sun felt so nice and my book was quite interesting so I lost track of time. Barefoot, I run down to where the others are weeding.

We’re at a home stay and if we help out around the farm we get $4 off each night. Running down the paths on the mountainside I pass an old lady carrying a bundle of sticks. She has them tied up and a strap is placed around her forehead helping her carry the bundle. I yell “Namaste!” and she raises one hand and says “Namaste!”. A sudden stench fills the air as I pas the barn where the buffalos are kept. Trying to avoid the poop on the ground I take big strides and aim for dry spots. Now I’m in the cornfields and the path is quite narrow. Running through these big blades of grass isn’t ideal so I slow down and shield my face. Finally the path opens up and I see the others have already begun working.

Weeding is by no means my favorite task and one of the others keeps saying how funny it is that in order to help something grow you need to kill something else. That is what the majority of farming is. Altering the natural cycle of the environment to fit your needs. Farming has been going on here for so long that the entire geography of the land is altered. The terraces are the most noticeable sign of this as the once steep mountainside has been smoothed out in a step like fashion to aid in the efficiency and productivity of the land.

To build a terrace trees must be removed. Next is the undergrowth. Finally, the land is dug out so that the mountainside resembles a bunch of steps. It’s the removal of a lot of life that then supports other forms of life that eventually support human life. Of course, this happens everywhere and there is not nearly as much life lost in the production of life here as there is in the United States when areas are converted into monocultures and industrial fertilizers and pesticides are used. Actually, farms here are still quite diverse and house a large, happy community of humans and animals.

I’m plucking out weeds and trying to avoid pulling out the onions. It’s quite hard to not pull the occasional onion out and I killed quite a few. However, these would likely have been pulled latter on when the beds are thinned. Another time where some life is given so that other life can flourish.

This place is amazing. There are trees everywhere. Mountainside forests separate farms and mitigate the risk of a land slide. Not all of the land was altered and a huge portion remains in its natural state. The contrast between the human and nonhuman environment is esthetically pleasing and the people are super friendly. Even pulling weeds is slightly enjoyable.

The balance between human and non-human environment is what really amazes me. Unlike the prairies in the U.S. where almost all of the original plant life has been removed for the overproduction of corn, this place has a plot of corn next to an untouched plot of land that is as it was hundreds of years ago, followed by another plot of land with a house on it. And it just keeps going like this across the entire mountain until it gets too steep or far and the forest takes over.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the cycle of life. This place encourages deep though during the slow weeding or long hours of reading. Maintaining a farm keeps the human mind inside of the life cycle. Living in a city seems to disconnect one from the life cycle. Entertainment on the farm is tending to animals, including birth and slaughter, or planting fields, including killing the existing vegetation so that new vegetation that better suits your stance in the life cycle can exist. Meanwhile people in the city are completely disconnected from this cycle. When a meal is consumed not much thought is put into the death that was required to bring life.

I am vegetarian because I oppose the factory farming of animals that occurs in the U.S.. However, being vegetarian on a farm like this feels different. I know that the animals are not being kept inside tight pens, standing knee deep in their own poop. Instead they are each attended to individually. I am also vegetarian because of environmental reasons. Cows in factory farms in the U.S. are fed corn, even though they evolved to eat grass. This makes them sick and the farmers feed them antibiotics. These antibiotics and other waste then leaches into the waterways causing some major problems downstream and taking life without producing more life. Cows, or buffalos, on this Nepalese farm are part of the farms nutrient cycle. They eat the surplus greens and graze on the grass and then their poop is used as fertilizer. Thus they are assisting in the cycle of life in a positive feedback loop. And this happens in the U.S. too, on small organic farms. But industrial farming is king in the States. It doesn’t exist here.

I ate two small slices of buffalo meat. I think about that as I pull weeds and wonder how this changes my view on the life cycle. Before working on the farm I would have refused, but after seeing the buffalos on the farm and then learning that they are a popular food source I decided to try it. It feels more natural here. Seeing the life cycle in action, day after day, connects emotion to food.

My knee hurts so I lay down to weed and start to relax more. It’s east to get lost in thought when you’re pulling weeds. I pluck a few more and my leg falls asleep. I don’t think that I will eat meat again for a while. Sometimes when you’re traveling its hard to value things that feel so important back home. It must be the different cultural views clashing in my brain.

We’ve finished weeding and hike back in small groups to the house. All of the meals on the farm are vegan and you can see where almost all the food comes from just by looking around the valley as you eat it. I am glad that I came here and eating vegan food all week feels refreshing. Hopefully I can learn some techniques that could take off in the U.S. to ameliorate the environmental impact of farming. It’s hard to say if anything could take off with the huge cultural gap and the difference in technology. But it is refreshing in some way to know that such sustainable farming methods are mainstream on the other side of the world. Maybe it’s time for farms in the U.S. to stop considering the can we, and start thinking about the should we. Of course there is always money in the way, but that’s getting too off topic.

Momo

A momo is Nepalese delicacy. It is a ball of dough that can be steamed or fried. Any filling may be added to a momo, yet the most common fillings are vegetables and chicken. The dough, originally a big blob, is first flattened out. After the dough is flat a cup can be used to cut circular pieces of dough out of the large flat dough. Once the dough has taken the shape of a circle filling is added. Because I am vegetarian I prefer veggie filling, but also enjoy the occasional cheese filling. Combining these two fillings is ideal and produces a rich flavor. For this particular momo a veggie filling of shredded carrots and spinach will be used. Once these vegetables are shredded a light seasoning should be applied to enhance the flavor. A light oil will also be needed to assist in the cooking of the veggies. It is important for flavor and temperature reasons to cook the vegetables before hand and this particular batch of veggies will be pan fried. Other methods include baking, steaming, or simply using raw vegetables. Raw vegetables are not ideal, but definitely work. Cheese, if desired, should be shredded and possibly melted beforehand. Placing a liberal pinch of vegetable filling on the center of the circular ball of dough and pinching the edge of the circle the momo will begin to take its shape. Continue doing so until all of the filling has been surrounded in dough. Depending on ones style, the momo may be a circle, oval, or resemble a half moon. The pinched dough can create a design or simply be pressed into the surrounding dough. At this point the momo can either be fried or steamed. Steaming the momo is the most common method. A large pot is filled with water and put to a boil. In place of a lid a pan covered in small holes is used. Depending on the amount of momos being cooked multiple pans of this design may be required and they can be stacked on top of one another. The boiling water then produces enough steam to cook the momos and warm the internal filling. If a fried momo is desired it can be pan fried on a stove, or dipped into boiling oil. The difference here is mainly textural. Pan fried momos are often hard on the bottom and soft on top. Momos that have been fully submerged in oil are hard all around, producing a crunch each bite. The steamed momos are soft and flimsy. The size of each momo is about the same as a pot sticker, but can be smaller or larger if desired. Hands are the most popular form of consumption and on average each momo contains about two bites. Dipping sauces are a must and they make or break the momo. Each momo shop has its own particular dipping sauce. These can be creamy or runny, but almost always have a hint of spice. The sauce is often orange, occasionally red, and sometimes green. Again, this all depends on the momo shop, as does the amount of spice. Making each individual momo takes quite some time. Consuming the momos does not take long.

Farming in Southern Nepal

Contrary to the typical mental image of snow covered peaks and vast glacial valleys, a major portion of Nepal is a subtropical climate. Green farmlands spread as far as the eye can see only to be obstructed by a verity of tropical trees and farmhouses. The morning produces a haze that engulfs the farms in smoke as wood is still a popular fuel source.

Due to the overwhelming heat of the sun, alongside the sticky humidity, almost all work is accomplished early in the morning, or as the sun sets in the evening. The lack of machinery makes progress quite slow. Plowing is manpowered with the assistance a hoe. These are quite primitive, even for hoes, and break quite often. The average tool is constructed out of a bamboo pole, or a whittled down stick. The metal portion is wedged on and held together by some rubber and a few nails. The handle destroys your skin and blisters are inevitable for a first time user.

The lack of technology contributes to the short work days. However, this also plays into the farms biodiversity. Because of the slow progress, the entire field isn’t planted at once. Furthermore, in contrast to monoculture farming in Western countries, multiple plant species are planted in the fields. This has quite positive impacts on both the aesthetics of the region and the environment. A diverse array of plant species results in a diverse insect population, leading to more diverse bird species. It’s quite tranquil to sit and listen to the sounds all these different life forms create. Moreover, this style of planting does not rely on the fertilizers and pesticides that western methods exploit thus making it all organic. Organic farming results in healthier foods as you consume less chemicals. It also means a lot more butterflies.

Buffalos and Cows can be found grazing on idle areas of the farm or bathing in nearby streams. Sometimes a farmer will join in and assist the buffalo with its bathing, a sight that is both touching and humorous. The buffalo are often accompanied by a few birds representing a symbiotic relationship. The birds feed on the flies and other insects, thus reducing the annoyance of the insects to the buffalo and feeding the birds. These birds in particular are white as snow with long necks and light orange beaks.

Buffalo milk is a delicacy on the farm and is served hot after breakfast. Breakfast always consists of rice, often accompanied by lentils or beans with the occasional potato. Because chilis are grown on the farm the food can be as mild or as spicy as one wishes. The cooking is done both inside and outside. The indoor cooking is on a gas powered stove, while the outdoor cooking is fueled by wood in a clay dome with an open roof. The pan is placed on top and the wood is fed through its open side. This form of cooking is terrible for ones health and communities of lower socioeconomic status are exposed to the unhealthy particulates produced by wood burning daily.

The slow progress and hard work makes ones appreciation of food grow each day. In contrast to western cultures where ones connection to their meal is very distant, here every portion of the meal can be seen cycling through the land. One bed is sprouting beans as another’s beans were harvested a few days back making for a delicious meal. The surplus is then composted and used to kickstart the entire cycle. In complete contrast to fast food this process is very slow. Furthermore, it slows down your eating. Eating on the go is impossible and every meal is consumed around a table with others.

Hinduism is the popular religion in the region and this creates some interesting sights on the farm. A fresh cow pie was moved next to one of the trees by an older lady who then began decorating the poop. Placing leaves and flowers on the inside so that the flowers were sticking outwards she covered the entire mound of poo. Afterwards insense were lit and a red dye was placed on quite a few things including the tree, poop, cow, buffalo, and of course human foreheads. The already slow process halts each Saturday as it is a holly day and resumes again on Sunday.

Sustainability and India

10 million people in Mumbai alone live in slums. That is more than the entire population of Sweden, all living in tremendous poverty. Because there are over 1.3 Billion people in India, all competing over a limited capital, about anything can be found or done in India of one has the funds.

The poverty that this large population creates is suffocating at times. It also results in foul smells and rancid waterways that make privileged western travelers want to vomit. But this is everyday life for the majority of India. Riding on a train that has too many people and not enough space, the stench of India can penetrate the stuffiest nose. Stagnant water releases the worst odor of all as the rains move litter and pollution into all of the low spaces that can trap water. These pools are the often worst color of blue and appear oily. However, the population seems almost immune to the rancid smells. Moreover, they contribute to them daily by throwing their trash all over the streets and peeing wherever seems fit.

The state of the environment in India is terrible. Even the most polarized members of the Political Right would amend their views on the Clean Water Act after smelling a river in India. Unfortunately, the vast majority of residents in India are powerless when it comes to ameliorating the state of their environment. Furthermore, they are exposed to environmental toxins daily as they bathe and do laundry in the polluted rivers. It is heartbreaking to see children playing, so carelessly, in water that most would fear to touch. But this is the every day reality of billions.

Urban environments do have a diverse amount of species, ranging from Monkeys to Buffaloes, and the occasional Elephant or Camel. Yet they lack green spaces. Moreover, if there are green spaces, they are behind barbed wire fences and out of reach to the average person. The Taj Mahal is located in Agra, one of the dirtiest places on the planet. The town has a rancid smell everywhere and the people are terribly impoverished. The lawns of the Taj Mahal are almost as green as a middle class suburb in the U.S., yet the children are fenced out and play on the lifeless banks of the river. How can such beauty exist in the middle of so much poverty?

I’ve been thinking hard on solutions. Being moved near tears several times this month by watching the suffering of India I can’t help to feel helpless for them. But how does the proliferation of sustainability work? As I was flipping through my passport and reading famous quotes to curios India’s, I came across one by Dwight D. Eisenhower saying “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America”. This then made me think about sustainability in relation to industrialization. Although it took western countries hundreds of years to get where we are, places such as China have been able to ride that wave and industrialize in a much shorter period of time. This is likely to hold true with sustainability. As we focus on elevating poverty and environmental injustices inside the United States, places such as India will have the ability to follow suit.

But is this enough? After having this thought a man casually threw three plastic water bottles out of the train window, a common occurrence. Maybe educational programs aimed at the younger population will lead to the slow, yet steady decline of litter. Or maybe moving away from plastics in the West will do the trick. A more immediate plan would be educational. The vast majority of Indian youth have access to smart phones and use social media. Maybe this could be a platform for grassroots activism and alleviation from the bottom up? Educational posts by popular figures on the horrors of micro plastic and the benefits of recycling programs could be some sort of step in the right direction.

Could India use the state of their environment as a way to alleviate poverty? It could be possible that massive cleanup programs would ameliorate the poverty and provide both jobs and health to an entire nation. There is no shortage of workers India. It seams as if everyone is looking for a way to make a few bucks all hours of the day. Why not create capital out of trash? Chinas recent decision to cease their importation of recyclable trash could be used to India’s advantage. By creating (state or private) recycling plants or trash incinerators that convert the trash into goods and energy, India could create jobs and clean up their streets, thus improving health nationwide. After doing so they could insure that these jobs last by importing recyclable trash. Such as the connection with industrialization, these technologies could be modeled after Chinas, and improved by the brilliance of Indian engineers, to be more efficient and clean.

I am not saying that this would be easy, nor is it a panacea. Furthermore, a lot of the goods that are polluting India came from the influence of Western civilization. However, from what I have seen, there is no shortage of willingness. Persons of the lowest socioeconomic status already collect plastic bottles on the streets. The willingness at that level is there. A lot of Indians complain regularly about how dirty their country is, so the public is likely to support such a program. What I do not know, and what is likely to be the most difficult piece of the puzzle, is who would initiate such a program.

India is the closest country to anarchy that I have visited. Hell, there aren’t even stoplights. My only interaction with a police officer was getting shaken down for 5…. no 50 rupees (after he saw how much I had in my wallet) for braking a rule no one knew about and likely didn’t exist (the cash went right into his pocket and he enthusiastically shook my hand and told me to have a nice day afterwards). Moreover, the majority of India’s authorities are tied up in boarder disputes with China and Pakistan, something that deserves its own polemical blog post as northern India is a place that hosts the refugees if Tibet.

I’m leaving India with a lot of questions and thoughts that I would love an answer to. The love I’ve experienced here has touched me, yet the poverty and environmental hardships keep weighing down my spirits. After having my shoes and wallet stolen within two days, arriving and leaving Agra, I’m ready to leave India. However I don’t think that India will leave my mind for quite some time.

Please note: some of the smells are necessary for the charm as it is beautiful seeing animals coexisting with humans in urban environments. This is in no way meant to be critical of India’s people, nor government, for I know little regarding the political climate of India. This is simply a look at India through an environmental point of view.

Please feel free to comment ideas and comments below!

Varanasi- A City Lost in Time

Varanasi has the architectural feel of ancient European towns such as Venice or Rome, yet is filled with customs that are authentic to India. A cow or buffalo is just as likely to cut you off as one of the frantic scooter drivers. Monkeys can be seen traversing the skyline and occasionally make it into a kitchen just to be chased away by an angry cook. Hundreds of kites are flown above this ancient city each night as the wind blowing over the Ganges river passes over the rooftops. Each roof has a terrace or balcony that extends over the entire building. From the rooftop one will notice the entire city engulfed in smoke as there are constant ceremonies going on where the dead are burned on the beach and then laid to rest in the river. Occasionally a limb is overlooked and left in the ashes for a happy stray dog to run off with. The flames that light these funeral pires are as old as the city and haven’t gone out in 3,500 years. The flames are held within a temple, outside there are huge mounds of wood and bamboo to keep the flames going and carry the dead through the streets and to the funeral site. There are animals everywhere. The cows are huge but not quite as large as the buffalo. Goats roam around the city, or are chained to a pole near someone’s home. Beggars can occupy entire streets. Some beggars are holly men, baba’s that just beg and meditate, and will read your future for a few hundred rupees. Others are widows, cripples and children. Some are paralyzed, begging from a sprawled out position in the middle of the road and slamming their coin bowls on the ground to draw attention. Others are gypsies, getting by by training a child that is not yet two how to tug on your sleeve and then bring their little hand up to their mouth. The homeless population is huge, as overwhelming as the smell of trash and cow shit that creates a layer over the old cobblestone roads.

Littering creates a job for the lowest cast. The cast system is still alive in India, and the lowest cast cleans the roads each night when the rest of the city sleeps. They’re also responsible for the funeral grounds on the river side. Hindus believe that they will live a life in every cast, thus seeing the lowest of the lows and the highest of the highs. Some find it appealing, others see injustices.

Varanasi has the feel of being lost in time. There is a strong sense of love that enchants pilgrims and inspires westerners to look deeper than the material level. The chaos of the streets only works because the tremendous love the citizens have for one another. Such as Chennai, there is art everywhere in Varanasi. Some beggars are garbed in all orange with face paint on, leaning on a wooden staff. Bicycle curriers often wear bright colored scarves and long sleeves while carrying two or three woman who are all dressed in traditional fashion. Walking through alleyways you will find a new shop every few feet selling silks, spices, chillums, and about anything else you can think of. The food stands very from simply selling apples and other produce to dosas and samosas. The carts with produce are often hauled through the alleyways, stopping traffic and slowing down the busy city. Motorcycles and cows also frequent the alleyways, making an adventure out of any walk down the street. Cars are not very common and due to the lack there of the streets are full of rickshaws, three wheeled carriages pulled by a motorcycle. Occasionally horses and oxen are used for transportation, or hauling around goods. The lack of stoplights, lanes, or any authority makes the roads feel like utter chaos. However, there are almost no crashes. The exception to this is the fact that trucks are willing to bump into rickshaws to nudge them out of their way. This doesn’t do any damage to the vehicles, but is hilarious to see.

A Prolonged Buss Ride

After spending a few days climbing in Badami it was time to spend a few relaxing days on the beach. Hearing that Goa produced some of the best coastline in India it seemed to be the next local step. However, upon attempting to leave Badami news came out of a petroleum strike in India. All of the busses refused to leave the station until later that day. Departure time to Goa was six pm. This meant taking an overnight bus, but no sleeper busses were available. Being crammed into a city bus for 8-9 hours didn’t sound ideal, but it was the only option for departure that day. It was not so bad at first, even after finding out that it would actually take 11 hours with stops. The bus stopped at a few small towns and was fully loaded with families and luggage. There was even a dinner break at a restaurant a few hours into the trip. But then the bus entered the mountainous jungle region near the Goa boarder. The road was narrow and winded sharply around corners. Sleep was nearly impossible and the sound of screeching brakes hindered any silence that was not already broken by crying babies. Suddenly there was a line of semi trucks in front of the bus. It didn’t look to bad at first and no one expected long delays. Everyone was just waiting around, not knowing what was going on outside. Once moms started making hammocks out of their shawls and hanging them on the handrails for their babies to sleep in it was clear that the bus was not moving any time soon. It was about two thirty in the night and people were attempting to make themselves comfortable. Some laid on the floor, others rested on their luggage, and a few even left the bus and laid down outside. This lasted for a few hours until finally horns were heard in the distance. It turned out to be an accident, one of the semi trucks had driven off one of the sharp turns that the bus had been speeding around all night. The line up on the uphill side went on for quite some time and made our decent into the jungle even more narrow than before. The bus arrived in Goa at 8am the next morning, but did not drop us off at the final destination. From there multiple bus transfers on overcrowded busses were needed. When we finally arrived in Arambol it was 12 in the afternoon. We had only gone 136 miles.

Hampi and Badami

The last week and a half I’ve spent my time in central India. The first stop was Hampi, a place where the number of ancient temples are only outnumbered by the vast fields of granite boulders. The valleys are filled with small farms and goats often roam across the ruins. The number of cows wandering the streets may be quite close to the non tourist population of Hampi and they often find their way into the temple grounds. There is always some sort of Hindi festival going on and this results in random parades and constant music radiating from the temples that are still in use. After spending a few days hiking around the temples and riding bikes through some ruins I crossed the river and went to the other side of Hampi where the vibe is less spiritual and is centered around yoga and climbing. Here, new friends were made and I climbed a few boulders in the blistering heat. However, my favorite experience was renting scooters and driving through some of the villages that are near Hampi. It is insane how much non-human life can be found in the villages of India. Driving past a child that was pooping while waving his hands in the air and shouting “hi, hi, hi” at me as passed him on the side of the road I could also see pigs rummaging through the heaps of trash that the villagers dump there. Heards of cows and goats sometimes block the entire rode as they are guided to a new field. Monkeys can also be found scavenging around looking for a street vender that is selling bananas.

Hampi was great, but it was time to move on. Some friends and I caught wind of a town called Badami that produced the hardest sport routs in India. The town is in a desert and it is surrounded by massive sandstone cliffs. The climbing was world class and it was some of the strongest and best textured stone I’ve ever climbed on. However, climbers were not the only people interested in the cliff sides. Monkeys call this area home and will literally swarm you if they see any signs of bananas. Some would try approaching directly and yelling at you, while other monkeys would try and sneak up from behind and steal the banana bag. They could be seen in herds of up to fifty monkeys at times and they would approach from all directions yelling and jumping across the cliff walls. Sometimes they would leave the cliff side and could be seen in Badami, crawling on rooftops or lurking on a wall above a fruit stand.

There was also a police officer training going on and about thirty police officers were learning how to lead climb. This was quite interesting to watch and I couldn’t imagine anything like it happening in the U.S. They were quite friendly, but wanted selfies every time they saw non-Indian climbers. Selfies and the same conversation of “what is your name?” And “What country?” is something any traveler will encounter in India. On the average day I take five to ten selfies with strangers and answer those two questions about thirty times. Even in the middle of a meal someone will ask for a photo, just ask a few questions, or move your plate out of the way and try to sell you some “hand carved” stone necklace that can be found identically in southern India.