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Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Far Flung Friends vs. Bucket List Aspirations

High school, to many, was a time of being young and carefree. Almost all day and everyday was spent being around friends, talking and joking, with only class as a distraction.

I never fit in back in high school and didn't get this high school experience. So, for me, one month at Sadhana Forest was like having a very late high school experience.
Working in the forest at sunrise
For one month, I was surrounded all day and everyday by fellow travelling volunteers. I planted trees in the forest with them, cooked, served and ate meals together, cleaned and maintained our idyllic little hut village together.

The rest of our hours were spent mingling and chatting away, cooling down at the mud pool, or going on excursions outside the forest. We often went to Auroville or Pondicherry to hang out at coffee shops, eat out, or spend time at the beach. I indulged in several of Auroville's cultural offerings such as a live Shakespeare play, and a live concert by a French jazz band.
Shakespeare in the plaza, Auroville
The rigid and bland curriculum of high school didn't compare to the endless opportunities for learning and enrichment at Sadhana Forest. Based on our gift economy, volunteers offered a multitude of free workshops such as meditation, salsa dancing, ayurvedic massage, non-violent communication, and sustainability and permaculture topics. I even attempted a Shamanic journey. I coordinated my own workshops on fermentation, worm composting, and identifying constellations in the night sky.

Other amazing ongoing events included sharing circles, music sharing circles, bonfires, and weekly talent shows and film nights, screening eye-opening documentaries.
Going the wrong way on the highway? Only in India
I learned, I grew, I inspired on an unforeseen level here at Sadhana. Beyond my own body and mind, the greatest benefits I will reap will be from the personal connections made.

The people of Sadhana really raised the bar for the types of personalities I enjoy meeting.

With no mirrors at Sadhana, and little concern paid to personal hygiene and aesthetics, people were comfortable in their own skin and showed their real, unabashed selves, revealing their true beauty. Their energies and talents flowed from their inner cores, which radiated warmth and compassion.

Many of them are musically and artistically inclined, speak several languages, have worked on farms and been exposed to permaculture, and prefer yoga and meditation retreats to famous monuments and package tours. The average conversation I had was about travelling, veganism, worldviews, world issues, philosophy, society and the environment. Absent from these talks were complaints about weather and traffic, or how everything is too expensive, gripes that characterize the ills of city life.
My favourite quote, written on the main hut
Leaving Sadhana Forest was sad. I exchanged kind words and long hugs with many of the people there. Despite leaving behind a cherished experience, I look with a flourishing optimism towards my future.

Sadhana helped reinforce the goals and values of my life and journey. I was previously considering popular India excursions such as houseboating in Goa or seeing the Taj Mahal, but now I will likely avoid these, focusing instead on fulfilling experiences and building friendships. (the veganism at Sadhana has rubbed off a bit on me too, and we'll see how that affects my dietary decisions)
Jonathan, Sadhana alumni, with Shalev, the daughter of the founder
The ultimate lesson from Sadhana, and which I continually learn through travelling, is that it's about the people, not just the places. The places are simply the settings for which the scenes of my life take place - the mingling and nurturing of fellow actors of world change.

With my vision clear and the open road before me, once again, the scene is set for my last few weeks of travelling in India, and beyond.

Here is a video by Jonathan, pictured above, a fellow Sadhana alumni, about life in the forest. Watch video

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A Revolving Door of Friendships

3 weeks in Sadhana Forest has confirmed that this is the most unique place on Earth I have ever visited.
Bicycling Indian style
Sadhana never stops and there are no dull moments here. My experience here has been a roller coaster of emotions as intense as the trials of backpacking. And almost all the other volunteers have had similar experiences.

The main reason for the constant ups and downs is the transient nature of Sadhana Forest. There are volunteers arriving and departing almost every day.

The day I arrived, I was surprised to be joined by 5 other new volunteers. After settling in and feeling "at home" after about one week, suddenly friends that I made began departing. Then, one morning at breakfast in the main hut, a wave of 12 volunteers were introduced! In just a few weeks since I arrived, Sadhana grew from 60 to 90 volunteers. And only 5 or so short term volunteers remained from the day I arrived, a nearly complete turnover.
Bonfire dancing
I was caught off guard, felt invaded by these new people coming into my "home." At first, I was slightly distant with them. But thankfully living and working together in close proximity gave me no choice but to befriend them, instead of falling into some sort of introverted recluse.

These days I'm in high spirits, after being able to find a balanced mix of being social and being in solitude. And I find that at Sadhana, I'm more extroverted than at any time of my life, a sign that I've found my community, my like minds.

That's so stereotypical of you...

The friendships I have made here include a globally diverse mix of individuals, and this has developed some stereotypes in my mind.

(Whoa, did he say stereotypes?) Yes, I am not afraid to talk about stereotypes. Stereotyping is humans' natural way of categorizing a world with too much stimulus and chaos. Stereotypes are okay, as long as they're done in a respectful or playful manner, and don't lead to prejudice.

So with that said, here are just a few of my lovely stereotypes based on Sadhana Forest volunteers. (in parentheses is the approximate number of people of each nationality I got to know)
Gustav from Sweden - actor and feminist. Plans to be in India 6 months or more
Swedish (5) - beyond their beautiful blue eyes, blond hair and H & M style, the Sadhana Swedish revealed an amazing sense of humour. They love to joke and poke fun at everyone, yet they also enjoy conversations about more serious topics and are driven to make the world a better place.
Greg from United States - has a radio-worthy voice smooth as butter. Long term volunteer at Sadhana Forest planning on staying 1 year
Americans (6) and British (4) share similar duality of behaviours, causing me to either praise'em or curse'em in one breath. Travellers from my past experiences have either been arrogant, entitled or blunt and brash, or they've been the complete opposite - gentle, pleasant and curious. Thankfully Sadhana only draws the latter.
Shay from Israel - back home volunteers for DROR Israel, a non-profit movement advancing equality and social responsibility. Shay will be in India for 5 months
Israelis (9) are fun and smiling, and enjoy bringing people together. They are also not shy about discussing controversial ideas and philosophies, and challenging those around them. Their intensity and awareness stems from living in a hotspot of global politics and religious conflict. I openly inquired with a few Israelis about the "Israel situation" and received fairly balanced responses, spreading blame for atrocities to both sides.
Guillaume from France - interrupted his medical school degree for a new and refreshing education - to travel India/Nepal for 10 months
French (4) are coffee lovers. Beyond that, their reputation for pride is not at all evident in Sadhana. Here, they are welcoming and super easy going and I feel calm and relaxed just being around them. Despite their quiet disposition, their preferred form of self-expression and enjoyment is through embracing nature and culture.
Stella from Germany - a Waldorf student, previously was a teacher for 1 year at Auroville
Germans (12) may still be my favourite people. I've probably met more Germans than any other foreign nationality in my life, including here at Sadhana. Its young people are highly critical thinking and motivated to find solutions to the world's problems. They always seem to either love or hate their country, known for its efficiency and order, in stark contrast to India's stumbling and bumbling chaos. They speak English as an ESL language better than any other nationality, which makes connecting with them easier.
Sash from India - quit her job to wander about India. About to embark on a walking journey 130 km from Pondicherry to Chennai
Indians (8) - because I've had trouble relating to locals during these travels, I can't say I've given Indians at Sadhana a fair chance, given the presence of so many foreigners. But I've had a few conversations with Indians that have revealed very interesting stories of boldness and rejection of the Indian conservative way of life.
Colin from Alberta! - documentary watcher extraordinaire. Plans to be in India 6 months
Canadians (6)... well, how can I talk about Canadians without sounding proud? Many foreigners I meet talk glowingly of the kindness of Canadians. And many of the Canadians at Sadhana carry the same soft spoken firmness and "let it be" attitude that makes me proud of my country.

Despite some obvious characteristics of the varying nationalities and personalities at Sadhana, one common string connects us all, and that is that we are all compassionate human beings, coming together in a global community with a common goal to improve the local environment and live sustainably.

Here at Sadhana, we are the real model United Nations.
Here I am, meditating with a cat in my lap

Monday, 12 January 2015

We Are All Interconnected

I dipped my feet in the Indian Ocean and felt the warm salty water swell around my legs and splash up to my knees. I breathed in the salty air, while the sun blanketed me with a soothing warmth and the wind played a soft melody around my body, rounding out the natural orchestra on my senses.
I closed my eyes, letting the white reflection of the sand numb my eyeballs, and let myself reach a state of no mind that only being in nature can provide.

I imagined at once all of the forces in the universe at work to provide me with this amazing moment:

the ocean, a single inconceivable mass of water, washing ashore as perfect piddly waves around my human legs;

the ocean surface pulled up by the distant moon, shaped by the wind;

the wind, a strong atmospheric force created by the rotation of our huge planet and driven by ocean heat, fierce enough to whip up killer typhoons, yet forming a gentle breeze on my skin;

the ocean heat, supplied by a massive star in our sky blasting forth a wave of incinerating heat from 93 million miles away, bathing me in life giving warmth.

I snapped out of my state of no mind, back to my little reality, toes sunk in the sand, ocean still lapping at my legs.

At that moment I felt connected to the Earth, the universe and everything.

I felt insignificant. I felt how insignificant we all are, a band of lemmings plodding around on this planet, at the whim of uncontrollable forces.

I also felt lucky. Somehow all these forces improbably came together to shape our planet Earth and to bring me this amazing moment.

We are lucky, as a human race, to be gifted such a beautiful place to call home.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Sadhana Forest - A Volunteer's Paradise

Deep into the forest, hidden from civilization, lush greens and broad leaves crowded my narrow dirt path as I walked.

The path ended, and I stood looking up at a massive triangular roof, made mostly of wood and straw, covering a beautiful open air hut. Inside the hut, I stared in awe at the beautiful interior - the floor was covered with soft woven bamboo, like the ones used for picnics, and comfy cushions lay everywhere, inviting me to sit.
The dormitory where many volunteers sleep
Later on, in that very same hut, I sat in on my first meeting at Sadhana Forest. There were about 70 people crammed in the hut, mostly young and from all over the world. When I announced my name, everyone collectively said back "Andrew, welcome."

Ever watched the movie The Beach, when Leo Dicaprio's character discovers a band of young people living on a secret island tropical paradise just off of Thailand? This is what I felt like upon arriving at Sadhana Forest.

Auroville is a world famous ecovillage that serves as a model for how humanity can live sustainably and in harmony with the ecosystem. It is made up of around 3000 people from around 50 countries around the world, coming together in an intentional community with green technologies and a progressive social structure, the largest of its kind. It even has its own currency. 
The meditation hut, Sadhana Forest
Sadhana Forest was born when Aviram, the founder, leased a small parcel of land from Auroville back in 2003 with a mission to revive an endangered ecosystem - the tropical dry evergeen forest. Thus far it has been successful - the lush forest that I initially walked through, along with the huts that comprise the ecovillage was once a virtual desert, a flat expanse of dirt, just 10 years ago.

Driven by passionate volunteers, Sadhana Forest has combined simple and innovative techniques for rainwater capture with planting trees and other indigenous species to increase vegetation, restore the groundwater and aquifers, and bring life back to the parched land.

The comfy lounge and Wifi area
In the process it has created a hidden paradise of its own, a well balanced and spirited community which attracts mostly young backpackers, foreigners looking for an opportunity to give back to a country which has inspired and enlightened them. However, the community also has a few families with children, including Aviram, and his wife and two daughters.

Sadhana Forest embraces the same passion and noble values it has for tree planting as it does in fostering a sustainable inclusive community. Hut shelters are made primarily out of local and natural materials. Rocket stoves efficiently convert firewood to heat for cooking. Compost toilets convert human waste into fertilizer. A small supply of electricity supplied through solar panels is used sparsely. Natural soap is provided to ensure water runoff from washing activities doesn't pollute the streams. And much, much more... it's the closest thing to living among raw nature that I've experienced.
Compost toilets with poo hole and pee hole to separate the waste
Work is balanced - 16 hours per week of sevas (Sanskrit word meaning "selfless service"), with a variety of tasks to keep work interesting. The community operates on a gift economy. The village also has a small library, mopeds and bicycles available for rent, and a variety of workshops for learning and fun.

Since volunteer efforts are split between planting trees, preparing food and village maintenance, it does not have enough human resources to become self sufficient in food, like many ecovillages. However, the community only prepares and eats vegan food, lightening the burden on the agricultural system weighed down by the high demand for meat.
Workshop on non-violent communication
Sadhana Forest provided the escape to nature I was looking for, a deceleration of pace, and a respite from the harsh realities of backpacking in India, with a backpack getting heavier by the week, no less. It has also provided a wealth of learning that I can carry forward with me.

New Year's Eve was awesome. An Un-talent Show was held with a variety of performances, some quite wacky and interesting. I even performed half a song on harmonica - Neil Young's Heart of Gold. Afterwards we went out to the mud pool for a swim, then hung out by the campfire to count down the end of 2014.
One of the strangest performances at the un-talent show
This morning, everyone shared a moment of silence at the start of breakfast. This happens at every meal. During the moment of silence, I felt happy and thankful to be here. So far, to me, this is the most unique community on Earth with some of the most amazing people I've ever met.

I'm looking forward to one month of relaxing in balmy weather, surrounded by blissful nature, getting my hands dirty, and bonding with other inspiring international travelers. Come join me!

Flickr photos