travel/volunteering

Adventures with Norwegian Children

It was a Tuesday morning in early August, and we got off the train at Finse, Norway, a snow-covered mountain-top town with only a rail station, bicycle-rental shop, and lodge. The nearest anything-else is a 30-minute drive away, if the roads aren’t frozen over. The trail that begins here, the Rallervegen, was built from 1902-1904 for railroad workers building the tracks. It is now a famous bicycle route. We were so excited to cycle this 3-foot-wide path down the mountain. Other than a few other cyclists all we saw were sheep and goats.

We headed out on the pebbly, unpaved trail to ride the winding 4,000-foot descent. We snaked along rivers, passed by countless waterfalls, went up and over a few snow-covered passes (where we had to get off and push our bikes), and saw an abundance of super-fuzzy moss-covered rocks. About a third of the way down the trail we came upon four girls, right in the middle of the path, between the ages of 5-12. They were suited up in snowsuits with a small folding table, some folding chairs, pitchers of lemonade and fruit punch, and a plate of cookies. They excitedly offered us refreshments as my boyfriend said to me, out of the side of his mouth, “Where are their parents?” I smiled at him, knowing we’d have an interesting lunch-time conversation about independence, nature, culture, and the benefits of being left to your own devices without any digital devices.

As we rode away we saw their home in the distance, maybe 500 feet away from their snack stand. It was the only home we saw that entire day, which also made us think about the experience of growing up so far from civilization. Of having only you and your siblings to occupy your time. Of wanting to meet new people and being totally cool with it being only ten cyclists a day. Of offering refreshments without any idea of making money off it. Of carrying these things from your far-away home. Of occupying yourselves all day without screens. Of finding people to practice English with. Of the simple joy of being able to brighten a stranger’s day.

We wondered how they would handle an injury. Our questions started from the overprotective and moved towards the Scandinavian way. Did they have a first aid kit? If someone got hurt would they carry her home? Would someone run to get help? Would they assess the situation and, if it wasn’t so serious, deal with it later knowing it was only a minor injury that didn’t require immediate attention? If it was a small cut or bruise, would they just grab some snow and make an ice pack or use the melted ice to clean the cut? Did they know of healing plants growing nearby?

These children were self-directing their own learning. They were creating experiences that forced them to act on the spot, navigate emotions and social interactions, make group decisions, and practice first impressions. They were building their self-confidence, independence, and self-regulation skills. These are important life skills that, I would argue, many millennials in the US are lacking.

This makes me wonder: We know that we are better able to learn new languages at a young age. Wouldn’t this also apply to social and emotional skills? If we focused on these skills in early childhood, they would be ingrained, and the next generation would be more adept at supporting each other and solving the world’s problems.  

Should I do a Gap Year, Study Abroad, or Volunteer?

Malia Obama may be the spark I’ve been looking for.

Throughout my life I’ve advocated for traveling, exploring, and immersing yourself in other cultures.

-       In high school I went on sponsored trips around the world to understand other cultures.

-       In college I studied abroad in a tiny city in Italy where I spoke Italian, made friends with international students and locals, and began to see the similarities between humans.

-       After college I backpacked through Eastern Europe, wanting to walk where my great-grandparents walked.

Throughout my adult life I’ve traveled, often staying in small communities with friends or locals to get a feel for life there. I’m not as interested in visiting landmarks as I am with connecting with the people who live somewhere.

From 2014-2015 I lived in a small village in southeastern India as part of an environmental impact organization and sustainable community. I became immersed in local culture and became an expert in reforestation and water conservation in arid lands. 

I’ve recently discovered bicycle touring, a way to really see, in slow-moving fashion, an entire country or island, zigzagging or riding the perimeter, meeting locals, camping on stranger’s front yards, connecting with friends of friends of friends.

The things I always learn are:

-       The world is smaller than you think. It’s not a scary or dangerous place. And we are all connected. It’s easy to make friends and find people you really want to share with and get to know, everywhere.

-       Listening, observing, and reflecting are silent but necessary skills to learn about yourself, check your judgments, and find ways to connect that transcend the often-privileged mindset that ‘you know best’ and others should ‘do it your way.’

-       The different choices we make as humans are what brings us together and helps us learn from one another.  It’s empowering to use these experiences in other times of your life - to remember how someone else solved a problem or overcame an obstacle. These are lessons we can use over and over again.

I wish for young people to get out there and become a part of the larger humanity. There are so many ways!

-       Gap Year Programs- Volunteer, Intern, Apprentice

o   American Gap Association

§  How to Plan a Gap Year

o   Global Citizen Year

o   Go Abroad (Includes several Program Types: Intern, Volunteer, High School, Teach, etc.)

o   International Volunteer HQ

o   Global Volunteer Network

o   United Planet

o   Projects Abroad

o   Volunteer Alliance

o   Cross Cultural Solutions

o   2016 Best Volunteer Abroad Programs from Volunteer Forever

-       Study Abroad Programs

o   Generation Study Abroad

o   Study Abroad

o   Go Overseas

o   Brooklyn College’s Study Abroad Programs

o   Ciee Study Abroad (Council on International Educational Exchange)

-       Hosting an international study abroad student

o   AFS-USA

o   Ayusa (Academic Year in the USA) Global Youth Exchange

o   Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs

o   Aspect Foundation

o   Rhianna even has a scholarship for students in Central and South America to study abroad in the US!

In case you are wondering about cost, diversity, college acceptance or graduation, here is a great article with resources Busting the Top 10 Study Abroad Myths.

I’m excited to see what Malia does with her Gap Year. It could be the spark of a movement towards global exploration and cultural understanding that we so desperately need. 

What public education could be

Walking into the school building during arrival, students are happily rushing down the halls in groups of friends and classmates, eagerly awaiting another school day. Parent volunteers stand guard in the middle of the halls, each with a hand outstretched, palm facing outward, yelling “No running in the halls!”   For 10 years I taught in schools like this where while creativity and independent thinking were fostered (despite a scripted, overly structured curriculum), a culture of “no” always loomed.   —————————————  In the 2013-2014 school year I was graded on how well I could predict, in October, each student’s reading level, in May. I had just met these 4 and 5 year-olds and my perceived teacher-effectiveness depended on my educated guesses of children for whom I had not discovered their learning styles and abilities and who came to me with no “prior history”, as is the case in older grades where teachers are given evidence of student learning from their students’ previous teachers.   That was my last year of teaching.   I took a yearlong sabbatical in India in an environmentally-sustainable community that practices unschooling. I chose this community, as it was a place where children mattered; their interests were encouraged and they were trusted to be active members of the community. It was assumed that they implicitly wanted to learn.   Over the course of the year I spent much time with these international children of hippie-minded parents who had an inkling of their privilege in that they had previously attended school or had cousins in traditional schools in other countries. They took full advantage of having freedom to learn anything from anyone. They were used to asking adults to explain what they were doing, to offer feedback, or ask for feedback.   The village children also became a central part of my life in India. They came from poor families and attended government schools, which continue to use corporal punishment despite its illegality. These children were also witnessing Indians they personally knew, in their 20s, going away to school, leaving the village, and exploring jobs and opportunities away from home not having to feel guilty for abandoning their village. The middle class is growing and the children are preparing for their upcoming freedoms.   My experience of these young Indian children was their innocence and eagerness to soak in whatever they could. Like their international counterparts living in my community, these children recognized the value of meeting people from other countries, learning other languages, sharing their ideas, teaching each other their skills, working on projects that matter to their lives in collaboration for a better foreseeable world.   The more time I spent away from the American public school system, the more I could envision what I think school could be like. Gone are the necessities for creating factory workers. We are in a new position with different needs. Unfortunately the first need is a place for children to spend their day now that all of their parent/s are working and no one is at home to pass on skills and traditions and experiences. Children just need a safe place to be while their parent/s are at work. Some see it as glorified babysitting.   Second to logistics is the revelation that the world’s factories are automated, and the workers we are currently training will increasingly have creative and service jobs - jobs that depend on a human component. This means our children should be in a school that leads them to do this best, just as current schools and those of our past prepared them for factory work. The children need to practice what it means to be human- to think, make choices, reflect, speak, share, listen, and work together.   What does this look like, you ask? When we think about how adults perform these creative and service-type roles we hear more and more talk of uninterrupted hours of time to create, make, ponder, test, and, in essence, play. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can study what they choose and make what interests them. This is how we develop learners, creators, and inventors. This is how we allow them to be human.   We are also in a time and place where we can remember our ancestors working physically all day - in the fields, at home, and as artisans. Before massive industrialization we were outside for most of the day and had closer relationships to nature. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can explore nature including parks, neighborhoods, and playgrounds, in all kinds of weather. This too, is how we allow them to be human.   Even the so-called best public schools are instilling anxiety and fear in their students - to perform, complete work by deadlines, reach certain benchmarks within short time periods, and compare themselves to their peers. Why are we doing this? What kind of children do we want to develop into the adults of tomorrow? What kind of world do we envision 10 years from now? 20 years from now?   Now back in the US I am consulting with educational organizations who I believe are pushing these boundaries and asking the right questions. In order to stay connected to the public education sector I am substitute teaching in one of these “best” public schools. My experience there, after being out of this type of environment for so long is startling.   The classrooms and hallways are seriously over-stimulating. There is too much on the walls. Too much that did not develop from the children but rather was asked of them. The children’s work all looks the same. What purpose does this achieve?   The schedule and structure of the day includes changing activities every 15-20 minutes ensuring that there is no deep engagement.   The children are “taught” the same things, expecting the same output. There is no acceptable diversion from tasks, no bursts of creativity.   There were a few times when the class seemed at peace- playing outside and playing in the classroom – self-chosen activities. The children were absorbed, focused, quiet, talking to each other with purpose, listening with interest, and figuring things out. They were learning. They were being human.   At the end of the school day, knowing I had accomplished the plans the teacher had left for me, I took 15 minutes to tell the class about my experience in India, answer their questions, and show them a short photo-presentation of where I lived, the insects and animals I encountered, and what daily life was like. I showed short videos from the early activities of a fishing village, and a local musical performance. They were enthralled. Their interest was sparked. For a moment, they were the kind of kids I hope will be the adults of tomorrow.

Walking into the school building during arrival, students are happily rushing down the halls in groups of friends and classmates, eagerly awaiting another school day. Parent volunteers stand guard in the middle of the halls, each with a hand outstretched, palm facing outward, yelling “No running in the halls!”

For 10 years I taught in schools like this where while creativity and independent thinking were fostered (despite a scripted, overly structured curriculum), a culture of “no” always loomed.

—————————————

In the 2013-2014 school year I was graded on how well I could predict, in October, each student’s reading level, in May. I had just met these 4 and 5 year-olds and my perceived teacher-effectiveness depended on my educated guesses of children for whom I had not discovered their learning styles and abilities and who came to me with no “prior history”, as is the case in older grades where teachers are given evidence of student learning from their students’ previous teachers.

That was my last year of teaching.

I took a yearlong sabbatical in India in an environmentally-sustainable community that practices unschooling. I chose this community, as it was a place where children mattered; their interests were encouraged and they were trusted to be active members of the community. It was assumed that they implicitly wanted to learn.

Over the course of the year I spent much time with these international children of hippie-minded parents who had an inkling of their privilege in that they had previously attended school or had cousins in traditional schools in other countries. They took full advantage of having freedom to learn anything from anyone. They were used to asking adults to explain what they were doing, to offer feedback, or ask for feedback.

The village children also became a central part of my life in India. They came from poor families and attended government schools, which continue to use corporal punishment despite its illegality. These children were also witnessing Indians they personally knew, in their 20s, going away to school, leaving the village, and exploring jobs and opportunities away from home not having to feel guilty for abandoning their village. The middle class is growing and the children are preparing for their upcoming freedoms.

My experience of these young Indian children was their innocence and eagerness to soak in whatever they could. Like their international counterparts living in my community, these children recognized the value of meeting people from other countries, learning other languages, sharing their ideas, teaching each other their skills, working on projects that matter to their lives in collaboration for a better foreseeable world.

The more time I spent away from the American public school system, the more I could envision what I think school could be like. Gone are the necessities for creating factory workers. We are in a new position with different needs. Unfortunately the first need is a place for children to spend their day now that all of their parent/s are working and no one is at home to pass on skills and traditions and experiences. Children just need a safe place to be while their parent/s are at work. Some see it as glorified babysitting.

Second to logistics is the revelation that the world’s factories are automated, and the workers we are currently training will increasingly have creative and service jobs - jobs that depend on a human component. This means our children should be in a school that leads them to do this best, just as current schools and those of our past prepared them for factory work. The children need to practice what it means to be human- to think, make choices, reflect, speak, share, listen, and work together.

What does this look like, you ask? When we think about how adults perform these creative and service-type roles we hear more and more talk of uninterrupted hours of time to create, make, ponder, test, and, in essence, play. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can study what they choose and make what interests them. This is how we develop learners, creators, and inventors. This is how we allow them to be human.

We are also in a time and place where we can remember our ancestors working physically all day - in the fields, at home, and as artisans. Before massive industrialization we were outside for most of the day and had closer relationships to nature. This could be school: a few hours of time each day when children can explore nature including parks, neighborhoods, and playgrounds, in all kinds of weather. This too, is how we allow them to be human.

Even the so-called best public schools are instilling anxiety and fear in their students - to perform, complete work by deadlines, reach certain benchmarks within short time periods, and compare themselves to their peers. Why are we doing this? What kind of children do we want to develop into the adults of tomorrow? What kind of world do we envision 10 years from now? 20 years from now?

Now back in the US I am consulting with educational organizations who I believe are pushing these boundaries and asking the right questions. In order to stay connected to the public education sector I am substitute teaching in one of these “best” public schools. My experience there, after being out of this type of environment for so long is startling.

The classrooms and hallways are seriously over-stimulating. There is too much on the walls. Too much that did not develop from the children but rather was asked of them. The children’s work all looks the same. What purpose does this achieve?

The schedule and structure of the day includes changing activities every 15-20 minutes ensuring that there is no deep engagement.

The children are “taught” the same things, expecting the same output. There is no acceptable diversion from tasks, no bursts of creativity.

There were a few times when the class seemed at peace- playing outside and playing in the classroom – self-chosen activities. The children were absorbed, focused, quiet, talking to each other with purpose, listening with interest, and figuring things out. They were learning. They were being human.

At the end of the school day, knowing I had accomplished the plans the teacher had left for me, I took 15 minutes to tell the class about my experience in India, answer their questions, and show them a short photo-presentation of where I lived, the insects and animals I encountered, and what daily life was like. I showed short videos from the early activities of a fishing village, and a local musical performance. They were enthralled. Their interest was sparked. For a moment, they were the kind of kids I hope will be the adults of tomorrow.

Community in all Forms

In light of the Internet and the ability to ‘find’ your tribe, I have come across an ingenious peer network called Warm Showers. It’s CouchSurfing for cyclists. It’s a free place to stay with people who’ve done what you’re doing. It’s a worldwide network of people like me! I’ve had only incredible experiences staying with WS-folk. And now for some anecdotes:

The couple in their 60s whose kids have grown and left and encouraged them to host cyclists, as we are “kinder travelers” than the CouchSurfing crowd. Upon entering I was given a room, a towel for a warm shower, and told dinner would be ready in 30 minutes. The gentleman of the couple didn’t tell us until after dinner that he’s a retired 5-star Michelin chef. He made salad with fresh raspberry vinaigrette, and gluten free pasta with fresh veggies and a homemade tomato sauce. He apologized for whipping it up and not making a ‘real’ sauce. Ha! After dinner we looked through a stack of about 10 travel photo albums as without language (he only spoke French) we could communicate through image.

The bicycle-messenger who wanted us to stay forever and hang out and be his friend! He left us notes all over his apartment like, “Please stay another night! I’ll show you around town!”

The girlfriend of a bicycle-enthusiast (who was away at the time) who knew nothing of bicycles but was super happy to talk with us, cook for us, and send her neighbors to check up on us while she was away.

The couple in their 20s who met while on separate cycle tours through Romania. They lived in the attic of a converted brewery with amazing archway doors and ceiling cross-beams. The lady-cyclist made her own jam and sent us with cake for the road.

The couple in their 30s, living just outside the city, who’ve cycled the world. They became our friends. We hung out, made dinner, went out to dinner, and met them in the city. They are planning another adventure…

The couple in their 30s, living in a small city, who just came back from a 2.5 year cycle tour, were featured in their local newspaper, had very few belongings, paid $3/month to rent their apartment (because it could be sold at any moment and they’ll have to leave so that’s the deal. What a deal!) They just bought a house in the country, gutted it, and are rebuilding it to suit their needs, and bicycles. They get requests from Warm Showers everyday. They want to repay the community for the countless WS hosts they visited on their big trip and so they almost always have guests.

The retired racing cyclist with a house at the end of a road and a horse shed converted into a loft with extra beds and an external-facing kitchen. She had terraces of pineapples growing, a hot tub, some animals, and a kitchen she never used. She watched me make dinner for us with enthusiasm and constantly commenting on how impressed she was that I could just “whip up” a veggie-noodle stir-fry with many of her own ingredients!

The couple in their 30s living in the middle-of-nowhere France, in a gigantic house. They were excited to tell me about how cheaply they can live in this easy-to-host house, as they were able to stay connected to their friends and family who could crash with them any time for as long as they wanted. Every room of their house had at least one mattress on the floor and nothing else. They were prepared to host everyone they knew. They were also excited that in one year they would quit their jobs, buy touring bicycles, and travel the world together for as long as possible. I was their first Warm Showers guest and they made me pumpkin soup and sent me with snacks and route advice. They suggested I take a road that snaked down the side of the mountain they lived on, over a gushing river and luscious greenery. It turned out to be one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever cycled.  (One year later: they’ve emailed me to say they quit their jobs and can I meet up with them somewhere on their journey!)

I’m humbled to be shown so much love from these people with whom I share a passion, a lifestyle, a sense of adventure, and a desire to learn from and about other cultures. They open their homes, give me the keys, tell me to eat anything, and are sometimes amazed at just how much I can eat! They understand my journey. They know what my needs are. We speak the same language. And the one thing we all agree on is that when cycling and staying with people, in their homes, you get to see a different side of the places you visit; you get to see the locals, the community, the traditions and customs. You get to really see how they live. And in all cases, you are humbled.

It’s amazing to connect and feel so connected because of this simple thread that weaves us. What if there were communities like this for all different hobbies and you could stay with people based solely on shared interests? Like CouchSurfing with a bit of Pinterest thrown in… Just thinking out loud here but there could be ways to connect with people traveling to a concert with people from that city who are also going. Or when there are conventions you could stay with people who have that interest in the host city: knitters, artists, scientists, foodies… it’s endless.

This could be the future: not networking, but finding your network.

What if all learning experiences “counted?”

I am sitting in the lush forests on Kauai, Hawaii, after several days of hiking up to mountain ridges and walking along narrow pathways to glorious ocean vistas. On the hikes I am sharpening so many skills - balancing my weight, navigating though a variety of terrains (sometimes quite slippery), and making innumerable snap decisions regarding safety and exploration. I stop often to admire details of the flora and fauna - touching, smelling, and comparing. The moss is tremendous. I am constantly astounded by the variety and texture. The rocks, too, many which have bits of lava from different stages of volcanic eruption within them, are exceptional and though they look strong, easily crumble in my fingers.

I am learning about myself too - endurance, strength, preparedness with food and water, how to protect myself from the elements with minimal gear, and to remind myself to look up from the path and admire my surroundings. 

I knew from an early age that what I learned and sought outside of school was just as valuable, and sometimes more so, than what I was learning in school. In my senior year of high school I created a half-day internship for myself at an educational television show. It was there that I learned about public speaking, speaking professionally, how to develop relationships with co-workers, how to do specific and detailed research for on-air deadlines, how to produce a television show, how to splice tape and create pre-recorded segments, and the list goes on. 

In 1999 I began attending one of only a handful of co-op universities in the US, which offer programs that are half academic, half real-world work experience. When I began as a freshman at Northeastern University, I was most excited about the yearlong schedule: 6 months of classes split up into two, 3-month semesters, and then 6 months of working in the field of my major or one I might be interested in. Within these paid internships I was able to work in a variety of departments to understand each field. At a PR firm I did cold calls for our database, spent a few days with the bookkeeping team, sat in on meetings, shadowed an executive for a day, and learned the culture of the organization. At a pop-rock radio station I worked in several departments each for a week at a time: music, promotions, news, and the office. These experiences gave me the perspective of work-culture, what it means to be proactive, how to show you’ve learned something by applying it appropriately, and, maybe most importantly, how to sell myself. Tailoring a resume, writing a cover letter, and going on an interview were things I began to just know how to do, and they set me apart from other recent graduates. 

Emily Rapport, in her opinion piece for edSurge titled Why Course Credits Don’t Reflect What I Learn, explains as a current undergrad how the learning experiences she pursues outside of her classes are offering her more learning and skills that apply to her interests and passions than the learning and skills she is getting from her classes. More so she is pushing that these out-of-class learning experiences be credited, acknowledged, and appreciated by her university. These experiences are clearly what her future employers will value. 

She offers some solutions: 

1. “Introduce experiential learning frameworks into students’ first-year experiences.” Teach students to reflect on all of their learning experiences and value them as such. 

2. “Create courses that use students’ outside-the-classroom experiences as texts.” Classes that apply theory to required internships and community service projects. 

3. “Structure an undergraduate experience so that it moves from classroom to “real world,” with opportunities for student-driven capstones other than academic theses.” Allow students alternatives to a thesis to apply their skills before graduation and as their requirement for graduation. 

I am a huge fan of, not just talking but, taking action. It is one thing to privately value the variety of your life experiences, knowing you are using them and getting the most you can from them, and it takes those experiences to a whole new level to advocate for their legitimacy in the academic world. 

Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there.”

So what if all learning experiences “counted?” 

Reverse culture shock & the power of positive thinking

I had said I didn’t want to return to New York. I had been overwhelmed by the feeling of being unable to escape consumerism at every turn. I wanted to live in the world of Gift Economy - trusting in humanity to provide for me and offering my services freely for the greater good.   I left India, where I had happily lived in a Gift Economy-bubble for more than a year. I had a backpack’s worth of possessions and people to share them with, not needing anything else. My service to the community was met with a hut to live in and three vegan meals a day. The community I was living in had broadened my view of and affirmed my belief that we need very little to survive and can live without doing further damage to the earth.   The community also humbled me with regard to the juxtaposition of how large the world is and yet how small it can feel. I met like-minded people from all over the world who, on most occasions, felt instantly like family. I am just one of many but I am connected to all. It is a powerful feeling to abandon fear and live as though the world is my backyard.   After doing my first bicycle tour I rediscovered my body, my physical strength, my desire for sweat-inducing adventure. And so I set out to cycle solo through Europe on my second bicycle tour. Cycling, I realized, forced me to be dependent on myself but also to admit that the world around me would support me. In this experiment of sorts I survived on, at most, 10 Euro per day. There were many days when I spent nothing. I slept in the homes of kind strangers who fed me and sent me with extra food for my journey.   I rode all morning and afternoon, feeling thankful for my connections to humanity and also thankful to feel fearless, knowing that I’d connect with the earth, with my body, and with other kind strangers along the way who would help me fulfill my needs. At farmer’s markets across the lands I was asked about my story, encouraged to keep going, not to lose my sense of trust in humanity or my bravery to travel alone, and I was rewarded for inspiring others with extra stuffed grape leaves, oranges to keep illness away, and an extra shot of espresso to keep moving and not feel the cold.   I lived on the road for almost 10 weeks in a society much older than my own, feeling the weight of age in the physicality of roads, villages, churches, and farms, trying to understand the history that came before me, the people who’ve passed on these same roads for different reasons, and the current economy of Western Europe, a rich entity not unlike the U.S., my home. I found it easy to live peacefully with nature and people and feel like my one-on-one human interactions were my added-value to open up minds and explore feelings of those who felt stuck, or unable to make change, or like they didn’t have choice. I was always supremely aware of my privileges: having saved some money over the years so I could make experiments like this, not being in debt, having people to support me if I fail, not having any dependents… freedom in so many ways.   I said I wouldn’t return to NY. I marveled at how well I felt mentally, physically, and emotionally being outside all day on my bicycle, feeling my body work to cover ground, breathing in fresh air, hours of quiet time, the sound of a rushing river, being among animals, and learning the stories of others as I shared my own. In this time I found a partner, from NY, who encouraged me to spend the holidays with him and to rediscover NY, give it another chance, see how jaded I really was, and find out if it was still my home.   My past life in NY was fast. I rushed from place to place, always needing more time in the day, never feeling finished, my to-do list always growing. I spent little money but nonetheless I paid for things that never occurred to me were optional. I ate on the subway, I crashed hard at night, I never felt like I had time for me, even though my work as an educator was enjoyable and enriching- it was everything but also felt like a sinking hole I’d never get out of.   After my time living in India, enveloped by nature, barefoot more often than not, living outside among trees and creatures, sheltered from consumerism, celebrating on a daily basis the contributions we can make to the earth through our life choices, and then cycling through rich lands where I chose to live simply and share my experiences, I have become calm. I am less reactive, more patient, waiting to take in all that is around me- the environment, the conversation, the big picture. I am not in a hurry. I am not impatient. I am not worried. Friends say I am more grounded.   And so I have rediscovered NY. I am not waiting, impersonally at crosswalks with other people in a rush; I am chatting with cyclists waiting for the light to change, secretly sharing joy in experiencing the city this other way. I am not in a high-rise apartment building, disassociated from people, feeling the city hum below me; I am living on the edges, with friends, in ethnically-diverse communities, artist-rich communities, feeling “neighborhood” more and more. I am not racing to teach my heart out until I collapse at the end of the day; I am reading and writing and meeting with other education reformists who see opportunities for change and are working with me, waiting for the right moment, to pounce.   I am different, but so is my relationship with NY. I remember being told many times by many people that you are who you are no matter where you are, that changing your environment will only change you temporarily; you are already formed. I disagree so much with these sentiments; your experiences form you throughout your life and they are dependent on  where  they happen,  who  they happen with, and how you  reflect  on them, incorporating the changes you like into the habits of who you are. And so, once again in my life, NY is home, even though I’m inside buildings, wearing shoes, and averting my gaze from the barrage of advertising that is capitalism.   I am grateful for my privilege, my choice, my adventures and experiences, the people I’ve crossed paths with and those I hold close, the times I cycled alone for hours being one with this planet, and feeling bold in the face of a plagued public education system while my brain fills with solutions for our children.   “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Norman Vincent Peele said this. He was the godfather, of sorts, of the power of positive thinking. 

I had said I didn’t want to return to New York. I had been overwhelmed by the feeling of being unable to escape consumerism at every turn. I wanted to live in the world of Gift Economy - trusting in humanity to provide for me and offering my services freely for the greater good.

I left India, where I had happily lived in a Gift Economy-bubble for more than a year. I had a backpack’s worth of possessions and people to share them with, not needing anything else. My service to the community was met with a hut to live in and three vegan meals a day. The community I was living in had broadened my view of and affirmed my belief that we need very little to survive and can live without doing further damage to the earth. 

The community also humbled me with regard to the juxtaposition of how large the world is and yet how small it can feel. I met like-minded people from all over the world who, on most occasions, felt instantly like family. I am just one of many but I am connected to all. It is a powerful feeling to abandon fear and live as though the world is my backyard.

After doing my first bicycle tour I rediscovered my body, my physical strength, my desire for sweat-inducing adventure. And so I set out to cycle solo through Europe on my second bicycle tour. Cycling, I realized, forced me to be dependent on myself but also to admit that the world around me would support me. In this experiment of sorts I survived on, at most, 10 Euro per day. There were many days when I spent nothing. I slept in the homes of kind strangers who fed me and sent me with extra food for my journey. 

I rode all morning and afternoon, feeling thankful for my connections to humanity and also thankful to feel fearless, knowing that I’d connect with the earth, with my body, and with other kind strangers along the way who would help me fulfill my needs. At farmer’s markets across the lands I was asked about my story, encouraged to keep going, not to lose my sense of trust in humanity or my bravery to travel alone, and I was rewarded for inspiring others with extra stuffed grape leaves, oranges to keep illness away, and an extra shot of espresso to keep moving and not feel the cold.

I lived on the road for almost 10 weeks in a society much older than my own, feeling the weight of age in the physicality of roads, villages, churches, and farms, trying to understand the history that came before me, the people who’ve passed on these same roads for different reasons, and the current economy of Western Europe, a rich entity not unlike the U.S., my home. I found it easy to live peacefully with nature and people and feel like my one-on-one human interactions were my added-value to open up minds and explore feelings of those who felt stuck, or unable to make change, or like they didn’t have choice. I was always supremely aware of my privileges: having saved some money over the years so I could make experiments like this, not being in debt, having people to support me if I fail, not having any dependents… freedom in so many ways.

I said I wouldn’t return to NY. I marveled at how well I felt mentally, physically, and emotionally being outside all day on my bicycle, feeling my body work to cover ground, breathing in fresh air, hours of quiet time, the sound of a rushing river, being among animals, and learning the stories of others as I shared my own. In this time I found a partner, from NY, who encouraged me to spend the holidays with him and to rediscover NY, give it another chance, see how jaded I really was, and find out if it was still my home.

My past life in NY was fast. I rushed from place to place, always needing more time in the day, never feeling finished, my to-do list always growing. I spent little money but nonetheless I paid for things that never occurred to me were optional. I ate on the subway, I crashed hard at night, I never felt like I had time for me, even though my work as an educator was enjoyable and enriching- it was everything but also felt like a sinking hole I’d never get out of.

After my time living in India, enveloped by nature, barefoot more often than not, living outside among trees and creatures, sheltered from consumerism, celebrating on a daily basis the contributions we can make to the earth through our life choices, and then cycling through rich lands where I chose to live simply and share my experiences, I have become calm. I am less reactive, more patient, waiting to take in all that is around me- the environment, the conversation, the big picture. I am not in a hurry. I am not impatient. I am not worried. Friends say I am more grounded.

And so I have rediscovered NY. I am not waiting, impersonally at crosswalks with other people in a rush; I am chatting with cyclists waiting for the light to change, secretly sharing joy in experiencing the city this other way. I am not in a high-rise apartment building, disassociated from people, feeling the city hum below me; I am living on the edges, with friends, in ethnically-diverse communities, artist-rich communities, feeling “neighborhood” more and more. I am not racing to teach my heart out until I collapse at the end of the day; I am reading and writing and meeting with other education reformists who see opportunities for change and are working with me, waiting for the right moment, to pounce.

I am different, but so is my relationship with NY. I remember being told many times by many people that you are who you are no matter where you are, that changing your environment will only change you temporarily; you are already formed. I disagree so much with these sentiments; your experiences form you throughout your life and they are dependent on where they happen, who they happen with, and how you reflect on them, incorporating the changes you like into the habits of who you are. And so, once again in my life, NY is home, even though I’m inside buildings, wearing shoes, and averting my gaze from the barrage of advertising that is capitalism. 

I am grateful for my privilege, my choice, my adventures and experiences, the people I’ve crossed paths with and those I hold close, the times I cycled alone for hours being one with this planet, and feeling bold in the face of a plagued public education system while my brain fills with solutions for our children. 

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Norman Vincent Peele said this. He was the godfather, of sorts, of the power of positive thinking. 

Trusting in humanity

tumblr_nzfb6kmaXF1ray50qo3_1280.jpg
tumblr_nzfb6kmaXF1ray50qo4_1280.jpg
tumblr_nzfb6kmaXF1ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_nzfb6kmaXF1ray50qo2_1280.jpg
tumblr_nzfb6kmaXF1ray50qo6_1280.jpg
tumblr_nzfb6kmaXF1ray50qo5_1280.jpg

My dream on this journey was to trust in humanity. I imagined pedaling into villages and being offered places to stay, meals to share, stories to discover.

On my last cycle-touring afternoon as I cycled in Montelimar, home of nougat, I spotted a creperie and wondered if they used my gluten-free-friendly sarassin (buckwheat) or regular old ble (wheat). I parked and strolled in to find an older gentleman behind the bar and a not-so-old gentleman drinking at the bar. I asked in my broken French about the gluten. I was shown the menu with the best deal yet: $12 for a salad, savory crepe, and sweet crepe. And he would make them both with just sarassin. Woohoo!

I sat down and the man at the bar began to talk with me. Realizing that my English is far superior to my French he shared with me, in English, that earlier this morning he had seen me, a fellow traveler, and called out to me in French, asking where I was headed. I hadn’t responded. I didn’t even remember this encounter. But now, seeing as we were in the same place he could ask me again. Fascinated about my journey he asked many routine questions: How many kilometers do I ride per day? (60-80) How heavy is my bike? (Not sure, but it’s heavy) Where do I stay? (Friends, other cyclists, camping when it’s warm) Where and when did I start this journey? (Amsterdam, 20 Sept) When and where will it end? (Barcelona, late November).

We got to talking and I shared that I didn’t have a place to stay yet, as I was going to email some people and check hotel rates after this delicious lunch. He said he had a place down the block with a spare room and I could crash with him. I had a good vibe from this guy. I came to learn that he had been to India 7 times. Seven times!!!! And had stayed several months each time, with gurus, sadus, and babas. We chatted for a long time and then I agreed to stay with him.

I’m happy to report that after a homemade gluten-free, vegetarian dinner we became fast friends. I shared my mandala art and we traded travel stories. It was a lovely evening.

And my dream came true. I met a nice stranger, found trust, and a comfy bed.

Choosing family

tumblr_ny2cnyZA3m1ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_ny2cnyZA3m1ray50qo2_1280.jpg

Flashback to April 2015: She met me at the airport. I saw her and hugged her and we instinctually sat down on a bench and started talking, eating the smoothie and avocado she brought. After 30 minutes we realized we were still sitting in the airport, so distracted by our catching up in person that we never left. We headed out on a train towards Gent.

We are soul mate best friends who hadn’t seen each other in 4 months.

The Bed and Breakfast she had been running is in the center of Gent, Belgium, and is owned by a family who we knew from their stay at Sadhana Forest. The B&B is a huge, old, wooden, house that creaks as you walk through it. The many floors and rooms each have their own personality and their own half-finished projects. At one point I had to step through a human-sized hole in the wall of the son’s bedroom in order to use the bathroom. The three rented rooms and the vegan smoothie, bread, and spreads breakfast were just right.

We commandeered bikes from the house and set out on adventures: riding through squares, along canals, to find french fries and chocolate and vegan restaurants and coffee, and to experience the city together as though we lived there and did this sort of thing everyday.

From my journal: “I am here in Gent, walking down winding cobblestone paths, coming upon the setting sun over the canal… Last night we went to steamy jazz club down a graffiti-ed alley that vibrated your soul. The players changed frequently but the jam never stopped. It was electric and I couldn’t stop smiling. I even got up and danced in this club, so overcrowded people were sitting on the stage.”

I could see myself living in Gent. It’s a perfect mix of old-world architecture, some new modern design, and tons of young artsy people speaking in mixed-language concoctions.

A few weeks later we biked like crazy fools up and down the hills of her hometown, Barcelona, stopping to explore graffiti-strewn neighborhoods, the beach, markets, the best touristy things- all flying down the bike paths of huge main roads, slicing the city in parts until I knew my way without having to think about it. We sat in cafes drinking espresso, drawing mandalas, making plans for new adventures, sharing our emotions, creating programs to solve the world’s problems.

We slept and ate, and ate, and ate at her parent’s home: the apartment she grew up in. A 7-story building filled with 14 apartments in total that are each occupied by a member of her family. They collectively own the building. I marveled at the modern home, interior-designed by her mom and dad, with Andy Warhol prints and Beatles anthologies and sculptures and terraces.

Routinely we would enter her apartment to find her mom making gluten free vegan lasagna, pizza, risotto, Spanish spinach (with raisins and pignoli nuts), smoothies, whipped frozen pear desserts, soymilk flan and chocolate soymilk flan… gluten free snacks waiting on the kitchen counter for us to take on our daily adventures.

Barcelona is marked for me by family- both of ours, with whom I spent much time. Both of our families struggled to understand our desire to volunteer and travel. We both grew up upper-middle class from parents who wanted us to grow up, get jobs, and be happy. We desire different things. We want to give back and learn and share. We want to make the world a better place.

I’ve made what seems like big life decisions in the past few years, though they seem like obvious next steps to me. I give my service, my volunteerism. I’m vegan. I practice gift economy. I believe in child-led learning. I value experience over stuff. This is who I am.

My mom wants to know what my goals are. This is a good exercise for me. I want to make the world a better place than I found it, on many levels- as a friend, teacher, care-taker of the environment, a lover, a sister, a daughter, to animals, to people I work with, to strangers and old friends, to the education movement and field of, to communities I come across, to shopkeepers and train-ticket takers, to materials I interact with, through art, making people smile, love. To leave energy, creativity, and positivity wherever I go- sprinkled like fairy dust. These are my goals.

One night in Barcelona my family met me at her house and we all had dinner together: both of us with our parents, meeting for the first time. Like children who have tons of playdates before their mom’s meet. Or lovers who are ready to take the next plunge. We’d been talking about each other to our families for almost 2 years. We were ready to share together. Our parents hit it off. Our moms with their silk scarves, black, patent leather shoes, and funky jewelry. The men talking music and history and culture. We sat there, across the table from each other as we translated between our parents, smiling till it hurt, feeling blessed to have the room filled with years of so much love, from across the globe.

People of my generation talk about choosing their friends as family. She is my soul-sister. I choose her.

Hills, trucks, strangers, and airplane wheels

tumblr_nwk7hq4vle1ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_nwk7hq4vle1ray50qo2_1280.jpg

I had really wanted to camp on this cycle trip of mine. Unfortunately for me, France is experiencing colder weather than usual for this time of year. My wonderful hosts in Lyon let me stay one more day to set up some more Warm Showers hosts for my trip down the Rhone River.

I headed out yesterday morning from Lyon. I was advised to take the train the first 20 kilometers as it’s industrial and there are no separate or scenic bike routes. I often don’t heed this advice as I enjoy seeing all the parts of a city: the center, the residential, the posh, the up-and-coming, the industrial, the suburban, even the highways and major intersections. You get a real feel for the people when you see the many different environments they create and how those places interact with each other: Are there clear boundaries? Does the friendliness of people change as the neighborhoods change? Do drivers and pedestrians smile back? What’s the sanitation like? The graffiti? The teenagers? The construction workers? The construction signs? These are all aspects of the culture of a people that we often don’t look for, yet they are the majority, the everyday, the this-is-what-we’re-like. If you combine this with the tourism side, the city center, the museums, you can really get a feel for their values, how they live, and how they want the world to see and think of them.  

Finally I met with the river in what looked on the map like a small city. I crossed over the river on a cute little pedestrian bridge into Vienne. I found a small shopping center, locked up the bike, found an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, and the center for tourism where I went first to get wifi locations and some route advice. The center had many young people working there who were all deeply apologetic and maybe even a bit embarrassed that there was almost no wifi in town. Not even there at the tourism center. They were, however, excited to tell me about the sign-posted, newly paved cycle route along the river that I could take for pretty much the next 300 km.

Before leaving Vienne I had to find some internet to contact my next hosts, get there exact address and find my route to them with the assistance of my phone’s GPS and the map app Pocket Earth. I stumbled into the “old city” filled with churches and even a courtyard with a small Pantheon. And there was Bar du Temple, what may have been the only bar/café in town with wifi. They seemed prepared for me: they gave me coffee and didn’t hesitate to charge my phone behind the bar while I took in the lunch crowd and slowly sipped a double-espresso.

Very soon after I found myself on a 2-meter wide bike path, just a bit higher than the river, with the changing autumn leaves, and not a soul in sight. I had the whole river to myself! It was very cold so I layered up and then I got lost in the scenery, void of vehicles, people, or noises other than nature. There was peace and calm and I couldn’t stop smiling; this was the adventure I had dreamed of when I first learned about cycle-touring; riding between water and farmland with the changing smells of nature.

Two hours and 40 km quickly passed. I ventured off the river route, called Via Rhona, into a hamlet to find my hosts. Without realizing it I had begun a steep ascent filled with very fast-moving cars and trucks zigzagging up and away. Quickly the shoulder I was riding on disappeared, and after my previous 70 km of the day I was exhausted. I was about 300 meters high and didn’t know how much further it or I could go. I could see on my map that I was only a few kilometers away from my host’s home. What to do?

Across the road was a truck, on a shoulder-pocket that seemed to be there just for emergencies. I waited for traffic to subside and hurried across. The driver was cleaning his dinner gear and getting ready to get back on the road to drive some Boeing wheels across Europe to get repaired. Most of his truck was empty and he graciously offered to drive me over the rest of the hill. It turned out to be only 1 km more, but 200 more meters high.

Finally I was on my bicycle on a back country road with 2 km to go. But the road was still slowly rising and I was more tired then ever. I cycled-and-paused probably 20 times. Unbeknownst to me, my host began to get worried and came out looking for me in his car. He found me and drove all of my bags to his house, riding slowly in front of me, cheering me on out his window. I was able to ride the last kilometer with all of my might, moving faster (without all of my gear!) up the slow gradient.

The young couple I stayed with live in the middle of nowhere, in a huge house (4 bedrooms!) in a hamlet, with a garden. They just turned 30. They have huge parties where they host all 30 of their friends for a weekend at a time, with friends sleeping everywhere. They moved here for a job opportunity. Plus it’s so inexpensive to live here. She’s an optician and he is a chemist who specialized in centrifuges. They come home for lunch. They are saving up to take off on a year-long journey comprised of cycling, hitchhiking, and a few different continents. We hit it off right away. They made me pumpkin soup and promised to show me a scenic bike path, down the hill, for the next part of my journey.

Once again I am humbled by the kindness in this world. Yes, the Warm Showers network is special in that we’ve had similar experiences and can guess, pretty accurately, the needs of each other. But everyone from the bartender who charged my phone, to the truck driver who gave me and my bike a ride, to these hosts for whom I was their first Warm Showers guest(!) treated me like family. With a quiet understanding, an extra blanket to sleep with, a cup of hot coffee waiting for me in the morning, and the knowledge that we are bound as members of humanity, we are connected. I could see these people at any time in my life and, again, we’d help each other out. And if we don’t see each other again, we know, at least, that we’re all continuing to connect with new people in an effort to make the world feel like one big community.

What if we reinvented the idea of family vacation and created an adventurous family lifestyle?

A young family takes their 4 year-old on hikes like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, instead of school. Together the family learns about nature, to take care of each other, to persevere through tough circumstances. Over time they are closer, more at ease with each other. What if we reinvented the idea of family vacation and, instead of taking a leisurely holiday with minimal family interaction, created an adventurous family lifestyle? What's really important, making money to sit on the beach at a resort, or making just enough money for food and emergencies and a life of exploring? 

http://www.backpacker.com/special-features/kindergarten-can-wait/

Gratitude for strangers, trains, and the Alternatiba Festival

tumblr_nw6c15TmL11ray50qo2_1280.jpg
tumblr_nw6c15TmL11ray50qo4_1280.jpg
tumblr_nw6c15TmL11ray50qo3_1280.jpg
tumblr_nw6c15TmL11ray50qo5_1280.jpg
tumblr_nw6c15TmL11ray50qo1_1280.jpg

I am in awe of the kindness I’ve received along this journey. The kinship I feel with every other human I meet is life affirming. We really are all one.

And now for some excerpts:

Shortly after leaving Amsterdam I found myself cold and soaked from heavy rain that I was too late in gearing up for. Halfway to my next destination was Rotterdam. I cycled aimlessly through the city wondering what to do: find a place to stay for the night, keep going in the rain, buy better rainproof gear… And then I turned a corner and found the Bever store, a well-regarded sports apparel chain in the Netherlands. Knowing the staff there are outdoor sports enthusiasts I was looking for some sympathy and maybe even some ideas. I entered the store and the front-of-store clerk immediately offered to watch my bike and gear. (In any other store you wouldn’t even be able to bring your bike inside!) I parked by the register and began to walk around, looking for better waterproof gloves. Another Bever-guy came over and, taking one look at my dripping self, offered to take my sneakers and socks to put on the heater for a while. He also got me a cup of coffee while yet another Bever-guy looked up weather forecasts. “The rain should be stopping in exactly 30 minutes,” he said matter-of-factly. Yeah right, I thought. These three guys kept me caffeinated and dry for about an hour until the rain did actually stop. When customers came in they apologized for not being able to stay and chat. I warmed up, put my feet in plastic bags, and geared up to keep moving. The Bever-guys said that if at any point it started to rain or the roads were slippery I should come back and I could stay with one of them in Rotterdam that night. One of them even gave me his email to keep in touch and share blogs.

While sharing this story recently, my audience seemed to think the Bever-guys were helping me because I was a single woman in need of assistance. My feeling from that day in the Bever store was more of camaraderie. They knew I wanted to keep going because they, too, would want to keep cycling and not be held up by weather. It did not feel like a gender-reaction; it felt like a cyclist-understanding.

A week or so later I stayed with a friend’s family in northern France and woke up to find that my friend’s mom had done my laundry and hung it to dry in the sun in her garden. When I thanked her she said, “I’m a mom! That’s what I do!” in French.

Just this past week on my way from Paris to Lyon I booked a train online, and checked the box for bringing my bicycle aboard. Arriving at the station, the conductor took one look at me, blew a drag of cigarette smoke in my face, and started yelling at me that no-way-was-my-bike-getting-on-this-train. I explained my special ticket. He said I was wrong. And then all of a sudden three lovely French people came to my rescue; they talked with the conductor, reasoned with him, explained my situation, asked him to make an exception, and then they made a plan, in French, that I later became aware of. One distracted the conductor, while the other two told me to dismantle my bike and then they all took parts of my bike and luggage and said to meet back up in my train car 10 minutes before arrival. It was such a whirlwind. I sat in my seat realizing that I had my bike frame and some clothing but not my wheels or camping gear and these strangers in different train cars with names I didn’t know could fall asleep and miss the stop and then what would I do? Sure enough we all met back up, I reassembled the bike, loaded it up and then began to say thank yous and goodbyes. The French people were not a unified group- there was a man and woman who knew each other, and another man who was on his own. The couple invited me to AlternatiBa, an alternative lifestyle festival happening that day. The other man said he was also going to it but first there was a Velorution event, a bicycle revolution. He didn’t speak much English, but motioned for me to follow him. I explained that I had to meet my lovely Warm Showers hosts and drop off my bags. He looked at my map and again motioned me to follow him. First we went to his home, met his wife, had some coffee, and washed the bike grease off our hands. Then he led me to my hosts. Then we went, with his wife, on a bicycle/alternative lifestyle extravaganza. We even met up with the man and woman from the train who were running a booth about vandalizing violent public advertisements. Just my kind of people.

I had met the most wonderful people who saved the day, just because helping out fellow humans is what we do.

The Sadhana Forest Tour (with me as your guide)

tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo5_400.jpg
tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo7_400.jpg
tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo8_400.jpg
tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo2_400.jpg
tumblr_nvcef1JjFB1ray50qo4_400.jpg

THE SADHANA FOREST TOUR

My favorite part of volunteering at Sadhana Forest: giving a 2-hour tour of the community and our reforestation work, at least once per week, but often 2-3 times per week to school groups, tourists, and locals. I tell the stories that make up our history, the multitude of ways in which Sadhana Forest manages resources and conserves water, about our other projects inside India and around the world, the principles and values we live by, and our innovative, time-tested tree-planting methods. It’s exhilarating. I expend all of my energy and enthusiasm sharing with anywhere from 1-150 strangers at a time, what is so special about this place I call my home. I enjoy “reading” my audience and assuaging their potential boredom with humorous anecdotes. It’s such a great feeling to affect a huge group of people with laughter, and subtly encourage them to think about their effect on the environment and each other.

Side story: This also means that I’ve created a sort of celebrity for myself and can’t go anywhere within a 10-kilometer radius without being recognized. It’s lovely, it really is. But I know a bit what celebrities feel like now; sometimes I just want to be anonymous and drink a cup of coffee in a café while reading or drawing. Quiet time, you know? My best Kate-sighting experience occurred when I was looking for an art store in Pondicherry and I stopped into a random clothing shop to ask for directions. The man behind the counter smiled a huge smile and whipped out his phone to show me a video of ME doing the tour at Sadhana Forest! He then proceeded to walk me to the art store I was looking for. Super kind and wonderful. (And a bit scary that strangers have videos of me speaking about reforestation. Things I never dreamed of.)

The Local Community

The Local Community    When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.   I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”   I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.   Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

The Local Community 

When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.

I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”

I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.

Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

What if schools engaged students in addressing community needs?


What if students were coached through design projects and taught how to choose materials and use power tools to alleviate an immediate social need like housing for the homeless?  

At Project H, children have built a 2,000-square-foot farmers market structure, iconic downtown landmarks, farmstands, playgrounds, school gardens, an obstacle course, public chicken coops, a school library, and a tiny home (for the homeless that is being made now). This purpose-driven project is engaging 9-17 year-olds in social responsibility through creatively solving current issues. And the students are learning physical as well as social skills along the way. 

What if school curriculums were focused around the communities they serve? What if there were no cookie-cutter curriculums, and instead students, teachers, and administration worked together to choose areas of study based on community need. Think of the impact! Think of the teamwork, resourcefulness, and learning that could happen! Think of the relationship that would be fostered between the school and community! Think of the changing role of teacher from a provider of information to a facilitator of social change. 

Making friends in the clinic waiting room

While spending an afternoon in Auroville I ducked into a shop for some tea tree oil. I came around a corner in the store upon a local woman I know. She was sitting on a grass mat, under a fan, with another employee, resting while waiting for customers. She saw me and we rushed towards each other in slow motion with smiles and hugs.   Suba used to be the receptionist in the local health center. During my first 4 months in India I had every serious illness one can get in this area starting with salmonella poisoning and progressing to typhoid fever, amoebas in my stomach, and eventually dengue fever. I got to know Suba very well. She saw me at my worst. She carried me from her desk to a place to lie down while waiting for the doctor on several occasions.   One day, the local taxi driver’s son, with whom I’ve become good friends, drove me to the health center. He formally introduced me to Suba, having gone to school with her for many years. Since then I’ve visited the health center numerous times to purchase bandaids and rehydration salts from the pharmacy. Suba would joke with me that I needed to come home with her so her mom could feed me to make me fat. We developed a lovely relationship and we were always so glad to chat and catch up, with her commenting, more and more frequently, on how healthy I looked.   RecentlyI went to the health center with my list of supplies and Suba was not there. I stared at the new receptionist incredulously, demanding information. Auroville is a small town, but what if I never saw Suba again! Yesterday, bumping into her in the boutique made me realize and appreciate the wonderful relationships I’ve developed with local Indians, the Tamil people.

While spending an afternoon in Auroville I ducked into a shop for some tea tree oil. I came around a corner in the store upon a local woman I know. She was sitting on a grass mat, under a fan, with another employee, resting while waiting for customers. She saw me and we rushed towards each other in slow motion with smiles and hugs.

Suba used to be the receptionist in the local health center. During my first 4 months in India I had every serious illness one can get in this area starting with salmonella poisoning and progressing to typhoid fever, amoebas in my stomach, and eventually dengue fever. I got to know Suba very well. She saw me at my worst. She carried me from her desk to a place to lie down while waiting for the doctor on several occasions.

One day, the local taxi driver’s son, with whom I’ve become good friends, drove me to the health center. He formally introduced me to Suba, having gone to school with her for many years. Since then I’ve visited the health center numerous times to purchase bandaids and rehydration salts from the pharmacy. Suba would joke with me that I needed to come home with her so her mom could feed me to make me fat. We developed a lovely relationship and we were always so glad to chat and catch up, with her commenting, more and more frequently, on how healthy I looked.

RecentlyI went to the health center with my list of supplies and Suba was not there. I stared at the new receptionist incredulously, demanding information. Auroville is a small town, but what if I never saw Suba again! Yesterday, bumping into her in the boutique made me realize and appreciate the wonderful relationships I’ve developed with local Indians, the Tamil people.

Becoming part of someone else's family

Mani the Electrician (middle of photo with son on shoulders)  I’ve gotten to know Mani, a local electrician who’s been working on the Sadhana Forest solar panels for several years. He wires our main hut and kitchen for lights, he maintains our bicycle generators that we use during monsoon, and recently he rigged up a music box that plays to alert us when our water tank is overflowing. He’s in his early thirties, married, living with his wife’s family. He has a 3 year-old son and new twin girls. When the twins were born we were one of the first places he called. We went rushing over with gifts and love and spent time caring for the twins while the family rested (and made us dinner even though we protested). In true Indian style they watched us eat and then ate after us, thanking us for eco-diapers and homemade stuffed animals and homemade cards that said “congratulations!” in Tamil.

Mani the Electrician (middle of photo with son on shoulders)

I’ve gotten to know Mani, a local electrician who’s been working on the Sadhana Forest solar panels for several years. He wires our main hut and kitchen for lights, he maintains our bicycle generators that we use during monsoon, and recently he rigged up a music box that plays to alert us when our water tank is overflowing. He’s in his early thirties, married, living with his wife’s family. He has a 3 year-old son and new twin girls. When the twins were born we were one of the first places he called. We went rushing over with gifts and love and spent time caring for the twins while the family rested (and made us dinner even though we protested). In true Indian style they watched us eat and then ate after us, thanking us for eco-diapers and homemade stuffed animals and homemade cards that said “congratulations!” in Tamil.

My Banyan Family

I try to imagine why I’ve connected so much with the local Indians in Auroville and the surrounding villages of Edyanchavedi (eddie-on-chavedee) and Kuillapalayam (kool-i-paly-um).  I think it’s because of the transient nature of foreigners in Auroville in combination with my I-want-to-get-know-you personality. I’ve stuck around and I smile. I don’t have the fearful look of an unsure tourist. I don’t have the look of a foreigner who has stayed but not bothered to understand or appreciate the local culture. I speak Tamil as much as I can. I know about people’s families and ask: the ailing mother, the new babies, the new job. I also spend a lot of time alone in restaurants and cafes with my kindle, my sketchbook, and my MacBook Air. I am a recurring face. I am a fixture.  One rainy monsoon last October, a few months after moving to Auroville, I was on my way to acupuncture and got drenched. I stopped at The Banyan, a new restaurant in town, only a few months old. I stepped inside to find one of the owners, Jayavel, looking at me in horror and concern. I was like a wet dog. Jayavel quickly ran out of the restaurant and, minutes later, returned with soft, fluffy towels, a warm smile, and began wrapping me up as I shivered from the cold wetness. A few more minutes and I had a hot cup of coffee, steaming into my face, flowing through me, warming me from the inside out. Since that day I’ve frequented The Banyan and brought my friends too.  The owners, Auroshe and Jayavel, are from the nearby villages. They met at 12 and married for love. They grew up going to Auroville schools, got married, had three girls, their kids grew up, and they opened a restaurant at the only junction in town. Jayavel loved working in restaurants when in high school and now owned this empty property. He didn’t know what to do. Auroshe told him, “Do something! You know so many things!” They started a café with one fancy coffee machine, from Italy, that a friend gifted them. Auroshe, Jayavel’s wife, decided they could do more and began cooking up traditional south Indian meals and snacks. Very quickly they blossomed. They hired their nephew and now you can find any combination of their family at any given time.  They Banyan is the place to be. It has fans and ice cubes and wifi and soap in the bathroom. They make a delicious veg fried rice. They also, because of their new vegan clientele, hint hint, have begun making fresh coconut milk for a ‘vegan cold coffee’, which is the equivalent of a small Frappuccino but way better. It’s made with jaggery, an unrefined palm sugar that has a rich and nutty taste. Jayavel and Auroshe are smart and cater to their audience. Auroshe and Jayavel hug me upon arrival with their warm, glowing smiles, and ask how I am. They are my Indian family. And before they even knew me they kept me warm and dry.

I try to imagine why I’ve connected so much with the local Indians in Auroville and the surrounding villages of Edyanchavedi (eddie-on-chavedee) and Kuillapalayam (kool-i-paly-um).  I think it’s because of the transient nature of foreigners in Auroville in combination with my I-want-to-get-know-you personality. I’ve stuck around and I smile. I don’t have the fearful look of an unsure tourist. I don’t have the look of a foreigner who has stayed but not bothered to understand or appreciate the local culture. I speak Tamil as much as I can. I know about people’s families and ask: the ailing mother, the new babies, the new job. I also spend a lot of time alone in restaurants and cafes with my kindle, my sketchbook, and my MacBook Air. I am a recurring face. I am a fixture.

One rainy monsoon last October, a few months after moving to Auroville, I was on my way to acupuncture and got drenched. I stopped at The Banyan, a new restaurant in town, only a few months old. I stepped inside to find one of the owners, Jayavel, looking at me in horror and concern. I was like a wet dog. Jayavel quickly ran out of the restaurant and, minutes later, returned with soft, fluffy towels, a warm smile, and began wrapping me up as I shivered from the cold wetness. A few more minutes and I had a hot cup of coffee, steaming into my face, flowing through me, warming me from the inside out. Since that day I’ve frequented The Banyan and brought my friends too.

The owners, Auroshe and Jayavel, are from the nearby villages. They met at 12 and married for love. They grew up going to Auroville schools, got married, had three girls, their kids grew up, and they opened a restaurant at the only junction in town. Jayavel loved working in restaurants when in high school and now owned this empty property. He didn’t know what to do. Auroshe told him, “Do something! You know so many things!” They started a café with one fancy coffee machine, from Italy, that a friend gifted them. Auroshe, Jayavel’s wife, decided they could do more and began cooking up traditional south Indian meals and snacks. Very quickly they blossomed. They hired their nephew and now you can find any combination of their family at any given time.

They Banyan is the place to be. It has fans and ice cubes and wifi and soap in the bathroom. They make a delicious veg fried rice. They also, because of their new vegan clientele, hint hint, have begun making fresh coconut milk for a ‘vegan cold coffee’, which is the equivalent of a small Frappuccino but way better. It’s made with jaggery, an unrefined palm sugar that has a rich and nutty taste. Jayavel and Auroshe are smart and cater to their audience. Auroshe and Jayavel hug me upon arrival with their warm, glowing smiles, and ask how I am. They are my Indian family. And before they even knew me they kept me warm and dry.

Snippets from One Week at Sadhana Forest

Sunday we heard moo-ing in the community. We found several cows chilling in the grass, munching away, meandering over to our dish wash stations to have a drink. We chased four out. Six came back. It took two hours but we got them all out. The 8 dogs who live with us only helped once the cows were in the parking lot, barking out something like, “And don’t you come back!”

Monday some workers came to build us a roof out of TetraPak sheets. These are TetraPak (soy milk, juice) boxes that get compressed and then heated with resin to make construction boards. They are a great packaging tool because they are made of recycled materials, pack efficiently, and weigh considerable less than glass. But because they are a combination of materials they can’t be recycled. However, they can be made into construction boards over and over again. Most of the roof will be corrugated sheets but the peak of the roof will be a flat sheet that is bent with heat. The workers proudly showed me their very inexpensive blowtorch. I asked them to wait while I got a fire extinguisher. As I came back they were lighting the blowtorch, setting the surrounding grass and dead leaves on fire, and in the nick of time I blew out their flame.

Tuesday I heard a weird beeping sound. I tried to follow it and got tangled in thorny weeds that sliced my ankles. I went back for the police. We followed the sound. The police laughed. It was just a bird. (I swear it sounds mechanical).

Wednesday I gave a tour to a group of visiting businessmen. Halfway through I explain about our community values, one of which is to be substance-free both in and out of the community while you are volunteering. This includes cigratettes, alcohol and drugs. At this point the businessmen begin to pull packs of cigarettes out of their pockets. They are surprised that I haven’t telepathically figured out that they all work for big tobacco. They begin telling me that big tobacco is good for everything; it’s responsible for the clothes I’m wearing, the shampoo I use, and the food I eat. Yeah right.

Thursday, despite the community being fenced in and policed 24/7, someone broke in and raided my hut. I climbed my ladder and saw it: a condom and wrapper strung out on my floor. I glanced beyond to my bed, which was tousled. Oh no, I thought, volunteers are having sex in my bed. Then I noticed my NorthFace backpack was gone. My sleeping bag was gone. Some silver rings and necklaces, nothing fancy or expensive but sentimental nonetheless, were gone. My sex toys and condoms were gone. Ok, pause for some backstory. The volunteers here get frisky sometimes. Rather than sleep with each other, which could cause tension, not to mention the spread of STDs, I encourage them to have some fun alone. This idea came from a volunteer, much younger than me, from Norway where there is a much more liberal sexual culture. She thought the toys would come in handy and offered me a healthy supply. I’d given several away throughout the year. I guess she was right! As I sat deciding whether to file a police report I began to laugh. What if this robbery causes a sexual revolution in a nearby village in this country of repressed sexuality? I could be an anonymous local hero!

Friday night is our Eco Film Club. We are showing a movie about animal communication that has drawn a larger-than-usual crowd. There also happens to be a crazy windy storm that is whipping the screen around and our volume is up to drown out the rain and wind. The movie ends and we serve dinner. One of my fellow volunteers calls me outside to our dish wash station.  A tree has split and fallen on our dish wash station, which just happens to have electricity for lights. I get 2 more volunteers, a machete, and some large clippers. I shut off the power and we cut large branches, climb trees to chop the split all the way, and rebuild a light station out of solar lanterns. The teamwork is golden. We finish up by clearing away the large branches. As we walk in slow motion, like superheroes returning from a victory, our guests come to wash their plates and it’s like we were never there and nothing was ever wrong. We sit down and each eat 2 plates of dinner.

Birds Surround

tumblr_nq66jvTqRI1ray50qo1_1280.jpg
tumblr_nq66jvTqRI1ray50qo2_1280.jpg

Almost every morning I hear a clacking sound like a baby woodpecker pecking plastic. For days I couldn’t figure it out. Then I caught them in action. The hummingbirds are pecking at themselves in my mirror! What do they think they see? Other hummingbirds? Are they trying to free them? It’s so perplexing!

As the summer is here in full swing I’ve seen so many different birds. There are the crows that imitate every other bird, birds that sound like they’re screaming “vegan!”, little brightly colored fast-swooping birds, and medium-size black and white quick-and-straight-as-an-arrow flying birds. There are peacock families who always look surprised to see me, and occasionally a small owl in the trees.

After returning from a recent trip I found an empty bird’s nest hanging under my hut with its hard oval exterior of intertwined twigs and soft feather-wallpaper inside. At night while brushing my teeth I took another peek. There was a small bird sitting inside with a long, crooked beak. This bird came back every night for weeks. If I got too close it would quickly dart out, always returning the next evening. And then, one day, it was gone.