Lime Delight

April 25, 2012

I usually advocate against the gender binary, but this time I’ll admit a woman’s touch has been good for the farm.  In preparation for painting, I scrubbed the walls, sinks, and doors of the bathrooms with a piece of coconut husk. I can handle sharing a bathroom with the frogs and lizards and ants but does it have to be dirty too? No, it doesn’t. Who knows the last time it had been scrubbed. Plus you get the instant gratification of cleaning something that is really dirty, watching the wall of grime flood to the floor with a spray of the hose.

I was pumped to start painting today! Well, priming actually, but at least I would have a brush in my hand instead of a crowbar.  Compared to painstaking scraping, the paint would go on so fast, No. 7744 Lime Delight magic! Yet when we laid out the tarps in the morning I was a bit anxious. Some of the workers had never painted before. It takes practice. Would we be able to do it? Baburam was hovering, watching us make mistakes and scolding/advising. I took a deep breath and told the perfectionist inside to take the day off.   It wasn’t easy but it felt right, to patiently point out missed patches and to keep their containers topped-up with fresh primer.  I bit my tongue as paint dripped onto the metal roof, the floor, tables and chairs. I sighed and passed out wet rags to wipe it up.  The workers had never seen paint rollers before, and curiously tried them out. (“Did you bring these from the U.S.? We don’t have these in Orissa.”…”How much did it cost?”…”Arey, it’s detachable? I thought there was some sort of mechanized in there!”) I showed them how to cut into corners, how to wash and store the brushes. At the end of the day I surveyed the damage. The floors were pretty clean but the paint line where the wall meets the roof was hopelessly messy. But I’m ok with it, because instead of smooth strokes and straight lines,  I taught these lovely Tamil women how to paint a wall. I made the right choice.



Poison Off!

I am fed up with using chemical insect repellent on my skin. I don’t want to spray toxic liquid on myself twice a day anymore. When trying to live a conscious, natural life, you start to notice more closely what you put on your body. Toothpaste, shampoo, hairspray, creams and make-up: what is really in that stuff? It’s a stretch to imagine that all of the plastics and chemicals we surround ourselves with do not seep into our skin, which we will then pass onto our children throughgenetic abnormalities. But I digress… So off with the Off! I say, and I am making my own natural repellent. I’m infusing a jar of coconut oil with some aromatic plants that mosquitos hate: the spicy bite of purple tulsi basil, bitter neem, and sweet lemongrass.  The key element to repellent is the scent, so the stronger the scent in the oil the more effective it will be.

I know what you’re thinking. Ok, Amelie, enough with the hippy-dippy, “eat this leaf and you’ll be cured” do-it-yourselfing. Does it actually work? YES. I did a study. Yesterday I put the repellent on my left arm and leg and nothing on the right side. Then I sat in the Mosquito Country that is the veranda front table at dusk. After over an hour I had 2 bites on my left leg and 10 on my right. Tonight I lost count at about 9, with only 3 on  my treated left appendages. It works. I watch them land on my left arm and then fly away in disgust/fear, it’s quite fun.

Here’s the very simple and flexible recipe for you to make your own:

You can use any kind of oil, but you want one that is neutral or pleasantly scented. Coconut, olive, and tea tree oil are also good for your skin. If you are worried about grease getting on your clothes, you can also use cooling aloe vera gel mixed in with the oil, but it might not be as strong. In addition to basil, neem and lemongrass, mosquitoes also detest: pennyroyal, citronella, thyme, lavender, yarrow flower, garlic, marigolds, catnip, witch hazel, vinegar, and eucalyptus.

  1.  Fill a jar with desired oil.
  2. Chop or crush plant material. Mix and match with different combinations of plants! A good rule of thumb is to use twice as many flowers as herbs and only a small amount of spices. Fill the jar about half-way with plant material.
  3. Let the jar sit in a sunny windowsill for 48 hours, shaking every 12 hours.
  4. Strain oil through cheesecloth, tightly squeezing plant material to get every last bit of oil. Some of the plant material will soak up the oil, so you need to strain very well.
  5. Put in fresh plant material. Repeat process until you have the scent desired.

With some wicks and beeswax you can also use this oil to make mosquito-repellent candles! (1.5 oz oil to 1 lb beeswax).

Try it! The only thing you have to lose is itchy summer nights.

Follow your nose





To Fight the Fire

(I am watching a far-off lightning storm right now, my monitor the only bug-attracting light source on the veranda.)

In the early afternoon on Wednesday we got word that a small fire had started in a roadside ditch along the farm fence on the main road. I was detaching a mountain of cashew nuts from their syrupy fruits when all of a sudden there was much shouting in Tamil and the whole staff began moving faster than I’d ever seen them go. Baburam hurriedly drove the tractor to the pump and began filling the massive water tanks in the tractor’s trailer. When the tanks were full, the tractor chugged slowly onto the open road, the workers and I walking ahead under the midday heat, swinging metal buckets in our hands. At first I didn’t see any sign of fire, no smoke, but  until I went further down the road and saw a palm engulfed in leaping flames, with stumps and brush smoldering around it. “Va, va!” The workers called to the tractor. We started filling up buckets and throwing them on the flames and piles of smoking ash, with a satisfying splash and hiss sound.  It was exciting to be fighting a fire. I was relieved that the fire was manageable, and with the cool splash of the buckets on my ash-smeared toes, I began to enjoy the way the splash of the water lit the furious hiss of the blistering earth.

When the workers were satisfied with the job we headed back, but I could still see small streams of smoke escaping out of the ashes. “Wait, look…what about that there?” I asked, but the workers waved me off, already walking down the road towards water and shade. On the gravel road back to the farmhouse, one amma plucked a pink champa flower off of its leafless tree and clipped it into my hair. It was surreal, witnessing the carnal danger of fire, the frenzy of coordinated action which I had thought impossible in the sleepy universe of Matrikunj. Yet we had conquered it, a small group protecting the land.

Later that night, sans workers, Baburam, Prashant (the cow caretaker) and I returned with the tractor and water tanks to douse the embers once more. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to see where they were, but as we chugged closer I saw the deep orange glow of the stumps and chunks of jeweled embers, pulsing like heartbeats in the ruined topsoil. Once we had killed every last spark (“Arey, look there! …Wait, I think that’s a firefly…”) we loaded into the tractor, but the engine wouldn’t start. After 5 minutes of fruitlessly coaxing the ignition, the only thing left to do was get out and push. (It’s a good thing me and my crowbar have been working out.) Once we were able to get the tractor moving veerrrry slowly, the ignition caught and we clambered on for the joy ride back to the farmhouse, the night’s jasmine-scented breeze on our faces. Wayward tree branches scraping my arms and neck, I reached out and grasped the rough, beautiful texture of the day.

A Plot of My Own

“I do some of my best thinking while pulling weeds.” -Martha Smith

Behind the Matrikunj main building lies a grassy space, 8 by 20 paces , covered in tall grass to prevent soil erosion. On Saturday I mentioning to Baburam that I wanted to plant a few herbs around the small tree that stands near the house, which is currently shading a pile of compost and a confetti of styrofoam chunks.  He immediately perked up, saying I could use the whole plot if I wanted. “It would be good to have a model of a small kitchen garden, so people can see how it is possible on a small scale.” Before I knew it he was talking about planting pumpkins and directing one of the workers to clear the whole space for ‘Amelie’s garden.’ I couldn’t believe it, my own space to plant! I grabbed my weeding scythe and went to town on that grass all afternoon and the next. Baburam says “If your clothes aren’t dirty, you’re not a very good farmer.” I must be turning into a really good farmer.

I should still be scraping lyme off walls, but a crowbar just can’t compete with a puppy and a garden. (The painting will commence within the week, I swear…) I have been dreaming of quilted patchworks of tiered herb beds, wind chimes for the trees to wear, ferned islands, a reading bench, and trellises for winding vines of wild cucumber, snake bean, and passionfruit. This space will have a little bit of everything: sugar cane, banana, eggplant, sweet potato, mint, basil, jasmine, okra, aloe vera. Planning a garden is like painting, but instead of flat pigment your medium is creation itself, breathing and and four dimensional.  What a heady and humbling purpose. My garden will not tame the chaos of this jungly place, but highlight the unifying perfection between the stones, animals, water and soil, sun and stars. Today I held a spider that was all white, albino with an abdomen of neon green, as if it was off to graffitti something. 

My garden, born April 12, 2012. 

I spent today hauling coconut shells and laying out my garden design with some rope and lots of patience. They are recycled from Mt. Coconut Shell that towers next to the blacksmithing shed. They will not last forever, but they are pretty and easy to set up. They will also help retain moisture in the soil. I am also building a small bridge over the irrigation ditch, which will be the far entrance into the garden. We will eventually cover the logs with earth to create a nice flat surface. I had so much fun working today, I barely stopped for lunch and a glass of juice at teatime.  One of the farm workers who lugged coconuts with me ended the day with, “Amelie’s garden, super!” Tomorrow we plant.

Oh! And a new friend arrived one morning last week. She weighs 2.6 kg and likes to use my flip-flops as chew toys. She has huge ears and soft, golden fur. She is very smart and curious, sticking her nose in happenings all over the farm. The puppy follows me everywhere, so close underfoot that she gets tangled up in my legs. She is fierce too: when the other dogs snarl at her, she just growls back, completely unaware that she is four times smaller and in foreign territory. I’ve never had a dog before, it’s all very exciting.

I’m in love.

Crowbar in the Garden

“Gardens are not made by singing ‘oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.”

-Rudyard Kipling

At Matrikunj, the gathering area for workers and visitors is a stone table that sits under the veranda. While working or eating lunch at the table, I would always look wistfully at the building’s dingy, chipping walls and dream of how nice they would look with a fresh coat of light yellow or green. The lushness of the surrounding gardens seem to make the buildings look even more decrepit.

So last month I decided to go for it.  I mean, I had done smaller house painting projects before, how hard could it be? The bad news was that every available surface had been coated with grey and white lime, which meant that it all has to be scraped off and sanded before we could apply paint. Me and my crowbar have been at it for about 12 or 13 days now. My triceps hate me, but I love that my hands and feet are starting to get that tough farm girl feel.

But of course, it hasn’t been all work and no fun. Last week we prepared hundreds of dried coconuts to press into fragrant coconut oil. Chewing chunks of the sweet meat, I sat with the workers for hours and sliced the round nuts into thin strips that were then sundried on large tarps. Have you ever tasted a coconut sprout before? It looks like a snowball and tastes like an airy, tart macaroon. This month the jackfruit trees are fruiting, so I was awarded the duty of harvesting a few of the the massive, thorny things, their nightmarishly sticky white sap impossible to avoid. The yellow fruit is delicious, sweet and slippery. We ate the large jackfruit seeds cooked in curries and once I helped make a jackfruit and sweet potato chutney that tasted like roasted chesnuts.

Jackfruit peeling

Yesterday I clambered onto the roof to put back the styrofoam sheeting that had flown off the roof in the December cyclone. Today we fixed the rope on the worn-out steps of the machan, Baburam showing me how to tie the rope very tightly. We also pulled out a small drum that Baburam had so that we can play music in the evenings like people used to before there was television.

The ashram farms in this area sit beside a large lake called Ossudu Lake. The ashram ‘lake land’s’ birthday is May 1st, with an annual performance and celebration, where the lake land workers sing songs in Bengali, Tamil and Hindi. As usual, Baburam is performing with the group. The workers and I always hear him in his room singing softly to himself, practicing.

I stop for tea in the afternoon with the farm workers, four Tamilian women who gossip and squabble with each other all day. They do all their weeding, planting, and heavy lifting in saris, which will make you think twice before you complain about the heat. Even though they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Tamil, we still manage to work together, tease each other and goof around while Baburam, caught in the middle of our translation issues, laughs at us. Spending all day with them inspires me very much to learn their tongue. I am learning a few words slowly, daring to defy the impenetrability of local Tamil.

At the end of the day, when the sun is starting its slow goodbye and everything below turns a sparkling gold, the sprinklers are turned on. That means work is over and I take off barefooted through the spray, crisscrossing through the eggplant, the dripping starry leaves of the papaya trees, the squished little orange tomato plants that are on their way out. I crouch down under the spray and pretend I am something green and thirsty, so grateful for this daily shower at the end of the day’s punishing heat. I close my eyes and pretend it is raining, warm and sweet. Sometimes I score a green papaya for dinner or an overripe eggplant whose seeds can be saved for the next planting.

After a run through the sprinklers, I wash all the grime off with a bucket shower. The bathroom itself has its own ecosystem, home to a small multitude of frogs who watch me soap up through their enormous black eyes. They come inside to hide from the snakes. Like the French, the Matrikunj snakes love a tasty frog. The frogs are all very cute, brown and mossy green, with enormous black eyes. They perch on top of the toiletry rack, the window sill, the toilet flush handle. They hide in the sink drain and the toothbrush holder. They crawl up and down the tiled walls with their enviously-effective webbed appendages. They especially like to compete to see how many can fit behind the top of the bathroom mirror. I’ve counted at least ten. Plus they eat mosquitos! So they can stay.

In the evenings I enjoy the pink sky by the lily pond. Some days when I am really tired, I take a grass mat to the Cajurina grove and lying on the cushy ground in the dusk, I listen to the subtle whoosh of the branches’ limbed music. Last night I was reading on my bed and accidentally fell asleep at 7 pm, not waking until first light.

Besides a bit of curd and dahl from the ashram dining room, I eat mainly vegetables and fruit from the farm, lots of eggplant and tomato,  custard apple and sweet potato. Today for dinner I had starfruit curry, beet and papaya salad with neem flowers and a coconut laddoo. Wouldn’t you?

I now happily spend about 95% of my day outside. The power cuts in and out every few hours, and I wake up when my fan shuts off in the middle of the night. I now use the natural outdoor breeze instead, which never dies or runs out of battery. I hung a mosquito net and a mattress on the machan and haven’t looked back. Baburam strung a corded light bulb to the machan so I can  read before bed. As I wait for sleep to descend I can see the flickers of the neon fireflies weaving through the palms. My two furry bodyguards lie nearby on the veranda, keeping watch over the dark of the garden.