WWOOF-ing India Week 2: Bugs, Dung, and Darkness

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A quick flight and an hour-and-a-half long car ride later, I arrived at Samata’s Mango Tree property adjoining the organic farm ready to WWOOF. In an ongoing humdrum of construction and farm work, I met with Jonathan Benda, the garden manger, who is nothing short of a walking-talking encyclopedia. His agility and confidence has enabled him to create a beautiful garden — the best resource for organic produce in the State of Goa.

He took me to my room, which is the ground level of a two story bungalow. I was relieved to see that it’s a large room with a big bed and a nice open bathroom. Closed for the monsoon season, the place still looks splendid in all its earthy glory. After a quick tour of the property and the farm, Jonathan took me over to the other property (Tamarind) to have a look around. Dinner was at a local restaurant. I was to start work on the farm the next day.

Although the place is beautiful, I was nervous, almost terrified. I was far away from any civilization. It was quiet enough for me to be able to hear my own heart beat, interrupted of course, by chirping crickets and other unfamiliar (but disturbingly loud) insects. It was unsettling. The first night was pitch dark and I was too afraid to sleep with the lights off.

The next morning, I worked with Gini, Asha, and Gita, to pluck leaves off a long-stemmed plant to use as mulch. This was followed by lunch. The afternoon was spent in the nursery where we prepared pots and trays for planting seeds. This was my first interaction with “gobar.”

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Asha sowing seeds (Photo Mahek Shringhey)

Ubiquitous on the farm, gobar, or composted cow dung, is the elixir of life for plants. Used across most of rural India for a number of things, its oldest use is as manure. Because it is composted, it doesn’t smell too bad and makes for excellent fertilizer when coupled with coco peat. The trays and pots are filled with a mix of gobar, sand, and mud and the seeds are then sown. Once they germinate and sprout they are transplanted into the farm beds.

I have immense respect for Gini, Asha, and Gita. The garden yields a plethora of fruits and vegetables including the most beautifully fragrant basil (Italian, Thai and, Dessert) I have ever come across. Pineapples, papayas, kale, rosella flowers, spinach, eggplant, chard, corn (blue, pink, and rainbow varieties), turmeric, ginger, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, and an endless list of produce is cultivated and harvested on this land, which once lay hopeless and barren. The daily efforts of Gini, Asha, and Gita, under Jonathan’s precise and practical guidance, has resulted in this flourishing farm.

Before the other volunteers arrived, I was anxious and distressed about being alone in nature. One evening I went to use the washroom and there were insects everywhere. A little insect on the ground was walking towards me, oblivious to my jittery condition. I wanted to trample it and as I was about to put my thoughts to action, the electricity went off. I was sitting there in pitch darkness scared and cold as stone.

I blindly made my way through the bathroom, banging into the bucket and sink, and raced towards the door to get out. My fear was on an all-time high. I prayed for courage in my heart and wished I had a flashlight.

As I looked into nothingness towards the farm, I suddenly saw some light — quickly illuminating and then extinguishing. It looked like somebody was waving a penlight around. I was about to call out to the carrier of this light but saw the light again at another spot for a split second. I wasn’t sure what was happening — nobody was around. I continued to gaze as these tiny bright lights danced around, coming closer to me successively and making for a fantastic sight. As the number of these lights began to increase it finally dawned on me that these were fireflies. I experienced immense joy with no trace of fear left behind. This is what it must mean to be the source of happiness to those around, illuminating their lives with abundant hope.

Nature was doing its thing.

In the next few days, as I walked barefoot up and down the garden on the velvety soil, it made me think of the beginning of life. It all begins underneath our feet. The astounding reality of the effort that goes into ensuring that life thrives on, and from, this soil humbled me. Nature is the best teacher. We just need to open ourselves up to learn from it.

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Fellow volunteers left to right: Sam, Mel, Bettina and Alexa front; Jonathan and Matt behind (Photo Mahek Shringhey)

Social activity increased as the other volunteers came along: two American girls, Bettina and Alexa, studying in Hyderabad; a young American landscaper, Matt; and a lovely South African couple, Sam and Mel, who have been traveling in India since January. They came with great stories to tell and lunch and dinner are shared with laughter and interesting experiences. We spend time either sowing seeds, mulching, watering plants, or transplanting. Bettina, Alexa, and I cleaned the treehouse on the Tamarind property as well and Jonathan taught me how to plant pineapples. (A dear friend of mine from back home was very excited to learn that they’re grown underground and went around telling everybody she met!)

By the end of the week I was more settled and comfortable, at peace with being in nature and with such beautiful people. I look forward to the coming weeks of my stay.

Signing off,
City girl.

P.S.: Naturally, insects are attracted to bright lights, and an open bathroom is an open invitation. Leaving the lights on invariably means there will be hundreds of insects flying around, bedazzled by the light, almost as if in a trance — like blazed hippies. At daybreak, most are found scattered across all surfaces of the bathroom, passed out and hung over.

This is a guide to prevent being bitten or getting into accidents with zombie insects the morning after:

1. Do not leave the toilet cover up.
2. If left up, tap pot on the side to ensure there are no insects inside.
3. Spray gently with water to eliminate dead insects on seat. Wipe and use.
4. Shake toilet paper to ensure there are none ensconced within the sheets.
5. Do not leave the light near the basin on, the tripping insects will find a way into the room and you’ll regret it all night.

Follow the rest of Mahek’s adventure:

Week 1: City Girl in a Farm World
Week 3: Growing Friendships & Plants
Week 4: Life Lessons
Week 5: Saying Good Bye

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About the Author

A 23 year-old city girl who wants nothing more than being able to eat without getting fatter, world peace and a pet pig. She is now on a mission to explore the depth of food in its full potential.