Today was a most trying day. I woke up at 5:45am this morning to the careful pitter-patter of rain, which quickly turned into a downpour. In the main hut at 6:30am, I was chosen for “forest duty” with 6 other volunteers. This meant donning my raincoat and heading to the tool shed, where we gathered tree-planting implements. Then we followed the long path into the forest, weaving through mud puddles where I was feeling certain snakes lurked…
Why hasn’t anyone mentioned snakes? I know there are poisonous snakes in India.
So we’re out there and it starts to downpour, thunder and lightning and we’re supposed to be creating mounds to plant trees in. I’m pulling out Acacia trees because there’s no other even ground to plant “real” trees. An hour later, covered with mud and soaked to the bone, we returned to camp a bit defeated. Luckily, someone had made a huge pot of hot tea in the interim. We all gather around, filling bowls with tea and holding them up to our faces, so that the warm steam curled up, filling our senses and warming us.
Challenge: There’s no place that’s dry. No place to retreat into warmth and take off wet clothes. It’s like camping all the time. Camping in a monsoon.
After breakfast I am assigned kitchen duty for lunch preparation. The normal cooks – an Indian couple named Sheila and Radash, have the afternoon off and we are presided over by a guest cook. He was not as authoritative as he needed to be, and as a result, we were scrambling to prepare lunch in time. The “founders” of Sadhana Forest, Avi-Ram and his wife Urete, have two daughters. One is 3 ½ and always naked – always. During staff meetings she terrorizes the main hut in the nude, screaming for attention and performing naked tricks. 60 students visit to learn about the project, and the naked child runs in front of them, screaming and throwing a dirty doll in the air.
Her older sister, Osha, is 11. Both girls are bossy and demanding, somehow managing to behave spoiled while living a minimalist jungle life. Osha decides to help in the kitchen. This consists of bossing everyone around, doing nothing, and complicating matters with the guest cook. She ate garlic, pranced around and announced:
“I love garlic! I’m eating raw garlic!”
The volunteers went chop chop chop with tomatoes, onions, potatoes and a new mystery vegetable called “chow chow.” Sometimes the little naked daughter appears and demands to do whatever you’re doing.
She says, in broken English (Avi-Ram and Urete are Israeli), “I want, I want, I want cut!”
And Urete says, “Can she cut that, please?”
So you smile and say, “Sure,” and then play along. Soon naked-child loses interest and her little legs take her tearing from the kitchen. Finally lunch is finished and we clean up and serve the masses of volunteers. Myself and another new volunteer, nicknamed Rooh, are sitting next to each other over lunch.
“I don’t think I will try working in the kitchen again,” Rooh says.
“What was that?” I say.
“Welcome to Sadhana,” Mike says.
Mike’s a tall, broad-shouldered man from Denmark. He’s been at Sadhana for 3 ½ weeks. He’s opinionated, cynical, brutally honest – “according to his reality” – and has served in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have no power to charge our electronic because there’s been no sun. Rooh and I decide to walk to the Chai Shop a couple of towns over. The walk takes us around 20 minutes.
We see what looks like all of Sadhana Forest’s volunteers on the way to chai. Most have already consumed their cup and are returning to the forest. We discover that the “Chai Shop,” is actually a tiny shack run by a skinny Indian man called Uncle. Uncle makes fabulous chai. I drink 3 cups.
Uncle happens to have some outlets, and he lets me charge my laptop. Rooh and I sit for over an hour, drinking our steamy sugary milky beverage and swapping life stories and philosophies. We walk back to Sadhana and I run into the main hut to get online and skype with Colin. My computer refuses to connect to the internet. Just like the jungle to foil my plans again! Angry and frustrated, Mike, the Dutchmen, sees my distress and tries to help, to no avail.
Mike doesn’t eat the vegan food. He says it has no flavor. He’s mostly right.
“I’m going out to eat. Do you want to go into town and get food?”
It’s pouring outside and I imagine the scooter ride on the pot-holed roads.
“Sure. Yeah, I’m game.”
I put on my raincoat, which is kind of a laugh since water gets everywhere anyway.
“Are you wearing a raincoat?” Mike asks. He’s a nice guy but he stinks a little. We all stink a little.
“Yeah, of course.” “That’s why my butt’s getting all wet.”
He deftly navigates the road into town and we arrive, sopping wet, and eat spicy vegetarian soap and have little homemade Indian pancakes with 2 incredible sauces and the flavors are all outstanding. Mike’s friends with all the Indians in town. He’s loud and a bit of a spectacle and they love him. He’s getting a suit made so that when he goes home he has something nice to wear to impress his lady.
“My girlfriend’s a butcher,” He says. “She’s more masculine than I am.” That’s hard to imagine.
We ride back and he stops for a smoke outside the gates. There’s no smoking in Sadhana Forest…one of the many rules.
“You know there’s a cobra living right outside your dormitory?”
“AH!” I say. “NO!” But yes, I suppose I sensed it.
“There’s one outside mine, too. And other snakes.”
“Why doesn’t anybody warn you about them during them welcoming?”
“Dunno. I think they’re going to start since Urete stepped on one yesterday while she was holding [insert naked child’s name here]. Awhile ago, there was this American guy staying in the second story dorms. He wakes up in the middle of the night and feels something between his legs. He looks down, sees the snake and slowly opens his legs wider. He throws his blanket over the snake, throws the blanket outside, and goes to sleep in the main hut…where he gets eaten by mosquitoes instead of worrying about more snakes.”
Now I’ll be shaking my bags and boots and beating bushes with sticks, letting out little squeals when a bush touches me wrong.
Not that I didn’t expect it. We are in the jungle, after all.