Digging Your Own Well

We often talk about ‘imagination’ as if it’s a fixture of the human mind. Human beings, as common sense would have it, are inherently able to imagine what is different; we bring what is distant near only by thinking it so. In the middle of a blistering New England winter, for instance, we might picture ourselves on a sandy beach in Florida; in the mess of rapid and haphazard “development,” we might imagine pristine, virgin land.

But imagination—like all of our most transcendent capacities—exists not invariably, of course, but in degrees, in flux, in varying quantities and qualities, and sometimes—that is, in some minds—hardly at all. I was reminded of this last week following the death of North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-Il, which caused me to reflect upon (and imagine) the lives and minds that comprise a nation with only one permitted text upon which to project its fantasies—the doctrine of North Korean socialism.

And yet this extreme example serves only as a limiting case, one which indicates a more universal difficulty. We’re all always limited in our imaginings. We block their course, sometimes deliberately, but also sometimes mechanically, and often blindly. This is what makes routine possible, and what makes even our most arbitrary and destructive habits seem perfectly natural. We cling to what is readily available, forgetting the partial nature of our given sphere. While imagination brings what’s distant near, habit forgets the possibility of distance (and difference) at all.

Cultivating one’s imagination is a privilege, one which we ought to covet and guard with jealousy. I was granted this privilege this past summer, when I was able to stay in Kumily, Kerala for two months—Kumily, a place so unlike any of the other places I call home in custom and in ambience, in ethic and in landscape. I wrote previously about how the hills and depths of the Periyar moved me, and about how Raxa Collective’s work with the Forest Department and the Development Committees humbled and inspired me. But in that post I neglected to mention one of the more memorable moments of my stay at Cardamom County, one which broadened the horizons of my imagination even more than the occasional monkey-encounter or motorcycle ride through Tamil Nadu. Continue reading

The Meaning of Another World

I experienced monstrous difficulty getting this piece written. The difficulty was that of synthesis, which eludes one all the more deftly when one searches for it too seriously. Almost desperately, I wanted, both for my own sake and for the sake of this, our burgeoning compendium of tidbits and travel tales, to provide a perfectly comprehensive explication of my two months in Kumily. But I have to give up the ghost, and I always have to think more humbly about writing.

So after several drafts, I submit an account more prosaic than I’d hoped for, which is the price of my liberation from this imprecise living–both here and there and in neither hemisphere entirely. I have had reason and time to think about travel, specifically about travel and writing, the collection and formation of disparate experiences for the creation of something meaningful. Growing up, I tended to believe that writing just happened–that a writer, when faced with a given circumstance, simply reported what was before him, and that his metaphors and imagery arose spontaneously from the content of his impressions. I don’t believe that any longer. Writing is hard, and writing honestly is harder.  Continue reading

Soggy Elysian Dreams

Note: this is Part 2 of what will hopefully be a series of posts on the guides of the Tiger Trail, who are former poachers. Part 1 can be found here. Beware: this post is sorta self-serious.

One of the most familiar, persistent, and pervasive myths in the collective-(un)conscious of the ‘West’ is the myth of the ‘noble savage.’ Writers who perpetuate this myth typically structure it along the lines drawn in Genesis: a formerly Edenic, perfectly-ordered society meets a corrupting influence that sullies irrevocably this society’s purity and harmony to the detriment of our current situation. Whatever the devil, be it private property, human temptation, television, the Federal Reserve, etc., the story has one function: it causes us to pine for the good old days—the beginning—before the advent of all this nastiness, which just stinks in comparison.

But if there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s that origins are rarely pretty. Progressions, regressions, and transgressions can happen all at once, and often they coincide in the same event. After all, we can’t get back to how it was then, not because we don’t have a suitably equipped Delorean, but because there was no then. Pardon the Liberal Arts 101, but I think some of us are more duped by this myth than we know. It is more difficult than is fair to exorcise ‘Eden.’ Continue reading

Details and Progress

This afternoon I visited my favorite newspaper bag unit in Kumily to check in on the progress since Sunday and to clarify the structure they had set-up on Sunday morning, mostly in Malayalam. Here’s my report, which is heavy on details and light on style.

Each of the producers was previously associated with an Eco-Development Committee (EDC). These committees have been established by the Forest Dept. over the last fifteen years, and are divided by location, or in the cases of the Mannan and Peliyan, by heritage. Current participants represent nine different EDCs: Mannakkudy, Paliyakuddy, Korishomala, Kollampottada (divided into three), Vasanthasena, Spring Valley, and Mullayar. Each has put forth a representative, who will serve to facilitate communication among them. They have, for now and for the most part, elected to retain the division of these committees, perhaps partially out of habit, but certainly for convenience’ sake. EDCs exist in neighborhoods within 5km of the forest’s edge. Though we held the workshop in Vanasree auditorium, just around the corner from Cardamom County and in the same building as the office of the Eco-Development Range Officer, Sanjayan, and some have chosen to continue working there, some from more distant locations prefer to base their operations out of EDC offices nearer to their homes. I don’t know who will administer supplies to these offices, or how, when the operation becomes more complex. The Vasanthasena committee formerly created a newspaper bag unit, and a few of its members have prior experience and know-how. It has been proposed that all the producers unite under the auspices of this group, but they have yet to ratify this motion officially.

Those in attendance on Sunday morning elected three officers to govern the unit: a Convener, a President, and a Secretary. They will receive assistance from two ex officio secretaries and a ‘facilitator,’ all of whom are employed by the Forest Dept. The elected officials alone have access to the finances. Sasi Kumar, one of the ex officio secretaries, currently is charged with maintaining the registers. When I asked what policy regarding the registers they would pursue in the future, Shymala, the ‘facilitator,’ told me they had not yet concerned themselves with the specifics. Abie, who was translating for me, used the phrase “baby steps” to convey the meaning of her answer. Continue reading

From One Training Session to Another

Dosa is a staple of the south Indian’s diet; a crispy cousin of the North American pancake; a usefully and impressively variable rice and dal-based fast-bread that is cooked on a sizzling griddle, and served with savory or sweet side dishes at any meal. Tonight, Sung and I had the pleasure of watching a master at work with the dosa: the head chef at Cardamom County, Chef Pradeep, who put on display several types of dosa for us to try. Per the new usual, Sung took some impressive pics (below). But the highlights were the flavors and the sounds, as wells as the nifty designs grilled into the dosa, the pattern of which is dependent upon how the batter poured onto the griddle (they’re not unlike the swirls in the foam of an artfully made cappuccino). There was Uttapam, which is pizza-like but with ingredients cooked into the batter; mushroom and cheese dosa; house-hold size dosas and restaurant-sized dosas; and masala dosa, which packs in spiced potatoes. We had a lot of fun with the whole experience, and learned a healthy dose about a tasty Indian treat. Check out the photos for a better sense of the dish (for those of you unfamiliar with it).

An Auspicious Beginning

The end of a remarkable weekend. A plan realized, an organization kick-started, exceptional levels of eagerness and dutifulness, and a very healthy dose of fun. Tomorrow I’ll post in detail about what was achieved this weekend, where the project will go from here, and my other general impressions. But until then, I have to admit that I’m riding a high, for the first time having been part of such a fruitful and meaningful collaborative project. Here are some pictures from today’s meeting, during which logistical concerns were ironed out and questions about printing and creasing were answered:


Forest Department & Social Entrepreneurship

Well, we’re back from our first day.  The reason I came for this internship, originally, was to support and document entrepreneurial conservation.  From meeting Diwia when I first arrived a couple months back, to meetings with various levels with the Forest Department’s hierarchy and front line, to today was one of those small arcs of history.  The Forest Department’s approach to conservation, leveraging the abundant mix of creativity, entrepreneurship, and energy in the local community, was a testament to the possibility of good governance.  One of my first posts when I arrived in Kerala, noting the news accounts about public sector corruption in this country, is balanced today by a more inspiring portrait of what that sector can and does do more than they get credit for.

To describe the workshop as a success, I think, would be an understatement. The enthusiasm and enjoyment that infused the work, which no one seemed to tire of, was infectious, and I think everyone is looking forward to tomorrow morning. The fact that only three women said they couldn’t come back for tomorrow (which, I’ll remind you, is Sunday) morning’s session is particularly telling, and I hope the photos posted here are equally so. There were a lot colorful accents to the main event, notably the children who ran around helping their mothers (or made their own bags), the men on the side learning in their own way, and Diwia’s scolding the interns (myself included) and George for making too much noise. It was described as a party and a picnic, but in the end a whole lot of learning went on, and close to 300 bags were made.

Check out this video that Sung and I made this morning (set to the music of a South Korean pop star’s hit song, to honor Sung):

Check back again tomorrow at 11:30 EST for more live updates, and in the meantime read over the day’s happenings!


Prince’s House

Without words to describe the day, I present more photos from Sung. These were taken during our visit with Prince, who lives with his mother and father in the hills just a few km higher in altitude than the site where I hiked earlier in the week. Prince, a bellhop at Cardamom County, was raised on a 5-acre cardamom and pepper plantation. Although I had walked through other plantations while here, this was the first time I was able to actually look around and witness the lifestyle of a planter and his family.

There was a glut of sensory detail so the smells and sounds be-damned; the pictures will have to do. Note, however, that the cicadas were in full force, and that there was an incessantly barking dog (named Tiger); and that the cows bellowed, not so much in ‘moos’ but in rounder ‘mows;’ and that the busker (the man pictured below) and his little sister sang out of tune and without rhythm; and that the tapioca and cardamom and jack fruit and pepper go on for acre after acre; and that Prince continuously warned us to be careful while walking on the slippery dirt road (‘slowly, slowly’) always in the same cadence and tone, the ‘oh’ in ‘slow’ every-so-slightly drawn out and the first ‘l’ slightly rolled. None of this the pictures can say. Nor can they quite capture what it’s like to be in a cardamom field where the stalks have grown ten feet high (like being in a cardamom fantasy-jungle), nor how steep is the hill that Prince and his family climb everyday after getting off the bus. And of course, what perhaps gave me the greatest pleasure: Prince’s brothers are named Rince and Rinso. That is, they are together Prince, Rince, and Rinso. You just can’t make that up.

Air up There

Yesterday I finally accomplished a minor goal I had set for myself early in my stay at Cardamom County, namely, hiking to a cross set high in the hills that ensconce Kumily and the low-lying areas of the Periyar. Unlike the ‘Cloud Walk,’ which took us into the forest for a view of the town and the Mannan/ Pelleyan settlements, this hike allowed me to pass households and schools, small Pentecostalist parishes and eye-catching Catholic Churches. This hilltop is nestled amidst privately owned plots teeming with cardamom and pepper plants, the variously-sized plots of largely middle-class farmers (for probably the fifth time this summer I thought ironically of the admonitory cliché, ‘money doesn’t grow on trees’).

Continue reading

By the Fire (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tiger Trail)

We had reached an impasse, and I was becoming frustrated.

“I understand he’s gained a new awareness,” I said. “What I don’t understand is what exactly that awareness is.”

I had slipped into fact-collecting—or, more precisely, ‘attitude-collecting’—mode, a sort-of aggressive pose I sometimes assume when given the attention of a person whose life has been distinctly different from mine. I admit that this happens more often when I’m in the midst of a culture I think I don’t adequately understand. There’s no judgment inherent to this culling, but there is something predatory about it; if I want your words, to add your Weltanschauung to my reserves, I will work hard to procure them. And if I don’t get what I’m looking for, I can get testy. Continue reading

Ayurveda v. Allopathy

A quick word before my note on this weekend’s three-day perambulation through tiger territory:

From this morning’s Hindu

Personalised Ayurvedic interventions have demonstrated clinically significant improvement in rheumatoid arthritis on a par with allopathy treatment with the added advantage of lesser side-effects, according to a study…

“We cannot make any tall claims with the results since it was a pilot study and the sample size was small. However, the study got a major stimulus when Dr. Edzard Ernst, the first professor of complementary medicine, called it a blueprint for research in Ayurveda,” Dr. Ram Manohar told The Hindu over telephone…

While the study was specific to rheumatoid arthritis, it also looked into whether complex Ayurvedic interventions could be studied in a clinical trial. The double-dummy, double-blind randomised clinical study has clearly shown the feasibility of further studies of this kind.

I haven’t mentioned in previous posts (though Gourvjit has) that Cardamom County Resort houses an Ayurvedic center, nor have I spent time detailing the history of this local art of healing and wellness. I ought to have, however, because this ‘alternative medicine’ is a conspicuous presence in Kerala, and is one reason many travelers are compelled to come here. Although this study doesn’t prove Ayurveda’s general validity from a scientific perspective, it is a first step in bridging the acceptance-gap between allopathic, Western medicine and this traditional, holistic approach.

Take a look at the article, and look out for future studies on Ayurveda’s efficacy!

Monkey Business, if you will

If only to illustrate the contrast between the cool, sleek Nilgiri langur and the pesky, marauding band of bonnet macaque, I offer this beautiful photographic evidence captured by the one and only Sung, whose telephoto abilities far outstrip my own. Sung was (un)fortunate enough to meet this savvy bunch on the roof of the resort restaurant where he had been pleasantly snapping pics of the local bat population (more on them later, I can assure you, esp. now that Sung is on the case). He called to me from across the property, gesturing wildly, and shouting something along the lines of: ‘There are like a thousand monkeys up here!’ Credulous as ever, I thought perhaps there were in fact a thousand monkeys and sprinted from my seat to witness the fracas. (Un)fortunately, I found a mere twenty-ish, a far more manageable pack than the thousand-strong throng promised me. I looked on rather unimpressed. But the high-pitched excitement in Sung’s voice revealed his fundamental anxiety in the face of his first, true encounter with the MACAQUE.

I’ll let these photos tell the story and you, Dear Reader, can be the judge of mine and Sung’s sanity. After all, I do hate to over-dramatize (can’t you tell?). Still, I feel it is my duty as intern, resident, and world-citizen to present the truth as I see it. I should say, however, that about two nights ago I caught the tail-end of a rather tragic Discovery Channel program about the forced re-location of the macaque from one Indian town. I watched these macaque as they were dragged and tricked into tiny cages where they were slammed one on top of another, and it was all deeply disquieting, and just about made me re-think my position towards these struggling sons and daughters of our Planet Earth. I would sincerely regret my paranoia regarding my grey-haired distant cousins engendering an honest fear. Therefore, I hope that, perhaps, their better qualities will also shine through in these photos.

But besides all that garbage, Sung really took some beautiful photos.

Continue reading

Unexpected Visitors

This afternoon, just after lunchtime, the staff and guests of Cardamom County were greeted with a thrilling surprise: the unannounced arrival of three Nilgiri Langur,  the haunting, strong and motile black monkey endemic to the Western Ghats. I ran into Gourvjit and the resort’s driver, Baburaj, watching from the parking lot as they jumped from tree to tree, and as we lingered they took the bold step of running and leaping from roof to roof through the resort– over the lobby, over the open-air bar, past porches and rooms and into the back of the property, where they perched in a jack fruit tree. I followed after them, was hissed at by one, and managed to catch this video of another from an appropriate distance.

The thick, shiny black of its fur and the shock of bronze colored hair that haloes its head lend the Nilgiri langur a mysterious and dramatic appearance, especially when bounding through the otherwise calm resort grounds (though I couldn’t help but, at times, think that they looked as if they were each wearing Donald Trump’s tupee). It is by habit a shy, tree-dwelling monkey (in stark comparison to the brazen macaque) and markedly wary of human interaction. Nilgiri langur have been hunted in this area for their flesh, which is considered to have medicinal properties, and for their fur, which is used to cover drums. Baburaj said they have not been on property for two years and that this threesome was likely a reconnaissance team of sorts, so it seems we’re likely not to run into them again outside of the Reserve. But to get so close to them, to watch them interact and find their way in this environment, which is wholly different from their usual station 60m up in the thick of the Periyar, was a truly rare experience. (And they scare the macaque away to boot!)

The Other Side

When I was 9 my family relocated from Upstate New York to Orlando, Florida, an odd hodgepodge of concrete and drywall that is less a city and more a network, an expanse of strip malls and toll roads stretching for miles with no discernible locus—i.e. a place without place, a harbinger of the New America—both model for and copycat of other American NonCities. At the heart of this network, not in place but in time, is Walt Disney World, Orlando’s reason-to-be and essence, which lies below and hangs around the accretions and habits of Orlando-residents like a living ancestor. As Orlando’s originary purpose, it touches its inhabitants even if they try to avoid it; it shapes you, no matter how far away from it you stand.

I say this not only because I enjoy holding forth on the metaphysics of place (I do), or because I want to suggest I’m some sort of DisneyChild (I don’t), but because a curious circumstance surrounded our ‘Cloud Walk’ on Sunday morning that caused me to think about my relationship to where I grew up, and how these ‘living ancestors’ affect how we experience our environments. Continue reading

Meeting with the Forest Department

Developments in our community development initiative haven’t come easily for the past two weeks in Kumily. With our primary Forestry Dept. contact away from his office for a little more than a week, and given that the time table agreed up at our last meeting (June 26th) allowed for a ten day period during which our ‘talent scout,’ as it were, would make contact with potential producers, we at the resort were, in the meantime, left playing a bit of a waiting game. But with the distraction of staff tour revelry behind us and anticipation for the arrival of our newest intern, Sung, at a high, our idle and indolent interlude came to a happy end today when we met with several FD officials and functionaries, some of whom none of us had met previously, including a ‘Forest Guard’ (a title I hope to earn someday) who runs the protection agency focused on the tribal community.

For while we in Thekkady had been sitting on our proverbial hands, Crist and Amie had been actively ascertaining details from our sister bag-making enterprise in Kochin. Continue reading

Gobar Gas

Is it just me, or is there nothing quite like a casual sight-seeing venture yielding a lesson in biogas and anaerobic digestion? I mean, don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of value in a pretty vista– what was in today’s case a view of Tamil Nadu’s agricultural smorgasbord and a breathtaking, silky and sleek waterfall. But despite the landscape, I was left most impressed by an ingenious contraption we happened upon while passing through the family-owned spice plantation between our parking space and the scenic spot. Continue reading

Newspaper Bags

As I suggested in my last post, I’ve recently spent less time in the Periyar Reserve, i.e. observing and chronicling my encounters with the myriad species of plants and animals there, and more time in and with the local community. Working with resort management and Forestry Dept. officials, I’ve been trying to get off the ground a microbusiness enterprise, operated by residents of Kumily and members of the tribal communities in Periyar East, with the initial goal of producing bags from recycled newspaper. This is related to the bigger goal of eliminating the use of plastic bags.

One such bag, made from recycled newspaper

There are several aspects to this project, and as I delve deeper into them the more complex and intriguing it seems to me. I think the easiest and best way to present the full picture, to identify the difficulties and possibilities inherent to it, is to tell the whole story of my involvement in the project, and in the process to clarify the context of my previous posts.

To set the scene, I offer, in shorthand, a cultural backdrop:

What was only recently a subsistence and agricultural culture and economy, the Cardamom Hills (like all of Kerala) has undergone something of an economic and cultural revolution over the past fifteen to twenty years. Though I’m not an expert in this field, I can say, based on firsthand accounts and observations, that as education levels have risen even among the poorest people in this area (Kerala’s literacy rate is, famously, over 90%), and as the opportunity to pursue non-agricultural employment and consume newfangled products has become commonplace in this area, the demand for disposable income and new ways of attaining it has also increased. Generally, this is true of India as a whole, and as a global phenomenon it really deserves a more nuanced treatment than I’m able to give it (for more information, I suggest you go to your local library or see your neighborhood economist). But, on a microcosmic level, it is perhaps most pronounced, complicated, and—in some ways—easily tackled in the tribal communities of India’s forests. Continue reading

A Staff Tour

On its face, there is nothing remarkable about a company picnic. If what I’ve learned from media representations and other secondhand reports stands up, it seems that they happen just about everyday in some part or another of the world, and that they all involve a bit of hair-letting, whether with ice-cooler beer at the neighborhood park or mini-fridge delectables in Vegas. It is this understood relaxation—or evisceration—of daily norms, of one’s decorum, coupled with the acceptance of its temporality—because of course, work does go on the next day, and you must confront those who yesterday saw you transformed—that gives these professional gatherings their almost sacred quality in the religion of the workplace. Whether mentioned in hushed tones or all too self-consciously laughed off, the company picnic/outing/soiree is, in the daily grind’s cosmology, the potential site of the divine, of the disclosure of truth and the unmasking of custom.

So I don’t think I overstate it when I say that yesterday I bore witness to (and, yes, sometimes partook in) culture. Twenty hours in a bus through the hills of Tamil Nadu is culture, and my inability to draw from my fellow travelers a suitable translation of its subtleties (I mean, who can speak fluently about his own culture?) made it that much more profound. No, this may not have been ‘culture’ in the sense that the Martial Arts show down the street purports to be, nor is it ‘culture’ in the same way that the locally-inspired cuisine at Cardamom County’s All-Spice Restaurant is.

This was culture in the minute, unsalable sense. This is that culture which happens in the infinite, petty moments between friends. Continue reading

Cars for Children

Full disclosure: I feel sort of awkward drawing attention to this story. It describes one of the most unsettling and simply bizarre state initiatives I’ve heard of in a while, and I’m not entirely sure the matter merits space on this site. Alas, my provocative side gets the best of me sometimes and I am compelled to link to it, if only because it’s consistent with the problems I promised to raise yesterday, not to mention it’s pertinent to India and that it points to some of the truly hard questions we as a global population will have to ask ourselves in the coming century. These questions bear spiritual, physical, cultural, and ethical import, and how we answer them…well, that’s just more than I can deal with in this format.  Continue reading

An Introduction

Before I post again about things of substance, I wanted to take a moment to introduce myself to our readership, to share my interests and goals, and to spell out more clearly the reason to the madness of my earlier posts. If I’m not mistaken, my fellow contributors will be doing the same over the next few days.

I am, nominally, Michael Muller. In the fall, I’ll be a senior at Amherst College, where I study, among other liberal arts ‘disciplines,’ Political Science, in particular political theory and the history of political thought. I have a peculiar fascination with how different groups’ and individuals’ concepts and philosophies affect and create attitudes, and how these attitudes influence action. If this all sounds highfalutin or like pseduo-psychology, you’re on the right track.

Self-deprecation aside, however, I also have a passion for interpreting and, if possible, correcting injustice. Thanks in large part to my upbringing, I tend to identify with the cause of protecting the less-protected, whether it’s a social group, eco-system or idea. Of course this tendency is all well and good in theory, but its tendance requires greater sedulity in practice. When Crist offered me the opportunity to come work and write for Raxa Collective this summer, to identify problems with and solutions for conservation initiatives in Kerala, I immediately snagged the opportunity, understanding it not only as one that would allow me to effect change, but also one that would test, probe, relax and strengthen my still-developing convictions.

In my posts over the next four weeks, besides providing personal insight into the wonders of the Periyar, Kumily, etc., I hope also to problematize and contextualize my own experiences, to illuminate some of the complexities inherent to preservation and conservation in a rapidly developing nation (and world), and offer possibilities for readers and travelers to get involved in the conversation.

With that in mind, I will try to offer non-political entry points into political questions, while not neglecting or forgetting the reason I’m here, or, for that matter, why anyone from outside Kerala would come here: the impossible rarity of its natural and cultural riches.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to comments. Let’s have a conservation conversation*!