10 October, 2006

First Retreat
(4-7 October, 2006)

Last week, the five volunteers, along with Thomas John Achen, Betty Kochamma, and Joy Joseph, all got together at a multi-purpose Catholic centre called Hosanna Mount in the town of Pala (or Palai) for our first retreat.
Pala is in an absolutely beautiful rural area in the midlands of Kerala, where the land starts working its way upwards towards the Western Ghats (the mountain range that forms the state's eastern border). The retreat was a time of relaxation, reflection, fellowship, study, sharing stories, triumphs, failures, frustrations, joys, and songs.
I've got to say, i never thought i wold be so happy to see a group of white people in my whole life! It was such a relief to be able to speak in "normal" English- fast, with polysyllabic words, rambling sentences, and colloquial slang - and be understood; to have my sense of humour understood (as much as it ever is...); and to hear that everyone, to greater or lesser degrees, has encountered many of the same challenges and struggles I've been facing, and to find out how others are dealing with said challenges and struggles.
We're all dealing with a certain amount of ambiguity in our placements (what exactly is it i'm supposed to be doing here anyway? how is teaching english to middle class college students doing God's work in the world?), and some frustration with the lack of any real outreach, grass-roots, NGO, whatever-you-want-to-call-it component to the program. A good percentage of the other volunteers are also having difficulty redefining privacy and personal space. Hearing my own concerns and problems echoed thus (even ones that i was unaware i had until i heard them) was sort of reassuring. And of course we didn't come up with any easy answers to these things; but it's still nice to know that i'm not alone.
While in Pala, we took a couple of little trips that deserve some attention here. First, we went to see what, for many of us, was our first Malaywood (due to the linguistic makeup of the country, each state has its own film industry, Malaywood being Kerala's) movie- Classmates. Classmates is the biggest thing going in Keralan pop culture-- you can't go anywhere without hearing the annoyingly catchy songs from the movie. A three-hour-long spectacle that covers everything from forbidden love to political violence, all taking place at CMS College in Kottayam (where Kyle is working!), Classmates was everything I imagined an Indian movie would be-- it even had the requisite song-and-dance numbers and a we're-having-sex-but-aren't-even-allowed-to-visually-imply-it montage featuring Buddhist monks (hmm.... i didn't think it posible, but it makes even less sense in writing than it did visually). Point being, seeing a Malaywood movie was a very interesting experience and was actually a lot of fun!
The secone trip was to an organization called InFact (Information For Action), a grass-roots farmer's organization that promotes ecologically sound, sustainable organic farming initiatives like multi-cropping and putting emphasis on food crops rather than cash crops. For the last couple of decades, farmers, enticed by lucrative cash crops (rubber, vanilla, pepper) have abandoned food crops, and when the market for these cash crops became completely saturated and prices plummeted, the farmers were left with no income but the same payments to make on their land and equipment. Taking huge loans from banks and other lending agencies, these farmers were driven into insurmountable debt just to survive. With interest rates on loans rising and crop prices dropping even further, many farmers have entirely given up hope, creating an epidemic of suicide amongst farmers all over Southern India. This is a very serious problem, and the people at InFact believe that by focusing on food crops and multi-cropping, farmers can be engaged in practices that are sound both economically and environmentaly. They also organize co-operatives and arrange a sort of bartering network so that there is a guaranteed market for these farmers' excess crops. In all honesty, a lot of these issues are entirely beyond my comprehension but what InFact is promoting sounds like it makes a lot of sense.
As an illustration of what this kind of life can look like, we were taken back to InFact's head, Ronni's, house. On the land around the house, Ronni and his wife and kids grow tapioca, okra, papaya, tomato, ginger, coconut, banana, pepper, vanilla, coffee, rice,and cocoa. Deliberately living a simple, traditional life, they do the majority of cooking over a wood fire, and use either food they've grown themselves or that they've obtained through barter with other local farmers. They are all (the kids included) very deliberate and mindful of everything that they do, and are very clear on why they are living that way. Their young daughter could speak more intelligently than i can about the importance of multi-cropping, biodiversity, and simple living. It was really inspiring to see a whole family united in the beauty of simple, sustainable, mindful living. We ate dinner there, and it was probably the best meal i've ever had.
So take that, you "If It's Good For You, It Probably Tastes Like Poop" naysayers!
All in all, our retreat was a great experience in beautiful surroundings, that provided some badly-needed relaxation and fellowship, and we even learned something!


Blogger Charlotte said...

"I've got to say, i never thought i wold be so happy to see a group of white people in my whole life!" And I've got to say, I know EXACTLY how you feel, Andy. I even had an LOL moment. Thanks for that!

17 October, 2006  

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