Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Islands in the sun

Ringing out the end of 2016 was made extra special by a family holiday to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. When I say family, I mean only 18 of us, ranging from little R at six months to her great grandmother at 87 years!! This time our excuse/ reason was my uncles 60th birthday. The last family holiday I went on was over a decade ago, so I was really looking forward to this one. The family has been all over India, to Kashmir, Darjeeling, Goa, Kodaikanal, Manali, Yercaud, Pondicherry to name a few places and Bhutan. My wonderful aunt and uncle were the movers, shakers and organisers of this trip. A big advantage of having a generation of retired folk in the family now, we were able to make our bookings six months in advance.

A short flight from Kolkata got us (and our 19 bags, pram, wheelchair and baby mosquito net) to Port Blair. After the Cholas, Marathas and Danes, Archibald Blair, a British naval officer, visited the islands in 1788 and the British began to use them as a colony for convicts. The adivasi populations were decimated in the “battle of Aberdeen”, where the British used guns against indigenous bows and arrows. The islands are home to both negrito and mongolid tribes, the Sentilenese, Ang (Jarawa), Onge, Andamanese, Shompan. Now their dwindling populations are over run by settlers from the mainland, from Bengal, Tamilnadu, and of course the defence forces.

We checked in to the Sea Princess at Wandoor, 14 km from the Port Blair airport, and were met with stunning views of the aquamarine ocean. The white coral sands were unbelievably soft, and we floated in the calm, lake-like, crystal clear ocean. The coconut trees and sea Mahua swayed gently in the breeze. The estuary and mangroves were beautiful too, but we stayed clear of them after we saw the signs saying beware of crocodiles! That evening we drove back into town to see the cellular jail. Rather depressing, if well preserved, the jail reminds us of the depths to which the human race can fall. The sound and light show was interesting, though a little long, and Om Puri’s voice booms out as the gentle old  peepal tree.

The next day, we took the ferry from Wandoor Jetty into the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park. Only 2 of 15 islands are open to the public and we headed to Jolly Bouy. Grub island and Snob island sounded interesting too! We were guided by Murugan (originally from Madurai) who showed us the sights and sounds as we floated down between the islands to Jolly Bouy. Second only to the Great Barrier Reef, the corals and marine life here are stunning. We took a glass bottomed boat ride and saw a national geographic feast of fish, coral and underwater life. Irridiscent blue and red finger coral, sea lilies, anemones with clown fish peeking out, brain corals, star fish, purple lipped clams buried in the rocks, shoals of tiger and butterfly fish. Deeper out, we saw long blue fish with yellow tails and less coral since no sunlight penetrates the deep. After this brief introduction to the coral ecosystem, Murugan took us snorkelling. Absolutely delightful to see the corals close up, touch the sticky sea anemone and paddle around in the float. Murugan dragged us non-expert swimmers around and took us to see a necklace starfish. The forest department strictly keeps plastic out – you can hire water bottles (Milton and cello coolers like kids carry to school). So thankfully we get a glimpse of underwater paradise. And hopefully since humans are kept out of the other islands, the corals might have a chance of survival. It’s horrifying to think of the military activity around the Great Barrier Reef some years ago. Let’s hope we are more sensible here !! The marine interpretation centre, with model dugong and leather back turtles, is also worth a quick visit.

We celebrated the baby of the family turning 60 and watched the most stunning sunsets on the beach.

 Next morning we took ourselves with our IDs to the Port Blair jetty and were safely ferried across to Havelock Island. We stayed at the  government run Dolphin Resorts, right on the picturesque Vijaynagar beach. The rooms, the food, the wifi at the reception and the eating joints down the road kept us busy when we were not at the beach or swinging on the hammocks! The sunrises were stunning and had us out at 530am. The tides ebbed and rose, leaving us with a gentle lake of crystal clear water. The next celebration was a 38th wedding anniversary and we spiced up the hotel buffet with bamboo chicken and cognac soaked Christmas pudding!

We also spent an evening at the world famous Radhanagar beach and for the first time met waves. They swept us off our feet and crashed into the receding waves behind us. The dense green forested hills on one side and the setting sun on the other made it picture postcard perfect. We left a note on the beach for A who will be visiting next week! Hope the waves will carry it to him and the good weather will hold.

We took the ferry back to Port Blair, past Neil Island and spent a relaxed evening at the Sea Shell Hotel and new light house restaurant. Slipped in a little shopping at the government run Sagarika for shells, cowries, coconut shells, mother of pearl earrings etc and snuck into the Anthropological museum. It was interesting but could have been much better, with more info and their tourist publication gave a many laughs  with their descriptions of coral “reeps”!!

We flew out of the island, our hearts filled with memories of the beautiful ocean and our bags a little heavier with sand from the beaches! This is somewhere I will definitely visit again, inshallah!

Tangled up in…Orange

For the last couple of weeks, our Sunday organic farmers market green has been brightened up with splashes of orange pumpkins. So it’s been pumpkin cake, pumpkin curry, pumpkin soup, pumpkin pasta and even pumpkin spice latte!   We’ve been completely tangled up in orange (apologies to Jokerman and his prize)

My current favourite is an easy recipe from natashaskitchen. A’s mom has a very similar recipe with more egg and less oil. Either way you can’t go wrong. The cake is moist, sweet and pumpkin-y. The spices smell heavenly, taste divine. And since getting cream cheese or butter takes an extra herculean effort, a simple powered sugar dusting tops it off perfectly. So, Mr Tambourine man, play a song for me, I’m not sleepy and I’m eating pumpkin cake…

Mix dry ingredients :

2 cups atta

1and1/2 cups sugar or powdered jaggery

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp powdered spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg are my favourites)

A pinch of salt

Mix wet ingredients :

3 eggs

3/4 cup oil

1/4 cup curd or buttermilk

2 cups of pumpkin purée

Mix well. Combine the dry and wet ingredients. Fold together gently, do not over mix.

Bake at 180 C for 30 mins or till the top is golden amber and a knife inserted into the middle comes out cleanly.

Ice with cream cheese frosting or dust lightly with powdered sugar.

The Great Red Spot

Today is Menstrual Hygiene Day, so no, I don’t mean the huge storm on Jupiter, light years away, that gives the planet its beautiful colour and wavy designs. I mean the once-a-month, for 45 years of a woman’s life great red spot. Period, crimson wave, red moon rising, leak week and another 5000 slang words and euphemisms we use to describe menstruation. MHD_fullcolor

Over the last two years, I’ve become intensely aware of issues surrounding menstruation. Perhaps I should rephrase that, I’ve been forced to look at these issues because they’ve come too close to home. Literally. The Nursing School on our campus built a new school building, on the site that was the garbage dump. So the dump shifted to the next available free space. Right next to our house! So suddenly, 200+ girls in the hostel, houses, and not to mention the many many female patients and their relatives in a 200 bedded hospital were chucking all their waste into a gaping hole next door. Ouch!

Fortunately, M got into action. Clean paper and plastics are being collected and sold, and a sanitary pad incinerator was installed in the hostel. I breathed a tiny sign of relief. Except for the nagging thought that burning plastic pads surely could not be a viable solution? So, thanks to the great www and Google, I stumbled upon wonderful alternatives to the disposable plastic sanitary pads that are being offered ‘modern’ young women as a one-stop solution. And today seems the ideal time to share my favourite ones : Menstrual Cups and Cloth Reusable Pads. Enlightened souls who already use these, do spread the word. Everyone else, get comfortable under a Bodhi tree, and read on.

Menstrual Cups are bell-shaped and flexible, made of medical grade silicone and inserted into the vagina to catch menstural flow. Once the cup is full, you empty it, wash and re-insert. So a single cup lasts up to ten years! There are different sizes to choose from depending on your cycle and flow. The SheCup is made in India and costs about Rs1,000/- Menstrual cups are a fantastic product, and I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about them before. They were patented in the USA in 1937 by a midwifery group. Obviously they didn’t have as much capital to spend on advertising and packaging as the plastic pad makers. Incidentally, the plastic sanitary pad market share in India is worth thousands of crores of rupees.

The menstrual cup takes getting used to the first time, especially learning to insert and remove. But there are lots of great people who  will help you along. Again my favourites : dirtydiaperlaundry and PSP. And once you pluck up your courage, get rid of your ick-factor and try it out, you’ll be hooked for life. I sure am! They have no health risks, no leaks if you wear it right, no landfills or mountains of waste, no burning, no dioxins. They are very comfy and you learn more about your body and your flow!! If you’re thinking about trying one out, watch a couple of videos and go for it girl!

And next, Reusable or washable cloth pads. Cloth is what you or your mom or your grandmom used. In the Stone Age. We modern women don’t want to use rags of cotton – unhygienic, inconvenient and unhealthy. But sto and think again, modern lady. The cloth pad has been re-invented in stylish, convenient, leakproof and ecofriendly ways. Check out EcoFemme and Goonj’s Not Just a Piece of Cloth, to name a few in India. They need to be soaked in cold water (not hot), gently washed and dried in the sun. Of which we have plenty all year round – we’re currently toasting in the 40s! Ecofemme’s foldable model, or what we call ‘rumal’ or handkerchief here is perfect for places where drying is not easy or in the monsoons. They are soft and comfy. The wings are great. And they are handmade by cooperative groups. They can last from 3-5 years. So you need about 6-7 pads to see you through a cycle. They cost between Rs150-300/- per pad. And there are various programme to get them in bulk or subsidies rates, for women who can’t afford it. We’re doing a pilot trial of Ecofemme pads on our campus and so far everyone loves them!!

So next time the Great Red Spot comes visiting, thank your stars coz your reproductive system is in good shape, and try on your cup or washable pad. Do it for your body, and for the body of the earth. Because we’re worth it!

Over Domberetta Mountain

Last week was filled with memorable experiences. We had the inauguration and book release of 8 Kuvi story books, the ‘Wadu Aju Kerina’ series. It was a momentous event, celebrated with by communities at H and K. We look forward to many more story and song books!!

A day later, A and me trekked down to J village. It’s about 8 km from school, and took us a couple of hours at a leisurely pace. We walked the narrow paths that have been made by the villagers, stopping to say hi to school kids and old students on the way at P and T villages. We climbed steep slopes, slid down paths, crossed the stream. We passed families making sun baked bricks, building houses, girls making palm leaf mats. The short cut path through the fields had been recently cleared. We thanked the many hands that made it so easy for us to walk down the hill. We finally reached J by 2pm just in time for lunch. The girls had left lunch for us and gone trekking up the ‘Domberetta’ mountain. We could see them on the top of the hill, tiny little  stick figures waving to us from the huge huge rock at the top of the mountain. We had lunch and set out to meet the rest at the top of the hill. We met a hunch backed lady roasting ‘paerka’ and she kindly shared some of the juicy seeds with us.

The boys were leading the way confidently, but it soon became apparent that we were lost. We pushed our way through the thorny bamboo, clambered over small boulders and stopped to enjoy the view of J village. We were still lost, and there was no sign of any path, but there was only one way forward – UP! We could soon hear the shouts of the gang ahead and in no time we could see then waving to us from the top! The view from the top was stunning. “You have to climb a bit more, right to the top” coaxed S.

We scrambled up behind them. We could see across the mountains, into the next valley. The villages on the other side, C block, with the fields ploughed or planted, thin dirt roads snaking through the hills connecting villages with their parallel streets and sloping roofs. The girls and villages kids has already scaled the big boulders on top and were resting in various nooks and crannies.

We struggled to the top, crossing narrow ravines and tall boulders. Over the hill, J was no longer visible, but H and G villages were pointed out to us. Adivasi villages blend into the landscape around them, like salt dissolving in water. The tilled lands around the village, at various stages of agriculture, give it away much more than the village itself. In this day and age, where climate change and sustainability are the watchwords of development, we have so much to learn from these hill and forest dwelling communities.

So after snacking on bananas and pressure cooker cake, and many photo sessions later, we headed down to J. The kids collected any trace of plastic and waste what we brought along. A lesson to us mindless consumers from the people who consume minimally and live sustainably. This time,  we refused to let the boys be guides and followed the village mothers instead. They showed us firewood collection areas, different sections of the forest for each clan or village. They used their axes to clear the path of branches and brambles. They told stories about the myths sounding the mountain. The kids of course raced down ahead of us, and we were very ably led down the mountainside by a lady who had a limp from polio!

We met the cows coming home, men walking in from the forests, women from the bore well and kids from playing at the stream. Electricity and PMGSY have not reached J but very house has a solar panel and a light. We met B’s sister. B is married into D village now,  and is the Sarpanch of that panchayat. Talk about the impact of MRSK! We walked to the well to bathe and wash clothes. The girls had strung up a clothesline line outside the brick kiln. A dinner of hot rice and kandulo dal (red gram?) before we sat around the fires and kept warm. Domberetta mountain loomed high in the darkness, glowing silver as a crescent moon crept up from behind. The stars shone bright, shooting off sparks into space. We slipped into our mosquito nets and settled in for the night. Thanks you S and A for a wonderful day. May the tribe of U ever increase!

Gone to the dogs

Last week, we adopted 2 stray puppies. Their mother had littered 7 at school and S brought home 2 cuties. One looks just like the mother, so we assume the other must look like his dad. They keep us entertained – playing with each other, chasing their tails, chewing on toes (including ours) and sleeping in all kinds of awkward positions. For names we have swung between a range of suggestions from family n friends – like radius-ulna, extension-flexion, pluto-goofy, coffee-decaf, coffee-toffee, chicory-peaberry, whisky-scotch, charm-strange (which are quarks!). We haven’t quite decided yet, though coffee-toffee is winning right now. They answer to anything right now.

Two little brothers whisked away

Far from their family they made their way

Eating, sleeping, they love to play

Two little brothers here to stay!

Two little noses, four bright eyes

Innocent curiocity, bonding ties

Wagging tails, jumping up high

Love comes home in doggie disguise!

Wild Mango Magic

Next time you grumble about the heat, humidity and horridness of summer – stop and look at the mangoes! All the woes of summer disappear as the sweet mango juice goes dripping down your chin. I wouldnt miss it for the world (and my sympathies to those who cant or dont have a mango season!)

This year, we have had a fantastic season. And thankfully, mangoes still are a seasonal fruit – like spargel/ asparagus, in Europe. We’ve had a mix of hybird mangos from Kalahandi, mangoes from our garden, and of course, mangoes from the villages and forests around Bissamcuttack. The adivasi village streets are paved with gold this season. Whole populations disappear into the forest before sunrise to collect mangoes – the small, wild, sweetest kind. That doesnt make it’s way into markets beyond the block or tehsil headquarters. This season, I was blessed with wild mangoes.

Preserving this sweetness is vital of course. ‘Manga Thera’ finds its place in most communities on the sub-continent. Here, in south Odisha, it’s called Ambo Soda and modern innovations are creeping in – like drying the pulp on plastic mats or plastic sacks. The rest of the process is essentially the same – squeezing and pounding the sweetness out of the mangoes into a pulpy juice, slathering it out to dry, once dry, pouring on a new layer of fresh pulp and so on till the sun has turned the pulp into a solid mass of gold.

Here are some pictures from J village, where we tried our hands at pulping with a split bamboo stick and tin can.

This season I finally learned how to make sweet mango curry. The tree behind our house has been dropping mangoes for nearly a month now and yesterday we ate the last batch from this tree. Many blessings on those who planted it, and indeed on all those who plant and tend mango trees.

The Sweet Mango Curry Recipe (easy version by D didi):

1. Wash and peel ripe ‘chusne’ mangos (little mangos that you have to suck the juice out of and not the fancy hybrid kind that only lend themselves to slicing up). Atleast 2 mangoes per head

mango curry2. Chop a couple of onions, 3-5 cloves of garlic and a few red chillies (depending on how spicy you want it. The spicey-ness compliments the sweetness of the mangoes!)

mango curry 23. Heat your pan/ kadai/ wok and pour in a tablespoon of oil (coconut, sunflower, sesame. Mustard if youre feeling brave. Any oil will do the trick). Add a teaspoon of mustard or jeera seeds into the hot oil and enjoy the sizzle and splatter.  A few curry leaves too if you have them fresh from the garden.

4. Add in the chopped ingredients of step 2 and fry well. Sprinkle in some salt (to taste. We cook a hypertensive diet, so not much gets added. Fortunately, salt can be added in later as well!). The mangoes are already golden, but a dash of tumeric/ manjal/ haldi powder really brings out the sunshiny yellow.

mango curry35. When the onions are brown and tender, add the mangoes. Wash out the bowl with a little splash of water and pour that in, so you don’t waste any of the mango juice. Don’t add too much water now because a lot of liquid comes of out the mango anyway!

mango curry56. Turn down the heat, cover and leave on simmer for 7-10 minutes. Soon the mangoes will be cooking in a bubbling golden gravy of thick mango juices. Now add a little more water if you like lots of gravy. Serve with hot white rice.mango curry7So quick, try it before the mango season ends this year! Or since patience is a virtue, you could wait for the mango season to roll round again next year. Either ways, here’s to Mango Magic – may you stay sweet and seasonal!

A silver lining 

Every cloud has a silver lining. silver liningSudden rain after the heat of a summer’s day – magestic silk cotton tree at BC

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