Grass cutting (by Vid)

Farm life knows no weekends.  This is a fact.  As long as the sun shines, there is work to be done on the farm.  Be it plowing, fertilizing, planting, watering, or harvesting. Once the rice planting season is over, it starts all over again with wheat planting season.  I stopped keeping track of days because, really, what’s the point?  Every day is a workday.

And everyone gets up so early!  It’s so early that it’s still the previous night.  My host-family, including the eight year and ten year old kids, are up and about by 4:30 am.  I honestly don’t know what’s so important that needs to be done at this hour because I haven’t actually gotten out of bed to see it.  I have a vague idea though as I hear stuff outside my room every morning. It starts with the dogs barking like a broken alarm clock, and then the cows start mooing as they’re taken out of their sheds. And finally the kids thump around as the parents yell at them to get ready.  Asking a child to get ready at 4:30 am to help with housework?  I’m sure that’s illegal.  Grateful that I’m not a kid on this farm, I drift back into my dream world where there are hot showers and no spiders!  By the time I wake up, half of their day is done.  They must think I’m such a princess.

Host-family kids

Host-family kids (Gautam, Shivam and Anouska) goofing around while walking the family dogs.

This afternoon, I saw Chandra (the daughter-in-law and house chef) walking out the door with a sickle in her hands like she means business.  I instantly got excited because I knew that she must be up to some cool farming activity. She looked like a woman to be reckoned with.  So I dropped everything I was doing, which was actually nothing at that moment, and dutifully followed her with a smaller, but equally menacing looking sickle.


Chandra (Jeevan’s daughter-in-law and family chef). She’s half my size and looks so sweet, but she’s a mean grass-cutter!

Eager to understand what new farming skill I’m about to learn, I ask Chandra to explain what to do with my sickle.  She simply said, “grass-cutting”.  Cutting grass, really?  Grass needs to be cut to feed the livestock.  It’s actually very hard work – back-breaking-ly hard!  I imagine this is what mowing a lawn with a kitchen knife feels like.  My rational side is trying to comprehend why the animals couldn’t just come here and eat the grass to their hearts content.  But I don’t have any energy left in me to speak.  I’ll ask tomorrow.  Grass-cutting is as exciting as it sounds.  No doubt about it.  I didn’t even bother taking a photo.

What was immensely more exciting was seeing a bunch of monkeys the other day!  Here are some photos:

A troop of monkeys!

A troop of monkeys!

More monkeys

More monkeys

A monkey climbing a tree

A monkey climbing a tree


Building a home for Ganga!

One of the things R.O.S.E encourages is that all donations are made in the form of projects. This way, no one family comes to be dependent on tourist charity in their everyday life. Projects are prioritized for the people most in need.

Last week I visited the home of a recently widowed young woman named Ganga. Jeevan told me that building a safe home for her is a priority for R.O.S.E because the living conditions for the family have become unsafe.



On October 24, Ganga received news that her husband met with an accident and died while at work.  He worked in another village transporting cargo on mules. The family has no life insurance as it is the case with most of the poorest families here.  The family lives hand-to-mouth and didn’t have enough money to pay for her husband’s funeral, so Jeevan kindly offered to cover the cost.

Ganga is a young mother of two boys, and lives with and cares for her parents-in-law and mother, as it is typical in a nuclear family in India.  Ganga’s family does not own farm land, and she works on other farms and makes a modest salary Rs. 1500 or $28 CAD per month.  Right now, Jeevan provides food for the children but hopes that Ganga will find a better paying job in the coming months to become more independent.

Ganga's mother-in-law who lost her son on Oct 24, 2012

Ganga’s mother-in-law who lost her son on Oct 24, 2012

I didn’t talk to Ganga or her family because the loss was obvious in their faces. I wanted to tell Ganga that she has already received a generous $700 from friends and family in Canada, and that she has support from people that don’t even know her. But not being able to speak the language, I didn’t want to risk being disrespectful of their mourning period.  So I quietly took photos, helped Jeevan take some measurements and got my information from him later.

Ganga's home

Ganga’s home

As in the photo below, their neighbour’s roof collapsed under the weight of the monsoon rains.  Shortcuts were taken and the house was constructed with cheap quality materials such as low quality steel rods.  Because Ganga’s house shares a wall and roof with them, it’s clear the family needs a safer place to live.

Collapsed roof

Collapsed roof with poor quality steel rods that could not withstand the recent monsoon rains.

Jeevan says land is available, and there are some raw like stones and sand. But cement and steel rods and other resources need to be purchased. The cost of building a new home, including two rooms and a sanitary toilet and bath, is around $4900 CAD.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all my friends and family for the generous donations! 🙂  With the money Jeevan will be placing an order for steel rods. Jeevan plans to collect as much as he can until Christmas and depending on the amount, either a new home will be built for Ganga’s family, or the existing one with be renovated (with stronger roof and wall reinforcements, and sanitary toilet).

Ganga's son in front of the house

In front of the house with one of Ganga’s sons and his friend (also named Vidya!)

If you’d like to donate to Ganga’s home feel free to drop me a note.  I’m happy to pass on all donations.  Hopefully, Ganga and her family will have a safe place to call home in 2013!

Additional photos can been seen here on facebook:

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Martin’s last day at ROSE and Jeevan wins an award (by vid)

Yesterday was Martin’s last day at R.O.S.E. Martin is a fourth-time volunteer and a British army veteran who is travelling around India for two months. Each time he visits India he makes it a point to stop by here for at least a couple of weeks. The family affectionately calls him “Uncle” and it’s obvious how much they love him. Being the only other volunteer on the farm, I’ve also grown quite fond him; the way I imagine new prison inmates become good friends quickly.

Martin is a self-proclaimed “Crazy Irish”. And I believe him (kidding). He’s travelling in India carrying an electric kettle and an iron in his bag. He’s addicted to tea. The iron also has an explanation. He says he likes to be presentable in case someone invites him to tea. Anyway, now he’s on his way to Sri Lanka now to enjoy the “beaches and beers” 🙂

Martin with baby Suhana

Martin with baby Suhana

Jokes aside, Martin has been of tremendous help to R.O.S.E. Last year, Jeevan had an unfortunate experience with a UK based volunteer placement company. The company sent several dozen students and volunteers to Kanda but withheld funds from R.O.S.E. Jeevan went into debt by taking out loans to host and feed the volunteers, and also pay for projects so that the volunteers leave with a meaningful experience. Donations and part of the hosting-fees are what’s used to buy material for construction projects to benefit the community – which also provides travelers a learning opportunity.

Martin, a UK customs officer, used his clout and knowledge of UK exploitation laws to raise a complaint against the company. Although it’s still in process, it looks like he will be able to get Jeevan his money back. Martin’s also generously donated used computers, used electronics and school supplies over the years. To me, he’s been a wonderful guide because he knows the history here he has a solid understanding of what’s been going on and what are gaps need to be filled. Most importantly, he’s able to articulate it in a way that can easily be lost in translation in India.

For example, the trademark Indian head wobble has multiple meanings causing much confusion to innocent foreigners. A wobble of the head can mean many things, including the following:

  • yes
  • no
  • maybe
  • thank you
  • you’re welcome
  • I acknowledge your presence
  • yes of course, you can sit in the empty seat next to me
  • I don’t understand what you’re saying but I will silently bob my head until you leave me in peace

You can play a game of “price is right” and take a guess at the closet answer, but only the said head-wobbler has the key. And to make things worse, it is highly contagious! The longer I stay here the more in danger I am of contracting the ambiguous Indian-head-wobbeling-virus. But this isn’t the only cultural quirk. Other common responses to a question can be: “yes, it’s same, same but different” and, “okay, okay, no problem”…but…but, I was asking a question!

I couldn't capture the essence of an Indian-head-wobble but I imagine this farmer would be good at it.

I couldn’t capture the essence of an Indian-head-wobble but I imagine this farmer would be good at it.

Anyway, I digress. Martin’s been helpful by providing me with answers that would have taken me weeks to arrive at. So thanks to him, my work’s cut out for me and I can focus on being productive (unlike the day when I tried to teach a class of three to seven year olds).

Jeevan wining top award for progressive livestock farming

Today, I went to the town of Bageshwar to see Jeevan receive an award for ‘Progressive Livestock Farmer’ (Kishan Bhushan) in the district. Jeevan’s been proactively implementing improvements to micro-dairy (milk production), poultry, goat-rearing, caring for pets, and grass production. He’s also successfully adopted a new technology to artificial inseminate new and improved breeds of dairy cows. He also provides a balanced feed to animals, and uses improved medical technologies to maintain a healthy livestock. He’s also constructed a separate area for the cattle to ensure safe and sanitary drinking water is available, and an environment that is clean and peaceful (i.e. no noise and good flooring that doesn’t flood during monsoon season). With this award he is “officially” able to conduct workshops to teach and educate the locals by example.

And here are some examples of super cuteness!

Calf in Jeevan's micro dairy farm

A calf in Jeevan’s micro dairy farm

happy lamb

Is it just me or is he happy to see you?

If that doesn’t melt your heart…

About Kanda

The village I’m staying in is called Kanda.  It sits at 1600 meters above sea level in the Himalayan mountain range in an Indian state of Uttarakhand – also known as, the middle of nowhere.  It shares a border with Tibet to the north, and Nepal to the east.  The people in this region are called Kumaoni, named after the Kumaon hills they occupy.  The locals have proudly informed me that their ancestors (translations: fossils) have been found here dating back to prehistoric times. How they’ve managed to carbon-date fossils, when they’re still using bulls to plow fields and a pen knife to harvest, is a mystery to me.

Covering only a relatively small area, the region contains over thirty peaks over the elevation of 5500 m giving it its beautiful views.  The most famous of them are Nanda Devi at 7816 m, and a range of five adjacent mountains over the elevation of 6300 m logically named Panchchuli 1 through 5.  Sounds like an actuary named them, no?  This region is also home of the elusive Bengal Tiger at the Jim Corbett National Park.   I’m hoping to spot one on my way back to Haldwani.  Plus, I’ll get to ride an elephant 🙂

Himalayan mountain range of Panchchuli 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5

In terms of transportation, Kanda is not an easily accessible as there is no direct public transportation.  It took me two days to get here from Delhi even though they are only 500 km apart.  Knowing well that over 20 million people ride the train each day, it didn’t occur to me that perhaps I should book in advance.  So after many hours of waiting in line at the Delhi train station, I boarded a six hour train to a city called Haldwani.  This is the nearest city to Kanda from Delhi, where I slept overnight to continue my journey the following day. It’s another seven hour car ride to Kanda.  However, the fresh air and the gorgeous mountain views totally make up for the long journey.  That is, if you manage to keep the contents of your stomach in during the journey.

Winding narrow roads reversed strictly for drivers with a death-wish.

Seeing first-hand how remote Kanda is, makes me appreciate the challenge that faces the locals.  The lack of infrastructure is one of the reasons for high poverty rate in the area. The difficulty of getting to these places effectively cuts the farmers off from the markets they are selling their produce to.  Apparently, farmers in rural India only get 10-20% of the retail price, as opposed to the 60-80% received by farmers in developed countries.  The delta goes into the hands of “middle-men” and losses due to food spoilage.  Despite ranking second in the world in farming output, India has one of the highest food losses due to poor infrastructure and improper storage.  A proper infrastructure, with the help of government aid, is all that is needed to empower these farmers.  Now if only I had a direct-line to the prime minister of India!


An unexpected birthday surprise (by vid)

I haven’t told anyone about my birthday here, so it caught me by surprise when Gunja walked into my room with a gift last night!  Gunja is the youngest daughter of my host-family, and the family member I hang out with the most.  She is in her mid-twenties, and teaches at the R.O.S.E public school six days a week, and also does a lot of the family farming and household work.

Last night she handed me a pair of pretty silver anklets before I went to bed.  It’s an unexpected gift with impeccable timing. She said I’ve been like a big sister to her and this is a token of her appreciation. It warmed my heart to hear that because quite frankly I’m scared of Kumaoni women! They are some of the toughest women I’ve ever met.  They work side-by-side with the men on the farms, and raise cattle, and help in construction work, all the while running their household like well-oiled machines by cooking for the family and raising children.

My “birthday surprise”!


Kumaoni women working on a farm

This kind of toughness is required to survive here.  And at the same time, women are only eligible for marriage if the family can cough up a dowry. This is the paradox that India is. Gunja has been engaged for over a year now, but cannot get married because her family doesn’t have enough money for the dowry.  Dowry typically consists of some jewelry and a few animals for the groom’s farm. Gunja says it may take another two years before she can marry.  Knowing how poor the family is, this kind of warmth and generosity is even more touching.

Gunja with her neice

This morning, I celebrated my birthday by waking up very early to catch the sunrise and take some photos.  I tagged along with my host-family’s eldest son, Jeetandra and his wife Chandra, to a Shiva temple up on top of a mountain.  The view on the way to the temple was one of the most memorable sights I’ve seen so far.  The mountains were so serene and green in the fresh morning light that I left like I was living in a painting!  It’s a moment I will remember for a while.

Sunrise in Kanda

Jeetendra and Chandra at the Shiva temple

And then the nightmare begins.  I offered to sub in for Gunja to teach her class all by myself, because she has to tend to the dairy cows and clean the house.  What a mistake that was!  Believe me when I say the kids only look adorable in photos.  In reality they are a terror to teach!  They can smell fear and recognize immediately when an adult has no authority over them.  So it went all downhill after that – my sanity that is.  I have great respect for the patience teachers must have to do this day in and day out.  To all my teacher-friends, kudos to you!  After an exhausting afternoon, I;ve decided to take the rest of the day off.  The power has gone out again, and this time it’s been out for most of the day, so there isn’t much I can do other than retire to the rooftop and watch the beautiful sunset and sip tea and write this blog.

Sunset in Kanda

On an unrelated topic, if India were to vote in the US elections, it’s clear who will win.


Obama bags for sale at the Bageshwar market

Not built to be a farmer! (by Vid)

When I’m not at the community center “geek station,” I try to learn and help my host-family with some minor farming related activities. This brings me to another thing I’ve learnt. Farming is painful!  I knew it would be hard work, but I had no appreciation for the laboriousness of farming until I lived it.  Farming with no machines is just unnecessary torture.

This afternoon, I helped my host-family by beating the living daylights out of a stack of soy bean harvest.  The goal is to beat the beans out of their pods.  The beans are then swept and collected manually with a broomstick, and then cleaned and laid out to dry.  The amount collected today would be enough to feed one family for a couple of months.  So this is self-sufficient organic farming and not mass-production farming.

Releasing my frustration, due to the daily random power-cuts, in a productive way.

A great way to release energy release if one is restless or frustrated.

Soy beans out of their pods!

The beans are out! Amen.

Beans are collected and washed, ready to go into my tummy in the form of Dahl!

The final product.  Soy beans for delicious Dhal…yummm!

Enjoying my Dahl with rice 🙂

My stay at R.O.S.E Kanda so far (by Vid)

Note: This is a lengthy blog, so I’ve broken them into two posts…but get a pot of chai ready!

In the short time I’ve been here I’ve learnt a few of things about living in rural India.  The most important lesson is that I have no business being here.

Secondly, I have learnt that I’m not the only one who is eager to build toilets.  The project that attracted me to come out here was the opportunity to build toilets to improve the sanitary conditions in rural India.  The Kanda community faces many common rural health issues, many of which could be eradicated through education and simple infrastructure. One primary concern is the contamination of the water supply by excreta-borne diseases. This is almost entirely due to the common practice of open-air defecation in the fields.  One of the projects run by R.O.S.E is the uses of a twin tank composting toilet that is easy to build and maintain, and yields a nutrient-rich compost that can safely be used in the fields.  In addition to sanitation, these toilets offer privacy to women who are dangerously taught to wait until the cover of night to relieve themselves, no matter how many hours away that many be.

Kanda women carrying compost for organic farming

Kanda women carrying compost for organic farming

This is something that Jeevan Verma, founder of R.O.S.E, wants to change and educate the locals about.  But it looks like it’s not just him and I that want to build up toilets.  The toilets were already built by other volunteers before I got here!  While I’m delighted to see that the community has two new safe and sanitary public toilets, I’m also secretly disappointed.  I want to build a toilet, dammit!

Newly constructed toilet with twin-tank composting system

But there is enough work around here to prevent me from proposing the construction of a third toilet.  Most adults in Kanda aren’t educated in English nor do they have computer skills. So they rely heavily on volunteers to help them out.  This is why I’m settling into a familiar role of working with computers.  My work here is to gather, learn and consolidate information for online publishing (Facebook and website updates).

The goal is to raise more awareness and attract like-minded volunteers and much needed donations.

Here is my to-do list:

  1. Capture photos of current project progress
  2. Write about future project plans and associated costs with detailed breakdown
  3. Create and upload a video showing living conditions and what to expect for potential volunteers
  4. Set up an online donation form and PayPal account for faster and easier international donations
  5. Create a webpage with transportation and accommodation instructions (Kanda is so remote that it takes two full days to get here from Delhi – more on that in another blog post)

I hope that I am able to accomplish all of these and help the community in a small way.  My biggest obstacle will be the extremely slow and unreliable internet access.  I am in awe of the patience people have here. That will be my personal challenge.  I have come to appreciate the things I’ve taken for granted like a fast computer, internet access, or no power cuts. But that’s part of life in rural India.  You’ve got to go with the flow to enjoy it.

Jeevan Verma (ROSE founder and my host-family) posing at his plant nursery. The plants are given to the locals to plant in their homes.  Not only does it provide the family with fruits, but it also prevents soil erosion in the area.

My biggest pleasure will come from taking photos of the beautiful scenery and the people that live here. The locals are very easy to chat with – there’s no formality and they love to invite you over to their house for tea or dinner.  I’ve never seen people so accommodating in letting me intrude in on their privacy as I put my big fat camera lens in their faces and homes.  This is a photo-enthusiast paradise. Things move in a slow but constant pace and I’m quite enjoying the change and stress-free lifestyle!