Heirloom Treasures for the Orchard and Beyond

This is a piece I wrote for the Grass Valley Union newspaper. It is such a unique concept and an important agricultural opportunity that I wanted to share it here in the blog also. These folks deserve our support.    Patti Bess

 

 

Ever heard of Felix Gillet? If you value California agriculture, you might want to know him. If you drink wine, you are indebted to Mr. Gillet as he cataloged over 240 varieties of grapes.

In 1866 Gillet, a French immigrant, opened his Barren Hill Nursery to the public on 16 acres of logged property on a beautiful hilltop in Nevada City, California. During Gillet’s lifetime, he imported and bred thousands of varieties of old world fruits, nuts, and ornamental plants from as many as 35 countries. Much of California’s success in perennial crop agriculture can be traced back to this Nevada City nurseryman. He could be called the father of California agriculture, yet rarely does he get any credit. He also contributed to various scientific journals.

In 2003 Amigo Bob Cantisano and his partners, Jennifer Bliss and Adam Nuber, created a nonprofit corporation called the Felix Gillet Institute (www.felixgillet.org) dedicated to preserving the legacy of Gillet by identifying, propagating, and preserving edible and ornamental heirloom perennials that were planted in the Sierra foothills during and after the Gold Rush days. The three partners have become sleuths exploring abandoned gold mining towns and old homesteads as far as Graniteville, Columbia, Humbug and beyond. They search for the old varieties of fruit and nut trees that still survive today.

They take scions from the grandmother trees and graft them onto rootstock, plant and care for them for a couple of years; then sell them in a catalog under the auspices of the Felix Gillet Institute (FGI). Currently, they have two mother orchards in Nevada and Sonoma Counties where the trees are grown and are looking for new orchard land.

Fruit Mix

Preserving the trees of our forbearers has a certain romanticism to it, but also very practical applications. If, as projected by most scientists and demonstrated by our recent weather challenges, we continue to have harsher conditions in the future, these hardier trees may indeed be better suited to survive and thrive. They have been growing in abandoned homesteads and mining camps for more than a hundred years without pruning, watering, or fertilizing. Many are still producing under those conditions.

When visiting their farm last fall, Jenifer Bliss took me to the back of the house to a walk-in refrigerator. Stepping inside, my senses were overwhelmed by the scent of fresh picked apples. Something we never experience in our supermarkets. Reine de Reinette is one of her favorite apples. It originated in France and the name means Queen of the Pippins. An old farm guide from the 1800s describes the variety called  Autumn Strawberry as a “yellow and pink apple with a hint of strawberry and tender flesh, the best dessert apple.”  This year the Felix Gillet catalog will feature apples, pears, cherries, figs, almonds, walnuts, and many others.

“If we can figure out how to take the characteristics of these old varieties and meld them into modern agriculture, we’re going to have a more sustainable food source in the future,” Cantisano commented.

Amigo Bob Cantisano, the founder of the Felix Gillet Institute, is an agricultural heirloom himself. Self-educated, he is a walking, talking organic gardening encyclopedia and a man with a mission. Through his consulting company, Organic Ag Advisors, he has worked with more than 600 farmers and 400,000 acres of crops over the last 30 years. He has helped them to transition to organic growing techniques and to bring safer foods to our plates.  Most folks know Amigo Bob as the host of a monthly radio show, Organic Matters on KVMR-FM, where he answers the many questions from frustrated (and successful) gardeners/farmers. He is the owner of Heaven and Earth Farm and a co-founder of the Eco Farm Conference in Monterrey County, to name just a few of his accomplishments.

Think this all sounds pretty far out? Last three years Felix Gillet catalog sold out of trees. (Reminder, the early bird gets the proverbial worm or tree as it may be.) Buyers are generally Sierra foothills gardeners and small farmers who want to preserve a bit of our past and willing to experiment with them, but the last couple of years more commercial farmers ordered trees. If a new heirloom variety takes hold with consumers, it can bring higher profits for a farmer.

All of these plants will grow well in any region that gets an average of 500 chill hours each winter, which is most of northern and central California, Oregon and Nevada. They would not grow well near the bay or Pacific Ocean.

If you would like to receive the upcoming online catalog, send an email to thefgi@gmail.com. Catalog will be live online by mid-October. You can also find the institute on Facebook or the website, www.felixgillet.org      Office phone: 530 292-3619.

 

 

 

 

 

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Risottos and other Revelations

We can’t travel these days, but the memories enliven a dull evening and give me hope for a brighter future for all of us. I don’t know about you and your family, but since the beginning of the Coronavirus we have been spending more time in the kitchen and trying recipes we haven’t cooked in years.

Last night I made risotto that brought up reminiscences of my one and only trip to Italy. There are many lasting memories; but Padua, Italy, makes me think of risotto.  It is a medium-size town, not on many tourist itineraries. The first evening we cruised the little town for an inviting looking trattoria for dinner.

That night I enjoyed a risotto creamier than I’d ever had before, but that was not what left the lasting memory. I innocently asked the old “nonna”, the cook and perhaps owner, “Your risotto tasted deliciously rich. Do you add cream to it?” The fire in her eyes would melt butter and that look will never fade in my mind’s eye. Instantly, I became the stereotyped, uncultured, clueless American tourist. I suppose my question was a little insulting. Removing the plate from in front of me, she grumbled an indignant reply.

But I still think, to this day, that my question was legitimate!  And that perhaps the added cream was her shortcut version. In all the cookbooks I’ve ever read, not one risotto recipe uses cream. Risotto’s richness of flavor and texture comes from the starchiness of the rice and slow cooking in a flavorful broth. I am not an expert on the cooking of various regions of Italy so it’s possible I could be wrong about this.

What is a risotto you might ask. It is Italian comfort food. Stay with me here and I’ll give you an easy way to make risotto.

 

What magnetically drew me to Padua was a Christmas book that I bought my children many years before, called The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle. The book shows/tells the life stories of Mary and Jesus through the paintings of Giotto.  They are reproductions of the 39 sequential frescoes he painted on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.

The Scrovegni family were notoriously deceptive moneylenders. At that time, early 1300’s, the Catholic Church allowed wealthy people to expiate their sins by doing things to benefit the church—to basically to buy their way out of their misdeeds/sins.

The family spared no expense. They commissioned the already famous Giotto to paint the inside of their chapel. Giotto’s style of painting was revolutionary. This was pre Renaissance. He painted realistic characters and emotions—three dimensional humans with faces expressing compassion, grief, doubt. Once he came on the scene, the two dimensional, wooden style of medieval painting suddenly fell from favor.

Since my teenage years I had rebelled against my “churchianity” upbringing, but the fresco of Mary holding her dying son as he was taken down from the cross brought on a surprising cascade of tears like snowmelt on a spring day. Cheeks drenched and thoroughly embarrassed, I couldn’t stop myself.

I walked through the chapel with my jaw dropped open. There is a certain stillness in Giotto’s paintings—a heartfelt understanding of being human. Every fleshy arm, every shaft of light turned in the direction of Mary and Jesus. For me, it created a moment of connectedness that softened, maybe even re-arranged the mental judgments I had made.

 

So back to my “risotto revelations”. It makes a simple but elegant meal. Risotto takes a little more time than using a rice cooker, but is definitely worth it.

Risotto requires using Arborio rice, a short grain variety grown primarily in Italy and Spain specifically for paellas and risottos.  Short grain rice tend to be more creamy. There are other varieties but Arborio is most available in the U.S. Once I tried substituting a less expensive short grain brown rice as was suggested in a cookbook, but it wasn’t all that satisfying. In this situation I would spend the extra money for Arborio. Vegetable or chicken cubes for the broth work fine, but never buy Knorr brand—too many additives, MSG, and a flavor over dependent on salt. Most health food stores offer a better alternative (or be ambitious and make your own).

Just about anything can be added to a risotto. Our favorite summer version contains cut up tomatoes, basil and a can of white beans (drained and rinsed). Or a spring version might include cut up asparagus, grated lemon peel, parmesan, and maybe some red pepper for color. Shrimp is great too.

I once used a red wine instead of white. The flavor was just as good, but the rice had the color of dried blood—visually unappealing! I won’t do that again. Italian women often keep an old stub of parmesan in the refrigerator. They add it to the risotto as it simmers to deepen the flavor; then remove whatever is left when the rice is cooked.

If you are vegan, skip the parmesan but perhaps add herbs to enhance the flavor like marjoram and sage or basil and tarragon depending on other ingredients. Wine deepens the flavor but is not essential if you prefer not to use it, though alcohol evaporates in cooking.  As an alternative, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar added at the end of cooking will also give that touch of acidity to deepen the flavor.

I am taking this basic recipe from The Art of Simple Foods by Alice Waters. It’s a good foundation recipe though I’ve made a few of my own changes.  Enjoy!

Risotto Bianco

Two tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil

One small onion, diced fine

One and half cups Arborio rice

Five cups chicken or vegetable broth

One half cup dry white wine

Salt and pepper (depending on saltiness of your broth)

One tablespoon butter

One third cup grated parmesan cheese

Grated lemon peel or a little saffron        (optional)

 

In a separate pan, bring to a boil the broth and then turn to a low simmer. Melt the butter or olive oil in a heavy bottomed 2 ½ to 3 quart saucepan. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

Add the rice, stirring now and then, until translucent, about four minutes. Do not let it brown. Pour the wine over the rice and stir again. Add a cup of the warm broth and continue stirring. When the rice starts to get thick, add additional cup of broth. Keeping the rice on a gentle simmer, add broth each time the rice absorbs most of the liquid and stir occasionally. I usually add the vegetables/tomato about half way through the cooking process. Continue until the rice is tender but still has a firm core, maybe 25 to 30 minutes.

Add the parmesan cheese and optional butter. Stir vigorously for a couple minutes to develop the creamy texture; then let the rice sit for a few minutes before serving.

 

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Joni Mitchell Understood

 

 

We are stardust

We are golden

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden.

Joni Mitchell

l

          And Covid-19 sent many Americans back to their gardens.  In April grocery shelves were empty and people had time on their hands. If this virus was going to be around for a while, folks all over the country decided to plant gardens and spend more time cooking and being with family. Last spring, here in the Sierra foothills and throughout the country, it was impossible to find seeds for any vegetable or flowers. The sale of tomato starts increased by more than 300%. Nurseries were seeing profits they hadn’t experienced in years. There’s always a silver lining in everything.

There hasn’t been this much interest in gardening since World War II. Back in 1917, the U.S. government called on Americans to grow “war gardens” to free up food for soldiers fighting overseas in World War I as well as feeding their families.  By the 1940s, “Victory Gardens” became ubiquitous in every city, every neighborhood. Today, maybe we’re planting gardens to win the war on the pandemic, but more to keep ourselves mentally sane.

Recently I was looking through bookshelves and ran across one of my favorite books. It was given to me by a friend, but I can’t remember who. If it was you, thank you so much.

An Island Garden by Celia Thaxter, published in 1893, was one of the first garden books that weren’t just plant lists and instructional how-tos. It was truly literary. Her descriptions and obvious love of flowers were lyrical, poetic. Thaxter wrote that she often got up at “bird peep” (dawn) to transplant her precious seedlings. Her explanations of what had to be done to save them from the slugs, snails, thrips, and caterpillars are so detailed it’s almost tiring to read.

Thaxter grew up on Appledore, an island off of New Hampshire. Her father was the lighthouse keeper and later her family bought and ran a hotel on the island. Growing up a very lonely child, she became enamored with and dedicated to the flowers and plants that grew on the island. They became her friends/her lifeline. Though some of her writing is somewhat anthropomorphic, still I have never read anything with more sensitivity and appreciation of the beauty of nature.

In her adult years, Thaxter continued to spend summers on the island. Her garden and family’s resort became a destination for the meeting of minds—poets, painters, and thinkers gathered there. Childe Hassam, America’s premier Impressionist painter at the time, spent many summers himself and painted the illustrations for her book. (picture above)

This is the opening paragraph of An Island Garden.

“Of all the wonderful things in the wonderful universe, nothing seems to me more surprising than the planting of a seed in the blank earth and the result thereof. Take a Poppy seed, for instance: it lies in your palm, the merest atom of matter, hardly visible, a speck, a pin’s point of bulk, but within it is imprisoned a spirit of beauty ineffable, which will break its bonds and emerge from the dark ground and blossom in a splendor so dazzling as to baffle all powers of description.”

The family’s hotel and the gardens were destroyed by fire in 1914, but today you can tour Thaxter’s garden if you can get to the East Coast. It was reconstructed by and is still maintained by the Shoals Marine Laboratory, an education center for Sustainable Stewardship in New Hampshire. They offer tours from June through September.

Having some kind of art or creative endeavor is essential to thrive in these difficult times. For me, gardening does that on so many levels—physical exercise, peace of mind, and a deep connection to nature.

Every spring I become smitten, motivated, literally driven to bring to life an even more beautiful and abundant garden than the year before though my body is not as young as it used to be. The roses in May were stupendous, the hydrangeas luminous, and the tomatoes juicy. This year’s zucchinis are not, as yet, happy with their location.

But today, the heat of August is pulling me down, I am overwhelmed begging the landscaper to add us to his schedule. At times the garden battles feel as if they will swell up from behind, and I’ll drown in dirt –moles, those mess-making skunks, hornworms on the tomatoes; and weeding, weeding, weeding.

A new neighbor, not far below our house, has been thinning trees for two weeks. We, here in Nevada County, have all been cutting trees near houses to prepare for fire season. But the constant roar of heavy equipment and the REHHRR REHHR  REHHRR of chain saws grates on me. The sound of ancient pines thudding to the earth shakes not only our house but jars my mental state and makes me feel so sad – not unrelated to the disappointments and isolation of Covid-19 finally taking their toll.

These are small problems compared to the rest of the world. Tomorrow will be different, and so the drama of this life plays out.  We have our highs; we have our lows. I hope you can ride out yours as I must ride out mine.

 

 

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Starting Over

 

Years ago I started this blog as a travel diary and then it got lost in other priorities. These days of the Covid-19 lock down, I’m only traveling from the bedroom to the teapot, my bicycle, and occasionally a hidden beach at a local lake.

Whatever vehicle one uses to explore their “inner world” whether it’s journal writing, painting, gardening, walking, yoga or meditation this time of lockdown is an opportunity to explore them. We can make choices about using this time of isolation to bring a deeper perspective to our own struggles and our place in this world.

Journal writing, for me, has been a powerful tool to bring a deeper understanding of myself. A writer friend of mine refers to the “shit show” of her mind.  All of us have a constant, barely conscious thought drivel dancing in our heads. It babbles on and on with dialogues of unworthiness, fears of failure and disease, worries, and desires for our future. Journaling, as well as meditation, lessens the power this internal chatter has over us.

Everything in life begins with thought whether it’s trying a new recipe or upgrading our resume.  Being more aware of those thoughts helps us plant the seeds of a productive, satisfying life.  It’s sort of like, if you want to harvest flowers, you must dig in dirt.

Oddly enough, isolation has brought me stronger feelings of connectedness.  Partly because I’ve slowed down, have time to notice the beauty that surrounds me and the simple things that make me truly happy.

I’ve been writing in a journal about my fear of aloneness, but slowly learning to enjoy my alone time.  When I am not on track with my purpose and life goals then loneliness sets in, and I fill myself up with escapism -Netflix, Facebook, the lists of menial jobs that I “should get done”, and, yes, overeating. Loneliness, I’ve discovered, feels like a wall I sometimes break through and enjoy the focus and peace of being alone. It’s like opening a gate into a secret garden of contentment and feeling fully alive.

Sometime in March I wandered out into the garden in the afternoon as I usually do and squatted in a flower bed between a pine and cedar tree. Raking a few leaves and needles into a pile, the scent of damp dirt filled my nostrils. The sun warmed the back of my head; the air still moist with the night’s rain. Then I saw them. The tiny tips of daffodils peeking through the soil. I ran my fingers over tops of their heads, and an electricity shot through me. I felt like a teenager when that special boy touched my hand in the movie theatre. Somehow I sensed the connectedness of all life–this miracle of the seasons that the peach trees know to set fruit, and daffodils begin again when the soil warms.

In recent years David and I have been able to travel independently. It turns out that isolation and travel have a lot in common. Exploring/existing outside the box of our culture and comfort zone, forces me to step back my pre-conceived thinking and  ways of negotiating and managing my world. My mind squeaks open, and I am forced to adapt to change; and hopefully see a bigger picture. Travel challenges me to exist in a reality that is completely different than my own culture.

Travel brings connections with people that we wouldn’t necessarily think possible. I remember a guide who took it upon himself to make sure I kept walking on a hike to a temple at the 10,000 foot elevation in the Himalayas. (If I had walked with David, my husband, I would have complained and quit.) What actually motivated me was our conversation. Despite living on opposite sides of the world in totally different cultures and religious upbringing, we had much in common.  Our concerns, ambitions, doubts, ideals and fears for our children and the planet were all similar.  I had met a kindred spirit.

Traveling also brings back memories of a communal dinner one night at an Eco-resort on a remote stretch of beach south of Mahahual, Mexico. The comraderie and international feeling of connectedness was something I hadn’t expected. The group included four older German men, landscapers who brought their wry humor and a generous stash of beer and cigarettes. A young couple from Chile who had just finished their degrees and two women from Austria. Two Czechoslovakians and two Mexican nationals arranged and prepared the dinner. My husband and I were the only Americans. The food was simple—salsa, rice, and a platter full of a whole red snapper roasted in a reddened chili sauce.

The laughter and conversations definitely broadened one’s view of life especially when several of the younger men competed for who might have the honor of eating the fish’s eyes—a supposedly gourmet treat in their minds. And there was that moment when all eyes were looking at David and I when someone asked, “I don’t understand why the wealthiest country in the world is so stingy about their health care?” That was a question we couldn’t answer.

The corona virus has reminded me how incredibly short this life is, how fast it can change, and the importance of sharing our stories.     I invite you to join me in this blog adventure. A story will appear in your inbox about every two weeks. I promise not to give more advice about staying healthy during Covid-19; but to take you with me on this writing and eating journey and go beyond the marketing drivel that abounds about travel; to share the challenges, the serendipitous moments, insights and colorful characters that inhabit our planet. None of us can travel these days, but memories do bring back such vibrant experiences and teaching moments.

I’m feeling eclectic these days. I’ll also include practical stories of growing up in a VERY different world than today, of the organic farmers I have interviewed and even recipes to expand your repertoire.  Just hit fill in your email and hit the button on bottom right that says subscribe and I’ll see you in cyberspace.

Stay well and enjoy!  Patti Bess

 

 

 

 

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The President is Coming!

Dakshineswar Ashram

Five Miles south of Kolkata, India

Some people might walk into a baseball stadium and feel completely at home. I drive up to the big white gate of the Yogoda Satsanga Society ashram just outside of Kolkata, India; and it feels as familiar as my kitchen.

Dakshineswar ashram is five acres of overhanging trees and gardens that face the Ganges River. There are basically four buildings; an office that also includes a temple, a dormitory for retreatants, the kitchen/dining building and housing for the monks which is off limits to visitors.

The temple faces the river. Across the front is a large portico with marble tiles that remind me of a grand porch across an old Southern mansion. The pillars start out as classic Greek columns and then explode into ornate Indian carvings at the top. Birds that make a “whoopa whoopa” sound and crows dart from tree to tree. You can occasionally hear faint sound of voices on the ferry putt putting across the river. The temple has vibrations that I could never find words to express.

What a pleasant surprise! We arrived at the Dakshineswar ashram just days before Brother Chidananda’s visit. Nice coincidence?  He is the new president of Yogoda Satsanga Society of India and the American counterpart, Self Realization Fellowship. Both of the recent presidents have been quite aged so neither had visited India in a very long time. Elected only last August after the passing of Sri Sri Mirnalini Mata, Chidananda  knew immediately that his first duty was to go to India for their 100th anniversary.

The days before his visit we all felt swept up in the excitement.  Ashram employees and volunteers were painting, cleaning, scrubbing, and arranging. Even my favorite security guard with the balloon cheeks beamed with happiness as he went about his extra chores. My friend, the kitchen manager, thought since it was a weekday, perhaps only 200 extra visitors would come, but the next morning they were planning for 500. The streets in Dakshineswar are one lane rat mazes–hard to imagine people finding parking or even a way to get there. There are folks here from all over the world—a German group, two Swedish girls, New Zealanders, and a larger group from Argentina.

Within hours a stage was erected in the gardens, a sitting area set up for serving dinner, audio system tested and re-tested, and chairs carefully lined up. Flowers and banners everywhere possible.

Finally after much Indian ceremonial officiousness, Brother Chidananda took the microphone carrying us away on his commitment to a vision for the future, his humility and love of the guru. During his speech, my mind wandered to the political drama unfolding in America, and I barely could believe my good fortune to be here instead of there. It felt like a dream.

There are many pseudo spiritual teachers, especially in California, but when a person has gone through the training of going within until he/she conquers their own darkness of the mind, there is a magnetism that’s difficult to talk about but is as real as the mosquito bites on my arm.

One feels filled with, what to call it, sweetness, love. These are only words that can barely describe my overflowing heart. He gave prosad (a small gift) individually to every person present, holding our hands for a few seconds.  Being in his presence continues to motivate David and I to work harder.

 

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A Surprise Around Every Corner

Kerala, India

November 25 th

A Surprise Around Every Corner

Morning on the River

Between the funky internet connections and computer glitches, I have not been diligent with my blog communications from India. Now we are settled for our last few days in Kerala. We have been traveling with wonderful friends, but it is nice to be on our own again.

It’s hot. Humidity in Kerala must be 50-60%. The river in front of our place is mesmerizing. It moves slowww and so are we. The much welcome pool is blue and white check tiles, and I swear I can smell cinnamon on the breeze. It’s noon the Muslim callers are singing (moaning) again. David calls them the Muzzies. We wake each morning to frolicking, playful South Indian music that comes from across the river. The birds in this quiet valley along the river are incredible. I would give my left elbow and one toe for a pair of binoculars and bird book.

Thought we might take a backwater boat trip today, but at 2 AM we decided to cancel. It would have been 3 hours in smoggy traffic to get there. Just don’t want to do that again.

We took a walk late this afternoon in hopes of finding a cup of tea. I doubt many Westerners stay in this resort on the fringe of town. We’re quite a phenomenon. Always wanted to be the center of attention (in high school). The women scowl at us and the men just stare. But if I put my hands together, pronam and bow slightly, grins spread across their faces. One toddler saw us passing and sang out in his best English, “Bah bah black sheep have you any wool.” I responded with, “Yes sir, yes sir, . . . . “ And he didn’t quit for blocks. We passed a butcher shop—four bamboo poles holding up a plywood roof. Three or four men just gabbing with each other and cutting up meat. A side of beef or goat hanging street side.

This neighborhood is made up of middle class looking houses.  Some use rocks, tile or even marble for their front yards. Others are surrounded by encroaching jungle. Walking down an enticing trail, we found the homes of the poorer peoples. (Don’t worry, it’s quite safe here.)  A couple acres of banana, papaya, or rubber trees surround the bigger estates on the river side of the road.

Have you ever been in a situation where all your emotions fire off in the same moment? A little intimidation, compassion, confusion, embarrassment and even disgust. We stepped into a tea shop. This bone thin creature nearly leaped out of her chair at the excitement of seeing us. She had maybe two buck teeth left, and one eye crossed. She was more wrinkled than a linen dress on a hot day. Alert but most likely demented.  She waved her scythe at us when she talked (though we didn’t have clue what she was saying). Earlier that day I had seen other older folks with scythes cutting back brush in the front of the bigger estates.

There was a schmaltzy, Bollywood musical on the TV above our heads. David and I started waving our arms and swaying in our seats which made her even more excited. When the owner, who was quite tolerant and protective of her, walked back into another room presumably to make more tea, she got out of her seat and stood in front of our table. With her mouth wide open and full of crackers/biscuits, she pantomimed how she needed more food or help. David just pantomimed right back.

He dug into his pocket for something to give her. When the owner returned, she acted as if she knew nothing about this money that was on the table obviously for her. I’m sure he wouldn’t approve of her begging in his shop.  The energy got a little strained. We finished our tea, smiled, bowed to everyone, and continued our walk.

PS  Another friend I met along the road.

 

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around the villagè of DAKSHINESWAR

Àround Ďakshineswar ashram

jTTHESE ARE h from around the ashramGary a.

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Different Perspective

 

Kolkata, India
We all have pre conceived expectations misunderstandings of any new place or experience. I admit to a certain amt of fear of arriving in Kolkata, India at 1 AM. Purse well zipped, money under my shirt. The reality was/is much different.
One has to smile at the need to have 5 young men sitting at the official taxi booth in a fairly empty airport this late. I question their price to take us to Dakshineswar, a suburb that’s barely a 15 minute drive, when a well-dressed business man steps up to be our advocate. After much haggling, questioning, negotiating an discussing (none of which we can understand), he assures David and I that we will do better somewhere else. He walks us to the next business, we discuss where we are going, look at google map. Another four young men sit munching their snack as “the boss” writes us a ticket on a piece of paper smaller than a 3×5 card. Ten minutes later he says, “Little more patience, madam”. I look over the counter and make a motion of putting a little of their food in my mouth. The guys look confused and then David pretends he might take a nap on the counter. They all flash those radiant Indian smiles. Finally “the boss man” takes us out to the road where taxi is waiting – more discussing and negotiating while luggage is loaded into a beat up Toyota with a trunk that doesn’t close properly. We cheer and finally leave the airport. This is India!
I had forgotten that in India everyone is overly helpful, full of advice, eager to please, and proud of their integrity. For the most part, quite charming. Different from most of the world’s expectatios. The real danger is losing one’s patience and sense of humor.
We wake the next morning to the swish swishing sounds of sweeping fallen leaves from the walkways of the ashram. Mist hangs over the Ganges. Retreatants gather on the portico for morning exercises as a bevy of birds dart in the trees overhead. The ferry putt putts across the river carrying people to work leaving a scent of propane in its wake. The noise, pollution, and busyness of India is outside, this is the eye of the hurricane.
Somehow I stand taller here, do my exercises with more intention. There’s more air in my cells, more lightness in my mind. And my heart is filling up and spilling over. David and I feel like this is our home away from home.

 

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Different perspective

Hello All; We have arrived and are settling in. Last night I was able to sleep until about 2:30, and then was awake the rest of the night. There were 3 nights in a row when we didn’t sleep before leaving so body can’t yet figure out if it’s night or day. Yesterday was Sunday. David and I slept after service. Ashram has grown so much –people sitting out along the building on nice rug/blankets that the ashram puts out.
I tried to go to the 3 hour meditation yesterday afternoon. This one monk whom we’ve seen before was leading the meditation. He oozes with love and devotion when he chants tho I can’t say I had a deep meditation–I was outside on the portico with a few other women so I didn’t make a nuisance of myself nodding off on a regular basis. Finally had to give up and go back to bed. But today it feels more normal. We love living in an ashram!!!!!!
Sunday there were so many people – more and more Indians coming. And a large Sunday School. Early in the AM there are new birds singing and chattering, a whoopa whoopa whoopa” bird and lots of noisy crows. The ferry on the Ganges putt putts across the river sounding like the old Evinrude motor on my dad’s fishing boat. It prb is just as old as that. This morning was misty and moisty but I could still see out across the Ganges.We are so happy here! Content and at peace—nothing to do but read, meditate and walk. Health is fine

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As We Leave the Ground

A temple S of Kolkata near the river in the village of Teillary.

Our bags are almost packed, but too many details remain. On one level it seems crazy to be returning to India, but Mother India tugs on my heart strings from 7000 miles away. To many Americans yoga is primarily focused on relaxing and perfecting the body. But yoga is also about calming, expanding the mind and opening the heart; and what better way, except for meditation,  than launching oneself into a totally new environment. In India the curtain that separates the physical from the ethereal is much more transparent if you are receptive to it.

I’m looking forward to Bodh Gaya where the Buddha received enlightenment and the caves at Ajanta and Ellora. I look forward to being responsible for absolutely nothing except reading, meditating, meeting new faces, and of course, getting to the train on time. Believe it or not, I look forward to seeing my favorite driver in Kolkata. I have to ask him to repeat whatever he says at least three times before I can understand his English. I’ve known him as a young man and now as a father and husband. He, like many other folks we meet, doesn’t need meditation or yoga. He is one hundred percent present with David and I and so empathetic. Being of service is not so much about a bigger tip but a part of every fiber of his being.

I fondly remember our driver and guide through the Himalayas near Rishikesh (three years ago). I took one look at where he thought I was going to hike and said, “I’ll go part way and then come back and sit in the car.” David was already on the trail walking at his own pace (not wanting to listen to my complaints). Our guide didn’t accept my wimpy attitude. He took my hand, and we climbed and climbed. What really kept me going besides the incredible landscape was our conversation and a sense of a deep soul connection. This man lived half way around the world in a very different culture. Yet our thoughts, concerns, hopes and dreams were the same.

Am I excited about traveling yet? Nope, I’m usually anxious until that moment when the seat belt clicks and the wheels of the plane lift off. Then the dream of my life fades into the blue sky and a new one begins. Besides, in India every day is an adventure, filled with intricately flavored foods, and, more importantly, a great cup of masala chai.

If you’d like to join me on this journey, just click “follow” at the bottom of the page. I have some beautiful photos and stories to share. Not about the dirt, noise, pollution and poverty that is, for many Americans, the preconceived ideas we hold of India. I’ll write to you about the deep spiritual heritage that Mother India brings to our world.

Patti

Posted in India, Kolkata, Travel in India | 4 Comments