Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Home

I write from Boston, where I’ve been based out of since I arrived home four weeks ago. I’ll write more about home later but first, rewind, I’ll take it back to the beginning of my fourth and final quarter. 

Navdanya Biodiversity Farm, Dehradun, India. I finished up my month long stay here on May 15th. My time there was absolutely a highlight of my whole year. I learned so much about everything from soil science to Indian folk dances to making dal bhat. I was so happy to have the structure of waking up every day and knowing exactly what I needed to do. I rolled out of bed before sunrise and walked to the wheat field to begin the daily harvest. With my hands in the dirt for at least five hours a day I felt connected to place and I felt connected to myself. I also felt very connected to the cycles of creation and destruction. I feel that working the land does that to a person. Everyday you are confronted with lady death and simultaneously the new life that springs up in her wake. You rip out a plant by its roots to make way for something better. 
shoveling cow $h!t
The connection I valued the most however, was to the community there. It was a mix of people from the Doon valley area and foreigners from Europe, Asia, South America, and North America. I’m still trying to put my finger on how this happened but somehow, almost immediately, there was this feeling of great love amongst everyone there. It was not in a forced or fake way, which I’ve experienced in other communities. It was so genuine, and fueled by everyone feeling comfortable to be so totally themselves. It felt like summer camp for adults, and it was exactly what I needed after being on my own for a while. I learned this year that I am not really a lone wolf at all, which is how I once thought of myself. I am so much happier in a pack. I am still in touch with a lot of the people I met there and likely going to see a handful of them sometime soon.
The crew (part of it anyway)
I was planning to stay at Navdanya for another month but as the ides of May approached I felt my wanderlust setting back in and I made plans to return to Nepal. I spent a transitional week in Delhi beforehand, which was at once wonderful and terrible. I had an air conditioned lovely apartment to myself in a quiet part of the city. For free! Through a random connection of my uncle’s, an ex-pat filmmaker lent me her apartment while she was in the United States working on a script. It was a great refuge. And thank the heavens for air conditioning!! The average temperature that week was 115 degrees fahrenheit. I spent the majority of the week writing and reading and visiting gardens in the early morning before the heat set in. 
Behind the scenes at the Sikh temple in Delhi that feeds 10,000 people a day for free
I flew from Delhi to Kathmandu, where I got on a microbus to Pokhara. 
Durbar Square, Kathmandu
Chilling at base camp
I spent a few days here before embarking on the Annapurna basecamp trek. The trek was AWESOME. 
I managed to weave my project into the trek as well by taking notes about the high altitude subsistence farms. I didn’t realize before I arrived but Annapurna translates to “full of food,” and remarkably, it was! It blew my mind to see the innovate ways people were growing their own food in such an extreme climate. 
Just doing our part to keep the Himalayas clean
After the trek, I returned to Kathmandu for a few days before flying across the globe to Martinique. I spontaneously bought a ticket here while in Delhi for two reasons. One, I had wanted to add a Caribbean island to my research from the very beginning because there are a lot of fascinating food system conflicts happening in that area. Two, Greg was there doing research on the island for the summer. 

Hanging under the mango tree from which I ate, on average,  8 mangoes a day
I spent eight days there and learned about the sugar cane plantations and, on the other end of the spectrum, creole gardens- a method of subsistence farming that originated in slave times as a way for the slaves to feed themselves. I learned about the dynamic between the the island and the mainland of France, which it is technically a part of. There has been an independence movement for a long time but there are many obstacles in the way of achieving this. Food is one of them. In spite of the fertile ground they import the majority of their food from France and therefore are dependent on them to feed themselves. Independence could mean an end to these relatively low cost imports. This was a fascinating case study of sorts on how food is used as a tool of power. Greg was there translating the works of their most famous political and poet, Aimé Césaire, from French to English. This was great because I was able to learn a lot about decolonization and negritude, a word and concept that Césaire helped coin. 

Jardin de Balata, Martinique
I flew from Martinique to Ireland, where I was immediately flabbergasted by the fact that suddenly, after 10 months of this not being the case, I could understand everyone there and they could understand me! Language-wise that is. I spent the first two weeks on Carraig Dulra farm taking a Permaculture Design Course. 
Practicing our design skills
check out that beautiful salad!!
The instructors. 
It was so cool and I am so happy I did it. I learned about medical plants, food as medicine, how to build a fish pond, woodworking, wild foraging, perennial planting systems, and more. I had mind blowing moments everyday and was surrounded by some of Ireland’s most passionate food activists. It left me feeling very positive and hopeful, which was much needed given that a lot of my research in both East Africa and India was fairly depressing in regards to the direction things were going. I spent a lot of time thinking about the current conditions of all the former British colonies (namely Ireland, India, and Uganda) I visited and was shocked by both the differences and the similarities.

Listening to the trees

After the permaculture course I spent 8 days hitchhiking across the island. I got a lot of rides from elderly men who were very concerned about my wellbeing. I stayed in some very interesting places along the way including the tool shed of a community garden and in a farmer’s hay field next to a cemetery. In Galway I stayed with friends from the permaculture course and had the opportunity to help them redesign their garden with the knowledge we had garnered from our course. After a couple days here, I hitchhiked back to the East coast with a stopover at Cloughjordan Ecovillage, where I worked on their farm for two days. From here I journeyed back to Dublin where I stayed with another friend from the permaculture course. I left Ireland with the feeling that there was so much more to learn that I could take back and apply to the United States. So hopefully I’ll be back soon!
Mountain flute jam in Galway
Photo Credit: Carine Genadry
My final stop was a short and sweet trip to Norway. I met up with a friend in Oslo for a couple days and had a great time biking around the city (which contains 60 percent wilderness within the technical city limits!!) and taking in the pristine streets and highly efficient infrastructure. Afterwards, I took a train to Trolltunga in the West and spent a few days there hiking and mentally repairing for my transition home. 

Trolltunga
Two days later, bam! I was back in the USA. 
Back with the laaaadies

I am feeling very settled and content now. The first two weeks back were quite difficult- transitions are not my strong point, though I am much better at them now after going through countless transitions in this past year. The Watson conference is what really made me feel comfortable being back. It felt like closure and it was also very validating of all the things I was feeling. In the weeks since I have had the pleasure of connecting with several of the fellows I met there. 

Being back in this familiar context with people who have known me all my life has helped me realize the ways in which I have changed. I feel relaxed in situations that once made me anxious, I interact with people I once took for granted with a newly profound appreciation, and I share my ideas with more clarity. 

I would like to extend a HUGE thank you for everyone who supported me in ways big and small throughout the course of the year. I definitely could not have done it without you all.

Peace out for now,
Meredith 



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Up, Down, All Around

Hello hello from Navdanya Farm. 

I am settling into the farm life after zooming around Rajasthan, Mumbai, Goa, Nepal, Rishikesh, and Agra for the past month. It is going to be nearly impossible to summarize it concisely so for now here are some pictures (and brief descriptions) from the journey:

Day one of my time in India was spent walking around Delhi with Alex Suber (a fellow CC alum and Watson fellow) and Shakir, getting a very informal tour of a UN sponsored housing project and a small slum community where Shakir spent part of his youth. I typically denounce “slum tours” because what says white privilege more than a bunch of westerners coming to gawk at these people’s lives? However, this one was actually really lovely because they were equally, if not more, interested in seeing and interacting with us, thus it felt like a mutual exchange. 


A woman in Jaisalmer collecting seeds

Three little brothers in their home, where I was invited in for a cup of chai
A woman and her granddaughter, taking a stroll through Jaisalmer

Folk Arts Rajasthan is an amazing organization that works to empower, educate, and preserve the musical heritage of the Merasi group. As a result of the extremely oppressive caste system, the Merasi have been, and continue to be, marginalized members of society. My stay here was simultaneously heart breaking and heart warming.

While staying at Folk Arts Rajasthan,  I had the opportunity to bear witness to a gathering of Merasi children from villages near and far. For many, it was the first time they met each other. They played music together, and put on a play about their history. 




This was taken at an isolated Merasi community, where all of their water is trucked in. Water is a hot topic throughout India due to huge issues of scarcity, pollution, disputed ownership, and more. 



After Jaisalmer, Alex and I spent four nights couchsurfing in Jodhpur at a Royal Wedding Garden, where we were lucky enough to partake in two royal weddings. Admittedly, I was disappointed to learn that there is no dancing at Rajput (Rajasthan’s royals) weddings.. Pictured above is the groom being blessed by a member of the bride’s family

The bride and her mother preparing for the official ceremony



In Jodhpur, I took to the streets to learn a bit about local nutrition. Many families here consider a healthy breakfast to be one that “sticks in the belly a long time,” such as this concoction of dough, oil, and sugar cane juice known as jalebi. 




 After Rajasthan, we boarded a 14 hour bus for Mumbai, where we were hosted by some young Indian musicians and a German Bollywood actor. We were only here for a few days, but I fit in an interview with the founder of Weekend Farms, who is trying to promote organic produce to residents of Mumbai. I also got a taste for the extreme wealth disparities that plague the nation. Here is a perfect example- sticking out amongst the Mumbai skyline is the world’s most expensive home, owned by India’s wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani. The $1 billion building is just a stone's throw away from some of the city’s slums as well as the red light district. 



I popped over to Nepal at the end of March to participate in the Himalayan Rush Triathlon and to spend a few days at Begnas Coffee Farm. Begnas Coffee Farm is an organic coffee (as you may have guessed by the name) and honey farm, where I learned about Nepal's "Green Revolution," the current status of organic agriculture in Nepal, and the exportation process for small farmers. Sadly, my stomach was acting up so I did not drink a single cup of their coffee!

From Nepal, I went to Rishikesh and cleansed myself in the Holy River Ganges and discovered the joy of motorized scooters.


And we learned how to make samosas!


And then I moved into this hut where I will be staying for the next three months in the hopes of finding myself. 



Nawwwwt. But I did go on a really beautiful trek through the Himalayas, and made a snowman at the top.



And then there was this casual, little thing called the Taj Mahal (and a not so casual hat)



After a month of zipping all over the place, I am happy to be settled here at Navdanya Biodiversity Farm, Vandana Shiva (my food justice idol)'s research farm in Dehradun. And I am happy to be doing some good old fashioned manual labor. It's wheat harvesting season baby!

Stay posted for more info on Navdanya and other adventures.
















Monday, March 14, 2016

Back on the Scene

Once again I am back on the blogosphere after a long hiatus. Since my last report, I’ve been bopping around Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania, and have now wrapped up my stay in East Africa and am now traveling around the vast, beautiful, and complicated country of India. The past two months have been fuller than a tick on a cow's belly and there is much to report on. I’ll start where I left off, in Kigali, Rwanda transitioning from a visit with my biological family to jumping into the lives of my Rwandan host family, the Mugishas. The Mugishas are amazing. Fun, goofy, warm, and inclusive, they immediatly welcomed me in as their “youngest daughter.” 
Hanging out during a family vacation to Akagera
On a trip to Akagera National Park, I overheard the father, Francis, telling the park ranger, “Oh yes, that’s our daughter, she’s Rwandan but we sent her to America for school and she came back looking like this!” 

Their house was always full of laughter and general silliness, making me feel very much at home. I quickly integrated into their routines, which included weekend walks in the park, evening swims and saunas, family dinners where I sampled new cuisine such as kabalagalas (fried cassava flour and banana patties. INCREDIBLE) and cow hoof (highly nutritious though the texture is similar to that of a bouncy ball), watching soccer games, and spontaneous outbursts of singing and dancing. I was living the good life. 

Casual post-pool selfie
While living in Kigali, I met with a wide range of farmers, activists, government employees, and students. Some highlights were tagging along with a group from the Quaker Peace House, who were in Rwanda researching the relationship between food security and peace. I also spent time with University of Rwanda Agricultural School students and staff to learn which methods were being taught. One of my favorite places that I visited was the Gardens for Health International farm, which is an inspiring educational non-profit farm on the outskirts of the city. What sets them apart is that they partner with local health clinics so that families and individuals struggling with nutrition related diseases and conditions can be prescribed gardens instead of, or often in addition to, medication. In addition to this, they have a series of trainings for local women in subjects ranging from herbal medicine to cooking to basic nutrition. 

One food related event has been particularly formative for me during my time in Kigali. On Christmas eve, my friend suggested we slaughter a goat for a christmas feast. Because I have been a meat eater for the past few years I felt an ethical obligation be able to kill an animal for eating, so I volunteered. I also volunteered to track down the goat, which may have been a mistake, because in my time purchasing, transporting, then setting the goat up for a happy last few hours of life, I got way too attached to it. So when it came killing time, I handed the knife to my friend and nearly vomited in a bush. Following this event, I have decided not to eat meat until I am able to stomach killing a meat bearing animal myself.

After a month in Rwanda, I left for a two week trip to one of its neighboring countries, Tanzania. I spent most of time in Dar es Salaam where I got to interview several leaders of Tanzania’s seed sovereignty movement as well as the organic movement. The big project they are currently working on is making sure GMOs remain illegal in Tanzania. Their largest obstacles include outside pressure from western countries as well as a lack of interest from Tanzania’s general public.While in Dar, I overlapped with my uncle’s MBA class from Harvard, where a group of students were researching agribusiness in East Africa. This was a sharp contrast from the other organizations I met with, as one of their focuses was on how to legalize GMOs and have Monsanto and Cargill gain a bigger presence in East Africa. As you could probably guess, I do not support this objective but I enjoyed hearing the other side of the story.
Kivukoni Fish Market in Dar es Salaam

I made it out to Zanzibar as well, where I had the opportunity to visit a women’s seaweed farm cooperative. 
Badass seaweed farming mamas!
Following this whirlwind trip I returned to Kigali, though not for long.
Kigali is a mere 234 miles from Kampala, yet they could not be more different.  
Due largely to huge amounts of foreign aid combined with a quasi-authoritarian government, Kigali has developed quickly and is a very clean, safe, and organized city. 
Kigali Sunset
This is in stark contrast to Kampala where chaos abounds. I found myself missing this constant commotion so I cut my time in Rwanda short and returning to Uganda for three weeks before flying to India. My timing was…interesting, as I returned just before presidential elections took place. I won’t go into detail because I could fill a book trying to explain the complex history and dynamics surrounding the presidency and election. In short, it was tumultuous. I ended up taking refuge in the mountains along the Kenyan border with a group of 14 others. 

We spent two nights at a secluded monastery and one night sleeping just below a mountain peak. It was a great way to spend election week! The rest of my time in Uganda was spent finishing up interviews, writing, and preparing for India. Oh- and whitewater kayaking too. 

This section of the Nile will soon lose it’s rapids due to a dam being built by a Chinese company, so I had to take advantage of it while I still could!

Now, as previously mentioned, I am in India. It has been an incredible past two weeks of overnight trains, camel rides, folk art concerts, royal weddings, and more. 


At the moment I am in Mumbai learning about the blossoming urban agriculture scene here before flying north to work at Vandana Shiva’s research farm for several weeks. 

I know my track record is not great, but one of my recent goals I have set for myself is to update this here blog more frequently, so be sure to check back soon!






 













Saturday, January 2, 2016

Adventures of the Wild Thorn-Birdies


Courtesy of Derek Ventura 
The flock took a slight detour from the typical winter migration pattern and landed in Entebbe, Uganda on December 9th. My conviction that my family members are bad ass champion all stars was confirmed when, on day one, they followed me into the heart of Kampala, which is an incredibly overwhelming experience that even my friends who grew up there avoid at all costs. Without a trace of panic on their faces, we marched through swarms of people, animals, matatus, motorcycles, vendors, lots of yelling and general noise, and more for over an hour trying to find our way to the right bus. 
Photo courtesy of anandinafrica.wordpress.com

They also managed to survive multiple bodaboda rides (motorcycle taxis that are notorious for being dangerous and, according to Lonely Planet, claim an average of 5 lives a day in Kampala alone). We celebrated our survival at the Yasigi Beer Garden, Kampala’s first and only micro-brewery. 
Photo credit to Papa Bird
The next day we broke free from the city’s hustle and bustle and began our voyage West. 
Over the course of the next ten days, we danced, 
Photo Credit to Derek Bird
we laughed, 

we hiked, 

we survived strange and mysterious rashes, 

we saw incredible animals, 

and in typical Bird family style, we got weird. 


When December 19th rolled around, it was time to send them back to Boston where Christmas festivities and family gatherings awaited them. This was probably my lowest moment of my year so far. After they passed through Kigali Airport's security, I spent an hour at the airport experiencing extreme homesickness and separation anxiety. Luckily, this dissipated quickly when my Rwandese host family came to pick me up due to the fact that they are AMAZING. 

From Left to Right: Georgia, Francis, Jordan, Juliet, and moi

The past week and a half has been filled with holiday festivities, lots of trips to the pool, long walks, family meals, and learning about Kigali's urban agriculture scene, which, from what I've seen, is thriving.

The next few weeks include a trip to the Akagera Nature Park, two weeks in Dar es Salaam, and site visits to different food security projects around Rwanda. Stay tuned!