WWOOFing to Nepalese Bean Time

 Every turn in Nepal has the promise of delight

Every turn in Nepal has the promise of delight

When I first read about WWOOFing - Willing Workers On Organic Farms, I thought it sounded like a fun way to volunteer

When I read that the program was operating in Nepal, I was hooked.  Dale, my daughter, was joining me on my travels and she loved getting her hands into the earth and I'd peel a few vegetables... or so I thought. The farm we chose was near Lion's Choke, not far from Chitwan National Park.

Our host farmer, Barun, greeted us at the bus stop. Before he started using WWOOFers his children had to skip school to help him plant and harvest.

I could see he was disconcerted

He sized us up. Dale, young and lithe, passed at first muster, but he wasn’t at all sure about me. I wondered if I should snort, stamp my foot or maybe show my teeth?

Eventually he said it, “You are very old. I have never had anyone as old as you.”

 Dale and I in Nepal   

Dale and I in Nepal

 

Barun walked us out through the village. We talked on the way and he confided that the farm was organic simply because he couldn’t afford pesticides - Barun was knee-deep in debt.

The pressure was etched on his face as he spoke, but when we turned into a grove of bamboo, Barun’s daughters burst through the greenery, dancing with excitement and he broke into a wide grin. In the small clearing was their mud house.  A lean-to where we would sleep had a bed of wooden slats resting on an earth floor.  

I find a friend

Barun’s wife greeted us.  Mama was sturdy and cheerful, the perfect foil for Barun, the thinker and worrier. But for me, the warmest welcome came unexpectedly.

I could see that Grandma was surprised when she saw me. Her eyes lit up.  She was tiny; all superfluous flesh had vanished leaving sinew and features, big eyes, big nose and mouth and one solitary big tooth.  She wore gold earrings, but had lost her gold nose-ring working in the fields. She kept the hole open with a splinter of bamboo in the hope that one day she’d find it.

An early start

It was chilly and just light enough to see how thick the mist was when we turned out the next morning. Through the gloom loomed Barun’s oxen trailing a wooden plough. Barun halted the great beasts to drill us in bean-planting 101. With a sack under one arm, we were to scoop handfuls of slippery beans and drop them one-by-one into the fresh furrows.  Too close and we would run out of beans, too far and we’d have beans left over. Each bean was precious and the bloody things bounced.

By lunchtime, Dale and I were beat and we passed out briefly in our stifling lean-to before Barun roused us to get back to work.

 Who me?  You are seriously suggesting you want me to plant another ten thousand beans... 

Who me?  You are seriously suggesting you want me to plant another ten thousand beans... 

Dale was infuriatingly proficient and I was not

The afternoon shift was worse; the heat made me dizzy and I wanted to throttle Barun who tailed me, muttering as he remedied my irregular spacing, hunting my errant bouncing beans.

Planting needed a lop-sided sway which made my body ache; even my ankles balked from walking barefoot on uneven ground. Dale fared much better; up ahead she sashayed, a gilded nymph sowing to the beat of an ancient rhythm, her beans perfectly spaced.

When school finished, Barun’s daughters joined us, giggling with infectious good-humour, joining Dale in making the job look effortless. At last, every bean was bedded. 

 Dale was definitely an immediate hit with the family.

Dale was definitely an immediate hit with the family.

Relief at the day's end followed by magic...

We left Barun to finish painstaking watering row-by-row and joined the village women walking a humpy narrow path between the fields.  An ancient stone cistern, fed by a gurgling stream, was a place to bathe. The soft water soothed our tired muscles in the day’s warm afterglow.

As we strolled back, Dale stopped and grabbed my arm, “Look Mum,” and I turned to see in the distance the snow-capped massif of the Annapurnas tinged with molten gold. “It was all worth today just for this moment,” she whispered.

It got easier

Over the next week, we spread smelly chicken shit on the fields, cleared old crops and planted out vegetable seedlings. The work got easier as we fell into a rhythm with the family.

At the end of each day, we'd eat curry and rice for supper, sometimes followed by honeyed pancakes and a jug of warm buffalo milk brought straight in from the byre. We sat together on the earthen floor and ate from a communal bowl with our fingers.

Afterwards, we’d pull chairs into the little clearing in front of the house and relax. Everyone had daily tasks, but once done, each one stopped. So while it bothered me when one of them was still working and the others relaxing, I realised that while their lives were hard labour, yet down-time was well demarcated too.

Laughter rang out easily, transcending the lack of material possessions and Barun’s anxiety.

Time out ...

And then there was Grandma...

The first time I went to fetch water from the outside stand-pipe the handle was so stiff I could scarcely move it.  I put the bucket down and tried two hands and my body weight - then to my chagrin, out flew grandma who whacked it with one hand, water flooding out in a torrent along with her laughter.   

Grandma talked to me non-stop. It mattered not that I didn’t understand a word. She showed me her herb patch, her room and her shrine. She tried to teach me how to separate husks from beans; tilting and pitching her round wicker tray with the skill of a juggler, the speckled ovals gathering together at her command.

 Grandma with her grandson - I did say she was tiny - but hey, what a dynamo!

Grandma with her grandson - I did say she was tiny - but hey, what a dynamo!

We learned so much and admired so much

Barun had excellent English and he explained the beans were first harvested with their stalks and sun-dried before being spread on the ground so his buffalo could trample them bursting open the thick, hard pods. Any pods that had not opened were collected by Grandma and she opened them by hand.  Once separated, the husks were kept for kindling - nothing was wasted.

The family was almost self-sufficient; only flour and sugar were missing. They couldn’t grow wheat because it attracted rampaging rhino from the National Park. Near the house they planted mustard-seed, turmeric, ginger, chili and basil for seasoning, marigolds for festivals and neem to make insect repellent.  In the monsoon they grew enough rice for themselves. 

At the end of the week...

Barun said if Dale and I finished everything, we’d have a day off at the end of our week. He kept his word. Dale rode his son’s bike and I perched on the pannier rack of Barun’s, bouncing over the ruts, through grassland and thick bamboo.

When Dale shouted for joy, Barun joined in and I hung on for dear life.

He showed us his bee-hives - he was the first in the district to sell honey - and we walked through woods alive with butterflies.

But when we reached the river, Barun was suddenly sombre and pointed to an island. Some years before, his sister had gone across to cut bales of long grass for fodder, but wading back she’d stumbled under the heavy load and been swept away. “Drownings happen every year like that,” he said.

Dale took these pictures when we were making our way up river to Lion's Choke - so we knew immediately how Barun's sister had died.

We watched the sunset over the river that turned all to gold before we cycled home in the dark.

And too soon...  it was time to go

We had a grand send-off the next evening: Grandma wrapped us in saris, Mama marked our foreheads with red tikkas and the girls garlanded us with lais of marigold. Barun performed a traditional Nepalese stick dance, leaping high while twirling stout bamboo poles.

Dale said it was collective amazement when I took the poles from Barun, crossed them on the ground, and did a Scottish sword dance – once my father’s forte.

I don’t know if I still hold the record for being Barun’s oldest WWOOFer, but I do know Grandma was sad to see me go. She was ten years my senior yet had eclipsed me in every task – except perhaps, the Highland Fling!

 OK, so it's not that flattering, but I think I was channeling some kind of warrior spirit.

OK, so it's not that flattering, but I think I was channeling some kind of warrior spirit.

And Barun?  “Goodbye big sister. Goodbye daughter Dale. Safe journey home to Australia. I want you both to come again.”

 

Setting Off Travelling Solo in Morocco

 Near my Dar in Fez, Morocco after Alice left and I was travelling alone

Near my Dar in Fez, Morocco after Alice left and I was travelling alone

My space was a little hollow without Alice

When Alice left me in Fez to go back to London I felt bereft. https://gill-shaddick-xg56.squarespace.com/journey/an-accidental-journey-with-alice

I moved to another dar in the Medina, I don’t remember now how I found it, word of mouth I think.  It was more within my budget, owned by a Moroccan family this time,  filled with light, mosaics, fountains, cats galore, soft-footed family,  shy smiles and warm welcomes.  I was the only guest and each morning, I breakfasted alone with the cats, marvelling that orange juice, a croissant and a sprig of mint could look so magnificent on a blue tiled table with a shaft of sunlight filtering through the latticed rooftop.

Travelling Solo At Last

I need to say something here about travelling solo.  I am embarrassed to tell you how challenging I found it to be completely on my own.  I didn’t expect myself to feel the way I did.  After all I had craved it.  A space free of responsibility for someone else being hungry, hot or happy or not so.   

This journey had been part of my big Unilateral Declaration of Ownership.  Owning the situation and owning the solution.  And part of the solution had been to get away - right away.  Imagine that for a cure -  when family and physicians said, “Take your passport, stand not about wringing your hands, but GO!”

Perhaps it was because I hadn’t planned on Morocco.  But that was serendipity, part of the adventure.  How many other people set off for Turkey and land in North Africa?  I had stepped out of my life.  I could go bonkers, eat ice-cream, have serial affairs, write poetry, sleep in all day, party all night and no-one would know. 

Yet I Just Felt Wobbly and Wonky

All I felt like was finding a cafe and reading my book.  Where was the audacity I’d had at twenty-one?  Who was the intrepid traveller of maturity who had, in the last few years, been to Afghanistan, Laos, Tibet, Borneo?  What the hell was my problem?  I was like a child discovering again.  Of course I don’t remember what it is like to be a child discovering, but that’s the only way I can describe it.  Discovering my parameters.  I was scared, so terribly insecure.  Do men feel like this?  Ever?  And added to that, I was disappointed in myself that I felt that way.

Pets Make Good Travelling Companions

I closed my eyes.  Perhaps a four-footed companion. Travels with a Donkey.  Fez had a surfeit of those.  Get behind me RLS.  Those ideas take time and in any case Mike gave me a donkey in the Sudan thirty years earlier,  I could not get it to move in any direction even when I got off and tried to pull it along.


When I opened my eyes, the cats were all regarding me.  I could just stay in Fez.  It was a perfectly legitimate idea.  But the cats looked malevolent, squeezing their pupils as if to dislodge me from their world and my own craved security.  

Escaping Immediate Decision Making

Trying to get my stakes in the ground that first morning on my own, instead of thinking about where I would go in the coming weeks, my mind went back to another perennial problem.  How to be self-sufficient financially on my return to Australia in several months?

Like I was on a desert island and worrying about what I would do after I was rescued rather than addressing the need for water and a coconut.

I didn't have to look far for inspiration.  There I was surrounded by straws.  I pictured a little shop in Sydney; tiles, textiles and tangines.  I’d wear a caftan and Mike could grow the long beard I had always hated, wear a jellabah like he did in the Sudan, and pour out the peppermint tea.  

Clutching at a Project

I was delighted with myself.  A project.  I made enquiries and had no problem finding a manufacturer of Moroccan tiles.  He was delighted to see me.  Many people, he assured me, had made a great deal of money in Australia importing
from him. 

A container, no less, that was the only way to go otherwise it would be too expensive.  There would be no problem filling a container for my new friend had not only tiles and mosaics, but a cousin who made carved wooden doors and screens, an uncle with a good line in fountains.  It so happened his wife’s father owned the very best tagine pottery in Fez.  Over lunch we talked of family and finding out I had four daughters and unmarried at that, he said immediately he could supply husbands, maybe even four brothers.  And I myself, I was travelling alone?  He could squeeze them all in a container, ready-made, I had only to supply required sizes…

"Come back tomorrow," he said, "We'll talk some more."

 No trouble filling a container - a new business opportunity awaited me and new opportunities galore   

No trouble filling a container - a new business opportunity awaited me and new opportunities galore

 

Some Ideas Are Best Left Behind

It was evening by the time I got back to my dar.  The cats eyes shone round in the dark.
“It’s OK,” I said softly, “I’m going in the morning.” 

Somewhere on the road to total contentment in a container, I had also found courage, or at least enough of it to travel in my first Grand Taxi and after that there was no turning back. 

Stirring up a blue day with red paint

 Red is gorgeous and dangerous, passionate and painful - what a duet

Red is gorgeous and dangerous, passionate and painful - what a duet

We all have our blue moments

Life suddenly heavy, the world extraordinarily messy, our children, the success of last resort, briefly feral or blue themselves, poverty imminent, lumbago looming.  Dangerously, the gloom has a sublime quality - a seductive wallow could follow.

How to own the blue days

Dale, my daughter, suggests meditation; my friend Karen, a glass of red; I know a walk is required.  But my cheerlessness is serious when my heart whispers again and again, “Go on an adventure.”

I’m a lifelong runaway.

Decision time

That’s when I need to keep away from Skyscanner and reconnect head, heart and hands; paint furniture or sew creatively.  Which one I choose is immaterial; the initiated steps are a highway to the sky.

 Just one foot in front of another and we can climb most mountains.  Only trouble is pictures like these whisper "An adventure..."

Just one foot in front of another and we can climb most mountains.  Only trouble is pictures like these whisper "An adventure..."

 

This time it's paint.  So I set out for the Porter’s Paint Shop clutching an old tin.  On the lid was written, ‘Aphrodite’. 

Well, the staff said, Aphrodite was long gone, unremembered, the joke on me. 

The flippant conviviality released a sentimental rush of affection for total strangers.  Revived already, I left with a tin of Medieval Red.  But on the way home, I mourned Aphrodite.  Medieval Red conjured clanking armour and testosterone usurping the goddess of love, beauty and procreation.  I spoke firmly to myself.  This is therapy, you have to see it through.

The Fix

I opened the tin and stirred and swirled, rousing a drop-dead gorgeous red that burbled up in slow, globby bubbles. Liberated, its exuberance eyed-me-up, bypassing my brain and rekindled my heart-fire while satisfying some vampire demon that wanted blood. 

Red is the King of Colours

Red is not my favourite, but it is my dear, melodramatic friend, the one I’m drawn to, the crazy-maker, full of theatre and passion.

Love, sunrise and sunset, festivities and hearts and blood-bonds, red-roses, red-carpets and Chinese good luck.  And it’s alter-ego, blood and guts, slaughter, danger, fire and brimstone, is as fundamental as blue days are to calm days, crazy happy days, contented days and fun days.

So I am still here and know if the going gets tougher, and stirring paint doesn’t cut it, I can still take off on the
big red kangaroo.

I didn’t even need to wet my brush, but put the lid back on the tin and underneath Medieval Red, I wrote
Aphrodite Mark II.  

 The paint and red things on my desk - maybe red is a closer friend than I think!

The paint and red things on my desk - maybe red is a closer friend than I think!

Days of Freakish Luck and Preposterous Happiness

 Edmund Dulac - Gerda and the Reindeer - I think she was having a day with a white mark.  I always have loved the surprise on the Reindeer's face - maybe it's him that's having the day!

Edmund Dulac - Gerda and the Reindeer - I think she was having a day with a white mark.  I always have loved the surprise on the Reindeer's face - maybe it's him that's having the day!

I've been digging out my poetry books this week.  I used to read it in the bath, but now I take a shower!

No one reads poetry anymore, too busy reading tweets

Is this true?  What a terrible bargain we've made in the 21C.  Can't we tweet poetry?  Or is tweeting
the new poetry?

I am neither poet nor philosopher, but when a poem really resonates, I stop breathing.  

A finger on my pulse stays time and the lines take residence, stirring only when there is a crack
in the right moment.

Do you have days with a white mark?

I first read The Day with a White Mark by C S Lewis, when I was in my thirties.  The years gone by have amplified the pleasure, for now when I awake to a day with a white mark, I greet it like an old friend. 

Do you know what Lewis means?  Days when you are whirled in a preposterous happinessDays when you could kiss the very scullery taps

They arrive unbidden and, as Lewis says, arrive even on days when in the dark ahead only the
breakers are white.

Reading the poem will make you smile, and maybe, like me, ever after you’ll have an elf in the blood or the bird in the brain.

The Day with the White Mark

All day I have been tossed and whirled in a preposterous happiness:
Was it an elf in the blood? or a bird in the brain? or even part
Of the cloudily crested, fifty-league-long, loud uplifted wave
Of a journeying angel's transit roaring over and through my heart?

My garden's spoiled, my holidays are cancelled, the omens harden;
The plann'd and unplann'd miseries deepen; the knots draw tight.
Reason kept telling me all day my mood was out of season.
It was, too. In the dark ahead the breakers are only white.

Yet I--I could have kissed the very scullery taps. The colour of
My day was like a peacock's chest. In at each sense there stole
Ripplings and dewy sprinkles of delight that with them drew
Fine threads of memory through the vibrant thickness of the soul.

As though there were transparent earths and luminous trees should grow there,
And shining roots worked visibly far down below one's feet,
So everything, the tick of the clock, the cock crowing in the yard
Probing my soil, woke diverse buried hearts of mine to beat,

Recalling either adolescent heights and the inaccessible
Longings and ice-sharp joys that shook my body and turned me pale,
Or humbler pleasures, chuckling as it were in the ear, mumbling
Of glee, as kindly animals talk in a children's tale.

Who knows if ever it will come again, now the day closes?
No-one can give me, or take away, that key. All depends
On the elf, the bird, or the angel. I doubt if the angel himself
Is free to choose when sudden heaven in man begins or ends.


~C.S. Lewis, Poems, Edited by Walter Hooper, (1964)

                       

 More recently I discovered Jan Zwicky

The second piece is a fragment of a poem that I came across only a couple of years ago.  It’s very different, but again time paused and I read it without a breath.

  

From Transparence

Only in fairy tales,
or given freakish luck, does the wind
rise suddenly and set you down where everything
is safe and loved and in its place. The mind
does not expect it. But the heart,
                                                        the heart -
the heart keeps looking for itself.
It knows and does not know
where it belongs.

~Jan Zwicky, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, (1996)
 

I'm writing memoir

It's like squeezing a whole harvest of citrus, sweet and sour, into a liqueur glass.  So I find the economy of
Jan Zwicky’s lines exquisite. 

In that first reading I was pitched headlong into the Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham illustrations of my enchanted childhood days before I was swept up with the Wizard of Oz, which is a short synopsis of my life.  I know I am not unique!  

I felt tears prick when I read the words, the heart keeps looking for itself.  It knows and does not know where it belongs.  And then I read again and felt found, not lost,  as if suddenly I understood what I had known all along.

 Jan Zwicky

Jan Zwicky is a Canadian philosopher, poet and musician and she originally published these lines in 1996 in a book called Songs for Relinquishing the Earth that she hand-made for each customer.  At first each book was individually sewn for its reader between plain covers, harnessing an extra dimension of intimacy between the reader and creator.  Although the book is now published by Brick Books and available on Amazon, that idea of a gift from the hand of the author remains in my head and connects us all.

http://www.brickbooks.ca/shop/songs-for-relinquishing-the-earth/

 Arthur Rackham - Girl beside a stream .....       the heart keeps looking for itself

Arthur Rackham - Girl beside a stream
.....      the heart keeps looking for itself

Taking Outward Steps in the Direction of a Dream.

The Artist’s Way.  Unlock your creativity in 12 weeks, said the flyer.

Doing The Artist’s Way with Ros Burton opened my eyes to the opportunities that a lifetime spent working for crazymakers could spell if I would banish them forever and focus on my own creativity.   

But there was more in store

Week 5: Recovering A Sense of Possibility.  There is a real advantage to doing some courses later in life.  You’ve been there!  OK, it would have been good to have done them, twenty, thirty, forty years ago, but I didn’t.  The Artist’s Way was published in 1993 so I could have done it two decades before but I’m a late bloomer, a late developer. So never mind.  

To us also comes a prize

Just as the session on crazymakers leapt off the page and let me end my subscription to the Worshipful Cult of Crazymaker Enablers, Week 5 would validate some decisions I’d taken when I headed for the UDO, my Unilateral Declaration of Ownership, a few years before.   I quote Julia Cameron, “Time and again, I have seen a recovering creative…… take a few outward steps in the direction of the dream – only to have the universe fling open an unsuspected door.”

Wow, I related to that.  In my first blog, I told you about my head-banging moment.  Maybe the universe thought because I was banging on the floor, I needed a big door.  It is absolutely true that the universe flung one open: more than one.

And the feeling was familiar

I’d experienced the sentiment first when I had dug a hole for myself in the early weeks after my arrival in Hong Kong as a twenty-one year old in 1968.  I was hardly a recovering creative then, more like a would-be.  But it was true, a few outward steps was all it needed to open doors and trigger a whole new world.

It’s the butterfly effect.  Big clod-hopping steps have a bigger effect and the thumping of a howling, head-banging banshees bigger again. 

The lesson went on

It explained that thwarted artists can eventually become like cornered animals, snarling at family and friends.  They need to be left alone without unreasonable demands made upon them.

Dear family, see I wasn't mad.  Just a thwarted artist.  Consider it proven when you get to read my memoir about Hong Kong.  I just had to start writing, that's all it was.

 

 

Dousing A Dream Leaves A Burning Spark

 The Universe stepped in and delivered us to an island anyway - one I'd never dreamed of going to - Waiheke Island, New Zealand.

The Universe stepped in and delivered us to an island anyway - one I'd never dreamed
of going to - Waiheke Island, New Zealand.

The Declaration

I’d declared Unilateral Declaration of Ownership (UDO). 

Own the situation.  Own the solution.

The declaration followed a head-banging moment which changed my life after sixty.

Labour Pains

There had been labour pains, nine months before I’d made a suggestion to Mike.  A Year in Four-Quarters.  We would each choose two destinations and spend three months in each. 

“I’ll finance it by writing a book as we go.”  I could see by Mike’s expression this was going to be a hard sell.  Why didn’t I shut up?  He might have got curious.  Nope, I launched straight into rules. 

Mike hates rules.

“Only islands, off-season and no luxury destinations.  I’ve chosen St Helena and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.”  

“Why would anyone want to spend three months on a wind-swept rock in the middle of the Atlantic in winter?   
Ask Napoleon, he hated it”, said Mike.  

“You can only get there by boat", I said.  Foolish me, I know romanticism isn’t persuasive as an argument.

Mike moved on.  “Do you know what winter is like in the Hebrides?” 

Mike is very lame so I said archly, “Yes, it has an added benefit; if you walk into the wind, you won’t be able to fall over".

Sometimes women invest big in ideas and present them to men as small change

I'm a woman so I’d thought about this trip and the possibilities for months and months before I presented it to
Mike as AN IDEA. 

Off the cuff, the idea didn't appeal and he dismissed it without a clue he had just asphyxiated a dream scenario of epic proportions.  He was right of course, it would have been bloody cold in Lewis and problematic for Mike landing at St Helena by boat.  And I didn't know how to write a book either.

But a spark was still smouldering. 

The Universe stepped in

For reasons well beyond the scope of this blog, we ended up on an island: Waiheke Island off Auckland, New Zealand. Mike thought it was paradise and wanted us to live there for ever.  Me, I got itchy feet ...  Well, it was only an idea!  

Island Magic

And I had this thing about islands …  Have you ever wanted to live on an island?  Which one?

  Mike and I on the Beach in Waiheke

Mike and I on the Beach in Waiheke