Namaste, friends! As the last sunset of 2013 paints the sky over India, I reflect on the incredible journey of past months since leaving Cooperstown. Thailand and India have been nothing less than an explosion of color, flavor and passion for the spirit and the taste buds. On every step of this pilgrimage I have found wild inspiration - from Thailand’s northern countryside to its peaceful islands of the south; from India’s palm dappled coast to the highest tea plantation covered mountains, to the beautiful chaos of Delhi.
During this time, I have discovered a recurring theme in the teachers met along the way. They are people who nourish, heal and empower others - illuminating the diverse ways in which we can all bring healing to this world. They revive depleted soils and heal wounded spirits. They nourish the hungry and nourish community, family and cultural authenticity. With stories of just a few of the special people I've met, I will share a glimpse of my journey so far..
From a mountaintop in northern Thailand..
The story of my first teachers began with a small piece of land in countryside of northern Thailand and a dream. Pijo and Peggy dreamed of creating a seed saving center – a place to bring back the tradition of seed saving amongst farmers and growers by collecting, propagating, and exchanging indigenous and rare varieties of plants. By bringing seed saving back into the hands of farmers and growers, they set off on a mission to empower people and to support biodiversity. They bought a small piece of land which was severely degraded by years of slash-and-burn agriculture and breathed new life into the land; with succession planting and composting, they helped return nutrients to the soil. Walking through the gardens – a jungle of bananas and citrus, under vines heavy with passionfruit – it is amazing to see how they transformed a mountainside from barren and nutrient-starved into one of rich and bountiful diversity.
With time, as more and more people were attracted to the project, a small community developed at Pun Pun and it’s now home to about 20 extraordinary people, young and old. Together they strive for a self-reliant lifestyle by growing organic food, building their own natural homes and experimenting with appropriate, renewable energy technologies. Pijo’s motto is “Life is simple. Why do we make it so hard?” The empowerment that comes with knowing how to provide shelter and nourishment for one's self and community is so inspiring! At Pun Pun I also learned from an incredible entrepreneurial chef and cafe owner, Yao Chookong, and we’ll be carrying her beautiful handmade cookbooks at the café next season!
From mountaintop spice plantations of south India…
Nestled amongst mountains of the world’s highest tea plantations and understory forests of cardamom and peppercorns is the city of Munnar. The air is cool and clean, the spices are fresh and tea is a way of life for most who live here. It is here that I met Nimi, the woman who inspired my spicy love affair with south Indian cooking and taught me her family kitchen secrets.
Being in Nimi’s kitchen, I tasted the power of food to nourish cultural diversity and authenticity. Like most women in India, her recipes have been passed down through generations of mothers teaching daughters, not with measuring spoons and cups but with an intuitive sixth sense for flavor. Woven into each recipe is the tradition of this place. A sip of masala chai and I can see the cardamom pods growing in the shade of their own towering leaves; I see the women climbing up the mountainside with woven baskets balanced on their heads and broad smiles on their faces, preparing for a day of tea harvest. I feel the warmth of tradition – from an old saucepan over open flame on a dusty roadside, to the gift of hospitality visiting a new friend’s home.
Nimi shared more than the secret to sublime meen mulagittathu; her story was also one of empowerment. Beyond hosting students in her home, she also dedicates her days to educating local youth by offering cooking classes at the local public school and directing the school’s kitchen. Nimi was voted one of the top 10 woman entrepreneurs in India in 2013 by the India Times!
From the south Indian ashram of a divine healer…
Coastal south India in the state of Kerala is a jungle of palms weaving between tranquil backwaters and rice paddies. Taking it all in from the top of a river boat taxi, I felt the water as the life force of this place. Men slowly lift broad Chinese fishing nets, waiting patiently for a catch; women stand waist deep in the water washing clothes and crouch in the rice paddies under unforgiving sun. In a small fishing village along this waterway is the home of Amma - a visionary, humanitarian and spiritual leader. While Amma is of Hindu faith, the message she spreads is of universal compassion. According to Hinduism, the suffering of an individual is due to his or her own karma – the results of actions performed in the past. This principle drives her to action; today she asks, “If it is one’s person’s karma to suffer, isn’t it our dharma (duty) to help ease the suffering and pain?” And so she created Embracing the World, a global network of humanitarian initiatives that includes volunteer-driven work to relieve hunger all over the world - feeding over 10 million poor people in India every year and tens of thousands around the world. In her ashram in this small fishing village, I sat beside Amma in awe. I saw how this woman magnetizes thousands of people every day be close to her, to receive her blessings and to hear her teachings on universal language of love and selfless service. Through Amma's work, we can see the amazing capacity of humanity to relieve the suffering of one another when motivated around a positive cause.
From the streets of New Delhi..
India is a land of shocking contrasts and contradictions, where the purest light of humanity coexists with its bitter darkness in plain sight. There are more than 1.2 million child sex slaves in India today. The average age is 14. Now here I am outside Delhi in the home of another inspiring teacher, Roma, a woman who is a healer of spirit. For over twenty years Roma has been combating the trafficking of children and women in India, especially around the trans-border areas of Nepal and Bangladesh. She founded STOP India to rescue victims of human trafficking and created a family home for young girls who are rescued. Here, the girls can heal from traumatic pasts of sex slavery and abuse, grow in a nurturing environment and become empowered to build new lives with education and vocational training. Roma is now the mother to about fifty beautiful young girls, most between 10 and 15 years old. Playing and dancing with the girls, it hurts my heart to know about the pain they have felt, but their radiant smiles are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. We are now beginning a project to help create jobs for the girls, raise money for STOP India, and bring the beauty of Indian fabrics and handiwork home to Cooperstown! Many of the girls learn tailoring at the family home to prepare for future careers. Next season at Origins, look forward to colorful, handmade cotton kitchen aprons, napkins and more made by the girls! All of this is possible because of the selfless motivation of Roma, and I am very grateful to be bringing in the new year with her and the girls.
From the hearts of friends..
These musings of inspiration and teachers along the way would be incomplete without mention of my two great friends and travel companions at the moment, Ashira (of Gomde Cooperstown) and Andy (previously of Origins Cafe, now of Gomde Cooperstown). Andy and Ashira are on a mission to empower artisans across Asia by creating a marketplace for their work with a new business called Jewel and Lotus. It is so inspiring to be with young entrepreneurs with a genuine desire to support social and environmental consciousness! Look forward to learning more about their endeavors next café season as well!