As I mentioned, the sweltering hot days at the tail end of the monsoon season are a less than ideal time to be cooped up in a classroom with no air conditioning, barely above the equator. We had traveled from the 49th parallel (BC), to the 22nd (Kauai), to the 18th (Chiang Mai), with a brief dip to the equator (Kuala Lumpur), and now were hovering just above the 15th line of latitude. Seriously, it’s hot. Take my word for it. Not just hot, but humid. You can’t tell if you’re sweating, or the damp is just clinging to you for lack of a better place to go. Or both.
So it was that we gleefully accepted the invitation to go to an authentic organic spice farm in the mountains, where, we were told, it would be much cooler. Tanshikar Spice Farm lay about 80km South East of Calangute, which would only take a couple of hours to reach, assuming the roads were in passable condition. Possible hindrances included cows on the road, accidents on the hill passes, washouts, our bus breaking down, and a lack of respect for Ganesh. As we wound our way south and east, away from the cooling ocean, the temperature began to increase. Was that even possible? Weren’t we supposed to be going somewhere cooler?
The terrain grew drier and dustier, and as we narrowly avoided collisions with the large trucks that navigated the highways, I couldn’t help but notice the amazing amount of decoration that adorned the trucks. This was a far better way to occupy my time than imagining the result of meeting one of those large trucks head-on as they careened around the hill passes. The decorations were amazing in their uniqueness, a display of the religious, sentimental, and emotional viewpoints of the people driving the trucks. Each truck is a work of art, a testament to the values of the drivers, and an opportunity to call in good will and good favour from the gods.
Distracted as we all were by this uniquely Indian art form, the drive passed quickly, and we soon found ourselves at the spice farm. Being in the foothills of the Western Ghats, the major mountain range that separates Coastal Southern India from the interior, we did notice a slight drop in temperature, the way you might if you turned the thermostat down a few degrees in a sauna. Never mind, we were there to see where some of the most healing herbs and spices in the world were grown in their natural habitat.
By this time, our simple breakfast from the ANHC had long since ceased to supply us with energy, and we were fortunate enough to experience an all organic buffet of simple foods served on plates made of pressed banana leaves. Beyond the simple aesthetic of our dinnerware, we soon found out that it had a functional purpose, in that banana leaves contain enzymes that would help us digest our meal. Knowing the effects that consuming copious amounts of lentils could have on our digestive tract, and subsequently our olfactory senses, this was a welcome foresight and a prelude to how harmony can be achieved by combining functions.
Thoroughly satiated by the simple but nutritious meal, we set out with the group to tour the ‘farm’. Growing up as I had in central Ontario, I was fairly familiar with large scale, monocropped farms, where hundreds of acres would be devoted to a single plant species, leading to pestilence, disease, and a lack of genetic diversity, requiring salvation in the form of pesticides and herbicides. While this type of farming might suit corporate production for large scale export, it has many drawbacks, not least of which is the use of toxic chemicals and fertilizers to ensure continued growth, and a lack of genetic evolution which would allow the plant species to adapt to their environment.
Alternative farming methods use combinations of plant species to ward off pests, and ensure resilience and genetic diversity, which offers more robust, albeit long term, small scale production. Tanshikar utilized such methods, and many of the plant species were grown in their natural habitat, which was, for many species, in forested areas with companion plants. Seeing many of the herbs in their native habitats was a uniquely beautiful experience, so different from seeing them ground up in packets at the grocery store or serving up tantalizing flavours in your favourite exotic dishes.
Ginger, for example, grows as a root, with vine-like tendrils creeping up nearby trees, and it prefers some shade. It might take longer to grow this way, but requires no pesticides or sticks to climb, and produces a superior product that provides medicinal as well as culinary value. The same was true for Turmeric, a close cousin of ginger with amazing medicinal properties as an anti-inflammatory. Tulsi, known as Holy Basil, offers broad leaves and fantastic properties as an adaptogenic herb, strengthening the immune and adrenal systems, and it flourishes under the forest canopy.
The farm is a co-operative, ensuring that the workers have an interest in the well-being of the farm beyond just doing as they are told to earn a paycheque. Similar to the plants working in conjunction for a common goal, this granted equality and fair trade for all species involved. It was food for thought, and got me thinking about balance. Balance is not 50-50, like a teeter totter, or 70-30 for work/play, as so many of us live. Balance is about distribution of needs and desires, like a sphere upon which we dwell, rolling as we can to meet and endless array of points. As we touch upon one point, so does its opposite become fulfilled. By moving all points in harmony, all needs may be met. As it is in nature, so should it be in ourselves.
Speaking of balance, Violet, bless her adventurous spirit, found a small bridge over a tiny creek upon which to test hers. Nearly anointing herself in the waters below, we ushered her to the gift shop, where they anointed her somewhat more safely on her forehead with a red paste, called Tika, offering her protection and blessing. After all, who doesn’t need that? Violet certainly does. Bless that girl.