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Juliane diamond: a forest community.

Many, perhaps most, long journeys in India are made via crowded buses, motorbikes, and trains, but after two months of solo backpacking and a night spent sleeping on a bench in the Bangkok airport before flying to Chennai, I sprang for an 800-rupee taxi (about US$20). I spent my first three hours in India asleep in the back of one of the country's 1950s-vintage cabs.


It was February 2008 and I was on my way to Sadhana Forest, an ecovillage in Auroville, India, that is dedicated to the reforestation of the region's endangered tropical dry evergreen forest. The community was founded in 2003 and has been so successful that the directors intend to start a similar project in Morocco. In exchange for accommodation, community members work in the forest, prepare meals, and contribute personal skills and gifts to the village.

The Sadhana opportunity arose in mid-2007, while I was living and working in Korea (a country where I spent most of my time indoors). As much as I enjoyed my time there, I wanted to work with the Earth again and get back to my environmentalist roots. I contacted the directors of Sadhana and applied to work with them, and eight months later I was standing at the village's doorstep.

My first impression was that the cab driver had made a mistake. All that surrounded me were trees, a washed-out bridge, and a homemade fence. But before I had the chance to ask, the cab was already disappearing back down the dirt road, leaving me alone with my pack. Thankfully, before I had time to panic, I was warmly welcomed by a Sadhana Forest greeter (one of several jobs I would soon hold) and was led across the red clay through a maze of thatched-roof huts and water catchment ponds. My arrival felt more like a homecoming.

My previous year of traveling abroad had prepared me for the typical adjustments people make when they come to India, i.e., squat toilets, no toilet paper, unfamiliar bacteria. I felt fully prepared for all that the forest and India could throw at me. I was ready to live outside and feel the energy of working with my hands again.

When I arrived in Sadhana, 75 people were living and working there. It was inspiring to see such a strong coalition of people of all ages and nationalities collaborating to create this fascinating community. We spent each morning planting, cooking, cleaning, and building. In the afternoons, community members led different classes and activities--everything from belly dancing to Tai Chi and juggling. The forest was a force that seemed to draw in only the most motivated and talented individuals.

Soon after my arrival I was given a position similar to a volunteer manager. I learned everything about living in the community, from the details of the ongoing reforestation project to where extra blankets were hidden. Every day I greeted and oriented new volunteers and instructed those working in the forest on how to build bunds (mounds of soil used to trap water and prevent hillside erosion) and dig catchment ponds. I also led community meetings and managed the community's finances.

I spent a total of four months in the forest, living in a tent at first and eventually upgrading (literally) to an elevated thatched-roof hut. I used composting toilets, ate an entirely vegan diet, and woke up at 5 a.m. to dig catchment ponds and holes for baby trees. In the afternoons I exercised the horses at a neighboring riding school, napped in hammocks, and scooted around on my motorbike. It was an invigorating and nourishing lifestyle, both physically and mentally. This was a place where people were healed, reborn, and infused with a powerful sense of peace and equilibrium.

As the months went, I eventually began to yearn to see more of India. I had grown confident of my India savvy and knew that my return to America was drawing nearer. So, sadly, I left the village. Not the way I had come though--the proper way, on the back of a motorbike to an overcrowded bus, then to another overcrowded bus, and eventually back to Chennai.

Now I live in Washington, D.C., where office life is a little different. The satisfaction I feel when I conquer my inbox is vaguely similar to the joy I felt heaving a mumpty (a tool used to break up and move dirt). Perhaps it's all a matter of centering my peace and finding purpose in all my endeavors, even the conventional ones.
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Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2010
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