I traveled to India a year ago to volunteer (WWOOF) at a place called Sadhana Forest. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and Sadhana is one of its many participants. The concept is that you work an allotted amount of hours per week in exchange for food, accommodation, and of course the experience of learning about an organic lifestyle. I highly encourage anyone with a desire to travel and an enthusiasm for a natural way of life to try wwoofing as there are so many opportunities offered in every part of the world. Whether you aspire to work on an olive farm in Italy, harvest coffee beans in Guatemala, or dig for pearls in Bali, WWOOF is sure to accommodate. Each host differs with space and maximum number of occupants, but Sadhana Forest won't turn anyone away who is able and willing to work.

Before arriving at Sadhana, my itinerary hit 3 cities, all in the South: Mumbai, Chennai, and Pondicherry.

India has much depth to be discovered. The allure of the country is its centuries of history, beautiful culture, and the unfamiliar, which did not let me down.

Because I arrived in Mumbai late in the evening, my first night was spent in my hotel room watching I Love Lucy re-runs and dining on a pretty generic, almost Americanized curry. I made up for my lack of Indian culture the next day by absorbing all the city had to offer, which was truly an overload of the senses. The best way to describe it is chaotic and unpredictable.

My first venture was to Crawford Market, which gives a whole new meaning to "where the locals go" because I was definitely the only tourist in sight. Not a complaint; all the more authenticity for me. In my opinion, you can get to know a city best by exploring its markets so that is always part of my travel plan.

Later, I came across Linking Road where I found an abundance of road stalls and bazaars. While there, I encountered an amazing restaurant where I had my first Thali experience, which is an Indian or Nepalese meal consisting of many dishes that are served in small, steel bowls on a large, round tray. Typical dishes include rice, dal, numerous curries, and different breads with accompanying sauces. The servers would systematically walk around and refill a bowl if it was running low. To an Indian cuisine lover like myself, it was heavenly. Needless to say, I didn't stop them for a while. This type of feast in India will usually set you back around $5.

The question of feeling unsafe always arises. I would say at times, yes and no. It's not recommended for women to walk around alone at night (which I was guilty of a few times) and it's encouraged to cover up as much as possible. But I'm probably not alone in thinking that the most frightening part of being in India is the seemingly petty task of crossing the road. As my trip progressed, I grew more comfortable averting traffic, weaving in and out of darting motorcycles, speeding cars, cows, chickens, and crowds of experienced street-crossers walking by. By my last day, I was a natural. No sweat. ;)

The train I took from Mumbai to Chennai was a lengthy 26 hours. I won't speak for all train travel in India, because this was the only one I experienced. I'm sure this specific train was really nice when it was manufactured in what I assume to be 1942, but basically.. it had seen better days. I was promptly shown to my "private" car that also occupied 6 other people. The windows were completely covered in a yellowish-green film obstructing the view outside. The scene I had in my head when taking a cross-country train involved a quaint little dining room where I would sip chai tea and indulge in luxurious Indian treats while a wise old man played a sitar. In reality, it was pretty dark and depressing and the only food offered were 2 slices of sandwich bread and a packet of ketchup. (Note to self: stock up on food and water prior to boarding a 26 hour train.)

I'm very familiar with long modes of transportation in other countries, so I'm really not complaining (too much). People who are accustomed to long distance travel in foreign countries would often agree that those moments add character and a sense of adventure. I realized that I wasn't on the Eurostar in Switzerland and I was, in fact, in India so eventually embraced my reality and shrugged it off as another authentic experience.

Chennai is the capital of the Indian state Tamil Nadu and is known as the "Cultural Capital of South India". Unfortunately, my stop there was limited to one day so I didn't take in as much culture in the city as I would have liked. The most enjoyable part of my time there was walking along Marina Beach. The sand was powdered and the water blue and besides the occasional trash heap or man squatting to go to the bathroom in plain view, it was quite picturesque.

I wandered along the water for an hour and encountered small fishing boats and a fish market on the beach. It was a very small, obviously local market so I could tell that it was unfamiliar seeing a tourist snapping photos of what, to them, was their natural, everyday routine, but to a foreigner like me, a fascinating event that must be documented.

When I arrived at Sadhana, there were about 30 other volunteers from around the world. We were required to work 25 hours per week with the day starting at 5:30 AM by a guitar playing wwoofer singing our wake-up call. It sounds inconveniently early, but much preferred compared to working in the scorching afternoon heat. Jobs revolved around doing forest work, collecting compost from the "toilets", planting/watering, and working in the kitchen to prepare (all vegan) breakfast, lunch, or dinner for the camp. Work was assigned each morning by whoever enlisted for each position that was called. I volunteered in each category during my time there.

There was a break for breakfast, which usually consisted of herbal tea, an assortment of fresh fruit (papaya, pomegranate, and pineapple were the most common), and porridge topped with jaggery, which is an unrefined whole cane sugar that we would mix with bananas and fresh coconut. Afternoons revolved around workshops organized by volunteers, such as yoga or meditation. Nights always ended with performances by one or many of the talented musicians that were there.

Almost all group activities took place in the main hut. It's where we would sit on round pillows and have a moment of silence before each meal, where yoga was held, and where there was a small library containing books of many languages.

Everything was open air so from the moment I stepped out of bed in the morning, I could feel the dirt on my feet and the only place to escape the mosquitoes was under the net attached to my bed. The rawness of it all was unlike anything I had experienced. There were no showers, running sinks, or even mirrors there. The lack of mirrors sounds silly, but I realized I had never gone that long in my life without seeing myself. It's not something you normally think about it, but we are used to waking up and brushing our teeth in front of a mirror, putting on make up, washing our hands, trying on clothes. A lot of our daily tasks revolve around them. It was extremely refreshing being in a place where appearances did not matter.

For a shower, each person was limited to a bucket which we would fill from the only clean water source on the premises located in the kitchen area. Only 100% natural and eco-friendly products were allowed to be used as all water ran in to a designated place to be used again to water the vegetation.

The "toilets" were holes in the ground which we were required to drop sawdust into before and after use to facilitate compost. No toilet paper was allowed to be used, but clean water was replenished in each stall for clean up.

As long as we worked the 25 hours/week, we weren't required to participate in every meal and were able to come and go as we pleased. They offered mo-peds and bikes for rent to do so.
Pondicherry is an anomaly in contrast to other parts of India (that I had seen anyway) with it's calm, tree-lined, cobblestone streets. Pondy was colonized by France and still holds a strong French influence in its architecture and design. Rues and Boulevards, bakeries and Meditteranean houses fill the Quarter, while French even remains a common language.

There are two unique sides to the city, Ville Blanche and Ville Noir. Ville Noir has that familiarity I grew to know in India and its culture is very prominent, while Ville Blanche retains its French charm, almost reminiscent of New Orleans. I stayed in Ville Blanche and woke up to croissants and coffee, but would always venture along the water in search of Indian cuisine. I discovered a little place overlooking the beach and ended up eating there three times. Each visit, I enjoyed the restaurant all to myself, which I'm aware is usually not a good sign, but I just couldn't get enough. The atmosphere was nothing special. I ate on a little plastic chair where I dined on Dosa, Paneer Makhani, and Onion Bhaji, all served on a banana leaf, each dish ranging from $1 to $2.

As pleasant as my stay in Ville Blanche was, one of the most memorable times I had in India was walking through the Grand Bazaar in Ville Noir. I entered through the fish market where women wearing multi-colored dresses squatted and cleaned the fish. I continued through the room stepping over fish heads and slime, admiring these women who seemed to have much satisfaction in their daily tasks. After passing through, I entered a maze of fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices. There were entire rooms committed to showcasing flowers, bananas, or pomegranates. The market was covered by a blue tarp, reflecting perfect shadows on all the produce. I was happily lost in this labyrinth for over an hour until I managed to reach the exit, through which I had to maneuver around cows and squeeze through a seemingly never ending row of mo-peds. The feeling outside of the market was incomparable to the calmness and serenity inside. I was back in India. And the next day I would be gone.

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