Grass-Cutting-Season

September 2015

Every year in September it’s officially “Grass-Cutting-Season” A beautiful and cheerful time up here in the Himalayas.

First of all, the women of the surrounding area gather for a grass-cutting-council. They organize who will help to cut whose grass on which land. The grass prices are extensively discussed and eventually settled.

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Some may wonder why there is so much fuss about something as trivial as grass. Up here we are talking about a very valuable natural product. The mountain side is dry and barren during the winter months and every family has to make sure that there will be enough hay available for their cows, buffaloes and goats.

Soon after all the organizing part is clear, the ladies set themselves to work. In the steep hillside no machines can be used. Crouching on the ground to cut grass by hand with a sickle and then transport a huge bundle of it on the head is a very hard job. On top of it the women also climb high on trees to hang the grass there to dry. Nature turns into a big barn and whenever pasture is needed in the winter, they go back to the trees to take of the necessary amount.

Grasscutting

When I first saw women sometimes double my age carrying the heavy load on their head up the hill, I was torn between a feeling of pity and deepest admiration. Women here are amazingly strong in all senses! To be honest, most of the time I already struggle with my own body weight when I walk up the mountain; (don’t tell anyone!). My feeling of pity soon dissolved, as I realized that all of them, no matter how young or old, are really looking forward to the grass-cutting-season and indeed enjoy it a lot! It actually seems to be some kind of women’s circle, where they charge themselves with the energy of Mother Nature. It’s a time to teach, learn, chat, gossip, and exchange grass-cutting-stories not only during a well deserved Thermos chai break; stories about babies being born on the field, snakes and leopards. They are rightly proud of how high and good they can climb and of how much weight they are able to carry.

When they come back from a day of work, they look tired, but happy with a lot of hay in their beautiful black hair. When I meet them, they always ask me seriously, but half laughing (…an Indian thing…) to come along with them with my sickle. Before I didn’t get very much the Indian sense of humor and replied with excuses like not having land, cows, sickle, time or whatever. Now I just answer that I’ll be there in a minute with my tool; sometimes I say so ten times a day.

Grasstransport

I love to observe the women working in the fields. Sometimes even in the form of colorful spots through a curtain of rain. Instead of going home, they cover themselves with a piece of plastic to keep themselves dry and keep on cutting. But the same season also turns me sad somehow, as the landscape turns from green into brown and Grey again. I also found out that it somehow affects my mood.

It probably has to do with the general change which comes along with fall and the slowly inwards turning energies.

Mid September here marks also the beginning of the cold season. Last week the corresponding ritual took place: On the night in question, women light a big fire in front of their homes and feed it with some cannabis branches as an offering (by the way, the cutting of this “grass” happens in October) and share a cucumber as prasad (blessed food).

In their prayer they ask the coming winter not to be too much cold and cruel. From that moment on the cold season has been officially declared, accepted and who knows, maybe even invited. At least I don’t really understand how they do it; but every year right the next day after the ritual there is a major drop in temperature, frequently accompanied by cold rain.

IT’S LIKE MAGIC!

puja

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Another One Bites The Dust

September 2015

Sometimes I forget the life-giving and nurturing force of the powerful and sometimes equally destructive monsoon. I left a bone-dry landscape when I departed to Europe and found a stunning, lush green scenery after my return to our Himalayan village. My garden had turned into a wild jungle and the young trees had visibly been growing taller in a very short time.

Due to the high grown grass we had a lot of leopard presence lately. They seem to feel more secure, as the thicket allows them to hide themselves easily. They also turned bolder when it comes to approaching houses in search of easy prey.

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One night Baba drove home from our coffee shop late at night, as usually together with our dog Lamboo who used to run along with him right next to the motorbike. The guest who was staying at our house at that time was sitting behind Baba.

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They had almost reached home when Baba saw a leopard lurking in between the grass on the road side and in the blink of an eye Lamboo was suddenly gone!

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I could hear the howling down to our house. Our guest did not see anything from his position and as he is deaf, he did not realize what had happened until they reached home, where we explained it all to him with the help of gestures and scribbling notes on a piece of paper. He was shocked! They decided to drive back and see if the dog had survived and was maybe lying injured somewhere in the bush near the dirt road, but no trace.

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Lamboo was the fourth dog we lost to the leopards in seven years! Each time I tell myself that I do not want anymore dogs, but then, when they just pop up out of nowhere and look at me with their big brown eyes, I get weak and decide to give again a happy, but short life to one or two of them.

After this incident the leopard kept on sneaking around the neighboring houses after dusk for several nights and people would throb on steel plates or light a fire in the garden to drive him away. Some say that they saw several leopards roaming together. Maybe it was a mother with bigger cubs, as they are usually solitary animals.

Before I used to think that big cats generally avoid humans; until the following happened:

Like every evening, I was sitting in the bed with my daughter reading her a bedtime story; ironically this time she had chosen “The Jungle Book”. Lamboo was still alive at that time and while we were reading the chapter where Mowgli fights the tiger with a stick on fire, our dog all of a sudden started barking like mad. From the bed I peaked through the window to find out what was going on.

I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a huge leopard sitting right next to my bedroom window! My first reaction was to scream as if possessed by the devil. The gate was open and brave Lamboo was only a few inches away from the cat. My outcry made the leopard look up and his hypnotizing green eyes stared right into mine.

Then, with a big leap, he disappeared into the night. By the time Baba had run out to the porch, the leopard had already vanished, but at least he managed to keep the dog from following him.

Lamboo

The whole situation lasted only a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to me. I felt horribly vulnerable and shivered with fear. The fact that these animals come that close to a house, even with the outdoor lighting on, was almost more scary than the happening itself.

From that day on I made sure to not let my child play outside in the late evening and to keep the gates closed. Usually leopards go for goats, dogs or other animals, but who knows, a child might look equally tasty to them and on top of it, easy to catch. Before that, I even used to enjoy sitting on the porch to listen to the very special roar leopards produce, when they occasionally roamed the area at night.

WELL, NOW NOT ANYMORE…

I do not blame the leopards. They are just wild animals which like any other being in this world need to somehow satisfy their hunger. They were always here and now find every time less space where to live and hunt. There is not much natural prey left for them in the area we live in. As far as I know, there are only pheasants and monkeys. The birds might not be enough to fill a big cat’s stomach and monkeys I imagine are not very easy to catch.

Not long ago I have read about a project by the Uttarakhand government, which consists in counting the leopards in each area of the region and return deer to the wild to keep the cats from coming to close to humans. Hopefully something will happen soon. I think it is worth a try, even with the consequence that the deer might feast on the precious grass meant for the cows during winter time and the crops for which the village people have to work really hard every year.

Changes, Chances, Choices…

Not even two seasons since the inauguration of Baba Cake Café had passed when we suddenly had a problem: The traveling musicians loved to gather at our place and enjoy themselves playing some good music, which of course was not an issue at all for us. But unfortunately our neighbors did not share our enthusiasm about the jam sessions.

As we did not want to get into any silly never-ending fights with anybody, we had to come up with a solution quickly. They asked us to keep the heavy roll-up door closed in the evenings, which was not really helping much; the sound was still audible and now it included the new and loud clattering noise of the rusty door being rolled up and down each time somebody wanted to come in or leave the place.

I am not even sure if the activities at Baba Cake were actually the true reason for all the complaints. In small towns all over the world  jealousy matters are happening and people love to talk. The years that I have been living here taught me quite a bit about the Indian sort of jealousy, which I personally perceive as extremely strong. It also seems to be extremely difficult for people here to be happy from the heart about somebody else’s luck, achievements, success or happiness and it doesn’t even matter much if it comes to a neighbor, friend or even a close family member; ugly and unbelievable things happen – at least this is what they are to me, as for some people all of this is nothing but “normal” behavior.

For me personally this fact is very hard to digest, because somebody else’s happiness makes me feel extremely happy, too.I rather prefer to feel good and happy inside, for or with someone else than grumpy and bad and will for sure keep on trying my best to choose a positive attitude instead of spreading miserable feelings.

There is a famous saying, which goes

“When one door closes, another opens”

– in our case this is what literally happened.

We had started to make friends with the grocery shopkeepers, whose place was just a stone’s throw from our café. The same family also runs the local mill, where women from the surroundings bring their crops to grind. As I already mentioned, it’s a small village, and of course, the shopkeeper already knew about our trouble and offered his storage place as a new location for our project. I had serious doubts, when we had a look at the place. There was nothing but a rough tin hut with a bunch of flour bags in it. But as always, Baba immediately saw the positive side of it:

“No problem, this good place! Much bigger!”

He was already figuring out in his mind which improvements were necessary to turn the tin hut into a cozy café. Sure, the rent was a bit higher and we would have to spend again some money to somehow build something like a kitchen, but in the end this was still better than having to face endless hassles with the locals. Besides, we did not have any means for something more sophisticated anyways. So we decided to take a chance.

It was January 2014 and with a bit of an effort we would manage to get the new space ready for the coming spring season, which begins every year in March. There was a lot of work to do: the tin set needed to be cleaned and painted, an additional door was necessary and we decided to build an open kitchen inside of the same space.

I was surprised when I realized how attached I got to the old place, which we had created only a short while ago.  It was not easy for me to let it go, but as the new location slowly took shape I started to look forward for the change. Aside from that the place was indeed bigger and we even managed to create a nice and inviting porch.

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And again an artistic soul appeared just on time to create the final touch in form of an amazing painting on our outer wall – well, in this case our outer steel sheet. To cover the metal indoors we used some sarees for the ceiling and pretty bed covers for the walls. Maybe the end result was a touch too colorful, but well, let’s not forget that we are in India, so being generous with colors is okay 😀

Something that keeps on fascinating me about India is that there is always the possibility to create something out of nothing really quickly. Likewise, thoughts and ideas manifest much faster than expected, so it is wise to think twice before making a wish and to watch the flow of your mind from time to time. As Gautama Buddha said:

“Our life is the creation of our mind”


If you like to see and know a bit more, you can also have a look at our Baba Cake Page on facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/babacake.kasar

BABA CAKE

September 2012

Time had come to think about how to make a living in our Himalayan Village. Just renting out a room for 200 rupees (3 $) a day and organizing a few jam sessions during the tourist seasons, which all together last only six months, was definitively not enough to survive. The big question was:

WHAT TO DO ?

There was an infinite spectrum of possibilities and ideas, but almost none could realistically be materialized. Suddenly I had an idea:

I always loved to bake, so why not make cakes and sell them to the tourists?

Famous applecrumble

We had  the tool, a tiny electric oven that we once bought in Delhi, that would have to do it to begin. Going from guesthouse to guesthouse loaded with cakes while carrying a little baby at the same time was not the best idea, as this would mean A LOT of walking, as the guesthouses are spread all over the village to each side of the ridge. So I asked a local who was running a bigger guesthouse with a little grocery shop attached to it, if he could sell the cakes for us. He agreed and soon our fist cakes were displayed at Ram Singh’s Guesthouse. We sold some, but it was not really a roaring success. Sometimes when people walked by the shop,  no one was there to attend them, because the owner had gone to town and his wife was working somewhere on the fields and people probably didn’t want to wait for an hour or so only to get a piece of cake.

There was this young local fellow, who came to visit us almost daily, because he was neither studying, nor working and did not know what else to do with his time. His father had a well paid government job in Delhi and the family was pretty wealthy, so there was not really a great need for him to do any of this. One day I mentioned that it would be good to have a small place of our own where we could sell the cakes and maybe even some good chai and coffee and the guy said

 “Oh, we have a shop which sits empty, nobody uses it since years and there it even has a counter”

Baba Cake counter

The same day we went to check on the place and for us it was just perfect! Well, it was not really a shop by Western standards, it was more like a garage. But there was a small terrace, some shelves and a second small room which could be used as a kitchen. There was no running water either, but the water supply was nearby and we could do the dishes in a tub and bring all the necessary water in buckets; all good enough for a start. We talked to his big brother who was in charge of business matters and agreed a good price for the rent.

As always, our budget was very limited and therefore we tried to keep things as cheap and simple as possible. We bought some plywood which was turned into low tables, mattresses to sit on the floor, tableware and a couple of buckets with paint. Baba Cake Café was ready just on time for the fall season. My job was to bake the cakes and muffins and Baba was in charge of tea and coffee. As our baby was not even one year old and slept a lot and needed very much of her mommy’s attention I would prepare the cakes at home early in the morning and we would then carry them up thee hill to the shop.

Baba Cake wall painting

The travelers loved our place! I was very much happy and excited, but at the same time pretty much surprised as the place was really small and humble. Probably this was exactly the reason why people liked it. It soon turned into a meeting point and favorite hangout for many travelers, where people enjoyed a good cup of masala chai and a tasty piece of cake. Our Apple-Crumble became really famous and sometimes I could not bake enough of it to make everybody happy. Our tiny electric oven did magic, although the daily and frequent power cuts made me go wild regularly.

There are always many amazing and creative souls among the traveler community and so in exchange for cake and chai, we even got a really cool design painted on our entrance wall. There was always somebody with an instrument playing music in the shop, the atmosphere was wonderful and somehow most of the guests ended up becoming our very good friends. A big Baba Cake Family came into life, where people are open, kind, colorful, creative and of course all a bit crazy; each of us in our own particular way 😉

Sadhu Baba Cake

Pregnant in India

April 2011

I was really glad that I found a modern, private hospital with a good reputation in Almora. The clinic is run by a gynecologist and her husband, who is a pediatrician. The waiting room is always full, even the hall is crowded, which is partly because the women come in company of their husbands, children, sisters and mothers-in-law or even with all of them. Many are from remote villages and have to travel a long way for their checkups. As you have to take off your shoes before entering, you can approximately tell by the amount of sandals piled up, how many hours you will have to wait.

When it was finally my turn, I informed the doctor that my pregnancy test had turned out positive. She frowned and asked me skeptically:

“…and you want to have that baby?”

“Of course!” 

I replied, feeling a bit angry inside because I perceived some kind of prejudice towards a western woman getting pregnant in India.

I was lead to another room where I got an ultrasound scan to make sure that everything was fine. I guess the staff was not used to have men witnessing the procedure; they seemed pretty surprised when I wished to share that moment with my husband. The doctor confirmed that all looked okay and for the first time I saw the little peanut-shaped being that was growing inside of me on the screen. The thought that me and all of us looked just the same in the beginning of our big journey crossed my mind.

LIFE REALLY IS A MIRACLE !

The weeks passed and somehow I still couldn’t believe that I was pregnant. I didn’t feel any different physically and was eagerly waiting for any typical sensations or pregnancy-related symptoms people always talk about. But nothing of that ever happened. I never felt nauseous, did not have swollen feet, back aches or strange cravings. The only thing that I felt during a couple of weeks in the beginning of my pregnancy was that my breasts felt again the same as when they were starting to grow in puberty and in the last month I didn’t sleep really comfortably anymore. That was it, nothing really annoying. I was still me, with the difference that an immense sensation of happiness invaded me every time I thought about the baby. I was going to be a Mum! I admit that sometimes the latter thought scared me a bit. Again a new chapter of my life would open, with new challenges and responsibilities.

But I trust in life; life knows better, come what may!

In India, same like in Europe, women usually wait until past the third month to announce their pregnancy openly. But while western women may wear nice pregnancy clothes showing proudly their growing baby bellies and celebrate welcome-baby-parties, in India women keep it hidden as well as possible to protect mother and child from bad energies and of course from the evil eye of jealous people. Actually one might think that there are no pregnant ladies on Indian streets, but the truth is that under a saree the tummy is barely visible and you have to be in the right angle to be able to tell.

When the news spread that we were expecting a baby, each and every village woman would stop me to give me some advice. Mostly they reminded me that I should cover my belly better or told me how much to walk, what to eat and what to avoid. One advice was to drink only warm water, as cold water would make the baby feel cold. I know they meant well, but it was becoming pretty annoying and I got really good in smiling while imagining that I was invisible and all the blabla was just passing right through me.

Once I went to town to buy some basic baby clothes, as I did not have anything. The saleslady asked me how old the baby was and when I told her that it was not born yet, she was shocked and refused to sell my anything, because it would bring bad luck. “You buy something when baby is born!” She said. Great, so my baby would have to stay naked until someone with some clothes would show up? I just went to another shop and asked for clothes for a newborn.

I never had any pregnant woman I felt close to near me. None of my friends had children and when my sister was pregnant I was already living in another country and so I lived her experiences only from a far distance. Internet turned into my most consulted adviser. For my gynecologist my questions and the information I gathered were pretty irritating. My experience here with doctors generally is that they don’t like it very much if they are asked questions or the cause or even the name of a disease. They are used to village people who barely ask why, but just swallow the medicines prescribed.

My belly was growing well, but in my opinion it was not really big. We don’t have large mirrors at home and I mostly saw my belly from above. When I look at the photos now, I have to say:

MAN, I WAS HUGE !!!!

Time had come to start dedicating some serious thoughts to where and how the child would be born.

A Problem-Free-Philosophy

October 2009

It took us about nine months to finish the house. Well, it was actually not really complete, but we moved in, as soon as one of the rooms had four walls and a door. Money was getting less and that way we could at least save the money we would otherwise spend for the rent in the guesthouse we stayed at.

The kitchen was not ready either, so we put the gas stove in a corner of the provisional bedroom, where we slept on mattresses on the floor. Most of the time life was taking place outside anyways and the camping adventure like living style even had a touch of romanticism. We had no running water and there was still a wall missing in the bathroom, too. We improvised and hung a mat where that wall was supposed to be, so that we could at least use the toilet with some privacy.

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Everybody who has built a house probably knows that it is never really finished for good. There is always a bit of work somewhere, things to repair and to improve.

…WELL, IMAGINE IN INDIA !

We discovered what really went wrong during the construction only once we started living in the house;

that much for ‘No Problem!‘

which is the phrase I got most of the time as a reply to my questions while the house was being built. Actually it is one of the sentences you get to hear most of time if you have a doubt or are worried about something and expect to get advice from an Indian!

INDIA IS THE LAND OF NO PROBLEM !

I wondered for example why the wastewater from the kitchen and the bathroom was flowing through an open gutter and not through a pipe, why the wooden window frames did not close hermetically and why the floor was anything else but a plain surface.

One evening I was lying on my mattress on the floor staring at the ceiling and discovered with dismay a huge bump in one of the corners. It looked pretty ugly, as if someone had dropped a huge wrecking ball on top of the roof or as if the house got hit by a meteoroid right on that spot! I called Baba immediately and angrily pointed at the nasty bulge:

“Look up there! What is this?”

He shrugged:

“Oh, yes… There tin sheet a tora (little) broken when making roof; but, NO PROBLEM!

I sighed loudly doubting that any “mystery” would ever see any problem where I did and thought about what could be done to fix the ugly corner. Maybe I should try something artistic and paint a 3-D planet on that bump, which might look nice.

Nothing like that ever happened; today it is still the way it was back then. I actually completely forgot about the silly bump. No problem!

Maybe it all depends on the point of view. Perhaps if someone here tells you ‘No problem’ he refers to himself. No problem for me, then why should it be a problem for you? Or maybe: Maybe it is a problem for you, but not for me, which means ‘No problem’.

Once I even found these two words being used as an advertising slogan on a signboard at my favourite guesthouse in Rishikesh:

‘Last Chance Café – The No Problem Company’

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This sounded pretty much suspicious to me when I first saw it, but I have to say that it was actually all true! In the end I got married with a helping hand of the No Problem Company and things that seemed impossible eventually became reality.

I start to think that the No Problem Philosophy is a magic key to open certain doors; possibly not the ones you wanted to open, but maybe precisely those which you had to cross!

Mysteries of an Himalayan construction site

January 2009

When I first saw the piece of land we had bought, I wondered what kind of house could possibly fit on it; the plot looked pretty small. I thought that it might be big enough to put a larger tent on it, that’s it! It’s not that I didn’t like the idea of living in a tent or maybe a nice tipi, but after all the stories about leopards in the area we got to hear from locals and more after having seen one in full daylight I actually preferred to have four solid walls around my bed.

Construction site

After we had all the property papers in our hands, the first thing that Baba and I did was to celebrate a small puja ceremony on the plot amidst the high grown grass and flowers, together with the tourists who stayed at the same guesthouse. We chanted some mantras, lit incense and shared some food.

It took Baba a couple of weeks to gather the working people, who first proceeded to flatten the earth of the plot. To my great relief the land afterwards looked double the size and

YES! A REAL HOUSE COULD ACTUALLY FIT ON IT !

I never thought that I would ever have to bother about things like building a house! Until now I have always been renting the places I’ve lived in. First of all because buying a property of any kind was out of my range and second because it makes it easier to change residency whenever needed or wanted.

The only thing we knew for now was that we wanted to build three rooms: One for us, a living room and one guest room. Another thing I was sure about was that I wanted to have the bathroom inside of the house and not outside like most guesthouses of the area. Having an outdoor bathroom is a good thing, but due to my earlier experience with a leopard sneaking around the guesthouse all night long, restraining me to use the urgently needed bathroom, I had made up my mind. Otherwise we had no idea how people usually build a house in the Indian Himalayas. Baba tinkered a cute, roofless mock-up out of cardboard, showed it to the workers and on that base the building process started in the Indian way.Mock-up

He woke up every morning at six o’clock to go to the construction site to keep an eye on the situation all day long. People here are paid by day, which means that more slowly they work the more money they will get. Leaving them there alone meant that they would take things really easy and sit somewhere most of the time smoking beedis.

First, my German mind had an accurate idea, about how things should be done and eventually look like. In my opinion, I explained myself very clearly and everybody seemed to understand. My main job though was to cook and bring the meal to the construction site, where Baba and I would sit and have a picnic together.

Day after day when I arrived there with my tiffin, I had to discover that my plans for the house actually were not understood at all or simply completely ignored.

First I tried to fight it, but after only a couple of months to not become completely crazy, my German mind surrendered to the facts of the Himalayan construction “system”. After three more months I was just happy with the thought that soon I would have a new roof over my head and had no more expectations about the result at all.

It is very popular to hire mysteries from Bihar for building projects. A mystery is the Hindi word for the head workman. I didn’t know that for a long time and as in India people are often called by their profession, I thought that it was pretty funny that so many people had such a cool name like mystery!

The reasons why the workers from Bihar are very popular is that they have the reputation to be very good at their job and that they don’t drink excessively as their colleagues from the mountain area do. They also get paid more than the local workers, which usually brings jealousy issues along.

Winter had come and it got pretty cold, so whenever something had to be finished the same day, the local workers demanded to get paid in addition with “Gulab” with the excuse that it helped to keep them warm. Gulab translated means “rose” and is the brand of a local alcohol that smells like battery acid. Some say that if you drink that stuff regularly you end up getting blind, which I can pretty much imagine after having tried it once out of curiosity.

Well, maybe this is the reason why some of our walls have a certain angle which slightly reminds of modern art.

Of course, we also had our Bihari mystery and soon one of the workers said that he wanted to receive the same salary as him. Baba explained that he would do so, if he could somehow prove that he was able to do the same work in the same time with the same quality result.

One day, when I came to the building site, I wondered why the two arches on our porch differed visibly from each other.

The explanation was simple:

There had been a competition between the Bihari and the mountain mystery, which the latter lost!

But there was one thing that the Biharis and the local workers had in common:

After paying day, they did not show up for a couple of days without saying a word and then reappeared as if nothing had happened.

By the way:

If you like, feel free to watch the little movie about the construction process on the following link: