I Am Adventure: India
I have been told that one of the best ways to write better, is to read more. I agree and will go on to say that one of the best ways to expand your thinking, is to travel more. When I travel, one of the first things that I experience is feeling out of my element. Seeking familiar comforts are replaced with a primal survival instinct. Mind you, I’m not traveling to the depths of the Amazon, or the middle of the Sahara (yet!), but my travels through India provided me with plenty of out-of-my-element adventure.
I, along with several other food activists, was invited to India to participate in a soil pilgrimage by author and international food activist, Vandana Shiva. Vandana’s journey was called, “A Pilgrimage Towards a Nonviolent Relationship with Soil.” I decided to take my family along to uncover how Indian farmers are embracing organic and regenerative agriculture.
I find that one of the biggest obstacles of traveling is the physical act of packing and traveling, and the anxiety of wondering what you should expect. As a seasoned traveler, I developed some jet setter hacks that I recommend to anyone traveling to India. The flight from Los Angeles to New York to Delhi took 18 hours, and wasn’t too difficult, thanks to my adventure hacks.
There is nothing as refreshing to the adventurer’s soul than the moment you walk out of an airport terminal and into a strange new land! India greeted us with a hot sultry kiss in the face that smelled like exhaust, sweat, and sweet curry. It had a moist thickness to it, which owned us for the next 2 weeks. After our initial smooch, India hugged us with the sweet energy of its population. Our ears heard several languages to include British accents, Punjabi, and Hindi, and we instantly felt the rush of being in a foreign land. We were travel weary, and our scheduled car didn’t arrive, so we were left to the mercy of the local cabbies.
Travel tip: Make sure you have arranged for transportation from the airport when arriving in Delhi, or take a prepaid Taxi, and triple check the signage before you leave the airport. We opted for a cab and ended up spending $60.00, for what should have been a $10.00 trip to our hotel, only minutes from the airport. Our cabbie actually held us captive in the car on the freeway until we agreed to the inflated rate.
Delhi was our inaugural trip through the perilous roads of India. The land sprawled out before us was littered with a mixture of contemporary high-rises, beautiful mosques, and gutted concrete slab structures, that stood empty and transparent. Delhi’s population is around 18 million, (L.A. is roughly 13 million, and New York is around 18 million), therefore, the contemporary, holy, and dilapidated skyline, seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon. To the west, a dusty sun silently set behind Delhi’s cacophony of horns, mopeds, and unending construction.
We had a short slumber at our hotel. The next day our driver picked us up before the sun rose. We were in for a seven-hour drive to Dehradun, located in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.
Driving in India
The drive was one of the craziest adventures that I have ever been in my car. Between the two of us, we had the pleasure of driving in Jamaica, China, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Singapore, Bahrain, Kuwait, Thailand, New York, Boston, (yep, I see you Mass drivers), and Downtown Los Angeles during rush hour! India proved to be more treacherous than all of those combined. Imagine a roller coaster that shares its track with hundreds of other carts, which have the ability to jump on and off their track and on your track, at will, without warning or regard to colliding. Our driver never seemed nervous about the oncoming cars in his lane and the blazing horns from cars, scooters, motorcycles, carts, trucks, and busses. Aside from the motorized vehicles, he had to keep his eyes out for meandering pedestrians, erratic bicyclists, packs of stray dogs, and richly anointed cows. Car horns in India are used more as a communication tool, rather than to exercise road rage, as we do here in the States. The constant sounding of horns took a bit of getting used to, but after a while, it became the musical background of our journey. You can get a small taste of this part of my adventure in this Instagram video.
We arrived at our hotel in Dehradun, white-knuckled, and slightly bruised; relieved to be alive, and somewhat exhilarated. After checking in, I gave my family a nice long hug, having shared several near-death experiences. I practiced yoga, hydrated, and performed a few beauty rituals, then joined other members of the tour for dinner. The restaurant was at the top of our hotel, and the sun was low on the horizon when we were seated at our table, and bounced its last light across the moderately populated foothills of the Himalayan mountains. Below us, the streets of Dehradun continued on, unchanged by my presence, yet I knew that I was growing with each new experience.
In an ocean of foreign faces, I was thrilled to see the familiar smiles of my colleagues. On our trip in India were some of my favorite activists including Vani Hari aka Food Babe, and her family, Will Allen, co-founder of Regeneration Vermont and VT Right To Know GMOs, (and my Dad), Andre Leu of IFOAM, and the filmmakers from Becket films, who were there to film Vandana for an upcoming film called: “The Seeds Of Vandana.”
At dinner that night, each plate brought exotic flavors, rich in history and tradition, originating from one of the hundreds of farms surrounding Dehradun. After dinner, I rested, satiated; my tongue still warm with the savory heat of India’s cuisine.
Vandana’s Farm: Navdanya
The next morning, we ventured to Vandana’s farm, located roughly 10 miles outside of town, and braved another car trip. My daughter Zurael and I played a game on the way. The object was to count the number of cows we saw walking amongst the traffic. We counted 32 from the hotel to farm. Vandana’s farm was absolutely beautiful and was surrounded by huge mango trees. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mango season, but I spent some of my time daydreaming of picking and eating organic mangoes until I popped.
Travel tip: Clothes to pack for India must include easy to remove sandals (shoes are not permitted most places), layers that are easy to add, remove, and carry, cotton/breathable clothes, comfortable walking shoes, sunglasses, and a cross-body bag for valuables and hats.
A group of organic farmers were speaking that day from all over India, sharing their stories, and farming concerns. They discussed the soil and its importance in our efforts to curb climate change, as well as providing nutrients for our food. Navdanya is a network of seed keepers and organic producers spread across 18 states in India. Navdanya has helped set up 122 community seed banks across the country and has trained over 500,000 farmers in seed and food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades. Navdanya also helped set up the largest direct marketing, fair trade, and organic network in the country. As a foodie and a farmer’s daughter, I was thoroughly impressed with this beautiful gathering and setting.
One of my family’s favorite meals was at Vandana’s farm because it was so authentic and welcoming, and in a strange way familiar, even primal. We ate the typical Indian cuisine- rice, dal, vegetables, beans, and naan. We sat on the ground and ate with our hands. There’s such a romance about India; a heat and flavor, unlike any other place I’ve been. The farm had beautiful fields and grew some of my favorite spices like ginger and turmeric. We returned once more to Vandana’s farm the following day to work, learn and explore.
Our next journey came from visiting Rishikesh, located on the banks of the Ganges River. Known for its healing qualities, locals and tourists line the banks to meditate and anoint themselves, despite the fact that it has become one of the planet’s most polluted rivers. We were greeted by a local troop of monkeys upon arriving in this sacred city.
Travel Tip: Don’t feed the monkeys while visiting Rishikesh. They are world-class thieves and like to snatch satchels, sunglasses, and purses from tourists, in exchange for bananas from local hustlers. An alpha male pounced on the roof of our car and demanded the bananas it saw inside our car. We surrendered the bananas, and I took refuge in the car until all the bananas were consumed. These monkeys look cute and sweet and small from afar until they’re on top of your car. Then they remind you that they are large, wild, aggressive, smart, and extremely powerful.
Rishikesh is considered one of the yoga capitals of the world. We had the pleasure of touring the ashram and participated in a Ganga Aarti. I can still hear the chanting in my ears when I meditate. After the ceremony, we bartered with local vendors, enjoyed a suspenseful walk across the river on a suspension footbridge, and dined in a Beatles inspired organic restaurant overlooking the Ganges called The 60’s Café Delmar/Beatles Café. Vani and I took a few moments to periscope from the Cafe, but the wifi wasn’t consistently working. It’s too bad though because that video would have been fun to watch since we were so overjoyed from the Rishikesh experience.
This was one of my favorite days of the trip. It was Mike’s birthday, and he seemed to float an inch off the ground; his smile stretched wide, fingers frantically capturing what he could with his camera. He practiced yoga by the sacred gardens and was blessed near a giant statue of Hanuman, the Monkey God, known for loyalty, love, and protection. He later got swindled when paying triple the cost for a pocketknife, after a failed attempt to understand the rupee to dollar conversion rate. But due to his elated state, he remained happy and humble and didn’t care about a thing. After all, a ceremonial-filled Rishikesh birthday for a Yogi…priceless.
The Himalayan Mountains
The following day, we opted to take a short flight to Delhi, over making another long and perilous journey via car. The highlight of that day was seeing the Himalayan mountain range as we took off from a small municipal airport. The size of the mountains dwarfed my expectations, and as the plane reached its cruising altitude, it seemed like many of the snow-covered mountaintops were still above us. Our cabbie from the airport to the hotel got into a fender bender, and he and the other driver engaged in a yelling match while we sat in oncoming traffic. That night, we stayed at a beautiful place in Delhi and were tempted to cancel all plans and just get pampered. But, we opted to put our desires for sleep on hold and adventure some more with our fellow activists.
Travel tip: Flying in India is really easy in comparison to other countries, including the U.S. The process is extremely fluid and not laborious. If you have to go a long distance in India, I recommend flying.
The next day was Gandhi’s birthday, a national holiday in India, and we were slated to visit Gandhi’s Ashram, Sevagram. This special day, unfortunately, brought with it more travel chaos. Our cabbie dropped us off at the wrong terminal. Thankfully, the spirit of giving was in the air and a cabbie helped us get to our terminal in time to just get on the flight. He was so kind and didn’t want to be paid, but we insisted. Once we got to our terminal, we ran from security to the plane, pulling several pieces of luggage. We were delirious and giggled while we took turns pointing out how comical the last 48 hours had been. Our adventure muscles were tested and travel weary, but the thought of missing our friends and colleagues on Gandhi’s birthday was unbearable.
Upon arriving at Gandhi’s Ashram, we were surrounded by the sweet faces of children from a nearby school. Gandhi’s Ashram was packed with several local schools paying homage to the liberator of India. Mike pulled out his camera and within seconds he was surrounded by children. My Dad had just finished speaking and he too was surrounded by a mob of people, rivaling the paparazzi at New York fashion week. We took thousands of pictures with the kids with his camera, my Dad’s camera, and their smartphones. I’m sure there are several selfies we ended up in. With every shot, kids of all ages crowded in, dawning bright smiles. There was such a show of appreciation, adoration, and excitement by these students, we felt like A-list celebrities, rather than humble guests in their beautiful country.
Gandhi led campaigns in support of easing poverty, helping women’s rights, building religious and ethnic harmony, and ending “untouchability.” Aside from these accomplishments, Gandhi was best known for helping Indians become free or achieve Swaraj or self-rule. The “Sevagram Ashram,” which means service village, had a wonderful vibration to it. Gandhi was a lover of soil, food, animals, and life, and is known as the “Father of India.” In celebration of his birthday, we ate a delicious organic, vegetarian meal, prepared by the community that manages his Ashram. We tried so many new dishes! After the first bite, we were intrigued, then excited by the second, and by the third bite, we were convinced that this much good food, might cause us to extend our stay indefinitely! Take a look at some of the beautiful food from this day.
One of my favorite Gandhi quotes: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” -Mahatma Gandhi
Organic Farm Tour
That afternoon, we participated in the first leg of the farm tour. We spent the next 10 hours visiting several organic family farms. The pressing and chaotic energy of the small urban roads gave way to the open highway. The roads here were fully paved, and everyone seemed to adhere to driving on their side of the road. Despite these improvements, the drive through India’s cotton country was long and hot. The air conditioner in our car would cut out, making whoever was in the front passenger seat in charge of banging it every few minutes to make it work again. We also didn’t have seat belts in the rear of the SUV, so we were relieved that the roads were seemly not as dangerous.
We guzzled bottled water, but due to the heat and the humidity, the water seemed to evaporate right out of our mouths. Luckily, we had a great radio which our driver navigated the local airwaves quite well. I loved listening to the musical diversity of Bollywood and Punjabi, while our driver translated some of the lyrics. Each song augmented our 55 miles-per-hour view of India’s rich farmlands, small villages, water buffalo, roaming cows, stray dogs, and exotic foliage.
One of the cotton fields we arrived at had some of the most beautiful cotton yields I had ever seen. We had a moment to capture some discussion about regenerative agriculture with my Dad. We’ll be sharing that video soon on I Am Zuri TV.
Rural Indian Communities
After visiting a few farms, we found ourselves cutting through a small farming village. The houses were close together and were constructed of sheet metal, brick, and concrete slabs. Many of the doors were open and were populated by the farmer’s small children, interested in the convoy of SUVs snaking its way through the rough dirt and mud roads of their community. We stopped to pay tribute to the community cow. Cows are considered sacred in India; therefore the cow’s horns are not removed as they are in the U.S. Many of the cows we saw during the trip had their horns painted, or decorated with jewels. One cow had her horns painted bright pink and it looked like most free and happy animals do…peaceful. I wondered what she would say if I were able to explain to her the poor conditions of the industrial meat and dairy cows here in the U.S.?
Mike walked around with his camera and discovered that not only were these tight-knit farming families welcoming, they too looked like most free and happy farmers do…soulful. There wasn’t a Starbuck’s, Target, juice bar, nail salon, fast food restaurant, or any form of comfort, or rather distraction we enjoy in the states; however, the villagers seemed stronger, happier, more peaceful and connected. We visited a woman who had lost her husband and used Navdanya’s support to reclaim her life. She was taught how to grow her own food and rebuild her family home. The land, the seeds, the farming practices, and the tools were ancient and were handed down through the generations. This village was very memorable for me. Although it was missing the so-called comforts of my home, I envied their simplicity.
Travel tip: Be sure to use the bathroom when one is available. Using random bathrooms when in rural India is NOT an experience I’d recommend. The “ick factor” is worse than any other country I’ve traveled to.
The sun had set, and after a 4-hour drive back from the farm tour, we arrived at the hotel. It was still close to 90 degrees by evening, and it felt like it was more humid than it was when we left that morning. Our bodies were covered in a cake of dust and sweat. We were weary and decided to take an extra long dinner. After stuffing our bellies full of dal, raita, fruit, curried rice, masala, more fruit, and spicy fish, we savored every flavor as we finished our feast with fresh ginger tea. We might have stayed up and sung karaoke with our travel mates in the lobby bar had we not had plans to start the farm tour again early the next morning.
Choosing to Adventure
After the second day of touring rural India, my work for the tour was done. We spent one more night in Indore and then flew back to Delhi the next morning and promptly escaped into our lush hotel. I was able to enjoy some much-needed spa time with a colleague in the infrared sauna, and a soak in the Jacuzzi, while my family took refuge at the salt-water pool. This was the closest thing to what we call in the U.S. preventative care that we experienced so far, and we spent it recalling our near death cab rides, getting mugged by monkeys, eating dinner over the Ganges River, seeing the Himalayan mountains, and feeling like Lady Gaga at Gandhi’s Ashram. You can’t get these experiences unless you choose to adventure.
Our dinner that evening was at one of the nicer restaurants in Delhi, famous for its interesting and delicate cuisine. View the culinary adventure on my Instagram account here. The setting was lovely and we were serenaded by a lounge singer-type that would remind you of a cruise liner. We made some song requests to really get our giggles fix for the night. View some of my giggle fits and song requests here.
The next day was my Dad’s birthday, so we kidnapped him from the farm tour, and spent it exploring the Taj Mahal. By now, driving in India was second nature, and in a strange way, the adventure junky in me looked forward to the rush. In this part of India, we saw more camels and loose chickens than cows wandering the streets. Once at the front gates of the Taj Mahal, we took a camel-drawn cart to the ticket booth. Travelers from all over the world were in line with us, each protecting their cameras and bags from the scam artists who target tourists. In this area, we didn’t see the bright happy faces of children like we did in Sevagram. Instead, we saw small gangs of begging children that our guide instructed us not give money to. Saddened, I closed my eyes and said a silent wish for all of them and visualized them wrapped in love and comforts.
Once through the main gate, the Taj Mahal rested at the end of a lush garden, filled with pools, fountains, birds, monkeys, and tourists. We marveled at the attention to detail that went into each and every marble slab, brick, and tile. Every doorway, every arch, and every wall was adorned in hand-cut marble. Being one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal wasn’t just a tomb; it is an amazing piece of art. From afar, the Taj Mahal stands white against a backdrop of dark green. As you walk closer and closer, its details leap out. You could place your hand on any wall and your fingertips will touch micro cuts where an artist’s hand laid small gemstones to make intricate patterns. The classic chevron pattern perfectly covered the whole structure and will likely be stuck in my mind forever.
After the visit to the Taj Mahal, we went to local artisan shops and purchased some items India is known for like pashmina rugs and marble decor.
Our last half day was spent visiting Delhi Haut, which is an outdoor market filled with vendors, artists, and musicians. There, we stocked up on souvenirs and participated in the local bartering customs. I loved playing with the street musicians and bartering for house slippers and brass deity statues.
What An Adventure!
We were sad to leave India. Although we spent nearly two weeks exploring what India has to offer, we saw a tiny fraction of its diversity, it’s history, and it’s culinary wonders. Alas, our time was up, and on our long journey home, we mapped out the places we didn’t get to visit and wanted to upon our return to India.
When we finally arrived home, our jet lag was waiting for us like a brick wall. My family and I watched the sunrise together for five days and took random naps for the next couple weeks. After we reemerged from our jet lag stupor, Mike downloaded over 1,000 photos to his computer, and from the comfort of our home, we retraced our tour of India. We felt the heat, we tasted the food, and we missed the sweet smiles of its people. We’ll be uploading more photos, videos and highlights sharing them on I I Am Zuri TV soon.
While we loved the feeling of being back at home with all of our material comforts, we missed some of the simplicities we experienced in our travels. The first week home we all became ill with various ailments. I had a sinus infection for 3 weeks that I eventually cured naturally but as I laid in bed recounting our journey I remembered a woman living with her three children in a hut constructed of bricks and cardboard. She stopped and smiled at me when we were stuck in traffic. Her face was dirty; her clothes were soiled; yet her smile was radiant, content even. It was as if she were living comfortably within her reality, which is something most people of means are unable to do. As I lay in my super lush house and my California King bed, one more Gandhi quote floated through my consciousness: “It is health that is the real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” I meditated on this quote and felt more detached from my “things” than ever before. My healing time was necessary and I used the downtime to fill up my cup and regenerate.
Thank You, India
I experienced India. I tasted, and talked, and bartered, learned, and celebrated with its people. India will forever remind me of one’s ability to be positive and excited about living, no matter what! I witnessed India’s exotic wealth, and it’s crushing poverty. India left me with a stronger appreciation and understanding of yoga, meditation, ritual, simplicity, ayurvedic health and wellness, material and lack of it, and the importance of community.
The organic farmers, seed savers, and soil stewards have fueled my existing flame for creating a better food future for us all. We all have the ability to regenerate and shape the kind of life we want to live and pass to our children, let’s choose a healthy one. I thank you India for an adventure we will never forget.
To learn more about regeneration please visit Regeneration Vermont.
In true foodie fashion, I’ve prepared some of my favorite adventure-inspired Indian recipes to share with you! Enjoy!
In true music lover fashion, I’ve created a Spotify playlist featuring my Punjabi and Bollywood favorites.
Spotify note: If you like one of these songs please consider purchasing the song instead of streaming to support the artist and those that made this incredible music. Thank you!