Community Cookery Courses for Good Food Oxford

In January 2019, I started a new job as the Co-ordinator of Good Food Oxford, a network of over 130 food businesses, institutions and organisations in Oxford and Oxfordshire that have committed to making their food more healthy, sustainable and fair.

As part of my work, I get to teach two series of cookery courses this spring, for parents of school-age children and for older men, empowering them to confidently cook from scratch and use more fresh vegetables.

Read more about it on the Good Food Oxford Blog.

New article about the CSA initiative at Navadarshanam, South India

Just a quick note to point you to an article I wrote earlier this year for the two-year anniversary of the Community-Supported Agriculture initiative at Navadarshanam in Bangalore:

https://www.thebetterindia.com/148032/bengaluru-farmer-eat-local-community-supported-agriculture/

The long breath that Navadarshanam Trust has had in setting up and working with the farmers’ and workers’ cooperative has really paid off, transforming the lives of the members in the village and now also helping urban consumer members to lead healthier lives and connect to the origin of their day-to-day sustenance in a meaningful way.

Green Kitchen Hacks: DIY Dishwashing Powder

Autumn… the trees are starting to turn golden, and are shedding their fruits, and shortly afterwards their leaves. This is the perfect time of year for collecting and making your own dishwashing powder!

Wait… dishwashing what….? Now, you may never even have heard of dishwashing powder – I certainly hadn’t for the longest time. Until I lived in India, where it’s quite common to use powders, for instance ash, soapnuts or other natural substances, for washing dishes. And when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense!

When we think of dishwashing detergent we usually think of a liquid that we buy in a plastic bottle. And while there are good natural and biodegradable options now, they still come in plastic, even if it’s recycled or can be refilled in a zero waste store. And on top of that, liquid soaps by definition require some kind of preservative and they are need more energy to transport than more light-weight solid options.

In addition to being zero-plastic and biodegradable, the option I’d like to present to you today has an added benefit: You can pick it up from the ground for free!!

You may not have guessed it, but chestnuts – the regular, inedible horse chestnuts – are high in saponines (the thing that makes soaps soapy, basically), similar to the Indian soapnuts which can be used for hairwashing, laundry or as a dishwashing powder, too.

Please do try this at home!

To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Collect a bunch of chestnuts, wash them, chop them up coarsely and leave them to dry until they become hard and fully dry.
  2. Grind to a fine powder in your (high-power!) blender.

If you want a lovely beige powder, like in the picture, it’s nice to peel off the dark brown crust first. Peeling works better when they are fresh rather than dried. Note that the peeling is a bit time consuming though, so if you can’t be bothered, grinding them whole (and dried) works just as well.

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Horse chestnuts peeled, chopped, dried and ground into fine powder

Btw, you can use this chestnutpowder for laundry, too, although I think you’re supposed to make a tea of it first and then use that. I haven’t tried it yet – if you have, please leave a comment with your experience below!

Happy washing 🙂

Sustainable Travel: A little history of my passion for cycling in photographs

This World Environment Day – 5th June 2018, I set myself the challenge of traveling from Germany to the UK by bike, train, bus and ferry in two days, for only 100 €. For this occasion, I put together some fun pictures reaching all the way from my earliest adventures on my Mum’s handlebar to cycling all around the world in more recent years!

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Even before I learned to cycle myself, I loved sitting in front and letting my Mum do all the work while watching the world zoom by and entertaining everyone with my singing!

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Cleaning my bike back in 1984… 🙂 I guess I always had a thing for blue bikes!

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My brother and me on a family tour, crossing some river

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My dad, brother and me crossing some river on a family cycling tour

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See!?! It’s not my fault that I take ridiculous amounts of luggage on train cum bike trips..! I was brought up that way. 🙂 Btw, that’s a trolley my dad built himself!

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Never let your shoes or trenchcoat deter you from getting on your bike!

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My brother and me riding on a cloudy day

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All set for the weekend tour with luggage, sleeping bag and doll!

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If you look carefully, you can see a little girl on the bike behind the luggage!

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Someone push up that HAT please… honestly! 😀 😀

All photo credits up to here: My parents.

In the late 80s and early 90s, there is a curious gap of family cycling photos… so the next interesting one I could find is way ahead in something like ’96, when I tried a tandem for the first time with my Mum on the North Sea island of Föhr:

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Flat landscapes but strong head winds: Trying a tandem on the North Sea island of Föhr, around 1996!

After that, there is another complete gap in cycling pictures. For most of those years, the bike was just a regular day-to-day means of transport, but not bigger trips or adventures. Until…

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Various adventures cycling in and around Hyderabad, India, with my parents and friends from Hyderabad Bicycling Club.

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On the way from Germany to Sweden in 2015, stopping over in Copenhagen.

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In 2016, setting off from Vimmerby in Sweden about to cycle 400 km through the beautiful south of Sweden. While there is not much cycling specific infrastructure, the many forest trails and smaller roads with very little traffic make it an ideal place for long distance cycling. Added benefits: many lakes to jump into, loads of berries and fruit to forage, free camping pretty much anywhere, and free toilets even in remote forests!

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Summer 2017 in Amsterdam, on the way from Germany to the UK via bike & ferry. Cycling in Holland is really something else – such great cycling infrastructure, and people’s attitude towards cyclists is so accepting and friendly. I really looking forward to the short but beautiful stretch from Den Haag to the Hook van Holland that I’m planning to cycle again this year.

This World Environment Day – 5th June 2018, I set myself the challenge of traveling from Germany to the UK by bike, train, bus and ferry in two days, for only 100 €. My goal with this trip is to show how much fun affordable & environmentally responsible travel in Europe can be.

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The route I’m planning to do this 5th & 6th June 2018, by bicycle, train, bus & ferry.

Sustainable Travel: Germany to UK on World Environment Day

This World Environment Day – 5th June 2018 – I’ll demonstrate how to get from the south of Germany to London in a fun, affordable and eco-friendly way!

My goal with this trip is to show how much fun affordable & environmentally responsible travel in Europe can be.

Curious how my passion for cycling began? Let’s take a look down memory lane in this photographic history!

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Summer 2017 in Amsterdam, on the way from Germany to the UK via bike & ferry. Cycling in Holland is really something else – such great cycling infrastructure, and people’s attitude towards cyclists is so accepting and friendly. I really looking forward to the short but beautiful stretch from Den Haag to the Hook van Holland that I’m planning to cycle again this year.

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The route I’m planning to do this 5th & 6th June 2018, by cycling, train, but & ferry. Mind you, in only two days – so no, the bulk of this will not be covered by cycling! Although if I had the time just now, it would sure be fun to do that…!

DAY 1: June 5, 8:20 am

Happy World Environment Day, everyone!

This morning started off in a rush, as usual when seeing off for a long journey and with to much luggage… But I made it, all packed and ready to roll!!

Recognize this garage from the first picture above where I was sitting in my Mum’s bike’s kids seat…?

Despite the rush and luggage, I made the first few kilometres downhill to Bietigheim train station safely, and am now enjoying a sunny train ride to the first stop, Karlsruhe, where I’ll have to change trains from a regional train to a faster IC to Frankfurt.

DAY 1: JUNE 5, 9:05 AM

Enjoying a smooth ride on the IC train. They’re older and slower than the ICE – Inter-City-Express trains, but they’re also cheaper and have dedicated bike storage coaches.

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Changing from the train into a Flixbus. It’s a little scary to trust a random coach driver to put your bike on the back of a coach and race across Europe for a few hundred kilometers…

Btw, I’m not a fan of the recent explosion of long-distance discount coach services across Europe. They’re less comfortable, and more importantly cause more emissions and more roads to be built. An ecologically sound transport policy would not allow them to be cheaper than the railway – but in my case I made this concession to the cost of my trip, and the ease of transporting the bike all the way to Den Haag without having to change trains or coaches.

DAY 1: JUNE 5, 13:00 PM

Time for my health-geek packed lunch of veggies in wild herb chutney (in a reused soy joghurt jar) and home-made chocolate superfood laddus!

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The coach ride continues along the flat nederlandse highways, and I must admit I’m getting rather bored of this…! I’d much rather be on the bike on such a lovely sunny day than in a freezing airconditioned coach! Well, at least the bike still seems fine in the back, as I confirm at every stop the coach takes 😀

Old tyres reused as planters for urban flower beds.


Cool urban upcycled permaculture traffic islands, I think this was in Düsseldorf

Graffiti painted on the wall of a brick house.


Street art on a house in Holland along the way

DAY 1: JUNE 5, 20:00 PM

Finally, after a long coach ride, arrived in Den Haag and ready to cycle the last few kilometres to my hosts’ house! Where I’m now going to call it a day for today, hopefully to continue the next stage tomorrow morning well rested.

DAY 2: JUNE 6, 08:00 AM

After a refreshing night’s sleep and a wholesome millet porridge, I’m all set for an early morning with a tour around Den Haag with my lovely hosts, dropping off their kids at the daycare and school! What a privilege to get a cycling tour with such experts as my hosts, who are in fact the authors of a very useful & fun book about cycle touring!

Me showing thumbs up with bike and garden in the background.

DAY 2: JUNE 6, 09:00 AM

Starting the ride through the dunes from Den Haag to the ferry port at Hook van Holland! It’s not far at all, but the sun which is already quite strong at this time of day and the wind make it quite strenuous. Also really beautiful though!

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DAY 2: JUNE 6, 13:00 PM

Stowing the bike safely in the belly of the ferry and settling in at the lounge with my laptop.

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Not the worst view for a day in the office…!

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DAY 2: JUNE 6, 20:00 PM (BST)

Disembarking from the ferry at Harwich International Port with two fellow cyclists was exciting but hectic, so not the right time to take pictures… Btw, if you ever find yourself going that way, go left towards the train station just after you come out after immigration, right through the gates with all the red No Entry signs, don’t go straight and don’t expect any sign pointing to the railway station!

Now it’s just one more stop to go to my destination, London!

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DAY 2: JUNE 6, 22:00 PM (BST)

After a lovely sunset train ride into London, my friend Brook picked me up at Stratford station for two-hour ride through London. If we had known it would take that long we probably would have taken public transport…. The lesson here is: If google maps gives you a time estimate, either double it or ignore it and go with your own hunch of what the distance translates to! I learned this lesson before, and maybe this time I’ll finally remember it..!

Of course we forgot to take a picture then and there at the station, so this is us walking across tower bridge:

Overall, I must say the journey went extremely smooth and was very enjoyable, with nice encounters and conversations for instance with the other cyclists who disembarked from the ferry together with me. Every time I look at the bike with all that luggage I still get a fright, but when I’m on it and even putting it into trains it’s all surprisingly manageable.

Btw, I just want to point out again that this was not a cycling trip in the true sense – the whole idea was to get to the UK with my bike, but I did it in two days only, so obviously the bulk of the distance was covered by trains, bus and ferry.  Nevertheless, the bike is invaluable for those last-mile stretches like to and from stations, and the ride through the dunes from Den Haag to the ferry at Hook van Holland is something not to be missed when visiting Holland for sure.

So don’t hesitate if you’re thinking of doing a travel adventure with your bike in tow – all it takes it the willingness to ride out your front door, and the rest will sort itself out as you go along!

Keep riding 🙂

***

And what were you doing on June 5th, or any other day, to minimise your environmental impact? Leave a comment below!

OMG – What Am I Gonna Wear…?! Or how to dress for cultural and physical comfort while travelling in India

You may not be much of a fashionista in your day-to-day life… but when packing for your first ever trip to India, the question is bound to come up and leave you scratching your head in confusion! This is probably more true for women, so be warned that most of my below observations may be more relevant to those identifying as women.

If you’re planning a trip to India, people may already have told you about how to dress appropriately. However, some of this well-meaning advice seems counterintuitive when you look at the climate charts. So I’m going to look into two aspects of this: the much talked-about cultural notions of what’s appropriate, including how you might personally feel about those, as well as the sometimes neglected question of what’s appropriate for a particular climate.

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Dressing for physical comfort

Let’s first talk about the question of climate, which is of course equally relevant for all genders. Chances are that if you’re from a temperate climate and haven’t lived in the tropics or subtropics before, your instinct tells you to wear less the hotter it gets. And it’s true that while sitting in the breezy shade on a hot day, bare skin feels cool and liberating. At the same time, long and loose clothing becomes vital the moment you’re exposed to strong sunlight. You’ve probably noticed how traditional clothing styles from the Western Sahara to the Middle East emphasize full cover; something that is counterintuitive to the sun-craving central European, but very easily understood once you spent some time exposed to the South Indian mid-day sun in a city devoid of trees.

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On the opposite bank of the Yamuna river behind the Taj Mahal in Agra, wearing one of my most comfortable kurtas.

Whether you’ll want your jeans depends on the time of year and the places you’re going to visit. In winter up in the mountains of the Himalayas or the Western Ghats, or even in Hyderabad where winter nights drop to 15°C, a pair of jeans can come in handy if you’re going to be outdoors after dark or in air-conditioned environments a lot. At night, jeans also have the advantage that mosquitoes don’t bite through them easily.

Dressing for cultural comfort

The other aspect of comfort is what makes you feel comfortable in a specific cultural context. Talking about cultural appropriateness, the question gets a lot more nuanced, and more gender specific. For instance, people say that it’s best to keep your shoulders and legs covered in India, especially for women. But I found that these rules depend strongly on the situational and specific cultural context. For instance, if you are walking around in Bandra in Bombay, go to a fancy club or pub, or are at a friend’s place, chances are you’ll be perfectly comfortable in whatever you would normally wear back home in summer. However, if you’re going sightseeing or shopping in Hyderabad’s old city centre you’ll definitely want something significantly less revealing.

Part of the comfort I’m talking about is simply being stared at; depending on where you are, you might already draw attention simply by looking like a foreigner. You may not want to add to that discomfort by wearing something that people find odd at best, and vulgar at worst. This includes both stares from men that might make you feel uncomfortable or even harassed, as well as stares from local women who may disapprove, thus increasing the perceived distance between them and you.

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An Indian family visiting Golconda Fort in Hyderabad. Photography: Nina Osswald

The other part is the image you create in people’s heads about foreigners. Whether we like it or not, to some extent we’re always ambassadors of our own culture when visiting new places, especially vis-a-vis communities of people that have not had the opportunity to interact much with people from other cultural backgrounds. It’s one thing hanging out with educated, well-travelled Indian friends, and an entirely different thing visiting rural areas or a place of worship. It’s up to our responsibility as travellers to be sensitive to the differences and pick up nuances of context before causing offence, or making ourselves ridiculous. If you want to dress appropriately for the context and occasion, there won’t be a way around developing a sense for what the context calls for. Different places, different parts of the same city, and different times of day and occasions call for vastly different styles and levels of modesty in dress.

Practical packing suggestions

So what does all that mean on a practical level? What am I actually gonna wear?? Here are some basic rules for travel packing:

  1. Pack lightly: Bring only what you really need, and what you enjoy wearing and are therefore likely to wear a lot.
  2. Leave some space: In fact, pack somewhat less than what you actually need, because you’ll definitely want to pick up some lovely Indian clothes along the way. The less you carry, the more space you’ll have for those new things 🙂
  3. Perfect matching: Both from a cultural and practical perspective, it’s best to be equipped with flexibly matchable sets of clothes for different contexts and occasions; consider this for the things you bring as well as the ones you buy along the way.

A practical suggestion: Have one or two long (below the bum), modest and loose-fitting outfits for outside in the sun, but a sleeveless top underneath so when you go inside, for instance at a friend’s place where you are at ease, you can take off the long sleeves. Note that by sleeveless I don’t mean the very revealing spaghetti type, but something broader, not too tight. In less conservative environments, sleeveless tops are fine to wear outside, and you will in fact find lovely sleeveless or mini-sleeve kurtas in many handloom garment shops. Long sleeves are not culturally necessary at all, but I find them crucial to protect the lower arms from the sun, especially when walking or cycling around a lot. Sun-screen gets you only so far especially in mid-day. Unfortunately, it’s surprisingly hard to find women’s kurtas that are full sleeve rather than 3/4; so I have a few of those from home, got some stitched, and one of them is actually a boy’s size kurta from daaram (it’s not your typical feminine-style kurta but works just fine for me).

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Customs may indeed be a little less strict at the beach, a fact that this tourist in a South Indian fishing villlage seems to be taking full advantage of. Photography: Nina Osswald

While in Bombay, I often wore below-the-knee skirts and sleeveless tops walking around in daytime in Bandra. I did the same thing only once in Hyderabad, and not even in a particularly conservative neighbourhood, but it felt quite awkward. I once went to a nightclub at a five star hotel in Hyderabad, and the two couchsurfing travellers who were with us wore what they would normally wear in the street – loose salwar pants and a long kurta. They were hands down the most prudishly dressed people in the whole club.

The difference is of course that the Indian women you see in daytime on the bus are not the same girls you see in a five-star hotel club. As travellers, we don’t just travel to India, we easily travel between worlds. Eating at street corner tiffin places, commuting by bus and walking in daytime but visiting a club at night. Ask the average girl in that nightclub whether she ever took a bus; or ask the average girl on the bus whether she has heard of that club, and you’ll find out what I mean. For me, both the bus and the five-star were just part of a new experience; for many locals, they are worlds apart. This is of course not to say that it works in such a binary way for all Indians; but these are observable cultural tendencies.

So for us as travellers, there will always be a conflict between wanting to adapt to the local culture and wanting to rebel against regressive and socially oppressive norms. Like it or not, as a visitor from a culture about which many of the people you meet in the streets will know little other than stereotypes, it’s best to not reinforce those stereotypes. For me, it has become less about conforming to anyone’s rules than to be accepted and respected by people from a very different cultural background. I have in fact found it an important learning to let go of the notion that I always have to rebel against cultural norms just because they are there – up to a certain point. Where that point is has to be a highly personal decision for each of us. The ad in the below picture shows that for many, even admitting to the fact that we are mammals might constitute a daily act of rebellion…

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“No show-through” bra ad in Bangalore. Photography: Nina Osswald

A shawl or dupatta is extremely handy for wearing when outside and taking off when you get hot or are in a more relaxed place. And it’s indispensable for another practical problem you’ll be faced with: severe cold. I’m talking, of course, about the obsession with air-conditioning and the inability to adjust the temperature to a comfortable level instead of going full-blast. From taxis to offices, malls and airports, you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll wish you had a warm jumper and shawl. The fashion among Indian women for knitted (rather than woven) churidars – unbearably hot outside in day-time – becomes understandable once you’re forced to spend some time in one of these human-made people fridges.

Even when there is no AC, wind and drafts have a positive cultural connotation in India, so you’ll often find yourself exposed to fans turned up to extreme levels, so having a shawl handy can save you at least from some of the draft, if not the noise. Shawls are among those things you’d better not bring from home though, because you’ll be so tempted to buy more of them than you’ll ever need anyway…!

One thing that is generally looked down upon is scruffiness. So depending on how much punk or hippie you normally are, you might want to keep yourself a little more well-groomed, and your clothes a little cleaner and less worn-out than you might be comfortable with at home. This is again true regardless of gender, even as a man you will be more respected if you take some care to look decent.

Of course, sometimes you just get stared at, no matter what you’re wearing…

As far as your safety is concerned, I very much doubt that the way you dress will have much to do with it. A reassuring and sad fact is that in India, like in most other countries, most violence against women happens in the home; and to those of underprivileged backgrounds. That is not to say that you should be reckless. It’s not advisable, whatever your attire, to walk around alone at night in an unfamiliar area or take a taxi to a remote place on your own. But as a traveller, you’re clearly not anywhere near belonging to the most vulnerable groups of women in India. So for you as a traveller, it is generally that much easier to get away with breaching local dress customs without much risk for your personal safety. Keep that in mind before looking down on local women anywhere in the world for dressing modestly or prudently. You have to make your own choices along the continuum between supporting local women in solidarity by adapting to local styles, or gently bringing in new ideas by sticking to your own cultural styles. Keep in mind however, how differently it may come across if you challenge social norms in your own society as compared to one where you are perceived only as a passing visitor.

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Who rules the world? Sad example of male appropriation of public space at a bus stop in Hyderabad. Photography: Nina Osswald

Shopping for sustainable clothing in India

The most iconic and traditional piece of Indian clothing is perhaps the sari. It must certainly be the largest…! I much hope for you that you’ll get invited to a wedding or some other important function, so you’ll have an occasion to get yourself a beautiful, elegant handloom sari. Of course you could wear one any day, anywhere, but without much practice you may not find it very practical on a daily basis. Speaking of practicality, it’s interesting to note that the sari was originally intended to be a one-piece unstitched woven garment, worn without blouses or petticoats.

Generally, you will want your clothing for daytime to be woven rather than knitted, as this is much cooler on the skin. It’s a good thing that India has so many beautiful and sustainable handloom fabrics! Since you may not want to support GMO cotton farmers, large mills and garment corporations and chemical dye manufacturers, here are a few examples of sustainable clothing brands and fabric makers to guide you in your shopping spree for your new ethnic style:

malhka logo.  daram   Responsive image

Some of these styles, like the more floral Malkha saris, took me a bit of getting used to, as they may not be what you typically think of in terms of Indian clothing – no loud colours, silver or gold threaded borders, elephant and paisley prints, and so on. But they really grew on me, and the fact that these fabrics have a story behind them (rather than a factory and a sweatshop) make them all the more lovable!

So good luck with your travel shopping, and post your personal experiences with dressing and travelling in India below!

 

Further Reading

http://theladiesfinger.com for instance this article about Travelling Alone in India or this video about Women’s Rights in India

http://www.thealternative.in/lifestyle/survey-solo-travel-or-nothing-it-is-say-women/

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/priya-shetty/india-travel-women_b_6767514.html

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Travelling-solo-a-hit-among-women/articleshow/46489073.cms

https://breathedreamgo.com/my-top-tips-for-women-travelling-in-india/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/india-female-tourists-skirts-safety-advice

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Feminist wall paintings in Bangalore. Photography: Nina Osswald

Curious About Permaculture? Some pointers on where to learn more

If you’ve been wondering what exactly permaculture is actually about, you’re not alone. So here are some introductory explanations to give you a better idea, and some pointers to get you started if you’re interested in learning more about permaculture design!

Permaculture is way of thinking and an approach to designing regnerative systems. It is not really — as people sometimes assume — an organic farming technique. While permaculture does place great value on growing food locally and with natural, organic, non-chemical and sustainable methods, permaculture is about a lot more than just growing food.

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The term permaculture is a fusion of permanent + culture. Find out more about the history of permaculture, and why Bill Mollison thought it’s “a revolution disguised as gardening” in this article.

Permaculture is a way of designing systems — be it a farm, garden, company campus, housing project, an organization or a project — in such a way that they become not merely “sustainable” but regenerative. That means they create and replenish resources rather than just maintaining the resource base. A truly regenerative system can run forever and actually add value to its environment and resource base rather than eroding it, as most of our present-day systems (including many that are running under the label of “sustainable development”) do.

The permaculture design process is rooted in a strong ethical foundation.  The three permaculture ethics give the permaculture design process a clear direction and guideline: care for the earth, care for people, and fair share for all beings.

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This poster by Holmgren Design Services illustrates the ethics and principles which are followed by permaculturists (or “permies”) in the design process. Download here in various languages.

 

In its holistic and interdisciplinary approach, the study of permaculture reminds me a lot of my studies of Geography at uni. Both essentially aim to look at phenomena in the world from a holistic, systems-oriented perspective. We cannot understand today’s world and its challenges fully without integrating an ecological perspective with social, economical and political analysis.

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A quote by Bill Mollison, one of the founders of the permaculture movement.

In a highly entertaining one-hour lecture, Permaculture Professor Toby Hemenway argues convincingly “Why permaculture can save humanity and the earth, but not civilization”. In addition to giving a good introductory overview of what permaculture is about, he explains convincingly why an disproportionate number of permaculturists are pagans and why the contemporary chemical-industrial agriculture system encourages the belief in sky-gods. Very intriguing!

 

If all of this sounds intriguing and useful to you, you’ll find a plethora of great videos, articles, online resources, books and permaculture design manuals online. Some renowned permaculture teachers and practitioners whom you could search for include Bill Mollison, Dave Holmgren, Toby Hemenway, Looby McNamarra and many more. Personally, I found The Vegan Book of Permaculture by Graham Burnett a comprehensive and accessible introduction for a anyone fairly new to permaculture thinking. I also like that it takes an explicitly vegan angle, choosing to extend the permaculture ethics of people care and fair share to all animals including the non-human ones.

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Graham Burnett: The Vegan Book of Permaculture

Another concise overview is offered by The Essence of Permaculture by David Holmgren which is available for download here. If you would like to go deeper into the permaculture design process, the Resilio Studio Design Primer is a concise document laying out the permaculture design process framework. It is available for free download.

In addition to permaculture-specific textbooks, I highly recommend the following two foundational texts that are at the core of permaculture thinking and natual farming. There are many more of course, so I hope you’ll excuse me for selecting these two in particular as I find them indispensable for anyone wanting to make more sense of our world.

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Masanobu Fukuoka: The One-Straw Revolution

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Donella Meadows: Thinking in Systems

Once you learned a few basics and are convinced that your life and anything you will design in the future — be it a garden, a project, an organization or a business — would benefit from permaculture thinking and design, the next step could be to take a course. There are short introduction to permaculture courses which are a good place to start and get to know teachers and likeminded people. If you want to go deeper, consider attending a Permaculture Design Certificate Course (PDC) which has an internationally standardized 72-hour curriculum and will teach you all the basics permaculture including a practical group design exercise.

There are many good places and teachers to learn permaculture from, so do some research first about places, teachers and costs to find the right fit for you. A good place to start your research is to look up a permaculture association or network in your area, for instance the Permaculture Association UK, or Permaculture India Network Facebook group in India. There are also many local and regional groups on social media which allow you to connect with likeminded people and find out about courses, events and volunteering opportunitities.

Free online intro to permaculture course taught by Andrew Millison at Oregon State University, starting this April 23, 2018: Sign up here for free!

Or if you’re not ready to take a course, volunteering on permaculture and organic farms in exchange for food and stay is a great way to learn from pracititioners. Check out the global organic farming volunteering network wwoof which comprises many interesting permaculture farms and projects across the world.

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I took my own PDC in Darjeeling in 2015 with Rico Zook and organized a large-scale PDC at the International Permaculture Convergence IPC India 2017. Feel free to get in touch anytime with your questions and if you would like more reading or course recommendations!

Hyderabad: A Concise Visitors’ Guide. Written for the responsible and eco-conscious traveller

By Nina Osswald

This short guide is my personal view of things that might be worth knowing and doing on your visit to this crazy, beautiful city. It includes where to buy organic food and handloom garments, and some of the less touristy things to do for leisure. It iss based on my experience of approximately five years of living in Hyderabad between 2009 and 2016. Things change fast so bear with me if some info is outdated, and other points missing. For usual travel advice, consult a travel guidebook and the internet.

Before you go on reading, I suggest you get in the mood with this lovely 3-minute video.

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Samosa vendor in the old city of Hyderabad. Photography: Nina Osswald

1. Getting Around

Buses & local trains

The best way to get into town from the airport is the Pushpak airport liner shuttle bus service. It has several lines that go at regular intervals and are cheaper than a taxi.

Generally, the most reliable and ecologically sound way for getting around outside of rush hours is by bus. Of course, this might change soon because a new metro rail has been in the making in Hyderabad, which was supposed to be inaugurated in 2017. I’m not sure if it’s operational yet, but it should make a big difference to the speed and convenience of getting around.

Until then, although most bus routes don’t have air-conditioned services, you’re still more likely to have a comfortable, safer ride on a bus than in an auto-rickshaw. I always liked buses because of their predictability (not necessarily the arrival times… but at least you know where they go, and they don’t take you round in circles with the meter running!), because you’re somewhat higher above the pollution than in an auto, and often you’ll even get a seat, at least outside of rush hours. You can usually recognize a bus stop by a crowd of waiting people; don’t be fooled by the bus shelters, these do not necessarily mean that a bus will ever stop there, unless you see people waiting and, well, buses stopping. (This oddity seems to me to have come about because the bus stop planners did not observe where people are actually wanting to get on and off, so the bus drivers adapted and invented their own stops.)

If you don’t have a clue about the bus numbers, don’t worry: Just ask people at the bus stop for your destination and someone will put you on the right bus. Make sure you know how to pronounce your destination, and bring some patience, as bus schedules vary from every few minutes to less than hourly depending on the route. If you’d like to get an idea of the bus line numbers beforehand, try this useful list.

For certain routes, the local MMTS trains are great, but the network is sadly limited to a few parts of the city, and if you’re not near a station, it might not be worth the effort going there. Taking buses and trains usually involves a fair bit of last-mile distance left to cover. If you have time, walking works well especially in times with less traffic, and if you have a pollution mask and good sun protection (umbrelllas are ideal). If you’re in a rush, you’ll most likely try to catch an autorickshaw from the station or bus stop.

Autos (short for auto-rickshaws)

In Hyderabad, autowalas – the people driving the autos – generally fall into one of three categories:

  1. a) They can’t be bothered to go where you’re going, so either just shake their head or quote a ridiculous price when you tell them your destination. Advice: Don’t agree to ridiculous prices unless you’re absolutely desperate. You’ll usually have better luck flagging down a driving auto than with the ones lurking on street corners till a big catch lands right in their lap.
  2. b) They quote a high price but with a little (or a lot) of perseverance and an idea of what would be a reasonable fare (ask a few locals when you arrive, and check the official auto fare on this website) you can bring it down. What worked well for me is to just laugh, tell him the fare I thought appropriate, and walk off to flag down the next auto; either the last guy won’t care and drive off, or he’ll quickly adjust his quote and you agree. If you had an honest driver, do tip well (anywhere between 5-50 Rs. depending on the distance).
  3. c) They readily (sometimes suspiciously readily) agree to use the meter because they have tampered with it and it will show a multiple of the actual distance and rate. You might notice that too late to do anything about it, so if you go by the meter try to monitor the distance with your GPS running and stop the driver if it seems fishy.

The exception to these three are the occasional honest autowalas, who of course do exist, as well as the shared autos, which go along fixed routes usually on the big main roads, often in parallel to buses but more frequently and faster. They are very affordable and start from 5 Rs for a short ride.

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Auto-rickshaws lined up in front of a church in Abids, the old commercial centre of Hyderabad. Photography: Nina Osswald

Taxis

Even though the streets of urban India are already sufficiently blocked and polluted, and you’ll probably not want to add any more to it, sometimes cabs are simply the fastest, easiest and most comfortable way of getting somewhere. Since the advent of taxi apps like Uber and Ola, taxis are at times – though not always – even cheaper than autos, and they save you the bargaining. Along with the growing popularity of these services, the number of newbie drivers has also increased, and many of them are migrants who are as unfamiliar with the city as you are. So be patient, understanding, friendly and prepared: Be sure where you’re going and have your local landmarks (including their accurate pronunciation!) and your GPS and (offline) maps ready. If you don’t know how to pronounce the place you’re going, write it down on a piece of paper along with any well-known landmarks beforehand.

Rush hours

Whether you’re travelling on foot, by bus, road or train: Try to avoid the rush hours. They can get intense, both on the road and inside public transport. True story: Imagine getting on a bus at 4:45 pm for a half-hour ride. By 5 pm so many people will flock into the bus you’ll have no chance getting out of that bus at 5:15, at least not until the end of the line….! Rush hours do change over time, and I suppose they tend to worsen with growing numbers of people and vehicles, so best to check with locals what their current recommendations are. My experience before 2016 was that the best times for getting anywhere are before 8 am (and somewhat later on Sundays), and after 10 or 11 pm. There used to be a quieter time between 11 am and 4 pm until a few years ago, but that might have changed these days. Of course it also depends on which part of the city you’re looking at.

2. Leisure

Hyderabad has many beautiful parks: KBR Park, Sanjeevaiah Park, Indira Park to name just a few of the bigger ones. There are also some nice-ish green patches along Necklace Road by lake Husainsagar. If you fancy a bike ride along Husainsagar Lake in the early morning (before sunrise is a good time to start!), you can actually rent one for an hour or so at the Hyderabad Cycling Club’s bike station at Sanjevaiah Park MTR station.

If you’re keen to get out a bit further and see some of the amazing natural heritage of the region, try the rock walks organized by the Society to Save Rocks, whose mission it is to preserve the unique granite boulder landscapes of the Deccan Plateau from rampant construction. Or check out one of the tours and treks with Great Hyderabad Adventure Club (GHAC).

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Granite boulders – Hyderabad’s natural heritage – versus high-rises. Photography: Jayesh Bagda

Some nice places to hang out and get good food are located in the Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills area. Terrassen Café serves vegan food, bakery items and drinks, and Sage Organics Farm Restaurant (formerly Hyderabad Goes Green) makes organic cheese in-house. Don’t miss a visit to Lamakaan, an open cultural space and a gem of an address for hanging out, meeting people, attending cultural events as well as food (not organic, but very affordable). The German cultural centre Goethezentrum  Hyderabad, located opposite Terrassen Café, organizes many interesting events and exhibitions.

If you fancy a sightseeing tour, the heritage walks organized by Tourism Department are well worth doing and will you show you some of the heritage gems of the old city. Other than that, the usual suspects for sightseeing are Golconda Fort, Qtub Shahi Tombs, Charminar, Chowmahalla Palace, Paigah Tombs, and a little outside of town the Moula Ali Durga.

For a more alternative view of the city, visit the Hyderabad Urban Lab website and check out their projects.

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Visitors to Golconda Fort, one of the heritage sites of the city. Photography: Nina Osswald

 3. Things to buy

Things to bring

While there are many things that are cheaper bought in India, there are a few others that you’d really better bring along on your trip. A crucial one is earplugs, and not just for night time but also for traffic. I was never able to find them in India even in bigger pharmacies, so make sure you bring as many as you think you might need on your trip.

You’ll also have a hard time finding good organic chocolate (which therefore makes for a nice gift, and very dark chocolate stays well even in hot weather).

Other things, like culturally and climatically appropriate clothing, natural cosmetics, natural as well as chemical mosquito repellents and most medicines are just as available but cheaper to buy once you’re in India.

Natural Products & Souvenirs

A great place for natural products including cosmetics, incense, handicrafts, souvenirs and more is the shop at Sage Organics (cf. restaurants section above). Here’s a very useful list of cruelty-free cosmetics companies in India: Part 1 and Part 2. Carefully check the details though because not all of them are strictly natural cosmetics!  A really nice brand with traditional and sustainable products such as hairwashing powder and many more is Nirvaahaa. Don’t get fooled by the many companies that try to lure you with words such as Herbals, Ayurvedic, Pure and the like – even the term Natural is not protected, so check the ingredients and ideally certification.

For handicrafts and souvenirs, you can head to the Lepakshi stores (for instance the one in Abids), the large Kalanjali store near Hyderabad Public Gardens, or – if you don’t mind paying a bit of a tourist premium – to the Shilparamam exhibition in Hitec City. In case you’re around in January, the Numaish expo is also a good place to buy souvenirs (but watch your mobile and wallet!).

Outdoor & survival gear

If you’re spending any time in the city outside of air-conditioned cars, you’ll definitely want a pollution mask, especially if you walk or cycle anywhere. You can buy good pollution masks in India, but depending on the make you might not save much. Many cyclists like the Totobobo masks, which you can order online if you’re lucky from BOTS Bangalore. An affordable and comfortable alternative to the slightly pricey Totobobo is the Respra; you can’t change the filter though, so the lifespan is limited, but it works great for shorter visits.

For outdoor gear, I found options a bit limited, and your best bet is probably either the smaller Wildcraft shops (for instance in GVK One mall) or the giant Decathlon stores, located a little outside of town (or online shop).

Bookstores & stationary

There are several regular book stores in Hyderabad, but if you’re interested in alternative subjects you’ll want to visit Earthcare Bookstore (based in Calcutta) and Other India Bookstore (based in Mapusa, Goa). Both have online stores and ship books across India. If you’re interested in children’s books, you’ll love Manchi Pustakam in Tarnaka, though their books are predominantly in Telugu. Some of the better stocked regular bookstores are Himalaya Bookworld in Punjagutta (also stocks pretty notebooks that make nice souvenirs) and Walden bookstore in Begumpet/ Greenlands. The smaller shops in General Bazaar in Secunderabad are great for affordable stationary.

Garments & Fabric

Malkha, dāram and Khadi Ecobasket are two addresses not to be missed for locally made handloom cotton products. While buying fabric may not be ideal for a traveller who neither has a local tailor nor the patience to wash the fabrics multiple times first for them to be at their softest, a nice natural-dye handloom fabric is a great souvenir if you know people at home who are into sewing. The organic bazaars (see next section) also have stalls with beautiful handloom fabrics, and there is an occasional handloom bazaar called Chenetha Santha in Ameerpet.

Khadi is the term for handspun and handwoven fabrics; however the bulk of what you will find in “khadi shops” these days is not handmade at all. So if you’re wanting to buy real khadi it’s best to find a local expert to take you shopping, or you might well end up with a beautiful, but entirely machine made “khadi”. (Check out this interesting article if you’d like to know more about the crisis the handloom industry in India. And a bit more about Malkha here.) A quick online search will also give you Indian brands that make organic and fair-trade garments, such as No Nasties, Tula and many more.

Like in every city in India, you’ll find several Fabindia stores of course, and while they have nice and pricey clothes, don’t imagine that all their products are necessarily organic, natural dye or even handloom. For conventional (i.e. not handloom, natural dye or organic) clothing, try the market areas in Secunderabad (General Bazaar) and Abids, among others.

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Naturally died yarn. Photography: Nina Osswald

4. Organic food & markets

There are quite a few exciting organic food community and retailing initiatives in Hyderabad that organize organic bazaars on a regular basis. If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, be sure to visit the organic bazaar at Lamakaan, an open community space in Banjara Hills that also hosts many other exciting cultural events, apart from being a friendly space to hangout anytime (except on Mondays when it’s closed). Equally worth visiting are the Good Seeds organic bazaars in Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills. And if you’re on the Secunderabad side of town, check out Our Sacred Space which also has a Sunday organic bazaar called Adivaram Anagadi. These organic bazaars are great for getting your groceries, fruit and veg as well as natural cosmetics, eco-cleaners, handloom garments and other assorted eco-wares. They are also where locals interested in a sustainable lifestyle meet to enjoy an organic snack under a tree.

The Sage Organics restaurant (mentioned in the Leisure section above) is well worth a visit for organic food as well as its attached organic store. They also sell the beautiful kambha clay composters, which may be a little bulky as souvenirs, but are worth checking out if composting is your thing. For more organic food options, check out this map of organic retailers, delivery services, restaurants, markets and farms.

Hyderabad is a dynamic modern city with a rich historical past that are visible everywhere and often in contrast. An informed and focused investigation of its neighbourhoods, communities and businesses is an experience that can be challenging but is equally rewarding and enriching. Chalo – let’s go exploring!

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Sunset view of the south of Hyderabad, seen from Banjara Hills. Photography: Nina Osswald