Our next stop in Maharashtra was the Farm of Happiness, an organic farm on the hills, in a little village called phungus (not pronounced fungus as I originally thought but fun-goose), in the Ratnagiri district.
We had no phone signal since we entered Harihareshwar the previous day, which meant we had no internet, so no google maps. This was the new age version of being in the dark ages. We had checked a yellowing map pinned up at the MTDC resort, but it was an outdated version which didn’t have any of the new roads. We pored over it for a good 15 minutes and decided to ride to a fairly large town called Dapoli. We were sure to get signal there and could find our way to the NH66 and then to Ratnagiri.
To our utmost delight we had to begin our journey with a ferry to get out of Harihareshwar, and it was just as enjoyable as the first time. This time we didn’t cross the ocean, but the mouth of the river Savitri, with the ocean to one side and the mountains to the others. The water lapped at the barge noisily but rhythmically and in what seemed like too short a ride we were deposited gracefully on the other side at Bankot.Once we got off at Bankot, we realised just how spoilt we were by google maps, we had no idea which way to turn. Luckily the Other can tell the time and the directions with the position of the sun, thanks to his years wandering in searching of the Indian wolf. So we decided to make hay while the sun shines and ride south along the coast, and hop on ferries where there was no road till we got signal and then ride east to Dapoli or perhaps even reach Ratnagiri directly.
Full of optimism we rode from Bankot through a picturesque Muslim fishing village on a hill overlooking the blue ocean. We saw men wearing lungis, and it felt like we were heading south, it felt like we were heading home.
We climbed down the hill and bang ! – were on the fourth most scenic road on this trip. It was a bumpy almost mud road with a thin white beach on the right and towering mountains on the left. You could feel the sea spray on your face , while you were shaded by the mountains. There was not a soul for miles, there was nothing except the sound of the crashing waves and buttercup. If you are in a gang it is the perfect place to spend the day before catching the ferry back to Harihareshwar, but travelling as a couple often means we cannot tarry away from the bike, even when there is so much blinding beauty.
This road leads to and ends at the village of Velas, a beautiful beachside hamlet at the tip of a protruding landmass. We were however told that there was no ferry service here and there was nowhere to go except back.
On the bright side we got to ride back on the lovely beachside road all the way back to Bankot. As our attempts at routing ourselves using the cardinal directions had failed we decided to take the other old fashioned method – ask people for directions to Dapoli.
In this region the people are very friendly and helpful but no one speaks any Hindi, leave alone English. We resorted to just saying Dapoli with a question in our voice and they would then start giving us animated directions in Marathi. Since I know a little Hindi as compared to the Other who’s vocabulary is limited to aage, peeche and the lyrics of Sheela ki jawani I would try to make sense of their words while he tried to make sense of their actions. We would also nod along, bobbing up and down in our giant helmets so as not to offend them.
We rode by the ocean for a while and then climbed up and down mountains and watched the ocean recede behind us. The coast gave through to tiny villages under coconut trees, where women wore the traditional Maharastrian short pant sarees and carried large baskets on their heads to bigger villages and agricultural fields and then finally 3 and a half hours later, Dapoli – where our phones lit up and we were back.
From Dapoli we reached the NH66 fairly easily and continued south towards Ratnagiri. This was the beginning of our love affair with the NH66 which connects Panvel to Kanyakumari and pretty much runs through our entire route map.
Though it is a highway, at this point it is only two lane and runs up and down the western ghats and is therefore extremely scenic and pleasant to ride through. We stopped for lunch at a dhaba and ordered the thali. Apart from the roti – sabji – dhal and rice, they served us a cup full of a pink liquid. I have never seen food in this colour. I thought it could be a payasam (a sweet milk broth) with beetroot but when I tasted it, it was savoury. It was delicious, it was nothing like anything I had ever tasted before. I drank a little more and I was hooked.
I asked the waiter for a little more and then asked him what it was. This waiter had the most dead pan face, and has the least amount of passion for life. He was expressionless to my palpable excitement and muttered “soul kadhi” and walked away grumpily to get some more.
Soul kadhi.. such a fitting name for a delicate pink drink, with subtle yet marvellous flavours. Google revealed that it was made out of coconut milk and the dried skin of the khokum fruit along with a pinch of ginger, garlic and chilly and it is to had in small quantities as an after – meal digestive drink in these parts. Luckily for us every place we stayed in Southern Maharastra served us soul kadhi , but we didn’t follow the small quantity rule, we had seconds and sometimes thirds with every meal. I could drink a tub of it right now, it is probably the dish I miss the most from the trip.
This part of coastal Maharashtra is scattered with villages but there is really nothing inbetween. Luckily our host from the Farm of happiness had mailed us a detailed route incase we didn’t have network, which this time I was smart enough to save when we got signal, so we managed to get off the highway and onto the hills with ease.
His directions were something like this, take the right onto the bridge after you see a board for a public school, take a left after the bridge, climb up the hills for a while, then take a right onto a mud road after you see a small projection from the road which says village A – 3KM and then ride on the mud road and turn left after the third farm of happiness board ! Believe it or not it was bang on and it was the only way we would have ever found this place as there is no signal once you get off the highway.
The western ghats are called madippu malai in Tamil, this loosely translates to the folding hills and cannot be more fitting. As we climbed up and down the hills we would reach flat elevated grassland plateaus between them everynow and then. These are one of the most beautiful places on our trip, imagine a dirt track or a even a proper road, through tall savannah like grass, surrounded by mountains, above us a blue sky with perhaps a few birds for company.
Just before we entered the farm of happiness we stopped in a patch of this grassland to take some photos. It almost felt like there could be lions lurking behind. As we were taking in the beauty our attention was diverted by some action in the sky. An eagle had caught something – a rabbit or a rat and was trying to get somewhere to eat it. But two impudent nd cheeky pariah kites decided they wanted the kill and were trying to get it from the eagle – mid air. It was an amazing circus. The dexterous eagle even turned upside down to hold on to its lunch. We were mesmerised, and as the drama reached its crescendo and the eagle seemed like it might loose, it soared up with a sudden spurt of energy and disappeared behind the mountain, leaving me very disappointed. I was rooting for the eagle and hate not knowing the ending.
We entered the farm and our host, Rahul Kulkarni was there to greet us. He is an extremely inspiring man and an amazing host. He actually called us through the day and managed to get to us through the intermittent signals to check if we were on track. We were quite touched.
The house is built with local materials and has a huge verandah with hammocks and dining tables, a living area and three bedrooms. We were the only guests again, but this time there was nothing spooky. Rahul’s room was right next to ours.
The rooms are functional with a modern toilet. The bed is also made out of mud with a thin mattress on top. Actually it is more a blanket than a mattress. I was worried about being able to sleep, but the other scoffed at me. thanks to his profession and his upbringing (I have to write another post about my father-in-law, he is a gandhian who has lived his life with certain philosophies, and is someone I really admire) he practices a unique brand of reverse snobbery. I am often at the receiving end of this, but in this case he was right, I slept beautifully on the barely there mattress.
A smaller building adjacent to it is the kitchen, where the local villagers make the most delicious food. As we missed lunch we were given a snack of the Maharashtrian thali pith and some tea. The thali pith is something akin to a dosa-roti made with local millets and grains. It is best eaten hot with some yogurt on the side. I could have eaten another and another but controlled myself in anticipation of dinner.
The farm in itself is spread both on the hills where they grow cashews and mangoes and on the plateau around the house where they grow grains, fruits and vegetables on a seasonal basis. Rahul took us for a walk in the evening with the two farm dogs. He was extremely candid about his journey and the secrets of his success and explained the process with passion and answered our questions patiently, though he probably has done this a 1000 times before.
The secret of running a successful organic farm is offcourse complicated, but if I had to boil it down, it is all about bull shit. (I mean cow dung). Rahul has a few indigenous cows which are used for agriculture. Their dung is all the fertilizer and pesticides he needs and uses. The most potent pesticide is apparently a mix of cow dung, cow urine, curd and ghee. Some of the cow dung is also used to make gobar gas – which powers the kitchen and some has been used in construction of the house.
It is an amazing antiseptic and I remember that my grandmother would insist that our ancestral house, where we had cows be washed with cow dung every 6 months. We obviously found it icky, and it stopped once all the strong smelling detergents entered the market. How could a tradition stand up against the scent of artificial lime, sandal and rose, reinforced with celebrities who spoke the gospel truth about it wiping away all the baceteria ? So another tradition died.
We saw the sun set over the valley, and headed back to the house for more tea. there are plenty of spaces in and around the house for you to relax, read, write, have some tea and conversations. My favourite was a cashew tree which had several swings tied to its branches and some charpoys around. I unfortunately found out about this place too late in the day, so we were only staying one night, but would love to go back for a longer stay, and perhaps get a little involved in the farming. Especially because this is our dream. The other and I were attracted to each other 10 years ago, because of our common dream – buying a farm and moving to a village, and working with the locals on sustainable practices. And here was someone living our dream. A night here including three meals will cost you 5000 Rs.
Our dinner was delicious local food, grown in the farm – rice rotis, bitter gourd sabji, and a local black dhal for protein. (the picture below shows the rice roti, thali pith and soul kadhi from left to right)
Rahul ate with us and we bombarded him with questions again. He is an advertisement professional from Mumbai who got tired of the rat race and of lying to people about products and decided to start an organic farm on his ancestral property. He divides his time between Bombay and the farm for now due to family commitment but hopes to shift here permanently in a couple of years.
Rahul then brought out his telescope, it was a full moon so too bright for star gazing but we spent some time moon gazing. The telescope was powerful and we could really see the craters and the features of the moon in detail. This obviously lead to a heated conversation around a glowing bonfire on whether man really landed on the moon, the possible conspiracy , did the flag flutter, was there a shadow.. etc.. etc..
Rahul took us for a walk around the plantation the next morning starting with the cow shed. We saw how the cow dung was collected and diverted to tanks to make slurry and gobar gas and witnessed a milking of a cow. One of the cows had just given birth to a calf who was kept separately in another pen. We went to say hello, to the little one standing on unsteady legs with beautiful eyes and mother turned into a tigress. With nostrils flaring she glared at us with mad eyes, I don’t know how but her eyes were twice the normal size and she didn’t blink. We respectfully backed out of the pen, I have never been terrified of a cow before this.
Our next stop was the chicken pen with a couple of roosters, some hens and a brood of little ones. They were soon let out, and were pecking about the farm. The country chickens live with social hierarchy, there was an alpha between the two roosters, and all the hens and chickens followed. They saw me a threat and would scurry from tree to tree in a formation protecting the young ones as I tried to get a good picture.
Unfortunately the broiler chicken has lost all its natural reactions. When the other was camping in north Karnataka for his wolf project, they would buy both country and broiler chickens every couple of weeks. The country chickens would set up a roosting area, start pecking at the ground and set up a social order within a day, and the broiler chickens would apparently not even know how to feed and would just sit glumly in one place for a few days and then try and copy the others. It is alarming and sad on how mankind have made these creatures into unthinking eatables with no natural instincts.
We then walked around and saw all the vegetables and fruits and the well before heading back to the house for a breakfast of Sabudhana Kichidi. I really don’t have to say how delicious it was, I am hungry just thinking about it. The drinking water is the most delicious water I have tasted and comes directly from the well. I am going to save my rant on how over the last decade we have accepted buying drinking water as the norm in Indian cities for another day.
The market runs our world and if eating watermelons through the year is a new diet fad then the farmers pump the plants with chemicals to make it flower out of season. If no one eats the food of the region farmers grow broccoli and celery which are not from the region and need additional chemical incentives. Most farmers have a few trees / vegtable patches in their farms for their family’s consumption and do not eat what they grow for the market. Sobering.
My take away from the farm of happiness was an awakening, of the journey from the farm to the table, the importance of eating seasonal fruits and vegetable and the importance of eating local. I hope I remember this often enough and eat as thoughtfully as possible and I hope that our dream becomes reality soon.
My next post is on our next stop – a little village called Parule in the southern tip of Maharashtra. See you all there !