Saturday, 31 October 2009

Swapathgami – making your own paths of learning and living

Since October I am based in northern India in Udaipur staying for 2 months at Shikshantar – a community of co-learners and co-creators of alternative ways to living a healthy sustainable life. People in the Shikshantar community are also called swapathgamis, people who are exploring pathways outside of institutionalised structures. As swapathgamis they walked out from unhealthy and isolating life styles, ‘trusting their own creative intelligence over the prescribed lives of the ready-made world.’ - More about that here in on one of their published issues.
Shikshantar was found 12 years ago coming from a place of deep concern for what is happening in the world and fundamental critique to existing institutions and systems and their capacity to solve the complex problems the world is facing. Shikshantar’s approaches to learning and simply living have been strongly influenced by the way local villagers live around Udaipur. Its prime motivation was to create a space where alternative or more appropriately healthier ways of living could be explored both theoretically but also hands-on doing and living it every day. Since then Shikshantar – through providing a safe, trusting and creative space to everyone – has inspired locals and passing guests from all over the world to create the same in people’s homes and personal lives, as one of the founder put it the other day "to see your own house as a live space of activism, your own activism to creating a difference in the world."

Since my arrival here I met interesting people, initiatives and gained a lot of insights into different forms of alternative education, healthy local nutrition and growing your own food e.g. through urban community gardens or by creating your own green roof top and more than anything else how to live a life that hardly produces any waste, best known as zero waste management.

Zero Waste Management and living a healthy life

I am thrilled – in the month that I am living on my own in Udaipur I don’t think I even filled half a bag with non-degradable garbage. 80% of what I am throwing out is compost which I dispose on a big compost pile just outside the house. Even though the extensive packaging of products and food in my home country increasingly annoyed me, I don’t think I have ever quite had the full experience of doing without. Here I buy my vegetables and fruits almost daily fresh from little movable stalls or sellers on the ground, which are all nearby. In fact one can find a veggie or fruit seller almost at every corner, we have one that is ringing a bell and announcing his arrival when he passes our house. This makes it quite easy for me to always eat freshly and local products thus maintaining a super healthy vegan diet while avoiding plastic or other packaging. I usually carry 1 or 2 bags with me to be ready to buy food along the way. One simple thing that impressed me at the very beginning was seeing people here have their self-made little sized cotton bags for loose fruits and veggies. How simple is that? – I have never even thought about making little cotton bags for myself, it hardly takes time to create these and saves the hassle of having to pack your apples or other small items into more useless plastic.

(A bit of a side note here, the other day I listened to an alternative radio programme promoting a newly released film – a documentary called "Addicted to plastic". The film which is based on wide scientific research talks about the effects of plastic on the human body. One thing that stuck with me then is that average life span of a plastic bag, meaning the time its actually been is use, is in average no more than 10 mins.)

The milk – though I am currently experimenting how I am doing without - I can get from a milk store down the street which sells fresh milk out of big metal barrels. I can bring my own small pot with a lid or kettle in the morning without having to use any of their packaging (liquids are also sold in plastic bags) to carry it home. At another local food store I can get local grains, rice and pulses which they sell per kg from huge bags and again are unpackaged, one only has to remember to take along enough small bags from home. All of the above and Shikshantar’s inspiration to change who you are by changing what you eat, by also offering daily delicious healthy and mostly vegan lunches, which include local grains, zero oil preparation and seasonal veggies and fruits left me with a great experience of being able to eat well – taking good care of my health, while reducing massive amounts of waste. Who would have thought living biologically and environmentally sustainable could be that easy?

The initial reaction to all of that might be that this is India, where things are of course very different, but my experience has been such an eye-opener that I started believing that minimizing my consumption cycle is possible in any country – it all started within my own mind of what I think I need in which way and being clear what I want to break out from. This I think is the hardest obstacle to take in the end, overcoming your habits which you have had for so many years and became a second skin you got comfortable with.

The relevance to ‘minimize my consumption cycle’ has been one of the greatest insights since my arrival here. With that I am referring to start living more connected to the land again, if possible most preferably grow my own vegetables, collect my compost and make my own soil, buying locally grown products, etc. Like this complex and large cycles of dietary needs, can be massively simplified. The other simplification of my every day consumption cycle and a massive contribution to zero waste management is to consider which things do I really need and which ones could I make on my own? In the time that I stayed here and with various passing visitors and smaller demonstrations I was fortunate to see Aloe Vera masks and soaps being hand made, bags being sown from recycled clothes or other various utensils and jewellery was made from usually as garbage considered items, such as old magazines, coconut shells, plastic, and so on.

All of this really triggered my imagination and creativity, generating various ideas how I could simplify my life back at home to bring more of that energy and approaches to zero waste management back into my house and local communities. While bursting with that strong drive to bring these newly gained habits back to my everyday life in London, I frequently had flashbacks remembering how my grandparents in Hungary and Poland still live the life that to some extend I am trying to return to. My family in Hungary has almost all their dishes and pottery being hand made by my grandma, the curtains and other textiles in the house being sown and the food that is prepared for lunch or dinner is coming straight from the garden (earlier blogentry fromHungary on that). I also remember my mother telling me stories of her upbringing in a small village in the mountains in Poland where life was pretty much what we would call self-sufficient, sustainable or organic, just this was normal way of living without any particular labelling yet. When travelling through Romania and Bulgaria in August, I realised in probably many more Eastern European countries lif for the majority of the populations is exactly still that. The very unfortunate side of things is that most people there are all very eager to modernize their lives by adapting to our processed, disconnected and wasteful living standards in the name of progress.

There is a really great short documentary on the story of stuff (20 min long) - I totally recommend seeing it!

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