A City Girl Gets a Crash Course in the Forest Life

Part of “The Trip That Changed the Way I Travel” series.  
Sadhana Forest Auroville Pondicherry
The main log hut in Sadhana Forest, where volunteers gather for meals, meetings, workshops, and the occasional photo op (the author is seated fourth from left).

Sadhana Forest, Pondicherry, 2013

Sadhana Forest didn’t even have a signboard, but it shook one of my fundamental truths: that I was a city girl and Mumbai was the only place that would ever feel like home. Sadhana Forest is a non-profit reforestation programme in Auroville, Pondicherry, and I spent a fortnight there in 2013, drawn to the community’s sustainable lifestyle. But the price was high: no meat, no dairy, no alcohol, no smoking, not even running tap water.

As a city brat, I had always forgotten to water the houseplants as a child, and I hated being sweaty or getting my hands dirty. But I loved the idea of Sadhana Forest—of giving back to the earth, of rejuvenating severely eroded land with the tropical dry evergreen forest, a rich forest type that is indigenous but close to extinction.

So for two weeks, I slept with twenty others in a large, windblown log hut. This alone was overwhelming—I’m rather reserved, and here I was, spending almost every hour surrounded by unfamiliar (but friendly!) faces. I felt disoriented at first, but strangely after the third night, my inner thermometer adjusted. We began our days at the crack of dawn with a morning circle, where we sang ditties, stretched, gave group hugs. We did the community chores from tending to the plants to cleaning the loos and cooking meals until lunch, when it got too hot to be too active. But we also made time to dance, to hold fun afternoon workshops on skills we had such as belly dancing, and to join in passionate debates on world politics or swap anecdotes late into the night. I loved the harmony of our days.

I went from feeling alienated to being absolutely excited by the newness of everything. I learned to use a compost toilet, pouring in sawdust rather than flushing. I hand-pumped water into a large steel bucket that I lugged to the bathroom for a shower and laundry. I raked leaves for mulching saplings, sprayed neem juice against pests, and scraped coconuts with an old grinder.

The weird part was, I found working with my hands and feet was a pleasure. Somewhere between waking up to light filtering through the trees, and smelling woodsy fragrances and seeing the stars twinkle as I bathed, I realised that where everything once felt alien, I was at home. It helped that the community was warm and wonderful, to find that a fortnight could turn strangers into lifelong friends. The forest exuded a calm that we breathed in. It felt natural to live in it, as I imagined my ancestors had many, many moons ago, to slow down and feel the earth beneath our feet, allow the sun to warm us, do only what was required in that moment.

For other stories in “The Trip That Changed the Way I Travel”  series, click here. 

  • Saumya Ancheri is the former Assistant Editor of NGT India's web team. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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