Going south now ! By bus, by train, by rickshaw, sometimes surrounded by blaring hooting since the drivers choose hooting rather than indicators, sometimes we close our eyes not to look at the truck driving towards us, but we manage and arrive in Goa all in one piece. Is this still India? Till not so long ago (1961), this tiny State used to be Portuguese and the influence can still be felt very much so. Here the food consists in fried fish, and even beef (surprise, surprise!), the big white churches side by side with the Hindu temples and mosques… and some people even still speak Portuguese today ! With time, goa has become a tourist destination and they come from everywhere and all walks of life. On the paradise type beaches, with their coconut palm trees (they are cleaner than elsewhere in the country!) you will find wealthy Russians, broken Hippies who never left the place after their trip; zen couples who are living with and for yoga; party goers (going from one rave party to another, silent ones since headphones have replaced the loudspeakers so as not to disturb the birds)… In the middle of this blend of people, Indians can also be seen, who are more or less begging for money since they live from the tourists, as well as some fishermen. This is the surrounding of “Saraya”, a somewhat different eco-tourism project, where we are going to stay for a few days.
We arrive in Saraya when it was already dark. We are being introduced to Deeksha, an energetic middle aged woman who is at the head of the project. Despite the exhaustion of the day, she together with her daughter Titli are proud to accompany us to the end of the site so we can discover the small houses which are soon going to be welcoming tourists or resident artists. In the night, the lights inside the cabins make those houses look like lantern-houses the elves are using. Inside, the lamps made of branches, raffia palms or wicker send lovely beams of light on the walls and the floor. Deeksha sighs as she closes the door but it reveals satisfaction: the “yellow house” is the first one to be completely finished! Four others, also build in clay, as well as two big bamboo cabins on pile, are expected to be ready within a few days. This is the last lap! The target is to open for the Christmas tourist season….
Go with the Flow
Gradually Deeksha tells her story: we learn that she was in charge of many a building site as an architect, in Dubai and elsewhere. In her family, the daughter follows in the mother’s footstep as an architect and the son as an aircraft pilot. When we all stop for tea, she says with a certain emotion « this project is a dream I have had for thirty years. Even before my children were born… Today, this dream is becoming true, but my children and their friends are there to help me… I have been really lucky in life ! »
Instead of using concrete and steel, as she used to do before, Deeksha decided to build using natural materials. « In the beginning, we did not think of building the walls with soil only. But when we started digging the land and we realised the remarkable quality of clay, we decided to use it as such without adding any straw or sand…» In a few months, the walls were actually up. The small rivulet that flows between the cabins shows the volume of soil we had to dig out! Bamboo is the second key material in Saraya: it is used for the poles of the cabins on pile, the stairs, the dormitory’s grounds… here, no assembling with recycled pans as was the case in the Sapna Ranch, but strong ropes since the builders are very proficient in the art of knots! For the internal walls, Deeksha has had the women from the surrounding villages weave big palm panels. As for the roof, it is made with big leaves which cover plastic sheets « this is the only material which is not ecological and which we agreed to use in the building regrets Zora, Deeksha’s son, “since so far we have not been able to come up with a satisfactory solution. We are looking for an alternative … maybe big linen canvases? Anyway the roofs will have to be replaced after each monsoon. Yet, there is nothing to worry about when it comes to the earthen walls, the majority of them stood through the latest rainy season, they are strong indeed!” » Even if Deeksha planned the site, she has remained open to any new ideas that came up as building was going on. A golden rule that many self-builders we met had also embraced. And, by the way, in Sanskrit « Saraya » means « the travellers’ rest »… but also «go with the flow» !
Now that the main part has been built, there are still a few small details before the opening: the garden must be terraced, the furniture must be created and placed in the rooms, the last walls must be painted, the floors must be covered with mats… And for once we are arriving just towards the end of the building for the finishing touches! Deeksha, who has also worked as an interior decorator, is particularly fussy over the details, and she shows a great taste. In-between two issues to be solved, she cannot help getting hold of nice pieces of bark or branches she comes across and she already visualises them with excitement as lamps, door handles….
Upon discovering the place, it is difficult to believe that all that work has been done in barely a year, especially when compared with the other building sites we have taken part in so far… We get the explanation on the day after our arrival, when we see about twenty workers arriving on site, who come and work here daily! They left the north of India (much poorer) to earn some money here as day labourers. So here we are in a conventional work site, with paid workers and an employer like Deeksha’s previous building sites, yet there is a difference: « I had never used such materials before… and in fact the labourers told me how to use them! Since most of them have built their own houses in their respective villages with what they had on hand, natural and local materials, I asked them to guide me ».
During those first seven months in our travel, we have been lucky to experiment other types of work organisation based on voluntary work and offering fairer relations. Maybe, sometimes it is better to work – for free – exchanging know-hows which will last a lifetime, rather than to earn paper money whose value is very much floating around with the markets… The labourers we meet certainly cannot afford the luxury of choosing, but if they could, would they be here? And what is their opinion about those buildings for tourists? Futile, or on the opposite they think that they put emphasis on traditional know-hows? How do they see the voluntary workers who come from far away countries to help Deeksha? And what are their dream houses? With the money they are earning here, are they dreaming of building “real” concrete houses once they return to their native states? We would have loved to ask them all those questions and so many others too, had we been able to speak their language !
Meeting Deeksha also gives us the opportunity to question an Indian architect as to the possible solutions to the problem of poor housing : « I cannot say that I am against concrete since I used to work with concrete for years. It is strong and its strength does not require evidence. Furthermore many beautiful buildings have been erected in concrete, all over the world » But could such buildings in natural materials as are found in Saraya be a better solution than concrete for the inhabitants of the slum areas which spread over miles in the Indian megapolises ? « Indeed, it could be an option since it is economic and ecological…, but whatever, the local as well as national authorities would have to set up huge town planning projects. And the political leaders do not actually wish to legally give permission for such areas to be used to house the poorer. Nobody intends the inhabitants of those slum areas to actually settle down officially in such areas which are strategic economically speaking. Yet, if such town planning projects came into existence, I would sign on to be amongst the first ones to take part……»
The development (the enthusiasm, even) of eco-tourism may entail smiles, leave doubts or even annoy a little… But for Deeksha, it is already a way to prove to the globe-trotters that such houses can be strong AND nice as well. And maybe also convince them to build some like that when they go back… would it not already be half way down the road?
Moreover, Saraya is not one of those superficial ecological projects. Deekshat, together with her children, are striving for the operation of the place to have as little impact as possible on the environment. The restaurant will be working on the direct distribution principle, i.e. the fruit and vegetables will be grown in Saraya’s patch or be bought from those farmers who live in the nearby villages. « A compost recycling the organic waste generated by the restaurant will be used to fertilize the vegetable patch. We would also like to propose to the restaurants in the surrounding area to recycle their own waste to produce biogas » Zora explains. In charge of the vegetable patch, he planted several vegetables using both the permaculture techniques and the moon calendar.Saraya will also be a cultural link. The former big colonial style house is going to be converted into an art gallery, bookshop, room to compose music « there are currently only very few places offering such possibilities in India. My objective is for such a place to offer a space to artists who have nowhere to exhibit their productions ». For the opening, Deeksha has offered to one of her son’s friends – a very gifted drawer – to exhibit his work in the gallery with its freshly painted walls in such colours as purple, orange, bright yellow…, such colours as only the Indians can produce! Outside there is going to be an open-air cinema and a wide space under the trees to meditate or practise yoga… At the same time, Deeksha would like to give life to a local network. Sha would like Saraya to be, not only a place welcoming foreigners, but also the people living in the district. For instance, she intends to keep one day per month for the elderly people living in the area to enable them to meet and gather. She also wants to give value to the local craft in the gallery, employ local chefs and local farmers for the restaurant…
Saraya is expected to open in a few days’ time… Even if for some time now, the Indian administration has given headaches to Deeksha holding the final permits and authorisations back. The local politicians are holding back because they have backchiching on their minds. One day, while on an official visit and making it more or less clear that opening is not yet certain, Deeksha keeps a straight face and tells us later that « those people cannot stand when people stand their grounds and even less so if they are faced with a woman. They would love it if I were to beg and plead rather than what I am doing when I stress their own responsibilities. I am attempting to make them see that Saraya will also benefit the whole life in the district, boost the local economy… but those local politicians are simply not interested in all that! ». As is the case in many places, corruption is one of the evils of this country, deeply ingrained as well. An Indian we meet later on will also tell us, half-jokingly, half-desperate « here, if you have, « Ghandis » – you can do whatever you like ». The « Gandhi » are the notes bearing the effigy of the famous man who would no doubt be very sad to hear that unfortunately so true sentence…
For us it may, however, also be a sign as we are travelling to the small village of Ralegansiddhi which is where Anna Hazare is staying. She is very famous for her fight against corruption and she also succeeded in pulling her whole village out of poverty by convincing the inhabitants that they would actually benefit from a sustainable management of their natural resources.
As for Saraya they won their bet: Deeksha and her team could open for Christmas and welcome their very first visitors !
Click on the picture’s arrow to see the slide show.