3,727

Divide and Conquer

Zach Fickle Creek

As we continue to work toward our goal of running a successful small farm, we’ve moved into a second stage of development: Divide and Conquer. While Christina is traveling around the US, charming butchers and market managers and scouting the surrounding area for livability and unmet demand for the products we want to produce, I’m learning how to produce these things at the kind of scale we’ll need to survive. It’s tough to be apart during this important phase in our lives (and right before we get married to boot), but we don’t want to spend years searching for a new home and we decided that this was the fastest way to make progress.

So until Thanksgiving I’m working as an apprentice at Fickle Creek Farm near Durham, North Carolina. While it’s still a small farm, Fickle Creek is pretty big. We’re nearly 300 acres spread across several properties, and active at five markets year round. But what’s best about Fickle Creek is that it’s so diversified. Similar to the way Christina and I have spread out the responsibility of our farm project, here at Fickle Creek we have a variety of products to minimize risk and spread out the workload. Everything here is dual purpose: the ducks lay eggs and eat slugs from dormant garden beds, the pigs eliminate invasive weeds while stuffing their snouts to make our bacon, and the sheep keep the grass at bay while pumping out a few lambs every spring. It’s one big organism.

It can be tempting to say that we want to just get really good at doing one or two things. But that’s not realistic for small farmers. We need to be good at ten things so that if one of them fails it doesn’t bring the ship down with it. And animals are very good at the few things they know how to do. If you provide them with a few basic things, they’ll work for you rather than you working for them. It takes a heckuva lot of planning and careful execution, but the reward is a life of pride in what you do.

It’s taken a lot of patience for us to get this far, but it finally feels like we’re moving forward on a plan that’s now been years in the making. Updates here will be less frequent than in the past, but stay tuned. Big things are happening.

2,394

Returning Home

America

It’s a strange feeling trying to acclimatize to a new culture, new meal times, new language, while also planning for our return to the states. For the past year, we’ve moved from one country to another and learned a new set of customs every month or so. Next week we’re returning to what we call our home, what is supposed to be normal, except it hasn’t been our home for a long time.

When traveling, you’re always planning the next step. In Indonesia, we were looking into how to get a SIM card in Nepal. In India, we were making plans for Turkey. You are booking flights and researching hostels, looking at exchange rates, local foods and significant cultural sights.

But planning for the next chapter of our lives is much different. Our planning involves researching health insurance, used car prices and reading profiles of cities in the US that might be our next home. We have been doing all of this from farms in Spain. In the morning we have been working outside harvesting beets, sorting dried beans, or cleaning out silos. But at lunchtime, I’m Skyping with Leticia at the Maryland Health Connection office and Zach is sending out applications for farm internships in North Carolina. We are returning to our country, but starting something new.

I have to admit, I have a whole boatload of feelings about coming home. I’m dying to see my sister and my niece that I haven’t yet met. I’m ready to have a living room again. There are bits of American culture that we haven’t seen (or eaten) in a year and a half: chicken wings and a Lagunitas IPA, Netflix and Midol and well paved highways. But every country has it’s pros and cons and spending time living with folks in other countries has helped me realize that there are more ways of living than the go get ‘em culture that is so common in the US. In New Zealand, we learned to slow down and have a chat with the neighbors. This often involves tea and cake. Nepal made me realize how easy and comfortable and clean we have it in the States, but also how many regulations we have (you’d never be allowed to take a sheep on a bus at home).

I’ve come to enjoy the small towns that we’ve stayed in and hope, as we transition out of our backpacks, to make our home in an adventurous place where kind people work hard and enjoy their lives. So though our trip abroad is coming to a close, our travels continue as we find a new hometown in the US of A.

1,787

A Day In the Life: WWOOFing at a Spanish Dairy

7am: Wake up, raining again!
8am: Still dark, feed cows, shovel poop, hose down milking parlor, make lots of curious cow friends
Noon: Walk the giant mastiff guardian dog recuperating from an injury
2pm: Food food food
3pm: Nap nap nap
4pm: Take pictures of calves for promotion
6pm: (always Bring a) Snack
9pm: Food, Wine
11pm: zzzzz

It’s a simple life, but it’s a good one. We worked on a lot of small farms in New Zealand, but our focus here in Spain has been the big guys. We want to start our own farm when we get home, so we need to see how commercial operations do their business to learn how to become profitable. It’s been really interesting to see how much work goes into making this place run. There are about 20 full time staff, including sales, marketing, production, animal care, and maintenance people.

The purpose and management of WWOOFers here is also much different than anywhere else we’ve worked. At small family farms we all ate together, sharing wholesome stories and getting to know each other. Here we’re provided cash and a kitchen and set off to our own devices. There’s less cultural exchange, but Christina is a great cook and its nice to make our own food choices again. Both flavors have their merits.

While smaller farms want help in the garden and someone to talk to, or care about educating young farmers and want some exposure for their kids, here they NEED very temporary workers to do simple tasks for little pay. No one is watching over our shoulders, but we definitely don’t get the fun jobs. But hey, that’s what we signed up for and we bear much of the blame because we speak poor Spanish. Though I do wonder what it would be like if we were more proficient in the language.

Regardless, there’s a lot to learn here by observation alone. This farm sells yogurt all over Spain, so their production, distribution, and marketing is very complex. For example, today we spent several hours trying to convince month old calves to look at us as we propped name tags on them and snapped photos for customers.

We work hard because we enjoy learning and because work exchange makes long term travel affordable. But when we’re ankle deep in poo stew, we couldn’t help but laugh at all the times people say “You’re so lucky you get to travel!”

2,407

Spain in Photos

I can’t believe we’ve been in Spain for a month already! With the help of very patient locals and the iPhone app, Duolingo, I’ve gone from being able to ask for a glass of wine to being able to talk about the pros and cons of NYC public schools, GMOs, and how to make cookies entirely in Spanish. Granted, I can only speak in the present tense and say things like “I much like it very.”

Our time in Spain has been split between cities that make my heart sing and rural towns where we have been climbing or working. We spent a long weekend in Barcelona, a few weeks climbing in central Spain, then up to San Sebastian in the Basque country where we ate everything in sight, and have spent the past two weeks on a farm outside of Segovia. Work, play, eat. Work, play, eat. In our opinion, that is the most satisfying way to travel.

2,651

Seven Things I Learned about Negotiating in India

This guy means business.I’ve been musing a lot about my experience traveling in India at the end of 2013, and yeah, I guess I learned about some history and culture and shit, but really, the main thing I learned was how to get a good price on a hemp t-shirt. Before we landed in Delhi I was pretty helpless when it came to negotiation. Here are the things I’ve learned:

1. Remember that nothing is unique. Every tourist town has about a dozen different versions of the same shop with all the same goods, so pop in to one and do a little research. Ask for a price and act uninterested, then leave. You’ll probably get the shop owner chasing after you shouting lower and lower numbers. Keep walking.

2. Decide what you think the item is worth before you even ask for a price. After you’ve expressed firm interest through an offer you’re in a weaker position, so figure out what you’re wiling to pay as soon as you can. How do you know what an item is worth in this strange currency where prices seem arbitrary? I’m glad you asked.

3. A tactic Christina used with great success was actually shopping without any money on her. She’d leave her purse at home and pop into shops just to see what they had. Even if you can’t find that exact item in another store, you can always come back later.

4. When its time to make an offer, ask for a price. If you think its extortionate, smile and ask for a better price. Then maybe smile again and ask for the best price without even making an offer. Hopefully that will get you to a more reasonable starting point. From there you can go back and forth a few times (always with a smile) and settle on a mutually agreeable price. If the shop owner won’t budge, remember your trump card is to walk away. If he STILL doesn’t budge, maybe your price is too low and you should consider not being such a cheap ass.

5. Don’t fall for the “What’s 50 rupees to you, a dollar? It makes no difference to you but to me it’s a meal for my family!” Ok, maybe that’s true, but if everyone paid Rs 50 more for everything soon the prices would be higher than the west. Price is not only determined by what the vendor bought the product for, but what he thinks he can get for it. This is especially true for rickshaw rides, which cost drivers very little. Rest assured, vendors are making money on the transaction regardless of how good you are at negotiation. You’re always paying the tourist tax.

6. A line my friend Stephen likes to use to cut through the bullshit was something to the effect of “I just want a good price, add a little to what it cost you and I’ll be happy with that.” It helps to know a bit about what it cost but it also appeals to the vendor’s softer side, something they aren’t used to getting from tourists. You may disarm them (with a smile).

7. Don’t get hung up on it. You can drive yourself crazy with the constant negotiating. Sometimes its worth it for your sanity to just take the first offer (if you think it’s fair enough), or even MAKE the first offer if you have an idea of what the item is worth from the start. Remember that stress and time are worth something to you as well.

That’s it. Some of it seems obvious but to someone like me that avoids confrontation, it helps to have a plan. I’ll leave you the story with one of my more successful negotiations, which happened almost entirely by accident:

We were in Jaipur and I’d broken another pair of cheap plastic sandals. I wanted something that would last a little longer. We stopped into an upmarket shoe store with window displays and well-dressed employees. I asked about a price of sandals.

“700 rupees,” the manager said. This was a little more than $10. Not expensive but more than I wanted to pay. I thought it was fair for good quality but I had no idea how long they’d hold up. I decided to look around a bit. He didn’t make another offer as I left, so I figured that price was pretty firm.

Later that day I saw a very similar pair of sandals at another store, this one a bit dustier and with harsh fluorescent lights. Instead of neat boxes there were piles of different sizes strewn around.

“How much?” I held up my chosen camel-leather sandals.
“600 rupees, very good quality.” The salesmen demonstrated the flexibility of the soles. I still thought the first pair were better quality, and that I could negotiate them down a bit.
“No thanks,” I said, and started to walk out. I genuinely didn’t want the sandals.
“Ok, 500, my friend.”
I continued out the door.
“400!”
“300!” Now we’re talkin’. I was willing to take the risk that these weren’t the same shoes for less than half the price of the first store, which I wasn’t sure would budge from 700. And if they stayed firm I’d have to trudge all the way back here, tail between my legs. I could have been ruthless and offered 200, then maybe settled on 250, but I’ve got a heart. In this case the 50 rupees didn’t matter; I’d already won.

Well, this was a few months ago, and I still have the sandals. They survived daily wear for our stay in India and broke in with a beautiful patina. I considered filling my suitcase with dozens of pairs for resale back home, then thought better of venturing into an India-based import business and decided to be satisfied with my accidentally successful negotiation.

May you all have the same good fortune. Go forth, and bargain! Ok, maybe not at the dentist’s office.

1,810

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays, folks! Hope you are eating and drinking and wearing sweatpants!
Traditional village breakfast, Privato Cafe, Istanbul

2,251

Life is Good in Hampi

Fields and boulders at the outskirts of Hampi

We didn’t know it while we were traipsing around Rajasthan, seeing the sights, but the little town of Hampi is what we have been craving since we arrived in India.

With so much history and so many really big, really beautiful historic sites, we couldn’t resist checking out the Golden Triangle. We saw the forts and tombs, palaces and temples, and our favorite, Jantar Mantar. We got tired, rested, saw some more sights, got tired again, rested again, went to a new city and did it again. For two weeks, we were full on tourists in cities where people make their money from tourism. For two weeks, I didn’t leave the guest house without telling ten rickshaw drivers “no,” or trying to avoid begging children. We were a wallet, an opportunity.

“Hey my friend! Where you from?
“America”
“Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan! Nice country.”
“Yeah, pretty good, but we are enjoying yours as well”
“You come to see my shop? Very nice, you come.”
“No thank you.”
“Yes, you coming. Shopping. Very nice.”

And so it went until the next person came by and started from the top. “Obamaland, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan!” It was endearing the first time, but got old very quickly.

We were doing the things that you do when you’re in India. It was really cool being in the presence of structures from empires ago and learning about the history of India, but it was exhausting and felt a bit like going through the motions. Is this what traveling in India is like? Is this what people do for six months? For a moment there, we forgot that long term travel is a balance of new cultures and new activities while also maintaining some routine and indulging in things you know you like.

So when Robyn and Stephen, our former room mates from New Zealand sent us a message saying, “We are in India! Smashed it out last night all the way from Bangkok to Chennai then Bangalore to Hampi! Hampi is amazing. Actually so good I cant believe I missed it on previous trips…Climbing, friends, bicycles, a risk board…,” we scrapped our plans for further sight seeing and booked three back to back night buses to go see them in Hampi.

Hampi is quiet and comfortable. We climb the famed Hampi boulders in the early mornings and cool evenings and avoid the heat of the day by flopping around the open air restaurant at our guest house, eating thalis and drinking tea. As Stephen said over breakfast the other day, “Not everything you see here is going to be enjoyable while you’re here. That’s not why you’re here. You’re here to see what it’s like in India. Well that, and to see 50,000 camels competing in a beauty pageant.”

 

 

1,248

We Got Got: Scammed in Delhi

Agra Bazaar

You’ve probably heard that India is a budget traveler’s paradise. This is true, but there are a few things that make it expensive. Sure, you can splash out for a hundred dollar dinner in Delhi or Mumbai just like any city in the world. I’m talking about the unexpected expenses. If you let it, India will clean out your wallet faster than anywhere else.

We landed in Delhi a few weeks ago, and we’ve been scammed twice (as far as we know), and deflected a few other attempts. The first time was pretty minor; a taxi driver from the airport told us the meter had rolled over, and against our better judgement we paid him double the fare. Whatever. It was a mistake and a few bucks down the drain. SERIOUSLY, I’M OVER IT. Ok maybe not, but I’m working on it.

The second time happened just minutes after the first and will be much harder to recover from. Here’s how we were grifted out of more than $150:

The aforementioned scammer driver disgorged us and our three massive backpacks, duty free purchases, and other assorted hand luggage from his cab at New Delhi Railway Station. We needed tickets and had read that they can be difficult to get on the day of travel, so we were a little nervous about navigating the station.

As we approached, if was as if someone threw chum in the water. The sharks smelled eau d’traveler stink. We looked around for some kind of ticket office, and after the slightest of pauses he pounced.

“Tickets, please,” in a very official voice.

“Uh, no tickets. We need to buy tickets.” Looking back, I’m sure his face lit up at this moment. He pointed to sign that read ‘Ticket Holders Only,’ then to his map, and said “You need to go to this office: DTTDC.” Little did we know he was in cahoots with this “DTTDC.” I’d read that there was a special tourist bureau at the station and assumed this was it. It sounded bureaucratic enough.

He looked at our big bags. “I will get you rickshaw, you pay Indian price!” As if he was saving us money.

We thanked him for his help and piled into the rickshaw. The driver dropped us at the office that the helpful old gent had indicated, which was blazed with signs reading “Train Tickets” and even “Government of India Tourist Information.”

We were hustled into a comfortable office and then the real scam began. A well-dressed young man told us in perfect English that no trains were available for more than a week to our desired destination. After a few keystrokes on a computer that may or may not have been plugged in at all, he deduced that no tourist buses were available for a similar period of time, and local buses took “fifteen or sixteen hours” and were unsafe. The latter was probably true but the former certainly not, because on our way back from this trip we took the local bus and while it wasn’t comfortable, it took only about six hours.

“What are our options to get there today?” We asked. We were intimidated by staying in Delhi and wanted out of town as soon as possible.

“Well, you could take a taxi. It will be expensive.” He quoted us a price over US $250. This was way out of our $40 per day budget. We talked about maybe going somewhere else instead. But this would throw the rest of our schedule off and be more hassle and expense.

“Is there any other way to get there?” This was his signal to go in for the kill.

“Hmm, well you can take a private car.” And after a few more keystrokes in his magic box, “It will be $160.” After some deliberation and seen in light of the higher taxi price we decided to just bite the bullet and go for it, taking an expensive lesson about trying to buy train tickets on the day of travel.

A few days later, we discovered that this office wasn’t actually a government tourist representative but, as it seems obvious now, a tour operator/car hire company. How officials can allow such brazen disregard for their authority to continue under their noses I still have no idea. I suspect that there were train tickets available, and I know that the government run bus service was a viable option on the day of travel. Don’t make the same mistakes we did, kids! If it doesn’t seem legit, it probably isn’t.

Wait, there’s more. I’m writing this while en route to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and were just the targets of YET ANOTHER scam. Again, a helpful fella at the New Delhi train station saw us coming and insisted that we needed “boarding passes” in addition to our printed tickets to avoid fines of “over $200″ on the train. I was suspicious but listened to him because I’m a sucker and it’s not uncommon for foreigners to jump through some hoops in India. He took us on a little run-around intended to make us miss our train, in the hopes that we might hire him to drive us to our destination. Luckily we sniffed it out in time and told him to stuff his boarding passes. We had absolutely no problems on the train, and it’s a lovely way to travel.

Traveler scams are infuriating, but don’t let them get in your way of enjoying a place. India may be better at scamming you than you realize, but its a fantastic place to visit (more on this soon). Just remember to be cautious, the more we fall for the scams, the longer they’ll stick around. Sorry guys! We’ve learned our lesson.

2,466

At Home in an Indian Kitchen

Cooking class-8199

We didn’t know any Hindi when we got to India. We were helpless when ordering food in a restaurant and often just pointed to something. On our first few days, dinner was usually a complete surprise. “Oh! Okra! Did you know they eat okra here?” Didn’t see that one coming. There were times when we wound up with rice, naan, and potatoes. But others when a beautiful, mystery dish showed up. For me, that was Sahi Paneer, a rich, creamy, ever so slightly spicy tomato curry style dish with chunks of cheese (paneer). It was delicious and I knew my dad would love it.

The thing is though, I don’t usually cook Indian food. I don’t really know how the spices work together, but know that one dish often has tons of different spices. And what makes it so saucy? How’d you get so tasty? I silently ask the plate in front of me. I wanted to  be able to come home and make Sahi Paneer for my family, but didn’t really know where to start.

There are signs for Indian cooking classes all over Rishikesh. We went to a few restaurants that were advertising cooking classes to test out the kind of food we’d be learning to make, but were disappointed by the results: too rich, too salty, or just plain nasty. But we all know that the best kind of cooking is home cooking. So that is where we took our class, in a home.

Home cookin'

Home cookin’

Our class was about an hour and a half and ended with a delicious lunch of Sahi Paneer, Aloo Palak (potato in spinach sauce), Aloo Parantha (potato filled flatbread) and Vegetable Biryani (spiced rice with vegetables). All of the chopping was done ahead of time and the measuring done with a single spoon. Our job was to take pictures and write down how many teaspoons of turmeric goes into each dish. Our teacher claimed that his English was “not so good,” yet he knew all of the English words for spices, vegetables, and tools. Maybe it was thanks to the English- Hindi picture charts hanging around the room, or thanks to his daughters who speak English very well and were assisting with explanations.

Our teacher’s cooking style was “a bit of this and a bit of that,” “a big spoonful of salt, a half spoonful of garam masala,” though he did give measurements for our sake. Every dish started by heating oil and cumin seeds and at some point, a bit of chili and garam masala were added. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the very rich Sahi Paneer wasn’t made with cream, but with cashew nut milk. Who knew?

I enjoyed watching someone cook easily and comfortably with flavors and spices that are foreign to me. The benefit of the cooking class, versus trying out a recipe from the internet, is that we had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in someone’s home, cooking with their dad who is a good cook. Subol was laid back, friendly, and an informative teacher, which is exactly how my dad taught me how to cook. Except I had to chop more in those lessons.

1,505

Spiritual Enlightenment is Hard

Oohhmm

5:20 AM – Woken by very, very loud horn
5:30 AM – Chant mantras in sanskrit
6:00 AM – Meditation
8:00 AM – Breakfast (Rice, nuts, tea)
11:00 AM – Traditional kriya/hatha yoga
12:30 PM – Lunch (Dal, curried vegetables, chapati, rice)
4:00 PM – Pranayam (breathing exercises)
6:30 PM – Chant mantras in sanskrit
7:00 PM – Meditation
8:00 PM – Dinner (Dal, curried vegetables, chapati, rice)
9:30 PM – Ashram gates locked

This was our schedule for the time we spent in the Kriya Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh, India. Sex, alcohol, and garlic were strictly prohibited anywhere in the ashram facility, and quiet conversation was only allowed with members of same sex in private rooms, outside of mediation and mealtimes. Silence was to be observed at all other times. If you’re looking for an authentic spiritual experience, this is the place for you. We thought that was what we wanted, but the demanding schedule and rules wore on us pretty quickly. We lasted three days.

I think it was the repetitive food (so much rice!) and prohibition of conversation during meals that did us in. To be fair, we were warned that the food offered was “very simple,” and we could have eaten elsewhere (at additional cost of course). I found the yoga and breathing (pranayam) exercises to be accessible and useful, and the mediation challenging but relaxing. A certain amount of proficiency was expected in meditation, which we didn’t have, so some instruction in that regard would have been nice, but it was at least an opportunity to reflect and relax. I think I learned a few things about myself through the meditation and mantras.

My initial reaction to the mantra chanting was to retreat. I saw these as religious rituals that I had no interest in. So, just like my Catholic school days, I sulked awkwardly in the back. Eventually I realized that my presence was distracting others so I played along. I still think it’s silly to chant sounds to whose meaning I’m completely ignorant, so I stayed in the back, muttering “Brangelina, Yamaha, Shaquille O’Neal, kazaam!”

After day three, we’d had enough of quiet time and really missed coffee, so we high-tailed it to a more easy-going facility. At Shiva Yoga Peeth we’re allowed to come and go as we please and attendance is never required. We can mainline espresso and garlic bread (ew, not at the same time), and there’s twice daily ass-kicking yoga and significantly less ass-kicking but very nice meditation time. Oh, and we can actually talk about our day during dinner! What a revelation!

Your mileage may vary. I can see how the quiet life in a traditional ashram could be extremely beneficial. It wasn’t right for us, but I’m glad we gave it a whirl.

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