Thursday, 1 September 2016

Becoming a WWOOFer

29th March 2016
21:15 hours
SOS Farms, Karnataka (name changed for confidentiality reasons)

Day One:

I’m dead tired. Have a headache too.
Our first WWOOFing adventure begins today. We set out from Bangalore at 11:00 am. The destination is 230 kms away, a 100-acre property called SOS Farms in a village near Mysore. Being one of India’s largest pig breeders, the farm has strict rules at the piggery. Visitors have to wait for a period of 48 hours before they can enter the sty and while doing so, they are expected to shower and wear sterilized clothes provided by the farm.Yes, pigs are more important than humans!

We got here by 5pm. The place is secluded. The cottages are securely tucked away, somewhere in the middle of the farm. We are cautioned not to venture out in the nights as there are chances of sighting wild elephants, boars, peacocks and sometimes leopards – the notorious creatures who manage to circumvent the electrified fence circling the compound. The workers here are mostly Assamese. The man who showed us to our room is one of them. They go home every eleven months and get one month paid leave along with travel allowance. Not a bad deal.

After tea, we took a stroll around. Sammy is all geared up to check out the new environment so different from her cloistered apartment dwelling. Here, she has the freedom to roam free, see and hear and sniff as much as she pleases. A lot of open space interspersed with greenery. The place has the air of serenity rather than wilderness. The forests are not dense though they are home to some wild species. When we got back, the AGM of the farm, Mr. Reddy was waiting for us. He stays in the room above ours. Talking to him, we gathered some quick info about the place – about the livestock farming happening here, how it all started, the food arrangements, the caged giant mastiffs who greeted us at the gate and their daily routine and so on. He suggested we take a look around before deciding which area to work on. This was a barren land when they arrived in 2007 with all the trees cut and hijacked by tobacco companies. In 2009, they started organic cultivation and livestock farming. The fertility of the land is now revived.

We got back to our room soon after and showered. It is a simple and clean place, with a cupboard, two beds, a side table and an attached bath. Dinner arrived in a while – a big tiffin carrier packed with a generous amount of chapatis, beans sabzi, veg gravy and rice. We gobbled the food and took to our individual beds to record the impressions of the day. Sammy is happily nibbling her bone, cozily nestled beside me on the neatly made bed.

Day Two:

14:15 hours

The alarm went off at 5:45 am. I was eagerly hoping to meet some morning visitors from the land of the wild. None appeared. We were out of the room by around 6:20 am. It was Sammy’s walk time. The chirping of birds rose above the mist shrouding the trees. Sammy walked off-leash beside us, sniffing out all the unusual scents. The mornings are beautiful here. The weather is pleasant and it’s an absolute treat for those who enjoy bird watching.

We had tea a little after 7:45 am and walked towards the farm. The chicken and turkey pen came first. Pigeons, ducks, sheep and piglets followed. Breakfast was served in the kitchen area – an underdeveloped cemented structure with little light inside. Idli, sambar and chutney along with lemon rice were on the menu. The food tasted good though it didn’t look very appetizing. We met Mr. Reddy at his office, near the main entrance. A couple of girls were involved in clerical work. He was caught up with his usual chores and didn’t really bother about us. Upon asking, he instructed me to assist the boy with the brushing of the dogs guarding the main gate and Azal went with one of the Assamese workers to check out the hydration system – the bore-wells and tube-wells that supplied water to the entire farm.

Five Mastiffs, a Great Dane and a Rottweiler. They were all old, averaging 9 years except the Rottweiler who was 3 or 4. They got out only in the mornings to have their one-time meal. Most of them had sores on their body. There was no water in their bowls. Needless to say, the dogs looked unhappy – eyes sunken partly due to age and partly due to the uneventful lives they led. I urged Deb, the little boy who was in charge of the dogs and chickens, to fill up the water bowls. The dogs were taken out one by one for brushing. I got acquainted with Niccol, Snuffy, Blackie, Scorpy, IQ (Rottweiler), Robert and Sandy. Snuffy was cowering in fear as I approached him whereas the others were docile except Robert who seemed to take a liking towards me. It seems Snuffy became more withdrawn and fearful after she lost her partner to cancer.

Azal returned after some time. He petted the dogs and we walked back. Half way through, I realized I’d forgotten the room key. It was scorching but we had to go back. I was extremely tired when we reached the room and decided to skip lunch as I didn’t have the energy to go back. After freshening up, Sammy and I got ourselves comfortable in bed. Sammy slipped into a deep siesta only coming to senses when we opened a Bournville bar. Seeing Azal work on his assignment, drawing diagrams in a notebook, I too sat up and started writing my journal. The CEO has given me another task - to come up with a marketing proposal for the farm. I work on that too side by side. 

By 3, we were out again. Now it is pretty obvious that we have nothing much to do here and no one is keen on giving us any work. So we decided to amuse ourselves by taking in all the sights and scenery. The veterinary students who have come for their week-long internship are put up in the rooms next to ours. Having skipped lunch, both of us are voraciously hungry by dinner time. And there comes the chicken masala and rice and sambar n chapatis! Sheer bliss.

Day Three:

Nobody here expects us to be up and running before the sun takes center stage. But the outdoors is more inviting in the early hours, Sammy loves her daily walks and we don’t want to miss our morning tea. So we dragged ourselves out by 7:15 and went about our business. During our morning walk, we saw a wild pig and its baby walking towards us from a distance. We called out to Sammy to alert her. With all the noise we made, the pigs retreated and disappeared from sight. Tea never arrived. At breakfast time, we went to the dining area.

We got in and helped ourselves with some lemon rice. Mr. Reddy was around, trying to act bossy with the boys, pretending to reprimand them for being slow and instructing them regarding jobs they know best. After gulping down some food, I went with Deb aka Chotu to count the chickens and Azal tagged along with Debojit, one of the men at the piggery. Chotu is sweet. I watched and clicked pictures as he got on with his work, occasionally interrupting him with my queries and requests to click pictures. After counting the chickens and turkeys, we proceeded to the pigeon pen. Chotu let me hold one of the squabs. I cupped that fragile form of life in my palms, sensing its fear of the world. The ducklings and the newly inducted set of chicks came next. This time, I counted too. He has a way of doing it. A divider is placed so that all the ducklings are behind it. Then he catches and drops them over to the other side, counting as he does it. I held a duckling in my hand. It was as delicate as the squab. I also tried holding a baby lamb and I could feel its heart thumping in fear. When we reached the kitchen, a little Assamese boy, a worker’s son, brought out a tiny piglet, about the size of a 1 litre mineral water bottle. He was pretty clumsy with it and the piglet shrieked as he pressed its neck. Barely 20 days old, it struggling to walk on the uneven surface, falling and getting back up. Chotu got some milk from the kitchen and dropped it into the piglet's mouth using a plastic syringe. He swallowed it greedily and stopped when he had enough to get him going till evening, when he would be fed his second meal. I asked Chotu why this piglet was here and not with the rest of the gang in the piggery. He said they wanted to keep him because he is cute.

A Rottweiler is caged near the kitchen. Chotu brought him out and tied him to a tree. His name is i2. Chotu said that he is a little crazy in the head and can snap. I watched the dog intently. With bent knees and searching eyes, he was dragging himself around and sniffing the earth. He could not stand straight. In a frantic attempt to get himself together, he peed. He reminded me of a boy with autism. I left the place, got back to my room, freshened up and reclined to my bed, half naked. Azal returned post lunch, tired and dirty after cleaning the quarantine section of the pig pen. He made notes, rested and took off again at 3. I lazed around, footling on my phone and occasionally munching on chocolates and peanut brittle. Well, I had an excuse to be indoors. The marketing proposal was taking good shape. 

After the evening walk and feeding, Sammy and I decided to go in search of Azal. She was excited to take a new route, exploring its every nook and corner. She amused herself by scaring chickens and dabbling in poultry feed. The snorting of the pigs hidden away in their pen, piqued her curiosity. Near the quarantine, we spotted Azal chatting with Mr. Reddy. We returned to the room. Dinner was filling. 

Day Four:

Our day began at 7. Morning walk, feeding, breakfast. Azal left to join his team. They are plastering the pig pen today. I took a long walk around the farm looking for Chotu. On the way I peeped into the shack where the dog food is cooked. There was a bottle of vitamin supplements for animals on the bench outside. I saw one of the workers running after a kitten. Finally, he managed to chase it to the warehouse. I guess that’s where they live. Three naughty kittens, siblings.

Back in my room, I was active on Whatsapp, reminiscing old times in our school group. Azal came back after lunch, rested and went again a little before 3. Sammy and I got out after 5. Routine. After giving Sammy a bath, I called out to Azal to get her towel. In a jiffy, she darted into the courtyard. Azal was plucking leaves to scrub his soiled body, oblivious to what was happening. A cat and mouse chase followed. Undoubtedly, Azal couldn’t catch up with Sammy who was sprinting madly, with her tail down and ears pulled backwards. I watched the show knowing only too well how it was going to end. When Azal had given up and both of us were pretending to go in, leaving her in the dark, she came back and just sat on the ground near the steps. I took her back into the bathroom. She was bathed in red earth, exuding a raw form of energy. Another wash and all was back to normal. All this activity left her hungry. She gobbled some cookies to soothe the spell. 

Day Five:

Our morning walk ended abruptly when Sammy wandered away, unwittingly jumping over the electrified fence, to the adjoining plot. There were eight to ten wires stretched horizontally and tied to cemented poles on either end. We could not go to the other side without getting a shock. So we had to somehow coax her to come closer to the fence and pull her back in. Startled on realizing that she was trapped, she stood there looking at us and then walked straight ahead hoping there might be an escape route somewhere. But the wiring just got more stringent and we walked back, hoping she would follow suit. She did. At one point, Azal tried to pull her in. She got a shock, shrieked and moved away. Now there was no way she would go near him or the fence. I tried to distract her and continued walking so that she would follow. I could see that she desperately wanted to escape but was too scared to put herself through the trauma. I tried this time and got a shock myself, scaring her again. In the end, Azal managed to get her to our side by lifting her front legs and lowering her head and doing the same with her lower body. Still in the shock, she ran towards the room with her tail uncurled. I fixed her breakfast – a hearty beef meal from US which my brother in law had gifted her, mixed with last night’s leftover rice. There are few problems that a good meal cannot fix and she was alright again.

Azal joined the veterinary interns on their visit to the pigsty. I sat on the verandah, digesting the fact that stretching your legs in the sit-out, listening to the birds chirping and cooing as they flitted among the branches, is indeed a luxury for city dwellers like us who are received every morning by the sight of garbage and stray cows. After breakfast, Chotu and I went to bathe the dogs. Niccol, one of the dogs, had sprained his leg and was unable to stand. He usually sleeps on his back like Sammy, with his paws up in the air. One of his legs must have got stuck between the grills. He looked sick with flies sitting on his eyes and nostrils. We bathed the others one by one by tying them to a tree, spraying water with a hose pipe and scrubbing their bodies with a generous amount of dog shampoo. The cages reeked of urine. Chotu cleaned them and swept away the dry leaves that had fallen from the trees. I walked back to the room. Azal came back some time later and he seemed happy with the pig sty – it was considerably well-maintained compared to everything else. Money talks. He said that the pigs are kept in separate quarters because the males always try to mount the females and the females are always fighting amongst each other. There is a special one for mothers, a custom-designed one to ensure the piglets aren't hurt as they fell asleep, dropping their overweight bodies to the floor. Then he went on to explain how they are mated, checked for pregnancy and named depending on the combination of the breeds. To check for readiness, they make a male walk near the females and those that secrete vaginal fluid at the time are in heat and ready for mating. They are not given more than 5-10 minutes to decide if they should get grooving. If the female is not receptive, the male is taken away. No forced sex. Only quickies! Knock her off and get the hell out. Damn!

Time seemed to stand still. Power cuts were common in the afternoons. I tried to sleep those hours away. Sammy grew restless way before her walk time. We got out at 5. She refused to follow me in the direction we usually take. She was still traumatized by the shock she got in the morning. Eventually, I had to leash her so that she would feel safe. After we crossed the problem area, I let her off-leash. She was normal again. We took a peep into the pigsty and met Azal. Back in the room, Sammy had her evening meal which consisted of rice and beef. Later, we walked to the kitchen area in search of Azal. Sammy was pampered by the Assamese family. We gave a few chocolates to Abhijeet, Deb’s son who was about 7 years old. We clicked pictures with Deb and Chotu and took down their phone numbers. One of the guys might come with us to Bangalore tomorrow. He has a train to catch in the night.

Day Six:

We drove back to Bengaluru - its endless traffic, metropolitan tendencies, endless choice of food and the familiar surroundings we called home for the last nine months. Bijoy hopped in along with us and we played Assamese music from his phone as we traversed the hinterland of Karnataka. We reached home at 2:30 pm after dropping off Bijoy at CV Raman Nagar where his friends picked him up. We sent the photos to Deb and Chotu, and chatted with them on Whatsapp. Deb called up Azal later, and inquired about our journey and if we had dinner. The sweet gesture only reinforces the fact that simpler people have bigger hearts. 

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