Cool and Green and Shady: Visiting Karuna Trust/VGKK in BR Hills – or – On Rural Tranquility, Marriage, and Why Dropping Your Phone in a Toilet When You are Far from Home is Never a Good Idea

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I traveled to Biligiriranga Hills last week to visit the Karuna Trust/VGKK hospital campus and the other CASI-Karuna Trust interns from Penn who are living there.  The temperatures were pleasant, the views amazing, and the quiet blissful.  While I was there I stayed at Gorukana (see http://gorukana.org/), which is billed as a “sustainable eco-tourism wildlife resort”.  The accommodations were lovely, as was the food, and I would highly recommend a visit if you are ever in this part of India.  An interesting aspect of Gorukana (which I believe is a Soliga word for “web”) is that it was set up by VGKK (Karuna Trust is affiliated) to both generate profits that could be funneled back into the organization as well as to provide training for members of the Soliga tribe in the hospitality industry and as naturalists.  I went on a lovely nature trek (more like a nature amble, really, but that was about the speed I was up for anyway) and my guide, Jadeya was a wealth of information about the trees, plants, birds and animals – their names, medicinal properties, edibility, seasonality and how local people used them.  He showed me 3-feet deep pits where people had recently dug out tubers and described how they were roasted in a special way.  I also enjoyed his stories about how the traditional Soliga people told time in the forest.  In addition to sun position and shadows providing a clue, Jadeya said there is a particular flowering plant where the blossoms open slowly during the course of the day. When the plant was fully covered with opened blossoms, it was approximately 3pm and about time to return home from the forest.  Another way of telling the time is the way bees tend to cluster around their hives in the trees in late afternoon (presumably returning from their own work), making a loud buzzing hum.  When that became audible to people, it was another indication that it was time to head home for the day.

Another Gorukana naturalist and guide, Jadeswamy, who more or less dedicated his time to me since I was one of only a few people staying at Gorukana during this time of year, took me on a walk to the local temple.  This one, like the one on Chamundi Hill near where I live in Mysore, has many stone steps to  climb to get to the top.  Thankfully, in this case only 200, and not 1000.  Why are temples often on the tops of tall hills? I’m sure there is a good explanation.  Closer to god(s), maybe?  Jadeswamy lamented the fact that an influx of restoration money was being spent on painting over the temple’s natural stone with bright gaudy colors.  I think installing an elevator might have been a good investment.  He also walked me off the road and along a hard dirt track to visit a “podu”, a small collection of homes (8 families) that’s not really quite a village and which the Gorukana website describes as a “tribal hamlet”.  This one was off the grid – no road, no power.  Because this region of the BR Hills is a protected area, power installation in some of the podus is not even an option.  I learned a little bit also about contentious land disputes between corrupt developers and local people.  This region of India is so beautiful I can see why those with money are making land-grabs.  I hope, however, that there are adequate protections in place for people who have lived in the region for hundreds of years.  Jadeya  told me that the Soligas have lived in BR Hills for 5000 years.  Before I left I also got to join a jeep safari very early one morning. (So early, in fact, that I was almost comatose from lack of sleep which resulted, tragically, in my dropping my phone in a toilet at the wildlife sanctuary.  Perhaps I shouldn’t go into the details.  Oh, OK, I will. Wearing jeans for the first time in many weeks, thereby somewhat forgetting their mechanics + stupidly putting phone in back pocket + squat toilet = disaster.  Luckily, I was able to purchase another one second hand within a few hours from one of the Gorukana employees.  A very good thing because my phone is my lifeline to home.)  On the safari we went deep into the forest in the hope of seeing a tiger or elephant, but it is not the season for it.  We did see many spotted deer (not too different in appearance from the ones I occasionally startle on early morning runs in Haddonfield, NJ), a wild boar, and a gnu-looking type of creature (which may in fact have been a gnu, but I didn’t quite catch the name as I was simultaneously trying not to bounce out of the jeep in my sleepy stupor and mourning my dear departed phone).  While we were out, we also delivered water to the anti-poacher watchmen’s camp, very deep within the forest.  Three watchmen live there, going home on a rotation only 1-2 days out of 7.  Home is an 8 kilometer walk through the forest.

As much as I reveled in being surrounded by the quiet (aside from monkeys pattering on my roof , including one who peered steadily through my window one morning) and the natural beauty, the highlight for me was catching up with Bhargavi and Isabel, two of the other interns from Penn working with Karuna Trust this summer.  I hadn’t seen them since we hastily parted ways in Bangalore eons ago.  They joined me at Gorukana for a delicious meal and brought along some friends (two interns from Iowa and a Karuna Trust doctor) from the VGKK/Karuna Trust hospital down the road.  The next day, I walked in that direction myself so Isabel could show me around the hospital campus.  It is extremely impressive, with a new hospital (also an older one converted now to other use), a children’s school, housing for staff members and boarding students, a school for training auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) and a livelihoods center where local people bottle and can fruit juices and honey for sale.  The place was abuzz with activity.  I am accustomed now to children stopping me and asking me for my name and country – it is a way to meet and a way for them to test out the English they learn in school.  However, hilariously, one naughty boy, probably around 10, clearly couldn’t understand a word I said and burst out laughing and then imitated my American accent with exaggerated chewing sounds!  I guess American-accented English must sound like we are biting off and chewing something mighty bouncy!  Which, when you think about it, is kind of how John Wayne talks in movies.

At Gorukana I also got to know a young couple who were there for their honeymoon.  I am often asked by young women if I am married, how old I was when I got married, and whether I have children.  They are standard woman-to-woman inquiries here.  When I say that I am married, one of the next questions is invariably whether it was a “love match”.  In my conversation with the woman at Gorukana, for the first time I began to get a faint glimmer of understanding of the appeal of arranged marriages.  Up until now, I have always been rather horrified at the idea.    But this newly married woman told me quite serenely and happily all about the arrangements for her marriage, including that her parents and parents’ friends had carefully researched suitable candidates, that horoscopes had been drawn up and studied for compatibility (she and her husband were off the charts on compatibility she told me happily), and that she met her husband for the first time this past March and got engaged two weeks later, and was married in mid-June.  So if one’s parents, parents’ friends, extended family, and the stars in the heavens all decree that someone is the right person for you, it surely results in a high degree of confidence about entering into a marriage.  I’m certainly not in a position to recommend the approach, but it did give me pause.  Although, if my daughter ever reads this, I’m in big trouble.

Finally, two amusing (and brief) stories about Gorukana amenities.  I must admit that after roughing it for many weeks, I was really looking forward to the luxuries offered there.   The soft bed was heavenly after weeks of sleeping on a one-inch thick cot mattress where the only comfortable position I can find is the “coffin position”.  I was also really looking forward to a hot shower and to using cutlery again at mealtimes.  But, to my surprise, within a day I was eating with my hands and taking bucket baths again!  How do you eat a chapatti or a dosa with a knife and fork? You can’t. And as soon as you make that concession to eating with your hands, there is no point in picking up a knife and fork again because you’d be spending more time repeatedly cleaning your fingers to pick up the cutlery again than you would eating.  Ridiculous.  And, while the hot shower would have been lovely, in an eco-friendly tourist resort the hot water tanks are the size of teacups.  As my first hot shower turned icy cold within minutes, I realized what every person in India knows already – filling a bucket with hot water instead of spraying it all over the place allows you to judiciously control the supply for maximum benefit.  And since Indian bathrooms are designed for you to be able to toss water around with abandon, you don’t have to worry about getting anything wet.  So I guess I’m a convert to bucket baths as well.  I just have to figure out how to get my bucket in my suitcase when I leave for home. 

Clare Leinweber
Karuna Trust – Mysore

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One thought on “Cool and Green and Shady: Visiting Karuna Trust/VGKK in BR Hills – or – On Rural Tranquility, Marriage, and Why Dropping Your Phone in a Toilet When You are Far from Home is Never a Good Idea

  1. sounds like you had so much fun!!! bummed i missed it 😦 good luck on the last week of the internship. i’m planning on going to gorukana for dinner tonight, so hopefully i can recreate the greatness of your meal 🙂

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About clareleinweber

Clare Leinweber holds a BA in anthropology and an MA in human development from the University of Chicago. She also has a graduate certificate in management from the Wharton School. Clare is a part-time student in the MPH program (global health track) at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Clare aims to integrate her experience developing and managing educational programs with her interest in the impact of education on public health in developing countries.