Notes from a Keralan Hillside: Gaia Grid

Do you know what I mean when you encounter certain places or situations in your life that you struggle to describe, because if you do some of the magic may be lost? Gaia Grid is such a place. I’ll do my best, but the point is, to understand Gaia Grid, it has to be experienced, more than anywhere else we’ve been in India so far.

Gaia Grid's communal living area

We came to know about Gaia Grid, high in the northern Keralan hills, close to the Tamil Nadu border, through WorkAway, a vast network of global voluntary projects whereby work is exchanged for board and lodging. We knew that we wanted to engage in at least one or two voluntary projects during our six months away, and here’s what we read about the place:

Off-grid, self-sustainable, vegan farm in the making in the hills of Kerala, India

Well, we’ve never lived off-grid before (apart from camping, but that’s different), allotment aside we haven’t really done much farm work and we’re not vegan. Did we know what we’d be doing? Not really. Did we have an idea what the accommodation or living space would be like? Not at all. Before going, the children joked that we were going to hard labour camp. BUT, we had a good feeling about Gaia Grid and sometimes, you just have to trust your instincts.

Kitchen and cooking area

Started as a seed of a dream by Harsh Valechha a few years ago when he bought an acre of land in the hills, far from his native north-eastern India, his dream has now taken root and each week, something grows, either literally or figuratively.

The days were hot so all work at this time of year is carried out after sunrise and in the late afternoons. Between the five of us, over our 10 days at Gaia Grid, this is the kind of work we were doing:

Mulching, mixing compost, helping build a seed nursery, collecting cow and even elephant dung to add nutrients to the compost (we never saw them but there is a local wandering herd of 13 elephants), emptying the compost toilet latrine into a hole (Andy!) where a tree will be planted, helping to create the wood-burning stove, painting windows and up-cycling old rice sacks and stitching on them, turning them into meditation cushions.

Mixing compost

I stitched this on to an old rice sack

The seed nursery goes up

Maya painting windows beneath bookshelves made from old crates

Benji collecting elephant dung for compost (that face!)

Gaia Grid is a place where you live communally, there is no running water, you wash clothes and yourselves al fresco, soap is made from lime and ash and tomatoes are plucked from tangled vines and added to the communal cooking pot. It is a place where you cook on an open fire and vegan pizzas are created in the homemade pizza oven (vegan pizzas? You may well ask. I’m not a vegan and it wasn’t mozzarella, but I’m telling you, that cashew cheese was to die for). There are no mirrors, no concept of time, no private space and electricity is powered by the sun.

A typical Gaia Grid breakfat

It took a little getting used to, I can’t deny it. We turned up and I did wonder, is this too much for the children? But…you know what I’m going to say, don’t you? The children felt right at home immediately. Perhaps I use my children as a mask, as really it’s Andy and I who have to slow right down, re-align our expectations and stop DOING all the time. I love this illustration from author Maurice Sendak and nowhere has this spoken to me more than at Gaia Grid:

Because we did a lot of this. When we weren’t working, we were looking for ways to fill those gaps. We all know this, that we need to slow down, to appreciate the small things and to find that ’still, small voice of calm’. I, for one, often manage to pour action and 'doing' into those quiet spaces. Because being busy is being productive and being productive can only be a good thing, right? Well, if it comes at the cost of presence, maybe not.

Maya ♥︎

Lily ♥︎

Andy at the stream & shrine at the bottom of the hill ♥︎

Benji making sounds from grass ♥︎

Lily put in some serious hammock time, reading & learning Spanish

Here is what the children found themselves gravitating towards during those moments of inactivity in the heat of the day on a Keralan hillside. I can say with all certainty that these wouldn't have come aboutwithout those stretches of enforced stillness:

Lily started learning Spanish in earnest. She has often talked about taking up Spanish and finally it happened.

Maya took up German and practised her pronunciation with a German volunteer. She also perfected her morse code and now writes and reads her diary fluently in code.

Benji came out of his shell in a way we’ve rarely seen. He can sometimes suffer from crippling anxiety and self-doubt, so to watch him hanging out with the volunteers in their twenties, asking questions and getting stuck in with the work was a joy to witness. Clearly, he felt himself to be in a safe space with kind, open people where he could just be himself. He also made rope with Andy from one of the plants on the land, sewed a mini owl, whittled a spoon and carved himself a bowl from a coconut shell.

Maya swimming in the stream

Clothes drying above our tent

Harsh

Loading up the jeep to leave Gaia Grid

Benji & Andy waiting for the bus to take us to Coimbatore

A post-Gaia Grid grubby, happy Lily

Gaia Grid is mindful, sustainable, conscious, simple living at its very best. We met people from all round the world, ate delicious, healthy food which has made me view veganism in a whole new light (who ever knew that chia seeds could be used as substitute egg or that cheese could be made from nuts?) and simply had time to read, cook, dream and be quiet near a little stream.

It was exactly the right thing that we ended up there, I really believe that. We were the first family to make the journey to Gaia Grid and for all of us, it was a time filled with contemplation, feeling India's soil between our hands and a deep connection with the land and those we shared the space with.

I’ll leave you with Harsh, the wonderful founder of Gaia Grid and his TEDx talk. He explores how we can be that change in the world that Mahatama Gadhi infamously talks of, and before we try to change ourselves, understanding 'what kind of change fits the purpose.'

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3 thoughts on “Notes from a Keralan Hillside: Gaia Grid”

  1. Makes me teary glad to read about your experience at Gaia Grid. Beautifully written about this beautiful place. <3
    I think I might have contributed with the chia seeds 🙂

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