I went for the pots and Pens writing retreat planning to write the great Indian novella. The retreat was conducted at the Shilaroo Project. I did write but the retreat turned into a writing research trip which according to Aditi is still writing. I experienced farming, the forest, plenty of photo opportunities, superb people, pottery and some challenging navigation situations. I was running the vOICe on my vision 800 smart glasses and used them extensively to get a feel of the place.
The house at The Shilaroo Project is situated upon multiple levels thanks to it being on a hill. There were many staircases. The staircases inside the house were easy to find and navigate due to the use of railings. The risers were large and visually distinct. However, things were different outside. Yes, some of the main staircases did have railings but the steps were not uniform, and vision was not the best tool to use in this situation especially when descending. I had to bend my neck and really study the staircase, for which I did not have patience. However, I had human guides with me, so I did not have a significant problem. The farm is full of interesting places such as the blue bridge over the pond. It is terrific for photography due to the contrast of light and shade. There is a variety of plants including some large apple trees. The multiple levels also make for great photography angles.
Light independent pottery
One of the attractions of pottery is its physical nature. You hold the clay in your hands to work with it. Vision does not play a significant role at the initial stage. You need to determine the right amount of water to put, the texture of the clay etc., by feel. Yes, looking at delicate clay pots is a visual activity. I experimented with a manual potter’s wheel and a variety of carving tools.
Clay is an excellent material for teaching blind people geometry. I could carve straight lines and other shapes into clay. The best thing is that erasing my drawing is as simple as rolling the clay into a ball and mushing it. You can then use your palms to press the clay into a new shape. The manual wheel is a lot of fun. You sit on a stool like contraption and then use one leg to push the bottom plate of the wheel. There is a ball bearing that will rotate the upper wheel. I had to be careful here. I could spin the wheel fast, but I had to first center the clay. In addition, I had to avoid touching the clay as I pushed the wheel else it would jerk and go off center. The other thing I found was that touching the spinning wheel was a mistake. I had to touch only the clay. Muscle memory was enough for this because I had placed the clay. I did splash a fair bit of clay around. None of it hit the camera. However, getting different shapes conceptually did take some knowledge of geometry and of 2d vs. 3d. For example, we were discussing the shaping of cup handles. Virangna suggested that they looked like human ears. I felt my ear and tried comparing it to a cup handle and failed. The way I understood this comparison was to think about drawing the handle and my ear on a sheet of paper and converting from 3d to 2d.
Solving the mystery of terrace farming
The high-point for me was when Virangna demonstrated how terraces are cut for farming. It was one of those things that was never fully explained in geography class and I was unable to imagine what the process would be. Yes, the mountain side would be cut but then where would the cutting machinery stand? She and Arun Cherian, the architect of the Shilaroo project created a model of a mountain in clay. On the side of the mountain facing me, they then cut a trench like path to the base of the mountain. Finally, they took a trimming tool and cut away the side of the mountain by widening the trench. That explained the cutting of the mountain. The mountain had to be re-enforced by adding metal plates and building walls usually out of Roller-compacted concrete. They then took small cubes of clay and added them to the mountain creating houses.
I go unplugged with yoga
The yoga studio is a large hall with about 22 electrical wall outlets. The irony is that I did not need to use them. The space has large glass windows that let in the sun. Wearable technology is almost forbidden in class. The idea is to listen to your body. It may be possible to watch a teacher do the steps of each exercise because Upa yoga is done very slowly. However, verbal instructions and quick corrections with some extra time worked. The highlight here was that Shubhangna, the yoga teacher was willing to have a conversation and to respect contrary points of view. Moreover, she explained the reason behind each exercise and could change it where necessary based on my needs.
The forest walk conducted on top of the Hatu peak was advertised as one of the highlights of the trip and it more than lived up to that expectation. The hike was easy. I took plenty of pictures. This is where I ran into a challenge in path finding. I had limited time therefore could not experiment extensively. Detecting obstacles on the ground is a challenge due to low light levels because of the litter of dead leaves on the ground.
I had to identify tree roots and other objects. I also tried some quick scanning through the trees to find a path but did not get very far. I need to test a wide-angle view in this situation. There were also safety concerns. There were sudden drop offs and one slip meant a fall of about 200 feet.
We had a picnic lunch and then Aditi asked us to use synesthesia to write. I had live synesthesia sounding in my ears which made for some creative work. However, this is where the bees interfered.
We were seated in a meadow like area surrounded by trees and flowers. The highway was a distant memory and there were almost no other people around. You would think that would be the perfect environment for writing. Perhaps yes, for some of you but for me, it was not. I have read in literature of the comforting droning of bees but with respect, the author of those words does not know what he is talking about. I could hear the high-pitched buzzing noise as they flew. The noise would drop in pitch as they came near me and then they would accelerate away. There were indeed flowers where we were sitting. I was using a Logitech K480 keyboard with my iPhone SE which worked like a charm. I wrote 3 paragraphs and then realized that my temptation to use the keyboard as a bee swat was too strong. I knew this was a bad idea. The bees were ignoring me, and the rest of the group did not appear to have a problem. We read our pieces and hiked back with me taking a few more photos.
I see the moon
We had a camp fire night.
The sky was clear with the stars and moon shining. I tilted my head up to see the stars. No go. I did not see any light. However, the moon was different. Thanks to Virangna and Arun for the apple pie walk and helping me find the moon. The farm had tiny lights to facilitate night time navigation. We found a clear area and then they pointed my head in the right direction to see that pinpoint of light. It was a spec in the camera view, but I did see the moon. As a child, I was told that the moon was in the sky. The sky was above me, so I expected to see the moon when I turned my head to the sky. This is almost correct. I had to look at an angle to see the moon. I also had a look at the kitchen because we had to check the status of the apple pie.
Aditi Rao and my writing group for the fantastic support and terrific stories
Vidula Sonagra for logistics and image descriptions
Brig. Anuj Kainthla, Vsm (Retd.)- for clearing my concepts on stellar navigation and the use of blankets as well as for gadget charging heaven thanks to the plethora of electrical sockets
Anita Kainthla for her hospitality, food and desserts
Virangna and Shubhangna Kainthla for art, yoga and fascinating conversation
The staff at the Shilaroo project for back end support