Why are we scared of germs?

In a single line, Dettol scared the daylight out of us…nothing else happened.

Everything around us, the air, water, our food is teeming with microbes. Not just that, but we have them thriving in our hair, skin and mouths too…

We could not make curds, cheeses, idli-dosa or breads without microbes. We cannot even digest the food in our gut without them… and breaking down the bio-degradable stuff is impossible witout microbes too.

Microbes are not just our neighbors on this planet but also our companions… Their populations, ability to adapt, survive and thrive is unparalleled, making many researchers believe that the mankind is just another species living on this planet ruled by the microbes!

Some researchers also claim that The history of mankind is actually choreographed by the microbes! And if we look closely, at the epidemics and political tides that followed each one, could we refute that?!

We have been at war with the microbes for generations…. In the last two centuries we managed to get a glimpse of their omnipresent diversity, but we are nowhere close to defeating them, are we?!

Studying the microbial world confirmed many personal hygiene rules. Regular baths, washing hands after using toilet and before having meals, keeping food and water clean are the basics that mankind is learning in order to say healthy.

But we have not really internalized the good habits of social hygiene yet. While on the other hand we are frantic to terminate all the microbes from our life. “Be 100%sure to kill 99.9%germs”?! Really?!! They show it on the TV, under a microscope, wriggling germs on one side and a clean white stretch on another… Within just a matter of few years, this symbolic image buried a seed of fear, deep in our minds! Weird, green-yellow creatures sitting in a toilet, plotting to attack the inhabitant’s health, became representation of the microbes, the modern villains! And to defeat them, it was inevitable to use the most harmful chemicals found by the mankind as our ammunition…

We cannot see the microbial world with our naked eyes and we CANNOT annihilate them. Our antibiotics and disinfectants have no substantial effect on the germs, and the researchers know this now… So if we cannot defeat them, then now what?! Could we ask for their allegiance instead?!

Following the fundamental rules of hygiene, good food, along with regular exercise and generally ensuring a good resistance, these are the only things we can effectively ensure. No matter what amazing technology we come up with, ensuring a complete disconnect from the germs is not just impossible but laughable.

It is far more reasonable to allow the good microbes to live with us and let them balance out the bad germs for us. Our true defense lies in the diversity of microbes…

Our inherent immunity is a miraculous power. White blood cells can recognize a wide range of germs and hence we are capable of sending out the right protein to block the most of them if the need be. Once a certain pathogen is identified by the body, the chances of falling sick with that specific infection is almost null. So wider the diversity of germs introduced in moderation, stronger our defenses will be.

On the other hand there is no such thing as 100% germfree. It is a lie. Microbes grow resilient to our hazardous chemicals much faster than our own bodies. Quite obviously, these chemicals end up causing us more harm than to germs, and in the meanwhile, we have also weakened our immunity.

Living in fear of germs and going to the fanatic extremes of hygiene, is not a progressive mindset. It is in fact, superstitious and hence highly unscientific.

In the last few years, though talking to many people, and looking up the vast and yet incomplete information about the microbes, I am trying to draw up my own ‘microbe policy’. It has invaluable contributions by many crazy people, friends, philosophers, nomads and such. But since I am certain to attract a fair amount of bad repute for voicing my microbe policy, it seems wiser to keep them anonymous and safe!

Before explaining the Microbe Policy, I do owe you some explanations:

  1. It is a policy, flexible unlike the religion. So it changes from time to time and place to place, depending on the availability of resources and such things.
  2. I am no researcher or medical practitioner. So my views are NOT valid. I am only exercising my own fundamental freedom to make my personal hygiene decisions.
  3. This is MY policy and is used here only as an example. It is, quite obviously, not applicable to any other person. So make your own policy and stick to it, as long as it does not interfere with someone else’s policy of hygiene.
  4. And if you do not want to draw up your own policy, much better! Dettol, Lizol and such entities are doing that for you. Just follow them, it is, I promise, so much hassle-free! You can actually skip thinking!!

So…I travel a lot for work, and mostly in remote regions, faraway hamlets and villages. Bottled drinking water is available everywhere these days. But it does not feel very responsible of me, if I travel, leaving behind a trail of disposed plastic. I am personally, more scare of plastic than germs, believe me! So I carry my own metal bottle and refill it at local drinking water points, tea-stalls, bus-stands and other such known unhygienic places. I have been drinking unfiltered tap water at home for a few years now. We get a decent water supply and have had no complaints so far.

Eating out with unclean hands is quite common while traveling. But whenever I reach the destination, as a rule, I eat whatever is served locally. Apart from slight bloated tummy, on rare occasions I have never had any major illness.

In most villages across India, one is lovingly served locally grown, home cooked, clean, vegetarian food without any problem. Possibility of exposure to chemical pesticides and fertilizers is inversely proportional to the distance from the closest big city. So farther away the village, better the chances at getting organic food!

But since plastic waste in omnipresent, often villagers use it to fire up their chulhas. I definitely fear breads crisped on plastic embers.

Since I stopped using a vehicle to commute to a city job, I do not get up every day to ride through the smoke, contributing more smoke, cursing the traffic jams and insensitive jerks riding along…  Being deficient in the amount of inhaled vehicular exhaust smoke, I have lost my good old friend, common cold… Even a mild throat infection has become a rare surprise for someone like me who lived with annoying cough for weeks at times.

And even with all this, if once in a couple of years I do catch common cold, I do not feel bad about it. Instead of wasting time, thinking about which germs caught me where, I spend a couple of days resting leisurely, since, hey, I do not have to commute anywhere!

Work schedules are usually a little too laid back in the villages. One does not have to stretch their physical and metal limits too much, if one is unwell. It is okay to rest and be nice to our own bodies…. Yes, I admit rural work-life comes with a little compromise on the finance department…

In my own house, soap-nut and lemon base vinegar suffices for pot-wash and laundry. Lentil flour, milk cream or coconut cream, or many other nicked ingredients from the kitchen make wonderful body wash. The same soapnut-lemon vinegar works as a shampoo for my hair.

I would not have my vinegar without the microbes, would I?!

It lathers wonderfully and washing it off does not affect the river where all the sewage ends up….

Coconut oil in warmer climates and mustard oil in colder climates gives great hair massage. Milk curds or eggs work as nourishing hair conditioners for my hair type, when I feel like pampering myself…

Curds, buttermilk, Idli-Dosa, yeast breads and many ferments are definitely in my food and beverage list, replenishing my own personal microbial diversity. Eating street food with unclean hands does happen once in a while, to add to everything.

Apart from all the madness, at home or any place I stay long term, washing feet and hands regularly is a meticulous practice. If the village has sufficient water, baths are welcome! If not, I have trained myself to not complain. Rural water issues run far too deep than my trivial bathing needs…

Eat local, seasonal fruits, vegetables and forest foods whenever available. Instead of eating wheat every day, finger millets like pearl millet (bajra), sorghum (jowar) or raagi mixed with rice make good flat breads, (bhakri).

Split pigeon pea (toor daal) is although most common part of daily protein portion of our diet, it has so many siblings! I have grown to prefer the red lentil (Masoor) and moong daals instead, initially for their non-political diverse food value… and now for their deliciousness!

Every year, onion prices rise once, that I believ is the wrong season to eat too much onion anyway. That time of the year is usually a forest veggie fest time.. so no reason to miss one ingredient.

No refined oil for cooking, we use locally pressed oil of preferably from one of the many oilseeds available. Why worship only one oilseed?! In effect, I do not feel nauseated by any oil smell and can eat happily through almost any food culture!

So basically, if we manage ‘diversity’ aspect, no one kind of germs gets over nourished. Wider the diversity of germs, healthier I live, is my observation.

And then, the stuff that is not edible for me is eaten up by the microbes in my compost pit. I get chilies, tomatoes or bitter gourds once in a while, as a return gift from them!

Microbes bless you!

Of course, not falling sick too often is ‘my’ achievement really. Our immunity is mysteriously efficient little system! I can at the most thank my ancestors for the genetic gifts and of course the microbes, for keeping me well.

With age and other reason I will naturally fall sick, but for sure I cannot blame microbes for that.

There are many more aspects of life where I would like to show the market bought chemicals out of the door and invite my beloved microbes to come and stay, but it is a slow task…. For eccentricities are new superstitions and just as unscientific…

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The Grampari Affair Part I

I never wanted to get involved in this Grampari affair…. I had decided with full affirmation, to stop chasing the butterflies and take up a job in an architecture office, straight from morning ten to six in the evening, every day of the year….

***

I knew Renie since the Ecological Society Course. He worked somewhere in Panchgani. I got a chance to wander around with this geologist friend, while carrying out ecological surveys for Oikos. That is when I started inquiring more about his actual work.

He was working on Spring shed management project at Grampari, MRA in Panchgani. Of course this made no sense to me. So it was inevitable that, after resigning from Oikos, I should grab a bus straight to panchgani to visit this project.

It was absolutely casual visit. I anyway did not want to get involved with this Grampari affair….

The campus was abuzz with International Women’s Day event. Women Sarpanch and men assistant surpanch (Now, that’s exciting, isn’t it?!) had gathered there. Women’s participation in village administration has not improved merely by providing them reserved designations in Panchayat system. But here at Grampari these women public representatives got a chance to know the intricate laws, discuss their rights and responsibilities with legal experts and experienced social workers. With such exposure, I noticed, they were much more assertive and confident in their bearing.

Renie got me introduced to everyone at Grampari. I was already admiring ever smiling Jayashree Aunty, Dr Jared and Soumya. Who knew they were directors of Grampari?!

Some unknown people from another corner of the world come and stay in a village, helping my people to know, understand and conserve our environment, health and sanitation… that was invoking natural curiosity in my mind…

All sorts of crazy questions were shooting out, unrestrained by my usually recluse nature. In conclusion, that absolutely normal day ended with Jared offering me a job with Grampari. I was hastily nodding in agreement while refusing verbally!

Next week I was in panchgani to see the spring shed project being executed in the neighboring village of Godavli. (We’ll write another post on it!) There was no harm in just visiting…

I was anyway not getting involved in this Grampari affair!

We decided my work hours, time schedule and other such details that day. In next week I had signed a short term contract with Grampari. It is a two month contract with a clever clause of extension possible at the end of the term! I am going to refuse…

I am NOT going get involved in this Grampari affair!

This is how I started working from home. Helping with the documentation of Spring shed Protection Program is my primary task. With the help of ample visuals, sketches and drawings we are making a spring shed management handbook to be used in the Western Ghats or comparable ecosystems. Naturally, first I had to become watershed-literate!

That is how my Pune-Panchgani trips started. Now MSRTC is my second home. I know almost every conductor on Pune-Mahabaleshwar semi luxury bus route! Besides, I can write another whole post about my crazy co-passengers!

Every time I get down from the bus, I take a deep breath….. Inhaling entire Western Ghats, the forest, every eagle hovering over the valley, every stepped rice field and the wild crazy wind…

And I know, that it makes no sense hence forth to not get involved in this affair….

It is impossible to not smile when I walk up to the MRA campus. As if some chirpy, mad bird possesses me! I never know if I walk or fly up there!

Then follow endless discussions, work reviews, planning what to sketch next….  Sometimes we go off on a site inspection all day long. Although, calling it an inspection is nowhere near the actual experience! I carry cement bags on my head, dig with a pickaxe along with Jared and his assistant, “Ashok bhau”. Carrying batches of freshly mixed concrete, cleaning old stone built water tanks are as much part of my job description as sketching by the lily pond or providing a running translation between my boss and the villagers.

On another day I translated to and from English so much that by the end of the day I was speaking native Marathi with the boss and English with the villagers.  The whole village laughed at me… and then Tukaram Aba, one of the village elders called for a tea break!

***

Food and boarding facilities are excellent at MRA, so much that at times I find myself too pampered. Not having to cook is another bonus for me! Meal times are very special proceedings here. Initially I was too baffled to dine with so many strangers. Where to sit? What to eat? Who to talk with?

Basically understanding this institution and explaining it in a single blog post is impossible for me! But slowly the mealtimes became my greatest learning sessions. Strangers are not scary; they are just an unexplored opportunity to learn! I eat at a different table every day. Sometimes I dine with the interns who work at MRA, sometimes it is my bosses, MRA officials, guests, well-wishers, resident staff or volunteers….. a multicolor collage of people from across the world… people with different expertise, different backgrounds, different motivations…. All so different!

I started firing everyone with my endless questions. I remember once, the secretary of MRA sat with me, answering my rapid-fire, while his plate almost dried out. (Maybe that is why he avoided my table since then!)

With hundred or so dining at every mealtime, imagine the number of plates and cutlery to be washed! Hence, everyday one department of MRA helps in wash-up. I started to groove into this tradition of washing plates with songs and laughter as accompaniments! As a kid I always dreamed of washing dishes when I grew up…or at least grew up enough to reach over the sink! Who thought childhood aspirations could come true in such way!

Yona, one of the African interns hugged me for helping the interns with their wash up, on a specifically rush day… After a baffled moment, I too decided to wrap my soap sodden arms around her!

One of the cloudy evenings I have spent with this girl, who filled up the glass faced meditation center with her honeyed voice, singing some unknown chants…. It is impossible that God would miss her clear bell like song flowing into the valley…..

***

There is much more to share about this Grampari affair, maybe with pictures next time!