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Frank Cook's journey through India

These are the updates Frank Cook sent about his trip in India. They describe his explorations of culture, plant life, human uses of plants, and Ayurvedic and Nature Cure approaches to health and healing.

Added by greenman #8 on 2004-03-29. Last modified 2005-03-21 00:43. Originally created 2004-03-29. F1 License: Attribution
Location: World, India
Topics: diet, health, log or journal

Editor's note:

I first introduced carfreeuniverse readers to Frank Cook in my hoboschool article. I mentioned he was looking for people to go with him to India the following January. Here are some emails he sent about that trip. See the link above to find information on the books Frank has written and how you can order them. And contact Frank at plantnettalk @ yahoo.com (note this is a different address than the one given in hoboschool) to find out when he'll be leading a plant or seaweed walk or herbal elixir workshop near you! The link at the end of the article, email greenman, should let you email Frank as well. I added the prefaces in italics to each of Frank's emails. I asked Frank if I could publish his emails here in part to make sure I took the time to carefully read and learn about Frank's travels. I have enjoyed the trip! There still remain some parts of the text that are unclear. I have contacted Frank about these and hope to fix them soon.

Colin Leath, San Luis Obispo, Salmon Nation, Turtle Island, 24 June 2004, and while I'm at it, here are some other ecoregion and bioregion resources courtesy of wikipedia.


Delhi to Kerala

25 hour flight - brother Ken - Paraganj - Jesse - New Year - pollution - Bahai Lotus Temple - Aurobindo Ashram - the Red Fort - the Jastid Mastid - the zoo - white tiger - Triphala - Neem - City of 10 million - mix of rich and poor - by car and driver to Agra to Taj Mahal - Sandalwood, Plumeria, Cassias, Bauhinia- Krishna birthplace - ISHKAR head ashram - Fakehir Sakhir - danger of car travel - back to Delhi - Lodi Park - Ficus religiosa - diet - 3000 km South by plane - Kerala - acclimatizing to summer

January 11, 2004

{I hope you will take the time to follow this journey with a map of India (small - detailed - more - CIA - wikipedia)}

Hello Family and Friends,

I travelled for 25 hours leaving from San Francisco through Detroit (with its memorable computer-generated fountain) and Amsterdam (with an in-house art museum) finally arriving near midnight in Delhi (10 hours ahead of the East Coast of America).

There was no doubt where I was as I entered the terminal consumed by the smells of burning rubbish. It was a treat to have my brother, Ken, there to meet me and be swooped away through the night back to his hotel (he had arrived the day before).

The next day we changed accommodations to a more dynamic, reasonable area of the city called the Paraganj. Though it had been almost seven years since my time there not much had changed. The Paraganj is a many-ringed circus and I am always filled with its festive energy and opportunities to get most anything one can imagine. One morning the narrow street was filled with a huge, old elephant riding his master about complete with rear reflectors!

Our third companion in this adventure, Jesse, joined us the following day and the three of us brought in the new year high up on the rooftops watching fireworks, listening to the hoots and hollers from the parties all about. I do not recommend Delhi in the winter-dense fog, chilly temperatures and the all-pervasive pollution. I saw it as our possible future globally if we do not change our ways.

We made the most of our five days there sight-seeing: the huge Bahai Lotus Temple with its angelic resonance, the Aurobindo Ashram that pursues enlightenment through developing the mind (one of the few places in India that promotes organics; they even had spirulina for sale!), the Red Fort of the mogul empire, the Jastid Mastid (The Friday mosque), the largest in India where 25,000 gather each Friday to pray. Moslems pray five times a day--that early morning call to pray is memorable as it penetrates the sleep time. One of the days we visited the zoo with its wild hemp fields and white tiger (one of only a hundred in the world only found in captivity). At the zoo the trees were well-marked so we were able to have time with the Neem and the three trees that make up Triphala (perhaps the most famous formula of Ayurveda). These sites are spectacular in their own right but more wondrous as backdrops to this bustling city of 10 million. This has been the location of nine cities over the millennia so that it is a chaotic mosaic of old and new. Cell phone users stand by crippled beggars; natural gas buses honk at herds of wandering sacred cows looking for munchables.

We rented a car and driver for an overnight trip to Agra (200 km to the SW) to see the famed Taj Mahal--a jeweled mausoleum that took 22 years to build from the toils of 20,000 people! We were amazed (in spite of the fog). Trees were also well-labeled there so we got a chance to see Sandalwood, Plumeria--whose flowers are used to make lays in Hawaii--, a couple of Cassias--there are well over a thousand members of the pea family here--, and the pan-tropical Bauhinia with its bi-lobed leaves.

We also visited some other places that I had not been too such as the birthplace of Krishna (3500 years ago). This temple had tighter security than the airport. We also made it to the head ashram of ISHKAR (the group that brought Krishna awareness to the west)--very friendly people and a wonderful ornate temple. One highlight for me was visiting the "deserted" city of Fakehir Sakir built on a whim by the famous mogul ruler Akbar (whom I'd enjoy learning more about). Its temple is spectacular and has a 33km tunnel to Agra! He created a new religion based on the teachings of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Being a driver on an Indian free(for all)way requires superhuman skills and patience. There is no regard for lanes. Cruising at 100 km/hr you quickly come upon tractors pulling immense loads of hay or small rickshaws putting along. Many trucks had no rear lights. Remarkably there are few accidents, but those that do exist are left a while taking up a lane with maybe a cone or two to warn you of their presence. With all that to deal with there is also the occasional cow strolling against traffic going god knows where. Just sitting in the passenger seat was thrill enough for me.

Back in Delhi we took in more India culture, spending a nice afternoon in Lodhi Park--full of interesting trees and plants such as the sacred Ficus religiousa (the fig species the Buddha became enlightened under), huge bamboo stands, as well as many familiar weeds that had come from Europe, like chickweed and purslane, interspersed with 500 year old ruins.

Many kinds of food were available to us. We have established a routine of fruit each morning, then a Thali (set lunch) at mid-day. Delhi being the capitol meant that cuisines from all over were present so I tried to give them a sampling each day.

As I had hoped we got a good overview of the north before boarding a plane to take us over 3000 km to the south to Kerala "God's own country." (In retrospect don't take planes about India they are WAY expensive compared to the trains.)

I write this as we bounce along off to visit a famous botanical institute. We are acclimating slowly from this jump from winter to summer. I am having allergies and heat rash. My skin seems the whitest it has been in years (but not for long). But no complaints. I'll write again soon about our adventures here in the land of coconuts.



Kerala: The land of coconuts

Kerala, paradise - bus vs. rickshaw - allergies, heat rash - a week to acclimate - Kerala history - world's first freely elected communist government - statistics - 3500 plant species - capital Trivandrum / Thiruvananthapuram - Ayurveda, plant research center - Ayurvedic Research Institute - snake park - Western Ghats - Tropical Botanical Gardens and Research Institute - western scientific validation - orchid house - tiger orchid - display by formula - pepper plants - 100 endemic species - new plant families - the gene bank - Trivandurum hospital - ayurvedic massage - cuisine - Santigiri Ashram - medicine factory - acclimated - into the jungle

Kerala map

January 24, 2004

Hello Family and Friends,

As I prepare this next communication to you, we are on our way back to the capitol city of Trivandrum after a week of exploring the jungles of the Western Ghats. More on that later but for now let me tell you a little about how we prepared our minds and bodies for that journey.

Our eyes landed in southern Kerala before our bodies, drinking in the endless coconut palms and the inviting inlets and beaches. We landed and instantly upon opening up our tin can were saturated with the warmth, humidity and orgy of a thousand flowering plants. We knew we had arrived in a paradise especially compared to the bleak conditions around Delhi.

But Delhi was far from our minds as we walked from the airport chatting with the rickshaw drivers--listening to the price to town drop from 50 rupees to 40 to 25r (50cents) for the three of us. But we were in no rush and would ride the bus--can't beat the price only 3r each--but more importantly it is more fun and roomy to ride the bus. We settled into a triple, bucket washed our worn winter layers and pulled out our summer skins. My body took nearly a week to acclimate. Along the way I danced with allergies and heat rash.

For those of you unfamiliar with India's most prosperous state (of 27) let me fill you in on some of its particulars. Kerala was the world's first freely elected communist government (1957). This is credited with creating a climate of nearly 100 percent literacy (the US is 22nd in the world I think); low infant mortality, longevity (average age 76--12 years more than India's average and 6 years more than the US). All this despite a low yearly income (but remember a lot of Indians do not rely on a money economy for the basic needs). There is also a religious mix of 60% Hindu, 20% Christian, 20% Moslem. The government supports five Ayurvedic colleges and hospitals. The Western Ghats is home to 3500 plant species though the state is only 39,000 sq. km with a population of 32 million. (If you have a copy of my India book, a lot of the places we visited are mentioned in there.)

The capitol of Kerala, Trivandrum (new name is Thiruvananthapuram) is in many ways a center for Ayurveda and plant research. We made the most of our time there connecting with several people from my earlier trip who each once again proved to be allies in this quest to meet the plants. We spent much of a day at the Ayurvedic Research Institute reconnecting with plant researchers there. We spent a long time looking at the well-presented plants in their medicinal display greenhouse and in their plant nursery. They were very kind to us. Within the same compound is a snake park. Our guide showed us many poisonous snakes first hand that he deftly controlled with a stick. I held one non-poisonous one--what a sensation to have a snake sliding through your hands! There were some huge cobras that flared up from his prodding and let out their memorable bellowing sound. I asked if he had been bitten before. "Oh yes," he smiled.

We journeyed two times into the foothills of the Western Ghats to the Tropical Botanical Gardens and Research Institute. The government agency is looking into western scientific validation of medicinal plants. Our guides gave us detailed journeys through their extensive gardens. They have an impressive orchid house with India's largest orchid--the tiger orchid that was over 10 feet tall. There was a very memorable display of the medicine plants arranged in circles by what famous formulas they were in, like Desmula-10 roots. I also enjoyed the Piper house with over 20 kinds of black pepper plants on display. There are over 3500 plants in Kerala with over 100 of them being endemic--it is considered one of the hot spots of the world for its diversity and fragility. Our guide was one of the bamboo researchers, so we learned lots about the many bamboos. We were exposed to lots of new families of plants including: Delleniaceae, Elaeocarpaceae, and Dipterocarppaceae as well as a lot of familiar friends. I was happy to re-enter those common plants into my forebrain after seven years and to see how much I had grown as a plant person. They call Pepper the King and Cardamom the Queen of spices. My highlight though was the gene bank where they are gathering species from different regions and observing their distinctiveness looking for ones with high concentrations of desired chemicals. The people who ran that section had a special connection with the plants and it could be seen in how vibrant the plants were.

In Trivandrum we spent some time visiting the state hospital seeing the surgical ward and the panchakarma clinic. We also observed in a private hospital some different oil treatments used for various diseases. We all had ayurvedic massages which were relaxing and felt wonderful on my skin. We also managed to get to the Arabian Sea for some beach time as well as trips through the markets and their ancient zoo. Each meal provided the opportunity to experience wonderful southern cuisine such as the fermented batters of idly and dosas as well as the 15 dish Kerala thali (set meal) served often on banana leaves (but you better like it spicy!). Being in the capitol we could also get northern Indian and Chinese food. One nice change from my last time here is the presence of juice bars with their 50 cent glasses where we make sure to emphasize pure juice--no water, no ice, no sugar. Yum!

Just outside Trivandrum is the Santigiri Ashram, hospital, botanical gardens and medicine factory which had amazed me in many ways seven years before. It had grown by leaps and bounds. The Guru left his body in 1999 but continues to give guidance from the otherside. The person I had known from before was still there but had changed his name and was now a swami at the ashram. It was nice to be remembered by him and he with another swami filled us with inspiring religious commentary. We were fed very well and given a tour of the large medicine factory making over 600 kinds of medicines. We will be going back soon to learn more and experience some treatments (with Ken as our guinea pig). Our time in Trivandrum had done as I hoped--acclimating us to the south and exposing us to the plants used in Ayurveda. With that under our lungis (common male worn wrap around), it was time for us to head to the jungle to see the plants in their native habitats. So we caught the train 3 hours north then a bus 4 hours up into the Western Ghats to the Periyar Wildlife Refuge... more on that next time.

I hope this finds you well. Drop me a line from time to time.



Into the mountains

Into the Western Ghats - contrasts - Kumily - Roy, Sumod and Balou - Abraham's Spice Garden - fresh chocalate fruit and charimoyas - the kill sugar plant - growing and processing tea and coffee - 50 cultivated / 200 wild fruit varieties - eggfruit - Tamil Nadu - dry season - monkeys - bison - polypore mushrooms - Periyar Preserve - tribal village - patchouli and Simlax - bleeding hut - museum, artifacts, customs - bamboo artifacts - group marriages - betel nut chewing, ganja smoking - honey collecting ritual - Amorphophallus meal - Periyar Lake - Celtis, olive, Gnetum, Grewia, Persea - idlys - boat ride - Germans - bison, elephants, warthogs, water buffalo, otters - Vaidya - herbal oil - ayurvedic doctor - ashwaganda - a like-minded doctor - Tomy Thomas' organic herb garden - good chai - return to the coast

February 6, 2004

We were feeling acclimated to the tropical weather and culture when we headed by train north three hours then catching a bus east for the long steep climb up into the Western Ghats (steps). Once high on the ridges the tea plantations began to appear both beautiful (sculptured green hills) and depressing (monoculture and "slave" labor).

We arrived in the chilly evening to the town of Kumily at the Tamil Nadu border (neighboring state) near the Puriyar Nature Preserve. Though tired we were thankful for the reprieve from the coastal cities. A young Indian named Roy appeared who happened to know my friend Sumod from seven years back and off we walked to find him.

It was a big surprise for Sumod to see me. He had heard that someone was coming but the details of my earlier message were garbled. So much had happened to him over the years. He is now married with two children and has recently joined in a partnership with two foreigners building a small hotel (the number of hotels in Kumily had grown from 18 to 47) that was about to open. I gave him a copy of my book showing him where he was talked about in it. He set us up with a comfortable place to stay that even had a kitchen we could cook in!

On our first morning we went with Sumod and another guide, Balou, to Abraham's Spice Garden. This little Eden was teeming with diversity. We spent about five hours there going through the plants and tapping Abraham's full knowledge. The garden had been built 52 years earlier--the year of Abraham's birth--by his father. So Abraham had literally grown up with the garden. One could see such joy and excitement on his face upon finding out that we were deeply interested in plants. He said that most foreigners zoomed through in under an hour seeing pepper, cardamon, coffee and other common spices (usually for the first time) with no deeper interests. Everyone was taking notes as we ventured slowly about eating fresh chocolate fruit and charimoyas. We tried the "kill sugar" plant that takes the taste of sugar away for half an hour and is used for diabetes. One of the beauties of plants is their sensual delights! Not only did Abraham have botanical knowledge, but he also had the practical knowledge of a grower and processor. We learned about processing tea and coffee and insights to growing many plants. We were full in every way when we left.

In Kerala fifty exotic fruits are cultivated, but there are over 200 wild fruits not eaten much. We met one researcher who was determining the nutrition of these wild fruits and recommending some for cultivation. One of those we ate is called eggfruit that comes from a tree with a yellow center that has much the consistency of an egg yolk though sweeter.

The next morning Sumod and Balou led us on a jungle walk up a ridge and over the border into Tamil Nadu. Since it is the dry season there nature seemed a bit more subdued but still richly diverse. We travelled up through a series of different ecosystems trying to discern plant families from what Sumod knew and our own experiences. High up in the trees we could see monkeys scurrying about and once startled a small group of bison. Though dry out we did see a number of polypore mushrooms. We were told there are lots of mushrooms during the rainy season. From the top of the mountain we had excellent views into Tamil Nadu and into the Periyar Preserve. We made our way back down stopping at Sumod's parents' house where I had stayed seven years earlier. It was a pleasure to once again be in their lush gardens.

We had tea there and then went to visit the tribal village. I was told things had changed since I had last visited. But besides the tribals charging an entrance fee, once inside the village things felt much the same except that they seemed to be growing a lot more commercial spices. Sumod talked us up to the tribal people and we were blessed to have two enthusiastic guides who not only shared a lot of knowledge but also took notes and picked my brain. Two plants that I was excited to see were the mint patchouli and a species of Smilax. We were shown a special bleeding hut that women on their moon cycle stayed in.

They took us to their simple, dirt floor museum and explained in detail each display of color painting and artifacts of the customs that make up their tribal life. They made all sorts of utensils and building materials from bamboo. When the marriage time came everyone of marrying age who was eligible was married at the same time by the kuni (chief). They had a nice display of betel nut chewing and ganja smoking with a bamboo bong displayed. Next to it was a sign, "Traditional style of chewing and smoking. Intuition showed them the safe way." We learned a lot about wild honey collecting. The collectors would fast and have no sex for seven days prior to collecting the honey and they did not taste the honey until it had been brought to the ground. There was a display of fish traps, of their medicines used, and the look of their typical kitchen meals made over fires in clay pots.

The guides were very kind people. I wonder how much longer the tribals will be able to maintain a degree of cultural independence.

That night at the hostel we made a meal finally having a chance to work with the vegetables we'd seen in the market. One memorable one was elephant's foot (Amorphophallus) in the arum family. You may remember hearing this past summer about one species of this genus flowering at the national gardens. Touted to be the world's largest flower. Well here in India they eat the giant corm. We cooked up a big hunk of it and mashed it like potatoes. Very tasty and memorable especially topped with the highly coveted nutritional yeast we had brought along.

The next day we tried to get on one of the boat trips around Periyar Lake, but it being an Indian holiday all boats were full. But we had a nice 4km walk in, even stole away for an illegal woods walk for an hour. All along the road the trees are labeled so I was able to go deeper with the trees--surprised to see a native Celtis and olive, a Gnetum (actually an ancient vine), Grewia (who I had met in Africa), a species of Persea (avocado). These trees were huge.

At the Tamil Nadu border were a series of small shacks that sold all sorts of foods. One of our favorite stalls fed the three of us for under a dollar--plates of idlys (steamed fermented rice patties) with a coconut chutney sauce. Nothing quite like having them right out of the pot steaming. Yummy!

We did make it on a boat ride a couple of days later rising at 5:30 and biking in the early dawn to the boat launch. Our boat had many Germans on it whose collective expressions were so different than ours and funny to hear. Early morning is such a great time for boating. We headed out with the mist swirling around the skeletal remains of long-ago-drowned trees now the homes for hundreds of nesting birds. In the couple-hour cruise we saw bison, elephants, warthogs and water buffalo as well as a perky family of otters. The wild elephants were beautiful tucked up a cove pulling down big leaves to eat.

Later near the bus stand, a Vaidya (traditional healer) had set up his wares temporarily on a large piece of cloth. Coconut shells were full of herbs he was selling. He was in his late 60's I would imagine. He was very thin with grey beard and hair. He squatted in the middle over a metal pot pouring into bottles an herbal oil he had just made. I inquired about it and through gestures he indicated it was good for the skin. I got a small bottle and use it as a moisturizer. We also visited an ayurvedic medicine outlet inquiring about a doctor I had met there on my earlier trip. He had moved but I met his uncle who owned the shop. We spent an hour there sampling some ashwaganda and interviewing the current young doctor in a lively discussion of his views. He felt that rather than people buying medicines they need to pick the plants growing around them. You know that appealed to yours truly!

Somehow our week had flown by and we were to leave these beautiful mountains with their cool nights and head back to the coastal life. On the way we stopped at a highly recommended spice and herbal garden to have a couple of hours with the knowledgeable owner Tomy Thomas. He led us around showing us a lot of plants we knew but added his own stories. He seemed very knowledgeable about how to grow herbs organically with lots of neat tricks on dealing with pests and ways to build up soil vitality. After our walk he made us one of the best chais I have had in India (usually they export all the good stuff and the locals are served what is basically creamy, sugary water, but this chai had herbs in it! Colonialism certainly isn't a condition of the past!). Then he showed us some nice quality products that his family had made from herbs around the farm--including gooseberry wine! I really appreciated that there was no slick sales vibe. He is one of the most grounded, centered people I have met in India. To end our visit he walked us a short ways from his land and showed us a spectacular overlook of the valley 3000 feet below.

We were greatly inspired as headed out to catch our bus back to the flatlands with its bright sun, humidity, pollution, beautiful beaches and opportunities to answer more deeply our questions about the plants and healers of India.

Until next time....may peace be with you!


Kerala's south coast

Cochin - Kathakali Theater - health food shop - Mattancherry - ashwaganda, Long Pepper, amalaki - 2000 year old Jewish settlement - pan shop and betle chew - Ayurvedic college - train to Trivandrum - return to Santigiri Ashram - three days of Ayurvedic treatments for Ken - rubber tree seeds - massages - hot box - ashram dentist - Mr. Krishna-dhas - resident remembers Frank's chi gung - Jesse and Frank to Trivandrum, Ken to Kovalam - city-wide flower and garden show - bonsai figs, orchids, Asparagus, banana, coconut, cassava - no GMO crops in Kerala - vermicompost - mushroom cultivation - Agricultural College - Anil Kumar - Thali meal - beaches of Kovalam - Kerala hospitality - Ayurvedic Hospital - Chirostri - vasti - Ken goes home - Varkala resort - cleaner air - Hindu temple - Shahar and Naomi from Israel - adventures in the north - Babu Joseph and Jayakumar's Nature Cure clinic - involving hydrotherapy, chiropractory, color therapy, massage, yoga, and mud therapy - used as a last resort - Varkala to Trissur

February 23, 2004

We left the wonderful Western Ghats heading back to the opportunities of the coastal world. Our first stop was the metropolis of Cochin where we stayed for two days taking in the sites. One of the highlights there was an evening at the Kathakali Theater. This is an ancient form of storytelling that I'm sure would entrance many of you. One can go to the theater an hour early and watch the performers put on their costumes and paint on their makeup (which is made from natural paints). Then the MC comes out, a Mr. Devon, who is 74 years old and has been on stage every night for the past 33 years (over 10,000 performances). I saw him 7 years (2000 performances) back and he seemed similar though a little less charismatic (not surprising) than I remember. He told us the long history of the performance style and details around its significance. Then an hour performance ensues with 2 performers, a drummer, and Mr. Devon playing bells wonderfully illustrating a part of a Hindu myth. Complexly wonderful.

We also stumbled into a health food restaurant/shop called The Grasshopper that compared favorably to the best I had been to with scrumptious food and literature and foodstuffs as well as over 20 kinds of juices. Our bodies were thankful. We ventured to a nearby island by boat, which had a fort, and an area called Mattencherry. Along these streets all sorts of things were for sale. We visited two warehouses of medicinal herb dealers, delighting ourselves to no end with barrels full of famous medicines including ashwaganda, Long Pepper, amalaki and many, many others. Also in this area there is a 2000-year-old Jewish settlement (now down to less than 20 people) with a synagogue built in the 1600's.

While walking we stopped at a pan shop. These guys make a chew popular throughout the tropical world. You take a leaf (Piper betle) and fill it with herbs and pastes and a crushed betel nut (from the Areca palm). This is wrapped up like a present and chewed after a while leaving a pleasant feeling in body and mind. The next day we visited a state run Ayurvedic college getting a tour of their gardens and a nice chat with the principal. Then we caught a six-hour train south back to the capitol, Trivandrum, where we stayed the night before heading back to the Santigiri Ashram to have a fuller experience in that magical place. Ken signed up for three days of general Ayurvedic treatments. He was worked on twice a day with various types of massage and oil treatments. He seemed greatly moved by the experiences. He was kept in a room at the hospital while Jesse and I where given a house to stay a short distance away.

In our three days we toured the gardens though the head gardener was away. We found rubber tree seeds that look like large castor bean seeds (same family). Jesse and I also had massages. It felt nice to get all oiled up and to have two people work on me simultaneously. I sat in a hot box afterwards to open my pores and let the medicated oil further in. It was such a wild feeling to have sweat bead up under the oil and drip down my body. I also visited the ashram dentist to have my teeth cleaned. The office felt like something from the 1960's and the power went out several times. We would just quietly wait for it to come back. Jesse and I were able to interview some of the doctors and had a lot of interesting discussions with our main host Mr. Krishna-dhas. Our time came quickly to an end there. Ken seemed to get a lot from his experience. I could see the soul light shining from his eyes! He commented many times on how impressed he was with the skills and compassion of those that worked on him. On one trip to the ashram I was amazed to meet a devotee who remembered me from seven years back. He recounted an incident where I was doing motions outside the sleeping quarters of the guru that caused a lot of angst to the devotees. He asked what type of yoga it was and I said it was chi gung.

From the ashram Jesse and I headed to Trivandrum to pursue some interests and Ken headed to Kovalam for a little R and R. One of our first visits was to the flower and garden show where it seemed the whole city was participating at some level. This big version of a country fair went on for several weeks with crowds of people each day. We spent half a day there moving through the displays first to the ornamental and medicine plant sections present in great variety and number. Each category of plants was judged for a prize. The many species of bonsai figs, as well as the display of orchids and the collection of different species of Asparagus particularly impressed me. Then we went on to the vegetable and fruit displays--huge collections of every variety of banana, coconut, cassava. There were booths from many organizations involved in agriculture. I was impressed by their commitment to organics. I was told there were no GMO crops grown in Kerala. There were several displays of vermicompost, edible mushroom cultivation, and organic methods of dealing with pests. Quite the show. If only the state fairs in America were so enlightened.

One display we were impressed with was the herbal display of the Agricultural College so we decided to pay them a visit. This impressive place is surrounded on three sides by a lake and was the summer estate of the former maharaja. So the grounds were spectacular and lush, with old mansions as classrooms and offices. Dr. Anil Kumar answered many of our questions then sent us through the gardens with his head gardener--a proud, vibrant, indigenous woman who unfortunately spoke little English but had a strong connection with the plants. At their canteen we ate a typical Thali meal of rice, papadam, sambar (dahl), rasa (soup), curd (yogurt), and cooked vegetables and did I say Rice (they really like rice here)? many kinds but seldom brown. We met with the principal, a kind man who shared with us the school's history and invited us back for a longer stay. We were also given a tour of their mushroom cultivation area, their economic garden, and their bee research center. Quite the day.

We spent some time in Kovalam with its pretty beaches (some neat seaweeds and beautiful small blue jellyfish) as well as persistent hawkers--not my scene but an interesting place to visit. Jesse and I were kindly invited to Dr. Sanjeev's parents' house and treated to a true Kerala hospitality: eating a feast on banana leaves upon mats. I always appreciate those opportunities to step into the normal lives of people from other cultures. Going to their house involved a memorable motorcycle ride down chaotic Indian streets.

At the state Ayurvedic Hospital we met again with Dr. Vinod Kumar who gave us a nice tour of the pancha karma clinic. We observed five men having Chirostri where you shave your head and have a cap attached and filled with warm oil for a certain amount of time over seven days. This treats many kinds of mental ailments as well as eyesight, nervousness, and paralysis. He also took us to his private clinic in an impressive old resort where I was treated with vasti (medicated enema) and Jesse received an oil massage and steam bath.

Somehow the month had come to pass and we had our last walk around Trivandrum with Ken before launching him off on a two day train to Delhi then the plane to home. He seemed to get a lot out of the month. I was impressed how much he embraced a very different culture than his own and his willingness to undergo a slew of Ayurvedic treatments. He says it was a life changing experience for him.

With Ken safely off, Jesse and I finished our list of things to do in the polluted city and headed north to an alternative beach resort called Varkala with its cliffs overlooking the Arabian Ocean. My lungs were thankful for the reprieve. I had developed a persistent lung condition from the pollution and benefited greatly from the cleaner air (though they still cook there with coconut fronds and burn their garbage). Varkala had grown (I grown) oh so much in my seven year absence. Quite shocking. But it still had a lot of charm and magic. We visited a memorable Hindu temple with drummer and clarinet-like musician jamming and people moving amongst the deities making their offerings.

We were blessed by the arrival of my friend Shahar from Israel whom I had traveled with in Africa along with his friendly partner Naomi. Wonderful to connect. We all had a nice half-day hike up the beach past the modern to the fishing villages and many mosques. We all traveled together north for the next couple of weeks having all sorts of adventures together.

One of the highlights of this India trip for me occurred in Varkala when I was invited to visit the small state-sponsored Nature Cure clinic run by Dr. Babu Joseph and Dr. Jayakumar. Listening to them talk about this system of healing intrigued me to no end. Basically Nature Cure relies on the innate healing systems of the body to heal and assists the cleansing organs of the body through juice fasting and temporary restricted diets of sprouts, wheat grass, salads and fruits. By itself Nature Cure is more a way to live life than a medical system, but it is being teamed up with Ayurveda, Allopathy [1] and other systems for diagnostic and treatment methods. Their treatments generally involve hydrotherapy, chiropractic, color therapy, massage, yoga and mud therapy. I was amazed to learn that Nature Cure's roots lie not only in Ayurveda but also in the United States and Europe. Gandhi became a big proponent of Nature Cure when he became aware of it. There are three medical degree colleges in India.

I found nothing about this system that conflicts with my own developing philosophy of living (remarkably) and I am excited to learn more. Surprisingly Nature Cure is largely a last resort for people with chronic diseases after other systems have failed--still they get good results. This requires the doctors to be well versed in the treatments of the other healing systems. To me it seems Nature Cure should be the first approach people try before going toward the more invasive, heroic methods, but such are the contradictions of this modern world.

We soon headed from Varkala north to Trissur to visit a Nature Cure doctor teamed with an Ayurvedic doctor who had a private hospital, but I will save the details of that visit for my next report.

I hope this letter finds you each healthy and hopeful. I will be leaving India soon for a few days in Amsterdam before heading back to turtle island [2] (dreaming of green salads and dressing!). If you have any suggestions of places to stay, sites to visit, and experiences to be had, please email me soon.

This email is packed with love your way,

Frank--between trains in the non-tourist town of Itarsi, M.P. on my way to Varanasi (the oldest inhabited city on earth!)

Nature Cure

Trissur by train - invitations to visit private hospitals - Dr. Unnikrishnan - Ayurvedic medicine factory - Nature Cure hospital and Dr. Thankan - Kottakkal - herbal gardens - Ayurvedic University - Silent Valley nature preserve - teak groves of Nilambur - vaidya Gopalkrishna - Ooty in Nilgiri Hills - Mahonias, Rhododendrons, Monterey cypress, dandelions, Scotch broom, English ivy, blackberries - terraces - essential oil distillers - Mysore - sandalwood oil distillery - sarees - Bangalore - diarrhea - Lalbaugh Botanical Gardens - parting with Jesse and Shahar - Hyderabad - the first Nature Cure hospital in India - Dr. Bapuji - stress management training session - the Bapujis' clinic - Bapuji's parents' hospital - juice, sprouts, fruits, vegetable soups - dosai - drbapuji.com - Varanasi by train - oldest inhabited city - Ganges - burning ghats - crowded alleyways - monkeys - train to Delhi - plane to Amsterdam - winter - tolerance - Flying Pig Palace - Cannabis College - Rembrandt's home - Van Gogh Museum - Hortus Botanicus est. 1638 by Dutch East Indies Co. - coffee, palms - greenhouses, butterfly house - tree collection including North American, South African, Australian varieties - expense - turtle island - becoming a member of the world - what I have to come back to - how do you pay for this life? - not a lone walk - thank you - revising my India book

March 25, 2004

Hi There Friends and Family,

I have been back on turtle island for almost a month now and yet it seems like the plane has just landed. I am in the southeast now and can feel spring about to burst forth. We are restoring a creek near the house that was greatly mangled in FRAN ('96). What a great feeling to see its flow returning! Bloodroots are blooming and bees are pollinating the swamp honeysuckle. Such joys of life! I finally have gotten this last write-up of the India trip typed and here it is fresh for you. Enjoy! Stay in touch. I will be sending a list of the spring plant events soon--first one April 10th outside of Asheville--pencil it in--details to follow.

Love and Peace,


We arrived in Trissur, Kerala by train and somehow managed to get a room in a very fancy government-run lodge with foyer and a bathroom big enough for a party. Our reasons for coming to the "cultural capitol of Kerala" involved following up on invitations to visit some private hospitals there. In the morning we toured a small Ayurvedic hospital. Our host, Dr. Unnikrishnan, also took us to an impressive Ayurvedic medicine factory. One of the reasons I am drawn to Ayurveda is its earthy realness--huge batches of herbs combined in creative ways and cooked into syrups, wines, pastes, and pills. Our afternoon was spent at a Nature Cure hospital interviewing Dr. Thankan who had teamed up with an Ayurvedic doctor to offer a wide range of healing options. They are confident in being able to treat a wide range of chronic diseases that plague humanity from asthma to diabetes, from arthritis to psoriasis.

The next day we rode a bus a couple of hours northwest to the famous Ayurvedic town of Kottakkal where I had ventured seven years earlier. My memory of it housing one of the finest herbal gardens in India did not let me down. As my traveling companion Jesse writes, "[We spent] a few days in Kottakkal with the large Ayurvedic University and its excellent botanical gardens with thousands of species and smiling helpful staff. In its hospital we got to peruse their different wards as they happily showed off some of their success stories--paralyzed people who can now walk after a few months of treatment were their favorites."

We were also able to squeeze in some time in a nature preserve called Silent Valley with some of the only old growth forest in India. Jesse adds, "Silent Valley is a 100 sq km forest preserve that took us 4 hours to get to. We only expected it to be a day trip and weren't prepared to stay overnight so only got an hour and a half inside one of the very few places in India where there hasn't been widespread human shaping of the land. And did we ever drink it up!! Omygosh it was beautiful and invigorating to swim in some clean water and walk and botanize in a jungle. It is a place to come back to for a while after the necessary government hoops to jump through. They are very worried about biopiracy by westerners. I can't blame them. For example there are over thirty international patents on neem tree preparations--none of them held by Indians."

We also had a couple of days around the small town of Nilambur, Kerala famous for its teak groves with an impressive museum and the oldest teak grove in the world (1846). Once you get to know the look of this big-leaved tree (Tectonia grandis, Verbenaceae) you realize how frequently it is planted around the tropics. Our stop in Nilambur also allowed us the opportunity to check on a vaidya (healer) I had not seen in seven years. It was wonderful to see Gopalkrishna going strong. There was a steady stream of people coming by for medicine and healing advice. He answered many of our questions and allowed us a chance to see, taste, and smell many medicines. I was delighted at the opportunity to give him a copy of my India book in which I had written about him.

Then we went high up into the Ghats to a region called the Nilgiri (Blue) Hills (over 6600 ft.) to the town of Ooty. Jesse comments,

It was cool enough to have many of the temperate plants that I am so familiar with like Mahonias, Rhododendrons, Monterey cypress, and dandelions. Also there was the presence of all my favorite "invasive plants" like scotch broom, English ivy, and blackberries that were so kind as to help finance this very trip [as he was employed to remove them]. The land around there smacks of old worldness as all of the steep hillsides are terraced into crop cultivation, the forest has been removed and Eucalyptus planted. We went out to try to track down a local rootsy essential oil distiller which eventually we found after hours and three kilometers of walking and many bad directions. Inside a little, smokey stick-and-tarp hut was a little old man who was bustling gallons of raw eucalyptus oil and poured us off a couple pints. It was a very easy contraption to make on a smaller scale. The next day Frank and I went to a much more organized essential oil operation which was put together as an effort to employ displaced local people. They produce a growing list of certified organic essential oils and spices. You find these little pockets of tuned-in focuses in this madness that is India.
Ooty was also the only place we found regionally made dark chocolate!

Too soon it was time to head out of those enchanting mountains to the city of Mysore, Karnataka. Jesse notes, "Here we encountered abundant markets, incense makers, and silk makers [produce 60% of the silk in India]. We went to the government sandalwood oil distillery for a tour but were met with the Lorax dilemma--the factory was not operating because practically all the trees had been cut down.. bummer [It operated only half the year]. We had a fun [but challenging] couple of hours looking at sarees modeled by our friend Shahar."

We made a brief visit to the city of Bangalore, Karnataka where I was down the whole visit with diarrhea. Between bathroom stops we did manage an evening visit to there extensive Lalbaugh Botanical Gardens. It was here that I parted with my traveling companions Jesse, who'd been by my side for six weeks, and Shahar, formerly my traveling companion in Africa who had joined into the ride for the past two weeks. Being a bit under the weather added to the challenge of leaving their kind company. But my time in India was coming to its end and north was my way home while they were called to the south. And there were still a couple of places I wanted to get to.

My newly awakened interest in Nature Cure Medicine took me to Hyderabad, the capitol of Andhra Pradesh, to visit the first Nature Cure hospital in India. Both Nature Cure doctors I had met recommended I meet with Dr. Bapuji famous throughout India for developing Nature Cure into a scientifically-based healing system. I called him to see about visiting him and he encouraged me to attend as his guest an afternoon executive training session he was conducting on stress management. I arrived a little late and quietly took a seat before this large charismatic man making presentation to twenty engineers. Through his poignant comments on the current healthcare systems and the cultural trends away from health along with his humor and state-of-the-art PowerPoint system, he kept the attention of the audience for over 5 hours (with two tea breaks). I myself took over 20 pages of notes. Dr. Bapuji has degrees in both allopathy and Nature Cure so he holds a unique position to see the strengths and weakness of these ways. As he says, "Nature Cure is more a way of life than a medical system, but combined with diagnostic/treatment systems it forms a potent healing system." There is lots more to share on this but I will save it for the India book revision I will be writing later in the year.

After his talk we walked to his car with people from the class following along wanting their personal questions answered. We drove to his and his wife's clinic and over the hour we were there he treated at least half a dozen patients mostly using chiropractic techniques and checking up on their special eating and exercise regimes. He says that 90% of his patients are suffering from neck and lower back pain. The next day I visited the Nature Cure hospital started by his parents where I was kindly shown around by a couple of house surgeon. I was very impressed by the diet plans in place with an emphasis on juice, sprouts (unheard of in the rest of India), fruits, and vegetable soups. I was given samples of the food and found them excellent.

Later I met again with Dr. Bapuji and his wife, Dr. Anita Bapuji in their home. I spent several hours with them talking and sharing our visions and opinions about health and life in general. It was so relaxing to slow down in this family home and feel daily life in Hyderabad. They made some of the best dosai (fermented crepe-like dish) I had ever eaten with a coconut-peanut sauce. We spent some time reviewing their new website (www.drbapuji.com). His focus is on sharing this knowledge with the world. Upon leaving Hyderabad I felt my knowledge of Nature Cure had grown by leaps and bounds.

I left that night for Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh which involved taking two overnight trains. By the time I left India I had had my fill of trains! Returning to Varanasi was for me a real sense of coming home. This was reinforced upon my return to the same Baba Guesthouse and having them remember me! What stays with me about this oldest inhabited city on earth is that timeless feeling along the Ganges watching people descending the steps to bathe, to offer blessings, and to die. The burning ghats [3] are mesmerizing--showing more than words can ever tell. I love the tight alleyways full of cows and vendors of everything. I appreciated so much rooftop view of the Ganges with troops of monkeys moving about enduring the ire of the humans. I had only two days but it was enough to satisfy my soul. Too soon it was time to catch yet another overnight train this time to Delhi. I spent the day there running around shopping for mementos to bring back to turtle island before catching a late night plane to Amsterdam.

My first time in Amsterdam since I was a child was quite the culture shock. Quite startling to be eating tropical fruit one day and being in snow flurries the next. In my three days there I grew to have a great love and respect for the tolerance and freedom of Dutch culture. I made the most of my time trying to stay warm wearing practically all the clothes I had. I was fortunate to find a nice hostel to stay in called the Flying Pig Palace. From that safe haven I ventured out to explore the city full of canals and cleverly built bridges. They have a mass transit system that is amongst the best I have seen along with lots of bike lanes and walking paths.

I spent some time at the Cannabis College, a not-for-profit education center that stores knowledge, maintains a museum, and displays an herbal garden that focuses on this much maligned plant. Very impressive. The city is home to nearly 300 coffee shops and smart shops that sell all manner of natural plant products. The have shown the world that decriminalizing natural products does not lead to societal collapse much to the chagrin of their detractors.

Amsterdam is also the home of amazing art and I spent time visiting Rembrandt's home as well as touring the Van Gogh Museum. One of the highlights of my time in Amsterdam was a visit to the Hortus Botanicus. This amazing garden dates back to 1638--one of the oldest in the western world. It was here that the Dutch East Indies Company sent their plant finds including coffee and many palms that were propagated and sent to plantations around the world. It is a classy place with amazing greenhouses and even a butterfly hothouse! It feels like a place I will return to many times. They have a nice tree collection featuring many of our North American friends as well as extensive collections of South African and Australian collections. I can't wait to see it when it is not winter! Amsterdam is a dream place in many ways with breweries and incredible foods but not without a price tag.

From there I returned to turtle island and am now about three weeks back. It is a long walk becoming a member of the world. I know that I could not do what I do without the support of so many. I mean what is the point of going out if you have nothing to come back to? I have a lot of opportunities to tell people about my life and my walk. Inevitably it comes back to how do you pay for this life? I explain to them that I live a life by donation and that hundreds of people believe in my path enough to support me in a lot of different ways. This usually leaves them with a sense of wonderment. But it is not a lone walk and I want each of you reading this to know that my energy and focus comes from deep within me. At times of doubt I feel you there believing in me. The flow of emails from many of you with some kind words or reflections from my words feed me and keep me going. I thank you.

And so this ends this journey to India. I hope to revise the book I have written on India later this year adding all the new plants and experiences I encountered. Thank you Ken and Jesse, Shahar and Naomi for showing up and being a part of this adventure!

Peace and Love,


       Mailing Address:   Frank Cook 
                          1119 Old Greensboro Road
                          Chapel Hill, NC 27516

[1] Advocates of homeopathy and other forms of alternative medicine often use the term allopathy or allopathic medicine to refer to mainstream, Western medicine. [From Wikipedia]

[2] Editor's Note: While looking up turtle island I also found the Turtle Island Preserve.

[3] Ghats are the banks of a holy river, often, as at Benares, stepped to facilitate bathing. From wikipedia. Actually, more appropriately see lonely planet's Varanasi's Burning Ghats, Salon's The Brahmin of the Burning Ghats, and orientalarchitecture.com's Ghats of Varanasi.


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