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So Much More Than a Garden

Pine Crest Motel Owners Share Their Bounty

  • Nalin Patel mows the lawn in front of the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, August 12, 2014. Patel worked as an engineer in Bombay, London and New York City before turning to managing motels full time in the late 1970's. Now Patel spends several hours a day doing physical work in his garden, and maintaining the lawn of the motel. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Nalin Patel mows the lawn in front of the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, August 12, 2014. Patel worked as an engineer in Bombay, London and New York City before turning to managing motels full time in the late 1970's. Now Patel spends several hours a day doing physical work in his garden, and maintaining the lawn of the motel.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Raksha Patel of White River Junction eats an apple from a tree planted by her grandson at the Pine Crest Motel which she owns and operates with her husband Nalin White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 29, 2014. The garden behind Patel's home, which is attached to the motel, is the source of well being for her and her husband Nalin. It provides much of the food they eat and the physical work that keeps them active.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Raksha Patel of White River Junction eats an apple from a tree planted by her grandson at the Pine Crest Motel which she owns and operates with her husband Nalin White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 29, 2014. The garden behind Patel's home, which is attached to the motel, is the source of well being for her and her husband Nalin. It provides much of the food they eat and the physical work that keeps them active.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Raksha Patel drops a handful of radish seed pods into a basket while gathering the daily harvest for her salad at the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Vt. Tuesday, August 12, 2014. "We grow everything," said Patel. "Whatever we eat, we like to eat fresh."  (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Raksha Patel drops a handful of radish seed pods into a basket while gathering the daily harvest for her salad at the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Vt. Tuesday, August 12, 2014. "We grow everything," said Patel. "Whatever we eat, we like to eat fresh." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Raksha Patel holds a photograph of the Patels' home in the state of Gujarat, India, where they spend their winters on the family's 30 acre sugar cane and banana farm, Friday, August 8, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Raksha Patel holds a photograph of the Patels' home in the state of Gujarat, India, where they spend their winters on the family's 30 acre sugar cane and banana farm, Friday, August 8, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Raksha Patel regularly shares food with Randy Osmer, one of the few tenants at her motel who enjoys the spicy flavors of her home cooking, in White River Junction, Vt. Wednesday, August 13, 2014. Osmer, who is on probation following a conviction for a 1998 aggravated sexual assault and subsequent parole violation, has lived at the motel for a year and does cleaning and maintenance for the Patels.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Raksha Patel regularly shares food with Randy Osmer, one of the few tenants at her motel who enjoys the spicy flavors of her home cooking, in White River Junction, Vt. Wednesday, August 13, 2014. Osmer, who is on probation following a conviction for a 1998 aggravated sexual assault and subsequent parole violation, has lived at the motel for a year and does cleaning and maintenance for the Patels.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Raksha Patel cleans up a room after a guest at the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Tuesday, August 12, 2014. "When you work physically, your mind keeps fresh," said Patel, who has been in the motel business with her husband since 1973. Their business allowed them to live and work at home while raising their family. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Raksha Patel cleans up a room after a guest at the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Tuesday, August 12, 2014. "When you work physically, your mind keeps fresh," said Patel, who has been in the motel business with her husband since 1973. Their business allowed them to live and work at home while raising their family.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nalin Patel mows the lawn in front of the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, August 12, 2014. Patel worked as an engineer in Bombay, London and New York City before turning to managing motels full time in the late 1970's. Now Patel spends several hours a day doing physical work in his garden, and maintaining the lawn of the motel. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Raksha Patel of White River Junction eats an apple from a tree planted by her grandson at the Pine Crest Motel which she owns and operates with her husband Nalin White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 29, 2014. The garden behind Patel's home, which is attached to the motel, is the source of well being for her and her husband Nalin. It provides much of the food they eat and the physical work that keeps them active.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Raksha Patel drops a handful of radish seed pods into a basket while gathering the daily harvest for her salad at the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Vt. Tuesday, August 12, 2014. "We grow everything," said Patel. "Whatever we eat, we like to eat fresh."  (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Raksha Patel holds a photograph of the Patels' home in the state of Gujarat, India, where they spend their winters on the family's 30 acre sugar cane and banana farm, Friday, August 8, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Raksha Patel regularly shares food with Randy Osmer, one of the few tenants at her motel who enjoys the spicy flavors of her home cooking, in White River Junction, Vt. Wednesday, August 13, 2014. Osmer, who is on probation following a conviction for a 1998 aggravated sexual assault and subsequent parole violation, has lived at the motel for a year and does cleaning and maintenance for the Patels.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Raksha Patel cleans up a room after a guest at the Pine Crest Motel in White River Junction, Tuesday, August 12, 2014. "When you work physically, your mind keeps fresh," said Patel, who has been in the motel business with her husband since 1973. Their business allowed them to live and work at home while raising their family. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

White River Junction — Considering the cost of water, fertilizer and his own labor, it would probably be cheaper to buy vegetables than grow them himself, but to Nalin Patel, the garden on the grounds of the Pine Crest Motel is a worthwhile investment.

“That’s our hobby,” said Patel, who with his family owns the 20-unit business on Route 5.

As vegetarians, Patel and his wife, Raksha, share food duties. Nalin, 76, takes care of the gardens, which include grapes, apples, and an array of vegetables, among them varieties of hot peppers, beans, cucumber and eggplant commonly grown in the Patels’ native India. Two bathtubs alongside the single-story motel overflow with cilantro, dill, garlic and chives . Raksha, 72, uses the produce to make meals and various chutneys.

“The vegetables are very good,” she said, grinning. “He’s a very good farmer.”

In addition to providing the couple with fresh food and a healthy pastime, the garden is a source of gifts for people who are important to them. Raksha recently put up several jars of pickled green grapes to bring to Maine, where the couple gathered with her family for Raksha Bandhan, a Hindu festival that celebrates the bond between a brother and sister. They donate produce to a local food shelf and are generous with their neighbors and motel guests, some of whom stay for extended periods of time. “It’s their garden, too,” Nalin said.

Ray Charpiot, a Pine Crest resident for more than three years, said it’s not unusual to find a bag of fresh fruit on his doorstep. “They are old-school, good neighbor-type people,” he said.

Charpiot, 73, retired a few years ago after working for local auto parts stores. He has faced a series of health problems and last year had open heart surgery. The Patels visited him in the hospital before and after the operation, said Charpiot, who has no relatives locally. Their relationship is “more like family than landlord and tenant.”

Charpiot manages the motel when the Patels are away on short trips and during their annual months-long visit to India, when they stay on their 32-acre farm, which produces sugarcane, rice, mango and banana.

The motel tenants generally know each other and get along, Charpiot said. “Most of the people who live here are pretty good.”

Preparing dinner, Raksha makes extra to share with Randy Osmer, who enjoys her spicy cooking. The generosity is catching — Osmer recently made beef stew to share with his fellow motel guests. A White River Junction native, he likes the motel’s vibe. “It’s peaceful out here, not dealing with the rat race in town,” said Osmer, who works reconditioning cars and helps maintain the motel property.

Osmer moved to the hotel just over a year ago after serving jail time for aggravated sexual assault and a subsequent parole violation. Now receiving treatment, he is not the only tenant with a criminal record.

Now and again, a probation officer calls the Patels to see if they have a room, and several of current their guests have come from jail, Raksha said. But she never asks why they need a room.

“I never even ask ‘Why are you here? That’s not my business,” she said. “Personal problems? Everyone has a personal problem.”

Instead, she wants to know guests will follow the motel’s rules. The Patels strive to keep the Pine Crest quiet. No visitors are allowed after 9 p.m. Parties are prohibited.

“If you obey my rules, I’ll obey yours,” Raksha said. “We have to work it out like a family.”

Health is high on the couple’s list of priorities. Maintaining the gardens, grounds and hotel keeps him fit, says Nalin Patel, who also walks 11/2 miles a day, sometimes with Raksha. Their shared daily regimen includes meditation, and they also practice yoga, which they promote to their guests. The hotel room TVs come with several Indian channels , which feature news, movies and health programming.

When new people arrive, Raksha talks with them about the yoga and exercise shows that air every morning. “If you have time, do it,” she tells them. “Leave (the channels) on during the day. You can learn something.”

The Patels grew up in villages three miles away from each other in Gujarat state. They were wed in an arranged marriage on June 10, 1963, and have two sons and four grandchildren. Early in their marriage, Nalin, a civil and construction engineer, worked in Bombay.

They later moved to London, where Nalin also worked, but there was more opportunity in the U.S., Raksha said.

In 1969, the family immigrated to the United States, where Nalin helped build the World Trade Center. Eventually, they were joined by their siblings, who also became U.S. citizens. “We were the pioneers,” Nalin said, laughing.

The Patels lived in Queens for a time, then moved to New Jersey. Raksha has a bachelor’s degree in science, but her English wasn’t very good, she said, so she worked in a supermarket and a Woolworth’s while their children were in school.

In 1973, friends helped them buy their first hotel, lending them $35,000, which enabled them to get their first bank loan and buy the property in New Jersey. It’s common among Indian families and friends to help one another, making interest-free loans without any written agreement, Nalin said.

“One hand helps the other hand.”

They sold the hotel several years later and bought another one, this time in Connecticut. A 125-unit Quality Inn on 10 acres, it would turn out to be the largest they’ve owned. Nalin left engineering to manage the business, with Raksha’s help. They had 55 employees and a conference room that seated 1,500 people. Every day, a busload of guests arrived, he said. “You were always on a wheel to get business.”

In a recent interview, he commented on the number of hoteliers that share his surname. According to Pawan Dhingra, the author of a 2012 book on Indian American motel owners, about half of the hotels and motels in the United States are owned by Indian-Americans, and 70 percent of those owners have the last name Patel.

Nalin attributes that to the focus on business in Gujarat, where many Patel families live: From the time they are a few years old, “business is in our mind,” he said. “Maybe we don’t like some of our bosses, and at the same time, we are hard workers.”

The hotelier lifestyle is good for families, Nalin said. It lets families work without having to leave their children with baby sitters, and visiting friends and family members always have a free place to stay. Also, he likes working with guests. “I enjoy the people’s company,” Nalin said.

In 1984, they sold the hotel in Connecticut. Their sons, now engineers, were studying at Boston University, so they went to stay with family in Massachusetts to be near them. When Sanjay and Sanat graduated, the Patels set their sights on moving to “a small nice town” in the countryside, Raksha said.

They found it in Vermont, where in 1986 they bought the White River Junction business and a hotel in Ascutney, which they sold in 2005. The move north has been a good one. They are near family — their sons and many other relatives live in Massachusetts — and the atmosphere suits them.

“I like the greenery, the air and the water,” Nalin said, smiling. “That’s why I’m 76 years old and healthy.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.