Before joining India Fellow, the Himalayas for me were like the constant charger of my life. There was always something about these mountains that drew me up here at least once every year since the time I started working. It could be a job, an internship, a trek, a biking trip or simply a desire to escape from the chaos of the metro city lifestyle that I had at Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Chennai. Many of these trips ranged from 15 days to a couple of months. Every time I came back from there, I felt recharged and ready to go back to the monotonous job and mundane daily routine.
But I knew that this time, it would be different. I would be living in the mountains for an entire year and would have to endure the hailstorms, harsh mountain sun, the monsoons, snakes, leaches, snow and wild animals. Many people warned me that being a city boy, I would get bored and lonely in the hills.
The organisation that I am working with here, is called CHIRAG (Central Himalayan Rural Action Group). It has been working on Education, Healthcare, Livelihood and Natural Resource Management through its forestry and spring recharge programs for the last 30 years. They have a 3-acre campus situated in a small village called Odakhan, about 20 km from Mukteshwar in Nainital district of Uttarakhand, 2000 meter above sea level. Our office is close to a hill-top and I live near the bottom of the hill, at their modest two-bedroom guest house shared by me and my co-fellow. The guesthouse is surrounded by a forest that ends with a spring, 100 meter downhill near a walnut tree.
I was told that a friendly leopard prowls around the guest house and so it’s not safe to roam in the neighborhood after dark. So far, I have not seen the animal but I know he is around because I have seen his scat here and there, sometimes dry and sometimes moist with traces of sambar hair.
I hope he’s not watching and even if he is, he understands that underneath all these jackets, I am just skin and bones.
Dear Leopard! If you’re reading this, my co-fellow, Abhishek is at least 10 pounds heavier.
Everyday, to reach office, we walk uphill carrying our laptops but I’ll never complain about it because the path is beautiful, lined with flowering apricots, peaches, pears and apple trees shining under the clear blue sky. I am waiting for summer so that all these flowers will turn into fruits and I will be able to pluck them from the trees and eat them. On the ground, I could spot plantations of basil, thyme, oregano, cilantro and a wide variety of Himalayan flowers which I am ill-informed to name right now.
To buy groceries or just to drink some tea or have a smoke, I have to hike up about 500 meters to reach a bunch of shops. I make it point to go there every day after work. It has become a physical exercise routine. To reach the nearest ATM, we have to hike for 5 km, across a trekking route called ‘Nature trail’ which crosses the Himalayan forests full of Pine, Rhododendron, Otis and Oak trees. On the way, if the sky is clear and if we are lucky, we get to see the lovely view of snow-capped Himalayan range.
During one of our field visits, Abhishek and I walked for almost 20 km in a day to get to a Khoya factory through a trail cutting across mountains, unfinished roads and tiny hamlets. It was filled with goof-ups and adventures, which deserve another blogpost. I believe that all this walking has made me stronger and fitter than earlier because on one of our field days, I carried 15 kg of wheat and walked up to a guesthouse on top of a hill in a place called Dokane.
Trekking is an activity that millennials and Gen Zs always get excited about, either because it gives us a feeling of getting close to “nature”, mostly unavailable otherwise; or because we want to look cool on Instagram with the help of outrageous filters, or both. For us and most people in the hills, life itself is a trek because even to run small errands, we need to walk long distances over steep hilly terrain surrounded by trees, almost everyday. In spite of this, I don’t think of it as a task specially because the weather is wonderful, views are spectacular and the air is fresh.
I have grown up in a coastal city and spent most my life in cities where the ocean is just a stone throw away. Playing football on the beaches and swimming in oceans was a regular thing and now, I’m far away, near the foothills of the Himalayas, in a land romanticized and immortalized by the writings of Ruskin Bond and Jim Corbett, who were both outsiders. This blog and the ones I write from now, would be my humble attempt to do something similar at a minor scale.
We have always been asked the question “Mountains or Beaches?” or “Hills or Sea?”. I never had an answer to those questions. Last time, when a friend asked it, I responded with a sarcastic jibe, asking him back, “Apples or Oranges?”. As I mentioned earlier, I have always lived in the shadow of the seas. So, oceans and beaches have always been my friends and hence, it has been the mountains that I have longed for. The only answer to this choice can be expressed in Hindi as it sounds better that way, “मुझे समुद्र से दोस्ती है, और पहाड़ों से प्यार ”.