Thursday, February 2, 2017

Diary of a Volunteer Traveler

My journey to Spiti however began sometime in the end of December 2015 when I read an article published on National Geographic Traveller on 10 best places for volunteer travel in India. I remember deciding that I will definitely do one of them in 2016 and Spiti with its amazing landscapes called out to me mainly because until then I never knew that there actually existed a district which is 100% Buddhist. Having a strong inclination towards Buddha's teachings and being some one who has always wanted to take a solo trip, I wrote to Spiti ecosphere wondering if they would respond and take my enquiry seriously since I was planning it for October. I got quick responses and I signed up for it in January 2016. It is believed that there are only two kinds of people - the ones that plan trips aka the tourists and the ones that just hit the road aka the traveller. I don't know what category I fall under, because I planned my trip 9 months in advance and yet Spiti ecosphere, the volunteering travel group, helped me live like a local in Spiti.

I'd read up a lot about the culture of Spiti, the people and their lifestyle and the changing climatic conditions. Spiti, contrary to what is said isn't closed/cut off for 6 months during winters - our local guide, Takpa, explained to us. The route from Manali gets blocked but the Shimla route (not the best however) remains open throughout the year. What I read and imagined did very little justice to what I saw and experienced. The day we started from Manali to Kaza, I couldn't believe that this trip was actually happening because I had dreamt and planned it for so long!

That night at Kaza was one of the best nights of my life. There I was on the terrace in an unknown land, lying down and looking at the amazingly beautiful Milky Way, talking to strangers who I would be spending the next 9 days with, sharing stories and genuine laughter as we warmed up to each other and I remember thinking - life cannot get any better!

While I interacted with the monks at Kee monastery the next day, I understood a lot of the Buddhist practices in the region. Regardless of what Siddhartha Gautama ( the Buddha ) had said, the people specific to each village follow the local deity's Buddhist teaching which is essentially a variation of the actual teaching - modified for better understanding. In the monastery I noticed a Trishul, symbol of Lord Shiva; Swastik, another Hindu symbol; The half moon, symbol of Muslims. It left me rather confused at first and after a lot of talks with locals I have understood that Buddhism was never supposed to be a religion, it came into being to coexist with what is already in practice. A lot of the culture at Spiti reflects this. Eg. Buddha never asked for a following or chants or offerings; neither did he ask people to abstain from eating meat - a lot of the teachings have been differently interpreted as is the case with any other religion. 

After a walk in Kibber where we saw the homes of the locals, similar to the ones where we would live in the next few days to follow, after eating the tantuk, a local soup, we set out on mountain bicycles back to Kaza. The thrill and the speed combined with the chillness, the view of snow capped mountains with the blue skies on top and brown hills on the side - it's an exhilarating experience that words fail to describe; in short I felt like Walter Mitty from 'The secret life of Walter Mitty'!

We ended the day by watching "7 years in Tibet" which was being screened at Sol cafe - there's nothing like watching a movie that depicts a landscape and culture similar to what you'll experience in the days to follow. After much discussion that invariably ensued after the movie, we called it a night.

The next day marked the epic trek from Lhangsa - the city overlooked by a huge statue of Buddha to Komic - Asia's highest motorable village. We stopped at Hikkim, where the World's highest post office exists and sent postcards back home. We ate lunch and began walking again, Takpa, our guide, suddenly asked us to lie face down. He set the example by sleeping on his front, almost like he was hugging the mountain and asked us to follow suit. After initial giggles, we followed and had such an amazing short nap. There was not one sound that interrupted the nap, it was almost as if one could hear the silence, if that's not bliss I don't know what is!

We spent the night in a local villager's house and our hosts taught us how to make momos! After a hearty meal of momos and soup in the warm, cozy kitchen we explored the rest of the house. Our room was on the terrace and we had to walk through a narrow but short wooden staircase. This was my first time using a compost bathroom and to be very honest it was quite comfortable!

After bidding goodbye to our wonderful hosts, armed with two litres of water and a lunch box of simple potato rice and egg, we set out to Demul early the next day. While we were walking, one behind the other, all of us lost in thoughts - we saw a few blue sheep ahead of us. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a herd of them darted from the left corner to the right and rushed down the mountains synchronously with such swiftness - it was a remarkable sight! I almost reached out to my camera and then stopped, there are some things that just cannot be described through photographs. As we walked on, somewhere deep inside our hearts we hoped to spot snow leopards and indulged in stories heard and imagined. What fun we had when Takpa taught us how to run down the mountain, where the soil was lose, it was almost like we were hopping and dancing! Such simple joys bring out a laughter that only the child in you remembers...

After we reached Demul and met our hosts, we called it a day after eating some amazing soup and barley roti for dinner.

The next morning we walked by the side of a small stream and reached where we were to build a check dam. We carried huge stones, dug out the strong ones, broke them into smaller bits, laid them down and stacked each one to a height of 6feet across the stream. Check dams serve two purposes - create an artificial glacier which will melt and become a source of water after the winter passes and also slows down water flow in case the water levels in the stream increase.

At the end of the day, we built two check dams and walked back to our home stay where we spent a good one hour singing, playing cards and telling stories before retiring for the day.

Early the next morning, we started out to the vintage point, almost 5000 meters above sea level, from where 17 villages of Spiti can be seen. What an amazing view it was from up there! As I sat there at the edge of my world at that point, the highest climb of my life, finding comfort in the cold embrace of the winds I couldn't have agreed more with Edmund Hillary's words - It is not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.

Some of us helped in the village road widening and I learnt how to make a yak rope after we descended back to Demul. The yak rope twining was tricky and quite an interesting experience. It was a lovely day with lots of picture perfect moments and deep thoughts. There is something about the mountains, I'm not sure if it is the calmness that they echo or the strength they display - they just make one think and rethink about what really matters in life.

We said bye to Demul and our hosts the next day and reached Tabo. Enroute we went to Dhankar monastery and Dhankar lake. Tabo was unlike the other villages we'd recently been to. We stayed at a guesthouse by the side of an apple orchard. Tabo has the best apples I've tasted in my entire life! In the evening we went to the famous monastery which is also known as the Ajanta of the Himalayas and I found it to be exquisitely beautiful and very different from the other monasteries.

We hailed a local bus to Kaza the next day and prepared to leave for Manali the following morning. At Sol cafe, we watched a movie, spent time talking to Ishita and the locals who run the cafe. Engaging in endless discussions that ran through the night, we all were convinced that we'd definitely established amazing bonds, helped the locals and grown rich in experience as travellers.

Tremendous effort directed towards sustainability and positive outcomes from ecosphere is changing how people travel; the locals absolutely love Ishita for setting this up; travellers like me are super happy because it is simply brilliant that there exists such an initiative towards responsible travel and in the process I get to contribute back to society! Spiti and Spiti ecosphere hold a very special place in my heart. I cannot wait to go back again!

By Navitha

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