Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Life as a Local

I wheezed my way to Butit’s place, which was going to be my home for the next 3 nights.
Man, two months of Yoga doesn’t prepare you for a hike at 4200 m!

The entrance to Butit’s house was a small green door that was grossly inadequate to accommodate an average built Indian man. All the winter layering only added to the woes. The door opened to a dimly-lit passage, which smelt of spices, dust, and cow-dung. Bending was the only way to avoid banging my head on the ceiling. A heavy backpack and bent back made me gasp for air. The passage seemed overcrowded with 3 adults and 4 backpacks.

‘Please don’t expect any luxuries in the homestays. Houses in Demul are basic. That’s how you live like a local in Spiti.’ Ishita Khanna, founder of Ecosphere had warned us before we left Kaza.

Cheap stays on my travels don’t bother me. On the contrary, whenever my accommodation crosses the 3-digit mark, ‘traveler-not-tourist’ inside me feels betrayed. Yet that unending passage, which though only a few meters long, rattled me. I was reminded of my Economics class, where I would check the watch every 15 minutes, only to find merely a minute had passed. Time never stood still before or after that course; that is till I had traversed this passage. Walls constricted, ceiling slipped lower and the floor edged upwards.


Screaming and running out of her house loomed large when Butit turned to climb the stairs and arrived in yet another passage – roomy and well-lit. Man! I was relieved.

In the front was Butit’s room.

It was not only her bedroom but also the kitchen, study, dining, and living room, all combined into one, as I would come to know later. Mattresses were spread across the length of the floor on three sides. At the center was a stove, which was also a room-heater. The ropes with an overload of clothes were tied along bright yellow walls, which were decorated by two Shahrukh Khan posters often found in road-side barbershops. The window served multiple purposes, primary of which was communication between people on the inside and those on the street.

To my right was a dry toilet.

Basic homestay, remember?

The dry toilet was a tiny room with a door, no windows, and a hole on the floor. You were expected to have a good aim to ensure your business passed through that hole. The skylight let the warm gases exit the toilet.

To my left was my room.

The only indulgence I yearned for was a place to straighten my back. I had surrendered all hopes of a comfortable stay. But when I opened the door, what stared back at me was heaven!

The room was several notches above my expectations: two beds with thick blankets and real mattresses, colonizing more than half the room; neatly tucked floral bedsheet and matching pillow-covers; two chairs and a table – with a jug and a flower pot; pink walls and blue ceiling; half the walls covered with bamboo mats; the only window opening to the view of fields.

Gazing at my room, I would have beaten Buddha in experiencing gratitude. For a person, who constantly grapples with thankfulness, this emotion was an epiphany. I never appreciated my fully-furnished 2000 sq. ft. flat in Gurgaon. Forget appreciation, I never even noticed it.  But at Demul, something novel happened, and I wasn’t sure why!

Was it because I was tired?

Or was it because I was far from home – traveling – and expecting a transformation that comes with it?

Or was I not grateful – simply relived looking at a clean room after a long day?
Answers to those questions eluded me. Probably, the answer wasn’t what I looked for. I was in an inebriated space: slightly overwhelmed and happy high. Before that feeling ebbed and was replaced by something mundane, I wanted to cherish it. In an all-knowing world, I wanted a few mysteries to stay: mysteries, which were pleasant! Mysteries, which were entirely mine.

I dumped my backpack on the floor and crashed on my bed. My tired limbs were rested but my mind was hyperactive, absorbing the Spiti I had come to acquaint myself with. Butit brought Maggi and tea, which I wolfed down in minutes.

Before I could lay and contemplate about the shift of my axis, Takpa barged in.

Takpa Tenzin was our tour guide. Around 6 feet in height, he had broad shoulders and healthy physique, quite like the folks of mountains. Like how magenta robes become the part of monks’ body, the green-blue chequered jacket had become Takpa’s extended skin. The disheveled hair and light mustache suited his triangular weather-beaten face.

He usually had a joke for every situation – though lame, it managed to crack everyone.

‘Don’t be a Gama. In the land of Lama’, he warned those, who tried to be over-ambitious while hiking.

He apparently knew 75% of Spiti, which was around 7500 people and was 56 years of age.
‘WHAT? 56? You don’t look that old’, I remarked, aghast.

‘Maybe it’s the mountain effect – preservation of age’, someone else acted wisely.

Only under the influence of a few beers did he reveal that he was 37. But till then, we had stopped believing him.

On one of the days, when we went for high-altitude trekking, and we all struggled, including the avid American trekker, Takpa came to our rescue:

‘This is not a rally. Enjoy the valley’.

So, we enjoyed the valley.

His evening visits had become a ritual. He would come, crack a weighty remark here, a witty remark there, eat a little, drink something, and share the plan for the next day.
Life as a Local' lets you stay with the local people, observe their routine, help solve their problems. Tomorrow, we are going to dig ditches in the fields.’

Dig ditches? How will that help? I wondered.

‘Spiti is a cold desert. We barely get any rainfall here but ample snowfall. So, the trenches you work on, get filled with snow in winters. The snow melts in summers and increases the water-table.’

Geared with picks, shovels, and fervor, we marched towards the fields. The prospect of making a difference to someone’s life thrilled me. I never tried that near my home, but while traveling, it was different.

‘Experiential travel’, they say. You can write about it.

‘Take rest whenever you are tired’, Takpa instructed.

We took his instruction to heart. We rested after every 8th strike to the ground – strikes that made absolutely no impact on the depth of the ditches.

The zest stayed high, with the girls taking the charge. Though it was not so long-lived. The stark contrast between efforts and results sneered at us: the gusto went downhill, starting from the masculine side.

The girls tried to motivate us to get up, pick the shovels, and remove the dirt.

That didn’t work.

So, they resorted to insults.

That worked.

By the evening, when the job was done to our satisfaction and to Takpa’s dissatisfaction, we left the field, fantasizing about a hot shower and a warm bed.

‘Can we get some hot water?’ I asked Butit.

She didn’t seem to comprehend. My request seemed so axiomatic that I hadn’t prepared for an explanation. So, I repeated:

‘Can we get some hot water for a bath? We are filled with dust.’

‘OK’, she replied, with a mixed expression of reluctance and displeasure, which only a person slogging over the weekend can show.

What the hell! Haven’t we paid enough to take a bath at least? I thought, feeling a little annoyed.

But ignoring the hiccup, I went and chatted with Norbu, Butit’s son, who was aware of Gmail and Facebook despite no internet connection in Spiti. One of his books read:

Every child is special. You are extra special because you are a child of Himalayas.

‘I want to go to Delhi,’ Norbu said.

‘Why? What a terrible place, full of smoke and dust and smog and filth,’ we retorted.

‘But it's big and I want to see a big city. Till now, I have only been to Kaza a few times.’

‘What will you do there?’

‘What do YOU do there?’


Our chain of the conversation was broken when from the window I saw, a tiny woman afar, walking with a large tank on her back. The tank was three quarters her height and was held by a rope. She wiggled her way uphill and skittered downhill. My adrenalin was high just by looking her stride, nervous that the tank will fall, and her water will go down the drain along with her effort.

‘Damn difficult life. These guys toil really hard’, I said, receiving a whole-hearted agreement from my room-mate.

‘That is mummy’, Norbu said.


Flashes of how I struggled to reach Butit’s house just the day before shimmered in my memory. And now, she walked the same distance with a barrel full of water so that we could take bath.

We were silent for a while, the quiet broken only by the clanking of the utensils Butit used to prepare our meal.

‘Water is ready.’

Bathing felt lucrative earlier but now I was reluctant and displeased. Water, such an inconspicuous item, never drew so much reverence or guilt. Every mug of water crashed against my skin and jolted something inside the ribs.

For the next two days, I washed my used utensils, helped peel potatoes, talked a little less, listened a little more.

I didn’t take a shower for the rest of the trip.

Yash travelled with Ecosphere on our Life as a Local program. Follow his adventures on Instagram @angryfatman

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