Sunday, April 10, 2022

2021 - A Year of Hope


Even as uncertainty lingers, we're looking forward to a brand new, hopeful year. We would like to thank our ever-loving, ever-growing family of travellers, volunteers and our virtual community, for standing with us and being part of this Journey of Change.

After an absolute no-travel year in 2020, Spiti saw some tourism inflow in the second half of 2021. With faith, we prepped for our summer programs this year and waited patiently through the uncertain roller coaster that it has been. But it all came to a sudden halt with the spike in cases in April and the strict lockdown that ensued.

Thankfully we could host travellers and volunteers June onwards, while getting our developmental projects up and running.  

Here is a list of initiatives we've been able to work on this year to positively impact the local community :

  • 1850+ dental treatments undertaken in Spiti
  • 6 Greenhouses built 
  • 9 Solar Rooms built
  • 2 Solar Water Pumps installed 
  • 22000+ cubic ft. trenches dug in the Demul highlands to recharge ground water
  • 76 fuel efficient stoves installed
  • 300+ stray dogs fed through the winter
  • Dental Camp in Asoga Village, Chhattisgarh

 

Changing the Landscape of Oral Health in Spiti Valley 


Of all the health problems in Spiti, the most ignored is Oral Health where people in their 40s end up losing most of their teeth to cavities. To address this concern we on-boarded 2 dentists onto our team with whom we conducted 4 dental camps in Spiti Valley this year. These dental camps were held in the villages of Kwang, Komic (the 1st ever camp of this nature in the highest village of the world), Pangmo and Rangrik. 


The response to these camps has been overwhelming and within a span of 3 months over 1850 dental treatments were conducted. 

After the success of our mobile dental camps, we decided to extend our dental interventions over the winter months to areas out of Spiti. This year we have taken our dental team and mobile clinic to the interiors of Chhattisgarh where we are holding camps through the winter

Creating Access to Water & Mitigating the Impacts of Climate Change


The only source of moisture in Spiti is from winter snow. With climate change, snowfall has drastically reduced over the years. In 2017-2018, we had almost no snowfall at all. Most villages in Spiti still don’t have access to drinking water, especially in the winters when temperatures dip to -30C and water sources freeze over. A simple task of getting water to drink entails an arduous trek over many kilometers to the river bed - just to carry back a 20 liter can for the entire family. More often than not, one has to resort to melting snow. 

As most of you know, we've been working on bringing water closer to people's homes and mitigating the impacts of climate change in 2 ways.

Solar Water Pumps - So far, we've enabled year-round access to water in 4 villages. This year we set up solar water pumps in 2 more villages to address this problem. We set up one solar water pump in the village of Kwang and 2 pumps in the village of Lidang. As Lidang is a large village divided into 2 parts - Old Lidang and New Lidang - 2 separate solar pumps were set up along with 2 water storage facilities for the village. 


Ground Water Recharge - 
 This year, we adopted the village of Demul and holistically covered a large section of the village's spring shed. We dug over 22000+ cu. ft. trenches in the Demul highlands to help with recharge of groundwater in this belt. 

 

Fresh Greens for 6 more families


The simplest of things is a luxury in Spiti. Access to fresh produce and green vegetables is hard-to-find. The extreme weather conditions make it unfavourable to growing greens. Restricted travel, especially during the winter months, cuts access to the otherwise regular supply of produce from Manali. 

Add to that, the pandemic and its numerous variants have made good nutrition almost impossible for the locals. This year we built 6 greenhouses to ensure the community has access to fresh produce, which is otherwise barely accessible during the winters. 

Solar Rooms for 9 families

 


Extreme winter months in Spiti sees families burning a lot of firewood to keep themselves warm. With simple architectural enhancements and better insulation we have created sustainable ways of heating up rooms using the sun's rays - drastically reducing fuel consumption in the process. These enhancements absorb and retain solar heat longer using technologies that are based on local materials (dung, straw, mud brick), reducing fuel consumption by 60%.

This also reduces cold and smoke-related illnesses. Better health means more opportunities to take on income-generating activities such as handicrafts to double production and enhance income. This year we constructed 9 Solar rooms, adding them to a list of over 500 families across villages. We hope it enhances their houses and quality of life.

Fuel-Efficient stoves

Wood stoves and LPG gas cylinders are the cooking mediums in Spiti. Rising LPG costs are heavy on the pocket, so people turn to wood stoves. However, local wood stoves are not fuel efficient, consuming a lot of firewood and emitting a ton of carbon. 

To address this, we introduced the Himalayan Rocket Stove, a fuel-efficient stove that cuts down 50% of wood consumption and reduces carbon emissions by over 90%. This ensures that the indoor air is smoke-free. The stoves also help reduce expenditure and time spent on collecting wood and dung. This year we provided 76 such fuel efficient stoves to the local community. 

Animal Welfare


Winters have always been extremely hard here. But it is even worse for our furry friends. People are barely around, fewer tourists, the locals step out less - all of these culminating to minimal or almost no food for the dogs to get through the winter months. They either starve or even worse end up eating the little pups. Along with the fabulous women of the Menthok Self-Help Group, we organise feeding programs to ensure the dogs don't go hungry during the extreme winters. This year, too, we continued feeding over 300 strays in and around Kaza through the winter.  

Volunteers make our world go round! 


In June 2021, Ecosphere resumed operations and took in travelers for the fixed departure programs and the volunteer programs planned for the summer. Our volunteers have helped us:

Collect Trash as part of the I Love Spiti Initiative: 

We had a group of passionate boys on our Backpacking with a Purpose program collect plastic waste for hours on end in Kaza. The never-ending bags of trash seemed to magically appear over and over, leaving them astonished. It offered perspective on the mountains of plastic pollution that travellers like them leave behind in Spiti.

In the new year, we urge you to travel responsibly- carry your own bottle, don't buy plastic bottled water, eat local (avoid plastic packaged food and drinks) and to use water resources responsibly. Every small step goes a long way to ensure a better planet for future generations. 

Watch the film now:

Backpacking with a Purpose 

Built a Greenhouse for a Hand Pump!


As part of our Life as a Local program, volunteers helped build a greenhouse around a handpump in the village of Kwang, where we have recently installed a solar water pump. With extreme winters for 6 months in a year, our hand pumps in Spiti need to be kept warm too since the water inside freezes. The greenhouse helps prevent the water from freezing over, ensuring the pump can easily pump out water for the village. 

Sol Café - our Café with a Cause:


July onwards, Spiti saw an inflow of tourists after more than a year of no travel.  It was buzzing with travellers, volunteers and locals. Our Sol Café was equally bustling with sizzling delicacies, warm mugs of coffee, Cook like a Local lessons, meetings, movie nights and volunteer catch-ups. Thank you to each of our Sol Volunteers who made this possible: Nitin, Nalin, Rashmi, Pooja, Shibani, Rushitha and Manju.

Taste of Spiti - our fusion Restaurant:

Taste of Spiti has always dazzled travellers with a local twist to world cuisine.  It has, as always, promoted local food, culture, and insights in the best possible way. Thank you to our volunteers, Mohit and Shashin who made this happen.

Creative Genius :
Our team of creative talents helped us creatively document Ecosphere and MUSE initiatives in Spiti. Our warm gratitude to Vidit, Prasanna, Aryaman, Rashima, and Sushma.


Farming :
Farmers sweat their hearts out during the short agricultural season in Spiti. With very limited resources and people around, every pair of helping hands counts and always welcome. Families in Spiti and we, at Ecosphere are grateful to Nitin, Mansi, Sushma, and Shibani for helping to toil the land and learn the ways of local farming. 

Watch what Nitin has to say:

Farming at 4000 m

Features

  • TOTs Magazine August 2021 - Ecosphere along with it’s NGO wing MUSE was featured for the many initiatives and the volunteer run-programs we host in Spiti. 
  • Travel and Leisure October 2021 - Our Founder, Ishita Khanna, was featured as the 15 Trailblazers of 2021 for Ecosphere's volunteering-based tourism that enables the upliftment of local communities.
  • Travel and Leisure October 2021 - Based on first-hand experience our volunteer, Rashima Nagpal, dedicated a write-up on how the volunteer programs in Ecosphere function and the many experiences that come with it.
  • Visa2Explore October 2021 - Ecosphere-run Taste of Spiti had the pleasure of hosting and serving Harish Bali from Visa2Explore who enjoyed delicacies with a local twist in Spitian flavours.

    The year was uncertain, challenging and nothing short of a roller coaster ride. But with the continuous support of our team, we were able to sail through the year. Now, with renewed hope and energy, here we are looking forward to a positive 2022!

Partners

What we do in Spiti would not be possible without the support of our incredible partners. We would like to express our gratitude and thanks to:
  • Dharampal Satyapal Foods Limited (DS Group)
  • Sunlit Futures
  • Grundfos Foundation
  • Adna Global
  • GHPL


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Looking back at you, 2020



It’s been a surreal year, to say the least. But even as the world seemed to implode in every direction, the Ecosphere team found renewed strength from an incredible community.

Thank you for standing by us. For creating room for Spiti in your thoughts despite so much else happening in the world. We are grateful for your love and faith in us.
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In all honesty, we didn’t think there would be much to look back on this year. What could one possibly capture in a year-end blog for 2020? The uncertainty and anxiety? The lethargy that defined our lives this year? But as we got to writing, so also came a few epiphanies.

Sure, we couldn’t host travelers and volunteers. Several of our developmental projects came to a halt. We didn’t have stunning mountains or crystal lakes for company.

What we did have were the power of community and the internet! We channeled both to amazing potential this year with a focus on supporting ongoing projects or starting new ones.

Read on to discover what we were able to do.

Stand with Travel collaboration


Much before the official lockdown, all of us in Spiti proactively decided to keep the Valley closed to visitors since access to even basic medical facilities here is scarce.

For a remote region where many lives and livelihoods depend on tourism, the pandemic had devastating effects. The new normal for Spiti - 18 months of no income from tourism. The most affected people? Those who make our journeys to Spiti memorable - guides, homestays, cooks, drivers, donkey and yak owners, and porters. 

In a typical year, farming would provide communities with an alternate source of income. However, the pandemic reached its peak in April which coincided with the start of the farming season in Spiti. This meant we could plant very little of the main cash crop - Green Peas. Additionally, it is tourism that adds to agricultural income each year. And thus, the crippling economic wheel keeps turning.

Stand with Travel, Stand with Spiti


To support our communities during these challenging times, Ecosphere joined hands with a collective of passionate travel businesses as part of the Stand with Travel campaign. Stand with Travel aims to support communities across the country dependent on tourism to sustain lives and livelihoods.


The idea behind Stand with Travel is simple: Contribute Today - Travel Tomorrow. People can book their travels in advance through a community organization in a location of their choice in the country. The contributions today help sustain communities who have had no income from tourism and in return, travelers can redeem 100% of this amount to travel in the future.

Whether that’s months from now or years away, travelling to Spiti with us simply becomes a matter of when and not if.

Thrilled to share that as of 31st December 2020, Spiti Ecosphere reached 91% of our crowdfunding goal on the platform!

To say we’ve been blown away by the support we’ve received is putting it mildly! Your support has made all the difference to people whose lives and livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic this year.

Our team identified individuals most in need and as a first step, here’s what we’ve been able to do:
  • Winter clothes for 40-50 nuns who live in Pangmo
  • A support stipend to sustain local travel guides and support staff - 11 people so far
  • A year’s ration for 2 families so far
  • Warm clothes and winter boots for 2 families so far
  • Medical support - 3 patients identified for support with a year’s supply of medicines
  • Scholarships for 6 students

The Ecosphere community not only contributed and shared the campaign across various platforms, some even initiated fundraisers of their own for Ecosphere and Spiti Valley!


Saving Spiti
Ishita Seth travelled with us to Spiti in 2016 and lost her heart to the valley’s surreal mountains and beautiful people. On reading about Ecosphere’s crowdfunding initiative for Spiti, Ishita not only wished to give back, but decided to go a step further.

She started a fundraising initiative of her own called Saving Spiti. Ishita and her friends - Anshuman, Arkita, Piya, and Anisa - are designing and selling bookmarks, postcards and greeting cards, where all proceeds will be given to Spiti Ecosphere. Thank you for doing this! This heartwarming initiative even made its way to the press!

Cycle for Spiti by Prakash and Rashmi
Prakash and his sister, Rashmi started a crowdfunding campaign for Ecosphere on Ketto. As part of the campaign, Prakash Kabra cycled for Spiti at the Bergamont Tour De 100. BERGAMONT Tour De 100 is a global 5-stage cycling challenge spread over a period of 100 days. Cyclists from the world over participate in this event. Each stage is 20 days long and has multiple challenges to complete.

Incidentally, his sister Rashmi volunteered at our Sol Cafe in 2019. An absolute superstar of a volunteer who broke all records at Sol!

Giving back to those who taught us 'Jullay'
Yoke travelled with us to Spiti in 2018. She has recently published a beautiful photo journal on her journey in the mountains entitled 'Lessons from the Himalayas'. She is contributing 5% of all purchases to Spiti and Ecosphere. As she so beautifully puts it, giving back "to the folks who embody the very spirit of light and love from the Himalayas."

We remember each of our volunteers and travellers with such fond memories. To know they still have Spiti in their hearts means everything to us.

Voices of Rural India collaboration 



To further support our communities during the pandemic, we came on board as a partner for an exciting new project called Voices of Rural India. At a time of no travel, Voices of Rural India brings readers the next best thing: stories from rural communities, in their own voices! This one-of-a-kind, non-profit media platform allows rural storytellers to tell their own stories and monetize them.

Voices of Rural India aims to empower communities through digital journalism, while creating alternative revenue streams for communities affected by the pandemic. In the long run, it hopes to be a repository of stories and traditional knowledge of the villages in India.

Ecosphere’s very own Chhering Norbu has written three amazing stories on Spiti for Voices of Rural India. We’re pleased to share that these stories have also been published on other media platforms since. 

Go read these incredible stories through the links below:

The heart of a Volunteer, and this year from home 



Ecosphere's Sol Cafe in Kaza by Mariya Zoheb

Our volunteers make the world go round, and we are so grateful for your continued support. The novel Coronavirus stopped the world in its tracks this year. But even a global pandemic had nothing on the spirit of the Ecosphere community.

We were blessed to find wonderful volunteers who helped us remotely during the lockdown. Across multiple cities, time zones, age groups, and backgrounds - a unifying thread brought them together: the love for the mountains.

Volunteers from across the world reached out to help in various spheres – from writing, research, art, poster making, to social media. Additionally, we focused on activities around several of our ongoing developmental projects in Spiti. These few months of dedicated effort by our volunteers will have long-lasting impact and gains for Spiti and its people.


Buddha by Anthea

The Nuns in Spiti by Sita


Interpretation of Spiti's quirky road signs - Bahaar Batra

Thank you for your time, efforts, and for sharing our love for Spiti. 

If you’re keen to read, here are a few links to some of the blogs our volunteers wrote for us during the lockdown.

Life as a Local - Yash Chaturvedi

Our Seabuckthorn products go online!



If you’ve visited or travelled with us, it’s likely you’re familiar with our Seabuckthorn crush and jam under the brand name ‘Tsering’. In 2020, we were able to bring the goodness of this Himalayan wonder berry straight to people’s homes.

We introduced our Seabuckthorn berry products online for the first time this year and received an amazing response! It’s been wonderful to hear back from everyone. We heard resounding echoes of “Finally!” from those who’ve been asking about online availability. We also received excellent feedback from people who tried for the first time.

For the uninitiated, Seabuckthorn, often called a ‘miracle berry’ is indigenous to the Spiti and Ladakh regions in India. A perfect dietary supplement, its health properties have been a subject of volumes of research across the globe. 

  • It has 3 times more Vitamin A than carrots
  • Has up to 15 times more Vitamin C than lemon and oranges
  • Has more Vitamin E compared to most other fruits
  • Contains 3 – 5 times more SOD compared to ginseng. SOD is known for its anti-ageing properties.
  • The only plant in the world that has Omega Oils 3,6,7, and 9
  • Its properties range from anti-cancer, anti-inflammation, to anti-radiation

While procuring the berry is difficult, you can enjoy it in the form of delicious Crush and Jam. Products made with love by people in the Himalayas! Interested in ordering our Tsering products? Write to us at discover@spitiecosphere.com

Benefits of our existing projects

2020 was a year of tremendous learning. As the pandemic adversely impacted lives and livelihoods, we realized the importance of alternative income sources for the communities in Spiti. It also reinforced the incredible benefits of some of our ongoing projects in Spiti Valley:

Greenhouses


With virtually no vegetables coming at all from the plains this year, our existing Greenhouses helped families tide over the pandemic comfortably. Communities had access to fresh, organically-grown vegetables all year round. From everyday greens to more exotic stuff like broccoli, squash, and even mushrooms – we did not have to compromise on nutritious food this year. A big thank you to all our volunteers for helping us build over 150 greenhouses in Spiti!

Solar passive rooms


In times of limited income opportunities, cutting down on expenditure wherever possible becomes essential – especially in remote mountain communities where resources are already difficult to come by. Our solar passive rooms in several villages capture the sun’s rays and keep rooms warmer for longer in the winter. Families are able to save a significant amount of money they would otherwise spend on firewood.

Solar water pumps 


Most villages in Spiti still don’t have access to drinking water, especially in the winter. People often have to walk 2 hours every day across snow and ice, making their way down steep hill slopes prone to avalanches. All to collect 20 litres of water for their family’s drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing needs.



Over the years, we have endeavoured to bring drinking water closer to people’s homes by installing solar water pumps. Access to clean, drinking water improves overall health and quality of life. In times like these, ensuring our communities’ health and welfare becomes doubly crucial. 

We’re thankful to all the people who have made the installation of solar pumps possible over the years.

Takpa starts a project to recharge groundwater in Chicham

With glaciers receding at alarming rates and an increase in carbon emissions, Spiti Valley’s fragile ecosystems are at the forefront of climate change. Water scarcity is a major challenge in the cold deserts of Spiti. This summer, Takpa from the Ecosphere team decided to help facilitate groundwater recharge in Chicham by building a percolation pit. 

Usually, streams and channels take water directly into the fields for irrigation. Post the farming season, this water continues to run in the fields and goes to waste. Given the acute scarcity of water in Spiti overall, Takpa recognized how a precious resource was going to waste.

In an effort to conserve water, Takpa has built two percolation pits where water from the streams/channels is redirected to a tank in a spring shed for storage, which then freezes over the winter.  This frozen water will melt in the summer and consequently seep into the ground and help recharge groundwater levels. 


Massive respect to Takpa and his efforts! As individuals, every action we take counts. This year in particular has been a wake-up call on our choices and how they impact the environment. We hope these meaningful conversations continue and drive change in the coming years.

Animal Welfare 

Every winter, the awesome women of the Mentok Self Help Group come together to cook food for and feed Spiti's stray dogs. The bitter cold and food scarcity usually compel dogs to turn wild. They often resort to hunting in packs and preying on livestock, each other, or even attack humans - leading to immense distress for everyone around.

In the winter of 2015, along with the local administration, Ecosphere managed to motivate a local women’s self-help group (the Mentok SHG) to feed the stray dogs of Kaza. As a way to reduce human-animal conflict and enable peaceful co-existence, the women, get together regularly to cook food for the dogs and feed them, even when temperatures⁣ drop to a bone-chilling -25 degrees!

This year, the women have once again come together to look after the dogs. Ecosphere continues to provide sacks of atta for the women to cook rotis for the dogs. We also procure packets of Pedigree which we distribute to people in Kaza and neighboring villages. There are approximately 750 strays around Kaza and Tabo.



Thank you, to the Mentok SHG for all they do and to everyone who’s supported the program so far. Your efforts directly impact the well-being of the mountain dogs. In a year where nobody should be left behind, it means everything!

Community Spirit

If there’s any place in the world that defines community spirit, it would be Spiti. Life in this stunning cold desert is both beautiful and extremely difficult. Everyone gets by with help and support from each other.

The indomitable spirit of Spiti came through even stronger than before this year. A proactive local community and authorities remained adamant about keeping Spiti in lockdown. They stood their ground even when the rest of the country and Himachal Pradesh opened up to tourism. Their foresight and determination helped Spiti stay safe from the virus for most of the year. 

Ecosphere’s very own Chhering Norbu is part of an expert committee elected by the community to make important decisions on behalf of the people of Spiti during the pandemic.

Features

We're delighted to share that Ecosphere was featured in several publications this year. Click on the links below to read:

Friday, September 25, 2020

Uncharted trails & star hugs – A solo female traveller’s guide to the Spitian Galaxy


One of the most delightful persons I came across in Spiti was Takpa, a trusted team member at Ecosphere who can always find a reason to smile. We would often share banter about the village he hailed from, Chicham.

‘Jannat’ is the word he would choose to describe it, and I would often express disappointment at how I never got a chance to visit Chicham. To this he would say, “You have to wait for the more remarkable things in your life”. I would like to believe that. It is also tough to not let your patience waver.

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Four years ago, my father - an ardent reader of unusual and in-between-the-lines stuff - handed me an article about a young woman spearheading a beautiful initiative by the name of Ecosphere in Spiti.

Three years, plenty of reading, and INTENSE discussions with my family later, I found myself boarding a bus to Rekong Peo. I had packed only for one. Solo travel was unchartered territory for me, much like Spiti - the Middle Land.

So, naturally, there were many reservations floating around safety, health, stay, travel, expenses, and of course network issues, which demanded and deserved our attention. Heads up! Your love for the mountains might not count as a rebuttal to your family right away. In hindsight, that was actually a good thing. In trying to persuade my family, I felt pressured to find more information, read more, look up people and stories that could provide valuable lessons and help prepare a little better.

Watching travel vlogs on YouTube and intentional scrolling through articles on reliable websites (eg Tripoto, Devil on Wheels and other local webpages) proved to be an insightful exercise. I also contacted a bunch of women travellers on social media and asked countless questions. Quick tip: Never shy away from asking for help and keep up a workout routine for better acclimatization.

Finding a place to stay

I decided to stay with Ecosphere and volunteered to help run their Sol Café. My association with Ecosphere was a relief to the many safety and stay concerns. Regardless of whether you’re working with them or not, the Ecosphere-run Osel Rooms is a popular and trusted option for visitors. And overall, Kaza is a generous host with a number of hostels, guest houses, homestays, and hotels suited to every budget. You’ll find plenty of accommodation within walking distance of the main market. Female dorms in hostels are a favored and safe option for many women travelers who might be keeping an eye on the budget. You can easily look them up online and even pre-book them.

“How will you get there?”

That was the next big question and took the longest time to decide! Taxis turned out to be slightly disruptive to my budget. Initially, overnight journeys in public transport were a straight up no for my folks. But after being reassured of its effectiveness, my brother, who has always been with me at various turning points in my life, helped me book my bus ticket from Chandigarh to Rekong Peo. That was the first time I knew that this was happening- for real!

Feel free to take your own vehicle with someone trusted and with mountain-road experience behind the wheel. The views are charming, but the terrain, testing. Keep an eye out for the petrol pumps. In fact, map their locations well in advance and refuel whenever you get a chance. Although slightly pricey, private taxis are perfect for those who like their space and want to take their sweet time to reach the destination. You can easily find shared taxis from Rampur, Kalpa, and Peo as well.


It was a comfortable overnight ride from Chandigarh to Peo which lasted for close to 13 hours. After staying in Rekong for one night, the following morning I got my bus ticket for Kaza. The journey from Peo to Kaza was close to 11 hours long - a tad tiring, yet immensely memorable. I was lucky to connect with a couple of passengers at the outset who would often cross paths with me in the days to come. My anxiety seemed to ease a little with every steep bend we passed. My excitement received a push with the changing landscape which was at one point very Martian-like. We got off at Kaza Bus Station and I strapped on my backpack while it rained and started to walk towards Osel Rooms- my home for the next fortnight.

Osel Rooms – My Mountain Home

Since it was pouring, I didn’t pay close attention to the surroundings, but the vibe the place gave off was great! I reached Taste of Spiti (TOS), an Ecosphere-run restaurant which houses Osel Rooms over it. Neema, a reliable team member greeted me with a ‘Julley’. The tea that he offered was all that I needed in that moment. Neema dutifully encouraged me to take it easy for the rest of the evening and take time to acclimatize. He said that Buddha Purnima was due in a few days. and that I would want to be fit to join the celebrations.

With that, I settled into my cozy room upstairs which I was sharing with two wonderful female solo travelers, who also happened to be my co-volunteers. Although it took me a while (and an extra pair of socks) to get warm under the blankets, I slept with the moonlight falling on my face. Quick tip: Layer your clothes at all times!

At around half past 6, I woke up to the sounds of birds chirping. The air I was breathing was chilly, but I was snug in my bed. It is indeed a beautiful start to the day when a magnificent snow-capped mountain wishes you a good morning.   City habits caused me to check my phone first thing - No WhatsApp notifications! Just an SMS from my family.

Mobile network in Spiti can be a concern for a lot of people. Get a BSNL or a Jio sim card. Internet is still a bit tricky throughout Spiti, but you’ll find some connectivity in Kaza. It would really help you to keep some local numbers handy and share them with your family too. Contact them whenever there’s network. If your folks at home are anything like mine, try and send them a text at regular intervals.

Acclimatization and Self-Care

In a few days - assuming I had acclimatized well- I began bothering less about hydrating myself or keeping my neck warm. Rookie mistake! And, enduring the start of a dust storm on return from a hike made the inevitable happen next morning. I was throwing up and showed signs of mild AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) + a really bad throat. 

But thankfully, Norbu whipped up medicine which was magic and Neema kept the kettle going. Sharmishtha and Akhila, my amazing roommates made sure I was tucked up well. I was up and about the next day, just with extra caution. So, I shall trust you to take care, pack sunscreen, and wear that extra layer of clothing.

Volunteering at Sol Café

Sol Café was my work station for the next two weeks. It is a bright, warm and inviting space with enough tables to host a crowd without ever making it feel overcrowded.


Most days in Kaza were spent at Sol alongside Lobstar and Singhey, who took me under their wing. My co-volunteer, Akhila, and I would often have tea with them while sitting outdoors during quieter hours and discuss post-dinner plans. An impromptu dance evening with locals, guests, volunteer friends, and Singhey is one of the great memories I have of Sol!


When you’re here, make sure to write and flip through the travellers book that is placed near the window. You’ll also get used to ending your evenings with a steaming cup of ginger honey or seabuckthorn tea, and sometimes. something slightly stronger ;)

The food choices in cafes, restaurants, and local stalls are a myriad of flavors which go beyond regional tastes. Do not miss the tingmo or Neema’s Garden Keu or local bread w/ seabuckthorn jam at the neighbouring Taste of Spiti restaurant. Also, local stores and shops line the area with something for everyone.

In its peak season, Kaza can very well be called a global village. One morning at Sol, I took 4 different orders of people from El Salvador, France, England and Israel, only to see them all sitting together around a table when I returned with their food.

I’ll be eternally grateful for meeting some incredible people quite early on in my trips. We often went for long walks after dinner. We would find a spot decent enough to lie down in silence and let the stars put on a show for us. Every now and then, we’d check up on each other and ask if they’re okay. That actually translated into, “Could we stay here for just a little while longer?” And we would stay until the cold defeated our jackets or even our blankets on some nights!

Three suggestions: 1. Meet and greet. 2. Download Sky Maps 3. If you have the luxury while planning your visit, consider the phase of the moon for a good night sky.

Travelling in Spiti

The distances here between locations are great and petrol pumps, scarce. So, if you’re travelling in your own vehicle, mind that fuel gauge and always take a local’s opinion before heading off somewhere.

State-run buses cover the area rather well and with a decent frequency. Enquire about the timings well in advance since some routes aren’t functional on a daily basis. Renting a bike or booking a local taxi-shared or private-is a popular option.

The last resort (first for some)-is hitchhiking. You might not have to wait at all or stay put for an hour or more, but you’ll find a ride-a bike, car, tractor or truck. I urge you to try it if you get the chance. But, remember to trust your gut and always thank the people for letting you tag along.

Thankfully, I found the time and people to explore the area without slacking off at the café. Once, we went on an impromptu afternoon visit to Rangrik and a neighboring nunnery (which by the way, was not abandoned as informed!). 

Shout out to Akhila, who rode the two-wheeler like she owned the road. Overnight stays at Dhankar and Mudh with a few friends that I made early on were insanely beautiful for more reasons than one.




Learning and Growth

It was not all peachy here. There were moments of uncertainty, waiting, sickness, longing, confusion or reluctance. Sometimes you struggle with a lack of faith. But, this is how we learn and grow.

For me, it was the people who made this a memorable visit. The visitors that I came across in different parts of the town became regular customers, who became Jenga frenemies, who then became stargazing partners and before you know it, they were friends who bid an overwhelmed adieu at the bus station. 

Spiti has a subtle alchemy. My experience was a perfect harmony of the most gorgeous landscape and the warmest people. Give the surroundings some time and respect to get acquainted. You feel alive with every breath. The colours of the prayer flags radiate a resounding feeling of warmth, hope, love and safety. It is like being engulfed in a massive hug! 

I did come here alone, however, I rarely ever felt lonely.  

Like most people, I rambled stories after stories once I came back home. My folks were excited and patient to hear what I had to say. But, I quickly realized there was so much they couldn’t relate to and, I felt terrible. However, that’s turned into my motivation for taking them there someday. I’ll never forget that if it weren’t for my parents and brother, I would never have been able to share these experiences in the first place. So, you can blame them for this lengthy article!

 You know the feeling when something within you has changed, but you can't really put a finger on it? Yet, you're happy and content. That's what I feel after this tiny visit to a land of magic. For the first time, in a long time, I walk with my head up. What Spiti also left me with is some faith and star-hugs, something I would otherwise doubt myself of ever having.

If I ever find myself feeling unlucky or ungrateful, a reflection on my time in Spiti always makes me feel otherwise.

With that, let me share one last anecdote.

It was one of my last days of volunteering at Sol Café. The sun was bright. The air, crisp and cold. The people, warm. My heart was filled with utter joy. We were chatting away when I mentioned, “Lobsang, I’ll try my best to make it back to Spiti again”. He replied with a smile, “A lot of people say that, but a lot of times, people get caught up with their life and seldom visit us again.” Ouch! But without missing another moment he added, “Don’t worry, come back here soon again and we would love to host you again” And, just like that, with a renewed sense of confidence and hope, I sipped on my ginger honey tea.

It’s been a little over a year since that conversation. And, to be honest, life does seem to have caught up in an uncertain way. But, I often find myself reminiscing moments from my time in Spiti with great fondness, and an even greater hope of going back.

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.

CLAUSTROPHOBIA!

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?’

Stumped!

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.

WHAT!

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