In the lower Himalayas of Uttarakhand, I hiked many kilometers through dreamy villages, terraced valleys, deodar forests, secret rhododendron trails, and swaying yellow mustard fields – a journey that gave me a peek into the soul of rural Kumaon, and through it, my own.
I met people who live hours away from the nearest road; women who wake up at 4 am to chop wood and carry it on their heads across daunting terrain, men who have confronted leopards on a lonely journey home, elders and kids who can hop, skip and climb down a steep mountain face while I precariously slide one foot in front of the other. I’m not an avid hiker, but in their warmth, innocence and stories, I found conviction and some precious life lessons:
A stranger is a friend until proven otherwise.
I laugh when I think of how nervous I initially was, to find myself alone in Kumaon, amidst strangers again, ever since the mugging incident in Costa Rica shook my faith in the world (Read: Epic Memories from Central America). On my first ten kilometer hike through Navgaon, Chachu aka Uday Singh took it upon himself to show me his village. Walking along the narrow pathways, we were stopped by Sarita Bai, who scurried out of the kitchen to meet me, her face covered in black smoke and a wide smile. We talked as though we were long lost friends, she made me promise that I would stay with her the next time, and asked me to take her photo lest I should forget my promise.
Days later, in the villages of Thikalna, Ganghet and the countless others we crossed, I strangely felt like a friend coming home, not a visitor just passing by. It’s a feeling I’m trying to carry with me wherever I go.
Solitude is a way of life.
On my journey, whenever I paused on the summit of a hill to catch my breath, I could spot a solitary house in the distance – surrounded by nothing but farms and pine trees, a kilometer from the next house and many from the nearest road. I asked Lalit, my guide from one such village near Almora, the question that always struck me: Why do people in the mountains choose to live so secluded? His vague answers didn’t quell my curiosity.
On my last day in the village of Chalnichhina, by the flames of a dying fire, Lalit, now a friend, asked me why I chose to travel all alone. I found my answer in his curiosity – Solitude. We might be different and incomprehensible to each other, but our ways of life are driven by the same inexplicable love for solitude (Read: How I Conquer My Solo Travel Fears).
For better or for worse, we are in it together.
Last month, a visiting doctor in Chalnichhina received a call at 1:30 am from a troubled villager living across the mountain. His friend had collapsed on their way home and desperately needed medical attention. The doctor rushed to the scene, and recommended that the man be taken to a hospital immediately. So the entire village woke up from their sleep, built a makeshift stretcher, and carried the man five kilometers through the mountains in the dead of the night. It turned out to be a paralysis attack, and thanks to timely care, the man recovered completely.
Community trumps all else in these parts, for better and for worse. The entire village stands together, whether to dance across mountains for a wedding or to oppose inter-caste relationships. It is hardly a surprise then that atleast six different families from Navgaon village invited me for the same wedding in April – because it is everyone’s business, and how comforting a feeling that must be in this remote, often forgotten Himalayan region (See: In Photos: The Garhwal Himalayas A Year After The Uttarakhand Floods).
The ‘village grapevine’ trumps technology!
Functional cellphone network was so hard to find in these parts that I couldn’t check the results of the cricket world cup. While strolling through Ganghet village, two young kids playing cricket demonstrated to me every miss and six in the finals, followed by expert commentary by the village elders at the local dhaba; it was definitely more fun than scrolling through Twitter.
Often, I would ask questions in one village and have them answered in another, for word travelled faster than I could. After just three days of being in the region, I went to a shop in the Chalnichhina market, and the shopkeeper greeted me with: You’re the girl from Dehradun, 27, traveling by yourself… the village grapevine made me question the power of technology! (Read: My 14 ‘Incredible India’ Moments of 2014)
The mountains are like drugs; the more you experience them, the more you crave them.
Maybe you already know this feeling. That familiar tug at your heart the moment you think of the snow-capped peaks lurking behind the mist, and the slate-roofed homes hiding deep in the valley. It is why I keep going back to Kumaon, hoping to peel away another layer each time (Read: The Joy of Slow Travel). But hearing heartbreaking stories of mountain dwellers who sold their land, moved to the plains and fell upon bad times, made me realize the difficult odds faced by the locals. Despite how hard the life of people here might be, many of them confessed they’d rather not have it any other way. Even when the unseasonal rains started lashing the region, threatening to destroy the crops that fill their homes and tummies, a village elder told me: baarish toh dharti ka shingar hai – the rains are the Earth’s makeup.
Have the Kumaon Himalayas cast a spell on you yet?
I was invited to hike in rural Kumaon by Itmenaan Lodges, who have refurbished traditional Kumaoni houses in three villages near Almora. Go with them for a taste of village life without sacrificing creature comforts; I loved my trip!