“I don’t mind the household work – cooking, cleaning, kids… but my soul is made for walking in these mountains.”
Binoculars dangling from her shoulder, sports shoes on her feet and a backpack slung over her traditional salwar kameez, Pushpa walked uphill with the ease of a mountain woman as I huffed and puffed along. But unlike most mountain women in India, she makes part of her living from her love for walking – as a female hiking guide in Sarmoli, a picturesque mountain village in the Munsiyari district of Uttarakhand.
We began that morning by hitching a ride on an army jeep, and were now walking along the mountain ridges of Thamari Kund, like eagles swooping over tiny villages dotting the deep valley below, layers of snow-capped mountains stretched out before us. By the time we left the blossoming rhododendron and old teak forests, and made tea on a quiet hill, we were deep in conversation about the state of the mountains and our own lives. Much like long lost friends.
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t believe such a place exists in India.
I was soaking up spring in New York after an adventurous month in the Ecuadorian Andes, and plotting my return to India. My heart craved the Himalayas and the warmth of its village folk, and I felt ready to finally make the 11-hour journey from Kathgodam to Munsiyari in Kumaon. Having heard about Malika, an avid mountaineer, and her work in setting up the Sarmoli village homestays, I called her to see if I could linger a while in those mountains.
That’s when she first told me about their annual summer ritual – the weeklong Himal Kalasutra Festival where the locals of Sarmoli come together to run a marathon with an altitude gain of 8,000 feet over 20km (gulp!) and go bird watching. That year, 2016, would include a week of meditative yoga and an introductory digital workshop by Wikipedia. The festival was geared towards the locals, but travellers (and I) were more than welcome to join.
Now, I’ve spent my fair share of time in little Kumaoni villages and witnessed the hardships borne by locals. Collecting firewood, walking long distances to go to school or the nearest health center, social issues. Where is there time to train for a marathon, or look for endemic birds, or wrap their head around Wikipedia?
My time in Sarmoli toppled my notion of India’s rural-urban divide. In the last few years, I had made my peace with the idea that most traditional ways of life in rural Indian communities will die out with the younger generations – and we can’t begrudge them that, for each of us seek “modern” comforts and easier lives, and it’s only fair that they should too.
But Malika – and Theo and Ram – who now call Sarmoli home, have a simple philosophy: Share valuable ideas of the urban world with the locals – the importance of fitness, flavors from international cuisines, and slowly, the online world. At the same time, encourage them to keep the wisdom of the traditional world – preserve their mountain spring water sources, be proud of their language, retain their innate hospitality towards outsiders. It’s okay if the youngsters in the village want to move away for work, but they shouldn’t have to leave out of desperation or boredom.
And I witnessed that philosophy in action everyday.
I sat in on meetings of the Sarmoli women’s sangathan (self help group), as they discussed everything from the summer festival logistics, to helping more village women set up homestays, to their personal marathon goals (for the routes they were to run are everyday work routes in these parts). I joined them to experiment with planting tomatoes, brinjals and bhang seeds in an innovative new polyhouse.
I followed them to the local magistrate’s office to revolt against a state trekking initiative that threatened their spring water sources – and saw them achieve success in getting the trekking group to camp at an alternate location and promise to carry their non-disposable waste back. I heard (and witnessed) heartbreaking stories of domestic violence faced by women from the region, and how the sangathan has been instrumental in supporting and empowering them to start new lives.
But even as they dealt with serious issues personally and as a group, juggling the hats of homestay hosts, entrepreneurs, guides, activists and homemakers, there was never a day without laughter, playful teasing and gratitude for the lighter moments.
When the summer festivities began, I was amazed to see half the village in tadasana (tree pose) during the yoga workshop, joined them to cook pasta with wild oregano over an open fire, and bade goodbye to a massive turnout of runners on marathon day.
The coolest mountain village in India? I think so.
When I heard of the Wikipedia workshop, I had a crazy dream of leveraging Instagram to encourage the locals of Sarmoli to share their stories directly with the world. Turned out, it wasn’t so crazy after all. With a basic Instagram tutorial, followed by photography tips from a fellow traveller, the locals now run their own Instagram channel – @VoicesofMunsiari – documenting their lives, mountains, seasons and stories in their own voices.
I expected the interest to die away gradually, but the account has not only grown in reach and engagement, it has also grown in storytelling and photography – despite access to only basic smartphones and English.
We also plan to have a smartphone photography workshop in and around Sarmoli, tentatively in April, so if you, or anyone you know is a smartphone photographer who’d like to spend a week in this gorgeous part of the mountains, sharing their art and skills with some budding local photographers, let me know too.
If this crowd sourcing goes well, the crazy dream is to organize a small photo exhibition, and use the funds to support a new outdoor education program in the village. Hopefully, it turns out to be a not-so-crazy dream after all.