Several years ago, we came across a small town at the base of the Himalayas and spent a memorable week there, always planning to return. This year it worked out. Unlike most of India, this place has changed very little although it does seem to be prospering. There’s very little option for accommodation, so we decided to rent a room in the Buddhist monastery.
I love everything about this room, even though we have to puff and pant up the hill. Large and spacious, wood floor and one wall that is mostly windows, with afternoon sun pouring in. We look out on trees filled with birds and monkeys. The latter are entertaining, but they’re also very destructive, pulling washing off the line, sneaking through the window to grab our bananas etc. A bit of hike to get here means it’s also peaceful and private; conducive to meditation.
We’ve tried to put our finger on exactly what it is about this town that is so appealing to us. Surrounded by hills on one side, terraced fields and hamlets on the other, it is very picturesque. The air is clean and there’s little traffic and horn blowing. The Buddhists and Hindus alike seem to walk around with a smile on their face.
We’ve mentioned numerous times how we’re attracted to the Indian people and their generosity. So it sounds like a broken record when we say the simple and uncomplicated life style of these villagers is so attractive. Numerous times in the past we ‘ve made comparisons to Morocco and here we make another one. In our first years in North Africa it was common to be invited into people’s homes for tea and even something to eat, without fear or reservation that there was a hidden agenda. We have found this kind of hospitality again in these mountains, and in the 21st C no less.
One day, we were walking through the fields of winter wheat accompanied by Varun, a Punjabi who grew up in India but has spent the last fifteen years in the U.S., and Megan, a dreadlocked girl from Thunder Bay, Canada. Stopping in a hamlet, a family invited us to come in and see their compound. Of course, this was mostly precipitated by the fact that Varun was conversant in Hindi. Many times we have been in similar situations but without being able to speak the language the experience was limited. One this occasion we heard about the farming, the milling of the wheat, and the fact that everyone in the area was related, 120 odd people. They were so welcoming and informal. The husband and wife were preparing subzi while we all sipped tea.
Varun is enthusiastic about reconnecting with India and said to us: “These village people are where humanity begins.” Gerard replied, “No, I think it’s the last vestige of humanity.” And as we all got caught up in the utter simplicity –their adobe house, slate roof, mud cook stove — it really was like a hundred or more years ago. Then suddenly the mobile phone rang, and we all fell back to earth.
We first ran into Varun in Varanasi when he was in a quandary about where he should go next. Sikim and Nepal were first choices, but he loved Himachal Pradesh and thought of revisiting. Gerard and I both said that all three places had their attraction but of the three HP was a better bet. We suggested a few places to visit. He said goodbye without having made up his mind. To our surprise, the second night we were here, eating momos in ‘a whole in the wall’ restaurant, his smiling face peered in and he said, “I decided on HP. So happy to see you here.”
He told us he’d been in Pushkar and now had a traveling companion, Megan, and they also were staying in the monastery. Megan had just come from Australia where she picked fruit for the last year, saving money to make her way back to Canada via India. The next day we had breakfast together and then they asked us to show them around. The fact they are so much younger than us and wanted to go everywhere meant we’ve ended up doing a lot more than we might have.
We’ve done well to keep up with them. In fact, Varun commented that he’s never met people our age who are so ‘lively!” And for us, being with someone fluent in the language and customs means that we’ve been able to have a more intimate look into the life of the people we meet in these little hamlets.
All four of us are drawn to walking out of town through the fields and each day we pick a new path. On passing a cluster of houses, some ancient, some modern, Varun inquires if the oldest building is adobe construction. Very quickly the conversation leads to an invite to see inside the house and meet the family. It’s nuclear with great grandmother (five years younger than me), mother, father, son and daughter–in-law, and young Hansu.
Varun keeps the conversation going while the chai is brewing. He also encourages me to practice my limited Hindi with these women. They’re amused and uncritical at my attempts. But Varun is right; if I stayed in this hamlet for a month I would be speaking Hindi.
A neighbouring woman comes up to see what’s going on and sits down with us. Varun and Gerard notice how these young women, in their mid twenties, have such an air of sophistication. Even though they have little education, speak no second language, probably have never left the district, yet they have a strong sense of self.
Then the neighbour invited us to see her home, a beautiful house painted in white and blue. Her husband works in Saudi Arabia and comes home for only one month a year. She has to manage all of the farming — the wheat, cows, sheep, and two young children. And she smiles all the time.After she proudly showed us her two cows, she invited us to come back anytime. We couldn’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.
The morning we began to tear ourselves away from this oasis of humanity we wanted to say goodbye to the families in the two restaurants we frequented. At “Welcome” they served us our usual radish parathas and curd and then rejected all our efforts to pay.
Back at Khora Café for a last chai, again our money was no good. Hugs and handshakes and good wishes all around, we hope to return one day.