Besides the wonderful views, invigorating walks, wholesome food and perfect weather one of the reasons we love Uttarakhand was the people.
There is a special something about the people of the hills. Their ready smiles, easy nonchalance and generous hospitality means that you are never far from a good conversation and a steaming, sweet, cup of tea.
These stories and chance encounters are what keep our travels around India real and memorable, and as we look back at our time in the mountains, we though it would be nice to put together these small stories of some of the folks we met, during our
six week backpacking sojourn across the state.
If you are ever in Almora and craving a mean momo and an interesting conversation, make sure you visit Kamla’s little stall in the market. Her enthusiasm for life is as infectious as the simple philosophy to which she lives it. Mera naam Kamla hai, lekin foreigner logo ko lagta hai Hamla hai! Hamla!, Hamla! reiterates Kamla, cackling loudly incase you didn’t get the joke! She asked us if we were married and if we were of the same religion. When we said we couldn’t be more mixed up she laughed, recounting her own marriage outside her caste. The initial years were hard she said, but now everything is settled. She runs two shops, one selling chicken momos and soup alongside warm trekking jackets which she insisted we try! As we rose to leave after two delicious plates of momos she wouldn’t hear of it, instead plying us with bowls of earthy chicken broth, talking at a mile a minute and laughing uproariously at her own jokes. In the space of a few minutes, between bites of juicy momos, we were old friends.
For the last three years a little village called Sarmoli in Munsiari has been organising a 20 km marathon for the village locals which takes you from down in the valley all the way to Khaliya top, a ridiculous 10,000 feet gain, and Kappu, aka Kaviraj Pandey, who stands at a little over 5’6″ and permanently wears a ready smile, has won it for 2 out of the last 3 years. This time Kappu couldn’t do the Khaliya run due to an injury, leaving the field open to others, but he still walked all the way up, albeit at a more leisurely pace. Kappu’s time still stands through, the fastest anyone could manage this year was 3 hours 20 minutes, almost a half hour slower than his record. I ask Kappu if he would like to run professionally. There’s no future in the sport here he replies wistfully. Training is expensive and there isn’t much support from the government. I need to concentrate on my studies. I ask him if he would like to come to Bombay and compete in the Marathon, we have friends there who can help him train. He laughs and looks away, perhaps not sure if he was allowed to dream of such things. To lighten the mood I rib him about how he keeps up with the other runners, being that hes a bit short, he retorts with a smile, arre Ethiopians bhi chote hote hai!
This gentleman saw us roaming the old bazaar in Almora and asked curiously where we were from and what we were doing. When he realised we were looking for old wooden homes famous for their carved windows, pillars and doorways, he was thrilled and proceeded to give us elaborate instructions on how to find the most beautiful surviving ones in Almora and even spent time telling us a little bit about their fascinating history!
I was randomly wandering one evening in a small village in central Uttarakhand when I met Payeshwari. She was watching me curiously out of the first floor window of her house as I examined, fascinated, a beautiful old Gharwali home nearby. I asked her about the home and she said it belonged to her family. It was the home she had grown up in, but lay abandoned, as most of the family had moved out. I asked Payeshwari if I could take a photo of her in front of the old home, she being amongst the last generation to have lived there. She was initially reluctant but after getting the nod of encouragement from her daughter who stood nearby, agreed.
Geeta lives outside Kashiyaleh, a small hamlet a few kilometres south of Mukteshwar. Everyday she makes the 2-3 km walk to her fields on the other side of the ridge where she harvests the ready wheat and maintains her vegetable patch. The last monsoon has been poor and exacerbated by a relatively mild winter has resulted in a poor availability of water for the crops. Geeta has always lived here, in this idyllic corner at the foothills of the Kumaoni Himalayas, she will always live here, these hills are her home, but her brother and sister in law have left in search of work in Delhi and Rajasthan. We ask about her children, two boys and two girls who study in the local school, will they stay here, farming amidst the green hills or move on, to figuratively greener pastures? Idhar kya bura hai, she retorts sharply, but then adds with a sigh, kheti main bhi jyada kuch rakha nahi, as she goes back to harvesting the golden wheat stalks.
Harak Singh Rawat is 72 years old and fondly referred to here as masterji, because of his years teaching English in schools across undivided UP. Whilst he retired as a school principal, farming remains his first love and he has been tending to his fruit orchards in Ramghar for decades. His family is down in the city in Haldwani, but he prefers life in the village amongst the birds and his trees. He remembers a time when it would snow heavily in Ramghar, and most of the farmers would grow apples. Today with warming temperatures, there are no more apple trees here and peaches are the most commonly grown fruit. With winters becoming warmer masterji feels that soon peaches may not flourish either, leaving the farmers only apricots to grow, forever changing the economics of the region.