Alan and I enjoyed staying in Almora, but we wanted to find a quieter place, somewhere we could take long country walks without continually dodging motorcycles, trucks and taxis. As soon as we found our guesthouse in Papershali, we knew it was the right place for us.
Now we’ve been settled here at Ayush Guest House for four weeks. It’s both a long time and a very short time. Long in that we have come to know many of the footpaths, villages and small temples within an 8-kilometer radius of the guesthouse, because we enjoy long walks. Short in that the time just slides by here. It’s surprising how busy we are, when basically all we do is walk, study Hindi, write and read. And of course, we do socialize a bit with the family that owns and runs the guesthouse, and with the other guests who stay here.
We are here during the monsoon season, and that means the weather and the sky are constantly changing. On some rare days, we have clear blue skies and a clear view of the high Himalayas behind the local mountains.
Other days, the sky is full of dramatic cloud formations, always changing. The morning can start off bright and clear, and then cloud up by breakfast time. Sunsets are often spectacular, especially when viewed from the ridge above the guesthouse or from a rooftop.
Every morning we wake up to birdsong, and it goes on throughout the day. This morning I was sitting on a rock ledge, waiting for breakfast and enjoying some brilliant morning sunshine, when I heard a metallic sound below me.
I looked down and saw a black bird with a yellow beak – a whistling thrush – bathing itself in rainwater that had collected in a dented metal tank cover.
The bird drank, flicked its wings in the water, drank some more and flicked water over itself again. Then, its thirst satisfied and its dark wings gleaming with wetness, the thrush flew to a nearby tree, perched on a branch and flapped its wings over and over again, before flying off.
Papershali is located about halfway along a narrow road that runs between Almora and the Kasar Devi village and temple. Calling Papershali a village is misleading, if you’re thinking about an English or Welsh village with a high street and a web of smaller streets, shops and houses spiraling out from it. Papershali does have a commercial center, but it’s just a few shops strung along a narrow mountain road running from Almora to Kasar Devi Ridge.
The “big store” we use quite often is called Tara General Store; it’s where we buy tea, sugar, powdered milk, and sometimes salad vegetables and fruit (depending on what’s available). Just like a general store in the American Old West, people hang out in front of Tara’s shop, drinking tea, passing the time, or simply sitting and watching the world go by.
Family houses and a few guesthouses are ranged on terraces on the hillsides above and below the Kasar Devi road. Below, a couple of narrower motorable roads ring the hillside and spiral down to the floor of the valley that runs north of Almora. Narrow footpaths and steep staircases link houses to the roads, and the roads to each other. You can stand almost anywhere on the curving Kasar Devi road and look across the valley to the slopes of nearby NTD (also known as Chota Bazaar, or “small market”), its houses painted in bright colors.
NTD stands for Narayan Tiwari Dewai, a big landowner whose property comprised the area known by this acronym. NTD’s center is Chota Bazaar, or “small market” in Hindi. It’s where we go for vegetables and fruit when we want more than we can buy at Tara’s, and for other items (like school notebooks, which we bought for our Hindi study). It’s also where we met Anand, who put some extra holes put in my stretched-out sandal straps. Anand is a friendly man, so now we often stop to chat with him when we pass through Chota Bazaar.
Beyond NTD, the slopes of Almora itself are much more densely built, and the built area extends along the ridge for many kilometers.
Your surroundings change immediately as you leave the Kasar Devi road and walk up a short, steep, dirt road into an area shaded by huge old trees. At the top are several old established guesthouses – they were here decades ago, when Timothy Leary and other famous hippie types lived on this ridge.
From the top, you turn abruptly downhill, and the road becomes steep and uneven. Cars can’t, or shouldn’t, venture here, and though people do use motorbikes and scooters, these vehicles can make it only a short way down before being parked. Parts of the road are dirt, rutted with deep channels from the rains. The concrete or tarmac portions are broken and crumbling in many places.
As you walk down, you can see a wide valley spreading out before you, with a number of small valleys and gorges leading into it. This is what we now think of as our valley, and we’ve explored many of the small side valleys on the way to the bottom, passing through the tiny villages sprinkled across the steep hillsides.
Our guesthouse and its surrounding village are below a ridge, in a village called Balta Bari. As soon as we cross the ridge and head downhill, the sounds of the road – engines, horns and brakes – disappear. This is one of the big reasons we love living here so much. From dawn until late at night, all we hear are birds, insects, mooing cows and maaing goats, plus the occasional barking dog, and the voices of the people who live here. Early morning is marked by the blowing of conch shells: a strong, distinctive sound when it comes from the guesthouse family’s own temple, just a few steps from our cottage, and just as distinctive, though fainter, floating from the tiny temple that faces us across a small valley.
Despite concrete buildings and paths, and modern conveniences like internet and electricity, the way of life here in the valley feels old – timeless, in fact. It’s a rural life, and even more so further down the valley where there are no guesthouses.
Every day, we see guesthouse family members and other neighbors walking to and from the springs on these hillsides, toting plastic jugs and metal cans of drinkable water. Early in the morning, we see women laboring up the steep footpaths to the road, the baskets on their heads heavy with beautifully arranged vegetables they’ll offer for sale in the market. Groups of young men make their way more quickly up the hill, heading for the construction sites that line the motorable road. Later, we’ll see them carrying loads of red bricks in cloth slings suspended from their foreheads, every step careful and deliberate.
Most of the vegetables that the family eats – and that we eat, too – is grown just meters from the family’s kitchen and the guesthouse kitchen. The women of the family clean rice and dals (pulses) on an old sari spread on the wide stone patio in front of the family’s house. The patio is also where laundry gets washed and rinsed in buckets, then hung on a wire strung along the garden’s edge. The children of the family play here, too, sometimes joined by the family’s friendly dog, Lado.
Though family members spend a lot of the day on chores, there are leisure moments, too. A metal bench swing on the patio is a favorite spot for everyone, particularly the grandparents of the family and the smallest children, who crawl onto available laps for a cuddle, conversation, story or song.
When the distant Himalayan peaks emerge from the clouds, the grandfather of the family calls us to join him on the patio and admire this rare sight. He tells us that if we come back in the winter – from October through March – the peaks will be visible every day.
The grandfather takes the family’s goats out to graze every morning. We’ve met him up on the hillsides a few times, and from these spots, he enjoys pointing out local landmarks to us. His wife takes the cow out every day to where it can munch on grass and other plants, her 5-year-old granddaughter climbing the rocky paths by her side and chattering away.
These are the child’s most talkative moments. Whenever she catches sight of us, and I smile and greet her, she looks back with huge solemn eyes and sealed lips. Over the past few days, though, she’s begun to return my “namaste” with her own hands folded in greeting.
It’s a very different story with her 18-month-old sister. The little one always returns my greeting with a wide smile, prayer hands and a baby version of “namaste.” Recently, this little sister has begun to reach out and touch me as I pass, then run away laughing. It’s delightful getting to know these children a bit over our weeks here.
The guesthouse manager’s sons are both of school age, friendly and sociable. They are curious about us, and both took notice as I sat on the front porch a couple of weeks ago, memorizing the basic Hindi alphabet. Each of the boys helped me, correcting how I formed and pronounced some of the more difficult letters. The younger boy was particularly enthusiastic, and wrote my name and Alan’s in Hindi. It’s a lot of fun to hang out with such bright children.
Lado’s responsibility is keeping monkeys out of the family fruit trees. She must be good at it, because we rarely see them in the guesthouse grounds – surprising, because monkeys are literally everywhere once we leave the immediate area of the guesthouse.
Lado seems to enjoy controlling her territory; we see her running around the guesthouse grounds all day, up and down between the cottages, and along the footpaths that link one garden terrace to another. Often as we’re walking along, I’ll suddenly feel a wet nose bump my hand, and a soft tongue flick across my fingers. It’s Laddo, of course, so we stop to stroke her and tell her what a good girl she is. Suddenly she’s off, and within seconds one of us will spot her on the hill, high above us. “How did she get up there so fast?” we wonder, as we slowly haul our heavier two-legged bodies up the rocky hillside.
Lower down in the valley, we see how the families in other tiny villages make their living. An older man weeds a tiny plot of arbi (taro) and amaranth. A lady with a small curved knife transplants seedlings into a newly prepared terrace plot.
An old man carrying a pickax and a scythe in a basket towards his patchwork of fields stops to answer our questions about how to get to Chitai, then offers to take us there – a walk that would take him away from his work for at least two hours.
To an outsider soaking it all in, the houses these local people live in are picturesque, and their timeless rural life idyllically beautiful. But daily life isn’t easy. It’s all about hand-carrying all the water that’s needed in the house from a spring that’s hopefully not too far away; keeping rats, mice and insects out of the precious food stores; hours every day preparing the land for planting as soon as it warms enough to be workable, then tending plots for hours every day to assure a good food supply.
It’s a life that requires great strength and develops great strength; we have marveled at the fitness level of people much older than ourselves. It’s not easy to get to the city, either. When you need to see a doctor, sign legal papers or pick up supplies you can’t get in the village, you walk for an hour or two to reach a road where you can pick up a shared taxi. And if no taxis show up, or you can’t pay for one, you walk another few kilometers to town.
People here are resourceful, but nature is powerful enough to get its way, despite human precautions. Everyone who takes goats out to graze carries a big stick to drive off dogs, for example. But dogs do manage to kill and eat goats from time to time, and so do leopards. The guesthouse manager told us he’s heard leopards near Eagle Rock, a high promontory we hike to pretty frequently. The idea of leopards roaming around here is both exciting and a little unnerving.
Then there’s the weather. Early in our stay here, I noticed a couple of ruined buildings along the valley to the west of our village, below a huge rocky overhang. We walked that way one evening, and found the footpath was mostly blocked by boulders. We could see where others had scrambled over, so we did the same. It was not until we were making our way back that I realized this is the site of a village that was destroyed in a monsoon-season mudslide a few years ago. An elderly local man who befriended us a few weeks ago told us about the mudslide, in which 14 people died. Now there’s nothing left of these people and their homes but a single small concrete building, its footings surrounded by untamed long grasses. A few unpruned fruit trees and some grassy terraces are the only sign of the gardens that once supported these families. Even the rubble that must have been here has disappeared; I suppose that neighboring villagers eventually carried away anything that could be useful, and everything else lies beneath the soft green blanket of wild plants covering the hillside.
Apart from cell phones and motorcycles, there’s one remarkable change we’ve noticed from the rural India of almost 40 years ago: We almost never see children working at jobs or in the fields. Sure, kids do quick, simple chores like fetching water or running errands. But otherwise, most children now seem to attend school as a matter of course. During our morning walks, we see village children making their way uphill to school, dressed in fresh bright school uniforms complete with miniature neckties, their hair combed and slicked back or neatly tied into beribboned braids. Each child carries a satchel or backpack, and often a tiffin carrier with a packed lunch, too. The younger children are accompanied by their mothers or their older siblings, while children who look to be about eight years old are trusted to find their own way up. Teenagers travel in packs, chatting and teasing each other, just like teenagers anywhere in the world.
I have to wonder: How many of these children will stay and work the land? How many will answer the seductive call of the giant posters that line the road, advertising medical colleges and IT training centers? And how many of their parents will urge them to?
So many terraces up and down this valley already lie fallow, soft-edged and covered in green grass. There just aren’t enough hands to farm them anymore, and families now get income from other sources – local construction work for some, and for others, work in the restaurants, hotels and shops of Almora and other tourist destinations in this area.
In 10 years – in 20, in 30 – how many terraces in this valley will still be ripen with hand-tended vegetables and rice? Will the fruit trees all have gone wild, a feast for the monkeys and birds?