It was a hot summer morning when I mailed Ishita Khanna, the co-founder of Ecosphere, a social enterprise in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. At that point, I was a desperate traveller at my workstation in Mumbai.
After an exchange of 42 emails across months of planning, my first solo trip to Spiti was finalised. It was the beginning of many firsts.
Voluntourism has been a fairly new concept amongst the travellers within India. A mix of ‘volunteering’ and ‘tourism’, voluntourism is a way of sustainable travel. It is an essential experience for anyone who is interested in understanding the road less travelled.
Through the series of emails exchanged between Ishita and me, we finalised on a number of village activities across six villages in the highlands. These activities were culturally themed and aimed to give me an opportunity to understand and contribute to conservation of the region.
After the necessary acclimatization stay at Kaza, my first village was Langza, a sprawling self-sustaining settlement. The village is divided into lower Langza and upper Langza and habitats a population only of a few hundreds.
My homestay hosts were Dorji and his family of five (his wife, son Yeshey, daughter-in-law Kishen and two grandchildren.)
I had done no prior research before my travel. My only ground work was training my body and mind to the trek across villages.
No sooner I reached Langza, I made my way to the fields to meet the entire family and to help with plucking of green peas. It was time to harvest peas across Spiti. Summers are spent sowing the seeds of these sweet vegetables and August is a suitable time to harvest and sell them off. They are usually transported and sold to the hills of Manali and to the plains of Chandigarh or Delhi. Kilograms of peas are packed in large jute sacks, stitched and sold to distributors who come in their trucks to collect the sacks in early evening hours.
Read: The Women of Spiti
As afternoon approached, Kishen quickly made her way up to the house to prepare lunch. Home-cooked pulao with sweet peas from the fields was my first lunch in Langza.
I have always chosen to stay in homestays by travelling to towns or villages and Spitian homestays were one of my first such experiences. Not only do homestays allow us to interact on a personal level with our hosts and introduce us to their stories but also give us an insight of their simple lives. While I helped Kishen prepare lunch that afternoon, I remember her sharing stories of her every day routine in Langza.
Earlier that evening I went back to the field to hone my newly developed skill of plucking peas. And around 5 o’clock, we rushed back towards the entrance of the village to guide home the domestic animals. Animals from the entire village were sent out at 9 o’clock in the morning for their graze and returned around 6 o’clock in the evening. Honestly, shepherding was more difficult than I thought! I ran around like a headless chicken trying to give the animals some direction but all in vain. After an exhausting effort, some of them were somewhat organised and sent to their stables.
I caught a glimpse of the setting sun as I walked towards Langza monastery to explore the area around the huge statue of Buddha at dusk.
The next day started on an ambitious note. Accompanied by Dorji, we headed towards the higher fields of Langza to cut grass. As my days in Spiti unfolded, I learnt that different types of grass served different purposes and in the months of August-September, this has been an important activity. This was the time they were stocking up fodder for winter. Cutting grass in this village was a community effort and probably my favourite activity amongst all.
I got a chance to interact with a number of locals from the village and they shared many stories which I still remember with fondness. I took a break and struck up a conversation with a young man named Sonam. He was in disbelief to know that there were no farms or fields around my office. He questioned me repeatedly about my typical day at work and was astonished to know that I would spend an entire day in front of a computer without going out to the fields. Both of us treated the matter with light humour and realised now different our lives were.
Later in the afternoon we came back to the homestay and I looked forward to my appointment with Dorji. Mud craft used to be the mainstay of this village and Ecosphere has worked with a few potters to help conserve this art. A two-hour session with Dorji introduced me to pottery. It was more hard work than I assumed but the trick was to get the foundation right. I succeeded in making a small (but twisted) mud souvenir for Dorji’s homestay.
My second night in Langza was the last and we spent hours at dinner, exchanging stories with the entire family. Later that night, I couldn’t help but wonder how self-sustaining and content lives at 4400 metres were. We need very little to live happily and as my days in Spiti proceeded, I felt a wave of change coming into my life.
Good to know
-Kaza, headquarters of Spiti, is a 10-12 hour drive from Manali. An alternate but longer route is through Shimla.
-Langza is located approximately 20 kilometres from Kaza.
-Langza has homestays on a rotational basis. This ensures every home gets a chance to host and equal distribution of income. Once you are there, you can always ask for a homestay and locals will guide you. A night will cost you anywhere between Rs. 500-1000 for a clean room with dry composting toilet, located outside the main house. Meals are local delicacies.
-Spiti is a high altitude region and it mandatory to acclimatize before proceeding to the higher villages like Langza and Komic. Keep medicines for high altitude sickness and all other ailments handy.
-Get in touch with Ecosphere here to explore their many programs of eco-travel and voluntourism.
Where have you been a voluntourist?
I travelled to Spiti in August, 2013. This story was first published in Mumbai Mirror.