Handbills are passed around when we stop at a village and posted prominently on mud walls extolling the benefits of kids attending school. I wonder if once they leave these educated kids will ever return. Doubtless they would ultimately be headed for the siren song of some IT school in a far away polluted city. That’s the double-edged sword of what’s on offer here. Everyone assumes it’s a good thing having your kid being able to recite the main exports of Moldavia, or know which monarchy most successfully laid waste to their neighbours. But perhaps there is an argument for ignorance being bliss. What I notice up here is big smiles, a neighbourliness that’s warm and inviting and definitely communal, and peace and harmony. I know there’s a romantic in me that yearns for a simpler time. But are we a whole lot better off with our fast-tracked money-seeking infotainment developed world? Could we, as the author Neil Postman speculates, be “Amusing Ourselves To Death?” Our parasite has resulted in the relentless persuit of “more”, that seems to lead to mass unhappiness, and the general unsustainable pillaging of the world’s resources.
I am sure these folks have to deal with many of the same issues that arise from our shared human condition. Illness, poverty, loss; envy, rage, grief are universal. But we in our technologically driven world seem to have lost much of what comes with the human connections that are part of everyday life here. I remember one friend describing her mother who grew up in a small village in Peru. She would instinctually surround herself with an instant village as their family moved around the world. That way of life was still part of her genetic inheritance. It just came naturally.
Does loneliness exist in these places with such deep ties? I think not. One of my Delhi friends (my newly found Air B&B family) told me he couldn’t imagine not traveling without his friends. In fact that’s what you often see in India: a whole gaggle of folks off on some outing. I compare this to the laptop farms of single individuals going “out for coffee” at my local Starbucks or equivalent “meeting place”. I have viewed with wry understanding my fellow travellers in Rishikesh asking for the wifi password as their fist priority so they can get online ASAP. You can always spot the Westerners: they are sitting alone at the German Bakery (and there is always one at every tourist town with baked goods having very little in common with Germany). Their only companion is their laptop or phone.
From village to village we are greeted with interest and hospitality. I down oceans of chai. As we end our first day, we come to rest at the Principal’s home village. Food is soon being prepared, and while we wait, more chai than can be imagined appears out of nowhere, as each household wants to entertain us. Such grace and kindness. I have to admit it is a bit disconcerting to be on display as some kind of rare species. I try to smile winningly as the umpteenth tray of refreshments is offered. I can’t understand a word being said, so it’s a bit like being part of a display ensemble. Evidently Naveen isn’t able to understand a lot of what’s being said either, as there is a different dialect being spoken.
The whole village is up at dawn, and they are already out in the fields as I drag my weary body from under countless blankets – it’s cold at night up here.
The last village we visit is the closest to the towering snow-clad Himalayan peaks. A million dollar view one might say. I have been exchanging ideas with Naveen about bringing others up here who might be interested in witnessing a still intact but rapidly disappearing way of life. Their lives are naturally sustainable as there is no room for waste. Everything is grown organically. Not because of some trendy altruism. They were never touched by the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s that brought pesticides to the rest of India. They were just too far away for agribusiness to have any interest. Naveen figures if you were to throw in a bit of yoga, people would flock up here for this “unique” cultural experience. The village headman is already offering a plot of land to build an Eco-Centre cum Homestay. It does have its merits. If you got the right people who didn’t demand all the modern conveniences, you could probably charge them a fortune – most of which could be ploughed back into community education. But that would doubtless involve a road, and I have already seen how that changes the very things people would be paying to experience.
Our return is a jarring reminder of what’s coming there soon. We make our way to the newly built road-head, where a shared taxi has been patiently awaiting our arrival. I am distressingly aware that this road is still unfinished, as we lurch over freshly excavated mounds of dirt. It’s a slow and tortuous descent. The views are still pretty, but as we are jolted from side to side, my appreciation just isn’t quite the same as our ascent.
The next day I am on display in an altogether different function: I am to educate an enthusiastic group of kids on environmental studies. They are the remnants of the rest of the school that are actually on holiday. My arrival at Kharadi (which I thought was Barkot) isn’t so timely, as there is only about an hour or so of morning class. It’s outside by the river, so quite a picturesque backdrop. After noon it’s just too hot to be outside.
With Naveen’s encouragement I get the kids to come up with all kinds of suggestions of how to make their world a more sustainable place. India has a long way to go to even begin ecological programs, so there is plenty of raw material for improvements. Pretty quickly we’ve got a recycling and composting program in the making, and before long there’s suggestions of how we could get started cleaning up the usual trash-strewn surroundings. I love their enthusiasm; it’s infectious coming from the as-yet un-cynical worldview that unfortunately colours my perspective. It’s probably too late to make much of a difference in Asia. They are awash in plastic – now India contributes at least 50% to the country-sized plastic “gyres” that clog the world’s oceans. It’s become second nature to just chuck stuff “away”…which is generally the nearest body of water. There aren’t any garbage bins. When I try to get a normal sized container of shampoo, all that’s available are one-serving sized plastic sachets. In fact everything is geared to small cheap packages. Affordable, convenient and deadly. Use once and toss.
My gig as a teacher is short-lived, as Naveen’s motorbike seems less and less likely to make the 15 km daily journey. Anyway, I don’t think I could take the disappointment of what would prove to be an uphill battle taking on an Indian-sized waste problem. I admire Naveen’s tireless enthusiasm to give these kids a better chance in life. He has great plans for raising enough funds to cover the cost of educating his charges. Somehow I seem to have become part of this grand plan. The day I depart we are still hatching schemes as I am feted with chocolate and Black Forest (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) cake. I wave goodbye jauntily to the group of cheering kinds seated on a blanket in the dirt. Two urchins are dispatched to find me the ever-elusive shared taxi. Maybe I will come back in another lifetime with sacks stuffed with $. Or perhaps I will be just another well-intentioned outsider wishing to make a difference. Either way, my heart is gladdened from the smiles of a dozen kids. My love-affair with the Himalayas and its people remains unrequited.
MORE PICTURES OF THE BARKOT AREA AND THE HIMALAYAS CAN BE FOUND HERE: