Saturday, February 02, 2008

walk this way

A pathbreaking tourism iniative in Kumaon

A few years ago, Satri, a village near Binsar in the Uttarakhand foothills of the Himalayas, was dying. Only three families remained, and all the men had gone to nearby towns for work, leaving their mothers and sisters behind. The advent of the Internet meant that even the postman hardly bothered to make the hilly, two-hour hike to Satri from the nearest road. Then, one afternoon, an oddball group trooped over the ridge with a bizarre proposal: Tourists who'd never known life without water and electricity on demand and a shopping mall around the corner would pay good money to rough it out, miles from anywhere, and learn about how the villagers lived. It was, the whole village agreed, a preposterous idea. “It took us around three years to get the villagers to believe in the project. Then they built the guesthouses within a year,” says Himanshu Pande, one of the founders of Village Ways.

When I marched into Satri at the end of a three-day hike through the foothills arranged by Village Ways—the oddballs who cooked up the idea of bringing tourists to Satri and other remote villages—the place was thriving. The men had come back from jobs in nearby towns to work as cooks, guides and porters, and the women, Satri's greatest asset, smiled and joked with an easy, outgoing confidence they've acquired through managing the guesthouse the villagers built here two years ago. Money has rolled in, too. Sher Singh, the local guide who accompanied me and my photographer, was there to report that the village had earned Rs. 72,000 from the tourist trade over the past two months. Neighbouring villages associated with the project, too, had earned upwards of Rs. 60,000.

The reason is simple. The area surrounding Binsar, in the shadow of Nanda Devi, offers spectacular beauty. The pine forest is silent and deep, amid the evergreens rhododendron bloom in a bloodflash of crimson, and on a clear day you can see the majestic snow caps of the high peaks from the crest of nearly every rise. But the hills grow smaller every year. Once sleepy hamlets like Binsar and Bhimtal are now chock-a-block with hotels, guesthouses and restaurants—most of them built, apparently, by blind bricklayers imported from some vast totalitarian state where the cinderblock is considered a work of art. Cars and trucks roar up and down the steep curves without a moment's rest, and garish signs advertising multicuisine restaurants and “ayurvedic” massage assault from all directions. A good rule of thumb: If you can drive to it, it's already been ruined. Satri and other picturesque villages of the area like Kathdhara, Gonap, Risal, and Dalar, which can only be reached on foot due to their location within the Binsar Sanctuary, are therefore the only unspoiled places left.

After waking up to a fine breakfast at the Khali Estate, a quaint, comfortable Raj-era resort that acts as a sort of base camp for Village Ways, Tribhuvan (our photographer) and I set out for our first day of walking. From a sunny spot on the road with a good view of the snowcaps, we dropped quickly down into the dark forest, following the lead of our guide, Sher Singh, a handsome man with a neat moustache. The ground was springy with moisture, but not wet, and there was an impressive silence. A mile or so along, a partridge broke cover and fluttered up beneath our feet, the startling whupwhup of its wings setting my heart going at the same rhythm. It was vigorous walking, mostly downhill, and, not surprisingly, the footing was good. Village Ways spent the better part of a year mapping and building these trails, to make them safe and navigable, of course, but also to create a network of paths that could facilitate tourists of different levels of fitness. “It wasn't easy to make all these different routes,” Sher Singh told me. “But now we can walk from here to the village in one hour or in four hours, depending on the guest.” Naturally, we always took the shortest route.

We stopped at three of the five participating villages, Kathdhara, Gonap and Satri, each one smaller and more pleasant than the last. Coming into Kathdhara, we stopped in the trail above and looked down over the bright green terraces where the farmers were growing wheat, mustard, lentils and spinach in oval steps down the hillside. In another twenty minutes, we'd hiked down to the guesthouse, passing great piles of saffron-colored pine needles, stacked like hay to dry for later use as kindling and bedding for livestock. We ate lunch beside a lemon tree with the Pancha Chulli range before us in the distance, spent a bit of time chatting with the locals, and then we marched on. In Gonap, we built a bonfire out of the football-sized Himalayan pine cones and watched the sunset, then ate a day-laborer's enormous, starchy meal—dal, aloo gobi, aloo tomatr, roti and rice—and sacked out. Frankly, I was exhausted. Either I'm getting old or I'm not as fit as I like to think or the cold air sapped my strength, but there was no shout-singing of Yellow Submarine and no ribald adventurer's tales that night: I was out cold by 8:30. (Note to the energetic: Village life is pretty tame). Don't get me wrong. It was paradise. But I was having a little trouble getting used to it.

The second day proved to be our longest walk—“We were trekking for three hours!” Tribhuvan exclaimed when he flopped down in a doorway at the end of it—and the most rewarding, because it ended in Satri. It's no mystery why Satri is everybody's favorite village. The place only has three families, but it's like a factory for beautiful women, all of whom are constantly smiling and laughing. No lie: These girls make the boy monks in Ladakh seem glum, and even grandma, deeply lined and missing more than a few teeth, looks better than anybody in Bollywood. Apparently, though, whatever it is that makes the women beautiful and happy also makes people crazy (or maybe it's not getting to marry one of the beautiful women?) because most of the houses in the village are empty. Before Village Ways started, bringing not only a source of income but also entertainment and a steady train of news and supplies, the few villagers left here thought they would have to abandon their homes and move to town. Thanks to Pande and his partners at Village Ways, that now looks unlikely to happen.

The key to making the Village Ways project sustainable—in other words, to making sure it remains a going concern without damaging the land or the local community—was to make the villagers themselves the owners of the guesthouses, Dinesh Pande, a local activist who advised Village Ways on the project, told me. Burned once by the state and the forest department when their land was declared part of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, the local people would not have been keen to accept yet another domineering landlord. And the borrow-build-operate model that financed the construction of the guesthouses—Village Ways provided 40 percent of the money with a grant, 60 percent with an interest-free loan, and the villagers themselves did the building--gives them a much deeper commitment to the project than they'd have to a hotelier who simply cut them a paycheck.

The local end of management, too, is collaborative. Every village has a democratically elected Gram Paryatan Samiti (village tourism committee), and one member from each of these committees represents the village in a project-wide decision-making body called the Paryatan Vikas Samiti (tourism development committee), which allocates jobs and makes other essential decisions. The Gram Paryatan Samitis supervised the construction of the five Village Ways guesthouses, which on the advice of their city-bred collaborators, were built by local craftsmen in the traditional style the villagers used for their own houses. Built with stone and mud mortar, the guesthouses have flush toilets and showers, but solar power provides electricity and hot water. Now, the Gram Paryatan Samitis manage the guesthouses' day-to-day operation and finances—including making payments on the 10-year loan from Village Ways. The Gram Paryatan Samitis also administer a village development fund, which receives 20 percent of the guesthouse income and is used to finance projects that will benefit the entire community. Whether or not Village Ways has provided them the villagers welcome the results, I found when I chatted with residents of Kathdhara, Gonap and Satri. "Now, at least 25 percent of the migration out has stopped, and the only people who leave are those who get good jobs,” said 78-year-old Amar Singh, a retired policeman who lives in Gonap. "If we continue to get more tourists," he said, "we might get a motorable road. We might get more development."

For the duration of the day's hike, I wondered whether the villages I was visiting were truly 'sustainable,' and if Gonap was a rural paradise, or a people zoo. Then I walke into Satri, and Kiran, a teenaged village belle, garlanded me with a string of mustard flowers.

Was there a flirtatious sparkle in her eye, I thought? Perhaps I am not so old after all.

And so the fate of the countryside, fragile as it is, slipped easily from my mind. Fleeting, maybe, but this was paradise.