Star-for-fewer-bucks

Star-for-fewer-bucks

Have you heard of BT Starbucks? BT stands for “Better Than”. The three café’s up here in the Himalayan Mountainside have been christened BT Starbucks, BT Costa and BT Barista. Each serves up one thing neither Starbucks, Costa or Barista can. They serve Simplicity. You go there and sit on the basic wooden bench and order a cup of tea, and that is exactly what you get. If you don’t say otherwise, it automatically comes with sugar.  None of the three has the Teavana Shaken Iced Berry Sangria Herbal Tea Grande on the menu. Yes, that’s a real drink at Starbucks. Yes, that is just one drink, not three.

BT Starbucks does only “wood fired” tea because the owner does not use LPG or kerosene. We can discuss how eco-friendly that is. Best to do so in a Café Coffee Day where the Air Conditioning is set to teeth chattering. None of the cafes up here have air-conditioning. Actually, I am not sure they all even have electricity. You see, they close well before dark.

So imagine my shock when I went to a tea shop in the neighbouring village of Reetha, and the shopkeeper asked if we wanted regular or herbal tea. I was with my friend Nitin. I looked at him and found his eyebrows were attempting paragliding as well. We both sat down and agreed to try the herbal tea.

It was lovely. A clear golden-brown color, the rich smell of herbs – all served up in simple steel glasses and cups. The tea was free of sugar – sweetened naturally with a herb called Stevia. One could taste some rather distinct flavours. And the size of the serving was also just right – not an attempt to sink the titanic.

We had to come back to Reetha the next day to meet someone. As happens often in the

IMG_20170825_115046
The man himself – Harinder ji

hills, we had to wait. So we had another round of the herbal tea. It was still great, but a little different from the previous day. The Rosemary was stronger. The sweetness a little less.

 

You see, the owner of tea-shop – a very friendly man named Harinder Singh – is not a barista. He does not have a single definition of perfection which he has decided to foist on all humanity. He said they tried slight variations and something new came up. And their customers enjoyed it.

So we got chatting about how he made the tea. Harinder Singh ji readily showed us all the ingredients – some which he had kept carefully in ziplock packets, some in plastic jars (see slideshow). It was obvious he took joy in growing and drying these herbs. With much pride he explained some trade secrets-

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like mixing Rhododendrnon flowers with the Stevia makes a better sweetener. He enjoyed the appreciation and special attention he got from us.

What made the tea completely unbelievable was the price tag of 10 rupees. So the next time I am travelling to the city and we want to catch up, please don’t ask me to meet at a Starbucks. Where I come from, I can get 29 cups of real herbal tea for the price of one Teavana Shaken Iced Berry Sangria Herbal Tea Grande.

And if you frequent Starbucks, come and stay at Reetha for a few days. Your savings on herbal tea will pay for your entire trip.

(Title photo credit : Ek Chidiya Cottage)

About Chetan Mahajan:  Chetan is a full-time author who lives in a village in the Kumaon Himalayas. He published his first book with Penguin, and is working on his next one. The amazing creative influence of the Himalayas inspired him to start the Himalayan Writing Retreats: writing getaways for both novice and advanced writers. You can learn more about these retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com .  He also writes and edits this blog.

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Who can borrow what from whom?

Who can borrow what from whom?

“Bro, I know it’s a big ask so don’t hesitate to say no.” said Tim.

He had my attention.

“My motorbike’s rear brake has packed up, and I am riding down to Munsiyari with some other bikers. I just rode past your place and was wondering if I could borrow your Himalayan for a couple of days.”

“When are you back?” I asked. My car was limping on a broken shocker, so the bike was our main transport right now. The car repair would wait for when I could find time for the 3 hour drive to the Honda showroom in Haldwani.

“On Saturday. In three days.” he replied

“And your bike is driveable? You’re moving around on it?”

“Yes. The front brake works fine. It’s just that my journey is a rather long one.” I knew Munsiyari was at least a 10 hour drive.

“Okay sure. Come by and pick it up.”

“I just rode past your house. See you in five minutes.”

I had just dug out the bike papers when Tim Subhash Chandra rolled in on his black Himalayan. His real name is Tim Sebastian, but he’s realized that Subhash Chandra is easier for most Indians to say. I’ve known Tim for over a year – I first met him just a few days after he had opened the iHeart cafe down in Bhimtal. It is a great little cafe with a lovely ambience and good food. moreover, it makes a great pit stop on my trips to the plains. And he’s helped me in many ways in pushing my recent baby – the Himalayan Writing Retreats. So he’s not a dear friend but he’s more than an acquaintance.

He hopped off his bike and we chatted. He talked about the possibility of getting the bike fixed in Almora or borrowing my bike. I told him I was happy to lend it and it was entirely his call. As we chatted, he explained his chain of thoughts about whether or not he should call me to borrow the bike

“The guy’s Indian and a village man, so he’ll probably say yes. But he’s lived seven years in Chicago, so that part of him would say no. Heck, let me just call him and ask.” he said.

Now that was an interesting insight. Even as an American, he expected an Indian to lend him something fairly valuable more readily than another American. And if you’re a “rural” Indian, that increased the chances even more.

So what exactly was Tim saying? That a city bred, more urbanized and therefore Individualistic person is less likely to lend something? And the rural person – who probably has a lot less to start with but who is used to living in a community and is more accustomed to sharing things – is more likely to lend you something of value?

Rings true in my experience here so far. And Tim – obviously very tuned into India – clearly seems to think so.

What do you think?

(Image credit : studentsforliberty.org.)

Time & space aren’t relative here. They’re vague.

Time & space aren’t relative here. They’re vague.

Pahadi’s are the people of the mountains. And they are clueless about urban measures of distance and time. That is universal whether it is Kashmir or Himachal or Uttarakhand.  If you’ve ever hiked through mountains, you know how useless it is to ask a pahadi about distance or travel time. The typical conversation goes like this.

“How far is Sagnam village from here?”

“Oh not far.”

“I mean how many kilometres?”

Pat comes the confident reply “Oh, less than one kilometre.”

You dig out your map, do some math and know that cannot be true. You try another tack.

“Okay so how long will it take to walk to Sagnam from here.”

“It’s just a 10 minute walk.”

“We’ll reach Sagnam in 10 minutes?” You ask, sceptical but full of hope.  Maybe you got your math wrong. That 20 kg pack has been feeling like 40.

 

 

“Yes yes, 10 minutes.” He repeats with authority. “It’s just past that little hill” he points to a mountain in the far distance.

So you continue your trek. After half an hour of walking that “little hill” seems as far as it was before. You stubbornly continue and after an hour of trudging you come across another pahadi. You eagerly ask him “How far is Sagnam from here?”

“Oh, not far” he says “Just 10 minutes.”

And so it goes.

In our neck of the woods this vagueness had been institutionalized and put into stone. Literally. If you drive from Mukteshwar through the IVRI forest reserve you will cross a milestone which will say “Sitla 0”. A hundred yards later there is a second milestone which says “Sitla 0”. That much I can still understand. But then you drive down a good half Kilometre. The Village of Sitla has been left behind, and you are now in the Village of Satkhol, and you come across a third milestone. And guess what it says?

“Sitla 0”.

These photographs are testament. And then the other day I went to Mukteshwar. This time I decided to measure the distance between the two milestones. Both say Mukteshwar Zero. They are exactly 1 km apart.

 

Welcome to the mountains.

A cafe with a conscience

A cafe with a conscience

Imagine a cafe that actively reduces its profit to save the environment. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. It’s real. But before we go on, a little background.

I love the mountains, and I hate the plastic that litters them. We’ve all read about how plastic chokes the environment.  I no longer take the free bottle of water they offer on the Shatabdi train. I avoid bottled water in hotels and airports.  I bring my own waterbottle from home, and refill it from safe water sources as I travel.

Why does this matter?

What travelers need is safe drinking water. There are many ways to find it without using up extensive amounts of plastic. Bottled water is the most convenient and irresponsible way to get clean drinking water. In a world where all airports come with water fountains and any home and restaurant you visit has a decent water filter, avoiding bottled water is about just a tiny bit of planning, and being just a little contrarian. A simple thing like carrying a waterbottle from home. It can be helped by buying a good waterbottle (so you dont lose it and refill it often) that fits perfectly into your bag or hand. If it’s expensive you’re less likely to lose it. Decathlon has a full range.

So, of course, it pisses me off when I walk into the average city restaurant and find sealed plastic bottles of water on every table. It’s a default sale for the restaurant. I always call the waiter and ask if they have  a water filter. Eyes roll. But restaurants invariably do have potable filtered water. Of course, giving away anything free reduces profit. Even water. And restaurants are about profit maximization at any cost, it seems. So you can imagine my delight when I walked into Chandi Mati cafe in Mukteshwar the other day, and found this on the menu.

waterline edited

 

Wow! No bottled water sitting on each table. By default they serve filtered water. Here was a business actively reducing its profits by telling you not to buy something.  Just because it is the right thing to do. And Chandi Mati is not some huge, successful enterprise. It is a young business working hard for its own success. Yet, it is clear on its principles.

So the next time you visit Mukteshwar, go to the Chandi Mati cafe.  Click a selfie with their menu and post it on Instagram & Twitter & Facebook and myriad other online places.

This will boost Chandi Mati’s  business and make it wildly successful, maybe some other restaurants will follow suit. The use of plastic bottles will reduce, and you would have made the world a better place because of your responsible social media behaviour.

And yes, do buy and use a waterbottle.

 

 

* And if you know of any other restaurant with a conscience, please do share as a comment on this blog. Lets spread the word! You can check out Chandi Mati online at https://www.tripadvisor.in/Restaurant_Review-g1162527-d10438116-Reviews-Cafe_Chandi_mati-Mukteshwar_Nainital_District_Uttarakhand.html .

I am happy with too little

I am happy with too little

Contributor : Philip John

My problem is I am happy with too little.

A little work that I enjoy,
A little writing that turns out right,
A little love after a long, dark night,
A bird singing in the tree outside,
A small luxury, like a wireless speaker.
All these things fulfill me
Disproportionately.

It’s not a good thing, I tell myself;
I can work more, write more,
Love more (read: start a family).
Sometimes I chide myself:
You’re not hungry enough.
You’re happy with too little.
You’re an anomaly, a beautiful loser,
A problematic outlier
In the otherwise Olympian story
Of human success.

But then I write some copy for a brochure.
I wrestle with the sentences,
Trying to get them to cohere
Around an idea I have.
I like this process.
It’s like composing a symphony.
Then I counsel a friend, try to get him
On the path of reason, of compassion
Without losing my temper.
People can be so stupid, so stubborn.
I have to be patient.

All this takes a lot of work.

Then I have my simple, home-made lunch,
And open the novel I’m reading.
I read just two pages and I come away
With almost supernatural bliss,
A mental orgasm if you like
(Such beautiful, pitch-perfect writing),
And by now, (I am embarrassed to say),
I am so ridiculously content,
So happy. And with so little.

I know my happiness is small when
Compared with marketplace happiness.
My happiness comes too easy.
It’s not big enough, not bright enough.
But my happiness has all the
Self-sufficient, narcotic bliss
Of a glass of wine.

Is this self-actualization?
Or fatal contentment?
I don’t know, really.
Who can say for sure?

Since definitions are uncertain
I decide to say instead,
“My blessing is I am happy with little.”
I can live on a well-written sentence
All afternoon, after all.
Now that, fortunately or unfortunately,
Is my reality.
So yes, my blessing,

My innate, ennobling, damning blessing
Is I am happy with little, too little.

No use fighting it anymore.
Best to sing it out loud,
Best to be proud.
So this then is my bittersweet song to myself
My elegy for opportunities foregone,
My resignation letter to marketplace happiness,
My making-peace-with-myself declaration,
My moment of sublime self-acceptance
(Or sophisticated self-deception,
I don’t know. Best to be
Healthily sceptical always,
Even of one’s own philosophy).

But if it is indeed a blessing
Then I know it is just like
A gift for language
Or a cleft lip
A talent for cooking
Or a sixth finger on one hand.
What a mixed blessing this is;
Being happy with (too?) little.

I am going to the park with my book.
Join me if you like,
All you beautiful losers,
You poets, you philosophers,
You worriers, you misfits,
You self-proclaimed failures,
You quietly desperate beautiful children
Of the god of too little happiness.
We shall hunt for a ladybird in the grass.
It’s been so long since I’ve seen one.

About the contributor : Philip John co-runs a boutique creative agency in Bangalore. He is also an independent creative consultant and writer. His short fiction has been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Out Of Print, and Helter Skelter. Philip teaches a creative writing program at Bangalore Writers Workshop. He is an alumnus of Mudra Institute of Communication, Ahmedabad (MICA). Any comments about his poetry will be conveyed to him.

Want to Uncity? Make a choice. Expat? Or Migrant?

Want to Uncity? Make a choice. Expat? Or Migrant?

So you want to leave your gated community in the city for a gated community in the village? Like in the above ad of home-in-the-himalayas ? Your gated community must be eco-friendly, of course. Options abound. Tata Housing sells its “Myst Eco-luxury residences” in Kasauli as a super-premium gated community. “This exclusive gated community has been designed by the world’s leading expert in sustainable architecture…” says their website.

Another similar property touts “an exclusive residential address, a community of like-minded people who value the same ideas of wellness, privacy and under-stated luxury.” The background picture shows a large, eco-friendly gate.

In the city one key thing a gated community provides is security. What are they afraid of here, I wonder?

All these exclusive properties tout how sensitive they are to the environment. The Tata Housing site says “Never before has luxury been more sensitive in its approach and more evolved in the statement it makes about those who choose to live here. ” Strangely, none of them talks about how sensitive they are to the local people and culture.

Eco-friendly is better when it is also people friendly. And that doesn’t mean just a maid and a caretaker.

At the other end of this scale is Ashish Arora. He moved here from the city over a decade back. He has built a thriving business not by excluding the local communIMG_20170601_110934.jpgity but by including them. He actively helps all the village people in their issues. He was recently elected to the van-panchayat of his village. He works hard to save the forest, employ local people, and is an integral part of the local community. He is invited to every local celebration. He pays homage when any villager dies. His wife Deepa single-handedly employs well over 50 local women through their enterprise called Chandi Maati.

Arvindji is another great example. He moved up here and set up a library which the entire region benefits from now. And of course there are many who work and contribute to the local NGOs.

These and many other amazing people are not here as expats, but migrants – woven into the local fabric.

You dream of living in the mountains. Who do you want to be?

You can be the rich city Expat who lives in the gated community in the mountains, making exclusivity statements. Or you can be the migrant who makes a statement by making a difference. Someone who connects with and changes the lives of the people around you for the better. As a city-bred person with education and exposure you can do so much for the local community. In return, you actually get to be a part of a real community – possibly for the first time ever.

Please don’t tell me you will live in the gated community and integrate with the local community. That statement doesn’t even sound right, does it?

_____________

About Chetan Mahajan:  Chetan is a full-time author and blogger who lives in a village in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. The amazing creative influence of the Himalayas inspired him to start the Himalayan Writing Retreats: writing getaways for both novice and advanced writers. You can learn more about these retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com .  He also writes and edits this blog.

The shooting star caught me off guard

The shooting star caught me off guard

Contributor : Arun Kumar M.

A slow, deep breath. As I exhale I open my eyes to the star-studded dark sky. I could sense myself going into a trance, deeper amongst the stars.

In a remote village, 6200 ft above the sea, the breeze was a chilly 14 degrees. A day before, Erode, the place where I came from was 41!  This cool calming transition allowed me to sink into the beautiful night.

It is not often we look up into the sky at night, let alone see stars. A sky overflowing with them is a rare sight for city dwellers like me.

Lost among them, as I was trying to figure my way out, I stumbled upon a peculiar thing. One ‘dot’ was moving. The first question that popped into my mind was, “Am I hallucinating, or is that ‘dot’ really moving?” A shooting star is not the way it is shown in Disney movies. (Hey Arun, take out the phone, try capturing it and see if you can upload it to get a lot of views). Somehow, that thought suddenly felt cheap.

Wow. It felt amazing. To be part of this ever-surprising nature can happen only when you un-city yourself. That is a pity, but such is the state of our tightly packed concrete jungles.

But hey! When people see a shooting star, they make a wish. Oh man! It is gone now, and I spent all the time I had figuring out what the dot was. It was a bummer not to have made a wish.

But guess what happened? Another star. I grabbed the opportunity, and this time I made the wish. Having made my wish, I now lower my eyes to some funny expressions from my group mates. They found my reaction to the entire episode quite naive.  “Arun, shooting stars are common here. You know what? You can sometimes see the light from satellites as well.”

“Are you kidding me?”

Oh, what has the city done! I was jealous.

We were huddled around a makeshift barbeque stove. After a long day of writing, learning, podcasting and trekking, the blend of the cold night and warm embers was perfect.

Back in Erode, I have now started looking up at the sky often – trying to peek beyond the few stars that I can spot. No shooting star, unfortunately. Beyond the pollution, just knowing that they exist is soothing.

A deep breath!

 

About Arun Kumar M : Arun loves to be constant in one thing. That is to learn. After earning his degree in Aeronautical Engineering, he went on to establish and head a research forum. He has also completed courses in philosophy and model thinking. All he needs is a good cuppa coffee and a book. He blogs at https://maktheway.com .