Help us name this place

Help us name this place

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Snow and blue sky

We are making our Himalayan home into a hub for personal growth. We’re crowd-sourcing the name. Imagine a serene place where people will come to learn and grow. An inspiring learning space, this will be a future home to many types of Himalayan Retreats ranging from mindfulness to astronomy to writing.  Among other things, we will host a writing residency.

The Himalayas are a great place to connect with yourself. Dr. Vandita Dubey, a published author & US licensed psychologist, will lead the “Inner-You” programs. She currently offers residential and phone/skype therapy for individuals and couples (www.vanditadubey.com).  If you want to strengthen your relationship or want to use writing as a form of self-development, you could do it here.

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Serenity

Before picking a name, you need a full flavour of the place.

To reach here you have to walk the last 150 odd yards on a village path from the road. Someone carries your bags and shows you the way. You amble along a small ridge. To your left, a forest slopes down, covered in Rhododendron, Pine, Oak and much else. To your right are terraced farms covered in fruit trees. A few more steps and you reach our home. The grounds are sprinkled with some guest rooms. The place has a great view. Great turns into magnificent on a clear day, when you can see a span of snow-capped peaks stretching from Garhwal to Kumaon to Nepal. (For those familiar, it includes Chaukhamba, Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchachuli before reaching Nepal.)

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The sprouting rooms

Your room is a cozy space with lots of light & windows, two beds, and writing desks. You wash up, drink tea, and go exploring. You walk past fruit trees and the house to emerge onto a ridge with a 270 degree view. Stone benches and tables dot the grounds. Sitting there, you could shoot pictures or watch birds or read or write. But a voice in your head says, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.”

Vegetables grow in a garden patch irrigated by recycled water. Lemons and their fragrance hang from overloaded trees. You may hear bees buzzing around blossoms which will soon become fruits. Clucking chickens punctuate the melodious birdsong. Two playful non-pedigree dogs chase away a cat trying to turn a freshly hatched chick into lunch. The fresh honey you have for breakfast tastes particularly good. You learn it’s from bees bred on the farm.

You realize you are in the company of the birds and the bees. You ask for learning of a different kind. Your request is, sadly, denied.

That evening you sit at what would be a “sunset point” in any tourist town. The sunset makes you wonder how all colors could come from only three. Later that evening you eat your dinner while watching the Himalayan moon rise over the black ink of the forest reserve next door. The next morning you may choose to wake up to the crowing of the rooster and witness a sunrise no photograph could ever capture. You feel inspired without leaving your warm quilt.

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An inadequate photo of the dawn

Later in the morning – after a hot breakfast – you start your activity in a small group of less than 10 people. Except the bird-watchers or the astronomers, who may may follow a very different schedule.

Both Vandita and I believe in giving back to this community we are a part of.  We are committing 5% of our revenue to local NGOs. We vet them, and know many personally. Instead of paying us the full charges, guests are free to donate 5% of our charges directly to the NGO’s we recommend, and pay us only 95 %. Our first beneficiary is the Chirag school, about which I had written in https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/a-joyous-unafraid-childhood-and-the-school-that-allows-it/ .

Now, to the name. Our shortlisted names are:

  1. The Himalayan Hangout
  2. Centreself
  3. The quiet place
  4. The creative farm
  5. The quiet space
  6. Up There
  7. Thought Orchard

So, which of these names do you like best? Please reply by commenting with the name you prefer.  If another compelling name comes to mind, feel free to share it. Once all votes are in, we’ll put out a post with the winning name.

Note : All pictures in this post were taken by us from/of our home.

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You can’t eat the view

You can’t eat the view

I just filed my taxes. My income has fallen. In corporate jargon, we have sustainability issues. I live in a Himalayan village. Everything around is incredibly beautiful. Most people who come through envy our life. But I cannot eat the view. I also cannot use it to pay for my kids’ education.

That’s okay because I am the eternal optimist who believes that things will get better. But the tax return did make me think about the trade-off between money and happiness. As I pondered, I came across a diagram for work, money and happiness. It hit home. I have created this version of it.

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Most of it is pretty clear. The “Dreaming” box means you may have a passion for something, and money can be made from it, but you’re no good at it. My ability with music is a great example. I’ve joined guitar classes six times and still can’t play. I’ll never make it to the rock-n-roll hall of fame.

But the boxes here are not an end state. The box you’re in now is a starting point. You could be very happy in your box. If not, move. It’s the difference between “As is” and “To be”. (Apologies for the corporate jargon. To my credit, I did replace “monetize” with “make it pay” in the picture below). The goal is to alter the box we are in. The quest is for the “JOY” box – that ideal combination of Passion, Excellence & Money.  We wont discuss how much money. Let’s just say its personal and move on.

Venn action

Let me take a few examples from my own life. I was in the “rich but stressed” box. I could sound passionate about a revenue target, but I was faking it. You cannot fake your way into a passion. I was lying to my boss, my team, and myself. So I walked away.

I found myself in the ”Happy but poor” box.  I now pursue various passions / projects to seek out joy.

  1. Writing. It doesn’t pay. My first book did well but earned peanuts. This blog has earned nothing except the indiblogger award for humour. The award is also inedible. So I hope my next book sells more and I can make peanuts2 from it. The fact is, I write because it’s fun. Even if I earn nothing. Happy but poor.
  2. The Himalayan Writing Retreat (THWR). I am working hard to grow THWR. It is one way of trying to make writing pay. I love teaching, and I know the retreats are good because the participants love them (on facebook we’re rated 5/5). But the problem is marketing – I have to improve that. I’m working on it right now. I can’t eat the view but it does help me sell and monetize (uff). Once that happens, I will reach the joy box.
  3.  Professional Speaking. This is something I really enjoy. It can pay as well. My initial talks were terrible. I am working hard and getting better. This 4-minute talk is amongst my better ones. I hope to start earning from it now. I expect my next book to boost that. So Professional Speaking is the “dreaming” box where I am trying to excel.
  4. The Himalayan X retreat. We are creating a yet-to-be-named learning destination around our home in the Himalayas. This is a place where people will come to learn. And grow. A space with rooms and learning spaces which will be the future home of many different types of Himalayan Retreats. We hope to do many things like bird-watching, photography, astronomy, art and of course, writing. This is also a dreaming box right now. We have to build it and do a good job for it to give us joy.
  5. Cheesemaking is a big one. My partner Nitin Dayalu and I have recently started producing cheese  locally. Nitin also walked away from the “Rich & Stressed” box around the same time as me. His wisdom came earlier in life. The cheese we make is organic – from the awesome milk we get here. Nitin is deeply passionate about this, and it is his baby. He can – and has – run this business on his own. I am passionate about entrepreneurship, and this start-up really gets me going. I am a handy sounding board for him. For us the goal is to make the project pay enough that we can live by it. And we want to add to the local community in a meaningful way. Again, we are in “happy but poor”, looking for Joy.

Our branding, of course, has a cheekiness which some of you may expect by now.

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One person I definitely know who is in the “Joy” box is Sumit Bansal. He quit IBM to become a full-time blogger on MS Excel. He excels at blogging (hee hee). He is passionate about his work and makes good money from it.  We are jointly hosting the Himalayan Blogging Retreat on April 18-22 (details here).

In all the examples above, the goal is beyond mere wealth. Because we are passionate about what we do, we hope to find joy. We may not excel at every aspect of our work, but we’re getting better. As I strive for Joy, it is surprising how much fun the striving itself is. That effort to make something new and beautiful where nothing existed is enriching. And much more satisfying than my last “job”.

So what box are you in? And what will give you joy? Feel free to share your comments.

 

 

 

Talking about sex. To strangers.

Talking about sex. To strangers.

No, I am not a flasher. I am a professional speaker though, and that can sometimes feel like being naked in public. I like to think I am respectable. Yet I spoke about my sex life to a room-full of complete strangers recently.

The misuse of sex in communication has been the proud domain of the advertising industry. We’ve all seen bad ads with cheap lines. And hoardings with scantily clad women seductively selling cement. So when I was working on my talk for a conference last month, I was wary. I had never talked about sex in any public forum before, and didn’t want to. But for some reason it just fit into this one. And since this event – WPP Stream Asia 2018 – was a conference with advertising, marketing and tech types, I figured it might go down okay.

The talk itself had tough rules – only 4 minutes, 16 slides that move automatically every 15 seconds. No clicker so no control. And 22 speakers back to back with me somewhere in that mix. Given the audience, I chose to talk about my journey from the city to the mountains. I could have talked about my one month in jail, or about writing. But I felt that the audience would really relate to my story about leaving the city – after all most of them are similar to the person I was when I left the city.

So I framed out the talk and ran it by multiple people. As always, my wife offered Talk screenshotamazing insight. More importantly, she did not ask me to chop the sex life bit. Then I subjected my brother and some friends to dry runs in the name of feedback. Their tips helped a lot, but nobody asked me to chop the sensitive part. Wow. “Where are all the prudes?” I asked myself.

I am still working to better my public speaking, and I do welcome your thoughts on this. If you have 4 minutes, take a look at the talk  at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zew_jJfMSho&feature=youtu.be   and please do share your feedback in the comments. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

Your dream Mountain Home in 7 uneasy steps

Your dream Mountain Home in 7 uneasy steps

Step 1 : Buy the land.

Look at land options and finalize one. After that falls through at the last minute, find another. Clinch that and do the registration. Within six months someone will file a legal case against you. That person will claim to own the land you bought. This will happen despite your most thorough background checks and clean papers. Hire a lawyer and fight the case. Assuming a stay is not issued, proceed to step 2.

Step 2: Design the house.

Scour the internet, which will offer wonderful mountain home ideas, most of which will not be doable by the local building talent. Talk to local pahadi architects who are practical and will ensure you have a structurally solid house. But these folks are conservative and will insist on small windows. Unsatisfied with these architects, send your land survey files to architects all over the world (the Dutch are the current favourite). Over skype, you find their thinking resonant with yours. They will send you amazing designs which look brilliant in 3D renditions. They will, of course, do this without actually visiting your land. Do not discuss these designs with local people or you may discover that these designs are utterly impractical. They may also be insensitive to the ecology and to the local people, but thankfully you will never find out. Proceed with the most awesome architect at dollar rates.

Step 3 : Hire a contractor.

Look for a decent contractor. Talk to four pahadi contractors. Realize that they all seem rather shaky and imprecise in their quotations and work style, and offer no references. Look further for a “professional contractor”. Realize that evolution hasn’t created that species yet – except the Parsis who produced Hafeez Contractor. But he is actually an architect. Go figure. Hire the contractor who seems the best of the lot. Tell him (They’re all men) that your expectations are very high. Set milestones and link them to payment. Pay the advance. Start the project.

Step 4: Follow-up.

Call the contractor regularly. He will assure you that all is going well. Be shocked at the slow progress on your six-monthly visit of 1.27 days (average). Realize that the contractor cannot read the drawings, so he does his best based on what he could guess from the lines on the page. Be patient and civilized with the contractor. Increase your visit frequency to every 4 months, and extend each visit duration to 2.27 days (average). Start flying in on a rental helicopter to be more efficient. After the contractor misses the first 3 milestones, realize that things are not going as per your plan and the structure looks nothing like the glitzy 3D image you saw. Give the contractor a last deadline. He will miss it. The distressed look you wanted on your furniture is now on your face.

Step 5 : Fire the contractor.

After you fire him, you have three options.

A, Look for another contractor. All the best. They’re all equally bad.

B. Decide to do the project yourself. You might as well buy that chopper now instead of renting it.

C. Abandon the project. Take solace in the fact that the mountains are littered with half-finished dream-turned-nightmare projects.

Picture credit : Boulevard of broken dreams

With option A, loop back to steps 3-5. With option B, move to step 6. The best is Option C as you cut your losses.

Step 6: Become the contractor yourself.

Look for workmen in the mountains, sitting in the city. You will need people for civil work, carpentry, electric, plumbing, stone work, Metal work, Tile work, painting, solar, windmill and other myriad things. You curse the Dutch and drop the windmill from the grand plan.  Masons, carpenters and everyone else will promise you dates and times, and not show up. This will happen repeatedly as your hair thins, and the little that remains turns grey.  When they do turn up, they will give you lists of things to get, which you will duly order. Then they will tell you that they forgot one critical thing without which the work cannot proceed. Nothing is available locally, so you will lose 2 of your planned 2.27 days trying to get the missing bits. You will also be surprised at the contractor’s (Let’s call him your Ex – after all he screwed you) bad business sense. You discover that the margins are over 150%! Why would your Ex walk away? Check Linkedin for your Ex’s profile to see if he earlier worked at Fortis, Max or some other private hospital chain. Realize that your Ex is not on Linkedin.

Step 7: The house is finished. And so are you.

After some weeks as the travelling contractor, you have found some decent craftsmen in the mountains, and a good psychologist in the city. The psychologist is US returned and charges dollar rates. As the months pass you reduce your trips to the mountains and increase your visits to your shrink. She (they’re all women) says you should rest and advises against travel. You have developed a strange fear of heights. You now choose to take your 2.27 day vacations (average) by the sea. You put your mountain structure-thingy on the market and hope to sell it, and kiss your mountain-home dream goodbye. But you now have the bragging rights. At dinner parties you boast of the house you own in the Himalayas without making eye contact. Sometimes you throw up while doing so. People assume you have mixed your drinks.

Epilogue: After 4 years, your incomplete house still hasn’t sold, because rich, delusional city-dwellers all want to build their own dream house and not buy something half finished. Although they have no time to live in such homes, leave alone build them. You take a morphine prescription and visit the area again. The shell of your dreams is still standing, now over-run by creepers, weeds and algae. You stay at a nearby resort, paying a pittance for a lovely, well finished room with a grand view. The resort has great food, but somehow the taste in your mouth stays bitter. You try not to think about the return you would have got from putting the 0.37 Gazillion which your non-house cost into the stock market or bitcoins. You leave out the psychologist’s fees – subconsciously. You also try and not think about all the vacation time (n*2.27 days) you lost on the futile project.

Note : The above steps are based on a true story. Actually, many of them. I promised to tell you how to build a house. I never said you would actually live in it.

 

About the author : Chetan Mahajan* is a full-time writer and blogger who has been renting a house in the Himalayas for the last 3 years. He has also bought land and built his own house there over the last 2 years. At the time of going to press, he had just sacked his contractor. He still hasn’t moved in. Late at night, he sometimes applies Maybelline lipstick on his lips and whispers “because you’re worth it” to himself in the mirror. And pouts. His wife is a US licensed clinical psychologist who has a thriving in-house practice.

*Chetan also hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat.

Too much rain means sausage overdose

Too much rain means sausage overdose

Once in a year or two, nature’s massive heart beats. In 2017, it was in September – three days of incessant rain made for an extended drum-roll of a heartbeat. The life-blood of this planet coursed through every proverbial vein and artery. Everything was washed and renewed, and much was destroyed. A few mountainsides were swept away. Some trees realized they were too old to live. Some innocent birds and their hatchlings went with them. As humans we attempt to understand and explain such events from our various perspectives of insignificance. First through religion, and now through science.

But in our life here in the mountains, the main consequence of the extended downpour was an extreme consumption of sausages. You see when the rain happens at this scale, the power lines somewhere snap, needing days to be repaired.  So if you have a freezer full of cold-meats, a binge automatically starts. It helped that a friend and his daughter were visiting, although only one of them ate meat. We don’t have full power backup here – just a solar inverter. One evening we discovered that a wire from the solar panel had come loose, and that night was spent by candlelight. For the grown-ups it was vaguely nostalgic, but for the kids it was a complete picnic with Sausages and Salami completing the experience.

The impact on life was bigger than just sausages of course. A boring old mountainside was suddenly transformed into a gushing waterfall.

 

Our landlord, neighbour and general provider of everything, Mohan da, normally collects water in two large tanks. He then pumps the water upto the overhead tank. But with the power gone for three straight days, he was unable to pump the water up. So the overhead water tank was soon empty. That meant no water in the taps, flush tanks or geysers.

We had to fall back upon a more mechanical and primitive lifestyle for a bit. The first day we skipped bathing. The next day we filled up buckets full of water and lugged them up to the bathrooms. Our maid got a 10 litre can of drinking water from the natural spring. We lit the chulha to heat the water in a tin container. My friend and his daughter too jumped into the rustic experience with much glee, blowing into the hot coals of the wood fire with a pipe to keep it going. It was a fun spell while it lasted.

This winter nature has continued with its ways, and the same boring old hillside is now covered in snow. The humans struggle to understand and explain. And a few of us simply accept and enjoy it. I see the snow as nature’s way of asking us to chill.

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Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Something isn’t right about what this little girl wants from her life. I googled the lyrics. Nowhere does anyone ask for happiness.

Bummer.

It got me thinking about last evening. I was at the Sonapani Music festival surrounded by amazing people. None of them were particularly rich – and if they were it certainly wasn’t on display. They were all beautiful in my eyes. Not pretty in the TV – bollywood – painted faces way. They were all lovely in their real skins, and amazingly talented. The women were beautiful because they didn’t need Maybelline to tell them that they were worth it.

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Sonapani Music Festival at the Himalayan Village Sonapani

I also spent the last month with four Ashoka Fellows. I have been working with them as part of a writing retreat, which required me to understand their work and their stories. The more I learned, the more I admired them. Each one of them is working to change something big, and has already achieved some measure of success.

These two very different groups don’t live by the lyrics of Que Sera Sera. Neither of them

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Harpreet & Moushmi

goes in search of wealth and good looks. They don’t care much how pretty, handsome or rich they are. The amazing artists at Sonapani – Harpreet, Moushumi, Shruthi & Shruteendra care about their art. They care about the world and all that is right and wrong with it. And that is captured in the beauty of their poetry and music.

Another line of “Que Sera Sera” the Ashoka Fellows don’t buy into is “what will be will be”. They look at what is, find what’s wrong with it, and work to fix it. They are not closed in their thinking. Not negatively invested in their particular organizations. They want change to happen – by whatever means. So they encourage others including their own employees  to create organizations like their own. The corporate world calls that competition. The Ashoka fellows don’t resist this competition – they encourage it.

One thing common to all these people is that they have realized early on in life that happiness will not come from money or looks. They believe it will come from some form of personal fulfillment. It could be art. Or Music. Or Poetry. Or doing something truly meaningful with their lives. In their own way each of these people makes the world a better place.

And then I meet people in other walks of life – especially in the corporate world. I meet the many people who completely believe that wealth is a proxy for happiness. The difference is stark. What strikes me is that many people never make a conscious choice. They take the default path set by society without question. The few who consciously choose business thrive in it and love that too.

No, I am not advocating poverty. I am simply saying that before your children ask for “pretty & rich” make sure they ask for “happy”.

It’s not the same thing.

 

*Talking about song lyrics, I also think they need to officially change the lyrics to one song. “She’s a jolly good fellow” has to be the new anthem. Three of the four Ashoka fellows I worked with were women.

Cartoon Credit : Dave Carpenter ( Cartoonstock)

 

 

 

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

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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.