Pleasant surprises, on what is likely to be rough travel, are like presents on no occasions. Sathya Saran recently returned from Ladakh’s outer wilderness where she had her best experience whilst staying at the homes of village locals.
When we set off on our four-day trek in Ladakh, through the Hemis National Park, our itinerary included night stays in homes in different villages. Little did we know that the homes would spring a series of surprises. Rumbak village—when we first caught sight of it—gleamed white and brown in the distance.
SURPRISE NO 1 | HOUSES, NOT HUTS
At the village, our guide set out to make inquiries. The villagers offered home stays by rotation, and he needed to know which house would host us. All the houses on the sloping terrain were built of sturdy brick that was plastered over. Large windows ensured ample natural light, and I could see terraces and sloping roofs. Wooden fretwork details, typical of the Ladakh region ran along the exteriors. We climbed a steep run of stone steps that led into the courtyard of the home which would shelter us for the night.
SURPRISE NO 2 | OUR ROOM
Colourful curtains, on a metal curtain rod, hung at the window, and the floor was covered with a dhurrie, on which four thin single mattresses were arranged along the walls. A pile of synthetic blankets and tables made up the rest of the room’s contents. As we put down our bags, Sonam Palmo, our smiling hostess, came in with a tray of tea. Her smile made me feel genuinely welcome. Allaying my fears about communication, she spoke in faultless Hindi. One thought, however nagged at my mind. The room had no toilet.
SURPRISE NO 3 | THE TOILET
I looked at the steep stairs that had been pointed out, and climbed hesitantly. A tower revealed itself, with a tiny wooden door, held closed by a twist of rope. I confess my heart beat faster from the fear of what I would find within than from the exertion of the short climb.The Ladakhis have perhaps the cleanest dry toilets I have ever seen in my travels. The height ensures the pit is far below, and generous additions of hay and mud prevent all unpleasantness.
SURPRISE NO 4 | ‘WATERING HOLES’
Curious and invigorated after a short rest, I took a walk around, following a slope that led to a pipe, from which water gushed. A series of such ‘watering holes’ with low, cemented walls was a stream, harnessed to flow through the pipes to deliver water from the mountain slopes to the local community.
SURPRISE NO 5 | THE FOOD
Sonam served us large chapattis for dinner, for which the wheat, along with other household requirements, came from Leh, laden on the back of ponies. Hot dal and a lightly spiced vegetable made the meal the ultimate comfort food. Breakfast was a real winner. Chapattis served marvellously, with jam and processed butter, eggs, and a tin of cheese! Our packed lunch boxes contained a boiled egg, boiled potatoes, a chocolate bar and chapattis.
SURPRISE NO 6 | NO YOUNG MEN!
Through our trek, all our hostesses were young women. So, where were all the men? Sonam told us her husband was an army man, posted elsewhere, and her sons were studying in Leh. Her parents lived with her, and her father would leave every morning to graze the donkeys (who had woken us with their braying). I learnt that most young men prefer to live, study, and earn in the city, coming home occasionally, while women managed the homes and homestays.
SURPRISE NO 7 | HOME STAYS EMPOWER!
The earnings of 1,200 per person per night augmented the villagers’ income, and was part of a conservation effort. In a unique programme, The J&K Wildlife Protection Department supports the homestays, ensuring the extra money helps make up for livestock losses they may suffer if the snow leopard should carry away their animals. Ten per cent of the money earned is given to the department, which also guides the villagers on service standards to maintain.