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. During our trek in Uttarakhand, we had stayed in rest houses that offered great views and a mountain of warm but itchy quilts. We slept in candlelit rooms. On one unforgettable trek, we had taken shelter in a shepherd’s stone hut through along, rainy deluge, with smoke pouring in from the kitchen and water rushing in rivulets through the walls.
As we made our way we hoped our homestays would be better. A room in a hut, though dimly lit, would still be homely. But would it be cold? Damp? Noisy? Time would tell. Rumbak village—when we first caught sight of it— gleamed white and brown in the distance. Like an oasis in a desert I thought, for we had been walking through mostly treeless, arid landscape that belied the gurgling ribbon of a river that ran some metres below. These must be the houses of the village chiefs; I wondered where the huts could be.
SURPRISE NO 1 – HOUSES, NOT HUTS – At the village, our guide set out to make enquiries. The villagers offered homestays by rotation, and he needed to know which house would host us. Looking at the village before me, I felt a sense of surprise, tinged with frank admiration. 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. The impression I got was of a clean village with house-proud inhabitants. 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. It was warm, welcoming, and offered a wonderful view. Solar panels ensured ample light. In Rumbak village, 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. And I have the city-dweller’s horror of hole-in-the-ground toilets. But when you have to go, you have to go, and finally the vital question was put forward.
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 heartbeat 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 – 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. The village fields only yield peas and barley. 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 5 – NO YOUNG MEN! – I was intrigued to see very few young men during our stay in the village. 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). Similarly, in Shingo village, our slim, young hostess had two children, both under three, and her husband was away with his donkeys as they carried goods to and from Leh. Her grandparents lived with her, helped in looking after the kids, tend the field, and graze the yak that gave milk. 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 6 – HOMESTAYS EMPOWER! – 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. It is a practical plan, and works as much for trekkers as it does for the villagers. I, for one, can happily forget the rest houses in other places that gifted me itchy bug bites. I also get to keep in memory the smiling faces of the Ladakhi hostesses in their humble homes. Self sufficient women, with few wants, these are housewives who have turned into entrepreneurs tending their home and children as they work.