Report from India #5

Members of a Global Community

We have spent these last couple of days in Munsiari with a mix of classroom and hands-on activities.  Monday opened with a discussion with Malika about the human relationship with nature, specifically animals.  We looked at the different ways humans use and interact with our fellow members of the animal kingdom.  The question was raised regarding any actual or perceived differences between domesticated and wild animals.  Are the roles and purposes of animals in the human experience a necessary or merely justified relationship?  There were some contemplative thoughts and ideas exchanged, and many of us reflected on our own perspectives and experiences. 

After a tea break, Theo explained the geologic history of the Himalaya and how these majestic mountains came to be formed about 50 million years ago.  For perspective, the Appalachians are about 500 million years old, explaining the drastic differences in make-up and elevation.  In fact the Himalayas continue to rise, although the rate of growth is equal to the rate of erosion so those climbing Mount Everest today are reaching the same elevation point Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzin Norgay reached on that first successful ascent in 1953.

Much of Malika’s work in her twenty-four years in Munsiari has been around educating and empowering the women of the village.  Through the creation of the Women’s Collective the grandmothers, mothers, and wives in the area have found opportunity for their own development and welfare as well as experiences that help them better provide for their families.  They have a store in the village where they sell beautiful handmade goods and they meet often to discuss community issues and find ways to increase efficiencies in their homes and gardens.  They are also the families that provide the homestays.  Malika and Theo have worked closely with them to maintain an authentic and safe experience for those coming to Munsiari to be immersed in a traditional Himalayan community. 

Travelers come from all over India and around the globe for this unique experience and opportunity to go beyond a typical tourist visit.  We spent the afternoon learning from these amazing women.  One group learned to make a traditional Indian snack, samosas, while the others gave a try at knitting an item of their choice.  While a language barrier exists, the instruction and guidance is not deterred by it.  All those involved had great fun and we took away a deeper appreciation for the labor and time involved in making even the simplest meals or pieces of clothing.  Once the cooking was done we were joined on the deck by the women, many of their children and various friends to share the samosas.  Each person was asked to give a rating and there were many laughs as each person tried to defend their approval or disapproval.  We then enjoyed a laid back remainder of the afternoon working on our knitting or playing soccer with some of the children from the village.

On Tuesday we returned to the classroom and completed a group reading of An Animals Place by Michael Pollan (2003).   The article is a response to Peter Singer’s, Animal Liberation which in essence argues that in the future our relationship with animals today will be viewed with the same irreverence that slavery and racism are presently regarded.  Pollan really raises more questions than he offers answers and this provided additional fodder for our discussion about human and animal relationships.  The exercise has primarily been about raising awareness and not intended or designed to encourage one feeling or another.  In fact the article itself describes several different perspectives and tries to share evidence, or at least justification, for each of them. 

A colleague of Malika and Theo’s, Ram, joined us for the second part of the morning and gave a presentation on energy use in India and shared some comparisons with other parts of the world.  He specifically showed some of the research and work being done in Himalayan villages to decrease carbon emissions and increase efficiency.  Within the most recent generation the villages have gained seemingly modern conveniences like access to consistent electrical supply and natural gas.  Wood fires continue to be the most popular source for cooking, but much work has been done to develop more efficient, inexpensive stoves and hot water heaters.  One of the more interesting statistics presented was that India’s per capita carbon footprint is one of the smallest in the world, but with a population of 1.1 billion it is as a whole one of the most impactful nations globally.  As a comparison, the US falls near the top of the charts of carbon footprint contributions both per person and as a nation.  Only China is having a bigger impact.

I think it’s worthwhile to mention lunch here.  Each day our homestay mothers prepare us a box lunch.  While many of us come with similar items, there is a little individual touch on each meal.  Just as our own moms might do back home, we are sent out each morning with full bellies from breakfast and a lunch box prepared to keep us content and full until the evening.

Tuesday afternoon was much like the previous day and we were given the choice to learn how to cook a snack or begin the knitting of a hat, pouch, scarf or sock.  The sun that had greeted us in the morning had given way to clouds and sprinkles, but the warmth of the smiles of the women, as they watched us attempt to prepare a goodie or stumble with knitting needles, kept us cozy.  Once again we gathered to share the products of the cooking class coupled with some tea and expressed thanks to have had the opportunity to learn and share with the families of the village.  

With the formal schedule of the day completed, we took the opportunity to sit as a group and look at what lies ahead and quickly reflect on what we have done.  There will be much more time set aside on Wednesday to really consider what our experience has been, but we all shared one word that best describes our feeling at this point.  Well, I gave two – humble and humanity.  I am hopeful that you have been able to sense these feelings through the blogs and we are discussing how we might best be able to adequately and accurately express our experience individually and as a group upon our return.  The students have already remarked that they won’t have an answer for “how was the trip?” Rather, they want to prepare something, and in what form has not yet been decided, that can really show what this experience has been.  And we still have much left to do. 

One week until we land in Boston and the prospect of returning home brings many of us consolation as the cravings of American food and being reunited with our family and friends is a happy prospect.  With that said, however, we are not ready to go and excited for the adventures that still lie ahead.

Stairway to Heaven

As I have previously described, Malika and Theo’s home sits on a hillside looking down on the village below and across to the peaks of the higher Himalaya.  To get to our homestays we have to first walk down a trail that leaves from their field and takes us down to the homes of the village.  The village is set-up in various terraces connected by steep cement walkways and steps.  My best estimate is that it’s a 1,500 to 2,000ft elevation difference from the village center in the valley to our hillside meeting place with numerous levels of homes and shops in between.

Fortunately, none of us are staying in the valley, but we are spread out amongst various levels and it takes us anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes to make the trek from our homestay to Malika and Theo’s house.  Given the exertion Emily and I have experienced each morning from our homestay, the farthest, aside from the home Jay stayed at for two nights, I am feeling it is akin to the hill climb race last winter that took us from the lean-to up to the top of the Norm Wight Skill Hill.  I find myself short of breath (I blame the altitude, not any lack of fitness mind you) and sweaty just walking from breakfast to class.  Of course the villagers have no issue making the walk several times in a day.  Just another level of respect for what they can and must do to live in this region.