At some point of time in our life, haven’t we all wished for a home away from the noise and lights of the city? A home in the hills with a small garden in which we could grow apples and oranges. It’s a wish that unlike other wishes remains ingrained in our mind palace from childhood to adulthood. Only the dimensions of our thoughts change, as we grow.
At a majestic 4570 m, Spiti is called “Little Tibet” because it has almost the same terrain, vegetation and climate. When I first started reading about Spiti in 2014, I bumped into this site called Spiti homestay. Reading through this website was my first insight into the concept of Himalayan homestays. I was smitten and I read more and in the contact us page I found Ecosphere. I found out that homestays were a common thing in India while homestays in Spiti weren’t.
When Ecosphere came to Spiti, they saw that the concept of homestays was a win-win situation for both the locals and the travelers who would come to Spiti. Spiti, at that point of time was just opening up to the world, and introduction of homestays meant that it could act as an alternative source of income for locals and it could be an opportunity for travelers to get a deeper insight into the Spitian way of life. Today homestays form a major chunk of people’s annual income in Spiti.
No one can stop themselves from falling in love with the sight of houses in Spiti; painted in rich white and tiled with square windows outlined with reds and blues which sometimes also have curious eyes popping out of them. Generally all houses are two-storied and people usually live on the upper floor during the summers and shift down to the ground floor in winters.
When you enter through the wooden doors, every house greets you with a characteristic smell, just like home and there will be someone to welcome you with a genuine smile on their face and of course Julley! And aaui chai peetei hain (Let’s have tea) you should know that when in Spiti, you can’t escape tea. So you follow your host to the kitchen. The kitchen is the central hub of all activities in the house and when you walk in, everyone will come to greet you, from little mischief makers to the old Heebi (grandmother) and in no time, tea will be ready. If you’re lactose intolerant, don’t worry, there’s lemon tea too and kesar tea (saffron tea) for special occasions.
The rooms are good. The quilts, mattresses and bed covers are fresh. The Chokse tables are neatly laid and a water purifier is laid on it, so you don’t have to worry about water quality. When you walk into the room, it does not feel like it’s a hotel room. There’s nothing superficial, it’s all real, like one’s room back at home which was cleaned by mum after repeated warnings! Some room have views and some rooms don’t but all the rooms have that homeliness.
But, it’s not the amenities that the homestays provide which make you feel at home. It’s the people. It’s amazing how the people let you in their lives and allow you to be a part of it. They don’t do anything special for you. There’s no pretence at all. They just simply let you be a part of whatever they’re doing. So you can scribble away meaningless dialogues in a notebook with a Tenzin or learn how to make sumptuous potato momos spiced with wild herbs collected from the highlands. You can sit down in the kitchen with Heebi and simply soak the silence of her mediation as she swirls her prayer wheel in deep concentration. You can talk to Uncle about how cities are so noisy and you can also ask him if he’s seen a snow leopard. I always do that and get the best answers.
And then, there are local dishes. Potato momos is my favourite, I can gobble down 4-5 plates and that’s not an understatement. (When in Komic, barge into Kunga Jordhen’s home and you’ll not be disappointed by the Aaloo momos!) Then there is thenthuk and thukpa, I believe there’s nothing more therapeutic than a bowl of hot thenthuk after a good day’s hike. It opens up the head and warms the body, the garlic in the soup shoos away the mild AMS headache in a flash. Keu and Shunali are two delicacies which for me beat pasta any day (When in Demul, go to Angdui; the secretary’s home for Shunali!).
I’ll happily trade any exotic dish for these local dishes. They are so organic. If you like peas, you’ve got try pea-pulao made in pure ghee obtained from the milk of cows which graze the pristine highland meadows around the village. Once I was peeling peas with my hosts and we ended up gulping all of the peas down our throat because they were so sweet!
With time you develop a bond with everyone at your home and everyone who comes visiting and it’s reflected in the way the people around you acknowledge your presence. You start with aap(you) and then you gives way to hum(we). For me, these little things make me feel home more than anything.
For me, homestays are not an opportunity, they are a privilege. Homestays is the closest I’ve come to realizing the dream of living in the hills. Through my travels in Spiti, I’ve had so many houses to call home and barge in without a thought.
In the end, it’s the little things which matter. You may forget the ethereal sunset and the double rainbows. You may forget the views and sightings but you’ll never forget a Gatuk’s mischief. You’ll never forget a Heebi’s toothless smile. You’ll never forget the Thenthuk, you’ll find it everywhere but it’ll never be the same thenthuk that calmed your nerves after the long hike from Langza to Komic.
The magic of simple memories will bring you back to the middle land and when you’re there, you‘ll find your way back home. Always.
Want to experience a homestay in the Himalayas? Check out Ecosphere Spiti for an authentic green travel experience!