Stomachs full of unfamiliar breakfast and lunchboxes filled with the tastes and smells of the mountain forests, we set off for the first time on the 500 meter uphill climb to what would be our open to sky workshop for the week. The climb, Antara told me would get ‘disproportionately easy’ every day. Words my urban skepticism didn’t buy but nevertheless held onto like a talisman. When I was almost giving up, a lone rose nodded encouragingly from an almost leafless bush, the only fence on a grassy outcrop.
As I unseeingly stumbled across a landscape I never stopped at looking at with wonder for the rest of the week, I saw all the women of the village who had just fed us the aforementioned breakfast and packed those lunchboxes squinting at us through the sunshine, amusement written large across beaming lined faces. Together twenty of us urban and rural women, walked through what I now registered was a high altitude mini plateau in the lap of the first rise of the Greater Himalayas. A tall conifer watched over us as we took in with some wonder the two cows and calves and a pair of geese clucking around. My ears until then hadn’t picked up the gurgle that sounded like a small waterfall.
Wordlessly we followed the women of the village as they slowly settled in a circle on the ground and started with what seemed like the most obvious way to begin – sing. Voices rising and falling with hope and unity singing songs of insurmountable odds and indomitable wills, of rivers and mountains and courage and truth.; Songs that told us volumes about their lives that words could never span. Eyes narrowed against the sharp light, heads covered from the mountain sun, shoulders wrapped against the chill in the air and feet bare against the damp grass, we embarked upon a weeklong journey of building bridges across geography, and lifestyles to talk about what we share as women.
In the seven days that followed, we hiked, cooked, chased langurs from fields, celebrated birthdays, did yoga, wove wool, lives and stories of work, children, the weather, marriages, elopements, wealth, autonomy and every other subject that women are likely to talk about, when left to themselves. Through it all, we found, we had more in common than not.
For a week we spent our days together on the grassy atoll, working, filling our water bottles at the little brook and napping under the fir tree in the afternoon as the mountain dogs woke from their morning slumber and bounded up and down, warming up for their nightlong vigil. And just before we would leave this patch of idyll for our evening walk back to the village we would wait, eyes turned skyward, for the last orange rays of the sun to light up the Panchachuli range at 6900 meters, above the cold blue twilight sky that marked had already marked the end of the day for us.
The women of the village, Sarmoli, run a homestay initiative that has opened its doors to hundreds of people from across the world and changed the way people experience life in these parts. A travel and empowerment collaboration that holds space for an authentic exchange of ideas, conversations and strengths, this little village marked by the deodar tree at its entrance is nestled high in the Himalayas.
With breathtaking views from tiny bathroom windows to unwalled terraces and school playing fields, Sarmoli is straight out of an Indian travel postcard. If you look it up, you will read of the annual marathon, the butterfly festival and if you visit you will hear of the Junglee school, the 300 odd species of birds that are ethnic to these parts, the van panchayat and the reservoir up in the mountain forest that the women of the villages lovingly tend to. If you are patient you will hear of the folk tale of the amorous god that kidnapped two village girls and cursed the reservoir and you might even see the yellow billed blue magpie. But if you live there for a while and do nothing, you will find a home in the tiny kitchens warmed by the stoves cooking mudve ki roti and your insides will heal with the tingling heat of the timur they use to season and spice their most savoured food.
The evening we reached after a 36 hour journey through stomach churning hair pin bends, the village had just lost almost their entire crop of potatoes, cauliflower and cabbage to an unseasonal hailstorm of a scale that they had never experienced and a wedding that was almost washed out if it wasn’t for people who continued dancing until 3 a.m. We arrived amidst all of this to the warmest welcome and gentle queries of how we were holding up. Surrounded by children, the village dogs and the odd curious wedding guest, we were settled in, warmed and fed. Without so much as a word being said, this was one of the most stirring demonstrations of equanimity that I have ever witnessed.
When I came back I thought of them every evening for a week, I sometimes still do. A people so simple, so relatable, frail in the face of the capriciousness of their surroundings but of such deep faith in their ability to not just live but thrive and completely unforgettable in ways that I suspect I am only just beginning to understand.
She Moves Mountains is a unique travel experience, where we bring together women from the cities and women from the mountains. We engage and learn from each other, share stories of personal challenges and successes, find similarities despite our vast differences and leave a tiny, but everlasting impact on the community. Our first edition happened this May in Sarmoli village in Munsiari, Uttarakhand in partnership with Himalayan Ark and She The People.
About our author - Aspiring baker, shower stall soprano and wanderer, Shikha Balakrishnan describes herself as a full time photographer, design evangelist and documenter of the everyday. You can follow her on Instagram here @shikhabalakrishnan and view her entire photo series from Sarmoli here.
About our partner - Himalayan Ark is an initiative founded and run by Malika Virdi. Malika has been one of India’s first women mountaineers and has lived in Sarmoli for the last 20+ years. She has served and worked with the local community on issues like conservation of natural resources, livelihood interventions and has successfully built one of India's first entirely community-run homestay programs. They also have a women's handicraft self-help group called Maati and an outdoor learning school called Junglee School for the local kids.
If you enjoyed reading this and would like to be part of such travel experiences, do read about our current trips here. If you would like us to host such experiences for your college or workplace, or simply give us some feedback or say hello, please write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org