India's garden close to the sun
Dharma, our driver, slowed down for a moment. "See that peak jutting out of that cloud? That's the Rohtang Pass." As extraordinarily skilled as Dharma was manoeuvring along cliff edges and scraping past potential Himalayan landslides, my stomach flipped at the thought of the jeep eventually reaching 3,978m at Rohtang. Maybe it was the combination of 13 hours of rough terrain and altitude sickness that caused me to pass out shortly after, but I remember very little of the next 24 hours, the pass or how we reached our destination. This was the beginning of the most incredible two weeks of our lives.
The Spiti valley is tucked away at almost 4,300m, between the borders of Tibet and India. Home to a population of 10,000 Buddhists, Spiti Valley is also nicknamed "Little Tibet" stemming from the commonalities in traditions, customs and culture shared with their neighbouring region. The high altitude surrounding the valley gives rise to a hostile climate with Spitians spending almost half the year in dry, -30°C conditions. The locals' only source of vegetables is their summer stock, which means scarce supplies of staple vegetables during the colder months. The greenhouse project was a way to change this.
Razan, an old school friend, and I had both been looking for an opportunity that combined sustainable development work, travel and a personal challenge. We came across the website of i-to-i, an organisation connecting volunteers with local charities around the world, which then put us in touch with a charity in India called Ecosphere. Ecosphere were looking for volunteers to build their eco-friendly greenhouse design, which enabled rural farmers to grow vegetables during winter months when temperatures plummet. The project was exactly what we were looking for and we signed up straight away. Running on child-like excitement, we couldn't wait to head to the Himalayas and start building.
Boarding a Kingfisher propeller plane from Delhi (237m above sea level), we flew alongside peaks and landed at the foothills of the Himalayas. The entire plane was stunned by the surrounding beauty when we landed in Kullu. A 90-minute drive later, we arrived in Manali. We were now at almost 2,000m above sea level. At 5am the following day, we set off on our jeep journey to Kazaa (the main village of Spiti) via the Rohtang Pass. We left early to avoid traffic on an already "dangerous road" as described by an experienced, tough-looking local. We avoided looking down and thanks to Dharma's careful steering, the journey was far less nail-biting than I thought it would be.
However, the altitude sickness crept up on me unexpectedly and mercilessly. Nothing can prepare you for it, regardless of how fit you are. From what people told me later, voices had sounded distant, my complexion became ghost-like, food didn't agree with me and my extremities curled up. It's a good thing I don't remember much. I woke up the next morning after arriving in Kazaa (5,575m above sea level) feeling absolutely fine but completely unaware of how I ended up in the Sakya Abode, a guesthouse visited by passing travellers and monks, including the Dalai Lama. It took two days for our bodies to adjust. A minute's walk or slight incline left Razan and I breathless. Skip to the following week and we were lifting bags of mud, trekking up mountains and cycling. We made our final phone calls to our loved ones before heading to the project site for a fortnight where there would be no phone, running water or electricity. We were off to build the greenhouse, the reason we came here. We could not wait.
Pin valley, at about 4,242m is one of the main villages of Spiti and lies roughly two hours by road from Kazaa. The project was based in the Kunghri gonpa (monastery), home to about 150 monks. These monks followed Nyingma, the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The team consisted of myself, Razan, Barbara (another i-to-i volunteer), Kunjin (a local mason), Chhering (an Ecosphere guide) and two additional labourers.
Day one was spent shifting bags of heavy mud across the site to begin the four sides of the structure. By sunset we had completed the first level of the greenhouse. How a team of five was going to complete a six-metres-by-nine-metres structure in 10 working days, was questionable. The next four days were spent building up levels of the outer wall, and once we reached a little more than two metres, work on the inner concrete wall began. We moulded and set the concrete bricks overnight and the climate dried them instantly. Meanwhile, we had started to collect local waste to use as insulation between the walls. Sifting through rubbish, we came across a plethora of commercial household names that had managed to find Spiti, bringing their non-biodegradable bottles, bags and wrappers with them. Any organic material was turned into a compost heap, which will eventually be re-used as greenhouse soil.
Our typical day would begin at sunrise, occasionally attending the morning puja (prayers) in the gonpa. Surrounded by butter candles and local incense, the melodic and mesmerising chants of the monks and morning gongs gently woke us up each day. We had generous servings of local bread and parathas at breakfast and carried out most of the heavy labour in the morning, before the intense afternoon sun arrived. This consisted of shifting mud and 12kg rocks, lifting mud, shovelling, grading and levelling. By noon we had completely burned off breakfast and were positively exhausted. After lunch, we usually took a half-hour nap before getting back into our boots and gloves. Once the sun went down, it was bucket filling time, racing to wash off the dung, soil, rubbish and sweat we'd been wearing all day. The routine required plenty of self-motivation, determination and discipline, especially waking up to get back onto the site after lunch (no alarm clocks, no snooze buttons). Walking back past the greenhouse for dinner every day was the most gratifying moment of the day, watching it gradually rise amongst a backdrop of snow-capped Himalayan peaks. We had made this together using our hands, two wooden planks, a shovel and a pick-axe.
Once the double insulated walls and ventilation were complete, we constructed the north-facing roof using bamboo, reinforcing it with branches from the nearby trees. Another layer of mud later, we covered the south-facing roof with a polythene sheet. We were almost done. Having been so busy with work, we never left the site during the day, so getting the rest of the afternoon off to explore Pin valley was a treat.
We headed to the pea fields and listened to the beautiful harmony of the Spitian women singing to pass the day as they picked fresh pea pods. Naturally, we joined in and spent the afternoon picking peas. The fields were infinite but the crop can only grow for four months of the year. If every Spitian picked all day, there would still be entire fields untouched. These organic, hand picked, succulent, sweet peas were then loaded onto a truck to Delhi. These women's wages for a day's worth of picking was about $0.50 (Dh1.5). The truckers will sell them on to be exported from the capital and the peas inevitably find their way to far-off places such as Dubai, New York and Shanghai -still organic, but over-packaged and overpriced. We picked up a few more pods and savoured the taste.
The last two days of work was the easy part - painting and planting. We whitewashed three of the inner walls with locally produced paint and we painted the back wall black. The heat inside the greenhouse felt like getting into your car at the height of an Abu Dhabi summer. At least it was working. Whispers swept through the village of three ladies building in the gonpa and there were onlookers everyday towards the end. The local monks were very excited when they realised what we were building. Some of the younger monks even lifted up their orange robes and joined in the painting.
The night before completion, we worked on the soil inside the greenhouse. I held by breath as we axed through the piles of yak dung, levelling it with the greenhouse floor. Singing our way through the overwhelming stench within the suffocating heat of the walls, we dug, dug, and dug. I've never appreciated a bucket of cold water over my head as much as I did that night. We had briefly adopted the Spitian way of life, and doing so was a poignant reminder of the indulgences we live with in the developed world.