Originally posted February 17th, 2014
I was the first intern to arrive in Naddi.
The other two who had been planning on travelling with me had missed the bus and the girl who was scheduled to fly in to Dharamsala the night before had had her flight cancelled due to fog. Those taking non-government buses were supposed to have arrived at 5 or 6 in the morning but had been delayed along the way, and the couple who had opted to take the train were still en route.
It was the first time that a group of interns had been coordinated to all arrive on the same day but due to buses vanishing from websites and some choosing to arrive in India a few weeks early to travel, we were all finding our own ways to Naddi.
Basically this involves getting to Dharamsala, a fairly big city, with its proximity to McLeod Ganj – the current home of the Dalai Lama – making it a tourist destination. Technically McLeod Ganj and Naddi are in Dharamsala, so this whole area houses the Tibetan government, but since being here I’ve realised that they’re incredibly diverse areas. Dharamsala is a bustling and utilitarian city but not incredibly charming, while McLeod, 20 minutes away, is very international with apparent Tibetan influences. These vary from food to souvenirs to – most obviously – the actual presence of the Dalai Lama’s temple. Naddi, another 10 minutes from McLeod, is a small Indian village completely removed from Tibetan religion and culture.
From Dharamsala taxis are quite cheap to Naddi, as we are around a half-hour drive into the mountains, past McLeod Ganj and Dal Lake. From road signs you would assume that Dal Lake is a major tourist destination, and the name itself, translated into “Sacred Lake”, conjures images of a shining, peaceful woodland retreat. There are several Dal Lakes in India and let’s hope that the others live up to this romantic name a bit better; in reality, the ‘lake’ here is a brown, stagnant pond directly on the side of the road, and we’ve collectively agreed that the other translation of Dal as “lentil” is far more appropriate in this case. The town is equally underwhelming as it consists of a row of small shops on the side of a road lined with barbed wire. There’s also an Indian army base in the area and the many advertisements of this fact make for quite an odd contrast to the spiritual nature of this region the first time you see them – passing through a holy area while images of guys with guns face you around every corner. Although I suppose religion and violence have never been all that far removed in reality…
But getting back to the point: arriving in Naddi. Taking that crazy, winding road up to the place where I was planning on spending three months I finally started to feel truly excited about this journey for the first time since my arrival. Like in Delhi, driving involves a lot of honking but here in the countryside it’s used to announce the presence of a vehicle to anyone who may be around the corner. In areas where trees didn’t obstruct the view, the mountain peaks started to become clear and by the time we reached the top it was absolutely stunning.
Which made lugging my bags down a steep and broken path to the local community we call Chenni slightly less painful. But only slightly – it sucked. And this part was entirely unexpected; we’d been informed that we would all be living in an intern house, but it turned out that the first two weeks would be spent in homestays so that we could start getting to know the families we’d be working with and experience authentic life here in Naddi. Also because this is India and preparations for our stay were running slightly behind schedule so our house wasn’t ready for us yet. One of those things that would have been nice to know before getting here, but part of this internship is learning to accept that expectations must be flexible and the unexpected embraced. Why not start learning on day one!
The house I would be staying in was at the very bottom of this community – a vertically organised clumping of 7 or 8 houses. Apparently a family settled here in the 1920s with each brother establishing a separate house with their families. This means that everyone in Chenni is related with the exception of two families who moved here more recently and rent. These latter families are definitely on the outskirts of society here, though, and their relative poverty is quite apparent as the malnourished children who live in these houses look years younger than their actual ages. Because they’re all related, people in Chenni never marry within the community and, as in much of India, when the women marry, they go to live with their husbands’ families.
The younger, unmarried women are the ones who participate in EduCARE projects the most, including the homestays. A relatively new microfinance enterprise here, the homestays allow the women to earn some extra income by renting out spare rooms to tourists and offering meals throughout the day. On top of the earnings, EduCARE use this system to teach the women financial literacy and to promote cross-cultural exchange. Currently, interns are testing out the system by using the homestays while the women gain experience in hospitality. Naddi is quite a popular tourist destination for Indians, so the idea is that eventually they will begin to stay here as well, allowing a cheap alternative to the many, many hotels in the area.
I had arrived just in time for breakfast. Sergio, the coordinator here at the moment, had brought me to the homestays and now introduced me to my “family”. The girl is named Reena, a 23 year old who lives with her mother and brother. Her three sisters have married and moved away and her father is a shepherd in Punjab who comes back for a few weeks at a time and then goes away for months to work. We overlapped by around a week in the end and he was a delightful man. Didn’t speak a work of English but would smile and ramble on in Hindi to me and Michelle (my wonderful roommate here), eager to include us in any conversations. He seemed to find it quite hilarious that we had no idea what he was saying.
But that morning it was just me and Reena and her mother. We sat on some mats on the floor by their fire and I watched as Reena rolled out small balls of dough on a wooden board and then threw them, one at a time, onto a small pan placed above the fire. Roll, throw, flip and then toss into the fire itself for a few seconds to let them puff up. This was the morning ritual of making “chapati”, the flatbread which forms a staple of the diet around here. It’s a beautiful process to watch and done with the confidence that comes from years of repetitive action. And fresh, warm bread every morning is the one component of the meals here that I never got sick of. We’d eat this chapati in the morning with a spoonful of some kind of vegetable, or ‘sabji’ (often curried cauliflower or spinach) and, of course, a warm cup of chai. Conversation was limited as Reena speaks very little English and her mother none at all, but it was a friendly quiet with a few attempts at communication. Overall, a peaceful way to start my stay here. After that I had a few hours to myself before lunch and the beginning of orientation so, escaping to my new room, I instantly fell asleep and got some much-needed rest.