“I don’t have to think or plan or choose. I work, and I get shelter and food in return. Days melt into nights, which give rise to another day. I’m not distracted by a million things… I am simply living.” This is from a diary entry dated a little more than a year ago, when I found myself in Uttarakhand, working at the Himalayan Ethno-Botanic Farm, in the foothills of the Himalayas in Kumaon, surrounded by pine and oak forests, rolling hills and gorgeous skies.
The outside world was wholly disconnected from us — there was no internet, no TV, and, for most of the time, no phone signal either. The entire farm had a single plug point. But we were nesting quite comfortably in our little hole. I had come here to see what it might be like to live a simple life, without the distractions of modern age.
The farm is a part of the World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms (WWOOF) network that started in England in 1971 and made its way to India in August 2007; the initiative allows volunteers to live and learn on organic properties and farms, and participate in tending to gardens, orchards, spices, tea and other sustainability projects.
My fellow volunteers and I worked from 9 am till sunset. For the most part, I tore up weeds during the day, tilling the soil with a sickle. It was mundane and repetitive work, and the only thing that changed with each passing day were the number of blisters on my hands. Sometimes, I watered the various herbs and vegetables grown on the farm. On other days, I helped out with the construction of a farmhouse.
In the beginning, it seemed as though time had been stretched like a guitar string pulled tightly; when plucked, one could feel the day vibrate with all the little ways our lives had changed. Thirst and sweat and cold took on more significance: they defined the movements of our days. We woke up at 7 am everyday, with the weak winter daylight streaming through the windows, and dozed off at 9 pm, drawn to our beds after a long day. I had never seen more stars in my life, as I did on those cold evenings at the farm.
Much of the farm’s resources went towards building a wall around the farm, to protect the crops and chickens from wild boars (apparently, they are strong enough to be able to uproot large trees), leopards (I heard one make a sound between a snort and a growl, but never actually saw it), barking deer (they really do bark), and Kusundu.
It was at a post-dinner bonfire gathering with the Nepali workers on the farm that I first heard about Kusundu, the ape-man who lives in the jungle. Huddled around in the dark, with moon-lit pine forests stretching out in every direction, Jeevan, one of the workers, told us about the infamous man-beast, with his backward-facing feet and carpet of body hair (he was vegetarian, though, Jeevan quickly assured us). His original habitat was a cave, which he shared with his female Kusundu, but Jeevan said that we could also find him in the Kathmandu zoo. Sebastian, another volunteer, and I wrote a little ditty then: “We are going/ to Kathmandu/ to see Kusundu/ sitting in a zoo”.
Dhamay, a disgruntled, drunken Nepali worker, was in charge of the daily “chicken run”: the chickens were moved from their coop to the shed to protect them from night-time predators. It was also my daily round of entertainment. Every evening, I made myself comfortable on Sunset Hill to watch the show. At 6.15 pm sharp, Dhamay would open the door of the coop. The chickens barrelled onto the yard, stepping on each other in a rather abysmal effort to escape. Dhammy would chase after each chicken, emitting a long, drawn out “ha-ha-ha”, followed by a fast and high-pitched “lelolelolelolelo”— which he believed would either scare them or lull them into entering the shed, although both seemed equally doubtful.
Sometimes Sebastian and I would make a trip down to the village store, a 75-minute walk down the hill. A bit of civilisation warmed our hearts — some new faces, cigarettes, and cheap chips made our day special. Returning to the farm was to walk in beauty, with sunshine streaming through the trees, a meandering stream, rocks gleaming up from a background of brown dirt, and swathes of white clover.
The most magnificent place on the farm was further upwards, a place called The Ridge. On one side were the rolling purple hills of the Almora range, coloured in the shades of a Pantone-laced dream. On the other was a sprawling village, dwarfed by the giant peaks of the Himalayan range. Nanda Devi stood out, icy and proud, the tallest mountain located entirely within India. It would pierce me with waves of euphoria that lingered on through the days. Sometimes I sang, happily and out of tune: “I’m on TOP of the wooooorld/ looking DOWN on creaaaation”. It felt good to drink straight out of a stream, to make use of my body, to be surrounded by such peace and timeless beauty.