In Kalimpong, we said goodbye to Raju our driver and loaded our bags into a more rugged jeep.
We were on our way to the village of Smathar, which is located in a rural and scenic area that has only sharp stony roads or unpaved gravel paths.
We drove along the old caravan trade route that used to lead to Bhutan and Tibet. We entered a forest road and got ready to start our day hike.
It was a nice and sunny day and I welcomed the long hike, knowing that it will be almost the last hike we will be doing, since we will be leaving India in a few short days.
At the beginning of our hike, we came upon a village that had a small Buddhist Gompa, (temple) but the main temple hall was closed.
A new multi levels stupa was being built on the grounds, and all the monks were out in the forest, cutting bamboo for the scaffolding and for the construction.
The path took us through a forest and we walked through a few small villages, crossed log bridges over cascading streams and by lunchtime we had a hot cooked picnic lunch in a clearing by the road.
When I say that we passed by rural villages, your mind might conjure up images of just walking on the path passing by the houses, but it is not exactly so…
The path through the fields, actually went right into people’s yards.
We had a chance to look inside their homes and to see how they shelled beans for he upcoming meal or to prepare as seeds for the next planting season, how they weaves bamboo into mats or baskets, and how they cleaned their babies or cooked their meals.
We actually entered all the homes we walked through.
Everyone was so delighted to have us visit.
They offered us tea or food and were so eager to explain to us how they conducted their lives.
Not once did we encounter a feeling of poverty or a begging attitude, not by young kids and not by anyone.
People may not have much in terms of money, but they are so self sufficient and they know how to grow everything they need to eat and to make everything they need for their homes.
In one house, we saw an old man who was busy weaving a large basket.
He said that he was slow, and that it will take him about one day to make one huge basket.
When he was young, he said that he could complete a large basket in two hours.
(this includes splitting the bamboo into narrow strips and then weaving it)
This man, like all the other village homes that we passed, had a very clean property, a clean kitchen and a neatly organized house with a special place for everything.
I did not see flys, ants or roaches in any of the houses that we passes.
Everything was always clean, swept and systematically organized.
In this area, I noticed that they also cultivate honey by keeping bees in an old hallow wooden log, which they sealed with mud on both sides.
They only leave an opening in the front of the log, to allow the bees to come in and out, as they go about their day collecting pollen and nectar from the flowers.
Every home that we passed had the same collection of buildings.
It included a separate structure for the kitchen, so the smoke or sooth from the kitchen will not penetrate the living area, a structure for the living and sleeping area, a wood shed and a place outside where they kept the logs.
Every house had a kitchen garden, a lot of bright color flowers and a hallow log as a bee hive.
After lunch we hiked through an unspoiled forests with hardly any habitation.
Deep in the forest, nature was at its best and we saw an incredible variety of flowers and butterflies.
The only people we encountered were a group of locals who were on a long hike to the nearby town.
Local villagers in this region, have no cars.
This is partly because there are no roads but also because most cannot afford them.
Unlike rural life in other parts of the world, they do not have donkeys nor horses to carry goods home from the market.
They have no buffalos, not even bicycles, motorcycles or scooters.
They walk everywhere and they carry their goods in a strong bamboo basket supported with a band on their foreheads
After a long day of hiking, we were welcomed at the Samthar house by the retired General Jimmy Singh, a tall man with a white beard, a soft speech and a strong handshake.
Jimmy welcomed us into our room, which was spacious and comfortable.
Downstairs in a warm and wonderful living room, decorated with tasteful furniture and a nice collection of crafts, were two large blue plastic bowls, filled with hot water for us to soak our tired feet.
We sat sipping tea and chatted with General Jimmy, until the water got cold and we wiped our feet with the towels and went to have a bucket shower in our room upstairs.
It was our first bucket wash on this trip, but it felt good because we were a bit overheated from the long hike.
Hot waters in two large plastic buckets were delivered to our bathroom by a smiling man.
Inside the bathtub was a small plastic stool to sit on, and a small plastic container to scoop water from the large buckets.
I sat on the stool and alternated between rubbing and soaping my body, and pouring hot water on myself.
Dinner was an elegant affair.
General Jimmy presented two Lepcha girls, who introduced themselves to us in a formal and sweet way.
They stood straight with their hands to their sides, and said:
“Hi madame my name is Anorja Lepcha
Hi sir my name is Elisha Lepcha.”
Both girls were dressed in traditional Lepcha outfits.
Every time the girls wished to get up from the table to take their plates into the kitchen, they politely asked me to be excused from the table.
It was very endearing.
General Jimmy wanted to use this opportunity to give those two young girls of his cook Tara, the opportunity to politely dine with company.
Village people do not normally use utensils, but scoop the food from their plates with their right hand.
This was an opportunity for the girls to practice eating in a nice setting, and the dinning table was beautifully set with candles and lovely plates, cloth napkins, glasses and cutlery.
The next day we were introduced to a young woman named Pushpa, who was to be our guide for our village walk.
In the same manner that we did the day before, we followed Pushpa as she entered people’s homes and we were most welcomed by everyone.
I enjoyed tremendously the walk through the fields and it was so heartwarming to enter people’s living rooms without permission, to look around their kitchens and sleeping rooms, to touch and see their small amounts of belongings.
In one mud house, I saw a young mother who sat on the mud floor of her kitchen, holding her newly born tiny baby on her lap.
She was warming her hands by the small kitchen fire and then she rubbed her warm hands on the naked body of her baby, lovingly massaging his limbs.
Our guide Pushpa told us that she also had a new baby, which is now with her mother while she was out guiding us and earning a bit of money.
Pushpa was only seventeen, but it is common for young rural girls to be married early and to be mothers at a young age.
It is an unofficial tradition for the young people in this village, to elope together and get married.
Almost everyone elopes…
Afterwards they come back to the village and are accepted by their parents and the community, go on to establish a household together and look for jobs.
This rural region has Lepcha Christians living next to a village of Hindus and a village of Buddhists.
The villagers are a blend of various ethnic groups-Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepali.
The original Lepcha tribals were woodsman, and utilized the forest resources to live off the land.
Knowing no religion, they worshiped nature spirits.
When the Bhutanese ruled this land, many were converted to Buddhism.
Latter the British rulers brought in Christian missionaries, who converted some of them to Christianity.
Hinduism arrived with the Nepalese settlers, who also taught the Lepchas how to farm the land.
Today the ethnic groups are fused together in harmony.
Most have adopted the Nepalese language, yet maintained their diverse cultural identity.
In some homes we saw pictures and figurines of Jesus and mother Marry, while in other homes we saw Buddhist prayers flags or Hindu images.
The locals live with open doors and crime is unheard of.
They only take bucket showers while crouching outside in their gardens.
They heat the water on an open fire and they scrub one another’s backs.
I saw a half naked old woman washing her thin naked husband, carefully soaping his wrinkly skin and methodically cleaning the folds of his body.
On another farm, I saw two women soaping and rubbing one another’s back, laughing and having a good time as they cleaned themselves and shampooed one another’s long hair.
All of those rural idilic scenes felt so wonderful to me, and I thought about the cycle of “progress” in which the search for ease, comfort and modernity, inevitably ends up leading to a loss of all the simple things that make human truly enjoy life.
One day the road will come to this region.
The villagers will build fancier homes and they too will have hot showers with pressure which they will take indoors, standing in a cubical room lined with tile or marble….
They will have many possessions and they will lock their doors and they too will feel isolated and alone in a constantly “evolving” world, as it is in the developed worlds….
Those villagers today, enjoy a life that is more wholesome than in many other parts of the world, where crime prevails, where people are harsh and where bigotry, ambition and pain, make people lose their core, their humanity and happiness, and where all sorts of sex crimes and unnatural behaviors are widespread.
There is no poverty here, because they do not spend their time craving what they do not have, and therefore they do not develop a mentality of lack.
A belief in lack and deprivation, leads to depression and all other sorts of mental discontent or dis-eases….
The people in every household know how to build houses, how to construct their own kitchen stoves, weave mats and grow all that they need.
They worship their gods in a simple way that is filled with gratitude.
Our hike took us to the Awake & Shine Primary School that the visionary General Jimmy started five years ago.
From a distance, the school looked like a small rural village, with separate buildings for each class, a vegetable garden where the kids learn how to grow vegetables, and a kitchen in which the kids learn how to prepare and cook and then dine in a nice setting, what they grew.
The primary object of this school is to teach those young kids how to speak, read and write English, which will help them in the future to get better jobs.
It is a bit of a problem in rural places, to get great teachers.
Not many qualified teachers wish to live in this rural area.
There is no nightlife, no shops, no excitement…. and so the teachers are mostly dropouts from Kalimpong schools, who mastered a fairly good English and who wanted to come and live back home in their villages.
The teachers mostly learn on the job and improve their own skills along with the kids.
To Jimmy, certificates do not mean much.
He dismisses it and say that in India, a teacher can easily get a fake diploma…. And beside, even if the certificate is real, it does not indicates much about the quality of the teacher nor her character.
What matter is how energetic and willing the teacher is… How compassionate, intelligent and patient she is with the kids.
The focus on diplomas and certificates, and the availability of fake certificates, is the exact reason that certified doctors and surgeons who had studied in India, have to start all over again if they wish to practice medicine in the USA, Canada and most of Europe.
For a large amount of money paid as a bribe to a high official, even accredited medical schools in India, will fake a certificate.
The approach of education in this rural school, is centered on fun and on promoting confidence and agility in the kids.
They play with mathematics with tools that were developed by two retired Math teachers from New Delhi.
As we visited the school, attended the classes and spoke to the teachers, we were touched by the good and visionary work that Jimmy has done in this rural community.
Every year now, parents come from villages all over the region, to try to enroll their kids for the 20 spaces in the nursery class that become available.
The young children walk to school through the fields all on their own.
Jimmy had disposed of the British colonial school uniforms which are still the norm all over India.
He said that he saw no reason for rural kids to wear a tie every day to school.
The kids wear a red sweater and an army fatigue pants, and Jimmy makes sure that they are always clean and that the kids have all the best equipments and learning tools.
We decided to help his great work which Jimmy initially supported with money from his own savings.
In the past few years, visitors and travelers offered help and some still come to volunteer their time as well.
We decided to sponsor two young girl by offering to pay for their education in this school, for the next six years.
We chose sweet young girls, age four and five years young.
One girl is called Swastika, and the other is called Sweta.
We felt good about supporting a small initiative like this.
The time we spent in the school, convinced us that Jimmy is making a real difference to improve the quality of life in the Samthar village, and that his elegant disposition uplifts the lives of those who work in his guesthouse and in the school.
The people we encountered through Jimmy, all looked happy and with a sense of purpose… They came from humble beginning and they have risen to develop dignity and to enjoy a lovely quiet life….
Out trip had come to an end.
Soon we will be heading back to a different world which operates on different codes and sensibilities.
I will no longer be able to enter people’s homes uninvited and look around their places, chat with them and feel the warmth of being human….. living open lives full of small joys….
I will miss how generous everyone was with their time and small resources.
Everyone was so willing and even eager to explain to us, to show us around, to invite us for tea or food, to welcome us into their homes.
What a precious place on earth are those rural scenic villages….
I will not forget the way I felt while we hiked and visited this region of India…
In a small way, the place and the people will stay with me for the next six years…
We will be in contact with this school and hopefully help to see Sweta and Swastike grow up to be lovely young girls….