Hobbit-Homes in the Himalaya
My first night on Geeli Mitti farm I am roused from my bed and summoned to “a session.” I have no idea what the wide-eyed girl speaking to me is on about, but travelling has taught me not to ask too many questions. So I get up and followed her and the other twenty or so inhabitants of the farm.
We started walking towards an abandoned jeep standing in the middle of the field, and when the first people started going in, I asked myself, How on earth are we gonna all fit in there?. I know that in India people make an art of fitting as many people as possible onto any vehicle — an environmental prowess and necessity in the face of the population size. Still, this didn’t look feasible. As I got closer, I had a Harry Potter moment. Behind the door of the jeep was a ladder, which led into a hidden house. Wooden beams carved with intricate flowers, and cob walls sculpted into soft round forms.
Everyone sat down crossed legged in a circle, and Ria, the tall, wide-eyed girl who had summoned me to this gathering, started laying out candles and crystals in the centre of us all, and lighting incense in the corners of the room.
She guided us through a collective breath, telling us to hold hands in an unbreakable circle, and to send loving energy through our fingertips to our neighbours. Then she took out some tarot cards, and read each of our fortune’s in turn.
For me, she drew a picture of a vulva-shaped flower. Looking deep into my eyes, she told me that it signified blooming. That I was on the beginning of a journey of healing, and that I would need to practise patience, but that I would find my way to bloom.
My experience doing Work-Away in the Indian Himalaya has been filled with unexpected experiences and encounters. The idea of Work-Away is to volunteer at different projects across the globe, and, in exchange, to be given food and boarding. As a solo traveller, I’ve always found it to be a way of being deeply immersed in a country, or at least some of its aspects, and to truly get to know people by working alongside them.
This trip was no exception. Most recently I was at Geeli Mitti, a permaculture farm and natural building project tucked in a little village close to the buzzing tourist town of Nainital. By close, I mean an hour down a bumpy dirt road, and just thirty kilometres that make all the difference to the way people live.
The NGO aims to revive natural building methods to prevent cement from taking over the countryside. They want to bring a more positive tourism to the region, as well as restore the love for the traditional architectural forms which are fast disappearing. Plus, they hope to become a place for environmentally friendly building methods from across the world to be explored and taught.
At any given time, there are around twenty volunteers from all over India, as well as a dozen workers from the surrounding village. Everyone eats together, works together and sleeps together in a huge bamboo structure known as the loft. Rickety ladders lead to three different platforms, lined by mattresses and people’s intermingled mess.
When you look around, all you see are lush green hills, with scattered village homes and terraced fields. Geeli Mitti itself crawls up one side of the hillside from a small stream, a cluster of odd-ball and oddly beautiful houses. There’s the hobbit house, a round building made of cob with a grass covered roof. Inside, it looks like a fairy cabin, with swirled sculptures surrounding a fire place, and a curved bunk bed under the domed roof. Then there’s the house hidden under the jeep, which, from below, opens onto the stream. It’s walls are made up of clay with windows of old bottles arranged in a colourful mosaic. Further up the hill is the roundhouse, an earthbag structure which looks like the traditional village houses, decorated on the outside with stick figures. Further up again is the bamboo geode, still bare-boned, shaped like a huge igloo.
It’s community living at its best — people from all over India, from all different backgrounds, working seamlessly towards a common goal. From morning til night, you hear laughter, and the sound of saws cutting wood and nails being hammered in. At night, spontaneous parties crop up, or games of poker, or movie nights. One evening, a bunch of guys lights a fire and lets it burns down to the embers before burying balls of dough in it. Framed against the sky in the light of the ash, they make traditional spherical breads with a subtle smokey taste, and it takes hours to get ready and everyone is ravenous but when the food comes it’s a feast.
When you travel for a while, you sometimes get the feeling that you are only skimming the surface of a place and the life that goes on there, never belonging. I have become ungrateful towards even the most beautiful places. Just sight-seeing, I’ll look upon wonders and still feel like something is missing — I feel uncomfortable being so much outside of the world. I want to meet people and truly know them. I want to serve some function in society. I want to find a little place for myself, and experience a place from inside not out. There is something about working alongside people, about having a common activity, which brings you closer. Work Away is brilliant for this. Even when you are working alongside someone with whom you can’t even communicate, there is this bond that forms.
So much so, that it is hard to move on. But, in the words of one wise hobbit, Roads go ever on and on.
Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains of the moon.
— JRR Tolkien