The last village before China
Watch video SMILES FROM OFF THE ROAD 3 -TRAVELS WITH A HAT
My film “Smiles From Off The Road 3 -Travels With A Hat” was shot in Juni village in the Kumaon Himalayas, India in May 2009. Juni sits on the edge of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve; due North there is nothing but thick forest and a jumble of 22,000 ft peaks up to the Tibetan border.
The village is three hours steep walk from the nearest rough road, and a further three hours drive from the nearest main town and hospital. Juni is bypassed by any tourist/trekking traffic, and seemingly by any ‘development’ projects. The people live by farming and gathering from the forests; by sending their young men to work as low-paid waiters on the plains; and by the totally unsustainable and environmentally damaging harvest of ‘kiragaz‘ (Cordyceps sinesis) from the high mountain pastures in the month of May. (This strange species, a combination of fungus and caterpillar, has gained a reputation in the last ten years as an aphrodisiac and is in heavy demand in the Far East and China). Villagers camp up above 3,500 meters, dig the herb up by its roots, damaging the fragile soil, and cut down bushes to build fires to keep warm. They earn, if they are lucky, about $3 per day each.
Khim Singh, a Juni resident I met on a trek last year, took me to stay in his village and he, his family and the rest of the village welcomed me with joy. They speak the pahari language, but several of them can understand my rough Hindi. We shot and watched videos on my camera, sang, danced and laughed. A stranger amongst them was cause for a party!
And my heart was touched. People in Juni have a hard life and a day to day aquaintence with poverty, hunger, ill-health and untimely death. They (especially the women who do the bulk of the physical labor in the fields) are thin and undernourished, and keep warm in winter by huddling around a tiny fireplace in a smoke-filled kitchen. Their children walk a rough uphill track 45 minutes each way to reach primary school, and two hours to reach secondary. Most girls are removed from education at age 12 and can only write their own names. No-one from the village has ever gone on to Higher Education. There are no health care practitioners for miles around; a trip to the nearest pharmacy is four hours each way. Complications in pregnancy, childbirth or post-natally usually result in death of mother or baby.
I feel to do what I can for them, and I’m beginning by sending vitamin/mineral/omega fatty acid supplements up there. Perhaps I can find a way to develop the market for their handicrafts in bamboo (mats and baskets mainly). And I’ve got Khim Singh to promise to re-admit his fourteen-year old daughter Pushpa to school. She and I have a bargain: whatever it takes, she’ll finish to 12th Grade or higher. I’ll pay.