Your dream Mountain Home in 7 uneasy steps

Your dream Mountain Home in 7 uneasy steps

Step 1 : Buy the land.

Look at land options and finalize one. After that falls through at the last minute, find another. Clinch that and do the registration. Within six months someone will file a legal case against you. That person will claim to own the land you bought. This will happen despite your most thorough background checks and clean papers. Hire a lawyer and fight the case. Assuming a stay is not issued, proceed to step 2.

Step 2: Design the house.

Scour the internet, which will offer wonderful mountain home ideas, most of which will not be doable by the local building talent. Talk to local pahadi architects who are practical and will ensure you have a structurally solid house. But these folks are conservative and will insist on small windows. Unsatisfied with these architects, send your land survey files to architects all over the world (the Dutch are the current favourite). Over skype, you find their thinking resonant with yours. They will send you amazing designs which look brilliant in 3D renditions. They will, of course, do this without actually visiting your land. Do not discuss these designs with local people or you may discover that these designs are utterly impractical. They may also be insensitive to the ecology and to the local people, but thankfully you will never find out. Proceed with the most awesome architect at dollar rates.

Step 3 : Hire a contractor.

Look for a decent contractor. Talk to four pahadi contractors. Realize that they all seem rather shaky and imprecise in their quotations and work style, and offer no references. Look further for a “professional contractor”. Realize that evolution hasn’t created that species yet – except the Parsis who produced Hafeez Contractor. But he is actually an architect. Go figure. Hire the contractor who seems the best of the lot. Tell him (They’re all men) that your expectations are very high. Set milestones and link them to payment. Pay the advance. Start the project.

Step 4: Follow-up.

Call the contractor regularly. He will assure you that all is going well. Be shocked at the slow progress on your six-monthly visit of 1.27 days (average). Realize that the contractor cannot read the drawings, so he does his best based on what he could guess from the lines on the page. Be patient and civilized with the contractor. Increase your visit frequency to every 4 months, and extend each visit duration to 2.27 days (average). Start flying in on a rental helicopter to be more efficient. After the contractor misses the first 3 milestones, realize that things are not going as per your plan and the structure looks nothing like the glitzy 3D image you saw. Give the contractor a last deadline. He will miss it. The distressed look you wanted on your furniture is now on your face.

Step 5 : Fire the contractor.

After you fire him, you have three options.

A, Look for another contractor. All the best. They’re all equally bad.

B. Decide to do the project yourself. You might as well buy that chopper now instead of renting it.

C. Abandon the project. Take solace in the fact that the mountains are littered with half-finished dream-turned-nightmare projects.

Picture credit : Boulevard of broken dreams

With option A, loop back to steps 3-5. With option B, move to step 6. The best is Option C as you cut your losses.

Step 6: Become the contractor yourself.

Look for workmen in the mountains, sitting in the city. You will need people for civil work, carpentry, electric, plumbing, stone work, Metal work, Tile work, painting, solar, windmill and other myriad things. You curse the Dutch and drop the windmill from the grand plan.  Masons, carpenters and everyone else will promise you dates and times, and not show up. This will happen repeatedly as your hair thins, and the little that remains turns grey.  When they do turn up, they will give you lists of things to get, which you will duly order. Then they will tell you that they forgot one critical thing without which the work cannot proceed. Nothing is available locally, so you will lose 2 of your planned 2.27 days trying to get the missing bits. You will also be surprised at the contractor’s (Let’s call him your Ex – after all he screwed you) bad business sense. You discover that the margins are over 150%! Why would your Ex walk away? Check Linkedin for your Ex’s profile to see if he earlier worked at Fortis, Max or some other private hospital chain. Realize that your Ex is not on Linkedin.

Step 7: The house is finished. And so are you.

After some weeks as the travelling contractor, you have found some decent craftsmen in the mountains, and a good psychologist in the city. The psychologist is US returned and charges dollar rates. As the months pass you reduce your trips to the mountains and increase your visits to your shrink. She (they’re all women) says you should rest and advises against travel. You have developed a strange fear of heights. You now choose to take your 2.27 day vacations (average) by the sea. You put your mountain structure-thingy on the market and hope to sell it, and kiss your mountain-home dream goodbye. But you now have the bragging rights. At dinner parties you boast of the house you own in the Himalayas without making eye contact. Sometimes you throw up while doing so. People assume you have mixed your drinks.

Epilogue: After 4 years, your incomplete house still hasn’t sold, because rich, delusional city-dwellers all want to build their own dream house and not buy something half finished. Although they have no time to live in such homes, leave alone build them. You take a morphine prescription and visit the area again. The shell of your dreams is still standing, now over-run by creepers, weeds and algae. You stay at a nearby resort, paying a pittance for a lovely, well finished room with a grand view. The resort has great food, but somehow the taste in your mouth stays bitter. You try not to think about the return you would have got from putting the 0.37 Gazillion which your non-house cost into the stock market or bitcoins. You leave out the psychologist’s fees – subconsciously. You also try and not think about all the vacation time (n*2.27 days) you lost on the futile project.

Note : The above steps are based on a true story. Actually, many of them. I promised to tell you how to build a house. I never said you would actually live in it.

 

About the author : Chetan Mahajan* is a full-time writer and blogger who has been renting a house in the Himalayas for the last 3 years. He has also bought land and built his own house there over the last 2 years. At the time of going to press, he had just sacked his contractor. He still hasn’t moved in. Late at night, he sometimes applies Maybelline lipstick on his lips and whispers “because you’re worth it” to himself in the mirror. And pouts. His wife is a US licensed clinical psychologist who has a thriving in-house practice.

*Chetan also hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat.

A joyous, unafraid childhood. And the school that allows it.

A joyous, unafraid childhood. And the school that allows it.

“Our 2nd graders reading is seven times better than the national average.” Said the principal.

“Seven percent, you mean?” I corrected gently.

“No seven times.” He said, reeling out some data*.

But how can a Hindi medium village school where the teachers don’t even raise their voice pull this off?

The Chirag school started as a unique experiment. Could kids from a village learn in a fear-free environment? If rote learning was replaced by experiential learning, wouldn’t the villagers resist it? Could the principles of J Krishnamurti – which work so well in schools like Rishi Valley – also work in a no-frills rural school?

Today, ten years on, the experiment has been an unbelievable success. Chirag’s kids are an incurably curious and fearless lot. Their parents love the school and it’s method of instruction. The school outdoes state and national measures on all academic metrics (*see data points below).

I was at a parents meeting at the school last month, and there was some mention of the school going beyond grade 5. A parent whose kids had moved out of Chirag to another school (after grade 5) said she would pull the kids out of the current school and put them back in a heartbeat. After the meeting, another parent confided in me about how that lady in the early days was the one who always pushed for more homework from the school. But after her kids blossomed at Chirag, she clearly values it’s non-rote teaching methods now.

Chinmaya Vempati is a 16 year old intern from Bangalore who helped set-up an offline version of Khan Academy, KA Lite, at the Chirag School. He shared his experience here.

Chirag’s ability to attract and retain great teaching talent has made it a fabulous place to learn. Sumit Arora, 30, is a great example. An SRCC graduate with a Masters from Azim Premji University, he could be anywhere.

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That is Sumit in school. And that is NOT how I remember my principal.

But he chooses to lead this amazing little school. And inspires everyone around him. Beth, the former assistant principal at the American Embassy School, volunteers full-time at Chirag.

The teachers at Chirag are driven. We saw a great example this month. Since the Chirag School is only till grade 5, kids have to switch to other schools in grade 6. The most coveted is the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya – a government run chain of residential schools which are almost free. The Navodaya entrance exam – with a pass rate of 2%  (Link here) – is on Feb 4, 2018. Chirag has its annual vacation through January. Two Chirag teachers volunteered to help the kids prepare for the Navodaya entrance through the vacation. Both of them came to school everyday of January – including Saturdays. They did this free – for their students and their beliefs, not for money. Since Chirag kids are not used to exams, the teacher’s support was critical. Almost the whole of grade 5 turned up on most days through the semi-polar January. No wonder Chirag kids do exceptionally well in this exam.

For a school which is able to deliver all this, the Chirag School runs on a tiny budget. The holistic, progressive education of a child in the Chirag School costs Rs. 24,000 per year. With 122 kids, that is an annual budget of 30 lakhs. Most parents can pay precious little. The Chirag organization has been supporting the school 100%. But that support is now diminishing because of internal priorities at the NGO. The school needs money. It is raising funds for the next two years, and has also set-up an endowment fund.

My kids go to Chirag. I was heading the School Management Committee (SMC) for two years. I can vouch for the school and everything is delivers. In fact, Chirag is the reason we chose to live in these parts when we decided to leave Gurgaon for the mountains.

Please support this amazing school. You can learn more about the school and find payment links at www.chiragschool.org.

* Data points : 94.1% of Chirag’s class 2 students can read at grade level as compared to the national average of 13.4%. Over 94% of children in class 5 can do simple division as compared to the national average of 25.9%. (National data from ASER 2016)

Too much rain means sausage overdose

Too much rain means sausage overdose

Once in a year or two, nature’s massive heart beats. In 2017, it was in September – three days of incessant rain made for an extended drum-roll of a heartbeat. The life-blood of this planet coursed through every proverbial vein and artery. Everything was washed and renewed, and much was destroyed. A few mountainsides were swept away. Some trees realized they were too old to live. Some innocent birds and their hatchlings went with them. As humans we attempt to understand and explain such events from our various perspectives of insignificance. First through religion, and now through science.

But in our life here in the mountains, the main consequence of the extended downpour was an extreme consumption of sausages. You see when the rain happens at this scale, the power lines somewhere snap, needing days to be repaired.  So if you have a freezer full of cold-meats, a binge automatically starts. It helped that a friend and his daughter were visiting, although only one of them ate meat. We don’t have full power backup here – just a solar inverter. One evening we discovered that a wire from the solar panel had come loose, and that night was spent by candlelight. For the grown-ups it was vaguely nostalgic, but for the kids it was a complete picnic with Sausages and Salami completing the experience.

The impact on life was bigger than just sausages of course. A boring old mountainside was suddenly transformed into a gushing waterfall.

 

Our landlord, neighbour and general provider of everything, Mohan da, normally collects water in two large tanks. He then pumps the water upto the overhead tank. But with the power gone for three straight days, he was unable to pump the water up. So the overhead water tank was soon empty. That meant no water in the taps, flush tanks or geysers.

We had to fall back upon a more mechanical and primitive lifestyle for a bit. The first day we skipped bathing. The next day we filled up buckets full of water and lugged them up to the bathrooms. Our maid got a 10 litre can of drinking water from the natural spring. We lit the chulha to heat the water in a tin container. My friend and his daughter too jumped into the rustic experience with much glee, blowing into the hot coals of the wood fire with a pipe to keep it going. It was a fun spell while it lasted.

This winter nature has continued with its ways, and the same boring old hillside is now covered in snow. The humans struggle to understand and explain. And a few of us simply accept and enjoy it. I see the snow as nature’s way of asking us to chill.

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The Indiblogger award for Humour

The Indiblogger award for Humour

Indiblogger sent me an email 3 months back telling me about the IB 2017 awards. I’m a work-in-progress and blog once or twice a month, so I didn’t think I’d have much chance. But when I looked through their site I realized they had many categories.

“If I can find a category with 2-3 entries, maybe…” I said to myself.

I discovered they actually had state-wise categories, and Uttarakhand had only 3 entries. Bingo!

I submitted my entry and crossed my fingers. Then they emailed me again, saying I could nominate my blog for four other categories (with three posts required for each category). This time I thought of three appropriate posts in each category and submitted. But I still had my hopes pinned on Uttarakhand. India is a big country, and Indiblogger has over 25,000 registered blogs. What chance did I have?

So when I heard that the Uncityblog had won the Indiblogger award for the most humorous blog in the country, I thought I was having a “La La Land” Oscar moment. But they actually had us on their website at www.indiblogger.in/iba/2017/winners/literature-personal !

 

I actually think this is more of a lifestyle blog. When you look through this blog you’ll find that many posts aren’t that funny.

But I guess some must be funny enough. To check out the funny ones you will have to go to the category of “Funnies” (duh!), and get someone to tickle you.

Anyhow, since we’re here now, I am sharing some of my personal favourites below.

https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/2017/02/19/the-difficulty-of-being-sexy/

https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/writing-is-easy-yeah-right/

https://uncityblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/us-vs-them-the-selfie-stick-divide/

If you think they’re worth much and would like to hone your writing some more, come to one of our writing or blogging retreats. You can check those out at http://www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/ .

 

Great hiking shoes under 2000 rupees.

Great hiking shoes under 2000 rupees.

I love trekking and have bought my share of 200 dollar hiking boots. But after living in a village, it seems too high a price to pay. Especially when an oldish guy with four teeth overtook me as he chased his goat past me on my last trek. He was wearing a worn out pair of bathroom slippers and I was wearing Asolos which cost a few Gazillion. And I was the one out of breath.
So I started my exploration for the Under-2000-rupee hiking boot. I have arrived at the ultimate solution, and it is surprisingly simple. Just follow the steps below.
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Step 1: Go to your local army market (in Delhi, you can go to Gopinath Bazaar or Sadar Bazaar). Ask for Hunter shoes (formerly known as jungle boots). These shoes are made of Fabric and so are light and breathable. The assumption is simple – if an army can march on these shoes they are tough and will last.
They will range from 500-1500 rupees or so. I bought the top end shoes which were 1500. They’re called “Warrior” made by Liberty. And they’re ISI marked. What more do you want?

Step 2: The shoes will take care of strength and durability, but they aren’t going to be great for comfort. While a shoe’s comfort is from every aspect of the fit, a large part of it

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The insoles from Decathlon

is about the sole. So I headed over to Decathlon and bought their Aptonia 300 insoles which were 399 rupees. They say these insoles are designed for sport. You can check them out at https://www.decathlon.in/p/8329319_shock-500-cushioning-insoles-yellow.html?search_query=insole&results=10#/5145-285-uk_4_5_eu_37_38  .

I couldn’t find the insole in my exact size so I bought a larger one and cut it to my size. When you live in a village and visit Decathlon once in 3 months, such compromises are okay.
So for Rs 1899 I had what I thought was a functional hiking shoe.
Step 3: Now if you want a premium hiking boot which is waterproof, you can spend some more on a waterproof spray and put that on your shoe. Unfortunately, these sprays seem to be rather pricey. You can check one out at https://www.amazon.in/Vetro-Power-Footwear-Protection-Spray/dp/B01GS0GE5U/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1513937606&sr=8-1&keywords=waterproof+spray
One spray can do multiple shoes, of course.
Step 4 (optional):  If you are into it, you can also paint your shoe (do it before the waterproof spray). Mercifully, I didn’t do it myself.  Someone truly talented was happy to oblige me. I supplied the text. As a writer, that’s all I was good for. Viola! My shoe was a converse. Heh. Heh.
I guess you can call it the Indian Jugaad, but I wanted to ensure it works on a real hike. So I decided to trek in these shoes upto Roopkund and back in October. They held up just fine. I did spray my shoe with a waterproof spray someone had gifted me, but the trek was pretty dry so I didn’t have a chance to test the waterproofing. I was comfortable, felt secure, and on the longest day we hiked some 17 km in a single day. No problem.
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Heading back from Roopkund, near Pather Nachani. Oooh, lovely shoes!
I had broken the shoe in beforehand, and didn’t have any corns or blisters. In my view these are great hiking shoes that beat most of the cheaper hiking shoes in the market in both quality and price. Even the cheapest trekking shoe from Decathlon is some 3000 rupees, and it doesn’t come close to these shoes in comfort, sole quality and sheer solidity. The soles in the cover photo look like that after over a year of heavy use.
So you see I have just saved you a lot of money. I am delighted to make you feel rich this Christmas. Ho! Ho! Ho!

A woman with a backpack? How un-Indian!

A woman with a backpack? How un-Indian!

Contributor : Dr. Vandita Dubey

“Are you going to Ashram?”

asked the taxi driver at Bangalore Airport as he put my backpack into the trunk of his car. I looked at him, trying to figure out why he thought so, and shook my head. I then showed him my friend’s address and explained that I was headed for her house. As we settled for a long drive in the taxi, he turned around and asked me,

“What country are you from?”

Now, I am neither blond haired nor blue eyed, but I have noticed that whenever I travel with my backpack I am mistaken for a foreigner. This is regardless of where I am – the Delhi Metro station, Bangalore airport or on a train from Delhi to Kathgodam. Traveling around with a backpack in Indian or un-Indian clothes has had strangers attempting to talk to me in English, asking me which country I was from. This never happens to me when I travel through the same places, or elsewhere, carrying a suitcase or a bag. So. what is it about carrying a backpack that makes me un-Indian?

I realize that with a backpack folks cannot put me in a box. I know I don’t look like a student, definitely not college-age (however much I may wish I did). I proudly walk around with my untinted grey hair, announcing my middle age to all who may care. So, I clearly look my age. Perhaps I don’t act my age?  The fact that I carry my well stuffed back-pack around defies the Indian rules of age, gender and class. Women of my age and social status are expected to have coolies or other men folk carrying their luggage. But then I have also lugged my own bags and seen other women do so at railway stations without being labelled foreigner. Of course, this is as long as the luggage in question is a suitcase or a bag. So, what seems to  cause all this confusion is the innocuous backpack itself.

I have to admit that my backpack is an attention grabbing red with some grey. I bought the backpack more than 10 years ago from a specialty outdoor store. It is designed keeping the female form in mind. And, I have spent many a sweaty days, hiking with it in the mountains. However, now our hikes involve mules and it seem masochistic to lug uphill weight that I do not have to. So, my backpack has become my travel luggage of choice, especially when I travel alone. I prefer to carry my own bags. It makes me feel independent and in control. Perhaps that is what a backpack signifies – independence and control. Is that what is disconcerting then? An Indian woman, middle aged, independent and in control of her life?

Or. Is it that most women who travel with backpacks are foreigners? Hence, any woman who carries a backpack is a foreigner. But then any woman who wears Indian clothes is not necessarily assumed to be an Indian, especially if she has blue eyes and blond hair. Why then, with my brown eyes and black (ok, black and grey) hair am I mistaken for a foreigner?

Do tell me what you think. I’d love to hear your backpack stories or unusual travel tales.

About Dr. Vandita Dubey : A US licensed psychologist, Dr. Dubey works with her clients over phone and skype, and also hosts therapy retreats in the Himalayas. A published author, she also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com, and about the retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com.

 

 

 

 

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Something isn’t right about what this little girl wants from her life. I googled the lyrics. Nowhere does anyone ask for happiness.

Bummer.

It got me thinking about last evening. I was at the Sonapani Music festival surrounded by amazing people. None of them were particularly rich – and if they were it certainly wasn’t on display. They were all beautiful in my eyes. Not pretty in the TV – bollywood – painted faces way. They were all lovely in their real skins, and amazingly talented. The women were beautiful because they didn’t need Maybelline to tell them that they were worth it.

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Sonapani Music Festival at the Himalayan Village Sonapani

I also spent the last month with four Ashoka Fellows. I have been working with them as part of a writing retreat, which required me to understand their work and their stories. The more I learned, the more I admired them. Each one of them is working to change something big, and has already achieved some measure of success.

These two very different groups don’t live by the lyrics of Que Sera Sera. Neither of them

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Harpreet & Moushmi

goes in search of wealth and good looks. They don’t care much how pretty, handsome or rich they are. The amazing artists at Sonapani – Harpreet, Moushumi, Shruthi & Shruteendra care about their art. They care about the world and all that is right and wrong with it. And that is captured in the beauty of their poetry and music.

Another line of “Que Sera Sera” the Ashoka Fellows don’t buy into is “what will be will be”. They look at what is, find what’s wrong with it, and work to fix it. They are not closed in their thinking. Not negatively invested in their particular organizations. They want change to happen – by whatever means. So they encourage others including their own employees  to create organizations like their own. The corporate world calls that competition. The Ashoka fellows don’t resist this competition – they encourage it.

One thing common to all these people is that they have realized early on in life that happiness will not come from money or looks. They believe it will come from some form of personal fulfillment. It could be art. Or Music. Or Poetry. Or doing something truly meaningful with their lives. In their own way each of these people makes the world a better place.

And then I meet people in other walks of life – especially in the corporate world. I meet the many people who completely believe that wealth is a proxy for happiness. The difference is stark. What strikes me is that many people never make a conscious choice. They take the default path set by society without question. The few who consciously choose business thrive in it and love that too.

No, I am not advocating poverty. I am simply saying that before your children ask for “pretty & rich” make sure they ask for “happy”.

It’s not the same thing.

 

*Talking about song lyrics, I also think they need to officially change the lyrics to one song. “She’s a jolly good fellow” has to be the new anthem. Three of the four Ashoka fellows I worked with were women.

Cartoon Credit : Dave Carpenter ( Cartoonstock)