Life’s an adventure for Himalayan caretakers

By Shilpa Raina, IANS,

Sarchu (Himachal Pradesh) : They have families, jobs and a regular little life in Manali. Yet for around four months each year, many local men here give it all up to play hosts to travellers at icy Himalayan camps – for the sake of an extra buck, of course, but also for some good old male bonding.

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They are the caretakers hired by various adventure and mountaineering groups who do the cleaning, cooking food and other sundry jobs at camps in the high altitudes, as it was during Himalayan Odyssey 2009, a 15-day road trip.

“Though the conditions are tough, it is fun as well. There is no nagging from the family or wife! We don’t take this as a job but as an outing where we cook together and share our sorrows and happy moments together. After all, you don’t get such opportunities every day,” said Raj Kumar, a caretaker at the Himalayan Odyssey camp here.

Sarchu is located on the boundary between Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir at an altitude of 4,290 metres above sea-level. So staying away from their families for months, battling minus temperatures without enough warm clothes makes things tough for these men.

It was during the 2,500-km Himalayan Odyssey, which involved reaching the world’s highest motorable mountain pass – the 18,350-foot Khardung La in Jammu and Kashmir – and back, that this IANS correspondent met some of these camp caretakers who have alternate lives in Manali.

Raj Kumar, who at other times drives a cab in Manali, told IANS: “We don’t have a choice. The money is good here and if we get Rs.4,000 per month then it is very good for our family. It’s just a matter of a few days. After that you get accustomed to the bad weather and chilly winds.”

The men live here only for four months starting from the first week of June till around the middle of September.

One thing that is a challenge for them is the constant demand for hot water from travellers.

“When people come to our camps the only demand that we get from them is constant supply of hot water. It is very difficult to keep up because it takes hours to boil water but just a few seconds to turn it cold again,” caretaker Pyarelal said. His alternate profession is as an altitude mountain guide.

These men usually just have a stony bunker at their disposal and this serves as a kitchen and food storage area as well. It is undoubtedly the best place to be in because of the warmth of the stoves that burn almost continuously to cater to the needs of the guests.

The men work in sync – one person cuts the vegetables while another washes utensils, one arranges dinner in the dining camp while another serves it. It’s team work and they mange it pretty well. These men get all the necessary items like vegetables, oil, petrol and other stuff from Manali every third day.

But life’s not easy for them. What travellers out for an adventure in the hills often fail to notice is that these men too have to battle mountain sickness.

“It takes us some time to get accustomed to high altitudes. We do get headaches and nausea for a couple of days but after that it is over,” explained Raju, who was the head cook at the camp here and who works as a cook in Manali as well.

“Though we are cut off from the main city, we have an army hospital just seven kilometres away from here and in case of any emergency, we rush there.”

But in the end, living in the lap of nature for a few months every year is rejuvenating for their soul too.

Said Raju: “We can’t help but enjoy the serene mountains and peaceful nature.”

(Shilpa Raina can be contacted at [email protected])