A home away from home, ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal

While I was looking for homestays during my last summer’s travels to Uttarakhand, I had stumbled upon ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. They were sold out, but I was already in love with the place. I am a daydreamer and often last year I kept visualizing myself at the quaint colonial homestay. This year, when I started working on my project of waste management, (where I am working with the village women to remove waste from the world ecosystem and convert it into something useful and beautiful; adding livelihood and pride to lives of village women), the first place that I had written on my list was Bhimtal. Though, I am still at the primary stage of the project, I wanted to visit Bhimtal, to look at the villages around.

I had quite a few e-mail communications and telephonic conversations with Padmini Smetacek, the host at ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal, about my accomodation and I got some good vibes. There are times, when you do not need to see something to believe in it, the energies that you receive are convincing enough. This is so true to this place. My general OCD-self was completely relaxed before reaching this place. From the moment I reached, and all over my stay, I promise, this has been the best experience of a homestay.

Away from the constructions surrounding the Bhimtal lake and nestled in the foothills of the Kumaon’s Lake District, amidst a forest estate, ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal is a home away from home. It takes a lot of things for me to call something ‘home’, and this place has everything to call it a ‘home’. It is an old British bungalow, maintained well, keeping the historical feel alive. If you love to unwind, wake up to the chirps of birds, get excited at the sight of colourful blooms, soak in the sun, smell the rain,  feel the pebbles under your feet, read and daydream, gaze at the starry night and paint stories in your mind, this place is for you. So, if this summer, you are looking for some digital detoxification, pack your bags and head to ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. For queries and bookings, contact  http://www.theretreatbhimtal.in/

I have travelled to Kumaon, Uttarakhand quite a few times, but every time I fall in love with the place like an old wine in a new bottle. I believe it is not only the place, but it’s the people who make the place. And this time, I give all the credit to the host and her family at ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. I think my descriptions would fall short to describe how enchanting the place is and you should make time for a visit to experience it all by yourself; and you would not regret it.

This place looks exactly like my childhood sketches, an old bungalow amidst pine, cedar and oak, filled with flowers and all plants I could name. It is the place I would think of, if I ever write a fairy tale. There is a ridge behind the homestay where you could go for leisurely walks, I enjoyed most of the mornings and evenings, watching the sunrise and the sunset while walking on the ridge. Breakfast used to be lavish affairs in the verandah, getting childlike excitement at the sight of colourful birds of varied species. If you are a bird or butterfly spotter, this is the perfect place. You have your complete privacy to sit and drown in your thoughts or choose to unfurl the artist in you. Or you may join for long conversations in the evenings with the host about her family’s splendid history. The best part for foodies like me is you are spoilt by exotic homemade food from locally sourced vegetables and meat. The taste will always linger in my soul. The family makes the best food and will give any Michelin star restaurant run for their money. From shakshuka, to kadi chawal, from pot chicken roast to focaccia bread, from lemon cheesecake to pumpkin soup, they make food that you will crave once you leave this place. The best part, surviving all odds, the host and her family is always smiling, warm and eager to help you out. They will guide you for walks to the Sattal lake, arrange a cab to nearby villages, make you rhododendron juice when you are back from a hike. They will even spill the beans about some secret spots nearby, which you can explore.

The home and the people breathe an atmosphere of comfort and peace. This is a  perfect get-away for nature lovers, botanists and entomologists, bird watchers, yoga and meditation enthusiasts, trekkers, walkers, campers, couch potatoes, dreamers, artists, and writers. If you are looking for a laid-back atmosphere, with the world class hospitality, this place is a must visit. I appreciate innocence, I appreciate an organic growth. And this is something you will find in abundance here. The kids of the family are so well-behaved and so full of love that it moved me. I feel sad, that in cities these days we are losing that innocent, unadulterated charm in the younger generation. I definitely love to travel to explore a new place, but it’s more because of the people like of ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal; there is always so much to learn from them.

The family strives consistently to conserve the forest and wildlife in the area. If you are planning to visit this place, please travel responsibly and respect the privacy of the host as well.

The parts of Bhimtal I explored during this trip, we will talk about it in my next post, because I have already started daydreaming of ‘The Retreat’ again. I celebrated my  birthday here. When Padmini, got to know about it, she baked me a cake and I had the most heartfelt celebrations in years. More than work, I relaxed here and on the day of departure, I didn’t feel like getting back, but with the hopes of going back sometime soon for a family vacation, I think of this place and the people fondly.

Every place stays with us, but some are special. Which is the best place that you have been to which you can call home?


Sarmoli, Paradise at backdrop of Panchachuli

Everything was in the itinerary, places booked, yet I had my inhibitions before travelling to Sarmoli.  I had not seen photographs of the place we were going to put up at. I had read so much about it, I booked it but honestly, there were ifs and buts running across my mind.

A fine morning, I hopped in a cab from Almora. My agony increased, as I started throwing up during the whole journey that particular day. I started remembering my first journey in a bus from Delhi to Jaipur where I had thrown up innumerable times. Everything put together was giving me goose bumps. A long journey it was, through winding roads, crisscrossing mountains, the eroded boulders speaking of lives washed down. I made several calls and tried checking the internet results, as much as possible, before reaching the place. I called Basantiji, our host, from Birthi Falls, a 2 hours drive from Munsyari. The falls cascading through the mountains wanted me to rest and look at it for hours. But, I had miles to travel, before I could rest.

Finally, when I reached Munsyari, and went ahead a kilometre, to Sarmoli, nestled in the backdrop of Panchachuli peaks, and above the fierce Gori Ganga river, I was tired. And I was worried because our host, Basantiji and Raju Ji’s home was an uphill way from the main road. But all the agony and tiredness whisked away, when I found Rajuji, with other people from the village, waiting at the foothills, to welcome me and carry my luggage till the abode. They helped me to walk up, amidst their farms. Everything was put to ease when I met Basantiji, full of smile. Somehow, everything fell into place and my mind into rest. The next few days, I spent relaxing, waking up to the sunrise at Panchachuli peaks, leisurely walks around the village, playing with the kids, the pets, listening to stories, meeting women from the village, small treks and enjoying the local cuisine.

I am sure, many of you know about Sarmoli homestay, but I must tell you, Malika Virdi, who has helped the village women with a nature based and community owned tourism enterprise and made the people out there realise the importance of livelihood & ecology is enthusiastic and warm. I could not meet her last time, but whenever we have spoken over the phone, it has filled me with amiability. She has brought a change in the way local people view forests, wildlife, helped them reconnect with their own place and instilled pride and interest of their village within them. She works with women for economic independence and lobbies for ecological and social rights. Local people consider her nothing less than a super power and I absolutely agree with them.

There are many activities, regional cuisine fair, treks, marathons, workshops happening with contributions of volunteers, which has given the youth and women in the village, a livelihood and a channel to manifest the history and richness of their area and tribe. It’s a learning experience for both the villagers and the visitors.

I met Shivya Nath at Hawalbagh, and would have loved to hang around with her at Sarmoli, given even she was there, conducting smartphone photography workshop. But while hiking to Mesar Kund, I lost my way, which I always do.

I think, I will need another few posts to tell you about losing the way on the hike to Mesar Kund, Gori Ganga River at Madkote, where I spent an entire day, enjoying the hot springs, and my other activities at Munsyari. For now, let me get back to the village and the villagers in this one.

This homestay programme had been started by Malika Virdi, to ensure a livelihood and economic independence for the women in the village. The people of the village who are a part of this enterprise has either converted one room of their home as a traveller’s abode, or Malika Virdi has arranged to get them loans, to build an extension of their house, for visitors. The rooms are furnished with basic amenities and clean white linens. It’s an experience, to stay with the villagers and share a meal with them over conversations. You can do your bit of exploring around or give back to the village, by helping them with their daily chores at home or at their farm. So, if you want to see the real India, this place is unfiltered, real rural India, providing you with a comfortable stay, and memories worth cherishing.

I spent one morning at the women’s Sangathan (self-help group), where they spend knitting woollens, and packing dried vegetables and sell these for an earning. Conversation with them was like a new lease of life. At such a remote place, they are lobbying for their rights, trying to meet their basic needs and still always wearing a smile. I loved my leisurely days at Sarmoli, hearing from them about legends and stories. We all love the snow capped mountains in photographs but how it affects their crops, the leopard attacks, to hear it was heart-wrenching. Basantiji and Rajuji ever smiling, shared tales of events occurring in the village for their development, glued me to stories of their cows, mules, regional food. I cherished the stories over homemade millet rotis, kumaoni kappa (locally grown leafy greens), malka dal (masoor/lentil), homemade ghee, pickles, millet halwa(sweet dish). Basantiji even packed lunch for me, when I went out during the day. It was all seasoned with unadulterated love.

It was an unwinding time completely. Each time I was amazed, by the smile on faces of every person out there. The 91-year-old grandfather, without his teeth, smiled and waved at me and asked me to join him for a cup of salted tea and many stories. The lady of another village house, Binaji, was cooking on an earthen stove, invited me to join her and told me how she made the rhododendron juice and about their upcoming village programme. The uncle talking of his sons, studying away in another hill station and proudness beaming from his eyes, showed his oats plants. The little Lakshya, took me up through the trail, to the small pond near his house and we played with tadpoles. The pets Kalu and Cuto at their place, followed us around, everywhere. Everyone has their own battles, they strive to meet their daily needs, always with an alarm in the heart, that a natural calamity may wash away their abode and small farms, next minute; yet they never run out of their smile and keen enjoyment of living. I do not fathom, where do they get their optimism from. Seeing them, and rewinding it in my memory, every now and then, I am grateful for the life I have. This journey has taught me, taught me things that schools don’t teach you; taught me humanity. I learnt this Himalayan village is a paradise on earth, not only for the beauty nature offers but for the people who make you believe that humanity exists. and it exists even today.

The day I left, Rajuji accompanied me till my car, Basantiji, waved at me till the time our eyes could see each other. As I left early, she packed breakfast for me as well. In cities, where do we get such self-less love?? I do not know if I have evolved, but I have been touched, immensely that I want to go back there sooner. Now, at any point, I go through a spider-web crisis, I pause, think of my time in Sarmoli, the people, their lives and I know which road to travel.

I long to go back to this place, to give back to the community which has given me a lot of wisdom and love.

Over to you, is there any place you would like to go back someday?