(003) Uttarakhand; Munsiari, in search of Sarmoli

The rest of the drive to Munsiari was beautiful, peaceful. A few settlements here and there. Blue skies, mountains, mountains everywhere, patches of settlements, tea stalls, yak herders, goat herders and the fluffiest dogs I have ever seen. The drive was scenic and we happened to spot vultures gliding above us. We assumed there was a dying animal nearby and the vultures were just waiting to dive in.

We reached Munisiari in our own sweet pace. It’s was good that we had a filling breakfast before we left from Barthi falls because up until we reached Munisiari, we didn’t find anything to eat. But just as we reached the outskirts of the town, we were welcomed by restaurants, hotels, and resorts. We felt like it was a town that heavily dependent on tourism. And there is no dearth of tourists either, we happened by groups and groups of families who had made it all the way to Munsiari from neighboring states.

When I spot these families vacationing at places like this, I often wonder about the little kids they bring with them. We had stopped at a hotel for some late lunch when a group – two families loudly announced their entrance and didn’t quieten down. At all. Two identical families: a husband, a wife, and a kid. The husbands were caught watching some sports something show on tv and the wives were constantly pestering their kids with “Ashu, wash your hands, beta. you have to drink milk after this.” or “Monu, wear your sweater, it’s cold out. Here, wear gloves and a beanie. if you want, your batman hoodie is here.” and other basic mom things. The kids didn’t give a damn about anything, they were too caught play-fighting each other. Honestly, I felt bad for the kids. I don’t think either of them was interested in sitting back and staring at the peaceful Himalayas. I feel like mothers and fathers will be the same, even if they are in the Himalayas or Disney Land or Kerala, so at least let the kids have fun, no?

Anyway, the real reason we visited Munsiari was so we could get to Sarmoli village. The thing that fascinated us most about Sarmoli was the story of the Sarpanch of the village: Mallika Verdi, a humanitarian who kissed the city life goodbye and settled in this small village. A decision she took twenty-five years ago to help the people of the village – especially the women. Under her guidance, she has empowered the women of the village to be independent, financially and otherwise. They are educated, well-spoken, pleasant and helpful. They know how to operate laptops, they know how to work net banking and they can also tell you the name of a bird just by listening to its song. Pretty badass, huh?  There are about fifteen homestays in the village, each with its own unique characteristics. We stayed with a woman named Chandra Thakur, Chandra didi.

But, I am rushing here.

Once we reached Munsiari, we kept driving around trying to figure out how to get Sarmoli. The townspeople were very vague about how to get the village. Most of them would just point in a large direction and mumble something. Our networks were down so trying to connect to the internet was out of the question. The sun was beginning to set and the weather started getting chillier, we decided to settle down for the day and figure out our next move. It wasn’t difficult getting a room, the town was filled with hotels, resorts, and lodges. At the hotel we stayed, we asked the guy at the front desk about Sarmoli. He was a little helpful, he pointed us in the direction we had to take and then added, “but you can’t take your car there” as an afterthought. Huh? What? We were confused.

“Parking problems. It’s too risky to take your car, you can park your car here and book one of our cars. We can drive you there and back.”

Naveen and I, with much effort, stopped ourselves from rolling our eyes, thanked him and made our way to our room.

Fortunately, we got a room with a kickass view of the snow capped mountains. We sat out on our balcony till we could fight the chilly winds before settling indoors and layering ourselves.

The next morning, when we were checking out of the hotel, we asked the manager about Sarmoli again. The previous day, he had told us that he would try and get Malika’s number and maybe we could work something out. But when asked about it, he mumbled something under his breath again and reiterated the fact that we wouldn’t be able to take our car with us.  We were a little disappointed, we didn’t want to leave our car, was there really no other way? Oh well, we packed up everything and started our way out of Munsiari. As we drove back, Naveen wanted to stop at this one place we had stopped the previous day on our way to Munsiari. “I don’t know why I just feel like visiting that place again.” He said as we drove away from the town.

It was a large grassland with the high mountains in a full-blown view and a small temple. On our way to Munsiari, we had stopped there, parked our car to a side and just enjoyed the view. We decided to stop there again, maybe click a few pictures, walk around, I thought I could do some writing, some pondering, some wondering. You know, the usual?

But, not everything goes the way you plan for it too.

We reached the spot and there was another car parked there. An elderly gentleman stood by the car, his head ducked in, fishing for something. The driver of the car stood a few feet away and nodded at us when he saw us getting out of our car.

“Where are you from?” He asked, as we collected our camera and got closer to him.

“Bangalore, Karnataka.” Naveen replied with a smile.

“Oh, he’s from there too.” He said, pointing to the other gentleman, who by now had pulled out his camera and was playing around with his lenses. And that’s how we met Srinivas uncle, one of the most interesting characters we have met on our journey.

A 60 something-year-old veteran traveler whose love and excitement to be around mountains and travel is almost childlike. The three of us clicked immediately and why wouldn’t we? We had a lot in common, other than the love for travel, nature, taking care of the environment, it turned out that he was Naveen’s neighbor back in Bangalore and that they lived, perhaps, a road’s distance from each other. Isn’t life funny that way? Your whole life you can go on living right next to someone, not knowing their name and then, you meet them in a remote village, on top of a mountain.

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In conversation, we told him about our incomplete journey, how we wanted to get to Sarmoli but we didn’t know how. Srinivas uncle looked at us quizzically and said, “I am staying there right now. Let me call Mallika and see if we can figure something out. I am sure we can.”

Literally, at that moment, Naveen and I just stared at each other. What were the odds? A true blue travel story, huh? Expect the unexpected. Everything happens for a reason. You never know what kind of a disguise an opportunity wears when knocking your doors. All the cliche sayings were turning out to be true.

A quick conversation later, we were on our way to Malika Verdi’s house. Her house was in the middle of the woods with a gorgeous view of the little town on one side and the mountains, on the other. She welcomed us with a cheery smile, albeit being under the weather. She was shocked when we told her that we had spent most of the previous day trying to get to Sarmoli village while being lost in Munsiari. She was further shocked when we told her about how we were told our car was going to be a problem. There is enough parking space in the village, she laughed.

We hung around for a while, talking to her and some of the ladies of the village. That was when we were given a peek into the working of Sarmoli village. Malika Verdi had done a great job of helping the women and their lifestyles.

The women there are self-employed and self-sufficient. Most of them are hosts and open their homes for travelers, they are trek guides and bird guides, they are farmers, they are teachers for the village school. It was an incredible, harmonious community.

Malika told us we were going to be staying with a woman named Chandra and that there was going to ample space to park our car there.

With a wide grin and a lighter heart, that’s how our Sarmoli adventure began.