The Villa San Michele in Florence; Goldeneye, (Ian Fleming’s retreat in Jamaica where he wrote the Bond books); the Palace Hotel and Spa atop Capri; Hôtel Costes in Paris; and The Mercer in New York. These are just a few of the swanky places I’ve stayed in, since I’ve never seen the point of going somewhere on holiday that’s less luxurious and well-stocked with expensive unguents than my own home.
That is, until now. I have just returned from two weeks’ trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas, and I have to say that not only is it the most beautiful place in the world, but the experience has changed my life.
I had begun to realise that five-star luxury is not synonymous with an enriching experience, however good the massages, during my first visit to India last year. Staying at one beautiful palace on the shores of a Rajasthani lake was aesthetically pleasing, but these marble edifices often smell of bleach, not frangipani or wild garlic, and the only Indians you meet wear uniforms and offer you pieces of paper on which to judge their level of service. Plus, when I’d walked into the town, and seen the level of poverty – tiny children with what I thought was beautifully streaked blonde hair, but which is in fact a sign of extreme malnutrition – I’d felt ashamed to be spending so much money to keep them at bay.
So, when I heard about a new initiative being run in the tiny villages in the mountainous region of Kumaon in the northern state of Uttaranchal, it seemed a perfect way of learning more about my husband’s family background, as well as assuaging my sense of guilt.
The Village Ways scheme is run in Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary – home to leopard, porcupine, wild boar, bear and hundreds of species of birds and snakes – and is the brainchild of a lovely couple who run a beautiful, small hotel there – a former colonial house built in 1875.
Himanchu and Manisha Pande wanted to find a way to encourage locals to stay in the villages, rather than migrating to Delhi to find work. So they came up with the idea of each of the five nearby villages building a guest house out of reclaimed bricks and slate tiles, with cow dung for plaster (it retains heat in the winter, and acts as a natural insect repellent), and running the enterprise as a bed and breakfast.
Village committees would run the business – because this is a business, not a charity – and villagers, young and old alike, would take it in turns to cook for guests and clean the rooms (there is only room for one visiting family at a time). Other villagers would be trained as guides to take holidaymakers on walks of up to six hours through the vast pine forest to the next little house, while still more would be employed as porters to carry luggage.
The scheme sounds simple, but it has taken three years to get off the ground. And although we were among the first to stay in the houses – very simple, but decorated with flowers and handmade linen sheets, and solar panels providing light and hot water – we could already see the difference our presence was making to their lives.
Young people who had left to seek backbreaking, poorly paid jobs away from their families in the cities were now thinking of returning to become guides or cooks. Poor families with up to three daughters were already thinking of allowing them to stay longer in school (on average, girls finish their education at 13 or 14).