Sunday, 23 September 2012

Time spent at' Hiiumaa' and 'Saaremaa'

Saaremaa in the Himalayas

Time spent at Saaremaa and Hiiumaa

A lot of our time is spent in just sitting in the various verandahs and terraces and taking in the gorgeous and breathtaking  view. Along with the much written and legendary Haunted House ensconced on the top of the mountain right in front of ours, we could also clearly see ‘Kaplani’ village, ‘Jabarkhet  temple’ and the famous ‘Sarkhanda Devi’ temple to the East. Of course, the TV tower, Oakville and Hanifl Centre are also clearly visible in the North. Also, now with electricity reaching most of the remote villages, when we sit out during the late evenings on our terrace verandah (both at Saaremaa and Hiiumaa), we see more and more sprinkling of lights every year along the mountain ranges close by, as compared to the three or four meagre, although heart warming lights we saw for several years at a stretch. There are chairs, ‘mudas’ (wicker stools) and tables everywhere so  we just make ourselves comfortable anywhere it suits us.

'Saaremaa' - back verandah

Every winter, it snows three or four times at Saaremaa but one New Year while we were there, it snowed!  Although the snow around Saaremaa melted very fast, it was definitely visible. The mountains in front were covered with snow and already cars were on their way to Dhanaulti to see the snow. The news flies fast and by breakfast time we could see a serpentine queue of cars all going to get a glimpse and feel of the first snow of the year in that area! We, on the other hand, drove in the other direction, up to Sister’s bazaar, about 800 feet higher than Saaremaa and Hiiumaa in altitude, and saw plenty of snow there. We did our usual walk around Language school, Lal  Tibba, the cemetery and Char Dukan and there was a bitter cold wind blowing. All these parts had significant amounts of snow, much to our delight.

Sketching and painting is another favourite past time. Since our family is full of artists, all the pictures that are hung up on the walls of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa are done by members of the family and each one tells its own tale of the mountains and different parts of the Himalayas. This way we can still remember  the old, raw beauty and splendour of the Himalayas of yester years. We make sure there are plenty of crayons, oil pastels,  paints and colour pencils for anyone to draw the scenery and everchanging views. Just before ‘Holi’ a few years ago, I painted some ‘rangoli’ on the inner verandah of Saaremaa, and surprisingly, it still looks as good as new.

Reading still remains a hot favourite and we have made sure all our book shelves are full of old (but gold!) National Geographics, Readers Digests and novels for all ages and temperaments. There is a collection of children’s books too, for all sizes, and of course books about birds and animals of the Himalayas and the Jim Corbett series. The only rule with family and guests is that they have to read the books while they are at Saaremaa and Hiiumaa...and not allowed to carry any away, however tempting it may be.. even if they are in the middle of a book. Unless of course, they exchange the book taken with any they have brought with them. This rule has been prompted by the heavy loads and cartons lugged by us all the way from Delhi in the way of books, especially along the short cut to the house when no 4 wheel drive was available. It was an unwritten deal that every trip we would carry at least ten books with us but it sure took a toll on our backs!

The much sought after past time - sitting around the fire place! Although there is a small TV, it is only used for watching the news at times.

Bird watching just happens willy nilly, while we sit around...delightful Himalayan birds of all sizes perch in the Oak trees or simply come to peck at the crumbs we leave around outside the verandahs in order to catch glimpses of the birds. We always keep our binoculars and bird book -“Birds of Northern India” handy, so as to identify the bird immediately! We plan to put up some proper bird feeders all over so that we can feast our eyes on the variety of birds in that region.

Gardening and planting is fun and we have spent many a day with our ‘chowkidar’ doing that. From fruit trees to ‘deodar’ trees, from tomatoes and strawberries to mint and cucumber, from exotic creepers to ornamental flowers,  we have done it all. Unfortunately, the wild hare, wild boar and other little animals make short work of some of our painstaking planting, but it doesn’t deter us... every time we come, there is always something of our previous visit’s toil to enjoy and marvel at. There are plant nurseries close by where we often get cuttings from and eagerly plant them.

The old, green wooden cupboard in the drawing room of Saaremaa which is painted with flowers is a treasure trove of games for all ages. From the usual  Monopoly, Scrabble, Pictionary, Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, to a variety of other games, they are all there. There is also a skipping rope, two pairs of binoculars and 4 badminton rackets tucked in the cupboard for good measure. The children and adults alike put up the badminton net and major tournaments are played in the patch of land just in front of Saaremaa’s verandah! Air rifle shooting is a hot favourite too and many hours have been spent shooting at a carefully made target (usually an upturned plastic bottle) 20 – 25 metres away. The best game played with a little bonfire set up in our outdoor fire place (‘angeethi’) is Dumb Charades. This is an all time hot favourite.  Of course, when the weather gets too cold, we simply light the fire indoors and move in. That's when it's time for the guitar playing and singing to start! We have a book with guitar chords for songs from the '70's and '80's and sing to our heart's content while someone or the other plays the guitar.

The green cupboard with all the games and music beside it

There are so many beautiful and mysterious trails all over our land and of course out of it too when one leaves the gate - both to the Chamasari village and to Dhobi ghaat side. On our land, some trails lead to one or the other of the benches made by the chowkidar, helped by me and the children. Each of the four  benches  is at a strategic location and commands a beautiful view. These benches have been tiled with left over tiles of all colours, shapes and sizes ( broken and whole) from our house and each tells a story. The very first bench we built was made by the chowkidar (helped by me) in memory of my grandparents and has huge loving arms on either side. It is hidden away as one turns the corner from our garden patch cum badminton court, just away from Saaremaa and is the ideal place to recline on and read a book or simply dose off. The second one we built (by the chowkidar, helped by kids) is just near the back verandah and we sit on it and admire the view while having our meals. The third one is in the shade of a large Pine tree on the upper level of land and a perfect  picnic spot , especially when we want the kids (our own and their cousins) to be less noisy and away from us! The fourth and last bench built by the kids and their cousins, is far up, right next to the upper most boundary of our land and lies beside three walnut trees which actually yield walnuts. The view from each of these benches is simply amazing. One of the  paths leads to our organic waste collection which is used over time for enriching the soil. We are always careful to separate our organic and inorganic kitchen waste and make the most use of our organic one for all our plants as the land is not very fertile and quite rocky in parts.

The trail to our place

Saturday, 22 September 2012



‘Hiiumaa’, the little annexe above Saaremaa, has also been completed now and is comfortably furnished for all our family and guests who fall in love with our home in the mountains and want to always visit again. It boasts of a lovely, large, timber constructed bedroom with a verandah overlooking the stupendous mountain view in the East. There is another little study cum bedroom upstairs and a drawing and kitchen cum dining room downstairs . Both floors have bathrooms. The best part of Hiiumaa are the two verandahs on either end of the house and a dining room which is part of the open kitchen, where we sit facing the full view of the mountains.
New ' Hiiumaa' seen when one looks upward from 'Saaremaa'
Hiiumaa  -  part of the drawing room on the GF, looking into the kitchen..The 'bukhari' (wood stove) in the corner keeps the whole house warm

Hiiumaa - upper floor landing looking into the main bedroom
Upper bedroom balcony - a perfect place to sit
Glimpse of  FF bathroom !

View from Hiiumaa's drawing room

Initially, Hiiumaa was a large single room or outhouse and was built as a store to put all our cement  and other construction material, basically to keep it safe and protect it all from the vagaries of mountain weather. However, we had to come quite often to check on the work being done on the main house Saaremaa, and living far away in town was counterproductive. We didn’t even have the motorbike then, leave alone our 4 wheel Gypsy. So, we hit on a brainwave and decided to make a temporary tin store for the building material and simply live in ‘Hiiumaa’, for better or worse.

I clearly remember  the only trip we left our little son behind in Delhi with his grandparents (he sweetly tags along with us everywhere usually!). We folded the back seat of our car and filled it with four plastic chairs and a plastic table, bedding, two cotton ‘durries’ (large woven mats), a few utensils, a small one burner gas stove with a mini cylinder and basic groceries. We headed off from our home in Delhi straight to ‘Saaremaa’, praying the traffic would be okay and we would reach during daylight hours to set up ‘home’. We were lucky and did manage, with  two old kerosene lamps helping us to see, while we put our meagre belongings into the one room which would serve as our bedroom, drawing room, dining room and kitchen for the next two years.
Slowly, with each trip, we added a few more articles to our sparse home, like two tin trunks to store bedding (very much like the trunks my grandparents had from their many postings all over India), an ugly but much needed, small sized, Godrej almirah (steel cupboard), a solar torch and 2 solar lights, and two proper beds from Landaur bazaar in main Mussoorie  which we realised were less hardy than the folding beds we used earlier.

Little Hiiumaa did not even have a covered veranda and I must say, we were very very lucky with the weather on all the occasions we stayed there. We often cooked on a small stool set up outside and sat around it, eating there itself. The outside was also our drawing room. Inside, other than the two existing beds, a folding bed would be put up for our son at night which would be dismantled and used as a sofa to sit in the sun in the morning. With that 3rd bed, there was hardly place to move inside the room! Anyway, with no electricity then, we had early nights and slept very deeply indeed until the first rays of the sun would stream through the windows beckoning us to another wonderful day in the Himalayas. Hiiumaa remains a bird watcher's paradise and we see the rarest and most beautiful birds while sitting on any of the verandah's around it.

An Oriental Turtle Dove perched on the Oak tree just outside the  upper verandah of 'Hiiumaa'

Those days and nights, with literally just a roof over our heads and precious little else, were easily the best ones I remember. Washing utensils was done outside and bathing was not done at all. In fact, bathing and washing clothes were saved for when we went back to Delhi, to our fancy showers and washing machines. However, we never missed the luxuries of city life, not one bit. It was just cups of tea or soup, one after the other, sitting in the outdoors. Every now and then, we would go off for part of the day on our ‘khachhar’, the motorcycle, visit our friends, go to the Landaur bazaar,buy our stores from Prakash’s at Sister’s bazaar and come back home precariously carrying everything, some in our backpacks and some tied to the back and sides of the motorcycle. We truly must have made a rather comical sight.

 Naming Hiiumaa was not difficult! While we were in Estonia recently, we took the ferry from ‘Haapsaalu’ on the westernmost coast of Estonia across to Hiiumaa, the second island adjacent to main Estonia, just north of Estonia’s other island, Saaremaa. We lived in a beautifully constructed log cabin along the sea. Once we named our main home ‘Saaremaa’, automatically the little room above got called ‘Hiuumaa’! 

Our friends visited us at old Hiiumaa regularly and they rightly called it the ‘boondocks’. They rather accurately commented that either we were very brave or just extremely foolish. On looking back, I truly wonder how we did it. However, I have to say that living in that little outhouse, which is now the tastefully built up ‘new-look’ Hiiumaa, was the most humbling and  rewarding experience of my life. Something I will never forget and always cherish lovingly. So much so, that when main Saaremaa was finally built by April 2009, it was with a heavy heart that I packed our belongings and moved down. Our days of ‘house house’, as our friends called it, were over, and the real world was beckoning with a fully fledged house, namely Saaremaa, waiting for us.

'Pari Tibba'

     ‘Pari Tibba’ or ‘Witch’s Hill’  near   ‘Saaremaa’

Unfortunately, while working hard to set up ‘Saaremaa’ and tie up all the loose ends one encounters while building a place in the remote areas, we hardly got around to visiting the beckoning neighbourhood  and also following the inviting little mountain forest trails, seemingly leading nowhere. However, one afternoon in 2010, when my sister and family were here visiting over the summer, we decided to at least go up to the famous ‘Pari Tibba” which the renowned author Ruskin Bond has written so enchantingly about in quite a few of his books. We thought that the least we could do was to visit the site our hill was named after! It was a pretty hectic, though beautiful climb, filled with Oak and Pine trees along the way.

The trail to 'Pari Tibba'

On reaching the top of the hill, we saw ‘trishuls’ (three pronged forks which the Hindu Lord Shiva holds) on typical Garhwali stone shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva, with red and gold dupattas draped over them. There was a barbed wire fencing which had been broken down purposefully. The multiple land deals in these areas are famous and land changes hands through fake papers too often for comfort. Each so called ‘owner’ puts up his boundary wall or wire , only to be broken down by another ‘owner’ claiming the land is his! Then this boundary is once again broken down by another ‘owner’ of the same land who says he has just bought it! The ‘dalals’ or land brokers make a pretty penny over these transactions, no doubt.

One of the shrines on 'Pari Tibba" 

And then, after much huffing and puffing, we saw it! The famous little ramshackled house with the ‘pari’ (fairy) fable attached to it. So, this was the house which the entire mountain side had been named after…. there were a few half-broken walls still standing and a small courtyard kind of space in the centre. The fable goes that some British ladies were trying to build the house about two centuries ago and whatever they would build during the day would be broken down by fairies (‘pari’ in Hindi) at night. The villagers still hold true that the fairies or pari’s from Pari tibba did not like the house being constructed and would dismantle it every night. Obviously, there was more to the building and breaking, probably the villagers wanting a cut from the land deal, but I really liked this mystery story surrounding our mountain!

The mysterious 'pari' (fairy) house behind the tree on 'Pari Tibba'

We went further to find a large temple cum make shift home being constructed on the other side. The view was simply fantastic and we could see the majestic mountain ranges all over. There was no water connection so all construction was being done using rainwater in a rather effective way. The rain water was being collected in a large, black, plastic sheet held down by stones over a depression in the land. It’s amazing how the villagers contrive to use rain water with little ‘parnalis’ of all shapes and sizes placed on their terraces which lead into large and small drums below, while in the cities, rain water harvesting is still not too common a sight. I suppose necessity is the mother of invention!