In this exclusive piece, author of Peace and ParsnipsLee Watson writes about cooking for 50 schoolgirls in a hostel in the Himalayas.
The Spiti Valley is one of the most remote places I have ever been. Purely Tibetan (although technically part of India) ancient Buddhist monasteries hang from sheer rock faces and pristine still lakes dot the desert landscape. Spiti is a trapped in a different time.
I based myself in the hostel of a small monastery, not there to cook, but to walk; exploring the high Himalayas. It was a dream. I had just returned from a few days of tough hiking. Sunning myself on the little terrace. I noticed a red dust cloud forming over the hill beside the monastery – a little strange (a solitary rambling yak herder was the norm). A wild group of donkeys came storming into view, followed closely by shouting local men. It seemed like an invasion of some sorts. I realised what was going on when I heard the chatter of excitable English schoolgirls, led by their intrepid and forthright headmistress – an incongruous sight at that altitude. I wiped my eyes a little in disbelief.
They surged into the hostel, looking for a room and board, for 50. The hostel had roughly 10 rooms – this was going to be interesting. The owner Rama, myself and a friend (who were the only other guests) sprang into frenzied action, borrowing mattresses from the monks and locals, trying to cover every available area of floor space with bedding. In all the hustle and bustle, we’d totally forgotten about food. There was one jeep every two days and no shop or market. Things were made increasingly difficult by the fact that the Bihari cook had been wrongly arrested the day before. The cupboards were bare.
I volunteered and Rama seemed elated. Before I knew it I was knocking on locals’ doors asking for veggies and grains – I managed to fill my backpack with supplies (with five litres of local rice wine for the teachers) and whatever we had picked or wangled went into the pot. The kitchen was pretty rudimentary to say the least, but we managed to get a three course meal together with a rice wine aperitif on the terrace, overlooking a vista of the mighty, glimmering Himalayas. The schoolgirls were happy, they’d been eating mainly gruel for over a week. I sat down with the teachers, the first English people I’d spoken to in a while and caught up on the cricket. I was exhausted and a bit delirious (rice wine!) feeling like I’d done a proper shift in a busy restaurant.
We were up before dawn to get the gang’s breakfast and chai on. They left, with all their donkeys, in familiar plumes of red dust, heading off deeper into the precise middle of nowhere. Rama and I are still friends and we will never forget the random English schoolgirl invasion.