Food, wine and language – some of the best pleasures of life.
As with each, that lingering after taste is what it’s about. Like wine or truffle, certain words are an acquired taste. You need to swirl them around in your mouth and just drink them in, your palate gradually warming up to their complex tastes – much like a fine Malbec. That’s how some words like “Saudade”, “Hiraeth” or “Goya” feel like, to me – no, I am not trying to be clever, I just happen to like words, and chase them down in languages distant and familiar. And then along comes “Itmenaan” – like a cool afternoon summer breeze of a word sweeping past a ‘Malta’ (an Indian cousin of the orange family) tree up in the mountains, and singing you home. To the secret citrus garden of your childhood, leaving an orangey scent trail behind.
Itmenaan Se – at a leisurely pace. A pace set by some form of rarely seen and even rarely understood grace.
Even in transliteration, it loses its essence much. And then a word like that finds its home on a remote patch of nowhere ground in the mountains of Uttarakhand at the base of the Himalayas, and all epiphanies simply fail you. Because, well, words are awfully inadequate when they are most needed, in conveying Life’s grandest meanings. All you can do, then, is helplessly stare at the Kumaon-Garhwal range of the Himalayas spread out in front of you, like a casually given gift – of a snow-white cashmere wrap spilling out of a closet.
So it was, that nearly five years later, of having Itmenaan on my mind from a travel magazine cut-out, I got to it. On my much-earned ‘leisurely’ sabbatical that brought along with it, a mad hustle of a country and life move. The irony and the serendipity of arriving at Itmenaan Estates was not lost on me, for sure.
Arriving at Itmenaan Estates
Ten hours of a train and road trip is all it takes for the big life epiphanies to kick in. I had arrived – in many more ways than the obvious. Itmenaan Estates turned out to be a beautifully curated secret. All three gorgeously cozy, yet large, stone-and-wood rooms have been restored with much care, from an erstwhile 100-year old Kumaoni house, nesting in a wildly blooming mountain garden set against the backdrop of a Himalayan forest. The special treat is the sole stand-alone cottage (Deodar Cottage) of two floors with its panoramic view of Nanda Devi right from the master bedroom, as you roll out of bed in awe and pinch-yourself reality. Deodar Cottage is particularly special in that it is built entirely of local stones stacked up one on top of the other to construct the entire house, with no cementing material. I did try to take out a stone or two, out of curiosity and put them right back in to their tightly packed nook. The house stayed intact and firm. Just saying.
This entire piece of heaven rests about a steep one-kilometre hike (less 15 meters, as the guide will insist!) down a mountain trail off the nearest motorable road down from the village of Challicheena. A tad difficult to get to, for the weak-kneed (literally, that is!). After all, having Himalayan Magpies and furry pahadi dogs share your breakfast table at cliff’s edge, with a private view of the Himalayas, ought to come with a steep price tag of falling off the digital map, and a bit of a huffy-puffy hike!
How to amuse yourself in TV-less, swimming-pool-less wilderness
What could you get up to here, especially if, like me, you happened to be the sole guest at the estate for 3 days, with 4 help waiting on you? Apart from lounging around on the deck outside your stone-stacked cottage and staring at the Himalayas, reading a book, writing random poetic stuff, daydreaming endlessly, and sipping tea? Not to mention slanting mountain light at your back at all times! Well if you are the adventurous type or the active type (I count myself in neither, but boredom got the better of me!), you could sign up with Chachu for the 6-kilometer village walk, that crosses about three small mountains to help you get a taste of the rural life.
That’s precisely what I did, and in the process, got myself a fabulous photo-op of an afternoon, plenty of village life stories and people portraits, one pumpkin, three Malta oranges, about 2 liters of Pahadi milk tea collectively drunk from each household, Bhang ki chutney, and innumerable lemons from kitchen gardens of the grandly generous village folk! All accompanied by the sorest knees I ever knew.
Knees made good by a delicious hot water bag at night, and the tired soul made good by the wonderful food cooked by Manoj, the resident chef, who in my view, is a secret hire off the Masterchef series. I would marry Manoj in a heartbeat. Anyone who cooks that good, is a keeper! He can dish up anything from home made hummus and pita to exotic salads or simple pahadi local cuisine until you want to beg him to stop, for fear of turning into a big fat Malta orange yourself.
It is true – those who have nothing to offer, will offer you everything they have.
Other lessons for un-living Life as you know it –
Farm-to-table and slow-cooked coal-fired food is what real food is all about.
Goats will head-butt you by way of affectionate play time, and you may choose to feed them goat food and take goat selfies. They don’t mind one bit. In fact, they get used to the attention after a while, and nudge you hard should you stop with the goat selfies.
Wait for the wind to pick up, gaze at the stars meanwhile and Life will sort itself out (yes this epiphany did come upon unannounced!) – It struck as my personal bonfire went out shortly after being lit, right in front of my cottage. Not wanting to disturb the help, I sat back and gazed at the salt shaker of a sky full of stars, and the round dishplatter of a full yellow moon for some minutes. When I looked again, the wind had started blowing right, and the fire had picked up again. All was right with the world, and the cold starry winter night at Itmenaan.
After hiding in a haze the first couple of days, Nanda Devi will come into view just like that, one fine morning as you awaken. Just standing there in its full morning mountain glory, taking your breath away, making you want to call someone, anyone – and say “This, this this… “ and then turn speechless. But mobile signals will not oblige, and for once in your life, you will not be torn between watching this beauty unfold before you, and informing social media about the beauty you stepped into. The remote location of the Estate ensures you won’t ever have to make such difficult decisions, thank goodness!
The joys of no agenda, slow and solo travels are validated once again.
As I prepared to move on to my next destination in the Himalayas after four gorgeous days of un-living life as I knew it, I thought about the crossroads where I found myself standing in my life at this very moment – on a sabbatical, unsure of the way ahead – to sell my soul and remain employed, or quit the day job and find my purpose. Then I remembered what a wise man had once said “Some people are so poor, all they have, is money.”
Thankfully, I can claim to be rich. For this once.
I shall just wait for the wind to pick up then, and gaze at the stars, while Life sorts itself out.
All the good Housekeeping Stuff – Getting There
The easiest way is to take the Ranikhet Express or Shatabdi from Delhi to Kathgodam and the good people at the estates will arrange a pick-up from Kathgodam for INR 2,500 to 3,500 a ride – depending on size of the vehicle. The ride will take about 4 hours and the train to Kathgodam about 5 and a half. Plan to arrive before 16:00 in the afternoon, as the sun sets quick in these parts.
When to Go
November, November, November. Also December for fair views of the Himalayan range. If you don’t like people (like me – I am a-people), November is non-touristy and the off-season period, so off-season rates set in.
What are you waiting for, then? Christmas?? That may just be the best idea you had all year! Go. Now.