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Yak Pack News #4

Kaza days

Kaza is the main town in Spiti – in fact the only settlement that can really be called a town rather than a village – and its about halfway along the valley. The population is around 3,000 – about a quarter of all Spitians live here. The rest live in villages scattered along the length of the valley: 12,000 people in an area roughly the size of Dorset. It’s no surprise then that Kaza feels like the centre of everything! We’re adjusting to the altitude here, finishing off prop making, and rehearsing with our Spitian narrator for the next few days.

[photo credit: Penny - New Kaza - We are staying in The Old Monk is, 3 storey white building to the right]

Kaza is 4000m above sea level, so quite a shock to the system coming from Bournemouth! We all seem to be gradually adjusting - a bit breathless here and there, headachy off and on, and the odd red bogey down to popped capillaries inside your nose, but nothing dramatic. We’re drinking plenty water and taking life slow whilst we adjust. Over breakfast on Thursday we met an Irishman called Derek who had a finger clip O2 monitor so we all had a turn. Around 90% seems normal here, a number which would be alarming at home. Izzy was the winner on 93%, then Arjuna at 92% , Ben and Ollie on 91%, Lou and Penny on 89%. Not that we’re competitive! We tested a local for comparison – Lotey was 91% - this made us feel better!

Lotey is running the Himayalan Café whilst his partner Vishaka is away. A powerhouse of organisation, Lotey is looking after the Yak Pack logistics in Spiti – he has organised our minibus from Manali, any transport we need around the valley, and has our homestays, donkeys, yaks and guides ready for when we head up to the high villages. Although he’s been a guide for decades, he loves being hands-on at the Himalayan Café, and more often than not can’t shake hands because he’s in the middle of chopping things.

[Photo credit: Penny - Typical house in Kaza]

Our friends Rana and Shalu are hosting us at their hotel, The Old Monk. During lockdown, Rana and Shalu have refurbished The Old Monk, and its so different to when the Yak Pack was here 4 years ago! They have made the most of beautiful rooms which look out over mountains, and the restaurant downstairs is no longer full of plastic garden furniture, but lovely dark wooden tables and chairs. An extension is being built at the back, turning the hotel into a courtyard, with a sunny kitchen garden in the middle. When Ben first met Rana in 1994, his parents lived on this spot in a traditional Spitian mud house. Rana and Shalu have kept a portion of the old house as their prayer room, now forming the fourth wall of the courtyard. Rana is involved with the new Spiti Tourist Board who are trying to contain the impact of tourism in Spiti, keep local people involved, and protect their cultural heritage.

Even in just 4 years, the impact of increasing tourism in Spiti is apparent. A growing middle class of Indian tourists finding their way here, especially since Covid when like in the UK people are looking for holidays in their own country. Indian tourists often come on whistle-stop tours organised from outside of Spiti, arriving unprepared for the altitude and climate, and simply wanting to whizz round the ‘sights’ in a couple of days. These kind of tourists don’t really want to immerse themselves in the local culture – for example expecting hotel with flushing toilets which are hugely wasteful of water in Spiti, an alpine desert which traditionally has dry earth toilets.

Everyone works hard here in the summer months. This is the only chance Spitian people have to earn their annual cash income. No wonder tourism is so important. Its also the only time to grow crops, with peas being the main cash crop harvested in mid-August. Every village is surrounded by fields, owned by individual families but usually worked communally. We’ve heard that there hasn’t been enough snow this winter and with less meltwater than usual, irrigation is becoming a problem in some of the higher villages.

[photo credit: Penny - info board in Cafe Sol to encourage sustainable tourism]

Rana works for the State Dept of Education here in Spiti, working closely with all the government schools. He’s also now the Principal of Ki Monastery School. I thought I was busy! The Yak Pack is here early in July at his urging, so that we can perform in the government schools before they close for summer on 17th July. We sat down to work out which schools Rana wants us to visit and then he’ll get in touch with them. Most of the government schools are tiny, many with 10 or less students. It’s so hard to get around the valley itself, children need to either attend school in the village where they live, or go to boarding school at one of the larger monastery-run private schools on the valley floor. There’s also schools within the monasteries and nunneries themselves, for the children who are becoming monks or nuns. We will perform at the 5 biggest government schools, which all have 60-80 pupils. Children from the nearest smaller schools will be invited to join us too.

Ben met DP, the principal of Komik village school in a bar on Wednesday evening. He was a lovely chap, and with his wife, principal of the neighbouring Hikkim Village school, they hope to bring some students to the Kaza government school performance on Monday. 2 vehicles will be enough to transport everyone!

We’ve been busy finishing the book version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. It’s a very simple ‘illustrate-it-yourself’ book, about 16 pages long with basic English text, which will be given to all the children in government schools who see the show.

Kaku is using the book as the basis of his translated narration, so that children will hear his words and see the play, then have the book to support their learning of English. And hopefully get creative with their drawings! Penny’s experience as an English teacher has been invaluable editing the text, as she can instantly pick out the verb conjugations or strange prepositions or phrasings which foreign students would find difficult.

The play has a giant story-book as a prop, which the narrators read from, so Penny copied its front cover as a line drawing to go on the front cover of the children’s book. They were printed at the stationers in Kaza, and Penny Ben and Lou spent a busy evening collating all the pages and stapling them. We’ve got 300 copies so that every child at the government schools we visit will get a copy.

Like most of India, the dogs own the night in Spiti. They lie around the streets in a stupor all day, barely moving, unconcerned by people stepping over them. As soon as it gets cooler in the evening, they rouse themselves, and fierce territorial battles and interactions commence. You need to adjust to the nightly sound track before you can sleep well here! To control rabies, and the population, every so often wild dogs are rounded up and sterilised.

Not all though – there’s a couple of extremely cute puppies on our route to the town centre, so it takes AGES to get into town if Izzy is with you.

[photo credit: Ollie – Izzy and the puppies]

On Friday morning, Kaku joined us as we finished breakfast. We will start rehearsing with him at the weekend. Its lovely to see him again, he hasn’t changed at all! He’s just graduated from university and is hoping for a government job using his business studies and commercial skills. For now though, he’s having a fun summer, helping a friend run the café in Ki Monastery and working with us. Its so good to see well-educated Spitians returning here after finishing university, people like Kaku are the future.

[Photo credit: Arjuna – Breakfast with Kaku]

Prop-making is finally complete, just in time!

The scenery trees have new poles and I have blisters! Ollie and I spent hours with only an opinel penknife whittling down the split bamboo chunks from Manali, so that they fitted into the trees.

They look great though, and we quite enjoyed the extremely confused looks from passers by as we worked!

Penny has re-made all the flowers for Tick-Tocks hat using locally sourced plastic waste - unfortunately it doesn't take long to collect the materials. The flowers which 'grow' in the audience will be made in workshops with litter-picked rubbish as we go along.

[Photo – pole whittling before and after]

We had rehearsals on Saturday and Sunday to add Kakus narration into the show. He’s fitted in immediately and although having a translated narration slows the pace of the show, those are useful moments for us to catch our breath, and the understanding of the audience is the most important thing. Kaku narrates the scene ahead in Hindi, so that the audience understands what they’re about to see, and get maximum benefit from then following the story in English. When we perform to mixed age audiences (as opposed to the schools), then Kaku will translate into the local Spitian language instead so that the elders can understand.

[photo credit: Lou]

We overdid it a bit on Saturday, so today – Sunday – we just did a line run and a gentle final rehearsal. We’re ready for our first show on Monday afternoon!

[photo credit: Izzy – The Yak Pack ready to go]

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