It’s a gray morning in Agora. Acres of lush jungle pour out of the clouds in a muted tumble towards the river. Bright rooftops and colorful walls barely stand out, everything blended by the overtone of clouds preparing for the monsoon.
Today is our last day in the valley. As we reach a major transition point in our journey, it is hard to believe how much we have done. I organized a gallery of pictures from our trip this morning and it was staggering to reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve seen, what we’ve discussed, and the many miles we’ve traveled during this adventure. There is more to come – and some serious highlights do remain – but today feels like a day to reflect.
A lot has changed since we were last here, in this tight knit community perched above the Assi Ganga. The motor road has rammed its way into the heart of things. Babies have become children, children have become young people, young people have become adults, adults have become parents and headmen and business owners. The trout have returned to the pools they’ve haunted since 1862. LTE cell signal is no longer a search. COVID has come and gone and come again. The Bharat Tourist Lodge, now called Navitve Himalayan Homestay, has been seriously upgraded and a half dozen new homestays have opened up, allowing more and more people to stay here en route to Dodital or some other trekking destination. The pace of change is likely to continue to accelerate and there are legitimate reasons to wonder how long this place can remain something close to just the newest version of itself. The CCS Points of Conflict and our core themes are right here, just a glance away. Change feels inevitable.
But the essence of Agora remains and is unmistakable:
- Family First – as has been the case in this valley for hundreds of years, family still comes first. The first question from each villager’s mouth is always “How is your family? Dad? Mom? Sisters? Everyone doing OK?” The first priority is always keeping the nucleus safe and healthy and on a path towards success. The main reference point for understanding things and considering big decisions lies within the wisdom of the familiar, of generations of your kin who have not only survived here but have thrived here. The idea of self is forged in the bonds you benefit from and contribute to, not in an isolated drive to stand apart or above. The burden of life here, taxing and back-breaking as it might seem to us, feels doable with your family around you. And, yes, even close friends become counsin-brothers and, for the repeat visitors, even CCS students and teachers can feel like part of the sinewy muscle of intimate trust and love.
- Bountiful Jungle – although lives here in Agora have been sucked into the modern economy, the jungle remains the most bountiful source of what people need. In our host families, we have eaten ferns and greens harvested easily in the adjacent forest. Three quarters of the village is out in the jungle now, living in one of Agora’s three summer villages while things are so green and accessible (May through August). It’s the best time of year for the lucky ones out there – easy eating, little effort to keep livestock full and happy, and lots of time to exchange stories, songs, and culture. The forest is a key reason why this way of life endures. It allows for the time needed to share and teach and enjoy Garwhali culture. For us, the jungle has also provided, as it has for hundreds of years, plenty of adventure. We’ve hiked steep, beautiful valleys. We’ve caught big and numerous brown trout. And we’ve heard epic stories – a tiger lurking in the highest reaches of the valley (9 feet long and hungry for cows and water buffaloes), a Gujjar who killed a bear with a metal milk bucket, lots of rare sightings of things like snow leopards and musk deer. These stories are part of the fabric of this place.
- Healthy Living – it is hard not to feel healthy here. Everything is up or down and then up. The food is all organic and grown by the people cooking it – there is no separation of food and people. And we’ve eaten almost exclusively vegetarian food for this week here in the valley. Despite the grumblings of teenagers hungry for the familiar and meat, this food really does make us feel good. It gives the necessary energy without the excess we’re so accustomed to in our diets back in the US. It nourishes us, helps us recover. The water, tapped directly out of the mountain above the village and then filtered by a filter pump we brought with us, is tasty, cold and pure. The air is clean. The nights are cold and dark, perfect for sleeping. It is hard to come here, foreign and exotic as it might appear, and not feel like it’s a very healthy place to be. My body, for one, feels as good as it ever does. And the 70, 80, and 90 year olds still walking these paths are testament to the fact that life here can be healthy for a long time. Despite a tangible lack of access to medical care, people are obviously healthy. They’re known as the most handsome and beautiful in India for a reason…
- Open Hearts – although the family comes first here, the final essence of Agora that strikes me this morning is the consistent openness of its people. They’re not just open in an accepting way, they’re open in a loving way. These people really do care about others, even if those others are foreigners who come in without a clue how to act or what to do. It’s remarkable each time we see it. During our few days here, students have played with children, been dressed up in local garb, been allowed to ask and prod on sensitive subjects, been trusted to do work and contribute, been cared for and looked after, and, honestly, just been loved. It’s a place where love does not feel taboo or reserved for a select few worthy of it. It feels like a place where love binds things together, family or not.
As we prepare to leave, I know there is going to be a lot more to share. But I wanted to give you, those not lucky to be with us, a bit more context. This is a place worth visiting for so many reasons and it is hard not to feel like sharing some of those reasons after benefiting so much from them.
Thankful to be here.