By Khushali Sanghvi, intern at Himalayan Ecotourism
It all started with a wish. A wish to do it differently. I did not want to settle for a regular 9 to 5 day internship for my college essay and wanted to be a part of an organisation that served a greater purpose. So, I ended up searching for internships in the Himalayas, a place I have always wanted to go to. I knew if I restricted myself for an internship within the boundaries of Mumbai, I would never be able to learn things that were completely foreign to me. So, I typed into Google, ‘Internships in the Himalayas’. I came across the website of Himalayan Ecotourism, a social enterprise promoting sustainable tourism and development in the Himalayas and organized treks in the Great Himalayan National Park. I tried to learn more about the company and about what they did, and found out that they also made efforts to empower the local people with a focus on women and took measures to prevent forest fires. This seemed like my place to be and I felt like I could contribute to it. I quickly jumped onto the enquiry page and wrote to Stephan Marchal, the director of Himalayan Ecotourism, about interning with their organisation for Social Media Marketing. I wasn’t sure if I’d be receiving a reply, but just two days later, I got a response. After a few days of discussion over emails, he told me I was selected and I could join from the 20th of September, 2019. I could not contain my excitement and wanted to scream from mountain tops. I was finally going to do something I wanted to do, at a place I wanted to be at, while contributing to a greater purpose with an organisation with truthful intentions.
It was the 19th of September and I was on my way to Banjar, Himachal Pradesh, where Stephan’s house was located. Being completely alone and travelling all the way from Mumbai was terrifying, but liberating at the same time. I felt like the journey was already teaching me so much before I even started with my internship. On the morning of 20th September, I had arrived at the Banjar bus stand. Stephan guided me to his house and so, I took a cab ride upto Bihar village, a secluded mountain town, barely touched by tourism. The road seemed beautiful, with tall pine trees all around me, curvy roads and fresh air everywhere. After reaching my destination and introducing myself to Stephan, he showed me my room. Apparently, two young women Margot and Elisabeth had been staying there for a few days already and had come to practice Physiotherapy all the way from Belgium. They seemed like good company and I knew I would have a great experience spending time with them. After freshening up, I got to meet Stephan’s family. Hema ji, his wife and Aniq, Janisha and Joyal, their kids were delightful and immediately took away the thought of being away from my family. I already knew that I was going to feel welcomed throughout the duration of my internship.
My work started the same day. Having a road map to follow gave me a clear idea of the things I had to work on. Along with social media marketing, I had a few other interesting tasks to achieve. Luckily I had designed an outline of the things I had planned to do for Himalayan Ecotourism which helped give me a kickstart for my internship. My first day was just about understanding my work, connecting with the family, Margot and Eli. After a full day of working, we all sat together in the living area, chatting about various things, while the kids played around and Stephan beautifully played the piano in the background.
It took me a day or two to adjust to the new environment. It was my first time going away from home for such a long period of time. So, I decided to welcome experiences of all kinds with open arms. Although, we would work through the afternoons, I never felt exhausted. I was enjoying working on something I was truly interested in. My first few days were spent designing posters for our crowdfunding campaigns and for hiring an Office Assistant. It was my first time doing any kind of recruiting work, and it was such a good learning experience. I was taking telephonic interviews, maintaining an excel document, posting and promoting photos on the social media pages of Himalayan Ecotourism, promoting the tree plantation campaign and interacting with locals. Speaking of locals, I had a wonderful opportunity to engage in various conversations with the local women of the village. It was amazing to see how they did not let the conservative environment stop them from getting an education of their choice and were happily willing to let me help them with career options. One of the days, Stephan organized a soap making session with the local women to show me the procedure of making organic hand-made soaps, which drove income for empowering the local women to stand up on their feet. It was extremely fun to see how the ingredients were measured and mixed to develop beautiful hand-made soaps that smelt absolutely amazing. The packaging was simple yet pretty and did not use any material that could be harmful for the environment. Another social measure initiated by Stephan was to Stop Forest Fires. With the various awareness campaigns run by Himalayan Ecotourism, Stephan and his team successfully prevented forest fires since the Monsoon of 2018. Before that, the valley suffered with hundreds of forest fires each year which directly affected the lives of the local people. The reason I loved working with Himalayan Ecotourism was that I witnessed the business style myself. I had seen many tourism companies irresponsibly practicing tourism, harming the environment and charging unfair prices to their customers whereas Himalayan Ecotourism made a conscious effort to help the environment, while practicing tourism in an ethical manner. As it was a joint venture between a firm and the co-operative society of The Great Himalayan National Park, it gave a lot of employment opportunities to the locals and developed a great working environment between them. Also, the customers could always see where their money was going by booking a trek with Himalayan Ecotourism and felt like they were a part of sustainable development too. That is what I absolutely loved about it.
As the week passed, I started bonding more and more with the family and started to indulge in the village culture. After Margot and Eli left, we welcomed three other girls from Belgium, who were also physiotherapists – Emilie, Line and Sarah. As the friendship amongst us grew, we started to have a lot of fun together. We visited the village wedding, the one that Stephan and his family were invited to, learnt the local dance steps, ate local food, and not once did we feel like outsiders. It was a delight to see every person in the village come together as one during the festivities and occasions, and becoming a part of the celebration was nothing less than special. To witness the milky way from our house, lying on the rooftop stargazing, looking at Jupiter and its satellites from the telescope, eating our meals together, talking about where we came from and what we came for; were the things that made me feel grateful for my experiences with Himalayan Ecotourism. Stephan too, was friendly with all of us and believed in teaching us things outside of the textbooks. His drive for photography enabled me to learn so much from him while he would ask me questions related to social media. The exchange of knowledge was priceless as the bond shared was impeccable.
With Sunday picnics, brunches, French lessons given to me by Stephan and the physiotherapists, meeting new people everyday, quality time spent as a family and the many things to learn, I realised how important the little things in life are. It is impossible to sum up my experience with Himalayan Ecotourism in a 1200 word article, but all I can say is, “People always talk about how the world is full of unpleasant people, but I say, if you really look around, you will find people to love wherever you go.”