As I set out on the 20 hour ride to Himachal Pradesh to volunteer for the Mountain Cleaners, I was already planning my return with a great little green travel piece. Something about the beauty of the Himalayas, the quaint district of Chamba, often passed over by foreign tourists, and a sprinkle of feel good earth-saving bull. Instead what I got was one smelly, wet, and tiring week.
The annual Manimahesh Yatra (Pilgrimage) lasts two to three weeks. Hindu followers of Shiva hike, ride and fly to the holy lake, 4201 meters above sea level. I arrived at the tail end, witnessing the final surge in the 500,000 or more (still trying to get an official number) pilgrims making their way to the top. To put this into a global perspective, it takes $414,000 to maintain the still imperfect waste system and facilities for the 292,000 annual visitors to Japan’s Mt. Fuji. At Manimahesh there is typically no money allotted to general clean up and half a million visitors is considered a slow year.
Such is the weight of the task that the Mountain Cleaners undertook in their inaugural mission to the Yatra. My arrival brought the trash saviors of Shiva’s mountain to a total of nine bodies. Jodie Underhill, a small British woman with fly away blond hair and founder of the two year old initiative, was sitting alone with her dog, Toes, at Manimahesh Lake, snowed into her tent and suffering from a fever. Her one employee had just returned from the top at her orders, afflicted with his own combination of head cold and homesickness – at one month and 300 km this was the longest trip he had ever taken from his village.
My first few days were spent in the town of Bharmour. Here my new travel buddy Mike, a British standup comic/social worker in his late forties, and I sorted the waste from about eight bins set out around town. Although the bins were labeled for separate disposal, the message rarely got through and the inside of each metal can looked more or less the same. The idea was to separate out the saleables – plastic and glass bottles, thin plastic, dry paper, and metals. Though composting had been an original hope of the project it was quickly abandoned when the true volume of the waste became clear. The disposal method for non-recyclables, which in this context included snack and cigarette packaging, is as yet undecided. There is no landfill option available, so the town’s unrecyclable garbage usually ends up being thrown off the side of the curving roads in some pretty visible locations.
Watching Mike and I sort waste quickly turned into a community event. Mike, with his grey hair, encroaching scruff and authoritative demeanor was the bell of the ball for the men of Himachal Pradesh. It got so bad that I was tempted to shout out, “Hey American Woman here… HELLO!!?” But instead I got out my camera and at the request of many a young gentleman took snaps of them with the Englishman. Our only requirement to take a picture was that the requestor put on some gloves and pick up some trash. Sort of like a kissing booth at the state fair but our slogan was, “Mere ko Kachra Do, aur Photo Lo” – Bring me trash and take a picture.
Hanging out in town alongside us was an Indian volunteer from Delhi and a complicated, alcoholic, recently divorced Swami who called all the girls darling and read palms – sparkling or tragic fortunes depending on his mood and whether you were laughing at him. During the night we all shared a room in the Bharmour Mountaineering Center’s hostel and the days were spent sorting waste and hiding from the rain under a shack built out of recycled Tetra Paks. Even Baba (the swami) for all his shortcomings was dedicated to the cause and had moments of valuable outreach and contribution to the effort. The village was in total party mode, with events like wrestling matches and concerts in the temple square every night, families sleeping together in every available structure and many more saffron-clad men wandering about. Alcohol was flowing in secret and marijuana was burning everywhere.
After a few days I left the comfort of musty mattresses behind, strapped on my back-pack and headed for the mountain. Reaching the first camp site, the snowcapped peaks and expanse of the Himalayas surrounding me was incredible, as long as I only looked up. Looking down was breathtaking for a very different reason. At Manimahesh there was no informal recycling going on like you find in most of India. Garbage lined and padded the trail all the way up to Manimahesh mixing along the banks of the river with human and animal shit. Pits dug in preparation for the Yatra’s new waste collection system were filled with every sort of crap, metaphorical and otherwise. Cows roaming the mountain climbed into the pits and made themselves right at home. At this point I can only offer speculation as to the lack of activity from the informal recycling industry. Because Himachal Pradesh is a well off and removed state it might be that the incentive to pick up and recycle trash isn’t as strong. Then again it’s also possible that the pilgrimage is just too short to make for-profit collection viable.
For the rest of the week I lived in leaking tents in the makeshift city of Dhunchho (3056 meters), the only entertainment being the good company of the volunteers and an occasional lamb sacrifice. The food was the only real comfort in the whole trip. As a show of religious duty communities organize around one main benefactor to provide free food and chai to pilgrims along the entire road to Manimahesh. There are hundreds of these lungars. They play music early in the morning and late into the night and provide constant support on the mountain for the entire three weeks. When we weren’t stuffing ourselves with lentils and rice the mountain volunteers continued our sorting ritual, picked up garbage bags from the lungars and shops and cleaned up the trail as much as we could.
The most interesting part of the experience for me was the reaction of the Yatra participants to our collection efforts. While Jodie was often called a saint, the Indian volunteers were asked with astonishment how much they got paid and what caste they were from – which might explain why environmental groups like this struggle to find local volunteers and participants. As the trip wore on, my skin tanned and my hair developed a nice dark and straightening sheen so that I looked more and more like a local. When I walked down the mountain on the last day, a solo bottle collector, I was told that I was too pretty and smart to be doing this bad work. One woman asked first in Hindi then in English, “Who are your parents!?” I still don’t have an answer for that one. Some pilgrims didn’t understand why picking up trash was necessary since the river would just carry it away to the ocean. This is of course not the case, and even if it was it would still cause problems. However in general once our mission was explained, everyone was very supportive of the work we were doing. The lungars, who were all volunteers themselves, were the most helpful. Having recently switched to stainless steal dishware from plastic and paper, many of them were ready to commit to even further steps in coming years.
I left the mountain on the last day of the pilgrimage. The hundreds of shelters and stores that had lined my way up the mountain had turned into skeletons and for stretches of time it was just me and my plastic bottles. The quest to clean up Manimahesh will take many more years and much more than a few dozen volunteers. At some point the burden will need to switch to local bodies if there is to be any hope for a permanent solution. But it seems that the Mountain Cleaners are ready to re-load and start again demanding more support from the government and the community. Though their expectations were humbled this year, they made great strides in community outreach and a visible dent in the trash problem. I will certainly be rooting for them.
UPDATE (June 24th 2011) One of the Lodges that houses the Mountain Cleaners recently burned down destroying the groups equipment at Triund. If you are interested you can find out more about the fire and donate money for new equipment here: