A Helping Hand
Travel+Leisure India|October 2021
The rugged landscape and kind residents of Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh make for the perfect antidote to city life. A wide range of voluntourism programs offered by a social enterprise not only make the life of locals easier but also help visitors tap into the essence of ‘the middle land’.
RASHIMA NAGPAL

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to visit Spiti Valley. I have an affinity for the obscure, far-flung corners of the world. I loved being in Ladakh a few years ago, and I know Spiti isn’t any less charming. But I also know that this won’t be just another trip—I have a purpose in mind. The purpose of volunteering with Spiti Ecosphere, a social enterprise I discovered many moons ago.

Ecosphere’s roots lie in Muse, an NGO that was founded in 2002 by three friends (one of whom is Ishita Khanna, Ecosphere’s current director) with a shared passion for the mountains, environment, and the valley of Spiti in particular. It started with their vision for sea buckthorn, a wild shrub with bright orange berries that grow along the banks of River Spiti, which runs through the valley. For thousands of years, the shrub has been used by traditional medicine practitioners or amchis. But its ecological and commercial potential was explored only a few decades ago. Muse engaged locals and set up processing units to make delicious products out of sea buckthorn. It didn’t take long for the wild experiment to turn into a fruitful brand called Tsering, which means ‘blessings for long life’ in Spiti Bhoti, the local Tibetan dialect. Tsering offers all the natural benefits of sea buckthorn in the form of jam, squash, syrup, tea, powder, as well as dried berries. The two outposts of Ecosphere in Kaza—the restaurants Taste of Spiti (since 2014) and Sol Cafe (since 2012)—proudly display Tsering products on their counters and even use them in their kitchens.

After a 10-hour journey from Manali to Kaza, on the rockiest roads I’ve ever experienced, I should be exhausted. Instead, I’m exhilarated. It is hard not to be, after gaping at the unbelievable landscapes en route to Spiti Valley, which is often called ‘the middle land’ due to its location between Tibet and India. The delights of Spiti are only amplified by the fact that I’m on a two-week break after months of a pandemic-induced work from home rut. This is also my first attempt at voluntourism. I’ve signed up for Create for a Cause, a program that allows people from creative fields to work with Ecosphere. Khanna and I decide that I will document some volunteering experiences—in words and visuals.

Cafe Chronicles

My base for the first few days is Old Kaza, arguably the most commercialised neighborhood in Spiti Valley. This is where Ecosphere has set up its base, physically. Effectively, however, Ecosphere’s footprints are everywhere in the valley. “We have around 550 passive solar rooms, over 150 greenhouses, an increasing number of solar water pumps that we’ve recently begun setting up, and more initiatives spread across the valley,” Ishita tells me.

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