Himalayan Showers and a Little Feminism

I saw a Ted Talk on cold shower therapy last fall, in the depths of my junior year rut when I was searching for some little bit of enlightenment anywhere, even my bathroom. It is supposed to be good for discipline, self-control and strengthening the mind over body, etc. I tried it for a week or two and felt myself missing the point. It was a more uncomfortable version of my daily routine, a banal experience which may or may not have given me a bad cold because it was in November. There was something oddly forced about it–I guess because it was completely forced.

The first week or two at Chirag is intended for immersion–we learn to eat, sleep, speak, walk, and practice proper hygiene the Kumauni way. I am grateful for this because I need to learn the cultural customs before I begin research and I need to seriously brush up on my Hindi before I really do anything–sorry Mom, the “speak Hindi” iPad app you downloaded isn’t cutting it. Chirag is beautiful. The hill station is full of sunlight and fresh air and happy people and the view of the mountains is unbelievable, kodak moment sunsets every night. Mary and I joked that it almost seemed like one of those posh rehab centers in California or Colorado–which is ironic because it kind of is like a mini week of rehab after the stressful, neurotic, pre-med thesis filled Junior year at Penn. So while we are immersing ourselves before the real work begins, we learned how to get clean–in the shower, that is.
In Chirag, there is no cold shower therapy–there are Himalayan bucket showers. They are far more dicey, albeit fulfilling. Supposedly the warm water works here sometimes, but we have yet to find out how and quite frankly I am okay with that. The bucket showers are refreshing and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that cold water is good for the immune system and shiny hair or glowing skin but I might just be super-imposing lines from a Cosmopolitan issue with the “scientific evidence” proposed to back up this therapeutic practice in the Ted Talk. In our case, getting the beauty benefits is far less glamorous. We huddle in the corner of a small tiled room next to a sketchy drain and a tap slowly filling up a bucket with cold water. There is a small pitcher–the same one used for the Indian toilet, which is a whole new story–and we dip this into the bucket and pour onto our bodies. If you’re feeling ambitious you might start out with the back and shoulders but I usually cop-out and ease in with my legs then move upwards, like dipping into a swimming pool in May at the very start of the season when it’s still too chilly to swim. The first few times it felt Draconian. My co-interns could hear my enthused gasping through the door, which grew louder with each pitcher of freezing water down my upper body until I became acclimated. They said it sounded like a weird mix of pleasure and pain–and it was. Halfway in to the bucket shower, you hit this sublime comfort level–I am not sure if it is my body adjusting to the water temperature or a full-body numb sensation but it almost feels like a high. Then the cold water becomes addicting, thrilling. It’s quite strange. I like to bucket shower in the morning.

It feels “Himalayan”. I cant explain how but something about shivering in the cold air of that tile room with freezing wet hair, as the morning sunlight floods in over the himalayas through the window–it felt real. I could talk about how it made me feel grateful for unlimited hot water or how I realize I take advantage of the norms of hygiene in a western home but it really just made me feel wild, and mountainous. I felt connected to the daily life of the people who live here, whose discomforts are far and wide beyond a cold bucket shower. So often the locals here talk about “it has become habit”, whether it’s in reference to cooking in smoke filled unventilated kitchens or carrying 75 lb sacks of wheat 7 km to home. I suppose the cold bucket showers are my first Kumauni habit. This makes me feel truly and honestly, “immersed”.
Perhaps it really is therapeutic.


The real deal

Besides feeling immersed, I feel surprised–over and over again. I was most surprised by a brilliant young girl who wants to be a doctor and refuses to show her gorgeous smile in pictures so she always looks annoyed. Her name is Neha.

We met Neha in the village of Sitla, which is a 5 km hike from Chirag–after our first encounter we agreed to return the next day so she could take us fruit picking. The hike to her village is almost entirely uphill which was exhausting, especially with the altitude. I did not understand the meaning of “breathtaking” until now. Each 10 minute interval of uphill trekking was interrupted by stunning views which begged for water breaks and canon and nikon play dates. Mary is the “official photographer” but we both play the same game where we stop to fumble with our lens caps and manual focus settings. The best part is that we do all of this strenuous hiking in our kurtita tops, flowy pants, and scarves–so by the time we get to the top we still look fabulous and kind of ready for a formal affair. My chaco sandals are the best investment I’ve ever made–the Himalayan trails are easy on my feet even though they look so obviously “american hippie tourist granola whatever”. Anyways, there’s a small temple In Sitla where Aardra and I prayed to the village Goddess, Sitla, and put vermillion on our foreheads. I feel safe with my “third eye”– eye contact here tends to be intense and intentional.

Neha had just taken her 10th grade board exams and was free to show us around the local Kumaun villages, take us fruit picking, and give a tour of the local “spiritual mission”, Ashwan (sp?). After a day of adventures, we returned to Neha’s house to meet her parents and drink chai. It was a simple house, and all seven of them slept in a ten by eight foot room with a dirt floor–but it was cozy, warm and full of life. Neha got her smile from her mother, who invited us in the kitchen to see how she cooked on the wood-burning stove and tried to feed us despite our insistence that we had lunch waiting for us in Chirag. After finishing our chai, we spoke to Neha about her education. She is fifteen and speaks perfect Kumuani and formal Hindi, as well as basic english.
Neha read us a poem she wrote in Hindi from a page in her tattered notebook. Every other page was water-damaged pages and ripped–but the writing looked like professional calligraphy. It was perfect, like something you would see etched into the marble of a Hindu temple. Her poem, which rhymed beautifully in hindi, translated roughly into the following:
Education is a natural right for everyone
You must become educated to take control of your future
It must be equal for boys and girls because it opens up a new world
Female infanticide must stop, it is nonsense because all girls can do what boys do but we need education to prove this
Education will be the great equalizer

Neha was so graceful and poised for her age. Not only was she excited to show us around and teach us about the mountains but she was constantly asking us questions, even how to say a few phrases in Chinese. The way she spoke about her own ambitions and the rights of other young girls like her was so refreshing. She was critical, she approached the cultural situation of gender in the region from an informed and inspired perspective. It was absolutely outstanding–It was grassroots feminism. I don’t even like calling it feminism because I can define feminism somewhat and this was undefinable–it changed my perspective on being a woman. I was speechless. I brought along about twenty single yards of fabric to give away as gifts and luckily Neha’s father is the local tailor. They are very special to me. I can only imagine what the next 80 days will bring.


Neha and her mother picking Kafal fruit (berries)

Neha and her mother picking Kafal fruit (berries)


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About Caroline Kee

Located in West Philadelphia, where I attend the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. I am a junior in the 2015 graduating class, majoring in global health and minoring in creative writing. This summer I will be an intern at Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG) in the Kumaon Mountain region of Uttarakhand, India.