People often ask how on earth do I manage to cope with the ‘stress’ of being snowbound, or otherwise isolated in my mountain home, during the winter months so, for the curious, this is the answer:
Winter at 6,000 ft in the Lower Himalayas is, in many respects, a battle of wills – nature versus human and, while it is not easy to reside here at any time of the year, winter really can be a challenge and, I have to admit, not everyone would be able to take it. Even many of the locally indigenous people take the easy option and move down to the plains for the harsh months of winter. But, while I have been actively encouraged, by friends and other well wishers, to follow suit, I chose not to as the mountains, not cities, are my home.
The most stressful part of ‘digging in’ for the winter is, strangely enough, the long preparations and pre-planning that go into making it possible to stay on – no matter what the weather throws this way – and to do so in reasonable warmth and comfort. And it isn’t just myself, I have dogs, cats and birds to cater for too.
Advance planning begins at the end of September when it is necessary to figure out, depending on stocks left over from the winter before, how many maunds of firewood I need to buy in, locate the cheapest, legal source, get the money together, send a trustworthy person to buy good quality, dry wood, load it in pickups, transport it here, unload it, stack it in the waiting woodshed. And then physically, over a period of time, sawing and chopping it down to a size matching the configurements of the wood burning stove I reply on for heating. This wood cutting taking place, in fits and starts, as and when it can be squeezed in between other demands on time. Firewood is increasingly expensive – it costs between Rs 30,000 and Rs 40,000 to keep warm for the winter and would cost much more if, when I can get by, I didn’t restrict lighting the fire until around sunset. If it was to be on all day then the cost would be exorbitant and definitely way beyond my means. Much more sensible to invest in warm clothes and boots which can be used for a few winter seasons at least.
Having budgeted for firewood, there is the budgetary allocation for food stocks – I buy these from October until the weather forecast indicates bad ice or snow as, as I know from long experience, either of these or a combination of both, close the 4 km long access track from the time they occur until, it has happened more than once, the middle or end of March. Walking up the mountain – an extremely steep ‘walk’ at the best of times – is, of course, an option when and if I decide to face the world ‘outside’ but, carrying a load of heavy shopping back down what is often an ‘ice slide’, is impossible. All heavy or bulky items are purchased in advance, got safely home and ‘stashed’ away before the first snow falls.
Human food, animal and bird food, medicines, a topping up of the emergency medical kit, candles etc must all be ‘in’ by mid-December at the latest and be enough to cover until the end of March – longer if possible as, especially over the last 10 years, the weather pattern has become increasingly unpredictable and winter can linger on, as it did last year, well into what used to be spring.
The house too must have a thorough going over before winter arrives. The roof checked over for possible leaks, roof chadors inspected and re-nailed down if the slightest bit loose, exterior water pipes lagged to – one hopes – prevent them from freezing solid and bursting when they thaw, doors and windows checked for draft’s and on and on the list goes.
Once all of the above have been completed to satisfaction, there are last minute items such as topping up credit in the cell phone, getting scratch cards for back up and the same with the internet connection as, for me, these two items are an essential lifeline as far as work and, at times, sanity, go. Much as I relish my own and my animals and birds company, I do like, sometimes actually need, to be able to interact with friends and, it goes without saying, writing work must go on as supporting myself financially is not an option but a necessary ‘evil’.
‘Like-minded’ company does not, unfortunately, exist in this out of the way, off-main road, location but, on the whole, I get a perverse pleasure out of aloneness for much – not all – of what some would view as ‘solitary confinement’ and, in my own way, reconnect with myself, with the natural world around me, the beautiful place in which I have chosen to live and transform ‘confinement’ into ‘contentment’.
There are, of course, times, especially when it is wet, bitterly cold, the power is off and the internet playing hide and seek, that, if I allowed ‘it’ to, the lurking ‘it’ would rear its ugly head and ‘get me’. And, on such days, it can be a major challenge to encourage mind to win over matter. Yet, spurred on by the recognition of my blessings – of which there are so many – I know I can pull through the black and re-emerge into the shining light of whatever revitalization comes my way. Frankly speaking, I thoroughly enjoy this annual period of isolation and view it as a positive time of renewal of ‘self’: Winter strengthens me to take on whatever comes next.
The writer has authored two books titled The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War, The Parwan Wind - Dust Motes and lives in Bhurban.