Our co-founder Sandhya UC delivered this speech at a Women’s Day gathering organized by Women’s Web in association with CoWrks.
Sandhya’s talk starts below.
Last week we received an enthusiastic blog from our trekker Ananya. She is in her 20’s – young, free-spirited and like any other young woman of today. The blog talked about her fantastic journey on one of our treks last winter.
I was mesmerised at how well she wrote. I loved her photography too. She was self-taught as far as I could see.
She had come on the trek alone. She came with the usual apprehensions, mingled with a lot of like-minded trekkers, made friends for a lifetime, and left the trek with a lot of memories.
This is the face of women that I see every day. Normal women doing not-so-normal activities.
I am in a position to see this closely because behind me are some interesting statistics.
To give you a background of Indiahikes: we are India’s largest trekking organisation. We run treks across the Himalayas. More than 15,000 people trek with us every year. This large database throws up some interesting statistics.
This number seems to be inching up. In the near future, will it reach 50 percent? I am not sure. But the current numbers are a very good representation in a sport that is considered risky and not for the faint-hearted. Many solo working women now trek and travel regularly to the remotest corner of our country – this seems extraordinary.
Yet, I am not surprised. The reason is trekking is not the usual travelling. It is a lot safer – you get to trek in like-minded groups. You are protected not only by the organisation but also by the group. It is letting women explore a side of themselves that they probably had never done before.
In short, trekking is giving women a space to open up their mind, body and spirit.
Last year, a couple of senior women managers from SAP India trekked to Deoriatal-Chandrashila (12,083 feet). Nothing unusual about it. Now we have got used to groups of single women trekking with us.
At the end of the trek, we usually have a reflection session. Here’s what happened in this group.
The ladies broke down and cried their hearts out. They had discovered they were capable of a lot more than they had imagined. Their body had more capacity, their mind was a lot tougher and their spirit, which they thought was dead in their corporate jobs, was very much alive. The trek had kick-started everything back again. They felt alive again!
This sudden outburst of emotions didn’t surprise me as well.
A trek usually brings about profound changes in a person. It happens in every group that we run.
But this change is not just limited to our trekkers.
Let me share stories about some normal women who have done extraordinary things. They are working with us, so I know them well.
Anuja is from Lucknow. Her parents are doctors. In her high school, Anuja discovered that her parents were no longer getting along. They were divorcing. This came as a shock to her. Until that time, she thought everything was perfect in her family.
She passed out of high school, graduated and as soon as she could, moved out. She did few odd jobs and landed in Mumbai. In Mumbai, she picked up photography. She must have been good because she soon started getting assignments with the Times of India, Midday and other publications.
But there was an adventurer’s streak in her. She soon started trekking with us. Like the ladies I have mentioned earlier, she rediscovered her mind, body and spirit. As she got more into trekking, she wanted to work with us. At that time we were not really sure if we could have a full-time photographer/videographer work with us. Because of this, we turned her down.
Anuja was persistent, but so were we, in turning her down.
Meanwhile, she started to trek more in the Himalayas, on her own. This requires some courage. Trekking in the safety of Indiahikes is one thing, but doing it alone is another matter altogether.
Soon she picked one of the tougher treks to do in the Himalayas. The infamous Pin Parvati Pass that rises to 17,500 feet. If that was not enough, she did not do it from start to finish, like a trekker. Instead, she joined a group of shepherds and tagged along with them. I had not heard of anyone doing something like this earlier, leave alone a woman!
She lived the life of a shepherd for 15 days. A single lady in the Himalayas. She lived with them, learnt how to tend to sheep, walked with them. She crossed the pass along with a flock of sheep, completed the trek and did not look back.
When Anuja applied again, she did not want to be a photographer. She applied to be a trek leader!
This was unprecedented. Trek leaders are mostly men. The rigorous profession suits them physically. Here we were faced with this puny, gutsy woman who wanted to be a trek leader.
But we took her in.
Today Anuja is one of the rare few women trek leaders in India. There are a few others who took to trek leading after her.
But her journey has not been smooth. Twice on her treks, she damaged her left and right knee in freaky accidents. Once she slipped on a cow dung at the end of a trek. At another time she missed a stair in the darkness at our base camp. Both times, her ligaments were damaged badly enough to require surgery.
Last summer, however, she surprised us by volunteering to man a high altitude camp at 14,000 feet surrounded by permanent snow and ice for one month — Bhagwabhasa. These are absolute desolate settings. Temperatures are sub-zero all the time. You live in tents in a cold desert. Nothing but a small patch of land is yours. You are up every day at 3 in the morning getting trekkers ready to trek.
On most days high winds rip through the camp. Blizzards that flatten tents are not uncommon. Snowfall happens anytime. It is a task that not even the men would rise up to do.
Anuja is a living legacy. Through her work, she has inspired countless women to dream of picking up such careers. Our women applications for trek leaders have gone up. On her treks, Anuja is constantly surrounded by our curious trekkers who want to be like her. We get emails every other day telling us about how inspiring Anuja has been in their lives.
While Anuja is inspiring people to go beyond what they are capable of, Lakshmi, on the other hand, is slowly bringing about a transformation in the mountains.
Lakshmi is an academician. After completing her doctorate in Mechanical Engineering from IISc and KAUST, Saudi Arabia, she worked with the best researchers in the world, travelling around Europe.
But she was hugely motivated to do her part for conserving the environment. She decided to leave her research job and intern with us in our Green Trails project.
Just to give you a backdrop, our Green Trails project is something that we have been doing for over 5 years now. It started with trying to make trekking environmentally sustainable in the mountains – because we knew it was beyond the government to do anything much at that time. We were noticing growth in trekking. We decided we could set future best practices. We were the market leaders, whatever we did would become the practice for everyone. Today our Green Trails project has grown to something much beyond that.
Today we are doing projects in renewable energy and upcycling waste that is generating income for the locals. We have also formed self-help groups making way for model villages. All of this is being done quietly thanks to women like Lakshmi.
Lakshmi joined us as an intern on our Sandakphu trek. The work was something new to her. Yet, she took to it with aplomb. She setup waste management practices that were new and unique to the village. Along with the District Forest Officer, she mobilised efforts to clean up the village.
Lakshmi made posters in Hindi and Nepali that directed people on how to segregate waste. Her posters are still a bit of a hoot with us because she used Google to translate into Nepali. But her message reached people where it mattered. When her internship ended, Jaubari was a model village in waste management.
Looking at her capabilities we asked Lakshmi to join us full-time. She took our offer and is now heading our Green Trails effort across 3 geographies in India.
Considering the remoteness of our locations and the far distances between our treks it is astounding to see the strides she has made. Even as I speak to you, around 25 village women will gather tomorrow morning in the hills of Uttarakhand to make attractive pillows. For every pillow they make, they earn Rs 50. In an hour they can make 3 pillows. In probably 4-5 fun-filled hours, they earn as much as the men.
These pillows are special. These pillows are stuffed with shredded waste plastic, old tents, and ragged clothes. While on the inside it is waste getting upcycled, on the outside, they look extremely attractive. When trekkers buy it, they buy it for the lovely cushions they are.
People imagine that it is easy to do that. It isn’t. First, waste plastic is painstakingly picked up on our mountain slopes. It is done in extreme weathers of snow and low temperatures. Most of the picked waste may have been lying around for years. Our trekking teams pick up the trash while they are on a trek. Group after group pick up trash all through the year.
This trash is stuffed in sacks and brought down to our base camp. At the base camp, our teams sit on these piles of garbage and segregate the recyclables from non-recyclables. This is an almost inhuman and back-breaking job. Our team has to dive through filthy garbage, often maggot infested.
After we have segregated the waste, we clean them up and make them ready for upcycling. The clean waste is manually shredded into fine strips for stuffing into pillow covers. As you can see, to make one pillow, it takes a lot of physical labour. The villagers themselves realise the required hard work. As a result, they now collect their trash and bring it to us for segregation. The villages around our treks that didn’t look very clean now have a different look.
Lakshmi is the force behind this. Working remotely and sometimes hands-on, she has been able to galvanise a team across the length and breadth of Himalayas to carry out such difficult tasks. She has been able to get reluctant villagers to leave aside their inhibitions and care for their surroundings. She has been able to motivate our team of trek leaders to go beyond their tasks.
At one end our teams are bringing down tons of waste from the mountains. Last year it was 11 tons. On the other hand, there are research fellows who are thinking of ways of harnessing natural resources such as wind, rain and water.
These trek leaders move from one village to another building dustbins and conducting awareness drives on efficient waste management practices. It is not easy but there has been a distinct change in the villages. All of this with Lakshmi at the centre holding the reins.
Lakshmi is only 28 years old.
It is incredible to see what someone as young as she can achieve. She is just like us. But she has never let her gender come in the line of work. When she works in the mountains she is hands down running up and down our mountain slope. She sleeps when she can. She eats what is available or sometimes not at all.
She constantly works and every day I see there is a difference. At times she despairs but she never gives up. The mountains in our country, especially around trekking zones, are witnessing a change. Villages in these remote corners are waking up to a cleaner, greener surrounding. They are utilizing their resources to make productive things out of waste. Thousands of trekkers are coming back from treks as responsible citizens, spreading the message of Green Trails even further.
Lakshmi is a reminder of what women can do if they let go of their gender.
Women like Ananya, Anuja and Lakshmi are the faces of new women that I see today.
What I notice is that none of them is the type that you see in newspapers. If you met them you would not even glance at them. They may not even come across as articulate. Yet, they are making big differences in their own ways.
In my journey at Indiahikes, I have the privilege to hear these stories from women every other day. It is perhaps the nature of work that we do.
You may think that these changes that I notice are one-off cases. They are not. I am backed by statistics. 32 percent of our trekkers are women. 80 percent of them are single women. It is hard to shake off these numbers. There is a definite change that is happening in our country.
And I believe it is for the good.
What you should do now
1. If you’d like to listen to Sandhya’s TedX Talk on her journey in entrepreneurship, head over to this page – How I Climbed The Mountain Of Entrepreneurship
3. If you’re inspired by this story and want to work with us: Head over to our careers page. We have lots of positions open. We also have lots of applications coming in. So the sooner you apply, the better.
4. If you ended up here by chance and were actually looking for treks to do: Then head over to our upcoming treks page. You’ll find all our Himalayan treks there.