The idea of sustainability, first proposed in 1854 when Henry David Thoreau published Walden, has come to mean a way of living that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In today’s developed countries, where the acquisition of material possessions is highly valued, achieving a sustainable lifestyle is quite impossible. But during my recent home stay in the tiny mountain community of Puma village I witnessed an example of sustainable living that is as close to pure as can be expected in a developed world.
The 60 or 70 simple homes that make up Puma village (sometimes referred to as Puma Gaon) are constructed primarily from locally available stone, clay and timber, as are the mortarless, hand-hewn paths that cascade down the mountainside. Artesian wells bubble up through the impervious rock and flow year round, providing residents with free water that can be brought into the homes via pipe or hose. Houses are generally unheated, despite being at high altitude. Instead, people retire early and snuggle under thick quilts in bone-chilling winter temperatures, rising before dawn to sparingly stoke outdoor clay ovens with firewood gathered from the surrounding forest.
Puma village is inhabited solely by members of the Gurung caste, who have traditionally served in the military or farmed. On terraced mountain fields, each Gurung family plants rice, millet, potatoes, and a variety of leafy greens. Crops provide the bulk of their annual food needs and only a few staples like spices, cooking oil, and tea must be purchased. But abundant natural resources and fertile lands aside, the real secret to Puma’s success is its tradition of helping one another and practicing an age-old barter system.
During my four day home stay, the rice harvest was just beginning. Aama, now well into her seventies and no longer capable of farming her own land, lent out her wooden yoke and till to neighbors, who attached it to their oxen team and, after the rice had been cut, plowed her fields as well as their own. In return, Aama prepared her spacious stone patio for drying the harvested rice. A younger neighbor mixed local clay with sheep’s wool and water until it was the consistency of putty and spread it by hand over the cracks between flagstones. Aama paid the woman with a mound of dried rice and several chunks of rock salt. While the patio was being sealed, Aama’s grandson, Prakash, arrived and made Chang, an alcoholic beverage from rice paste that had been fermenting for several days, while Nani, another member of Aama’s extended family, severed millet seeds from their long stalks in preparation for making home-brewed beer.
When it was time for Aama’s buffalo to be bred, a neighbor lent out his bull as a sire, and the buffalo milk from the mother was subsequently shared. Aama’s two hens and a cock kept her well-supplied with eggs, and a dozen or so chicks provided meat for the table. Other neighbors raised goats, which also provided a ready source of meat. Nothing was wasted in this community; millet and rice stalks were used as forage for the buffalo and buffalo dung was recycled in the vegetable garden.
Though residents of Puma live a simple existence, I was constantly amazed by their level of sophistication. Unlike larger metropolitan areas, where trash is blithely tossed into street, Puma is trash free because village elders have established fines for anyone caught littering. In the same vein, the village has partnered with World Vision to develop an environmental sanitation program that established rules for building toilets and made open defecation a fineable offense. Aama’s squat toilet was, without a doubt, the cleanest I have ever seen and there was not a speck of trash to be found anywhere on her property.
Even the mountain schools were more advanced than others I visited around Nepal. Both the primary school in Puma village and the secondary school in nearby Baglung Pani have well-stocked libraries, courtesy of the Room to Read program out of Great Britain. Students are taught English from the moment they start school and every youngster I spoke to could converse in English to some degree. When I questioned the school headmasters about their most pressing needs I was told that computers are a number one priority, as the children must be computer literate in order to enter the workforce. Schools I visited in Pokhara were lucky to have pencils and notebooks for the students.
Another force to be reckoned with in Puma is its Mother Group, an organization of women who perform traditional Gurung dances and songs around Nepal and throughout SE Asia. Each family in Puma is expected to participate in the group; those who cannot perform sew costumes, cook, or keep the books. Revenues from their performances have paid for a community pavilion, repaired or built rock staircases, and even constructed a modern rice mill, eliminating the need to husk rice with hand-held grinders.
This tradition of looking after one another has resulted in strong community ties in Puma. Neighbors stopped by Aama’s home each morning to share a cup of tea and again in the evening as the setting sun painted orange and purple hues on the snowy mountaintops. Girls from neighboring homes gathered on the porch and sat with their arms thrown about one another, singing and gossiping, while adults sat on the patio rock wall and reviewed the day’s work. The interdependent lifestyle of these villagers has forged a sense of love and caring that I have rarely witnessed elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the outside world is increasingly impacting life in Puma. Electricity used to be generated by a cooperative owned by the village but over time they could not maintain the infrastructure, so the plant was turned over to the government and residents now must pay for their electricity. Soap, shampoo, light bulbs, mattresses, metal pots and pans, water hoses and drums, and matches must all be purchased, and many villagers own cell phones, mp3 players, and televisions. As the modern world increasingly encroaches on this idyllic mountaintop, my fervent hope is that the residents of Puma are able to adapt without losing a lifestyle that values faith, family and friends above all else.
Giri Gurung, managing director of Nepal Tourism Travels & Adventures, organized a portion of my travels in and around Nepal, including my trips to Nagarkot, Changu Narayan, Chitwan National Park, and this amazing four-day home stay with his family in Puma. Nepal Tourism Travels & Adventures office is in Kathmandu, conveniently located in the Thamel backpacker district. Their website is www.nepaltourismtravels.com.np, and Giri’s email is [email protected] or [email protected].