Women Entrepreneurs in a Far-Away Land
It had been a week since in the region. Every few days, when we rushed to load our bags into the car early in the morning, we would turn around, glance and then sigh. “Perhaps we should have stayed here longer. It can’t get more beautiful than this.”
It was similar to the emotions we felt during our road trip to New Zealand. Jaw dropping, mesmerising serenity . One after the other. The colours, the landscape, the weather.
Then, we entered Turtuk. As the car drove along the rocky roads, we would brace ourselves for a few high jumps, banging our heads a couple of times here and there. The landscape was dotted green and purple. People walked along the sides of the road going on with their usual routine. Yet every time our eyes met, a big warm smile would immediately appear on their face, with a slight head nod. Kids would wave and even though we couldn’t really hear, it was clear from their lip movement that they were all saying the magical Ladakhi word – ‘julley’!
This place seemed different. The faces were different. Beautifully different. Their clothes were different. The signs on the road were different. There was something untouched and very real about the place and its people.
Then there were clear blue streams, made from glacier water that rushed over rocks. There were picturesque cafes with stunning views of nature. And of course there was the Balti cuisine.
I kept picking my camera and putting it down, not sure if I should let my eyes soak in all that we were passing by, or capture it through the lens. The choice wasn’t a difficult one. It made so much more sense to meet these people and listen to their stories.
And I did.
We walked through the lush fields under the clear blue skies and into narrow cobbled lanes of Farol – one of the two areas of Turtuk. Sometimes we bumped into old men, who were filling their matkas (claypots) with glacier water gurgling through small streams between houses. Sometimes we were stopped by small children, who seemed very keen to speak to us.
Then I met Rebab. Sitting on a chair under an orange canopy of apricots. She was selling freshly plucked cherries, mulberries and of course apricots. A roughly trimmed signboard made from an old cardboard, that hung just above her head, listed several appetising Balti dishes.
Behind her, not too far, was a bench, where many neatly folded traditional Balti attires and jewellery were kept. When our eyes met, Rebab got up from her chair and pointed at the fruit cups. I couldn’t resist her smile and stopped. Then I showed her a small pack in my hand that was filled with apricots we had been plucking along our walk. She then quickly pointed to the menu.
I wasn’t exactly hungry but I was curious to know where all the food items were kept or cooked because she was sitting in an open area under a tree with no kitchen or a room in sight. Putting an end to our dumb charades, I asked her the same.
She pointed towards a barrier, made old clothes. And as I peeped in from the side, I saw about 8-9 women sitting there talking.
“Who are they?” I asked without realising I shouldn’t be poking my nose. By then another lady came out from behind the cloth wall and smiled. She was shy at first but soon we got talking.
A group of 25 women in the far-away village of Turtuk had come together to open a Balti cafe. But what inspired them?
“We wanted to support each other. If any girl in the village is facing a problem, we are there for her. We stand up together and make sure we can help her come out of the situation,” came an immediate reply.
They smiled. I smiled. And we were all quiet for a while. There was something so powerful about it all that I needed a few minutes to take it in.
“All 25 are not here. Usually 9 or 10 of us are present in the cafe at a time,” said another woman, breaking the silence.
“And who takes care of your young children or family in general, when you are here,” I was so curious.
“Someone from the family will take care of them. However, during the harvesting season, most of the family members are in the field. In that case other women who are not here will take care of them. We do bring them along sometimes. Our houses are all very nearby so if one of us have to go back home for any reason, someone else will step in. If there is too much work here and we get late, another member of the group will cook for everyone. It’s all doable.”
Farol isn’t a very big area and most of the families in the vicinity are related to each other. With such a strong support network, these women know what not to worry about.
But how successful would this venture be, considering the remote location of Turtuk and the fact that for most of the winter season, snowstorms and bad weather block all the roads that lead to this location?
When I asked them this question, they started looking at each other. First out of confusion. Then with a smile.
“No, during the winter we rest. Everyone in the family is at home. We eat from the food we preserve during summer and spend a lot of time together. This is very special for us. We don’t want to work the entire year.”
“If things could be changed and you had the opportunity to continue working and earning money throughout the year, would you do it,” I almost immediately asked.
“No. What will we do with so much money? We Ladakhi people are very simple. We are happy with what we have.”
Even before I could ask my next question, I felt something heavy on my head from behind and heard my boys giggling. I turned around and realised another woman from their group was trying to tell me to wear their traditional attire. How could I deny that!
After a session of dressing up and selfies, I bid goodbye.
Sun was about to set and this beautiful village with its beautiful people would begin to head home.
If you ever visit Turtuk, get in touch with us. We would love to connect you with these empowered women entrepreneurs.
Until then… julley!