Expat Voice: Lessons from the Highlands

Ori Gutin talks about working in, and for, the Himalayas.


Ori Gutin grew up just outside Washington DC. He studied environmental science at the University of Maryland and worked as the Director of Sustainability in the university’s student government. After doing climate and energy research in Washington DC, and becoming the trip leader for a canoeing expedition in Canada, Gutin, 23, moved to India in September 2016. He talks of his experiences in the country to Little India:

Becoming a Green Activist

One of the very first things I did when I came to India was to go on a Himalayan trek. I trekked to the Rupin Pass, a shepherd’s trail that crosses over from Uttarakhand to Himachal Pradesh. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before in the United States or elsewhere in my travels in Europe, Middle East or even Down Under.

To top it all, as someone who studied environmental science for my undergraduate degree, I was pleasantly surprised by the work done by the trekking company, Indiahikes, that organized the trip towards environment preservation through their Green Trails initiative. I was so impressed by the effort that I started working for this initiative.

Working for the Mountains

I started my work at Lohajung, a small hilltown in Uttarakhand, which serves as base for the Roopkund trek. Waking up every day in the quiet surroundings, away from big cities, in the presence of the majestic Mt. Nanda Ghunti was a true blessing.

The work was difficult, dirty but fulfilling. Since there is no direct supervisor breathing down your neck, it is up to you to be driven to make impact. It was busy, and I loved every moment of it. As someone who was not from India, I was so happy to become a part of a community with such an interesting group of people — and to be the only foreigner as well. I got to work and become friends with people from all walks of life — from mountain villages, Mumbai, Delhi, Rajasthan, South India, Kolkata, etc. I no longer had to travel because the travelers came to me!

Ori Gutin at Bedni Bugyal, Roopkund

Innovations Up in Himalayas

I piloted and installed a new type of rainwater harvesting system on one of the windier campsites on the Roopkund trail — Pathar Nachauni. The mountains are already starved of water resources and it is up to us to not strain them.

However, the challenge of this campsite was that it was difficult to install traditional rainwater harvesting system due to the high velocity of winds. So we figured that a system with low center of gravity would work at such a location. We also built a bench out of bottle bricks (plastic bottles stuffed with plastic trash). We also collected and segregated over 3,000 kg of waste brought down from the trekking trail.

Waste Woes

I conducted an audit of this waste that was brought down, and found that Nestlé was responsible for 20.2 per cent of all pieces of waste that we audited. This means slightly over one out of five plastic wrappers you pick up in the mountains is a Nestlé product such as noodles and chocolate bar wrappers. As many as 616 Maggi noodles wrappers were discovered in the audit, marking 11.75 per cent of all waste audited, nearly a full percentage point higher than the 10.8 per cent of the second biggest polluter — Parle. Imagine, what difference our eating habits can make on the mountains!

As a foreigner in India, I came to learn the magnitude of respect that Indians have for guests. The phrase Atithi Devo Bhava got stuck in my heart. In my understanding, if you go over to someone’s house, you are happily treated like a “god,” and one of the great joys in Indian society is then being able to return that favor and host those people over your home another time and offer them the same treatment. It is about give and take, and enjoying the pleasure of giving as much as receiving.

Well, in the mountains, we are the guests. We are treated like gods by the sun, the mountain peaks, the wildflowers, the beautiful birds, and so much more. But there is no opportunity for us to invite the mountains back to our home afterwards and treat them like a God, unfortunately… So the very least we can do is to be the most humble and gracious guests possible during our time in the mountains. That was one of the most important lessons I learned.

Favorite Place in India

There are so many special and unique places that I have visited in India. I absolutely loved the North East. It was so remote, wild, unpopulated, and just stunningly beautiful.

Dharamsala was my first love in India because it was the first place I went to. I fell in love with Buddhism there, I loved teaching, and made so many close friends. Lohajung, where I worked, was paradise. I knew all the shopkeepers, I knew how the town functioned, I got used to the morning sun peeking over the mountains, and I loved watching the crazy storms from the comfort of a roofed building!

The interview has been condensed and edited. 

Expat Voice is regular column on expats in India. Email us at expat@littleindia.com to nominate yourself or another expat for the column. 

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