Mysteries of an Himalayan construction site

January 2009

When I first saw the piece of land we had bought, I wondered what kind of house could possibly fit on it; the plot looked pretty small. I thought that it might be big enough to put a larger tent on it, that’s it! It’s not that I didn’t like the idea of living in a tent or maybe a nice tipi, but after all the stories about leopards in the area we got to hear from locals and more after having seen one in full daylight I actually preferred to have four solid walls around my bed.

Construction site

After we had all the property papers in our hands, the first thing that Baba and I did was to celebrate a small puja ceremony on the plot amidst the high grown grass and flowers, together with the tourists who stayed at the same guesthouse. We chanted some mantras, lit incense and shared some food.

It took Baba a couple of weeks to gather the working people, who first proceeded to flatten the earth of the plot. To my great relief the land afterwards looked double the size and

YES! A REAL HOUSE COULD ACTUALLY FIT ON IT !

I never thought that I would ever have to bother about things like building a house! Until now I have always been renting the places I’ve lived in. First of all because buying a property of any kind was out of my range and second because it makes it easier to change residency whenever needed or wanted.

The only thing we knew for now was that we wanted to build three rooms: One for us, a living room and one guest room. Another thing I was sure about was that I wanted to have the bathroom inside of the house and not outside like most guesthouses of the area. Having an outdoor bathroom is a good thing, but due to my earlier experience with a leopard sneaking around the guesthouse all night long, restraining me to use the urgently needed bathroom, I had made up my mind. Otherwise we had no idea how people usually build a house in the Indian Himalayas. Baba tinkered a cute, roofless mock-up out of cardboard, showed it to the workers and on that base the building process started in the Indian way.Mock-up

He woke up every morning at six o’clock to go to the construction site to keep an eye on the situation all day long. People here are paid by day, which means that more slowly they work the more money they will get. Leaving them there alone meant that they would take things really easy and sit somewhere most of the time smoking beedis.

First, my German mind had an accurate idea, about how things should be done and eventually look like. In my opinion, I explained myself very clearly and everybody seemed to understand. My main job though was to cook and bring the meal to the construction site, where Baba and I would sit and have a picnic together.

Day after day when I arrived there with my tiffin, I had to discover that my plans for the house actually were not understood at all or simply completely ignored.

First I tried to fight it, but after only a couple of months to not become completely crazy, my German mind surrendered to the facts of the Himalayan construction “system”. After three more months I was just happy with the thought that soon I would have a new roof over my head and had no more expectations about the result at all.

It is very popular to hire mysteries from Bihar for building projects. A mystery is the Hindi word for the head workman. I didn’t know that for a long time and as in India people are often called by their profession, I thought that it was pretty funny that so many people had such a cool name like mystery!

The reasons why the workers from Bihar are very popular is that they have the reputation to be very good at their job and that they don’t drink excessively as their colleagues from the mountain area do. They also get paid more than the local workers, which usually brings jealousy issues along.

Winter had come and it got pretty cold, so whenever something had to be finished the same day, the local workers demanded to get paid in addition with “Gulab” with the excuse that it helped to keep them warm. Gulab translated means “rose” and is the brand of a local alcohol that smells like battery acid. Some say that if you drink that stuff regularly you end up getting blind, which I can pretty much imagine after having tried it once out of curiosity.

Well, maybe this is the reason why some of our walls have a certain angle which slightly reminds of modern art.

Of course, we also had our Bihari mystery and soon one of the workers said that he wanted to receive the same salary as him. Baba explained that he would do so, if he could somehow prove that he was able to do the same work in the same time with the same quality result.

One day, when I came to the building site, I wondered why the two arches on our porch differed visibly from each other.

The explanation was simple:

There had been a competition between the Bihari and the mountain mystery, which the latter lost!

But there was one thing that the Biharis and the local workers had in common:

After paying day, they did not show up for a couple of days without saying a word and then reappeared as if nothing had happened.

By the way:

If you like, feel free to watch the little movie about the construction process on the following link: