I arrived at Basunti in the dark, straight from Amritsar airport and yet to see any of India in daylight. I was warmly welcomed by Izzy, co-owner/creator of Basunti with her husband Dave, who showed me to my lovely room. I then crashed into bed without a second thought for where I was. When I awoke, I padded out of my room onto the veranda and adjusted my eyes to take in where I had miraculously landed – paradise! Mango, lychee and banana trees, beds of carefully tended rocket, beetroot and carrot, lotus flowers in ponds amongst chirping frogs, rows of cacti in all shapes and sizes, hibiscus, bougainvillea and amaryllis, the sound of a hundred different bird songs. I looked out from the meditation deck across the lake below, and went up to the roof to see the Himalayan mountains peeking from behind the clouds. I was then given the official tour by Dave, who answered all my questions about what was in each giant jar carefully lined up on the shelves in the kitchen (carrot chutney, sweet lime chutney, chilli oil to name a few… all homemade with produce from the garden). I felt so lucky that this would be my home for the next 6 weeks!
I met the lovely local staff who were soon to be my co-workers and friends – Raju, Sumna, Manjit, Rada, Pali, Kaka and Kanta, all who welcomed me with huge smiles and who make life at Basunti flow with their hard work, laughter and singing. The guests would arrive the following week, so everyone was busy bringing the place to life. Izzy and I made sure all the guest bedrooms were looking perfect, smoothing down rugs and bedspreads and arranging the beautiful curtains. Dave and I picked flowers and arranged them in vases to spread across the veranda. I helped weed lettuce beds and swept old leaves from the paths, always with regular breaks to sip hot cups of chai with the team.
When the guests arrived we all welcomed them and showed them their rooms, explaining the Dos and Don’ts of Basunti (Do check for snakes, Don’t not check for snakes). It was great to have the buzz of people filling the property, and things swung quickly into motion. Every morning I’d get up and wander down to the kitchen, which would already be busy with porridge making, coffee brewing and omelette orders being taken after the guests had returned hungry from their early morning yoga session. Orders of ‘sub kooch no mushroom!’, ‘sub kooch!, ‘sub kooch extra chilli!’ would fly through the kitchen as Sumna whisked the omelette ingredients and Raju fried it all up in the pan (‘sub kooch’ means ‘everything’ in Hindi). I would head out onto the veranda, say good morning to the guests and make the obligatory ‘another day in paradise!’ comments, while checking the tea pots were always full, collecting plates and bowls and taking them through to the kitchen. After helping with the mountain of drying up while Sumna washed the dishes at lightening-speed, I’d hover expectantly for one of those infamous Basunti omelettes myself. 6 weeks on and I’ve had an omelette every single morning, with two slices of Dave’s delicious homemade whole wheat mixed seed bread. Needless to say, it’s always sub kooch for me.
On the first few days of each retreat I would often take guests down to the lake after breakfast to show them the best swimming spots. We’d take bamboo walking sticks and bottles of water and set out in the heat of the day ready to cool off in the lake. It was a great chance to get to know the guests and we would chat as we sunbathed and floated on our backs down the gullies.
By the time we were back from the lake lunch would be well on its way, Raju preparing the delicious soup and Dave mixing the fresh salad from the garden. Again I’d be on hand to help clear all the plates and put out the tea. After lunch, I’d often lie on the floor of the kitchen with Sumna, Rada and Manjit and we’d pretend to do our own yoga sessions, laughing together despite my lack of Hindi and their lack of English!
In the afternoons, there were always weeds to pick, beetroot to pull from the earth, clean laundry to return to the guests, plants to water and mangoes, apples and kiwis to chop (and of course hammocks to lie in). I’d often sit in the back kitchen at a little table with Raju, slicing up the mangoes into a huge bowl ready to be served for the fruit salad that evening. There would always be time to learn from the cooks too – chapatti pan and rolling pin now purchased, I’m sure to be a chapatti queen back home. At about 4pm, chai is served, Sumna says ‘tea on the table!’, and the guests wander over from the swimming pool and hammocks to sip the sweet tea before their evening yoga session.
The staff take their leave at about 5pm, and we wave Namaste’s to them as they make their way home to the local villages. While the guests head over to the yoga shala, Izzy, Dave and I sit on the veranda with a cool beer, listen to the peaceful ‘Oms’ vibrating through the air and watch the Jungle Babblers, Himalayan Bulbuls and Indian Mynas scrabble for the rice Dave throws out for them. As dinner time approaches, we head back over to the kitchen and I help set out the delicious evening meal of mixed dal or chickpea curry or muttah paneer with brown rice and salad. After the guests have tucked in, I pile a plate for myself, making sure I drizzle plenty of homemade chilli oil over it, and sit down to eat while chatting to Izzy in the back kitchen.
Sumna returns for the evening shift and after Dave and Izzy have retreated to get some much needed rest ready for their next early start, Sumna and I wash and dry up the dishes, put out tea and indulge in some of the mango crumble, banana cake or fruit salad with cream that was for dessert. At about 9:30pm we get our torches and I walk Sumna half way home to her village, only a 5 minute journey. We look into the sky and try to find the moon, and Sumna always asks whether the same moon comes to the UK, and we laugh and hug our goodnights. Then I head back to the kitchen, clean the last of the glasses and set the teapots and teacups out ready for the morning, before relaxing on the veranda to chat with the guests or read my book. When the guests turn in for the night, it’s lights off and doors locked, and finally time to get some sleep before the bird songs and morning ‘Oms’ gently rouse me into the next peaceful day at Basunti.