Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Exploring Aryan Village Life

Conor Dinan writes………

I woke up, fully recovered from a mild bout of sickness the night before, the second morning in the village of Dha to discover that I was the only one of the VIS students left there. We had been split up four and three the first night, with me, Emily and Hannah in Dha and the others in a village a few miles away, but after a night in the village guest house the other two had been transferred to homestays in the other village. And so I found myself alone, and with a whole village at my fingertips. It was exhilarating.

I spent that day and some of the next exploring the narrow, winding pathways through the town and fields. The town’s arteries were narrow paths, barely wide enough for one person, that twisted between and—in one case—under the solid structures of the houses. Sometimes a path was no more than six inches of cement on one side of a litter-filled water drain, sometimes it was so steep and rocky that ascent seemed impossible, but that didn’t stop children from tearing up them at all speed, or women from marching up them with cows or sheep in tow. They would wind back and forth, with no clear plan, but in various spots on this maze-like network the path would come to an open area—usually not much to speak of, maybe a few square yards of gravel. I think these spots intrigued me most of any in the village. The villagers, naturally, seemed to know them all by heart, and each one appeared to have been put to a specialized use. The pathway that ran along the base of the village was apparently reserved in all its length for the younger children to use as a playground; where two paths crossed in front of the general store, there seemed to be an impromptu meeting ground for the women. A metal electrical pole surrounded by a small circle of dust and grass attracted children on their way home from school, still in their uniforms, delighted to make an ungodly din by smashing rocks against the pole over and over to proclaim their liberation from academic travail. This happened like clockwork, every day, sometime around four thirty. My favourite spot, which I discovered by chance while impulsively following a random path, was a small semi-circle of gravel ringed by large rocks and half-shrouded by poplars, which seemed hidden from the village while somehow commanding the best view in town: the rooftops of the lower-down houses; the terraced fields beyond them, with rows of deep-golden poplars lining the tall stone walls; the river and the cliff rising sharply from its other side. This idyl was for the village’s young men, no more than my age but already having spent years working and accepting hardships and sacrifice, to retreat among themselves for a cigarette and a few minutes to hang out. I spent half an hour here with them, sitting on a rock and learning—through limited English and a few words of Ladakhi—their stories.

The Drokpas are a fascinating society, a people hidden within a hidden land—a tiny piece of the patchwork that makes up Ladakh, but one which I think enriches that quilt far beyond its size. The antiquity of the Drokpa culture, the unique traditions like the flower-hats, carry into modernity a small slice of Ladakh’s pre-Buddhist past. Driving by, it would be hard immediately to spot any differences in the villages themselves, but subtle differences are in some ways more fascinating than obvious ones. The village layout was not totally Ladakhi, seeming more chaotic and less luxuriously spacious than, say, Takmachik, or Rumbak. More obvious are the difference in people’s appearances: Drokpas do look distinctly Middle Eastern, although a few shared the Asian features of the Ladakhis. Their language, Ache Becky says, is Indo-European, close to Persian, and more related to English than the Ladakhi spoken in villages a few miles away. It’s a fascinating mix, I think, and if I had forever I’d love to spend six months or so in this handful of villages, getting to know this hidden culture.

On the first day, Tashi led us to the edge of the cliffs at the far end of the village, where a promontory of stone jutted out over the meeting of two rivers and we could sit on the rocks and look into the distance. Looking out, away from the village, the river extends down a deep ravine flanked by two almighty mountains, rocky and sparse, rising high into the heavens. On the far end of the deep river canyon was Pakistan. Sitting there, in the bosom of these pristine mountains which affected for all the world not to care about the foibles of man, I realized that even though this village might seem eternal, isolated, a Shangri-La of sorts, in truth life here was as fragile as anywhere else in the world. But people everywhere, Dha included, have the same plucky urge to make do, and here—in the shadow of one of the modern world’s most persistent conflicts—the people had vowed to live life to the fullest, come what may.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Drokpa Bonano Festival

Ruth writes.......

We are just back from our 4 day homestays in the Drokpa villages of Dha and Las Ting, where we watched the Drokpa Bonano festival. The villages were nestled in the mountains only three or so miles from the border with Pakistan, and because of their lower elevation (relative to Leh), they offered us the last glimpses of late summer and early fall-green fields, peak foliage, and the final gathering of the apple and grape crops. The jumbled houses and the abundant vegetation gave the place a gentle loveliness and the mountain backdrop gave it an awesome splendor, and together it was perhaps one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The Drokpa people form an island of distinct heritage and culture within Ladakh. They are claimed by some to be the purest Aryans in the world, direct descendents of Alexander the Great. In any case, they are taller, with more distinct noses and eyebrows, and beautiful eyes, and they speak their own Drokpa language, which is not at all related to Ladakhi, although they learn to speak Ladakhi as well.
Hannah and I were in a homestay in the village of Las Ting, which was high up on the cliffs overlooking the main road. We had two younger brothers, Punchok and Dorjay. Punchok was the responsible 9-year-old who spoke some English and was usually a perfect gentleman. Dorjay was a holy-terror-though-hilarious 6-year-old who liked to make high pitched bird noises, throw walnuts at us, and turn everything into an airplane. We will miss them both.
Our Ama-le was the sweetest women in the world. She had four sons, two of which were away studying in Jammu, and so she was thrilled to suddenly have two daughters around the house, even if it was only for a few days. She spoke very little English, but with our little Ladakhi and plenty of hand waving (and sound effects from Hannah on occasion) we usually got our meaning across. We helped her cook a little, and fetch water for the house, and sort the apricot seeds from their shells, but often we found ourselves just watching or being served endless butter-salt tea as she moved in an out of the house, always busy.
We went to watch the festival each of the three nights. Although our Ama-le did not participate (she may have been in mourning, we think, for her grandmother), she helped to get her friends ready, which was quite a production. The women gathered at their neighbors houses and braided each others hair in the traditional Drokpa style-braids down the sides and in the back. Then they put on special wool dresses and covered themselves with shells, beads, and silver jewelry. Finally, when they were ready to walk to Dha, they donned goat-skin capes and head-dresses made from cloth covered in beads and silver, and with fresh flowers crowning the whole elaborate affair. I was amazed they didn’t collapse under all the weight, but they looked proud and beautiful. We walked or caught rides to Dha each of the nights to watch the singing and dancing in a small amphitheater with giant walnut trees in the center. It was something to see the women walk down into the small circle. Watching them prepare had been like watching girls get ready for the prom, but when they emerged as a group at the festival it was more like watching a national geographic clip. The men and women moved around the circle in separate lines for hours, many (of the men especially) a little drunk from the local barley wine. Their songs apparently told the story of their history and their journey to this area, although obviously we couldn’t understand a word. We made our way back the last night under a full moon, walking the full hour and a half to our homes. The mountains were lit up against the sky, and you could still see the white sheen of the first snow in their higher reaches (we got some sleet in the village, though mostly rain). It was beautiful and still and peaceful, and our family was waiting for us at home with hot tea and dinner. It was lovely, which basically sums up our stay in Las Ting in general. Goodbyes were difficult in the morning, and I hope, some day, to make it back.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Passing through Himalayan Villages

The group has just returned from a four day trek which encompassed passing the 4,900 meter Stok Kangri-la Pass where together, we tied Buddhist prayer flags at the top to signify the blessing of our friends and family across the world. Our pass through Rumbok, considered the snow leopard capital of the world, entailed sightings of rare blue sheep and golden eagles. All the while, the VISpas partook in homestays where they helped cook food with the ama-les and practiced their Ladakhi language skills. Throughout the trek, VISpas spent time on a reflection project where they applied Buddhist concepts learned in their Buddhism and Ecology class to come up with a personal solution to a present global environmental issue. The group is now back at SECMOL and ready to travel to the Aryan village of Da in Northern Ladakh. We will be attending a five day Aryan festival that happens in this particular region only once every nine years. Each VISpa will be in a homestay and given a topic to research through interviews and direct observations. All of the SECMOLpas shall be joining us for the first three days of the Brokpa festival where we will together join in the spiritual ceremonies, dances and feasts!
Jullay, VIS Leader Holly Borday

The following are two entries written by VISpas, Emily Goldthwait and Ellie Healy

Ellie Healy

Keep an open mind. To me, and most of the VISpas, this phrase has become the motto of this trip and we are all learning to live more by it. Our planned five day trek ended up being canceled and replaced by a five day homestay. But this too was pushed back a week because of the election and a three day trek was to take place before it. You can imagine our confusion and frustration in preparing for one event then having it be changed to another. But that's the thing about this trip, we are all soon to be, or already are, adults who are learning to adapt. That's life, learning to play with the hand of cards that we are dealt. I've found that most of this trip is an adventure. We're never exactly sure how things are going to play out, but it's exciting to see where we go and what we do.
We left for our three day trek on Wednesday, eager to get our bodies moving again (although some of us have been getting into the Ladakhi spirit of a good volleyball game). Arriving at our first homestay reminded me of Tacmachik. The building was ancient and beautiful. I sat on the roof during some free time and enjoyed the view.
A great slope rises before me. The last of the sun's rays hitting the top. I see the grander of these great mountains, the evening light excentuating the curves and sharp ridges. It catches my eye as the light makes the rocks and dirt pop a rusty orange. An almost half moon rises just enough over the great slope so I can see it's almost faded white against the clean, pale, blue sky. A bird flutters in inturrupting my thoughts. I don't mind. I'm happy he's dropped by. He poses long enough for me to draw his picture. The proud white, puffed up chest, shows to me the diversity of life here. With all of these striking features of landscape, I sometimes feel that it's so empty here. Lifeless. As my friend flies away, I hear the thud of a rock and look to my right and see Changchup (a SECMOL student who joined us on the trek) standing by a stupa (a Buddhist monument/statue). He smiles and waves, and I return the gestures. I realize that the life here is in the people. Although I haven't known him, or the rest of the SECMOLpas, for very long, they are some of the nicest and most genuine people that I have had the pleasure to meet.
It's Fall here, I can smell it. The once green poplar trees are well into changing into a rich orange and yellow. The valley our village resides, is now in the shade between the towering mountains. The wind blows and I have goosebumps but I see the mountain range to my left, towards SECMOL, and they seem to blaze briliantly in the setting sun. The rim of the roof I'm on is lined with hay and grass stacks. They've turned a white-yellow in the strong sun. The pieces break with a satisfying snap. Above them, the faded and fraying prayer flags flutter. A small river runs through the valley below me. I hear the water rush over rocks. It's almost deafening in the clam silence. A group of those birds caw at each other. Their striking white and black tuxs seem so foreign in the life of many shades here. The moon rises higher and shines more briliantly. Dinner is ready and we are all (especially our stomachs) greatful towards the Ama-le for the warm food we receive.
It's the small things that have such an impact on me here. The beauty of where we walk, the high of reaching the top of the pass and hanging up prayer flags, finally seeing the village after our last day of hard trekking, and sitting with the people I've come to love and having a cup of hot tea. Jullay.

Emily Goldthwait

We visited a Tibetan Children’s Village in Choglamsar last week. The village was a happy place with a huge boarding school, basketball courts, and beautiful dorm rooms and gardens. Everything there was amazing. The children were all adorable and they seemed so happy. We walked into one class of children who seemed to be no older than four or five, and another with six or seven year olds playing with a painting program on so many computers. I wasn’t expecting it to be such a happy place, or a place for such educational opportunity. I was expecting sad refugees, except we learned that people from all over the world donate enough money every year to keep it from being a sad place, and the donations give the children a childhood that was so comparable to mine. I plan to sponsor a child when I go home. I would love to volunteer there at some point in my life too, but there are certain visa rules that would probably not permit that. I plan on going back there to the children’s village someday, whether it be just for a day visit, or to volunteer there for a long commitment. There are so many stories waiting to be told at Choglamsar, whether it be in the children’s village, or the main bazaar, and I want to capture them.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


We have now been at SECMOL for almost two weeks now and the VISpas have found a special place in hearts of all of the Ladakhis here at SECMOL. The following are two excerpts written by VISpas about their time here at SECMOL.


The other morning it was my turn to be in the kitchen at 6 A.M. to help Benoy make breakfast. To form the rolls, we would roll out the dough and slice it into long, thin strips-which we would fold and fold again before twisting them into the proper shape. It was fun, repetitive work, with people constantly entering and then leaving, teacup in hand. Benoy and I discussed food and family, and the time passed quickly.
It is so easy to appreciate the small things here; the surrounding mountains (which are really not small at all), and the way the moon seems to always be in the sky. Everyone you meet at SECMOL has their own story and view on the world. Volunteers come and go as fast as the day passes. One day, a man named Ravi sat in on our class. He told us how he wakes up every morning and focuses on bringing more compassion into the world. We saw him once more in Leh-he spotted us in a Tibetan market. The glow in his eyes and the determination in his face had remained the same.
Life at SECMOL is great all around. We turn the solar panels to follow the sun, we milk the cows, we tend to the garden and prepare the food; we are living by the Buddhist view of interconnectedness. The SECMOL students are very friendly and love to laugh. I still do not really understand the Ladakhi sense of humor, even when a joke is translated into English.
Dinner is the time of day when everyone comes together. We struggle to eat half as much rice as the Ladakhis. The food is spicy and the tea, (which they drink as water) is sweet. Tea is served before breakfast, at breakfast, at 11:00 tea time, at lunch, at 4:00 tea time, and anytime in between. We drink a lot of tea.


Arriving at SECMOL was amazing, and it really just keeps getting better the longer I'm here. At first I was just excited to be finally getting settled after nearly a month of traveling, but now that I've spent almost two weeks here, I'm starting to appreciate what really makes this place special. There is such a strong sense of community at SECMOL. The campus is almost entirely student-run. During work hour and responsibility time, I see how everyone works together to keep things running smoothly. So far, I've helped with sweeping, cutting and drying vegetables, and "forestry" (watering trees and collecting sticks and leaves). I'm still just starting to get to know the Ladakhi students, which has been a lot of fun, and hopefully I'll be able to start understanding some Ladakhi soon so I won't have to rely so much on English. Many of the students have been here for only a few months, knowing very little English before they came, and the progress they've made since then is impressive. One of my favorite times of day is English conversation class, when volunteers are paired up with groups of Ladakhis to discuss a certain topic in English, and all the students here say that this class is one of the best ways to learn English. I'm glad I can help them to learn English, and trying to learn Ladakhi reminds me just how difficult it can be to learn another language.

Homestay Reflection

The following was written by Ruth McGovern during her homestay in Takmachik:

My homestay in Takmachik was simply wonderful. It seemed that every Ladakhi I met was friendly, open, and very generous. They loved to smile and to laugh, and to talk very loudly and visit friends. There was always more than enough food prepared for guests, which were frequent and usually seemed unannounced, though always welcome. My abi-le (grandmother), in particular, warrants a description, as she was truly something else. Enthusiasm, spirit, and hope are often qualities attributed to the young, but here, they belong to more than just the children. The older people I met were strong, lively, and fun. They still possessed an aura of excitement and energy, and they were very active in the various household chores-collecting dung, cooking, hauling firewood, etc.
My abi-le was like a young girl grown suddenly old. She had a bounce in her step, and sometimes when she was waiting to leave, she would dance and sing a song of nonsense to make me laugh. She was quick to smile and quick to scold, but she would also lie her head down in your lap and let you stroke her hair as if she were the nomo (little girl) and you the abi. She wore long braids, tied in the back in the proper fashion. Yak fur was woven in to make it look longer and thicker. Her face was wrinkled, but not too ancient, and she ambled around with considerable ease and agility. She would spring up from her seat, cross-legged on the floor, with such abruptness that it made my own knees, though 40-50 years younger, ache at the sight. She was eager to teach us Ladakhi, and she went through the household items rapid-fire, pointing and naming them in Ladakhi so fast that we could not hope to keep up, yet she knew this too and came back to each item several times and waited, if not patiently, then at least with good humor, as we tried to move our mouths in new ways in order to pronounce the tricky Ladakhi words.
One of my favorite parts of the homestay was walking up to the summer home with her-about an hour and a half walk up the river bed into the mountains. She walked at a steady pace and carried a heavy load on her back. When we came to a river crossing, she would leap across nimbly, and her footwork was well-practiced and assured. She stopped often to gossip with friends , but her style of visiting was very unique. As soon as a house was in sight, she would begin to yell loudly the name of her friend or neighbor. If she received a reply, she would either carry out her conversation by shouting as loudly as possible, or she would skip down the ravine wall and up the steep bank opposite for a quick chat. Often she would return with her wide skirt full of apples or apricots, and we would sit and eat some of the juicy, delicious fruit before moving on. The summer house was very traditional and felt very ancient. We drank salt-butter tea (an acquired taste) and made chapatis and vegetables for a late lunch. I also met her husband, who was carving sticks for an addition to their house down in the village.
My favorite place to walk in Takmachik was up on the hills above the village. I walked up past stupas and piles of ibex horns and up onto the next set of hills. Occasionally there were cows grazing up there, but mostly I felt like I had the whole plateau to myself. (The wonderful thing about the mountains here is that it feels like you could walk anywhere because it is so open.) The last full day I walked up there hoping to journal. Instead, I found a nice black rock out of the wind and curled up underneath it and fell asleep. When I woke up over an hour later, I was neither alarmed nor confused about where I was, and the mountains behind me felt familiar and almost comforting. I took that as a good sign; I felt like I had somehow connected with the place as well as the people.
What I experienced in Takmachik was that the quickest way to a Ladaki's heart seemed to be to act Ladakhi-that is, to be happy and friendly. Laugh a lot, smile a lot, be as jolly as you can, for they were truly happy people, and they loved to share their joy with you. Also, drinking at least 4 cups of butter salt tea each time it is offered seems to help (and numb you to the taste)!