Greetings from Ladakh! I've been waiting awhile to say that.
Although it was easy to fly here, that is not to say that the journey was anticlimactic passing over the Himalaya by jet, one could feel the awe inspired in every passenger, could see it in every set of glazed eyes, each reflecting great white peaks.
Many passengers' lunged across one another to capture photos from the windows, while some simply smiled and sighed.
Ladakh is one of three regions in India's northernmost state, Jammu and Kashmir, and sits snugly between the vast Tibetan Plateau and the Kashmir valley. A former Tibetan Buddhist kingdom, it has only been open to tourism since the 1970s.
Some scholars here believe that tourism has renewed a sense of self-appreciation in Ladakhis, after they were made to feel "backward" and "inferior" by the Indian army stationed in the area as a result of conflicts with China and Pakistan.
I am here as one of three teachers during a semester abroad program for American high school students, and will be based at an alternative institute, a solar campus twelve miles outside of Leh, eastern Ladakh's main city.
Looking back, the experience at Leh's airport seems surreal because of the general confusion, especially while adding the two Ladakhis draping our shoulders with traditional white scarves of honor.
After our arrival, we were taken to a guest house to get used to the altitude. Just bumming around the guest house grounds was an experience at all times a light brown calf skipped around the walkway leading between buildings, occasionally kicking its back legs out playfully.
An old man seemed to be forever spinning a prayer wheel on the same walkway, while little Ladakhi girls rode tiny three wheeled bikes behind him.
Feeling ambitious on day three, some of us went for a very short (and short-winded) run up the hills around the guest house, overlooking the town of Leh, its five-colored prayer flags draped everywhere, and commanding peaks across the valley.
Then, finally, we made our way to the campus that will be our home for the next three and a half months.
The Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) was formed by former Ladakhi students as part of a movement to reform the education system here. In short, students weren't being taught the things that they could directly benefit from in this very unique part of the world, and were further handicapped by language requirements ill-suited to the region.
Ladakh is unique in many ways one of them being that its villages are some of the highest and most remote in the world, and therefore living conditions are similarly specialized.
Actually it is quite impressive that humans have not only survived here, but can also boast some of the longest lifespans of any people on earth.
The food is basic lots of barley flour made into balls and mixed with butter tea, root vegetables, rice, lentils not exactly stuff to write home about, but nourishing. Ladakhis young and old have a great appreciation for their traditional music, although younger generations have added poppy beats behind traditional melodies.
Over many centuries, until the border was closed, Ladakhi culture was inspired directly by Tibet, although by now the languages of the two places are mutually unintelligable.
Interestingly, there is now a controversy over whether or not the written form of Ladakhi, known locally as Bodyik, should be taught and used in the media, since formerly only high lamas were literate and they use only the traditional Tibetan script.
Here at SECMOL, Bodyik is taught and used in the campus' own publication, Ladags Melong.
A bit more about SECMOL. This is a solar campus all energy is supplied by the sun, and water is heated by solar heat. The Ladakhi toilet, the composting kind, is the norm here. Also, very little of anything is wasted.
Near our kitchen there are eleven bins for dumping, labelled according to material, as well as a larger general re-use bin.
The campus is situated at about 10,500 feet. Fortunately all of us have become fairly used to the height, and have been able to exercise and even take long jogs along a scarcely travelled road above the Indus River.
The students here are almost entirely responsible for running the campus, and each local student has a specific responsibility, for which they will team up with our students. Since we arrived, the top priority has been unfreezing the pipes.
I'm told this has been Leh's coldest winter in 45 years, and it has been unusually cloudy, thus preventing the solar equipment from functioning maximally.
We are in a high altitude desert so solar technology is normally ideal, but now, in mid-February when the sun should be shining all day, snow still sits on all of the mountains around us. After two days, I have never been so thankful to be able to pour a glass of water so much as this morning.
Living here is beautifully simple, and us foreigners are given new appreciation for day to day things.
It is refreshing to be in a place where one needn't worry about violence. It pleased me to read that when conflicts do arise in Ladakh, the parties in disagreement often look to the nearest other person, even if that be a young child, to resolve the issue objectively.
I look forward to diving deeper into this fascinating culture. Sadly, Ladakhi traditions have been wittled down a bit by exposure to the outside, but one can't ignore the benefits this trend has brought at the same time, concerning health and energy practices for example.
It is hoped that a balance can be achieved as development inevitably works its way through this "land of high passes," this place called Ladakh.
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