Thursday 19 September 2013

Monsoon Rumblings...

Each drop is a little cosmos in itself. When the monsoons arrive in Ladakh (I should add that it does not happen often), the first rains, the parched earth crackles and then breathes a sigh as its pores are filled with coolness. It quenches its thirst with a hiss of tremendous relief. After being cooked in the sun for the last few weeks, here in Ladakh, the land that was splintered, dusty and moaning with dry pain is now almost magically transformed into a carpet of lush green grass with a dampened soil that emits a fragrance that is sweeter than any perfume or cologne devised by the olfactory geniuses of humankind.

Water brings an incredible and primordial happiness to all – soil, leaves, flowers, insects, birds, grass, animal and the eyes of us mortals. The kids in the monastery run outside to romp half-naked in the rain. Tzos (local buffaloes), which have spent the last weeks listlessly around pools of water drying fast, plunge into a blissful concoction of squelching mud and murky water. Now the lakes and rivers overflow with the generosity of Mother Nature. The mighty sentinels standing at guard over at a distance are stripped bare by the relentless heat of the summer sun but they’re again clothed with a fresh blanket of snow and shimmer in magnificent decadence.

The bounty that the rains bring with them includes a rise in the river waters. The first time I saw the village river I was filled with an inexplicable urge to wade into it’s icy froth tumbling from the mountains and immerse myself in its gurgling water. But the depth of the water was quite low and I could see the river bed clearly but when the rains started, that same listless and rivulet-like body of water transformed into a confident, and mighty river. Its water gushing with a sense of purpose rushed on towards the plains. I remember coming up to the river one day and seeing its power for the first time as it swept a mighty branch by, stripped bare from some unfortunate tree that decided to grow too near the bank.

After consulting my fellow compatriots at the school and at home I soon received advice about how to tackle rivers and swim in them. I, being born in Mumbai, and having visited the coastal realms of Konkan, am accustomed to the water of the sea and oceans. Living in Canada has also accustomed me to the wonderful experiences of swimming in lakes but swimming in rivers is an entirely different experience, as I came to appreciate the difference on the very first day. As I waded into the water, the stones of the river bed that have been polished to a smooth and slippery finish, slipped beneath my toes and tickled the palms of my feet with much aplomb. As I trudged forward, like an awkward penguin, the sheer lack of warmth of that water attacked every nerve in my body as I slowly immersed myself in its cold embrace. And whilst all this was happening, the river forever following that brilliant pull of gravity was cascading on forward, or downward as it probably is best to describe.

So, using those same awkward feet that were having such a wonderful time finding no amount of friction to grasp onto the smooth stones, I latched onto a few stones jutting out that served as footrests upon which I could balance myself. Pushing against them helped me stay in one position and appreciate where I was and what I was doing. These waters that I was wading in were the melted snow waters emanating from the glaciers of Tibet on the other side of the border, in what is now, Chinese occupied Tibet. Those glacial streams became this mighty river and came down to India and then would go on forth to join some other rivers before calmly entering the plains of Pakistan. It needs no passport, nor any visa and the people of all three countries welcome and benefit from its waters. Rivers, like the Indus, are a powerful reminder of the immense farcical nature of borders and ‘’nationalities’’ which are nothing but a petty figment of human imagination that could’ve been used for something far greater and nobler.

But, I did not let these political bickerings inside my head get the best of me. Instead, I chose to look about and saw a few locals coming from a distance and they just happened to be the neighbours. It was our neighbour and his little 4 year old daughter who’d decided to take a swim that day, same as me, to appreciate the river in the rains.

After keeping their shirts and trousers by the bramble bush near the stone wall embankment of the river, they too waded in slowly towards the shallower end of the river as the child seemed a little apprehensive to enter. I tried to encourage her, in what was my slowly improving yet still broken and deficient Ladakhi, and she seemed even more uncertain after the process. Finally, her father decided that frolicking in the shallow end was sufficient enough and she seemed ecstatic about the decision. She ambled by the water, her little baby cheeks being lit up with a smile every time a splash from the river sprayed the cool water on her face.
Her father conversed with me from a distance as I didn’t want to go over to the shallow end, which would’ve left my upper torso exposed to the wind that was already blowing with much ferocity. So I stayed in the water, my head bobbing out, and talked about the weather, Canada, what I was doing at school, Canada, what I thought about Ladakh and again, Canada. The man seemed to be fascinated with Canada, as a group of ice-hockey aficionados visits Ladakh often, who happen to be Canadians. They do this every year and have hockey coaching camps on rinks made of frozen lakes. Ice-hockey is a huge thing in the winters here – who’d have thought! I couldn’t see any live action because its still the summer, but judging by the videos and pictures shown to be my host family, the NHL can tap into a huge reservoir of talent here. Also, the middle daughter of my host uncle, Rinchen, is quite a pro-hockey player herself. She’s even been to the states for coaching camps and some state-level tournaments.

Impressive much? Indeed!

I ambled back home from the river, my hair splayed across my forehead, dripping water down into my mouth and neck and it still tasted as sweet as the river. I heard a rumbling in the distance as an entire wall of clouds approached from the south and enveloped the mountains and the monastery in a soft white blanket. As I was trudging on home, I saw Largyal, Thokmet and Nima standing on the school wall and looking at the mountains and then they saw me coming. Their faces lit up with excitement as they waved at me. ‘’Hello sirjee’’ they bellowed out and ran to open the school gate.

Six little hands dragged and pushed me into the school compound, not caring for the wetness of my clothes or skin that had hardly dried and told me to play a game of marbles with them. They loved it when I played because I always lost and it tickled them senseless to see it happen. Seeing me shivering, one of the older boys asked if I’d like a cup of tea. I told him, I’d like nothing better at the moment.

As the cool breeze wafted on the school playground, all around me there was a cacophony of noises. Some kids were swinging on the aerial roots of the trees, whilst ‘’whee-ing’’ away in glee. Sheru, the school dog, was barking at some phantom menace as he always did. The other kids were gathered around the pit where the marbles were played with and some other little folk were running around in the pitter patter of the drizzle that had just begun. 

And amidst the distant rumble of the heavens, I could hear the shuffling footsteps of Tashi bringing me a cup of tea.

 Life was good!

Monday 3 June 2013

For Miles And Miles And Miles…

Every morning constitutes a very simple routine here – waking up either to the sound of a massive jet powering its way down to the airport a short distance from the house or one taking off to leave this magical land in what would obviously be unenviable regret. Otherwise, the alarm call takes the form of the mighty Ladakhi sun beaming down through the wall of my window curtains to remind me that there are more important things to do than dream Himalayan dreams, or in the form of a phone call from mother, as she sits alone at home in Canada that seems to her lifeless and empty without her son to scold, dote and love unconditionally.

Waking up after either of these alarms are completed, the first thing I do is push the curtains away and welcome the sun completely with no half-measures hindering my sight of what awaits my eyes beyond those windows. The first thing I see is the neighbours fields, growing from a sprinkle of green scattered around when I first saw them to a generous dollop of the colour all around now – clumped up leaves in the vegetable gardens and sinewy whisps of an invisible green where the infant wheat sprouts forth. Then I look to the simple box-like house that stands a little distance from the fields and I see the neighbours milling about and working their own morning routines that aren’t quite as luxurious as mine. I then turn to the south and see those vibrant mountains that change their face every single morning. Some days they lie naked, bathing in the sun like some athlete who likes to show off whilst other days they’re peppered with snow and reflecting that pale golden sunlight looking like some crown of a king of old that just needs a little polishing to recover its old glow. When I notice that it has rained last night I see that the mountains are covered with a blanket of grey velvety clouds and some have generous amounts of snow reaching their very foothills.

Taking all this grandeur in, I amble along to the other mundane tasks that my body demands of me in the morning and after a usually healthy breakfast I set off for school through that picturesque trail in the village that I described in my last post. After reaching school, the first person I usually see is the school cook who is a jovial man of about 50-60 winters. After a ‘’Julay’’ I move along either to the 2nd floor ‘’Teacher’s room’’ which is nothing but a corner of the hallway with a table, 5 chairs, and a thermos of tea with 5 cups placed on a metal tray with Ranjit sitting on one of the chairs shouting a jubilant ‘’Good Morning Sirjee’’, or I go to the school office and check my email/facebook/twitter if the internet signal is strong enough.

School begins at 9:30 am with a rush of kids running to the school courtyard which is a large space of open ground with one corner near the compound wall with a grove of trees being the place where the morning assembly prayers are held. At 10 am, the kids march haphazardly into the school building and get ready to go to their individual classes. Us teachers on the other hand go to the teacher’s room and have our cups of hot piping tea, which is perfect for cold mornings, for 5 minutes, after which we move along to our respective classes. My first class is the 3rd graders who are generally,a pleasant group of kids. It includes Tsewang, Yountan, Paldan and Chospel who are good learners for the most part, and are always excited when I teach them computers instead of conversational English or grammar. They also found the concept of gravity thrilling when I explained the basics of it. There’s something about seeing a childs eyes light up when they first comprehend a concept that has the potential to change their outlook. Like Plutarch said, ‘’the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.’’

This is then followed by the 4th graders who are an even more fun bunch to teach because their conversational English is pretty strong and so it’s easier to communicate a concept that is complex. It includes Norbu, Namgyal and Choing who are all exceedingly bright kids and a tad bit adventurous as well – both academically and physically. The other day, whilst teaching them typing on MS Word, I found it pleasantly surprising how well they were able to pick up the instructions after telling it to them, just the one time, despite it being their first time on a computer. This class is then followed by a 20 minute break which includes me again going down the office and checking if the internet is strong enough to continue my browsing. I also often join the kids in a game of marbles, although my aim is terrible (but my first grader,Largyal, insists its improving day by day).

After the break is the most disciplined class of mine that consists of the 5th graders who are both exceedingly good English speakers and well versed in English grammar as well (for the most part). I love teaching them science because they can follow along the concepts with a comparative ease and also add much to a discussion because their brains are developing cognitive skills that transcend the barrier of childhood where abstract concepts seem incredibly difficult. As most of science includes some astoundingly abstract concepts, it’s important that age be brought into account when teaching it, for the barrier biology places on young brains is there for a reason. Tashi, Tsinge, Jigmet, Tashin, Padme, Stanzin, Rigzen&Norbu (a lot of Ladakhi names repeat themselves) are an inquisitive and intelligent lot indeed.

After the formidable calm and tranquility of the 5th graders comes the indestructible chaos and pandemonium of the 2nd graders. This is a bunch of fun-loving and authority-defying troopers that love to run around the class when I ask for calm and giggle away when I pretend to be strict. They also have a knack for making the sweetest pout when you have to scold them that just makes all your anger disappear which they can then use against you in a myriad of ways. So, you just have to stand your guard and turn your evolutionary instincts off and be a bit firm at times. But, they’re young kids at the end of the day and being fun-loving, booger-toting kids is what they do best so you just have to adapt to their entropic ways and devise games and activities which keep them on their toes whilst enabling them to learn as well. Additionally, when you do go with the flow it’s kind of fun and I see why they continue doing what they do. I also have a theory that because their class is the one just before lunch-time they are a bit extra hyper due to the pangs of hunger. Again, can’t blame them.

Lunch is a simple affair but a heavy one which is followed by cricket with the boys and teachers until the school bell rings again signalling my last class.

This last class is with my 1st graders and they’re a treat to teach! Always asking questions, always babbling about in a manner that still resembles little infants and mannerisms that are just incredibly adorable. Largyal, Phunsuk, Nima and Thokmet are an absolute riot to be with and I am grateful for such a wonderful schedule that really ends with a stress buster that are my first graders.

This is followed by me either chilling at school, playing with the kids, hanging out with the cook or the other teachers, or packing up and heading home for a nap. This is usually followed by me going down to watch television with the family(if anything good is on) or just chat with them. If neither is an option I just return to my room and read away from a formidable collection of books that’s continuously growing. Then dinner is served at a comparatively late 9:00 pm and I eat it with gusto because the women and men of this family are excellent cooks!

Dinner is followed by a new routine of mine that includes me wearing a good thick jacket, shoes, and a winter hat and going on the roof of the house. The night sky here is tremendous with stars. Due to a lack of clouds and moonlight, when you look up, you see a brilliant spangled sky that makes your heart race. Something incredibly primordial awakens in you when you see a starry night that is so rich and diverse with starlight. Without looking down I find a nice place to sit and then gently lay myself down. The night sky here blazes with stars and there are thousands of them, most twinkling, a few bright and steady. If you continue staring you notice that even their colours are different – that one to the right of Orion appears a tad bit bluish doesn’t it and that one near the Big Dipper is just a little yellow perhaps?

The roof beneath me feels solid, steady and reassuring. Yet I cautiously turn myself to the patch of sky towards the horizon to the left and right, up and down the long reach of the mountain silhouettes. The world only looks flat, but its roundness is definitely felt when I pan from horizon to horizon and understandthe sky is a dome of a blue, white and brown ball that flies through nothingness – spaceship Earth. Every day, I try to imagine it spinning, with billions of people glued to it, talking different languages, wearing clothes that appear strange to each other, all stuck to that one ball.

I try to sense the spin, and sometimes it feels like I could just feel it a little. Then you notice after a few minutes that the star you saw a moment ago isn’t in the same place and that is has moved quite a bit. Suddenly you begin to creep upon faint comprehensions of the incredulous speed at which this massive globe is rotating on its own axis. Everyone we know is whirling around space at these enormous speeds. At this thought, I can actually feel the Earth move – not just imagine it in my head but feel it in the pit of my stomach. I crane my neck backwards so I can’t see anything on Earth and just have a perpendicular view of the immense blackness punctuated by flickering furnaces. I’m suddenly swept by this feeling that I should hold onto the cement blocks for dear life or else fall up into the sky.

I just take a deep breath, and get up to see the solitary lights atop SpitukGompa, the only human source of light in this night of wonders. I again look to the sky and see a band streak across the night sky. At first, I can’t realize what I am looking at but then it dawns upon me. That, is the Milky Way itself! You can see it on the clearest of nights here on Earth and I was fortunate to see it on all three nights. A hazy white band that stretched from the west to the east and curved along the dome of the sky and seeing it so clearly for the first time makes you feel infinitely small and magnanimously gigantic at the same time. It’s a feeling of immense humility and pride. A dichotomy of human emotions reaching back to the beginning of life itself.

I remove my gaze from the wondrous sight and decide to climb down and try to catch some shut eye as the winds are beginning to pick up and the night is getting cooler. But as I begin to descend downwards I chance one last glance at the night sky and am glad to find the stars still there standing guard over me. Just then the lights on Spituk Gompa go off or perhaps the power was lost (as is common here) and suddenly I can see far more stars… for miles and miles and miles.

(Note: This particular image does not belong to me)

I didn’t dream that night, for when reality eclipses the imagination, your brain quenches its thirst for contentment in silence.

Sunday 26 May 2013

The First Steps ...

School started off at a very slow pace – much like all life here. Without the heady forces of civilization dictating our every move, life here is laconic and incredibly peaceful. Additionally, I had arrived just in time for the kids and their unit tests which are pretty much like midterms for my North American audience.

It all really started, like most things, on a Monday. Aunty told me she would take me to the school since I did not know where it was. We set out, after a healthy breakfast of some delicious aalo parathas, through the back gate. The roads of Spituk village are incredibly scenic themselves – sometimes enthused with an ancient strength of rock and sometimes made of the modern hardness of cement. Sometimes lined with houses on both sides so that you’re surrounded by an army of beautiful and ornate windows and doors, whilst other times you’re flanked by lush green poplar trees swaying in the breeze and a little rivulet gushing by your side. They can be so wide so that cattle, humans and dogs can move together towards their destinations in either direction, or so narrow that single file is the only option for man or beast. Auntyji took me through all of this in pretty much a straight line from the house we live in, until we came upon a majestic looking stupa which was nothing but a hardy grey rock carved into a dome with a spire on top and some stunning Buddhist paintings.

From there, we took a left up a little earthen ramp that ran towards some stairs despite another path that ran straight. When I inquired upon why we hadn’t taken the straight road, Auntyji showed me a lovely image of the Buddha sculpted onto a giant slab of flat rock that we saw once we climbed down the stairs. She said, if I went pass this in the morning it’d bring me good luck. She said it’d be alright if I took the straight path in the evening when I’m coming home. Not wanting to refuse some good luck on my first day I just nodded and smiled.

We trudged onward through a road that took us to some open fields that showed me once again that I was truly living in a paragon of natural grandeur. In a rush of 5 minutes that took me up and down some gentle hills I had reached the little red door of the Spituk Monastery (Gompa) School. Auntyji turned the circular metallic hatch and with a groan of Monday morning blues the heavy door swung open. At once my eyes were greeted with a flurry of red whizzing by me. Little monklings garbed in different shades of red from crimson to a light shade that the sky spills at sunset, about waist-high were going about their morning chores. Upon Auntyji telling them that I was to be their new teacher, some shied away with a look of apprehension whilst others beamed with joy and shouted a jubilant ‘’Good morning Sirji!’’ at me. I greeted them back and followed Auntyji through the kitchen and onwards towards the dining hall where the senior most monk who we call ‘’Bade Guruji’’ welcomed me with a beaming smile and a Namaste and I reciprocated with a ‘’Julay’’!

I then bid Auntyji goodbye and was escorted upstairs to meet Ranjit and Jigmet Sir. Ranjit is a young man about my age, from the equally mountainous Himachal Pradesh of India, and is an incredibly kind and polite human being and has become a good friend over these 2 weeks. Jigmet sir, who’s much older (perhaps in his late 30s), too was incredibly warm and welcoming when I greeted him. He also happens to be a local and proficient in English and therefore the school’s English teacher. Ranjit is the Hindi teacher and has lived in Ladakh for the past 3 years.

At once I was faced with an onslaught of questions, both personal and professional, but I was quite ready for this because it’s pretty much what I experienced with my host family. Its nothing to take offense at for the people here at incredibly well-meaning and good natured and if you face similar circumstances take it as a compliment for they want to get to know you. It just denotes their excitement and eagerness in getting to know your acquaintance. Once these exchanges had been made was I told that there would be no teaching for this entire week for the kids have their unit tests. I was quite relieved to be honest, for I was a bit jittery about jumping straight into the classroom and starting teaching without getting to know the students or the faculty. A week was good enough to do both!

Soon the kids started filing into the main corridor where the exams are taken which makes invigilating that much easier as you have a direct line of sight on each and every one of the students. I was assured that this was not necessary for the kids are mostly honest and upright but there’s always the sneaky one in the bunch so precaution is always advisable. Agreeing with this completely, I too set about invigilating keeping a keen eye on all the students. The first day was Bothi, which is what the local Ladakhi language is called – and I couldn’t possibly help the kids so I sat at the very end of the corridor and just had a nice chat with the teachers. Some are just normal civilians whilst others are monks.

All of them though made me feel very welcome and from Day 1 told me I had complete freedom to teach the way I wanted. It’s a liberating feeling for an educator to be given that kind of autonomy because it gives you a kind of flexibility that can only lead to a heightened sense of learning and an atmosphere of amicable trust. Soon the two hours passed in quite a hurry and lunch time was upon us. Lunch is prepared by the school cook and is a simple but hearty meal of dal, rice and a vegetable of some sort – either spiced eggplants or beans sautéed in some masala or a simple vegetable mix that’s incredibly nutritious and delicious. Also a spicy chilli salad or chilli powder is served with the food to be taken at your own discretion.

After a delicious meal I was stuffed and school was closed for the day. This is when I was told the school has a relatively stable internet connection and that made my heart leap! I hadn’t properly conversed or been in touch with my electronic world for quite a while and when I finally typed in that password for my facebook account it felt like those old connections were returning. Additionally, I already had a massive volume of pictures that needed uploading.

This is pretty much how the week transgressed with each day a new familiarity dawning upon me and slowly the kids started trusting me enough that they actually began asking questions about myself and the subjects I was going to teach.

They’re an incredibly inquisitive bunch and they’re always smiling and full of a kind of mirth that only makes me realize how wonderful a thing childhood is. Despite the rigours of education and it’s almost race-like trend these days, these kids take pleasure in playing with marbles and enjoying a piece of chocolate to the last bite or having that laugh, not at the expense of one another, but along with each other.

This is what I’ve learnt in this short stay at Ladakh and I hope to learn a lot more. A teachers job is a derivative of the word ‘teach’ but there is so much more to the endeavour that I have only begun and all it takes is an open mind, an attitude of enthusiasm and a whisp of a smile.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Spituk Wanderings

The second and third day was spent relaxing – in its utter complete sense, much similar to the previous day, except for the fact that I didn’t sleep quite as much! It consisted of only half a day of sleep as opposed to the previous day when I slept pretty much throughout the day to prevent altitude sickness.

I came down to the living room in the morning and was once again met with the now familiar ‘’Julay’’ from everyone which is pretty much a multipurpose word in the Bhoti/Ladakhi vocabulary which means ‘Thank you’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Hello’, ‘Good Bye’, and many more words! I guess, I can understand why when I look around this beautiful country and see mountains of all shapes and sizes. Some have vast and jagged peaks, whilst others have smooth and rolling hills. Some have snow sprinkled on top of their husky brown silhouettes that reminds you of sugar sprinkled over chocolate cake whilst others are plain, barren and brown bastions that are crowned with the passing ring of clouds. Yet, they all exude a certain sense of awe and grandeur that is almost universal. So, the universality of ‘’Julay’’ only makes sense in this land. Communication doesn’t need words, it’s the context and human reality that almost always works at a more primordial level.

For instance, when I communicate with Ibi – she doesn’t have an extensive Hindi vocabulary and so we find a common ground that includes a wonderful combination of broken Hindi and Bhoti and a vast array of body language that always ends up in making a connection. So, using these she asked me if I wanted some tea. Now, I’m not an avid tea/chai-drinker. I indulge in coffee from time to time but I resolutely used to avoid drinking tea. But, in these cool and chilly environs it’s just not possible to refuse a piping hot cup of tea that does a good job of warming you up – especially in the mornings and evenings. So, it turns out – I’ve become a pretty heavy tea-drinker by my standards which includes at least 2 cups a day!

Breakfast is a pretty heavy ordeal and is either a traditional Ladakhi breakfast like khambir (a puffy and sturdy kind of bread) with either apricot jam (which is a local product) or eggs. Otherwise, its just bread, butter and different variations of eggs (scrambed, poached or fried). There’s also a heavy serving of tea/coffee served along with some Ladakhi biscuits whose local name I haven’t quite yet mastered.
This was followed by, Otsal, the nephew of my host taking me along to show me his beautiful village of Spituk. We ambled along from the back gate of the house into little cobbled roads that wound their way through the village. We passed by grazing cattle, a little pond overflowing with algal blooms, and donkeys making their way to the river for a drink. We crossed a little bridge over a little stream that was basically a ladder laid on the ground – shaky but gets the job done.

This led us out into the open fields where I could hear a distant murmur of ‘’Khor! Khor! Khor!’’ which is a rhythmic song that farmers sing when they’re ploughing their fields – it just means ‘’Move forward’’ and it’s addressed towards the oxen doing the heavy work. Every abled person from the village comes to the fields and works one field per day and then based on a rotational schedule moves onto the next field for the next day. Its human cooperation at its finest and noblest working in a profession that makes civilization itself possible. But enough social commentary, because this was a sight to see! Open fields, not yet seeded and the mighty Himalayas stood guard over them in the background. In the middle flowed a rather calm tributary of the Indus which hasn’t yet reached its full flow because the ice atop the glacial peaks hasn’t completely melted. We walked towards the river and saw plenty of animals and birds gathered there for a drink. This included some stray dogs and cats from the village, 2 donkeys that we’d seen earlier, a few wild horses and some oxen. It also included a little bird that made a weird pig-like sound and Otsal told me what it’s called but the name escapes me right now.

Otsal then told me about a little woodland across the river that houses some foxes and rabbits and so I asked if it was alright to cross it. More than okay with it, he immediately jumped into the empty river bank and walked briskly towards the wetter portion of the river. I meanwhile took a few more pictures from the camera slung onto my neck that I’d been using ever since we left for the walk. I then followed Otsal towards the river and we crossed it by skipping over dry stones that were relatively stable in the calm river – except I missed one and got one of my shoes wet and my pants as well, about ankle deep. Otsal found that amusing; probably thinking what a clumsy oaf the city man was. Anyways since I’d gotten one of my shoes and pant legs wet I decided to wet them both and walked along the river which was relatively shallow, again because of the late glacial melts. It felt really good to walk through that lovely cool water in what was a relatively warm day.

We crossed over and saw a magnificent sight of the woodland at the foot of some mighty gigantic mountains. I’m pretty sure I heard that weird pig-bird call again but Otsal said it was just my imagination. Maybe I was becoming obsessed with the pig-bird. We trudged along the outskirts of the forest as Otsal claimed there were wolves there too but I was apprehensive because it was too small a patch of forest to support animals the size of wolves. Nevertheless, we kept our distance and intently listened for wolf-howls. Fortunately, we heard none.

We then realized it was lunch time and we’d been walking for a good 2 hours (it’s a lot of walking) and we were hungry. So we turned back and were ready to cross the river again. My shoes and pant were almost dry by now but not completely so I decided to walk in the water again; the last experience was kinda cool and made me feel like I’m really in the great outdoors (Yes, because the sight of vast open fields and mountains all around me wasn’t enough.)

We once again took the same path back home and Otsal was kind enough to smile for one of the photographs which was a rarity because all the others include his back to the camera as he pushed forth; perhaps a bit annoyed at my slow pace. But, I made up for it by giving him some of the chocolates I’d brought from Canada when we got home, which I think more than made up for my slow canter. Also, my pants and shoes were completely dry by the time we got home. That’s the Ladakhi sun for you!
Lunch was served, which is once again a heavy affair with mostly a generous serving of rice topped with steaming hot veggies which usually include potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and peas in a thick masala sauce. Sometimes there’s even a lil piece of chicken or mutton plopped in as a treat! Yet it is the Buddhist lunar month which means Ibi and her daughter-in-law (Aunty Tsering as I call her) don’t eat meat for the entirety of this month but they see to it that me, Angmo (Amo for short) and Uncle Tsewang (as I call the host) get a piece from time to time.

The afternoons and evenings were pretty much spent lazing away on my bed getting some reading done. Completed the ‘’Immortals of Meluha’’ and started the second book of the series, titled ‘’The Secret of The Nagas’’. By the time I had finished it mid-way it was late evening and I decided to make my way down for some socializing with the family. Turned out, it was time for dinner.

Dinner is the heaviest meal of the day and it includes all of us sitting together watching television most of the times and right now that means the Indian Premier League – go Mumbai (Amo is a Chennai supporter – how very disappointing)! Dinner’s quite similar to lunch except the quantities are larger and my hosts insist on making me fat by the end of my sojourn. Also, another good idea that I’ve adopted since I’ve come here is drinking boiled water – as in, not the kind where you boil it, then cool it, then drink it. This is piping hot water that you drink along with your food that drastically reduces any chances of catching a cold or a sore throat.
That’s pretty much the routine I’ve settled into for the two days until school begins. And it’s a lovely departure from the fast and manic pace of city life. Here, you take life in through a lens that offers so much more in terms of revealing the human journey which basically boils down to three factors:

1)      Kind People
2)      Good Food
3)      Amazing Sights

And well, Ladakh has it all. And a man can’t ask for more.

Also, every morning I awake to a wonderful view that just doesn’t lose its grandeur or it’s ability to make me think of a wonderful quote from that awe-inspiring HBO series ‘’From The Earth To The Moon’’ by Tom Hanks, where astronaut Dave Scott says – ‘’There’s something to be said about exploring beautiful places. It’s good for the spirit.’’

Sunday 12 May 2013

Day 1

It started with a flurry of activity on the evening of the 9th of May at my Aunt’s house in Andheri, Mumbai. Everyone from my maternal grandmother to a few cousins came to visit as I was ready and pumped to traverse to the ‘land of the passes’ – Ladakh. After a few hours that sped by in quite a panicky hurry I was at the Mumbai Domestic Airport and boggled by the incredibly lax and crippling effects of airport bureaucracy. Took me an hour to check-in my luggage despite being ready to pay for the extra weight and them charging me an exorbitant price for it. At the end I had to leg it and just caught the flight with 10 minutes remaining for it to leave the gate.  Sat into my seat panting away and I think the passengers around me were fairly alarmed by the sight but all’s well that ends well.

Was in Delhi within an hour and realized I had five hours to kill which went by achingly slow but I whiled away the time in an incredibly large and empty airport (I landed at 1 am) by conversing with the staff and security presence who were incredibly courteous and kind enough to entertain me with some interesting conversations about their life and inquiring about mine. I remember one elderly lady was quite perplexed I was volunteering to teach as opposed to getting paid for it. I told her, ‘’Being able to see Ladakh is payment enough’’, and boy was I proved right the moment the flight took off from Delhi. In about half an hour we were above the clouds and it felt like gliding through the heavens and soon enough the gentler hills of the Himalayas were already below us, and they were a sight to see! But as we progressed further north, the sights just got more majestic as the lower gentle hills gave way to the imposing and steep mountains – the snow glistening in the summer sun. Each peak was even more spectacular than the last and I kind of went on a camera-clicking frenzy so much so that I couldn't even finish the breakfast meal I’d been served which was quite honestly - delicious! The surreal feeling of clouds below me and the Himalayas further down was quite moving. I felt a massive gush of humility at these awesome sights as if venturing into the abode of the ‘devas’ – the ancient gods of India with their mountain palaces passing by below.

The landing was not short of just awe-inspiring as the plane maneuvered through the mountains that circled the valley in which Leh is cradled. The wonderful little rivers that later form the mighty Indus – from which India takes its name – were meandering through the picturesque town and the little villages that dotted its outskirts. I immediately spotted ‘Spituk’ with its peculiar red monastery atop the little hill a little distance away from Leh where I shall be teaching. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it from above beside a little stream that flowed between islands of green that surrounded the little village.

After a smooth landing the army officer sitting beside me enthusiastically pointed out the IL-76 that lay parked at the Air Force Base and that mammoth military cargo plane too seemed tiny in the backdrop of the mighty Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. Again, as the seat belt seat light was switched off, for once I didn't immediately get up to get my bag-pack but instead went on another mini-picture taking spree. Finally got down and it was pretty warm for two degrees Celsius s that powerful mountain sun was beating down pretty hard and I being the clutz that I am I forgot to take my shades out of the check-in baggage and so my eyes took a while to get adjusted to the brightness. I ventured out into the Leh Airport Terminal, collected my luggage and set out to find my way to Spituk. As expected, I saw two monks the moment I stepped out with a sign saying ‘’Abhijeet from Canada’’ and I was greeted with a warm ‘’Julay’’ from both of them when I told them I am indeed ‘’Abhijeet from Canada’’ but at the moment ‘’Abhijeet from Mumbai via Delhi’’. The monks ‘’Gindun’’ and ‘’Lobzang’’ then drove me back to Spituk and this time I didn’t take the camera out. Just mental snap-shots of the views I was encountering were registered and it was a lot to take in as the panoramic view all around me just took me captive! Some mountains were topped with glacial flows and others were barren and brown sentinels. At their base some had little woods and forests whilst others again were brown and barren.

After a 10-15 minute drive I finally reached the picturesque little village of Spituk. The monastery lies perched atop a hill, that looked much smaller from the plane but its sheer size can only be appreciated at close hand. The village lies nestled in a green and fertile delta of the Indus and I was dropped off at the host’s house that I shall stay with for the next 3 months. It consists of an incredibly caring and jovial grandma (Ibi is grandma in Ladakhi/Bothi) her son and his wife and their 3 daughters (2 of whom are studying in Chandigarh and one of whom (her name’s Amo) works here in Leh). The welcome was nothing short of incredibly gratifying and they made me feel at home from the moment they uttered the first ‘’Julay!’’

I sat in the cozy little living room that had the scent of the countryside. Outside I could hear the bellows of the cows and the little stray dog barking away. Donkeys were trudging along towards the fields as I was told later that ploughing-season had just begun and ducks were flying towards the river, quacking away. There was a pleasant breeze wafting through the open window which was welcome in contrast to the bright sun.
The house is incredibly large and robust and has a charm of its own especially when you see the backdrop of the lovely snow-clad mountains. I shall describe it in further detail in the later installments.

I was given a cup of hot, sweet tea and then I was shown to my room. It has a personality of its own. A lovely azure blue carpet that shimmers in the noon sun. A comfortable bed with 3 thick blankets to keep me warm in the chilly evenings and nights. And a strong closet and wardrobe to house my clothes and other essentials. But the best part is the view. I drew open the curtains and let the air in through the open windows and was met with a majestic sight of a little field with canals running through it. There was nothing planted yet but you could see that it was freshly ploughed. Another rustic and charming little house stood at the edge of it and I could hear but not see the gush of the river ambling by.

I certainly realize how lucky I am. And with that I slept my day away as it’s the best way to tackle altitude sickness that I wasn't feeling at all except for a few times when I had to inhale a little extra hard. Other than that, I slept like a baby till Ibi came to wake me up for dinner. I had noticed it had gotten chilly again and so I pulled up some socks on my feet and a thin jacket as I made my way down to the living room. I was served piping hot vegetables and a dry paneer sabzi on top of some wonderfully smelling rice. The warm food, and warm company made up for the chilly night breeze that was whoozing away against the shut windows and doors. I thanked them for a lovely dinner and made my way up once more after a little chat. I tucked myself in and began reading a book titled ‘’The Immortals of Meluha’’ that I had purchased at the Delhi Airport in the illumination of the flashlight as there was no power that night.

I slowly dozed off to sleep and dreamed wonderful Himalayan dreams.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

The Road Goes Ever On And On ...

''“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a human being stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, we sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression, ignorance and resistance.” 

So went forth the words of one my idols Mr. Robert Francis Kennedy, which resound to this day within whatever constitutes the incredibly small understanding of my moral fiber. 

It's pretty much what led me to take the next step of volunteering as a teacher, a profession which has the potential to give a child a little prod behind that makes them jump to the skies, as a serious option to quench this unending thirst within me to affect some change (however insignificant) and get an opportunity to see more of the planet we live on. It was my way of dealing with a sense of helplessness that was daily being entrenched into my pysche due to a few personal problems that had been plaguing me and my family since the last summer. And I think it started making me feel better the moment I decided to act on it and go through this journey. I seriously recommend it to everyone who will or is facing similar circumstances.

The reason for choosing Ladakh as a place to start this endeavor was two-fold -

1) Having lived and traveled in India till the age of 14 I am an absolute sucker for all things related to the Himalayas,which I had the opportunity to visit when I went to Darjeeling and Sikkim when I was about 10 . What I love most about the Himalayas though, are the people who exude a sense of simplicity, humility and basic kindness that charmed my senses and my humanity.


2) I've never seen Ladakh and it was always on the list of places to visit.

So, Google helping me along the way, I set my eyes upon a British organization called the Himalayan Education Lifeline Programme (HELP). After an application process that lasted for a few months (most of which was done in days but just took time due to my busy schedule) I was selected and I chose to teach at the Spituk Monastery School in Spituk, Ladakh, India which is a little village 8 km from Leh, Ladakh, India which is a major city in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir near the Indo-Chinese (Tibetan) border.

100 hours worth of TEFL(Teaching English as a Foreign Language) classes and I was certified to teach in the month of April. 

After a few weeks, and at the end of an arduous 27 hour flight from Toronto to Detroit to Amsterdam to Mumbai I decided to start a blog to share, what I hope will be, a very special journey. I embark on it tomorrow, and there are many a miles to go. 

I end with one of my favourite poems from one of my favourite authors:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

So, follow along and let's have this adventure together.