Under Angels' Wings: Leh/Ladakh
Fresh apricots—Kanika Guest House, Leh, India; Wednesday, August 10, 2011, 11:00 am
I’m in my room, sitting on the bed with my laptop on my legs, writing stories from journey from Manali. The windows and doors are open.
The view through unscreened windows to my right is of a small alfalfa field one-half acre in size, a mud-brick fence, slender deciduous trees, more small fields, a white two-story residence, and snow-capped Himalayan mountains topped by white fluffy clouds and blue sky.
To my left, through the open doorway, I see an outdoor corridor that leads to other rooms and a piece of the hotel’s courtyard.
Lamo enters with a soup bowl that holds five small golden apricots. “For you. From our tree,” she says.
“May I see?” I respond, quick to set the laptop aside in favor of my camera.
They have three apricot trees and four apple trees on the other side of the garden where they grow organic carrots, onions, cabbage, tomatoes, peas, beans, cauliflower, and several varieties of lettuce for the meals served here at the guest house. Marigolds, buttercups, and ambal accent the greens with red, white, orange, and blue.
Lamo and her mother, Chorol, pick more fruit and pose for photos. They have two kinds of apricots, Lamo says, one is sweeter than the other, handing me one of those. “You can eat the pit.” It looks hard.
“Put it here,” she says, pointing to the wide top of a low concrete wall. With a flat stone, she knocks it twice, cracking it open to reveal a pearl-white inner seed. It’s crunchy, like an almond, and sweeter than macadamia.
I confirm that I want to eat supper tonight. “Whatever you’re serving.”
“Dinner?” Lamo asks, using the local vernacular for the evening meal.
“Eight-thirty,” she says.
Stories within this chapter:
Fresh apricots (posted September 5, 2011)
Quest for friends (posted September 5, 2011)
A Tibetan's prayer (posted September 5, 2011)
Distributing photos (posted September 5, 2011)
Money drawers (posted September 5, 2011)
More than a haircut and not much more than two bits (posted September 5, 2011)
Muted celebration (posted September 6, 2011)
Weather, food, lodging (posted September 6, 2011)
What if I had been here for the flood? (posted September 6, 2011)
Where was the flood? (posted September 6, 2011)
Young people rebuilding homes (posted September 6, 2011)
Quest for friends—Leh, India; Thursday, August 11, 2011, afternoon
“She is no longer with us,” says Kelsang in response to my query about Tseten, a jewelry shop owner I had met last year.
“Because of the flood?”
“No, childbirth. An infection. They couldn’t afford treatment.”
“Did the child live?”
“Yes,” adding that Tseten died four months ago, in April.
Kelsang, a cousin of Tseten’s now-widowed husband, is now the proprietor. Her face shows sadness, and she promises to express my wishes of sorrow to her cousin.
Ten minutes away, the Moti Market looks unchanged from last year with one exception—an improvement. At the row of shops where I had met Rinchen, Kunzes, and Sonam, the ground had been bare and dusty, and a man and a boy were digging, by hand, a 15-feet-deep hole that would serve as a waste cistern for several nearby restaurants. Today, the plaza is terra cotta tile and comparatively clean. The shops are as I had seen them last year. And the ladies, sitting in chairs near Rinchen’s shop, recognize me quickly.
This woman with whom I had had the most in-depth conversation rises quickly, and we greet each other with smiles and a hug. Sonam, who speaks no English, and Kunzes also rise and extend their hands in friendship.
“I’m so glad to see you alive. Where was the flood?”
Kunzes gestures. “Down there …” some indistinct distance, and I realize that the news reports from last year of Leh’s merchant area being wiped out did not pertain to this merchant area, the Moti Market.
Rinchen lifts the small hinged platform that serves as her service counter and invites me into her shop to sit—just as she had last year. “Tea?” she asks. I nod, and she bustles off in one direction, comes back empty handed, then hurries in another.
Before she can return, two Korean women come along and, by their lingering, express interest in Rinchen’s cloth goods. “She’ll be right back,” I say, and the Koreans edge closer to Rinchen’s wares. “Her merchandise is good. She’ll be right back.”
They are still there when Rinchen returns and hands me a glass of chai. I wander off to where Sonam and Kunzes have reseated themselves, leaving Rinchen to a possible sale.
“They said they will come back,” she says, beckoning me into her shop a few minutes later. At first, I kneel or sit on my heels until Sonam brings a stool, which is much more comfortable.
Rinchen sits on her bench inside her service counter. I am deeper into her closet-size shop. Sonam and Kunzes and one or two others lean over the counter from the outside. We are all smiles.
Rinchen asks about my head, recalling that I had told her of my brain tumor surgery when we spoke last year. Her migraine headaches are gone, she says.
Her son, 14, is now in Level 7 in school, and he’s studying languages in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. His entire education, including books, meals, and lodging in a school hostel, is being paid for by a wealthy benefactor who apparently provides education for promising teens. Rinchen expects that her son will complete his education in some other country.
Her daughter, who is younger, lives in Rinchen’s home and goes to school in Leh. This proud mother removes her digital camera from her purse and shows me dozens of pictures of this beautiful young girl.
Rinchen says her business is good and, as I did last year, I wonder how profitable a shop can be, considering that there are dozens of similar shops throughout the area. The prices are reasonable by Western standards: 100 rupees ($2.50) for a silk scarf, for example. Yet, perhaps her wholesale cost provides for a profitable mark-up.
She proudly produces her passport, obtained in late 2010. She doesn’t know where or when she will travel or to what country she will go, but she’s prepared.
Kunzes wants to know my age. When I reply “63,” she relates that Sonam is a decade younger. She and Rinchen, I surmise from discussions of children’s ages, are in their 30s. Kunzes is married, Rinchen is divorced, and Sonam’s husband died four years ago. Something is said in their language of Ladakhi, Sonam looks embarrassed, and I surmise that Kunzes is attempting matchmaking.
The gathering breaks up soon thereafter, and Rinchen invites me to lunch two days hence. “Vegetarian or mutton?” she asks.
The visit concludes with photographs. After each, all present insist that I pass the camera around for everyone to see. When I give Rinchen another hug, Sonam and Kunzes twitter, so I bend over to give one to Sonam, too. It’s an awkward hug because she’s seated and I’m to the side and back of her chair, so the gesture is more a brush of my cheek against her forehead, which generates more twitters.
I leave, with a promise to find a place where I can have pictures printed. “One for each of us,” Kunzes reminds.
Tibetan Children's Village—Choglamsar, India; Friday, August 12, 2011, early afternoon
“I was just looking at your card on my desk, and I was going to send an email to you. And, and here you are,” says Sonam (not the same Sonam as in the previous story), recognizing me immediately as I walk through the upper story entrance at Tibetan Children’s Village in Choglamsar, a 15-minute taxi ride from Leh.
“Are we not divinely led?”
“It’s a coincidence.”
We are sitting in the office of Rabten Tezin, the sponsorship secretary head for several Tibetan Children’s Villages (TCV) in India. Last year, at this time, I had sat here with Liz, a Swiss woman from northern France, and Abhijit, a man from south India.
Abhijit, like me, had been a volunteer for The High ultramarathon, staying at Jorchung Guest House in Leh. Liz was also a temporary resident there. For 20 years, she has sponsored a Tibetan elder and a Tibetan child at TCV. When she extended an invitation that we accompany her one day, Abhijit and I accepted.
That was about 10 days before the flood of August 6, 2010. When I had heard that news and obtained very little coverage on the Internet, I wondered if Liz had survived. And, because I had lost the piece of paper with her surname and email address, I was unable to contact her directly.
“Yes,” says Sonam. “Liz was here. She left four days after the flood.”
Sonam expects Liz to make her annual trip to Leh and Choglamsar within the next few weeks. Per protocol, she won’t release her contact information but willingly takes my card and promises to convey my wishes that Liz contact me.
The Tibetan Children’s Village seems to attract long-term volunteers, women in their 50s and 60s who are willing to invest a significant block of time each year to work there. One of these is Maria, an Italian who lives in England with her husband. She represents an organization called Italian Amala Onlus, which, she says, sponsors 280 children at this TCV. Maria will return home in three days; she’s been here for one month.
The flood, I learned from the taxi driver while coming to Choglamsar, was most devastating in the wide ravine that extends from Leh’s eastern edge—starting about one kilometer downhill from the Moti Market—to the western fringe of the Tibetan Children’s Village. It was here that more than 200 people died, the driver confirmed. And Sonam adds that part of the TCV compound was damaged.
Yet, this school and village for Tibetan elders and orphans became a haven for displaced Indians as well as Tibetan neighbors. “We took in many families for more than a month,” Sonam says. “Some were in our clinic for three or four days then were transferred to the hospital in Leh,” which is little more than a clinic itself.
Sonam’s role changed from administration to humanitarian during that period. “Children from outside couldn’t get to school,” she says. Those living in the compound were put to work helping their unexpected guests.
Last year, Sonam had given Liz, Abhijit, and me an extensive tour of the village, and Liz had enjoyed visiting the elder she sponsors. So, today, our meeting is brief, yet fulfilling.
“Is there anything I can do to help here?” I ask, not yet ready to leave.
“What could you do?”
Aware of this mountain desert’s intense dry heat, the thought of physical labor suddenly became unappealing. “Maybe I could talk with some of the older students. Maybe they would enjoy speaking English with someone who has traveled from America.”
“It’s their exam time,” she explains, dismissing that idea as good but not appropriate for now. “Perhaps when you return another time.”
A Tibetan's prayer—Choglamsar, India; Friday, August 12, 2011, afternoon
Sonam and Maria go to the school cafeteria for lunch, but I don’t feel ready to leave. I linger to take a photograph of a Tibetan “guard” at the wide open gate. Then I pass through, walking on the road where numerous agencies and organizations have their headquarters to serve this Tibetan community.
A taxi comes along side, and I ask the fare. “200 rupees,” he says, and I recall that, last year, Liz had said we can flag a taxi down and if they have room, we can get in for 10 rupees. But the difference in fare doesn’t prevent me from getting in the taxi. I simply want to linger.
I’m taking a photo of the Office of the Chief Representative, Sonamling Tibetan Settlement when a voice nearby says, “Come on. Follow.” The man is stout and dark complected man, perhaps about my age. “Come on,” he repeats.
He turns the corner around a white concrete building with a sign that reads: “Tibetan Refugee Settlement Handicrafts Centre Choglamsar Community Show Room.” Then he stoops to open a heavy padlock and lift the steel corrugated door that prevents unauthorized access to his shop of Tibetan wares. He's wearing a baseball cap embroidered with a New York Yankees insignia.
“My name is Tsering Gyalpo. That means ‘long life king.’” He laughs. “So I am a king with a long life.”
Tsering was 9 when he left Tibet in the mid-1950s. He’s 65 now.
The mid-1950s was a time of violence in Tibet, a high-altitude nation of primarily nomadic people. Soldiers of the Chinese Communist government first entered Tibet in 1950, and China’s sovereignty over Tibet was formally established in 1951. The violence of 1956 and 1957 caused many people to flee. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, after attempting negotiations with China’s Mao Tse Tung, fled from his large temple home in Lhasa to establish the Tibetan Government in Exile in India in 1959.
Tsering opens a book and shows me a picture of Zhikatse City. “This was my home. The Chinese bombed it.”
Not one to be subdued, he joyfully proclaims, “I have three children and grandchildren.” He proudly states their names and the number in each family.
We walk about the shop, and he shows me wall tapestries of various Buddhist deities: Green Tara, White Tara, Manjushri. Some of these are covered with a beautiful gold-on-gold cloth to prevent damage by dust. His knowledge is extensive, and each piece comes with a thorough explanation of the deities’ characteristics and attributes. Green Tara’s right foot, for example, is extended as though about to rise, which distinguishes her from White Tara.
He brings forth books with more Buddhist and Tibetan information.
With the inverted stick of a Tibetan prayer wheel, he makes a hand bell ring as though it were a crystal bowl.
“You are nyu thok po. My good friend,” he says, and I ask him to write the words on my notepad so I can better understand. He writes: “Nyu thok po, la.”
“La is special. It means respect. You are my very good friend.”
I confirm that I’ve seen “La” at the end of the names of mountain passes like KhardungLa and TanglangLa.
“Yes, it means special or high. It is respect. You are nyu thok po, la. My very good friend.” He clasps my hands in his and his voice becomes even more sincere. “The heart is not relaxed. The food is good.” He pinches the fabric of his shirt. “The cloth is good. But …” He puts his hands together and places them beside his face in sleep position. “… people not sleep. The heart is not relaxed.”
“Who’s heart is not relaxed?”
“My people in Tibet. Tibet is a beautiful country. But their heart is not relaxed. In sleep, the mind is …” He pauses.
“Yes. The food is good. The cloth is good. But in sleep, the heart is not relaxed.” He grips my hand tighter. “Please help. I request you. I never forget Tibet. I hope after time I’m going to Tibet. You have big power. Please help. In Tibet, Tibetans captured. I request for you to report. Please write.”
I promise that I will, and his grip eases.
“You have power of Manjushri,” he says of the deity embroidered on a tapestry that he had shown me earlier.
“You must learn Manjushri mantra: Om Ara Bangze Nat Thi.” He writes the words on my note pad, then brings forth his mobile and begins to search through a menu of recordings, most of them the Dalai Lama teaching. “Here, sit. I will teach you Manjushri mantra.”
The air in the closed shop is stifling, and I’m wishing that I had brought a bottle of water with me. But Tsering’s invitation is compelling as are images of this deity I’ve seen, including the “Emblem of the Three Great Bodhisattvas” with three composite images: “the sword representing Manjushri’s wisdom, the parrot of Vajrapani’s power, and the duck of Avalokiteshvara’s compassion.” So I sit and we listen for many minutes.
Finally, His Holiness begins a series of mantras. “Here. Soon.” The words on the recording are like those I heard at the Buddhist Kalachakra initiation in Washington, D.C. (Was that a month ago already?) The Dalai Lama chants. Hundreds or thousands of voices respond. The Dalai Lama repeats the chant, beginning before the voices have finished. Three times.
His Holiness leads the throng through several mantras then I recognize the words Tsering has spoken and written on my behalf. We listen. Then the Dalai Lama, speaking Tibetan, changes his voice from that of chanter to teacher.
“The last word, Thi,” Tsering says, “you can repeat. Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi.” His voice is melodic.
The Dalai Lama begins the mantra again. “Listen.”
On the mobile, we hear His Holiness: “Om Ara Bangze Nat Thi.” With the first repetition of Thi, Tsering intones along with the Dalai Lama. “Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi- Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi- Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi-Thi.” Tsering runs out of breath—I’ve taken at least three by this time—and the Dalai Lama continues for several more seconds.
“That is Manjushri mantra,” Tsering says, beaming. “Now you know it too. Pray the mantra. Help my people. My prayer. You have big power.”
Tibetan dining—Leh, India; Friday, August 12, 2011, afternoon
Back in Leh, I find another shopkeeper, Tsewang, who I had talked with briefly last year. Then I walk past a couple selling wallets whose photos, with their infant child, I had also taken last year.
With entrance into Montessori Restaurant, my connections with people from this community will hopefully be complete.
The waiter is Thupten. His mother is Tseten. She came from Tibet in 1959, fleeing from the Chinese invasion.
I had met their brother/son Tsewang at the nearby Office of the Ladakh Buddhist Association in Leh last year. At that time, a rumor was floating about that the Dalai Lama was going to make an unplanned visit to a temple in an adjacent valley, and I wanted to possibly go. Tsewang had looked into this rumor and determined that it was false.
His report back to me had not been instantaneous but after several hours. He had gone looking for me and, amazingly, found me as I walked among thousands of other tourists on Leh’s busy market streets. I remember his image well, astride his motorcycle, wearing a helmet, with the engine idling as I happened to walk past.
I describe this scene to Thupten, and he laughs. “Yes, that would be my brother. Compassion and kindness is typical of all people of Tibet.”
Another brother, he adds, is a security guard for the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, and I mention that I’m going there to hear His Holiness at the end of the month. He provides his brother’s name but says it’s unlikely I will find him. “There will be many people.”
Only one other customer is eating, so Thupten and Tseten stand at my table as I find pictures on my computer of the Dalai Lama that I took at the Kalachakra in Washington, D.C., and pictures of the kitchen staff at the Montessori Restaurant last year. They are delighted and pose for one more—in front of the Tibetan flag that hangs on their wall.
Distributing photos—Leh, India; Saturday, August 13, 2011, afternoon
When I return to the Moti Market for my lunch date with Rinchen, I come bearing three dozen 4” by 6” prints—including multiple prints for photos with more than one person—that I had made for 12.5 rupees (less than three cents) each at a Kodak shop.
Sonam places the same wicker seat next to Kunzes chair, then sidles her chair close to where I sit. They are eager to help me distribute the prints, making sure each pictured person gets the images in which they are pictured.
Rinchen and I then make our way to one restaurant, but it’s closed. We try another, also closed. Then a third. Along the way, she talks on her mobile. Soon after we’re seated, a tall, handsome man in an Indian Army camouflage uniform enters and sits beside Rinchen. “This is my friend,” she says.
“Your special friend?” I say with genuine delight at the possibility.
“No. A friend.”
He looks sheepish. We don’t share a common spoken language but through Rinchen, I learn that he’s a rifleman and has been in the army for two years of a six-year tour of duty. When our discussion lulls, they speak softly in Ladakhi.
She orders vegetable momo, Tibetan dumplings, six to a plate. They’re very tasty.
They finish while I’m still eating and leave the table. I turn and see they’re paying for the meal. When I offer, Rinchen refuses.
I ask to take a photo of the two of them, and they both say no. Perhaps she asked him to be there … just to be there.
During the meal, Rinchen has taught me the difference between julay, the jolly, sing-song greeting so common here, and od julay, which means “thank you,” and ya julay, “okay, good-bye.”
Upon our return to her shop next door to Sonam’s and Kunzes’, it’s time for ya julay. I’ve come back once. They are okay, smiling, joyous, selling their wares. I likely won't return a second time. We all sense this. Yet, we laugh and are glad for this time. I make a special point of having a photo taken with Sonam—cheek to cheek.
At another spot on the Moti Market, I stop to give prints to Tsewang, another merchant.
Then I find the couple selling wallets on the curb, in the same location as last year. Then, they had an infant and the mother was nursing. We don’t share a common spoken language, but when I hand the photos from last year to them, their faces light up with the universal expression of joy. Through hand gestures, they communicate that their child is much larger now. I buy a wallet from them, as I had last year, even though I don’t need one, and they give me a 33 percent discount—down from 150 rupees to 100 ($2.50 instead of $3.25).
I return to Montessori Restaurant. The place is nearly full and Thupten is busy with other customers. So the visit there is a hand off and a handshake.
Then I go to see Kelsang. I have four photos for her: one that I took of her two days prior and three of her cousin who, as she told me then, had died in childbirth in April. Kelsang smiles, holding back tears.
Money drawers—Leh, India; Saturday, August 13, 2011, afternoon
Give currency to a shopkeeper or vendor and the change coming back is likely to be bent, folded crimped, garnered haphazardly from a wooden desk drawer. Your currency, likewise, is tossed in the drawer, atop whatever other bills happen to be there.
Having visited one particular Internet café each day since I arriving, I’ve gotten to know the friendly staff there. One man, Dorjee, is particularly jolly. So, I say, “In the United States, the money we put in a cash register would be placed in small compartments—for 50s, 20s, 10s, 5s, and 1s. Why do you just drop your money in a drawer without sorting it?”
“Those are electronic cash registers you have.”
“Not necessarily. Even with a manual cash register, the clerk sorts the money.”
“We don’t do that.”
“I’ve noticed. Why?”
“We don’t want to know until the end of the day. Then we count. There might be 2,000. There might be 4,000. If we think there’s 2,000 and there’s really 4,000, then we’re surprised. Ah, it was a good day. In America, you have to know all the time. We don’t want to know.”
More than a haircut and not much more than two bits—Leh, India; Saturday, August 13, 2011, afternoon
Fulfilling my request, the Internet café proprietor leads me across the street to an alley to a barbershop that I wouldn’t have found on my own.
There are two chairs, two barbers, two customers, and a woman sitting on a bench in a space of about 10’ by 10’, so I wait outside until the chair closer to the door becomes vacant.
The man in the other chair is Chris from England. The woman on the bench is waiting for him. “We’re going back to London on Monday, and I thought I’d save some money by getting a haircut here,” he says.
Thinking American, I had anticipated telling the barber, who speaks no English, to just buzz my scalp and beard to a nice, no-comb length. But there’s no electricity in this shop, no clippers. Scissors and razor only.
His rhythm is constant. Snip-snip. Snip-snip-snip. Snip-snip. He cuts the right side, the back, the top, the left side. Then works his way around again, and again, and again, finding the errant hairs that his scissors had missed the first time, the second time, the third time. He repeats this repetition for the beard. Holding my head steady with a firm hand, he snips the mustache and hairs below my lower lip, even my nose hairs, a service you rarely find in the States any more.
Then comes the shave. First, a splash of cool liquid from a dish on his minimalist accessory stand. Then lather, as white as my beard, applied with a brush. Then the straight razor, steady as she goes around the ears, on the cheeks, down the neck. With a towel, he wipes away excess lather and rubs the shaved area with a fist-size stone that resembles a crystal.
“Antiseptic,” he replies with an accent that merits my repetition to clarify and his restatement to confirm.
He then rubs my entire face with a pink aromatic cream that elicits a pleasant “ahh.”
Then comes the massage. First with a firm hand on the back of my head and the thumb and forefinger of the other hand above the eyebrows, moving firmly and steadily across the top of the eyes as far as he can reach past the temples. The top of the head. The back of the head at the occiput. Down the neck to the angel wings. The shoulders. With firm grip followed by tapotement. Then the same sequence again, and again. And a gentler touch on the face. “Ahh.”
Muted celebration—Leh, India; Monday, August 15, 2011
Today is India’s national day of independence. The morning celebration here in Leh is muted, consisting of a few speeches by government officials. A bus of Ladakhi cultural performers who were to perform here went over the edge of a precipice on the Leh-Manali Highway yesterday. Twelve are dead, five more severely injured.
Weather, food, lodging—Leh, India; Monday, August 15, 2011
The weather has been warm and sunny during the day and cool with a starlit sky at night. Today, it’s rainy and cold. Walking from the Internet café, water rushes in and over the rims of open storm sewers. It runs in the street where cars splash pedestrian feet. It’s easy to imagine even a modicum of rain flooding these streets.
At Kanika Guest House, the cooks have prepared soup of noodles made from local organic wheat, spinach, carrots, onions, lumps of white cheese, and small, round brown beans. It’s warm and relatively mild—a great meal and perfect for the weather. Chorol says, “Ladakhi meal. Tsoupa. You want more?” I don’t. One bowl, large enough to hold an entire can of American soup, is enough.
The food here at Kanika has been great each day—breakfast and dinner. Omelets, buttered toast, chapatti, alu parantha (thin pancakes with vegetables), rice with vegetables in various forms, and apricots fresh from the trees on this property.
For three nights this past weekend, I was moved across the road to another guest house because all the rooms here were previously booked by a large party. That guest house was pleasant too, but the proprietors didn’t serve meals, although they brought hot white milk, fresh from their cow, and a bowl of sugar to my door each morning.
The difference between the two locations was not quite black and white—more like light gray and dark gray. The owners at Kanika live in a large, two-story home with wooden doors and glass window panes; the building material is plastered stucco, painted white. The owners across the road live in a much smaller, single-story abode with blanket-covered doorways and dirt floors that they cover with rugs. They don’t have a garden but a large open field of weeds, stones, and dry, dusty dirt.
In the spirit of equality, I’m glad I stayed there and contributed to their income for those three nights, and I could have stayed there longer. But all in all, I like the fun hospitality and human interaction at Kanika.
Here, Lamo speaks English, and her parents, Chorol and Lobzang, communicate quite well, understanding more English than they speak. Here, the family invited me into their kitchen one afternoon and served tea while we chatted and watched Emmy Award-type ceremonies for Bollywood stars on television. It seemed strange after a couple of weeks in this nation of modesty to suddenly see women with bare shoulders and noticeable cleavage.
Here, Zomba’s daughter, Sonam, romps about with cherubic beauty. Here, people from Seeds India and Architects without Borders, the NGOs helping to rebuild Ladakhi’s’ homes, discuss humanitarian endeavors. Other guests are here too, like Kishore and Vasuda, who invited me to visit them in Mumbai, and Ashok and his colleagues, also from Mumbai, who are members of the Indian Photography Association on an outing. Here, it’s good, fulfilling.
And the cost? 600 rupees per night here and 550 across the road. $12.50 per night here and $11.50 there. Meals cost a dollar or two each.
What if I had been here for the flood?—Leh and Choglamsar, India; Monday, August 15, 2011
I asked that question one year ago when I heard about the flood. Could I have been a humanitarian helper or would I have been one of the victims? Would my Western stomach have been able to find tame food and safe water?
Katherine Johnson, a volunteer with Architecture Sans Frontières-UK (Architects without Borders), provides some answers and insights in her blog Chapter 2: Unrecognizable Leh.
The first three chapters in her Diary of a Disaster begin with her harrowing return from a high-altitude trek through rain-swollen, raging rivers. She follows this with reports of working in the disaster-torn communities of Leh and nearby Choglamsar where the Tibetan Children’s Village, which I wrote about above, is located.
Her post on August 15, 2011 shows remarkable photos of candle-light commemorations for the dead and missing in Leh one year later. In another blog, she describes reconstruction at a school.
Photojournalist Sarika Gulati also has great photos on her blog of the flood disaster as well as Ladakhis enjoying life in their harsh part of the world.
Where was the flood?—Leh and Choglamsar, India; Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Today, I eschew a day inside at the Internet café and accept an invitation to go with Seeds India and Architecture Sans Frontières volunteers to see sites where they’re building homes for people displaced by the flood.
On the way, as was the case going to the Tibetan Children’s Village a few days ago, I see devastation from the flood—but it’s nowhere near the Indus River, which does flow along the edge of Leh.
The damage is on uplands—not the highest of uplands, like where Leh’s main bazaar and the Moti Market are—but certainly not in the lowlands along the banks of the Indus.
“It was a cloudburst,” says Rachit Rivastav, the architect volunteer in charge. According to Wikipedia, official estimates of total rainfall range from one-half inch to nearly ten inches in a region that gets an average of six-tenths rain during the entire month of August. This cloudburst lasted a mere 30 minutes between 1:30 and 2:00 a.m. “It flowed down the water channels, carved by glaciers or made by humans, that drain from the mountains,” Rachit continues.
Looking toward the peaks, hundreds of these water channels are apparent. At the higher elevations, summer snow lies in the low spots, providing a high-contrast distinction of elevation variances. But the channels are also visible at lower elevations where they appear as brown impressions on brown slopes.
The effect is as I surmised seven days ago coming through the cloudburst-altered landscape, roadways, and riverbanks beyond Upshi. The water up there had fallen in torrents too great for the soil to retain. The rocks had broken loose and come tumbling down with the rushing water—through the water channels.
Where was the flood? It was on the hillsides, above the Indus, racing to the Indus, to be carried away by the Indus, carrying with it human bodies in untold numbers.
The early official estimates claim that more than 200 people were killed and about that many more missing. That death toll represents “the bodies they could find,” says Anurag Sood, a mountain climber from Manali who was there and survived. “More than 1,000 washed away and never found,” he adds.
Young people rebuilding homes—Leh and Pyang, India; Tuesday, August 16, 2011
“Rammed earth technology is an old technology, forgotten here for 200 or 300 years, but it’s being brought back,” says Toby, an Architecture Sans Frontières volunteer from England who appears to be in his mid-20s. “We make forms of wood with a space of about 16 inches between them, depending on the height of the building. Then we pour in earth and ram pack it solid.”
The architectural principle of by Architecture Sans Frontières, wherever they work, is to utilize indigenous technology and materials. Here, the prime material is mud. It would be adobe in the U.S. Southwest, bamboo in the Orient, wood in forested Europe, field stone in plowed agricultural land, and brick where there’s clay.
Toby likes this principle. “The West has gotten away from indigenous technology and become dependent on steel, concrete, and glass. That’s not sustainable,” he says. As an architect trained in Western schools, he sees his job as bringing technological adaptations to indigenous practices. For example, the homes being built here use local mud bricks, but the corner designs incorporate buttresses. “That’s so the walls don’t fall out and cause the roof to collapse, which is the primary cause of death in an earthquake,” Toby adds.
The volunteers here are also instructing local masons to install two “seismic bands,” which are wooden structures built into the walls immediately above the foundation and at the roof line completely around the home. The concept is comparable to wrapping shrunk plastic or steel bands around loose boxes on a pallet prior to shipping. “This spreads the load of an earthquake or flood throughout the building rather than taking the full impact at a single pressure point,” Toby explains.
Toby and the other Architecture Sans Frontières volunteers are working under the auspices of Seeds India, a United Nations NGO that provides money to pay local contractors, local laborers, and allow the local beneficiaries to buy local building materials.
Riding to the first worksite, Rachit Rivastav, a 23-year-old architectural school graduate and the person in charge of construction oversight, explains that Ladakh is an earthquake-prone—as well as a flood-prone—area. “There hasn’t been an earthquake here for centuries,” he says, “but we build to that possibility.”
The homes are also constructed for thermal comfort in a high-altitude climate where winter temperatures reach minus 20 to minus 30 Celsius. “Flood safety, earthquake safety, and passive solar thermal heat are our objectives,” Rachit says.
Seeds has three project sites: one home in Tia, 100 kilometers from Leh; two homes in Pyang, a spread-out village with low population density 25 kilometers from Leh; and five homes in Leh with more coming. They’re also building two community shelters. A fourth home-construction project will begin next week, and Rachit would like to build 25 to 30 homes all together. He also acknowledges that his team is running out of time, running out of construction season at altitudes where snow will begin to fall in September or October.
Of the home projects that he oversees, Rachit says, “They’re not fancy. One-room homes that are expandable. We use local technology because it must be acceptable and adaptable to the people who live in the homes.”
The Seeds people also involve the owners who are currently living in nearby temporary dwellings. “We connect with the owner. We’re not like the government that brought in more than 1,000 pre-fabricated homes. People aren’t using them because they’re not designed for this area and this extreme climate. They’re made of tin and don’t provide protection from winter’s cold. When people light their bukhari (a stove set in the center of the single-room homes and vented by a stovepipe through the ceiling), it gets too hot. When they turn the bukhari off, it gets too cold.”
Rachit’s agenda for the day is to visit all the sites, except the one in Tia, which is too far away, and speak with the masons and workers there.
Seeds volunteer Amita Shanbhogue, 26, is from southern India but works for the accounting and financial firm of Deloitte Consulting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. She has money for one of the beneficiaries.
On our return, we will transport master masons who have come here from Nepal and other Indian/Asian nations to teach at a rammed-earth workshop tomorrow. “Examples [or this technology] have been found from 5,000 years ago,” says Rachit. “It’s like making a wall from a single holistic brick. Very solid.”
The home at the first site sits on a nearly flat, dry, dusty plain. Other homes are nearby, but the one we stop at is distinctively different because of its buttressed corners and two large windows on the southern exposure. It will be finished in one week, and the owner, a single woman of 45, will move in.
The seismic bands are visible. The mud brick walls, up to two feet thick, have been covered with mud plaster. The exterior wall around the windows has been painted black and is waiting to be covered by a glass façade. “This creates a greenhouse effect,” says Rachit. “It attracts heat to the brick in the daytime and radiates to the inside of the house at night.”
The roof is traditional Ladakhi. The beams, spaced about three feet apart, are made of poplar. Twigs from the local talu tree run perpendicular above them. Local grass, a good insulator, rests on the twigs. Then clay mud, for waterproofing, sits on top.
The outdoor toilet is also traditional Ladakhi. It has two chambers. The upper is for humans, and the lower, called a “soak pit,” is for human waste. The connection between the two is a small, rectangular hole in the floor of the upper chamber. “After people use the upper chamber, they shovel some dirt through the hole onto their deposit. The process is all dry because winter temperatures would freeze water and cause structural damage. “They clean the soak pit once every eight or nine months.” Rachit adds.
He points to nearby homes next to which a small, white, tin building stands. “Those are the government buildings,” he says. “The roofs on a traditional Ladakhi home breathe. That tin doesn’t breathe. It condenses and weeps, because the temperature change from the bukhari is too quick. Once the roof starts to weep, you have big problems.”
To get to the second site, we drive about 20 minutes higher into the mountains, past the Pyang Buddhist Temple. We park at the end of the road and walk another 300 yards through stone-walled pathways and past terraced fields of apricot trees, golden wheat, and nearly harvestable potatoes.
Rachit engages the workers in long conversation while Amita relates that the contractors are 110,000 rupees to build each home. This is in addition to 300,000 rupees given to the home owner to purchase building materials.
Each unskilled laborer receives 350 rupees per day and the skilled masons get 500 rupees per day, paid by the contractor. “Seeds pays a fixed amount because they would work slower if the number of days were unlimited,” she says. “The amount paid to the men is higher than normal because the worksite is outside the city.” I comment on the scenery here. “Yes, they don’t appreciate the beauty,” she adds.
The owner of this home is Stanzin, a woman of 45 who doesn’t hear or speak well. She’s currently living in a one small room of a friend’s residence next door. When Rachit is finished, she invites the three of us and our driver, Dorjay, also a member of Seeds India, into her room for food. She serves chai, chapatti, and labo, a very dry milk curd.
Rachit, Dorjay, and I pose for a photo with Stanzin with the small door to her room to the left of the shot.
As we come around the corner of her friend’s home, Rachit is several steps ahead of me. “Come on. Hurry,” he says excitedly. He’s moving quickly away.
“Why?” I ask.
“Yak!” His pace seems quicker.
A movement catches the corner of my eye, and I turn left to see the subject of his concern—a wild mountain yak coming along the same rock corridor where we are. Certainly, there’s not room for both him and me in this narrow space. I grab a quick photo then stride in the direction where Rachit is now many steps ahead. When I look back, the yak has taken a right-hand turn and entered a stone-enclosed garden area behind the house where a water channel chortles.
“They’re not dangerous, but they’re big and can cause damage,” Dorjay later explains.
Here, Rachit engages the workers in conversation while the home owner, who Amita calls “the beneficiary,” sits in Dorjay’s vehicle to receive money from her while his grandson watches.
The amount is one-seventh of his 300,000 rupees, one of seven weekly installments. Illiterate, he confirms receipt of the cash by placing his thumbprint on the bottom of a legal form, a practice that Amita says is commonly accepted in India.
Their conversation becomes animated and extends for many minutes. I suspect dissatisfaction with the amount of money distributed, but, later, Amita explains that isn’t so.
Apparently, there’s discord between the beneficiary and his son-in-law who is working on the home and is responsible for the purchase of materials. Speaking in Hindi, Amita told him to learn to trust this relative who, with his family, will also live in this single-room home.
Two master masons from this worksite, plus two others we picked up at the second work, sit with Rachit and me in Dorjay’s vehicle that will hold six small persons in the rear. Dorjay drives, and Amita sits in the front passenger seat, as she has from our departure earlier this morning.
Our fourth stop is where the next group of houses will be built. This is in what appears to be an industrial part of town—not industrial as in factories but because dump trucks and cranes with scoop buckets work nearby.
A trench is being dug and a pipeline lain. Men break rocks with a hammer. A crew are pouring concrete and constructing a fence; two men carry fresh concrete in a hod on their heads from the cement mixer to the foundation forms.
Rachit and the four men we transported discuss this project next to one of several small, yellow buildings, about the size of a one-automobile garage, that will be the men’s sleeping area and tool storage for the next several weeks.
A young boy, wearing pink pants and a white-and-red sweater, plays hide-and-seek with me among these buildings. He clambers over an industrial roller, scurries away when I point my camera in his direction, then runs to help the men who are building the fence.
Here, more than in the other locations, the water channels in the mountains and nearby hills are apparent. With the cloudburst that Rachit has described, it’s easy to see how water could torrent through this area.
Rachit and Amita and Toby
Returning to the guesthouse, Rachit confides that he had been here last year and, like me, left only a few days before the flood. He came back because of his interest in the people and the connections he had made here. He likes the responsibility that this opportunity provides.
“I had just graduated, and I didn’t want a corporate job. It’s better to be 100 percent in charge of a small project than two percent in charge of a big project,” he says.
Amita is pleased with her role of helping the beneficiaries make wise purchases. “If the Seeds money runs out, the beneficiaries have to buy material out of their own pocket, so I help them manage their account,” she states.
That night at supper, Toby is red from exposure to the sun. “I was working at the community shelter sites today,” he says.
He’s also smiling broadly. That morning, he had said he would be leaving soon. Like mine, his Indian visa is limited to six months. “My mum will like that I’ll be home for Christmas,” he had said that morning.
Tonight, he states proudly, “It looks like I’ve wangled a job for next year. They’ve invited me back.” His smile broadens further. “I can’t think of a better place to work.”