Tuesday, October 28, 2008

To Phey and Back - Thayer Maclay

Striking out into the cool clean air, the sun shone down upon us creating eight shadows, warming our backs. Stanzin, Tsomo, Deachen, Tashi, Othzer, Mama Kunzes, Kayla, and I were on our way to the closest town, Phey, to visit the primary school there. Kayla and I both wanted to talk to the teachers there about our projects. The others seemed to be along just for fun as a vibe of adventure pierced everything around them.


Already signs on winter had presented themselves, not only in the landscape but also in our activities during the day. The leaves had fallen off of most trees, irrigation channels had become outlined with ice after each night, and snow had begun to creep down the slopes surrounding the SECMOL campus. We spent one work hour raking leaves and storing them, another picking and harvesting the last of the vegetables from the garden, and another cutting and drying surplus food for the coming winter months.


Passing the solar collectors on our right, we continued east down the only road leading to SECMOL. At the edge of the campus we descended down to the gleaming turquoise water of the Indus, following it to the neighboring town. We picked our way through the thorny sea buckthorn, a vicious plant bearing small sweet orange berries, and then hiked through soggy pastures. Rejoining the road, weathered stupas, over a hundred years old, came into view. Painted white and crumbling they resembled the still and snow capped peaks of Ladakh in the background.  Walking on, Kayla, Kunzes, and I, chatted away with the SECMOL students behind us. As we walked we began to see the first houses of Phey, larger than most, highlighted in white against the many brown colors. Yak meandered through the recently plowed fields, while a flock of pigeons took flight. We caught up with an old man carrying firewood on his back, and passed a young teenage monk, exchanging "julley"'s.

Winding through town we found our way to the school, which was closed. Sitting down and snacking on fresh picked apples, we stayed in the town for a little bit, watching another Yak slowly make his way down the road, seeming to have no destination. Finally deciding to walk home, we got up and returned to the road, with another half hour walk ahead of us. The sun now at our fronts, we began retracing our steps back west to SECMOL. Sitting just a little ways above the mountains behind SECMOL, the sun urged us on with its warmth. I walked with Othzer in the back this time, our arms around each other’s backs, singing made up songs. In front of me, Kayla and Kunzes walked hand in hand, deep in their own conversation.


Everything around us seemed to be glowing, but maybe that was just our own aura bouncing back. Along the way, Katy joined us, out for her own walk and we arrived back at campus around 4:15, just over two hours after we left. In terms of our projects, the walk had been a failure, but I think it became one of the most enjoyable experiences of the trip thus far.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Nubra Trek

Just a quick note to let you know that the VISpas are back from the Nubra Trek, it was a great trip--out to Pangong Lake near the Tibetan Border (the lake itself is directly on the border), over Chang-La pass, then to Chatskaskool & Relly for homestays with the families of some of the SECMOL students, over the MegBon La pass, first on horseback, then on foot, then up to Northern Ladakh to the Nubra Region, a sandy desert where we rode camels. This is a photo of the whole group, VISpas, Tashi, and Stanzin and Tenzing, two SECMOL students who came along with us.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Karsha trip video

A fun video of everyone in the jeep on the way to Karsha from Padum, to visit the Karsha Galukpa Monastary. Stay tuned for more, VISpas are making a VIS movie of our adventures here in Ladakh!


Saturday, October 4, 2008


We arrived at SECMOL, our home base for the rest of the semester one week ago. SECMOL is a beautiful campus, mud brick buildings built to use passive solar heating to stay warm in the winter, cold in the summer, with large south-facing windows, wood floors, black trim that collects heat. A main building houses the main meeting hall where VIS students and Ladakhi students get together for English conversation in the mornings, and in the evenings the perfect space for hanging out and dancing! Down the hall on the main floor is the VIS office and classroom, where the keyboard James lugged all the way over here is now residing, and James has started giving piano lessons to interested students.

The second floor houses the girl's dorm, VIS students and Ladakhi's, as well as a beautiful sunny library. All the buildings have electricity, thanks to solar electricity and photovoltaic panels. Next door is a small bathhouse, where VIS students will be constructing a solar water heater in the hopes of one day having a hot shower! The next building over houses the dining hall space where we meet for dinner, and the boy's dorm. Just below this building, carved into the hillside down some stairs is the kitchen, and a smaller dining room where we eat breakfast. To the left of the kitchen is a greenhouse bordered on one side by the women teachers' rooms, where I live, and to the right another greenhouse bordered on the hillside by the male teachers' rooms, where James lives.

On the flat plain out front there are two more greenhouses, a garden, and volleyball courts, where Ladakhi students and sometimes VIS students spend evenings playing some very serious volleyball! We're settling into a routine here, with breakfast followed by work hour--everything from chopping vegetables for that night's dinner to small building projects, we'll be starting work on the solar water heater soon. After work hour we have English Conversation, where we partner with grade 10 Ladakhi students and they practice their English in preparation for the infamously difficult Grade 10 exam. Following a tea break, VIS students have Ladakhi Language lesson, taught by Kunzes. We've moved beyond "jul-ley" (the Ladakhi word for hello, goodbye, thank you, etc.) and are tackling the pleasantries like: Timo jimpo rak-le! (Smells good!) and Gongzen chi duk? (What is for dinner?)

Afternoons are flexible with most students starting to work on their projects, the occasional guest speaker, or group meetings and activities. Evening is dinner in the big dining hall followed by someone speaking on life in Ladakh or the U.S., and sometimes evening activity, either a movie or singing & dancing. We're enjoying getting to know Ladakhi students over English conversation, tea time, meals, and volleyball. It's been nice to settle into one place and start making friends here. The other highlight has been getting MAIL!! (and the occasional care package!)

VISpas and Ladakhi students are enjoying a day off today from class, and we're getting ready to attend a wedding on Monday in the nearby town of Shey.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Reflections on Month One

When I look back on the past month, I am washed over with more than words to say. My journal is filled with ideas and thoughts and predispositions that were either validated or completely obliterated. There is a long bulleted list that conjures laughs from our various encounters in villages and exhausted, delirious humour after a long day of walking. What stands out is an almost completely irrelevant tale. After the rush of arriving in Delhi and the rhythm of our trek, waking and sleeping practically with the sun, putting one foot in front of the other whether it be on foggy, fresh snow or blazing sand, there was one night that stood out so vividly to me. It was the first of many driving days when we piled in our own bus and drove 9 hours from Padum almost to Kargil. The front of the bus had a small Dalai Lama shrine with constant flashing red and green lights and a tape-deck that allowed Howie to make an amazing playlist on my ipod for us to rock out to. We drove precariously over a pass, staring out the window in silence and awe at landscapes that are beyond my comprehension. I often find myself wondering if this could actually be real and when I see pictures I still cannot wrap my mind around the fact that I was there, tangibly, wholly, that I saw those jagged proud peaks with my own eyes. We stopped at a monastery and Chewan, our cook, made fried rice and milk tea. After several more hours of winding along while Tashi, our nimble guide, danced in the aisle of the bus, we arrived at our remote campsite, a grassy bed with a random spattering of boulders along a bustling river. Looming around the line of blue tents and awkward large bus, stood tense, naked peaks with Nuun and Kuun in the distance, the highest pride and joy of Ladakh. We sat for the last time in the blue dinner tent that tinted everyone's clothes slightly purple with the flickering two small candles while James asked us each rapid fire questions that we had to answer with the first word that popped into our heads. They ranged from "If you could paint anything what would you paint?" to "What do people like most about you?" We sat in the soft light with the sounds of the river and the wind and the whir from the nearby cooking tent, but nothing else, a deafening, desolate silence. The place was peaceful, isolated, foreign, invincible. We heartily welcomed the dinner of rice, dahl, and cabbage, followed by a surprise chocolate cake, which was really just a loaf of bread with hot chocolate mix, but delicious and appreciated just the same. Afterwards, instead of going to our respective tents and hitting the pillow well before 9pm, we put a techno playlist on the buss's speakers, flashed our headlamps, and danced. We flailed in an amoebic circle - the cook, the bus driver, our trekking guide, and group alike. The almost full moon spread a pale glow across the isolated campsite and the headlamps repeatedly lit up ecstatic, free faces as we spun and thrashed. I let the music pulse to my fingertips and barefeet as they hit the cold, grassy ground. I twisted my ankle and danced with the cook and felt everything whirling around me. For a fleeting second I wondered what it would look like from a distance - a lonely, winding dirt road through a jagged canyon of a river with a dabbling of boulders, wise peaks rising boldly above their untouched landscape, a place so peaceful and calm that has vibrated in a tense silence for thousands of years. And yet, there in a small row of blue triangular tents, a warm green cook tent and empty dinner tent, a large, seemingly deserted bus with a flashing Dalai Lama shrine in the front window, apparently peaceful and tame. Upon closer examination one could see flashing lights, pounding music, laughter, kicking feet, snippets of white teeth through wide smiles - a sight so out of place that created such belonging and happiness and cohesion, something so simple and yet so filling. I've been searching for a reason as to why this night has been so branded on my mind, so joyous and rich and happy. I think it goes along with most of the eye-opening experiences I've had here, almost fleeting moments that are so simple and beautiful and rhythmic but strike an unknown chord. This night symbolizes so many things - the inconceivable aspect and indescribably foreign feeling of being on the other side of the world, the undisturbed serenity that I see in the landscape, the almost childish happiness I have observed and partook in in various encounters with people in the villages we pass through or stay in, the simplicity and belonging that I have noticed in their daily lives, the rhythmic patterns of day and night that have long shed the constraints of time. Here I have found meaning in places that I would never have thought to look for it. I have accredited truth to experiences so simple and soft and made strong memories and understanding from quiet interactions. I have seen something as simple as saying "Jullay" not only light up a wrinkled face, but leave me with a rich fulfillment or a sweet generosity extend so far beyond a plate of cookies or a remote techno dance party provide belonging and togetherness.

Kayla Gatos

Friday, September 12, 2008

Zanskar Trek

We've now completed the first half of our journey into Ladakh, a 2
week trek through the Zanskar region. From Darcha we headed out on
foot, travelling through snowy mountain passes and high desert,
finally arriving in the town of Padum.

Most days had an early start, the cold made more bearable by bed
tea--exactly what you would imagine it is, hot tea magically appearing
at 6am, while still in our sleeping bags. Definitely the way to start
a long day! Tashi, our guide, arranged the logistics of 12 horses,
horsemen, and cooks for our group. This means horses haul the majority
of our stuff--tents, clothing, food--and all we have to do is drag
ourselves over the Himalayas with a little daypack. (And med kit. And
sat phone.) This seems to be the norm for Himalayan expeditions and I
could definitely get used to it!

After packing up camp each day, we'd set off on the days trek,
anywhere from a 4 hour day to a 9 hour one. Most days were around 12
km, though the altitude makes everything harder. Our group did really
well with acclimatizing, this was mostly thanks to the planning and
prepping on Curtis and Ashley's side of things--talks with Dr. Dave
about which medicine for HAPE versus HACE, talks with Ashley about
what to do when someone starts getting bad off. We had one person get
a little sick at about 12,000 feet, so we rested an extra day at about
14,000 ft. which I think made all the difference in everyone being
healthy enough for the crossing, and then finally crossed the
Shingo-La pass (16,732ft) with no problems. Definitely tough to
breathe at 16,000 feet, but everyone managed ok, even when a snowstorm
really complicated our crossing!

Where to begin with the scenary? Beautiful snowcapped mountains, snow ice crusting
in swirls like ribbon candy, small shrubs in an array of oranges and
reds, trees exploding in yellows and greens, blue sky meeting sandy
colored rock.

Other highlights from the trek were:
-A visit to the Sun School, a solar powered school near Lhakang on
September 7th. The school is in it's final phase of construction, high
on a hillside, solar panels on the roof, glass in the greenhouse,
almost ready for the kids to inhabit it. We also had dinner the night
before with the Czech architect who created the whole project.

-Phukthai Monastary on September 9th, an incredible sight, following a
two hour hike along a winding canyon, we crossed a suspension bridge
and were met with the sight of the monastary rising out of the rock
walls. We toured the monastary, an incredible vast endless string of
rooms, staircases leading higher up the rock walls. While holding the
bathroom door shut for one of our group, I was standing in the hallway
when a young monk about 10 or 11 came running down the stairs, eating
a candy bar. He spotted me and slowed, shoved the candy bar into his
robes, and gave me a solemn nod and a polite "jullay" as he passed.

-Kalbok, a small village where we helped to harvest the barley growing
in the fields where our tents were. James and Tashi gave a lesson on
Ladakhi numbers while we harvested alongside the villagers from

-Purni, on September 8th, where Tashi arranged for us to have a
traditional tea in a family's home in the evening. The overpriced
showers (50 rupees!) made some some of our group very, very happy. Kit
Kat bars at the store were also a big hit and Sooner and Howie stocked
up on Coke and Sprite for the rest of our trek.

Currently we are in the town of Padum, checking internet, during the
brief periods of the day when the power is turned on--we're not sure,
but we think they may turn it on when all 10 of us turn up at the
internet cafe--and taking a rest day. Tomorrow we head off on the
second part of our journey, a winding road trip through the Zanskar
mountains, up to Kargil, then heading east to Tashi's village for a
few days, and finally, in about a week and a half to two weeks,
winding up at our home base for the rest of the semester, SECMOL,
located just outside the city of Leh.


Sunday, August 31, 2008

Here We Go!

Hello everyone, and welcome to the fall '08 gap year blog for Vermont Intercultural Semesters. Here you will find photos and reflections from members of this years' crew, posted during our time in Ladakh. We are in Manali now, a beautiful town in the foothills of the Himalayas, and everyone is feeling pretty good to have had a proper night's sleep here last night. The previous night was spent on the bus during a 16-hour ride up from HOT Delhi. (At least the seats were comfortable, and the bus had AC!). Tomorrow we drive another 6-7 hours to Darcha, from which we will begin our trek through Zanskar, followed by a visit to Tashi's village before heading to Leh for a few nights, and our eventual home at Secmol. We won't have internet during the trek, but will be back online shortly thereafter. All the best from VIS, and we'll see you soon!