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22 July 2010

One thing that I have learned after one month in Leh, is that I am apparently not a seasoned foreigner. Yes, I have had amazing opportunities in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Mali, India – and even within my own America, but I can’t say that I have adopted the ruggedness, clothing styles, or attitudes of other tourists, travelers, or foreigners (whichever name to you seems the most organic or “local”) that I have met. Well, truthfully, I have not met any of the other non-Indians in Leh.

Despite the fact that this city and the region of Ladakh are rich in historical and religious moments throughout the past nine centuries, modern Leh residents are living only in the present. And to be more exact, this present equals two months of summer aka Tourist Season!!

This thought alone makes me cringe, especially because most of my travel experiences have been spent trying to be as local (as cliché as it sounds) as I can. I try my hardest to learn or speak the local language, respect the culture, not cave to buying souvenirs or mementos (that are clearly from China), take photos at the last possible moment instead of carrying my macro lens around my neck daily, curb tendencies to sing along to an American song (or scream at that bastard that has almost run me over or ‘tempts’ me to shop in his store by telling me he loves me), and wear appropriate clothing despite the fact that it is over 100 degrees and I would rather be in a swimming pool. Yes, I know that I’m white and blonde and the chances of actually blending in somewhere other than Scandinavia is quite slim, but at least I try.

In my meek attempt to find information on Leh and Ladakh before I arrived, the only information that I could come across online was a few websites titled:, or www.come-be-an (note, these are not real websites, just the general idea of “extreme” tourism). The websites were noticeably created by someone who doesn’t know much about web design, or even design in general. But of course, they all advertised travel agencies, sites to see, 4,10, 15, 20, 40-day treks, and the best Pizza in town. Seriously. I thought that coming across these websites must be something of chance, that really- there were only a dozen of foreigners in Leh, all of which would be friendly, outdoorsy, culturally sensible, people that would be pleasant and say hello, nod, or wink if I saw them on the street or in a restaurant.

Apparently though, I must be wearing an abbayah or a sign that states something like “Saying hello to this blonde girl will seriously impair your coolness status of being a foreigner in Ladakh.”

I suppose I could accept this act of invisibleness if there really were only my expected dozen non-Ladakhis here, but it’s quite the opposite. As I said before, I’m here during the tourist season (other than the other 10 months of the year where temperatures dip to 30 below zero). Everyone that is anyone is this new generation of foreigners exploring the world is here in Leh. And even though it would take only a blind person to realize that 75% of the other people walking the streets are also white, everyone has blinders on.

Ladakhis aren’t much of a group of morning persons. Nothing related to the government (banks, offices, schools) opens until 10am, but even at 8am – when I’m walking to find some breakfast, the Kashmiri souvenir shops are preparing for the day. Foreigners (including myself) seem to have a completely different daily schedule than most Indians- which makes the mornings so much more interesting. I will admit that I do go to the same little restaurant every morning (which someone told me is also in Lonely Planet) and have the same thing (porridge and black tea). In fact, I’m there so often that the Nepali boys who run the restaurant know my name (and say it as much as they can “Eryn, good morning, Eryn. How are you this morning, Eryn? Eryn, same as yesterday, Eryn? Eryn, Here you are. Have a good day, Eryn.”) This restaurant (one of the ‘German’ bakeries) has been an interesting place to sit, sip my tea, and observe others. In fact, this scene is like any restaurant in a western city- people don’t walk in, smile, and wave to every other person eating their breakfast. Everyone does their own thing, some are friendly, and some are not, right? Inside this restaurant (aptly named World Peace Café), it feels as though I’m anywhere but Leh.

But this is my favorite part: the description of other tourists, travelers, foreigners, trekkers, people thinking that they are so unique. There are generally two sorts of tourists, but in order to walk the streets of Leh as a non-Ladakhi, you must be or do at least one of the following:

  1. Coat your face in 100 SPF so that you’re shiny and pasty and leave greasy fingerprints wherever you go.
  2. Wear your fisherman floppy khaki colored hat tied taught below your chin.
  3. Carry your Nikon Super Duper XL 500000 around your neck, snapping photos endlessly and carelessly of the ‘natives.’
  4. Dress in wrinkle free zip off short/capri/pants and button up mosquito repellant attire (despite the fact that there are no mosquitoes here)
  5. Call loudly to your friends up the street (in matching t-shirts) that you found the perfect scarf.


  1. Prepare to travel the Himalayas by not bathing months in advance and creating the perfect, but careless looking, dreadlocks
  2. Walk through the streets of cow shit, piss water, and trash barefoot.
  3. Beat your clothes with sticks, pebbles, and cigarettes so that you can that ‘I don’t care what I look like, but it took me 2 hours to look this way.’
  4. Carry a battered backpack with attached yoga mat and guitar.
  5. Roll your own cigarettes, make out with your travel partner in the main bazaar, and other activities that prove you are free spirited.
  6. Beat the heat by wearing the shortest of shorts in a town where you haven’t seen one woman’s ankle. Of course, it’s okay if you cover your head though.

And no matter what, you can’t acknowledge that there any other foreigners.

However the ridiculousness and laughter that tourists may bring, the merchants and Leh-pa’s (people of Leh) are catching on to the thoughts of $$$. Who wouldn’t? With four flights arriving daily from Delhi and buses nightly from Manali, there is a steady ebb and flow of tourists in July and August. Even from my bed, I can hear the town stirring at 6am, 40 minutes before the first flight is to arrive at the small airport. Despite there being one runway and one gate, the planes are full (747s? six seats across anyhow) and the taxi drivers know it. There’s a rush to the airport, which I can hear by the dozen of horns coming closer and closer then continuing down the road to the airport. Mind you, these horns are not a polite ‘beep’ or even a ‘beep beep’- these are horn melodies ‘duh duh dun beep beep beeeeep la!’ – all lasting at least 10 seconds.

Every family in Leh has their leg in the tourist business. Whether it means that they own a hotel or guesthouse (I haven’t met one family that doesn’t), travel agency, trekking company, ‘new’ trekking gear shop, Italian restaurant, or shop selling ‘genuine’ Kashmiri shawls, Ladakhis are going ga-ga for foreigners. Hotel and guesthouse owners have deals with taxi drivers to bring travelers only to certain accommodations. Yesterday, two Indian filmmakers arrived at the guesthouse wanting to do a special on “Eco-tourism” starring this family. Angu even made a point to tell me that their cabbage is completely ‘organic.’ They have websites, Facebook pages, Twitter pages, and Yelp reviews – even the family I’m staying with asked me write my ‘testimonial’ once I leave. I most certainly would recommend Angu’s family because of the location (not in central Leh) and hospitality (abundant amounts of tea and delicious vegetarian food), but aren’t I only contributing to this tourism craze?

The civilian airport opened in Leh in the 1980s and since, this sleepy town has changed tremendously. Most families have left their lives in the fields of barley and cows for a new city life. Now, food is brought in from Kashmir or other parts of India, which raises prices for the locals and tourists. Some staples, like rice and flour, are even subsidized by the government.

All of this for the name (and money) of tourism. And for a tourist to say that they have been ‘trekking in the Himalayas’ or ‘crossed the highest paved road in the world.’

I love most everything about traveling: new food, new languages, and new people. I don’t mind not having a shower, electricity, being sick at times or even having to use a local latrine. But is there a balance of traveling to learn without completely exploiting the community or country in which you are traveling? Is globalization a good thing? Should I spend my summers going to other corners of the world where somehow they already know that Akon, Madonna, and McDonald’s exist? (No, there is no such thing as fast food in Leh- it’s still a very very small town for that. Hopefully that will never make it here).

This month in Leh really has given me a different perspective on traveling and makes me question my own (admittingly selfish at times) reasons for coming here (or going anywhere). What can I (and we) do differently? Should we just stay and enjoy the States? Of course, I have already started a trend in my short life not to go a year without visiting another country- so in a way I’m being hypocritical myself. Leh at first seems like a place that no one has heard of – one that could be that little treasure that all tourists or travelers look for, but for a town that only has between 20-30,000 people, the population of tourists takes over the quaintness and romanticism of this beautiful Himalayan setting. Maybe this is the future of the world? With television especially, like seen in the case of the teenage monks, the world is becoming one. Everyone wants what they don’t have and (I apologize for being pessimistic) believes that money will help them solve the their problems and replace their own culture with someone else’s. Skinny black jeans, aviator sunglasses, and ‘Emo-Boyz’ are on their way to take over the world! I suppose we shouldn’t worry though, we might be able to slather on the sunscreen, attach our blinders and go on traveling with our tube socks and scraggly dreadlocks, just as long as we’re all ‘seasoned foreigners’ in the end.

Random notes:

I believe that the entire reason the Crocs (those plastic hole-y brightly colored clogs) have become so popular – or at least stayed in business – is because of the Ladakhi population. Almost all women here have a pair of Crocs- navy blue to be exact. I actually tried to sneak a peak last night at Angu and her brother’s shoes to see if they were the real thing or a knock off.  I haven’t looked too closely at their logo before, but I believe they are the real thing! Six out of six people in this household own a pair. They’re easy to slide off when entering the house and you can bathe in them. I once saw an advertisement (in Dwell actually, I don’t have a clue why) for red high-heeled Crocs. Fortunately, these haven’t made it to Leh; I’m not sure if they would hold up to the cow dung and stony paths.

My goal for tomorrow is to try yak cheese (yak as in the animal, not the act). At first, I could only compare it to the idea of camel cheese and butter (which are common in Mali and definitely not appetizing), but I keep hearing that it is actually quite delicious and resembles cheddar a bit. The story on the cheese here in Leh supposedly started in Nepal where a Swiss NGO of cheese makers held workshops in Kathmandu for the yak herders. They encouraged them to make the cheese, which would appeal to aid workers and other ex-patriots ($ again). Since then, the yaks (who lives in the highest mountains) and their cheese have made their way to the Indian Himalayas and tourists here are eating it up. Ladakhis aren’t much for cheese (other than paneer), but they do use yak butter in their tea and mix it with cow butter for cooking. The smell is pretty awful, but hopefully the cheese (shredded and baked on toast) will be a good treat for tomorrow morning.

The pups of Leh : I don’t believe I’ve mentioned the dogs before, and am sure that I could go on and on (as usual), but they (like the tourists) are in abundance. These scoundrels, unlike the Malian one-colored skeletons, are really quite cute. Despite those that are three-legged, mangled, or lying in the gutter, these Ladakhi dogs are the cutest stray dogs I have ever seen. They come in all shapes and sizes (from Corgi like to Golden-Retriever-like to Schnauzer-like to Sheepdog-like) and line every road. Of course, I won’t be bending down to pet any of them – but if I were sure that they didn’t have fleas or rabies, I would. Families here don’t generally have pets of any sort (except a few families with white Tibetan little dogs), so all of these fluffy dogs are on their own. With the largest population here being Buddhist, no one will kill off the dogs and instead there is an Australian NGO of veterinarians trying to castrate them instead. A few times, I’ve seen them running down the street in a group of ten or so (which reminds me of something like a gang from Lady and the Tramp), but I’ve been assured that no one has been killed by a mob of dogs (unlike in Mali). I’ll be sure to take a few photos and maybe if I ever come back to Leh (and am at that point in my life where I could take care of a dog), I’ll adopt a cute fluffy Himalayan puppy.

The past few days in Leh have been quite nice – cool, slightly breezy, and overcast (I must be becoming a true Seattleite if I think it’s nice). Unlike like everyone in the rest of India, I’m comfortable in pants, a t-shirt, long-sleeve, and closed-toe shoes. As I sit here in our make-shift office (the guestroom next to my own) hoping to get a few more minutes out of my battery before it’s finished until the power comes back on tonight, someone is practicing their tuba or trombone nearby. (Quite bizarre, actually). Speaking of weird noises, this morning I was woken up at 5am by what I could have sworn was a fighter jet swooping through the valley. (Sorry Mom, don’t mean to scare you). The point is, that there is always something unexpected and humorous here in Leh.

Enjoy your day! And of course, thank you again for reading!


A quote:

“I lived seven years in Taiwan, and there, people are very concerned about the way things are changing so fast. They are afraid of dangerous chemicals in the food. And they have mangoes that are so much bigger than those in India. Giant mangoes are not natural.” Ani Tsering Angmo

16 July 2010

I have now officially survived two trips to Wanla, the primary village in which the Achi Association is working. For the first week in Leh, I heard about the wonderful times had in the village with the youngsters, especially last year when, despite measuring the entire village, there were volleyball, cricket games, and dance parties almost daily. Originally, I had mistaken the village as Manla- but after a few days of thinking I heard both (with British and Peruvian/German accents), it was clear that there was no such village in Ladakh. So, Wanla it was and is.

Below is the account of both visits to this small village located in what seems to be one of the mere twenty green places that exist in between the Ladakh and Zanskar ranges of the Himalayas in July.

The Gypsy King through the Indus Valley”

When I arrived in Leh on 1 July at 6:45am, it was sunny, cool, and the air stung my lungs- in a good way. The others who I had met before or along the way to Ladakh advised me to take it slow – and even not to lift my own bags. So, after filling out the arrival information, I found a ‘trolley’ (cart) and loaded up my two backpacks. I wheeled the trolley that would supposedly protect me from altitude sickness out the door to see John holding reading ‘Eryn.’ He pushed trolley friend up a short steep hill to the taxi stand (think 30-year-old VW buses). I thought we would be hopping into one of these- or if not, into some sort of 4×4, maybe an old Land Rover driven by John (who is British). I quickly realized, after dodging 10 taxis beeping loudly, that our ride for these six weeks would be a lovely little Suzuki Gypsy King.

Yep, a Gypsy King. If you’re not familiar with this fabulous little (in this case, white) master of a vehicle, then I urge you to Google her. Apparently, she’s capable of conquering any traveling barrier or mishap with the most elegance of graces, all of which was put to rest within reaching 6 inches from her in the parking lot. In order for John to find a place for my backpack, there was enough of a dilemma. After spending a few minutes finagling the key to open the back door (and some hip bumps and cursing), he decided just to put it in the back seat. Of course, this should be easier, right?

As I stood in disbelief two feet from the Gypsy (one, because I was in India and two, because hadn’t slept in two days – probably more so because of the second reason), John went to the right to open his door (no keyhole on the passenger side), reached across to unlock the door, and sprinted around in hopes of getting my bag into the back seat. Upon opening the door (after a few more pushes and shoves and bursts of dust), John managed to tilt the seat (this is a 2 door 4×4) and shove my bags into the back. Still, staring and trying to figure out what exactly I was doing here, John pretty much had to shove me into the car as well. Instinctively, I reached for the seatbelt (finding that there was none) and prepared myself in being in the driver’s seat without a steering wheel. Fortunately, I was able to hold on through the 10-minute jerking and bumping drive to our guesthouse thanks to a handlebar (much like a rollercoaster). This handlebar has since become my best friend.

My first drive outside of Leh in the Gypsy really wasn’t horrible. Despite an ever-existing layer of dust on (and in) the car, the road to the next village wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It was paved, with relatively few potholes, and wide enough (at most points) for two cars to pass in opposite directions.

When Ernesto announced that we would be making our first trip to Wanla, I was curious about the distance, direction, and state of the roads. He and John confirmed that the drive would be about 2 ½ – 3 hours on a road similar to that in which we drove on the week before. ‘Psh!’ I thought, ‘this is going to be simple!’ In my mind, nothing could be worse than the 27-30 hour bus rides from Bamako to Gao where most of the time was spent swerving from one side of the washed out road to the other with two or three people sitting with their chicken in the one seat behind you in 110° F.

Early that morning, I packed- excited to finally get out of Leh, still with this romantic notion of the Himalayas of green mountains, running streams, and maybe a little snow. Being the polite young woman that I am, I offered to sit in the backseat with the bags with Ernesto, while Jigmit (a student) drove, and another monk sat shotgun. Despite the back seat being slightly higher than the front (which prohibits you from actually looking straight out the front window), I had an operable window next to me and a relatively cushioned seat for this quick trip of 3 hours.

After stopping to say goodbye to my friend Stanzin (who was leaving for university in Chandigarh), picking up Jigmit and the monk, and waiting in line for petrol, we were finally on our way. The first hour was a breeze. The roads are paved relatively well outside of Leh, lined with one sort of military camp or another (totaling at least 30k). In the village of Nimmu, we stopped for samosas and tea. Despite not being entirely hungry, Ernesto has been telling me how great his daughter and her friend were last year – apparently the girls would eat anything anywhere. Trusting that my stomach had still an iron lining from months of amoebas in Mali, I decided to take a samosa from the street vendor as a morning snack. It was delicious and a burst of flavor compared to the simple thukpa I’d been eating in Leh. My stomach wasn’t queasy at all- and we all crammed into the little Gypsy once more.

Just as I was starting to think that this was going to be a simple drive to Wanla and that India had a beautiful smooth and newly asphalted National Highway 1D, the truth came out. About ten minutes after leaving Nimmu, we approached a line of about 10 cars and taxis on a switchback up the mountain (I swear, at least 45°). Jigmit nonchalantly got out of the Gypsy to see what the problem was- only to come back and say that it would be a few minutes. A few minutes = 20 minutes. After rushing back to the car and stalling once, we continued on our way (although at no more than 15 mph) through throngs of road workers that matched the color of the surrounding landscape.

Leh is much cooler than other parts of India at this time of year, (I’m sure that the temperatures rise up to 85° F but it’s not unbearable to wear a t-shirt and pants) but there must be something about dust coating you and raising your body temperature at least 10°. Yes, I’m complaining- it was hot. Without my best friend, the front seat rollercoaster handlebar, the trip continued to worsen. And the road turned into a mess of slate gravel, dirt, sand, road workers, dynamite drillers, tractors, and tatas.

Tatas. Bright, shiny, embellished, and loud Tatas. One even had a monkey hanging from a pretty silver sign eating a banana. These Tatas are my favorite and least favorite part of India thus far. On these winding single width roads with a steep brown rock of a mountain to your right and another steep brown rock of a mountain leading to a very brown and terrifyingly looking Indus River, the last thing that you want to encounter is a Tata barreling toward you, with its bells, whistles, monkeys, and signs that read “Come, oh Baby” or “Oh Girls, do not follow me. I am ready loss.”

(If you haven’t realized yet that Tata is a brand of car – and in this case a semi-truck – then please do continue with your giggles. At the end of this drive, I was cursing the Tatas and yes, laughing under my scarf. Finally, because John nor Ernesto ever seemed to laugh when I said ‘There are so many Tatas,” I just had to tell them why I was laughing. John replied very proper and British-like that, in fact Tatas are brand of car and named after the family Tata. Poor family, lucky Americans for having a laugh).

The road to Wanla snakes its way along the Indus Valley northwest from Leh to Lamayuru then to Kashmir. The landscape seems anything but friendly, with only brown rock and brown water, but once every 20-40k, there are amazing small oases that are home to a few barley fields and houses. The green of the village (with the only trees around), snowmelt streams, and the blue of the sky are so striking against the barren mountains. Then, almost instantly, you’re back in a brown world.

Khaltsi, the last stop before Wanla, is a slightly larger village than the others- brimming with taxis, Tatas, and trekkers beginning or ending their travels through the Zanskar range. (Think two hole in the wall restaurants and five little stores selling a few fruits, vegetables, and sugar –big). Ernesto and Jigmit picked their favorite Punjabi ‘restaurant’ with three pots in front of the ‘chef’ (daal, vegetable curry, egg curry) and a small camping stove for chapatti (flatbread). My stomach was starting to churn at this point, but reminded again that Ernesto’s 17-year-old daughter ate everything, I had to prove myself and do the same. After all, this was the last good meal that we were to have for three days.

By the time we reached Wanla (only 20k and 1 hour later), I felt as though I was going to be sick. Normally, I’m the type of person that yearns for those windy roads, roller coasters, 3d movies, boat rides, and waves (all the while, reading in the back seat), but for the first time in my life, I could honestly say that I was carsick. Not being buckled in with a back seat that is forever moving up, down, and side to side, I tried covering my face with my scarf, closing my eyes, anything so that Jigmit wouldn’t have my lunch on his head.

The village of Wanla is broken into three portions : Namstses, Zomal, and the ridge between. Basically, there are three mountains, the middle being the shortest at 80m, and the two villages nestled in the two valleys created by the ridges. The Gypsy brought us directly up to the ridge which is home to the temple, monks quarters, and ancient ruins of a castle (and its rammed earth walls) that dates back to the 11th or 12th century. There are various other small buildings along the ridge as well- all looking out onto the two valleys- but none are as important as the temple and the castle.

Lucky for us this evening was the hospitality of the monks, who instantly sought about making us tea and giving us a comfortable (really comfortable this time) place to sit and relax. Just when my bones were settling in and not reverberating from the ride, Ernesto thought it would be a wonderful idea to go and walk the village – and to talk work. Despite looking forward to knowing exactly what I would be doing here, I was being hopeful and wishing for at least 45 minutes of relaxing and un-headache-ing. Nope. Not my luck.

The two main projects for the village of Wanla and the Achi Association this summer are continuing to develop the as-built drawings (of the entire village) and the refurbishment of a steep path through groups of stupas to the temple from the Zomal side. The path descends and meanders through a drop of 40m, ending in a green strip of trees and snowmelt streams through barley fields. Despite being heavily used by the villagers, the path is steep and covered in rubble. One wrong step and you’ll end up as part of the landslide that seems to occur daily. The villagers, with the help of the 9th and 10thgrade classes will be clearing the path, building small retaining walls and steps, while the representatives will be working with elderly monks in preserving the clusters of stupas.

My assignment, however, is much more interesting. Instead of using my design/build skills to mix mud and lift heavy stones, I will be creating contour lines of the three mountains and two valleys. Exciting, right? During our short walk through the village, Ernesto and I both tried to guess how this would be done (since neither of us have the experience) and I’m sure this only deepened our car headaches. After employing a Fulbright senior scholar last summer to completely document the village with laser beams and survey equipment, it turns out that this man was more effective at finishing a bottle of whisky than accurately taking measurements. The finished result was a contour map with large sections of missing information and pages upon pages of numbers and calculations that didn’t match anything on the map and spoke to Ernesto, John, and I like … well, basically three hours of de-coding still didn’t bring any answers. Instead, Ernesto decided that we should just walk the mountains and guesstimate at 2m intervals the rocky, ever-changing landscape.

My first test was sitting at the base of a row of stupas and Ernesto asking how many meters the landscape dropped in total from left to right. Meters? I now know that I can barely decipher the distance between 20 ft and 50 ft, let alone meters (which makes me so thankful for the measurements on the wall in studio- I’m sure that if they weren’t there, I would be designing floor heights at 20 feet without realizing their actual height). This said, this contour measuring was set to be quite a feat.

This first trip to Wanla, however, was basically to say hello and set a plan with the village officials and monks as to what the program would entail this summer. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it much past the short introductory walk before being forced to lie down by my nausea and the next thing I knew, it was 3am and I was sweating through my dusty clothes inside my sleeping bag in a room that Ernesto swore had bats at night.

We woke up the next morning to our young monk friend (whose name I still cannot remember, partially because it seems like every person has at least three names : first, family, village, nickname) hollering up that the oldest monk (age 62) was there to talk with us. I’d been up for a couple of hours with my eyes closed hoping that the noise I heard was not that of the bats, so was excited to get out of bed and face the day (still in the same clothes).

The older monk walked us through the path, giving his insight on what used to be there in the days of his youth. Despite his concern that it should be refurbished, it seemed as though his guesses included a lot of concrete. Like in other countries, concrete represents something modern, new and strong – and well, of course, a historical path should be refurbished to include concrete. Ernesto and Jigmit were able to convince the monk that a beautiful functioning path was feasible without the use of concrete (and in fact, cheaper) and before we knew it, he was nodding his head in excitement and exclaiming that he had a ride to catch to Khaltsi – and off he went down the hill.

The greatest news (and in a way, the worst) of this morning was that we were going back to Leh one day early (making the trip only two days versus three). Even better, Ernesto offered me the front seat with my best friend, the rollercoaster handlebar!

On the way out of Wanla, we stopped at the school to speak with the principal and students who have participated in the past workshops. Classes here start at 10am (and end at 4pm) and we arrived just in time for their morning outdoor assembly to finish. Excited to see a school for the first time and meet the children, I hastily made my way through the gate- only in order to hit the top of my head (again) on the metal gate. The schoolchildren, despite being adorable in their maroon sweaters, gray slacks, and white baseball caps, pointed and laughed as I tried to steady myself. This is what I get for being taller than 5’.

Despite being given the opportunity to ride shotgun on our journey back to Leh, I held on for dear life as Ernesto (who lives in Germany and therefore, drives on the other side of the road than Indians) sped along the Wanla River to the main road. Only once, were we faced with death when we hit a large bump that had Ernesto yelping ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ even before all four wheels were on the road again.

The highlight of this trip (besides the dried apricots that I had bought in Leh) was stopping in Jigmit’s village for lunch. Tia was another of these hidden oases and absolutely beautiful. In fact, from afar- it looks a bit like Tuscany (except that barley fields replace vineyards). Ladakhi houses, especially those in villages, are large – even to American standards. Of course, this is because the entire first floor is devoted to livestock, the middle floors house entire extended families, and the third floors are family shrines. Still, from afar they reflect white Italian villas. Most of Jigmit’s family lives in Leh or other large cities in Northern India, so our host was his grandmother- a beautiful lady with long gray braids tinted slightly with henna. While sitting, smiling, and spinning her hand held prayer wheel, her grandson, Jigmit cooked us lunch of eggplant curry and rice. After, we met some village women who were dying their clothes (with their feet) and walked to the families little house in the fields. Overall, this is what I imagined Ladakh as – quaint, friendly, and green.

We made it home to Leh four hours later, and despite it being a cold bucket bath, I was so happy to take off my dusty clothes (which were still the same as the day before) and sit in a cool ‘restaurant’ with  hot lemon tea, rajma, and naan (and pretend that I didn’t have to get back in the Gypsy King any time soon).

I have since survived a second trip to Wanla, which was not nearly as exciting as I am now given the front seat, even for short drives within Leh. We scribbled some contour lines for an entire day, in hopes of being more accurate than last year’s results- and now the fun part begins where I transfer all of the information gathered within the last two years to the world of electronics. This time, Ernesto and John have left me in Leh while they take the Gypsy back to Wanla.

The days continue to tick by here in Leh. I’m now living with a wonderful family 15 minutes from the main bazaar. It’s quiet (despite barking dogs and military planes flying overhead sometimes), and the family is very kind. Both children, Angu and Moses are very well educated and speak perfect English. Angu, 35, is unmarried, works in the bank, and is constantly frustrated with the laziness of youth today. She’s a bit of book worm, loves Good Housekeeping (India), and wants to get another degree before she’s married. Moses, 40, works for the Department of Rural Development, is married with two children, and enjoys badminton, popping his collar (seriously), and watching reality shows like Indian Idol and America’s Got Talent. Their mother, ama-le, 70, speaks a little English and has the greatest smile (without many teeth) and a cow. She also makes wonderful paneer. They have two ‘maids,’ Rinchen Angmo (40?) and Tsering (20?) who seem to be a part of the family, but help manage the guesthouse since both Angu and Moses work a lot. Their father, whom I have only seen once, is older and spends the days in his room. However, I’ve heard that his English is also so good that he can grammatically correct every newspaper or book.

Random note : The greatest thing that I have discovered about Leh is that all purchases are wrapped in recycled paper and there are no plastic bags! Compared to Mali, this is big! Apparently, a few years ago, a Ladakhi woman was so distraught after her cow died of eating a plastic bag (and suffocating) that she started this movement to ban those pesky thin black plastic sachets from the markets of Leh. My first purchases in Leh (a towel and Kashmiri honey) were wrapped in last year’s university start date announcements.

I hope all is well. Thank you for reading!


10 July 2010

Today marks my tenth day of waking up at 10,000 feet, but more importantly the tenth day of marking the time with the musical honking taxis at 7am returning with more foreigners from the day’s flights, 9am meetings of ‘croissants’ and black tea with my father-figure colleagues, the Kashmiri workers leaving for prayer at 12:45pm, 30 minute meetings with my new young Ladakhi counterparts which turn into hours of awkward conversation and tea, dinner with the fathers, and reading until late in hopes of sleeping through the night. Despite what may seem like a mundane schedule, the days are creeping by and nothing really is the same from day to day (except for the ‘croissant’ and black tea at 9am and dinner at 7pm).

In general, I am really enjoying being here in Leh/Ladakh. I tried to come into this adventure without any expectations, which was quite easy to do as the last two weeks in Seattle were packed (and my bags were not until 2 hours before my flight left). I had assumed that I would be going to India (with the normal stereotypes), but Leh and Ladakh are SO different that the people here don’t even consider themselves to be Indian. The city is relatively quiet; kids aren’t running the streets; the roads are clean; I have only heard music in one place; women wear their hair in two long braids; the only food I have eaten is Tibetan, Nepali, or Ladakhi. Really, I should change the name of my posts to “Ladakh,” instead of “India.” Despite the fact that I don’t feel as though I am in the India that I’ve dreamt of, Ladakh is a sweet unexpected surprise – one that I may not have sought out without the help of this proposed internship.

It’s really difficult not to compare outrageous stories and events, and even the town or people to those in Gao or Mali, but despite the fact that Leh seems ages ahead of Gao, there are still many quirks and stories to be told. And, in order for me to send entries that everyone will read, I’m breaking this letter into a few installments through a few days (despite the fact that this one has already become the same length as the last). Oops.

The Adolescent Monk of 2010

When Ernesto Noriega contacted me months ago with the description of this Ladakhi Cultural Heritage project- and the fact that we would be working with young monks, nuns, and students, I envisioned these sweet devout, young, Ladakhis that were peaceful and lived in monasteries (or nunneries or families). In turn for these workshops, I would learn about Buddhism and the romantic history of the Himalayas. Naïve, I know. Unfortunately, I was not very familiar with the religion or the people before coming to Leh- I only know that it’s a growing religion amongst hippy peaceful (and some famous) Americans and there is a ‘church’ on Woodland Park Ave (across from Heather, Merritt, and Monica’s) in Seattle.

I’m not sure what I expected Leh to be like- I knew it would be a bigger ‘city’ and served as the main marketplace and commercial hub of Ladakh.  There were a few monks on my flight from Delhi to Leh, but envisioned them coming home from a pilgrimage or quest to do good in this world (yes, you’re still allowed to tell me I’m naïve). On Ernesto’s second day here, we took a walk through the fields to visit some important monks that have been a great influence on the students’ works in the past two summers, but after finding him away from home, I still had yet to meet a ‘real life monk.’ The next morning (at our 9am ‘croissant’ and tea breakfast), this monk (unfortunately, I cannot remember his name) came to tea. He is about sixty, speaks in almost perfect English, and was shy about his words or thoughts- reassuring my belief that monks are soft-spoken and stay away from conflict (in this case, this conversation was supposed to be a solution to a problem). This abbot seemed gentile, important, and devoted, which confused me after hearing that our group of students was active and outgoing.

After a few days of searching for these students (monks and lay-students as the nuns have decided not to continue with the project for certain reasons), Ernesto and I had met with about five of our counterparts. One girl and her husband were met on the main bazaar street, another in her in-laws house and the monks on the street or at the Dalai Lama’s birthday party. Yes, party. The 6th of July marks the Dalai Lama’s birthday, a government holiday, the day off of school and a celebration in a nearby village. We happened upon the celebration and tried our luck in the hundreds to find the remaining young monks. The fairgrounds, as I will call them, were such a delight. Hundreds of parachute tents were spread in the field with a stage set up on one side- decorated with photos of His Holiness. Kids and young teenagers ran around in their ‘Sunday best’ or most hip clothing, while families picnicked under the tents. Ice cream carts were scattered throughout the field selling ‘venila’ or popsicles. Women in traditional clothing (a dark heavy simply cut dress) and long gray braids were buying blow up plastic animals like you would see at carnivals for their young grandchildren. Monks and nuns roamed in posses, never speaking to each other but finding their lay-student friends instead. And somehow, in these crowds of happy Ladakhis, Ernesto spotted one of our students (name also forgotten). They greeted in a loving way, touching heads with a short embrace, asked about each other’s families, and we informed him of our next meeting in Leh.

Only a few moments later, Ernesto spied another student and left me with the un-named young monk. I was also looking around at the teenagers and their antics (flirting, chatting, etc) and spotted two boys that could easily be found in New York City or Tokyo. One was tall (my height), and both hip and thin. They sported black skinny jeans, sagging slightly, with Converse sneakers, retro Technicolor t-shirts, shoulder length styled hair and aviator glasses. Of course, it turns out- as I’m staring, that this tall emo-boy is part of our group of students. Stanzin, not emo-boy, is a painter –primarily in temples and monasteries. Expected, right?

Our first meeting with the students in Leh lasted about 15 minutes after starting thirty minutes late (Ladakhi time is much similar to WAIT- West African International Time aka time? What is on time?). It consisted of either silence or calling numbers of those who hadn’t showed up.

Our second meeting, a few days after the first, yielded a few more boys (monks) and turned to be much more successful than the first. Primarily, I just sat in awe while the students spoke quickly in Ladakhi every time a decision needed to be made. (I am still trying to figure out the politics, history, and goals of this project and find myself lost quickly).

The first monk to arrive is Kushu. His name in Ladakhi means ‘apple’ and he is that exactly. He’s a shy 19 year old who blushes any time he’s spoken too, often covering his face until he can bare the attention or until someone else is talking. He’s sporting his monk attire, but has a yellow/gray hoodie under and once again, the Converse sneakers. We strike up a conversation while waiting for the others, but since he’s shy- it consists primarily of me asking questions about where he goes to school or how to say aunty in Ladakhi.

The second to arrive is Dordje. He’s also wearing his red, but has a black beanie and black hoodie on instead of the scarf-like part (I apologize for my lack of monk attire knowledge). His hood is up over his beanie and he’s also wearing Nikes. His mobile phone is constantly ringing and he steps out to take calls. Apparently, he is nicknamed the ‘businessman.’ Not sure what type of business a 20-year-old monk can get himself into though.

The next two monks to arrive (one of which we met at the birthday party) are shy as well, but have added baseball caps, yellow sweaters emblazoned with ‘Versace’, and again, Converse sneakers. The second, whom I hadn’t met until today, seems mischievous but I’m told that he’s the best hip-hop dancer around. This, I will have to see. (And I promise a picture).

All four young monks seem to me like typical teenagers. They’re moping about, not talking much, and seem like the have more important things to do. All of us take a short walk to Deldan’s house, and they lag behind- Dordje tells me he’s supposed to meet his friends for tea in the main bazaar. Finally, everyone is let loose and Kushu (the apple) offers to take me to a family with whom I might be able to live with for my remaining time in Leh.

I had already been to visit a family member of the guesthouse owners the day before, and was still deciding if I wanted to live with them- but Ernesto urged me to go with Kushu just in case. 15 minutes later, we arrived at his aunty’s house, but she was asleep and seemed grumpy to have Kushu there and to be woken up. By this point, Kushu had started to open up extremely and his reaction to his aunty was “Oh Godddddd” (with a hand over his face still).

Next, we walked to his parents’ house, which is further out into the fields. We continued to chat about most things related to school and growing up in Leh, despite the many funny looks that we were getting from other Ladakhis on the street. I’m sure it isn’t often that there’s a blonde girl walking down the street with a 19-year-old monk. Kushu’s house was much different than those I’ve seen in town: the house is basically a one-story cube, with a front door located on one side. When the front door is opened, an open-air hallway is revealed. To the right was the ‘family room,’ where I sat for tea with him and his mother. The other rooms off the open hallway (only about 15 feet long) most likely include a sleeping room for the sons, one for the parents, and a kitchen. Unlike most other Ladakhi homes, this one was only on one floor. Normally, homes are basically in three levels: 1) livestock, storage, and winter kitchen and quarters; 2) summer kitchen and quarters and 3) family shrine and rooftop space for laundry, crop drying, etc. Kushu’s mother was sweet and funny, despite the fact that she didn’t know many words in English.

Throughout tea and a biscuit with Kushu and his family, he told me more about his schooling as a monk. He’s the eldest of three brothers, only one of which still lives at home (the middle son at 16). Kushu is at school in other city and his youngest brother (12) goes to school in Jammu (2 days drive). He (or his family) decided that he would begin training as a monk in 8th grade, after he wasn’t enjoying learning at the public school in Leh. After finishing 12th grade at the Buddhist academy outside of Leh, Kushu left for this other city (name which I can’t remember) where he will be for 9 years total. He has just finished his second year and is home for a month on holiday. This year alone, he memorized two books and describes his days as waking up at 3am, praying, meditating, memorizing (and repeating the three). Since he’s been home on holiday, he wakes up at 6am and the only clue that he’s a monk is his clothing (no praying, no meditating, no memorizing). He doesn’t seem to feel bad about it and he’s dreading the day he has to go back to school. Last summer, Ernesto’s daughter was in Leh and asked Kushu what his dream in life was. His answer? “To fall in love.”

To fall in love. This is a pretty strong idea for a 19-year-old boy, let alone a monk. But in the 21st century, where there is such a strong influence on youth by Indian and American television, movies, and music- most people have this beautiful idea of what love will be like. TV is about love, movies are about love, and music is about love. It’s hard to escape- especially when all the monasteries have satellite television. Monks want to be modern, educated men, but there is such a great draw to media and what life is like outside of the monastery, that it seems all young monks really have no draw to staying a monk for the remainder of their lives. They are confused as to their role, especially at such a young age, but what are the monks supposed to do? Isolate their youth? Ernesto, John, and I have spent many dinners talking about just this- especially because most of the young monks we’re working with would rather be listening to Jay-Z and talking to girls instead of studying “boring” texts. It seems like these youth need something exciting to do as monks- something modern and “cool.” What that is, no one seems to know yet. Any ideas?


This afternoon, I’ll be moving in with a family in the fields of Leh. I’m excited to learn more about the Ladakhi culture and its people, but am a bit nervous as well. Mostly just because there are gangs of dogs here (like Mali, but much much cuter) and the road is windy with many little turns, but the view from their house is beautiful- and the family has a wonderful garden and ‘greenhouse.’

Hopefully work this week will pick up with another visit to Wanla (the village in which we are working). We went for two days last week- and despite the mountains being beautiful; the road is absolutely not beautiful. Actually, I think this road tops any transportation horror stories of Mali. More of this story in a couple of days!

I hope you are all enjoying the summer and it’s wonderful activities. Someone please eat some watermelon for me, go swimming in a lake or ocean, and have a bbq!



Ju-le from Leh, my new home at 3500 m- one that is a melting pot of India’s ethnic groups, religions, old traditions and new; all of which come together in a valley of the Himalayas.

I arrived here on 1 July after two days and four long flights from sunny Seattle. Fortunately, the excitement of traveling, having visitors, and our ½ marathon extravaganza helped in making the flights go as quickly as possible with a lot of sleep. Of course there are always those instances where the nice chatty retired woman wants to strike up a conversation at 6 am or the French lady sighs loudly when you press the wrong button for the personal television screen and insists on doing it for you, but the flight from Brussels to Delhi was an experience in itself. The last three flights of my trip were on Jet Airways,- an India-based airline. Most everyone on this flight seemed to be American or British going to Delhi to visit family for the hot summer, including the woman sitting next to me. She, her husband, and son, were connecting to Calcutta where, other than visiting family, she would be doing research on Indian music and dance. While being born and raised in Calcutta, she now lives in Philadelphia and is a professor of anthropology, music, and dance at Swarthmore. She was very kind and in part, adopted me for the remainder of my trip- plus she’d been to Leh before.

As most of you know, I’ve done a bit of traveling before- but for some reason, these last two flights (Brussels > Delhi & Delhi > Leh), in particular the layover in Delhi, were really making me nervous, despite others reassurance that the transition would be easy. My flight arrived in Delhi around 9:30pm and the flight from Delhi to Leh wasn’t to leave until 5:30am the next morning. I wasn’t sure what to expect; what was the airport going to be like? Would be rickshaws everywhere, people trying to get money for helping with bags? Would it be dirty or clean? The lady I met told me that this airport was much more quiet than Mumbai (where there apparently is live music), but upon entering the baggage claim- there was complete chaos. Not chaos as in rickshaws or beggars, just travelers! So many people! It took about an hour to go through customs (where the officer commented that more people should smile in passport photos because it made him smile) and to find my bag. Just doing this was exhausting and I sat on a chair in a waiting room to take a deep breath before venturing to the domestic terminal. Everything ended up being quite smooth and easy though and after a 15 minute round about bus ride from the international to domestic terminal, I stepped into a very new, air conditioned, and clean terminal at midnight. Finally, I could breathe! This was the easiest transition of flights yet and it was sure that I would make my flight to Leh- only with 6 hours to spare!

The flight from Delhi to Leh was short in comparison to the others (only 1.5 hours) and after clearing the smog of Delhi and its suburbs, we were flying through the foothills of the Himalayas. It was absolutely beautiful! Everyone around me, mostly Indian tourists, were snapping photos and ooh-ing and ahh-ing. The Leh airport is much much smaller despite three or four flights arriving every morning from Delhi. After collecting my backpack, I met John (a older British architect who has been coming to Leh for 10 years) at the door. Somehow, the gates weren’t open to the ‘taxis’ yet so the entry was quiet and we were able to push my bag up the hill without becoming Ladakhi roadkill. Within a few minutes, we arrived at Paul Guesthouse (a ‘hotel’ where I am staying for now) where I was welcomed by Linda (Paul’s sister – a Ladakhi Christian) and Surash, a Nepali worker here for the summer. I still had no idea what to expect my accommodations to be- so was completely shocked to enter a room with a bed (despite being as hard as the floor) and painted walls! AND there is a toilet and hot water! (This is luxury!) The view from my room is of the mountains south of Leh-  they seem to change every minute (and I’m sure that by the end of my stay here, I will have at least a hundred photos just of this view). Despite sleeping most of my flights, I was completely exhausted and fell asleep immediately and only awoke to the afternoon mosque call.

(Even after napping and bathing, I sat in front of my window for a good hour in awe. Never would I have thought that I would be here, at 10,000 feet, in a town that I had never heard of before a few months ago).

For my first dinner, John and I went to a Nepali restaurant (which now I know to be one of his favorites) and had a delicious dinner for 60 rupees ($1.50). Despite my (and probably your) thoughts that this is cheap, Leh is generally more expensive than most places in India. It was quite a surprise for me to find that this city (of 30,000) is crawling with tourists! So many tourists! Honestly, it has been a bit discouraging but despite there being difficulties, there are also benefits. Unlike Mali, where a foreigner couldn’t walk down the street without being hassled, Ladakhis are so used to seeing tourists in the summer that I have yet to be called out or had a shopkeeper pull me into his shop.

There is almost a Disneyland or historical reenactment feeling of being in Leh, with new and old mixing and foreigners casually strolling through the bazaar or hiking up to the ancient palace. Young Ladakhi children and students are just as stylish as you and I (I have yet to see one young girl not wearing pants); all men wear western style clothing but women still wear traditional dresses and long braids; everything is printed in English (most time misspelled) and there are handfuls of stores selling trekking gear with ‘new’ North Face jackets.

The city of Leh itself is a mix of Ladakhi, Kashmiri, Tibetan, Nepalese, and Indian people- all seeming to live peacefully with each other. There are Buddhists, Muslims, Hindi, and Christians- with monasteries, mosques, stupas, shrines, and churches. Ladakhi (the people of Ladakh where Leh is the largest city) are generally petite, look more Tibetan than Indian, and truly seem to live in another country. This romantic landscape and life is appealing to all, even Indian tourists, (who are just as easy to spot as foreign tourists with their new sneakers, button up shirts, and large cameras). Apparently Leh is the new hot spot for the adventurous Indian honeymooners as well.

But back to what I’ve been up to since arriving (in addition to information overload which I will try to regurgitate slowly through many entries and not only this one)…

My first real day here (after that one spent in bed) was Friday. After waking up at 3am (before the mosque call at 3:30 – one that is unfortunately not as beautiful as those in Mali), I read, bathed, and felt ready to explore Leh. John came by and took me to the Munshi House (his project for the past 5 years). Within a few minutes, we were off the paved road and scrambling through a sewage way and tunnels through the hill of Leh (everything is on a slope here). Most of the way was paved with slate or concrete, but I’m sure that this path has been used for centuries. (I find myself having to duck through most of it and have already banged my head twice). Suddenly, after about ten minutes of climbing, greeting, and scaling small rocks, we arrived above the city at the Munshi house. I was lightheaded (likely because of the elevation) and the view was amazing! Below us were the meandering streets of the city and above, the ancient palace that overlooks the valley. Tucked into the mountain as well are monasteries, shrines, and stupas- all with their own story.

John has been working with the Munshi family, the Leh Arts council, and the community in restoring this house for the past five years. It is an amazing project- and I can only hope to have the ability to describe it properly. (Look for an entry solely on the house to come). It is almost finished – Kashmiri masons are fixing the last roofs and downspouts, and it is open to the public (Ladakhis and tourists) as a center of arts and history.

I have been spending the past two days at the house, just exploring and talking with a few students who are on scholarship to document the history of Leh. There is also a translator, Stanzin, who I have become friends with. She is studying English and Sociology in Chandigarh (where I and other studio mates will be in December), but returns to Leh to see her family for a short holiday each year. In fact, she’s leaving in a few days, but has taken to showing me around Leh in the meantime. Yesterday, she led me around finding the few things I forgot in Seattle (usb drive, sketchbook, towel, soap) and then ended with tea, chapatti, and beans with Padma (the keeper of the Munshi house).

Ernesto, the architect who I will be working with, arrived yesterday morning- so all the work should begin shortly. We should be heading to Wanla (a village three hours from Leh) around the 10th, where we will be working for three weeks. As of now, I’m still staying at the guesthouse, but hopefully I will be moving to a homestay within a few days. I’m really trying to pick up a few Ladakhi phrases, but it is so difficult when everyone speaks English and you are eating your meals with other westerners.

Other things that I have done/tried thus far :

Kashmiri tea : black tea with sugar, milk, and SALT (lots of salt). Padma made it especially for me to try in the morning, and well… unfortunately I can’t say that I like salt that much. It is a pretty pink color though. Ladakhi tea : same as Kashmiri tea but! with butter too. (still not good)

Thukpa : Tibetan noodle and vegetable soup. Delicious and quite different than Indian cooked vegetable dishes- this is instead is fresh and crunchy and delicious. (Jess, is this was your Tibetan friends send you home with?)

Took a trip to the lumberyard. The Munshi house is ready for new furniture (bookshelves for the library) and we went to pick up the wood. The table saw here makes our design/build studio seem like a breeze. Helping Link friends, I promise a photo of this contraption before I leave. After loading up the wood and making a stop to pick up some pinboards from the carpenter, we drove up the palace road, parked, and the carried the boards down the mountain 300 feet or so. I was slower than the Kashmiri masons, but I made it without falling! Had a meeting with some of the ‘youth’ that we’ll be working with during these six weeks this afternoon. Two of the students are monks, and the most modern that monks could be with their sneakers, cool haircuts, and mobile phones. Even the monks have a satellite dish tv… Went for a walk in the fields yesterday with Ernesto to say hellos to the abbot, other monks, and one girl who will also be working with us. Her family fed me delicious Ladakhi bread (like thick wheat pita) with jam and Ladakhi berry juice. And she tried to teach me some Ladakhi…all I can remember is milk (oma), aunty (ache-le), grandmother (abi-le) and grandfather (me-me-le). Hopefully there will be more lessons to come! Last night, I met up with a professor who is here working on Arup’s Druk White Lotus School with 35 American and Canadian students for a 4th of July celebration. It was a bit overwhelming, but nice to meet other architecture students. They’re working on a design/build project at the school that will be a visitor center. Hopefully in the next few days, I’ll be able to go out to the school (a few miles from Leh) and document it for you traditional building materials friends! Tomorrow, Ernesto and I are going to take half the day to see the nearby monasteries- it should be a beautiful day and I promise lots of photos to come!

Okay, as I’m on page four- I’ll stop for now. Even after four days, I feel like I could write a real book on Leh- it’s people, architecture, climate, history- so I hope you are prepared for the next six weeks. I can’t wait for these next five weeks – a time that seems so long at some points and so fast at others, especially when most people only stay in Leh for a few days. This should be an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you!

(The internet is somewhat reliable, and expensive, but feel free to email and tell me about your adventures wherever you may be!) And if you’ve gotten this far, look for pictures on facebook. I managed to upload a few the other day when I thought the internet wasn’t working! Love,Eryn