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: www.ladakh-tourist.com, www.trekleh.com, or www.come-be-an ecotourist-in-leh.com (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:
- Coat your face in 100 SPF so that you’re shiny and pasty and leave greasy fingerprints wherever you go.
- Wear your fisherman floppy khaki colored hat tied taught below your chin.
- Carry your Nikon Super Duper XL 500000 around your neck, snapping photos endlessly and carelessly of the ‘natives.’
- Dress in wrinkle free zip off short/capri/pants and button up mosquito repellant attire (despite the fact that there are no mosquitoes here)
- Call loudly to your friends up the street (in matching t-shirts) that you found the perfect scarf.
- Prepare to travel the Himalayas by not bathing months in advance and creating the perfect, but careless looking, dreadlocks
- Walk through the streets of cow shit, piss water, and trash barefoot.
- 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.’
- Carry a battered backpack with attached yoga mat and guitar.
- Roll your own cigarettes, make out with your travel partner in the main bazaar, and other activities that prove you are free spirited.
- 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.
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!
“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