Final Group Update from India
Unique to the Bridge Year India experience is the fact that we remained firmly ensconced in one place – the city of Varanasi – for a full seven months. This allowed us to form strong relationships with our homestay families and friends there, and let us be more effective in our service sites as long-term interns. But as April came to a close with midday temperatures soaring to miserable highs of 118 Fahrenheit, it was time to leave the City of Divine Chaos for cooler climates and further exploration of the Subcontinent’s huge and diverse culture. So on April 25th, we packed our bags, said our goodbyes, and headed for Ladakh, in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. Our month in Ladakh consisted of a week-long homestay in the village of Domkhar, a short four-day warm-up trek, a week at the SECMOL school, a trip to the 15,075 ft high Tsomoriri Lake, and a nine-day trek through the Himalayas. Ladakh is known as “mini-Tibet” and is culturally very distinct from the rest of India – Buddhism displaced the Hinduism that had become so familiar, butter tea overtook masala chai, and down jackets replaced near-heatstroke. A fine time was had by all.
by Azza Cohen
We began our Ladakhi adventures pulling our warm clothes tight, sipping salty butter tea and living in the living postcard of Domkhar. Domkhar is a small (300-400 inhabitants) village near Ladakh's eastern border with Pakistan, and is the hometown of Namgyal-le, our local Ladakhi guide. We were placed with homestay families for six days and each day worked at the local government school. My homestay family consisted of Acho-le (uncle), Ache-le (auntie), Amma-le (grandmother), Aba-le (grandfather), Pa-le (elder sister), Rinzhin (three-year-old brother), Chikki (fifteen-year-old sister) and Chikki's friends who slept over during practice for their Ladakhi singing competition.
The days began early, as the traditional mud-brick house flooded with light when the sun rose over the icy mountains. Pa-le would knock on my door, "Azza-le! Solja don-le! (Azza you will drink tea!). Acho-le would already be in the kitchen, feeding branches to the wood stove while reciting the Buddhist mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" and ringing his small prayer wheel. In Ladakhi culture, when one is offered food or especially tea, you must politely refuse twice (saying "dik-le," or "that's enough") before surrendering to another steamy cup if the server had not refilled your cup already. It goes a little like this, especially with Ache-le who didn't speak a word of English or Hindi: don-le! dik-le. don-le! dik-le. don-le! "Okay, okay", and I'd smile gratefully as she poured another generous and warm waterfall into the ornately decorated china tea cup. After three cups of butter tea, Pa-le and I would do laundry, brush our teeth and wash our faces in the freezing stream running like a moat around half the house, all the while facing a majestic mountainside. Rinzhin would soon race down the rocky hillside, probably trip and perhaps fall in the shallow stream, then throw the Bananagrams letters I gave him at me exclaiming, "Azza-le! A is for Azza-le! Z is for Zebra and A is for Azza le!" Feeling our fingers numbing from the cold, we'd return inside and drink more tea while cooking breakfast and helping Chikki with her English or Hindi homework. At 10:00, Chikki, Rinzhin and I would scramble up the steep side of the mountain to school for the morning assembly.
On Monday, we arrived at school and met with the headmaster for tea after the morning assembly. He was vaguely explaining the classes, and asked what subjects we wanted to teach. I jumped at the Class VIII English, to which he opened to a page in a textbook with Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and asked if I knew the poem. I'd love to teach this class! I asked when it started, and he looked at his watch. "Abhi," he said. Now.
And so it went, each day a unique adventure as we learned and taught and began to understand the problems within the government school systems. The kids didn't speak English, but all their textbooks did. Teachers frequently skipped class to sit in the office and sip chai while we were alarmed by the amount of classes open for us to teach. It was a surprising opportunity for us to practice Hindi, because the students understood our Hindi better than our English, and we understood their Hindi more than their native Ladakhi. At lunch break, we'd open the tiffins our host mothers had packed and swap stories about our classes. Tyler, Doug and Daniel also painted inspirational quotes we had brainstormed on the walls of the school during free time. After school, we'd go our separate ways to explore Ladakhi life with our families. I worked in the barley fields with the women of my family, weeding the carefully lined earth, collecting and chopping wood for the stove and of course, drinking tea out of fine china when we needed a break.
Domkhar was 100 degrees colder and 180 degrees opposite our lives in Banares-- it was calm, we breathed crisp and clean air, and we were relieved to have enough time to relax and acclimatize to the altitude. We learned to make momos (traditional Ladakhi dumplings), to take freezing cold stream showers and to plan a class in under five minutes. Domkhar was a welcome retreat to introspect and respect the stunning majesty of the Himalayas, and readied us as we prepared to trek and return home.
by Tyler Rudolph
In our first week in Ladakh we lived and taught in the rural village of Dhomkar where we witnessed firsthand the dysfunction and systemic problems associated with rural education. Teachers were perpetually and unpredictably absentee, students could not understand English well enough to read their textbooks, the administrators did not know how to set up a new bank of computers they had received, and the list goes on. The education system seemed beyond repair with little opportunity for the students to actually learn and excel. With these problems in the back of our minds we headed to SECMOL, the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, a school and non-profit organization dedicated to improving education, maintaining traditional Ladakhi culture, and giving Ladkahi youth the tools necessary to become successful and independent citizens.
The problems associated with education in Ladakh mean that the majority of students fail their final 10th class exams. This can prevent them from attending college and improving their own life status. Additionally, the fact that students are required to go to school and the emphasis on modern culture leaves these students without an understanding of their own traditions, so they lack the skills they would obtain if they were to stay at home and work on the farm. This leaves recent graduates without any job or educational options and makes them a burden on their family and community. The school at SECMOL brings in students who have failed their 10th class exams and educates them so they have the skills to get a job or continue their education, while at the same time emphasizing traditional Ladkahi living practices. The campus is stunning, powered exclusively by passive solar energy and built next the Indus River. It is a paragon of responsible architecture and living. Everything from the gigantic solar ovens to the cows is managed and cared for by the students. Each day the students attend well planned classes in subjects such as personal health, agricultural science, and conversational English. The contrast between the school in Dhomkar and SECMOL’s campus could not have been starker, making it easier to be optimistic about the future of education in Ladakh.
As visitors and volunteers at SECMOL we participated in many of the students’ daily activities. We ate all three meals with the students, cleaned and maintained the campus during work time, played board games, watched movies, and most importantly, served as teachers of conversational English. Unlike in Dhomkar, SECMOL does not allow volunteers without formal training in education to teach the students. Instead, volunteers are used in English conversation class, where we would break into small groups and talk with the students about a variety of subjects. The topics ranged from cultural differences to the nature of religion. It was during this time that we were able to learn about Ladkahi customs and culture while meeting and befriending the students. Conversation classes and work time only made a small portion of the day, so while the students were in their classes we were engaging in “transference:” the process of preparing ourselves mentally and emotionally for the return the states. We talked through “reverse culture shock” and how to deal with feelings of boredom or frustration. Our instructors led us through activities which helped us identify the valuable lessons and experiences in India and how we can incorporate them into our daily lives at home. We reflected and discussed our time in India and marveled at both our own personal growth and how quickly the time has flown by. Finally, we evaluated the program and offered suggestions for the improvement of next year’s experience.
We all truly enjoyed spending time at SECMOL learning about societal challenges and interacting with students. SECMOL has given me real hope for the future of education and society in what otherwise seems to be a neglected part of India. Meanwhile, transference has left me with deeper appreciation and understanding of my time in India, while at the same time preparing me for my return the United States.
by Maxson Jarecki
Between our time in Ladakh at the SECMOL School and our trek, we spent two nights and a day camping out on the shore of Tsomoriri Lake. Tsomoriri is perhaps 12 miles long and a few miles wide, surrounded on all sides by snow-capped Himalayan peaks. Here we were to complete the final steps of our “going back to America” activities.
We arrived in the late afternoon with our packs and food, and set up camp right on the water, our campsite disguised from the small nearby village by a big house. We unpacked the structure we were to sleep in: a white geodesic dome called a yurt. A yurt is a traditional structure used by as a living space, usually made from natural materials. Ours, however, was constructed from PVC piping and thick white plastic. It took us around an hour to fit it all together, stake it down, and get comfortable inside. Then we spent the rest of the day admiring the water, getting our sleeping areas together, and eating food cooked by Adrian, as Daniel had fallen ill and stayed in Leh.
We slept in a line, wrapped up in our sleeping bags, with our packs by our head and our stove by our feet. It was cold outside, but our combined body heat warmed the inside of the yurt and we all had a comfortable night. We woke up early to a breakfast of tea and cereal, and then we started our final transference activity. We each found an isolated spot along the lakefront to stay for the day. The silence, isolation, and landscape were to help us reflect on our year, and see how we could fit our time away back into our lives in America.
I walked down the shore for around 30 minutes, passing Doug, who had stopped at the end of a sandy peninsula jutting into the lake. Although the day was warm, ice and snow still clung to the edges of the water. I settled down in the shadow of an overlooking cliff between the water, sand, and rock. I watched the sun’s reflection move across the surface of the still water as the time passed, and the light illuminated the white blankets of snow across the lake. I tried to move through the year slowly, reliving each new segment, but the memories flew by. I couldn’t isolate specific instances of change or revelation; instead, I felt the whole of my time at once. So many small experiences coalesced into one new facet of my life, and because of my remoteness from Benares, both mentally and physically, I could finally exhale and allow the past year to sink in.
During this time the sun was getting brighter, and the rays warmed the rocks and sand in a very comfortable way. It felt like a good time to take a dip in the freezing water, if just for a second. I stripped down and walked carefully between the ice, snow, and sand to the water’s edge, pausing for just a moment before walking in. It was more of a stagger, really, for my body stopped cooperating with me as soon I got in. I floundered around, dunked my head in, and crawled out, dragging my lower half against snow and ice on my way to the warm rock. My head reeling and extremities numb, I hugged the stone and felt the sun slowly bring me back to reality.
That night we fought a harsh storm for hours, fighting desperately to keep our yurt from blowing away into the lake. Working together we tied the structure down, weighed the outside flaps down with giant rocks, and held on to the bending pipes from the inside. It was a surreal day- going from complete silence, reflection, and isolation to working as a team to protect our shelter. The next morning we set out for our 9-day trek, bound even more tightly together by our time apart and our mutual struggle, beautiful and eerily analogous to our year as a whole.
by Doug Wallack
After our trip to Tsomoriri Lake, we embarked on our nine-day, 60 mile, trekking Odyssey across arid Himalayan valleys and high snowy mountain passes the likes of which are rarely found in the lower 48 states of America. Now, yes, it was an incredibly manly (and strong-womanly) trip, and yes, we did carry our big packs on our backs the whole way, but we also had an incredible amount of help. Our crew of six able guides and camp helpers and a team of ten or so ponies to carry tents and food made the journey both possible and thoroughly enjoyable.
Each morning we woke up around 7:00 to break down camp before a hot and deliciously prepared breakfast. After eating, we typically walked until about 3:00 p.m. with a break for lunch. The scenery was rich and varied, but it was hardly fertile. This sort of altitude lends itself to inhospitable terrain, and we were only below the tree-line for part of one day. In a typical day, we would wind along frigid snow-fed streams, pass sheer red iron-rich cliff faces, traverse some lingering snowy stretches, and make our way over rocky marmot-inhabited scree fields. Despite our dearest Planet Earth-inspired hopes, we never saw the elusive snow leopards, but they are known to live in these areas. Reaching a pass – as we did three times in our trek – was always a highlight. They are marked by stupas (Buddhist monuments), yak and ibex horns, and tangled nests of prayer flags left by years of previous climbers. It all added up to a nice tangible marker of achievement (apart from the fact that everything afterward was downhill), and at our guides’ encouragement we shouted “Ki-ki, so-so, landz gya lo!”, meaning “may the gods be victorious!”, as we reached the top. In the afternoon, we settled into our streamside camps and read and relaxed until dinnertime, when Rigzin – our unbelievably capable camp cook (banana pie and pizza in the Himalayas) – fed us all manner of delicious dishes. Even with headlamps, the lack of electricity prompted us to fall into a very natural sleeping pattern – going to bed and rising with the sun – and it was a rare thing for us to stay up much past 10:00. Up there, two miles closer to the stars, the clear atmosphere provided us with the most incredible nighttime skies. Especially if you woke up in the middle of the night, you could look up to thousands upon thousands of twinkling pinpricks, with the Milky Way forming a thick cloudy band across the middle of the sky.
Also, we went pants-sledding down from one of the passes, which something none of us had ever expected to do in late May. [caption: “Daniel having a hilarious good time ‘kayaking’ down from the pass”]
As we came back to the hill station town of Leh after the trek and showered off 11 days of hard-earned sweat and grime, the realization that our Bridge Year was coming to an end became unavoidable. We’ve been truly fortunate to have had such an incredible experience this year — from Diwali fireworks to camel safaris, to Holi color wars. Namaskar, Bharat; Phir milenge. Goodbye, India; We’ll meet again.