We walked to the Indus on our first morning here in rising light, light pink on high clouds above lower, thick banks and grey ridges. The mountains on the southern edge of the river—also to the west, to the north, to the northeast, almost a full bowl around us—rose high and intensely steep, thin snow showing the sharp banding of the rocks, as I’ve seen it in pictures on the face of Kailash. La-dags, the place of high passes: to be in this place begs a constant attention to the form of the land.
Early on the 15th of January we boarded our last plane, traveling up from Delhi and over the Himalaya. From the impossible vantage of flight I saw peaks running out in every direction, parallel and square lines of rock and valley, all densely white with the winter’s snowpack. Snow cracked in some of the high places, the seeds of avalanches that only stones would feel. Then we were descending, just an hour after leaving the intensely human landscape of Delhi, to the broad, brown gravel field of the Leh valley.
We walked down from the plane and onto the tarmac, into the clear, bright air of the desert, sharp and dry in the lungs as the surface of ice. Past unsmiling army guards at the doors holding silver semi-automatic weapons, we came through the airport, many people laughing and admiring our baskets and vests. An old Ladakhi woman in a maroon goncha rubbed my skirt between her fingers, patting my shoulder approvingly. “Where you are coming from?” we were asked, many times. And then, for the first time: “This is your traditional dress?”
Squeezed into a tiny, bus-shaped taxi we travelled the river road down from Leh, through the army encampments that dominate the outskirts of the city-- compounds of storehouses and barracks all lined with rolls of barbed wire and backed by the mountains’ immediate grace. “Phey village,” the driver told us after perhaps twenty minutes: between the road and the river gorge I could see a small plain of houses and brown, walled fields. Whitewashed, mud-brick architecture with carved wooden trim was suddenly more prevalent than new concrete construction, prayer flags flying over heaps of alfalfa fodder on the flat roofs. A little more than a mile outside of the village the straight walls and glass windows of SECMOL’s buildings became visible, around a sharp bend in the canyon.
The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh began as an initiative of five college students in 1988, primarily as a hostel for young people from villages studying in Leh. Now most of the students are part of a “Foundation Year” program, offered to students who have failed their 10th class examinations. (1998, 95% of Ladakhis failed these tests, which determine eligibility to continue in any kind of schooling. Taught in non-native languages with culturally foreign textbooks, failure has been more the rule than the exception. In addition to supporting individual students, SECMOL is centrally concerned with systemic educational reform.) Currently about thirty foundation students, a group of college students, and several staff members live, work, and study in this beautiful, eclectic community. The schools in Leh have closed for the winter, and it is skating season; a large group of former foundation students have also returned to stay for a month or two and play (eat, sleep, and breathe) ice hockey.
Arriving at SECMOL we were welcomed, and taken inside to put down our baskets and drink tea. The common room adjoins the kitchen, with low tables and benches arranged in a square for casual eating and gathering. We met Ache Becky and many, many smiling people passing in and out, at that time only a sea of beautiful faces and names. When we had rested we were given a room, then taken on a tour of the buildings and systems on campus.
I will be drinking this place for the next two months, I think: so many thoughtful, simple processes moving water and energy, making life feel easy and possible, wasting as little as might be. SECMOL is a halfway house, ground where traditional modes of community and sustenance join with modern technology and local innovation. We saw gardens with low plastic tunnels supported by yellow willow hoops and watered by greywater flows, and solar cookers boiling water with fragmented mirrors reflecting the sun. Floors are insulated with crumpled paper, cloth, and discarded plastic; walls are mud and straw bricks, perhaps two feet thick. Black bands trimming windows absorb heat; everything in this cold desert orients to the sun. In the stairwells succulents and geraniums grow robustly.
Our first room (we’ve since moved to a bigger one in the main building, in which Jason can actually stand without hitting his head on the ceiling) was off of the hallway leading to the kitchen and commons and fronted, as most buildings here, by a greenhouse. Small chard and mustards grow in the beds on the other side of the hall; if doors and windows are left open, by noon it is nearly too warm to sit inside. I would love to write more—and if you’re interested, please ask! But otherwise, their website (www.secmol.org) is really very good, and speaks well to the practical systems supporting the community.
We ate supper all together that night in the upper hall, sitting cross-legged on the floor, long runners of cloth laid out for tablemats. Everyone served themselves from a giant pot of skiu, a traditional stew with thumb-pressed lumps of barley dough. The passes are still open, which is unprecedented in Ladakh; the world is changing. It is January, and vegetables from the Kashmir valley continue to come up over the roads to market in Leh, adding fresh carrots and peas to our meal.
Dinner ritual began with listening to the Ladakhi news on the radio; when the report finished, several students were called at random to report on the events in English. Two students gave brief talks, one about polio, and another about her village. And then we sang, the whole room in full voice. Lyrics were passed out in Ladakhi and an English transliteration for Nilza Wangmo’s song, the tragic ballad of an ancient Ladakhi queen. Angmo, sitting across from me, told me that the keep the same song for a week, until everyone knows it without the paper.
A group of students from Domkhar village were visiting, and so for the evening activity we played an introduction game. Norful, standing next to me, said “You are staying in Ladakh for two years? You need a Ladakhi name.” I asked him to give me one—“You are Nilza Angmo now,” he told me. And so I have become—this much easier to remember than the strange syllables that make “Caitlin”.
The stars as we left the hall were as bright as I have ever seen them—air fully clear, Orion blazing in the south. One student told me that Ladakhis do not name constellations.