Himalaya trek: Education through exhilaration

The following first-hand accounts by a leader and student from the recent Himalayan trip capture the exhilaration of the experience.

From Adrie Kusserow, trip leader:
“Back from Ladakh (La-dawgs = land of high passes) After a mind blowing flight over the Himalayas we landed in Leh, Ladakh, at 11,600 feet. The trip went even better than we could have expected,  the kids in our group were universally mature, optimistic, open, game for anything, kind to each other and worked really well together, no drama at all.  Leh, Ladakh area is loaded with military, Tibetan border police, so so many Indian army outposts to ensure they don’t get invaded by Pakistan or China, but nothing really ever happens and the army is more of a job for most Ladakhis than any kind of actual call to fight. Ladakh is the most peaceful place in the Jammu and Kashmir state and totally safe for tourists. Kusserow portrait

The school we stayed at the first week, SECMOL school (student education cultural movement of Ladakah) is the solar powered genius of a man named Sonam Wangchuk, a school for Ladakhis to come for a Foundation year if they have failed their final exams and gain confidence in being Ladakhi, emphasizing less rote and more experiential learning, English conversation skills and workshops on various themes.  SECMOL is like living on a solar powered rig on the moon, dusty, bright, with experiments in solar ideas all over campus, gardens, cows, apricot trees, shaded tea hut, dorms, and Ladakhi students all over, replete with rotating 15 foot solar concave circular mirrors that zapped heat into one spot to cook our dinner and boil our tea.

We spent a week there, a veritable lunar hill station experiment, with no wifi and intermittent power, dust everywhere, fierce wind at dusk, one composting toilet far from the main dorm that had no roof and a way of trapping wind currents that caused the sawdust you are supposed to sprinkle over your pee into your face instead.  Students mostly sleeping on the roofs of the buildings under the stars at night, by day doing conversation partners in English and doing workshops on the downsides of facebook, television commercials, violence, fake news and the power of critical thinking regarding all that they receive on the internet/television. We tackled the issues of skin lightening commercials and their inherent racism and the growing spread of a manic hyper-individualism associated with self care products that suggest that if you care enough /believe enough in your individual self, you will buy this, a view of the self that doesn’t fit with the Buddhist sense of interconnectedness, humility and compassion. In essence learning how to deconstruct and question what they see and learn on television and the internet. Students loved these and did hands on theatrical workshops where they came up with stories one doesn’t usually see on the news, ones about local heroes with Buddhist values, recreated their own ads that had a more Buddhist sentiment.

We also showed films at night and one final workshop we showed Kayle’s (our alumni student leader) documentaries on American Transgendered Teens and Chinese “Left Over” Women, the former documentary we found out was put on the home page of the new York times and got over 80,000 hits! There was a final dance party and talent show, with both the Ladakhis and Americans which was a big hit.  I watched Natalie take on the Ladakhis in an epic, dusty soccer game, many rounds of cards, hikes up the nearest mountain, a Tibetan Buddhist local monastery replete with rabid dog, baby monks in their robes playing cricket and expansive lunar views of sky and himalayas.

Was mind blowing, exhausting, mostly we just couldn’t believe what we were seeing. We went over two passes Shang La and Matho La, both about 16,400 feet. At one of our campsites a nomad herder elderly couple in their stone huts let us hold baby goat/sheep (blend) that were born one hour ago,  we lay on the ground with dozens of little lambs butting up against us. We’d see lines of yaks or sheep herded down the steepest mountain,  blue sheep, ibis, dogs, marmots, snow leopard tracks. On the last day we followed a trail of incense to a group of red robed chanting monks with drums and trumpet ancient instruments in the forest of poplar trees by a river doing an offering they do only once a year. Thousands of chortens and prayer flags over rivers, at the tops of passes.  We had quite a caravan, 24 ponies, two guides, kitchen boys, two cooks and four sherpas. We had this lovely closing ceremony ritual with them all where we each stood up and thanked and praised each other on our last night at the base camp of Stok Kangri. One of our guides Palzore was half Drukpa (Bhutanese) and half Ladakhi and was very skilled at reading the group and finding out the students that might need breathing guidance. He was like our own intuitive, perceptive Buddhist walking meditation guide. Our other guide Rigzin, was epically fit, strong, bounding up mountains like a mountain goat, charismatic and taught us the power of determination and discipline mixed with jokes. As the head trekking guide, with loads of experience climbing peaks all over the world he was the leader of the entire group and would call out orders in Ladakhi, Hindi, Nepali to a very smooth functioning crew. We interviewed them both on film to get a sense of their perceptions of Westerners, their life histories and their sense of how tourism was influencing Ladakh. We fell in love with both of them and promised Palzore a job as a Buddhist therapist for anxious westerners if he ever needed one.

As we were acclimatizing in Leh before going to SECMOL and then before and after the trek, we wandered the streets of Leh and fell in love with the city. It’s hugely chaotic, dusty, donkeys, cows, dogs, construction, with a huge Palace looming on the cliffs above it, Tibetan refugee markets, views of the Himalayas all around, incredible mix of old traditionally dressed Tibetans, Muslims, Western trekkers, Kashmiris, some Hindus, and lots of Ladakhi western dressed youth parading around. Though mostly Buddhist, my favorite moment was the Immam’s (sp?) calling the faithful to evening prayer at dawn and dusk through incredibly clear air, white peaks jagged and glistening. Leh has more trekking companies than I ever imagined could be packed into a city.  We felt very safe except for the honking of cars and motorcycles 3 inches from you. We had a final wondrous meal with the Ladakhi Secmol students on our last night, a group of about 27 of us at one table eating and laughing, singing and comparing stories, photos and henna patterns. It was so sad to leave them.

From student participant Nicholas SantoVasi:

“We stayed in Ladakh India, 12,000 feet high in the Himalayan mountains. The streets were covered in prayer wheels 10 feet high. The buildings and taxis draped in prayer flags. Century old Buddhist monasteries peaked over the mountain tops. This is a place where drinking tea 4 times a day is nearly inescapable. We had the opportunity to stay for a week at SECMOL, a new kind of school devoted to educating Ladakhi youth in a way which is pertinent to their own cultural lifestyle, and promotes environmental efficiency. We participated in their Green Leadership and Media Literacy summer program. Through our meals, singing, hiking, ping pong, cricket and dancing we developed very close relationships with the Ladakhi campers. We also had the opportunity to hike for 5 days through the Himalayas up to 16,335 feet with RIMO Expeditions.

It was the most amazing experience of my life. It was honestly like waking up every day on a new planet. We woke up to chiming bells around the necks of ponies, and tea in bed surrounded by the largest most beautiful snow-capped mountains we've ever seen. We saw yaks, goats, newborn sheep on the backs of donkeys, goats, cows, horses, dzos and of course 26 extraordinary ponies which carried our gear (5 of which mysteriously disappeared one night). We had 4 SECMOL students join us for the trek which made it even better. Something especially notable happened on our last day of the trek when we stumbled upon a gathering of monks performing an annual ritual asking for protection over the land. It was so amazing I have chills just thinking about it.

Something important to know about Ladakhi culture is this clear connection between Buddhism, and a profound respect for the environment and ones fellow man. It is a relationship which seems very naive, and simple but in reality is very deep and complex. I speak for everyone on the trip when I say Ladakh changed our lives, and it is impossible for us to look at the world the same way as we had before. We truly cannot thank Robert Lair and Adrie Kusserow enough, without them none of it would have been possible.

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