A Travellerspoint blog

December 2014

Trekking

As the days went on, it became obvious that we would not be able to proceed with our original trekking plans. Tashi had prepared a somewhat ambitious journey of 12 days in which we would first go to his village of Kabban, and then over a high pass, roughly 17,000 feet, and then back a different way, through other villages such as Dongel, Lossani, etc. However the snow is late in melting this year, and the weather continues to be unsettled, very likely with more snow higher up on the passes. Instead we will do it in reverse, up through the villages, and then, weather permitting, over the pass. If not, we will return back by the same route and make the trip shorter.

Prior to setting out I talked to Ramdee, Tashi's mother, about the history of her people. She didn't know very much, but she said that four generations of Tashi’s family now live in Kabban. The village was originally settled by four families, who came from the other side of the mountains in Lahaul and Zanskar, some 300 years ago. They moved because of better growing conditions on this, the wetter side of the mountains. Kabban eventually grew to have 60 families.

Legend has it that there was a feud between a Buddhist King,and a Hindu king. The latter said he would marry the Buddhist King’s wife and apparently made a secret agreement with her. She hid her husband’s arrows and bows and prevented him from sleeping. He was tied to the bed and killed by the Hindu King, who then killed his wife. Many of the the original settlers left Kabban after this and settled back in Lahaul in Darcha Marwa. They moved there and became Muslims, but still speak some Ladakhi. Not everyone left, or else more people came over the mountain passes, and the population of Kabban increased once again.

The day we started our trek was fair, and we hiked 15K or 20K up the well traveled path through a steep sided river valley. We spent a pleasant night near the river where the valley widened out in a grassy and sandy area. Despite the warm sun, my attempt at bathing was thwarted by the ball shrinking coldness of the water.

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Not long before dark, a very voluble Hindu man showed up from Mumbai who spoke English fluently. He asked if he could spend the night, as he brought no camping equipment other than a blanket. I didn't particularly want him in my tent, but said that if it was okay with Tashi and the porters, I had no objection. He stayed with us, sleeping in the cook tent, and gushing about how wonderful it was to meet Tashi and I. He was a bit over the top, and by the time he left early the next morning for Machel, I was glad to see him go.

Once more the day started out fair, although the weather began to deteriorate in the afternoon as we approached Lossani. The trail meandered up and down along the river and the adjoining slopes, and a few times we had to make our way across avalanche debris, ice and snow.

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Villages, mostly Hindu, dotted the landscape, including Machel, which is the site of an annual pilgrimage in August when thousands of people show up and camp for a few days near the temple. There is even a helicopter service for those who can afford it. The temple was not all that impressive, though it was locked and we didn't get to see inside.

Small village festival
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I am now in Lossani, a small village of mud and straw houses without many windows. Snow is still visible, not only on the summits, but also the remains of winter avalanches.

Approaching Lossani
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Old Buddhist temple, Lossani
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It has started to rain, a cold, icy drizzle, and Tashi and the guys elected to sleep in an abandoned school and cook there as well. Tashi's brother in law showed up, fairly drunk, and spoke in broken English about all the friends he has in the US and Canada. Doubtful. Another of Tashi's older brothers also lives in Lossani, and we went to his house for a brief time, and then on to a local wedding party. Actually, it was after the wedding had taken place in Manali, but now the couple had come back to the village to celebrate. It was the daughter of the brother in law. Virtually the entire village was crammed into one small room, sitting cross legged on the floor. There was barely room to eat, and the brother in law kept plying everyone with booze. On one end of the room, the cows were nestled in their wooden cages, so their warmth would help keep the room warm. Usually by now, they are put out to pasture, but because it still felt like winter with temps in the upper 30's and a cold wind blowing, they are still inside. Although it was difficult to make our exit, my legs had started to cramp up in the very tight space, and I needed Tashi to find my way back to the the tent. Luckily, as promised, the tent did not leak, as it rained steadily all night long.

In the morning it was still overcast and chilly, with a weak sun trying to shine through low hanging clouds that totally obscure the peaks. Going over the high pass seems increasingly less likely, as it will require 4 or 5 days of snow camping, and with the weather being what it is, it might be dangerous. It seems every time I trek with Tashi I bring the bad weather.

After a few hours of hiking, we arrived at Dongel, a village further up the valley. The weather has only worsened over the past two days. The rain is steadier and heavier now. I am safely ensconced in the house of a distant relative of Tashi's. I have the penthouse, aka, 2nd floor room, all to myself, and I am dry, if not warm. I can see my breath, and the temps inside are only marginally warmer than outside where it is just above freezing.

House where I stayed in Dongel
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Couple inside their house. In the back is where the animals stay for the winter
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Not far up, less than 1000 feet, fresh snow has fallen. Just now it is difficult to see it, because the clouds and mist have descended almost to the valley floor. A profound sense of gloom pervades the pine and cedar forest around this tiny village. Mist swirls amidst the lower trees, blending into the greyish, blank whiteout beyond. Rock walls and wooden posts, strung together with wire, separate the muddy tzo- shit strewn paths and fields that separate the dozen or so houses.

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The dark mud of the paths contrasts with the tawny colored mud of the houses, constructed of stone and timbers cut from the surrounding trees. They are then packed with mud and straw, both inside and out, a surprisingly effective form of insulation, though temporary I suspect. This is not, after all, the dry climes of Leh or New Mexico, where adobe can last for years. For some reason the roofs are mostly flat, and so need to be shoveled in the snows of winter, some of which still remains in the thick forest.

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One of the younger porters, Modup, has been taking good care of me, although Tashi has disappeared into another nearby house to visit other relatives, no doubt imbibing more of the local brew. Hard to refuse in this weather. He reappeared this morning when I asked one of the men to wake him.

There is nothing to do but wait. Hiking in this cold, wet weather would be uncomfortable at best, but it is hard to be patient.

If I want to get warm, I go down a set of very steep stairs, past the wood pile to one room on the first floor, where there is a small wood stove. Though vented, the draft is poor and the room is smoky. There is no furniture, only blankets on the mud floor, which thankfully, is much warmer than the cement floor of Tashi's house in Gulabgarh. After two hours in my sleeping bag, warmed with the aide of a make-shift hot water bottle, I will venture down now and continue writing from there. The walls of my upstairs room are papered with old English language newspapers and sexy pictures of Hindi movie stars, posters of Kashmir, and one larger picture of a boat and harbor, stating, ironically to me at least, God LOVETH THE CLEAN. On another wall there is a half page ad for Nestle chocolate, emphatically stating, "IN TWO DAYS, 100 CRORE(100 million) WILL WORK HARDER FOR YOUR DIGESTION. Hmmm. I never knew that chocolate bars, or a lot of money for that matter, would do wonders for my digestion. I am convinced, however, that if the outhouse, which is perched only a few feet from the water supply, were to be moved 50 yards in the other direction, and pit was dug to contain the shit, most likely this would do wonders for the digestion of the villagers. I have thus far, and rather miraculously, avoided any major stomach upset. I insist on having all my drinking water boiled, but others still cook and handle all the food. I do seem to have developed a cough which is similar to many others in these parts. I hope it will be short lived.

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Well, nature calls, and I have to make my way out to the shitter. After my short, but perilous and very slippery journey, I am back inside the warm room. One of the porters is here, along with some other young men from the village. The man of the house , who looks damn good for his 74 years, sits cross legged to my right, eating rice and mutton with his fingers, as is the custom. He has short grey hair, face wrinkled from the sun, and is garbed in homespun woolen clothes. His right ear is adorned with an earring. His daughter looks to be about 35, and sits on the opposite side of the stove. With high cheek bones, a kerchief on her head, and smooth, reddish brown skin, she is quite attractive. She wears a pearl necklace and a 2nd one of coral and turquoise, which is somewhat similar in color to her machine made orange sweater. Underneath the sweater she wears a flowered tunic and baggy pants, and is barefoot. She has just now finished the laborious process of making roti. The walls of this room are unadorned, though there are wooden shelves built into one side, which hold dishes, pots and pans. On the other wall, a solar powered light and clock, which seems to keep accurate time. A single small swastika is painted on the main soot darkened beam, and there are two drafty wooden windows, letting in the dim, grey light.

Every one sits waiting.

Waiting for the weather to clear so they can plow and plant their fields, several weeks late already.

And we are waiting to hike.

The clock ticks

The cock crows,

but the distant drone of the river is soft and soothing.

There is desultory chatting in Ladakhi, and some laughter. Always laughter. One of the young men, perhaps not from this village, takes out his cell phone and puts on some Hindi music. Cell phones are useless here for calls as there is no service. I can't imagine why a villager would have one, but you can never tell about these things. Actually, he has not one but two, and seems to be comparing them.

Tashi has told me a story about the forest here, which is one of the highest in all of Jammu district. A prince of Zanskar, on the other side of the Umasi La pass, four or five days of hard walking, was going to marry a princess from Dongel. The forest was going to be a dowry present, since Zanskar is much drier and has no forest of its own. When the prince arrived in Dongel, the princess held her nose because he was so dirty and smelly. A wolf intervened, and said to the the Zanskar prince, that the princess must not have a nose if he couldn't see it. Enough doubt was sewn by the wolf that the marriage did not take place, and so the story goes, that is why the forest remained here and was not cut down. Exactly why the wolf didn't want the marriage to occur is something of a mystery. Tashi says that no one knows this, but perhaps, in my mind at least, the wolf, who lived here, wanted to continue to roam the forest, and did not want it taken to some far off place.

There are still wolves here. A few days ago one killed a sheep in a nearby village.

Lunch is served, curried cauliflower and rice, not my favorite. They seem to have a lot of cauliflower here, almost every day it seems. Somewhat dutifully I managed to finish most of it, but wait, before I can refuse, in typical fashion the daughter is already refilling my plate. Just then she has a series of sneezes. Yah, just what I need. In their generous spirit, more cauliflower and more germs. Everything, and I mean everything, is shared here. There is no way to avoid it.

The rain continues on unabated, clouds menacing from all sides.

The clock ticks.

Slowly, very slowly.

The cock crows.

  • ****************************************************

The rain continued heavily all night. The wind blew so hard one of my windows flew open at about 6 AM. Now it seems to have stopped and the clouds have lifted somewhat. What the rest of the day will bring is hard to tell. We will wait another few hours before deciding, but at $100 a day for the porters and Tashi's fee, I can't really see the sense of continuing with conditions being what they are. The pass is clearly out of the question, and I am getting tired of waiting and the spartan life of camping in this weather.

Once again the old man of the house is sitting near me, this time with an enormous ball of yarn that he is winding onto a wooden stick. I was told that his wife is in Jammu getting some kind of medical treatment. Tashi said that he doesn't drink much now, but I think yesterday must have been an exception as he seems a bit hung over.

The day has continued on without any decisions having been made, though once again the village is socked in with clouds. In late afternoon, I sought out Tashi for some company in another house, his real brother in law's, as he put it, since he calls even his wife's distant cousins his brother in law as well. There was drinking going on again, and naturally they tried to fill my glass repeatedly, which I resisted.

Tashi and his brother in law wearing my unneeded sunglasses
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As always, there was a lot of laughter, and this time, it seemed as though the women were drinking as much as the men. Someone put on a music tape powered by a car battery, and since I wasn't drinking much, I encouraged everyone to dance, which eventually they did. They all got a kick out of it when I joined them. There wasn't a lot of room to move, but we managed to weave in and out of the bottles of hooch and the wood stove. There were several generation of relatives there, including young women nursing babies, as well as the old man of the village, my host, who after a time began to sing in that same sing-song voice, about how guests bring sunshine to the village. He must have been drunk, because in my case, nothing could be further from the truth.

Tashi's real brother in law, who did look like Puti, kept repeating the word nothing, when I said no booze, no food, hence nothing. I literally had to shield my glass with my hand to prevent him and others from refilling it. After a time, the pressure to drink got a bit much, and despite the obvious pleasure they took in my company, I returned to the other house. I asked Tashi if he could make it over to join me for dinner. What I didn't know was that about half an hour later, he would bring the entire party to "my house." More chang and wheat wine was consumed, but thankfully, the brother in law did not show up. The porters started preparing my dinner of chow mein, basically ramen noodles with a few veggies thrown in. They asked if I wanted any mutton. To be polite, I said a little, but meanwhile another porter took out an enormous leg of mutton, mostly raw, and began chopping away at it with an ax. This was bit much for me, and though they only added a few pieces to my dinner, I did not eat them. I asked Tashi if there was ever a problem with spoilage, and he said they dry the meat, but yes, some of it did spoil. That was all I needed to hear with the ax chopping away at the bloody leg, a piece of firewood on the floor serving as a chopping block. My gut was already giving me a few problems from bouncing around the dance floor earlier, but having the ax, thwack, thwack, right next to me did not improve matters. I had my dinner, or some of it at least, and made my way back up to the refrigerator that was the 2nd floor. I crawled into my sleeping bag, shivering from the cold, but my hot water bottle, held tight next to my femoral artery was a big help. I may be turning into a wimp, but I am looking forward to a few western comforts, especially a hot shower and clean clothes. It will be several days before that is possible.

  • ***************************************************

The rain finally did stop the next morning though it remained party to mostly cloudy.

A brief sunny moment, fresh snow on the mountains
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I was all for starting back, as I didn't want to be stuck in Dongel with more rain. Tashi said the porters wanted to stay, and I finally agreed, but I didn't want to spend money just to sit around. He spoke to them, and they decided to stay anyway, even without getting paid for the day.

He suggested an excursion to Somchen, the highest and most isolated village at around 3000 meters. I was happy to finally get out and walk again, but I had to talk him into coming as the porters and other relatives wanted him to stick around and drink with them. We finally set off around 11 for a pleasant two hour uphill hike. We stopped first in Deschedi, another tiny village about 1K from Somchen, where I was fortunate to meet and take pics of a 93 year old woman. She gave me a toothless grin when I showed her the picture afterwords.

Mother and daughter
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We had some tea with her and continued the rest of the way.

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Somchen looked a bit like the monasteries in Ladakh. The village consisted of one large stone and mud structure of several houses, built one on top of another, like an apartment building.

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The reason for this is that they need to keep the arable land free for grazing, and they are very close to a major avalanche zone. It is quite chilly up here. Fresh snow had just fallen last night, but had melted by the time we arrived. We stopped for more tea,rotis, curd, and fresh eggs, talking with the brother of Sonam, who lives next to Tashi in Gulabgarh, and who had lent me a trekking pole. This brother spoke a bit of English, and told me that his three children attend the Himalayan Culture School. He and his wife stay in the village and run the farm. In the village, life is difficult, he said . This year there were more than 15 meters of snow, which lasted more than 6 months. Temps were often minus 20C, and so all they could do was stay inside with the animals. Staying warm was their main preoccupation. He seemed quite eager for company, and encouraged me to spend the night, and to come back the next year and spend 5 or 6 days. Needless to say, I was not interested in either proposition, but his friendliness and hospitality were contagious.

As the afternoon wore on the clouds looked more threatening. Tashi went out to take a leak or so he said, and then disappeared for an hour. He had apparently met some other relatives.

We made it back just as the rain started anew.

I made it clear that I wanted to leave the next morning, rain or shine. Also, I wanted to get an early start, and if possible, make it all the way back to Gulabarh, about 30K. I didn't relish another chilly and damp night in a tent.

Although overcast, the next morning was dry. I was up by 6 and more than ready to leave by 8, but Tashi and the others were staying in a different house and they didn't seem to be in a hurry. When they arrived about 8:45, the donkey had still not been loaded. Tashi's brother in law, whose donkey it was, literally tried to grab and drag me into another house for more drinking. I was not amused and said no, which he ignored.

No, NO NO NO, LOUDER AND LOUDER. He eventually let go, but Tashi had to stay behind to help load the donkey. He had doubts whether the porters would leave at all if he didn't get them going. Modup, who had done all my cooking for the past few days was ready to leave, and Tashi suggested that I start with him and that he would catch up.

We kept up a pretty good pace and I wondered when or if Tashi and the others would catch up. The clouds thickened, and sure enough it started to rain shortly before noon. We stopped in a crude little dhabba in a small Hindu village. By then we were both pretty damp, and I had stupidly left a rain jacket behind with Tashi. I had a cup or two of very sweet tea and cookies, and huddled up to a tiny fire to try and stay warm. We waited over an hour, but the rain continued. Finally a donkey man and one of the porters showed up. Tashi had apparently stopped in Machel, so when the rain let up a bit we decided to push on, but after another hour or so it was back. Eventually, after two more hours of wet, cold walking, we stopped in another village at a small dhabba, with nothing to eat except ramen noodles. At least it was hot and not sweet. I played out the various options in my head. It was still about three more hours walking to Gulabgarh, and I wasn't sure we had that much daylight. Hiking in the cold rain in the dark did not seem like a good idea.

Finally Tashi showed up, nursing a toothache that had been bothering him for several days, but had clearly worsened. I was not happy that we had to wait so long because of his dawdling, especially without a rain jacket. I was also pissed at the porters, who had obviously been drinking, and told them that they should easily have been able to keep up with me, someone twice their age. It was obvious we weren't going to be able to hike more that day, and the rain had only picked up in intensity. Tashi found us a couple of basic rooms that would at least keep us dry, or so I thought. When I returned after drying my jacket by the fire, I found the rain was dripping in steadily on one side of the room. Luckily it was not on my bed. Later, the porters made a cooking fire in a leaky barn, and knowing I was angry, ran around asking me if I wanted tea or soup or something to eat. It didn't help with my foul mood.

We left early the next morning which thankfully was clear. Tashi could barely talk because of his tooth. I was still upset with all of the waiting around, but he and I go back a long way and I didn't want this to ruin our friendship.

We arrived back in Gulabgarh before mid-day.

Assuming the weather holds, the school will make a picnic in my honor the day after tomorrow. On Sunday, Tashi and I will leave for Jammu, where it will be warm. I will spend a few days there helping him check out computer tablets, and then fly to Mumbai before heading home.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:19 Archived in India Tagged landscapes mountains buildings foot photography Comments (2)

Hot Springs Excursion with the Boys

Several of the older boys asked me if I wanted to visit some hot springs, a couple of kilometers up the road in another small Hindu village, Atholi.

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I jumped at the chance, and they came and got me at Tashi’s house on their only day off, Sunday. It was a bit further than they said, perhaps 4K, and then a long set of stairs to climb up to the village. When we arrived there was furious drumming going on, and as unbelievable as it seems, the sound of bagpipes. All of this was the beginning of a village wedding. Somehow the bagpipe has made its way here, another legacy of the British, or the Scots in this case. No kilts could be seen. We stayed for a while as the women danced. There were hot springs right on the main street that were big enough to climb in and bathe, after they had been enlarged from a stream flowing down the mountain. As per usual in India, they were dirty, and I was not tempted. Luckily, the boys knew of some other springs, less developed, further around the mountain, and so we made our way there. Though these were far from pristine, and not deep enough to actually soak, the warm waters made for a delightful shower. We all soaped up and took a wash, the best one I have had in two weeks. It was a picturesque spot, with a cold water stream rushing down the pine clad mountain 50 yards or so in front of us. We spent some time drying out in the warm sun, and then went back by a different route through terraced fields, sheep and goats, before hitting the road. The views reminded me of the Andes. We stopped at a small dhaba, and there was a man there who spoke English well, and of course, knew Tashi.

On the way back, perhaps emboldened by our bathing together, the boys asked questions of me.

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Did I know this or that Indian movie star or cricket player.

"No."

"Justin Bieber?"

"Yes."

"Bruce Lee?"

"Yes."

Returning to Gulabgarh, I took them all out for lunch at their favorite restaurant for momos and chow mein. Quite a combo. It was, as is every place here, a very modest eatery.

I returned home to find that grandma had locked the door. Tsering was playing next door with her 5 and 6 year old cousins, but grandma was nowhere to be found. Luckily, Sonam, who lived nearby, and who had earlier invited me to lunch came to the rescue and invited me into his house. He offered me more to eat, and despite having just had lunch, I did not heave the heart to refuse. After a few hours grandma returned, and so did Puti, who had met Tashi in Kisthwar for a much needed visit to the dentist. Kisthwar, you may remember is 10 hours of hard driving, and in the morning, Tashi told me that when he left a few days ago, the road was completely blocked to Jammu. After waiting a few hours, he had to walk around the landslide to the other side of the road, where he was able to get a ride with someone who was returning to Jammu. It was still partially blocked on his return, which is why, he said, that there are few vegetables or fruit left in Gulabgarh. No way to transport them. We have also been without any water for washing or flushing the toilet for about 24 hours, the reasons for which are not entirely clear. Supposedly, there will be water tonight, but I’ll believe that when I see it

Puti left the next day to walk to her village, having heard that a relative had died. Her brother in law had died a few months back by falling off a trail in winter, but she was in Jammu when it happened. Now she will go back to mourn his death, as well as the death of this other relative.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:03 Archived in India Tagged mountains people postcards Comments (0)

Tea with the Principal and Teachers

I have had several informal discussions with the principal and today he invited me to his house for tea. He lives on the other side of town, the Hindu side, if you will, although he is Buddhist. He showed me all the reports he has to make to the district school authorities along with the grades he has to submit. This week, all of the kids will have at least two hours a day of testing so that he can submit the scores to these same authorities. He said things are different in Zanskar and Ladakh, where the district education officers do not require the same testing or insist on the same books. Apparently the reason is that Buddhists are in the majority there, and because the administrators are also Buddhist, they better understand the needs of the community. Here they are all Hindu or Muslim, and he feels this is the reason why they insist on following the government rules so closely. Not only that, even though the Himalayan Culture School is almost entirely funded by government money, the teachers receive a fraction of the pay that regular teachers receive, 3000 rupees per month, roughly $50 US, as compared to 20-30,000 ($350- 500US). The reason is that teachers in the Himalayan School receive what is called an honorarium instead of a government salary, because the school is run by a private foundation, like a charter school. It seems very unfair.

The principal said he has been with the school since it began 18 years ago, and that he makes a fraction of what he could be making in a public Indian school. It is enough, he said, but barely, to make ends meet. I think he wanted me to understand the difficulties of his job and the sacrifices he has made to stay in it.

Principal, Norbu, and Yours Truly at the school picnic
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On another day I had tea with Norbu, a young history teacher in his 30’s with a very gentle manner. He said he has been at the school for more than 10 years. He comes from one of the smaller and more remote villages, although most of his family now live in Jammu, where his parents run a clothing shop, and his brother is finishing his last year of engineering school. He is desperate to get a regular government teaching job because of the difference in salary. He has taken the national exam and will go to Kisthwar for an interview following the election in a few weeks.

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I had tea at his house a second time, along with another teacher. We discussed the American political system, which they seemed quite interested in, as compared to the Indian parliamentary system. We then got talking about the school, and both indicated that none of the teachers had been paid even their meager salary for more than a month. This is not the first time this has happened. Last year they went 8 months before receiving their paycheck from Delhi. Other government teachers receive their salary from the J&K government and so there is usually less of a delay.

What a system.

I happened to mention my problem finding bottled water, and later that evening Norbu, after checking with a dozen or more shops, managed to find some. I had to insist that he take money to pay for them. So for now at least, my water problem is solved.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:41 Archived in India Tagged me people Comments (2)

Teaching at the Himalayan Culture School

My first day of teaching began when I got two conflicting schedules from the principal, who, if his office is any reflection, is rather disorganized. In addition to English, I am also teaching social studies and science.

The kids have been very welcoming and enthusiastic, but the books being used and the curriculum taught is way beyond their abilities, no matter what their age. There were times when I went over material they had supposedly already learned, and although they could parrot the words, it was obvious they didn’t understand a thing. Not a good situation. I hope to discuss this with Tashi and the principal. The curriculum is no doubt dictated by the J&K government, but so much of it seems like a waste of time.

Morning lineup
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Morning prayers
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For the past several days I have been trying to use their assigned books, and then going off from there, but the kids are used to simply repeating often difficult English words without any understanding. When I try to get them to talk with me, I often get a yes or no answer without any willingness to go further. I have tried to start a story and get them to continue it, but even with the older kids I am lucky to get a sentence or two. Also if one of them says something, the others then simply repeat it. I think much of this is pointless. I will have to use much simpler materials if I am to teach anything at all. As an example, I did an experiment with the standard books in which I read a 2nd grade story, one they had already read and been tested on, to the 5th-7th graders. Generally, with a few exceptions, they were unable to understand the story after I read through it twice. I’m sure if English is too difficult then the other subjects are also a problem.

Fifth grade class
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I spoke to the English teacher, and he seems to be well aware of these issues, as is the principal. Not surprisingly, the principal said that he is forced to use these books because they are used throughout India. In Jammu, a large city, he thought that most of the students would be able to understand them. I’m not sure that this is the case, at least with the poor students. In the 5th grade class, only Passan was the exception. He lives in town all year long rather than in a village, and both of his parents are teachers and speak English with him at home. Most of the other parents don’t speak English, are not educated, and a number of them are illiterate.

Passan
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What can be done about this situation is another question. It is a bit like “No Child Left Behind,” with standards that are unrealistic, and forcing teachers to teach to the test because that is how they are evaluated. I doubt whether the teachers here are evaluated this way, but the kids are given standardized tests, and most of the teaching that I have observed is aimed exclusively at getting them to score well. At best, they will be memorizing and parroting without any understanding. On one afternoon I used a pre k book to teach 2nd and 4th graders and even that was a struggle.

I have found teaching to be quite tiring with four, 40 minute classes with the older kids in the morning, and then three more classes with the younger students in the afternoon. Lunch, however, always provides a nice break, especially with Tsering, her best friend, and neighbor's baby.

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The youngest kids that I teach are around eight, although the school has some as young as four. The younger boys especially can get pretty rambunctious toward the end of the day, and it is hard to keep things under control. After several days, I more or less gave up on teaching the youngest kids. They simply take up more energy than I have. While I have taught ESL before, it has mostly been with adults, and that is a very different experience.

Younger kids in school yard
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One of the youngest
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On one occasion, I gave the older students an assignment which we then read in class, to write about Gulabgarh or their village in the mountains. They said only positive things about each, raving about the beauty of both places in a somewhat repetitive fashion, while overlooking the garbage, the dirt, and the poverty. They seem to focus only on the good. On the one hand, this is admirable, and seems to reflect their enormously positive and happy outlook, but on the other hand, they seem to ignore the problems. When I discussed this with them they understood, but were at a loss to know what to suggest to improve things. They didn’t seem to think that talking to people would do any good, something that Tashi had already indicated. Several of the kids said that the rains would eventually wash everything away and make everything clean. Not likely, as there had already been plenty of rain and there was still garbage everywhere. There is no central garbage dump or landfill, and seemingly little motivation to create one. Perhaps if the many policemen would get off their duffs and fine people 10 or 20 rupees for littering, this would make a difference. Also not likely.

Older boys with my travel speaker
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Their female classmates
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Another time I asked the students to write about their favorite holiday. Usually, what I got back was a description of a Hindu holiday, Diwali, for example, that word for word came from their English book. Unfortunately, as in so many Asian countries, the emphasis is just on rote learning. I have had somewhat more success when I have created my own teaching materials, but this takes time and energy, and the kids are well aware that this is not what they will be tested on.

I don't want to be overly negative. Most if the students here come from impoverished backgrounds with little, if any opportunity for book learning outside the classroom. Considering that, many of them are obviously curious about the outside world, and more knowledgeable, at least about Indian pop culture, then I would have thought. The older ones know about Indian celebrities and pop musicians which is an accomplishment considering that many of them have not been to Kisthwar, which is not exactly a cosmopolitan place. Most of the kids seem interested in what I think, despite the language problems, and a few of the most diligent students have wanted me to teach them after their regular class periods. Often by then, I am too tired, but still this shows the initiative of the best and the brightest.

During this week of exams, there is not a lot of teaching going on, but they seem interesting in hanging out with me. Most of the time they prefer to play games, especially one called Kabbadi, a rough game of tag, and then pulling the person to their side of the schoolyard. The girls are every bit as competitive as the boys. I try and resist the games until the end of the school day, but it provides an informal way to communicate in English, and this may be more valuable than what goes on in class.

Author in back with one of younger grades
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Hamming it up from 2nd floor window
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The Himalayan Culture School has a website, http://hcspadder.com/ as well as a facebook page. They are always looking for volunteers to teach for a few days or a few months, as well as donations. If you want to experience buddhist culture in non touristy surroundings, this is an ideal place. You must be prepared for a very simple life with few western conveniences. The school or a villager will provide you with a place to stay and food. You can also contact Tashi at lonpoadv@gmail.com. Email is very slow so be prepared to wait a while for an answer.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:51 Archived in India Tagged people children educational living_abroad Comments (1)

Rockfall and Conversations

One day at around 5 PM, there was a giant rockfall at one end of town, a few hundred yards from the house. It sounded a bit like thunder, but went on for several minutes, creating a large cloud of dust. At first I didn’t pay much attention to the noise, assuming that it was thunder, which we had earlier that day, but then I stuck my head out the window, and not seeing anything, I continued reading. When the sound continued, I went to the front of the house which faced the opposite direction. The dust cloud was still quite visible, though most of the rumbling had stopped by then. Above, the Gulabgarh-Manali road had been cut in half by tons of rock debris, and several cars were stranded on both sides, unable to move. Tashi and I, along with half the town it seemed, walked over to see the damage. A couple of shops and houses had been completely destroyed, and there were several truck sized boulders on the road leading out of town. Although not visible, I was told that one woman had been killed when she went back into her shop. We all milled about for a time, until a group of soldiers and policemen, some with machine guns, came running up and insisted we clear the area.

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Road being repaired after rockfall
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I returned to Tashi’s house to find him sitting around with several other relatives discussing what had happened. The drinking had already begun. Soon after, the rain began to fall in earnest, a real problem given the almost constant rainfall of the last two months. It was the first actual rain since my arrival, but although each day was clear in the morning, clouds usually appeared in mid-afternoon. No doubt all the rain was a factor in the rockfall. These young and intimidating mountains are still unstable. As they are pushed up by the collision of tectonic plates, they are simultaneously worn down by the forces of erosion and gravity. Despite man's obvious presence, we are still visitors here. We are not in charge in these mountains. Nature is, and life is tenuous. It always is of course, but here the feeling is palpable.

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Later in the evening more people showed up at Tashi's including a pony man from previous treks, as well as some villagers who had worked as porters. Ram was also there, a man of about Tashi’s age, mid to late 40’s, who is headmaster of a government school, some 15K up the road. Or rather, 15K, and then a 3-4 hour walk beyond the road. It is a Hindu village, though Ram is Buddhist. He is well educated, with a master’s degree from a college in Manali. Now that he is headmaster, after 12 years of teaching, he only has to be at the school about 15 days a month. The rest of the time, he lives in Gulabgarh, where he has a house and also owns a small restaurant which serves Chinese food. His English was quite good, although with a thick accent that got harder to understand as he continued drinking. Apparently he too has been on a couple of treks with Tashi during the summer months, first as a cook and then as a guide. He has two daughters and a wife who in live in Jammu. This way his children can attend school there.

As headmaster, he earns about 40,000 rupees per month, and then his little restaurant brings in another 10 to 15,000. At one point, he and Tashi got into a drunken discussion about the benefits and disadvantages of a government job vs. the private sector. According to Ram, in a good year Tashi can earn twice as much as he does in just a couple of summer months, but as Tashi pointed out, nothing is certain in the trekking business.

Once again they attempted to ply me with wheat hooch. Although they made it hard to refuse, I managed to avoid drinking more than a glass or two, as the stuff gave me a headache the night before.

Ram, more or less talked my ears off, even telling me about his French girlfriend who he met on a trek in the late 90’s, when he was young.

“She really wanted to get married,” he said, but he encouraged her to go back to France and think about it. After that, he never heard from her again.

He made a point of telling me that I would be welcome to stay at his house, or any house for that matter in Gulabgarh

He said that the Buddhist community really goes out of their way for a guest and a foreigner.

I have no reason to doubt it. I can certainly say that Tashi and Puti have gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable, like an honored guest.

Ram also questioned me about life in America, and whether kids there are the same as kids here. Not an easy question to answer. Tsering, Tashi’s 8 year old daughter seems incredibly responsible. She understands a fair bit of English, but like so many kids here, is reluctant to speak it. Even so, she goes out of her way to take care of me, just like her parents, without being asked by them to do so. She does things like getting me an extra pillow to sit on the floor, getting my water bottle so I don’t have to get up, etc. I doubt whether too many 8 year olds in the states would just take it upon themselves to behave this way. On the other hand, perhaps Tsering is just a great kid. Unusual. She certainly is a great kid, but I suspect she is not unique in this way.

After a few hours of rambling conversation, Ram came right out and asked me what I thought about him, obviously wanting my approval, the approval of an American, and someone he considers his better.

As he put it, “USA people on top of the world.”

How else could I respond other than saying that he seemed like a good guy.

  • ************************************************************

On a different night, Tashi and I sat around with his older brother, 55, here for a few days from Kabban. They were drinking local stuff, and I was drinking beer that Tashi had picked up for me from Jammu. Somehow we got started talking about Karma. Tashi believes in Karma, but only in his life time. He thinks that If you do good things you will reap the benefits of your hard work and diligence in this life. He does not believe that he was born in a poor family with nine other siblings because of bad Karma.

“What would you brother say about this,” I asked.

And then he translated.

The brother, not surprisingly, said he did think he had done something to cause his birth in such a poor family during a previous life, and added that I must have been a better person in a previous life to have been born in the US, and to have all the opportunities that I have had. He then looked at me, put his hand together, and bowed his head.

Tashi had previously told me that his brother’s children were also studying in Jammu. One was in engineering school and the other had passed the initial exam to go to medical school. And so I said, “If he believes in Karma in the way he described, then why is he sending his children to school?

Tashi translated this.

His brother said that sending his children to school is not the same and that their Karma is not the same as his.

This seemed somewhat contradictory to me. How could their Karma not be influenced by his, since they too were born under similar circumstances? I did not ask him to explain, as I suspect there was no rational explanation. I am sure that he would think my Karma was still better than that of his children.

Tashi and I continued to talk about the fact that there is no reason for his birth in poverty with few opportunities, and mine in America to a middle-class family. Just an accident and luck. He said that with hard work and a wider vision of what is possible, no matter where he was born he could make something of his life.

Amen to that.

He is clearly an example of this, especially in relation to his siblings.

He explained that one day, he and his younger brother went to a fortune teller.The fortune teller said that Tashi would be a kind of king, and that his older brothers and sisters would be beneath him, and more or less his servants. He didn’t believe this, but his brother who has more formal education than Tashi did believe it. Tashi’s beliefs have clearly evolved over the years, probably because of his western contacts.

He told me another story. There is a section of road somewhere between here and Jammu that has been the site of many accidents. The Hindu’s have built many temples there, thinking that if they did so God would protect them. More recently, a well trained engineer came to that location, and pointed out all the technical problems with the road in terms of the grade, width, sharpness of the curve etc. If these things were fixed, he said, there would be fewer deaths.

"So," Tashi continued, "it wasn’t the fault of God."

This was an obvious conclusion to me, but perhaps not to most people who live here. I didn’t ask whether the engineer’s recommendations were ever enacted by the J&K government, but I think I know the answer. Perhaps that's why people believe that God will somehow protect them. They know that can’t count on the government to fix things, so what else do they have?

The discussion continued about local politics. Apparently there are two contiguous districts in Kisthwar, each with its own district magistrate and administrator. One of them cares very much about the people, and in that district, the medical care you receive in the local hospital is free, and each person receives 20,000 rupees if they have a serious illness in order to help pay for their lost wages. In the other district there is no free care and no stipend.

I asked, “ Doesn’t this make people angry?”

“Yes, it would, but 90% don’t know. Of the other 10%, probably 8% are in the pocket of that district administrator, and that leaves 2%. What can you do with 2%? Nothing.”

It is not hard to believe that 90% are unaware. There are no newspapers here. No reliable internet. The only news is word of mouth. And yes, there is more access in Kisthwar, a fairly large city compared to Gulabgarh, but how many can afford it?

While these discussions were taking place we were all sitting on hard cushions, on a cold, concrete floor. Not that easy for me with my creaky, older bones, but they are used to it. For the first few hours there was no electricity, true for most nights, and the room was lit with a single candle. There has been no water for two days now, and the toilet and bathroom reek. I have been going to the school to shit for the past two mornings because somehow there is still running water there. As we talked, the smell of urine wafts through the room. At around 10, Tashi fired up the kerosene stove to heat up the remains of lunch, dried beans from last summer and potatoes mixed into a curry. There was also rice and chapatis left over from lunch.

Normally Puti cooks dinner, but she was not here. There was not that much food, but as usual Tashi gave me the biggest plate, his brother next, and took the smallest one for himself. They have consumed two bottles of local hooch, whereas I have managed one can of beer.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:18 Archived in India Tagged people postcards living_abroad Comments (0)

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