Saturday, August 31, 2013

Learning from Likir: Reflections

August 31, 2013

I’ve officially hit the one week mark living in Likir.  And suddenly I feel a bit stranded.  We didn’t have any farm labor today after two long days of threshing, so it left me with a bit of free time to catch up on agriculture-related reading and to formulate interview questions.  I haven’t talked to my family in over a week and they really have no idea where I am.  I thought it might be good to give them a call but when neither my Iphone got reception nor one of the family member’s mobiles would not dial out of India, I realized I am literally stranded.  I’m 2-3 hours outside a proper town (Leh) with Internet and cell service and while this should feel liberating, I suddenly feel many more miles away from civilization.  I think it’s just the mental concept that I can’t call home even if I wanted to that makes me feel suffocated.  I want desperately to have a conversation in English.  I went off to the Gonpa today to look for Lobzang Namgyal, the young monk I met on the bus last week, because I was hoping to say hello and also to inquire if he knew anyone at the monastery who could translate for me.  It turns out that Lobzang Namgyal is another ridiculously common name (along with Stanzin/Tenzin, Rinchen, Padma, Rigzin, Tashi, and Tsering).  One monk said to me, in broken English, “there are many Lobzang Namgyals.”  Grrrr. And even after showing several monks a photo, he wasn’t to be found.  Some said he didn’t stay the monastery and others merely pointed me in the direction of the school.  It was strange because I literally saw him get off the bus and meet his parents at the Gonpa.  Perhaps he only lives in Likir but stays at the monastery in South India.  Fortunately, the teacher at the school said he might be able to translate my interview: “I only speak broken English.  Come back Monday night and maybe I will be here.”  The vagueness is annoying, but alas, what can I do?  I just hope that it works out.

Homestay family in the village of Likir

With meme-le (homestay mother)

September 4, 2013 – “Learning from Likir”

Interview was a success!  Sort of.  The teacher from the gonpa came by the house, which is more than I could have hoped for.  After a day out of commission due to some stomach problems, anything was a welcomed improvement.  I think the kolok for breakfast did me in: a delicious blend of tsampa (barley flour), butter, cheese and sugar and after mixing it with yogurt, I believe it’s the closest thing to cereal I am going to get here.  It was really delicious until I felt sick for the last 48 hours.  I managed to pull some peas off the stalk for a few hours in the morning and then proceeded to rest, sleep, and read Wuthering Heights for most of the afternoon.  Two days ago, I was much more active as I spent much of the afternoon harvesting peas and in the morning, I went with abi-le to the government school down the road where she teaches/helps out a few hours each week.  I decided that I think kids are generally cute (when they’re not wailing), but I’m really not very good with them.  I don’t quite know what to do with them and with the language barrier, there wasn’t much I could say.  Instead, I was instructed by abi-le to write “A” and draw an apple in several children’s notebooks (they were probably 5-8 years old), followed by the rest of the alphabet A-Z with accompanying pictures.  Anyone who knows me is aware that my drawings are heinous but fortunately, b for ball, f for fish etc. was easy enough (though I was hesitant to do g for gun).  The funniest moment, however, was when she asked me to draw a cat but I thought she said a cow, so I drew a cartoonish jersey breed cow complete with black and white spots and a big ole’ pink muzzle.  She laughed and said, “cat?”  Whoops.  Looking back on the last twelve days, I actually spent most of my time with abi-le.  She is a kind-hearted woman in her 50s, though she looks like she could be in her 70s, her tan face, weather beaten and wrinkled from years working in the fields I imagine.  She and her husband were nice enough to let me interview them, which with the help of the monastery teacher was somewhat successful.  Here is what I learned:

Agriculture is not their main livelihood.  Meme-le works in a bank in the nearby village of Nimmo, abi-le spends time in the local school where her daughter is a teacher, one of their sons is in the army and the other is schooling in Varanasi, and the last daughter is living in Leh studying as well.  They grow barley, wheat, peas, some pulses (lentils etc.), and have a field for vegetables (e.g. turnip), with one harvest per year and no mixing of crops.  They mostly grow for home consumption and sell some (e.g. barley and tsampa) to the Leh market, which requires them to transport the goods on the service bus.  When I tried to ask about land holding and acreage, the monk didn’t understand the meaning, so instead I got the answer that they grow barley on 9 fields and wheat on 3-4 fields, though I have no idea how large a field is.  I would guess around an acre.  For field preparation, they first clean the field, then use fertilizer (human waste, animal manure, and some chemicals) before plowing with animals (though they said some families are using a machine to turn the soil).  They simultaneously plow and plant (hand scattering seeds) around the end of May in Likir, which is apparently a little bit late, compared to other villages in Ladakh because of the higher altitude; for instance, in Leh and Saspol, farmers can plant earlier.  They aren’t buying seeds but instead save them each year and even exchange wheat and barley seeds with another village.  In terms of tools and machinery in the fields, they are using mainly hand tools (e.g. shol, which is a wooden instrument with some metal) and animal power.  Some use tractors, but it is rare and they mill the barley and wheat using the local water mill.  It seems that the main form of agricultural technology is the power thresher, which came 3-4 years ago.  They really like it because with less people in the house, what used to take them 15 days (animal threshing and relying on the wind for winnowing) now takes only 2 hours.  They said that in Likir, there are two tractors with power threshers that run on diesel: one owned by a family and rented out to other villagers and the other by the monastery.  When I asked about pests and diseases, they said they have no problems with wheat and barley but for the vegetables, this year has been especially difficult with insects and disease.  Abi-le noted that people use the chemicals but she refuses because chemicals kill insects, which is a sin in Buddhism.  In short, they aren’t using any chemical inputs.  In terms of other management methods, they have been told that if they change the vegetable field each year, then it is good for growth but they grow barley and wheat on the same fields each year.  One person told them, however, that if they grow peas one year and grow barley the following year, this is good for growth.  Yay nitrogen-fixing legumes and crop rotation – this is something they may consider in the future.  As suspected, the villagers take turns diverting glacial melt water from the channels and flood irrigate the fields.  They seemed to have no interest in adopting drip irrigation or another scheme but said, “Maybe piped water would be possible in some villages if they are having water problems.”  Apparently they have a greenhouse (which I didn’t see), which they like because they can “grow the vegetables early.”  In addition, they have 8 animals: 1 yak and 7 cows (a number that keeps changing depending on the day I ask, ha), a mix of local breeds and jersey, which they acknowledge “give more milk.”  When I asked if people take turns taking the livestock to graze in the phu (high pasture), they said, “A few years ago, 2-3 families would stay at the top of the mountain with the animals to collect milk, curd, cheese, butter from the animals for 3 months.  Now there are no families to go to the phu, so they send them in the morning and in the evening if they don’t come back, they have to go searching.  And ten years ago, each family had goats, sheep, cows etc. and every day one family would send people to feed the animals.  Now very difficult because not enough people…children went into military or are studying.”  This is definitely a trend in Ladakhi agriculture (and around the world): young people and families are moving away from rural villages, which creates labor shortages.  So they’ve had to pay people (e.g. men from Jammu) to help them during harvest time.  Fortunately, they are also able to join with other families to work together to finish harvesting and other labor intensive tasks.  When I asked about the gender roles, I was told that men and women primarily work together to do the same tasks, except “if digging the field, the men will do this.  Women spill the seeds.”  In terms of gender and land inheritance, the Tongol family has four children (2 daughters, 2 sons) and because the two daughters were married into other families, the two boys will likely share/divide the land.  I also asked about the role of the government in agriculture and was told, “the government does not have an [agricultural extension] officer in Likir but they give subsidized seeds (apple, apricot, peas) and sometimes chemicals.”  I tried to ask their opinion about organic and the role of certification and export, but that question was a bit too complicated and neither the monk translator nor the family understood.  Moving on, I also inquired about their opinion on climate change and its impact on farming: “If the climate changes, we will not be able to grow wheat and barley.  Climate is a problem for animals because we have to collect grass for the winter.  But if it’ a problem, the government will help farmers.”  I tried to insinuate that warming will melt the glaciers and affect their water supply, but this also seemed to get lost in translation.  Instead, they seem to put a lot of faith in the government.  In fact, they like the Public Distribution System (of subsidized grains such as rice and flour from Punjab) “because it’s cheap” (so it provides ‘cheap’ food, but requires importing).  The PDS is another aspect of development and globalization, so I asked them to describe what life was like before the tourists came in the 1970s:  “We benefitted a lot after the tourists came here – the road has helped life a lot.  We [Ladakhis] get more money because we can be drivers and run hotels.  We have been a guesthouse for 5-6 years.  We like being a guesthouse, but sometimes have problems with fewer tourists coming, this year especially because the Chinese invaded Ladakh and the protests in Kashmir.  But hotel owners and jeep drivers have more problems because they depend on tourists more than we do.  Tourism is only a short time: June to August.”  It seems that they are enjoying the benefits of having additional income and don’t mind the forces of globalization and westernization influencing their lives and who can blame them?  I also asked: how do you imagine the future of agriculture in Ladakh?  They responded, “Some families give up their fields and stop being farmers even though the government requests villagers to use their fields well (gives subsidized crops and fertilizers) but there is still a problem with not enough people.   People do a little bit work in the field to grow food for the family but not more.  Also the government gives rations per month (subsidized sugar, rice, wheat, kerosene oil) and if they majorly cut the subsidized food, then the villagers will have a big problem, especially people in Leh.”  After being probed, they also acknowledged that there may be more mechanization in the future if current population trends and labor shortages continue.  To finalize the interview, I asked: Do you think it’s important for Ladakhi farmers to join the formal economy and to commercialize agriculture so they can export to other parts of India or abroad?  Or do you think that subsistence farming for household consumption is better?  This question was too complex, clearly, and as a result, I got a somewhat imprecise answer: “If there is good business, then it’s good to export.  Now Ladakh grows crops so it’s not expensive, but if we do business with another country, it will be expensive.  If we sell barley and wheat in the local market, no one buys because people already have it; they grow themselves.  But 3-4 years ago, we sent crops to Chang tang (near Chinese border) where the government buys from us and sells.”  Whatever this relationship is with Chang tang seems like it’s benefitting Ladakhi farmers, but it wasn’t exactly clear to me.  In essence, the interview revealed some interesting facets such as the seed saving and exchange between villages, their opinions on the role of the government and subsidies especially, and also the problem with dwindling rural populations.  But I am certain that many of my questions did not fully translate, which I suppose is inevitable using a translator who is not fluent in English.  After taking more than an hour of his time, though, I was at least able to return the favor by helping him write a short “Happy New Year” note to the Gonpa school sponsors in Switzerland.

Upon further reflection, I am finding it difficult to separate the lessons I learned in Likir from what I’ve read about Ladakh, globalization, changing agriculture etc.  For instance, Ancient Futures frames western development as culturally destructive, which it very well may be, but the Tongol family has seemed to really benefit from the coming of tourism.  In their minds, I am willing to bet they feel like they have a higher quality of life.  Though notions of cooperation and intergenerational equity were congruous based on what I read and what I saw: extended family members of all ages would come together to help each other in the fields.  Buddhism also seemed to inform their farming practices to some extent (i.e. refusing to apply chemicals, which kill other living beings).  Technology is not very pervasive in their farming, with the exception of the power thresher, which seems to have helped reduce time and labor in a significant way.  Otherwise, this family seemed rather indifferent, if not adverse, to further mechanization, improved seed varieties, synthetic inputs etc.  Overall, it was extremely useful spending nearly two weeks living with a Ladakhi family and accompanying them to the fields to work.  I haven’t had much farming experience and the manual labor felt good, albeit exhausting.  It gave me a minute and brief taste of the hardships and rewards of agriculture.  Something about harvesting and seeing an (almost) finished product is gratifying, especially when backbreaking labor is involved.  My fingernails seem to be permanently crusted with dirt, my shoulders bruised from carrying barley on my back in their makeshift packs, and my arms scorched from the strong Ladakhi sun.  And perhaps more importantly, I think I will come away from Ladakh feeling like I have a family and friends here.  I rode the bus part of the way back to Leh with meme-le who was going to work at the bank and I met their son at the bus station in Leh to give him a package.  He invited me back to his two-room flat near the station, where his wife prepared fried eggs and tea.  The son even sent me away with a package of cashews and paid by taxi fare to upper Leh.  They all keep telling me that I must come back to Likir again soon, and Abi-le even gave me gifts of apricots and a scarf, insisting that I was a hard worker. “Dik-le, dik-le,” I responded (no, no, it’s okay), but she was adamant.  Heck, I should have been the one bestowing gifts on them.  Fortunately, I was able to give them a postcard with a picture of my hometown on the front and their son helped me write a nice thank you message in Ladakhi on the back.  But this small gesture pales in comparison to their generosity.  Now, with a somewhat more thorough understanding of agriculture in Ladakh, I feel more prepared to speak with NGOs, government officials, businesses etc. during the remainder of my time in Leh.    

Barley and Monasteries

"I love India - Free Tibet"

Likir Gonpa

Friday, August 30, 2013

Likir Village: Farming, Monasteries, and "Counter-Development"

August 26-30, 2013

Today was the first day of farm labor.  We harvested peas and barley (“nas” in Ladakhi) using a sickle and stacked the barley harvested/dried barley into neat teepee shaped piles called chuks.  After drying for three days or so, the barley will get threshed, winnowed, and likely milled into flour.  They have grain mills (rantak) that use water and there are also power threshers in the village.  I worked for about four-five hours and it was actually really hard work.  It felt good to get my hands dirty and we took frequent cha (tea) breaks accompanied by roti (like pita bread), paba (various flour types turned into a dough, almost like Tanzanian Ugali), and fresh yogurt (zho).  I had salt tea (cha kan te or tsaja) for the first time today and I still prefer sweet tea (cha ngarmo), which is black tea with milk and sugar.  I haven’t yet had butter tea (susma), which is apparently an acquired taste that can be quite difficult to swallow (literally, you are drinking salty tea with melted chunks of butter).  Someone gave me the advice of treating it like I’m drinking broth, which can make it go down easier.  After hours of work and snacks, we had a delicious lunch (dzara) of dumplings (mok mok) and spicy soup, which was a welcome break from roti and other bread/wheat/barley products.  I took a short nap since I didn’t get much sleep last night.  The restless slumber was probably a combination of altitude, sheer over-exhaustion to the point where sleeping was difficult, and my paranoia of bed bugs (which we’ll see in a day or two if I have any itchy bites because apparently they anesthetize you when they bite so you don’t feel it at the time).   After the nap, I went to the neighbors to meet up with the other two volunteers because it’s their last day in Likir.  We hiked up to a nearby ridge for an incredible view of the village as the sun was setting behind the jagged peaks.  And after reflecting a bit more on today, I don’t know if I could ever be a farmer.  I was only helping to harvest for a few hours and the intense monotony combined with the physically demanding labor was a lot to take in.  I think that the altitude definitely makes is harder because I am out of breath a lot and relatively little physical exertion leaves my heart pounding.  I also think that it would be a lot more tolerable if I could communicate with the family and friends in the field.  There were about 8-10 people at any given time working together, which is not uncommon here and people ranged in ages from 20 to 70.  The Ladakhi system of agriculture is based heavily upon cooperation and mutual support, and in fact, intergenerational connections are crucial.  The meme-le (grandfather) was singing songs in the field and people took turns with different tasks.  We all ate our snacks/meals together: little children running around alongside parents and grandparents.  It was really special.  However, I can see how being here for an extended period of time and not having a grasp on the local language would be extremely isolating and lonely.  I want to be able to communicate with these people and I’m lucky that a few speak limited English, but I’ve felt a bit alone, even when surrounded by people.  Fortunately, with the fieldwork, once they showed me how to do it, we could all just go about our business and language didn’t really matter, even though it would have been nice to partake in their banter.  The few words I’ve picked up include “jule,” which means hello, goodbye, and thank you (pretty useful/universal), as well as manjule (no), amale (mother), abale (father), me-mele (grandfather) and abile (grandmother).  Tsapik means a little (as in food or tea) kamzang means “how are you” as well as “I’m fine.”   Something else that’s interesting and at times frustrating is the customs of dzangs or insincere refusals.  In Ladakhi culture, it is viewed as impolite or rude to accept something the first time it is offered, so it’s customary to reply with “dik-le” (that’s alright or no thanks, roughly) once or twice before eventually taking the tea or food.  I’ve been trying to stick with the dzangs but have found that sometimes they backfire, like this morning when I was offered more cha ngarmo (sweet black tea) and said “dik-le” with a smile (even though I actually wanted more) and they took that as an actual refusal.  On a positive note, did I mention that all the toilets are waterless and compostable?  That’s right, a hole in the ground that drops waste down a chute (usually one floor up) and after mixing with ash and soil, the collection is emptied roughly once a year and then used as fertilizer on the fields.  It is unfortunate that this practice is socially unacceptable in other cultures (that is, I asked around in Tanzania and was given strange looks for suggesting such) because it seems like an incredibly way to recycle waste and conserve water.


I am beginning to lose track of the days.  I think it has to do with living in the village where the routine of going into the fields is so constant.  I also don’t have a functioning watch (I accidentally had it in my pants’ pocket when it went through the wash after just replacing the battery, grrr) and bringing my Iphone around seems pointless and inappropriate.  So time has also been escaping me recently.  I find myself looking up at the sun while we’re in the fields to gauge the time.  We spent a very long day harvesting barley today (about 8 hours), though we had frequent tea breaks.  Although the monotony is killer, there is something about seeing a tangible result that is so utterly rewarding:  going from a field filled with barley laid out nearly then piles of chuks (or teepees as I like to call them).  We can see what our hard work has resulted in and then enjoy the feeling of lying down at the end of a long day.  I managed to learn today that they will be threshing in a week’s time using a power thresher.  This surprised me – apparently, it’s about 5-7 years old (though someone else told me 3 years…I can’t seem to get my facts straight because of the language barrier).  If I can, I am going to try to get a monk at the monastery to translate for me so I can properly interview my family about their rural lifestyle and farming in particular.  Tomorrow is going to be another long day.  I can’t imagine doing this in a place other than Ladakh, because at least the surrounding landscape is inexplicably beautiful, which takes away some of the feeling of drudgery.  Unfortunately, my skin is also reacting badly to the barley (which closely resembles wheat) – the stalks are coarse and I am breaking out into a rash on my forearms, neck, and chest, even with long sleeves and gloves to guard against the roughness.  Hopefully this is the type of thing I can build up some kind of tolerance towards.


And the French have arrived.  Things just got a bit more interesting at my homestay, as we returned from the fields around lunchtime (apparently my family had been up since 4:30 and working since 5 AM. I arrived around 9. Whoops) to discover a hoard of backpackers milling about the entryway.  There were seven of them and it was quite funny because I could tell immediately that they thought I lived here and was part of the family (I guess that’s what happens when you look like you could pass for a Ladakhi – even the grandmother told me in the fields today, in broken English, that I have the face, skin, and hair of a Ladakhi).  It was hilarious and also awkward when the little boy, probably no more than 10 or 12, bowed at me with both hands (which hello, that’s not even Ladakhi) and everyone greeted me with “Jule.”  Around dinner time, I could tell that the amale (mother) was overwhelmed trying to cater to 7+ guests, compounded by the fact that her brother and his wife went to Leh for the night, so I tried to help in any way that I could.  She showed me how to make tingmo (steamed dumplings) from the prepared dough, which involved rolling it flat, then rolling into a long, thin snake-like mass, cutting it into about 3-4” pieces, slicing each piece the long way, then stretching and turning it inside out before rejoining the opposite ends.  The final, pre-steamed product looked like ravioli, though unstuffed.  Two of the French women entered the kitchen and were intently observing and photographing me as I rolled the dough (again as if I was Ladakhi, ha).  I asked if they wanted to try (speaking from experience, tourists eat that kind of thing up, literally) and after passing off the labor, I was then able to wash the dishes.  And it was interesting that I felt more at home sitting in the kitchen with my host family than in the dining/living room with the French tourists.  Language separated me from both groups, but at times, I felt like I could communicate better with the Ladakhis, and I preferred to.  And at first, I was so excited to see tourists and hoped that I could finally have an in depth conversation in English, but my hopes were quickly shattered as I realized that they were very much into themselves (two families with teenage boys) – they had no interest in getting to know some random American who they first perceived to be indigenous.  It made me feel somewhat lonely and resentful, suddenly wishing I had my family here.  But then one of them cheerily remarked, “you really are part of this family.  You cook, you wash the dishes.”  So I guess this is preferable – if one really wants to get into the lifestyle here, it’s certainly not an insult for others to think you are part of the family (even the trekking guide thought I lived here and he was born in Ladakh! He said his wife is Tibetan and we resemble each other).  When he learned I was American, he commented, “life must be so good for you in the States.”  I felt like it was right out of the book I’m reading, Ancient Futures, and I suddenly felt the need to defend the flaws in Western Society (“it’s not all good.  We also have unemployment and environmental degradation,” I retorted, after he explained that population in Ladakh is increasing and there aren’t enough jobs, leaving people poor).

And it’s been four days farming, and I feel like an 80 year old: after 2-3 hours of work, my body feels useless.  I am so tired all the time, and my knees ache from constantly sitting Indian style so don’t offend anyone with my feet (feet are considered really repulsive and should not be pointed at anyone; you shouldn’t step over anyone or anything food related, not even dirty dishes).  My upper back and neck hurt from bending in the field to pick up stray barley and my lower back as well.  Although it feels good and refreshing to be doing manual labor, it’s really tough work.   And to think that I have a choice, I can extract myself from this lifestyle whenever I want – it would be easy enough to hope on a bus to Leh and never come back to Likir, but this is life for these people.  However, maybe it’s going to get “easier” in the future for them (e.g. using a mechanical thresher, which they said costs 600 rupees per hour, though I’m not sure if this is accurate because things often get lost in translation). I also I saw a power tiller come through the village today on the back of a truck.  The meme-le (grandfather) had a shiny piece of paper in his hand, advertising the new piece of equipment, and he was grinning.  I inquired to see if they wanted to purchase one and got mixed answers (yes, no, head shaking).  I really need to find a translator so I can properly interview the family because I have so many questions about their farming system.  And after the large group of French trekkers left, more arrived.  Only this time, it was a Japanese man from Osaka (who I later learned is a Buddhist monk) and a French man from Nice, who normally repairs and teaches about computers but is currently on an 8-month backpacking adventure around the world.  They were much friendlier than the last group and we even walked up to the Gonpa (monastery) together.  I am glad I waited because it was really useful visiting with a monk who could explain the different imagery, symbols, etc.  For instance, he explained that people are supposed to walk around prayer wheels clockwise because the right side of our bodies is holy; and if you spin the wheel, it’s equivalent to saying a quick sutra or prayer.  He told me that stupas, which are the large monument-like structures, are symbolic memorials of Buddha (with the original stupas housing his ashes).  He explained the eleven-headed statue with 1,000 arms because ideally, Buddha and any enlightened person will be constantly looking out in every direction and lending a helping hand.  We sipped mint tea in the nearby garden restaurant and each exchanged stories about traveling alone (apparently these two met at a bus station and decided to trek together).  It was much welcomed company.

And as I’ve just finished the book, I would like to share some excerpts from Ancient Futures:

From the chapter “The Development Hoax”:

“The escalating environmental problems and increasing levels of Third World debt and hunger should be seen as indications that something is wrong with the present development model…Most of the literature on sustainable development does not directly tackle the underlying causes behind social and ecological destruction.  Even small, idealistic organizations tend to ignore the root problems, often pulling more and more people into dependence on the macroeconomy rather than supporting local diversification and real self-reliance…Similarly, even those groups that work with small-scale technologies based on renewable energy tend to imply that this option is for the rural poor alone and that the “real,” heavily subsidized development has to go on side by side.  Most of the appropriate-technology literature, which typically shows people crouching next to some bits of rusty metal, is an indication of this attitude.  Furthermore, the great majority of appropriate-technology projects promote technology in isolation, without considering the broader economic and cultural context.  Under these conditions, appropriate technology is doomed to fail.”

And the chapter “Counter-Development”:

“Rather than more development, we need what I call ‘counter-development.’  The primary goal would be to provide people with the means to make fully informed choices about their own future.  Using every possible form of communication, from satellite television to storytelling, we need to publicize the fact that today’s capital and energy-intensive trends are simply unsustainable.  Ultimately, the aim would be to promote self-respect and self-reliance, thereby protecting life-sustaining diversity and creating the conditions for locally based, truly sustainable development.  One of the most critical failings of conventional development is its reliance on a narrow, short-term perspective dominated by quantitative analysis.  Counter-development would move beyond specialization and fragmented expertise to reveal the systemic underpinnings of industrial society.  It would draw attention to family and community break-up; it would show up the hidden subsidies of a society based on fossil fuels; it would place environmental damage on the debit side of the economic balance sheet.  It short, it would expose the escalating costs of our industrial way of life.  At the same time, counter-development would promote and popularize a new, wider, and more humane definition of progress.  It would highlight some of the innumerable local initiatives around the world that are exploring more sustainable alternatives.”

Further, “we need to regain a balance between the local and the global.  Even though the phrase ‘think globally, act locally’ is mouthed frequently these days [book was first published in 1991], the thrust of modernization is entirely in the direction of globalization.  Local cultures and economics are disappearing at an alarming rate and taking animal and plant species with them.  Finding a sustainable middle path would necessarily involve active steps towards decentralization.  Since extreme dependence has already been created on both national and international levels, it would be irresponsible to ‘delink’ economies and cut off assistance from one day to the next.  We cannot, for example, suddenly halt our purchase of coffee or cotton from those countries in the Third World whose economies totally depend on such trade.  But we can immediately begin supporting aid programs that will enable farmers to return to growing food for local consumption, rather than cash crops for export to the west.”  This last bit seems to not only juxtapose globalization and localization but also challenge notions of “fair trade.”  And the author further writes, “Farming provides the most basic of all human needs and is the direct source of livelihood for the majority of people in the Third World.  Yet the status of the farmer has never been lower.  At international economic summits, agriculture tends to be viewed as merely a ‘stumbling block’ to agreement on more important issues.  In fact, if present trends continue, the small farmer may very well be extinct in another generation.  It is imperative that we reverse these trends by giving agriculture the prominence it deserves and actively seeking to raise the status of farming as an occupation.  A decentralized development path would offer immense benefits for small-scale agriculture.  Small farmers would be better off if emphasis were placed on food production for local consumption, rather than on crops for export; if their products did not have to compete with products shipped great distances via subsidized transport networks; and if support were given to developing agricultural technologies appropriate for local conditions, rather than capital-intensive farm equipment suited to large plantations and agribusiness.  They would also benefit if support were shifted away from the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to more ecologically sound methods.”  She goes on to highlight some of the shifts that have already occurred such as the increase in farmers markets, organic etc. but claims that they aren’t enough: “We urgently need to put support for small-scale, diversified agriculture at the top of the list of national priorities.”

And finally, from the chapter “The Ladakh Project,” Helena acknowledges some of the difficulties, flaws, and paradoxes inherent to their work:

“From an ideological point of view, our work has also been difficult.  In trying to forge a fundamentally different development path, we have had few models to follow.  We have struggled with some thorny issues: Could our efforts be doing more harm than good?  Would Ladakh be better off without any development at all?  Should development only come from the Ladakhis themselves with no outside involvement?  How could Ladakhis organize effectively to face the changes brought by development, without eroding the strengths of the traditional culture?  In answering these questions, we have had to bear in mind the immense economic and psychological weight of the monoculture that has been bearing down on Ladakh for the last two decades.  Around the world, western interests are laying siege to nonindustralized societies, making truly indigenous development a near impossibility.  The real situation is extremely complex, calling for responses that appear contradictory on the surface.  Thus there are many apparent paradoxes in our work.  For example, we actually encourage contact between Ladakhis and Westerners, both in Ladakh and abroad, since real communication helps them gain a more balanced impression of the West.  Similarly, even though the Ladakh Project actively promotes decentralization, the sociopolitical reality is that it makes sense to have a center in Leh…Although I felt that solar heating could provide a clear improvement in living standards, I would not have considered it appropriate for an outsider like myself to introduce this technology had not other less sustainable heating methods – like coal and oil – already begun to disrupt traditional practices.  Since they had, I felt that people should have the information to make a choice; higher standards of living need not mean abandoning economic independence or traditional values.” 

She finishes the book by writing, “Around the world, in every sphere of life, from psychology to physics, from farming to the family kitchen, there is a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of all life.  New movements are springing up, committed to living on a human scale, and to more feminine and spiritual values.  These numbers are growing, and the desire for change is spreading.  These trends are often labeled as ‘new,’ but as I hope Ladakh has shown, in an important sense they are very old.  They are, in fact, a rediscovery of values that have existed for thousands of years – values that recognize our place in the natural order, our indissoluble connection to one another and to the earth.”      


Stick me in a field of peas any day.  This morning we harvested peas for a couple of hours and it was wonderful being able to work with my sleeves rolled up, gloveless.  One can easily free the peas from the soft earth and they don’t scratch, itch, or poke in the same way as barley, which requires long sleeves tucked into work gloves.  Plus, I can tear open a pod and munch on them; they are the sweetest, most delicious peas I’ve ever tasted.  Living in Likir with this family is making me miss my own family a whole lot, more than when I was living in a homestay in Tanzania.  I think that seeing the grand children run up to their grandparents with huge grins as they get swept off their feet into a big bear hug makes me miss my own family so much.  Babies, parents, and grandparents all living under one roof and getting along quite well from what I can see.  They really help each other take care of the house, cook, clean, and work in the fields.  I suddenly am quite homesick and longing for my own grandparents, mom, dad, sister, and boyfriend.  I think about how I am quickly coming up on the three-month mark of the fellowship and can’t figure out where time has gone.  Yet simultaneously, time is slow.  I still have more than 9 months until I will return home.  And as I meet more travelers (another guest came to stay here last night, a young 20-something from Switzerland who works in construction 4-5 months a year, makes bank, and then travels the world when he’s not working), I realize more and more how vast the world is.  And hearing the Swiss and Japanese men talk about their travels in Israel, Iran, and Pakistan also remind me how as an American, my ability to move freely about the world is actually much more limited than if I hailed from another country.  Of course, I am not ungrateful to be an American because it certainly comes with its perks, but it also comes with figurative baggage, especially when traveling abroad.  Regardless of nationality, some of the people I’ve met are living a rootless life – they pick up whenever they feel like it and jet off to another foreign place to soak up the culture and hopefully also contribute something positive in their travels.  Like Kelly, the teacher in her 50s who grew up in Virginia, built a home in the southwest, now rents it out and travels the world.  She was in Bolivia this past winter, then came to Ladakh for five months, and is now off to South Africa for a Buddhist meditation retreat.  Because she has no partner or children, she is free to do as she pleases.  On the one hand, it’s a thrilling prospect; however, it also seems that it might be a life of loneliness, of drifting in and out of places where you’ll never really belong.  And as I take in more lessons about environmental sustainability, happiness, and life in general, I become eager to return home and “start life” with these new lessons in mind, though I am trying to stay grounded in the moment: “be here now” and “lean in” as Hamilton’s pre-orientation program Adirondack Adventure would say.


It felt like snow came early in Ladakh yesterday.  Fine bits of whitish material fell from the sky in a dusty cloud.  But it wasn’t snow; it was shreds of barley from the diesel-powered thresher attached to the back of a tractor.  I wasn’t expecting the family to use a machine for this task because I had heard/read that many Ladakhi farmers were still using animals to thresh (cows, dzo, donkeys etc.).  In this traditional process, the animals walk over the barley stalks for 6-8 hours to loosen the grain, then they would winnow by hand before bringing it to a water-powered mill.  Today, however, the farmers in Likir are using a large mechanical thresher.  According to the Ladakh Development Group, which introduced small gasoline/kerosene-powered threshers a few years ago, “If a village is near a motorable road, a large mechanical thresher run with the power-takeoff from a tractor is available. However, this machine tends to pulverize the chaff making it difficult to use for animal feed and bedding. In a farm-culture where chaff is worth 5 times by weight what the grain is worth, this large thresher is a last resort to many.”  I have to make a note to myself to ask about this when I interview my family.  Threshing was an interesting process overall: loud, really chaotic with debris flying everywhere, it felt like a construction site as there were around 10-14 people in the field both yesterday and today with shouting in Ladakhi mixed with the sound of the tractor engine.  The men were usually stationed at the machine, loading the barley directly onto the conveyor belt, while it was primarily women (including myself) carrying piles of barley to the thresher.  It also involved a lot of raking up the loose bits and then literally crawling around on the ground to pick up any pieces that didn’t make it.  It was tedious and oftentimes I felt like I was in the way or hurting rather than helping.  But at least I looked the part: I was donning a sheer scarf wrapped around my head and neck to help stay cool and keep the barley out of my shirt and a surgeon-style facemask to reduce breathing in dust.  Yesterday we started at 1 and didn’t finish until long after sunset around 8 PM, around which time the thresher stopped working.  It was kind of a funny sight, as 4 Ladakhi men crowded around the machine with flashlights trying to troubleshoot the problem.  Meanwhile, the rest of us waited around and drank tea.  It seemed like it would have made much more sense to wait until morning when the light of day could assist with the repair, however, they were determined and stubborn.  Eventually the immediate family I’m staying with packed up and walked home, but not before having the opportunity to do a little stargazing in the field.  I take back what I said about the stars in Tanzania – they are even brighter here and about 5x closer.  As soon as the sun set, any residual clouds seemed to dissipate, revealing an endless night sky blanketed with diamonds.  The Milky Way is extremely pronounced here and the crisp air and cool temperatures make everything feel more acute.  After eating a delicious dinner of soup and mo-mos (potato stuffed dumplings), which two Israeli backpackers who are staying here helped prepare, I headed off to bed only to recommence threshing at 8 AM again today.  We spent another long day in the field (got back around 5 PM) and I decided that I hate barley.  It sticks to everything: my pants, socks, and the insides of my shoes (I’m convinced I’m never going to get it out), and it’s extremely sharp.  I want desperately to wash it all off, but even that is difficult (I’ve been here a week now and only bathed once, and it was the coldest wash of my life!).  I think dirt is permanently lodged under my fingernails and any exposed skin has a lasting layer of grime.  And in my experience and from what I’ve heard, many Ladakhis don’t wash much, especially during the 8 months of winter during which the water source is totally frozen over.  So I guess this is just more of getting into the culture…

Barley drying after harvest

Village of Likir

All irrigation is from glacial melt water

Every part of the day, the light changes, reflecting and creating shadows on the mountains

Trying to milk the balang (cow)

Bringing the cows to the "balang garden" for a day of grazing

Homestay brother and uncle (and dog Tommy)

Offerings include chocolate bars!

Japanese monk pondering life


Threshing outfit: face mask, scarf, hat, gloves, etc.

Harvesting veggies from Uncle's garden

Barley loot

Fodder and animal bedding

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Intro to Ladakh: Land of the Mountain Passes

August 25, 2013

Ladakh is the most beautiful and photogenic place I have seen in my entire life, hands down.  The sky is opulently blue, the sun is intensely strong, the mountains are rugged and snow capped, the inhabited valleys are the color of emeralds, and the dusty and lifeless mountainsides resemble a lunar landscape.  I look around and feel like I should be in the Lord of the Rings, with monasteries that slightly resemble great forts erected deep into the cliff sides.  I look around and there are Tibetan prayer flags everywhere.  It sounds ridiculous, but I almost cried as our plane circled Leh – it is so beautiful.  Our pilot apologized for the delayed landing because of a queue on the runway, but why would he apologize?  Getting to bask in the aerial view of this mountain landscape, almost entirely barren except for a few verdant valleys is more than a treat.  Ladakh is extremely strategic in terms of location because the Indian state it belongs to, Jammu and Kashmir lays between China and Pakistan with decade-old land disputes a mainstay here.  So I wish I could have taken photos, but apparently because the army has such a presence in Leh, aerial photography and also airport photos are strictly prohibited and punishable by law.  I was tempted to sneak a snap shot but didn’t feel like going to an Indian prison would be in order this trip.  You’ll have to take my word for it that the view from the plane is stunning.  And I am not sure if my fatigue and mild light headedness (as well as a racing heart when we landed) is due to pure and unadulterated excitement, the fact that I only slept for a combined 7 hours over the past two nights, or the dizzying altitude.  Ginger tea and 24-36 hours of rest is in order.  I am currently staying in a guesthouse called Abagun in Sankar, upper Leh, with a Ladakhi family and a few other tourists/volunteers.  Once I get my bearings, I will eventually take a bus two hours out of town to live and work on a Ladakhi farm.  I could not be more thrilled to be here (and maybe I’ll even spot the Dalai Lama who is here as well).  And for better or worse, I was also told I could pass as a Ladakhi because of my Chinese looks.  Maybe I won’t get hassled by touts, or better yet, maybe they don’t exist here.

In my resting period, I have started reading Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh by Helena Norberg-Hodge.  In the Introduction, Peter Matthiessen writes “Modern technologies, based on capital and fossil fuels, lead inevitably to centralization and specialization, to cash crops as opposed to subsistence agriculture and barter, to time-wasting travel and stressful town life among strangers.  And they are laborsaving only in the narrowest sense, since gaining one’s livelihood in new ways, which are competitive rather than communal, demands more time.  Dependence on international trade for goods and materials leads inevitably to monoculture – the same sources and resources for both material and abstract needs, from dress to music – and increasingly, a common language (a pauperized English, in most cases), and even  common education and set of values, with corresponding dismissal and even contempt for the local culture.  Modern education tends to belittle local resources, teaching children to find inferior not only their traditional culture, but themselves.  Meanwhile, the intense competition that replaces barter and communal effort leads inevitably to increase dissatisfaction, greed, dispute, and even war, all on behalf of an economic model that local people cannot emulate and that, even if they could, would almost certainly be inappropriate for Ladakh (and other Third World lands of narrow resources).  Yet the future of such countries lies entirely in the hands of development corporations and financial institutions, including the World Bank, where decisions are based on Western economic systems rather than the welfare of the client states.”  He then goes on to discuss how population growth is a serious part of the problem.  If we continue to act like the world’s natural resources are limitless instead of finite and we follow a path of external dependence, then this eradicates personal-responsibility and creates false hope that science and technology will be able to stretch our resources forever.  What we need is a redistribution of wealth and social equality (as well as a reassessment of population trends).  And the author, Helena, writes, “The vital lessons that the so-called ‘developed world’ (again, another ironic term for a mode of society that is unraveling, undeveloping the actual biological world) can learn from traditional Ladakh: self-reliance, frugality, social harmony, environmental sustainability and spiritual sophistication, are real and are being recognized as such.”

I have somehow managed to make it to Likir, a small village about 2-3 hours outside Leh further into the Himalayas.  To give you a better idea of what I am doing here, right now I am working with an organization called the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), founded by Helena, which “seeks to encourage a revisioning of progress toward more ecological and community-based ways of living.  We stress the urgent need to counter political and economic centralization, while encouraging a truly international perspective through increased cultural exchange.”  They are actually based in Berkley, California, but spearhead this “Learning from Ladakh” Farm Project (previously mentioned) for which they help coordinate volunteers to go live and work on small farms in Ladakh.  I’ve decided to come out to Likir and start the farm work sooner rather than later; I figure that I can head back into Leh town when I want to track down NGOs and talk to various individuals.  For now, I am living with the Tongol family, which is made up of a mother, father (really grandmother and grandfather), their daughter and son and both of their spouses, and about four or five of their children running around.  It’s a beautiful home with numerous sets of stairs, and I’m staying in a spacious room with two walls that are completely windows.  It’s gorgeous, though I am on the lookout for bedbugs, which are apparently nasty and notorious in the village.  We are in the midst of harvesting season (barley), which is exciting because I think I’m going to have about 7-8 hours of field labor each day.  The bus ride to Likir took about 2.5-3 hours and I sat next to/befriended a young Tibetan Buddhist monk.  I am surprised I made it to the bus stop in time to actually get a seat.  Rewind about 5 hours – I headed into Leh town with the ISEC volunteer coordinator and we stopped first at the District Commissioner’s house/office to do an interview with the Minister for Urban Development.  Helena Norberg-Hodge made a film out of the book Ancient Futures but because it is 20 years old, now they are trying to do follow up interviews with the individuals featured in the film.  The Minister of Urban Development answered various questions such as: how has Helena influenced Ladakh and what does the future of development here look like?  Of course he acknowledged how her work here has been paramount, as she’s founded the Ladakh Ecological Development Group (LEDeG) and the Ladakh Women’s Alliance, both of which she has since passed on to locals.  She has helped raise environmental awareness and really change the dialogue surrounding sustainability here.  However, he also acknowledged that he hasn’t seen eye-to-eye with her on everything but how this doesn’t discredit the incredible work she’s done here and her legacy.  In fact, he noted how he has come to appreciate her message even more as he’s grown older (he first saw the film and read the book many years ago when he was practically a child).  He claims that with age, maturity, and wisdom, he can now understand and much better relate to the themes of challenging growth, globalization, and development as we know it.  Following this brief interview, we stopped by LEDeG since they were screening the film Ancient Futures.  I was able to see about 80% of it but then I had to head down to the bus station to catch a bus to Likir.  With my massive luggage (which I purged and left some things behind both in Delhi and at the volunteer quarters in Leh), I dragged my suitcase through Leh’s winding streets.  More and more I felt myself falling in love with this place.  A large fort and monastery overlook the town, carved into the mountainside, and even though Leh is quite developed and touristy compared to other parts of Ladakh, the shops seemed quaint and restaurants with various cuisines abounded.  In a bit of a rush, I settled with aloo tikka (spicy potato pancakes with chutney on the side) and a bite of Indian sweets.  I asked around every corner for people to point me in the direction of the bus stand and once I got there, finding the bus among dozens of unmarked vehicles was a bit of a challenge.  Eventually I found the one going to Likir, only to find it chuck full (I had arrive almost a half hour before departure; so much for nothing happening on time in other parts of the world, as this was quite the contrary).  Fortunately, I found one seat left next to a monk named Lobsang Namgyal.  He spoke a bit of English; we exchanged contact information, and just chatted.  He is studying in South India but is currently based at Likir’s famous monastery.  He is sixteen years old and started studying to be a Buddhist monk about ten years ago (so he would have been five or six, which is apparently quite common here).  When the bus stopped in a small village en route, he invited me to take tea and samosas with him.  It was so outrageous.  Here I am, sitting outside a little restaurant in the Himalayas taking chai masala tea and eating vegetarian samosas with a Tibetan Buddhist monk.  And I have a photo to prove it.  Fast forward a couple of hours and miles of winding roads and we arrived in Likir.  I’ve been a bit breathy, especially climbing up stairs and walking up hills, since the altitude is even higher here than in Leh.  I was a little worried about just showing up at this home where I wasn’t sure how much English was spoken.  The ISEC volunteer coordinator assured me that they would understand if I just say, “Richard sent me to work.”  And they did.  They welcomed me, showed me to this glorious room (I am ashamed to say that the grandmother carried my suitcase up the stairs to the second floor, which are actually more like a glorified ladder), and almost immediately offered me chai and roti (which is essentially a thicker chapatti pancake).  It was getting dark, but I decided to walk to a nearby house where other volunteers are staying.  Not sure exactly where I was going, I went up to a few houses and knocked on doors, asking “Changsa?” and pointing vaguely (I later learned I was pronouncing it totally incorrectly, it’s “shang-SA” not “CHANG-sa” – I’ve decided that I have a lot of Ladakhi language to learn).  Although it took a few tries, eventually I found the right house and of course, was offered more tea.  It was great to finally meet the other volunteers, since we had been emailing for weeks before this.  The farm work starts at 6 AM tomorrow, so I should be off to bed, but I am so excited to be here.  I look around and am still overwhelmed with how “demo” it is (beautiful in Ladakhi).  I asked Richard, “Do you ever wake up and not think this is the most beautiful place in the world?”  He told me, “Just wait until you arrive in Likir.  It gets better.”

Somewhere over the Himalayas

View from the roof of my homestay

Shanti Stupa in Leh (Buddhist)

All the toilets are composting (waterless) and after adding dirt and ash, they decomposed "night soil" gets added to the fields as fertilizer

Leh Palace

Castle as Tsermo

The monk I befriended on the bus

Chicken just chilling on the bus

Typical Ladakhi kitchen with many pots and pans on display; drinking chai and eating roti

View from my room

Homestay house in Likie

Friday, August 23, 2013

Arrival in New Delhi - Welcome to India!

August 23, 2013

Dear readers,

I write with great joy and confusion.  Since we last spoke, I arrived safely in Delhi, India.  It was a bit of a long trip – about 14 hours in total – but not unbearable from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and finally to Delhi.  I have decided that meeting people in the airport is a wonderful way to pass time, exchange stories, and generally fight off the travel blues/loneliness, which is exactly what happened in Tanzania.  I met a really nice girl from the States who was on holiday with her friends in Zanzibar.  A law student at Georgetown with roots in India, she was able to share comforting stories about Delhi, transforming my anxiety to excitement and anticipation.  Since arriving here, I am overwhelmed with a mix of emotions.  For all intents and purposes, I should hate it here.  The city is crowded, pungent with a mix of aromas (trash, spices, urine, wet dog, and perfume to name a few), hot and humid, and the honking of vehicles is pervasive.  The climate really feels unbearable – during my brief two days here, I don’t think I stopped sweating once except in the haven of air conditioning, which was a rarity.  As soon as I “stepped out” of the shower this morning (read: you don’t really step out of bucket showers), I think I started perspiring immediately.  But for some reason, I am happy.  I can’t explain my premature draw to this country.  The strange internal pull I feel for it, deep in the fibers of my body and corners of my heart.  It sounds completely irrational, but I can’t ignore the magic that previous friends have conveyed to me after having traveled to India themselves.  Perhaps I am seriously romanticizing this place while in fact it is far too soon to judge how I really feel about it, but right now, my gut and intuition are telling me that I was meant to come here.  Maybe it is because it reminds me a little bit of home.  For instance, driving to the airport this morning involved passing through a tunnel reminiscent of the one before Logan International Airport in Boston.  I went to see a Bollywood film with my host (Chennai Express) yesterday, which although it was in Hindi (she graciously translated parts of the movie for me in real time), it felt like I could have been at the movies with my family.  Or maybe my proclivity for India is explained by the fact that it is not my first country on the Watson.  I have much to thank Tanzania for.  I think the beautiful East African country sensitized me to a lot of things: both vacant and vaguely threatening stares, modestly dressed women, litter and trash scattered everywhere, long drop toilets/latrines, language barriers, and poverty.  In fact, there are many things I thought I left behind when I departed from Tanzania, including stray, miserable looking dogs, little cell phone shops on every corner and that annoying Airtel ringtone, motorbikes/tuk tuks/dalla dalla buses.  However, tuk tuks (also known as “autos” or auto rickshaws; they resemble little buggies and come strictly in green and yellow) are of Indian origin and I rode them around Delhi.  And dalla dalla mini buses take on a new form here – they look similar but are slightly smaller and have a more appropriate number of passengers (read: six instead of 30).  Here, I also took the metro once, and I got my computer “fixed” (HURRAH! Though I don’t want to speak too soon, it’s been less than 12 hours).  It is only a temporary solution to the cracked monitor, broken touch screen, and epileptic cursor, but at least it is functioning more than it has been in the last six weeks.  Oh, did I not tell you?  My laptop broke while I was on a bus from Moshi to Arusha in Tanzania.  It was that time that the bus began smoking from the front and the rear and 40 passengers piled out in a frenzy.  In the chaos, luggage was tossed onto bus roofs and down to the ground.  Even though my laptop was wrapped in soft belongings, it did not survive the turmoil.  This has unfortunately made life a bit more difficult over the last month plus, but I finally feel like I can do something productive without wanting to gouge my eyes out.  A bit of a lesson in not getting too attached to material objects I suppose, while simultaneously teaching me that I should never, ever pack anything “breakable” in my luggage but instead keep in on my body.  Anyways, fast forward to real time – India.  Things feel easier here.  For instance, more people speak English (at least in the city).  It was also a piece of cake to purchase an external hard drive to store my photos and to fix my computer (it was almost effortless – in fact, the tech guy didn’t even want to charge me).  And speaking of time, I think I was transported back in time during my early trip to Indira Gandhi International Airport this morning.  Aside from the fact that I rose at 2:45 AM (I’m not sure if I actually slept…) and took a taxi at 3:15 for my 5:45 flight, time played tricks on me.  The taxi I took looked like it was straight out of the 1950s and the driver was a quiet old man with a white beard and Sikh-style turban.   I swear, I could have been riding around in 1940s pre-independence Delhi during the reign of the British; never mind the fact that more modern vehicles whizzed by us on the free way and that the taxi driver could have theoretically kidnapped me and taken me anywhere.   But I made it to the airport scot-free.  My two days in Delhi were really nice. 

But for now, I am about to live out an almost two-year dream: I am heading to Ladakh.  Ladakh, also known as “Little Tibet” and translating into “the Land of Mountain Passes” is a trans-Himalayan region of high altitude desert in northern-most India, bordering China.  As one of the highest and driest inhabited places on Earth, the environment is fierce and rather unforgiving: 8 months out of the year it is winter with temperatures dropping to -40 degrees F and they have a short 3-4 month growing season from roughly May/June-August/September, with agriculture (mostly barley and wheat) depending on irrigation from glacial streams (elaborate canals and terracing have been developed over many years).  Farmers are small-scale, with about 5 acres each, and depend on animals for farm labor/transport, meat, dairy products, wool, and dung as fuel (sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, cows, yaks, and the dzo, a hybrid of cow and yak).  Ladakh is predominantly Buddhist (Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism) with monasteries dotting the mountainside and the capital city of Leh residing at an altitude of 11,500 feet above sea level.  I received an email from someone who has already been in Ladakh and she wrote that she is “at the top of the world.”  I hope I feel the same, though without the nasty side effects of acute mountain sickness (aka altitude sickness).  I have been dreaming about coming to Ladakh since I saw it in the documentary film The Economics of Happiness, which critiques the current model of economic growth, Western-style development, and globalization, juxtaposing it with the benefits of localization.  The filmmaker, Helena Norberg-Hodge, came to lecture to my program while I was studying sustainability in Australia.  She was in Ladakh at the beginning of the month giving a series of lectures/workshops called “A New Model for Development” (along with other prolific speakers such as Vandana Shiva – super sad I missed this, but hopefully I will meet Vandana when I go to her biodiversity conservation farm/center  Navdanya in Dehradun in October).  Ladakh seems like it will be close to ideal for carrying out my research.  Because of its remote location and relatively hostile environment, it remained closed off from the West until fairly recently (1974 is when tourism arrived) and the culture really sits at the nexus of tradition and innovation.  Helena writes, “Our Farm Project has also worked to provide Westerners with a greater understanding of the value of indigenous cultures.  Despite the negative trends [of globalization], much of traditional Ladakhi culture is in fact still intact, and despite recent changes, the region still provides an opportunity to learn about decentralized ways of economic organization.  In past years, participants in the Farm Project have come away from Ladakh with a deeper respect for a culture in which knowledge, wisdom and methods of livelihood are finely tuned to the local ecosystem.  Equally important, Farm Project participants are able to witness first-hand the tension between traditional and modern that is characteristic of so many places on Earth.  By combining practical involvement in daily life with reading about the destructive impact of globalization on traditional cultures around the world, participants are able to gain a more balanced and rounded view of the issues and problems faced than is generally available at home in the West.”  I’m about overflowing with excitement to get on with farming, and as I sit in this comfortingly modern airport, my flight to Leh, Ladakh was just called.  Will write more later.



My first auto rickshaw ride!

My hosts in Delhi - my home/family away from home