Note: This is a slightly longer-than-usual, descriptive post describing the campus and workings of the N.G.O. I was working with, in Ladakh. My purpose of writing this one is to help you get a better sense of the place I made my base during my 30-day expedition.
22 years of not drinking tea could not live up to the fight put up by 2 hours of being in Ladakh.
Disliking tea is not an excusable offence in Ladakh, with it being an integral part of the Ladakhi culture [and all]. I had a feeling this was a battle I would lose before it begun and there are three reasons why. One part is that you simply can’t say no to those warm, grinning faces. Another, is my inherent laziness and sheer inability to cook [I carried coffee powder with me, just didn’t know what to do with it]. The last, the curiosity presented by butter tea. What would melted butter (or ‘clarified’ butter as a friend would call it) mixed with a bit of hot water taste like?
We had our answer and then some. From the moment we arrived at SECMOL, and every morning after, we were treated [or tricked – depends on how you see it] to a hot steaming cup of, well, melted butter. A curious colour of light pink served up in hot steel cups often enraged all the tea-loving volunteers who could not fathom how this passed off as tea. But in a temperature of 10°C, you choose not to argue.
The mornings at SECMOL start off by 5:45 when the poor co-ordinator is up and about. Then follows the screaming and banging of doors saying “Zang la” or “Wake up!!” in Ladakhi. After about 4 rounds of this impolite knocking on every door above you, coupled with footsteps – dragging drudgingly at first, and then excitedly running back and forth – on the wooden ceiling, you aren’t left with much of a choice but to be up and about with them. While I chose to read in the comfort of my thick hand-woven blanket, the kids would be out on responsibilities during Work Hour from 6-7am.
SECMOL, or Student’s Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh follows an alternative system of education. It is an institution for students who require additional aid with their studies, and are unable to pass their exams in the 10th or higher grades. Here you will also find college students who attend colleges in Leh town during the day and stay on campus the rest of the time. You’ll also find the rare exception in this mix; bright students who do not face much difficulty in their studies, but simply wish to take a gap year to strengthen their English and figure out what they want to do next. [Pretty much the very thing I should have done at their age.]
Founded in 1988, the non-governmental organisation grew rapidly as it met the core need of the people of Ladakh – practical education. It just so happens to be the core need of every other student in India too.
Although the medium of teaching in Ladakhi village schools, typically consisting of about 500-600 students, is English, the teachers explain the curriculum to the students primarily in Ladakhi. Therefore the entire educational fabric is holey and set against the student’s favour from the very beginning. By the time the students reach the 10th grade, many of them have just been passed without a fair marking system, and now have to face the consequences, when they don’t live up to the state board’s standards. Technically, they are expected to study and write at the same level I did (an ICSE student from Mumbai, raised speaking English), as opposed to a remote village in the mountains whose parents will barely be able to form a sentence in English.
[More on village life in Ladakh, later]
Their faces won’t betray any of this. In fact, I would say they are painfully unaware of just how high the odds are stacked against them. And still seem to be much more at peace than we can hope to be.
The campus is absolutely gorgeous and nothing like you’ll have come across. It is also a major tourist attraction in Ladakh.
SECMOL’s campus is a model of sustainable development. Located in a remote valley along the Indus river, the campus lies at the end of the road passing through Phey village (not to be confused with the Phey village in southern Ladakh). Set on a cliff overlooking the river, it has carved out its own little niche amongst a mountain range, with the one right behind it now named Mt. SECMOL, and consequently labelled so by the students!
As soon as we arrived and were all tea-ed up, Tsephel, the student on Guest Receiving duty, marshaled us onto a tour of the campus showing us some amazing jugaadu features like the walk-in freezer – a sub-ground cellar cooled by a bucket of water, a fan and a gunny bag. Pipes pull the water up from the bucket, and the fans located along them dissipate the water out through the gunny sacks, keeping the room cool. Simple and effective!
The campus consists of a large organic fruit and vegetable farm [which Tsephel proudly claims were much greener when he was in charge of them], an open ground, solar panels, a cow shed, a newly set up biogas plant, it’s very own shop, 3 small one-storey buildings consisting of dorm rooms, dry Ladakhi compost toilets, and the kitchen. The main building consists two-storeys of girls’ dorms, a Big Hall, a library, a tool shed, office, meeting room and a computer room and a few doors labelled ‘Secret Room’ [I wish I knew, but I don’t.]
A neatly lined path leads off the grounds to the cliff-side, where the solar panels, water shed and battery-room are located. The campus is completely solar powered. Water is pulled up from the river and is clean and tasty and freezing.
A striking feature on campus is the lack of locks. Students treat this as their home, and for many of them it’s much more than even that.
The buildings are built with low cost and sturdy materials like rammed mud, with a few walls reinforced with cement. The ceilings are of insulated wood and all rooms outfitted with large glass windows, giving you the illusion of being in a sunny glass house.
A traditional Ladakhi kitchen is called a Chansa. It is constructed so that it is slightly below the level of the rest of the house, in order to keep the heat trapped in during the winter. The entire family generally moves in together during the brutal winter months [December-March].
SECMOL’s kitchen and living room have a unique charm. The wall is lined with utensils that you wash after use. The kitchen has a central furnace and a back entrance into the pantry. The living room is also lined with flyers and schedules of activities, a hand-made calendar with activities and holidays and pictures, a photo chart of the students, staff, office, cats and cows’ names, book shelves, a white board gone all grubby with the number of volunteer names that had been written and erased and replaced.
This to me is significant of the history of this arresting place. Each year these walls welcome beaming new faces of volunteers and students, each entering and leaving with their own stories to tell, but sharing a common life within these walls.
The campus is student run and responsibilities are divided between groups of two or three, with some students going solo. Typically the foundation students (12th grade and below) are paired with the older and more experienced college students. There was an intake of about 40 students this year, some coming in even later. The cycle of February intake was upset by the floods faced by Srinagar this year, which caused a lot of destruction and a delay in the schooling year. The students take great pride in this home and take full responsibility for safeguarding and keeping it clean. They are divided into pairs and allocated duties, in rotation every two months.
These young and agile folks will put you to shame. That’s a guarantee. From waking up every morning and carrying out responsibilities which include managing the electricity, fixing the solar panel, cleaning toilets, shop keeping, milking the cows, farming, kitchen duty, gardening, receiving guests and more – to planning out their studies for the year on their own.
These deceptively tiny looking people can carry two of the buckets you can barely lift one of, chop vegetables faster than you can identify them and run uphill marathons of 42kms in flip flops.
A typical day’s schedule goes this way:
6am – Wake Up
6 – 7am – Work Hour, overseen by the Co-ordinator, aided by the Secretary
7 – 8am – Self-Study
8-9:30am – Breakfast and Tea; College Bus leaves at 9:30am
9:30-10:15 – English for Section A, Work Hour for Section B
10:15-11:00 – ^Switch
11-11:20 – Tea
11:30-12:15 – Conversation Class for Section A, Computer Class for Section B
12:15-1 – ^Switch
1-2 – Lunch
2-3 – Free Time, Self Study
3-4 – English for 12grade, Social Studies
4-5 – Maths and Science, Guitar lessons
5-6 – Maths, Science, English, Guitar lessons
6-7 – Web Design Class, Football (Ice Hockey in the winter)
7-8:30 – Dinner
8:30-10 – Dinner Activity, Self-Study
10 – Lights out
How do these kids manage this and keep smiling through this? Don’t be fooled. These tiny people are made of the strongest stuff, largest hearts, and of course, the saltiest tea.
Up Next: The Thing About Solo Travel