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The Ladakh diaries: Incredible culture in Environment friendly region- Travel that transformed me

Updated: Sep 11, 2018


Ladakh is a beautiful region nestled in the Himalayas. It's a popular tourist destination, but I went for an eight day part community service part culture awareness camp organized by JwM (Journeys with Meaning). Their motto is "Travel that transforms" - and it truly did.

We spent the first five days at SECMOL, an alternative school which stands for 'Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh'. SECMOL is an Eco-friendly campus where students can receive a good education and learn life skills such as cooking, cleaning, and farming. Our group, called Journeys with Meaning (JwM), helped the students with their responsibilities. I grated vegetables, sweeped rugs, sifted flour, and contributed to cleaning 500 meters of the Indus. The following three days, we stayed with a Ladakhi family in the Phyang village and learned about their culture.

trying to have the strength to drag the bag many miles further

Day 1:) I woke up very early to take a four AM flight. It was my first flight without my parents which was a fun experience. Once we arrived at the campus, I ate a Ladakhi breakfast (Eggs, roti, and apricot jam). We all caught up on some sleep, took a break to eat lunch, and then went straight back to sleep. After that, we went to conversation class, an hour where one JwM student has a conversation with one or two SECMOL students. Then, we had dinner and all the JwM students got to know each other. Overall, I thought the car ride from the airport to SECMOL was amazing and gorgeous. I was astonished at how the student's lives are so different from ours and that they live such a green lifestyle.

views on the way to SECMOL

Day 2:) The first night was a little rough, sleep-wise. I was terrified when I had to walk out of the cabin to go to the bathroom(they said that dogs might chase you, TERRIFYING!!). After getting dressed, all four of us (my roommates-awesome people!) walked over to breakfast (none of us were fans of the breakfast). Then, we had a group talk at the grove about our thoughts of the previous day. Soon after, we were taken on a campus tour where we saw two solar ovens, a natural refrigerator, and an abandoned car which the students turned into a fort. The campus is so unique and interesting; we were all especially blown away by the car turned fort.

We had a group talk again, this time to discuss our thoughts of the campus(we all loved it!). Next, we walked to the banks of the Indus and did a building simulation where we had to build something useful out of the trash on the river's coast. Abhishek (my partner) and I built a feeding center for small animals out of rocks, plants, and sticks. Then, we ate a lunch of delicious noodles and finally got some free time. I took my first shower in two days and it felt SO good. Our group chilled out and talked before going to conversation class. Afterwards, it was game time, but instead of playing games, a few of us climbed a mini mountain nearby (many of us climbed in our flip flops!!). When we climbed back down we were told about another conversation class, this one with college students. This was probably my favorite conversation class of the entire trip (SECMOL had it everyday) because I was paired with the most fascinating and interesting person. He has only been learning English for two years, but it is already impeccable! We talked about everything from our own lives to our favorite sports and I honestly wish I could have talked to him for more than the hour allotted. Our conversation is something I will remember for as long as possible and is one of my favorite parts of the trip. We ended the night with dinner and after dinner activities (sang traditional Ladakhi songs and Hindi songs).

Solar ovens on the SECMOL campus. SECMOL uses 100% of it's electricity sustainably using solar energy (pretty amazing!)

Day 3:) Last night, I slept really well (a relief! because this girl did not want to be tired all day.). After breakfast, we met at the grove to discuss the previous day (we all found it so much more fun than the first day and were all getting comfortable with each other and falling in love with SECMOL/the students!). Then, we took a bus to Leh market where we each had a SECMOL buddy to visit the market with. I got a really bad stomachache there and my buddy was sweet enough to take me to a pharmacy to get some medicine. My buddy and I visited Leh palace(breath-taking views and a wonderful museum inside), the museum, the girls school, and then met up with everybody else for lunch. I shared a plate of fried rice with two friends (the portion sizes there are HUGE!). After lunch, we all talked and took the bus back to SECMOL for Momo making! definitely one of the best parts of the trip, SO much fun!

Momos are steamed dumplings native to Himalayan region across North India, Nepal and Bhutan. Before momo making, while everyone else was sleeping, I went into the kitchen to help cut vegetables and roll Momo dough. There, I met an American lady from LA who had been volunteering at SECMOL for almost a month (leaving the same day we were). We talked about our experiences at SECMOL and about our personal lives. Talking to her made grating carrots and rolling Momo dough a lot more fun! Once everyone woke up, we celebrated the birthday of a SECMOL student (Pami) with cake which everyone tried to smear on each other (I was NOT a fan of that). After the celebration, momos were ready to eat! Not as much fun to eat as they were to make, but we were proud of our accomplishments. We ended the night by hanging out.

My SECMOL buddy and I on top of Leh palace

Momo making-a tradition native to many mountainous areas and such a fun experience (also, SO delicious!). Recipe: momo dough filled with potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables

Day 4:) Today is trek day! I woke up and had a delicious breakfast. Then, all seventeen of us got on a bus for two hours to get to the trekking site. Once we got there, our two leaders told us to try to stay quiet for the first hour of the climb. I definitely found it difficult but also really peaceful because I could completely focus on nature (the beautiful clear streams, bird sounds, and bright green trees were simply MAGICAL). It took us approximately two hours to hike up the mountain with two breaks along the way, whereas it took us around thirty minutes with one break coming back down. On the way down, I had a great conversation with someone I had only become friends with three days ago! We are both dancers, so we talked about dance and the differences and similarities between the sport in India and USA. As I reflected on the day, I realized that trekking was one of the most unique and one of my favorite activities so far! Once we got back to campus, I chilled with the rest of the group before dinner and talent show practice.

a crystal clear stream flowing through massive mountains on our trek

Day 5:) First thing in the morning, Sonum Wangchuk (Founder of SECMOL and the winner of the Magsaysay award 2018) had a lesson on introspection with both the JwM and SECMOL kids. It was insightful and I was thankful for the opportunity to meet him. We sort of meditated and focused on the present, both more difficult than they seem, but also eye opening and helpful. After a delicious breakfast, the JwM students were split up into two groups. First, we had a 45 minute session with Vinod (one of our leaders) discussing the many environmental issues we have today and how we can make an impact and reduce our carbon footprint starting today. The groups switched and my group spent the next 45 minutes doing experiments with different stages (textures) of rocks with a SECMOL teacher. After lunch, I took THE longest MOST tiring shower I believe anybody could possibly take. I washed my long, thick hair in a sink for the very first time and then proceeded to take a regular shower. Definitely a unique experience (that I never want to repeat lol), but I have a new found appreciation for hot water and luxurious showers. Soon after, we had work hour where my friend, Tarana, and I sifted flour. To end the night, all of us relaxed on the roof, had a delicious dinner, and were apart of the SECMOL TALENT SHOW! I did a gymnastics routine with my friend Leher which was a blast.

We ended the night with a dance PARTAYYY! I had a lot of fun teaching SECMOL and JwM students how to do the floss dance move, turn, and do flexible things.

a group photo with all the kids!

Day 6:) We woke up and were met with a special surprise at breakfast! The SECMOL teachers and students gave each of us a beautiful, white Ladakhi scarf to commemorate the end of our visit. We were sad to say goodbye to SECMOL (and all the people living there), especially because they were so welcoming, sweet, and kind. From there, we hopped in the bus and drove to the Ice Stupa site. we couldn't actually see the Ice Stupa anymore because it had melted due to July's heat. But, there were still boards placed where we got to learn about how it affects their daily lives and how the process works in the first place. Next, we drove to a Buddhist monastery (absolutely STUNNING). It was the first Buddhist monastery I had ever been to and I was blown away by how beautiful it is. We visited two monasteries, a new one (built only a year ago) and an old one (built in the 15th century), both so colorful, vibrant, and peaceful. In the older one, many of us sat down and introspected. Afterwards, we drove to our home-stays (such AMAZING people-so welcoming, beautiful house, delicious food, and the cutest kids. We ate a delicious lunch and got to relax in our rooms (decorated beautifully). After a discussion about over-population, Neha and Vinod told their adorable love story after our insistent pleading. I got to talk to Dad before a delicious dinner and conversation before bed.

a tour of the village

part of the gorgeous new monastery;)

Day 7:) After a delicious breakfast sandwich, we took the bus back to SECMOL for a "clean up" of the Indus. I put clean up in quotes because we took all the plastic bottles, shampoo bottles, juice boxes, etc.... to a landfill where they would rot for many years. Ladakh does not have a recycling center because it is such a green city, comparatively. However, our urban influences are influencing the Ladakhi people, changing their environmentally friendly lifestyle, and destroying many beautiful cities, including their own. I was astonished to learn about how much waste we create, all for trivial conveniences like plastic bags (bring your own cloth bag the next time you go to the grocery store and you'll be contributing to saving the planet!). I saw so many stray dogs and cats chewing on a plastic bottle or tetra pack because they thought it was food. It's heartbreaking and from that day forward, I vowed to do as much as I could to reduce my own waste and educate people about all I've learned in Ladakh. After our cleanup, we came back to our host families and ate the most delicious momos. I got to take a nice hot shower and then I headed over to another host family's house to hangout with the other kids. In the same house, we had a conversation class with Neha and Vinod. We watched two short films: one described the steps of using a natural resource all the way up to the time the consumer buys the product; The other was about how animals get plastic and other harmful man-made objects wrapped around them or they think it's food (SO heartbreaking). We ended the night with a delicious traditional Ladakhi dinner and a new name game (You basically give each person a new name and a backstory to go along with the name; my name is Indigo Shah). That day, Neha and Vinod also asked us to make a list of new improvements I can make to help the environment. I said:

1.) Reduce the use of plastic and other harmful materials

2.) Always recycle, compost, and separate all the food you have into the right categories.

3.) Inform family and friends (one way i'm doing this is with my blog)

4. Find out more information myself on how to be more environmentally friendly

5.) Go out and help the community (plant trees, clean up rivers and forests, etc...)

6.) Write a blog post about my trip, experience, all the new information i've learned, and all the friends i've made.

helping transport one of many burlap sacks of trash

Day 8:) Shopping day! It was nice to be able to sleep in a little after waking up so early for the past week. After breakfast, we went to Leh Market, this time to do some souvenir shopping for friends and family. I bought (probably way too much stuff lol) earrings, a necklace, 2 bracelets, a t-shirt, apricot oil and moisturizer(they're well known for everything apricot), and a magnet (many of which I bargained for, always try it when in India!). Then, I had Ladakhi ice cream and we all hung out for the last time before dinner and some more of the name game. We ended the night with a talk about the end of the trip (so sad:() After packing just as we were about to go to sleep, Reva, Mishti, and I realized that there was a moth in our room, so we proceeded to try to get it out of our room for 30 minutes. It didn't work and we gave up.

more views from the top of Leh palace

Day 9:) We woke up super early, around 3:30 AM, for our 7:00 AM flight back to Mumbai. Most of us were on the same flight back home, but to the ones who weren't, we said goodbye and hoped to see each other again. Everyone else, but Simren who I was going home with, said goodbye to each other at the Mumbai airport and we also said we would try our best to see each other again. I got to see my mom after a week which was great and then we dropped Simren off. The trip was officially over:(, but I had a blast and made memories sure to last a lifetime!

some of the best people i've met

My overall experience in Ladakh was amazing! It was very different that what I expected. I learned a lot of new and shocking information about climate change, pollution, and the way it will affect our day to day lives. I met two fabulous groups of people so different from my self (SECMOL kids and villagers) and I loved learning from and about their culture. I bonded and became extremely close with my JwM friends and had the opportunity to try a new cuisine (Ladakhi food-Thupka, momos, etc...). I loved everything about the trip and I know I will treasure this experience for the rest of my life.

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