Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Life at SECMOL campus, Ladakh spring 2009

March 18, 2009

SECMOL Campus Life
SECMOL Campus is a busy place. Classes take place 6 days a week, and in addition to 4 or 5 classes a day, everyone on campus participates in work hour every morning, student responsibilities in the afternoon (maintaining the solar panels, milking the cows, gardening, forestry, sweeping the main hall, grocery shopping etc.), and evening meeting and dinner. It's a full day for both students and staff.
Vermont Intercultural Semesters program is a combination of a number of things: treks in the Himalayas, homestays with Ladakhi families, and a full academic high school semester of work, which I often forget to talk about though it fills the majority of my time this semester. I teach Environmental Science, James teaches English, Kunzes teaches Ladakhi language; James and I co-teach a course called” Ladakh: Then and Now” (History, mainly), and also co-run our fifth class, “Exhibition”, which is an independent study for each of the students with the goal of creating a presentation at the end of the semester. In the evenings we run English Conversation Class for an hour, a chance for the Ladakhi students to practice their English.

In Environmental Science we've completed a unit on Ecology and Landscape, focusing on Ladakh's ecosystem, agriculture, and our ecological footprint calculations in the U.S. and here in Ladakh. While trekking last week we did a combination unit for “Ladakh Then and Now” and English, focusing on Appropriate Technology, and exploring Ladakhi innovations, from ancient water wheels that grind barley flour to solar panels adorning the straw bale-covered roofs of so many Ladakhi homes. Right now we're in the middle of a unit of Climate Change, reading excerpts from Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman in class, and The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability by James Gustave Speth. These reading are in addition to various other short readings, and we are hoping to do another field trip to the artificial glacier since last semester's was so much fun.
For Ladakh Then and Now, James and I have pulled in many guest speakers, including: Buddhist monks teaching about Buddhism and Tibetan script; politicians speaking on the Union Territory effort, the state of Jammu &Kashmir, and the the Kashmir conflict; Becky speaking on the political system; SECMOL students explaining the education system; a scientist from the Defense Department speaking about High Altitude research; and Thinles, a female trekking guide, talking about Ladakh's history, marriage, and tourism and development. Field trips have taken us to Buddhist monasteries, ancient ruins, monastery festivals, the Tibetan Children's Village School, and more are in the works. We're in the middle of reading Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French right now, as the 50th anniversary of Chinese occupation of Tibet approaches.

Independent projects are shaping up. Some really good ideas and interesting directions this semester, with students looking to do internships in metalworking, cooking, veterinary medicine, traditional medicine, climate change, music, mental health, education, traditional clothing design, tourism, architecture, photography, and more.

Morning work hour is spent working on a large greenhouse for growing new vegetables. in. We've picked a site and ordered materials, and this week we’ve focused on leveling the ground. Once we start building the walls things should get a bit more interesting.

English Conversation Class has been mostly led by our intern from UVM, Holly Borday, though James and I still teach it from time to time. Last night it was my turn; the topic was "Accidents, Injuries and Hospital Trips," which made for some pretty funny and gruesome stories. Devan and Jess acted out a few of the trickier vocabulary words, like "tripped," "concussion" and "fainted."

Busy as the days are, all of campus breaks at 11 and 4 for "teatime," possibly my favorite time of day. Enormous thermoses of milk tea or sweet tea make the rounds as we sit around the kitchen, or just outside the kitchen in the late four o'clock sun. Butter/salt tea is still an acquired taste for most of us. A break from 5 to 6 finds most of the students playing cricket or soccer, though James has been lobbying to build a basketball court.

Dinner is served in the dining hall. We all sit on the carpets facing each other across the tablecloths that are unfurled in two long rows. Constant chatter is broken intermittently by student announcements, a daily news recap, a song in Ladakhi, and one student or staff member giving a dinner talk. Post dinner there is an evening activity, usually dancing to Ladakhi drumming for traditional dance, or to a mix of American and Ladakhi pop songs. On quieter nights there is a good movie, everyone draped in sleeping bags or Tibetan blankets bunching around the one TV, a nice close to a busy day.

Things are fantastic! Happy campers all around…
Amy Higgins

Reflections on the Sham Trek, Ladakh 2009

March 18, 2009

Some thoughts on the Sham trek

This past week we trekked through the Sham region, travelling by car to Likkir, then an easy 4-hour trek to Yangtang, where we spent the night. There we stayed in the homes of 2 families, a good first introduction to Ladakhi homestays. We had Chu Tagi—it translates literally to "water bread" -- a thick delicious barley wheat noodle in a milk and onion sauce. I'd had it before, but never this good! VIS students slept in 2 bedrooms, one for boys, one for girls, and I slept in the kitchen with Kunzes, the VIS Ladakhi language teacher, and Tashi llamo and Somo, two SECMOL students who came trekking with us. Falling asleep with a full belly by a warm stove, listening to Ladakhi words I thought once again how lucky I am to be here in Ladakh. Sometime during the night I woke to one of the kittens crawling into my sleeping bag, searching for warmth.

The second day we hiked uphill for about 3 hours, to the village of Ulley, high up in a mountain valley. VIS students were split into smaller groups here, and after we reached our houses we had some tea, changed out of our sweaty clothes, and sat around the woodstove talking and eventually nodding off in the smoky warm room. I woke when the room got cold, the fire had gone out, and no one was around. The door creaked open and a little boy, about 5 years old peered in at me, and then beckoned. What else to do but follow him through the dark shadowy house, through pitch-black corridors, and into the kitchen, where Shona, Matt and Morgan were dancing with him to Hindi music? Quite the dancer, little Stanzin refused to let any of us stop dancing. We must have danced for an hour, this enthusiastic 5 year old delightedly shrieking in Ladakhi at us--he was at the age where he couldn't understand why we didn't speak Ladakhi, why everyone in the world wouldn't speak Ladakhi--so we danced until his mother came back and we started preparing dinner.

Our third day we hiked to the village Hemischupachen, one of the larger villages in the Sham region. To get there we backtracked down the valley the Ulley sits in, then went through another snowy valley and over a small pass. In Hemishupachen, light filters through a piece of green plastic in the roof, bathing the room in green glow. A cat sleeps beneath the stove, paws twitching with animal dreams, ribs rising in falling in deep sleep. An old radio sits on the wooden floor, playing slow sad Tibetan music. At 6pm there are 5 minutes of news in English, staticky, British accented. Flowered contact paper covers the chokste table. The wood floor is blackened around the stove, and we sit on a threadbare but beautiful rug.

The radio crackles and through the static speaks, "Pakistan terrorists killed 8 members of the Sri Lankan cricket team. New Zealand has cancelled their upcoming match with Pakistan." Tashi looks at me. "Nobody wants to play with Pakistan anymore," he says softly, smiling sadly at his phrasing. I nod. Nobody wants to play with Pakistan anymore. The cat rolls over and yawns.

Our final day of trekking brought us across one large snowfield, finally reaching a set of prayer flags at the edge. We took some group photos, gazed out from our vantage point, about even with the next pass, but with about a 1000-foot drop to a valley below. Then we tore down the mountain, sliding down the snowy slope before resting over cookies and candy bars in the sun. About an hour's trek through sandy rock, and we reached the south side of our second pass of the day. Trudging up with the ponies and our own packs, we passed another hour or so simply putting one foot in front of the other, shedding gloves and hats for t-shirts as we baked in the sun. Endless switchbacks, finally we found footing in the snow as we neared the top, and took a lunch break on top. From here we could see the prayer flags where we had been only a few hours ago. The rest of the day was a descent into the village of Ang, falling into a methodical rhythm as we tramped through canyons, shady sides frigid and snow covered, sun side warm and sandy. Finally we reached Ang, and the silence was broken for the first time in hours, as if we'd just woken up, grins all around.

All in all, the Sham Region trek has been one of my favorite treks, both for the beautiful snowfields marked by chortens, high passes, changing climate from desert to mountain, and evenings spent around warm stoves with welcoming families in high mountain villages. --Amy

Student Reflections on Life in Ladakh, Spring 2009

Eli Cohen -- Written first week in February

Playful Monks (A song written in and inspired by Songtsen Library)

Sunlight ribbons break the mood and it never felt so good,
While the dogs outside still search for truth and you don’t know if they should.
And golden angels sit sovereignly while the pigeons all take wing,
And the holy men who walk around say, “living ain’t the whole thing.

And just when you think that the world can’t offer any more fruit,
Comes a friendly conversation where childhood dreams take root.

But it’s not hard to show that the world isn’t what it used to be.
The sinners have no vision while the blind still can’t see,
And it’s getting hard to stay positive with all that’s going on,
But the playful monks that run about show not all is truly wrong.

It’s hard to feel brave when it seems that you’re alone,
Surrounded by strangers, isolated from your home.
But the brightly colored hand of friendship can span across the seven seas,
Saying: “take me into your heart, you’ve got a friend now and it’s me.”

And just when you think that the world can’t offer any more fruit,
Comes a friendly conversation where childhood dreams take root.

But it’s not hard to show that the world isn’t what it used to be.
The joyless have no sight while the blind still can’t see,
And it’s getting hard to stay positive with all that’s going on,
But the playful monks that run around show there’s always room for song.

And life is young.
There is still so much to impart,
But bind your tongue,
‘Cause truth flows straight from the mind to the heart,
And with a little help,
It won’t feel quite so hard to start.

And just when you think that the world can’t offer you any more,
Comes a holy conversation where your dreams have the floor.

But it’s not hard to show that the world ain’t what it used to be.
The selfish have eyes for no one else while the blind still can’t see,
And it’s getting hard to stay positive with all that’s going wrong,
But the playful monks that run around show it won’t be bad for long.

And the pressures of society can stifle you like a glove,
But the wise monks’ meditations show there is so much room for love.
And even when I’m loneliest, I can still feel loved.

Exploring different parts of India throughout my trip has been so unforgettable and life changing. Trekking through the Sham region from one village to the next, taking an overly crowed bus into Leh or driving over the highest motor able pass in the world with ten people crammed in a car fit for six. Where-ever this trip takes me it always comes back to Secmol, before this trip my only home was a house tucked away in the trees of Vermont, now I have two. Days at Secmol seem to fly by, playing soccer and volley ball, drinking tea and eating meals with a group of smiling people, having fights with shaving cream left from a former volunteer, dancing for hours after dinner and playing games or having a relaxing camp fire down by the Indus. Each day something worth writing about happens, but writing seems useless because I feel no matter how long I spend describing it or how many pictures I take it doesn’t come close to the experience. After a couple weeks, Secmol engrained its self into me and now I will forever hold and remember my second home tucked away in the mountains of Ladakh.
-Lydia Wood

Yesterday we drove through painted mountains. The stones were lavender and burgundy. There were sage green deposits of shale and ochre shards were interspersed amongst dove grey rocks. We descended from Kardung-la, the highest motorable pass in the world, by way of winding road marked along the sides by whitewashed stone markers. I saw crevices and precipices and the multi colored silt had trickled in and around them. The rocks were all the colors of Ladakh. The burgundy ones were the robes worn by the kind eyed, elders. The yellow-tan was the rough coats of the wild dogs. The lavender and blue grey were the distant mountains. And the soft green was the shabby carpet of new grass growing in the valley.
We hit the bottom of Nubra valley where the Shyok River was meandering in a riverbed that looked too wide. The suede sand spread from its water’s out and out, until the wind whipped it into dunes. In some places, where the river deepened or an outcropping of rock threw shade, the water turned the most penetrating shade of blue. It was a liquid mix of lapis and turquoise. That blue.
And we sped by, leaving behind a long plume of that suede sand. We got to the village and the road narrowed. Mauve colored seabuck thorn squealed against our tinted windows. I saw a dark skinned child with jet hair who smiled back out of luminous green eyes.
There we were, in front of an iron gate. And Tashi sprang out and opened it and we pulled in. I got out and stumbled on my dozing legs and drew in my first breath of Nubra. Mmmm. I sucked in the shadow of the mountains and the billowing streams and the pale, high mists. --Libbie Pattison

Trekking in The Sham Region (early March):
There’s something very disconcerting about hiking through these expansive valleys and then coming across a road, or having your meditative trance jolted by the bright yellow blast of a backhoe perched behind some boulder. I try not to be phased by these interruptions. I focus on my pace: an equation of stride and breath. An intense calm drifts in after a day of walking. It’s introspective, a collection of swirling thoughts accumulated over the course of the experience met with the bluntness of being exhausted. -- Breton Schwarzenbach

Man time sure does fly when your having fun, it seems like just yesterday we were all sitting in the Burlington air port trying to get every ones name down, now look at us. We only have about a month and a half left before we are back in Burlington greeting our families and saying our good bys to one another.
I feel really conflicted right now, part of me wants to get home and see my friends and family. But, at the same time I know I’m going to miss SECMOL. No amount of regular food is going to cure that. If I could make one wish it would be to bring my family to hear and have the best of both worlds. I know I will come back hear some day. ---Matthew Harry

Through out this trip I have been writing about my deep, serious thoughts. It has been quite easy given the location and the amazing opportunities we’ve had. Today is the day I’m mixing it up. It is April 2, 2009, the day after April Fools day.

I was expecting the holiday to be celebrated but not like it was. Wow do those Ladakhis get into it… Their first prank of the day was before breakfast. All of the VISmas woke up, did our morning routines and then we all went downstairs to go to breakfast. We reached the bottom of the stairs and all of our shoes were missing. At the time I didn’t even think about it. It is not at all unusual to find your shoes missing. We were walking to the dinning hall when I realized no one else had his or her shoes. The VISpas were either barefoot or wearing someone else’s shoes. Prank one- not too successful.

The second prank was at breakfast. The SECMOLpas removed the supporting boards from a bench. All that was left was the cushion and the fame. I couldn’t tell the difference so I sat down and went straight through to the floor. Everyone, including myself was laughing hysterically. I must have been the fifth person to fall for it. As I settled myself on a different bench (with support underneath) I watched about ten more people fall for the prank. Every time, it was still just as amusing to the Ladakhis as it had been the first time. Prank two- very successful.

At about the time of the third prank, the VISpas began thinking of our own jokes. (The third was a bucket full of water placed right in front of the lower dinning hall door. Who ever walked through would step right down into it. I’m not sure if this was very successful…) After a few moments of thinking, Morgan, Lui and I decided to act. We went over to the boys’ dormitory and snuck into one of the rooms. We stole about five mattresses and a few pairs of sneakers. The sneakers were hung from the ceiling in the upper dinning hall and the mattresses were stored in an extra room. I felt like a ninja, running quietly from room to room. It was exhilarating. The Ladakhi boys were so confused. They had no idea who had taken their beds. –Pretty successful.

Our second joke involved only a bucket of water. We placed the bucket above a door in hopes that it would fall on someone. Unfortunately, the bucket filled with water was seen before it could fall on anyone. Bummer. –Not successful in the least.

There were also large amounts of shaving cream being smushed into faces through out the afternoon. Funny stuff.
And that was my first Ladakhi April Fools day. --Devan

Time in Ladakh:
I haven’t been keeping track of the passage of time and now that I think about it, the trip is going at lightning speed. Our trip trough the Burlington airport, to Newark, and the Holiday Inn, and then the 14 hours flight to Delhi seem so long ago, and yet it seems as though I haven’t spent much time in India at all. It seems hard to imagine that we have less than two months left in Ladakh. I hate that. I guess I understand why people say that no one comes to Ladakh only once. I wonder if all the VISpas will return to Ladakh at some point in their lives. I get the feeling that I will be back here at least one more time after we leave.

Right now, I just don’t want to leave. We are sitting in the kitchen of our host family in Nubra. We are crowded around a piping hot stove drinking tea and eating biscuits. I love it here. The little boy is playing the Big Amy. Everyone is smiling; everyone seems content and happy to be where they are.

As much as I love it here at the homestays I find myself homesick for SECMOL every now and then. SECMOL has truly become our home. IT is where we can all rest and relax and be ourselves. It’s where we all eat and laugh and hang out with the Ladakhis. It will be strange to have to leave home in a few months. I don’t even want to think about leaving this amazing place and the incredible people we have become so close with. Focus on now. Live in the moment, and love every moment possible. This sort of thing doesn’t come around everyday.

February, 25, 09
Today I decided to come back to my rock. As the sun gets warmer the protective layer of ice begins to melt away leaving naked, unstable rocks for me to walk across. The vanishing sheet of winter reveals the rushing water between the rocks and leaves behind a layer of slick mud that coats the already algae covered path. The rocks are embedded in a squishy brown soil that is covered with a few inches of icy water. As I jump from rock to rock they moan as they shift in the sand under the pressure of my feet. Out of fear of falling in I hop from one to the other, but only after carefully testing each one. When my heel slips in and my socks absorb the ice water, I wonder “why do I go through all of this for one silly rock?” but as I reach the large stable rock and I feel the sun gently kiss my pale skin, I allow the wind to carry my worries away. I relax and think “this is why” this is where I can be myself. Where there is no judgement from others and I can just think. Even after a horrible day, one minute at my rock will drown all of my thoughts until my mind is left blank except for the sounds of the rushing river rapids. --Jessika

March 13, 2009
Today was a beautiful, perfect Friday the 13th. Sunny and calm. I want to take a page and just say how much I appriciate, not only the SECMOL kids but also the VIS kids. If I could say one thing about everyone without giving away my secret identity I would. Instead I will talk about them as the group/team that they are. Tonight was really great. Trekking down to the fire pit and making fire roasted chipati and listening to the guitar playing, sometimes just taking in a deep breath and looking up at the stars. I felt really relaxed and carefree, as cliché as that sounds. I felt a sense of forever in the hour spent huddled around the smoke and stars. -Lui

March 18, 2009

Ladakh is great, wonderful, spectacular, magical, perfect as ever. As the warm weather fills each day, I find myself in a totally un-Buddhist way becoming more and more attached to this place.
Last night I was talking to Norbu about how Laura is leaving soon. I asked him if they were friends and if he was going to be sad when she left. He said they are friends but he shrugged when I asked if he’d be sad. Then I asked if he will be sad when we leave. I consider myself pretty close to Norbu; not only is his English so good that he understands American humor, he also genuinely wants to learn so I have had lots of good long conversations with him, during which I thought we have gotten really close. So his reaction of a shrug and a laugh took me aback. “Maybe we won’t meet again in this life, but next generation, we will.” I couldn’t believe that this boy, the most Americanized of all the Ladakhis, holds these pure Buddhist beliefs in everyday life. I don’t know why, but that moment hit me really hard. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. --Morgan

VIS/Ladakh course descriptions at midterm, Spring 2009

VIS 2009 course descriptions at midterm, 2009

Environmental Science (Amy Higgins)
Work this term: This class focuses on three main topics: Ecosystems, Climate Change, and Sustainability. Upon arriving in Ladakh we began a unit on Landscape, drawing heavily on Janet Rizvi's "Portrait of a Landscape," from her book Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia. In addition to class discussions on ecosystems and Ladakh's landscape, we drew our own ecosystems in Vermont, and then compared them with Ladakhi thankas, traditional Ladakhi art. Our next unit focused on Ladakh's Flora & Fauna, and Tsering Kunzes, a SECMOL teacher and guide, led a nature hike where we learned to identify Ladakh's most common trees and plants, and a few animals. We were lucky enough to have a herd of ibex lingering around campus, and we tentatively identified some snow leopard tracks on a field trip high up in the mountains. Each student did a presentation on a Ladakhi bird or mammal in class.

Agriculture, our next unit, focused on types of soils and soil horizons, and a guest from the Department of Defense High Altitude Research Lab spoke on the difficulties of farming in Ladakh, and about advances in technology, particularly greenhouses, in this cold climate. We also studied greenhouse design, and Angus, with his background in architecture, assisted in drafting greenhouse plans. We broke ground on the greenhouse, spending long mornings leveling the sandy soil; we are now constructing the walls using primarily mud bricks. Eager to start growing some Vermont vegetables, Jessika and Shona planted some of their seeds in one of SECMOL's greenhouses. Everyone is curious to see whether the watermelon will in fact grow in Ladakh! Ecological Footprints, the last unit in the Ecosystems section, focused on resource scarcity and contrasted India and the United States. Students worked with a partner to complete two Ecological Footprint Calculations, one for their life in Vermont, and one for their new life in Ladakh and then graphed them for comparison. Students found that their lifestyles in Vermont were more ecologically expensive than in Ladakh, yet still fell far below the U.S. average (go Vermont!). A guest speaker from a nomadic family came to speak about nomadic life, living in yak skin tents, travelling with the herds, and how his family traditionally moved across the Tibetan border with ease but is now increasingly confined to a small section of Ladakh's mountains.

Climate Change, our next topic, began with a unit on Weather and Climate. VIS students read about climate change in many different sources, from textbooks to Time magazine to excerpts from James Gustave Speth's Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability and from Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman. Discussions focused on greenhouse gases and sources of emission, as well as proposed solutions, such as carbon sequestration.

Glaciers & Ladakh focused on the relationship between glaciers and global warming and the decoupling of glacial meltwater cycles from traditional agricultural practices. Following a class on glaciology, we travelled to the village of Igoo with a guest speaker to see the artificial glacier constructed high in this mountain town, at about 14,000 feet, which provides water to farming families miles below. A particularly fun fieldtrip, SECMOL students came along and brought ice-skates in order to skate on the frozen reservoir at 14,000 feet. VISpas and SECMOL students raced each other to slide down the glacier, and notebooks got wet as many snowballs were thrown. In the untouched powder sitting on the ice our guest speaker identified tracks as that of a snow leopard, walking leisurely over the ice.

Sustainability, our final topic, began with a unit on Appropriate Technology, coinciding with our Sham Trek. Staying with local families, students interviewed Ladakhi villagers about the innovations in their homes, from modern solar panels to ancient water wheels, animal dung stoves made out of recycled oil drums to Ladakhi composting toilets, later using their research on the trek to compose an article on Appropriate Technology in Ladakh in a joint English-Science class assignment. Students also presented their findings in class. A fieldtrip to Ladakh's Ecology Centre was also made during this unit, to learn about development, and a similar trip to the Snow Leopard Conservancy to hear about the predator fencing designed to keep sheep safe from snow leopards, and snow leopards safe from human retribution.

Greenhouse work continues during our upcoming units on Energy, Alternative Fuels, Solar Panels and Solar Heating. Konchok Norgay, SECMOL's Science & Technology director, led the students on a "Solar Tour" of SECMOL to better understand how meals are cooked using minimal gas and mainly the parabolic solar reflectors, how solar heating keeps the dormitories warm at night, and how the solar panels power our ipods and laptops. Norgay will also lecture on photovoltaics and solar cells. Currently, VIS students are hard at work on their research projects, an interdisciplinary exercise. In science they have chosen topics and are carrying out research, and collecting data through surveys and measurements; for English class they are interviewing experts to gain background knowledge and writing a feature article intended for newspaper publication; and in our history/social science course, “Ladakh: Then and Now”, they will be putting together presentations on their findings.

English (James Bridge)
Work this term: We began English class with group readings of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, and “The Man Who Woke Up”, a short essay by Huston Smith introducing Buddhism, during our pre-Ladakh travels. This was particularly fitting during our week at the Songstsen Library studying Tibetan Buddhism. Once in Ladakh and settled at SECMOL, students picked a metaphor describing who they are to use in a three-page essay. Other writing in the first half of the semester has included two pieces of fact journalism: one on appropriate technology in a village while trekking, and one about the Matho Nagrang Buddhist festival. The former was done in conjunction with a science assignment in which students had to identify forms of appropriate technology. For both pieces, students interviewed local participants, and focused on various aspects of the festival, such as the gambling tables it attracts, food sold, the generations present and why they attend, etc. In class we discussed ways to obtain good quotes and how to use them, as well as proper construction of short fact pieces. Students also read and presented various newspaper articles in class, and did a number of free-writes on such topics “SECMOL is a Place Where”, and “Shifts in Perspective”, which was related to a reading of Bill Eddy’s “Kenge and the Buffalo”. Other readings in the first half of the semester have included: “Allegory of the Cave” by Plato, “A Vermont Tale” by Mark Helperin, Lawrence Durrell’s “Landscape and Character”, “The Prophet’s Hair” by Salman Rushdie, and an excerpt from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac about hiking up a mountain, read aloud during rest breaks on a hike up SECMOL mountain. Students are now reading Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French. The final project for English will be a 1,000-word feature article on a topic related to final projects in science and LTN.

History/Social Science (Ladakh: Then and Now -- LTN) (James Bridge and Amy Higgins)
Work this term: The work for this course began in our first week at the Songtsen Library outside of Dehradun in the state of Uttarkhand. Students attended courses each day in Buddhist studies and Bodyik script, used in both Tibetan and Ladakhi languages, and spent time on the campus collecting information about various aspects of Buddhism. They were required to give presentations on group topics at the end of our week there, which was attended by our teachers and the Director of the campus. This provided a nice introduction to our time in Ladakh, and was a good geographical transition as well.

In Ladakh, we began hearing from our full roster of guest speakers, on myriad topics: politics in the state of Jammu and Kashmir; agriculture in Ladakh; tourism; marriage traditions; the education system; Ladakhi history; the Dards of western Ladakh; and nomadic life. Students were required to write reflections on each speaker. We also went on field trips to a variety of places: the artificial glacier; the Tibetan refugee community; two Buddhist festivals; and various NGOs in the town of Leh. Students wrote reflections on these field trips as well. Students also chose an aspect of Ladakh to introduce during class; topics included military presence, environmental issues, education, agriculture, and traditional architecture. These talks were supplemented with the aforementioned speakers and field trips, as well as pertinent readings. Class time has included short units on the Tibetan and Kashmir conflicts with readings from the book Kashmir by Sumantra Bose, and Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French, also discussed in terms of style during English class. Another English-LTN crossover occurred in discussions of news articles. Each student presented an article to the class, referring to its style as well as content. The final project for this course will be a presentation of research findings on a topic relevant to Ladakh. This research was done in conjunction with a final news piece composed for English, and data collected for science. Holly Borday, the VIS intern from UVM, taught a unit on Buddhist ecology over four class periods, focusing on concepts of Buddhism and their relationships to wide scale environmental issues. Each student prepared a step-by-step approach to solving an environmental problem using Buddhist philosophy.
Advanced Research and Independent Study: The VIS Exhibition (James Bridge, Amy Higgins, local mentors)
Work this term: A daily exhibition class was not held during February and March. Instead, more time in these months was allotted to English, History and Science classes so that their work could be completed by early April. The remainder of the semester will be devoted almost entirely to exhibition research, fieldwork, writing, and the development of projects and final presentations scheduled for the end of April/early May. This approach allows for more intensive study and project focus in our three main academic classes, while providing a more gradual introduction to the potential areas of interest and applied research for Exhibition. Students have by now developed their research proposals, research questions, outlines and other relevant issues. To transition from the more abstract topical exploration into the experience driven field studies, each student, with the help of their mentor and VIS teacher/guide Tashi Wangchuk, has developed a plan for intensive, immersion style field research, each in a distinct community site in and around the Leh Valley. The final academic report will contain a full description of work done by each student in the Exhibition/Independent Study course in addition to final work done in the other three full academic courses.

Ladakhi Language (Tsering Kunzes, SECMOL staff and Becky Norman)
Work this term: The successful completion of the foreign language credit in the VIS Ladakh program is primarily the result of the depth of students’ cultural immersion combined with their own level of motivation and discipline, and attendance at daily classes taught primarily by SECMOL teacher Tsering Kunzes. Students use the Ladakhi language guidebook Getting Started in Ladakh by Rebecca (Becky) Norman, Co-Director of SECMOL Campus. This is by far the most useful phrasebook available and provides a very simple progression into the language as well as a short dictionary. In addition to the daily Ladakhi language class, each student is encouraged to make the most out of his or her conversation sessions with SECMOL students in order to practice weekly vocabulary, and words used for greetings, food preferences, and basic interactions. Many students have also found that weeklong village homestays have provided excellent opportunities to learn the language consistently.

English Conversation (led by Holly Borday)
The English conversation course has given VISpas the opportunity to discuss topics with Ladakhi students that provide for better understanding of the Ladakhi culture. The class has also allowed Ladakhi students to get to know VISpas on a more personal level and talk about things that they are usually too shy to broach otherwise. This class has been a valuable opportunity for the VISpas to help Ladakhis practice English, which is crucial for their studies. So far in the class, students have discussed matters such as etiquette, chores, health and family structure as well as matters relating to VIS classes such as Ladakhi politics, environmental issues and the education system. One week was spent teaching the Ladakhi students an American song as well as successfully learning a traditional Ladakhi song from the Ladakhi students! For each class, VISpas have been pairing up with Ladakhi students in small groups and then gathering into a big circle at the end of the class to participate in a group discussion about what they have learned from each other.

Monday, April 13, 2009


[FYI- Sammy is a puppy that was found up behind SECMOL about a month ago. Sammy is short for Samches with means cute in Ladakhi.) He has been adopted as the campus pet and no one seems to know whether Sammy is a boy or girl. Half the campus says boy and the other half says girl. (Whenever a he, she, her, or him is necessary, I'll just say puppy. at least some of the time...)]

Sammy is getting bigger and bigger every day. Every morning it seems like it's a little easier for puppy to reach my knees and puppy's ribs are a little harder to feel. This is a drastic change from puppy's first week at SECMOL. Sammy was this tiny fur ball that could be held with one arm and honestly a bit strange looking. I was a little worried that puppy wouldn't grow into his/her large paws and be stuck with seriously stumpy legs. Puppy was cute because of his size but resembled an over grown guinea pig in many ways. Sammy has stopped wobbling and now runs with a cute little hop.

I wake up in the morning, begin walking to the kitchen and with out fail, I feel a little furry body thump into my leg. This is the greeting I get every morning from Sammy. Puppy paws at my legs and jumps until I pick him/her up and feed him/her breakfast.

Lui's mom, Kandy, sent puppy a toy the other day. Sammy barely puts it down now. Many of the SECMOL boys will pick the toy up with Sammy's teeth still latched on and swing it around. As soon as puppy is set down he/she charges them, begging for more.

Everyone on campus (well mostly everyone), seems to really like Sammy. There are still a few girls who scream and run away as fast as possible when they see Sammy. Other than that, Sammy gets more attention than he/she knows what to do with. This is one loved puppy.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Embodying the Spirit of Ladakh

So, this post for the blog was written about a month ago. But, thanks to the questionable internet here it didn't post the first time I tried. So here we are, more than a month after our first trek and I am going to tell you about a certain little person in my last host family who really made me think.
In our last home-stay in the village of Ang we were split up between a lot of houses. In my house it was only Lydia, Tsomo, and me. We family welcomed us into their kitchen where we all sat around the stove and drank the always welcomed milk tea. The room was smoky and there wasn't much else in the room besides some food stores of rice and vegetables and a box of cow dung for fuel. Our Ama-Le, wrapped in her traditional goncha robe, had a bundle of blankets on her hip. There was a younger woman who began to prepare food, soon the rest of the family would be coming home. Ama-Le stood up and handed the bundle of blankets to the younger woman, who turned out to be her daughter-in-law. The woman carefully held the bundle in her lap. From this bundle of blankets peered the happy and innocent face of a three month old Ladakhi baby boy. His new eyes stared wondering around the room at these two strangers. He hadn't even uttered so much as a whimper. He sat and stared and held onto the blankets wrapped about him.
Gradually as the night went on, more and more of the family came in. We learned that this small mud brick house was the home to nine people. There were grandparents, our Ama-le and Aba-le, then there was the young woman who was their daughter-in-law, and her husband. They had two children, and older daughter and the little baby who now lay peacefully in the arms of his grandfather. Then there were three other brothers who were in school.
The light began to fade and the temperature began to drop. Aba-Le but more dung on the fire and one of the brothers wrapped another blankets around his nephew. The baby blinked his eyes and stretched his little arms as he was passed back to his grandmother. But he did not complain. Right before dinner was served, it was my turn.
Ama-Le stood up and placed the new life in my arms. The I stared down at the bundle of blankets in my arms. He squirmed and squinted and he settled himself in this new set of arms, soon he lay still and looked up into my blue eyes so different than his own. He even smiled. This is Ladakh I thought. This beautiful little baby, is exactly what Ladakh is. He is welcoming and accepting of everyone. He is loving, and wrapped in blankets to keep out the cold. As I sat around the stove, the smell of smoke filling my nose, the taste of tea lingering on my lips, and the new little life wrapped up in my arms, I had understood completely why people come to this wonderful part of the world they call the last Shangri-La.
-Amy van Loon(Little Amy)

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Last week we went on a trek, climbing the winding path up and around the mountains was an amazing experience. I loved seeing how the average Ladakhi lives, the warm wood stove and hot tea made the long, at times challenging, days of trekking worth it. On the first day as we were hiking I began to notice some of the other VISpas were lacking enthusiasm and I felt like we needed a song to heighten every one's spirits. I was trying to think of a hiking song, but there was not a single one that seemed to fit. However I did have the well known American song Just Dance by Lady GaGa stuck in my head. I began to change the chorus to Just HIKE instead of just dance and the lyrics just kind of fell into place. By the end of the day I had come up with lyrics to the entire song and they go something like this:

Never can quite get enough
All of the rocks they start to creep
(start to creep by)
how does he breathe up here
cant seem to find the air

where is my group?
I lost my guide
Oh, hey there you are
I love this mountain baby
but i cant keep up anymore

keep it cool
whats the name of this hill
I cant remember but its alright
its alright

Just hike
Gunna be okay
da da do do
Just hike
Drink some water babe
da da do do
Just hike gunna be okay
Jus-Jus-Just Hike

Wish I could jet-pack right on up
How did we get futher down?
Control your breathing babe
Vallies have hills they say
What if we fall down and die

What goin' on up in front?
I love this mountain baby
but i cant keep up anymore
keep your cool
whats the name of this hill?
i cant remember but its alright its alright

Just hike
Gunna be okay
da da do do
Just hike
Drink some water babe
da da do do
Just hike gunna be okay
Jus-Jus-Just Hike

When I come through
This small path
checkin' out that pretty veiw
cant believe my eyes
so many mountians with out a flaw
and i aint gunna give up eva
tryna make it up without a stroke
Ima make Ima make Ima make it
we'll get there by tomorrow yeah
(hey i can see your losing some energy)
the way you dragin' round those feet
(down and down)
There is no reason at all you cant keep up with me
In the mean time let me see you hike around

And hike
Gunna be okay
da da do do
Just hike
Drink some water babe
da da do do

It became a joke and when the spirits would get low I would sing the chorus to help pick everyone back up. There were many songs that we sang including Eye of the tiger and Your body is a wonderland. Over all the trek was a blast and we have all gotten creative whether its with song lyrics or with the "trash" that is now decoration. I love everyone and we are always coming up with new ways to have a good time. I cant wait for the next trek.