Volunteering in Ladakh- Puga and Baltistan
Visiting the region of Ladakh is like visiting a friend. The people are very warm, going out of their way to look out for you. The landscape, as stark and daunting as it may be, is also inspiring, mysterious and promises to give you an adventure. Though I have visited the region several times by now, I can never say goodbye. Each time, I tell the Ladakhis I will be back soon. And I promptly am.
Volunteering in different cultures has always been an exciting prospect, combining the desire to learn, to give with the adventures of backpacking. It is probably, one of the best ways to learn about and respect the culture. And so, when Abhigya suggested that I volunteer in the schools of Turtuk and Puga based on my application, areas I knew nothing of, I jumped at the chance. It has been almost two months since I returned from the volunteering, and my resolve to return is as strong. This time around, I want to take more people to share the experience. I want them to interact with the diligent, mischievous and utterly innocent children. I want them to hear the personal narratives of heartbreak, loss and resilience that the villagers in Turtuk have endured. I want them to glimpse how difficult and isolated life can be for nomad children in the Changthang region, and how it barely impacts their Bollywood dancing skills.
Turtuk is the only part of Baltistan currently in India. It came to belong to us in the mutual snatchings of the 1971 war. As a result, the school building in the village of Thyakshi was constructed by the Pakistani government and inaugurated by Indians. It is also how the principal of Yul Primary school, (also the first girl to receive an education in the village), completed her education under the Pakistani board, and received her first job as an Indian government schoolteacher.
On our first night at Turtuk I was invited to give a talk on opportunities on media at the local youth center, Youl Youth Center. I walked into a room filled with more than 30 boys and young men and into a discussion that lasted for hours. We discussed everything, right from responsible journalism to war to pre-marital sex. Inayat, a young boy studying engineering in Bangalore told me how the 1971 war left brothers, parents, even husbands and wives stranded on either side, never to meet again. The desire to express and curiosity about the outside world was so strong, I left the library at 10pm!
The government school in Thang, the last village on the Indian side, is on a barren, sunburnt patch. The school, like the village sits on the slope of a peak that belongs to Pakistan. During the Kargil war, all villagers hid in bunkers during the daytime to avoid shelling. Needless to say, education gets affected deeply in turbulent times too. As for exposure, civilians from the outside world like me are impossible to come across.
On our day there, tales of pregnant sea horses, clouds and rainbow coloured elephants kept children of all age groups mesmerized in the school library set up by FOL here. The Hula Hoop was by far the most interesting thing these kids had discovered, followed by finger puppets and Rangometry. Forbidden to all civilians except the villagers belonging to Turtuk, volunteering in Thang village was truly a privilege. To visit Thang was a matter of destiny, the school principal told me. It was my good fortune that brought me here.
While Turtuk is called ‘Chhota Kashmir’ in Ladakh, due to the presence of abundant farms, glacial streams and overall verdancy, the Nomadic Residential School in the Puga valley of Chang Thang, would have proably been ‘Chhota Tibet’. Barren, cold, with not a crow in sight.
The school stands like an aberration en route to the lake Tso Kar, with sulphur springs nearby. The valley is home to migratory black neck cranes in summer and a hunting ground for snow leopards in winter. Students and teachers wear sweatshirts with their school logo and the words ‘aliens of puga’ printed on it. ‘Doesn’t this look like another planet?” Dorji sir, the sports teacher asks me. Come to think of it, it does.
On this other planet, live some of the most diligent students I have come across. I was here to introduce the concept of journalism to the elder students, hoping to come up with a school newsletter in English. The highlight of our classes was a visit to a neighbouring Ankung village to interview an 89yr old grandfather on the subject of nomads. The Changthang region is sparsely populated by Buddhist nomads named ‘Rebo Pa’ after the yak hair tents they erect. The grandfather, hard of hearing and partly blind, had little patience for the dozen questions thrown at him. All he wanted was a cigarette, something he began to smoke at 85. But the children managed to get such interesting information out of him, even a trained journalist would fail.
When I returned from my volunteering trip in Ladakh, I returned with an open letter written by a Balti student critical of corporal punishment, a story told by a nomad boy, a handful of drawings of black neck cranes and yaks, a shawl gifted by the Numbardar of Thyakshi, pebbles from the shore of every possible lake and a desire to do it all over again.
PS- I’m still searching for a graphic designer to work on the school newsletter.