Trek Day 1

This morning I woke up ready for a big day. I packed my bags and was ready by 9:30 AM. Today, we would be leaving for our two day trek through the Himalayan mountains.

We all got on the bus and counted off to take attendance, then began our drive- it was going to be a few hours. I sat with two SECMOL students during the ride and discussed Indian and Ladakhi culture with them. It was amazing to be able to ask people who actually live in India about things, rather than relying on what I learned in school to be the ultimate truth. For example, I asked the two Ladakhis their view on Pakistan. It has often been taught to us that Indians hate Pakistanis and vice versa, but I wanted to get an opinion from actual Indian people (especially since Ladakh is so close to Pakistan). These students reported to me that older generations, such as their parents or grandparents, do not look favorably upon Pakistan. Younger generations, however, typically don’t have an issue with Pakistanis. This led into a conversation about American politics, such as the similar trend of younger generations typically having more accepting viewpoints than older.

After making a quick pitstop at a local market, where I learned my new skill of extreme price haggling, we arrived at a huge, beautiful monastery. We were given a tour of this monastery and got to learn even more about the Buddhist religion.

Our group at the colorful monastery
Large Buddha statue on top of the monastery

After we finished learning and exploring, we walked to a large field to eat a lunch of peanut butter and jam on chipote bread and hardboiled eggs.

We then drove to the beginning location for our trek, and we were on our way. A SECMOL student, Namgail, led us through the mountains, as our Nat Geo expert Sandesh taught us about the different types of animals that live in the area.

After about two hours of uphill trekking, we arrived at our homestays in the village of Ulley. There were three different houses, so we split up into groups of about six.

As soon as we got into our home and set down our backpacks, we had tea time and girl talk. As a mixture of Nat Geo students and Ladakhis, we discussed boys back at SECMOL and made pretend of who was “marrying” who. We also sat together and watched the Indian version of Days of Our Lives on the tv in the kitchen/dining area. Then, we helped our homestay mother make the dinner we would be eating that night. We folded dough circles into small dumpling-like pieces that our host then cooked for us. It was extremely delicious, and tasted even better knowing that we helped to make it.

Making dinner at our homestay

After dinner, some people went outside to take pictures of the stars and Milky Way which were visible in the light-pollution-free Himalayan sky. Instead, I just went back to the beautifully colorful room our homestay mother set up for us, and fell right asleep. I was tired from the long day I had just experienced, and I needed my rest for the second day of our trek which we were going on in mere hours…

The view from my homestay bedroom

Phey Village

The next morning, I woke up early before my alarm went off. Nobody was up yet and breakfast didn’t begin for another hour, so I went on a walk by myself around the perimeter of the campus in the morning light, really taking in the scenery. After my walk, I ate a breakfast of lentils and bread called “chipote” with peanut butter on it. We then were off to begin our day.

On this day, we had a hike planned to a small village named Phey. “This hike takes about 30 minutes- for the locals,” they told us. Well, it turns out, we were much slower than the locals. After about two hours we finally made it to the village. Even though it was much longer than expected, however, the hike was lots of fun. Both the Nat Geo group and a group of around 10 students from SECMOL went on the hike together. I walked with my friends from SECMOL Namla and Chotak, and we talked about everything from the differences between our schools to the fact that Ladakhis love Justin Bieber.

Me and Chotak
Me and Namla during the hike

Once we arrived in the town, we explored the streets and touched the wide array of prayer wheels which were scattered throughout. Everyone then split up into two groups to go to different houses to enjoy tea time with a local. In this house, we had two kinds of tea: milk tea and butter tea. Milk tea was delicious, however butter tea tasted like I was drinking purely a cup of melted butter. I’m glad I tried it for the experience, but I would not at all recommend it.

Buddhist prayer wheel
Milk tea and butter tea with cookies

After we relaxed in the Phey villager’s home for some time, we were off to make our way back to SECMOL. Instead of taking the same route home, however, we instead climbed up a small mountain to visit a monastery school. In this school, there was one main teacher, who was a monk, and twelve young students. After we arrived we all drank mango juice while the monk taught us the basics of Buddhism. He then gave us time to talk to him and as any questions that we might have. We even got to meet some of the students from the school, who did not speak English but were all extremely nice.

When we finished at the monastery school, it was time to make our way back to SECMOL for real. I took an alternative route back with Chotak, and we stopped at Indus Beach, the shore to the Indus River, where he taught me how to skip rocks. This 30 minutes hanging out with him by the beach learning to skip rocks (which he was amazing at and I was absolutely terrible at) may have been one of my favorite parts of the whole trip.

Once we finally got home from our hike, I was extremely tired. I managed to help Chotak water the greenhouses that were on campus and to take a shower in the camp’s solar showers, but then after eating some dinner I immediately fell asleep. It was such an amazing, yet tiring, day full of hiking, learning about new cultures, and friendship.

Our First Day at SECMOL

I managed to wake myself up after the 5th snooze at 2 AM. My roommate and I slowly and sleepily got all of our items together and met the rest of the group downstairs, and from there we were off. We caught a flight around 5 AM which took us to the Leh Ladakh airport in the very north of India.

As we began to descend, I could not believe my eyes. It was some of the most beautiful mountain scenery I had ever seen. There were vast patches of green where villages were settled, which were broken up by large peaks and huge barren areas of brown land. I had never before been in a setting anything like this one. When we landed, however, we were not greeted with a warm welcome. As we exited the plane to walk to the bus which would drive us to the small airport, we were harshly instructed by soldiers with large guns to absolutely not take any photography of the area. We would soon learn that Ladakh within is a heavily militarized zone due to it being in the state of Jammu-Kashmir, a region which borders both China and Pakistan. In order to enter the airport we all had to walk through a path lined with more scary looking men with huge guns. I’ll admit, it was a bit off-putting at first. That is, until I made eye contact with a soldier and smiled at him and he smiled back at me- that’s when I knew everything was going to be okay and began feeling comfortable in my new situation.

Once our group left the airport, we all crammed ourselves into tiny vans with no seat belts and began driving to the school we would be staying at for the next week, SECMOL, which stands for Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh. We were greeted by the students and faculty of this small school, and taught about how the school was run. It is an “alternative school,” for both college students and students who were not able to pass their classes at their high schools in other villages. It is completely sustainable, solar powered, and student-run.

After a campus tour, our group leaders Robbie and Liz recommended that we all rest in order to allow our bodies to acclimate to the high elevation, as we were now in the heart of the Himalayas. Instead of taking this advice, I decided to tour the campus on my own. I visited a computer class, where students were learning how to use Microsoft Word, which was the most technology that was seen around campus- there was no internet or cell phone service there. At this computer class I made friends and gave them pictures I took of them with my polaroid camera, which was a big hit.

I met one friend named Chotak who was kind enough to show me around the school even more, so we walked the perimeter of the campus while I barraged him with questions about his SECMOL experience and his home village. One of the most amazing things I got to experience with him on this day was when we climbed down the side of the mountain that the campus rested on in order to visit the large river right next to the school.

I later learned that this was the Indus River. It was extremely beautiful but also cold, so we hiked back up to the school and ate our first dinner with everybody else.

After dinner, I sat outside with a group of new Ladakhi students I had just met, and we got to know each other while talking about our very different lives and looking up at the stars. Since there was no light pollution from anywhere in the mountains, we could even see Mars and Jupiter clearly. It was a perfect end to our first day at SECMOL, and I had already felt like I’d been there for weeks.

Beginning the Expediton

   

   At midday on June 26th, 2016 I nervously made my way through the Baltimore-Washington International Airport with my new, overpacked Osprey backpack in search of the people who I would be staying with for the next three weeks. I was definitely late, as is normal for me and my family, but luckily I managed to find the group- they hadn’t left without me. While we waited for one last participant to arrive, I said goodbye to my parents and began to get to know the 13 other high schoolers. They were mostly students from the West Coast who decided to go on this trip to improve their photography skills. After talking for a few minutes we left our waiting spot and began our journey. Once we finally made our way through TSA and waited for what seemed like forever, we got onto our plane- ready for our 14 hour flight.

   This was the beginning to the most amazing and impactful experience I’ve ever had, my National Geographic Student Expedition to India. This was a three week program for high school students who could choose to focus on an “on assignment project” of either photography or anthropology and local cultures. We had a full itinerary set up for this program, from hiking in the Himalayas to ziplining through the palace of Neemrana. It was exactly what I needed to fuel my desire for travel for the summer, and I was beyond excited to be able to take part in this experience. I had been waiting for this trip for months, and it was finally here!

Our first snack in India

   Fast forward 14 grueling hours of trying to sleep, eating complimentary snacks, and watching movies in languages I couldn’t understand, and we finally landed. As soon as we stepped off the plane, however, we could feel the heat. Even though it was night time, it was so much warmer than what we were all accustomed to back home, which was even more noticeable due to the intense humidity. After taking what felt like forever to get through customs, we finally left the airport and were on our way back to our hotel, the Mantra. Since it was nearly midnight by this point, we all ate a small snack of fresh mangos, bananas, and digestive cookies (pictured below) before going to bed for the night.

   The next morning we woke up bright and early at 8 AM to start our day. It was time for breakfast, but somehow one girl was already sick enough to skip breakfast, and another threw up right at breakfast. Though it was worrisome, everyone turned out okay and we were able to get on with name games and orientation before going out into the city. We learned some basic words in Hindi, the main language of the region, and cultural norms such as not to point at people or wear clothes that expose too much skin. We then walked around the city, pouring sweat as soon as we stepped outside into the hot midday New Delhi sun, got lunch, and bought clothes from a local shop in order to help us assimilate into the culture a bit better. At night we returned to the hotel for dinner, where we met our “Nat Geo ExpertSandesh Kadur who would be staying with us for the next week in order to provide us with local knowledge and help us improve our photography skills.

   After this overwhelming day of being plummeted into a culture extremely new and different from our own, we were all exhausted. We got to bed by 10 PM but didn’t get to sleep for long, because we had to wake up at 2 AM in order to catch a small flight which would be taking us deep into the Himalayas, where we’d be staying for the next week and a half.