A Day in Leh

This morning at SECMOL started off with an emotional goodbye. Our Nat Geo expert Sandesh, who I have decided is the most interesting man I have ever met in my life up until this point, left our group. Although we all knew he was only set to stay with us for this short amount of time, it was still extremely sad to say goodbye to such an amazing man who taught our group so much about photography, India, and ourselves. Luckily, we kept the knowledge we learned from him for the rest of our trip to help with our travels.

After saying goodbye to Sandesh, we ate breakfast then met in our “on assignment groups.” My cultural geography group was very small compared to the photography group, as there were only four of us. This was nice, however, because our leader Robbie could talk to us one on one and answer all of our questions much easier. On this day, we were given an assignment for our project. Since our plan for the day was to travel to a large city in Ladakh, Leh, we were told to talk to the people we’d see around the city. More specifically, we were assigned to ask at least two people to draw us each a map of where they were from. I was so excited for this, because talking to strangers happens to be one of my favorite pastimes.

A man who I met in Leh

After our meetings, we all got onto a bus with a few SECMOL students and made our way to Leh. The first thing everyone did was search for 1) wifi and 2) an “American” cafe. As it turned out, on this particular day the wifi was down across the whole city. We did manage to find a cafe, however, but the food was not top quality. I ate a chicken burger, fries, and a shake, which is similar to what the rest of our group bought as well. Even though it wasn’t great food, it was nice to get a little bit of variety from eating lentils almost every day.

After lunch, we all started exploring the city and going to markets to shop. I broke out my amazing bargaining skills once again, and never paid more than 50% of the original price I was offered. To keep myself under control, I put 2000 rupees in my pocket (about $30) at the beginning of the day and decided I wouldn’t spend any more than that. By doing this, I set a limit for myself and also set my sights to ramp up my bargaining. I left that day with jewelry, statues, clothes, and more- all within my budget.

Image of 2 maps which were drawn.

While shopping, I was also completing my map assignment. This turned out to be probably my favorite assignment I’ve ever received for anything before. I would walk up to strangers and first ask if they spoke English. If they did, I’d ask them to draw a map of where they were from. The results were fantastic. I realized that this assignment shows what is important to these peoples’ culture, because the items they draw in their home village highlight what is most important in their lives. For example, a young Buddhist boy highlighted where the monasteries were located in his home village, which is important to him because of his religion. Similarly, a shop owner highlighted where all of the ATMs in Leh were located, which are clearly important to him because of his job. I loved the way that I could learn so much about people and their culture through just a quick, simple drawing.


By the end of this long day, we were all completely tired out. We sat down for dinner at a nice restaurant in the city where we ate momos, then all hopped on the bus to go back to SECMOL. Once back, I watched an Arabic movie with some of the Ladakhi students, then washed my hair in the spicket of cold Himalayan mountain water before going to bed. As I lay in bed, I reflected on how amazing the day was: I got to talk to so many new people, learn so much more about different cultures, and even walk away with some amazing treasures from the city. I decided that the freedom that I felt in this day was something I so greatly wanted to feel again, which inspired me to think of more trips I could take like this in the future all night long as I fell asleep.

Back to SECMOL

On the next morning of the trip, I woke up in my homestay in the village of Hemis to eat a breakfast of chipote, eggs, and greens. Once we were all finished eating, we packed our things and left the home.

My host mother

It turned out that the village that we stayed in on this past night, Hemis, was the home place of one of the Ladakhi students, Namgail, who led us through the mountains on our trek. Since he was from this village, we all were given the privilege of a tour around Hemis led by Namgail. We also were invited to his home, where we got to meet his father and grandfather, and also have tea time.

Namgail (middle) with his father (left) and grandfather (right)

Once we finished with tea time and said goodbye to Namgail’s family, we were off again- back to SECMOL. Before we went back, however, we stopped first at the Alchi Monastery. This monastery was a bit more touristy and structured in its tours than the other ones we had been to, but it turns out that this was because it was extremely old- it was built about 1,000 years ago.

Buddhist prayer flags

After receiving a tour of this beautiful, hand painted monastery, we all sat down to have lunch in the convenient restaurant that was available on site. The food was just okay here, but I enjoyed this lunch so much because of the conversations we had on it. The adult leaders- Liz, Robbie, and Sandesh- have all been to so many places around the world and had a plethora of wild experiences, some good and some bad. On this day, these leaders told us their craziest travel and leader stories, from getting bedbugs to a participant stepping on a stingray’s stinger. The main story that stood out to me, however, was one of Sandesh’s. He recalled to us all about the time when he got cerebral malaria. This is a fatal type of malaria which came very close to killing him. Luckily, as he told us, he was able to be driven out of the middle of nowhere to find medical attention in time.

Me milking a cow for the first time

When this lunch was done, we all piled back onto the bus and finally returned to SECMOL. We rested for a little bit, but were allowed to do whatever we wanted. I took this free time opportunity to help with the students’ chores- namely, milking the cows. I had never milked a cow before, so I asked some students if I could help them milk it, and also for tips on how to do so. After they taught me I was off, milking like the wind, I even decided to go out on a whim and drink some of the milk straight from the udder. I’ll admit, it didn’t taste great, but it always makes for a great story.

After we ate dinner that night, I sat outside with some Ladakhi students watching the stars again. It was a beautifully clear night, when hundreds and hundreds of stars were visible. On this night, I gave one Ladakhi student an elephant silly band I had on my wrist in exchange for a bracelet he was wearing. It was a great trade, and solidified our friendship. These friendships that I was creating turned out to be some of my most meaningful ever, and I would not trade them for the world.

Trek Day 2

Today was the second day of our trek, so we again started with a nice breakfast. Our host mother provided us with peanut butter, jam, and honey for chipote bread, plus she even cooked us omelettes. We were up bright and early to meet everyone outside to leave at 8:30, but we ended up having to wait an hour.

My host mother and I

At the school SECMOL, they have their own timing called “SECMOL time”. This time is one hour ahead of “India time”, which is the time zone for the rest of India. Ever since we arrived in Ladakh, we had been planning all of our activities around SECMOL time, so we assumed that our meeting this morning would be 8:30 SECMOL time. It turned out, however, that it was 8:30 India time. This gave us some more time to take pictures of our homestay and hang out with our host mother, and I even bought a small snow leopard that she handmade as a gift for my family.

Once the rest of the group arrived, we set out on our “four hour trek”, which turned out to be more of a six hour trek. It was extremely beautiful, we got to see even more than the day before. The trek started off easy and downhill, but soon turned to going all uphill- because we would be climbing over one of the mountain’s peaks. This was made especially difficult because of the extreme heat from the hot summer sun coupled with the very high altitude that made it challenging to even breathe while standing still, let alone while hiking up a steep mountainside. While getting close to the summit, we would only be able to take a few steps before having to rest and catch our breath before moving on again.

Buddhist prayer flags on top of the mountain

When we finally summited the mountain, it was instantly freezing because of the wind coming over the peak. Despite the temperature, however, it was the most amazing feeling ever. The last hour or so of the trek were so difficult, I thought we would never reach the top. Once we got up there, however, our leaders Robbie and Liz surprised us all with Snickers bars to celebrate. Since we had been eating mostly lentils and chipote bread for the past week, that Snickers bar tasted like a five star gourmet dessert.

The surprise Snickers we were rewarded with

After we all took time resting and taking pictures of the Buddhist prayer flags on top of the peak, we began to trek again. It was all downhill, which made it easier, but we still had a long way to go until we’d arrive at our village for the night. Along the way, we stopped to eat fresh rhubarb from the ground and listen as Sandesh inspected the different scat found along the trail to tell us what kind of animal it came from.

The pasture we ate lunch in

Once we got to the village of Hemis, where we would be staying that night, we stopped to eat our lunch on a field filled with cows and tiny streams. After eating, we found out our roommates for the night and went to our new homestays. My group was staying in an amazing new homestay with electricity. We then had tea time and talked to each other about our day, then went up to the large Buddha statue on top of the village’s monastery. We stayed there for hours talking and bonding as a group, and it was an amazing end to very long and difficult, yet rewarding day.

Large Buddha statue