Before boarding the airplane that was taking us from Delhi to Leh, we received specific instructions to not speak a word on the plane. We were going to be landing at 12,000 ft above sea level, and we had to conserve as much energy to prevent altitude sickness. I don’t think anyone could have spoken much anyway, because what we saw out the window was close to magical. The mountain ranges were covered in snow, and it was unbelievable that we were going to be landing in Leh.
The first day in Leh we spent laying in bed trying to adjust our bodies to the altitude and oxygen level change. That first day was such a boring day, because all we got up to do was eat. The second day we woke up to snow falling from the Ladakhi skies, and our first trip to the wool store had to happen. I don’t think any of us were ready for this type of weather or were expecting this type of weather in India! After stocking up on wool, we drove to see several Buddhist monasteries on the mountain that had beautiful views. None of us could feel our toes by the end of the day. I think I remember the temperature being like 18 degrees at one point. We were freezing!
The next day we woke up bright and early to prepare for our visit to the Tibetan oracle. At breakfast that day Kim informed us that this was going to be an experience that could shock us all and that we could walk out of it at any time, and I kept thinking to myself ‘this is so interesting, when am I ever going to get to see an oracle again.’ I was really excited to see this woman heal Tsetop, one of our leaders. The actual visit to the oracle was not what any of us were expecting. She began by chanting some songs and words, and then she told Tsetop not to test her because she knew there was nothing wrong with him. Then she proceeded to answer questions about people’s fortune, and that was surprising because I had no idea she was a fortune teller as well. I think that it was very interesting how much faith Tibetans have in this oracle, and it was definitely an experience I will never forget.
Following the events of that morning, we traveled two and a half hours through the mountains to a village called Alchi. Everyone was shivering, but everyone was excited about our home-stays in the village. We split into three groups and headed towards our homes. Our Tibetan host family was so welcoming, and they definitely made us feel at home. We knocked on their kitchen door, and they greeted us with the Tibetan hello, “juley!” We sat around the stove area where there was loads of warmth, and we all soon decided that we were not moving for the rest of the evening. Then our host mom and daughter made us a delicious Tibetan home-cooked meal and served us lots of chai. It was really nice to sit around in a circle and have a conversation with the family we were going to be living with for the next four days. I really enjoyed the time we had to get to know our families, work in the fields, and get to interact with them. They really enjoyed having us and even gave us their address to keep in touch with them in the future. The best part of the home-stay experience, by far, was knowing that after a full day of excursions we could come home to a family and a home-cooked meal.
Most of India is warm and most of the rest is hot. Sometimes I think, “Oh boy, I’d like to fly a kite and have a picnic” or other times I’m like, “Man oh man, it sure is nice to have this pool here”. But then we woke up one day and flew to this place called Ladakh and all of a sudden I’m thinking, “How long can my feet stay numb before I bother someone about possible frost bite?”
Ladakh is in about the farthest northern part of India you could imagine. There are no roads that lead here; the only way is by plane. It is in the middle of the Himalayan Mountains. It’s absolutely cold. And it wouldn’t be so bad, if, say, there was any central heating, but there is not, just these scary individual heaters that look ready to explode. So, basically, going inside is no respite from the cold. But in a way, it’s awesome.
Bon Iver is a great artist (if you haven’t listened to him, now is the time folks) and his song “Re: Stacks” sounds perfect when you’re stuck to your bus seat, steaming up the windows with your breath, and squinting at the snowy tips of the mountains. It was this stark beauty, like seeing a black crow land in the silent snow, but instead it was a lonely Tibetan woman making her way slowly over a gigantic valley. It made me shake my head once more in disbelief at how diverse India is. We spent time dodging street dogs in crowded cities, sweated the minute we woke up on the coast, got sand in our teeth in the desert, and now we’re dots on the immeasurable Himalayan landscape, shivering in our wool sweaters. Most of India is warm and most of the rest is hot, but of course (of course!) there’s the part that’s crazy cold and still just as amazing as all of the rest of it.
On Monday, April 4th we began the last leg of our trip with a morning flight to north India in the land of the Himalayas. The sky view of the Himalayas as we flew into Ladakh was absolutely breathtaking and I found myself, even after nearly 3 months of being here, blown away by the fact that I am in INDIA. In reflecting on the past months, this trip has been an adventure full of variety in every way imaginable. Our arrival in Ladakh added to that variety as a blast of cold wintery air kissed our cheeks, causing them to blush, while the close up view of majestic, snow-capped Himalayan mountains took our breath away; a far cry from the dry heat and flat desert land of Rajasthan but still beautiful in a way that can’t compare to our other experiences. It just goes to show how creative, great, and beautiful the God we serve is.
Our first day in Ladakh (Monday) was spent laying in bed resting so we could adjust to the altitude (we flew in at 12,000 ft). Our second morning here we woke up to a cloudy, snowy morning. It caused nostalgic feelings of Christmas, but those ended as soon as I left my warm bed to turn on the propane heater in our room. Central heating doesn’t exist here, and at night we turn off the heaters and sleep with hot water bottles and tons of blankets, so essentially the temperature inside your room is similar to the outside temperature when you wake up. However, the beauty of the mountains and the snow makes it all worth it and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else! Our first task Tuesday morning, before doing any sight-seeing, was to buy wool hats, mittens, and gloves (which I have proceeded to practically live in for the past week). Our sight-seeing that day was mostly visiting Buddhist monasteries and being in awe of the view of the Himalayas we had from the monasteries (and also wondering how in the world the monks survive here year round—their answer, we train ourselves to not feel the cold-that’s some strong mental control).
On Wednesday we went to the small village of Alchi where we had our home stays through Sunday morning. We stayed with Ladakhi families (which are of Tibetan background); my family consisted of my host mom and dad and two host sisters ages 13 and 10. Being spoiled with central heating in the states, I had trouble sleeping in an unheated room and our first night there, even though I had almost 5 pounds of blankets on me, I slept in all my clothes including my wool hat, gloves, and socks. We woke up on Thursday morning to another cold, snowy day. It was beautiful looking out the windows and seeing the great Himalayas and a light falling snow from the kitchen while we drank warm chai. It felt so homey-and braiding my host sisters’ hair before school along with the warm smile of our host mom only added to the beauty and warmth of the atmosphere. On both Thursday and Friday we spent our days sightseeing with our cross-cultural group, and it was so fun to be able to walk home, to an actual home, and spend time with my host sisters after our day of “school” as well as share supper together as a family.
On Saturday we spent the entire day with our host families, helping them in the fields. For my group that meant clearing rocks and mini boulders out of the field to make a pasture wall in the morning and digging irrigation ditches in the afternoon, after lunch. It sounds like hard work, and it was, but doing it together, with our family, made it fun and I am so grateful I was able to help out as a way to give back for all their caring hospitality. As we were working together, be it lifting rocks or shoveling dirt, I kept thinking of the verse…
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love
Being in India, this land of many religions, where Christianity is a minority and idols are everywhere, my faith has been stretched and challenged in many ways. I have often found myself wondering how I am to relate to the people of many different faiths, who worship many different gods, around me. I have wrestled with the question what makes Christianity the Truth and everything else idol worship. I have even wondered at times if maybe each religion, which has its differences but also many similar underlying themes, could possibly be referring to the same God with different cultural twists. Let’s be honest, Christianity is very westernized in some ways. I do not have the complete answers to these questions, but I personally still believe in Jesus and his love and saving grace. However, I find it hard to judge others who are not Christian-like my Buddhist host family. And in referencing the verse of “They’ll Know We Are Christians”, I am reminded that it’s not up to us to judge, it’s up to us to love. No matter what we believe, we are all (from the Christian view) created in God’s image, and that alone is enough to unite us as “one in the Spirit” and “one in the Lord”. In being one in this way, it’s important that we love one another, respect one another, and see each other as equals. Being a Christian does not put me above those who believe something else; being of light skin color does not put me above those who are darker. I believe we are all made in the image of God, because of that we are all one in His spirit, and we must let the love of these two previous statements shine through in our interactions with whoever we meet. Experiencing this kind of love with my host family really allowed me to bond with them in a deep, special way and a tearful goodbye was experienced this morning as we parted ways after living together for four days. I find joy, though, in knowing that we are one in the Spirit, both created in the image of the same God, a bond no distance can separate.