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Group Yak- Landing in Delhi, Visit at the SECMOL School

In the depths of the night in Delhi, the dragons lugged their stuffed packs—filled with new striped purple thermals and quality “Wind Stopter” knockoff jackets and headed to the airport. We knew little about the land we were about to enter except that it was rumored to be one of the most stunning places in the world, and every time we mentioned Ladakh, we were met with either fond memories or burning desires to come along. This was a sharp contrast to the last time we were in transit and mentioned our Banaras destination, and were met with either groans of disgust or admiring pats on the back.

So, after a quick check in, we boarded the plane and were off!

Ears popping and nose pressed against the window, we watched the land slowly change from metropolis to farmland to snowy peaks that burst out of a sea of mountains. Slowly the plane descended, lightly brushing down onto a small smooth patch of ground within a ring of slopes. In the airport, greeting us with a silk scarf, a traditional gift of greeting, we met by our new instructor, Navita. A native of Bangalore but a Ladakhi mountaineer and traveler at heart, she immediately became part of the group, sharing insights about Ladakhi culture and Buddhism.

To adjust to the change from sea level Banaras to 12,000 feet Leh, the first day was spent lazing around the hotel. We alternated between drifting to sleep, nuzzled under our plush comforters and shoveling down delicious subzis of carrots and potatoes, accented by the perfect sprinkling of garam masala. It is often difficult for the body to adjust to great changes in altitude, so the blissful relaxation and steaming bowls of thukpa were just what we needed acclimatize to life in the clouds.

Then we were off to SECMOL, a NGO located on the outskirts of Leh that offers alternative education to Ladakhi high school students. SECMOL was founded to change the flawed system of education in Ladakh that expects students to learn through the English and Urdu medium, even though a vast majority of their teachers are fluent in neither. This leads to brute memorization of key phrases and answers that are hastily scribbled onto government exams. This is a problem all over India, but with a 50% pass rate for students of 10th grade, especially prevalent in Ladakh.

We spend our time at the SECMOL center, a haven for students that have failed their 10th grade exams or are studying for their bachelors’ degree in Leh. SECMOL does not want to become another education force that encourages blind studying without learning, so instead focuses on conversational English, development and sustainability, and other core subjects.

As volunteers, we lead the conversational English classes. Even though most kids have been studying English since first grade, most are at a very low level and are unable to fully communicate. So, to push kids out of their comfort zone and maximize their learning, we would break into groups with the students and talk to them about various topics. We began with the basics, them sharing stories and information about our different lives. They buried in questions, eagerly asking “What type of animals live in your village?” and “Do Americans really think that milk comes from the refrigerator? Do they even know what cows are?!” As we started to get to know the students, the questions became harder and we struggled to find the words to describe our home (a place that seems at times, almost imagined in such a far away land). We tried to describe the intangible hierarchy that lies under the surface of America, illustrating our problems of discrimination of gender, sexuality, skin color and social class. In turn, they explained the different classes and castes, describing how the musicians of the low caste were forced to sit in the back rows of festivals and were sometimes still prohibited from sharing utensils with those of higher castes.

Outside of the classroom, we became part of the SECMOL community by joining the Ladakhi students in their daily routine. We began the morning by running across the chilly, windswept grounds into the deliciously toasty kitchen for breakfast with the students. Munching on thick Tibetan bread slathered in tart, sticky apricot jam, we would chat with the students and play a quick round of pick-up-sticks. Then we joined them for chores– cleaning the windows, stripping branches for cow fodder, gardening or tidying a beautiful snow sculpture that was an artificial glacier/school monument/Buddhist shrine. Some days we would go back to our rooms to snuggle with a book or would wander over to the volleyball courts for an playful match, but we would always drift back and meet in the kitchen for a cup of chai and steamed bun.

Though we were supposedly volunteers for those 5 days at SECMOL, in the end, we learned just as much from our Ladakhi friends as they did from us.