Welcome! Jullay! This is the beginning of an extraordinary unfolding together, and I so look forward to meeting you all in about a month!
I just returned last night to warmer climes after spending the last month up in Ladakh with Dragons. Although I just emerged chapped and sunburnt and am still thawing out from the unusually low temperatures for this season, I am itching to get back up onto the geographic Tibetan plateau with all of you! I imagine the weather will actually shift quite dramatically in the next few weeks and Ladakh will be more climatically hospitable, but as they say, if you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes. When the sun goes behind the clouds, get out your down jackets, but when it’s out, you’ll be wishing you could actually shed layers of skin!
I was quite pleased when a flurry of e-mails were sent a few weeks ago informing me of our re-routing to India. Although Nepal is a place close to my heart and I know Amrit had organized an awesome itinerary there for us, the dramatic peaks of Ladakh speak to my spirit and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to spend more time up there this summer. Adrian, Amrit, and I all have spent extensive time up in that western corner of the Himalayas, and we are excited to share our passion and perspectives with you. We are still working out the kinks to put together our last-minute itinerary, but know that we have some serious treats in store for you! With Adrian and the whole Dragons office in the States, and me still in India, we are literally working round-the-clock to get final arrangements made so that everything will run smoothly upon your arrival.
In anticipation of that arrival, I’ve been reflecting on my first trip to this part of the world, 11 years ago. Nothing can quite prepare you for the sensory overload you will likely experience, for the seeming paradoxes existant in any one scene, for the simultaneous levels of response that you’ll have. I’m not going to fill your head with too many expectations, but wanted to shed some (abridged) light on Ladakh as a unique geographical area with a profoundly rich heritage and fascinating evolving culture. Ladakh’s name itself means "land of high passes." It rests at a significant physical crossroads between the so-called "east" and "west," made famous by the ancient Silk Road. It shares sensitive political borders with China, Tibet, and Pakistan. It became a melting pot of goods, ideas, languages, and traditions that we can still see the remnants of today. Of the many products exported throughout India, China, and the Persian empire from this harsh land were ponies, apricots, pasm (the wool used to make the famous Kashmiri Pashmina/cashmere shawls), and salt from neighboring areas in western Tibet. It became an important cultural center, embracing the Muslim and Buddhist faiths of the traders who settled there, and influenced by Tibetan, Indian, Arabic, and Persian arts. Despite being a very harsh localle of altitudes starting at 11,000 ft, extreme temperatures and seemingly infertile sands, the Ladakhis developed an advanced irrigation system allowing them to live and sustain themselves in some of the most difficult landscapes on earth. Although Ladakh shares a common religious and cultural heritage with Tibetans, and were often alied with Central Tibet throughout the ages, Ladakh has is a unique culture and language of it’s own. Finally, though some romantically call Ladakh the "Last Shangri-la" and "Little Tibet," and though there are many relics of the past that make it seem like you’re traveling back in time, remember that this is a developing land with an evolving culture influenced now, as it has been throughout the ages, by it’s recent exposure to the "modern" world. You will soon see it yourself, and we will discuss all of this later, but until then, please go check out a map and locate this incredible land of shifting sandunes and sharp mountaneous pinnacles, of deep red canyons and green settled oases’.
In an effort to give you a taste of what adventures you’re in for, I’ll describe a bit about our (still evolving) itinerary: from our descent into the wilds of metropolitan Delhi to our ascent into Leh, Ladakh, we will fly over some spectacular territory, and then begin winding our way through narrow bazaars ripe and wafting with piquant smells of spices tickling our nostrils, and through some gnarly mountain ranges and rugged villages perched precariously on mountain edges. We will spend some time acclimatizing to our new altitude and exploring the capital, Leh, and then head west for homestays and our service project (still in the works – we will inform you as soon as we have more info). We will conclude our program with a several-day trek through soe of the most dramatic ranges you’ll ever see! And then, a short flight back to Delhi and onwards…You’re in for a wild ride!
And so, from the outer to the inner, I suppose I should tell you a little bit about myself. I was in your similar shoes about 11 years ago when I felt the mighty Himalaya calling my name for reasons then unknown and still unfolding. I was about your age, and found Where There Be Dragons through a fluke internet search. I chose to travel to Nepal and Tibet that summer (1999) when I was 16, and haven’t felt the extinguishment of the call to Asia since – in fact, it continues to grow with each successive journey back. I returned to the Himalayas in 2001 between high school and college with Dragons’ Tibetan Studies Semester. It was on that program that I discovered the Tibetan art of Thangka painting (Buddhist ritual painting of various deities and meditational scapes) as my ISP project, and have been continuing my study ever since.
I went to art school after my return which I enjoyed immensely, but soon discovered that I was given the incredibly gift of studying various forms of expression, but I lacked much of meaning to express. A year and a half into art school, I transferred to Naropa University where I completed my B.A. in Religious Studies with a concentration in Tibetan Buddhism. Studying Buddhism in this western setting was illuminating and a necessary accompaniment to my studies while in the very heart of it in Tibetan areas in the Himalayas. Above all, my experience at Naropa convinced me that a contemplative approach to study and life was of paramount importance to me in order to uncover those deeper truths that I always sought above all else. I learned the importance of taking responsibility for my reactions to the world rather than respond with aggression or apathy. Each moment offers us infinite opportunities to grow as compassionate beings part of the great human family. It also offers us choice, and thus total independence – the opportunity to not be victim to the storms and gales that the world throws at us, but rather respond with grace and thus transform the whole situation.
After completing University, I have dedicated the years until now to “experiments in truth” as Gandhi coined, primarily with the backdrops of Asia midwifing these explorations of inner and outer dimensions. My travels have taken me through much of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas: practicing the intricate art of Thangka painting in Kathmandu, trekking to remote meditation caves of Tibetan masters in Nepal and Tibet, riding the rails in India while sipping small cups of steaming chai, wandering through cloud forests that end in white mist and always a welcoming village to lay my head in the evening – belly full of dal bhat (Nepali rice and lentils), volunteering after the 2004 tsunami in Thailand building boats for fishermen who lost them, exploring the jungles and rivers and rice paddies of Laos, being dwarfed by the majestic Angkor ruins in Cambodia, attempting to build a wooden schooner in Th
ailand with some friends with the dream of sailing around the world (hasn’t happened yet!), living in a Chinese city to check out what in the world is going on in that very complex country, completing several yoga teacher trainings in tropical Kerala and Goa (South India), and living in Kathmandu, taking many field trips out into the mountain villages to help the construction of a school in my friend’s remote village. These travels have led to numerous interactions with the great human family that have humbled me, left me on the hay laughing, made me question myself and the state of the world, frustrated me, and always kept me coming back for more. What is so wonderful is that many of these experiences have been while instructing Dragons programs (this program will be the 11th time I have instructed for WTBD). I cannot wait to see what we come across!
One again, I bow to all of you who have chosen to embark on such a journey together. Not only does it take a certain amount of courage to leave behind what is familiar and comfortable, but it takes a certain surrender to the draws of the wild, a surrender we should respect and feel honored by. What lies ahead involves a tickling of all our senses, a recognition of the brother and sisterhood between ourselves and those we will meet along the way, and a healthy dose of bliss, challenge, and great adventure all around!
We will all be in touch as our plans develop, and I look forward to seeing your (jetlagged) faces at the Delhi airport in a month! Until then, please feel free to e-mail me with any questions.
See you soon!