How many of you have even heard of Leh or Ladakh? Seriously?! When my friend mentioned that she had volunteered once at the small organization in the mountains of North India, it seemed really cool so I jumped on the opportunity to do the same. But that was it. No prior research to know exactly where it was or what it looked like. All I knew was it was working with kids in the mountains.

Anyone familiar with that region of the world knows how much of a shock I was in for. I don’t think anything at all in my life had ever amazed and surprised me that much before. From the moment the plane approached the landing strip in the sky to the take off for Delhi three weeks later—I was in awe. It’s simple beauty. The surrounding mountain peaks which vary between 4,000—7,000meters create a sort of gigantic nest with a light brown sand desert at its center. You just open your eyes and observe this unbelievable magnificence. You don’t feel you are in India, in China, or in Pakistan, but in between all three. Such a fascinating traditional and cultural mixtures collide without any apparent tensions. I am fully aware that none of my descriptions or photos can ever do true justice to this special place, but I surely hope it serves to motivate some to explore this unpublicized roof of the world.

My plan was to stay at SECMOL for about three weeks to help the grade 10 students as much as possible. But when I got there, I  became frustrated as there didn’t seem to be much I could help out with as there were already five volunteers for 35 students. I was pretty much set on shortening my stay to one week/ten days instead and then venture around Ladakh.

Quickly, I took a liking to the kids, and though they were not representative of the regional culture given the life they have at SECMOL. They taught me about their village culture, and I enjoyed peppering them with questions as learning exercises.

Most of the kids carried out traditions and believed in a religion without even knowing why, simply because it was what heir family did. If you know me well, you know that I love questioning everything to try to understand. So that’s what I did there. Why Buddhism? Why are government jobs the best? Why arranged marriages? Why stay in Ladakh? Why? Why? Why? It was interesting to observe the change in them as they thought about the questions and realized that they didn’t have a clue as to the why they carried out such behavior. Noteworthy and sad, I saw how tradition and family pressure created these young people who just blindly followed without ever questioning or even wondering. It’s understandable how a Muslim may not be able to tell you everything about the Hindu faith, but what I couldn’t fathom or accept was how they could no so little about their own beliefs, traditions, and culture.

Even though 99% of the students were Buddhists (only one kid was Muslim) I quickly became their go-to person on Buddhism. My meditation course taught me so much about Buddha Dhamma and then as a curious person, I went on to read and study more about the Buddha and the religion. When this information was combined with my status as the oldest volunteer by at least a decade my lessons quickly became favorites and the students started calling me Mr. Google.  I like to think I left an impression on them, making them more curious, driving them to seek more information, and encouraging not just to accept everything they are told.

During the first week, a few of us went to the town to see the Muharram (Muslim self-mutilation procession) celebration. Wow, never in my life did I imagine I would witness such a thing. It seemed out of place in the peaceful isolation of Leh. I couldn’t turn away, it was shocking, intriguing and scary all at the same time. Witnessing the power of faith and devotion was profound. In awe, we and the Buddhist watched as thousands of devoted Muslim men walked together as one in a spectacular procession.

Each surrounding village and government organization formed its own clique led by a speaker who boisterously recited prayers as they walked. In rhythm with the chants, the men would raise their fist to the sky and then bring them crashing into their chests. As chants picked up pace, so too did the fervor and pounds of the fists hitting the men’s flesh—louder and louder the sounds rang out. It almost felt as if the foundation of the city was pulsating in time with the beating of fists and the reverberations of the synchronous prayers.  Slightly surreal, my trepidation when walking among the men was papable—me, a white foreigner snapping photos, capturing them in their raw state—souls engaged in praise—I was an outsider. The looks of deep devotion etched into each man’s face as we briefly made eye contact served as a harbinger of something amiss—was I in the wrong place at the wrong time? Unfamiliar with such public displays of spirituality, I mistook their focused countenances for something nefarious.

In extreme acts of piety, within a group, there would be three or four outliers who would hit their heads with rocks or whip a chain with multiple blades across their back in place of pounding their chests. Men deeply entranced by the self-mutilation had to be stopped by their brothers from doing irreparable damage. Blood ran freely from their wounds a macabre portrait amidst the otherwise peaceful procession. Others needed to carried away to the first aid locations to be treated and to break their trance state.

For me, this was the saddest and scariest part. Why? Why mutilate yourself like that? What does one gain from that? Some volunteer said that these were the grounds from which terrorists recruited suicide bombers. I’m not sure if it is true, but it could make sense with such public displays.

Did the Buddhists watching think the others were crazy?

Seeing the Buddhists on the side of the road peacefully watching the processions was an equally intriguing facet. I kept wondering what was going through their mind as they watched—did they think the others were crazy?

The rest of my stay at SECMOL was not as eventful, yet still fulfilling. We revamped the whole biogas structure. I was taught how to milk a cow. My fitness program became more popular and refined. Even Wanchuk, the founder, would attend it from 6:45 am to 7:15 am. I gave a talk on self-confidence a trait sadly lacking among the kids. Despite their incredible potential, they did not think very highly of themselves.

Since the students were studying for their incoming exams, there was not much we could do to help them during their self-study or free time. So the volunteers would just hang out together. The students would permit themselves a little dance party every Wednesday evening for a couple of hours before going back to study. Such incredible discipline to start the party and then end it at 10 pm. on the dot. No drinks nor food. Just music smiles and laughs. A beautiful spectacle of happiness and joy to watch. And even better to take part in it. I was amazed to see how much dancing and singing is part of their culture.

The youngest volunteer, Cameron, a 17-year-old Scottish boy, was addicted to Bollywood movies and kept on playing the same songs and movies every evening after dinner for us. The two songs he would sing all the time were Battameez Dil and Diwali Girlfriend. Little did I know then, that when I taking part in a wedding celebration in Delhi,  I would be asked (with a few other guys) to perform dances to these exact songs.  If only I had paid more attention in Leh, I would have known the steps perfectly for the wedding.

Leh was and is so magical that I decided to leave SECMOL two days before my flight in order to spend more time exploring the town. I thought the nights were cold on the campus…but gosh was I surprised by the frigid nights at the guesthouse. There was no insulation just glass was simply affixed to wooden frames with a few nails—et voila, windows. Freezing cold!

It being low-season, after the sun set, there was absolutely no light in town, nor anything to do at all. The few people outside at night wandered around from house to house with a head lamp. Quite a difference from SECMOL’s electrified campus. Not worse, nor better. Just different.

On my last day, I walked for a few hours. I crossed the city and passed all the military camps arriving at Spituk, a monastery perched atop a hill and dominating the whole valley. Splendid spectacle! I spent a few hours there, catching my breath and resting from the long walk and hike.

After paying for my taxi, they invited me to their street corner stall and bought me a chai and some pastries

On my way back, I got picked up by a van filled with passengers. It so happened that they were people from Rajasthan whom I had seen at the monastery. They were so happy to pick me up in their taxi van. We chatted the whole way. They were shoe shiners who work on the street. In town for the season and the good schools for their kids. They refused to let me pay my taxi fare. Then they invited me to their street corner stall and bought me a chai and some pastries. I sat there on the curb and chatted with them for a good hour. Sure, I got weird looks from the locals, but who cares. I met their daughters, cousins, and friends. It was so nice. I promised to go see them in Jaipur the following year.

After I was starving so I went to the yummy Punjabi restaurant up the road. There I ended up sharing a small table with a couple (him an Indian soldier passionate about photography and living in Delhi, her an Indian bank associate living in Australia. It was their first visit to Ladakh just like me. We had such a fascinating chat about their living situation as well as politics and both our trips. They ended up buying me dessert.

Departing from Leh the next morning was not easy at all. I really fell in love with the place and its people. There is such a magical energy that exudes from the air you breathe up there. I was sad to leave.

The plane took off, cruising above the Himalayas. It was one of the most incredible and breathtaking things I have ever seen. All I could see miles around were the highest peaks on the planet. Where is Everest? Is that K2? How high is this one? 6,000 meters? 8,000 meters? It was insanely beautiful and grand. They say the sky is the limit, it felt like I was flirting with that limit.

I am dying to go back…soon.