Before I arrive in Ladakh, I am apprehensive. For an ole’ fogey like me, I can not ignore the altitude of 11,000 feet. Don, a friend in Atlanta, even emailed me the Mayo Clinics treatment for high altitude sickness. I plan on slowing down and acclimatize myself to the high altitude for the first days. I didn’t realize that I would slow down for the last few days also. The later slowing down results from Delhi belly as well as from the difficulty of obtaining an official permit for travel to Nubra Valley and the lake region. While disappointed at first, I have come to enjoy my “slow down,” my last two days in Ladakh. During these days, I participate in a tree planing; I have a conversation with a young Muslim woman; and I enjoy thinking abut one employee’s service.
Surprising to me, I get to participate in a tree planting. Early one day, I see a hole dug in the small courtyard of the guesthouse. The hole is almost three feet deep and wide enough to hide a 55” TV. While I wonder why it has been dug, I soon begin thinking about visiting an “Ice Stupa” and Chemsey Monastery. Upon my return that evening, the mystery is solved. I see a fifteen foot poplar tree lying beside the hole. Sadly, the root ball is barely larger than my shoe. Although no arborist, I’ve planted about 50-60 Japanese seedlings in our yard and in various pots around our yard. In other words, I have some experience with trees.
After breakfast the next morning, I see the guesthouse owner and a worker by the hole. As I approach, I see a second hole just as deep. The quiet, friendly owner greets me: “Good morning sir. Do you see what we are doing?” I respond “It is tree planting time! Why the second hole?” Answering my question, he says “My wife realized that the tree would eventually grow into the power lines. My worker dug the second hole so that won’t happen.” As I had focused on the depth of the hole, I had not noticed the wires overhead. While I didn’t want to be the arrogant, all-knowing American, I know that the owner of the guesthouse is a businessman, not a farmer. I have to say: “Good idea, but I think that you still have a problem. In my experience planting trees, I never plant the root ball that deep. If the tree is planted too deep, the tree will suffocate since most tree roots are within a foot or so of the surface.” He frowned “So you think that we’ve dug too deep a hole?” Being honest, I answer him “I’d plant the tree half that deep. Because of the size of the tree, you’ll also need some guide wires for a few months to support the tree in the wind.” By that point in the conversation, two more workers and his wife join our little group. Overcoming the obstacle, he says to his workers “Let’s fill in the second hole a bit and put the tree in it.” While one worker shovels some dirt into the hole, two others start pushing and pulling the tree toward the hole, a small branch here and there being snapped. As they raise it vertical, they struggle to place it properly in the hole, twisting the tree one way and then turning the tree another way. While not wanting to usurp the workers’ role, I place my feet on either side of the hole and muscle the tree into the middle of the hole. The original worker shovels more and more dirt around the tree. As the dirt fills fills the hole, we laugh and give each other the thumb’s up sign.
I love working in our yard. I love planting my Japanese maples; I love finding new seedlings shoot up around our yard to give to friends and family; I love watching the amazing color of those trees, some are purple-tipped or lemon colored in the spring, some are translucent, fire red in the fall. But that is back in Atlanta. I never expected to enjoy a tree planting in Ladakh!
Later that last morning I am able to have a conversation with Arifa, the owner’s niece and general manager of the guesthouse. Arifa is young, probably mid-twenties. On a previous day, as I began asking her some questions, she apologetically said “I can’t answer your questions much now, I have to go work at a NGO for a few hours.” Intrigued, I ask her if we could talk about that NGO when it is convenient for her. She agrees.
Our conversation takes place that last morning. She begins: “I work for One Stop Center. It is a non-profit that helps women caught-up in domestic violence.” While I want to know more, I don’t want to seem to inquisitive. “Can you tell me about it?” She begins: “it started in Delhi two or three years ago. It is now in Jammu and Shrinigar. This fall it opened a Leh office.” “How does it work?” I ask. “We have a toll-free number and we have talked with other organizations which try to help women. Women can call us in private or women can come to our office.” I follow-up by asking “what can you say about the women One Stop Center helps?” “Sadly, their husbands abuse them. Sometimes their husbands are simply using their physical strength to hurt them; sometimes their husbands are drunk and hurt them; sometimes the husband wastes all the money and there is no food for her or the children. We have a place where those women can move if they have to.”
As four new guests enter the courtyard, I realize that our brief conversation must end. I ask: “Why have you gotten involved?” Arifa replies: “To be honest, I was looking for an extra job this past fall. I applied, interviewed and they accepted me. I love it. I work with Muslim women, Buddhist women, Hindu women. It doesn’t matter which religion, women in all of these religions can be in bad situations. I’m glad to be part of an organization that helps.” As she moves to greet the new guests, I thank her. I also smile. I’m glad to see another person, this time a young Muslim woman, helping others in her community.
During these last hours of “slowing down,” I notice and think about Ashok. I’ve had many encounters with Ashok during my stay at the guesthouse. He carried my suitcase to my room. He brought a table to my room so that I have a writing surface. He always asked if I need water, hot water, or tea, and brought it if I request it. He brought a hot water bottle to my room every night. He did my laundry when I realized that my sweater was filthy in the outdoor washer. When I decide to have some morning meals in my room rather than in the dining area (at least my room has a hot water heater during the 25 degree mornings), Ashok brought the toast and eggs to my room. Ashok is the glue for this guesthouse. There is nothing that he won’t do, nothing that he doesn’t do. While I don’t want to sound as though I expect him to take the overly deferential, servant attitude, I do appreciate his spirit of being willing to help in anyway that he can. Not only is he a tireless worker, but I enjoy his smile and his kindness.
I “slow down” during the last couple of days in Leh. If I had not slowed down, I might have had time for a tree planting, a conversation, and a sense of appreciation for the guesthouse most valuable employee. I’m not sure. I suspect that I might have let my desire to fill my hours with seeing more sights lead me to overlook the simple shared activity of a tree planting, the encouraging example of a young Muslim woman, and appreciating the kind actions of a ever-helpful employee right outside my guesthouse door.