Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Aftershock in Leh

Aug 8

Housed in the peaceful confines of Thiksey Monastery for the past five days, we really had no idea. I mean, we had an idea, but it was only an idea – rumored facts and tid-bits of information passed on like a children’s game of Telephone in jumbled Ladakhi-English. But this was no child’s game. 150 dead. 300 in Leh and Changlamsar. 500… It was impossible to imagine, we had to see the reality for ourselves. Were our friends in Leh okay? Our guest house? And Amalie, our sweet surrogate Ladakhi mother, and her son Anchuk? And what about our own families? Had news spread internationally??? We needed to find a phone.

We packed up in a hurry, checked out with the monks, and hit the road again – with our rucksacks on our backs and our thumbs out for Leh. After a short walk, we hopped on the back of a tractor with fifteen or so Ladakhi’s and cruised through town along wet muddy roads. We could see and feel the aftermath of the storm. Trees uprooted. Home sunk in. Roads and streams flowing together as one. We jumped off and continued walking. Soon a black SUV stopped alongside the road. We jumped in and got a very fortunate ride all the way to Leh, with a kind group of men who were driving to the hospital to pick up the recently deceased body of a relative. Needless to say, there was room in the car.

On our way we passed by a large military settlement. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese families lined the streets. With bags packed, they sat waiting in the roasting sun like it was a Delhi train station. We were told that all the migrant workers in Ladakh were being sent home – back to Kashmir, Kathmandu, and Bihar, respectively. The government was boarding plane after plane to get everyone out of Leh as quickly as possible. Driving by the sea of people, the thought occurred to me that Indians must be the most patient people on the planet.

It is interesting though, that all these people are being sent home. Each year they come here in the summer months, during the High season, to earn money off the flood of tourists that pour in from June til September. But now, disaster has struck. The rest of the season will be spent cleaning up the storm, rebuilding houses and repairing peoples’ lives. Not quite lucrative work.


The city of Leh is in ruin. Walking through the streets, it looks and feels as if a bomb has gone off. The air is thick, hot and sticky. With rucksacks on our backs, we wear scarves over our faces to prevent the dust from swallowing us whole. Businesses and buildings are nothing but piles of rubble. Entire houses are destroyed. A family gathers around, staring hopelessly at what was once their life. A western toilet, dirty white porcelain sticks out of the debris. Cars are smashed like metal pancakes in a scrapyard. Only a machine could so completely flatten and destroy such an advent on modern technology. But this damage was not performed by the hands of men. This was the unadulterated work of shakti – the pure, raw power of mother nature. Good ol’ Prakrti huffed and puffed and blew the house down.

It is our first time in Ladakh, and the greatest storm in it’s ancient history has sent the people into hysteria. Strange karma. Now over 1,000 people dead, they say. Many more still, injured or missing, but information is scarce and filtered with fear. For the Ladakhi people the flood is not just a natural disaster, but a spiritual one – inflicted by evil spirits. The Leh locals were absolutely spooked. No one would give us a ride anywhere out of pure fear. 1,000 rps? 2,000… 3,000??? It was no use. We found our friends and of course they were okay though. Amelie tells us in Ladakhi, waving her hands, how she was so worried about us. We give her and the family a big hug and embrace.

Emily told us her story. Sleeping in her guesthouse, she was awoken in the middle of the night, not only to the monstrous storm, but worse to the local Ladakhi women screaming, running through the streets. She ran out of bed with a sprained ankle. Everyone was heading for the hills, literally. Hundreds of people set up camps high along the Japanese Peace Stupa, and across the other side of town, above the main bazaar at the old Leh Palace. The whole town was moving, bustling through the night – like ants trying to avoid the wetness, scurrying to the top of the hill.

Cultural Karma or Climate Change? Probably both. No one in Ladakh had seen anything like this before. We walk past the bus stand where had arrived in this desert mountain land only a few weeks before. It is unrecognizable, absolute ruin. We see a big government bus, just like the one we rode in on, smashed up on it’s side like early retirement. The place looks like a war zone. A wall of Mani prayer wheels have been ripped from their humble stands. Small strips of paper prayers in black Tibetan ink splay everywhere, blowing their final blessings into thin air.

The locals despairingly informed us that it was likely that the annual September Ladakhi Festival would not be celebrated this year (another big hit to the local economy). The energy and hysteria in Leh was just too much. The spook had been further stirred by Vedic Astrology. According to the stars, the worst had yet to come. We immediately turned back around for the peaceful gompa gates of Thiksey. Walking through the local villages we can hear the familiar sounds of the monks’ puja. Only now they are being held for the souls of the deceased.


Anonymous said...

Char, these pictures just make me what to hold you close....ahhhhh. B

Meredith said...

Very moving and vivid description. Puts us right there. So glad you two are safe. You are in the honored roles of compassionate witnesses. Thank you, Mere