I came to Ladakh to see how things have changed after 14 years; how I have changed. The expected changes are here: more cars in the capital of Leh; the poplar trees are taller; more houses, guests houses and hotels fill this valley that sits at an altitude of 11,200 ft, surrounded by the tallest snow capped peaks of The Himalayas. Progress you’d think. The amount of small businesses selling the same ware, catering to tourists is astounding. How can anyone make a living?
The valley sounds are honking horns during the day, barking dogs at night. Cows and dogs roam everywhere looking for scraps along the roads. There has been a concerted effort to reduce trash and it seems to work. The dogs go hungry and the valley is no trashier than it was 14 years ago.
Climate change is here. Dawa, my guesthouse host, tells me they couldn’t plant barley this spring. The ground was too dry. When the rains came it was too late in the short growing season. Barley is a staple that gets them through the winter. One dry summer isn’t a problem, but shrinking glaciers and a lower water table is. Every time a tourist flushes a toilet he or she helps lower the water table. Yet, Leh needs the tourist income.
When I walk around the valley I enjoy the many Buddhist symbols, the clang of the prayer wheels, the stupas and gompas with their colorful religious paintings on whitewashed walls, the gold and deep maroon of the monks’ robes. I no longer hope to be saved or enlightened by doing rites and rituals. I find my daily meditation enough. But I recognize I have found this ‘enoughness’ here. I’m grateful I got clarity in these mountains and among these friendly people.
The Ladakhis strive for a better life by doing their rituals, by pushing a cart of bottled water up the hill to sell to thirsty tourists; they organize treks, yoga retreats and ultra-marathons for the hungry western mind and ego. They will never catch up to the comfortable luxurious western life. We’ve robbed them of that possibility. I can spend my money here, but it’s a drop in the bucket of need.
Climate change will be the great equalizer. My host family still knows how to grow food, work hard and be entrepreneurial. They may fare better than my trekking guide who lives in a house without a garden and sees his clientele dwindle under the political upheaval in Kashmir. My host family may fare better than those of us who depend on what the global economy will dole out when shortages hit hard.
I will continue to grow my garden when I get home. I will continue with my daily walks while I’m here. That hasn’t changed for me.