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ladakh is a dramatic contour map viewed from above, knife-blade ridges and
rippling valleys of cascading diagonal striation that make the millennial
texturing of the earth an immediate, tangible thing. we reached leh early in
the morning, descending from the airplane to the runway and out into the
cold, thin air. a rocky desert landscape rose and plunged in muted colors to
either side, gray, snow-capped mountains cutting the horizon to the front.
the sky was impossibly blue, a color of crayon boxes or paint but not of
nature, arching above into a bowl of definite form and dimension. the sun is
nearer here. it reflected off of the snow on the mountains, turning the
peaks into light mirrors of white.

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two jeeps took us to our guest house-- built in the traditional ladakhi
style, square, flat-roofed, with walls of stone and white plaster and
intricately carved window frames of wood. a string of prayer flags wound
around the edge of the roof, and bales of hay. there were soft warm beds
with thick blankets, and low painted tables in the common room. even at
11,000 feet, we were all well, though weak-- for the next two days we
wandered slowly through the capitol city (the roads silent and empty, many
shops vacant with the passes still closed by snow), sleeping and eating
tremendously under the gentle care of rigzin and kunzes.

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on saturday morning we left for the village of domkhar; kunzes gave us a box
of precious vegetables to deliver to her sister there. the drive was slow
and easy and beautiful-- we stopped to eat lunch by the riverside, behind a
crumbling stone stupa. early evening, and we came at last to namgyel's
house; his family served us butter tea and dried apricots, and we waited to
meet the families that would take us in for the next week.

my mother is beautiful, hair tied back in a green cloth, cheeks red in the
wind, brown skin wrinkled from weather and smiling. she wears a goncha
(thick and woolen, reaching from chin to wrists and falling in folds to the
ankles, tied at the waist with a bright-colored scarf), a white down vest,
and pink sneakers. she led me to the house, and i stooped low through the
gate. two cows, a three-day-old calf, and two dzomo (these, half cow, half
yak) walked lazily around the enclosed yard, nosing at the front door when
my mother opened it (it was not locked). she spoke little English and i,
less ladakhi, but we sat together in the kitchen smiling broadly at each
other and playing the butter tea game (take, take! no, no, i'm fine, thank
you. take, just a little! one cup! no, no, really! take!) until my father
and sister came home.

tashi-le is the headmaster of the domkhar school. he started teaching when
he was nineteen; this october he will reach the compulsory retirement age of
fifty-eight. in the mornings and evenings we talked together-- at length,
and depth, about everything-- jammu-kashmir politics and meditation and
chattel slavery and classical architecture and us geography and the ladakhi
government education system and the battle of wounded knee. after every
conversation i was left high and exhausted, as if i had just stood for an
examination that i was not quite sure i'd passed. he was kind and good and
welcoming, and this made me even more anxious to meet whatever expectations
he might have.

during the day, we volunteered at the school. at ten the bell rings for
morning assembly, and the children form by class into ranks in the
schoolyard. their maroon sweaters were bright in the sun, and dust from the
ground made clouds over their shoes and their trousers' faded blue. at
eleven we would break into groups for English conversation, and slowly
slowly over the week shy silence and giggles turned into increasingly
confident talk-- even genuine connection. we played volleyball together
after school, and the ninth class girls tried to teach me complicated songs
in ladakhi. we sang this land is your land for them, and they knew the
melody by the second chorus.

after school my family let me come to irrigate the fields. i walked with
ama-le through the afternoon, then fading into grey behind the clouds. the
wind was strong, catching her skirt around her ankles as we passed through
the empty market, the few stone buildings locked. i was grateful for the
shovel she had reluctantly let me carry, grateful to have a callous at the
base of my thumb. her hands were like stone.

the fields dropped off on one side in ledges, hundreds of feet down to the
indus gorge. somehow there were poplars growing. water ran in sheets over
the rock walls, flowing through cracks, back down to the river. on the other
side a brook followed the road, lined in slate. crossing ama-le stopped,
crouching low on the grass of the narrow bank. our fields. she worked the
stones free under the freezing water and then piled them again, sealed with
old burlap sacks, diverting the flow into the channels running neatly down
the length of her land. the fields were a complicated pattern of ridges and
flats, planted with vegetables, barley, and apricot trees. she broke one of
the small earth bunds, and now the water began slowly to flood the small
plot behind it. we used carved wooden spades on long handles to pull the
flow to the edges; when one square had finished she built and broke the wall
again, starting on the next. everyone passing on the roadway would greet
us-- ju-le, hand to forehead. each farmer would take the water once in a

on wednesday, the three separate parts of domkhar village came together to
clean the river. all day we walked with the school children up the valley,
jumping from rock to rock, pulling plastic bottles and metallic biscuit
wrappers from the water. at every house villagers would offer tea, calling
us to take rest with them in the sun. we reached the upper school in the
afternoon for a picnic feast and long speeches about the importance of
protecting the environment and building community-- talks that seemed
superfluous after the action of the day. children with glowing faces chanted
call-and- response slogans about clean water as ancient men and women
spinning mani wheels looked on, smiling.

and then, in too little time, we were gone. too few bowls of skew, of kolak
(barley flour and butter tea mixed together into soft dough, eaten every
morning for breakfast with fresh dzomo curd), connections made to firmly and
let go too soon.