by Ariel Bleth
In the darkening room, as dusk drew its graying curtains, there was enough light to see the dirt smudged on the aqua walls. The volunteer coordinator, Wongel, sat next to me and translated. We were on rugs thrown over thin mats, with small tables in front of our crossed legs to hold the tea that could not be refused even though we were not thirsty. My “adopted” mother, my Ama-le, seemed mostly concerned that we eat her hard biscuits and drink her sweet milk tea. My hand trembled slightly as I held the teacup and tried to look like someone she would be pleased to have in her home for a month, someone who could do the field work that she needed to have done. Wongel explained that she didn’t expect me to be able to do as much work as they did and that she wanted me to let her know if I had any problems at all. Silently I questioned how this would ever happen, given my half-day Ladakhi language workshop and her apparent lack of English. I realized that my few learned phrases, like “Jule, Kamzang-le” (hello, how are you?), wouldn’t go very far.
I went to Ladakh, a mountainous desert region nestled high in the Indian Himalayas, to live for a month with a family and help them farm, as well as to learn what I could about their traditional Buddhist culture and the forces that shape their relationship to one another and their environment. Our home had one main room, where we cooked, ate, and socialized. That first night, Ama-le squatted in the corner. There were bowls of flour and water on the floor before her, and plates of shelled peas, sliced potatoes and leafy greens. I took my same place on the mats, waiting for some indication from Ama-le as to what I should be doing. She mixed the flour and water, lightly kneading the dough while Nono-le (Ladakhi for young brother) shuffled around the room, his arms held straight out before him like a zombie. Three steps and he was down, crawling. Ama-le delighted in what appeared to be her grandson’s newly acquired skill of walking. Imitating him with a waddle and extended arms, she looked at me and laughed.
Motioning for me to join her, Ama-le patted the homemade stool of bound egg crates that was by her side. Rolling a ball of dough between her palms till it snaked down toward the floor, she began pinching off the top. Sku, she explained. Flattening and indenting the center in single swift movements, small, round noodles started to fill the plate. I had read about sku, one of the many traditional barley dishes made in Ladakh. Taking a turn at it, I was glad to be busy, despite my self-conscious working of the dough as if attempting to construct a Ladakhi sentence. My noodles were irregular and what she did in one motion, I did in two or three. But Ama-le’s attention was on her grandson, not my unattractive sku, and I was grateful that he entertained us, his antics filling the otherwise awkward silences.
In time, I moved into a routine where the need for answers and understanding dropped away. The growing acuity of my senses jostled to fill the space of an emptying mind. Sound took on a new dimension. I heard Ama-le hum on the terrace as she piled grass bundles, around the roof perimeter, for winter fodder. The prayerful release of the undulating flags blended with the quiet chanting that came from the prayer room. I knew that the sound that the dowel made, as I churned the milk, told Ama-le whether my pressure and rhythm would result in butter. And in the fields, I cut grass to the soothing rustle of the swaying barley stems, and the singsong rhythm of mother and daughter conversing. Their words, without meaning to me, transformed into an instrumental melody.
I remember Ama-le sitting across from me on the roof terrace, a large heap of roasted barley seed between us. A canvas tarp was spread out to hold the drying grain. Her hands moved through the top layers of seed in circular motions, thinning and evening them out. My own hands dove in to copy her movement. The warmth of the golden pile startled me. Kernels fell through my fingers as I looked for pebbles and dirt and the action unleashed a smoky aroma. We eventually bagged the readied grain in gunny sacks, to be milled into flour – for making chang, the local beer, and tsampa, flour often mixed with tea. I smiled at Ama-le’s frugality. She discovers every kernel that strays from the tarp. We worked in silence mostly - a silence that wove the rhythm of our motion, the texture of the grain, and the intensity of the mid-morning sun into a meditation. No words were needed.
At the end of my time with Ama-le and her family, I couldn’t formulate answers to the questions that originally gave shape to my journey. I couldn’t confirm, unequivocally, my notions of who the Ladakhis were, what perspectives and values are missing in the modern world, and how connection to each other and to our environment might be reclaimed by those of us who have forgotten. In the end, all I could claim was joy - a joy that had been building up inside me like a slow rising tide, almost invisibly gaining ground. It seemed to seep into the grooves that my body’s weight made on the path that I followed day after day; the path that was well worn, bearing my very own footprints, as I returned to the field, to the family, to the stream, again and again. It suffused my body, its rhythm tethering me to this very earth.
Ariel Bleth is a freelance writer based in Missoula, MT. She enjoys writing about the transformative potential of travel and connecting to other cultures. Much of her writing is inspired by the work she has done on food security and economic development projects both locally and abroad. She blogs for Huffington Post and at arielbleth.com.
[photo credit: By Martin Sojka .. www.VisualEscap.es via flickr creative commons license]