Life in Leh


joylani-thumbnail.JPGWe’ve been in and about the town of Leh for two weeks now and plan to stay another week to catch a polo match and the opening of the Ladakh Festival. By now we are familiar with the main part of town and have developed a bit of routine, which, mostly for the benefit of our parents J, I will share below.
Each day begins at about 7am when we easily awaken to the sounds of someone sweeping outside our door, the sun coming in through the window, and often a cow mooing or donkey making whatever sound a donkey makes. I think it’s called braying but it really sounds much more miserable than the word lets on. (Sadly, we also wake up early because we’ve gone to bed usually well before 11pm since there’s not much to do after dark and the dim lighting in our room isn’t too conducive to reading.) I get up and close the window to block out the smell from the daily trash burn outside our window. At about the same time, give or take 15-30 minutes, the water is hot enough for a shower. I take mine first, and then while Matt takes his shower I wash undergarments in the sink. The rest of our laundry is sent out every few days because: 1.) We’re not technically supposed to do laundry in our bathroom (I do the aforementioned laundry because I don’t want a stranger stomping on my undies in a bucket of cold soapy water used to wash who knows how many other people’s clothes, and then hung up in our hotel courtyard for everyone to see) and 2.) We’re too lazy to take it down to the stream. (I did try it though. Once. I took a bunch of dirty socks in a bucket down to the stream and did my best to wash them while local women doing their laundry stared at me, probably critiquing my amateur technique.)
Our bathroom is in the front of our room, with a little window for light and ventilation facing the outside corridor. Most of the window is painted orange to provide some privacy from passersby, but there is a small strip left clear at the bottom of the window (right at eyelevel). I don’t know why the painters didn’t leave the clear strip at the top of the window instead. One of the first things I did when we got our room was scotch tape some pink toilet paper across the clear portion which has worked pretty well so far. The only other problem with the window is it is a little awkward to be doing your business and hear someone walk by, just a foot away from you, but thankfully on the other side of the wall.
In case you are wondering why I wash clothes the same time as Matt showers, well, in my sad little mind I try to hide the obvious sounds of washing clothes with Matt’s shower so that they won’t catch on that I am doing the forbidden laundry in the bathroom. It seems to work, but I’m sure they (the hotel staff) must be a little suspicious that we don’t send out any undergarments to be washed. After I wring out the clothes I hang them up on our makeshift clothesline-speaker wire (doesn’t stretch!) tied between two plastic chairs, to dry. Matt and I brush our teeth with Aquafina (even the hotel recommends not to drink the water from the tap), and we lock up our room (deadbolt on the outside of the door secured with a padlock) as we begin the 10-minute walk into the main section of town to our favorite breakfast spot, Pumpernickel Bakery and Peace Cafe.
There are four tables outside and seven inside. We sit inside because the tables outside are always full, except for once when we managed to snag one only to end up swatting flies throughout the meal. The inside has dim lighting, but the teal paint on the walls and colorful lanterns give the place a relaxed atmosphere. Also, much to my relief (you would understand too if you had to listen to the same tape of Hindi music 15 times over in one car ride), as long as the electricity is running, classical music plays in the background. Not Indian classical music, but the Western stuff, like the kind you can get on AM radio, or playing on some college stations at random times. It’s a nice way to start the day at the Pumpernickel. Once I did see a mouse scurry across the floor and under the refrigerator, but the food tastes good and since the place is almost always full, I figure the food must be pretty fresh. I order the same thing each day: muesli with banana, honey, and curds (plain yogurt). It looks a little funky and lumpy, but it tastes great and is healthy too. Matt usually orders either a pancake with lemon and sugar or the set breakfast: eggs (little ones with yolks that are a pale yellow-gray, he gets them hard-boiled), hash browns (more like country fried potatoes only not crispy), toast, and tea.
On days when we aren’t out seeing the sights by jeep, we usually head back to our hotel after breakfast to read and write. There is a little courtyard with some plastic tables and chairs surrounded by fruit trees. We stay out there swatting flies, chatting, and writing until it gets too hot. At that point we’ll go up to our room to continue trying to be productive until we get either too bored or too hungry. Then we’ll, as we like to say, “head back to town” for something to eat or to run errands. “Errands” may consist of buying supplies such as bottled water or toilet paper (not supplied by the hotel), spending 2+ hours at the Air India office picking up handwritten tickets, visiting multiple tour agencies to find people to split the cost of a jeep for side-trips, Matt getting a shave…I know what you may be thinking because I have thought the same thing. That’s it?! We quit our jobs to travel around, and now we’re just going through the days eating, sleeping, and hanging out?!
I admit that this isn’t quite what I had imagined for this part of our trip; I thought maybe we would be doing a little bit more, but I’ve reasoned that it’s ok. Having exhausted the nearby gompas, Buddhist monasteries, (or is it that I’m exhausted of seeing them rather than that we’ve seen them all? J) and gone on a few jeep trips to see the areas surrounding Leh, it is nice to have a block of down-time to think through everything we’ve done so far. Matt and I have finished up a rough plan for the rest of our time in India, compiled a few photo albums which we’ll post as soon as we get a decent internet connection (aka arrive back in Delhi), and each of us has had plenty of time to catch up on writing, something that’s hard to do when you’re on the road or site-seeing back-to-back days. Even though waiting an extra week just to catch the beginning of the Ladakh Festival is longer than we would have preferred to stay in Leh, being able to catch up on the aforementioned items has been good (and hopefully the Ladakh festival will be good too!). In the meantime I’ve stopped having dreams about finding a new hotel room (we usually look at at least 2-3 places before deciding where to stay). It has definitely been nice having one place for the last two weeks.
The sun starts to set just as dinnertime rolls around; deciding where to eat dinner, Matt and I throw around the names of the few restaurants we’ve deemed worthy of our pallet. Leh View? (Service is slow but the Kashmiri kahva tea and the view are nice.) Grill and Curry? (The food is ok, but seeing the waiter using the public urinal [see next paragraph] was a little strange.) Pumpernickle? (Not again!) We finally decide on a place to go. Once at the restaurant we give the menu an obligatory once over, even though we usually already know what we will order. Having had too many bad bowls of fried rice and strange tasting chow mien, Matt and I are slowly coming back around to eating Indian fare for dinner. Chicken tikka, dal, paneer and naan have become our staples once again. Since almost all the restaurants cater to the tourists, most have a “continental” section on their menu which we avoid at all costs. Selections include: Maxican beans, pinecakes, soushee…One time I ordered chocolate pudding, which turned out to be a bowl of hot fudge. It was tasty, but not quite what I had anticipated. At least by ordering local cuisine, we know more of what to expect.
After dinner, and maybe some internet, we head back to our hotel. To get back, we must brave the shortcut, or Poo-poo Alley as I have affectionately named it after an alley by where I used to work in San Francisco. It’s ok in the daytime when you can easily spot where a donkey has been and avoid the mud puddles, among other things. But in the dark without a flashlight, navigating our way back is a little bit more challenging. The shortcut is really just a side-street; some parts are just wide enough to fit a car and a pedestrian, if you stand close to the wall. A polluted stream flows alongside the path, attracting donkeys and mangy dogs that sip from the water and rummage through the trash that collects on the rocks. Just off the main road about 30 yards from the last set of shops (including Penguin Bakery, which has the best bread rolls in town), the Alley passes by an open lot on the right, surrounded by a stone wall. There is a wooden door, but I don’t think anyone uses it for anything other than a urinal. (In addition to the unmistakable smell of urine, we’ve seen several of the local fellows using it as the spot to relieve themselves as many of the restaurants and shops don’t have their own restroom, and, anyways, male public urination is common in India.) I try to walk by this section as fast as possible, holding my breath at the same time. Various other points have a similar odor, and I try to avoid stepping in anything that has trickled into the road. Further down the road we pass by simple homes and driveways to various guesthouses. (One of my favorites is the Auspicious Hotel, where “hospitality is our slogan.” Gee, I sure hope so. You’re a hotel for goodness sake.) Today we passed by a dead dog, kinda freaky. Unlike the Poo-Poo Alley back home though, I have yet to see a syringe. Luckily, even on the nights when we’ve forgotten our flashlight, Matt and I have had no incidents involving the Alley’s namesake. Nevertheless, we never know what we will see during our daily walks to and from town.
And that concludes this little section on our life in Leh. Hope you liked it!

164_6445-4.JPGAs Joylani mentioned, we began our morning routine today by walking to town to grab some breakfast. As we walked, it seemed quieter than normal and when we reached town everything was closed. Not just a fraction of places like the usual Sunday or Monday, but everything. The only places I saw open were two tour-operators, a dhaba, and a restaurant. Besides eating breakfast at the one open restaurant, we asked a few people why everything was closed. We didn’t get any good answers which ranged from maybe there was a special puja going on to it was an annual rest day (like American Labor Day). I knew it wasn’t a religious holiday, because everything was closed, not just one religion’s shops. With literally nowhere to go, we headed back to our guesthouse.
Back at the hotel, our host was able to explain the day’s mystery. On this day in the early nineties, violence broke out between the Muslim and Buddhist communities. Rioters burned buses and vandalized shops, many people were injured, and three young men were killed. So today is a memorial day of sorts, although he also told us everything would open at around 2 pm. He said very few people know the reason behind today’s state holiday, because many of them weren’t here 15 years ago. But he said he remembers everything clearly because as a Muslim he was very scared. He fled predominantly-Buddhist Leh for Srinagar with his family, until things calmed down.
Also, as Joylani mentioned, we have about another week in Leh (we’re waiting for the opening ceremonies of the annual Ladakh Festival, after which we’ll leave). Being a small city and having seen almost everything in the surrounding region, I am kind of dreading spending another week here. But I think it could be good for a couple of reasons. Before I get into those though, from a realistic perspective we first have to consider our alternatives. The alternative being heading for south India now, instead of in a week. That would be fine, except we have to be in Trivandrum to catch a flight in mid-October. So we can either be here for a week or somewhere in Kerala for a week. Either way, we’re going to have some time to kill before mid-October. Leh’s not a bad place to chill out and plus, until we reach Kerala, we’ll be traveling every few days for a month. So having a few days to tie up loose ends before a month of hectic travel is probably okay. So from a pragmatic standpoint, there’s probably no better alternative.
But like I said, I still think this week could be really good. A week of “nothing” can be good. It may challenge our patience (which India already does anyways) and help us work on just being content- not needing to be on the move constantly seeing and doing new things to sustain a “travel high.” Most of the world has routine, if not boring, daily lives and it’s not going to hurt us to chill out in the Himalayas for a week. And lastly, our trip was partially motivated by the prospect of having time and spending it together. This really is like a honeymoon in the sense that we spend all our time together, just hanging out and getting to know each other even better. We’ve never had this much time together and we probably never will again (until retirement), so we should make the most of it, if not enjoy it.

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