We started our time together surrounded by the towering, barren, and snowy mountains in the Himalayas in Leh, Ladakh. On arrival, we spent a couple of days acclimatizing to the extreme altitude of 11,000 feet. A few of our group members started to feel the symptoms of altitude sickness, while others begin to battle the slowly spreading flu. Even so, the excitement about the new climate and the upcoming stay at SECMOL was spreading even faster. After spending a couple of days shopping in the Tibetan markets and bustling city bazaar we loaded our taxis and headed to SECMOL.
When we arrived, we were met by Gwen, a shorthaired enthusiastic French woman, who helped us settle in and would continue to help us with every need we had throughout our stay. After settling into our rooms, our group attended conversation class, where we met the amazing students from SECMOL for the first time. We were instantly blown away by their willingness to chat with us and their genuine kindness. At dinner, we met Bhavya the SECMOL coordinator, who spends her time as a volunteer and is a true friend of the students.
Throughout the following 10 days at SECMOL, we spent our time side-by-side with the students completing responsibilities such as: milking cows, harvesting and preparing meals, cleaning the cowshed and squatty potty’s, and spending a lot of time in conversation and exploring the campus with the students. Halfway through the week, we took a day trek with a couple of SECMOLians to a tiny mountain village where we had a classical Ladakhi snack of fresh apricot jam, homemade cheese, chapatis, and chai. It was really nice to spend time with the students, who were quickly becoming our friends, outside of the school environment.
Evenings were spent rushing to Timken Hall to make it to the 7 PM sharp start to the dinner festivities. First, we served ourselves from the overflowing pots of homegrown and home-cooked food. As we ate, 3 to 4 SECMOL students did a brief presentation on a topic of their choosing, while the rest listened intently and asked questions. One night, one of our very own, Tor, gave a presentation on Indian railways. After presentations came announcements, appreciations, and the recitation of a traditional Ladakhi song (our favorite part) and finally introspection. Then, we would wash our dishes and begin the day’s evening activities, which would range from card games to movies to a lively and hilarious dance party (shout out to Peter for his sick moves). On our final morning, a few Carpe Diem students and over 20 SECMOL students woke up at 5 AM to brave the cold for the opportunity to climb the SECMOL Mountain. The climb with intense and steep, and despite the cold we still were sweating. After hiking for a few hours, we reached the prayer flag shrine which marked the Summit. The view from the top was breathtaking and we spent almost an hour at the top taking pictures and appreciating the opportunity the SECMOLians gave us.
Our final morning was filled with hugs and bittersweet tears as we were loaded up the taxis to leave. Leaving SECMOL proved a challenge given the close bond to the people and the place we had grown to love over the past 10 days. In the end, the SECMOLians taught us more than we could ever have imagined possible and we are all incredibly grateful for the time we spent there.
We spent the next day in Leh preparing for our upcoming trek. We met with Rigzen and Yangdol, our fearless leaders from the all-female owned/operated trekking company, at 7:30am the next morning. We drove for about an hour, stopping to explore a monastery, before hitting the trail. At the monastery, we learned about the different sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the many forms the Buddha takes on. We sat beneath an enormous, golden statue of the Maitreya Buddha, also known as the future Buddha and talked with our trek guides about the importance of Buddhism in Ladakh. We hit the trail and spent the next 6 to 7 hours weaving in and out of high Himalayan peaks and low rocky valleys. The following days of the track were less strenuous and filled with mountain top dance parties, meditation, and endless snacking. Our evenings were spent in small village guest houses, where we were served endless chai and delicious meals. After dinner, we played cards and rested our tired bodies and minds. The owners of the guesthouses were incredibly generous and helped us with our every need, whether it was more blankets, filtered water or more chai.
Rigzen and Yangdol were amazing guides, teaching us about local traditions, religion, and flora. They also taught our group the value of sharing and selflessness. They were funny and kind, and saying goodbye to them brought back some of the same bittersweet tears we felt the day we left SECMOL.
We returned to Leh, for the conclusion of our stay in Ladakh, to catch up on emails and enjoy one last meal at our favorite restaurant, Asian Corner. We woke up this morning bright and early to catch a flight to Delhi, returning to a hot humid climate and the bustling streets we had grown to love at the beginning of our trip. We’re ending this blog post from a crowded open-air train to Rishikesh for our upcoming stay at a Yoga Ashram. We learned a lot about the group, ourselves and India as we navigated nearly 2 weeks of leadership together. We are grateful for the past and excited for the future.
Lily and Lucas