We were going to Northern India, Leh, for a month. Shortly before I left, a friend pointed out that a month was a long time to be spending in a small town. We would get to know people, he said, like that Laundromat Workaholic Lady with the wide smile, the Pashmina Man who would offer us tea and stale buns, the Tailor whose son would sing us the theme from Friends.
I imagined what the people in Leh would be like—friendly, gentle, sharp-witted. I imagined the conversations and exchanges that would take place. I wasn’t sure what people would think of us being there (a bunch of overly enthusiastic American students with weird ideas about architecture and no clue how to build), and wondered whether or not what we would contribute would be useful or appreciated. The built legacy of the project aside, I wondered about the sum of interactions between us students and all the people we’d encounter, and what kind of impact that would have on everyone involved.
Once in Leh I realized that the most intense initial interactions were going on among us students. The project consumed our time and we had to learn to understand and accept each other quickly, otherwise the building simply wouldn’t get done. It turns out the cultural differences between Canadians and Americans are really fun to point out (like, Canadians are actually absurdly polite, shy, and have seriously mockable accents) and the unveiling of said differences—some pretty major, some inane—continued on straight to the end of the project.
We were getting to know some people in Leh, but it felt superficial. The days were long and tiring, and most of us weren’t spending too much time downtown, except for our usual evening culinary ventures to Pizza de Hut, Chopsticks and Bon Appetit. After a bunch of us discovered Café Jeevan in a quieter part of town, we befriended the waiters there; enough so that they would notice (and show genuine concern) if one of us were missing from the group. We were regulars.
Some of us were regulars at other types of establishments too, and we quickly endeared ourselves to many a Leh shopkeeper. A certain student with a prodigious penchant for shopping was practically adopted by a couple different pashmina shop owners. We all became sons and daughters, beloved customers, sources of entertainment and curiosity. It didn’t take much.
A fascinating phenomenon at the Druk White Lotus School: the Friend System. I had been expecting some regular ol’ address-exchanges and fun times with the kids at the school (and this did happen to some extent), but what mainly materialized was this bizarre, creepy and oft-out-of-control scramble for the kids to each acquire a Friend. It worked like this: once a visiting student had been secured as a Friend, we were immediately instructed to not accept any other such Friendships. The expectation of the Friendship was that you would exchange gifts and letters (my personal favourite gift being a ceramic rhinoceros), “hang out” (ie: your Friend would come find you at the site, say hello, then promptly run away), and eventually become long distance pen pals.
This was all well and good until a second kid approached you, requesting your Friendship; a most delicate situation in which you risk offending both your established Friend and hopeful Friend. I am personally curious as to the range of responses to this situation, but I think most of us took the honest approach—to say something like “I want to be your Friend, but I think you should know that yesterday, Rinchen asked me to be her friend. So what do you think?” to which the usual response would be an exchange of sideways glances with accompanying pals (Friend-Seekers never travel alone), a courteous grin and then a head-shake, meaning No Thanks I’ll Try Another One. I wonder about the reasoning behind this unusual form of monogamy—Increased social status for those with a Friend? Logistical simplicity? Territorialism? Sheer enjoyment of watching us squirm when faced with a potential-of-Friend-unfaithfulness situation?
As is so often the case, the last few days of the project were packed with colourful exchanges:
- As a group of us formed a production line of willow-oiling and put on some accompanying tunes, an impromptu-mega-dance-party was sparked by the neighbouring workers’ young kiddies who took a liking to an Animal Collective song. This was much to the surprise, delight, and in some cases what looked like horror, of their hardworking parents.
- What started as a casual saunter to the town Stupa ended in what was maybe in retrospect a double date with two over-the-top-friendly young Ladakhis, Hassan and Hussein. We spoke of, Buddhism, language, school, faith. Unfortunately, our mutually busy schedules didn’t allow for many further exchanges, but they were so eager to spend time with us that they i) came to visit the DWLS and ii) spent a good deal of time on the phone with Pauldon trying to reach us.
- A few of us spent the last days in the nuns’ space at Naropa, putting together a used-bathroom-tile mosaic for the floor of the Visitors’ Centre. Turns out the nuns really like mosaics. As we worked away we had a steady stream of shy, robed visitors providing a constant source of wide smiles and head waggles as they ran their fingers along the tiles. This felt good. We were amateur mosaic-builders and as we explained the simple process to the nuns I could tell by all the eye-sparkles that many of them would soon be experts. We left them our remaining supplies along with the finished piece. I wish I could see the results of what I foresee to be some virtuosic mosaic-building taking place.
There have been so many candid, funny, warm, and fulfilling interactions with people. I helplessly wonder about our new friends as I imagine the devastation of the flood and can only feel grateful for the incredible chance we had to enjoy time with them.
– Molly Merriman