Volunteering Overseas in the Himalayas

Looking for some meaningful interaction when you travel? Is partying in Cancun no longer your cup of cerveza? Are our American lifestyles somewhat lacking?

Travel is a wonderful experience, however, I think there is a growing need in many of us to seek out travel destinations where, if only for a brief moment, we can help out our fellow man while acquiring a new perspective on our own lives. Volunteering might be just what the doctor ordered.

But if you don’t want to sign up for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps or man a Greenpeace frigate there are a variety of tour organizations that work towards similar goals. For those of you who want to help but don’t have the time to dedicate your lives, this can be accomplished on a 14-day sojourn in Ladakh, India.

I signed on with a non-profit company called the Global Eco-Spiritual Tours Organisation with projects in the Himalayan Mountains of ‘Little Tibet’. GESTO involves their members in the environmental landscape of Ladakh, where they can participate in low-impact, ecological projects while immersed in the spiritual nature of this ancient Buddhist region of the world. For Americans, Ladakh is sort of like landing on another planet. The snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas and the arid desert terrain have a stark, majestic beauty that is truly otherworldly.

Our tour group included Americans who ranged in age from 21 to 55. After flying in from Delhi and spending a couple of days gasping for breath in altitudes as high as 15,000 feet, I was able to get along just fine without the use of an oxygen mask. We met with many of the locals, a truly hardy lot whose agrarian lifestyle has sustained them for hundreds of years. I tired quickly just witnessing the amount of effort that goes into harvesting a field with a yak and ploughshares, a technique that I am sure dates back to Buddha.

Low impact ecological involvement is contingent upon understanding sustainable development, where volunteers can enhance a process that is already in place. As a Buddhist monk once told me on the way to the monastery, “One does not find peace of mind in a plant, one finds peace of mind in the process of planting.” The former is expendable; the latter is a life commitment.

The ecology of Ladakh is delicate. Some talk of it as the “desert in the sky” where greedy mountains deprive the land of rain. Global warming has depleted the glacial run-off with each passing year. To help the locals cope with diminishing water supplies, one of the tour’s activities was to tap a natural spring and bottle spring water for villagers in outlying rural areas. Since the tour operator had never attempted this task, we were the first to see if we could harness Mother Nature.

In the Phiyang Valley, we isolated water emanating from the ground off a small rise on a grassy knoll. Surrounding the spring’s source with rocks and sod, we built a small reservoir where we could connect piping to direct the run-off down the valley. We built up enough pressure to produce a heavy and consistent flow. We attached a water-purifying unit to filter out nasty micro-organisms, and by the end of the day we were bottling pure spring water from the Himalayas! Not bad for a bunch of Yanks whose closest attempt at digging for water was buying Poland Springs at the 7-Eleven.
One of my more poignant encounters occurred during a three-day trek of the Stok-Kangri Mountain Pass when I met Sonam Lamo, a 75-year old mountain woman en route home from a visit with her relatives in the foothills. She was the like the tortoise to our group’s hare: we passed her again and again over the course of our two-day, 16-mile trek. But as soon as we took a rest or set up base camp, there she was, slowly but surely moving into sight. We learned that she used to make the long trip by horse, but last winter, the elusive snow leopard of the Himalayas attacked and killed her only means of transportation. It sounded like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.

As part of the tour operator’s efforts to assist villages in remote locales, when we reached Rumbak, a mountainous community of 15 families, we sought out a needy member of the village that could benefit from a solar panel and a night lantern. When we contacted the goba, the chief honcho of the village, we asked him to select a worthy candidate. As karma would have it, the lady Sonam Lamo was his first choice. My band of brothers and I felt warm and fuzzy knowing that this gift would most likely be added to the tales told by the Mountain Dowager, whose horse had been eaten by a leopard.

Our next task was planting saplings of willow trees at Matho Monastery. This was important because this particular gompa (Ladakhi for monastery) lacked sufficient funds to establish its own grove. Trees are one of the most important components of an arid environment. They provide cooling shade, filtration of air pollutants and pollens, wind buffering, and soil improvement. We were the Johnny Appleseeds of Matho.

Ladakhis are able to live and flourish in this stark and unforgiving environment, and prosper at a high level of spiritual enlightenment for thousands of years. Their history of cooperation is as old as the soil they take their living from. We were lucky to be able to join with them and contribute to their community and land. In the spirit of cooperation, everyone gained from our volunteering. I think I received more out of little by having the fortunate opportunity to interact with this great culture. During my visit to Ladakh, India, I learned as much about the country that I left, as I was truly affected by the country I was visiting. Volunteering while traveling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s better!