24 June 2008


Julley Everyone
I say "julley" because that is the local greeting here (say "joo lay"), and I have grown rather fond of using it. Responses are almost always friendly- a reflection on the local culture.
But no one has told me the Spitian word for goodbye, and I'm not actually sure there is a concise way to say it, but goodbye is what I will be saying to Spiti for the next few weeks. Yep, I'm on my way out of the valley, heading south down to Shimla where I'll ride the Indian rails to Delhi to hop a plain to Bangkok, Thailand. What? Bangkok? Yes, I have to take a break from India-- two reasons. One, if I don't leave the country in July to renew my tourist visa, I will be deported. And two, I think I need a short break from India. I've had a few illnesses here in Kaza (it's a daily germ bombardment) that have left me tired, and as well I think some space from India will give me some renewed perspective I can use creatively. So Thailand it is! I have a friend from my Yoga TTC from Bangkok, and she has volonteered to be my Thai ambassador and tour guide. Should be sweet-- a small trip inside a big trip, like Shakespeare's play within the play.
Anyways, last couple weeks in Spiti have been fantastic. I've spent a good portion of time with a couple Spiti teenagers who, after several years working with our American teenagers, are a real pleasure. While they go to the private school in Kaza, I've gone to their homes in the villages and they are serving me chai and showing me their fields and telling me about their yak. They don't do anything deviant as far as I can tell. They are very shy around girls-- when I was at one's house and about six young women came in, he hid in another room -- "I am very shy" he said.
Anyways, I will let the pictures speak and tell their story. Sorry the resolution of these pictures and the last batch is lower than the quality was before, but as I've said internet here is unreliable and slow, so it's the best I can do.
Hope everyone's stepping into a nice summer; I've heard from many of you about your summer plans and I think we can all be mutually envious.
All the best and much love,

Road building presents the Spiti quandry succinctly: what cost for modernization? While roads offer an undeniable improvement to the quality of life here, the cost is pollution (pictured) and a massive influx of cheap laborers- tripling the area's population-- and leading to a host of new problems.

Part of the work I'm doing with ecosphere is cataloguing wildflowers and writing a document on what's growing where, local names, and local uses. This is one of my favorite wildflowers blooming now at the higher elevations, above 13,000 feet. It's called Arnebia euchoroma, and I love how it blooms black flowers, pink flowers, and white flowers all in a cluster. Local use this plant medicinally as well as for making hair oil and red dye. Really cool.

Just as I was getting bored of wildflowers, thinking I'd seen all that the season had to offer, I stumbled upon a wet environment in the untouched village of Dumle and a field of, I couldn't believe it, orchids. Dactylorhiza hatagirea, or "aung po lackpa" in Spitian, is another important plant to Spiti and the root is used medicinally by the "amchi", or local doctor. Not to mention it's BEAUTIFUL.

A scene from the streets of Kaza, a young boy in orange mightily pumping water.

In the house of Kunga, one of my teenage friends, I had a lot of fun with the women preparing "timoh", a local steamed bread. Here the little doughballs sit on the woodstove steaming their way to gooey yumminess.

This beautiful Spiti woman is Kunga's sister. Sometimes the young Spiti women are very shy, but always from that shyness the most beautiful smiles come. And sometimes they are not so shy: once, around a large group of locals, one young woman asked for a short ride on my motorcycle. Never one to turn down a chance to have a pretty woman along for a ride, I agreed, and next thing I know not one but THREE women are getting on the back of my motorcycle... so off the four of us go, the three of them laughing and talking excitedly, and me just hoping I can manage my bike with four people on bored. This story repeated itself ten minutes later... Long story short, I find these women some of the most beautiful on the planet.

Women aren't the only ones in India carrying things on their heads. Also to notice in this picture is the ditch of flowing water the man's walking alongside. It's an irrigation channel running through Kaza down to the fields below, and also serves as a place laundry's done.

The village of Kibber on a sunny day.

Hiking through a canyon from Kibber to Chichim, I came accross some curious stone and mud buildings with these queer contraptions inside. Upon inquiry I found these are mills used for grinding barley. Barley goes in the big funnel and is slowly let through, and water comes through to turn the big stone.

A local shaggy haired donkey guarding the door in Chichim village. Have I arlready posted a donkey picture? These are damn fine donkeys!

My 17 year old friend Kunga showing me the local rhubarb, "litchu", that grows at high altitude (over 14000 feet).

Next he went about showing me how to prepare to eat it by peeling the outside off to get to the tender inside.

It's sour, sweet, and crunchy. Yum!

An amazing sunset as seen from the village of Komik, my friends home village. Komik is the highest village at 4,500 meters with great views all around.

This is your classic Spitian dry toilet. Aim carefully please.

This is from the ridgeline above Komik. I don't know the altitude, but I can tell you after a night of sleeping well higher than my level of acclimitazation, hiking up here neerly finished me. If I want to hike Khan Mo, an approachable, non-technical 5,950 meter peak (you need a permit to climb a peak higher than 6000), I will really need to condition. Altitude, as it turns out, is no joke.

I admit this post has been a bit rushed and may be slightly substandard. Please forgive me! Next post: Thailand!

12 June 2008

Another day at the office...

Hello Everyone,
This is Kaza, my home, from a road high above.

On the left side of the dry creek is Old Kaza, and flowing out like branches from the city are green fields-- the traditional setup of a Spitian village. To the right is New Kaza, where you will see no fields flowing from below but perhaps you will notice a new sort of field-- feilds of concrete. New Kaza is home to the many government buildings installed here, government schools, government hospitals, government administation offices... on New Kaza side you will even find, un-netted and unused, the concrete rectangle of tennis courts. And at the top of the picture witness the drama of the Spiti river and the Himalaya Mountains. This, friends, is the beautiful and complicated scene of my life.
Perhaps you'll remember I'm working at an NGO here named Spiti Ecosphere, and my job brings me to the fringes of the Spiti Valley and into close contact with the regional culture. Most recently I taught a first aide class to about 20 villagers, and despite the language barrier (everything I said in English had to be translated into Hindi, which, taught in the government schools, is not the primary language of the locals) was, I think, rather successful. Other projects have been to fix up the bikes we let, help teach some English classes, and write up some reports, but my must usual and relished job is the documentation of nature and culture in the area, or, in another word, photography.
So here are some snapshots derived from this great Spiti project for your enjoyment and education.

The Pin Valley is an offshoot of the Spiti Valley, and up this beautiful gorge lie several villages connected by a single road. Pictured here is the Kurgi Monestary which has with three temples: one 800 years old, one 400 years old, and the third completed several years ago.

Everyone loves a good rainbow picture: a lucky day in the Pin Valley.

Many wildfowers are beginning to bloom, especially at the lower elevations.

A small building signaling the proximity of Damul, and the ubiquitous prayer flags of Tibetan Buddhism. A note on prayer flags: once put up they are never taken down, and are allowed to disentegrate over time, so you see them in various states of their existance: from bright and colorful to pale and threadbare.

Young girls outside the government school at Damul. You'll have mixed feelings about the coming of government schools to the Spiti. While there can be little doubt of the importance of education anywhere, especially of literacy, government schools here do not teach in the local language or in ways particularly relevant to the area, so the local culture is gradually phased out. Imagine your conflict if in gradeschool you were taught in Chinese, and all the examples came from a Chinese context; would you feel unsure of your identity?

Despite its remoteness (the road to Damul was only built 3 years ago, and is still quite rough), Damul is a one of the largest villages I've been to. I came to Damul with Sonam to find out how the women here have been doing producing local knit-wear. The sale of local handicrafts is an initiative designed by Ecosphere to empower the women of the area giving them a way to bring in Rupees while simultaneously preserving part of their culture.

This is a basket of dung. In the traditional Spiti culture, nothing is wasted, not even manure. It is collected and used for feul. Also, I am falling in love with these baskets, the Spitian version of a backpack. Hardly looks comfortable, but the simple utilitarianness of it appeals to me.

Looking South East down the Spiti valley from a little old 15,000 ft peek where you are supposed to be able to see 14 villages. I counted 12, but I doubt my eyes are as sharp as the locals'.

The braided channels of the Spiti River in the glare of sunset.

Wildflowers aren't just blooming at the lower elevations; this little yellow flower in the pea family is blooming now at over 5000 meters.

I've decided part of my Ecosphere work should involve peak bagging, so I tagged this unnamed mountain right above Rangrik (just outside of Kaza). A lesson in hiking Himalayan mountains: they are always, ALWAYS, much bigger in reality than they appear, and despite this mountains unassuming appearance from the ground, it was a beast. The air is just a lot thinner at 16,000 feet.

It should go without saying that the view from the top was outstanding. "Outstanding" is such a banal way to describe looking accross the Himalayas, but I'm trying not to use obscenities here. Just look at those f*ing things! (sorry!)

Looking down from the top of my Unnamed Mountain, the Key Monestary looks very small. You can still see the way monestary is stuck right on steep hillside high above the village of the same name. This is a splendid place.

Thanks to everybody who has written to let me know how they are doing. As some of you know, I've decided to stay in India until November. While this decision brings me a lot of joy because now I will have time to chase down a few more Indian dreams, there is also the heavy weight of time and homesickness. I miss home! But hearing from my friends and family gives me a lot of joy and helps me stay focused here.
I wish everyone the best, and send much love.

02 June 2008

Over the Himalaya to a Far Away place...

Howdy Folks,
Well, I'm trying unsuccessfully to post pictures. I have 36 gems from the last two weeks such that I could show you rather than tell you about my latest adventures, but these adventures have brought me to the remote Spiti Valley, and things are primitive here.
This is an amazing place, the Spiti Valley, cradled in 6000 meter peeks, glacial rivers, and remote beyond remote villages. Kaza, my home base with the Spiti Ecosphere project, is the biggest "city" within a days journey either way, and let me tell you this place is small and primitive. Flush toilets and running water are scarce, and few people are speaking English. But "primitive" should not insult this place; indeed the problems here in Kaza are actually a cause of the small degree of modernization that's occurred here. Life in the villages where farming, building, and living are done in the traditional way is simply beautiful.
In the last week I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in these small villages (one with just 2 houses!) and have gotten to experience, even as an outsider who can't speak the language, a great deal of the Spiti culture. Families here are so generous and cooperative- charecteristics they've developed for survival in a harsh land. And their meathods for farming and building I've found remarkably ingenuitive.
Ah, old cliches come true; it would take a thousand words to tell you the things I've been able to capture in pictures. I'm going to cut this post off now and hope I can get pictures up in the near future.
I'm happy, I'm healthy, and I think often of friends and family and wish the same for you all.
Much Love, Ethan

On the Manali side of the Himalaya, looking unknowingly above the clouds at the range I would be crossing, to the high desert of Spiti.

This village of two houses, Salung, lies 45 minutes from Kaza by motorcycle way up in a tributary valley of Spiti.

Typical local archetecture of Spiti: a mud house and on the roof drying brush for winter's firewood.

A scene from the street in Kaza.

**New Pictures!**
I've figured out I can post about 2 pictures at a time, so slowly slowly more pictures will be here. Keep checking!

In Langza, the village (4,400 meters!) I stayed for a few days, my guide's family is building a new house in the traditional way: from mud. They were seemingly confused when I told them people are learning to do this in America; the way of "progress" in Spiti is building from concrete which is hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. The mud house is much better suited to the desert environment here!

Two more pictures from Langza. First are "mani stones", or stones with Tibetan prayers (most commonly Om mani padme hum) carved into them, that are piled at the entrance to villages. It's impressive to see a large pile of devotion; a person gets the idea that many of these carved stones are very old and others are very new. Then is the large and brightly painted Buddha statue sitting above the village. It's a new statue, finished a couple years ago, and all the members of the village pitched in for its construction.

Pardon the anachronism, but these three pictures come from the camping trip I took with Dylan, Cheri, and Ritter (friends from Bend, OR) before crossing over to the "Dry Side" (The Himalaya create a rain shadow; one side is very wet during monsoon while Ladakh and Spiti is a high desert). The four of us spent two nights at "Lamadug", a high meadow above Old Manali just under what looked like from below an easily summitable peak. Dylan and I attempted to bag it, but got foiled a 100 meters from the top by steep snow and an unstable cornice. As you can see, Ritter the 14 month old is extremely adorable, and our campsite was excruciatingly beautiful.