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Volunteer Harvesting and Farm Work in the Himalayas

Helping Out in Shangri-La

View of the beautiful white town of Ladakh, Nepal nestled in the mountains atop a hill.

Before dawn when I wake to singing outside my window a simple chant rises from dozens of voices and fills the valley. I dress warmly and hurry out to where Abale (“respected father”) drives five dzos (a cross between a yak and cow) around the threshing circle, the hooves breaking the barley stalks and separating out the valuable seeds. Abale sings and swats the animals to keep them moving.

If an animal should defecate, Abale quickly places a plate or his hands under its tail, catches the load, and pats it out on a nearby rock to dry and be later burned for fuel. Trees are virtually nonexistent in the high altitude desert of Ladakh, on the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

Work is communal and people are always dropping by. We drink butter tea and feast on apricots, apples, and walnuts while waiting for the wind. With the slightest breeze we pick up the willow rakes and toss the barley high into the air to winnow the grain from the chaff.

I lack the necessary skill and am told to sit and drink chang (a fermented barley beverage resembling beer not in the slightest). Amale (“respected mother”) and a neighbor soon have a pile of chaff and a pile of grain. Abale scoops the chaff into a burlap sack; I carry it up a wooden ladder to the flat roof and dump it into a hole. The chaff will serve as winter fodder for the cows and goats who live on the ground floor of the house.

When the grain is finally winnowed, Abale sets a robed Buddha figure atop the pile. With the handle of the rake, a swastika, a symbol predating even Buddhism, is drawn in the grain. With the care attached to ritual, we carefully scoop the barley in to the goat-hair sacks.

Amale hurries inside to prepare lunch — pava, a huge doughball of ground barley and peas that we break into pieces and drop into a turnip broth. For dinner we will have tukpa, thick barley noodles in soup with potatoes and dried yak cheese.

Ladakhis have lived off barley for at least a millennium. The houses are large and the people happy. Each house has a Buddhist chapel containing all the family’s heirlooms, a warehouse of religious opulence where oil lamps are lit nightly.

Several deities grace the altar; the most common are Buddha and Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion, of which the Dali Lama is considered an incarnation. Prayer wheels grace every village, and prayer flags snap in the wind on every pass.

The family I live with is traditional, living almost completely self-sufficiently. The only Western items in the house are a pressure cooker, thermoses, a flashlight, and tennis shoes. Nearly everything else is homemade or made in Ladakh.

Woman and child in Ladakh.

However, since opening to foreigners in 1974 Ladakh has experienced a boom in tourism and pressure from the World Bank and Indian government for modern “development.” This has caught Ladakh in the classic bind of how to develop and join the modern world while retaining traditional culture and values.

For 15 years, the Ladakh Ecological Development Group has worked to counter the myth of Western style development, promoting traditional culture while providing small-scale need-based solutions such as solar power, greenhouses, ram pumps and education of both Ladakhis and foreign visitors. Part of this program is an exchange whereby foreigners live and work on a Ladakhi farm. Through everyday contact both cultures are demystified.

My job was to educate Ladakhis about the West and some of the costs of development: loss of family and community, stress, insecurity, pollution, and environmental degradation. I was also to help with the harvest and farm work, since nearly all the young men leave the farms to join the Army or work in Leh, resulting in a labor shortage.

When Chris, the other volunteer in the village, and I journey to Leh for a meeting with the Ladakh Farm Project, we suffer a bit of culture shock. Leh is bound to the tourist trade and the army, with trappings like shoe stores, curio shops and restaurants.

At the meeting we are told that the volunteers set a good example for their kids, who are no longer interested in farm work. The women are very concerned about Westernization and the erosion of the family and Ladakhi culture and traditions. They are especially pleased with the extra labor.

However, I can’t help thinking I’m little more than a glorified tourist seeking an “experience” and some deeper insight into a another way of life. By insisting upon cultural purity are we not imposing our notions of Shangri-la? Do we really value Ladaki culture or is it the notion of cultural virginity, a people unsullied by Western homogeneity?

Tashi, a 44-year-old school teacher in a village near Leh, is visiting his family. Under the cold moonlight, without prompting, he tells of his childhood.

“My mother is very hard.” She lives next door and sleeps on a goat hide on the floor. He says she’s 85.

“All we had to eat was pava and tsampa but we didn’t have very much and had to borrow and pay back later. Borrow one cup of tsampa and pay three cups. This to relatives, yes.”

“I walked very far to school, five kilometers, no shoes.” He slips off his shoes and stands barefoot on the cold courtyard to illustrate.

“One man sees me and makes shoes.” This concern over footwear is a recurrent theme.

“I take pava to school, nothing else for 10, 12 days, then maybe skiu or tukpa.”

“Pava three time a day?” The thought horrifies me.

“Three times? No,” Tashi shakes his head. “We no have big house like this, just small house, kitchen here and then sleep.”

I detect a certain pride in how far he’d come — a large house, an income, however meager, animals, plenty of food, two kids in private school in Leh.

I asked why he wanted to go to London.

“The world changes,” he motions a wheel of life with his hands.

“For me different, my parents, many changes, for my son more changes.” He indicates the farm below with a sweep of his hand.

“He live here? I don’t know.”

Perhaps recent years have made things easier on many Ladakhis, that the trickle of money has made life easier, has been an improvement. Tashi’s son will expect a higher standard of living, and then?

Tashi’s hard life and seeing the world of Leh has made him very money conscious and worried that there isn’t enough. The family is sleeping in the storeroom, having rented out all the other rooms.

When Chris and I leave Hemis we hike out to the road and hitch a ride with a man returning from college to Leh for the holidays. He asked what we were doing in Ladakh and we said that we were working on a farm. “Oh, to teach Ladakhis proper farming methods?”

“No, to learn how Ladakhis have farmed in an ecologically sustainable manner for so long.”

“But your country is so advanced and we are so backward. You have machines and we must do everything by hand.”

We tried explaining that development and mechanization wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but he remained skeptical.

Local Futures Info (formerly the Ladakh Farm Project)

"Local Futures is a pioneer of the worldwide localization movement.
We raise awareness about the power of ‘going local’ as a key strategy for restoring ecological, social and spiritual wellbeing"

Related Topics
Volunteer Programs in India
A Journey in Otherworldly Ladakh

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