A HELP volunteer in Ladakh

Paul Lessner's farewell
Paul Lessner’s farewell

Last summer, I spent eight weeks in the Indian region of Ladakh. Even with large amounts of preparation, training and research, I found myself in a state of constant amazement and surprise. Immersed in a culture established eons before my own country was ever imagined or conceived, the experience touched me greatly and will follow throughout my lifetime.

I travelled from the United States to the heart of the Indian Himalaya to teach English and math in a remote village school where teachers and students welcomed me with open arms and beautiful spirits. After adjusting to a physical and cultural environment very different from my own, I fell into a regular routine. I would enjoy breakfast with my host family and then board a school bus for an adventurous ride along narrow mountain roads to where the school is located in a nearby village. I taught two classes, third and fourth-grade, stopped for tea with the headmaster, taught two more classes, this time first and second-graders, and then break for lunch. I tried different types of lessons and strategies unfamiliar to the students, many of which flopped in the beginning. But the students were eager to learn as I eventually found methods that worked.


After sharing food & conversation with my teaching colleagues and playing games with students, I would either teach two more classes or take a walk to visit the tiny shops and varied food stalls in “town.” My village, far from the tourist mecca of Leh, is truly authentic, and I loved interacting with locals not accustomed to overseas visitors. I enjoyed being invited in for tea, sampling different foods and having new experiences. The people of Ladakh were always ready to share whatever they had, and it didn’t take long before they stopped mistaking me for a lost tourist and began recognizing me as teacher.

At 3:30, I boarded the bus and returned to my host family who were always ready with another warm cup of chai. I spent the remainder of my afternoon journal writing and lesson preparation for the next day. Afterwards, I spent some time sitting in front of their simple home, occasionally talking with the elderly head of the family. Even though he and his wife spoke about ten words of English between them, with the aid of my “Getting Started in Ladakhi” book, a variety of gestures plus a little patience on both our parts, we were able to engage in long conversations. I asked about different plants or animals on his small farm, and he taught me Ladakhi names for each. I shared English names for things I recognized and asked further about ones I didn’t. He told me about the history of his village, explaining the purpose each old structure clinging to the mountain sides, including a nineteenth century tower where soldiers from different time used to keep watch, muskets at the ready. He told me about a 900 year old Buddhist monastery where his youngest son now continues the traditions. During a special celebration one week in June, groups of monks took turns chanting from dawn to dusk, their deep voices rolling softly down the mountain.

Beautiful Ladakh

I often capped my evenings with a solitary walk along Shillakong River that flows down the valley bathed in incredible beauty. It joins with Yapola River in the middle of the village and then follows a raucous course through craggy mountains eventually merging with the mighty Indus in a long journey to the Indian Ocean. Ladakh is a high mountain desert and appears stark and empty at first, but when you quiet the noise of modern life, you’ll notice small flowers, hardy plants, camouflaged wildlife and an amazing range of colors, shades of tan, green and purple, that runs throughout ancient rocks.

Beautiful Ladakh

Back home for dinner and conversation, most of the younger members of the family speak a beginning or intermediate level of English, and I was able to recount stories from my homeland and family while learning even more about theirs. After a final cup of tea, I went to my room to read and fell asleep in anticipation of another unforgettable day.

I’m back in the States, busy with a new class of students, teacher training, learning and adapting the ever-changing educational standards to my daily lessons. Our modern Western world offers an unprecedented level of tools for use in my career, plus entertainment and technological wonder my ancestors could never imagine, but my mind often wanders back to that quiet valley and the selfless people of Ladakh. I experienced a level of calmness this past summer, a stillness I won’t soon forget, and even though there were challenges I’ve rarely enjoyed such a feeling of satisfaction in my entire life.

Morning assembly

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I want to let you know that I have looked at a lot of volunteer organizations since I did your program and you have (as far as I can tell) one of the best. I really like how much you personally care about each volunteer and each school.
Anne GillilandDenjong Pema Choling Academy