It’s August 2010 and I’m in a village called Domkhar Barma half way up the Domkhar Valley, western Ladakh. The mountain river coming from the snowmelt higher up the valley divides the village with a few houses on the far (eastern side) and most of the fields and houses linked by various bridges on the western side. I am staying with a family on the far side while teaching in the school in the centre of the village. There was a team of Westerners here teaching the children how to use computers and cameras and make videos of their life to exchange with a school in Canada, but on 4th August the team has left and I am on my own, the only foreigner in the village.
It has been raining more than is usual for this time of year, Ladakh being an upland desert. This is my diary entry for 5th August: …first day of school without the headmaster and one of the senior teachers. We learnt later that this was because there had been floods in Nyemo (about 10 dead) and the bridge was gone. After the evening class [students came to the house after school] and a bowl of thukpa [soup], no electricity, I was just getting ready to go to bed when Thinlays and Spalbar [sons of the house] burst in saying I must come and sleep elsewhere. They were all leaving. I said ‘no, no I’ll stay put’. They were very insistent without really telling me what was happening. So I grabbed my cloth bag with wash things (no toothbrush), camera, sheet sleeping bag and torch and followed Thinlays. He said to take off socks and wear sandals, so I did. As soon as we got to the path I realised a little of the problem – water was pouring over it and we had to wade through as far as the cement pile of the bridge. They [the family] were all going higher up the village, but suggested I stay in the house where Mary, one of the team, had been. So I settled down there, sort of. I had: camera, torch, water bottles, washcloths soap, loo paper, clock, salwar kameez and chunni and accessories, sandals no socks. After a while Tashi [headmaster of the Gongma school, the next village up the valley], appeared and said I should come to his house next door but I really didn’t want to move again. Before long there was drip, drip, drip on the floor but not over me. Big storm was going on. Eventually I got up and explored the other rooms. A small one at the back (kitchen to be?) looked cosy, so I got the quilt to cover the very hard mattress and wrapped myself in that. The rest of the night went slowly but quite comfortably. Lots of lightning and thunder.
So then we reached Friday 6h August morning. What a shock! There were many people watching the rogue river. It had completely overflowed, overwhelmed the bridge and path, with water swishing and leaping where I had come last night, and the road, on that side, had completely disappeared. A car had been swept into a tree, and there [is now] a large hole in the road this side.
So now I really am a refugee with just what I’m standing up in and my cloth bag. They say the lower bridge is OK and they can get my things from the house, but by evening this still hasn’t happened. Tashi invites me to his house next door, and I get tea and breakfast there. I’m surprisingly calm about being separated from my things, especially money and papers. Thank goodness Tashi Thokmet has my passport in Leh [for renewal of permit]. Apparently there is some chance of communication with the outside world from Gongma but in the meantime there has been disaster in Leh with 114 killed, 200 more injured and about 100 missing. So no one knows, and probably won’t much care, about Domkhar. We try to have a school day – only 11 out of 17 children- and I’m the only adult in the assembly. They carry on though. I do a story with classes 3,4,5, and eventually Kunzes comes. Padma Dorjay has gone to Gongma with Tashi, Tsering Dolma can’t come because there is no road between where she lives and the school, and Dolkar comes later to cook lunch. I feel very peculiar, tired and a bit wobbly and spend most of the rest of the morning asleep.
After lunch I pull myself together a bit and do some English with all 11. It is nice during the day but by evening clouds are gathering again. The river has gone down marginally. A bowl of thukpa arrives remarkably early – 6.30 – and Tashi says they are all going to sleep in a tent by the school because the family feels nervous in this house which is above the road to Gongma. So off I trot with them, with my bag of possessions, a blanket and pillow and set myself up on the sofa in the school office. No light except torch. Tashi offers the generator but that would be really daft. After a while a little deputation arrives to say they are all watching news at Rigdzin’s house, would I like to come. Up the road and into a room with about 50 people to watch Doordoshan news [Indian TV channel]. Dire pictures of Leh where the radio station, BSNL ([telephone] station, new bus stand and some of the hospital have all gone. Apparently Chanspa side is OK so the Sankar lot and my lot [the family I stayed with in Leh] should be all right. Of course immediate help has been promised, but nothing on the news about the villages. I fear they will be ignored.
I got a bit fed up with the repetition and [constant] switching channels, and the signal went off. So I left. A somewhat drunk character got a bit familiar, so I snapped at him and was left alone to trot back down in the rain. Water was dripping merrily through the ceiling upstairs but only one corner in the office. They’d put their parachute teepee in the field next door and I am afraid it might get struck by lightning. They said here it just goes along the ground?? Settled myself on the sofa and actually slept very well. My head cleared and I felt reasonably OK. I wish I knew how much of this has been put on international news. Got up around 7 am
Saturday 7th August and we set off back down. What a sight now. River has taken the first field over the way and the walls of the house are dripping wet. First news was that the lower bridge has gone. So here I am with no money, just my cloth bag. My refrain is thank goodness Tashi Thokmet has my passport. Nothing to do but to sit it out. Thinlays was going to Gongma, so I hoped he could give a message to Stella, who knows. Back here I entertained a few children and eventually got a very good breakfast. Grey skies today with virtually no sun. Have borrowed Tashi’s sweater so at least I’m warm. By 11 news came that lower bridge is not broken and the river has gone down, so the ever-wonderful Tashi has gone off to get my things. I just pray he will be OK. I couldn’t bear to be the cause of an accident, just for my silly things. I’ve suggested to Tashi that they should use the fact they have a foreigner here to get attention! The new house on the other side of the road by the spring was too near the river and the front part of the building has just disappeared into the rush of the water. I haven’t brushed my teeth for two days, nor washed properly. I can see how you can fall into a stupor of not doing anything. All there is to think about is to wonder what will happen next. Fortunately, the children are irrepressible and have endless energy. I don’t have enough games or songs to keep up, but they have a good repertoire. Tashi went to get my things but got dizzy on the mountain and sensibly came back. Some others may be trying to get there by 5 pm. Just back from watching the news but nothing new – still talking about Leh only. In come Rigdzin and Norbu with my things – hurrah. Many things a bit damp but so what. They did a great job even finding my wasabi peas! My pleasure shows me how much attachment there is – but somehow I knew it would be OK. They are so intrepid and determined.
Addendum: After a week the young men were able to construct a makeshift bridge and we were able to leave.
After various other tricky river crossings on temporary bridges, we made it safely to Leh. Eventually I heard from my niece that, on hearing reports on the news, she had rung the Foreign Office and was told that as I was on my own, ie not with a group, there was nothing they could do for me! Thanks British Government! Good thing I had Ladakhis to help instead.
Gabriele was born in Cologne and arrived in England in 1939 aged 4. She was educated in Cambridgeshire High School for Girls and Reading University (including a year at Munich University). Work life: University administration, lastly at Newnham College, Cambridge. Retirement project: teaching English in Ladakh, India. She is bit of a traveller, amateur musician, follower of Buddhist teachings.