On the Malleability of Life, and Other Lessons from Ladakh

When I write things like blog posts, I try very hard to highlight the big lessons I’ve learned. I try to say something essential (literally “of the essence”) of my topic. This seems like the point of blogging to me. Subjective experiences are great and all, but I’d rather try to write something that we can all share.

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The view from the top of Stok Kangri, 6,123m (20,088ft). From this vantage, my oxygen-deprived brain nonetheless grasped the true depth of the meaning of the word “Ladakh” for the first time. “Ladakh” means The Land of High Passes.

That puts me in a bind now. Putting my Fellowship experience in a neat box that says “Project” on it would say something essential about Development, or maybe India. But I can’t do that. All I can say is that (1) I came to India, (2) did some really interesting things, (3) tried to be helpful to my hosts, (4) was confused, (5) learned a lot from that confusion, and (6) soon I’ll be moving on. That plot is simple enough, and that is about as essential as I can get.

It would have been so much easier to summarize these past ten months if my work had been discreet, neat, and strongly related to the things I have studied academically. It has been none of those things. Working for a small group like SLC-IT, my “project” has been a hundred things, all at once. Or sometimes, when the daytime temperature outside was -10C and there was no internet or electricity and we all seemed to be hibernating, it was nothing at all. On paper, part of my work was “communications development,” but sometimes that meant that I was painting waste barrels so tourists knew where to put their banana peels. Similarly, I was working on “strategic initiatives,” but sometimes that meant instead that I was counting ibex on a hillside because, well…it was a Tuesday in December.

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Counting ibex on a hillside on a Tuesday last December.

And I have had to let some planned tasks go undone. I’ve run out of time, and that’s the hardest thing to accept. Sometimes I feel like I barely got my feet wet.

I am confident that my work has been of some use to my host organization, but it’s hard to say exactly how. The results of my “project” may help SLC-IT function a bit better, and that may someday trickle down to help the villagers who benefit from its livelihoods programs. And maybe, just maybe, in a very indirect, backwards kind of way, I’ve been helpful to the Ladakh region which has hosted me for most of a year. To overstate my own impacts and importance is a kind of back-patting I’m just not interested in doing. I was a guest here, from start to finish. And now, even though I’m inclined to tie up all the loose ends, they are likely here to stay.

So…who exactly was this Fellowship for? Is it okay that I have grown tremendously? AIF is running a leadership development program. At least half the purpose of this Fellowship has been to develop our capacity as leaders, scholars, program managers, et cetera. Should I feel guilty if it feels like I’ve received more than I’ve given? Should I be concerned that in the bigger scheme, my involvement here is likely to be far more transformative for me than for my host organization?

All I can do is claim my half of this Fellowship equation, with gratitude and pride, and without ever claiming to have saved the world. (Trying to mix pride and gratitude in the same moment is a tricky business.)

Looking back, I see that I’ve spent a lot of time looking for traction – merely trying to understand the context is a full-time job. I know I’m not the only Fellow to have this sensation – I think it is the price of doing business in Development in India, especially for those of us from America. Rather than spin my wheels continuously, though, I’ve learned to slow down a little bit. Now, towards the end, this has started to be effective. The person at the end of this Fellowship is just not the same one who arrived here last September.

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Not the same person who arrived here last September. Clearly. (Do not construe this image as an endorsement of getting very close to Ladakhi dzos. They can be panicky, dangerous creatures.)

I now find myself talking more slowly, with less of the hard certainties that used to pepper my speech. That’s because I’ve taken to heart the lesson India has been teaching me, often against my will, since the day I arrived: life is malleable. Almost nothing is certain. Any attempts at finding balance in the wobbliness of existence are only good insofar as they are comforting. It would be wrong to infer from any balance that I have found that existence itself has been tamed – it hasn’t. It’s me who has changed.

Maybe that was my main conceit, then, before all of this. Perhaps I believed that by attempting to impose order and rules (basically the stuff of strategic planning) on the raw material of life I was in some way changing it. Perhaps I believed that my actions would stand the test of time, and if they didn’t, I had failed. I was wrong about all of that, and India shows me that every day. Building the perfect strategic plan, for example, doesn’t change much. It merely clarifies for me, at a discreet moment in time, how I believe something should go. The other important thing India has taught me is that “how I believe something should go” is a small, small thing, and I would be better off not feeling attached to it. (I still think strategic plans are a good idea, though.)

I’ll be returning to the United States soon. I wish I could tell you what I was going to do next, but I don’t yet know. What I can tell you is that whatever I do, I will do with the complete, in-my-bones kind of understanding that nothing is permanent. Life is malleable. With the right tools and a lot of patience we can maybe shape it into something we prefer a little more, but it’s just as likely it will shape us right back. In that case, what will have been achieved? I’m not sure, but it’s as close to “living” as I can imagine – it’s all a give-and-take. And that’s something this Fellowship has helped me cherish.

At the risk of ending on an off-note, I want to give my honest appraisal of Ladakh’s future, in terms of development. I’m afraid it’s a rather sad appraisal. Having spent almost a year here, I’m just not optimistic that Ladakh’s traditional culture(s) are going to survive recognizably into the next generation(s). If this is to be the legacy of my Fellowship blogs, so be it, but I desperately want to get this message out: the whole world stands to learn some lessons from Ladakh, and we need those learnings now more than ever. While no human existence is truly “harmonious” in terms of impacts on the land, some are better than others. Ladakh has practiced a kind of living that is truly thoughtful and is about as close to “ecological” as I believe humans can be. They also have strong family networks and take care of each other, even on a society-wide level. Life has never been perfect here, but some parts of it are truly worth conserving and admiring.

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One of SLC-IT’s garbage collection buildings, in Saspotsey. One small victory in the fight against litter!

My point is this: I’m worried that Ladakh’s traditional cultures and life-ways are going to disappear into the miasma that is mainstream India, sometime in the next few decades. (I have just not witnessed enough genuine concern among visiting Indians to believe that they care enough to change the course of development here. Same goes for foreigners, who admittedly have less of a say in how India develops. It seems most people would prefer to maintain the “Shangri-la” farce as long as possible. And many seem to prefer being fans of “3 Idiots” to appreciating what life is really like here.) Similarly, I suspect mainstream India is going to merge into the global mainstream in the next couple of generations. (Again similarly, the global mainstream just doesn’t care enough about what makes India unique to truly learn from it.) This is the tragedy of development: as we all approach the norms, Indian or American or global or whatever, we lose the local intelligences that would have enabled us to live more lightly on this planet and more happily alongside one another.

So, in a way, the ship has already sailed. These development trends were set into motion long before anyone reading this blog was born, and I don’t see what can be done about that now. Like a bus barreling off a cliff, the context is changing rapidly and it’s probably going to hurt very soon. But if there is anything essential that I can say about Ladakh, anything we can all share, it’s this: maybe, just maybe, we can re-purpose some things we’ve collectively learned from Ladakh into our present and future lives. And maybe, just maybe, those things will help us survive and thrive in the unknowable future. Here’s to hoping!

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Ladakh is a unique place, and I mean that word literally – there’s no other place like it. What that means is that development solutions from Ladakh may not make sense elsewhere, and of course the reverse is also true. Nonetheless, I believe the broad lessons from Ladakh are vitally important now.

Timothy Hefflinger

Timothy is continuously impressed by India and its people. Its development challenges combined with its immense human potential make it a fascinating study. He is looking forward to being immersed in India's rich history and contemporary culture. He is proud to be counted among AIF's Fellows and is excited to contribute to the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust's valuable conservation efforts. He hopes to increase the market share of SLC-IT's Himalayan Homestays program, and generally increase its viability, sustainability, and visibility in the international context. He also aim to develop monitoring tools for the Conservancy's social programs. Prior to AIF, Timothy has done an internship in Sri Lanka, have had previous travels in India and recently graduated from Tulane University with a M.S. in Disaster Resilience.

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