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Before the Flood – Ladakh Photos

August 26, 2010 1 comment

Road to Alchi Gompa, Ladakh.

Photos from majestic Ladakh — before the rains came — are now up on my Flickr page. Please check them out!

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Leh Misérables: Stranded in Paradise

August 15, 2010 6 comments

Destruction, downtown Leh.

“Hey man, did you see that? Those poor cats are sure messed up. I wonder what they were gettin’ into, or were they just lost in the flood?”
Lost in the Flood, Bruce Springsteen

***

LEH, LADAKH: “No seats on the flight?” I screamed, waving my ticket in the air. “What do you mean there aren’t any seats? How can that be?”

A half-mile away, hundreds lay dead after flash floods, having suffocated beneath dense Ladakhi mud. Countless others were injured and missing. Petrol shortages had begun to grip the city. Food, drinking water and cash were in short supply. Rumors spread of looming cholera and typhoid outbreaks. Disaster – and menacing rain clouds — loomed on the horizon.

After waiting for days in line, broiling beneath the mountain sun, suffering the lies, deception and disarray of the authorities, it was time to escape from paradise.

***

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Leh, a remote city of mud-brick homes, centuries-old Buddhist monasteries and spectacular mountain views perched in the thin air some 11,000 feet above sea level in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.

I had come to escape the devastating monsoons and summer swelter of New Delhi, to meditate alongside Buddhist monks, to mingle with Kashmiri Muslims, to sip Tibetan butter tea, to breathe crystal-clear air, to taste the sweet nectar of fresh apricots, to relax and unwind amid the most dizzyingly stunning landscape on the planet.

I departed for Leh shortly after sunrise on a warm Thursday morning.

About an hour into the flight, the Kingfisher Airlines jet dipped beneath a fluffy blanket of clouds, revealing for the first time the jagged, snow-capped Himalayan peaks of Ladakh, the land of high passes, “Heaven’s Gate.”

Camera shutters clicked in a frenzy, like furious taps on typewriter keys. Gasps of wonder filled the cabin. Mouths lay agape.

As we glided on, the mountains receded into a dusty plateau, which gave way to a dense barrier of evergreen trees shielding the runway at Leh’s Kushok Bakula Rimpochee Airport.

The plane touched down, and we were embraced on the tarmac by a cooling breeze, a calming blue sky and the soothing glow of the morning sun — and eyed suspiciously by an entourage of Indian military personnel.

While I knew then that that sky and those soldiers would fill my memories of Ladakh, I could never have imagined they would haunt them.

***

Only two roads lead to Leh — one from Manali, in the south; the other from Srinagar, in the heart of Kashmir, to the west. The two-day journey from each city, on windy, winding, avalanche- and accident-prone “roads,” is widely considered the most beautiful — and gut-wrenching — ride in India.

Both routes climb high into the mountains, and are not passable for much of the year. Blocked in by snow and ice for nearly four months, Leh finds itself almost completely cut off from the outside world. Residents shiver in frigid temperatures. Electricity is scarce. Supplies collected in the summer are stretched to last through the coldest months.

The mountains of Ladakh, near Pangong Lake.

Despite its frozen winters, Leh inhabits a desert. Situated in a Himalayan rain shadow, the city collects its water not from rains and monsoons, but from the streams of melted snow and ice cascading from nearby glaciers and mountains.

For eight days, I gawked at those mountains, shimmering in the boldest hues of indigo and cocoa, sienna and sand, puncturing a sky of the deepest blue I have ever seen.

For eight days, I strolled through the narrow alleys of Leh’s old city, visited Buddhist gompas, or monasteries, clinging to the cliffs at Alchi, Thiksey and Lamayuru, peered across the shores of Pangong Lake as they stretched across the Indian border into China, gazed at millions of twinkling stars as they punctured the evening sky.

Thiksey Gompa, outside Leh.

For eight days, I sipped saffron-scented tea with Kashmiri men, shared Tibetan thukpa with travelers from Italy, Romania, Latin America and Holland, nibbled at carrots and cashews alongside smiling Ladakhi women, and gobbled down omelets across the table from South Africans, Brits, Indians and Israelis.

For eight days, all of us marveled at the majesty of Ladakh. On the ninth, all of us would share in its misery.

***

I awoke shortly after midnight to the sound of hail and sheets of rain clattering against my window.

Lightning crashed and flickered, lighting up the sky like flashbulbs along a Hollywood red carpet. Trees contorted in the heavy wind.

“What an amazing storm,” I thought to myself, before falling back to sleep.

I said as much at breakfast the next morning, and all in the guest house agreed. We relaxed, sopped up our eggs with Tibetan toast, sipped chai and admired the green garden before us and the mountains in the distance.

And then the news came: a 72-year-old Ladakhi man who lived in the guesthouse had just returned from central Leh. “Many people missing,” he said, in broken English, a distant look in his eyes. “Fifty people dead. Three-story-building come down.”

I finished my tea, ran to fetch my camera and a notepad, and headed straight into town.

The roads were wet, but they weren’t flooded. Most shops were shuttered, but it was still early. Electricity was out, but that happens all the time in India.

Then a mule galloped by, caked from head to hoof in mud. Shredded Tibetan prayer flags lay strewn across the road. Weary foreigners walked back toward higher ground with bottles of water and cans of instant soup.

I hopped over a few puddles and followed the main road as it descended into the older part of town — or at least what was still left of it.

To my left, a bare mud hill, packed with hundreds of volunteers and a bulldozer or two, stood several meters above the road.

“What the hell?” I wondered, snapping a few photos. Yesterday there were homes. Yesterday there were shops. Yesterday there was life. Today there is death and destruction. What havoc that glorious sky had wrought!

Indians and foreigners stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a dozen lines, shoveling mud, debris and sopping garments into buckets in a frantic search for buried human beings.

I swung my camera around my back and jumped into a queue. Through my bare hands passed bowls and pots of dirt, crumbling bricks, shards of wood.

The putrid scent of muddy filth poisoned the air.

Dig. Pass. Dump. Dig. Pass. Dump.

A bulldozer flips over the mangled skeleton of a jeep. An elderly woman to my right chants a Buddhist mantra to give her the strength to lift the heavy loads. A pair of glasses surfaces in a bucket of dirt. A muddied and cracked family photo makes the rounds.

And then you remember: you are looking for bodies.

The mud is packed solid, as if it been trampled on and compressed over many decades. But it is fresh: Leh’s older homes were built of mud bricks. And when the rains came, the mud simply melted, engulfing and drowning men, women and children as they slept or tried to flee.

Volunteers hand out bottles of water. A truck passes by handing out pieces of white bread to workers. Plainclothes men and women distribute paper cups of fruit juice.

The sun beats down. The hours pass by. Dig. Pass. Dump. Dig. Pass. Dump.

And then you remember: you are looking for bodies. You. The Indian couple from your guesthouse. The maroon-clad monk from a nearby monastery. The young woman from Israel. The bearded man from Holland. The innocent child from Leh.

But no police. No military. No leadership. No organization. Nowhere to be found.

Volunteers, Leh.

Several uniformed men stand with hands on hips. Two or three are sprinkled in with the civilians passing buckets of dirt. A worthless bunch stand on a nearby hillside snapping photos on their cell phones. A local politician comes for a quick photo op and is off, as suddenly as he arrived.

Jeeps drive by warning of far worse destruction in the nearby village of Choglamsar, asking for volunteers, announcing that vehicles will be transporting volunteers to the area.

A friend and I decide we should head to Choglamsar to help. We start walking. We ask half-a-dozen cars, jeeps, taxis for a ride. Nobody will take us there. Where is all of this transport the official-looking man with the megaphone just mentioned?

Finally, a military truck lets us onboard. As we’re driving along, a soldier asks, mind-bogglingly, why we are headed to Choglamsar. “Umm, to help,” we tell him. He stops the truck. Tells us there’s really nothing for us to do there. Warns us that it is late and would soon be dark. Says we’d never make it back to Leh.

We hop out and walk back to the city, dejected, depressed.

The atmosphere in Leh is tense. More rain is expected this evening. Villagers are taking shelter on the second floor of the local mosque. Many have headed to the hills in search of higher ground.

After dinner, I head home to my guesthouse, dusty, distressed, dog-tired.

A dozen members of the owner’s family have come to take refuge. A young niece of the woman behind the check-in counter is being treated for injuries from the storm. The death toll has risen over 100.

***

I grabbed an early breakfast the next morning, before setting out toward Choglamsar village.

On the way, I ran into a young Ladakhi travel agent I had come to know well over the previous week. He was crouched on a sidewalk in the main bazaar, taking deep pulls on a cigarette as rains again poured down. I stopped to chat, to see how he was holding up, to ask about his family. An aunt, an uncle, a cousin — all had been killed, he told me, matter-of-factly. His niece was still missing.

I offered whatever sympathy I could muster, before strolling further down the hillside, wiping away the only tears I would shed in Ladakh.

A friend and I met in the center of town and walked to the nearest taxi stand, hoping to find a ride to the village.

Dozens of vans sat waiting for petrol — shortages seemed to already be gripping the city — and they refused to take us on the two-mile journey. A young cabbie finally agreed to take us halfway, and he demanded a steep fare as we stepped out onto the remnants of the main road to the village.

We flagged down a dump truck on its way to the village, jumped in the bay with a dozen or so locals, and rode along through mud, boulders and debris.

Choglamsar, in two-days’ time, had devolved into a messy slop of ankle-deep mud, rubbish and fast-rushing filthy water. Crowds milled about in the street, some with shovels, others with suitcases. A hundred or so soldiers stood by, as if on their morning tea break, leaning up against dozens of military supply trucks.  Makeshift bridges of wood scraps, ruined furniture and broken doors guided us over the mud hills along the main road.

Floods in Choglamsar (courtesy Hadassa Yovel).

We stopped to ask a soldier how we could help. He shook his head confusedly and pointed to a higher-ranking officer, who told us we could try and scale the raging stream to help people remove belongings from the remnants of their homes.

Mere seconds after we jumped in line to cross a rudimentary bridge made of sticks, the crossing washed away. The houses were again inaccessible. Hundreds of military men stood watching. A couple tried to grab a few more sticks to rebuild a safe passage — they continued to do so, to no avail, for another thirty minutes. Did they not have any supplies in those massive green trucks to build a 10-foot bridge?

Suddenly, panic gripped the scene and people started running, terror in their eyes, apparently fearful of a landslide. We turned and darted for higher ground, finding refuge atop a dirt hill a few meters away.

False alarm.

We monitored the area for a few more minutes, before deciding our efforts to help were futile. We climbed into another dump truck and headed back to Leh.

***

We were again passing buckets of debris, of demolished lives. I landed a spot in line next to a young monk who had come from two hours away to help with relief efforts. He grinned as we worked, keeping spirits high. “All day I joke and pass, joke and pass.” We shared some cookies and a pouch of fruit punch.

Suddenly, mass panic, as in the village earlier in the morning. People sprint from every direction, looking for higher ground. Running, I hop over a man sprawled on the ground, guarding himself from the oncoming stampede, his cell phone shattered around him. A motorbike lies on its side. I pull myself to the top of a dirt mound.

An overheated volunteer had called out for a drink. Cries of “Water!” it turns out, don’t sit easy with flood survivors.

We get back in line. Back to work.

***

Several hours had passed when a Ladakhi man approached me with a note scribbled on a small scrap of paper. A Dutch woman was looking for foreigners to volunteer at the local hospital. We rounded up a group of Westerners, found some shovels and set out on our way.

Once there, we were instructed by an official-looking man in a collared shirt to dig mud from a couple of rooms in a wing of the hospital so they could be used to house patients the following day.

As we plunged our shovels into the knee-deep muck, concern quickly set in: we had been scooping up IVs, hoses and other debris that seemed like medical waste. Regardless, our small shovels were no match for the rooms filled with mud

A well-dressed man claiming to be the hospital administrator — he wore strangely clean shoes, well-pressed khakis and a pink Oxford shirt — told us to leave the building at once: live ammunition from nearby police and military installations had washed away in the storm, and it was feared to be in the very rooms we had been cleaning.

For the first time, my grief was overtaken by anger. Over two days we had watched the authorities shirk their responsibilities: military men casually chatting instead of digging, police giving false information, government members concerning themselves more with enhancing their reputations than rescuing their people. But at that moment, the total lack of organization, the absence of any sort of planning, direction, leadership, expertise or initiative, had put the very people — in the only people — actually helping in harm’s way.

The hospital incident was enough for us to pack our things and make our way back to the guesthouse.

We walked by a team of volunteers loading blanket-wrapped bodies into a truck. The official death toll hovered somewhere around 150, though locals believed the number to be at least three times as high.

Himalayan peaks towered in the distance. Deep blue sky gleamed above. But the sheen, the magic, the splendid beauty was gone.

It was time to leave Leh.

***

Both roads out of Leh were in disrepair. Word on the street was that it could take as long as a month for them to be fully functional. Catching a bus out of town — on roads that are beyond treacherous on the sunniest of days — was out of the question. We had to fly.

Only a handful of Internet cafés — those with satellite connections and power generators — were open for business. Lines were long, but we were lucky to sneak in just before one shop closed for the day. Still, our search for a flight proved pointless: the airlines’ Web sites were all overloaded, and every attempt to book a ticket — even on flights leaving more than a week later — prompted server errors.

Ticket agents in the main bazaar were gouging customers as they tried to fly to safety.

We had heard rumors that airlines were adding emergency flights the following morning and resolved to head to the airport early the next day in hopes of finding an escape route.

***

With bags packed, we hopped a shared ride to the airport. When we arrived, the scene was almost as chaotic as the rescue efforts back in town.

Hundreds crowded around three small ticket windows, demanding flights to Delhi. Passports and stacks of cash were thrust at ticket agents. Arguments broke out at regular intervals. Pushing and shoving ensued.

At one point, a man called out to the fifty or so military men standing off to the side to intervene as a fight broke out. “They’re off duty,” someone replied, and they stayed put. More than simply off duty, they were at the airport — appallingly — to catch flights out of Leh.

For a good five hours, baking in the sun, we stood in place. The lines didn’t budge.

Airline representatives had promised extra flights out of Leh. We heard whispers of as many as nine or ten.

Moments later, Jet Airways closed their ticket window. Kingfisher Airlines had shuttered their office hours earlier. An official from Air India appeared outside to make an announcement.

“There are no more flights today,” he said. “You can visit our main office in the city, which will open at 3:00. We will be selling tickets for flights out tomorrow.”

We grabbed the first cab we could and had him drop us at the airline office.

***

More than one-hundred people crammed into the tiny Air India office on Fort Road. Any semblance of line that existed when we arrived, two hours earlier, quickly disappeared as eager tourists crowded the ticket desk.

At 3:30, the airline representative said he had some news. A hush came over the room. We all believed we were just moments away from snatching a ride out of this mess.

The agent announced that 65 people had been sold tickets for flights to leave that same day. Those people never got on a flight, so they would have priority for the first flight out tomorrow.

Fair enough, we thought. Until the second portion of his announcement came: tickets would be available for only one flight leaving the following morning; the plane could seat only 80 people, leaving just 15 tickets for the nearly two-hundred of us packed in the office.

Oh, and the airline’s computers were down, so they could not issue any tickets anyway. The whole gathering — and the stress, shock, disbelief and screaming that ensued — had all been for naught.

I met an American at the ticket office who had been in touch with the U.S. Embassy. A consular officer told him there was an empty cargo plane schedule to depart Leh early the next morning, and perhaps a few spots on the plane could be secured to shuttle U.S. citizens out of the city. All we had to do, we were told, was visit the District Magistrate’s (DM) office and make a formal request. A couple of us trekked across the city to find him.

At the end of a narrow hallway, its walls barely covered with peeling paint, I pulled aside a soiled white curtain posing as a door. The head officer sat behind a beat-up wooden desk. An aide scribbled notes on a spreadsheet, the musty air clouded with cigarette smoke.

He greeted me kindly, but said he knew nothing of such a cargo flight. Besides, he added, he was focused on rescuing people. “Of course,” I assured him, thanking him for taking the time to speak with me, though I found that last bit a tad condescending: three days on, I had witnessed overwhelming devastation and disaster; I had seen boundless love in the hundreds of volunteers who gave time, energy, food and money to save the victims; but what I had not seen — not in Leh, not in Choglamsar, not at the hospital — was even a remote vestige of this man’s supposed authority and oversight.

I couldn’t help but to be reminded of President Bush’s famous quip to FEMA Director Michael Brown, as he bungled Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans:  “You’re doin’ a heckuva’ job, Brownie.”

***

Back again in Leh, we set off to find a new guesthouse. A friend sent us to a dingy place with a single squat toilet, about a five-minute walk from Leh’s main mosque. Fine for a night. We set down our heavy bags and collapsed.

A few hours later, I walked upstairs to settle the bill — we’d be leaving shortly after 4 am to again try our luck at the airport — and I found the owner’s family sitting in candlelight, drinking evening tea.

I handed over the room fee, and the owner thanked me with a timid smile. As I turned to walk back downstairs, he stopped me. He said the family was worried about more rain, that he would knock on our door if there were any problems and we could join him and his family at the mosque.

A light sprinkle of rain fell during the night, and the family, still shaken from the floods, took shelter in the nearby house of worship.

We chose to stay put, and the sky was clear when we departed for the airport. It was 4:30 am.

***

The airport gates were closed when we arrived at a-quarter-to-five, and we were absorbed into the mass of a thousand or so travelers already gathered.

As the gate slid open, men and women with heavy packs on their back pushed and shoved forward, before jumping into a desperate sprint across the airport lawn to the ticket windows.

Four of us stood waiting for the Jet Airlines agent to open the window — Jet was said to have scheduled the most emergency evacuation flights — and a friend held a place in the line for Indian Airways.

As the sun rose, a man armed with an Indian Air Authority sign and a cheerful, calm demeanor stood on a bench to make an announcement.

Yesterday, he said, we evacuated 1,200 passengers. Nonsense. Today, he continued assuringly, we have many more flights, and far fewer people. Bullshit. Just look around. He grinned as he strolled away.

For four hours, the line crept forward, hardly accommodating a fraction of the gathered masses. Again, arguments ensued. As people tried to cut the lines, fights broke out.

We watched through the window as police officers sneaked into the ticket office, handed over cash, and secured their own seats on the flights out of Leh. So much for serving the public interest.

Still, a tentative hope arose as we closed in on the window.

But those hopes were quickly dashed, as the window instead closed on us. Jet Airways was done for the day — a generous estimate would say they sold one hundred tickets. We were third in line.

Desperate, we stuffed four passports and an enormous wad of cash in the pocket of a friend waiting in the Indian Airways queue. Again, we waited.

“I need five tickets,” our friend told the agent. He responded that there were only three seats left. “No, but I need five seats.”

Passports and cash changed hands. Five paper tickets were issued for an 11:00 am flight — apparently the final departure out of Leh. We grabbed our bags and walked around a corner to celebrate, out of view of the hundreds who would soon learn they were stuck for at least another night.

But our celebrations would be short-lived.

We passed through one layer of security. Thirty minutes until take off. Then another. Twenty-five.

We were told to leave our bags — both carry-ons and checked luggage — at an unmanned x-ray machine. We waited. We pleaded with various security personnel to screen our bags. A uniformed man casually strolled over, fed our bags through, and we rushed to the next security checkpoint. Fifteen minutes.

We handed the military man our tickets. “Where are your boarding passes?” he asked. “This is all we have, where do we get boarding passes?” He pointed to a small Indian Airlines desk, and we ran over.

“The plane is overloaded,” the woman behind the counter told us. “There are no more seats.” She looked away.

“No seats on the flight?” I screamed, waving my ticket in the air. “What do you mean there aren’t any seats? We just paid for all of these tickets. How can that be?” Ten minutes until takeoff. We were still holding on to the bags we needed to check.

Airline agents fed us varying doses of nonsense over the next half hour, about the plane being oversold, about no more flights departing Leh, about no superiors being available to find a solution to our problem. Each time, the airline representative would quickly scamper off to an office, a secure location, a post behind the security checkpoint.

And each time, we chased after them. Screaming for attention. Begging for help. Demanding an answer. Looking for a way out.

After hearing a stuttering mouthful of fibs from one mustachioed agent, I looked him in the eye and spoke in forceful Hindi. “We are fed up with the lies,” I said. “Speak the truth! You tell us the truth!” He stamped his foot and hastily scurried away. Our scheduled flight time had passed.

Another night in Leh was out of the question. Disease outbreaks were feared, as rotting corpses lay for days in the hot sun waiting to be identified. We had to find a way out.

Moments later, a manager arrived at the desk — he had apparently been arranging the transport of dead bodies on our flight — and ordered an underling to draw up boarding passes and tag our luggage. We thanked him quickly and ran through another security post, boarded a bus, and marched, triumphantly up the stairs onto our plane.

The story could have ended there. It should have. But as we entered the cabin, before us sat rows upon rows of empty seats. Dozens more could have escaped.

And nearly every passenger on the flight was Indian. Where were all of the stranded foreigners with whom we had spent the past two panicked days?

The plane engine roared and lifted off over the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. Smiling stewardesses served juice, tea and freshly cooked lunches. How was such normalcy possible?

I would be on the ground in New Delhi in an hour’s time.

***

Ineptitude is frustrating; when it results in death, it is infuriating.

Two weeks on, I’m left with many more questions than answers: about the incompetence of local authorities, the military and the government; about the countless lies pedaled in the city, at the airport, and by the national leadership in Delhi; about the bogus death tolls, the bogus flights, the bogus news coverage, the grossly low estimates of stranded people; about whether anyone will be held to account; about the uniqueness (or lack thereof) of these problems (think Hurricane Katrina); about whether or not supply roads will be rebuilt before a harsh winter again isolates the city; about whether glorious Leh — that historical, religious and natural gem of a city — can move beyond such devastating tragedy; and about who, if anyone, will help.

Most of all, I’m left with great sadness for the people of Ladakh, the enormously gracious people I came to know and love as they welcomed me, however briefly, with heartfelt smiles and greetings of “Julay,” into their wonderful home.

Friends, Lamayuru Gompa, Ladakh.