Leh’s Anatomy

Drops of sweat slid from my  brow and bounced off the  back of my latex-gloved hands as they clutched the hospital bed.  I counted along with the team through my dirty and dampened surgical mask,  “Un, deuz, trois… omnivar!”  The Frenchmen and I  heaved our might behind the  bed  and raced out of the  ward, down the  corridor and out the front door, dumping the bed’s contents before the awaiting bulldozer.  Thankfully, our  load was  not a patient, but rather a heap of rotting blankets, medical instruments, broken glass, and  festering mud.

The streets of Leh were swimming with more surgical masks than a Japanese hay fever epidemic.   If one had been unaware of the catastrophic flood that had hit days before, one might think it was a costumed cast for the next Bollywood extravaganza:  “Mud in the time of cholera.”   Scarlet robes, sequined sarees, turbans, hijabs and touristy tee shirts found a new purpose: to protect  airways  from the choking dust and stench in the air.  Whether a citizen of Ladakhi shepherd, a government official, or a trapped tourist, everyone in the street  feared the  diseases to come from the corpses  already found and the 800 missing bodies that had yet to be released from the clutches of vicious earth beneath our feet.

It was day three of the disaster, and  my friends and I  had grown exhausted from restless nights.  How could we sleep with so many  rumors of new ravaging waters  on the way?  So we packed our bags and headed to higher ground the unaffected village of Stok.    Here we took refuge in a tent at a Buddhist meditation center, run by a Ladakhi man dedicated to helping the people in his community through these trying times.  We knew, at last, that he would be able to help us be of use.


Once again I was struck  dumb by the power of mother nature and her wrath when I laid eyes on the devastated village of Choglamsar.   (Mankind has  picked the wrong woman to mess with!)  The flood had strewn the fields not only with miles of mire, but  boulders the size of houses, enormous tree trunks, and overturned semi-trucks, rendering an estimated 70% of the farmland useless.  Into schools, shops and homes the earth had spewed… breaking, burying, churning and destroying everything and everyone that lay in it’s path.

It had taken the swampy squelching earth 4 days to settle enough for work to be able to begin, though all were still wary that new floods could be on their way at any moment.  Most of the houses that weren’t completely washed away were buried waist deep, and some had the entire first floor reclaimed by the earth.  Wading through mud might sound like a Balinese beauty treatment, but this sludge was not of the luxurious sort.  Vicious and mean, it hid a myriad of nasty surprises;  sharp stones, broken glass, tree branches, soggy rotten rugs, and of course,  creatures that had lived and breathed just days before.

At least every Ladakhi was armed with a shovel, as the Ladakhi toilet consists of a compost hole, a pile of dirt and a shovel to ‘flush’ with (ironically, Ladakh has a water shortage problem.)  The  community got to work with whatever implements they could find: pick-axes, shovels and burlap sacks, buckets, baskets and bowls.  Locals and tourists alike formed human conveyor belts to pass the mounds of oozing earth out of homes and shops and into the streets.  Bulldozers groaned at the daunting task of removing the mountain of logs that had clogged the main street, while  rescue helicopters droned overhead.

We came to help families who had little or nothing left, and in return they worked tirelessly  serving us food and keeping us cool and comfortable.   ‘Rest now!  Take it easy!”  they would insist.  Although our help was most welcome by the locals, it turned out that they didn’t like working with the tourists very much because “Westerners work too hard and never stop for breaks.”  On the other hand I found it frustrating working with the Ladakhis,  because although they are strong, resilient, and used to grueling farm work.. but they insisted on taking tea and biscuit breaks every 20 minutes, making it difficult to sustain a flowing working rhythm.  Perhaps they were just pacing themselves for the long months of digging to come…

Sometimes as we worked through the sludge and silt in the Ladakhi’s  homes as we found bits of evidence of the lives that had been there before: miniature shoes,  school books, wedding photos and prayer beads.  In one house we worked in what had been the nursery, and the matron of the house paced nervously as we dug through her living room, as if she was afraid we were going to put our muddy shoes on the sofa!   We would hand her the prized possessions we found in the mud, and she thanked us anxiously through a grimace.  It was hard at first to understand why she acted so strange, but our friend Rami shed some light on the subject : “It’s like when a woman  has to go to the gynecologist.  She knows that the doc is doing good work in there, but she still wishes he would stop pawing through her valuables and get the heck out!”  Well put Rami.

Before the flood I had often lamented the fact that I hadn’t gotten to know the Ladakhis very well, but working side by side with them in their homes provided such  opportunities in abundance.   The mood of work was joyful and a true sense of comrodary developed as we toiled away together deep in the mud.  While slinging sacks of mud for hours I joked with a group of high school boys that had come to help dig out their friend’s home.  “It’s good to speak to foreigners and have fun together,” one said.  “We have to laugh. On this very spot a few days ago,  I saw an entire family dead in the street.  We must laugh, or we will cry.”

As much as everyone tried to put on a happy face, there were often solemn reminders of the severity of the occasion. At  one house the Indian army marched up to the spot where our hosts had just served us  a tasty and sociable lunch.  The army squad began to dig with determination, and soon had unearthed a body.  We had been picnicking on his early grave.   Only from my experience of working with children could I guess that it was a 7 or 8 year old boy.  He had been dead in the mud for 5 days.  I have seen dead bodies before, but this was a new experience that I hope I never repeat.  There were literally hundreds more corpses yet to be found in the ground beneath our feet.   A gruesome task lay ahead in the weeks and months to come for the rescue teams.


After a week of working in the village, we were begged to come help in Leh’s The S.N.M. hospital.  ( No joke.)  Overnight this place of refuge for the sick and wounded was transformed  into a house of horrors.   Nothing had quite prepared me for the sickening site as I walked through the wards.  A hospital ought to be a place of refuge for the sick and dying, bu the surge of earth had forced those already weak and wounded to run for their lives.  The equipment had all been laid to waste and hospital beds thrown through the windows.  By far, this medical muck was the worst we had met.  Layers of electrical cords, broken heaters,  medicines and charts were covered with a layer of sewage.  By the time we had arrived at the hospital, the ooze and festering objects strewn in between had been rotting for a week.  The stench was unbearable, and the work excruciating. Whereas the work in the homes had been more gentle and slow, the hospital was a back-breaking and fast-paced machine of flying shovels, pick-axes and pans.

Slice.  Pry.  Heave.  Dump.  Slice.  Pry.  Heave.  Dump.

As the Ladakhi women sang a solemn dirge and the sun beat down on my neck,  I realized that I was only a ball and chain away from working on a chain gang.  It was the most gruesome and grueling work I have ever done, but I was more than happy to do it.

No matter how many times I wash those clothes, they will always stay a tinge of brown.  For weeks I found bits of brown earth in my eyes, nose, ears and  scalp… even in my armpits and bellybutton!  I scrubbed and scrubbed, yet it took weeks for the blackened clay to escape from under my finger nails.  It was as if Leh was trying to cling to me in a desperate attempt not to be forgotten.

But the Ladakhi earth had as much reason to fret as the people who lived upon it.  I would leave Leh, but these memories of it’s perservering people through such challenging times will never leave me.


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