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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ice Hockey in Ladakh, Part 1: The Adventure to Chiktan

As usual, pictures at the bottom of this post...

Passion. It is one of the most beautiful and definitive words in the English language. Passion is loving something so deeply, it resonates through your bones and into your soul. Passion defines who we are, and how we behave. Passion is waking up at the crack of dawn to skate in sub-zero conditions. Passion is staying out when it's dark to resurface the ice. Passion is hand-made hockey sticks and skates that are way too big. Passion is using any excuse possible to play hockey.

Passion is what motivates me to pursue my dreams and is the reason why I have the unique privilege of writing this post about ice hockey in Ladakh.

In Ladakh, the passion for ice hockey is as crystal clear as the Indus River that runs through the region (during the winter). Ladakh is one of the most difficult places to reach (see previous posts), which cuts it off from the rest of the world. As a result, the region loses out on the opportunity to attract tourists during the winter, outside of a few extreme thrill seekers and hockey nuts like myself. It is the de facto capital of ice hockey in India, since it's the only area where natural ice forms – primarily from late December through early February – and they celebrate the fact that hockey is their sport.

From the moment I arrived in Leh, on my drive to SECMOL, I saw a handful of children playing hockey on a pond, and immediately got the itch to get on the ice, regardless of travel and altitude (once again, see previous post). For the Canadians, Midwesterners and Swedes reading this, I realize pond hockey is not a big deal to you, as bodies of water freeze over quite often, but please understand my hockey situation. Long Island is surrounded by water (unlike Rhode Island, we actually are on an island), and we are somewhat along the gulf stream, which keep the water temperature slightly warmer in the winter, and provides just enough warmth to prevent the scarce ponds and rivers (more like streams) from freezing to a point where people feel comfortable enough to skate. At the same time, Nassau and Suffolk Counties (political Long Island) has 12 indoor ice arenas, not including the Nassau Coliseum, that provide somewhat ample opportunity to pay too much to play hockey. Side note: Skate sharpening on Long Island is as much as $10!

Anyway…the point is…there is a passion for hockey in Ladakh that is palpable. You can see it, feel it, and can't help but be inspired by it.

It gets better…

After day one with the altitude sickness, I tried to take it easy on day two. The child that I tend to behave like forced me onto the ice for a little bit on day two as well, and by day three we were on the road, but not before we caught a game of the senior SECMOL boys playing in the Leh tournament.

It's safe to say that ice hockey in India has a long way to go. As of today, all of the rinks in the country are outdoors, almost all of them in Jammu and Kashmir (the state), and in particular Ladakh (the region within the state). To make matters worse, there are no official referees, no understanding of the rules, and nobody to show them what they are doing wrong. Until now! I have a lot of work to do! Players would line up anywhere they pleased for a face-off that could be anywhere in the rink. They'd then attempt a slap shot as the referee "dropped" the puck from 5 feet away, whether someone was in the vicinity or not. Offsides and icing wasn't understood, and penalties weren't called. There's no concept of team play. Passing was scarce and goaltending was atrocious.

SECMOL had lost the previous day 15-0 to a police squad that has no formal training and had to fabricate much of their own equipment. This day, SECMOL won, but mostly on the backs of selfish play, as the aforementioned lack of passing meant that one player would skate end to end. There's no doubt that it's fun to watch an individual shine, but as we know in hockey, the team is the most important aspect. Individuals can thrive in India and at lower levels of hockey, but not if they want to stand out at the international level. This player ended up winning the Best Player Award for the tournament. He has a long way to go until I'd want him on my team.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to Chiktan to participate in a hockey tournament. The folks from Vermont that were also staying at SECMOL and I comprised the American team participating in the Kargil Ice Hockey Tournament, a few hundred miles away from where we were in Phey, outside of Leh. The trip to Chiktan began with absurdity, and ended in insanity. A handful of the folks from Vermont had already gone to Chiktan in advance as part of some treks that they do through VIS (Vermont Intercultural Studies), but a few stayed behind for the dual bus ride. Now when I say "bus", that does not mean a luxurious coach bus, or even a dilapidated school bus. It is more like a giant box that has wheels, an engine and some seats. Storage is on top of the bus, as well as in the aisles, and heat is nowhere to be found. On one bus was a majority of the SECMOL students with a handful of hockey equipment, and on my bus was a few SECMOL students, the foreigners (myself, two Vermonters, one German girl, and the SECMOL volunteer coordinator), the food (this trip was B.Y.O.F.), and a few kerosene & gasoline tanks. Needless to say, it was not only crammed in, but there was the distinct odor of toxic fumes in the vehicle, something I have become accustomed to no matter where I am in Ladakh.

The ride started fine, as I had claimed my traditional seat all by myself (on a jam-packed bus), while we drove up and down the Himalayas, along the Indus and Zanskar Rivers. Was it dangerous? Of course (again, see previous posts). Was it beautiful, absolutely! Being daylight when we left, I could appreciate the beauty of the trip. Once darkness set in, though, things started to change. Worry replaced awe, as the snowy, winding roads became icy, winding roads. I know what you're thinking…why aren't there street lights in the Himalayas? Good question...I am still asking myself that brilliant question. At the very least, they could've utilized some 4-wheel drive vehicles, but we were not so fortunate, and that cost us.

Around 8 or 9 pm our bus got stuck in the snow and we had to put chains on the tires. This being a 4-wheeled vehicle, the 2 sets of chains made the conditions anything but ideal for driving. After a considerable amount of nap time on my part, the chains were placed on the bus, and we were on the road again. You should be thinking back now about the fact that we had 2 buses on this voyage. Yup…we had to share the chains with the other bus. About 5 miles after driving up and down icy, winding roads in the high altitude and freezing Himalayas at night, a few lucky SECMOL students had to run the chains back to the other bus, in the snow, and fit that bus to drive.

Apparently, it didn't help.

I have the good fortune and equal bad luck of being able to sleep through a hurricane. I slept through most of this drama. I was rudely awoken from my dreams and Beatles music on my iPod as people started to board our bus. The second bus broke down, and most of the girls from that bus were brought onto our crammed bus, and the definition of close was quickly being redefined. As it is, Ladakhis (and Indians) have a much different cultural perception of personal space, as touching and sitting on laps is commonplace. Well, this all went into extreme practice, since space was limited and population had doubled. I lost my single seat, which was quickly converted into a quad, and we drove the rest of the way like this into Chiktan.

Arrival was around 2:00 AM, and if there's something I'm not, it's pleasant in the morning. Being a bit jet-lagged, and already groggy from napping on the drive, being freezing and confused just put me over the edge. No, the 1-mile walk in the middle of the night through dark, snowy paths, while jet-lagged, groggy, freezing and confused put me over the edge. I finally settled into my sleeping fleece (nope, no sleeping bag for me) around 3:00 am, shivering, but content, with a kerosene fire going in an enclosed room. The two guys from Vermont were positioned on the floor opposing me. I could've played footsies with either of them as they spooned.

At 5:00 AM, the rest of the boys arrived from the broken-down bus. Just like their cultural disposition towards personal space, there is a similar disposition when it comes to consideration of someone else sleeping. The group came into the room howling, barking, screaming, and jumping around, pushing us as we slept to make room in the tiniest corners of a room with no heat. They took down the kerosene boiler (I'm still not sure why), and after a few inaudible whines on my part, I was back to sleep, dreaming about pizza and New York girls (not together).

Bumpy bus ride...I couldn't hold the camera steady.

Indus River from the bus.

Another view out the bus.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The things we take for granted...

It was pretty obvious early on that "we're not in Kansas anymore", although if you asked me what my opinion of Kansas is/was, it probably isn't so far off.  There are so many things we take for granted, especially in my neck of the woods on Long Island, and I wanted to take a moment to reflect on it.

Pictures are at the bottom of this post.

  • Paved roads: As I stated in my prior post, driving in Ladakh is not for the weak-stomached.  The roads are barely visible, let alone paved.  When there are paved roads, they are filled with potholes.  Usually, paved roads means a sign of population in the area, which means people walking in the streets, vehicles passing each other even on a 1-lane road, and animals...everywhere!  And by animals, I mean cows, donkeys, yaks, and dogs...tons of dogs.  When dirt and paved roads aren't available, I was privileged to be in vehicles driving through the desert without any roads, or better yet, on snowy, icy, dark, winding mountain roads, with no shoulder, 1 lane, and the possibility of slipping out and plummeting a few hundred feet to a painful death.  Sorry, Mom.  Look at the bright side, it's some of the most beautiful sights anyone on this planet can ever hope to see!
  • Clean Water: I left the USA with a handful of vaccinations and prescriptions, preparing me for the worst when it came to diseases, including Hepatitis A and Malaria.  In order to drink water not out of a bottle, you need to boil it to be sure of no bacteria/viruses.  In Leh, they have some springs, but most water comes from the top of the spring, where dogs will drink from.  Needless to say, I prefer the boiled water.
  • Hot Running Water: The definition of a hot shower throughout much of Ladakh is a bucket of warm water.  I have been in India for almost a week now, and I've had the privilege of 1 warm bucket shower.  I have yet to attempt a cold running water shower.  Do I smell?  Most likely.
  • Electricity: SECMOL utilizes solar energy for much of the power at the campus, and this is better than most places, where power is only available for segments of the day.  In a few hours I will be with a group of people watching the inauguration (I can't wait!), and we need to bring in a generator in order to power the TV.
  • Fueled Heat: This is even more rare, as I have yet to find a source of heat that comes from oil, gas, electric, coal, or hamsters running in a wheel.  Heat comes from utilizing the sun properly, not necessarily harnessing solar electric, but just utilizing the closeness to the sun, and running fires in mini-stoves of wood & kerosene.  Black lungs must be standard in this part of the world.
  • Homes Built by trade: I had the distinct pleasure of staying with a family in Kargill (on the other side of Ladakh and then again with the family in Leh (including tonight).  Including all of the elements identified in the other bullets, the homes are built with mud, clay, stone, raw wood, straw, bamboo, and other raw materials.  There is no cancer-causing insulation, no indoor plumbing, minimal lighting, and no even floors, roofs (rooves?), or stairs.  Doorways are small, and have large foot posts, apparently meant to keep out the zombies (seriously!).  What the home lacks in modernity, it makes up for in coziness and hospitality, at least when it comes to the folks I stayed with.
I wanted to save the best for last:
  • Toilets: Yeah, you guessed it...hole in the floor.  In an outhouse.  In the cold.  Oh, and with no toilet paper.  Yes, I came prepared, hopefully for the duration.  Moisture control (to prevent stench) is done by shoveling dirt on top of the hole when you are done.  There is no sign that employees must wash their hands after using the restroom.  I have become addicted to my antibacterial wipes.
Check back often, as I will probably find more things we totally take for granted in the US, Canada, and the UK (ok, maybe not in Northern Canada, or Kansas, or the Scottish Highlands).

Expect a few more posts about random ridiculousness, with more and more hockey on the way!

So many pics and videos to sift through, but they're coming in bursts (video tomorrow hopefully - for real this time!).

Jule (pronounced "Joo-lay" and means, hello/goodbye/thank you and can be used at any time in coversation apparently),


The Arrival

Getting to Ladakh is no easy task.  Just getting to the right part of Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi was a project.  Flights get cancelled often.  Fortunately, that was not a problem I had to deal with.  The extra hockey gear I brought cost me only 1260 rupees ($30) to bring along, and my flight was not even 1/6 full.

The flight was short, about an hour and ten minutes, and upon descent into Leh, it was clear the world I am accustomed to in New York and on Long Island was nowhere in sight.

Landing in Leh should require an additional pilot's license, because the landing requires the pilot to weave in and out of the mountains like a ski slolom.  Snowy, rocky peaks are in all directions, and the final descent literally requires the plane to do a 90 degree turn to avoid crashing into the side of the mountain.

Throughout this airport voyage, I was the human freak show carrying 2 bundles of hockey sticks, and this was heightened in Leh by the fact that the aiport was the size of a garage and I was the only American on the voyage to the coldest region of India.

It was cold, but not as bad as I expected.  The air was crisp and seemed easy to breathe.  I stood in the middle of a taxi driver circle, half bewildered, half firm in the price I would pay to get to SECMOL's campus in Phey, about 10-20 miles away.

The ride was interesting, to say the least.  On one hand, you were surrounded by the Himalayas, Mother Nature's Crown Jewels, with the Indus River cutting through it, and on the other hand, the scene on the road was full of Indian military bases, ad nauseum.  The second half of the drive was on a narrow road that followed the curvature of the mountain face.

I wasn't entirely confident my driver knew where SECMOL was, but sure enough, after a few awkward exchanges, we made it to a dirt road with a small sign pointing the way.  When I say "road" this is highly exaggerated, as it was nothing more than 2 tire marks to follow in the desert while trying to avoid any major boulders or ditches.  I was just able to make out the SECMOL campus, when we came to a sudden stop.  I thought my Ladakhi driver made a wrong turn and was about to take us down a cliff, as this would've been the preferred option, because the road to SECMOL had been blocked off as it was undriveable.  I was well over a mile away from campus, with a winding road of boulders to walk with 3 bags (luggage and equipment) and 2 bundles of sticks.

Oh, did I mention this is at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet?  Leh is twice the altitude of Denver, which towers over North America at 5,280 feet.  You know how you hear about the altitude issues for athletes in Denver, and how Major League Baseball actually uses a different ball for games in Denver?  Well imagine that within 30 minutes of arriving at what feels like the top of the world (the two highest civilizations in the world are in Peru & Tibet, both over 16,000 feet), and carrying 100 pounds of crap well over a mile on a rocky path, while having a hard time breathing.  

What better way to get acclimated to the altitude?

Oh, how about playing hockey an hour later.

The rink at SECMOL is about 2/3 the size of an NHL standard rink, with no boards.  I was fortunate enough to find netting in the US that fit the oddly constructed goals perfectly.  I attempted to show the students how to take a proper wrist shot and after a little while, we got to the fun part...scrimmage.

There is a tremendous room for improvement for hockey in Ladakh, as you will find out in detail in my future posts.  Suffice it to say, if we scrimmaged 2 North Americans on 10 Ladakhis, we'd have a decent match.

Unfortunately, my body was quickly failing, and by early evening, after 2 days of travel and a +12,000 foot change in altitude, I was feeling dizzy, nauseous, confused and with a massive headache that didn't subside until the following afternoon.

That is where we'll pick up the next chance I get to find a stable internet connection.

Here are some pictures of the beginning of the trip.  Video and additional pictures to come soon.


Listen to my broadcast from  Saturday, 1/10 with the guys from Hockey Night on Long Island: 
Listen to Hockey Night on Long Island on internet talk radio

Special thanks to the Allan and Rolly at Nasty Hockey Show for being strong advocates for this program, and putting together this broadcast. Please check it out!
Awesome quote from their website: "I’ll match your contributions up to a total of $200. Just leave a comment on this blog with what you have donated."
Thank you guys!
Special thanks to Sarah Elizabeth Foster of for doing this interview, supporting the cause, and donating! (NOTE: I mention in the video I'll be leaving by the New Year. My departure date is now set at 1/12/09!)