It was raining outside the Chinese Bowl restaurant in Ladakh, India. Our group of Western tourists sat huddled around plates of chow mien, shivering. We cradled cups of chai and exchanged stories with weather-dominated plots. Three of us—a Canadian, a German, and an American—listened to two Brits talk through chattering teeth about their past forty-eight hours.
They had just arrived back in our home base of Leh, the largest town in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, India’s northernmost state. Two days earlier, they had set off on a short trip. The return route required a drive over the highest road in the world—Khardung La—before arriving in Leh. The road is notoriously dangerous, like most in the Himalayas. It is steep, turns are sharp, and drop-offs take the place of breakdown lanes. Army trucks constantly barrel up and down the pass. Instead of applying their brakes, drivers lean on their horns as they hurtle around each switchback. Just three days before, on a foggy evening, a car had rolled off the road’s edge. Four people were killed.
The British tourists, the ones who sat around me, described how they had been stopped when their car neared the top of the pass before descending towards Leh. There was a massive traffic jam ahead of them. It was snowing. The road had iced up. Indian army officials, who control the pass, were holding the traffic at a standstill.
“At least this is what the passengers in the cars in front of us were saying,” one of the Brits said. “I asked our guide what was going on, but she just shook her head and said she didn’t know.”
Their guide was a 24 year-old Ladakhi woman named Dolma. She was employed at the trekking company where I was volunteering. I had been teaching English to her and the other female guides. I gripped my cup of chai tighter and leaned in, anxious to learn more about how my student had handled the situation.
“Did she try to find out more about the situation after you asked her?”
The Brit laughed incredulously. “No! She wouldn’t get out of the car to gather more information. We waited for an hour before I finally got out and walked through the snow to reach the army officials at the front of the traffic jam. They told me they were closing the pass until tomorrow and that we should leave and find a place to stay the night in a neighboring village.”
He shook his head. “If I hadn’t gotten out and asked the army, we would have been stuck in the traffic all night. I couldn’t believe that the Ladakhi guide whom we had hired couldn’t even get that information for us! I had to take the role of the guide!”
Our group of Westerners nodded sympathetically. After the Brit had spoken to an army official, he and his friends had to knock on the houses in a nearby village, asking if the families had room for them to sleep on the floor. Almost all the living room floors had been taken by other travelers who were also stuck. The Brits were lucky to find one of the last houses with space.
We bit into momos (Tibetan dumplings), ordered more chai, and together agreed that Western guides would have handled the situation much better than their Ladakhi counterparts.
The next day I sat before my students—the female Ladakhi guides, including Dolma, the Brit’s “incompetent guide,” as they had described her. The theme I had chosen for that day’s class was “leadership.”
I crouched below the framed photo of the Dalai Lama and asked them to take out their notebooks.
“I’d like each of you to write about a time when you displayed the qualities of a good leader.”
The women looked at me blankly. I tried rephrasing the question.
“Please write an example of when you showed excellent leadership skills.”
They began muttering nervously in Ladakhi to one another. Thinking they didn’t understand my question, I gave them my own answer. After I finished my story, they chewed on their pens but didn’t bring the writing utensils anywhere near the paper.
Taking a deep breath, I attempted to generate a discussion around what leadership means and about the qualities of a good leader. Then I again asked them to give a personal example of their own leadership skills. Twenty minutes had passed since I had first posed the question, and no one had given an example.
Finally I gave up and moved on with the lesson. But I failed to understand why they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—answer my question. What did this say about their notions of leadership and their comfort with providing personal anecdotes? I wondered if this failed attempt at a writing exercise had a connection with Dolma’s “lack” of leadership skills. Or was this because of something greater?
When the class ended, the women filed out the door into the strong Ladakhi sunlight. “Julley,” they called to me as they left, the Ladakhi word that means hello, goodbye, and thanks. Dolma took her time packing her bag, and soon she and I were the only ones remaining in the room. She lifted her head and we stared at each other for a moment.
“How was your trip?” I asked. It was like she had been waiting for me to ask, now that the other women had left.
“I couldn’t talk to the army officers,” she blurted. She drew a breath and I waited for her to continue.
“I had my period but didn’t have anything for it and I couldn’t go up to them with blood on my pants.” She looked up at me, her brow wrinkled with shame and fear. I took a deep breath as I re-thought the entire episode on the pass and our Western analysis of it.
In Ladakh, the region of Jammu & Kashmir that borders Tibet to the east (the rest of Jammu & Kashmir borders Pakistan to the west), Indian army officials are everywhere. They strut the streets clad in uniform. Their trucks kick up dust on the roads. Their omnipresence creates a hyper-masculine environment. The way they clutch their rifles and stand at street corners staring with narrow eyes, eyeing all activity, makes them the ultimate (although unwanted) authority in Jammu & Kashmir. The Indian army and the Ladakhis had a complex relationship revolving around power that was too foreign for us foreigners to understand.
I imagined Dolma, stuck on the snowy pass, considering whether or not she should approach the Indian army officers. The previous week, she had told me that women, simply because they menstruate, are not allowed in some Buddhist temples. Periods are considered dirty and could contaminate the sacred place. If the Indian officers had noticed menstrual blood on the young Ladakhi woman who carried the title of a guide—a job that is meant only for men in Jammu & Kashmir—the gender gap would have grown even wider. Dolma could have been vulnerable to harassment and that could have harmed her dignity, honor, and her respect and reputation in her community.
I turned and gazed out the window, watching donkeys wander into alleys, and I reflected again on what had happened. Here in post-colonial India, it seems that a special status is still accorded to the British. One of the British tourists, blond and six feet four inches tall, had gone up to the officers and had demanded to know what was happening. And he quickly got an answer. I had to admit, it’s doubtful that Dolma would have gotten the same reaction.
As I spoke with her, I remembered sitting in the Chinese Bowl, listening in disbelief as the tourists described a guide who wouldn’t offer any assistance as the group tried to deal with being stuck on a 18,300 foot-high road. Now, as I considered some of the challenges of being a female guide in Ladakh, I empathized with Dolma.
We, two women, sat in silence on the floor. We looked at each other. Our vastly different backgrounds and experiences with gender didn’t disappear from our thoughts, but for that moment the universal feelings associated with our female identities connected us.
I couldn’t offer her advice or even a very meaningful response to what she had told me. I didn’t understand the greater context and the cultural issues well enough. But I realized that in her way, Dolma had answered the question that I had earlier posed to the group.
“When had they displayed the qualities of a good leader?” No doubt, one such moment came when Dolma and the other women summoned the courage to knock on the door of our trekking company, and announce they were ready to guide.