Leh rests in the unforgiving, orange-tinted landscape of the Himilaya mountains. Leh is a city in Ladakh, in the northern corner of the Jammu and Kashmir province, India. From the second the plane touched down in Leh, the same mandate was repeated over and over in too many languages to count: Do NOT take photos. This posed just a slight problem, as the purpose of my trip was to photograph the land, the people, and their culture. Our group of Czech, French, and American photographers entered the military base surrounded by AK-47s and many watchful eyes. We drove into the city nestled among the peaks. We walked and winded as the townspeople carried on with their day. Mothers carried their children, Buddhist monks repeated the mantra “Om mani padme hūm,” purify and open the mind to the ether of the world, shop owners sold and traded, men held hands, and other tourists milled about. As we walked, we realized that we were only just scratching the surface of an incredibly diverse, charged, and rugged place.
Since this trip, I have been thinking a lot about happiness. So often we, as students at a prestigious university with high aspirations, are quick to show displeasure at the less than ideal aspects of our busy lives. I, too, am not above these negative thoughts and complaints. Getting up early or having to complete innumerable assignments is challenging, but recently I got to re-visit some of the photos I took on this trip, and broadened my scope to see a larger picture.
For an area where constant war and militaristic tension is the norm, where literacy is not universal, where people grow up with limited choice in lifestyle, where economic hardship has left a huge impact, and where schooling is not possible for many, the people of Leh find joy in day to day life, striving for contentment and happiness within their surroundings. I was only a tourist, but I was captivated by the happiness that exudes from this city. The people find joy in family, in the food, in the culture, in pashmina, in bright colors, in the natural beauty of their home, and in each other. In burdensome times here Wash U, I urge myself and all of us to remember that the world is a very large place. Think of others both abroad and right here who struggle and who still find happiness in the world around them.