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Have Crayons, Will Travel

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I love children.  Although I’ve never had my own, I’ve been fortunate enough to have four amazing step kids in my life, all of whom have brought me growth, maturity, insight and inspiration over the last decade that I’ve been instrumental in raising them.

For a reason that pre-dates even my stepmother role, I’ve always gravitated towards kids and on our recent trip to Ladakh, I was blessed with some great encounters with the children we met on our travels.

As a photographer I’ve always had a good giggle around kids, particularly those in the Himalaya.  If I’m not showing them their world through the eyes of my binoculars, they are always crowded around me as I’ve showed their picture to them on the LCD screen of my camera.

In Ladakh we lived with a family at a Himalayan Homestay in the tiny hamlet of Ullay, a collection of half a dozen houses, scattered across a remote hillside in the Zanskar.  There are three small children in the families at Ullay right now.  With only yaks, goats and sheep to keep them company, they learn to be creative and inventive with play.  Visiting foreigners like Mark and I are a curiosity.  Our white skins are a novelty in their world.  Of all the children I am blessed enough to hang around with, the children of the Himalaya touch my heart more than most because they are quintessentially, materially poor.  The facilities and lives of children living in Australia, the UK or USA, are beyond the wildest dreams of many kids in Nepal, Tibet and India.

Before I started my expedition in western Tibet last September, I was walking down a Kathmandu street after dinner with my fellow expedition friends and I intervened in a fight that was transpiring amongst a group of urchin street children on our way back to our hotel.  The blamed perpetrator had a horrific burn scar on his face, most likely the consequence of an accident with the flammable liquids through a lack of education.  I hoped it was nothing more sinister than that.  When things got physical, with one child sitting crying on the street, I intervened with a “Hey! Cut that out!” and I dragged the biggest kid out of the start of a brawl.  A broken english conversation ensued. The usual blame game.  I said “I don’t care who cast the first stone, you can all quit that rubbish” and one of my friends pulled me aside to continue our evening.  I love even the street children of Kathmandu. It isn’t their fault that they’ve ended up in that position.

Relaying this story to Mark after I returned he said “I really wish you wouldn’t do that.  What if he pulled out a knife?”.  I guess I would always give kids the benefit of the doubt.

I always try to think of ways to give to children in places like the Himalayas.  I don’t personally believe in giving children money for photographs because I think it fosters a bad culture.  Similarly I would NEVER give a child sweets when their families have no dentist to send them to.  When I lead expeditions, I always try to ask my guests to be mindful of the greater consequences of their actions when they travel with me.  It is very easy to say yes to a sweet little face that is asking for something that may ruin them either directly or indirectly, intentionally or innocently.

So I’m left with a perpetual dilemma.  How can I repay the kindness of these children and their families without completely corrupting their existence with my western ways?

Prior to our trip to Ladakh, I asked Mark how many children were in Ullay.  He said he’d have to check but he thought that three or four were living there.  To be on the safe side, I packed a few small toys, a dozen notepad sized sketchbooks and some mini packs of wax crayons in primary colours.  All of these gifts were a hit.

One afternoon we visited a village close to Ullay called Saspoche.  It is where I shot the image above of an unnamed little boy and his little friend Rinchen (the one pulling the face).  Both of them had decided to visit the two tall westerners with the binoculars.  Rinchen was actually a relative of the family we were staying with in Ullay but I didn’t realise it when I saw him approach.  Prior to that day, my only encounter with Rinchen was inside while we were having breakfast with his family in another visit to Saspoche.

On this visit a little boy approached us with cheeks ruddy from the cold.  When he saw me he instantly pulled faces.  He knew I was the photographer that was in the area.

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Mark said “It’s Rinchen” and with a certain level of embarrassment I recognised him.  All those pulled faces had me confused until I saw this

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that beaming little smile and weathered cheeks I’d encountered a couple of days earlier.

This time Rinchen bought his little friend to meet us.  They started to play in our midst.  I guess looking for “Shan” (snow leopards) is a pretty boring exercise for the average kid.  While they played in the dust, I extricated some crayons and sketchpads from my camera bag and beckoned them over.

When I gave them their gifts, they looked at me with some apprehension until one of the Saspoche villagers told them to say “Thank you” in Ladakhi.  I asked them if they would draw a picture for me which produced a quizzical look on their faces.  Mark then intervened and grabbed one of my spare drawing pads with a crayon and drew an Ibex for them.

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Mark and I both share a genetic trait – a “Tongue of concentration”.  Whenever either of us are engrossed in thought or concentration, we stick our tongue out.  My brother does it too.  It is something that we inherited from our father, who I’m sure has his tongue out as he draws up plans for the amazing houses he designs for his many appreciative clients.

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There’s the “Beaman tongue of concentration” in full swing!

Mark’s artistry was a source of great curiosity with the kids of Saspoche.

0J0A3331  I love this photo of Mark.  It is one of my favourites from our trip.

Mark then asked Rinchen if he would draw a picture for me.

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You have to concentrate when drawing a picture for someone as a gift!

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Well maybe not too much!

Here is my picture from Rinchen!

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and it now has its own special place in my physical journal from our trip.

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a treasure that sits alongside my entrance ticket to Thiksay, a remnant of a prayer flag that I found in Ladakh’s only surviving juniper forest and the goatee beard from a Siberian Ibex that I found on our trek to the end of the Spango Valley in the Zanskar.

So many wonderful memories of our time in Ladakh.

 

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