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In the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains, at the far reaches of the northern tip of India, you will find Zanskar, a mystical region of the sub-continent and a stronghold of the Buddhist culture. In the heart of Zanskar is the village of Padum, a settlement of about 1,000 people that sits at an elevation of just over 12,000 feet.
Zach Radford and Aimee Ryan are on their way to Padum to take part in a Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation (TCEF) service trip to provide medical care and education to local healthcare providers, and they've agreed to share their adventures with us. As they make their way to Padum, we've put together an introductory Q&A to learn more about Zach and Aimee and their incredible journey.
The Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation (TCEF) is a nonprofit corporation founded in 1995, dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture by educating and assisting Tibetans, raising awareness of its culture, and by empowering Tibetans to manifest these goals. TCEF began in Montana, which many of Tibetan friends say reminds them of Tibet. TCEF was chartered by a group of Montanans, all of whose lives have been enriched in some degree by the Tibetans, their religion or culture. By helping to keep that culture and its people alive and well educated, they hope to return some of the blessings they have received.
Due to the rugged, mountainous geography of the area, the Zanskari people are isolated 7-8 months of the year. There are satellite phones in some villages, but it often requires walking several days to access them. A helicopter is available in emergencies, but the decision to evacuate a patient is made by district administrators, who are not medically trained. In winter weather, the helicopter might not be able to take off for 4-5 days, and then there is the added problem of transporting a patient to a safe landing site.
In 2014, a TCEF service trip journeyed to Zanskar, invited by the Himalayan Astro Medical Society to assess the healthcare efforts (or lack thereof) taking place in the region. As a result, TCEF volunteers built an addition to a teahouse to serve as a small clinic in the Lungnak Valley - one of the poorest regions of Zanskar.
From this makeshift clinic, TCEF and their medically trained volunteers did health assessments, first aid and began building a relationship with the Amchis, traditional Tibetan healers.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in Zanskar at that time, and TCEF volunteer leaders were given a brief audience with him. “You must continue this work,” he urged, stressing that if the people of Tibet continue to be oppressed, Zanskar would be the last stronghold of Buddhist culture.
As a result, the Dalai Lama Fund granted the committee funds to build a clinic for both western and traditional medicines in Padum, the district center of Zanskar. Work on the clinic began immediately.
The structure is now complete and, with the help of a group of highly dedicated TCEF volunteers, is ready to open this summer. The TCEF service team has been tasked with arranging the first medical camps, educating local healthcare workers and setting up the hospital so it can run efficiently and effectively in a sustainable manner.
My connection to TCEF goes back decades. The founder of TCEF, Karma Tensum, is a dear family friend whom I’ve known most of my life (my family had the honor of supporting him on his journey to become a US citizen). It’s been a longtime goal of mine to actively participate in one of his organization’s projects.
In terms of what it’s taken to say yes to this trip…let’s just say it’s been a work in progress, but not for lack of interest. Zach and I, along with my mom, Heidi, have been hemming and hawing about joining this adventure since last December. We eventually gave up on it when both the timing and funds didn’t come together. It was hard choice, but we resigned to this just not being our trip.
Fast forward to early May, when my cousin, Sarah, who is traveling in India, decided to change her plans from tourist to volunteer. What ensued was a 3-person domino effect.
My mom had just retired, so the timing and the promise of doing meaningful work in the world felt perfect for her. 1 down!
After that, it was my decision. I couldn’t let two of my favorite women have this adventure without me, so despite the fact that I had less than two weeks to get everything in order, I jumped in with both feet. That makes 2!
Last, but surely not least, was my partner in crime and love of my life, Zach. Despite the initial shock at a spontaneous month-long trip to India, he knew that this was the chance of a lifetime and not to be missed. The trifecta!
To reach Padum from the U.S., we first travel to Delhi, India. From there, we take a flight to Leh, a remote town that was once the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh, now known as the Indian state of Kashmir. From Leh, the trip is just beginning.
To reach Padum requires driving from Leh to Kargil, then Kargil to Padum – a 24-hour ride that involves negotiating a deeply rutted dirt road with numerous river and glacial runoff crossings.
I'm really looking forward to working and developing friendships with the people of Zanskar. One of the biggest concerns with this trip is that we do not impose on the traditions and culture of the area. It's something Aimee and I are taking very seriously.
The Dalai Lama has said that Zanskar is one of the last strongholds of Tibetan Buddhist culture, so it feels like we are entering a fragile ecosystem where we may affect parts of it without realizing we are doing so. The TCEF’s mission is to integrate western medicine into the practice of the Amchis, not to swoop in with all the answers and leave a mess behind. I hope we are able to help these people, not hinder them.
I have a lot to learn, and I really look forward to that part of the experience. I really don’t think there is any better education than getting out into the world to meet people, connect with them, and try to gain a better understanding of their worldview.
Oh yeah, I also want to go for a 5 mile run at 12,000 feet. Sounds brutal, but, my God, running through that kind of scenery would be unreal.
First and foremost, I’m looking forward to being a part of a team of people who are dedicated to making a meaningful impact on the lives of others. For me, that’s as good as it gets – to be a part of something bigger than myself and to do it in community. All of this is made sweeter by the fact that I get to travel to one of my favorite countries on earth, India, and to experience parts of her that I’ve never seen before.
Being immersed in the rugged landscape and interacting with the people who inhabit it is another highlight of the trip. One of the things I love most about traveling, particularly in India, and even more so to parts that are off the beaten track, is experiencing stark contrast between my reality compared to that of others I share this planet with, while at the same time tapping in to the universality of our nature. I love that we are all incredibly similar yet so profoundly different.
Lastly, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to do some serious trekking. Whether on the way from Leh to Padum, where we’ll need to get out and walk for stretches of the two day, 24-hour jeep drive, or when some of us will set out to the neighboring villages to spread the word about the hospital’s new services, or on our days off when we’ll get to explore the surrounding area, I can’t wait to hike through this incredible landscape.
Zach and Aimee currently call Missoula, Montana home. Aimee was raised in the mountains of Montana and spends her days balancing her love for the outdoors with her passion for building community. She has studied yoga, meditation and mediation practices for over 15 years, and currently runs Core Connections, her own consulting and education services company. Zach works for a fundraising consulting firm helping non-profits grow and flourish. He has his parents to thank for instilling a love of nature. His small-town Wisconsin upbringing gave him endless access to beautiful parks, slow-meandering rivers, frog ponds, and deciduous forests that he spent countless hours exploring.