Ladakh is not a travel destination that features prominently on Singaporeans’ radar. Which is probably why my intention to travel there in August this year raised many eyebrows.
“Oh, it’s the place where ‘Three Idiots’ was shot,” I would say. The Bollywood blockbuster gave many viewers their first taste of the stark, haunting beauty of the Buddhist ex-kingdom along the borders of Northern India, Pakistan and Tibet, China.
But unlike the far-too-many tourists ushered in by the film’s epic finale, sightseeing was not on my agenda. 31 other volunteers and I were setting about a journey across the vast and treacherous trans-Himalayan landscape to bring mobile eye care to hard-to-reach village communities.
I felt jittery to be honest, having been told to expect very basic living conditions – only several short hours of power supply each night, and due to water scarcity, no daily showers and a hole in the ground for a toilet. Overcome by FOMO, I brought along 4 power banks and stuffed as many toilet rolls as was possible into my luggage.
The fifth annual medical service trip to the Land of High Passes organised by Singapore-based NGO, Sight To Sky, saw its highest number of volunteers since conception. Of our team of 32, the youngest was an energetic 14-year-old, while the oldest was a spritely 62-year-old.
Sight To Sky was founded by Singaporeans Elizabeth Tan and Woon Fei Xiang, and Hong Kong-based filmmaker Edwin Lee. After years of organising and volunteering with medical missions which were mostly focused on surgical treatment, the long-time do-gooders observed that there was a lack of resources dedicated to preventive healthcare such as community health education.
Determined to close the gap, the founding of Sight To Sky spearheaded a mobile medical delivery model for health education and basic treatment.
At high altitude, regular exposure to harsh sunrays and dry, gusty winds without adequate protection makes conditions such as dry eyes, conjunctivitis, cataract, and pterygium common. For the 220,000 Ladakhi population, the lack of access to general eye care complicates the problem – visiting the region’s only optometrist in Leh, the capital, is both costly and time-consuming as it takes several hours to get to in a hired car.
In stark contrast, it takes all of 20 minutes to have a new pair of glasses made in Singapore’s optical shops.
Many Ladakhi have therefore never had their eyes checked or treated in their lifetime. Some go on to lose their sight as a result.
Travelling to five villages in Changthang Valley over the course of two weeks, Sight To Sky’s 2016 mobile clinic assessed the visual health of over one thousand two hundred villagers, some of whom walked miles having learnt of the clinic through word of mouth.
At each new location, we encountered a fresh set of operational challenges which affected the daily setup of the clinic. Throughout the trip, we adapted to accommodations that spanned small town halls, a school, the courtyard of a Buddhist temple and a local clinic. In past years, the team had even had to set up tents for holding areas under the sun.
For fuel, the warm tea and snacks served by the villagers kept us going.
As foreigners, we were also handicapped by the language barrier, a lack of modern technology à la Google Maps to navigate our surroundings, and altitude sickness that manifested itself in a collection of nonspecific symptoms, ranging from general fatigue and headache to nausea, vomiting and stomach illness.
As volunteers took turns to rest and adapt to the rarified air, each contact made with local patients was only possible with tremendous help from local facilitators who were our mouths and ears.
I saw for myself the impact of Sight To Sky’s outreach when we ran our final clinic in the village of Korzok. Against the backdrop of the majestic Tso Moriri lake, I was introduced to 56-year-old livestock keeper, Mr. Tenzin Urgain.
A patient from Sight To Sky’s 2013 mission, Mr. Urgain’s eyes were damaged from overexposure to the elements. He underwent cataract surgery on Sight To Sky’s referral in 2014 and has since recovered. He was visibly delighted on meeting the team, as regaining his eyesight has allowed him to stay mobile, immensely improving his quality of life.
While mundane tasks such as documenting patients’ records, carrying out preliminary visual acuity tests, and dispensing eyedrops appeared insignificant at first, such work by non-medical volunteers laid the foundation upon which the NGO functions, allowing medical volunteers to focus on more severe cases.
Conditions requiring surgical intervention like Mr. Urgain’s were recorded for follow up with the help of village heads and other health organisations.
For the villagers young and old, a fraction of whom came from nomadic tribes, our dramatic, sometimes comical reiteration of eye care tips was in itself a precious source of preventive knowledge.
It was difficult to imagine that an NGO benefitting faraway Ladakhi communities could be managed by a three-man team based out of Singapore and Hong Kong.
But despite formidable logistical challenges and relying exclusively on donations, Elizabeth, Fei and Edwin left no stones unturned in their determination to provide sustainable care for the patients. This involved ordering glasses from other cities and finding creative ways to deliver them to patients, or sponsoring surgical procedures when free cataract camps could not be arranged.
Sight To Sky also dips its toes into other areas of healthcare when opportunity arises. This year, a Singapore-based dentist provided oral care at the clinic.
In a moment that crystallised my belief that every act of giving, however small, matters, a boy of preschool age broke into a shy smile when he wore glasses for the first time, to correct his shortsightedness of -6.00. We were fortunately able to correct a squint that he was developing from putting too much strain on his stronger eye, before the condition could have become permanent.
For every clumsy fumble on the compost toilet and each day dressed in clothes that smelled like curry (from spending two nights in a school hall that doubles as the dining hall), I had plenty more instances of genuine hospitality and jaw-dropping views of surreal landscapes to be thankful for.
Being removed from the connected world also reminded me how few material things we need to be happy.
I left Ladakh with a heart full with memories. Of soft whispers of ‘julley’ (‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ in Ladakhi) and twinkling eyes on gentle Ladakhi faces.
Sight To Sky is organising a Christmas fundraiser to support their upcoming missions. To learn more, visit their Facebook page.