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We are awaiting a blue flame

Our huddle of 6 is situated in a golden alley of solar panel induced glow. It is dark now, darker than when the sun first disappeared over the mountains at 6, darker still now that the light blue has bled from the sky to reveal galaxies. Now, if ever, is the time. I stand looking at the burly pipes that make up the biodigestor, a simple machine that turns cow dung into usable methane cooking gas. I look over to Rohit, two other students I have yet to meet and Norgay – SECMOL’s director. We share similar anticipation for the success of the blue flame. Multiple days of tinkering have gone into this moment. Soon we will no longer be able to enjoy our shared nerdy inventor time. It is our last day at Secmol and a goodbye party is in order. My fellow Dragons are engaged in an industrial momo production line the likes of which the world of ‘cultural immersion’ has never seen. They twist and fill pockets of dough with mixed vegetables into artistic shapes for mass steaming. In the distance I hear their efforts and the thumps of dance and pop music which echo out of the main hall into the night, fluctuating as people flow in and out of the spring loaded doorways.

The cows of the cow shed are stirring to the chaos – they act as if they know what they do. A part of me thinks they might. Without them none of this would be possible. Norgay fiddles with some of the device changes we’ve been pondering. He is the acting director of SECMOL, he helps facilitate most of the energy programs with students. On day three I got the privilege of skipping morning chores to work with him around campus. We argued amicably over adjustments to the biodigestor machine during the morning light. The biodigestor relies on a stew of hot water and cow dung, cycled in small amounts daily, to produce methane. The methane leaks into a pressure valve which collects in a large containing balloon. Rohit, Norgay and I draw up a few mock designs for changes. We discuss moving the input valves to change the pressure in the system, declining the pipe to only a 5 or 10 degree incline, and adding a pulley to the balloon for extra assistive vacuum force in gas collection. I am in my element.

I feel at home in SECMOL. It is my element. The biodigestor is just one of many input systems for cow dung around these parts. SECMOL is known for its energy innovations. It is not a typical school as I initially expected. It is structured for those who fail their 10th and 12th grade exams, college students interested in non-standard majors, or those just seeking alternative education forms. Becky, the volunteer coordinator, told us that at SECMOL’s start roughly 96% percent of students failed their high school exams. This could be devastating for students whose potential future success could rely so heavily on the outcome of these exams. The stigma and heavy expectations could destroy a student’s passion – it could stop them from pursuing their genius. SECMOL seeks to fight this. They believe there is more than one type of education and actively involve students in it.

In fact, students practically run the show. Other than basic managerial ‘adult-stuff’, the students are in charge of the daily flow and movements of the campus’ intertwined dynamic. It is beautiful and refreshing. In our English speaking classes we discuss how this has changed the student’s outlook on education, and how some of the students want to learn the practical skills necessary for maintaining their own village back home. They tell me how SECMOL stands for Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh. They seem happy in their autonomy. Student ownership of their culture and its evolution into alternative forms is central. They run the garden with plastic bottle lined canals and compost toilet manure. They adjust the Archimedes Death Ray mirror which concentrates light onto black pots for use in the kitchen where students help prepare meals for 50+ peers. Each day we are at the whim of younger and more knowledgeable students. They are our superiors and decide how we assist in tasks all over campus. This was extremely humbling to me. I come from a land of expert and elder authority, of intellectual elitism proved by degrees and PHDs – these students knew more about energy and sustainable systems on the ground than any Environmental Studies teachers I’ve studied under.

The products of such cohesive student led tasks are amazing to me. As someone obsessed with alternative energy futures, SECMOL provides a beacon of hope for actively working towards a better world through youth and education. Through passive solar they maintain a warm 64 °F average indoors amidst the dead of sub-zero Ladakhi winter – no additional heating involved. Extra ‘trash’ is filled into bottles for wall fillings encased by mud or re-used wherever possible. Rocket stoves are prototyped with ceramic wool from the surrounding landfill, carelessly disposed by the military, and repurposed to burn waste at high enough temperatures to produce no fly-ash.

We are awaiting a blue flame. A blue flame means more to us than a potential patent or the eyes of an investor. It means cooking gas can be produced from animals on campus to help feed students. It means students can be reaffirmed in their commitment towards creating a greener future. It means a few hours in morning sunlight tinkering on simple machines can be more than just a hobby.

The gasket opens. The coalition of the golden corridor listens for the light hiss over dance music and distant laughter. Norgay strikes a match from a tiny matchbox and brings it to the hose outlet. The blue flame comes alive like a tiny, magnificent flamethrower. I smile so wide at such a small, small thing. The flamethrower is short lived, we close the gasket as to not waste gas. It is more than enough. It is more than we could hope for. We retreat to fill our stomachs with momos and discuss dreams of sustainable loop restaurants. Our horizon of potential has opened wider together. It is a emotional night of performances and goodbye ceremonies. I crawl into my covers that night with a new beacon, a new flame, to carry with me where I go. For days that can shut down my dreams of a brighter and coming world there are these with hope.