One – reel meetings

(Dedicated to those who made our travels unknowingly memorable)

 

One of the many expressions our middle school Math teacher expounded was of one-real moments. What he meant by this is that he will hint at a Math problem only once, and if you caught it good for you, and if not then fend for yourself.

The expression somehow stuck in my head and I often used it for people who I meet all but once in my life, like the reel of an analog camera, which once clicked, cannot be retrieved again. I meet them at parks, while taking shelter from the rain, in smoking rooms, on train journeys, while scrambling for WIFI at airports. They make me laugh and wonder, make my journey a little more special and disappear from my life, like I do from theirs.

Some stay, like my husband who I had also documented in my mind under ‘One reel people’ 7 odd years ago. Life surprises.

On my first solo trip to Spiti, a small Indian valley in the Himalayas, I found myself struggling to sleep in the 900-year old Ki Monastery. It was only 8:30 pm. I decided to walk a little on the porch as the night sky was brilliant and other than occasional gusts of wind crawling up the monastery walls, it was silent. The grand naked mountains stared at me like they knew all of my secrets. That’s when I met the Stranger without a Face. I call him so because in the one hour that we spoke about our countries, shamans, education, the Milky Way and poverty I could not once figure out what he looked like. It was only the next day when I reached the main town of Kaza that I realized the oddness. Though I fervently considered getting on the next bus back to the monastery to see what the person’s face, I let it lie. Firstly, because I would come across as a crazy stalking lady and secondly, I saw some twisted romance in not knowing.

Years ago when Diego and were only 15 days into the relationship we decided to go to Pushkar on his bullet under the ruthless North Indian summer sun. I wasn’t well travelled, you’d know it the moment I tell you this – I hopped onto the unreliable second Royal Enfield Bullet without a helmet, sunscreen, proper biking costume et al to pillion ride 600 kms on uncertain Indian roads.

I was just 21 and deliriously in love.

The bike, keeping with its reputation, broke down several times on the way and heavy rain pricked our skin. One of our hurried shelters from sudden rain was an abandoned house off the highway. The first glimpse of the house, with it broken windows and peeling paint, sent a cold shiver down my spine but there wasn’t anywhere else to go. Once we entered we saw that the house had more people – a dozen of men huddled together, probably construction workers also taking shelter. If you are a woman and have stayed in India you’d know how this could play out. It could mean assault, robbery, murder, or all of them.

But instead these were Men Who Offered Tea and were far more interested in knowing the white man amongst us (Diego). So while the sky was overcast and rain formed puddles around the house, we sipped on milky tea, talked about us, questioned them on the homes they have left behind, listened to wet car tires squealing away on wet highway when we were listen, took a photo of them with Diego which they happily approved of. I secretly thanked my stars.

When the rain stopped we bid adieu to our friends and I wondered – perhaps they’re not all like that?

On our recent visit to India we met the most The Couple in Fort Kochi. The lady was as beautiful as Eastern European women are famed to be, wore a long backless silk dress she claimed to have bought for 200 euros, had beautiful wavy hair and smoked her Marlboro in the most delicate swigs. She was travelling around the country for the first time alone and was in absolute love with the chaos of India. It was endearing to hear her speak in her heavy Eastern European accent of the times she was scared, the sights that took her breath away and about her travel plans. I was often distracted by the way her trinkets shone under the light of the fishermen boats. The boyfriend, from Tel Aviv, was as full of life like the city itself. He was brimming with life and jokes. It was under the haze of beers and balmy sea breeze with two unfamiliar people that we had one of our most memorable dinners of whole trip.

We were literally thrown out of the restaurant and we said our goodbyes. When I turned back to have a last look I saw them laughing and chasing one another in the empty streets of Fort Kochi, her dress slithering along.

Too safe is sometimes too safe. I do not know where the line begins and ends, but the times I have stepped out of my comfort zone and interacted with complete strangers, are the moments that stand out in my travels. Guards down, ego silenced, high heels kicked off, ready to marvel. And in the end even though they take a left, while I go right, I owe it to them for making my journey richer.

It’s in those intersections that I have fearlessly lived my life.

 

 

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If stars slip

On my second day in the barren Spiti Valley I decided to scale a further 500 metres and sleep at a monastery (Ki Gompa). I don’t exactly know what prompted me to spend the night at a monastery up in the mountain with hundreds of monks on the other side of a flimsy wooden door. Oh I know why. Because, I didn’t have a plan.

After a brief interaction with the monks and dinner in their ancient soot smeared kitchen, dusk quickly transformed into night and all noise died down. This is the time when one feels truly alone and uncomfortable. I couldn’t fall asleep at 8 pm yet, and decided to step out into the courtyard. And I stood stunned.

I had never seen so many stars in one uninterrupted sky. Thousands of them shimmered against a pitch-dark background. It is surreal how different the world looks at a height of 4165 meters above sea level. The sky could be touched with one big leap; and the star-studded ceiling could fall off at any moment. You gaze so much you begin to hallucinate that the sky is communicating with you and trying to unite you with them. If wasn’t for the chill in the air I’d have thought I was a star myself.

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The night sky over Ki Gompa in Spiti Valley (photo sourced from https://500px.com)

Big twinkles, small flickers, starbursts, constellations and the Milky Way! The next line will make me an idiot but – I had no idea that the Milky Way was real. But it is, and I saw it stretched across the sky like a stairway to heaven. They say it is made up of tiny indistinguishable stars but for me it is a fairy’s wand filled with stardust.

The vastness around and above me diminished me into a speck of dust; someone who may be let into the living room but may not touch anything. It could be that we transform diamonds back into coal with our mortal hands. But you don’t mind because in that brief spell of time all you feel is thankful.

Back in my room sleep eluded me and the only flickering bulb was giving up. The wind breathed up and down the monastery walls. I held my breath and curled my toes. The quiet was deafening. In the end when the light went completely off I feverishly began counting my numbers backwards.

Outside a million stars slipped and came down as snowflakes.