A Respite from Life

India gives tourist a new perspective

Contra Costa Times – Time Out, May 15, 1999

Almost 20 years ago I decided to take a break from my humdrum life in the Western world with its routines and sense of security, and spend a summer traveling through the exotic provinces of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh in northern India.

The trip began inauspiciously as the plane touched down at Karachi airport. In the early hours of the morning, as we descended the airplane steps, soldiers brandishing machine guns lined out route to the rickety bus that was to led us to the ferry terminal. Beads of sweat dripped from the foreheads of weary travelers – not a result of the overwhelming humidity alone, I suspect.

After we spent a few days in New Delhi acclimatizing to the end of the monsoon season, we found our senses saturated to the point of overdose with a feast of colors, costumes, vendors and street performers. With a single glance from our precarious seat on an auto-rickshaw we caught glimpses of long centuries of traditions and art: the never-ending sounds of blaring horns, creaking fans, the babble of multitudes of languages, and, more unexpected than any of these: the smell that is India. Two paces can take you from the heady perfumes of a rose-strewn altar to the acrid odor of human excrement. Our senses had certainly come a long way from the antiseptic conformity of life back home.

Arriving in Kashmir by airplane, flying way below the summits of the snow-capped mountains, was an exhilarating, if nail-biting, experience. The flight itself took on a surreal quality as we were served peanuts and juice by a sari-clad hostess while beneath us jagged pinnacles seemed to assure certain death if the weather changes and the clouds lowered.

Our home for the next few days was a houseboat on Dal Lake just outside Srinagar. The Great Mughals had heightened the natural beauty of the lake by planting chenar trees around its fringes and had glorified the place for posterity by creating everlasting gardens. Gone were the blaring rickshaws, the call of the street sellers. We had entered an idyllic world where all seemed calm and serene. From time to time the shikaras would glide by, their owners quietly offering their wares and services  to tourists – sandalwood carvings, papier-mache boxes, hashish, haircuts. Kashmiri carpets cushioned our feet and intricately carved chests and tables furnished our houseboat. Our meals were prepared by a family whose dilapidated houseboat  was positioned behind ours, carefully screened from the click of the tourists’ cameras. Kingfishers dived in streaks of blue lightning, skimming over the lotus blossoms – idyllic. No-one told us that all the refuse from the houseboats goes into the lake whose water is then used to prepare those sumptuous meals.

Next day, at 5 a.m. we were off on our 275 mile trip to Ladakh, a disputed territory on the border of Tibet. We were bound for a land truly ‘away from it all.’ The gravel road climbed to an altitude of 13,550 feet, through a land of barren rock, laced with fertile valleys where farmers pray not for rain but for sunshine to melt the snow and glaciers. Here there is less rainfall than in the Sahara desert. Remote. Awe-inspiring. A silence I have never experienced anywhere. For only 12 weeks a year is this road passable, and on our trip we had to rebuild sections that had been erased by landslides. Roadside graves marked the final resting places of soldiers from the Indian army who had lost their lives in this unforgiving landscape. Buddhist prayer flags danced in the wind.

As we set up camp 100 feet from the Indus river we felt totally alone, but within half an hour we were besieged by a group of children who seemed to appear from nowhere; ‘ragamuffins’ they would have been called at home: shoeless, poorly clothed, filthy and bedecked in sumptuous turquoise jewelry. They were masters of distraction and within minutes had found their way into our hearts and our tents – and had taken off with every pen, pencil and flashlight they could lay their hands on!

At the end of the road was Leh, a place of uneasy meetings. The traditions of Buddhist life and Ladakhi culture make poor bedfellows with camera-touting tourists – myself included – eager for souvenirs. We visited a few of the larger monasteries, now made familiar by movies such as ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and then we traveled farther afield. At one remote gompa a wizened old monk sat alone at his post in a bleak, wind-scoured ravine, collecting money from the occasional tourist. We were the only visitors of the day. Inside, a young monk was stirring a huge cast-iron pot of broth over a wood fire: a picture seemingly unchanged for centuries. It wasn’t until we arrived home that we saw in our photo that he was proudly sporting his Timex watch.

A fever of 106 saw me admitted to the hospital in Leh with severe dehydration caused by Delhi-belly and exacerbated by the high altitude. As I was carried to a bed, a woman was giving birth on the corridor floor. The blood-spattered sheets on my bed belonged to the previous occupant. There was no clean water in the hospital, or food, and rats kept me company after dark when the generator for the entire town was shut down each evening at 10 p.m. The doctor saved my life.

I’ve climbed Ayres rock, sunbathed in Kauai, traveled overland from New York to LA and traversed Eastern Europe when there was still an Iron Curtain, but for me the ultimate ‘get away from it all’ was not connected to its geographical remoteness, but was dependent upon the magic India conjured up, which totally overwhelmed and consumed me.

© Heather Morris 1999