Letting go in Ladakh
What does a travel writer write about in a year marked by a pandemic that forces people to stay home? When the simple act of heading to the local grocery store is filled with fear, would anyone want to get on a plane and transport themselves to a faraway city, knowing that no country is safe?
The best travel writing is not merely about the change of place but about the change that the place brings about in the person who has travelled.
In a recent article in the BBC, acclaimed travel writer, Pico Iyer claims that “Destinations can only be as rich as what we bring to them.” As someone who brings his deeply introspective nature to all his travels, Iyer’s words ring true. Whether he writes about his neighborhood in Nara or accompanies the Dalai Lama across Japan, Iyer manages to make us pause even as he describes a life filled with movement.
A twenty-day, twenty-city tour of Europe sounds like a good deal when listed on a tourist brochure. It’s only when you return from having spent three weeks on a bus, hauling your suitcase on and off each day, with the only change being a new hotel every night, punctuated by fractured views of verdant countryside that you realise what you have missed. The whole trip seems like a dream, a bad one.
“We’re most transported when we’re least distracted. And we’re most at peace – ready to be transformed, in fact – when most deeply absorbed.”
Pico Iyer understood the power of stillness at a catholic hermitage in California almost thirty years ago. He knows that absorption takes time. Patience is a virtue. Time is a luxury. Solitude is a blessing.
I found the kind of stillness Iyer describes at a hidden lake in the Nubra Valley in Ladakh. Anu and I took a weeklong break in April last year, hoping to miss the crowds by showing up at the very beginning of tourist season. After two days of acclimatisation in Leh, we set off through Chang La pass and stopped at Pangong Lake on the way to Sumur.
Following in the detailed directions given by the owner of our lovely homestay, our driver found the heart-shaped water body, Lohan Tso, off the beaten track. The water was shallow, still and green, completely enclosed by a circle of hills. A man-made welcome path, meticulously laid with two parallel lines of smooth fist-sized rocks about a meter apart, led to the water’s edge. The deliberate design of the walkway which would be unremarkable in an urban manicured garden looked strangely out of place in this uninhabited location.
Except for the fluttering of the prayer flags, the entire place was perfectly silent. No phones, no honking, no airplanes, not even a bird or wild animal in this desolate high altitude landscape. Even speaking seemed harsh, an infringement, almost a crime. We spoke softly as we walked around the periphery. A flat, wide rock, half submerged in water, beckoned.
We took off our shoes in tandem and dipped our feet in the not-too-cold water feeling the soft black clay cling to our toes. With the phone timer set for 15 minutes, we made an unspoken pact to fill ourselves up with the treasure freely offered by this secret lake. Serenity.
Ripples skipped across from left to right in silent harmony. The stones on the rocks straight ahead seemed to have faces carved on them, like a collection of masks on a museum wall. Two ducks paddling under a blue sky with wispy clouds quickly disappeared from view.
I closed my eyes, safe in the knowledge that my reverie would be unbroken. No fear of interaction or interruption. The mind, always free to wander, chose to stay still. Feet firmly grounded, water lapping across my ankles, there seemed to be no reason to look around, or be elsewhere. Inserting myself as a human into the elements surrounding me. Making connections with nature without the need for devices or technology, using just my attention.
A deep gratitude flowed through me for the gift of this human body and my time in it, a deep abiding compassion for my sore back and hip, an all-consuming love and forgiveness for myself – for my mistakes and mis-steps, for all that I have done that may have hurt someone. A load of guilt for acts of commission and omission, pride for tasks accomplished and disappointment for those abandoned, regrets for the known past and hopes for the unknown future, all of it flowed into the welcoming water. Deep breaths replaced shallow ones.
The timer beeped, piercing the stillness like an arrow. I opened my eyes reluctantly. The ripples had changed direction, just as my thoughts had. We walked around the lake again wordlessly, reluctant to break into speech. We built a cairn by piling up flat stones, to leave behind a souvenir of our visit, unlike previous travels in which we had pocketed pebbles to serve as reminders.
When we returned to our room, the host told us about the superstitions associated with the lake. A female demon wanted to steal the lake but a holy man used his power to keep it in place. If you meditate with a pure heart, it is said that your wishes will be reflected in the water. I had prayed for peace within my body which had become a civil war battlefield. Would my willingness to slough off the weariness of daily life into the still water translate into better health? Only time would tell.
Jordan had been on the 2020 travel wishlist. Not sure when its turn will come. Perhaps this is the year to see the world inside out, instead of outside in as in other years. Maybe that’s what Pico Iyer means when he concludes his piece with these words-
“No-one has yet mastered the art of seeing the world deeply while running around.”
Photo credit Ranjani Rao’s personal archives
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