Pre – India
Over Christmas vacation last year, I told my dad I was going to India for Swati’s wedding. “You’re not going” was his answer. I told him “I’m going” with a smile, and we exchanged the same phrases repeatedly, both unyielding yet laughing. I was laughing because I was simply informing him of my plans. I wasn’t sure why he was laughing though, perhaps an attempt to humor himself with how much stubborn a daughter he had to deal with.
I booked my tickets in a staggered manner soon after I found out the schedule of the wedding ceremonies. The first ticket I bought was a one way ticket to India set to a day before the wedding. In between lab experiments, I read about where I could possibly head after the wedding. My initial plan was to go to through the standard Indian tour in Rajasthan. However after consulting various travel groups and most people telling me I’d hate Rajasthan with the heat during that time, I suddenly remembered Ladakh. I knew in myself that I wasn’t a big fan of the heat, so I yielded. (Although I’d soon remember I was not that much a fan of the extreme cold either). Ladakh had been one of those dream destinations I nursed along with Bhutan and South America. I had set my eyes on them yet they felt as I labeled them – dreams. I distinctly remember having cut out a photo of Ladakh from a Mabuhay travel magazine back when I was still in university. It was the same place I fell in love with from my baptismal Bollywood movie, The Three Idiots. That was close to a decade ago, and I had even planned with my friend Anj that we would conquer India together. Unfortunately, Anj wasn’t available during this time so I had to do it by myself. A fact that daunted myself, but much more my dad. But I wasn’t sure if I could go back to India again, and so with that I made the rest of my bookings, ending the trip with how much holiday leave my conscience could bear.
As my dad gradually accepted the reality that he wasn’t going to be able to convince me otherwise, he had turned to the strategy of sending me every news article he read about the perils of India. He offered to refund all my plane tickets and tried to use the reasoning that my mom would have never allowed this. I kindly reminded him that Inay had gone to India many years ago – for a conference and not alone, but she loved it and why shouldn’t I get the chance? My dad finally helped me choose which vaccines I should take (I got for Hep A, Boostrix and Typhoid) and asked to see my exact itinerary a few weeks before my trip. With his blessing coughed out of him, my leave approved, and armed with my newly bought saree, I was ready to go.
I left Singapore late in the evening and arrived in Hyderabad a little past midnight. When I looked out the plane window, it was a vast swathe of darkness with scratches of light. I wondered what the darkness was in daylight. The time difference to Singapore was 2.5 hours, a little more standard than Nepal’s 3.75 hours. I applied for an Indian visa online and almost got swindled by a fake website. I had fed that fake website all of my details and fortunately got too lazy that day to finish off with the payment. After realizing that a lot of these fake (yet authentic-looking-as-inauthentic-looking-the-real-website-was) websites existed, I repeatedly emailed the Indian Embassy to get written confirmations that I got the correct visa. Only when the immigration officer stamped the actual visa on my passport was I relieved the fear of being sent back from the airport. And I even got the audacity to ask him directions after to the domestic airport.
I walked out of the airport doors to a warm odor that was characteristically different from places I’ve been to. With a 10-hour layover in Hyderabad, my stomach wasn’t feeling so adventurous yet. Neither did I feel inclined to spend money for a transit hotel, so I pulled my bags into a Subway stall and regretted having ordered tuna. It tasted nothing like my usual order, and so I decided that henceforth I was going to eat as the Indians do. After settling down awhile in my new environment in the confines of Subway, I walked out to try and find a seat to settle myself in for the next 9 hours. I soon realized that the terminal was packed with people, perhaps in the same predicament as I was – except that my flight wasn’t one of the first out. The first thing that struck me was how the airport security looked like they were straight out of the army. They carried long rifles and wore fatigue while roaming the airport and guarding the entrance and exits. “It couldn’t possibly be the military”, I thought to myself (I would later learn from Bhatia that it was India’s Central Industrial Security Force). I chose a female guard to get into the terminal, and upon handing her my passport I was surprised that she greeted me with a warm “Hey”. I took that as my welcome cue to India.
I spent most of the 10 hours reading Martin Buckley’s An Indian Odyssey on the floor, apart from trying to buy a bottle of water from every vending machine I saw, in vain. Apparently none of the notes I had were acceptable. Buckley’s book was admittedly a Western perspective, but one with a great appreciation of Indian culture. I wasn’t ready to dive into a highly Indian body of literature when I still couldn’t tell apart Vishnu from Shiva. (I can now, after that book). The book also contained a highly digestible version of the Ramayana that made me forget about my parched throat. I had never realized until then just how this body of literature carried such historic and cultural significance to the majority of India. As I checked the airport bookstores, I tried to look for my own copy of Buckley’s book because it was a good pick from the school library. I found the other books he referred to in his story, however I regretfully couldn’t find his.
As my flight neared, I finally got to check-in and enter the gates. I was relieved that their PA system and English were easier to understand than in Changi Airport – one of my personal peeves. My boots would prove to be a trouble for all the gates in this trip as I was always picked out to remove my shoes. The same went with my facial mist. Upon entering the shopping arena, I saw a Fab India outlet that instantly gravitated me towards it. Fab India was the only Indian Clothing shop I saw in a mall in Singapore, and I had lusted over its skirts in Singapore though their prices were beyond my definition of reasonable. I quickly took to the skirt rack and flipped a price tag to discover the quintessential shopper’s happiness. They were almost half of what it was worth back where I came from, and so I ended up shopping (for just one skirt) before even reaching my destination.
All the clothes I had brought to India were designed to cover my legs. As I looked around the airport gates to find just a few Caucasian ladies sporting shorts, I wondered why in a place where erotic statues and sexual representations were venerated, women were expected to cover up their shoulders and their knees. Although it was considered trusted travel advisory, it seemed to be an oversimplification committed by tourists. It felt like something more than just hiding selected patches of skin. Nevertheless I was stuck with my wardrobe, thankfully I was only going to be in a hot place for a few days.
The flight from Hyderabad to Ranchi was just 2 hours. I wasn’t able to sleep, but I looked forward to being able to rest when I reached. Little did I know that the wedding rituals had already started and were to go on until the time I would leave. I proceeded straight to the bride and groom’s engagement from the airport and subsequently for Mehendi (painting of the ladies’ hands with henna – but the bride’s mehendi includes her arms and her legs). By the time I laid in bed, I was effectively 41 hours awake.
Ranchi was an example of rural India, it looked a lot like the other rural areas in the other parts of Asia, except that the people looked different of course. Summer was beginning and everything had a brownish hue. The horn was constantly used, as if it was a consequential sound of running the vehicle itself. I got used to it easily, after awhile I lost track of hearing it every 5 seconds or so. Power cuts were also something common in Ranchi, and I would later learn in Ladakh as well.
The North Indian Hindu wedding ritual at Swati’s hometown was elaborate and meticulous. A lot of it I didn’t understand as they were performed in Hindi, and perhaps even if it were done in English I could still not claim to be in the pretense of having understood their significance. This was also what I felt as I read some of Buckley’s descriptions of the significance of the Hindu religion in an Indian’s way of life – a lot of it both fascinated and escaped me. I wondered if it was perhaps due to my already brainwashed capitalist way of thinking, replete with modern comforts and resting on an almost agnostic slump of an excuse of trying to figure out what religion was for me. Yet here was Hinduism offering 33 million gods. If I already had difficulty grasping some of the esoteric rituals the Catholic Church insists on performing, the Hindu traditions boggled and piqued my unacquainted mind even further. Perhaps that was the problem, I was trying to grasp when I should be simply accepting.
I slept at Swati’s home on my first night in Ranchi. Their household was so busy with all the different events that day that things were understandably in disarray. Everything was new to me, engagement and wedding ceremonies in the Philippines were nothing close to what was going on here. Swati told me about the pujas to be performed by the pandits (priests) – pujas (prayers) I had to attend and pujas I didn’t have to attend. Some of her and Sid’s relatives tried to explain to me in intervals what was happening as they happened, taking pity in my incapability to understand Hindi. All I really knew was that my friend was finally getting married. At various moments, this new reality struck me. That she was going to lead a separate life, and I was still either free or stuck with the same. The constant conversations from Swati and Sid’s single friends about finding a bride did not help. There was Anupam who needed to find his own bride within a month if he didn’t want his parents’ bride, and there was Bhatia who had a laxer deadline until the end of the year. I listened to their worries, detachedly realizing that I was in the same predicament, only my dad was thankfully not forcing me to get married. Nevertheless, India was a “great” place to get reminded that you’re too old to be unattached at 30.
Early the next day, I was finally allowed to stay in the hotel. My tastebuds were awakened by the dalh and chapatis I had at the hotel but I subsequently fell asleep again. The next thing I knew, I woke up to Aunty Sumathy’s knock on my door and she invited me to have lunch with her and her friend, Aunty Sarayu. I was honestly still full with breakfast but as A. Sumathy was the only person I knew in the wedding apart from Swati & Sid themselves, I made a mental note to lessen my dinner instead because I craved the comfort of something familiar. (A. Sumathy is Jyothsna’s mom, and Jyothsna is me and Swati’s mutual friend. So yes, it was quite a mouthful whenever we had to do introductions. Everyone seemed to know me from Swati’s Facebook on the other hand.)
That evening’s event was the Sangeet – a night of dancing hosted by the groom’s side where they retold the couple’s wedding story in a series of dances to both modern & traditional Indian music. Dancing is completely absent from my list of competencies, so I dreaded the idea of having to dance later that evening. Swati asked me to accompany her to the parlour for her makeup and I waited for her to finish as I looked in awe at the enviable eye shadow characteristic of Indian makeup. As for myself, I wore a simple mashed up version of a lahenga which Swati helped me buy. We had gone to Little India together before she took her leave for her entire wedding preparations . “They’re all too fancy and shiny”, I said in discomfort as we looked at the lahengas in the Singapore shops. “Isn’t there anything more subtle?”. It was a mistake in retrospect as I soon realized upon reaching the venue that this was exactly the point of Indian dresses – to be shiny and call attention to themselves. Everyone was so beautiful, I had long been fond of Indian beauty. And it was to my great advantage that nobody minded large stomachs. Ladies showed them off readily and it wasn’t even disturbing to look at because the beauty of their sarees and lahengas outperformed any level of self-consciousness. Swati’s family didn’t serve alcohol during the event and so dancing was completely out of the question for me. I watched the other guests let go of any formalities and just sway their bodies to the lights and the music. I silently wished there was alcohol and that I had taken Indian dance classes somewhere in my earlier life.
The next day was the wedding. Most North Indian Hindu weddings began in the evening and stretched out until the morning. While rituals and pujas were continually being performed by the families during the earlier part of the day, I had the morning free so I had lunch together with A. Sumathy & A. Sarayu. We ventured out of the hotel and they hailed an autorickshaw to bring us to a restaurant recommended by a stranger we asked. It was called 7th Heaven and A. Sarayu joked with A. Sumathy that it should be in the 7th floor then. The building only had 4 floors and A. Sumathy was in no mood to play games. She was already hungry. I enjoyed both their company as they explained to me what they knew of North Indian culture and their own South Indian culture. I had long known about an existing difference between North and South Indian culture, although it had never been that clear to me. I had understood it a bit more after Buckley’s book though I will reserve any comment to my own personal thoughts as this issue is rife with possible wrong assumptions, prejudices and hostilities which I am not keen on unearthing. What was wonderful to know was how India had been able to hold its ground as a single country despite all these cultural and ideological varieties that exist in its society side by side. It is perhaps just the same as with any heterogeneous country – the Philippines and Singapore included, though perhaps to a lesser degree. A. Sumathy had noticed I seemed to love Indian pickles and had allowed me triple servings of the free commodity. It was true that I had developed a taste for it, but I only realized that the pickle at that restaurant was actually spicier than the one I ate yesterday when we went out to catch an autorickshaw back to the hotel. I felt the heat of the spice along with the heat of the air, my blush was rendered redundant.
Swati had asked me again to accompany her to the parlour, and the parlour attendants helped me put on my own saree as well. When they were done, I tried not to think of how many safety pins were inside my dress. It held on to me tightly that I wondered if I would even feel the accidental pierce if I had no blood circulation to begin with. I decided not to bring any makeup while packing as my winter clothes for Ladakh already took up so much space in my luggage. I regretted that decision as everyone came looking well made-up and glamorous. My exotic East Asian look and the beautiful (but overpriced) saree I purchased were my only redeeming factors. The wedding began with the groom’s processional. Sid rode a horse while his party danced to his entrance. Upon reaching the gateway, several pandits and Swati’s dad sat with him to formalize giving his daughter to Sid. After this, the bride enters and on the stage they engage on a tease of putting on garlands to one another. The trick, A Sumathy said, was not to make it easy for the other party to put on the garland. A very long pictorial session with the couple then ensued and the guests were invited to partake in the wedding banquet which consisted of so much food. I tried most things that looked new to me, though I had gorged on the fruits the most. Raw vegetables were not something popular in this place and I missed eating something less oily and simple. Though I couldn’t really complain as I guiltily loved Indian food myself.
At around 1 am, as the pandits had determined to be an auspicious time to get married, the actual wedding rites began. It consisted of pujas and singing and various rituals that the guests watched over until just before sunrise. I was not able to finish the entirety of the wedding. I left at around 3am as I had an early flight the next day. My unchaperoned experience in India was about to begin.
I reached Delhi at around 10 am with Swati’s friend, Bhatia. He was kind enough to have helped me use the metro and an autorickshaw to get to my hostel. The Delhi metro was well connected and was even more extensive than Singapore’s. Delhi in itself was the seat of government offices and so it was a long way ahead Ranchi. Upon reaching the hostel, Bhatia was concerned I took a mixed dormitory at Nomadia Hostel although I wasn’t especially worried about it. I wasn’t staying for more than 24 hours in Delhi anyway. After resting for awhile and dreading the notorious 40 degree Delhi heat, I decided to go on a short excursion to purchase a local sim card. I didn’t feel comfortable exploring on my own without the capability to book a cab on my phone. Uber had inconveniently just closed shop in Singapore and Ola, an Indian counterpart, required me an Indian number. I had bought a Thai-issued travel simcard which worked in India fine, but did not solve my incapability to book a cab. I was however dissuaded from buying one as it would only get activated 24 h later, when I’m already in Ladakh where an Indian prepaid simcard would not be usable (the Jammu & Kashmir region requires you to buy a local simcard there, which can take as long as 10 days to get activated – tight security measures due to border issues). I went back to the hostel while taking in as much as the short distance offered. I had picked a hostel in Chittaranjan Park, which I realized upon arrival was a good decision. It was an upscale Punjabi neighborhood that felt safe even in the evening. Upon arriving in the hostel without a simcard, I met another solo female traveler from Vietnam. Her name was Hanh and coincidentally she had also just come back from Ladakh. Our similarities made the connection easy and I soon asked her questions while she told me her stories. As I was contemplating meeting Gaurav from Couchsurfing later that evening, I asked her if she would like to come along. At this point I was still overly concerned about safety after various family and friends insisted that Delhi was not a good place for women. She agreed tentatively but later on had to beg off as she realized she needed to meet her own male Couchsurfing contact. We laughed at the similarity of our predicament and exchanged numbers as a precaution.
Gaurav initially told me that his train from somewhere outside Delhi (due to a rock climbing competition) was arriving at 5 in the afternoon that day. It was already past 7 when he finally messaged me that he was on the way to his climbing gym, which was a 10 minute walk from my hostel. “A 10 minute walk in the dark at this time”, I thought to myself. But Hanh had already left with her Couchsurfer friend, and so there was only the option of adding experience to this trip or wasting the leftover hours with a sour-looking backpacker in the hostel who insisted on silence and no lights. I walked out with slight paranoia, holding on to my mint breath spray for life. I was planning to spray it in the eyes of anyone who tried assaulting me. I had also brought a whistle but I quickly realized it would not save me if I used it with all the city’s endemic noises. I reached Gaurav’s climbing gym with no event after a few minutes, and I wandered into his underground playground by myself. The gym was actually impressive, it felt like being allowed access to a real locations in this city. The warm yellow lighting felt like an extension of the street lamps outside. As I scanned the people inside, I finally recognized Gaurav from his photo, and he told me to wait for him to finish in a few minutes. He was trying to solve a bouldering route while I sat there looking at the other facilities in their gym. When he finally got done, I asked him where we could eat dinner and he told me he wasn’t that hungry. I wasn’t hungry either, but he asked me if I wanted to get a drink instead. When you’ve already taken the first step to meeting a stranger in Delhi, you should just take the rest of it (said none of my friends and family). So I resisted the strait-laced girl inside me and said “Sure”. Only when we stepped outside did I realize that Gaurav used a motorbike and I was naturally expected to ride behind him. The alarm that I felt was not at all because I had to ride a motorized vehicle under a stranger’s control, but the motorbike itself. I had developed a phobia of motorized bikes after my small accident in Myanmar, and I had seen Delhi traffic. It deserved an altogether separate accolade. At that moment however, all that came out of my mouth was “Is it okay to ride without a helmet?” Gaurav gave me a semi-assurance about not getting caught at this time in the evening. Nothing was mentioned about my safety, I simply assumed he relied on the fact that he got home unscathed every night. There wasn’t any time to assess my choices and the next thing I knew we had launched into the local night traffic. We swerved with vehicles inches from my legs, missing both cars and people by a few seconds. I both reveled in the adventure and prayed to God to not let me die that evening. Caution had not completely escaped me as I invested every drop of energy into holding on a seat handle and to conceal my fear, I held on to Gaurav’s shoulder lightly. I thought it had already been bad that I forgot to put my cellphone in my backpack before starting the ride, until he told me my bag was open upon alighting. Thankfully I didn’t lose anything – a good sign that the universe wasn’t punishing me yet for my detour of plans. The best experiences are after all the unplanned ones.
Gaurav asked me to wait in the flat that he rented with his friends as he fixed up the drinks and finger food. They rented 3 floors, including the sole unit at the rooftop. He had moved out of his parents’ Delhi home to be independent and pursued his passion in rock climbing as his career. All of his friends were on vacation that day though because it was the tail-end of a long weekend. I sent my location to Roshni & Ray while waiting and reassured myself that this was exactly why I love traveling – to meet people, the only difference was that people had tried to scare me about India. It turned out to be a good decision in retrospect because I ended up talking to Gaurav for hours about everything under the sun. If only I could have left later, but I had plans waiting. I left his place at 1:30 in the morning as I read Hanh’s message on my phone, 2 hours late, that she was heading to bed and didn’t see me in bed, hoping I was fine. I texted her that I was on my way and upon reaching, got prepared and subsequently left for my 5:40 am flight.
I wasn’t able to sleep on the flight from Delhi to Ladakh. I had also incurred a faux pas that costed me precious filming time, specifically during take off and landing. But I was still rewarded with fully unobscured sights of the Himalayan ranges – I had not expected the majestic sight. I was reassured with my previous decision not to purchase the 200 USD chartered flights when I went to Nepal to see the Himalayas, at least this flight was only 100 USD and had an altogether different purpose.
The airport security repeatedly reminded that photography was prohibited in the airport as it was a restricted zone. People snapped selfies anyway. But “No Photography” signs were something common in the Ladakh region as due to conflicted border issues, the entire area is heavily militarized. I joked with my friends upon my return that next to the mountains, what you can see in Ladakh is the Indian military. The airport was a small building, built to fulfill its function and nothing more. Foreigners were asked to complete a declaration form before exiting the airport, and this was also done before departing Leh. I suppose it was to account for tourists who could possibly go missing. I easily got a “prepaid taxi” from the airport counter and headed to Nirila Guesthouse. The drive from the airport was a short one, and I noticed how the day started late in Leh. It was 7:30 in the morning and everything was closed, most shops opened at 11:00. It didn’t seem to differ much from the city. Upon reaching Nirila, I was satisfied with my decision. I intentionally picked a mid-range accommodation as acclimatization was mandatory, especially if you go to Ladakh by flight. Leh in itself was 3,500 m above sea level, and the abrupt change in altitude had sent many healthy people to the hospital. I had started taking Hong Jing Tian a week before heading to Ladakh. I chose it over Diamox because of the reviews I read, hoping for lesser side effects. Its potency was only confirmed after I chatted with two friendly Thais at Nirila, Pooh & Meen, about how they both were taking Hong Jing Tian as well, but their friend who didn’t got hospitalized during her first day in Leh. At that moment, I slightly envied them for being on this trip with friends, they both looked like they were having a lot of fun together. In Nirila, I also met Kooryong and his family. They were from South Korea and along with his wife and teenage son, they were going for a Eurasian journey in the span of an entire year. I asked him where he was previously working, wondering if I could have the chance to do that in this lifetime. He told me about the stress he had previously been enduring at Samsung and how he had then decided to go on this trip.
I spent the whole morning asleep. I woke up around 2 in the afternoon and ordered lunch. I had told Tsewang Dorje I would meet him in his office at 12, but I had obviously overslept. Dorje was the proprietor of Nature Tracks Tour, which I randomly found online along with other travel agencies. He offered me the best rates out of all I inquired from, was a Ladakhi himself, and replied to me in the most comprehensible English so I decided to get his service. He also never got tired of all my repetitive questions so I assumed he would be a particularly patient person. Nirila didn’t cook its own food and ordered from a restaurant inauthentically named “Chopsticks”. I made a mental note to eat outside after because their momos didn’t come with achar (pickles). In truth, I never found the same achar I loved in Kathmandu anywhere I ordered momos in India. In Ranchi, they used a different version of achar for their momos; whereas in Ladakh (where momos are usually spelled as mo-mok and variably classified as either “Ladakhi” or “Chinese”), they used chili. I didn’t bother trying in Delhi.
After lunch, Dorje picked me up somewhere near Nirila. The people at Nirila were very kind to always send one of their staff with me whenever I wanted to figure out the way to somewhere for the first time. It was probably a luxury given the fact that I was at Ladakh right before the tourist season began – and so there were only a few guests. This was due to the fact that the roads going to Leh were still closed, but were bound to open soon. Their opening signifies the beginning of the summer peak season. Otherwise during winter, which lasts from November to May, businesses are usually closed in Ladakh. Dorje’s office wasn’t that far from Nirila, it was situated in the main Leh market and I thought we would spend an hour at the most finalizing my itinerary and payments and I could get the rest of the afternoon off to explore the town. But I had underestimated Dorje’s patience because we spent almost 3 hours finalizing my itinerary due to his thoroughness in detail and options. I became wary of having to figure out my own way to Nirila in the dark so I finally told Dorje that I should get ahead going before the last few rays of the sunlight left. He kindly offered to give me a ride instead because he was worried a dog might bite me. I asked in surprise, “The dogs bite?”. There was an overabundance of dogs in the streets, and they didn’t really bother me that much because I assumed they were used to people. But then Dorje began to recount an experience wherein a dog bit him and a passing car’s headlight saved him from further damage. The next day, I became a little more wary of them and hoped that as I hadn’t seen them biting the cows they chased, they would at least treat me the same. But then again, this was India, and the cow was more sacred than me.
Dorje offered to take me to Hemis Monastery and Thiksay Monastery for free the next day. We drove in his white Suzuki Maruti and he gave me a welcomed lecture on the history of Tibetan Buddhism, Jammu & Kashmir, and India itself. I was amazed at his breadth and depth of knowledge that I asked him whether he studied university in Ladakh or elsewhere. He quickly corrected me that he had finished until 10th standard and decided to educate himself the rest of the way. I sat there ashamed of my Ph.D.. Dorje also readily picked up hitchhikers along the way, like 2 young schoolboys. He even bought them a piece of banana each on the way to dropping them to their school. They had missed the government-run school bus plying the highway by a couple of minutes, and I peered from the road towards what could have been the only possibility of where they came from – a town which was substantially a long walk away. Dorje was also a devout Buddhist, never failing to kneel and bow at every Buddhist prayer room we entered. This was where I saw my favorite experience that day: hearing and watching the monks doing their morning chant. I was totally entranced by their vocal blending and the serenity of being in their presence. At lunchtime, I had discovered Dorje was also someone who didn’t like leaving food on his plate. I had ordered my own chapati and matar mushroom as I wasn’t that hungry to begin with. Dorje ordered hot & sour soup as well as the localized chow mein (Chinese noodles?) , half of which he took upon himself to pour into my plate. As a result, I couldn’t finish my food in the end and he insisted I take it home. But I did not want to put the matar mushroom inside my bag for fear of spilling it and smelling like curry for the rest of my trip. I forced myself to finish the mushrooms and fortunately he started eating the matar (green peas). I took home my leftover chapati however. On the drive back to Leh from the monasteries, Dorje allowed me to listen to his favorite Ladakhi love songs, translating to me at the same time what they meant. It made the ride back a bit slower as he would stop on the side of the road to check for the elusive 4G signal, stop another time to look for a song in Youtube, and stop as well to change the song. He told me he preferred local songs over the modern ones – the old ones had meaning. I agreed to his observation. One of the most memorable questions Dorje asked me was if I believed in culture. “What do you mean?”, I asked. “If a culture is not good, do you think there is a purpose preserving it?”. I had never thought about it that way, I had always seen culture as something to be preserved and admired no matter what. But I saw where he was coming from with his point.
Upon reaching Leh Market again, I told Dorje I would go to the Brazil Cafe to get wifi. As my Thai simcard did not work in the Jammu & Kashmir region either, I had to learn to live without any connection whatsoever most parts of the day. But I needed to tell my dad I was alive at least once a day to prevent him from texting Dorje himself. “What took you so long to text? Been stopping myself from texting guide” was one of his messages after I had come back from a particularly long internet-less rendezvous later on. Before my trip, my dad had given me a grave warning to abort my tour if I wasn’t able to find other people to go along with. In the end, I did not find anyone to go with, and Dorje suggested that it might be less safe and less convenient to travel in a group. My dad asked me for a photo of the group and I hastily explained to him that I was going alone and that it was the better decision, albeit the more expensive one. He did not remonstrate me any further and I was relieved – but that relief soon turn into mild panic as I discovered my gold bracelet was missing. I recalled how Dorje pointed to it this morning as we drank masala chai (spiced tea) in a roadside stall. “Is that gold? You shouldn’t wear that in India, but in Ladakh it’s okay”. I realized I must have accidentally unclasped it while removing my heavy jacket in the monastery this afternoon. I desperately tried to shake it off myself and from my bag, but after 5 minutes I finally accepted that it was forever gone. I started wearing that bracelet when my mom passed away. It was my way of remembering her. But it would have been for naught to be distraught about a bracelet when I had spent the whole afternoon learning about the Buddhist way of separating themselves from material possessions. I convinced myself that my mom must have wanted to visit the monastery a little bit longer.
The next day was the main event of my trip to Ladakh. We were to drive 11 hours to Nubra Valley, spend the night at Nubra Valley, and drive back to Leh while passing Pangong Tso Lake the next day. Pooh & Neem generously gave me their unused canister of oxygen last night, in case I needed to use it in the high passes. I rode a Mahindra Scorpio driven by Sonam, who knew little English. “You know Scorpio?”, Dorje had asked me yesterday. I stared at him blankly, deciding internally that he couldn’t possibly be talking about the zodiac sign. “Any vehicle is fine”, after I realized what he was referring to and not wanting to have a further discussion about the vehicular options after the already extensive discussion we had. Sonam picked me up from Nirila early that day and proceeded to ask me about the “wachar“. I became concerned about not understanding what the wachar was as it seemed to be connected to my accommodation in Nubra Valley. As I was to leave my excess luggage at Karma Guesthouse (Dorje’s own home), I told Dorje upon going down that Sonam was trying to tell me something I couldn’t understand. He told me he’d take care of it and asked me to take breakfast first while he talked to Sonam for 10 minutes about the arrangements. As I would repeatedly learn, Dorje’s 10 minutes usually spanned half an hour to a little more than an hour. I waited patiently in their living room, and that was when I first met Yangsal and Jigmet, Dorje’s nieces. They were both playful little girls, although they decidedly tried to skirt my presence. They teased me by looking but shook their heads in disagreement when I asked them to come sit beside me. I’d have to win their hearts when I come back then. Half an hour later, Dorje told me I could leave with Sonam now. Right before the vehicle was about to leave, Dorje told me “You have the wachar with you”, and I asked him in alarm what exactly was the wachar, discovering the earlier issue had not been resolved. He laughed and indicated the piece of paper he gave me just a few minutes ago. I bade him farewell and silently prayed Sonam would not need to ask me any more important questions on the way. It was only when I was finally in Singapore that I figured out they had both meant voucher.
The drive to anywhere in Ladakh was full of dry mountain ranges. Ladakh is in fact a desert, and known as the Land of High Passes. While Jammu was largely Hindu and Kashmir Muslim, Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh was spared from converting into Islam because nobody cared for a desert region, as Dorje explained to me later on. Military trucks and bases appeared periodically while the roads circumnavigated mountains up and down. Loose rocks peppered the road margins, waiting for the slightest push to induce a landslide. The road width was also a tight fit to 2 vehicles, often requiring one to stop at a broader segment to allow the larger opposing vehicles to pass through. The Scorpio’s windshield also sported a huge crack, which seemed to me enlarging as our trip progressed, but thankfully never shattering completely until the end of the drive. We passed through the first police checkpoint before reaching Khardung-La Pass, touted as one of the highest motorable roads in the world. I handed my passport to Sonam as he parked the Scorpio on a snowy incline and placed a rock behind the tire to prevent it from slipping. I looked at the cliff right behind and resisted going out in fear that it would make the car nudge even more and almost got worried as Sonam took 20 minutes to get clearance. I wondered how the traffic would look like in the checkpoint during peak season – surely they couldn’t take 20 minutes for every tourist. Khardung-La Pass is 5,359 m above sea level, staying too long in this area without proper acclimatization was sure to give the unaccustomed person Altitude Mountain Sickness. It was amazing to be in a snowing region when just hours earlier, we were in a dry, barren desert. I took the mandatory photos on the marker and told Sonam we could go ahead – it was too cold for me. We drove down the mountain and after a couple more hours reached the checkpoint for Nubra Valley. I wanted to use the restroom at this point badly, so I told Sonam I was heading for the paid toilet (toilets along the road are all squats) while he processed my permit. I thought he would have been finished after all the rituals I had to do to be able to use the squat toilet, but the wait slowly turned into an hour. I squirmed in my seat in fear that this might just be the end of my drive today if they didn’t allow me in. I saw Sonam and the policeman pacing back and forth to the phone repeatedly, and finally they both walked towards me. The policeman told me I didn’t have a permit. I told him I processed everything through a travel agent at Leh and to what I understood I had it – I showed him my copy of the permit that Dorje asked me to keep. And the policeman finally exclaimed that this was what was he was looking for! Dorje had mistakenly handed me the Nubra Valley permit and they had all been trying to locate it for the past hour. I sighed in relief, until the policeman said that I wasn’t actually allowed to travel to Nubra alone because I was a girl. “Are you single?”. I blanked out wondering if the police was actually asking my relationship status, until I realized he was probably asking if I was alone. “Yes”, I answered effectively to both variants of the question. But he was going to make an exception for all the trouble because Sonam was an elder uncle. If he had been a young Indian driver, I would have been denied entrance. All of this, I got from Stanzin later on, as Sonam explained to him in Ladakhi what had transpired in the checkpoint. We were finally allowed past the checkpoint and I breathed a sigh of relief and said “Thank you” to Sonam for all his patience.
The next stop was finally lunch where I ordered for an egg maggi, as Dorje instructed me to. “Maggi is better for stomach on the road, you might get a stomachache from the local food”. The maggi noodles did not come with an egg, which left me perplexed as what exactly “egg maggi” meant then when there was “plain maggi” in the menu as well. I wondered if they had only forgotten the egg that instance so I tried ordering another egg maggi at a different stall the next day. I did not get an egg either. I gave up the fantasy of eating my childhood favorite. At around 3 in the afternoon, we finally reached Nubra Valley. The first stop was the camel ride, where I paid 200 INR for a 15 minute ride. After that, Sonam and I proceeded to look for the guesthouse I was to stay at. Nubra Valley looked like it came straight out of winter – the land looked barren apart from the number of guesthouses that populated the area. There wasn’t much anything else to see apart from the donkeys that walked around and the camels at Hunder. Water rafting and ATV ride businesses have been started though, although I had little interest for them. I theorized it must look greener during the summer when their vegetable gardens started growing, I had simply arrived at the wrong time. It was at this point that Sonam got exasperated trying to find out where the guesthouse was. He would repeatedly tell me “Check. No?”, to which I would say “No” in every absence of the correct direction plate. We drove around Nubra Valley in circles and he was soon shouting into his small mobile phone. Sonam’s voice was raspy even before he started shouting, and I realized that this was probably the reason – he carried his local conversations to the brink of his vocal chords’ capacity.
Stanzin, the owner of Sand Fields Guesthouse, finally found us and led us using his own Scorpio into his guest house. He apologized profusely as he had just changed the name of his guest house yesterday and had not put up the signs yet. I was the first guest of the season and the only guest that night. I got down from the rocky 11 hour road trip quite tired, and asked Stanzin if it would be possible to eat dinner at 5 pm – I was starving from just having had the half-pack of egg-less maggi earlier. He kindly told me he’ll have dinner prepared immediately and also informed me that there was no power. “Power usually comes back at 6 or 7 pm”. I was actually looking forward to the fact that Dorje told me this place would have wifi but he had forgotten to tell me about the power problem. I ate dinner in darkness and Stanzin joined me shortly, perplexed at my decision to go to Nubra Valley by myself and embarrassed at the lack of power. We had an extensive conversation about Ladakh and Nubra Valley, and how like all the other travel industry-involved people I met, he stayed elsewhere during the winter months. I couldn’t imagine living in this region during the winter to be honest, the cold was already killing me in May. I suspected it was because of the way their houses were built – using mud and rocks. It was reminiscent of a cave that always felt cold no matter the time of the day. I had regretted listening to Dorje that I didn’t need gloves. My hands were like ice cubes, I couldn’t even bear touching my own skin. I spent an hour pacing my room after dinner because lying in bed made me even colder. It gradually became 7 in the evening and the power had not come back. I fell asleep in exhaustion of waiting and I finally woke up at around 9 and discovered that the power and the wifi was on. The wifi signal lasted for only 15 minutes though, enough for me to text my dad, and it never came back. At around 11, the power left as well. I silently prayed not to have a hyperactive imagination in the desolate darkness. I left early the next day with Sonam to finally go to Pangong Tso.
The drive to Pangong Tso was both strange and scenic. At some parts, Sonam seemed to be driving off-road, it puzzled me how he figured out which was the road and which wasn’t. There were long stretches of drive that I didn’t see any other vehicle. The road signs to remind drivers to drive slowly also continuously amused me. “Darling I like you, but not so fast”. “Be gentle on my curves”. “Drive like hell and you will be there”. “Better be Mr. Late than Late Mr.”. I wondered why there weren’t any Ladakhi signs, Sonam can’t possibly understand these. There were also several markers for where people accidentally fell off from the cliff roads, as well as “stone shooting zones, caution” and “avalanche-prone areas”. Unlike the other Indian drivers I had experienced, Sonam didn’t seem to like using the horn. I would mentally press it during precarious curves while Sonam rarely did. While Sonam and I barely talked, I’d like to think we developed a silent affinity towards each other. On occasions wherein the views just insisted on me stopping to take a photo, I would tell him to stop and he would gladly oblige. He would always go down the vehicle to offer to take my photo although he never did manage to take a decent photo of me. He would constantly offer me a banana to eat from his own stash and at one point asked me “problem?” when I was coughing incessantly after having taken photos at Pangong Tso. I didn’t understand him at first as “problem” was a new word he had used during our trip. I mumbled to pretend a knowing reaction, but upon realizing what he said, I laughed and said “Oh problem! No problem, thank you”. Sonam did almost run over me at one instance while I was taking photos. If I didn’t sense that the Scorpio was inches away from me as it backed towards my direction, I would be sporting broken bones on my left foot now.
When the vehicle was finally approaching Pangong Tso, I was mesmerized by how the mountains seemed to open to the first sighting of the aquamarine lake. It was like a dream, it was finally my dream. The chill in Pangong Tso did not stop me from taking so much photos, although the photos never did any justice to the lake. I got tired trying to get the perfect angle and just stared at the contrast of the blue lake with the earthy mountains. I recalled how Pooh and Meen told me they slept one night at the tents in Pangong Tso – I would have definitely frozen to death. It wasn’t just the lake that left me awe-struck of these wonderful natural landscapes, it was the entire drive. During a few mind-wandering moments, I wondered if I would have preferred doing this trip with someone. But I concluded it would have been an altogether different experience with someone. I would have broken down less barriers and I would not have opened up to meeting new people that easily. Regardless of how long I’ve been effectively “alone” these past few years, I can’t seem to get enough of solitude. It was probably a personality hazard. My Introvert rating from MBTI tests have been climbing close to 80% recently. God help me.
On the way back to Leh from Pangong Tso, we again passed by another high motorable pass, Chang-La Pass, where it was snowing and bitter cold again. I wondered how the profusion of stray dogs in the area survived. Sonam shouted “chai” to me and I told him “You go chai. Me, no”. He shook his head, so I didn’t even bother going down anymore. The cold was starting to get into me. It would only get worse the next few days I spent in Leh. As I stayed in Karma Guesthouse for my remaining nights, Dorje’s father, who was a pharmacist and ran a pharmacy shop at the main market, was so amused at how cold I was. Even Yangsal and Jigmet wore less clothes than I did. I told him I was from the tropics, withholding my opinion that the houses here lacked artificial heating. They kindly lent me their electric heater every time I sat in their living room admiring their local cooking wares on display and attempting to befriend Yangsal and Jigmet. I tried making them a paper boat, a paper plane, offering my flashlight and my cap. Nothing worked that effectively in my first 2 nights. I hoped I didn’t see my future as a mom. Dorje’s family treated me warmly at their home, almost treating me as a family member and an actual guest. I talked to Dorje’s brother, who was a professor at the local university and who diligently helped Yangsal with her homework every night. Dorje’s mom and sister-in-law cooked exceptional Ladakhi dishes and I ended up equally exceptionally full every meal because of this. The nights tortured me however. I bought 2 one-time use heat packs each day for the succeeding days, and held on to them for dear life once the clock hit 5 and the winds started gnawing cold into my bones. I developed a phobia of sleeping because even the bed and the comforters were cold. No amount of layering seemed to help, it was either colder or suffocation.
I preoccupied myself with exploring Leh Palace and the local market the next day. One can climb to Leh Palace easily from the main market, it offered a view of the entire Leh locality. I also befriended Sameer, who owned one of the pashmina shawl stalls in the main market. He was kind enough to take me to a local shop that sold nuts and dried fruits without charging an arm and a leg, and invite me to tea in his shop. I leeched off wifi from Brazil Cafe as I knew their password from having frequented it the first few days and because their signal reached the street. Kooryong even saw me from one of the rooftop restaurants they were eating from, and sent me a photo of Leh Market with a “Find Christine” (i.e. Find Waldo) caption as I stood in the crowd. During meal times, I tried eating from more local shops and started to grow a surprising fondness for their chow mein. I ate more chili than usual at every instance because it made me feel warmer. Mutton momos from a nameless restaurant Dorje took me to would still be my favorite food however, out of everything I sampled in Ladakh.
During my last day, Dorje told me he’d take me to Sangam Point to see the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar river. During the drive back, he also decided to wander into a new town he’d never been before. He was so happy at his discovery and constantly taunted me that he was going to drive me straight to the glaciers and leave me there. I told him to go ahead and try, I’ll hitchhike my way back. He told me it was dangerous and I shrugged. I knew he was too religious to do so. Dorje finally inquired about why I was still single. I told him I didn’t know. He then encouraged me to think positively about finding someone, which I honestly didn’t do consciously. He gave me a lecture of how to approach life, reminding me of Rhonda Byrne’s book, The Secret. How he himself had started thinking positively and thereafter met his current girlfriend after some time. I had wandered into deep thoughts of nothingness as he expounded on this theory and he would periodically ask me what I was thinking. But Dorje rarely builds up or reacts to my answers whenever he asks me “What do you think?” on our earlier conversations wherein I readily explained my views on religion, traditions and human behavior. So I just told him “Nothing, I’m just admiring the view. I might never see it again”. It was true anyway.
On my last day at Karma Guesthouse, Yangsal and Jigmet finally started warming up to me. Dorje asked me to say “Hello” to them when we reached that afternoon, and they would giggle “Hello Buffalo” in return. I discovered Jigmet’s fondness of playing catch and I started a game with them of trying to topple the water bottle with their ball. Soon Yangsal let me draw a mountain landscape reminiscent of my entire trip on her notebook. I colored the mountains while she took care of the towns. My asthma had started by this time however and I couldn’t stop myself from coughing in between sentences. They didn’t seem to mind though. Soon enough, they excitedly asked me to watch Zootopia with them. I looked forward to finally being able to just watch a movie with them and not having to talk because of my asthma. But their idea of watching a movie turned out to be imitating the entire movie. They took turns enacting every character that appeared on the screen, clearly they had watched this movie a lot of times already. They made me take on some of the characters in the beginning, but eventually I got Jigmet to just sit on my lap as she both watched and played on her grandma’s mobile phone. When Yangsal and Jigmet’s parents came home, they teased the girls of how they were finally friends with me. “Finally”, I told them with a smile of accomplishment. I was sad we only started this bond on my last day. I hate good-byes. I didn’t have the heart to tell the girls I wouldn’t be around tomorrow, so I didn’t. I left Yangsal and Jigmet a letter and some souvenirs the next day before my early morning flight and promised to myself that I’d send them a postcard upon my return to Singapore.
On my flight back to Delhi from Leh, there was zero visibility of the Himalayan ranges. I felt a little disappointed at having bought the window seat, but I anyway stared out the window. Beneath the clouds were the majestic mountains. It didn’t mean they weren’t there just because I couldn’t see them.
Upon my arrival to Delhi, my asthma had already gone a notch up worse. Of all the medicines I forgot, I had neglected to remember my stash for asthma as it had been a long time since I had to use them. Thankfully, Tita Mayan’s friend, who I have never met before, was conveniently picking me up with her friendly driver, Shalli (short for Vishal, which I found really amusing). I was relieved upon meeting her of how warm she was – the familiar hospitality of a Filipino towards a fellow Filipino. Her boyfriend was part of the Mexican consulate in India and they were kind enough to let me stay in their beautiful rented home in one of the gated villages in Delhi. I met Bhatia at his office at the Ministry of Environment for lunch, and that was where I also met his sweet friend, Harveen. They shared with me their packed lunch and I got to see a little of their government office, though it was mostly heavily guarded by the same CISF personnel from the airport. Bhatia helped me book a Grab to go back to Tita Vangie (Bhatia booked most of the Grabs I had to take in Delhi and I’m indebted to him for that).
Tita Vangie looked younger than her age and possessed both intellect and wit. She was also very friendly and didn’t carry any airs, it took no effort to get along with her and she soon felt like my own aunt. After resting awhile from having had lunch with Bhatia and Harveen, she took me around some of the Delhi landmarks. Although on all occasions, we viewed the structures from the outside because everything seemed to be close in India on Mondays. She also wanted to take me to the Delhi gate later that evening, but I thought it wasn’t necessary anymore, I’ll probably save it for another visit in the future. Tita Vangie recounted to me her experiences having been stationed in different countries in the past, and about other familial things. We watched a bit of Dangal in the evening after eating mutton spaghetti and I soon begged off to sleep sooner than I expected. In the morning, Shalli took me to the airport and I bade all the friends I made in India thank you through Whatsapp while waiting for my flight. I wished I could see them again, but as with all people you meet during your travel, you’re never really sure. Delhi airport left a good impression on me, it almost felt like Changi without the bonus facilities. Shalli had even told me that Delhi was the best airport in the world. I did not bother correcting him that it was Changi.
India was nothing like the scary place a lot of my friends were worried for. It in fact exceeded all my expectations – even having been on my bucket list for so long. People were warm, it was as safe as any other similar country could get, it had so much character, and it was obviously too vast to be generalized under any other statements. I’m still finishing Sanjeev Bhaskar’s INDIA One Man’s Personal Journey Round the Subcontinent to prolong my experience as much as I can. Dorje asked me during my last day what my favorite country was so far of all the places I’ve been to. I did not answer him honestly because I didn’t want him to think I was just gratifying him, but I had seriously considered this place once called Hindustan.
It was surreal having to go back to Singapore already. In 11 days, I had forgotten what the life I left was, however an exaggeration that statement sounds. Changi airport felt like the unwanted reality from a dreamlike sojourn. When I finally opened my phone with my Singapore simcard, I was greeted by an email that indicated I would need to resign in the next two days. There were so many things I had to reorient myself to. The work I had to wrap up and the new work I needed to begin. But a powerful spell of hangover had befallen me from my little Indian excursion… I might just have to return.
I spent 650 USD on my 6 flight tickets, (180 USD for the 2way ticket DELHI-LEH), 300 USD for the sightseeing & accommodations in Leh (this could be substantially lesser if you travel in a group – I had to shoulder my entire transportation and accommodation cost), and another ~300 USD for food, miscellaneous expenses and souvenir shopping. My style of road trip which was Leh-Nubra-Pangong-Leh in two days was 180 USD. If it were hotter, I would think sleeping over in Pangong Lake is better than sleeping over at Nubra Valley. Registered tour operators have a booklet of published transportation costs so tourists can easily check if they’re being given the correct rate. Shared taxis are the usual option, you can also rent your own motorbike or vehicle (marutis are the cheapest, followed by the Scorpio, and the most expensive is the Toyota Innova option). I mostly bought walnuts (800 INR/kg) and dried blackberries (600 INR/kg) in Leh, though dried apricots were considered the prized souvenir (I didn’t particularly like them though). There were a lot of Tibetan handicrafts as well, very reminiscent of what I saw in Nepal but Nepal had more options. I got really good pashmina shawls from Sameer (Gojji Complex, Opp. State Bank of India, Leh Main Market, Ladakh, email@example.com) for 40 USD each, those weren’t his best quality yet though). I stayed in India for 11 nights but 4 nights of accommodations were given generously either by Swati’s family or Tita Vangie. I don’t have photos with the people I became friends with in this trip because the idea of taking a photo with a new friend just feels too staged for me, I kinda regret it though.
early mornings in Leh
took the wrong turn to town so I took photos instead
a lot of Punjab shops around
Leh Main Market at night
Leh Main Market on Sundays
different quality levels of dried apricots, the unpolished is the most expensive
breakfast at Nirila with the local apricot jam; on a side note, their butter was delicious! I wonder if it’s because it’s fresh or if it’s because it’s an Indian brand I’m not familiar with – hence the novelty
an old man preparing his seeds for that day’s sales
not yet taking the cold seriously at this point during my first night, wearing Yeshi’s jacket which had allowed me to survive the nights in this trip at all
Dorje giving me a samosa, which has potatoes which I don’t like, but ate anyway because it was better than the samosas in Singapore that I’ve tried
lights in Thiksay Monastery
on top of Thiksay monastery, this is most likely where I lost my bracelet
Dorje and his Maruti
at a local bread shop, they told me they were from Kashmir
one of the outposts at Khardung-La
with Sonam, right after he almost ran over my foot
locals eating at the side of the road, even women worked in construction activities here in Ladakh – building houses, shoveling snow, etc.
my half-pack egg maggi (with no egg and barely any soup, water supply is limited in some areas)
my Nubra Valley permit, permits are processed for a minimum of 2 people, agents at Leh can do it within 1 day, you typically get it on the next day if you submit in the morning
the Scorpio’s windshield crack. I swear that long line wasn’t connected when we started our drive
at Diskit Monastery
only this soldier…
…and this monk, stood guard at the Diskit monastery’s Buddha statue
Buddha statue at Diskit Monastery
Diskit Monastery seemed abandoned so I just took photos at the nearby periphery, in case you’re wondering why I usually seem to have no eyes on most photos, UV light in high altitudes are stronger, and this was around lunchtime
Sonam and the Scorpio
my 10 SGD bag from Challenger which proved to be very useful, it didn’t tear up with 10 kg
camels at Hunder, Nubra Valley – individuals who own them go to the sand dunes to rent their camels by turn
toilet with probably one of the best views in the world. I’ve been holding my pee in for a couple of hours before we reached this place, was almost seriously contemplating of asking Sonam to stop and wait for me do it behind a rock – but I was worried he might drive off and leave me in the wilderness
Pangong Tso Lake from a distance
a little girl at Pangong Tso, loved the color contrast
one of the several small towns we passed by on the road, this one was for our lunch stopover
a frozen stream
view from Leh Palace
Kashmiri dried fruits and nut shop
Dorje’s mutton thukpa, he got envious of my momo order and ordered an additional plate of momos but asked me to eat 2 pieces from his plate so he didn’t have to feel that guilty…
best mutton momos everrrr…warning: fatty
tourists at the a viewpoint
at the town Dorje explored for the first time
street food at Delhi
Qutub Minar from a distance, it was open on a Monday but my asthma was getting worse at this point, didn’t bother going down