A Portrait from Travels Past
He was tall and good looking and had what the Brits call a public school accent. That means he went to an expensive prep school where he learned to talk pretty. He liked to dance to pop music and to drink beer and he liked to travel. His father wanted him to train to be a real estate agent; he was not interested in that but I don’t remember what he wanted to do instead. Anything as long it did not mean working a desk job. He was sarcastic in a biting sort of way, and smart, a reader. I sometimes imagine going back in time to talk to my former self. “After the weekend is over, pack your things and move on. He’s attractive, but he’s a complete asshole. Run for it.”
I did not run for it, of course, I was 19 and unconstrained by gravity or common sense. I went to London, his home, and together we went to Paris and Tel Aviv and Karachi and finally New Delhi, where wasted with giardia and salmonella, I decided I had had enough, thank you very much. I blew what was left of my money on a plane ticket back to London. From there, I called my father and asked if he could buy me a ticket back to the US.
I returned to the US a different person. I do not know if this is still true, but after I traveled to India in the early 80s, I would encounter other people who had traveled there independently and we would have a moment. Maybe this is what veterans feel about their brethren, or ex-junkies. We had seen things, we had taken very long walks, we had earned the same badges. It was not country counting snobbery, or a competition, it was a slow nod, an acknowledgement that we had shifted. Nothing bad happened to me in India beyond a difficult to treat but typical case of traveler’s gut. I had walked the markets of Old Delhi without a guide and stumbled over the rocky high passes of the Himalayas and I was changed for the experience.
A few years later, the mean Englishman showed up at the shared rental in California where I was living. After an awkward half hour, or maybe longer, I told him to go away. Some long lost mutual travel friend had told him I wanted to see him. It is possible I had written these words in a letter a year back, but it was no longer true. The mere sight of him reminded me that he had made me feel small and stupid and I wanted nothing more than for him to be gone. The 20 something woman standing in this sunny California backyard was not the one he’d last seen at the airport in New Delhi. The me I had turned into told him to go and he did; I closed the front door behind him and sat outside drinking beer and smoking cigarettes until the rattled feeling was gone.
Perhaps in the last five years, I received an email from him — he’d found me online and got in touch. “People don’t change, do they?” he wrote. “I’ll always think you were an asshole, if that’s what you mean,” I thought, and I deleted his email. People do change, they become more and more themselves as time goes by, though doing something crazy like going to India when you are 19 and in the company of a mean boyfriend will accelerate certain parts of that change.
I recently sliced open the tape on a box I had not opened since two or three addresses back. One of my imaginary internet friends had scanned and posted a portrait from travels past, a gorgeous black and white image. His was taken in Morocco, I think, a place I have not been and still want to go. Seeing that photo made me wonder what my version of the same would look like. I went to the basement and found exactly the box of photos I needed, and there was my past in all its Kodachrome four by six print glory. I found a picture of myself as an exchange student in Sweden, I am surrounded by pale complexioned blondes and I look shockingly exotic. There is a picture of me standing in the Negev Desert in Israel, there are no distinguishing landmarks but I know exactly when it was by how strong I look, I was a poster child for a bright Israeli future, no matter that I had no intention of staying in Israel. There are pictures of the now nameless English boyfriend. And I found just a few pictures of myself in India, stick skinny and serious.
We were impossibly ill prepared for the travels that were in front of us. I can not remember how we decided what to do, how we came to join the trekking party that went up to 16,000 feet. The travel was hard, made harder by the fact that the local people seemed disinclined to help my boyfriend. My memory says that I had to do all the talking, that the local people simply didn’t want to interact with him — if I made the deal, the prices were better, the drivers were nicer, the hotel desk clerks more willing to attend to a broken swamp cooler. In retrospect it makes sense, we were in India and he was English, but it could also be that he was simply not very nice. This had an upside. One of my most dreamlike memories of this trip was wandering away from camp and asking a local Ladakhi family if I could use their kitchen fire. They invited me into their dark smoky house and gave me a glass of tea. I was there long enough for my dinner to cook and we did not speak, we just looked at each other with open faces.
The adventure we went on was staggering — we traveled by train from Karachi to central Pakistan, then rode in a pick up truck to Islamabad. We took a train from Islamabad to Srinigar and then, traveled first by bus and then, hitch hiking with truck drivers, up into the foothills of the Himalayas, into Ladakh. From Leh we walked to Manali, over swinging rope bridges, through rushing glacier streams cold as ice, along ribbons of catwalk trails where with each step the gravel went sliding down down down in to valleys that seemed to be miles below. We had all the wrong gear, it was too heavy, and I got altitude sickness and had to ride one of the ponies for a day because I ached too much to move. And then, we came down into Manali, where we ate and ate and ate and everyone we encountered said, “You’ve come over the pass from Leh, haven’t you?” Finally, we went down to Delhi and I flew back to California via England and did not look back.
Part of me wonders what it would be like to do that trip again, though surely, it is impossible. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said you can not stand in the same river twice. I don’t want to stand in that same river, be that same person, again. Now, you can do a trip like I did on foot by road in one quarter the time. While certainly I would trade my angry right knee and slowing metabolism for the kind of energy it takes to drag a duffel bag over a Himalayan pass, I’ll stick with my current world view and being the kind of person who does more homework before trying to leave the Pakistani guest house in shorts. And is more selective about her travel companions.
I take it back; I would not interfere with my former self. Were I to interrupt my own timeline, I’d only do so to say, “Don’t worry. You’re going to come to your senses. This seems stupid right now, but you know better. Cross the mountains and go home. This is nowhere near your last adventure. You can not even imagine the adventures you’re going to have.” I would not give back the memories I have of that wide eyed family in their smoke blackened home. Of the barefoot river crossings. Brushing my teeth with the gritty water of glaciers. The monks in their saffron robes in remote monasteries, handing us little cups of yak butter tea as we crossed the thresholds to rooms painted with hundreds of tiny manifestations of the Buddha.
I am much less serious now but no less driven by adventure. I’m slightly better prepared; my gear is at least appropriate and my companions superior in uncountable ways. I won’t suffer fools or bullies anymore, but I like to think that I am still the kind of person who would knock on a door in a far away place where I do not speak a word of the language and know barely enough of the culture to get by. On that trip I learned that it is possible to share a fire in silence and to find a way to say thank you. I am not the same person that I was at 19, but I liked being reminded that even then, a traveling fool in the truest meaning of that phrase, I fearlessly believed in the kindness of strangers.
That, I hope, has not and will never change.
Photos: Me, Ladakh, 1982. In the lower photo, I’ve got tape over my nose because of a bad sunburn.
Date: January 27th, 2013 @ 23:46
Categories: Independent Travel