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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Day 1 - Arriving in Leh

Only when the plane had began my third descent in 15 hours, the excitement began to sink it.
I had finally arrived in Leh, Northern India.

The wide Himalayan plateau with its jagged, dramatic  features slowly carving through the stone. Snow capped mountains in a desert region that is strapped for water. The 9 months of constant snow at high elevations leave its mark on the rock, any rock.
What or who could survive in a snowy desert, I asked myself, as the large military complexes that sustain both life and conflict in this historic arena of Indian pride came into my view from the plane window? The two 80-seater civilian planes seemed like a gadfly alongside a military Hercules resting proudly besides them, Indian banners coloring it's wings, while fatigued armed guards were trying to take a guarded nap.

And I could not help but feel empathy.  The sleepy soldier clutching onto his Kalashnikov reminded me of the years of aimlessly carrying around an M-16, or sitting on the Jordanian border doing literally nothing, but waiting for time, oh wretched time, to pass.

I got off the plane with my new Australian friend Jono I had just met, who had recently quit his job to meet up with his lady and travel and travail through the windy paths of India. He would continue from there to find an intentionally mindless job in Chamonix - to ski bum and find some new inspiration and a path to something new.  He was looking for something he couldn't quite name, and India seemed like an apt place to begin.

We hopped into the cab after a heartfelt reunion with his lady, who had spent the last four months in India, and looked the part - a sari, a bindi crowning her forehead, and stories of an Israeli friend who had bought a van and with whom she had traveled. I was dropped off in the city center to start looking for my guest house.  As I wandered, only half looking for the guest house, I began to take in the India they all told me about.  The grandeur alongside the trash, and walled side alleys and the day laborers toiling over rebuilding a town that had just awakened from a long winter only to foresee the next one coming in a short while. Building seemed to be as much a constant feature of Leh as the landscape in which the town itself was engulfed.  Building for the hordes of Western and Indian tourists who will be bringing in the bacon for a town that until 30 years ago was consistently disconnected from the world and most of India year round.

"The desert is a place of wanderers and explorers, of those who tried to escape from the centers of power, and of outcasts and plotters who self exiled momentarily, only to regroup and return", I would tell the groups who would visit the museum I once was part of in the Dead Sea. "Those who come here have a purpose," I'd intentionally whisper, alluding to a hidden world I could help them discover. But while I wandered through the streets, still only half searching for my guest house, I couldn't help but be struck by the diversity of the locals.  They were Tibetan, and Indian from north and south, they were Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu.  They would haplessly yell Shalom to me, presuming correctly that I was Israeli, which would inevitably be followed by "come, come, sit with me, have tea". The mostly female Tibetan home-makers were traversing effortlessly between childcare and shoveling dirt and rebuilding the paths, while darker machismo Indian day laborers would stare me down while they sat in the streets awaiting to be called for some more heavy lifting in the streets and in-the-process-of-being-built guesthouses. Did they also have the same purpose as I had once proclaimed so broadly about the desert? The professional alpinist I had met the day before, the Stupa at the top of the hill I was slowly climbing, and the soldier gazing at me indicated that something of that may have remained.

After realizing I had passed the guesthouse not once but twice, I finally arrived, and promptly pursued to take my over-delayed nap.
After awakening, the day continued with wandering. Intentionally aimlessly. I wandered through the shops, at times being tempted by calls on the street to enter stores if only to practice my numbed-by-America haggling skills, and searching for groups to go on a trek with in a few days.  At times I engaged in conversations with people who approached and at times I disengaged due to lack of interest.  Calls would abruptly appear on the street of "Hey Rastaman, don't you need a scarf", and I, while still in motion, would holler a "Jah Rastafar-i, my good friend", and move on to the next store.

I found myself drawn to the bookstores, to see what I could read when my book would end, but mostly ended up opening maps to orient myself for what trek to choose.  Did I feel like enjoying a relatively leisurely and low-key stroll through the valley floors of Nubra or Markha Valleys, or was I up to summiting the Stok Kangra - also a 4-5 day endeavor, to a highly traveled destination, with a 6300 meters peak? The day came to no solid conclusion, but I presume one will arise in the next few days.  I want to find the right people first, and let that be the factor.  Though, as the tour guide I consulted with had mentioned, there is something tempting about seeing the world from over 6000 meters. Not quite the top of the world, but it's pretty damn close.

I returned for another nap , and then had to scrape myself off the bed for a late night stroll.  I passed the main bazaar once again, and was attracted by a little "Tibetan Refugee market" (though there are at least four of them that I've seen so far in Leh), which was selling vegetarian momo's - a Himalayan version of steemed or fried dumplings.  And to be completely honest, the attraction was more to the pretty girl who was sitting alone and eating her dumplings.  But she turned out to be less interesting than I had hoped for.

 Mave (or whatever her name was), and her boyfriend Dan who joined later, were two Americans who had been part of what I call the Asheville hippy circuit. You know, those who you when I mention I lived in Asheville, NC respond with "Oh, man, that's such a cool place, I WOOFED by there and my good friend just opened an innovative organic farm there too" and not with a "where's that, again?" They were unsatisfied with American consumerism and sought to live their lives differently.  They had hiked the Appalachian Trail, and saved up all there money to come to India and travel close to the land and experience only the "authentic".  They had been traveling for the last six months all over India, beginning in the South, with their latest stint hitch hiking from Manali to Leh, and trekking along the way.  While these were supposed to be my people, and they really are, I found myself uninspired by their stories. Not because they weren't inspiring, but because I had heard the tone of their own inspiration enough times to know that I just wasn't interested in that story at that moment.

Ankit, on the other hand, who was also chatting with them, had a different story. Currently residing in Bangalore, but from a small village near Kanpur, was raised in a traditional family from the highest caste in India (and I'm gonna get a bunch of details wrong about this, but this is how he explained it to me at least).  A level 22 Brahmin by birth, because apparently even within the Brahmin caste there are still sub-castes, he had turned his religion switch on and off as of lately.  He was from the highest sub-caste, which dictated a strict vegetarian diet - all animal products are considered impure, and for a mate he was to be married only to a 22 as well. He shared with me that as a kid, he would almost vomit from the mere sight of an egg in his vicinity, and though he went back and forth about the efficacy of religion for him, he knew he would not dissatisfy his parents and would up marrying a 22 as well. Over the course of a few hours, our conversation ranged from caste systems and the Kashmir conflict, to data science and statistical modeling. From Donald Trump and Narendra Modi, to the politics of fundamentalist religion in India, the US and Israel. He had attained a masters degree in computer science from a top Indian University, had worked for Amazon and now began his own start-up firm dealing with big data, but at heart he was attracted to puzzles. Human puzzles, that is, as in what makes us tick. And I like to encounter these puzzles from different perspectives, and try to bring a foreign framework and see if it works in new settings. I knew a thing or two about fundamentalist religion, but not in India and not in Hinduism.
So the conversation continued.

Our exchange dealt with the fundamentals of how societies operate at a political level, and how the system itself leads to certain outcomes. Why Modi provided a new choice for people to believe in, while ignoring or forgiving his past misgivings, and how this shared similarities with recent bouts of nationalist sentiments in America, Britain and Israel, but was fundamentally different in a developed world. We exchanged thoughts on the role of religion as both a conservative force in politics, but one that can lead to improved individual outcomes, and how the tension between the personal and the societal existed in Indian society as well as in Israel in the formation of identity.
As we left the restaurant, and Ankit and I exchanged emails, the man sitting at the table next to us, Sri, who was sitting with a group of friends, turned to thank us for conducting the conversation. "I hope it's okay, but we listened in on your conversation, and I enjoyed it very much.  I hope you have a great time in India, and God Speed".  The entire table nodded and bobbed their heads approvingly towards Ankit and I, and I thanked them kindly for their blessing.

I had made some friends, and I had wandered.
Today was a good day.
To many more to come.

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