Tsetan Angmo is worried about me. She says we can wait for another bus. This one is too crowded; I won’t be able to sit. It’s a long ride, two hours standing up, and the roads are bad. It won’t be comfortable, she warns.
I smile and brush away her concern. I won’t be coddled. The locals do it all the time; an old woman wearing a traditional wool goncha and spinning a prayer wheel just got on. If at her age she can make it, then so can I! I am young, I am spry, and I read in the car all the time as a child. No need to be concerned. Come on, Tsetan Angmo, we can still catch the bus! If it’s ok with you, I tease her.
She furrows her brow. Ok. If you’re sure.
I climb into the bus after her. It’s a tight squeeze. I am holding on to the luggage compartment overhead with one hand, body slanted between two seats. The man behind me is wearing the characteristic flared-jeans and bell-sleeves combo outfit so popular in much of India. A little baby in a cloth that looks like a potato sack digs her pea-shaped toes into my thigh. A man in front of me cradles half a dozen crate-less eggs on his lap and steals furtive looks in my direction. I am, by far, the tallest person on this bus. My head doesn’t quite reach the ceiling, but is level with the speaker blasting an instrumentalized version of the Buddhist ritual prayer, Om Mane Padme Hum. On the backseat of the bus, a gray-haired man half-sitting on a child spins his prayer wheel and mouths the words as fluently as if he were breathing. Turquoise and coral bracelets rattle with every flick of his wrist. He catches me looking and smiles.
I am headed to Egoo village with Tsetan Angmo and her little brother, Nono, to interview their grandmother about events in 20th century Ladakhi history that have yet to be recorded. This is, in large part, because of the inaccessibility of much of the land. My sister has been in Ladakh for four months studying the vernacular architecture of the Himalayas, and she explains that her interest is based on the fundamental paradox of inhabiting this place: with its impossibly harsh winters, precious little water and bone-sucking winds, Ladakh should not be settled by man. Yet, for centuries, its people have thrived off an exceptionally close, loving and symbiotic relationship to the land, adapting to a climate that, even in the middle of the summer, is far from hospitable.
Tashi Lanzom, Tsetan Angmo’s grandmother, is 81 years old, and was born in the ancestral village. It is several hours by bus from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, though in her youth, the sojourn to the capital for such essential needs as matchboxes and butter tea took five days on foot.
Now, she is sitting peaceably in the bus on the way to Karu, a market along the highway, where one of her daughters – Tsetan Angmo’s mother – runs a small commerce selling Masala Madness chips, Dark Desire cookies, and Limca lemon soda. Everything about her, from the deep lines etched in her face, to the talismans she wears adorned with pictures of Rinpoche lamas, speaks of the sanctity of her life. She rolls prayer beads in her left hand, even as she eats.
When I ask her to tell me about herself, she begins by describing her parents’ deep commitment to religion – which, at the time, was a sort of mystical, tantric Buddhism that involved animal sacrifice and elements reminiscent of Hindu ritualistic puja, but has since morphed into a more classic iteration of Tibetan Buddhism. She explains all of this in Ladakhi, and Tsetan Angmo interprets for me, which is doubly hard because Tashi Lanzom has no teeth and no particular patience for repetition. We are shoved around as the bus tackles a steep, potholed road, and Tashi Lanzom is obscured from my view. The interview will continue later, at home, around a cup or three of butter tea.
From my new vantage point, somewhere beneath the armpit of the man wearing flared jeans, I see Nono standing at the front of the bus. His hands are folded in prayer and his eyes are closed as he balances on his widespread legs. As the bus drive around a hairpin bend, he stumbles, sees me and winks.
Nono is ten years old, a little round around the middle, and so high energy I’ve half-considered crushing Valium in his daal. When he first met me, he turned bright red and hid behind the curtain that separates the kitchen from the dining room in his home. Peeking behind the gold brocade print, he asked me for my name in a barely-accented English. After a few minutes of conversation, I must have reassured him I was well intentioned, because he re-emerged bellowing a Ladakhi traditional song. For the next few minutes, he commanded my attention as he pranced around the dining room, arms waving wildly about as he performed his take on a classic folk dance. Finally, a little out of breath, he asked me if I knew Belinda.
“Belinda? I don’t think so.”
“She was a German volunteer at my school. She taught me “who ate the cookies in the cookie jar?” You know that one? Who ate the cookies! In the cookie JAR!”
Before I could answer, Nono was out of the room. A characteristic interaction.
He was back a few minutes later with tea and biscuits. He sat the tea down in front of me, the biscuits in front of himself. As I sipped my tea, I took in the room, its turquoise walls, the elaborately decorated low tables, and the flowers growing out of gutted volleyballs.
Nono waved both hands in front of my face to get my attention.
“Maddy! Maddy! Do you want glucose?” he fished a white and pink tube out of his pocket, “it’s good for you!”
“Nono, you know glucose just means sugar, right?” I said, eyeing his belly.
“They’re also called ENERGY VOLTS!”
“Ah, that explains it, you must’ve taken ten!”
“No! Not ten! Nine is my favorite number, so I took nine!”
Tashi Lanzom would not let me stop eating. She watched me closely, and every time my jaw showed signs of slackening its pace, she brandished her prayer beads and handed me another cookie. It wasn’t a hostile invitation, but I could feel my cheeks getting rounder, my stomach getting softer. My blood was more chai than plasma. She was responsible for my newly acquired chapatti-belly. Every night, I went to bed feeling like I had gained a hundred pounds.
From Tsetan Angmo, I eventually learnt that the only way to refuse additional helpings of food was to hide your plate and push away the pan. I picked up on the trick, but too late to save myself from the mountain of rice I had already ingested.
After each meal, Tashi Lanzom liked to rest her head on my lap (probably because I was so nice and comfortable by then). Nono arranged pillows behind her back. Tsetan Angmo cleaned and cooked, and fervently refused to let me help.
I taste bile. Everything is flashing white. I rest both of my hands on the overhead compartment. My head is spinning. I think my legs are about to give out. I am so, so dizzy. I try to look out the window to regain a sense of perspective, but everything is so bright. I catch my reflection in a monk’s Ray-Bans. Beneath my peeling, sunburnt skin, I am deathly pale. I cannot focus. My eyes are rolling backward. There is white, white everywhere.
Before I know it, Tsetan Angmo has booted a bald youth holding a brown paper bag full of tomatoes out of his seat. Her little hands push me firmly down, feel my forehead. The bus is so crowded I can’t even see her. I put my head between my knees and she strokes my hair.
I once read that you cannot throw a stone in India without hitting something sacred, be it a naked sadhu, a whitewashed stuppa or a blue-horned cow. I wonder, then, where to puke without offending the whole subcontinent. To my left: a monk. To my right: Tashi Lanzom. Neither are favorable options. I’ll defile myself, then. Not that I disrespect the holiness of the female body, but in this case, I think it ranks below “grandmother” and “person who has devoted their life to Buddha.”
Before I can throw up in my backpack, a tomato rolls to my feet. There’s a slight commotion, bodies shifting uncomfortably. The bag of tomatoes broke. It’s my fault. I keep my head between my knees, just so everyone understands that I really am ill and didn’t just kick someone out of his seat out of sheer laziness. Even as I start feeling better, I stay sitting that way, trying to look adequately miserable.
A man leans over me to spit paan out of the window of the moving bus. I feel some of his spit on the back of my neck. I wonder if the red beetle juice has speckled my white shirt.
I am vaguely mad at myself for being sick, and vaguely mad at myself for being stubborn. I don’t know how to acclimate to a world that is not my own. I am learning the language, befriending the locals, and showering with buckets of cold water. I don’t complain about the black barley flour caked beneath my nails, or about the cracked skin of my feet. I’ve swapped caffeine headaches for high altitude migraines. It’s easy to forget that the hundred-rupee bus fair represents a day’s work. That after I leave, I will be relegated to the status of Belinda, the volunteer at Nono’s school. That my body doesn’t know how to respond to the windy Himalayan roads. It’s easy to forget all these things because I feel at home, here. The Buddhist prayers sound familiar. I recognize the brands of the foil wrappers that litter the roads. I can tell what crops will grow in which fields. I’ve learned to strain rice to check for stones. The women I stay with put babies in my lap like they’re my family, too.
They’re not. I have delusions of community here. I want to be borne of this place. I am leaving soon. I am leaving, and my work will be unfinished, and the people I’ve come to love will forget. They will work the land like they do every year, and they will give their sons and daughters to monasteries as they have for generations, and they will teach their children how to belong to Ladakh better than I ever could. In passing, maybe they will mention the tall blonde girl who asked a lot of questions, couldn’t roll a halfway decent chapatti, and nearly threw up in the bus.
Tsetan Angmo is still stroking my head. I lean back, and let her hold me.