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The warmth of unprejudiced smiles

To travel is to escape....
My mind was completely empty and my body was cold. It was an early summer afternoon in Leh and i was sitting by the steps of a monastery. I was an empty shell with big eyes, simply intent on taking in all that was there; and there was so much beauty and peace there to take in: Colorful fluttering flags, old women chatting conspiratorially at the other end, monks gesticulating to each other furiously, an India soldier checking out his camera pics, two young women talking to someone else on their cell phone and laughing secret laughs...
A monk passed by and suggested me to come see the monastery from inside. I had a bag with me and needed to keep it somewhere safe before i enter. That's when i noticed the person sitting just 2 steps below me, with the intention of keeping my stuff there under his watch. I thought it was a young white boy. I tapped his back. a little too forcefully perhaps, because it was actually a french girl. i did an 'excuse me' and asked if i could leave my stuff with her for a little while.

After about 10 mins when i emerged from the monastery, the very polite girl was still there with my stuff, furiously writing into her diary. Baggy clothes, disheveled appearance and not the slightest of feminine hint in her demeanor. We talked about this and that and about me and about her. (the typical 'this and that' conversations between back packers are usually about one of these things 1. India is such a lovely country. 2. modernity and its evils. 3. awesomeness of Indian traditions/ yoga/ culture etc. 4. the weather (of course). 5. how frequently do they come to India and where they go. 6. travel plan comparisons ...) 
She wasn't as much a tourist as a lover of Ladakh. She'd been here before and she was here since last 2 months. She was researching Ladakhi monasteries in some french university, which was more of an excuse to come to Ladakh once more. She knew so much about here and i knew nothing. (and this happens to me often. Often i meet travelers alien to this land who know this land more intimately than I do) I barely even knew my guest house and the airport. I had come blind, without much research or even a return ticket. I had come with the thought of swimming with the time and pace of Ladakh and to return when i start going broke. 
I guess she didn't take me for one of those 'loafer' Indians, because we immediately hit upon a plan to rent a bike and go travel to a monastery  the next day.
If it were a movie, the next morning would run in slow motion. From a distance I saw a very beautiful silhouette walking my way. It was certainly a girl, Caucasian. I couldn't believe when i realized it was her itself. The transformations women are capable of - from almost a disheveled boy one day to an attractive lady the next!
We traveled for 2 weeks on and off. (I made other friends too and traveled with them too, but mostly with her since she always had a plan and I never did.) Whenever we were in Leh, we would spend all day walking up and down the various narrow alleys of Leh and eating and drinking at the many lovely small cafes and restaurants. But dinners were almost always at Gesmo restaurant. Somehow, we never shared our cell numbers. So the only way for us to certainly meet was to turn up at Gesmo at around 7 30 in the evening.
(Besides the apple pie there was to die for.) 
Our travels on bike weren't without their share of adventure either. Once we were visiting a very remote village, where the only way was a walkway barely 2 feet wide through steep Himalayan mountains: One of my most beautiful bike rides ever. But the incessant clutching at clutch and maneuvering narrow gravelly path was testing my biking abilities, especially since if i had miss stepped by quarter of a feet we could have ended up falling several hundred meters down the valley. And we had seen a truck belly up in the valley earlier in the day. and it was looking tiny at our height. and we had only climbed since then. :)
Almost 4 km from our destination, while the sun was about to set and the gigantic mountains were slowly slipping in their dark purple gowns,the gravel beneath my bike gave away slightly. If it had given away even a little more we would have been down there giving the truck some company.
Through all this she was amazingly calm and composed. As we took a little break there, she just smiled and looked at me with such calmness.. it was beautiful. we would be reaching our destination soon enough sound and happy.
Two days of utter peace and beauty followed in the small village of Hemishuckpachang. She sang Robbie Williams and Edith Pfiaf. I discussed a business plan of moon facing urinals. we tried to take photos of us standing on our heads. we yelled 'ki ki so se la ghelo' (or something like that, i forget. its sort of a travellers prayer in ladakhi to keep the traveler safe) into the valley. we lied down on ground and gazed foolishly at the few clouds. we discussed our respective love lives. (I was listening more than talking at this point.)

Back in Leh, when it was time for both of us to go back to our respective homes, our tea/ coffee sipping went slower. in the last few days we walked less, talked more. we planned to write a research paper together, that never happened. She must have returned to Ladakh after that. I haven't yet. Maybe this year. 
:)
To travel is to escape....
Running to an unknown face, running away from the older known ones.
Alone and with everybody. The warmth of unprejudiced smiles.
An attempt to bear no mask. or to wear one of your choice, not forced by anyone else.
A relief of not having to rebel every time you want to breath...
 
____
The impetus to write this was the Expedia contest. please do check out their site at http://www.expedia.co.in/
I just might win a cool trip :D

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