Naveen and I stood in the middle of Spiti Valley, braving the sharp cold winds on our skin only so we could admire the snow capped mountains around us. We had parked our vehicle on the side of a road and we were out with our tripod, trying to frame our photographs. We were staring at the terrains, trying to find footprints of wild animals in the snow when we overheard a loud yell from a distance. We spun on our heels and spotted two women briskly walking towards us. Before we could react, they had reached us. Their faces were flushed red, hair was windswept and they were smiling at us nervously. They were from a neighboring village, Chicham, and were wondering if we would give them a drop. Chicham wasn’t particularly out of our way to visit and besides, we were here to explore and these women seemed genuine enough. We agreed to drop them to their village and bundled ourselves into our car.
Our drive was filled with conversations, exchanging stories of where we were from, what we were doing, and how we planned on seeing the whole country on the road. They told us about their village and farms and the cold, bitter winters and how the wild mountain cats would prey and hunt on young calves in their pens. When we reached the village, one of the ladies, Kunzang Lama her name was, invited us into her home for some tea and snacks. We politely declined.
Having grown up in cities, Naveen and I were taught to politely refuse any kind of advances from strangers; typical city culture, I’d like to think. We kept politely refusing, trying to come up with any reason to excuse ourselves. But Kunzang persisted. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and she wouldn’t wipe the big smile off of her face. Having lost to her persistent yet polite requests, we ended up quietly following her towards her house. She ushered us into her mud house and opened the doors to her home. Her home was cozy and warm, a wonderful change from the bitter coldness outdoors. She stayed with her elderly in-laws, they were surprised to see us but invited us in like we were old friends. They wouldn’t stop thanking us for dropping their daughter in law back home.
We sat around a small fireplace as we sipped on tea and snacked on biscuits and listened intently as K and the grandmother enthusiastically shared stories about their life. They told us about Kunzang’s husband – a PhD holder who worked as a professor at a college in the nearby city, about her daughter who was married, about her son who was studying to be a doctor, about that one time when she visited the city of Delhi for a short holiday and wanted to come back home to the mountains immediately.
We stayed till we got comfortable enough to crack jokes and laugh together before we bid our farewells and ‘hope to see you soon’s. But a thought of value struck me that day and stuck with me: I have always been surrounded by digital technology. I grew up with it, only faintly do I remember a life without it. Living in this day and age of wireless internet, sharing information and stories has become so easy that we are constantly in touch with others (we might not know it) and maybe that has depreciated our value for actual human connection. There is no longer a necessity for people in metropolitan cities to actually converse with one another. You can spend an average day without actually speaking to another person. We have everything we need online, just a click away.
But up in the mountains, in the remote areas, where, sure, the internet does run, but sometimes the signal is weak. Up there, human connection is the strongest. Surviving in the mountains is harsh and the people who live there know this and are always eager to help ease the harshness for someone else. The people of the mountains only approach you with kindness and bank upon the mercy of a stranger’s kindness, they always take a bet on strangers and are always ready to help. There is no hesitation or awkwardness.
“We only have each other. Sometimes, we have the milk and our neighbors have the sugar and together we can make tea.” The wise, old grandmother told us when we were all talking about how it was common practice to hitchhike for rides up in the mountains. But I think it should ring true for everything related to coexistence. Coexistence should be about an individual using their power and privilege in a society to make everyone’s life better in the society, which in turn creates ripples and everyone helps everyone else. But…I feel like that’s a far off dream, especially in our society where fear is the dominant motivation, where we are taught to build walls to protect the fear instead of doing something to destroy it.
It gets very lonely up in the mountains. And it gets very lonely in cities too, even when you’re surrounded by people and connected to fast speed internet. Is loneliness an inherent condition of life? Do wild animals also feel lonely when they are with their pack or herd? Or is it just us? Are we quickly forgetting that we are all just human? What I experience and feel, you might too. Though you might be sitting in another part of the world, from a different culture, a different race, don’t we all feel the same? Don’t we all hurt the same? Don’t we all love the same?
Travel has taught me that we are more similar to each other than big corporations, politicians and leaders want us to believe, it is profitable for them to have us butt heads. But the dream is to rise above it and be human, show empathy and understand because isn’t that finally what separates us from the wild animals that prey on the weak calves in their safe pens?
Just a thought.
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Until next time, keep traveling, keep collecting stories, and creating memories.