It was nearing golden hour at Tso Moriri. We had just arrived at this dazzling mountain lake concealed deep within the imposing 6,000+ metre ice-covered peaks surrounding it.
It was surreal — an initial flash of turquoise through the distant sunburned crags signalling the arrival of the smaller Kyagar Tso, and then a little later, the true gorgeousness of Tso Moriri itself spreading out for kilometres in all its splendour. The sun was beginning its leisurely journey to the other side of the planet, and we were eager to spend as much of our evening as possible at the shores of this transcendent lake before the dark set in.
The ten of us were spread out along the shoreline, lost in a private reverie, in rapt communion with the lake and the magnificent peaks hemming us. The waves, gently lapping against the sandy shores, and the light breeze playing with the colourful prayer flags added a beautiful soundtrack to the moment.
Taking in the sun’s last warm rays before it disappeared behind the snow-covered massif, we got up reluctantly to walk up the lake’s shore to our tents. As we gathered around, no one said a word — each of us stilled into silence through this intense and heady encounter with one of Nature’s most sacred creations. There was no need for words really. We walked in silence — some with tears in their eyes, others lost in quiet contemplation as we hugged ourselves and made our way back along the meandering track that led to our campsite. Coming from clamorous cities where silence had long been banished into a deep, dark corner never to be heard from again, this unblemished stillness of Nature and of our own minds was an unfamiliar and uncommon experience for most of us.
To be brought back in touch with our own essential nature, even if only for a brief moment in time, is something I feel only a certain kind of travel can offer. And that is the way the pilgrim travels.
I’ve traveled often and for different reasons. As a child, it was to meet family in other parts of the country during the school holidays. And in my college-going years and for some time after, exploring India’s immensity was really just a pretext for me to explore the world beyond my own thresholds of awareness and nervousness, a necessary step from my boyhood into manhood. During these years, my focus and attention were wholly external; I was absorbed in everything that was happening around, in gathering experiences and knowledge of things that would help me show myself off as a seasoned and worldly traveller and individual. Eventually, I grew out of it.
For many, however, this is the only way they know to travel — quick holidays made possible by cheap flights, focused on the accumulation of experiences that can be shared easily on Facebook and photographs that can be Instagrammed with a click. With a checklist of things to do and see, compiled mostly from breathless articles that promise to divulge the ’10 most exciting things in…’ or ‘15 secret places that even the locals don’t know…’, their interaction with these places takes on a completely different quality.
Presence is the first casualty. When everything around is seen through the unyielding prism of Social Media approval, what does it mean to be present to the whispered messages of a primeval forest, the enduring stories of an ancient river? What does it indicate, when somewhere deep within you, a burning desire arises — an immense longing to return to Wholeness, to be one with the world and everything in it, to respond to these whispered messages and enduring stories with unfettered song, a spontaneous poem, or just a deep and relaxed breath that says, “I’m finally home” — and you stifle its call because you need to head out and take a selfie at Sunset Point.
Respect is the next to be sacrificed. In some ways, it is even more difficult to respect than to be present. Presence is, after all, a choice we make within ourselves — to withdraw our fragmented attention from the infinite worries and concerns of our lives, and to direct it unwaveringly towards whatever is in the moment.
Respect doesn’t come easily, for it requires us to look beyond ourselves and open our minds and hearts to another’s story — the kind-hearted amalay (a mother in Ladakh) who offers you a drink of cool water on a hot day, the retired school-teacher whose humble home you’re staying at, the passionate young man in the village who wants to know everything about your life in the city. Respect for these people takes root within us only after we shine the light of our attention on their compelling stories. Listening to their fears and motivations without judgment, understanding the challenges they choose to share with us (and some that require us to read between the lines), immersing ourselves in the overall context of their lives — these are vital for us to put together a jigsaw puzzle in our minds, a map of life situations, values, and choices made that offer a reasonable representation of the kindly school-teacher based on the fragments of information that she may choose to share with us over a meal or during a long walk in the village.
And how is one to develop respect for another, when there is a travel checklist waiting to be ticked off and you only have a weekend in which to do it? With the limited time available and with our attention divided between the things yet to be done and seen, Respect gets short shrift and is replaced by indifference. Because the tourist places a higher value on speed and quantity, he misses out on the essence of a place and its people that one can only get through a process of slow immersion.
Over the years, bringing Presence and Respect to the forefront while traveling has been deeply rewarding. Travel has taken on a new meaning for me because of these two values — it is no longer an easy escape from my daily reality. Instead, I’ve incorporated them into my daily life as much as I can so that each day is now richer for it.
Traveling with the eyes (and mind) of a pilgrim has opened up the world to me. And as a former tourist, I can attest to the far-reaching impact this attitude has sparked in me.
Deep presence, practiced daily, helps me ‘suck the marrow out of life’, in Thoreau’s immortal words. While I still love sitting by myself for hours on the windswept banks of Tso Moriri, I’m now able to find that heartfelt connection with Nature simply by looking at a tree outside my window and the boisterous assembly of birds on it each morning.
And a profound respect for peoples’ life stories offers me an inexhaustible source of life lessons, that I can draw upon when I encounter challenging times. The unconditional acceptance of the Ladakhi farmer faced with the raw frigidity of her land, has taught me that nothing is permanent and that change is around the corner. Always.