International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Cave Dweller
Bottle of Grolsch. I shout the words over the throbbing
voices and music.
The barman saunters over to the fridge. Returning to the counter,
he places the bottle down. Hes staring at me. The intensity
of his gaze is unnerving and I look away.
know you, he says.
Is this a chat up
line? Somehow I doubt it - he doesnt have that flirtatious gleam
in his eye. I look back and raise an eyebrow. Now hes saying something
else, but I can only see moving lips, like Im watching him though
a pane of glass.
I place a hand behind my ear, crane forwards.
Rebecca. Thats your name, isnt it?
Yes, but how do you
? My words trail off as his lips
curl into an infuriating smile and he extracts the coins from my palm.
Again, hes trying to tell me something.
I cant hear you! I shout. Shaking his head, he fights
his way through the other bar staff and I stare after him, bewildered.
Ive never been good at names, but Ive always prided myself
on never, ever forgetting a face. But this breezy, enigmatic man? As
he walks back towards me with my change, I scrutinise his face, waiting
for my momentarily defunct memory to whir into action. But it fails
me. He looks like nobody Ive ever met. Or rather, a hundred people
Ive met with his dark hair, jeans and t-shirt.
Placing the change in my hand, he leans over the counter. I am about
to tell him that he must, bizarrely, be thinking of another Rebecca
who looks like me. But then I hear the word next to my ear.
My head snaps backwards. India. Last year. And suddenly my life hits
rewind as the barman walks backwards to the fridge and Im scuttling
out of the bar towards the tube. Now Im at work, at parties, with
friends, trying to explain to people what India is like and adapt to
a world in which someone has pulled the plug on all the noise and colour.
My fingers still on rewind as Im going up the stairs of
an aeroplane and being flung over land and sea towards a brown teardrop.
Gotta keep working, he says. Lets speak later.
And with that, I am sucked like a rip-current into the roaring crowd.
Seeking out my friends, they lose me for the rest of the evening as
my mind sifts through memories of India. Why cant I remember him?
His face is unfathomable, but if Im not mistaken, he has the slightest
lilt of a Canadian accent that stirs in me the vaguest memory
lean back and close my eyes.
Were with our son. Trying to help him with the transition.
My eyes spring open. Sarkis. It cant be
I nod sympathetically. Thats certainly going to be some transition.
All three of us look over towards the man sitting cross-legged on the
mat. He is unwrapping a small newspaper package and emptying its contents
of oats into a bowl. Fascinated, I watch as from beneath his numerous
folds of white garments he produces a thermos of hot water and pours
it over the oats.
We are travelling on the worlds second highest road in the world,
along the dizzying bends and mountain passes that stretch from Manali
up to Ladakh, the small, anomalous Buddhist province in the furthest
flung north of India beneath Kashmir. The bus journey should have taken
two days, but we are now on our third day and dont look like were
going anywhere in a hurry.
Our bus driver has vanished and weve been deposited from the wheezing
bus onto a barren plateau. Gazing around me, I concede that I can hardly
complain about the views. Miles upon miles of snow covered peaks stretch
out before me and tattered Tibetan prayer flags flutter hopefully in
the breeze. But it is cold, so cold. Several people are retching from
the altitude whilst others have worked their way under several layers
of blankets and sleeping bags in the makeshift tent thats been
constructed. Nobody knows for sure whats going on, but the rumour
circulating is that Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is under curfew after
a group of monks have been shot and nobody is allowed in or out.
I look again at the barefoot, oat-eating figure crouched a few metres
away, musing that despite the incongruity of his modern thermos flask
with the rest of his appearance, its a wise idea. At least hes
getting a warm breakfast. He is painfully thin, something that even
the loose robes hes enfolded in cant disguise and his dread-locked
hair looks as though it has collected a few mementoes on his travels.
His parents explain to me that he had always been sensitive as a child
and therefore, it came as no surprise to them when he announced years
later that he wanted to go and find himself in India. And
so here he is, travelling to Ladakh to install himself in a cave for
several months, or even years, of meditation and hopeful enlightenment.
And who am I to judge? Ive met enough of these western spiritual
seekers in India to cease being surprised by them. I cant deny
though that Im intrigued by him. I want to know why somebody would
be prepared to put themselves through this; what he thinks it can really
very different, I say slowly. Sarkis grins
as he clears up several strewn glasses strewn. The bar has emptied and
I lean against the counter, sipping at the cocktail hes given
Yeah, I guess I do.
So what happened?
well, you know, with the cave and everything.
In India it had sounded almost normal, but back home, from within the
bright glare of a central London bar, my words resonate obscurely back
I continue to gaze at Sarkis, willing him to fill me in, but he seems
reluctant to offer up any further information for the moment.
We spend another full day up on that freezing plateau and in that time,
I play backgammon with a Spaniard called Rafael, discuss Hinduism with
an Italian called Alessandra and chat to Sarkis about his plans.
How do you know if youll be able to cope with it?
Ill cope, he replies matter of factly. Ive
been on retreat down in the south of India, preparing myself.
He nods sagely, clearly happy that this is sufficient explanation.
And your parents? Theyre fine about it?
Oh, absolutely. Theyve been so supportive, flying all the
way out here to help me move in.
I try to envisage my own parents obligingly sweeping the floor of a
cave and finding a spot to hang a picture of themselves and have to
stifle a laugh.
Why do you want to do this though? I hope that my question
doesnt sound impertinent and am relieved when Sarkis smiles at
me warmly and fixes me with his kind brown eyes.
Its not easy to explain. But weve got a little time,
havent we, so Ill give it my best shot
And as we sit there and watch our icy breaths crystallise before us
and the mountains transform themselves through a myriad of colours,
this curious Canadian tells me about his spiritual quest. The extremity
of it is alien to me, yet I cant help but admire him for
his honesty but even more for his gentle spirit. Just sitting with him
makes me feel calm. I wish Sarkis luck and as I leave to find a warm
corner in the tent for the night, the Italian girl eagerly sits down,
clearly wanting to be the next to quiz him.
Things didnt go quite the way I expected, Sarkis says
after a long while. He looks thoughtful. I still believe it all
though and why I wanted to do it. I feel like he has started to
talk more to himself than me. But, you know
we never know
whats going to happen, do we? We never know what experiences are
round the corner, waiting for us or how well be affected by them.
Or who were going to meet.
I look at him expectantly as he begins to sweep up debris from the floor.
Know what I mean?
Im not entirely sure where this conversation is leading and whether
Im meant to be reading something else between the lines. All I
know is that Im bursting with curiosity.
I nod. I think so.
He stops sweeping and leans against the bar, a small smile on his face.
People fall in love, dont they?
You fell in love?
Yes, he replies simply. By the time we reached Ladakh,
I had fallen in love.
He fell in love? Now this, I must confess, I was not expecting. I rack
my brains, trying to think of all the other people on that long bus
journey. I remember a French couple who pulled endless baguettes and
cheese from their rucksack much to everyones amusement, a few
Japanese who appeared to speak very little English, a group of Ladakhis
making their way home after spending some time in Delhi
Do you remember Alex?
Alex - ?
Yes, an Italian girl.
Alessandra! Of course I remember her.
Sarkis shrugs. As I said, you never know
who youre going to meet.
So you never went to the cave?
I shake my head in disbelief. Alessandra, the bindi-clad hippy chick
with her friendly, freckled face and insatiable curiosity of all things
and now were living together in Stoke Newington.
Amazing, I murmur.
Some things are meant to be, he says, beaming. And
some things are not.
I return his smile and look hard at him as he resumes sweeping the floor,
trying to place the Sarkis I remember from that bus journey into the
scrubbed, shaven, fuller figure before me.
Goodbye then, I say. Ill
Ill be thinking
Thanks, Sarkis replies. I hope you find what it is
that youre looking for.
Looking for? I hadnt really thought Id been looking for
anything in particular. We part company and I watch as he turns and
walks away, his skinny ankles jutting out from beneath his robe and
his parents walking on either side of him. The curfew has been lifted
in Ladakh. A few monks have indeed been tragically shot but life in
Leh seems to have returned to normal as the busy market streets fill
up with traders. Breathing in the invigorating early morning air, I
sigh happily, relieved that weve finally made it to this mystical
land and slinging my rucksack on my back, set off into the crowd.
© Rebecca Narracott
rnarracott at googlemail.com
life moments in travel
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