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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Cave Dweller

London to Ladakh
Rebecca Stonehill

‘What’ll it be?’
‘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. He’s staring at me. The intensity of his gaze is unnerving and I look away.

‘I know you,’ he says.

Is this a chat up line? Somehow I doubt it - he doesn’t have that flirtatious gleam in his eye. I look back and raise an eyebrow. Now he’s saying something else, but I can only see moving lips, like I’m watching him though a pane of glass.
I place a hand behind my ear, crane forwards.
‘Rebecca. That’s your name, isn’t 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, he’s trying to tell me something.
‘I can’t hear you!’ I shout. Shaking his head, he fights his way through the other bar staff and I stare after him, bewildered. I’ve never been good at names, but I’ve 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 I’ve ever met. Or rather, a hundred people I’ve 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 I’m scuttling out of the bar towards the tube. Now I’m 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 finger’s still on rewind as I’m going up the stairs of an aeroplane and being flung over land and sea towards a brown teardrop. India.
‘Gotta keep working,’ he says. ‘Let’s 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 can’t I remember him? His face is unfathomable, but if I’m not mistaken, he has the slightest lilt of a Canadian accent that stirs in me the vaguest memory…I lean back and close my eyes.
‘We’re with our son. Trying to help him with the transition.’
My eyes spring open. Sarkis. It can’t be…can it?

I nod sympathetically. That’s 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 world’s 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 don’t look like we’re going anywhere in a hurry.

Our bus driver has vanished and we’ve 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 that’s been constructed. Nobody knows for sure what’s 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, it’s a wise idea. At least he’s getting a warm breakfast. He is painfully thin, something that even the loose robes he’s enfolded in can’t 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? I’ve met enough of these western spiritual seekers in India to cease being surprised by them. I can’t deny though that I’m intrigued by him. I want to know why somebody would be prepared to put themselves through this; what he thinks it can really achieve.

‘You look…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 he’s given me.
‘Yeah, I guess I do.’
‘So what happened?’
‘Mmm. With…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 to me.
‘Oh, that.’
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 you’ll be able to cope with it?’
‘I’ll cope,’ he replies matter of factly. ‘I’ve been on retreat down in the south of India, preparing myself.’ He nods sagely, clearly happy that this is sufficient explanation.
‘And your parents? They’re fine about it?’
‘Oh, absolutely. They’ve 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 doesn’t sound impertinent and am relieved when Sarkis smiles at me warmly and fixes me with his kind brown eyes.
‘It’s not easy to explain. But we’ve got a little time, haven’t we, so I’ll 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 can’t 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 didn’t 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 what’s going to happen, do we? We never know what experiences are round the corner, waiting for us or how we’ll be affected by them. Or who we’re going to meet.’
I look at him expectantly as he begins to sweep up debris from the floor. ‘Know what I mean?’
I’m not entirely sure where this conversation is leading and whether I’m meant to be reading something else between the lines. All I know is that I’m 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, don’t 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 everyone’s amusement, a few Japanese who appeared to speak very little English, a group of Ladakhi’s making their way home after spending some time in Delhi…who else was there?
‘Do you remember Alex?’
‘Alex - ?’
‘Yes, an Italian girl.’
‘Alessandra! Of course I remember her.’
‘Well…’ Sarkis shrugs. ‘As I said, you never know who you’re 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 Indian.
‘…and now we’re 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. ‘I’ll…I’ll be thinking of you.’
‘Thanks,’ Sarkis replies. ‘I hope you find what it is that you’re looking for.’

Looking for? I hadn’t really thought I’d 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 we’ve finally made it to this mystical land and slinging my rucksack on my back, set off into the crowd.

© Rebecca Narracott June 2009
rnarracott at

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