The first thing that really struck me about Ladakh was the contrast. Snow banks stood next to jagged cliffs, castles overlooked slums, and faded t-shirts were paired with furry ski boots. I surveyed its landscape from the plane's landing pad, my breath curling up into the bright, blue sky.
I sighed as I watched my dad standing next to the tour guides, introducing himself while he struggled with our luggage. My mother, sister and grandparents walked over and climbed into the rusty white van, beckoning to me to follow. Quickly out of breath in the low-oxygen environment, I huffed dramatically and loped over to the waiting vehicle, my brown hair swishing in the summer breeze. "Well, this is nice. We all managed to fit in one car," my mother said. "I thought Tara might request a private chauffeur and car for herself." I ignored the tease as I gazed outside, taking off my sunglasses now that the window blocked the blazing white snow. My sister laid her head in my mother's lap, her imperious ten-year old self replaced by a little girl too tired to act mature. I, too, was exhausted after the flight from Delhi. My grandfather's voice swept on from somewhere in the background as he drilled the guide, secretly checking his information against the guidebook's. My senses melted together as I stared at the flashing scenery. When we got to the hotel I gratefully sipped the lemon tea offered by a welcoming receptionist and then stumbled up the stairs to our room, sleep heavy on my eyelids.
The most awful and awe-inspiring aspect about Ladakh was the altitude. Leh, its capital, is 11,562 feet above sea level whereas the city we flew in from, Delhi, is a mere 774 feet above sea level. And though the guidebook said to rest for two days before any outdoor activity, do you think we listened? No. And so, by the third day there, all of us had gotten the dreaded altitude sickness. Nausea, exhaustion and pounding headaches engulfed the troop, leaving us all feeling more than a little sorry for ourselves until we acclimatized.
Once we finally did acclimatize, I was able to acknowledge the dramatic views and even venture across the highest drivable road in the world. Traveling around Ladakh was more for the outdoorsy, backpacking weirdos than anything I had ever experienced. You really had to rough it, and roughing it is not one of my talents. I was barely coping with the off-putting bathrooms, unappetizing travel food and prospect of sleeping in a tent, but when I heard that we were going to be riding camels; I thought this is 'literally' the last straw. I mean, I love horses and riding them is one of my favorite pastimes. But when I think of riding, I think of spotless tack all suited up to match the ribbons in the horses' hair, and of impeccable breeches with dark leather boots, not some flea-bitten blanket covered in three different colors of hair and a fraying string jerking at the camel's saliva-encrusted mouth, which is apparently the fanciest type of riding found in Ladakh. "Ooh, camels!" my little sister squealed as she was hoisted onto the most docile creature's back. "This one's name is Goma!" she told Mom.
I looked interestedly at the curled lashes on Goma's face and up at my sister's own dark lashes. Grunting sarcastically I muttered, "The resemblance is striking," earning me a warning look from my dad. Before I could protest, I was lifted high up onto the back of a short, squat beast that chewed its cud lazily as if it didn't care that I was there. It flicked its tail right at my face, and I spat disgustedly. But then the camel turned its head up to look at me, and my heart started to melt under its warm, nonchalant gaze. Sitting on the back of the camel, my riding instincts kicked in. I could feel the animal moving under me, settling my weight. I made sure to look put out as the others started walking, then kicked my mount into a steady pace. It wouldn't do to break my ice queen façade by showing my enjoyment, but the calm, rhythmic undulation had me grinning inwardly.
After the camel ride I was exhilarated and even joined in when my family spent the rest of the car ride singing songs and telling jokes. The sun was setting as we arrived at the campsite and we were all hungry as we pulled our bags down to our tents. I was delighted to see that the tents were very classy and had real beds inside. I unpacked my pajamas, then went outside to explore with my sister.
"Look at the daffodils!" my sister pointed as we walked around the property. "And all those pretty streams! I say we follow one. I'm sure it will take us someplace magical." She looked at me with eyes alight with laughter and excitement.
"Alright," I consented, watching the leaf boats we had made float down the skinny creek. "But we only have fourteen minutes until dinner so we have to turn back when I say so." I started walking along the path of a particularly shiny ribbon of water, my sister tagging along beside me. As the stream widened and we came closer to its source I could feel the mystery of the water pulling me along. I felt the presence of mountain creatures around me in the luscious valley. Mountains enclosed every side of the safe haven, watching over it like dutiful sentries. Holding my sister's hand as I explored the magical spring that seemed to start all of the little tributaries that encircled the campsite, I experienced an unexpected feeling of protection and happiness, spreading from my heart through my body until it encompassed my being.
The next day we hit sightseeing in earnest. The monasteries, stupas and palaces around Leh were some of the most spiritual places you could travel to in India. At lunch we met with a funny little witch doctor. She threw rice in the air, tied silk scarves around our necks and spewed "healing water" for our injuries. She allowed us to each ask her one question. When it was my turn, I didn't know what to say! She tapped her foot impatiently and I hastily blurted out "Will I have a happy life?" To my surprise, she shrugged, then answered gravely:
"Your decisions have the power to make you very happy. I can tell that you are going through changes, within and without. I see hard choices ahead of you. By choosing the right path you can earn good karma and happiness will be yours."
I left to see more stupas with her words tumbling around in my thoughts. The prayer flags fluttered in the wind, flickering before my eyes like dancing flames. As we drove to the Shanti Stupa I realized that it had an intriguing plaque at the bottom of its stairs that I found myself wanting to read before we explored the site:
Shanti Stupa is one of the main attractions in Leh. The Japanese had it built in hopes of spreading Buddhism across the world. 'Shanti Stupa' means World Peace. Visitors come to this monastery to look at the view and find peace within themselves. Ladakhis come here to reflect upon their life, and to be reminded that in the grand scheme, day-to-day issues are insignificant. The Dalai Lama inaugurated this Stupa in 1985.
The sun beat down like a trained mallet onto the back of my neck as we climbed the last twenty steps to the top of the magnificent white-tiered dome. Gold paint and thoughtful prayers adorned the sides of the beautiful structure. From within I could hear melodious chanting and the alluring, purifying hum of a prayer bowl. I turned around to gaze at the vista before me. The expanse of colors transformed me, awakening me to the beauty and simplicity of the area. I looked up at the sky and made a silent vow to remember this moment forever, and to pull from it the next time I was upset. I took a fresh breath, and then smiled to myself before turning to join my awaiting family. As the sounds of the monastery faded, I knew that I had found what I wanted to take back with me as the perfect keepsake.
"No, not this one either." I turned around, scanning the store for my parents. Back in Leh, we had decided to spend the morning shopping. My travels to the majestic and humbling sites around Leh had transformed me, inspiring me to change my outlook on life. The past few days I had been considerably more cheerful. I was hoping to find a souvenir to symbolize the inner treasure I had acquired during this trip.
As I swung my head around, I spied it. It was on the top shelf and seemed to glow like a soft ember in the dusty light. The shopkeeper brought it down to me and I took it reverently, awed by the power I felt just holding it. The prayer bowl had curved sides and was carved to appear as though water were rippling around the brim. Inside it were etched the five forms of the Buddha, along with the incantation 'Om Mani Padme Hum'. I watched, fascinated, as the vendor lifted the bowl from me and spun a velvet-coated stick around it. All of a sudden a deep, resonating sound flew around the room, repeating again and again in the newfound silence. As the sound waves rolled over me I became peaceful and meditative. I closed my eyes until the melody stopped, then walked towards my waiting parents. I had completed the journey I had needed to take before I began my next one. I had found what I was looking for. This was the one.
An audio recording of "The Perfect Souvenir" has been posted on Palo Alto Online.