Travel: Life Lessons From My Trip to Paradise on Earth
A Tennessee psychologist and mother of three finds that grandeur, inspiration, awe, and gratitude are some of the payoffs of her adventurous and arduous road trip from Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir to Pangong Lake in Ladakh.
[Left] The author at the Kargil War Memorial.
For most of my life, and even now, I’ve worked hard to prove something. See? I am smart. I’m not an MD but I have a PhD! I know what to wear to any party whether it is Halloween, Heart Gala, or Garba. I can cook. And no, I’m not fluent in Kannada, but I can understand and read it. On and on and on it goes . . . always working hard to prove to everyone, and mostly to myself, that I am an American Born Desi who is not Confused.
This past summer, my husband and I traveled to India to join his friends from medical school on an arduous road trip from Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir to Pangong Lake in Ladakh and back again. At first, I was perplexed because I didn’t know if it was safe to travel there. To be honest, I didn’t want to go on the trip, and yet, I also wanted to go for a number of reasons. Fortunately, the concerns quickly vanished as we drove through some stunning and breathtaking parts of north India that reminded me of a book I had read in high school: Lost Horizons (Remember the search for Shangri La?). It suddenly made sense that three countries have long-standing conflicts in this region, that Brad Pitt found peace nearby (in the movie Seven Years in Tibet), and that many people travel to this part of the world to find enlightenment and adventure.
The trip, which was originally planned as a trek to Tarsar and Marsar Lakes, became, thanks to security reasons, a weeklong road trip in four vans. It was difficult due to the high altitude and rough terrain, the daily threat of Covid, as well as the fear of falling off steep mountainous roads. There was a lot of uncertainty, and I had mixed feelings about the trip. In the end, I took a deep breath and showed up for this adventure. Here are some glimpses of humanity that touched and transformed me along the way.
I had no idea that the Vaishno Devi Temple was such an important pilgrimage site. During our six-hour pony ride in the pouring rain, I had the privilege of complaining about being sore while passing men and women of all ages who plodded along on foot. Some walked without ponchos, some were holding babies, and others were supporting an elderly relative. These pilgrims were seeking the blessings of the Mother Goddess in a small cave at the top of the mountain. There was chanting and exuberance, pain, and passion. I was surrounded by men and women who looked like me but whose passion and commitment I could not match. I will never forget the red ribbons tied on the fence along the road and their red headbands, nor the expressions of prayer and determination on the faces of fellow moms as they climbed the mountain in the rain.
[Top] Vaishno Devi pilgrims
Our road trip included Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Buddhist monasteries. On our one day in Srinagar, we visited Hazratbal Shrine, known to be Kashmir’s oldest mosque. There was nothing unusual about the structure as I peeked inside and saw worshippers going in and out. I passed by a woman who looked my age with her forehead against the wall. She was crying and praying out loud. She and many others had tied ribbons on the stone screen in front of her. For a moment, I felt her pain and wondered what she was asking for, what was prompting her desperate cries and prayer. Again, I had the privilege of walking past her and later returning to the comfort of our resort knowing (from the apps on my iPhone) that everyone in my family was safe at home.
[Top] Khardung La Pass
The chocolate shop in Leh
For days, our friends had mentioned that a young relative had opened a chocolate shop in Leh. I was pleasantly surprised to meet Saptasri. Her smile was radiant, and her story was even more amazing. After working as a pastry chef in India, Kuwait, and Bahrain, she made the courageous decision to move to Leh in Ladakh and open Schoko Monk, where she creates handcrafted chocolates and confectionery. Her use of local ingredients combined with her expertise made for a delicious combination to be savored in the rugged terrain. She shared that she felt loved and accepted in this environment, she was pursuing her dream, and mostly that she could be herself here. Wow! She’s a young Kannada girl pursuing her dream! I remember thinking, “I had NO idea that was an option . . . huh.”
The road to Pangong Lake
The road to Pangong Lake was scary, and I went back and forth between awe and sheer terror as I looked down and only thought of my sons back home. There was a lot of construction on these roads as we passed by tents and workers. I did not see men and women clad in heavy boots with large road equipment. Instead, I saw men and women, sometimes with babies and in traditional dresses, working on the side of the road. Again, I was in disbelief as I sat in my van worrying about my family while being transported by a highly skilled driver. I think of those women daily. They are hardworking, courageous, and strong. I can’t even begin to comprehend my privilege.
[Top] A soldier gets a rakhi at Namikala Pass.
Kargil and the military bases along the way
I am the person who tears up every time I sing the Star-Spangled Banner. “Oh say, does that Star Spangled Ba-a-ner-er yet wa-ave . . . for the land of the freeeeeee and the home of the brave.” I can even hear the cheers!
I was not prepared to pass by sandcolored military bases tucked away in valleys to protect India’s vulnerable northern borders. We greeted several soldiers who served in this rugged, high-altitude terrain far from their homes. They live with the unpredictable threat of attack from every side. They also protect and support the communities around them. I’ve always felt safe as an American citizen because of our strong military and the sense that we are invincible. But this trip gave me a newfound respect for India’s military strength and its commitment to protecting a democratic nation whose past goes back to ancient times. India is also the land of the free and home of the brave. I understand that now and feel proud.
[Right] Pangong Lake
And finally, our night at Pangong Lake
If you are a Bollywood fan, you know this location as the place where Aamir Khan lived, taught, and invented in the dramatic finale of the movie Three Idiots. I learned that the lake is divided between India and China... imagine that! I loved walking on the rocky beach listening to the sound of the waves—a reminder that the waves ebb and flow just like the problems and pressures of life. When I stood at the edge of this lake, I felt like I was at a beach in California or North Carolina. The waves were crashing and the brilliant blue color of the water was moving as the sun set. Across the lake, I could see military hideouts that were positioned for surprise attacks from across the border. Also, across the lake, the snowcapped Himalayan mountain range was visible amidst the fog.
I felt overwhelmed by the grandeur of what was in front of me. There was so much to take in. I realized that this was my personal pilgrimage—totally unexpected yet profound. At almost 14,000 feet, I felt grounded and at home. Close to disputed borders, I felt safe. Miles away from my sons and my mom, I felt connected.
There was nowhere to tie a red ribbon, but I cried, and I prayed. It went something like this:
“I stand here in awe. I am grateful to finally know that I am ok and that I will be ok. I am incredibly grateful for my parents, my husband, my three wonderful sons, my family, and my friends who have held my hand along the way. I feel loved. Thank you.”
Whether I am hiking the trails of Nashville or gazing at the snowcapped Himalayan mountain range from the window of an airplane, I know that I am ok. I am Indian. I am American. I am a mom, daughter, wife, sister, friend, and woman. I am Kalpana and I am enough. I am grateful.
[Top] Cabins at Pangong Lake during sunrise.
Kalpana Gowda is a mom and wife who loves running, yoga, hiking, reading, and journaling. She is also a Licensed Psychologist in private practice. This article is written in memory of Dr. C.K Hiranya Gowda, Kalpana’s father, who immigrated to St. Louis in 1963. He lived, worked, and raised his family in Nashville, Tennessee, with Saraswathi, his wife of 60 years. He passed away peacefully in December 2021 surrounded by his family.
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