1. Patience is the mother of all virtues.
It is a lesson I keep on learning. In Zanskar, things happen on their own time, at their own pace. Need to send an important email? Well first you have to wait a few weeks for tourist season to actually begin. When it finally begins, then you have to wait full weeks at a time before getting to use twenty expensive minutes of slow WiFi. Then you have to wait in Padum all day for the jeep-taxi at 4 o’clock. Theeeeen you have to wait an hour and half to get back to Zangla as you bump jarringly along the stone littered road. At meal times and tea times you have to wait patiently through two hour long conversations in Ladakhi. Need to buy something from the one shop in Zangla? You’ll just have to do a bit more waiting because it’s only open from 5 PM to 6 PM, and some days not at all because the shopkeeper is tired. If a nun says we’re milking the cow at 3 o’clock, she was just kidding. She actually meant 7 o’clock. And if you really need to get to the closest city center? It’s a nineteen hour off-roading expedition with ten other people and no leg room. You learn to become okay with the waiting because it’s the only thing you can do. Being upset would make the waiting unbearable, so instead you just transform into this extremely patient, highly observant superhuman.
2. Happiness is best when shared.
The Ladakhi culture is one of sharing and total generosity. They say you can live in Zanskar forever without any money or a place to stay because you can just walk into any home and you’ll be greeted with tea, biscuits, rice, and a place to sleep. Even if you’re a complete stranger, “what’s mine is yours” applies to all. If you have food in your hand, the first thing you do is offer it to those around you. One day in class, the girls were given sweets, and my little Datsal offered her chocolates to everyone and was only left a single one for herself. The generosity that exists here is utter instinct — no one thinks twice before offering what they have to others. You simply do not keep things to yourself; if it’s yours, it’s everyone’s. I have long recognized that one of my biggest inner projects is to work on the selfish parts of my character. I strive to be so giving that I’d give away my last piece of bread if I was starving on the street. In the spirit of Ladakhi generosity, every week when I’d go to Padum, I would buy eggs and cookies for the nunnery, some treats for the kids, and caramels to pass out in the jeep-taxi for my car-mates traveling back to Zangla. I have come to realize that you only deserve what you are willing to give. We may exist in autonomous bodies, but we live in a global community. As members of this community, it is our duty to think not only ourselves, but more importantly, to be concerned with the well-being of our brothers, sisters, aunties, and uncles. And how do we do this? By giving.
3. Never leave anyone behind.
If you thought taxi rides couldn’t teach you important life lessons, you’re mistaken. My taxi experiences in Zanskar have sent me into never-ending spirals of serious contemplations about human compassion. If it sounds crazy, maybe it is. I’ve been known to find philosophical meaning in cat shit (a story for another time…). But spending inordinate amounts of time in extremely uncomfortable jeep-taxis has a way of making you look at the world differently.
So it goes like this.
The taxis are always stuffed to the brim with at least 5 to 6 extra people. It happens this way because there’s usually only a single taxi going between Zangla and Padum on any given day. As we make our way into town, there’s always people standing on the side of the road, their hands flapping wildly, asking for a ride. And we pick them up. Every. Single. One. Even if the jeep reached maximum capacity ten minutes ago, we gladly accept every hitchhiker begging for a lift. Even if that means someone has to ride on the roof. We find space, even if it feels like there’s not enough. I promise you, there’s room.
This taxi culture has taught me that it’s unacceptable to leave anyone behind. There’s always enough room in your life to help someone in need. This doesn’t mean that you have to run out and start volunteering at your local homeless shelter every night (though it would certainly be a noble act). All it means is that we must act when called upon. If someone needs your help, you help even if you feel you have nothing to give. There’s always enough space. Enough time. Enough energy to help another human being. Even if there’s already twelve people in the car, two on the roof, and three in the back — there’s room for one more. Else you are leaving the person in need to suffer, and you are contributing to the world wound. Be the cure, not the cause. Never leave anyone behind, and always heed the call to help.
4. Cosmic humor is necessary.
Something I learned just by way of dealing with the frustrating, the unfamiliar, the scary, and the uncomfortable — all undeniable aspects of traveling to a new place.
You must always remember to maintain a light heart during life’s frustrations — a cosmic humor. Nothing is ever truly as devastating as it feels in the moment. Keep it light. Laugh at yourself. (Something I forgot to do when I accidentally farted in front of the most attractive monk I’ve ever laid eyes on…). When faced with an unpleasant, embarrassing, or annoying situation, adopt the mindset of, “This will make a great story later on.” Don’t weigh yourself down with wet towels of pity and hopelessness. Stay dry. Stay light. Stay smiling.
5. Things always turn out in the end.
Before I left for India, my grandmother said this to me. She said no matter how desperate a situation may seem, it will be okay. You have to be sleeping someplace at the end of the day. You may not know where that place might be, but life has a special way of working itself out, and there’s a bed in this world just waiting for your tired head to lay down and rest.
Accepting this advice proved to be most useful for me when I accompanied one of the nuns to the weeklong holy festival in Karsha. For five days I followed her around like a little puppy, flitting from house to house, ceremony to ceremony, wondering where we’d end up come nightfall. The first day we stayed with an ex-nun from Zangla with fifteen school children from a village downstream. The next few nights we stayed at the Karsha nunnery at the top of a mountain which is only accessible by foot-path. When we arrived there the second night of the festival, all the nuns were gone. Classic nun move, as I’ve come to find. It was getting dark and we couldn’t go anywhere else, so we waited. Eventually, an old nun emerged from her cottage, and we descended into her closet-sized kitchen through a series of hobbit-like tunnels. Definitely the most interesting place I’ve ever bunked before…
In any case, I quickly learned that the universe has a plan. Although this plan includes bumps and bruises and unusual sleeping circumstances, everything will always work out in the end.