On the back-breaking, nerve-wracking 2 day journey in a mini-bus from Manali to Leh in Ladakh (in the Himalaya mountains, on the border with China)(July 2006), we Indians are a minority in a motley crowd of foreigners. After hours of steep climbing up to 14, 000 feet on the first day, you are rapidly succumbing to altitude sickness, but struggling against it, since everyone else seems to be all healthy and fit.
What the hell, how can they all be so happy and cheerful and talking and laughing? How come they all can breathe? Idiots. The heat is killing. Dry desert mountains all around. No human habitation anywhere. The chattering of the Korean girls ahead is driving you mad. You have just had some Maggi noodles and biscuits the whole day, that’s more or less what you get in the few tent stops along the way.
Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, you look at the Israeli woman sitting on your right. She is reading a book from back to front. Yes, from back to front. The back cover of the book is in the front, facing you, and the front page is at the back.
Then you look at the Korean girl in front. She is reading a book from top to bottom. Yes, the alphabets – which are box-like squiggles – appear to be arranged from top to bottom. The crazy woman was reading a railway time table for so many hours? Then it strikes you - Oh my God, maybe you’re the one who’s lost it, you’re seeing things, they said this would happen with altitude sickness! Why oh why, do you get this stupid urge to travel to all these God-forsaken places? Why can’t you just sit in your cosy little house in Bangalore and watch the squirrels on the coconut tree for entertainment?
Somewhere after Baralacha La, you start gasping for breath and blacking out. You remember the 24 year old boy who went trekking and died of altitude sickness. You ask your husband to pass the oxygen can just in time. People look at you strangely.
Later when you have enough oxygen - oh how infinitely wonderful it is! – and you can believe that you are not dying, everything falls into place. The Israeli was reading a book in Hebrew. They write and read from right to left. So their books are also structured that way. Korean is written from top to bottom, so it appears. You remember the woman sitting next to you in some airport somewhere who was also reading a book like this. So it must be normal.
You relax, you’ve not lost it. As yet. But you do not yet know what a fabulous difference taking oxygen at that right moment made. We stop in the sudden freezing cold at Sarchu camp, surrounded by bare pink and yellow mountains - 15 degrees from the middle of nowhere.
The entire bus has had a fight with different tent owners for the suddenly inflated prices, and are perhaps warmer than you. You wear layer upon layer of warm clothing above thermals, not much help. You have never seen the constellations so divinely close, but you can’t stay outside because of the cold.
After dinner, over which there are more fights, the Irish woman sharing our tent is cursing her boyfriend for bringing her to Ladakh. You sleep like a baby. You wake up in the morning completely refreshed. You look around at the others and smile. Apparently everybody else had splitting headaches and nausea and stomach upsets! People are throwing up, bleeding through their noses etc in the other tents. You distribute medicines. You are fit as a fiddle, even carry a heavy bucket of water to the tent for the others, and walk singing to the bus.
The bus is dead quiet the entire second day. You are the only person breathing normally, relaxed, enjoying the scenery, which is the closest you will ever get to travelling by road across the moon.
People thought you were weird because you carried oxygen. HA!! And HA again! It sure feels good to have the last laugh, brothers and sisters!!