He was tall and good looking and had attended an expensive prep school where he learned to talk pretty. He liked dancing to pop music and drinking beer and traveling. His father wanted him to be a real estate agent; he was not interested in a desk job. He was sarcastic and smart, a reader. I sometimes imagine going back in time to talk to my former self. “He’s attractive, but he’s bad news. Run for it.”
I did not run for it. I was so young, unconstrained by gravity or common sense. I went to London, his home, and together we went to Paris, Tel Aviv, Karachi, and finally New Delhi, where wasted with giardia and salmonella, I blew what was left of my money on a plane ticket back to the US.
I returned to the US a different person. After my travels in India, I would encounter other people who had done the same and we would have a moment. We had seen things, we had taken very long walks, we had earned the same badges. It was not country counting snobbery, or a competition, it was a nod, an acknowledgement that we had shifted. Nothing bad happened to me in India beyond a difficult to treat but typical case of traveler’s gut. But I had walked the markets of Old Delhi without a guide and stumbled over the rocky high passes of the Himalayas and I was changed for the experience.
Two years later, the Englishman showed up at my home in California. A mutual travel friend had told him I wanted to see him. It is possible I had written these words in a letter a year back, but it was no longer true. After an awkward half hour. I told him to go away. Seeing him reminded me that he had made me feel small and stupid. The woman standing in this sunny California backyard was not the one he’d last seen at the airport in New Delhi. The me I had turned into told him to go and he did; I closed the front door behind him and sat outside smoking cigarettes until the rattled feeling was gone.
Decades later, I received an email from him — he’d found my writing online and got in touch. “People don’t change, do they?” he wrote. “I’ll always think you were a jerk, if that’s what you mean,” I thought, and I deleted his email. People do change, they become more and more themselves as time goes by, though doing something like going to India when you are young and in the company of a mean boyfriend will accelerate certain parts of that change.
I recently sliced open the tape on a box I had not opened since two or three addresses back. There was my past in all its Kodachrome four by six print glory. I found a picture of myself as an exchange student in Sweden surrounded by pale complexioned blondes; I look shockingly exotic. There is a picture of me in the Negev Desert in Israel, there are no distinguishing landmarks but I know exactly when it was by how strong I look. There are pictures of the nameless English boyfriend. And there are just a few pictures of me in India, stick skinny and serious.
We were ill prepared for this journey. The travel was hard, made harder by the fact the local people seemed disinclined to help my boyfriend. Memory says that I did all the talking — if I made the deal, the prices were better, the drivers were nicer, the hotel desk clerks more willing to attend to a broken swamp cooler. In retrospect it makes sense, we were in India and he was English, but it could also be that he was not very nice.
This had an upside. One of my most dreamlike memories of this trip is wandering into a Himalayan village to ask a local Ladakhi family if I could use their kitchen fire. They invited me into their dark smoky house and gave me a glass of tea. I was there long enough for my dinner to cook. We did not speak, we just looked at each other with open faces.
Our adventure was staggering — we traveled by train from Karachi to central Pakistan, by pickup truck to Islamabad. We took a train from Islamabad to Srinigar and then, traveled first by bus and then, hitch hiking with truck drivers, up into the foothills of the Himalayas, into Ladakh. From Leh we walked to Manali, over swinging rope bridges, through rushing glacier streams cold as ice, along ribbons of catwalk trails where with each step gravel went sliding in to valleys miles below. We had the wrong gear, it was too heavy, and I got altitude sickness and had to ride one of the trekking guides’ ponies for a day because I ached too much to move. We descended into Manali, where we ate and ate and ate and everyone we encountered said, “You’ve come over the pass from Leh, haven’t you?” Finally, we went down to Delhi and I flew back to California via England and did not look back.
Part of me wonders what it would be like to do that trip again. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said you cannot stand in the same river twice. I wouldn’t mind the river, but I don’t want to be that same person again. Now, you can take the route I traveled by road in one quarter the time. While I would trade my angry right knee and slowing metabolism for the kind of energy it takes to drag a duffel bag over a Himalayan pass, I’ll stick with my current world view and being the kind of person who is more selective about her travel companions.
I take it all back; I would not interfere with my former self. Were I to interrupt my own timeline, I’d only do so to say, “Don’t worry. You’re going to come to your senses. This seems stupid right now, but you know better. Cross the mountains and go home. This is nowhere near your last adventure. You cannot imagine the adventures you’re going to have.” I would not give back the memories I have of that wide eyed family in their smoke blackened home. Of the barefoot river crossings. Brushing my teeth with the gritty water of glaciers. The monks in their saffron robes in remote monasteries, handing us little cups of yak butter tea as we crossed the thresholds to rooms painted with hundreds of tiny manifestations of the Buddha.
I am less serious now but still driven by adventure. I’m better prepared; my gear is at appropriate and my companions superior in uncountable ways. I won’t suffer fools or bullies anymore, but I like to think that I am still the kind of person who would knock on a door in a faraway place where I do not speak a word of the language and know barely enough of the culture to get by. On that trip I learned that it is possible to share a fire in silence and to find a way to say thank you. I am not the same person that I was at 19, but I liked being reminded that even then, a traveling fool in the truest meaning of that phrase, I fearlessly believed in the kindness of strangers.
That, I hope, has not and will never change.
Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. An unlikely adventurer, she’s been to all seven continents. She’s been writing about travel on the web since the late 90s. You’ll find her stories on the web, between the pages of a handful of magazines, and maybe in your seat-back pocket. She blogs about her adventures at www.nerdseyeview.com.
“The Same River, Twice” won a Silver Award in the Adventure Travel category of the Eighth Annual Solas Awards.
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