Padma was our host in Jingchan for a night. Jingchan lies on way to Rumbak and is accessible by road from Phey. We had to take this unscheduled halt at Jingchen since our guide expected unavailability of rooms at Rumbak due to over flux of tourists. Jinchan has just two houses high up on the other side of the gorge through which a stream went running with a never ending crackle. With no more than little difficulty we went down and then climbed up on the other side to reach the house, which was made available to tourists like us through the Himalayan home stay scheme.
It was an adobe styled house with considerable portion built with stone bricks and had rich carvings on the vigas. Padma waited at the porch and greeted us with a welcoming smile. The porch smelled of ungulate poop and ripe apricots. It was mid August but the walls were still damp and cold. She showed us our room on the left of the corridor and while we rested she brought us some hot tea. My wife and friend tried communicating with Padma but without much success, since she had difficulties comprehending Hindi. By then the sun had already had a fair advance in the western sky and it was getting cold. We went down to the stream for a stroll.
When we returned it was already dark and we were informed to gather at the Kitchen for dinner. At about 7:30 p.m. we went to the kitchen. It was a large room with an earthen oven on one side and terraced seats and low tables on the adjacent and opposite sides. Behind the oven were racks, staked with brass utensils. There were three other Dutch ladies with who we exchanged smiles and took to our seats. Padma was busy preparing the meal and occasionally adjusted the raging flame. A kid of around 3-4 years seated beside her, completely oblivious to our presence, playing with a cat. A kitchen, which is the center of a Ladaki household, also brought us – the strangers – together.
Unable to converse with Padma, we turned to our guide and asked about her. The guide told us that, she along with her mother-in-law and the 4 year old son, were the only members of the house. We realized that there was no water supply, no electricity, no shops, no schools or medical access within 4 hours of walking distance. Whenever the family has to get some supplies, it would have to send its donkeys or horses along with a man who usually goes to Leh on such errands. In winter, when the temperature falls sub-zero, the small family battles even harder for survival with one of the harshest environment of the planet. Padma served us dinner with a pleasing smile. It was a Ladaki dish known as ‘Temok’- layers of steamed flour in a form of a ball – eaten with steaming pulses.
Dinner was over in a little while and we wished goodnight to our host and fellow travelers. We returned to our room and switched off the lights. I kept looking into the dark outside the window. The innocent boy, his playmate, Padma’s pleasing smile, the harshness of the place all seemed to pop up and vanish in my mind in succession of rapid fire. Ever since dinner we had not spoken among ourselves and I knew what the others were thinking. All of a sudden all our problems and complaints of a fast paced life in Mumbai seemed to fade into irrelevance in front of her challenges and her contentment with life.
The next morning, before we started our trek to Rumbak, we went to see Padma and her son. The morning sun had brought much warmth in the kitchen and Padma served us tea. We had our tea and I offered a biscuit to the boy. As we parted, we exchanged smiles without any words and continued our trek towards Rumbak.
About the Author: Arindam Paul: I’d like to describe myself as an offbeat traveler, writer and photographer, based out of Mumbai. I have varied interests including world history, architecture and travelling is the best way to explore these. I work in an Information Technology company and give rest of my time to writing and photography.
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