It is funny where you find yourself sometimes… after I opened my eyes and let them adjust to bright, early-afternoon sunlight, I saw, sitting in front of me, a young boy wearing a brown tunic, staring at me with a big curious grin… as I regain my senses, all I could do was laugh and smile back. Standing up, I brushed the little bits of grass off my jeans and looked out to survey the brilliant and immense field of alpine clover we had been napping in. My good friend, whom I’ve been traveling with, glances up lazily from his post to my left, as he was resting up against a gnarled pine tree – feet kicked out in front of him – arms up on his head. Through his glance alone he transmits a loud and clear message of, “I’m so glad we don’t have to be anywhere today…”Chuckling and agreeing silently, I turn back to the young boy looking up at me, telling me with his eyes that he wants to play tag or something equally as exciting… The young boy’s older brother sat a little farther away, leaning up against a rock while carving a stick with his fingernail.
It seemed like the boys lived nearby and were out venturing in the grassy knolls and stands of pine on the valley floor. They had followed us around for most of the morning, and we enjoyed their company as we sat next to a creek watching the puffy clouds roll through the deep Kashmiri sky… It’s amazing how fun it is to spend a day with a person you share no verbal language with. One must laugh a lot to get things across… but after a few interactions, as always, things smoothed out and we relaxed into the non-verbal games.
We had met the boys earlier that day as my friend and I walked up a trail that started in a small village in eastern Kashmir. Seeking exercise, fresh air and some reprieve after working and traveling in North India for the past six weeks, the cool air, sunshine, and increasingly promising views tempted us farther up the valley. As we continued to move away from the small timber-framed homes of the village and up into the alpine fields, we came upon the two boys on the trail. They wore woolen tunics, with large patches on them and brown leather shoes. Overall the young boys had the look of gypsy’s that I’ve seen old faded pictures of. Although they didn’t know English, and we only knew a few words in Kashmiri, it was clear the young boys were more curious about us than anything else. We came to enjoy their company as well strolled up the narrow and winding trail that cut through the contoured and mountainous valley. The boys bounded along on either side, laughing and pointing at the cameras we wore.
coming to after napping in this meadow… when I opened my eyes, the little brother still stood before me, wanting to play… I looked back at him as I tried to think for a second… I blurted out “handstands?” The boy quickly cocked his head, and focused in on my deeper meaning… Without saying anything else, I walked to a flatter section of clover and waved for him to follow me. I found a nice spot, planted my hands, looked down, and kicked my feet up over my head. I tried to balance for a second, then mustering as much grace as I could, landed back on my feet and stood up straight again.
I looked over at the boy, and see he already had his hands on the ground, and was kicking his feet up into the air. “Nice!” I thought to myself, knowing I had effectively transcended the language barrier, and conveyed my new game to the boy… At this point, my friend got up from his seat at the base of the pine tree, and walked over with a playful grin. He loved handstands too… After a few rounds all together. Kicking our feet up into the air, we let the stars fade away and blood return to our heads. Laughing, everyone looked at each other for ideas on what to do next . The two boys said something quickly to each other in Kashmiri and began walking up the side of a knoll. As they got to the top, they looked back and nodded their heads to the side – as if saying, “will you follow us?”
We followed them and crossed a few more grassy knolls and ravines. After continuing up and around a few softly stair-stepped hills, a round tent came into view. It was a circular dwelling, half-cut into the hill; a semi-permanent structure, built for the spring and summer months of the Himalayan coniferous forests. From a cut-out section of the tent, gray wisps of smoke drifted up through the pine trees. As we neared it, the boys shouted excitedly and a woman with long black braided hair, stuck her head out of the tent, smiled and waved us inside. We slid off our shoes and sandals on the grassy threshold, before making our way through the low entrance of the dwelling. We moved farther inside, smoke drifting by, and made our way onto straw mats and sat down cross-legged in a circle. As my eyes adjusted to the hazy light, I saw the two boys, their mother by the fire, and what appeared to be their grandmother, sitting, holding a small child in her arms. Next to her were two other young children, a boy and a girl.
As I made eye contact with the two women and smiled to send them my greetings, my friend reached into his daypack and procured a pomegranate and a small bar of dark chocolate. He motioned towards the women with open hands holding the gifts. The mother looked into his hands, eyes lit, and acknowledged the offering. She placed a pot of water onto an iron stand in the fire, and extended toward us, a thin metal plate with a knife resting on it. After cutting the pomegranate into quarters and breaking up the chocolate, my friend placed the gifts at the knees of the two women. They both quickly glanced at each other, and the children curiously looked from behind. The women then distributed the treats to all of us and we enjoyed the quiet company and darting smiles as we ate. After a few minutes, the hot water was ready, and the mother served chai to us in small ceramic cups along with some warmed flat-bread. As we ate and drank the sweet tea, we continued to relax and enjoy the company of the two young boys and their family.
As more time passed we felt it is best to begin moving again. We started to get up, and as soon as we did, everyone understood, that my friend and I must continue on our hike. We bowed and expressed our gratitude to the mother and grandmother for sharing their food, home and company. In turn, the mother held her palms up to the sky, smiled and glanced upwards as if saying, “no really, don’t thank us…”
All smiling, we departed through the low door and into the bright early-afternoon sunshine. As we dawned our small packs and readied to embark, not only did it seem the two young boys wanted to follow, but the young sister and another brother as well. Laughing, my friend and I waved again to the two women. They waved back to us, and with their eyes told the children, “don’t go too far…” As more time passed we felt it is best to begin moving again. We started to get up, and as soon as we did, everyone understood, that my friend and I must continue on our hike. We bowed and expressed our gratitude to the mother and grandmother.
The two older brothers lead us onward as we continued to explore the valley around their home for the remainder of the afternoon. I showed the two boys how to use my camera and we all took turns photographing each other as we played in the meadow. We slowly made our way through the clover fields and around to where the enormous granite peaks converged on either side, closing off the valley and dominating the landscape. The peaks stood tall around us, as if they were pushing the swollen clouds higher, and kept us safe in the speckled sunlight below. At the base of the great peaks, we meandered in a loop, and back down the other side of the valley as the afternoon light began to wane. During our descent of the valley, we approached the trail that led back to the children’s dwelling; we all stopped and felt that slight pull of apprehension, knowing we were all about to part ways…
Not knowing what else to do, I pulled a small tin from my pack, opened it and pulled three guitar picks out… I gave an emerald green pick of abalone to the sister, and translucent red ones to each of the boys. They all looked down, and then looked into each other’s hands comparing their gifts. As the children looked up, I knew that if my friend and I ever returned to this valley, it would be as friends. The summer sun began to set and my companion and I continued walking through the now glowing valley, down to the timber framed homes in the small village below. My friend and I talked, laughed and enjoyed the shared elation of how fun our day had been, and the making of our new young friends.
As I sit here and look upon the photographs from that day, now that I’m back to my home in the U.S., I’m awestruck at how much can be gleaned from a bit of spontaneity, openness, and playfulness. The last photograph (above), captures that sentiment well… I find this image most interesting because I suspect I didn’t take this photograph… The rock balance is real (placed by my eccentric visual artist friend), and the oldest brother holding the branch, back-dropped by the Kashmiri peaks… But, what makes me laugh is that the older brother is sticking out his tongue in the image… Even though we were playing around, I’m not sure he would have been audacious enough to stick his tongue out at me while I took a photo… This makes me think it was not I, but the younger brother that took this photo, on one of the instances he was playing with my camera…
I feel blessed to have shared such a common experience with these young people who live such different lives, so far away from my own. It is also a reminder why we should not let language limit the content of our hearts.
With so little to be said, I understand how much can be shared in the simplest of things…
Let us enjoy the small and often unspoken things we find in life,