I stand in a shower of full moon beams, listening to the prayers vibrating from the nearby loudspeaker of the temple. The shadows of the trees in the garden dance on the ground.
We notice a lot of things when walking the world.
As similar as we all are, we do things differently, either because of customs, cultures or habits.
Here are a few of the curious things we discovered in Bangladesh, in random order. (Lluís does a much better job remembering and noting all these little things. Check out his post in Catalan, published the same day as this one; you can use Google translate to get the gist.)
These Tajik and Russian words will long echo in our ears and our hearts. They are more than an invitation for tea. They are a way into people’s homes and lives. They are reflections of a kind of hospitality people in today’s busy world don’t seem to have time for any more. These words have come to mean “Tajikistan” to us.
We trudge forward. Hours drag on.
Each step brings us to another curve leading to a long stretch of alpine nothingness. It’s just us alone in the world, heads down and walking different paces alongside the Panj River that sometimes meanders a few meters below or rages through narrow gorges.
There’s comfort in solitude. There’s unity between the human spirit and the natural world. There’s also a simultaneous sense of bigness and smallness, being a speck in the shadow of mountainous greatness while having a heart large enough to notice the smallest rock sparkling in the sunshine.
It’s easy to get lost in these long stretches in between Pamir towns. The monotony invites a meditative calm, a peace that comes with moving at about three kilometers an hour. It often, too, stirs restlessness and a string of unconnected thoughts anxious for answers or impatience from feeling like we are going nowhere fast.
We round a bend on the bumpy road, and I am immediately spellbound. I want to ask the driver to stop the car so I can fall to my knees and bow in honor the beauty before me. My jaw keeps slipping towards my chest with each rock we roll over. My eyes tear up.
“My god. It’s beautiful.” I whisper over the lump in my throat. I can’t make my mouth spit out the words, “Stop, please, stop. We must see this greatness at a standstill.”
I have never before truly understood what compels climbers to summit the world’s biggest mountains, but now I catch a glimmer into their psyche. Staring at the Hindu Kush from the road snaking through Tajikistan’s southern corner, all I want to do is touch these faraway jagged, snowy peaks. Touching them with my eyes is not enough. I want to touch them with my soul.
Since our walking pause was slightly longer-than-expected, we took the opportunity to rest up and slow down.
I roll over on the bamboo poles serving as tonight’s mattress. Tired, aching muscles clench both sides of my shoulder blades, and my hips don’t quite fit in the small spaces between the tied poles. I can only wish for more sleep, but it’s a wasted wish. It’s 3:50 a.m., a few minutes before our alarms go off.
I take a rushed and restless breath, and on the exhale, a single thought floods my brain and body. Thinking about it will consume many hours of many days, and eventually it will become one of my personal carry-on-warrior mantras: What would love do?
We crest a hill, round a bend and instantly become famous.
The family of about 20, huddled around a fire in front of their house, wave to us and greet us with big hellos. We smile and wave back. They start pulling out their smartphones. We start pulling out our smartphones. We are, hands down, the strangest thing that passed in front of them today on this back country road. We find them strange, too…strange in the way that makes every single one of us fascinating.
The man with the big smile and kind eyes passes us his phone. He wants us to speak to his son.
“Hello again,” we say. We spoke to the young man a few minutes ago on speaker phone. His father called him when he saw we were having problems reading the menu of the restaurant we found ourselves in at the end of a 26-kilometer stretch. Thai letters are beautifully curvy, but we have no clue what they say. Both father and son wanted to make sure the cook understood that we requested our favorite, easy-on-the-stomach walking dish: fried rice with chicken and a fried egg.
“Hi. My father will take you to a homestay where you can sleep tonight, and tomorrow he will take you back to the intersection where you are now so you can continue walking. Ok?” The young man on the phone is in Bangkok, a few hundred kilometers from our finish line today, Ban Lan Sang, a speck of a town near Road 12 which will take us into the Thai hills and eventually into Myanmar. His English is very good, and our Thai is pathetically bad.
We all want the same things in life, regardless of where we come from or where we’re going. We want comfort, security, good health and a better life than our parents had.
There are other universal things we collectively seek out. For example, we want to belong. We want to fit into a family or a community, or said more simply, we have a human sense of belonging to each other that we spend our lifetimes trying to satisfy. The flip side of that is more complex. In the same way we individually crave to fit in and belong, we also have this tendency to want to help others belong to whatever circles we move in. Despite what the headline news tells us about fearing “those people,” whoever “those outsiders” are in any given moment in history, there’s a part of us that cannot resist the urge to extend a kind hand and open heart to another person.
Thailand has given us a chance to reflect on this dynamic.