I am woken up by a heat so sticky it feels like a long hot lick from a giant St. Bernard. Hot air creeps in through the windows and trickles of sweat trace the ridge of my spine. In an attempt to relieve the kink in my neck, I turn slightly sideways, but the foot of my co passenger protrudes into my side, forcing me to return to my less than comfy position. This is Delhi to Tashi Jong: hour fourteen. Outside the car windows, the streets teem with movement. Humans and vehicles seem to travel in every direction at once, cars and bikes swerve to avoid pedestrians and various and sundry livestock that aimlessly ambles by. My ears buzz from the motorcycles and my head pounds from exhaustion. Through the smears of palm prints on the windows of my rusted taxi, I see a family of five traveling inches from me on a single moped, baby on the handlebars. I close my eyes and take in a deep hot breath; it’s redolent with curry and other spices. It’s a dream, it’s a nightmare, it’s overwhelming, it’s beautiful. I start to doze and after what seems to be an hour-long blink of my eyes I am confronted by the Himalayan Mountains crowding the horizon. They grow bigger as we travel, and soon are monstrous.
My eyelids have been glued shut, and still aren’t fully open when I stumble from the vehicle, having arrived at our destination. The spots floating in front of my eyes soon morph into the faces of a host of Tibetan mothers and their families who have come to greet us. My name is called off a long list of students to be paired with families we will stay with for the remainder of the week. A tap on my shoulder brings me around to face a petite woman, “I your Ahmala”, I believe she says. She grins widely in a toothless but captivating smile. Her eyes sparkle. Although she doesn’t know me I can only describe her expression as loving. She motions again “Ahmala”. I soon learn “Ahmala” in Tibetan means mother. I have a new mother.
My Ahmala picks up my suitcase, approximately the same size as her small body, and cheerily walks me through the town. We approach a small one-room villa, mounted on heavy cement footings. “Your home” she manages in reasonable English, well actually it sounds more like “you ome”. She places a small silver key into the palm of my hand. It feels cold in my grip. My feet shuffle to the door and I place the key in the hole. My Ahmala motions for me to turn the key. The dimples on her cheeks turn up and her almond eyes grow wide with excitement. Inside the room is an auburn color carpeted bench with a meager white pillow; a one eyed teddy bear winks at me from the foot of the bed. Ahmala scoops up the scruffy bear—“My son’s” she explains in an excited squeal. Her coarse hands run through my tangled hair, her fingers are cool and calming against my rough scalp. She waves goodbye and lets herself out. Her hospitality is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. What little she and her family have, she is ready to share with me.
Her generosity continues at dinner. After leaving my room and walking out and down the long spiral staircase, I enter the simple rustic kitchen. Ahmala greets me with a hug. On the table a large container breathes out steam. We feast on rice, momos (Tibetan dumplings), vegetables and soup. This Tibetan woman, high in the Himalayas, is behaving like my Jewish grandmother in Connecticut, exhorting me to eat the delicious food she has prepared. Everything I eat is immediately replaced on my plate by something else. By the end of dinner, my stomach more than full, I am ready for sleep.
At six in the morning I am awoken by a soft pat on my cheek. It is Ahmala, taking me to pray on the mountaintop. The sky is pale pink paint streaked with orange. Cobblestones crunch under my aching feet. The monastery sits on top of the hill and as we ascend we pass a series of prayer wheels. Ahmala demonstrates how, as you walk up, you spin them; always towards the left or you will bring bad luck. This belief system is strange to me but is both exciting and calming at the same time. I could say the same thing about the people here. India is strange to me but the people are not strangers. I like to think that what links a familiar place to one that is new and distant is the human connection; there is always an “Ahmala” to help make this bond.
Schuyler Fox, Age 17, Grade 12, The Fieldston School High School, Gold Key