We had not long been in India when we went to Macleod Ganj, a small hill village up from Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, in the Western Himalayas. A special place because it is the exiled home of The Dalai Lama and a huge population of Tibetans who have fled the brutal Chinese invasion of Tibet. I am not a Buddhist, nor a Christian for that matter, and I was sceptical of the idolisation that seemed to go on around this man. But I was curious. We saw him at a Temple Inauguration ceremony, part of a small crowd of tourists at the gate. He certainly had a strong smiling presence. I discovered that Tibetan Buddhist Temples are exquisite works of art: ornate brightly-coloured architecture containing bronze or gold Buddha statues, some two stories high, intricate painted or embroidered silk Thangkas depicting different forms of the Buddha, and other Tibetan sacred art. The colours and shapes are rich, rounded, sensual, and deeply symbolic. I was touched by it all.
On that fateful day I’d gone for a stroll around the Tibetan shops and roadside stalls while Lee walked the Temple periphery trail. Our eight year old daughter, Maya, had chosen to go with her Daddy.
The trip had seemed like a fantastic opportunity for us. Lee had two weeks work at a spiritual conference in Dharamsala, with all his expenses paid. We’d decided to take a holiday there; then Maya and I would come home and he would stay on to work. We wanted to introduce our growing daughter to some non-European non-Christian culture, and spend some time together as a family. We had separated some years before, but were doing pretty well at being friends and co-parenting.
“As long as there’s no expectations,” he said. “No, just friends” I replied.
As I entered the Tibetan cafe where we’d agreed to meet, there was another little blonde girl playing with mine. They were both obviously overjoyed to have found a playmate.
“We met some new friends,” said Lee.
A matching blonde woman greeted me. She was called Yeshie, a Buddhist from Berlin. Her effusive smile didn’t quite reach her eyes.
He invited them to join us for supper and was quick to point out we were no longer a couple. I needed the toilet so I slipped out the back. When I returned they were seated at a table for four, and an extra place was being laid for me on the end. The family configuration had shifted. It was the perfect vantage point to take in the flirtation table-tennis that unfolded, the too-long looks, attentive laughter at unfunny jokes, being enthralled at the ordinary words of the other… It was nauseating. The girls were no better, looking at each other and shrieking with laughter every two minutes. I felt excluded from both.
Later that evening as we returned to our room in the guesthouse, he denied it completely. Told me I was being silly.
“Just friends” he said.
That night Delhi Belly let rip, and I spent the first part of the night figuring out the logistics of a relentless double ender, the second part passed out on the bathroom floor. I was bedridden for days, turned inside out. Meanwhile the cuckoo took over the nest. They met up every day, under the subterfuge of the children wanting to play together, while I slept and ate small mouthfuls of plain rice in our room, feeling very sorry for myself.
When I was less than a week back on my feet, they informed me of a plan that had already been postponed because I’d been sick. We were going to share the cost of a guide with a couple of her other friends and hike up a mountain path to Triund, a stunning vantage point high in the Dhauladhar range; a four hour round trip, we were told. We had planned to do a day hike while researching the trip and were really keen to see the real Himalayas. I had absolutely no idea how hard it would be. I think only part of my mind had come back from the bathroom floor. What was I thinking? I wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t want to be left out.
The path was gentle at first, rising through evergreen oak forest and huge scarlet-flowering rhododendrons. We crossed mountain streams dancing like circus tumblers over boulders and polishing the fine slates to mirrors. The vista increased in scale, periodically opening out to serpentine valleys, then dry plains to the horizon, hazy with dust. Maya held my hand. Lee was courteous; he carried my backpack for me at one point, as I was flagging after less than an hour. Yeshie hung back, walking with her daughter. Others were ahead. But in no time at all his attention shifted to the pretty usurper. She started singing and he joined in, so did the kids. Soon the family foursome was as cheesy as the Brady Bunch.
I pushed on ahead, avoiding the sight and sound of lovebird cooing. At some point Maya started complaining she was tired. Superhero Dad gave her a piggyback. Then Yeshie’s daughter started complaining too so he carried her for a while as well. Yeshie was clearly impressed, making adoring noises about his strength and manliness.
When we stopped for lunch I sat way off on a rocky outcrop, losing myself in the vastness of the view. Maya was as enamoured with her playmate as Lee was with his. Neither of them paid any attention to me. We had been climbing and pausing for 3 hours and there was still a long way to go.
“We more than half way” said the Indian guide through yellowed teeth, his head rocking on his neck as he squatted by the path.
We climbed on, the path getting steeper and steeper, near vertical in places. We stopped frequently to rest and Maya was seriously struggling. She looked pale. At one rest stop she lay down on my coat and went to sleep. But it was not in Lee’s vocabulary to turn back, we had come this far up a Himalaya, we had to go on. I was outnumbered and too wishywashy to argue. I didn’t want to go back down alone.
Lee carried Maya on his back for at least the last hour. At the top, the view was indeed breathtaking. I sat on the cold dry grass against a rock, feeling exhausted, dizzy, numb. I couldn’t take it in; was it a massive film backdrop?
Maya came to me, “Im cold, Mummy” as she slid down onto my lap, shivering, as pale and icy as the snow-covered peaks all around us. I wrapped her in my arms and all the spare layers we had.
Lee was running about excitedly, playing with Yeshie’s daughter, while Yeshie was taking photographs of them. She was seeing something she wanted, trying to capture it with her camera.
Something primordial began to stir deep beneath the civilised surface, a subsonic growl, slowly becoming audible.
I called him over from his puppydog antics. Told him to stop fooling around with some bimbo fifteen years his junior. “Our daughter is sick. We have to get her down off this mountain right now.”
He dismissed me, told me to stop laying my trip on him. I thrust our ragdoll child towards him, and yelled, “Will you take some fucking notice here?”
He didn’t really look at her; he was too busy resisting any curbing of his exalted heart. He just cuddled her to him, tucking her inside his coat, and walked away from me, with a “Fuck off” uttered over his shoulder.
A deep volcanic fury erupted, a dark goddess bursting out from the underworld. Ferocious pain convulsed through my body, impelling movement. I flung my pack onto my back, screaming, “We have to go NOW!”
I took off at speed down the path, Maya’s soft wail barely audible through the droning in my ears. I was crying so much my eyes were underwater, utterly oblivious of the concerned stares of fellow hikers. I was aware of the others following some distance back, Maya still in Lee’s arms. The switchback trail repeatedly brought me within earshot of them. I could hear the blonde enchantress singing ‘love and light’ chants, triggering bloodcurdling howls to emanate from deep in my belly, which echoed through the rocky folds as though they came from prehistory, resounding through eons, eons, eons.
My torment was intensified by the sound of Maya’s little voice calling out “Mummy” but I was so consumed with pain that I could not respond to her. All maternal instinct was superseded by this wild harpy that I was powerless to control.
Lee carried Maya down the mountain for 4 hours straight, stopping for barely 5 minutes at a time. Eventually my anguish subsided and I was able to walk just behind him so Maya could see I was there, even though I was a mess. Better bedraggled mummy than no mummy at all.
The dumb blonde lingered in our vicinity, completely missing her cue to depart from our family space.
Way after dark we got back to our room, and I put Maya to bed. By then she was burning up with fever and I sat by her side with a damp cloth all night and all the next day. While she slept we tried to talk, but just continued to fight, even though Maya kept opening her eyes and begging us to stop. My distress twisted into crisp contempt, with machine-gun outbursts of fury. He yelled back, devastating words of rejection, challenging me on my covert expectations, demanding his freedom, as though I was his jailer. We were stuck in one room in India with our sick child; neither of us could leave. It was nuclear reactor.
On the second day a red pinprick rash appeared on her chest and spread all over her body, and I remembered back in real-life, (rather than this horror movie we were living in) the boy who sat next to her in class had been off school with German Measles. It was a simple childhood fever, not a tropical disease. I cried more tears with relief!
But the lifting of mood about Maya was short-lived. As the intensity subsided, my rage collapsed inwards, exacerbated by sleep deprivation. Despair and self-loathing took hold as I realised what an utter fool I had been, how I had secretly held my heart in hope that the aching chasm between us would close. Suppressed longings to reunite with my soulmate that I never allowed myself to acknowledge, because he was so adamant we were over. For years I had pretended to agree we were just friends.
We passed through the remaining days treading on eggshells, even though I was already broken. Apologies were spoken but not received. I was counting down the days to when Maya and I got on that plane to Delhi, then home to London. Thank God he was not travelling back with us. My mind was endlessly full of negative thoughts: The trip has been a total disaster, a nightmare that should never have happened, I should never have come on a trip like this with him, never, never again…
We arrived at Gaggal Airport, 15km south, in the heat of the lowland afternoon. It was smaller than our local supermarket, with one check-in desk and one security archway, a handful of dark-skinned taxi drivers squatting outside in the shade.
We found out when we checked in, after we’d said goodbye to Lee. I didn’t really believe it at first, the coincidence was just too weird. Or was it synchronicity? It challenged all those thoughts that this trip should never have happened. We boarded the plane. It was small, only ten rows, with two seats each side of the aisle. We sat towards the front and waited. Then he walked across the tarmac, accompanied by another monk, also in scarlet robes. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was getting on our plane.
He sat 3 rows back from us. The whole plane seemed to fill with light. Maya and I knelt up on our seats facing backwards, our palms together in the universal prayer gesture, grinning and nodding over and over. As the plane taxied down the runway, I realised what a truly amazing being this man is. He emanates peace and joy, especially joy; I couldn’t help feeling joyful with him, even though my heart was in bits. The engines surged, thrusting me back into my seat. How could I not be in the right place at the right time? The plane lifted up, up into the dazzling sky, the altitude revealing the full panorama of the Himalayan peaks. Perhaps the few other passengers were regular flyers on this route and used to his presence. But I was utterly in awe.