Sam loved India. He loved the sun, the vivid colours, the unremitting friendliness of the locals, the vibrant madness of the place and of course the abundance of vegetarian food. I feel very lucky to have been travelling with such a positive and uplifting person. He approached each new destination with an open heart and an open mind and was rewarded every time. Several people we met described Sam as ‘Indian’ in his outlook. He seemed to share a connection with these exultant people; he shared their love of life. With him as a guide I soon learnt to embrace their simple motto: love and you will be loved in return.
After two months in south India, having all developed fantastic golden tans whilst playing endless games of beach cricket on the Andaman Islands, I think we were all ready to go in search of cooler climes. We travelled by jeep, ascending slowly through the seas of perfumed tea plantations until we arrived in Darjeeling. From there we continued north to the state of Sikkim: nestled between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan it was a land full of mountains, mist and monasteries.
The Trekking we did there was physically very tough, but we knew what we were in for. The guy who sold it to us said the route was for experienced trekkers only, due to the high altitude. Sam explained that although we were all chronically unfit and had little trekking experience we were up for the challenge, provided that is if we could stop every mile or so for a gin and tonic to stave off the malaria. The guide pointed out that there were no mosquitoes in the Himalayas. He also said he did not recommend drinking alcohol or smoking for the duration of the trek, a most daunting prospect indeed. Nevertheless we decided to bat on: our upper lips were stiff and we were hungry for adventure.
We set off from the mountain village of Yuksom armed with nicotine patches, copious amounts of chocolate and a small medicinal bottle of rum. Our group consisted of a guide, a cook, a chap who herded yaks, a kitchen boy (who earned his title by carrying the contents of a kitchen on his head) and three yaks (who carried all the other gear). With their assistance we climbed to a height of 5000m over the course of nine days. The views were incredible, the most memorable was when we sat at dawn watching the sun creep over the snowy peaks, I remember hearing Sam say he had never felt so alive. He captured my impression of the Himalayas in a word when he described them as ‘terrifying’. They invoked feelings of primal fear in all of us and reminded us of nature’s cold dominance over man.
Arriving back in Yuksom, although physically drained we were elated. We felt full of vitality; at 2000m the air seemed thicker, more nourishing and I have never had a beer that tasted so good as the one we shared in a ramshackle bar on our arrival. That evening our friend, Red Panda, who organised the trek, invited us for supper in his house. When we got there we ate a feast of hearty vegetable dishes, all cooked in front of us by Red Panda and his wife and washed down with ‘tomba’ the local hooch which we drank out of bamboo flasks. After the meal Sam sat for over an hour with Red Panda’s three young boys teaching them English by pointing at pictures of trees, rivers and tigers in a picture book.
This was one of the many meals where we were guests at another family’s table. I was so often taken aback by the by these peoples kindness. Most Indians don’t leave their families until they have one of their own and they seemed to think we must be lonely, so far from home, and wanted to comfort us in any way they could. ‘There’s nothing more frightening than someone who wants nothing from you,’ Sam used to say. He was right, and at first we felt awkward not knowing what to give them in return for their hospitality. But he, in time, changed his mind saying he had learnt that these people did not want anything from us but the opportunity to show kindness to fellow human beings and he maintained that this realisation was one of the most valuable and heart-warming lessons of the trip.