“You’re interested in Buddhist history?”
“But you missed Kalachakra this year…”
“We had to work—“
“You should go to ladakh. And you should visit Alchi.”
She fished a pen out of her bag, grabbed a receipt and wrote the name on the back. She was a former member of Tibetan parliament. Any advice from her about Buddhist history I took seriously. I made a mental note not to lose the receipt.
“A L C H I or sometimes people spell it A L C H E E. Just ask around when you get to Leh, they’ll know where it is. The whole town smells of apricots, and the fruit seem to fall from the sky. It used to be forbidden for people to take apricots away from the courtyard of the monastery, but now with all the tourists, who knows. Just make sure you eat one. Eat one apricot from Alchi, and go to the monastery and learn about history.”
When we arrived in Alchi, it looked exactly as I expected. Perched on the banks of the Indus river, surrounded by huge stone mountains, lit by the sun of the high desert. The air did smell like apricots, and the fruit seemed to fall from the sky as we walked through the town. The walls that lined the streets were stone and mud, and there were people carrying huge piles of grass and wheat, strapped together with twine and slung over their backs. They smiled and greeted us with “Juley!” the Ladaki greeting for “Hello.” Monks quietly picked buckets full of apricots, pulling out the stones and leaving the fruit in the sun to dry. The red of their robes and the orange of the fruit stood out brightly in the unfiltered sunlight, givng them an other worldly aura.
Andrew and I made a random turn off the main road and ended up in someone’s apricot field. Being the more easily frightened of the two of us, I urged him to turn back with me. But he reminded me that we weren’t in America, and pressed on. Sure enough, we heard a loud shout from the field. I braced myself to run, but it was followed by laughter.
“My friends! Come! Come here!!”
A group of farm workers, resting under the trees and sipping chai called out to us.
“Come join us!”
Andrew and I looked at one another, shrugged and walked over.
They cleared a small patch of earth for us, and handed us tiny cups of tea.
“My friends, where are you from?” asked the leader of the group.
“We are from the United States…”
“Ah America! Very nice very nice. And what brings you to Alchi?”
“A…. friend recommended that we learn about history here.”
“Very nice very nice. And my friends, have you tasted an apricot from Alchi?”
“No… not yet.”
No sooner had the words left my mouth, had the man jumped up, shimmied up a ladder, and returned with three, bright orange apricots. He held them out in his hand and smiled proudly.
“Eat! Eat! Apricots from Alchi are the best in the world.”
Andrew and I exchanged nervous glances, and then bit into our apricots. It really was the best apricot I’ve ever had.
“Look my friends! Watch!”
The man picked up the apricot stone, placed it flat on a rock, and smashed it with another rock. It splintered, and revealed a kernel, about the size and color of a blanched almond. He handed it to me, and did the same to the two remaining stones.
“Then you eat it!” He exclaimed, and popped the kernel into his mouth.
“What?! No you can’t!” I said. “isn’t it bad for you?”
“Nope.” He said, chomping. “Try it!”
I looked at the kernel skeptically. Then ate it.
They all smiled. I wondered if I would regret it later. (I didn’t.)
An older ladakhi woman approached and spoke to the group leader.
“Ah chai break is over. Time to get back to work. Goodbye my friends!” said the man.
We walked back over to the temples, stone walls and tiny wooden doorways. Manjushree standing 10 feet tall and in 4 different colors, his sword poised to cut through delusion. The walls inside the temples bent under the weight of still supporting a building once the ancient earth has shifted. They bowed inward like crooked spines, with meticulously hand-painted buddhas staring out at us, golden halos shining, and eyes wide with awakening.
We walked the kora, spinning prayer wheels and ducking under layers of loong-tas, flapping tirelessly in the apricot-flavored wind. The ancient Indus rushed by gently, carving its way between stone mountains. I thought about the Tibetan woman who sent us here with gratitude. I thought about our strange friends in the apricot field.
Suddenly– PLOP– an apricot fell from the sky and landed directly my purse.
I pulled it out and examined it for a minute. It seemed a little less ripe than the one gifted by the man in the field, but there it was, in my palm, all the same. I bit into it, and the sun, the wind, the rushing water and the stone mountains came alive. Nothing lasts forever, not the color of the prayer flags, not the river flowing by. The blisters on my feet and the sun on my face, all moving and changing.
“Watch this moment,” they all seemed to say.
This moment. This. This.