This afternoon, I had one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten… probably one of the best I’ll ever eat. The feeling of bliss and culinary enchantment was immersive from the very first bite; my brain screaming out praise for the kindness and thrill my mouth was delivering to it. The meal was a steaming, metal bow of pot noodles, Maggie noodles, you know… Ramen. Pretty much the same MSG laden slop that I lived off of through freshman year at university: The same neon yellow broth, the same tiny flecks of dried greenery and the same slippery dribble down my chin as I slurped the stuff.
The clanking bowl of soup eaten with an impossibly thin metal spoon was mystical and memorable and went into my Food Pilgrimage mental log book because I ate it in a one-room, dirt-floored, road-side shack at 13,800 feet above sea level, in the dusty, barren, absurdly labelled “spa town” of Chumathang, on the India – China border. I had spent the previous night fitfully tossing and turning on a cardboardish mattress under a hundred-weight of yak hair blankets trying to shake off an escalating feeling of dread, impending doom and general bad-ness. Yesterday was a not-so-much-food-day for my belly, as my processing plant recovered from a dodgy samosa / chai combo meal eaten the day before. The combination of the uneasy full feeling, the biting hunger and six hours on a motorcycle crossing absurdly high and startlingly cold mountain passes under the reflecting glare of heartless frozen lakes and the subsequent crash landing at a sad, grim, border outpost took the puff out of my lungs, and frankly, my spirit.
I was quite taken aback and a little ashamed that my upbringing in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado provided no platform or solace from the altitude nasties that quietly crept into my hollowing skull as I skipped dinner (another dahl, rice and ubiquitous yellow curry affair for those keeping score at home) and tried in vain to warm up and sleep at 15,000 feet.
So this morning saw me swear and mumble as I gazed out the once-was window of my barn / guesthouse over the shifting, windblown ice of the Tsomoriri lake (wasn’t I in 113 degree heat in Dehli just last Monday?). I took stock of my generally hung over symptoms and decided that I simply had to get the hell out of there and back over the mountains. So I packed, I drank watered down mango soda, I ate a packet of Spanish Paprika potato chips ( a wildly popular flavour here in disputed Kashmir India). I poured a jerry can of petrol into the Royal Enfield, Bullet 350, kick-started her up and left without really waving good bye.
The sun smiled a bit more benignly on the frozen shimmer of the lake as I crossed back over the pass. The howling headwind of yesterday was at my back, filling my sails. Yeah, the road went on forever… and ever. And yeah, there were a few moments, where I slipped into mild hypoxia and blissfully wondered what would happen if I let go and fell unconscious while descending a Ladakhi mountain pass on a motorcycle. But then I was at the bottom and the lonely guy who checks your papers smiled massive and oxygen slowly seeped back into my dried-out brain and I stopped at the first remotely reasonable looking road stand that advertised “food” (via hand-scrawled chalk on the side of the mud brick building).
Rice and dahl had run out, and so it was the noodles, expertly shaken from the cello-pack into boiling water and reduced down with just the right amount of metallic MSG dust flavouring that filled my bowl and my belly.
It was and will be the best meal, because I hadn’t really eaten for two days, because it was hot and I was cold, because it was salty and because it was easy to shovel into my mouth. I’ll remember that I rode a motorcycle through the Himalaya to get there and that the sun and clouds came and went and I’ll remember the desperate race against the fading dusk on a sandy track with the moonlight in shards on the frozen lake. It was an amazing meal because of these things and because the guy serving it had few teeth but didn’t stop smiling and wore a yak hair shawl and because we communicated exclusively via gesture and smiling eyes and because he kindly kept encouraging me to eat with that universal shovelling gesture. It was an amazing meal because it epitomized my original conception of a Food Pilgrimage, not because I set out on a quest to find the best pot noodles in the Himalya, but because of the opposite: The best food finds you and has everything to do with when you eat it, where you eat it, who you eat it with and how it feels in the greater landscape of your life at that exact moment.
Ladakh, India 2013