Sunday, 9th December 2018

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

The Girl by the Side of the Road

Posted on 07. Apr, 2010 by in Articles, Personal essays

The Girl by the Side of the Road

Thirty years on, searching for the girl whose eyes said “I’m going to surprise you.”

LADAKH, India

In 1979 I took a black and white photo of a young girl in Ladakh.  She was perhaps ten. She wore a rough robe of homespun wool, she carried a slate on which she used a stick dipped in muddy water to write her alphabets, she carried a simple brown canvas army-style book bag slung over her shoulder.

I have no idea what she was thinking, but to me her gaze says, quietly, “Watch me. I’m going to surprise you.”

I sought her out in April 2005.

There was a slight problem though.  I didn’t remember where I had taken the photo. 

One of the benefits of being a somewhat organized pack rat is that I keep my old journals.  I found my notes from the trip 26 years earlier.  At a town I had identified as Bongzo, I had written about a little girl, whose “hands were rough with ingrained dirt, the texture of sandpaper.”  We had arithmetic as a common language, and I wrote “2 + 2” and watched her stroke the numeral “4”.  I gave her a ball point pen. “The girl’s eyes lit for a moment with immediate recognition,” I had written. “After realizing the pen was for her she grabbed it and in one motion hid it inside her homespun robe.”

In 2005 I was in the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh for a weekend, to write an article about the golf course in Leh, which, at 3,445 meters, is the world’s highest.  I had a free day, and understanding my esoteric interests, my guide, Tashi Chotak Lonchey had taken me to the monastery which I had visited 26 years earlier (yes, one of the monks was still alive and he recognized himself in a photo).  After a cup of butter tea we decided to drive several hours to visit a sacred forest, an ancient juniper tree grove in Hemis Shukpachan.  After driving for about an hour we passed a small village and I saw a sign that said “Basgo”. 

“Maybe this is the place where you took the picture,” Tashi suggested. Bongzo? Basgo? Close enough to be worth a stop.

None of it looked familiar.  My only thought was that in 1979 my friend David and I must have stopped here for a tea break during a bus ride to Ridzong Monastery further along the same road.

Tashi and I stopped at a large house near the road and showed a blowup of the young girl’s photo to an old woman.  “It could be Tsewang,” she said after some thought.  “Her husband Tashi Angchok is just up the street.”

We found Tashi Angchok working at the family restaurant.  He offered us tea as he studied the photo.  “The smile looks similar to my wife’s,” he said.  But the problem was that his wife, Tsewang Dolma, , the reputed girl in the photo, wasn’t around the day we stopped by since she  teaches at Tridho, a one-class school some three hours away, near the Chinese border.

He took the picture to his mother-in-law, and came back with a handful of old photos showing his wife as a young girl.  The mother said that my photo seemed to be that of her daughter, but she wasn’t too sure. 

We still had a long program ahead of us that day, so we left the photo with Tashi Angchok, told him we would be back at the end of the afternoon, went to explore the sacred forest in Hemis.

It was almost sundown when we got back to Basgo.

“It’s her,” Tashi said confidently.

We asked how he knew.

“I showed the picture to Tsewang’s sister but didn’t say ‘is this Tsewang?’  I simply asked ‘do you know this girl?’” he said, quite proud of his reporting skills.  “She said ‘yes, that’s my little sister.’”

So, just like that I had found a family who has invited me to dinner next time I’m in Ladakh.  Then I’ll get a chance to actually have a conversation with this girl, now a grown woman, whose photo and spirit has graced my home for a quarter of a century.