The supermoon was due to arrive on the night of April 7, 2019.
Early that evening, Anya and I were sitting in plastic chairs with the astronomical binoculars between us, waiting for the moon to rise.
Above the hills on the distant horizon were clouds and I wondered how much we would see.
On the lawn in front of us was the dome tent we had erected a few days before. The idea was to practice setting it up so that when the lock down was over, we could travel to far deserts and camp out – and at nights, do a bit of stargazing. But once the tent was up, Anya had insisted on leaving it there to remind us of past adventures and the promise of future ones.
Then the supermoon appeared…….
It was so bright it burnt through the clouds, almost like the sun might do during the day.
Then finally it lifted above the clouds, a large burning white sphere.
It flooded the backyard with an eerie light.
The dome tent was at once perfectly distinguishable and yet also strangely otherworldly.
Anya said it looked like a spaceship.
Spaceship for two.
Drifting through space and time.
We took turns looking at the moon.
The craters which covered its surface seemed so close.
These craters were formed over the course of millions of years by the bombardment of asteroids and comets. The earth had also been subjected to a similar process but having an atmosphere rich in oxygen, most of the wild visitors from space had been burnt up. The ones that landed in the earth’s oceans had probably sowed the first molecules of DNA.
The moon – devoid of an atmosphere and water – bore the scars of its bombardment, whilst on earth we had inherited a chain reaction called life.
The moon, so close to the earth, was its soul mate.
One, a scarred ball of rock. The other rich in water and life.
Later that night, after Anya had gone to bed, I grabbed my MP3 player and ate a small part of marijuana biscuit and went back outside and listened to Mozart’s String Quartets, whilst gazing at the moon.
In the early hours of the morning, I sidled into bed next to Anya and with the music of Mozart replaying in my mind, drifted off into space.
Inside our capsule of two.
After a few hours of deep sleep and strange dreams, I woke up and found myself looking at a scene from over 20 years ago.
The spaceship had landed on a foreign planet.
I stepped out.
We were trekking in a high altitude valley in one of the Tibetan Buddhist regions of the Himalaya. The valley was brutally inhospitable. It was like a high altitude tunnel. Rocks and boulders were jammed between towering cliffs and snow bound peaks. Water tumbled over the rocks in angry streams, sometimes forming deep pools, other times disappearing under the rocks.
The echoes of water, restless, reverberated in the silence.
After a long day of carrying heavy rucksacks and with darkness descending, we were desperate to find somewhere to stop for the night. As small as our tent was, we couldn’t find anywhere flat enough to set it up.
Then we saw them almost as soon as we were upon them.
Chortens, standing there like mysterious sentinels. Evidence of human beings.
The chorten was symbolic of a meditating Buddha. Unlike the grandiose chortens often seen in the large monasteries – concrete and painted white – these were typical village chortens constructed from mud and stones. There were two rows of them, maybe five or six in each row. They were about two metres high; they had a square base, a section on top which was roughly cylinder-like and on top of that, a crown, consisting of smaller section of mud and stone. They had been white washed, but the crowns were daubed with red-brown clay.
Usually chortens were seen in the village fields.
What were these chortens doing here?
And where was the village?
Dog tired, we looked around us.
And for a while saw nothing but rocks and boulders.
Then scanning the opposite side of the valley, we saw it: a village. A cluster of traditional, flat roofed mud brick houses, like a wasps nest, set directly next to the cliff face. On the steep descending slope beneath the village, like a series of steps, were small fields bordered by low rock walls. Each field, brisling with ripening green yellow barley, was a different shape and size. The network of walls separating the fields looked like brown veins. In some of the fields people were weeding; the men clad in the long red robes normally worn by lamas, and the women in goatskin jackets and long black dresses. On a long scree slope near the fields were grazing yaks and a girl with a herd of goats.
It seemed inconceivable that anyone could survive in such a place (and we were well accustomed to seeing people living in seemingly impossible places). There was no communication with the outside world other than by days of walking over a thin trail through a quarry scape. There was no access to any kind of medical care or government rations of kerosene and food – available to the villagers in the less hostile areas of the Himalaya. The simplest physical complaint could easily result in death. During the winters, 5 months long, temperatures could plummet to -50. These people had to grow enough barley during the spring and summer in order to survive the long arctic winters, when they sat inside their tiny dwellings. They were akin to high altitude Eskimos.
Well could Anya and I remember on our first trek into Zanskar in the spring of 1987 when we came to a village which had been buried under a landslide during the winter.
We were a long way from the meditating Buddha sitting under the Bodhi Tree on the banks of the Ganges in 500 BC. From suggestions of a lush green world and philosophical reflections.
Evening was closing in.
We had no time to waste.
We found a patch of gritty sand near a stream emanating from between boulders. It wasn’t a great spot but by this time we didn’t have much choice. We had just enough time to put on our thermal underwear and have something to eat before crawling into our sleeping bags – before night fell, inky black and cold.
That night we awoke and heard a faint sound of singing coming from somewhere.
The echoes of the water had vanished. The streams had frozen.
We got up to take a look – and then stood there staring in disbelief.
A powerful beam of moonlight – it was a full moon – shone from out of the side ravine with the intensity of a laser beam, illuminating the rows of white-washed chortens and the cliffs and mountain peaks directly behind them.
The rest of the valley was enshrouded in total darkness.
Where was the singing coming from?
Then we saw them: a group of villagers standing next to the chortens. Adults and children, men and women.
The villagers had gone to a lot of work to build those chortens at the intersection between the side ravine and the valley. Time and energy they could ill afford given the exigencies of their tough and relentless lives. It was an astounding idea: those symbolic Buddhas of mud and stone had been constructed in exactly the place where the full moon shone through the side ravine and into the valley.
They were moon worshippers.
In the ethereal brilliance of the moonlight they saw the saw an earthly visualisation of Nirvana.
As I lay there in bed reliving the past, gazing at moonlit chortens in a distant valley with my best friend, with the singing of the full moon worshippers echoing in the night, I didn’t want to go anywhere.
It could wait.