By Tammy Leland
We sat inside the cook tent at 15,000 feet to get away from the chill that blanketed the Zanskar Mountains. With just enough room for the 9 of us, legs crossed, sitting in a circle, we warmed ourselves from the steam coming from the boiling lentils that Deepen was cooking for dinner. To an outsider, it would appear that Deepen, the handsome Nepali in the tent, was just our camp cook – but we knew this humble man was so much more.
Keeping ourselves occupied, we went around the group each answering the same question, “Describe your first kiss.” Everyone giggled in hysteria as each Crooked Trails traveler recalled that dreaded or glorious moment. When everyone had finished, Deepen strolled over to the group and the inevitable question was raised, “What about you Deepen?”
With a slight turn of the head, and a soft embarrassed smile, Deepen mesmerized us with his story of his days playing professional soccer for the National Indian Team, remembering warm nights near the sea in Goa and the beautiful Belgian who had won his heart. A young man, knees shaking, he froze and like a dream his first kiss arrived to his lips. His description of this brief life’s moment brought vivid images to my mind and a spectacular script for a movie began to unfold. This once-famous soccer player, incredible naturalist and high altitude mountain climber returned to his native home of Nepal to honor his family and entered into an arranged marriage. This beautiful marriage of honor brought him two adorable children and a loving and dedicated wife.
I close my eyes and remember the moments we shared. The endless days on the trail, the hilarious nights around camp, the thoughtful conversations in the village. I want to return to Ladakh this year but I am scared to go. Not only because it will be difficult to do this trip without all of Deepen’s incredible knowledge and experience but also because every moment, I will miss him.
Deepen was not only our guide, cook and camp organizer, he was a dear friend. We stayed in touch with through emails and Facebook, and when I re-read my final email to Deepen I wished I had said more. We talked about future trips and he asked about my son and all the friends he had met over the years from Seattle. He sent me a picture of his last trip to Ladakh, a trip I hadn’t been able to join him on.
I know many of you, too, were touched by Deepen, became his friend and have fond memories of your time with him. For those who wish to donate to his family, Crooked Trails has set up the Deepen Rai Memorial Fund to help care and provide for continued education for his children. I know I personally want to be a part of their lives as they grow. Who knows, maybe one day they will join me and my son on the trail in Ladakh.
We were shocked and saddened when we learned that Deepen Rai, a dear friend and longtime Crooked Trails guide, was killed in a plane crash last month. If you would like to join us in supporting his family in Nepal, you may donate to the Deepen Rai Memorial Fund by clicking here.
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