Happy Valentines, Mama & Papa

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I  am writing today about my father-in-law, Efigenio Raul Mustelier, who died on February 14. I want to acknowledge his life and honor him. Writing about him and his life is perhaps the best way I know now to recognize his humanity, and provide him witness.  Sadly, in writing about his life, I realized there was so much about him I didn’t know. Papa was more than the facts of his life, as we all are, but part of respect is getting the facts right when we can. I asked David, my husband and his son, a lot of questions; there were a few he was not able to answer, or least couldn’t be sure.

Efigenio (pronounced ‘Eh-fee-heh-neo’ and more commonly called “Efi”) was born in 1922 near Manzanillo, Cuba on December 11, 1922. His parents, Miguel and Clara Mustelier, had 8 children (and a 9th, the eldest, a half-sister); Efi was the youngest boy, and elder to one sister. Miguel was a landholder, and involved in agricultural endeavors – sugar and cattle – and was reputed to be a tough father. The family worked hard but was economically comfortable.

From a young age, Efi dreamed of going to college and becoming a doctor. He met the love of his life, Angela Dionysia Ferrandiz (known as Gela, pronounced Heh-lah), a first-generation Spanish-Cuban woman, in Manzanillo the year before he left for college and medical school. Most of the 10-year relationship leading to their marriage was long distance. Efi attended medical school in Havana and in 1950 went to New Jersey for his internship, followed by Chicago for his residency in obstetrics and gynecology.

In 1952, his brother-in-law Manuel (Manolo) Remon Sr., came to visit Efi in Chicago where Efi gave Manolo his power of attorney. Manolo returned to Havana where in the office of an attorney, he completed Gela’s marriage to Efi by proxy. She left that same day to fly to New York. Efi took the train from Chicago and they stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania across the street from the “Penn Central” train station. The picture above is of the two of them on their first night as newlyweds, celebrating with friends and family in Brooklyn.

Efi and Gela returned to Chicago by train.  Around this time, Efi was drafted into the US Army due to the Korean War (he was a Cuban citizen but also a US Resident).  Ten months later, their first son Raul was born in Chicago. Efi loved the United States and was very proud of being in the US Army, and made it his career. Their family grew as they moved from station to station during his 24 year career, and Efi and Gela evolved into Mama and Papa, which is what I knew them as, and what many people called them.

Papa’s first assignment was in Munich, Germany, where Miriam was born. They went next to Camp Leroy Johnson in New Orleans, where both David and then, two-and-a-half years later, Roy was born.  Their first tour – there would be three – at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, the headquarters for the Army Medical Service Corps, came next. They spent time at Fort Irwin (near Death Valley) before going back to Germany (Darmstadt) this time. Then came Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, followed by the second tour in San Antonio. The San Antonio tour included a year in Vietnam, obviously without family, where Papa along with his duties as a hospital commander, became popular for delivering babies for some wives of high ranking South Vietnamese army officers. Fitzsimmons Army Medical Hospital in Aurora, Colorado came next, followed by Fort Ord in Monterey, California (where Roy would meet his future wife Kristen Swanson many years later). The family then returned to San Antonio, where Papa completed his final tour with the Army and retired.

Mama and Papa, growing older, moved from San Antonio to Austin to be closer to Miriam (the “boys” were scattered: Raul lived in Seattle, David lived in San Francisco, and Roy in DC). They built an in-law extension on the house so Miriam could live there and help them.

Papa loved food and wine. One of David’s most formative memories is of his father taking over the kitchen on Sundays to prepare a large family meal. All of the Musteliers have an extraordinary appreciation for flavors, and fresh ingredients, and well prepared foods; they are amazing and creative cooks, and most of them also love wine.

I first met Mama & Papa in Tuscany, Italy in 2003. I had just become engaged to David, and so was included in the family trip to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. In fact, I met the whole family for the first time when David and I walked into the living room of the large refurbished farmhouse we rented. From there, the whole group took day trips to surrounding towns, and enjoyed meals outside under the trellises. We ate and drank wine, and lined the empty bottles against the terrace wall, honoring them as “soldati caduti” (fallen soldiers). Mama and Papa were welcoming and lovely to me in my first entree to the Mustelier family, perhaps in spite of being occasionally overwhelmed by the enthusiams of their adult children and their spouses.

Papa was garrulous and outgoing, and loved to tell his stories. In his later years, he charmed the Costco food sample purveyors, and chatted up anyone within earshot on his outings to the grocery store. Not surprisingly, for being a Cuban of his generation and a Colonel in the Army, Papa could be tough on his kids, especially as they came into their own adulthood and engaged their fierce intelligence. All said, Papa was extremely sentimental: he loved his family, and was very proud of his children.

Mama died in 2011, and Papa missed her terribly these last 6 years. They had been married just short of 59 years.

Papa had just turned 94 when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in late 2016, but he was otherwise extremely healthy and hale. He was expected to recover from the surgery to remove the tumor, but his digestive system never really worked again. A friend of mine said at the time: “Efi is full of surprises, and he has surprised people most of his life.” Still, after some time in the ICU and on a ventilator, and a week of trying to recover from both, Papa died on February 14.

Our thought was that Mama had come to get Papa to celebrate their love on Valentine’s Day. We think their eldest son, Raul, who died in 2008, made the reservations and ordered the wine.

David and I will leave God’s Pocket next Tuesday for a few days to join his siblings, extended family and friends for Papa’s funeral. He will be buried on March 2, with full military honors, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

Love,
Susan

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Splitting Wood and Other Second Chances

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I successfully split two fat logs into stove-size firewood this afternoon. This is no small accomplishment for me. Last year, when I recognized the daily “nut” of firewood that the wood stove required of us in order to keep the house (and us) warm, I gave it a try so David, my husband, wouldn’t have to do it all. However, first, I was afraid of the axe. I had been warned to watch my swing so that the axe didn’t miss the log and hit my shin instead. Second, I didn’t leverage my body in the swing because see Number One. Third, the log didn’t break into pieces with one of my whacks like it does in the movies, so I assumed that I must be doing it wrong. Two whacks and I was done.

Today, with the possibility that David might go off island for family health reasons, we both decided it was time to give it another go. What I learned was that firewood doesn’t magically split, especially if the wood is wet or damp, and if the log is fat. Splitting wood is about dropping the axe with momentum – which is where the power comes from – on the wood until it cracks. That can require any number of swings, creating tiny fissures in the wood. Eventually, the log will have several cracks, and a whack or two later, it will split like it does in show business.

So many lovely lessons in this afternoon’s work. And maybe life gives you a “do over” now and again when you’ve been a doofus. Or more kindly put: when you weren’t yet ready for the experience in front of you.

We’ve hiked more in our few weeks here this year than we did the entire time last year. And I’ve allowed myself to be more adventurous, stepping in to my qualms and realizing they make excellent company when you bring them along rather than arguing with them. We attempted a hike the other day to the highest point on the island, Meeson Cone, which requires scrambling up and back down several steep hills, over and under fallen trees and including a few spots with rope assists. It was mostly fine, if a little sketchy in a few spots, and I realized how much I was enjoying the experience. It’s like I was remembering that I love to move and I love adventure. I felt more right about being out than I had before we left the house, qualms gently placed in the backpack along with the water and emergency radio.

The biggest “second chance” so far has been our trip into Port Hardy. Last year we had wanted to take the hour long boat ride to town, David for adventure and me for a few supplies (okay, the truth is that we were out of bourbon and chocolate). But we never made it as the weather didn’t cooperate and water looked too lumpy. Oh, and I was afraid and very resistant. Last Tuesday, we braved the very cold, clear air and flat waters, and took the skiff into Port Hardy without incident. We saw a pod of dolphin in the distance about halfway there, but it was otherwise uneventful.

Once in Port Hardy, we enjoyed lattes at the little upscale coffee shop-book store near the Canadian Coast Guard pier where we tied up. I bought Liz Gilbert’s “Big Magic – Creative Living without Fear” which I’d been wanting to read. We ran some errands for our hosts, Bill and Annie, and then shopped at the Save-On for groceries. A few hours later, we loaded up the skiff, and headed back to God’s Pocket. As we neared the islands, we saw a large otter, which dove under as we neared, and a seal pup with large eyes which didn’t, clearly inexperienced with motor boats.

Last year, when we saw wolves on the shore of Harlequin Bay (on the backside of our island) and I hopped online to do wolf research, I found PacificWild and fell in love with the organization’s work and website. I became an admirer of the Executive Director, Ian McAllister, for his leadership and work trying to protect the habitat and wildlife of the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, for his photography and his books. Several weeks later, our hosts returned to God’s Pocket to begin preparations for the 2016 season, bringing with them two dive scouts and the cook. Overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people after five weeks of quiet with David, I snuck out to our room after dinner.  What I missed that night, a year ago, was a visit by Ian McAllister of PacificWild with the catamaran Habitat, along with a friend Paul Nicklen, a National Geographic photographer.

Apparently, I got a do over here, too. Yesterday afternoon, we had a lovely and rare visit. The Habitat docked at God’s Pocket and Ian McAllister and his team of three came up for a visit. He was in the area diving and filming underwater for his Imax film; one of his crew, Tim, was the caretaker here at God’s Pocket after the season ended last year until Christmas. We offered tea and chatted for a while before they went out, with David, for a dive just outside the Bay.

I got to tell Ian that I needed a “fan freak” moment about his work, his books and photography (I have one of his wolf pictures hanging in our guest bedroom/my office in our condo). (Click here for the gallery of gorgeous wildlife photos, videos, and documentaries.) He blushed a few times, but once I got that out of the way, I told him I was “done fussing” and we resumed our more relaxed chat. They came back up after their dive and dinner, and he gifted me a book of poems and photos, “The Wild In You,” that he collaborated on with a Canadian poet, Linda Crozier.  And as he left, he invited David and me to visit them on Denny Island, where he and his family make their home, and where PacificWild has its organizational base in the Great Bear Rainforest. We had made a new friend: in my book, that’s not a do over, that’s a do better!

For the last few days, we’ve had snow on the ground, and intermittent snow fall. Big floofy flakes have been swirling over the water and the deck, and resting gently to welcome more. Our coterie of birds and animals leave tracks in the snow and carry on with their routine not seeming to mind. I am filled with wonder, and gratitude.

Love,
Susan

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Coming Back, Marching Forward

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I am posting from Canada on the eve of the US Presidential inauguration. You may be wondering if we ran away to Canada in the face of that fact… Truth be told, no. David and I are back care-taking the scuba/kayak resort, closed for the winter, on Hurst Island, also known as God’s Pocket, as we did last winter. We decided last spring that we’d like to do this again, assuming everything aligned, and we confirmed our plans in September. We are glad to be back, and particularly glad for some time with Bill and Annie, the owners of God’s Pocket Resort, who have become dear friends.

We arrived a week ago to ¼ inch of frost on the deck and temperatures hovering at freezing (that’s zero degrees centigrade because, ahem, we are in Canada!). Unlike last year, when we only had one day of freezing temperatures, this winter is likely to be far less mild. As we drove through very snowy Oregon on our way north, I realized I might not have been quite mentally prepared for this adventure, particularly if it is colder! And yet, here we are. We figured out how to crank the wood stove to max output to stay warm, and within a few days it got warmer outside and the rains began. It is now feeling more familiar.

Coming back for another winter – we plan to be here until mid-March – has given me some perspective, and a lot to think about. First of all, we drove out of San Francisco the week of my one year anniversary of leaving my “day job” and career for my “gap year” off from work. The gap year wasn’t all that I hoped it would be, but I was reminded by a good friend that I had, in fact, completely changed the shape of my daily life. She is right, and that truth is so basic it is actually easy to overlook.

What I didn’t do, nor planned to, was replace the shape of my life with something. 2016 was to relax into, and to help me figure out what that shape ought to be. As a result, I maintained some habits I had wanted to shake off, like my tendency to stay in (and sit in front my computer) when I should go out, move in nature, and have more adventures, joy and fun. There were some shit things that happened last year, and I can’t imagine having dealt with them with a full time job. Still, there were also transcendent experiences that I probably wouldn’t have had without the space provided by my “year off.” (And let me add: I still miss many of the people that I worked with so closely; what I don’t miss is the work itself, or the routine and stress of the job I had.)

This second care-taking gig shows me how much more comfortable I am here, perhaps more comfortable in general. I am in better balance with my inclination to read and stare out the window, or write and work at my computer, and my desire to get out, hike and explore the island more. This afternoon, we took the skiff out to lay a crab pot in Harlequin Bay on the other side of the island and I wasn’t afraid at all. I don’t remember ever getting in the skiff last winter without some dull empty feeling in my stomach, which is what anxiety often feels like to me. Our hikes have been fun, if cold or wet, successfully hunting for winter chanterelle mushrooms, looking for evidence of wolves (fresh scat, feathers from a fresh kill), and generally exploring.

Each morning, I take inventory of our bird pack: Big Blue, the great blue heron that hunts off the dock; the crow pack, Sheryl and Russell and their two kids, now grown; the kingfisher that perches on the red roof of the floating storage area; the pair of gulls that walk the handrail of the ramp; and the two flotillas of ducks, harlequin and merganser. There’s an eagle pair that nests off the western tip of the island; sometimes one of them will fly over the bay and the buildings. And watching and listening for the tides to come and go, and the water and waves to ebb and flow, I am always inspired.

I’ve given myself permission, and fortunately we can afford this (for now), to extend my gap year to a year and a half or even two years if that’s what I feel I need. That notion feels like a backstop, a safety net, for which I am grateful. Still, I am heading into 2017 with some dreams to realize, all of which I know are essential to my growth and evolution. I have committed (to myself, out loud to a few friends and family, and now here on the blog IN WRITING!) that I will launch my leadership, life and business coaching and consulting business in May. I already have some clients, and the universe seems to like the idea by sending more people my way.

I have been filled with doubts and some fear but have realized that forward motion here is the only right path for me. I bought myself a branding e-course from Braid Creative (these women are kicka-s!) last November and am now digging in to the work necessary to bring my vision, my “personal brand” – both what I’ve already established and what I aspire to – and my plans into a working website and outreach plan. A few hours of this work every day has been enlightening, energizing and inspiring. I know there is more for me to let out, a deep creative pool, than I ever had a chance to express in my corporate life. Expression takes some practice, and some kindness, especially if it isn’t what I, or others, are used to seeing from me. Even starting and keeping this blog has been a stretch opportunity for me!

Next week I begin the life coach training offered by Martha Beck, the life coach, author and Oprah magazine columnist. Last year when I thought about taking the training, I realized I was looking for some sort of confirmation (if not certification) that I was “allowed” to start a coaching business by being in or completing the training. This year, I know that my education, experience and skills are all the foundation I need to launch my practice. This training, therefore, is for me: while I’m certain to learn a lot that will be relevant and helpful to my coaching practice, I hope this course will remind me to hold things more lightly, to allow joy and magic more readily into my life and work, and to show others how to do the same. I expect, through the reading and practices, that this training will help me trust myself, to come back to parts of myself I put in storage, and to express my creativity more.

On Saturday, David and I will don our pink paper pussy hats, hold a moment of silence for all women all over the world at 1pm Pacific, and then have our own small march around the property. We will be in solidarity with friends, family and the men and women around the world and in the US marching in support of women and human rights.

This return to God’s Pocket feels so on point: a beautiful remote place to think and be inspired, and time and space to read, write and dig in to my training and work while still staying connected to home, holding the occasional coaching call. I feel very lucky.

Love,
Susan

 

December Darkness and Light

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I have such mixed feelings about this time of year. I love the decorations and the trees and the generally festive spirit of families in reunion. I struggle with the short, dark days, and the drumbeat to review the year so I can be a better me in 2017. I feel an odd mix of sentimentality and love and foreboding, and aspirations combined with shame. This is the first year I think I’ve seen this combination of darkness and light in such a clear way; previously, having a big day job laid a thick layer of activity and distraction over this time of year.

Irony abounds as I experience clarity about my dark frame of mind. Every year I swear I won’t feel this way. I will certainly take better care of myself leading up to year’s end, and have a baseline of resilience, fitness and discipline to guide me until the days begin to get longer again. Every year, the same wish.

We’ve made the turn with the solstice a few days ago, and still I feel the path forward is hard. I arrived at my mother’s house yesterday afternoon, where my brother and his family also live, and after dinner my niece had a crying meltdown about applying for colleges. My first insight was that I am always on guard for the emotional curve ball with my family, and here it was. My second insight was that we don’t have to relive the patterns of our youth just because the opportunity presents.

I kicked in to action. I am by inclination a guide, and I also saw that she needed comfort, first and foremost. She let me sit with her as she cried on her bed (after hiding in the bathroom for a bit), and she showed me how she was worrying about today’s problem as well as the next, and the one beyond that. She was drinking an ocean of woes in huge gulps.

I felt deeply empathetic. Her worries, at their core, are about being good enough, about recovering from (and seeking forgiveness for) past mistakes, and always, oh always, wanting approval from her parents and elders in the family.

I comforted and calmed her so we could, together, narrow her list of potential colleges for the simple purposes of getting her transcript out in the morning, the last day her school was open before the application deadline for many of the schools she was interested in. We spent several hours poking over a list of about 30 schools, looking at them online and in the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which provides the ‘inside scoop.’  (I have prior experience with college admissions: I worked as a student interviewer my senior year at Wesleyan University, and then for three years after graduation, I worked as an assistant dean of admissions at Hamilton College in upstate New York. My prior experience was helpful in guiding my niece.)

My mantra with her was ‘one step at a time’ while encouraging her to express her thoughts and feelings about college, her search and how she saw herself. She will need to find her own thoughts and inclinations in this process, something that so many of us find challenging. We know what others want and think, but finding our own voice, authentically reflecting how we feel? That’s much harder.

It is harder still to put our own distilled sense of self into another context, one barely imagined. This is why bold planning for the future can be so hard, and why “vision” doesn’t always lead to change or results. It is difficult to imagine life different from the way it is now, not without more perspective, another vantage point, and a lot of help and guidance. As Meg Worden says: “We need all the help we can get. We just do.”

My niece and I got through the evening, and she went to school first thing in the morning with a list of 20 schools she wanted her transcript sent to. I’ve asked her, as her next steps, to start reviewing those schools and to try to get a feel for how she thinks/feels about them. I’ve suggested that she’ll want to narrow her actual applications to less than 10 schools (certainly) and probably more like 5-6.

I went to bed both wound-up and exhausted, happy to have helped, but realizing there was a lot at play here. This morning I realized how similar our states of mind are. Unlike my niece, I have years of experience at acting as if: everything is fine, I have it together, etc. etc. And mostly, I do. But the truth is that this time of year, and this time of my life, when I am considering launching a leadership, life and business coaching practice next year, is fraught with questions of worth, value, contribution and acceptance. For me, the key question is when I’ll start choosing to move toward the life I know I was meant to have. And then, on top of those existential questions, the days are short, leaving me, and others, to fret in the dark.

Tonight, we’ll have a casual family dinner at my mother’s house including David’s brother Roy and his wife Kris. And then we’ll traipse off to see “Christmas at Pemberley,” a light theatrical fare based on the characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Could there be more opportunity for light, for joy, and to be fully present?

The light is always here. I have a hard time seeing it sometimes. Tonight, we’ll light candles, we’ll expand the table to add more family, and we’ll remember that we love each other. And even with an old family pattern or two, I know I am grateful to be here with these special people.

My very best wishes to each of you for a wonderful holiday season, and I wish the best for all of us for 2017. I’m very grateful that you are here, following along.

Love,
Susan

Adventures in Chitwan

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My mother, Carol, and I had been in Nepal for three weeks. We had trekked for ten days with five other American’s and 17 (!) Nepalis along the Indigenous Peoples Trail. The experience was arduous, beautiful, rewarding, and ultimately, a very special experience. As most of our trekking colleagues headed back to the US, we had planned a four-day visit to Chitwan National Park in the Terai, the subtropical southern part of Nepal on the border with India.

The Park was created in 1973, and was the first national park in Nepal. A total of 68 species of mammals, 544 species of birds, 56 species of herpetofauna and 126 species of fish have been recorded there.  The Park is famous for being home to, and protection for, the one-horned rhinoceros, the royal Bengal tiger, and the gharial crocodile.

As we reviewed our itinerary the night before our pick-up at the Kathmandu Guest House, my intuition kicked in. I couldn’t help but think that our while our trek the previous few weeks had felt authentic and grounded by the thousands of daily steps we each made daily from camp to camp, the trip to Chitwan was more likely to feel like a visit to Disneyland. Certainly, with the Jungle Safari Resort as our home for four days, there would be lots of rest between activities. While our trek had a general itinerary, it was adjusted by conditions, and camp and water availability. Our trip to Chitwan had predictable components that all visitors would experience. Every visitor, for example, would participate in an elephant safari, a canoe ride, and a jungle walk, among other activities.

But even Disneyland contains surprises…

Our trip to Chitwan was organized by Adventure Geo Treks, the same excellent trekking company that had organized our trek on the Indigenous Peoples Trail. We had opted for a ‘private car’ (rather than flying or taking a tourist bus), which in our case meant a kind young man with basic English skills was charged with driving us safely from the capital to the national park, which is a trip of approximately 160 kilometers (approx. 100 miles), and is estimated to take around 4.5 hours.

There was lot of traffic not really moving on the one lane road out of Kathmandu, so our driver took a back road through a residential area. My mother and I chalked up the traffic to the very end of the Daishan festival when so much of the country’s population was on the road. The “highway” follows the Trishuli river, with headwaters in Tibet, and has dramatic turns and views over the river and hills on the other side. It was harrowing, but beautiful.

Then came our first real surprise. We made fairly steady progress until about 30 kilometers out of Sauraha, our destination in Chitwan. The road had been substantially damaged in the most recent monsoons, and landslides had taken out much of the road. While rebuilt enough for cars to pass, the road was unpaved, uneven, and a challenge to move above 10 miles per hour. When we asked about the landslides, the answer was always “the monsoons.” It seems the road sustained a certain amount of damage each year. But 2015 and 2016 had been much worse: the 2015 earthquake had loosened the hillsides and made landslides more likely when the monsoons came.

We inched along toward Chitwan.

Our activities in Chitwan were, as I had intuited, highly choreographed, and yet, another surprise: quite compelling and delightful. Our first afternoon included a short walk through a Tharo village at the edge of the park. The Tharo people have lived in Chitwan for millennia, and it was only once cholera was mostly eradicated in the region in the 1960s that it became of interest to other settlers from both Nepal and India. The Tharo people haven’t been especially well treated but they are still prominent in the area. (They had traditionally been farmers on communal land, and when the area opened to settlers, they were forbidden from owning land and the farmlands were confiscated from their use.) Their homes continue to have multi-generational families living in them, and the villages are alive with the energy of children and community.

We went to see a dance and music performance at the Tharo Cultural Center. The performances,  represented  the traditional celebrations and gathering of the Tharo community,. Another surprise that evening was the realization that the audience was 95 percent Nepali, including many school aged kids. Of course, a visit to a US national park would reveal the same ratios, but it still took me by surprise. Yet another surprise? Even school kids in Nepal use their cellphones to film performances, and as I looked toward the stage from the back third of the room, I was distracted by the bright screens of cell phones raised in the air.

Our primary adventures in the Park consisted of a jungle jeep safari, an elephant safari and elephant bath, and a canoe ride on the river followed by a short walk in the jungle. As prescribed as these activities were, they each had their gifts and charms. Our jungle jeep safari yielded views (and pictures!) of a one-horned rhino at around 50 yards. We also saw macaques (small, very aggressive monkeys), several species of deer, a boar, and a range of birds, including kingfisher and stork. The rhino, however,was the prize.

Although we didn’t see any wildlife from the back of the Asian elephant on the elephant safari, the experience was great. These are really, really big animals, but also very gentle. The mahout sits on the elephant’s neck and guides with his feet pressed behind the elephant’s ears. Each elephant could seat four adults on a square wooden platform, each person straddling one of the corners. It was a bit intimate as we all leaned our backs on each other for balance, and the elephant lumbered through the jungle and across rivers and swamps. Remarkable creatures, I mostly enjoyed watching the other elephants from my perch, recognizing their intelligence and feeling compassion for their captivity. I also kept imagining the colorful and highly decorated elephants of Rajasthan, India (a trip for another time, I hope).

Our trip in a traditional dugout canoe yielded sightings of a number of mugger crocodile as well as of the more rare gharial crocodiles. Mugger crocodiles are the fresh water crocodiles of your imagination or pictures. The gharial crocodile is primarily a fish-eating crocodile, with long thin snouts; the males have an ball-shaped tip at the end of their snouts. They are considered highly endangered. Muggar crocodiles aren’t so discerning with their diet: they’ll snap their very large and powerful jaws at anything that moves! We also saw a number of birds, including a profusion kingfisher with aqua blue feathers under the wings.

We thought our drive down from Kathmandu to Chitwan was long: our return trip took over seven hours not including the 45 minutes stuck in a small alley, a few hundred yards from the Guest House in Kathmandu, waiting for a large passenger van to get past a double-parked taxi. I had empathy and compassion for the people who travel the road for their living, bus and truck drivers. The economy grows as people work and goods move, however the quality of life shrinks as the roads become overcrowded with traffic. The seasonal monsoons, and the 2015 earthquake, add a layer complexity to the ritual.

As my mom and I reflected on our experience in Chitwan, we recognized that the pace was slower, more languid, which was initially a bit of a challenge to adjust to. However, we read, and chatted, and occasionally napped between activities. On the whole, the experience was fun, exceedingly relaxing, and good for our souls.

This is my last post on my October adventures in Nepal with my mother, Carol. What’s next? Always a mystery until I sit down to write. My plan for the foreseeable future (which is hella oxymoronic), is to post once a week around Wednesday.

Thanks always for your engagement and for reading my blog: it means the world to me!

Love,
Susan

PS. I’ve posted a bunch of pictures from the trip on Instagram; search with the hashtag #30DaysofNepal and you’ll see all my Nepal pictures. You can see all the pictures in my gallery here!

 

The End of the Trek

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The Nepal I visited in 1989 seemed more poor and hard scrabble than the country I visited 27 years later. To be sure, our trek was much closer to Kathmandu than in 1989, which meant that more villagers might move to the city or go overseas for work and send money home. Kathmandu valley has experienced an enormous population boom in the intervening years. Trekking on the Indigenous Peoples’ Trail, it seemed to me that every house had a buffalo or two, at least several goats, and a flock of chickens, and was surrounded by crops: rice, millet, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage. While the animals and farming might be primarily for subsistence, the houses were well tended, the animals looked healthy and the crops were lush.

The people were universally welcoming. Children and young adults were eager to practice their English, and adults wanted to observe, and occasionally to chat. My mother, with her white hair, drew more than a few talkative visitors. One older woman came to visit our camp one morning, and chatted away with my mother delightedly, saying ‘ama, ama’ (mother, mother) and hugging her. We understood very little of what she said, but she was bonding, relating and sending love and admiration and joy through her eyes to my ‘ama.’ Elders are respected in the Nepali culture, and ‘amas’ especially so. Not everyone gets to be old and wise, and my mother became something of celebrity.

Our last full day on trek took us to the town of Namo Buddha, one of the more significant Buddhist temple and monasteries in Nepal. We toured the temple, surprised by the number of Nepali “tourists” there (I always expect tourists overseas to be westerners!), and awed by its architecture and mystique. We descended the hill on the north side of the temple, prayer flags old and new draped over the trees in a profusion of colors as we made our way out of town toward our next and final camp.

That night, the cooks and guides put together an extraordinary farewell dinner. We ate like royalty! Chicken cutlets, coleslaw, cooked fresh vegetables, all yum!  At the end of the meal, the chef, Santosh, brought out a cake made special and decorated with “Happy Nice Trek.” DB, our guide and leader, thanked us for coming to Nepal, for creating jobs for all the crew members, and for being so appreciative of the experience.

He also apologized for the days during the trek when lunch seemed late, and explained that the earthquake had changed some of the water flows and aquifers, leading to constrained water supplies in areas where water had once been abundant. We had been careful with our water use – only two tent showers in 10 days – but it was instructive to learn about this little known effect of the 2015 earthquake. Towns were managing their water supplies by rationing and turning on the hillside taps, which acted like mini town centers, only at certain times. Of course, while we were occasionally hungry for lunch – always delicious – during the trek, we had no idea that the crew had been working overtime most days to find a spot with abundant water for cooking and washing!

Before dinner on the last night, we had given our tips to DB, and he coordinated with Santosh to determine how best to share it with the crew. They had created individual envelopes for each crew member. With the whole crew (17 people) in our dining tent, DB asked Sydney, the organizer of the trek through her “The Trek of Your Life” business, and my mother “Ama!” to help distribute the tips to all crew members. This participation by Sydney and my mother in the distribution process was a sign of respect for them, as well as the crew, and acknowledged the bonds we had created by being together for ten days on the trail. The warmth and generosity was palpable. It was a lovely moment, only surpassed by the crew singing and clapping along to us with great spirit. (Listen here!) We had shared ten days together and the appreciation seemed to be mutual; it was certainly resonant and lasting for me.

Back in Kathmandu the next day, we said our farewell to the crew. Most of us trekkers were headed to the Guest House for showers; I was headed with my mother, even before showers, to the Ciwec Clinic to have my arm checked out and re-bandaged by the renown mountain travel doctors! (They declared it very clean and well tended, but also said that without stitching shortly after injury the scar would be dramatic. And so it is.)

The crew stayed on the bus and went on to the Adventure Geo Treks office to clean all the equipment. On the trail, when we finished trekking for the day, we would relax while the crew set up tents, prepared the camp, and helped with dinner. So, once again, even off the trail at the end of the trek, we got to rest while the crew worked.

Our trekking group, minus crew, met up for a final lunch the next day. We walked a short way from the Kathmandu Guest House to the Garden of Dreams. The Garden is located behind high walls on a very busy and loud boulevard: you wouldn’t know it was there or how lovely it could be just a few feet from the honking of cars and motorcycles. A public park with a modest entrance fee, the Garden of Dreams is a tranquil oasis in the heart of Kathmandu, a neo-classical garden with three pavilions, and multiple ponds, lawns, and pergolas built in 1920. It was neglected from the mid-1960s, upon the death of its patron, Kaiser Sumsher Rana, until recently, but has been restored with the support of the Austrian government. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the restaurant there, while observing the many young Nepali couples walking, sitting on benches or on the cushions on the lawns. It is a lovely place, and a perfect place for a romantic date!

We said goodbye to four of our trekking group the next day, who headed to the US. Sydney would stay to lead a seminar for staff working with human trafficking victims, often former victims themselves, and then to lead another trek to Basa village for volunteer work. For my mother and I, it was the end of only one part of our adventure: we had added a four-day extension to our trip to visit Chitwan National Park at the southern border of Nepal (with India), home to Bengal tigers, rhinoceri, and crocodiles, among other wildlife.

As we prepared for our early departure to Chitwan in the morning, my mother and I marveled at the trekking experience. We had been part of a congenial group of hikers and an extraordinary team of Nepalis supporting us on an interesting and rarely used itinerary through villages and towns. Acknowledging the rough first few days of the trek, we also realized how much we had come to appreciate the experience, and would miss the people, the trekking, and that part of Nepal.

Next post: Chitwan, which will also be my last post on Nepal.

With love,
Susan

PS. I’ve been posting 4-6 pictures from the trip each day on Instagram throughout November with the hashtag #30DaysofNepal; I’ll be posting more from Nepal for a couple of days in December since I lost some time over Thanksgiving. You can see my pictures here!

Forever in a Day

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My last post, on the morning of November 8, left us on our Nepal trek with overlong monsoons, tough initial trekking days, stomach disorders, leeches at camp, and me with a substantial gash in my arm. More to come, I promised you.

And then it was full on election eve, and then night, in the US. It was a long night.

* Hangs her head, sighs deeply. Sighs deeply again. *

All those tough moments in Nepal pale by comparison.

At least a week or so went by when any thoughts of blogging were about the election and its aftermath. Writing about Nepal seemed escapist and selfish, which I realize in retrospect might have been helpful. Except for my realization that I was, during that week, allowing myself to both wallow in worry and despair (aided by a fair amount of bourbon) while also engaging in magical thinking, I felt I had little to add, especially when so much was being said and written everywhere else.

Magical thinking is interesting, and there’s probably another blog post there at some point, as it shows up in so many places for people, especially under stress. Suffice it to say that magical thinking in this case is when you start to hear yourself say – to yourself – that things probably aren’t going to be that bad, and maybe the office itself will transform the man, and let’s give him a chance. But, as Maya Angelou said, and many people have been reminding us: “If someone shows you who they really are, believe them.” Magical thinking need not apply.

So my post-election mantra is that I will have to hold, going forward, contradictory intentions at the same time: I must seek to understand and try to bridge the divide that is so visible in our nation, while holding our government accountable and standing up for justice.

And then it was Thanksgiving and time to shake off the blues, consider and be grateful for all that is good in our lives. There is so much for which to be grateful.  We spent time with David’s brother, Roy and his wife Kris, at her and her family’s ranch in Cachagua, California, over the hills from Carmel Valley, out of cell phone range. It was a lovely time in a magical albeit very real place. Life has happened there in all its occasional mess and upheaval, as it has to us, and yet gratitude and goodwill prevailed.

But I promised you more stories of Nepal, which brings us to Day Four of the Indigenous Peoples’ Trail Trek in Nepal, leeches and stomach ills and arm gashes and all. A few people have questioned the “fun” quotient of this trip…  certainly some things, like leeches, aren’t really fun no matter how you frame it. But the whole trip was an adventure in which every moment was interesting if not exactly a delight.

I learned a lot about fear on that fourth day of trekking. As I started out my trek the day after falling and badly gouging my arm, I didn’t feel any fear in spite of my fall. I didn’t have the familiar stomach ache, or the tingle at the base of my shoulder blades. And yet, when faced with the first steep downhill of the day, my body couldn’t move. I wasn’t afraid by any conscious sense I could feel, but my body had incorporate an immediate and profound fear directly related to my fall.

Fortunately, one of the assistant guides, Hera, took my pack – and my hand – and helped me down the steep parts of the trail for the next few days. In some cases, he’d put his foot just below where my foot would go, to block my step and keep me from slipping. It took more than a few days to get my trekking mojo back, and I’m very grateful for Hera’s firm and gentle hand in securing my path.

The remarkable thing about a trek is that each person, no matter how fit, is a bit wobbly at the start. Most of us flew at least 14 or so hours across the globe to get to Kathmandu, some of us (ahem!) a little more. And then there’s time zone adjustments and new food, and new surroundings and people, all of which take some toll on our individual resilience. Of course, the energy created by the excitement of the adventure often carries us a bit. And then we leave for trek and are hiking up sheer walls of stairs (I swear!) and sleeping on the ground in a tent at the end of a hard, physical day. We are together, and yet alone as we each also try to manage ourselves and get adjusted.

Somewhere around the middle of trek, we each find our rhythm, getting used to the exertion, the pace and the structure of each day. We each trust in our guides as they describe the day ahead, and then lead us on the day’s trek, and to “proper rests” and lunch at the right time throughout the day. So too, the group finds its rhythm: initial exposition of life stories are exchanged in small conversations. Over the time we become more comfortable with each other as a group, sharing meals and chatting, and revealing more about ourselves through the sharing of the day to day of the experience.

Writing in my journal near the middle of trek, I noted that I felt I’d had forever in a day. The fullness of being so physically grounded and active, in company with the journey of the mind and spirit, is so rich.  And at the end of each day, it was startling to realize that the morning was attached to the evening of the same day. Of course, I know that this richness, this sense of fullness and mindfulness, is available to me every day anywhere I am. In Nepal the vistas seemed endless and the days seemed full of infinite moments. This awareness was one of the many things I wanted to bring home from the trek.

* *  * * * *

Still more from Nepal to follow: I’ll post about the end of the trek on Thursday, and on Saturday about our adventure to Chitwan National Park. After that, I’m planning to get back to a weekly post, barring surprises of the disruptive, dysregulating sort, of which there have been more than a few of late…

Love,
Susan