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

 

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The Trek Begins

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The Peaks of Annapurna, early morning October 6

“A trek, by its very nature, is an arduous journey.”
Sydney Frymire, The Trek of Your Life

We left Kathmandu by mini-bus on Wednesday, October 5, picked up our Nepali trekking crew and swapped into a bigger bus, heading east to the market town of Mudhe to begin our trek. Our trek was not intended to be a typical mountain trek, although we hoped to see mountain peaks from several of our campsites. Instead, we were trekking up and down hills – known as “Nepali flat: a little up and little down” – through towns and villages in one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse parts of Nepal via the Indigenous People’s Trail (IPT). The IPT is a relatively new trek, considered “soft” (easy)/moderate by Nepali standards, and typically involves home-stays instead of the camping that we would do.

For seven trekkers our Nepali team consisted of seventeen people! We had four guides (one leader and three assistant guides), one chef and five assistant cooks who also carried all the food and the kitchen (food, pots, pans and the kerosene stove) between camps, and seven porters, who carried our bags, the tents, the dining table (yes, wooden topped table!) and folding metal camp chairs, among other things. Most of these Nepali young men were from or near Basa village, in the Everest region, where the founder of Adventure Geo Treks is from, and where Sydney, the leader of The Trek of Your Life annually takes one of her two trekking groups to do volunteer work.

At first, I was embarrassed by how many people we’d need to conduct our trip. I have a strong streak of good old “do it yourself American” spirit. However, one of the most valuable insights I had in Nepal was around the positive economic impact we could bring to our activities there.  It started one night pre-trek when at the Sarangi restaurant. The Australian co-owner encouraged us to take a rickshaw to the market the next day, saying that rickshaw drivers are among the poorest people in Nepal, and my dollar or two could make a big difference to that driver. Fast forward ten days when our trek leader, DB (short of Dilli Bahadur), made comments at our final dinner about appreciating our visit to Nepal, our efforts and spirit on the trek, and most especially, the jobs we created by coming to Nepal to trek. As a communal society, all the pay, including our tips, would go to supporting the crew as well as their extended families in the villages they came from.

On our 3-hour drive from Kathmandu to Mudhe, (which was an adventure in surviving bumps on the road), our leader, DB, let us know that the porters hadn’t eaten. So the bus pulled into the Nepali version of a rest stop where, for the equivalent of $2.50 one could enjoy a very generous serving of ‘dal bhat’ – the national Nepali dish of rice and lentil soup. Buses filled with Nepalis traveling home to their villages would pull up and unload, everyone would eat, and then pile back on the bus within 5-10 minutes. We did the same, pausing briefly to consider the digestive consequences. Perhaps we should have paused longer!

Two of us were already squeamish as we left Kathmandu, and two more of us, my mother Carol and I, got sick within 12 hours. That meant the first full day of trekking was excruciating for my mother who had stomach cramps and had to run into the bushes frequently even as we seemed to climb straight up the hill. Mine didn’t hit until that night but I spent the third day of our trek with cramps of my own, feeling weak and nauseous. The first few days of a trek are tough in any context as your body gets used to being in motion all day, among other things. To do so at altitude, weak and dehydrated, makes things even tougher. My mother, who is indomitable and amazingly strong (and I don’t need to qualify that by reminding you that she’s 84), kept wondering aloud why she was so tired, why the trekking was so hard. Of course, she was nauseous, and at first she wouldn’t eat, so no wonder she felt weak against our first tough hill climb!

We camped our second night in a wide open spot on a hill, just over 11,000 feet – our highest altitude on the trek- hoping to see mountains in the morning. We had a friendly pack of goats that ran through camp before dinner. The goatherds, who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old, sat and giggled on the hillside near our camp while a couple of us tried to engage them in conversation and excite them with their pictures on our cameras. They disappeared at dark, but I heard the goats come through camp again in the wee hours, and the goatherds exchanged words with our Nepali guide. In the morning, we did wake up to mountains, partially obscured by clouds – we had fog and clouds coming up from the valleys and the peaks were cut off by a ceiling of clouds. The peaks of Annapurna were the most visible above the clouds and without a ceiling. It was thrilling to look around and see major mountain massifs, covered in snow and know that we were in the Himalaya.

The highlight of our third day on the trek was hiking up to Sailung, a holy peak with a small temple destroyed in the earthquake but still adorned with stupas and prayer flags. It is a pilgrimage for many, and Nepalis along the way confirmed with us that we were headed to Sailung. Walter held a short memorial service for his wife Cynthia, who had died suddenly earlier in the year. It was a perfect place for his tribute, and he invited everyone to join him. Afterwards, we all slowly began the long trek down to our next camp near the town of Dorumba.

The monsoons ran long this year, and we had rain almost every day; normally, October is clear and dry. Furthermore, the wetness allowed a layer of algae to grow on some of the rocks and on the mud, making some of our steps as slippery as ice. Although I was descending carefully, sure enough, I slipped and the back of my right arm, just below the elbow, jammed on to a sharp edge of rock.  My first thought, after I used the f-word out loud, was that I hoped my arm wasn’t broken, because a broken arm would be a bad thing. When I lifted my arm off the rock and saw blood dripping I knew it wasn’t broken but that the wound was deep. I sat down on a step and waited for the trekkers who had been behind me to catch up. One of our fellow trekkers, Lisa, had been trained in back-country first aid, and she, along with one our assistant guides and DB, the leader, worked on cleaning my arm as best as possible with water and then iodine. We put gauze on it, and wrapped it in an ace-like bandage. Oddly, it didn’t really hurt. I was, however, worried about getting stitches (didn’t want them!), keeping it clean once we had a chance to open the bandage again, and about how the gauze wouldn’t likely come off the wound without reopening it.

Our camp in a soccer field outside the town of Dorumba, was fortunately near a medical clinic, the only one near any of our camps on the trek. The town nurse came that night and cleaned the wound in the dining tent with all trekkers and most of the crew watching along. It was a bit gross, to be sure, but also fascinating. He washed the wound with saline, taking 3 small pebbles out. He spoke some English, but the dialogue was mostly in Nepali, translated by our leader. It felt a little bit like medicine by committee. But I felt very well tended  by everyone, and the concern and kindness was palpable. We got some extra supplies of gauze, iodine, antibiotic cream and ace bandage, and one of the assistant guides, Hira, who had some medical training, would replace the bandage and clean the wound every 48 hours.

Later, DB would ask me about the red and yellow string bracelet on my right arm, suggesting that it hadn’t provided me with much protection after all. I replied that my wound might have been much worse – I might have broken my arm after all – had I not had the protection of my bracelet from the old lady at the Hindu temple.

It had been a very full day, but the excitement wasn’t over. We had experienced torrential rain as we arrived at camp, which woke up the leeches. These clever little beasts – no more than about an inch long – sneak their way up the grasses and onto your legs, or shoes, and feast. Apparently, among the amazing things one learns on trek, is that leeches have both an anesthetic and an anticoagulant in their bite, so you don’t feel them, and your blood flows freely. You don’t always know they are there until they’re done, leaving a bloody mess in your socks.

On the evening of our third day of trekking, we had four people recovering from digestive disorders and trying to re-build their strength, one trekker with an arm injury (albeit not a serious “medevac” type injury but one that caused us all to pause), periodic intense rain that seemed to leave everything consistently damp, and a camp infested by leeches.  We were all of reasonable good cheer, but I for one recognized we were only at the beginning of our ten-day trek. So far, it had been a bit more arduous than expected!

Stay tuned for more.

Love,
Susan

The Trek of Your Life*

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*with gratitude to Sydney Frymire for use of TTOYL as my title for this post!

I returned two weeks ago from my month long trip to Nepal. The experience – deep and wide – has stayed with me but is only now being translated into this first of several blog posts. I keep thinking how much I have to write about and share, and realize that with election day tomorrow, I probably have less than 36 hours to have anyone’s attention before the election results capture our zeal.

I’m still unpacking, literally and figuratively. Just yesterday I finished washing the jumbo zip-lock bags I used to organize and pack my clothes and gear. This was the last chore in cleaning and storing my trekking gear. On November 1, I started posting 2-4 pictures a day on Instagram under the hashtag “#30DaysOfNepal.” Where do I begin to tell the stories of this trip to Nepal and our trek along the Indigenous People’s Trail?

The beginning is a good place to start. Sydney Frymire, a friend of my mother – Carol –  in the Washington, D.C. area, has for the last four years run an annual trip to Nepal, planning and participating in two treks each visit through her company “The Trek of Your Life,” (hence the title of this post!). A social worker and life coach by profession, she fell in love with Nepal on a trek a number of years ago. She plans her trips with a “volun-tourism” ethos, and one of the treks includes two or three days of volunteering in the small village of Basa in the Everest Region.  My mother, Carol, who would turn 84 the weekend we returned from the trek, was excited to join the first trek “The Sailung Trek,” named after a peak on the trek with religious importance, and I decided to join her and the group.

After a 5-hour flight from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to meet up with my mother, followed by a 14-hour flight from Washington, D.C. to Dubai, and finally another 4-hour flight from Dubai to Kathmandu, we arrived in the Nepali capital on the evening of October 2. Our flight from Dubai was a mix of westerners, clearly headed to enjoy the country’s “best” trekking weather of the year in October and November. Nepalis, on the other hand, were returning from work or studies abroad for the most important festival of the year: Dashain.

After collecting our luggage, we emerged from the airport doors to look for the driver from the trekking company Sydney partnered with: Adventure Geo Treks. When we came to Nepal in 1989, we were met at the luggage carousel; now all commercial contacts are required to stand on a traffic island across from the doors, many holding signs and calling names. We wheeled our luggage cart into the parking area, while Carol went back to look for “our” people. She had to argue with a Danish woman that the sign saying “Carol Susan” was intended for us not her: her name, surprisingly, was Susan Carol!

Our ride from the airport to the Kathmandu Guest House in the Thamel neighborhood of the city was nothing less than crazy. The streets were clogged with cars, so much so that the four- lane road had morphed into six lanes, four headed into the city, and two headed out. Buses were jammed with people, and the sidewalks – where they existed – were full of people walking and selling their wares. Motorcycles wove in and out of traffic, and every vehicle practiced the sport of active honking. The streets were loud, dusty and crowded: everyone was getting ready for the festival.

The Dashain festival honors the victory of the goddess Durga over the forces of evil.  She has many incarnations and is known as the mother of the universe, and is believed to be the power behind the work of creation, preservation, and destruction of the world. Hindus believe that goddess Durga protects her devotees from the evils of the world and at the same time removes their miseries. Although the festival is primarily a Hindu celebration, my observation was that Dashain was an annual calling similar to the New Year in China or Christmas in the US: Nepali workers from all over the world and the country seek to make it home for part or all of the 15-day festival regardless of their religious beliefs.

When we arrived at the Kathmandu Guest House, we had a note from Sydney. She was just across the way in a restaurant call Sarangi, named for the Nepali musical instrument that most resembles a violin. The restaurant is run by musicians, with the support of an Australian woman who spends 6 months of the year in Nepal. Her vision is for the musicians to have other means of economic support beyond their art because musicians are often from some of the lowest castes (Nepal has a somewhat loose caste system that doesn’t include all Nepalis but is still influential). The food at Sarangi was fresh and excellent, and we had several meals there, once with a trio of musicians serenading us. We were happy to lend our support to their venture.

We met Sydney and two other jet-lagged trekkers from our group: Walter, 51, from Maryland and a colleague of Sydney’s, and Cory, 66, from New Jersey, who had heard about the trek through his hiking group, The Freewalkers. The last two trekkers would join us the next day: Dagmar, 45, and Lisa, 32, both also from Maryland. Dagmar knew my mother from the Wanderbirds hiking club in the DC area.

After resting and exploring the neighborhood on October 3rd, we spent October 4 as a group touring Kathmandu, going to Pashupatinath, the main Hindu temple in Kathmandu, and Budhnath stupa, the center of Tibetan Buddhist practice, both World Heritage Sites. Pashupatinath covers an enormous area, and the holy Bagmati river flows through. People bathe in its waters, and cremations take place on its banks. Macqaq monkeys wander freely and with impunity; I watched one walk up behind a young girl with her parents and swipe a pack of chips from her hands. The move was so bold and so sudden, the girl howled with fear and loss. The macqaq wandered away, chips in hand. Non-Hindus aren’t allowed to enter the main temple, but we wandered smaller temples and the yogis’ “caves,” which are actually small shines with four large openings on each side. For a small donation, pictures of the vividly painted yogis can be had. I also gave some money to an older woman who tied a red and yellow string around my right wrist while chanting, offering me protection.

Our visit to Budhnath stupa, only slightly damaged in the earthquake but still wrapped in scaffolding, was enhanced by lunch on a terrace that overlooked the stupa. The top of the stupa is gilded and has the dramatic, colorful Buddha eyes that I associate with Kathmandu and Nepal. The area is the center of Tibetan life in Nepal, and the stupa is surrounded by stores specializing in Tibetan wares. Monks in maroon and saffron wander the neighborhood. We visited a mandala school, where apprentices learn to paint the highly detailed and mesmerizing mandalas in the Tibetan tradition, and then climbed to a small Buddhist temple located on the top of a building facing the stupa. After removing our shoes, we visited the temple and the lama tied an orange cord around each of our necks, chanting. I have to admit to feeling well protected by both the Hindu string bracelet and the Buddhist cord necklace!

Back at the Kathmandu Guest House that evening, I meditated with gratitude and awareness of being in the Himalaya, the spiritual home of meditation. We retired to repack our gear into waterproof yellow duffels provided by Adventure Geo Treks, and to get our last night’s sleep in a bed for 10 days. We’d be off to begin our trek, and camping, first thing in the morning.

Stay tuned for more!

Love,
Susan