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!