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

Melancholy and Magic

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I had stepped away to our cabin after dinner for a few minutes of quiet. The guests, a charter of kayakers mostly from the United Kingdom, started to convene around the fire pit where David had staged the logs for a burn. I could hear them laughing, telling stories, and eventually, singing. As I listened, I felt my sadness growing, punctuated by the sounds of people, strangers to one another just days earlier, creating friendships. I knew I would be welcome if I went down to join them but I couldn’t imagine how to get there from where I sat. I just felt so sad. And alone.

David came to check on me, and gave me hugs. He wanted to know what I was feeling. This place I sometimes go is very difficult to explain, and it’s not at all intuitive for an extrovert. For my part, I’m still surprised when my melancholy sneaks in and takes over, even though it has been a familiar visitor over the years. I know that when I am tired, over-extended interpersonally, and haven’t had quite enough quiet, meditative time, my balance is disrupted. In spite of my outgoing personality, I am an introvert, and my reserves get depleted occasionally without me noticing.  I told him, in that moment, that I sometimes felt I didn’t know how to find the on-ramp to joy.

“Don’t believe everything you think” is a saying I associate with the lessons of a meditation practice. It makes me laugh because it is so true: we really shouldn’t believe everything we think! When you notice and allow all the wild and chaotic thoughts that your mind in “monkey” mode can have, you also notice that all your thoughts aren’t created equal. They don’t all deserve your attention, and they shouldn’t all be followed. I can know this, and recognize the melancholy-dipped lies my mind is telling me. I can know all this and still not easily shift to a different mood.

The antidote for this sort of cloud cover is to get out, shift my body, and so my perspective. Last night, I felt so stuck that I knew my only other remedy was to turn off the light and sleep. A good night of rest and the dawn of a new day would help lift the darkness.

What is wonderful about the transition from one day to the next are the possibilities born in the new day:  grace, redemption, joy, and sometimes, what can only be described as magic. This day can stand in stark contrast to yesterday, and moments of transcendence can emerge and be held.

This morning, I woke up late, and David let me know that the guests were all going on a morning boat ride to look for whales and otter. We both decided to go along, and had an extraordinary time. The guests are delightful and adventurous – several of them stayed out on deck in the rain for the three hours we were out.  We saw numerous humpback whales on our way to a sea-lion haul out, a small island covered in sea lions.

And then magic happened. Just on the other side of the haul out, we stopped the boat because a humpback whale was right in front of us in the narrow channel. As she surfaced near the shore, we saw she had her calf alongside her. They surfaced with a slight delay to one another, one blow half the height of the other. Rather than the more concerted surface-dive motion that adults make, the mother and baby seemed to float up and down between breaths. They were so close to us, and to the shore. They rounded the point of the island, and made their way into the wider pass where we eventually lost sight of them.

We then headed over to a small cluster of islands where Bill had heard that otter had recently been seen. As we neared, we saw over a dozen otter, most of them mothers with little ones on their chests. They scattered a bit as the boat slowly approached, but stayed nearby, giving us a chance to observe them swimming with their young. They observed us back. On a large rocky outcrop just past the otter group, we noticed seals draped on the rocks, well camouflaged by the match between their fur color and the shore. As the boat navigated around the rock past the otter in the water and the seals on the rock, we saw several seal mothers with their pups.

Within just a few minutes, we had the extraordinary experience of seeing three species of mammals with their young in their natural habitat.

Bill, the captain, decided to take us home through Browning Passage, one of the most spectacular channels in the world for diving. The Pass is a quiet place, especially today with the steady rain and low cloud cover. The channel is deep, and although there is shore on the east side of the Pass, the west side has a rocky, vertical drop into the water to depth. Both sides are lined with trees and dense forest. The boat progressed slowly down the passage and all our eyes were trained far ahead on the eastern shore, looking for wolves before the boat noise might spook them. Suddenly, we saw two wolves trotting in our direction along the high-tide line. They stopped as we neared, and then trotted up into the trees, out of view. Everyone saw both animals. It was exhilarating, and we laughed and chatted giddily.

The boat continued through the passage, headed for a spot near the end of the channel where hooded nudibranchs are often found. Known locally as ‘hoodie nudies,’ these members of the slug family have a translucent appearance, like jelly fish, and when out of the water are known to smell like watermelon jolly rogers.  Nature can be so unusual sometimes… When we came around the point, instead of hoodie nudies we saw two more wolves. These animals were harder to see than the ones we’d seen at the high tide line on the other side of the pass, as their colors matched more closely the stones and beach sand. They were also much less concerned with our approach: one of the two stood for a few minutes looking at us before turning and walking toward the tree line.

We came back to God’s Pocket that morning having seen six of what I call “The Big Seven” animals available to us in this area: humpback whales, bald eagles, sea lions, otter, seals, wolves, and the missing seventh, orca. The eighth animal is bear, rarely seen in this neighborhood. We were all a bit wet and cold, and yet our energy was high, excited about what we had seen.

Seeing so many of these animals and their young in the wild waters and on the islands of British Columbia anchored a special day of fellowship and shared experience on the boat. For me, it was a reminder that I am both small in the universe, and yet still an important part of my ecosystem. My melancholy may visit, but my world is full of magic and miracles if I can let myself see through the mist. And when I can’t, I can let today go and trust in a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow will bring new possibilities, including grace and magic.

Love,
Susan

I post about once a week, usually on Wednesday or Thursday, but sometimes, like today, on Fridays… Get regular updates via email from DancingOnTheWayHome by clicking the “follow” button (on your tablet or pc screen – the mobile screens somehow don’t show it!). And thanks for reading!

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Unsettled

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Stress, according to some, is created when reality doesn’t match our expectations. Change your expectations, the theory might go, and voila!, stress evaporates. Expectations, it turns out, are complicated layers of thoughts and feelings that don’t always behave, well,  as expected.

I knew that getting home to San Francisco wouldn’t really mean being home. Our condo would have no functioning plumbing, and we were still waiting for both repair and restoration bids to come in before work could even begin. Really, I did know, I swear it. As we made our way south from British Columbia, visiting friends and relatives and relocating every few days, I yearned to be in one place, our place, while I also tried to keep very clear on the notion that we likely wouldn’t be living in our place for more than a month after our return.

We arrived back in San Francisco last Thursday evening, and have been staying in a sweet in-law type apartment via Airbnb not far from our old neighborhood in Noe Valley. We will move tomorrow to another Airbnb for the whole month of April. The place is closer to our condo so we can visit the cats, and oversee construction and repairs, among other things. We know and like our host “Cat”, and the place is sunny and spacious, so staying there is an attractive arrangement in an unattractive situation.

As I knew, the plumbing repair has yet to begin, and is estimated to take 2-3 weeks, minimum. So we will continue to live out of suitcases, and commuting to see and feed the cats, for the next month at least. David jokes and says that I am now both unemployed and homeless…

We do realize this is all first world drama, and that we are incredibly lucky with our lives. I keep looking for bright sides: we will get new wood flooring for our entire second floor (kitchen, living room and dining room) and for the entry and office on the first floor. We will get new paint in most of rooms on the 1st and 2nd floors, something we had wanted to do last fall, but simply couldn’t handle one more project before leaving for British Columbia. And we have a lovely, warm group of friends who have excitedly welcomed us back no matter where we live.

For my part, I’m not sure which part of me should or will show up at any given time. There’s the fire-breathing-mad me that is angry about a few things even though I recognize how easy it is to source outrage. There’s the me that has a lot of professional experience, handling challenges, being resilient, and managing processes, projects and people to good ends. There is the me that is looking forward into this adventure of a year, and is a committed optimist. And then there’s the me that wants to take the first available ride back up to British Columbia to peace and beauty. And these selves bubble up seemingly at random, which only further confuses me. I do recognize that I can bring a firm but diplomatic style to our situation, and to our engagement with the management company and vendors overseeing our plumbing repair and restoration. My competent diplomat self needs to talk my fire-breathing self, not to mention David’s, into staying away when we deal with problems.

This has led me to ponder what I believe about people. Are people basically well-intentioned, but occasionally make mistakes? Or are they driven by fear, ignorance or the desire for power?  These are obviously questions at the two ends of a spectrum, and I know that people behave across a range of shades of gray. Watching my different selves show up during this time, and navigating a variety of feelings, including some that I’m not proud of, has me thinking deeply about what I expect of myself and others, and my what basic operating assumptions are.

What I do know is that I want to limit the amount of vitriol in my life. This year’s political season has me dispirited and pained, and frankly, feeling a little hopeless. I don’t want to be near or with people who spew mean (or racist or misogynist or bigoted) thoughts, let alone be that person. For example, driving in the city is stressful, but more so if we assume and act like every other driver is an idiot.  Right now, life in this world feels hard enough, and probably is for many people on the receiving end of the meanness.

All this to paint the picture of how unsettled I feel, and how cranky this sort of stress makes me. No doubt I am also underestimating the basic shock of returning to urban life after two months on a very quiet and beautiful island. While I think I have managed my expectations, my stress and confusion say otherwise!

So: I am starting to bring my focus to what moves me forward, setting good things in motion, continuing my meditation practice and daily writing. This week I started a Whole30 food ‘cleanse’, which I’ve done before and have found really useful to help me remember over the next 30 days what clean and healthy eating feels like. Next week I’ll return to my early morning bootcamp routine, which I know will be a significant challenge. I’ll also try to keep my fire-breathing self from taking the lead in any situation. Mostly, I’ll practice looking for the gifts in this disruption and believing that it will abate. We’ll be home soon, this time for real. Well, at least until the next adventure begins.

Love,
Susan

PS. Now that I’m back in the Bay Area, I’ve decided to experiment with a weekly posting schedule. Until further notice, Wednesdays will be the day!

PPS. For the curious, our homeowners’ insurance covers our relocation costs– we have great insurance: Liberty Mutual, check them out.

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Get regular updates via email from DancingOnTheWayHome by clicking the “follow” button (on your tablet or pc screen – the mobile screens somehow don’t show it!). And thanks for reading!

Follow me on Instagram (dancingonthewayhome), where I post whatever catches my eye, in addition to a shot of our “front yard” every day at or after 5pm. Leave a comment or send me an email at DancingOnTheWayHome AT gmail dot com; I’d love to hear from you.