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!

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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.

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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