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!

 

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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

 

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

Headed to the Himalaya

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A quick post this evening. I spent the day on a plane from San Francisco to D.C., and tomorrow my mother, Carol, and I will fly from DC via Dubai to Kathmandu, Nepal. We are going trekking for a few weeks on the Sailung trek (more west and lower altitude than the Annapurna circuit or the Everest area). We’ll also add three days at the end to explore the Chitwan National Park area in the more temperate lowlands.

A few things I’m delighted by:

* My mother is nearly 84 years old, and is alive and vibrant and healthy, and more than capable of handling a three week adventure like this. This is wonderful and special in so many ways.

* I get to have this amazing mother-daughter adventure. Of course, we’re bound to bump heads in the narrow quarters of our tent at some point. But how cool is this adventure we’ll have together?  That said, I will miss my David, who couldn’t clear his deck to join us.

* This is my second trip to Nepal. My mother, younger brother Andrew and I trekked the Annapurna Circuit in 1989. That was an amazing trip, oh so many years ago.

* The group we are trekking with has a ‘volun-tourism’ ethos: most of the treks include a day or two working in a village. Our trek won’t include that, but our fees and tips will go directly to the team of porters and crew from a village with whom the organizers have this invested relationship.

* As most of you know, this ‘gap’ year of mine has been, well, a bit challenging in unanticipated ways, and frankly, I’ve felt a bit disappointed. I’ve tried to reframe the narrative a bit, but mostly think parts of this year have just been crappy. But now I get to have this amazing adventure that will be an adventure no matter how it unfolds. That’s a narrative I’d like to work with.

We arrive in Kathmandu on Sunday, October 2, and our trek begins the 3rd. I won’t be posting to the blog while I’m away, nor will I be posting pictures to Instagram, as both power and cell service won’t be readily available.

I promise stories and pictures when I’m back.

With love,

Susan

 

Greatness Big and Small

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Since stepping away from my career as an executive in January, I’ve sought space and quiet to listen for insight about what might be next for me. I know that slowing down, nurturing my creativity and focusing on building habits of self-care are essential to that process. I have listened to my brain and mind for most of my life, and they have served me well. This gap year was intended to develop a more heart-centered approach to my life and work.

Round about August I got a little panicky about the future. I had been exploring the idea of enrolling in a life coach training program, and was as excited about the journey of discovery I’d be on as I was the picture of myself at the helm of a coaching business. Coaching has always been an interest, and I currently work with a few people. But suddenly I felt urgency about deciding on the training, and figuring out what was next. Part of the pressure was the deadline for the upcoming training session, but I knew that a fair amount of the urgency came from an untended well of questions about identity and purpose.

The idea of setting myself on a path to be a life coach – something I feel naturally and experientially inclined toward – answered so many of those questions. But the urgency was self-inflicted, a response to the discomfort of the untethered, highly disrupted, and confusing sort of year it has been. I realized (doh!) that the training and a coaching and consulting business would still be there for me if I decided I wanted it after listening to my heart rather than my brain (and the many shoulds that live there!).

I learned a valuable insight several years ago from a woman I took an art class with. We chatted one evening about navigating one’s path in the world, and she said the man who was coaching her told her to “listen to your inner voice” for guidance. She told him that she had many voices in her head, and asked how she would know which one to listen to… “That’s easy,” he replied, “listen to the one that’s kind. The voice that is kind and gentle is your true inner voice.” The loud, stringent voices are hard to ignore, and while even the harshest internal critic is trying to keep me safe, the methods are outdated and not useful to me anymore. I have to get very quiet to hear the kind voice, the one that knows my wants and needs better than I (consciously) do.

In all this sorting through “what to do next,” I have toggled back and forth between thoughts of doing great things in a small way – like working with individuals or consulting with small businesses or non-profits – or doing great things in a big way, like joining an organization with audacious goals and the potential to change the world, or at least a corner of it. The constant is my aspiration to do great things, which I define as making a difference, having integrity and high standards for myself and others. I want to continue to make a difference in the world, and I know that I can do so any number of ways.  My assumption has been that I while I’d be willing to work with large organizations, I wasn’t inclined to do so from inside the organization but rather as a consultant.

So I found myself surprised by my enthusiasm late last week when a friend forwarded a job description for a big job at an organization with audacious goals. Not at all the picture I had when I left my career in January, but one so aligned with my values, my experience and my aspirations, I am compelled. And watching my thoughts and feelings scramble about as I contemplated the role and putting my name in for consideration was an instructive adventure in itself.

I was drawn to the role, obviously, and recognized the “juice” of ambition the job description sparked in me. I realized that this would be an “all in” role, and likely wouldn’t allow me a flexible or reduced schedule, but that would be offset by the learning, the adventure, and the amazing potential of the role. I also entertained a litany of “not good enough” thoughts so common among us. I realized I wasn’t afraid of rejection per se — I have been seasoned by a career with many rejections, or as I have come to think of them, re-directions to something better. My core fear was being mocked for thinking I could compete, for having the hubris to raise to my hand.

But raise my hand I will. I’ll forward my interest and resume by tomorrow, and see what happens. If offered a chance to meet, I will be enthusiastic about the ways I can lead and contribute to the organization. I’ll be prepared to adjust to a future I hadn’t envisioned but would be excited about. If not, I have learned still more about myself: what calls to me, the ways I want to contribute to the world, and the many ways, big and small, I can be and do great things.