Nepal


This month, thousands of trekkers and climbers flock to Everest to try to their ice picks, crampons and telephoto lenses on the world’s largest pile of snow, ice and rock. Here, a few verbal snapshots from my journey to the Mother Mountain:

Treeline broke late this morning and spit us out into scrubby alpine tundra. We stopped for an early lunch in Shomare and I scrambled up the mountainside in search of a flat spot to stretch into some yoga and meditate. The Dudh Kosi (milk river) rolling below was the loudest sound in the air as I eased my muscles out of their stiff states and into fluidity. After stretching, I sat crass-legged on a rock, knees below the hips, back and neck in line, and I slid into the wind brushing my face, the water rushing below, the bold stature of Ama Dablam directly ahead, the endless ocean of snowy ridges stretching beyond the valley. I sat within, the whole world breathing and exhaling, all of its unified parts simply being, one. 

As we drew closer to Everest, the landscape became increasingly inhospitable. This from a village we reached two days before base camp:

Nuptse is growing as I write. Seriously, every time I look away and back again, the prominent peak appears even more enormous, unreal, as though it grows before my very eyes.

We are in Loboche, a dusty, lodge-dotted wasteland situated at 16,000 feet. The landscape is comprised of rocks, dirt, dead tundra grass, scree and, higher up, snow. Long rectangular stone lodges are the only buildings here and they are bustling with trekkers, scurrying around like Gor-Tex clad ants en route to Everest, Kala Pataar, Gokyo Lakes. Ponies and yaks, both here purely for the purpose of transporting gear and cargo, are the only animals present in the lunar surroundings.

The peaks, though, are mind-blowing. Six thousand and 7000 meter summits encase us from all angles. We are dwarves in their cold shadows. With each glance around, I see a new peak pop out of a ragged ridge line. The river is ice-crusted, an indication of temperatures to come? 

At the stone table where I sit outside, I overhear two Swedes, and Aussie and an American discussing the availability of Swedish meatballs in Thailand. A German man smokes a cigarette across the table from me. His climbing partner joins us and we all rest in the glaring sun, sharing this space at 16,000 feet. Despite our different backgrounds, we speak, in one sense, the same language: mountains.

Yak baring their burdens, 17,000 feet above sea level

Yak bearing their burdens, 17,000 feet above sea level

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“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quiestest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” – Pat Conroy

Early morning ski in Aspen

What is that feeling, the one that overtakes you when you remember a time, a place, a moment in your life when things were just so and you wish with all of your might you could return to that place, that state of being? We’ve all experienced this–a smell of food that takes us back to childhood, the tune of a song that stirs memories of a particular place . The feeling sometimes stays, sometimes flees as soon as it arrives. It can be triggered by a smell, sound, sight and is often at least somewhat emotionally connected. Our auditory and olfactory senses are two of the strongest carriers of these memories, which researchers credit to their location near the emotion processing centers of our brain.

Merriam Webster defines ‘nostalgia’ as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.” In the English language, nostalgia seems to be the word most closely related to these memories. In Portuguese the word saudade does not directly translate but refers to the feeling of longing for something lost that may never return. It has been also said to mean ‘the love that lingers, the love that stays,’ in relation to place, thing or person.

Lately, I have suadade for the Rockies, not just for the mountains themselves, but for the elated, adventurous experience of being in their presence. For being 22 years old and driving into a new life phase. For waking before dawn and hiking into alpine country to watch the sunrise wash the peaks gold. For the experience of being able to do that. Each time I hear a song by the folk group Mariee Sioux, I am rocketed back to an early morning in Aspen when I was just a bit younger than I am now, slightly more carefree and an entire mountainous playground sat at my feet. Despite how strong the memories remain, I will never again be that girl, in that place, at that time.

Travel is one the most influential harbingers of these nostalgic feelings, perhaps because the exact situations experienced during travel are so difficult to recreate. My first hours in Nepal were spent in a fragmented state of underslept shock. I had been in transit for nearly 30 hours and arrived in a tiny, hot airport where I was surrounded by other dazed travelers and stern looking Nepali officials who spoke in a language that meant absolutely nothing to me. Computers were absent; I felt like I’d stepped back to 40 years ago when modern technology was limited to telephones and color TVs. Out in the streets, I was bombarded with loud noises, cars swerving, colorful saris, throat choking exhaust, pulsing foreign humanity in every direction. My head throbbed at the sensory tidal wave and I could barely speak. Looking back, however, I sometimes long for that moment of arrival, and not just the physicality of it but the spirit, the newness, uncertainty, discomfort and the knowing feeling that I had entered a world and part of myself that I could never turn back from and never return to.

The presence of nostalgia and saudade inspire us to keep experiencing new things. We need to fill the ache of longing and so we do this by continuing to travel, to place ourselves in situations that expose those parts of ourselves that we otherwise might not know exist. To create the memories that keep us coming back for more.

Along the Annapurna, Nepal

I’m sitting on my inflated Thermarest camping mattress on the hardwood floor of my new room in Lower Haight. In the absence of furniture, my belongings are half-falling out of boxes and scattered around the hardwood floor, my yoga mat, Thermarest and sleeping bag are my bed, a box of books my computer stand, mug on the floor my water glass. I’ve entered the nesting phase of moving, that glorious span of days when my belongings explode out of their respective boxes, suitcases, containers and I can finally really see what I actually own. Much like the artist’s process of painting a rough outline of indiscernible shapes before filling in the details, this nesting phase is a vital part of the art of moving.

Moving, like creating art, is a continual process of refinement. We refine our understanding of ourselves and the world around us by observing  our reactions to new places and situations. We experience new things that we don’t like, that further solidify the things that we prefer. For instance, I once spent three months living in a yoga ashram. While it was an enlightening experience in more ways than one, it also confirmed that living situations that are far removed from the bustle and activity of the rest of the world do not suit me well. I like the option of being able to walk a couple of blocks, or right down the stairs, for a cup of coffee and hum of a coffee shop espresso machine. I enjoy witnessing others  living out their lives whether they are doing so on the quiet streets of Carbondale, Colorado or on the busy corner of Haight and Fillmore. Thanks to my experiences in a situation not ideal, I come closer to placing myself in a situation that is ideal. For some people this constant refinement of their opinions and desires is disconcerting, for others, it is fulfilling.

The most important thing to maintain while moving continuously is some sort of grounding force. For most people, a home, a kitchen, a bedroom, a lazyboy chair-those are the things that ground them. Location is foundation. For the nomad, foundation is more elusive, it needs to be fostered in ways beyond physical location. For me, a mug of fresh coffee in the morning–even when sipped to the chaotic rhythm of horns honking in Kathmandu–is foundation, gazing at my belongings spread out on an empty floor, the heart pounding effort of a long run through a new neighborhood. These are tangible pieces of connectedness that supersede a steady location.

Not to say having a solid homebase isn’t at times a wonderful and very welcome thing. That’s part of the art of moving, too: knowing when to stop. For now, even if only a six month span or so, I’m content to let my physical motion settle in the high ceilings of this old Victorian in Lower Haight, and for the refining process of this new living experience to begin.

Journal Entry from 11/8/09, written in Deboche, Khumbu region, Nepal

There’s frost everywhere. It crunches on my tent as I peel back the fly, crusts around the inner edge of the water bottle I kept in my tent last night, coats the grass outside like a thin layer of snow. My breath is solid as it exists my mouth, even in the lodge dining room where I sit writing. Three Nepali men are huddled around a sputtering potbelly stove. They crouch over cups of tea as the hissing yak dung slowly begins to burn.

In this cold morning light still pale on the Himalaya, every dark rocky rib and ridge of Ama Dablam’s peak is defined.

A pony wandered into or camp early this morning before the dawn had yet begun to grow. I was woken suddenly from a thin but cozy sleep by the tinkling of the pony’s bell. Had I not been caught half-awake in my sleepy stupor, I might’ve poked my head into the frigid are and seen its hardy little body illuminated by the glow of the moon in the backdrop of the mountains.

Special things happen when you ascend in altitude. Perhaps it is because so few people inhabit or ever experience these high places. It is as though the worlds so far above the common ground of sea level take on a special glow. The air breathes clearer, the sun shines more brightly. In the absence of abundant wildlife, every sound carries in it a crisp and distinct quality that often gets muffled among the many noises in lower, more hospitable lands. The open expansiveness of the mostly-barren landscape give me the feeling that I am witnessing a land, a life, truly authentic, as though simply by my being here, it is being seen for the first time.

After tea yesterday afternoon, I wandered back up the dusty stone step trail to Tengboche. The snaking rhododendron branches and leaves glowed silver in the fading evening light. The forest was quiet–a perfect, peaceful silence broken only by the sound of a distant pony bell, the labored breathing of a porter as he hoofed his burden past me. In the open village yard of Tengboche, I watched Buddhist monks in rich burgundy robes throw a blue plastic frisbee. Thick, white mist swirled through the valley and across the surrounding peaks. Every so often a ragged pink ridge would reveal itself, otherwise the mountains were silently elusive, veiled in a shifting sea of white vapor.

I once embarked on a seven-week game of Rummy. It began on the blue carpeted floor of the San Francisco International Airport, my travel companion Andy and I crouched over our fresh deck of colorful, cartoon flower adorned San Francisco playing cards that slapped together stiffly as we tried to shuffle them. The playful flowers reminded me of Dolores Park, a memory of a sunset spent sitting in the grass there that would return to me nearly every time we shuffled the deck during our seven week journey through Nepal. In those hours before our flight left for Kathmandu, an epic card game was born that would not only test our minds and skills but also provide distraction, resolve and sometimes even comfort, particularly as we ascended in altitude.

I can’t remember now which of us had the initial idea for the game; I don’t think we’d ever played together before that afternoon in the airport. Like most great ideas, though, once it was born it grew legs, took on a whole life of its own. Before long we were playing while sipping Everest beers in Thamel, dueling on the sun-drenched patio of Kathmandu’s Hotel Malla, killing time in the mess tent on the Annapurna trek while the cook crew prepared dinner. Andy got in the habit of constantly keeping the deck at hand so at any moment we were ready to duke it out again, to add to the running score he kept track of in his pocket-sized green journal. We invited our trek companions Mark, Peggy and Carolyn to join. At first they resisted but when Mark and Peggy decided to give it a try, the stakes grew with our increased numbers and soon we were all irresistibly hooked. The challenge became who could get the highest score at the highest altitude–we had our sights set on the 17,868 foot summit of the Thorong La, but would settle for 16,000 foot base camp if we were too loopy at the top. It turns out we were too cold–who knew the wind could whip so cold and so fierce above 17,000 feet?!

The game provided a distraction on those chilly, thin-aired evenings when at 7 p.m. it was too early to go to sleep after we finished dinner, but conversation was as thin as the air outside and we needed something to keep us awake a little longer so as to avoid waking at 3 a.m., ready to start walking. In the dim candlelight of the shadowy mess tent we’d pass around the chia (tea) and tato dudh (hot milk), and, if we were lucky and it was on the table, the Borne Vita, India’s version of Ovaltine. Round after round we played, passing the shuffle and deal to the left, tallying scores that extended far beyond 500. I learned the strategies of my companions, knew to watch Peggy’s pick ups and discards (she was a shark that always seemed to go out when we all least expected), kept track of the cards around the table, could almost determine who had what and which of my cards was consequently safe to discard. Rummy became more than a game during those later days on the Annapurna, it was an art, a dance to be gracefully, tactfully practiced. We had our final performance in the village of Dhampus, the striking angled summit of the Fish Tailed peak, Macchapucchare, fading into dusky evening as our last cards hit the table and scores were tallied. The funny thing is, I don’t even remember the score. Maybe Peggy won, she among us was the most likely to have done so, but the scores were simply a fun addition to the game, hardly a reason for playing.

Andy and I continued our game–now four weeks strong–as we headed into the Khumbu region, setting our sights to the great and almighty Everest–Base Camp, that is, no serious mountaineering expeditions for us aside from our Imje Tse (Island Peak, 20,300 feet) aspirations (which failed). From the start we insisted our new trek companion, Casey, was welcome to play, but Andy and I were too deep in the groove of our month-old endeavor for a newcomer to jump in, and so the game truly became a game of two. And it was harder. With fewer cards out at any given time, I couldn’t really be sure of Andy’s hand. My playing grew sloppy and I blamed the altitude which increased steadily as we ascended the valley toward Everest. I remember one particular afternoon in Pheriche, a lunar landscaped village set well above tree line at 13,900 feet. Andy and I split a can of Everest beer, a can mind you, and got a buzz on while we worked our card skills. Two days later on arrival at Gorak Shep, the last stop before Everest Base Camp, we played a couple of rounds and I was pleasantly surprised at my general level of brain function at that altitude. The pleasant feeling was short-lived, was hastily replaced by the very unpleasant effects of altitude that set in deeply that evening and stayed for several days beyond. Few rummy games were played during those rough days of stomach aches, head aches and general malaise, those nights of patchy, shallow breathed sleep that sometimes left me gasping for air.

Eventually, our time in the Khumbu ended, stomach aches ceased, sleep returned, heads cleared and Andy and I found ourselves back in the bustling, friendly chaos of Kathmandu. We were then nearing Week 7 of play, our highest altitude being nearly 17,000 feet at Gorak Shep. Though Kathmandu sits at a mere 4,500 feet, our highest altitude game awaited us still, this time on the legendary summit of Rum Doodle, 40,000 1/2 feet above the sea.

There was no high altitude approach to this peak, no break in tree line, no drop in temperature or increase in wind speed. We stumbled upon the base of Rum Doodle after winding our way down a crooked Thamel alleyway. An easy climb up worn wooden stairs brought us to what could be the most domesticated summit on earth: wooden tables, soft music, a roaring fireplace and a full bar. Well then, forget Everest beer! How about a rum and coke? One of our final games ensued that evening as Andy pulled out the deck and I shuffled the cards, now soft and giving from so much play. I smiled at the flowers and San Francisco emblem printed on the back of each card. San Francisco–I’d soon be there, and for a moment, I was. But then my shuffle and bridge lent themselves to a stack which I dealt and the game was on again, just as it had been for weeks. From the beginning of one journey to the end, the cards kept playing.

To this day, I still don’t remember the score.

A journal entry from one particularly long night on the Annapurna trail when we were treated to some unexpected evening entertainment.

Barking dogs formed the symphony of the Himalaya last night as we attempted to sleep in a chicken yard in Ghasa, a village along the west side of the Annapurna circuit. First a dog on the path outside our yard started up with a few insistent barks at some unknown intruder, which then set off a dog across the river. The echoes from that dog’s howl carried farther up the valley to where another dog lay awake and pretty soon he joined the chorus only to be joined by innumerable others. It was an exponential progression that reached its great crescendo some time around 1am. Just as the barks were tapering off, one of the porters sleeping upstairs in the lodge had to use the toilet, which is in a shack in the chicken yard. Well, the door to the toilet shack squeaks, and apparently when the first porter woke to go pee, he woke a second porter, who woke a third and so on and so forth until the squeaky bathroom shack was a constant revolving door as one after the other after the other fulfilled his midnight quest for relief.

At last the dogs were settled, the porters had all peed and only the gently rushing waterfall draping down the opposite wall of the valley filled the night air. Really though, it may as well have been broad morning daylight; I was awake as could be  (as I’d been since the first dog started on hours before). So I laid for a while and stared at my dark tent ceiling, letting my mind wheels turn as the water fell down the hillside. I picked up my worn copy of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and nearly finished its pages (which I hoped to stretch for five more days), plugged in my earphones for a little while and listened to Iron and Wine croon. I thought about sleep and thought about life and all of those things but they all alluded me, especially sleep. So I laid, and I waited.

I didn’t need to wait long before the dog outside caught whiff of a scent it didn’t like and the symphony began again. I was a sleeping bag and tent zipper away from stepping out and throwing my boot right in the barking dog’s face but I didn’t think that a very Buddhist thing to do and as we are passing through mostly Buddhist villages where my foreign status already feels a bit intrusive, I decided it wise to wait things out. So I thought a little more. I tried sleeping on my left side, rolled over to my right side, spent a few brief minutes on my stomach and settled on my back. Just as sleep was sinking in and I lost my awareness that it was, the first light of morning sun crested the valley ridge. There was no more sleep for me, the porters started peeing and hacking and carrying on, the kitchen boys fired up their kerosene stoves and put their pots of water to boil, the roosters started screaming the news: the sun is rising! Then, of course, I had to pee and it was really all over, which wasn’t so awful considering that I had gone to sleep when the sun fell around 8:30, but still it was a long night spent waiting around for something that left as soon as it arrived.

The air outside my tent flaps was cool and brisk. I watched sunlight creep down the green valley wall and shivered at the dew that wet my bare toes as I stepped onto the grass. Another breathtaking morning in Nepal, who could be so lucky? I sighed and glanced around as I headed toward the bathroom. There was not a dog in sight.

I bet they were sleeping.


Tea in the chicken yard before the dogs began barking

Picture the most beautiful place you’ve ever been. Multiply that beauty to the point that it becomes unreal. Imagine walking among that beauty for weeks on end, your heart nearly bursting it is so swollen with realization and disbelief that so beautiful a place can exist on earth. Welcome to Nepal.

Along the Annapurna

Settled around 11,000 feet, Ghyaru is a magical village

View from camp at 16,000 feet

A porter with the great Niligiris rising in the background

Maila and me, cracking nuts with a rock

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