Adventure in Nepal




Dee Canfield

 
Copyright 2019 by Dee Canfield


 

Photo of Dee on an elephant ride.

The cable car came to a complete stop and we were dangling over a deep green mountain valley in Nepal, almost 4,000 feet below. We are stuck Bhim, my Nepali guide told me. Dont worry he said. They will fix it soon. I had arrived in the country in the season of Dashain, the 15-day Hindu religious holiday, and we had just come from visiting the Manakamana Temple on the mountaintop, where prayers and incense had been offered during the sacrifices of goats that had taken place. Besides Bhim and myself, there were two other men in the car. One of them was holding a plastic bag, from which a few drops of blood slowly dripped onto the floor, a remnant of an earlier sacrifice.

It is okay Bhim said. Sometimes these things happen. I smiled and told him that I was alright. And I was surprised to find I was not worried, but instead I felt over-the-moon happy. I was in Nepal on an adventure of a lifetime, having hired Bhim as my guide, upon the recommendation of a friend. Had I known of this experience, along with many of the other adventurous mishaps that were to occur, perhaps I wouldnt have taken this journey. But all my life I had wanted to have a great adventure in an exotic, far-off land and, at age 67, I had decided that it was a was a now or never type of situation. If I didnt do it now, I told myself, I would never go. So I decided to bypass my fear and make the journey. I had always loved the adventure of traveling solo, and so I came to Nepal alone.

I had not witnessed any of the sacrifices, but had been fascinated in the walk to the temple complex, first through the market place, alive with vendors hawking their wares, immersed in the sounds of the Nepali language, the sound of temple bells, and the bright colors of beautiful saris worn by all the women. I appeared to be the only Westerner in the entire crowd and I had been absorbed by every thing I heard and saw.

The temple complex was jammed with people. Some were sitting with offerings of incense and flowers; some were reading religious texts; others were giving and receiving the tikka blessing (a mark on the forehead made with a red powder-like substance), and family groups were talking and taking photographs. Many people were standing in line with their goats, waiting to go into the area where the animals would see their last minutes. Other people were going into other areas of the complex where incense was burning and bells were being rung.

I was about one week in to my four week journey that was to include an airplane ride around Mount Everest, an elephant ride in Chitwan jungle, a trek up the mountains to the villages of Chisopani and Nagarkot, a stay at my guides mountain home, several days of work, helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, and sightseeing in Kathmandu. But, as arduous as the trip was to be, it was not as difficult as the inner work it had taken to get myself there in the first place.

For years I had dreamed of such a trip and for months I made my plans. I bought all sorts of clothes and gear and I researched and bought an insurance policy as well as coverage for the return of remains (all part of the standard policy recommended by Habitat). I read up on all the health issues and ways to protect myself and to stay healthy. I got vaccinations, got prescriptions filled, and signed up for the State Departments travel alerts about Nepal. I purchased a book to learn some of the language and then I began to practice squats in anticipation of the toilet situation and reminded myself that I would have to use bottled water to brush my teeth. And all the while I began to experience terrible, gnawing apprehensions that grew into a terrible anxiety. What am I thinking?!? Doing this at my age?

After several weeks of worry, I took a big step back and decided that I needed to not be such a control freak. I began to pray. I prayed to be of one mind, and that I would be fully committed to going. I told myself that there was nothing that would prevent me from flying to Kathmandu. I determined that, even if I turned around and came home on the next flight, I was going to Nepal!

Back in the cable car, it was very warm and sunny and, after a few more minutes of waiting, we heard a clunk" and the whirr of a motor and then felt a bit of a jolt and the cable car began its way back down, finally depositing us at the foot of the mountain. I breathed a sigh of relief, so grateful to be on this journey and happy that I had overcome my fears. I wouldn't have missed this trip for anything; for, indeed, it did turn out to be the adventure of a lifetime.

* * * * *

On my first day, after arriving in Nepal, Bhim hired a driver who took us everywhere around the city. We spent most of our time at Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples. Nepal is about 84% Hindu and about 14% Buddhist. "We all get along," Bhim said. "We all like each other." In fact, I have read that there are many places where beliefs and practices of both religions coalesce into one, and I was to experience examples of that blending of religious cultures during my time there.

One of my very favorite travel experiences occurred at the huge Boudhanath Stupa. Tibetan merchants have rested and offered prayers there for centuries and it is the center of Tibetan Buddhist worship in Nepal. When refugees entered Nepal from Tibet in the 1950s, many decided to live in the area.

There was a combination of tourists, pilgrims, worshipers, and monks in yellow shirts and red robes. Tibet has always had a sense of great mystery and romance for me, and I have had a deep longing to visit. And in this moment I had a taste of that country We walked around the stupa for some time. The huge circular white stupa sits on a site that is encircled by many interconnected buildings. Inside one of them was a beautiful temple and I entered and looked around for several minutes. Later, high up in another part of the building complex, we heard monks slowly playing the large drum and cymbals and I was simply transported. And when I heard the sound of that incredible long horn, it carried me away in my imagination to the tall mountainous regions of Tibet. Being there in that moment was utterly magical for me.

We went next to the Pashupatinath Temple a huge complex of Hindu temples in another part of the city. Bhim told me that today, the first day of the 15-day religious festival of Dashain, was the day wherein people remembered their dead family members. There were groups of people sitting picnic-style, offering up food and herbs and spices all along a huge, three-tiered structure along a river. Across the river we could see a group preparing a body for cremation and then carrying the body to the place where it was burned. The air was filled with sounds of an occasional drum and horn that announced parts of various ceremonies that were going on in temples all along the riverbank.

The experiences of the streets were something else. Many "streets" are simply bumps and dips and loose rocks, all narrow, all congested, with cars and people and motorbikes, rickshaws, cows, dogs, and people bicycling while carrying tall loads of bananas or snacks or baskets of baby chickens. I had never ever seen traffic like this. People in Nepal drive on the left side of the road (more or less). Almost on every block we weaved in between foot traffic and cars and all of the things mentioned above. Many a time we came just within what appeared to be a couple of inches of the other vehicles. Many a time pedestrians would direct traffic, helping an overloaded rickshaw make a difficult turn so that a small van, crowded with people could get through, but waiting until a man moved a ladder, while looking out for the toddlers that were playing right next to the route of traffic. I have never squeezed my way in between moving vehicles before, but that's the way Bhim went, and so I followed.

* * * * *

On my second day in Nepal we began a two-day trek - first to the village of Chisopani, then, the second day, on to Nagarkot. Bhim hired Umesh (a young man as a porter for my backpack and gear), and a driver who took the three of us to the drop off point on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

I was so happy to be in the clear, fresh air of the countryside after the congestion of the city. The scenery was lush and beautiful. We climbed up and up amongst green vistas and the sound of waterfalls cascading down the hillsides. Although the surrounding scenery was gorgeous, I was a bit disconcerted in that the first portion of our climb was on very steep concrete steps. They went on for quite a long ways. I thought it was fortunate that the steps were at the beginning of our climb, since they would be quite a challenge once I was worn down and tired. And I was glad I had invested just a few dollars for a pair of trekking poles, since I had to use them to hoist myself up every step.

We continued to climb past waterfalls and up and up and up. As we climbed I asked Bhim if there would be very many more steps. "Yes, there are some," he said. We passed by small houses with goats and chickens and children with bare feet in the yards. There were some occasional entrepreneurs along the way people had set up little tables and had glass cases of cookies and chips and bottles of Coke. We climbed and climbed, and I occasionally stopped to catch my breath.

After about two hours of steep steps and subsequent steep rocky paths, we stopped for lunch at a little house. Fortunately, there were already nine customers on the front porch, which meant we had to wait at least an hour for our meal. I was most grateful for the rest.

The three of us sat and conversed about everything - politics and religion, the world, our families, our hopes and dreams I do mean everything. We were sitting in the back yard of the place at a little table under an umbrella. The perimeter of the yard was surrounded by marigolds that were four and five feet tall. Down below was the valley from which we had ascended. I looked at the mountains around us and asked how tall they were. "They aren't mountains. They only about eight or nine thousand feet. They are hills!" Bhim said. I asked him for his definition of a mountain and was a bit taken aback when he replied, "About 19,000 feet!

After lunch we resumed our hike. I had been told that children like to receive pencils. Rather than buying the kind that had to be sharpened, I had bought about three dozen of the kind that did not. I also bought packets of little notebooks, thinking it wasn't much good to give a kid a pencil if they had nothing to write on. At one point we passed a little house with a little girl and I said the word, "Pencil?" which she immediately understood. She held out her little hands with such anticipation and when I showed her the notebook she was so delighted. She took them into her hands and gave me such a look of happiness.

Nepal is an astounding place. It is filled with poverty and squalid living conditions, both in the city and in the countryside. But as the country itself is so incredibly beautiful, the people are even more so. They have nothing materially speaking, but they meet you as equals, with self-respect, sincerity, and such kindness. They have nothing but what they have made out of what is available to them. We saw houses made of bamboo poles and tin roofs, houses made of mud made of whatever people could scrounge from their environment. Each person gave me a warm smile and a kind Namaste, placing their hands together, prayer position, at their forehead. I was beginning to wish I had bought a suitcase or two full of shoes and clothes and had hired extra porters to climb through the villages with me. What I gave them was nothing. What they gave me was priceless.

We continued to climb. I asked Bhim if there were very many more stairs. "Yes, there are some more," was always his reply. I asked him how much longer. "Oh, maybe half an hour." We continued to climb and as I saw a child we would stop and offer a notebook and pencil. Invariably, when I had given gifts to one child, another child and another would come running. They simply stood and looked, and when I offered the notebook and pencil, each one seemed more delighted than the last. Many of them said, "Namaste," some of them, "Thank you. We finally reached a little settlement where I gave out the last of the notebooks and pencils. As we were leaving another little girl came running up, but I was out of notebooks. I couldn't bear the look of disappointment, so I offered her three pencils and my apology.

At about 5 p.m. we reached the high point that was decorated with Buddhist prayer flags and they took a photograph of my triumph. "How much do you think we climbed?" I asked Bhim. "Oh between 3,500 and 4,000 feet. Somewhere in there."

If only I had known what lay ahead I might not have felt so triumphant. NOW we had to go down AND it was beginning to get dark. There were no more stairs only a steep, rocky path filled with jagged rocks. I took one slow, deliberate step at a time. I didn't look around me or up or at anything but my feet. A sprained ankle would be a big problem probably solvable somehow, but not a problem I wanted to deal with. We made our way down slowly and the twilight got dimmer and dimmer and dimmer.

I pulled my little Petzl headlight out of my backpack and put the band around my forehead. I turned on my light and asked Bhim to go in front of me. I grasped the strap of his backpack at his shoulder with my right hand and held the trekking pole in my left hand. Umesh had his own tiny hand-held light and he went on before us. I didn't look up because when I saw the steep trail that lay ahead it was too terrible to contemplate. It was better to look down and concentrate on each step I had to make. I would stab before every step, making sure the pole was secure. It got very, very, very dark and all we could see was each little bit of rock as it came within the small range of light.

Now dew was falling and places were getting slippery and small snakes and large spiders began to appear on the trail. My clothes and hat were drenched with sweat and I began to feel cold. I had to go to the bathroom and my nose was running and drool was running down the side of my mouth. And then a moth began to dance in my headlight, and then another moth and another and then I had to blow/spit the moths as they began to fly into my mouth, but I was remarkably calm. I had been silently praying almost all of the day and I really intensified my prayers now.

"All is good," I said to Bhim. "All is good. I am very happy." And somehow I did feel deeply, truly, unexplainably happy. Perhaps some kind of natural drug was coursing through my limbs and brain because I also felt absolutely no fear. After about an hour and half of going down in absolute, complete darkness, we made it to our place of refuge.

As we entered, there was a group of eight Germans enjoying their meal at a long table. They gave us a bit of a stare. "Are we so unusual?" I wondered to myself. We climbed upstairs to the sleeping quarters. The toilet and shower were next to each other, both behind large, ugly metal doors. The "shower" consisted of a faucet in the wall with a bucket underneath and now I was faced with my first opportunity to use a non-European toilet.

After resting a bit I went back downstairs where it was still dark, save the candle on the Germans table and the candle that lit up the second table, where I sat with my two companions and the Germans' porters. I sat and waited for my food. The trek that had been predicted to take about four hours had taken ten. As I waited for my food, I watched a moth slowly die and a small black bug crawl over the table. The soup and the food were good and hot; and after eating, I went back up to my room. As I was taking things out of my backpack, I found three more notebooks notebooks I could have given to that little girl. What with the adrenalin, the exhaustion, and the overwhelming emotion of the day, I thought of her with three pencils and no notebook to write in, and I began to sob.

* * * * *

The next day we were to hike to Nagarkot. Our day began early. "Today's walking will not be as difficult," Bhim told me. Fortunately, what he said turned out to be pretty true. By this I don't mean to imply he had previously lied to me, although he had been circumspect at times: "Are there many more stairs?" "Yes, there are some." "Do we have much farther?" "Yes, a little ways." Over time I came to understand the differences we have regarding evaluating difficulty and length and the time it would take for a particular section of a walk.

I had specifically told Bhim my age and relative physical condition before I hired him, hoping to give him some understanding as to what my physical limitations might be. However, women my age in Nepal can squat, sit on the ground, stand up in a spritely manner, work the fields, pick loads of greens, and carry them with tump lines across their foreheads all uphill for miles. He was judging me by the women in his own culture. This is just one example of learning about each other and our differences and figuring out how to accommodate them.

I knew I could make it for a few hours, but last night Bhim had said "For you, it will take ten hours to reach Nagarkot." As we walked I turned to Bhim with a determined look and said, I am not going to walk ten hours today. I know I cannot do that. We need to make a different plan."

We walked for a while and then Bhim said that when we get to a small village he would see if he could get a bagel. We walked in silence for a few moments and then I asked him, "Bhim, what did you say we could get?" He repeated it two or three times and then I finally understood Bee-a-kul!" It became apparent to me that the V sound is not in the Nepali alphabet.

We had begun walking about 7:15 a.m., and at about noon we stopped at one of the two villages that are between Chisopani and Nagarkot. It was comprised of two or three restaurants and houses. We had "Nepali food" (dal bhat - lentils and rice), then Bhim told me there was no bus to Nagarkot. "We can stay here," he said. But I had no desire to stay "here." I asked how far it was and he told me "It will take us about three hours. I told him, "Let's just go!

At that point the road began to climb. And climb. And climb. The road wound around the mountainside and as I would see the next turn I would hope for a flat surface; however, that would turn out to be another steep climb. We went up and around hill after hill after hill. It was one nearly impossible steep climb after another. At one point I began to cry with exhaustion. Fortunately I was ahead of Bhim and Umesh (they allowed me to set the pace) so they couldn't see me. I allowed myself a few tears but then I wiped them dry. At that point I began to rely on what seemed like pure willpower.

I looked up and saw what looked to be a hotel far up on another hillside. "That's not where we are going is it?" I asked Bhim. "No, that's not the place," he said. I breathed a sigh of relief, since it was so far away. But there was little cause for celebration because, as it turned out, that indeed wasn't the place we were going. We were climbing even farther!

But we made it to what turned out to be a rather nice hotel and, after we had checked in to our respective rooms, I sat on the terrace outside my room, surrounded by beautiful potted plants. We were up almost in the clouds. Terraced rice and millet fields cascaded down the mountainsides, valley after valley after valley - it was green, green, green everywhere, and it was astounding. I could sense the mysterious presence of the Himalayas around us, high and cloud-covered and far beyond the treetops that surrounded the hotel. I was in warm sunshine and mist, and the air began to be filled with the sound of locusts. High above there were wispy, diaphanous clouds that swirled like smoke against a pale blue sky. Black kites and crows soared high up here, and the echoes of their caws could be heard as they glided above the gently curved terraced farms that wound all the way down the hillsides into valley after valley below.

* * * * *

The next day was a rest day and I took a very brief walk into the village. Like almost everywhere else, the village was quite sad and dilapidated, very drab and dreary like most other places in Nepal, there was rubble everywhere. There were bricks stacked everywhere or laying on the ground, higgledy-piggledy fashion. I couldn't tell if buildings were in the process of being torn down, possibly being renovated, or simply falling apart. This was much more the case in the cities, but even here in this small village I found the same phenomenon.

For the first few days in Nepal I couldn't stop my gaping and wonder and internal running commentary on the poverty and living conditions that I saw. At first I had feelings of pity; however, I very soon came to understand that to pity these people is an inappropriate response. First of all, I am judging them by a standard of living and cultural values which do not apply to their reality. Secondly, even though they have nothing, they meet you as equals. They obviously do not regard their self-worth in terms of their material possessions, or lack of them, but from a deeper, truer source.

I kept on thinking of the Bible verse: "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." And bit by bit I became able not to ignore or become hardened by what I saw, but rather to simply accept that this is how life is and to honor each person, and to greet each person's humility and kind "Namaste" with compassion and respect and a "Namaste" of my own.

These people have nothing materially, but I have seen more gentle kindness here than anywhere in the wealth of the West. Every time I left a shop without buying anything I felt very sad because just the equivalent of a few US pennies could make a difference in their day; however, whenever I left without buying there was often a warmth in their large brown eyes and, with a smile, they wished me well.

I made my way up the road and soon realized I should never have ventured out without Bhim. When I was in his company, our conversation occupied my mind and allowed me some respite from feelings created by the conditions through which we traveled. But now I was assailed by a little boy who wanted to sell me postcards. How could I tell him no? And so I bought. And then another little boy with a canvas bag approached me with some nice calendars. "They will make nice little gifts for people back home," I thought, and so I asked the price.

He wanted two hundred rupees for each calendar. "How much for three?" I asked. "Six hundred," he said. But I only had five hundred rupee notes so I held up three fingers and pointed to the calendars and say "Three calendars for five-hundred?" He agreed and we began to make the transaction.

An older woman who had been standing nearby came over and began to speak angrily in Nepali, first to the boy, and then to me. I assumed that she was angry at me for some reason and I just stood there, not sure what to do, and the next thing I knew, the boy said, "Okay, bye bye lady" and he ran away.

Then she pointed in another direction and says, "One fifty," and then she pointed to the boy who was running and said, "Two hundred!" She was angry because she thought the boy overcharged me by a few pennies and this was not right, in her opinion.

"It's okay. Okay!" I said and then I turned to the little girl who was standing shyly beside the woman and said "Namaste" to her. The woman calmed down and explained in very rough and limited English that her son lived in Kathmandu and this was his daughter. "My bebe," she said proudly.

"You sons?" she asked. I held up two fingers. "Two." She looked at me with awed, approving eyes and said, "Two sons! Very good!" Then, in pantomime fashion, I molded one son and his wife and a second son and his wife and their three children and she smiled in understanding.

Then she pointed across the dirt road and says "House, come" and she picked up the little girl and jumped the little gully between the road and hill and then nimbly climbed up the natural dirt steps that have been shaped by her feet over many years.

We made it to the outside of her house a little shack and she pulled out a very small stool, about about one and a half inches off the ground. She proudly motioned for me to sit. As I was determining how I would get down there gracefully (and then get back up again) she made another sound, urging me to take the seat of honor.

I managed to sit and then found I was in the direct line of smoke from a slow burning fire at the side of her house, where she was cooking her rice for the day. We managed to struggle through some more conversation, after which I made my way back to my hotel.

The next day, as we were leaving the village, I happened to see her as our car passed her house. I quickly rolled down the window and waved. Just as our car turned the corner she looked up to see me and she waved back. God bless her!

* * * * *

"Asian drivers different from everybody else," Bhim had said to me on our first day driving around Kathmandu. "Yes, I've never ever seen anything like it" I had replied. Little did I realize the full significance of those words until the day that we made our way on a drive down to Chitwan, to spend a couple of days in the jungle. "Harrowing" doesn't begin to describe my ride.

A couple of days after our trek we got in the private car Bhim had rented with a driver who appeared to be no more than about fifteen years old. Well, this was THE day that everyone was trying to leave Kathmandu to go home for the festival and the city traffic was appalling. Absolutely unbelievable! With all I knew and anticipated about Nepal, I had not expected that every vehicle would be powered with filthy diesel. It took us a couple of hours to make our way out of the congested traffic in the city. But then we were in for a different kind of adventure. There were not only cars with reasonable amounts of people; there were huge, colorful buses jammed with people inside and on top. Also on top were suitcases and goats (being taken to the villages for ritual slaughter). Approaching us on the other side of the highway were large tourist buses and huge trucks; truck after truck after truck bringing in goods of all sorts from India. They were painted in many bright colors and adorned with colorful streamers and many had incense burners on their front grilles. There were also tuk tuks and motorbike after motorbike after motorbike, and everyone was in a race to see who could reach their destination first.

Fortunately, we were on a paved road that was in fairly reasonable condition; however, it was winding, winding, winding, with many blind curves. There were only a relatively few stretches where you could actually see what was coming, and there were steep drop-offs at every stretch of the road, all the way until the end of the journey when we arrived at our destination on the Terai, the extension of the Indian plain, where the jungle in Chitwan is located.

It was wild. We were passing people while others were trying to pass us, just as oncoming vehicles were approaching with someone trying to pass them. But somehow, at the last moment, everyone sailed into two lines, just missing each other by literally inches. Sometimes the large, over-packed busses would lean and veer into us as they made the sharp turns; however all of the goats placidly maintained their footing while gazing straight ahead and they didn't seem fazed at all.

Vehicles would ride three alongside, all veering for the first position, and as an oncoming vehicle approached, order would somehow be restored in an instant. There was no rhyme nor reason as to who would go first, but split-second decisions were made and there were two single files again. There were times when I felt I was watching a road race and times I felt I was in a road race. I found myself silently rooting us on "Come on! come on! come on! you can do it!" and other times when I just put my face in my hat not only to avoid watching, but to give my lungs some respite from all the diesel fumes as well. It was tragic to see all the greenery along the roadside all dust-covered and white in the pall of diesel fumes filling the beautiful countryside.

Nepals geography is fascinating. The country is approximately the width of Illinois. If one visualizes the Chitwan jungle at the Illinois western border on the Mississippi River, then in the relatively short distance of a couple of hundred miles, Mount Everest would be in the location of Chicago. From jungle to highest mountain range in the world Nepal provides quite dramatic and varied scenery.

* * * * *

After a good nights sleep in a comfortable bed with ample mosquito netting I awakened and showed up for breakfast at 6:30. The highlight for me was to be seeing the elephants. However, the night before Bhim had asked if I wanted to go in a canoe ride to see if we could spot some crocodiles. The thing is Bhim said we have to walk back and there might be rhinos. If we one, you will have to run. That gave me some pause; however, I figured I did not come all the way to Nepal to sit in my room, so I said Id like to take the canoe ride.

Down at the beach there were several dugout canoes with little wooden chairs (seats and backs only, with no legs) hanging over the side of each one. Our guide got in, put a chair down and invited the first tourist to sit. A chair was provided for each of us in this manner. One guide stood at the back with his long pole and another guide stood in the front, narrating our journey.

It was early and the river was very very peaceful and quiet and quite lovely. There was only the calm, gliding river and the thick, long, reedy grasses that grow along each bank. Our guide pointed out the trees from whence the canoes were fashioned. Each canoe is an entire tree and is dug out by hand. He explained that earlier peoples had lived off the river and that the canoes had been an item of everyday use; however, once agriculture took on a more significant role, canoes were less used. Now they are more for tourists, he explained.

The guide constantly looked through his binoculars and at one point whispered "Crocodile!" We all strain to see a croc with only his eyes sticking out of the water. Several minutes later we see another. "We usually see more," the guide says, but there was barely any protection offered by our slight craft and so I was happy we didnt experience any closer encounters. Our canoe was guided to the bank were we disembarked and given instructions to stay close to each other and to use our eyes and our ears as we walked through the jungle. I walked right up in front behind him and in front of Bhim, feeling somewhat comforted, being surrounded by two fellows who knew a something about the environment.

We walked for an hour or more, then came to a rhino hole a large pool of muddy water; however, as I'm getting ready to take a photograph, I found the guide and Bhim are busy down at my feet. "Leeches," Bhim says, as he and the guide furiously picked them off my pants. Some were burrowing into the fabric and already into my skin, but the two men worked fast. I lifted up my pants legs a leech was making its way into my leg. They picked it off and flick it into the bushes. "Leeches hurt nothing," the guide said. "They just suck your blood and then fall to the ground," and I think, "Oh well then, no problem I thought.

That afternoon we went to the elephant breeding center and saw many elephants - moms and dads and babies and teens. In the education center there were posters providing information, including a list of about twenty or so commands that elephants learn. Some of them were very specific: "Walk up to that elephant and stand on its left side." -- Leave it" --- "Lay down on your right side" --- "Pick it up" --- "Go faster" -- Stop." I was quite impressed by learning that the elephant had such an understanding of human language.

Later that afternoon we took a jeep ride out to the elephant docking stations and I climbed onto an elephant and rode through the jungle for two hours. What a thrill that was! There were four of us riding in the "carriage." I was riding in the front, right behind the mahout (the elephant driver) and he told me a lot about elephants and their lives. I learned that elephants begin to "work" (carry riders) at about age 10 and do so up until 60 or 70. Also, the mahout said he is always with the same elephant. "Different elephant, very dangerous," he said. Also, he told me that it is impossible to escape from a wild elephant. "If you run, they can run faster. If you climb a tree, they can knock it down. A bigger tree you can't climb. All you can do is pray," he said.

* * * * *

"Please go slowly!" I called out, even surprising myself as the ambulance driver made a fast, ultra-sharp turn on our way up the mountain to Bhims home. Bhim spoke in Nepali to the driver then said to me "You are frightened?" The driver turned to me and smiled. "Yes, a little," I said.

After leaving the Chitwan jungle, we visited the aforesaid Manakamana Temple. And after coming back down in the cable car, Bhim had asked our driver to take us to the small village of Dhading, where he arranged for us to ride up the mountain in an ambulance to his village, where we were to spend a couple of days at his home.

The ambulance driver and his companion rode in front and, in the back, which would maybe comfortably hold about four people, there were nine of us, along with ambulance equipment, backpacks, suitcases, and packages. With every bump and steep ascent and twisting, winding turn I was jostled, shaken and stirred. I was bouncing up and down and then trying to hold the end of the seat so as to avoid sliding into Bhim's lap. For the longest while I braced myself against the little white metal medicine cabinet opposite me. Whenever I would try to sit up to stretch my neck we would invariably hit a major bump and I would hit my head. Whenever I would think that it couldn't get any worse it did.

In many instances the smoothest part of the dirt road was far over on the edge which is where the driver drove most of the time. From my vantage point it always appeared as if we were nosing ourselves directly over the edge of a steep drop to far down below. But this did not seem to bother anyone other than me, as the conversation carried on in a constant chatter while loud Nepali music blared over the radio.

"The roads are not built for cars" Bhim yelled in my ear. "They were made for people to walk." Someone else had told me that, as scary is it was going up, that it was not as dangerous as coming back down. I was to appreciate truth of that comment during our descent a few days later.

After two hours we arrived at Bhim's house at the top of the mountain, where his wife, Apshara, his nine year-old son, and his 16 year-old daughter were waiting to great us. The children, like their father both spoke some English; however, Bhims wife did not, yet she gave me a shy smile of welcome.

Several other people were sitting on a small wall surrounding the courtyard in front of the house, or on the hard-packed dirt floor of the courtyard itself. Bhim explained that they were relatives who lived nearby. "They will come back tomorrow for the festival," he said, "and many more people will come too.

Apshara was the perfect hostess, making sure everyone was comfortable and was provided with food and drink. She carried a crescent-shaped khukuri knife in her belt and at one point she picked some fruit, then sat on her haunches and held the knife blade-side up with her feet and then ran the ball-shaped pieces of fruit against it to cut them open. Then she sat and tore the fruit apart and placed individual helpings in bowls she had made by folding large green leaves together. She passed a leaf bowl to each one of us. I enjoyed the fruit. It tasted something like grapefruit.

Later, after the extended family had left, Bhim brought me a plate of dal bhat and I ate it while sitting on the porch. After I had eaten, the family gathered around the fire on the earthen floor of the kitchen and ate theirs. The porch had a solar-powered light (one of only two for the entire house) and Bhim and I sat on the porch and played 500 Rummy (a game we played to fill our evenings of no TV or other entertainment). He was unbeatable I couldn't believe that I could never beat him. He was amazing. But I wanted to play for as long as I could. I was not looking forward to the night ahead.

At around nine o'clock I heard the sound of a conch horn and the ringing of bells. Bhim answered my questioning look with an explanation. "It's my father," he said. It was apparently part of the old gentleman's routine of prayers before bedtime.

Finally the time came for me to climb the steep ladder to the loft above the water buffalo and goats where my bed awaited me. Like most other Nepali houses, the windows had no glass panes and I was to sleep with my head next to a large open window leading out into the cold, black night. The bed was a typical Nepali bed. It was a box-like, wooden structure, with some padding on the top. The bed's comfort is dependent upon the amount of padding, and in this case, there was very little the equivalent of a couple of quilts, perhaps.

Two of my best investments were my Petzl light and my beautiful turquoise silk sleep sack. The sack provided me with my own little cocoon and the silk provided a surprising amount of warmth. I climbed into the sack and, by the light of my Petzl, read my companion book, "The Snow Leopard" by Matthiessen. I finally turned off the light and tried to make my way towards sleep.

Unfortunately I had begun to develop a cold a couple of days previously and tonight it was getting much worse. My head was very congested and I found it very difficult to breathe while lying on my back. But I couldn't sleep on my side either - the surface was just too hard on my aging bones. Needless to say, it was a long night.

Earlier Bhim had told me not to worry about the mice and "other things" that run around on the metal roof, and when the pitter patter began I reached for my wax earplugs and put them in. It was quite an unusual feeling, lying there in complete darkness and lack of sound.

When I got the urge to go to the bathroom, I made my way out of my sleep sack and carefully climbed down the ladder and walked across the yard to the outdoor latrine. Afterwards, coming back towards the house, I stopped and looked up at the stars that shone with such clarity and brilliance in the deep black sky. I searched for familiar constellations and found the Big Dipper which appeared to have cartwheeled upside down on its handle. It was a magical moment, standing on a mountaintop in Nepal, alone in the middle of a night of such silence. After a few moments I made my way back up the ladder to my silky cocoon on hard wood and struggled with sleep until dawn.

* * * * * 

The next morning I dressed and climbed down the ladder and entered the dirt-floor kitchen where Apshara was working. She spoke no English, so our interaction was limited; however, she was so gracious and I wanted at least a little bit of "face time" with her while I was there.

Bhim came into the kitchen to translate for us and he explained what his wife was doing. I understood that this morning, as usual, she had milked the water buffalo and had already made yogurt. Now she had placed the yogurt with some water into a tall wooden structure. She was mixing it by pulling two ends of a rope that had been wrapped around a pole.

Then she took some of the mixture and put it in a pan and cooked it over the fire. I believe this was the portion that became ghee (clarified butter) that she used for cooking. The remainder was milk which they drank. Nothing was ever wasted. The flame under the pot was a fast-burning flame and when the wood became slow burning embers, the embers were removed and put in another clay oven where they were used to slow-cook the rice.

Apshara worked all through the day. I learned that she got up at 5 a.m. every morning and worked until nearly 10 pm every night. The women are the heart of the engine that drives Nepal. Out in the countryside it's very obvious that Nepal is a very traditional, male-dominated society. When we were hiking, I saw nothing but women working the fields. Women who appeared to be my age (and older) were out tending animals, tending the crops and climbing steep, steep hills while carrying loads nearly twice their size. "Why are only women working?" I asked Bhim one day. "Men work too!" he insisted, sounding somewhat defensive. "Men help to dig and plant and they work the harvest. Women do the other work" he said.

Bhim lives in Kathmandu with the two children who go to school there. Bhim's elderly father refuses to leave his traditional lifestyle in the family home he built some 40 years ago, and although Apshara wants to live with her family in Kathmandu, it is her responsibility to stay in the family home and to cook and tend the house for her father-in-law.

* * * * *

The next day was one of the most important days of Dashain, when everyone was to pay a visit to the family patriarch to receive the tikka blessing and to share the blessing with each other. Bhim's father, Mukti, is the oldest male of the family and so the extended family arrived at various times all during the day.

Everyone came for a tikka blessing from Mukti, but before he gave blessings, Bhim's 16-year old daughter, Bhwani, blessed him first with her small bowl of red mixture, a bit of which she took and put on his forehead. Then, once Mukti had bestowed his blessings, every one else shared the experiences of blessing and being blessed. Each person had a bowl of the red mixture and some money. The person receiving the blessing gave a bit of money to the person bestowing the blessing and then each person would put their hands together and bow to each other before moving on for the next blessing.

Unfortunately my cold was really taking over and I felt terrible. Apshara made a bed for me on one of the side porches of the house. She put a woven mat down and then gave me a big comforter which I wrapped myself in. I got up on occasion to shoot some photos but would then return to my bed. I asked Bhim if I shouldn't go to my "room" (the loft above the animals). "No," he said. "This is where we put people who are sick so we can take care of them." I slept on and off all during the day to the sounds of talk and laughter.

One of Bhim's cousins is a nurse. She gave me some pills to help alleviate the nasal congestion and when I complained of a headache she went to her home to collect her gear so as to take my blood pressure and she also gave me something to take for the headache. When she learned that I had brought some antibiotics with me she recommended that I start taking them.

So there I was, sick as anything, wrapped up and sleeping on a straw mat on a side porch of a Nepali house at the top of a mountain far, far from home. It was quite surreal. It was as if I was able to stand outside of myself and to watch my own reactions. I was surprised at how at peace I was in the situation and was just happy to be where I was.

For the entire time I was there I ate the traditional dal bhat. There is nothing wrong with this food. It tastes really good and is quite nutritious; however, the Nepalis cook with no spices and the food is very, very bland. After a few meals of it, it became rather difficult to get down. During one meal on that porch, I resorted to imagining the taste of a sausage pizza from a favorite restaurant back home and tried to keep that taste alive while swallowing the dal bhat. The next morning they brought me muesli with warm buffalo milk for breakfast. And, after so many meals of lentils and rice, it was heaven.

* * * * *

The next day we journeyed back to Kathmandu and I checked into the hotel that would be my base for my stay in Kathmandu. The following day Bhim arrived at my hotel at 5:30 a.m. with a taxi and we went out to the airport where I was to take the mountain flight to Everest.

I was a little nervous. Yesterday I had considered asking Bhim not to buy the ticket; however, I did not come to Nepal to back out of the experiences that had drawn me here in the first place! Air travel, like ground travel, is comparatively dangerous in Nepal. Just a couple of weeks ago a plane had crashed up in the mountains, and not too long ago one of the Everest flights crashed into a mountainside on the way back to the airport. Both crashes resulted in no survivors. They never fly the small planes after dark and they avoid flying in bad weather. When foggy, stormy conditions suddenly move in, flying can be pretty dicey. But thankfully today the sky was bright blue with lots of sunshine, and I felt confident and excited and was looking forward to the flight.

I waited in the terminal until my Yeti Airline flight was announced and then walked out to the bus that was to take me and my fellow passengers to the plane. All planes from the largest jets to the smallest planes are boarded by climbing up outside stairs.

Once on board the bus we had another wait of several minutes. Looking around at my fellow passengers about 19 of them I realized I was the only Norte Americano on the flight. All of the other people were from Argentina and my, they were a jolly bunch! Their guide had a video camera and he recorded all of the experience.

A bag of coffee candies was passed around and some was offered to me and then the group began to clap and chant "Ev-er-est! Ev-er-est! Ev-er-est!" The guide indicated to me that I should join in the chanting and so I did and he filmed me, clapping and chanting along with the rest of the crowd. And then everyone spontaneously broke into song all singing and leaning together from side to side as they sang. We were finally taken to our plane and a sweet Nepali woman with a long black dress and a long apron with a striped, folk design greeted us.

I was in seat 2-C, right in front. As was per usual on these flights, only the window seats were filled so everyone had a window view. I was sitting on the right side of the plane, in front. The folks on the other side of the aisle had the mountain view all the way up and those of us on my side had it all the way back. We were given a map which showed the locations and names of the peaks and the stewardess constantly went up and down the aisle and helped each one of us identify what we were seeing at any given point.

The flight path was all along the mountain range of about 20 or 30 named peaks. Of the many thousands of mountain peaks in Nepal, only about 1,300 have been named. It was a real "high" in more than one sense of the word. The sky was a beautiful bright blue and the snow-capped mountain tops glistened white. I felt such happiness and excitement flying along the tallest peaks in the world. And suddenly, there was Everest! How amazing it is to say that I have seen it.

* * * * *

Once I had returned to Kathmandu, I was on my own for a few days and I spent my time in Thamel, the touristy part of the city that is full of winding streets and shops, shops, shops. I enjoyed some time to wind down from my rather strenuous adventures and I also enjoyed being on my own. Of course on this trip I had hired a guide and was glad I did; however, I ordinarily travel by myself when I go abroad. I love the freedom to wander where I want. I find that traveling alone provides me with a great deal of freedom and leads to serendipitous experiences and encounters with other people that I wouldnt otherwise have. And now I was enjoying a bit of this freedom on my own in Kathmandu. For example, the shopkeepers, were all friendly and after I had made purchases a couple of them invited me to their homes for tea. I also struck up conversations with other tourists in restaurants and was occasionally invited to join with others for meals. I never once felt threatened or in any danger.

The time in Thamel, wandering from shop to shop, buying souvenirs and gifts, dining in various and varied restaurants with cuisine from several cultures and countries, and having interesting encounters with natives and tourists alike was the perfect way to wind down from a somewhat arduous trip. From Kathmandu, I was to go on a Habitat for Humanity build with 18 other volunteers for several days in a small village outside Pokhara. But that was another adventure in itself. Once we completed the Habitat mission, I returned to Kathmandu for one more night, before returning home the next day. And after nearly a month in Nepal, I was most definitely ready to return to the comforts of home!

Upon coming back to the States, I felt such a high such joy that I had managed to make this trip of a lifetime, despite my fears about going in the first place. I realize that I'm not the only person on the planet who experiences anxiety, and I think that, to a great degree, most human beings do not like change they do not like leaving their comfort zone. Perhaps the desire for comfort is our strongest motivating force. I like my comfort as much as anyone else; however, for me, there is nothing like facing a new horizon and going solo into the unknown. I am often in the push-pull of these two conflicting desires.

It's true that many things in life provide us with calculated risks and that in Nepal the risks may be higher than those in my own back yard. In Nepal I often felt trepidation; however, during times of very trying circumstances my emotion was for the most part excitement tempered with a quiet confidence in that which had called me there in the first place. There were some risks involved in my going to Nepal; however, I looked at them as part of the adventure.

That being said, fear and anxiety have been my lifelong companions and seem to be part of the bedrock of myself. But the thrill of adventure is a saving grace for me. And saying "yes" to Nepal and carrying through with it opened the door to tremendous freedom for me freedom from the tyranny of the fears of my own mind. And time after time in Nepal I felt elation at my liberation. During events that ordinarily would have caused me no end of worry I could simply step back and observe myself and wonder at my own calm. There were times when fear arose and I looked at it squarely and then it dissipated into nothingness. I found that I was always to be provided with all that I needed and more.

For me, it is the call of adventure that awakens me, inspires me, excites me. Adventure seems to be my own gentle nudge from the Universe, calling me to be more of what I truly am. In going to Nepal, I had said "yes" and had leaped into one of the greatest unknowns of my life. It was one of the best things I had ever done, making me feel whole and complete and so happy.


I am a retired librarian who currently teaches English as a Second Language to adult immigrants. I have traveled many places around the world including walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. And, after responding to an email on the spur of the moment, I moved to Alaska for two years, where I worked as a librarian, performed in poetry slams, and sang with a blues band. As much as I love to travel, I am always thankful to come home.



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