Deep Breath post-Annapurna Circuit

December 3, 2009: Pohkara

For the past month my life has been very simple. All I do everyday is eat, walk, and sleep. I’ve been on an adventure through the Himalayan mountains, hiking the amazing “Annapurna Circuit” and on up to Annapurna Base Camp.

This famed adventure leads trekkers through some of Nepal’s most diverse and beautiful landscapes. And though it consists of many days of arduous hiking, the journey takes you around and into some of the world’s highest, most beautiful, mountains.

Mt. Everest, standing at 29,035 feet, is the tallest peak in the world. Just a hundred miles to the west there is the Annapurna Himal, a stretch of the Himalayan mountains containing the equally impressive Annapurna (26,545 feet), as well as the magnificent Machapuchare, Gangapurna, and Kangsar Kang peaks. (Annapurna is the one of the deadliest mountains to climb, and in fact only 60% live to tell about it.)

Along this awe-inspiring aggregation of mountains, there are rivers and trails that lead you through remote villages. The trails are the only way to get to these villages, and so, in addition to tourists wearing expensive mountaineering gear, these trails are walked by the villagers and the many porters carrying large loads upon their back. You also see many goats and yaks being herded and chickens and roosters scampering around. All along the trail, life in these mountains is being lived as it’s been lived for many centuries.

Along the Circuit, there are many locally-owned ramshackle “guesthouses”, or hotels. The rooms at these guesthouses are rarely more than a cold concrete room. But at little more than a dollar per night, and in context of the perilous mission at hand, the lack of comfort quickly becomes irrelevant.

Not to mention, trekkers don’t tend to hang out in their rooms. We all congregate in the dining room where there is life, there are candles burning, there are conversations and laughter. Travelers from all countries of the world gather around among porters, and guides, all sharing stories and experiences, tired but satisfied about the day’s achievement. And in the morning, we will pack up our belongings and begin the day’s journey off to the next village.

When the exhaustion of the journey becomes too much, you set down your bag and enjoy a cup of tea at a trailside hut, which can be found all along the trail. These tea-drinking moments has earned trekking in Nepal the nickname, “Teahouse Trekking”.

The food along the circuit is often quite greasy and pretty disgusting really. The one exception is a dish that happens to be Nepal’s national meal, and for many is the dish that they eat every single lunch and dinner, every day of the year for their entire life. It is called “dal baht”. Dal is a spicy soup made with various lentils or beans. And “baht” is rice. Of all the food you can eat on the trek, dal baht is the one consistently satisfying, nourishing, healthy, and sometimes even delicious food. For this reason, I ate it pretty much everyday. Dal baht, oatmeal, Nescafe, and Snickers were my sole-sustenance for a month.

Every day was a curious journey that always seemed as much mental as it was physical. Typically your destination for a day is maybe 6 to 10 miles away. Each day’s journey varies in elevation gains and losses, but without exception, every day is hard work. The temptation to quit is strong. These mountains lead you straight up a stone staircase that seems to never end, only to lead you right on down the backside. This goes on for several hours. Your feet are in pain, your hips are aching from the weight of your heavy backpack. Your legs are weak and you find yourself dizzy when you look down the cliff’s edge and think of the misfortune a mistep would be.

Your will is challenged constantly. Sometimes your suffering becomes unbearable. Huffing and puffing, with sweat pouring down, your mind becomes c loudy with something that resembles a bad mood. You are hungry and tired, you’re wishing you were at your destination. But then you take a cup of tea, enjoy a chocolate bar, or maybe some lunch. And then a new hopeful air comes over you, a surge of strength and vitality, and you realize you’ve got more left in you. You look around and you see the green valley and a massive mountain standing boldly before you with a clear blue sky backdrop. The sun is shining, and you realize you are ecstatic to be experiencing one of the this world’s greatest journeys. And so you triumph over fatigue once again and continue walking onwards.

The route of the journey is this: you start off on the south-western part of this upside down horseshoe shaped trail, in a town called Besi Shahar, where you begin walking north along the Marsyandi River. Once you pass the Annapurna Himal a week later, you then turn west into the mountains and over the Thorong La pass. Once you’ve crossed the pass, the second half of the trek takes you back down south around to the west of the mountains along the Kali Gandaki River. After completing the Circuit, I opted to head back up north into the heart of these mountains, into what they call the “Sanctuary”. The Annapurna Sanctuary. Pure heaven on earth, a man is but a grain of sand surveying 360 degrees of sacred mountains.

I will be posting each of the days from the journey just as soon as I can transcribe my journals. Every day was a different day of different landscapes, different challenges, different people, different religions– everything changed everyday. It was quite surprising really, that such diversity exists amongst such a relatively-small physical locale.

Bob Dylan sings, “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kinda pain”. Since I’ve been in Nepal, those lyrics keep coming back to me. Anyhow, at the journey’s very conclusion I left my camera in the taxi that returned me to my home sweet hotel. I realized it immediately, but it was not to be recovered, and so I have no pictures to share. I was quite sad and it kind of put a damper on what should have been a great celebration. But that’s how life goes for me, and unfortunately, I seem to leave things behind often.

So there’s the trek recap in summary. Soon I will be posting each day.

On Meditation and Karma

November 28, 2009: Day 22 of Circuit

Last night, the backdrop for my afternoon coffee and sunshine lounge was some of the most specular scenery I have ever witnessed. The mountains at the Annapurna Base Camp left a magical imprint on my mind.

In stark contrast, tonight I am at one of the most strangely grim and homely little guesthouses of the whole trek, in the village of Bamboo. The air is cold and my automatic mind is probably just labeling all things unpleasant right now. I was told they had hot showers, but when I tried all I got was a luke warm trickle. So now I’m shivering madly, desperately trying to get warm inside my sleeping bag.

I’ve got candles, books and a Snickers bar, though, so I guess I have everything I need.

Speaking of books, Irati gave me the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying the other day. I’ve begun reading it and am finding that it is packed with a much wisdom. It’s basically a comprehensive framework of the Buddhist faith. I’ve also been reading Dalai Lama’s Open Heart, and together they are opening my eyes to some fascinating truths.

We are all wearing the blindfold. Our sensory apparatus deceives us and our habititually misguided thinking mechanisms tell us things that just aren’t true. But we’re not inclined to believe our tools might be defective.

Mediation is a way to recalibrate the mind. Its fundamental intent is to be aware of everything going on in your mind. There is no stopping a freight train and there is no stopping your crazy mind. But in the silent inquiry of meditation you actually see all these firecrackers thoughts, memories, todos, the should’ve dones,reflexive self-criticism, and garbage, etc. These crazy thoughts go shooting through the mind with extraordinary interlinking complexity and pull your heart this way and that way without you even being aware of it happening. The meditator is then called to become aware that their peace has been shattered, and that their mind is now running wildly again. Upon realizing this, the meditator is called to turn their thoughts once again back into the silent repose of observing their mind. You bring your awareness back to pure perception, back to the present moment. And this is the way we come to learn about our monkey mind and dispel the false perceptions of reality we invent in our mind.

There is another powerful concept that is sinking in. This notion of karma- and the basic fact that doing good things for others is beneficial to our self. Conversely, when we act selfishighly or negatively towards others, we suffer. This truth of karma is obvious and is confirmed deep in our hearts everytime we hold the door for another and see a grateful smile. So easy to do, so easy to make another’s day better, so small is the offering, so large is the effect. Simple acts of kindness. We are all reaching for God– every good act takes us closer, every negative act leads us further.

So, if you are persuing wisdom and the path to higher mind– it begins with being the best person you can be.

Lesson on Non-Attachment

December 1, 2009: Pohkara

On the final morning of my month-long journey through the Himalayas, I was laying in bed flipping through the hundreds of photos I’d taken. Each image would make me smile as I recalled the extraordinary views from the top of the world, the eye-opening cultural experiences, the fun spontaneous moments, and all the beautiful people I’ve met along the way.

I took many photos on this trip. My camera was the eye that captured moments chosen to become immortalized, cherished forever as souvenirs of a life-changing adventure. Every picture snapped felt like an achievement– a moment to be grateful for– and in my heart I was so excited to share them with all the little kids in my life, my friends and family and all…the blog, Facebook, etc. They were truly some of the most awe-inspiring moments of my life thus far, and many pictures surprisingly captured the magic.

But then life happened.

At the end of the day’s journey, my new Finnish friends–Kimoo and Heidi– and I took a taxi back to Pokhara. Just before getting into the cab we asked the driver to take a group photo of us. The picture was great– we all had big happy smiles and appeared proud of our achievements and relieved to be back in civilization. That was the last picture snapped on my camera.

So drained of strength and sick from the windy roller coaster roads, I sat in the back seat of the taxi feeling half dead. An hour later when we arrived, I was so ecstatic to begin celebrating the trek’s conclusion. The taxi come to a stop and we all begun piling out of the cab. And as I marched off happily towards my hotel, I was already thinking about the cold beers I would enjoy and the long hot shower I would take.

Once back in my hotel room I went to reach for my camera. But I knew it wasn’t in my pocket. I knew instantly that I’d left it in the taxi — right on the seat beside where I was sitting. My heart fluttered, an instant cloud of anxious sadness consumed me.

After a series of jumbled attempts to contact the cabdriver and recover the camera I have finally come to accept the unfortunate truth: it is gone.

That was yesterday. For the past day my mind has been troubled.

Part of me feels like it’s silly to mourn its loss. It’s a camera. The memories live in my mind and heart. My journal captured the details. Digital images are fun at first but then they disappear onto a hard drive never to be seen again. So who cares? Right?

The other part of me experiences fires of anger and sadness burning in me. Incredulous that they could be gone– all those wonderful memories.

All the while, in my head I hear the persistent words of Dali Lama’s teachings, which speak of attachment as the source of all suffering. I tell myself that the loss of a material object should not disrupt my peace. We part with nothing. And so we should live with this liberating awareness. Those teachings are being put to the test and I’m hoping that perhaps a breakthrough will emerge. For now though, I guess I’m still quite attached to my camera and the images I’ll never see again.

It’s just unfortunate because I should still be in the honeymoon period, celebrating this momentous Annapurna achievement.

I know i’ll get over it, but it’s a sad way to end this wonderful adventure. And I’m sorry to my friends and family that I won’t be able to share as much of this trip as I’d hoped with you.

Thanksgiving up at Annapurna Base Camp

November 26, 2009: Day 20? of Circuit

I awoke nervous this morning, realizing I didn’t know what day it was and fearing that Thanksgiving had passed me by unobserved.  After asking several people, however, i finally found someone who knew what day it was. It was Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. 

I smiled when I learned this and all day long I’d keep in mind the people back home and the things that were happening there. High up in the Himalayas at Annapurna Base Camp, I will be making my own Thanksgiving celebration here for sure.  I’m the only American turkey here, and a few people have asked me what the holiday is all about, but my explanation is terrible.  I babble something about native americans and a bountiful harvest long ago, but I realize that I really don’t know what I’m talking about. 

Nonetheless, I am incredibly thankful– this year perhaps more than most. As I look outside the window where I am this evening, there is pure blue sky and 360 degrees of God’s awesome snow-capped peaks.   After three weeks of hiking I have finally arrived at the Annapurna Sanctuary, the sacred church of the Himalayas and the pinnacle of my journey. There is so much to be grateful for. Grateful for this opportunity to experience more life. To witness the Himalayas, to learn from everyone I meet, to learn different ways of thinking and seeing the world, to slow down time, to experience a sane mind, to be open to inspiration daily, to be led by God on this round-the-world itinerary, and to learn and make music with people from other traditions. I am also thankful for the many dear friends and family who have been sending love and celebrating this journey with me.  

Tonight as we all sat in the dining room talking and laughing by candlelight, we kept returning to the realization that this was Thanksgiving Dinner. For the occasion, I have ordered a decadent apple pie that lies beneath a mess of hideous looking bright yellow “custard”.  

Blessed Sunshine in Kalopani

November 20th 2009: Day 15

There has been such extraodinary contrast between the 1st and 2nd halves of the circuit. After crossing the Thorong La pass, many see the 2nd half as a largely featureless dusty walk back to Pokhara. Many either take a bus back or, better yet, take a plane. For many of us, there’s a curious tug of war in our hearts. Our bodies are tired and broken, the landscape is cold and depressing, and every day as we hike along we are well aware that comfort is just a bus ride away. And so the question becomes: do I succumb to the lure of comfort, or do I press on for the full experience of the Annapurna Circuit?

But then I find myself asking is comfort what I really want? Would I really want to be in Kathmandu any sooner? For what? Just to eat food and bounce around like a tourist in gift shop pinball machine?

Hell no! These mountains are most definitely the jewels of Nepal. To be in their presence is to feel small and shudder at such tremendous works of evolutionary art. My view as I write this is the jagged beauty of Annapurna jutting out from behind a lush green evergreen forest.

To remain on the Circuit unfolds the remainder of the story. Every day we enter into radically different landscapes. From Muktinath’s barren tundra, you come upon Kageben’s massive river valley, into Marphas windy plains. Then you come upon the pleasant alpine environment of Kalopani, just a day before you reach the tropical paradise of Tadopani. Eventually I arrive at a firm decision: I will continue walking.

I’m so grateful for sun and warmth today. This is first time in over a week that I can actually say I’m comfortable. I’m taking refuge on the roof of this guesthouse basking in sunshine with journal, a book, and a bottle of water.

In Marpha, I picked up 1000 Splendid Suns. I’m loving the book but am appalled by the things that I read. One sentence causes me to put the book down for a while and daze off into the sunshine.

“I will use a flower petal for paper
and write you the sweetest letter”

Crazy Wind and Cereal Party in Marpha

November 19th 2009: Day 13 of Circuit

More than halfway along the Annapurna Circuit now, this disparate crowd of trekkers has formed up into a cohesive amoeba that moves en masse from town to town. We are a bunch of English, a few Aussies, a scattered mix of Spanish, Canadians and me- the lone American ambassador. We now see each other in every town. We take our dinners together and we pause to chat when we see each other along the trail. It’s kinda nice, and there’s always friendly conversation and laughter.

I’m always first to wake up but am ironically often the last to leave. I set off walking on my own this morning, but was no further than half mile along my journey when I came upon Irati. She was taking a break on the side of the trail with a guy who Irati introduced as an “angel”. Later on I’d learn that his angel status was earned because he had shared some peanut butter with her. She’s crazy about American peanut butter.

Irati and I ended up spending the day walking and talking together. Her story was interesting- from cancer and depression to celebrating the days of her life, she’s been traveling much of the past few years. I enjoyed her dramatic take on life and and how she discusses every subject with outrageous enthusiasm.

A few hours into the journey, a fierce wind turned on. Like the flip of a switch. It was inane. This awesome wind was ripping through the valley gathering all lose dirt into a brutal hurricane of dust and debris. Irati and I shielded ourselves as best as we could, but it was impossible to avoid getting dust in eyes and mouth. The winds were so strong that poor Irati got blown down to the grounded– not once, but twice. It was mad. I guess it’s an everyday phenomena in this stretch of the circuit. Beginning at 11, the wind begins to wail. This shall be our destiny for the next two days as well.

In Johmson Irati and I came across a fortuitous “grocery store” where we stocked up on chocolate, peanut butter, cereal and milk– life’s finest ingredients. I was ecstatic to find Cocoa Krispies,or “Chocos” as they are branded in Nepal, and Irati was crazy with joy upon finding peanut butter. We decided this was cause for celebration– there’d be a party tonight.

After arriving in Marhpa, but before our cereal party, Irati and I walked around the village’s narrow walkways on up to the Buddhist monastery. We arrived just in time for a blessings ceremony that was taking place. We followed the pacifying sound of the deep gutteral Tibetan chant and took a seat on the cushions along the perimeter of a candlelit room. One by one devotees were approaching the monk, who offered a blessing and wrapped around each neck a golden scarf.

After dinner, we were a large group of trekkers sitting around the dining room. Some were drinking beer. Irati and I were indulging in delicious cereal and peanut butter. It was a great cereal party.

Spinning the Prayer Wheels in Kagbeni

November 18th 2009: Day 12 of Circuit

It’s no wonder I got a great night of rest last night. Following the previous day’s grueling journey over the pass, my body was spent. Every joint in my body was aching and stiff, and as I lay in my bed this morning, I could tell that it was cloudy and cold outside, and so I opted to remain warm in bed for a while longer.

When I finally pushed myself to get up, my happiness was shattered instantly by the oppressive cold. Open the door, a harsh mountain wind blows in my face. Before me lay desolate brown landscape meets grey clouds. Very depressing.

Today’s hike to the Tibetan village of Kagbeni took us through barren desert hills where nothing grows. It’s astounding people live here.

Tonight as I roamed around town I came across Buddhist prayer wheels. They are found in all Buddhist villages, and usually they just strike me as just a noteworthy cultural thing. Tonight though, as I ambled slowly around the town I found myself spinning every one of the wheels with a heart-felt prayer in mind. There was a deep yearning in my heart, and to God I kept whispering, “Show me everything. Bless me with wisdom. Lead me where I need to be.”

Show me the way to help me understand this peculiar existence. Teach me about love, about loneliness and suffering, about God’s infinite love and intentions. Grant me this opportunity to grow everyday. To learn from everyone I meet. To be come a student of life. To observe myself and come to know a better way of being. And with one last twist of the prayer wheel, I smile and thank God for the blessing of being in the Himalayas.

On my iPod, I have “Every Grain of Sand” playing on infinite repeat.

” I h ear the ancient footsteps, like the motion of the sea
Somtimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”

On the Eve of Crossing the Thorong La Pass

December 7, 2009
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November 16th 2009: Day 11 of Circuit

The past few days have been real grim. It’s been so miserably cold for so long, I can’t even remember what it feels like to be comfortable. And with the thin air has come a persistent sharp headache. My head is dizzy, my eyes burn, and I feel like I have a bad hangover pretty much all day long. Due to the non-existence of hot water it’s been over a week since I’ve last showered. I wear all of my warmest clothes all the time–none of which has been washed in over two weeks, but that hardly seems to matter these days. Given the austerity of our situation, it feels like we’re in survival mode.

Our concrete rooms are so despicably cold, we all congregate in the dining room. If we’re lucky, the guesthouse manager will set aflame a small chunk of wood and we’ll all gather around with outstretched hands. Tonight, however, the dining room in all its fluorescent glory is just too depressing for me right now. I can’t hang out there.

So I take a walk around the village to check out the scene at the other guesthouses. Sure enough, I knew I’d found my place when I came upon a Nepali dude playing slide-guitar. I hung out to listen for a while. We got talking and before long he busted out a second guitar and we began jamming together. Quite a crowd gathered quickly– people of every country sat around with smiles observing the peculiar sight of this Nepali mountain man and an American eskimo playing Muddy Waters tunes.

Today marks the 13th day of the journey. The first half of the Circuit has your mind fixed on achieving Thorung La Pass. Few of us know what really lies ahead. At 5416m, Thorong La is the world’s highest pass. We know that it’s a challenging ascent and is fraught with risk, but few of us really know what tomorrow will be like. There is danger in the air and there’s anxiety too.

We are all here with singular purpose and the big question on everyone’s mind and lips is, “what time are you heading up tomorrow?” Some are planning on departing camp as early as 3 am. This seems insanely early to me. That will be three hours of hiking in pitch black up seriously steep, icy trails in subzero conditions. People speak of the mad winds that brew up around mid-morning, so some believe if you start early you have a better chance of avoiding the nasty weather. The guidebooks say frostbite is a serious risk if you go before 5 or 6– but again, no one really knows and we’re all just going on anxious energy.

I finished Shantaram yesterday. For the past two weeks this book has been another world that I go to. A truly amazing book, Shantaram has occupied many of my thoughts and has been a great way to pass these cold nights that seem like they’ll never end. It’s the only book I brought with me and now I’m really wishing I had another, fearing the vaccuum.

Snowflakes, as summer turns to winter

November 12th, 2009: Day 7 of Circuit

Today was a long cold day through a lonely desolate landscape. We are now well into a different ecosystem- our green summer paradise has morphed into a brown arctic tundra.

My day began real early, I was sitting on the steps of a monastery high upon the mountain of Pisang, waiting for the sun to rise. By the time it finally rose though I was so frozen I had no interest in sticking around longer than a few moments to admire the colors. Back at the guest house I enjoyed some nice Nepali tea and conversation with fellow travelers and began the days’ lengthy journey towards Manang.

At first I was accompanied by a friendly bunch of Dutch, Spanish and Americans. I met them yesterday, and I like them alot. Our energy reciprocates nicely and I feel like it’d be good to spend more time with them. But it’s strange, because I often feel that on this highway of life, the traveler can’t attach too tightly to others. You hang on loosely, you walk together for a while– and for the time that conversation/itineraries are mutually desirable/aligned you get to enjoy each other’s presence. I don’t know if this is the way things really are, but as a solo traveler I’m always hesitant to stick around longer than I feel welcomed.

Anyhow, w e all started off together, but for the above reason, I soon found myself walking by myself. Everyone else was distant scattered dots on the zigazzing path along this brown lifeless valley. It was a vast empty landscape that brought Rocky Mountain desert to mind. Just barren hills with patches of sage and short pine trees. As the day progressed, a mean wind began blowing through these hills and as I walked along tired I felt myself leaning towards melancholy. I kept checking the map to ensure I was still on the right track, since it’d been several hours since I’d last seen signs of life.

I wanted to take a break, but more than that I wanted to arrive at my destination. I knew the peace and warmth would only be achieved once I make it to Manang. And so I walked hour after hour with spirit dragging. The only consolation is that we are now quite close to the Annapurnas and I found myself smiling every time I’d look up and take notice of the massive blocks of stone jutting upwards to the heavens.

Near the end of the day snowflakes begin falling. I hold out my hand and catch a few of them and then watch them dissolve. I find myself thinking about how the travelers you meet on the road are a lot like snowflakes. These beautiful unique people– they arrive into my life just for a short while and then they pass on just as spontaneously. Another lesson in impermanence, perhaps. Enjoy the good people you meet while you can.

Snowstorm and Speculation in Manang

November 13th, 2009: Day 8 of Circuit

That peaceful summertime weather is officially over. It’s wintertime now. Amazing how it’s happened in just 2 days.

This morning I awoke to gentle falling snow outside my window. Last night was the first time since I’ve begun the trek that I’ve gotten a good night’s rest, and when I woke up and parted the curtains– it all felt like heavenly gift. It was quite raw and frigid inside my room, but the snow made me happy.

With the storm system there has come much tension around the guesthouses. Everyone’s speculating on the best plan of attack, how to outwit the weather, or how to pass on through as safely as possible. There is concerned talk around the breakfast table that this early snowstorm might cause the pass to be closed and force us to abort our mission. None of us are willing to accept that quite yet– but as the day progresses the snow begins falling harder and is accumulating rapidly. Skies are awfully dark and forboding. It doesn’t look like a good time to be traversing the world’s highest mountain pass.

Today is a rest day for me. Typically trekkers are encouraged to spend an extra day in the town of Manang, which sits at 3500 meters, so that there systems can be acclimatised to the thin air up at this high elevation. Manang is at the halfway point on the first half of the Circuit and the next few days will take us up another 2000 meters, so it’s best to sit tight, and enjoy the refreshing abundance of decent cuisine and wood burning stoves that Manag has to offer.

On my day off I find myself drifting around this Tibetan village walking really slowly. The falling snow brings a lightness to my heart and I have nowhere to go. As I walk around, I find myself recalling memories from my beloved Portland home– sledding with friends on the Eastern Prom, the hot chocolate hangouts afterwards, the quiet midnight strolls through snowy streets, snowboarding with Ryan, helping the neighbors liberate their snowbound cars. All day long, all I listen to is Sigur Ros, lost in peaceful reverie.