Tibetan Villages along the way to Pisang

November 9th, 2009: Day 4 of Circuit

At 6 am, the sound of bad Asian pop music begins blaring from somewhere, all distorted and scratchy. I don’t know where it’s coming from but it strikes me really funny. At first I thought it was someone sleeping through their alarm clock and I was cracking up imagining any alarm clock being this loud. When it continued to play for several minutes, however, my curiosity pulled me from bed and led me outside towards the source. Soon I realized that the music was coming from a monastery sitting high up on a hill, blasting this terrible music out of little speakers for all the valley to hear. I stood there looking up at the monastery with a big smile thinking to myself: don’t try to understand– all you can do is smile– welcome to Nepal.

Yesterday, we crossed a line into the part of the Annapurna Circuit where the villages and culture are now characteristically Tibetan Buddhist. There are prayer-wheels that line the thoroughfare, and as you walk along you spin each of the wheels, honoring Buddha and sending your prayer. There are colorful prayer-flags strewn about the trees and building, dancing in the wind. There are shrines along the trail and piles of rocks with chiseled inscriptions of Buddhist mantras. It’s very different than the Brahmin villages from the first few days of the trek.

Refreshed and happy from last night’s merry encounter with the Czechs, I began my day’s hike with extra zing in my step. I cued up Coldplay in my iPod and began cranking on down the trail. The day is a gift: the skies are blue, the sun is shining, and the trail is surprisingly flat all the way to Pisang as we pass through an evergreen forest and walk along the river. Every day the views continue to get increasingly dramatic. The massive snow-capped Annapurna is beside us and I can’t stop observing it in the many angles under the sun. It’s completely awe-inspiring.

Laugh and Laugh and Fall Apart

November 8th, 2009: Day 3 of Circuit

As circumstance, or fate, would have it, the curious couple who I met last night in passing are staying in the same guest house as me tonight. On this great journey we are all moving in the same direction, and for many of us, the itinerary is basically the same. So you find yourself running into the same people each day. I’d been thinking about this couple during the day, and so I was happy to come across them again tonight.

I saw the young guy as he was browsing the menu in the dining room. We offered each other a smile and he came over to my table. He took a seat and we chatted a bit and instantly began laughing over simple silly things. He was just in the middle of explaining that they are from Czech Republic, taking a year off from college to travel, when his girlfriend arrived.

An icy-blue field of dark energy had come near. She stood there beside our table in a laser-beam trance staring into her boyfriend’s eyes, creating tunnel-vision telepathy, speaking without words. Her eyes were dark and mysterious. I perceived her movements attentively as if I were observing fine art or an actor. She’s ungodly beautiful – crazy blue eyes and blond hair in a wisp pulled back. I wonder if she’s as inaccessible as she looks and when I greet her, a gorgeous warm smile is sunlight bursting through dark clouds. Her name is Alysia.

She takes a seat and remains mostly quiet, with big almond eyes peering out from behind her scarf. Her jacket is magical blue and the colors seem to reflect in her pale skin, illuminating her in an angel’s blue light. I can’t tell if she’s wearing mascara of if her eyes are just naturally this deep and dark. They are the eyes of a gypsy. They could kill a man. And when discussing love, she fires back reflexively, “I don’t believe in true love”.

I could’ve observed her shimmering beauty all night but I had more fun enjoying her hilarious boyfriend, Lucas.

Lucas is clearly a bright guy– he seems interested in everything- he loves to laugh, he’s very silly- and yet he also strikes me as a wise student of life. Our energy rhythms were similar right out of the gate, and as we laughed and talked and shared, I was struck by the realization that rarely do I feel so happy and free with such a brief acquaintance.

The three of us spent many hours together that night cracking each other up with silly things. Lucas says Americans always say “awesome” and “cool”. After we recuperated from laughing long and hard about that– any sentence that contained either of those words was instantly hilarious and we’d all start keeling over laughing madly. The waiter at the restaurant taught us the words to a Nepali folk song, and the three of us practiced tenaciously in between bouts of laughter. And when Lucas began immiating Czech folk musicians and the folk dance they do I was completely falling apart. My jaws were tired, tears were in my eyes. I haven’t laughed this hard for a long while. Vital rivers of joy flowing through every cell.

Slowing Down Time

November 7th, 2009: 2nd Day of the Journey

Some like to sleep in and begin their hike later in the morning. Since I never seem to sleep much these days, I am usually wide awake at the crack of dawn and so I usually get gone good and early.

This morning as I set out on my day’s journey I found myself walking alongside an old man. He looked really old and once we began talking, I was surprised to learn he was only 42. He had a wife, four sons, and three daughters. I asked him where he was going and he motioned he was going to chop grass for the goats’ breakfast. He was a funny old man, and I don’t remember why I thought to ask the question, but I asked him if he is happy. The old man seemed almost surprised by my ridiculous question. “No! Not happy!” he says with a scowl. Thinking he’d misunderstood my question, I rephrased it using Nepali English and asked, “Wife, 7 kids, you no happy?” To which he repeated emphatically, “No! Not happy!” and made a chopping motion with his hand. His seriousness surprised me and it was then that I began understanding the truth of this mountain life, that life is very hard here.

My book, Shantaram, addresses many curious aspects on suffering. I found myself thinking about these things today as I walked along experiencing sharp pain all through my legs and hips and back, carrying this heavy cross up and down rocky hillsides. For many, this journey would seem like a cruel punishment. And yet to me it is the most liberating of vacations and I joyfully accept these grueling days of physical duress.

Today was a long hot slow journey up winding p aths of exposed hillside. Alongside herds of goats and yaks, I walked the dry dusty trail aware that at any moment a boulder could come tumbling down the hill in my direction. By early afternoon, my strength was wilting in the intense light of the sun. I push on though, up a long staircase of boulders up to the top of a mountain. Once I summit, I smile triumphantly thinking that from here it must be level ground to my destination. But I’m wrong. I quickly begin descending, losing all that precious elevation. Today is just like that, again and again, for 5 hours.

The villagers I meet along the way always seem surprised when they learn that I am solo. I see their faces get screwed up as they struggle to understand. They follow up with questions that suggest an inability to grasp this wildly western concept of traveling alone. To them it seems to represent a sad cultural depravity, a lonely mindset that inspires young men and women to walk off into the woods for a month by themselves. Their faces then become transformed with pity, and for a moment in their compassionate eyes I, too, question my motivation and ability to endure this long without friends and love . But it’s funny, because finally, once they’ve fully processed this reality, the next question that inevitably follows: “Do you need guide? A porter? I can find porter for you– good price.”

There have been many opportunities to tag along with other kind-hearted travelers who invite me to join their party. And I think I’d enjoy spending time with many of them, too. But I chose to do this trip solo, and I’m finding that, sometimes, I really enjoy the solitude. Hiking here is so challenging that it’s really essential that you find your rhythm and sink into a groove that works for you. Some days it feels like I’m fighting for survival, and I certainly don’t have any spare energy, nor inclination, for small-talk. Each step of my journey, for me, mirrors the cadence of a prayer, and as I walk along in this silent meditation, the thoughts in my mind morph peacefully and ultimately dissolve into pure awareness of the beauty all around me. That being said, it always makes me happy when I come along a group of travelers and make friends with them over a c up of tea before carrying on on my way.

There is peace in my mind. The rate of my thoughts is slowing down every day. I love it. Each day of rising and setting with the sun is calibrating my mind to the simple schedule of a healthy mind. And now, after just two days of walking, I feel a curious light-heartedness come over me. As if it took that long to purge the city chaos and the exhaust from my lungs and mind. Now there is just radiant light inside and out. I love that God lives in me and I realize that I have everything I need.

For the past 10 years my bookshelf has become overflowing with many books that I’d love to read. And yet I never do, mostly due to lack of time and short attention span. Now that I’m on the trail and have all the time in the world, however, I’m reading like a madman. In fact, it’s my favorite thing to do. I’ve never felt this way towards books before. I think about the characters all day long and find myself actually walking faster just so I can get to my guesthouse and begin reading. Maybe it’s just testimony to the extraordinary nature of this book, Shantaram. At any rate, I once thought I could never finish a 1000 page book– now it seems certain that I will finish this book within just a few days.

I got my first Nepali lesson today. I have a hunger to learn the language. How long I remain in Nepal remains to be seen, but even if it’s just for a short while I must learn to speak their language. The walls close in on me so quickly when confined to the rudimentary questions I am asked. But if I can learn even some basic phrases I can begin to peer into their lives and their minds. My lessons and new vocabulary will be added day by day. Everyday I will learn a little bit more till eventually I can communicate. They love to teach and seem so happy to instruct me. I will be a good student- I will learn quickly.

I am the only guest at this guest house. It feels like a ghost town. Then again, it’s not much of a town really. It’s just a basic concrete structure sitting along the trail. A harsh blue flourescent light illuminates the porch where I’m sitting. I’ve been sitting here reading for many hours, the sun has long since passed on, and now it’s awfully quiet in these dark hills.

November 6th, 2009: First day of the Journey

A few hours before sunrise I wake up into my typical paranoia dream. This dream is pretty much every night now and it goes like this: I wake up and in my dream I clearly see myself waking up into a place that is unfamiliar to me. My eyes search around the darkness for any kind of clues that might help me understand where the hell I am. Strange how powerful this delusion is night after night, until gradually my senses return and I realize that it’s just my standard Nepal dream. This morning, however, it took me much longer than usual to reorient myself.

I don’t sleep very much this night. So when 6am comes and I see daybreak out my window, I eagerly jump out of bed, brush my teeth, pack up and get gone.

Outside my door, it’s a crisp blue morning. I feel great, the sun is peaking out from behind the trees and is beginning to warm up the frozen morning. Women are sweeping the walkways with straw brooms. It’s only 6:30, and yet town is busy with commerce and preparations as storeowners lay their products out. Men are gathered in storefronts here and there, enjoying tea and conversation with each other. Little kids in navy-blue uniforms are marching off to school arm-in-arm.

Just a short ways out of town, mountains, rivers and green hills rise up all around me. I’m in paradise. The sun is warm upon my back and my soul releases a deep sigh as I smile to myself, so glad to be here. Nearby the roaring Marsyangdi River is thrashing through the canyon. There are butterflies and wildflowers and everywhere is green. Though it’s technically the beginning of the winter season in Nepal, down in the valley it’s a beautiful summer day.

Six miles later, in Buhlbele, the road comes to an end. From here onwards, it’s all foot traffic. A well-worn footpath begins on the other side of a suspension bridge that swings frighteningly high above the Marsyangdi River. When I’m halfway across, some rascal school children begin rocking the bridge and I struggle to shake the sudden vertigo that is making me dizzy.

The trail runs north through the canyon formed by the icy-green river. All around me there are lush mountains. trees and green, and rice paddies in terraces that extend in all directions. Waterfalls and springs are pouring forth from moist nooks in the forest.

Each step feels like a victory. Each one is another step further from the chaos that is Kathmandu and into the realm of divine providence. The transcendent allure of these mountains is already breathtaking, and yet I know this is nothing compared to what lay before me. None the less, the fresh mountain air and the sunshine make for ideal hiking conditions and cause me to pause frequently as I consider the gift that is this Annapurna experience.

Along the trails the lives of the Nepali villagers is on display. Women are crouching down beside water spigots washing dishes or doing laundry, little dirty-faced kids with great luminous eyes are sitting around giggling and making games out of nothing, some teenage guys wearing WWF t-shirts are sitting on stoops arm-in-arm. A group of older men are standing around with smiles, talking nice and slow with each other. A stray goat comes wandering by and nobody even pays it any mind, except when he starts to eat the yellow marigolds in a neighbor’s garden.

There was one moment, in particular, today that caused me to pause in wonderment. An older woman was sitting in front of her dwelling just beside the trail with legs outstretched and barefoot. She was motionless, staring out in a far-away gaze into the void of eternity. At her side was an old man– perhaps her husband– curled up in the sunshine taking a nap, using a sack of millet for a pillow. A little boy and maybe his sister are sitting on the porch with arms lovingly draped around one another and smiling. A young man is sitting nearby and he, too, is staring into nothingness while chewing on a blade of grass.

This scene is a perfect scene of tranquility. No one is doing anything. Their minds appear so clear– so free of debris, of worry, anxiety, and stress. They have nothing to do- no where to go, no words to be spoken. And so they just sit. They make the art of doing nothing seem really easy. I snap a photograph and continue to walk on down the trail. For the next twenty minutes I try to recall the last time I was that still, but I don’t succeed and I’m not sure if I’ve ever been there.

Sometimes as I pass through these village, I find myself wishing I were invisible. I feel out of place and feel strangely ashamed about my expensive gear and my decision to spend all this money on such a frivolous past time– walking through mountains. When I offer a smile, I wonder if the the joy in my eyes seems naive and ignorant of the harsh realities of this mountain life. As I’m walking along happy and peaceful, these villagers are working their butts off trying to eek out a meager existence.

Little children are constantly approaching me as I walk along. They see trekkers as Santa Claus characters bearing “sweets”, pens, and money for all. They tug at my clothes and look up at me with big black pleading eyes. The kids here are all so cute, I instinctively want to scoop them up and give them all big bear hugs as I would my own nieces, nephews, and cousins. I don’t though, and instead I just smile and laugh with them. One thing I still can’t figure out, though. Candy and money seem like reasonable things to ask for– but for the life of me I can’t figure out why in the world these little kids– just barely older than infants– are so eager to acquire pens.

Alas, after six hours of what felt like the most heroic mountain ascent in history I arrived at my destination. I was dog-tired and significantly concerned that if every day is as hard as today, I’m screwed. I’d walked nearly 11 miles, arriving in Bahundanda, one of the first villages along the trail.

My room is simple, but it overlooks the valley and in the late afternoon sunshine I find myself in a trance while staring out the window, surveying the green kingdoms down below. After a heavenly hot shower, I was feeling nice and fresh and enjoyed a delicious cup of tea and some dal baht.

For the next several hours on into the night I am cuddled up in bed surrounded by candlelight, immersed in my new book, Shantaram. So many travelers have recommended this book and now I can see why. It’s incredible! Set in Bombay India, Shantaram is an extremely exciting story that is quasi-autobiographical but reads like an exciting tale of love, suffering, and hope. Its author in real life has busted out of an Australian prison, lived as a fugitive in a Bombay slum where he opens a health care clinic, he fights against the Russians in the Afghanistan war, and he falls in love with a woman with green eyes. I’m less than a hundred pages into the book, but every page is loaded with intrigue and existential musings. It’s definitely a page-turner– which is a good thing because it is just short of a thousand pages and I can’t recall if I’ve ever completed a book longer than 400 pages.

November 5th, 2009: On the Eve of Annapurna Circuit

Whenever riding public buses in Nepal it always seems like a miracle when I actually arrive at my destination. These buses are crowded and ramshackle, extremely uncomfortable and terribly hectic. No one speaks English, and when you ask the driver if they’re headed to your destination they always say something that sounds like yes, but you never really know if they understand your question.

My arrival in Besi Shahar certainly felt like a miracle. This town is only 30 miles away from Pohkara, but it takes 5 long bumpy hours to get here. And so daytime turned to dark as we slogged along the broken road eastward. I was the last person left on the bus and nighttime was becoming increasingly lonesome and strange in the shadows of the back of the bus. The road was windy and terrible, it felt like the wheels were about to fly off the side of the road. But then miraculously, around 8 o’clock we arrived at Besi Shahar, the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit.

It was late. Too late to begin walking. I figured I’d spend the night in a hotel here and then begin in the morning. My stomach was pretty shaken up from the journey, but now that I’d arrived my belly and mind were becoming clearer by the minute. And I was hungry. So I stopped at a roadside hut and was devouring spicy samosa and masala tea. As I sat there, my thoughts were all swarming around the anxious realization that tomorrow I’ll be heading off on a month-long, 160-mile journey through the Himalayas. I don’t really know what to expect and I hope I’m prepared. There are nervous jitters, but given the circuit’s popularity I know it’s possible, accessible, and immensely rewarding.

Originally I was thinking that I’d find people to accompany me on the journey. However, since the day has drawn near and the spirit hasn’t presented companions, I am happily doing the journey on my own. No porter, no guide, no girlfriend, no friends. Just my compass and a map, a great book, journal, fully-loaded iPod, and an openness to the messages to be revealed.

Dreams

I haven’t been feeling great lately. I’m often tired, I feel like I have a cold, but am still feeling well enough to carry on.

I never have troubles falling asleep, but then after a little while, I begin tossing and turning all night long. Pretty much every night, I awake several times in a state of paranoia. In a pool of sweat, I look around my austere room that is dimly-lit by moonlight and my mind begins racing. It goes like this: where the hell am I? What town am I in? Where did I fall asleep? Where is my cello and all my stuff? Am I locked in a prison somewhere? It’s shocking and often this fear is so real to me that I find myself quite agitated for a while afterwards. But then I go back to sleep– at least for a little while. And that’s when really intense dreams begin streaming through my brain.

I don’t often dream, but since I’ve been in Nepal my dreams have been really poweful. Maybe it’s the result of missing my beloved people back home that inspires these dreams. In each of them I experience dear friends or family members really intimately. So intimate it’s like an actual physical encounter. As I emerge from dreaming I find myself in a curious state of euphoria– like a trance, in which I am just a spirit without a physical body enjoying the presence of this person in this moment. I lay in my bed savoring the last traces of dream state, aware that soon I will awake and it’ll all be gone.

This must just be one more step along the personal journey that solo travelers experience.

November 4, 2009: Rafting on the Kali Gandaki…So Right, But So Wrong

Since I’ve been in Nepal, I often find myself pondering the thought that my actions here could prove fatal– that a little mishap or a lame-brained error in judgement could have tragic results. After all, this country is wild; rescue is not always possible; and you really have to be self-sufficient here or else pretty serious things can happen. I think about this probably too much and often find my heartbeat racing when faced with travel challenges. Like when I’m taking a sunset stroll through dense forests far removed from civilization, and I wonder what it’d be like to get lost. Or when I’m a lone westerner among a throng of non-English-speaking Nepalis, and I’m riding on a bus that’s doing ninety around blind corners. Or when I accidentally eat something that maybe I shouldn’t have.

I like to always have a plan– to know what I’d do if the worst case scenario were to occur. But while traveling I find that sometimes you just have to surrender,  take a leap of faith, and trust in your ability to make it work out, or deal with it. Along this road of unpredictable outcomes and random situations unfolding constantly, you just have to believe in yourself. Once I convince myself of this, a peace comes over me. It says reassuring things like: ” You are smart enough and you are strong enough– you will not die.” 

Perhaps this a common stepping stone along the path of all travelers, and I smile to think that someday I, too, may exude that Rambo-like confidence that I witness among experienced-travelers. You see these types with their huge backpacks and you know their passports have stamps from all the scariest of countries– you know they’ve ridden 80-hour long bus rides through India, have slept in many hotels that don’t even get a single star, and have fallen deathly ill to every kind of intestinal parasite. And yet, they are still smiling and carry on with bright eyes undaunted by the challenges that come before them. 

The flip-side is that sometimes tragedy is right around the corner and you don’t even know it. You set out for some leisure– to have a little fun– and you don’t even realize how wrong things can go. 

When signing up for a white-water rafting trip I never even considered the risks. It’s rafting. I’ve done several rafting trips and on each of them it always seems like the guides freak out and holler excited commands just to make the customers feel like they are having an “extreme” experience. The river is an awesome force– this I know– but a good guide makes good decisions and everyone gets splashed, enjoys the scenery, and has a good time. 

In the Hindu faith, Kali Ma is the great goddess of time and change and is sometimes known as the goddess of death. Symbolizing the ego, her death is supposed to celebrate the triumph of the soul over the body. One of Nepal’s largest rivers, the fierce Kali Gandaki is named after the goddess and is considered a particularly holy river. Consequently, it’s an auspicious place for cremations and today stone burial mounds can be seen alongside the river. Most rafters, however, only see icy-cold green waters flowing through tall canyons and steep hillsides. Its several quality class 4 rapids make it an exciting river to run. 

Many of the rafting outfits here offer the Kali as a three day trip–  two nights spent camping on riverside beaches. I was extremely intrigued by this trip, especially when considering what it’d be like to be on the river during the full moon, which was Monday night. What could be more romantic than camping beneath the moon and bright shining stars as the river sings me to sleep?

There were many rafting companies to choose from in Pokhara– in fact, the main drag here in Pokhara is littered with signs and storefronts of business offering white-water adventures. One company named Paddle Nepal, in particular, was recommended by a few folks I encountered and seemed like the cosmic choice for me. They cost more than the other outfits, but I got a good feeling about their experience and safety record. So I decided to go with them.

Eight of us signed up for the trip. A funny vodka-swilling macho Russian guy, his Israeli girlfriend, a few English folks, a lighthearted French-Canadian kayaker, a young teacher from California, and a 32 year old gal from Holland. Our guides, four Nepali guys– all in their twenties and completely hip– had shaggy surfer hair and Hawaiian shorts. These guys are quintessential cool. 

Monday afternoon, after a five-hour bus ride to the start of the journey, we began paddling. Memories of previous rafting trips quickly returned as I recalled how shocking icy-cold water can be. But everyone was having fun, the scenery was beautiful, and given that we had several more hours to go this afternoon I was trying to exercise Buddhist mastery over my mind. (I wasn’t succeeding though and was freezing my ass off.)

A few hours later, just before reaching the beach where we’d be spending the first night, things got a little crazy in the rapids. I still don’t really know what happened, but our cargo boat capsized, a kayak got destroyed, and in the tumult we passed by our beach. Our guides were all freaking out while us customers were all just helplessly sitting there ignorant of what was transpiring. Eventually our guide informed us that we missed our camp and that we’d have to spend the night on a rocky stretch a little further down stream.

We were all shivering madly, and the makeshift campsite was in the cold dark shade of the canyon. A fleeting thought came over me as I stood there on the river’s edge that maybe the feeling in my heart was similar to Rob Hall’s when he first had the inclination that his Everest expedition was doomed. But spirits among our crew lifted once we ate dinner and got warm beside the campfire. And at the end of the night when I laid me down beneath the stars with the full moon in my eyes I couldn’t have been happier. I barely slept a wink this night on my cold hard sandy bed, but at least I had a beautiful view.

The next morning over breakfast I got a chance to chat with Sabine, the quiet Dutch girl. I never learned all that much about her, but she had a nice smile and a  peaceful air about her. We chatted about the sweet things the Dutch put on top of buttered bread and I was transported back to my childhood when my grandmother would bring these delicious sweets back from Holland. 

Once we took to the river the sun was shining and we began paddling cheerfully.  Sabine was seated across from me and whenever we’d make eye-contact we’d offer each other a friendly smile. 

Along our leisurely morning rowing, we encountered a rapid that wasn’t particularly treacherous. Our guide seemed unprepared by the huge rock that was causing the white water, however, and our raft dipped down into the deep hole on the rock’s back side where strong currents form up circulating around and around. The boat flipped over instantly and we all went tumbling into the turbulent water. The currents were really strong and once I’d barely surface, I’d get pulled back down again. It was scary but I knew that this tumult would end eventually and I just had to remain calm. 

A few moments later I surfaced and the guide pulled me back onto the boat. We began retrieving other members of our team and one by one, the terrified lot began to return to their seats. Once our senses returned, however, we realized one seat was still vacant. Sabine was missing. We shouted out to the guide and he quickly steered us to the shore, where he took off running back upstream towards the scene of the rapids.

For twenty terrible minutes we all sat on the beach angry, confused, and scared as hell. Our guides had all taken off in the direction of the rapids and no one was returning. The lack of information was killing me, so eventually I took off running upstream too.

Hobbling over rocks and around the bend, I finally came to the scene where the guides and a couple of villagers were huddled around Sabine. She was stretched out on the beach and wasn’t moving. My heart began crying immediately. As I got closer I saw Sabine laying there motionless, one of the guides was pushing on her chest.

I sat down at her side and took hold of her hand. I may not know CPR, but I do believe in the power of touch and prayer. I clutched her hand and with eyes closed I began praying as hard as possible. I offered every invocation of God I could think of, I begged for a miracle, I made promises, I cried a desperate plea for Sabine. Her hand was warm in mine, I caressed her soft skin. I couldn’t accept she was dead. I kept waiting for life to return, but she remained motionless. It all felt surreal.

For two hours I sat there holding onto that hand.  With hopeless tears in my eyes, I knew it was futile. 

Once Sabine was declared dead and covered with a sleeping bag, I stood up and walked down by the riverside. All I could hear were the sad lyrics from an old song, “I will walk alone by the black muddy river…”

So many thoughts were streaming through my mind. Was this really Sabine’s time to go? Was I ready to go? Have I made my peace? Is that all there is? So gently we walk upon this earth. And to think that we were all just looking for a little fun on the river. Of course, it could’ve been any of us– shit happens.

After offering one more prayer into the wind, I walked back downstream and found our crew gathered around, dealing with it in their own way. I knew I couldn’t just sit there and start rehashing the details which we’d already been over a hundred times. I began building a stone shrine for Sabine while great tears poured down. The shrine was a cairn- like the cairns you see on a hiking trail- a tall rock tower. But unlike the hiking cairns, this shrine was encircled with sacred rocks hand-selected for Sabine. Everyone assisted in the effort and soon we’d completed a beautiful shrine for someone who none of us even really knew. Deep down though, we were all aware that this shrine could’ve just as well been our own. 

“Black muddy river, roll on forever…”

Sabine Corpeley, may you rest in peace along the banks of the Kali Gandaki, 11-3-09

October 29, 2009: Pokhara

The drive to Pokhara was an experience in itself. I’d heard that riding the public busses around Nepal is among the most dangerous things you can do– and is, in fact, responsible for the vast majority of deaths that occur here. That reality hit home shortly after departing Kathmandu and we passed by a smoking bus laying on its side. Several passengers and villagers were gathered around the fallen bus appearing shaken up and assisting in putting the bus back on its’ right side, but I didn’t see any blood nor injured people.

They call the road to Pokhara a “highway”, and in Nepal I suppose if it’s paved it earns that distinction. With one lane of traffic in each direction, this crazy windy road leads up and down extremely steep mountainsides for seven hours. It strikes me most ironic that in this country where few ever seem to be moving faster than a snail’s pace, it’s quite normal for bus drivers to be cranking down these roads at top speed, making high-speed passes around blind corners, and defying gravity and speed limits for no good reason.

Sitting beside me on the bus were Dave and Kate, a really fun cute couple from Canada. They were both Phishheads, loved music, and had a gentle warmth that made them great companionship along this crazy journey. Somewhere along the tumultuous ride, however, my head got so dizzy, my stomach didn’t feel right and I felt like I just needed to close my eyes and retreat.

I awoke just as we were pulling into Pohkara. Leaving Kathmandu felt like I was escaping prison on a furious flight to survive. I was looking forward to Pokhara, but I had my concerns about what lay ahead since Pohkara is the third largest city in Nepal. To my pleasant surprise, however, as my eyes opened I saw a surprisingly peaceful town.

Set beside a large lake surrounded by steep hills and snow-capped Himalayans, Pokhara’s natural beauty and close proximity to the major trekking routes and white-water rafting adventures makes it Nepal’s tourism capital. The way of life here is much more chill than in Kathmandu. It’s a different world and is definitely more my style.

I am both intimidated by and anxious to begin my journey through the Himalayas. Hiking here in Nepal is called “trekking”, and the route that I’m doing is called the Annapurna Circuit. It’s a 160 mile-long journey and most people do it generally over the span 17-21 days. Many days will be 10 miles up and down extreme elevation gains. I’m remembering the pain and duress of hiking Mt. Katahdin in Maine– the most demanding hike I’ve ever done– and now I’m wondering what it’ll be like to do that for 20 days straight!

Whitewater rafting is also very intriguing to me, especially considering the full moon is on Monday night. So, the plan is to first do a three day rafting journey on the wild Kali Gandaki river before heading out to the mountains. The trip sounds amazing. We will be spending our days along class 4 rapids, camping on beautiful white sandy beaches, and then howling ‘neath the full moon beside a bonfire. Can’t wait!

Spontaneous Dance Party!

Nepal is a country that truly loves music and they love to dance.

I came across a vision the other day that I will never forget. It was the middle of the afternoon and I was walking along a trail through a quiet mountain village when I began hearing music that was becoming louder with each step. Extremely intrigued, I followed my ears and soon came upon the source of this music.

Perched upon a hillside in the middle of a wide-open field there was a psychedelic bus painted in many bright swirling colors. I stood beside the trail looking up at this bus but was still confused about why music was blasting out of it. I came a little closer and then it all made sense.

Gathered around the bus were 15 or so Nepali youth dancing with reckless abandon. Totally busting a move, these guys and girls were dancing so happy, so liberated, so completely enjoying themselves. Anyone familiar with the dance styles you see in the Indian Ballywood movies knows what I’m talking about. They can really boogie!

I stood there watching this scene with a big smile on my face, so happy to be witnessing this joyous spectacle. I loved that it was the middle of the afternoon in blasting hot sunlight, and all I could imagine is that this was a spontaneous dance party brought on by these kids’ simple need to get down.

October 23: Three Days of Nirvana at Nagarkot

Since I’ve been in Nepal, whenever I’d speak of my plans to visit Nagarkot the Nepalese would always follow up with the exact same response: “Ooooh, Nagarkot– sunrise, very nice.”

Lonely Planet mentions the sunrise experience as the main reason for visiting Nagarkot and says that few visitors stay for longer than a night. Situated on a tall mountain overlooking the Himalayas and the Kathmandu Valley, Nagarkot is a quiet village with not a whole lot going on. When I read this, it sounded like my dream home. My curiousity about this epic sunrise was just one of my soul-attractions to this place.

As I was packing up to go there, I was introduced to a mousy French girl named Cerise. Dubis, the owner of the guest house in Bhatkapur, made the introduction because Cerise was also interested in going to Nagarkot. She had a pained look on her face and was trying hard to communicate in English but it wasn’t coming easily. She seemed much relieved when I addressed her in French and we quickly arrived at a plan to travel together.

Leaving the cello and my bag of bricks behind in Bhaktapur, I set off to Nagarkot with just a light daypack containing the essentials– a toothbrush/paste, my book, a journal, and some water. I didn’t even bring a change of clothes, since I only planned on being gone for a night.

Conversation with Cerise was lively right out of the gate. Reaching far back into the dormant quadrants of my mind, I was pulling out French expressions and grammar that haven’t been spoken for nearly fifteen years. Her company was refreshing and the opportunity to practice French was exciting.

Cerise was concerned about riding the bus and seemed a bit fearful. Having crossed that river a few times now, I can say that I am now pretty comfortable with the whole process. Though it surprised even myself when we arrived at the bus stop and, seeing how crowded the bus was, I opted to climb up on the roof for my first experience of this sort.

Sixty exhilarating minutes later we arrived at Nagarkot. The views from on top of the bus were amazing. And now we were on top of the world. The crisp air was significantly cooler and I was wishing I’d brought some warmer clothes.

As we walked along looking for a room for the night, we came across a barefoot hippie on the side of the road. He was sitting there banging a drum, appearing totally whacked-out drunk or drugged. Who knows what was going on in his mind and his British rasta accent offered no indication of where he was from. We told him we were looking for a place and he said, “The best place around here, mon, it’s called Nirvana. You gotta go there, mon.”

His deranged state of mind asside, his advice was an affirmation since that is the guest house we were looking for to begin with. At the end of a long dirt road, approaching what seemed like the edge of the world, we arrived at Nirvana. Prayer flags were swaying in the late-afternoon breeze and colorful decorative lights were dancing around the doorway. Inside, there are funky designs painted on the walls, guitars and drums strewn about, and cushions encircling a small table. We loved it. Only problem, they didn’t have any vacancy.

We found another place nearby, and that was fine. Cerise and I were famished, so after dropping off our stuff in our room we walked back to Nirvana to eat.

It wasn’t all that surprising that when we entered we found our hippie drummer passed-out, down-for-the-count, sprawled across the cushions beside the table. The beautiful Nepali hostess, she just offered an unapologetic smile that spoke to me, “It is what it is.” I was ok with that, and Cerise was too. We sat down beside the deadman, his arms practically wrapped around my seat, and we both just smiled at each other.

Shortly after placing our order, the other guests arrived. With dreadlocks, beautiful smiles, and vibrant refreshing energy, I knew I was going to like them. They took seats beside us and instantly the room was abuzz with traveler tales, interesting conversations, and laughter sweet laughter. They said they had arrived a few days earlier, hadn’t planned on staying so long, but sensing the unique magic and warmth of this place (and this guest house in particular), they decided to enjoy Nagarkot for a few more days.

A bell chimed in my head, and I paused to consider that my prayer was being answered. A page was turning, and that sense of isolation I had been feeling was quickly vanishing.

We sat at the candle-lit table for many hours. Andrea is a spunky Dutch girl whose contagious love for India convinced me that I needed to go there. Mark and Elesa, a beautiful couple from Canada, are like the ying and yang of love, and their counterpoint in conversations is completely engaging. Sanjay, the owner of this guest house, is quiet like the Buddha and he just sits there listening intently to every word spoken with a sly understanding smile on his face.

The guitars, drums, chessboard, and backgammon props around the room added to the spice of this funky little bohemian enclave. They were also the impetus for the musical-cushion flow in the room, and as situations rearranged, conversations and connections would mutate in a curious way like a river. A mysterious French girl named Alex arrived later on; she awoke the deadman, and propped him up beside her as they smoked cigarettes in silence. Cerise was having trouble following the flow of this fast-paced conversation in English, and it delighted me to have side-conversations with her in French, filling her in on what was being said.

The subjects of our conversation are so diverse i feel like my brain is play-dough, being stretched in many directions all at once. I am fascinated by the many stories I hear– stories about the extraordinary life of the ancient ruler Barabas and Zorba the Greek, about the Kumari Devi (a modern-day Nepali girl who is regarded as a “Living Goddess” until her first period, after which she lives a long lonely life because it’s bad luck to be with an ex-Goddess). Conversation always returns to travel experiences, and this crowd speaks fondly of the mystical Indian towns of Veranasi and Rishakesh. Books, music, and films are being discussed too. And where one person’s sentence ends, another person’s story begins in a thrilling segue of brain-food. In a notebook that sits beside me I scribble notes of things I wish to research.

Part of me wanted to stay there all night, because it was precisely the situation I love. But it was late, and if Cerise and I were to awake at 4:30 and complete our 4 mile journey to the lookout tower in time for sunrise, we really had to get going. Half-way home we realized we forgot to pay our bill for dinner, which seemed like a really long time ago. We laughed about this and when we returned, Sanjay said, “No problem. You pay later.”

The alarm sounded at what felt like the middle of the night. I looked out the window and saw a pitch-black universe speckled by extremely bright stars. I had heard that early-morning cloud coverage was common in Nagarkot and that would surely kill the whole sunrise experience, but this morning was about as perfect as it gets.

We arrived at the lookout tower just as the sun was peaking out from behind the Himalayas. The view was stunning and I could suddenly understand why the Nepalese are always so succinct when describing the Nagarkot sunrise experience– it simply falls short of words. Standing on top of the world high upon this lookout tower, the sun was warm upon my skin and in a sacred moment of peace, I surveyed 360 degrees of this beautiful mountain country.

Other sunrise seekers included a group of young Israelis who were sitting beside the tower, preparing Arabian coffee on a camping stove. Shortly after meeting them they offered us a cup and said that it was the world’s best coffee . Indeed, the subtle addition of cardamom pods to coffee seemed like an ingenious innovation– I wondered why Starbucks hadn’t thought of it. What followed was another two hour exciting exchange of traveler’s tales and stories that intrigue me to no end. I didn’t get their names, but that didn’t really matter. Their stories left an imprint on my imagination.

I could tell Cerise was enjoying these moments as much as I was, and I could tell that she didn’t want to leave, but she had an obligation in Kathmandu. So after a delicious breakfast back at Nirvana, we parted ways with a hug and a smile and a “bon voyage.” I only fully realized after she left how much I enjoyed her quirky French presence.

Andrea was leaving today too, and once she vacated her room I moved in. The rest of the day was spent on those cushions hanging out with Sanjay and the exciting mix of Nepalese and internationals that would drop in from time to time.

The first day was all about decompression. I just chilled all day, breathing easy, enjoying Sunitas’ delicious Nepali cuisine, and enjoying my book from the patio that overlooked valleys and kingdoms below.

I would’ve been happy to have each day be a repeat of the first, but I was also excited to explore Nagarkot’s fascinating mountain culture. So with the rising sun the next day I set out on a journey through time-worn paths that lead every which direction through these hills. I had been told that marijuana grows wild through the Nepalese mountains, but it still was shocking when I’d come across plants beside the trail. The hiking was epic, the trails were beautiful– perhaps thousands of years of walking these paths and the cumulative improvements along the way has resulted in extremely well-maintained trails.

I wanted to listen to my iPod, but quickly realized that it was futile to try. Every couple of minutes I’d come across a thatched-roof dwelling with befuddled peasants who’d look at me with wide-eyes like I was from a different dimension. Those that could speak any English would ask me where I come from and what is my name. Every once in a while I’d come across someone who could speak decent English, and then I’d have to remove the headphones and dig through my bag for my hearing aids.

One family in particular captured my imagination. A young boy tending to some yaks was standing beside the trail and endeared himself to me when he spoke, “Excuse me, would you like something to drink?” It was hot under the sun, I was out of water, and this sounded like a great idea. He leads me down a dirt path to the other side of his house and I find an elderly woman sitting in the shade beside a massive pile of marijuana. Her fingers are black with resin and she’s removing the leaves from each stem.

The young boy who addressed me is Anil. He is 14 and has a surprising command of the English language. He returns from his hut with a large bowl of some milky yellow drink. I’m not really all that interested in trying it, but what can I do? It’s called “chang”. I still don’t really know what it is– it tastes a little like the roxi that I had the other night, but Anil says it’s not alcoholic. He and his five sisters are very intrigued by everything i have in my bag: my iPod, my camera, my compass, my cowboy hat. I hand him my camera and he and his siblings began snapping away many photos of each other, reviewing each one and laughing hysterically.

He invites me to eat some curry, and though I’m totally hungry and would love to spend more time with these people, I check the time and see that if I don’t get a move on it, I’m not going to make the last bus back up the mountain to Nagarkot. Though locals climb the 3000 feet of elevation everyday, I fear that I am physically incapable of completing the seven mile arduous ascent before dark. Just before leaving, Anil asks with great sincerity for my phone number and my address. He keeps asking me how to contact me. I don’t really know what to tell him because I haven’t called the US yet, and I don’t think he has access to email. At any rate, I give him my business card and as I turn around to depart, the last image I have of this encounter is Anil surrounded by his solemn family, holding onto my business card like a treasured gift.

The peaceful late-day sunshine gives these terraced hills a timeless quality. I see peasants working the fields and I know that the view would be the same even a thousand years ago. As usual in this foreign land, I don’t know where I’m going, so I keep asking locals for directions to the Sangku bus stop. I’m not sure if they understand what I’m asking, but they keep pointing down the road, and eventually I find a bus beside a roadside hut.

Much relieved to have made it on time, i jump on the bus and suddenly feel very tired. A young woman with a baby sits down beside me. The baby is so cute and seems fascinated by my strange appearance. He seems eager to touch me, and when I ask his mother if I can hold him, she smiles and happily puts him in my arms. The whole way back to Nagarkot, the warmth of his precious body puts a happy feeling in my heart. And when we arrive, I pass him back to his mother and we exchange smiles and namastes.

The scene back at Nirvana is as timeless as the hills. Sure enough, I return to find good music playing on the stereo and some folks gathered enjoying some tea and dinner by candlelight. I take a seat, order some food, and kick back too.

Over the course of the night several of Sanjay’s friends stop in. They all play guitar and many of them have amazing voices. The music they make captures my heart and seems so irresistably romantic, but is also joyous and all the gay Nepali guys commence a rowdy group sing-along when they hear an old Nepali pop song. I ask them to teach me the lyrics and now the melody is imprinted in my head. I think it will become the foundation for a new song that I’m working on, which I hope to record possibly with some of these Nagarkot musicians.

I didn’t want to leave Nagarkot, but as special as it’s been– I haven’t showered in many days, my clothes are tired, and I’m really anxious to return to my cello and beautiful Bhaktapur. I’m also excited to return to Kathmandu because I now have a lead for three masterful musicians living there and I wish to find them. Instead of taking a bus on back (the easy way), I opted to descend the mountain on foot– a decision that led to another afternoon of fascinating experiences.

All day long I kept musing on the conviction that Nepal shall be for me a place that beholds infinite opportunities. So far my experiences have taught me that every moment is laced with spontaneous offerings from God– a perpetual whispering voice that says, “Come here!” This voice says to me to go forward boldly, do not fear and do not think you have erred in your calculations. This moment is a gift. Enjoy Nepal and all the random episodes that present themselves. Every minute is an hour, and in every conversation there is wisdom to behold. The lotus comes to mind, and I think of Nepal as a flower unfolding in perfect time.