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.

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