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.

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