Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lakpa punches a goat (and other Himalayan Adventures in Nepal).

I was fine yesterday.

Today, on this tiny bus, I am (for lack of more concrete terms) collapsing in on myself.

I’ve written before about how my life sometimes feels on fire (in a good way), but this feeling on this bus is something I’ve never had before. I have never, ever been so angry (and hungover) before this moment. Lakpa is passed out in the seat next to me and resting his head on my shoulder. I can’t even look at him. I’m choking back some tears and it feels like my soul is crawling through my body and torching everything it passes.

My insides are crumbling.

There is one thought – just one - going through my head, and it does not include all the beautiful things I have seen in the last two weeks (such as pictured above):

I fucking hate traveling.

And I hate that Lakpa was seated next to me. I wish he wasn’t. He’s a small Nepalese man with a personality that eclipses every physical trait possible. I told him last night, well into my 400 Rupee whiskey, that he is the kind of person that when you meet them, you are already sad for when they leave. More straightforwardly: Lakpa is a shooting star of a life. He’s brilliant and bold and beautiful.

And like almost everyone you meet while traveling, just like a shooting star, they enter and leave your life so painfully quick. You must then learn to let them go. Travel in and of itself is the definition of temporary. And sometimes, whether you like it or not, so are people.

And soon, as in this-short-bus-ride-soon, he will leave my life and I will miss him like I have many shooting stars that have blazed through my sky, however briefly.

That all said, this moment on the bus is more than just him.

I have also just finished trekking with him and an amazing group of people on a trail that spanned about two weeks and over a hundred miles. I hit my breaking point(s) that literally pushed me to my edges. I encountered leeches, frigid cold, altitude sickness, unbearable humidity. I pushed buses along cliff sides where one small mud slip and my life would tumble into a river of class VI, brown oblivion. I met and became friends with absolutely stellar people. I disconnected from the internet and bars and the wildness of urban life.

The experience then was, without a doubt, one of the hardest things I have ever accomplished. I have lots of friends that would have undoubtedly shot through this path and this challenge with relative ease (I have met fellow travelers that say it "was a piece of cake"). The thing is, I am not made for this kind of trekking, or at least, I haven’t fitted myself into someone would could be yet (I have since made a promise to myself that I will do so after this experience). I drink too much, I sit too much, and I was in no way, shape, or form ready for a trek of this magnitude.

But I did it.

And right now, on this tiny bus, I feel not only the weight of what I just experienced - what I accomplished along with my friends and their unwavering support on the trail - but the weight of life from the past two years (because these past two years have been a roller coaster of new situations and people and feelings and decisions). It’s a moment so rare and so profound that the rest of your life spills out at the same time. Does this even make sense? Has this happened to you? A moment where all of life just explodes from within - the totality of your days and existential existence just snatches the air out from your lungs? It’s suffocating and I can’t stop thinking about how insane it is to travel the world over and live this kind of weird life.

So. Recap. I’m hungover and I’m pissed and breaking down (fun!).

With this in mind, the previous days wash over me. (What follows is not a step-by-step recollection of trekking, because a] that’s boring to read and b] that’s boring to write, so I’ll save you the Lord of the Rings treatment and skip all the Hobbit walking and singing with Tom Bombadil nonsense).

Day Fourteen

Today, it is all cheers with: Shelby, my partner in crime from Texas (who pushed me to complete this thing and I'm indebted to her for it); Lakpa, our trusted, lovable, and dad-like guide; Maddie and Nate, two cool college students in Colorado who had basically merged with us since day one when we ran into each other at the same tea house; and finally Maddie and Nate's guide, Mani, who is one of the calmest and humblest people I have met in Nepal thus far.

We go out drinking. We play cards. We pound tables like large makeshifts drums as Lakpa sings us songs in Nepali. The table shakes with the weight of excitement.

We made it and, damn, are we proud.

Day Thirteen

We are on a cliff side in a rain forest. One side is pure rock and avalanches and the other is a river unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Our bus is stuck on a hill in the mud. Everyone piles out and we all join together and grunt and groan and push the bus with all our collective might. To no luck, we all grab stones from the area and make our own road. It’s teamwork that gets the bus over the hill and everyone freaks out and claps and cheers and hoots and hollers when the bus makes it through. In other countries, I could never imagine this team mentality. Here, it cements everyone together on a shared journey. Later, we run into another bus that got stuck and, yep, out all of us go again. Abnormal? No, not at all. The citizens of Nepal are resourceful and I love them for that. This compared to the last few days? Easy.

Day Twelve

I’m freezing cold and my sweat is turning to ice underneath my three layers of clothing. Shelby has been hit with Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) symptoms and is struggling behind. I’m trying my best to breathe at an altitude of close to 5,500 meters (which has roughly half the oxygen than at sea level. For Washington readers, this altitude is higher than Mt. Rainier). I’m still nursing my own AMS-induced killer headache from last night that devastated my sleep. My headache was not too major, but my compulsive fear was – I’d read enough and heard enough stories of comas and death from AMS (well, usually from the more severe/progressed forms of AMS, HAPE and HACE). So I sat in bed, aching and believing I was going to die. But the next morning, Monne told me that as long as the headache wasn't in the back of my head (meaning water had gotten there), I was a-okay. (Sidenote: check this out - type in a random number and you get some pretty fascinating, nerdy facts).

But that was last night and too much worrying stops cool things from happening. Onward! We get to the top and I’ve never felt so high in all my life (many puns intended). We meet up with the very rad East Coasters we met the other night and we bathe in an icy cold collection of selfies and prayer-flag hanging. We minimize talk because it’s brutally icy and I can’t feel my left shoulder and all my fingers (Lakpa is hitting his hands on rocks to bring back circulation, for a rough example of how cold it is).

At the hostel, we drink in celebration. Myself especially. I haven’t had a drink in well over ten days and I’m extremely proud of myself. I have yet to check Facebook. I have yet to have an energy drink. I feel completely and utterly free. So, of course, we all, in Lakpa’s words, “climb the Everest” (which is the name of a famous draft over here). They explode all over the lobby as though the beer bottles are just as excited as us.

A few drinks in and I get the courage to share with Kayla, Ola, and Deryn about something that hit me while on the top with little oxygen (Shelby and the rest are in heated games of Bullshit at a nearby table. Lakpa loves the game, but he is absolutely horrible at it).

On my left wrist, I have the word "truth" written in Hebrew. It's a short reminder of my favorite quote from the Christian bible. Pontius Pilate, against almost all popular opinion, is my favorite character. He, to me, has always been the most human of Christian biblical characters. His quote, "What is truth?" is a question I ask myself daily. I feel that way with a lot of things in life, religion included. Truth is elusive and I don't feel it healthy to choose truth lightly.

But, as I told my three friends, I found an answer on that mountain.

"Faith," I say, "that's the answer."

And I don't mean that in a strict secular or non-secular sense. I mean that the truth of things are: 
-faith in oneself
-faith in your partner
-faith in your religion/spirituality (whatever that may be) 
-faith in nature 
-faith in science 
-faith in anything, really.

For me, doing this improbable journey has given me my truth, one that has always been hard for me to accept. I have faith in so many others but have always lacked sufficient faith in myself and my abilities. But I think I've found my faith in myself. 

And with it, I think I've answered a question (at least partially) that has evaded me for so long. I tell my three friends that it's a cliche thing to think of and to not laugh too hard about how cheesy it all sounds.

None of them laugh and I am beyond glad that they are here at this moment.

Day Ten

Today we climb up to Upper Thorung base camp. We meet a screenwriter, Jordan, who left home because he was going stir-crazy while awaiting to see if his TV series would be picked up by Bad Robot and Netflix. He stayed at the lower base camp because all the guidebooks state that it’s dangerous to sleep any higher without additional acclimation. He may have had the right idea. Before going to bed, I am hit with a headache that could murder. But the next morning, I get a prescription strength Advil from Maddie, take my own Diamox pill (which makes me have to pee every ten minutes, which is absolutely lovely), and feel well enough to make the final push.

Day Nine

Up and up. Sunburns for days. We meet three cool travelers from the East Coast – Kayla, Ola, Deryn - who are extremely rad and we spend as much time as we can talking with them. When you’re in the mountains, you have plenty of free time after hiking. Oodles of it. So we spend our time talking to them about all the cornerstones of life – love, careers, passions, and, of course, how crazy it is that we’re here and hiking toward one of the tallest mountain passes in the world (which, as recently as 2014 took roughly 21 trekker’s lives...).

Day Eight

Acclimation day. With climbing high mountains, I learn, it’s very unsafe to scale too far in one day. The lack of oxygen fucks with you, so most treks require a certain amount of “rest” days for your body to get used to it. But acclimation isn’t just sleeping and waiting for your body to just say, "alright, I'm cool". It requires hiking up to a higher elevation, then coming back down to sleep at the lower elevation for the night. People who climb Everest, for example, spend weeks and weeks following this famous “climb high, sleep low” mantra. We just do it for a day. We play Shithead and Bullshit with candy we bought from a store instead of poker chips. We are all in bed by 7:30ish, per usual, because our bones are sore and the Dahl Baht lulls us all to sleep.

Day Seven

Shelby and I do juice breaks everyday around 10:30, so today, Lakpa asks a random person to enter their house for rest and a juice. It's things like that make me love these countries (can you imagine doing that in the US?). We arrive in the bustling town of Manang. Our group finds a movie theater in the mountain town and out of the piles of illegal movies, we choose to watch Children of Men. It’s strange to be in a movie room in the middle of nowhere, but Nepal never ceases to amaze me.

Day Four

Lakpa punches a goat in the face. I have never seen anything like this in my life. I find out later that Lakpa was attacked by a mountain goat sometime in the past and now he takes no chances with them. The goat takes it like a UFC champion. Both Shelby and I are screaming and laughing at the same time. I mean, have you ever seen a grown man fight a goat? This was perhaps the weirdest thing I have ever seen in life and I have no words to describe it other than: Lakpa hates goats.

Day Three

This is the day I hit a breaking point. The hike from yesterday and today has made me exhausted. My pack is digging into me thanks to over-packing and my legs are already tired. The humidity, which has never, ever been my friend, is soaring and I’m leaking out of every pour. I don’t bring enough water and thirty minutes from our place of rest for the night (six or seven hours into the hike) I feel like my world is shutting down. The three of us are out of water and I feel like I’m inches, steps – one step even – away from a heat stroke. I have never felt this in my life. I actually think I'm dying and my pee is the darkest color of yellow I have ever seen. It scares the shit out of me.  I tell Shelby and Lakpa I can’t do it. Not one more step. I sit down and tell Lakpa he’ll have to get to the next town and bring me water. 

So, like the amazing, spectacular man he is, he runs toward the next town. Shelby stays with me as I moan about how shitty I feel for giving up and, of course, she encourages me like the rockstar that she is. Lakpa returns with two liters of water and it's the best water I have ever tasted in my entire thirty years of life. I make it to the next town, broken, and discouraged with myself. If this is only Day 3, and I’ve hit a serious breaking point, shouldn't I stop now?

But I don’t.

Day Two

Hiking is tough and a slog and just plain brutal at times. I encounter what is arguably the best Coke ever at the top of a mountain, but that’s not as important as another thing that happened today.

Let’s talk about a wonderful little topic: leeches.

I’ve never been much of a fan of bugs and crawly things, but that’s never really stopped me from much in life. Leeches on the other hand, are pretty terrifying. They wiggle like calculated worms over muddy and wet land. They assume the fighting position and then take a leap of faith onto your body (usually the leg...well, pray it’s the leg instead of them deciding to travel upward…) and continue to find a warm spot (leeches look for two things: motion and warmth. Oh, and rational and irrational fear, too). They wiggle through your boot crevices and leech over your sock, burrowing deeper, usually toward the toes.

The best part? You can’t feel them when they somersault over your skin. You can’t feel them when they latch on and insert their tiny needle into you. And you can’t feel them when they begin sucking the blood out of you.

What you do feel, later on, is a deep sense of horror when you find them either still attached, or gone, fallen off after their meal. And then you bleed, oh do you bleed, from a tiny pin hole prick. I mean, it’s like a river for a good hour or more.

Nightmares for days, my friends. Nightmares for days.

You're welcome.

Day One

The bus, like many bus rides here, is startling to Western thought. It’s crowded and busy and, dear God, is it hot. It simmers and melts me like an easy bake oven on overdrive. My right armed is scorched from the sun since I can barely shift in the small seats. Nepalese music videos blast on the video screen. Shelby is just as miserable next to me. We meet Maddie and Nate at our first teahouse and know that we’ll all be instant friends.

One Day Previous

I make a new friend named Alex, a lawyer from Pakistan. He is travelling away from his home country for the first time and it is blowing his mind. He is awash with the lure of travel – the new places, the beautiful new people, and the natural friendships that form from it. He leaves tomorrow and he is genuinely sad about leaving this all behind. He reminds me of me when I first started travelling. Hell, he reminds me of me now, still sad when journeys and adventures inevitably end.

“It’s the cost of travelling,” I say, “and it sucks so very, very much.”

He nods. It’s a lousy feeling, saying goodbye to good moments and good people.

We then agree that it’s still worth every single second.  
And I think I can speak for him on this one that both of us can’t wait to do it again.

So. Here I am, more than two weeks later. I am angry. I am sad. I am happy. I am all teary-eyed. I am a million different emotions swimming inside and out.

I hate traveling. I love traveling. I am a contradiction in every sense of the word. But most of all - staring at the large mountains and tiny villages scrolling by - I love all these emotions equally.

Because through it all I truly, without a shadow of a doubt, feel more blessed and alive than ever.

Lakpa wakes up with a startle. He looks to me. I must look a mess. He simply nods and so do I. No words are exchanged, because none have to be. I think he will miss me, too.

I found my breaking points and I pushed pass them with the help of others. I met gorgeous new people and saw breathtaking new places. I did things I never thought I could do. And isn’t that what life is all about? Continually expanding and growing and learning and loving and challenging yourself…and, yes, continually letting go of people and adventures when the time comes?

I think it is. It’s part of the deal we sign the moment we are born.

I go back to staring out the window.

And I soak in the world as it bleeds on by,

and by,

and bye.

Friday, July 22, 2016

In a city of dust and heat.

Your head is doing cartwheels. It's positively swimming in chaos.

You wonder what the hell you are doing all the way from home. Bangkok made sense because it was like a gigantic reunion of old friends, while making new ones in the process, but Nepal? 

You get off the airplane to a single-lane airport. No fancy Starbucks or restaurants. No big flat screen TVs that flash delays and departures or bars to get smashed at before or after a flight.

You missed India before, but this place, Kathmandu, made of pure noise and madness, reminds you a lot of what you experienced there. The honking of vehicles is back, a nervous sound that is the music of the city in all it's variations. A constant wave of dust sucks up into your lungs. You pray and meditate at every "crosswalk" (there are no crosswalks) and hope that "40% of all vehicle fatalities are pedestrians" is just a calculating error.

You take a taxi to town. Instead of a silk market, they offer hiking tours of every kind. You tell them that you are positively exhausted from spending the night playing Shithead in Bangkok and eight hours of stuffy flights on three hours of sleep with little legroom has worn you down to a nub. The streets are a zoo and the buildings are bright and adorned with prayer flags. The world is flooded with people and carts and life.

The hostel owner greets you in charismatic glee. He is happy you're here. All the people you run into today on your short walk (it gets dark and the city begins to unwind. These people go to bed pretty early, whether if by culture's hand or the fact that electricity is short and a scheduled power-outage is about to occur (this is called load-shedding, much like in countries such as South Africa).

You take a cold shower and remember why you love them so much in a city of dust and heat.

You grab a beer from the corner store to celebrate. Because you've decided to say, "screw it" with your budget and prepare for a two-week (or longer) hike in the Himalayas (the climb to Mt. Everest Base Camp is not advised during the rainy season).

You didn't prepare for this so you must search out equipment and medications for scary things like leeches (my God, you think, leeches are the worst thing you could ever imagine, and apparently they hop onto your feet as you climb, wiggling and burrowing to your toes. You buy a lighter because apparently burning them off works like a charm. They might also steal your soul, but that's just your worst-case scenario hypothesis [that is true]). You begin to look for trekking partners who are willing to hoof the bill, which will be expensive (guides go from $25-50 dollars per day). But it's monsoon season and not a lot of hikers, and none who are as ill-prepared as you.

You are wrong and find a new friend, a teacher from Texas by the name of Shelby who is ready to rock and roll up to one of the highest mountain passes in the world.

You rest.

You wake to lights and sound of a city on fire. You're already sweating from the damp humidity hitting your tongue. You go deeper into it all.

You see the rubble of a natural disaster that shook this country to its core. It's hard to take in the immensity of it all. Already one of the poorest countries in the world, your heart aches. You spend money at local businesses. You meet colorful merchants who love to know where you're from.

You meet two nice dudes, Freddy and Edgar, from The Netherlands and Spain, and walk through windy streets through tourism shops gone amok with fake The North Face products and tea shops and wats. You end up going to a Unesco World Heritage Site, but it lies in horrible ruin from last year's earthquake. You buy underwear in packages that read XXL, but when you try them on later, in the safety of a private room that was strangely cheaper than a dorm, they cut off your circulation and literally blow apart like one of those Youtube videos of watermelons exploding after a million rubberbands are laced around it. You think about your Thai friends from Bangkok who, after not seeing you for a little over a year, say:

Friend: You look bigger.
You: Like fatter?
Friend: Yes. Much fatter. And whiter.
You: Oh.

You vow to do a million crunches before going to bed tonight and decide to tell no one about your underwear. You also decide to get a proper tan to be less ghostly.

You wait to meet Kamari, a living Goddess, but she wakes up late, or something, and you need to go back to the hostel and meet with your hired guide who will make sure you so you don't die on the hike (you still think you might). His name is Lakpa and he will grow to become your favorite person that may or may not change your life a little/a lot.

This is it. You are here and you wonder how it is that life has led you here, pondering about hiking so high (close to 5,500 meters) that altitude sickness can kill you if you don't play your cards right.

In the hostel lobby you wonder just how the hell you can describe any of this with proper words in the right order. How does anyone describe a life and world that is so vastly different? You don't know, but you type anyways. You type because that's what has to happen. You have to get out what's going on in your head - an intoxicating mix of excitement, horror, love, curiosity, and wonder.

Oh, do you wonder.

You wonder why you're here. You wonder who you will be when it's all over. You wonder what tomorrow will bring.

Yes, you wonder. 
But suddenly you're reminded that you don't have to.

Instead, you begin to walk out the door.