Discovering the Loss of Self in an Ancient World
By Rick Mannshardt
Part 1 of 5
Author’s Note: In writing this story, I found it strangely uncomfortable trying to tell it in the first person, as is my usual practice. Inspired by the selflessness of the Buddhist culture in Nepal, I felt it necessary in this case to step away from the self-centric mindset and instead tell the story as if seen through the eyes of a fellow traveler. For that reason, this journey is presented in the third person. The identities of the characters have been changed to respect their privacy. — R.M.
TIMELINE: November 2008, Kathmandu, Nepal
It is a world at the center of the world. Perched atop the Himalaya amid the sprawling continent of Asia, buttressed between the goliaths of India and China, lies the tiny kingdom of Nepal. So many words might be used to describe this wondrous place: enchanting; mystical; vibrant; colorful; earthy; intimate; dirty; ancient; struggling; enlightened. But if two words were all that were allowed, suffice it to say that Nepal is real, and Nepal is unreal. Navigating a course between these two opposing constructs finds the traveler discovering himself as much as the land upon which he walks. And sometimes, he finds reality and unreality on the same timeless street corner.
Into the Smoky Realm of the Holy Men
Nothing in their past could’ve prepared the fifteen Americans for the sights and emotions they’d experience at the outdoor crematorium. Kalu, the thinly-built city guide, dressed in modest business suit and well-worn shoes, led his scattered line of guests past a cluster of street merchants and down the dingy backstreet. There, on the banks of the river in accordance with Hindu tradition, was where the local Nepalese met eternity.
A hundred feet away across the slow-moving water, a row of seven concrete platforms, or ghats, stood at the edge of a concrete embankment ten feet above the water. At several of these, family members were preparing the bodies of their recently deceased for cremation. The proceedings at the various ghats stood at different stages, offering a prophetic view of past, present and future. Some of the bodies were already ablaze, thick with heavy dark smoke. Atop other ghats, the fires had yet to be ignited. On still others, the flames had already died out and the ashes were being scraped into the filthy brown-gray water.
There was something striking about the stark reality of the proceedings. In the west, the experience of death has become far removed from the natural world—virtually disconnected from the cycle of life. Funereal duties are performed behind closed doors by strangers under pristine conditions. The embalmed bodies, entombed in gleaming caskets, are sealed from the elements with the reassuring promise of postponing the inevitable as long as possible. Even western cremations are performed in sterile, discreet anonymity.
Yet here in Nepal, as in India and other Hindu nations, the process is earthy, smelly, intimate and direct. It’s also unabashedly public—and performed by family. After receiving a final bath at home, the body is transported to the river on a wooden stretcher by the family members. After performing rites dictated by long-held religious tradition, the family wraps the body in white linen. They then place the wrapped body atop a platform of carefully stacked wood, with the feet facing south. The pyre is then set ablaze, usually by the eldest son. The rite of cremation releases the elements of the body: earth, fire, water and air– and returns them to the earth. The ether, or spirit, is also released; returning to the afterlife to be reborn.
The group of Americans watched as black smoke from the bodies drifted slowly up-stream in the stagnant air. As if it knew where to go, the cloud inched its way toward an ancient complex of eroded stone temples reserved for use by the holiest of the holy men. When the process was concluded, the ashes of the deceased blended with the ashes of the wood as they were interred into the murky waters waiting ten feet below. Ultimately the river would return these mortal remains to Mother Ganges, hundreds of miles downstream.
Some members of the group took photographs. Others, like Rick, did not. It was hard to deny a sense of unease, a certain shock to the system. Seeing a human being on fire does something to you. You wanted to watch and at the same time you wanted to turn away. And it seemed intrusive, almost exploitative to be snapping pictures despite Kalu’s insistence that photography was allowed here. Rick felt that not everything on a journey needed to be documented to be experienced– or to be remembered. Sometimes, seeing was enough.
Surrounding the river was a veritable city of ancient stone temples and shrines– their eroded exteriors discolored by the ravages of sun, smoke and rain. Among them sat several holy men looking equally ancient: faces and bodies painted with bright yellow, white and orange powders; scraggly hair and beards long and gray; bodies thin, bony and brown. Draped in loose cloth, the skin was dry and ghost-like under the grainy coloring. These men seemed to be half in this world; half out. Scary, comical and mystical all at the same time, the men sat cross-legged on the stone temple steps, graciously allowing photographs but not openly inviting them. As weathered and majestic as the temples they inhabited, these silent figures were the human representation of antiquity; their knowledge and vision highly revered.
Earlier that morning the group had visited the famed Monkey Temple, Kathmandu Valley’s oldest and most sacred shrine. Atop the 365 meditative stone steps stood an island in the midst of the city, adorned by seemingly endless strings of fluttering prayer flags. Roaming freely about the hilltop complex, a troop of rhesus macaque monkeys sat oblivious to the wandering visitors– westerners and Nepalis alike.
There seemed almost too much to take in. Drifting smoke from burning incense stimulated the senses. Rows of bronze prayer wheels of all sizes lay within recessed nooks in the stone walls, well worn by the touch of millions of reverent hands. Vendors squatted beside their myriad wares laid out upon the ground. Hundreds of intricate handmade items of ornamental or spiritual design lured the eye: prayer wheels; bells and gongs; finger bowls; incense burners; beaded necklaces and other jewelry as well as brass, jade and wooden figurines of Hindu deities Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, and Ganesha. True, this was a marketplace; a tourist center. But one could easily forgive that and see beyond. The spiritual mystique, the history, and the cultural richness of the temple easily transcended its commercial trappings.
But it was the sound that ultimately commanded the attention: the hypnotic recorded chanting of Om Mani Padme Hum. Enriched by a fusion of Nepalese instruments– flutes, strings and drum that positively cried with emotion, the chant created a seductive, haunting ambiance. It seemed as if this hilltop shrine was the very center of the world. Being drawn along the ancient pathways of the temple by the sound, Rick knew that his journey had begun. Vibrant and compelling, this mantra spoke to him: “You have arrived.”
For Rick, getting here had been neither quick nor easy. It had been a long road. Too many opportunities to visit Nepal had come and gone over the years, pushed aside by one excuse after another—excuses that now seemed trifling and petty. There’d been disagreements with travel companions, financial uncertainties, political unrest, physical injury and worst of all, paralyzing indecision. After a decade of broken promises to himself, his plans of going to Nepal had become a joke that was no longer funny.
Yet at the root of these concerns was the simple truth that he felt bad traveling without his wife Brenda. Here once again was another rigorous high altitude trip that she wasn’t able to participate in.
It wasn’t a problem for Brenda. She was fine with him following whatever dreams he wished to pursue—even if it meant spending a week or a month away from her. After all, she had a long history of following her own dreams around the world. It was Rick who had the issue; feeling guilty leaving her at home despite her repeated blessings. What the hell was he griping about anyway? How many people are lucky enough to have a partner so accommodating?
Then in 2008, after his recently fractured foot had sufficiently healed, he realized he needed to get things rolling or it would never happen. So he picked up the phone and signed up for a 2-1/2 week trekking trip with a well known American travel company. But after sending in his deposit he sensed something wasn’t right. As with his previous trips to Africa, Europe and South America, once again he was doing this all for himself. That attitude didn’t seem to fit any longer.
Nepal was unlike any place he’d been before. A cultural melding of India and Tibet, this Himalayan kingdom pulsed with the spiritual fervor of the Hindus and the selflessness of the Buddhists. Contemplating his own shortage of faith and lack of spiritual connection, Rick felt almost unworthy. Someone else should be going instead, he thought, someone more attuned to the unique spirituality; someone who could truly benefit from the experience.
But then quite suddenly, within days of his departure, it all fell into place. Something had shifted and he now found himself ready. Gone were the self-centered worries and preoccupations that had weighed upon him for the past months. In their place was something altogether different: a desire to help someone. If even in the smallest way, he wanted this journey to improve someone else’s life—not just his own. Whether this person might be a Nepalese villager, a child or another member of his trekking group, he couldn’t say. He knew the answer would be revealed in time. Trusting in this knowledge, Rick had finally got himself to Nepal in early November of that year— open-minded, at peace and awake.
The senior guide, Mr. Devesh Mahendra, may have been short in stature but he was big in every other way. With his ample black moustache and leering but playful eyes, Dev was part Groucho Marx and part Mahatma Gandhi. Combining humor, a genuine big-heartedness, and an intimate knowledge of his native Nepal, he quickly became a close member of the group—a brother as much as a father.
And he was very good with his staff– locals he had hired over the years. He knew people all over the region. Whenever he passed through with a group of trekkers, the local villagers would stop him and ask for a job the next time around. To work for Dev was an honor and a great opportunity. And everyone respected him because he made good on his promises.
During the group’s first trek, four days of tent camping along the terraced foothills of central Nepal, Dev’s hospitality made people feel at home. The visit to a remote elementary school on the first day, a school that he helped support with his ongoing aid organization, amply illustrated the impact he’d made in the local communities. The young school children in their bright blue uniforms were as endearing and appreciative a group as you could possibly want to meet. Their smiles were genuine; their laughter disarming; their hopeful faces a perfect introduction to a welcoming world.
Finding a Kindred Spirit in the Jungle
The bus rattled down the narrow winding road out of the mountains. Hours away, near the Indian border, lay Chitwan National Park, a subtropical jungle wildlife reserve. Chitwan was about as much of a departure from the Himalayan foothills as one could find without leaving the country. After four days of hilly hikes, bag lunches and sleeping in tents, most of the group was clamoring for some pampered living.
Barbara stood out from the rest of the group. A 40-ish paramedic from upstate New York, she’d jumped into Nepal with both feet, demanding what Rick liked to call “the full experience.” A thin brunette with deeply tanned skin, she blended in well with the swarthy population of local Nepalese. There didn’t appear to be anything Barbara wouldn’t try—any food, any drink, any activity. She got blessed with (and even drank some) holy water, posed with the ancient holy men at the temples, sampled mystery vegetables from a rural garden, shared her camera with the local children and ate food from a variety of street vendors.
She even wanted to rent some motorbikes so she and her pals Adam and Gina, the young couple from San Diego, could go tearing around with all the other suicidal bikers of Kathmandu. These three were definitely the crowd to be with if you wanted action, and Rick soon found himself drawn in. The four of them soon began to hang out together. But before this trip was over, Barbara’s enthusiasm would come back to bite her… in the kneecap.
The attractive, energetic young couple was hard to miss. Petite, blonde and effervescent, Gina could be really cute at times. She was more ready for some pampering than the rest of them. Halfway to the park she found herself playfully chanting “Chee-ta-Wan, Chee-ta-Wan” from her seat in the rear of the bus.
Her boyfriend Adam was a powerfully built guy with a contagious grin and enough enthusiasm for four people. When Rick first met him, he figured Adam to be a well-traveled outdoorsman. With his tattoos and shaved head, he looked like he’d just got out of the Marines. But according to Gina, Adam spent most of his time in the gym when he wasn’t running his consulting business. In fact, it took some persuading to get him on this trip. It was the mention of the elephants that clinched the deal. Adam had no way of knowing, but he and his girlfriend would end up getting more elephant action than anyone.
Along the banks of the silt-laden Narayani River, the bus rendezvoused with two large hardwood canoes paddled by uniformed park employees. Ten minutes later, the group was drifting down river into the silent current. They wouldn’t notice the crocodiles until later. But it didn’t matter; the napping reptiles were content where they lay.
In the simplest terms, Island Jungle Lodge was to offer rest and recuperation from the group’s first trek—as well as anticipation for their next one, higher up in the Himalaya. Chitwan’s resident wildlife: tiger, elephant, rhino, leopard, and sloth bear injected a new flavor into an already colorful trip. Whether seen, heard or merely mentioned around the lodge, their presence in the surrounding forest added an element of danger; of being watched silently from the periphery.
Deeply drawn to exotic wildlife as well as the high mountains, Rick knew the physical backdrop of this 2-1/2 week trip in Nepal would nurture his soul. But what came to be equally compelling for him were the people he’d meet here. The separate tents and straggling nature of the hikes on the first trek made it easy for him to keep to himself. Yet the communal dining hall, open-air bar and lounge here at the lodge provided for more common experience; more interaction. The several people he’d befriend in Chitwan wouldn’t simply become friends; ultimately they’d come to define his entire experience in Nepal.
That evening after dinner, in the thatched lounge perched along the river, Rick gathered with Adam, Gina, Barbara and Dev for a ritual that they’d continue for the duration of the trip: the nightly rummy game. Rummy had become a longtime tradition with Rick during his travels over the years and he was eager to initiate the game here in Nepal. As a new-comer to the game, Dev surprised everyone, quickly developing an affinity for it. From that point on, regardless of how anyone was feeling—drunk, sunburned or snakebit, the game went on each evening as planned. Even when the power went out at nine o’clock, headlamps kept the game going into the night as the bugs of Chitwan swarmed around in earnest.
Nighttime held a sense of mystery in Chitwan. Nepalese nights are particularly dark, inviting all sorts of imaginings to come into play. And with no fences protecting the lodge, tigers, leopards and rhinos supposedly came and went as they pleased. There was even talk about a python that frequented the grounds at night. No matter how unlikely an encounter might be, the mere possibility brought about an edginess when the generator was shut down for the evening. Escorting each other back to their cabanas across the darkened grounds after the game, it was impossible not to imagine a 400 pound tiger silently padding up behind you. Some of the guests were uneasy, but Rick loved places like this. He welcomed the uncertainty, the wildness. There was no safety net. He felt alive.
Sitting on his tiny covered porch after breakfast the next morning, Rick saw Gina and Adam leaving their cabana two doors down. When he noticed that they were wearing their daypacks, he knew something was up. Whatever it was wouldn’t be posted on the lodge’s activity chalkboard or accompanied by any of the guides. They were going off the reservation—off on their own.
Always with an eye out for his next travel story, Rick found himself intrigued. It certainly would’ve been easy for him to yell out, “Hey, where are you guys going?” They probably would’ve waved him over to join them. But Rick hesitated, not wanting to intrude upon the young couple. A few seconds later they were gone, and so was the opportunity. Paying for that moment of hesitation, Rick spent the rest of the morning reading a book at the lodge.
A couple hours later at lunch, Rick ran into Adam just as he and Gina were getting back into camp. The expression on Adam’s face said it all. “Man,” he said, shaking his head and grinning, “We just had the coolest fuckin’ time.” After leaving the compound, they had headed upriver and into the forest. There they eventually came upon the elephant camp that Rick had passed through that morning on a guided hike.
With the morning campfire still smoldering, the mahouts, or handlers, were getting ready to start their daily routine: going out into the forest to search for food for their elephants. As they were preparing to leave, Adam tried to get a ride with them, but the mahouts were reluctant. None of them spoke much English so communication was difficult. But as soon as Adam pulled out some rupees to sweeten the deal, they acquiesced. Money serves as the universal language in the jungle as much as in the city.
The two of them soon found themselves each standing on an elephant’s trunk and being hoisted up onto the huge animal’s back. Seated directly behind the mahouts with nothing beneath their butts except a piece of burlap, they were escorted into the forest by a route never seen by the visiting crowds of tourists. When the mahouts eventually found the trees they were looking for, they hopped off, leaving Adam and Gina atop their elephants to fend for themselves. For the next hour, the two of them were there alone with the elephants in the forest, basically unsupervised.
As the barefoot men headed up into the trees with their machetes at their sides, Gina’s elephant started to wander. It headed straight for a wooded thicket packed with spider webs. She laid flat on the elephant’s back, letting the thorny branches brush over the top of her as the animal continued to explore. No glossy travel brochure had ever offered anything like this. Turning toward her boyfriend, Gina snapped photos of a grinning Adam high atop his elephant– the very picture of boyish exuberance. He’d come a long way from his gym in San Diego.
After lunch, Barbara the paramedic opted for a little elephant adventure herself. Joined by Gina, the two of them slipped into their swimsuits and hopped aboard one of the two animals brought to the river for the daily ritual of elephant bathing.
The procedure involved more horseplay than hygiene, but no one seemed to be complaining. For some reason the elephant seemed all too eager to dump the girls into the water, leading at least one participant to refer to it as the “elephant rodeo.” Eventually, a sort of competition arose between the women. Amid the boisterous frolicking and mugging for photos, the older and less athletic Barbara managed to aggravate an old knee injury. Finding herself in serious pain, she eventually retired to her room to chill out with some pain meds from home.
At dinner that evening, Rick found himself, as he had on several previous occasions, sitting next to Brooke, the young school teacher from Indiana. A slender brunette with bright, honest eyes, Brooke looked like she could still be in college, though she was already in her thirties. Like Barbara, she’d signed on to the trip as a single, so the two of them were rooming together. But they hadn’t really clicked. Being far from the impassioned extrovert that Barbara was, Brooke spent most of her time on her own. Over the past week, Rick’s occasional chats with her had been fairly generic, but tonight’s conversation delved deeper into personal territory.
After the crowd in the dining hall began to disperse, Rick found himself still intrigued with her. As he’d learned near the beginning of the trip, Brooke was in the middle of an ambitious five week long solo Asian adventure. These two and a half weeks in Nepal represented merely the middle third of her trip. While the rest of this group was still at home in the states, she’d been traveling on her own through Bhutan. And after this Nepal trip was over, she was heading off to explore India for another two weeks.
But Brooke wasn’t a seasoned world traveler. This was her first trip to any impoverished countries, and was the longest she’d been away from home in her life. She’d dealt with a load of worries and fears to get this far. It hadn’t been at all easy for her.
Yet she didn’t see herself as especially courageous. Rick disagreed. Sitting next to her as they experimented with dessert dishes from the buffet, he found himself commending her for making such a leap—one that many people would be hesitant to make.
Rick related the story of his late brother, whose death at age forty had opened a floodgate of change in Rick’s life after it forced him to confront his own mortality for the first time. That loss had catapulted him into a fuller, more rewarding life of travel and emotional risk taking. In fact, he wouldn’t even be sitting here sharing improvised rice pudding at a jungle lodge in southern Nepal with her had that tragic event not occurred. The travel hadn’t always been easy, but these trips had been the most enriching experiences of his life. The longer he talked with Brooke the more he discovered the many similarities the two of them shared.
If he had thought back to the months prior to his leaving the states, Rick would’ve laughed at himself now. From the moment he had signed on to go to Nepal, he had just wanted it to be over and done with. Then he could relax and be happy about it. That’s a hell of a way to live one’s life, but that’s how it had come to be with him lately.
It hadn’t always been this way. A lot had changed since he’d gotten married; even more since he’d broken his foot. But it was really just worry—a raft of petty worries about things that might happen: illness, re-injury, being overwhelmed by culture shock. It’s almost as if he’d taken to heart the words of Reinhold Messner, perhaps the greatest mountaineer of all time and the first person to summit Everest solo without bottled oxygen: “People do not become less anxious with age and experience; quite the reverse.”
Despite his more than 80 outdoor adventure trips including 65 climbs and journeys to 21 foreign countries on five continents, Rick had found it increasingly difficult to get the ball rolling each time. And lately it had been especially difficult going off on his own– going somewhere without anyone that he knew. After losing his nerve to go solo on the Inca Trail and the 19,000 foot volcano Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2005, he ended up bringing his brother along for company.
Now, Nepal became fixed in his sights as a way to atone; a way to regain his solo confidence. But somehow the worries crept back into the picture. He had no way of knowing that 1,900 miles away in Indiana, a young woman was also wasting time worrying about this same trip. If he’d known, it might have saved him a load of grief.
The crowd in the dining hall had thinned out by now. Neither Rick nor Brooke had realized how much time had passed. At this point, Adam, Gina and the others were eager to continue the new ritual of card playing that had begun the night before. Several times, Adam had come by the table, hinting at the rummy party that was itching to start back at the bar. Rick was torn. After-dinner rummy games were as big a part of his travel regimen as hiking boots and Gortex. But he was too absorbed in his conversation with Brooke to abandon it before its natural conclusion.
He reassured Adam with a promise to join them as soon as he could. Rick didn’t like saying no to Adam; there was too much fun to miss out on. Eventually, the rice pudding was finished off, and Rick and Brooke had unknowingly established a relationship that would prove mutually beneficial in the coming days. And the card game that evening, overlooking the moonlit river, hadn’t lacked for the delay.
The animals of Chitwan made certain that Rick would never forget his last night at the jungle lodge. After finally getting to sleep at 1 AM, he was awakened at 3:30 by what sounded like someone rattling the lock on the front door. Then he realized that the noise was coming from above— directly above his bed. It sounded like someone was using a tool, trying to make a hole in the metal roof of his cabana. The noise continued with a series of rasping sounds that was almost chilling in its methodical persistence. Something was trying very hard to get inside the room.
Now that he was fully awake, Rick knew what it must be. He’d seen the monkeys across the river that afternoon playing near the shore. He knew that although shrewd and industrious, monkeys are usually easy to spook. So he jumped out of bed, grabbed a shoe off the floor and threw it at the wood paneled ceiling. It had little effect; the rasping sounds continued. He then took one of his trekking poles, stood directly beneath the noise and whacked it against the ceiling several times. The commotion ended with the unmistakable patter of an animal scampering off the roof. Peace at last, he thought.
Earlier in the evening while lying in bed, Rick remembered hearing the distinctive sharp barking of a distress call coming from somewhere off in the forest. He knew that sound to be a warning about an approaching predator; most likely a tiger or leopard. A lot was going on out there tonight. For a while Rick was even contemplating going out to investigate the intriguing sounds of the forest.
But before he could get back to sleep, he heard something moving on his front porch, just outside his screened window. A few seconds later came a loud bang against the wall beside him. Then he heard the yelping cry of an animal in distress. All this was happening barely four feet from where he was lying. He thought perhaps the infamous Chitwan python had nailed one of the monkeys out there on his porch. Pulling the blanket aside, he sat up and peered through the window screen. All he could see in the dim moonlight were the two rattan chairs sitting beside the railing. Apparently, daytime was when you saw things; nighttime was when you merely heard them. The mystery of the jungle noises would remain unsolved.
But early the next morning, Rick would finally get the wild rhino photo he was hoping for. On his last game drive before leaving Chitwan, he spotted one of the 6,000 pound “armor-plated” creatures he’d seen the day before in the murky foliage ahead. It then broke from cover and splashed into the muddy river. Moving further from shore, the huge animal eventually vanished into the ghostly mist in a scene that was absolutely prehistoric.
Part 2 of 5
Trouble on the Road Back
After their hiatus at Chitwan with its snorting rhinos, thirsty leeches, hidden tigers, marauding monkeys and assorted elephant escapades, no one knew that simply getting back to Kathmandu could be so adventurous.
The group had been on the road for half an hour. Rick was sitting up near the front of the bus, behind the driver. Like everyone else, he was in a euphoric mood, contemplating the many exotic experiences they’d had thus far. Barbara was sitting across the aisle to his left, reading a paperback. Adam, Gina, Dev and Brooke were seated somewhere farther back. There was a fair amount of traffic on the two-lane road, along with the usual circus of honking, swerving and passing. The driver, a man Dev didn’t usually work with, was aggressively passing every vehicle he encountered. But nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Then for some reason, a truck up ahead pulled to a stop in the middle of the lane. Without waiting, the bus driver started to pass it, not fully realizing that another vehicle was approaching from the other direction. Fortunately, the other vehicle slowed down when its driver saw the bus moving towards it, and quickly came to a halt across from the stopped truck.
The next few seconds were surreal. There didn’t seem to be enough room for the bus to get through, but the driver seemed to think there was. Sitting right behind him, Rick watched the bus move closer and closer to the stopped truck, curious how the guy was possibly going to squeeze a ten foot wide bus into an eight foot space. The last thing he remembered seeing was the huge truck overwhelming his field of view. A second later a bomb seemed to shake the entire bus as it smashed into the truck in a sobering cry of crumpling steel and shattering glass. The windshield exploded into a thousand bits of shrapnel that flew forward onto the pavement. Then everything lay still.
If he hadn’t had his foot braced against the base of the driver’s seat, or hadn’t been paying attention, Rick would’ve been thrown out onto the pavement with the shattered remains of the windshield. Few other people on the bus had been so fortunate. Nearly everyone else onboard went flying forward as the bus came crashing to a halt, slamming their heads into the steel-framed seats in front of them.
Reality instantly kicked in. Rick jumped up from his seat and turned around, asking if everyone was OK. Despite calling out several times, he got no answer. All he saw was a sea of dazed faces. They all stared blankly ahead, unable to comprehend what had just happened. Several people were already bleeding from a variety of facial injuries— lips, chins, noses, foreheads. Rick then noticed something much closer at hand. In the seat right behind him, the young Taiwanese woman with the prosthetic leg that he’d seen at Chitwan was bleeding profusely from her lip. He pulled a tissue from his pocket and gave it to her to help with the blood. He then grabbed the first aid kit out of his pack and headed for the back of the bus to see who else needed assistance.
A dozen injuries lay waiting. Terrence’s forehead was bleeding; Brooke had hurt her neck as well as her forehead. Carl’s chin was bleeding, as was Joan’s lip. Other injuries were less apparent. Rick talked with Brooke first, comforting her and getting a sense of her condition. She seemed to be suffering from a mild whiplash, but could still move her head. She said it didn’t feel too bad. He checked on a few others nearby. By now, another first aid kit was making the rounds. People were moving about, starting to deal with things. But confusion was everywhere.
When the doors opened, Rick followed everyone outside the bus. There, he began assisting Barbara, who as a paramedic, had now begun to take charge of the situation. Setting up an impromptu triage station, she began evaluating several injured passengers. Rick assisted her with various duties, keeping an eye on those she had already treated. The most serious injury was the young Taiwanese woman. Barbara discovered that she had bitten completely through her lower lip. She was trembling from the pain. Barbara cleaned the wound and then applied some special adhesive strips to bind it for the time being; the woman would clearly need professional medical treatment soon.
Terrence had a possible concussion, and Barbara began evaluating him for that. After she moved on to another patient, she had Rick keep an eye on him to watch for any blurred vision, nausea or tingling in his extremities that might signal a more serious condition. An older Nepalese woman had hurt her knee. Barbara went to go check on her. Other injuries eventually made themselves known.
Under the intense midday sun, the scene quickly filled with people. Passersby and occupants of other vehicles clogged the roadside. Cars were slowing down to get a look at the wreckage. The passengers, having all exited the damaged bus, waited by the side of the road. Some were milling about; others were sitting on the ground or atop the low stone wall beside the bus. Chatter among them was sporadic and detached.
Barbara and Rick continued walking around, checking on people. Most simply needed emotional reassurance since few of them knew what had actually happened. Many were still dazed and shaking– their pupils constricted. Rick found a moment to take a breath and reflect on the situation, being glad he’d been in a position to help. If Barbara, also seated up front, had been badly injured herself, things would’ve been much more difficult.
As everyone’s immediate medical needs were being addressed, Dev got on his satellite phone and reported the accident, calling for another bus to come and pick them up. The driver said he had lost his brakes, but Rick was skeptical. Sitting right behind him when it happened, he’d seen nothing to support the man’s story. Outside, the man kept leaving and reappearing, but he didn’t look especially upset.
A half hour later, another bus arrived to collect everyone. No police or medical vehicles would be arriving. No statements would be taken down; no photographs would record the scene for legal or insurance purposes. There was nothing to do but get aboard and continue onward.
No one wanted to sit up front this time. Everyone headed for the back of the bus. Rick could hardly blame them, so he volunteered to take the front seat, beside the new driver. Upon closer examination, this vehicle appeared to be even less safe than the last one, with various exposed metal parts protruding from the walls.
The ride into town wasn’t long. The bus eventually stopped to let off some of the passengers who weren’t with the trekking group, including the Taiwanese woman and her friend. Dev had provided them with the address of a nearby clinic, but it was up to them to get there for treatment. Rick took the opportunity to hop off the bus to pick up some bottled water and cookies for Barbara, who shared them with the group. Then they were back on the road, heading toward the city of Bharatpur, where they were to catch a small plane back to Kathmandu.
You’d think people would’ve been nervous about flying at this point. But the group actually felt immune from any further transportation woes, joking that they’d now been “pre-disastered.”
In the days that followed, Rick would be periodically haunted by thoughts of the crash. Seeing so many of his new friends injured on a vacation through no fault of their own was troubling. But even more troubling were the thoughts of the young Taiwanese woman and the plaintive look in her eyes— scared, dazed, innocent. Rick had been at the scene of several road accidents over the years. But except for the time he’d come upon the mutilated body of a young boy killed by a runaway beer truck, none had affected him emotionally as much as this.
The group would later learn that not far away and at approximately the same time, another bus had crashed, killing six people and injuring nine when it rolled off a cliff to avoid an oncoming car. Frequent stories of bus crashes in Asia were nothing new to Rick. He’d been hearing about them for years. But they were unlikely to be dismissed by him ever again.
After the bus pulled up at the small airport in Bharatpur, the group filtered in to the ground floor lobby, slowly managing to return to normalcy. A surprising number of people were hungry, buying snacks at a nearby kiosk. Later, while waiting for the plane in the small barren terminal, Dev told how he and his longtime assistant guide Sanjay had been stopped by a group of rebels during one of their treks. This kind of thing had become commonplace during the years of political instability that followed the murder of the royal family in 2001. It was intriguing to hear a story from someone who was actually there.
With characteristic humility, Dev related the entire story without relying on either bravado or melodrama. Apparently, it was just a small rebel group: two guys with guns and a kid with a grenade belt. But for nearly four hours they held and questioned the two of them. Separating Dev and Sanjay to see if their stories matched, the rebels kept asking them why they were there and where they were going. Earlier, when he’d seen them coming, Dev had stashed his satellite phone in a bush, but not his cell phone or wallet. When they asked if he had any phones on him, he was able to convince them that he didn’t. Dev Mahendra had a very honest face.
The rebels eventually demanded that he give them 50,000 rupees (roughly $750 back then.) Neither frightened nor antagonistic, Dev calmly explained that he needed that money to pay his Nepalese porters, who like the rebels themselves, were locals with families to support. Other than that, Dev was very cooperative, agreeing to their demands that he avoid trekking in certain nearby regions and villages. “OK,” he’d say to them. “Where do you want us to go? We’ll go back where we came from if you like.” A natural with people, he charmed the rebels like a bunch of snakes in a basket, eventually negotiating their demands down to a mere 5,000r.
That night back at the Nirvana Garden Hotel in Kathmandu, Dev put Barbara on temporary room arrest to give her a chance to recuperate from the knee injury she aggravated during the “elephant rodeo” in Chitwan. Rick paid a visit to her and Brooke in their room across the hall to see how they were doing. Barbara had ordered some Thai food from room service and her pain meds had just kicked in so she was feeling pretty loopy. But drugged or straight, Barbara’s spirits were hard to suppress.
Earlier at the hotel restaurant, Rick had run into Carl, who mentioned that he’d recently lost his only pair of sunglasses. He asked Rick if he had a spare pair he could borrow. Rick in fact did, but he told Carl he’d check and see. It’s not that Rick was unsympathetic; the request simply caught him off guard. Still, he felt bad for hesitating. Before the end of the day, Rick found Carl again and loaned him his spare pair– not knowing that this wouldn’t be the last time on the trip that he’d find himself in this situation.
A Valley in the Sky
The next morning would see the beginning of the third and most anticipated phase of the trip: the high altitude Himalayan trek up the dramatic steep-walled Langtang Valley in north central Nepal. There’d be no tent camping this time; the group would be staying in teahouse-style trekkers’ hotels in several villages along the way. Due to the remoteness of the area, the only practical way to get everyone there was by helicopter.
With two small chartered choppers at their disposal, the group split into four teams of four, with each aircraft making two 60-minute round trips. Rick’s very first helicopter flight was everything he’d hoped it would be. However, the obvious things were still novel: no taxiing, no runway; just straight up off the tarmac, a sweeping 360 degree turn and then off toward the mountains. Far more accustomed to jet air travel at 30,000 feet, Rick found the view from a mere 1,000 to be intimate, detailed, and surprisingly three dimensional. Individual houses, roads and trees passed beneath him like figures in a model railroad. Beyond several steep forested ridges, the magnificent Himalaya lay waiting ahead. Strapped in next to Carl, Rick was all smiles.
He would later learn that Gina and Brooke, along with those in the other chopper, hadn’t had quite as enjoyable an experience. Being nervous about flying in general, Brooke came close to freaking out when a situation arose mid-flight. High above the mountains, a loud thumping noise started coming from the rotors overhead. The aircraft then began to shake violently.
Seated next to Adam, Gina knew what was happening and had good reason to be concerned herself. She had dated several pilots in the past and knew more about helicopter operations than most people. Apparently, the pilot had climbed too high as he was trying to get over the mountain ridges leading to the Langtang Valley. In the super-chilled air, his rotor blades had begun to ice up. The chopper was now in danger of losing lift. The only way to solve the problem was to descend to a lower altitude. But flying over a mountain range gave them only so much room to descend without risking a crash.
Fortunately, the problem was short-lived. The pilot managed to de-ice the rotors and was able to reach the landing site with no further problems. But everyone onboard knew they had to take the chopper back by the same route when the trek was over, so they were likely to face the same problem again.
Langtang certainly raised the stakes for the group. Chitwan had been a boozy, leisurely resort, requiring about as much physical effort as a seniors’ golf game. Even the first trek, through the Himalayan foothills, had been fairly comfortable. The slopes may have been long and steep at times, but the elevation was low and the weather mild. Here in Langtang, the trails were gradual, but the elevation was far greater and the temperatures more extreme. Each night, they’d sleep in a Tibetan-style village that was more than a thousand feet higher than the last. Eventually, they’d reach an elevation of 12,000 feet, before attempting a climb to the summit of 15,500 foot Kyangjin Ri. Before this trip was over, the group would test themselves at altitudes most of them were unaccustomed to.
But this was what traveling to the Himalaya was all about: thin air and brisk temperatures; rugged mountains and uncertain outcomes. And as with most outdoor adventures, the rewards would be equally intense. Lasting memories would be made here at Langtang— some good, others not.
Stepping off the chopper at the 9600 foot landing site on the barren Ghoda Plateau, Rick felt in high spirits. Several porters were there already as well as some trekkers on their way out—something they hadn’t seen on their earlier trek through the less-traveled southern foothills.
The chill air was immediately apparent but the excitement of the flight had Rick’s mind elsewhere. Sanjay, the assistant guide, reached over and zipped up Rick’s fleece top. Stoutly-built and ever smiling, Sanjay had been with Dev for many years and had quickly become a favorite of the group. From serving morning tea at the tents to bringing meals to the dinner table and filtering drinking water throughout the day, his contribution to the team was incalculable. And he was a great person to hang out with. He always made Rick smile with his little jokes and pleasantries. He had a son who was presently going to school in China whom he was very proud of. But he missed him deeply.
Unlike Dev, Sanjay hadn’t taken the chopper to Langtang. While the group was washing elephants and chasing rhinos in Chitwan, he and the other assistant guides were walking part of the way here. And when this trek was over, they’d be going back the same way—two days of hiking followed by a long rugged bus ride.
By now, the pilot was ready to go back and pick up the last group. Rick wanted a photo of the chopper taking off so he stepped back twenty feet to get a better view. But as he did, the pilot revved his engine and the prop-wash sent a typhoon of loose dirt, straw and pulverized yak dung hurtling through the air. Rick clearly hadn’t anticipated this. He couldn’t keep his eyes open, nearly lost his hat and didn’t get the photo he was hoping for. Welcome to Langtang.
Yak dung would get a lot of mention on this trip. Though Langtang was considerably less traveled by both yak and trekker than the popular Everest region, encountering cow pies on the trail was a common occurrence. The treading of thousands of feet grinds these ubiquitous droppings into a dust that permeates the landscape. Furthermore, dried yak dung is the standard fuel source here in the Himalaya where wood is in short supply. Throughout the villages, one can see this dung being laid out and dried in the sun for later use. And the acrid smoke from burning it in the heating stoves caused ailments that would soon be felt by all.
A short hike up the rock-strewn valley brought the group to their shelter for the night, the rustic Hotel Tibetain, a one-story stone and wood structure topped with a corrugated metal roof. Like most of the trailside accommodations up and down the valley, the Tibetain was a trekkers’ hotel that catered almost exclusively to foreign travelers. But to look at it, you’d swear it had been perched on that desolate clearing for a hundred years.
Across the rocky courtyard stood the communal dining hall, a thirty-foot dimly-lit room heated by a small wood stove. The accommodations were Spartan but cozy. Simple wood-paneled rooms leading off a central hallway granted privacy and a comforting emotional warmth. Rick, being the only solo male trekker, got his own place, as he had at Chitwan and during the tented camping trek earlier.
After settling in, the group gathered outside at a table in the courtyard where Brooke led them in some simple yoga exercises while they waited for lunch to be ready. There’d been a lot of “firsts” for Rick on this first trip to Asia: first squat toilet; first helicopter ride; first Nepalese food; and now his first taste of yoga. Because of his weakened ankle, he had trouble balancing solely on his left foot, but he found the other positions well within his abilities.
In the coming months, Brooke would provide him with a series of foot exercises she said would improve his strength and mobility beyond what his doctor back home had thought possible. Rick was grateful for her encouragement and advice; the first good news he’d heard regarding his foot in a long time. As they shared a plate of vegetable momos (stuffed pastries) at the outdoor lunch table afterward, he had no way of knowing that very soon he’d find himself in a position to return the favor.
After lunch Dev and the guides led the group on a three hour acclimatization hike up the valley. As a way of preparing everyone for the higher altitudes to come, Dev employed the mountaineering axiom of “Carry high, sleep low,” which holds that a person can better acclimate if they don’t sleep at the maximum altitude attained that day. For that reason, the group would return to the same place to spend the night.
Langtang Valley was a desolate, austere place—an environment of broken rock whose only vegetation were the patches of brown, carpet-like grasses that covered the flatter areas. The group would hardly see another tree until they returned to the Kathmandu region. Everyone did well on the hike up the gradual trail, as they encountered yak herders’ shelters, small tea houses and trailside prayer wheels.
Over the centuries, the Sherpa culture of Nepal’s rugged high country had adapted to a simple life of harsh conditions and constant work. With very little material wealth, the Sherpa valued the earth and the heavens, living life by the natural cycles of the sun and moon. There was no electricity or running water; no electronic communication with the outside world. This simple life with little distraction left these villagers peaceful and contented. Everywhere the group went, they encountered welcoming smiles.
Halfway to the next village, they came upon a steel cable suspension bridge spanning a dramatic 150 foot wide gorge that cut into the rugged hillside. A meltwater stream cascaded a hundred feet below. Bridges like these were common in the mountainous terrain of Nepal. Originally, they were constructed by the local villagers, who used fiber rope and wooden planks. Over the years, these charming but dilapidated relics have been gradually replaced by more permanent structures, thanks to funding from the trekking industry.
Dan’s wife Traci, still spry in her seventies, said the two of them had been trekking in Nepal a few years earlier. Apparently it was a memorable experience to be crossing one of these narrow swaying bridges whenever you encountered a Nepalese villager coming from the other direction with his 1500 pound yak. Traci said the protocol was simple: “You turn your back, hug the rail and don’t move.”
Dev had chosen this particular bridge as the turn-around point of the day’s hike. Whether or not you chose to cross it and take the chance of meeting a yak mid-span was optional. The group stopped for a rest break. Almost on cue, a Nepalese man approached from the far side. He had a yak with him. He tried several times to get the animal to cross the bridge, but it refused to cooperate. The man ended up having to take the yak across the gorge the long way—all the way down and then back up again– so even the bravest in the group missed the opportunity to test out Traci’s advice.
It wasn’t until starting back from the bridge that Brooke first began to feel sick. Her symptoms weren’t severe at first, but soon she found herself in distress, clutching her stomach and wavering on the trail. As her pace began to slow she eventually fell behind the others. When she finally made it back to the hotel she disappeared into her room and stayed there for the remainder of the day.
At dinner that evening, Rick noticed her missing from the table and soon learned about her problems on the trail. Her roommate Barbara, still having knee trouble, was keeping an eye on her.
Dev had said that several people on every trip succumb to one illness or another, mostly from G-I issues with the food or water, but often from respiratory problems as well. This trip would be no exception. Between jet lag, colds and sinus inflammations, smoke-related coughs and sore throats, allergies, stomach and intestinal problems, as well as fever and altitude sickness, this group would definitely feel the journey. Several people had fallen ill already. Even the Nepalese had their share of ailments, mostly respiratory. On the first trek, Rick couldn’t help noticing all of the coughing, snorting and spitting coming from the porters’ tent.
Staying healthy is important in rural Nepal. Because of the ruggedly remote mountain terrain, medical assistance can be a long way off, requiring days of horseback travel to a hospital. The only alternative is helicopter evacuation, which can cost thousands of dollars if one isn’t insured for it.
Barbara had stayed behind the entire day because of her injured knee. She’d missed out on the acclimatization hike, but recuperating was a higher priority. Dev had brought a special heated balm with him and massaged the afflicted joint for her that evening. His compassion for others was never more evident than when he had a sick or injured trekker on his hands. This wouldn’t be the last time he’d bring out some special remedy from his bag to help someone in distress.
Ever optimistic, Barbara was hoping to be well enough to continue with the group the next morning, but it was too early to tell. Now, in addition to being a patient herself, she found herself in charge of Brooke. By the end of the evening, it was questionable whether either of them would be in any condition to continue onward.
Still, the ritual rummy game went on as usual. Barbara left Brooke to get some rest and then headed over to join the others. Dev never missed a game either. Once dinner was out of the way and the crew was busy working on their evening duties, he’d find his way to Rick, Adam and the others, usually sequestered at a corner table of the dining hall. Sometimes the game would commence before the rest of the group was even finished eating.
Rick wondered if the nightly games were causing any rifts with the rest of the group. In theory, Dev needed to make himself available to everyone. These rummy games had established a kind of clique—an in-crowd that seemed to be having more fun than anyone else—and certainly more alcohol. But Rick’s concerns were probably unfounded. Dev had more than enough of himself to go around.
At 5:30 the next morning it was still as dark as the middle of the night. Rick got up to go out to the latrines. The moon was up. This was always one of his favorite times in the mountains: peaceful, clear and brisk. There were a lot of stars in the sky but not as many as when he’d gone to bed earlier. He even caught sight of a shooting star. It traveled up the canyon, pointing the way to the next day’s journey. He didn’t realize that Brooke had been out here numerous times during the night dealing with her worsening intestinal troubles.
On his way back inside, several lights coming from the lower edge of the valley caught his eye. Back in bed, he later saw lights playing on the wooden wall across the room. He spun around in time to see three heavily-laden porters ferrying loads up the trail outside his window– in the cold darkness of 5:30 AM!
No matter how familiar you are with Nepalese Sherpa culture, it still affects you to see these people hauling 65 pound loads over mountainous terrain with scant footwear. It was hard to fathom porters being on the trail so early. They either had a long way to go, or many trips to make before the day was over.
During the mornings and afternoons you might see a dozen or more of them on the trail every hour, frequently walking in pairs. Women porters were as common as men. Regardless of what direction they were traveling, uphill or down, they always passed you quickly. Most of them kept their eyes on the trail in an almost hypnotic concentration. Rick usually found himself thoughtfully watching their feet or their sweaty brows as they silently passed by; their load-straps pressed tightly against their foreheads.
The next day’s hike would take the group from the Ghoda Plateau at 9,600 feet to the village of Langtang at nearly 11,500. The gentle winding trail followed the rushing watercourse of the Langtang River, which tumbled through the rocks fifty yards down slope.
At breakfast it was clear that Brooke was feeling worse than she had the day before. Dehydrated, weakened and weary from lack of sleep, she also had no appetite. Rick went back to his room and retrieved one of the packets of electrolyte drink mix he’d been using each day himself. Brooke had been drinking nothing but plain water and it was causing her stomach further discomfort. This caused her to avoid drinking altogether, which was making her dehydration problem worse. Dev mixed the powder with some hot water and filled her hydration pack for her. She was already taking antibiotics for her intestinal issues, and she’d popped a couple Imodiums since she’d be on the trail all day.
Barbara, it seemed, now had her own guardian angel. Dev had made it his job to look after her. The special balms and massage had helped her the evening before, and today on the trail he and Sanjay would be looking out for her.
But it was difficult to see Brooke in such a condition, since she was so sweet and didn’t call as much attention to herself. Rick had come to grow rather fond of her, as he had with several of his other new friends. And in the last few days, he had begun thinking of Brooke as the little sister he never had. Seeing her in such pitiful shape, he wanted to do more to help than simply provide her with some of his supplies. So he decided that he would spend the day with her, keeping watch over his new little sister all the way to the next village.
Part 3 of 5
Taking a New Direction
It would be a long, emotional day. Though it was only three hours to the village of Langtang, Rick and Brooke packed up and left early to allow more time for their slower pace on the trail. Focused on Brooke’s problems, it wouldn’t even occur to Rick until he returned to the states that his ankle pain had essentially vanished during this trip. And the G-I issues he was so sure would hit him in rural Asia never even materialized. His worries had been for nothing.
Later on the trail, he persuaded Brooke to take one of his trekking poles to help her with her balance. After depending on them during his last several mountain trips, Rick now found that he barely needed the one he’d saved for himself.
Brooke just didn’t realize how courageous she was, embarking on a seven week, five country journey through Asia by herself. Granted, a lot of young people these days, especially women, see the world in this way. But Brooke had faced enough personal demons to make this trip an admirable achievement. In addition to this being her first time in Asia and her longest period of time away from home, she also had a fear of flying— a mode of transportation that’s difficult to avoid in global travel.
But Brooke overcame her fears and hopped on that plane to Southeast Asia. But she still found herself plagued with occasional worries about the rest of her trip. Rick reassured her that she wasn’t the only one with such fears; commending her for choosing not to let those fears stop her, as many people do.
Periodically throughout the day, Brooke voiced concerns that she was holding Rick back with her slower pace on the trail. Each time she brought it up he insisted that it wasn’t a problem; he’d stay with her, regardless of her pace. There was no reason to hurry today anyway. Fortunately for both of them, the day’s trail was a moderate uphill grade, not especially challenging or hazardous. This ease allowed them to enjoy the many sights along the way.
The stone mani walls, grazing yaks, guest houses and rustic sheepherders’ shelters wove a continuous fabric up the mountainous valley– exotic, austere, and earthy. Increasingly impressive views of Langtang Peak up ahead on the left made an inspiring backdrop for their journey. With its stark snow-covered ridges exploding against a brilliant blue sky, it appeared as though the mountain was clinging to the steep canyon wall in one continuous slope some 12,000 feet above the trail. Nepal was no longer an abstraction; a cliché of spiritual expectations and mountain climbing fantasies. It was dusty, stark and undeniably real.
As they approached the village, Langtang II was now peering out from behind the main peak, as were several other dramatic snowy summits. By the time Rick and Brooke arrived in the village of Langtang, at just under 11,500 feet, most of the group was already there, resting and sunning themselves on the front patio of the two-story stone guest house.
Brooke’s beleaguered digestive system was still causing her considerable distress. Rick gave her another Imodium, and they ordered lunch. But she was only able to manage a soft drink and some ginger tea. Brooke had totally run out of rupees at this point, but Rick had just enough money to take care of her. After lunch, she went to bed for some badly needed rest since she’d been up most of the night going back and forth to the latrines.
Later that afternoon, Dev led Rick and several others on a walk up the hillside above the village to visit a Tibetan monastery. Along the way they passed the house of a woman who was out front drying yak dung in the sun. In the Langtang region as in many parts of Nepal, there was little or no firewood available. In its place, dried yak dung served as a fuel for heating and cooking fires. Preparing the dung was a simple yet time-consuming process. The old woman, brown and wrinkled from years in the sun, patted clumps of the dung against her low stone wall by hand, flattening it out to help it dry more quickly. Her face wore an expression of peaceful contemplation.
Wherever the group had traveled in Nepal: Kathmandu, Chitwan, or Langtang– everyone they’d seen had been working. There was no noticeable leisure time—at least not during daylight hours. The lifestyle in rural Nepal, as subsistence farmers and animal herders, necessitated vast amounts of physical labor: harvesting, animal tending, collecting water and cooking. But there seemed an unshakable lightheartedness in their sun-aged faces, suggesting they weren’t overly burdened by their labors.
Dev chatted with the woman working in the yard. Her husband was looking for work as a porter. Dev promised her he’d be hired the next time around. The more time you spent around Dev the more you came to appreciate the impact he had in this region. With his support of the local schools and other civic improvements, he helped the community in countless ways. A genuine local hero; even the rebels came to respect him.
Here in the northern part of Nepal, so close to Tibet, Buddhism was the dominant faith. Inside the three-story monastery, dark and ancient, Rick moved from room to room, as if he was looking for something. Then, ascending the steep wooden stairs, he reached the Sanctuary on the upper floor. He bowed respectfully and made a small donation of rupees in the box near the rows of sacred Tibetan books reserved for the highest level lamas. But he still felt like an outsider looking in.
Then he sat down on the dusty wooden floor next to Dev and a few friends, crossing his legs under him. Several feet away, the elderly caretaker sat by the window smiling, the stark light illuminating half of him like a figure in a Renaissance painting. Rick took a slow breath. A wealth of feelings began to come forth, as slowly as the sun that arced across the Himalayan sky. There was no hurry here; he let them come at their own pace.
Cross-legged, Rick contemplated many things: faith, poverty, Tibetan culture, but mostly about his own life and his lack of faith. Meditatively rotating the wedding ring on his finger, Rick realized that tears were welling up in his eyes as he remembered the doubts he’d had before departing on this journey. He’d felt he was unworthy of such a spiritual place.
He remembered that when he’d left for Nepal, he’d wanted to help someone. He didn’t know if this person would be Nepalese or a foreigner like himself. But he needed to do something to make that person’s experience more enjoyable– to lighten their load or lift their spirit in some way. It was at this moment that he knew this person was Brooke.
Rick felt honored to be in a position to look after her. She was one of the few members of the group who’d come by themselves. Nearly everyone else had someone to turn to, a partner to depend on if things turned bad. And right now, they clearly had. It was true, Brooke could certainly take care of herself, but that wasn’t the point. It was the gesture of compassion that mattered. Rick himself had gotten sick in Africa several years earlier. The simple acts of kindness from his fellow travelers during that time had meant a great deal to him. He’d never forgotten that kindness.
Realizing that life wasn’t a contest but rather a collaboration, he asked himself: Why else are we here if not to help each other? The gnawing, restless search for fulfillment in his life had taken many turns over the years, with an equal number of dead-ends. But now he was in Nepal and he knew why.
Later that afternoon, Rick dropped by Brooke’s room to check in on her. He was happy to learn that she’d gotten some sleep and was feeling better. He gave her one of his last rolls of TP, since the guesthouse didn’t provide any and she’d gone through most of hers already. Rick realized that the supplies he’d brought with him, toiletries and medications, were things that he was still liable to need in the coming days; he hadn’t budgeted any extra. But he found these small sacrifices came very naturally. He was even ready to swap sleeping bags with Brooke if she needed a warmer one.
A large group of French trekkers was sharing the dining hall with the group that evening. Loud and boisterous, they made their presence known wherever they were in the village. Dev knew they were coming ahead of time. He elected two people to go over and check out the two dormitory buildings so they could choose the best one for the group. Finding himself in a cranky mood, Adam was convinced that the French team had used up the entire supply of solar-heated shower water, but that turned out not to be the case. The conditions at Langtang were starting to wear on him.
Brooke made a welcome appearance at dinner that evening. Able to eat something for the first time in a day and a half, it looked like she was finally on her way to recovery. Knowing there’s nothing like the euphoric feeling when you’re coming out of an illness, Rick was very happy for her and was able to relax and enjoy himself more that evening as well.
Both pre and post-dinner rummy games commenced that evening, with the same stalwart group of five sequestered at a corner table of the dining room. Their little nook, lit only by a pair of borrowed candles affixed to the table with melted wax, was a little nightclub unto itself. The longer this nightly tradition went on, the more ingrained it became, and the more separated the players seemed to be from everyone else. The Rummy Five had become a tight-knit clan.
During the second game, Rick looked across the room at the rest of his fellow trekkers still seated at their places at the dinner table. He noticed that every other person had fallen asleep, with their head resting in their spouse’s lap. The trek was clearly wearing people down. The following day the trail would lead to the village of Kyangjin, at over 12,000 feet. And on the day after that, the group would be attempting the 15,500 foot summit of Kyangjin Ri.
But by the looks of things in that dining hall, it wasn’t likely that many people would be in any shape to make that climb. Many of them were already taking Diamox to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. Several were commiserating about its diuretic side effects. But people can surprise you. Several had pushed on despite problems that would have stopped Rick far earlier. So it was really too soon to tell.
Later in the evening the irrepressible Gina said she wanted to persuade Sanjay to dress up in a yeti costume and have him go around scaring everyone at the windows. But even if she was able to talk him into it, there wouldn’t have been much of a response from the weary crowd that night.
There was no such apathy at the game table however. At one point a bottle of whiskey appeared. This would become a regular part of their nightly tradition, gaining in momentum with each passing evening. Later, the owner of the guesthouse brought out a special bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label for a round of complementary drinks. They were fond of Dev here at the hotel and grateful for the business that he brought them on his treks. There were several competing hotels and guesthouses in Langtang vying for his business, but Dev was a loyal customer and a good friend. By now, Sanjay and his other guide Naveen had stopped by to join the party. It was entertaining to see their casual side now that they were off-duty. The bottles continued to make the rounds.
The French crowd, seated nearby, couldn’t help noticing the prodigious imbibing going on at the rummy game and the boisterous behavior that resulted. At one point Gina turned to Rick and whispered in his ear, “Look behind you.” The entire French group, some fifteen or more trekkers, was sitting in rapt amazement as they stared at the card players– grins on all their faces.
Rick was the only one at the table who wasn’t drinking. He knew that altitude and alcohol made lousy roommates. Dev and his guides Sanjay and Naveen were well adjusted to the mountainous terrain, but Barbara, Adam and Gina were virtual newcomers. They probably didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into. Still, Rick knew he wasn’t their nanny. To him, those French grins seemed to be saying, “Just wait till tomorrow morning and see how much you guys are laughing then!”
On his way out of the dining hall, Rick passed by the spot under the stairs where the porters had been eating dinner earlier, gathered around a large pot of rice. They were now asleep in the same small dark area, huddled under some dirty white blankets. Their lives here were so basic—literally down on the earth. Unlike the American trekkers, they didn’t have the luxury of staying up late.
Rick awoke at 1 AM, roused by the general commotion upstairs, where half of the group was staying. A lot of people seemed to be getting up to go to the latrine. The Diamox was clearly taking effect. After the traffic died down he took the opportunity to go himself, later lying awake in his tiny room where he began to hear noises of a different kind. Apparently, the veggie momos were taking effect as well. He’d never heard so much flatulence in all his life—and he’d been raised in a household full of boys. The place was alive with the sounds of escaping gas. The commotion seemed to echo the howl of the winds outside, coming from somewhere higher up in the mountains. Perhaps the fabled yeti lay waiting somewhere up there in the darkness.
The following day was the last regular day of hiking on the trek. The destination lay four hours away at the village of Kyangjin, situated at 12,300 feet. Brooke was feeling better than she had the day before. But she was still a bit weak, so Rick decided to stay with her again during the day’s hike. After breakfast they packed up and set off in the middle of the group, amid the brisk chill of the morning.
Though people would occasionally meet up with them and chat, Rick and Brooke had the trail to themselves most of the time. They enjoyed the solitude of the mountains. The farther they traveled up the valley, the more impressive the vistas became, as towering peaks revealed themselves around every turn.
By mid-morning they reached the mani wall that Dev had told them about earlier. Decorated with faint but intricate etchings of religious deities and mantras, this six foot high gray stone wall represented a lifetime of laborious stonework; one of countless mani walls found in Nepal.
All the stonework in the valley, whether structural or ornamental, had been constructed without the use of mortar. Yet the exacting workmanship made this irrelevant; the stones were fitted as perfectly as puzzle pieces. Running down the middle of the trail, the wall was said to be nearly 1¼ miles in length—one of the longest in the region. Passing to its left in accordance with Nepalese custom, Rick and Brooke continued along the winding trail up the valley, as more and more snow covered peaks came into view.
Over the next few hours they crossed a number of cable suspension bridges similar to the one they’d seen the day before. Each one spanned a rocky gorge cut by the rushing water of an ice-cold tributary. With Brooke’s improving condition, they found themselves with more inclination to stop and photograph these sights along the way.
Trekkers and porters were more prevalent than they’d been on the previous days’ hikes. Though most of these trekkers sported western high-tech gear—Gortex, polypro and Polartec– some wore handmade Nepalese clothing, which gave them a more authentic, indigenous appearance. They looked like they’d been hiking these mountains all their lives; they were a part of the landscape, not simply moving through it. Brooke had been wearing the classic woolen Nepalese cap with twin pom-pom tassels that she’d bought in Kathmandu. With the cap’s side flaps pulled snugly down over her ears, Rick’s little sister looked very cute. Dev always wore one himself— and looked almost as cute.
Rick insisted that Brooke continue to make use of the trekking pole he’d loaned her. She finally came to appreciate the value of it, even on the gentle terrain. They continued along the course of the Langtang River. Its whitewater rapids tumbled far below the winding trail. Eventually they came in sight of the dramatically steep Lirung Glacier. The massive river of crumbling ice had been carving its way down out of these mountains for millennia.
As they approached the outskirts of the village, they found themselves gazing up at the barren slopes of Kyangjin Ri itself, the peak they hoped to climb the following morning.
This was the mountain that had ultimately come to represent the Himalaya for Rick. Surrounded by several higher, more dramatic snow-covered summits, Kyangjin Ri wasn’t much to look at. But catching sight of it now for the first time, Rick could feel himself getting there. What had begun as little more than a name in a travel brochure had finally become tangible.
After negotiating a steep section of rocky trail, they arrived at the village of Kyangjin, an expansive community of several dozen multistory stone and wood homes, hotels, restaurants and guesthouses. Spread out across the floor of the high sloping valley, it looked more like a small city than a village.
Kyangjin seemed to have everything. Around the corner from the hotel, there was even a German-style bakery that served such treats as apple pie, cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake. What made this extraordinary was that every bit of food served in the hotels and guesthouses throughout the Langtang Valley had been carried here on foot. Porters had brought everything from dozens of miles away, taking as long as eight days to get it here. Kyangjin was truly an oasis in the middle of a remote world.
These bakery treats were a welcome sight for people who were in dire need of some familiar comfort food. Adam was high on that list. But his problem wasn’t sweets. It was meat—specifically beef. Nepalese cuisine is lean on meat in general because of its scarcity. Beef is even harder to come by, especially in the southern Hindu part of the country. Adam, being from Arizona, was accustomed to all the red meat he could get his hands on. But now, after two weeks of meager meat rations on the trail, he was griping about his protein deficiency like it was a life threatening malady. But he was also in the process of giving up chewing tobacco, a habit he’d had as long as Gina had known him. So you had to cut him some slack; he was hanging in there pretty well.
The glassed-in solarium that the bakery was housed in provided a haven for those who were tired of the cold by this point. It got plenty of business from the group, and the various amenities of the village appeared to be helping morale. Actually, Rick was surprised how mild the weather turned out to be. He’d expected worse. There were several “mandatory” clothing items in his bag that he hadn’t even worn yet. But he knew this was far better than the opposite situation.
Throughout the group, things were improving. Brooke was so fully recovered by now that she was able to eat a full plate of tomato pasta at lunch. Barbara was still in pain but her spirits were high as usual and she had hiked well that day. Halfway up the trail, Rick had come across her resting behind a stone wall outside a small house. Half joking, she said she was hiding from Dev.
You never knew what you might see in Nepal. That afternoon outside the solarium windows, six men were dragging a dead horse with a rope. It had died that day and they were planning to bury it under some rocks. For a short time it appeared as if the men were simply going to dump the animal off the cliff into the river below. The next morning Rick would see a scraggly horse attempting to drink out of a frozen drainage ditch where a man had taken his little boy to pee the day before. Up here in the austere Himalaya, reality had nowhere to hide.
Chatting with a young Brazilian woman seated by the corner windows, Dev asked about her hand-woven bag that she got in Langtang. Smiling at the German trekkers sitting beside her, she said she’d been trekking on her own for several weeks. Wherever she went, people would ask her the same three questions: 1) “What’s your name?” 2) “Are you married?” and 3) “Why not?” Amused by her story, Dev smiled back and remarked that he was the proud father of fifteen children.
Here in Kyangjin, the dining hall’s pot-belly stove was fueled by yak dung. This hadn’t been the case at the previous lodges and camps where sufficient firewood was available. What at first seemed to be of little consequence, however, would soon be felt by more than one member of the group.
That evening after dinner, everyone planning to climb the mountain the next morning needed to put in their order for breakfast to make it easier for the cooks. Sanjay came by with the menu, making careful notes. He always made Rick smile; his misspellings were endearing. But midway through the evening, Rick started feeling a bit off. He could feel the signs of an approaching illness— sneezing, sore throat, watery eyes. Shit– not now, he thought; not the night before the climb. The medication he took for it did nothing. All during the evening’s rummy game, he had his hands full with wads of tissue as well as playing cards. He didn’t realize it was merely the delayed reaction to the yak dung smoke filtering out of the heating stove in the dining hall.
Later that night Rick set his alarm for 5:15 to beat the 5:30 wake up call for the climbers the next morning. He wanted to make sure he had plenty of time to get ready. In his tiny room above the dining hall, traces of the acrid smoke found their way in through the cracks. His eyes were still irritated. Lying awake, he found himself thinking a lot about Brooke. He’d heard at dinner that she was planning on attempting the peak with the rest of the group, but he wasn’t sure how well she’d do if she was still weakened from her illness.
But he did know one thing: after all he’d been through with her, there was no way he was going to take off on his own on the mountain. He didn’t want to seem paternalistic, but he felt a sense of responsibility for her by this point. He’d established a relationship that couldn’t simply be abandoned. So he made the decision. Tomorrow, he would accompany Brooke for the entire climb.
As he lay awake, Rick realized what he had just committed himself to. As long as he could remember, he’d wanted to summit a Himalayan peak. Although tantalizing, Everest had never been an option, even on his most optimistic day of fantasizing. But there were other, more realistic possibilities open to him. After recently cancelling his reservation for a trip to climb 20,000-foot Island Peak (a mere 10 kilometers south of Everest) Kyangjin Ri was now the only summit he could hope for. Rick knew he was unlikely to ever return to Nepal. This was his one shot.
The climb itself was fairly straightforward: a moderate five-hour, 3000-foot ascent along a well marked trail that was free of snow or ice. He’d been far higher on several occasions (nearly 19,000 feet) and the gradual acclimatization of the past four days ensured that his body had adjusted well to the current altitude. He knew he’d have no trouble reaching the top.
But all of that was now subject to change because of a young woman from Indiana that he hadn’t even met until two weeks ago. He knew that if he was to accompany her, it also meant that he would need to turn back and return to camp with her if she couldn’t make it. It was simple: if Brooke didn’t reach the top, he wouldn’t either. He couldn’t have it both ways.
Rick lay in his bed pondering the moment he’d arrived at. He’d worked a long time to get where he was today: 65 climbs in forty years; many successes, but a lot of disappointments—especially recently. All he’d wanted was this one last summit and he could retire from mountaineering. But now, he could finally see the bigger picture. And that picture didn’t have a snow-capped mountaintop in it. It was a picture of something larger, more intangible—a picture of human compassion. It was an easy choice to make. He would give up this summit for Brooke if it became necessary.
Yet if this would be his new mission, he owed it to both of them to do everything in his power to see that she was able to reach that summit. At that moment Rick realized that this needn’t be solely a gesture of companionship or sacrifice. He could make it a lesson in mountaineering as well. He could teach Brooke many of the things he’d learned over the years, helping to make her journey as safe and comfortable as his own. In essence, he would coach her all the way to the top of Kyangjin Ri and back again. He’d see to it that they’d both win. Finally at peace from the dilemma that had kept him awake, Rick smiled and breathed easy. He then slipped off to sleep for the rest of the night.
Part 4 of 5
Push for the Summit
There was no fire in the heating stove the next morning but everyone was able to have breakfast, get their gear ready and head out the door by 7 AM. According to Dev, the key to success on this peak was to get off the summit early. That was the best way to avoid the horrendous wind gusts that whipped up in the afternoon. Rick gave Brooke his last packet of electrolyte drink mix and the two of them set off for the mountain near the middle of the group.
Despite the dozen people pushing hard up the slope ahead of them, Rick knew there was no hurry. Slow and steady was the key. One step at a time, he introduced Brooke to various climbing techniques that would help her succeed.
The first of these was the rest-step. By straightening her downhill leg and pausing for a brief moment with each step, she could maintain an even pace without tiring or having to stop. The technique proved effective. The two of them made steady progress, whereas most everyone else pushed hard until they were out of breath and then needed to take extended breaks to compensate.
But for now, the rest of the group didn’t matter. As he and Brooke made their way up the dusty trail, Rick put everything else out of his head: who was ahead of them; who was behind; how much mountain was left to climb. Ultimately, he didn’t even worry if they were going to make the summit. All he needed to concern himself with was keeping Brooke feeling good and keeping her moving.
They talked of various things along the way. As they rounded the far side of the first hill and came into the long steep canyon that led upward thousands of feet toward the summit ridge, Rick continued to learn more about the little sister he never had. Recognizing the similar emotional challenges the two of them had faced throughout their lives, Rick was happy to share some advice that had helped him over the years. How much of it she might remember later was of little concern. What mattered most was to keep up a regular stream of communication and encouragement; to uncover potential problems, and to deal with them.
Very often, the anxiety of mountaineering brings about a sense of apathy or denial. Whether through fear or stoicism, it’s easy to ignore physical symptoms, thinking that they’ll go away on their own. Some do, but many of them don’t. By catching things early, it’s much easier to keep them from becoming debilitating problems. Rick had heard of far too many instances where a climber ignored something serious because they were too hesitant to mention it to their teammates. A woman on Mount Shasta had died this way. Rick was determined not to let anything like this happen with Brooke.
The biggest problem, it seemed, was Brooke’s feet. Despite her hiking boots and thick socks, her feet were still very cold. Before the first hour had elapsed, she was already in considerable discomfort. Rick asked her if her boots were laced too tightly, which can adversely affect circulation. Yet that wasn’t the problem as he’d hoped. Her boots and her socks simply weren’t insulated well enough. There was no easy solution; neither of them had brought any spares.
Rick looked off to the east. The sun hadn’t yet breached the horizon. The air was still as cold as it was the previous night. He couldn’t remember what time to expect the sun to rise. But he was hoping that when it did the temperature would quickly rise enough to be more comfortable for her. He just needed to keep her from dwelling on the cold until then.
Frequently, he reminded her about the rest-step technique, finding that she had often slipped back into the standard routine and was stopping to catch her breath. He also made a point to keep checking up on her physical condition at the same time, and to keep her hydrated. Luckily, there were no other issues.
Periodically, they could see evidence of the winds Dev had warned everyone about. Higher up in the canyon, right in line with where they were heading, huge swirling clouds of brown dust were whipping up into the air. It looked like a storm. Even down where they were now, the flying dust was already becoming a problem. Several times they needed to stop and turn their faces to keep the grit out of their eyes. The gusts were mercifully brief, but Rick feared that conditions near the top would be far worse.
And then finally, the sun appeared. Cresting the steep ridge to the right, its rays bathed the vast sweeping canyon with stark morning light. Rick knew this would improve things on several fronts. Not only would the air temperature begin to climb, but the emotional benefit of seeing the sun was sure to boost Brooke’s mood and confidence. Already invigorated, they stopped briefly to put on sunscreen and sunglasses and continued upward.
As the slope of the canyon grew steeper, the trail began to switchback, cutting across the grassy rock terrain at a more manageable grade. Rick kept Brooke moving, noticing that several members of the group up ahead had stopped to rest. Some of them were leaning back against rocky outcroppings; others were sitting on the ground. It was difficult to tell from a distance if there was defeat in their faces or if it was merely a brief bout of exhaustion.
Adam and Gina, along with a few others were even farther ahead, and were now nearing the summit ridge on the horizon. Rick had earlier predicted that their jack rabbit pace would ultimately defeat them. But it was looking like the young couple might make it after all. And by now, the windblown dust clouds above them had vanished. Things were definitely improving.
A lot of Rick’s coaching dealt with emotional issues, calming Brooke’s inner fears and boosting her confidence. He couldn’t tell how much of this was actually necessary. Yet it made sense to do whatever he could. If nothing else, the conversation would help pass the time. His strategy appeared to be working: before he had realized it, Brooke had stopped complaining about her cold feet. Her pace improved and it looked like they were going to get to the top soon.
Within a half hour after negotiating a few more switchbacks, they found themselves cresting the lip of the summit ridge. When they pushed up and over it they were greeted by a vista of truly Himalayan proportions. Laid out in front of them stood a massive bowl-like cirque, walled in by towering snow-enshrouded rocky peaks on all sides. The massive curving glacier they’d seen the day before was making its way down between two of the peaks, crumbling into a mass of rock and moraine at the bottom of the bowl several thousand feet below. As a steady wind buffeted the ridge, an exhilarating energy permeated the air— the kind that makes you glad to be alive.
Here, below the summit of Kyangjin Ri, they were probably no more than five miles from the Tibetan border, and a mere twelve miles from 26,400-foot Shisha Pangma, one of the 14 highest peaks in the world. The atmosphere was positively magical.
They looked up to their left. The narrow trail stretched a few hundred yards further on, leading toward a flat area that gave every indication of being the summit. Perhaps they were closer than they thought. Several tiny figures—Adam, Gina and a few of the others could be seen in the distance. They were no longer moving—they had stopped. It looked like they’d made it.
Snapping a few quick photos, Rick and Brooke pushed on toward the top, bracing themselves against a wind that seemed determined to push them back down the mountain. Fortunately, the trail soon led them onto the leeward side of the ridge, where they quickly found refuge from the gale. As the two of them started to traverse the steep ridge, Rick reminded Brooke to take her time and watch her footing. He also advised her to keep her trekking pole on the uphill side of her in case she slipped.
From here, it was a straight shot to the top. They were almost close enough to touch it, but Rick kept Brooke at a safe, slow pace. There was no reason to hurry. Still, the pull of the summit was undeniable and the remainder of the climb seemed effortless. Five minutes later, after following the rocky trail to the top of the ridge, the two of them found themselves standing on the 15,500 foot summit of Kyangjin Ri.
Half a dozen others from the group were there, resting in the shelter of the scattered boulders. The view at the summit was everything they’d hoped for and more. Streams of brightly colored prayer flags fluttered against the wind. In every direction, snowy peaks towered around them in a panorama that seemed endless. The dramatic face of 24,000-foot Langtang I was awesome– steep snowy slopes and crisp knife-edged ridges standing against a brilliant blue sky that led into the heavens. They had reached the Sanctuary, the magnificent cathedral that is the Himalaya.
Even after the many summits he had reached over the years, Rick had never failed to be touched. Each one was a new experience— precious, reverent, ethereal. He looked around at his companions. Smiles and congratulations were everywhere: handshakes, hugs, high-fives. He reached over and gave Brooke a well-deserved embrace, congratulating her on her climb. His efforts had paid off. He hadn’t needed to choose between her and the summit; they had both succeeded.
As photographs from every angle and permutation were taken of the group, Rick took the opportunity to stop and enjoy the Snickers bar he had carried with him for the last two weeks, all the way from the states. As more people arrived to join the group at the summit, a precious little package of Oreos was passed around. It was a tiny feast of comfort food at three miles above sea level. It was good to see Barbara up there with everyone else. Despite her acute knee pain, she had pushed onward. And thanks to the ever-present help and encouragement from Naveen, one of Dev’s longtime assistant guides, she’d made the summit with energy and humor to spare.
Dev had every reason to feel proud. Everyone who’d attempted the climb had made it to the top. No one had been denied this moment. Considering what the group had endured to get here: fever, intestinal distress, smog-induced coughing fits, altitude problems, leeches, knee injuries, fidgety helicopters and a bus crash, they had done exceedingly well for themselves. The petty gripes and whining felt miles away at this point. This truly was the best day of the entire trip. And it would be an experience that none of them would ever forget.
Twenty minutes later, the party was winding down. Rick knew he was likely to have problems with his knees on the descent, so he made sure that he and Brooke were among the first to leave. They took their time, even as most of the group eventually flew by them, kicking up dust on the switch-backed trail. Rick did experience some pain near the bottom of the slope, and both of them slipped numerous times on the loose scree. As a result, the last few hundred yards were a bit of a grind, dragging on longer than they’d hoped. But with Dev behind them “sweeping,” they made it back in time to join the reunion in the sunny courtyard in front of the hotel.
Following lunch and a well-earned nap, the group adjourned to the comfort of the solarium for fresh-baked treats and a chance to reflect. The weariness showed on their sun-warmed faces. Talk of getting home was beginning to surface. Barbara, totally spent from the climb, retreated to her room and dove into her sleeping bag, seeking someplace “quiet and dark.”
At dinner that evening inside the smoke-tinged dining hall, it was evident that people were worn down. Even the normally boisterous rummy game afterward showed signs of fatigue. Barbara, at the end of the table, was surprisingly chipper despite her continued knee pain– grateful for her remaining stash of pharmaceuticals. Gina, sitting across from Rick, was staring blankly at the opposite wall; clearly not in the mood for any more partying. That boundless effervescence wasn’t inexhaustible after all.
Adam, sitting beside her with his fake-fur lined cap, was more verbal. Fed up with the cold weather and lack of red meat, he was eagerly looking forward to getting home. He also hadn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep during the entire Langtang trek, so he was definitely operating in the red. And tonight, apparently sensing the sinking-ship mentality, Dev had for the first time excused himself early. Rick easily could’ve soldiered on, but without viable companions there was little point. The candles would be blown out early that night at Club Rum.
On the flight out of Kyangjin the next day, Rick found himself on the same helicopter as Brooke. The arrangements had been made rather arbitrarily, but Rick was glad it worked out the way it did. Ever since hearing about the chopper’s rotor-icing problems on the way in, Rick knew the return flight wouldn’t be as blissful as his first one had been. But he was more concerned about Brooke. He didn’t want her to suffer through another stressful episode, so he made sure to sit next to her.
As various people’s duffel bags were piled onto their laps and the door was sealed shut, Rick knew his excitement this time was more from the risks rather than simply the thrill. He could only imagine what Brooke was going through. Until they were down out of the mountains, things were likely to be tense.
The young chopper pilot revved the engine into a deafening whine and the aircraft lifted off the ground, sending another storm of dust and straw everywhere. Rick looked out the window and gave Dev a quick salute– and they were off.
Getting clear of the mountains would take only the first third of the flight, but that made for a very long fifteen minutes. Negotiating the curving steep-walled canyon, the chopper clung to within 200 feet of the rocky ground. The close-up view was dramatic, but both Rick and Brooke had their minds elsewhere. The whine of the rotors was almost piercing.
Rick kept an eye on Brooke with his peripheral vision, not wanting her to feel self-conscious. It was only a few minutes into the flight when he noticed her deep deliberate breaths. He turned and saw she was trembling. Without thinking, he reached over and took her hand. He wanted to say something to comfort her, but with all the noise decided that the gesture alone was enough. They remained holding hands until the final mountain ridge was in sight– with the reassuring Kathmandu Valley waiting beyond.
Rick had learned many things on this trek, and most of it had nothing to do with mountains, helicopters or Nepalese culture. After a lifetime of insecurities and self-doubt, he’d always believed that it took everything he had simply to keep himself going. Now, he’d been shown that he had more than he’d needed all along; there was plenty to share with those around him. In the years to come, his wife Brenda would often speak of this perspective: viewing the world in terms of abundance, rather than scarcity. The world truly had enough resources for everyone. It was simply a matter of equitable distribution.
That evening back in town, he and Brooke shared a quiet dinner together, enjoying simple pleasures that they might not have appreciated earlier in the trip. Having triumphed over jittery helicopters and frozen feet, knee problems and a long-since broken foot, the two of them found a peace long overdue on their journeys, and ample reasons to be thankful.
Part 5 of 5
Light and Dark
The tour of Bhaktapur, the ancient “City of Devotees” twelve kilometers east of Kathmandu, became a bittersweet dessert after the satisfying entrees of Chitwan, Langtang and Kyangjin Ri. It had been scheduled for the last full day of the trip. Had there been delays with the helicopter in Langtang because of bad weather, the group would’ve lost that extra day and wouldn’t have seen the city. Had that been the case, they would’ve missed a unique emotional experience on its ancient gritty streets; a roller-coaster of intensity; a cultural jab in the gut.
Once again, Kalu would be their guide. Hopping off the bus after the hour-long ride from Kathmandu, they followed him like a trail of lemmings, straggling farther and farther behind him as the ancient allure of the city took hold; visually overwhelming them like no place before. Those with an eye for photography were especially torn— often lagging behind for one more shot of some incredible stone edifice or a close-up of eroded brickwork above a doorway. Rick soon found himself swept up in a compulsive flurry of picture taking that had him falling far behind the rest of the group. He and Dan were like errant school boys, keeping one eye out for their beleaguered guide who was constantly heading back to collect them before he lost track of them completely.
Given that barely a single structure is younger than 700 years old, the thing that strikes you about Bhaktapur before anything else is its texture, its agedness. Every exposed surface of every stone temple or shrine, every brick building, every statue and figurine was a study in degradation, erosion and decay. Founded in the 12th century by King Anand Dev Malla, this conch-shaped city has managed to retain its superb art and culture despite continual invasions by intruders and natural calamities. But it’s the stunningly ornate style of the architecture, the impressive scale and detail of the stone sculptures that makes Bhaktapur worthy of the heavenly praise bestowed upon it by E. A. Powell of London when he wrote in 1929:
“Were there nothing else in Nepal, save the Durbar Square of Bhatgaon (Bhaktapur,) it would still be amply worth making a journey halfway round the globe to see.”
Bhaktapur is a thousand vistas, both tiny and immense– some hiding in dark alleyways, others screaming in your face with their grandiosity. And beyond that lies another dimension, one of filth and disease: fetid gutters; fly-covered animals; the very face of squalor. Yet there was an undeniable beauty in the filth– the beauty of reality.
When he started out that morning, Rick wasn’t concerned that his digital camera’s memory card was running out of space. He’d done well, budgeting roughly 100 shots a day for the past two weeks. Today however, he’d need to adapt, reducing the file size in order to squeeze as many shots of the city as he could within the remaining space. Ultimately, even those measures weren’t enough and he found himself scanning through his past few hundred shots, deleting handfuls of them on the fly. There was simply more here to see than he was prepared for.
Kalu’s pace was athletic. He had a schedule to maintain. In his smart business attire and dress shoes, he carved a path through the narrow streets of the city, making only two stops. The first was nothing less than a world hidden within a world.
The hour long tour of the art studio where spiritual paintings of incomprehensible detail were produced and sold was a mind-bending detour out of the bright sun. Serene, focused, and supremely disciplined, it was more monastery than studio; the kind of place where eager young artists went and never again saw the light of day. Their lives would be spent here, devoted to an all-consuming preoccupation: the art of religion— or more aptly, the religion of art.
Produced by teams of masters and apprentices, countless mandalas and Tree of Life representations big and small filled the dimly-lit multi-story building. Some were still mounted on artists’ easels, their exquisitely vibrant colors seeming to create their own light. Others were finished with a mirror-like gold paint that cast an ethereal glow, seemingly more engraving than painting.
Artists spent from five to ten years simply preparing for work on these paintings, learning traditional techniques that included drawing perfectly straight lines and circles– by hand. Their training actually included breath control, which was imperative for steadying their every move. The tools they used to produce this ultra-fine detail were equally refined. Some of the paint brushes contained only a single bristle.
One of the artworks, measuring ten feet across and containing an astonishing 3,000 tiny human and animal figures, represented the equivalent of twenty years of labor if done by a single artist. The commitment and discipline were unfathomable. And the prices they were being sold for were heartbreakingly low—between $50 and $300 for most of them. Only in an impoverished region could this type of handcrafted artwork be produced. Nowhere in the West could you find artists willing to devote their lives in this manner—not for any amount of money.
If the group had simply gone back to the bus at this point, they would’ve felt fully sated; unable to digest anything further. But there was more– much more.
Back outside, the walking tour resumed; the trail of Kalu’s followers once again dragging out in an umbilical cord of utter fascination. They were now heading across town to a restaurant for lunch, but things they’d encounter along the way would warp their sense of reality and question their very place here.
Toward the center of town, they made their way to Taumadhi Square as if to enter the gates of Shangri-La. Rick had already felt there were no more fantastic sights left to see when he looked up to take in the awesome landscape of Taumadhi. He hated to make crass analogies, but it was like stepping onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie.
To his right, towering five stories above the square stood the massive five-tiered pagoda-like Nyatapola Temple. Its main entrance was accessed by a fifty foot high flight of stone steps guarded by pairs of huge elephants, lions, griffins and goddesses. Standing thirty meters in height, this one building, constructed of red brick, tile and stone, with columns and massive overhanging eaves, commanded attention like the great pyramids of Egypt. Rick felt as though he had stepped back in time, into the forbidden cities of China or Tibet. With one eye at his camera viewfinder and the other on the rapidly disappearing Kalu and his flock, Rick tried his best to chronicle the magnificence before him as if he were Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu or Howard Carter at King Tut’s Tomb.
Then, from this all-encompassing high, the exalted atmosphere of Bhaktapur plummeted into an emotional abyss at the passing of the very next corner. It was here that the City of Devotees showed its other, darker face. Yet not everyone in the group had this same experience. For some, it was merely a brief detour before lunch. But for Gina, Adam and Rick, the tour would come to an abrupt end.
Beneath the ancient brick facades and ornate sculpture, a dozen paces from the vivid displays of street vendors, a small black puppy lay on the cobblestone pavement– sick, dead or dying. Flies buzzed around its tiny motionless body. While some felt it was a subject worthy of photography, others clearly did not. Adam and Gina, walking just ahead of Rick and Brooke, were quickly repulsed. Gina stopped walking. Seeing this unfortunate creature being objectified by cameras caused something inside her to snap. After two weeks spent absorbing a million other visual stimuli in a land of indescribable sights both ethereal and obscene, she’d finally reached her saturation point.
In those past two weeks, these fifteen Americans had witnessed human poverty, disease and suffering. They’d seen public cremations, amputees prostrating themselves amid animal dung, and a half naked man lying dying by the side of the road. There’d been livestock of skin and bones, shoeless children with open sores, people subsisting on the refuse of the world. And somehow, most of it managed to evade their emotional threshold. Paradoxically, it was so pervasive, you often felt numb. It seemed unreal, almost dreamlike.
Yet this one tiny animal lying neglected on the ground somehow became a catalyst for Gina’s emotions. She immediately broke down in tears. Circling aimlessly, she found herself unsure where to turn. Rick stood helplessly beside her as she cried out that she couldn’t take it anymore. She wanted to go home.
It was more Gina’s reaction than anything else that wrenched Rick’s heart. He’d never seen her this way. Her effervescent energy had seemed immutable– until now. As she pulled away from him, he turned away to a deserted corner, tears welling up in his own eyes. Gina refused even to be comforted by Adam. As a longtime dog lover himself, Adam now found himself reeling from the scene. Not one to cry, his emotions came out through his anger, asking out loud why people were photographing dead puppies on their way to have lunch.
As if in a daze, the group moved on to the next street, where the sights of Bhaktapur became even grittier. Before he could see anything, Rick heard someone call out to the group, “You might not want to look at this.” Across the street, a man on an altar-like platform was sacrificing a live chicken by wringing its head off. Nearby, a headless goat was on fire, its hair being singed off its body amid drifting black smoke.
The heaviness of the atmosphere was palpable, weighing down spirits previously high with wonder and awe. In just a few quick moments, everything became weird, surreal, awful and repulsive. A sickening heaviness found its way into the pit of Rick’s stomach. He found himself asking how they could be doing these things right out in the open street. Almost without thinking, he stopped taking pictures—no longer wanting to be a part of the experience. What was magical and exotic earlier had now become dark and evil, barbaric and forbidden.
But it really wasn’t. Nothing they had just seen was any more barbaric than anything that happens in millions of places around the world every day. It was no more evil or dark than any other religious rite, any celebration or any act of food preparation in the western world. Nor was it done with malice or indifference, or for anyone’s entertainment.
Bhaktapur hadn’t invited these people onto its streets. It didn’t need to apologize for its customs or lifestyle any more than America needed to for its slaughterhouses or barbecues. These visitors had come here of their own accord. It was their responsibility to accept the things that they saw without judgment.
Amid the chaos, Rick ran into Brooke. Holding her by the shoulders, he broke down in front of her, his voice cracking with emotion from seeing Gina and the puppy. Brooke wasn’t without empathy, but she didn’t respond as Rick had expected her to. She was simply questioning the hypocrisy: why people were getting upset by a dying animal, yet had ignored the countless Nepalese people in equally tragic condition.
Embarrassed to be caught on the wrong side of a moral dilemma in front of her, Rick felt defensive toward his “little sister” for the first time. For the past two weeks, he’d known only her endearing, adventurous side; nothing of her politics or social views. There seemed no way to reconcile the moment.
As they walked, the awkward air between them turned to a discussion of stark cultural differences. With so many people struggling in this part of the world, the priorities were different: the puppies, chickens and goats occupied a much lower level. There was no pet culture here; animals weren’t imbued with human traits, rights or emotions. There was no room for that luxury. In this part of the world, animals existed simply for food, work, or religion, and that was all.
After this, lunch was rather subdued, and at first it seemed as though no one was going to order anything to eat. But the unpleasantness faded sufficiently for everyone to enjoy the meal, and the tour came to a conclusion soon afterward. Ultimately, a feeling of lightness ensued, not unlike the euphoria following an illness or trauma. They were wrung out.
The next morning, Rick felt ashamed of his emotional display in front of Brooke– getting teary over a puppy when she herself hadn’t. Yet he also felt he’d been unfairly chastised as if he was some insensitive asshole for ignoring the human suffering all around him; showing empathy only for an animal. He worried that he’d lost Brooke’s respect.
But Rick hadn’t come from a typical background. With two decades of experience working at a zoo back in the states, and being married to a woman who had worked with animals for most of her life in the hopes of becoming a veterinarian, he was constantly surrounded by people who held animals in equal or higher regard than their fellow humans. His was simply a different perspective; one that was difficult not to default to.
His subsequent conversation with Brooke in the hotel’s garden courtyard eased both of their minds. She hadn’t thought less of him for his emotional reactions in Bhaktapur. And it had been good for both of them to be reminded of the different lenses through which people view the world.
Rick had almost never been to a place that had not moved him in some way. That’s why he kept seeking out new places around the world to explore. He’d found over the years that you learn a lot about yourself when you leave the familiarity of home. And those revelations don’t always sit well.
Experience had taught him that keeping an open mind during travel— seeing through new eyes– is often a challenge. The key is to try to bring back a new perspective; not simply the photographs and souvenirs that supposedly captured the real essence of that place.
On the bus ride back to Kathmandu the day before, the group had stopped off to visit a Tibetan refugee center where they watched women spinning yak wool into yarn, and others weaving the yarn into beautiful Oriental carpets. These women had fled their homeland in Tibet to escape the political and religious oppression by the Chinese government. Sitting on the wooden floor, working on simple hand-powered machines, the women were filled with heartfelt contentment. Enjoying a life of free expression and religious freedom, they sat beside one another, singing and chanting; smiling as they acknowledged their visitors from the west. The palpable sense of joy and hope within the walls of that dingy two-story building seemed to create a light of its own. No photograph could capture such a light.
Two nights later at the group’s farewell banquet in Kathmandu, the buoyant mood had once again returned. The restaurant was familiar; the same one they’d dined at before. But the atmosphere had now evolved. The white-furred yeti finally made his appearance, mugging for photos with the diners instead of scaring people through the windows as Gina had joked about in Langtang. Adam and Gina, seated at the far end of the table seemed to be having all the fun; Rick wished he was with them. Later Gina admitted that she wished she was sitting closer to Rick because she and Adam “were missing out on all the fun on Rick’s side of the room.”
The bottle of ceremonial liquor that Dev produced at the table was the same potent Nepalese booze that everyone had been wary of at the welcoming dinner two and a half weeks earlier. But this time, the spirits flowed much more freely as people mimicked Dev’s earlier parlor trick of dipping a finger in the flammable liquor, igniting it with the candle and playfully extinguishing their flaming digit by mouth. And Rick, whose appetite always suffered whenever he felt uneasy, ate two dinners that night; his own and half of a not-so-hungry Barbara’s.
One thing was certain. Nepal had worked its magic. It had surprised; it had fulfilled. It had overwhelmed and it had rejuvenated. Things that were expected never materialized; things never imagined were commonplace. Although Rick’s experiences with Brooke on the trek in Langtang spoke to his earlier desire to help someone during this trip, it wasn’t always a conscious plan. The sacrifices, spontaneous and without agenda, had come naturally, and ultimately had helped him as much as it had her. The magic he found in Nepal after so many years of waiting lay not in the mountains, the culture, or even the spiritual realm, but in the quiet recesses of the heart; in the simple act of giving.
Copyright © 2016 by Eric Mannshardt and I Didn’t Climb Everest.net.
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