Reflections on Nepal: Letting Go

It seems I have to learn the same lesson again and again: that when things don’t go how you expect—when you are beset by a sense of failure—you need to take a deep breath and let it go.  Buddhists call it detachment.

I learned that lesson in my forties when I gave up the frenzied and utterly goal-oriented life of a Wall Street banker to sail around the world in a small boat. During the years on that boat, where the essentials of life—wind and weather—were completely out of my control, I developed a profound appreciation for living in the moment, for a life in which failure wasn’t even an option. 

But trekking in the Himalayas in September, I forgot everything I’d learned.  I expected a challenge.  Thin air. Unfamiliar foods. Primitive accommodations. But I’ve dealt with all those things many times before. I assumed my body would cope, so my eye and my spirit could be nurtured as I climbed through the spectacularly beautiful and remote Khumbu region of Nepal.

For a time, things went according to plan. I didn’t get altitude sickness.  My personal plumbing worked fine. I enjoyed the Tibetan dishes our Sherpas prepared, especially the curried vegetables. But one day, I realized I was bone tired in a way I’d never been before.  I hadn’t actually observed anything of my environment in days. 

Why? The rough and irregular trails that never allowed me to take my eye off where my foot would land?  My age, twenty years more than when I last set out on a physically arduous adventure?

Neither. The simple fact was that I’d succumbed to the goal of reaching 20,000 feet, much as I had once succumbed the Wall Street goal of making a lot of money. Now, at only 15,500 feet, I knew I’d allowed myself to be driven to the point of exhaustion by a goal that ultimately didn’t matter. 

That realization didn’t change my overwhelming sense of failure. 

When I finally acknowledged I couldn’t go on, several others in the group admitted it as well. We renegades headed down with a Sherpa, at our own pace. For the first time in ten days, I could reflect on the beauty of the snow-capped mountains towering over us, contemplate the magic of the mid-day clouds below us, honor the ancient tradition of walking clockwise around Buddhist stupas.  

Once I let go of a meaningless goal, my trek in the Himalayas became a magical journey. 

The kind of journey it should have been all along!

Hurricane Sandy and the Illusion of Control

Ten days ago, I went to see the memorial at Ground Zero, a visit that wound you around and through the construction zones for the skyscrapers that will replace the old World Trade Center complex.  The entire site was an inspiring reminder of the indomitable spirit of the American people who refuse to be cowed by a small group of terrorists.  Five days later, Ground Zero was underwater. 

That same afternoon, I paid a visit to Community Access, a few blocks south of Ground Zero.  Community Access is a non-profit agency that provides housing and support services to 1,600 low-income New Yorkers who suffer from mental illness and/or HIV/AIDS.  Having worked there in the late 1990’s, I was thrilled to learn they had been featured as a “success story” in the New York Times only two weeks earlier.  Today, more than 400 of their clients struggle to get meals because the kitchens in several of their housing units were destroyed by Sandy.

Both were up-close and personal reminders of how little control any of us have over our daily lives. You work hard … you do the right thing … then, pouf, something—illness, accidents, weather—makes a mockery of all your plans. 

Yes, the water has been pumped out of Ground Zero.  Yes, hundreds of people brought food and cooked meals to residents of Community Access.  Even so, it is hard, sitting here today, to find a silver lining in Sandy’s cloud.   It is hard, looking at the damage Sandy has wrought, to find the joy in “learning to love living out of control.”

The lesson I hang onto, as I think about Sandy’s destruction, is that real and personal growth only happens when you are forced to confront the unexpected, forced to step outside of your comfort zone.  But I have to ask myself how easy it would be to hang on to that notion if Sandy had destroyed my kitchen or left my house under 28 feet of water. 

I wish I knew the answer.

Reflections on Nepal – Life in a Tearoom

No one expected elegance on our ten-day trek to Imja Tse, a snow-capped peak in the shadow of Everest and Lhotse.  Even so, when I learned we’d be lodging in “tearooms,” I imagined cozy spots with country curtains and something deliciously sweet to nibble on.

That would not be a tearoom in the Himalayas.  Think instead of a hostel, with rooms warmed only by the breathing of the trekkers snuggled into sleeping bags.  

Our first night on the trail, our accommodations seemed primitive — a truly Spartan room, not much larger than 8×10, with two beds and a pedestal toilet that did not accept toilet paper.  But each room had a “private” bath with a warm-ish shower.  The common room, lovely and bright, looked out over the roaring Dudh Koshi River.

That soon came to seem the height of luxury.  In the following days, we often had to share “elephant ear” toilets, ranging from the relatively “modern” (a ground-level porcelain frame that accepted bodily waste and water, but never toilet paper!) to simple holes in the ground.  Some tearooms had no hot water and no showers, shared or otherwise.  When we got above the tree line, the common rooms were heated with fuel made out of dried yak-dung, causing your eyes and throat to burn.

But those common rooms were the central feature of our trek.  They all offered hot tea. They often offered a sunny spot with large windows that offered breath-taking views of the glacier-laden peaks.  A common room where we all gathered for breakfast and dinner.  A common room where we could loll, often on carpet-covered benches lining the walls, to swap to war stories and sing along with Justin and his guitar.  

In retrospect, those tearooms seemed quite cozy indeed!

Living Out of Control … How Cool is That?

The rumors were true!  A mere three weeks before our departure, we learned that China had stopped issuing visas for Tibet for September.  In the space of a week, our amazing trip leaders—Charlie and Dr. D—have delivered a new itinerary.  The Above + Beyond crew will stay in Nepal and hike in Sagarmatha National Park (see photo), a World Heritage Site since 1979.  We won’t be going to Everest, but we will be close enough to get extraordinary views of both it and Lhotse (the fourth highest mountain in the world at 27,940 ft).

The mapmaker in me couldn’t resist working out our new itinerary, so here’s my best guess at our route after the flight from Kathmandu to Lukla (B on the map).  The high point (physical and metaphorical) of our journey will be the crampon and harness-assisted climb on Imja Tse (G on the map) to a summit at a tad over 20,000 feet.

A part of me is disappointed, as I was quite taken with the idea of seeing, up close and personal, the home of the Hindu Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati.  And there was something very other-worldly about treking through areas of the world that hadn’t yet made it onto Google maps.  Only a couple times, in all my travels, have I managed to be truly off the beaten path.  I found it both frightening and exhilarating … and I was looking forward to doing it again. 

On the other hand, part of what I love most about travel is experiencing how other cultures live, and this itinerary seems to take us to more Himalayan communities and give us time to get a feel for their way of life.  I suspect it has changed considerably since my visit to Nepal in 1989, particularly because a good part of our trek lies on one of the routes to the Everest base camp.  

I’d bet serious money that this is only the first of many times we will be dealing with the unexpected before we return home.  

How cool is that!