The clouds seem to pass in slow motion as anticipation builds. Almost 24 hours in transit, hopping time zones and longitude and latitude lines. The science never made sense to me so I like to think of it as time traveling. Every experience in my life seems to have built to this moment. Right now the soundtrack is “Wake me up,” a proverbial alarm clock for my senses. “Didn’t know I was lost” comes on and the lyrics perfectly emulate the mood. My life was in a perpetual holding pattern waiting for clearance. There were slight dips and accelerations but for the most part, it seemed to be progressing in circles. I’m still waiting for that “aha moment.”
Kathmandu is basically a layover. The scent of sandalwood looms, beckoning us into the most intense game of Frogger we’d ever play in our lives. Cars and motorcycles zoom by with seemingly no rules other than don’t slow down for anyone or anything. Each block of downtown is bathed in colorful flags, turning dilapidated buildings into a cheery shopping zone. I had to hand it to them; it was a clever mask. Amongst the grit and grime, dirt and dust emerges a picture of a country fiercely proud of it’s loyal people, natural gifts and glittering temples.
The flight to Lukla is as dicey as they say — it’s not the most dangerous airport in the world for nothing. You’re given candy to suck on and cotton balls to stuff in your ears, but neither is a good distraction for the rollercoaster of a plane flight. Each prop plane holds only about 16 people and your departure time is at the mercy of Mother Nature. It’s not uncommon to wait upwards of eight hours for the clouds to clear or be shuttled out by helicopter. It’s simply out of your control and a lesson in patience. The seats are basically a free for all that look like fold-down cots. It’s a mad dash to get the best view of the cockpit. You’re so focused on the green rice terraces below it’s easy to miss the jagged mountains creeping up out of the fog next to you. Until you see them, and you quietly gasp because you’ve seen mountains before, but simply nothing like this.
Most Nepalese haven’t had the privilege of experiencing the Himalayas. Whether it’s money or access, it’s akin to the many Americans who have never been the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore. Sometimes, it’s simply hard to appreciate what’s right outside your door. Even fewer Nepalese have left the country. They live in their own little universe, sheltered and shielded from the rest of the world.
On the trail, everyone’s carrying something, physically or metaphysically. You can see it on their faces. Smile lines replaced by fatigue. Beyond the teahouses, everyone’s in a constant state of movement. Hustling to and fro each passing checkpoint. It’s strange that no one seems to pause and take in the lush utopia. I drag my feet in a constant state of awe. Everest is the Holy Grail, but don’t discount the other massive peaks in the region. Nowhere is “easy,” it’s all terrain that’s meant to be conquered.
I hate the physical act of trekking but love challenging myself and the people you meet along the way. So many languages and other lost souls to cross paths with. I create their backstories in my head. I like imagining why people are doing this. Why here, why now.
It’s not uncommon to go to bed at 8 p.m. on the trail and wake up with the sun, completely exhausted from the physical activity of each passing day. There’s got to be a life lesson there. Put your head down, grit your teeth and scale the damn mountain. I use hiking sticks like a blind person feels his way in the dark. On the way back, the prayer flags wave me on like a finish line. Fatigued yet energized.
Have you ever walked as far as you possibly can in one day? Pushed your body to the brink of collapse? Because I have. When I get back I hardly recognize myself in the mirror. Caked in a thin layer of dirt, hair greasy, raccoon tan lines, and random bruises scattered across my body. I think I look aged, but hopefully wise.
The country is an interesting cross section of old and new. It’s refreshingly authentic that they keep your hotel tab on hand ledgers. Some showers are gas powered; some toilets a simple hole in the floor, there’s unreliable Internet and TV, but hey, there’s wifi at Everest. I view it as a place to get off the grid and lose yourself in your surroundings, a welcome excuse to disconnect.
Sherpa called Buddha his bodyguard and said if you look hard enough, you can see other shapes hidden in the rocks guarding us on our journey. Prayer rocks and prayer wheels you must pass on the left. Whether it’s religious or superstitious, there’s lots of symbolism in Nepal. The string bracelet blessed by my fortune teller. The white scarves wishing safe travels. Buddhist eyes. Beads. Relics and reminders of this place will stay with me for a long, long time.
This is Nepal. Humble and unforgiving.
Looking for more inspiration? Check out this post on the best places in Nepal to photograph.
Want to know how to do Nepal on the cheap? Check out how to backpack in Nepal
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