As I sit at my computer, I am at a loss for words. No really, I am… I am not clear as to how I can detail these last few weeks. I set out with a particular goal in mind and in a matter of minutes the entire experience transformed! Of course, this is life, but when the world literally shook, so did my viewpoint.
At present, my understanding of the world goes something like this; if you believe every moment and every experience in life is purposeful, AND serves to be a contribution to the goal – that which is known or unknown – then in my opinion, sadness, judgement and this notion of ‘failure’ ceases to exist.
A preposterous and insensitive thought? While I ‘get’ this understanding isn’t immediately grasped by most, consider why a natural disaster can’t be considered a divine storm? We humans often wait for chaos to erupt before we are generous and kind to others – it is only then our sense to reach out and help is stimulated. If that be the case, then consider if we changed the way we looked at ‘disaster’ we could change the way we view life… If we saw everything as a divine miracle then the desire to reach out and help our fellow humans would be constant and ever-flowing.
With this understanding, I continue to learn and grow as I choose to acknowledge that miracles are performed in everything and occur everywhere ALL the time. I’ll elaborate on this thought further in my next book, but in the meantime consider your day-to-day life right now and if you are ‘spontaneously’ generous to others. Consider, Am I generous because it is demanded of me or the code (rules, laws, expectations, ego, etc.) dictates this is how I ‘should’ behave? OR consider, Am I generous, kind and loving to others because my inner calling stands for it; as such, it is always a part of my interactions…
Okay, mountain time…. Let’s rewind to April 23rd.
It was 4:00pm; the time when the embassy requested that I show up to collect my passport and newly approved Indian Visa. With my big red backpack, Scarpa boots and hiking poles in hand, I collected my documents from the clerk and immediately headed to Kathmandu’s new bus station. While I waited the 5 business days for my documents to process, I spent my time exploring the surrounding historical sites and getting to know Kathmandu’s unique character. As I turned my back toward the lively downtown commotion and headed north, who knew this would be the last time I, along with the rest of the world, would see the city in this way.
I had every intention of breaking-up my travel time to the Himalayas. The mountains are not close to the city and I was eager to start my venture that evening. I was hoping to catch a bus to Besi Sahar – the common starting point for trekkers – so that I could begin walking first thing the next morning. As my big red bag and I stood on the side of the road, dozens of micro buses (mini-vans) slowed down and hollered, ‘Where you going?’ Once I found the right bus I squished in and wouldn’t you know it, I got the AC (air conditioned) seat. To clarify, in this instance ‘AC seat’ refers to a seat where half of your body is hanging outside the open sliding door; right hand gripping the roof rafters, and left hand ‘securely’ holding onto some guys shirt. The ‘AC’ part comes from the intense wind one feels against their body which dangling half-in/half-out of the vehicle. I’ve had this luxury seat several times before and in different countries – it’s always a thrill! When the other passengers found out where I was from, one guy shouted, ‘Why you not stay in Canada?’ to which I replied, ‘Because then I wouldn’t be able to do this!’ The van roared with laughter.
As we travelled to the other side of Kathmandu, a sweet man in the front began to detail his Toronto experience and how much he enjoyed living in Canada. ‘Yonge street, you know? Longest street in the world! I like Wesley area too.’ As we drove further outside the city, the van became bare leaving only the few of us; one being this sweet, former Toronto resident named Ganesh – the name of the Hindu elephant God.
As we approached the bus station it began to pour rain. Ganesh wanted to help me find my next bus but as soon as we hopped out of the van, the rain was so heavy in a matter of seconds we were both drenched. He waved at me to follow him and led me to his beautiful home not far from the station. There I met his son Jay who was visiting from Australia. After we dried off and had some tea, Jay looked into the bus schedule and told me if I were to take a bus that evening, I wouldn’t get to my destination until very late. Both he and Ganesh insisted for safety reasons that I spend the night at their home. Since they lived minutes from the bus station, I could easily leave early the next morning. It was getting dark and I was already soaking wet; as such, I happily accepted their offer. The next thing I knew, Ganesh was rounding up his relatives to cook me a lovely feast! The power was out so we spent the evening eating a delicious meal and chatting by candlelight. Once again, Ganesh to my rescue! First in Goa and now in Kathmandu. Clearly me and this God have some kind of bond.
Ganesh and I
Early the next morning we headed to the bus station. As we walked down an alleyway, Ganesh ran up to a movie poster and pointed to one of the men featured in the movie. I looked at Ganesh then at the man in the poster. With surprise I exclaimed, ‘That’s you! You’re a movie star?’ Jay explained that his dad always wanted to be in a movie and got a small part in a film. Apparently, Ganesh acted so well he was asked to be featured in another film. I started to smile and laugh hysterically. At 61, here was a man still reaching for his dreams. Thanks for the reminder Ganesh; you’re never too old to live passionately, own your life, live out your fantasies and do whatever it is you want to do!
I wish I could detail all the other crazy-amazing encounters I had while on the way to Besi Sahar. The journey of just getting to the starting point of the trek was filled with many more memorable people, situations and stories… It’s amazing who ‘shows up’ in your life and when. I truly believe in the constant flow of miracles – highly improbable, yet extraordinary events that bring very welcome consequences. Most nights when I tuck myself in, I take a moment to reflect on my day and seriously wonder ‘How in the heck did that happen?!’ Possibilities are endless!
Let’s skip the transport stories and get to the trek…
Although the Annapurna Circuit is a long distance trek, that doesn’t make it a ‘walk-in-the-park’. The trek, and its level of difficulty, is often underestimated because it is frequented by retirees and inexperienced tourists. To clarify, some of my retired friends are in better shape than my 27-year-old buddies, so don’t let age fool you! Additionally tourists, not trekkers, often find themselves consumed with the excitement of witnessing the spectacular landscape of the Himalayas but fail to consider, or know, the serious results one can experience while hiking if not educated. Before I set out on my trek, I did my research, obtained information from local guides, made a plan, was in good health and aware of my physical limits. This was very important especially since I was not going to have a porter. I felt comfortable in my physical abilities, my knowledge of the area and my previous experience; for that reason, I chose to not have a guide or a porter. That being said, I was constantly seeking advice and insights from local guides, and perpetually asked questions because ultimately, the locals know the mountains the best!
Although the Annapurna path is well marked and local villagers will assist in pointing you in the right direction, I don’t believe my trek was for everyone. Often, inexperienced trekkers over-exert themselves and move up the mountain quickly. While you might just be walking and carrying a backpack, one should not underestimate the incline, the distance and the altitude. If you do, you may get AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and without proper knowledge of knowing how to deal with this, the results can be fatal. I also met some experienced trekkers who fell ill on the circuit since not only are trekkers faced with the possibility of altitude sickness, but there’s also a risk of food poisoning, illness from other people and the potentially unclean sleeping conditions. In addition, it is important to know how to utilize the weather. For example, while it may be a beautiful bright sunny day, the higher you are in the sky the faster you’re likely to burn and the mountain sunburns can be intense! As well, depending on the season, the sun will melt the snow which can cause deep underground holes. I learned about snow pockets from a local guide and how to recognize these hidden caverns before falling into one. Again, the results can be fatal if you’re not familiar with the conditions. Overall, the Himalayas are a spectacular site and trekking is a lot of fun, but it is important to ask questions, use your judgement and consider a guide or porter if you’re new to the scene.
I began my trek at the beginning of the slow season as the monsoon months are approaching. Ultimately, this meant the circuit was fairly empty and lucky for me it never rained while I was trekking. A few times it drizzled a bit, but otherwise the sun was out and the sky was blue! One typically meets other trekkers in the villages in the mornings/ evenings or while having a tea or lunch break. At this point, you exchange trekking timelines and planned village stops for the day. You’re never really ‘alone’ on the circuit as there are always people (trekkers and locals) around, but the distance between you and them could be hours depending on your pace and plan. If I met a particular trekker and our village stops and pace matched, we usually spent the day walking together. Although I met some incredible people and always find it fascinating to hear the journey of the Other, I sincerely enjoyed my time walking alone. For me, this was my quiet time; a chance to be with nature and the astounding peaks around me. Of course, I made friends everywhere I went, but I deeply enjoyed the quiet, long, solo walking days.
The beauty of the circuit is you can go as fast or as slow as you wish. There are tea houses all along the path so you never have to worry about getting to a particular village because there’s always some kind of rest place. Unfortunately, I only had a certain number of days on the circuit so I had to plan my trek and keep to a timeline in order to achieve my goal. However, many people like to spend minimum 15 days to a month doing the circuit and to be honest, beauty like this doesn’t deserve to be rushed. The Himalayan landscape is simply breathtaking… I could have snapped a photo every step I took because the entire scene is mesmerizing! The first time I saw the Himalayas in the distance, my eyes started to water. A man standing next to me saw my tears and said, ‘Don’t worry, I cried too.’ The journey begins through rich, green land where one passes countless waterfalls and lush rice terraces. You can see the layers of landscape before and behind you. Catching your breath after a steep incline was always a joy as it provided the opportunity to sit, look up and absorb the natural glory before you. I saw this sign in the first tea house I stayed in which read, “Everything in life is an illusion except nature.” Trust me, nature has nothing to hide when it is that beautiful!
Day three. The day the earth shook…
I always started trekking between 6:45 and 7am. After saying farewell to my Australian buddies and my lovely tea house host, I was ready to leave charming Tal Village and trek to Chame. The first few days I covered a lot of ground because I wanted to have extra time to relax once at higher altitude. When I left the tea house that morning, it was drizzling a little, but within a few minutes the rain stopped and it looked like it was going to be another lovely day!
After trekking up hill and up a steep incline for a few hours, I was ready for a tea/ snack break. I stopped at the first tea house I saw and spoke briefly with a Czech couple. Although it was almost 11:30am, I decided to wait until the next village before I would break for lunch. As I hiked through the Timang Village, hosts would pop out of their homes and invite me to their restaurant for lunch. I smiled and kindly declined, then proceeded on the open path. I was just coming to the end of the village and that’s when it happened…The ground began to shake; first a little but the tempo and intensity quickly increased. I stopped walking and looked around; villagers, stopped what they were doing, stood up and began looking around – equally as confused. Suddenly I heard a roaring thunder; it sounded like a freight train was headed straight for me. My mind was empty and my body was numb. I stood there motionless and watched the world around me shake like Jello. ‘Is this an earthquake?’, I thought. At that moment I took out my iPhone and began to record the experience. There was a fog all around the mountain and I couldn’t see up the slope but I could hear rocks shifting. People started to scream and run away from the mountain toward me, as I was in the open-road. I heard the rocks tumbling and landslides happening all around me but again, because of the fog I had no idea where the rocks were falling from or where they were going to land. After what felt like several minutes of vigorous shaking, the world fell silent. Everyone stood there frigid and confused. I hollered at the few people around me and yelled, ‘Is this normal?’ No response. I started to move forward; slowly proceeding along the path and asked the same question to an on-coming villager. ‘Sir, what happened? Is this normal?’ The man looked at me dead in the eye and said, ‘No’… I continued walking, leaving the commotion and chatter of the people behind me. I looked up and could only see fog but again heard rocks shifting. I heard ‘thunder’ again and across the valley I saw several rock slides. I kept to the open road and continually scanned the path for ‘hide-outs’ should I need to take cover. I had no idea what just happened, but something told me things were about to change….