Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Yin and Yang of Nepal

I meander down the alleyway streets where markets pop out of cement walls of tall crumbling buildings. The smell of spices and dusty roads follow me for hours in every direction--each area of this sprawling city spilling into the next, each teetering on the edge of ancient and modern.

The towering stupas and temples scattered throughout Kathmandu a constant reminder of exactly how old this city is. One young boy rides by on his rickshaw passing another resting against a temple wall, eyes glued to his cell phone.

I follow the guys from Malta and their Sherpa around the city as they prepare for their trek and summit of Lobuche Peak that sits at a humbling 6100 meters (that's over 20,000 feet, by the way). They collect items like heavy coats and ice picks and crampons while temperatures outside the shops push 90 degrees F. There aren't many places in the world this is your reality.

Despite the 24 hour buzz, there is an underlying bliss to Kathmandu--a calming energy that permeates the chaos and noise. I slip into a yoga class or cafe, and the world outside disappears. I sit for hours among the soft conversations and distant honk of the horns, and I forget where I am. And when I step outside, I'm again swept up in the sparkling energy and life that pulses down every street and over every rooftop.

Here in Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal next to Kathmandu, the whole world is still. I walk from one end of the lakeside town to the other and follow the footpath along the lake back home. Canoes and fishermen line the shore, and Nepalese children run along the bank splashing water up around the shallow edge.

My new friends and I wake before dawn to watch the sunrise at Sarangkot. Like an apparition, the Annapurna Range materializes in the distance, and it lingers for just a moment before it vanishes into the light of the sun.

We hike back to town--down steep, stone stairs and paths that cut through tiny villages coming to life with morning chores--women tending to the chickens and goats and filling water jugs, children chasing each other from one shack down the road to another.

Can you image growing up here, this being the only life you know, these people being your only lifelong friends and family? Elena asks. We talk about what we must seem like to them--us traipsing through their world carrying next to nothing. They probably wonder: who are these people, where do they come from, and where in the world are they going? An outside foreign energy sweeping through their quite lives.

Whereas everyone in Kathmandu was preparing for a trek or returning from one in the not so easily accessible Everest Region, here in Pokhara no one seems to be coming or going from anywhere. The Pokhara Valley hugs against the Annapurna Range making it some of the most accessible and well traveled Himalayan trekking territory, yet people linger here--their treks a distant memory or distant plan. Unlike Kathmandu, there is an urgency lacking here. I hear stories of local cults and murders and folks who dose on acid and wander off on a 15 day trek--a dark, invisible undercurrent that pulses through these peaceful streets.

I've come to see these two cities as the yin and yang of Nepal, swirling energies around each other linked by a single stretch of two lane road that winds though the countryside--mountain walls on one side and a steep cliff overlooking a deep river valley on the other. We pass long suspension bridges linking small villages on one side of the river with kilometers of rice fields etched into the hillsides on the other side. What would it be like to live here in the in-between, to grow up here not knowing any other world?

The bus slows down, and I make eye contact with a young teenage girl and her face lights up and she waves wildly. I turn and strain to see if she's chasing the bus, but I can't see anything except for the shrinking landscape behind me and dust blowing around in our wake.

Can you see the darkness in the most blissful places? Can you see the bliss in the most unpleasant places? Tell me about a place where you penetrated the surface and saw what was underneath. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

In Search of My Fortune and Glory

I got lost in Patan searching for my fortune and glory.

Let me start over. I got lost in Patan searching for a fictional tavern and a t-shirt I'm pretty sure was never actually sold in Patan, Nepal.

Let me start from the beginning. It all started when another girl from California at my guesthouse asked me what I was doing in Nepal. I told her that I was traveling, living here for the month, writing, and exploring. Oh, just hanging out, that's cool, I suppose, she said.

It wasn't so much what she said, but how she said it that got to me.

Turns out, everyone in Kathmandu has a purpose for being here--everyone is either starting a trek or finishing a trek, never around longer than 3 or 5 days, or they're here for school or a job or a volunteer opportunity. Whereas hanging out in India writing a novel and practicing yoga was a perfectly reasonable explanation for being there, folks here in Nepal seem a bit taken aback, like I've just told them I'm here searching for my fortune and glory, and they just don't know how to respond.

So, I decided to make my stay here one with a purpose. Why not search for my fortune and glory? Indiana Jones meets Murakami style.

Happy New Year 2073! The guy shouted into the microphone at the cafe I found myself in on what appeared to be New Year's Eve. I had seen a couple signs hanging high over the city streets on my way to the cafe, but I had also just finished another Murakami novel so I wasn't too shocked.

The Scottish man sitting across the table from me who had just finished 20 days on the Annapurna Circuit, choked on his beer. "Good God," he managed to say. "How long have I been gone?" He seemed genuinely confused and a bit concerned.

"The Nepalese people live in the future," I told him. "Last month when I was in India, my yoga teacher told our class we were science fiction characters so it seems about right I'm here."

He furrowed his brow and crossed his arms. "What trek did you do?" He asked me.

"I've not done one yet," I said. "But I am thinking of trekking to Patan to look for a fictional tavern."

He sighed and finished the last gulp of his beer. "I'm really tired," he said. "Maybe I should get some sleep."

"That's probably a good idea," I told him. "You have about 58 years to catch up on."

He gave me an odd little laugh and waved goodbye leaving me forever wondering if he thought he was actually gone for 58 years. But then again, how did it get to be New Year's Eve 2073? I hadn't even gotten to the bottom of that mystery yet.

What exactly are the odds of meeting two people from the island Malta (population 400,000) in Kathmandu, Nepal less than 2 months after I read a Murakami novel in which a character named herself Malta (after the island)? And since Nepal seems to be a vortex for all things extreme--extreme mountains, extreme trekkers, extreme earthquakes, extreme activity of every kind, who says it won't be a place of extreme coincidences as well?

The night I met the first guy from Malta we were hanging out on the rooftop of our house when a 4.5 earthquake hit. Everyone stopped talking as the world uncontrollably shook around us and the lights flickered on and off. What are the odds that nearly a year after a series of devastating earthquakes shake this country to the core, another one hits? It lasted about 5 seconds, and when it stopped, we all looked at each other, waiting. Then, as sudden as it happened, we all burst into uncontrollable laughter because, really, what else is there to do?

The next morning I and my new earthquake surviving friends--one of the guys from Malta and a girl from North Carolina--found ourselves on a high overlook in the countryside of Nagarkot watching as the sun rose directly behind Mount Everest. The Himalayan Range in the far distance popped out of the horizon until the sun rose too high and whitewashed them out of sight. The moment was fleeting and magical--a snapshot reminder of my time in India as well as here in Nepal.

Two days later I saw Everest again from the window of a small prop plane on a flyby. Seeing the highest peak in the world twice in one week can leave one feeling a little surreal--like living in the year 2073 and experiencing an earthquake from a rooftop in Kathmandu. Both unlikely, but as real as everything I've experienced so far on this journey.

What are the odds I'll find the Raven Tavern? I asked the guys from Malta later that night. They had no idea what I was talking about. You know, Marion Ravenwood's tavern from Raiders of the Lost Ark, I continued.

It didn't occur to me until that moment that Indiana Jones, whose travels and adventures took him to far flung regions of the world looking for his fortune and glory, is in fact a fictional character who doesn't really exist beyond the constructs of Americanized cult classic fanatics. A jarring fact for someone like me who lives in self constructed fictional worlds where Indiana Jones really does exist, and it really is possible to be a science fiction character and fall into Murakami wells of weirdness.

And because I am a believer in this world of magic and adventure, I'm going to live in it as much as I can.

When I finally set out on my own adventure into Patan just south of Kathmandu, it was late in the day. The GPS on my phone said it would only take about an hour to walk there so I thought I had plenty of time. Little did I know the convoluted path I was following would take me through the strangest of winding alleyways where I suspect no tourist has ventured by the looks I got.

I did eventually make it to Patan where I found a quaint little brick cafe. I sipped on my coffee and asked the guys working if they knew where I could find the Raven Tavern.

"The Raven Tavern?" One of them asked.

"Yeah," I said with a sigh. "It might not actually exist. As the story goes, it burnt down in 1936 when one too many people were after their fortune and glory. That is, if it existed at all."

The boys looked at me as though I just told them the sun was purple.

"I'm also wondering if you know where I could get a t-shirt that says Patan, Nepal on it. Preferably, one that also says The Raven."

I had found the shirt online, but when I started making my way around the small shops, it became clear this wasn't the sort of place that would splash its name across a t-shirt. let alone for the sake of a non-existent bar in a fictional world.

By the time I decided to give up on finding the Raven Tavern and the t-shirt, the sun was starting to set and my phone had died. I don't know how long it actually took me to get back home, but I had a map and the streets were full of helpful folks (who didn't speak English, but understood map).

I did not find my fortune and glory in Patan, Nepal, but what I did find was that I can navigate in a world where I am lost after dark, where not many folks can speak English, where I am always alone and never alone, where I can blend into any environment, where I am at peace where I am and where I've been and where I'm going as long as I continue to follow my curiosity into this world of magic and wonder.

How do you view yourself in the world--grounded in the reality that is around you or one in which magic is possible and fictional characters are as real as historical ones? And how does it affect your world and how you see it?

By the way, the Nepalese calendar was started in the year 56 BC by an Indian king who may or may not have existed--there doesn't seem to be a consensus on this issue. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Event Horizon Effect

It could have been the lack of oxygen at nearly 9500 ft (2900 m)...or it could have been the meditation I'd been doing every morning since my week training with Gurmukh...or it could have been all the writing and thinking I'd been doing for the past 3 months, but some sort of cumulative explosion happened in my brain when I reached Triund, and the world stood still.

Actually, the world has stood still in each and every moment of my experience in India. It would be easy to say time works differently here, but that's not it at all. Time no longer works in my life the way it once did--I simply experience it differently.

A friend wrote me recently about how these past 3 months have flown by. Well, yes, three months have gone by, but they have been so rich and full they feel like they were hardly moving at all as I was experiencing them. Each day would last a lifetime. Each moment would linger in an everlasting event horizon of sorts.

Whether I was practicing yoga as the sun came up over the backwaters of Kerala or listening to live music on a warm tropical night at a beach side shack in Arambol or white water rafting on the Ganges River in Rishikesh or scrambling up the side of a mountain in Dharamsala, I was fully present for each moment--not once living in the past or the future. And because I was so fully present, each experience never really ended.

After hiking for 5 hours of what felt like never ending vertical rocks to Triund, I found myself on a plateau that not only overlooked every village that makes up Dharamsala on one side, but I could turn around and clearly see snow capped Himalayan peaks right in front of me--so close I could almost touch them. And I do know from my past experience of hiking high elevations on a regular basis back when I lived in Yellowstone National Park that breathing thin, clean air can be one of the most magical and exhilarating experiences.

It was then, catching my breath, that I took note of the event horizon effect--standing on the edge of a precipice, witnessing not only that moment, but all my India moments--forever experiencing them as they move further and further away.

Three months, four different states, four different towns--each so incredibly different and distinct from each other, each surprising me in radically different ways that I could never have dreamed.

How do you experience time? Do you tend to mostly live in the past and future? Or do you take the time to fully experience the present moment? Experiment with time! How does your awareness of how you live in time change how you experience it? I'm so curious about this! Let me know what happens, what you experience!

From mountain climbing to theoretical physics in a single post...didn't something like this happen several posts back? Perhaps a side effect of what happens when time slows down.

In a few days, I will be not only in a whole new town (and by town, I mean big city!), but an entirely new country!

"Kathmandu, I'll soon be seein' you
And your strange bewinderin' time
Will hold me down"
~ (ahem) Cat Stevens