Not All Who Wander Are Lost: Nepal

With 36 hours left in our too-short sojourn in Nepal earlier this month, I yearned to escape the “strange, bewilderin’ time” of Kathmandu and its cacophony of humans, motorbikes, sequined lorries, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, giant hens and cockerels, wandering bands of ill-tempered goats, dozy cows, and incessant beeping that together comprise the intoxicating, maddening heartbeat of the capital city.

My 16-year-old son and I had hoped to make it far out of the city to Pokhara and the foothills of the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas, but time was not on our side. So we opted instead for an overnight in Nagarkot—a village in the Bakhtapur region of the Kathmandu Valley with what is generally agreed to be one of the best views of the Himalayas (including Everest) in country. If the weather allows it, that is.

Whether my boy and I were able to glimpse Chomolungma (as the Tibetans call the sacred, tallest mountain on Earth) didn’t really matter to me and he was more excited about the hotel pool and hot tub than anything else. I just wanted some quiet, alone time to reflect on our week in magical, mystical Nepal—my second visit to the country I first visited days after the devastating earthquake in April 2015.

Eight of us piled into our friend Gautham’s Mitsubishi I-guess-it’s-a-small-SUV for the two-hour journey (because of the aforementioned cacophony and thick traffic jams that produce much of it) to Nagarkot. Only three of us would be staying the night. The other five just came along for the ride and the chance to gulp some fresh(er) air in the mountains outside Kathmandu and stop twice (TWICE) for the delicacy known as King Curd (a cross between yogurt and custard that is best enjoyed in the Bhaktapur region; it’s delicious).

Of the nine of us, save for the driver I was the only passenger not to feel the effects of motion sickness as Gautham deftly navigated the switchback dirt mountain roads with potholes the size of small caves. (I’m generally a world-class nervous back-seat driver. But not in Nepal. Even amidst the craziness and hair-raising maneuvers, I don’t wear a seat belt. Nobody does. And the more nerve-wracking the driving gets, the more I laugh. It’s an unfettered, I’m-not-in-control-here kind of belly laugh.)

After Gautham, his lovely wife Reykah, their son John, soon-to-be-daughter in law, and chosen nephew Arjun grabbed some lunch on the hotel’s expansive deck facing the mountains, they headed back to Kathmandu, while my son and Gautham’s eldest child, David, adjourned to their room and the indoor pool.

Alone. Finally. I love my friends in Nepal and my traveling-companion child, but my inner introvert—which has taken to exerting itself with greater frequency in my 40s—really needed some solitude.

Terraced farms in Nagarkot, Nepal. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.
Terraced farms in Nagarkot, Nepal. Photo by Cathleen Falsani.

I placed my overnight bag in my room, grabbed my smartphone and my Canon (opting to bring only the short lens), and returned to the panoramic deck which, much to my chagrin, was occupied by a group of yuppie types from China, all smoking actual cigarettes and talking loudly into their cell phones.

I ducked back inside to find a more peaceful perch from which to (perhaps) glimpse the mountains and, alternately, watch the sunset over the valleys to the west. Three flights up and a few minutes later, I found myself on the rooftop deck of the hotel, completely solo.

Yesssss.

I stood on the edge of a parapet and stared east, to where the Himalayas and Everest were supposed to be. I saw nothing but for the terraced farms of the verdant valley and wondered if I was facing the wrong direction. A quick check of a nearby map with arrows pointing in the direction I’d been facing told me that, yes, that was where the mountains were. But they were completely obscured by haze, clouds, smog and/or a combination of all three.

It’s not that I was disappointed or surprised. I knew before we alighted Kathmandu for Nagarkot that this time of the year, spotting the mountains was a dodgy bet. “If it rains tonight, even for ten minutes,” Gautham assured me before he left, “you will see mountains at sunrise.” So there was another chance and even if the Himalayas still were obscured at daybreak, Nagarkot is a beautiful spot no matter the weather.

The thing is, knowing the mountains were in front of me without being able to see them was, somehow, disorienting. They were there, right there, right in front of me—the most majestic range on the planet. But I was seeing through a glass dimly, if you will.

The sensation was strange, as if I were one of the Hobbits standing in front of Mordor just blinking into an abyss of wan sunlight filtered through a thick layer of khaki-colored smog.

A little lightheaded (Nagarkot sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet and I spend most of my time at literal sea level), I sat down at one of the many empty, metal cafe tables and pulled out my notebook, perhaps to write or doodle. After a few moments, I realized I’d been humming a musical phrase from Cat Stevens’ “Katmandu” song all day, so I took out my smartphone and (thanks to the 3G network in Nepal, even at such great heights) found a live performance of the song Cat gave in 1970. Played it twice. Sang along. Then I let YouTube take me, as it does, to the next song in the play list: Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You” from another live performance recorded the same year, a few weeks after my birth.

I found myself in tears. At first I wasn’t sure why, but as I reflected on the lyrics to Stevens’ ballad, I began to see what it was, or at least what I think it might have been.

 
Whoever I’m with
I’m always, always talking to you
I’m always talking to you
And I’m sad that you can’t hear
Sad that you can’t hear

Now in midlife, things aren’t quite how I expected they might be. My life and my physical person have changed in ways that sometimes bring more than a whiff of despair to my breath, which is, as someone taught me long ago, the truest form of unceasing prayer. There is much in my life that brings me unfathomable joy and I see grace all around me, all the time. And yet, there’s a sadness that lingers in the corners of my room.

Many people I love dearly have passed out of my life and this world in the last several years and I know that mourning is anything but linear. Surely that’s part of it. Disappointment as well. At things professional and otherwise that went pear-shaped and haven’t yet found their original form and maybe never will. That I’d peaked a decade ago and have since begun a slow descent into the never-ending adulthood of blighted hope.

All of that. The tears were for all of that. And still, I saw neither mountain nor setting sun.

So I decided to take a walk—something more than a stroll and less than a trek, even if I was wearing the hiking boots I’d bought before the earthquake last year and had worn (in Nepal) precisely once—that very day in Nagarkot. I thought I should at least try to get them dusty.

The grounds of the hotel where we stayed are expansive and had the feel more of sanctuary than resort. Being Nepal, there were Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind from trees and in courtyards; shrines and tiny temples to various Hindu deities, and brass prayer wheels affixed to the wall every few feet along the warren of corridors. I ducked out through one of those courtyards and kept walking downward until I found a trail that led along the edge of a bamboo forest (at least that’s how I’d describe it) along the eastern side of the property, in the direction of Everest and the clouds.

Lost in thought I walked and looked at flora until the path ended at the back side of the hotel amidst rudimentary construction equipment. I probably shouldn’t be here, I thought. Not exactly what the hotel management would want guests to see. But it was Nepal and the pervasive easy-breeziness of the culture assured me no one would come out yelling.

I walked on, as the path darkened and the pine trees on one side made a canopy with the bamboo on the other. Ten minutes later, after wandering without paying attention to direction or the setting sun, I stopped in my tracks, realizing I might be lost.

It was at that moment I heard Harold Ramis’ voice in my head. Ten years ago, I’d interviewed the late actor-director for my first book and he’d told me a story. Harold was born Jewish and embraced Buddhism as an adult. He described himself as “Buddh-ish.” I loved that guy. Anyway the story went like this:

    “Watching other people on their journeys forced me to think reactively about it: Well, what do I believe? You don’t believe in past lives, so if you don’t believe in the continuity of the soul, what do you believe in? I never was able to give myself over to another human being as a spiritual trainer or leader. I could never affiliate with an organization, any doctrinal organization. I could never have a guru or a spiritual teacher because I always believed it was so personal. It seemed to me logically impossible that there could be a concrete answer to a spiritual quest—by definition—and so anyone who said they had an answer was immediately suspect. I’m right now convinced that no matter how much I seek, there wouldn’t be an answer. It’s like when you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”

Always remember to look up. Photo from Nargakot, Nepal by the author.
Always remember to look up. Photo from Nargakot, Nepal by the author.

It was that last part that echoed in my mind: “When you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”

So I did. On a ramshackle wall on the pine side of the ersatz trail. And another sacred word came to mind, this time from Stephen Hawking who said, “Remember to look up and not down at your feet.” A favorite college professor used to remind us of the same. Look up. You’ll be surprised what you find if you change your perspective.

I looked up. And there, perhaps 100 yards above me in a clearing in the woods, I saw a man praying.

And then I heard faint music. I started to walk toward the man and the music, clambering through a rocky path in the woods until I came upon a house.

Once again, I stopped, worried I might be trespassing, an unwelcome guest and interloper. But this is Nepal, I told myself, and slowly walked toward the building when, surprising both of us, a young man appeared carrying a cup of tea.

“Namaste,” I said.

He bowed slightly, one hand in front of his chest in half of the prayerful posture with which most Nepalis greet each other. (His other hand still held the cup of tea.)

“I think I’m lost,” I continued.

“Where are you trying to go?” he answered with a the kind of genuine empathy and tenderness that is uncommon in most places.

Where am I trying to go? I thought, spotting someone in my peripheral vision. The praying man.

It wasn’t a man, per se, but a statue of Sri Chinmoy, a well-known Indian guru and meditation instructor who passed away in 2007. One of the mountain peaks in the invisible range in front of me is named for him.

“Is this an ashram?” I said.

The man bobbled his head in affirmation as Nepalis do.

“You’re lost?” he said.

“Maybe not so lost,” I said, as my voice cracked and tears filled my eyes. “May I sit down for a minute?”

“Of course,” he said.

I put my head in my hands and had a big boo-hoo cry like I haven’t in a long, long, clearly too-long time. And the kind man didn’t stare or shift uncomfortably. He just sipped his tea and stayed with me, looking up at the sky. I composed myself and said I was trying to get back to the hotel.

“Ah,” he said. “It’s just there.”

Sri Chinmoy’s statue, I quickly realized, sits a few dozen yards away from the hotel’s helipad. I wasn’t lost. I just couldn’t see where I was going.

The sun was almost down and I thanked him for his kindness, and began walking toward the hotel entrance. If it’s possible for one’s ears to come into focus, mine did just then, and I heard the music that was playing inside what turned out to be a kind of ashram gift-shop where the man worked.

A woman’s voice sang the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

  Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace;
    Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
    Where there is injury, pardon;
    Where there is doubt, faith;
    Where there is despair, hope;
    Where there is darkness, light;
    Where there is sadness, joy.

    Oh Divine Master,
    Grant that I may not so much seek
    To be consoled as to console;
    To be understood, as to understand;
    To be loved, as to love;
    For it is in giving that we receive,
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    It is in dying that we are born into eternal life.

The singer was Snatam Kaur, an American-born Sikh musician and peace activist. I opened iTunes on my phone and bought it immediately.

Later that night, after dinner with my son and our friend, we all retired for the evening, hopeful that sunrise would bring a view of the mountains. I fell asleep listening to Kaur sing St. Francis’ prayer on repeat.

I awoke before sunrise and sat on my balcony alone in the dark, hoping to see the mountains at first light. When it came, I could see nothing but clouds and haze.

Still, the light was beautiful. And I had faith that the mountains indeed were there, even if I couldn’t see them, and that they would wait for me to return to find them another day.

Posted on: April 12, 2016

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