I am not, in any way, shape or form, a hiker. I once bought heavy hiking boots to take on a trek through the Alps and, before even catching a glimpse of the mountains on the horizon, had ditched them in a hostel in Switzerland. By the time I was in the shadow of the Matterhorn, I had decided that my Keds were content to just look up. I didn’t have to climb up and look over.
I approached the mountains of Nepal the same way, those great beasts of the Himalayas. I had met dozens of backpackers throughout India headed the same direction – north – their windbreakers already dirty, their hair already dreadlocked, their cheeks already rosy with anticipation of adventure. I sat with them through clouds of hookah smoke and pots of chai, their questions always the same. “Are you doing Base Camp?” they inquired. “The Loop?”
They were referring to Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna circuit, two journeys ranked among the world’s best by hikers and adrenaline extremists alike. Spanning days if not weeks, the hikes were fraught with challenges both physical and mental, with feats of strength I knew my legs wouldn’t handle, feats of strength I feared my mind couldn’t handle.
But still I went to Nepal, armed with henna-decorated hands and a cockiness my time in India had given me. I had been travelling the world, all by myself, for years now. I knew what it was like to be alone, knew what it was like to be faced with just about anything one could throw at a young woman in a foreign land. I’d fought off an angry mob of tuk-tuk drivers in Cambodia. I’d faced the drunks on the Trans-Siberian in Russia. I’d jumped off of cliffs and dived with sharks and motorbiked helmet-less down busy streets in Bangkok. I felt invincible. I was going to go to Nepal and find myself, find adventure, find friends, maybe even find love.
There is no loneliness quite like the one you face when tragedy strikes thousands of miles from home. I sat in the lobby of the hostel, fresh off of Skype with my mum, looking down at my hands. It was my first day in Kathmandu. She had died while I was still in India, but I hadn’t been online in a few days and so did not see the gentle emails from my family urging me to phone home. They are the worst kinds, those ambiguously gentle emails.
I wouldn’t fly home – my family was spread across the globe and we had arranged to have a memorial later in the year. And so I was left to grieve in a dark hotel room, where the taps required a wrench to loosen, where the light bulbs flickered or stopped working entirely, where the walls wouldn’t muffle my sadness. Stray dogs howled in the alley behind the hotel, and I was sure I was going to leave a part of my heart with this place forever. This hollow place, this hollow heart.
The next few days in Kathmandu were muddled, full of weight. The chaos of the city, those smells of cooking momos and those colours of yak scarves, couldn’t shake me out of my foggy state of mind. I spoke to no one. And, just as it felt that my world couldn’t unravel anymore, that the nights couldn’t get any lonelier, I packed my bag and went in search of the Himalayas.
It was only after I was in yet another lonely hotel room in Pokhara, 125 miles west of Kathmandu, that the scope of what I was about to do sank in. I had signed up for a three-day hike through the foothills of the Himalayas, through a part of the country that even the overly enthusiastic man running my hotel and its small travel agency hadn’t heard of. He had to phone a particular guide named Rajan, apparently the only one who could navigate those hills and arrange all the places to visit.
I met Rajan the afternoon before we were to leave; he was a quiet, polite man in his late forties. He shook my hand limply. His English was not very good, I was warned, but he knew the area I wanted to hike well, as he had been born nearby. Not for the first time, nor for the last, I questioned what I was getting myself into. It would just be the two of us for three days. I had to blindly hand my faith over to him, trust him that he would not lead me astray.
That night, after a solemn dinner in town, I packed a small bag for the journey, nothing more than a toothbrush and an extra camera battery. I slept restlessly. It had been days since I had been able to contact my family. I stared at the ceiling and counted the hours until dawn, when Rajan and I would share dry bread for breakfast before catching our first bus of many.
I was ill-prepared in so many ways for the trip; I didn’t have the right shoes or the right jacket, I didn’t have the right stamina or the right mindset. But I was in Nepal, and I needed to force myself into feeling something again, something that wasn’t mourning or self-pity.
The first challenge came early, sharing crowded local buses filled with men carrying supplies and women carrying chicken or children. I had to struggle to stay on my seat as we snaked up narrow mountain roads, the bus lurching left and right. I tried to remain as rigid as possible so as to not press into Rajan or the elderly lady who also shared our two-person seat. She stared at me the whole time, her eyes burning into the side of my head, but whenever I looked back at her, she smiled.
Finally, after hours of discomfort and very awkward conversation, we reached the end of the road. It simply stopped at the foot of a sloping hill, one that, although covered in boulders, looked well-travelled. I soon learned it was the only route to the small village where we would be staying for the next few days, and that we had to climb for a few hours in order to get to our homestay family’s house before the sun set. I also learned that the bus driver, for some reason I never understood, would be joining us. And so the three of started the slow ascent, the two men chattering in Nepali. Rajan stopped from time to time to point out special flowers or grasses, or so that I could pet the goats that wandered around us, disinterested in our movements. There was nothing magnificent here, and I couldn’t even see the peaks of the mountains yet, but the air was fresh, the onset of evening cool, and I felt relaxed and content.
We reached our homestay as the sky was turning orange; it was a tiny farm that consisted of a house with two rooms, an outhouse, a garden, and a stable for their two buffalo. Rajan later explained that the family owned the land surrounding the house, and survived off it as well as whatever odd jobs the husband could find back in town. The family greeted me with nervous smiles, their eyes blinking quickly. Rajan informed me that they hadn’t had a visitor in over a year.
“Sunita is happy you are here,” he told me. Sunita, the matriarch, glanced at me while she started boiling water for tea, her one-year old baby strapped to her back. I considered where I was – considered what had happened to get me to this place – when I finally looked out at the surroundings. I had been too distracted by the baby and the roosters and the salutations. I looked out at the view before me, and the Himalayas stretched out in all their glory, bigger than imagined, bigger than life. For the first time, I wanted to climb up, I wanted to look over, I wanted to see what lay ahead.
The sun set, and dinner was served: dahl, buffalo jerky, and millet wine. Sunita sent her oldest daughter into the black night, clutching a torch and a few rupees. When she returned over an hour later, she had one warm bottle of Coca-Cola in her hand, a gift for me, the honoured guest. I shared it with all of them, including the bus driver, though I tried to ignore his betel-stained teeth and the flecks of saliva on his lips. We mimed our way through conversation, Rajan’s translations stilted and dubious, but still the evening was full of laughter. My bed was made of lentils, and I slept next to a vat of corn, but I slept soundly.
And when I left that place, two days after I had arrived, I did not feel whole again. I did not have a miraculous epiphany; I did not suddenly feel better. I had never asked for that, never asked to be fixed. All I had wanted was to feel something different. The days I spent in the foothills of the Himalayas were beautiful and full, spent hiking and sharing tea with new friends. Experiences I cherish, all of them, regardless of the fact that they were washed with sadness. But slowly, over the course of the next few weeks in Nepal, I was stitched back together, I was rebuilt from the bottom up, just as we humans are designed to do.