We’d been hiking for about three hours at that point, in the afternoon heat, with no end in sight.
Earlier that week, I told myself I wasn’t going to get a guide. I decided I’d stay within the city limits and just walk around, keep it cheap, and visit the temples. Until this point in my life, I’ve only been able to afford food and an apartment. The thought of parting with more than I had to terrified me, especially on something as extravagant as a personal guide.
I’d only be here for a few days, I could easily get lost and soak in the city’s energy, never seeing the same thing twice. What it really came down to though was poor planning. I didn’t have an agenda, but I’ve always struggled sticking to an itinerary. When there’s a list of “to do’s”, I feel incredibly suffocated. I’ll end up ruminating on every minor detail. Improvisation is both my crutch and strength, so this time, like the many before, I decided to let the universe work its magic, by which I mean trusting in Gopal; a sales rep for a trekking company.
That way, if anything went wrong, by not having a plan, it wouldn’t be my fault; it’s what I tell myself.
He told me that we’d drive an hour outside the city, hike a few miles to the hotel, and hike out through the foothills of the Himalayas the next day. Before coming, I had constructed this image of being a true budget backpacker. In hindsight, the trip would have been a waste had I not played my assigned role. I’m the tourist and they’re the guides, it’s symbiotic, it’s necessary.
Somewhere along the way though, the deeper we’re sucked into the illusory elements of our avatar, we forget that’s all we are; tourists and nothing more. It doesn’t matter how your surroundings manifest, you can derive the same connection idly doing your dishes, wearing a dirty hoodie. I realize this makes the prospects of an adventure far less sexy, but it’s the truth. All highs even out eventually, doesn’t really matter where you go. You may as well appreciate where you’re at, who you’re with, the pain you’re feeling now, or the joy. It’s all going to change on you anyway. It’s all there is, there’s no sense in chasing down the change, it comes to you freely; the juice of living.
Don’t put your passions into dreams of the future, or those “if only” places, because you’re already living it. If it isn’t good enough now, it won’t be then, or there, so work with where you’re at. The more we begin to identify with conceptualizations of an ideal, as if they’re realities, the further we cut ourselves off. And for what? To chase a mirage?
Instead of stomping the life out of budding saplings, ones fearfully mistaken to be weeds, nurture that growth. Reap its fruits, but know deep in your heart that you must go all in, because you are the lamb. Learn to gracefully sacrifice yourself for tomorrow and you’ll never stagnate.
It’s all a practice in letting go, wherever that may be, even if it’s right at home. There’s no way of knowing, really knowing, when you’re cresting: appreciate, forgive, and love. Start with yourself and then extend it to others.
Sitting in Gopal’s unlit office, a story above the buzz of Tamal, sipping a chilled bottle of water that his secretary brought in, I let him upsell me on the city tour I’d just taken. I knew he was buttering me up for a higher commission, but I played with the idea of letting go. With the idea of trusting him.
Maybe he really wasn’t out to get me?
Begging the question, he asked “you’re already here, you had a good time with my driver, why not get out of the city? I can help you do that.” Looking out the office window, his fingers lacing together, palms resting flat across his stomach, he continued “who knows when you’ll be back to Nepal. I promise you, the countryside is nothing like the city. It’s another world.”
My eyes lit up, but Gopal could sense my hesitation. Still, he knew that I’d already bitten. The city center of Kathmandu is full on, it’s raw, and one hell of a cold shower for a westerner to face alone. Like the many travelers before, who got in over their heads, all he had to do was reel me in.
“Look man, you do this, you’ll never regret it. It’s only two hundred for a driver, a guide, and your stay in the hotel.”
Jump to frame, my guide was pushing the pace, going up hills, back down them as quickly as we’d ascended, and through the farms that scattered the Kathmandu Valley. Cutting through the terraced potato fields, he warned against getting caught in an afternoon monsoon, but all I could think about was sitting for a break to nurse my blisters. I’d made the mistake of not bringing sunscreen on a fully exposed, two day hike. Everytime I swiveled my head, I thought the freckled skin on the back of my neck, from years of abstaining from sunscreen, would slough off.
Beyond the burns, I felt a little let down. I didn’t get the chance to see the full Himalayan range. It was the point of the excursion, but they were covered in clouds, save the tiny peak that popped through the overcast blanketing of mountain weather.
But we didn’t stop to look, we kept pace, and I lost myself in the crosshatched pattern of irrigation canals cut into the earth. I focused on this woven tapestry of dirt and the shadows it cast. It gave the sloping hills a mesmerizing visual illusion, something to keep my mind from slipping into shock. I was thirsty, nearing exhaustion, and since the previous night, my body had been running on fumes.
It amazed me though, my guides ability to run up these hills with a cigarette pressed between his lips. I could only imagine what he’d be like had he not smoked. I felt grateful for this handicap though, it made my day a bit easier, but I completely regretted having one with our morning coffee. It was a Nepali red, a cowboy killer, like my favorite Marlboro’s; the heaviest they get.
Stopping to catch my breath, I looked down from our perched view, atop the hill and watched the women tend to their fields. They didn’t seem to mind the heat, or take much notice that I was walking through their property. Their dark leather faces, from a lifetime of laboring under a beating sun, with wrinkles mirroring the turned fields, were so focused on the task at hand. They’d sling bushells of seeds onto their backs, gold and red woven straps strung across their forehead for support, and press on. There was no choice in what they were doing. They either worked or starved, it was straight forward, no room for existential examination.
In comparison, I felt weak, but knew we were made of the same stuff. We’re all human, we’re just as capable, it’s a matter of motivation. If pushed to the point of survival, you’re capable of things otherwise thought impossible.
Leaving the fields, small villages with tin shacks came into view. There were tall sativa marijuana trees, at least fifteen feet in height, growing in most of the yards. These plants were scattered everywhere along the countryside, even unattended, adjacent the road we walked. I laughed thinking back to all the dealers working the tourists of the Thamal district, it could be had by the bushel out here. Had the threat of deportation from Korea not hung in the balance, I would’ve gladly emptied out one of Chatrik’s cigarette casings and rolled us a joint. Pot is very illegal in Korea. Testing positive will get you booted, not just fired. Possession will land you in prison. For how long, I don’t know.
Nearly all the homes had smoke billowing from their yards too. I imagined all the delicious Nepalese dishes they must have been preparing, while smoking their homegrown medicinals, but it wasn’t until we got closer that you could see the burning trash piles. It didn’t seem to bother them, it was their way of life, the only one they knew, so it didn’t bother me. It reminded me much of the short time spent in El Salvador. In a lot of ways, I couldn’t tell the difference.
Nearly everyone we came across, although perplexed as to why a sunburned hiker was walking through their backyard, greeted us with a timid smile. Most didn’t speak English, but none of them hesitated in holding their hands up in prayer. They’d touch their foreheads to their fingertips saying “namaste.” I saw myself in them, as I’m sure they saw themselves in me. It’s something that gets lost in the pace of a city the size of Busan, there’s an intimacy in village life.
Within the matter of a half a mile, the people changed. They didn’t look as though they were from a hill tribe; broad nosed, skin nearly black, with stout frames and long arms. No, the villages by the electric lines could speak English. Many of them had glasses and didn’t dress in traditional garments - save the elders. They had phones, concrete homes, and dirt bikes. They were living a modern lifestyle, modern relative to the villages further from roads.
Walking out of one such village, which didn’t have more than a few homes, I had my head pointing down. I was scanning for loose rocks, guarding my eyes from the sun. Chatrik kept laughing at my struggles with the sun, pointing to how burnt and drenched with sweat I’d become, as if he’d never guided a white person through the summer heat of his country. I paid no mind, it’d take too much energy to do that. There was none left to give.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a child’s voice called out, “Wow! Big, BIG man!”
It echoed through the shallow valley we’d descended into. Atop the hill were three little boys, no older than ten. Their faces were beaming with excitement. Smiles from ear to ear exposed brilliant white teeth and an innocent joy I had yet to see in Korea. All three were waving, the boy that had called out came zipping down the tracked out, muddy hill. The bike they’d been sharing was missing its chain, but that wasn’t going to stop them. They didn’t see limitations, they saw solutions and the hill acted as their pedals. I respected that. I even envied that.
Stopping beside me, after hopping off the rusted out bike, he continued smiling. Looking up to me, he asked “where are you from?” Each ‘r’ rolling off his tongue like the stones his back wheel had sent tumbling down the hill. While we hiked back up, I explained to him that I live in Korea.
“Oh, Ko-re-a”, he exclaimed. Each syllable was noticeably separated, though he looked confused. I’m very obviously not Asian, so I continued on that I’m actually from The United States. I was only working there, as a teacher. I told him that most of my students were his age, which he loved all the more.
Reaching his friends at the top, he passed the bike to one of the other boys. His friend, the one receiving the bike, was too fixated on me and nearly dropped it. This may have been one of the few times he’d seen such a weird looking person walking through his town. I felt like a celebrity and an oddity rolled into one, but I’ve grown accustomed to the stares. It’s strange going from the racial majority to the minority. You become increasingly self aware, self conscious even, though I can’t speak for everyone.
Turning to look at him, I asked “can you ride fast? I bet you can’t.” Smiling from his eyes and letting out a laugh, he hopped onto the bike with a watch-me attitude. Flying down the hill, he nearly crashed into some underbrush, but made it down safely. All four of us couldn’t keep from laughing together, in the middle of some trail, during the middle of a school day, doing particularly nothing, just being present.
I raised my hand to wave, but they beat me to it, and all the boys joyfully yelled goodbye in unison.
It was strangely perfect. That flash of love was going to be an irreplicable moment in my life, as are the ones before. We must honor these glimpses into the truth, remembering to let them go, allowing new waves, fresh perspectives to roll in.
So it goes.