The Rooftop of the World
The success of our lives and our future depends on our individual motivation and determination – The Dalai Lama.
As our flight landed in Katmandu on September 20th, 2001, a strong sense of relief washed over me. I was finally physically detached from obsessively watching the devastating media coverage from the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. For me, these last nine days had been a waiting game, flooding me with feelings of guilt because I was self-obsessing about being able to go on my trip, and my utter disbelief about the events that occurred on 9/11. I wandered around aimlessly. Waiting and hopeful that I could get out of America and go on my highly anticipated charity trek in the Himalayas. As flights were slowly getting back into their schedules, and fear and panic still stagnated the nation, and the utter devastation was reverberating throughout the world. I still wanted to go to the mountain range closest to where Bin Laden was hiding.
After landing in the night, my first impression of this foreign land was the many young boys begging for ‘baksheesh’ (money) inside the airport. Every time I go to a 3rd world country the constant sight of beggars is always a humbling experience, as a gentle reminder of how lucky I am and to be grateful for all that I have. Feeling completely shattered after the arduous journey, our group moved swiftly through the hustle and bustle, as we were eager to find our guide, get to the hotel and fall into our beds. The seven of us clambered into the hotel’s mini-van and bounced our way through the busy city streets of Katmandu, not only avoiding the assorted modes of transportation, but most importantly making sure to not hit the Hindu’s sacred cows that aimlessly roam the streets. Once arriving at the hotel I headed straight to bed, knowing there would be an early start in the morning because would be ascending into the mountains. The small, Nepalese, mountain planes which would be transporting us into “Utopia” have a brief opportunity for landing in the foothills before the clouds settle by mid morning, we absolutely couldn’t lose that narrow landing opportunity.
This Himalayan trek idea had germinated from a conversation with a friend who briefly mentioned the possibility of trekking for charity; my immediate response had been “count me in.” What was I thinking? I had never even been camping, but recently I began to understand that with enough determination anything is possible. After all two years ago I had made a life changing decision to stop drinking and live a sober life. Learning to take things “one day at a time” was my life’s philosophy these days. Although I didn’t know this at the time, this trek was my spiritual quest towards attaining peace of mind. There had always been a constant chatter in my head, too much thinking and not enough action. This self-discovery journey finally showed me how to quiet the chatter.
In the morning, returning to the airport, we caught our thirty-five minute flight to Phalpu, the gateway village for the start of our adventure. During the flight, staring out the window, I felt completely at peace because of the breath taking beauty and serenity of the vibrant, green valleys with snowcapped mountain ranges as their backdrop, this was the most amazing scenery I had ever experienced. The absolute beauty after all the devastation I had seen in the last eleven days caused me to burst into uncontrollable floods of tears. I was the only traveller in the group coming from America. As we flew above the hills but below the mountains, there were vibrant aquamarine homes jotting sporadically throughout the region, with the occasional plateaus growing rice or corn, every detail added even more splendor to the beauty. For me, reality set in that I was actually here, at that moment I felt rewarded for all the physical work I had done preparing for this trip. However, all of a sudden I was jolted from this meditative state, my sense of calm quickly turning into a tight knot in my stomach as I saw what was to be our landing strip of about the size of approximately 6 soccer fields ended at the mountain’s ledge with a sheer drop into the abyss. Utter panic struck me, as I realized that a sudden strong gust of wind would push us into infinity. Nobody had prepared us for this. Luckily the pilot expertly landed the plane and we began our emotional, life changing journey in the mountains.
Phalpu lies in the heart of the Solu Valley, the North East Region of Nepal at an altitude of 2,400 meters. There is one hotel (at that time, I haven’t researched the area to see what there is in place at this time), a pool hall, a television and a phone, all rare luxuries in this desolate region. Our nearest mode of transportation, after leaving the airfield, is a seven-day walk down the hill. We wouldn’t be getting anywhere in a hurry. Getting of the plane, it seemed as if the entire region had arrived to greet us, we were one of the first trekking groups for the season. Winter was now over and the welcomed travellers would be coming back to the region. I felt like visiting royalty. The warm, smiling, shoeless men and boys eagerly watched and waved as we walked down the steps and across the field to the customs hall, which was located in a tiny, tin hut, but taken very seriously by the locals, it seemed as if we were in a Monty Python parody as our backpacks were inspected, but we respected their dignity and local customs.
My Himalayan ‘family’ consisted of six fellow British travelers and fourteen Sherpas, who walked 10 days up into the hills from Katmandu, without barely any clothes and no shoes, to begin their working season assisting the travellers hiking in the hills. The people living in the areas we were going to walk through, their ancestors had migrated many years ago from Tibet, escaping over the mountains from the Chinese, who had taken their land and slaughtered many people for practicing Buddhism. Our Sherpa leaders were called Tej, Dowar and Indra; the other eleven young men carried our belongings, cooked and set up our nightly camps. It was a wonderful union of cultural differences with many lessons to learn about endurance, strength and happiness along this mountainous journey.
Our daily, delicious, vegetarian meals were prepared on small burners. There was always soup followed by a main course consisting of various vegetables, chips, pasta or my favorite, momas (Nepalese dumplings), washed down with canned fruit for desert. Everything tasted delicious, especially at the end of the arduous treks. Although there was a language barrier between us, we communicated through laughter, actions and facial expressions. By the end of the trip I felt I had known everyone most of my life, not just for six days. Tej was the only guide that spoke good English, he spent four months living in Wales; and had been shocked by the supermarkets, he couldn’t believe how the shelves were stacked with so many products that were the same, but with different brands. He had spent his entire life in these foothills where everything is scarce, the locals we saw eating in the teahouses survive mostly on the potatoes they grow. I felt guilty eating our wholesome meals alongside them. It is definitely a harsh environment to be living in. Most of the locals have hacking coughs, probably due to this altitude and dampness, and a lack of medicine. It is known as the Sherpa’s cough. Their kindness, good nature and contentment added to my sense of feeling completely relaxed in this environment. Nothing I had ever felt before. Nothing seemed to be too great a challenge to these men. Everything was achieved with a sense of dignity and calm. They are an amazing example of a great culture to be admired and respected. Their lives cannot be easy, especially when the cold weather ravages through the region most of the year. Their homes have no electricity or warm water, and are a mere shell of concrete with a thatched roof. In the morning, as we ate our cereal, the barefooted Sherpas would get a head start, each of them carrying four heavy backpacks tied together. Their clothes were gifts left behind by appreciative travelers. Indra amused us by wearing a tartan cap with hair attached that had been sent to him by a Scottish pen pal named Eddie. In the evenings we saw a few tipsy locals coming out of the village teahouses. The local brew is made from corn that tastes similar to strong whiskey. The many teahouses are small huts with wooden benches and tables, usually seating around 10 people. Some villages had larger establishments. There are no toilets or sinks. The amenities consist of a tap outside, with a small burner to heat water and cook food.
Our first evening was spent visiting a school in Ghunsa. The children wear blue uniforms and walk many miles to get there every day, starting out before daybreak and arriving home after dark. Around 60 children had been waiting patiently for us to arrive at the school. They stood in a large circle, holding garlands of flowers, cheering as we crawled in, exhausted from the five-hour walk. We had brought them each a precious gift. Once we were seated, and our garlands had been hung around our necks, with much excitement the children lined up to receive their pencil. It was a humbling experience to watch their faces light up over such a simple gesture. Once the ceremony was over they went home clutching this precious commodity. There are several charities that fund these schools. It costs sixty British pounds a year to educate, buy books and dress a child. Sir Edmund Hillary started this tradition of building and financing schools in the region. He was so grateful to the Sherpas for the work they did to help the foreign climbers, he asked what he could do to repay them. The Sherpas replied: “Our children have eyes but they cannot see”. Every time Sir Edmund led a climbing expedition they would first help the locals build a school’s foundation.
My favorite time of the day was stopping along the path for lunch, I felt relieved when I turned the corner and saw the lads cooking in the distance. The lunch was always ready for serving as soon as we arrived. It is a custom to feed the men first. The first two days I was exhausted, I couldn’t eat or drink enough to sustain my strength. The weakness began to show, everyone was concerned that dehydration would strike. Luckily by the third day my lungs had filled with air from the altitude and I caught up. The daily afternoon downpours caused me to remain damp the whole trip. Sweating and heating up in the mornings, then getting soaked in the afternoons. This unpleasant experience was a minor discomfort when surrounded by so much beauty. Luckily I had placed my belongings in a garbage bag inside my backpack; at least all my clean clothes were dry. At night after the long walks, up and down steep terrain, I was always happy to get into my sleeping bag; it felt as welcoming as 400 thread Egyptian cotton sheets.
Day two of the trek had several challenges. The leeches were sucking my blood, I screamed every time they attacked, no part of my body was spared their tyranny; the Sherpas casually pull them off, leaving bloody trails. I couldn’t remove them myself because I was afraid that they would break off and remain in my body forever. Thank God they were only in one specific area of the hills, after that day we gratefully remained leech free. At nightfall on the second day, we were still heading ‘home’; the final part of the journey was a steep uphill climb, I needed to stop every ten minutes to catch my breath; I was too weak to even carry my small daypack. I was panicking that I had made a big mistake coming on the trek, I cried and complained bitterly, doubting my capabilities. However, I was determined not to give up. That night I worred about the next day’s journey.
After such an arduous start on day two, to my relief the next day was a flat, pleasant, walk. We chatted along the ‘well-groomed’ paths. Our destination was a small hotel, with a couple of other tourists and a few sinister looking locals hanging around. It didn’t feel safe. We arrived early in the afternoon, I washed my underwear and hung them out to dry, bras and knickers on full view. Everyone laughed at my domesticity. A Sherpa boy came to our tent, and in a fluent New Zealand accent asked, “have you got a plaster, my Mum cut her finger?” Shocked, I said “no.” Anything unfamiliar was unsettling in the safety of the hills. We found out later that his father owned the hotel, and had sent the boy to live in New Zealand with a family who had passed through. Thinking he would have a better opportunity in life. The smart little boy loved having toys, but missed his parents so much, the New Zealanders returned him home. His ruthless Dad was still willing to ship him off with any of us.
Shortly after we arrived at this ‘hotel’ one of our group (Claire) misplaced her pouch with her money and passport in it. It was nowhere to be found. As our return to Katmandu fell on a weekend, the British Consulate would be closed so a passport needed to be issued beforehand. The next morning Claire and Indra had to walk five hours to the nearest phone to handle these arrangements. On our last night in the hills she was taken into the village to meet with a tribunal of elders, for UK insurance purposes. When she returned from the meeting, she reported to us that the overcrowded room was filled with locals and a translator, they asked her to list the missing belongings, along with their value. When she said her face cream cost twenty-five pounds the whole room burst out laughing, I am sure this was an annual wage for a Sherpa. All the details were written down on a piece of paper and signed. This was her legal document. I am sure no British insurance agent will be wondering into the foothills any time soon to check its authenticity.
On day four we climbed to a Mount Everest vista point. The walk was in a national park. The vastness of empty beauty and nothing around was my favorite day walking. However, we did pass a solitary hut in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains; a very old man and a young boy sat weaving baskets together, something about this scene stays with me even today. I have a blurry photo of the old man and young boy in the middle of nowhere. When we arrived at the Everest viewing point we sat and waited an hour for the clouds to leave so we could see Everest. This did not happen. Everyone’s spirits sank, we had come all this way and had not seen the great mountain. Apparently that is very common, but no traveller is told that before the trip. The mountain is generally covered by clouds.
On our way down from the viewing point, we stopped at Thubten Chuling, a monastery where 500 Tibetan monks and nuns live in seclusion. Good luck was on our side the Lama was in residence. The gong sounded in the valley around five and we were led into the hall with all the monks and nuns to receive a blessing. The Lama sat on a large ‘throne’, everyone formed a line, once in front of him we bowed reverently and he place a white scarf around our necks. Tej said that in the ten years they had been coming to the monastery, this was their first appearance with the Lama. He is usually abroad seeking funds. So our luck that day was to be a blessing from the Lama and not a view of Everest. I was too content to care about seeing Everest because I already felt as if I was in heaven on earth.
On our last evening in the hills the sherpas prepared a farewell party, the cake read “happy last day”. We all decided to pay the hotel a dollar for a hot shower. The camaraderie between us had grown in such a short time that everyone in the group had to agree or we felt it would be cheating. It felt so good to be clean and dry. In the morning, before leaving I got up early and took a final walk around the village, no one was around except the children setting off to school. I was sad to be leaving this place, once again I cried as if I was leaving my home and would never return. Some day I hope to return. The peace that eluded me my whole life I finally discovered within myself in these hills. I felt grateful to the Sherpas for opening this window into their lives. With heaviness in my heart I kissed them all ‘goodbye’.
The powerfulness that this spiritual journey had shown me, I would not know I had received until I returned to America and gained distance from the trip. Today, when something is troubling me, or I lose a sense of feeling connected, I can close my eyes and visualize myself walking in the hills. It brings me straight back to feelings of inner peace, security and strength. No place else in the world has left this mark on my soul.
Photography by Caroline Gray
My favorite food is Indian curry. The Nepalese also eat delicious curries. I am including a simple chicken curry recipe:
Prep Time : 15 mins Cook Time : 25 mins
Serves : 4-6
- 1 lb Chicken breast, cut into small cubes
- 1 yellow Onion, finely diced
- 1 tbsp Garlic, diced
- 1 tbsp Ginger, grated
- 2 Medium Tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tsp Turmeric
- 1 tbsp Cumin
- 1 tbsp Coriander ground
- 1 tsp chili powder
- 1Cinnamon stick
- 3 Green Cardamons (Elaichi)
- 1 Bay Leaf (Tej Patta)
- Salt to taste
- 1 tbsp ghee
- Heat ghee. Add the cumin, cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaf and chopped onions and fry the onions till they become light pink and soft. Add the ginger and garlic and fry for another 5 mins.
- Add the chicken pieces and fry till the chicken become light brown. Now, add the chopped tomatoes, turmeric powder, chilli powder, cumin, coriander and salt and fry for 3-5 mins
- Add 1 cup of water, simmer covered for 1/2 hour
- Serve with rice and mango chutney