By Crooked Trails Traveler Stephanie S.
Everest has always been on my bucket list, as it is for many people. After an emotionally taxing year of my 2nd divorce, my cousin’s suicide, my middle son’s health scare and a threatening coworker, I decided it was time to carpe diem and go for my dream. Knowing also that my sons are preparing to leave my nest starting next year, I felt it was time to show them the world and teach them to understand their place in it; I needed to practice what I’d been preaching to them throughout their lives. What we learned from our experience in Nepal was the challenge of translating words into actions…
From the start, I was overwhelmed. I have traveled pretty extensively, but only through Europe and North America. Nepal was a totally different adventure. Leaving the airport, we were immediately introduced to the driving culture as cars came directly at us, swerving at the last moment. We snuck our van down an alley that didn’t seem wide enough to fit us, pulling up to the beautiful Hotel Tibet. Despite the impeccable cleanliness of the hotel, I checked the beds for bugs that first night. Our windows opened to a dark back alley with many strange shadows so I kept them closed and slept with my valuables. I had read so much about not drinking the water in Nepal that I was hesitant to touch even the bottled water provided in the rooms without sterilizing it first. I didn’t realize how paranoid I was being until one of my sons expressed fear of taking a shower due to the “dirty water”.
As we ventured through Kathmandu the next day, my mind was constantly spinning. The history, the culture, the driving, the sights, sounds and smells…I couldn’t believe this was my reality. I felt incredibly grateful yet also incredibly insecure about my place in all I was experiencing. When we stopped at Maiti Nepal to (I thought) simply drop off the instruments and musical supplies we had brought for their children’s orchestra, I was astounded by a meeting with Anuradha Koirala, the founder of this amazing haven of women’s recovery and empowerment after sex trafficking. She spoke highly of the wonderful Chris Mackay (Crooked Trails Co-founder and Executive Director), a woman I also greatly admire, and shared with me the center’s desperate need for music teachers. We were given a private tour and had our pictures taken with the director. It was so much more attention than I had expected and it caught me so off guard, it left me feeling unworthy and insufficient as I stumbled awkwardly through conversation–trying to acknowledge their needs, understand accents and not offend anyone in this still new-to-me culture.
I returned to the hotel filled with self-doubt and questions about my preconceived notions. I realized how fearful I was of the unknown and how much pressure I was putting on myself to “fit in” with Nepal. If I wanted to make travel and connecting with others my life’s passion and purpose, then I had to be able to assimilate with any culture, right? I wanted to do everything perfectly their way so they would know how much I respected them and they would take me seriously instead of dismissing me as just another tourist. I had read the travel books; I had learned the important words of greeting and gratitude; I had experimented with the expected foods ahead of time to have my palette prepared for different flavors. And yet, I now felt like I was failing in my experience. I kept wondering if I was being elitist, entitled, judgmental…
Then I realized that I was only holding myself and the boys back by second guessing our every move. No matter how much studying we had done, we were now living the reality. I had to let go my attempts to control the adventure and, as Chris reminded me before leaving, I had to remain open to the possibilities that lay before me. We were here to learn so I started asking questions. When I found myself conflicted as to how I would react to a situation in America versus how I noticed my guides acting, I would reach out for clarification. Sometimes I believe I got an authentic answer, other times I think the language difficulties led to quick and easy affirmations to placate me. But I watched, and I stayed open, and I learned.
Day two in Nepal found us heading into the Himalayas. After surviving the landing at Lukla (which was NOT as scary as I’d built it up to be) and getting a cup of tea, we headed out on the trail to Everest. It was a beautiful, relaxing walk…a nice downhill start before the significant climb ahead of us. When we arrived in Phakding, our first overnight stop, I was surprised to learn we didn’t have any reservations for lodging and the initial place was already booked. Wait, what? The trip had been planned for almost a year, how did we not have reservations? I couldn’t get a clear explanation from our guide so I felt my anxiety rising, especially when our rooms that night ended up being in a plywood add-on with cracks at the seams between boards. Things skittered outside, yet sounded right next to my head as I lay on the bed. The toilet seat broke when I sat on it and we had no toilet paper.
Then I discovered our porters and guides could not stay with us because priority was given to tourists. They also had to wait to eat until all the guests were fed. How was that fair? I couldn’t make this trip without our amazing team. I recognized this was their livelihood but I felt they deserved our utmost respect and acknowledgement for all they did and sacrificed to get us up to base camp. They were not here to serve me…they were critical support to me achieving a lifelong dream. I increased my expressions of gratitude for them and tried to help them whenever I could, much to their frustration. Again, it was a conflict of my sense of justice with their sense of duty. We were all just trying to be super nice and considerate of each other.
I was awash with many intense emotions that first night in the mountains: excitement, apprehension, abandonment, uncertainty, gratitude, suspicion. I struggled with my own arrogance and unrealistic expectations. I meditated on my reason for being right here, right now, and a sense of peace flowed over me. I had to have faith that the Universe had something to show me but it required me to keep my eyes and heart open. As I felt myself relax, I noticed a growing comraderie in the dining hall as more trekkers came in for the night. The wood stove was lit and a cozy warmth emanated throughout the lodge. The food was delicious and filling; the connection to others–despite different languages—was soothing.
The next day was another eye opener as we joined the masses of individuals also climbing their way to Everest. One checkpoint required an hour of waiting due to the volume of people trying to get through the stop.
That’s when it struck me…it was about the journey, not the destination. We were all striving for Everest but we were going to get there in our own way. Our guide and I sat down that night to discuss the issue of the crowds and I realized how blessed I was to have him understand my desire to take the path less traveled. We pulled out the map and traced the yellow line that everyone took to base camp, then we explored the other trails that weren’t highlighted. Together we planned a new route—one that took us off the beaten path and avoided the mobs. We also made sure we came down a different way than we took up, another important travel habit of mine.
Gratitude and humility washed over me as I recognized we couldn’t have made these deviations if we’d been locked into specific reservations. All my concern about a lack of guaranteed lodging disappeared as I acknowledged that the Universe had better ideas than I did. The increased flexibility allowed us to make the path our own. We ended up at teahouses alone or with only a couple other travelers, inspiring closer connections with both fellow adventurers and lodge hosts. We were introduced to new acquaintances, parted to go our separate ways, then met up later down the road to share our unique experiences. Instead of questioning why others did what they did, I learned to appreciate how amazing each of us was for forging our individual paths forward. That epiphany became strikingly apparent as my youngest son became sick and I had to make the heartbreaking decision to let him return to Namche Bazaar without us.
Kyle is my 13yr old and is a big city explorer. He does not like to hike and can usually be found dragging along behind us, complaining the whole time. On this trip, he was actually more often in the lead without a negative word uttered, even when the trail became challenging. However, an episode of vomiting turned him against eating and he slowly became more fatigued and dizzy. I gave him some medication to help with the nausea but I could not convince him to take any food. He continued to climb on with us but every step was a struggle. We finally had to have the discussion of what came next. I saw only 2 options: go down with him or drag him up with us; our guides offered a third—Kyle could return to Namche with our assistant guide to recuperate while we persevered into the mountains.
The thought of leaving him, especially when he wasn’t feeling well, hit me like a truck emotionally. What kind of mother would I be to send away my sick kid so I could satisfy my own needs? What if he got worse? How could I not be there for him? Thoughts like these led me down a dark mental hole in considering other ways in his life I’d “failed” him. As I took a deep breath, centered myself, and gazed down the valley, I knew that I had to let Kyle go, for his own sake as well as mine. It wasn’t that Everest was more important than Kyle by any stretch of the imagination. It was simply that I understood from the beginning this was not Kyle’s path to follow…now I was being called upon to respect his choice in wanting to retreat. He wouldn’t be alone. Our incredible assistant guide looked me in the eyes and promised to take good care of him; I trusted him, which says a lot because I have trust issues and I’d only met him 4 days earlier. It hurt like hell and I couldn’t stop crying for the first hour after watching him walk away (it still brings tears to my eyes as I write it now 2 months later), but I had faith we would see him again soon.
From there my only thoughts were up. While Everest was still the goal, I was becoming more and more attached to her sisters: Thamserku, Ama Dhablam, Lhotse, Nuptse, Pomari and others. We grew stronger physically and were able to make better time and mileage than expected each day. We built our emotional resilience also as we struggled with homesickness and long afternoons of inactivity after mornings filled with adventure. It was cold, we were tired of tea, we missed Kyle. But we found ways to be creative with our evenings, including playing Snakes and Ladders with our guide while he reciprocated by teaching us a card game called Dhambal. We spent hours reliving our family excursions, both past and present, reminding ourselves of the greater world picture outside our current lodging. And, as we watched other groups argue and snap at each other, we gave thanks that, for all our time together in close quarters and challenging circumstances, we still really liked each other.
I had mixed feelings actually achieving base camp. It reminded me of topping our 14ers in Colorado: Here’s your sign, take a picture, move along. It was somewhat anticlimactic in the moment. Processing it now, 2 months later, it still doesn’t always seem real. Then, at other times, it is overwhelmingly real and I take great pride in saying I did it. There is a soulful significance in standing so close to the top of the world. The adventure was very much about the journey AND the destination. We had undertaken so many new experiences, physically and mentally, that went above and beyond the expectations about which we’d read. We all came down with an increased confidence balanced with greater humility and gratitude for all we had. Kyle discovered new pride in himself as he learned to navigate the winding alleys of Namche Bazaar by himself–climbing up to the monastery or helipad on a daily basis. With no electronics, reading material or regular company, he figured out creative ways to entertain himself. Back together, we relaxed and settled into the natural flow of our life on the trail. The bond with our guides became deeper and we understood each other beyond words.
This feeling of “fitting in” followed us back to Kathmandu. Our initial visit to the city had found me second-guessing my actions and questioning the sanitary/security conditions of my lodging. Coming back to the Hotel Tibet felt like coming home. We were again greeted with warm and authentic welcomes. I was more aware of the effort the staff put into meticulously cleaning every room and common space, taking immense pride in giving the best guest experience they could. I was humbled by my previous assumptions and incredibly grateful to be back amongst such caring people.
While we had tours set up with drivers and guides, we also felt empowered now to go explore on our own. We had climbed to the base camp of Everest but our most rewarding activity (unanimously) was being able to cross the streets in Kathmandu. With cars, buses, scooters and bikes coming from every direction and no stop signs or lights, it was a literal game of Frogger. It very much required being present in the moment and having an innate sense of when it was our turn to go. Each of us mastered it such that, when one son missed his opportunity to cross with the rest of us, he had to figure out for himself when to take that leap of faith.
We covered so much ground by foot–discovering hidden historic gems down dark corridors, completely comfortable jostling with the locals through narrow alleys. We were truly immersed in the city instead of simply observing sites from the window of a tour bus. Whereas I was overwhelmed the first day, I felt genuine connection to everything and everyone around me now. We made our own momos, with the boys doing a better wrapping job than I did. We partook in deeper discussions with our guides about Buddhist and Hindu beliefs and practices. We read the local newspaper and recognized the relevance of certain stories to Kathmandu, Nepal and the world. We were no longer reacting based on book knowledge but were acting with newly acquired understanding and empathy. Our final day was spent merely sitting in the Garden of Dreams, just being at peace with our surroundings, per the boys’ own request. We soaked up every moment of the adventure that we could.
Back in America, we are still processing the experience 2 months later. Challenges arise which seem easier to manage with the simple reminder: we went to Nepal. We can acknowledge that not every situation is about us, there is a bigger picture to grasp. The boys have taken to watching the news and being more invested in global issues. For myself, I have realized an inner surety that has grown into a more inspired work life, an increased satisfaction with my home life, and a renewed passion for making a difference in my world. Stepping off the plane back in Denver after almost a month away, the boys were not ready to consider another journey; however, by the following week, while still struggling to catch up with schoolwork and personal obligations, when I mentioned partaking in the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2019, I got a unanimous “Yeah, that sounds cool!”.
The world is waiting and we are excited to see where life takes us next…
Share this Post