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by Dami Roelse
Long ago, when I began my quest into the why’s and how’s of this world, I had a face-to-face with Mt Everest. It was accidental; I hadn’t felt the allure of the highest mountains, not then. Humbled I stood there, surrounded by the giants of the world, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. I took in the notion that I stood on a very high place on the planet, Kala Patar, 18,200 ft above sea level. Oxygen deprived, I could only climb a few steps at a time. I couldn’t foresee what this experience would mean in my life. I absorbed the experience and descended to the Everest glacier. After walking off the glacier, I flew back from Lukla to a life of wants and desires, a life of searching for answers that would satisfy, a life with a purpose. I never gave summitting Kala Patar much thought, I was young and strong, but I wasn’t a mountain climber; I was a tag-along in a relationship with a climber, a relationship that didn’t last.
Much, much later in life I became a long distance hiker. I walked away my grief over the loss of my partner; I walked myself whole; I walked myself into belonging. Doing so I climbed to heights above tree line, I yelled at the skies; I marveled at the light showing itself over the craggy peaks and passes at dawn,and let go of being the center of the world as the light disappeared at sunset. The world continued as day turned to night, night to day, no matter the upsets, the problems, the joys and lost relationships. When it was dark I rested, when it was light I turned toward that light with each step and found my belonging in the empty heights of the tallest mountains. One day when I stood on top of a 14,000 ft pass in the Sierra Nevada in California, I heard the voice. It said: “Go now while you can; go to Tibet and Mt Everest.”
A year later I stood on Pangla pass, at 17,224 ft in Tibet with a view of the Himalayas, a view of Mt Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan), Lhotse and Makala far away, but visible. The next day I made my way to the Mt Everest base camp monument at 18,300 ft elevation, one slow step after the other. It was snowing, and the clouds shrouded the mountain. I passed Rombuk monastery and saw a field of cairns stretching out toward expedition base camp. Cairns are stacks of rocks, one rock balancing on top of the other showing a tenuous and temporary relationship; they’re placed to mark a trail, to draw attention to a view, a place of significance. When I saw this field of cairns leading up to base camp, I felt the urge to make my own ritual cairn. While picking up rocks that would be suitable and called out to me, I came to a rope with small flags strung across the landscape, a barrier to keep people from entering the base camp terrain, closed off for the public to allow clean-up. To get closer to the mountain, I stepped over the line. Then I saw a rock suitable as a base to build my pile. The pile became a symbol of me, my life energy, as I had struggled to breathe and carry to this point. Minuscule Edelweiss surrounded the base. Even here in this rugged, desolate terrain flowers can exist, I thought. The pile grew as I placed rocks I found nearby, naming them one by one and letting them become representative of the loved ones in my life. When I looked up toward the mountain, misty clouds moved through, surrounding me and leaving me feeling alone in the landscape. I felt I could disappear in the snow, mist and fog. This is what dying will be like, I thought. Tears welled up, my body sobbed with a gut wrenching sadness I didn’t know lived inside me. I saw my life-ending as a disappearance into an invisible world so much bigger than I, a place of ‘ever-rest’. I cried not because I feared dying, but I knew that the hardest thing about dying would be the saying goodbye to those I love. As I placed the rocks, I offered my life and loved ones to the mountain. I had returned to Everest, or Chomolungma meaning “Mother Goddess of the world” for a deeper understanding. Not knowing myself and my life when I first met her in 1972, this time she moved me to understand what ever-rest will be:not just a mountain named after an Englishman but a place that reminds me how I will disappear when the time comes.
by Dami Roelse
The current unrest in Hong Kong where students and young people are clamoring for democracy, take me back to images of other demonstrations that called out to Free Tibet. When we see the images, what can we learn about the Chinese regime? An authoritarian regime that doesn’t allow dissent, doesn’t allow free speech, and uses violence to stay in control.
I had this image of the Chinese regime when I set out for Tibet this summer. As a foreigner you cannot freely travel around in Tibet. To visit you have to join a tour, so that the authorities can control and monitor your movement and your exposure to what Tibet is. The regime likes to keep track of everyone’s whereabouts. Considering the size of the country and the wide open spaces in Tibet, it would be easy for an adventurous person to disappear in the Hinterland and do some research about life in China. I didn’t have that opportunity; I had to learn about Tibet from a touring van with pre-arranged stops and visiting sites. 15 Days to get an impression and see the famous sites: Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Drepung monastery, Sera monastery.
While we visited the religious sites in rapid succession I learned about the three Tibetan Buddhist sects, the three Buddhas of the past, present and future, the three ways one can be buried in Tibet depending on your religious or non-religious status. I learned that those scary looking devils are actually protecting you from evil, that the black horseman Buddha protects children when a monk puts a black smudge on their forehead. I learned that Tibetans have many ways to prepare for a better next life: walking or doing prostrations around a holy site (which keeps everyone very limber), doing innumerable prostrations in a temple, the more the better; “paying” respect to favored lamas and teachers, by leaving money and/or donating butter to the many butter lamps in the monasteries. (see images below) Like buying your way into heaven which Catholics promoted by coercing donations to erase sins, Tibetans buy and exercise their way to a better next life.
The monks in the monasteries were busy putting on the Tibetan art of debate shows, dressing for celebratory religious dancing, or chanting traditional chants in the lavishly decorated halls of the monasteries. Religious tradition, yes, but spirituality?
When the Chinese entered Tibet, they did horrendous damage to age-old cultural and religious sites. It seems the Chinese authorities have had a change of mind and instead of trying to stamp out religion they’ve embraced the cultural icons, rebuild the monasteries and taken control of initiating monks and appointing the religious leaders. The Dalai Lama escaped, and he is still a most revered leader among practicing Tibetan Buddhists. What you can’t have you idolize. And so a movement to Free Tibet was born. What would a free Tibet do on the world stage at this point? Join the many underdeveloped countries in holding up their hand for donations from the West? Have a religious leader direct economic growth, develop mining of Tibet's raw materials?
In 1959 Tibet and its inhabitants were living in the middle ages, poverty, superstition, violence and religious dominance reigned. Now 60 years later the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) or Xizang Autonomous Region (XAR) is a prosperous, modern, wired, part of China. Poverty is almost eradicated. Even the nomads have houses, jeeps and cellphones. The monasteries are doing a brisk business with tourists (many Chinese) and Tibetan pilgrims. The regime has rebuilt the important monasteries, the monks are on salary and the next generation is getting free education. China is a secular regime and I believe that the regime counts on the power of education, which will in time eradicate traditional religion. And so the monks rake or sweep the constant flow of bills left by pilgrims and devoted Tibetans around the holy statues. The believers are paying to keep the monasteries intact. Resistance has been stymied by controlling the people’s wishes.
Is this all bad? Or is it a good thing that an authoritarian regime moved a large population out of poverty, by educating the people with modern ideas and advanced science, and providing housing, infrastructure and stability? The people at the bottom enjoy getting their basic needs met; they enjoy running a small business, have enough food and a warm place to sleep at night. As long as they put a Red Flag on their roof and are loyal to the regime, they can have these basics.
The totalitarian regime works great for moving a society along toward prosperity. The trouble begins when bellies are full and educated people want to have their say in how things are run. Hong Kong has been affluent long enough that the people don’t want to bow to the regime.
Will the Chinese regime bend and respond to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? (for a refresher on what this is, go to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs). The Chinese gave the Tibetans their monasteries back. They have shown flexibility in allowing Capitalistic Socialism on their way to the goal of total Communism. Does the Chinese regime know that rigidity will break them? Just as the monks exchanged spiritual practice for religious commerce and a steady income, will the Chinese regime lose its ideals and fall for the allure of property and ownership? Judging from events in Hong Kong, and observing the throng of wealthy, well- dressed Chinese and Tibetans driving a BMW, the people are making their choices.
by Dami Roelse
What if you were born to be poor? Your status in life was predetermined by cast?
I've just left Ladakh, a predominant Buddhist part of India, where there are many poor people. My trekking guide came from such a poor family. He was handed over to a monastery at age eight so he'd get fed and educated. He left the monastery at age 34, married and developed a business. He's no longer poor; his children have a university education, his wife has a steady job at a hospital. In Ladakh you can work your way out of poverty - religion and societal status don't keep you poor.
In Nepal I'm staying at a B&B in a small merchant town, populated by Newaris. The Newaris are traders from way back, the little town was a trading center on the route from India to Kathmandu. As the Prithvi highway eliminated their trading monopoly, the Newaris turned from goods to tourists and created an old-world ambiance with modern amenities to attract their clientele. The Newaris do well for themselves; it's obvious in the wellfed happy children walking to school and the chubby men and women running their small businesses.
But there is another side to this story: the B&B has partnered with a Scottish Rotary club and uses the profits of the business to help children of a nearby village to get an education. The Bhujel who live here are of a lower cast, most likely Dalit, untouchables. The men drink, the women make bamboo products for sale; not enough to make a living. Living in a fertile, land rich area the Bhujels miss the skills to be farmers and most likely were never allowed to own land. They live in predetermined poverty.
Our young guide Roshan tells us that at the end of the civil war in 2005 between rebel Maoists and Nepali royalists, the cast system was abolished as a condition for a constitutional Nepali government. "Everyone now has the same opportunities, we can marry across cast", he says, confident that the change is real. When a group of Nepali tourists introduce themselves to me that night as Brahmin (the superior cast), I'm not so sure I can share his optimism. Just as with the abolishment of slavery in the US, the attitudes and prejudice do not get stamped out with the passing of a law.
The Newaris in Bandipur exude confidence; they know they can avoid poverty if they work hard. The Brahmins draw their confidence from privilege; what we call 'white privilege' in the US.
Roshan worked in Qatar for a few years. The money sent home from Qatar is 20% of Nepal's GDP. Many of the Nepali migrant workers are the new slaves of the modern world as they work in construction for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. They are indentured servants; often don't get paid for months and owe a debilitating recruitment sum. Roshan was lucky, he's not a Dalit; he could get back to the shelter of family with improved English language skills and have a new start in the tourism industry.
Will western thinking and secularisation change the cycle of poverty? Probably, slowly, it will. Maybe, just maybe, my travel and presence here shifts the balance a bit more to opportunity for all. I tell a young Newari woman, named Jun-ko after the first Japanese woman to summit Mt Everest, to go climb a mountain. I tell her that I'm going to Mt Everest next. She looks at me and asks my age. I tell her, "I'm 72". I can see the glimmer of possibility in her eye. She thinks, if you can, I can too! Dream Jun-ko, you live in a country of magical mountains. Go make 'em your own.
by Dami Roelse
Cut off from the internet and phone we enter the Zanskar region, a half day drive over a brand new dirt road full of potholes, bumps and switchbacks. My eyes strain to find the trail I walked 14 years ago, the camping spots where I pitched my tent. Tears well up when I see the enormity of the bare and craggy mountains displaying bands of color that remind me of the painted hills in Oregon. This is a wild land where I'm a speck on the palette of Mother Nature.
We arrive in Lingshed, my end point last time, now starting point of a trek deeper into a roadless region. We set up camp and take a rest/visiting day and wait for the packhorses to arrive from a nearby village. I have to correct, my hiking friend and I don't lift a finger to set up camp. As guests we are waited on hand and foot; a new role for me, the practice of receiving. The morning starts with chai delivered to our tent, followed by a basin of warm water for washing. Once we're up, breakfast waits, we drink more tea and have more cups of tea throughout the day as we eat in our mess tent or get them delivered in a thermos along the trail.
We visit the monastery and nunnery, and notice the electricity and solar hot water set-up. We listen to an all-night hammering as a visiting monk directs the last effort for building a water storage tank. Progress and change cannot be stopped even here so far from the faster paced world.
The next day our work is to pace ourselves as we climb to greater heights, stop - catch our breath on the switchbacks, allowing our body to make the most from the 60% oxygen we're getting with each inhale. The mind is empty, or in slo-mo as we take in the heights and depths with awe. We need a focused mind on some stretches, one misstep and we will slide into the depths. Fear sits on our shoulder and we have our conversation with god, or more culturally appropriate, we recite our Om-mani-Padme-hum to appease the forces around us.
Our guide, a friend and contact from long ago, is our guardian angel who watches us closely, adjusts the pace, reaches a hand when needed and asks us about our altitude symptoms. We're lucky we have few, part due to taking time in Leh and going slow on this trek. When we reach Hanumala-la, the highest pass (15,500 ft) on day 3, we feel triumphant and grateful at the same time. I'm older and slower but not less capable! On the downhill I think of all the people in my life who've been instrumental in getting me to this place on the roof of the world. I'm without worry as Karma is constantly anticipating and taking care of my needs.
We walk, but the place to go is arbitrary. We relax to the sounds of the water rushing by our camp. We widen our horizon as the clouds drift in a brilliant blue sky resting briefly on the tops of the tallest mountains in the world.
Every so often clarity about issues back home rises to the surface and we know that this life of doing nothing, going nowhere is doing its deep transformative work. Step, breathe, step, another switchback up; step, focus, step, another downturn on the path. With our hiking poles we become four-legged creatures who, like our pack animals sway our way to the next stop, the next moment of 'doing nothing'.
by Dami Roelse
I hiked 4 days in the German countryside. You may envy me when you see the picturesque hiking photos of quaint villages with slate roofs dotted among green rolling hills, topped with conifer and evergreen forests, but there’s a price for quaint and ordered nature. The Germans manage the forests, exemplary for production, reproduction and environmental responsibility. The hills are green, mono-culture fields and grazing lands. The corn and hay they grow isn’t enough to feed the animals. Animal feed is imported from Brazil where agricultural practices aren’t always so pretty. Not all material for the slate roofs, required building practice in the area, hales from the local slate mines. Local slate is expensive, as salaries and mining practices raise the cost. Slate from Spain and Argentina is cheaper and used to augment the local industry. Quaint and ordered landscapes come at a global cost.
In the USA nature is messy. Where I hike, fallen logs may cross or block the trail. Vistas from the ridges include clear-cuts and eroded mountain sides. The trails are often narrow and overgrown with wild berries, grasses and wild flowers; rocky or sandy trails slope dangerously toward a deep canyon. The occasional homestead sports rusted machinery and dilapidated buildings. The USA is too big to control. Messiness and decay is visible.
I have nothing against proprietary orderliness; I encourage it. Let’s keep our dens in order is my motto. The tightness I felt in my chest when I walked around the manicured woods and the ordered villages came from feeling boxed-in. The societal rules have eliminated the wildness in the German landscape. Where is the personal expression; where is mother nature’s wildness? Personal expression is relegated to artistic and craft domains. A carved door, a pattern in the slate wall, an ingenious product.
Power versus Opportunity
I visited an ordered University Hortus, a garden that held species from all over the world. Afterward I went to a Museum exposition on Medieval gardens, where I read: “Gardens are a demonstration by the monarch that he can subjugate nature to himself and thus a sign of his power.” If orderliness in nature as I experienced it in the German countryside, is a sign of power than the wildness I experience in the US is a sign of potential, an opportunity to rise to great heights.
Humans have lived in ordered societies since tribes roamed the earth. Societies offer protection and a chance for survival. I ask myself how much order is enough? Can too much order stamp out creativity, exploration and responsibility? Social-democratic systems that take care of people from cradle to grave popped up after world-war II in Europe; it was an effort to share and take care of each other after experiencing and witnessing the horrors of a war based on neo-nazi ideas, horrors of believing that one race is superior to another. The social-democratic systems provide healthcare for everyone; everyone has a home to live in, everyone gets a job or if a job is unavailable unemployment coverage; everyone gets yearly vacation pay on top of their salary. The streets get cleaned, the parks are neat, the trains run on time. Who wouldn’t want such a society?
There’s a catch. High taxes, restrictive building codes, restrictive business practices keep and pay for an ordered society. Large administrations make and apply the rules to make sure you don’t step outside the societal box. While the rest of the world wants free trade, creates start-up companies, takes capitalism to its highest reaches (good or bad), the members of the ordered societies lag, have to jump through hoops before they can join the wild plays OR go rogue as Volkswagen engineers did to be competitive in the marketplace and yet comply with the pollution standards for diesel-operated cars. The members of the ordered societies want their cake and eat it too; the riches and the securities. Those who live here have forgotten or don’t know the ravages of war anymore and entitlement has replaced a sharing society. Stories of aging boomers who expect the state to take care of them even if their own monetary contribution has been minimal, abound. People who see the state as their caregiver, their medical provider, their retirement fund, their family replacement, want to travel and go on paid vacations, have someone organize a ‘nice’ life for them until they die.
A Wild Society
I’m generalizing. Not all people fit this mold, but it helps to see that each societal form has its pros and cons. We’re in the race for presidential elections in the US; it’s a time to think about what society we’re in, and for what we vote. The freedom US citizens hold so dear, is a freedom that comes with draw-backs and opportunities. Freedom that allows each of us to make it big or to suffer. It’s a raw society, a young society, a wildly diverse society. In US society you can stand on top of wilderness pass at age 72, knowing you got there on your own power. But in this society you need your friends and family to help you grow old. Relations matter and caring for each other is a tool for survival. We are a society of explorers and dreamers who need each other. Let’s not forget that it’s up to us to be kind, to share, to develop and maintain a healthy balance between safety that springs from order and planning, and opportunity that comes from initiative and taking chances. Make your security arrangements but dare to leave the well-trodden paths behind and give yourself a chance at discovery no matter what age you are.
I’m on my way to the Himalayas. I’ve done all the planning and safety measures I could put in place. It’s time to take a chance on fate, and find insights at new heights.
I look forward to your comments below.
by Dami Roelse
I’m living in another country, speaking another language and adjusting to the smallness of things here. After two weeks I notice I’m thinking in Dutch again, I write in my journal in Dutch and I can sometimes not find the English word for what I want to say. Am I Dutch or am I American? What does it mean to be of a nationality? Does nationality define me, tell me who I am? Or am I free to be who I am as I’m bridging more than one nationality?
The question "Who am I?" is psychological, philosophical and spiritual.
The Psychological Me
To function in the world, we must figure out if we’re a girl or a boy, tall or short, light-skinned or dark-skinned, a smart or slow learner. From the day we’re born our parents and caregivers give us messages about who we are and who we need to become.
I learned that I was a blond blue-eyed girl, attractive to the other sex, smart enough to do well in school and too adventurous to fit well into my family of origin. I loved my country, its dunes and beaches and felt emotional listening to the Dutch anthem.
I moved to another country, became fluent in another language and took a long time to identify myself as an American national. But I did; I let go of my native nationality reluctantly like letting go of a first love. That letting go felt like a psychological loss, a change in how I knew myself. I learned I’m not a finite collection of genetic and acquired attributes.
The Philosophical Me
Plato told us we’re prisoners in a cave perceiving shadows of what’s real on the wall in front of us. Philosophy tells us we’re an entity defined by our surroundings. Does this entity become a different entity in a different space/time/cultural context? Or does me, my entity just take on hues of different manifestations of reality, i.e. cultural and linguistic differences. My hair color doesn’t change because I speak a different language, I’m still a woman even though I’m walking in a different country. Philosophically, me, my entity, is the same, even if it manifests different aspects of that entity. Adopting a new nationality has taught me I haven’t lost my original being; who I am has expanded, has become more complex, acquired another layer. I’m richer for it.
The Spiritual Me
The mystics tell us to ask ‘Who am I’ as an exercise to know oneself. By questioning who we are, we can connect with a greater consciousness, and discover an expanded self. By loosening up about our psychological and philosophical self we can realize our true self. Moving between nationalities, languages and countries is stretching my awareness and grounding me deeper in the ‘me’ that is connected with the whole.
I feel a happy me when I move through nature wherever I am. Nature is universal in its message to me: you breathe, you move, you belong. My nationality has nothing to do with this feeling. My tastebuds, my eyes and smell senses expand when I become Dutch for a while, old grooves come to life, temporarily, because when I’m back in the States, I forget the smell of the Dutch hayfields, the taste of a particular childhood treat. My being is like a ghost, a spirit moving about and absorbing the local flavor without becoming it. My being has a memory that takes me back to other moments in time, full of other flavors. I am not the flavor.
Today I’m acting on the Dutch stage, next week I’ll be on a German stage, in two weeks I’ll enter the Himalayan stage and I will return to the American stage eventually. I am me, less attached; local determinations don’t define me as I respond to what the stage presents without becoming the stage.
Nationalistic tendencies are raging everywhere as global migration is increasing. People fear losing their sense of identity, their sense of ‘me’ when faced with other nationalities. I asked a family member who kept talking about how different we are as siblings, to look at how the same we are. By doing so we’ll develop a sense of oneness this world desperately needs. We’ve got a long way to go!
by Dami Roelse
Actually, there isn’t that much soil where I was born.
Water is everywhere, crisscrossing the land retrieved from the sea and riverbanks. Windmills pump excess water back into rivers, canals and ditches to send it back via the main rivers to the sea. Land is a marshy commodity, but a fertile commodity and the locals know how to mine their gold. Dairy products, meat products, fruits and vegetables grown in meadows, fields , orchards and acres and acres of glass greenhouses have flooded the European market for years. Oh, and let’s not forget the flowers, grown on the sandy soil behind the dunes. When the soil isn’t marshy, it’s sandy and has just the right qualities for growing bulbs and sending the flowers all over the world. The Dutch are the 2nd largest exporters of agricultural products behind the USA and 90% of those exports are produced in the country. https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/actueel/nieuws/2019/01/18/nederlandse-export-landbouwproducten-in-2018-ruim-90-miljard
I’ve been rowing and swimming in the small rivers, bicycling along its banks on the narrow, cart-wide roads, stopping at fruit stands and tasting the luscious berries and tree-ripened fruits of summer. Fruit tastes like fruit here, soft, sweet, and deep flavored. Even the fruit from the supermarkets have real fruit qualities because that’s what people expect. The Dutch are discerning about what they feed themselves. I don’t know yet how they do it, but I suspect smaller operations and less transport and storage costs keeps the price down. Eating local is the answer. They don’t subscribe to irresponsible agri-business and are implementing a circular agriculture; it is innovative, efficient and deals responsibly with the side effects of producing so much food in such a small area. https://www.wur.nl/en/newsarticle/Circular-agriculture-a-new-perspective-for-Dutch-agriculture-1.htm
It’s a small country, 17 million people on 16,000 square miles and one of the most densely populated countries in the world. And yet, they make it work. They carve out green spaces, maintain their national parks, build high-rises on re-claimed land. People live close together, people have postage stamp yards, or if they live several stories high they maintain a community garden nearby where they can nurture their connection to the land and the water. They all hail from farmers, traders and sea-farers.
It’s summer and the Dutch who are still in the country (many set out for a two week paid (!) vacation to other lands) are putting along in their pleasure boats on the rivers and waterways, watching the waterfowl, herons, Nile geese and flocks of birds diving for fish, plants and insects, or bicycling the dense network of bicycle paths that crisscross the fields, marshes, dunes, moors and forests. They’re an active bunch, industrious they say. That industriousness has earned them a front-row seat on the international market. The smallness of their country allows them to carry out new ideas on a small scale and when it works sell the idea to the bigger economies. It’s easier to make changes when you’re dealing with a smaller population. Easier to communicate, easier to reach out, easier to make the change visible.
One of these changes has to do with dealing with a dwindling bee population. In the US we’re realizing the devastating effects a lost bee population will have on our food supply chain. In Holland they’ve already litigated against neonicotinoids that kill the bees. But not only that, now they’ve come up with a cheap and positive way to increase the bee and insect population: berm management. The farms and small towns are surrounded by roads with berms and waterways with riparian zones. Instead of spraying and cutting the grass one community after another is implementing ecological Berm Beheer - berm management, not as catchy in English - by sowing wildflowers along berms and riparian zones and letting the flowering plants attract bees, butterflies and insects that will pollinate the agricultural products, beautify the road and river sides and delight the locals who walk, bike and boat. How simple can it be? https://www.zuid-holland.nl/actueel/nieuws/januari-2019/start-ecologisch/
When we travel to other places, we can learn. I’m learning again that living close to the land creates an economy of happiness. I buy fruit at the local farmer’s stand. I will drive to a cheese market to watch, taste and experience the ancient ritual of bargaining over the cheese produced in the area. Go find yourself a local market, go taste the fresh fruit and veggies and support your local economy. It will make you and those who produce these products happier. If you can walk or bicycle there even better.
I look forward to your comments below
I’m setting off on a journey to the Himalayas to retrace steps I took both 48 and 14 years ago, and to take steps I couldn’t take then. I want to see how things have changed.
Forgetting and Letting Go
Since 1971 and 2005 I’ve aged. Aging means losing short-term memory. That means forgetting where you put something and having to retrace your steps to find the thing. Sometimes you don’t find it until months later in an odd place. I found the sunglasses I traveled to the Himalayas with in 2005 in a flower pot under my deck, a year after I had “lost” them. How they ended up there, I will never know. Why did these glasses come back to me? I had moved on, bought cheaper ones readying myself for more losses and let go of the pair. Finding things when you least expect it reveals the mysteries of life. It was the year of a big personal loss in my life and the glasses became a metaphor for life returning even when you don’t expect it.
The Bucket List
My journey to the Himalayas is one of those journeys that rose in my gut. I stood on top of Forester pass in the high Sierras last summer, reveling in my brush with the transcendental as the clouds raced in the sky and the terrain was nothing but awe inspiring, when the voice inside me (I feel the voice in my gut) said: “if you want to see Tibet, do it now, while you still can”. The wish to see Tibet was born after I met Tibetan refugees in India in 1970 and 1971 and fell in love with their presence, their calm ability to roll with what life dealt them. They were the embodiment of detachment I thought then. That wish increased when in 2005 I lived and trekked with local guides of Tibetan descend in Ladakh and saw their way of life with its inherent human flaws in more depth. Ladakh is also called Little Tibet, apparently it’s a replica of Tibetan life and Tibetan landscape and architecture. You could say Tibet has been on my bucket list. I will retrace my steps in Ladakh, revisit the Kathmandu valley where I lived for 2 months in my younger years under the painted eyes of the Swyambu stupa. I’ll walk in the valley from where I hiked to the Mt Everest glacier in 1971; a glacier which has turned from snow and ice to rock and talus. I will visit Tibet, the North side of Everest and walk around Mt Kailash if my body can deal with the high altitude.
What happens in almost 50 years to a landscape, a people? Globalization and climate are the biggest changers. What was an unsophisticated trek 50 years ago, our white faces a novelty in the mountain villages, is now a booming tourist industry. An industry the people depend on for survival. We trekked without maps, used only local directives, had no GPS devices, no cellphones, no WhatsApp to communicate with the outside world. Tibet was elusive closed to us. The people suffered, were oppressed and looked to us to give them what we had: freedom of expression, money to buy our way out of difficult situations, a level of comfort I had not appreciated until I saw their often squalid circumstances. The romance of simple living, of spirituality drew me to them; they only saw what I brought with me: comfort and wealth.
There is no going back to what was. Changes abound. I will notice the changes and discover the new. But more than that, I’ll find the changes that have taken place in me. The places will tell me who I’ve become. The young woman on a quest for meaning, the mid-life woman on a journey to get lost in her grief in the mountains, are gone. Who am I now? This journey isn't about losing and letting go, it's about finding a new me. The place will tell me. Tibet has called and I’m answering the call.
I look forward to your comments below.
A Sunday Hike
It was a simple event. I organized a hike for women over 50 on a Sunday morning along a lake and through the woods. Nine women showed up at the carpool connecting spot. Nine women who’ve come on Sunday for the last 6 months to challenge themselves, to find camaraderie, to get away from grandkids, husbands, or aloneness. Everyone has their reason to do this on a Sunday morning.
We missed the intended parking lot and trailhead. We found another one that would do. Maps, pages from a trail guide, phone apps and common sense told us we could connect with the intended trail from here. So we set off in a single line formation. Sunlight dappled the woodland trail, the early morning air was still cool, the poison oak ubiquitous. I listened to the high voices ringing in the cathedral of the trees, a morning song to connect and celebrate being together. Soon the voices quieted, and we heard the leaves rustling, saw the turquoise water shimmering deep below the trail, felt the swing of our legs, the softening of the creaky joints. We were on our way. The alarm cry from a bird high above us, led to searching a bird app. It was an osprey we had alarmed as we hiked below its nest. There would be babies high up in the tree! The trail wound down to the edge of the lake, scat identification left questions, raccoon or fox? We found a small fire ring filled with plastic bottles and empty beer cans. Several women filled a garbage bag to the tune of “leave no trace”. We added pileated woodpecker, lizard and the difference between Manzanita and Madrone to our knowledge and naming of nature..
Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book “Gathering Moss” says: “In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationships, not only with each other but also with plants.” The book will come out in early July (link)
We named the plants and animals and built a relationship with nature. Women who didn’t know each other six months ago shared bags, water, maps, apps, laughter, huffing and puffing when going up a hill. Women reached out and held hands to help each one in the group climb over big blow-down trees. Short legs, long legs, nimble legs, stiff legs, the log showed us who we were, and we laughed about our climbing antics and rejoiced with the success we had.
Making the News
Nothing special, nine older women going on a hike on a Sunday morning, you think. It won’t make the news. The news doesn’t share the small successes. The beauty of a Sunday morning in the woods won’t make the news. The news isn’t interested in the fact that women learn about local habitat, share resources, help someone over a log.
This hike may not be news worthy, but it certainly is life enhancing. Research from the University of Exeter here tells us that spending 2 hours in nature per week is a key for promoting health and happiness. For the last 6 months I have watched these women develop confidence in their abilities, find a new resilience they didn’t know they had. I’ve seen them stretch their physical abilities by going farther and climbing higher, lose necessary weight, and try to learn to navigate in the natural world. They now come prepared with the tools of the hiking trade, they share work-out routines to strengthen their bodies so they can keep hiking.
This Sunday hike was nothing special, and yet I saw the growth that has taken place over time both in mind and body for these women. The Sunday hike has transformed their life. Now isn’t that news worthy?
Do you know of a nothing special transformation travel in your life? Please let us know!
I traveled on foot for 30 days in the mountains bordering the Mojave desert in Southern California. I carried my belongings and exposed myself to the outdoors 16 hours a day. I saw the world in wide vistas of mountain ranges and small detail of a speckled pebble. I met people who had time to talk and give of themselves, be it a well-meant tip about the trail conditions, a life story, a meal, or a place to shower and get clean.
Being in the outdoors and walking every day changed my body. My body is lighter and stronger. My vision clearer, my mind uncluttered, emotions calm. This bodily feeling opened my heart and I experienced waves of love for people I met. I like loving people. Loving people feels like swimming in a pool of warm liquid, effortless and soothing.
I live alone in my daily life. My family members have moved or passed away one by one, for good or not so good reasons. Life doesn’t have reasons. This is how life unfolds. Nature has shown me this unfolding when a flower opens in sunlight, or the soft rotted wood of a giant tree fallen in a storm, crumbles in my hand. I have accepted my single status and like the space it gives me to be me. I can immerse myself in the emptiness of living alone. Walking gives me the space to be me. When I walk, nature is my company. I have to consider its ups and downs in temperature, its wily winds, and the terrain it offers to walk on in the day and rest on during the night. Nature surprises me with glorious colored displays of sky, delicate blooms and unusual forms of growth. A fresh morning sunrise is like a child’s kiss on my cheeks, a warm languid sunset a hand stroking my skin.
I shared my recent journey with others who seek to find space for themselves. Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail draws those who want to challenge themselves, figure out who they are or get away from their daily life. My timing for hiking the desert section of the PCT put me in the middle of a slow moving group of people walking North. Many of us hiked alone, or started hiking alone, but I found that I kept meeting up with the same people. We became a hiking unit, greeting each other, helping each other when needed, sharing camp spaces and rest stops. The intermittent contacts with other hikers accentuated the vulnerability and strength I simultaneously experience when hiking solo. The unspoken understanding of not relying on each other, yet being there to help if needed, formed a reality check about living: we’re all on our own life journey, yet others can ease the harshness of nature’s laws. When crossing a steep snowfield I know that only my attention and agility keeps me from a harmful slide down the mountain. Yet having someone on the other side of a strong flowing creek ready to help, watch me while I cross, tells me I’m not alone on this journey.
When I step out of the protected environment of my home, I get to experience both my vulnerability and the support available. I enter a shared wilderness and find the humanity in people. I surrender to the forces of nature and find my strengths. I bring back an open heart from my journey and confidence in a body and mind that can stretch itself and reach for the seemingly impossible. They say as we age and our work and family obligations diminish, our world shrinks. I defy my aging by going into the world and let it teach me I can climb a mountain, that I can live without the comforts of home and still be happy, that I’m not defined by relationships of family and close friends, but that I will meet others who care when I step out into that world.
I am not the same person I was when I set out on this journey 30 days ago. My body has new cells and my mind has new ideas. A friend who hugged me upon my return home said: “Wow, you are all muscle, you feel strong!”
“What stands out about this trip?”, someone asked. It’s knowing that I can love total strangers, find shelter in a tent and sleeping bag when a thunderstorm rocks the sky, that I can fall into a deep and dreamless sleep after a day of walking, and that an angel can show up when I need him. It lets me trust that all will be well as long as I’m open to change and transformation.
For more blogs about the Mojave section click here; for a slideshow go here