by Christina Ammon
We must risk delight. –Jack Gilbert
A couple of years ago, I trekked for the first time in the lower Manaslu in the Gorkha region with my friend Prem Kunwar, a twinkly-eyed language teacher from Pokhara. I’d been visiting Nepal for 20 years and was long familiar with the famous treks—Annapurna, Everest and Langtang. Still, the evening before our departure, Prem thought to prepare me. “This will be a different sort of trek,” he warned, tracing his finger around the map of the seldom-visited villages on our route. “There will not be hot showers or Snickers bars.”
I’ll admit an indulgent streak, but am also realistic. The previous year, an earthquake leveled the region. Entire villages slid off of hillsides. It would be absurd to expect the bakeries and coffee shops that lavish the more established trekking routes. Besides our aim was distribute warm clothes and scholarships to the survivors, not to sit around eating cinnamon rolls.
“I’m honored to be included,” I assured Prem. After many years visiting Nepal as a paraglider pilot and a tourist, this felt like a chance to encounter the country in a new way. I also felt lucky for the company of a local friend who was imbued with a sense of purpose larger than recreation.
“See you in the morning didi.” He crinkled his nose and handing me a packing list.
Prem spirited off toward his “Cosmic Brontosaurus” language school. It was there, at that brightly painted hub on the Lakeside’s main drag that I’d first met him, learned few Nepalese phrases and felt a sense of family in the meals that his wife Ashpara shared in the evenings.
The language school also doubles as a booking agency where tourists can book tandem paragliding flights. Some of the agency’s profits go to benefit the local schools. “KarmaFlights” had accomplished much for the surrounding district, but when the 2015 earthquake struck, the organization’s mission enlarged. Under Prem’s guidance, the paragliding guides directed their energy toward recovery efforts in the Gorkha region. In fact, our trek would serve as a “test run” for Prem’s long-range idea to bring travel groups into the region as a source of more sustaining help. He would call this new venture “KarmaTreks”.
Despite his around-the-clock mission to help, Prem was powered by a feeling that his effort was never enough. “It’s like a cumin seed in the mouth of an elephant,” he’d say.
The next morning Prem idled the truck up to my hotel room in the early dark. I grabbed my pack and slid into the front seat. We bounced out of Lakeside’s backpacker ghetto, past the breakfast cafes and Phô shops, the wood-fired pizza joints and German bakeries. We picked up other team members: a solar technician, a chatty computer tech, Matt Cone the co-founder of KarmaFlights, and a couple of other pilots eager to visit the region. As we drove from town, Machapuchare glowed like a strawberry soft-serve ice cream cone.
After an hour, we pulled off the highway at Himalayan Coffee Beanz. While my coffee addiction had been well serviced by the dozens of espresso shops in Lakeside, this latte would be my last indulgence before we headed out into the hills. My anxiety about this felt ridiculous given the scope of the mission we were on. How can I worry about my morning coffee on the way to help people who’ve lost everything? Back at home we called these sorts of problems “champagne problems”, but this show of self-awareness suddenly felt false. I had never known a touch of hunger or true scarcity. Was it even possible for me to truly understand a situation where life is stripped down to even less than the essentials?
At that moment, the road turned to potholes, and I suddenly had latte problems. White foam splashed on my shirt as while Prem recalled the earthquake—the day on April 25th when he ran outside his school to see dark dust plumes rising in the sky. “It felt like the world was ending,” he said. A group of pilots gathered to hatch a plan at Isabella Messenger’s headquarters, another co-founder of Karma Flights. All were eager to drop their fly-eat-sleep routines and re-route their skills and equipment toward the cause. That next morning, they gathered their radios, GPS, and First Aid kits and, instead of loading their Jeeps with paragliding wings as they usually did, they stacked the Jeeps with rice and tarps and dug their way through landslides to get to the region. Overnight, they had transformed from recreationalists to first responders.
I thought of how elated the villagers must have felt when they saw Prem and the pilots arrive with supplies. “You must be famous for the people in this region,” I said.
“No. They are famous to me,” Prem said, crinkling his nose in his admirable humility.
Six hours later we bounced into a riverside encampment at Dhoreni. This collection of huts on a sandbar had served as basecamp for the pilots in the weeks after the earthquake. A nearby large hydroelectric plant enabled them to charge their two-way radios and GPSs. By the time the first United Nations convoys arrived, the pilots were already well established and even began coordinating the agency’s efforts.
A woman served us warm soup, and Prem recalled the conditions they endured while helping. “We chewed on dried noodle packets” Prem said. After eating, I wandered to the Daraundi river hoping to wash off some of the road dust. I pulled my socks off, and eased my feet into the cool water. Then I heard Prem.
“Time to go didi!”
Our group set off across a suspension bridge and slogged two-hours uphill to Saurpani, the hardest hit village in the region. After the quake, virtually no houses were left. Twelve schools, two health posts and a police station were ruined. 44 people were killed and hundreds were wounded. Still, on arrival we into the schoolyard of Himalayan Secondary, we encountered great cheer. They had worried that after the initial surge of support, they would be forgotten about. “I promised I would never leave them,” said Prem, as we ducked our necks to receive dozens of bright marigold garlands. “They are my family now.”
With 600 students, Himalayan Secondary was the largest in the region. Prem and his team, determined to rebuild it, had already established a small library, a computer lab and temporary learning shelters. The next phase of the effort was to build more classrooms. The Gurkha Welfare Scheme and other NGOs have taken over to build two building with 31 classrooms here.
That evening we stayed at the school principal’s house with his wife, nieces and elderly parents. We ate a dinner of dal bhat and when it was time to sleep, the principal ushered the six of us into a single room—with only four beds. I balked. With five other people shifting and snoring next to me, I’d never sleep. I grabbed a wide bench on the porch and established a cocoon of privacy with my sleeping bag. Then–in case the earthquake had seemed an abstraction to me—a 2 a.m. jolt sent us all out into the front yard gazing up at the cold stars with astonished terror.
The next day we set off to Siddartha Secondary School to visit a solar computer lab set up by KarmaFlights in partnership of other organizations like Orphans to Ambassadors and Microsoft Innovation Center. After a buoyant greeting by over 400 teachers and students, we toured the collection of glittery panels on a sunny terrace. Then we wandered the lab of 20 computers.
I gazed out the lab window at the rice terraces. Why do they need computers for way up here? Prem explained: unless someone brought technology up to the villages, the young people would continue leaving for the city to seek education. In fact, this diaspora of young people was one of the biggest problems the region faced after the earthquake. With all the village’s strongest members in cities or even abroad, the elderly and children were challenged to plow the fields, much less rebuild whole villages.
The young people in the city soon discovered that urban life had its own set of problems. In their search for amenities, they often become disillusioned by the high cost of living, the pollution, over-crowding, unemployment and lack of family support.
“They go to the city for the momos,” Prem explained “but often drown in the soup.”
The next few days were a blur of marigold garlands, speeches, singing, and we did our best to keep pace with Prem as he zipped around. My champagne problems followed me. One rainy afternoon under a tarp, I wrested for some personal space amid my teammates’ elbows and knees. I tried to breathe through my misery as water pooled in the plastic overhead. Prem put things in perspective: “After the earthquake, there were often ten families living under one tarp for the first few weeks.”
Later, at Ulajung Basic School in Swara, we upended a pile of donated clothing and watched the teachers and parents distributed them carefully. A little girl pranced in slightly too-tight sandals, a grandmother glowed in a baggy purple sweater, and a young boy punched the air with absolute glee in a pair of over-sized white gloves. Again, perspective: Back at home, I sometimes stood in front of my overstuffed closet and complained about nothing to wear.
One night, at our chilly encampment on the Niyauli Kharka pass, three girls flip- flopped past in the freezing darkness on their way to deliver potato seeds to a nearby village called Gumda. There would be no cozy home waiting for them on the other end, no warm bathtub. Still, I could hear them all giggling all the way down the trail.
Prem was pleased at the optimism. “The last time you could see the devastation on their faces. This is their recovery. They have forgotten about the earthquake. They had a look of fear before.”
We walked one day along the fault line along the Dharche Pass—the exact epicenter of the earthquake. I placed a foot on each side of the rift, marveling at how the earth can split open like this. The divide felt like a symbol of my split consciousness. I was getting nimble at living in dual realities—leaping between my petty concerns and cravings on one hand and the very real life threatening concerns of the people around. Between handing out scholarships and warm clothes, I snatched my privacy and cups of Nescafe where I could.
But there was one chasm I struggled to cross: the lack of sleep. With no formal guesthouses in the region, we often bedded down in storage sheds stocked with dried foods. At night, full sized rats pillaged bags of chips, rice sacks and noodles near my head, or scurried over rafters, squeaked and squabbled under the beds. While my trekking companions seemed to drift into deep snoring sleeps without trouble, I would be alone in the dark seized with absolute terror.
After one sleepless night, I wandered out into a school soccer field to watch the sunrise. The Himalayas were beautiful in the morning light, but it didn’t help my delirium. Prem caught me in tears.
“I can’t take this anymore!” I cried out.
“Don’t worry” Prem consoled me a cup of thermos coffee that felt like a lifeline. He invoked Hindu pantheon with its 33,000,000 deities. There seemed to be a god for every ailment. “Rats are the vehicle of lord Ganesh and Ganesh is the remover of obstacles. This is a good sign!”
I sipped my coffee and contemplated my obstacles which right then, seemed both ridiculous and numerous.
On our last day we crossed a mile-long landslide. While Prem took interviews about his projects on his cell phone, I ambled alone and away from the group. I looked at the fallen trees and unearthed rocks, the scraped landscape and a line of a Jack Gilbert poem sang through my mind. “Pleasure we can do without,” the poem sings, “but not delight.” This distinction between pleasure and delight, which had always felt like the poem’s central riddle, felt suddenly clear. Pleasure was coffee, wine, fluffy beds and lots of personal space. Delight was love, connection, and friendship. One we ought to be able to live without; the other indispensible. I had a sudden insight: securing my pleasures was getting in the way of my delight—or as Prem put it, in pursuit of momos, I was drowning in the soup.
We returned back to Lakeside, stopping again at Himalayan Beanz for lattes. Our group scattered on arrival with Prem rushing off to plan his next mission. Turned loose now amid the Lakeside restaurants, I had available again every pleasure: wood-fired pizza, French cheese, or Indian curry. I’d like to say I bypassed them all for a simple meal of dal bhat, but instead settled in at a streetside café and ordered a glass of wine, assuming my place again among the other rootless travelers. I was the same pleasure addicted American who set off to Gorka a week ago.
But while my habits may have stayed the same, my perspective had changed tectonically. I looked out at Lakesides bustling streets–the shops full of trinkets and souvenirs, and travelers searching for their next fix. I thought of the little boy in Swara punching the air with his new white gloves, the grandmother glowing in the simple cast-off sweater and of a little girl I met named Supita who, despite losing both parents in the earthquake, smiled into the future.
It’s tempting here to reiterate the same old insight that so many other privileged travelers after returning home from traveling to places like this: They were poor, but so much happier. In truth, I do not know if the people in the Gorka region are happier, and it’s not my place to say. What I do know is that I set off on my trek confused about the difference between pleasure and joy and ended the trek with more clarity. In understanding that difference, I’d gained something invaluable.
KarmaTreks is the most worthy cause I know! To donate, go here: https://www.karmaflights.org/donate
Stay tuned for a possible Deep Travel Nepal trip in Fall of 2020. For now, Deep Travel has two workshops on the calendar for 2020: Yelapa, Mexico and Paris, France! Join us! http://www.deeptravelworkshops.com