“I hoped that the trip would be the best of all journeys: a journey into ourselves.” ~ Shirley MacLaine
It’s impossible for me to take you there — to my 35-day NOLS Himalaya Backpacking experience in Northern India — even in imagination.
I know this because I recently read a book by an incredibly talented storyteller before I made my journey. And unlike me, it was obvious he kept impeccable notes during his pilgrimage in the Himalayan foothills, describing his route, the scenery, and his interactions in scrupulous detail.
Not even then could I begin to fully grasp what he was describing. The breathtaking beauty of the snow-covered peaks, the unmatched generosity of the local villagers, and the sense of peace and contentment that comes with slowing making one’s way through the many-faceted foothills of the Himalayas.
Imagine trying to describe your fondest memory to a friend. You can explain it, but how can they know until they have seen it with their own two eyes, smelled it for themselves, tasted it on their lips? They really can’t. You may be able to give them some sense of what it’s like, but it will always fall short of the real thing.
And that’s the beauty of experience. To truly know it, you must live it…allow it to mingle with your soul and become a part of you.
“Our growth depends not on how many experiences we devour, but on how many we digest.” ~ Ralph W. Sockman
Even if you were there with me and walked beside me, I would have difficulty fully explaining my experience to you, for no two experiences are exactly alike. Each of my 13 companions came to the mountains with their own hopes and expectations, and each left with their own unique experience…one that could never be duplicated or recreated.
Even so, I hope to share with you what I can, even if it’s merely a dim reflection of my true experience.
Typically people tell stories linearly, moving the listener or reader through a logical sequence of time, as if the story is a piece of string and the reader is sliding along it. This won’t be like that. In this case, my notes and memories are patchy and scattered, as I journaled a lot less than I originally intended. Either I was exhausted or there was some other experiencing captivating my attention at the time.
Therefore, my story will unfold more like A Christmas Carol where I am Jacob Morley and you are Ebenezer Scrooge, and we are whirling through time and appearing in carefully selected memories, seemingly scattered and yet intricately connected.
Ready? Here are my highlights from the Himalayas!
Knowing we were breathing some of the purest and freshest air we would ever breath in our lives. The raw scent of rock and soil, the sweet mixture of rhododendron, mint, oregano, lemon grass, and even wild marijuana growing along the trail.
Learning how to make (and developing a mild addiction to) traditional Indian chai tea, compliments of Gaytri, one of our awesome instructors. Swirls of sugar and cinnamon, fresh squeezed ginger, loose-leaf tea steeping in the bubbly mixture. Finally bringing it to frothy completeness by adding generous handfuls of dehydrated milk.
Also, developing backcountry baking skills –cakes, pizza dough, biscuits, cinnamon rolls, and Peggy’s tamale pie!
Not hearing a single roar of an engine, not even the occasional airplane 30,000 feet overhead. No car alarms, no honking, no revving. No lawn-mowers to disrupt my thoughts. Just the sounds of the wind passing over the mountains and through the trees, the distant roar of a river or the trickle of a creek through smoothly worn rocks.
The songs of birds, the baaing of sheep, the occasional swish of a langur swinging through the trees. The sounds of heavy boots falling on carefully placed stone. A friendly “Namaste” from a passing villager, my own heavy breathing on a steep ascent, and the warm and familiar voices of my companions.
Swimming and bathing in swirling pools of frigid mountain water and sliding down natural slides of smooth rock.
The beauty and generosity of the Himalayan culture, or what I like to call the “Stay and Eat” culture. Everywhere we went, the local people were eager to share what little they had with us, which most often came in the form of large, oblong, green and yellow cucumbers. Even when we were simply passing through, they would stop us, present us with a cucumber and ask us to stay for chai and more food.
In their culture, “guest is god” and treated accordingly. There were days when we would stay with a family and the whole family, including the children, would go a day without eating in order to feed us. Making sure we were comfortable and well-fed was something they took great pride in.
Spending a morning in the life of a Himalayan woman — cutting tall grass by hand with a sickle. Taking short breaks in the shade to sip fresh goat’s milk and eat more cucumbers.
Learning valuable lessons that can be applied to nearly every aspect of life. For instance, on a particular difficult climb up and around a mountain called Chovelia, as I finally reached the top, I jokingly exclaimed, “We have conquered the mountain!” In her wise and quiet way, Gaytri responded, “You don’t conquer the mountain, the mountain allows you to pass.”
This phrase became a mantra and silent meditation for me (as well as several of my companions) as I walked for the remainder of the trip. I see it as a great metaphor for life. I’ll leave you to ponder that one for yourself. (It’s also what initially sparked the idea for my new tattoo!)
Struggling with my own bad habits and character flaws. Learning how to truly connect with nature and “let go.” Letting go of expectations and judgements and going with the flow.
Waking up at 0430 to begin a moonlit climb up a tall peak in the hopes of catching a stunning sunrise. Making it all the way to the summit with two other incredible people. Standing in silence above the clouds, surrounded by the most breathtaking panorama of snow-covered peaks I’ve ever seen. Sitting in quiet meditation, opening my eyes to gaze upon the perfect peak (which is actually tattooed on my left shoulder now).
Spending 35 days in the company of some of the most talented, interesting, laid-back, and fun-loving people I’ve ever met – even if they did call me “grandma!” (Believe it or not, at 27 I was the oldest member of our group. And you know what? I think I probably learned more from them than they did from me!)
These stories and pictures barely begin to scratch the surface of an experience that has given me so much insight and perspective, one that has helped me expand and grow, one that will remain sacred among life experiences. I discovered so much about myself, others, and human nature in general. I was given a unique opportunity to peer into a world so unlike my own and to grasp bits of wisdom from it — bits of wisdom I will continue to share here in future stories I’m sure.
If you would like to see more pictures from my journey, you can see them on my Facebook page.