I take off my jacket. She notices the ring—a chunk of coral in a tarnished silver setting, trimmed in flat silver beads.
“I see you’re a traveler.”
“A friend brought it back from Nepal,” I tell her, and sit. “It was a gift. I haven’t been.”
“It’s lovely,” Barbara offers, “but you’re still a traveler. Even if you haven’t traveled yet, you will.”
The flight arrives at nine in the morning on the last day of October, 2013, nearly twenty years after Barbara’s comment. I step into the visa line behind a pack of loud Koreans bullying their way to the front of the queue. I’ve just spent two days circling half the globe—Denver, Chicago, Vienna, Delhi, Kathmandu—this time in Nepal to trek.
Early Monday morning our group of seven walks the lane from the Summerhill House to the main road. A thirty-passenger blue bus, chosen for its high clearance, is waiting. Lama and Chhongba toss the duffels to the young Bhai Dahnu up top. We snap a photo, pick a seat and slowly make our way out of the city, heading east through the hills of the Kathmandu Valley.
Men huddle over small fires, drinking chai, smoking. Women draped in shawls wait at the bus stop. Vegetable stalls line the dusty shoulder of the road. Young men on bicycles balance dokos packed with bananas, oranges and lemons, pedaling to markets in the city.
We leave the urban sprawl. The road narrows, the valleys grow deeper, the drop-offs more steep. Small-plot terraces of mustard, millet and rice; a woman turning over soil with a hand tool; another carrying a load of bundled greens three feet taller and two feet wider than her tiny frame, a baby tied in a sling across her bosom.
Outside of Jiri, the road turns to dirt. Heavy monsoon rains pounded the hillsides during the summer, creating ruts large enough to contain a small car. Tess steps across the aisle and quickly sits before losing her balance. “I can’t look over that edge another minute,” she says, and grabs the hand grips secured to the seat in front of us. The driver takes the curve at the bottom of the hill, grinds to the lowest gear and begins the next ascent.
The Road to Shivalaya will become our benchmark for hairy situations, a sort of mantra that fills the long hours on the trail in the days and weeks to come. Matt will write a rap. I will tell how Kathy leaned forward in her seat, mouth at my ear, summoning the holy figures of her Catholic childhood: “Jesus Christ, this doesn’t look good. Oh dear God, help us. Holy shit, Bec, I’m not kidding, this is Not Good.” Babe the BLue Ox rocks through yet another rut, wider and bumpier than the last one. “Dear Jesus,” whispered in my ear.
The story culminates with the front passenger tire dropping into a pothole and disappearing. It is dusk. The Sherpas jump out to assess the mess we’re in. They heave boulders into the mud to gain traction. With our men helping, they rock Babe like she’s a cradle. They push. They dig. They never stop talking. Lama phones the crew in the teahouse up ahead, then tells us women to start walking. Not fifteen minutes later, the road is lit from behind. Babe is out. We erupt in cheers, return to our seats and stare stone-faced as the driver fearlessly pushes on in pitch darkness, save the short patch of muddy, slippery, all-but-washed-out road lit by her headlights. The Sherpas jump in and out like boys at play, grabbing and throwing rocks into the potholes threatening to swallow us a second time. Inching our way to Shivalaya, we arrive hungry, weary and grateful, thirteen hours after leaving Kathmandu.
Nepal’s major rivers originate in the high Himalayan peaks and massive glaciers on her northern border with Tibet. Roaring water flows south through gorges thousands of feet deep. Rather than fly to Lukla, the usual starting point for treks in the Khumbu, we’re walking for a week through the Solukhumbu—the southern portion of the Everest region. The route will take us cross-country, west to east, in and out of the deep ravines. We’ll hike down to one valley floor and climb back out, only to descend into the next valley, up and down between 6,000 and 12,000 feet, making our way across five valleys. The idea is to condition, acclimatize, and grow stronger.
After planes, layovers and the bus ride from hell, it feels good to leave Shivalaya on foot, even if the trail heads straight up. Lama leads us out, Chhongba walks among us and Bhai Dahnu sweeps. Our duffels are on the backs of seven Nepali porters, nineteen to twenty-one years of age, most under five feet tall and less than one hundred twenty pounds. Mahesh, our cook, has three kitchen helpers who carry dokos filled with food and supplies.
“Bistare, bistare,” Lama says, setting a gentle, steady pace. “It is not good to go fast. Better to go slow.” Born in Namche Bazaar, the trading center in the heart of the Khumbu, forty-eight-year-old Lama has walked these paths since he was a boy. He has guided treks in the Khumbu and Solukhumbu for decades. Lama has been to the South Col of Mount Everest, but never to the top. “My father summited Everest, yah. Not me,” and he laughs.
“Lama, are you always this happy?” Matt asks one morning.
“Yah, I am always happy,” Lama assures him, and laughs. And so it is. In three weeks of buried bus tires and continuous requests for toilet tissue, organic peanut butter and more chai, we never witness an impatient outburst, not with us, not with his staff. His kindness is remarkable. We’re certain he can handle whatever comes up, and if he can’t, he either knows or is related to someone along the trail who can.
The village of Bhandor is within sight. It’s after four. We’ve been hiking since 7:30. An orchard of pale pink blossoms fills the meadow just below the trail. My boot slides on loose rock and I go down, landing on the right hip and forearm. Chhongba calls out from behind, “You are all right?”
“Yea, I’m fine,” I shout back, and brush the dirt from my skirt, rub my hip and start walking. Must be fatigue, I tell myself. A burn starts in my throat. The sixty-year-old pattern of strong and stoic, handling things, going no matter what has happened or how I feel, emerges out of the dust kicking up on the trail. Moist eyes; I pick up my pace, staying in front of Chhongba and John. I don’t want to talk. I want to remember how it was to be little, but this time, away from home, away from the familiar patterns, I let the hurt be okay.
We walk into the courtyard, drop our packs and poles and collapse into plastic chairs. Tara and Mingma bring hot chai and popcorn. We inhale the soup and dahl baat at dinner. We’re in our sleeping bags by 7:30, then up to pee all night long, the old doors and floors creaking, bodies jet-lagged, spirits eager and egos anxious for what’s ahead.