Part 3: Journeying through Helambu, Gosaikunda and Langtang
A plump, jolly man in his 40’s was driving a 4×4 along the road, he rolled down the window opposite him and invited me to hop on. I was walking uphill when he caught up to me, the road hugging the west side of a mountain that ran north to south… or south to north, however you saw it. The horizon I approached to the north teased my anticipation with towering frosted peaks that took turns announcing its presence and then hiding behind smaller, closer giants.
He was alone so I got inside the front of the jeep with him, my 10 kilogram pack on my lap. He was on his way to pick up some tourists in Chipling to take back to Kathmandu, while I was continuing on from there, on foot, of course. By some breeze of coincidence, he had seen me hiking down from that music festival I attended up in a remote mountain a week prior.
I listened to his retelling of that weekend; he was hired to bring some party-goers up and down the event — it was a 4-6 hour drive from Kathmandu — and spent a night up there, smoking from the chillum’s that were passed around many hands like a symbol of peace and generosity. I was thoroughly amused that he recognized me from a passing glance the week before.
I learned he and his family were Buddhist in name, but were open to learning from and accepting other religions and schools of thought. He had an engineer and a monk for kids. I explained my Catholic roots and agnostic stance, taking different perspectives and molding them into my own, and he nodded approval. “Different religions preach the same thing,” he said, “there is no right or wrong one.” It’s begun to look like our interpretations of what has been said and heard are what differ, not what has been said themselves. I gave him some food I brought along and went on my way.
I had begun the practice of noticing the presence and absence of pain in my body, from someone’s advice. The awareness is a tool to increase one’s sense of well-being and happiness, and I feel it does work. We usually only notice the aches, pains and sicknesses when they’re rampant, and feel worse in their presence. Conversely, we hardly notice the good health passing us by: the lack of pain in our limbs, our relaxed temples, our clear breaths, calm bowels, etc.
So there were days on the hike when my knee would act up; not exhibit pain but give me some slight discomfort as I walked up or down. I saw this as a sign of overuse and gave it as much rest and tender care as I could. It would come and go, and I was thankful for the days when it felt completely well, as it does today.
Second to the knee was my left shoulder whose AC (Acromio-Clavicular) Joint I dislocated last year in an accident. The clavicle stuck up and out under a few millimeters of skin like a coat rack’s horn sticking under the shoulder of a hanging leather jacket.
The pain had long since subsided and it’s returned to its full range of motion and strength but I lacked the foresight to see how wearing a backpack for days on end would cause it some aggravation. The shoulder strap pushed down on the protruding clavicle with every step, getting worse as fatigue set. But it wasn’t unbearable. And like the knee, the pain now is nothing but a faint memory.
My body temperature would change quickly and erratically thanks to the chilly winds, the sun’s heat and the elevation. Some mornings I set off sporting double socks, gloves, several layers and a beanie, only to remove most of it after an hour or two of strenuous climbing.
Not surprisingly, I began to nurse a runny nose. The futility of trying to expunge as much mucus every 10 minutes made the tip of my nose dry, crack and throb. Oftentimes, I neglected the routine and forgot all about it until a thin reminder of viscous fluid hung over the edge and I wiped it off, laughing at how silly it must’ve looked.
With the descent of altitude (my 11-day trek took me up and down a few thousand meters several times) and my arrival into a major thoroughfare between bigger towns (that is, 5 guest houses instead of 2, at times), my cold gave me some reprieve as more tourists, porters, buffalos, pack mules and horses began to ply the route with me. Throughout these more crowded days — of seeing close to a hundred people on the same path instead of only a handful, as was the case when I started my trek — I was constantly reminded that my olfactory sense was back in good working order from the fresh smell of animal dung that perpetually stung my nostrils along the rocky trail. “Avoid the shit” was the name of the game as straightforward lines were replaced by zigzags and side-steps.
After several days, some blisters were threatening to form on the insides of my feet. Splotches of raw, pink skin told me to put blister tape before it got worse. I figured it was because my shoes were ever so slightly lose and my socks were always drenched in sweat. I remedied that with switching to dry socks halfway through the days and the blisters never came. The tenderness disappeared, and I frequently reminded myself on how nice it was to hike without any pain or discomfort, with clear lungs and a healthy body.
Some branch of Nepali government took it upon itself to educate some locals and communities to cater to the growing demand of hotels and restaurants to house tourists on their treks through the more popular routes. An admirable achievement, to say the least, as it gives a lot of opportunities to the locals to earn from the tourism industry and increases the capacity to house tourists on a larger scale.
Every guest house looked and felt the same as the previous dozen I stayed in. Same menu, same cold showers and squat toilets. Some had solar panels for charging devices, watching T.V. or hot water. Very few start a small bakery business and sell cakes, pies, bread and muffins. Nothing to write home about, but it was a pleasant, albeit bland respite from the normal fare of Nepali food.
Less than a handful of guest houses I saw also grew some vegetables and made the effort to beautify their facade by planting flowers and pretty looking plants along the edges, pathways and doorways. It was good to see a few green thumbs. I still dream of one day starting a modest farm, hostel and cafe, and I couldn’t help but notice the small things I would omit or change had this or any other establishment been mine to improve upon.
Once, halfway through the trek, a small mirror hung above the washstand in a guest house. It was only then that I realized none of the previous guest houses ever had any mirrors. And I enjoyed its absence. It reflected the lack of self-consciousness I experienced for most of the trek.
A misnomer in this respect, the popular meaning of the term self-consciousness today is “to be conscious of others’ consciousness of ourselves,” that is, knowing that you are the object of someone else’s observation. I use this term to refer to the unhealthy effect of holding others’ perceptions of us with enough importance to spark any insecurity or self-doubt. From a social creature of tremendous complexities, the human mind has developed into a narcissistic mind that feeds on the opinions of others.
I’ve tried to understand this self-consciousness intellectually in the hopes of freeing myself from it, only to realize that in this realm of subtle subconscious facilities, strong will power, rationalization or logical understanding of a thing won’t remedy anything. It gives some respite when remembered, but the it’s impossible to overcome with the old habit patterns of the mind unchanged, still hinged.
I was alone and free of having to build up my story to anyone. I find it extremely difficult to talk about my past, intentions, persona or dreams without even the slightest hint of wanting to gain the listener’s (regardless of who it is) approval, admiration or support. Most of us do this unconsciously and are only made aware of it when our minds subside from its usual agitated state to a calm and relaxed state of being.
My forehead and nose were red from the sun. I had taken someone’s advice beforehand and bought sunscreen and sunglasses for the hike. I neglected to use any of the former unless it was necessary to prevent some burns, as was now evident from my reflection. Glad for the reminder, I started using sunscreen for the noon sun from that point.
Being raised and living in a global society that condescends the illiterate, ignorant, uneducated, unchiseled of body, asymmetric of face — where the rich scorn the poor and vice versa, where the powerful and influential rule the simple, where material assets tip the scales in your favor, where religious doubt is a sin in God’s eyes, where our mind’s sovereignty with peaceful observation and exploration of one’s own consciousness with the use of psychedelic compounds is illegal — it’s very hard to come out of this deeply etched behavior pattern of caring about what other people think.
And so we spend lives earning possessions, favor, power and influence; everything to satisfy our subconscious craving for the status and high pedestals of goodness, success and piety — so as to be looked upon with admiration and love, as if these ethereal and impermanent realities were needed to be worthy of anyone’s admiration or love. And here lies one of our greatest and deepest delusions: that we aren’t, intrinsically and unconditionally, deserving of happiness and love. Not as we are, not for just being alive. We have to earn that; as if we were thrown into this cruel and unjust world as punishment.
There is a parallelism here. I believe devotion to any organized religion contributes to our sense of self-inadequacy. The Christian tradition’s mythos of original sin and our subsequent, illogical, unjust and unexplained fall from grace is a key example of this. We are told to swallow this pill of our imperfection, at least for the Christians that see Adam and Eve as a symbolic rather than actual story. The first of many to swallow to develop our attachment and faith to Christianity. For those who see it literally (and millions do), the sense of guilt for being their descendant is stronger and makes it even harder to shake the foundations of this imposed imperfection.
Our need to seek refuge in a God of any religion, just because we are alive, seems ludicrous to me. To preach the ideas of your personal inherent failure, impurity and damnation is a perfect tactic to gain and keep religious followers. If I wanted to start a globally influential, rich and powerful cult, I’d create a religion with a God that punishes along with a heaven to aim for and an eternal hell to fear. I’d make my followers believe following my church was the only way to save your undying souls.
God loves you, but he has prerequisites for your salvation: you have to follow his commandments, have to be baptized in his religion, perform his sacraments, worship him and chant his name. And so this feeling of “I am not enough as I am,” “I have to shape myself into a certain mold for God’s love, and for anyone’s love” permeates through into the deepest layers of our unconscious and we are trapped with this feeling of self-inadequacy throughout life.
We have our own natural instincts and moral compasses to be loving and avoid hurting others, although sometimes tainted by society and religion (as in the cases of slavery, corporal punishment, etc.), so being an atheist, for instance, would not mean a person would have a crueler set of moral standards or more perverse ethical concepts.
Popular media and opinion paints us images of what a beautiful person should look like, what car to have or clothes to buy, where to live or what to study for which professions to gain more respect. Often times they drive home the points “you are not enough” and “you don’t have enough.” Work harder, earn more, buy more. We’re always lacking in something. This insatiable hunger for more only helps us to reinforce the feeling of unworthiness, of incompleteness.
Most of us are completely fine with (or unaware of) our varying degrees of self-consciousness, we love to play the social game — we are social creatures after all. Self-consciousness isn’t even seen as undesirable behavior or a hindrance to everyone, but I felt differently. There came a point in my life when my reasoning began to tell me it affected me negatively and was unnecessary excessive use of mental energies. I had worried too much about my image and was regularly afraid to react in any way that would diminish whatever superficial impressions I may have already gained.
While the aggregate self-consciousness from my childhood, pubescent and adult lives has lessened, it still remains to give me momentary pauses almost every waking moment. The slackening of its anchor allows me to easily deviate from the modern conceptions of how a “good citizen of society” has to act, or what one has to accomplish or acquire in life. It doesn’t bother me anymore whether I fall under the umbrella of what is socially accepted or not. And as one might imagine, it’s very liberating.
Time alone is time free of that ego game we all play. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s in our nature to do so. And every effort towards getting rid of the ego seems to be a fruitless one, as elusive as trying to get rid of one’s own thought patterns. As in meditative practices, some say suppression and eradication are the ways to transcend their egoic mental shackles but from personal experience, objective observation works better for me, sans craving and aversion.
In the silence of the trek, the old habit patterns of my mind hardly manifested. But incapable to yet fully face the depths of self-consciousness, moments of silence offer rejuvenation and a state of peaceful bliss. And I rest in the knowledge that a return to this state is only a matter of moving away from the noise (or changing one’s perception and reaction to it) and shutting up.
(Photos to follow)