January 19, 2007

Deprivation is good for you.

Few nowadays would understand the word: doing without, holding back from indulgence, earning something. I think we all need a dose of deprivation to make us take our world a little less for granted.

You wouldn’t know it today from people’s grocery carts, restaurant bills, credit cards and mortgages. They keep their smiles plastered on, faithful to the destructive path of owning more with less. You can buy happiness, on credit. Nothing down. Pay later.

Even George Bush exhorted us to keep shopping after 911, so the terrorists wouldn’t win.

I try to hang on to those moments when I was doing without – with no choice in the matter – either because of location, or poverty, or by actual choice.

And of course, now I’ve married into a partnership which considers monthly credit card balances the ultimate sin, well, maybe penultimate. (Okay that’s one of those words that people almost always use incorrectly. Along with factoid.)

Before Steve and I got married we spent days talking about finances and budget, coming clean on everything…including my credit line (known to freelancers as unemployment insurance.)

Anyway, he won’t give the bank a dime. He won’t even use their ATM machine because they charge him. He goes to the bank. He deals with a teller. He refuses to add to their bottom line.

When I look at their bottom line I squirm with discomfort. Partly because my mutual funds are filled with bank stocks, so their good bottom line might do my bottom line some good…anyway…
I try to hang on to that feeling of doing without – because it puts in relief all the little things that are good – life has more colour than normal – I get a little giddy – I find myself smiling in my sleep.

Travelling cheap does it. In spades.

Coming up on almost five years ago, I trekked up to the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal. Ten days there and back. You can walk up as far as the base camp for the assaults on Annapurna I, which starts at almost 13,345 feet (4095 m). On the way you stay in hostels, eat local food (and after a certain point you pass a stupa which guards the mountains – and no meat is to be eaten from that point on). So dhal baht…all the way, ad nauseum.

Now the sanctuary trek is also known as the Coca Cola trek…because the soft drink is borne on human and donkey backs all the way to the top to sell to trekkers, at prices that increase with the altitude.

I’m not a coke drinker. I lived for their chai. And learned how to say it, tea with milk please.

Water was at a premium. Hot water even more so. I was too cheap to pay for it and nervous when I looked inside the shower huts, and shuddered at the thought of being in there starkers. And paying extra for the privilege? As if.

I saved my money.

I had to ration it out day to day until I got back to the nearest bank town. And since rationing has never been a strong philosophy, I was particularly alone and particularly particular.

So I did without. No matter how good the Mars bars looked in the cabinet.

I woke up before dawn on the day our guide and I were to head up to the final heights of Annapurna Sanctuary. It had snowed for 12 hours and 18” now blanketed the landscape in the moonlight. It was quieter than any place on Earth. To my left the mountain they call Fishtail was silhouetted against a full moon. To my right was an expansive, smooth, crystalline canopy of snow stretching up into the distance. We wanted to be up there for dawn.

My guide, Ripa, was asleep…and I waited. And waited. I gave my room to one of the mountain dogs who was outside and begging to come in…he got the other bed…I sat on my sleeping bag, on my cot waiting for some signs of human life.

Ripa finally roused himself and knocked on my door.

When I got outside with my flashlight, I thought I was going to kill him. He was wearing a fleece jacket, his baseball cap, cotton (!) shorts down to his knees, gaiters up to his knees. It was -10c (14F) I’m from Canada, I’ve jogged in January…I knew what I was doing. It was starting to occur to me, he didn’t.

We took off into the darkness. I followed his footsteps in the deep snow. Then it became apparent, I was following a circle. Ripa would stop. He’d look. He’d proceed. And he wouldn’t answer my question: Are we lost? And with our flashlights fading, I traipsed behind him. The trail started looking like a rain dance roadmap…I was getting more irritated, so I entertained myself with how long it would be before they discovered his body and if I could get out of the country in time…

He finally admitted he couldn’t find the trail.


So we both lowered our eye lines to the snow, scanning across it looking for any sign of previous paths. I pointed to the right edge of the small valley we were heading into. It just appeared - a slight indentation that wound its way to the top. We could see the buildings of the base camp in the distance – and while they looked about 15 minutes away…they were about an hour. (tricky not-so-little mountains)

I looked at Ripa with glee. We’d found it. And then I looked at his knees. They were actually knocking.

I had been suspicious about his intentions to go up there since the day before. He had led my new friend Andy up there. They walked up in the snowstorm, to no purpose because there was no visibility. They came back giddy anyway. Like two buds, old pals. And I had a feeling that Ripa didn’t want to get up at dawn, didn’t want to walk up there again, didn't want to walk a woman up there, and certainly not a single woman – and why wasn’t she married? Why didn’t she have children? Why was her hair so short? What kind of woman comes here? Alone?

I had been building this trip in my head for ten years. Not just wanting to see the Himalayas…but to be in the Himalayas. And I’d saved money. And I’d found the time. This was my time.

So I told Ripa to go back to the hostel and wait for me. Have breakfast. I’ll be back in a few hours – and we’ll head back down.

I headed off alone. And then I heard another trekker from the inn behind me. Richard, an Englishman had caught up with us, no surprise. His wife, Fiona, was struggling behind, bundled in winter clothing, and suffering from whatever she ate the night before which was fighting to get out of her, no matter how many layers she was wearing. (I think she wins the day’s hero award.)

Their guide Indra was helping her.

Richard and I plowed on. Well tried. By 13,200 feet I was walking slow, catching my breath every few steps, feeling like we might be close to Everest’s height by now. And the snow was deep. I kept telling Richard to go ahead of me if I was slowing him down. He refused.

We heard Fiona shout something at us from below. She was pointing ahead of us. And as I turned back I saw the sun hitting Annapurna (the shot at the top of this post), then all the other mountains in the Sanctuary in their well ordered and literal hierarchy - Annapurna III, Gangapurna, Annapurna South. The sky was as dark as outer space, the sunlight lit the snowy peaks like a pink beacon, the wind caught some of the snow and majestically, playfully tossed it into the air in long trails of white mist.

Annapurna - I was just reading Frances and Anna Lappe's book, Hope's Edge...early on she writes that the sanskrit word for food is Anna. The Indian goddess of food is Annapurna. Maybe I was drawn here in mystical ways?

The sun was hitting base camp itself when I reached the plateau at the top. I had cut the trail that many would follow that day. It felt wonderful.

Then someone suggested I walk around the low level buildings, ‘cause I was missing the point.

The Sanctuary came at me full force as I rounded the buildings. The peaks surrounded us in a circle. I actually felt my knees go out under me and I fell into the snow. I just wept. Really. I was so surprised at this outburst. I apologized to the woman who had showed me the way round the buildings. She said, “Don’t apologize. I did exactly the same thing yesterday.”

It was more than I had imagined – despite being well trained by guide books, pictures, videos, friends’ accounts…this was even better.

We heard avalanches to the left, ice cracking like thunder, wind trails above, and there was Annapurna in its power ahead of us. An expedition had left the day before to try to conquer its peak. I could see the path they’d taken across the icy field. And I tried to imagine them up on those forbidding walls. And I knew then, that I did not have to climb a mountain. I would never be a mountaineer. I didn’t need it.

I stayed up there for a little while…had chai, of course, with milk…then with a somewhat heavy heart I turned into the sun, which was now blazing in the thin air, and started back down the trail I had cut earlier. People were now starting to appear below in lines along the path, heading toward us. (I kept wondering if they had followed the circles we had plowed.)

I was overwhelmed as I walked down. We rolled in the snowbanks, slid where we could, played like idiots most of the way back to the hostel at Machupuchre Base Camp.

Which means I spent my time at breakfast trying to dry my socks and boots. Then we headed down to catch up with Rachel, Andy and their porter, Pim, who had descended the day before (Rachel had not wanted to go on. She feared she was suffering altitude sickness and wanted to get down as fast as possible. Hence Andy raced up in the snow to the base camp the day before and then returned to go down with her).

We had to cross the valley to the shaded side because we were in avalanche territory. And Ripa raced ahead of me irritated and anxious to get back to his sidekick, so he often left me behind to catch up with him. I decided not to rush.

I was too high, too ecstatic to care about his irritation anymore. I had been up there.

We crossed back to the sunny side of the deep valley, and came across avalanche debris that had blasted through since we’d walked that path a few days before. There was no way around it. We climbed up massive blocks of ice – each one the size of a transport truck…and we didn’t stick around to marvel at them for long. It was disconcerting to look straight up into the sky where it had come from. You’d have no chance.

In fact just two weeks later three trekkers, a woman and her daughter, and a lone man were killed here after they’d gone ahead of their guide. I read about it in the newspaper in Kathmandu, after my bus accident. Another story. Another time.

As we descended, the air became warmer and sweeter and I got the buzz of richer oxygen saturation…you know – like when athletes train at high altitude so they can benefit from the richer air once they come down. So despite having been hiking since about 5am, I was possessed with an energy that was inhuman.

We left the snow behind, the rhododendron trees bloomed for us, the monkeys played in the trees across the valley, I peeled off layers of winter clothing as I descended into spring – into new life.

This was one of those markers – there was life before I did this – and life after.

So we entered the hostel we’d agreed to meet at, burst through the door and our friends cheered as we came in. Others who were on their way up, looked at us in some awe. I could see in their eyes exactly the feeling I had going up. Was it really just a few days ago?

At that point, we kept asking people who were on their way down past us if it was worth it all. Just tell us if it’s worth all this? And they’d stare off, looking like Moses coming down from Sinai. They’d say, “oh yeah…it’s worth it. Keep going.”

And now, that was us. Andy asked me what I’d seen and I couldn’t help gushing. He looked disappointed that he had made it, but hadn’t really experienced it. It didn’t seem fair.

I went and put my pack in the room, grabbed some toiletry stuff (including one of those camp towels…which I renamed damp towel, because that was its main feature…all the time). And I had another look at the hot water shower stall.

You know, it didn’t look so bad. Had they renovated since we passed by here four days ago? Or had I? I went in. It was the most beautiful shower I’ve ever had, the steam poured out between the cracks of the walls, and I reveled in it.

Where this place had been freezing before, it seemed balmy now. I walked around without my jacket. I joked with everyone. I was calm and purely happy - looking forward to my infusion of dhal baht for dinner. Grateful.

And I ordered a Mars bar.

I sat outside and looked around, and I carefully, slowly, ate it.

And I was overwhelmed by how wonderful it tasted, how everything seemed. And I hoped against hope, I would be able to hold onto that feeling. That it would give me compassion, and temper my needs.

I went to bed that night, smiling, without knowing it. I woke up at some point - it was still dark. I didn’t open my eyes, they were still turned inward and upward to the mountains, and I realized I was smiling in my sleep.

I haven’t been the same since.

p.s. Rachel and Andy married the following year and have a little girl named Ruby Georgia…

The first is the glimpse we had of Annapurna at sunrise, while still on the trail.
The second is a coca cola empty, nepalese style. The valley in the back is where we'd just been on our way back.
The third is Richard, Fiona and Indra, me at front, with Annapurna I behind us.
The fourth is the view from the base camp back down the trail we'd just come up - if you click on it, you'll see one person way down the trail, which will give you a sense of the context.
The final shot is of our trekking party, me, Rachel, Andy in the back, Ripa, and his colleague, Pim.


Julie said...

You, my dear, have had some exciting times. Those pictures are great. I particularly like the one of the coke bottle.

Nicola said...

Thanks Julie...Travelling alone was made easier by the work travel I'd done (albeit with a team of people), and because everywhere I went I met people - wonderful people who were as interesting as the scenery, that's for sure. I can't say I wasn't shit scared sometimes. I lost enough weight on that Asia trip to requalify for my high school years - despite eating all the local stuff I could. And drinking all the tea they could pour into me...And I'd go back in a split second if I had the time and money at the same instant again. I was just google earthing New Zealand - it seems tailor made for me/us. So we'll keep our fingers crossed. That's not to say a city like Baltimore wouldn't have its perks...like, say, a good meal...and some dog biscuits.