She’ll be comin round the mountain

Well hello friends! Figure I would do my last RTW post on my trip’s one-year anniversary :). Turns out lawyers work a lot, and there isn’t much time for, well, anything but billable hours. More reflection is needed on this truly transformative adventure. In time that will come. And I hope to follow up with a post. For now, I wrap up with the final hiking adventure I did with my family last November to celebrate my Dad’s 60th in Yosemite. As you will see, the autumnal leaves were striking, a reminder of how change can be so permanent and yet fleeting.

Through thick and thin, family — however you wrap your arms around that concept — provides roots. We keep one another grounded in name and in spirit. And when we pass, as my mother’s mother and father’s father did this spring–within just three days of another–our roots grow deeper, creating a bond with this earth that pollinates our inspiration to leave this world in a better place. And my grandparents did so in their own powerfully unique ways. My grandmother, through her purity, embodied the value of unconditional love, and my grandfather, through public service, the value of empowering the underserved. It’s no wonder, that the manner in which they passed symbolized these values–my grandmother hung on to her heart–recognizing me with it when other faculties had fled–and my grandfather stood by his mind–challenging me to use my own wisely, so that I may serve others well. What a powerful combination of influences, for which I am eternally grateful.

A beautiful, deep hug of appreciation for my family’s support throughout all my trials and tribulations as I circled the globe.

My mom — caught in a moment of bliss before Yosemite Valley opened up before us:

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Posted in Americas, Hiking, Round the World, Travel, USA | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Chile’s pulse through its street art

Passion, politics, and plunder are the magnetic forces that have been drawing me to Chile since I can remember. After returning to Santiago from the W trek, I decided to spend my final RTW week learning about the country through its art.

It takes knowing a local to gain this type of perspective and appreciation. A dear friend — a Chilean woman through and through — showed me the ropes. Together we explored the gritty streets of Santiago and rolling hills of Valparaiso, a port town over an hour away whose homes are painted distinct, electric colors. Fishermen began this tradition ages ago, wanting to be able to spot their home from a distance. I imagine them waiving farewell to loved ones as they become smaller and smaller specks on the horizon — the sea slowly swallowing up their world. With new insights — some inevitably warped by isolation — I see them return, pulled back by the forces of home and heart. Exhausted, but with everything in focus.

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Posted in Americas, Chile, Round the World, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Throwing up the “W” for Walker in Patagonia

“What the fuck, man!” We were talking with the American Airline representatives at Miami International about getting seated together when a man with a Chilean accent aggressively got in our faces. My brother Red and I looked quizzically at him and then one another. He suddenly shoved Red’s shoulder.

“Hey,” I sternly said, stepping forward. “Back off.”

“I’ve been waiting forever,” he huffed, refusing to make eye contact with me. He kept his glare locked on Red, who stepped back, declining to engage. I looked behind us, assessing whether we had accidentally cut a line.

“Were you all waiting?” I asked apologetically. Everyone appeared to be just as confused. “Nooo,” one young man in trekking gear said as others shook their heads. I couldn’t understand how the Chilean man had been waiting so long when there apparently was no line. His blotched face suggested he had been drinking so I returned my attention to the help desk.

When he began shouting again, Red and I stepped to the side and the airline representative calmly asked what the problem was.

“I’ve been waiting! And they just cut!”

“How can I help you?”

“I’ve been waiting,” he repeated, exasperated.

“Waiting for what?

“To board.”

“Sir, we haven’t started to board yet.”

“Oh.” His hot air balloon popped, realizing that there was no boarding line (or even a line to the service desk for that matter). He turned around and joined a woman with a similarly wild look in her eye.

We declined the representative’s offer to call security. Given my luck, it crossed my mind to make sure that we weren’t seated near each other, but then I figured that the odds were low.

I kept my eye on the couple as we waited for boarding. My brother and I were the last to hand over our tickets. As we walked onto the jetway, the young man in trekking gear struck up a conversation, saying how odd the interaction had been.

Then we heard the Chilean couples’ loud voices, out of breath, directly behind us. Their temperament had done a 180, and they were laughing with linked arms. I nonetheless stood between them and my brother, wondering why they waited until the very last second to board given their impatience not 20 minutes ago.

Red swiped some mini Champaign bottles from an unattended first class serving platter and extended one to the man as a peace offering. Which fortunately proved effective because it turned out they were seated across the aisle from us, with the young man on their other side. They began joking with him, and then my brother, who played along. The tension subsided as they continued throwing back mini bottles of wine throughout the flight. Their grating voices led to looks of discomfort and irritableness on the faces around them. The young man to their right eventually asked to be reseated.

It was already clear from this colorful beginning that our 10-day adventure throughout Chile would be a far cry from the monochrome experience of the Camino.

Fortunately, my brother and I enjoy the journey as much as the destination—both figuratively and literally—because it is a two-day endeavor from the States to the start of the “W trek” in Torres del Paine, Patagonia (so named because the route is the shape of a “W,” with three different lookouts). We had an afternoon layover in Santiago so we took the bus into the city center and explored the main square, which is undergoing reconstruction. Throngs of locals wandered about, eating ice cream and Chile’s famous hot dogs (I never did have a chance to compare them to the Chicago dog, but they looked similar, piled high with every condiment and veggie known to man). We checked out the government buildings and the church, also in the process of transforming, as well as Pablo Neruda’s home, before racing back to the airport to catch our flight to Punta Arenas.

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We landed in the middle of the night, grabbed a hostel for a few hours of rest before we had to catch an early bus to Puerto Natales. Red decided not to unpack his sleeping bag (generally advisable even at hostels, as a precaution against bed bugs), which was impressively air-tight.

“Yeah, I tetrised the fuck out of my pack,” Red explained, not wanting to have to repack his sleeping bag in the morning. I then learned a hilariously fun fact about my brother—that he is a world champion at tetris, having ranked in the top ten of marathon tetris players three years ago! This skill would prove useful in the days to come.

The next morning, we took the three-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, grabbed some mouthwatering salmon for lunch at a hole-in-the-wall shack, and hopped on another two-hour bus into the park.

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Misty lakes began to emerge along the narrow road, with snow-capped mountains hovering just above, warped by distance into misleading stout boulders. Red pointed out a cowboy upon a galloping horse, gliding along thin streams that contained the cattle in strangely shaped clusters.

Other figurines played amidst the fog, the southern hemisphere altering their familiarity: birds that looked swan-like and ostrich-like; elks that seemed to belong more in the Jurassic era; and trees that were indecisively deciduous this Spring season. Around a bend we turned, where flapping pink flamingos and several soaring condors greeted us.

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Red and I somehow found ourselves engaged in a conversation about feral children (??). Leave it to nature to spark such odd imagination.

As kids, Red and I were inseparable. So, too, were our imaginations. In the backyard we’d turn into explorers who navigated treacherous terrain amidst the bushes (of which there were three); perched in the towering apple tree, the perfect lookout; and found all the various ways to climb a mountainous limestone pile in our front yard, over and over again. I hold this vivid imagination responsible for my brother’s and my tendency to “yes and” life.

This four-day “W” trek, which went virtually unplanned, would be no exception. We did everything by the seat of our pants: Red booked his flight to join me just a week before our departure; we decided at the ranger station which direction to follow the “W”; our map was worthless; and we brought essentially no gear, crossing our fingers that all the tents wouldn’t be reserved at the camping sites. We “yes anded” the challenges that flowed from this approach to travel, using a dose of creativity to get through certain moments.

Suddenly, the enormous mountains were upon us, marking the terrain like solemn gates. They rose high above the sea—the juxtaposition making little sense to me. This would be the first time I trekked among both vertically stretched mountains and horizontally expansive waters. I felt my excitement growing from the unfamiliar.

We followed the braided river streams along the foot of the Andes to the ranger station. After registering our names, grabbing an utterly unhelpful map, and attending a brief orientation that emphasized hefty fines and jail times for building fires, we hopped on a catamaran. The small boat, packed with fellow trekkers, carried us along choppy, turquoise waters that reflected several rainbows straddling the shores from above.

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It was less than a kilometer to the first Refugio—the rather upscale huts staggered along the “W.” Although they provide beds (which book up months in advance), we would be renting camping gear. After an hour of confusion about whether there were even any tents available, Red and I managed to snag one before racing inside to warm up over a bottle of Chilean wine and a few pisco sours.

We laughed at the 48-hour journey that had brought us to the start of this trek: three planes, three taxis, two buses, a metro, and a fucking catamaran.

Day One: Lago Grey

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Red and I awoke to an element I hadn’t experienced since the mountains of New Zealand: 60-90 km winds, which would be keeping us company for the entirety of our trek. Based upon this warning yesterday, we made our decision to hike the “W” left to right, which was supposed to put the gusts at our backs for much of the journey. We struggled to exit the tent, which whipped this way and that, tripping the both of us. A few cups of coffee in the Refugio and then we slung on our packs, hitting the muddy trail.

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We walked along the turquoise lake a short distance until veering left into a valley hugged by rolling hills. The sun was dimly shining from above as we walked through deep shadows cast by burnt, crusty trees. It felt eerily like we were passing through the elephant graveyard from the Lion King.

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Contrasting dandelions with their bright yellow manes shot up defiantly from the scorched earth, reminding me fondly of my grandfather who passed a few years ago. When the dandelions in his yard would turn, my siblings and I used to carefully blow their white fluff into the air to spread our wishes all over…his carefully manicured lawn. After scolding us a few times over the years, he gave up, letting our imagination win with a smiling sigh.

We spent the next few hours climbing the first leg of the “W” toward Lago Grey, where a glacier awaited. Over the hills and through the woods we ascended, my muscles growing unusually tight with each step. Although he appreciated the varying terrain, Red made a comment about how long it had been since he had experienced or seen anything that truly stunned him.

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Summiting a small peak, we stood overlooking Lago Grey with glaringly bright blue chunks of ice floating near the edge far below us. Further ahead, the expansive glacier peaked through the fog to meet us.

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Speechless, we followed the rim of the lake. As we got closer, the glacier became a monstrosity. We hopped over a “do not enter” post and scrambled along jagged rock until we were perched high on our lookout above the glacier, its front lip jutting 30-40 meters above the glassy water. We had both seen glaciers previously in Chamonix, France, but the aquamarine color that the Patagonian ice had captured was in a league of its own.

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We sat in silence as Red peeled an orange in a perfect orb.

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Three guys from Spain spotted us, jumping the fence to join. We exchanged our feelings of reverence for this magical spot and then stood in as photographer for one another.

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Red and I had some decent mileage to cover before dark so we bid farewell, returning down the first leg of the W.

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When we reached the peak where we had spotted the first chunks of ice far below, Red voiced his goal of jumping into every arctic body of water he comes across in his travels (the origin of this objective being in Alaska with our other brother Wes—vignettes from their adventure to come). He could see I wasn’t a fan and reasoned with me by explaining that he had an emergency blanket on hand. I didn’t say anything, hoping he’d change his mind.

No cigar.

“So, is it alright if I do it?” he asked, smiling. He already knew that I wasn’t about to restrain him. I also, however, wasn’t going to let him turn into arctic ice cube without me around. I looked nervously over the cliff he was proposing we slide down. I took a deep breath to quiet the fear of heights that was rattling my rib cage, bit my lip, and after him I jumped.

I am terrible, terrible! at going downhill. As Red skated effortlessly down the mountain, I went down on my butt, grabbing at thin roots and small rocks, which became immediately dislodged the moment I clasped my fists around them. Down, down I slid, picking up speed.

40 meters later, I reached the glacier waters with only a split palm and thumping heart. We spotted a path on the other side, leading back up to the trail. We had clearly taken the more exciting route. I appreciated my brother for pushing my comfort boundaries.

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Seeing the ice tower above us, Red opted to not torture me further with threats of jumping in. Thank god…

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The sun was setting quickly behind the mountains and so, after a few more photos, we collected ourselves and made our way back up to the trail.

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Clouds had gathered a thick moisture in the air by the time we arrived at Refugio Grey. After discovering that there were beds available, Red and I opted to splurge that night on the bunks rather than set up camp. We ate a terrible and terribly-overpriced meal as we hit it off with fellow trekkers and some of the local guides. While Red finished up dinner, Willi and Lucas, two guides from Big Foot Adventure, led me to the lake to show off the original Refugio Grey, which now serves as housing for the guides. We sat downstairs in the timeless cabin as they asked me to paint a picture of what San Francisco is like.

When I returned to meet up with Red, we talked about whether DC has a soul—the type we both felt in San Francisco and more palpably so, in Chicago. The brainstorming began, which would continue throughout the rest of our trip, about how to feed DC’s soul. We started with the building blocks. Communal space would be key, and so I asked Red whether DC has an equivalent of Dolores Park in San Francisco.

Malcolm X Park, he said, attracts a diverse array of people from the surrounding area who gather in drum circles on warmer weather weekends. From there, we bounced ideas around about how to build up community in the area such that it would attract people from the park’s broader reaches. Red, an entrepreneur who started a distillery, played with the business angle, and I put thought into community participation in the park, including ways in which to attract artists to the area, organize activities, and set up a playground. And then we blended our ideas—through the simultaneous development of small businesses and regional identity. The more diverse—age, race, gender, ability, class, etc.—the higher the odds of bonding cross sections of DC-ers and sustainably building soul from the ground up. We then discussed how to spread this microcosm across the city.

“The Plan” crystalized, integrating Red’s business sense and my criminal justice background. Linking those two foundations is the authority of art. Much of the combustion power needed to launch this movement resides in the element of surprise so I’ll stop here for now.

Day 2: Italiano

Red and I slept in late, warm in our sleeping bags—which we call the cloud since it indeed feels like you are sleeping in a cloud. Having both almost froze to death due to shitty sleeping bags in the past, we both chose to invest in new ones before we left DC.

Red had a vivid dream where, in the midst of a post apocalyptic world, he lived as a king because the Rhubarb Moonshine he distilled was high in demand.

We stood outside Refugio Grey, reorganizing our packs as the raindrops began to fall. Willi wandered about, frazzled by his ADD and disorganized group of (likely hung-over) trekkers. He treated me as if I were the calm in the storm, kissing me on the cheek upon first seeing me and then again upon Red’s and my departure a few minutes later.

As Red and I hiked through the elephant graveyard again, I noticed this time how the spread of dandelions was accented by a lone violet wildflower here and there. Trekkers know the impatient feeling of having to retrace your steps, but we also forget how the scenery is completely different depending on the direction in which you are heading. Hiking down the first leg, our view was of the turquoise waters we had crossed in the catamaran, sitting in stark contrast to the black forest.

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As we turned the corner to begin ascending up the W’s middle, we stopped to fill our water bottles in a stream.

“I smell so bad,” Red announced.

I smelled myself. “I’m ok.”

“It’s just my arm pits. The rest of me smells like flowers and honey.”

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It was only a few hours to the next ranger station. Red and I had received conflicting information as to whether they rented out tents…

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Upon arrival, we discovered that indeed, tents were not available for rent. The ranger at the post stared at us like the idiots we were.

Red and I then looked at one another. Time to build a shelter.

After finding a flat space by a creek, we began our makeshift shelter by collecting long sticks, branches with dead leaves, and large stones. We also came across a metal sheet. Red, with his engineering background and excellence in tetris, configured the support beams, and then we built around it—securing the base of the beams with the rocks and weaving sticks through one another and across a rain jacket for the roof. Red dug a drainage ditch for the rains, which were most certainly coming, and coming soon. His emergency blanket served as our ground tarp.

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Curious trekkers stood by, rather confused. That evening we gathered together over food (Red and I counted our remaining salami slices, having barely enough food to get us through to the next Refugio) and learned about that night’s neighbors. We bonded in particular with a Welsh kayak guide and an engineer from London. Also joining in the conversation were two girls from Vancouver who were taking time off from college and a spastic student from Holland who kept repeating how excited he was to return to his girlfriend and go out for pancakes.

They were all impressed with our shelter and thanked us for giving them a story to tell others on the trail as well as friends and family upon their return. The ranger then came around and remarked that he had never seen anything like it. Red and I—having built plenty of forts together as kids—laughed, thinking the attention funny.

The kayak guide offered us tea to warm our bones—I am going to miss these moments of pure generosity. There is nothing like sharing with others in the wilderness when your own supplies are limited.

There was just barely enough room to fit Red and I in the shelter, not only horizontally, but also vertically. The roof sloped downward, away from the tree supporting its left wall. Being smaller, I squeezed into the narrower side, wedging myself between a heavy stick and the ground. Red then slithered in like a worm, head first, to fill out our sardine can. Most importantly, it was dry, and it was warm. The rains had begun, but nothing seeped through. The drainage ditches were operating to our advantage, redirecting the water away from us.

But then, drops of water that were sliding down the trunk of the tree began to fall, one by one, steadily onto Red’s forehead. There was nothing we could do about it. It was virtually impossible to exit our shelter. The more I thought about that, as the weight of the stick crushing my torso began to feel heavier and heavier, the more my breath quickened. Confused by the sensation of claustrophobia, which I had never experienced before, I tried to put myself in the headspace of mind over matter.

Eventually it became too intense, but I couldn’t figure out a solution.

“Red,” I said with a confused tone. “I’m claustrophobic?”

“Really? Want to switch?” my brother, who was now deep into his Chinese water torture experience, offered. It was a pointless question on my part. There was no way for Red to fit in my nook so I thanked him, but declined the offer and returned to focusing on my breathing.

Eventually my fatigue won the battle, and I dozed off.

Day 3: Cuernos

I awoke the next morning at sunrise, ecstatic to exit my suffocation chambers. Open air had never felt so freeing. I thought of the prisoners I represented in Malawi without that luxury, packed in their cells like sardines, having to rotate for sleep.

Mirador Francis was on the menu for today. Red and I began our three-hour ascent. Although we left our packs at camp, my legs felt like led so it was slow going up through the ravine.

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We were out of food. The rainy mist carried us slowly along until we reached the lookout, over the Francis Valley and up the backside of the three turrets (“Torres”)—Torres del Paine’s namesake.

We scaled a massive boulder for a better view, and Red surprised me with a handful of nuts he had been keeping for us. I’ve never been so in love with calories! After throwing them back, we hopped over the “peligroso” barricade. Red was convinced there was an aqua lake above us so we continued upward, playing “hot lava” as we hopped over the streams that had washed away our path.

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The streams soon turned into snow. Onward we climbed. A serene silence waited patiently as my brother and I debated whether there was indeed a lake on this side. It’d be another several hours until we could get to the base of the peaks to be sure—time we didn’t have on our hands. Perhaps on the other side, I convinced Red.

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Going back downhill was a relief, and my legs loosened from their stoney grip. We grabbed our packs at the campsite and continued down the other side of the W’s middle point, walking along bright, crystal cold waters…which should clue you into guessing what happened next.

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I broke out the emergency blanket as Red jumped into the arctic waters. When he exited onto the pebble beach, an elderly couple passed us, looking at Red like he was crazy and then at me as if to say, you can’t control this absurdity? I shrugged. Oh to be young, they said.

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When we reached Refugio Cuernos, we set up camp and warmed ourselves inside a hut over several forms of chocolate. Red and I couldn’t stand the smell of ourselves and decided a shower was in order.

I exited the shower shack, walking down the wooden ramp, slick from the rain, and slipped forward, landing hard onto my right knee into a knighting position. I am proud to say this was the first time on my RTW trip that I (fully) fell over! I am not known for walking with much grace…

Later, relaxing outside on the wood deck, I became engaged with a Refugio employee and musician named Lalo in a conversation about capitalism.

“Capitalism can’t sustain itself,” he said.

We discussed free versus fair trade. I relayed my involvement in the cross-border trade movement between Mexico and the U.S. He aired his concerns about the similar effects that free trade was having in Chile and then proudly described the local movements that were gathering force. We discussed MERCOSUR and the arguments in favor of and against regional trading systems and their sustainability depending on what governments and industries they are founded upon.

“We must protect the sustainability of our communities and traditions,” he concluded.

At dinner, he played traditional music.

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After a few beers with new friends, Red and I turned in for the night, but not before I fell on my face again. We laughed, and continued laughing into the tent, our conversation devolving to the point where we found ourselves gasping for air. My brother and I find ourselves laughing a lot together, although I couldn’t even hope to remember about what exactly. This instance began with the mispronunciation of the word, “narcissus.” Narcissusus. Narcissususus? Really? Yeah, Narcissusususus…? I think so? Our stomachs began to ache as tears rolled down our faces.

Independently from my experience on the Camino, Red has developed a recent fascination with sociopaths. We compared notes from our reading and about our respective experiences until we passed out.

Day 4: Los Torres and Refugio Chileno

Today was the day. Los Torres was why we had opted to explore this corner of Patagonia. We refilled our water bottles from the river and continued trekking at the foot of snowy mountains to our left and turquoise waters to our right.

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We checked in about one another’s plumbing, which had been disrupted for different reasons, laughing about the problems and pain until we broke out in song.

“O sole mio!” we shouted at the top of our lungs. It was the start of a song—or so we think—that our dad used to sing to us before bed (originally a campaign song used by the Whigs in the 1840 presidential election, I later found out). Our mom continued the tradition until our littlest sibling one day covered her three-year-old ears, stating in an upset tone, “Mom!! No more singing.” To this day, none of us quite remember the rest of the lyrics. But we continued in unison, “tippecanoe and tyler too!”

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We reached Refugio Chileno at 2 p.m. and set up camp before hanging out at a picnic bench as Red power-napped. Then we began our ascent up to Los Torres. It was a gorgeous afternoon. The sun was shining through the trees as we passed handfuls of trekkers, many just beginning the “W” from the other direction.

Red announced that he was in a bad mood, laughing at himself. I love these moments of honesty about my brother because they showcase his unparalleled openness as well as sincerity. It is because of this sincerity, from which his charm and wit flow, that when Red enters a crowded room he immediately draws everyone into his space.

When I asked what was going on in his head, he described how he was ruining the moment by thinking about the next. It was a bigger picture issue he had been confronting lately. He had begun to regularly enter this headspace on Sundays, when he grew bitter about the arrival of Monday—which then mentally creeped into his Saturdays and then Fridays—which then stretched into seasons, ruining Summer, because that meant Fall, and then Winter followed quickly thereafter. To truly live in the moment is an acquired skill for many, myself included. Traveling done right, I have found, can help solidify this headspace.

Having aired his frustration, Red began to feel better. We broke through the tree line, the landscape turning to stone. The boulders grew increasingly larger, guiding us to the turrets. There the three sisters were—all three Torres towering over an aqua lake among icy mountain peaks. We were speechless once again.

People were scattered about. Alone in their solitude. One was perched on an enormous boulder facing the setting sun, meditating. Another stood at the waters edge, looking for something in its depths.

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Red and I walked to the shore, the sun quickly settling into the peaks.

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Round two. Red handed me the emergency blanket and began peeling off layers. In he dove, gaping strangers distracted from their solitude. He made it look effortless.

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As I handed him the blanket, a guy quietly approached and offered to take our picture.

“I saw you before,” he said. “You built that shelter. Mad respect. I’m traveling with two other guys. So there are at least three other people in the world who respect you.”

My brother and I laughed again, thinking how strange it was, making a name for oneself by building a home.

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We said a silent goodbye to this moment of inspiration beneath the Torres, and began our descent back to camp.

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Red and I entertained ourselves by exchanging stories of our adventure travels. As mentioned, for one month Red and Wes backpacked throughout Alaska—survival style as they lived off the land. Despite having never fished or hunted in their lives, that is what they did. Most of the time it didn’t work out so well, and they found themselves eating plants.

Until one day Red spotted a beaver swimming across a lake. He was so focused on getting that animal into his stomach that it was only after he successfully shot the beaver and it began to sink into the icy waters that the question of how he would retrieve the animal crossed his mind.  He was left with no choice but to dive for that critter. After a few attempts, he caught a hold of its tail and began to swim up to the surface. It was enormous, and thus a struggle to get it to shore.

Hence began Red’s tradition of jumping into every arctic body of water he comes across.

Wes skinned it, winging the process with the help of his recently-acquired surgery skills in med school. He devoured as much of the beaver as he could, but Red couldn’t get more than two bites down before gagging. All the same, it got him through the next few days of hunger. Its pelt now hangs in our house…

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Red and I talked about ways in which to continue exploring the outdoors upon our return to DC, agreeing to explore Shenandoah Park and do more climbing.

We had a decent meal that evening and chatted with fellow trekkers by a fire in the Refugio’s den until we retired to our tents.

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Red and I talked about our parents, who are recent empty-nesters, and how much respect we have for them, as parents and also as individuals. This bled into a conversation about the importance of raising kids with spirituality and debating ways in which to tackle that endeavor. The stars shone through the trees and into our tent as we drifted to sleep.

Day 5: return to Puerto Natales

It was the last day on the trail, and so I awoke reminiscing about my previous hikes in New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Nepal, Greece, and Spain—all of their differences as well as similarities.

After a great deal of logistical confusion, Red and I would exit Patagonia today, making our way eventually back to Santiago after another 48 hours of travel.

The morning sun warmed us from above as we descended down the soft rolling foothills, which sloped slowly away from the mountains.

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“This landscape looks like Mongolia’s steppe,” Red observed. A few years ago, Red rode a horse through Mongolia for several weeks. His guide (a man who carried with him only a toothbrush that he tucked into one boot and a cell phone in the other) invited friends over to a hut one evening. They all arrived at the same time on horseback from various directions, as if following a smoke signal. Red recently had been attacked by a Mongolian dog (imagine 150 pounds of mass hurling itself at you) and so he was resting on the floor. In came the guys, and one went straight up to Red and laid his head down in Red’s lap, the intimacy from a straight man startling Red until he realized it was customary. In such a desolate landscape, opportunities for human connection are rare. When they happen, they run deep. Trekking by oneself for some time provides a glimpse of this human experience.

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Our discussion of Red’s travels in Mongolia morphed into a discussion about its history, Genghis Khan, and how greatly the nation changed in such a short period of time. Why? We wondered, thinking aloud about the importance of ambition in global empires. We compared Mongolia to the early Roman Empire, which emphasized this trait among its people. In many homes, for instance, people set aside an entire room for their ancestors—housing mementos as reminders of their achievements and the big shoes the next generation was expected to fill.

Red and I lamented about the apathy that has plagued so much of our generation—a quality for which I have little patience. We agreed, however, it is beginning to appear that in many ways the “me generation” is stepping up to become the leaders we’ve been waiting for—our greater sense of efficiency, creativity, and accountability surprising even ourselves.

With regard to the rest of our generation, which is still searching for identity and perhaps purpose: How do we instill ambition in people who have lost faith in the way we govern ourselves? The state of politics in the States is…let’s just say that we can and should do better. We have reached a point in history, I believe, where in many respects the values that matter most to us surpass national politics—social media and international movements having solidified more regional and universal identities. We now identify with values that leap beyond the confines of national borders and the troublesome politics they house. The state of our devolved political affairs in combination with powerful intentional movements has the potential to be either a deadly or magical recipe, depending on how we check and balance ourselves on the international stage.

Red and I reached the final Refugio, which was more like a swanky lodge, where we had a delicious sandwich, flatbread, and actual, drinkable coffee.

Three Italian guys who were just as filthy as us sat down at the table next to ours. We all smiled at each other and our shared experience.

I was outside waiting for Red when one of them came up to me and asked, “You are brother and sister?” I nodded.

“Yeah, we heard about you. Your shelter,” he laughed. “People talked about you guys all along the W.”

I smiled.

“You get along well?” he asked.

“He’s one of my very best friends.”

“I’m close with my sister too. Like twins. We do everything together. Except for this trip,” he looked over to his two friends who were waiting for him. “Have a good journey!”

Red joined me and began looking for his socks. “Klepto! I hate kleptos!” he said to no one in particular—laughing, confused. “Who steals dirty socks?” He then spotted one mate in the middle of the field. I haven’t done the wind justice in this post, but its icy gusts had been whipping at us the entire length of the trek. It had clearly taken his socks hostage. We never found the mate.

The bus system getting out of Torres del Paine is confusing as hell. What times they leave, and where they leave from are utterly unclear. Employees in the park offered contradictory information. To make a long story short, Red and I wound up taking a bus twenty minutes to the ranger station only to be told that the next bus to Puerto Natales wasn’t for another four hours.

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With nothing around, we hopped on the same bus back to the hotel, where we hung out until catching another bus back to the ranger station that afternoon, catching a second bus to Puerto Natales.

We passed under ribbons of low hanging, slate clouds. Jagged mountains of the same color jutted through to the heavens. A condor soared beside us for a while.

Red talked about relativity—matter, gravity, and their influence on space and time.

“Dark energy is the reason our universe is expanding.” He explained the effects of red light versus blue light discovered in recent relativity research. “Many top theoretical physicists are working on this now. We used to think the universe expanded and contracted, but now we know that we are steadily expanding until all the stars go out. When all life will cease to exist.”

He saw my face. “Perhaps a trillion years from now,” he offered.

Red has always been fascinated by space, which strongly informs his perspective on life. If you’ve ever looked up at the stars or walked out of a space museum and felt small, the intensity of this emotion is magnified for Red, whose day job is in the aerospace and defense industry.

After talking about how his interest in space evolved, Red inquired about the origins of my interest in international criminal justice.

“It started with AP Econ,” I explained. “Which is when I began to piece together our various international systems—from economics to politics to anthropology to legal systems to the environment—and realized the many ways that we can harness the power of these interrelated systems to solve social problems.”

Ostrich-like birds hobbled around awkwardly on the expansive planes.

We talked of destiny, whether people have control over it, and whether it even mattered.

“How do you choose what to value in life?” Red asked. For Red, it’s what makes each person happy. Grand ideas of changing the world are, at the end of the day, pointless—given our expanding universe that is steadily spinning us out into the ether, the sun burning out, the earth cooling until we vanish into nothing.

“Did Genghis Khan, the U.S. presidents, or Hitler really make a lasting impact?” Red asked rhetorically. “Humans have been around for about 200,000 years—out of billions of years…My philosophy is that people should do what makes them happy. If what makes a person happy is helping more people then that person should do that.”

“But I believe,” he continued, “that doing one nice thing for someone is essentially the same as doing that same thing for 50 people—statistically speaking—like how buying 50 lottery tickets doesn’t materially increase your chances of winning.”

To Red, personal happiness, with a strong dose of responsibility towards others and their happiness, is what matters most.

I explained that my own philosophy was flipped, being first rooted in values. From values arises happiness. (In this way, as I mentioned in my Mount Rinjani post  from Indonesia, I recognize that part of me remains rooted in the older generation.)

“It is true that for many people, their most fundamental value is happiness,” I said. “For others, it is changing the world to make it a better place for whatever time we have on this earth. If the latter value system drives you, then you’ll find satisfaction in your lifetime. Whatever your values, however, happiness is harnessed from acting on those values.”

By the time we reached Puerto Natales, we had a better understanding of both perspectives. As I was purchasing our bus tickets to Punta Arenas, I put down my boots. When I turned around, they were gone.

As I looked for them, we ran into the Welsh kayak guide, who helped with the search. I eventually spoke with a security guard, who spoke with a woman at one of the tour agencies, who then spoke with another woman. The latter approached me, smiling meekly and saying that she put my boots on a bus.

I looked at her, bewildered. “You took my boots and put them on a bus?” I asked in Spanish. I was sure there was something missing in translation. But she nodded in confirmation.

“Well I happen to need those boots. Where is the bus?”

“It’s far outside of town by now,” she said.

“Can you get them back please?” I asked. These boots were my fourth pair on this RTW trip, but they were the first that didn’t give me any problems. Because I had finished my last trek, it seemed oddly appropriate to lose them. After much confusion and back and forth, she said she would place a call to the driver. My brother and I left to grab groceries and returned half an hour later where she had my boots waiting for me. So odd.

Two hours later, we arrived in Punta Arenas where retired ships and fighter planes were plopped heavily along the shore, showing off the town’s naval history—relics of antiquated struggles to protect identity. But a reminder, all the same, of the ancestors who gave their lives to this struggle, and the big shoes our “me generation” has yet to fill.

 

Posted in Americas, Chile, Hiking, Round the World, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Istanbul: a tale of two cities

Sorry to leave you hanging on an unpleasant note for so long! And for causing concern that no more posts were in the pipeline. But alas, a few more adventures to go :).

At 4 a.m. on November 3rd, I left Roots and Boots in Santiago, Spain, to head to DC where I was scheduled to attend an orientation for my next job (although my start date wouldn’t be until December 1). After a few days of drinking my law firm’s kool-aid, I’d be heading far, far south to finish up my RTW journey.

I decided to make the most of my 40-hour trip to DC, stopping in Madrid for an afternoon where I did my best to clean up. I rather quickly wore down the patience of the women at the hair and nail salon, who clucked away at me in Spanish, instructing me to take better care of myself. “Your hair,” one woman gasped. “It’s DEAD!” And the woman who did my nails: “Old lady hands! You HAVE to carry lotion in your purse at ALL times.” They rolled their eyes at my excuses.

After that struggle, which resulted in darker hair and darker nails (only partly disguising the grime), I checked out the Prado, Royal Palace, and the National Library before racing back to the airport where I caught a flight to Istanbul.

A few weeks prior, I booked a flight to Istanbul, which is truly a tale of two cities, straddling both Europe and Asia. In light of the security advisory for US citizens, however, who have been the target of recent attacks (due to sentiments about US foreign policy regarding the Syria crisis), I decided after much internal debate to cancel. So when the cheapest flight from Spain to DC took me back through Istanbul on a layover, I decided a few hours of exploring was meant to be.

I landed at midnight and splurged on a shuttle/hotel package for personal safety reasons (I’ve been way under budget thus far, but paying the $80 still felt uncomfortable). A 29-year-old biology researcher at Columbia University and I chatted in the shuttle as it snaked through empty, winding streets.

Istanbul sparkles with a majestic aura at midnight. We turned a corner and the dark skyline opened up to reveal the Hagia Sophia. My eyes stayed glued to that centuries-old masterpiece until the Galata bridge, which guided us from Europe into Asia, peeled them away.

My brief travel companion, I soon learned, was originally from Bosnia, where he had just spent a week visiting family. Although it was nearly 1 a.m. and we were both weary from travel–our eyes bloodshot and shoulders slumped–we became grossly engaged in a discussion about the 1992-1995 Bosnian war (his exposure being personal, and mine being through the lens of international criminal law). It was a surreal moment, talking with a Bosnian man about the Srebrenica genocide against the backdrop of glowing mosques.

I woke up to the sound of another dizzying alarm at daybreak (in a large bed with pillows and clean sheets!), took a hot shower, and hit the streets of Istanbul for three hours. I approached the Galata bridge, where throngs of men monotonously cast their fishing poles into the  Marmara Sea.

Nobel Price winner, Orhan Pamuk, describes in his memoir, Istanbul: Memories of the City, a Turkish sadness that marks this city: “hüzün.” The fishermen carried this badge in their blank stares, which fruitlessly sought out a resting place on the horizon.

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The Galata bridge runs smack dab into the Yeni mosque, and behind that the spice bazaar bustles about.

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After checking the time, I began racing uphill to Istanbul’s main square, which boasts two of the world’s finest architectural achievements: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

The Hagia Sophia looked even more regal in the daylight. This originally Roman Cathedral was built in the fourth century by Constantine the Great–the first Christian emperor and the founder of Constantinople, aka “the New Rome.” One thousand years later, the Ottoman Empire reconsecrated it as a mosque, after which it served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for nearly 500 years. Then in 1934, Turkish president Kemal Atatürk turned the Hagia Sophia into the Ayasofya museum.

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Across from the Hagia Sophia, and modeled after it, is the Sultanahmet, an Ottoman mosque also known as the “Blue Mosque,” named after the 20,000 blue tiles that line the ceiling. Its namesake, Sultan Ahmet, built this Islamic place of worship in the 1600s when he was only 19-years-old. The Blue Mosque is famous for its six minarets; most mosques have four or fewer. This caused quite the scandal at the time because only the Haram Mosque in Mecca had so many minarets. The sultan quickly solved the problem, however, by sending his architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret.

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The original complex housed a madrasa (Islamic theology school), elementary school, hospital, market, imaret (public soup kitchen/pilgrim housing), and Sultan Ahmet’s tomb–most of which were torn down in the 1800s.

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I spent too long taking pictures. Men were approaching, closely, and asking if I was American. Canadian, I lied. Skepticism radiated from their faces and cocked hips so I exited the area quickly and strode back to the hotel in under an hour, making it just in time before the shuttle left for the airport. Its proudly Turkish driver–in a markedly hüzün tone–gave me a cliff-notes history lesson.

And then off I flew to DC for five days. Back to suits and heels…

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Posted in Europe, Round the World, Travel, Turkey | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

At the end of the world with Jesus and Narcissus

(Updated)

This was not a pleasant post to write. Nor was Spain’s Camino de Santiago a pleasant hike. I write very much off the cuff, but remind you at the outset that my experience is but one. And an unusual one at that. The camino offers a beautifully transformative experience for thousands of pilgrims every year. My hope, therefore, is that this entry does not dissuade anyone from embarking upon their own camino. You will see that my experience was shaped very much by, as this blog emphasizes, the individuals I met along the way. And unfortunately, there were no mountains to keep me company when things went especially downhill, and downhill fast…as in, again, less than 48 hours.

My camino, marked by–perhaps ironically–intense narcissism, left little space for my intended reflection on my RTW journey thus far. I had been anticipating that because the road to Finisterre, viewed as the “end of the world” by its pilgrims, would be relatively-speaking flat (although I’d be clocking over 30 km a day) and the weather mild, that I finally would have some head space to myself. I was in for a rude awakening.

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My struggle for solitude began at 11 p.m. on Monday, October 27th, when I arrived in Santiago at my hostel, fittingly named Roots and Boots. After checking in, I explored the back courtyard, settling into a bench beneath a tree for a moment. I’m sure I came across as creepy, hanging out in the shadows by myself, when a few minutes later a sweet college girl approached and asked why I was alone. She invited and then pleaded me to join her and her friends for drinks and music. They hailed from Holland and had just finished a symphony performance in town. Terrible 70s covers were slipping through the window from their radio. I thanked her for her kindness.

Day 1: Santiago to Vilaserio

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At dawn, I strapped on my pack and left Roots and Boots to track down the camino. (For the record, I was not doing the “traditional” route, which ends at Santiago’s Cathedral. Instead, I started at the Cathedral and walked four days to Finisterre, a town in Spain’s northwest corner–its Atlantic once thought to be end of the world.)

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I followed the route through town until I exited into a forest that was just beginning to crisp from the delayed autumn. A smattering of burgundy leaves, still clinging tightly to their branches, was dulled by the cozy cloud cover. About a mile in, I came across a tent with a sign out front that welcomed donations from and for fellow pilgrims. The tent, looking well-loved with worn fabric and grimy streaks of dirt, was zipped closed.

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Other than smiling locals, I had most of the morning to myself. Then came along Jesus, or so it appeared. He was at a corner, shedding a layer with great difficulty–his waist-long, black hair getting caught in his jacket. We exchanged smiles. This encounter was like most others that first day: the faces were kind and the exchanges, brief and heartfelt. Spain was finally giving me some breathing room, enough for me to notice my heart–that raw muscle we don’t flex nearly enough. Aware of its beat, I knew this road of reflection would have its own challenges in store–but, unexpectedly, they were challenges that carried me away from the heart.

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The sun broke through in the afternoon. The leaves, knocked free by the wind, cupped and carried beams of light–having traveled over 90 million miles in just eight minutes–their final, tired distance to the earth, where they then in turn warmed and settled the leaves into their new, unfamiliar home.

At some point I was surprised to find, given the flat terrain, that my legs were throbbing terribly, a first on this RTW trip. I checked the map and realized how fast I had been walking–that I was doubling my mileage. My muscles seemed to be transitioning from a steady to more rigorous pace, as I had been subconsciously making up for the absence of mountains. I tried to slow down a bit so as to avoid finishing the camino too quickly.

A woman passed me, and we exchanged brief greetings–she hailed from Minnesota. I considered asking where she started her camino, but her energy, and the fact that she was sweating bullets through a heavy winter jacket, suggested that she was having a rough day and preferred her own bubble. Respecting that, I wished her a buen camino, allowing her to speed ahead.

Thirty four kilometers later, past the typical stopping point at Negreira, I retired at an Albergue whose owner, after showing me the room, apologized for the fact that I would be in the company of only men that night. At the time, I barely paid him any mind, saying it wasn’t a problem. I dropped off my pack and checked out the bar–lined for the most part with men in their 50s and 60s. Later that evening, after several of bottles of wine, one of the men fell off his chair and the owner, with the help of another trekker, dragged him to bed. I kept to myself at a table, writing and eating a dinner of prosciutto and eggs.

Until an abrasive, if I may be so unkind, 30-year-old farmer from Italy sat down across from me and began an hour long monologue about his camino. Which entailed detailed descriptions of his blisters, aches and pains, and head fucks he struggled through. I had uttered perhaps ten words before he ordered shots and began showing me photos on his phone from the beginning of his journey and up through the Pyrenees.

After he slung a few insults at me for rejecting his advances, I wrapped things up and walked back to the sleeping quarters, explaining that I was going to write in the common area. He bid me goodnight, and then returned a few minutes later. He sat down beside me, took out his phone again, and began to play the video of the final procession in the Santiago Cathedral. Although I had had enough, watching the priests swing the incense in unison through the high arches of the singing church, offered me some insight into the emotion that people feel upon completing their long journey.

Day 2: to Olveiroa

“Are you a pilgrim or a model?” he asked. I was finishing up my coffee outside the Albergue when a middle-aged man with a white pack sat down for breakfast.

“Model,” I said with a straight face, getting up from the table to get a head start.

Wearing the same boots in which I trekked through Nepal–that were one size too small–my remaining toenail was feeling it today, and I figured it wouldn’t be long before that one popped off too. I hadn’t managed to slow my pace, and so my muscles were aching with an intensity they hadn’t felt since a marathon I had run a year ago.

I entered a forest and was greeted by mini monarch butterflies. They fluttered among the falling leaves, which glowed amber under the soft morning light as gusts of wind gently coaxed more and more of them loose from their branches.

At one point I passed a guy who launched into a lengthy explanation about the evolution of his blister development over the course of the camino. “It’s a tough road,” he proclaimed. “Not for the weak of heart.”

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And then, as I paused to remove my jacket, the man with the white pack approached. I had to explain to him that this camino was for me and that I wanted to walk it alone. He ignored me, talking for several minutes about a restaurant I needed to check out two kilometers behind us. I pretended to rearrange my pack as he carried on. I then stated, again, that I was doing my own camino, and so he continued onward, unfazed.

It was at this point that I put in my headphones, singing out of key at the top of my lungs and dancing maniacally. Fellow trekkers stayed clear. The local elders paused to lean on their canes and smile, sometimes offering a waive.

In the late afternoon, the winds began to slide slowly over the farmlands, stirring up the smell of pungently fresh cow manure. A friend of mine in high school, who had grown up with horses, once confessed her love of this warm aroma, which reminded her of home. I hadn’t quite reached that point, but after trekking through fields of sheep in New Zealand, water buffalo in Vietnam, yaks in Nepal, and now dairy cows in Spain, I found the smell…grounding?

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The unbending road cut straight through the pastures as far as the eye could see. The winds picked up, spreading twilight across the open plains. I closed my eyes and stretched my arms out above.

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Then Jesus suddenly appeared. He had good energy so I didn’t mind. His name is Ben, and he’s from Virginia. He had been camping in the woods wherever he found shelter, asking whether I had noticed the tent just outside Santiago. I said I had.

“Yeah, it wasn’t so bad,” he said, although it got my pack pretty dirty. We chatted a bit more before he continued onward.

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We wound up staying at the same Albergue, where I shared my beer and he, one of the apples he had picked along the road.

“They’re so small and flavorful!” He exclaimed.

I took a bite as the juice spilled over my lip. “Wow,” I said, not having tasted fruit in weeks.

“And this one I didn’t even have to scale a tree for, it was just lying on the ground, waiting for me!”

“Uh huh,” I said, pausing mid-bite, hoping that some microorganism wasn’t currently at work on my GI system.

This 20-year-old was taking time off from college to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. His parents had recently gotten a divorce and so he found himself following in his brother’s footsteps without asking himself what his own desires and aspirations were. He was hiking hundreds of kilometers to figure it out. Music, he decided, but he was still mulling over just how to pursue it.

He went to grab his guitar, and I delved into my draft of the Nepal trek. I was in the thick of it, mentally and emotionally, when the man with the white backpack arrived and sat down at the table next to me. He offered to buy me a beer, which I politely declined.

And then the questions and unrelated monologues began.

He asked me my name. His was Daniel. For the last few decades he had been working as an engineer on an oil platform. Not five minutes later, he again asked for my name, and where I went to law school. He then focused on his phone for a bit. I thought he had gotten the hint. But all to quickly he had pulled up my CV and published articles and began questioning me on their various topics.

“Are you stalking me?” I finally asked.

“You intrigue me,” he said. I stared blankly. “You talk out of the left side of your mouth.” This was not the first nor last man who has been mislead by my slightly crooked smile. “It’s genetic,” I said, “don’t worry about it.”

“Do you know who the most miserable people on the planet are?” He asked, not pausing for my response. “They’ve actually collected data on this: middle-aged, female attorneys who don’t have a husband or kids.” He raised an eyebrow.

I raised both in return.

Then I heard to my right, over the patio banister, a camera click. I glanced over and saw a man looking in my direction. Unbelievable.

I didn’t want to leave because it was the only bar with internet, and I was in my writing headspace so I just continued my attempt to ignore everything and everyone. The man with the camera came up to me and said the photo was for his daughter who was studying in San Diego. I told him that asking for permission was not out of the realm of possibilities.

Before Daniel decided to retire for the evening, I did learn a thing or two from his monologuing about the region. We were guests on Galician homeland. Galicians (who, many argue, have Celtic roots) occupy the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, relying primarily upon agriculture and fishing. They speak Castilian Spanish and Galician.

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A distinct characteristic about Galicia is the elevated, rectangular stone structures that typically have crosses perched on top. They are not for the dead, as it may appear to some, but for corn. The farmers store their harvest there in the winter months to keep them from moisture and rats. Wedged between the top of each stone leg and the body is a flat, stone disk whose extension beyond the base of the storage space prevents rats from climbing up to feast on the corn.

Daniel asked if I had picked up on anything strange about this town, to which I said not in particular although there was an elderly man who seemed to be discreetly keeping his eye out on the general state of affairs. He had been hanging out at a particular corner and peering in various directions, his energy distinct from the others I had encountered. Not your typical old man who watches the clouds and cows go by.

We were on drug trafficking territory, he said. Which is when I noticed the periodic appearance of dark SUVs, their flashy wealth standing in contrast to the humble farmland. Daniel explained how the drugs are trafficked through the region.

It had grown dark by the time he left, and a handful of backpackers were throwing back beers on the other side of the porch. The girl from Minnesota had arrived and asked me to join them, apologizing for not being friendly earlier. I said I would join after finishing up my writing. A guy from France then sat down across from me and offered his life story, his talking points not yet refined. He’d be off on one tangent and then a second, only to forget his original thread. “Wait, I think I was saying…let me back up.” This computer scientist turned professional poker player gave me a lesson on why Thailand, not Laos is a better place to play poker. The risks in Laos are too high given the lack of infrastructure–if the electricity were to go out, for example, he could be royally screwed. So he decided to set up shop for a while on an island off the coast of Thailand.

Then one day he and a friend spontaneously decided they wanted to trek across China. First they had to get in shape. And that’s how he found himself on the camino. “I lost 20 kilos!” He said proudly. “But I don’t want to do China anymore. I need to return to France to make money. Let me tell you about my damn blisters!” He wailed, and the show and tell began.

By this point, sobriety had long vanished among the fellow pilgrims. They were all shouting madly out of tune to classic rock songs that Jesus, I mean Ben, strummed out on his guitar, uniting almost everyone.

The girl from Minnesota came over, slurring her words into her long, blond hair that she had let down for the evening.

“That guy, Daniel,” she said, “I hate him. He made me feel so bad about myself. He said that I’m lost, that I should apply myself more. That I’m too old to be working at a Whole Foods fish market. And that I need to find myself. He likes you, though.” She swayed back and forth to the music, nearly falling over backward and gripping my wrist. “He wants a trophy wife, like for sure.”

I told this 34-year-old woman not to let him get to her. This was her life and she can choose to live it in whatever way she chooses. If that meant working at a fish market, then to own that decision. Also, that Daniel was no different than anyone else on the camino–most roamed its path to find some sense of greater meaning. And there was no shame in that. She smiled and hugged me, nearly passing out on my shoulder.

The poker player bought us terrible vodka shots. I begrudgingly slung one back, but when the second round came out immediately thereafter, I made up a new rule for the camino–no hard alcohol.

“You just took one though!” people shouted in an octave as if I were thirty feet away rather than three.

“Yeah, oops, forgot,” I smiled. “Mil gracias.” I gave my shot to an appreciative fellow pilgrim.

I gave Ben the thumbs up on his guitar skills, which he had talked down earlier in the evening, and left to go hit the hay.

Day 3: to Muxia

In the early morning hours, I wound through several small towns where teenagers did their chores, hosing down the pavement or raking leaves out front as their parents busied themselves in the fields out back. Trellises showed off magnificently strong vines that flaunted the first colors of age, becoming more gracefully notable.

An elderly gentleman, whom I had been seesawing with on this morning’s walk, approached as I paused for water.

“Excuse me, we have same pace,” he said cautiously in broken English. “We walk together?” I paused just long enough mid-drink for him to think that a further explanation was warranted. “I want to practice my English,” he offered. The spark in his eyes wasn’t bright enough to cover the loneliness settled deeply behind them.

“I’m doing the camino alone,” I tried to explain as kindly as possible. “But we can speak during lunch at the next town.” The spark quickly dissolved, and he said that he was, eh, disappointed, and waived goodbye.

I entered the town of Senande and decided to stop for a bite, although the man wasn’t in sight. I ducked into a bar where a sweet grandfather took special care with the ham and cheese sandwich he prepared for me.

“You are hiking in the right direction,” he stated assuredly in Spanish. He relayed a story in disbelief of a woman who decided to hike the opposite direction, going to Finisterre before Muxia. The result: an absurdly expensive helicopter ride and a subsequent lawsuit against the Spanish government for restitution. “It wasn’t her fault,” he opined. “The government needs to mark that direction better. Politicos!” He sighed. “Another man who stopped here at my bar, left for the camino only to wind up doing a full circle, returning to my bar. I gave him a ride to set him on the right path.”

Upon my departure, he gave me a placemat with a more detailed map of the trail.

As I was wondering how on god’s earth anyone could lose their way on the camino–given the shell trail markers that are placed every quarter mile or so–two guys approached me from the opposite direction, saying they were hopelessly lost. They had done two full circles, winding up at the same spot each time. I walked them back to a road and pointed them in the right direction.

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I put in my headphones and slowed down my music. “Little Talks,” by Monsters and Men came on. Suddenly, a butterfly nearly twice the size of its brothers and sisters fluttered onto my heart. Caught off guard, I swiped it away. He circled around, unfazed, and stretched out its wings to glide alongside me for a few steps.

Later in the afternoon, I passed the gentleman from this morning and slowed to offer some company. Philip is his name, a French fireman who just retired after 41 years of service. “Now, I deserve time for me,” he said, jabbing his thumb into his chest. He began the camino from his home the day after he retired, passing through a town where his mother lived to visit her for a few days. She had just had heart surgery. I got a significant slice of his life story, closed out with a commentary on the camino hardships–his blisters, aches and pains, head fucks–before we parted ways.

I arrived at the ocean in Muxia, solo, right as the sun began to kiss the distance waters. Everything glistened–the sand I walked barefoot upon, the rocks that lined the harbor and its ships, and the shell trail marker welcoming my arrival with a smiley face.

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I passed a colorful hostel in which a person sitting in its window was laying out seashells on a table. I continued onward to scope out the next hostel and upon seeing a group of men watching me out front, doubled back to the first hostel. Prayer flags greeted me inside, which felt like a sign. In Spanish, I asked a man in red if there were rooms available. He smiled shyly and said he didn’t speak Spanish. I laughed at my assumption that he worked there, apologetically touching his arm. I repeated myself in English. He said he wasn’t sure, but the owner would be returning soon. He returned to the front table and went to work on his seashells.

The skies opened a deluge minutes before the owner walked in, soaked. She worked there as a volunteer, as many do in the Albergues, for six months out of the year. To do this job, she leaves behind in the Czech Republic her husband and two twenty-something-year-old children.

I ran through the rain to pick up groceries for dinner–a baguette, avocado, prosciutto, and a bottle of wine. And chocolate of course. (It will be a sad moment when I can no longer pack away a bar a day.) Returning to the hostel, the man in red and I made dinner in silence. At some point I broke it and learned that his name was K and that he was from Quebec. He had deep, dark eyes, though not penetrating, and a romantically mocha complexion with jet black hair. Until the day of layoffs, he had for years worked in a warehouse. Now, he dreams of being a philosopher, and plans to apply for graduate school upon his return. His heroes are Socrates and Plato.

This was his first time outside his home country, the first time trekking, and the first time he had spoken Spanish (which it turns out he did indeed speak, quite well). Bold, I thought. He had just finished his 760 km trek, stopping just one day before reaching Finisterre. “I just feel I’ve done enough,” he explained. His big toes poked through both sneakers. “No blisters,” he said proudly.

With few exchanges over the next hour, our connection was refreshing in light of the last few days. Perhaps it was only because he was slightly removed, but I appreciated the emotional space. In spite of the distance, he exuded a particular *charisma that carried with it a slight *sexuality.

He invited me out for a beer, and then we decided to explore the rocky cliffs, scrambling over wet boulders. The rain had stopped, but the heavy mist from the sea coated our faces as we discussed the ancients. Socrates, how he never wrote down a word, only questioned the foundation of everyone’s beliefs. His disciple, Plato. I introduced Montaigne, how presumptive it was, he had argued, to believe in a God. How we must humble ourselves, live our lives according to religious principles because it bettered humanity, and then accept whatever comes our way in the afterlife. I soon found that K wasn’t registering a thing I said.

After a while, we laid down side-by-side and stared at a few dim stars that had snuck out between the clouds. I allowed him to kiss me. And then things felt off, although I couldn’t yet place why.

We walked back under the dark moody sky, and I kept my distance.

Day 4: to Finisterre

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K decided he wanted to properly finish the camino after all. “Can I walk with you?” He asked.

“I’m doing it alone,” I said, “but we can meet up in Finisterre.” Yet we wound up setting off together. And soon, after K oddly insisted that we follow a narrow path that bore no relation to the road we were on, found ourselves in a swampy farm field. We trudged upward. K said it was my job to get us out of this mess, and dropped behind me in silence. An hour later, with water logged boots, we broke through to a road, had to backtrack to the trail, and finally began our true start to the day.

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This intensely testostone-filled, brooding romantic who loves his Disney explained to me his “Gemini nature.” How he has an intense internal flame yet always composes himself in the moment.

At one point, he referred to my green eyes, which came across not as a compliment, although perhaps it was intended that way, but rather as an observation. The only other unyielding romantic in my life–my first boyfriend–after dating me for eight months, wrote me a poem that emphasized my green eyes. They’re blue, I informed K.

It was clearly irrelevant.

The darkness that follows this *narcissistic individual grew increasingly stronger. He kept repeating “how unfair it all was.” I initially had no idea what he was talking about. Over a short period of time, however, he somehow made it known, without ever saying so, that I was the one for him. Never mind that he had not asked me a single question, or at least one in which he listened to my response. More eerily, never mind that he never expressed any *emotion. Not only with regard to how he felt about me, but about anything. No energy, positive or negative, flowed from this man. His actions were at times endearing (the seashells, a brief smile, saying that he was worried we hadn’t paid for our coffee before I told him that I had covered it). But I felt certain that if I were to peel away his mask, I’d find only stone.

It was odd, how he made known his *detached attachment, which felt strongly *possessive, without a glint of emotional response to me, and certainly without having considered how I felt about him. His repetition of certain phrases that demonstrated a desire to be together forever felt increasingly like some sort of attempted *manipulation–trampling over my statements of not wanting to be together as if that would eventually persuade me to his side of the equation.

But he never actually argued, or used reason to try and convince me, leaving me with the belief that perhaps he was just naive, having not experienced much of the world nor its inhabitants yet. *At the age of 28, he had had only one girlfriend (a relationship that lasted a few months) and one true friend.

I said bluntly that I didn’t feel the same way about him. Perhaps discussing my feelings was not an effective tactic since at best he found them irrelevant, or worse, a window into which I could be manipulated. In any event, he again didn’t appear to even register what I had said as he continued to repeat himself.

When I didn’t have my headphones in, I kept our topics of conversation philosophical in nature to remove him from anything “us” related. We debated various institutional ideologies–religion, political systems, marriage. I relayed what Oli (my trekking partner on Mount Rinjani) had educated me about with regard to the institution of marriage in Quebec. K vehemently disagreed. “Marriage is definitely still an important institution. If you do anything other than marry, it’s a cop out.”

It took me a while, but I realized that whenever I spoke, at times for several sentences, he’d interrupt and ask absentmindedly, “what?” Causing me to repeat myself all over again. And then of course he didn’t listen to my response anyway. I grew weary of the habit and asked whether I wasn’t being clear. “It’s just something I’m used to asking on the road,” he said, “from hearing people speak in Spanish.”

A while later, I said I was going to drop behind. I put in my headphones.

My tiny boots were grinding away at various pressure points, the boggy earth we slogged through this morning having seeped in, causing my skin to slide this way and that. I changed socks and discovered two amazingly massive blisters that had boiled out, one on the ball of my left foot and the other on the side of right big toe. I turned up Chromeo a few decibels.

A few hours later, I came across K on a stone bridge, basking in the sun. I breaked to be polite, but typically disliked doing so because of the loss of momentum. We sat on the ledge, dangling our legs over the rushing stream not far below. Let’s go swimming, he said. No. Minutes later: follow me to those trees over there. No.

We continued onward.

“Do you mind if I walk with you?” Pause. “You can listen to your music.”

By not saying anything, I conceded. But it wasn’t long before we found ourselves debating something or another. His logic, or lack thereof, baffled me.

A gun went off. And then I saw two men in camouflage loitering by their rusted out truck.

“It makes me nervous that we’re hiking through the forest in hunting season,” I said. No response. “Have you ever shot a gun?” He chuckled awkwardly.

“WHAT have you shot?”

* “A cat.”

! … “Explain.”

“It broke my guitar.”

“Again, explain.”

“It knocked over a mirror, which fell on top of my guitar.”

“So you grabbed a pistol and shot the cat?”

“No, I grabbed the cat, walked it over to my parents, and then grabbed a pistol. Shot it.”

“And…whose cat was this?”

“My roommate’s girlfriend.” I naturally asked whether she ever discovered what had happened.

“No, she never found out.”

*There was no hint of shame, or even remorse. He continued, in a tone of disbelief: “I once told a girl this story and she was shocked…But my guitar…” He trailed off.

I was suddenly wishing that the other two men with guns were around. What I had pegged as narcissistic tendencies in K no longer seemed to capture the full picture. I wondered whether he instead fell somewhere on the sociopath spectrum. His manipulation attempts were so unconvincing, though, that I pushed the thought aside.

Then, when the late afternoon sun trickled through the rust-colored trees, he stretched out his arms above, turning around to blow me a kiss with both hands.

He threw back his head and laughed without smiling.

It seemed like eternity, but we finally reached the end of the world. Its sharp, metallic sea stretching out long beneath a setting sun.

Ben suddenly appeared at the end of the block. Barefoot with dripping wet hair, he carried an inviting grace about him. We embraced, and I introduced him to K, who solemnly nodded. Ben had just jumped into the ocean and was racing back to town to grab beers before the sun fully set. I said we’d join him, knowing that K was displeased. As Ben ran to the tienda, K and I dropped off our packs at an Albergue, where I insisted that we stay in a dorm as opposed to a private room. Minutes later, Ben arrived with cold beer in hand. We walked down the zigzagging boardwalk to the beach as the earth made its evening rotation, dipping that magnificently orange orb below the water to rest its Spanish land.

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Ben handed me the beers as he ran off to grab his guitar from a camp he had discovered upon his arrival–a hippie commune tucked away in the trees 200 yards behind us.

* “I don’t like people,” K sulked. “Too much noise.”

I said nothing, cracking open a beer. Ben returned and sat to my left, as animated and elevated as ever, trying to politely draw in K, sitting to my right. He gave up and began to strum out Neutral Milk Hotel.

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Sitting cross-legged amidst this paradox, with Jesus on one side and sociopathic Narcissus on the other, I watched the waves crash onto the rocks beneath the sky’s fading purple streaks. The end of the world. At least that’s what our ancestors once thought.

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A group of screaming pilgrims, one of whom I recognized as Alma from the bar in Olveiroa, came racing down the dunes to join us. Alma fell to her knees in front of us, and then over into a backbend, her shaved head sinking into the sand.

“I’m so alive I could die right here!” she shouted upside down into the ocean. “I could dieeee!” She then stood up, took off her pants and went running into the icy ocean, a dog from out of nowhere joining her. Together they leapt through the waves and then rolled and wrestled on top of each other in the sand.

Ben had transitioned to Sublime as we passed cans of beer and bottles of wine around. K said nothing, staring hard in the opposite direction of everyone. I tried to pay him no mind.

“We’ve reached the end of the camino!” A woman whooped.

“End of the camino?” A man responded, confused. “This is just the beginning.”

K said to me that he had to call his uncle, who was supposed to be picking him up in France at that very moment. I asked why *he didn’t call earlier this morning before we left, but didn’t get a response. K continued to be silently impatient, then tried to persuade me to *leave the group so that he could call his uncle, after which we should “really go to dinner.”

“Go back to the hostel to call your uncle and I’ll meet up with you later,” I said. “I want to stay here a while.” He left.

I enjoyed the remainder of the darkening sky and crashing waves with the laughter of strangers.

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After handing Ben money for the beer, I returned to the hostel, regrettably putting up my wall, and went to dinner with K–a pub where we feasted on fresh fish and potatoes and watched a Barcelona match. K again launched into the “it isn’t fair” discussion. Why did I have to live in DC? It was so far. But, he said, he’d come to visit.

“K,” I sternly explained, “you have to learn to enjoy the now. It’s passing by quickly and then we won’t ever see each other again. I value our friendship, but this isn’t going anywhere.”

Why is life so unfair.

I was fed up. No words I uttered had any impact on him so I embraced my own bubble, and entertained myself with the locals.

Day 5: back to Santiago

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The next morning it poured. K and I walked along the harbor in the rain where some old men rowed out to sea while others huddled up over beers in a local cafe. We joined the latter for cover and coffee when the storm picked up with fierce intensity. The men inside kicked around a soccer ball as I stared out into the rainy harbor, making eye contact with a pilgrim I had seen on the camino. He smiled pleasantly at me as water streamed down his face, plastering locks of black curls to his strong jawline. I wanted to run out and hug him.

When the skies cleared, K and I sat on the beach to pass the time before the bus left for Santiago. K instructed me to lie down with him. I refused.

“You have a fight between your head and heart,” he said.

“That used to be the case,” I corrected.

I had grown irritable–an emotion with which I am most unfamiliar–but had resigned myself to his company for the rest of the day since we were on the same bus back to Santiago. Why didn’t I break off this unfortunate engagement long ago, you ask? Perhaps the very evening when I felt off about things?

I am not entirely sure, I confess. I wondered whether it was due to my issue with loyalty–in that I stick things out with people too long out of a feeling of duty. Why, at my age, it takes me so long to realize that removing myself is even a possibility is beyond me. I wish I had some noble excuse for this, but I do not. It is something that I have been working on as I travel around the world–the brevity of relationships on the road forcing me to act on my instincts earlier than I otherwise would. This particular instance, it seems, was rooted in my tendency to focus less so on K’s dark ego, and more so on his childish traits–his immaturity, naïveté, lofty goals of being a philosopher and moments of charm–all of which stirred up my inner guardian. Something made me feel that it wouldn’t be right to leave him behind, and that, just perhaps, I could teach him a thing or two about this complex world in which he was so clearly lost.

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“You have a dark personality,” I said, fed up with his sulkiness about not getting what he wanted.

“How can you say that about someone who collects seashells?” Not caring about my response, he continued, “Do you believe in Paradise?

“If it includes all of life’s beautiful imperfections then yes.”

“No,” he insisted, “I mean where everything is perfect.” I didn’t even know what he meant by that. * “I believe in paradise,” he said. “After life.” (*No matter that he had only yesterday explained that he wasn’t religious nor did he believe in heaven.) “Where there is no pain,” he continued. “No loss. Only perfection.”

“Perfection can’t exist without imperfection,” I said. “You can’t have the sweet without the sour,” I quoted some movie I had recently watched in Barcelona.

“All I have is faith,” he said morosely, staring blankly out to sea. He opined again that he wanted to be together, but never sorted out how it would ever, in the realm of the impossible, be feasible.

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I shifted the conversation to a controversial debate, something that could distract him for a while. (Having figured out his personality twist, I no longer feared a potential outlash of anger.) “So what are your opinions on abortion–both personal and in terms of policy?”

“I’m against it,” he said

“And what about in cases of rape?”

“I’m not going to say yes, I’m not going to say no.”

I just looked at him.

“It’s the man’s problem,” he offered. I asked, sincerely, how that answered the question.

“It’s just the man’s problem.” I again stared blankly. He offered no commentary about the value of the child’s life or other points grounded in some semblance of logic.

“It’s like insurance,” he said. After a few minutes of ranting about home insurance, it was clear he was lost so I stopped pushing. A few minutes later, I wrapped things up, and we headed to the bus station.

“I want to find a private room in Santiago,” he began.

“I already booked a bed for myself in a hostel dorm.”

“They probably have a private room.”

“I already paid.”

Several hours later, we arrived in Santiago where a heavy dampness coated everything, the fall flu and cold having settled in, plaguing pale faces and coughing throats.

K was out of cash so we stopped at an ATM. When he tried to take out money, it became clear that his bank had put his account on hold since he hadn’t warned them of his international travel ahead of time. Apparently he had realized this problem a week ago at another ATM, but *had done nothing about it. We tried several banks before one, which hadn’t yet been alerted by his own bank, finally spit out money.

He grabbed a bed in my hostel, wanting to make out in a room of twelve sleeping trekkers.

I was done with him. I was done with the camino. And now I am done with this post.

–Dee

*One in 25 people are sociopaths and are missing all or part of their conscious. So that you, and others, can learn more, here is a list sociopathic traits that I pulled from some brief research (if you find this list to be in any way inaccurate, please feel free to offer corrections). As with any other human, sociopaths carry a range of personality traits. All of the following boxes need not be checked.

*initial charm or charisma–in contrast to later behavior
*oftentimes radiate sexuality
*exceptionally intelligent
*ego
*selfishness
*neediness
*manipulation and control
*antisocial behavior
*isolating themselves and/or others
*few real friends, if any
*eerily calm in the context of highly emotional events
*outwardly calm, but can snap at any moment
*violent behavior (e.g. harming animals or people)
*no feelings of shame, remorse, guilt (refusal to accept blame; blames others)
*lying
*immaturity (e.g. not learning from mistakes)
*irresponsibility

The difference between Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and Antisocial or Sociopathic Personality Disorder (APD) has historically caused a great deal of controversy in the mental health field. Here are two resources that offer some insight, however, into the Narcissist versus the Sociopath:

1. Narcissistic vs. Antisocial or Sociopathic Personality Disorders
2. Narcissist or Sociopath? What’s the Difference?

The advice? “Do not validate the Narcissist and do not entertain the Sociopath.”

How we treat these individuals, socially and medically, is beyond my field of expertise, but is certainly something that our society must learn to better address.

Posted in Europe, Hiking, Round the World, Spain, Travel | 6 Comments

Barcelona: of and for independence

We first collided months ago in the desert, a place we fiercely feel is home, a place that transformed us both, independently, he taken aback by his walls vanishing and I, my heart opening. He used the word first, but we are both drawn to the other’s magnetism, likely in part because we are cut from a similar cloth, and are all too easily seduced by adventure. Our bond is thus uniquely rooted in a deep, and yet arms-length intimacy.

And so Barcelona was a thrill, spending, again, less than 48 hours exploring its history, charm, and rolling hills above an expansive, shining sea.

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I have a soft spot for this proudly autonomous place. Today, Catalonia–a region that comprises four provinces, one of which is Barcelona–is holding a referendum on independence that has been deemed illegal by the Spanish government. I’ve been to Barcelona on two other occasions, but this time felt more personal.

I landed on a Saturday evening, and he picked me up to go wander the eclectic streets of the Born neighborhood, once a medieval jousting site and now home of the Picasso museum. We ducked into a Peruvian joint for a bite and then hopped around its various bars. Eventually we split at my hostel, and I sat on the stoop for some evening autumn air.

Minutes later a guy rode up on his fixie and screeched to a halting stop several feet away.

“Oh,” he said, looking at me. “Can I stand here?” I raised an eyebrow. “You’re not scared of me, huh.”

“Why in the world would I be,” I stated, perplexed. He pointed to his arm. I raised the other eyebrow.

“People are scared of black folks here,” he shrugged. “I’m from Belgium and my mama, my name is Curtis by the way, I’m a DJ…” He was off on a rant about his ADHD, how his mama refused to medicate him as a child, how his girlfriend of seven years broke up with him because she didn’t appreciate him, how there were so many paradoxes in this world, “let me just give you a few examples and yeah, classism and shit, shit’s real, crazy, capitalism and the like, we gotta change! Can I sit?”

He sat on the stoop, lit a cigarette, and so I joined his steam of consciousness. Until another guy approached, also in his mid-thirties. With a menacing look, he approached us and asked whether there was a problem….

“Nope, no problem,” I said. But he got in Curtis’s face, glaring at him silently. They were blocking the door to my hostel so I tried distracting him with questions, but he ignored me. “What do you want?” I finally asked.

“I want you.” For real?? I decided before things blew up that the better option was to try and shove my way through them rather than loiter around for the fight. Curtis then created enough space behind him that I was able to squeeze by, ring the bell repeatedly until the hostel unlocked the door, and–after pushing both of their hands out of the way–stepped inside.

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The next morning, my friend picked me up on his moto, and we spent the entire day exploring the city under an unusually warm October sun: beers on the beach, the Sagrada Familia (to no one’s surprise, nope, still not finished, but there’s been considerable progress with the interior in recent years), and–in that moving twilight hour–the hills sloping high above the city and quiet sea.

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He exposed me to a mid-nineteenth century urban planner, Ildefons Cerda, and the philosophy behind his design of Eixample, one of the neighborhoods we had explored earlier in the day. Cerda’s vision for urban design at the time was visionary. With traffic, sunlight, and ventilation having been taken into account, the 7.5 square kilometer district is marked by a grid pattern with long, wide avenues and octagonal city blocks (distinctly Barcelona). Cerda’s goal was to tackle several social problems by allowing greater sunlight for housing, opening up space for gardens, and angling the street corners to allow a long turning radius for steam trams. The city planners, sadly, did not embrace much of his vision–refusing to install steam trams, to name just one example–and so Cerda’s vision for urban space was scarcely achieved. He vanished quietly from much of history.

Until recently. Over the last few years, the city has begun to implement Cerda’s concept of public green spaces behind buildings whenever a business is relocated for instance–the goal being to create one garden every nine blocks.

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That evening, I discovered that my hostel was booked up so my friend kindly opened his home. You fellow long-term travelers know how your skin prickles when entering such a space–be it a positive or negative association. For me, the comforts of a home for an evening–a quiet couch upon which to write, towel, and clean, comfortable bed (memory foam!)–warmed the soul.

That night we ate delectable Lebanese cuisine–a first for me.

And then more mouth watering food the next morning at brunch! I spent the larger part of the afternoon wandering through one of my favorite places in the world: Park Guell, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built between 1900 and 1914. Magical, how creatively and seamlessly Gaudi wove nature through his architectural designs.

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The time came for me fly to Santiago where I was to begin a four-day hike along the Camino de Compostela–a pilgrimage upon which people embark that takes them to the “end of the world.”

This brief and yet treasured connection and I came to an agreement about the heart. How it’s possible to feel an unbelievable magnetic pull to a person, and yet still not quite reach the inexplicable “it” factor.

In the simple words of Flo Rida’s anthemic pop song, Let it Roll: “Love is nice when it’s understood. Even nicer when it makes you feel good.”

There will always be some magic in this world that we have to trust with an unconditional confidence–a confidence that enables us to let go of our innate fear of not understanding.

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“Thanks for being you,” we said to one another. And then, loaded up with deep affection, fresh music, and a farewell kiss, I was off to begin my pilgrimage.

Posted in Europe, Round the World, Spain, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Santorini, with a kama sutra closing

Before I left for Santorini, I met two people in Athens who were in town for an international travel writer’s convention. First, I met a woman from London who quit the practice of law to freelance. I then met Nathaniel Boyle, who hails from Boston and runs the Daily Travel Podcast, the only daily travel podcast in the world. I love his philosophy: “The only way to uncover the best experience is through chance discovery, by allowing yourself to get lost and let the stories happen to you.” If you enjoy the angle of my blog, which focuses largely on the people and connections I make while traveling, then you’ll devour this podcast.

“If one is able to tap into people’s emotions and really take them places,” he said to me, “there’s a niche for that.”

That night I spent some time with myself on the roof of City Circus overlooking the Acropolis, whose glow lit up the city below. When I turned my gaze upward, a shooting star danced across the sky. The fact that there was just one felt special in its own right. But then ten minutes later another followed. And I couldn’t help but smile.

Around 3 p.m. the next day, I boarded the ship for Santorini, having been told that we would arrive at 11 p.m. I soon discovered that internet was not an included feature. Out went my plan to track down and book a hostel.

Thirteen hours later, at 4 a.m., a crew member awoke me from the plastic chair I was slumped over and told me with his hands to disembark. Down the ramp I went, and with no buses or cabs in sight, resigned myself to roaming the deserted, dark harbor with my fingers crossed until dawn. Just when I began to strategize about which was safer–bushes or an abandoned building–I met a woman who was awaiting her hotel shuttle. I asked for a ride, as did two other guys who were in the same boat (wah wah). It was nearly 5 a.m. when we arrived. Which perhaps explains why it didn’t seem odd to split a room with a 6 foot 5 inch German.

The next morning (as in three and a half hours later), my new roommate and I decided to hike to the end of the volcano.

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What I immediately loved about this ER doctor from Hamburg was how he comfortably embraced our moments of silence from the start. He was rounding out a two-week sailing trip through the Greek islands, having bailed out a few days early to hit up Santorini. An hour into the hike, after we talked about family and career aspirations, we got around to introducing ourselves. Fabian is his name, affectionately known as Fabi.

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To fully appreciate this romantically rough island, one has to know its birth. Santorini was formed by one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history some 3,600 years ago. Only its 980-foot high rim remains today, upon which the town is perched, overlooking the massive, water-filled caldera, which spans 7.5 by 4.3 miles and is 1,300 feet deep.

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Santorini’s white-washed walls, accented by stunningly deep blue windows and doorways, boast an elegance that stands in stark contrast to the dusty, volcanic earth upon which they rest.

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One forgets that virtually nothing grows from these hardened ashes due to the expansive bougainvillea that weaves through town, reaching sky high above quaint streets. Also miraculously thriving are the vineyards, which have been coaxed into yielding world-renown wines. Farmers (and engineers): persistence will always be yours.

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After a few hours of hiking along the ridge, grey skies began gathering thick clouds and blowing them quickly toward us. Sheets of rain, which only moments ago had passed over a distant island, were suddenly upon us. Fabi and I ducked into a hotel to pass the time over some beers.

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We watched troubled boats go by while a bird with the itty-bitty-est wing span hovered motionless in the sky for a quizzically long time.

Fabi and I connected on a variety of levels. One of our first discussions, sparked by the numerous, glaringly white churches we passed, concerned how our religious upbringings and feelings about certain magic in this world have lent to our deep sense of spirituality.

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We also debated the sensibility of marriage.

And then, at some point, we found ourselves in an awkwardly stubborn debate about the direction in which the sun rises, each of us throwing down good money…until we realized that responsible for the discrepancy was translation trouble.

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Most of the storm wound up skirting around us. Fabi and I resumed our hike along the towering cliffs and reached the island’s point before sunset, finding a wall to hang our feet over as we threw back peanuts and another beer.

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Unbeknownst to us at the time, Santorini is famous for its sunsets. So when the blindingly bright primary colors spread themselves across the sky in thick banners, we once again found ourselves speechless.

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That night we grabbed gyros and then found a bar without a closing time. The DJ was mixing 90’s hits and Greece’s national soccer team was playing. I was content.

Between our poli-sci backgrounds and similar passions, Fabi and I talked long into the night. We vowed to one another to be better at incorporating certain passions into our lives–and to hold one another accountable to those promises.

It’s a small and utterly unimportant detail to bother mentioning, but I find it funny that although we had only known one another for a matter of hours, Fabi knew that–despite the fact that I was wearing bright pink nail polish and a pink jacket–black is my color.

What is it about the nature of relationships on the road that causes such a uniquely open connection? I suppose it’s to no one’s surprise that timing, while it isn’t everything, is largely responsible. Fabi and I, for example, explored Santorini together for less than 48 hours. When you know what little time you’ll be spending with someone–someone who brings to the table no baggage and no strings attached–there is an element of liberty upon which the relationship is founded. Because everyone involved knows when, and how, things are going to end, we all can trust each other to truly live in the moment.

The TVs switched off, the lights lowered, and the DJ transitioned to traditional Greek music. The lone holdouts–nine middle-aged men–hummed along, chain smoking their cigarettes and periodically flashing grins at the young waitress.

It was the waitress’s last night on the island so I offered to take a photo of her with her male groupies. The next thing we knew, Fabi and I were being served rounds of what tasted like Jäger shots and then each confessing to one another a secret that, at the time, only one other person in the world knew. Now, there are two.

Eventually we cut ourselves off and found our way back to the hotel. Fabi told me a bedtime story in German (he pointed out that he could have been reciting a cheesecake recipe for all I knew) about a boy who lost his mother. Around town the boy went, describing her to everyone as the most beautiful woman in the world. When someone finally helped the boy find her, she turned out to be hideous. “See!” the boy exclaimed. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

The next day, Fabi and I boarded the ship back to Athens for what this time was a nine-hour journey. We were unbelievably exhausted. There was no available seating on the packed boat so I pushed two plastic cafe chairs together, and we spent hours contorting ourselves into various positions, attempting to get some sleep.

If you ever find yourself in tight sleeping sleeping quarters with another person you feel comfortable leaning on, here are 5 kama sutra positions you can do in 3 square feet.

5 kama sutra positions you can do in 3 square feet

1. The traditional: lean your back against the other’s chest with the other’s forehead on your shoulder.

2. The Eagle and Rodin’s Thinker: face each other with your legs spread out over the other person’s arm rests, with his/her arm resting on your knee to support the face.

3. The Eagle and the Hunchback: same as above except closer, with the other person’s head resting on your chest.

4. The Thomas-the-Train: both of you slumped over forward in the same direction, with the other person’s head resting on your back and your head on the chair’s back.

5. The Twister: body parts gone haywire until extreme discomfort and laughter unwinds you.

Eventually throwing elbows and knees into each other’s ribs and faces got old so we stepped outside onto the deck for some night air. The twenty or so men who had been smoking there since we embarked were now leaning over the ships’s railing with drawn faces. Except for one guy who didn’t make it. A handful of women, most concerned but a few irritated, came out to offer their company.

A lightning storm danced along the horizon, splitting the darkness of the ocean from the darkness of a lone island. Fabi and I expressed our awe, speaking into the whipping wind that carried our message out to sea.

Over a final beer on the dark steps of Athens, Fabi closed with the German expression: You always meet the same person twice.

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Athens in a day

October 21: Athens, Greece, where I got a brief dose of humbling history.

A view of the Acropolis from the balcony at my hostel, City Circus (highly recommended by the way).

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The Parthenon, located on the Acropolis, is a temple dedicated to Athena (patroness of Athens) that was used as a treasury. Construction began in 447 BC.

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The Erechtheion, also located on the Acropolis, was a sanctuary dedicated to Athena (refresher: daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, and a zillion other things apparently) and Poseidon (god of the sea and “earth-shaker”). Its construction began circa 421 BC when the earlier temple to Athena was destroyed by the Persian invasion.

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In the background: Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens, which has views across the Attica basin and the Aegean Sea.

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The Temple of Olympian Zeus, considered to be the largest temple in Greece, took nearly seven centuries to complete. Construction began in 515 BC.

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The Theatre of Dionysus, once used for festivals in honor of this god.

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Hadrian’s Library, created by this Roman Emperor in 132 AD:

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And the cemetery:

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I needed some nature so hit up the National Gardens.

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That evening I wandered around the touristy Plaka, known for its “authentic Greek culture,” which hosts cute cafés and bars. After polishing off a plate of gyros the size of my face, the waiter made fun of me, saying that it seemed like I hadn’t eaten in days. This was true.

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The prison of Socrates, on Filopappou Hill:

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Views of the sea from Filopappou Hill:

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Because the big city had indeed begun to feel like a circus, I bought a boat ticket for Santorini!

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A shot of whiskey to chase death: the Langtang-Helambu trek

I’ve had a few brushes with death in my life. I’ve been mugged by a small gang, nearly blown up and then stampeded during a riot, and been moments from being stoned to death. But never, have I ever, been so terrified for my life as I was on Nepal’s Langtang trek.

But before we dive into all that, a fair warning about the nature of this post: it contains TMI for the most of you. For the weak of stomach or those who prefer not to read the raw portrayal of a, or at least my, human trekking experience, I recommend skipping days 1-2. And maybe 4 as well. Roots of Reverence promises raw, though, so for the rest of you, carry on.

Day 1 to the prayer flags

Death made her first appearance on the bus Wes and I took from Kathmandu to Dhunche, where the Langtang trek begins. We arrived at the station before 7 a.m. to discover that there were no available seats. It was the last bus to Dhunche, and I was not about to spend another day in Kathmandu, so I began to beg. An elderly gentlemen beckoned us over, with a warning that it wouldn’t be comfortable, but that we could sit on stools in the aisle. When we peered into the bus, however, we discovered that that option was taken too.

“We’ll sit on the floor,” I quickly said. He looked skeptical, but before he could say anything I took off my pack and stepped onto the bus. He didn’t stop us. Wes and I squished ourselves between people’s bags, settling in for the six-hour ride.

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Win! We thought. And then we began the ascent up from the valley floor. As soon as we crested the Himalayas, we were thrilled with our vantage point, from which we were unable to see the cow trail our large school bus lumbered laboriously along–saddled between vertical cliffs. It was made up for by a woman next to us, however, who made it her job to narrate…

At a certain point, we breaked for what we were told would be 30 minutes, allowing people to grab a quick bite. Wes and I ate dal bat for the first time–a traditional Nepalese meal consisting of curry, rice, potatoes, and some boiled greens.

Wes was in the bathroom when the bus began to pull away. I ran up the driver and asked him to wait just a minute. He wasn’t having any of it, even though only 20 minutes had gone by. I was about to step in front of the bus when Wes came running around the corner, and we both hopped onto the moving vehicle.

I’ll spare you the details of the rest of this terrifying ride, but suffice it to say that it was only a preview of what was to come.

Eventually we made it, unloaded, and passed the checkpoint to begin our trek. We began walking steeply down…a road…and then steeply back up that road.

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On the first downhill section, I realized that the boots I had bought in Vietnam to replace the New Zealand boots, which had given me ceaseless blisters, were far too small. With each step, my big toes rammed into the end of the boots.

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My brother walks softly and carries a big stick.

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An hour later, we hit the trail just as the sun began to throw some splotches of pink against the Zeus-like clouds that hovered ominously over the mountains we would be traversing the next nine days.

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Nightfall arrived, and Wes and I set up camp near a vista point on sacred ground–its three totem poles flying prayer flags into the cool evening breeze.

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As soon as we got the tent up, I began to feel off. My first thought was the altitude even though we were just barely over 2000 meters, the lowest we’d be at for the duration of the trek. It felt like a ton a bricks had hit me, even though I was breathing fine. I laid down, hoping it would pass.

Not 10 minutes later, my stomach seized. I darted from the tent to the stone wall and projectile vomited several feet over it and onto the sacred ground. My poor brother. He came over and rubbed my back, the good sport that he is, trying to stifle his laughter–it was truly awing, just how far I was managing to puke. Family Guy-style, I was told. It must be the altitude, I muttered.

Eventually, after I vomited up my entire insides and then some, I felt good enough to lie back down. We considered descending to a tea hut, but I couldn’t budge. I passed out briefly. We had five swigs of water left between the two of us…

And then round two hit. I woke up violently and made another run for it. This time was different. Someone once described an overseas food poisoning experience as “old faithful out both ends.” So when old faithful of the other variety hit, we knew it wasn’t the altitude that was responsible, but rather the food. It felt like my insides were being ripped in half. On two other occasions–in Peru and Ethiopia–I battled this physical pain caused by the toxin of such a stupid microorganism. But here, in the Himalayas, where we had virtually run out of water, I was struggling with a new dimension that had both Wes and I concerned.

Wes occupied his thoughts with ways in which to protect us from death should we be attacked (a wild hypothetical my siblings and I each visualize with one another when we backpack together) while I imagined all the ways I’d welcome it. A machete to the stomach? Yes please.

And so it went on for the rest of the night–Wes’s reading or star gazing periodically interrupted as I ran for the hills.

I shared an avatar moment with my brother, from which I escaped the pain, as I peered between the tent flaps at the lightning bugs and stars that glowed with unusual immensity, their light bouncing between one another.

A serene moment the next morning, complemented by my vomit at Wes’s feet.

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Day 2 to Thulo Syabru

Waking up, I was cautiously optimistic that I wouldn’t be as haunted by vicious vomiting. As I stood up and put on my pack, though, I knew I hadn’t cleared the woods yet, extreme weakness and spasms of nausea reminding me that I couldn’t get off that easy.

A couple we passed along the way warned us that the monkeys during this stretch, who had learned to throw rocks, killed a man just yesterday. So when Wes and I saw their fuzzy white faces leaping from tree to tree, we covered our heads and made a (slow) run for it.

It was a struggle, but we managed to hike for a few hours to the next tea house, Wes carrying my pack in addition to his own for some of the way. That, and the smell of jasmine, which always reminds me of my mom, were the only redeeming qualities about this morning.

Wanting to melt into the forest floor forever.

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This cow roamed into the family’s home.

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When we arrived at the tea house, I managed to get down some broth and slept the rest of the afternoon and into the next morning.

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Day 3 past Chamki village

I woke up with life on my side this morning. We set off for the trail early, dreading each step as we descended steeply into the valley. The mountains reverse-engineers the laws of physics: what goes down must go up.

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Wes and I had our solitudinal (yes I made up that word…because it incorporates a sense of direction) moments, sparked by different landscapes. For Wes, it was a grove of red fuzzy trees and I, a bend in the rushing river.

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My brother and I have similar approaches to what we want to achieve with our careers, he in medicine and I in law. We’ve always related to one another’s drives to have an immediate impact on those we are serving in our professions while also leaving a more global impact. But Wes added another dimension today–what he coined as the “third tier,” which is his desire to shape the perspective a society has on the larger system we are respectively working to build. Broadly-speaking, he aims to foster a healthy outlook on the wordly change he seeks. A topic for another day. But it led us to a discussion on eastern versus western outlooks on life. And how globalization has made it a challenge for eastern outlooks to thrive. That said, eastern culture continues to rub off on western culture in many ways, especially when it comes to medicine and spirituality, in which we crave holistic systems and deeper meaning. Our western, individualistic outlook fails us when it comes to our yearning for a role within the greater whole, in terms of both community and purpose.

Meditating with the yaks:

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It was a looong day. Today we discovered just how skewed our map was in terms of distance (mileage wasn’t represented) and altitudes. Ignorance is so often bliss. My big toes had stopped hurting at least, and I said to Wes that this meant either that I had carved out some room in my boots or my toenails had popped off.

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We stopped for lunch around 2:30 and (perhaps it was the exhaustion) had the best meal yet–fried noodles, veggie spring rolls, veggie cheese momo (a fried dumpling), fries, and chocolate. I was clearly feeling better. The incredibly kind woman who ran the tea house exuded a warm, light aura about her, and so we followed through on her recommendation to stay that evening at her sister’s tea house, Panorama, which was 30 minutes past Chamki, just before Langtang village.

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Dark snuck in before we expected. Wes and I were high on the night hike, with Mount Kyanjing Ri glowing bright white beneath the stars and waning moon.

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We thought we were within an hour of reaching Panorama, but owners of other tea houses kept telling us “two hours to Panorama, too far, too dark, you stay here!” We pushed on.

Finally, one woman said we were 30 minutes away, and called to alert the owner, who walked down in the dark with her nephew to meet us.

Twenty minutes later, we ran into them and they guided us back to the tea house, offering another head lamp. The woman, Gyalmo, I soon fell in love with as the most graceful, strong, and grounded person I’ve ever met. She taught me much about Tibetan culture and Buddhist tradition. For dinner, Wes and I ate fried snickers and a chocolate chip cookie, washing it down with an Everest beer. We chatted with a German, struggling with the altitude, who had been waiting for his friend for two days to come down from Langtang.

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Day 4 to Langtang village then Bamboo Lodge

More TMI, sorry. I had thought I was in the clear, but holy shit, pun totally intended, last night my plumbing raged war again. Dehydration become a concern again. Aaand to top it off, my cycle hit, again (why??), and I was under supplied. Whoo.

Gyalmo turned it all around. I stepped outside as dawn was breaking between the mountain peaks, and she beckoned me over to a jug of water she had just heated on the stove, offering me soap and face wash. What luxuries! I nearly died and went to heaven. It was the first time I truly appreciated the meaning of the saying, “cleanliness is holiness.” She also gave me feminine supplies and refused to accept payment. In such an impoverished environment, these acts of kindness and caring are so very moving.

I huddled up in the common area overlooking the stupa against the backdrop of Langtang towering above us, daydreaming and writing until Wes awoke. Gyalmo floated around the grounds with her morning ritual, lighting incense and uttering private prayers under her breath to clear out the space. “Cleaning the mind,” she explained to me. “And then we must drink tea before we can eat.”

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A detail about Gyalmo, which I had also noticed on her sister, is a series of small, ashen dots on her forearms, chin, and above her lip, which she said was discoloration that resulted from applying nail polish (which is rare and precious, she said) on her skin as a child. When she expressed her distaste of the markings, I expressed my adoration. If this was the true story, then they were the markings of an everlasting childhood–a real, endearing reminder of the innocence we all carry with us throughout our lives.

And then, this peaceful, Tibetan Buddhist was throwing back a whiskey shot with two Czech women who had just risen, covering her mischievous smile and running in circles saying, “I’m so craaazy, teeheehee.”

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Wes awoke with a sore throat and I loaded him up with vitamins before we threw on our packs. “Dhanybhad,” we profusely thanked Gyalmo as we set off for the uphill climb to Langtang.

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The Tibetan village had a raw intimacy about it. Yaks roamed in and out of the buildings and grandmothers handled their cow- (yak?) pies, some loading up baskets bigger than their torsos and toting them on their heads. Others smashed the pies into the cracks of their homes to insulate them for the approaching winter months.

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Wes and I reached the top of the hill with views of Langtang which stands at 23,772 feet, and Kyanjing Ri, at 15,679 feet. We spent half an hour just gazing upward and feeling humbled, the Himalayas absorbing the homage paid to them by the stupas that sit at their feet.

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When we turned around to begin the next segment of our hike, dark clouds began to move in on the misty fog. It was another long-ass day with the enormous river rushing us along beneath a thin sheet of rain. Nightfall hit again, and Wes and I struggled with our one headlamp up narrow cliffs lined with slippery stones and roots. As we huffed away in silence, the glow of the moonlight again caught anything white that sparkled in the rain–the river rapids, the underside of leaves, and the looming boulders that parted the river in unpredictable ways.

Just as we thought about turning in at an earlier tea house, we nearly ran smack into a huge mass in our path. It was a horse. Who wouldn’t budge underneath his tree cover from the rain. We stood there, losing the face-off as bats darted around our faces. Omen?

We were stubborn. And eventually got the horse to move down the path enough for us to get by. Down to the river bed and back up the hills to our destination we trudged, yelling “I got you rain!” and “Uphill, get in my face!”

We finally reached Bamboo Lodge. It was full. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there was a nearby tea house where we had the foulest sleeping experience of our lives. Suffice it to say that there was dried blood on our blankets. But at least we had a roof over our heads.

Day 5 to a random tea hut

The crack of a thunderstorm snapped Wes and I into Day 5. We counted our money and realized that we were getting tight. We still had four more days to go. Dal bat is the most economic option for Wes given its price and unlimited refills. There is a saying in Nepal: dal bat power 24 hour. So dal bat for breakfast it was. Which apparently meant waiting two hours. As the wind and rain slashed at the few trekkers outside who were braving the weather, Wes and I chatted with a Greek woman by the name of Anna who ran a restaurant on a small island off the coast of Athens. She was here trekking with her husband, who coincidentally had also come down with food poisoning from the same town I had.

Wes and I wrapped ourselves in plastic bags and lunged into the storm. For hours. Up and down. Up and fucking down we went all damn day. Eventually we ascended back up to Thulo Syabru, where we had spent the afternoon when I was ill, and were warming up by a stove when the two Germans from Panorama walked in. We broke out the whiskey, and I gave one of them advice on where to travel in New Zealand. He was departing Nepal for Auckland, but had no idea that it was on the north island. Now that’s truly right-brain traveling. Blindly pick a city and just go.

Wes and I had to start using US dollars at this point, which meant haggling about the exchange rate to an exhausting point. Eventually we rearranged our packs and climbed back into our dripping socks and water-logged boots. Picking up his drum sticks, Wes spotted a leech on the floor, fat with human blood. The drumstick won, and out into the rain we reluctantly went, beginning what we knew would be the most difficult ascent yet. The storm raged on as Wes and I slogged through puddles and mud. The dark shadows of trees stood unwavering on the mountain ridges, the only color in sight being a few crimson and burgundy wildflowers and a lone, startling aqua-colored home. The smell of jasmine greeted me again.

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A new challenge arose…Where our path should have been, a river ran through it. Several times Wes and I found ourselves on a private terrace and had to retrace our steps. Uphill and uphill we slogged, losing the path over and over again until we found ourselves in the middle of a Tibetan pasture among yaks that munched away, not minding the rain that matted their hair with each drop. Not a person was in sight so Wes and I followed the uphill rule, climbing up and over the terraces, gripping unsuccessfully at soggy cow pies that were oozing into the claylike mud. And then down and down I found myself sliding. Wes and I were laughing on the outside and definitely crying on the inside.

And then, our angels arrived. The first was a ten-year-old, barefooted girl who darted out from her home on the heels of two bleating goats. After she had scooped them both up under each arm, she gestured that we had to keep climbing, over that ridge, not this one. Onward and upward we trudged until we found ourselves lost on another mountain side. That was when our second angel appeared. She was hovering 100 meters above on the terrace ledge. And she was laughing at us. We struggled our way up to her, and she pointed us in the right direction.

“Two more hours up and then flat,” she said. We definitely didn’t have that kind of light left in the day so Wes and I hurried on, drops of rain the size and weight of acorns rapping monotonously on our skulls.

Two siblings traveling together always begs the question, did you ever fight? No. Never have I had a fight with any of my siblings. But, I will admit that our frustrations began to seep outward at this point. Oddly enough, though, the irritations had nothing to do with what direction to go or the distribution of the weight in our packs, but rather over not hearing each other. It may sound ridiculous. But, trekking along the river for the first half of the day and then beneath sheets of rain for the second half, we could never seem to hear each other. Struggling for oxygen as we climbed upward left little desire on our parts to either repeat ourselves or ask the other to repeat him/herself.

The lightning cracked closer to its thunderous partner, letting us know it was creeping closer. We were beginning to break though the tree line. I had thoughts about the comforts of my desk job, but when I focused on how my body was growing stronger, I stopped myself, not wanting to trade this struggle of a moment, with my brother, for anything in the world.

We eventually made it, in the dark again, to the next tea house. We were a sight. Around the stove gathered a group of twelve or so senior citizens with their guide. They had spent the last few days there waiting for the rain to pass. Wes burst through the swinging doors in full dripping glory and then I followed minutes later in my kiwi socks and Forever 21 shorts.

We were offered the last room, which amazingly was located just above the kitchen! Although we were sleeping among mounds of garlic cloves, it meant we were collecting the warmth of the stove. Mmmm. We busted out our hot chocolate packets and then Wes surprised me with chocolate-covered almonds :). Mmmm again. So so happy.

We chatted for a while with the guide, a man originally from Nepal who has been living in France and leading trekking trips since 2008. His eyes widened when we told him the distance we had covered that day.

Day 6 to Gosainkunda lake

Clear skies this morning, hallelujah!

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After haggling again over the change rate, Wes and I began our ascent up to Gosainkunda lake, which sits at 14,370 ft.

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After an hour or two, Wes and I finally got above snow line. At Lauribina lodge, we paused for peanut butter and a view of Manaslu, the wispy snow on its cap looking delicate from such a far distance.

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We figured that since we were at Lauribina lodge, we were therefore at Lauribina pass. According to the map, Gosainkunda lake was just beyond. We confirmed with a guide, who told us that the height of the pass was just above us, at the stupa. We arrived and hung out for a while, appreciating our victorious ascent. It’d be all down hill from here.

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The fluffy clouds accenting the snow-capped mountains began rolling toward us and growing in volume and mass. We mustered up our waning energy and continued onward. Which we soon discovered was also upward. The crest above was an illusion–its sisters and brothers lying in wait just beyond. We trudged through snow that grew deeper and deeper. This kind of precipitation was incredibly unusual for this time of year.

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Then the sun poked through, shining with an intensity that blinded us with everything it made glisten.

I began to notice the sound of melting snow. Small clumps were coming loose and rolling downward, quickly picking up mass along the way. There were no looming mountains above, though, so we weren’t overly concerned.

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Soon we found ourselves tightly hugging the mountain side, avoiding the upward gaze of the endless drop-off to our right. The path had narrowed significantly and the clouds had moved in, darkening and blocking our visibility with each inch. The temperature was dropping quickly…hardening the top layer of snow. I began to grow seriously concerned.

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Footprints showed off that others had gone before us…was I over reacting? Wes and I checked in with each other. What to do? Around each bend was a vertical and truly endless drop-off and the path had shrank to the point of allowing only one set of feet at a time.

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My fear of heights was making me nervous that my muscles would seize, and I would do something stupid like stumble five inches too far to the right. A particularly terrifying stretch presented itself and I looked back at Wes to confirm whether we still wanted to continue onward. We both figured we were only a few bends away from a flatter and wider segment that would take us the rest of the way to Goisakunda. With the increasing avalanche risk, we went one at a time. I was midway across when the clouds blew in forcefully and socked us in. Wes and I couldn’t see more than several meters in front of us. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. I was shaking, the responsibility for my brother pounding away in my head.

Forward or backward? We discussed. I sensed Wes wanted to push ahead, despite being equally terrified. He was focused on the fact that if we regressed, we likely wouldn’t have the time to cross that day and then wouldn’t be able to finish the trek. I replied that my priority was getting us out of this hell hole as soon and safely as possible. We’d figure out the trek after that.

We turned around. Figuring that if the guide from the tea house last night came through with his trekking crew that we would check in with him.

After what seemed like eternity, we returned to flatter ground where we were in the avalanche clear. Two German guys approached, and we warned them of what lay ahead. They looked concerned, but decided to check it out for themselves. Then the porters came, waltzing along with huge loads on their heads, looking unfazed. But we decided to continue waiting for the guide.

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The group finally arrived, and the guide said there was zero avalanche risk. This seemed to align with the fact that none of my reading suggested anything treacherous about this trek. So Wes and I decided to continue with the group. For the third time we crossed all of the same terrifying passes and drop-offs. At one point, the group had closed in on me and were trying to follow me across. I told the guide we needed to go one at time.

“Are you scared?” he asked teasingly.

“It’s called common sense,” I said sharply to him, frustrated with myself that I had trusted someone who clearly had no avalanche training.

Wes at one point emphasized to me that it was his decision to continue onward and that it wouldn’t be my fault if he fell to his death. At the beginning of this post, I referenced this trek as being the most terrifying experience of my life. While the other brushes with death were in many ways more dramatic, what made this so much more intense was one, that I felt responsible for my little brother, and two, that in some ways I had more control over what to do in the situation–if I made the wrong decision then disaster would rest on my shoulders.

In any event, the group of senior citizens was making it happen! Many fell several times, but fortunately always forward, and never to the right, off into the great abyss.

If you follow the (relatively) short cliff in the middle of the image, you’ll spot the group below it. Below that is the great abyss.

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I have no more words to convey the terror that Wes and I felt so I’ll stop trying here.

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Several hours later, right before sunset, we finally made it. And weakly high-fived one another, gasping for air. We were above the clouds and felt delirious and relieved, the adrenaline beginning to wear off and the effects of the altitude taking its place. We had made it safely to the shores of Gosainkunda, an ebony lake hugged by snowy peaks that protected its glassy surface from the whipping wind.

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At the tea house, the two Germans waived at us from the patio, giving us the thumbs up. Ben and Felix are their names. We all bonded rather instantaneously, and watched the sun set dramatically into Gosainkunda lake, which jutted out into the horizon of jagged mountain tops.

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A local child, mesmerized:

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I didn’t have any extra pants to replace the soaked ones I was wearing so on went my Forever 21 shorts, kiwi socks, and sandals as I bounced around to prevent my blood from freezing in my veins. Darkness enveloped us, and Wes and I passed around a bit of whiskey after dinner. Felix kindly lent me an extra set of pants, and Ben lent me an extra jacket as we talked for a few hours, the communal room exchanging stories of surviving the crossing.

Felix and Ben have been tight friends forever, and just recently finished up a tour of California where they rock climbed at most of the major state parks. Felix is a carpenter and Ben an engineer. Both are 26, having recently finished up school and begun the process of transitioning into the life phases that commonly mark one’s late 20s. At one point they asked me my age and my response quite literally caused Felix to choke on his water and say, “Fuuuuck.” Haha, it took some convincing but I explained why one’s 30s are the best years, and that I wouldn’t choose to be any other age right now. Given their respective transitions, my explanation appeared to strike a chord.

Wes was beginning to grow quiet and pale. The altitude was taking its hold, creeping up on others as well. One by one, people made their way groaning to the bathroom throughout the night.

It’s impossible to paint a picture of just how damn cold it was. I’ve never been so freezing in my life. The snow lined our windows, but not enough to keep out the sharp drafts that breathed over my head and down my neck throughout the night. Sleep didn’t come. At one point, when I thought Wes might awake in the morning to find me stiff as a board, I thought about climbing into his bed to cuddle for warmth, but my brain couldn’t handle the thought of crossing the expansive one foot divide. My head throbbed away into the sleepless night. I couldn’t wait to get off this mountain.

Day 7 to Lauribina Pass and then to eternity

Wes was fortunately feeling better this morning. We set off along the lake beneath an innocently bright sun, climbing past three other lakes up to Lauribina pass.

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We finally, actually, reached the top!!! All 15,120 feet of it. I’ve never been so deliriously happy to see prayer flags as I was at this moment. They draped themselves around two stupas, paying homage. Wes and I took an extended solitudinal moment for ourselves. We were so far above the clouds–rows and rows of mountains stretched out into the horizon as far as the eye could see, trapping thick white clouds between them.

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Ben and Felix offered us the last of their cookies (!) before we started the descent deep into the valley. We could see the trail slithering along the mountain side, dipping steeply below the snow line and back into dense forest.

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Wes and I began skating through the snow, where few footprints had imprinted their stamps, heading toward what looked like a dramatic drop off the mountain side.

At one point, Wes and I took a wrong turn toward an upper trail…fortunately we caught ourselves, otherwise the misstep would have seriously screwed up our chances of making it back to Kathmandu, not to mention the trail looked miserably treacherous.

We eventually broke through the snow line and entered a mystical Princess Bride forest, where Wes and I found the Giving Tree.

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Wes and I discussed the nature of evil–whether we’ve actually encountered true, unadulterated evil in our lives. We also talked about work-life balance and learning that letting go of the desire to “be the best” in an academic setting can actually have the effect of making one a leader in one’s field since time is wisely spent learning about other people and how to treat them, socially, medically, legally, ect. The focus on grades and test scores sidetracks so much of our generation, handicapping our great leadership potential. Lastly, we transitioned into our personality types and I offered some solicited advice. My siblings and I have strong, but not dominant personalities and so Wes was picking my brain about how to navigate the latter. In professional and social situations I discussed ways in which to hold one’s ground and maintain one’s sense of self.

A milky fog had seeped in, adding to the Princess Bride effect. We had been told that after Lauribina, the trail would be all downhill back to Kathmandu. You likely won’t be surprised by this point that that was bullshit. Wes and I groaned every time we went down because it meant immediately going back up again. Somehow, it seemed like we were ascending more than descending. Wes’s back and hip flexer were straining.

A view of our descent:

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Despite this distraction, when the rubber band that was keeping my hair back broke, he plucked a flowering vine for me to use. Such sweetness.

Toward the end of the day, the fog broke and we were blessed with a view of twenty or so waterfalls cascading with violent life force down the mountain cliffs that circled 360 degrees above us. What a glorious sight.

But not as glorious as when we saw our tea hut! Which stood on a peak high above us….ugh. One final push. There were three tea hut options, and I suggested we choose the one facing east so we could see the sunrise. When we arrived, the Germans greeted us! They had the same idea when choosing the hut.

We hung out, finished off the whiskey, and exchanged stories of respective frustrations that day. Ben laughed and confessed that he had reached the point where he was so fed up–with the trail compounded by some aggravating thoughts he was processing–that he kicked a large rock, injuring his foot.

All of you fellow trekkers understand this kind of moment.

Day 8 to Thankuni Bhanjyany

Ben rapped on our window, and Wes and I dragged ourselves out from covers of warmth (Warmth I said! A first this trip). Outside we stepped to gaze at the most spectacular sunrise of my life. Words fail me yet again so I’ll let the photos do whatever minimal justice they can.

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The greater amount of downhill today meant more talking. Being five years apart, Wes and I still had much to learn about one another’s lives. At the beginning of the trek, I had asked Wes whether he had ever considered combining his love of medicine with video games (he kept likening the vistas to Zelda and also visualizing the next zombie apocalypse). Since then, he had been designing a video game in his head, and we bounced ideas between one another. Just you wait! It’s brilliant :).

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The most notable thing about today was the stunning terraces that began to appear. After a wrong turn that led us a grueling hour out of the way (I had made the decision to take a left, downhill…never go down!), Wes and I passed through a town where children were tossing up small plastic bags into the wind like kites. They giggled and screamed, running around in circles whenever a bag caught a strong upward gust.

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Toward the end of the day, Wes and I touched base about the various transitions our family is going through. Having one another throughout these days gives each of us strength and a healthy perspective.

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Again we found ourselves trekking after dark with one headlamp. We turned in earlier than we intended. Is anyone surprised at this point that we discovered the Germans had made the same decision? This night we moved on to the gin, talking about the significance and acceptability of hanging national flags in the US and in Germany.

 

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Day 9 to the finish line

I awoke before sunrise today (with flea bites–was their absence the silver lining to the previous hypothermic nights?) and spent some time to myself sitting on a ledge overlooking the valley. The sun began breaking through a heavy, low hanging cloud cover, lighting up the backsides of trees, the bright green terraces, and corrugated roofs. Marigolds reached out from the terrace beneath me, shining with an inner brightness.

The town began to stir and a community meeting was held on our tea house steps, headed up by the couple that ran the place. The group had collected funds from people throughout the small village and were dividing it up among the less fortunate. The previous night, the couple had fed fifteen people or so, including children, who weren’t able to feed themselves.

As Wes, Felix, and Ben made their way to the breakfast table, I caught sight of a boy in the dirt below me who was strumming away at an empty Everest beer bottle like a guitar. The label was messing with his tune so he peeled it off, listened more closely, and decided he was more pleased with the sound.

The four of us agreed to meet up in Kathmandu to party that night. We set off for what we were certain was an all downhill day. To our astonishment, but by this point not yours, this was again false hope. Instead, several thousands of steeply ascending steps greeted us for the majority of this brutal day…we were at the end of our rope. Wes’s back and hip flexer throbbed, he fell ill from all of the peanut butter we had been consuming, and to top it all off, was knocked by a violent nose bleed.

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Then the prayer flags appeared, waiving to welcome us with the proximity of home. Down we descended, the rest of the way to the valley floor, crossing paths with the Germans at the first shop we saw for beer. We were out of money and so they kindly bought us a round.

It was only then that we learned of the avalanche in Annapurna, just west of Langtang, that claimed over 40 lives the same day we crossed our own treacherous stretch. 60 were still missing. A horrifying tragedy. My heart pours out to those who lost their lives braving that day.

Down and down we went, to the sound of dry corn stalks scratching themselves in the wind upon which rode the sounds of deep drums emanating from the valley floor.

When we finally hit civilization, we wove through throngs of locals who were strolling along steep, cobbly steps for views of a dramatic waterfall on their Saturday afternoon. They were dressed to the nine’s, the men having buffed their shoes, arm in arm with women who teetered along in strappy heels and sparkly gowns. We were suddenly aware of our dirty sunscreen-streaked bodies and emanating putrid stench. Exhaustion made us care less.

We finally reached the buses. Somehow, we had made it. In tact. Except for my left big toenail, which had popped off. This was the second time this year, the first instance being after a marathon. Here’s hoping it’ll grow back?

What a journey.

That night we hit the bars and clubs, rocking out like absolutely no one was watching (even though everyone was). At one point I noticed how liberated Wes was on the dance floor, and I leaned over to Felix to rhetorically ask just how awesome my brother was. A few characters entered at one point, causing some tension before we rid ourselves of their toxic presence. I mentioned earlier that Wes and I have never fought, but this evening we struggled. The club was closing and he shot me a daggered look that neither of us could quite comprehend the next morning. Perhaps it had something to do with having to talk down a 7 ft Austrian…but we weren’t entirely sure. So we left to grab a cab, whose tire blew out a distance from our hostel. We walked the rest of the way in silence.

The final days in Kathmandu

Wes and I reconnected in the morning seamlessly, agreeing that nothing needed to be aired about the night before. Over a giant breakfast we reminisced about the trek, laughing about the absurdity of the last nine days.

Kathmandu was hosting a global tattoo convention this weekend so we met up with Ben and Felix to check out the scene, some of us toying with the idea of getting one for $20. Fortunately or unfortunately, no tattoos materialized. A final round of beers and then we were counting down the minutes until Wes had to depart for the airport. To have had such precious time with my little brother is a true gift, and I feel so utterly blessed. What a sad moment when we said goodbye! But we agreed that another Nepal trek was in store for the future. Off he went to continue conquering the world. I am so very proud of him.

I closed out Nepal with one final night of partying with Felix and Ben, made even more exciting by an epic bar fight that broke out between some Brits that soon roped in half the bar. We managed to squeeze out, past the guard who stood idly by, looking at his nails.

On to the next bar and then back to the same club as the previous night (the only late night spot)–Ben, Felix, and I having intermittent moments of bonding on an even deeper level, discussing purpose and the future. Ben and I are/were on opposite ends of relationships and so we exchanged notes about the other’s perspective, learning about walls, and how to knock them down. You must love yourself first. Always. Before you can truly love another. Another powerful sisterly affection lit from within. The netting of travel: it draws you in, but then you must release to appreciate all of the life it fed you in the moment.

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Kathmandu: a lesson in Buddhism

October 8: My brother Wes, who managed to pull himself away from medical school to join me in Nepal for a two week trek, surprised me at the airport! For a variety of reasons, I tend to struggle with airports on this RTW tour. Perhaps I will dedicate a post one day as to why, since they are such a critical component of my journey. And so, it was such a touching gesture for my brother to be standing there waiting for me as I exited the airport. He also brought me a birthday present from the States! My favorite snack from Trader Joe’s.

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We spent the next day taking care of permits for the hike and exploring some of the Buddhist stupas, including the Boudhanath Stupa–the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet.

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We also checked out the Swayambhunath Stupa, otherwise known as the monkey stupa.

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We decided to attend a lecture at a monastery where one of Wes’s teachers from India resides. We settled onto the floor with about twenty other students from around the world, and I received my first introduction to Buddhist practice.

The lecture was titled, “Act of Veneration,” which is also known as the act of prostration. It was a reminder of just how intellectually challenging spiritual practice is, and how little I’ve exposed myself to it in recent years.

We learned about how prostration, which symbolically shows respect for our bodies, gives rise to an enlightened mind if practiced correctly. Several aspects must be “straight.” First, the body should be straight. If the body is straight, then its “subtle channels” will be straight, and the wind energies that flow through will be straight. This then leads to a straight mind. One’s hands should also be held like a lotus bud that is just beginning to flower.

Prostration to the ground serves to stretch ourselves. First, one touches the crown of the head, then throat, then heart. “The main place is the heart because it creates the connection to the mind of the Buddha…The heart center signifies the mind, and how you hold your mind is most important.” This is in part because it affects motivation. Consequently, one should not make prostrations while the mind and mouth are distracted.

Lastly, the instructor explained that the temples in which we make prostrations give us vows and commitments. It reminded me of the vows I made at the beginning of this journey in the temple in the desert, and how surprised I’ve been by my ability to stick by them.

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Toward the end of the day, Wes and I grabbed a bite to eat before I challenged this kid to a game of soccer.

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We returned to our monastery to get a good night’s rest. The next day we would begin our nine-day Langtang-Helambu trek.

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