One of the great pleasures of travel is returning home. Enveloped by familiar space, greeted by smiling faces, gliding through everyday routines, luxuriating in simple comforts. When I’m traveling in Nepal, I often forget how much effort is expended just for basic living. Getting around town requires haggling for taxi fares then careening along amidst traffic-animals-people-tractors or sitting interminably in a pollution-choked jam, either one with a background of blaring horns. Crossing anything off my To Do List will require at least two attempts, like searching for a copy machine only to discover the power won’t be on for another 5 hours, please come back then. I take all this as the norm, but when I returned to the US two weeks ago, I was grateful for all modern society had to offer.
I’m not going to lie to you, or even downplay the truth: it was a hard season in Nepal. It’s the first time in five or six years that while guiding I thought, “What am I doing here? Why don’t I go work in the US and come home to a shower and a soft bed every day?” Over the course of two trips, I dealt with two helicopter evacuations, two horse evacuations, a broken arm and a cracked rib (neither of those were part of the evacuations!), plus the usual spate of altitude sickness and gastro-intestinal distress, Nepali staff who get sick, and the little stuff like someone having a panic attack or passing out at dinner. Through it all, the weather was unpredictable (read: hiking in snow, rain, or hail some days), and I managed to get sick myself on three separate occasions (which is probably why I was fantasizing about a comfortable bed on the other side of the planet).
All this is not to say it was a bad season. It went surprisingly well, given the events. I dished out extra helpings of comfort and care, ignored my own illnesses and put a smile on my face, stood out in the snow to mark the helicopter for landing, splinted the arm with materials I’d been carrying around for just such an occasion, and still arranged private blessings from Buddhist monks, told stories about the massacres and mayhem of Nepali politics, served up my own special selection of Nepali snacks, and oversaw a staff of 25 (not including the yaks). That’s what people are paying me for, and it’s what I excel at: taking care of everyone and everything when we’re 8000 miles from home and 18,000 feet above sea level. I wrapped up the seven weeks utterly drained, yet satisfied with myself.
In between the crises, mass meals, logistics, and hours of hiking–and just when I was thinking I might never need to do this again–I am reminded of exactly why I am here. Thirteen Buddhist nuns need a stove. I can recount their story and their history to create an immediate connection with fifteen trekkers who then donate a stove. A young Dutch woman stops us at a rest point, crying. Her boyfriend is sicker than she’s ever seen him, with sharp pain, and they are hiking on their own with no Nepali staff. I examine him and can tell them exactly what he’s got, give them the medication they need, and convince her he’s not going to die here. A 5-year-old girl has been abandoned after her mother committed suicide, her father is a drunk, and no relatives would take her in. A devout Buddhist family finally brings her home with them, and with the help of trekkers, we make a video to tell her story and raise money for her education. A trekker has been sick all night, tries to hike in the morning and gets about ten yards before collapsing. I adjust everything in thirty minutes–bags pulled off of yaks, Sherpa staff staying behind with the client and her husband, room reacquired, medication, and a short pep talk about how much better she’s going to feel after a day of rest, how she can still make her dream of Base Camp. I hike out hard to catch the rest of my group, and she is indeed successful and happy (if exhausted) when she finally reaches Everest Base Camp the next day. I can’t imagine what else I would do that could be so rewarding.
Thirty-one trekkers hiked with me this season and the majority of them went home with something new, something I was a part of, a sense of confidence or accomplishment, friendship with a Nepali farmer/porter, renewed gratitude for their lives. Whatever it was, l got to participate in it, maybe facilitate it, certainly experience it, with them. Dozens of Nepali lives are impacted every time we make a trip. Staff earn nearly one-third of their annual income in three weeks. Nuns, children, farmers sometimes find a benefactor that changes the course of their lives. All of this is why I’m here, and it is in these moments that I remember I’m exactly where I belong. It may be hard and difficult at times, it may take me the next three months to recover and reset, but I’m still compelled to return. This is the work I’m supposed to be doing.
I’m sitting in an alpine meadow on the back side of Ama Dablam, surrounded by mountains, the most overwhelmingly beautiful close-up looming snowy peaks you could imagine…and it feels like home. It’s not the home of comfort and ease, a modern kitchen and a soft bed. Rather, it’s the home of familiar geography, a place so much a part of me, that it soothes my soul to be here.
I’m sitting in San Francisco listening to a sustainable business MBA candidate give a graduation speech. He talks about how change in the world comes through dedicated people, and he closes with this wish: May we all prosper doing what we can’t not do in the world. I understood exactly what he meant.