Mountains on mountains

March 31, 2017 § 2 Comments

Now, we are really on our way.

The trekkers pour into Lukla. In the morning, we sit in cold wicker chairs in the sun room of Lukla’s Starbucks (Starbucks!), charging our iPhones and drinking cups of Americanos and sharing banana and chocolate muffins. In and out of the front doors come the trekkers who’ve flown into Lukla from every corner of the world to make the pilgrimage to Everest Base Camp.

On our hike from Lukla to Phakding, they clog the trails with their trekking poles and bright Western backpacks and huge floppy hats. That evening, we sit around a hot stove eating momos and rara noodle soup, talking with trekkers from Israel, Belgium, and India. The next day, in the bustling Himalayan town of Namche Bazaar, we wade through throngs of trekkers buying Sherpa gear and toilet paper and Oreos and Himalayan souvenirs, in search of our own list of trekking supplies. That night, a group from South Korea floods our lodge, bringing their own food up the mountains on the backs of yaks.

I miss the rural countryside from the first half of our trek.

*

In Tengboche, our next stop, we hike for a while down an icy path twisting through mossy, gnarled pine trees with two older hikers from Ohio and New Zealand. When we tell the man from Ohio that we hiked all the way from Shivalaya on the original path to base camp, he is visibly impressed.

“I did that with my son,” he says. “That’s HARD.”

It gives me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Of course, the two German trekkers at our lodge in Tengboche don’t know we made this hike, and they laugh at Emma and me, clearly thinking us two inept girls who can’t get out of our cold beds for breakfast in the morning and need hot water bottles to sleep at night. A veteran Italian trekker turns to our German trekking companion.

“I will have my breakfast at 7:30 and leave by 8,” he says. “You will have your breakfast at 7:30 and…” he looks at Emma and me, thinks about it, and smiles slyly, “you leave by…9.”

The Italian laughs. Emma and I don’t care; we are happy to wake in the morning to clear blue skies and a perfect view down the valley to Mount Everest.

Now that we are on our way and the terrain is flatter and my knees are healed and the end is in sight, it’s tempting to think the difficult part is over. But though we no longer hike for eight hours over steep mountains up 3,000 feet and right down another 3,000, there are other challenges. Mainly: the altitude.

I first feel it in Namche Bazaar, when I fall asleep with a dull headache and wake in the morning with it still right there in the center of my head. I drink bottles and bottles of water from my plastic blue Nalgene. When we leave bustling Namche for quiet Tengboche higher up, I feel the altitude in my lungs; I am easily winded, my lungs don’t feel big enough to contain all the air I need, my heart begins to pound.

On our way higher from Tengboche, we run into two German trekkers who walked part of the way with us from Shivalaya. They were faster, and are now on their way down. They did not make it to base camp, though; they had to turn around one village away because they couldn’t breathe.

A little farther up, we run into the Finnish and Northern Ireland fellow who took the bus with us from Kathmandu. They are also on their way down. The Northern Ireland fellow made it to base camp, but his Finnish friend did not; he became ill by something he ate only one stop away.

“Vomiting all night,” he says. “If you have hand sanitizer, USE it.”

*

That evening, we stay at the village of Pheriche in a shaded valley in the high mountain desert. The other lodger who stays with us is a young woman from Paris, on her way down from base camp. We talk with her around a warm, rusted stove fueled by dry yak dung and kerosene.

The slate gray mountains shine in the late evening sun out the lodge’s wide windows. Wind blasts down the valley over the rust-red moss clumps and dull brown earth, stirring the iridescent river and swirling the white caps on the tips of the sharp peaks. We are now in the high mountain desert, a barren desolate land that harkens back to something primordial within me.

The Parisian woman tells us that her friend from Spain suffered for three days in Pheriche on the way up, her lungs screaming for air, her head split open down the middle by the lack of oxygen. In the end, even after the extra acclimatization days and a hefty dose of the altitude sickness medicine Diamox, the Western doctors at the clinic in Pheriche send her home. She is devastated, the Parisian woman says. She was fit enough and spent so much money to get here, only to turn back.

Even having come this far, making it is not guaranteed.

*

Now, we are only a few nights away from our destination. We have walked and walked and walked, and seen so much beauty, and felt so much pain. The Himalayas are the land of extremes. One minute, you are freezing and snow is coming in through the slats in your drafty room and you’re certain you cannot get out of your down sleeping bag. The next, you are standing in a sunlit valley stripping down to your leggings and t-shirt and staring out at a panorama of grey and white mountains higher than any other points in the world.

It is the thought, “I hate this place. All I want is a REAL hot shower. All I want is to go home.”

It is also the thought, “My God, that mountain is right THERE. It is so close, staring at it makes me dizzy. It is the most awesome thing in the world.”

In Dengboche, just slightly higher than Pheriche, we take an acclimatization day. Emma and I find a coffee shop and lounge outside in the hot sun drinking thick black coffee from a glass French press, her sketching the striated mountain of Ama Dablam looming before us, me writing this post. The speakers in the coffee shop alternate between Spanish guitar, tinny Nepali rap songs, a random Christmas carol, and an Adele cover. With each new song, Emma and I laugh.

“We need more acclimatization days here,” I joke.

“We’ll acclimatize by dehydrating ourselves with black coffee,” laughs Emma.

“And not doing any high altitude hikes,” I say.

We’ll eat crumbly apple and chocolate and cheese pastries baked in the hot ovens out back and watch the clouds cast shifting shadows upon the steep slopes of Ama Dablam. We’ll listen to the caws of ravens swooping past and contemplate existence while staring at a white-based, yellow-topped stupa with the eyes of the Buddha painted in bright blue.

Trekkers pass us, followed by laden-down porters, calling out, “hello!” and “namaste!” A Nepali woman with a baby bundled on her pack walks past, staring at the looming mountains surrounding this small, tumbled-stone town. Sitting here at almost 14,300 feet, I take deep, clear breaths, and feel peaceful from the center of my heart out through my whole being.

Ascent to Lukla

March 29, 2017 § 4 Comments

In the morning, we wake in the Hotel Yellow-Top, a tea house owned by a 26-year-old climbing Sherpa who summitted Everest last year and will walk to base camp to prepare for another summit in just five days. He carries around his 13-month son, laughing and rocking the boy and coaxing him to place his palms together and tell us, “Namaste.” The little boy is shy, though, and he hides his face in his father’s down jacket, the father only too glad to hold his son a moment longer before he leaves for the ascent.

We ask our host how long it will take to walk from his lodge in Bupsa to our day’s destination, Lukla. He looks at us, thinks about it.

“Seven hours for you,” he says.

We don’t ask how long it would take him; we know it’s much shorter.

*

The path takes us up and down a forest of red and pink and white rhododendrons blooming in clusters as big as both my fists. Above us, the mountains are cloudy and dark. Emma and I see a Nepali man hanging from a towering, twisting tree over an open cliff, chopping away with a dull machete at leafy green branches which glide to the forest floor. We see a white-faced monkey swing from another tall conifer, seeming to fly from limb to limb until his small grey body disappears in the thick foliage.

We stop for Sherpa stew and hot ginger tea and, yes, a can of Pringles at a lodge owned by a friend of the climbing Sherpa. In the golden sun, with the hot stew and hot tea to warm our hands and bellies, we are content.

*

The trouble begins in the late afternoon, when we reach the last ascent to Lukla. It is a series of stone stairs cut straight into the side of the mountain, described in my Lonely Planet guide book as “brutal steps!” The sun has already begun to set, and the mountains are a haze of blues and greys. We stop to snap photos. We readjust our packs. We dream of the hot shower and Internet connection and pizza that awaits us several hundred meters above.

We are so close to Lukla, that larger village in the Himalayas where most trekkers headed to Everest Base Camp begin their trek by flying into the shortest runway in the world. But we are not close enough to outwalk the sun, and when the last of the light begins to fall, we dig through our packs to find our torches.

*

What a difference hiking in the dark makes. The forest, only moments before awash in soft blue light, is suddenly sinister. We climb, and climb, and climb, nothing but the light from our torches upon the slick stone steps. I am hemmed in by darkness. I am one small person on the side of a mountain high above the rest of the world. Our German trekking companion is a formless shape before me, Emma I only sense at my back.

It begins to sleet. A crack of thunder roils across the black sky. Faint lights from shanties on the mountain appear on our right and left. People move about inside. I smell incense and curry cooking and hear the murmurs of men and women within, but they seem far away from me in the night.

We reach a fork in the path, and do not know which way to go. What at first felt like an adventure suddenly is pure terror. My mind flickers back to a news story I wrote several years ago about a hiker who died when he slipped on rocks much drier and less steep and more visible that the ones I’m on now.

We knock on the side of a nearby hut, asking for directions from a Nepali man who does not seem to understand English. Another crack of thunder and lightning splits the sky. A dog — shaggy and grey and more like a wolf than I would like — darts across the path before us.

“We need to get out of here,” says Emma, and I totally agree. I’m aware that we are exposed on a mountain during a storm — holding metal trekking poles in both hands.

*

The Nepali man finally gives us directions, and we continue up. My breath fogs the cold air before me. White flecks of snow pelt my eyes. I am aware of my friends, though I cannot see them. When I turn to check on Emma, my torch falls upon the red eyes of another dog. My heart is pounding and with every step I am alternating between the Jesus prayer and the Psalms; “you hem me in, behind and before.”

When Emma and I were back in our warm, luxurious hotel in Kathmandu, we commented to each other about trekking during Lent. “It’s a very penitential thing to do,” said Emma, and I agreed.

Now, hiking up the muddy slope, I wonder if we are witnessing a glimpse of the reality of Lent, which is really the reality of this world now: walking through the the cold and the wet, with others before us and others behind, so close we can see their breathe but so far that really, we are alone. I have a sense of the deep, mysterious shadow that Christ walked in and we walk in, and it fills me with fear and also an understanding that perhaps on this stony mountain, vulnerable and frightened as we are, we glimpse something true about the nature of the world.

*

Finally, we reach Lukla. But Lukla is a labyrinth of stony alleyways where Nepali families live behind flapping curtains embroidered with the geometric Tibetan knot. Where do we go for shelter? Where is our hot shower, our pizza, our Internet?

We come across a group of men building some kind of stone wall in the rain. I ask them, “Do you know where we can find a lodge?” And one of the men, dressed in flip flops and a puffy jacket over nothing but thin rags, not only points the way, but leaves his task to lead us through the narrow alleys, up and down slick steps, past dogs and coughing children eating dinner on damp front porches until we reach the warmth of the Alpine Lodge.

There, at last, are beds with thick blankets and a hot shower and down the street — a pub! We order pizzas and burgers and fries and beer and inhale it all while disappearing into our phones where, for the first time all week, we have Internet.

I have never been happier to be warm and safe and sheltered. I am glad our penitential walk — at least this part of it — like all penitential journeys, has come to an end. I fall asleep in a cocoon of down, a hot water bottle warming my feet.

Mortality of the knees

March 19, 2017 § 1 Comment

I was prepared for many dangers, mishaps, illnesses, mistakes. In my pack is Diamox for the altitude, antibiotics for infections, Tylenol for headaches, Imodium for — well, you name it, I’ve got it. But I was not prepared for this.

*

On the fourth day, we leave the hovel owned by the old Nepali couple and ascend the mountain in the snow. We have slept intermittently the night before, but we are glad to be hiking, glad to have the white wall of the Gaurishankur Mountain Range towering brilliantly against the blue sky to our left.

A Nepali sheep dog tags along with us as we climb through the ankle deep snow. He is friendly, and we name him Norgay after the Sherpa who first climbed Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.

The snow is deeper the farther we climb, and soon, we leave Norgay behind to ascend a steep ridge in knee deep snow toward the Lamajura Pass at around 12,000 feet. We come across deserted lodges, silent on the mountainside. Occasionally, a helicopter from the nearby airport of Lukla soars overheard. Otherwise, it is quiet but for our labored breathing and the click clank of our trekking poles against the stone.

When we reach the pass, dark swirling snow clouds swarm the sky and a harsh sharp wind blasts against us. The pass is a V between two mountains, nothing but two dead trees with scraggly limbs strung with tattered prayer flags slapping madly in the wild wind. It is frigid. Later, my friend Emma will call it apocalyptic. We cross the pass and we all say it is the most intense thing we have ever done. We think we have completed the hard part, but now we must descend the mountain, and this is when my knees begin to pound.

Four hours later, we are still hiking, now through thick, squishy slush. I am delirious from lack of sleep. I move so slow, placing one labored foot on the stone after another. A Nepali family comes skipping down the mountain in nothing but tennis shoes calling out, “Namaste!” before running past a crumbling mani wall. When we finally reach the town of Junbesi, I collapse into the first lodge we find.

The little four year old daughter of our host wants to play with Emma and me. She climbs up onto the seat beside us and points at our blonde hair and pats our puffy jackets, but all I can do is smile at her rosy cheeks and sad cough and sip my tea in exhaustion.

*

The next day, the hike should be easy, and it is a short, beautiful hike toward the first view of Everest. She seems so small to me, but really, it’s amazing that we can still see her behind several other large mountain ranges. When the clouds clear and she appears, the Nepali man who serves us hot lemon tea points to her and we all cheer. We stay there and drink tea and eat Snickers and marvel: we have now seen Everest, the tallest mountain in the world.

It should be an easy hike to our next tea house in the small village of Ringmu, but an intense throbbing begins in my knees and I must descend slowly, leaning heavily onto my trekking poles as I go. When we reach the lodge, I peel back my wool leggings and gasp: my knees are swollen, red, and sore. The left knee feels as if it will shoot out to the side whenever I walk on it. Of course, our host gives us a room upstairs.

*

I spend the night drifting in and out of fitfull dreams, wondering, praying that my knees will heal in the morning. How isolated I feel, several days walk from the nearest pharmacy. How guilty I know I will feel if we cannot go on tomorrow or the next day because of my knees.

In the morning, I am moderately relieved. The knees are less swollen, and we make the decision: with bandages wrapping my knees tight and menthol patches to keep them cool, we will go on, slowly.

As Emma wraps my knees with the bandages from hers and our German friend Niels’ first aid kits, I tell her about my dreams in the night. I tell her that now, I am 25 and healthy, and I have reason to hope my knees will heal tomorrow or the next day. I am also a Westerner, so if my knees do not heal tomorrow or the next day, someone will come for me, I can return to the U.S. and get the advanced medical treatment I need.

But what about the time, years from now, when my knees do not heal tomorrow or the next day? What about my Nepali host downstairs who relies on her knees for her work, and does not have advanced medical treatment to heal them should they be injured tomorrow or the next day? There is always a limit to our physical prowess; we in the West simply extend it the best we can. I think about Jesus who said, now you walk where you wish, but a day will come when others will lead you, and maybe where you do not want to go.

“My knees are making me face my own mortality!” I laugh. “That’s so morbid!”

“It is morbid!” Emma agrees.

That day, we walk to the town of Nunthala, where Niels runs ahead to order us vegetable chow mein, beer, and Snickers at a yellow and blue painted lodge on the side of a cliff. The next day, my knees are less swollen. Two days later, I buy knee braces at a pharmacy in Lukla, wonder if I need them at all, and we walk on.

Into the mountains

March 16, 2017 § 4 Comments

Every day brings a new challenge.

We take a bus from Ratna Park in Kathmandu, a parking lot swarming with old, rickety buses that blare tinny Nepali pop songs into the smoggy black sky. An older Nepali woman sits beside me and falls asleep, her head bobbing up and down on my shoulders with every bump we hit, with every curve around a dusty cliff we take. Our driver spits into a cup and fiddles with the radio station, oblivious, it seems to me, of the faulty brake or slipped wheel or missed turn that will end in sudden death.

Ten hours later, I am stiff, my head bruised from banging against the window while I tried to sleep, my lungs filled with dust and exhaust from traveling the dirt road, but we are here, in Shivalaya, a tiny village that is the start of the trek to Everest Base Camp.

*

My pack is too big. Emma and I notice immediately that the three other trekkers, men respectively from Germany, Finland, and Northern Ireland, hoist packs a third smaller than ours easily onto their backs. I struggle to lift mine off the bus. In the morning, when we begin the first ascent – an 800 meter climb up steep stone steps — I can barely lift one foot and place it in front of the next. The trekker from Germany is recovering from the flu, and his pace is faster than mine.

Before I left for the trek, I wondered what I might think about during all that quiet hiking. Now I know: all I think about is the pain. The pain in my shoulders, in my calves, firing from the soles of my feet up my legs, through my back, and out my arms. I am pure pain. I only see the next step in front of me. But I will not give up.

I discover a reserve of will power unknown to me and I climb that mountain, out of breath, my pulse pounding, my lungs screaming for air. When I reach the top, a small village called Deurali, where the Finnish and Northern Ireland trekkers are finishing their Sherpa stew beside a flapping prayer flag, I collapse in a heap of gear. I am nothing but exhausted. I am nothing but the thought: get this pack off my back.

*

The trekker from Germany is an ultra light hiker — that’s why his pack is so small. In a quaint lodge in Bhandar, where we spend the night, he helps me sort through all my gear. In the end, I leave a pile of almost ten pounds of unnecessary toiletries, snacks, clothing, and medicine behind.

“It’s totally normal for your first trek,” he reassures me. He doesn’t need to; I’m not embarrassed. All I care is that my pack feels light as the thin air we will soon breathe.

I can walk for miles, and we do walk far, across fields where goats chew grass and Nepali school children wave, “Namaste.” We walk up and down cliffs where the red rhododendrons grow. We lose the trail and a Nepali man digging a road out of the mountain with nothing more than a rusted pick helps us down a steep, sandy cliff to the trail below. Eventually, we walk all the way to a valley, intending to climb a mountain to stay in a village halfway to the top, but another Nepali man stops us. You won’t make it before dark, he says, and the weather looks bad. A few minutes later, we are warm in his lodge drinking fresh squeezed hot lemon tea while rain pummels the tin roof from a blackened sky.

*

The next day, we climb that mountain in the rain. At first, the rain cools us. But soon, I realize: my jacket is not water proof. Nor are my boots. I am soaked through and shivering. A little farther, and we reach the snow line. The sky is angry gray clouds spilling over the ridge just above us, and we are climbing into it. Soon, we are ankle deep in snow. The mountains across the valley are dark and desolate, green pine trees shaded in snow clouds. We intend to reach the top of the mountain, but our friend from Germany has a headache and a bit of dizziness — the first signs of acute mountain sickness — and so we know we cannot go on.

But where to stay? The lodge we find is nothing more than a drafty, cobwebby stable on the side of the mountain. Snow falls lightly through the cracks in the wood slats. Dust falls upon our sleeping bags, which we spread on two “beds” to keep warm — the “beds” are more like slabs of wood.

I am freezing, down to the bone. My blood is ice, my fingers blue. Our Nepali hosts live in a bamboo and corrugated metal hovel with only a thin partition separating their fire where they cook from the barn where their yak lives. They are a couple in their seventies, but they look as old as the whole wide world. They huddle around their fire which smokes the room, leaving us red-eyed and congested. They used to own a lodge, but it fell in the earthquake, and now, this is what they have.

It is a miserable, cold, dirty, sleepless night, but it’s worth it to wake in the morning to a clear blue sky and the snowy Gaurishankur Mountain Range towering like a giant wall above us.

For the first time, I realize: we are in the Himalayas. These mountains, these giants of the earth, they are real, and we stand small among them.

A reason to go

March 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

“Why are you going?”

It is a question I should expect from my friend. After all, she is the kind of friend who wants to know the Why’s, not just the Who’s, What’s, When’s, and Where’s. She wants to know the meanings underneath it all. She wants to know the deeper truths.

But I don’t know. When she asks, “Why are you going?” I don’t have an answer. Or at least, I don’t have the kind of answer I usually have for an international trip — I’ve always dreamed of seeing such-and-such place; I’m volunteering for such-and-such charity; I’m writing about it for such-and-such publication. I tell my friend, “Well, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” and of course, it is.

When the opportunity to travel with another friend you haven’t seen in years to a country that’s far far away, a remote country that happens to be the home of Mount Everest, the home of those giants the Himalayas, of course you go. You hesitate long enough to make sure you have enough money in your bank account, and then you reply with a resounding, “I’m in.”

But when you are on a plane flying between Singapore and Kathmandu, when you are exhausted from two full days of travel, when you are wondering what Nepal will be like and feeling a little bit scared of it all, your mind wanders back to your other friend’s question, which you could not answer adequately four weeks ago, and you ask yourself again, “Why are you going?”

*

Nepal is 25 percent Buddhist, according to the Nepalese driver who picks me up at the airport and ferries me to my hotel through the smog-filled streets of Kathmandu. In fact, the Buddha himself was born in Nepal in a region called Lumbini.  My driver has a silver Buddhist prayer wheel fixed to the dashboard of his van. He points to it and tells me, unlike the large prayer wheels in the city and up on the mountains, his silver model does not spin.

I knew about the prevalence of Buddhism in Nepal and so, in preparation for the trip, I brushed up on this ancient religion. While reading, I came across the term Bardo. It is a Tibetan word which means “intermediate state”, and, according to Buddhist teaching, it refers to the state of existence between one’s death and one’s rebirth, a time supposed to be especially ripe for spiritual transformation. Some also use the term loosely to refer to other spiritually ripe periods in life, such as when one is suffering from an illness or spending time deep in meditation. All these are moments when a person experiences something shocking and new, which can teach him something about the truth of the world, transform his mind, or move him from one way of thinking into another, clearer way.

Now, I certainly don’t want to be that naive Westerner hijacking the serious Buddhist phrase, but I will say this: the term struck me. I wonder if the idea of a Bardo — a transitional time in one’s life that opens a space for realization — might be akin to travel, especially travel to a country quite different from one’s own. Couldn’t travel be a kind of “Bardo”, a kind of transformationally potent moment?

The sudden shift in environment; the new smells, the noises, the tastes; the different, indistinguishable languages; the motorcycles stacked with pallets of bananas; the rickshaws with their rickety, faded gold and green seats; the children laughing incoherently beneath their parents who cook momos, little brown dumplings, on the side of the road — all of it sharpens the senses, makes you more alert to yourselves, to others and, perhaps, to God.

Could this be a reason to travel? To simulate an experience similar to the Buddhist Bardo?

*

I am just beginning this journey, so I don’t know. I don’t know if waking this morning to the sounds of crows cawing and dogs barking and motorcycle horns blaring, to the smell of a faint whisp of smog and sweet incense smoke through my open window, I don’t know if that could stimulate a kind of Bardo, but I wonder if it might.

One night in South Sudan

October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

squarepromo_3-2A year and a few months ago, I visited South Sudan with the Dallas-based microfinance nonprofit Seed Effect.

I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!

***

When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.

South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.

“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”

I never know quite how to respond to these questions.

After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.

When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.

Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.

Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.

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Other times, I talk about the war.

It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.

Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.

Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”

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Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.

And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.

*

I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.

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We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.

We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.

Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.

We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.

As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.

Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.

We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.

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Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.

By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.

I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.

The bus pulled to a stop.

We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.

Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.

We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.

Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.

My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?

I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.

As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.

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More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.

Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?

But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.

The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.

The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.

There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.

So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.

I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.

Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.

Scaring us was a way to pass the time.

*

When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.

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Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.

Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.

The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.

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Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.

I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.

After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.

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Meditation on a glacier

June 13, 2016 § 3 Comments

Over the past few weeks, since returning from a long-anticipated trip to Iceland, many of my friends and family have asked how it was and what was my favorite part. To which I usually reply by sharing the story of the glacier.

Funny enough, when I think about the most enjoyable parts of the trip, my encounter with the glacier isn’t one. Most of the trip was just plain fun. Get three good friends together in a car driving around an island chalk full of stunning vistas and waterfalls and weird volcanic rocks, and of course it’s going to be fun. In fact, barring the usual annoyance of long layovers in crowded airports and jet lag, the trip was seven days of bliss — except, for me at least, the encounter with the glacier.

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It was the near the end of the second day of the trip, and as we drove along the Ring Road, the nearly-deserted route which circles the island, we began to see white tendrils of glacier slipping out between the surrounding black-green mountains. They were part of the Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest glacier in Iceland and one of the largest in Europe. On a whim, we meandered down a gravel road, crossed a rickety wooden bridge, and wound our way toward it. Incidentally, this is how we discovered many incredible sites in Iceland: by following the curve of a gravel road to see where it led.

This road happened to end at the edge of the glacier.

We got out of the car. We were in the middle of nowhere. It was freezing and silent expect for a faint crackling: the sound of the glacier melting.

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A narrow, rocky path ran adjacent to the glacier, overlooking the striated walls of ice jutting high into the overcast sky, brown pools of frigid water below. We walked along the climbing path for some time, until the height made me dizzy. I let my friends go on, content to stop where I was, leaning against the cold stone wall, staring out at the massive glacier. Soon, I was completely alone.

*

In trying to describe the way it felt to sit there by myself in the silent cold, overlooking what appeared to be a massive block of ice, but was really only the tiniest finger of a glacier that expanded far beyond my sight, I always fall short.

I say that it made me feel small. I say that it astonished me to contemplate how old that glacier must be. I say that because it was so old, it made me realize my life is just a tiny blip in comparison, inconsequential really, and certainly not the center of anything. I say that it made me feel vulnerable, and helpless, and fragile, and needy. I say that because the glacier was so cold and so big, colder and bigger than anything I’d ever seen before, it felt otherworldly, and because it felt otherworldly, it made me afraid.

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It made me think about god, not as a squishy, found-in-a-Hallmark-card god who answers prayers and is always there, but as something far more expansive and mysterious than anything I had ever thought of or experienced before. It made me think of the fear of god, the fear of the wildness, the otherness.

Later, at the evening’s hostel, I would write these observations about what the glacier made me feel in my travel journal: danger, mystery, that cold wind off the glacier, darkness, where is god?, ancient, left out of the equation, alone, what it evoked based on its inner being, the birth of the world, didn’t make me feel good.

A few days later, when talking about our experience at the glacier, one of my friends would observe that it’s no wonder the Nordic gods are depicted the way they are, so fierce and foreboding — their myths reflect the lands which surround us.

*

I suppose we all have moments like the one I had at the glacier. In fact, if I’m honest, I’ve definitely experienced something like this before. These are moments when a thing outside of ourselves reaches through us and wrenches us open to the reality of an existence other than, an existence which lies beyond.

It is not necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it is a powerful one. It is one that sticks with you long after a return flight home.

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