June 5, 2019 § 1 Comment
In Korcula, we feast.
Our guest house is a good thirty minutes walk from town, and each day we make the trek along the blue-green water, sometimes more than once. This is Europe, so of course the cars mind the pedestrians. The miles add up, step by step, and soon we are walking six, seven, eight plus miles a day.
Thank goodness, because this is the land of plenty.
There is rich chocolate gelato dripping down fingers in the sun. A dry white wine, Grk, grown and distributed only on the island, tasted from a chilled green bottle alongside a sweet red wine, a cherry liquor, an herbal grappa. Goat cheese and cow cheese and black and green olives. Bread and olive oil so flavorful, it’s a meal in and of itself.
If this is not enough, fried shrimp and fried calamari caught straight from the sea lapping at our feet, and even a taste of salty crisp sardines dunked in tartar sauce.
Still more, though: cherry, cheese, and Nutella-filled, flaky, and warm pastries in the morning; black Americanos sipped at tiny tables in an ancient stone alley; later, a bus ride into the rainy hills to a seemingly otherwise desolate town, roses the size of fists growing before crumbling stone homes and quiet empty churches overgrown with the twisting of floral vines, to the popular Belin restaurant, home to homemade pastas and Dalmatian green beans and, why yes, the caramel cake for desert, why not?
It is not always so decadent, of course. The simple meal of bread and cheese and salami, perhaps a leftover slice of cold pizza, also suffices. But the abundance is a gift to be savored — call it fulfillment, satiation, the cup that overflows.
June 1, 2019 § 5 Comments
We have come to rest, he from the demands of work, I from the trauma of a waning illness which I am determined to wholly recover from, determined shall not hold me back. In the mornings, we drink coffee and eat yogurt and bread and cheese and salami and Nutella, reading and watching the perfect ocean. Is it indulgence? Or merely living life well? Leisure, really. The bliss of long night’s of sleeping without an alarm, of awakening to sunlight and birdsong, to afternoon strolls through the ancient medieval walls of a city built hundreds of years ago, a city bombed and since reconstructed, a city jam-packed with tourists from all over the world.
Then, it’s onto a ferry that whisks us across the Adriatic to an island, Mljet, legendary oasis of Odysseus, possibly a haunt of Paul’s. I am determined to make it, but here again, the splitting pain, the lying on a strange contraption called a “back jack” that miraculously eases said pain, the walking through it because I did not come all this way only to suffer.
We take a boat across a teal-blue salt lake to an island on the island — St. Mary’s, home of a Benedictine monastery. In hat, dress, and sandals, I circle the monastery walls in the sunshine, clamber over crumbling rock steps split by red poppies, white lilies, purple and pink wildflowers buzzing with giant honey bees and yellow, green, and orange butterflies. It is a fecund place, overgrown and blossoming, a tomato and zucchini garden here, a stained glass window of Mother Mary there. Along the way, an occasional weeping juniper.
The monastery is under reconstruction, but I imagine the monks’ prayers anyway, lingering in the sweet, quiet air. I join mine with them and take a photo of their seclusionary walls. Are we all praying for each other, at the heart? We find a sunlit slab and promise to return the next day, for a swim in the warm, buoyant salt water. No wonder Odysseus stayed so long, my guide book says. It is the isle of bliss, Edenic.
“I feel better,” I tell Jared. He says, “And tomorrow you will feel better. And the day after that, better. And the day after that, better.” And on and on, we live in this space of not-yet-healed, moving toward what is whole and holy.
The next day, I do surrender my body to the water, but only part ways — in reality, it’s freezing. Afterwards, we walk for seven miles around the lake, feeling better. And even better.
May 25, 2019 § 2 Comments
Is it foolishness, or acting out of a sense of hope? I say the latter, but is that merely because I am greedy for beauty, greedy for a return to that version of me who went, went, went, on planes from here to there, longing to see with my own eyes these views of glory?
I am being too poetic here.
What I mean is this: we bought two tickets to Croatia when it seemed so very likely that my health was on the upswing, and then, one week out, my back erupts in excruciating pain.
Why now, I wonder? Just last month, I spent a long weekend camping in Big Bend with no Lyme symptoms at all, and now, a slight turn of the back at my desk and suddenly, I am back on the phone with my doctor, back shelling out money for therapy I pray will alleviate the pain that is all-consuming before I must confine myself to a tiny airplane chair for eight hours.
It’s the pain that does it: I can think of nothing else. My doctor reassures me: this will pass, your system is simply vulnerable, you. Will. Be. Fine. But that part of my brain based in fear only remembers this time last year, when it was uncertain why I was in so much pain, whether the pain would ever stop, and I am doubtful, though still, there is the acting out of hope, the slow preparations, Jared’s reassurance that he will be with me, to help.
On a Tuesday, we board the airplane, I take a muscle relaxer and fall asleep with a knife in my back, a whisper of a prayer like smoke rising with me into the darkening, eastward sky.
And then, suddenly, Paris, the city that never ceases to enchant. We thread the dingy underground Metro, and emerge into the sunlight — oh, city of lights! Ten years since I walked up and down beneath the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, another five since I tromped the long lane of the Champs Élysée, eyes widened with the wonder of Paris, of Nutella crepes and cigarette smoke and flowered balconies and the ritzy, rich shops — tight black jeans, sugar-spun scarves, occasionally, a burka. We walk along the Seine, tired, red-rimmed bleary-eyed, stopping before the Louvre for a quick photo, sipping chilled Rosé, eating at a tiny round table a croqué madam, croqué monsieur, blackest espresso, deux café au lait, s’il vous plait. Once, I sat in classrooms and learned the language, but how much I can’t remember.
Oh well, the main thing is this: in the morning I wake in Paris, pain-free.
How quickly I forget pain once it passes. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” says Emily Dickinson. For me: a forgetfulness. Was the pain ever so bad? Did I ever curse God Himself in the fury of a child who’s fallen and can’t understand why she smarts so? Did I ever see Jesus, standing at my church near the altar, seated beside me in my room, floating above me in the bathtub where I soaked my poor muscles in the hope that heat would ultimately alleviate the pain? He did come with me, pressing the knife of His hand into my back where the split occurred, that invisible wound I carried and became all of me, all-encompassing strange companion of white-lit nerves.
But now: all is forgotten. I sit beside Jared on a sunny terrace overlooking orange-tiled roofs and the green-treed islands of the blue Adriatic. Birds chirp and the breeze is cool. Dubrovnik, Croatia, our city of rest. My body, slowly restored, sign of mini-resurrection.
February 14, 2019 § Leave a comment
Over the past few years, I’ve enjoyed following the trajectory of the cross-generational music partnership, Liturgical Folk. They’re the unexpected artistic pairing of a retired Anglican priest who writes remarkable religious poems and a young songwriter who composes unique folk songs. If you missed it a while back, I wrote about them for The Dallas Morning News.
This past week, I published a follow-up story about their latest albums and the success of their project overall for Christianity Today. As it turns out, Liturgical Folk is part of a broader trend within the Anglican community right now — revitalizing music in the church with liturgy, poetry, and personal response.
October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
On a Thursday afternoon I drive north from Dallas, snaking my way through the tangle of concrete dividers, oversize billboards, and fast food restaurants that beleaguer both sides of the highway until I reach the flat plains of Oklahoma and, at last, the dry grasslands of southern Kansas. The grey sky intermittently spits on the windshield. To the west, pale blues and blush pinks smear the horizon. I listen to the wipers rub the glass and drink scalding coffee purchased at a McDonald’s in the middle of nowhere.
What is it about long, quiet road trips, sailing over the flat land, that allows space for thoughts, little scraps of consciousness, to drift into attention? I sip my coffee as the spare country flies past, and think about — what? God, a little. And a memory from the week before, when I awoke in a frigid Colorado campsite to see the mountains encircling the valley crowned with snow. And this time last year, of course, when I first felt the unusual intimations of what would, a few months later, blossom into a full-out illness: Lyme Disease.
I think about how happy I am to be alive, how thankful I am for my health, even as I continue to recover (compared to earlier this year, I am a new woman with only lingering discomfort in my hands, an occasional pinch of pain along my spine). I wonder about the wildness of a world where microscopic bacteria can invade my tissues and make my life a living hell, which in turn causes me to consider God’s place in this beautiful yet dangerous creation. I think about how much I love the book of Job because it acknowledges our human frailty and the ultimate absurdity of our attempts to understand God’s ways — how much more I trust Scripture because of Job’s place in it! Then, I am thinking about suffering, and how reading about Christ’s compassion toward the sick and debilitated while I myself was laid low evoked in me an unadulterated desire for Him to move in me with such healing power.
Lofty thoughts, I suppose, if they were a little more fully-formed. Really, though, they are nothing more than fleeting speculations mixed with a sense of awe at my littleness in the vast expanse of amber and chestnut land extending on all sides, the drizzling rain, the stormy grey clouds, and the God who made it, calling it not just good, but very good.
Good, but certainly not safe. Or perhaps safe in some ways — in the ways that matter (I am thinking here of the lilies of the field). I make my way forward along the dusky road (metaphysical and actual, as the sun sets and I near Wichita). I ease forward with dim understanding, my flakes of consciousness amassing to so much more.
September 20, 2018 § 1 Comment
For the past few years, I’ve accumulated a variety of potted plants. Sea green aloe vera. Flat-leafed jade. Spindly fire sticks. Some were gifts from friends; others, clippings from the cacti in our backyard; and still others, splurges bought at Home Depot and the local nursery when my soul was hungry for something green.
I am fairly good at tending them — so far, I’ve only killed one, and that from overwatering. Lately, though, I’ve realized that almost every single one of them needs repotting. They’ve outgrown their old pots, heavy leaves drooping over the lips onto my windowsill, long stems jutting up, up toward the window and the sky. Some of them are three times the sizes of the pots they call home.
It’s high time for repotting.
It is still hot in Texas in September. Sweating, I haul a large pot from the tangled mass of unused pots in our backyard, along with a bag of fresh dirt and rocks to line the bottom. First up: my zz plant, also known as a Zamioculcas Zamiifolia. It lives in a tiny, round, grey clay pot, five thick stalks covered in glossy flat leaves. Sturdy. Healthy. An easy first go.
Easy, I think, until I attempt to remove it. The plant won’t budge, and soon I know why. When I finally manage to pry the zz plant from its pot, I realize the whole bottom half of the pot is thick with fat roots wound tightly around each other in a massive ball. Finally freed, the roots hang down a bit too much like ropy worms than I would like, the roots nearly as long as the plant is tall. There was hardly any dirt in that pot at all, I realize. Mostly, it was just roots growing steadily in closed darkness.
A longing stirs in me as I stare at the zz plant held in my hand, white roots dangling above its new pot half-filled with fresh dirt. I feel my own limitations, the constraint of my own tight space pressing against my metaphorical thick ball of roots. How many of you, like me, need a new pot? Space to spread our roots, to sink deeply in rich soil, to stretch ourselves toward the sun? How many of us are cramped deep in dark spaces?
Like the zz plant, we grow substantially, faithfully within our limitations. Like the zz plant, when we’re set in our big, new pots, we will be ready, ready to prosper, flourish, ready to thrive. In the meantime, we grow quietly.
I set the roots of the zz plant deep within its new pot, giving them room to lengthen, to widen. I imagine the plant is happy because it can suddenly breathe deeply again after its many years of constraint. I wonder what it is like to have space to be fully what it was meant to be. I set the zz plant in a prominent spot in my room, a green reminder of what’s to come.
September 18, 2017 § 3 Comments
Lord, have mercy on the artists.
Have mercy on the ballet dancer who’s memorized the steps for her upcoming audition so perfectly she dreams the movements in her sleep, her toes pointing and flexing beneath the sheets. She arrives early to the audition, her tired pink leg warmers drooping along her calves, her worn point shoes tied at the ribbons and slung over one arm, her eyes shining with the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time she will get a part in the dance.
Have mercy on the painter who wakes early every Saturday morning to catch the golden light at the dawn of day. She arranges her paint brushes, canvas, and easel at the edge of the water, listens as the birds begin to chatter, watches as the sunlight first touches the lake. During the week, she works as a waitress, balancing trays of ice water and fried fish with a strong arm that now holds her palette, but when people ask her what she does she lays claim to her true nature and in the face of their skepticism (How do you make a living painting landscapes?), she answers boldly, I am an artist. It is a labor of love.
Have mercy on the pianist who’s taken private lessons in the living room of an elderly lady with shock white hair since she was three years old. She volunteers at her church now, playing old hymns that still tingle her nerves, her fingers flying across the chipped black and white keys. She dreams of one day playing on a Steinway at Carnegie Hall. And why not? Her parents always told her she could do anything. And it isn’t out of vanity or ambition that she practices arpeggios and scales day after day, but because she loves the clear and complex sound of the chords as they progress gracefully. She only wants an audience for her music, an audience who appreciates the great composers like Beethoven and Shostakovich. She wants to perform well, for the music to transport those who listen.
Have mercy on the actress who cannot decide whether she should stay in her small hometown where she teaches acting at the local high school and performs starring roles in the community theater or move to Los Angeles where she might attend audition after audition and never receive a single callback in ten years. She fell in love with theater when she was thirteen years old because the theater kids were weirdos too, and she thinks she has real talent, thinks she might actually be somebody someday. Her motivations are mixed: she loves theater, enjoys it for what it is, but she also wants to be rich and famous, a true Hollywood star. She doesn’t move because she’s afraid of this monstrous ambition hidden deep within her, and yet, she probably is talented and hard working enough to catch the eye of any producer.
Have mercy on the writer who wakes every day before the sun, brews strong black coffee, lights several candles and a stick of sweet incense before sitting hunched at her laptop, stringing word after word, spinning stories out of smoky air. On her good days, her imagination carts her off to magical lands where she meets strange and interesting characters who come to life on her computer screen. But on her bad days, she is full of fear, a fear that keeps her from that other land, a fear that says, Nothing you create is worth anything. It is all the vanity in Ecclesiastes, words dispersing like fine blown dust.
Lord, send your grace upon these your people. In their failures, in their ambitions, in their needs, remind them that You love them. Remind them that You are pleased whether they do anything or not. Remind them that the tasks set before them are worthy. Remind them that You bear their disappointments with them, that they are not alone. Remind them that they have something to offer. Remind them that they are, simply, children of God.
June 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
All traveling, be it an hour drive to a nearby state park or an overnight flight across the pond, requires taking risks, and traveling to a developing world country requires an especially long list of them. At the top: the risk that you may return home with a little bit of that country hidden away in your gut, in the form of a hungry parasite, perhaps, or an angry bacteria, or a mysterious and terrifying virus that conjures images of doctors wearing hazmat suits while tending to you in a sealed hospital bed.
Less than twenty-four hours after my flight home from South Asia, the symptoms began. Stomach cramping. Bloating. Grumbling. And — ahem, I know it’s gross — some of that pesky traveler’s diarrhea.
I didn’t think too much of it at first. After all, my stomach was adjusting to Western food after two months of rice, lentils, curry, and paneer. Plus, I’d been sick in India. This bout of unpleasantness was probably the lingering remnants of the illness I’d experienced on the banks of the Ganges, dirtiest and most holy of rivers. But a week later, I was still suffering, so I did what you’re supposed to do: I went to the doctor.
I was driving through the busy streets of Dallas when my doctor called. I’d been waiting for his call. I’d undergone a number of tests and was waiting for him to tell me the results. I wasn’t worried. After all, the symptoms were mild. When I’d met with him earlier that week, we’d amicably swapped stories about South Asia while he listened to my colon with his cold, silver stethoscope. The atmosphere was light. I wasn’t feeling great, but I wasn’t feeling terrible either. This upset stomach was just something to nip in the bud. I’d never been seriously ill before; I couldn’t be that sick now.
I pulled off the side of the road and answered my phone.
When my doctor told me the name of the mean bacteria swimming around my gut, it sounded like gibberish to me, like Greek, or Latin, which, of course, it was.
“It’s a serious thing,” he said seriously. I had never heard him sound so serious before. In the span of five minutes, he used the word death more than five times.
“Whatever you do, don’t take an antidiarrheal. It can lead to your death.”
“Whatever you do, don’t drink alcohol while on these antibiotics. It can lead to your death.”
“This bacteria is life threatening.”
“This bacteria is hard to kill.”
I was reminded of those TV commercials for the latest pharmaceutical drugs, where a mysterious man with a low, soothing voice speeds through a list of side effects while a beautiful woman and her equally beautiful golden retriever walk breezily along a sandy beach: side effects may include loss of sight, uncontrollable vomiting, temporary paralysis, oh, and DEATH.
I scribbled everything down on a yellow sticky pad. I asked him the few questions that came to my mind, knowing I would have a million more as soon as I hung up the phone. I hung up the phone and started to cry. I thought: surely I didn’t travel all the way to Mount Everest and back only to die in the suburbs of Dallas. How absurd. How horrifying. How totally unfair.
This is the way of the world: one moment, you’re healthy and carefree; the next, you’re not. Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind: so it goes. Joan Didion: life changes in the instant. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying: all of life is a preparation for death.
“He said taking an anti-diahreal could lead to my death!” I later explained to my family and friends. “I have diarrhea! Don’t you think I’ve taken an antidiarrheal? Don’t you know I’ve already taken three antidiarrheals this week?!”
I talked about diarrhea a lot over the next month and a half. After a while, it seemed like a normal topic of conversation to me. Of course, every once in a while, a stranger would give me a sideways glance that said, “I don’t care if it could kill you. What makes you think you can talk to me about diarrhea?”
Earlier that week, I’d ordered E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India with the intention of learning more about the country I’d recently visited. But when I picked it up in the reserve section of the library and brought it home that day, I found I couldn’t look at it. I couldn’t even read the summary on the back of the jacket. Not that I held India responsible for the bacteria producing nasty toxins in my gut. In fact, I still loved India as much then as I did when I was jetting around the country on its fabulously exotic trains. I still planned to return someday. I knew who was responsible: the brutal nature of the natural world. I just didn’t want to be around anything that reminded me of what was happening on my insides.
I wanted to lie in bed all day and watch Woodie Allen films, which were the perfect mix of melancholy and humor. I wanted to take long walks around my neighborhood and soak up the sunshine. I wanted to observe every fat white magnolia blossom and run my hands through the faint mist of every front yard sprinkler. I didn’t want to look up my bacteria on webMD. I wanted to communicate the gravity of my situation to my family and friends, and at the same time, I wanted to remain lighthearted and optimistic. More than anything, I wanted the sharp cramps in my gut to go away. I ferociously, stubbornly wanted to be healthy again.
Now that I’m on the other side of sickness, in the tranquil forgetfulness of health, I wonder if I was being dramatic. It’s a question I can afford to ask now.
But when I woke in the morning to my stomach cramping, when, after the first round of antibiotics, my stomach was still cramping, when the fear that I would suffer from this bacteria chronically, for the rest of my life, ate away at my spirits as much as the toxins ate away at my gut, I didn’t feel dramatic. I felt reasonable when I asked for prayers for healing. I felt smart when I stepped down from various work commitments so I could focus on getting well. But now, in the glow of health, it seems odd that I ever thought I might not get better.
We forget ourselves so easily. I forget what it felt like to run up against that hard fact of life: that I am my body, and without my health, my body doesn’t exist and neither do I. It gives a whole new meaning to the concept of resurrection.
When I was sick, everything in my life became urgent. This is the silver lining to every illness: what matters to you becomes razor sharp.
Don’t get me wrong, all illness is bad, being sick is awful, death is not something we were ever meant for. That said: paradoxically, we receive something even in the worst of circumstances.
I don’t want to go to my grave without doing this! Or this! Or that!
I acted out of that urgency. I wrote an old friend to explain how I really felt, a feeling I’d been afraid to voice for years. I took a good hard look at my life right now and decided it would be good, no matter what. I sent spontaneous, thoughtful text messages to friends. I walked around my neighborhood and cried for how beautiful it looks in late spring. I took long hot showers. I bought myself a brand new yoga mat. I read what I wanted to read.
Some of this left me emotionally tired, but in the best way. I suppose it’s good that we don’t experience this kind of urgency all the time, that sometimes we’re complacent and forgetful about what matters.
The weight of constant awareness is exhausting.
Six weeks later, I got the call: I was bacteria free.
I knew it was coming. I had already felt the change in my body: no more cramps in the morning, no more — ahem — diarrhea at night, no more grumbling and bloating after I ate. When friends and family members and well-meaning acquaintances asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’ve never been better!” I always took my health for granted, I said, but health is the best thing we’ve got. You feel so alive after recovering from illness.
But the ghost of that angry bacteria remained with me. One afternoon, I felt a sharp pain in my side, and my mind flashed with fear: could it be back? Could some little microscopic bit have remained, multiplied, and colonized, heaven forbid? It hadn’t, thank God, and for at least that moment, I let go of the fear.
April 27, 2017 § 4 Comments
I go to sleep in India, and in the morning I wake with my stomach roiling, the pain in my belly sharp and hot. I curl on my side, and sleep and sleep and sleep, the voices of my foreign roommates at the hostel in Varanasi close to my ear but far from my conscious. I sit up, nauseous, and curse the hostel for building its toilets three floors above on the hot roof beneath the relentless sun. I think, I’ve never been so violently ill in my entire life, and I wonder if I’ll be well enough to catch my overnight train that leaves in a few hours.
One bumpy Tuk Tuk ride later, my scarf whapping wildly against the metal roof, my backpack balanced on one knee, we are at the train station. We are late, with five minutes until our train departs, and I run after Emma, my legs weak and my chest heaving and my belly tight. In that moment, I’ll admit it: I hate India.
But then we are on the train, and I am lying down with my cheek against the hard leather bed and a crisp off-white sheet laid upon me. Eighteen hours passes fast when you’re exhausted, and the next thing I know, I awake in a pool of sun to the low call of “Chai! Chai!” from an Indian man carrying a metal thermos up and down the aisle. I order two fried potato somosas wrapped in newspaper and manage to keep one down. Then, we pull into Jaipur, Rajasthan.
Suddenly, in the glow of my restored health, India blooms.
In the cool of an early morning, Emma and I catch a Tuk Tuk to a coffee shop in old Jaipur, where a waiter in a fabulous white and green turban with a stiff fabric plume serves us black coffee and French toast and eggs. Full at last and content, we walk at will through the bazaar, and the smells are so good: incense and sweet curd and hot red curry and so so so many flowers, soft red petals stacked in thick layers and strings of yellow marigolds and bunches of purple and orange and pink blooms. Women crowd stalls filled with sparkly bangles, trying them on in layers of six and seven colorful plastic rings jangling up their arms. They ooo and ah and tell me, “look at these, they’d look good on you,” and so I give myself over to the colors of India.
I buy cheap bangles with purple and green and gold rhinestones and peacocks painted on the sides. I buy a long pink and green and silver sequined skirt. I try on a white sari that shimmers like real marble. Emma and I drink Coca Cola in cold glass bottles with an Indian vendor in the shade of his quiet rooftop shop, where we sort through painted carved elephants and bright chunky turbans and slippery silk blouses. The city is painted pink, and I’m falling in love.
On the Tuk Tuk drive back to our hostel, we stop at a red light and a boy, maybe seven or eight, wraps his arms around the metal frame, holding out one open palm and miming the taking and eating of food. His hair is sandy from white dust and his eyes are dark brown. Our Tuk Tuk driver shoos him away and the light turns green.
India is enormous, and another twelve hour overnight train ride west takes us deep into the Rajasthani desert town of Jaisalmer. We arrive at 5 in the morning, when the desert is still dark and quiet and breezy. Manu, the young man who runs the hostel, greets us at the front door and whisks us up three floors to the open air rooftop, where we watch the orange sun rise over the 12th century brown stone fort on the hill. We eat buttered toast and omelettes and drink milky brown chai.
Below us, men and women sleep on flat roofs. They are cocooned lumps in thick mattresses and ratty blankets. Manu sees me staring at them and says, “India is incredible. You can see anything in India.” We stay up there until it gets too hot — which isn’t long once the sun is up — and then we fall into our air conditioned room and sleep off the sleepless night.
We’ve come to Jaisalmer for a camel safari. Emma and I first heard about these safaris when we were in Nepal, and immediately knew we had to go on one.
In the late afternoon, we climb into the back of Manu’s rusty jeep and head further west, into the desert. The sun is a hazy circle of fire in the sky, the air hot and dry, the gravel road bumpy. Manu gives us both cold water bottles, and I press mine against my bare belly, the side of my neck, roll it between my hands. We zip past cacti the size of trees and start seeing the camels, standing about listlessly in the sun, staring at us smugly from the side of the road, plucking the leaves from desert oaks, sleeping with their long necks folded into the sand. I get a quick thrill when Manu tells us we are an hour’s drive from Pakistan. Once again, we are far from home.
Raju and Doola, our camels, are waiting for us at the camel point, a small sandstone village where camels with ropes around their front feet drink muddy water from a stone tank and chew cud with the mangy dogs running circles around their long legs. They are gangly, all knobby knees and fuzzy humps and skinny necks and floppy lips. When I climb onto Raju’s back, he lets out a primordial growl that reminds me of a dinosaur. These creatures are ugly and temperamental; they are also resilient and strong. They carry us in the triple digit heat out onto the sand dunes. The eight-year-old me who always thought camels were cute squeals with joy on the inside even though the ride is hot and uncomfortable, and soon my legs are sore.
The desert is pleasant once the sun sets. We drink chai from tin mugs off a platter on the dunes, watching the sun fall. In the distance, I hear the sound of Doola’s bell clanging as she chews her cud. Below us, a camel man and a camel boy cook curry and rice over a fire. Stray dogs lie on the sand, watching and waiting for a chance to steal our dinner.
Manu sits with Emma and me in silence as the desert grows dark and the first stars appear. There, shining bright is Jupiter. And there, so comforting because I can always see it at home, is Orion’s Belt. We sit on a coarse blanket by the fire in the dark and eat our meal as the fat black beetles scramble across the sand.
Manu and the camel man set up cots padded with thick mattresses up high on the dunes. We drink ice cold Kingfisher beers as he and the camel man serenade us with Rajasthani renditions of “Barbie Girl” and “Buffalo Soldier” and a sad song about an Indian woman who is getting married and must leave her family for good. We ask Manu questions about life in India, and he tells us there is no dating here, which is very hard. “When women don’t have power, men don’t have power,” he says. He tells us he will marry a foreign girl. He tells us he wants to travel, but Jaisalmer is as far as he’s ever been from his village of three hundred people near the Pakistani border. He wants to see the beaches of Goa, maybe, or the mountains of Nepal. Now that he’s no longer a camel man, but works for the hostel, he can save up money. He tells us all this in perfect English, which he began learning only two years ago.
That night, I count six shooting stars and send my wishes up to God. I see lightning flash along the horizon. I feel the cool breeze off the dunes and bury myself in my blanket. I fall asleep, and when I wake a few hours later, the Milky Way is a white river flowing above me. I feel so close to the sky, the dome above, it doesn’t seem real. When the sun rises, the birds chirp and an eagle soars right above us. Far out in the flat desert below the dunes, I see Raju and Doola sleeping with their heads up to the sky.
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.