Finding Friendship in the Himalayas
I have always maintained - as does travel writer Paul Theroux - that traveling allows us to discover who we are. I’d like to expand that assertion to say that traveling takes us across borders, over bridges, and through doorways, so that we may discover we’re part of the larger human family. Whether we go to Paris, Cambodia, Cuba or Africa, we experience community with others who often have different traditions, beliefs, not to mention skin color. As we melt into these different cultures we see just how unreal the cultural divisions (stereotypes, biases) we’ve been conditioned by are. During this fraught and painful time in our human history, with so much at stake worldwide, this discovery of commonality and oneness is not only healthy but necessary for our collective survival. We need to look beyond our own boundaries...
I am thinking in particular now of a young man I met and became close to in Bhutan many years ago whose name is Karma. From the moment he put the white kata scarf around my neck at the airport through the last afternoon when we witnessed a private family cremation together, he offered me friendship, teaching, and laughter. Over the 8 days, we explored the mountainous terrain in a car driven by a good friend, reaching one of Bhutan’s tallest mountain passes on our way to picnic in the Haa valley, spent the night in a tiny out of the way village where the power went off in the night and plunged us into deepest blackness, visited the capital city of Thimphu with its little museums, and of course walked through monastery after monastery close to our home base of Paro. I remember Karma and his friend chattering in Bhutanese as we ascended and descended, and I inhaled the pungent pine and cedar from the surrounding forests and took many deep breaths to keep from feeling carsick. He and I talked some of Bhutan’s way of life - a dramatically different one from our own - and ultimately explored more personal subjects that came up: leading the spiritual life, love of the Dalai Lama, the spiciness of Bhutanese curry, single older women who wish to be independent when they travel, our shared yearnings to learn more of the world outside our country‘s boundaries, the surreal mythology of Bhutan, and even the mysterious old man sleeping outside the Kichyu monastery... The more we talked the more we were able to see one another.
From my recently published memoir, Bowing to Elephants:
“Karma admitted that he was curious about why a single older woman like me was traveling all alone to his country. ‘I’ve become way too independent and stubborn to enjoy being herded about in groups like so many sheep,’ I told him. ‘I tend to be interested in unpredictable and unusual things. I like to make discoveries spontaneously as I go along.’
He smiled at me as though he understood. He had a small, round brown face with alert dark eyes, and his gaze was open and clear as he spoke wistfully of the time when he gave up on the monastic path as a youth because of its intense discipline. He was coming of age now in a time when tourism in Bhutan was flourishing, and people from the West were arriving in great numbers with wide-eyed curiosity; he confessed he wanted some day to travel beyond his protected land, and it was clear that working with those who came to visit would help him do that. ..
He looked so smart and capable in his traditional black kilt and sturdy hiking boots with sensible thick socks. Ready for hiking. I reminded him that I wasn’t in Bhutan to hike the mountain trails like most of today’s tourists, I was by no means a trekker. I wanted to see Buddhist life up close, to go to monasteries and inhale the incense, bow before the shrines and the flags, and continue to ask all my questions. As he watched me struggle to frame a photo of the town below us, he told me photography was a serious hobby of his, and he loved taking pictures, so I offered him my spare Canon and said, “please do.” In the late afternoon as the sun sank behind the giant mountains, we stood quietly as the pine trees whispered in the November breeze, and it seemed we were looking then at one another’s faces with unexpected familiarity.”
I flew away from Bhutan over the stunning Himalayas and brilliant blue skies a changed person. Karma had brought me into his culture (monasteries, restaurants, prayer flag fields, artist studios, cremation grounds) and made me feel at home. Thousands and thousands of miles from home, I was never lonely or afraid. Over these days I became aware of the powerful ethic of practice and devotion in this country…. And the happiness that seemed to naturally radiate from most of the citizens. This was a world without policemen or guns or excessive technology. Karma and I trained our cameras on all of that and more, and when I returned to America I sent him his own little Canon. Through the years since that idyllic week we have communicated back and forth faithfully. He is now a really good artist as well as a travel guide and seems happy in his beautiful “Land of Gross National Happiness.” I am now a published writer as well as a traveler and matriarch, and I am finding my way in our country of discord and chaos.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find a new friend somewhere totally unexpected? Could be Mexico, India, or Vietnam, or Italy … anyplace. It is possible: you just have to keep your heart open and your mind curious and engaged. And remember that we’re all in the same family in this life.
Dear followers: if this peaks your curiosity, and you haven’t yet bought Bowing to Elephants, please consider taking that leap. IndieBound.com will direct you to the closest independent bookstore.