Here’s the situation.
You’ve just reached the pinnacle of your 14-day Himalayan trek: a 12:000 foot mountain pass. You can see the whole world from here, and you can smell the ice in the wind. You’re exhilarated. But you’ve been walking uphill all day, fueled by a hard-boiled egg and a Nature Valley bar, so you’re also exhausted. And, of course, you still have another few hours of walking, downhill across snow and ice, before you’ll reach camp. So right now the idea of dropping your pack and cozying up next to the fire is basically a hazy wish.
Then you turn a corner. And you see an animal. A giant beast. And It’s peering at you from behind a couple of bushes a few dozen feet away. It’s white fur is barely distinguishable against the snow. You’ve never seen a yak before. It’s mysterious, it’s picturesque, and you’re just standing there, struck by the beauty of the moment.
So what’s your reaction from there? I liked Adrian’s take: “It’s probably friendly. You can go over there and try to ride it, if you want.” When a mysterious, picturesque, lumbering beast appears among Himalayas and leads you to appreciate the beauty of life, I also agree that it must be ridden.
I didn’t end up getting to ride the yak. With Madeline, I tip-toed all the way over to the bushes and reached out an open palm as a peace offering to the yak. Like it was playing monkey-see-monkey-do, the yak shuffled over to me at a turtle’s pace. It sniffed and nuzzled my hand. It gave me a look of total confusion. Then, it reared its horns and ran away, over the crest of the hill. And so, that unexpected encounter with a Himalayan yak came to a swift end.
But still, in my mind, I’m still there, watching the yak lumber up and away from me, over that horizon line and into lands that I’ll never see. It’s a moment that even while it was happening, I felt like I was reflecting on it thirty years down the road. And it’s a moment that I probably will be reflecting on thirty years down the road. Because I felt this certain feeling when the poofball of a yak stood up straight, snorted, and disappeared from my life just as quickly as it had entered it. It’s a tough thing to put into words.
In that certain feeling, I felt nostalgia. I felt nostalgia for things that hadn’t even happened yet. I felt like I was already getting on the plane for LA, like I was already looking back on my time in Nepal. I felt like everything was ending. Right there on that hill, the yak still in clear view at the crest, the trip already felt like it was in the past.
I’ll never experience that moment a second time. Right now, a week later, that moment on the hill still feels totally real and totally tangible, as if it’s still happening. Of course, it’s not: it’s part of the past. But isn’t that the beauty of a powerful moment? That you’ll never experience it again? That the beauty and power can so abruptly come into existence, and then disappear, with only you to know that it was ever there?
Two weeks ago, we began our journey to discover China, its people, and ourselves. We all went on a silent walk in the area surrounding our orientation hostel, with the surprisingly ample light from the full moon illuminating our way. We all walked in silence, first along a flat road but then on a trail up a big hill.
At the top, as is the Chinese tradition on the eve of the lunar New Year, we wrote our hopes, dreams, and aspirations on lanterns and then burned them in our campfire. We also wrote down our fears and concerns, symbolically leaving them behind on that hilltop. With sparklers, lanterns, and a campfire, we ended our orientation phase and embarked upon this three month journey together.
Now, about two weeks later, it feels like we’ve been in China for forever. Yet at the same time, having arrived in Kunming for our 5 weeks of formal language instruction and home stays, it feels like the course is, in many ways, just beginning. We’re getting settled in one place for a while and starting to operate in China independently with our host families with a week of trekking under our belt. A common phrase Chinese people ask us, the lao wai, is, “Are you used to [China] yet?” I think that we’re starting to get used to it. We know each other pretty well and have experienced planning our first expedition, albeit only a day.
I was having a conversation the other day where someone told me that they can already see how I’ve grown. That’s a weird concept. In my experience, there’s no doubt that we’re all changing, growing, and learning, but it’s almost impossible to see personal growth in real-time. Usually you don’t realize how much you’ve changed until you look back.
A lot has changed since that hilltop, even though it’s only been two weeks since we were gathered there. As I look forward to a new phase of growth here in Kunming, I’m keeping in mind the goals I set that evening.
We’re in a rare position where we’re able to look not just backward to see how we’ve come, but also forward to see how far we will come. I’m excited to meet that new me.
If you look out the window during a 10 hour bus ride from La Paz, Bolivia to Cuzco, Peru, you will see endless stretches of grassy mountains, blue skies patched by ivory clouds, or ominous rainstorms in the distant mountain ranges. About halfway through, if you sit on the left side of the bus, you will also feel the unrelenting sun beating on you through the window pane, and the lack of any breeze through the fully opened window does not help with the dread that you still have five more hours on this bus.
In a moment of irritation with the scorching sun, I also saw, through a gap in my curtains, a little Peruvian girl on the side of an empty stretch of highway, with her hands stretched upward and outward. From my vantage point, it looked like she was holding an empty bag for begging, and her eyes followed our giant bus as it passed her position on the side of the road. We had sped along before I could get a better glimpse, but for some reason I couldn´t erase this image from my mind. What brought her here? Why is she begging on the side of a highway where few cars probably stop, under the torturous highland sun? There I was, annoyed by the sun that was coming through a shaded car window, and there she was, standing in the heat, fully exposed. How does this make me feel and how does it make her feel to see vehicle upon vehicle pass by indifferently?
When the instructors asked us today about how our lives relate to and influence the lives of others and the environment, I thought of this image. What effect does my passing by have on the little girl? Sure, I can convince myself that it is not up to me to alleviate all the poverty in this world, but I have to remember that I am a part of (and contributing to) a bigger phenomenon of economic and social inbalance. Does our passing by encourage the girl to continue to wait for a wealthy gringo, or will it discourage her?
As we continue our three months of travel, I hope to be more consciencious of how my actions will influence the local communities and environment we visit. It´s easy to travel for selfish reasons, like to see more of the world and to discover other ways of life, but it seems wrong if that´s what travel is all about. It will be hard to make sense of much that I will see in the next weeks, but if I try, I might gain a better understanding of not only myself, but also of how I relate to the world around me. After all, to step out of my old bubble of privilege was one of the reasons why I chose to embark on this journey.
How did I end up here? On the ghats, eating yogurt with every meal, and the perfect chai that has already burned my tongue. How was I blessed with this perfection? The joy of feeling souls shine through the first stories shared between my group mates, the marigolds, the temples, and the continuous song that swims in the air all night. The wondrousness of being one more person, of billions, whose breath is stuck by their first vision of Varanasi.
We have barely begun. In this moment I treasure the unknown of our future here. My homestay family, my ISP, my challenges, my fears, and the revelations. 9 weeks from now I will write a yak bidding farewell to my new family. What will I know? Now, I am held in a space of beginnings; a space of newborns and firsts. 9 weeks from now, I will know my way home to brothers and sisters, I will have delved into dance or medicine or women’s rights. Will I still be touched by tiny begging hands, burned by delicious chai, rocked into peace by the blaring of horns and prayer? Will I fantasize about living here someday, as I am now? 9 weeks is enough time to die and be born, to learn, to change life, to fail and learn and fail and learn.
Once again I am among the adventurous, the passionate, the ingenuity of engineers who spurn from little resource and much need. I see hobbling shacks along the streets and I think of the comfort I’ve found in their dim warmth. I am brimming with thanks, to our group, to India, to some force that brought me here. The divine in me is welcoming the divine is this world.
It has taken a long time for me to begin to understand that giving attention to the self; the act of looking inward, was indeed a positive action. In looking inward, we have the power to better understand the Self, which in turn is helpful to understanding and coexisting with others. In Buddhism and Hinduism, both influencing the Vedanta philosophy I studied at the Yoga Farm, a main facet to these beliefs is the notion that by healing the Self, you can in turn heal others.
“While it’s true that horrible things happen around us everyday, to transform the world we all experience, we have to start with ourselves. We can only create change in the world if we first start with our own individual healing. When we heal a part in ourselves, we also heal that part in the world. In order to heal we must utilize the power of forgiveness.” (Vienda Maria, the Tiny Buddha Blog)
What Vienda is saying is that by literally actively creating positivity, happiness or things that make us happy in a positive way, we are actively obtaining a higher Quality of Life for ourselves. The Healer’s Journal calls it “How to Change the World by Healing Yourself”. Most of modern western society calls it selfishness, self obsession, weakness, a waste of time. What I’ve been realizing through experience and teachings that a high ‘Quality of Life’ means allowing yourself to be internally focused and self-aware because in the end, it ultimately turns out to be a selfless and positive thing for more than just yourself. Positivity is contagious, truly sending positive vibes that affect others in the real world.
At the risk of sounding selfish from a western standpoint, I’ll share that in the last three to six months I feel that I have undergone an exponential amount of emotional and mental growth and change compared to the other 19 and a half years of my life, though I don’t have facts to prove that. But change hasn’t just come about, it’s been the first time that I have actively taken steps to create major changes in my life, despite the fear and stress which accompanies it.
When you first go to college you feel invincible. No one knows you, and for that reason you could be anyone. Same is true for the world, except in the real world, you can’t fake it. In college, you kind of sort of can, or at least are eluded to believing so your freshman year until you’re faced with deciding and committing to what you actually want to do academically and beyond, as a career or what have you. All this is a reality check in some ways and I needed the space to figure that out. Any college, especially potentially the wrong one, is not the time you waste your money by wasting time figuring that kind of stuff out. There is no rush. This act of self focus and change to better my ‘Quality of Life’ rather than just being complacent with my surroundings is a positive one for more than just myself. No one enjoys being around someone who is unhappy.
After deciding to take a gap year I realized I needed a plan, and wanting to travel and study another culture with an eastern mindset and traditions, I applied to go to the Himalayas. Knowing that that trip would not happen until February, I signed up for a month long Yoga Teachers Training Course where I could begin to harbor skills of mindfulness and put my already strong self-awareness to better use. Through this practice and an exposure of the world outside of college, I’ve developed a better sense of Self and awareness, helping me to discover my passions in life and all the potential things in life. A positive approach to life itself, and the desire and self motivation to take care of yourself in order to receive the best possible outcome and truest of truths as a result of my actions, we must take care of ourselves. That is the act of maintaining the highest possible ‘Quality of Life’.