I crawled out of India and into Nepal in May 2019, having survived a whirlwind of cultures, religions, traditions, festivals, foods, people, places, and adventures (Part 1). I had “done” India unlike anyone else I’ve met, and to a degree that I don’t feel comfortable saying about any other country except one.
At the same time, I definitely don’t recommend doing it the way I did! Do not try this at home.
Thankfully, I was equally excited to visit Nepal for one big reason: a video game, “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.”
It probably won’t shock you to discover that the Sony PlayStation series about the globe-trotting, treasure-hunting, wise-cracking hero Nathan Drake are some of my favorite games of all time. Along with Paolo Coehlo’s “The Alchemist” and the first three “Lord of the Rings” movies, “Uncharted” helped stoked the fires of my longing to travel.
A key segment of the second game takes place in Nepal and follows Drake as he makes his way from Kathmandu into the Himalayas. That portion was so vividly rendered that when I first played it in 2009, I felt as if I’d been transported to Kathmandu. I knew then that I had to visit the city someday and see it for myself.
I played the game again before I left, and I’m happy to say they got it right. (Minus the attack helicopter, of course.)
READY OR NOT
I was in Nepal for more than just Kathmandu, though. I planned to do what every traveler does in the country: go trekking.
You might think that after an experience like India, I’d take it easy. Maybe not so many long days and nights carrying a heavy pack in the cold, facing danger from the elements and altitude?
Well, no. I did one of the hardest treks available: the 12-day Annapurna Circuit.
It wasn’t an easy decision, though. I was bone-tired, even soul-tired. I had done and seen everything I wanted to, maybe everything I could in India (except for yoga).
There’s obviously much to savor in such a gorgeous and complex country. But just like the travelers said, the poverty, pollution, grit, bureaucracy, chaos, and aggressive hawkers did ultimately take their toll.
So as I sat by the lakes in the Nepali town of Pokhara – the jumping-off point for the majority of non-Everest treks – I considered what to do.
I asked if the day would ever come that I’d return to Nepal? What were the odds I’d find my way back to pick up an experience I left behind?
FREEDOM IN THE HILLS
I realized that I was fit and healthy in that moment, and God only knew if I would be again. So I decided to dig deep and see it through.
I enlisted a local guide named Laxman, who’d been recommended to me. It would be just the two of us walking together for 2 weeks.
It was the right decision.
The Annapurna Conservation Area is one of the most beautiful places on Earth I’ve seen, full of not just jaw-droppingly spectacular mountain landscapes but lush tropical forests, quaint villages, charming people, and a welcoming culture.
The whole region resonates with the soul-stirring vibrations of traditional Tibetan Buddhism.
This story is tough to tell in a few photos. Fortunately, I have a special post I’ve planned, with images I took especially for the blog.
It’s called “Annapurna in Panorama,” because one frame just doesn’t cut it. See?
DOWN, OFF THE MOUNTAIN
For all the epic adventuring I did in India and Nepal, there was a catch. Somehow I always knew that these nations would mark a high-water point of my travels and possibly the end of them.
In August 2017 I sent a series of messages to a close friend, wherein I speculated that Nepal in particular would present me with a decision: whether to continue to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, and finish my trip “around the world”, or whether to make my long way home.
I was right. That decision came to pass without any effort on my part.
Not because I willed it to, either; this wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy. By the end of my trek in Nepal I simply could not travel anymore. I didn’t want to sleep in another hostel, ride in another taxi, fly on another airplane, get my passport stamped in another customs office, or even look at another traveler.
I was also being terse with strangers, struggling to give the genuine courtesy that had become second-nature to me, and that I knew in my heart kept me safe. (That’s a topic in itself.)
Even worse, I was stuck “in myself,” too aware of being stranger in a strange land. After being taken advantage of far too many times in India I had grown suspicious. Inwardly I was asking, “Why is this person talking to me? Am I being ripped off?” I’m generally a trusting person by nature, so I didn’t enjoy feeling like someone other than myself, someone out of alignment with his values.
To help compensate for this I’d book private hostel rooms, which I almost never needed before. I’d read books and watch chess videos, only going outside to eat.
But worst of all, I wasn’t sleeping. My nervous system was so overstimulated by the pollution, noise, and commotion that I had trouble winding down at night. Then I often had to be up with the sun for a bus ride or flight, or to change hostels, and exhaustion made everything more difficult.
To check-in with myself I tried to visualize the most comfortable and appealing traveling scenario I could, something that might inspire me to continue onward. I opened my mind, and allowed my imagination to speak:
I pictured myself in Europe, the easiest continent to travel in: I was being carried through the airport in Rome, pampered in 5-star resort hotels, chauffeured to the sites I wanted to see, and taken back to my room.
I knew then that I was done. I recognized that I had stopped enjoying the process.
For me, seeing the world isn’t just about seeing it; it’s about the total experience: the frustrations, struggles, inconveniences, victories, mistakes, opportunities, spontaneities, and the total immersion in the unfamiliar.
This speaks to the differences between a “tourist”, a “backpacker”, and a “traveler”, three terms that are often conflated but are actually very different. This is a subject I need to address for the benefit of anyone who aspires to travel.
To be clear, unlike many on the road I don’t look down on people who need or want to travel in a bubble. I’m grateful that they’re getting out to see something beyond their hometown, region, country, or favorite festival. But five-star travel is not how I do things, nor is it in the spirit of my research projects about the world or myself.
So as hard as it was to let go, I knew it was time to make my way home. I had gotten what I came for, and the clock had run out, like I always knew it would.
That led me into Chapter Two in my journey homeward to the States.
Hi, thanks for reading. It’s a real joy to be able to share the world through my photos and stories.
This is episode 2 of a 3-part series about my return to the U.S., but I have many more stories to share – plus lots more lens flares, too! So before you go, please share this post, and subscribe for updates and the exciting conclusion. Thanks so much. ❤️