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.”

uncharted poster

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.)

Kathmandu skyline
Kathmandu skyline [2019]
Thamel flags
The Thamel shopping district of Kathmandu [2019]
Birthday procession
A birthday procession near Durbar Square [2019]
Prayer flags
Prayer flags in Thamel [2019]
Buddha stupa
The Great Buddha Stupa [2019]

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.

annapurna map

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.

Delhi airport
Pollution at the Delhi airport [Feb. 2019]
Varansi rush hour
Rush hour in Varanasi [2019]
stray dog
Stray dog [2019]

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.

Pokhara
Pokhara lakes [May 2019]

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.

Laxman lake
My main man, Laxman. [2019]

It was the right decision.

Tent field
Tents in an alpine field, with Annapurna III behind [2019]

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.

Chame village
Chame village, the start of the trek [2019]
Chame steps
Ascending rocks steps near Chame [2019]
Manang
Yes this is a real place, near Manang. [2019]
Yak valley
Yak Kharka valley [2019]
Ice lake
A view of Annapurna III, from Ice Lake [2019]
Epic view
Taking in the view. [2019]
Snowfield
Ascending to Thorong-La [2019]
Ice path
An icy path approaching Thorong-La [2019]
Thorong-La Summit
Crossing the Thorong-La Pass, at 5416 meters, or 17,769 feet. [2019]
Victory meal in Muktinath, with Annapurna amigos Jana, Roxy, Ulli, Finn, and Mortiz [2019]

The whole region resonates with the soul-stirring vibrations of traditional Tibetan Buddhism.

prayer wheels
Prayer wheels in Manang [2019]
Prayer flags of a Yak Kharka monastery [2019]
Marpha monastery
A boy at a monastery in Marpha [2019]

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?

Annapurnapano
A bit of perspective. [2019]

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.

WA chat
WhatsApp chat, August 2017

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.

Long haul flight
I’ve spent too much time in places like this. [2019]

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.)

Birthday man
A man being celebrated on his birthday, in Kathmandu. [2019]

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.

momos
There’s always room for momos and chai. [2019]

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.

Kathmandu street
A busy, smoggy, dusty road in Kathmandu [2019]

A DECISION

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:

Italy resort
A 5-star resort on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. That looks pretty easy, right? [2015]

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.

Amritsar lunch
Lunch in Amritsar, India. [2019]

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.

NZ fence

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. ❤️

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2 thoughts

  1. Excellent. Love the Uncharted inspiration, making it real, the courage to continue, and the courage to stop. That crossroad is so big, and maybe it’s just my impression of others, but the choice can seem like a relatively easy decision one way or another from the outside. I totally feel you on the distrust and how the extended exposure to this difficult situations affects you deeply in negative ways despite the many positives that comes with them. My situation with Venezuela has many differences, but also many similarities apparently, and I’m still working trying to make sense of them all 2.5 years later back officially in the states most of each year.

    1. Thank you, Alexander. This is probably my favorite comment that I’ve gotten on my blog. It feels very moving to be seen. Yes it took just as much courage to stop as it did to start, and I took it just as seriously, as well.

      I also know a lot of what I write about looks easy. That’s due to many factors, including that I don’t get into the unglamorous side of things. But with India – and to a lesser extent, Nepal – it’s impossible to avoid.

      Regarding the distrust and the difficult situations, that’s something that only someone who has spent a lot of time in a foreign culture can see. It’s a form of initiation, in a way. For the uninitiated, they can’t understand. For the initiated, they can’t forget, and nor can they really share it. But it’s how travel changes a person, permanently.

      Thanks so much again, and I look forward to discussing more.

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