This week has found me in a very mellow mood.
I am surrounded by people buzzing with excitement about trekking while I sit in coffee shops and read endlessly or think about the travel guide I could produce from Nepal, loosely titled “A Sloth’s guide to Nepal: What to do between meals.”
I appreciate the majesty of mountains as much as the next person but they are a new beast for me. With the ocean, for example, I feel a wild curiosity; an urge to explore and see what is out there. It unearths in me a desire to know every little secret. But the mountains (so far) have the opposite effect. They are a sunbeam and I am a cat. They are gorgeous and awe inspiring to be sure. But I just want to curl up at their feet and take a nap.
I think that’s the beauty of traveling alone- I just get to wing it every day, chasing little whims until I’m hungry or sleepy. Sometimes I find myself, dirty and happy in a small village, only to lose myself in something unexpected, like the gentle words of an ayurvedic healer.
To that end, about a week ago, a doctor I met was telling me about this book he loved and had completely gotten lost in. It’s about a Buddhist-naturalist who was off in search of a snow leopard. The author had just lost his wife to cancer and all he wanted was a glimpse of this shy creature. Maybe to heal, maybe just to distract him from the pain he’d been carrying. My friend completely sold me on the book then we promptly forgot about it.
I thought of it today, when I was searching the used book section of a coffee shop, marveling once again at my ability to find a Nicholas Sparks novel wherever I travel.
I must be just missing the romance lover who deposits their collection of these novels and moves on. What if I’m following them slowly around the world?
Just as I was about to call it a day, I noticed an unassuming cream colored book with a black and white photo of a cat in the top right corner. I traced the title with my fingertip and did a mini celebration dance.
The Snow Leopard.
I had found it without even looking . I realized, a few pages in, why it didn’t work out that I borrow my friend’s copy. This is my new book, the one I will take with me everywhere I go and scribble notes into. I will draw little hearts by my favorite passages. I defile books that I really love.
I believe that I find books precisely when I need them; when the story will most properly align with whatever I am going through. In this case, one of the passages actually made me tear up a little because it’s something I’ve been struggling to put words to since I arrived in Nepal.
A child dragging bent useless legs is crawling up the hill outside the village. Nose to the stones, goat dung and muddy trickles, she pulls herself along like a broken cricket. We falter, ashamed of our strong step, and noticing this, she gazes up, clear-eyed, without resentment-it seems much worse that she is pretty. In Bengal, GS says stiffly, beggars will break their children’s knees to achieve this pitiable effect for business purposes: this is his way of expressing his distress. But the child that lies at our boots is not a beggar; she is merely a child, staring in curiosity at tall, white strangers. I long to give her something- a new life!- yet am afraid to tamper with such dignity. And so I smile as best I can and say “Namas-te!” “Good Morning!” How absurd! And her voice follows as we go away, a small clear smiling voice- “Namas-te!”- a Sanskrit word for greeting and parting that means “I salute you.”
When he describes her as a broken cricket, I could just die of beauty.
But his general sentiment is something that I can fully relate to here: The tug between honoring a person’s dignity who is struggling for basic rights and wanting to share your your own abundance but not fully knowing how or even if you should. I balance that with the understanding that traveling for pleasure is an almost otherworldly concept in a place where people are, in some cases, simply surviving.
These were my abstract coffee thoughts, egged on by an actual experience.
Yesterday a woman came up to me and asked me for money to buy milk for her child. A few years back, after my uncle died on the streets, I promised myself I would never ignore someone asking for help. I want to think that people would have given my uncle at least that.
So I didn’t ignore her; not right away. But I also didn’t help her when I easily could have. Then she persisted and I did ignore her until she moved on to the next person with exactly the means to buy her milk and exactly the same wish not to. The question for me is not whether or not that defines my character but simply this: why would I not just give her a few hundred rupees? ($2ish). I wondered if I was acting out of some irrational fear which was…what exactly?
That I would be spirited away by a swarm of nurturing mothers, sensing me as a teat they could now freely draw milk from? That she would expect it from me and I would eventually have to avoid that particular alleyway for the rest of my week- a fear rooted in the luxury of inconvenience. Fear of being pegged as a naive traveler? That’s stupid, since everyone who arrives in a new culture is by definition, naive. None of those feel like the truth.
I offer this up just for my own consideration; wondering whether I am honoring that self-created, ever-evolving and somewhat elastic moral compass that I try to follow.
I kept reading the Snow Leopard and Matthiessen kept stirring my thoughts. This passage is about a new porter who has joined their trek into the mountains. The porter is, by all accounts, a shady guy but one with which the author feels a kinship. He feels as if the man is watching over him “like a dim figure from another life.”
More often than I like, I feel that gaze of his, as if he were here to watch over me, as if it were he who had made me cut that stick: the gaze is open, calm, benign, without judgment of any kind, and yet, confronted with it, as with a mirror, I am aware of all that is hollow in myself, all that is greedy, angry, and unwise.
I love this line of thought (and his passion for commas) simply because I think we all have things in us that are dark and twisty. And I’m all for accepting those bits and occasionally exploring them when I feel curious. The milk mom made me think a lot simply by approaching me. There’s a novice monk in my hotel who gives morning talks about Buddhism before I’ve even had coffee. It kind of drives me bananas.I don’t think it makes me a shitty person. It’s just something I noticed.
Like how ice cream and sweet old French tourists make me irrationally happy here. Or how there is always dirt under my fingernails.Or how I ordered chocolate pudding and they brought me a bowl of hot chocolate and I am eating it with a spoon as I type this. The staff is so polite, they don’t want to say they’ve run out of anything, which is sweet but I can’t stop giggling.
It’s just a thing that happens.
Tomorrow I will travel to Lumbini to check out the birthplace of Buddha, then I start a ten day silent meditation course. I have no idea what to expect. I’m sure it will be challenging. But I am a little scared to do it, which naturally draws me close.
Honestly, what keeps popping into my head is the idea that there is someone walking around Lumbini innocently right now, who has no idea that they will be the first English speaking person to cross paths with me after I haven’t spoken to anyone in ten days.
I secretly hope it’s the Nicholas Sparks lover and all they want to talk about is romance novels.