Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Piker's Pietas

For a while my oldest daughter wasn’t worried about my upcoming adventures until a male friend at Calvary’s breakfast for the homeless last Sunday asked her if she was worried. She said, rapidly, No. Then 24 hours later, back home in Nashville, she called to cry, Mom, I’m obsessively worried about you and your trip. Oh Lord, I thought. How quick a droplet of water becomes a flood. So I calmed her fears, I hope, noting that I’m being led by the best of world mountaineers, known for rescuing people in trouble on Mt Everest. He won’t lead a 68 year old eco-tourist where her life might be impaled with danger. We will trek well-worn paths in kingdoms my guide knows like the veins in his hand, were he is well known and respected from his visits every year. Since this excursion is a private. we move at my pace through different elevations to get to the base camps of Mt. Everest or whatever destiny. If we were reckless, moving too fast, nothing cures altitude abuse like a speedy slow down and immediate descent for a few thousand feet. I’ll be fine, I tell her. Truly, don’t worry.

I believe I’ve got enough equipment and underwear to last two months, including my trusty prayer beads, my Bible-Book of Common Prayer, Lonely Planet travel guides, logs, writing pads, two kinds of cameras, chargers, four pairs of glasses, 60 packets of pills which I sorted by hand, 60 packets of gorp, lots of scarves, four cruzer sticks for backing up my writing, Kate Campbell and Rolling Stones on my Itouch (will that work in the Himalayas) and a strong desire to do it.
Now I am wondering how I’ll fall asleep without my best sleeping pill - Law and Order! I won’t be able to keep up with American Idol, sigh. But wonder if they watch Oprah in Nepal and Tibet?
Will I miss my luscious duvet cover? Will there be enough puff in the sleeping bag?
I’m ready for dysentery or constipation, blisters or hemorrhoids or altitude sickness. I’ve got "what if" medicines of every sort to combat any unfriendly bite, infection, or head ache. There’s not much out there over the counter I don’t have a sample of, it seems, including ear drops, eye drops, moleskin, Neosporin and Ambesol. What’s more I’ve just lived through tetanus, thyphoid, and polo vaccines given in the same arm within one minute and completed the double dose of hepatitis vaccine on time. Thanks to my training team of Angela, Kareem and Charlie, I’m fitter than I’ve ever been and feeling great. Most important, I’m surrounded by the prayers of so many friends and my family, and trust God is guiding my walking stick and my soul - so what else can anyone ask? Just in case, one suitcase is filled with Christian prayer flags made by inspired young people of Memphis and Nashville.

I don’t know what’s out there. There is a void in my mind about the Asia I do not know. I remember as a child reading about Annapurna in the books of Memphis adventurer Richard Halliburton. The dramatic, snow splashed Himalayan mountains have been life and death for all sorts of beings and we will be sampling three controversial and exotic kingdoms that they pass through: Nepal, which houses the Annapurna Range, the Chitwan Jungle, where we’ll ride elephants on a safari to see Bengal tigers, one-horned rhinocerous, wild Asian elephant, Guar, Gharial crocodile and many more residents in royal hunting grounds for kings and safari hunters in the late 19th century. We’re scheduled to raft the river Rapti and take hot and cold solar powered showers and/or bathe with the elephants themselves.

From here we take off for Mt. Everest base camp, starting at Lukla which is 9300 feet and trekking for ten days til we reach over 18,000 feet, stopping at monasteries, tea houses, lodges and our own tents, and finally wander through the Nepal side base camp before returning to Kathmandu for R&R. Our trip to Tibet must be decided in the moment, depending on the flexibility of crossing the borders and the level of political furor. We had hoped to start at the Tibet side base camp of Mt. Everest after the Olympic torch has passed through, but that may be impossible. However, the Mt. Kailas Pilgrimage, the main point of this trip, can still be considered since it is quite far from the unrest of Lhasa. We hope to walk across the border from a distant place, but if not, we will visit the birthplace of Buddah and the home of the Dalai Lama nearby in India as replacements.
It we are able to enter Tibet we will take a kora, a pilgrimage, that means walk a 32 mile circumambulation of the holy pyramidal peak. One round is said to cleanse the sins of a lifetime. 108 times (sorry folks,) assures Nirvana. We’ll visit the Guge Kingdom monasteries, Tholing which is a haven of early Buddhist art, and Lake Manasarovar, where a dip in its cold waters is one more cleansing of sins. The altitude will be approximately 16,000 feet. Except for the kora, most travel will be in a landrover-style vehicle. Then, returning to Kathmandu to pick up luggage, we’ll fly to Bhutan for a few days in the land of mystery and the most beautiful people in the world, many claim, before getting familiar with busy Bangkok for three days and hopefully have a real Thai massage before another 18 hour flight back to the states.

I'm more worried about flying in this country and not losing my four waterproofed bags before I get to Kathmandu than having any evil befall me. I’ve fretted learning how to operate this fancy-dancy thick Tough book Panasonic laptop identical to what is used in Iraq. It even has a screen that swivels and becomes a writing pad. Best part is it uses Windows XP and not the unmanageable Windows Vista which pays no attention to the pilot at the mouse. In order to send back blogs and emails, I’ve had to learn about UUPlus, a satellite email service, solar electricity cloths, exterior hard drives and DVD players, satellite phones and international roaming on good ole AT&T cell phones. Will everything work? I’ll tell you next week as we lift our feet up the trail to the Annapurna ranges.

I’ve done this kind of safari before, in my younger years. In 1962 at age 22, I traveled the continent of Africa all by myself and wrote stories for The Commercial Appeal. The private trip started in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, where I had a private interview with the first African president on the continent, Kwame Nkrumah; and also to Dahomy, Cameroons (where I was held up by malaria for a week); the frightening and violent Congo (only an airplane stop), South Africa, North and South Rhodesia, (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe), Nayasaland, Bechuanaland, Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda and back to Tanganyika where I met my first husband when the lodge landrover got stuck in a deep mud hole of Ngorongoro Crater. I was away from home for three months, and returned with a severe case of hepititus and a number of marriage proposals. I accepted one and lived 14 months as a housewife on a coffee plantation in Karatu, Tanganyika, baking bread in a homemade oven and scaring leopards out of the Jacaranda trees before a revolution with Zanzibar birthed the new Tanzania and sent us packing to the USA. I was eight months pregnant on departure.

My friends joke how my travels nurse drama, how they’ll let me go my own way. I was in New York City for nine-eleven, in London last summer when the bombs went off, in Atacama during the 7.5 earthquake, in Antarctica on the ship that was first to rescue passengers from the Explorer, which gracefully sank; and so far, God has kept me agile, eager and safe. I don’t know what’s in store. Tibet is in turmoil, but I trust human nature, and respect all peoples for their beliefs and feel their injustice. Soon we’ll know if it works. Stay tuned and hang a prayer flag from your porch.
Photos (by others): Prayer Flags and Mt. Everest; Map of Nepal; Mt. Kailash and Lake Manasarovar; a Latin American painting.

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