The following text is the first chapter of:
A BALCONY IN NEPAL: GLIMPSES OF A HIMALAYAN VILLAGE
CHAPTER 1: THE BEGINNING: A WILD IDEA
If the beginning is good, the end will be good.
In November of 1991, I received a letter that was to set the course of my life for at least the next eight years—and that laid the foundation for this book. I ripped open the envelope with the familiar return address, extracted the hand-written letter, and read: “What do you think about our going together to a village in Nepal? I think you and I could do a beautiful book on the daily life of the village families. Not an anthropological study—we would bring readers into the village with us, not inform them about village mores. Lots to think about. A wild idea but, I think, one worth pursuing.”
This letter and this invitation came from a woman who, in less than a year, had become an intimate friend, even though we had seen each other in person only once four years earlier, barely exchanged hellos, and promptly forgot about the meeting. The friendship began in January of 1991 when I—sitting at my desk in my cluttered home office in Port Washington, New York—wrote to my friend and fellow writer Mary-Scott Welch in South Palm Beach, Florida, to tell her that I was going trekking in Nepal. I had no idea that her reply would change my life.
Scotty wrote back, enclosing photos of a dozen or so charming drawings and watercolors of Nepali villagers and trekking staff. The artist was her cousin, Margaret Roche, who, said Scotty, “hikes into Nepal as often as she can swing the trip.” I wrote to Marge Roche at her home in Evanston, Illinois early in February. Among other things, I recommended to her, for future trips, Peter Owens, the trekking leader Mark and I had gone with earlier and who would be leading this next trip. When Marge replied, she wrote that she had trekked five times with Peter. And then her name suddenly clicked with me; I went back to my 1987 journal, and I realized that back then, Marge and I had sat at opposite ends of a dinner table in Narayan’s Restaurant in Kathmandu when my trek was ending and hers was about to begin. I had to pick up the phone to celebrate this synchronicity. After a long, rich conversation, I asked Marge to send me the three books she had produced of her drawings and journals from her treks.
It was through these books that Marge reached into my heart. Her journals read like letters from a soul-mate, as she revealed so many feelings that I shared—her affection and respect for Nepal and the Nepalis; her embarrassment and guilt over having so much, when those appealing and friendly people have so little; her striking out on her own on her voyages of self-discovery; and even her lust for the sweet, juicy cinnamon rolls that Peace Corps workers had taught Narayan’s staff to bake.
In one of Marge’s books I saw a sketch of Gora—the cook on her Rolwaling trek, who had also been the cook on our Gorkha trek—wearing a tee shirt that said “Port Washington Thanksgiving Day Race.” Marge had thought that the shirt was especially apropos, since Gora was holding the legs of the live chicken he was planning to cook for dinner. I had given that shirt to Gora the week before Marge had captured him with her paintbrush. I thought that the added synchronicity of her immortalizing that tee shirt on paper was a sign that she and I were meant to meet—and to affect each other’s lives. (Synchronicity was a new word for me, and a new concept; before I went to Nepal and became more accepting of phenomena I couldn’t easily explain by rational means, I was aware of coincidence, but gave it scant weight in my life. Today I appreciate the fact that some of the most important events in my life are inexplicable.)
During the next nine months my friendship with Marge gestated in an intense correspondence, in which we learned how much we had in common. We were both at about the same stage in life—Marge just past 60, I only a couple of years short of it. We were both in sturdy long-term marriages (40 years for Marge, 36 for me); both involved with grown children (Marge’s six, my three) and grandchildren (her eight, my three). We had both been active in the civil rights movement and were now committed to the goals of the women’s movement. And we both filtered so many of our life experiences through our chosen callings—her art, my writing. In the two or three long, open, discursive letters that flew every month between New York and Illinois, we shared countless intimate feelings, thoughts, opinions, attitudes about life, death, love—all the important things.
And always, we wrote about Nepal. Both of us had fallen in love with this little Himalayan kingdom and her extraordinary people, a love that had brought us together in one of those serendipitous twists of fate that ended up changing both our lives and those of at least two children whom we would come to meet in the remote hill village of Badel.
Both Marge and I had become entranced, not only by the incomparable beauty of the Himalayas, but by the remarkable sweetness and cheerfulness of the Nepali people. In view of the arrant poverty in which most of them struggle and the hard lives that are their lot, they do not show bitter, hostile or even resigned faces to the world, not even to those of us who in material ways are so much more fortunate than they—but exude a friendliness and a joy that neither of us had ever encountered anywhere else. What could these people, who wrest beauty from a harsh and primitive land, teach us, who live in one of the most technologically developed nations in the world? I had been especially curious about the women, few of whom I had met. Their lives were so very different from mine and so much more difficult; I wondered what their thoughts and feelings were, what dreams they harbored, what changes they could see in their future. And now Marge was proposing that we spend time in a Nepali village where we could seek answers to these questions.
What was so wild about this idea? What wasn’t wild about it? We would be going to an isolated village in one of the poorest, most primitive Third World countries on earth. We could reach such a place only by flying halfway around the world to Kathmandu, and then boarding a small plane that would take us to a tiny airstrip, from which we would have to walk on narrow, twisting trails up and down mountains, through marshy rice paddies, over deep gorges and torrential rivers for several days, sleeping in tents along the way. We’d have to hire a staff consisting of guide, cook and several porters. For weeks we would be completely without telephones, mail service, electricity—totally out of touch with everyone we loved. No one would be able to reach us. We wouldn’t be able to contact anyone in the outside world.
This kind of trip is usually taken by people at the threshold of adulthood, using what feels like unlimited time to explore strangers’ lives in exotic places while they’re wondering what they’re going to do with their own lives. Or by anthropologists whose profession calls them to settle in unstudied communities for months or years so they can describe nuances of language and artifacts and culture for other scientists. We, of course, were neither: we were too old for the first and too unschooled for the second.
Furthermore, our lives were full; our time was limited. We would be taking a long break from work that was important to us and from family we loved (including our husbands, both of whom were definitely unenthusiastic about our plans), to be more than vacationing tourists, less than working explorers. We would be risking both health and safety in regions days away from any medical help. We wouldn’t even be trekking to the most spectacular ranges of the Himalayan chain, which pull foreigners to them with the magnets of their magnificent views.
And finally, the idea of publishing a book was problematic. Although I was an established and often-published author, I had never written anything like the book Marge proposed. Although she had often exhibited her art and had won prizes for it, she had never published it commercially. Beautiful art like hers makes a book costly to produce. I got cold chills thinking about the folly of trying to produce a commercially viable book about our experience. Even though Marge and I had agreed that we would not judge this trip on whether a book came out of it, I knew myself. I knew how I transmute virtually everything I do into words on a page—sometimes in an article or book that gets published, sometimes in the pages of a journal that no one but myself will ever see.
In either case, writing is almost as much a part of my life as breathing. Sometimes I feel that I haven’t fully experienced an event, haven’t known a person, haven’t really felt an emotion if I haven’t filtered it through my head and then my fingers. Incised in my soul are the novelist John Cheever’s words: “To write is to make sense of one’s life, to aim to succeed in one’s usefulness and one’s loves, and to share this excitement with strangers.” Writing is my way of living. Since this trip was inspired by both Marge’s and my desire to share with strangers our excitement about, our admiration of and our affection for Nepal and her people, I cared terribly about how I would write about this particular experience. And of course the more I cared, the more anxious I felt. I knew that Marge had some of the same feelings about her art.
FROM MARGE’S JOURNAL:
My pencils, pens and brushes are my traveling companions. They are the foreign language that I never seem able to learn. They are my ears and eyes that record what passes before me. People ask how long it takes me to do one of my drawings. I have no idea. It could be an hour or only fifteen minutes. I don’t know because when I draw I am in another time zone, one without watches, the one the Greeks call “kairos.” We move into it whenever we are in love or totally absorbed in a task. When I am in this world I am not aware of doing the drawing. It is as though some other power moves my hand and mixes my paints. In this altered state, the picture draws itself. The book is its own author. The dance owns the feet. The music flows without effort. When it works, the completed piece has soul. It has guts. When it fails, the work is tentative, clumsy, timid. I can’t force it. I just have to have faith in what will come.
The more I thought about this idea, the wilder it seemed. And the more fiercely I wanted to do it. Both Marge and I managed to overcome our husbands’ various objections to this journey of ours, and by November 25, 1992, four months before we were to leave for Nepal, I finally believed that this adventure would come to pass. At first it had been so remote, in such a distant future that I could talk about it easily, calmly. As our departure date crept closer, though, my excitement rose, along with heretofore unacknowledged fears and anxieties.
For months before we left, the two of us read nothing but books about Nepal. We recommended them to each other, burdened our mail carriers with them, shared our feelings about them afterwards. As enthralling as these books were, they were anything but reassuring. I read about visitors to Nepal itching all night because of bedbugs in the mattress. I read about the propensity of head lice to hop from the little heads of children to the big heads of the adults who spent time with them. I read about the packs of rabid dogs in the Kathmandu Valley and the villages, about the bandits who sometimes preyed on travelers on isolated paths, about broken bones shattered by sudden falls from steep ridges. Although we had both trekked in Nepal before, those trips had been under the care of a seasoned American trek leader, who provided clean tents, sanitary kitchen facilities, seasoned helpers, safe passage through the country. This time we would have a much slimmer buffer between us and Third World discomforts and dangers.
Then there were Marge’s and my questions about each other. How would we get along? We were the closest of friends by post. But we had never spent any time together in person. Yes, we liked and admired each other’s personality on the written page and in the occasional phone conversation. But how does that translate to being each other’s only English-speaking companion for a month, to making joint decisions about meals, sleeping arrangements, day-to-day activities? I knew only the “disembodied” Marge, the one who wrote, the one who painted, the one who talked. Not the one who might take too long in the bathroom, the one who might be grumpy in the mornings, the one who might irritate with a thousand pesky habits. Nor did she know that Sally. Could that Marge and that Sally remain friends, while traveling and living together in close quarters and demanding conditions for a month, removed from familiar ground and from the comforts and conveniences we had always taken for granted? Further, both of us have powerful needs for private space, silent times, times to read and write and draw and paint. Could we respect those needs in each other, when we would be so far from home, practically yoked to one another, morning, noon and night?
So we previewed our togetherness. On a crisp November day in 1992 I flew to Chicago, Marge picked me up at O’Hare Airport, and the two of us immediately drove to the Roche family’s cottage in the Michigan woods where she and I could be alone and free from any outside distractions. In the bright sunny mornings we sat together and filled legal-size yellow pads with lists of questions, items to buy, equipment, clothes, and gifts to pack. In the afternoons we breathed in the winey aroma of the carpet of autumn leaves underfoot as we walked through the woods behind the cottage, or felt the sand crunch under our steps on the deserted, driftwood-strewn beach along the lake. And always we shared thoughts and feelings, learning about each other and about ourselves. We talked and laughed and got along as if we had been childhood chums. It was glorious. We knew it would work.
But still there were nagging worries. For one, there was more than a possibility—in fact, a strong probability—of some kind of intestinal or respiratory illness, injury on the trail, and maybe worse. We would be courting new bacteria and new viruses in a milieu innocent of all the safeguards and protections we take for granted at home. And we would be miles away from medical diagnosis or care. We would be on our own. We would have to be up to date with tetanus and typhoid and polio inoculations. We would need gamma globulin against Hepatitis A. And maybe even Hepatitis B. And then there was rabies. Rabies?
In my entire life it had never occurred to me to receive a preventive shot against the eventuality that I might be bitten by a rabid animal. Rabies was funny-looking movie-cartoon dogs with mouths like soapsuds. I had never seen a rabid creature. But my guidebooks warned about the prevalence of rabies, especially in the villages. I remembered incessant all-night barking by packs of skinny, mangy mongrels—the kind that, in the absence of deliberate breeding, maintain generic canine features and shapes that characterize almost all dogs throughout the developing world. The ones I remembered were all loud, some mean. Still in my mind’s eye was a dog I had kept my distance from during my last trip to Nepal—an especially ugly mastiff straining against a chain that I had prayed with all my might would hold. I remembered Marge’s journal from a previous brief village visit.
FROM MARGE’S JOURNAL:
As we made our way through the village of Tekanpur to the house where I’d be staying the night, we were chased and surrounded by barking, snapping dogs—sometimes as many as a dozen in a pack. Prem, my porter, said they wanted to eat his little puppy, and he threw stones to keep them at bay. I just made sure I never got between the pack and Puppy. I wonder whether my scent is different from the Nepalis and it was me the dogs didn’t like. . . . After dinner, Puppy and the fierce-looking house dog settle just in front of the wooden door. The old man of the house closes the door and places a bar across it. This is going to be a long night. I pray for dehydration so I won’t have to get up in the middle of the night and try to pass the dogs. By morning I’m ready to burst—but I didn’t go out all night!
I went to my doctor—and I got a short course in rabies. Flipping pages of The Travel Medicine Advisor, Dr. Gottridge looked up the incidence of human rabies, according to the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. From a low of 0.004 cases per million in the U.S., rates go up to 3.7 in Nepal. In developed countries like the U.S., the few cases that do occur are almost all from wild animals—raccoons, bats, skunks, foxes. But in the Third World, domestic animals are the ones to worry about.
Guidelines spelled out who should get the new series of three pre-exposure rabies prophylaxis: people who travel in a country with high rates; who are under 16; who will not be able to reach good medical care for a post-exposure shot within 24 hours; whose occupation involves contact with animals; who plan to spelunk, or to walk or bike in rural areas; and who will be staying more than one week in the area. I wouldn’t be spelunking, and I could barely remember being 16—but I clearly fit the other four categories.
Since the most important one seems to be the 24-hour rule, and since rabies can be fatal if it’s not stopped before it can reach the central nervous system, and since the village where I’d be staying is a three-day walk to the closest airport, from where I justmight be able to get on a crowded flight to Kathmandu, I got the series. The shots wee expensive—three, at $85 a pop. But after a minute’s serious thought, I decided that my life was worth it. I felt like a hypochondriac and a worry-wart—and I rolled up my sleeve. Even though the preventive series is not 100 percent reliable, and I would need an immediate booster if some rabid cur got its saliva into me by biting or scratching me, or by licking a wound or any of my mucous membranes (eyes, inside of nose or mouth), I would still be better off with this than with nothing.
Marge decided against the rabies shots. “If we come across any mean-looking dogs, I’ll just make you walk in front of me.” At least one of us is protected. So I can check off one worry. What’s left? As Marge was putting a log in the fireplace during our weekend in Michigan, she said, “You have the hardest job—writing about our visit. I want to help you but I don’t know how.” When my artist friend Marianne Vecsey was talking about how each of the paintings in her new show, based on places she had visited, developed differently because of what she wanted to say about each one, she said, “You know how it is—when you’re creating something and you have to pull it out of yourself.” And a bolt of lightning flashed through my body, lighting up the big question: What do I want to say about the Nepali way of life, what are my insights into them, into us? I wouldn’t know until we were there.
Meanwhile, I pressed ahead with preparations. I phoned to make potentially valuable contacts with the United States Ambassador to Nepal and with the Nepal office of the organization Save the Children. Two weeks before my departure date, I started to train more seriously, adding the Stair Master and more hiking to my regimen of a daily three-mile run and a weekly hike. I set aside the worn but usable clothes I’d be taking for our guides and porters and the village people. I took half a dozen lessons in Nepali, not enough to talk philosophy but enough to show the villagers that I was making an effort. I plunged ahead, seesawing wildly between euphoria and fear, my moods going up and down as steeply as those hills I would soon be traversing.
We made our reservations to leave from Los Angeles April 1. Every now and then I would think, “Suppose something happens to Mark or me while we’re apart? Will I kick myself for not having spent this precious time with the person I love most of all in all the world?” But we can’t live our lives under the shadow of the fear of disaster. As my youngest daughter always tells me, “Worry is like paying the interest on a debt you may never owe.”
Late in February Marge and I did our final shopping. For our medicinal arsenal: over-the-counter remedies for diarrhea, joint pains and headaches; one kind of antibiotic for above the waist (respiratory infections—common in the hills, where every child has a runny nose), another for below the waist (intestinal illnesses caused by exotic bacteria lurking in the water), and still others for eye infections, cuts, whatever. Vitamins to make up for what promises to be a deficient diet. To enhance that diet: dried soups, trail mix, powdered milk, candies.
Clothes: skirts, blouses, tee shirts, jumper, sweater, hiking boots, socks, down vest, in various states of wear. Most of my wardrobe would be left in Nepal for the villagers. I packed neither shorts nor pants since, in deference to Nepali modesty and dress standards, I would be traveling, trekking and visiting wearing calf-length skirts.
Necessary supplies: notebooks and pens, tape recorder, lots of batteries, camera, lots of batteries, flashlight, reading light, lots of batteries, baby wipes for touch-up washing of strategic anatomical spots for those times when there’s no shower within miles. And then there were the gifts. We wanted to be good guests, and gracious guests come bearing welcome gifts. What kind should we bear?
FROM MARGE’S JOURNAL:
Oh, how I agonize over what gifts to bring to the village! The problem of deciding what to bring to a people who have nothing would seem, at first thought, a simple matter. Not so. Because they have so few material things, every new object that comes into the home gains an important status. I think of the toys my grandchildren play with: Magic Markers, plastic cars, Barbie dolls, building blocks. I quickly disqualify all of them. They are either too heavy or bulky to take, or they would be inappropriate. I chuckle to think of little dark-skinned girls combing Barbie’s long blonde tresses. They would probably love Barbie as all girls over the age of two seem to, but it won’t be I who brings this serpent into the Garden of Eden. Certainly no plastics. They never go away, and ten years from now bright red and yellow bits of broken cars or dried-up marker will be surfacing on the dusty paths. What to bring for our hostesses was also a puzzlement. I could not think of a single household item that would blend into their uncluttered homes.
After much consultation, Marge and I pack picture books and flash cards and ballpoint pens to give to the school, beads and necklaces for the women, bandannas for the men, tee shirts and baby clothes for whomever they’d fit and a few small odds and ends for the children (coloring books, Silly Putty, origami papers, balls—and yes, a few plastic combs and bracelets; we hope they won’t serve as an eternal reminder of our visit). We don’t bring candy or pens to dispense to begging children, who along popular tourist routes come up to travelers, smile winsomely, look up at you with their big dark eyes and say “Bon-bons? Pens? Rupees?” Neither of us wants to be even partly responsible for encouraging these children of a proud and generous people to develop a beggar’s mentality.
By the time March comes in, lamb-like, I’m feeling most unsettled. One month to go—and the excited nervous anxiety around my trip and all the mystery that surrounds it is with me constantly. The thrill of the unknown—and the fear of it. The uneasiness about being away from Mark for so long. The I-don’t-know-what. Whatever it is, it’s making me have anxiety dreams every night and making me feel like jumping out of my skin every day.
I phone Jungian analyst and author Clarissa Pinkola Estés for the magazine article I need to finish before I leave. As I wrap up my interview with her, I confide my anxiety about this trip. She has me wait on the phone while she looks up the original meaning of “anxious” in the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary that she bought with the book advance for her best-seller, Women Who Run with the Wolves. I love the definition: “to be in suspense; to have a mystery cast about that which you do not understand; to stand at the threshold of mystery.”
In her soft, gentle voice, she points out to me: “The anxiety comes not from the actual thing that you’re doing, but from the unknown elements surrounding it. And of course, this is what the excitement comes from too.” I’m ready to embrace the anxiety, the mystery, the excitement!
The classic anxiety dream that keeps recurring, night after fitful night, has replaced the examination dreams of my university days. Now in my sleep I keep inviting people for dinner, wanting to take care of them—but not having enough food. How bourgeois, traditional, housewifey! Where is my “wild woman”? My woman who wants to run with wolves? Hiding in a kitchen, armed with a spatula. Aha! Maybe that’s the point of this latest dream, in which a strange woman sits with company, while I serve her, along with everyone else. Maybe that other woman in my dream, that stranger sitting there with the company, not cooking or serving, is me too. The me that’s taking care of me, not anyone else! My wild woman is doing just what I want to do—going to Nepal without my husband, without my children, without my obligations.
By the time Marge and I left, we had both independently reached the conclusion that the value of this trip would not hinge on whether or not a book would result from it: The real impetus behind our going was not a research project but a shared personal quest.
What, then, powered this pilgrimage? An ineffable spiritual longing. A need to make sense of the world we so lightly and so temporarily inhabit. A yearning for a purpose in life that—despite our joy in our families, our past achievements in our work, our comfortable circumstances, and our considerable good fortune—seemed to be eluding us. We wanted to reach across cultural boundaries to understand people in a vastly different place, almost of another time, so that we could better understand ourselves. We wanted to put our new friendship, born in such unexpected soil, to the service of exploring new ideas, different ways of being. As anthropologist Alma Gottlieb has put it, we wanted to examine “another set of propositions about how the world worked.”
Our search, then, was for understanding, for universality, for values, for meaning—as well as for an adventure. If we could communicate the beauty of the people of Badel and their way of life to people on the other side of the globe, so much the better. If not, the two of us would still be lucky enough to know them ourselves. As Marge and I kept sharing our feelings, our beliefs, our outlooks, we realized how much we were enriching each other’s life. This trip that we were planning would, we knew, be more than our discovery of Nepali women. It would be our discovery of each other—and, ultimately, of ourselves.
And so, of course, we did pursue it. After long conversations, longer letters and elaborate arrangements, we took the trip. Our expectations changed regularly; our plans remained fluid, shifting constantly like the surging rivers we eventually traversed to reach the remote hill village of Badel. And we came away vastly enriched by the experience, so enriched that we returned to Badel a year and a half later, and then again and yet again. We flew not only halfway around the world, but centuries into the past, as we lived in a village where the rhythms of life pulsate today to virtually the same beat that they have for hundreds of years—but a beat that has already begun to change and will undoubtedly undergo great transformations within the first few years of this new century. In the little hill village of Badel, four days’ walk from the nearest bus route and three days’ walk from the closest airstrip, in one of the poorest, most primitive Third World countries to be found anywhere in the world, where the local populace scrabbles for elemental survival, we two—mature privileged women from affluent, sophisticated communities in the wealthiest country in the world—fulfilled the quest that had taken us to Nepal.
Here, then, is a glimpse into that other world, the one we were fortunate enough to share—not long—but long enough to learn who the people are, how they live, and what their lives can teach us.
Welcome to the village of Badel.
©Sally Wendkos Olds
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