Nestled between China and India in the Himalaya Mountains, Nepal is a sovereign country with a population of about 27 million. With an area of about 57,000 square miles, Nepal is just slightly larger than the state of New York but is shaped long and rectangular (like the head of a golf putter). This month, I was fortunate to attend Cornell’s MBA Leadership Trek to Nepal with 12 other alumni and friends. It was organized by Clint Sidle, one of my leadership mentors and Director of the Roy H. Park Leadership Program at Cornell. The trek was a wonderful experience hiking, enjoying the mountain views, learning the Nepali language and exploring some very remote aspects of the region. What’s more is that the trek was structured to help us focus inward and tune into deeper aspects of ourselves!
The narrow northern half of Nepal drapes the Himalayas and this region has eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains, including the highest point on Earth, Mount Everest. Kathmandu is the capital city and the country’s largest metropolis and home to about 5 million. This is where my 12-day journey began through the Central and Western regions of the country. Flying into Kathmandu around midnight, the airport was relatively quiet when I landed and so my first impression was that ‘perhaps this was a sleepy little place’. But as soon as I stepped outside there were shouting cabbies looking for fares, passengers looking for loved ones, and everything else you would expect outside a busy international terminal. I quickly found my travel group having flown in on the same flight, caught up with our guides and we were whisked off to the Cornell Nepal Study Program house in Kirtipur, about 30 minutes away.
The first 3 days in Kathmandu focused on language training, cultural study, and general acclimatization. The language seemed surprisingly straightforward with basic conversational patterns easy to pick up. Our group was given tutoring as part of the trek and learning just a few of the basic expressions really opened up the country for us to better get around and which deepening cultural the experience for me. There were temples all over the place with beautiful Newari architecture dating back to the 17th century. We visited Patan Durbar Square in Lalitpur city and toured the Ancient Royal Palace of the former Patan royal family. We also toured a monastery where the 3rd Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche’s ashes were being honored. But between the language, local tours and food, I was struck by the centuries-long continuity of the culture. Despite civil war and relative political unrest, there is a real permanence of the Nepali people and as an African-American, multi-century heritages are always a marvel to me.
On day 4, we hopped on a bus to Pokhara in the West. Pokhara is one of the main tourist destinations of Nepal and launching point for trekking in the Annapurna Range. We spent a day enjoying the city and a small group of us rented motorcycles and scooters to tour the countryside. It was great day to rest up, relax and eat big because the next day the real fun would begin! On day 5, the bus promptly arrived at our Pokhara hotel and porters loaded our packs. Then we were off to the trailhead at Nayaa Pool for the first day of the actual 8 days on the Annapurna trekking circuit. I was pumped and ready to rock-and-roll plus for 30 rupees I even scored a trekking stick, which I found to be quite useful given the topography. This first actual trekking day was probably the toughest. The length was only about 8kms but it was insanely hilly and took us about 6 hrs to finish. At one point the official trek route was washed out from what looked like a minor landslide and required a detour through a different and very technical section. We made it through pretty well but towards the end, however, we were faced with the famous 3280 stone steps to the village of Ulleri. The steps were steep because it was about 1000m of elevation in about 1km of lateral distance. For comparison it’s like walking almost straight up about 30 flights of stairs at the end of what was a very long first trekking day. Suffice it to say, we all slept pretty well that night.
On day 6, we headed to Ghorepani, which was about 6km and another 1000 meters in elevation but after the first day went pretty smoothly. One thing that marathon training taught me was that when the going gets tough and the muscles start to moan, just think of a catchy song and sing it in your head until you finish or get to the next rest stop. I used this tactic frequently and it eased moments when all that was in front of me was what looked like an infinite number of steps to heaven. By this time in the trek, I began to settle into the experience and found the trekking group seeming to do the same. The nervous superficial chatter began to give way to deeper and more personal conversations on the route. The amateur psychologist in me found this part interesting and much more fun than the small talk.
On day 7 we woke up at 4am to check out the sunrise on Poon Hill. We needed headlamps in the early morning darkness but the walk up to Poon Hill was less than 350m in additional elevation and made for a quick trip up to the lookout. I have to say that was worth waking up early for and worth every step up to top. In fact, this was the highest point we would reach on the trip and the views were absolutely breathtaking. We spent a couple of hours at the top of the Hill yakking it up, meeting other trekkers on the route and generally celebrating our success. For some reason I felt a little withdrawn at this point. I know myself to be a sensitive type and know myself also not to be very good at expressing it. But, I welled up with some type of feeling that I can’t describe and it took me a minute to process it. After an hour up there, I describe the feeling as liberating in a certain very powerful way. It’s like how you feel after you’ve crossed a finish line you’ve been working towards for awhile. It’s the approval you give yourself for that second brownie or cupcake because you know you deserve it (this time). We spent the afternoon doing leadership exercises but that night we all participated in a traditional dance and ‘shook our groove thangs’ Nepali style. One of my favorite trekkers (okay so my favorite trekker), Zoe was getting her shine on for sure and her dad took a few incredible shots in the moonlight.
On Day 8, we set out for Tadapani through the Deurali Pass and a took steep trail down into the river valley. We were told there were leeches along this path because of the slightly cooler temperatures and the lush vegetation and damp conditions. This was part of the trail was the Rhododendron Forest area and these trees were seriously 10 to 30 feet in height. My dad used to plant rhododendrons in our family garden but these bad boys were bigger than any I had seen growing up in South Jersey. Another staple on trip was one of our porters Baji. He was somewhere in his 70’s and probably carried more than three or four times what each of us were carrying individually. He wore a simple pair of Chuck Taylor type high tops and carried our contents in his dhoka balanced expertly across the forehead. It was a marvel to see and anytime that I felt tired with all of my expensive four-season weather gear and gore-tex equipment, I just put my head down and soldiered on knowing that it’s not the equipment but the man in it that matters.
On Day 9 we set out for Chhomrong, which I had been looking forward to given what we had been told would have some of the best food on the trip. Also, Chhomrong would be another 2-day layover for us which ended up giving us another good opportunity to rest the muscles and take in the culture. The day started off crystal clear and provided plenty of photo-ops. One of the highlights of this section was that we stopped to stretch a prayer flag about midway into the day’s hike. We each wrote individual prayers on the flag sections and then stretched it between two trees. I felt a daring streak come on and volunteered to tie one side of the prayer flag on what was the more dangerous and pretty steep hillside. But once I got up the tree, I couldn’t muster enough guts to go far enough out on the branch to get a good placement. So our porter Baji took over and got it tied faster than it took me to even get up the tree in the first place. We snapped a good picture and continued on our way. About an hour later, however, our first rain of the entire trek came and forced us into our rain gear. My adrenaline kicked in once the rains came and so I picked up the pace and motored it down to the lodge. Fortunately we were close to Chhomrong, but we were drenched from head to toe. After a hot shower, getting caught in the rain didn’t seem so bad. Plus, if you can’t play on vacation, when can you?
On day 10, we awoke in Chhomrong to a beautiful valley and after breakfast we headed to the local secondary school to volunteer for a few hours. Initially we taught English language exercises and generally had fun with the kids. Trekking is one of the Annapurna region’s primary tourist draws with about 99,000 trekkers coming through each year. But most trekkers generally don’t have the opportunity to do service work along the way and so spending time with these kids was not only enriching for our trekking group but also let the kids see another side of the foreigners traversing their trails each week. What struck me is the simplicity of these children. That is, even these kids living in some of these remote mountain regions are just like any others and play the same type of children’s games and have the same simple needs for love and affection. I was deeply touched by interacting with these kids so personally and to see their smiles and tenderness towards people who they didn’t know. I was left with a deep feeling to do something meaningful and lasting for these kids who don’t have the means or the capacity to do it for themselves. Later that night, those same school kids came to our lodge and gave a traditional Nepali folk dance. Like the dances we saw in Ghorepani, these also had the same themes of love and courtship, various emotional exchanges and religious worship. I learned that these dances can be traditionally done between villages to give both girls and guys opportunities to meet each other and interact. Colorful Himalayan costumes are worn with elaborate jewelry and hair ornaments. It was an honor to see and take part in and was another cultural aspect that made this trek so special.
On day 11 we set out for the last stop on the trip, Landruk. It was another 5 hour trekking day but by this point in the trip the hiking days were pieces of cake and were just flying by. We set out about 7am and after a brief climb out of Chhomrong, there was a steep descent about 800m down into the Modi Khola river valley. There were huge boulders along the way and the water down in the valley was very cool. I decided to kick the boots off and soak my barking dogs in the cool water which felt great. It completely brought my entire body temperature down at least a good degree or two. There was a little waterfall along the way that was so inviting that at first couldn’t tell if it was real or a mirage. Fortunately, it was not my vivid imagination and so I took the chance to cool the body in this wonderfully refreshing source. After a few more hours, and beating another late day downpour, we made it to Landruk, got a hot meal and settled in for night. Just after we made it to the lodge, the rainy season began to show itself and the skies let loose a deluge of rain and hail. Over the next several weeks and months this will become commonplace for the region. The rainy season is on it’s way and it’s a good thing that we were winding the trip down the next day.
On day 12, we woke up for the last day of trekking. Our destination was to one of the trail exits near Lumle. This last hiking day was bittersweet and felt a little surreal as we all interacted with even more children in the remaining villages and took the last day to let the entire experience sink in. I personally felt overwhelmed with emotion but would describe it just as happiness. All-in-all we covered about 45 kms (about 27 miles) and while the average elevation was about 2500m (7500ft), the elevation changes were certainly the most difficult. 27 miles over 7 days isn’t bad but when you consider that these are “mountain miles” then the significance becomes a little more clear. It wasn’t bad for an average fitness level but the better shape you’re in then the better the experience will be. Having spent 2 years biking and running the hills of Ithaca was valuable preparation but then again the two years since graduation left a little to be desired. I lost at least a few pounds along the way and I know for sure the gluteus muscles certainly felt stronger after the adventure. We grabbed a few photos at the end of the trek and then hopped a bus back for the night in Pokhara.
On day 13, we woke up for a little souvenir shopping and then made our way to the airport for the flight back to Kathmandu. The flight was tight and hot but it certainly beat the 6 hour bus ride that was the second option and so I wasn’t complaining at all. We made it back to Kathmandu and the contrast between the bustling city center compared with the mountain villages was incredibly striking. I guess just like most major cities, the appeal of commerce, large numbers of people and the buzz of activity just make cities a strong draw. While overpopulation and crowding is an issue just like any other city, simple living isn’t always better. Life is simple in these remote regions but I wouldn’t want to live there. So for me the takeaway is that a moderate level of complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The challenge is finding the right level of complexity that’s comfortable to maintain. I enjoyed the solitude of the mountains, but resources and creature comforts are generally more accessible in the city.
All-in-all, the trip was enlightening. I was great spending time with Clint whose real spirit shines even more brightly in the mountains. Having first been introduced to Nepal during his Peace Corps experience about 30 years ago, he’s now found a reconnection with the place that inspired his journey. It’s great that now this trip offers him a platform for encouraging other people (Park Fellows, alum and even friends) along their own personal leadership journeys with a focus on inner purpose and peace. The trip was very meaningful to me and was a once in a lifetime experience (unless I choose to climb Mt Everest one day – which is now on the bucket list). I look forward to keeping the peace that I found on the trail close to my heart and look forward to my prayer on that piece of the flag tied at Chhomrong is one day answered.
In the meantime, I’m rededicating myself to helping children around the world. Nearly forty percent of the world’s humanity lives on an average of two dollars a day or less. Besides Nepal and the Indian subcontinent, children across the Americas, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific regions need help winning against poverty. Having now arrived at a place in life where I can meaningfully do more than only volunteer my time (…you can help a lot more with assets than you can with just attitude), this next chapter of my journey will include doing more to help children in my neighborhood and beyond. Kids are the most vulnerable among us and we each should find our inherent commitment to protecting them in whatever small way we can.