This is an excerpt from Outpost columnist Sue Bedford’s debut travel memoir, It’s Only the Himalayas and Other Tales of Miscalculation from an Overconfident Backpacker.
The next day, we arrived at the roof of the world.
If this fraction of Asia was a house and Kathmandu its kitchen—smoky, bustling, vibrant with scent and spice—then we had spent the evening creeping up rickety staircases and forgotten mezzanines before slipping through a trapdoor onto a mysterious plateau of bright desolation. We were far above the reaches of foliage. The landscape, parched and cold, was pale with steel mountaintops peeking over the horizon. There was an aura here—so isolated, so esoteric—that made me believe we could hide away forever without being discovered.
“This place is tripping me out,” I said.
“Actually, it’s the altitude that’s tripping you out,” said Sara, and I noticed her voice had acquired a dribbly drawl. “That last pass was over 16,000 feet. Our brains are a little oxygen deprived right now.”
“Is that what that is?” Ever since we’d left Nepal, I had been feeling increasingly mellow and fuzzy. But it wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, it made ten hours on a bus seem not so bad.
Occasionally, our two-lane highway passed beneath an archway strung with over a thousand Tibetan prayer flags that fluttered noisily like a flock of starlings. Yaks pulled antiquated plows in barren fields and woolly sheep skittered across the road. Farmers with faces burnt from sun and wind swung lassos while women fussed over children who looked like little Ewoks in yak-fur coats and hats.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” said the girl with the shaved head, whose name was Amaya. “This place is so surreal. It makes me feel like I’m in a dream.”
“I thought the same thing, but my friend says it’s just oxygen deprivation,” I replied.
She laughed. “Perhaps. So, how long are you two in Asia for?”
“Probably for the rest of the year,” said Sara. She explained our trip.
“Cool. What do you do back home?”
“I’m a nurse.”
“A nurse!” Amaya was impressed. “That’s an incredible job. You get to really make a difference. Not to mention the fact that there are so many opportunities to travel with it. Seriously, good for you.”
“Thanks!” Sara beamed.
Amaya turned to me. “Are you also a nurse?”
“No, no,” I waved the notion away with my hand. “I’m a waitress.”
“Oh. You must still be studying then.”
“So you’ve graduated?”
The muscles in my jaw twitched. “Nope.”
“Oh. Well . . .” she paused, thinking of something to say. “At least you’ve got lots of free time to travel.”
It was a conversation I’d had a hundred times—rationally, I knew it wasn’t a big deal. Nobody ever treated me differently than Sara when they learned our occupations. And even if, in some condemnatory corner of their minds, they thumbed their noses at the fact that I spiced their Caesars and rescued their fallen spoons, so what? It didn’t matter because we were only crossing paths—ships in the night and all that.
No, what bothered me was that every time I had that discussion it reminded me that eventually I would have to return home to … what? I had no idea. Sara was so lucky. She had it all carved out. I, on the other hand, felt like that one lost sock in the dryer—spinning in circles until I was faded and sick.
This was so harshing my mellow.
Shortly thereafter, we came across our first monastery. Nepal had been fairly religious (what with the deity statues in Kathmandu and the shrines in the countryside) but it didn’t hold a yak-butter candle to the piety of Tibet. Here, Buddhism was the thread that stitched together the collective consciousness of everyday life. Many families still followed the tradition of sending their second son to become a monk at age seven; and since monastic life hadn’t changed much in the last few hundred years, there was a strong connection between the monks of today and their religious forefathers.
In terms of the monastery, I had no idea what to expect. Most of the people I knew were somewhere between agnostic and atheist, except for my grandmother (deeply Catholic in that “old country” way) and my aunt (who put both the “fun” and the “mental” in fundamental Christian). But even their spiritual inclination didn’t define their every moment. There were bibles to be thumped, of course, but also work to be done, money to be made, people and hobbies to be entertained. The fact that these monks’ entire lives were devoted to, well, devotion … it blew my mind. I pictured a group of blissed-out bald guys levitating a couple of inches above their prayer mats.
“I don’t think they actually levitate,” said Sara as we neared the monastery.
“I don’t know. I’ve heard it takes ten thousand hours to become a master at something, and surely these guys have spent more than that amount of time meditating. Hell, I bet some of them can do loop-de-loops by now!”
“Sue, Tibetan Buddhist monks achieve spiritual enlightenment through profound introspection and the elimination of desire. They do not do loop-de-loops.”
I snorted. “Says you.”
I had it in mind that the monastery would be modest. An empty room for thinking, or not thinking, or whatever it was that got a person “enlightened.” Barren walls with good acoustics for chanting. Hopefully a better toilet system than the one we’d seen earlier. I couldn’t speak for the monks, but I’d never be able to attain inner peace knowing that my every nugget would be whizzing through the air like an Olympic diver.
It turned out I was wrong about everything except the toilet system.
There were grandiose hallways and winding staircases, high-ceilinged chambers, and pocketed alcoves. The walls were painted with gigantic mandalas in glittering gold leaf, and the dusty shelves were filled with stacks of hallowed texts. Golden Buddhas encrusted with sapphires, emeralds, and rubies ranged from two to twenty feet in height, occupying every niche and nave. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought for sure I saw them twitch—but that was just an illusion cast by the flickering light of hundreds of candles. The air was musty, filled with shadow and an almost palpable silence. There were no monks to be seen.
“This place is intense,” whispered Sara as we set off to explore. “It feels different in here. Tranquil yet vibrant. Like there’s been some sort of shift in the energy.” She took a deep breath, her eyes reflecting the dancing candlelight. “Just think about the thousands of monks who have spent hundreds of years meditating in here. I know you’re a skeptic when it comes to this stuff, but can’t you sense the residual…something?”
I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, wondering for a wild, fanciful moment whether I too would feel the residual something glissading beyond my fingertips or whispering on the nape of my neck. Instead, however, I just felt my sinuses reacting to the dust.
As we wandered around, I tried to imagine what it’d be like to spend every day from childhood until death within these walls. It seemed like the antithesis of Western mentality, where life is measured by its anticipations, challenges, accomplishments, and failures. We were constantly preoccupied with either what we’d done or what we were going to do. But for a monk, a homogeneous lifestyle rendered such notions meaningless.
So what was a person who spent all day journeying to the darkest recesses of his soul actually like? What sort of mind developed when deprived of economical fluctuations and familial pressures and mtv? Surely these were solemn individuals who didn’t waste their cerebral fortitude on the silliness that occupied ninety-nine-point-nine percent of our lay-brains. They probably concentrated their every waking moment on illumination and transcendence.
Just then, we turned a corner and happened upon our first real monk. We watched quietly, trying not to disturb him as he slid back and forth across the room in long, smooth strides, with what appeared to be rags tied to his slippers. His hands were clasped behind his back and he was whistling an upbeat tune.
“What’s he doing?” I whispered to Sara. “Is he performing some sort of ancient Tibetan meditation ritual?”
“No,” she whispered back. “I think … I think he’s dusting the floor.”
At that moment, the monk looked up, jumped with surprise, and nearly fell on his holy ass. His face turned the same scarlet as his robes as he shrugged sheepishly.
“Well,” said Sara as we stifled our giggles and continued on our way. “I suppose he was just having a little fun.”
“Are they, like, allowed to do that?” I wondered, although Sara had meandered ahead and didn’t hear me.