Thursday October 22nd
I find myself upside down underwater in the Trusili River of Nepal over and over again, trying to stay calm, trying not to fight or flight. I pound on the top of the boat waiting for my instructor Sanu to come rescue me. He must smash his vessel into mine in what is called a “T-rescue.” I throw my arms up through the water, grab the front of his boat and rest my head on top of his bow before swinging my hips through to right my boat right-side up.
But this is not enough. Now I must try to learn how to flip myself over without any help from anyone. Over and over I try, and over and over I fail, relying on someone else to come to my rescue. Sometimes I cannot wait, panic sets in, I can’t keep the water out of my nose, and I frantically look for the loop on the spray skirt to free myself from my boat…
At the campfire on the beach that night Sanu massages Joakim’s arms and neck. His display of physical affection for him is unrelenting. There is no such shame in this type of touching between men in this culture. He is sad that his friend will leave soon, back to Sweden. The only small consolation is that Joakim plans to return in the spring.
There are four other Swedes here on an internship. Saga plays guitar and sings with the most beautiful grainy voice that gives me butterflies. Magnus, a tall and lanky blond who cannot see without his glasses, talks about topics with a savvy intelligence, and rarely misses one of my movie references. He and Saga have been here over three weeks working on a project to atract media students to this establishment – The Royal Beach Camp – owned and operated by an experienced river guide named Ram. Emily and Emma have arrived only yesterday. Emily is an unassuming vegan with blonde dreads who has a knack for light conversation, which is perfect since she is often assigned to the bar. Emma is a taller brunette and has a sweet disposition, which makes her a dark horse for the card game called “bullshit.” She wins two times in a row before the rest of us catch on that she, like the rest of us, has been lying through her teeth. Emily and I chat innocently next to one another staring into the fire. All of us gaze at the moon, now half full, which means that the biggest festival in Nepal, Dashain, is half over. Joakim, who is in the Swedish army, and I chat politics and are the last to leave the embers to retire.
Friday October 23rd
Never give up
No matter what is going on
Never give up
Develop the heart
Too much energy in your country is spent developing the mind
Instead of the heart
Develop the heart
Not just to your friends
But to everyone
Work for peace
In your heart and in the world
Work for peace
And I say it again
Never give up
No matter what is happening
No matter what is going on
Never give up
The XIV Dalai Lama
Day One of the kayaking clinic was easy. I still felt the calmness from the medication I took before getting on the dicey bus ride to arrive here yesterday. But on Day Two, my nerves are back. Ram, an accomplished and kind-hearted man, tells me that I need to relax. That is the biggest thing that will help me he says. I tell him this is my greatest challenge. I am inspired by Emma and Emily, other learners around me, who handle being underwater with grace. I am humbled. Not in a long time have I endeavored to try something so difficult. My instructor, Sanu, is ambitious. He is an animated teacher. But he is young and his English is often hard to understand. I fear he will lose patience with me. It is quite possible that he is befuddled by my lack of progress in terms of my confidence under the water. Yesterday, no problem, today back to my nervous panicky ways.
I have never been ashamed of the limitations that having panic disorder has caused me and avoidances that it has festered even though I’ve made major decisions in my life based on such avoidances: I flew only once in my life before the age of 30. I’ve missed out on learning French, playing the clarinet, job opportunities, and relationships. Never have I once felt ashamed about it. Disappointed yes, but never ashamed. But today in the river I feel ashamed of my tendency to panic. Perhaps because as a former high school and college athlete I always took pride in my ability to pick up sports with relative ease. But whitewater kayaking is one of the harder things I’ve ever done in my life. It is a good reminder to me that as a teacher my students might also feel apprehension, and just how important confidence and small successes are in any learning process.
Saturday October 24th
“It is better to be true than to be strong.” -Maurice Herzog, expedition leader of the 1950 ascent of Annapurna, the first 8000 meter peak ever to be climbed.
On Day Three, I take a half of a pill in the morning, but I still have a horrible panic attack on the back of the truck with 16 other excited Nepalis to the loading point of our trip down the river. My mind enters that realm that is so intense and nearly impossible to crawl out of. The motor starts up. It’s a diesel motor and the “putt putt putt” begins to drive me crazy. It’s so fast, and its continuous. I cannot stop it. I want to examine each “putt” but I can’t. Each one escapes my grasp before another one comes and then I am well behind.
Then the thought jumps into my head of the bumps that we will hit. I anticipate every jolt, but I can’t predict when the next one will come, and I brace for impact over and over.
Then there is the thought of all the other cars putt putting. And how many putt putts there are all over the world in one moment, in one second. They come and go and I cannot grasp them. In order to calm myself, I think about these putt putts as if they are the flow of water. Not many different things, but just one body. Their separation into multiple units is just an illusion I tell myself. My stomach knots up at the thought of such separation and the continual onslaught of putt putts and I can’t take it. It crashes over me like a wave.
Then comes the thought of the weight of the truck against the road as it crosses each square inch in succession at a speed that yet again I cannot grasp. For a few moments I struggle. Sanu asks me if I am ok. I tell him, I am sorry, but that I have a panic disorder. The teenage boy to my left grabs my arm and holds it as if to help me from falling. But it is his touch that calms me. Not just any touch, but one with intention. I find myself settling into the environment around me, trying to appreciate the laughter of the young Nepali men who are excited about their upcoming rafting adventure. But I feel like crying. Just a few moments later, only six miles up the road, we arrive at our loading spot.
Sanu and I put our kayaks in. We paddle back and forth across the river from eddy to eddy while we wait for the larger group to get their rafts ready. Sanu tries to engage me in conversation and we talk a little about our familiies. His mother passed away three years ago and then he came here to learn how to be a guide. His brother knew Ram. It’s a fortunate connection because not only is Ram considered one of the best guides in Nepal, he has a dream and a passion to help young people to become successful.
Sanu asks if I want to practice the “T-rescue.” I tell him I don’t but that I will if he asks me to. He says that we’ll leave it to later. I feel bad for him because I think that I have burdened him with my fear. But he continues to demonstrate patience, an incredible virtue for such a young man.
The rapids get harder and harder. We pass through waves that could easily throw me over in an instant if my angle is not correct. I succeed and Sanu informs me that those were plus two rapids. He tells me that he wants to hear me sing. I think about what tunes I know. I pick out songs that I’ve sung before including a medley of Dave Mathews riffs and it occurs to me that I cannot remember the last time I actually sang for fun. It relaxes me. We hit another plus two rapid section, and I fight to stay afloat. Success again.
But now Sanu tells me that the next two rapid sections are class threes. I cannot imagine them. How can they be bigger than what we’ve gone through? He keeps me to the left but one wave turns my boat and I cannot recover. I flip over on my right side and immediately panic. I pull the loop of the spray skirt and exit immediately. Sanu is disappointed.
“Why didn’t you wait for me? I was right here.”
“Because I was scared! These are class three rapids!”
I have to swim hard to reach an eddy on the left, but luckily I am not in danger. I immediately feel depressed. He WAS right there; if I had only had the courage and waited under water just a few seconds, I could have grabbed his boat and pulled myself upright without having to swim to the shore and empty the boat of water, a waste of time and energy for both of us. My confidence is shaken.
Sanu tells me that we have one more class three section remaining.
“Can’t we just portage around it?” I ask.
“No, c’mon man, what’s wrong? You can do this.” I try to believe him. “Now,” he says,”do you see that big rock in the middle of the river? We must stay to the left of it.”
“Is it difficult?”
“No, it’s not difficult.”
But it is. I see a wave upcoming that is so big it will swallow me up and spit me out whole. And I am going to crash right through it! What will meet me on the other side? Bam! A flash of white hits me, on the other side another wave, but I can manage it.
Then I have to turn my boat upriver and paddle frantically as I approach the boulder. No matter how hard I paddle I seem to be heading straight for it! I imagine the worst, being pinned against the rock and unable to escape. The fight or flight response kicks in. I paddle for my life and pray that I don’t tip over. In a few harrowing moments I am past the rock and all danger.
Back at camp Emily makes me tea and congratulates me on my kayaking progress. Magnus and I visit the litter of five puppies just down from the dining area. They are only three weeks old and have just recently opened their eyes. They are beginning to learn how to play. One gnaws away at my finger while three others jump all over each other. The last one hides his face in the corner and does not move.
Sunday October 25th
The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruin means nothing…He MUST obey his own law, as if it were a daemon whispering to him of new and wonderful paths…He is at once set apart and isolated, as he has resolved to obey the law that commands him from within. “His OWN law!” Everybody will cry. But he knows better: it is THE law…The only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realization- absolute and unconditional – C.G. Yung
On my last full day at the camp, the young Swedes and I eat breakfast together” two boiled eggs, ramen noodles, chick peas and green beans. I had talked to them about rafting today and Magnus sounded excited. But it’s up to Ram. Fuel costs are getting high for a return shuttle and the Swedes have their projects to work on. Ram sits down with us at the end of breakfast and says that the plan is indeed that we will all go rafting this morning, including his Swedish wife Xenia. “That is the thing,” he concludes, his unique catch phrase he states repeatedly, but that somehow never gets old. It will be Emma and Emily’s first time on this river. Saga and Magnus have been here over three weeks now and have run rapids a number of times. They are both quite adventurous and have very little fear. I admire both of them, particularly Saga, with her gentle raspy singing voice, her guitar playing, and her elegant confidence.
I am full of nerves. This time I am aware of a perpetual tightness in my upper chest area. We will be running the two lower sections, and one of them has class plus four rapids. Ram gives us a safety talk and goes over the rules. I have full confidence in him. He has been paddling since he was twelve years old. His wife Xenia, slightly biased perhaps, says he is “the best,” an overused hyperbole in America, but Xenia is a straight shooter, and when she says he’s the best, it resonates. She will paddle in the front with Saga.
Saga notices my nervous state and says she is willing to share some of her energy with me. I tell her that it will go a long way. As we descend the river, the rapids get increasingly more difficult, and my stomach is in knots before each section. On the most difficult rapid, Ram screams at us to get inside the boat, and the waves pound us from the left of our bow.
After many of the sections, both Saga and Magnus check in with me to see if I am doing alright. My confidence increases. I have rafted once before, but these rapids are much more intense than the upper section of the New River Gorge in West Virginia that I did with Blue Ridge School last April. Our group today is naturally much more mature and more experienced than that group of juniors, and it is a good thing, because there are a number of huge “holes” in the river that Ram and perhaps all guides refer to as “man eaters.” We pass all of them without incident.
I am thankful to have Ram in the back of the boat. He has lived an accomplished life. In 2006 he and a partner ran the rivers from their source in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, a journey of almost 800 miles. They were the first to accomplish any such endeavor. He has been running the Royal Beach Camp now for eight years. He also guides for much of the year in Sweden.
We reach our take out point without incident. The young Swedes all help pack up the raft and load it onto the back of the truck. Little do they know that I am just as anxious about the truck ride back. But my nerves have settled some. I don’t think I have enough in reserve to have a panic attack on the truck ride as I did yesterday. Surrounded by laughing new friends is a major comfort. Emma, Saga, and I sing songs. Magnus, taller in frame, has to duck under the trees above us before we hit the highway. The view of the river below is intense. It’s hard to imagine that we have just come through the rapids that we now gaze down upon.
There is a quick meeting with Ram with all of us as we arrive back at camp. Saga and Magnus will continue their research on media schools that might be interested in sending students here for internships. Emma and Emily will help in the kitchen and in the bar. And Ram suggests that I just “chillax” this afternoon. Originally the plan this morning had been for me to do some more kayaking this afternoon either in the river or the pool, but I am happy to take the afternoon off to read and relax and to not have to muster up any more courage for being underwater.
After lunch I read by the pool and on the beach, and fall asleep in the last hour before the sun goes behind the hill above the highway running from Kathmandu to Pokhara. I am awakened intermittently by the blasting of truck horns, the only sound loud enough to pierce through the droning river. I read pages of The Show Leopard. I tried to read this book once before almost a year ago in my excitement for coming to Nepal. But I found the vocabulary too difficult, and I couldn’t keep focused on it. This time around is better since I can put images to some of his descriptions of trekking in Nepal.
I feel just a bit lonely watching Saga and Magnus meet with Ram this afternoon about their project. It makes me miss work – maybe not work so much as the idea of being a part of something.
Darkness comes. My last night here has arrived. Tomorrow I will head back to Kathmandu to meet my friend and coworker Taline before she departs on her prearranged tour. I have been out of contact with the world here and it will be nice to check back in.
The fuel crisis continues in Nepal and I worry not only of finding a bus to Jiri in a few days to start the Everest trek, but also whether tea houses along the route will have fuel to cook for their guests.
I hope that we have a bonfire tonight and that unlike the last two nights, there will be no loud music to mute the sound of the river from my bamboo hut. The large group of Nepali party goers left today, so prospects are good.
Back to Kathmandu
In the morning, I pop a pill for the bus ride back to Kathmandu and eat breakfast with Saga, Magnus, Emily, and Emma. We exchange details and then say our goodbyes.
I have time to reflect on my four days at Royal Beach Camp while on the bus, but I am instead mesmorized by the faces both young an old of Nepal. An argument breaks out, over what, I am not sure. Traffic is bad entering the city as the whole country returns to the capital after celebrating Deshain in their home villages.
I meet Taline that night and we eat dinner together. She has brought with her more of my medication that I arranged with my mother to have mailed to her address. It is a nice visit, but short-lived. The next morning she is off on her tour. Tomorrow I head for Jiri to start the Everest trek. I hear the bus ride is just dreadful.
I am not sure how to quantify the past few days. Did I really make any progress in terms on my anxiety? It’s hard to say. But I think I come away realizing that perhaps, at least for me, the heart is more important than the mind, for I can never be talked logically out of a panic attack; however, a simple touch, or words of affection from another can end a disturbing episode in its tracks. And anytime anyone can do that for me it is a gift. I endeavor to work on developing the heart during the rest of my time in Nepal.
None of this would have become apparent without the patient leadership of a young instructor Sanu, the wam-hearted, but heady instructor Ram, and my young Swedish friends who gifted me with confidence, courage, and an uncommon camaraderie that I will not soon forget. Tomorrow I continue on my own path of developing the heart, remembering that it is better to be true than to be strong, and to never give up.