Trekking and the White Mule
The first evening I sit in a restaurant in Ghandruk, an ancient village thousands of feet up in the mountains, nestled between thick jungle and rushing streams. The village is built like a citadel in the hills, cobbled stone steps wind you through channels and alleys to different layers of the village. I am drinking tumba, a traditional hot fermented millet drink, with some Nepali people who motorbiked here from Pokhara for the day. The drink warms my body and makes me sleepy, and I look forward to laying horizontally, the day’s five hour hike behind me.
I started from the village of Nayapur, climbing steep stone stairs for most of the morning, following red arrows painted on rocks. At times the trail meanders through farms and small villages, through people’s yards and school playgrounds. I see webs woven across telephone wires with spiders the size of my hand, finger to finger. I am swallowed by rhododendron forests and fragrant blossoms. Rice patties shape the slopes into geometric exactitude, and my eyes follow the curved layers of flat fertile earth dotted with farmers tilling in the late morning. As I pass locals and other trekkers, Namastes are exchanged, and I ask for reassurance of my direction - often just for the enjoyment of the interaction. Sometimes mule-packs pass by, a person following behind, shouting and whistling. Sometimes goats hide in the dense foliage, nibbling on flowers. Often there is no one, not even me, as I dissolve into the hypnagogic breathing of the forest’s soul: rhythmic vibrations of cicadas sync with footsteps and bamboo walking-stick percussion, permeated by the rush of a river or trickle of a stream.
Back to supper: my noodle soup comes, and the girl helping at the restaurant asks to show me her English skills. She writes in my journal: “my name is Birita Pariyar.” The man working here sits down at my table, smoking a cigarette. The smoke he blows out the window is brought back in with the cold evening air. He complains of a cough and a cold. I suggest tea, but he does not enjoy tea. “Only sometimes,” he says. He gives me Babari to try for my own cold - a strong menthol and other essential oil tincture that he uses diligently. I dabble some on my sinuses and it makes my eyes water. I pick some up at the local pharmacy to have with me.
I vacillate between feeling overwhelmed and deeply trusting and open towards the future. When I attempt to imagine a projected future on a large timescale, doubt creeps in: am I doing the right thing? Is this where I should be right now? How can I know? And then I return to the body, to the sounds surrounding me. There is openness to surrendering to this unfolding unpredictability that is the nature of life. Letting the current take me, the ebbing and flowing of consonance and dissonance, arriving in each moment with acceptance and alacrity.
Today on my hike I turn a bend and see ahead of me a white mule standing in the staircase. Its head is facing a large tree, unblinking, its body blocking the path entirely. It is so still. I watch it for a long time: it seems to glow against the greens of the jungle flora, a silent mirage both of this world and not. Slowly I approach it. When I get close enough to touch it, it turns its head gently and with a tinkle of the bell on its neck beckons me to pass. I walk slowly and thank it for letting me go by. It goes back to watching the tree, still as can be.
In the morning I wake up as the sun is coming up, and I bundle myself thickly to stroll around the stone paths of the village. What was hidden in the fog of the evening humbly reveals itself in the low light of dawn: the Annapurna mountain range. I watch as these towering white peaks patiently wait for their real debut in the new day. Gradually, inch by unfathomably massive inch, the golden rays of the rising sun touch the tips of the peaks, turning the white snow a soft fuschia. Pinkish mist releases itself from the surface of the peaks like a deep morning sigh.
In the afternoon I stop in Jinu, a village accessible by a newly constructed suspension bridge, hundreds of feet above an dazzling azure flowing river. Down steep steps to the banks of the river, I join Nepali hikers for a soak in hot springs next to the rushing waters. It starts drizzling as I get in and the warm water nourishes my worked muscles. Enclosed by the towering jungle slopes and alongside the laughter and splashes of others, I listen to jokes told in a language I don’t understand.
Evenings are spent under multiple thick blankets, drinking homemade soup and pots of mint tea, cuddled up and reading. There isn’t much to do: walk, rest, listen, eat, sleep, be. This is where the work of the soul takes place, I realize: when the cadence of my footsteps and the chattering of birdsong become my internal monologue; relying on my own two feet, the openness of heart to whatever may come, and a signpost nudging me on course here and there.