A Long, Strange, Unintentional 30 Day Spiritual Adventure in Nepal (Part One)
Updated: Feb 27, 2020
What does it mean to be on a spiritual journey? I'm not 100% sure, but I'll take my best stab at what it's meant to me so far: The pursuit of reconnecting with your soul and life's calling, or purpose. You're in pursuit of something, but it's hard to articulate exactly what. You find little clues along the way that might make sense later on.
I sit writing this post in a coffee shop in my hometown of Natick, MA attempting to make sense of scribbled notes from my whirlwind 30 days in the beautiful country of Nepal. I come back from this mystical land, not as a cliched completely 'changed man', but certainly different in a few ways.
Originally this trip was planned before I decided to leave my job, so it was supposed to be trekking with my childhood friend, Seth for only 12 days before Thanksgiving. Once I quit my job, I found myself with an extra 18 days, and decided to fly out to Nepal alone earlier than planned. My only plan for the extra time was to recover from the long week of travel from the Philippines to the USA back to Nepal and my surfing injuries.
Bribing an Airline Representative
Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is the airport that most international travelers fly into. As a crowded, poor city, Kathmandu doesn't get raving reviews from other travelers, so I decided I wanted to go straight to the small trekking city of Pokhara once I landed in Kathmandu. To get to Pokhara, you can take a sketchy 30 minute flight, or you can take an even more nerve-racking 6 hour bus ride where you are peering over cliffs that your bus is 12 inches from at any given time. Pick your poison. Mine was the flight.
When I arrived in Kathmandu I purposefully didn't have a flight purchased yet to Pokhara. I didn't want to risk getting a non-refundable $125 domestic flight to Pokhara ahead of time, incase my flight from Qatar was delayed. I figured, worst come to worst I could stay the night in Kathmandu if there were no flights available when I landed.
When I got to Kathmandu, I fought my way through the most crowded airport ever to the domestic airline. I was told by a roaming travel agent on the way from the international airport that the Pokhara flights were sold out. Knowing how things really get done in developing countries, I wanted to hear that direct from the airline. For all I knew, this guy was trying to scam me into staying an extra night in Kathmandu so he could get commission on the taxi rides, hotel, etc. There was also something about him I didn't trust.
The airline desks told me that all the flights were sold out. "Oh well," I thought, "I'll just go stay in Kathmandu for the nights." Then all of the sudden a man wearing a lanyard with the airline's logo came up behind me and said "Do you have cash? Yes? Come with me." He escorted me past all the baggage security and took me up to the messiest office I've ever been in. Another man entered my information into the system and they took my cash, which was the same price as a plane ticket would cost for the next day. I'd be willing to bet that cash payment somehow didn't make it to the airline's treasury. The man escorted me past the next security station and pointed me to the gate. I got on the 13 man flight to Pokhara, which looked like it was manufactured in 1970.
A smart man once said, cash talks, BS rides the bus.
In Search of a Meditation Guru
When I arrived in Pokhara, I couldn't do much physically. 10 days earlier I had either sprained or torn a muscle (I had nowhere to go for x-rays, and thought it would just be a waste of time and money anyhow) in my Ab surfing in the Philippines. Stubbornly, I ran on the injury at the Katie V Spirit run and majorly aggravated it. The first few days in Pokhara I was experiencing intense pain just sitting up in bed in the morning. I was worried I wouldn't be able to do the trek. I figured since I couldn't work out that working on my mind was the best use of my 2 weeks.
The first step to recovery was finding a place with green juices, healthy food, and good WiFi to research a meditation retreat. I found a place called "Umbrella Cafe" that advertised healthy food and even had yoga/meditation classes. I found a couple meditation retreats on Google, but I was terrified of being stuck with a bunch of wack jobs for 24/7. I thought a Hatha yoga class might be a good way to stretch after a week of 80 hours + of travel. I ended up being the only student in the class taught by a guy named Madan who looked like he was straight from an Ashram.
After the class, I asked Madan if he knew any meditation and breath work retreats that weren't totally off the reservation, so-to-speak. He said "I think we should do private lessons. I feel like I have something to teach you." So 7am the next day, I met my new teacher Madan at his homestay's rooftop for 90 minutes. We started with some breath work exercises. We got into light yoga and he gave specific sequences he thought would be good for my Ab injury. The breath work was amazing, because after 30 minutes, I felt the same peaceful feeling I get from running 5 miles. All of the breath work was different breathing exercises that mostly focussed on inhaling, holding, and exhaling through your nose only. At the end of the 90 minutes, I felt lighter, relaxed and more limber.
The Healing Routine
Soon I became settled into a nice routine in this quaint mountain trekking town of Pokhara. I started each day by waking at 6:30am and riding my bike to Madan's for breath work, yoga and meditation. After each session I felt increasingly at peace with the universe - like I had just jogged for a couple hours. I didn't think this feeling was possible from just breathing exercises without physical exercise and sweat.
At first, I thought the yoga he was teaching me was too basic, but after a few days I began to see the method to his teaching. He was fixing my foundation which I had never formally been taught 1v1, and then methodically adding more difficult poses each session.
After the sessions I would have the same breakfast at Umbrella: black coffee, green juice with spirulina, two egg omelette, brown toast with butter, fresh fruit and breakfast potatoes. One local who I saw at the Umbrella Cafe most days told me I seemed to be "glowing more and more everyday". I'm sure the green juices didn't hurt, but the breathing and yoga most definitely were the reason. My ab started to slowly feel better each morning.
The Magical Sherpa Family Restaurant
One day Madan told me he wanted to show me a different restaurant he thought I would enjoy hanging out at. The family had recently moved from the Everest region mountains to open a restaurant. Their last name was appropriately "Sherpa," as most of the Nepalis last name is the same as their caste. When we arrived at the 6 table lakefront restaurant made of bamboo, I was mildly surprised to see the waitress was a 11 year old girl named Unesha. In other Asian countries like Indonesia, families will let their kids role play being the waiter for fun, so I thought it might be something like that. Her brother, the waiter was introduced to me as a 13 year old ‘monk’ named Pemba.
Madan told me to order the Tibetian breakfast with a special type of mountain tea. The breakfast comes with Buckwheat and honey, eggs, a banana, fresh vegetables, and tea for $2.50 total. The breakfast was delicious and I fell in love with buckwheat pancakes, while Madan and I talked about future plans and life.
After breakfast, Madan left and I was the only customer left in the restaurant besides an older man from Spain that had left and come back to bring the entire family chocolate pastries. The little girl Unesha started pointing and giggling at my computer charger hanging over my head and repeating things I said in her best attempt at an American accident followed by lots of giggles. I smiled back at her, and she came over to show me all her drawings. Really amazing work. The drawings were of things like unicorns, dolls, princesses, ice cream. She told me about her handwriting competitions she’s won, her doll collection, her Taekwondo, pictures of her skydiving, etc.
Then a little boy with a thick British accident and intense bowl haircut came over to the two of us. Unesha and him seemed like long lost friends, but she said she had only met and played with him a few days prior. The boy told me he is from Cambodia and his family is doing trekking in Nepal. Both of them got into a one-upping contest showing me amazing tricks they could do with their tongues, beat boxing sounds, double joints, and yoga poses. The older brother Pemba came over to show me his tricks were better than the two little kids. Because of his Sherpa genetics, Pemba's feet and hands were massive compared to his smaller body and he was double jointed.
Unesha asked me if I could draw. I told her that I wasn’t great at drawing. Without asking me if I wanted to partake in this, she whipped out her sketch book and pulled down a painting off the wall for me to copy. Before I know it I was copying a painting. The boy whose name was Stanely asked her if “She fancied a game of chess.” while I drew. The kids talked about typical kid stuff — favorite color, favorite sport, favorite food, favorite animal, their pets, school, etc. Their dog was a German Sheppard mix and the kids told me his name was “Jackie Chan!”.
I started off trying to sketch the outside lines of the painting. Unesha looked over from the chess game, snickered and told me to start with the smallest object in the center (the woman’s eye ball) and work outwards. I started over and followed her pointer. After I got a decent outline, she interjected to help with the lips which she inherently knew would make or break the piece. “Okay, time to add color!” she said as she simultaneously whipped out her color pencils.
You could only describe these kids as pure love. They weren’t begging or anything like that. They were just being themselves and enjoying every moment. Unesha and Pemba didn’t have much. It was unclear to me if they all slept in the small kitchen with sleeping bags, or if their real house was somewhere else. They had a squat potty in an outhouse in the back of the restaurant/house. The mother was busy knitting, washing clothes or cooking when a guest happened to order. While playing hide and seek, the kids ushered me through the kitchen where there was an older man passed out on the kitchen floor in a sleeping bag.
These kids were so happy. Unesha was Incredibly proud of her one real doll and one “fake” doll. She took immaculate care of her sketchbooks and drawing kit. She seemed very intent on my Macbook Pro and asked how she could draw on the computer. The whole time I was drawing my emulation of the painting, I thought I was copying a professional piece. Unesha told me at the end that she had made the painting and sells them for $20. Once my drawing had enough color, she said “I like it!” and wrote in marker “Art by James” with a heart.
After the drawing and chess wrapped up, the kids wanted me to play and Hide and Seek. I awkwardly left my backpack filled with my entire life on the trust that these are good people and walked around looking for these 2 little kids. This went on for 5 or 6 rounds before I told them it was time for the last round. Next was hangman. After that was Tik Tak Toe. They knew all of these games. Both kids spoke perfect English, but I got the feeling the Mom didn’t speak much. She just communicated with me with her smile and a few basic phrases like “It’s okay” as Stanley the little boy guest led me through the back door to the kitchen where he told me Unesha was hiding.
I realized that both kids and dogs make me happy, and in my adult life I didn't get to spend a ton of time with kids or dogs unless I was home for the holidays. Both Kids and dogs have a way of bringing you back to the moment.
Two days later I came back again to see the kids and have breakfast. After going through all the usual questions I like to ask kids, I asked the boy Pemba if he had a favorite book. He went and picked up a book called "Be Here Now" by Ram Dass. No way! I remembered reading how Steve Jobs loved this book and how I couldn't find it on Amazon when I looked. The book was taped together and looked like it must have been one of the originals from 1971.
The majority of the book was spiritual posters with intricate design and inspirational words about the spiritual journey. (Bizarrely, a few days after I started reading this book, I met an older women who had hung out with Ram Dass in the 70's in Bali).
As the kids were preoccupied taking orders, I would read a few pages of the book before they interrupted me to play some sort of game or dress me up like a "king"
One day, I was playing with the kids and a flamboyantly dressed Australian traveler approached me after a few hours observing at the restaurant and said "Your Tao is very strong, you're giving off Jesus Christ energy." Hmmm, that seems a bit too much for me, but I did think he was onto something. I felt more peaceful and in the moment than I have in a longtime without doing a high-risk activity like surfing or motorbiking. I didn't feel the usual internal pressure to get on my laptop and be "productive". I was happy to just enjoy the day.
Throughout the trip, I wrestled a lot with whether it was wrong for these kids' parents to be having them work at such a young age and ship the boy off to be a monk for the rest of his life. To the average American, it would seem like child abuse. However, this western view doesn't take into context the poor country like Nepal. These kids being "homeschooled" were learning so much from real experience. They could speak multiple languages and were meeting people from all over the world. I decided I didn't think their parents were doing them a disservice or "abusing" them with child labor. After all, they seemed much happier than many middle school kids in a country like the US.
Himalayan Golfing with Australians
5 days into my time in Nepal, I met an older woman that was staying in the same building as me. She spoke with a very elegant sounding British accent and seemed like she had a lot of wisdom to share. We were supposed to meet up for Korean BBQ dinner that night, when she told me her friend Jim just reached out to tell her he happened to be in Pokhara. We all went out for dinner and hit it off. I love Australians --- they're hilarious. I also love meat, and the feast we enjoyed was refreshing after being around a bunch of vegan.
Towards the end of dinner I asked them what their plans were for Pokhara. They didn't have anything concrete. "Do you guys golf?" I showed them some pictures I'd found of a golf course that was only 30 minutes away and looked like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was impossible to get a hold of the course, so the next day I road my mountain bike an hour to check the situation out. When I showed up at 3pm no one at the course except one security guard who didn't speak English. The course looked amazing though. Wow, it was stunning.
I arranged the jeep transportation to the course and we had an amazing round. We each got our own caddy. What a pleasure it was to lose so many balls at this amazing and unforgiving Himalayan course with cows, buffalo, and goats roaming around like it was when golf was first invented. We were one of only two groups out on the entire course with 4 Nepali caddies guiding us to unmarked tee boxes, blind holes, and manually ground-kept greens. Truly special experience
The irony wasn't lost on me that I hadn't hung out with anyone my own age since getting to Nepal. I was either hanging out with young kids or guys old enough to be my Dad. People are people, and age is just a number.
I'll try anything once for the experience. So when Madan invited me to a mantra chanting session, I went with an open mind. I'm also a big George Harrison fan, and I remembered how a lot of his solo music was inspired by his trip to the east learning mantras:
Pro tip: Put that youtube video on loop and do some work or writing. It's the ultimate soundtrack for 'getting in the zone'.
When we arrived, there were about 30 hippies sitting cross legged on meditation cushions in a semi-circle facing 4 musicians. It became clear that Madan was leading the session in this shoddy metal structure next to a cafe. We were handed a piece of paper that reminded me of what Christmas Carolers carry around with the lyrics of each mantra. They were all in Sanskrit and I had no idea what I was singing. It could have been devil worship for all I knew.
I looked around the room, and tried my best to not cast any judgements, but let's be honest I'm a human. There were a few native Nepalis, but most hippie looking westerns. Even with my beard, I was probably the most straightedged looking person in the room. Candles were lit. There was a chill looking dog taking a nap.
I suck at singing. At least that's what I've always told myself since 5th grade chorus. I've never once in my life felt comfortable belting out a song in front of a bunch of people. This was different though. I didn't mind singing. I could feel my voice vibrating along with the others as we sang out the mantras. I didn't give one thought to water other people thought of me. It was fun to be able to sing for the longest amount of time since faking singing in 5th grade chorus. "My voice and tone isn't so bad," I thought.
Each song started off slow where the westerners could simply learn how to say the Sanskrit words; then the musicians would start to bring the energy up with each round of mantra. As the energy level increased during a song later in the session, Madan stood up and started to bang on his drum and dance with a big smile on his face. He was the happiest I had seen him since meeting him. Truly in his element. Pretty soon everyone was singing the mantra at the top of their lungs. Then all of the sudden the metal roof started vibrating. Only a couple other people seemed to be concerned, but I thought for a second the entire structure might collapse. I eyed the exit and planned my getaway route while trying to play it cool. Madan must have heard the vibrations because he led the group back down and the vibrations stopped. Phew. The energy was electric as each song ended. I felt like I just had 3 cups of coffee and did a cold plunge.
Would I do the mantra chanting again? Absolutely! In fact, I took my friend Seth at the end of the trip. We both enjoyed it. Something about not having to think for two hours while you mindlessly sing lyrics in a strange language that just relaxes you. George Harrison describes the mantra chanting better than I ever could:
"They call it a mystical sound vibration incased in a syllable. They have this power within it -- its just hypnotic-- and it's kind of nice. I would have done that mantra for ages, once I chanted it for like 3 days non-stop just driving through Europe. And You just get hypnotized, on some subtle level that makes you feel so good that you don't want to stop." - George Harrison