Anxious Mountain

Into the Himalayas in the Footsteps of the Buddha, Absentee Father

An account of two trips to the Annapurna Sanctuary, in the Annapurna Himal in Nepal. The first came on the heels of my father's death, and the second 16 years later as a sort of rejuvenation after being grounded and bothered but not beaten by cancer. Trekking to the Sanctuary was a healing procedure in so many ways, from physical to psychic healths, but most importantly to accept challenges you cannot imagine and have them transform your life when they are accomplished -- or fumbled.

Falling Up the Mountain

In the town of Kumyu, as high above the oceans as Denver, Sandra engages in a lovefest with a wizened old lady who dances and jokes and howls in laughter as Sandi imitates her traditional dance steps. The old lady sings, Sandi sings and adds a few winks. The old lady dances out of her wrinkles back into smooth youth, and her mimic Sandi dances with her eyebrows twinkling. The old lady looks like Georgia O’Keefe on ecstacy, and Sandi is her sidekick organ grinder monkey. The two of them howl at the mountains and the sky and perform love songs about worthless men. Everybody stops to bask in this collision of cultures. The foreign trekkers look at the old lady and are amazed at the sturdiness of her age, and the locals look at Sandi and wonder if they can pet the monkey or feed it a peanut.

Bear with me a moment while I grind the organ:

When I think of the immense anonymity of the universe, and my role as a speck of dust on one of its windows, barely noticeable among the millions of panes of glass which make up the glittery spaces of forever, I feel as tiny and unimportant as any dust mite might. But then I think of Sandra, of how much I love her, and of how big my love for her is, and suddenly it is the universe and its possibilities which shrink. I must be bigger than a speck of dust, if I contain anything like the love I feel for my friend, because what I feel is brighter than any star, than any civilization’s Sun, and the proof of my own bigness is evident every time I look into her bubbling eyes. If the brightness I feel in my heart for Sandi can be contained without choking the empty blackness of Space, then the universe must be limitlessly large.

Georgia O’Keefe’s Gurung cousin squeezes Sandi’s cheek and says ‘Beautiful,’ and Sandi squeezes the wrinkled cheek and says ‘More beautiful,’ in Nepali and everybody claps in appreciation. No, no, says the old lady, ‘I was beautiful long ago,’ and the little organ grinder monkey answers back, ‘Me, too,’ and more clapping and more laughter. The old lady twirls, the monkey twirls and adds a flourish, a little James Brown bark, ‘hah!’

I met Sandra almost ten years ago when she came to the Warehouse with a friend; we were making a movie, and a scene we were filming involved four (powerful) women dressed in jaunty tops that exposed the hair beneath their arms, and they delivered their lines with their hands atop their heads, as if to say, Can’t handle it, then look away, and my pal Eric was the actor who was subject to their misopeny, and me as the director had a problem with the set so I asked Sandi to wrap the mannequins in plastic and then ordered the scene shot with Sandra in the middle of it with Saran Wrap, dressing the dolls, while Eric got slapped around by women who ruled the world. I’ll never forget Sandra’s face when I said ‘Okay, cut,’ and she said ‘Wait, I’m still wrapping and you got me in the middle of the scene and what about continuity,’ and I said, ‘Continuity? What the fuck are you talking about?’ And we’ve been pals ever since, sneering at anybody who thinks entertainment is something that lasts for six minutes between commercials for automobiles or tampons.

When the cancer got me by the ass in 1993, Sandra was in Ecuador trying to figure out how to tell me she didn’t want to be my girlfriend any more, coz of the suffocation of my grandiose schemes [that’s how I remember it], and then the call came in the middle of the night that I was going to die [that’s how I put it] and she flew back the next day and then accompanied me through six months of chemo and rads every day while the doctors clucked and the nurses bit their lips, and she had the good grace not to mention wanting to break up, not once, and suffered along with me the whole way. We were never girlfriend-boyfriend again, and graduated instead to a sibling love in which we alternate the roles of snake and mongoose and play a game of ‘got you last’ without caring a bit whose shoes we scuff up. Lucinda is amused how I’m always making sure Sandi’s okay on the trails, and when I tell her if something happened to Sandi I would throw myself off the mountain right then and there, Lucinda is appreciative: There’s no point to being a snake if you can’t have a mongoose nipping at your heels.

I ask Eddie to film me saying something profound about Shangri-La with the scenery and the mountains in the background, since I am inspired by the crinkled Gurung O’Keefe: If you spent exactly half your life standing on your head you wouldn’t wrinkle one bit, because the droop of your jowls and breast and bottom and cheeks is caused by Earthly reality. That’s the point of sleeping, to get horizontal as well as to rest. But there is a wrinkling of the soul — a curdling of the personality, a waning of the spirit — which is worse than what my mother calls ‘falling-down ass,’ and that is the aging of your dreams. Not allowed to soar, a dream droops and crumples to the ground, no longer sleek enough to fly the skies of your imagination, and Sandra is a dreamer and loves me for my dreamy dreams. Together with our friends we hatch little dreams like bubbles against the twin tides of obligation and responsibility which cause premature maturity, that awful seriousness you can measure by the minutes lost in a lifetime of rush hours waiting for the traffic jam to clear.

I am thinking a wonderful refrain, one which has colored all of the Year 2000 for me, that sleep when young is a way of preserving beauty, but that sleep when old is a way of escaping pain. This little truism is coursing through my mind on the trail downward to the river when I sense that discordant signal of the outdoors, a sort of barometric warning of something amiss in nature’s symphonic splendor. Lucinda is sitting awkwardly beside the turquoise waters of the Kyumu River, with JHP and Nar-wa squatting on the rocks beside her, their packs all lined like Easter Island carvings on the sandy spit along the riverside. What happened? I scramble down the hill, heart sinking. Ghandrung behind us, two hours up, and Chomro in front, two hours up. Where are Eddie and Sandra?

    ‘I wiped out, fell down big-time,’ says Lucinda.

    What happened?

    ‘I slipped and bent my knee back.’

    Is it swollen?

    Did you hear a pop, or did you hear a crunch?

    Can you put your weight on it?

    Does it hurt?

    Fucking hell.

The farmgirl tries to stand on the hurt leg and it almost buckles. We are hundreds of slab steps up in either direction. The lunch and monkeydance have made us late. The cool air is ominous with lack of shelter and solemn isolation. The knee, that mechanical wonder, is still mechanical, the wanker. We’ve got a problem, and the result for Lucinda will prove a disaster: She cannot continue. She will not drag us backward, and insists on at least hobbling up to Chomro. I tell her to walk on alone, and we wait on the riverbanks to watch her struggle 100 yards. Eddie can’t stand it, packs his camera and follows her. Sandi, our medical pro, catches up with Lucinda and watches Lucinda’s face for the pain with every step. Three hundred yards tells us that at least we’re not stuck in this river valley, and JHP and Nar-wa and I follow, JHP carrying Lucinda’s daypack strapped across his chest. It’s a struggle, but Lucinda makes Chomro.

The valley cuts deep beneath us, falling more than 1,500 feet to the river below. Our hotel is called the Excellent View. It has solar hot showers, as all these lodges do. A Snickers bar costs a dollar, and a Coke is 75 cents. A big heaping dish of rice with lentil stew and veg curry is two bucks. Half a roll of toilet paper is 50 cents, a pot of Nepali chai two dollars, and a double room (clean, austere, cold) is three dollars. Lucinda’s mobility is priceless, and gone.

Eddie tells a group of Belgian trekkers that there is no such thing as Gurungs, that the people the trekkers see are really just actors who wake up every day and troop up the mountain to provide a boost to the scenery, and, besides, the actors are really French. The Belgians guffaw, nervously. Since Eddie seems to think the Annapurna Himal is a suburb of Amsterdam, he is in rich form despite our somber moods, experimenting with alcohol and traditional herbal mendicants to achieve a bliss which the world’s conspiracies cannot cloud. I notice — alarmingly — that he finds Byron and Dot from Hawaii to be nice people to whom he impulsively awards his book on Indian mythology, even though the rest of us are horrified by these New Age miscreants who made their living bothering whales for tourism’s sake until the state outlawed it, and Eddie seems not to care when Byron strides out into the courtyard and bellows ‘Dot! Hey, Dot!’ while the other residents of the lodge inwardly cringe. One of the unfortunate aspects of social activism is the necessity of accepting all warm bodies into the front, as though marshaling forces for Gettysburg or Flanders, and then you get stuck with the twit in Philadelphia who enlists the help of undercover FBI agents to form the human shield which will choke the Republican Conventioneers. Eddie accepts them all, whether Hawaiian fools or lost souls with withered blue lines for windmills in their hands, and cheerfully he shrugs off the added burden. Onward soldiers, the people in charge are selling your social security numbers and conspiracies will never die even if anarchists eventually grow up to be lawyers, etc., etc., and when JHP spots Eddie coming out of the charpi (toilet) the next daybreak he asks me if the Baba’s stomach is okay and I say, He’s just left another revolution behind him, which potty humor leaves JHP giggling the translation to Nar-wa, who laughs despite looking like he ate forty young ponies for breakfast. They are partying hard, this triumvirate, the Baba and our porters, and I have reservations that we can make the base camp three days and seven thousand feet away.

Lucinda is disconsolate, and we wait in Chomro for a day to see if her knee will loosen up. It is not monstrously swollen, but she can barely walk. She is bombarded with health advice. She is determined not to be left behind, so she gingerly walks the steps around our lodge and we settle in for a long, cold day in a surreal setting. When the clouds clear we can see the unscaled peak of Machhapuchhare and one of the Annapurnas, glinting white. Much is made of the fact that the Fishtail mountain has never been scaled, and I have always been under the impression that it was left untramped for religious reasons. The Fishtail is always described as a ‘sacred’ mountain. I know it has a deep meaning for Hindu tourists who walk the hills around Pokhara and look at Machhapuchhare from a distance. But reading Chris Bonnington’s book about his ascent of Annapurna reveals that the Fishtail hasn’t been scaled simply because a British mountaineer named Roberts convinced the Nepali government to keep at least one mountain in the country unclimbed. This was in the 1950s. I wonder how many other spiritual lodestones around the world have this bureaucratic reality lurking behind their myths?

But, Chomro: The impossibly steep hills around us are olive green, sometimes terraced with rice, millet or potatoes, barely populated beyond the scar of buildings which make up the town, second in importance for the Gurungs only to Ghandrung. We read on our third day, me concluding the fairy tale majesty of Siddartha by Hesse, and Sandra with ‘Into the Wild,’ Eddie with his pamphlets on Gurung life and manners (‘A woman must not utter her husband’s name’), and Lucinda ‘The Tennis Partner.’ We socialize and wander the hills, and I listen to music and look stupidly out at the valley from the terraces of our lodge. Dulled by the beauty of our path, I have sharp insights into the ugly inner depths of my character, and I vacillate between self-flagellation and acceptance in the way Montaigne accepted Paris, “The city is so precious that even her blemishes are dear unto me.” We’re waiting, cooling our heels, adapting to the altitude, while anticipating our destination: the base camp in the valley in the center of the Annapurna Himal which is so beautiful it has to be called a Sanctuary.

From my journal:

‘For the first time in a decade I’m listening to Jean Michel Jarre, the same music (Oxygene) I brought up here in 1984. The mountains and even the music seem different to me, but I know it’s me who has changed, and the unfamiliarity of the mountains and the music is just a claustrophobic shock against my open, omnipotent past. There is less time left for me to live — quite possibly much less than the 16 years since last I was this way because of the stupid idiot cancer and the after-effects of its various cures. But I can’t blame cancer for the blown-out wicks at both ends of my destiny: There is less time left because there is more of me, more substance, more experience, and I am much more full. I would so much rather be more empty, a youth! Consider: my father was 13 years older than I am now when he started me and my sisters and my family, in the autumn of his life, and I grew up shadowed by his winter, waiting in the dark to make sure he was breathing in his sleep while the dog watched me, tail wagging. He died at 77. How can I possibly live that long?’

And when I put down the journal and gave in to the music and the clouds and nature’s benevolent passions, I could feel my father inside me, where he has always been, apparently never feeling the need to speak in the same way I feel the need. Or is he speaking in a way I can appreciate more than words?

The first thing I remember him telling me was that I was a baby of the water, that I would always be here where I was born and raised, in this sea, in this water he sprinkled on me. I was born in a hospital in Nice which is on the Sea, and stood for the first time to chase a fellow two-year-old girl on the beaches of Cannes, learning as we played in the sand that where there is a smile there is always a friend, and we crossed the sea to Beirut and lived on the Corniche, and then we lived in a series of apartments in the Costa del Sol, with all our windows looking out onto the Mediterranean, the sea where I was born. When I was ten years old and we drove around supposedly following Alexander, my father told me to remember that this Sea is where Man comes from, not physically but in his imagination, and You should always keep that in mind, Bub, that Man is not an animal but a thinking Being. When he died and my pal Steve and I walked three weeks later into Annapurna, the locals kept talking about the heat wave, and I remember panting along with my creaking knees that first day, wanting to turn back for a swim on a beach filled with bikinis. But when your dad is just dead you don’t make decisions so I ambled along in Steve’s wake, up the hot mountain. This time, the water is everywhere, little streams and raging glacial torrents, and when a shy Irish rain leaks out of the Himalayan sky and I’m left on the terrace alone before all that mountainous majesty, thinking of Skipper, my own tiny rain begins to fall. Here is my father, speaking to his water baby, and when my tears reach my lips I can taste the Mediterranean Sea.


A gallery of images from the Himalayas is being constructed right now. Click on the picture above to see it.

Sandra the organ-grinder's monkey, and a charming elder Gurung lady with no teeth.

Sandra the organ-grinder's monkey, and a charming elder Gurung lady with no teeth.