While cradled by nature, the passage of time tends to prove itself less and less concrete. How they manage to do it, I am uncertain, but the mountains rob hours of their typical flow, their decisive linearity. Individual days often seem to encapsulate lifetimes, while entire weeks nearly pass before they have come. To this theory, our six-day Helambu trek offered no exception.
Patan’s city life, teeming with motion and bustling in pace, provides stark contrast to our days spent on the trail. We now operate on shared clocks, established time. Here, minutes are no longer inconsequential; they do not arrive and depart freely. While acclimating to this new (and oftentimes jarring) environment, I am left stricken by the past week — the peculiarity of its progression, the way its days were simultaneously endless and finite. Most notably, though, I am unable to grasp our trek’s sheer fullness. How can such a limited window of time harbor such immense change?
In the mirror, I see a shift. My reflection, from which I’d nearly grown estranged within a mere week, tells a quiet story: Its details serve as evidence of growth, physical manifestations of internal change.
There are, of course, certain consistencies to be noted — and my hair serves as a quite literal example. Matted with a charming combination of sweat, dirt, and grease, it remained tangled in a single braid for the trek’s full duration. My attire, too, was unchanging: For the past week, the same items clung to my skin — varying only in degree of dampness. Though my fashion choices did not waver in the slightest (always, for example, involving woolen socks that failed the smell test for five consecutive days), there exists an undeniable shift in my being. My trekking pants now seem to clothe a different body — one that, ever-so-subtly, wears the ways the world has changed it.
With me, I bear gentle reminders of the mountains — of the downpour at 2,800 meters and of the thick fog at 3,600. With me, I carry lessons of Therapati and Chisopani.
With me, I bring a collection of moments and parts: hands and legs and feet and heart — none of them quite the same, all of them slightly changed.
Hands: in used condition; fingers show an assortment of scratches (causes unidentified); dirt deeply embedded beneath fingernails.
Beyond these temporary marks, what will be eternalized is that which hides below the surface. When, in the early morning, our group came upon a stray dog (or, rather, when he came upon us), it was this hand that stroked his sunken head. At his hip was a fierce (and imminently fatal) gash — a mangled pulp of bone and flesh and blood.
It was this hand, too, that could have counted his ribs: twenty-six imposing bones, all determined to establish their presence, together caging a hollowed stomach.
It was this hand, among others, that helplessly presented fistfuls of leftover biscuits. Having known no sliver of kindness in his years (of which there appeared to have been few), the dog accepted our offering as one of companionship. Unknowingly, we had extended an invitation.
And it was this hand, too, that would hastily wipe away tears while he limped alongside us. As we scaled steep terrain, his loyalty and desperation became increasingly apparent with each quivering step, each muffled whine. Though I dared not name him, our companion quickly fell into the role of Shadow — silently looming yet undeniably there.
His presence was a subtle confrontation, a lesson in the humane and the hopeless. An immense powerlessness weighed heavily on my shoulders. In Western society, problems tends to be met with solutions. I am so very accustomed to a rapid influx of answers, so very unaccustomed to situations in which there are none. Never, it seems, have I lacked control so wholly. When biscuit crumbs and aching sympathies are all that can be given, what defines humane? When roads are very distant and pain is very near, what is the correct course of action? And who owns the right to determine such a thing?
To these questions, my hands and I may never have answers.
Torso: gentle signs of wear; hips, reddened; collar bones bruised beneath weight of pack.
While my skin bears visible yet minor injury, what remain unseen are the countless warm meals with which my aching body has been nourished. The drinking water that has been supplied in villages cushioned by cloud. The massive excess of Coconut Crunchees that have accompanied steaming cups of chiyaa — always freshly-brewed, always enjoyed within the toasty confines of teahouses.
(As someone who has historically claimed a general distaste for tea, I’ve grown rather accustomed to hourly chiyaa breaks. I’m unsure whether I’m enamored with the tea itself or with what it represents: a leisurely pace, a full-body warmth, a conversation punctuated by laughter. Regardless, there is one thing of which I am certain: Chai ingredients will forever hold a spot on my grocery lists.)
What remains unseen, too, is the palpable privilege that I have choked down alongside towering mounds of dal bhat. Inherent in me, I’ve come to realize, is a subconscious sense of entitlement. Perhaps it is a natural result of Western society, of growing up in a world built on efficiency and transactional relationships. In America, there often exists a strict dichotomy between consumer and provider. Enforced by this power dynamic is an obligation only to oneself: The customer, for example, need not consider the labor nor the source nor the story — only the final product. As we trudged through villages, I became acutely aware of this mentality lingering within myself.
Rarely did I consider the efforts essential to accommodating my needs — the extensive amounts of labor that filled my water bottle and fed my stomach. It wasn’t until we reached our peak elevation, in fact, that the situation’s reality confronted me: After departing in the morning and scaling a steep downhill climb, we encountered a stream from which the previous village had collected its water. The 32 ounces I had so thoughtlessly poured were anything but thoughtless in their sourcing.
What remains unseen, then, is all that I have once neglected to appreciate. What remains unseen is so much for which I have forgotten to be grateful.
Legs: have seen better days; thoroughly sore; shakily supported by quivering ankles.
The many miles conquered are evinced in a variety of ways — primarily, maybe, in the four prominent blisters scattered across my dirty feet. If this array isn’t proof enough of my time spent on the trail, perhaps a new assortment of bug bites serve as better documentation: Mosquitos have certainly proven their resilience, leaving an extravagant constellation of bites in their wake. Somehow, too, the act of plucking leeches from my ankles and rinsing away the blood has become both nonchalant and commonplace.
My burning calves may also demonstrate endurance gained, but they fail to display what I consider the trek’s greatest mark of strength. Amongst a multitude of lessons, the mountains have provided new perspective: They have, in many ways, reframed my self-image — and demonstrated how misguided it once was.
Constantly, the terrain’s harsh demands served to prove my presumed limits incorrect. Days were, by all standards, both long and full: Steep declines were preceded always by steep inclines (comprising what I am coming to know as the “Nepali flat”). Water breaks, when offered, were never denied, never undeserved, and never unappreciated. At night, each village was met with cheers of accomplishment, and each bed with exhausted limbs.
Days were, by all standards, both long and full, but I lived them. I am more than I often allow myself to recognize, and I am more than the space that I occupy.
This body is to be seen not merely as an aesthetic to be curated, but as a vessel of strength. It is to be cherished, too, for its many functions, rather than for its physical attributes. To regard myself first as beautiful, I’m learning, is to do myself a disservice, is to minimize and discredit my potential.
I am capable and resilient and powerful — and it is this knowledge, above toned quads and calves, that constitutes my greatest gain of strength.
This is the body that carries me.
While its outward appearance may, realistically, differ only in minor and temporary details, these represent certain intangible shifts — lessons that can never be unlearned.
This is the body that carries me — the one that, in a whirlwind of a trek, lifted me to the clouds. In days that seems weeks, this body burned and heaved. But in a week that seemed a day, this body, too, prevailed.
This is the body that carries me. It is a collection of moments and parts: hands and legs and feet and heart — now none of them quite the same, all of them slightly changed.