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Nepal Semester Student's Catherine Von Holt's photograph of the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

65% and Loading …

The day is Holy and I’m ambushed by little kids with water balloons and red powder right outside my bedroom door. I am startled, I scream, they scatter. I just struggled to comb my hair with what aloe vera gel I have left and some holding gel to make the finished product look presentable. It’s day 6 in the village and I’m still not used to the usual happenings of life here.

My neighbour’s mother recently passed away and for the last three days what seems to be the whole village has been feasting in the streets during the daytime and partying all night in celebration of her life, in keeping with local traditions. My ‘aamaa’ seems to be fairly popular so my house is always flooding with people. Sometimes it’s hosts of women and children – who are either suckling on their mother’s breasts, running around causing mayhem or staring at me in wonder. At times there are also groups of men engrossed in socializing – talking and having a good time. My house in the village has three rooms. The largest common area serves as the kitchen, the living room, the dining room, the game room, a bar, a lounge and whatever else was required of it any a given point in time. Since my room is the adjoining room, I am always in tune with the happenings of the magical ‘everything room’. The rest of my family – my ‘aamaa, bohini, and baai’ lived upstairs. I have never seen the room but I imagine they had a bed and other things that were characteristic of a bedroom.

After the kids invaded my house and got my face with red powder, I managed to be sly enough and fast enough to get past them on my way to the program house without suffering pellets of water balloons that seemed to rain down on anybody who dares to cross their path. Today is different. Unlike most days that saw us having classes all day, we only have a half day of classes today and we have a picnic in the mountains. Today is Holy – the festival of colours. I am excited to celebrate Holy. I am excited for our picnic in the mountains.

We were told that we’d be making a relatively short walk to the spot on top of the hill. For the past five days, the village hasn’t been what I thought it would be. I can hardly communicate with my family, I can’t help my host mother with her job because as far as I saw, she didn’t do anything much when I was around. The people in the village are very interested in my hair and since my house would be always full of people I am often victim to staring eyes and swift hands eager to confirm or deny their suspicions of this seemingly new hair texture. I am uncomfortable.

To complicate matters, I am reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley, which has brought up many questions that I have been actively avoiding. I can identify with his anger, I feel it too. I understand and empathize with the struggle that he makes mention of. At times reading the book produces feelings of frustration and my resolve to engage in class activities and family life is at an all-time low. I have never previously been in a situation where my race was a huge defining characteristic that then lead to me feeling like an outsider almost. I have traveled to the USA on numerous occasions, I have been to Switzerland where I competed with people from all around the world building apps to help solve world problems. I even recently traveled in Asia where I backpacked Thailand for a month and a half. The intense loneliness that I felt based on how I looked has never happened; I am unsure of how to deal with that. But the imminent picnic seems like a refreshing outing away from everything that will give me time to relax and process my thoughts.

The time has come. We start our journey to the picnic spot. I am sure to have my Albuterol on hand in case I needed an emergency pump or two.

After completing the trekking portion of the trip and looking back at this time on Holy, I can confidently say that the hike to the picnic spot on Holy was mentally harder than doing the entire Rolwaling Valley trek – and the trek wasn’t easy at all.

Sharon went ahead of us to ensure everything would be in place for our arrival so it was just us students, Parker, Surya and a local, leading the way. I wore my hiking shoes today despite thinking the walk wouldn’t be too long. My slippers are lightweight and I don’t want to have to tackle rocks with just a thin buffer layer. Despite having my inhaler on hand and taking a few puffs before we started walking breathing is exceptionally hard today. All around me, people are having conversations while walking, a phenomenon now bizarre and completely astonishing to me. I’ve never appreciated the ability to simply hold a conversation whilst walking, before not having the ability to do so. I am struggling to breathe. Whenever the group takes a break, I am relieved.

I live in Kingston, Jamaica where the average elevation is 9.4 m above sea level. In the Kathmandu Valley, the average elevation is 1400m. We were in a rural village called Chaukati on Holy and we drove quite some distance and hiked uphill for some four hours to get there. After coming to Nepal I was diagnosed with asthma. On my first visit the doctor told me that for my height and age, I was using 45% of my lung capacity. Just hearing that number knocked the breath out of me.

I feel betrayed by my body. After all, I am relatively in shape. I was always an active student in high school, where I did track and field, field hockey then later table tennis. I represented my country in regional tournaments for table tennis. I was also on my university’s table tennis team where I played against students from other campuses in other Caribbean countries. In the peak of my fitness, I had table tennis training 3-4 times a week for 3 hours at a time where I’d easily complete all my laps, push-ups, wall sits, planks, jumping jacks, alongside intense strategy and form training. I don’t think of myself as very far from my peak fitness but I now find myself much less capable to perform. My ability to not even talk while walking uphill is a testament to the fact that I am not fit, I am struggling.

Each time I turn a corner, I anticipate that we’re just about there and I am disappointed every time. One by one, slowly but surely, everyone passes by me and I am enveloped with grief. I start crying – not just a few tears but a sea of tears that involuntarily escape my eyes and bring along unpleasant wallowing sounds with them. I am unable to stop it. In that moment, I hate myself for choosing to do this hike, I hate myself for thinking I can do it. I conclude that there’s no way I will do the trekking portion of the trip and I hate the fact that I have to still walk to the picnic spot. I think about my reasons for wanting to come to Nepal in the first place and I wonder if those reasons are enough for me to put myself through so much physical agony, but I keep walking.

I walk and I cry, I cry and I walk.

I want desperately for it to be over.

“If I can just breathe, then I can pull off this off,” I thought.

I don’t see the beautiful greenery or interesting rock formations around me. I don’t smell the fragrant flowers, I don’t see the colourful butterflies or bees flying by, all I see is a challenge with no way of escape but that of more struggle.

I continue to cry and I continue to walk.

I walk with my loneliness, sadness and breathlessness. Members of the group try to encourage and console me at times, they offer to walk alongside me, some do so without me even asking. But their care, concern and advice somehow seem to fall short today because try as I might to think positively, to take rest steps, to focus on breathing, to keep the end in mind – nothing is working; trying and failing was more frustrating than not trying at all. I stop thinking of the end and I accept my fate – one of struggle, and difficulty.

I continue to cry and I continue to walk.

“Chinelle look, it’s the top” someone shouted back to me. I was uncertain of how to feel seeing the end in sight. I decide not to think about it and struggle onward to the now fathomable end.

I eventually made it to the top.

All the self-loathing and struggle melted away as I lay on top of the yellow tarp and stare at the clouds and catch my breath.

“It was hard, I hated it but I made it”, I thought to myself.

The lunch was excellent that day. I specifically remembered having some coconut flavoured rice with some chicken seasoned just right. We all fountained Mountain Dew from a big bottle and at that moment I got it.

Before now, I didn’t get why people climbed mountains. I haven’t really done many outdoor activities in the past and the outdoor life is new to me. This feeling of conquering the mountain, of making it to the top despite the physical challenge that I was reminded of with every step I took, is amazing. I almost feel as if I can do the trek now.

Before making the trip to Chaukati, I went back to the hospital to do a follow-up visit. After my first visit, the doctor gave me an asthma pump and told me to use it three times a day for two weeks. My lung capacity improved to 65% when we did the peak expiratory flow rate test the second time around. To borrow an American phrase, I was super stoked!

Little did I know then that trek on Holy would be the hardest mental challenge that I would have to face walking up any mountain in Nepal.

I am reading Malcolm X’s autobiography. I just had lunch. I made it to the top of the mountain and I am proud of myself. I guess my lungs ain’t so bad at all. I’m getting there, just 65% and loading…