In a recent “Humans of the World” profile, I interviewed a man who I believe is a candidate for “The Most Interesting Man in the World” – Trek Thunder Kelly. He shared some valuable lessons about human nature he learned on his round-the-world epic adventure a few years ago.
“I met people EVERYWHERE who were kind and giving and truly went out of their way to help others. I realized it is often those who have the least who share the most. I returned from traveling greatly humbled”.– Trek Thunder Kelly
I learned a similar lesson many years earlier, on my first adventure to a developing country – Nepal, 1987. Recently I stumbled across the journal I wrote on that trip (about a million years ago) along with some vintage photos from that life-changing epic adventure.
Snapshots from the past…
SNAPSHOT #1 – The River
Nepal is famous for truly stunning nature, and many tourists and trekkers are drawn to the majestic Himalayan mountains. But our epic adventure began in the jungles of Chitwan National Park, enjoying a very different view of nature – tigers, elephants, and sloth-like creatures – starting with a relaxing canoe ride to our camp site. Well, sort of a canoe…and kind of relaxing.
We piled into a “canoe”, really more of a hollowed-out log – a traditional Nepali dug-out canoe. Fitting six large Americans into a hollow log is not an easy thing to do, but somehow we managed and then settled in for a relaxing ride down a calm stretch of river. The canoe was powered by two tiny Nepali guys with long cane poles, one standing on the bow of the log and the other on the stern.
It was peaceful along that muddy river, a welcome relief from the tourists and chaos of Kathmandu. Floating along for a while in a day-dreamy haze, we watched life along the riverbank pass us by… feeling very zen.
Our day-dreamy illusion was suddenly shattered by the sound of a cane pole slapping the water and the screams from our guide, frantically waving his arms. Freaking out! When the steersman joined in we knew it wasn’t a good sign. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up sensing danger. Chicken skin. And then we glimpsed the huge problem – up ahead in the river, in the direct path of our flimsy canoe was a huge rhino. He was just hanging out, taking a bath, enjoying his rhino day. Apparently, we were disturbing his zen.
My panicked mind ran through our options: Should we jump in and swim for shore? What other dangers lurked in the dark, murky water? Which was a better way to die? I made a move to evacuate the canoe and felt a hand behind me grab my shirt. I stopped.
The canoe slowed and the huge rhino stared, annoyed that his peaceful day was being disturbed by a log full of stupid American tourists. Slowly he turned, glanced back with an annoyed glare, and stomped through the river to the opposite bank. Thankfully, six stupid Americans were not on today’s menu.
Exhaling deeply, we settled back in the canoe and continued on, relieved after our narrow escape from death. A short time later a crocodile jumped off the bank and swam under the canoe. (Glad I hadn’t jumped! Not sure if my Travel Insurance through World Nomads would have covered that!)
Journal Entry: Sunday, March 22, 1987 That night, under a sky full of stars I tried to figure out how I got there: “What gave me the desire and drive to do this kind of thing? How did I get from Zumbrota, Minnesota to this place, dodging rhinos and crocs in the middle of a jungle in Nepal?”
SNAPSHOT #2 – The Warmth
After surviving a few near-death experiences in Chitwan National Park, we moved on to the second chapter of this adventure – a week-long trek on the Annapurna South trail. This route offered the best of Nepal: small traditional villages, incredible Himalayan views, beautiful rhododendron trees in bloom, thick rain forests and beautiful waterfalls. And some really challenging trekking!
On the third day of the trek we stopped for lunch near a waterfall and took advantage of the fresh water by taking a quick dip and finally washing our hair. It seems that with clean hair everything else just feels a little less dirty. The water was cool and refreshing, cleaning the top layer of grime off our skin and lifting our spirits before the afternoon hike.
Back on the trail, a long uphill climb to that night’s campsite, we dragged ourselves up the steep incline in the thin Himalayan air, gasping for breath. Suddenly the sky opened up, the torrential downpour turning the trails into mudslides and soaking us to the bone. With an hour left to our campsite, up slick trails that were now muddy rivers, we came upon a small hut and stopped.
An old Nepali woman ushered us into the tiny hut, stripped us of our wet shoes and jackets, and offered some warm blankets. She built a small fire in the center of the family hut and served us cups of steaming hot tea. We sat around the fire, listening to traditional Nepali music playing from the next room, sipping hot tea, soaking in the warmth of traditional Nepali hospitality.
We had nothing to offer in return except part of a granola bar and some stale trail mix, but we gave her whatever we could. Of course, she expected nothing of us – she was just offering the traditional hospitality, taking total strangers into her home and warming us up with her fire, her hot tea, and her incredible kindness.
Almost 30 years later, I still remember the warm feeling from that day, sitting by the fire in her rustic hut.
“…it is often those who have the least who share the most”. Trek Thunder Kelly
SNAPSHOT #3 – The Shock
Reverse culture shock – the struggle is real.
Journal entry: Friday, April 3, 1987
“God, it’s awful to be back”.
Back then I lived in New York, actually in Long Beach on Long Island but it had that same vibe as New York. It was a vibe so totally different from what I’d experienced in Nepal and it was shocking to me after returning from my first trip to a developing country.
Journal entry: Wednesday, April 8, 1987
“Still recovering slowly. The last few nights I had dreams about the jungle and Nepal.”
Later that evening, less than a week after returning from that first mind-blowing adventure, I walked along the Long Beach boardwalk with three of my closest friends on a beautiful spring night. One had been on the Nepal trip and was sharing my culture shock feelings. The other two were oblivious to our mental state and rambled on about tax refunds, money, and material stuff. After Nepal, those things meant nothing to me and the conversation seemed so pointless I tuned them out.
As we walked, my thoughts drifted back to two weeks earlier, the day it rained and we were rescued by a kind woman in a small hut high in the remote Himalayas…a woman who had no interest in tax returns, money, or material stuff.
And I also realized I was much more like her and much less like a New Yorker.
Have you experienced the magic of Nepal? How did it affect you?