Carla was the first to notice the blood that seemed to come from nowhere. She, Kymri, and I had already scoured legs and arms for signs of the pesky creatures, but none were to be found. Yet the large red spots on the bedspread were proof: one had escaped our careful searching. Where was it?
Tiny though they are (typically 1/4th to 1/3rd of an inch and as thick as a .007 mm pencil lead), the leeches of the Nepali forests are ferociously clever. Mostly, they sneak their way in through the cuffs and mesh of hiking shoes, slinking under and through heavy trekking socks. Some of them wait on misty leaves, leaping onto hats, outer garments, and exposed hair.
Suffering the humiliation of being bested by these tiny mites and mindful of the furious bleeding and painful itching that accompany their affection for us, we had become quite adept at spotting them on ourselves and each other, usually finding them before much damage had been done. And on this day – after many hours of slogging through swollen creeks and soggy mud piles – we were especially vigilant. But one got through and found its way to the tiny crevice between the ring and little finger on my left hand. Though I attacked it instantly with salt and then stanched the bleeding with sugar (to counteract the anti-clotting agent left by the leech), I am still scratching the spot five days later. Give me a mosquito bite anytime.
As it happens, I was one of the lucky ones, for I tucked my pant bottoms into silk sock liners, which were themselves inside heavy wool socks, which were well cushioned by heavy hiking boots. I also had tight cuffs on my jacket and kept my head protected with both a hat and hood. And maybe – who knows – I smelled bad. (Certainly I sweated enough!) So my leech infestation usually was less than three a day.
Poor Kymri had it much harder – she usually discovered three or four of them every time we stopped for tea or a meal. There was even one especially large one (about 3/4ths of an inch) that did a cobra-type dance on her tea saucer, apparently trying to hypnotize her into submission.
But leeches, we soon found, were a trivial nuisance compared to the real challenge of the trek. Aftereffects of the Pacific typhoons included freak weather in parts of India and Nepal, specifically four days of torrential downpours that caused major flooding, treacherously slippery downhill treks, and sudden landslides. On Tuesday, we barely made four miles of a planned six-mile trek, opting to spend the night in a small teahouse without running water or electricity rather than continue in the dark through driving rain to our planned destination. We huddled round the small fire, searching for leeches and trying to dry boots and clothes while the winds howled and the waters rose.
And almost as soon as we made the decision to stay, we began to regret it. We were now trapped in a tiny glen, feeling the shakes of both land and air. Was that a landslide forming just over the bluff or the sound of a gentle brook suddenly morphing into a furious waterfall? We tried to distract ourselves with games, masala tea, and hot chocolate laced with rum. That, prayers, and bravado were all we had.
At night, gentle snores were punctuated with muffled tears. When our sherpas checked the situation in the early morning, they asked us to get packed and moving pronto. Hastily dressing in still-wet clothes and armed with headlamps and trekking poles, we looked out to find a brand new waterfall just twenty feet from the inn. A quarter mile down the road, a fierce torrent about two-three feet deep and eight-feet wide blocked our way. Three sherpas were able to move a heavy boulder (about two by four by two feet) into the stream. Then, working together like a fireman’s line, they planted themselves thigh-deep in water and carried us across what was likely to become a treacherous waterfall or landslide that would effectively close off the glen for the next few days.
When we finally arrived at the next teahouse after eight hours of miserable slogging through muddy streams, we learned that four trekkers had lost their lives in a slide not four miles from where we had been.
What does one learn after being cheek-to-jowl with the possibility of imminent death? Fear is, I believe, the default emotion that governs most of our lives; we hope to make decisions grounded in love rather than fear, but it’s counter-cultural and it’s hard work. Many of us held our fears at bay by carrying the love of our families (both dead and alive) with us as we trekked quietly through the crud. I know that a major part of what kept me going was the awareness that – cold and miserable as I was, it was a trivial nuisance compared to the daily hunger and lack of shelter experienced by many of the orphaned children we had come to love.
For most of us on this trek, it was faith in God, faith in our sherpas, and a quiet determination that kept us walking. And, in the process, I believe that – whether we can identify it or not – we came into a new kind of power, a willingness to take ourselves more seriously for having triumphed over this little piece of hell. There were no words or overt signs, but in conquering our fear we also claimed our power. Though we missed many of the gorgeous Himalayan vistas we had hoped for, we climbed up our personal mountains and emerged both stronger and gentler than when we started. Humbled by their courage, my own was bolstered.
… Or perhaps I wax grandiose when a much simpler explanation will suffice. Perhaps what really helped us contain the horrors of leeches and the terrors of landslides was nothing more than … live music.
The first sign of something special was a surprise encounter with a young Nepali boy who happily sang the Nepali national anthem. Later the same day, we came across a small band that was celebrating Dashain by parading around the village. The most unlikely musician was a small mutt that barked in time with the music!
Then there were the wonderful evenings with Brett Holland (the professional musician in our group) who worked with the children at Loving Arms to create special musical events. Then there was the chance encounter with John Kelly Gill, an American guitarist heading to Pokhara who entertained us with a twenty-minute concert while having a rest break en route to Ghorepani. And finally, it was an Nepali guitarist staying at our teahouse in Panthana – the final night of our trek which followed a grueling ten-hour day of ascending nearly 2,000 feet in the morning and early afternoon, only to have to find our way down wet stone stairways in the darkening afternoon and evening. Our friendly guitarist and Brett spent the evening sharing songs and instrumental pieces with us and the other guests.
How often have you been visiting friends or gone out walking in a strange neighborhood when suddenly someone is giving you a personal concert – and a multi-cultural one at that? – For us, it happened not just once but every other day.
Live music. It brought us together as an appreciative family, enjoying each other and our shared gifts and terrors. Like the salt that killed the leaches and the sugar that restored the blood’s natural coagulants, it was live music that countered the poison of fear with the power of hope. And so we shared a love song which, for a time, infused sudden harmonies into our mournful episodes of blood-and-fear letting.
… Now I understand why music has so many grace notes!
Here is a picture of the memorable tea house where we spent such a terrifying evening:
Cold wet clothes - scared trekkers
The sudden waterfall that greeted us in the morning. It wasn’t there when we arrived. (We decided to leave pronto!)
The reason we left in a hurry
And here’s a link to a news story about the horrible flooding and landslides: http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/SNAA-7WN4XX?OpenDocument&RSS20=03
Note to readers: I have just returned from Nepal to Los Angeles and have to drive myself home and get myself and all of my possessions washed. But give me a few days and you’ll see lots of great photos on my Facebook page.