Lukla is a small village in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal. It’s at 9,000 feet elevation. It’s famous, perhaps, infamous, because of the tiny airport runway situated on a short strip of land between a mountain and a cliff. What a dramatic setting for beginning a journey into the high Himalaya.
Our group of 19 cancer survivors and 17 caregivers needed 3 separate airplanes to get us from Kathmandu to Lukla. We have been transported in time, space, and geography. We are ready to learn what the mountains will teach us about ourselves.
We all gathered in the Paradise Lodge near the landing strip. It’s a run by Dawa, a Sherpa woman who has created this place out of nothing in order to provide financial security for herself and her family. It’s a family business and we are all delighted by her two year-old granddaughter that amuses us with her rubber ducky.
We share a cup of tea, readjust our backpacks and prepare for our first day on the trail. Before starting our walk, I share a poem from John O’Donohue’s book, “To Bless the Space Between Us.” It’s called, For a New Beginning. It invites us to leave the past behind, kindle our courage, and step onto new ground. It concludes:
Though your destination is not yet clear.
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure;
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
Our hike from Lukla to Phakding took only 4 hours, but it has transported us light years from where we began in Iowa 3 days ago. The trail is rocky and uneven. It requires our attention with every step. The weather is warm and sunny; the air is fresh and clear. Lush green vegetation welcomes our gaze. There are rhododendron forests on the slopes above us and small plots of cabbage, corn, and potatoes on the land between the trail and the river. They are growing on terraced land that has been carved out of the mountainside.
On this morning I’m walking with Mike, a 44 year-old colon cancer survivors and Kent, a 71 year-old caregiver whose wife died of lung cancer 5 years ago. In addition to being a cancer survivor himself, Mike also lost his mother to lung cancer one year ago. As we journey together, Mike and Kent talk about their loved ones last days on earth. It’s a discussion that is filled with humor, anger, compassion, remorse and remembrance. As we hike through this beautiful mountain setting, feeling more alive than we’ve ever felt before, we take time to remember those who have made us who we are. My mom died of lung cancer at the age of 52. I was in high school when she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Kent, Mike and I share a bond beyond this journey to Nepal.
Later that morning I encounter a village woman along the trail that is sitting on the side of the trail. She’s obviously in distress. I consider diverting my gaze and walking past her. I make eye contact and stop to see if I can assist her. I give her my water bottle and we provide her some food. She shows me her hand. She has a large abscess on her index finger. I remove my medical kit from my backpack. I clean her finger and pierce the abscess releasing a flow of pus. The momentary pain of the piercing is followed by comfort. Pain, suffering, compassion, beauty, poverty, humanity…… we have lots to occupy our mind as we continue our journey up the mountain.
The afternoon hike is all splendor, fellowship, beauty and amazement. We pass large boulders with Tibetan script etched in stone. We pass prayer wheels that invite us to spin them as we walk by. By tradition, the prayers that are inscribed on the wheels “fly” off the spinning drums and go out to all sentient beings around the world.
The hike ends with our first crossing to the river via a long pedestrian suspension bridge. It provides a bit of excitement as we end our first day’s hike with an exclamation point. As we assemble on the grass in front of our lodge, Justin, a 28 year-old brain cancer survivor pulls out his guitar. Justin serenades us as we enjoy the sunshine and the soft grass. It’s a bit of a sing-a-long, hootenanny, alternative folk-rock concert. Justin is like an American Idol songster with a smile that is infectious. He concludes the concert with what he refers to as his “cheesy cancer song”. He’s not only a singer, but a talented songwriter, as well. The last song is anything but cheesy. It’s a raw display of emotion as he describes in song what it’s like to tell his fiancé and his parents. He sings,
Before I go anywhere
I’ve got to make amends.
I’ve got this girl to marry
And I’ve already made the plans.
I don’t want to see the look in Dad’s eyes
If they tell him that it’s the end.
So Mama you ain’t gotta cry
‘Cause your only boy here is gonna fight.
If I go, I’m going to go down swingin’.
Justin, we’re on your team. You can count on us to throw a few punches for you.