Marcel Proust wrote that, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”
While I will live by this quote as long as I’m on this earth, I do believe the two can be done simultaneously, enhancing the effects of the other. But on unique occasions, attempting both at the same time is too much for the heart to handle and the soul to squeeze. I know this because I spent the past 18 days traveling throughout Nepal with 28 adults from all different backgrounds, including 14 cancer survivors from Iowa. I knew none of them at the start of spring, and most in the group can say the same. I lacked knowledge on cancer prior to this endeavor. I was oblivious to the magic of Nepal. And compared to what I now know, I feel as if I possessed little wisdom about life not so long ago.
To witness a collection of strangers become a family over the course of two and a half weeks – flying into unknown territory together, hiking day by day and sleeping side-by-side night after night, falling ill and feeling exhausted together, laughing and crying together, dancing carefree with one another like old friends at the last supper of their odyssey – this will give you new eyes. It’s a rare thing in this fast-paced world watching a bond unfold like this. Getting to know someone without the use of a computer or a cell phone or a car in the midst of surroundings that have been around longer than any of us combined, this feels pure and honest. No birth and building of a relationship could be more real.
To discover different ways of viewing the world and looking at life through the beautiful minds of these new friends in the landscape of the Himalayas where you forget that anything else exists aside from people and nature is a voyage that you could embark on a hundred thousand times and still learn something new with each journey.
Some cancer survivors were asked to join the trip but were not able to do so. One survivor who began the trek did not reach the base camp. Some who did take every step struggled each day to reach the destination. Some made it through more gracefully. But no matter how any of us performed physically on the trail, there were always the porters to keep us humble.
These amazing beings cycle the trail countless times with more than their own body weight on their backs in order to transport goods and gear, and they always did it with peaceful looks on their faces. I attempted to carry a load on the final day with the use of the handy forehead strap, thinking I would do so for a half hour and then go on to write a story about it. After ten second of wobbling around to the laughter of the Sherpa onlookers, I had to drop the weight in fear that my neck would break or my head would explode.
The success on the trail was not defined by the physical but rather by the mental. If you get caught up in comparing yourself to another on this trail, or anywhere in life, you have lost the plot and will see your purpose disintegrate. Compare what you are doing to what you thought you would never be able to do, and it is then that your meaning is revealed.
I spent four weeks visiting with the survivors individually back in Iowa. Even before boarding the plane that would take us halfway around the world, I discovered these people were gifts, here to teach us that life is short and that simply getting through it is not enough. We must embrace life like a friend, like a teacher, as if every moment that passes is one more opportunity to soak up a drop of the world any way we can.
Yesterday my wet eyes and aching heart said goodbye to these new friends who showed me so much in the ways of living. They boarded a bus for the airport destined for their homes in the cozy Midwest of America while I watched them pull away, leaving me alone in Kathmandu. Of course there were other people around in this bustling city, but since I didn’t know their names or their stories, I felt like the only person around for miles. And as my new friends took their seats on the plane bound for Iowa while I roamed these crazy streets, I could feel them flying further and further away because they were taking my breaths with them.
I don’t remember much of what was said during our embraces goodbye. I was at capacity for real discovery and it had begun overflowing onto the pavement. I needed a night’s sleep to let it absorb.
I woke this morning and found oxygen in the world again. It’s in the beauty of the life all around me. It’s in my recent million memories. It’s everywhere, past and present and future. I can see it with my own new eyes.
I thought this would feel like an ending, but instead this transition resonates as the beginning of a new chapter. Having been alone less than 24 hours, I have imagined how this journey will change each and every one of the 28 people I shared the world with for these past few weeks – the two doctors, the trainer, the yoga instructor, the writer, the photographer, the family members, the supporters, the 14 folks who fought cancer and won.
I envision which ones will soon stuff their small bags and set out for new horizons again. I wonder who will take up a new hobby or learn a new language or call an old friend out of the blue or have recurring dreams of Nepal and long to return. I question if we will all live more like the Sherpa, thinking of others before ourselves without complaints in our vocabulary. Or will we choose to forget and retreat to our old ways?
There are frequent power cuts in Kathmandu. As I’m brushing my teeth or writing in my journal – almost always right in the middle of some action – the lights will go out. Thanks to my new friends, I no longer see this as darkness but as a challenge to find light. I know they are doing the same even though they are in places far from my view.