Listening

I record everything at first. The traffic. The mud. Tourist stalls. Crunching gravel slicing high on makeshift concrete mixers. Honking horns. Competing karaoke cover bands. Everything is novel, and I soak it in.

As is my way, I began close to my new home base, wandering in slow concentric circles. I like to be on the edge of the familiar—as far out as I can, just as far as that last thread of connection will take me. One foot knows the way home. The other itches for un-trod ground.

Slowly, as the initial glut of colour and sound begins to receed, my filming becomes more conscious. More paced. I start waiting. Listening.

I’m here in search of something. What, exactly, I’m in the process of unraveling. I’ve brought my camera, my most prized possession—not for its metal and pixels, but for its process. When I don’t understand my world, the camera is where I turn to make sense of things. The simple act of composition helps me to slow down and listen. The weight of the camera as a physical and psychological presence forces me to be attentive to the rhythms of a place, to its heartbeat. As I do, things start to come into focus.

This time is a bit different. I’m feeling unsettled for some reason. Every other trip like this, I’ve had some kind of guide. It could be a project for which I’m filming, a local fixer, a common cultural base or something as simple as a Lonely Planet book. These guides create a safe zone, a picture frame within which the rest of the action can take place. Here in Nepal I have no guide. The action can happen in any direction, across a culture I don’t yet understand. And that’s already played itself out.

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The karaoke bars and blaring horns are the first tip. I unintentionally landed in the midst of a tourist ghetto to start my trip. Thamel is a small corner of Kathmandu, and admittedly it’s more a reflection of western consumption than of anything Nepali. Hospitality and friendliness still shine through, but the place has an ugly social veneer, westerners rabidly feeding at the trough of exotic trinkets. Manipulative and degrading human behaviour are on display in locals and visitors alike.

The more serious discovery is that I’m afraid. I’ve put myself so far to the edge of my abilities that I’m overwhelmed, and I’m using my camera to cope. Instead of using it to create something beautiful, I’ve been using it as a shield against the powerful emotions bubbling up in the chaos. I’m observing without the deeper human connection that I’m truly here to participate in.

Filming is a solitary experience. That’s what drew me to it. The camera is a way to process complex experiences into a series of micro-moments. I can be surrounded by a crowd of thousands, yet behind the camera I have a quiet corner all to myself. I’m an observer rather than a participant. And on this trip it means I’m on a different journey than many of the travellers I’m bumping into. We chat in coffee shops and share stories over dinner, and then go our separate ways. My slow, observational pace means shared itineraries are incompatible. Travelling solo, with my camera, has led to a certain kind of isolation that is colouring my experience.

It makes me wonder about the wisdom of bringing my camera. The slow meditative process is wonderful for enabling absorption of the deeper elements of what I’m seeing. Yet by its very presence it’s changing my experience. A twist in my stomach makes me wonder if I’m missing what I would otherwise see if the camera were not here.

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At the same time it’s unlocked doors. Outside the dusty corners of Thamel, people are genuinely curious and often pleased to have the lens turned in their direction. It creates a conversation and a friendly exchange, one of the things that I find sacred about filmmaking. The camera opens doors that are otherwise closed to outsiders.

And it’s given me something to share back with you. The sonic landscape of the place, the visual texture, the emotional tapestry is impossible to communicate using only the fragile lattice of language. Moving images can in a small way transport you to see with not only your eyes but your heart what I’m seeing as I travel.

I came to Nepal wanting to listen. Within the first few days, not only what I’m listening for, but my way of listening is in question. It’s is a place that changes you, people say. I think that’s at least in part because people come here to be changed. There’s something to it, though. There’s a feeling to this place that’s both ancient and friendly that interrupts my expectations. Inside the stone walls and bright colours is a heartbeat, something special and unique. And I want to keep listening.

I’m continuing to publish thoughts from Nepal while I’m back in Vancouver. Thanks for everyone’s concern re: the recent trekking tragedy in the Annapurna region. My thoughts and best wishes go out to those who’ve been affected.

Ascent To Annapurna

I have so many stories to tell.

About the time I lost my way to Chhomrong. About the family that stops for tea and poetry, three generations reliving the grandfather’s journey. About the change the altitude & mountains force on those who climb it. For now I’ll let the pictures say what they can about my trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary.

Kathmandu


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The first few days were spent in Kathmandu. It’s a smoky, dusty, smelly group of old cities, a place growing in on itself and over its own history. It’s a fascinating mish-mash of culture, tourism, poverty and growth.

The Ascent Begins


I was glad to get up into the mountains. Life is very different up here. Everything to sustain life is carried by another living thing. The trek is hard, thousands of metres of vertical—over 6,800m total once you count the ups and downs. It’s one of the most physically difficult things I’ve ever accomplished, in no small part because of the heavy camera I carried to take these images.

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Into the Green


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The lower reaches of the trek are all green, verdant jungle. Rhododendron gives way to bamboo which fades into other shades of green. Strange birds and insects chirp alongside the constant rush of the Modi Khola. Everywhere is water, the trail snaking its way through and around its etchings in the rock.

Climbing into Clouds


The alpine only makes its appearance above 3500 metres, the jungle clinging high to the valley walls. As you ascend, green slowly disappears into horizons of blue, black and orange.

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Turning the Corner


And then the mountains appear. Approaching Machhapuchhre Base Camp (the last stop before the top), you turn a corner into the final ascent to ABC.

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The Final Climb


My last climb was late in the day, shrouded in fog through the alpine valley that leads up to the Camp. I could see nothing of what was about to open up around me. I went for a cold sleep and awoke for sunrise, and the result was truly breathtaking.

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Small in a Big World


Getting up to Annapurna Base Camp is a kind of pilgrimage. It’s long slog through jungle and rough trails. For me, doubly so: I was solo with a heavy pack, alone on the trail without a guide, porter or familiar friends. Arriving at the top is hard to express. In everyone it induces a kind of silent awe, sitting amongst a sanctuary that reminds us of our smallness.

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Friends Along the Way


One of the surprising highlights for me was just how many friends I made on the trek. I’m a quiet person, more likely to observe at first than to join in. This experience was different. After several hours of focused concentration on the trail, the downtime in the lodges became openly social, meeting new friends and sharing stories. I met some fascinating people along the way, some of whose stories I hope to tell.

Blue and Gold


The last day before the descent was spent wandering up to the glacier and taking in the immensity and scale of the mountain peaks that surround us. We came up 4000m, and yet the peaks around stretch twice that height. They feel close enough to touch. When a helicopter comes to rescue someone from altitude sickness, the scale of the place becomes apparent as he flies away for several minutes without reaching the mountain walls.

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Descent


The place is magnificent and attractive in a mysterious and quiet way. I don’t want to leave. Eventually the body has to give into the punishment of the same steps in reverse, and I step back into the green and away from the mountaintops.

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The Last Stop


The final night for many is in Jhinu, the hotsprings below Chhomrong. It’s the first chance for physical relaxation after a gruelling descent. Trekkers, porters, guides and hosts alike all join in the post-accomplishment party. This particular dance party broke out at dinner and continued late into the night.

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Water

Just the thought is making me thirsty: a big hefty jug of crystal-clean water.

Water is everywhere here. Nepal is, after Brazil, one of the world’s top water-producing nations. It flows in streams and rivers, divides the valleys and cuts the ridges to their base in the mountains. Three of the world’s great rivers begin here, bringing life to billions downstream. Walk a few hundred yards in the foothills and you’ll find water splashing merrily from a tap or stream.

Except I can’t drink it. For all the water in the world, if it’s not safe to drink, it might as well be charcoal—at least to me. I’ve got the lucky gift of a westernized gut, acclimatized to thorough dash-ation of my water: chlorination, flouridation, ionization, sterilization. Without these technological intestinal appendages, what is a source of life to a village is a source of sickness to me.

I’ve not been so strongly affected by the water crisis until this trip. I’m about to get a baptism in it.

I’ve become habituated to the kinds of travel that easily provide my basic needs, even in far-flung places. What’s different is that this time I’m on my own. Without a support team, I’m up a creek without a water filter.

My attention has to turn to water. Not optional, I have to search it out within a few hours or there will be consequences. When found, I have to evaluate it for safety. I have to conserve it, purify it, plan time to search for it, and prepare for carrying it with me.

It’s that absence of the usual crutches that I’m surprised by, and hopeful for on this trip. I don’t have the cultural common ground to be able to share my needs through language. I don’t have the crutch of infrastructure, unthinkingly dispensing what I need. Here, a total stranger, I don’t have friends and family I can rely on to take care of me for something as simple as a glass of water.

I’m hopeful that this experience has some cleansing power. To know what it feels like to lack something so crucial. To have to choose daily between simple, crucial needs. Instead of being wholly focused on the rhythms of the task at hand, my thoughts have to share space with the basics of survival.

Indra

Somehow, after three hours of conversation, she remains a mystery to me.

She doesn’t give me a lot of hints. Is she 26? 27? She’s finishing her PhD, a general clue. Throughout the evening we chat about our respective histories, our reasons for coming to Nepal, her research. She most reminds me of my photographer friend Dave Delnea. In looks and ambition they could be siblings. It’s so uncanny that a few times I catch myself staring.

We met because I’m a rookie here. Travelling in Nepal for a few weeks, naturally I wanted a SIM for my phone. After an hour’s walk in dusty diesel fumes, I duly paid the fee and walked away happy at my purchase ($10 for plenty of data *and* voice!). Except I forgot a critical detail: my new phone number.

My mistake worked in my favour. Searching out a decent cappucino, I asked a fellow traveller if she’d be willing to let me call her phone so I could discover my newly-won cell number. The conversation began from there.


She was in the highlands for three months, her fifth such visit. She lives with the locals, in a sacred valley free from any kind of animal sacrifice (which includes meat for consumption). A porter hauls up supplies every few weeks. Each day she charts the dwellings, measures the land and listens to the customs so that in the not-too-far future, if and when this is all wiped out, we’ll be able to measure the damage.

Such is the life of a disaster preparedness researcher.

Indra’s research is in a valley between the Khumbu (home of Mount Everest) and the Langtang trekking regions. This place, like everywhere, is being affected by climate change. The climate signal here is quickly receding glaciers.

When glaciers advance, their crushing weight grinds rock into powder and pushes it out in front, like a tongue licking foam. When the advance stops and the glaciers retreat, a high ridge of gravelly soil is left. These moraines dam massive lakes of meltwater, clean remnants of snow dropped thousands of years ago.

With the rate of meltwater increasing, eventually these dams break. The natural wall of the moraine is only loosely held by gravity. When the force of the meltwater exceeds the weight of the moraine, entire lakes can vanish in an instant. All that water heads straight down the nearest valley.

This is where Indra spends her time. She’s there measuring population, land values and discovering what the locals know and are prepared for in case of disaster. She’s also coming to understand their values—like, for example, their potatoes. This particular valley’s potatoes are the best, so the locals say. In fact they’re so good, not only are they the staple diet, but when locals leave for work in other cities, the comfort food they pine for is the potatoes. On her last trip, in addition to hefting down her own equipment down the valley, Indra carried several sacks of potatoes for locals missing the taste of home.

The valley is far removed from even the bustle of Kathmandu, let alone the sophistication and knowledge of my home in Canada. Yet the choices we’re making in places like Vancouver are changing the lives and livelihoods of these last few remaining micro-cultures in the high Himals.

It’s striking to me that thanks to a Google search for coffee in Thamel I’ve been able to make a new friend, and connect to a place and people that otherwise I would never know.

* I’ve changed some of the names & details for privacy