Archive for category Travels
Each time I travel I keep thinking of the distance from the place and the people I leave. I actually watch it happen from the minute I walk out the door to the moment I reach the clouds and go above them to wherever lies ahead. I sit in the plane, I look at the flight monitor and I think of the actual physical miles that start adding up by the minute. And upon my arrival it blows my mind how many oceans and continents have now come to divide us. I silently thank God that I live in an age where my loved ones are just a click away. I can always talk to them and see them on my little gadgets. I don’t have to write a letter and wait for three weeks or more to get a response. When my brother went to study in America in 1977 I was a four year old and I don’t remember much, but the sight of my mother’s tears pouring down her face all through the flight back to Cairo stayed with me until today. She helplessly waited for his letters and couldn’t call him except through a switchboard and a very, very poor connection they’d both be yelling to the receivers to hear each other across continents.
Now I’m about her age at that time and I don’t have to go through any of that hassle. It’s ironic how these gadgets have come to work in my life. At times they’re the cloak I hide behind and talk to everyone through when I’m depressed, a cloak that soon turns into thick, brass walls that trap me inside and echo my own thoughts and obsessions and so add to my misery. Yet at other times they’re simply the only window to the faraway world I think about while I’m away.
And it’s funny how the people in my life are constantly shifting from the flesh and blood real to the voice and text virtual. I’ve spent all of my life with my heart cut in half between the here and there. The accessible near and the dreamy far–a far that is often entangled in longing, worry, and much, much anxiety. I have very close friends that live in two different continents, none of them my own, and I have a whole half of my family, with cousins I grew up with, living in a fourth continent. Heck I’ve even fallen in love across continents! That never lasted, of course.
With all of these people, sometimes we would meet and talk about everything on these little gadgets and it feels good to think we’re close. But we know we never actually are. Nothing compares to the physical nearness of a person you care about.
And just as we happen to be scattered all over the world, some of us end up in countries with much turmoil, tearing at the hearts of those faraway from them. Phone calls after phone calls run back and forth to reassure each other that we’re OK, until we finally get together and try to will time to stand still and hold the moment for as long as it can, but it can only hold it for as long as a human can hold a breath. Eventually it lets go–as it probably must. But then I try to hold on to the moment in my head for as long as I can too but it brings no comfort to me to think of a moment I’m not living anymore. Eventually I let go and I find that it’s actually a relief. Each time I say goodbye to a close one as they leave – or as I leave – knowing that our paths would cross again gives a temporary soothing numbness that takes me on to the next moment, and the next, and the next.
The uncertainty and the disenchantment of living in Egypt right now does not make separation easy, whether I was the one leaving or the one left behind. Egypt, where I stayed and continue to stay, used to be the hub for everyone I knew. Everyone used to come back and stay and they would be willing the moment to stand still, wishing with all their might to come back. My mind races with thoughts on my future and the future of my family. Is this going to pass soon or will we all be strangled in a limbo? We’re living our everyday quite normally but there’s an overarching feeling of depression residing in the air. The economy is down and there’s little or no tourists walking around (it’s actually strange how the sight of tourists in Cairo’s streets was so characteristic it feels almost unrecognizable without them now). I can’t stop asking when will this nation pick itself up again and I know the answer is not soon, because right now it’s still busy dismantling itself into scattered pieces and there are some who are actually trying to turn the pieces into lots of even smaller ones.
But it doesn’t do any good for me to think too much. I’m just a dot in history. I’m neither judge nor God to know fate; I’m only a passing witness so small and tiny for the universe to see with the naked eye. So much has happened over the seven thousand year old history of my home country that I can never know what is going to happen. But I know that it all comes in cycles and that it will pick itself up again, though probably not in my lifetime.
I think that what I’m trying to say is that as seemingly exciting and rich a traveler’s life can be, with friends and loved ones in every continent, when the ground they once stood so solidly on – that anchor point they always came back to – suddenly begins to shake, all they can think about is how much they long for bringing everyone they love together and staying put with them in one reliably solid, safe place where no one can ever get hurt and no one ever has to say goodbye. I’d give up all my traveling and all my flying around for just this and the peace of mind that comes with it. That’s just the way I feel.
Good morning new day in Jeddah. It’s my last week here on this seasonal trip and, as usual, I’m getting anxious about my passport and my return visa. I always get anxious near the end of my trips to Saudi Arabia. Should I make that call and find out if it’s been issued and if I can have my passport back? Does that really speed it up or does it only aggravate? Sheer helplessness is my share as a woman, and as a “foreign” woman, whenever I visit.
What’s a return visa? That’s a long, twofold story. One part me, one part Saudi Arabian laws. Let me start with me.
My mother’s hometown was Medina, Saudi Arabia. Like many Medinans and other inhabitants of the hijaz area (the western coast of Saudi Arabia along the mountains) she was of immigrant descent. Many Saudis living along the Hijaz have Eastern European, Turkish, Central and South Asian, and even African roots. They’ve been living for generations in Saudi Arabia and are full citizens, yet their cultures, family names, and even accents, are an interesting hybrid you’ll find especially conglomerated in Medina. They always find themselves different from the rest of the peninsula because of the way many of them are brought up but, most importantly, because the Najd Saudis (indigenous inhabitants of the vast Arabian desert of the center and the north, covering Riyadh, and from which the royal family descends) see to it that they’re constantly reminded of their “unArabianness,” for lack of a better word. Stereotypes are exchanged between Hijazis and Najdis. The former call the latter “primitive bedouins” who mutilated the land of the Prophet and the latter call the former “pilgrim remnants,” like abandoned, unwanted leftovers from foreign pilgrims who don’t understand Islam the way God intended it. The real Saudi Arabia on the ground is in fact rich in its variation and multicultural society.
But that’s for a whole different post with lots of complicated details and I have no idea why I’m telling you all of this. What I’m actually trying to tell you is simple: My mother was from Saudi Arabia.
Yet somehow, ironically, I’m still a foreigner by law. I’m still not entitled to citizenship even though there’s been lots of official talk that people like me, born to Saudi mothers, should be.
Fine. Where does that leave me?
Foreigners should get visas to enter Saudi Arabia. Woman foreigner? Woman foreigner must have either pilgrimage visa where she must enter with a group of pilgrims (this visa is seasonal, open only on certain months in a year, and confines the trip to certain cities within Saudi Arabia) or a regular visit visa in which a male guardian has to be involved; either as the person sending her the invitation from inside Saudi Arabia – in which case he would have to be present at the airport to meet her – or as a travel companion with his own visit visa (which by the way can be a multiple entry business permit lasting up to six months). Apart from the whole male guardian complication, if the male guardian is there and is available, the process should be pretty much straightforward, but in reality it can quite unpredictably take well more than a month.
I’ve had all kinds of interesting incidents on my trips to Saudi Arabia. On one occasion I was held at the airport even though my passport’s been stamped. I wasn’t allowed into the city because my uncle had to physically show up at the airport and show himself to the authorities. I was placed in a room full of women from Asia and Africa who had just arrived for work, waiting for their custodians to pick them up from the airport. Some were curled up by their things and sleeping, some appeared to have been in that room for very long hours – if not overnight – and certainly all of them were very, very exhausted. I was the only one fuming. The family fixer back then did his usual magic tricks and got me out.
As a way to get past all of this I decided that I would work on getting a residence permit based on my mother’s custody. This process ended all trouble for me for almost ten years. I only had to show up in the country twice a year to keep my residence going and, upon leaving, a return visa had to be issued each time. I’d be getting a piece of paper, stamp it at the airport, and it would be my means of reentering the country.
Complicated to many, but still pretty much straightforward. Believe me! Until then no action had started yet.
Then one morning my mother decided not to wake up again, and everything became a huge deal since. For the past four years I have been trying to move my visa custody from my mother to my uncle and it’s been proving to be more than an uphill task. You see, I happen to have an older brother, and according to custom, my brother gets priority in my guardianship. Never mind the fact that he is an Egyptian living in Cairo. Never mind the whole idea that the guardian needs to be a Saudi national living in Saudi Arabia so that I could actually get his custody for my residence permit in the same country he is in. I have a brother living in Egypt and my Saudi mother died, so as a “foreigner,” I should pack and leave. I have no privileges being the daughter of a deceased national. None at all.
The Saudi person who is helping me with my papers has been going here and there and checking in every direction he could to find out if there’s anyway we could still move that custody. He was presented with two solutions: Either my brother accompanies me to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Cairo and writes an official renunciation of my guardianship, thereby officially moving it to my maternal uncles (I do have Egyptian paternal uncles but SHHHH!!) or I get my permit as a nanny in my own uncle’s household.
It may raise a few eyebrows, but red tape, tardiness, turtle speed and the occasional bumps on the road to any official paper work have actually made the nanny option quite appealing to me. As long as it doesn’t involve the embassy as well, which could mean more and more papers back and forth and officials taking vacations and locking papers up in their desk drawers, then at least I’m still only dealing with the ministry inside Saudi Arabia.
But a voice inside me tells me that something would be very, very wrong if I ended up with this option. So I’m going to go ahead and see if the embassy procedure in Cairo is in anyway doable, like if somehow miraculously the embassy is less tedious to deal with. They do have a whole new headquarters near my home now with a huge helicopter platform at the roof, so they should feel pretty fresh, eh? It actually took some five or more years to finish and lots of harassment to me by their Egyptian construction workers each time I walked to the gym, but I’ll try not to think too much of that when I walk in. The harassment part is a Cairo problem really, so let’s not confuse culprits.
I’ll just play it by ear till my residence expires. Until then, and in the coming few days, I need to restrain myself from thinking too much about whether or not my return visa has been issued yet and whether or not I can actually fly back to Cairo on the date scheduled. This is my predicament each and every time I come here. I have men doing this on my behalf (since it would be virtually impossible for me to do it for myself) and I really appreciate the help so I hate to push, but I never quite understand why they don’t get me out of their way from the very beginning by getting my shit done instead of leaving it till the last minute.
Apart from that, I have a little confession to make. I think a lot each time I go back to Cairo whether the whole experience is worth it. I think a lot about losing that permit and just not bothering with Saudi Arabia anymore, but it’s hard. I have family here. I have childhood memories. I care about the old places and the old cities. I care about the time old, authentic beauty and spirit in the little bazaars and the aromatic alleys and the holy places. I can’t let ugliness win, can I?
It took me two hours of shivering with everything on to get my body warm enough to sleep last night. I began to feel that this was no longer an enjoyable experience. Either it was colder than my capacity or I was way weaker than I used to be. At times there is an unspoken joy in the suffering, one that lies in knowing that it is all for the sake of the place and the experience, but last night my continuous panting, coughing, and nose blowing felt like pointless torture. I missed my home, my bed, my mom, my cat. All I wanted was to be go back home. And to top it all, I had reached a part in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air book where he began to explain in detail the suffering some of his climbing partners went through minutes before they died. “Get me out of this place!” I shrieked, and I miserably cried myself to sleep.
I woke up at 5 am and jumped quickly out of bed in panic; it was 30 minutes past the time I had set on my alarm and I had to get ready to the biggest day so far. We were going to summit Kala Patthar, which rises to 5545m above sea level. Kala Patthar was our acclimatization attempt for Island Peak, and it was our closest point to Everest. The view of Everest, we were told, was actually better from the summit of Kala Patthar than from the Everest Base Camp. It was going to be a long day and there was no time for breakfast before our departure. I rushed out of my room and found everyone already on their feet waiting for me, so there was no chance for coffee. I tried to say good morning but no voice came out.
I went first in line on the trek. The day was already starting to break in and that gave me a renewed sense of energy. Our incline was so gradual that once again I was tempted to go faster than usual; I didn’t feel any need to slow down since the terrain almost felt flat, or perhaps I was subconsciously making up for coming out of my room later than everyone. As any experienced trekker would guess, however, I soon began to pant. We were gaining altitude and that meant that we were entering a domain where a small movement of getting up from a chair or walking briskly to a nearby table could leave a person short of breath. I discovered that the fast pace I began with was not a good idea. Soon that visual blur I had begun to feel in my left eye the night before was getting bigger. I started to feel as if a heavy force was pushing me back and down to the ground. Once again, my feet began to twist as I walked like a drunken and my hands felt heavy on the poles. I was pressing the poles noticeably, shaking them as they hit the ground. I felt like an old woman struggling to reach her bed for the last time in her life.
All I could think about at that moment was how each time I thought I was going through the misery day of the trip another day would prove me wrong. It was a misery phase and I wasn’t sure when it would end. I wasn’t suffering from altitude problems; it felt more like an altitude challenge that was shaking me on the inside. It felt as if my lack of confidence over my endurance this time was somehow read by an evil spirit that dwelled on these mountains. It smelled my weakness and began to hit me where it hurt the most. For the first time I began to grasp the true fear of the mountains: It was the fear of the known rather than the unknown. It was the natural, legitimate fear that any human, even the best of climbers, could have.
My fear generated anger at myself. I could no longer take Karma’s reassuring smiles at me. Everything was so blurry that I imagined him telling me “See the price your slacking makes you pay?” In my mind everything had a negative meaning.
Unlike Kilimanjaro’s Machame route, the trek along the Khumbu Valley in Nepal is two ways back and forth. Trekkers exchange greetings as they meet along the way. I loathed each trekker that seemed so relaxed and happy on his or her way back down, smiling and greeting me and expecting an equally cheerful reaction. I don’t believe any of them heard my breathless ‘hello’.
By the time we reached Gorakshep my eyes felt like they were going to explode. I was in no shape to engage in any conversation no matter how minimal. I dropped my backpack and my poles and sat down, rested my face on my palms and waited for breakfast. When Omar looked at me and asked how I was feeling I had already been fighting back my tears, but I lost the battle and couldn’t speak. I gestured with my hand that I was finished and my tears burst out. I was embarrassed and upset. He began to suggest alternatives. Hani was going to split with us from Gorakshep to go to Everest Base Camp while we were to continue to Kala Patthar, so Omar suggested I go with Hani to Everest BC instead. I immediately refused. To me, any reformulation of the route because of my mere weakness signaled defeat, and I wasn’t sure I could take that yet. “I just need to have my break-down moment,” I told him, and then it was time to eat.
Like magic, I began to feel life running through my veins again after I ate, and my determination to reach Kala Patthar and get as close as I could to Everest was renewed. We began our further push from 5100 to 5545m. Omar went first in line and I was immediately behind him. Because of his long legs, his steps were more like strides, which had kept him at a considerable distance from us most of the time, allowing him to stop many times to take pictures while he waited for us to catch up. I was focusing on his boots with my every step, expecting them to start disappearing, but after about an hour I was surprised to realize that I was still behind the same boots, and I wasn’t tired.
As silent and seemingly aloof to those who don’t know him, Omar was a doer more than a talker. His positive vibes still spread out to all of us and I could tell that he genuinely cared about his clients. His steps were as small and as slow as mine. He wanted me to get to the top and he was taking me there. It was almost like we all needed that pace so the order of the line did not change; we continued behind him like ducklings following their mother, making the same turns at the same angles.
Kala Patthar is strategically located in the middle of a valley, surrounded by enormous peaks. It is a thin slope that rises to a sharp cliff. On the last few meters we had to leave our backpacks and poles and crawl up to the cliff against a sweeping wind. I was holding on to each rock and I could feel my entire body being pushed around from all directions. At the final point the space was barely enough for the three of us, and we had to remain seated. I looked to my left and my jaw dropped. There was Everest, or Sagarmatha, standing magnificently next to its 8500m neighbor, Lhotse. The colorful Buddhist flags placed on Kala Patthar were ruffling strongly in the direction of the two magnificent peaks, sending out prayers and blessings to the Goddess of the Sky, which seemed to be barred from us by Lhotse, its guardian.
Trying to take as deep breaths as the altitude would allow me, I could not take my eyes off the mountain as the history I was reading about in my book spread before me, represented by mere names repeating themselves in my mind: Chomolungma, Deva-Dhunga, Sagarmatha… Seated at the border between Nepal and Tibet, Sagarmatha had always had two local names, one Tibetan, Chomolungma, meaning Mother of the World, and one Nepalese, Deva-Dhunga, meaning The Seat of God. Sagarmatha was the name attributed to the great mountain in 1960 during a border dispute between Nepal and Tibet. Each name sounded and felt stronger than the other, because they were names attributed to the mountain by its own people, who sensed the true spirit of the place and were one with it. Everest, on the other hand, was a name given to the mountain by the surveyor general of India, Sir Andrew Waugh, who gave it in honor of his predecessor Sir George Everest – despite the latter’s objection – when he was told that the highest peak in the world was discovered by a Bengali, Radhanath Sikhdar! This was in contradiction to the official policy back then to maintain the local names of the mountains.
For that reason Everest, the name, to me means nothing.
It was as if I had reached the point of salvation as I sat at that peak and drew in deep breaths. The sound of the ruffling flags calmed me down and I felt like I was being abundantly rewarded by divine company. I went through a long, draining journey that began in a run-down Alexandria airport just to get to be that close to Sagarmatha, to take pictures of it, and with it. I was happy again. And I had the lungs of a horse! So I paced down afterwards and began to spread out my smiles at the trekkers who were yet to reach the top. I was, for the first time, the one who received all the loathing by breathless trekkers still struggling to reach the top.
It felt so damn good!
I think I know my acclimatization habits by now. Once I hit the 4000m mark altitude begins to play its mental tricks on me.
Last night my heartbeat woke me up at 3 am. I had my hand rested under my ear, and my pulse began to creep into my dreams. I saw construction workers and their machine rolling with a persistent sound, DUM… DUM… DUM… until I opened my eyes and discovered that the construction machine was my heart. I was amazed at the amount of work that little muscle was doing, even in my sleep, just to keep enough oxygen pumped to my brain.
I turned inside my sleeping bag and tried to fall back to sleep. I began to see faces of ordinary people I ran into the days before changing into demons. I was wide awake but I had no control over those visions. I remembered the hallucinations I got on Kilimanjaro on my first acclimatization trek above 4000m, and I immediately understood what that was. Still, none of that disturbed me. My body was warm again and that is all that mattered. I actually found those changing faces quite entertaining.
We started our trek in the morning with snow and frost surrounding our path. At this altitude vegetation had already started to change. There were no longer lush green trees on either side of our narrow trails. The blue river that came down from the glaciers was now half frozen. We could still hear it in the distance.
At the beginning of our trek some puppies were rolling on the ground and chasing each other. We stood and cuddled some of them and the mother fell in love with us instantly; she trekked with us all the way to Dughla. We were supposed to gain a further 700m in altitude so we went as slow as possible, breathing systematically to avoid headaches. The dog would run ahead of us, wait, and the minute we reached her she’d start stretching out and yawning: “What a slow bunch… You bore me!”
When it was time for the Dughla Wall she finally left us and went back to her puppies, and we began our steep ascent. By the time we got there I was already beginning to feel weak, and with the rocky path I saw ahead of me I decided to fold my poles, stuff them in my bag, put my hands in my pocket, and rely on my two feet. That created an illusion of being light, it helped me focus on two feet instead of four, and left my hands free in case I needed to pull myself up a rock or use it for support. It was also a good way of avoiding seeing my hands shake on the pole. I didn’t want to be reminded of my weakness, I already knew.
The wind was very strong and the weather was freezing. I was once again faced with the dilemma of needing to take in as deep breaths as possible but worsening my cough with the freezing air I inhaled. Wearing the balaclava under the burning sun rays was no option for me, and each time I breathed through it my breath ended up fogging my sunglasses. So I had to accept the coughing for as long as I could maintain a rhythmic breath.
Chortens built as memorials for climbers who lost their lives in their attempts to summit Mt. Everest were strategically placed at the top of the Dughla Wall. You arrive at a new altitude, struggling for breath, and you are faced with a stark reminder of the smallness of man–a humbling gesture that guards the human ego.
I walked with careful feet from one chorten to another. The place was silent except for the sound of the fluttering flags. Some were names I was already reading about in my book, some I hadn’t heard of before. Scott Eugene Fischer, who died in the 1996 disaster, Sean Egan, Hristo Prodanov… Known and loved by their friends and families, each one of them continues to inspire, each of their legacies continues on the mountains, surrounded by prayer flags fluttering in the cold wind.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been too convinced with my smallness, however. I was getting depressed as the walk to Lobuche, our destination for the night, felt like the worst trek I had ever been on. I could barely walk even though the ground was almost even. I got separated from the rest of the group for the first time. Karma stayed with me, carrying everything he needed on the full two weeks on his back, patiently eyeing me in case I needed to stop for rests. And I felt gravity pull me down further with each step. It dawned on me that not only do I make mistakes, I actually repeat them; my backpack was once again needlessly heavy. I had filled it with three liters of water, forgetting again and again that there are often places to stop and buy water along the trek.
There’s no stronger way of saying how freezing it is in Lobuche. I’m running out of words to describe it, and it keeps getting colder as we go higher up. Every bit of my limbs had been becoming almost motionless. The minute we arrived I took off my boots and went to sit by the heater. My feet were so cold I rested them immediately on the heater. They were just beginning to warm up when I began to see smoke coming out of them and I could smell something burning. I jerked my feet and there were two holes in my socks. Amr burst out laughing, and when Omar pulled up a chair and came to join us I told him what had happened. “That’s a very common thing,” he replied. I loved Omar’s cool, relaxed responses to my complaints. They were almost always “That’s normal” or “That’s common.” They made me feel alright. And now that I burned my socks, I felt like I’m officially a member of the mountaineering bunch; as if I got closer to experiencing the little losses of life on the mountains.
I’m sitting now in the dining room with minimum lighting at 4950m. I feel slightly nauseous, and I have a visual patch in my left eye that continues to cover everything I try to focus on. I had bent down earlier and got up fast when suddenly there were stars all over the place. Now the stars have all resided and left me with this fish-shaped patch I see each time I close my eyes. I see far away objects only by closing my left eye. Another little mountain life loss, I guess.
I woke up this morning with a miraculously warm body. We were supposed to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual (in my case that translates to 1 hour and 15 minutes) to attend the morning ceremonial in the monastery. I looked out my window. Day was already breaking in and the sky was crystal clear. Out in the distance loomed Ama Dablam, a dramatically steep mountain that rises to 6856 m. It was deemed “unclimbable” until 1961, when it was successfully summited by four brave mountaineers from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the US. It is now preserved for highly skilled climbers.
And that beautiful piece of nature that dominates the scenery throughout the route to Everest was right outside my window. “What kind of a lucky bitch am I”? I thought with a smile.
Soon there was a knock on my door. I went to open the door thinking it was probably Karma reminding me of the ceremonial, but I found Omar. “I want to show you something,” he said.
“Yes! Ama Dablam!”
I led him into the room and, to my embarrassment, he had to find his way around the pile of used tissues that lay near my bed. He cleared the mist off my window and pointed out. Just to the left of Ama Dablam there were two magnificent summits that stood facing each other. There stood Sagarmatha, the Goddess of the Sky, and Lhotse, an 8500 m mountain that reaches up to the sky with a sharp edge, as if performing a ritual of supplication.
I fell silent. I had made it far enough to be finally granted the chance to see Sagarmatha with my bare eyes. The strong wind was blowing snow off its summit like a bridal veil, or a “long silk scarf” as Jon Krakauer had put it in his Into Thin Air book, which lay on my bedside table.
Outside my window was a view worth a lifetime of coughing, panting, and shivering. At that moment everything fell in the right place. I knew I was doing the right thing.
At 7 am sharp we were in the monastery, sitting on the floor on one side of the temple, silently watching the ceremonial. Four monks sat opposite each other, wrapped in thick cloaks and reciting Tibetan prayers, stopping briefly for quick sips of warm tea. Their soft voices and synchronized, soothing chants were in perfect harmony with the place. I understood nothing, but I felt peace and calm in my mind and soul. There is something about Buddhist chants that transcends meaning; the sounds and the melodies in themselves work like a hypnotizing wave of calm that spreads through the air. I felt captivated — at least long enough until the cold floor worsened my cough and my toes began to freeze.
We began our trek afterwards and for the first time I felt grateful that it started with a long descent. I normally hate going down on treks but I had just had breakfast and did not want to exert myself so immediately afterwards. I had also developed a new strategy of going down fast and trusting my instincts on where to place my feet. This helped pull a lot of strain off my knees.
As with all my treks, the pride didn’t last for long. Soon we began to go up again to gain further altitude. We were heading to Dingboche at 4260 m. My breathing became labored and I began to secretly long for a break. I was granted one as we reached a spot where a number of trekkers had stood taking pictures of a mountain goat that stood nearby. Mountain goats in the Himalaya are known to be incredibly fit animals that can go up and down the mountain with impressive speed. It stood there near a large rock staring at space, as if it was posing for the enchanted photographers that were gathering before it.
A female mountain goat is what my name means in Arabic. The male mountain goat is teis, a funny sounding word that eventually ended up being used by people to ridicule each other. So I pretty much prefer to use “mountain gazelle” whenever someone asked me what my name meant, which happened often; it’s an old Arab name that is least common in Egypt. As I expected, when I first met Hany and Amr they both asked me what Arwa meant, and I said: “Mountain gazelle,” hoping to preserve the graceful effect the sound of my name had. “Wow!” They responded with amazement. Feeling rather guilty, I continued, “which is a pretty way of saying ‘female mountain goat’!” And they burst out laughing.
The higher up we went the harder it became for me, the female mountain goat, to maintain my earlier pace. Everyone within a few feet away from me could hear me breathing with much difficulty. It began to dawn on me that I was not only physically ill-trained, but mentally as well. I began to seriously dread Island Peak. The wind was very strong, we were trekking barely above 4000 m, and I was no longer able to take steady firm steps–I was walking like a drunkard. ‘How are you going to pull yourself up with a rope at 6000 m in the wind when you can barely hold on to your trekking pole right now?’ asked the evil sound in my head.
A mental exercise is not just about believing you can do it, or merely focusing on each step one at a time; it takes a complete mental readjustment to harsh conditions. It is a true challenge to a person’s ego. You have to find a way to survive without any of the luxury details you often take for granted, while being so faraway from home and from loved ones. It is about forgetting that such things – or people – exist. I believe this is an art well-mastered by serious climbers who take up challenges such as Everest, Ama Dablam, or K2. But a little bit of it can also come in handy to those who trek in the same environment.
I arrived in Dingboche with a renewed sense of insecurity. I was tempted several times to ask Omar or Karma whether they thought I really could make it up Island Peak. It would not have been a question as much as it would have been a call out for reassurance. The only answer I would have wanted to hear was “Yes of course you can!” so that I would feel good about myself again. But it’s not something for others to decide for me. And I know that if I don’t change my train of thought and make the evil sound in my head disappear with some magic wand then I sure won’t be able to summit Island Peak. I had to work this out somehow. Alone.
I sat in the dining room sipping my favorite hot lemon drink, staring at the Sherpa who sat engrossed in a book across the room. I could no longer resist the urge, so I turned to Karma and asked him. As I expected, Karma had no answer. He smiled at me and said “We will try.”
So I will try.
Last night I was cold. Cold. I wore two thick layers, a down jacket, and sat inside the dining room in front of the heater. I looked at Omar and complained, “I’m cold,” as if it were somehow his fault and that he should fix it. “With your down jacket on?” He was surprised. “With my down jacket on,” I confirmed.
My brain would not stop spinning around. A mild headache was slowly finding its way into my head, my eyes felt bloated, and I was only half-way through the altitude scheme. Our target was to reach 6189 m.
“Not you miserable creature,” my mind snapped. “That’s for them!”
Shrinking to the evil sound in my head, I went to sleep with a sad sense of insecurity. And I ended up waking every two hours with trouble breathing. “This is ridiculous!” I said to the opposite empty bed at 2 am, and started a new nose blowing session.
With a night like that for a rest, I found today’s trek to be challenging. It took my muscles a while to realize what I was trying to get them to do, but things went fine from then on. Our journey today was to Tengboche, which sits at 3867 m. The breathtaking Himalayan grey and white peaks began to loom in more closely, offering a silent picture of the trials, tribulations and successes of men long gone, giving me a glimpse of the passion and madness that drives man to these sacred ends. I was trekking in a world of trees, exotic bird sounds, and peacocks. Enduring the coldness of the wind I felt creeping through my lungs.
We stopped for a brief break on an edge near a large chorten that was placed as a memorial for Tenzing Norgay – the first Sherpa to reach the summit of Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary – and all the Sherpas that followed in his footsteps. The sky was grey and overcast, the summits surrounding us were now at 6, 7 and 8 thousand meter heights. The size of each mountain was so large it was hard to fathom how far away it still was; it was as if their summits stood halfway to the sky.
Karma stood on the edge and began to explain to us the names of the mountains we were looking at. Each mountain had its own climbing story, each knew certain climbers and expedition leaders who either made it up to the summits or perished in their attempts. You could come to Nepal’s Himalayas 10 times over and still have more mountains waiting for you to try. It’s a climber’s Disneyland!
The wind began to blow harder and I could feel it blowing right through my throat. I didn’t want to stop and fetch a new layer, so I continued in the hope that it would soon slow down. It didn’t, and I began to cough again.
We arrived in Tengboche a little after 3:30 pm. The lodge we are staying at is owned by an old monastery that was rebuilt with the help of Sir Hillary. The place is like a large square of landscape with the lodge, the monastery, a German bakery on each side of it, and a lazy old dog that only ran and played when the children approached him. On other times he would only move from one tourist to another seeking more love, and getting it.
The minute we arrived we walked in the thick fog to the bakery. As Omar related its story to us, the bakery was established by a German woman who was struck by the spell of the place. She remained in Tengboche and opened her own bakery and taught the Sherpa all about German baking. She is now back home and the Sherpa are running the place, giving us a delicious treat of cakes and good coffee–an indulgence every trekker and climber could sure use, especially in this kind of weather.
I dove into my chocolate and icing cake, ignoring the lazy dog that sat near me eyeing my fork. I did it long enough until I felt my blood warm again and handed him a small bite. I was fine with that, I was the one who’d been going up and downhill for hours while he hung around and got cuddled by everyone. No guilt attached.
In my room now, I’m wearing my down jacket, I’m stuffed into my sleeping bag and sitting with it on the bed with the bed cover on top (Sleeping barely on the beds in these lodges is impossible. The air is cold and damp and so are the beds). I keep stopping and watching my vapor breath as I think of the next sentence to write. I can’t help but smile with pride whenever my coughs allow me. I think I’m quickly adjusting to unconventional situations here. I went into a public toilet by mistake today and handled myself perfectly on one of the filthiest toilets I had ever been to, I have now mastered the art of squatting flawlessly whenever there is need (I even took the time to explain it to my all male teammates, for some of them were not up to squatting at all), and I brushed my teeth and spat on a urinal under a sign that read “For those who stand.”
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Today’s trek was a true treat of what Nepal’s Himalayas have to offer. It’s more than just a mountain experience; it’s an enchanting blend of nature and culture that dragged me out of my past, present and future and left me hanging somewhere in mid-world. It was so easy to forget who I was or why I was there. I was just there.
Despite the pain yesterday’s descending trek gave me, it was a little warm up for my legs to get ready for today’s ascent of a further 800m. It took about 8 hours for us to reach Namche Bazaar, one of the most beautiful stops along the Khumbu route.
Namche sits at approximately 3400m altitude. Standing almost vertically on the mountain, it is one of the largest villages we stopped by along the route. Numerous restaurants, shops, and lodges owned by the villagers are beautifully clustered together, leaving a large semi-flat area for the Tibet market, where Tibetans cross borders and settle to sell some of their products.
I fell in love with the place the minute I stepped foot in it and began to walk in its bumpy alleys. But by the time we arrived I was too tired to take any further walks uphill or downhill. I settled in the lodge dining room by the fire and began to write.
Unlike Kilimanjaro, the climb up the Khumbu route is a combination of uphill and downhill treks. I liked the idea of being forced to gain altitude as slowly as possible and hence be better acclimatized. To cross from one mountain to another we’ve had to go downhill to the river, take a metal bridge, and then go back up. I admired those bridges. They would bounced up and down with trekkers’ steps like a fun shock absorber ride. I’m sure Sir Hillary’s trek wasn’t as fun without those bridges, but at least he probably didn’t have the aching joints I had, so a bridge like that wouldn’t have meant that much.
The minute I would step onto one of those bridges I would feel that I’d been lifted off the ground and was now flying over the river, barely touching the water with my feet. The wind would be at its strongest, blowing through the colorful prayer flags that had been placed alongside the rails. I would hold up my poles with one hand and let the other caress the flags as I moved along.
Sometimes a single downhill to a bridge would take no less than an hour, but the trekker, Sherpa, and yak company were most of the time a nice distraction. In the steeper parts I began to breathe loudly and struggle with each step, but I knew it was a small price for having slacked the previous couple of months. I don’t recall ever feeling older than the moment when young school children were gliding past me with exceptional ease, laughing and chasing each other with their school bags. Some were carrying their little sisters or brothers on their backs, while I struggled with my poles and counted my every step.
I learned so much about the Sherpa just by looking at their children. The minute I saw those kids and their energetic sprints up and down the mountain I understood the special physiological make up with which a Sherpa had been blessed. Yet they are also not without their simple pursuits of fun, feeling awe at everything they deem different. A few minutes ago as I was writing the TV was on showing an Indian movie with a woman screaming her lungs out as she hung by a single hand from a cliff, then suddenly dropping meters down to a river and getting shoved from rock to another, when suddenly a muscular man with a torn shirt shows up to her rescue. Some trekkers were staring at the screen with a blank expression from sheer exhaustion, but the Sherpa waitress sitting across me at the table was staring with full intensity, oohing and aahing each time the woman hit a rock, then finally sighing with relief as the handsome man rescued her with a single hand.
Kind, shy, quiet, and with superb physical abilities, the Sherpa make the perfect representatives of mountain people. I could see humility and respect behind the strong jawlines and the sharp features with which they smiled back at me. Spirituality runs in their veins and takes over the air they breathe. I could hear Buddhist chants coming out of shops as I passed by. I saw prayers engraved or painted on stones, some dating back hundreds of years. I saw women stopping in the middle of their errands and making an effort to keep prayer wheels spinning, spreading bliss among the hills.
The Sherpa are strong, stout-hearted people who haven’t lost their sense of smallness as mortals. Perhaps this is precisely because they are of the mountains, they understand the mountains in all their ways and all their changes. They have experienced both their blessing and wrath first hand.
This time I don’t only feel the company of great mountains, I’m indulging in the hospitality of some of the world’s most amazing people. And for that I feel grateful, and truly humbled.