Ever since I was 16, I was drawn to Buddhism and the magical promise of Nepal and Tibet. While this curiosity continued to percolate in the back of my mind and deep within my soul, I hadn’t thought much about going to the great lands of Buddhism as I zipped through my degree work at the University of Southern California (USC) and prepared to help our family-run property management and real estate business in Marin.
It was only after Will, my best friend in college, died after a brief yet courageous battle with cancer at the age of 21, that I decided on seeking a meaningful refuge from a simulated, sanitized version of the
After a 10-month journey – involving everything from snakes and stitches to avalanches and wolves and the unparalleled experiences of roughing it in *ger* camps in the heart of the Gobi desert to an ashram paradise in the south of India and, ultimately, to Mount Everest – I returned, at 23, better capable of dealing with the same dilemmas and awkward predicaments that were present beforehand. However, while I had set out on this journey believing I would find genuine happiness, I gained something more profound – a fresh sense of the grace of gratitude.
Travel can be a mixed blessing. In seeking the perfect vacation at destinations that have been the persistent objects of our dreams, we are tempted to set the bar of expectations at world-record heights. There were as many unexpected adventures in my backpacking trip as there were satisfying moments of what I had anticipated.
The journey started inauspiciously enough. After a 22-hour flight itinerary from San Francisco to the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, I had arrived at the airport where Ida, a friend from Germany, was waiting to pick me up. He had just received his license and was eager to show off his driving skills. He loaded my stuff into his “new” car: a white 1990 Mitsubishi Pajero.
I was shocked to see the nearly deserted condition of Ulaanbaatar. It looked as if this city were run by villagers and unmotivated businessmen. Even with just a little rain, the roads were flooded. Hotels were perched not on the main thoroughfare but behind other buildings and through flooded parking lots. I wondered how small cars maneuvered around town.
We stopped at Ida’s restaurant, his reason for moving to Mongolia. Ida’s business seemed like the only new breath of effort put into this city. He took me there, and we ate pasta with his “special” pesto sauce and ordered in “Mr. Chicken,” or KFC, as we call it in America. Soon after, his cousins and business partner Steve, a short dark-skinned boy from Canada, brought out Chinggis vodka, which was named after the warrior and emperor, and started pouring shots into paper cups. I couldn’t back down after the teasing.
There I was sitting at the only table in a half-finished restaurant with sawdust-covered floors, with the exception Ida, with a bunch of strangers. Funny to think that only hours ago, I had been surrounded by my closest family members. There also are recollections of beer pong with the locals and waking up with no money and having to walk through snow in shorts and sandals.
Then, there were unforgettable moments such as when I visited Ida’s nomadic family in the countryside where life and meals echo the simplest pleasures of serenity, and later we traveled over mountains and desert, steppes and forests, to the northern sections near Siberia, staying for two weeks in Mongolian *ger* camps. I rode camels, horses and reindeer, and Hamid (an Iranian guide) introduced me to a lost isolated tribe of reindeer people known as the Tsa Tans. I saw horse races where the riders were children between the ages of four and eight, completely fearless of the speed at which they competed.
After spending two months in Mongolia, I went to Bali for a month where I learned to scuba dive, kite surf, and wave surf – and managed only one accident where I needed stitches at a local hospital. In all forms, the Balinese people were tremendous hosts. One of the most memorable encounters was with a boy who rented out chairs on the beach, making just five dollars a day. I offered to take him out for sushi, and at the restaurant the chopsticks uncomfortably puzzled him as did the handkerchief napkin set at the table. The boy later introduced me to his family, and I discovered somewhat embarrassingly how they fish and prepared their food, which cleared up the earlier confusion.
Travel logistics always were easily confounded. Leaving Bali to go to Japan at the end-of-the-year holidays, a storm upset my air travel itinerary and the cancelled flight had me staying in Cairns, Australia, for the night. Problems, however, arose because my itinerary for Japan had been scheduled through Australia by an Internet travel agent, and Bali customs found this suspicious. I didn’t have a visa because I was a passenger in transit and the predicament almost made me miss my flight.
However, once I arrived in Tokyo, things moved quickly as I sought the permission of the main Aikido headquarters to train at the small, secluded *dojo* in Iwama, two hours north of Tokyo. The *sensei* in Iwama seemed surprised at my intentions to learn Aikido with no previous experience, especially since I flew all the way out to Japan to do it!
Indeed, it was memorable to train in the presence of Isoyama Shihan, a man in his seventies who commanded an immense respect among his students, which, incidentally, had included actor Steven Segal. On the other hand, Shihan criticized me for improperly tying my belt on the Aikido uniform. Flummoxed at first by the meaning and intent of Aikido, I soon found that Aikido couldn’t be understood with a Western perspective. One has to let the art become a part of every movement. What I learned in class through the techniques is simply a method to impart the insight of Aikido. A way of life and an art, I learned just how much deeper it is than the self-defense moves with which everyone commonly associates Aikido.
Later, I traveled to Yokohama where I spent the Christmas holidays and attended Aikido classes with Akiko, an older female instructor. While I missed the special presence of Iwama, Akiko showed me around town, introducing her younger friends, some of whom seemed so proper and angelic in public but certainly were eager to show their preference for smoking and drinking behind closed doors. In Japan, everyone is anxious to be the ideal host.
Back in Tokyo, my best friend from the States met me for snowboarding in Nagano, where we also had a close call in backcountry skiing when we triggered an avalanche. We also saw a local ritual involving 25-year-old men being beaten with fire by 42-year-old locals. The festival was shocking not just for its unapologetic show but also for how it attracted large numbers of spectators who apparently traveled great distances to witness this ferocious and fiery display.
Traveling from Japan to India proved to be an experience that would test the mettle of even the most fearless globe trekker. What was supposed to be a 32-hour travel itinerary from Japan to India became a nearly unbearable 45-hour trek. However, after a long night’s rest, I finally arrived in paradise after my cab navigated the elephant-clogged streets of Trivandrum. I stayed at an ashram located in the south of India, in the center of the jungle with a beautiful lake nearby. The food was Ayurvedic – vegan with no salt or oil – and was served to us on the floor out of buckets.
India is a challenging destination even for the most adventuresome backpacker. Definitely include cab drivers in the mix here. However, I did have the good fortune with one driver and tipped him four
dollars, the equivalent of a tenth of his monthly salary. A rarity among taxi operators in India, he kindly allowed me to use his phone throughout the drive and never cajoled me into paying him a higher fare.
My long periods of intense yoga were punctuated by episodes of temptation involving a curious mix of young women, including Tsering, a Tibetan who sensed my emotional vulnerabilities but became an important companion for the remainder of my journey, a young German woman who invited me for a swim in crocodile-infested waters, and a French woman moved to tears by my story who offered a massage as a path to showing me the real meaning of love.
Later, Tsering, who shared her insights into Buddhism and helped me with my meditation, joined me in Goa where the beaches and huts turned out to be a major disappointment, falling well short of the alluring hype plastered in magazines and online. One night, at a beach restaurant, I realized the other customers were sitting and staring, quiet and motionless. As I noticed a man rolling hash, I finally understood just what the hype about Goa meant.
The benignly numbed pleasantness of Goa contrasted sharply with my travels northward in India. In Varanasi, I witnessed the nightly ceremonies and the cremations of the dead, and I decided to take a dip in the holy Ganges River. Afterwards, I headed to an intense 10-day Vipassana meditation center where a word was not to be spoken during the entire period, and I had to dig deep within myself, revealing my inner demons. Before leaving India, I reconnected with Tsering in Delhi. She was kind enough to, make our travel arrangements to Dharamsala, a sort of “mini-Tibet” where we would make a three-day trek up into the Himalayan range and find a Buddhist meditation cave. There, I finally felt a true sense of gaining control over my destiny.
The feeling, however, was short-lived when I entered the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu. Entering the airport in Nepal, that exhilarating sense of anticipating my visit with Tenzin Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the great monk at the Big White Monastery at Boddhanath, withered amid the sea of bureaucracy I was about to encounter. I realized the visa process would be as much a pain as it was in Bali. Standing in Kathmandu, I knew it would take well over an hour to process the more than hundred passengers standing in line, and we had to fill out forms, give passport photos, and I had to exchange money.
The officials accepted U.S. dollars, but unfortunately, I had no American cash on hand and the man at the money exchange counter was more than willing to screw me over with my traveler’s checks. He charged me once to exchange my money from dollars to Nepal *rupees* and then yet more fees to exchange them back to dollars so that the visa processing counter would accept my money. It happened so quickly, and I didn’t want to end up at the end of the line that I just took the money and ran. It was too late. I was already the last person in line.
Later, after what felt like a never-ending terrifying cab ride, I made it to supposedly one of the nicer hotels in Kathmandu and checked into my room. I was not surprised when it didn’t feel like a four-star hotel, much less a one-star destination where a Travelocity recommendation would definitely have been suspect for its authenticity.
The next day started hardly better when I tried to hire a car service. “We can give you a luxury private car for the three hours for two thousand or three thousand *rupees*,” the man who acted as the hotel concierge explained. I expected a Toyota sedan from the current decade or something similar but he pointed to a car outside that was unrecognizable, and I’m sure most car companies would deny ever having made it. The car looked to be from the 1960s or 1970s.
However, Nepal proved to be a life-changing experience, especially in my interactions with the *rinpoche* at Boddanath. However, there were others in Nepal who were equally instructive in their inimitable ways. Leaving the monastery, I headed back to Thamel (a tourist trap in all respects) to check up on Lotsman and Prabind, both store owners who had befriended me during my stay. Lotsman, in particular, had grown fond of calling me “his brother.” Their stores were filled with Nepalese art that were priced as extraordinary bargains by any measure.
I’ll never forget trying to convince a young Belgian woman, who complained that she would not consider paying 1,000 rupees – the equivalent of $14 – for one of the paintings. She stormed out of the store, never to return. A while before, I had been in the same position, bargaining at length for a price difference of $1. However, the store owner, through his compassion and generosity, helped me realize the stupidity of what I did – just how little $1 meant to me back home and how much I would bargain for it here to the point where I wouldn’t buy something for a matter of $1 in difference.
After completing the 10-month journey – including climbing 5,550 meters to Kala Patthar to get the best view of the formidable Everest – I decided to give away the stuff I had accumulated during my travels. It was time to practice the lessons I had received.
I had all of the external material resources I could ever want or imagine to have. The only thing missing was gratitude. During my travels, I realized that you can also have nothing at all and it would be a great
blessing alone to be able to feel gratitude. It was not merely happiness that I sought; it was the grace of gratitude.
It’s been more than six months since I’ve been back, and the culture shock of my return has been unexpectedly frightening. The dual experiences of complete detachment and the newfound understanding followed me home, and like demons in my closet, they have always lurked nearby.
Nothing seemed as real as it once did. But, now I also find myself in the mutually reinforcing roles of teacher and student. I’m excited about my next journey.
Photos by Les Roka