Chapter 2: Sunrise over Kathmandu. April 17, 2019.
It was pitch black when I gave up trying to sleep and ascended to the roof of my hotel in the Thamel district of Kathmandu. Now the light of the sun is beginning to reveal the unique landscape of this city of 3 1/2 million people, most of whom are in poverty. I’m in the foothills of the Himalayas, the largest mountains on the planet. This was not a trip that I’ve been planning for years. It emerged out of a need and desire to escape the pressures of my job and struggles to find solace at home. As a Vice-President of Student Life and Dean of Students, the wind-up and execution of fall programming is always intense, but this year it was made exceptionally challenging because I picked up new departments in my portfolio: Enrolment and the Registry. I spent the fall working with my new team to write a Strategic Enrolment, Marketing and Management Plan in the hope of meeting some aggressive growth targets while doing my best to serve in my historical capacity as Dean of Students. We finished the plan and had a good student launch, but when I was invited to consider a trip to Nepal, it only took me a day to order my ticket.
The invitation came from Michel, the retired owner of our university’s previous catering company, who was now engaged in a variety of adventure trips in different parts of the world. I didn’t know him well, but from my past interactions, I liked him and knew it could be workable. He invited countless people to join through his networks and travel websites. Despite the heroic effort, I’m the only one who took him up on the offer, and here we are in Nepal after 50 hours of travel through five airports and two different cities in China.
Our guide, Dhan Rai, greeted us at the Kathmandu airport last night by putting lays around our necks and whisking us away to our hotel, the Samsara. Michel’s wife Chris has done a few treks with Dhan in the past, and they have supported a school in our guide’s home village for many years. Dhan seems quiet and reserved, but Michel assures me he is one of the best guides in the country and will take care of our every need. We arrived late but took some time to explore the busy tourist-filled Thamel district, where we found a Classic Rock café that served American style hamburgers and local craft beer. The brew was terrific – the burgers appalling. We went back to the room, and I tried to sleep, but as it was the middle of the day in Canada, I spent most of the night staring at the ceiling. Now here I am on a roof at the top of the world watching my phone take a time-lapse of the sunrise and getting my first look at the Himalayas.
As it gets brighter and more of the city is revealed, the squalor and poverty become more and more evident. The impact of the 2015 Earthquake is everywhere. I see buildings all around me that are either still destroyed or are slowly being reconstructed. A concrete structure is rising again just behind the hotel, and near it is a semi-collapsed temple. Courtyards remain filled with rubble. The earthquake brought pain, loss, and tragedy to this region. But there in the distance, the Himalayas watch over it all in their ancient majesty. Solid, unbroken and mysterious. Mountains envelop the city, surrounding it, nesting this valley in a timeless embrace of strength, power and dignity. I sit in the in-between and ponder, while a woman on a roof across the street starts a wood fire to cook her family’s breakfast.
I am a stranger to this place, and yet I am invited in. I am bidden to step out of the immediate foreground toward the mountains, which are beckoning to me. I sense their invitation to explore ancient secrets and become a small part of their story. In the spirit of John Muir, I feel that the mountains are calling, and I must go.
In February, just two months ago, I participated in a staff and faculty silent retreat at Kingsfold in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains between Calgary and Banff in my home province of Alberta. In our opening service, and while we could still talk, we were asked to select a picture upon which to meditate. There were many prints with a variety of human and natural landscapes. As the exercise was described, I had already begun considering what I wanted in my picture: mountains. Unfortunately, none of the variety of images included a mountainous scene, which was sad to me considering this was a retreat in the Canadian Rockies. The one I chose came close but was an entirely different landscape altogether. I picked up an image of a hilly landform made of sand photographed in an anonymous barren desert. It was beautiful but quite a contrast to the rugged -30C landscape outside my window.
Throughout the weekend, I reflected on the picture. I tried to consider it in the context of the concerns of my heart and events in my life. Since this was a staff and faculty retreat, it involved work, so I didn’t concern myself with blurring the boundaries between my private and public life. I rarely do. My role can be an all-consuming position as I’m frequently drawn to the front lines to address student crises and concerns while I try to proactively help lead the university into a good and faithful future.
I hung my chosen picture next to the window of my room in the retreat centre, and I spent quite a bit of time meditating back and forth between the landscapes. The image was easily influenced and impacted by the elements around it. A strong windstorm could transform that landscape in a matter of hours. The particles of sand had not been concretized through the geological process of being forced under the ground, hardened, and lifted back up into the sky. Instead, it was comprised of sand particles eroded from other landscapes and left here to blow around in the wind. Meanwhile, the view outside my window had looked similar for hundreds of thousands of years. Wind and rain do have a slow impact on the landscape, but it would take an extraordinary force of nature to transform the entire scene.
I brought names of many struggling students with me, and I spent time praying for them under the image and in front of my window. As I prayed, a thought emerged connecting these students in crisis to the two landscapes. Too many of my students are like the desert mountain – constructed of sand blown easily by the wind. Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and fears of all kinds keep their identities from finding solidification. As the external forces of relational crises, academic challenges, parental expectations, a changing climate, and global uncertainties bear upon them, their moorings blow away.
And then the harder reality. I’m right there with my students. Four years in a role supporting these young adults has taken its toll on my body, mind and spirit. I knew it there at the retreat. I spent a day hiking around the property, bundled up for the cold, exploring the landscape and searching for grounding. It helped, but it did not prepare me for the weeks that have followed since – the hardest of my career.
The Nepali sun rises above the horizon, its heat wakening the landscape. I finish the time lapse and review it, enjoying with immense pleasure the final product even though I am watching it on the small screen of my cell phone. A few lights in a black tapestry morph to the purple sky, then blue. I see the brilliant colourful landscape of Kathmandu appear out of the darkness as the clouds move overhead, and the smoke of morning fires rises to the sky. But even in the movie, my eyes are primarily drawn to the mountains behind this vibrant and beautiful city.