by hilary jocelyn

I have been lost more than a few times in my life.  I mean physically lost. The kind of lost where I just really do not know which way to turn, and no matter how hard I try, I am really not able to find the right path. Of course, I have also been lost in a more figurative way at various critical moments as well, but that is, for sure, a different tale to recount at another point in time.

My ability to not know where I am could of course be partly related to the fact that my brain has never really grasped the difference between my left and my right, and so following directions and reading maps, typically present me with significant and turbulent challenges. As a result, I could probably write several stories about being lost, but the one I chose to recount here and now, happened to me a handful of decades ago, at about this time of year, in the foothills of the Himalayas.

nepali bus travel

I was volunteering in a village in Northern India and had been there for several months, and so I was thrilled to have been given some time off to go and explore the bewitching landscape I could see  beckoning  to me in the distance. Of course, I was drawn magnetically to those mountainous shapes, so I hunted down a bus that would take me to those high places that were looming and shimmering in the monsoon rain. I sat up on the roof of the old rickety vehicle, as there was no room inside, and gasped as we drove for hours along hairpin bends and threadlike roads, slowly and gradually getting closer and closer to the peaks that lay ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. I was not planning to ascend Mount Everest or anything close. I wasn’t looking for a huge physical challenge, or the kind of climb where you needed an oxygen tank strapped to your back, and where there is an alarming percentage of people who  do not actually make it back frostbite free, and all in one piece, both physically and emotionally. That kind of thing was  definitely wildly outside of my comfort zone.   After living and working in a small rural village, I didn’t have the energy to do anything dramatic like that. My plans were simply to walk for a few days in the foothills of this magical place, enjoying some gentle undulation, gradual gradients, and some quiet solitude.

I disembarked from my mobile rooftop in a small market town where according to my crumpled dog- eared map, my planned five-day trek was about to begin. Off I set, swinging my small pack up onto my shoulders. In it lay a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, some snacks, cash and of course, my precious passport.

This hike wasn’t about remote.  Instead, the rough track took me though many vibrant foothill villages where I witnessed shoeless and tiny children playing as they carried out their chores. As I passed by, I was greeted by women and men who were working on their small, cultivated patches of hillside land, or grinding up wheat to make flour, or collecting wood from sparse trees, or carrying huge pots of water on their head. Or doing the daily multiple things that they needed to do to get by.  At that time of the year the tourist season was pretty well over, so I didn’t meet a single other hiker on my way. Tourism was clearly a big part of the local economy though, and so I was welcomed with courtesy – tinted perhaps by a hint of resignation.  Meanwhile, the gorgeous mountain scenery laid itself out before me, peeking  teasingly from above the clouds, and  I viewed from my path, a condensed version of  back country Nepal.

women and children would carry these baskets full of wood on their backs for miles

The trail I was on deteriorated pretty quicky and soon the only form of transportation in the communities I walked though, were two strong feet. I fell into a routine. Every afternoon, as the sun was beginning to drop lower in the sky, I would pause for a moment in the next small collection of mud thatched homes. A moment was enough. Children would appear from all sides and grab at my hand, pulling me, urging me to come with them. They were offering me hospitality. A place to sleep on the family floor, a hot meal, and a safe place to stay for the night. It was the local version of Air BnB. And in the morning, after a cup of hot tea,( chai)  and a plate of rice, I would head back out to continue on my way, leaving a handful of Nepali Rupees behind me.

All went well until my final day. Maybe I was tired, but somehow, I misread my map, and took a wrong turn, and as the sun was getting low, I began to notice that the landscape was becoming rougher, with more ascent than I had been used to, and no sign of any villages or people. I walked on a bit further, hoping for some kind of enlightenment as I floundered on.  Basically, I was now, in capital letters, LOST. I had no idea where I was, and my map couldn’t rescue me, although I gathered, as I desperately scanned its crumpled page, that I needed to go west.  

Anxiety fuzzed up my thinking pattern and my directional dyslexia kicked in, and suddenly I had no idea which way was West. My rational mind  did cartwheels, and I found myself suddenly unsure about whether the sun rose in the East and  set in the West… or was it the other way around? In the end, thankfully, I made the right choice, and set off into the sunset in my hopeful search for a warm floor spot and hot meal.

However, it soon became clear that I wasn’t going to get very far. It was getting dark fast and the path  now followed along a rocky riverbank. I began to think I would have to bed down in the open air, and in fact started to look for a sheltered spot. Suddenly, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and in the dusk observed a group of monkeys dancing on the waters edge. Other shapes fleeted around the shadows, and I realised that as I had no idea about what kind of wildlife came out to play after dark, sleeping under the stars was not a very wise plan.

 Just as waves of stressfulness hurled themselves at my brain a bit more, and I felt close to panic, I saw another shape looming in the darkness. It was a small hut. About the size of a bus shelter, or a small bike shed, but miraculously, I had found my night’s refuge from the mysteries of a Himalayan wilderness. Shaking with relief, I opened the door and went inside.

It was too dark to see much, but I sat myself down on the ground, wishing that I had a candle and some matches, not to mention some food. Then all my uncombed hair stood on end, as out of the blackness I saw a pair of eyes looking at me, and I realised that I was, indeed, not alone. Right there beside me, I heard scrabbling in the dark and felt someone moving around. In a moment, a small candle light came on, and I saw that the eyes belonged to a man I had disturbed from slumber, who was staring at me in disbelief.

We tried to communicate, but while I had learned to speak some basic Hindi, I did not speak a word of Nepali. “ My friends “ I  lied  fearfully in Hindi,  pointing vaguely outside, wanting  to give him the impression that I was not totally alone. After all, I had heard several gruesome horror stories about solo hikers who had disappeared without a trace.  He shrugged in non comprehension as I garbled and as we then sat in an uneasy silence, I decided that the best thing to do was to put away fearfulness and to try and trust in human kindness. I concluded that I was probably better off inside, in close proximity with an unknown person, than outside, in close proximity with an unknown beast. He then blew out his light and lay back down on the floor to resume his interrupted slumber.

After a while I rummaged in my pack, pulled out my sleeping bag, and curled up in the small remaining space on the floor. All was silent for a moment. Then I heard  a rustle and felt him get up off the hard floor and begin to amble around. I began to feel afraid again and mistrustful thoughts began to swirl back into my head. What was he doing? Looking for his knife?

I lay still and listened as the shuffling got worse. Suddenly, the air moved, and I could feel his breath hovering closely above me. “He’s after my money and my passport,” I gasped to myself, stiffening in defenceless fear as he bent down, and reached out a hand to touch me.

He gently placed an armful of straw underneath my head and then he went back to lie down.

In the morning we walked in silence to the place on the river where he was fishing, and then I continued on to the nearby village where  enrobed and exhilarated by my experience of unconditional human kindness, my eventful trek came to an end.