Ever travel to a place you’d NEVER think you would, let alone accidentally drink the water, get seriously ill with a 103 fever, sleep on a mat upon a cold concrete floor in a small boarder town where no one spoke your language, then take an open windowed bus ride during the monsoon season to one of highest elevation cities on earth?
I was 22 years old and recently graduated from college and that summer decided to travel around the world with only a backpack, a few travelers checks, and the Lonely Planet guide for various countries like China, Thailand, India, and Nepal. I was young, healthy and loved history as that had been some of my favorite classes – taught by teachers and professors that had also been to exotic lands, and loved sharing their stories like I’m about to share with you.
After 3 weeks slumming in rooms at youth hostels throughout East Asia, I arrived in India, Bombay Train Station to be exact! This is one of most famous, but seriously poor cities on the planet, and here I began a 2 week trek via bus, train, auto-rickshaw and by foot to such stunning cities like Agra and the Taj Mahal, Varanasi and the Ganges River, Calcutta and Mother Teresa’s City of Joy, and Darjeeling the once capital of tea export out of this region of the world! While in Varanasi and boating down the holy river, I drank some water out of an bottle that I thought was new. Well, it wasn’t as our guide had just filled it with local tap water before we arrived – since it was super hot and humid at the height of the monsoon season, I drank without thinking much about the days to come. It didn’t take very long for me to become violently sick and the travels in open air buses and trains became very uncomfortable as this was where an American tourist on a budget slept each night.
After a few days of serious rest in Darjeeling and taking “I have NO idea what kind of drug” we found in a local pharmacy, I was feeling well enough to continue our travels. Thus began one of the most amazing parts of this trip, and one that even though I’ve shared many times to students over the years, never gets old, just more poignant toward embracing change in my life.
In the border town of Kakarvitta, Napel and India – we arrived in the dead of night with rain pouring so hard you could see droplets jump several inches from the puddles on the muddy ground. Traveling with two friends I had met in college, we barely found a room that was already taken by two families from central India and enough space on the floor for us to lay out a mat on a cold and damp concrete floor. I didn’t sleep at all, mostly because I was not 100% and also the rain was so loud on the metal roofing of our room. The next morning, we secured a bus going to Katmandu our final destination before flying to Europe in four days. The bus had open windows with metal bars and looked like it was built back when the English still occupied this region. The rain and wind were still whirling around us, and made my recovery all the harder and often blew side ways making our seats wet – we had to wear our rain gear to find any sense of comfort.
What is a normal 8.5 hour drive on the East West Highway when not traveling during a major storm, it took us two days and several stops along the side of the road – bus breaking down twice and the road washing out into one of the many rivers we had to cross. While waiting for large tractors to reconstruct our road so we could continue, we took on new passengers, many of whom road on top of the bus – Nepalese style! We truly had no more room as every floor space, roof top, window and seat was taken. I happened to be all the way in the back seat center isle, so could see to the front of the bus peering over sleeping bodies and families sharing food and drink throughout the long trip to the foothills of the Himalayas.
With eyes half open, I noticed at the front of the bus on the floor a man and what seemed to be his wife as he held her lovingly and with great care. She seemed very ill, and even from where I was seated I could see the worry and the tears on his face as she came in and out of consciousness. He caressed her like I had never seen before. I couldn’t help but stair at them, and just then, the man looked back toward me and fixed his eyes on mine. I was embarrassed so looked down and away, hoping that I didn’t offend him in some way. I began to wonder the whole story of this couple, dressed in traditional Nepalese colorful dress. Why were they on this bus, and not in a hospital? Why wasn’t someone on our bus with any form of medical training tending to her needs? We had another 9 hours to go, so what would happen to this woman if we broke down again? With a dull headache and not being able to keep my eyes open anymore, it wasn’t long before I fell asleep, the first time in nearly 24 hours.
I woke with the sound of music playing – Madal drums echoed in my ears with a rhythm that was alive with national pride. We had arrived in Katmandu mid morning, and as we all began to exit the bus, I could smell the distinct odor of incense from a Buddhist temple nearby. As I stepped down the stairs, to my right was a group of men in white and blue shirts were tending to someone on the ground. I stood there watching, then noticed they were trying to revive the woman on the bus. Next to her was the man, her husband, sitting against the wheel of the bus, his face looking tired and tattered written with days of fear and heart-ache. I walked up to him, and felt compelled to say something, but words didn’t come. I knelt down on one knee to his side, and put my hand on his shoulder, and peered into his eyes. He turned his head, took my hand into his, and gripped it tightly. For about a minute I just stayed there with him, not truly knowing what to do next. The man, who had just lost his wife to what I heard later was cholera, who held the treasure of his life in the last moments of life – then took my hand and placed it next to his heart and smiled. In the moment of absolute horror, he smiled.
When I began teaching, I remember sharing this story with my students – partly to tell them a little about who Karl, their new teacher was, but also and hopefully more importantly to let them hear about a man and his wife, and through them, God who looked and smiled back at me.
Embracing the Change simply put is just that – noticing and then holding on to what is most important in each and every experience of our lives.