Half the challenge of Nepal is just getting there. After 40 hours, four flights, several time zones, lying on grubby airport floors, heat, and humidity, we made it to Pokhara, the start of our 2-week No Barriers Youth Experience. We kicked off our adventure with the local staple meal of Dhal Bat (lentils and rice), which was quite a shock for mac and cheese-loving American kids since it’s incredibly spicy and usually leaves you gasping with your mouth on fire. Then we headed to a School for the Deaf, dodging potholes, crazy taxi drivers, and cows (they’re sacred in Nepal). We were welcomed by the teachers, all deaf, with Tika Blessings, a traditional red mark on the forehead, and then the real fun began. The chaotic translation chain between us and the deaf students: a combo of Nepali sign language, American sign language, lip reading, written notes, over-the-top hand gestures, big smiles and laughter. After navigating the language barriers, we shared a meal and each contingent performed a “traditional” dance – ours was the Cupid Shuffle!
We wrapped up this first part of our trip by discussing the first No Barriers Life Element, Vision: our energy and motivation, fed from an inner light, which we commit to growing and nurturing. I hoped to strengthen our own for the rest of our time together. Our team needed this foundation more than most; their challenges ranged from physical disabilities like blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injuries to more invisible barriers like addiction, sexual trauma, depression, and anger. My two teenagers were also part of the group – a command performance from Dad. When Emma learned I was leading the experience, she asked, “Dad, you’re not going to be… like… weird, are you?”
The High Country
We headed to Mustang, part of the high Tibetan Plateau. We flew into Jomsom, which at 9,000 feet of elevation was a significant jump for us. Our two little prop planes flew us through an incredible, mystical scene, splitting a gap in the Himalaya with 26,000-foot peaks rising on both sides. Upon landing, we explored the rural area featuring many of the fixtures that make Nepal so special: stupas, chortens, mani stones (elaborately carved Sanskrit prayers on boulders), and even sacred cave dwellings perched high up on the surrounding cliffs. Next, we gathered around for a ukulele lesson from Mandy Harvey, who we were fortunate to have as one of our leaders. Mandy is a musician/song writer who was an America’s Got Talent finalist. She also happens to be totally deaf. One of Mandy’s sponsors had provided ukuleles for each person on the team, as well as some to distribute to local music programs. We started by learning the chords to the song that made Mandy famous, “Try.” She’d actually written it as a result of her experiences at No Barriers – her commitment to reach out and discover a new life as a deaf musician.
Our next stop was the Mustang Children’s Home, a boarding school for youth facing poverty, all from the surrounding areas. The kids put on a show for us, sharing various traditional performances, such as the Bhairab Nritya and the Deuda Naach; it felt like an episode of “Nepal’s Got Talent!” In return, we sent up our best, Mandy who performed “Over the Rainbow.”
For the next few days, we saddled up on Tibetan ponies for exciting and bumpy travel to some of the world’s most sacred sites for Buddhists and Hindus. We visited the 600-year-old Kutsab Teranga Monastery, situated high on a mountaintop and adorned with colorful prayer flags, which I could hear flapping in the wind. Here, fellow adventurer and trip leader, Bill Barkeley, shared his story of being a deaf and blind adventurer and pioneer; not the easiest life path. He shared the innovative problem solving it took to accomplish dreams like climbing Kilimanjaro and walking the 500 mile El Camino De Santiago. His talk was followed by some quiet reflection and meditation, each of the kids stationed along the exposed ridge with the wind gusting and looking down into the deep valley below.
Another day, we rode along the Kali Gandaki river and up onto a high plateau above the dusty village of Kagbeni. The whole area was once an ancient sea, before continental plates collided and thrust the landscape into jagged mountains. It’s covered with fossilized sea life, and after spreading out to explore we came away with some incredible specimens. We carried on another five hours to the holy monastery of Muktinath, crossing terrain under the shadow of Himalayan giants like Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, the 10th and 7th highest peaks on the planet. Before arriving, tired and with our backs cramping, the sky dramatically darkened; lightning exploded, and a torrential rainstorm enveloped us. We arrived cold and soaked through, but that didn’t stop many on the team from dunking their heads under the 108 clear, ice-cold and sacred fountains pouring down from aquifers above! We learned that the number 108 is significant in Nepal, with ties to the lunar calendar and mysterious religious underpinnings: Tibetan prayer beads feature 108 stones, and the largest stupa in Kathmandu is decorated with 108 images of Buddha.
Earlier that day, we heard a talk from Gretchen Evans, trip leader and retired Command Sergeant Major in the US Army, who lost her hearing in a rocket blast while serving overseas. Gretchen spoke on the importance of another No Barriers Element: a strong Rope Team: the people you trust with your life, those who lift you up and make you your best. While struggling with depression after her injury, she relied on a new Rope Team to bring her back into the world and show her she still had the ability to find purpose by serving and leading again.
Zoom Zoom Bananas
Nearing the end of our pilgrimage, we had one last big task: complete the No Barriers Rope Team Rampage, a scavenger hunt that would challenge the kids to learn more about the people and culture of the Mustang, and hopefully themselves. We divided into 4 teams and got after it, collecting artifacts, solving problems, taking photos, and harvesting wheat with the locals, the hard way – with hand tools! One of the preposterous challenges was to find the Yak Donalds, a knock-off fast-food establishment that sold french fries and yak burgers. After a lengthy deliberation, Team Zoom Zoom Bananas took the victory, but we all came away from the friendly competition with a better appreciation for our Rope Teams and for this country’s unique perseverance.
After the quiet serenity of the Mustang, we arrived back in the hot, teeming metropolis of Kathmandu and prepared for the final leg of our trip. We threw ourselves into the high-stress streets of one of the world’s wildest cities, navigating cramped alleyways, olfactory-overwhelming food markets, and life-endangering “crosswalks.” As our trip neared its end, we made one last group trip up to the Monkey Temple, an ancient and ominous hilltop compound overlooking the entire Kathmandu Valley. The Monsoonal weather unleashed as we slogged up hundreds of steps to access the temple grounds, reminding us that without struggle and adversity, there is no beauty or reward.
On our last evening, after 10 days of chapati flatbread, rice and veggies, we opted for some more traditional (for us) food: pizza! After the feast, the last two kids stood up and held, what we called, the Alchemy Stone, a spear-shaped rock we’d found during our fossil hunting foray. The stone magically lended courage and power for the kids to tell their stories. I’d been blown away throughout the trip as kids stood up, trusting their team enough to wisely and maturely share experiences of being bullied, struggling with limitations, feeling lost and rudderless, turning challenges into triumphs, and searching to discover the best versions of themselves.
As we sat in a circle, I told the kids that our trip hadn’t been a vacation. Instead it was a platform to explore another culture and themselves – all with the goal of elevating their own lives and their communities. That last night, the team formulated their No Barriers Pledges, their commitment statements to reach and do something big. My hope is that this promise will give them a springboard for coming home with energy and purpose. The team also made a collective pledge – to raise funds for the School for the Deaf and the Mustang Children’s Home. Stay tuned for the team’s fundraising campaign.
As dawn rose on our final morning, we had one last bit of business. I led our special No Barriers Coin Ceremony, based on an old army tradition of gifting a coin to a comrade who exhibits valor. The team reflected on the power of their growth and honored the role of their Rope Team along the way. Some tears were shed as we gifted each other coins and gratitude, closing our time in Nepal on a high note. I was so inspired by this team and our uniting experience together. I have faith each team member will live a No Barriers Life. I can’t wait to hear their progress over the coming years.
All Photos, Credit: Didrik Johnck, No Barriers USA