‘All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes’ declares the title of Maya Angelou’s fifth book in her autobiography. She’s right about that and I certainly have mine. I always wear my trekking shoes when we fly anywhere, they are the only thing I’d really struggle to replace should my baggage go astray. So here I was in Nepal ready for some trekking having spent over 48 hours getting there with only my hand luggage; main bag in Delhi. No sleep for 2 nights, dehydrated, exhausted. Our guide took me to a supermarket in Kathmandu, ‘Closes in 15 minutes!’ he said. I quickly collected warm trousers, socks, flip flops as a rest from trek shoes, spare top, rain jacket, underwear, and rushed to the till! Exhausted we got in a car. I wondered what else I’d wish I had. Rafik pulled me close, ‘You can have anything of mine Sweet Pea, it’ll be alright.’
Dhulikhel Mountain Resort was like a haven and oasis. The kitchen was due to close but they had cooked and waited for us. We ate gratefully and then fell into bed. In the morning I showered in the clothes I’d been wearing since leaving Manchester nearly 3 days ago, rung them out and put on the one change of clothes from my hand luggage. I stepped out of our lodge with my wet clothes on a hanger, ‘Ironing Ma’am?’ asked beautiful Nepalese woman. ‘Drying please.’ I replied. By the time I returned from breakfast they were back in my room, pretty much dry. Amazing! And this was how it went. On the way to Solumbu I bought a T shirt from the side of the road. In Solumbu village we walked by a woman with a sewing machine in her little hut off the side of the road. ‘Can this lady make me some trousers?’ Our guide negotiated for me. A few minutes later amongst pigs and chickens (and a small audience of villagers who came out to look!) I was being measured up for trousers and a top. Both were ready by 8am the next morning as we walked on to our next destination.
All of these small incidents brought profound moments of delight and thankfulness, overwhelming thankfulness. Rafik had a spare warm hat, I found my gloves in a pocket, I bought a scarf from a woman near Sailung Mountain. ‘Light bag!’ our Sherpa said. That’s because mine is in Delhi, I thought.
I liberated my 10 kilos of luggage from a pile on the airport floor 2 days before coming home. There were consequences to trekking without the right gear; I got nasty sunburn in 30mins one day as I had no light long sleeve top and had to wrap fabric on my arms and pour on water to keep the burns cool. I washed a top and underwear most days in a bucket. The 5am sunshine dried it by 7am. What surprised me was the overwhelming well of thankfulness and joy as I improvised and problem solved my way through the trek. I was lucky… we were not ill (we had none of the supplies advised for Westerners). The socks I bought did not fit and despite walking with heels overhanging my shoes I was blister free.
Rafik was a most generous and loving travelling companion, and of… course I had my travelling shoes. And ‘All God’s children need traveleing shoes.’
‘Kathmandu? Kathmandu?’ I turned to see the owner of the voice, a broad faced Nepalese man in a grey suit with a bag on his shoulder. ‘This way please, this way.’ Glad for some direction after the red eye from Heathrow to Delhi we both followed. ‘I am Kumar.’ he told us. We made our introductions. ‘You’re limping,’ I said, ‘can I help?’ ‘Thirty miles march, I have blisters. I am soldier’. We nodded, and having made it through airport security asked if he’d like to take tea with us. ‘Yes please.’ he replied and then proceeded to direct us to the nearest sports bar, ordered our drinks and insisted on paying as we were now his guests on our journey to Nepal. I rummaged in my rucksack, found a first aid kit and offered blister plasters. Kumar cheerfully removed his shoes and socks right there and got to work. Rafik and I exchanged glances; these feet really had seen many miles of marching.
Kumar, a Gurkha, appointed himself our host and travelling companion. At this stage we had no idea how grateful we would be. ‘I go home to see my mum in Pokhara. You come to my house and stay. You be my guests!’ he invited. Meanwhile, with raging thunderstorms in Kathmandu our flight was cancelled with no hint of when we could expect to leave Delhi. I did a few laps around the terminal to loosen up from the long previous flight, practised yoga, read. Hours later it became clear there was going to be no flight that day. Exhaustion finally got the better of me and I lay on the airport floor. ‘Helen, Helen, wake up please.’ Kumar called over and herded us to the right place to get a room at the airport hotel, better than the floor for 24 hours. Later we shared a meal together with Kumar and amongst others the very lovely and talented film maker Gary Thomas Film: Slow Down (Do watch the 4 minute film made on this trip!) We noticed a steady stream of passers-by and travellers stop and talk to Kumar. ‘Do you know all these people?’ we asked. He shook his head. Do they know you’re a Gurkha? ‘Yes, they know I soldier.’ he replied. Men, women, staff, travellers, we saw them all approach and ask for advice or direction. Kumar would listen, give his full attention, and then give advice, directions, make contacts. Somehow they knew that he knew and would help them. They were not shy to approach and nodded thanks. Something about him communicated that was his role, he could be relied on, something about his way of being, his gravitas.
‘You sit there quietly informed, Kumar.’ remarked Rob, a maths teacher and experienced trekker from Bristol. It was Kumar who knew when the flight was being arranged and when the boarding passes would arrive. It was Kumar who shepherded everyone to the right place. Dreadful journey, negligent airline, and amongst all that the most lovely people. We were sad to say goodbye.
The last time we saw Kumar Gureg was in the baggage hall at Kathmandu, after several hours it became clear Kumar’s bag and mine were still in Delhi, (more of that story in part 2). We have a photo, and we have a mobile number which never seems to make contact.
We think often of Kumar; his warmth, generosity, quiet way of knowing, his total commitment to helping. Kumar’s small acts of kindness helped ease the journey of travellers through a long 24 hours in Delhi airport. I hope one day we will meet Kumar again. Meanwhile, helping to ease the journey of other travellers in need will have to be enough, and will always remind me of the kindness shown by a stranger on a journey.
In April we were in Nepal, we’d gone trekking in remote villages in the Sailung district. We loved Nepal and the Nepalese. We walked and talked with our young guides (Sima, Dhun and Kunga) who asked us about life in England and shared their aspirations – one hoping to be an artist, another a doctor, and a third wanting to go into business. One evening in a tented camp near the village of Khola Kharka we sat together under canvas while the rain and hail blew down, the wild winds tore at the tent door and we ate our supper, peering out now and again to see clouds blowing past outside. Our guides asked if we knew any songs, I sang, Kunga sang, Dhun danced, Sima laughed and laughed. To end the evening I sang a lullaby which I used to sing to my baby son to lull him to sleep, he would ask for the same song as he grew older if he was ill or in need of comfort. I slept very little that night, the night before our summit climb, I lay awake wondering if in years to come they would remember that night. ‘We think you are very happy guests’, Sima declared. She was right, we were very happy to be in Sailung and enjoying their lovely company.
Two weeks after we returned from Nepal we were so sad to hear of the earthquake destroying buildings and communities across a large area . Ten days later a second earthquake caused huge losses in the area where we had been trekking. We know now that 1000 tents have been taken to the area and that many villagers are sleeping in these tents, afraid to sleep in their homes. It’s cold at night, the rains will come soon. I hope their crops which are their daily food have not been ruined in the loss and that they have been able to plant ready for the late harvest.
Khola Kharka Lullaby has been written with all this in mind. You can download the song here. We have text contact with some and send messages of hope. Their school needed two more classrooms and now the six they had are damaged. Soon we will begin our serious fund raising to help with this. Meanwhile, I hope they know we think of them, pray for their safety and survival and that we will help build the school. I hope they find some comfort with family and friends, and that they sleep safely finding energy and hope as the early morning Nepalese sun rises with its surprising warmth.
I first came across this picture in Rome in 2006, I’ve never seen it since, part of a private collection perhaps. The idea caught my imagination. Klee seemed to have brought to life an idea that went further than the Freudian iceberg theory of 9/10 of our inner selves being below our level of consciousness. There was something cool and mysterious about what the girl in the picture brought. She was perhaps going to work or about her daily business but with an array of colour and light around her, that perhaps she was only partly aware of but brought art and light to those she encountered. In her high heels and hand on her hip her walk is in motion… she’s going somewhere. Her jaw set in determination. The colours seem to emanate from her, pushing ahead of her and flowing out from her, a swirl and whirl of colour. This seemed to me a good way to introduce the songs in our early set, the array of relationships and experiences which we bring with us, and how we don’t always know how they will colour our lives and the lives of those around us. The sense of being seen by another in a different set of colours to the ones you thought you were born with. I love the colours, I love that they are not all bright, not all complete and the hopeful sense that as we are not yet finished we are still becoming.
When I was five years old we went to the Yorkshire Dales on holiday. The whole family, my older brother and sister and the baby. My father said an American Choir were going to perform at a nearby church and decided to take his older three children. The church was made of old stone with a high ceiling, and we had seats on the front row only a few feet away from the choir. To my delight they sang ‘Chim Chimenee Chim Chimmenee Chim Chim Cheroo’ from Mary Poppins. I was thrilled! We had the record at home and I knew it well. I was enthralled with the experience of the sound, of going out and hearing live a choir sing a song I knew. I remember the elation of the voices singing in harmony all around me; I was lost in the awesome moment.
I glanced up to see my father, who to my surprise was bright red in the face with tears streaming from his eyes and down his cheeks. What could be wrong, I thought, startled. He leant his face down and said in a loud whisper, ‘Helen, usually, when you come to hear a choir, you’re not really expected to join in!’ My father was beside himself with laughter. Lost in the sheer joy of singing I was oblivious to the commotion I had caused, with choir members hardly able to contain their laughter. At 5 years I was loud! I had been singing my heart out unaware and lost in the moment of joining in with a song known and loved and with a whole choir! (And I had excellent pitching of course!)
So, whether you sing in the shower or the hills, the kitchen or garden, living room or at a ‘live lounge’, let me encourage you to sing loud, long and with joy. Sing as you carry out the rubbish, sit in traffic jams, as you hang out the washing or rock your baby to sleep. Make songs and singing part of your life. Treasure the young musicians and singers near to you, they can bring joy, insight, and comfort at times of loss and grief. They can welcome new life, celebrate a commitment and mark the passing of loved ones. Welcome and nurture them, they are good for the soul and bring life and love to our souls.