p. iv: Introduction
I wrapped my coat tightly around me, left the gym, and headed into the blustery January morning. A woman from my exercise class caught up with me. “Is it true that you took a trip around the world-alone?” she asked, breathlessly.
“Yes,” I answered. “Twelve countries. I was gone almost a year.”
She followed along beside me.
“You mean to say that you took a whole year out of your life?”
“No, I put a whole year into my life!” I tightened my scarf and leaned into the wind. My thoughts turned to Africa and India-the warm beaches, tropical vegetation, endless sun.
“You went with friends, didn’t you?”
“No, I went by myself.”
“Was it some kind of tour?” she persisted.
“No, I went by myself.”
“That’s unbelievable,” she said. “You actually planned the whole trip and went all by yourself?”
“Yes.” I felt as if my needle were stuck.
This wasn’t the first time I’d had such an exchange. People didn’t seem to care about the romance, mystery, and adventure I might have experienced during those eight months–only the fact that I had traveled alone–with no man, no advance reservations, and one backpack. At my age, too. Was I crazy? Women of all ages told me that they would be terrified making such a trip and I must be very courageous.
On the contrary. Far from being courageous, I was selfish. After thirty-three years of marriage, a divorce, and five grown children who returned periodically to tell me how to live my life, I was excited about being totally on my own, having no schedule, and answering to no one. I couldn’t possibly foresee what would happen along the way, but I was well aware of the old saying that the only difference between a rut and a grave is the dimensions. I needed a change! Who would have thought that I would trade the comfort of my home for a bone-chilling tent in the Himalayas. And sneak out in the middle of the night, stepping into yak shit on the way to a pit toilet. No fuzzy rug there to warm my feet. But, oh, those mountains! That I would exchange gourmet dinners in my modern kitchen for hearty custom-made soups created on the spot on a street corner in old Delhi. Not something you’d find in suburban New Jersey. That I would replace my comfortable bed for Indian trains of questionable quality-cold, sooty, and crowded, with my pack chained to the upper bunk. Or that I would find turbaned old men ladling hot milk tea out of boiling cauldrons in cavernous railway stations at dawn more inviting than a Starbucks cafe with its foaming cappuccino. I was alone at last, facing the world as a whole person, not half a couple. And I felt good about it.
p. 141: Waiting for the local bus to arrive, which would take me to Masvingo and the Greater Zimbabwe Ruins. I arrived at 7 A.M. and six hours later boarded the bus.
Imagine scenes from the movie Grapes of Wrath, or the refugees fleeing Eastern Europe after World War II, or the county fair in Rutland, Vermont. Put them all together with a backdrop of black faces and rickety buses and you have the picture. I inched my way through the mob, half stumbling over furniture, chickens, and sacks of oranges and potatoes. Large bundles of clothing tied with coarse bits of string rested beside rolled up rugs. Goats and children appeared to wander free. Enormous cardboard suitcases stood on the pavement haphazardly, or lay flat, providing a bed for a sleeping child. Everyone was going home for the holidays. I could feel the excitement.
In the midst of this confusion a bus pulled in, the driver posted a hand-printed sign on the dashboard, and people ran from every direction. A throng of pushing, shoving bodies crowded toward the door while others shouted the destination and formed a tight line around the bus, with no chance of ever penetrating the initial blockade. I found myself in several of these bone-crushing lines, part of a human chain held together by the sheer momentum of so many surging bodies. More than once my chin pressed into the cheek of a sleeping baby hanging in a cloth pouch on its mother’s back.
The women said very little. I received only polite shrugs in response to my complaints. It was the men who were the aggressors, storming the door and yelling their names at the man inside the bus, who was laboriously writing out individual tickets. With raised arms they held out money and tried to thrust it through the door. Once, tempers flared, and the police were summoned. They tried to pull the men away by grabbing an arm or a leg, but friends inside the bus held on, turning the scene into a mock tug-of-war. The crowd outside was laughing and cheering them on. It flashed through my mind that if a news photographer had snapped a picture, it would look like police brutality–Black against Black–that is, unless you looked closely and saw the smiles on the faces.
While this pulling and shoving was going on the driver tried to close the door and stop those attempting to enter the bus by threes. Sometimes he caught a would-be passenger’s foot or hand, causing its owner to send up a yowl of protest. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that only one person could fit through the door at a time.
I watched the fracas in disbelief. Why not sell tickets ahead of time rather have the ticket writer inside the bus? And why not line up in an organized fashion? Then the bus would be full in a short time and could depart quickly. Too logical? Yes, for I soon realized that this was a game of chance. High drama. Some men were able to force their way in and hand tickets out the window to their relatives. The bargaining position inside the bus was powerful.
In the meantime, others climbed onto the roof and loaded their belonging, piling them high until they were in danger of toppling over the shallow railing, only to have them thrown down if their family couldn’t get seats. This caused further delays. But through it all everyone was good-natured. They were just having fun.
p. 372: Arriving on the top of Kala Pattar (18,500 ft).
It was bitter cold by the time we arrived at the top. My lips were bleeding and my fingers and toes were numb. If only the brilliant sun had been warm. Passang stopped and pointed across the ravine. “Look, Madam, there my mountains…Lhotse, Everest, Nuptse.”
We had made it just in time! I looked at Everest’s long plume and knew the winds were strong and cruel. The chilling view made my freezing toes and fingers feel instantly better in comparison.
Puffy clouds began to move over the famous trio. They were no longer those faraway humps on the horizon. They had taken command. I reached out in my fatigue and light-headedness, as if to touch them. Then, gasping for breath, I lowered myself onto one of the wide flat granite rocks of the Kala Pattar ridge. Through the penumbra of consciousness I could see the Fitzpatrick’s making their way up the side of Pumo Ri. They walked slowly, jerkily, like wind-up toys. I could go no further. I had seen the view. That was all I wanted.
As I lay on the rock, my eyes squinting out from under a heavy scarf, I became aware that Mathias was leaning over me.
“Beautiful lady,” he said, the glow of accomplishment on his wind-burned face, “come and see what I’ve found for you…a snowbird out of the frozen sky, a little white and black bird sitting on a point of rock waiting to greet you.”
“Oh, Mathias,” I said, “Thank you, but Meg is finished. This time Meg is definitely finished.”