March, 1999: I’m walking out of the Valley River Center Cinema in Eugene and my stomach is doing flips. Not because my 22-year-old mind just imploded from watching The Matrix, but because it’s my last time seeing friends before I step on a plane to Kathmandu, Nepal, Asia, Eastern Hemisphere.
Four planes, actually. The flight to LA felt normal. Nothing after that did. On the 14-hour flight to Seoul I never got out of my seat, never took off my seatbelt. I white-knuckled it, staring at the little plane image stand still over the Pacific Ocean on the big-screen TV separating our section from whatever was in front of us. I was scared of flying. Still am. But now I take Zanax. Despite the immobilizing terror, I knew I was on the threshold of something great. It felt like the first time I read the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid. All that stands in the way of me and adventure is a closet door and hey, it’s not locked!
Next thing I remember was the Bangkok airport, drinking coffee at 3am alone in a massive ballroom with a painted sky for a ceiling. Why was it even open? Why is there a sky? How did I just succeed in ordering coffee in Thailand? After that I slept on the floor after many failed attempts at sleeping on the gate seats. Until only recently I had an itch on my left thumb from sleeping on that carpet. Seriously.
The next day though, after staring at the northern skyline for hours from my perfectly oriented window seat I saw it, the Himalaya. A cloud bank had gotten my hopes up a dozen times before I confirmed with my neighbor that those pointy clouds were, in fact, mountains. And then, I swear, we didn’t descend into Kathmandu but instead the runway rose to meet our plane and we were on sweet sweet ground after over 24 hours of air time.
As a junior at University of Oregon, I knew many students who studied abroad. I was smart enough to know that it was a great opportunity and lucky enough to have parents who supported me in pursuing it. I was majoring in the new Environmental Studies program and had scoured the counselor’s bulletin board, 3-ring binders, and yes, the internet, looking for an environmentally-focused program. There was only one. San Francisco State University offered a study abroad program called Wildlands Nepal. (The program has grown since then.)
I was accepted along with 14 other students. Our goal was simple; we were responsible for taking plant surveys in the remote northeastern corner of the Himalaya mountains. In exchange for sharing the data with the Nepali government, we were allowed into one of the many “restricted zones” that still existed at the time.
For now, I was tired and wired and standing in the single big room that served as the Departure and Arrival Gates, Reservation Desks, Luggage Pickup, Money Exchange, Snack Lounge, and gateway to Nepal. Nepali voices flooded my ears just as the short, brown-skinned Nepalis flooded my vision (in case you didn’t know, Oregon is really white).
I stood frozen, overwhelmed, as I watched our luggage thrown in a pile in the center of the room. With relief I saw my blue duffel and quickly grabbed it and followed the other students I’d met on the flights to meet our teacher, Chris Carpenter, holding a “Wildlands” sign. He ushered us to a van with a warning that if we let someone carry our bag we will need to give them money. What?
The moment we step out of the “airport” a 10-year old kid tried to grab my duffel, which was literally twice as big as him, “You like help? I take your bag.” After saying “no” 15 times we were in the van and our adventure began.
I’ve thought a lot about how to capture what happens next. What happens when you are put into a situation in which everything is new and you have no handholds to grab. For the first time in my life I communicated with another human without a shared language. I learned that two people can agree using nothing but eye contact. If you truly need help, a stranger will help.
The support of my mom and dad, Don and Allie Brown, helped open my mind to a world that is still waiting to be explored. To all you parents who can, please support your kids in opening those doors. Because once they open, they never close.
So 23 years later I return to explore Nepal with my amazing wife and travel partner. Giddyup!
Have a wonderful journey.
Alex! I love this so much. Your trip inspired me to also go to Nepal to study in 2000. Reading your words, reminds me of all the things that were so new to me as well. The seventh picture at the end of your post, triggered the memory of one of the scariest times in Nepal… Crossing the river when it was really high. Holy cow. I hope you and Erin enjoy this magical return to Nepal and beyond!!
I was there for a month in 1999 as well, for some climbimg. Such a magical and rare place with ebullient and buoyant people!
Alex, sometime when y’all get back lets talk about the plants you collected!