A fundamental question has been asked of me on this trip. What do you do when you can’t do. What happens when you are physically incapable of acting in the way you would like. How to practice when your body is in pain stretching and even to sit comfortably is difficult?
It is an exercise in vulnerability as I recognise I’m not as young as I was and that my physical body is not as solid as I maybe believed.
I was hiking from the town of Yuksom in West Sikkim, the starting point of many high altitude treks to the Goecha La pass at 5000 metres. I wasn’t attempting anything so difficult though, I just decided a one day hike between monasteries to the village of Tashiding would be a suitable trip for me. It’s 19Km of supposedly straightforward trails via 4 different monasteries. I did my due diligence and chatted to a local guide about it rather than just accepting the instructions in the Lonely Planet and he confirmed it is a simple route. Things aren’t always predictable, however.
The steep but clear path to Dubdi gompa just 40 minutes outside of Yuksom was simple enough and I reached there after a breathless climb, exhilarated. The valley views and peaceful gompa were reward for my efforts but I knew this was just the first stage of my journey.
The next path was not so obvious, leading out the back of the monastery and downhill to the road. At first I took a path into the forest due to a fallen sign but soon turned around and found the right way. I didn’t expect walking along the road though, so was a bit unsure if it was the right path. It was stunning scenery so I didn’t mind too much and I couldn’t see another way to get around the valley. It wasn’t until a local doing the same route pointed me in the right direction that I was really sure.
We passed through Tsong village and I was looking for a path to the small Hongri gompa. A turn off to take me above the road through cardamom fields and up to the outcrop of the monastery. Instead I reached the end of the road with a marker for the village of Dubdi 0KM the only indicator that this was some sort of destination. I retraced my steps a hundred metres or so up the road to a nearby house up a set of steep steps hewn from the earth. There an old man in a felt hat greeted me with enthusiasm. He pointed out where I needed to go, what I could see on the distant ridges and explained that he spoke Hindi, Nepali and another local language but not English. He led me up an ever steeper path with the gait of an ambling goat, leaving me puffing and panting in his wake and grateful for the pauses where he shouted “Pelling, Namchi, Tashiding!” at me, in reference to the local towns on the horizon. I made my way up the last section alone, wondering why these monasteries are always at the end of steep walks…
Hongri Gompa is small, remote, unpainted and it seems one of its walls collapsed some time ago. Despite this, it is a delightful spot. Stunning views, a small homestay with one of the monks and the young locals practising their mantras in the little school room. The place charmed me even in the short time I had there but I felt the need to press on. This is where my difficulties started. The path from here was almost immediately unclear, branching in several different ways. I don’t know if I took the correct route but I found the trail through forest getting smaller, slippery and not maintained. I didn’t pass a single person on this section to ask if I was on the right path and visions started creeping into my head. What would I do if I happened to twist my ankle, would I turn around to make it back to Hongri or continue onwards?
Trying to put these negative thoughts from my mind I forged ahead. Until, at some point, my right foot slipped underneath me. I had a vision of my hat staying where it was in mid-air for a second and then the next thing I knew I was falling to my right. Down until… boom! I landed on my back, on the right side I think, padded somewhat by my small backpack. Thankful that I had two jumpers in there which broke the initial fall a little but possibly also meant that I bounced and then found myself tumbling head-over-heels down the side of the mountain. I grabbed hold of whatever I could, branches, bushes, the undergrowth, scratching and bruising up my right arm in the process and eventually came to a stop, tangled in weeds.
My right hiking shoe was almost off, my back was aching, I was winded and stunned wondering if I could walk and if there might be someone who could rescue me. I lay there for several minutes, attempting to shout “help”, “hello”, “namaste” anything to attract attention, but there was no-one nearby whose attention I could attract. It wasn’t long before I realised that I didn’t have much choice but to scramble back up the hill I had fallen down and attempt to carry on walking. I did up my shoe, cautious not to lose my grip and fall further but also not looking down to see how much further I could potentially fall. It was difficult to pull myself up to the spot where I fell but I managed. My hat was neatly sat on the path as if waiting for me to retrieve it. I couldn’t say the same for my glasses though, it was only at this point that I realised they had been dislodged and lost somewhere down the mountain. Luckily I had a pair of prescription sunglasses with me.
I faced the prospect of an unknown distance to get to Tashiding, or at least the next place of civilisation, or quite a tricky walk back to Hongri. I decided to continue ahead, thinking I must be near the next village and maybe I could get a lift if I was closer to the road. Each step was painful and ironically going down became more difficult on my lower back than going upwards. All summer I had been complaining about walking uphill and enjoying downward steps but here I was cursing every descent as it triggered another twinge.
The first place I came to was a little farm on the edge of a village but not near a road. The family there didn’t speak much English but made me tea, gave me some muscle rub oil and tried to help me find somewhere to stay in the village. That wasn’t possible so I didn’t have much choice but to move on again.
I stopped at various villages but no-one was able to give me a lift and tiredness and stubbornness kicked in against the pain. I decided I would keep on going until I reached the famous Sanu Homestay in Tashiding where I figured they would be able to look after me.
The homestay couldn’t have been much further into Tashiding and after about 3 or four hours walking after the fall I arrived to find the owner was away. The family did their best to help me but only the young daughter spoke English so it was a little difficult. I lay in bed that night in some pain, listening to the grandmother recite mantras in the room next door as I drifted off to sleep hoping that I hadn’t done any serious damage.
I called my friend Anna who was staying in Yuksom for advice, and really because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to move when I woke up in the morning. She very kindly offered to jump in a taxi to come and help me to the doctor’s in the morning and help me make some decisions on what to do since I was not thinking entirely clearly.
We went to the “Primary Health Centre” in Tashiding but all the nurse there could offer was ibuprofen and a suggestion to visit the doctor in Yuksom so we managed to find a vehicle (not as easy as you would think because most shared jeeps were cancelled due to “election counting day”)
When we arrived at the hospital in Yuksom the doctor took one look at me and after hearing we had come from Tashiding and, knowing the state of the road, she made a call that I had unlikely broken anything or I would be in a lot more pain. She gave me a pain killing shot, some tablets and recommended I take it easy and keep an eye on it for the next week or so.
Yuksom was cold at night and in the morning and I would wake so stiff that sometimes it was difficult to get out of bed and almost always it was agony to tie my shoelaces. I was doing some gentle yoga to wake my back and occasionally went for walks but generally I was hanging out in little Yuksom, enjoying the hospitality of Mama’s Homestay and the other restaurants and being probably one of the longest foreign residents in a place where normally people stop only long enough to arrange a trek.
After a week I wasn’t feeling much better, my symptoms had eased and then got worse again but I felt it was really time to leave. I set off in search of hot springs but stopped first at the town of Namchi where there was a bigger hospital and I could get checked out properly.
I had an x-ray done in the modern facility and then waited outside the orthopedic doctor’s office with a number, much like being at the butcher, or the Indian Visa office. About 8 of us were ushered into the room together and our consultations took place behind a small curtain with everyone else absent-mindedly looking on.
He took one look and told me, “you see, you have a small compression in your L2, L3, er L5. One, two, three, yes L2. You need to rest for 6 weeks. No jumping, no carrying heavy things” I asked about yoga “No sport” and massage “you could end up making it worse” and I left feeling a bit bereft of options.
It was after speaking to Anna that I had the idea to go to Thailand. I’d been planning on making a visit at some stage on this trip so why not now when I am invalided.
I’m very grateful to have the opportunity to be here on Ko Phangan. It is a beautiful island with so many opportunities. Even so, I’m left thinking about the yoga that I have done here before, the friends that I have spent time with before and it can never really compare. I’m taking this time as one of reflection and hopefully from that creation will emerge, one day at a time. I have considered detoxes, tantra courses, and retreats to fill up my time but actually I see that it’s more important to embrace this boredom, embrace this freedom and see what emerges naturally.
I took a Reiki attunement a few days ago as part of the first course into using this energy healing technique. It has left me feeling quite sensitive with a lot of clearing of old energy and a need to be in my own space. I’m allowing this to channel through me and hopefully things will be clearer in a couple of weeks.
It’s really rainy here right now which further increases the sense of going inwards. So as I meditate and do breathing exercises there is a sense of calm, a recognition of just “being” but also that “doing” will grow out of this without needing to worry about it.