#964 Travelling the higher heights
A Story of Karma: Finding Love and Truth in the Lost Valley of the Himalaya
by Michael Schauch
Victoria: Rocky Mountain Books, 2020
$25.00 / 9781771604673
A review essay by Trevor Carolan
Adventure travel goes through phases. In the Sixties you went off to Formentera in the Balearics or Corfu to find yourself. India has always been an option for hardier soul-searchers, although when the Vietnam War was more or less settled, the utopia-fix shifted to Southeast Asia, Thailand usually, maybe Bali for the long trekker. After this, trekking up Kilimanjaro in East Africa became a favourite, and it brought in a new element, the charitable fund-raising venture where you signed up your buddies and workmates to root you on for a worthy cause. When a cluster of lovely Buddhist films arrived on the screen — Bertolucci’s Little Buddhas, then The Cup, Kundun, Travellers and Magicians from Bhutan, even Samsara with its raunchy whiff of dharma porn — the Himalaya Range called next.
Books about the remote Buddhalands of the old Tibetan world were pretty rare until recently. Alexandra David-Néel, the pioneering Belgian-French woman who sneaked into Lhasa in 1924, cracking the foreigner and gender ban, wrote about it brilliantly in My Journey to Lhasa. Lama Anagarika Govinda (Ernst Lothar Hoffman), the German seeker who became a renowned scholar of sacred Himalayan art also gave us many fine books (The Way of the White Clouds, etc.). Beat Lit accounts by Allen Ginsberg, Joanne Kyger, and Gary Snyder of their epic 1962 India-Himalayan journey that in turn helped inspire The Beatles out to Rishikesh, remain indispensable classics too. Canada, through George and Ingeborg Woodcock, remains a player with several books from their journeys and their founding of the important Trans-Himalayan Aid and Canada-India Village Aid Societies. On the wilder side, Lobsang Rampa, a Tibetan Studies auto-didact and originally an English plumber, cranked out more than a dozen hugely popular “mystic fictions” purporting to document his experiences in the Himalayas. He migrated and wrote from Surrey, B.C. and Calgary, but not before inspiring plenty of young westerners out to Asia.
In 1978, Peter Matthiessen, the respected U.S. east coast author changed the game with what is still the definitive Himalayan soul-searching account, The Snow Leopard. Without benefit of high performance trekking gear, it recounts his odyssey five years before through Nepal’s Dolpo Plateau with eminent biologist and conservationist George Schaller. A lean, wiry Zen Buddhist and outdoorsman, Matthiessen had lost his wife to cancer and his quest with Schaller in search of the snow leopard — one of the world’s most reclusive large animals — became more than a grieving. In an increasingly secular age it became a spiritual classic depicting his existential struggle to overcome loss, his own shaken ego, and a questioning of his role as a father. It also witnesses the emerging loss of one of the world’s truly fragile ecosystems. In the end, while Matthiessen never gets to spot the elusive creature, his failure serves as a larger metaphor for Buddhism’s Noble Truths that were percolating into Western consciousness — the nature and cause of suffering (desire), and its cessation through an eightfold path of righteous living. When it blossomed as a world best-seller, Matthiessen courted anonymity the way the Kardashians court celebrity. The Snow Leopard and its author set a high benchmark for other questing writers to emulate.
Travel writing has enjoyed a renaissance since Granta magazine in London brought it back into literary conversation during the early 1980s, ushering it into the spotlight alongside the best fiction and creative nonfiction writers of the day. With the ease of international flights though, and the organizational capacity now possible through the internet, the traditional mystique of travel itself has experienced some diminishment. Cruise-ship excursions aboard floating Vegas-style casinos made it possible to pick up a dozen passport stamps quickly as long as you didn’t mind the long departure line-ups for the daily three-hour bus tours to the local sights and gift-mart. Mass tourism might have redrafted travel for the world of Instagram, but nobody writes The Snow Leopard on a Love Boat holiday with 4,000 closely-packed neighbours all waiting for the next thing to do.
Challenge-motivated road warriors these days lean into the grand adventure. The Himalaya — those stupendous, now slightly less-snowy Asian peaks closer to heaven than anywhere else on earth — have been calling more frequently in travel books. The results are mixed. If you’re a writer it helps to have a film project or a worthy charitable venture (or both), but the Snapchat-blogpost-era of travel reporting has arrived. In what’s looking oddly like a throwback to colonial-era roaming, there’s a new appetite for expeditions with half a dozen or twenty Sherpa porters, mules, yaks, a clutch of friendly artisan types to sketch, photograph or video the journey. In the Victorian age we knew this as “the African Safari,” but that’s a hard-sell post-colonially speaking. These days the dark continent gets replaced by rugged, dry landscapes with glacial peaks: Ladakh, the “Little Tibet” of Himalayan India, the Karakorum, or remote Nepal set the stage. There’s a steady stream of books responding to the old romantic allure of Shangri-La.
Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea about his journeys through economically undeveloped regions of Pakistan-Afghanistan serves as the screaming red light in Himalaya-trekking books. After a journey roaming the high-altitude Balti region, Mortenson returned and helped produce a tear-jerking book in 2006 about his efforts at funding and building schools for young Muslim girls especially. It was a heroic, heart-warming story, mostly written by someone else as it turned out. It sold more than four million copies and Mortenson became a celebrity activist and media personality in the U.S. Barack Obama donated $100,000 of his Nobel Prize money to a non-profit aid organization founded by the author. Jon Krakauer, the serious outdoors author (Into The Wild), donated $75,000 too. However, Krakauer knows his wild places. After some study, he sensed something wasn’t straight. So did others. By the time television’s Sixty Minutes news program, then The Washington Post and other media watchdogs picked up the scent, things got murky. Financial ethics, truthfulness regarding the book’s story, then the suicide of Mortenson’s co-author over the disgrace of the revelations brought a pall upon the story.
Following investigation by the State of Montana, Mortenson agreed to repay $1.2 million dollars to the non-profit organization he founded for benefits that had funnelled to him. There were a lot of factors at play regarding Three Cups of Tea. Initially, a great many village schools were founded and many students received educational benefit through Mortenson’s work. Still, the longevity and value of many of the schools came into question, and the nature of the financial improprieties within the $20 million non-profit NGO continue to linger. Cutting to the point, Three Cups of Tea has been the train-wreck of Himalayan journey books. In drawing attention to Mortenson’s self-construction of a “Ghandi-like persona” and “invented tales of [his]daring-do,” Krakauer helped birth the term esteem-tourism.
Dervla Murphy, the inexhaustible Irish adventurer managed to bicycle her way through the wilds of Baltistan travelling solo — a feat for any road warrior — documenting it in her wonderful Where The Indus Is Young. Without any apparent need for esteem, she just grinds it out on her trusty bike Roz, chatting to people along the way. Ditto her travel writing from Laos, the Andes, Siberia, great swaths of Africa, pretty much the lot. Murphy gave signal of her travelling style back in 1965 with her first book, Ireland to India with a Bicycle. That’s been her mode of transport ever since, although purportedly she sometimes she packs a pistol — likely a good idea considering where she gets to. Alas, earlier this year at age 88 she announced her writing retirement from the road. Bookstands will be the poorer for this. We’re told Alexandra David-Néel had a slightly longer run, renewing her passport at age 100, “just in case.”
The late Polish reporter Ryzard Kapuścińcki — my own favourite adventurer — rambled his way through twenty-seven revolutions, civil wars, coup d’états, and sundry violent rebellions mostly in Africa and Latin America and lived to tell his tales in a series of unsurpassable books. It was Granta magazine that brought him to prominence in English. The worst he was accused of was exercising literary license from time to time. Repeated close brushes with death might do that. He was one of the calmest, noblest souls you’d meet, the kind of fellow who’d rather speak about the virtues of someone else, or talk about European and Asian philosophy.
This year several Himalayan odyssey books by Canadians have arrived, including A Story of Karma, by Michael Schauch.
Schauch’s book opens in an inhospitable, dry mountain landscape. Ruined stone villages, sacred Tibetan mane stones, stone etchings, and the paw-prints of a snow leopard establish the Himalayan background. But why are we here? Why struggle to climb in high places in precariously thing air? It’s cold and we’re at 5000 m. elevation. “The mountains called me,” the Victoria, BC (now Squamish) adventurer reports. He’s found his mountain, a remote pyramid peak near the Nepali-Tibetan frontier. Further, the local ethnic Tibetans here seem to possess “some deep wisdom I had lost that I could relearn again.”
Improbably, all this begins in a Yaletown, Vancouver restaurant and we’re given the author’s origin story. A successful entrepreneur and financial advisor, he and his wife, Chantal, have travelled plenty in the past — Africa, Mexico, and have raised charitable funds in excess of $200K in the process. Now they’re going to travel to a remote, little known valley in Nepal. Schauch recalls Wade Davis’ admonition though about the dangers of cultural homogenization and how peoples deeper and deeper in the earth’s wild hinterlands are losing their cultural identities. Meanwhile, a troupe of creative friends is gathered for the journey, there’s talk of Indigogos and high performance, trim fitting climbing gear. It’s an expedition. For this reader there’s a fin de siècle feel about it all: you might wonder if an adventurer in recent pre-pandemic times still just, well, travelled anymore.
Passing through Katmandu, that old crossroads place of the world, they witness how the garbage and flowers of South Asia’s streets are still in bloom. Then it’s on the road with a team of nineteen cooks, mule drivers, porters, guides, the lot. There’s some discussion of the Sherpa natives who are drawn, despite its dangers, into the now sophisticated trekking industry for the money. Veteran dharma trekkers will recognize the portraiture of the magnificent Annapurna massifs that await them — the overwhelming majesty of the peaks and snow, the earth’s ancient godlands. Almost as if planned, they tag up with a group of pilgrim nuns and a little enlightenment enters the narrative, as does sight of the stark, subsistence-level poverty that exists there. When Chantal begins to doubt their mission, takes ill, and wishes to turn back, there’s a confessional moment the author must deal with of the “I knew I was only in this for myself” calibre, yet out of this flux they carry on.
Trekking onward with them en route we get vivid local colour — rascally monkeys, villagers who want to hear Michael Jackson, lady butchers chopping off goat-heads, lambun prayer-flags fluttering, men castrating a screaming mule. We’re in the high-altitude, dirty old world for sure. But outsiders are magnetically drawn here, Westerners especially. The distant, sacred valleys of the Himalaya region are known among Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists as beyul, Schauch explains, in citing H.H. the Dalai Lama who notes succinctly, “From a Buddhist perspective [these] sacred environments…are not places to escape a world, but to enter it more deeply.”
Schauch, Chantal, and their band arrive at their final village destination with a sense of overwhelming gratitude. They’ve trekked arduously through dramatic landscapes and sighted flocks of tough sheep among high rocks with the realization that even this remote, little-known place is someone’s home. Yet even as they’ve ventured into one of the world’s last strongholds of formative Buddhist religious practice, that doesn’t sing out here. In an incongruous incident, we have a glimpse of the trekkers singing Blue Rodeo songs together from back home. Still, some sense emerges that the author is growing aware regarding the limits of something. He decides to give up on conquering his mountain. Even as he does this, already a parallel and more interesting narrative direction begins coalescing. A young man they’ve met on the road tells them “his village is disappearing.”
Suddenly the book finds genuine depth. Without decent healthcare or basic education, lacking electricity, and with the nearest road to the outside world a five-day trek away, their friend Sonam’s remote community is staring an existential crisis head-on. We all know the plot line—if you’re young and want to hear Michael Jackson and own a cell-phone you head for town. These idealized Buddhalands are facing extinction. What to do? The second half of the book considers this quandary.
In another village they meet a young girl, Karma, and are charmed by her — as if they recognize her from a previous connection. It’s a rapid process of encounter, but before leaving the author and Chantal assure the girls’ family they will look after her education. They set about this task. Near Katmandu, a high-ranking, reincarnated Tibetan lama has founded a school for children like Karma. However, it’s full with students: there’s no more space. Back in Canada the Schauchs keep working at their goal. As if ordained, they learn the Tibetan Tulku in charge of the school is recovering from illness in nearby Richmond, B.C. Permission for Karma is earned and the Canuck couple return to Nepal to oversee arrangements.
Back in small, mountainous Nepal, life is changing rapidly in Karma’s family region; there are new, Chinese-controlled power stations, more of everything. It’s the double-edged sword of progress. Seeing Karma and her playmates, Schauch also observes different school values that are really cultural and ethical values at play: where Canadian youngsters are competitive, individualist and materialist, he sees that Himalayan kids are spiritually caring, mindful, emotionally intelligent. Is it any wonder we arrive there as foreigners and realize what we’ve been missing?
Schuach gets interesting when he shares some of his growing exposure to Buddhist teachings. Regarding giving — to which he and Chantal are committed — there are three types, he relates: garden variety giving, “great giving”, and difficult giving that obliges giving of oneself, of body, mind and life. That’s a great teaching. A monastery visit affords him additional opportunity to expound on the Wheel of the Dharma, on karma and retribution and this too will be valuable to those unfamiliar with the dharma, the Buddha’s teaching and path. For the Schauchs, they receive the double blessing of becoming foster-parents: after repeat journeys back and forth to Nepal, and enduring bureaucratic struggles to have Karma and her younger sister admitted to Canada for schooling, they succeed and are able to experience the joys of family life with two bright young girls who excel in their schooling. Unsurprisingly, the girls are also quick–study artists in the intricacies of rock-climbing like the author. It’s a fitting, warming story. Yet return home they must to earn their native Nepali accreditations. We are left with an optimistic sense this tale has not ended.
A Story of Karma is a narrative with multiple strands. It could probably be leaner without impacting the story, and there’s a preciousness that creeps into the writing at points particularly in the first half, but happily for the publisher there will be readers too for whom this attempt at doing good in a battered old world is sufficient and the telling not nearly long enough.
Trevor Carolan began writing for newspapers at 17. A widely-travelled journalist, poet and critic, his many books include New World Dharma; In Formless Circumstance, Road Poems (see the review by Paul Falardeau –ed.); The Literary Storefront; Return to Stillness: Twenty Years with a Tai Chi Master; and Giving Up Poetry: With Allen Ginsberg at Hollyhock. He earned a Ph.D. in International Relations from Queensland, for studies in Literature, Ecology and Ideas of the Sacred in the Global Age. His documentary film Cascadia: The Life and Breath of the World features many distinguished writers and is based on his co-edited Eco-Lit collection of the same title which received a Best American Essays Citation in 2013. He served as elected municipal councillor in North Vancouver following campaigns on behalf of B.C. Indigenous land claims and watershed conservation issues, and is Professor Emeritus with the School of Land Use and Environmental Change at the University of the Fraser Valley. An avid birder and the International Editor of Pacific Rim Review of Books, his latest travel collection is Road Trips: Journeys in the Unspoiled World (Mother Tongue. 2020). See his website for more. Editor’s note: Trevor Carolan has also reviewed books by John Lent, Francis Mansbridge, and Daniel Francis for The Ormsby Review.
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