Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Fears

Coming into the last week of our 18-week journey gives me an
opportunity to reflect on the various fears I've harbored along the
way, how I've tried to deal with them, and what's actually come about.

Even before we left our home on Whidbey Island, I had plenty of time
to imagine all manner of disasters, calamities and misfortunes. It
seems that planning and fear go hand in hand-- you try to anticipate
things that may go wrong, and attempt to minimize the risk of

The first set of concerns had to do with the kora around Mt. Kailash,
which includes crossing a mountain pass at an elevation of 18,600 ft.
Any time a person goes that high, there is a danger of altitude
sickness, or hypothermia, or freezing of fingers or toes.

Altitude sickness is somewhat unpredictable and can occur even among
those who have been or similar or higher elevations before. The
recommended treatment is to descend to a lower altitude immediately,
but when the base of the mountain is at 15,000 feet, you can't go
lower than that. In order to deal with this eventuality, I decided to
rent a Gamow bag to take along in case of emergency, but as it turned
out, neither Julian nor I had any significant difficulty with the

With the perspective of hindsight, I would say that the Gamow bag was
unnecessary. [In fact, at the last minute our Tibetan guide, without
consulting us, didn't bring the bag on the kora anyway.]

Both Julian and I were relatively fit and we ascended the mountain
more gradually than many others do. So while it was highly recommended
by our trekking agency, if I were to do it again, I would leave the
Gamow bag behind.

Hypothermia or frostbite are usually the result of winter storms that
can bring windy and cold conditions. We only had one night where the
temperature dropped below freezing, so there was never any danger of
frostbite on this trip.

I had heard stories of people being bitten by dogs in Tibet,
especially by the Tibetan Mastiff that can be particularly fearsome as
it tries to protect its territory. Our Tibetan guide in Lhasa
described one of his clients who got bitten when she went to pee
behind a nomad's tent.

I had thought about trying to take along some pepper spray to have on
hand, but didn't do so. As it turned out, we saw plenty of dogs in
Tibet, but they all seemed to ignore us as long as we ignored them. We
never felt in danger of being bitten by a dog.

I had also worried about having difficulty sleeping in Kathmandu or
Lhasa where there are often dogs that bark a lot at night. A Nepali
friend of ours, on a recent trip to Kathmandu had difficulty sleeping
almost every night due to barking dogs.

I took along some ear plugs and there were nights when there were
barking dogs, but the ear plugs had limited effectiveness. So I wasn't
able to find a satisfactory remedy.

Insomnia is an issue I deal with more frequently as I grow older. It's
not always easy to figure out why it happens when it does, though
noises can definitely keep me awake.

Certainly caffeine and alcohol contribute to the problem. I feel much
better and sleep better when I don't have any caffeine after noon and
limit my intake of alcohol to no more than three drinks a week.

But sometimes, even without caffeine or alcohol I find myself lying
awake, feeling in need of sleep, but not feeling sleepy. The best
remedy for this I've found is to get up and sit zazen. Usually 30-45
minutes of zazen will quiet my mind enough for me to fall asleep.
Sometimes, I fall asleep soon after going to bed, then wake up around
midnight or 2:00 am with insomnia. If I do some meditation then, it
seems to help me to go back to bed and sleep.

Sometimes, my insomnia is associated with muscle cramps. If I have
over-exerted a set of muscles during the day, then for some reason, at
night those muscles will cramp up and give me a "charley horse".

I've found that if I make a point of drinking lots of water, sometimes
fortified with a calcium tablet, the cramps will go away. I feared
that muscle cramps would be a problem on this trip, especially with
the mountain trekking, but as it turned out, I never had any problem
with this at all.

Food and water-bourne illness was also something I was concerned
about. When I was living in Nepal in the early 70s, I was extremely
cautious about food and water. As advised by Peace Corps staff, I
never ate any raw salads, except when the vegetables had been soaked
in a solution of iodized water. And I never drank any water that had
not been either boiled or treated with iodine. These were clearly
effective measures then, as Westerners, who drank untreated water or
uncooked food, often came down with diarrhea, giardia, amoebic
dysentary, hepatitis or typhoid fever. So before we left, I was
prepared to follow the same regimen.

On this trip we carried a UV water purifier (Steri-Pen) and used it to
treat the tap water we used for teeth brushing and some drinking. For
drinking water in restaurants, we usually purchased bottled water.
However, I also drank well water (for the first time) from homes in
Nepal where we were invited to share meals. Neither Cynthia nor I
suffered suffered any ill effects.
We've been happily surprised that in all of our travel through these
several countries, neither one of use has had any stomach problems at

In all previous trips to Nepal, we have taken medication to prevent
malaria. There are lots of mosquitoes, especially in the Terai, where
we would be going to visit our friends in Taulihawa. But this time, we
decided to forego the malaria medication and just bring along insect

Also, we knew that dengue fever is common in Cambodia and Thailand. A
friend of ours came down with a nasty case of dengue fever in Thailand
recently. But since there is no vaccine or prophylactic for dengue
fever, here too we were dependent on insect repellent, mosquito coils
and mosquito nets for sleeping.

I'm definitely not Buddhist when it comes to mosquitoes or the
microbes in the blood that are responsible for malaria and dengue
fever. Not only do I think it is necessary to kill those living
organisms that cause illness in our bodies, but that it is perfectly
reasonable to kill mosquitoes that land on our skin or hover around
our bodies attempting to.
I remember at a meditation retreat on Whidbey Island, during one
particular round of zazen, I had mosquitoes land right on my nose and
forehead. As they bit me, I kept telling myself, "There is no malaria
on Whidbey Island. THERE IS NO MALARIA ON WHIDBEY!!" I could barely
resist slapping the insects, but somehow the peer pressure of sitting
motionless kept me from doing so. But here in the tropics where there
IS malaria and dengue fever, I'm okay with slapping mosquitoes.

I just wish I knew how so many people seem to be able to live here in
the tropics with mosquitoes all around. They are certainly not using
insect repellent, and you don't see them killing many by slapping
them. Occasionally, people do sleep under mosquito nets. I do know
that the incidence of malaria and dengue fever are both high in this
part of the world, but I guess my question is, why isn't EVERYONE
sick? I just don't know.

In fact, the not knowing seems to be a big part of all these fears.
The not knowing is a given when you travel. It seems that an essential
part of venturing out is acceptance of the unknown.

It also helps when you travel with a partner who can help balance the
fear and the fearlessness. Often when I am feeling a bit vulnerable or
worrisome, Cynthia is the one who figuratively (or sometimes
literally) gives me a shake to make me snap out it. Other times, when
she starts to indulge in a bit too much speculation, I am the one to
be decisive. It actually works out quite well.

Also, it helps to have so many friends who wished us well in our
travels. We feel the support connection all the time. And I still
carry the tiger eye amulet in my pocket everyday as a reminder of that


  1. Not sure about the worry and the fears. I just simply don't worry when I go to Africa. Never been to Nepal. Africa is my PASSION!!!!

    What's that all about anyway??? Fears? I just don't know about that. Fear of what? Sorry about my ignorance here, but what for???? If you can't control it, why worry? What's the point? My philosophy is simple: Live Every Day as if it is your LAST!

  2. welcome back from abiding nowhere!
    thanks so much for taking us all with you!

  3. Dear David and Cynthia,
    My husband and daughter are leaving this week for Malaysia, so I liked getting your view.


    Celia Bowker


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