She was 70 years old and she was devouring a barbecued catfish on a stick at the Luang Prabang night market with a backpack on her lap and pink headband around her grey short hair. I couldn’t help but notice the word “Oui”, tattooed on her wrist.
“I say yes to life, darling!” she said with a French accent when I asked her about it, “This tattoo is a reminder to myself – to always say oui!”
When it comes to travel, how many opportunities pass us by because we are so set on going to see a particular site – so determined to tick X, Y and Z off our trip to-do-list? How easy is it to say ‘yes’ when we already have plans? I used to be the girl who mapped out each and every holiday. I’d dedicate many hours to reading Trip Advisor reviews about guesthouses – booking them in advance and then using my yellow highlighter on the photocopied pages of a Lonely Planet book to mark the recommended restaurants nearby. I’d basically research the crap out of a place. When I touched down in a new town, I’d set off on my ‘adventure’, which was never that much of an adventure because, well, I knew what to expect.
I have a confession. It’s not just when I travel. I’ve spent most of my adult life creating schedules for myself. This has resulted in a considerable amount of achievement – creatively and professionally. But it has also meant that I’ve had to say ‘no’ to many things.
Last year I did something completely out of character. I flew to Nepal without a plan. All I knew was that I wanted to spend three months in the Himalayas. The rest? I had no idea. And that scared the hell out of me. But I went anyway.
I wound up in the lakeside town of Pokhara where I rented a room for $6 a night in a guesthouse with a glorious rooftop terrace that faced Machapuchare. Each morning I’d stare at that magnificent mountain and wonder what the day had in store for me. At first, I felt lost without a schedule, but it didn’t take long before I started to have fun with my self-gifted freedom.
One morning, after my banana porridge, I took a walk into town where I saw a wooden post that pointed to a Tibetan refugee settlement. I followed it…past two beady-eyed goats and a man holding prayer beads, smoking a pipe. At the gates I met a teenager dressed in maroon. His name was Tenzin. We began chatting and I told him that I was interested in volunteering somewhere… that I wanted to help in some way.
“What kind of helping?” he asked. I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I said that maybe I could teach English. “Please wait here for some minutes,” he replied before leaving.
Ten minutes later he appeared. He motioned for me to follow him into the monastery. We climbed two flights of stairs and arrived at a dim room with a small glass-less window and a grubby rug on the floor. We talked a little. He told me he was from Mustang and that his mother lived alone in a hut in the mountains where she was always cold. After awhile a frail boy with a shaven head, also dressed in maroon, peeped his head around the doorway.
“Ah, yes, your students are now here,” Tenzin smiled at me as the young boy put his two hands together and said a soft, “Namaste”. My students? Eleven more boys pushed through the door and sat on the floor. Tenzin stood up and introduced me:
“This is Angie. She is your new English teacher!”
The boys beamed back at me. What could I say?
“Yes. Yes, I’m your new English teacher”.
I spent the next two hours sitting cross-legged in front of a not-so-white board, with a bunch of boy monks so enthusiastic about spelling the words ‘chicken’, ‘rooster’, ‘horse’ and ‘goat’ that almost leapt into my lap as they sounded them out. I guess the beauty of having no plans during my time in Nepal was that I was able to say ‘yes’ to all sorts of things… Like adopting a class of Tibetan boy monks. Like going to Chitwan to buy a cow. Like riding on the back of a motorbike to meet a secret shaman in the hills. Like jamming with a gypsy jazz dude from Paris in a bar in Pokhara.
In typical Nepali fashion, most of the time after saying ‘yes’ the plan would fall through or morph into something completely different…
“Angie, you can not teach the boys anymore because you are a woman. So thank you for your time but please do not come back to the monastery. Would you like to meet me for yak butter tea sometime?” Yes.
“Angie, I think maybe you don’t come to buy this cow with me because now my uncle is coming with me and if you travel with us in the small car it might start some rumours with my family about me and a white woman so I think no farm shopping today. But I will need another cow next month. Shall we go together to Chitwan then?” Yes.
“Angie, tonight we must cancel the concert in the restaurant but do you want to come with me and my friends to a Nepali wedding where there will be much dancing and food?” Yes. Oui. Si. Ja. Ho.
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