The first days pass in a kind of blur — a blue and grey and green blur of constant novelty. They flow past me, and I find myself always trying to hold onto the simple moments by finding the perfect words, by finding little moments of peace in the chaos. I am constantly learning, watching, doing, trying my best to be as present as possible, to not miss a single detail. In this time of constant stimuli, it seems impossible that the blur will ever lift to reveal a bigger picture.
But it does: Slowly but surely, it begins to make way for a routine that is still exciting, still filled with newness, but at the same time gives the days structure and a new, tantalizing sense of normal.
The mountains in the distance
I start each day by greeting the mountains like old friends. It’s a bit silly, I know this, but I am enchanted by the view every time I step outside my room onto the narrow balcony. I am fascinated as I watch the light shift, and I notice that, having grown up on flat land, there is so much that I never knew and didn’t know I was missing out on. I never knew how the colors of the hillside could vary, how clear light could flood the mountains with intense rays or how clouds could get caught between their crowns. I didn’t know that shadows could obscure whole worlds, or that the afternoon sun could make everything so blindingly bright. But now I know: Even if the shapes stay the same, change is the only constant in the feelings and colors caught inside the hills. It is a simple, small fact, but somehow, it feels like I’ve learned something important.
On cold mornings, when the air is crisp and fresh, the view is particularly clear. The sky rips open to reveal the high, rugged peaks of the Himalayas in the distance. The smaller hills I have come to feel comfortable in are green and rolling like the sea on a lazy day, but the mountains are black and white and unforgivingly beautiful. They are sharp and hard, never round, never soft, rising above the clouds with icy indifference. They see all, but care for nothing.
I love the hills, so I say good morning to them first thing and goodnight to end the day. But I am in awe of the mountains, drawn to them even as I am acutely aware of the dangers they hide.
The hills are the sea on a lazy day, sweet and comfortable. But the mountains are the dark clouds that gather before a storm, tossing and turning and inexplicably promising adventure.
Up, up, up
The school I teach at is atop one of the hills, so after having completed the mundane everyday rituals that make up a morning everywhere in the world, we take a Jeep up. It’s cramped, even on the front bench, with the stick shift usually between my legs and my arms pinned to my sides by the driver on my right and my host mother on my left.
And so we drive: up, up, up, always up, along dusty streets that are too narrow for two cars to pass one another and are more rubble than road, either way. We hop and stutter, hitting rocks and creeping through streams that flow undeterred by human interference. Sometimes, we find the road blocked by other vehicles that honk and sputter indignantly, and I find myself involuntarily holding my breath as we roll backwards down the slope until there is enough space to squeeze past on one side or the other.
But even though it’s uncomfortable and cramped and sometimes bordering on frightening, the view makes up for it all, shifting and revealing more and more of distant landscapes. I look out at colorful houses, people walking to work or to school, at trees that line the road and little, bright patches of flowers. And then we come around another corner and my breath is taken away, not by fright this time, but by the vast stretch of blue that we look out at, hills layered on top of one another, hiding in a sheen of hazy morning air.
I let my thoughts wander as we snake our way towards our destination: I let them tumble around and be jolted back in place when we hit a pothole. Instead of forcing focus, I let go, allowing myself to quite simply be. I daydream and wonder, thoughts brushing against my past, my future, my present, and everything in between. I rarely reach any sort of conclusion, too easily distracted by little details of the world around me, but maybe I’m not really looking for any sort of ending. Maybe it’s just about the ride.
On top of the world
But of course, the ride ends, no matter how it sometimes feels like we’ll be heading up the hill forever. We reach the school in time to settle in before lessons start, greeting teachers and students with friendly calls of “Namaste!” and “Good morning!”.
The school is relatively small, with only about 200 students ranging from 3 to 18, in classes with any number of students from 2 to 50. Though there is structure to the days and periods, it’s different than the structure I am accustomed to. It’s a mix of total uniformity and undeniable differences in the student body that I am still trying to decipher.
I teach four to five classes a day: an eighth grade, a seventh, a sixth, a fourth and a kindergarden class. The children are the same everywhere, some absolutely enthusiastic, some doing their very best to fly under the radar. They are fascinated by me: I’m new, and so obviously foreign. But they are open and friendly about their fascination, waving when they see me, asking me questions about where I am from and what my life is like. There’s teasing there, too, of course: Light laughter about the girl who speaks only rudimentary Nepali and no doubt teaches differently than they are used to, but the laughter never feels malicious, just curious. We’re all still getting to know each other, but it doesn’t feel like an insurmountable task.
Even after only a few days, faces start to stick out. The four girls from grade seven who giggle in the front rows and are delighted when I get their names right, the boy who referred to himself as “fun-loving” in our first lesson together, but works diligently nonetheless. The five little boys in grade four who grin whenever they understand my English. The girl from grade one who slips her hand in mine in the morning, gazing up at me with trust in her eyes as she whispers a tentative “hi”. And of course the kindergarden students, the “babies”, who clamor to sit on my lap and have me dance and play with them. They are always laughing and getting into mischief, unbothered by me not understanding their brabbble, and it is with them that I spend the last two periods every day — my personal highlight, no matter how tired I might be.
Back to where we started
And then, before I know it, the day is over and it’s time to walk home. For though the Jeep brings us up the hill, it is up to us to trek down, down rubble and over dusty streets and hundreds of steps. It’s not a short walk, and it’s not even always an easy one, but the truth is, I don’t mind the length or the difficulty. In fact, I like heading down the hill. I like the changing landscapes, the sweeping views, the sound of pebbles sliding away beneath my feet. I like the daily surprises — sometimes, I see monkeys scurrying past, sometimes, I look up and see a web with a large, large spider nestled in the middle. It makes my skin crawl when they slowly move one of their long legs, and I’m glad when I have passed, but I like the adventure of this experience, too.
One day, we head home later than usual, and I am taken by surprise by a sunset in such beautiful shades of pastel that I stop short. Blue, pinks and purples envelope me in the sweet, still-warm evening air. Clouds shine in the paling light, and in the distance, I see that the tips of the snow-covered mountains are glowing as well, in the palest blush pink imaginable.
I start walking again, slowly, with a grin spread across my face. Once again, I can feel that the world is changing with every second, shifting, with colors growing darker and deeper and more tangible around me. I resist the urge to capture every shift of the light with my phone camera, though I do snap a few shots in between steps. I do know, after all, that this type of beauty is much better stored close to the heart than on a memory card.
A song pops into my head, a memory of a melody sung in far-off childhood days with opening lyrics that have fascinated me ever since: “What I love most about rivers is/ you can’t step in the same river twice.” That, I think, recognition creeping up my back, is what being here feels like. Being so acutely aware of such minute changes, seeing so clearly that every moment is over in the blink of an eye. Being aware that I can never step on the same mountain twice.
But there’s more to it as well: the knowledge that though everything is changing, beauty always returns. When the sun has set, the moon will shine in its place.
And I don’t know: maybe because I am just as in love with the sun and the moon and the stars here as I was at home, maybe because I know that wherever I am, their light will be the same, this knowledge is very comforting to me.
So I pick it up, like someone else might pick a flower, and I store it close to my heart as well.