March 6th 2018!! Today marks 3 years since my breast cancer diagnosis. For Triple Negative Breast Cancer, which mine was, this is significant, both statistically and emotionally. For many other forms of breast cancer, 5 years is the anniversary most celebrated (although metastatic cancer can still show up after longer intervals). My understanding is that because TNBC is so aggressive, metastatic disease is more likely to show up within 2-3 years, and the risks of recurrence do not decrease much further after that. So, while there are still no guarantees, 3 years is an important milestone.
A few months ago, I noticed the date approaching in the calendar because I was scheduling my regular (now annual) checkup with my surgeon, and they offered me that date. I agreed to it, figuring that would be a fitting way to mark the milestone. And, I thought, maybe I would attend the monthly breast cancer support group to celebrate and provide hopeful testimony to others.
Well, instead, I am celebrating the date by nursing a bad head-cold in Nepal.
Yes, Nepal. A couple of months ago, after much debate, Don decided to attend the teachings and meetings of Tergar International, the Tibetan Buddhist lineage he has been studying, at Yongyey Mingyur Rinpoche’s home monastery in Kathmandu. Since Don is generally not much for international travel, I decided this was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. Though not as committed as Don is, I too have found YMR’s teachings very helpful for my meditation practice. So, assuming I’m well enough, I plan to attend the 4-day teaching that begins tomorrow. After that, I will move to a different monastery guesthouse across the city, where I plan to do a self-guided writing retreat.
We left Madison on Feb. 28th, travelling with another Tergar devotee, Susan M. Our journey was smooth, albeit long—about 26 hours door to door. My last blog post was written en route from O’Hare to Abu Dhabi – lots of time on a 13-hour flight to catch up on writing that I’d been meaning to do for a while!
On the 4-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu, I had lovely conversations with my seat-neighbor, a South Indian-American archaeologist, teacher of ancient languages, and religious educator who was traveling to Kathmandu for a conference on educating youth to think critically. I noticed him taking a packet of “Emergen-C” so maybe he was the carrier of the virus I’m struggling with.
I prefer that to my other theory – that I might have caught the cold from a feral monkey at the Pashupathinath Temple. This UNESCO World Heritage site is a “sprawling collection of temples, ashrams, images and inscriptions raised over the centuries along the banks of the sacred Bagmati river,” and is a major pilgrimage focus for Hindus. It was one of the featured stops on the private tour we’d booked for our first full day here. Our tour guide, Diwakar (prounounced like D-Walker), is a Hindu, so he left us alone for 10 minutes while he went to worship in an area we weren’t allowed. We were apparently welcome to witness close up some of the ceremonies small groups were doing on the grounds of the temple. And, we could watch the many monkeys (and some cows!) that wandered around.
Cows don’t interest me that much, but monkeys I find fascinating, and initially felt less inhibited about watching them than I did about observing unknown human primates’ religious rites. The fact that the monkeys were not in cages added to my interest. We had been warned to “be careful of the monkeys,” without any further specificity, so I didn’t want to go too close. But at one point there was a fence between me and some monkeys, who were relatively stationary as they groomed each other, so I went right up to the fence to watch. I immediately got an eyeful of a mother monkey about 5 or 6 feet from me poking and tweaking her offspring’s tiny, erect penis!
This felt a bit embarrassing, but there weren’t any other humans watching with me, and I kept watching. She went on to groom other parts of his body, and I noticed she seemed to have a cough. Short, dry, frequent coughs. Now, given that Kathmandu has the 5th worst air quality of any city in the world, this was not necessarily due to a virus. Nevertheless, I felt the desire to back away, lest it be something contagious, and after the 3rd or 4th cough, I did.
We rejoined our guide and went to the other side of the temple, where we could observe the ritual cremations being done. I’m having trouble finding words for this experience. Though we only watched from across the river, we were close enough to inhale the smoke from the funeral pyres. I kept wondering whether I was really smelling burning human flesh. I also felt shocked and appalled by the filthiness of the sacred river – full of ash, with a cow wandering in it, and an abandoned coffin floating lazily in an eddy. (Diwakar explained, when I asked, that some wealthy people who die elsewhere have their bodies transported here to be cremated). We also viewed Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that, along with much of Nepal, suffered devastating destruction in the 2015 earthquakes.
When I was awake later that night due to jetlag, I noticed painful sinuses, I figured it was from the poor air quality (not to mention the smoke inhalation). But upon waking and proceeding into my day, I was forced to conclude I’d come down with a virus. This significantly dampened (no pun intended, but I’ll take it) my enjoyment of our trip to Namo Buddha, days 3-5 of our time here. Despite my physical discomfort, and my “second arrow” worries about the illness (chiefly not wanting Don to catch it; and occasionally, when awake alone at night, worrying about dying of a strange monkey flu) I appreciated the side trip. Getting up above a lot of the smog in Kathmandu Valley was good, as was seeing the towns and countryside on the way. I was SO glad we’d hired a driver rather than trying to navigate the roads ourselves – not only driving on the left, but also no lane markings and a constant flow of motor scooters filling in all spaces between cars, trucks, and buses! It appeared chaotic, though obviously people are reading cues that I am unaware of, since we never collided. I also loved seeing the decorative adornments on all of the big trucks, so unlike our “manly” rigs back home.
We stayed for two nights at a lovely eco-resort built with traditional Newar-style buildings (beautiful adobe and carved wood – but watch your head!!! Ow!! Every entrance extremely low). Though I couldn’t always taste it that well, I could tell the food was excellent, and I appreciated their care about feeding westerners’ fragile stomachs, and their exquisite attention to dietary needs and preferences. Since I was too sick to do the hikes to the nearby monastery and stupa that Don and Susan went to, I spent a lot of time sitting in the sun on a very high hillside, overlooking a terraced valley, and listening to “jungle” and human sounds. Birds – twittering, crowing, high-pitched piercing cries… insects buzzing… cows (or buffalo?) mooing… some raspy deep unidentified grunting…drums…clanging, trundling, chopping, people calling back & forth to coordinate work… and some serious partying going on in the adjacent public park for hours on Saturday!
Much of the time my view of the horizon contained a bank of clouds amassing for the “mini-monsoon” season. Frequently, though, the clouds would shift a bit and I would suddenly realize that some of what I had taken for clouds were actually snow-covered mountain peaks!! A view of the Himalayas was the main reason I’d wanted to come to Namo Buddha, but it was still shocking to this US Midwesterner to see the earth in the sky! The metaphors about heaven and earth being closest here suddenly made sense to me.
All kinds of binary categories are being messed with for me here: earth in sky, filth in sacredness, human/non-human, and, I suppose, illness (a virus) amidst health (3 years cancer-free!).