“You go ahead,” I told Andy as we prepared to leave our lunch stop in Jubing, a full plate of dal bhat lulling me into a post-meal sleepy pace. “I’m going to take this slow.” The walk from Jubing to Bupsa, our destination for the night, should be about three hours, uphill at first (the worst, right after eating) then downhill then uphill again. On the way we’d walk through the village of Khari Kola and across the river before meeting the final ascent to the settlement of Bupsa on top of the hill.
I left in high spirits, knowing that Bupsa would be the last overnight before we met the human highway of trekkers arriving at Lukla and joining us on the trail to Everest. I was enjoying the sun, the view of the river that cuts a deep gorge through this region, and the realization that the mountains were definitely more dramatic here.
The trail rose then evened out as it traced around the side of a mountain and then opened into a view of a hardscrabble farmland. I thought I might be able to see Andy up ahead here – the turn in the trail afforded a long view of a lot of terrain. But Andy is a seriously fast hiker and I couldn’t spot him up ahead. I did encounter a woman and her child sitting on a narrow, rocky section of trail. “Namaste,” I said in a big friendly voice, and she returned the greeting with a skeptical gaze. Odd, not the usual response. “Khari Kola?” I asked, gesturing in the direction I was already heading. She looked at me a bit longer and pointed back from whence I had come. She might be referring to the long river by that name, I thought, whereas I was looking for the town. I tried again, this time referring to the day’s ultimate destination: “Bupsa?” I asked, still gesturing ahead on the trail. “Bupsa,” she nodded slowly, and I took this as affirmation that I was heading in the right direction.
That’s the thing about confirmation bias. You rarely can recognize you’re committing it.
What I did not know at that moment was that sometime earlier in the afternoon I had accidentally left the main trekking trail and veered onto a side trail traveled by locals only. The route I should be on was heading due east on a well-worn trail of easy footing through one town to another. The route I was on traced a thin line northwest, down the slope of a river valley, through terraced farms and steep woods – a line that became thinner and more suspect the longer I walked it.
At the river crossing, I knew something was weird. Long, swinging suspension bridges were familiar, but this bridge was merely several bamboo poles lashed together and set across the rocks. To my right were the rotting remnants of actual suspension bridge and my brain rationalized it this way: earthquake damage took out the bridge, this is the temporary replacement. I stewed about how to get across Huck Finn’s raft without falling in, and on the other side I scrambled up the steep, muddy embankment looking for the trail. I found it, sort of, and as I walked through the dense brush on the narrowing trail, the doubts crept in.
I stopped on a flat stretch, looked at my topo map and assumed wrongly for the second time that afternoon that I knew where I was: there are two trekking trails that enter Bupsa I somehow had gotten onto the one that I wasn’t planning to take. It would be a bit longer of a walk, I thought, but I would get there if I just kept going. It was nearly 3 p.m. and I decided to give myself one more hour of walking. If nothing had materialized by 4 p.m., I would still have plenty of daylight to retrace my steps – all the way back to Jubing if necessary.
Hours later I would be shocked, somewhat horrified, to realize that in fact I had not been on either of those trekking routes. I had gone so completely off trail that I was now switchbacking up the backside of a mountain on a local trail rarely used at all, but that never sees the soles of trekkers’ boots. After a half-hour of climbing through forest underbrush, a view to a terraced farm opened up and I was ecstatic. I left the trail and walked through the tiny plowed fields till I found a person I could ask for help. I pulled out the Lonely Planet book and hacked away at the phrases in the back, “Help, I’m lost!” The woman working the field gave me a quizzical smile and a namaste, but clearly my attempt at speaking Nepali stunk.
“Bupsa?” I asked. “Bupsa," she answered, pointing straight up the mountain behind her, gesturing to a trail that I couldn’t discern.
“Bupsa?” I asked again, as if that would elicit confirming details. “Bupsa, Bupsa,” she urged pointing uphill.
With hesitation, I started walking in the direction she pointed, stopping every few feet to turn and ask. “Bupsa…?” and she kept waving me on, “Bupsa, Bupsa!”
A bit later, two teenage boys were running down the trail toward me. Score! Teenagers! (At this point in the trip I am convinced that all Nepalese teenagers speak at least some English to compensate for my total lack of Nepali.)
“Do you speak English?” I asked hopefully.
“This way to Bupsa?” I ask, pointing uphill.
“How far to Bupsa?”
He stumbles a bit here. “Is it one hour?” I ask, cringing that he might say yes.
“No,” he chuckles, gesturing with his hands to indicate a smaller amount of time.
“Is it five minutes?”
“No, no, no,” he laughs, “more."
Okay, this is okay. I was going in the right direction, uphill, and I was somewhere between five minutes and one hour from Bupsa.
My relief and confidence growing, I repeated this conversation with every human being I could, and reminded myself to laugh by asking a few farm animals for directions, too. I was tracking through people's fields, yards and quiet trails that are normally unmolested by tourists, and yet everyone was as helpful as they could possibly be. The trail forked and curved and I was constantly doubling back to the same people to ask yet again, “Bupsa?” And they smiled encouragingly, pointing up the path. Always up, up, up.
Around four o’clock, the cold and damp fog were crowding in but at least the houses and farms were more closely spaced. I approached the dooryard of a small farmhouse and asked a teenage girl, “Is this the way to Bupsa?” And she cheerfully answered, “This is Bupsa!”
Uh no… This couldn’t be Bupsa! Bupsa is supposed to be a dense cluster of trekking lodges offering warm meals, sometimes warm showers and freezing cold beds. But I was standing on a steep hillside surrounded only by Nepalese homesteads, lived in by Nepalese people, with no evidence of a trekker in sight.
I mimicked laying my head down to sleep and asked again, “Bupsa? Teahouse?” and she looked at me quizzically but gestured up the hill a ways farther.
Nearing 4:30 p.m., I reach an area where kids were playing soccer on a dirt field, and a family was building a house. The woman sees me trudging uphill and hails me over with an interested smile. “Bupsa? Teahouse?” I ask her, feeling my determined optimism starting to fail. “Yes, yes,” she smiles and walks me over to her husband. This man sent from heaven speaks perfect English, stops the hammering he’s doing on the house and talks to me about where I’m trying to go.
I explain I’ve been lost and I’m supposed to meet a friend in Bupsa at a trekking lodge. He tells me to keep walking uphill and I’ll get to Bupsagumbda. This worries me because I remember seeing a village on the map called Gumbadebanda, east of Bupsa. I shake my head no, thinking, I don’t want to go farther east, I want to go directly to the village.
But this kind, patient man thankfully did not give up. “No, you walk to Bupsagumbda. You know what gumbda is?”
At this point I realize I misheard him; he was asking do I know what gompa is. 'Gompa' is monastery – I should walk uphill to the monastery, and that’s where the center of Bupsa is.
Bupsa gompa!! I took off with renewed energy.
The whole time I’d been marching myself down unused backcountry trails, I’d also been dragging the worry with me of how the hell I’d meet up with Andy. We had expected to reconnect around Khari Kola, and he must be wondering where I was. My only thought was to get to Bupsa, get on WiFi at a trekking lodge and try to message him. He could be waiting at Khari Kola, he could have headed back to Jubing to look for me, or hopefully he decided to push ahead to the place where we agreed to end the day: Bupsa.
Now that that I was definitely minutes away from the end of my long, wrong-way walk, I was fully focused on figuring the odds of how we’d meet up. Even if he did make it to Bupsa, which of the half-dozen lodges might he be in? Perhaps he’s all the way back in Jubing, in which case we’ll lose a day while I hang out in Bupsa tomorrow waiting for him to catch up.
“Patti!” I hear through the muffled cloud of my competing thoughts. “Patti!!!”
I turn around and 50 feet below me on the trail is Andy. Andy!
How the hell…?
A few hours earlier, near the point where I unwittingly left the main trail for parts unknown, Andy had paused to wonder if I would recognized the turn I was supposed to take. An expert navigator, he later described to me that keeping on the correct trail essentially required making a 180-degree hairpin turn that was easy to miss. A little ways after that, having not seen me, he decided to turn back and go down the wrong trail to find me. But by that time, I had gotten so far down the trail that he wasn’t able to quite catch me; he actually figured that I hadn’t yet gotten to the trail. Or possibly that I twisted an ankle and went back to Jubing. He knew that he wasn't on the right trail anymore, but decided to push ahead.
Either way, we were both shocked to learn that I was ahead of him on the same trail that we both managed to get totally lost on. The difference was that Andy knew where he was lost, and I had no idea.
Minutes later we flopped into the outdoor chairs of a lodge -- relieved, surprised, dumbfounded at the turn of events. We spread out the topo map and recreated how the afternoon went wrong. “Did you go across this bamboo bridge?” I asked him, showing him the photo evidence on my phone. “Oh yeah, I took a photo of that, too.” Comparing the timestamps, we realized we were just 10 minutes apart. And we both had gotten the same confusing early directions from the same baffled woman.
Khari Kola? Back the way you came.
Bupsa? That way, uphill.