On day seven of our Annapurna Circuit trek we rest in Manang, a Buddhist town in the mountains. We’d heard about a holy man, well past the age of 90, who lives in an isolated gompa perched like an eagles nest high above the village. Those who make the effort to visit receive a blessing from this ancient man for the bargain price of 100 rupees. Brian and I are intrigued.
From the dusty streets of Manang we squint upward and can just make out a splash of color, Praken Gompa, against the Tibetan brown of the mountains. This is our destination. We climb up a trail so steep that we have to walk bent forward for risk of falling backwards. My calves scream at the effort. “So much for a day of rest,” says Brian when we stop to catch our breath.
We trudge upward in the thin air. I keep a simple pace, breathing so intensely that I can feel the full capacity of my lungs as they expand inside my body. When was the last time I breathed like this, so deeply and full of intent?
After an hour’s climb we reach the gompa and a tiny wooden gate greets us, cracked as though expecting our arrival. The stone gompa is built into the mountain, a white stupa stands proudly in front, prayer flags wave in the wind. The view from up here is tremendous, the Annapurna range snow covered and mighty, the village of Manang like a toy town far below.
We duck beneath a small wooden door to enter the gompa and climb a flight of uneven stone stairs to a small room. We take off our shoes in silence and peek our heads inside. A woman, a Buddhist nun wrapped in a crimson robe, waves us in. She motions for us to sit on the floor across from her.
Her father, the holy man we have come to see, is 97 years old, she tells us. He is sick, she points to her stomach in demonstration, and two men have carried him off the mountain to be flown by helicopter to Kathmandu. She is giving blessings in his place. At 65 years old, she herself has been living in this stone gompa on top of this isolated mountain for 45 years.
She gives us warm tea and we sit with her in silence. It is a peaceful silence, a state so clearly natural to her. The air in the tiny room is spiced with incense. There are no sounds but my breath, and Brian’s steady breath beside me, the clinking of our tea cups as we place them on their saucers. Occasionally, I look up to steal a glimpse at this calm woman, her head shaved and her skin a copper brown, and each time I do she is smiling at me. Her presence fills the room. It feels, there is no other way to describe it, holy.
After some time I break the silence. “Do you get many visitors?” She says yes and gestures to an alter that fills the left wall of the room. It overflows with burning candles, incense, and photos of the Dali Lama. Gifts that people have brought from around the world are piled around: a 2010 calendar, a clock in the shape of Australia and, inexplicably, a navy lanyard with the name of a corporate conference printed in a serious white font.
It is time to receive our blessings (ah, but isn’t it always?) and I go first, kneeling in front of her as she ties a colorful string around my neck. Chanting a prayer, she touches my forehead with a holy text. She points to the string around my neck “for good luck,” she says. “Dhanyabad,” I reply. Thank you.
The date, I noticed this morning, is May 11th and exactly one year ago I was attending my last day of work, packing up my desk, bidding farewell to my coworkers. Certainly I prayed for good luck that day, anxious in my office chair, perched on the very edge of changing.
Then, I couldn’t have guessed that with a full rotation of the earth I would be here, kneeled before a holy woman on a Himalayan mountaintop. “Good luck,” she says and they are the same words I received from my coworkers a year before as they padded me out the door with cupcakes and email addresses and tokens of safekeeping. Those things were a different sort of blessing, though given with the same intent, as the one I am receiving today. “Good luck,” they said. “Good luck,” she says. And I bow my head in reverie to receive it.