Do you believe in omens?
In the fall of 2012, I crossed into the state of Sikkim, India. It's the little wart on the northeast border of the sub-continent. Sikkim is the step-brother of the Indian family. It looks nothing like a Slumdog or Sachin Tendulker. The official language is actually Nepali. I arrived about a month or two after a 7.8 earthquake rocked the state, causing landslides, road closures and extensive damage to one of the larger towns. The draw was a 10-day trek to the base of the third highest mountain peak in the world. Part of my self-assigned cool 😎 is finding adventures that aren't yet discovered by the backpacking-selfie-GoPro world. Everyone hikes to Everest base camp. Who the fuck knows about Sikkim?
Surprisingly, I had done my research in advance. Booking into a trek as a solo traveler would require a bit of maneuvering. It's illegal to make the hike with less than three people (remember this bit), so I'd need to piggy back on to another group. With luck, I found a company who assured me there was a group I could hop on. SO...I jumped in a jeep and rode 9 hours through the southeastern edge of the Himalayan mountain range, along dirt road and rock, tires tongue-kissing a cliffs edge that dropped 80 feet. I've yet to meet a better driver than I had that day. Upon arrival, I checked into the small trekking outfit my contact on the other side of the state had arranged, Red Panda Trekking.
Did you even know red pandas existed? I did not. With good reason I guess, they're endangered. Also known as the lesser panda (kinda harsh...what if I called you the "lesser Glenn") they're found in the eastern Himalayas, and continue through to China where they exist in their largest numbers. To give you a visual, it looks like a ginger raccoon. Funny enough they're the official animal of the state of Sikkim. Perfect. A male red Panda named "Rusty" briefly escaped from the National Zoo in Washington D.C. in 2013. As you see, as a species they simply can't be trusted. A ginger raccoon-like-escape artist...amiright?? If only I'd known before.
There are details about this story that mean nothing to you, and everything to me. They're not important here, specifically, but just know if this were a legal case, or I was drunk, I'd be listing every fact.
My soon-to-be sworn enemy running the Red Panda had one of those faces you want to punch. Not once, but multiple times. To drift further from fact....it seemed that in this very small town, his ego took great pride in handling the tourists and their money. I digress. Mr. Red Panda would proceed to tell me when I arrived that in fact there was NO group to trek with....though this "couple", "might", be showing up in two days....and I "can" trek with them. Two days. No couple. Mr. Red Panda then says, nobody is coming because of the recent earthquake (he definitely already knew this)....buuuuttt...he could send me solo, if I helped him forge an application saying me, and this couple were going together (illegal to hike with less than 3). I played along...cause fuck....I came a loooong ass way to do this. The application would take 48 hours to process. I had two days to think.
In Jon Krakauer's best selling novel, Into Thin Air, about the deadliest day in Mount Everest history, he wrote something that stuck with me those weeks leading up to my trek. That, in order to succeed in summiting Everest one must be exceedingly driven, but if you are too driven...you are likely to die. The greatest, thus gravest, mistake is not knowing when to turn back. The two evenings before my scheduled departure, that idea would grow roots in my mind like a weed at the onset of Spring.
By the morning of my trek, I had mostly made up my mind. I planned to heed Krakauer's wisdom. But I wanted one more reason. I got it. That morning I showed up and Mr. Red Panda informed me I would be making the journey with two men. One in his twenties, another I'd say was close to 50, maybe 60. Oh, and a donkey. Neither spoke English. From a thorough look over, I gleaned they probbbbably didn't have much education or CPR training (assumptions). With them was a sack of rice, potatoes and god knows what else. That was it. No fucking way, I thought, was my ass with little hiking experience or survival training about to hike for ten days in the absolute wild with these two dudes....when NOBODY else was on the trail. I told the Red Panda this, and well, let's say he was not happy.
Police got involved. Money was stolen/withheld. Insults were exchanged. A deep, deep, dislike (hate) was forged. And the "Curse of the Red Panda" was born. This was my first big failure or bad break (not induced by alcohol) after 7 years on the road. I was bummed. Pissed. Deflated. What travel karma had I picked up? Would I have made it through the trek with those men? If I broke an ankle would they have carried me 100km out of the Himalayas? Not a soul could be sure. All I could take away was the lesson. A drop of wisdom I'll carry with me forever. Know when to turn back. Be driven, but not blinded by it.
The night before I flew to Spain two weeks ago, eyes set on the Camino de Santiago, I was washing up dishes in the kitchen. As I put away the last cup, and cut out the lights on the way to bed I grabbed the remote to click off the TV. Simultaneously as I pushed the off button I glanced up and on the screen was an ad for "Red Panda" something or other. I can't be sure what it was exactly, the screen went black. But those two words and a cartoonish image of a red panda shot down the back of my brain to my toes. Denial. I didn't see that. Frozen. Smirk face emoji. More denial. Why the night before my trip? I couldn't unsee it. More importantly, my intuition couldn't unfeel it.
The next day I'm checking in to my flight, and I see the woman next to me take a picture of her luggage. Asked why, she said just in case they lose it. Huh. Yes, yes. You see where this is going.
TAP airlines is terrible. They scheduled my connection too close. And overbooked all future flights. My two flights to Sevilla, Spain, turned into five. IAD-JFK-LIS-POR-MAD-SVQ. And they lost my bag. I was assured though, it would arrive by Saturday. I had a train Sunday morning at 9am. The bag didn't arrive. I missed my $120 train. Sorry, TAP airlines isn't responsible for that. Break my glasses...haven't broke a pair of glasses in 5 years. Book new train. Keep up now... Plan to start Camino, get lost in town, form blisters from sandals. Pause Camino start. Begin again in the middle of a massive heat wave across the Iberian peninsula. 98-100 degrees in the north when it's typically 75-80...fucking climate change. More blisters. Pick up a stage 3 stalker (this chick changed hostel beds at 11pm to sleep in my room, invited herself to stay with me the next day, says weird shit, changes hostels in Bilbao to be close to me again, says more weird shit...oh and, crazy eyes). The night before I head out to hike again the cleaning lady throws away my hiking shoes...she's says she'd never thrown out shoes before. My knee is jacked up. Hostel pays for half of new shoes. Real quick, do you know how many size 13s the entire shoe department at the biggest store in Bilbao has? Two. Yes, two in the entire store. Spain ain't built like me. I've almost given in. Krakauer's words are ringing louder...the Curse of the Red Panda is alive. What awaits me next? I want one more sign. So I hike 14km the next day...the pilgrim quarters in the next town are fully booked...my new shoes give me two new blisters. I've got my sign.
I'm retreating to the south, and the ocean, for two weeks. I'm listening to my intuition, and my body. A little note..."irrational confidence in your genes" doesn't seem to work when you're 36 and slightly out of shape. If you think it's cool to rock up to daily hikes of 15 miles with cumulative accents of 3000 feet, without training, cause it's gangsta...it's not, you're not. You're just an idiot, like me. It also seems a greater force has opposed me until now. For what reason, not a soul could be sure.
How does the cliche go...if you lose, don't lose the lesson? I'm gonna hold this L for the next two weeks, and hold out hope for a shift in fortune. A new omen. The stalker chick told me that the Camino is a metaphor for life. In today's world of fast news and hot takes, the wisdom in life lessons seem to be increasingly endangered, much like red panda. So if I'm thankful for anything over the last few weeks, it's for this opportunity to reflect on my experience on the magically metaphorical Camino...and to cement a valuable life lesson.
Panda panda panda panda panda panda.