A horse named Kali saved me yesterday.
Two hours into a seven-hour trek, while climbing along a rocky cliff hugging the Dudh Khosi River in Nepal, at an altitude of somewhere around 13,000 feet, I slipped and tweaked my left knee pretty badly. I’m grateful that it was just an injury to my knee versus my entire body plummeting to the ground below. That would have been tougher to fix. A knee injury, that I can handle.
Or so I thought.
About an hour later, I realized that I was slowly harming my knees even more. Yes, knees — plural. The ups and downs were painful on both knees. I didn’t want to put weight on the injured left knee, so I overcompensated by using the right knee more. I was hobbling along like a crippled 80-year-old woman, using my trekking pole and a piece of wood absconded from someone’s firewood stack to help propel me along. I must have looked pathetic as other trekkers, Sherpas and yaks passed me.
Each time I came up to a steep and rocky ascend or descend, I’d mutter, “Jesus Christ, help me.” (I haven’t attended Catholic mass in ages, but those were the words that instinctively spilled from my lips.) Going up and going down were the toughest, and there’s a lot of up and down, up and down, up and down in Nepal. More than any place I’ve ever traveled. That can be killer on the knees. Absolutely killer.
I like to think that I’m mentally tough, but everyone has their tipping point. Mine came when I saw my umpteenth rocky incline that seemed to stretch on forever and ever. I started crying. My tears were a tangible announcement that I was throwing in the towel. I couldn’t mentally-physically get myself up or down any more. I had to listen to my body. My guide at first wasn’t very empathetic. Chalk it up to being a guy and the language or cultural difference. He suggested calling a horse or a helicopter.
Helicopter was out of the question — too dramatic, too expensive, too embarrassing.
That left the horse.
I’ve always had bad luck with riding horses. There was the epileptic horse that kept having seizures — while I was riding him. Then there was the horse that decided to continually trot into the ocean (when we were supposed to stay on the beach) — again, while I riding him. And then there was the horse that got stung by a bee and took off at full gallop — yep, while I was riding him.
Given this history, it probably makes sense that I am terrified of getting on a horse. But it was either that, or damage my knees to a point where my next few months of yoga in Nepal and India might be incredibly painful, if not impossible. I needed an insurance policy against that happening.
So I chose to face my fear and get on the damn horse for the final four hours of the trek.
My guide arranged for a horse and local guide at a cost of US$70. While waiting for the horse to arrive in a local Himalayan village, the town drunk attempted to befriend my guide and me. I told him “to stay the fuck away” and threatened him with my trekking pole. He got the hint, even in his drunken stupor. The only thing I wanted to befriend was the horse that would save my knees.
Then she arrived. A grey horse. But, she wasn’t so much a horse as she was a pony, or perhaps some sort of crossbreed of donkey-horse. Praying that she could support my weight, I got up on the saddle, slid my boots into the stirrups and let her escort me to Lukla. “Jesus Christ, help me,” I muttered.
At points in the journey I questioned my decision. Fear shot through me each time my horse started descending steep, rocky slopes or crossing high-wire steel bridges. I hung on for dear life. My butt started hurting about an hour into the ride, as the saddle didn’t provide much support. My horse also had a penchant for getting dangerously close to the cliffs. That would be just my luck, if she were some breed of kamakazi horse.
When I wasn’t working on remaining calm, I did have moments when I’d glance around at the scenery framing my silly neurosis. It was stunning. Absolutely stunning. The green rolling hills were speckled with little stone houses strung with prayer flags. As we rode into villages, Sherpa children with rosy cheeks from the cold would run out of the houses to smile and wave. When a gentle mist began slithering into the valley as the sun began to set, it provided a beautifully peaceful transition from day to night.
Arriving in Lukla at dusk was an “Hallelujah!” moment. Retracing the terrain my horse just crossed, I knew that I couldn’t have done that by foot — at least, not before sunset. That horse saved me. Really saved me. It was so worth the US$70.
After dismounting the horse, I asked the guide her name. I felt a little silly asking this question at the end of the journey. But something nudged me to ask anyway.
“Kali,” he said.
“You’re shitting me,” I said. “A horse named Kali just carried me all this way?”
Kali is among my favorites Indian goddesses (and my favorite yoga mudra). A fierce warrior goddess, she laps up evil with her tongue and pierces evil with the weapons in her many hands. The skulls of her conquests hang from her neck. She is scary and wild and dangerous. Kali cuts through bullshit by clearing the way for clarity. I have a statue of her at home, a cherished relic from my first trip to India.
The fact that Kali’s name was attached to my grey pony-horse-donkey savior … well, that put a smile on my face. Cool coincidence. Or, if I want to get a little mystical, perhaps Kali herself is looking out for me.
The bigger lesson to come out of this situation, however: The thing that has always given me bad luck (riding horses) saved me from an unlucky situation (injured knee with a long trek ahead). I was forced to give horses another chance yesterday; and it provided a positive thing. There are so many scenarios in life when this same attitude could be applied.
I definitely will not look at horses with the same disdain and mistrust again.
And, of course, I’ll also be sure to give Kali a secret wink each time I see her image in India next month.