I am glad to leave Kathmandu early the next morning. After a 7-hour nail-biter of a road trip, we pull into Chitwan National Park.
On either side of the road is deep, otherworldly forest. It makes me think of Rudyard Kipling: I can almost see Mowgli and Bagheera darting between the tall, sal trees in the elephant grass. The sal trees, I would later learn, are significant to the Buddhist faith. Gautama Buddha was born and would later die in the shade of this tree. It blossoms but ever so briefly, making it a symbol in Buddhism for the transient nature of all good things. My Depression is totally down with this concept. She’s nodding and snapping her fingers like a hipster, “Nothing good lasts.”
Our hotel is a beautifully manicured compound of 6 buildings spread out on a walled property. Dusty footpaths winding through luscious landscaping connect them. Kathmandu was urban, dizzying, and incessantly loud. Chitwan is a jungle paradise, slow and intentional. And more my speed.
My favorite thing about traveling east is how it turns this Night Owl into a temporary Early Bird. I wake up naturally, just in time to hear the jungle’s 5 AM symphony of chirps and gentle calls. Each one is an invitation to continue following the tigress. But in the cool light of morning made hazier by our hanging mosquito net, I’m fine to stay put a while and listen to the jungle.
When the breeze pushes through our screen windows, it smells like mosquito coils and gardenia. There is a bird whose call sounds like someone laughing hysterically. It cracks me up every time I hear it. But I can’t figure out its name. Every time I ask our safari tour guide, Sut, to name it, it stops singing.
Our first morning in Chitwan, we put jungle flower honey in our coffee before making the ten-minute walk from our hotel to the Rapti River. On the opposite shore, massive crocodiles sunbathe. Just behind them lies the wild jungle. It’s protected land, watched over by the army, and home to storybook wildlife, including several endangered species.
The Jurassic-sized crocodiles are still in sight as we cross the river in shallow dugout canoes and climb into jeeps on the opposite bank. Sut points left and right, spotting wildlife.
During our 6-hour safari, we meet chital, small spotted deer unbothered by our noisy jeeps. We also see rhinos finding refuge from the intense sun in muddy water and elephants grazing along the jungle tree line. And, of course, a few cheeky monkeys, watching for unattended items to swipe at military outposts.
When we are kids, we spend hours and hours in our imaginations. I think back on what would send my make-believe mind into overdrive and know this Nepali jungle would have been high-octane inspiration for my little kid brain. But so far, in this otherworldly country, it’s only succeeded in hijacking my body with baseless panic.
At what point do our imaginations pivot and decide to exclusively generate all the reasons we shouldn’t be happy?
Growing up, I often used my imagination to developing “plans”. My weirdo, 11-year-old self adored and collected floor plans for homes. I think the potential in each one was irresistible to me. As I entered middle and high school, my identity became very achievement-based because planning was fun, but the praise for a plan well executed? It was like a drug.
I carried this into my professional career, which appeared to outsiders as initiative, drive, the ability to anticipate needs, and complete dedication to my work. In reality, it was a bomb that I was gradually building into my very person. And it was due to detonate.
When your identity and self-worth are founded mostly on your achievements, you’re in for a rude awakening. It’s inevitable.
What happens when you do everything to make the grade, but factors outside of your control ensure your failure? What happens when you do everything in your power to prevent trauma or relational distress or tragedy, but it happens anyway?
Anxiety happens. To regain some sense of control, Anxiety steps in and suggests that, maybe, she can help prevent this from happening again. In return, she simply requires all your imagination, all your creativity, which she will use to concoct every possible worst-case scenario. That way, at least you’ll see it coming.
Anxiety takes the imagination we once used to explore our own endless potential and turns it into a self-sabotaging conspiracy theory machine.
PTSD-related Anxiety, like mine, is just regular Anxiety with a folder full of evidence under her arm. She has proof that it will all hit the fan at some point, so you’re better off giving her the keys and letting her drive. It is exponentially harder to deny her the driver’s seat.
After several hours in the jungle, we cross back to the other side of the river and walk a short distance to an open-air restaurant. We sit outside on the riverbank in plastic chairs whose colors have gone tender with time. “Once,” Anant points to the walkway between the tables, “a tiger walked right through here.”
I slip off my sandals under the table. After absorbing warmth all day, the sand is giving it back to my feet. Our server brings us bottled water, curry, spicy steamed chicken momos, hot fluffy roti, and bottles of Everest, a blonde Nepali ale.
Between courses, we spot a sambar stag (the tiger’s favorite dinner) hiding in the tall grass on the other side of the river. The sun, a big tangerine ball in the sky, slips below the tree line, and the night lets down her hair around us.