Traveling: From Therapy to Art

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Last year, I decided to visit one of the most amazing locations on Earth. I decided I really needed to get a much closer view of the Himalayan mountain range in Asia. I had traveled there in the past without ever leaving the urban areas. This time, I allowed myself to do some trekking, which is the reason why most people go there.

I made a reservation about six weeks before I planned to leave the United States and almost immediately, I came down with something; I don’t know what. I had to leave home still sick and continued feeling physically ill throughout the trip. I would have to recuperate once I got back to Chicago.

I left the Windy City in the middle of November and returned to the USA in December.
Somewhere in the Bible, I know it states that those who keep the Sabbath holy could receive the advantage of having a second soul descending upon them. Well, before long, it seemed that the mesmerizing effect of the splendid and almost otherworldly beauty of the Land of the Snows – as the Himalayas are known – had begun to affect me that way.

Tibetan women making and selling flower garlands in Leh, Ladakh in November 2003. Photo by Michael Ibrahem

The entire time I was there, I spent at least 10 hours a day trekking with my guides. This was possible only because I received great strength and inspiration from the excitement I experienced each day, impressed by this unusual and marvelous environment. The experience seemed to supply me with a type of alter ego, which I felt palpably, allowing me to do all the things I wanted and needed to do.

The experience was compelling enough to allow me to think that something supernatural was occurring throughout my trip. Part of each day’s routine consisted of me, though I was totally out of shape, climbing rocks, hills, descending into gullies along ancient river beds, fighting innumerable, unforgiving thickets (especially the partial trek to Mukhtinath) in our efforts to get from one place to another.

At the end of each day, we eventually returned to whatever lodgings provided for that day’s hike. Luckily, the monks that accompanied me throughout had previously arranged all provisions for me, months before I arrived. The largest, thriving metropolitan city of the area was Kathmandu.

I found Kathmandu to be the city of my dreams. I had always wanted to go there because I liked the neat sounds of the syllables. The name furthermore served to remind me of the 1940s matinee cliffhanger super hero, Chandu the Magician: Chandu from Kathmandu. I felt certain I would find him there. If anyone could locate for me the legendary Sanjeevanee (the herb of resuscitation), it would surely be him.

Trouble was, nearly everyone I met seemed to resemble him. No matter. Like I stated before, I had my own entourage of men equally endowed with esoteric knowledge and power to assist me in my quest for healing and understanding. Each morning, it seemed thousands of women scampered about the entire city anointing the faces of various gods and goddesses found as sculptures and in bas-relief.

Residents' Journal reporter Michael Ibrahem (middle) with RaJ Mahan (from left) and Harish Mahajan in Nepal during a tour of the country in December 2002.

They anointed them with ochre-colored powders and white sandalwood paste, ornamenting them also with flower garlands. On a tray, they carried tiny lamps fueled by clarified butter, incense and usually a small bell with the image of a bird at the top, known as Garooda. These were implements of worship.

Customarily, only the men in these regions are allowed to perform a full-fledged worship service known as Pooj. However, the act of worship performed by these ladies is referred to as an Arati. The architecture around Kathmandu was simply amazing, with much of it constructed long ago. The rococo or lavish, ornamental style, was unlike anything you might find in the West.

The harmony of flavors accompanying each food dish seemed to resonate and hum in the afterthought of one’s aesthetic sense of taste long after every meal. Also hard to forget are the unusual sights and sounds of mysterious singsong human dialogue, bells on rickshaws, garland flowers everywhere from the morning services, and fruits and vegetables of every description.

The smell of spice pastes called masalas competed with extremely fragrant incenses wafting along every street, hugging each wind blowing around every corner from kitchens and temples everywhere. Many of the rituals in which I was invited to participate were secret in nature. Therefore, I pledged vows of secrecy never to speak of them.

I also witnessed some of the most astonishing events and met with the most unusual characters. But I must never disclose their location nor speak of their siddhis, the term for the so-called magical powers accruing to them as a testament of their adeptship.

Finally, it was my turn. First, I was led before dozens of holy men, one by one, each in his own sacred space, to be purified, blessed and endowed with his brand of spiritual power. Next, after conferring on me a special kind of baptism (Acharya Abhishekam) generally unknown to the majority of Hindus, I was left to ponder the following admonition: “To speak is not to see.”

Some people informed me that I was probably the first non-indigenous person to receive such an honor since the 19th century. Afterwards, I made the connection that they were most likely referring to the famous British Indologist, author and monk Arthur Avalon. He lived in India towards the end of the 19th century, receiving many Hindu samskaras or sacraments.

This Hindu student (seated) practices his religion as his spiritual teacher looks on in a small sanctuary near Mt. Kailash in Tibet. Photo by Michael Ibrahem

Some might find it peculiar that I would undertake such an unusual journey as this in the first place. Simply stated, I was on a quest which I have pursued most of my life. My passion for travel was ignited a long time ago. As an infant, doctors diagnosed me with a learning disability very similar to Autism called Aspergers Syndrome. As a consequence, my parents tried to remedy the situation by traveling with me in tow to meet wonder-workers of every description around the globe, searching for a cure.

One of my earliest and most vivid memories is of my parents talking to spirit doctors, pleading with them, asking what, if anything, could be done to help me. From infancy, doctors had labeled me as being autistic, a diagnosis with a wide range of symptoms. However, according to my father, one of the things that gave me away was the fact that I never seem to cry.

I remember my family taking me to Canada. Soon afterwards, I would be shuttled about throughout the rural South as my parents sought desperately to find a cure. At some point, I began to feel more like a guinea pig than a patient with an illness. On one occasion, I had my body smeared with the insides of what I guess amounted to hundreds of cockroaches. There was also the time I was made to swallow a live goldfish. These practices took place in the rural South.

Overseas, I was generally circumambulated with fragrant incenses, blessed and prayed over. In Africa once, they smoked me with various herbs while I sat under a cloth.
Some impressions go very deep. As an adult, I followed the same pattern established by my parents in the past.

More than 50 odd years into the process, I now realize that my exposure to different cultures worldwide has served to bring out the artist in me. Perhaps that was it all along. The miraculous cure, for which I have searched so long, seems now to have been found.
Years ago, I realized my passion involved travel. Whether it was international or national to me, it mattered very little, so long as I was on the move.

Bagmati River in northern India in Bihar State. Photo by Michael Ibrahem

I should not have been too shocked, therefore, to find myself appearing to wander aimlessly across a number of Himalayan kingdoms – Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal, China, Tibet, Himachal Pradesh, etc. I was equipped with a DVD camera, complete with boom mics and a SLR Nikon equipped with a 24mm/f1.2 lens in my backpack. Eureka! I had discovered art as documentary filmmaking.

Once I returned home and started showing people the results of my three-week trekking adventure, many people were surprised and actually placed orders for enlargements of photos and paid for them with no hesitation.

Gallery owners thought the photos were stupendous and that the unedited film teaser samples suggested a marvelous feast of things to come. I found their reaction encouraging and wondered, have I found my niche, have I arrived?

For many years, I traveled to search for a cure for my illness. I survived by employing my own strategies for dealing with the problem for so long. But now, I feel that I have passed this most rigorous of life’s tests. I feel I have transcended and metamorphosed into an ARTISTE!!

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