In October 2003, during my first stay in Nepal, an older Nepali woman asked why I wasn’t married. It was a question I was asked often, but struggled to answer. At the time, I was 24 years old and footloose, volunteering a bit at a rehabilitation center for disabled children in Bhaktapur, studying thangka painting, and staying with a Nepali family in a nearby village. I had no obligations and no ties. While I struggled to spin a response she offered, “You should trek to Gokyo and visit all seven of the sacred lakes. There you will find love.” A month later, after seeing a stunning photo of the view from Gokyo on a poster in a bookstore, I rented a sleeping bag, bought a flight, secured a trekking permit, and went. I don’t know if a pilgrimage to Gokyo is a recognized method for Nepalis to find a partner or prepare for marriage. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps her advice was just for me. Or perhaps the old woman’s son was a guide or lodge owner in the area and I’ve forgotten that detail. But on December 2nd, 2003, a bit of magic showed up and I remembered her words.
My friend Willi and I were a week into our 20-day trek. As we hiked up to the village Dole, the sun cast pink light on the Himalayan range. At 15,000 feet, I was dizzy. The snowcapped peaks were so big, they felt close enough to throw stones at. Outside the lodge at the village of Dole, a man stood against a rock wall, alone, a silhouette against the pink sky. As I walked up the hill, our eyes met and he smiled. I put down my pack on the stone wall. It was Willi’s turn to negotiate our nightly rate at the lodge. She went inside and left me alone with him. I don’t remember what Lars and I said to each other, but I remember thinking the pink glow of sunlight must be radiating from him. His face lit up in great smiles and easy laughs. His eyes twinkled pale blue and crinkled in pleasure. That night, as we told stories and I warmed his hands by the fire, our fellow trekkers went to bed one by one until we were the only ones awake. The next day, I saw the first of the seven sacred lakes. In the middle of a desolate brown landscape, it shimmered an intense and intoxicating teal blue. While I admired the lake’s surreal beauty, I thought of Lars.
He and I had only a few hours together over three days in the mountains. As a guide for a group of mountaineers, he led his group across the 18,000 foot high Cho La pass to the second Everest Base Camp. Willi and I were unprepared to cross the pass in winter. We didn’t have axes, crampons, porters, or the correct permits. On top of that, I developed altitude sickness at 17,000 feet, in Gokyo, and was forced to rest and then descend in a basket on a porter’s back. I doubted I would see Lars again.
As luck would have it, I got to see him again. Lars had mentioned where his group was staying after the trek. Back in Kathmandu, the hotel Willi and I were staying at for 100 rupees a night didn’t have hot water. After 21 days without a shower, Willi declared that our first showers couldn’t possibly be cold. We found Lars’ hotel easily. He was sitting outside in the garden with his trekking group. He happily handed us his room key, then invited us to join his group for a celebration dinner. His eyes sparkled across the table at me. The next three days Lars and I walked arm in arm down Kathmandu’s narrow noisy lanes. We pulled each other close when motorbikes and rickshaws threatened to run us over. We ate oranges on the steps of one of my favorite temples, and talked about the lives we wanted. On his last full day in Nepal, we went to Bodhanath, the ancient Buddhist Stupa. As we circumambulated the temple at sunset, we talked about love, and time, and how it felt like we’d known each other forever, and maybe, we mused, with the Buddhists’ non-linear concept of time, we had. That night we shared a bottle of chianti and a pizza at a tiny Italian restaurant. We confessed our love for each other, but his confession was tempered with sadness and reservations. Just before coming to Nepal, he had just started a relationship with a woman in Germany. This was holiday, not real life. This connection between the two of us wasn’t meant to be. We said a teary goodbye at my hotel.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I went to the internet café and wrote my mom. I was confused by how strongly I felt about him and how confident I was about the special connection he and I had. When I got back to the hotel, I woke Willi and told her I was leaving to find him, and that I was bringing my passport and credit cards – just in case. Before dawn I went to his hotel, but the receptionist told me he had just left. I found a taxi and in broken Nepali, told the driver the story. A taxi chase to the airport began. We darted down narrow alleys dodging chickens, cows, and women headed home from early morning prayers.
At the airport, security wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have a ticket. I begged and told my story in broken Nepali. As other foreigners with flights went in, I showed them Lars’ photo and asked for their help. An older security guard smiled and escorted me inside. I spotted Lars in the line checking in and shouted his name. He turned around, threw open his arms, and called out, “Joy! Komst du mit? [Are you coming with me?]” I ran to him, he picked me up, spun me around, set me down, and looked into my eyes. I saw something in his face – the reality of our situation. I remembered he had holiday plans with her. “No.” He kissed my forehead and we said goodbye.
I tried to forget about him. Friends helped me. A few months later, I moved back to Santa Barbara and found work at the University. I met other people and started other relationships.
Years passed. I thought about him sometimes. I wondered if he was married, if he had kids, but mostly just if he was happy. I looked online for him, but there were so many Lars Larssons and none were the man I remembered.
In 2012, I moved to Nepal to do a series of paintings and research documenting community response to the theft of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures. I thought about him often during the three years I lived there, and looked for him in the faces of the trekkers I met. Sometimes in my fieldwork I encountered a temple I thought might have been the one where we shared oranges.
In 2015, the great earthquake hit. It was a difficult time for everyone. We had hundreds of aftershocks. My home was damaged. I slept under a table in my clothes and shoes, ready to run with every shake. I worked as a consultant for UNESCO, and trained hundreds of people to do damage assessments of temples with their smartphones. While assessing the damage in a temple square in Kathmandu, I stopped at a great pile of bricks. Memories of Lars came rushing back. This rubble was all that remained of the temple where we shared oranges and our dreams. I was overcome with sadness and longing. This beautiful place that had witnessed our connection and our hopes for the future was gone.
In June 2016, a year after I moved back to Santa Barbara from Nepal, I got an email from Lars wishing me happy birthday. It had been 13 years since we’d had any contact. I didn’t believe it was him. I didn’t respond. He wrote again, a month later, spilling his heart out about the last 13 years. I felt overwhelmed. I worried that I wasn’t ready or somehow it wasn’t the perfect time. I still felt broken and confused from starting life over again after the big earthquakes in Nepal. I feared that the fantasy of us was better than the reality. I feared that I’d lost the spark of light he’d seen in me 13 years before. I didn’t respond.
That fall, I tried to date a bit in Santa Barbara, but my heart wasn’t fully in it, and I didn’t meet anyone I connected strongly with.
By December, I was restless and ready to take some chances again. I was feeling imaginary earthquakes less frequently, and I was getting bored of my quiet life alone. I felt my old spark of idealism and optimism returning. I made a two-fold resolution for the New Year – I would take more creative risks and chances on love.
On Christmas, persistent Lars wrote again. He attached photos of an adventure he’d taken to a glacier in Sweden with his dog Maja. In a photo he attached, he looked just the same as I remembered. His message was much more approachable. And I felt ready. On New Year’s Eve, I finally wrote him back. He was overjoyed, and I was excited by his response. On New Years Day, we talked on Skype. The connection seemed to be there still. He suggested we meet and offered to host me at his home in Sweden. “I might be able to go in the summer,” I said. “Joy, I’m not talking about summer,” he smiled, “We should meet as soon as possible. If you can’t come here soon, I will come to Santa Barbara whenever it is a good time for you.” A week and a half later, after a dear friend nudged me incessantly, I invited him for a short visit – 4 days because I wasn’t sure if we’d hit it off. It was risky. We’d only spent a few days together in total, and that was 13 years earlier. The day after I invited him, he rearranged his work schedule and bought a ticket. He was here a week later. I picked him up from LAX with the Santa Barbara Airbus. I brought a huge sign reading, “LASSE, Welcome to California (and back into my arms!)” I was hoping for magic, but I was nervous. I worried that we’d drive each other crazy. I hadn’t seen him in 13 years. I didn’t know if I’d recognize him. After standing in the arrivals section of LAX with my huge sign for two and a half hours, I texted a friend, “Maybe he changed his mind and didn’t get on that plane. Maybe he’s not coming.” I clicked send and then someone jumped up and kissed me. Lars was on the other side of the ramp, all smiles and laughter. On the way back to Santa Barbara, it felt as if no time had passed. We hit it off fabulously. We stayed up all night talking. We adored each other. We started making plans.
He flew out to visit me three more times in the spring. It was my busiest time of the year at work and I couldn’t take time off, so he had time alone every day. Every morning, he made me coffee and packed me a lunch, then he and Fox walked me to the bus stop to see me off. While I was the office he fixed my creaky gate and my cupboards that wouldn’t close, hung my insect collection, took Fox jogging, bought groceries, met the plumber, and fixed everything in my old house that was broken. Every evening when my bus arrived at the station he was there with Fox to pick me up. He met a few of my friends, and we traveled together to Nevada and Texas to visit both sets of my parents. Everyone adored him.
He’s fun, adventurous, reliable, generous, thoughtful, open-hearted, and almost impossibly idealistic and positive. He cries when he’s happy. He fixes things. He designs and builds furniture. He enjoys doing dishes. He loves the outdoors and keeps camping gear ready at all times. He likes to plan for the future. He makes people smile. There is an ease to the way he moves and dresses and laughs and loves. He plays with kids and dogs.
In late May, I was finally able to take a few days off work to visit him at his home on the island of Adelsö in Sweden. I was enamored with Sweden’s forests and lakes, and with the island. He made sure I felt at home in his home. After I had recovered from jet lag, he took me on a boat ride to a tiny island he calls Foal Island, and asked me to marry him. Overjoyed, I said yes.
His proposal set things in motion. I put in my notice at work and with my landlord. Lars flew out for engagement parties and to meet my friends and coworkers. My friends and family were incredibly supportive in getting me moved out and on a plane with Fox.
Life here since August has been a stream of experiences rich in nature and contentment – endless cups of coffee and meals together, walks with the dogs in the forest, mushroom picking, kayaking, cycling, and creating things together. We made leather sofas, bonsai trees, succulent paintings, plant shelves, and library shelves. We took a road trip together with the dogs to Finland and I was reunited with friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years. We bought a new boat.
We decided to marry in two stages. The first stage would between the two of us, without the usual wedding stress. The second stage we would do later in the late spring or summer, after my visa situation stabilizes and we feel confident I won’t need to leave the country.
Yesterday on October fifteenth, 2017, we married. The ceremony was at the edge of the forest on the cliffs over the lake, at a site that was a safe haven for Viking women and children during the 9th and 10th centuries. The sunlight was soft and the day was unusually warm for October. We said our own vows. In attendance were our dogs Fox and Maja, Lars’ nephew Johan and his wife Celia as witnesses, their dog Asterix, our photographer Carolina, and a joyful minister named Petra. I did the flowers myself, and I wore a silver vintage dress and fur stole. Lasse wore his new corduroys. The dogs were adorned with flowers. They lay at our feet during the ceremony and were surprisingly well-behaved all day. We had a five course dinner delivered to the house, Lars made my favorite chanterelle soup, and we all celebrated with margaritas.
Yesterday I was a bride, and this morning I woke up Mrs. Davis Larsson, with a big pile of dishes in the sink. But my handsome Mr. Davis Larsson washed most of them after taking the dogs jogging, and our house is full of flowers and sunlight. I feel lucky and grateful. Life is strange, and full of unexpected twists and turns, heartbreaks and joys. The greatest gifts we have are our dearest friends, families, and partners. We never know what tomorrow might bring. The best we can hope for is to have someone to share this crazy, magical life with.
May the adventure continue!
I send infinite love and good wishes to you and your loved ones.