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May 25, 2012

A grandmother and a bullfighter

Eola is a 67-year old grandmother who I met while trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Conchi Rios is a 20-year old female matador that I didn’t meet, at least not in person. I watched her from a distance of 50 feet or so as she fought two frothing-at-the-mouth bulls in the famous Las Ventas bullfighting ring in Madrid.  Eola doesn’t know Conchi, and Conchi doesn’t know Eola.

But both women—who I met within the span of one month—blew me away.

Eola looks like she could be your local librarian: five feet tall, cropped white hair, glasses, and a gentle voice.  When she walked into the dining room of our Himalayan lodge, I was surprised to see that she was alone, save for her Nepali guide, Bijaya.  She had decided to embark on a solo journey in Asia for several months—a feat that was in itself impressive, especially for someone her age.

And then she started telling stories.  She had crossed into Nepal from India in the far west, through the country’s most remote and least-used border. Next, she related a story of jeep travel on a road, that, according to recent maps and everyone I’ve spoken to, was not yet passable by vehicle. (And, as anyone who’s traveled on Himalayan jeep tracks knows, even “passable” roads are glorified dances with death: narrow, rough-hewn pathways that inevitably have a fatal drop on one side.) In the most casual of tones—she could have been talking about planting tulips in her garden—she related how they maneuvered around a hillside turn so sharp that the driver had to make a K-turn to get around it.  Another time, she and Bijaya found themselves being driven by a wild teenager who didn’t have good command of the vehicle.  They stalled out over a precipitous drop, and when the driver accidentally put the car in drive instead of reverse, Bijaya yelled at her: “Get out!” As she recalled this story, Bijaya looked a bit freaked out, but Eola was almost giggling.

Then there was the time a few weeks ago when, on a jungle trek, they got too close to a horny elephant, and she and the jungle-trek guide had to bolt through the forest and across a river; the time she stopped by an elementary school in India and ending up teaching English classes all day; and then there were the naked, shamanic spiritual fire-breathing ceremonies she leads in Ecuador.  We talked for hours, and when it was time to retire to bed, it was all I could do to ask if I could take a picture with her.

Given Eola’s strong spiritual side, I’m not sure that she’d approve of Conchi’s career path, which involves slaughtering copious numbers of bulls.  Bullfighting, an integral part of Spanish culture, has always been considered the ultimate machismo.  You think man versus beast, not woman versus beast.

So when Conchi first stepped into the ring, her brown hair tied back in a ponytail beneath her pointed matador’s hat, I thought: Is that really a woman? But as Conchi began grunting at the bull, her mellifluous voice gave away her gender. Even the spectator sitting next to me was surprised. “It’s rare to see a woman,” he said.

Watching Conchi standing in the ring—a young woman facing a furious, salivating 1,000-pound beast—I was in awe not only of her courage to face the bull, but also of her ability to stand in a ring in front of hundreds of drunken male spectators. And I also felt pride—for our gender. As Conchi waved her red flag and guided the bull to charge straight towards her, I thought: damn, that is one badass woman. Which is exactly how I felt when I met Eola a month earlier.

I meet many amazing ladies on the road, but it’s rare for me to be completely bowled over by the courage of another female. Conchi and Eola got me thinking: what does it to mean to be inspired by someone?

It means that you look up to them because they’ve done something you haven’t.  Either because you don’t have the courage to do it (and can never envision yourself doing it), or haven’t yet had the opportunity in life to do it (and may never have).

I will probably never fight a bull in my life, so Conchi will remain for me, in the latter category. But I can aspire to Eola’s strength, and hope that forty years from now, I am still going trekking in Nepal. Though I’ll probably avoid those jeeps.

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