One day, a few springs ago, my therapist asked me to picture my happy place. It wasn’t hard. My happy place is a series of beautiful green alpine ridges and flower-filled canyons in the Markha Valley, located in a remote part of Ladakh, in northern India. I first visited there in 2010. I’d taken the trip by myself—in part to celebrate turning 30 and in part as a physical challenge. I hiked for five rigorous days, and finishing the trek remains one of the most meaningful moments in my life. There I was, standing on the top of a mountain pass, a bracing wind on my face, looking out over every step I’d taken to get there.
The hike was a first attempt at regaining my independence after being kidnapped a few years earlier by a group of criminals in Somalia, where I’d been working as a freelance journalist. I was grateful to be alive and free, but I still struggled with the aftermath. Walking—whether on the steep, rocky trails in my hometown of Canmore, Alta., or among the gleaming towers of whatever major city I happen to be in—has become a way for me to think and process. I find comfort in the symbolism that goes with it: moving forward, overcoming obstacles, reaching new heights.
A few months ago, I was at home one evening when I got an unexpected phone call. Ali Omar Ader, one of the men behind my abduction, had been arrested in Ottawa after being lured to Canada by the RCMP. Ader, whom I knew as “Adam,” was one of the leaders responsible for the 460 days of captivity and abuse, both physical and sexual, that I endured. (I wrote about this experience in my 2013 memoir, A House in the Sky.) His arrest was welcome news, but it rattled something open inside of me, a part yet unhealed, still angry and confused.
I’ve worked hard to rebuild myself since I was released. I’ve spent almost six years working with therapists and doctors. I still connect with my psychologist every week, talking with her over Skype wherever in the world I might be. I lead a busy life that feels very satisfying. I started a non-profit to put girls in Somalia into school. I’ve spoken on stages all over the world about the healing power of forgiveness. I’ve studied international development and psychology. Yet the men who took away my freedom still haunt my dreams. I woke up on the morning of June 12, 2015—my 34th birthday—to find Adam’s face on the front page of every major newspaper in Canada. Apparently, he had come to Ottawa believing he had a book deal to write about the history of Somalia. The police nabbed him shortly after he arrived.
I spent the following weeks processing his arrest with my psychologist. I was scared about the upcoming trial, which could drag out for years. Knowing that the details of my captivity are likely to emerge in the headlines once more, I’ve had to start preparing to go through the experience. I’ve thought about it every day since Adam’s arrest. When he was captured, I was about to embark on a busy summer; I was still touring for my memoir and had speaking engagements booked in the British Virgin Islands, Berlin, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. But I knew I needed to carve out some time to reflect, to heal and to figure out how to move forward from this latest development.
Travelling by myself has always given me the opportunity to figure out what I’m feeling, minus the noise and distractions of home and work. I feel most alive and present when I’m out on my own in the world. And so, it was immediately clear what I wanted to do: return to the Markha Valley in Ladakh to seek out some of the peace I had felt there.
From New Delhi, I fly into Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, 3,500 metres above sea level. It’s a dramatic landscape of high, windswept passes and remote gorges—the rugged barrenness of far northern India, where the Tibetan Plateau extends into China. As we circle in to land, the plane is surrounded by distant snow-capped peaks and rolling hills with Buddhist stupas perched atop. Houses are visible too, solid buildings of weathered wood, stone and mud.
Between the airport and my hotel, dust envelops my taxi as the driver and I careen down recently paved roads into the centre of town. It’s mid-July and the early-morning temperature is already 30º C, the summer sun a stark contrast to the evenings’ chilly grip.
At the hotel, a simple place I’d stumbled upon the first time I’d hiked Markha Valley, my room is on the top floor and opens out onto a terrace. The view is wide, stretching in all directions. Beyond the trees and the power wires, I can see the Himalayas.
In Ladakh’s valleys, one can walk for days under a changing sky, amid electric pink and yellow blossoms, as a thousand colourful flags whip in the air. They’re tied to the tops of buildings and mountains, each one bearing the words to a Buddhist prayer.
I know from my previous hike that it’s easy to get off-trail here, so I’ve hired a guide. Born and raised in a small mountain village, Sonam Chosdol spends her summers guiding hikers into some of the world’s most awesome trekking and her winters studying French in Pondicherry (an Indian city once ruled by France). She has with her Rigzen and Richeau, both twentysomething female porters. The girls are pretty, and laugh easily and loudly. Together, they’ll take care of my bags and meals, and setting up camp.
We arrive at the starting point for the trek, where a gondola-like wooden box is pulled across a large river to transport supplies and people from one side to the other. I sit in the box beside sacks of sugar and flour, and am ferried 30 feet above the water in a matter of exhilarating minutes. Stauzin, our so-called “pony man,” is waiting for us with his four horses and one donkey to carry our gear for the next five days. He and the porters heap tents, bags and mattresses onto the animals’ sides. We’ve packed for extreme weather, both hot and cold, and also need to carry food for the entire trip.
There are about 20 other trekkers here at the base, faces I will see again and again over the next five days as we take turns passing one another, making conversation at the parachute tea tents (small shops set up by locals) scattered along the trail. They are young and old, backpackers, tour groups and honeymooners. Most will spend their nights together at communal campsites. I’ll have a separate camp, away from the other tents. I’m friendly but not interested in socializing. It feels important to have solitude.
We begin a steep ascent. One hour in, and it is much harder than I remembered. I’m used to hiking, but I haven’t specifically trained for this one. We walk for four gruelling hours, stopping often for water. The sun is blazing, the wind blowing dry and hot. My intention had been to think about Adam as I walked, but it quickly becomes a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.
Finally, we arrive at our campsite, along a river that runs high and muddy through the tawny grass. Light rain falls, and as the sky darkens, I pull my mattress out from my tent and lie back to watch the stars. The moon, massive and low on the horizon, shines through a break in the clouds, an image both beautiful and almost unbelievable in its cosmic scale. I feel free, yet I need to pinch myself a few times to make sure.
None of us slept much last night, our heads pounding from the altitude. For breakfast, Sonam makes me an egg, slowly scrambled with milk, salty Himalayan yak cheese and chives, topped with chopped tomato. It is one of her best creations, and her smile, her enthusiasm for the food she has prepared and the obvious pleasure she takes in watching me eat, is endearing.
Today we walk for seven hours up and down, through remote villages and past ancient Buddhist monasteries, passing women working in the mustard fields and monks on horseback. I start to recognize bends in the trails and certain mountaintops from my previous journey here. It’s exhausting, walking hour after hour. My thoughts wander; I think a lot about how lucky I am to be alive. It is a thought I have often, and it’s always overwhelming. That I survived and can now have moments like this, of total freedom, is such a gift.
After we set up camp, I lie on my mattress and promptly fall asleep for two hours. Sonam wakes me gently with a cup of milk tea and a plate of dried apricots; the late afternoon sun shines through the leaves of the willow trees.
My lingering sense of contradiction—wonder at being here mixed with unease about Adam’s arrest—found expression in a dream last night. In it, I was running through these same beautiful trails being chased by men who I knew wanted to hurt me. I ran past other people, but they were unaware of my peril and I couldn’t scream. I wake up sweating despite the cool night. Morning dew covers the tent so that when I unzip the door, water cascades inside. The sky is wide open and clear.
Today we will walk for five hours. I feel like I’m stepping back in time as I ascend a steep gully and reach the village of Hunkar, set beneath a dilapidated military fort dating back to the 1830s. There are a few campsites here and a tea house. Surrounded by yellow mustard fields, historic ruins and a small garden where you can pay a few dollars to pick your own vegetables, we are in lush and unspoiled country.
We pass the usual suspects, a group of trekkers taking shade under a parachute tent. Sonam leads us on another 15 minutes, and we find a lovely green piece of land and a family with whom we negotiate a small price to pitch our tents here for the night.
Settling in, I discover that my arms, from where my T-shirt sleeves end, are flaming red, despite the SPF 60 I applied earlier. I’m not feeling great. I wanted to use this trip to get comfortable with Adam’s arrest, but the more I think about him, the more upset I get. There’s a picture of him on my iPhone, one I took of the front page of a newspaper the day after his arrest. I don’t know why I look at it now, but I do. I zoom in and stare at his eyes. It’s his visa picture for Canada, and his expression doesn’t reveal much.
Seeing his face makes me mad. It’s been six years since I was freed, and I’ve spoken a lot about how choosing to forgive has helped me move forward. Forgiveness is my end goal, what I want for myself, not something to do for those men. When I feel it, I feel free from what they did to me.
Adam was not among those who assaulted me in Somalia, but he was a leader; he knew about what was happening and allowed it to continue. Unsurprisingly, the sexual abuse I experienced there has had a huge impact on my love life. I’ve spent most of the past six years single. Relationships with men are still complicated, and scarily, most of the relationships I’ve been drawn into haven’t been healthy. It’s like part of me has become familiar with mistreatment; it feels normal, somehow. This pattern has a name, my therapist tells me: repetition compulsion, a phenomenon many survivors of abuse experience. Throughout my captivity in Somalia I learned that it was always easier to stay quiet. Sometimes even now I feel unable to enforce boundaries.
I’m working on this with my psychologist, and tonight I remember what I’ve learned. As I discover, layer by layer, the myriad ways trauma shows itself in my daily life, it gives me the opportunity to change unhealthy patterns of behaviour. I feel grateful for the awareness of those parts of myself that remain weak, so I can seek healing and continue to grow.
I wake up at five a.m. My stomach feels sick; I try to eat some granola with milk, and I throw up. This is altitude sickness, but it’s also post-traumatic stress disorder. The thoughts about Adam have triggered my symptoms, which I’ve had to learn to live with. Ever since Somalia, I’ve experienced flashbacks, nightmares, body sensations, anxiety, hypervigilance, nausea, digestive issues and more. It’s manageable now; I’ve learned how to ground myself with meditation and yoga—a practice that seems to almost immediately stop the physical symptoms. Amid the clanging horse bells and singing birds I go through postures, and slowly my preoccupation with the arrest subsides.
Today we will walk for seven hours. We hike up a high pass and past beautiful mani walls etched with prayers, stopping to eat lunch at a small, perfect lake. I unpack my food: a tiny green apple, a boiled egg, some stale bread and a Mars bar I’ve been saving for just the right moment.
Later in the afternoon, the weather changes as we gain altitude. It begins to rain and then hail. We carry on, the almost pea-size balls of ice pelting our faces. Finally we arrive at camp. Tonight, because of the bad weather, we will stay near the other trekkers in case we need to evacuate. A group of us congregates in the tea tent, hands wrapped around warm cups, exchanging stories about the rigours of the day’s walk.
When my tent is set up, I say good night to everyone and lie down on my sleeping bag. Tonight will be very cold and the guides fear snow, but for now I keep the door open so I can look out at the mountains. It’s my last night, and Sonam brings me a Godfather beer in a tin mug, the only alcohol I’ve had on the trip, a solitary celebration of nearly completing my trek.
I pull out my notebook and start to write. As I often do, I make lists. A list of everything I have to be grateful for, of the places I want to go, the things I want to accomplish this year. Doing this is a remedy for PTSD, I have found. Being present and focusing on what’s working in my life always helps me get a more positive perspective. I am grateful for my freedom, that I live near my mother. Near the top of the list is the fact that I can still travel.
During the night a wild rainstorm swept over the camp. Ferocious winds ripped some of the other trekkers’ tent stakes out of the ground. I didn’t sleep much, listening to the storm, but I was excited by its energy. I’d walked nearly 100 kilometres so far, and it was only a few hours until we’d be moving again. I didn’t want to miss any of it.
I say goodbye to the others before Sonam and I start out on the trail. The clouds hang low, threatening rain. Today will be the most challenging, eight hours spent ascending a steep mountain pass and then heading down a treacherous river gorge.
It takes three hours to climb the pass, each step a struggle toward the end. I need to stop every few minutes to try to catch my breath in the thin air, continuously resetting the intention to put one foot in front of the other. Recovery, like anything, is about pushing to get to the next place. And suddenly, I’m at the peak, prayer flags whipping all around me, mountaintops peering through the clouds. Tears well up in my eyes and spill over. It’s exactly what I had pictured.