Photograph by Nevada Wier

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Joan Halifax outside Santa Fe, New Mexico

Photograph by Nevada Wier

Traveler of the Year: Joan Halifax

A medical mission in the Himalaya


In 1981, when Joan Halifax trekked high in the Everest region of Nepal, she saw a lethally low level of healthcare. Within years of that visit, the socially engaged Buddhist and hospice caregiver launched Nomads Clinic, an annual medical pilgrimage by volunteer clinicians to the Himalayan region. Halifax, now 71, describes the 2013 expedition as a “walking village” comprising healthcare workers, other volunteers, and locals. The medical mission attended to broken bones, severe burns, lacerations, and a range of internal ailments. A mobile eye clinic gave away glasses, acupuncturists eased pain, and physicians dewormed kids. Along the way, the group trained Tibetan and Nepali medical practitioners in the care of isolated mountain communities, donated shoes and clothing, and provided clinics geared to girls, women, and seniors. The Nomads Clinic offers all services free of charge.

“Travel is an opportunity to be on a path of discovery,” says Halifax. “I think the reason our volunteers return again and again is to be reminded of their basic humanity and the joy of giving care.”

—By George W. Stone


National Geographic Traveler: Where is your home base?

Joan Halifax: I’m a Zen priest and abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

NGT: What inspired your work?

JH: In 1980, I went to the Solu Khumbu area of Nepal and saw that there was little to no medical services available to people of this region. Since I worked in the end-of-life care field, I knew many clinicians. So I began to invite clinicians and others to join me in what was to become the Nomads Clinic, an annual pilgrimage to the Himalayan region and Tibetan Plateau to serve in the clinic with others in support.

NGT: How did you gather the courage to launch Nomads Clinic?

JH: Andre Gide’s observation that one doesn’t discover new lands without losing sight of the shore for a long time suggests that we might want to let go of our moorings in order to realize the wonder of groundlessness, where we find the true path of discovery. Travel and serving others provide this marvelous opportunity to be on a path of discovery.

NGT: What do you tell prospective volunteers?

JH: As you can imagine, this is not an endeavor for the fainthearted. It’s very tough, requiring physical and mental strength. And, for most, it’s a life-changing experience, combining the raw inspiration of the mountains, the great hardiness and devotion of the local people, and the joy of service.

NGT: What qualities define your pilgrims?

JH: I’m a Zen priest. The people who go on a Nomads Clinic pilgrimage tend to have a spiritual orientation. They have this feeling and desire for a harmonious community. As we travel, we emphasize the practice of compassion. We do meditation and work in monasteries. It blows people’s minds to have the opportunity to serve in a sacred space such as a monastery in the Himalaya.

NGT: Who participates in your annual missions?

JH: The 2013 expedition was a tough 150-mile journey that took 28 days. We had 15 clinicians (whose specialties included emergency medicine, nursing, women’s medicine, geriatrics, and pediatrics) and just as many who were not clinicians, who served as runners, assisted in triage, worked the pharmacy, and pitched in wherever they could. On this past trip, our youngest volunteer was 17; another, a 21 year old, who first walked in the mountains with me when he was seven. And our oldest-ever volunteer was an 82-year-old cardiologist/triathlete who came because of his daughter, an acupuncturist, who joined us in 2012. So there were some 30 of us plus a local support staff of 50 people, including medical translators, a renowned Tibetan doctor, Amchi Gyatso, and local health aids. This year’s journey was particularly challenging as we encountered heavy weather, degraded trails, and many problems as a result. We can’t control what happens, and it takes a lot of courage and resilience to do something like this.

NGT: What’s the best part of a day on the trail?

JH: I collaborate closely with a Humla community from economically-challenged villages in northwest Nepal. They serve as our support staff, and what we pay them sustains whole families and groups. Often at the end of the evening, the drums came out. It’s magical to see the horsemen singing ancient Tibetan songs near the base of Mount Everest or in the heart of Mustang.

NGT: What’s your greatest reward?

JH: The joy and privilege of engaging in a kind of travel that allows my colleagues to serve and give and feel that they are profoundly enriched by the encounters they have with those in the high mountains, as they bring their skills and heart to this remote and wild world, is truly beyond words.

NGT: What’s your best travel advice?

JH: The itinerary is always subject to reality.

NGT: What does it mean to travel with passion and purpose?

JH: Once we discover that life itself is a journey, then to be a pilgrim with a heart of service is to open one's life to a boundless horizon.

NGT: What’s your ultimate goal?

JH: To serve.