January 28, 2012

Trek Guide Extraordinaire

Jess has written a great piece about our trek guide Manish Rai on her blog. I'm reposting it here, but you can see her posting here.


I have fallen in love with Nepal, and it is going to be very hard to leave tomorrow afternoon. We will be on our way to Taiwan, which I am sure will not disappoint, but Nepal has definitely been a wonderful experience. I must admit that I was less than thrilled to be badgered by multiple taxi drivers trying to haggle prices on our arrival into Kathmandu two weeks ago. I actually lost my patience somewhat and began to wonder if I could handle being here for two weeks. This was worrisome since we hadn't even left the airport parking lot, but fortunately the following day I awoke from proper slumber and felt renewed and prepared to enjoy this fine country.

Aaron has written plenty on his blog, so I will keep this short, but I just wanted to jot down a little bit more about our wonderful trek guide, Manish. We first met Manish in the trek company office here in Kathmandu the day before departing. He stands about five feet tall and probably weighs around a hundred pounds when soaking wet. He also wears a very thin mustache directly above his lip, and he has one single hair in the center of his chin that he doesn't shave. My first impression was that he was very shy since he hardly spoke above a whisper and didn't make eye contact with us during that initial meeting. The following day we rode the bus together to Pokhara, and he seemed to be warming up to us slowly. We exchanged pleasantries discussing the weather and briefly talked about our upcoming six day hike.

Aaron and I were very impressed by his attentiveness from the start of our trek. His constant concern about our well being and enjoyment were very obvious as he encouraged frequent rests during intense climbs, and he was happy to stop for Aaron to take many many many pictures. It didn't take him long to learn of my birding tendencies, and he found all kinds of great species for me to gaze at during the week. He always provided warm cups of tea as we rested along the way, and he helped to cook our meals at the many guesthouses. He never sat down to eat his Dal Baht until he knew we were completely satisfied with our food. Before going to bed he always loaded us up with plenty of heavy blankets to keep us warm during the cold nights.

I really started to notice his personality on the second day when Aaron had a morning of multiple slips and slides on a muddy hill. His frequent reminders as he took up the rear and watched us struggle down the hill were, "Slowly, please Aaron. Slowly, please I cannot carry you." He would laugh, but I think underneath the smile he really was worried about Aaron breaking a bone and having to become a walking ambulance. Throughout the days there were many random moments of him breaking out into song and impressing us with how well he could carry a tune. He loves Hindi music. During the evenings he performed some excellent magic tricks making cards disappear in his sleeve and what not. We also had several serious conversations about life in Nepal, the poverty here, and the overall culture. He is from a small village towards the east. To get home he has to take an eight hour bus ride from Kathmandu and then walk for an entire day. He eventually told us about his home life and that he has a wife and two children back in Kathmandu. He doesn't love living in the overcrowded polluted city, but has chosen this as his home so that his children receive a proper education and have the opportunity to learn English. He is very aware that without English his children will have very limited options in their futures.

As our trek came to an end we were very sad to have to tell Manish goodbye. We so enjoyed his company, and he was one of our favorite things about the trek. I was becoming tearful and ready to give him a big hug when he mentioned that we should come to his house for tea when we returned to Kathmandu. My tears quickly dried while we exchanged contact information and planned to visit with him during the weekend. Such a fabulous idea! So, we called him yesterday after our long and bumpy eight hour bus trip and planned on meeting early this morning at our hotel. I think Aaron has written a detailed account of our day with him. It really was a wonderful experience to be invited into his home and meet his family. His wife really can prepare wonderful Dal Baht, and his two children are absolutely darling.

Yesterday on our return to Kathmandu we met several other backpackers who are getting ready to trek the hillsides. We talked about their various plans and none of them will be hiring a guide. We all agreed that this would most certainly save them lots of money. I am so glad we chose to spend a little extra and hire a guide because we would have missed out on lots if we hadn't met Manish. He has contributed so much to our time here in Nepal. You meet lots of people in life, but really only a handful of them stand out. Manish is truly an awesome person, and we are very hopeful to return to Nepal in the future and trek the Annapurna Circuit with him. And yes, tears flowed today as I had to tell him goodbye.


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Final Thoughts On Nepal

So, we are at the end of our time in Nepal, which we are profoundly sad about. This country has joined the short list of countries we hope to someday revisit, as one of our favorites. Tomorrow, we will board a flight that will take us through New Delhi and Hong Kong en route to Taipei. We'll spend a little over a week in Taiwan before flying on, to Fiji. That is a recent development, because upon researching tickets, I saw that we faced an 18-hour layover in Singapore if we flew from Taipei to Auckland, New Zealand. For no additional cost, we are flying through Fiji, where we will spend two full days laying on the beach before continuing on to NZ. We won't be stranded for some terrible layover that way.

We have had a very laid back series of days after ending our trek. We stayed an extra two days in Pokhara, because it is so much calmer and cleaner than Kathmandu. It is a different kind of city. The first day, we rented a rowboat and spent well over four hours struggling around Phewa Lake. We managed to row all along its border; getting to the far end was pretty easy, but then we realized that we had to return, and by the time we cranked our way back to the dock, we were pretty worn out. Maybe that is why we did absolutely nothing the next day. We read books in the sun, on the patio of our hotel, for most of the day, leaving only to find food and tea. Hard life, I know.

Our return to Kathmandu was yesterday. Earlier, I wrote that the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara is pretty well-maintained. For a developing country, it really is, but it still has plenty of bumps and potholes. The difference from our first trip to our return trip was that on our return trip, we had a bus with no shocks. Needless to say, it wasn't the best ride of my life, more like eight hours going down washboard road. It was interesting watching the life go on outside the window, though, so that kept my attention. We arrived into Kathmandu mid-afternoon, and resettled into our hotel. Of course, we went back to the steakhouse for some juicy burgers, mainly because you get a nice Irish coffee free after your meal. That is a big perk in a country with a poor (and expensive) beer selection.

Today has been a very special day for us. I wrote earlier that we'd gotten along well with our guide, Manish, on our trek, and at the end of the trek we took him and our porter Dep out for a pizza lunch in Pokhara. We were all sad to say our goodbyes, and Manish invited us to visit him at his home for a tea. Perhaps he didn't know we are the kind of people to will take up such an offer, because he sounded a bit surprised when we Skyped him last night to tell him that we were back in Kathmandu and hoped to see him and to meet his family. He extended his invitation, though, and early this morning he arrived outside our hotel to take us back to his home.

Being with Manish, we decided it was just the opportunity to experience the local transportation, which is always one of our goals in a new country or city. Here, figuring out which bus or matatu (minivans that ebbs and flows with passengers) go on their particular routes is very confusing, in a large part because most of the routes are written in Nepali (which looks like Hindi), and the boy who hangs out the door calling out future stops rarely speaks English. Besides that, we can't pronounce anything right here, so we can't even ask, even if we knew where we wanted to go. So, of course, it was a perfect time to test the public transport. Our first vehicle, which took us to Manish's neighborhood, was a bus. It wasn't a big bus like the tourist bus that travels to Pokhara and other cities, nor the colorfully painted regional buses that dangerously lurch along country roads. This was even smaller, more like a short bus, painted green and looking the part of the vehicle that plies the dusty, potholed streets of this crazy city, which is to say that it is pretty beaten up. We found three seats in the back, and the experience was on. With the four six lanes of traffic struggling down streets designed for two lanes, traffic didn't move very fast, so I had plenty of time to watch out the window. We very quickly left Thamel, and entered the real Kathmandu. This city, filled with more than an estimated million inhabitants, is incredibly bizarrely designed. Half of the city appears half done, like an orgy of building was started and then left unfinished when the money ran out. Rebar pokes out the top of many buildings like whiskers along with the starting of the next floor, either hoping for someday to be continued or perhaps just because they realized they had reached the end of their design. Piles of rubble and broken brick lay next to partly demolished walls and buildings that obviously once had another outside layer; Manish explained that they've been planning to widen many roads for a long time. Other than frequently being narrow and tall (four or five stories), most residential buildings have no common design and are many dozens of different colors. Manish explained this by saying that most people design their own buildings, leading to such a varied landscape.

At the street level, life goes on in many interesting ways. Small garage-like shops sell any range of goods or hold repair shops for motorbikes, autos, tools, whatever. People eat their lunches in cafes sitting next to butcher shops with huge sides of meat hanging in the open air. Vegetables salesmen bless their wares by poking sticks of incense into an old head of lettuce to create a thick perfumed cloud. Dogs, some tattered and some robust but all dirty, scurry amongst the rushing buses and bikes and tuktuks, in a decidedly poor environment for dogs, given all the wheels of danger. Temples and stupas and small monuments to both Buddha and a multitude of Hindu deities sit in the middle of squares or hide in dark corners. People walk along the tight streets doing their business, or sit talking to their friends, or sip tea and look surprised when they see a blonde, bearded goon looking out the window of a beaten bus. In other words, Kathmandu is, in general, much like the crazy bustling cities of many other developing countries. It is both exhilarating and allergy inducing, fascinating and stinky.

We rode the bus to the end of its route, which was at the Kopan monastery. Situated on the top of a hill looking out over a much less busy and polluted valley of the city, it is like an oasis of quiet and peacefulness. Young little Buddhist monks stream around its grounds, but the top of the hill is a grassy knoll where a picnic would be perfect for reflection and a break from the city. My nose stopped running in the fresher air at its top, where the pollution was much less. We spent about a half hour walking around the grounds before heading down into the surrounding neighborhood to Manish's home. We wandered through a neighborhood that though it had dirt streets and its empty lots were strewn with trash, it was quiet, safe, and instead of buzzing motorbikes and honking horns, all around were the sounds of children playing and of people going about their lives. I was glad to see that there was this kind of neighborhood in Kathmandu. There is a strange trend the most visitors have during their visits to this city: they feel safer in Thamel, with all of its Western influences and North Face knockoffs, so they spend their entire time in that neighborhood, but doing so, they end up spending their time in the most hectic, loud, and the least Nepali part of the city. That is just unfortunate for them.

So, we were pretty lucky to have Manish to take us out of Thamel. As we neared his home, he seemed a bit nervous, starting to apologize for the trash that lay all around us. We stopped him, telling him that instead of being the fault of the people, it was a failure of the government, for what good is putting trash in a can if system exists to come to take it away? I found myself wondering the thoughts going through Manish's head: he was an experienced guide who has seen the lifestyles and manner of dress, as well as heard descriptions of developed countries, from many Western tourists, so he has a much better idea of the world that Jess and I come from than the typical Nepali. Yet, somehow the two of us made him feel comfortable enough to open his home to us, which was a huge honor for us. Really, a massive honor.

We arrived at his building, a standard looking K-du multilevel building, and took us to the second floor. There, he, his wife, and his two children live in a single room the size of a standard bedroom in most home in the US. They have two beds, as well as a cooking setup with a couple of burners, a table, and a cabinet for dishes. There isn't running water inside their home, they share a toilet and sink with the other families living on their floor, which there seemed to be four in total, and dishes and clothing are washed in tubs outside. He explained that this was a typical living arrangement for Nepali people, especially for those living in the city. His home was very neatly kept, clean and bright from two large windows. His children were very energetic and some of the happiest kids I've seen, and his wife seemed pleasant and kind, though she didn't speak much English. They served us tea, and then to our surprise, they filled two plates with dal bhat, the vegetarian rice dish that is the main dish of Nepal, often eaten for all meals. Dep, our porter, had also arrived after us, and he, the kids, and Manish ate with us; Manish's wife kept filling my plate until I left a little there to make it plain that I was finished. After eating, we sat and talked with Manish, laughing while his kids, seven and four, ran around and climbed all over him. They showed us their exams from school (with his wages from guiding, Manish is able to send them to a private school, where they get a much better education than at the government schools). I was floored looking at the exams. Their four year old daughter was already learning both English and Nepali (pages of questions were intermittently in English and Nepali), could write out the entire English alphabet, could not only count to 30 but could fill in omitted gaps between numbers, and had a remarkably steady hand at coloring in spaces and tracing designs. There was more, too. It was amazing. When I was five, I went to kindergarten, where I learned to sit still long enough to have the teacher read to us, and to raise my hand. We also raised some butterflies; other than that, I didn't get much out of it. Here, in Nepal, they are giving children an intense, bilingual education, and as smart as that little girl is, she ranked third in her class, so they all are getting such an education. At 33, I speak less of a second language than little Sanmina and her brother Samjot (I just killed their names, too).

Eventually, the kids were getting tired, and it was time for us to move on. After our farewells to his family, Manish went with us to find transport, which was in the form of what I call the matatu (a term I picked up in Kenya; every developing country has these little minivans, which fill far beyond capacity, and here I was a little surprised no one tried climbing on the top, like they do with the buses). We caught the matatu early in its route, so it was fairly empty, but soon it was packed to the gills, people standing in between seats (it's a short minivan) or sitting on the laps of others, or even hanging out the door, as a few brave young guys did. Being more cramped, it wasn't as comfortable as the bus, but it took its time getting through the neighborhoods, so we had plenty to look at. Students getting on board took advantage us our (likely unlikely) presence and practiced their English, asking questions and throwing in the word "like" as much as possible; they've watched too many movies from the, like, 90s, I guess.

One thing that was apparent on our ride back to Thamel (and present for every moment of our time in Nepal) is the poverty that hangs on the back of this country like the nappy monkeys of the Monkey Temple. It is everywhere, you cannot escape it or avoid it. This is a country where the average yearly income of people is $440. Stop reading for a second, look around your room, and find an item that cost $450; that represents a year's worth of money for the average person here; on the other hand, many people here make less than that. By some estimates, half of the population is unemployed, and a third lives below the poverty line, meaning they make less than $1 a day. On top of this, there is the caste system, which Manish spent a fair amount of time telling us about, which isn't as strong as the caste system of India but is still crippling for many people. The resulting standard of living is something that is frequently a topic of discussion among travelers, but we can't begin to imagine what life is like here. To see Manish's home, and to realize that he makes relatively good money compared to many others, is very educational; even more stunning is the realization that the population here in Kathmandu has doubled in the last decade as people come here to escape the harsher poverty of rural life. People here have a hard life, there is no doubt about it, and for Jess and I, it caused us to look at our own lives, at the materialistic impulses that we have along with much of the Western world. If nothing else, it has caused us to appreciate everything we have, the opportunities that literally make themselves available for us, the standard of living and the quality of life that we enjoy.

For a bit of humor to enhance my point, realize that much of the developing world does not use toilet paper after going to the bathroom. They also do not eat or shake hands with their left hand. These two things are closely related.

Back in Thamel and our at our hotel, we finally had to bid farewell to Manish. Jess cried a bit, Manish and I even hugged, something I have not seen yet in Nepal before. He shook our hands many times, turned down our offers for tea because he needed to get back to his family, and like that, Manish was gone. Since Nepal is now on our short list, though, we have strong hopes of seeing him and his family again.

Until next time, be safe.


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January 25, 2012

Trekking Around Annapurna

We have just finished our trek in the Annapurna region, and believe me, it was spectacular. I would say that it will turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip, and a great memory for years to come.

Let me start back on the 17th, our last full day in Kathmandu. There wasn't much to say about the day, we mostly spent it exploring around Thamel and trying to get outside of that backpacker's district into the real city a bit. It wasn't hard to get out of bed, our room didn't have any heating, so it got down to about 45F during the night. Even better was the morning waking service the hotel offered, in the form of the ice cold shower I took. You might have heard a shrill scream echoing through the high atmosphere, maybe a bit like a schoolgirl. That was just me.

Exploring Kathmandu is interesting, but a bit on the intense side, as in right in your face. Walking through narrow passageways and down stairs didn't mean that we could avoid the crazy motorbikes, nor that they might slow down a bit. Watching your step anywhere in the city is crucial, if clean soles are important to you, and like many other cities in the developing world, the various aromas (or perhaps the combination of many of them) is less than fragrant. Still, once we left Thamel, the city was fascinating. We wandered through long, winding streets, clouds of incense and cooking smoke puffing the air around us. We ducked through a Nepali-height (i.e. short) doorway and found a quieter courtyard of an apartment complex, kids and moms sitting around in the sun, brightly-dyed fabrics hanging to dry, scruffy dogs chasing each other. Small temples and pavilions, both Buddhist and Hindu, popped out from many unexpected corners. We managed to follow the walking tour in our Lonely Planet guide, more or less, and found the main square in the city, a place of many temples and palaces, but the $10 per person admission fee just to walk around the square was a little too steep, and the temples not interesting enough after seeing dozens of free ones, so we instead opted to go to the so-called Monkey Temple. It goes by a real name, of course, but by calling it the Monkey Temple, we quickly had a taxi driver understand where we wanted to go; my Nepali is actually nonexistent. My bargaining for the taxi price didn't go well for me, as the driver was more than happy to stick around after dropping us off to take us back to Thamel. Still, the ride was great, taking us along the crowded, busy streets of Kathmandu, up hills that offered views down into the various valleys leading from the higher hills. Once we arrived at the Monkey Temple, we were faced with a daunting hill climb to the top, where a number of temples and stupas sit, looking out over the city. We made it to the top, considering the brisk walk a warm-up to our upcoming trek, and looked around the temple grounds. There certainly are monkeys there, scabby, nappy yellow ones that leap around and terrify tourists by threatening infectious scratchings. I wasn't too impressed by the monkeys, they are much more interesting from a distance, not when you look up and find yourself face to face with a scowling monkey scratching a festering sore and getting ready to claw your eyes, but the view from the grounds was great. Kathmandu is a sprawling city, and the noise, the bustle, and the general sensory abundance of the city reach the summit of the hill. For our slap of reality on the way down from the temple grounds, a young boy sat on the steps, begging from people passing by, holding what appeared to be a dead infant in what might have been attempts to get more money. Wealthier Nepali or Indian people stopped to give him a hard time about the tactic, which he ignored; I was less worried about their shock and wondered more about the mind of a child finding himself sitting on steps begging with a dead baby.

Back in Thamel, we spent the rest of the day browsing outdoor stores for a few supplies for our trek. On our way to our hotel room, a man had stopped me by pointing out the the sole on my show was separating from the rest of the shoe. He did have a valid point, and of course he happened to be a shoe repairman, pulling a tube of glue and a thick needle and string from his knapsack. My shoes were once Gore-Tex, back two years ago when I bought them, and they still sometimes keep out water, so I was hesitant to let him go at my shoes with the big needle, but despite my request he simply glue the sole, the next thing I knew he was sewing along. I figured he couldn't ruin my shoes anymore than they were, already being deteriorated and all, so when he assured me that water wouldn't leak through the puncture holes, I let him continue. He told me about his family, his number of kids, and eventually told me about his house, which apparently is a canvas or fabric tent somewhere in the city (not very big, he told me, which could have gone without saying). I believed him, as he invited me to tour his neighborhood and to have tea with his family, and I didn't argue with the $10 he wanted for a bit of glue and some sewing; he needed the money more than I did. Plus, he did a fine job sewing my shoes; they didn't leak once during our six days of hiking in the mountains.

We found the supplies that we thought we might use, a liner jacket for myself, a pair of shoes to replace Jess's, both of which had entirely split soles, a walking stick, iodine tabs. We met our tour guide, a young, shy man named Mannish, and discussed our itinerary, then went back to organize our packs, leaving about half of our belongings with the hotel. Since we had been advised to avoid any meat products on the trail due to issues with hygiene, we went to a steakhouse to stock up on protein, then called it a day. The next morning we were outside waiting at 6:30 for our guide, who walked us out of Thamel and to the nearby bus depot, where we boarded a "tourist" bus. It is called this to differentiate it from the smaller, more crowded regional buses, not just because it was packed with tourists. There were a few of us on the bus, but mostly there were Nepalis on board; the good thing about the bus was that it didn't stop to pick up other passengers, instead going directly to Pokhara. The ride itself took about eight hours, partly because more than a hour was required just to get out of the smoggy, crowded roads of Kathmandu itself. It was a beautiful drive, though, along a surprisingly well-maintained road, passing along the contours of hills, past villages and terraces barren for the winter. We both stayed awake almost the entire time, to see as much of the route as we could. We did stop several times, including for lunch, and after seeing the chicken they offered with the buffet dinner, I decided to start my meatless diet a little early. Eventually, we arrived in Pokhara, a much smaller city that, as the primary city to leave for the Annapurna mountain range, is pretty much a cleaner, quieter version of Thamel. We checked into our hotel and spent the rest of the day strolling around the city and along its lakefront, which boasts great views of snowcapped mountains in the distance.

We were up the next morning early, the belongings we would take on the trek weaned even more and packed into a single bag. We had a porter for our trek, which is something of an unfamiliar concept for me, especially as we weren't going to be doing anything more arduous than hike in the hills, with bags that had half of their usual weights. I wasn't sure how the porter would carry the bag, but we made sure everything we needed was in a single bag; Jess carried a small daypack for the things we might need along the trail during each day. We had a little breakfast, and a car was waiting for us by 8:30 to take us into the hills. (To clarify, the definitions of Nepali topography is considerably different than US standards. For example, anything under 3000 meters (9842 ft) is considered small foothills, anything under 4000m (about 13,000 ft) is foothills, anything up to 6000m (19,700 ft) are mountains, and to 8000m (more than 26,000 ft) are considered peaks. To be considered a summit, a mountain must be greater than 8000m, such as Annapurna I and Everest. This means that we only crossed the line into regular foothills at the end of our trek, for about an hour; the rest of the time we were under 3000m.)

So, we drove out of Pokhara, for about 45 minutes through wide expanses of dry rice paddies, to a little spot in the road called Phedi. This area, including Pokhara, is almost subtropical, with lots of vegetation and greenery, and a temperature of probably better than 60F. We set off from Phedi, straight up a long series of stairs that took us a little more than an hour to finish; we'd been warned about this incline, and I wrongly assumed it would be the most serious set of stairs we would have to climb. In reality, this incline was simply the introduction to the rest of the stairs, and was actually dwarfed by later stair climbs. At this time, we got to see our porter Dep in action; he carried our bag, which was probably a good 30 or more pounds, on his back, and carried his own in front. Although his pack was much smaller and lighter, he still had a lot of weight to carry, and we felt very bad for him, especially on this initial stair climb. He sort of huffed and puffed his way up, leading us to think he perhaps was ill. I felt so bad I bought him a Snickers at the top; as it turns out, Dep was more than capable for the job, and compared to many of the other loads we saw, especially those destined to the Annapurna Base Camp, he probably was glad to only have our bag.

So, with that incline, our trek was off and going. Hiking in the Himalayas certainly means that there will be many ups and downs; as the Nepali say, a little up and a little down. For people who have walked along the hillsides their whole lives, it must seem so ordinary; for me, it was like the Stairmaster from hell. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of times we had a nice even grade; sometimes we had even five minutes at a time of flat surface to walk along, and those times were heaven, walking along like a true hike through the woods. The rest of the time, we found ourselves tromping up and down stairs, which were frequently unevenly placed stones. Our first couple of days we mostly went up, but the third day we started at the top of the hill in a valley, walked down a seemingly never-ending set of stairs to a suspension bridge at the river below, and then climbed to the same elevation on the opposite side; it could not have been less than a 2500 foot elevation change. This is the recipe for very sore legs, which we both had from the first day on.

On the other hand, it was easy to be very distracted by the ups and downs of the scenery that was unfolding in front of us. The landscape changed frequently, from valley to valley, from one elevation to the next. We might start the morning in a broad valley with hills lined with terraces that followed the contours of the hills, some brown with the winter break, others vibrantly green with winter wheat and other vegetables. Later that same day we might cross through a lush forest of rhododendrons covered in moss and orchids, or through narrow valleys along streams crashing from rock to rock. We passed through many small villages, some of which were obviously very active in the tourist trade that had customers streaming by in high season, while others were seemingly as unaffected as possible except for the ubiquitous windows that held the most cherished backpacker necessities: candy bars, soda, Pringles, and bottles of water; Nepalis are nothing if not inventive in their ways to supply passing tourists with opportunities to part with their money. Buildings in the villages ranged from plywood shacks set up as stores for hikers to ancient buildings styled in a simple but effective fashion for the harsh environment of the hills. In the lower elevations, we passed through many areas of habitation, terraces and villages covering the hills, and as we climbed higher these areas lessened and natural forests replaced them. Still, even at the highest points we reached, we still frequently passed many Nepali people, lugging huge loads along the hillside paths, most with the packs hung from straps across their foreheads. Firewood, pipes and rebar, bags of grain and corn: the people themselves are frequently the only means of transporting goods among the high villages. We even saw a village ambulance, which was a man carrying another injured man on his back, staggering up a hill towards a village with a health center. It is a rough life these people live, for sure.

Each day we had a goal set in mind, which were the guesthouses that the Nepalis refer to as teahouses. These teahouses are hotels that offer meals and a basic bed; they range from extremely rustic to just plain spartan. Still, it is more comfortable than sleeping in a tent on the frozen ground. Our first teahouse, in Pothana, was one of the more rustic ones we stayed in; while the windows that faced the front of the hotel on the wall with our room's door had glass windows, the back window was closed with nothing but a couple of wood shutters. During the night, a storm blew in, bringing with it the only rain we had on our trek. The draft came straight in through the gap between the boards, and while I was able to diminish the wind using the raincover for our backpack, our room still was about 36F that night. For the next couple of nights, our rooms were a bit warmer, in the mid-40s, but by the time that we reached the highest town that we would stay in, Ghorepani, which sits at just under 3000m, room temperatures in the mid-30s were expected. We just piled on the blankets and wore our thermals to bed, it was actually not bad. I guess if we'd been staying in hotels with heating, it would have just diminished the whole feeling of the trip. After all, we were hiking in the Nepali Himalayas, and as I told a Aussie couple who were telling us their water bottles had frozen in their room, you don't come here to be warm and comfortable. I read the book Into Thin Air, about the ill-fated Everest season in 1996 during which 12 people died, during the trek, and the descriptions of the conditions that people endure on mountains that we were literally hiking around made our hotel rooms seem downright balmy.

Probably my favorite day was our hike between Tadapani and Ghorepani, the fourth day. It was a bit of a challenging day, because much of the day was spent hiking in snow, though because we were heading uphill, it was easier. People going the other direction had to deal with very slippery trails for their whole day's hike, while we didn't have any downhills until we nearly reached Ghorepani. I loved the day for two reasons: first, much of the day we spent in isolation, with not another traveler in sight, in silent little gorges and canyons that were a frozen wonderland of powder snow and some tough subtropical plants such as ferns and the rhododendrons. The scenery was just fantastic, and though it was cold, being in that forest was so refreshing for our minds and spirits. The other reason was that it was fun: by then, we'd gotten to know our guide Mannish very well, and found that he is a very funny guy. I'm sure with more mature tourists, he has to act more professional, but we made it clear from the beginning that we are very easygoing, and soon he'd let his guard down, showing us that although he is very professional, proficient, and an excellent guide, he was also a fun guy to be walking through the woods with. By the time we reached the downhill towards Ghorepani, he and I were skiing in our boots down the steep, icy sections, and we even got off trail for a bit of sledding, using a trash bag as a sled. We had loads of fun playing in the snow, which was only made better by the brilliant weather we had that day.

Despite the single rainy, muddy morning we experienced, the primitive squat toilets, and the one icy shower that I took before swearing off the concept of cleanliness for the rest of the trek, and most probably because of these things, our trek had tons of experiences and memories. Mannish figured out quickly that Jess likes birdwatching and that I take a lot of pictures, so he spent more time than necessary finding new birds for us to see, and he purposely would choose the villages that we spent nights for the views that we'd have in the evenings or the mornings (hence that icy night in Pothana, which had an awesome view of several peaks). It was a bit strange having someone cater to us so much, but because we had a total of seven days to talk with Mannish, we learned so much about Nepali culture and people that we couldn't possibly have otherwise. He even encouraged us to go up Poon Hill from Ghorepani, a climb of over 450m in the predawn dark, to witness the sunrise over a panorama view of Himalayan peaks and summits (three of the mountains were over 8000m), despite our misgivings over the subfreezing temperatures and the icy path, knowing that we be thrilled by that early morning experience. He was right, we were thrilled.

Our last day was quite somber, each of walking quietly, Jess and I sad that the trek was over for sure, and perhaps Mannish was as well, for it seemed as though he really did like us. Jess and I were dirty, our legs hurt, and we hadn't been warm since leaving Pokhara, but we were so happy on the trek, and it was over far too quickly.

Until next time, be safe.


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January 16, 2012

First Impressions Of Kathmandu

We arrived late yesterday evening into Kathmandu, following a long flight from Rome that included little emperors kicking the backs of our seats on one flight as well as a four hour layover in the airport of Doha, Qatar, which held a microcosm of much of the world's culture in its tiny terminal. Needless to say, we were glad to be off of the plane, and not yet aware of what to expect from Nepal.

First of all, let me explain my imaginative impressions of what I thought we could expect from Kathmandu, all of which were not accurate in any way. I had this idea of Nepal where people were in the sort of tranquility one might expect outside the walls of a tranquil Buddhist monastery in the high Tibet mountains. I'm not terribly misguided, I understand that Nepal is essentially the northern part of India, and as such is much more like India than Nepal. There is this idea that I had, though, that regardless there was a more tranquil sense of humanity here, perhaps from the pictures of grinning Sherpas you see with the guys who just reached the summit of Everest. Ok, maybe I am misguided.

So, to start, let me put in a little details that reach back to Rome. There, scattered around the city but concentrated around the Coliseum and other big tourist areas, were these guys who we figured were probably from India or Bangledesh, selling various souvenirs. The souvenirs were an odd choice, in my mind, because they were mostly of two types: first, these jelly blobs like the kind I used to buy back when I was six that can be thrown against the wall, where they will splat and then reform to their blob shapes again; and second, these little clear plastic squares that had tiny models of the Coliseum and other Roman monuments imbedded in them, that would apparently light up with a button. The little squares I could understand, as they actually correlated to the surrounding tourist destinations. However, the blobs, which far outnumbered the squares, made no sense, and neither did the look the sellers gave you as they threw the blobs at a piece of plywood on the ground and then motioned with an open hand of amazement at the splat that resulted, an expression that hoped that you would too be amazed, despite having just passed ten men doing exactly the same thing. There was no business logic in it either, since the men all were clumped together and trying to sell the same unsellable item; why not sell something different, or spread out? I won't bore you with my theories, and besides, I'm getting off track.

So, fast forward to the airport terminal in Doha, where we found ourselves in a long line of men lining up to to board our plane to Kathmandu. Suddenly we realized there was a possibility that those men in Rome were actually Nepali, though they could certainly also have been Indian (remember that Nepal is more than just a physical neighbor of Nepal, but it also shares a lot of its culture and ethnicity from its northern regions with Nepal). We found out later that a lot of Nepali men end up going to places in the Middle East such as the UAE, Dubai, and yes, Doha, to work on the huge construction boom as well as for other employment. We apparently paid a bit more than those men, since they were segregated to the back of the plane, behind the wings, while the tourists and more wealthy Nepali people got the seats in the front. That was a bit awkward to me, but then we were on Qatar Airlines, where they picked up the business class passengers in a limo and made all of us economy class fliers wait until the first class people were gone before making us exit out the back door, so I guess we were segregated as well. Don't get me started on the distinct levels of class that one finds in societies such as Qatar, where everyone except men in turbans are discriminated against. That is why I prefer not to have to fly through places like Qatar and Dubai, as no apologies are even considered for how they look down on much of the world.

Anyhow, we arrived in Kathmandu, and found that the customs process was much easier and smooth than we'd heard. We were through in less than a half hour, and exited to the baggage claim to find that our bags had indeed arrived from Rome. We picked them up and headed out into the main area of the terminal, where all of the public is allowed. Immediately, we were approached by taxi touts. This isn't new for us, nor unexpected, but it was annoying because they were very persistent, following us along as we looked for an ATM. I had to shake them off, because I didn't want to have to withdraw money in the presence of fifteen touts. Once we had money, we exited the building to an even larger group of touts. We looked around, hoping our hotel had sent a taxi, but eventually began to ask the cost of the ride to our hotel. They started out at 500 rupees and refused to budge; Jess, who looks to negotiate, began trying to talk them down to 300 or 400 rupees, but they seemed offended we would even try. They talked about the cost of petrol, the pothole filled streets, painting a vivid picture of the desperate lives of the airport taximen. Finally, as a group started to congregate, including several cops who seemed highly entertained by our bargaining efforts, we decided to just pay the 500 rupees, which is really only about $6.50, and off we headed into Kathmandu.

So, I sat in the front seat of the taxi, which was this little red square minibus, which gave me quite the view of our tour of the city. This perhaps was a mistake, as traffic in Kathmandu is exactly what you expect in the capital city of a developing world: absolutely crazy. Of course I knew this, deep down, even though I was still in the midst of my delusions of the Tibetan paradise. Had I been honest, I probably would have sat in the back, because I've been in traffic in enough crazy cities to not need a front row seat. The difference between Kathmandu and Rome is that while Romans drive like suicidal maniacs, they drive in a city with traffic rules, only that they are almost entirely ignored. In Kathmandu, there are no rules: traffic flows in the direction that seems the fastest, while motorbikes, cars, and even bicycles dart through breaks in the traffic in a perpetual race to be the fastest on the road. Folks cross at whim, some without any apparent knowledge that they are in traffic, and traffic does not slow down for them, only swerves. Two lanes road become four or six lane as needed, and inches really do matter, as they are the measurement between most vehicles and other characters in that mad show. Our driver talked and laughed with me the entire time, following a fashion and custom of driving accepted and followed by all of the surrounding drivers, but unknown to me. But, as it wasn't my first time in such traffic, I accepted that while severe consequences were possible, they were unlikely since the driver went through those conditions every day he worked, and both Jess and I were relaxed and enjoyed the trip. Imagining being in a movie can be quite helpful, if delusional.

Along the way, we received our first glimpse into the lives of the inhabitants of Kathmandu, and it was quite eye-opening. I was very aware that Nepal is a developing country, but the amount of poverty that was apparent from our limited ride into the center from the airport made it obvious that Nepal has poverty on the same levels of countries we've visited like Kenya and Cambodia. The traffic kept our attention, but on the periphery, we could see piles of trash lining the road, buildings in utter disrepair, dark streets and windows, people standing around rubbish fires to keep warm. My ideas about Nepal melted away in the face of this reality; of course we were arriving at dusk, which isn't a good idea since shadows always make things seem worse than they are. Still, we could no longer imagine Kathmandu to be this city in the clouds, all ethereal and filled with clouds of incense (actually, the clouds of incense do exist, chokingly so). 

We soon arrived in the neighborhood of Thamel, the backpackers' neighborhood, a crazy mix of restaurants, guesthouses, shops and definite local characters. We had booked a hotel online, one that sounded great with descriptions of a fireplace, a balcony, deluxe beds, and hot showers. Our taxi driver swung through the center plaza of Thamel and began heading off away from it; then, alarmingly, he turned down a dark street and then onto another. My first impression was that it would unfortunate to have to walk along that road in the dark to go to and from our hotel. As it turned out, the word 'hotel' was far too generous for the hovel we arrived at. Walking into the dim reception room, we learned that the power was out (due to low rivers leading to low hydroelectric power output, we found out later), as it was for up to 14 hours a day in the city. However, a generator allowed us to check in and find our way up to the fourth floor, where our room awaited. We stopped in the doorway and immediately began planning an escape; even our little rural house in Kenya had been cleaner, more hospitable, and safer. The room, which literally had zero of the amenities described on, was a bare-walled affair, with three hard cots in the center, a broken window, a bathroom that just needed darkness for its army of very-likely cockroaches to come streaming out, and a simple chair tiredly sitting next to the door. Concrete floors and ceiling matched the plain walls, and a single bulb illuminated the room and kept away the roaches. We have fairly low standards when it comes to accommodation, and have stayed in some sketchy places, but this would have taken the award, and all we needed was an excuse to flee. Jess quickly developed an itch in her nose that we both knew would lead to a sinus infection, and boom, I was out the door, dodging the crazy motorcycles. It took me less than a half hour to return, jubilantly holding the key to an excellent hotel nearby, appropriately called Excelsior. Indeed. I won't say we ran out the door, but we didn't waste time. I thought of trying to get my $16 back (hey, it's Nepal, that is a standard cost), just out of principle, but the less time we spent there, the better.

Today has been smoother. Daylight makes the world seem much better. We were so worn out by the trip from Italy that we slept til noon (although that means it was 7am in actually we got up really early). Our meal the night before had been at a steakhouse nearby our hotel, with an American style steak, much needed after the carb-loaded diet we'd had in Italy, so we were ready for a real Nepali meal. We wandered down some alleyways, fighting through the clouds of incense, avoiding the maniac motorcycles, before finding this little cafe serving up two types of food, both involving stir-fry veggies, one with noodles and the other with uncooked oats. With its three year old Fanta, its rough cut plywood table, and the kids' chairs that served as seating, it was exactly the place that a travel clinic nurse would tell us to avoid, and exactly the kind of place we zero in on. If you want a taste of the local cuisine, there is no better way. The food was actually excellent, a bit spicy, but it went down well. Granted, it had the Nepali standards--lentils, veggies, and noodles, which is pretty much the basic ingredient list of most of vegetarian Nepali dietary menus. We still enjoyed it, our first authentic meal in Nepal.

We wandered briefly through Thamel, though not for too long. The jet lag has been quite persistent with us, I'm not sure if it means we are getting older, or if starting a day at 8 am Italy time and ending it at 7 pm Italy time the next day is just simply exhausting, but we haven't had much energy to get out to do too much exploring. We did summon the strength to seek out a trek while we are here in Nepal. I'd researched some about different treks and had emailed a few recommended guides, but when we hadn't heard from them, we decided to visit a few local travel companies here in Thamel. The first one was a dud, the guy seemed surprised that we were wanting to go for a trek, but our second company was a score, and we booked an 8-day trip starting on the 18th. There will be two days of driving (to and from the city of Pokhara), and then we will be out hiking in the Annapurna region for six days. It promises to be incredible (and very cold), and even better, our travel company seems very professional and helpful. We are both looking forward to it, hoping it to be a highlight of our trip.

Until next time, be safe.


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