Monday, March 31, 2014

Little Steps

 "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" ~Lao-tzu

How do you reach an altitude greater than 3,000 feet above the highest Rocky Mountain peaks?  Little steps.  Each day, you make small leaps in elevation going 1,000 to 3,000 feet higher.  Each physical step you take is spaced carefully apart, slowly, regularly, conserving energy as the oxygen diminishes from the air you breathe to less than half of what you are used to.  Up and down valleys you travel with these small steps. At first, you are in the crush of those heading toward the Everest Base Camp, but after three days, you turn aside toward Gokyo on the road less travelled.

And as you trek, you walk carefully on cliff edges alongside soaring raptors and wander in the shadows of geological giants, following in the footprints of snow leopards.  The omnipresent sound of bells give warning of approaching yak trains all day.  Yak dung coats your pathway and feeds the fires each night in tea houses providing you some measure of warmth.  Its smell is always present, sweeter than your own body odor after days without water for bathing and showering.

Each night you sleep under heavy blankets in rooms with temperatures indistinguishable from the outside frigid air.  You place batteries, devices and water in your bed with you so that some remains unfrozen for the next morning's hike.  You carefully maneuver through the black ice surrounding the squat toilet as you void the gallon of water you have consumed to prevent altitude sickness.   Your room is lit by a dim solar light which fades as the battery charge diminishes long after you have fallen into a deep sleep.  Each morning's bitter coldness is staved off by hot tea and trekking.   You breathe through your nose and neck gaiter carefully conserving your warm moist air as you take each step.  You nod in greeting to those locals struggling under loads larger than you have ever carried in your life as they move from one small habitation to the next, bringing goods and trekker supplies along the way.  Their steps are large as they carry loads of over 100 pounds to places several days' walk from the nearest road or airport, accessible only by foot or by the all too frequent rescue helicopters.

While the way is challenging, the rewards are momentous. Landscapes of Mother Earth's greatest peaks surround you, engulfing your mind, commanding your eyes, and filling your soul.  Your mind, stretched by the surreal vistas before you, can never return to the same state.  You are forever changed by what you see and what you attempt to comprehend. Each little step has added up to the journey of a lifetime and takes one to heights never imagined before.  As you stand at the summit of your journey, you see that it has been each little step of life that has led you to these persons, this place, this time, this peace.

Posted in Namche Bazaar, Nepal.  Images are of our ascent to 17,575 feet in view of Mt Everest; a typical black ice toilet experience; one of many yak dung fires to keep us warm; and one of many views along the trek.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hurts so good

Our legs shook and buckled as we headed down a short flight of stairs in Pokhara, Nepal, after our first "real" trek.  We have had the opportunity to participate in commercial treks in many of the places we have traveled.  There were the Great Walks in New Zealand, the W Trek in Torres del Pine, and the Inca Trail in Peru.  For various reasons, we either could not or chose not to walk with companies and guides in these situations.  Sometimes price or timing was a barrier; other times, one of us was sick with food poisoning or some other foreign (or not so foreign) ailment. In Nepal, however, we opted to "go for the gusto" and booked with a local Nepalese company to take us trekking.

Trekking, as we understand and define it, is walking significant distances over several days.  There is an
element of weight to carry on one's own back that can make or break the entire experience. As we approached the Himalayas, we were hopeful we were up to the distance and time requirements of our first five day trek, but we knew for certain we could not carry all of the gear we would would need for temperatures varying from quite warm to below freezing.  We have both injured our backs in the past and are limited to 20 pounds of weight at a time.  A commercially supported trek solved this dilemma for us.  While we each carried from 8 - 10 pounds of gear, our porter carried the rest (40 - 50 pounds total) for us.  This included his gear, our sleeping bags and down jackets, an extra change of clothing for each of us, our "pharmacy" and snacks, and toiletries for each of us.  We loved our time with our porter and our guide as we listened to Nepalese songs, learned phrases in the language, and exchanged cultural tidbits and teasing.  Their presence brought us so much more than logistical support.

As we trekked, we stopped nightly at simple tea houses along the route.  Some were more comfortable than others, but all were basic, even by our evolving standards.  Rooms were sparse with the beds consisting of a thin piece of foam on a board.  Some had no electricity at all, not even a simple light.  None had heat. Bedding and a pillow were always supplied, often including a thick top cover to keep out the cold at night, but in colder regions such might be washed only once a season, not day.   We knew we were living the high life when bathrooms were on the same floor and contained western toilets.  Such was a rarity with squat toilets often being a hallway and floor away.  None had toilet paper and few had nearby sinks.  A couple of places had showers if you were hardy enough to take one.  The food was plain without much spice, but it was nourishing, especially the dal baht, a Nepalese dish consisting of lentil soup, rice, and cooked greens.  Drinking water was always available, sometimes boiled, sometimes bottled, and sometimes both!

The first trekking we chose to do in Nepal consisted of walking up, up, up starting from about 7,000 feet to around 11,000 feet.  Sometimes (rarely) there was some relief to the upward slog, and always, what goes up
must come down.  During our initial 5 day trek, we spent the first 3 hours hiking moderate hills feeling pretty good about ourselves and our abilities!  Then we hit the final 3 hiking hours that first day and faced 3,200 stone steps which wound straight up the mountain.  Our days became blurs of steps, either up (which became preferred) or down (which was frequently icy and torturous), often for hours.  The steps here are like those all over the world ---- not created for trekkers; rather, historic trade routes in tough terrain connecting rural, mountain communities.  We were humbled as local people, hustled by us with loads twice as heavy as our porter's or with the intention of walking in hours distances we would need days to achieve.  One reason we loved our trek was the glimpse of remote village life it gave us.  A shy smile, a murmured "Namaste" were gifts given to us as we watched water buffalo and loose lines of mules being driven by us, loaded with goods such as chickens, propane canisters, and building materials.

When we returned from the trek, it took our legs about 3 days and a good Swedish massage to fully recover.  "Hurts so good" was what we said to each other as we tripped and stumbled our way up and down steps around the town of Pokhara.  Our next trek will test our muscle strength and endurance again and especially our ability to withstand the effects of altitude, as we will attempt to climb to about 18,000 feet.  But the rewards include the chance to stare at the "rooftop" of Mother Earth... Everest.

Posted in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.  Images include us taking a break with our guide, a line of pack mules, Sally in our first tea house room, and the view from one of our tea houses near Gorka, Nepal.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The first 48

As we got closer to our date of departure from the U.S., we discussed the comparison of "this time" with "the first time."  When we originally left the comforts of home two years ago to travel to places that were completely unknown to us, we felt fear, hesitancy, and insecurity as well as excitement and anticipation.  We had very little idea of how to "make it work" in places that were completely foreign to us.  As we traveled, often as locals and backpackers do, we met challenges and overcame hardships and by doing so gained confidence in ourselves and our abilities with every step we took.  Preparing for the journey this time, we felt much more confident and were relatively at ease with our abilities.....we knew what to expect.  As Kathmandu was to teach us, we were completely mistaken!

After spending over 30 hours on three planes and in two airports, we found we had an impaired exhaustion as we sought to deal with the world awaiting us in Nepal.  To describe the scene on a Kathmandu street is almost impossible.  A crush of diverse humanity fills the twisted, damaged and unmarked streets.  While Nepalese are supposed to drive on the left, a visitor would never know.  It is a complete free-for-all with each sidewalkless street dominated by pedestrians, pressing each other forward in a wave as the motorcycles, bikes, cars, and busses bellow toxic fumes while drivers press hopelessly on horns and gun their engines to thrust people to the side.  Small shops, with tired-eyed owners wearing grubby face masks silhouetted in dark doorways, line the streets.  And randomly, the strangest sights such as mountain people staying warm with a wood fire built in the midst of this madness or men standing on top of busses pushing aside wads of snarled electric wires play out in front of you.  We were thankful for our own face masks that reduced the acrid burn in our throats.

The homestay we had chosen was with a nice older couple who lived in what one would describe as an upper middle class section of Kathmandu.  Our room in the house was cozy, but a bit on the chilly side when we found the heater did not work.  The bathroom was well equipped, but there was no hot water and the toilet could not be flushed until the water to it was turned on briefly and off before the leak drained onto the floor.  The heater and refrigerator did not work at first, but we were soon to learn that repairing electrical appliances in a city with a possible maximum of 6 hours of electricity a day was not a real priority.  Three hours during the day and three hours at the darkest time of the night are all anyone can expect to have power in Kathmandu.

The following morning, we walked into the city to see what life was like for the rest of the populace in "another big city in a developing country."  We were stunned.  As we walked and watched, it quickly became apparent that we had not seen this level of poverty anywhere else we had traveled.  It oozed out of every nook and cranny; it was a constant companion to everyone we met.  We had a difficult time comprehending what we were seeing.   This is the first country we have visited where cell phones are rarely seen.  Lepers begging and children tugging are a common sight.  The strongest image of our first 48 hours may be that of the cremation site where over one hundred bodies are burned each day.  The rivers in Kathmandu, even the holy one below Shiva's temple, are described as toxic.  The raw sewage, heavy metals, and industrial waste did little to sweeten the smell of burned bodies.  Each day, the ashes of those fires are added to the calf-high sludge.  And as we watched a family mourn, a woman walked below them through the cold sludge, feeling for the coins that might be tossed into the water along with the remains.  Back and forth she moved, trolling for a few cents.  If Kathmandu had been our first international experience when we set out almost two years ago, we would have been frightened by it.  Now, we are fascinated and thoughtful, often cloaked in stunned silence as we attempt to process and understand what we are seeing.

Posted in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Images are of Jess with her facemask, Sally grateful for a bucket of hot water, and a woman searching for coins below a funeral ritual.