Thursday, February 23, 2017

Why Wait?

One of our favorite ways to travel is by foot or trekking.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with trekking in Nepal, we would like to share some insights into this wonderful world of adventure.  We have trekked along the awesome and majestic two week route to Goyko Ri, taking little steps to climb to 17,500 feet and gasp at the 360 degree view surrounding us, including Mt. Everest.  We have risen for the short sunrise walk to view the Annapurna range during our first five day Poon Hill trek warm up.  We have wandered for a week among Tamang villages pondering the ways of those who descended from immigrants of nearby Tibet.  We have eyed nervously the landslides of the Langtang Valley where people still seek tourists to help them recover from the 2015 earthquake as they sit in new, but lonely, teahouses, and we have climbed for a few days to gaze at Mt. Marti Himal, a quiet, weeklong journey away from the Annapurna Circuit crowds.  In all of these, we have found peace and contemplated life as each footstep took us closer to Himalayan giants. 

So many of our friends and colleagues tell us that they want to come trek in Nepal.  We encourage you to do so.  Make your first contact with Shiva Excursions today as soon as you finish reading this blog.  Why wait? You can make a real difference in the lives of people who need social and environmentally responsible tourism to recover from the devastating earthquake in 2015, and they will make a real difference in your life in return.  We honestly believe you cannot return from a Nepalese trek as the same person who left your life back home. 

This blog posting is for those of you who have been waiting to take the “leap” and begin a trek in Nepal.  Below are some tips and contacts so that you can move from saying you want to come to having the experience of a lifetime.  As we write this blog, flights to Kathmandu from the west coast are less than $700 roundtrip!  What are you waiting for?

Contacting a reliable and trustworthy guiding company is the first step to ensuring that the trip will be enjoyable, safe, and unforgettable.  Of course, we will put in a plug for Shiva Excursions here as the owner, Arjun Nepal, is amazing.  We have now traveled and met guides in over 45 countries, and he is one of two who stand above all of the rest.  Arjun will treat you as valued friends as he brings his more than two decades of experience in the field forward to help you decide where you want to go, how long it will take, what types of things to bring, etc. depending on the experiences you desire and the time you have to trek.  What types of landscapes do you want to see (high mountains, rolling hills, vast open landscapes, etc.)?  Do you want to deeply experience different cultures?  How long do you have to spend in Nepal?  What kind of physical shape are you in?  What is the makeup of your group (family with kids, friends, person with older parents, etc.)?   How much can you afford?  In general, for our treks, we have had all expenses (transport, lodging, food, porters, guides, etc.), except for bottled water and other drinks, covered for $65-150 USD per person per day.  There are some treks with expensive flights or permits that may cost more.  We have also been trekking in shoulder seasons so high season could cost more as do camping treks.  We have generally done teahouse or homestay treks.

Please understand that the amenities you have at home are usually not going to be available in Nepal, and you must be willing to adapt to the environment in which you will be “living” for the time you are here.  Usually, there are no sit down toilets available, and you must squat over a porcelain hole in the ground to “do your business.”  The rare sit down toilets are a welcome surprise and generally only in areas close to the beginning or end of your trek.  The expectation is that you will use your left hand to wipe then wash your hands afterward.  Trash is difficult to dispose of so there will rarely be toilet paper supplied in the primitive outhouses.  Ladies, you may want to learn about these products so that you don’t have to “take life sitting down.”

Rooms in the teahouses are very basic, consisting of a bed or two with a simple length of foam for a mattress on each.  Coverings may get washed once a season so a liner is a necessity, not a luxury.  Blankets are generally thick and warm, but we recommend carrying a good sleeping bag with you, especially if you are trekking at higher altitudes.  You can rent one in Nepal.  There is no heat in the rooms and generally no electricity.  Plug ins for recharging devices can be found in only a few teahouses, so do not count on this convenience.  You may want to bring a rechargeable battery for your smartphones.  Wifi is nonexistent and cell coverage spotty. 

Meals are served in a common room, usually with a wood burning stove in the center.  You will be offered a menu with similar selections everywhere for your meals.  Dahl baht is always a great choice and a filling, nutritious meal! Though the stove is lit at night in some locations, wood is not easy to get and is expensive, so be sure to have a nice warm coat with you to stave off the cold as you eat your dinner.  We generally changed from hiking clothes into dry, warm clothes as soon as we arrived each afternoon.  Cold water is the order of the day, so hot showers are usually not available, but when they are, it can be a luxury beyond belief!  Chamois like pack towels are great for multiple uses as there are no towels, washcloths, etc.  

Clean, fresh water is not generally available without boiling or purchased as bottled water at teahouses.  Nepal is overrun with plastic bottles so try to use boiled water whenever possible or bring a water filter capable of filtering viruses. Meat usually has to be transported by foot or by beast in these remote mountain areas, and it may take several days (without refrigeration) for it to reach its destination.  We always go vegetarian on our treks to decrease the odds of serious food poisoning.  Be sure that all vegetables are cooked, boiled, or peeled before eating them.

Dress in layers to adjust to the changing weather conditions and temperatures as you hike up and down the trails.  Always have a good rain jacket and rain pants as well as warm gloves and a warm hat.  We have found that one of the most useful pieces of gear to keep you warm is a neck gaiter.  Good, sturdy hiking shoes are a must as are good hiking poles. 

There is a saying among guides “Nepalese Flat.”  When we say the trails are up and down, we do not exaggerate!  Walk slowly and carefully.  Drink plenty of water (3-4 liters per day), and have a few Ibuprofen and/or Aleve with you for minor aches and pains.  Carry some blister medication and pads, and do not be shy about applying sunscreen liberally before and during your trek.  You can burn on cloudy days easily at these elevations!

Trekking is physically challenging but despite our modest fitness, even in our 50’s and 60’s we have done it and ended up fitter than when we started, stronger than we anticipated, and blown away by what we have seen. Take time to enjoy the world around you as you trek.  The scenery is some of the most spectacular you will ever have the opportunity to see!  Enjoy the people and how they go about their lives in the villages as you pass through.  Take time to sit on the teahouse verandas during your trek and sip homemade lemon ginger honey tea. Learn to slow down, disconnect from your daily life and your devices, and enjoy the world in which you find yourself, because it is amazing.  You may find that you need less than you imagine, care more than you understood, and that the issues that trouble you are small when pondered in the shadows of Himalayan giants.


Posted in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Photos above are of Sally trekking in Nepal, Mongol carrying our extra gear, a teahouse simple bedroom, dinner in our warm jackets, Arjun and us as we head up to view Mardi Himal and Fishtail.  Photos below have taglines!

Walking away from Mardi Himal as the clouds roll in.  This was a great 6-7 day trek in the Annapurna area.  We drove to Pokhara and then started the trek about 45 minutes away from the city.

We were gazing at the glaciers in the beautiful U shaped valley at the end of the Langtang trek.  We added this trek to our Tamang Heritage Trail trek for an almost two week experience in one of the cultural centers of Nepal.  


During several treks, but especially during the Tamang Heritage Trail, we saw Mani walls and Chortens.

We had a great time visiting with different kids along our treks.  
Getting out of the way of Yaks is one of the fun parts of trekking above treeline!

As we said above "You may find that you need less than you imagine, care more than you understood, and that the issues that trouble you are small when pondered in the shadows of Himalayan giants."

Sunday, February 12, 2017


For most of us, experiencing other cultures while we travel is much like skipping a stone across a pond or river to the distant shore.   As with the rock, we tend to dip and skim across the surface, reaching the other side without fully exploring the depths.  But occasionally, when we are lucky, we plunge deeply into new cultural waters, immersing ourselves in different beliefs, traditions, foods and places.  We have had the chance to do so in Nepal, one of the first places to which we have returned on our journey that began almost five years ago with our goal of learning with humility and, where possible, giving with grace.

Arjun Nepal (yep, that is his last name) and his family have been inviting us for more than two years to return to Nepal and to visit the region of his youth, Marpak, where his parents and many of his relatives still live.  His voice became even more compelling after the devastating earthquake in 2015.  Many of our family and friends supported his family and friends as we reached across the ocean to try to show how much people care during such natural disasters.  Arjun’s village was destroyed and to this day, the school where children from dozens of villages walk two hours to attend is a row of tents with hand held chalkboards used for daily lessons. 

 The Nepal family group (parents, uncles, sisters, etc.) has about a dozen households in the small village where most depend on what food they can grow/raise to eat and to sell to supplement their diet of dal baht.  Two times a day, the family gathers around wood fires to eat rice, lentils, curried and pickled vegetables, and occasionally indulge in some mutton, chicken or goat.  Dal baht is the national food in Nepal, and it is delicious.  Each time we ate it, it was subtly or overtly different, and we love it.  Loving it turned out to be a necessity as the Nepalese tradition is to provide a plate of food that would easily satisfy three teenage boys and then continuously add to it as one attempts to finish everything on his/her plate.  Arjun’s mother had a special gift for doing so, and as we quickly learned Nepalese words for “full” or “thank you, I have enough,” she gave us an unbelieving look admonishing our wimpy appetites while slipping food into our bowls and plates if we left them undefended or became distracted for even a few seconds.  She was equally skilled at ensuring that between meals we were fed and constantly provided drinks of milk tea and fresh water buffalo milk.  Each night, even if we had fallen asleep on the woven rice stalk mattresses beside Arjun’s daughter, son, and father, she would wake us with warmed water buffalo milk to be drunk under her watchful eyes.  Sometimes she would also bring us hot water to drink which created some entertaining fumbling a few hours later as we sought to quietly sneak through 6-8 others and find a place to pee outside in the moonlight.

After a few days and kilos of weight added to our midriff, we were relieved to learn that we would be fasting during the upcoming Puja, or Hindu celebration, we would be attending with the family.  At that time, we assumed fasting meant being without food, perhaps even without drink, and so it seemed from Arjun’s explanation.  Yet his mother viewed the concept of a “fast” for us as one in which we would consume the allowed items (fruit, tea, and water) as “fast” as we could swallow them.  We each had more than a dozen bananas, countless tangerines, apples, milk tea, and hot water every time she spied us with our hands free and/or our mouths empty!  

The puja, itself, was an incredible ceremony, and we felt incredibly blessed and lucky to witness, and then participate, in this sacred Hindu ritual. Preparations began before we arrived and continued while we were there with special leaves shaped and made into countless bowls, food items and colorful powders arrayed in them, and butter lamps and pieces of wood carefully prepared along with more mysterious items.  The one room we all shared for living and sleeping space was transformed as rice mats and platforms were dragged out and the floor, considered a sacred surface, was cleaned with cow dung, water, and a special soil, after which patterns were drawn on it and sand drawings (mandalas) created.  The bowls containing the powders, food items, and other offerings were placed on the carefully prepared sacred surface and eventually, a large fire was set in what had been our bedroom. We were allowed, at first to watch, and as the day stretched into the afternoon and night, the family and two priests drew us closer, blessing us each time the bell was rung to alert the gods, praying with and for us, tying ribbons and strings on our hands and around our necks to protect us and bring us prosperity, and finally, connecting us to each of them in a human chain, one hand on each other’s back or shoulder.  It was during this day that Arjun’s mother, when learning our own parents had passed, began to call us “Churi” or daughter, making sure that we understood who our brothers and sisters were and where our place was in her heart and family.

It was almost three weeks later that we found out that one of the items we drank from the palm of our hands during the Puja included the piss and poop from the family’s sacred cow.  While that may sound strange to those of us not raised as Hindus, it probably would equally sound strange to them to explain that a weekly miracle Jess participated in each Sunday involved eating the body and drinking the blood of the Catholic’s god.

Immersion.  We spent only one week of our life in Marpak.  Walking to local schools; begging Samundra, Arjun’s amazing wife, to allow us to help with chores; helping cut up the yield of a crop of turmeric, turning our white skin a gorgeous shade of yellow; learning games from local kids and teaching them a few of our own; attending a village meeting about a new  bridge as more than a dozen men watched us comment in their building log; gazing intently at the monthly butchering of the one goat being shared by a dozen families, each of which would supply their own goat once a year; being invited and accepting tea in houses wherever we wandered; learning to make leaf bowls and rings of rice bread; but mainly listening to and living as family.  Each night, we would fall asleep next to Sushma, Arjun’s daughter and our new friend, listening to her grandfather tell elaborate stories in Nepales to her little brother Shiva who shared his platform bed.  We would awaken to the same voice as he enticed his grandkids awake, to welcome the new day with him.  Immersive experiences are very different than skipping across the surface of another place or people.  When a stone sinks, rings spread from where it entered, eventually touching far shores and connecting them all as the waves hit, then slip back into what is familiar.

Posted in Kathmandu, Nepal.  Images are of Jess and Shiva, us with Arjun’s father, Samundra making a wonderful treat for us, Arjun and Sushma during the Puja prior to the fire being set, Jess cutting turmeric with Arjun's mother, and the careful division of the goat.