The End of the Trek

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The Nepal I visited in 1989 seemed more poor and hard scrabble than the country I visited 27 years later. To be sure, our trek was much closer to Kathmandu than in 1989, which meant that more villagers might move to the city or go overseas for work and send money home. Kathmandu valley has experienced an enormous population boom in the intervening years. Trekking on the Indigenous Peoples’ Trail, it seemed to me that every house had a buffalo or two, at least several goats, and a flock of chickens, and was surrounded by crops: rice, millet, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage. While the animals and farming might be primarily for subsistence, the houses were well tended, the animals looked healthy and the crops were lush.

The people were universally welcoming. Children and young adults were eager to practice their English, and adults wanted to observe, and occasionally to chat. My mother, with her white hair, drew more than a few talkative visitors. One older woman came to visit our camp one morning, and chatted away with my mother delightedly, saying ‘ama, ama’ (mother, mother) and hugging her. We understood very little of what she said, but she was bonding, relating and sending love and admiration and joy through her eyes to my ‘ama.’ Elders are respected in the Nepali culture, and ‘amas’ especially so. Not everyone gets to be old and wise, and my mother became something of celebrity.

Our last full day on trek took us to the town of Namo Buddha, one of the more significant Buddhist temple and monasteries in Nepal. We toured the temple, surprised by the number of Nepali “tourists” there (I always expect tourists overseas to be westerners!), and awed by its architecture and mystique. We descended the hill on the north side of the temple, prayer flags old and new draped over the trees in a profusion of colors as we made our way out of town toward our next and final camp.

That night, the cooks and guides put together an extraordinary farewell dinner. We ate like royalty! Chicken cutlets, coleslaw, cooked fresh vegetables, all yum!  At the end of the meal, the chef, Santosh, brought out a cake made special and decorated with “Happy Nice Trek.” DB, our guide and leader, thanked us for coming to Nepal, for creating jobs for all the crew members, and for being so appreciative of the experience.

He also apologized for the days during the trek when lunch seemed late, and explained that the earthquake had changed some of the water flows and aquifers, leading to constrained water supplies in areas where water had once been abundant. We had been careful with our water use – only two tent showers in 10 days – but it was instructive to learn about this little known effect of the 2015 earthquake. Towns were managing their water supplies by rationing and turning on the hillside taps, which acted like mini town centers, only at certain times. Of course, while we were occasionally hungry for lunch – always delicious – during the trek, we had no idea that the crew had been working overtime most days to find a spot with abundant water for cooking and washing!

Before dinner on the last night, we had given our tips to DB, and he coordinated with Santosh to determine how best to share it with the crew. They had created individual envelopes for each crew member. With the whole crew (17 people) in our dining tent, DB asked Sydney, the organizer of the trek through her “The Trek of Your Life” business, and my mother “Ama!” to help distribute the tips to all crew members. This participation by Sydney and my mother in the distribution process was a sign of respect for them, as well as the crew, and acknowledged the bonds we had created by being together for ten days on the trail. The warmth and generosity was palpable. It was a lovely moment, only surpassed by the crew singing and clapping along to us with great spirit. (Listen here!) We had shared ten days together and the appreciation seemed to be mutual; it was certainly resonant and lasting for me.

Back in Kathmandu the next day, we said our farewell to the crew. Most of us trekkers were headed to the Guest House for showers; I was headed with my mother, even before showers, to the Ciwec Clinic to have my arm checked out and re-bandaged by the renown mountain travel doctors! (They declared it very clean and well tended, but also said that without stitching shortly after injury the scar would be dramatic. And so it is.)

The crew stayed on the bus and went on to the Adventure Geo Treks office to clean all the equipment. On the trail, when we finished trekking for the day, we would relax while the crew set up tents, prepared the camp, and helped with dinner. So, once again, even off the trail at the end of the trek, we got to rest while the crew worked.

Our trekking group, minus crew, met up for a final lunch the next day. We walked a short way from the Kathmandu Guest House to the Garden of Dreams. The Garden is located behind high walls on a very busy and loud boulevard: you wouldn’t know it was there or how lovely it could be just a few feet from the honking of cars and motorcycles. A public park with a modest entrance fee, the Garden of Dreams is a tranquil oasis in the heart of Kathmandu, a neo-classical garden with three pavilions, and multiple ponds, lawns, and pergolas built in 1920. It was neglected from the mid-1960s, upon the death of its patron, Kaiser Sumsher Rana, until recently, but has been restored with the support of the Austrian government. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the restaurant there, while observing the many young Nepali couples walking, sitting on benches or on the cushions on the lawns. It is a lovely place, and a perfect place for a romantic date!

We said goodbye to four of our trekking group the next day, who headed to the US. Sydney would stay to lead a seminar for staff working with human trafficking victims, often former victims themselves, and then to lead another trek to Basa village for volunteer work. For my mother and I, it was the end of only one part of our adventure: we had added a four-day extension to our trip to visit Chitwan National Park at the southern border of Nepal (with India), home to Bengal tigers, rhinoceri, and crocodiles, among other wildlife.

As we prepared for our early departure to Chitwan in the morning, my mother and I marveled at the trekking experience. We had been part of a congenial group of hikers and an extraordinary team of Nepalis supporting us on an interesting and rarely used itinerary through villages and towns. Acknowledging the rough first few days of the trek, we also realized how much we had come to appreciate the experience, and would miss the people, the trekking, and that part of Nepal.

Next post: Chitwan, which will also be my last post on Nepal.

With love,
Susan

PS. I’ve been posting 4-6 pictures from the trip each day on Instagram throughout November with the hashtag #30DaysofNepal; I’ll be posting more from Nepal for a couple of days in December since I lost some time over Thanksgiving. You can see my pictures here!

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Forever in a Day

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My last post, on the morning of November 8, left us on our Nepal trek with overlong monsoons, tough initial trekking days, stomach disorders, leeches at camp, and me with a substantial gash in my arm. More to come, I promised you.

And then it was full on election eve, and then night, in the US. It was a long night.

* Hangs her head, sighs deeply. Sighs deeply again. *

All those tough moments in Nepal pale by comparison.

At least a week or so went by when any thoughts of blogging were about the election and its aftermath. Writing about Nepal seemed escapist and selfish, which I realize in retrospect might have been helpful. Except for my realization that I was, during that week, allowing myself to both wallow in worry and despair (aided by a fair amount of bourbon) while also engaging in magical thinking, I felt I had little to add, especially when so much was being said and written everywhere else.

Magical thinking is interesting, and there’s probably another blog post there at some point, as it shows up in so many places for people, especially under stress. Suffice it to say that magical thinking in this case is when you start to hear yourself say – to yourself – that things probably aren’t going to be that bad, and maybe the office itself will transform the man, and let’s give him a chance. But, as Maya Angelou said, and many people have been reminding us: “If someone shows you who they really are, believe them.” Magical thinking need not apply.

So my post-election mantra is that I will have to hold, going forward, contradictory intentions at the same time: I must seek to understand and try to bridge the divide that is so visible in our nation, while holding our government accountable and standing up for justice.

And then it was Thanksgiving and time to shake off the blues, consider and be grateful for all that is good in our lives. There is so much for which to be grateful.  We spent time with David’s brother, Roy and his wife Kris, at her and her family’s ranch in Cachagua, California, over the hills from Carmel Valley, out of cell phone range. It was a lovely time in a magical albeit very real place. Life has happened there in all its occasional mess and upheaval, as it has to us, and yet gratitude and goodwill prevailed.

But I promised you more stories of Nepal, which brings us to Day Four of the Indigenous Peoples’ Trail Trek in Nepal, leeches and stomach ills and arm gashes and all. A few people have questioned the “fun” quotient of this trip…  certainly some things, like leeches, aren’t really fun no matter how you frame it. But the whole trip was an adventure in which every moment was interesting if not exactly a delight.

I learned a lot about fear on that fourth day of trekking. As I started out my trek the day after falling and badly gouging my arm, I didn’t feel any fear in spite of my fall. I didn’t have the familiar stomach ache, or the tingle at the base of my shoulder blades. And yet, when faced with the first steep downhill of the day, my body couldn’t move. I wasn’t afraid by any conscious sense I could feel, but my body had incorporate an immediate and profound fear directly related to my fall.

Fortunately, one of the assistant guides, Hera, took my pack – and my hand – and helped me down the steep parts of the trail for the next few days. In some cases, he’d put his foot just below where my foot would go, to block my step and keep me from slipping. It took more than a few days to get my trekking mojo back, and I’m very grateful for Hera’s firm and gentle hand in securing my path.

The remarkable thing about a trek is that each person, no matter how fit, is a bit wobbly at the start. Most of us flew at least 14 or so hours across the globe to get to Kathmandu, some of us (ahem!) a little more. And then there’s time zone adjustments and new food, and new surroundings and people, all of which take some toll on our individual resilience. Of course, the energy created by the excitement of the adventure often carries us a bit. And then we leave for trek and are hiking up sheer walls of stairs (I swear!) and sleeping on the ground in a tent at the end of a hard, physical day. We are together, and yet alone as we each also try to manage ourselves and get adjusted.

Somewhere around the middle of trek, we each find our rhythm, getting used to the exertion, the pace and the structure of each day. We each trust in our guides as they describe the day ahead, and then lead us on the day’s trek, and to “proper rests” and lunch at the right time throughout the day. So too, the group finds its rhythm: initial exposition of life stories are exchanged in small conversations. Over the time we become more comfortable with each other as a group, sharing meals and chatting, and revealing more about ourselves through the sharing of the day to day of the experience.

Writing in my journal near the middle of trek, I noted that I felt I’d had forever in a day. The fullness of being so physically grounded and active, in company with the journey of the mind and spirit, is so rich.  And at the end of each day, it was startling to realize that the morning was attached to the evening of the same day. Of course, I know that this richness, this sense of fullness and mindfulness, is available to me every day anywhere I am. In Nepal the vistas seemed endless and the days seemed full of infinite moments. This awareness was one of the many things I wanted to bring home from the trek.

* *  * * * *

Still more from Nepal to follow: I’ll post about the end of the trek on Thursday, and on Saturday about our adventure to Chitwan National Park. After that, I’m planning to get back to a weekly post, barring surprises of the disruptive, dysregulating sort, of which there have been more than a few of late…

Love,
Susan

 

The Trek Begins

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The Peaks of Annapurna, early morning October 6

“A trek, by its very nature, is an arduous journey.”
Sydney Frymire, The Trek of Your Life

We left Kathmandu by mini-bus on Wednesday, October 5, picked up our Nepali trekking crew and swapped into a bigger bus, heading east to the market town of Mudhe to begin our trek. Our trek was not intended to be a typical mountain trek, although we hoped to see mountain peaks from several of our campsites. Instead, we were trekking up and down hills – known as “Nepali flat: a little up and little down” – through towns and villages in one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse parts of Nepal via the Indigenous People’s Trail (IPT). The IPT is a relatively new trek, considered “soft” (easy)/moderate by Nepali standards, and typically involves home-stays instead of the camping that we would do.

For seven trekkers our Nepali team consisted of seventeen people! We had four guides (one leader and three assistant guides), one chef and five assistant cooks who also carried all the food and the kitchen (food, pots, pans and the kerosene stove) between camps, and seven porters, who carried our bags, the tents, the dining table (yes, wooden topped table!) and folding metal camp chairs, among other things. Most of these Nepali young men were from or near Basa village, in the Everest region, where the founder of Adventure Geo Treks is from, and where Sydney, the leader of The Trek of Your Life annually takes one of her two trekking groups to do volunteer work.

At first, I was embarrassed by how many people we’d need to conduct our trip. I have a strong streak of good old “do it yourself American” spirit. However, one of the most valuable insights I had in Nepal was around the positive economic impact we could bring to our activities there.  It started one night pre-trek when at the Sarangi restaurant. The Australian co-owner encouraged us to take a rickshaw to the market the next day, saying that rickshaw drivers are among the poorest people in Nepal, and my dollar or two could make a big difference to that driver. Fast forward ten days when our trek leader, DB (short of Dilli Bahadur), made comments at our final dinner about appreciating our visit to Nepal, our efforts and spirit on the trek, and most especially, the jobs we created by coming to Nepal to trek. As a communal society, all the pay, including our tips, would go to supporting the crew as well as their extended families in the villages they came from.

On our 3-hour drive from Kathmandu to Mudhe, (which was an adventure in surviving bumps on the road), our leader, DB, let us know that the porters hadn’t eaten. So the bus pulled into the Nepali version of a rest stop where, for the equivalent of $2.50 one could enjoy a very generous serving of ‘dal bhat’ – the national Nepali dish of rice and lentil soup. Buses filled with Nepalis traveling home to their villages would pull up and unload, everyone would eat, and then pile back on the bus within 5-10 minutes. We did the same, pausing briefly to consider the digestive consequences. Perhaps we should have paused longer!

Two of us were already squeamish as we left Kathmandu, and two more of us, my mother Carol and I, got sick within 12 hours. That meant the first full day of trekking was excruciating for my mother who had stomach cramps and had to run into the bushes frequently even as we seemed to climb straight up the hill. Mine didn’t hit until that night but I spent the third day of our trek with cramps of my own, feeling weak and nauseous. The first few days of a trek are tough in any context as your body gets used to being in motion all day, among other things. To do so at altitude, weak and dehydrated, makes things even tougher. My mother, who is indomitable and amazingly strong (and I don’t need to qualify that by reminding you that she’s 84), kept wondering aloud why she was so tired, why the trekking was so hard. Of course, she was nauseous, and at first she wouldn’t eat, so no wonder she felt weak against our first tough hill climb!

We camped our second night in a wide open spot on a hill, just over 11,000 feet – our highest altitude on the trek- hoping to see mountains in the morning. We had a friendly pack of goats that ran through camp before dinner. The goatherds, who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11 years old, sat and giggled on the hillside near our camp while a couple of us tried to engage them in conversation and excite them with their pictures on our cameras. They disappeared at dark, but I heard the goats come through camp again in the wee hours, and the goatherds exchanged words with our Nepali guide. In the morning, we did wake up to mountains, partially obscured by clouds – we had fog and clouds coming up from the valleys and the peaks were cut off by a ceiling of clouds. The peaks of Annapurna were the most visible above the clouds and without a ceiling. It was thrilling to look around and see major mountain massifs, covered in snow and know that we were in the Himalaya.

The highlight of our third day on the trek was hiking up to Sailung, a holy peak with a small temple destroyed in the earthquake but still adorned with stupas and prayer flags. It is a pilgrimage for many, and Nepalis along the way confirmed with us that we were headed to Sailung. Walter held a short memorial service for his wife Cynthia, who had died suddenly earlier in the year. It was a perfect place for his tribute, and he invited everyone to join him. Afterwards, we all slowly began the long trek down to our next camp near the town of Dorumba.

The monsoons ran long this year, and we had rain almost every day; normally, October is clear and dry. Furthermore, the wetness allowed a layer of algae to grow on some of the rocks and on the mud, making some of our steps as slippery as ice. Although I was descending carefully, sure enough, I slipped and the back of my right arm, just below the elbow, jammed on to a sharp edge of rock.  My first thought, after I used the f-word out loud, was that I hoped my arm wasn’t broken, because a broken arm would be a bad thing. When I lifted my arm off the rock and saw blood dripping I knew it wasn’t broken but that the wound was deep. I sat down on a step and waited for the trekkers who had been behind me to catch up. One of our fellow trekkers, Lisa, had been trained in back-country first aid, and she, along with one our assistant guides and DB, the leader, worked on cleaning my arm as best as possible with water and then iodine. We put gauze on it, and wrapped it in an ace-like bandage. Oddly, it didn’t really hurt. I was, however, worried about getting stitches (didn’t want them!), keeping it clean once we had a chance to open the bandage again, and about how the gauze wouldn’t likely come off the wound without reopening it.

Our camp in a soccer field outside the town of Dorumba, was fortunately near a medical clinic, the only one near any of our camps on the trek. The town nurse came that night and cleaned the wound in the dining tent with all trekkers and most of the crew watching along. It was a bit gross, to be sure, but also fascinating. He washed the wound with saline, taking 3 small pebbles out. He spoke some English, but the dialogue was mostly in Nepali, translated by our leader. It felt a little bit like medicine by committee. But I felt very well tended  by everyone, and the concern and kindness was palpable. We got some extra supplies of gauze, iodine, antibiotic cream and ace bandage, and one of the assistant guides, Hira, who had some medical training, would replace the bandage and clean the wound every 48 hours.

Later, DB would ask me about the red and yellow string bracelet on my right arm, suggesting that it hadn’t provided me with much protection after all. I replied that my wound might have been much worse – I might have broken my arm after all – had I not had the protection of my bracelet from the old lady at the Hindu temple.

It had been a very full day, but the excitement wasn’t over. We had experienced torrential rain as we arrived at camp, which woke up the leeches. These clever little beasts – no more than about an inch long – sneak their way up the grasses and onto your legs, or shoes, and feast. Apparently, among the amazing things one learns on trek, is that leeches have both an anesthetic and an anticoagulant in their bite, so you don’t feel them, and your blood flows freely. You don’t always know they are there until they’re done, leaving a bloody mess in your socks.

On the evening of our third day of trekking, we had four people recovering from digestive disorders and trying to re-build their strength, one trekker with an arm injury (albeit not a serious “medevac” type injury but one that caused us all to pause), periodic intense rain that seemed to leave everything consistently damp, and a camp infested by leeches.  We were all of reasonable good cheer, but I for one recognized we were only at the beginning of our ten-day trek. So far, it had been a bit more arduous than expected!

Stay tuned for more.

Love,
Susan