Monday, May 27, 2013

Trekking wrap-up: Annapurna Base Camp

It has been a few days. We are now into the second part of our journey back to Whitefish, after a week in Chicago, we are in Kansas City for a week to visit our new nephew (!) and family. But, I will continue the ABC saga as if time has not passed! However, a slight mishap with our computer has rendered it unusable for the time being, and I will not be able to attach photos until a later date. Be patient.

~I didn't end up photographing the stars that night at Annapurna Base Camp, as it was impossible without a tripod, but I did take the time to gawk open-mouthed at the moonless sky as I took my midnight trip to the toilet. It was amazing. The faint outline of peaks was black against a spattered black sky of stars, more crystal clear than any night sky I have ever seen. After all, there wasn't much atmosphere between us and the solar system. We woke up the next morning at around 6 o'clock, though we had been mildly awake for an hour and a half already, awoken by seemingly all of South Korea outside our window getting ready for sunrise. Ben and I were kind of over that whole deal after the Poon Hill experience, and realized that if we didn't extract ourselves from our popsicle beds until 6am, we wouldn't be missing anything.

By the time we emerged from our room, South Korea was already eating their breakfast and getting on their way, which we later found out was everyone else at Base Camp's plan as well. As we woke our tired and altitude-weary bodies, we walked about 100 yards from Base Camp and realized that no one else even bothered to venture further than their "photo spot" outside of their guest house. Even more, no one else of the roughly 100 people staying at Base Camp stayed later than 7:30am. Ridiculous. Ben and I made our way, slow step by slow step, towards the highest point we could see that was not snow. We took turns questioning our motives, as every 10-20 steps we found ourselves gasping for breath, and as we approached the halfway point we stopped.

It was at this halfway point that we decided to create a little video. Perhaps not a "little" video, it may be the world's most epic balsa glider flight caught on tape. And by tape I mean digital video. My dad sent us to Nepal with a box of balsa airplanes for the kids at Harka, and as there were only 9 boys and 11 planes, we had to keep two (distributing the remainder at random would incite rebellion amongst the children). So we brought them to the Annapurna Base Camp/ Sanctuary, nestled at around 14,500ft, and decided to throw them off a cliff. Best idea ever. Ben had to do some repair work before the launch, as they had gotten a little smashed in our 6 days of trekking, but we nicknamed them 'The Nepali Rascal' and 'Gary I', and we threw them in honor of my dad's 64th birthday. They soared like no one has ever seen a balsa glider soar before.

After the flights, we continued up to the glacier lookout, where we spotted some grouse scuttling across the snow. We tried to identify them with locals that day, to no avail, as we were unclear as to whether no one had seen it before, or they just didn't know the English word for them. We then sat at the cusp of a cliff, overlooking a glacier, in full view of the entire Sanctuary for about an hour. It may have been less, it may have been more, but when you are in complete awe of your surroundings- enamored with crashing avalanches, crumbing glaciers, and unknown wildlife- you tend to lose track of time. The view was impossible to describe, but I will try to depict in pictures (uhh, later).

We returned to Base Camp later that morning, albeit only about 9:30, to a completely deserted guest house. Everyone had left hours earlier, and as it was still nice weather, we continued to enjoy our time in the quiet. After all, it's not every day you're at the Annapurna Sanctuary, right? We trekked back down to Macchapucchare Base Camp late that morning, only hiking for about an hour (and boy, did we take our time), ate some lunch, took a fabulous nap, and enjoyed good company.

The remainder of the trek went much as that day did (though we did hike about 5-6 hours each day), and we took about 3 more days to get back to Pokhara. We retraced our steps for the first and most of the second day, and with each step breathing got a bit easier. Though our toes would often feel numb, and our feet like clubs from going downhill, we met two friendly Albertan guys on the second day that made the final days quite fun. We also dipped our weary bodies in the Jhinu Hot Spring, a fantastic rock pool beside the Modi Khola that was unexpectedly nice, and induced the most relaxed sleep of the entire Nepal trip! We spent the night near the hot spring, eating all too much food, and, with the Albertans, decided we were done with this whole "hiking" thing, and were ready to get back to Pokhara and have a nice shower. Luckily, there were two ways back: one that took two days, one that took one. We chose the latter. The last day was a beast, a full day in sweltering heat with little shade, but we were glad we hadn't chosen the staircase-ridden alternate route that took two days. We eventually emerged at Naya Pul, sweaty and exhausted, thrilled to get into a taxi to town. The end of our epic trek was celebrated that night by Ben, myself, and the Albertans over a delicious Indian meal in Pokhara- where we toasted the Himalayas, and the fact that we were offered more menu options than "mix pizza" and "tuna spaghetti". Always be thankful for the little things.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fast forward: Trek Day 6

As I am already back in the US, I have gotten a bit lax with my blogging. Thus, I'm going to skip day 5 and go straight to day 6: Deurali to Annapurna Base Camp

I must begin this entry with a simple fact: when traveling, I instantly judge anyone with an American accent. Usually, my judgement is proven wrong within the first conversation. However, we sat next to some Alaskans at lunch today, and based on their conversation with a pair of Swiss men, I wanted to punch them in the face. They were a couple, younger than us, the girl still in school and the guy a fisherman. The statement that made me never want to talk to them- "I got food poisoning in Pokhara, maybe from some mutton moms I ate, or maybe that steak I had. I had the steak because, I figured there are a lot of cows around, there must be good steak." In addition to noting that there was nothing to do in Pokhara, claiming that Americans get an average of 5 weeks of vacation a year, and other such comments, I deemed them guidebookless and completely ignorant. They also mentioned no less than three times that they were "competitive people" and had made it to ABC in less than 48 hours (which is quite stupid, and not admirable).

Lame folks aside, today was a grand day in the form of scenery, but definitely my most difficult day yet. At about 11pm last night a mouse discovered that Ben had left his bag of masala peanuts out. Originally thinking Ben was getting a late night snack, I quickly realized that the relentless mouse had discovered our stash. Even after putting away the peanuts, the mouse continued to search the room, digging through pockets and skittering across our beds. I slept with my jacket wrapped around my head and my body wrapped tightly in my blanket, so as to make the least contact possible with Mr. Mouse. The tumultuous night made us the latest risers at our lodge, and when we began that morning, my body didn't want to move. At all. My breakfast was weighing me down, every step seemed to take 1,000x the normal effort, and I hardly paid attention to the scenery I focused on my own body so much.

Luckily, after about an hour and a half, we reached Macchapucchare Base Camp (MBC), I downed a Snickers, and felt a million times better. Perhaps the blood sugar was just a little low! The valleys around MBC were amazing, as only pictures and memories can tell:

After MBC, the dense forests had completely cleared and turned to alpine tundra. We followed a river up, up, up- marveling at small royal bluebirds as they flitted around the banks (still have no idea what they were...). It turned cold quickly in the cloud cover, and we frequently sought shelter behindlarge boulders that lined the path. The valley got slightly wider, and we tried to spot that sheep, but to no avail. Every so often Macchapucchare would appear (the "Fishtail" mountain), unfathomably high behind the curtain of clouds. Though we have had glimpses of the surrounding peaks throughout the afternoon, we will not be able to see the full panorama until morning. I hope to photograph the stars and the moon on the peaks tonight, if I am not too cold to get out of my bed! There is quite a long path along the glacier basin that we hope to tackle tomorrow, winding its way to about 14,500/15,000 ft. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Oops! Posted too early. Trek part 3

Trek day 4: Tadapani to Sinua

Today was a long day, but it felt great. We were the first to our destination- Sinua- further proving that we keep a pretty decent pace. We bid adieu to Guru, our hilarious porters, and the Russians this morning from the Grand View Guest House, which indeed had a grand view of Annapurna South as we left. We then headed down to our first bridge of the day (down about 2,400 ft, on a staircase), then up to Chommrong (up about 1,500 feet, more stairs), then down again (600ft, stairs) then up again (1,500 ft, mostly stairs). In Chommrong we stopped for lunch at a place recommended for their chocolate cake and "California-style burritos', of which we had neither. We questioned the legitimacy of the restaurant when we walked in and the owner was sleeping on a bench. Sadly, the vivacious wife of the owner did not show up until we'd eaten two plates of fried noodles, and convinced us that the chocolate cake and burrito were worth a stop on our way down from ABC- they were recommended in Lonely Planet and Time Magazine! She also noted that she didn't know what a California-style burrito was, " I've never been to California!" she said, but it was well-liked. I made a promise to stop on our way back, I will not pass up chocolate cake twice!

Besides the ascent/decent being quite hard on the knees, our morning was quite eventful. After crossing our first big suspension bridge of the day we walked right into a 300-odd sheep herd, that continued to ascend the trail with us. I felt like I was in the Red Line/Blue Line Washington tunnel at rush hour, except the business men were horn-toting mountain sheep. Like in the tunnel, don't look anyone in the eye and just keep moving. We then came to the small village of Tilche, where we passed a school and found ourselves on the trail of a 2-year-old with a Smurfs backpack and the biggest plumbers crack I've seen in a while. It was adorable.

 note: sheep 

note: chocolate cake and burrito location

Though the day was quite long (6 hours) it felt good, and my knee stopped it's mysterious popping from yesterday. One thing is for sure though- I have never seen more stairs in my life.

ABC trek part 2

Day 3: Ghorepani to Poon Hill for sunrise, and then on to Tadapani

Today began at an excruciating 3:12 am, when we were awoken by the Russians. We were to meet for our hike up Poon Hill at 4, and our alarm was set for, naturally, 3:50. It's not like we had to look pretty. Evidently the group needed a lot more time to primp than us! We arrived at Poon HIll about 40 minutes before sunrise, as we were all movin' real fast this morning, and then anxiously awaited the mountains to alight and our butts to stop freezing. The sunrise was nice over Dhaulagiri (3rd tallest mountain in the world), but we saw equally awesome views later as we began our ascent to Tadapani.

After coming off Poon Hill in the morning we packed up, ate breakfast in the awesome dining hall at the Sunny Lodge (which held handsome panorama views while we sipped masala tea and milk coffee) and got sick and tired of waiting for the Russians, who were evidently waiting until Poon Hill cleared out and then meditated on top for an hour. We left the group and didn't see them again until Tadapani, when two ladies arrived on horseback, very butt-sore.

The trail began with a climb of over 1,000 feet to a pass covered in blooming rhododendrons- white, red, fuschia, pink- absolutely beautiful. The trail was up and down, up and down, quite reminiscent of Everest Base Camp trail. Unlike EBC, however, there are no villages anywhere- only rainforest. The valleys are very narrow and nearly all sheer cliffs, making villages impossible. We walked by a stream nearly the entire day, in tight valleys interspersed with rhododendron forests, oaks, ferns and waterfalls that ended in beckoning plunge pools. 

We arrived in Tadapani around lunch time and promptly shared a plate of fries (home cut and fried, no frozen french fries here!) and a refreshing Everest beer. When we awoke from a fantastic nap, the Russians had finally arrived- 4 hours after us! A little soggy from rain, they had made it. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The climb to the top! ABC, part 1

We just returned from our trek yesterday, with rock-solid calves and a little bit of a peeling nose (on my face), but completely happy and enamored with what we saw and accomplished. Ten days of hiking in the Himalayas will toughen anyone, at times sweaty, at times freezing, at times exhausting, but altogether amazing. We learned that the Incas got nothin' on Nepali stone construction, as we climbed and descended more stone steps than I thought were even physically possible over the course of the trek. Slate staircases scaled all the mountains around us, leading to villages, tea houses, and much of the time, to a single Gurung farm. I've decided to share an assortment of my journaling from the trek, just to give you an idea of what the heck goes on in the mind of someone who only walks, eats, and sleeps for 10 days...

Day 1: Nayapul to Ulleri 5/4/13

Though sweaty, the first few hours of our trek were in the sun, eventually entering a cooler rainforest spotted with large boulders. After a lunch of delicious potato and cheese momos (steamed dumplings) in the quaint, quiet town of Tikkhedunga, we crossed a river and a few amazing waterfalls before we began our ascent to the town of Ulleri. A supposed 3,000-step staircase, Ben and I noted that it must have been an exaggeration, as it was not as bad as everyone made it seem (then again, it's the first day...spritely leg muscles abound). It feels great to be moving again, as our two weeks at Harka were quite sedentary!

Day 2: Ulleri to Ghorepani 5/5/13

We are hiking the first few days of this trek with my friend Guru, a guide, and his accompanying Russian tour group (9 people, 1 English speaker). Let me tell you, the Russians are slowing up. With 4 women over 60, one wearing what appear to be moccasins (the orthopedic kind), I don't think they had any idea what they were in for on this one. Luckily, they are only going to do a 4 day loop of the scenic viewpoint at Poon Hill, NOT the entire trek to Base Camp like us.

Our porters, who really aren't "our" porters as they aren't carrying any of our stuff, are hilarious. The one with aviators is currently playing Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On' off his cell, and previously on the trail he played Britney's "Hit me Baby"- to which we all chimed in. I wished I remembered all the dance moves, so as to throw off my pack and bust it out for everyone's enjoyment.

The trail from Ulleri to Nangethani, where we had lunch, was sunny and open for a bit, and then heavily forested in oak and rhododendron, the national flower of Nepal. Though not in bloom, the forest was lush and reminded me very much of our million steps day on the Inca Trail- similarly mossy and dense trees, hanging precipitously over crystal clear streams filled with marble boulders.

After a 2 hour wait at the Hungry Eye Guest House for the Russians, the finally came trickling in. Evidently one of them is ill, as she immediately curled up in her sleeping bag on the guest house floor. Guru let us leave ahead of the group, thank god, as it was about to rain and we didn't want to walk in it if we didn't have to! The sick one ended up taking a horse the remainder of the way, which was good as it did start raining, and was quite steep and difficult at points. Ben and I got to the Sunny GUest House in Ghorepani just in time, and were only rained on for about 20 minutes. A quaint collection of tea houses, upper Ghorepani has a little square, bookshop, internet stand, and curio stores- and potentially a very nice view of Dhaulagiri...we shall see tomorrow when we hike at 4am to Poon Hill for sunrise!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Cooler climes

Finally out of the blistering heat of the flat Nepal south, Ben and I are in Pokhara for the day, getting some last minute supplies before we head out on a 10-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp.

The week after 'My Big Fat Nepali Wedding' went by all too fast, for me at least, and I realized on the bus ride yesterday that I wish there was some way for the Harka kids to be closer or more accessible...because I always want to stay longer! Though our time at Harka flew by, there was a point in each day when I thought that it would never end. With temperatures over 100 degrees, escalating each day above the previous, and humidity indexes of a Midwest August, each day proved to be a test of patience between the hours of  2 and 6pm. Neither Ben nor I had experienced such heat in over two years. The kids were in school most days of the past week, coming home at 4:00 for a climax of crazy-kidness and heat. Most of our time between 9am and 4pm was spent trying to find a comfortable position in which to catch a passing breeze and sweat the least. A rotation of sitting in various shady spots proved to be the best option, but I seem to have formed some butt callouses from the amount of sitting on concrete I managed to accomplish over two weeks.

Whereas Ben was able to read quite a bit, I couldn't focus on a book as much as I would have liked, instead finding a balance between walking around, playing with the kids, dunking my head in water, and reading a magazine article. But in each day there was a point when, despite the constant layer of sweat enveloping my entire epidermis, I was entirely grateful that we were able to come. Albeit short and hot, it was completely worth working a second job for the past two months! Whether it was Suman telling me what crazy contraption he "wants" next (zip line, cutting laser beam, etc.), Srijana and I lounging in the hayloft talking about our futures (and whether or not any of my friends (or myself) will be having a baby soon, that would like her to be an au pair for...takers?), Jamuna crazily jumping all over my body in apparent disregard for the heat index, or Tulie's constant appearance desiring nothing more than some lovin', I feel as though I could never spend too much time with these kids.

On Wednesday, heat rash coupled with exhaustion from sleepless nights (heat and a relentlessly barking orphan home "guard dog") led to a small bout of anger on my part. Luckily Ben passed it off, even though it was mostly directed towards him, as heat-induced. Almost angelically I think, Ariana is staying at Harka for 10 more days, before she heads to Kathmandu and then home. I hope to all the gods in Hinduism that it cools off for her! As we left yesterday, Laxmi thanked us repeatedly for coming, for our donation, and wished us and our families well. We told her that the next time we come, we will be coming in cool weather, and that we will bring with an air conditioner. Evidently air conditioners in Nepal cost around $1,000, which seems ridiculous, but in a constantly fluctuating economy, not entirely unbased. Seeing as we could probably equip the whole home for that much using American-purchased air conditioners, we think that would probably be a fantastic investment. Plus, I've always wanted to be that person traveling internationally with HUGE boxes tied up with ropes from abroad. Plus, then volunteers could come in the summer!

During our time at the home I made some new revelations that were confusing at first, but completely typical of traveling with a language barrier. For one, Sima and Bisal are brother and sister. Apparently I was completely oblivious of this on my previous trip, which was shortly after Bisal had arrived at Harka and didn't really hang out with Sima all that much. Also, I don't think anyone told me. Either way, they are now very much attached, being 15 and 14 years old, respectively. They walk around with their sideways trucker hats and cell phones blaring Nepali and American pop music, bossing the little kids around (as Sima always has). Especially hilarious was a morning when all the younger children got ready for school and stood in two lines while Sima dictated from a bench various commands in Nepali ("touch your toes!" "do 25 jumping jacks!"). And, like typical teenagers, do only minimal chores and like to sulk away by themselves for most of the day (though Bisal is still very much social and constantly asking questions). Sima still has the contagious giggle that she always has, and when we were looking through a Shutterfly book I made for the kids using pictures from my past two trips, I commented on my favorite picture of her as a 9-year-old. "I love this because you look like a little Chinese sumo wrestler!" to which she responded, "No Miss, I look Korean." Oh yeah, I forgot that Nepalis hate the Chinese.

Another revelation, brought to my attention during our hour-lunch with Samurai, was that Jamuna and Ganga are not, in fact, twins. This is confusing to me, as their names are the typical names for twins (two holy rivers), and when they were young, they simply called them the Nepali word for "twin" (jumli, I think). Apparently they are about a year apart, and their real names are Laxmi (Ganga) and Rosni (Jamuna). Hmpf. Ya learn something new every time. Jamuna and Ganga are simply nicknames, that have stuck for good. I only realized this when looking at a new poster that was up on the wall, featuring a photo of each child at Harka with their name in Nepali script. Before traveling I attempted to learn the Nepali alphabet, and practiced sounding out words as often as I could. I realized that Jamuna and Ganga's names were not Jamuna and Ganga on the poster, as Manessa walked up and noticed my confused face. "What, Miss?" she asked, and we proceeded to clear things up. That place never ceases to amaze me.

Between our games of Twister (too funny), throwing balsa and paper airplanes in the field, reading books (all children can now read in English), having dance parties, painting nails and doing hair we had the pleasure of laughing at, and with Domre, the newest addition to Harka. He arrived after we had been there for a few days, and Laxmi said he was to be a "worker, and then go to school". The boy is a gangly teenager of undefinable age, possibly 16, but in class 9. Like most American teenagers, he's always got his headphones in, but unlike most American teenagers I know, he is also constantly dancing and singing along at full volume. He is extremely awkward and has no sense of personal space, but I originally attributed that to his never having been around white people (figured he just wanted to see what we were "up to" in our personal bubbles"). Though he annoyed me a touch during his first few days (when washing my clothes in the shower room, he squeezed himself in to take a fully-clothed shower, thus completely soaking me in the process), he grew on me. I think he started to grow on me when I realized he was just a really goofy guy, and even Nepalis found him extremely entertaining. Out in the field with the kids playing one day, Domre had finished his work tilling, and proceeded to dance and sing, eyes closed, across three fields while the kids giggled their faces off. During Hare Krishna one night (nightly singing/prayer/meditation time), Domre got especially into singing, overpowering all the young children in decibel-level, and Manessa gave me a look as she pointed to Domre that said, "What's with this guy?!" and burst out laughing.

And that, my friends, is one of the reasons I love this country so much. Beneath a seemingly peaceful, quiet countenance, Nepalis have a very similar sense of humor to our own. If they are comfortable with you, they will laugh all night about ridiculous things. They will also be the loudest, shrewdest people you've ever met, but will laugh at the end. Listening to Laxmi talk on the phone makes me wonder why any guidebook would ever refer to Nepalis as "quiet", as it usually sounds like she is irate with the person on the other line, scolding them for years of bad behavior. After hanging up, she'll turn to me and say, "That was my friend, she is going to help make roti tomorrow night!", referring to a jovial conversation. It's why I love the kids so much too, as they are completely hands-on, all-out nearly all the time.

There are certain times though, early in the morning or late at night, when everything at the orphan home moves at a slower pace. Yesterday morning we were to leave at 10 o'clock, and after we'd had our morning tea I sat down with Ashish, Suman, Tulie, and Jamuna and read and entire Amelia Bedilia -like chapter book. None of the aforementioned moved, each one's head popping through a crevice of my body so as to see the pictures. If it had been 4 o'clock in the afternoon, this would not be the case, each one running amok wielding some sort of toy in each hand, screaming, "Miss LOOK!!", but mornings are much more sedate. As the kids got ready for school and we hugged each one goodbye, promising to come back in a couple of years, and that we would not forget them (but not committing to any purchases of "500 hot wheels cars" or "100 light sabers"), I found Tulie in her room sniffling and missing her school pants. She had been wearing them minutes before, and had seemingly taken them off in retaliation to our departure. I picked her up and hugged her and told her we would be back when she is in class 5 (which makes me sniffle), and that I loved her. Because I do. Just an hour before I was popping a squat in the toilet, when Tules came in to talk to me through the cement wall. She asked how long I would be in the toilet, as she wanted to play some more before we left. It reminded me of my first time here, when, as Becca and I were leaving, we couldn't find Tulie anywhere. Only 2 years old at the time, she was in the toilet, taking care of herself. I said goodbye to her through the squatter door. Though I love all the kids, something about that little monkey face gets me every time. Her little dimple and presence 10 feet from my side at all times makes me happy, and even if another kid is asking incessantly for me to buy him/her chocolates, Tulie will be there to set them straight. That's what friends are for.