Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sad Nepal News

Last night Brad and I were getting ready for bed and we decided we would switch on the TV, one of the first TVs we've had access to since we started traveling. We have been pretty out of the loop, honestly. So we figured we'd see what kind of Thai pop music videos might be on or if we could catch a basketball game. Unfortunately what we saw was the breaking news of the horrifying earthquake in Nepal yesterday.

We are totally safe in Thailand right now having left Nepal on April 12th. Thank you for all of the concern over our whereabouts, it really means a lot to know so many people are looking out for us. My heart is breaking for Nepal today. While we were traveling there, Brad and I thought a lot about earthquakes, knowing how prone that area of the world is to tremors. The buildings throughout Kathmandu are a mishmash of very old and somewhat newer construction but nothing is built with earthquake safety in mind. Much of the city, including very old, historical temples and monuments have been devastated by earthquakes, the most destructive of which, until today, was in 1934. We also thought a lot about avalanches while we were hiking in the Annapurnas and we saw some very recent evidence of the snowy slides.

To me, Nepal is a country that appears to be perpetually recovering from a natural disaster, getting by on the minimal infrastructure that exists. There are regular load shedding power outages. The few roads are barely able to contain the traffic that uses them. The international airport is at capacity. Kathmandu has a water shortage due to it's inability to harness the huge amount of water that comes off of so many mountains. Basic needs of most of the population are not met. People work really hard to build things by hand, moving rocks and pounding nails. And then an actual natural disaster devastates what the country has managed to achieve. It's the last thing any country needs but especially not Nepal. I'm very sad.

I feel really fortunate to be in Thailand right now. I feel grateful for my life and adventures we are having. This really is an amazing world. I think Brad and I will try to meet up with my brother, Joel, somewhere in southern Thailand in the next week or so. It'll be nice to hug some family!

Love to you all,

Friday, April 10, 2015

Hold Up, Here's More About that Road

It was late as I was posting last night and I realized I neglected an important discussion about the ongoing road construction and it's impact on the Annapurna area. While Brad and I spent tons of time, effort and additional miles doing our best to avoid the dusty road, it is hard to overlook some of the positives it has brought to the local communities. The road has enabled the movement of goods and services rapidly by Jeep to some of the remotest villages on the circuit. Pre-road, everything not grown or hand made was schlepped on someone's back for days into the sheer sided canyons and onto mountain sides. Even the items needed at the teahouses and trekking lodges had to themselves be hiked in. Not so surprising that menu prices went up with the elevation. Now Jeeps take care of that.

The thing that seemed to be missing in the early few days of our trek were other hikers populating these now meticulously stocked lodges and guesthouses. Brad and I started the trek at Besi Sahar, the traditional beginning of the circuit, and in 3 days of vigorous morning to evening hiking we ran across only a smattering of other hikers and we walked through ghost towns of lodges and guesthouses seemingly belonging to the heyday of the circuit where every hiker had to walk every inch of the trail. We stayed in lodges where we were sometimes the only guests. In the village of Chamje, we were 2 of 4 total guests at a large lodge and the only foreigners in the entire town which had at least 6 equally large lodges. Guesthouse owners would practically plead with us to stay at their lodge as the road has really negatively impacted the tourism business. Confusingly, these ghost towns were contrasted with other roadside villages whose residents were hard at work constructing even more lodges. They theorize that the road will bring bus loads of hikers to their towns and everyone will need a place to stay.

In fact, 3 three long days into the trek, arriving at the village of Chame, Brad and I encountered our first organized trekking groups as well as individual hikers, guides, and porters piling out of Jeeps and filling the numerous lodges to capacity. This is where the Jeeps unload their passengers and where most treks on the circuit now begin. Although the road continues, it is at the elevation of Chame and no higher, that it is safe to begin acclimatization. With roads on either side of the pass, the once 18-25 day Annapurna Circuit can now be done in about one week. People on tight schedules skip the lovely lower elevation farm terraces and go directly for the high altitude thrills.

The trail is changing rapidly. Our guidebook published last year is already out of date and the map I bought in Kathmandu claiming to be the latest version does not indicate significant stretches of the road. I'm glad we hiked this route when we did because I don't think it will be a viable trekking option in even the near future. I wish I could have seen it 20 years ago and I'll be keeping up to date with it's future progress.

The Annapurna Circuit

The Annapurna Circuit trek has been a hikers dream for decades as it covers roughly 150 miles of varied terrain starting in tropical fruit growing canyons, passing through rice paddies, pine forests, high alpine trails winding beneath some of the highest peaks in the world, over suspension bridges straddling glacial rivers, and culminating in lower elevation Rhododendron forests. The Annapurna Circuit is known as a teahouse trek, or one in which a tent and food is totally unnecessary because the hiker is rarely more than 2 hours from either a village or a lone teahouse staffed by an enterprising local selling tea (obviously), Snickers, and sodas (even though sometimes you order a Coke and you get a re-branded version called Camp-Cola).

Within the old Himalayan villages, the teahouses are mostly integrated into small guesthouses with a few rooms or larger lodges that provide basic accommodations to hikers. The general understanding throughout the entire circuit is that if you choose to stay at a certain guesthouse you are also to take your meals there. Therefore, the price of a room is 0-3 dollars for two people and the food is the real money maker at 2-5 dollars per meal per person. And if you order beer, the price of the meal nearly doubles. Very quickly it becomes obvious that the menus at the teahouses are standardized, offering the same fare at every stop: Dal Baht set meal of rice, curry and lentils, Tibetan noodle soup (Thukpa), many varieties of pastas, pizzas, Chinese noodle dishes, spring rolls, and soups. However, just because a food is listed on the menu does not in any way guarantee it's availability. I witnessed many the hungry hiker asking for lasagna and being kindly but firmly redirected to the core staples. The prices are also consistent between menus and they rise as you head higher up in elevation. So, in general, guesthouses do not compete with each other for business as hikers have a selection of virtually equal accommodations no matter where they are on the circuit. I was not sorry to wave goodbye to those menus after 15 days!

Although it was highly convenient to have lodges waiting for us when we stopped hiking each day we did start judging each room on it's basic features. If there was a hook or even a protruding nail for hanging sweaty clothing or just washed socks, that was a plus. A table of any kind was practically luxury. And a bare lightbulb that actually lit up when the power was working was almost beyond expectation. The bathrooms were mostly shared and located outside and were often a hole in the ground with a bucket of water used for flushing. Heat in the form of a wood fire in the common dining room was provided only for a few hours at the higher elevations just to bring the temperature up above freezing. At the highest camp, Thorong Phedi,a snow storm blew in and we spent the day in a 45 degree dining room drinking enormous quantities of tea and trudging through the snow to use the outdoor toilet which we were unable to flush because the bucket of water was frozen solid.

Quirky lodges and set menus have been a staple of the Annapurna Circuit for years. The system allows many different types of people to experience the high mountains. We noticed many large, organized groups of hikers with guides and porters. There were also a fair number of solo men (and the occasional woman) doing the circuit. Some couples were doing the trek with a guide and porters and a few couples, Brad and me included, were tackling the distance using a map and carrying our own stuff. The incredible number of lodges allows for the flexibility to hike as many or as few miles as you want per day and always be guaranteed a place to lay your your sleeping bag. Once you get into the higher elevations, the daily ascent should be no greater than 1,600 feet to allow for proper acclimatization but even up to around 16,000 feet there are lodges and atop Thorong La pass itself there is a teashop selling the usual fare.

One relatively new aspect to the Annapurna Circuit trek is the construction of two rough jeep roads, one on each side of the pass. They have been in the works for the past decade and in many cases, especially at lower elevations, have completely obliterated the original trekking trail. A guidebook with instructions to a new network of trails that have been created to avoid these roads is available but in many cases these trails are difficult to find or no longer even exist because the area is changing so rapidly. Mostly there are trails and they are beautiful but there are sections of the hike done on dusty roads. And there are still areas where no roads can go and these pristine sections feel remote and they lead right into the heart of the vertical Annapurnas!

Besides the road avoidance we were practicing, we were also playing the snow avoidance game. This year Nepal has seen some of the most and latest snow in something like 30 years. Normally in March, the snows even at the pass are melted and hikers can cross on bare dirt. This year, the week before we left on the trek the pass was still closed to hikers and only opened as we were starting our hike. The beautiful weather early in the trek led to some clouds and light snow in the days leading up to our pass crossing. We continued to gain elevation and prepare for the pass because other groups with knowledgeable guides were doing the same. At the high camp, where we froze in the dining room waiting out the snow, we were fearful that we would need to endure another frigid day there but we awoke at 4:30 the next morning to shining stars and we headed for the pass as the sun rose over the mountains. We felt really lucky that our timing worked out so well even given the snow. Plus I think our photos are pretty bad ass!

After all that walking, Brad and I were excited to thaw out at the lakeside town of Pokhara for a few days before returning to Kathmandu yesterday. And we're ready for something different so we're flying to Bangkok tomorrow!

Thoughts after 23 days in Nepal

We leave tomorrow on the daily flight to Bangkok at 1:30pm.  The trip has gone well so far.  We came to Nepal with the main goal of trekking through some of the high Himalayas and we returned yesterday to Kathmandu after 15 days of walking and a few recovering in the lakeside town of Pokhara.  I began keeping a Journal while I am here and would like to share some of the thoughts that I have written down.

Nepal was a monarchy until 2008. Seven years ago!  We are taking king ruling by decree, old school monarchy.  The country is very new to democracy and I try to keep that in mind.

This is the poorest place I have ever visited. Something like 60% of Nepalis get by on less than $2 per day. This inequity between myself and the people of this country is a fact that necessarily pervades most of our interactions. Less than half the population is literate and the school attendance is very poor. The children are numerous and always about, and keenly interested in us.... We are sitting on a tiered temple wall in a large temple complex in old Kathmandu, eating slightly sweet white bread cinnamon rolls. What do you do with the poor street child who approaches and asks for some of your food? He motions to his mouth that he is hungry and points to the food you are holding. I tell him no.  He kneels down and presses Anika's feet to his forehead, a traditional sign of respect. He performs this act repeatedly, insistently but politely requesting some of our food. We will him no, as we continue to eat our pastries, I have more than I really even want and the things cost pennies. All the respectable sources I have read tell us not to give to begging street children.  It only makes the lifestyle feasible and more attractive to other children that see their success and seeming independence. Rationally I agree and know the best course is to give some money to organization that get kids off the street or provide education or healthcare. I know this and understand this and agree, and I acted on this foundation. I felt a basic part of my humanity was missing in the interaction and it was hard to come to terms with it that day. That was one of our first days and I am happy/sorry to say it gets easier.

Journal entry from April 7th:
I learned to day that Anika has never, in her memory, ever had a bloody nose! She had her first cavity at the age of like 28.  What the hell?

Also from April 7th entry:
-Nepal, so many people hitting rocks with various sized hammers. Hammer beats rock. Big hammer for big rocks, medium hammers for medium rocks, all the way down. It is a hell of a way to make gravel.
-My nose has been running for the past 20 days. I got a cold right after arriving in Kathmandu and everything cleared up except the runny nose.
-Top traveler tip: don't wear the shirt of the country and city that you are in.  I see a lot of tourists wearing an "I heart Nepal, Kathmandu" T shirt while walking around Kathmandu.
-Top tip Two: don't cut your nose hairs back in Portland the day before you fly to Kathmandu. You will want them to filter the dust and pollution. No joke, I blew it on the one.

Trash Fires!
There is a lot of trash in Kathmandu, and municipal pick up is less than excellent.  Throughout the day, everyone throws their trash on the ground.  Plastic bags, chip bags, paper, cardboard, water bottles, tire shards, you name it. Obviously this is unsightly and takes up a significant amount of space on the crowded streets. Trash fires to the rescue. All the debris is swept into small piles in the gutters, then lit on fire.  These are smokey smoldering fires that have a high plastic content.  Basically a good portion of the time the city smells strongly of burning plastic.

Out in the country, aside from breaking rocks, much of life seems to be moving objects from one place to another. Many of the places we walked through have no road access and a tremendous amount of human effort is expended to bring in all necessities of life. Goods, from bricks to beers are carried on people's backs in woven baskets.  A strap of grain bag material attaches to the bottom of the basket on each side and loops up and across the person's forehead.  All the the weight rests here, no shoulder traps and no waist belt. I asked one man what his load was. He responded with 50Kg (110 pounds). I am unsure how much to discount this figure for pride, if any. Often I see children, eleven or twelve years old maybe, carrying supplies to building sites, in smaller baskets.  Sand and stones all day long, no school.

Books read so far:
Mark Twain's Autobiography
The wondering ramblings of a clever and insightful, if somewhat cynical and crotchety old man. He was in his 70's when he dictated it and his wife and 1 or 2 of his daughter had already died.

Old Times on the Mississippi Mark Twain
His time as a steamboat river pilot provided him with all the material he would ever need for a lifetime as a writer. His memory was honed to safely pilot 1000+ miles of ever changing river in both day and the darkest night. He extended the memory to the events and people he encountered and drew upon it for the next 50 years.  Note: the pilot was the real authority on an old river steamboat. The captain was a mostly ceremonial position with duties mainly while in port.

Bunch of others but running out of time.

I have seen so many temples on this trip. Rama, Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, various Hindu gods major and minor beyond my count and reckoning. Then we have the Buddha and all his myriad aspects.(Here my journal digresses as I describe the conversation happening at the table next to me) The people next to me at this lakeside bar/cafe are organizing a multi-day immersive course on how to open your various chakras, harmonize your brain waves and heal whatever it is that you need healed. These things look even more like bullshit when you listen to the behind the scenes planning and pitching. People travel here or to India, a certain kind of person, looking for the answers; thinking there is some kind of special spiritual power in this place. You can be sure they will find people willing to sell them a set of answers. They discuss the best way to hit the vibrating bowl, outside in or inside out, and whether move it clockwise or counter clockwise around the persons chakra point, to most effectively harmonize their energy.
(Back to the temples line of thought)
Such complexity in the face of the most perfect simplicity. All is One. All these religions build their castles in the sky. Buddha never claimed to be anything but a man. His whole point was that he was not unique and his path was available to all. He steadfastly refused to discuss the idea of gods or the supernatural. His wishes and words were respected for some time after his death. It took about 500 years after his passing for the first statues to appear.  Now he is deified in 1000's of different forms and places. If a monastery has the means, they have some conical scripture written in real gold leaf. We visited a Buddhist monastery that had been ravaged by a fire two month previous(a bad valve on a propane tank). They were morning the loss of their gold leaf books. I couldn't help but wonder what Buddha would have thought. Life is suffering, especially when you are attached to gold. All the religions seems to turn to it eventually. With enough distance and time the hazy memory of their enlightened founder fades and they find themselves lusting after and attached to that most human and least divine metal. I have seen the cathedrals of Spain where the blood and sorrow of millions in the Americas was transmuted into the silver and gold that coats the walls and anchors their souls. The visit of a free enlightened soul lasts only a moment in the view of history and we are left to build a structure to preserve and share that moment of truth. Invariably we incorporate all our own flaws and end by fucking gilding everything.

Last thoughts
Some of this is pretty negative and judgmental. I have had a wonderful time in Nepal and seen incredibly beautiful things. Much of these entries were written in the last few days. When leaving a country you allow yourself to dwell on the faults you have been accepting of up until this point. It is like breaking up with a woman and saving your heart be convincing yourself she was not that great.

-they have 5 rupee bills that are worth 5 cents.  5 cent bills!
-all the main tourist places have generators as the power works about 50% of the time
-in 2001 the crown prince murdered 9 members of the royal family, including the king and queen and then himself.  Wikipedia it. These were the people ruling the country at the time, not just figure heads, wild stuff.

Talk to you later everyone.

All the Best,