Friday, December 17, 2004
May 4, 2004 - Chhairo, Mustang
Buddha's 2548th Birthday
Last week was Buddha's birthday. This was significant here because while Nepal is the world's only official Hindu kingdom, the district of Mustang is mostly Buddhist. Given the predominance of Buddhism, I must admit that I was rather disappointed in the effort that I saw when the day itself came.
The entirety of the Buddha Jayanti consisted of our school children parading through the village (which, mind you, is the size of an American city block) behind the head student who carried a cardboard picture of Buddha as he marched. Then one of the teqachers would shout something that I didn't understand and the students would shout something back wich I also didn't understand, while they pumped their fists in the air (all except the head student whose fists were occupied with the cardboard and crayon figure of Buddha). The entire parade lasted less than ten minutes as our village is very small (yes, really, the size of only one city block).
After returning to school, the teacher gave a short speech about being virtuous and then dismissed the students for the rest of the day. That was it. Rather disappointing.
Two days later, however, I came across the majority of the student body (about 30 of the 35 children who comprise the student body) leaving school at the midday recess. They were headed to the gumpa (monastery/temple) to celebrate Buddha's birthday again.
"Why didn't we do this two days ago?" I asked.
"Because the lama (monk) was busy doing ceremonies in the other villages."
Seeing as Chhairo is so small (did I mention it is only about one city block big?), our turn didn't come around until two days after the actual celebrated date of Buddha's birthday. But now that the lama was here, we were to celebrate.
"Do you want to come with us, Nathan-sir?"
"Well, I guess I'm not teaching anymore today - all my students are gone - so, yes, I'll go with you."
As we walked the kids asked me if I was going to carry a book. Not having a clue as to what they meant, I said that I didn't know. They must have said something that only sounded like 'carry a book,' which must have been some religious term that only sounded like 'carry a book.' Then they asked if I had a blanket. No, I didn't normally come to school with a blanket, so I didn't have one. That was alright, because Krishna, one of my fifth-graders had an extra which I could use. For what, I again had no idea. Then they asked me if I had some rice. This whole thing was getting stranger and stranger. No, I didn't have any rice either. So they all reached into their pockets and pulled out handfuls of rice. Then they each gave me a little bit until I had my own handful of rice to put in my pocket. Bizarre. But that is the way that most things have gone here in Nepal. I just smile and go along, not having any understanding or foreknowledge of where it is that I am going. But so far it has worked out alright because usually when I get there, wherever 'there' is, it turns out to be not so bad.
So we went to the gumpa. Now the Chhairo gumpa is one of the oldest in Mustang. According to the locals only the Dumpa gumpa is older. I don't know about this, but I do know that the newest part of the Chhairo gumpa is more than 300 yars old. The oldest part is much, much older than that. The building is made of skillfully piled stones. In some places, these stones were then covered in mud. In others, they were left bare. The whole building is roughly a square shape of about 150 feet to a side. Inside there are a couple of courtyards, temples and various rooms to cook, do puja (worship), live, and dry your laundry when ceremonies aren't taking place. One of the walls on the older section has bowed outwards precariously, with the rocks crumbling away with the passage of centuries, leaving a giant mouth-like hole with bad dental work in the middle of the wall. Inside stones and wooden beams have been placed to prevent the spread of this slow decay, but they are only a stop-gap measure at best.
posted by Nathan 5:22 AM
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
July 24th, Chhairo
4:30 in the morning. Nathan-sir! Nathan-sir! Utaunus! My two adopted nephews had come to wake me up. Today we were headed up to Marche. It still eluded me why we had to leave by 5 am, but that was when my family was going and, because I didn't know the trail, that was when I was also going. I quickly ate some of last night's daal bhaat and shouldered my pack and tent and we were on the trail by first light.
From my window you can see two twin peaks resting in Nilgiri's lap, shouldered in forests, their bald heads formed by grassy slopes above the tree-line. The path we were to follow ascended almost vertically into the saddle between the twins and then wrapped around behind the taller of the two and led us out into the yak kharkas. That was Marche - the vast rolling pastures at 13,000 feet which wove the green shawl of grasslands that covered Nilgiri's lap.
For the entire morning I followed my older brother and my niece and two nephews through the dense jungle that skirted the base of these mountains. At times we had to crawl up the slope on hands and knees so steep was the incline. As we climbed we traded English and Nepali names of the things we came across - tree=rukh, pine=doopie, clouds=botle. After five hours we crested a ridge marked by a prayer chorten and the plains of the kharkas opened up before us, dotted sporadically by large wigwam structures. It reminded me of Everest base camp, but here instead of foreigners were only Nepalis (and me) and instead of bright, circus-colored tents were the brown half-pipe structures of woven wood and tarp that made the local paallaharu (tents). The tents were all shielded by makeshift wooden walls to the south side. At this altitude, the wind swept even more persistently from the south than it did on the valley floor, driving clouds across the land at high speeds that left everything soaked and wet.
It didn't really occur to me as strange at the time, but I had just made the ten-mile 4,500-foot climb with my niece, and two nephews - respectively 11, 13 and 14 years old. Not only were they not winded, but they still had the energy to go exploring, climbing higher on the mountain to vantage points where they could roll large stones down the slopes to see them crash thousands of feet below. This is what Nepali kids in Mustang do for fun.
The paallas we stayed in were forty feet long by ten feet wide. They were rounded half-cylinders that served as cook-tent, mess-hall, casino and sleeping quarters for most of the people that were there. We had come on the last day of the festival, so most of the people had already returned to their respective villages (some had come from as far away as Pokhara and even Kathmandu) but there were still over a hundred people left there. Most of whom were there for one reason - to improve their health by drinking yak blood.
The entire festival centered around yaks. We ate yak meat with our daal bhaat and in our momos. We drank yak milk, five or six glasses a day. And every morning and every evening different yaks were taken from the herd (there were hundreds and hundreds of yaks), a small spot on their necks was shaved and then an artery was opened. People gathered by the dozens, their stainless steel cups in hand waiting for their turn at the crimson fountain. The yak's owner carefully counted out 17 cups of blood from each yak before slapping a handful of yak dung on the incision and releasing the yak. The yak was then left to wander and recover its strength. Morning and night 10 different yaks were needed - never the same one twice. And this went on for a week. But the pastures were large and the herds were numerous, so there was ample blood for everyone.
I heard many different reasons given for this vampiric habit. Anything from 'it makes you strong,' to 'it's good for your gastric health!' I don't know how much credence to put in any of it, but it hasn't killed anybody yet and doesn't seem to have any harmful effects. The drinking of the blood itself is not an altogether horrible experience. Definitely not pleasant, but not horrible either. That night I watched the men set out into the yak herds, searching for one that looked strong and had yet to be bleed. Then they surrounded it, cutting it off from the rest of the herd. At that point two of the more adventurous Nepalis quickly moved upon it from behind, grabbing its large, curved horns. When the yak was under some semblance of control, the other men rushed in with ropes, efficiently binding the animals legs and neck so that it could neither escape nor gore anyone. As they shaved its neck and made a small incision with a razor blade, Krishna, my nephew ran up to me with a cup. "Drink some blood, Nathan-sir!" After some discussion I agreed to drink half a glass if Krishna drank the other half (I figured that because he was my 'nephew,' the prohibitions (jutho) against sharing a drink didn't apply). Someone once described yak blood to me as chicken-soup tasting. Personally it reminded me of an iron tinted Tibetan tea, but I don't imagine that helps much for those of you who haven't had Tibetan tea (it is like a broth itself). In an effort to avoid tasting the fluid as much as possible, I simply tilted my head back and poured the entire glassful down my throat. My nephew looked at me sadly as if to say, 'well, now, where is mine?' So I handed him the empty glass and we got in line to get him his own glassful of blood.
The rest of the time there was spent playing cards and dice, the men from morning til night and the women sneaking in a few games here and there between cooking and serving the meals and cleaning (Nepal is definitely NOT a gender equal society). In the night everyone gathered in the warmth of the paallas for food, drink, music and cards. I sat there on the floor next to my young nephews and an old man who simply spun his prayer wheel and muttered Buddhist chants for the entire time I was in the tent. A pretty girl who had journeyed up from Pokhara for the festival sat across from me. She made a few shy and awkward attempts at conversation, but couldn't seem to find the words or manner in which to relate to me. Until it was time for her to serve dinner. Then she was able to talk to me. With a familiar way of interacting with men, she was suddenly able to converse and become comfortable.
After dinner, I left the paalla for the relative peace of my own tent, only to find that the constant wind had driven the mist of the clouds into my tent, leaving everything soaked. I spent the night huddled in the least sopping corner of my small tent gradually generating enough heat to allow my body to stop shivering and for sleep to fall. I drifted into slumber to the same sounds of laughter, singing, and dishes that I awoke to seven hours later.
The next day I left early and descended steadily for two hours, having to weave back and forth down the slope like a downhill slolom skier trying to break his speed. A total of five hours and 15 miles later I was in Jomsom trying to call Kelli from across five thousand miles.
posted by Nathan 3:45 PM
Sunday, October 10, 2004
June 14, 2004 - Kathmandu
I have started teaching tuition. This means that I teach my 4th and 5th graders for an hour before school and then I teach the high school students from Chhairo after school. Free of charge of course, despite the name. It isn't official school time, so most of the time I teach it wearing flip-flops, jeans and a t-shirt (a dress shirt, shoes, and slacks are my normal school attire).
3 weeks ago, I was teaching my morning class, we were working on opposites in English, when one of the 3rd graders came to the door. Every day my class is interrupted no less than three time - it could be cows wandering into the school yard and which need to be chased out before they eat the flowers, or it could be the kindergarteners clinging to the bars on the classroom windows, peering intently in on whatever activities I am doing with the older students, or it could be Purna and Sunil getting into yet another fight. The array is endless and guaranteed to happen, keeping my days interesting. This day, Maya came to the door and said "Sarmila fell." Well this isn't too unusual. The kids are always falling, running into things, and in general just being rambunctious kids. So I kept teaching, trying to ignore the distraction like I do everyday. But Maya was persistent saying that Sarmila's fall was like the one she had the day before. Having not seen what had happened the day before, I didn't realize what this meant. But my students reacted strongly saying we needed to go see what had happened. So we all went out and climbed the stone schoolyard wall (Anil knocked down a large rock that smashed my toes leaving me bloody and cussing) and we headed down the trail. As we walked, I asked the students what Sarmila fell from. They told me that she hadn't fallen from anything. She had fallen over. Bishnu told me that it was like the way her little brother sometimes falls over. Her little brother, Sunil, has petite mal seizures. I hurried down the trail to where I rounded a corner and saw the small crumpled form of Sarmila sprawled next to the stone wall of a field. Her backpack was lying on the ground and her books were strewn by her head. Her legs stuck straight out and her eyes were shut. Foam and spittle ran down her cheek. My stomach dropped away. The kids all battled to tell me their understanding of the situation. From the clamor, I gathered that this same thing had happened to her the day before. I stood there, the only adult around with twenty elementary school students, all of us not quite sure just what to do. My foremost thought was to get her to the Marpha Health Post and then maybe to Jomsom. No one in my village would know what to do I was certain. The health post might not either, but it was the only option I could think of. So I sent some students to find Sarmila's mother and then bent down to pick up her doll-like body. Her legs and arms were limp, but her teeth were clamped shut. I cradled her in my arms and rushed over the rocky path as quickly as my bloody flip-flops would allow. I nestled her head into the crook of my elbow because without my support it simply lolled back and forth. Her body was lifeless. I couldn't shake the horror that I was carrying the body of a dead little girl. I reached down and took her wrist with my hand, feeling for a pulse. Maybe it was the awkward way that I was holding her, supporting her body and trying to feel for her pulse at the same time, but I could feel no telling throb in her wrist. At that moment, the entirety of my world could be summed up in three words - "Please don't die!"
I walked into the corner of two stone field walls, a place of relative shelter from the ever-present winds and bent my head to her nostrils feeling for her breath. The faintest of tickles from her breath came to my ear and a cautious relief rose in me. As I moved on, I met my counterpart coming down the path on his way to school. He saw Sarmila in my arms and the look on my face and immediately understood. "It happened again?" He told me as he joined me on my way towards Marpha that this very thing had happened yesterday. They had taken her to the lama in the Tibetan refugee camp for help. In a way that was almost too surreal for me to believe, he told of how the lama had simply blown on her face and Sarmila had woken from her comatose state, dazed, but in general just fine. He said we should go to the lama. Because it was on the way to the health post, I didn't disagree and we detoured into the Tibetan camp. Given what I had seen and heard about Nepali medicine, I figured that the lama, who was relatively highly educated in traditional Tibetan herbology as well as scripture, might be able to offer as much help or insight as any mountain health post could offer in a situation like this.
We went into the camp and easily found the lama by following the sounds of his chanting and ritual drums. We pulled back the arcanely decorated curtain to his room and stepped inside. His eyes briefly left the pages of the prayer scrolls he was reading, but quickly returned to them, so as not to break the rhythm of his chanting.
Now I'm not one given much to supernatural explanations or mysticism, but I can tell you with scientific objectivism that as soon as we entered the room and Sarmila heard the drums and chants, her eyes shot open. She stared straight forward, sightlessly and unresponsive to the world, but her eyes were open and I believed this to be a sign of improvement.
I sat in the corner holding the small girl in my arms. When the lama had finished his chanting, he beckoned me to bring her over. He placed his hands on her head and peered into her unseeing eyes. He called her name and blew on her face. She flinched, but it was a nerve reflex and she neither blinked nor came out of her state. After a moment of examination and contemplation he declared that there was nothing more for her he could do. As he was saying this, Sarmila's mother haggard and sobbing came into the room. She shuddered quietly to herself repeating "my baby" over and over. I looked at my counterpart and said we should go to the health post. They agreed, so I stood up and took Sarmila to her mother expecting her to want to carry or at least hold her own child. But she refused to touch her and asked me to carry her daughter to the post.
We headed towards Marpha. On the way we passed Sarmila's house where her mother and my counterpart disappeared saying they would catch up with me in a moment. So she rushed in and I continued down the trail alone carrying Sarmila in my arms. We passed a pair of trekkers who just stared at us - a main in black dress pants, button-up shirt and flip-flops carrying the lifeless body of a seven-year old girl down a mountain path. We walked by the houses of locals to whose questions I could only answer "Sarmila's sick. We are going to the health post." We entered Marpha and I turned up the steps that led to the hillside building of the post. There was an attendant sitting behind the lone desk of the two-room building. I went into the second room and laid Sarmila down on a gurney bed as the attendant ran off for the health post worker. Soon there were ten people in the room crowded around the worker as he leaned over Sarmila with a stethoscope. He carefully placed the cold steel disc at various points on her trying to decipher what was wrong. In the end, I think he was as baffled as we were. He then went into the other room to quickly return with two cedar boughs and a bowl of cold water. He brought some matches from his pocket and lit one of the cedar boughs, passing the smoldering branch under Sarmila's nose. Then he dipped the other branch into the water and used it to sprinkle water on her face. I couldn't escape the image of popes and priests sprinkling holy water on countless Catholic congregations. Again Sarmila reacted, but it was the reflexive twitch-flinch of nervous system response. There was yet no cognition.
While we waited, I went out to try to use the local phone to call my Medical Officer in Kathmandu. He might at least be able to give us some information as to what to do. After four tries, the line finally went through. Over the static and harsh connection, I finally conveyed to our officer what had happened. He replied "It's really hard to tell in this situation..." followed by a pop and the line went dead. I tried again three times, but there was never even another dial tone. I went back inside to where my counterpart and Sarmila's mother had finally arrived. It was decided that Sarmila had to go to Jomsom. A man there had one of Marpha's two motorcycles and he ran out the door to get it. I asked if Sarmila's mother would be alright carrying the little girl on her back while riding passenger on the motorcycle across the rocky mountain path. The people there just looked at me and my counterpart then explained to me that her mother couldn't touch her. At first I thought I had misunderstood, but with clarification things were just as confusing. It was the local custom/superstition/belief that when a person was afflicted as Sarmila was, then no woman could touch that person or they would never recover. So the people then told me that I would be taking Sarmila to Jomsom. What?! I asked "but shouldn't someone go who can speak Nepali fluently and explain to the doctors what had happened?" This reasoning seemed to persuade them and after some discussion it was decided that if Sarmila's mother was to carry her in a blanket on her back, then she wouldn't really be touching the girl and that would be alright. So we wrapped Sarmila in a faded red blanket and placed her on her mother's back. Her mother then climbed onto the back of the cycle and we stretched the blanket across the back of Sarmila's head so that her cheek was resting on her mother's shoulder and her head wouldn't loll from side to side on the rough ride ahead.
I stood in the path long after the dust and blue smoke of the cycle had settled and the rest of the gathered crowd had disappeared, wondering what had just happened and if I was ever going to see Sarmila again.
My question was answered the next day when Sarmila came to school, groggy and dazed, more exhausted looking than any seven-year old should ever look. Not tired or sleepy, but a bone weary exhaustion that no amount of sleep will drive away. I was told that sometime in the evening she had come to and then was sent home with her mother. No diagnosis, no explanation, just sent home.
Since this episode, Sarmila has twice again passed out. When it happens now, the other students just move her into the shade of a tree and make sure she looks comfortable, like a child sleeping in the grass on a summer day. I have met her mother on the road in passing and her face and shoulders are heavier now, as if she is still carrying her tiny daughter's lifeless form.
posted by Nathan 7:00 PM
Saturday, June 26, 2004
More Random Musings from Mustang
The arguments of a fourteen year old had left me speechless. And he was talking in his second language. It had started in an all too familiar manner. "Hey, smoke some hashish?" His voice was already maturing into the sleazy creepiness of his older Thamel counterparts. Somebody needed to stop this before it got too far. That and the pent up irritation that I felt towards these streetside dope dealers fueled my response. "No! Your talk/actions are no good! Go do another job!" It seemed much more eloquent and convincing at the time. Before translation. I was sick of being harassed by every vendor hawking some useless trinket much less the slimy hash dealers who wait until you are almost past before they whisper repulsively in your ear "smoke hashish?" It is unparalleled in its sleaziness. Attempts to duplicate it have been tried but all fall short of its unwholesomeness. I needed to intervene before this child became another hash dealer. These were my thoughts, or something like it. So I was surprised when he shouted back to me "At least I am not begging. I am not stealing. I am hungry so I try to earn some money. Thank you, have a good day, sir!" He had a point. And all of this in English. I didn't have a response and he walked away before I could think of one.
Later that afternoon I saw him again, so I called him over to sit with me on the curb. His name was Muna. He was 14 years old and had no parents, or so he told me. He learned to speak all of his English here on the streets of Pokhara, a matter of survival - the tourists pay better for hash than the Nepalis do, so he had to learn their language. He said he never had gone to school (this is difficult to believe given what I know of Pokhara and his situation, but maybe true). I told him about what I did and how I wasn't here in the same way that the other tourists were. I asked him if he was hungry. Yes, very. So I bought some biscuits and peanuts for him. After this, he was excited to show me where he lived. So we walked down the tourist district, past the internet pasols, past the bars and restaurants to a vacant lot between a hotel and a Tibetan trinket shop. I think the locals used the lot as a dumping ground because piles of refuse - plastic bags, broken sandals, and wrappers - were spread all across it. On one side there was a lean-to constructed from stones and a plastic tarp. Muna lifted the flap and three other boys stepped out. The youngest was seven and the oldest 22. He shook my hand and told of how he had come here 15 years ago from Kathmandu. He wanted to be a porter or a guide, but couldn't afford the license. They told me of how cold it was at night. Muna noticed my new hiking boots and whistled in appreciation. I told them when I come back, I will try to bring them some clothes.
Addendum: Four months later. I met Muna again on the streets. He was wearing new clothes and seemed to be doing quite well. I believe his business is taking off. I also talked with another one of the street boys who told me that Muna's friends had left and gone to Kathmandu and now Muna lived with his parents. I don't know who, but someone was lying here.
The Ambassador's Niece
I was having dinner at David O'Connors (the Country Director of Peace Corps in Nepal). There were dozens of volunteers there and many people I did not know. Standing in the sunny yard, I fell into a conversation with an older gentleman. Maybe he was a volunteer or maybe an upper worker at a development agency or the UN. After a few minutes of talk about my job here and what Mustang is like, I asked him, "So, what do you do here?" He gave me a look, unreadable at the time, but in retrospect it said, 'you really don't know, do you?' He then politely answered, "I'm the ambassador." Oh. I needed to make a quick recovery. "So you don't get much time to go trekking, then, do you?" "No. You'd be surprised, but I have lots of other pressing issues to take care of." After that, he introduced me to his wife and offered to take me with them if they ever went into Upper Mustang, but I don't really think that is going to happen. We then drifted off, he to chat with other less oblivious PC Volunteers and me to help Ryan who was flirting with a cute red-headed girl, the Ambassador's niece.
The Janakpur Gym
Visiting Venu in Janakpur, the heart of Mitili culture, we decided to go workout at the gym. This was a place that had been built by a previous volunteer who donated all of the money from his own pocket. Things like this make it difficult for ensuing volunteers to live up to community expectations. "Jim built this. Now what will you do?"
As we walked there, Venu told me about the boys and young men who habited the gym. It would really reflect poorly on me in the community if they knew that I hung out here, he said. Any 'club' in Janakpur is synonymous with IV drug use and that demographic that is unemployed and dangerous. They used to hassle Venu until he became friends with a couple of the nastier characters there. One of them has been in fights and is known to have stabbed other guys with knives. So now, if they started acting up, disrespecting Venu, the knife-boy simply looks their way and they instantly back down from Venu.
When we got there, the gym boys immediately wanted to introduce themselves to the new white boy who had come into town. My skin color and my English immediately made them give me more respect than they would ever give to Venu. The gym is a small room in a concrete building next to one of the many ponds in Janakpur. The weather outside was nice, but the air in the gym was stale and warm because the wooden shutters on the windows are always closed. The lone ceiling fan was silent.
"Do you know gym?" Well, yes I do, a little, I answered. "Will you show me your physical structure?" I didn't quite know what to make of this question. What? "Will you show me your physical structure?" this time flexing small but stringy arms to demonstrate what was meant. No, I will not. "Do you like muscle?" This one threw me for a loop. How can you answer a question like that? What muscle are they talking about? I had no clue. I like exercise, I said and with that I followed Venu's example and dropped the conversation to begin my own work out. After staring at me for a few minutes, they eventually began drifting off, some to their own weights but most to stand and stare at themselves flexing and posing in the mirrors that spotted the walls.
Krishna is one of my 4th graders. Taller than all of the other students, he stands out not only for his height, but also because he will shout the answers to my questions loudest of all the students (this is the way most Nepali classrooms are run - the loudest student shouts the correct answer and gets all of the teacher's attention, convincing the teacher that the entire class follows what is going on despite the 44 other blank stares. Slowly in my own classroom and for the other Nepali teachers I have been training, the concept of hand raising is beginning to make sense). I wasn't sure at first if Krishna was just trying to be a know-it-all, vying for that top dog position that most Nepali classrooms have and that most Nepali students covet, but as days wore on, it became apparent that he just really, really wanted my approval. When I was doing karate on my own in the evenings, he was the one who stuck around longest to watch me and was the first to ask me to teach him karate. This despite the fact that he had to travel farther to get home than any other student. By sticking around after school, he would end up getting home late for chores or caught in the dark or both.
I came to find out that Krishna only came to Chhairo two years earlier with his mother. They moved into his aunt and uncle's house when his father had died. Having grown up near the city of Pokhara, coming to Chhairo was a huge life change on top of losing his father. In Pokhara, he had been Christian but now that he lived in a Buddhist household in a predominantly Buddhist place, he followed Buddhism. Pokhara had been the big city with every amenity and Chhairo was a small mountain village where electricity is a luxury and all the taps freeze in the winter necessitating a half hour walk to the nearest waterfall to get water for cooking, drinking, bathing and washing clothes. That is a lot of buckets of water. Life had definitely changed for Krishna.
So I welcomed the opportunity when his family invited me to their house for the holiday of Bai Tikka after I returned from my Dasain vacation. Bai Tikka is when sisters honor their brothers ('bai' means little brother). I went there and enjoyed the special holiday foods and celebration. Over the course of the afternoon, they discovered that I had no sisters, so no one would honor me on this day. It was immediately decided that I had to be adopted into the family so that they could honor me as a brother. Hesitantly and uncertain of the implications, I agreed. I had been approached so many times by Nepalis looking for visas to the United States and who were certain that I had an intimate connection to the INS and that I could easily bring them to America, that I was constantly on edge against their wiles, real or not. It was a shame that I had these reservations, especially in retrospect, but this was what my experience here had taught me.
That afternoon, they brought me into their family with a Buddhist/Hindu ceremony. They lit incense and gave me small servings of ritual food. They put dye on my forehead and rubbed honey in my hair and dropped flowers on my head. During the ceremony I was supposed to wear a topi, a Nepali hat, but I had none. So my new older sister, Krishna's mother, went into a chest and took out a worn old looking topi and placed it on my head. It had been her late husband's.
Later as I was sitting with my newfound Nepali family, Krishna came to me with some medical forms that were in English and asked me if I could tell him what they meant. They were the last reports the doctors had written before his father had died. They listed everything as normal except for what was diagnosed as a minor case of bronchitis. I did my best to translate, but these weren't the answers that Krishna was looking for and he left the room in silence.
Since then I have gone out to their house for the major Nepali holidays and sometimes just to chat. The last time I was there I had gone in the afternoon, but after chatting for a few hours, the family asked if I wanted to stay for dinner. When they asked me, a look of concern crossed Krishna's face. "Night is coming," he said. The uncle laughed and turned to me, "your nephew is worried about you walking home alone in the dark." He then told Krishna not to worry, that Nathan-sir would just spend the night at their house. I had never asked for this. I was by no means searching to become part of a Nepali family living on a Himalayan mountainside, but this is where the bongo-tingo (winding) road of life has taken me. Sometimes I can't help but feel blessed.
posted by Nathan 9:52 PM
Thursday, April 15, 2004
Gokyo - Cho La - Everest Base Camp Trek
Tuesday, April 1 - Kathmandu to Lukla to Phakding (2 hrs)
I had flown into Kathmandu three days earlier. I was to have my annual medical checkup and then Ryan and I were going to head out for a two week vacation trekking in the Solokhumbu Region of Nepal - the home of Mt. Everest. The flight from Jomsom to Pokhara to Kathmandu was a particularly turbulent one, the spring weather beginning to hint of the monsoon storms and winds that would soon dominate this part of the world. Now, I have a weak stomach to begin with and forgetting my motion sickness pills added to the difficulty of the flight, but I had hoped that I could last the 45 minutes before I reached the capital. It was not to be so. With about 20 minutes to go, I knew that I was going to lose whatever breakfast I had eaten that morning, so, like I have done so many times before, I reached for the motion sickness bag. In my nauseated state, I failed to notice an important fact - the bags were made in Nepal. You may ask why this is of relevance, but if you have ever been witness to the skewed angles of Nepali houses, the makeshift constructions that are held together by seeming stubbornness alone, you will be aware of the painful fact that Nepali workmanship is not of the highest standards. In fact, you would realize that in most cases it is downright awful. So how would that impact me in my turbulent situation? Well, as quickly as my morning meal exited my body (via the wrong end), it also exited the bottom of the motion sickness bags where the finely constructed seams let loose. My attempts to be inconspicuous in my hardship were an utter failure as I finished the flight with vomit on my shirt, on the seat belt, and I think even on the floor of the cabin around me. (sorry, if the details are too graphic)
Other than being a disgusting start to my upcoming vacation, this episode also proved important for more serious reasons. It was one of the worst cases of motion sickness I had experienced as an adult and I remained feeling horrible all through the night and into the next day. But as the time progressed and I developed a fever, dysentery and dizziness, I realized that it was more than just a simple case of airsickness. My little episode on the plane had been disguising the fact that I had come down with a bacterial infection two days before I was to begin a 120 mile hike. I spent the weekend bedridden (or toilet-ridden to be more accurate) before the anti-biotics my medical officer prescribed kicked in. During this stint, I lost 6 pounds. This is in addition to the 25 pounds I had already lost since coming to Nepal. I was weaker than a newborn mouse that was being manhandled by a newborn kitten.
But when Tuesday rolled around, I was able to walk, Ryan was ready to go, the weather was clear and our flight to the Everest region was confirmed. That was all I needed to go.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the area, the flight into Lukla is one of the most infamous flights in all of Nepal, if not the world. The reason is that there is not enough flat land in the area to make a proper runway. Lukla is on the side of a mountain, as almost all the villages in this region are, and the only straight stretch of real estate is far too short for even the small bush planes that service the region. So the way that the Nepali engineers have overcome this little obstacle is by building the runway at a steep incline, the low end dropping off into the river valley hundreds of feet below and the high end terminating in the sheer face of the mountain. Whatever complaints I may have about Nepali workmanship, the fact is that in this case it seems to have worked. There are no remains of plane wrecks lying at the base of the cliff (or if there were, they have been cleanly removed or cleverly hidden) and Ryan and I came to a safely screeching halt easily a hundred feet before the mountain face (the entire time with Ryan chanting "Stop the plane. Stop the plane. Stop the plane.").
Anxious to get above the hill region surrounding Lukla and into the magnitudes of the Himalayas, we immediately set out and hiked two hours north to the village of Phakding. There Ryan and I spent the remainder of the afternoon climbing up the hillside and exploring a gompa, a Buddhist monastery, where 5 lamas, or monks, lived and studied. That afternoon, it started to rain.
Wednesday, April 2 - Phakding (9315 ft) to Namche Bazaar (11,283 ft) - 5 hrs.
The trail to Namche Bazaar, the starting point for both the Gokyo and the Everest Base Camp treks, was one of the most crowded trails I have been on in Nepal. I think that this is in part because everyone here has to descend the same trail they go up on, whereas on the Annapurna Circuit everybody is doing a big loop so they don't run into everyone else who is on the trail. During this stretch, Ryan and I met no less than 200 trekkers. It wasn't quite what we had expected, but understanding that everyone else was there for similar reasons to us made it easier to tolerate the crowded trail.
After 2000 feet and five hours, we rounded the hillside into the horseshoe cove that Namche Bazaar sat in at over 11,000 feet. Dozens of hotels, five internet pasols (satellite uplink) and yakloads of Tibetan souvenirs, Namche Bazaar's development was beyond that of any other mountain post. Here we could directly see the impact that tourism was having on the area. Unfortunately that development ended before it reached the hotel that we stayed at. Or more accurately it terminated before it reached the toilet of the hotel. Having lived in Nepal, I was completely used to and comfortable with the idea of using only water for cleaning. But here even the water was gone. The toilet was comprised of a hole carved in the wooden floor over a pit and a bucket of straw in the corner.
Being a little uncomfortable surrounded only by foreigners in our hotel, we wandered around the town until we found a momo shop that the locals used. There we sat for an hour talking with the guides and hotel keepers and eating buffalo momos. The reason for buffalo, which must be carried up on the backs of porters and mules, despite being in a region where there are yaks aplenty, is that most of the Buddhists of the area will not kill animals. It is against their dharma, their religion. So there really is no yak meat available unless an animal happens to die of old age or "fall" off a cliff. But they have no compunctions about cooking and eating the meat that others have killed. As a result all of their meat is imported like the rest of their goods from the lowlands where only buffalo is available. Implication: To every trekker who has raved over how great their yak steak was on the trail to Everest, well, you probably were enjoying the fine meat of a water buffalo from the middle hills that had been carried up on the back of a porter for days.
Returning to our hotel, clouds rolled in and the temperature continued its drop that was inverse to our own gain in altitude. By the time I had bought a small chess set from a Sherpa shopkeep and we got back to our hotel, it had started to snow. Big, fat, wet flakes that continued falling into the night. This did not encourage us about the weather higher into the mountains.
chess note: Ryan fell victim to a strong pawn opening and played from behind before losing under the pressure of my bishops and queen.
Thursday, April 3 - Namche Bazaar to Khunjung to Namche Bazaar - 5 hrs.(acclimatization day)
Ryan and I rose shortly after 6 am unable to sleep for the clang and crash of the dishes that were being washed en mass next to our door. It was the same sound that had accompanied us to sleep late the night before. We were to spend another night in Namche acclimatizing, but we decided that this didn't bind us to the same hotel. We returned to where we had had the momos the day before and moved our packs into rooms there (they had a TV and the BBC - sweet!).
The rest of the day was spent wandering through the hills surrounding Namche Bazaar. We went to the next nearest village where there was the Edmund Hillary School. This was a school originally funded by Sir Ed, who recognized the desperate need for education and who recognized that he got really, really rich from Everest and the help the people here had given him getting to the top(note: this is an assumption on my part). So he dropped a pretty penny and funded the building of one of the nicest schools in Nepal. Since then, other international donors have taken up the call for aid and contributed to this school that serves the surrounding villages for a three day walk in any direction. What really sets this school apart from other internationally funded schools is that not only are the buildings superb, but also the teachers here truly teach. The school passes 90% of their graduating seniors, compared to the national average of 30%. Ryan and I spent the afternoon sitting and chatting with the teachers in the mountain sun.
chess note: later that evening I lost to Ryan under a well-choreographed knight assault
Friday, April 4 - Namche Bazaar (11,283 ft) to Tengboche (12,694 ft) - 4 hrs.
After our acclimatization day we were eager to get up into the heights, so we started early the next day. Our plan was to head up to Gokyo, a village at close to 16,000 feet that sat in the next glacial valley west of Everest, the Ngozumpa Glacier. We had decided on this because the route to Gokyo was far less traveled than that to Base Camp. The reason the trail to Gokyo was less crowded was, to quote a fellow trekker, "why go to Gokyo? When you return home, it means nothing to people when you say 'I went to Gokyo.' But it means something to everybody when you tell them that you have been to Everest Base Camp." Our own motivations being different, we chose the route to Gokyo which was less crowded and offered better views of Everest and was seated in the valley of the largest glacier in Nepal, the Ngozumpa Glacier. But, we weren't totally immune to the lure of Everest. We had heard rumors of a difficult pass, Cho La, through the mountains that would allow us to cross from the Ngozumpa valley to the Khumbu Glacier, where the trail to Everest was. If we could brave the difficult climb over the 17,500 foot pass and if the weather didn't bury us with the coming seasonal snows, we would be able to complete a circuit - up to Gokyo, over Cho La, and down from Everest Base Camp. This was our plan.
The trail was relatively easy and Ryan and I were rested and feeling good, so we made fast progress. We hiked for two hours, passing porters, yak trains, joppas (half-breed crosses between yaks and cows), and other trekkers. But as we began to descend into the next valley, we grew uncertain of the route. Shouldn't we be headed up? The trail to Gokyo quickly climbed from Namche, so why were we headed down? After another half-hour, we ran into some Brits we had met two nights before. They and their Sherpa guide were returning on the trail. We didn't ask them directly, but it appeared as if they were turning back, already suffering from the altitude and struggling with the trail. But we were encountering our own problems. After conversing with their guide in Nepali, we learned that we had missed the turn-off for the Gokyo trail more than an hour ago. We were headed up the Everest Base Camp trail, the reverse direction of our intentions. Less than a day onto the trail and already lost.
After discussing with the guide, we concluded that we would continue in our present direction and the following day cut across country, down two river valleys and over the ridge separating the two to where we could pick up the Gokyo trail. We wouldn't lose any days towards our destination, but we would have to put in a killer day to make up for our misdirection. We were game for it, so we said our goodbyes and headed up to Tengboche, the next village on the Everest route.
Tengboche is home to one of the largest Buddhist gompas in the region. A number of monks, lamas, live there. Ryan and I wandered around the monastery for a few hours, spinning prayer wheels, reading postings about Buddhism they had displayed for tourists and talking with the lamas. It was a great experience that we would have missed out on if we hadn't gotten lost. So, once again everything seemed to work for the best.
However, later that night in our room as I set my 48 pound pack down on the table, I heard a soft crunch. I picked up my backpack to see the broken pieces of my sunglasses. I didn't think much about it at the time. With the overcast sky and snowy conditions, I was more concerned about there being too much snowfall than about there being too much sun.
chess note: After losing the first game on an ill-conceived queen gambit, I won the next two games to reclaim a 3-2 lead in our nightly series.
Saturday, April 5 - Tengboche (12,694 ft) to Dole (13,415 ft) 4 hrs.
We woke again to a blanket of snow on the ground, but the skies were clear and offered up the first views of the Himals to be had in this region. We left town and quickly broke from the main trail onto a small path that disappeared into the rhododendron and pine forests. We spent the next hour descending the hillside to the river valley below, first on the small foot path and then on the gradually diminishing goat trails that soon vanished, leaving us to break trail cross-country. We knew that down was the direction we needed to head. The only hard part would be finding a passage that didn't dead-end or drop us off a cliff into the river.
The hike was a marked difference from the main trail where we saw probably more than 30 people every hour. Here we wandered alone through the himalayan forest, listening only to the crash of the river rapids grow. Having trouble finding a passable route, we stopped to rest and eat an energy bar. As we took off our packs, Ryan dropped his camera. We watched in horror as the small black object bounded and rebounded down the slope, leaping up in end-over-end somersaults that lasted eternities. With each bounce it came closer to a hundred foot cliff that dropped off into the pounding whitewater, and with each bounce our anxiety grew. With one final bounce, it headed towards the drop off...and comfortably came to a rest three feet from the edge. We rushed after it, as if any moment it would resume its leaping journey and take its last plunge into the icy waters. When we came to the camera after more than a hundred yards, we found it resting next to a foot-trail that we would have surely missed and that was headed exactly where we wanted to go.
The next three hours was a gruelling up and down ordeal that culminated in the clouds of a village called Dole (doh-lay). This 'village' was really more of a small collection of six teahouses, huddled in a recession of the mountainside at 13,500 feet. The bellies of the clouds scraped low over the tin roofs of the stone and wood houses. We stayed at the first teahouse, a small place with two bedrooms and a tiny sitting room where six trekkers and their guide/porter were enjoying the warmth of the woodstove. The bedrooms were full, but the owner told us that we could sleep on the benches next to the woodstove for free. Having seen the other teahouses in the village, and realizing the benefits of being next to the fire for most of the night, we took the offer.
We soon got to talking with the other trekkers, an eclectic group that included a British vagabond, an Australian Green Peace eco-warrior, a manager from a hotel in Glacier National Park, and an older Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who had served in Thailand. In short order, we came to consider ourselves as periphery members of this motley bunch.
Chess note: This night it was my twin rooks and control of the board's center that sent Ryan to bed with the acid taste of defeat lingering in his mouth.
Sunday April 6 - Dole (13,415) to Luza (14,268) - 2 hrs.
We left Dole at 8:00 and set out for Machhermo. That morning walking along the pastured hilltops we saw a helicopter buzz low through the valley. A small fast model, it raced north through the valley and only minutes later returned and disappeared out of the mountains into the lowlands below. As Ryan and I watched the diminishing speck, we had the same thought. Rescue chopper. That thought was confirmed later that night as we heard tale of a Japanese trekker who had succumbed to HACE ? High Altitude Cerebral Edema, the condition where fluid builds up in the brain from ascending too quickly to extreme altitudes. If the victim does not descend or get into an oxygen tent quickly, death is guaranteed. We hoped that the trekker had been rescued in time.
We continued our own ascent, all the more resolute in our conviction to do this thing right and not fall prey to the same fate as the Japanese trekker. We would NOT ascend too fast. By 9:45 we were in Luza. Only we didn?t know that we were in Luza. We had thought that we had made it to Machhermo so we stopped in the bright morning sun to do our laundry in the stream that ran down from the snows of a jagged nearby peak and through the mountain plateau pastures before dropping into the Dudh Kosi river a few thousand feet below. The mountain was taller than anything in America, but was not big enough to even have a name here in this land of colossal formations.
After we finished our laundry we went back to the lodge and met Charlie, the RPCV from Thailand and Emma, one of the British girls from the previous night. We ate lunch with them before Charlie and Emma informed us that they were continuing on to Machhermo. Ryan and I looked at each other, ?This isn?t Machhermo?? So yet again, the two Nepali speaking foreigners were lost on the Everest Trek. (Well, not really lost, just not quite where we thought we were). We decided that we liked the place well enough to stay the night and said goodbye to our new friends, promising to catch up with them the next day in Gokyo.
We waited in the lodge that afternoon with three Aussies. Our plans to spend the extra free time getting some altitude under our belts by climbing the surrounding ridges were dashed when a cloudbank rolled in and the afternoon sky opened a fall of feathery snowflakes that again turned our world white. Soon the view from the teahouse windows was nothing but a sheet of white and we whiled away the afternoon playing chess and growing more dispirited about our chances to cross Cho La.
That night, I felt the first symptoms of altitude sickness. I kept waking up, gasping for breath, feeling like I was suffocating in my quilt covered sleeping bag. So I took my first dose of Diamox, the medication that basically increases the oxygen content in your blood. After that, I had no problems breathing, but was kept awake all night by the multiple trips to the toilet that are an annoying side effect of the drug.
It was my third trip, about 2:00 am, when I walked outside to the toilet and the sky had finally cleared. The full moon cast the mountains iron grey. The powdered snow reflected the reflected light of the moon lighting the entire valley in ghostly hues. In the distance I could see the 8000 m (26,000+ft.) peaks radiant in the silver moonlight. I went back inside and grabbed my camera and set out to climb the nearest snow covered ridge in my wool socks and sandals. (see photo)
I spent an hour ascending the ridge, finding my way along the whitened yak trails by moonlight. Half-way up, intent on my footing and concentrating on the ground before me, I stopped. There on the trail were fresh tracks, made in the last three hours since the snow had stopped falling. Four-inch paw prints made by a cat that had come down from the mountain peaks above this hilltop valley (see photo). The only cats in the area big enough to make these prints were snow leopards. Rare and elusive, these endangered cats are seen so infrequently as to be almost mythical. I searched the valley and ridge but found nothing more than its tracks. Excited and fascinated, my mind began to imagine the possibilities of this remote landscape at the top of the world. These rarest of rare predatory cats only live above 10,000 feet. What else might be here? What other rare and exotic beasts might people these desolate crags. I looked to the moon silhouetted ridge tops and swore I could see human shapes, larger than human sized cut-outs staring down at me. An excerpt from the Lonely Planet Trekking guidebook flashed through my brain:
At 3:00, exhausted and still in wonder at this silent landscape of the gods, I returned to bed and finally slept a sound sleep.
Monday, April 7 - Luza (14,268) to Gokyo (15,744)- 3 hrs.
That morning is slept late. While I was paying the price for my late night excursions, Ryan went and climbed the next ridge up. When I found him, he was perched on a rock overlooking morning-mountains (see photo). There is something about this place that lends itself to contemplations. We left the small collection of houses and headed up the trail, passing Machhermo (our original destination for the day before) in less than half an hour. The rest of the morning was spent passing porters, guides and groups of trekkers on the trail. The land changed from the high sloping pastures of the yak kharkas to a bottle neck valley as the rocky riverbed rose to meet the mountain trail. We moved above waterfalls into the lakes of the rock strewn valley floor of Gokyo.
Gokyo itself is a collection of lodges on the shores of a Himalayan lake at almost 16,000 feet. The lake is ringed opposite of the village by the snow-covered slopes of Himals (see photo).
Getting there around 11:00 we stowed our bags at a lodge and met up with Charlie and another of their group, Joe. We spent the afternoon circumambulating the lake. As we walked, the afternoon clouds rolled in and, following the recent trend of weather patterns, it began to snow. Ryan and I grew convinced that Cho La would be inaccessible and our hopes of making it to Everest Base Camp were futile.
That evening we huddled in our lodge with thirty other trekkers as three inches of snow accumulated. The lodge was packed with trekking groups who were gorging themselves on catered foods, drinking from personalized mugs ?UK Expeditions: Fred (or Bill or Sue).? We ate our lackluster meal (rice and lentils that were 10x the price it was in the Terai and 1/10th as good) and eyed the others enviously. There were also some Canadians who had spent the last week camping on the glacier north of Gokyo. They finally had come in to get some of the ?good food? that we were eating. They had been living off of nothing by Pringles, Snickers and Ramen noodles. They tried to convince us of the benefits of such a diet, but I remained unconvinced.
Tuesday, April 8 - Gokyo (15,744) to Fifth Lake Ridge (17,056) and back - 6 hrs.
We woke early and set out with just a hip pack and our walking sticks. We were going to spend the day wandering around the Ngozumpa Glacier and return to Gokyo for a second night. We headed north up the glacier, which stretched a mile wide and ten miles long, to the shores of the third Gokyo lake (there are five total). From the lake we ascended onto a 17,000 foot ridge that cradled the western side of the glacier and paralleled it to its birthing grounds at the foot of Cho Oyo, the supposed easiest of the 8,000 meter peaks. We walked the ridge until we were past the fourth lake and were perched thousands of feet above the fifth, looking across the glacier and past a twin pair of 21,000 foot mountains to where we could finally see Everest in the next valley over (see photo).
Ryan and I rounded a corner on the scree covered ridge to a point that was in the sunlight, but sheltered from the wind. There we lay on the rocks that had been cleared of snow by the intense high-altitude sun. I pulled my hat down over my face and slept in the warmth, facing the tallest mountain in the world from less than ten-miles away.
We returned to Gokyo by 1:00. By 1:30 the daily clouds had rolled in and for the rest of the day they dumped a thick layer of snow on us and an even thicker layer of snow on Cho La pass. In the crowded room of the dining hall that evening, we sat next to some Nepali trekking guides, one who told us stories of Cho La. He recounted a Spanish trekker four years earlier who had tried to cross the pass alone. He never reached the village on the other side. They later found his body, crushed by falling rocks on the snowy mountain trail. His advice to us: look up often when you cross.
Wednesday April 9 - Gokyo (15,744) to Tagnak (15,219) - 2 1/2 hrs.
5:30 am. We rose before sunrise in hopes of summiting Gokyo Ri, the 'hill' that climbs 2,500 feet from the shores of Gokyo lake and offers great views of Everest, especially as the rising sun turns the southern face of the mountain golden. That is, it would have turned the mountain golden if there hadn't been masses of cloudbanks smothering the ground and dumping further snows upon the previous night's accumulations. Our morning climb to the hilltop vantage point was not an option.
We went back to the hotel and discussed our options over a cup of hot tea. We decided to push for Cho La. We would at least go to the nearest village and ask whether people were coming over the pass and if it was safe to cross without climbing equipment. If the word was yes, then we would give it our best shot.
So we set out into the snow looking for the small side path that would go to Tagnak, the village that lay at the base of the mountain range we would attempt to cross, and the place where we would spend the night before attempting the pass. After an hour of wandering through the snow-filled bellies of the clouds (I would say they were low-hanging, but at close to 16,000 feet, we were definitely not low), we found a lone set of footprints coming into our trail. They came from over the glacier that separated us from our goal, and the general direction that we needed to go, so we followed their thread into the labyrinth of gravelly hills and pools that rode on top of the hundred foot thick ice. For two hours we wandered through the rubble and wreckage that this glacier had accumulated on its descent. Gravel and boulders covered in six inches of snow made the path through the maze of hills slick and tedious. At points we could see where the hills had been sheared in half, exposing the varied strata of the glacier. Halfway through this tortured field, we met some porters headed in the other direction. From that point we followed the tracks of their passage out of the eerie cloud-covered maze.
Shortly after arriving in Tagnak, the two Canadians we had met in Gokyo, joined us, followed by 3 Brits and an Aussie who had met our RPCV friend the night before. The eight of us made for a fun crew and we agreed that we would attempt the pass together the next day with the safety of numbers behind us, if the weather allowed.
We amused ourselves with stories from the trail and added a few new ones to the collection. The Brits (Pete, the Aussie was traveling with them, but I will just refer to all of them as 'Brits' from now on. Sorry, Pete, but hey Australia and Britain are pretty much the same. Aren't they?) were staying in the dormitory room that doubled as the teahouse store room. There the Didi (older sister) who ran the place kept all of her vegetables and potatoes to get her through to the next harvest season. Having just come off the trail, or being British or some other inexplicable reason, it never occurred to Paul that he needed to shut the door to his room after he left. The reason that the door needed to be shut became apparent when he returned to the room an hour later and found the small quarters occupied by the bulk of the teahouse owners' joppa (the giant hybridization of a yak and cow). There the huge animal was contentedly munching on didi's potatoes, which it had spilled across the floor. Despite our hesitant attempts to shoo it out, the animal continued to eat our hosts' winter supply of food. We decided to own up to the problem and get Didi. Luckily for us, she vented the entirety of her anger on the joppa, who continued to munch his spuds even after Didi chased him out. He even appeared to grin in a bovine manner despite the furious beatings Didi was administering.
We went back inside and added this tale to the many stories which were growing around Paul. Another one told of how he had, two days earlier, panicked under the symptoms of altitude sickness. He had gotten out of bed and put on his boots, lacing them fully despite the fact that his feet no longer seemed to fit into them. One of the symptoms of altitude sickness is a swelling of the extremities. Paul, convinced that he had ascended too quickly, stepped out of his room and told his friend of his horrible plight, only to be given laughter instead of concerned sympathy in return. He looked down to realize that his boots were on the wrong feet. He was still hearing about it two days later and probably would for some time.
Chess note: Stuart, seeing me open up my chess set, happily challenged me to a game, which embarrassingly turned into three consecutive losses for me. It was after the second humiliating defeat that he told me he had been his county's representative back in England. There being only forty something counties in England, he was therefore one of the top forty players in the country back in his competitive days. This salved my wounds a little, but also goaded me all the more into playing him. Unfortunately I was off to an 0-3 start.
Thursday April 10 - Tagnak (15,219) to Cho La (17,450) to Dzongla (15,940) - 7 hrs.
An almost full moon was setting over the western mountains (see photo) as the first substantive beams of sunlight broke to the east, over Cho La Pass (this is actually redundant because 'La' means 'pass' in Tibetan). We set out at 8:00 with our group of 8. By 10:00 we had ascended over 1000 feet to where the mountain run-off stream faded into a field of snow and ice. The sun burned harsh on us, reflecting from the ground and the ever closer snow-capped heights. I began regretting the demise of my sunglasses. We stopped to rest and drink water. The sun was so intense and warm that despite the frozen landscape, one of the Canadians took off his shirt and lay on a rock suntanning for twenty minutes or so. We followed the footsteps of a Hungarian couple who had left an hour before us that morning. We then crested a ridge at 16,700 and paused to stare before us at a high altitude valley carved by glaciers pouring off the mountains to the north. More than a kilometer of boulders and rubble buried under 2 feet of snow. And we had to cross it. Bounding the other side of the valley was a wall of 20,000 foot peaks, seemingly unbroken. We stopped on the opposite ridge to contemplate the glacial floor and gather our breath for the challenge of the pass. At first the location of the pass eluded us. The only break in the mountain wall facing us was the gap through which the Changri Nup glacier flowed, continuing its patient sculpting of the mountains. We were prepared to cross the moraines of the valley floor, but none of us were equipped for the crevasses of a glacier crossing. The only alternative was a low saddle between two of the opposing peaks and at the top of an apparently vertical wall rising almost 1,500 feet above the valley floor. This was Cho La.
We set out across the boulder field with the slowest of paces and the utmost of care. The boulders were blanketed in snow and a slip into one of the gaps between threatened to easily break knees or ankles. In the hour that it took to cross the boulder field, we watched as a cloud front gathered to the south in the weather pattern that we had all become familiar with - clear bright sunny mornings followed by rolling afternoon clouds bringing cold and snow. Halfway through the valley floor, at a rare flat spot, Jeff and Sean, the two Canadians, broke from the group to set up camp. They had a tent and kilos of pringles and intended to staythe night here above 16,000 feet.
As we entered the boulder field, we saw a series of spots appearing from over the top of the pass in the distance. Eight people had crossed from the other side of the mountains and were headed down the impossibly steep and snowy descent. We stopped to gather our breath and strength and watch them. At times, we could see them slipping and actually sliding down long sections of the wall face, bouncing down on their packs in controlled slides through knee deep snow.
We met them where the rock field met the base of the mountain. They were exhilarated, they had crossed and were on their descent (they didn't know of the arduous rock field that they were about to enter). One of the men stopped to caution us, "If I were you I would be really worried about this cloud bank that is rolling in. Its snowy up there and the trail is slippery. When you get to the other side, the glacier crossing is nasty. If you take the wrong trails, you could end up in a crevasse or worse." We took the words and continued our trek in silence.
We had gotten less than 100 yards up the pass when the Brits decided they were going to gear up - crampons and ropes came out and they began putting their equipment on. Ryan and I had none of their mountaineering gear and with the weather impending, we continued our ascent as fast as the scarce air would allow (at this altitude, the oxygen content is less than 50 percent of what it is at sea-level). We quickly built a 500 yard distance between us and them as they continued to struggle with their gear and fatigue.
The slope was slick and hidden with the damp snow. But we were able to follow the trail of the group we had met coming from the other direction. At times I was climbing up whitened boulders, digging with my bare hands into the snow to find purchase. In places like these, the other group had simply slid down on their packs, landing in the soft snow. But we were fighting against gravity's one-way ticket and the travel was slow.
Half an hour after we left the Brits, I heard a loud cracking noise coming from above us on the right hand side of the massif. I watched in fascination as a sugary cascade of snow raced down the mountain. An avalanche was crashing down from the heights onto the trail halfway between us and the Brits. I was torn between wanting to shout a warning to our newfound friends and the sudden paranoia that shouting would set off further falls. The avalanche was relatively small, bu definitely enough to bury a man waist deep in snow or worse, sweep him off the trail and down the steep face to the boulders below. The Gokyo guide's story of the crushed Spanish climber resonated in my head. Ryan and I moved to a vantage point to see if our newfound friends were alright. After a minute of searching, we saw four black forms ascending the trail behind us. The avalanche had poured down about halfway between us and them. Realizing that our friends were fine, Ryan and I set out without a word, but our pace quickened as much as the impoverished air would allow and our frequent pauses were accompanied by anxious glances at the towering masses on either side.
We were over 17,000 feet now. At that altitude the air contained less than 50% of the oxygen that it does at sea level. We climbed the trail, scaling boulders and kicking through the knee deep snow with painful exertion, all the while racing the incoming cloud bank and the wet snowfall it would bring. We couldn't lose the trail beneath a new blanket of snow.
At 12:30 we reached the stone chortens and weathered prayer flags that marked the top of the pass. The world had disappeared into a grey fog that dropped we snowflakes on us. Before us the flat, snowy field of the Cho La glacier stretched into the haze. After a celebratory sit and a photo, we headed out onto the plain of snow. After so many hours of seemingly vertical ascent over the hellish terrain, we reveled in the feel of descent. The trail was still clear and we moved quickly in the soft, boulder-free snow. We passed through the snowfiled and onto the craggy rocks of the eastern face of the pass. Following the now clearer footprints of the Hungarians, we came below the cloudline and into a cut in the barrier wall, gouged out by a falling stream. Soon the path down became less obvious and the tracks we were following split in two. I had gone 20 yards down one of the forks to where it dead-ended on a slick slope of rock, snow-free, but wet with run-off.
"Don't come this way," I shouted back to Ryan. The pitch of the rock sheet coupled with the slick conditions necessitated an alternative route. As I turned to head back to meet up with Ryan, my traction on the rock gave way and I landed painfully on my hip, my walking sticks clattering down the rock face. I quickly followed, gathering momentum as I slid down the giant plate of rock. But I noticed nothing of the pain in my side or in my hands as I clawed at the we rock surface trying to slow my descent. Time seemed extended. I knew that I was falling fast, but I had time to think. I spread my legs and arms, trying to create as much friction as possible between myself and the rock to slow myself down. 15 feet ahead I could see a small lip in the rock, a crack running perpendicular to my fall. I didn't feel any fear because I knew that I would cathch the lip before I slid the 20 feet further to where the rock dropped off. As I came to it, I planted my feet sideways and readied my hands in case my feet didn't catch. They caught. I stopped far short of the end of the rock face. Slowly, on all fours, I sidled sideways along the slope to where it met with crumbled piled rocks and where I could pick up my lost walking sticks and climb down to meet the trail where Ryan was beginning to descend. I said nothing and Ryan didn't notice my newfound limp or my dirty and cut hands.
Two hours later, we walked into the collection of four buildings, 2 hotels an animal shelter and an outhouse, that constituted Tzongla. We got a room and sat by the fireplace of the dining hall in triumph to wait for our friends. When they arrived, we celebrated with hot chocolate, soup and sandwiches as we huddled by the fire trying to drive the chill and wet of the hike out of our bones.
Chess note: I finally beat Stuart. Constant pressure from a pawn threatening to be queened gave me the chance to run a rook behind his defenses. I tried not to gloat and yell too loudly.
I woke up sometime around midnight with the pain of a thousand soldering irons slowly, methodically gouging into my eyes. As tears streamed down my face, I fumbled for my medical kit. I popped six ibuprofen, wet a bandana with water and tied it over my eyes. I was snow-blind. 4 hours later, I awoke having to go to the outhouse. There was a quarter moon in the sky that night and its pale light seared painfully into my eyes. I walked to the outhouse squinting and shielding my eyes from the excruciating light of the moon and the stars.
Friday April 11 - Dzongla - all day
I awoke unable to see. I leftmy bed in the morning to say goodbye to the Brits. Completelyunable to open my eyes, I grinned past the still running tears to wish them well on the rest of their journey. I found out that two of them wereheaded back down - one with a nasty case of dysentery, the other unable to shake off the headache and nausea of altitude sickness that had been dogging him for days. The mountains were taking their casualties on us.
I moved into the common room where I sat alone throughout the rest of the morning huddled in a chair in my sleeping bag with a wet bandana tied around my eyes. Ryan after restlessly sitting around for an hour went to the next village on a search for new sunglasses to replace the ones I had broken.
Sometime in mid-afternoon, Ryan returned. He had met Charlie, the RPCV we had met on the Gokyo side. Charlie had gone south around the mountains and back up this side after deciding that his porter wasn't equipped for crossing the pass. The porter protested, but looking at his worn tennis shoes and thin jacket, Charlie decided on the longer, but safer route. Charlie had brought with him two extra pairs of sunglasses to give to his porter in case the porter didn't have any. The lives of guides and porters in Nepal would be much better if there were more trekkers like Charlie who were concerned with their well-being. When Charlie heard about my plight, he quickly sent a pair of oversized polarized sunglasses with Ryan my way.
I still wasn't sure if I would be able to continue (I couldn't even find my way to the toilet, much less all the way up to Everest base Camp), but having the sunglasses made it more feasible that I could continue with Ryan instead of waiting for two days for him to go up and return from Gorak Shep.
That evening my eyes steadily improved. By the time I went to bed I could remove the bandana and open them for ten or fifteen minutes at a stretch. Strangely, no other trekkers came into the teahouse, so Ryan and I sat around the wood stove with the owner and the cook as they told us stories about the region.
It happened that the owner was a Sherpa who also served as a porter and a guide. The next week he was leading an expedition up one of the 22,000 foot mountains of the area, Mera Peak. His wife was coming up from Kathmandu and she would run the base camp while he took a group of seven Canadians up to the summit over the course of ten days.
To give you an idea of the kind of physical shape he was in, he, after some prodding by us, took out his race numbers from the last year's Everest Marathon. The race starts at Everest Base Camp, an altitude over 17,000 feet and winds up and down the mountain ridges and valleys to end 26 miles later at Namche Bazaar. The course record is 3:59 (as opposed to just over 2 hrs. for most marathons). Our Sherpa friend finished in just under 5 hours.
But his most noticeable exploit was having climbed Everest. He had done this a couple of times. He also had served as a porter on numerous occasions, including carrying equipment up for the IMAX expedition of '96. This meant that he was on the mountian during the storm that tragically killed more than 10 people and was the impetus of Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air." When Ryan and I returned to Namche Bazzar 5 days later, we had the opportunity to watch a video of the IMAX movie. It was a fascinating movie, in particular bgecause for most of the it we recognized the places and points that we had gone to ourselves. But we were excited to get to the credits to see the name of our Sherpa friend. He was our own recent brush with fame. When we reached the movie's end, this is what we read (approximately):
IMAX would like to thank all of the Nepali porters and guides for their invaluable assistance.
The rest of the credits listed every single westerner down to the guy who styled the climbers' hair, but they didn't individually credit a single of the people who carried their gear, sometimes over a hundred pounds each, up to over 26,000 feet. Not to take anything away from the climbers, but they just ascend the trail and cover the last two and a half thousand feet alone while the porters climb to within 800 meters of the summit carrying all the westernes' gear plus their own. And not a single name mentioned. Good job, IMAX.
Chess note: I was on a roll. After having beaten Stuart the previous night, I was able to win again against Ryan despite the wet rag I had to drop over my eyes, only removing it to move my pieces.
Saturday April 11 - Dzongla (15,940) to Gorak Shep (16,924) to Everest Base Camp (17,600) to Gorak Shep - 8 1/2 hrs.
I awoke with pain in my eyes, but they were considerably better than the previous day. I could open them. Seeing that improvement and not willing to let the cance to go to Everest pass, I set out with Ryan that morning. Thankfully he was there, because I would never have been able to find the way myself. I looked pathetic, wearing his Henry Fonda "On Golden Pond" hat pulled low and the sunglasses Charlie had given me (picture the huge polarized kind that covers most of the face of the old person who is crouched behind the wheel of a slow moving automobile that has had its left turn signal on for the last fifteen miles), I shuffled along holding my walking stick out in front of me like a blind man's cane. I could still not bear to open my eyes more than a squint and when I did, everything was clouded by a haze that kept me from seeing clearly anything beyond 20 feet. But 20 feet was enough to follow Ryan.
I followed him like this all the way to Gorak Shep where we put our bags on the bunks of a dormitory style room filled with other trekkers. We only had one day here, so Ryan was going to go the added 2 hours up and 2 hours down to and from Everest Base Camp. Against better judgement, I decided to follow him across the bright snow-covered rocks of the Khumbu Glacier field. We passed by numerous chortens (see photo) that had plaques in them commemorating the deaths of all those who had died in these mountains. Ryan recognized several from "Into Thin Air." We made it to Base Camp, and with eyes burning, this is what I saw:
Close to a hundred geodesic dome tents, mostly brightly colored and mostly sporting the North Face logo. There were no less than 15 expeditions on the glacier at the moment, all waiting there about a month so that the climbers could aclimatize to the ever dizzying heights as they moved up to the following camps. There were Malaysians, New Zealanders, Americans, Japanese and Canadians. There was even another IMAX crew (who were none to friendly to us when we wandered into their camp asking for a friend of a friend of Ryan's who was supposed to be on the mountain at the time). We asked one of the groups how many peole they had. They said five climbers and eleven support staff. Wow, only 16. Did they carry all of their gear up? Oh, no, they had used about 26 Nepali porters whom they had forgotten about. I see.
The amenities at this city of tents were truly astounding. We walked past dining hall tents where full time cooks unloaded crates of food ported up from the nearest road head 12 days south of here and then they cooked four course meals of hams and spaghettis and an infinite variety of food that made Ryan's and my stomachs growl with envy (daal bhaat and tuna sandwiches can sustain, but they grow wearisome after weeks). There were toilet tents and shower tents where climbers took hot showers under solar heated water (we hadn't showered in ten days and Ryan was definitely beginning to smell like it).
We wandered from tent to tent looking for David, the Seattle doctor who is friends with one of Ryan's old co-workers and is spending six weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to climb Everest. After friendly directions from a Nepali porter and a coldly disdainful reception by the IMAX crew, we came to the Mountain Madness tents. There we found David sitting in his tent huddled over his laptop. He had a satellite uplink and was trying to keep up on some work from back home. He was happyto see us and Ryan and he related stories of their mutual friend while I listened and petted the golden lab that was their camp mascot. After a fwe minutes, their camp cook called dinner time and Ryan and I headed back towards Gorak Shep.
As we walked back to our teahouse, listlessly eating our 574th nutrition bar of the trip, we passed the burn wreckage of a massive Russian built helicopter. Its charred shell lay in the scattered debris of its demise (see photo). Last year had been the 50th Anniversary of Norgay and Hillary's ascent of Chomolungma (Mt. Everest's name in Tibetan). There had been festivities and celebrations at Base Camp including many Nepali dignitaries. Three of them had flown in on the chopper, butwhen the weather turned bad, they tried to leave. The pilot found himself fighting the mountain winds in a helicopter that couldn't maintain lift in the thin air. It was the mountain winds that won, slamming the pilot and three dignitaries in their thin aluminum shell to their deaths in the rocky field of the glacier top. With no way to remove the wreck and no moisture to deteriorate it, I am sure that it will remain here as a reminder of the mountain's power for decades.
As we passed the solemn sight we met a group of trekkers being led by their Nepali guide. We stepped off the trail to let them by. When he had almost reached us, the guide heaved a bent ice-pick that he was carrying and threw it into one of the small glacial valleys that the trail wound through. Seeing as none of the people he was leading seemed to react, I stopped him and asked him in Nepali if he thought that was a good place to throw trash. He just stared at me and didn't answer. Thus I knew he had understood, for this is the typical Nepali reaction to any direct confrontation. There is a growing problem with waste on the glaciers of the Everest region (Solo Khumbu). Nothing decomposes at this altitude, so all of the trash that is produced by the thousands of people who visit each year must be carried out. Most of the waste that litters the landscape has been deposited by Nepalis who don't see the point in carrying a piece of trash for days down the trail for it to be disposed of 'in a proper fashion.' And most of their western employers fail to check that the waste is removed. So in an effort to change this pattern, I confronted this guide. Maybe next time he'll think back to that rude foreigner who confronted him and maybe he'll hesitate to just drop trash anywhere.
We returned to Gorak Shep in the late afternoon. On the way, we passed a trekker and her Nepali guide who were moving slowly along the path. The Nepali woman was supporting the trekker who staggered forward in a drunken manner. As we passed, she stopped to wretch behind some rocks. The 17,000+ feet that separated us from sea-level were clearly getting to this woman.
She wasn't the only one. As we sat that evening in the crowded and smoky dining room of the teahouse, we saw a whole spectrum of altitude symptoms (or lack thereof). The Nepali porters and guides sat laughing and smoking, oblivious to the sporadic trekkers who were hunched over in misery battling headaches, fatigue, nausea and the irritability that comes with altitude. Ryan and I fell somewhere towards the better end of the spectrum. For me it was probably living in Mustang at 9,000 feet that gave me a little advantage over those who stepped straight off the plane from sea-level. For Ryan, well, I think he just does well no matter what. And both of us were using Diamox by this point.
But not everyone was. That night one of the trekkers who was sharing the dormitory-style room with us woke to the panic of suffocation. Nighttime, typically 6 to 12 hours after reaching an intolerable altitude, is the worst time for dealing with altitude issues. Insomnia is common, and when sleep does come, it is often short lived because you will be haunted by nightmares of suffocation that will wake you with a startling realization - the feeling of not being able to breathe doesn't disappear with awakening. You will begin gasping and hyperventilating, the natural need for oxygen compounded by fear and panic. Luckily for this woman a huge dose of diamox had the symptoms under control in nearly twenty minutes. Unluckily for the rest of us, she was hysterically loud for nearly twenty minutes. Sleep is not restful in Gorak Shep whether you have altitude sickness or not.
The next day we talked with one of the guides. He told us stories of being woken at midnight to a trekker delirious and vomiting. These are the serious signs of altitude sickness. These are the signs that death is coming and coming quickly. The only escape, and luckily it is a surefire one, is to descend. So this guide took one of the baskets used for hauling gear up the path, cut two holes in the bottom, slid the incoherent man into the basket, his legs dangling through the two holes, and ran four hours down the mountain trail that was lit only by a full moon to where the altitude allowed for enough oxygen to restore the man's brain to functioning. This is the real danger of altitude sickness and it happens every year to a number of people.
Sunday April 12 - Gorak Shep (16,924)to Kala Pattar (18,646) to Periche (13,907) - 6 1/2 hrs.
Under starlight and a toenail moon, Ryan and I walked across the rocky valley floor, past sleeping yaks and early morning porters who were starting their camp cookfires, and set our feet to climbing the western ridge of the valley to its peak, Kala Pattar. We moved silently in the stillness, the yak trail we were following blantantly lit by the celestial objects. It was cold. Very very cold. In an hour and a half, we had reached the top and were still the only ones on the hill. Ryan's water bottle had frozen. From a haphazard ruin of rocks at the top (see photos), we watched the Khumbu valley below us fade into pale as the morning sun made its own ascent over Everest and Lhotse. Wind-torn prayer flags hung limply in the still coldness and a laminated photo of a deceased climber commemorated his passing on the adjacent mountain, Pumori, which you can see in the background of my photos. We watched a single dot grow into a fellow climber who followed our path and joined us to watch the valley. This was the highest I had ever been, and despite the growing pain in my fingers and toes, I wanted to linger here for a while. Shortly after sunrise, dozens of people gradually made their way up the hill for its views and Ryan and I knew it was time to make our own way down.
We returned to the teahouse and after a quick breakfast set out to our descent back home. We had lingered in the heights too long and now had to quicken our pace to get back home and to our lives here in Nepal.
Monday April 13 - Periche (13,907) to Namche Bazaar (11,283 ft)- 6 1/2 hrs.
We met Sean and Geoff on the trail. They had been in Namche replenishing their supply of snickers and pringles. They had met our British friends the night before and had spent the night celebrating into the early morning. Now they were making their way slowly up the trail, carrying the weight of pounding heads in addition to their supply laden packs.
Tuesday April 14 - Namche Bazaar (11,283 ft)to Lukla (8527) - 6 hrs.
We walked into Lukla and a constant drizzle that was soaking it. Further up the mountains this precipitaion was manifesting itself in snow. But here was the reality of the lower hills. The rain was a clear demarkation that we had left the heights.
After fruitlessly searching for our British friends, we settled into a nice hotel. Bigger and more comfortable than the teahouses of the trail, it exhibited the amenities that weren't available farther up. Ryan and I reveled in it. They had a VCR and on their shelf, covered in dust, was a box set of the Star Wars Trilogy. So despite a horrible picture (we could only see 2/3rds of the screen), we stayed up past midnight watching The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. For a while everything was normal, we were content and happy and could not have wanted anything more.
Wednesday April 15 - Lukla to Kathmandu - 35 minute flight
Tired and exhausted, we both felt it was time to leave. We had hiked for the last two weeks, close to 70 hours (approximately 160 miles). We had adventured at the top of the world and seen things that many people put on their list of "Things to See Before I Die." We had pushed ourselves to do something significant, and in the process learned a lot about each other and even more about ourselves. We both felt that we had done something that needed to be done.
While there is so much more to Nepal than the Everest region, it is what this country has gained notoriety for. We were living the other parts and were gaining rich experience from it, but to leave Nepal without having been here would have been to leave without understanding a small but prominent aspect of what gives Nepal much of its international identity. This country is truly amazing for its diversity and the immense amount of varied experiences it has to offer. The Solo Khumbu region is one of those experiences that brings a vibrant color to the tapestry of Nepal.
posted by Nathan 6:06 PM
Thursday, March 25, 2004
Monday, October 27, 2003
GLOW Camp recollected
I woke in the middle of the night. I couldn't tell what time it was, but I knew that I wouldn't be going back to sleep. My friends were coming (but not for at least another 4 hours as it turned out to be 2 am). The airplanes had not flown the previous four days as monsoon clouds belligerently clung to the mountains long past the days when they should have moved out into the South Pacific.
That day our GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp was to start, my best friends from training were coming, and my best friends from post were leaving for the month long Dosain holiday break. It was too much. Sleep would not return in the face of these intimidating events.
I rose and walked out onto Susheela's rooftop. The knife edge of Nilgiri waited over the sleeping and unaware town of Jomsom. I don't know why I write this, but that night I could see nine sisters of the Pleiades constellation.
After eating hours later and watching the sun illuminate the summit of Dhaulagiri, Mischere and I went to the airport to wait for Venu and Clarissa's arrival. There were hundreds of Nepalis playing the lottery of waiting for a coveted seat on an outbound plane. Because Nepalis only pay about 1/4 of the price that foreigners pay, the airlines will board every foreigner before they open any seats to Nepalis. And because of the holiday, the locals were headed south en masse. The resulting backup caused by headsir to wait for a full week before finally winning a spot on an outbound flight.
Our friends didn't come until after 11:00, their airplane pushing the limits of the window of safety. The daily winds had come and were beginning to buffet the valley with gusts that could easily slam the small airplanes into the 16,000 foot walls of Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri.
I had to leave the airport before they arrived, however, to get to the bank in time to cash my quarterly paycheck. I was already in debt 5000 rupees to local hotel owners and shopkeepers, and this would be the last day the banks would be open before I began our trek down to Pokhara, so I needed to go.
Now, a picture of the standard banking procedure in Nepal. The bank is only open from 10:00 until 12:00 on Fridays, so I arrived at 10:40, knowing it could easily take an hour to cash my check. Due to the Maoist insurrection, the bank stored its money each night in the nearby Army barracks. So everyday, they had to retrieve it before they could conduct business. Instead of getting the money in advance so that it would be there and ready when the bank opened, they get it when they show up for work. Well, actually they leave to get it after they have had their morning tea after they show up for work, usually about 10:30. This means the money and its armed escort never arrive before 11:00, giving them an hour of functional business time on Fridays. Thus by showing up forty minutes after the bank opened, I was actually showing up twenty minutes early by Nepali reckoning.
Well, this Friday I sat in the bank with a growing crowd of locals waiting for the money-man to arrive. 11:00 came and went. At 11:45, I reached the limit of my American-bred patience and headed back to the hotel anxious to see my friends. On the path back, however, I met a man with a backpack escorted by two bolt-action rifle toting officers. This had to be the bank man. So I struck up a conversation with him and played upon my novelty as a Nepali-speaking American to ingratiate myself to him. My plan paid off as we entered the bank, now full with 40 restless customers, and the bank man immediately took me behind the glass security screens and personally processed my check. I left the bank at 12:45. I don't know how late the bank stayed open, or how many disgruntled Nepalis were turned away after that.
Needless to say, my start on the day was late despite being up since 2 am. I needed to meet my friends and then go back to Chhairo to get my students for our camp and then return the six miles to Jomsom all before our camp started at 5 pm.
When I got back to Susheela's, Venu and Clarissa were sitting on the porch waiting for me with Mischere. It had been four months since I had seen either of them, but the day was passing so quickly and there was so much yet to do that I couldn't stop to enjoy their company or catch up. I started to feel my blood-sugar lag, and knowing that I still had 12 miles and hours to go before supper, I ate an enchilada (or the facsimile that goes by that name at the Nepali hotels) and then hit the trail, accompanied by Venu.
I think the trail was a bit of a shock for him, having just stepped off of the plane to an altitude gain of about 8500 feet. So we went slowly, enjoying the chance to talk and trying to overcome the disconnect of two friends who had only known each other 7 months, 4 of that spent only communicating by letter correspondence. We talked of the changes that we had seen in ourselves and others in the brief time that we had been in Nepal. I could see first hand the changes that life at his post had wrought in him. Janakpur was widely acknowledged to be the armpit of Nepal, a squallored hole and his school sounded to be the worst in that town (this, by the way is not just an outside opinion, but one that Nepalis themselves will abide by). The teachers at his school never taught, instead spending the days drinking tea in the office, and his students spoke neither Nepali nor English, but instead spoke a local relative of Hindi, Mitili. But instead of withering under these conditions, Venu was responding with a give-em-all-heck attitude. He appeared stronger than he had since I first met him in training.
All of this and more transpired over the two hours it took us to get to Chhairo. When we got there, my girls were no where to be seen. I was supposed to have returned the day before (I didn't because Venu and Clarissa's flight had been postponed), so when I failed to show up that morning, they had assumed that I was adopting a Nepali fashion and that the camp had been called of for some obscure reason. They believed that I had let them down. So I spent the next hour and a half rounding them all up. "Yes, we are having our camp." "Yes, you need to get ready to go. And quickly! We are leaving now!" I had to walk to the next village, were most were gathered at the only house with a TV watching a Hindi flim. I sent runners out into the fields for the rest and then finally waited as five 11-year old girls repeatedly brushed their hair, changed and re-changed their clothes, and got ready for the big trip to the 'big city' (Jomsom is about 1500 people).
We finally left Chhairo at 4:45 for our 5:00 camp with a bag of apples, a two-hour walk ahead, and night threatening to overtake us. The girls lagged, devoting their excited energy to talking and giggling about the event which was a novelty to a village that had never seen a sleep-over camp before. Venu lagged, devoting his energy to fighting the altitude.
By the time we dragged into Jomsom, the sun had long set and we were two hours late for the start of camp. The girls were exhausted from the long day and long hike, but their excitement propelled them onwards. Venu was exhausted from the altitude and from jumping straight off the plane into a twelve mile hike. And I was exhausted from having only slept 3 hours the night before, having faced the ordeals of a Nepali bank and airport, having walked more than 15 miles, and having the anxiety and stress of meeting my friends, helping organize the camp, and managing my girls.
We arrived to a hearty welcome of "You're two hours late. What took you? We've been waiting for you." I said nothing, simply asked what needed to be done. Food was just about ready, so we split into shifts and every body ate. The Chhairo crew was famished, so we took first dibs on the grub. After eating, the girls were to go upstairs to do some get-to-know-you activities, one of which was making collages, which required glue, which I was supposed to have gotten a month ago, which I decided I would pick up on that day on the way to our camp, which, in the bizarre chaotic haze of the day, I had forgotten to do. I had let everyone down (this is the weird sort of frame of mind that can so easily overcome PC volunteers). But I did what I've always done, I did what needed to be done. I went to the nearest pasol, closed hours ago, and interrupted the shop-owners evening meal. I asked to to re-open their shop and let me buy glue for our program. This is also the way that Nepal works. When you need help you simply ask and the people will be there for you. In ten minutes, I was back with the glue and no one but myself and the other PCVs knew any different.
Now, it is obvious that life would go on without a few gluesticks, but the emotional damage that can be inflicted by these tiny earthquakes can be immense. There is a story of a PC volunteer who was having a rough time in Nepal. One day she sat down to eat her eggs and because of the humidity, the salt in her salt-shaker wouldn't pour. She slammed down the salt-shaker and promptly called headquarters, informing them that she was early terminating her service and leaving the country. Such can be the magnitude of these little earthquakes.
It was during this late night collage creation that my physical existence was finally pulled down to my emotional existence. I was standing by these girls, helping them glue pictures of horses and presidents, surfers and cakes to their new notebooks, when my body gave out and I collapsed into a limp pile of limbs on the floor. There was no warning, my will had suddenly given up. No one but Clarissa had seen. I sat up as she came over and reassured her, unconvincingly, that all was well. Shortly after, the girls were packed into their rooms Nepali-style (3 beds pushed together for every 7 girls, who sprawled across them, tangled at all angles, and giggling incessantly) and we PCVs were left alone to wallow in our exhaustion.
It was then that my compatriots decided to address the issue of my tardiness. It was pointed out that I had wasted half an hour eating an enchillada that afternoon. And why hadn't I gotten the glue sooner. My patience finally snapped and I snapped at my friends. Thankfully they were just that, my friends, because they quickly laid off, seeing that I was a thin sheet of ice melted to a film that the lightest of footsteps would have broken through. They let the issue drop and came to my comfort with kind words and hugs. (Awww. Yes, I know, cheesy.)
However, one of the PCVs left the room and then returned carrying a bottle of Coca-cola. "Does anyone have a bottle-opener?" My jaw dropped in disbelief. "You're not going to give that to them are you?" "Sure, why not?" I attest that in the skewed frame of mind that I was in, I gave not the most polite of answers. Rather bluntly I said "No, no, no! You're not going to pump those girls full of sugar and caffeine just as we all go to bed!" And further non-political remarks, for which I later apologized. "Oh, come on Nathan, you obviously haven't ever had a sleepover. Let the girls have some fun." "No, it is exactly because I have had many sleepovers and I know what happens at them that I would never catalyze it by giving them a Coke." In the end, I was too tired to fight the issue and the caffeine fiends had their way.
However, I will note that I was the one who had to deal with the the girls. By midnight, I had to go to their rooms three times to get them to quiet down, as they were jumping on their beds and shouting and laughing and running around, all directly over in the room over the hotel owners' bedroom. Not only was it rude and discourteous, but I wanted to maybe get a discount on our lodging for this camp and maybe hold future camps here. So after three tries, I finally got the girls settled. Not through any thing I said, but because after conveying to the girls my meaning, I reached up with my hat and unscrewed their lightbulb, taking it with me to my room and leaving them in the dark.
The next day came and went just fine. The camp ended, the children went home, and the Mustang volunteers parted ways in Jomsom. We left Justin and Beth in Jomsom, all of us headed to different adventures. I think that was why it was easy to say goodbye. Justin was headed for a decadent tour of India, Beth for an exotic trip to East Timor, Mischere eventually to an adventurous medical trip to K'du with a broken heel (ok, that might not have been such a great thing to look forward to) that she had been hobbling around Mustang on for a week, and I was headed out with some of my favorite friends to do one of my favorite things - explore where it was I was living. We were going to hike throughout my own back yard and see Mustang.
Three days later, Ryan flew into Jomsom and joined our little entourage and he joined myself, Venu and Clarissa as we headed out for our Dosain adventure.
The Trail to Muktinath
The first night, we headed North to spend some time in Muktinath. I had decided to experiment on my friends and use them as Guinea Pigs to see if staying in a cave on a cliff face in the Himals was a good idea. I had never done this before, and I figured, 'hey what the heck, if I'm in for a disaster, might as well have some good company doing it.' The caves were above the ruins of old Kagbeni. The village of Kagbeni had previously existed in two other locations before its present site on the Kali Ghandaki. I know it has been where it currently is for more than 500 years, so the ruins where we stayed are fairly ancient. It is my understanding that the villagers left its original site because that place had come to be haunted by ghosts. What better place to spend the night alone (well, just the four of us alone) in the Himals.
The cave we chose was about a 10 foot climb up the cliff and was where Justin and I had sat sheltered from the harsh sun on a bright afternoon months before and had seen a herd of Himalayan antelopes. To reach it, we had to walk miles up an immense river valley carved by a small mountain run-off river that was ice-cold by October when the four of us had to wade it to get to our cave. We supped on powerbars, dried meant and Chhairo apples as we all returned to that part of our youth when everything was still an adventure and the world was wide-open and beginning to be explored. Our imaginations reawakened - the ancient village came alive, or we were sheltering in the same caves where Osama bin Laden was hiding and eluding the might of America. This inspired further childish antics as I launched a Jihad against my companions in the form of rolling back and forth over them in my sleeping bag (steamroller for those of you who are familiar). The laughter then subsided as we stayed up well past bed-time talking politics and watching the valley fall into silvered shadows, our world cast in silver and midnight blue as the moon traced its arc across the sky to sink behind Nilgiri and the Grand Barrier. We woke at sunrise as first the tip of Dhaulagiri and then the entirety of the mountain became incandescent as molten sunlight crept down its sides.
The next day we left our cave to attempt a crossing of the valley floor and a negotiation of the opposing valley wall where we could rejoin the trail to Muktinath. By the time we had re-waded the river and found a slope of crumbling rocks and scree at a gentle enough angle to allow us to scramble up using our hands and knees as much as our feet, we emerged, dust-covered and grinning, just as the first trekkers and pilgrims of the morning were passing on their journey from Kagbeni to the sacred valley. In a rare occurrence, the Nepali guides and pilgrims, normally blase about the surroundings of this environment, were as surprised by the scene before them as the foreign trekkers were. 'You started where?' the question was asked in both Nepali and English as the questioner squinted across the valley floor to the caves that dotted the cliff face up to about 500 feet. 'It was only one of the low ones,' we would reply, as if that explained everything.
We then shuffled up the trail into the morning sun, stopping obstensibly due to thirst or to play a game of trying to toss stones onto a rock outcropping that jutted out over the valley a hundred feet below our trail. But the reality was that the altitude was getting us. For those of us coming up from the Terai, roughly about sea-level, to Muktinath, over 12,500 feet in elevation, the path was a journey that taxed our lungs and set a persistent altitude headache into the background of our experience.
We passed hotels run by local Buddhist/Bons adorned by yak and sheep skulls set over doorways and even an entire yak carcass, petrified by the dry environment set on a rooftop to protect the buildings and ward off evil fortune. Occasionally we would pass an orange-clad Hindu pilgrim who had walked the hundreds of miles from India, wearing flip-flops a loincloth, a shawl and turban and carrying nothing more than a walking stick and a can. Most of these sadhus are Hindu followers of Shiva headed to the Shiva temple in Muktinath. But not all pilgrims are headed there in such a manner nor are they solely headed there for Shiva. In Muktinath, there is also a temple to Vishnu. These deities are revered in both Hinduism and Buddhism, making Muktinath, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Nepal. There are also two helicopter landing pads just below the temples where rich pilgrims (predominantly from India) can fly in from Pokhara walk the 100 yards up to the temples, do their puja, or worship, and then head back to Pokhara in time for lunch.
Lower on the trail, Ryan and I had briefly split from Venu and Clarissa to take a side trail that led past a cave where one of these sadhus had taken up residence. It was one of the most bizarre scenes I have witnessed in this land of bizarreness. The cave mouth was ringed by wooden posts driven into the rocky ground in an apparently haphazard pattern. These posts were adorned with random paraphanelia, the kinds of things that were obviously discarded by trekkers and Nepalis alike. Tattered clothes and sun-bleached Buddhist prayer flags, tin cans and strings, and a disturbing torso and head of a child's blonde doll, the kind whose eyes roll back in a semblance of sleep when you tilt it, only this one was smeared in dirt and missing an eye as well as three of its limbs. From out of the mouth of the cave stepped the inhabitant who had collected this discarded mountain menagerie. Dressed like the other sadhus, except for a hole-ridden pair of grey jogging pants, he thrilled when he discovered we spoke Nepali, offering us a broken chair to sit on and the hospitality of a cup of tea. Ryan and I declined the offer but did linger long enough to learn that he had been here a few months and was waiting for the arrival of some friends of his, other sadhus from the south. We refrained from pointing out that in the months that he had lived here, it was quite possible, even likely that his friends had passed by on the main trail, completely unaware of his increasingly permanent residence on the side-trail. We said our Namastes and continued on a sort of pilgrimage of our own, suddenly thinking that in the scheme of things maybe what we were doing wasn't really that exotic after all.
We rejoined Venu and Clarissa and in the mid-afternoon got into Ranipawa, the collection of local residences and numerous hotels that catered to Westerners located a few hundred yards below the holy temples of Muktinath. We got a room at the Bob Marley Hotel. I never realized the extent to which ole Bobbie is revered in the world outside of the U.S. Even now, 20 years after his death, I see teenagers in Nepal walking around with Bob Marley t-shirts. In the south, motorcycles are decaled with Bob Marley stickers, his dreadlocked image staring at you from the gas tank of a Honda that zips past you, weaving between rickshaws and water buffaloes. And here, just below one of the most significant holy sites for two of the world's major religions, this four-story hotel has become a Mecca of its own for Rasta/Reggae counter-culture trekkers. So of course, being on a journey to see the wonders of this world, we stayed here.
We headed up to the temples of Muktinath itself just as the sun was beginning to set. This was actually the second time I had been to Muktinath, but the first time I had forgone visiting the temples of this holy site. The reason was that, for me, these temples, these man-make structures built under the competing tensions of two religions vying for significance, weren't the culmination of a trek or a pilgrimage (is there a difference?) to the place. The Muktinath Valley is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Cut two thousand feet into the desert-brown mountains, resting in the lap of the twin peaks of Yakawa Kang and Khatung Kang (see my home page), staring across twenty miles at the glaciered behemoth of Dhaulagiri, the valley defies the desolation in isolated pockets of lush green, the wonders of a subsistence-farming culture adept at the use of irrigation canals. No, it isn't the temples and shrines and prayer wheels that make this place (or any place for that matter) holy.
But for all of that, I came to understand the importance of recognizing that holiness with some form of symbol - whether it be an action or a physical thing. I wanted to see how this place had been honored and memorialized. It was the right time for me to see the temples.
'Muktinath' really only refers to the compound which houses the temples and gompas. At the entrance, you encounter a huge 8-foot tall prayer wheel. Not quite sure of its significance, I chose to enter without spinning it. Once inside you are presented with wild gardens and groves of trees that are laced in a rainbow spiderweb of Buddhist prayer flags. After following a stream uphill, you come to the 108 holy fountains of Muktinath and the holy pools which they feed in front of the small temple that houses the eternal flame of Muktinath. Because we arrived so late, the temple was closed, so we couldn't see inside to the flames that flowed from the ground, one of the rare places where natural gas seeps from the Earth, and, having been ignited before human memory, has been burning for eons. This combination of earth, fire and water has resonated spiritually with pilgrims since before the 7th century.
As we wandered silently through the compound, I saw one of the sadhus from earlier on the trail strip down to his loincloth (he simply removed his shawl from his shoulders) and muttering a strange mantra I could not understand, walk under the cow-head shaped spouts that collected run-off water from the holy mountains and filled the temple pools. Intrigued, I approached one of the Buddhist nuns who was watching the courtyard scene from the balcony of the adjacent nunnery and asked her what he was doing. The best I could gather from her heavily Tibetan accented Nepali was that these 108 spouts were holy to both Hindus and Buddhists and to bathe under their holy waters was the culminating event of a pilgrimage to Muktinath. The showers channeled the snowmelt that came off Khatung Kang only a few thousand feet above the temple. This water had been snow on the sides of this 20,000 foot peak literally just minutes before it reached the temple. It was now dusk on a cool October day - I was amazed at the sadhu's imperviousness to the cold.
I don't know why, but before I realized what I was saying, I asked the nun who could walk beneath these holy ice-showers.
'What if I'm not Hindu?'
'That is OK.'
'What if I am not Buddhist?'
'That, too, is OK.'
'So I also could do this thing?'
'Yes, anyone can. Just don't use soap in the holy showers.'
So in the cold of the fading October twilight, I stripped down to my boxer shorts. The cowhead spouts lined the wall at regular intervals over the span of about 200 feet. I stepped under the first one. My body was so shocked, so unprepared for such an event, that initially it couldn't discern what sensation it was experiencing. Is this freezing cold or is it scalding hot? By the third spout, there was no doubt - freezing, arctic, iceberg cold. I was determined to maintain some degree of dignity and walked slowly through these little waterfalls of ice despite my body and instincts screaming the need to run or simply exit the whole ordeal immediately. OK, three down, only 105 to go. With each subsequent immersion, my body began to tremble more violently. Beyond all ability to control, my lungs convulsed each time the painful water hit my head and washed over my body. How many was that? 56 or 57? How long do I have to go? The process of conscious thought disappeared somewhere around spout number 63, replaced by the purely visceral/primal task of simply placing one foot infront of the other.
Maybe this was the lesson to be learned here: No thought but the present, total emersion the icy waters of the now. Or maybe I am just manufacturing this, trying to give meaning to a senseless act, but is this any different from the rest of life? Trying to make some kind of understandable meaning from the chaos? If nothing else, the ordeal initiated thoughts like these, shook me out of the day-to-day routine and helped me gain a few introspective moments.
I stepped from the last fountain and following proscription went to the pools that gathered the waters from the showers. I then stepped into the water and gently slid under. I remained in the frozen silence as long as I could before finally leaving the water. I toweled off with my jeans and shirt, which I then put on.
Shivering in the gathering darkness, I climbed further up above the pools and temples, walking alone through the wooded trails until I found Ryan at the ruins of an abandoned monastery. We sat on the piled stone wall looking out across the miles of the valley below at the disappearing glow of the western sky. Behind us, the first stars faded into existence above the snows and the mountains and us.
What does all of this mean? I couldn't say. But that it meant something, I was sure. Ryan and I talked of Buddhist sand mandalas - the paintings made with brilliantly colored sands, designs and shapes, each color and pattern focusing the monk on a particular prayer, or mantra, as they created it. Sublimely beautiful, these sandworks can take weeks or months to create, the monks laying the colors down grain by grain, the whole process an act of worship. And then when the work is completed, the sand is taken to the river and poured away, nothing to remain but a memory of beauty. Maybe that is what our lives are, temporal gatherings of dust and sand that time will wash away. If this is the case, then I hope to learn something from these monks and make my own pattern as beautiful as possible, the whole process an act of worship in a sense.
When the night had fallen and I had begun to shake uncontrollably from the cold, we climbed down from the heights and returned to the company and warmth of our friends at the hotel.
The Trek Down
We headed back to Chhairo the next day for a day of rest before the five day trip down to Pokhara. On the way, we asked every trekker and guide we met who was coming up how the situation was down the trail. Rumors of Maoists had been coming up the trail for weeks and we wanted to know how much was unsubstantiated myth. So we asked for as much first hand experience as we could get. Tales ranged from nothing happening to Maoists breaking into hotels with guns at dinner demanding 'donations.'
It was pretty much universally agreed upon that at some point along the trail a donation would be requested. And by all reliable accounts, if you paid your donation, you wouldn't have any problems. Some trekkers bragged of having bargained the Maoists down to 500 rupees from the 1000 they were asking. Others had 'outsmarted' them by saying they would pay on the way back down and then they flew from Jomsom instead. Some traded the receipts that the Maoists gave, getting someone's who had already paid and was now leaving. All in all, when it came down to the real details and not just stories, there didn't seem to be any real danger.
So we started out down the trail, confident and loaded with apples. It was harvest time and my villagers had been so enthralled to have four Nepali speaking foreigners in town that they showered us with the famous apples of Mustang. We had no less than five kilos of apples each in our packs. I could hardly move my legs for all the apples stuffed into my pants pockets. We had so many that for the first three miles Ryan and Venu ran two-man footbal plays as we walked, one person dropping back to pass as the other sprinted ahead to receive the tightly spiralled apple thrown his way. When an apple became bruised to the point of soggy pulp or when one exploded on the rocks from a mis-thrown pass, we simply dug into our pockets from the infinite supply that we carried.
The road and company were good, so we pushed hard for the first two days, planning to rest when we got to Ghorepani where the views of the impending Himals were renowned. We walked for 8 hours that first day, just beating the quickly falling night into the village of Ghasa. We spent the evening chatting with the hotel owners in Nepali (Venu reveled in this chance to use the language he had spent three months learning. He now lives in a village where most people speak only Hindi or Mitili); trying to perfect our Scarface impersonations ("Say 'hello' to my little friend!) was quite amusing, especially when it was translated, or mis-translated, into Nepali with a DeNiro accent; and pretty much just annoying the other trekkers.
To the disappointment of some, we passed through Tatopani (lit. Hotwater) and its hot springs and began the arduous climb towards Ghorepani (lit. Horsewater). We were now down out of the Mustang desert and its altitude, so that even in October, the ascent proved sweat-inducing. Having been used to hiking lots, the trek wasn't so hard for me (living at 9,000 feet does wonders for your cardio-vascular endurance), so I decided to go ahead and search out a good teahouse for usto spend the night at. When the others caught up with me,they brought tales from the Nepalis they had passed of a strange foreigner who had been seen just before them running up and down the mountainsides. I just wanted to see how fast I could make it.
The next day we got into Ghorepani early in the afternoon, so we had plenty of time to rest. Now Ghorepani is one of the major stopping points on the circuit. Not for the multitude of hotels that boast of their views (Hotel Best View, Hotel Excellent View, Hotel Super View were just 3 of many "____"- View lodges) but for Poon Hill which rises 1600 feet above the village and which does indeed give a super view of teh Annapurna, Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri mountains which surround it. We decided that we would climb it that evening to watch the sunset. It was beautiful that evening and we enjoyed the sights in relative peace, unlike the following morning.
Combat Sight Seeing
So a Poon Hill sunrise is what everbody comes to Ghorepani for. And who were we to buck the tide of popular practice? So we set our alarms and rose at 4:00 the next morning - early to give us time to climb from our hotel to the hilltop in time to catch the first rays of sun rising behind Nilgiri South.
When we set out, the constellations swarmed above us so bright that I was convinced we could climb the hill by starlight alone if we only turned off our flashlights long enough for our eyes to adjust. But this view wasn't shared by my companions, so in a friendly bit of stubborness I went on ahead to test my theory. I made it to the top without a problem, but it was clear that most followed my friends' theory of ascent. I reached the clearing at the crown of the hill and looked back down to see the entire length of the trail lit up, demarcated by hundreds of pinpoint lights, the hundreds of early morning trekkers following their flashlights up Poon Hill, creating an ant-line of fireflies marching to the top of their Himalayan anthill.
Poon Hill is one of the most spectacular vantage points on the circuit (and probably by extension on Earth) and it is understandable why so many people flock there each year. But it was hard to keep this understanding of others when you are bumping elbows with them, vying for a prime photo spot. It brought back images of combat-fishing on the Kenai River in Alaska. Those of you who have been there will know what I mean. The rest of you will have to just ask my dad. The trick I found to check my annoyance was keeping the thought foremost in my mind that these people were here for the same reasons we were and were no different than us.
The entire crown of Poon Hill is fenced in with a thirty foot observation tower in the center. There is even a little snack shop up there. After we had exhausted our rolls of film and our patience with the crowd, we headed back down only to find a backed-up line at the gate of the enclosing fence. This was definitely not what I had expected when I had envisioned hiking in the Himalayas. But the reason for the traffic jam was even more unexpected than the crowd. At the gate there were two Maoists collecting 'trekking fees.' They refused to let people leave the hill unless they paid their trekking fee to the 'People's Government' in the same manner that trekkers had to pay a fee to the Royal Nepal Government to hike in the Annapurnas. So we quickly huddled up and decided our gameplan. Only Ryan and Clarissa actually had their money with them - Clarissa had 500 rupees, but Ryan had the entirety of his cash, a few thousand rupees. The Maoists were asking for 1000 a head to let people pass. For the typical trekker, this is simply annoying but hardly exorbanent. But for us a thousand rupees was 1/8th of our monthly income and not really something we could afford. So we went around to the side of the hill where the Maoists could not see and hid all of Ryan's money in his shoes. We went to the gate and approached the Maoists. The two of them were probably 13 and 15 years old, wearing ragged second-hand camoflauge jackets, jeans, worn-out Goldstars (the official sneaker of the Maoists) and Bob Marley bandanas. Provided they couldn't outrun me, I was more than certain that I could have easily taken these skinny juveniles if I had wanted to. But it was more than altruism that stayed my fist and foot. There was an unspoken and implicit community support to the Maoists' actions. The fact that none of the hotel owners rose up to drive these teens away (they were inevitably bad for business) spoke to a strong arm backing these almost-children and keeping the rest of the community in fear. I had no desire to rouse the attention or anger of that strong arm, so when our turn came at the gate, I politely explained in English (we had agreed to only speak English on the trail so that there would be nothing to draw attention to us or to distinguish us from the hundreds of other trekkers. We wanted to be as annonymous as possible when it came to dealings with the Maobody) that we had all left our money at the hotel and all we could scrape together between us was 500 rupees. Would they please accept this donation to their cause. With a second's hesitation and a look of annoyance, the 15 year old wrote out a nicely printed receipt from The Nepal Communist Party (Maoist) - Special Regional Bureau for 4000 rupees, the amount we should have paid. If we were to run into any other collection 'officers' we were to simply show them this receipt and we wouldn't have to pay a second time. We thanked him gratefully and quickly exited Poon Hill and Ghorepani.
But this was not the end of our contact with the Maobody on our hike down. We moved out of Ghorepani and descended into the warmth of the middle hills. The path became a virtual tunnel through the lush green jungles. When the trail crested a hilltop or passed through an exposed section of hillside, we gazed out from the green canopies at the ice-headed peaks of the Annapurnas and Machhapurcha, the Fish-tail mountain. It was a beautiful, but hot and muggy hike. After about five hours we approached Ulleri and knew that we needed to stop for food and water. Venu and I were about forty-five minutes in front of Clarissa and Ryan and had agreed to meet them in Ulleri. So we were set on stopping in this town, but as we neared the village we noticed a disturbing sign. All of the homes and teahouses and pasols were increasingly occupied by Nepalis carrying guns. At first it was an inconspicuous group of farmers listening to the radio and playing caromboard and who happened to have an old hunting rifle or two leaning against the wall in the corner. This was odd considering that the government had banned all private ownership of firearms since the insurrgency began in 1996, but maybe these farmers just never got around to giving up their old family hunting guns. But then the armed nature of the community became blatantly obvious. By the time we entered Ulleri itself, every house had armed guards posted on their porches, some wearing military fatigues, others simply their regular village dress. I was convinced that they were not the Royal Nepalese Army because I was fairly certain that the government hadn't changed their policy and started recruiting 12 year-old girls into the army and issuing them fifty year-old shotguns. We were in the heart of a Maoist town.
So, having promised our friend that we would meet them in town and needing food and water, we looked for the first hospitable place that didn't have gun-toting sentries. We found what appeared to be the last building in town that might be welcoming, a blue and white two-story hotel. As we walked into the dining room, the group of 12 Nepalis who were talking at the far table stopped their conversation and stared at us. On of them left and hurried up the stairs to the second floor. Everyone one of the remaining people carried a gun which they anxiously figeted with. We had stumbled onto a Maoist planning commitee meeting.
Venu and I exchanged telling looks. Already needing to wait for our friends and fearing that turning and leaving would arouse more suspicion than staying, we sat down. Common trekkers had nothing to fear from the Maoists, or so they said. But if we 'ran' then it would seem to them that we were obviously guilty of not supporting the Maobody. Venu pulled out a chair and offered me a seat where I could see them all and where we would be able to leave quickly for the door if we needed to. I set my walking stick within easy reach and began mentally noting every detail I could about the situation: 11 men downstairs, at least one upstairs; all of the guns were kinds I knew how to use - 8 bold action rifles and three shotguns, one a pump and two break-actions; three exits, the one we came in, the one just past the Maoists and the door to the kitchen; the kitchen itself a typical hotel one occupied by two middle aged women cooking and glancing our way (did they support the Maoists or were they just subserviently keeping their heads down and serving them meals to keep trouble from falling on their hotel?); across the street a crow's nest with an armed Nepali resting on the balcony next to it; an immediate right from the front door, the trail began with the famous descent of 3217 steps that Ulleri was known for. I took all of this in, made some quick assessments and cam to the ready conclusion that we wanted no trouble here and that any trouble that might happen would be nearly impossible to get out of.
The didi came to us and asked us for our order. "Four plates of daal bhaat," Venu said, "oh, and could you please bring us some boiled water." The didi nodded in perfect understanding and turned back to the kitchen. The reason for her perfect understanding was because Venu had spoken in clean, but American accented Nepali. The Maoists immediately took notice. One of the most senior looking ones called across the room for Venu to come over. His tone brokered no argument. Venu reluctantly walked over. "Where are you from?" How should Venu answer? Should he tell them that he was an American, from the country that was providing arms and training for their enemies, the country whom the Maoists disliked above all others? Or should he say a different country and risk being caught in a lie? "I'm American."
Now at this point, after much later discussion and rehashing, Venu and I heard two different things. To my ears from across the room, I heard the Maoist say "You need to go." But Venu heard instead "You need to go upstairs." Remember that upstairs is where one of the Maoists had disappeared when we entered. After staring blankly at the man for a second, Venu said in English "I do not understand what you are saying." And with that he turned and stifly walked back to our table. I inched closer to my walking stick and began estimating which Maoist I would need to take out first.
The Maoist leader looked consternated for a minute and then, with some small discussion decided that a couple of trekkers were not worth pressing the issue and then led his group outside to where they sat at a picnic table menacing at us through the window. Four of them remained inside toying with their guns (and occasionally showing their inexperience by embarrassingly dropping them on the floor from time to time).
It was then that Clarissa and Ryan bounced into the room, oblivious to what had just transpired. As we sat to eat, Venu and I hurriedly wolfed down our meals. Clarissa said to Venu "take your time. There is no need to rush." "Yes, there is," and we finished our rice without asking for seconds. As we were finishing, one of the Maoists, a boy of less than 16 years wearing a yellow t-shirt, dropped the gun he had been fingering onto the floor with a loud clatter. He sheepishly bent to pick it up under the glare of his comrades. Clarissa said "Oh my God, he has a gun! They all have guns!" Ryan, Venu and I stared at her in disbelief.
At last we paid the didi and as calmly as unhurriedly as possible, hurried out the door and practically ran the next hour down the seemingly infinite steps of Ulleri. We ushed hard for the rest of the day, not wanting to stop anywhere in the area, until we reached the buses at Naya Pul and finally safe passage to Pokhara.
posted by Nathan 8:46 PM