Elephants, God, and Ronald Reagan

It’s true that my blog has been silent for quite some time now.  It’s also true that I’m back to the corporate grind, spending my days in meetings instead of meandering, my afternoons bursting with deadlines instead of siestas.  The exotic destinations are now replaced with day trips to Cincinnati and I’ve traded in my backpack for a wheeled computer bag.  Even though I’ve been gainfully employed for all of twelve weeks, I had the foresight, some might say the audacity, to negotiate an overseas vacation before I’m even eligible for my  401(K).

I thought it was ironic yet somehow appropriate that I end my year at the place it began:  Surin, Thailand.  Surin is a scorching little corner of Thailand, and home to the Surin Project, an endeavor to improve the lives of endagered Asian elephants.  So much has stayed the same since last year.  The days are still filled by cleaning up after the elephants, feeding them under the careful watch of the mahouts, joining them on daily walks and general project work.   And then, so much has changed.  The two babies from last year have been sold and moved to another area, one new one has taken their place (referred to only as “Baby Girl”), older female elephants roam the enclosure in the mornings.  The departure of the babies is especially heartbreaking as they will be trained in the traditional manner (use of hooks and double chains to restrict mobility).  There has been little interest in training the youngsters through non-violent positive reinforcement, which has been unsuccessful thus far in finding its first recruit in Surin.

While on the project the staff shared with us an eye-opening article written by National Geographic writer Bryan Christy.  The article is entitled “Blood Ivory” and is worth a read in its entirety…I’ll borrow directly from it to give you some of the highlights, but here is the link if you care to read all of it:



Ivory harvesting has long been a horrific practice and is an increasing threat as elephant populations the world over dwindle into endangerment.  Like cocaine and diamonds, the brutal practices to satiate the world’s demand ensures the harvesting of ivory will continue.  The biggest culprit?  Religion.

Monsignor Cristobal Garcia, a priest dismissed in the United States for accusations of sexual abuse, promptly was promoted to Monsignor in the Philippines where he is one of the church’s most infamous collectors of ivory.  According to some Christian beliefs, the more precious the material used in crosses, rosaries, and statues, the more pleased God will be, and ivory trumps gold.  Garcia can get you intricate ivory pieces and provide advice on how to smuggle it back to your home country.

There are only a few ways to get at those coveted ivory tusks.  One, the elephant dies of natural causes.  Two, only the tips are cut off, thus not harming the animal but yielding only small pieces.  And three, the blatant murder and mauling of the elephant.  Human lives are also lost in the process.  Those protecting the animals are often casualties as are the poachers.  It is legal in Thailand to sell ivory domestically and perfectly acceptable to remove the tusks once an elephant has died of natural causes.  While Thailand prohibits the killing of elephants for their tusks, black market tusks from Africa mingle with Thailand’s legal supply thus making it virtually impossible to distinguish if that ivory trinket is actually made from Blood Ivory or not.

Go to the Vatican and you will find plenty of ivory shops, all legal within the Vatican’s borders.  Buy one and it will be personally blessed by a Vatican priest and shipped to you.  Ronald and Nancy Reagan purchased from the state department an ivory Madonna which was originally presented as a gift to them from Pope John Paul II.

But the Christians are not the only culprits.  Look closely at the rearview mirror in a Thai taxicab and you might see an ivory amulet hanging from the rearview mirror.  Here ivory is believed to remove bad spirits.  China has huge ivory factories and skilled carvers.  The Buddhists believe that to be respectful of the Buddha, one should always use precious materials to consecrate his image.  Somehow I don’t think Buddha, or Jesus for that matter, had the slaughter of animals in mind when they recruited their followers.  Until the demand is quelled, the resourceful and desperate will, sadly,  find a way to fill the supply.


Annapurna Circuit Days 13 – 17: The Final Steps

Day 13 ( Kagbeni to Marpha via Jomsom)

We spent the morning wandering around Kagbeni, a very traditional Nepali town with livestock and children roaming everywhere.  Kagbeni can boast having Nepal’s only Yac Donald’s restaurant.  We spotted a few yak/cow crosses, so I’m not sure if you’d call that a yaw or a cak, but they are unusual looking animals.  After exploring, we hit the dusty trail.

About 10 am the winds really start to pick up and we are faced with a headwind in the vicinity of 30 mph.  Dust is flying everywhere and good sunglasses are a must to try to keep dirt out of your eyes.  I secure my hat with my wool muffler and try to cover my face, but it’s just too hot and instead I endure a gritty mouthful of dust and dirt.

We stop in Jomsom for lunch, where no one working at the restaurant seems to be in any kind of hurry.  As we set out again, the clouds roll in and we have to face the raindrops in addition to the wind and dust.  After following the road for a few hours, we finish on a rocky dirt trail, mostly downhill, and the rain really picks up.  Upon arriving in Marpha, the entire group is fairly fatigued, and everyone turns in early.  Tomorrow is an early start, with no latte machine in sight.

Day 14 (Marpha to Ghasa)

It rained all of last night, but true to form, the day greets us with bright, welcoming sunshine.  However, what starts out as a beautiful day turns grim:  we see the rescue helicopter on the launch pad ready to take off.  A helicopter like this in Nepal is either going to the hospital, or to the morgue.  We hear the news of a nearby plane crash with a small passenger plane bound for Jomson.  The wicked winds which we experienced over the past few days, ever-present in this part of Nepal, have caused the plane to go down.  Of the twenty one people on board, fifteen have perished.  Once again we are reminded that we are in a part of the world where life can be taken in a flash, and Mother Nature writes her own rules.

With this sobering news hanging over us, we trek another two hours to our tea break, and then another three hours to lunch.  I’m completely starving by the time we reach Kalopani.  Back on the onward trail, it’s mostly easy downhill through a lot of rocky riverbeds.  We are starting to see more and more traffic along the road, not something that we find pleasant.  The group seems to keep separating today.  We lost one person before lunch (and found her, of course), and then Anne and I overshoot the turnoff at Ghasa, but luckily figured it out before we got too far off track.

The mood is as soggy as the weather, and the hail spits out a final unkind ending to the day.  At least the shower is remarkably hot and I get to wash my filthy hair and watch all the unpleasant memories of the day go down the drain.

Day 15 (Ghasa to Tatopani)

The trail today was sold to us as “mostly downhill,” but there seemed to be an abnormal amount of uphills for a downhill day.  We are leaving the wind-plagued Mustang district and entering the Myagdi district.  Gone are the snow-capped mountains as the terrain gets decidedly more lush and green.  Plant life dots the landscape as foliage becomes more abundant, lining the trail on both sides.  There is a strange, sweet scent in the air, and I take a closer look at some of the plant life surrounding us.  The seven-leafed plants look like…”Are those marijuana plants?” I ask no one in particular.  Sure enough, we are surrounded by pot plants that go on for miles.  To my knowledge, no one filled up a backpack with weed…

We stop for tea at one of the sorriest little tea houses in Nepal.  The new road that was constructed has rerouted many hikers, workers, and locals, and the part of the route that we decided to take today does not see the traffic it once did.  Lunch is late today, and again takes forever.  I begin to wonder what a day without eating dal bat will be like.  The road to Tatopani is not too much longer but the heat makes it harder for everyone.  The rains greet us just as we get to our final destination for the night.

Tatopani is famous for its hot springs, and a few of us indulge.  It’s an odd feeling parading around in a swimsuit in such an ultraconservative country, but the steamy water on my tired limbs feels amazing.

We’ve also heard today that there is a looming transportation strike in Nepal and that we are going to have to combine the last three days into two.  It’s uncertain and unlikely that the cabs and busses will be running in the next few days, leaving us wondering if we can get back to Pokhara, and if we do, will we be walking with all of our luggage to the airport.  The Nepalis shrug it off.  After all, they say, it is just a three day walk from the end of the trail back to Pokhara.  Let’s hope not.

Day 16 (Tatopani to Ghorepani)

This morning started with our first Nepali traffic jam – a truck wedged in between the rocky mountain and the embankment on the side of the road.  Cars, bikes, busses and people backed up on both sides of the road, curiously studying the dilemma without offering any solutions.  We took a sharp left and headed out on the dirt trail, leaving the hordes of stranded passengers to figure it out.

It’s already hot when we start out on what will be the most demanding uphill day outside of crossing the pass.  We will be gaining over a mile of elevation, all on rocky, steep steps.  It feels like it’s never going to end, we just keep going up, and up, and up.  All total, we will have about 9 miles of really challenging hiking today.  It seems like it’s a bit of a cruel irony, we are so close to the end, and yet so far.  We’ve also received confirmation that we will need to combine the last two days into one.  The transportation strike is on and our return shuttle, including getting to our ongoing flights, remains  a mystery.

As elated as we were on summit day, we’re all a little defeated now.  Banged up and bruised, everyone can smell the end, but it is just far enough out of reach to taunt us.  The rain starts in again and it’s a steady stream.  After hours and hours, we get to the outskirts of Ghorepani, but I stop to make some adjustments and lose the group ahead of me.  The road forks, and not wanting to be stranded alone or lost in this uphill purgatory, I wait for Seru to catch up with me.  I ask her, outwardly wearing my exhaustion, if we are near the end.  I sense she wants to say something uplifting to raise my spirits, but after struggling with how to answer, she just says, “No, it’s still far.”

We carry on in the rain, and I follow her like an obedient little pup.  Every twist and turn brings a new gravel staircase, every time I give her that “Is it over?” look, she avoids eye contact and finds a new uphill path.  Finally, finally, finally we are at the end of the road and the tea house we get to call home for the night.

Day 17 (Ghorepani to Pokhara)

After surviving the most emotionally and physically draining day of the route, a small group of us rise before the sun to hike to Poon Hill for the sunrise.  The temptation to stay in my warm bed and avoid another hour plus of uphill is crushing, but I shake off the exhaustion and head out with only a few others.  The morning is cold and crisp as we wind our way to the top in the dark.  The sun slowly peeks out from behind the mountain, painting the sky in streaks of pink and white.  The fog is thick today, so the views aren’t as spectacular as they might be on a clear day, but the clouds give the morning a softer look.

We head down to breakfast and meet up with the rest of the group as we start our decent that will last all day long.  I’m grateful that the uphills are over, but the continual downhill trek proves equally challenging.  We make it back to Nayapul right before the rain and get the news that our shuttle is on the way.  A few hikers we’ve met over the course of the circuit are also back in Nayapul and are desperate for rides back to Pokhara since the taxis are not making it through.  A few ask if they can ride on the roof of our vehicle.  We manage to fit a few people in, but our guides have to turn the rest of them away.

Back in Pokhara we are elated to have our own rooms, hot showers, and a huge accomplishment behind us.  We celebrate that evening with more Nepali food, beers and camaraderie.  In the morning we will all go our separate ways, back to our lives, our homes, our friends and families, but I’m already trying to figure out a way to get to Everest Base Camp.  That’s just me…

Annapurna Circuit – Days 7 to 12

     Day 7 (Pisang to Manang)  Today is the hardest day so far, but the scenery is the most spectacular.  The morning brings clear blue skies and stunning snow-covered peaks amid the pine forests.  There are two routes from Pisang to Manang, the upper or lower routes.  We take the upper, more difficult route with the guides, while the assistants get a little bit of a break and will take the lower, easier route with our heavy packs.

                We hike longer in the morning than usual, not having our tea break until 10 am in Gyaru.  We can see lower Pisang, where we just left, and it seems so far away.  The people along the route are becoming scarce, the provisions more expensive, and the donkey trains more infrequent.  We stop for lunch in Ngwal, and the landscape is also changing.  The fragrant pine forests that we trekked through this morning are being replaced with terrain that is desert-like and barren, and looks more like a moonscape.  At lunch the ultraviolet light device that I was using to sterilize my water stops working (and of course I did not bring spare batteries), so I have to switch to chlorine drops, which makes me a bit nervous to change it up.

                We hike for several more hours before we finally reach Manang, where we will stay for two nights to acclimate.  Manang is a fairly big stop for hikers along the route.  We will be able to find almost anything we will need here for the upcoming hike over the pass.  Anne and I are also thrilled to have our own en suite bathroom (and shower) for the first time.   Barely lukewarm water, but it’s our very own!  We give our guide and assistant two thumbs up for securing the great digs.

                Day 8 (Manang Acclimation)  Oh, it felt great to sleep in today!  We didn’t have to pack up because we’ll be staying another night so we were able to get a later start.  Today is a short, but steep hike up to Bhraka Gompa, a monastery at the top of the hill.  Here a 96 year old lama will perform puja, or a Buddhist blessing ceremony, ensuring safe passage over Thorung La Pass for anyone who wants it, and is willing to cough up 100 rupees (about a dollar). 

                It is a quick hike back down to Manang and we enjoy a big lunch.  The afternoon includes an optional hike to Gangapurna Glacier, but I am the only one who wants to go, so Aman takes me on my own private tour of the lake just outside of Manang.  Showers and laundry are on the agenda in the late afternoon, and since this might be the last time for either until we are over the pass, I indulge in both.  Just as I get my laundry hung outside to dry, the clouds roll in, the sky goes gray, and the rain pours, and pours.  The weather changes here, just like that.  It’s back to chilly and damp in a matter of minutes.

                Day 9 (Manang to Yak Kharka)  It rained all night but we were lucky to have a clear start to the morning.  We continue to gain elevation and will finish the day at over 13,000 feet.  The trail is becoming increasing isolated as well.  There are fewer people, fewer tea houses and shops.  We only have two days until we cross the pass and everyone is starting to get very anxious.  Aman tells us that Buddhists believe there is no tomorrow, only today, so we shouldn’t think about it. 

                As we continue to climb we see herds of blue sheep as well as our first yaks.  We stop for lunch at the tea house where we will spend the night, and get to relax for a couple of hours after lunch.  A few people sneak in naps, even though we weren’t supposed to.  I read.  One woman meditates.  Everyone is fairly content just hanging out, but then we need to do a 1000-ish foot acclimation hike up a steep mountain (with no real defined trail) and back down again.  Once again, the temperatures change and the chilly air rolls in mid-afternoon.  When we get back and settle in again, we huddle in the dining room around a stove fueled by yak dung.

                Day 10 (Yak Kharka to High Camp)  I’ve had no trouble sleeping at high altitudes until tonight.  It had nothing to do with the altitude, but was thanks to a certain visitor, or possibly visitors, that dropped by our room.  I was awakened out of a deep sleep at some dark hour to the rustling of plastic bags.  Wondering what Anne was possibly doing now, I slowly and reluctantly withdrew my head from the cozy confines of my sleeping bag and quickly realized that something was trying to get into my bags of stuff right by my head.  I grabbed my headlamp and shook my belongings around a bit hoping to scare it off.  Of course the commotion woke up my roommate, who was equally thrilled, though not as terrified, to learn we had some type of vermin roaming our room.

                We attempted to go back to sleep, but the crunching sounds continued, so we both got up and sealed all of our food, toothpaste, soap, etc. in dry bags and repacked our backpacks.  This, however, was a very determined rodent and I could hear it now on the floor next to me trying to work its way into something or another.  I tried to keep shaking my pack hoping it would go away.  Simultaneously, I could hear three separate and distinct screams coming from another room.  Seems our visitors had friends and they were making the rounds.  I finally fell asleep, but woke to a big chunk chewed out of the waistband of my porter’s backpack.  Yikes.

                Other than discussing our visitors over breakfast, everyone is quieter today, and the anxiety of getting over the pass is building.  We set out hiking, gaining even more elevation today.  The terrain is still desert-like, dotted with juniper bushes, but not much other vegetation.  After tea we cross over a narrow ridge, high above the river.  Landslides are common here, so we have to go single file and be very careful.  Provisions are much more expensive here, too.  A Coke costs about 60 rupees at the base, but sells for 220 here. 

                We stop for lunch at Thorung Pedi, where we originally had planned to spend the night, but we are going to head up to high camp for the night.  It’s later than we intended when we head up and the trail is steep and slow.  We make it up to high camp, a charmless and dingy tea house, and take another acclimatization hike.  The angst thinking about tomorrow is heavy.  Everyone turns in early and tries not to worry about what we all know will be the true test when we wake up and hit the trail at 5 am.

                Day 11 (High Camp over Thorung La Pass to Mukinath)  Wake up call came at 3:50 am, and thankfully I was able to get some sleep last night.  It’s cold outside and I’m wearing every layer I have available.  The sun is just peaking over the mountains when we set out and it is a magnificent pink sky against the snow covered mountains.  I’m too agitated about the pass to dig my camera out and capture it.  The first stretch crosses an icy ridge with a steep drop off.  One slip and I would meet my maker. 

                It is a steep uphill and everyone seems determined to take it slowly.  The air keeps getting thinner, picking my feet up gets harder, my breath gets shorter.  We’re trekking through some snow as we are now up above the snow line.  Somewhere along the line Ingra, one of our Nepali assistants, catches up with me and her conversation and presence helps to keep me motivated.  Step after step, hour after hour, we make slow and steady progress.  After what seems like an endless journey, we see lines and lines of colorful prayer flags adorning the top of the pass.  We made it!  Officially we are at 17,778 feet.  The atmosphere is full of celebration, everyone knows the hard part is over, and it’s all downhill from here.  Most of the group meets at the top.  A few of us hang prayer flags (did everyone feel the good karma come their way on May 11th?), and soak up the ambiance, but it’s not good to stay that high for long, so we head back down.

                It’s a long trip down, too.  We lose about a mile in elevation on our way to lunch.  We hear an avalanche somewhere off in the distance.  Finally, after about 7 hours of walking, we get to lunch, and I share a beer with Larry, my 76 year old trekking buddy, to celebrate a successful crossing of one of the world’s highest mountain passes. 

                Everyone is pretty spent by the time we get to Muktinath, a pilgrimage destination city for both Hindus and Buddhists.  We stay in a teahouse that’s more like a hotel.  They have hot water that doesn’t run out.  We can get on the internet with the help of a generator.  Larry and I decide we need another beer.  And there’s a cappuccino machine.  We’ve stumbled upon a little slice of heaven J.

                Day 12 (Mukinath to Kagbeni)  We get to sleep in a little bit today, as breakfast doesn’t start until 8:00.  Before we leave we visit the Vishnu Temple of Jwala Mayi which caters to both Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.  A few of us stop at the 108 fountains and splash water from each one over our heads “to cleanse our sins.”  When we head out, the road is dry and dusty and we are once again sharing it with jeeps and motorcycles.  The area is more populated and we see more people and livestock along the way. 

                After lunch the winds pick up and we have to figure out how to secure our hats and keep the dust out of our faces.  We continue down an easy road until we take the “shortcut” on an extremely narrow path on the side of the mountain.  Not so easy with 30 mph winds.  We get to our hotel at Kagbeni  after 2 pm and have a late lunch.  A few of us head into town before dinner to try to find a birthday cake to celebrate our assistant Chahanna’s 20th birthday.  The best we can come up with is two halves of apple pies after much painful, painful negotiation with a sweet Nepali girl who doesn’t speak English and has never run into a situation where someone wanted to buy more than a slice.      

                We celebrate Chahanna’s birthday with a western celebration by sticking a bunch of matches (we couldn’t find candles) in her makeshift cake and presenting her with a small gift (a deck of cards).  Next comes the Nepali celebration with drums, singing (in Nepali) and dancing.



The Annapurna Circuit – Days 1 – 6

                    The Annapurna Circuit is one of the world’s classic hikes, and definitely one that has been on my bucket list for quite some time.  It lasts anywhere from 15 to 20 or more days, depending on your ability, your ambition, and any unforeseen circumstances.  Located entirely in Nepal, the Annapurna Circuit passes through four separate districts (Lamjung, Manang, Mustang, and Myagdi) and climates range from sub-tropical to icy.  It is a non-technical climb, meaning you don’t need special equipment, just sturdy shoes and a determined spirit.

            Our group is sceduled to compete the circuit in 18 days, a good pace but we have a few days built in to acclimate to the high altitudes.  The participants will include me, three other Americans, two German women, one Irish woman, one Australian woman, an Iranian woman, a Canadian gentleman (76 years young!), and a Swiss couple.  We have one male and two female Nepali guides, along with nine female Nepali assistants (porters) and three male Nepali assistants.

            (Day 1:  Pokhara to Bulbhule) We start early in Pokhara, get our gear together and assemble our packs for ourselves and our assistants.  There are strict weight requiremets around what our assistants can carry, so if it doesn’t make the weight requirements and we don’t want to carry it ourselves, it isn’t coming with.  This dramatically limits the choices of things that can be brought along.  Multiple layers of clothing, a sleeping bag, and some personal items are about all that we can bring.

            It’s a long, bumpy and crowded bus ride to the trail head at Basisahar, about 5 hours away.  It’s a bit concerning when our driver pulls over at a tire shop along the way.  We make a quick lunch stop in the town of Basisahar and then hit the trail.  It’s still hot and we are at a fairly low elevation.  The hike is short, a little over two hours, and we pass through several small Nepali villages, sharing the trail with water buffalo and goats.  People give us a friendly “Namaste” along the way and kids will constantly ask for “sweets.”  Giving them anything is strongly discouraged by the locals as it creates a culture where handouts from westerners become expected, so we just hang out with some of the kids for a little while at one of our rest breaks.

            Our first tea house is rustic, at best.  Rooms are spartan, just a couple of beds with skinny matresses, and all the bathrooms are shared here (and not clean).  Meals are very basic here, and most of us give up meat for the duration of the circuit, due in part to availability and in part to the quality/safety of the meat you can get (and some in the group, unlike me, are dedicated vegetarians.  I won’t start craving bacon for several days).  The Swiss gentlemen, however, orders the chicken curry and wakes up sick the next day.  Coincidence?  Not sure, but they stay behind and we are down to 10 hikers, 2 guides, and 10 assistants.

            (Day 2:  Bulbhule to Ghermu) After the daily ritual of sterilizing all of our water needs for the morning, we set out.  It’s a little more uphill today as we gain some elevation, about one thousand feet.  We catch glimpses of snow-covered Annapurna 29 off in the distance, and walk through several miles of terraced rice fields.  We stop for lunch in Ngadi and continue on for another three hours or so.  Along the way I buy a bamboo walking stick from an old woman along the trail who has a basket full of them on her back.  She speaks no English, so I’m having a hard time negotiating the price.  I pull out a 100 rupee note (about a dollar), and she quickly snatches it up and hands me two sticks.  I try to tell her I only want one, but one of the assistants comes by and quickly grabs the other one.  Apparently I’ve overpaid.. The guesthouse in Ghermu where we are settled for the night has a decent shower so it’s a race to secure your spot.  There is also a place to rinse out dirty clothes, so many of us take advantage of that.

            (Day 3:  Ghermu to Tal) We leave the beautiful waterfall right outside of our door and start out on what will be our longest day so far (about 6 hours of trekking).  We continue to pass through many small villages alive with local life.  Tea houses dot the trek everywhere and we usually will stop in one mid-morning for a rest and a snack.  School children in fresh uniforms walk to their classes.  Some of the children have to walk more than an hour one way to get to their school. 

            The other constant along the way are the donkey trains.  While there is a road in parts of the circuit (most of it being newly constructed and all of it a source of controversy), most of the goods are transported on donkeys, and you’d better get out of their way.  They carry everything from building materials to live chickens.   We are constantly ducking out of the way, and constantly watching where we step.  

            After lunch the route gets decidely steeper, and it is still hot and steamy.  After a few miles we hear thunder threatening and the temperatures drop.  We make our way to Tal, a town that used to be a lake (Tal means lake in Nepali), and are rewarded with beautiful snow-capped mountain views and a waterfall outside of our window.  The race for the elusive hot shower is on.

            (Day 4:  Tal to Danagyu)  A lot of rain and it was chilly overnight, but we wake to a beautiful clear morning.  Today will be a significant increase in altitude, almost 2,000 feet.  We continue to follow the Marsyandi River, a beautiful glacial blue river with constantly rushing rapids.  We cross the trail directly under a waterfall and get a brief cool splash, which is still much needed in the hot daytime temperatures.

            We also encounter a couple of construction workers, heading down the trail to work on the road.  Parts of the mountain are being blasted out, and the trail becomes tough to navigate in spots as the construction has caused some dangerously narrow spots with loose rocks.  The donkey trains still continue to dominate the trail.  I nearly get trampled by an enthusiastic donkey and smack my knee on a rock trying to get out of the way.  We make our way to Danagyu and settle in for the night.

            (Day 5:  Danagyu to Chame) The trail gets a bit steeper today, and we are going to climb to about 8.500 feet by the end of the day.  We run into a group of small Nepali children this morning who want to play with our hiking poles.  I hand mine to a little girl who thinks it’s something she can climb, but since it’s no longer attached to me or anything else, she crashes to the ground.  I pick her up and dust her off and she’s good as new and onto the next new toy.  The terrain along the trail has changed to pine forests and we are able to see the last of the rhododendrums in bloom.  We learn today that a flood has wiped out an entire village not far from Pokhara, and not too far from where we are.  Locals, tourists, and livestock are casualties.  Homes and businesses are gone, all reminders that Mother Nature is a dangerous foe.

            During lunch the wind picks up and it becomes noticeably colder.  We get to Chame fairly early and have time to find an internet cafe and some shops.  We also have a beautiful sunset view of Manaslu, right outside of our front door.  I’m able to get to the shower early enough to get some hot water, but the open window and freezing wind make it cold and drafty.  I stay snuggled in my sleeping bag until dinner.  Brrrr….

            (Day 6:  Chame to Pisang) The scenery continues to get more and more beautiful, continuing through pine and juniper forests with massive snow capped mountains against clear blue skies in every direction.  We reach a point along the route where we have to cross an invisible pass, but before we cross the pass we have to dance to make the gods happy (only if it is your first time on the Circuit).  So all ten of us, in addition to two of our Nepali assistants making their innaugural trek, danced for the gods.  I’m not sure if the gods were pleased, but I’m pretty sure they were laughing. 

            When we reached Pisang, Aman (our lead guide) tells us that we will need to drop off our packs and then we are going to go for a 15 minute RUN at 10,500 feet in our hiking boots “to get our heart rates up.”  This was about as popular with the group as the dance-off in the forest. 

            After the run, we head up to Upper Pisang to the monastery at the top of the mountain.  Today is Lord Buddha’s birthday, and he is over 2500 years old.  While we are up at the monastery, the clouds clear out and we are able to catch an amazing glimpse of Annapurna 2. 

Sole Sisters – An Introduction

     Several years ago I attended a book signing/fundfaiser for Global Fund for Women, a non-profit agency for whom I volunteer, where I learned about a group of sisters in Nepal who started their own trekking company with a grant from Global Fund.  I remember thinking how amazing it would be to support them by joining one of their treks, but that kind of time off from Corporate America is hard to get.  The years went by and I kept it in the back of my mind, but not until I was cut loose with all kinds of time on my hands did I think  I could feasibly pull it off.  Needless to say, here I am, in Pokhara, Nepal, hanging out in the Chhetri Sister’s Guest House and waiting for my 18 day trek of the Annapurna Circuit to start.

     The Chhetri sisters–Lucky, Dicky, and Nicky–were running a restaurant and lodge in the early nineties.  Meeting many solo female trekkers with horror stories about their male guides, they decided to do something spectacular and unheard of in male-dominated Nepal by starting a female owned, operated, and staffed trekking service.  There is a Nepali proverb that reflects the bitter prejudice against women:  ‘Raising a girl is like watering your neighbor’s garden’.  Getting the business off the ground would be an uphill battle, literally.

     I had the pleasure of speaking briefly with Nicky last night.  She said that when they started out, people laughed at them and made fun of their mission.  Nepal is a country where clearly boys are valued over girls, evidenced by much higher mortality rates for women, and much higher literacy rates for men.  If a woman does not bear her husband a som within ten years, a man can legally take a second wife.  Thousands of girls are trafficked out of Nepal every year, while more are sold as domestic slaves. 

     But despite the obstacles, the Chhetri sisters have built a solid company that not only thrives, but reportedly has raised the bar for all trekking companies in the area.  They offer a free six month training program for female trekking guide apprentices, with most of the women hailing from impoverished rural areas.  Girls are given free accomodation and food, plus trekking gear.  They are taught English as well as the necessary trekking skills.  If a girl is not completely proficient after the first six month training, she is allowed to repeat the course as many times as necessary to build the expertise and confidence required to lead the groups.

     The Chhetri sisters took their mission one step further.  They insisted that nowhere along their routes would they support any establishment that engaged in child labor practices.  Additionally, they have rescued numerous children from a life of slave labor by relocating them to a home in Pokhara where they receive shelter, food, and education.  They actively promote conservation by encouraging water treatment versus ecologically damaging water bottles.  Safe cooking techniques, waste management practices, and organic composting are taught to tea houses along the route.

     My friend  Anne has graciously agreed to join me on the 18 day trek of the Annapurna Circuit.  It will be great to have a friendly face with me as I’m getting really sick of myself.  Anne is one of my few friends crazy enough to agree to torture ourselves up to 17,000 feet.  Plus she can perform surgery  (she sewed a guy’ s lip back together in our hotel room after an unfortunate ice axe mishap in Patagonia), get her hands on miracle drugs, and can hopefully prevent some third world doctor from shooting me up with anything on the long list of stuff I’m alergic to should I fall off the mountain.

     I told Nicky the story about when I was waiting to get my transportation sorted out in Kathmandu.  Some slick sales dude sauntered over to me and was trying to sell me trekking services.  When I told him I had a trek al arranged in Pokhara he scoffed and said, “Three Sisters?”  I nodded my head.  “You girls all stick together,” he said and walked off.  Looks like they’re not laughing now.

***I will be leaving my laptop behind as I head out on the circuit.  More updates when I get home.**  Namaste.

Nepal Nirvana – Kathmandu to Pokhara

     Going from Delhi to Kathmandu felt like swallowing one giant geographical Prozac (with the exception of an angry customs agent screaming, “NO – THE BIG FORM.  YOU HAVE TO FILL OUT THE BIG FORM).  While it doesn’t look dramatically different from India, the horn honking is less insistent, the public displays of bodily functions have subsided, and the beggars no longer shove their malnourished babies in my face while clawing at my shirtsleeves.

     I went to a used bookstore in the Thamel area of Kathmandu where the Nepalese proprietor was speaking fluent French to a group of tourists buying books and maps.  I went to check out and threw him my best, “Bonjour.”

     “Where are you from?  Los Angeles, New York, Chicago,” he shot back in perfect English.  Really?  I swear no one ever lets me try out my French.  I told him I was from Chicago.  He chatted with me a bit and told me his children were in the US attending the University of Virginia.  I said it was a good school and he must have very smart children.  “Well, if they don’t study, they don’t get visas,” he said, matter-of-factly.  It’s a refreshing attitude in a country where the literacy rate in some areas can dip as low as 41% for boys and 8% for girls.

     My bus trip from Kathmandu to Pokhara the next day was fairly uneventful, though most of it was spent in a Dramamine-induced sleep.  After the “fear-for-your-life” roads of India, this treacherous stretch seemed almost serene.  The scenery was nice, but it’s just before monsoon season here, so those spectacular snow covered peaks make an occasional appearance, but mostly they’re hard to see due to hazy days.

     Pokhara is a nice, restful little town to hang out in and acclimate for the big trek.  It sits along the scenic Phewa Lake and is surrounded by mountains.  As a base for numerous treks, it is full of coffee shops, internet cafes, restaurants that make all kinds of international dishes but none of them very well, North Face knockoffs, and far too many westerners.  It has all of the necessary conveniences, but the power outages are frequent and the wifi shrugs itself off at will.

     People here are generally friendly and somewhat shy.  The shop owners will usually greet you with just a polite “Namaste” and not harass you.  Today I was walking by a bunch of shops and an older woman in traditional Tibetan dress sitting on the sidewalk called out, “Namaste.  What are your bracelets?”  I told her they are Buddhist protection bracelets given to me by monks and a shaman (they are, in fact, raggedy bits of string that cannot be cut off or it is bad luck).  She told me she was Buddhist, from Tibet and then proceeded to tell me her sad story of how she escaped Tibet with her mother when she was two years old after her father was killed.  Having me totally captivated by her story she tells me more about her family and then says, “Come, have a look at my jewelery.”

     I’m laughing to myself that she was just giving me the sales pitch all along, but quite impressed with her selling skills, so I take a look at her jewelery.  She keeps it tied up in cloth bags on the other side of the street (clever, so potential shoppers don’t just dismiss her as another trinket saleswoman along the way).  She unwraps a bunch of colorful beaded jewelery pieces and slips a few bracelets on my wrists.  They really are quite nice, so I choose one I like.  Then she starts showing me necklaces, but instead of going straight for the upsell, she asks how old I am (which does not seem like a taboo question as everyone asks me that over here).  I tell her.  “Oh, but you look so much younger,” she says, laying more necklaces out in front of me.  OK, sold.  She must do this a hundred times a day, but when you are forced to hawk your goods from a cloth bag, competing with hundreds of colorful shops, you have to learn a few tricks.

Reflections of India

I am spending my last night in India, thinking about all the things that I’ve experienced.  While reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, written from the perspective of a young Indian boy,  I came across this passage in his author’s notes:  “A stint in India will beat the restlessness out of any living creature.”  He may be right.  I have a confession to make.  After weeks of exhilarating, but exhausting travel, I cancelled my crappy hotel by the Delhi airport, tripled my nightly hotel budget, and parked myself poolside in a four star hotel.  I’m not proud of this, I just really, really needed a hot shower, crispy sheets, and a fluffy pillow.  The housekeeper just brought me chocolates.  Chocolates!

India is by far one of the most interesting places I’ve travelled, but it is also one of the most challenging.  It is as colorful as it is chaotic, as fascinating as it is frustrating.   The cities are dirty, traffic is a nightmare, the horn honking is incessant.  Poverty is beyond comprehension in some places.  The street suffices as a toilet just about anywhere, and the public spitting, littering, and nose picking is unapologetic.  Yesterday I was on the freeway in a taxi and we passed a man on a bicycle with a cageful of rabbits, then we passed a tuk tuk with a man holding two goats.  This is in one of the largest cities in the world, but it seemed perfectly normal.

But even given all that, I would defintely come back here.  The history is incredible, the food is delicious (even though you WILL get sick at some point), the monuments are unbelievable, the saris are beautiful, and the people are, in general, very nice.  Plus you have to admire any country that grants asylum to one of the world’s most infuential spiritual leaders (the Dalai Lama, of course) and hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.

I found a few things very interesting, and India certainly has unique problems.  It is the world’s second most populous country (behind China), but ranks 133rd in GDP.  The per capita GDP is only $1527, which makes it obvious why poverty is so prevalent.   Population control is a real issue for India, and I read a really interesting article when I was here.  In an attempt to curb the population growth, there is a contest among the states to perform sterilizations.  I am not making this up, it was in the Jaipur News.

The state was offering anyone, male or female, who came in for sterilization a free gas connection, which is apparently very difficult to get in India.  In addition, the ladies would get 1100 rupees, 1 kg of ghee (clarified butter used for cooking), one sari, and one blanket.  Gentlemen would receive 1600 rupees, 1 kg of ghee, and a mobile phone.  Currently there are 10,000 takers.  A creative approach to a serious problem, but can you imagine the right wingers in America supporting something like this, especially if we (*gasp*) paid for the procedure on top of it?

I would really love to find someone back home who can explain a few things about this country to me, though.  There are 1.2 billion people here.  I’ve been here for a month.  Do you know how many women I have seen behind the wheel of a car or motorbike?  Eight.  Yup, eight, and two of them were Tibetans.  I have no idea why.  It’s not illegal.  Women are allowed to work and pretty much run the households.  They’ve had a female head of state.  But somehow patriarchy reigns.  It’s one of the many curiousities here, and I leave with more questions than answers, but someday I’ll be back.

Teaching the Tibetans; Teachings from Tibetans

I had decided that since I would be spending a couple of weeks in McLeod Ganj, I would try to make myself useful.  I didn’t  have much of a plan, but rather thought I’d check out the area and see what I could find to do.  There are a number of drop-in volunteer agencies here so I offered to help at LHA, one of the Tibetan community centers.  I was hoping to get an assignment teaching English, but they needed a month or more commitment, so I was assigned to teach computers instead.

Other than using computers, I’m not really qualified to teach them, but I’m willing to give it a try.  I met with the instructor, Yangsom, a young, outspoken Tibetan woman.  I tell her they sent me to her to volunteer, and she says it will be difficult because her students struggle with English.  She tells me to show up at 10:00 am the next day, but gives me no other information. 

I report to duty a few minutes before 10 am and I ask Yangsom what she needs me to do.  “They know Word.  Just teach them and answer questions.”  There are two monks and one nun, all around twenty-something, in my class, all perusing Facebook.  We introduce ourselves and they continue with Facebook.  It pretty much continues like this for about 20 minutes or so, when I ask if any of them have anything they need me to help them with.  One of the monks named Ngawn, opens a document and calls me over.  It is about 60 pages long, written in Tibetan.

We have some difficulties communicating back and forth, but I finally figure out that he wants to separate his book into chapters and assign custom headers to each section.  I have no idea how to do that.  I try a few things, but I’m out of my league so I tell him I will work on it tonight and I will figure out a way tomorrow.  

I return in the afternoon to a new group of students.  These students are a little older, and not as adept behind the computer.  I spend most of my time helping one student, Nima.  He’s a Tibetan-born thirty year old, but looks much older.  He is trying to open email, but his screen is just stuck on the gmail homepage.  He pulls out a notebook where he’s written his username and password, but neither work.  I suggest we start all over and set up a new email account.

We work for the entire two hours just getting his email working again.  I show him how to send messages and how to read new mail.  I’m wondering if any of my help is really doing any good, but he is so grateful, he takes both my hands in his and kisses my hand.  “Thank you, thank you,” he says.  He starts frantically digging in his bag and offers me a banana as a thank you.  I decline, but am so touched by his sweetness.

The next day I help Ngawn solve his issue, and hopefully get his book closer to finished.  I try to give all the students new things to work on each day.  I’ve told them my name many times, but it is hard for them to pronounce, so they just call me “Teacher” or (this always cracks me up) “Sir.”  It’s interesting to watch what they create.  Tenzin, the nun, sings quietly while she works and loves to download flower pictures and always writes out the Six Perfections, then changes the colors and fonts.  Another girl types, “I miss my mother’s beautiful face.”  It is incredibly humbling trying to understand the obstacles each of these people have faced in their lives.

In addition to teaching, there are also numerous opportunities to learn more about the plight of the Tibetan refugees.  I attended a talk by one of the former political prisoners.  I did not catch his name, but I will never forget his face.  He spoke through a translator and told his story.

He was a monk living in Tibet in the 1990’s.  Deciding to peacefully protest, he and several other monks staged a march.  He was arrested and taken to a detention center where he was repeatedly interrogated and beaten.  Later, he was transferred to a prison outside Lhasa, where he was forced to endure further torture.  They were made to stand at attention in the brutal summer sun, or the frigid winter ice.  If they appeared weak, they were beaten.

After about five years, he was released from prison and allowed to return home.  It took two years for his health to return.  He could not return to the monastery, so he worked in a shop.  As the shop prospered, he was again interrogated by authorities.  He and some friends decided to escape to India.  They were able to get falsified documents to grant them access into Nepal, and from there they were helped by refugee camps to reach their new home in Dharmasala.  He says he doesn’t hold any hate for his captors, only sadness.  I realize walking through the streets here, that every face has a story, and we can’t possibly understand everything these people have endured.  And yet they all talk about hope.

Dharmasala Dreamin’

I wanted a place in India that was cool, somewhat quiet (as much as is possible by Indian standards), and remote.  I decided to make the Dharmasala area “home” for a couple of weeks.  Famous as the residence for the Tibetan government in exile, Dharmasala (or more specifically, the tiny mountain town of McLeod Ganj) is home to the Dalai Lama.  His Holiness is not here right now, ironically, he will at some point be in Chicago, but his presence is everywhere.

McLeod Ganj, where I’m staying, is built on a mountainside.  I know I’ve probably said this before, but the road up here was by far the most treacherous stretch of road I have been on in my life.  Even though McLeod Ganj is only a few streets, it doesn’t stop the constant flow of traffic and the incessant beeping of horns.   I continually have to watch for traffic and jump out of the way to avoid being taken out by over zealous drivers.  Couple that with wandering cows, a monkey or two, and stray mountain dogs (who sleep all day and howl all night) and you’ll realize that you have to stay on your toes.

Red robed Tibetan monks roam the streets, frequent the coffee shops, and can often be overheard having lively conversations with activists and other visitors.  It is an eclectic mix of Tibetans, native Indians, ex pat transplants, volunteers of all sorts, and backpackers passing through.  Many are here are on some type of spiritual retreat, most are here for a fair amount of time.  On the weekends, the masses from Delhi pour into the area trying to escape the heat.

The weather here is as volitile as the electricity.  One minute it’s nice and sunny, and the lights are on.  The next minute it’s a downpour, and the electricity goes out.  I’m staying at a guesthouse the has wifi that goes on and off every five minutes.  I’ve also resigned myself to the fact that I won’t be getting  a hot shower until I get back to Delhi.

One of the only places to escape the beeping horns (but not the cows, dogs, or monkeys) is The Kora, or The Way, the path that circles the mountain around the Dalai Lama’s residence.  It’s a nice, wooded walk, about a mile or so, and the locals make their daily pilgrimage around there, prayer beads in hand. Since I have to start acclimating for higher altitudes, I walk The Kora at least a few times a day.  It’s an easy jaunt, except for one steep part, and I swear the old Tibetan men with canes are so conditioned to walking this path everyday, they can overtake me.

Speaking of acclimating, I decided to hire a guide to take me up to Triund, one of the day hikes from McLeod.  McLeod itself is at 5800 feet.  Triund is at 9700 feet, a little over half the height I’ll need to get to in Nepal.  My guide, Ravi, was a native to the area.  He’s in his early twenties and could probably run up the mountain.  I, on the other hand, had to stop frequently to catch my breath.  The view at the top was amazing, but the clouds rolled in quickly when we got there.  We had some chai tea and maggi (Indian version of Ramen Noodles) at the top of the mountain and headed back down, the dark cloud following us the entire way.  As soon as we hit the base of McLeod Ganj, the rain started again.  Perfect timing.  Good news is I finished the hike with no problems, bad news is I went to be at 7 pm, exhausted.

Other than that, I’m relaxing, drinking too much coffee, having cake for lunch if the urge strikes, and teaching computer classes to Tibetan refugees.  More on that later.

Death by Keralan Cuisine

I’ve already used up two of my nine lives since I started this sabbatical–one was the infamous cobra in the bathroom and the second was the unpublished motorbike mishap.  The third near miss involves a force feeding in the backwaters of Kerala, that favorite of the seven deadly sins, Gluttony (well, maybe Lust is everyone’s favorite but Gluttony is much more accessible).

I decided to try a homestay in the backwaters of Kerala and chose a small family property just outside of Alleppy called Poopally’s.  The family has been a fixture in the area for generations, and the property itself is over 150 years old.  My hosts are Dr. Joseph and Mrs. Cecilly Poopally, both retired from academia.  Their daughter, Lisa, was also my cooking instructor and their granddaughers, eager tour guides.

Situated along the banks of the famed Kerala backwaters, one can spend lazy days watching the boats drift by, the many species of birds soar overhead, or wander the waterside paths and greet the friendly locals.  The heat and humidity are stifling, encouraging afternoons spent in the shade with a book or siestas under a ceiling fan.  And then there is mealtime.

My first meal was an amazing feast of Keralan specialties.  Dr. Joseph joins me for dinner as I am the only guest that evening.  He pours me a glass of his homemade nutmeg wine and proceeds heap three giant spoonfuls of rice on my plate and then surrounds it with chicken curry and three different vegetable dishes.  “That’s way too much,” I protest.  He dishes out another serving of green papaya, just to show me there’s no negotiating and I will eat until I can eat no more.

The meal is, of course, delicious, but it’s late in the evening and I’m stuffed to the point I can barely move.  “What time do you like breakfast?”  he asks.  Breakfast?  I may never be hungry again.  We settle on 9:30, and the cycle repeats.

At breakfast, too many dishes to eat get heaped on my plate (no serving yourself at Poopally’s), then he brings out a plate with four pieces of toast.  Four.  Lance Armstrong does not consume this many calories during the Tour de France.  Once breakfast is over, think you’re safe?  No, midmorning they will find you with a huge glass of freshly squeezed juice.  Then lunch sets you up for that siesta/coma.  Try to rest in the shade midafternoon and they will hunt you down with tea and cookies.  Follow that up with another massive dinner and you are living a Groundhog’s Day of Keralan food.

I chose this place mainly for the opportunity to learn to cook some Indian dishes.  Lisa leads the cooking classes and comes armed with a year’s ration of vegetables, chicken and fish.  I watch as she whips up Keralan fish, Sambar, Spicy Cucumbers, Egg-Stuffed Ciabatti, Vegetable Soup, Onion and Tomato Salad, and a host of other specialties.  All of these end up in massive quantities on my plate.

Other guests have now joined me and seem equally surprised by the quantity of food and the amounts on their plates.  They, too, try to protest, but the attempts are futile.  Dr. Joseph asks me if I like the chicken curry, and I say I do.  He spoons another piece on my plate.  I give him that helpless look.  He spoons another.  Then tops off my nutmeg wine, just for good measure.

Truly, they are a wonderful and hospitable family, very warm and generous.  They want to ensure you have a relaxing stay at their house, and take great pride in their business.  They made me feel very welcome by filling me with hospitality, and food, food, food.