Friday, November 26, 2004
On the 11th and final day of our Annapurna trek the Himalayan sky opened up and unleashed its wrath upon us. The raindrops came so thick and heavy that we had no time to think about pain shooting up through our legs. Even with the weather to motivate us, our tattered bodies managed to stretch a four hour hike into an eight hour endurance trek. When I finally climbed up the main road at the Naya Pul trailhead I almost punched the smug taxi driver who told me we'd missed the last bus. Every thread covering my emaciated body was soaked, and as the bus we supposedly missed pulled up I didn't even try to find the scheming taxi man. I just slopped and squished myself into a bus seat designed for a five foot Nepali and breathed a massive sigh of relief and satisfaction. Heidi, Brad, and I were extremely thankful we had added the Sanctuary leg to our trip, but eleven days was plenty.
We met for lunch after a night's rest in Pokhara and all of us were wearing calm, sparkly expressions of satisfaction. Hiking didn't make much sense to me back when the So Cal media had brainwashed me into thinking fun had to cost money. I still can't really explain it. There is just something relaxing, challenging, and wonderful about walking through beautiful natural landscapes. After hiking my way through over twenty countries, I'm still kicking myself for all the experiences I missed back home. Many of my California buddies are hiking hundreds of miles a year through some of the best parks in the world. I can't wait to join them.
Saying goodbye to Heidi and Krishna was tough, but something tells me we will definitely cross paths again. As I boarded my bus to Kathmandu the next morning with a pocket full of chocolate croissants, I realized how lucky we had been to avoid the Maoists. Three days before we finished the trek the rebels had called a nationwide strike and shut down the whole country. Several more soldiers and Maoists had died during our hike and we had missed extortion at the 2nd hot spring by less than 24 hours. The strike was called off on the day I left Pokhara, so the only impact I experienced was a four hour delay on my way into Kathmandu as government soldiers searched EVERY vehicle entering the capital. Sometimes everything just falls into place...
Saying goodbye to Nepal was tough, but as my Royal Nepalese flight taxied to the gate at the Bangkok International Airport I was giddy with excitement. I was doing my best to control my expectations, but I'd heard so much about the beaches and friendly Thai culture that it was almost impossible to keep from getting my hopes up.
When my airport shuttle dropped me off on Koh Sarn road, the tourist capital of Bangkok, my eyes almost rolled back into my head. Koh Sarn road is only about a half mile long, but it feels like a cross between Los Vegas and spring break in Fort Lauderdale. Thousands of tattooed, pierced, half naked, drunk, drugged up twenty-something’s slide past each other in and endless international melting pot of chaos. Jack Johnson the Red Hot Chili Peppers blare from the pirated CD stands while revelers sit on 12" high stools huddled around sidewalk bars mounted to shopping carts. Many "Too cool" travelers I've met love to make fun of Koh Sarn road for being too full of typical tourists, but I could have people-watched there for a week. What is a "typical tourist" anyway? I am a tourist, and so is anyone else who's not living here. To pretend to be anything else is ego-based nonsense.
One thing I noticed right away was not all the Thai girls were that "girly". I think Thailand must have more transvestites’ per-captia than any other country in the world. Some of the locals told me the best way to identify a "he-she" was to look for their enlarged adam's apples and broader shoulders. I was clueless. Some of the girly boys make beautiful "women" so I just decided to assume they were all really men unless I was somehow convinced otherwise. Better safe than sorry huh?
Saturday, November 20, 2004
As we first broke into the ring of peaks surrounding the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) none of us could say a word. Mother Nature had blessed us with a crystal clear morning and the detail shining through thin air was almost too much for our eyes to absorb. Our finish line enthusiasm helped us make great time, and when we stopped for lunch at the Macchapuchre Base Camp (MBC) we were only two hours from our final destination. Although my taste buds were still damaged by the ketchup-dough experience, two Christian missionaries convinced me to try the pizza at MBC. I couldn't believe it. Here, three days hike from any supply line, I found the best wood-fired pizza I had tasted since leaving California.
After beginning our final climb to ABC we passed two guys and a girl from Malta. Do you know where Malta is? Did you know it's an independent country and a member of the European Union? I didn't. Anyway, they stand out in my memory because one of the Maltese men had walked all the way from the trailhead BAREFOOT. I wasn't sure if he was a pilgrim or an idiot, but as I watched him crunching his raw feet through the ice fields I have to admit I was impressed. As it turns out he just wanted to push himself further than most trekkers, and as he warmed his feet inside the ABC lodge I spent a couple minutes reflecting on what a tenderfoot I am. My feet can't even handle walking on socks, much less ice and rock.
The views of glacial peaks from ABC were the best I experienced in the Himalayas. I sat by myself on a snow-covered cliff for hours, soaking up the atmosphere created by the 7,000 meter peaks crowded all around me. The views came with a pricetag though. Heidi, Brad and I woke up throughout the night gasping for air and reeling from psychedelic, oxygen-deprived dreams. I started out the next morning in grand fashion by popping the blisters that had developed under my blisters. Dehydration thickened up my pus and completely grossed out my dorm-mates. Yummy.
With the adrenaline of the previous day's finale fading into our memories, the three of us settled into the fact that we still had three full days of painful hiking left before we could relax. As Heidi and Brad packed up their bags, I listened to a seasoned mountaineer describe his experiences approaching Mt. Everest from the Nepalese side. He said two of his porters died during his last expedition because they didn't admit having altitude sickness. They were afraid to lose their jobs, so they just tried to endure the suffering until it was too late to save them. I was glad we didn't hire porters, but the mountaineer's story served as a grim reminder that there is a tragic undercurrent to the traveler's dreamland of Nepal. It's easy to miss it, or just ignore it, but it's still there.
I lost myself in my thoughts as we stumbled back down to our lodge at Doban. Tibet and Nepal had always held a certain level of mystery and intrigue in my imagination. As I hiked my way down from the Sanctuary, I realized that some of that mystery was gone. I have plenty left to see, but what happens after you've seen everything? What does life feel like when you've traveled through every country? Do people get bored with the earth? Do they begin to feel trapped or claustrophobic on this tiny rock we call home? I realize I could travel for the rest of my life and never see everything, but the sense of experiences taking the mystery out of places continues to trouble me. I suppose that's just one more example of me living in the future instead of the moment.
As Krishna, Heidi and I snuggled into the dining hall at Doban I was thankful to feel the under-table fires warming the blood in my shredded blue toes. I've tried to avoid soda for the last couple years, but I couldn't resist a post-summit Coke. Brad said if he would have had a video camera he could have sold the film of me sucking down that brown fizzy liquid to Coca Cola for thousands. I never thought carbonated sugar water could taste so good.
The next morning we attacked the longest, steepest, downhill of the trail. You'd think that downhills would be easy, but knee and foot injuries explode from downhill impacts. We pulled into the second hot spring of the trek in a cloud of groans, tears, and pulpy skin. It was ugly. The hot spring made everything worthwhile. It was dark and abandoned by the time we got there, and the rushing water and immense jungle canopy created an atmosphere that could wash away any amount of suffering. The almost vertical forests on both sides of the spring hadn't been touched, farmed, or logged by human beings since the beginning of time. The place was pure magic, and our bodies needed all the magic the forest could provide.
Thursday, November 18, 2004
I realized after eleven hours on the trail to Chomrong that it was a mistake to believe the trek from Tatopani to Ghoropani was the toughest leg of the trip. It's all about expectations. From then on I focused on believing each day would be harder than the last, and if it wasn't, it was a pleasant surprise to be enjoyed at the end of the day. So many mental games, so little time.
We reached the hillside village of Chomrong after dark and the six days of constant motion were starting to catch up with us. Both Heidi and Bradley were suffering from knee damage, and I, of course, was still dealing with my pinky toes. It's tough even writing that. My "pinky toes" hurt. What a pansy. All of us were fueling our tattered systems with a steady stream of crusty Snickers bars. Everyone along the trail sold them, and the peanut protein mixed with sugar carbs was just what the doctor ordered. We were all suffering, but every time we caught each other's eyes we would start laughing and share a three-way hug. The feeling of connection and compassion provided more fuel than a truckload of snickers bars.
On the morning of our seventh day, Heidi informed us that boiled eggs are one of the only foods that contain all seven essential proteins. Huh, I learn something new every day. The previous day's marathon had almost done us all in, so four hours into our seventh straight day of hiking things were not looking good. Heidi and I collapsed in front of a trail-side waterfall and neither of us looked like we would ever get up again. Luckily Brad was on this third wind, and just as Heidi and I were able to slip off into oblivion, Bradley started bouncing around singing, "Hare Krishna, Hare, Hare, Krishna!!!" at the top of his lungs while dancing frantically around us like an epileptic chimpanzee. We couldn't tell if he'd completely lost it or if he was just putting on a show, but it didn't matter because we laughing so hard our tears soon clouded our vision. As soon as our stomach muscles unclenched we were on our way with plenty of laughter energy revitalizing our spent muscles.
When we finally stopped hiking at Doban, we were only six hours from the Annapurna Base Camp, our final destination of the Sanctuary trek. We had been moving steadily up a valley into the heart of the Annapurna range and as the sun set we could see the orange light illuminating one of the massive glacier-capped peaks at the end of the valley. Macchapucchre, the holy "Fishtail-mountain", has never been summitted, the last expedition of Brit's that attempted it didn't make it out alive. With the sounds of twin waterfalls singing the background, Heidi, Krishna and I enjoyed the views from our tiny hovel and continued our discussions of personal and universal philosophy. Heidi stated that, "Most people walk around asleep, but those who manage to stay awake, observe life with absolute amazement."
Many of you have heard me discuss the tendency of even the most amazing days to run together in my memory. My life in San Diego was a wonderful dream, but the majority of my memories from my five years there run together into an indistinguishable blur. I was "walking around asleep." What's tragic is that I'm not sure I've woken up yet. It's true that my memories from the road are more unique and distinct, but I still seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere. I just finished reading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", and this short passage summarizes exactly how I've been living for the past few years.
"He looks up the trail trying to see what's ahead even when he knows what's ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He's here but he's not here. He rejects the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be further up the trail but when he gets there he will be just as unhappy because it will be here. What he's looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn't want that because it's all around him. Every step's an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant."
Hopefully with the help of people like you, Heidi, and Brad, I can find ways to live life with a little more "absolute amazement".
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
We began the fourth day of the trek with eager anticipation. The walk to Tatopani would take less than six hours and there was a soothing riverside hot spring waiting for us at the end of the trail. The Chicago girls from Muktinath told us that the Maoists had held up the entire town of Tatopani while they were there, so our guards were up as we attached the tiny hillside village. We passed a few “missing person” posters during the day’s hike as well, which only added to the apprehension. I had treated Nepal with a semi-cavalier attitude so far, but it struck me that the faces on the posters looked just like mine. I could disappear on this trail and my family would never be able to find me.
My mind was still spinning as we crossed a flimsy suspension bridge strung over a 100 meter deep gorge. As I glanced through the missing planks to the rocks below I began visualizing how easy it would be for me to fall to my death. I saw myself plummeting over the hand cable, pulled faster and faster by my overweight backpack. Immediately I became dizzy and grabbed the cables with both hands. What was I thinking? It’s almost as if my body was trying to make my mental vision a reality. From that point forward every time I crossed a bridge I focused on the other side of the gorge instead of the rocks. “Don’t look down” may be a cliché, but I learned the hard way that it’s also a good way to stay alive.
My toes were on fire the whole way to Tatopani and I found myself looking for cow and donkey dung to step in. Stepping on a big pile of manure was way softer than bending my feet over the rocks and rubble that covered every square inch of the trail. I didn’t mind the smell on the trail, but by when we reached the hot spring I had to leave my shoes about fifty meters away from the crowd. The hot springs were pretty commercialized, but after almost a week without showers the water felt great. After soaking for an hour or so it hit me that hundreds of unwashed, stinky trekkers like me had shed their puss, skin, and dirt in these hot springs. Considering I had just popped my pinky blisters with a red-hot safety pin before climbing in the cesspool, I started thinking this goupy water probably wasn’t the best thing to soak my raw toes in. Hindsight’s 20-20.
Fortunately Krishna, Heidi and I were able to dodge the Maoists again and we were on the trail to Ghorapani by 8AM the next day. The first couple minutes of each day were the hardest as my newly formed scabs busted open and soaked my socks in ooze. Within about a half-hour the pain would fade into the background as my body warmed up and my mind focused on my overwhelming surroundings. Most hikers break up the hike from Tatopani to Ghorapani into two days due to the distance and the elevation change, but since we had decided to add the Annapurna Sanctuary detour to our trip, we needed to pick up some time. The Annapurna Circuit is basically one big loop around a circular range of 7,000+ meter peaks (Kilimanjaro is less than 6,000 meters). While the Circuit trek skirts the range from the outside, the Annapurna Sanctuary trail goes right up into the center of the circle of peaks. Heidi’s mountaineering friends claimed the Sanctuary blew away any of the views from the Circuit, so we decided to make it happen even though it would add two extra days to our itinerary. Based on the pieces of bloody skin floating around inside my shoes every day, I considering skipping the Sanctuary and getting out as soon as possible. This definitely would have been the safest, most comfortable option, but the positive vibe generated between Heidi, Krishna and I was too powerful to walk away from.
The last vertical climb to Ghorapani almost killed us, but the challenge allowed us to savor every second of the hot showers and warm wood fire that greeted us in our tiny mountaintop lodge. Mmmmm…simple pleasures. The cost breakdown along the Circuit was pretty funny. We paid an average of $0.50 per night for our room, and almost $4.00 per meal. Food is expensive because everything is packed in on human or donkey backs, but the ratios made me laugh because they are completely reversed as compared to the States.
The sunrise from Poon Hill was touted as a highlight of the Circuit trek, so Heidi, Krishna, and I were bubbling with excitement as we climbed the one hour trail to the hilltop at 5AM. As we joined the hundreds of tourists crowded at the viewpoint we re-learned the lesson on expectations. The view was wonderful, but since we had built it up so much in our minds, the distant sight of the cloud-covered peaks was mildly disappointing. Jim Collins, one of my favorite authors, claims that “Comparison is the primary sin of human nature”. I completely agree. I made rafting the Nile River seem lame by comparing it to the Zambezi. I made Pool Hill seem bland by comparing it to the Everest Base Camp. What insanity. Someday I will learn to appreciate each daily pleasure for its individual beauty, without comparison…
Sunday, November 14, 2004
Although he had been in Nepal for less than a week, Brad was quickly mastering the Nepali language. Much to the amusement of the locals, he began introducing himself as “Krishna Nepali” and memorized two Nepalese folk songs that were popular with the porters on the trail. It had never even occurred to me how valuable it might be to learn the songs of the country I'm traveling in, but it's a ritual of Brad's. He can break into song in every one of his languages, which always brings smiles to the faces of native speakers, along with inspiring them to sing along. Heidi and I quickly followed suit and we would usually walk up behind local guides and porters on the trail softly singing "Ray saam pee dee dee, ray saam pee dee dee, udira jowki dada ma banjan, ray saam pee dee dee..." They loved it. I couldn't believe how quickly a simple song could build rapport.
The tune is about a grasshopper or something, but it doesn't matter. It's all about the beat and it's almost impossible to resist singing along. A few days after memorizing those few lines I began to understand their importance. When the trail got super steep (which it did VERY often), I could take my mind off my burning lungs and aching quads by singing "Ray saam pee dee dee..." in my mind. Before I had time to get bored with the tune I would be over the hill and my muscles would be back to normal. So is this living in the moment? That's one of the questions I wrote in my journal after day three. All the mental tricks I learned from the marathon and Kilimanjaro are really just ways of consciously forcing my mind out of the moment to avoid focusing on the pain. While this process helps me survive the experience, the Buddhists claim that true enlightenment comes through living fully in the present. By avoiding the mental pain am I running from enlightenment? Yeah, you have plenty of time to trip out on random questions when you're hiking over eight hours a day.
Thanks to our new songs and Krishna Nepali's mental advice, the pain of my torn hip flexor faded from a hot ice pick to the dull burn of damaged flesh. The human body's ability to adapt is truly amazing. In the first four hours of our hike I was ready to toss my whole pack in the river. Every strap felt like it was tearing cartilage. However, by our third morning, my pack felt like an extension of my hips and back. Most of the time I wasn't even aware I was carrying it. I was also intrigued by the simple functioning of my muscular and respiratory system. Whenever I began climbing a steep set of stairs or a brutal uphill, my heart instantly tripled its pace, my lungs cried for more oxygen and my legs caught on fire. As I adjusted my pace to suit my body's capacity, all my internal organs would fall in line as quickly as they had freaked out. The reactions came in seconds. What crazy, wonderful, invincible machines we live in huh?
As we passed the tiny farms along the trail, Krishna Nepali began reminiscing about his time working as a farmer in Israel and India. He loved the simplicity of the Third World farming life, but I couldn’t help but wonder how my mind would adapt to that level of simplicity. Would my thoughts become dull and repetitious, or would the lack of external stimulation allow me to find the truth within? For the past decade I have focused exclusively on packing more and more experiences into each day, but all that seems to do is make my life go by faster. Is that the goal? I just finished reading “Siddharta” by Herman Hesse and it has me pretty fired up to participate in a ten day retreat that takes place in Thailand. Participants can’t talk, write, read, or make eye contact with anyone in the monastery for ten days! The anxiety that fills my stomach when I think about that experience seems to answer my question about input. I fill my life with books, conversations, and action items to keep from truly thinking about my life. They say that you shouldn’t e-mail anyone until you’ve had a week or so to process the retreat since you will be on a completely different level. Mmmm…”A completely different level”…is that what insanity is?
Heidi, Krishna and I were making great time, so we decided to stop a couple hours before we arrived in Ghasa to enjoy some rooftop pizza and a glass of Sebock thorn juice. Pizza is on every menu in Nepal, but after they brought out the ketchup-covered sloppy cow pie masquerading as an Italian meal, I decided to stick with Nepalese food for the rest of the trek.
My toes learned the hard way that my size 14 hiking boots were one size too small for downhill hiking, so I had switched to my running shoes after we left Muktinath. By the time we stopped for pizza, it had become apparent that my running shoes weren’t exactly designed for downhill hiking with a 40 pound pack on my back. Each step rammed my pinky toes into the toe-box and I could feel the raw skin swelling into a puss filled blister bomb. As I sat there inhaling my ketchup-covered dough, I realized that my experiences to date paled weakly in comparison to what my friends in the military must be experiencing. Jared Antoni, one of my best buddies from my hometown of Ukiah, has served in the Air Force Special Forces for almost four years now, and the one piece of advice he gave me before I left for Africa was “Take care of your feet.” I guess I’m a slow learner. Anyway, it struck me that I was struggling to hike down a public trail where I can buy food at every stop and sleep in a bed every night. Jared is sleeping in holes, capturing or killing his meals, and working in countries where the locals would celebrate his death with glee. I have a strange feeling he doesn’t worry much about hip flexors and pinky blisters.
As my travel buddies and I enjoyed garlic water (soup) that night in Ghasa, our conversation moved on to relationships. We all had plenty of challenges and questions in this department, and as the discussion moved on to Mars and Venus, Krishna calmly stated that, “Men are from earth, women are from earth, and it’s all bullshit.” Brad (Krishna) had completed the Landmark Forum and read a million books on relationships and intimacy, but he also realized that sometimes it is possible to focus too much on personal development. There are some things you can’t force. Like my Mom would say, “You can’t push the river.” Krishna argued that, “We cause the majority of the problems in our lives by taking our shit too seriously. We are here to play.” Nice…
Saturday, November 13, 2004
When the three of us arrived back at our hostel, we were surprised to find two sisters from Chicago lighting up the dining call with their thick mid-western/Canadian accents. Considering all the State Department warnings about Nepal, it was a pleasant surprise to see so many Americans crossing the border. We walked in a Polish guy telling the girls and his wife out a guy who was grinding his aroused body against the Polish guy's rear end on an Indian train. Ugh. Not exactly dinner talk. The Polish guy said he just stood there and took it. I'm definitely open minded, but I don't think I could have withstood two seconds of some stranger trying to poke through my jeans. Even if I had just stood there and taken it, I definitely wouldn't have told the story to a bunch of strangers. I guess I'm just way more conservative than the polite Pole.
After dinner everyone climbed up on the roof to enjoy the brightness of the stars in the crystal clear Himalayan sky. I've never seen galaxies so clearly as I have in Tibet and Nepal. I felt like I could climb up and touch the stars with 20 foot construction ladder.
Heidi and I started the next morning by enjoying some super-thick banana pancakes and waiting for Brad to return from his early morning trek to the snows of the nearby hillside. No matter how far away something was, Brad always seemed to think he could get there in 20 minutes. He was about an hour off that morning, but we didn't mind. It was almost impossible to get upset about anything with so much natural beauty drowning your senses.
During our trek back down to Jomsom, our discussion centered around parents. I shared that I had learned somewhere that one of the best things you can ever tell your parents is that you're happy and that they did a good job. This made total sense to me, because if I am ever fortunate enough to be a father, I will just want to be a good Dad and help my children lead happy lives. Bradley added a key component. He argued that you should also tell your parents that you're proud of them. That one struck home because in my mind I had grown up as an expert at mentally picking my parents apart.
Mom, Dad...if you're reading this...I'm happy, you did a good job, and I am extremely proud to have you as my parents. I'm also extremely proud and grateful to have my two step-parents, Lyman and Maja, in my life. I truly am blessed. Statements like these definitely don't apply to all parents, but if you feel this way about your Mom and/or Dad, I suggest you tell them today. It feels great. Believe me.
During this conversation Heidi also shared one of her guiding philosophies. "Never stop being a child." I love that one. Whenever I catch myself getting way to serious (Mmmm...that probably happens a little too often) I want to catch myself and try to think of a way to be more childish. Why is childishness seen as a bad thing? I want my next work performance review to have "Needs to be much more childish" in the comments section. Thanks Heidels.
Brad added an excellent comment to this discussion while we were at dinner that night in Marpha. "Be like a child...cry until someone puts a breast in your mouth." Nice Bradley. I guess that theory would apply more to men than women, but who knows, this is the age of the metrosexual.
I wasn't a big fan of backtracking over trails we'd already seen, but enjoying the sunset from Muktinath was worth it. As we climbed up to the roof of our second hostel of the trek, I realized how much fun it was to relax after killing my body all day. Waking up on the beach and relaxing for twelve hours isn't close to as satisfying as challenging yourself before relaxing. Mmmmmm...I can imagine putting my feet up on the railing right now...feeling the blood flood out of my mutilated feet...letting my leg muscles soak up the lactic acid...sucking down an ice cold water...nice...
Thursday, November 11, 2004
After nine hours on the road and two hours on the side of the road, our beat up bus finally dragged its leaky body into the Pokhara bus station. Pokhara was surrounded by military checkpoints just like Kathmandu, and we passed two gun turrets and miles of barbed wire en route to our hotel. One half of my mind kept asking “What the hell are you doing here?” and the other half of my mind kept answering, “Relax, the media over-hypes everything and as long as you keep smiling everything will happen just the way it’s supposed to.” Besides the heavy military presence, Pokhara is a traveler’s paradise. The food is excellent and cheap, speedy internet café’s line the streets, and every other shop sells outdoor gear at 20% of American prices. As long as you’re back in your hotel before the 11PM military curfew, everything feels normal.
On our first morning in town, Rose and I met up with Heidi, a girl we met in Lhasa, and Bradley, a British guy Heidi met on her bus, to discuss possible trekking options. Rose was dead set on completing the full 21+ day Annapurna circuit, so Bradley, Heidi and I decided to team up on a 10 to 14 day half-circuit trek. As we began planning out our route, I had no idea how great the three of us were going to get along. Heidi is a ski instructor from Aspen, Colorado who is currently applying to acupuncture schools on the west coast. Bradley is an international English teacher who is half way through an eight year teaching and traveling trip around the world. I could talk about how amazing these two individuals are for the next four pages, but I’ll try to pace myself to spread the good news out through a couple entries.
Even though a Maoist or a government soldier had died every day I had been in Nepal, the travelers coming off the Annapurna circuit convinced us that the Maoists weren’t much of a threat to tourists. The trekkers who did come across the rebels had listened to a speech on communism, paid $12, received a receipt, and then continued their trek. We were still wary, but we were also actually kind of interested to hear their pitch. There are always two sides to every story, and we were pretty sure we weren’t getting a balanced view in the western media. Since were pretty confident we would escape with our lives, Heidi, Brad, and I decided to fly into Jomsom, the approximate halfway point of the Annapurna circuit, and then hike our way out of the mountains. We considered taking a mega-detour into the Annapurna Sanctuary area, but we decided to postpone that decision until we were on the trail. Since we all had relatively small packs and the trail was more like a highway due to the amount of trekkers, we opted to skip getting porters or a guide and hit the trail on our own. When we boarded the plane to Jomsom we didn’t even have a map of the trail. Geniuses...
The flight through the mountaintops was surreal. Our twin engine prop plane had two rows of seats and no door separating the passengers from the pilots. The stewardess kept encouraging tourists to take pictures out the front window even though one lady hit the pilot in the head with her oversized camera. Classic. The plane flew hundreds of meters below the peaks, banking sharply to avoid getting too close to the valley walls. I felt like I was in some crazy James Bond film. The wind threw our flimsy death-trap around like a rag doll and we bounced completely off the tarmac before finally rolling up to the terminal (One concrete room). The trekking trail passed right in front of the “airport” entrance, but we didn’t even know if we were supposed to go left or right.
After getting directions from a confused airport employee, it took me all of two hours to pull my hip flexor tendon. Sweet. I kept thinking of the blisters and shoulder pains that hit me during my first day on Kilimanjaro and I just prayed that the pain would go away as my body warmed up. We walked four hours up a desolate frozen riverbed before stopping for a slice of fresh apple pie. Apple pie! Are you kidding me? Yeah, for all of you that thought trekking through the Himalayas was some sort of extreme adventure, let me ruin the suspense for you. It’s not. We stayed in beds every night and ate every meal at a restaurant. Well, maybe not “restaurants”, but someone else cooked all our food. The hiking was tough due to the elevation, but we didn’t have to carry tents, cooking equipment, or food, so it’s pretty much trekking-lite as far as I’m concerned. Of course I managed to hurt myself in the first half-day, so maybe trekking-lite is all my body can handle. Mmmmm…nothing like a little humility mixed in with my apple pie.
Just after lunch we passed three bearded madmen racing down the trail blaring obnoxious rock music. As they blew past us Heidi wondered out loud which country they were from. Brad’s answer was, “Israel. First, last, and only guess.” Brad worked on a kibbutz in Israel for a year and speaks Hebrew so we both trusted his intuition. I have loved all the Israeli’s I’ve met on this trip, but I would have to give a big thumbs down blaring crappy big-hair rock music in the Himalayas.
In addition to speaking Hebrew, Korean, Mandarin, Laotian, Thai, French, and Hindi, Brad had also spent over four years studying spirituality and religion around the world, so I realized quickly how much I could learn just by shutting my mouth and listening to his reflections. As the pain from my hip flexor began to rip down my quadriceps muscle, he just told me to accept the pain and then watch it go by. Let it go. While this may sound a little funky and mystical right now, it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. Brad’s words took me back to the mental training I received for the San Diego Rock N Roll marathon, and I just focused my consciousness on everything I could see, rather than what I was feeling. It worked.
Eight hours after landing at Jomsom airport, Heidi, Brad and I reached Muktinath Monastery, the second highest point on the Annapurna circuit. Even though Muktinath was probably my 20th monastery in 14 days, there was something special about it because it represented the end of our day’s hike. It was almost as if we earned the right to meditate in the temple hall just by making it that far. The monks were full of kindness and graciousness, and the three of us savored the waning light as the sunset lit a massive 7,500 meter high Himalayan peak on fire from behind. I can’t do this sunset justice with words, but you can get a taste of the beauty by checking out the “Tibet to Thailand” slide show. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.
Monday, November 08, 2004
After passing through five heavily armed military checkpoints, our jeep pulled into the Thamel district of downtown Kathmandu. At first glace Thamel appeared to be packed with tourists, but eventually we learned that the Nepalese tourism industry is down over 60% due to Maoist activity and government safety warnings. This means that the same amount of beggars and touts have half as many targets as usual. For 19 months I have done my best to keep a smile on my face and treat all aggressive salespeople with respect, but that can be tough when they continually grab your arm as you go by and then curse you when you don’t stop. I know I would probably do the same thing in their shoes, so that humbling thought generally keeps my frustrations in perspective.
I managed to break past the clutches of the comfortable tourist district a few times and the situation was bleak. The two schools I passed were boarded up, run down, and covered with weeds and graffiti. The street kids were so thick on the sidewalks I had to walk in the street. Whole families were sleeping the public parks and I saw more open sores and wounds in four blocks than I saw in three months of traveling in China. After glimpsing Nepalese reality, Thamel felt like an indulgent western paradise. It’s crazy how easy it is to fly and fly out of Kathmandu without ever seeing any of the real poverty behind the scenes. I guess that applies to any Third World country with a tourism industry. The government wants tourists to be happy and comfortable, so they hide the ugly sides of their country. There was nothing comfortable or happy about what I saw in the streets of Kathmandu.
Sixty-eight of the seventy-five districts within Nepal are completely controlled by the Maoist rebels, so the collapse of the existing government seems imminent. It’s hard to tell whether a monarchy or a communist government would be better for the people, but the Maoists are building momentum by feeding the poor, so they are clearly aiming to please the majority of the population, just like the Chinese communist leaders did in the 1940’s.
Since Michelle and Katherine were on a tight schedule, they ended up leaving on their trek through the Himalayas two days after we arrived from Tibet. It was tough saying goodbye to those 4WD queens, but they both live in the Bay Area, so I’m sure we’ll cross paths again. On their last night in town we followed some local Nepalese music up to fourth floor local birthday party. The live band was grooving and the entire room was bouncing and swaying to the beat. Rose, Michelle, Katherine and I couldn’t resist, and the three girls were quite the hit with the local men. I was just the freak they wanted to stand next to for pictures. Most Nepalese women don’t dance in public, so it was basically just the four of us surrounded by about fifteen tiny, smiling, gyrating, Nepalese dudes in crazy hats. How cool…
On our way back to our hotel I was grabbed by the fifteenth drug dealer that night. They slink up next to you on the street and whisper “Hashish?”, or “Hey mister, you want some good drugs?” They almost sound like the snake in The Jungle Book...pure slime. Again, I understand they are just trying to feed their families, but the traveler drug culture is everywhere and it turns my stomach. That was one thing about Africa that I loved. Since Shannon and I were usually the only westerners around, there weren’t tons of sketchy characters hanging on every corner to serve the perverted interests of corrupt mainstream travelers. OK, OK, I’ll get off my goody-two-shoes soapbox. Tibet had just put me into a pure state of mind and the drug dealers of Kathmandu pulled me quickly back into reality.
After a few days of gorging ourselves on pizza, apple pie, and chocolate croissants, Rose and I booked a local bus to Pokhara, the trekking capital of Nepal. The bus ride through the Himalayan foothills felt like it was cut right out the Columbian bus scene in “Romancing the Stone”, complete with hundred-foot drop-offs and roads full of chickens. As it turned out, we picked the right day to leave Kathmandu, since the Maoists blew up two buildings in the Thamel district less than four hours after we hit the road. No one was killed, but the fear in the eyes of our local Nepalese co-travelers reminded us that Nepal wasn’t all warm pie and cheap marijuana. Our brakes locked up halfway through the journey, so Rose and I got some great reading time on a roadside refuse while the driver strapped the brakes back together with baling wire and scraps. Nice.
Friday, November 05, 2004
We visited at least one monastery every day on our way to the Everest Base Camp, and we all tried hard not to let the repetition dull our appreciation for the beauty of Tibet's religious history. In the front cover of my journal I've written "Never lose the wonder" because I don't ever want the amazing to become ordinary. In fact, I'm now trying to find a little more amazing inside the ordinary. The majority of Tibet's monasteries haven't changed for thousands of years, but some of the younger monks were sporting cross trainers and cell phones under their religious gowns. Progress?
The landscapes of Tibet can never be captured by the lens of a camera, so I was invariably disappointed in my pictures of the area. The photos are beautiful, but they pale in comparison to reality. When ever you confine Mother Nature into a box, she is like a caged animal and you can almost see the life draining out of the image. I think I need start looking for a 360 degree lens.
Be'san spoke three words of English so all of us were taken by surprise when he stopped the car amidst a field of frozen tents and motioned for us to get out. Our water bottles had turned to blocks of ice by now and the girls were clinging to each other in the back seat for warmth. As first we thought Be-san was telling us we were going to sleep in the flimsy, ice-caked canvas tents, so Katherine refused to get out. Finally, after much hand waving and grunting we realized we had made it! We were at the Everest Base Camp!
Many people warned me not to expect much from the Base Camp due to litter and commercialization issues, so my expectations were sufficiently low and I loved it. The views of the tallest mountain in the world were breathtaking, even if my hands were almost too frozen to release my camera shutter. Since we were already at around 5,500 meters, Everest actually looked manageable. It was a clear day with no wind, so my delusional, oxygen-deprived mind kept thinking, "I could do that". There is something unexplainably magical about Mount Everest. It almost calls to you will every breeze. Like a temptress, cooing from over 8,000 meters.
That night we stayed at the highest monastery in the world, and none of us managed to warm our carcasses for more than ten painful seconds at a time. I actually melted my gloves onto the smokestack of the wood-burning stove in an attempt to return circulation to my blue fingers. Actually, it wasn't exactly a wood-burning stove. Since there aren't any trees for hundreds of miles, all of the cooking and heating fires in Tibet run on dried Yak dung. Mmmm...I can almost smell it now.
On our way to the Nepalese border from the Everest Base Camp we passed a Tibetan family slowly trekking across the most barren, hostile terrain in the world. I couldn't believe it. We were freezing inside our comfortable Landcruiser, and these four women, one man, and two toddlers were following their Yak cart down roads that our vehicle could barely handle. Their faces were crusted with ice-burned skin and everything about them reeked of Yak, but their smiles were invincible. We stopped to hang with them for a while and their graciousness disarmed all of us. Kindness and peace seemed to ooze from their pores.
Fortunately Rose packed along a Polaroid camera, so we were able to give them a little family portrait as a thank you for sharing a small piece of their beautiful lives with us. As our new Tibetan friends left to continue their scathing journey to whoknowswhere, I was overwhelmed with a humble sense of helplessness. The twelve-year-old Tibetan girl I just waved goodbye to possessed ten times my endurance and pain threshold. Western life has made me so fragile. I doubt I could have survived a week traveling with that family, yet they weren't on some exotic trip. This was their life. Experiences like this have convinced me to enroll in several survival skills and first aid classes once I'm back home. Heck, I don't think I would even know how to start a fire without a gallon of gas and a lighter.
When we finally reached the Nepalese border, our hearts were beating at twice their normal pace. All of the State Department hysteria about rebel Maoist activity and Nepalese anti-Americanism put us all on edge. Luckily everything flowed smoothly and Nepal greeted us with smiles instead of assault rifles. The border officials were even happy that George W. Bush was re-elected since the Bush government has been bankrolling the Nepalese king's fight against the Maoists as part of the war on terrorism. Interesting…
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
Considering we were supposed to leave at 7AM, by 7:30AM we started wondering if we'd been duped. The night before we had inspected the vehicle, and I was so stoked that it was a Landcruiser (Younger cousin of the Beast I drove through Africa) that I completely lost my ability to objectively evaluate whether this car would really get us across the roof of the world. We didn't even have them start it up. Finally, our trusty driver Be'san coaxed the Cruiser up to the pick up point and we were on our way. While the 80-something Toyota looked like it was in pretty good condition, it stalled four times in the first hour of the trip. Sweet. You would have loved the look on our faces as Be'san tried to start the dead engine...again...and again...and again. It was almost comical. Almost.
On our second day on the road we laughed about the strange coincidence that four Americans would end in the same 4WD when we were probably the only four Americans in Lhasa at the time. We wanted to believe it was just a coincidence since we had tried to convince Lior and Miarka to come with us, but deep down I think we might have gone the easy, comfortable route as well. As it turned out, I'm glad I had three intelligent American women with me since the US Presidential Elections took place half way through our trek and it was great to argue political theory with people who cared one way or another.
Most of the towns we passed through didn't have electricity, much less internet access, so by November 3rd we still didn't know what happened. Michele ended up calling her Mom long distance, and while none of us could believe the result, I was left wondering how the two halves of my nation could be so polarized. No matter which side you voted for, it has to scare you a little that half of your country totally disagrees with you. Of course we all want to believe that our beliefs are correct, but after this election I worked hard to see past my confusion and seek to understand what the other side was thinking. What is important to them? What am I missing? The key for me is to really try to understand without automatically arguing or discounting the answers of those I am trying to understand. It is obvious that I have different values that half my country, but the key is to respect their right to have totally different values. My choices aren't any better than theirs, so the key is to understand why they are the way they are. I know I'm talking in circles, but the main message is that we need to come together as a nation or our short 228 year history will come to a massively disappointing end. In the words of one of my favorite young leaders, "We are not a liberal America, or a conservative America, we are the United States of America."
Whew, enough politics. It's funny how much more I pay attention to political leaders now that I'm face to face with how their decisions impact the world. I wonder if I'll still pay attention to world events once I'm back inside the US media matrix. I sure hope so...
Monday, November 01, 2004
Before leaving for the border, my new friends and I managed to fit in two more breathtaking monasteries. Sera monastery is one of the most active in Tibet, but the main attraction is "The Debates". The monks debate in every monastery, but Sera's confrontations are the biggest and the best. As I settled in to the debating courtyard, I had no idea what to expect. I wasn't sure if there would be two typical debate podiums, one guru fighting off challengers, or something I couldn't imagine. It was something I couldn't imagine. Over 200 monks crowded into the courtyard and proceeded to engage in at least a 100 loud, hand-slapping debates. One monk (Usually the younger, less experienced of the two) would sit on the gravel while the older monk stood over him asking questions. If the younger monk answered correctly, he was rewarded with another question. If he answered incorrectly the older monk would slap his hands loudly in the young monk's face and yell something in Tibetan. Imagine one hundred pairs of monks yelling, slapping, and dancing around each other. Considering I hadn't seen the monks do anything but smile and bow up to this point, the commotion of the debates had me on my heels. I was even afraid they might yell and clap in my face if I took pictures!
The whole debating process is a way of testing the monks to make sure they are studying their scriptures, along with teaching them public speaking skills. I loved it. If I ever start my own school, I'll definitely create some sort of informal debate process like the one used in Tibet. How cool would that be?!
My last monastery visit took place at Ganden, one of the highest places of religious worship in the world. The Canadians I met on the small hill overlooking the monastery said their altimeter read 5,450 meters or 17,880 feet. Yeah baby! Our bus arrived 20 minutes before sunrise, so if you check out the pictures in "Tibet to Thailand" slide show, you'll experience some of the beauty Tibet shared with us that morning. The golden light of early dawn guided us during our time on the Kora (Religious path) and illuminated the prayer ceremonies of the hundreds of pilgrims who made the trek with us. As we were getting ready to board the local bus back to town, two Israeli's reminded me once again how cush my travel arrangements have been. They were trekking off from Ganden through a series of mountaintop villages that weren't even shown on most maps. There would be no food, no shelter, and no security for their whole trek, and they weren't even sure the temple they were trekking to still existed. Epic.
On the bus ride home I learned that my friend Lior had been through the exact same Landmark Forum program I completed before I left San Diego. Even though we were from different countries, we had the common vocabulary and experiences to skip past typical traveler small talk right to the insightful topics that make my mind spin. What kind of difference do you want your life to make? Why haven't you re-built damaged relationships with the family and friends that mean the most to you? What kind of person do you want to be? You know, light-hearted topics like that. :-)
That night I learned that Halloween definitely isn't an international holiday. My hotel packed in the westerners with a huge Halloween bash, but the Chinese and Tibetan guests looked at all the skulls, costumes, and funky masks with fear and confusion. I assured several of them that it's just a silly tradition, but they looked at me like I was a satanic cultist. Nice...