Nepal Part VI

Thu 7/28, day 43

Nathan:

It was not a good night for me. We had a flip flop in bowel health – Amy was now fine but I had slept very poorly, having tried to ignore the rumbling for a long time but unable to… by the time 2am came around it was an emergency… and it was raining hard. Not only is it uncomfortable pooping in a squatty potty – it hurts my knees, it’s hard to get up – but the added inertia of not wanting to get up and get shoes on and get through the rain made it worse. And I couldn’t fall back asleep. I was praying and thinking about earthquakes and landslides and the other hikers from the US who had to stop partway up because of the weather and the size of their group. I had to get up again at 5am. Somehow I slept a little bit after that. But I was not feeling well throughout the day, and felt disconnected because of that.IOTR8112

Before we left GP, our second ama/mum cooked us a special breakfast of nettle soup. It was vibrant green and goopy with lots of garlic and some special wild peppercorns, and it was supposed to be good for stomach issues and have tons of iron, so I accepted the second helping gladly. The wild peppercorns make your tongue tingle and then go numb when you chew on them. They chew on them for sore throats and stomach aches and to pass the time while they’re trekking. After asking Yogya if it would be ok, we asked our mum for some to take with us. Food is medicine.

It was time to say our goodbyes. Our two amas put silk scarves around our necks and we exchanged hugs and took a few group photos. We both started crying. It was really good and humbling. There’s so much negativity in the world; so much judgment; people disparage others in various situations and from various backgrounds other than their own; so much hatred and disdain. These villagers treated us like we were family. What I see in them: humility, joy, strength, determination, ingenuity, passion, gentleness, love; fruits of the spirit. I see the image of God reflected in them. We felt very full. And not just because they fed us all day.

Most of the day was spent coming down the mountain (hill) along the river from GP towards where we started. One of the men from GP, Ranjaman, needed to come down the hill and decided to join us on our journey. He is a bird expert, with knowledge of over 200 species of birds that live in the area – to the extent that he knows their calls and can imitate some of them well enough to have the birds come to him. He works with the World Wildlife Fund, which is partially responsible for protecting the flora and fauna in this national park area, much of which is closed off to any development.

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We took it nice and easy in terms of pace… it took about the same amount of time even though it was downhill. We stopped a lot, took in the views, snapped funny photos making it look like we were drinking from the massive waterfalls, chatted with folks, and at one point had some more dried buff and a grainy type of local beer made from millet. Whenever we passed little kids they called out “hello!” or “namaste!” and were thrilled when we said it back and waved. Sometimes they would come down and walk along with us, sometimes they would just look as we passed by. A few times, Yogya spoke to them and asked us for our phone to take a picture of us with the children. We felt a little weird about this, not wanting to be exploitative in any way or perpetuate any false narratives about white westerners, but he insisted it was ok and that the kids love it, especially when you show them the photo you just took. So we trusted him and went with it. But still felt a bit weird about it.

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As we continued to descend, we started saying “Namaste”, the Nepali greeting, instead of “Lasso popula”, which is the greeting among the Trisuli Tamang people group. The Gyangphedi villages are Trisuli Tamang. Nepal as a country is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. There are over 170 languages spoken, and the largest ethnic group comprises only 17% of the population. Contrast this to South Korea, where we had been the previous 3 weeks, which is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world. (CIA World Factbook lists about 20 ethnic groups for Nepal, while South Korea says “homogeneous” with 20,000 Chinese).

As the day pressed on we made it close to the place where we had left the SUV, about half an hour’s walk away. Yogya suggested we not walk all the way down, but stay at this particular village where there was a nice guest house run by a Sherpa. By the way, Sherpa is another people group, not a profession. I always thought of it as a profession – the people who lead you on treks through the mountains. A lot of Sherpa do that. But other people do too. We settled in and rested for awhile in the room, which was basically a big garage with four beds in it. We opened the garage door and enjoyed the amazing view and sunshine and rested our legs. We played some ukulele and sang, which attracted some attention and a few kids came over and tried out our egg shaker.

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Earlier as we had walked into this village, a young boy (we later found out he was 14) came up to Yogya. Yogya kind of put his arm around the boy and walked out in front of us away, chatting more intimately with him. We later heard a little bit of his story. He used to live in a cave in the mountains by himself, after some family tragedies. Yogya and some of the other people in various villages in the area have slowly befriended him over time. He’s still primarily focused on survival, and itinerant, moving between villages picking up odd jobs, often hauling heavy loads up and down the mountains. He’s incredibly strong. Hauling 60kg (about 132 pounds) bags up and down the mountain and trekking out in the wilderness, no problem. He likes this particular village the best because he has more relationships here and people take care of him. He joined us as we went up to meet the family of Min, another GP’er who heads up a lot of building projects among the villages. He had been spending a lot of time in the village we stayed in, but lived with his family in the village we had walked down to. He invited us all up to his house to meet his family – wife, grandparents, and three young kids. Once again there was more food and drink offered and received, and good conversation. The kids were adorable; his little girl just came up to me and kind of leaned against my legs, not saying anything just draping her arms over my knees and snuggling like I was her uncle. Amy had a chance to hold their new baby. We felt home, connected, emotional. The warm feeling of being welcomed, truly welcomed into a family… valuing each other as human beings and enjoying being together, sharing stories and learning about each other. Darkness fell and we made our way back down to the Sherpa’s guest house for dinner. We were stuffed with all of the food we had been eating at Min’s, but there was more to come – dal bhat, this time with goat.

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I wonder if, looking back on this trip, we’ll see it as our crash course or education on kids and parenting. So far we have mostly stayed with families with young kids. I wonder if we’ll look back on this as a turning point in our life, in terms of where we live or what we do. I don’t feel so solidly planted in my current way of life or of making a living. I feel like we could end up anywhere, doing anything. I love Orlando. And there are plenty of people to serve in Orlando. There’s just so many distractions. Not just in Orlando. On my phone. On my computer. In virtual space. In the theater of the real, there are dishes to be done, meals to be cooked and eaten, friends to spend time with, kids to spend time with. It’s true that sometimes these feel like distractions, but more often they feel like the real thing. Eat, drink and enjoy the work put before you (Ecclesiastes 3:13).

I also find myself asking, What would I like to change about my life? I really like plants and animals. Plants especially. I don’t feel like I’m necessarily honoring or engaging that part of myself. It felt really good to chat with the villagers about plants and learn about them. What else do I want to change? I want to be strong. I want to walk, to do things that keep us physically fit. To find places to do that that are fun (where it’s nice to be outside). To not spend so much time on the computer / devices. I also want to learn another language. That’s a feeling that often comes up when I travel in a foreign country among people who speak many languages, and often speak my language.

Amy wants to come back to Nepal. We both do. We’ll have to train though. A lot of times when we travel, afterwards we’ll think: I’ve been to that country once; I don’t need to go again. At least not before I visit all the other places I haven’t been to. On this trip, all of the places we visited in the States, we want to go back to, and could see ourselves living in. South Korea, not so much. But Nepal has definitely captured us. There are some things that would be hard – the dampness during monsoon season, for example. But we want to come back.

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Nepal V:

Wed 7/27, day 42

Nathan:

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There are a lot of established trekking routes in Nepal, and all along the way there are guest houses and places to stop for dal bhat or tea or coffee or a slice of apple pie. It’s like a traditional hospitality version of tourism that benefits everyone that lives, works, and hikes along the routes. The homestay program that Five14 has set up with the residents of the Gyangphedi villages over the last 5 years is quite new, and they’re working together to continue building up ways for the villages to benefit from tourists like us. On our second day, we slept in and started the day off with a breakfast of roti (tortillas), fried eggs, and french press coffee. The coffee was a recent addition from Five14 for homestay guests. They set up a family with the french press to earn some extra money from visitors who wanted coffee instead of (or in addition to) tea.

Since it was monsoon season, there weren’t many active building projects going on in the villages, at least not the type of project that we could easily jump in on. But typically with their homestay program there’s an expectation that you’ll be contributing. I was looking forward to that aspect, but because of the time of year our stay ended up being really relaxed. This was a lot of down time for other people in the village too, especially Valoo’s teenage son, Nar, who wouldn’t get out of bed. Every 15 minutes or so his mom would shout through the open window. I didn’t understand what she was saying but I could hazard a guess that she was attempting various angles to motivate him. It was all good natured, and after breakfast he joined us and Yogya on a day trip up to another one of the GP villages.

IMG_7329We walked up the hills, down the hills, through corn fields, along narrow foot paths and rocky passages and a pedestrian bridge across the river. The landscape is majestic, though it disappears into the clouds this time of year. How many more layers of hills are there behind what we can see?

At some point we stopped to say hi to a man who was grinding his corn. Corn is one of the main crops in these villages. The corn is 12-14 feet high, the tallest and most robust corn I’ve ever seen in my life, and inter-planted with millet in terraces up and down the hills. Yogya says the earth has power up here. They keep it fertilized with manure from their various animals (goats, buff, oxen, chickens), and the monsoon season and runoff from the higher mountains and irrigation systems from the rivers and streams keep it moist. The water also powers the millstone, which is housed in a little hut near the river. They can divert water from a stream to the hut to rotate a wheel which rotates the grindstone. The dried corn kernels are put into a funnel which drops them down at just the right pace onto the grindstone and grinds them into flour. When they’re done they close a gate where the water is diverted so the whole system stops rotating. While your corn is grinding you just chill out and watch the river, or chat with visitors like us.

We walked some more through tall grass all the way up to another village homestay, where we visited with an older man and his grandson. When we sat down to have some tea, I noticed that Amy’s foot was bleeding. Amy: Hmm, nothing hurts. Yogia: Oh that’s probably a leech, that’s good luck, they’ll suck out your bad blood. Amy: Ugh, okay, is the leech still there? Men: no, it seems to have fallen off. Amy: Great, let’s never mention this again though, I don’t want to even think about it. Yogya put some sterile cotton between her toes.

We sat and looked out over the beautiful hills, corn fields and river while Yogya and the older man continued to talk. They squatted comfortably on the ground, as many people in Asia do. I tried to join them but my body just doesn’t seem to work that way. I end up having to hold myself forward with my shin muscles to avoid falling over backwards. Speaking of squatting, today was a tough day for Amy. Let’s just say that the squatty potty was her friend and that she really missed modern plumbing. And wished she’d been doing roller derby, where squatting is a regular part of life.

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Someone prepared more grilled corn as a snack for us. As we sat and chatted we found out that Nar had recently been on a trip into the jungle. He went out into the jungle with some other guys for 2 months. They took nothing with them but gorkha knives and some tents, surviving off the land. A gorkha knife is very sharp, shorter than a machete; it has a notch cut out of the blade to make sure the blood doesn’t drip on your hand. My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Bear Grylls… these are the stories we read and watch and are inspired by, and here he was, living and breathing, and it was no big deal for him. There’s so much knowledge of plants and animals and survival and farming that we’ve lost in industrialized nations.

Lunch followed shortly after the snack – dal bhat accompanied by beans, more buff, and sauteed pumpkin greens. After lunch, back down to the village we were staying in, for more time hanging out at the main gathering place by the phone and the general store. Some men, women and teens hauled various loads up and down between the village and the river, back and forth, in hand-woven baskets carried on their backs with a supporting strap that wrapped up around their forehead. They were getting paid for this, 60 kg bags of rice, concrete, rocks. Everything that exists in the village has been hauled up by hand. The re bar and tin roofs and 4×8 sheets of plywood. Coils of steel wire to make a bridge across the raging river. Hauled up by hand. Astounding strength and endurance. 40 forty rounds a day for some of them, including a 72-year-old man with a leather bomber jacket. The thing is, he was having a great time, laughing and joking. He and some of the other men took a break and had a drink. It was hard work, clearly, but there was joy in it too.

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For us, one meal blended into another and soon we were eating dinner with Yogya and one of our homestay families. A snack of dried buff and spicy soy beans sauteed with garlic and shallots and extra raw garlic. Lots of tea. More dal bhat; this time, the dal had black eyed peas in it. An alcoholic drink called raksi made from distilled millet, served warm with butter. People came in and out, some staying to eat, some just saying hi then leaving after awhile. Later in the meal a young man named Prem, which means love, joined us. He’s the only person in these villages who has gone to university, studying zoology, and his English was very good. It was a real joy to be able to talk with him without needing a translator. He is extremely passionate about seeing good things happen in the villages, and desires to bring educational opportunities up to his people. There was a spark and light in his eyes as he shared his passion and love.

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Yogya asked us if we wanted to stay one more full day in GP and then do the hike back down plus the car ride back to Kathmandu all in one day, or split it up. We chose the latter, since it would get us into Kathmandu earlier and give us more time to process the trek and get our things together before our next long travel day to London via Doha. So tomorrow we would have a special breakfast and then head down the mountain (hill). This had already been an amazing trek. Short, hard, sweet; we want to come back and visit with these folks again. Not during monsoon season though.

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Nepal IV: Start, Stop, Start

Mon 7/25-Tue 7/26, days 40-41

Amy:

We were supposed to leave for GP Monday morning at 6 am, but the prime minister resigned Sunday and now the Maoist Party is calling for a general strike. Nepal’s civil war ended about a decade ago and one of the compromises made was that there would be a lot of compromises. So the prime minister resigns and a different Communist party calls for a strike, so we get an extra day to get ready for our trip. We were just going 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) north. But hanging out at home for another day was a little anti-climactic. We helped with a cleaning blitz and the chores got done in half the time. And as fun as doing chores are, they are not as fun as starting your adventure. We kept checking the news to see if the strike turned violent or would be extended until tomorrow. A few taxis broke the strike and were stopped and their taxis were burned. They take strikes very seriously here. For the most part, it’s just a day off for everyone. Very few businesses are open and no one is on the roads, including us. The strike ended that night and we headed to bed early, 5:30 am always comes faster than you think.

Lizzy had a pair of hiking boots that fit perfectly, and a pair of thick hiking socks, and they loaned us: a headlamp, sunscreen, 2 neckwraps, and I’m sure other things I can’t think of now. Pretty much we were the most unprepared hikers in the world. Or at least that’s how it felt to me. Nate said we couldn’t possibly even know that. I’m not so sure.

IMG_6938Yogya picked us up nice and early with a gassed up SUV and a sense of adventure. This vehicle was much higher than any of the taxis or vehicles we’d been in so far. Traffic was very light at 6 am and we made good time heading out of town. I was very puzzled at how it would take us 5-6 hours to go 30 kilometers. That’s very, very, very slow. But as we climbed the hills and jerked over huge holes and up muddied streets, it began to make sense.

The green, vibrant green always gets me. I was in something out of a movie or National Geographic. The terraced rice patties going up and down and up and down. Everything covered in water and everyone still out and about. Numerous times we’d have to stop to check out the integrity of the road. Someone ahead of us would wave us on, but Yogya often would get out and check for himself, of which we were thankful. We had a long time to get to know each other. A story time of sorts. How did you meet? Where are you from? How long have you been married? Why are you traveling around the world?

Which part of Nepal are you from? How did you get to Kathmandu? How long have you been here? Why do you go to these remote villages? And on and on and on.

We were really thankful that Yogya was our guide. He’s one of the founders of Five14 and we just felt safe. He had a few other treks he could have gone on, but he led us to GP and we felt so lucky.

Time and time again I said, “I can’t believe we’re doing this. It’s a dream come true.”

We stopped for tea and chatted with some French kids who had been in Nepal a few months doing a service project with a school. There was some type of village meeting going on that was very interesting. I didn’t realize this would only be one of many, many, cups of tea I’d be offered in the next few days.

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The hills were so green. I’d look again and again and just be amazed at the color. Rice patties and waterfalls and terrible roads.

I have no idea how the vehicle kept going through some of the ruts in the road. We didn’t slide off of the side of cliff. Up and up, more mud and trees and things in the road. Going 25 mph feels like the Indy-500, twists and turns and more mud and giant buses on small roads. Every curve we honked the horn. The local buses were facinating to me. People sitting on top, in the rain, on colorful buses traveling quickly on narrow, muddy roads. I always wondered if you pay less to sit on top of the bus.

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We entered the Shivapuri-Nagarjun National Park and the roads improved. For a little while. There is limited building and development in the park, but the villagers reach critical mass in some spots. Unfortunately, the earthquake damaged and destroyed a ton of houses, schools, and businesses. The area is in a state of rebuilding. From the vehicle it was tough to see the human determination and incredible effort that we would once we had our packs on our back. Random piles of red, red bricks, poised for some construction. Five14 actually met with the GP villagers last year after the earthquake and helped facilitate a discussion as to whether or not to rebuild the village in its original location. The villagers decided that if Five14 was willing to partner with them that they would like to try and rebuild in their traditional area. Over the past year nearly 20 structures have been rebuilt.

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After about 4-5 hours of winding, we stopped for lunch and as it turns out, jammed rocks under the wheels (so it wouldn’t roll off the hill), and pick up our packs and left the car. We left the car. The car was behind us. Now we had 5-6 hours of hiking. That had to be a joke. How was I going to walk for 5 hours? We hiked 15 minutes to get to a spot where Yogya knew a guy that would make us lunch. He doesn’t normally have lunch ready in his restaurant, but Yogya called and he made the dal bhat much less spicy for foreigners. Yogya also encouraged us to eat the traditional Nepali way: with our hands. Now I eat sandwiches, pizza, fried chicken, and snack food all with my hands. I don’t know why it seemed so strange to use my hands to mixed the rice and lentils and then stuff them into my mouth. But it did. Nate tried it first and looked like a natural to me. Yogya explained the “trick” is to use your thumb to push the food into your mouth. Sounds easy. I tried it and it was fine, but it really looked like a young child had eaten at my spot on the table. I feel good about the attempt, but I think I’ll hold off on renouncing cutlery.

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We were served more tea and we were full and it was time to hit the road. With the SUV left behind, the restaurant owner/chef actually led us out through terraced rice patties. They were walking so fast, or maybe I was walking so slow. Regardless, I began a narrative: unprepared hikers do 5 hour hike in record 7 hours. We had what we thought was plenty of water, but it was hard walking up river beds, or going over old landslides, or balancing on stones to get to the next stone so you don’t get your feet soaked. We ran out of water about halfway through and there was no where to buy water. We had a water filter called the Sawyer Mini and asked a local for some water. It was strange filtering someone else’s water. Almost rude. I know I wasn’t saying, “Your water makes me sick!” But the process of filtering and filling and refilling was a bit strange. But even Yogya didn’t drink the unfiltered water. There seems to be a belief that getting diahrrea once a month is health. I wasn’t wanting to find out. We were told that locals understood, westerners had to be careful or get sick. It was still a bit strange.

There were times when I really didn’t think we would be able to hike for five more hours, or four more, or three. I wasn’t sure how fast we were going, because it really felt slow, so I never really knew how much closer we were getting. If the estimate is 5-6 hours and we’re going slowly, 2 hours in would mean there were still 5 hours until we got to GP. At one point I asked Yogya was there a stopping point in case we couldn’t make it. He was vague. That was not particularly reassuring, but he didn’t seem worried.

We passed a group of men, huddled around a huge tarp with a whole bunch of cut up wild buffalo. Giant bones off to the side (probably the jaw bone) and huge hunks of meat everywhere and skin still on it. I couldn’t look at it and the smell of blood was so strong that I had to walk very quick ahead of the guys to get away from it. Each guy was taking some of the buff (as they call it), all I knew is that I did not want to watch.

On the way up we stopped and talked to people on their way down. Well, Yogya talked and I tried to catch my breath. One group was taking a woman down to amputate her leg. I think she was still walking at this point. She had an infection or something. A few hours later they passed us on the way up, carrying the woman back home after surgery. Nate and I didn’t realize this until later in the day that it was the same woman, who must have been in incredible pain. Yogya said he even stopped and talked to them and we were standing right there, but so exhausted or in the zone or out of it that we didn’t even realize it was the same group. That’s how hard it was. In my head I was vowing to do training next time (yes, we’re going back).

HCMW5514Nate and I were drenched in sweat, Yogya was barely perspiring. It was an easy walk for him and an intense hike for us. It was basically hiking up old rocky, river beds. More technical than difficult. There were nervewracking points climbing over landslides. They looked pretty old, but I worried that it could start again at any time. We also saw fresh landslides. There was so much water. Waterfalls every few feet. Some that disappeared to the top of the hill, and the hill disappeared into the clouds. Clouds and mist really surrounded everything. Like walking in a haze. When we stopped to catch our breath (mine) the views were just incredible. Yes, I wanted to see really tall mountains, but here was a different kind of majesty.

We kepted hiking and I hoped it would get easier; it didn’t. I was incredulous with myself that I packed jeans. The more weight in my bag, meant more on my back and my human power was resposible for carrying that up the mountains. Jeans would just be wet and clunky and uncomfortable. I remember thinking I should bring them in case it gets cold. Now it was just dead weight and my legs were tired.

I was afraid to ask how much longer the hike was because I was afraid that he would say we were still really far away. Finally after 4 hours, Yogya said we were 9/10ths there. Really?! Yes, really. It was such a good feeling. The hike got a little bit easier. I was pretty proud that we had done it. Or almost done it.

We reached the village gate about 5 hours after we had started hiking. We climbed the hill and sat our bags down and some kids followed us up the hill. Normally when you arrive at a place, you get a little space. Especially after 10 hours of traveling, I was ready for some down time. But in the village, that isn’t the first thing you do. You catch up with your friends over tea. So that’s what we did: listened to Yogya talk with the village leaders in their local language, which is different than Nepali; we watched children chase each other, shove each other, and climb rocks and show off. We were seated outside of the village general store, under an awning that had a cordless phone, plugged into the power grid. It’s a really neat network of phones between villages and it harkens back to the switchboards of old. A guy sits there with a notepad and paper and takes phone calls every few minutes and then relays the information to whomever needs it. It is the hub of the village and I felt very important sitting there and a little bit in the way. But it was a feast for the senses sitting there.

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We dropped our bags off in our room, which was very simple, with a sleeping mat and blankets on the floor and plywood walls and a door. The actual structure of the building has sturdy re-bar walls, filled in with concrete and a slanted tin roof. Everything felt wet. It was slightly damp, but all the same I just wanted to be dry. We hadn’t been dry since being in Nepal during rainy season. If I were to live here, I think that would be one of the most difficult parts. But yes, I could see us living in Nepal.

We continued our rounds to meet different villagers. We headed into one homestay and we were served more tea and roasted corn on the cob. But it isn’t sweet corn and there wasn’t any butter or salt or pepper, so it was very different than we were used to. It tasted like unsalted popcorn and though it wasn’t my favorite, I kind of liked it. The Nepalis pop off the kernals with their hands and eat them sort of like M&Ms. This was a sort of pre-dinner snack. We met with the village elder and a few others and Nate and I just listened and enjoyed the moment.

We headed back to our room to get freshened up and chill out before dinner. We were hungry. We wandered around a bit without Yogya and found him in the kitchen of the couple who was cooking our dinner. It smelled amazing. It was also difficult to get comfortable sitting on my little stool. I grabbed the ukelele and played a few songs with Nate. The man of the house, Valoo (which means bear), was cutting up some meat. Where did it come from? Yes, it was the wild buff we had seen on the bloody tarp earlier in the day. That was going to be part of our very special dinner including dal bhat of course. We were served some spicy fried soy beans. They made them less spicy for us, but still spicy. Then a bowl of the best parts of the buff. Not exactly sure what that means, but it’s heart, liver, cartilage, stomach, best not to ask questions. We did our best to eat what was put before us. Some of the pieces were so chewy that you just had to swallow it. I drew a line at the bone, but most of the chewy stuff was cartilege and didn’t taste bad, but did give your jaw a real work out. But the flavor was amazing. I can still taste it. We will need to find Nepali restaurants in Orlando. But up in the villages, the flavors are just unique. Replication will be impossible, so I guess we will have to go back and do an extended trek up to see the red pandas (I’m speaking this into existence, I figure if I say it enough, it will happen). After the buff, there was dal bhat. How was I going to eat any more? This was the fourth dish we’d been served, however in Nepal, you get a refill on your plate before it’s even considered a serving. So you’re eating buff and someone comes around and puts more buff in your dish. The same was true of the corn, and the soybeans, and the dal bhat. We were so full. So, so full.

That night as we reflected on the day, I was struck by how hard it was. Nate was telling the story of the day into the microphone and every 30 seconds I would interject how difficult the hike was. Though it was damp, I was exhausted. I remember the first night of our bike trip, leaving the rain fly off our tent, with no rain in the forecast and of course it rained. We poured a few gallons out of the tent that night 7 years ago, but had just biked all day and didn’t care about being sweaty, smelly, and damp. Tonight was nearly the same and yet so different.

IMG_7237Nate’s conclusion, “You don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re pushed to your limits.”

Nepal Part III: Out on the town

Sat 7/23, day 38

Amy:

Finally on Saturday (July 23), five days after we landed, we headed down to the heavily damage Durbar Square, on our own. A former royal palace and home of one of the Kumaris (pre-pubescent girls who are living Hindu goddesses). Before we got to the square, we actually had to get there. On our own (did I mention that?). We headed for ring road and the taxi queue. There’s a website that calculates taxi fares so you don’t get taken advantaged of as a tourist (or local), so we knew that it should be about 150-200 rupees. I let Nate do the talking. The first guy we went up said nothing below 500 rupees. No, 200. Okay, okay 400. No, 200. We walk away. Next guy: 350. No, 200. Okay, 300. 200. We begin to walk away. Okay, okay, 250? Sold! Not sure that we got the local price, but Nate was triumphant at his first foray into taxi bidding.

There are three Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley. Each with a special history and its own Kumari. This one in Kathmandu is actually a UNESCO world heritage site, but was heavily damaged by the 2015 earthquake. They raised the price to 1000 rupees (~$10) entry to try and help with the rebuilding, though we’re pretty sure that it is more of a tourist tax and that locals don’t have to pay. We tried to walk in, but a police officer and ticket-taker stopped us. We looked like the most cliche tourists.

IMG_6772It was confusing trying to find our way into the square, which is confusing in and of itself because squares usually are pretty straight forward. It turns out that Durbar Square isn’t just one square, but is the name given to the multiple squares in this area. As we tried to get our bearings, a nice downpour started. We ran like everyone else to get cover and found a nice spot under the eaves of a mini-police station.

I had my recording equipment ready to go and since I had nothing else to do, I started recording and hoped that someone would ask me a question. A group of young Nepali guys asked me if I was an American. Yes. I then asked them if they were Nepali. Yes. Would you mind answering a few questions? Sure. For the next few minutes during the rain, ask I asked a few 18-22 year-olds about American and Nepali politics. First, no they had not heard there was an upcoming election in the United States. What for? To become president. I guess if you don’t know about the election, you probably don’t know the candidates? Right, we know and care only about Nepali politics, just like in the US you only care about US politics.

IMG_6798An interesting part for my interviews is asking people who they would vote for or any advice they have for American voters. Overwhelmingly people have been hesitant. A sort of humility that says, “I am not from your country so I won’t presume to tell you how to run it.” Which is really different from my mentality, possibly because as an American I assume (wrongly perhaps) that if I know enough about your country, I can share input that will help fix it. Nevermind my lack of overall knowledge and cultural context may severely limit my ability to say something useful. People seemed genuinely suprised that I would ask them questions about American politics. From my perspective, I think US politics is relevant to the world because of our vast arsenal of weapons alone. The presidency matters for many reasons: a president is the Commander in Chief, but is also the Head of State, who is the chief diplomat on the world stage. The tone of the president can ice relationships or warm-up frosty decades-long spats. So though the president is limited to the powers granted in Article II of the Constiutution, this position has increased in importance and power since George Washington left office at the end of the 18th century. And now since nearly the mid-20th century, the president has had the nuclear option; going from directing generals into battle to dictating the obliteration of a city by just one bomb. And the president has access to thousands of nukes; that’s a lot of power.

I however, did not explain all of this to the young Nepalis, who explained that American culture is influential to them, but they don’t care at all about our elections. They did decide to play ball of sorts with me though. Okay, so who is running in your election? Obama? No, he can’t run again. Have you heard of Donald Trump? No. Big, yellow hair, businessman, older, on TV. You’re fired! Okay, who else. Oh yes, okay. Clinton. Clinton? Again. No, his wife Hillary. These are the least popular candidates ever, ever. Oh, best of luck to you. Who should I vote for? We can vote? No, I don’t know who to vote for? Awkward pause.

I ask what my students should know about and they start to talk about the Kumari. They said they were a little bit scared of her. Then we tried to explain where we were going in Nepal, but they thought it was funny that we don’t know Nepali. Understandably that was a sticking point. And like that the rainstorm was finished and they were gone.

NQLK5062We headed to go get some coffee to re-strengthen our resolve of what we were actually even doing in Durbar Square. People watching. Buy an umbrella (there are a million easier places we could have gotten an umbrella). Scout some souvenirs. Work up the nerve for more interviews.

There were interesting Hindu temples and worshippers. Tour guides abounding: 500 rupee, 300 rupee. No thanks. Hawkers selling their wares. Any time you would pause to take in the view, it seemed like it was license to offer something. We would get surrounded by guys selling who knows what. We wandered about for about 45 minutes and then called it quits. We headed to a taxi line and started the bidding war again. It was almost an exact replay of ring road. Another 250 rupees and we were back home.

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The easiest marker to tell people is Buddha Park adjacant to the Monkey Temple. It has three giant golden Buddhas and a few monkeys too. It’s interesting looking at religous symbols from other faiths besides Christianity. All over Europe there are giant and beautiful cathedrals; we’ve been in so many I’ve lost count. But you look up at the stained glass with incredible Biblical scenes and it makes you think about a bigger, greater world. Pointing toward the heavens. In Buddha Park there isn’t a giant cross, but you still have to look up and it is spectacular to see the gleaming gold against a blue and white puffy sky. It may not be my place of worship, but it is a place where I could worship my own way.

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Leaving Buddha Park we had our last major challenge of the day: crossing the ring road. Earlier I’ve tried to explain the ring road. A mass of vehicles, pedestrians, dogs, and cows and no traffic lights, crosswalk, or signage. That is what we were going to cross. PJ & Lizzy’s advice: just be confident and keep going, and try and follow someone already crossing the road, strength in numbers. Okay, we got this. And actually we did. We looked right before left. We tried to cross with other people and still had to mostly go on our own. But we made it to the other side and it was easy.

IMG_6872We felt very successful at our solo excursion. We are ready for Gyangphedi. Right?

Nepal II: Hiding out/Hanging out

Tue 7/19-Fri 7/22, days 34-37

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PJ and Lizzy live in a Tibetan section of town near the Swayambhunath (Monkey) Temple. Colorful prayer flags are everywhere. There are numerous refugee groups in Nepal and about 15,000 from Tibet, which is less than 50 miles north of the valley.

I think Nathan and I were both wondering how we would navigate the city on our own. We were contented lying low and following PJ, Lizzy, and kids around like puppies.

PJ and Lizzy have lived abroad in India and Nepal for over a decade and have an inspiring sense of adventure. They live on the bottom floor of a large home and it is retrofitted for the daily power outages. The fridge has a special way of staying cold without power and there are multiple power outlets that run off of solar power. The floors are a gorgeous green marble, which would be exorbitantly expensive in the states, but here it’s brought in from just down the street.

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In April of 2015, there was a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people and injured three times that many. The last major earthquake had been in 1934, when Nepal was still a closed country. In May, it continued to experience aftershocks up to 7.3 magnitude. Many things were damaged or destroyed. PJ was traveling and Lizzy was in Kathmandu with the kids. Their house was fine, but it wasn’t safe to be inside. So outside of the fear of their home falling on them, cell communications were out and they didn’t know if the other was even okay. All of the neighbors were staying outside and it started to rain and rain. Some of the houses in their neighborhood were severely damaged. A sense of adventure is needed to live in Nepal. But rebuilding is underway and along the sides of many roads are huge piles of red bricks, just waiting to be put together to rebuild a home or business.

The main industry in Nepal is tourism. Earthquakes do not make tourists want to come to an area. It’s really hard because so much work has been done by the Nepalis and outsiders to build up the infrastructure of the country, only to have it undone in an instant. Monsoon is not the major tourism season, even so there were a lot of westerners like us traveling about, which seems to be a good sign for the recovery effort.

Our first full day in Nepal, PJ, Lizzy, and kids took us for a tour of the Monkey Temple, just a half-mile or so from their home. The thing is: you have to cross the road. The biggest road in Kathmandu is called Ring Road, which rings the city. There are lane lines, which are really more of a suggestion. The trick is, you just go. Not in a fatalistic way, but the cars will swerve and get out of your way. You start and stop and juke and just go. We held the hands of the kids (5 & 7) but they were old hat at this. We were the ones that really needed our hands held. I could not imagine crossing this road on my own.

Footwear: my Italian leather thrift shop booties, shockingly were not a good fit for the muddy streets of Kathmandu. Thankfully I had my Chaco sandals with me and they worked out great. Nate had his big Iron Ranger boots and was fine too. I haven’t mentioned stray dogs yet, but there are a bunch of them. Mostly friendly and hungry. They’ll follow you for a few blocks (or longer). But it does mean that the streets have plently of dog poop, animal poop, mixed in with the mud. You have to be very careful where you step because it is also like walking through a river bed at times with ankle-breaking rocks and poop. It doesn’t smell great either.

The Monkey Temple lives up to its name. As an American, I am not used to seeing monkeys everywhere. They are all over the temple: swinging from trees, and prayer flags, stealing food from unsuspecting children, they are territorial and you should not get in the way of them and food, even if it is your food. We passed many people touching rotating cylinders – prayer wheels. Temples are on top of hills most places in the world, here too. Swayambhunath is one of the oldest and most sacred religious sites in Nepal for Buddhists. Adherents (especially older women) will walk around this massive complex a few times per day. In Nepal, religion is seen as something you practice when you are older. Early on in life you should try and make money, so that when you are older you will have the ability to spend more time on your religious practices.

LOEA7500So we climbed up and up the steps. Sometimes our stray dog would try and trip us. Sometimes monkey feces would try and make us slip too. There are two ways to the top, we went the back way, which is free. The front way is where most tourists find themselves and so of course, you have to pay. We went up and up, more flags and colors and monkeys and green. Stopped briefly for some Lassi (sweet and often flavored yogurt drink). Up to the top to Lord Buddha’s eyes. On top, there are a ton of vendors selling religious wares and trinkets. Lord Buddha always watching.

A feast for the eyes. So much happening. Monkeys, monks, congregants, tourists, locals gawking at foreigners, merchants, tour guides (500 rupee, 500 rupee), giant eyes and hundreds of stairs.

We headed back down and stopped for a lunch of momos (dumplings with goodness inside). You have to be very careful about what you eat. Raw foods are a no-no for the tourist that doesn’t want to get sick. So too is the water. Washed lettuce can never be clean enough, so just avoid it. Diarrhea can strike from just about anything. The delicious salsa is probably okay. But we don’t want to risk it. Nepalis drink a ton of hot tea and that is fine to drink because it is boiled, but you should wipe the cup out if it is still wet from being washed. Even bring extra water to the bathroom when brushing your teeth. This is a lot to keep in mind.

Also, just because it is interesting, the year in Nepal isn’t 2016. It’s the future: 2073. Nepal isn’t alone in their decision to not follow the Roman calendar; Israel and a few other countries do too. The time zone is 15 minutes earlier than India, just because.

For the next few days, we just hung around Lizzy and PJ’s, sometimes accompanying them on errands or to the local farmer’s market, or giving advice on elementary social studies curriculum, or reading a lot of John Grisham novels, or playing games with Naomi and Ezra. We all went to be early and got caught up on rest from our Korea travels. One thing we did not do is venture out on our own. We walked down to the ring road to get cash from the ATM about a kilometer away from home, but that was it for our adventures sans a guide.

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It rained a lot. It’s amazing how many people wear sandals here with the condition of the roads. The women in particular seem to have an uncanny ability to step lightly and keep their feet clean. It’s amazing how much balance and poise people have. Whether it’s dodging and weaving traffic perched on the back of a motorcycle or negotiating pot holes or crossing the street or pushing a fruit-laden bicycle or carrying a basket of stones or a tall pile of textiles.

Nathan was feeling stressed about work and getting his art installation Audiograph working and ready for the conference in Finland. I encouraged him to prioritize working on his art since he had been prioritizing other people’s projects up to now, and since we had semi-reliable power and internet. He did and after a few days of working on it and a lot of trial and error and getting help from friends back home, he got it working.

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Friday morning we met with our “baby trek” guides who would take us to the Gyangphedi villages (GP) next week. Lizzy dropped us off at the organization’s headquarters at their coffee shop, Kairos (which was the name of Nathan’s band back in the day, though spelled differently). The organization is called Five14 and works to do sustainable eco-tourism. That’s a fancy way of saying that they are very intentional about not exploiting Nepalis and doing their best to help Nepalis build Nepal. Our guide Yogya is Nepali and is from a small village in the west of Nepal. More on him later. He and his wife started Five14 about five years ago and havebeen establishing specific treks and homestays with remote villages. We wouldn’t be going high into the mountains, but we would be going high enough for us and I needed to get some better footware. Yogya thought my sandals would be fine, but I wanted a back up pair as well. We learned that we would be in a Jeep for 5-6 hours and walking for 5-6 hours to get to the village.

This is where I started questioning my sanity, or decision-making skills (not for the first or last time). We were calling this a baby trek and it may be a baby trek, but 5-6 hours hiking doesn’t sound all that babyish to me. Nate was suprised that I was suprised. Didn’t you read the description on the website? Um… maybe. I looked at some pictures, saw the words “village homestay” and called it a day. Whoops. What were we in for?

The thing is that sometimes in life if you read the description, you’ll talk yourself out of something and not give yourself credit for being strong. This hopefully will turn out to be for the better.