Cycling with Yaks

In this most spiritual of countries, today we hiked up over 10,000 feet to the Tiger’s Nest, the most sacred monastery built high up on the side of a mountain cliff. It is said that the second Lord Buddha was flown up to a cave by his Tibetan consort in the form of a tigress. Today I climbed down into that same cave that goes deep into the mountain. We also visited the temples where a monk sat chanting and beating a drum while incense scented the air. One can’t help but be in awe in such a setting 3000 feet above the village of Paro. To get there was our final day’s challenge. We climbed up a steep dirt path for about 2 hours before reaching a tea house where we stopped for the twice a day tea stop. From there it was another hour of climbing until we reached the highest place. That’s where the steps go down the face of the cliff, cross a bridge past a waterfall and then up another set of steep steps to the temples. All along the way were colorful prayer flags waving in the breeze some shot across the air by arrows.

We have visited several temples on our last few days in Bhutan and know the routine. First the shoes come off, long sleeves and long pants put on, sunglasses and cameras put away. At this sacred site, the police checked to make sure cell phones were left behind with the cameras. I’ll have to take the images inside in my head of the various carvings, offerings, butter lamps burning and elaborate paintings. I was glad I had my camera though as I started the descent down the stairs. On the way up were a group of Malaysian monks we had met at the top of a mountain pass a couple of days ago. That day, one monkette, aka a nun, indicated to me that she was very interested in my bicycle. After several tries, I held onto the seat and handlebars as she had her first bicycle ride. We attracted a lot of attention from the other tourists as I ran along side of her like a parent does with a young child learning to balance. She was a spirited one and we had an instant camaraderie. As I was descending the stairs today, I was delighted to see her again as she came laughing up the stairs calling out to me, her biking buddy. After some hugs, laughs and photographs, we each headed off in our own directions carrying the joy of our shared moments.

In order to go east and west in Bhutan, you have to go up one of the twisty mountain roads, through a pass and back down the other side. In our biking these last few days, we have spent hours perfecting our descending skills, dodging potholes, trucks and cows as we flew down the mountains sometimes for hours. My favorite moment, though, was when we came across some wild yaks grazing by the side of the road. I’ve never been around yaks on a bike and one of our women found out to keep your distance as the yak threatened her. We were also high up where the rhododendrons were in their bright red glorious bloom and we could see snow covered peaks in the distance. In Bhutan, most of the Himalayan peaks are unnamed and none of them are climbed. The people here believe that there is a deity on each mountain that would be offended by having climbers on their mountains.

That’s one of the special things about being in this spiritual country. Our guide has made sure to follow the customs of the country with us including stringing prayer flags at the top of our highest climb to bless our journey. At one temple we were each given a sacred knotted string to wear around our necks to protect us. We have been blessed with oil and spun prayer wheels of all sizes to send our prayers to the heavens, bells ringing as they turned. At one picnic site there were woven spirit catcher like things lying on the ground. When some women picked them up for souvenirs, our guide showed his distress. Since we didn’t know what karma they held (maybe there were offered to help a sick person or to change a bad situation) he warned them to leave them be. You can buy new ones in town, he explained.

Like in Nepal, there are shopping opportunities wherever tourists gather. On the way down the mountain today there were women with their wares spread out on colorful cloths. We spent some time in the shops yesterday in town where many women filled their suitcases with prayer flags and jewelry. I was looking for a CD of the chant that has been in my mind since Nepal. Coincidentally, some of the same group of Malaysia monks was in the shop with me. When I hummed the tune, they showed me which CD was the one I wanted. A monk helping me choose a chanting CD – that was another special moment.

We have not been in tourist areas most of this trip however. We made it to the center of Bhutan where white faces are a rarity. Rarer still is the sight of lycra clad women riding bicycles past farms and villages. Many waved as we passed and everyone returned my smile. Children held out their arms to touch our hands as we rode past and some ran along beside us. As we climbed hills on our bikes, women stopped their chores to watch us pass and men grinned.

In the center of Bhutan is a giant valley where the endangered black necked crane spends the winter. As we reached the valley floor after a challenging descent (one woman took a bad fall on a hairpin turn and has been on crutches with colorful bruises ever since) we could see for miles. Our colorful lodge was perched on the side of a hill and we each had a small wood stove in our rooms to keep us warm. In the morning sunlight, we hiked across the valley and then climbed straight up the side of a mountain to visit a Tibetan style temple in the village there. I was especially interested to see how the Tibetan temple varied from the other ones we’d seen as I had just finished reading an autobiography of the Dalai Lama which finished with his escape over some of these same mountains from Tibet to India.

From the temple, we rode back up to the same mountain pass where we had started our descent on the first riding day. This time, we rode down the other side to the river confluence and then back up to ride back to Paro, the home of the only international airport. Altogether it was 70 kilometers, some downhill, some uphill and some with intense headwinds. All along the way the views were beautiful either from high in the mountains, past terraced fields or along the river and through villages with their colorful buildings. In Paro, we are spending three nights in our lodge also perched on a hillside. There are four sets of stairs to get from the reception area (where there is wireless internet) to our room. Just going to and from the restaurant is great exercise. We can also see the planes landing and taking off, all of one or two a day.

Yesterday we rode our bikes out to the most western part of the country where the road ends and some low mountain treks begin. The road is cut into the side of the mountain in many places but now we are old hands at negotiating the occasional traffic and the ups and downs. Tomorrow, it will be our turn to board the flight back to Bangkok and leave this amazing country behind. Before we go, we’ll enjoy one more dinner. We know the menu by heart – red rice, stir fried pasta, some sort of potatoes, steamed vegetables, fiddlehead ferns or asparagus and a mouth sizzling chili, cheese and green bean dish. We might enjoy one more round of the special dumplings called Momos (that I also had in Nepal) and probably toast with one more glass of Druk 11000, the Bhutanese beer that only comes in large bottles.

It’s been a quick 10 days here in Bhutan and in a country that I hope will retain its unique culture as it joins the 21st century. Today our guide offered prayers in our last temple visit that we will all return to Bhutan some day. I hope the gods were listening.

(Apologies about the duplicate and some triplicate photos in the last blog post. The internet here is inconsistent and pictures seem to magically appear, disappear and sometimes reappear. I hope things will go smoother this time.)

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Cows Up. King Back.

The queen of Bhutan gave me a thumbs up as I stood respectfully next to my bike on the twisty mountain road. The king was in the car in front and by the time I realized it was him, I had only a glimpse. There’s something about being with royalty that makes for a special day in Bhutan.

We knew right from the beginning how important royalty is to this Himalayan Kingdom from the moment we got off the plane. Fortunately, I had already heard about the landing in Paro with the plane wings seemingly skimming the mountains as you come into the landing strip high in the mountains so I didn’t panic as we landed. I had seen Mt. Everest from the plane – a real thrill – and before I knew it we were landing. We were all a bit bleary from our meeting time in Bangkok at 3 a.m. Wake up calls at 2 a.m. are a difficult way to start a day. As we were flying the three hours to Bhutan, I couldn’t remember packing my bathing suit and some other things. When we got to our lodge, there they were.

As we came down the stairs of the plane, one of the first things we saw was a huge billboard of the King and Queen’s recent marriage. Our guide met us in the airport and filled us in on the history of Bhutan as we drove into town. Although the 4th king had given the power back to the people in 2008, this 5th king still has the final vote in the government and deep respect from the people. His father (the 4th king) has four wives – four sisters who come from the village where we are staying and had turned the throne over to his eldest son. Our guide has heard the rumor that the astrologer is saying that the new queen is pregnant with a son. We’ll see.

Our first day was filled with learning the history and culture of this country known for making decisions based on Gross National Happiness. We visited a cultural/handicraft school where we looked in on classes in painting, sculpture, wood carving, embroidery and weaving. We visited a traditional Bhutanese house where we could see the intricate decorations both in wood and paint. We spent some time wandering the town, doing some shopping and getting a feel for this unique country. People still wear traditional dress. The men wear a tunic that comes just below their knees and knee socks. Women wear long skirts and jackets. There is also formal wear that our guide put on when we visited a temple and the king’s fortress.

Hanging out at the temple is the way many of the older folk spend their days. Spinning hand held prayer wheels, grinning with their betel nut stained teeth, they walk around and around the temple always in a clockwise direction. Others hang out by giant prayer wheels with their prayer beads, chanting prayers or talking with their friends. Everyone prostrates themselves as they enter the temples with their giant Buddha and elaborately carved figures. Paintings, like the ones we saw at the school, cover the walls with their colorful and detailed pictures of the lives of Buddha or the lives of local saints and figures. Butter lamps burn and monks preside – sometimes young ones. Already I’m becoming familiar with the three main figures – Lord Buddha, Guru Rimpoche, the second Buddha, and the guy with the long beard who united Bhutan.

By the time we drove up to our lodge high in the mountains, we were really tired and hungry. After a delicious meal by the woodstove, we settled into our rooms. In the morning, my room mate from Florida was having difficulty breathing. She had experienced altitude sickness before and was ready with medication but she still suffered for the first couple of days with a bad headache, breathing trouble and vomiting. While she rested, the rest of us headed out for our first bike ride starting with the steep descent down into the village. The air was cool and fresh through the forest. Once near the river, we crossed the bridge and headed up the other side. As you would expect, a country made of mountains is not easy cycling. As we climbed and climbed up the other side, I knew that the option of riding back up to the lodge was not one I would likely take. I could tell I hadn’t been on a bike except for a few days here or there since Hawaii and with the extra weight of a mountain bike and without my clip in pedals, I worked really hard to get up the steep ascent. Some walked, some gave up and a few with their own pedals and having trained, seemed to buzz on up without too much trouble.

Once at the top though, the view down the valley was worth it. Prayer flags in the trees, the temples and fortress we had visited the day before, the king’s residence – all were visible from our vantage point. On we went for another hour or so. Our bike guide called them rollers but I would call them steep ascents and winding descents. We passed prayer wheels powered by waterfalls and a giant painting of the second Buddha – Rimpoche painted on a large rock wall; not my usual scenery on a ride. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the end of the road not far from where you can start a trek to Tibet about a 3 days walk away. There is a monastery high on the hill where monks meditate for months without talking and barely eating.

The way back was a sweet ride with great downhills that we had climbed before and a few ascents. When I got back to the road where a truck would pick up our bikes, I was there ahead so I decided to ride or walk my bike up the steep hill until the truck came along. It was a pleasant surprise to find that with my granny gear and having warmed up, I made it all the way up to the lodge. That night we enjoyed a dance performance of Bhutanese dance with colorful costumes and live music.

I woke up early the next morning and walked over to the nearby temple while my room mate slept in a bit. The same chants I had heard in Nepal were being played and I circled the temple spinning the outdoor prayer wheels and enjoying the view down the valley. The caretaker came by and opened the temple for me so I settled into a cushion for a little quiet meditation, a very Bhutanese and pleasant way to begin a day.

Our biking day was to begin at the top of a mountain pass. The bus twisted and turned as we climbed higher and higher. The road was much like that in Nepal, especially as it is being widened and still under construction in many places. The same colorful Indian trucks were carrying merchandise and passing each other in tight places. At the top, we visited the 108 chortens, each with a special relic, to honor those who had died in a skirmish with some Indian rebels a few years ago. One of the queens had a temple built at the top with stunning views down the valley and I saw the same rhododendrons I had seen in the mountains of Nepal still in bloom.

As we descended, instead of being tucked into a bus, I was in control of my own descent this time from the seat of a bicycle. We rode 30 kilometers downhill, calling out cars behind us or trucks up ahead and warning of potholes and bumps. We also called out when a cow was in the road. They are sacred here and have full run of the country. It was noisy from our voices as there was barely a smooth stretch of pavement. It took focus and concentration but it was a sweet ride. I had to stop and remember to look around at the mountain villages, the views of the road winding down the hillside below us and the terraced fields. At one point in a village, I felt like I was in the Tour de France as children blocked my way yelling “Bye! Bye!” and chasing next to me on the bike.

As we got further down, our group spread out. I stopped to talk with some school children walking home in their colorful uniforms. I met the Bad Boy of Bhutan, an impish youngster who wiped my hand with a stinging nettle. I used my best teacher voice to express my anger at being tricked. The other children stopped their laughing and looked chagrined. One explained that he was a naughty boy and when I asked if he was the only one in Bhutan, they laughed with me.

As I caught up with our guide further down the mountain, he was hurriedly adjusting his national dress. The king was coming down the same road we were cycling! The king is an avid cyclist himself and our guide hoped he would stop to see us and briefed us quickly on the etiquette of being in the king’s presence. There were only a few of us there when the police vehicle came first, flashing his lights. Suddenly, there they were- the king in the first car, the queen in the second smiling and giving me a thumbs up, and then they were gone. Feeling quite special, we headed down the mountain grinning at our luck. Two days in Bhutan and we had seen the King and Queen – special indeed!

After lunch, we hiked out to the Temple of the Divine Madman. Passing through a village where the people were constructing new mud homes, we got a peak into rural living, similar in some ways to Nepal but with more intricate buildings. At the temple a young monk (maybe 8 years old) blessed us with oil and a large wooden penis and an arrow. Yes, that’s right. In this area of Bhutan, you often see large penises painted on the sides of buildings as a way to ward off evil. As a group of women, we had our giggles as we passed the Phallus gift shop on the way back through the fields.

The last part of the ride was a long ascent from the river up to our lodging high on the side of a mountain. In the morning, we got to ride all the way back down. At the bottom, we turned onto a rough dirt road to ride through the fields and villages to the start of a rafting trip. My sandals went on the raft (I swapped shoes with someone who didn’t have river shoes) but I opted out when I heard that there were rapids of the same size that threw me under water in Nepal. It all worked out well as three of us rode our bikes along the river and took photographs of the rafters. As a bonus, we also got to cross a huge suspension bridge across the river and met up with the rest of the group for a picnic lunch. Just before we met them, I heard a voice say, “Quickly! Quickly!”. I turned to see a van full of police. I suddenly stopped my bike, jumped off and looked up to see the queen just a foot or two from my face. She smiled and waved (my old friend from yesterday!) and kept going.

After lunch, we donned our formal wear which here means that all of our bodies are covered from our ankles to our necks. Despite the heat, we enjoyed a tour of the fortress. Inside is the most holy temple in Bhutan where the King and Queen had their marriage last year. The monks were chanting and beating drums in the next section as we learned about the paintings depicting the Lord Buddha’s life, the wheel of life and other figures depicted on the walls and saw the giant carved figures.

Nearby was an archery match, the national sport. Earlier we had tried out the traditional bow at a place near the river where I was one of three people who hit the target, but these men were using highly technical bows. The distance was 140 meters long – longer than a football field and whenever anyone hit the target (which seemed an impossible task given the huge distance and the wind) each team would do a chanting dance.

Bhutan is working hard to develop itself as a more modern country while at the same time they are trying to preserve their traditions and culture. Tourism is becoming a big part of their income which obviously influences this place that has been tucked away in the mountains for so many years. Some call it the last Shangri La and from what I’ve seen the last few days, it certainly feels like that. The people are sincere and friendly and have a wonderful sense of humor. They obviously love their royal family and are incredibly respectful. Buddhism is a huge part of their culture and temples and shrines are everywhere. It really is a magical place. We’ll be back on our bikes in the morning, heading up to yet another mountain pass. I wonder where the queen will be tomorrow?

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Betwixt and Between

Yesterday morning I was riding in a car past men pushing bicycles loaded with hundreds of eggs or fruit or piles of blankets. Women laid their vegetables out on the sidewalk to sell as cows wandered by in the streets. Today I’m looking out my 4th floor window at planes landing at Bangkok airport. I’m in culture shock. Those things I used to take for granted are now a luxury. Here I can recharge two things at the same time and know that the power will be on the whole time. I have a pot to heat up water for tea, a hot shower, access to a fitness room and a huge swimming pool and a most comfy bed with soft pillows and clean sheets. I can get food of any sort in the restaurants downstairs (I had some delicious pad thai when I got here last night) and internet access (for a ridiculous fee). I felt guilty using so much water for my shower and went around turning off most of the lights in the room.

Leaving Nepal I was full of mixed emotions. Like all the volunteers I spoke with, we all had our moments wondering if we really wanted to stay in a place that had so many challenges from hard pillows to a place where things are unpredictable and change all the time. When I got back to the hostel, I met up with some volunteers I had met before and a crop of new ones just finishing their language training. I was sorry to hear that two people I know had ended up hospitalized with digestive troubles (both are alright now), one had to be flown down from her high altitude monastery because of altitude sickness and others had dealt with other minor challenges. I felt very grateful that besides a couple of days with digestive issues and a bunch of itchy insect bites, I got through unscathed. I found it funny that I slept particularly well in the same place where barking dogs and hard beds had made it so challenging to sleep when I first arrived.

Still, along with the challenges, Nepal is also an incredibly wonderful country. The mountains alone make it a special place but the people are also some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. For example, I had a new roommate join me my last night from Australia, a young woman just arrived in the country. I gave her my own orientation to the area (as each volunteer does for the others) including her trip to the phone shop where I have been several times. (The owner always likes to see me coming with a new client and wished me a fond farewell.) Alex had brought Indian rupees instead of Nepali ones which her bank had told her were equally used in Nepal. Not true. We went to a bank to exchange them where we learned that not only are they not used, it is illegal to bring the large bills into the country! With a fistful of money that is illegal, neither of us was sure what to do next.

The bank teller took us downstairs to a tailor shop. Not exactly sure what was happening we sat and chatted with my meagre Nepali and their hesitant English while we waited for something to happen. It turns out that the tailor called in his friends who each arrived carrying a wad of Nepali bills. Knowing the exchange rate was accurate, Alex was delighted to realize that the teller was finding a way to solve her problem and with enough friends, she had her Nepali rupees. He explained that Nepalis can cross the Indian border without a visa and they would exchange them there. He then invited us both to tea. Upstairs, we shared our stories. Alex has an invitation for a visit to his village and I made a donation to the school that he has helped to build there (using up my Nepali rupees). Such is the graciousness and generosity of the Nepali people. In my time there, I had many offers of meals and visits from strangers I met on a bus or on a walk.

At the airport, I went through several security checks including full body pat downs before making it to the gate. Coincidentally, the gate was used for two flights – mine to Delhi and the other to Bhutan. I was spending all day flying back to Bangkok to meet an early morning flight with my group when another plane was flying directly there. So it goes… As I climbed the stairs to the jet, there was yet another security check, this one by Air India. Apparently Nepal doesn’t have the best reputation for being thorough and the Indian staff does their own screening. The flight was great, flying right over the temples I had seen and the mountains where I had survived the twisty, narrow roads by bus. The Himalayas were on the other side of the plane but I could glimpse their snowy flanks from my seat.

We were screened again in order to enter the Delhi airport. This time I had a chance to get a little taste of India. I perused the shops where I could get a free holistic health consultation, listened to live music with a sitar and a drum and had my first ice cream in two months. Each flight had Indian food served by flight attendants wearing saris. I still haven’t touched the ground past the airport but like the Korean Air flights to Bali, it gave me a little flavor of a country.

Back in Bangkok, I’m spending today enjoying the creature comforts before leaving to meet the bike group at 3 a.m. for our flight to Bhutan. I did a work out on the elliptical, did an hour of yoga and am heading for the swimming pool to beat the humid heat. I’m still not quite sure what I will do when I return here except that I’ve signed up for a bike trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia. I always figure traveling by bike is a good way to see a country.

Time to put my guilt aside and swim. There’s a cold drink out there by the pool with my name on it.

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Himalayan Highs and a Terrible Low

I suspect I had a silly grin on my face the whole first two days trekking in the Himalayas until tragedy struck at the end of the second day. Before the grin came the tears as I left my home stay family. When the father took my face in his hands and said in tentative English how happy he was that I had been their guest, we both got teary. As I waved goodbye to them and my British friends, the tears flowed freely as the taxi took me to the bus. As challenging as my time was in southern Nepal, I made good friends there and it’s always hard to leave friends behind.

Fortunately, the four hour bus ride to Pokhara was much easier than the way south. This driver did not seem to have a death wish like the previous one and this time other buses passed us. After the rest stop, I had a nice conversation with my seat mate, a man from Portugal who sells speciality corks for wine and liquor bottles. Almost all the corks in the world come from his region and I learned a lot about the industry.

As soon as I got into Pokhara, I was happy that it was on my itinerary in Nepal. My guest house was near the largest lake in Nepal, a peaceful place with colorful boats to rent, surrounded by large hills and on a clear day – an amazing view of the Annapurna Himalaya range. This is a huge tourist town and all the amenities were there – Western food, coffee shops, internet and enough souvenirs to satisfy any shopping urges. I treated myself to a tuna sandwich as I caught up with email and had a small can of beer that night in my guest house. Wouldn’t you know that my body no longer seemed to know how to digest anything but dal baht and I had a great case of indigestion that night.

In the morning, I enjoyed my first hot shower in weeks and shortly thereafter, my fellow language classmate, Debbie from Belgium, showed up on the bus from Kathmandu with Jorge, our Sherpa trekking guide. Early the next morning we headed up into the mountains with our porter by taxi to begin our week of trekking. Our first real glimpse of the high peaks was breathtaking. I had seen a glimpse of the highest ones from Pokhara but being so close was surreal. The taxi bumped its way down the twisty road, crossing stream beds, navigating potholes and mostly driving on the shoulder that was smoother than the road. After a quick check in with our permits, we were on our way, climbing uphill immediately.

After being in the smoggy city and the sweltering south, the mountain air was clean and refreshing. The temperatures quickly climbed as we ascended and before we knew it, we were mopping sweat from our eyes. The trail narrowed as we got higher up the valley until, by the end of the day we were walking through villages about the width of a car perched on the sides of the mountains.

All over the trekking routes are tea houses – little lodges where you can eat basically the same menu and choose from a variety of teas. Each day we had tea stops every few hours and in the evenings, spent the night in a tea house. The rooms are basic – just a couple of typical hard wooden Nepali beds with a thin mattress, a quilt and a pillow. Sometimes there might be a bare lightbulb but headlamps are usually the only light in the evenings. The walls are the thinnest of plywood so you can hear everything in the adjoining rooms from conversations to the zipper of a sleeping bag or a snorer.

Lucky for us, in the next room the first four nights were some new friends that we met early on the first day – Karen and Pat. They are Americans about my age and Karen is from Keene, New York, the next town in the Adirondacks where we have spent many days hiking. We know several people in common including Rebecca who biked the western half of the Northern Tier with me!

On the second day, the serious climbing began. A lot of the trails are stone steps built into the side of the mountains. After crossing the river, we headed straight up, basically for the rest of the day. With the morning sun on us, we heated up quickly but I kept a steady rhythm uphill as I climbed. I was pleased that I was ahead of Debbie – not that I’m competitive but she is 30 years younger and has some breathing problems – so it built my confidence to know I could climb at altitude without suffering too much. We took breaks every once in awhile for tea or to let a parade of pack ponies pass us. They carry huge loads including bags of cement and even live chickens to deliver to the mountain villages that dot the hillside. Human porters also carry hefty loads on their backs with straps across their foreheads to help with the weight. As in the rest of Nepal, life is lived to a large degree outside so you can see people bathing, washing clothes and dishes, cutting grass for the animals and other chores as you pass.

The second night was spent at Ghorepani, our highest lodge. It is cold once the sun goes down and I bought myself a yak wool hat to help keep warmer. Even at high altitudes there are shopping opportunities and this town is where people leave for an early morning ascent so there are several tea houses. We gathered around an oil drum wood stove where laundry hung on lines above and people from many countries gathered for conversation. I sat next to an American who has been living in Bangkok for many years who was trekking with his two teenage sons. The older son hadn’t been feeling well with a stomach bug so they had stayed an extra day at the tea house. When the son went upstairs to rest, I talked with the father and son about their lives and advice about how to spend my time in Bangkok.

When I went upstairs to get my clothes to hang by the fire, the dad went upstairs to check on his son. That’s when his life changed forever. I heard him yelling his son’s name and Pat, a cardiac nurse, and Karen, an EMT went into the room. The son was apparently dead and they started doing CPR. They hoped that an epi pen might start his heart so I ran into the adjoining guest houses, shouting and asking if anyone had an epi pen or a doctor. By the time I got back, it was too late. Brian had been declared dead by a young American doctor who was staying at another lodge.

The rest of the evening passed in a shocked blur. The family had been trekking without a guide which caused lots of confusion as to how to manage. Eventually, the Nepali police came and his body was taken to the police station down the mountain a bit. The father had to call his wife who was visiting family in Holland and to let the other two siblings know the terrible news. Those of who are parents were especially upset, sympathizing with a parent’s worst nightmare. I heard the dad say, “I can’t believe this is happening!” as events unfolded and all of us were struck by the disbelief and the challenge of trying to come to terms with such a shock. It reminded me of the night one of our Northern Tier riders was killed and that sense of shock and conversation among strangers trying to understand what has happened. The logistics of dealing with a death in the high mountains was also discussed. How can a father make decisions under such conditions?

No one slept much that night, especially as we were leaving at 4:30 a.m. with headlamps to climb to the top of Poon Hill for a sunrise view of the Annapurna range. The climb was cold and difficult – more uneven rock stairs to climb, our breath blocking our vision, and Debbie struggling with her lungs. Our minds were clouded with thoughts of Brian and his family, even as we tried to resume our trek. Getting to the top was a triumph and although the view was not entirely clear, we still had the satisfaction of a successful climb. After a cup of tea (you can get them anywhere!), we headed back down for breakfast.

The guests were abuzz with news and we learned that Brian’s body was to be cremated on the mountain, which is what the Nepalis living there do, after the paperwork was completed in two languages. Apparently, Brian had epilepsy and the theory was that he had suffered a seizure soon after he went upstairs, had vomited and choked while lying on his back. I hugged his father as we were about to leave and spoke the platitudes of grieving that one hopes will offer some comfort. Our hearts were heavy as we left, climbing up to a nearby ridge where he and his younger son would trek out in another day or so.

The restorative power of nature helped us get us back to some semblance of normalcy as we hiked through gorgeous forests of rhododendrons in full pink and red bloom and glimpses of the Annapurna peaks through the mist. The sun never broke through that day, reflecting the grey of our moods, as we ascended and descended up and down muddy and snowy trails, sometimes through the jungly forest, other times along stream beds and finishing the day with another straight up climb to Tantepani.

Once again, we donned our warmest clothes and settled in by the wood stove. Many of the same trekkers from the previous night were with us and we took comfort in the closeness of the terrible experience we had shared. Our conversation also veered away to our lives in our respective countries from Russia to Dubai, Scotland to New Zealand and other places.

In the morning, our guide woke us at 5:30. “Ellen – the mountains”. I opened the door and my jaw dropped. The whole range was lit up right in front of us all across the horizon. Snowy peaks, jagged into the sky, had shown us their full morning glory. Cameras clicked as we all tried unsuccessfully to capture the grandeur of the moment.

After breakfast, we started out into the jungle with the peaks off to our left much of the day. Our guide told us there are monkeys and tigers that make their home there but we didn’t see them that day. Instead, we stopped frequently, trying to frame pictures of the peaks through the trees and to rest our weary knees, suffering a bit from descending so many uneven stone stairs.

We arrived at our next tea house early in the afternoon and took advantage of the day to visit the local monastery and tour this larger village. The village is built into the side of the mountain so in order to go anywhere you need to climb either up or down. There are no overweight people that live there.

Early in the morning, once again I heard our guide’s voice, “Ellen – the mountains”. I should have been prepared but once more the sky was lighting the peaks of the Annapurna range, invisible in the clouds the day before. Debbie and I ate our breakfast outside bundled up from the cold but eyes wide and voices stilled, trying to take in the reality of the view in front of us. Below us, we could hear the morning chants of the monks in the monastery and I finally solved the puzzle of the snippet of music that had provided the rhythm for my trek – it was a Buddhist chant I must have been hearing somewhere earlier that stuck in my brain (an ear worm, the Germans call that).

Very reluctantly, we resumed our descent turning back many times to view the mountains as the light changed. We passed more rural homes along the way – people living their lives in the shadow of the Himalayas. There were terraced fields of rice and grass, buffaloes and cows and more teams of ponies carrying their loads up. It was also Nepali New Year and the ponies wore decorations on their heads.

Several hours later, we were back in the village where we began, completing our circuit. After a celebratory lunch and a couple of Advil for the sore calves, we got back into our tiny taxi for the 2 hour ride twisting our way up out of the valley and over the “hills” back to Pokhara. The New Year festivities were in full swing right near our guest house. Debbie and I were the only westerners we saw as we wandered the carnival rides, food booths, games and live Nepali music. The field was packed with people wearing their finest clothing as children begged for cotton candy, vendors hawked their wares and screams were heard from the rides. Debbie and some new Belgium friends joined our guide for the evening of rock music but I decided to spend some quiet time on my own in my room. I could still hear it all, though, and stepped outside to view the fireworks.

I was still awake when Debbie returned which proved fortuitous. She had heard that there was to be a strike in Nepal beginning on Sunday which was the day I was supposed to take a bus back to the city to catch my flight to Bangkok. It was only a rumor but I got up at 4:30 to confirm it with the owner of the guest house. He was able to score me the last seat on a tourist bus leaving at 7. I hurriedly packed my bags and was ready to go, banana pancake in hand to eat on the way.

After 8 hours of bumping along, I am back in the city. I’m writing from Thamel, the Westerners part of the city, where I’ll pick up a couple of souvenirs I was going to get in Pokhura and beat it back by the tuk tuk bus to the hostel in the another part of the city before everything shuts down. Since internet access is limited and nothing is supposed to be running, I wanted to get this online before I disappear again into cyberspace. Apparently the flights still go but getting to the airport can be a challenge. The hostel has a little van so I’m hoping that won’t be a problem for me. Hanging out there for a couple of days will give me a chance to sort through my pictures and repack for Bhutan. I’ll add a few photographs now but will post more from Bangkok when I get a chance.

I’ve wanted to do a trek in Nepal for over 40 years. Now, I just want to do another one…

(Sorry, no photos. For some reason they won’t upload here. Just picture snowy jagged peaks for now and I’ll try again asap.)

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Life in Chitwan

“Go Ellen, It’s your last day! Go Ellen, It’s your last day!. Aryan, the youngest child at the orphanage was an immediate fan of the Beaver Song, a fun and silly song and dance that I taught the younger children last week. On Issy’s birthday, all 25 children chanted it for her along with the classic birthday party games and chocolate cake. Today, at my leaving ceremony, it was a solemn and sad (for me at least) occasion as each child stood in a long line with bright red flowers and a bouquet to thank me for my time here and a final Namaste. I received my bright red tika on my forehead and a hand drawn picture along with a short speech by one of the older students, thanking me for my contributions. I gave the orphanage a gift of some new ping pong balls and paddles as everyone seems to participate in that game on the cement table with bricks as the center “net”. Each child also got some chocolate and an American flag sticker I have been carrying around for months as I said a few words to each one. They are used to volunteers coming and going but for me, it’s the end of a wonderful, albeit challenging, experience.

One of the things that seems consistent in Nepal is the inconsistency. Plans change all the time and I’ve never known from day to day what my role will be. With the Portugese students being here for five days, routines were changed. Local village children were brought into the school for 3 days (at 7 a.m.) during their holidays so the volunteers would have someone to teach. Sometimes, they had volunteers at the orphanage as well, other times not, according to no particular schedule. Tom and Issy had organized a whole schedule for the two week break including art classes and sewing projects, but fitting them in forced everyone’s patience. We were told some mornings to do an academic hour so we had poetry, spelling and essay writing competitions. If nothing else, I’ve learned to be flexible and spontaneous and grateful for many years in the classroom.

Last night the routine was thrown off by yet another unscheduled event – a wild and violent hail/thunder and lightning storm. I helped my family pile up the shucked ears of corn under a tarp for the fourth day in a row as clouds gathered and rain threatened. It’s a laborious process to take a yards worth of drying cobs and make them into a huge pile. I know because I helped both pile it up and then spread it out again in the hot sun each day and I have the blisters to show for it.

This time,though, the threat was real. The rain started just as I reached the orphanage. Instead of working in the garden, several children, Tom and Issy and I gathered in the meeting room where we started working on a jigsaw puzzle. Not long afterward, the power went out and we were trying to complete a puzzle by the light of two flashlights and about a dozen children. One of the boys came in with a dish full of pea sized hailstones and from there it was just fun and games in the dark. Without the critical eye of the head teacher and the dark we had a jolly good time.

Having the power go out has been more the rule than the exception these last several days. Nepal relies on hydroelectric power and the need is way beyond the availability. As the dry season stretches on into June, the rivers are low and there are more and more rolling blackouts. The power is on for only an hour or two a day lately and sometimes just in the middle of the night. Although there is some sort of schedule, none of us really know what that is. I was grateful today that it came on for a couple of hours while I was home so I could recharge my phone and ipad enough to use them. Once the monsoon rains begin this summer, there will be more electricity. I’ve walked into town in the hot, dry heat a few times to use the internet, only to find that there was either no power or no internet. That one time with wireless was a lucky fluke as even a wired computer doesn’t work without power. I’ll post this from Pokhara, my next destination.

In the morning, I will leave my host family for a short taxi and a long bus ride north into the mountains which just made themselves visible after the cleansing rain last night. When I came home tonight, there were several new faces on the porch. Expect the unexpected here in Nepal! The older daughter-in-law and her son left sometime last weekend and I haven’t seen them since. Today the sister of the other daughter-in-law and some of her family members arrived for a few days visit. I’m hearing lots of Nepali conversation out my window as I write and I had my own last dal baht meal as they visited.

When my family has had their conversations in my presence, I find a quiet meditative place to sit nearby and listen. I have become braver in trying out my Nepali but most of the time the conversation just wanders by me as I sit nearby. There has been lots of down time during the afternoons between orphanage stints when the heat and humidity slows everything down. I’ve done lots of writing and reading and too many games of solitaire to pass the time. Each day I’ve forced myself to take a long walk to get some time in my hiking boots and some exercise but I come back sweaty and parched.

When I walked north to the forest the other day, I was greeted by strangers, hands clasped in Namaste all along my way. Wandering around the village reminds me of walking around a campground . People live outside here much of the time so as you pass by you see people hanging out, eating, doing chores and even bathing. Even in town, the shops are all open to the street so you can see inside each one as you pass.

At one little shop, a 14 year old girl took me by the hand and had me sit down. Her whole family came out to meet me and ask the usual questions, “What’s your name? Where are you from? Where are you going?” which I can now answer in Nepali. When I said I was going to the forest, they warned me of the rhinoceros and the rock pythons that are both dangerous. As I approached the woods, there were 3 young boys sitting on the edge of the river. They told me they had just seen a rhino and remembering the charging one I’d seen in the national park, it seemed a good time to turn around.

There is no shortage of wildlife here from the tiniest insects infesting my room (my body is covered with tiny little red marks from the bites) to the wild elephants and rhinos. There are also many species of birds, including one with bright yellow feathers and another with brilliant green. Last night I woke up to the sound of something moving behind my bed. Eventually, I got up my courage to reach out from under my netting, grab my headlamp and investigate. I was glad to see it was just a little frog walking on a plastic bag. The lizards make loud sounds but are harmless and I’ve seen a couple of huge but shy spiders in my room. One was on top of the netting one morning. This afternoon there was a large snake next to the porch that I saw before my “father” and “sister”. Knowing there are many poisonous ones here, I decided I should tell them about it. They went after it with a big stick, killing it and throwing it in the garden. I felt bad about the killing but they told me it was dangerous and I’m not in a position to judge.

Animals are only one of the challenges here. Issy has been having digestive issues for over two weeks and is only able to eat bananas and drink Sprite. My friend, Lee, who is a South African man who was in my language class and arrived at the airport with me the first day, surprised me the other day by showing up here in Chitwan. He left with three other men to fly near Mt. Everest for a placement in a monastery teaching English to monks three weeks ago. While there, his shoulder became displaced. After hiking over four hours to the nearest doctor, he was reassigned to volunteer here closer to medical care. We enjoyed catching up on news of the many volunteers we have met. A couple have had to leave because of health issues and today, Lee joined that club. He has several large sores on his legs that have become infected and undiagnosed. Doctors here are stymied and there are new sores growing so he reluctantly, flew home today. I’m lucky to be healthy.

I did feel very far away from home when I received news that my grandmother in Florida died this week. My heart goes out to our family members as I mourn from a distance. She was following my adventures by my blog and I’m glad that she was a hearty supporter of my journeys, that I got to visit her last year, and that she died peacefully.

The rapid-fire Nepali conversations continue as I finish writing and get my things ready for my 9 a.m. taxi in the morning. As interesting and heart-warming as this homestay and volunteer time has been, I’m ready for a couple of days off before I begin my trek in the Himalayas. One can only eat so much dal baht…

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Mixing Cultures

If you had a crying 3 1/2 year old in your care, what would you do?
a. Give him some banana bubble gum
b. Give him whatever he wants
c. Nurse him
d. Give him a cleaver and a vegetable to hack
e. All of the above

Believe it or not, in this Nepalese family where I am staying, I have observed all of the above strategies. When his mother asked me if my children were like him with his many tantrums, I diplomatically said there were times when they acted like that. It becomes a fine line to walk when living in another culture to respect the way things are done balanced with the urge to show a different way.

At the orphanage, the children have been busily studying for their week of exams which finished today. Each morning I have worked with a student asking them questions to help them prepare. Their questions come out of their texts which they have been memorizing all year. It is incredible how much they remember, quoting paragraph long answers verbatim. I was impressed by the math facts and procedures that the young children have mastered, whipping off triple digit multiplication at lightning speeds, where we struggle to get our students to master their times tables at that age. The twist comes when you ask a question related to the text that is not phrased exactly the same way or that requires some in depth thought. At this time, they give you a puzzled look like you just asked how many men live on the moon.

This morning a 5th grader explained all about a Wordsworth poem but didn’t know most of the vocabulary that the poem contains. That’s not on the test. So, as a teacher, how much do I correct and explain and how much do I just make sure they remember their recorded memorized answers? If I were to be here longer, I certainly would work harder to add a different dimension to the education but in just a couple of weeks, my influence has to be around other things. I did do quite a dramatic reading of a Roald Dahl poem in the back of the book which I’m pretty sure the students understood and we all had a laugh as well.

All of the classes are held in English, except their Nepali class. It’s impressive that these kids are studying basically the same curriculum that we teach at the same ages but they also have to learn a new alphabet, number system and vocabulary at the same time. It has been a good education for me, as a teacher, to be exposed to an alphabet that is completely foreign to me. Even the numbers are made differently so I feel much like my students do as they learn to read and write and do math in our school.

Since I arrived a week ago, I’ve been the only volunteer at the orphanage. Yesterday though, a British couple who is here for three months returned to town from their week long break. He is a retired British army colonel and she a retired postal worker. Their way of dealing with the children is different than mine. He has some raunchy limericks that the boys crack up over while she helps organize sewing projects and other classes for their free time coming up the next couple of weeks. “Dal baht, dal baht in your tum, tomorrow it comes out your bum”, chanted the colonel today at the 10 a.m. Dal baht feeding. Meals are all referred to as Dal baht because that’s all that’s eaten. My host family is vegetarian but they also grow all their own veggies. I’ve actually enjoyed eating the food although I admit to some hunger between the 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. dal baht times.

Tom and Izzy, the Brits, gave me their own guided tour of the local village yesterday, a 45 minute walk from here. One of the stops was a hardware store (all stores are open to the street) where they discovered a scale for weighing out the goods. Izzy goes in for a weekly weigh in and I took my turn. Once I did the calculation from kilograms to pounds I was pleased to find I have lost almost 10 pounds since I was in Hawaii. All dal baht all the time has advantages for weight loss along with the running and chasing games I’ve been doing at the orphanage.

They also showed me where they buy their daily Mars bars (they special ordered them for the colonel) and a cafe that serves cake. I’ve yet to have a piece but I hear that all the flavors taste the same. Both Izzy and my host brother have a birthday on Sunday so I’ll get a chance to do my own taste test. It was great to have some English speaking people to share experiences with. We were able to commiserate about the Nepali way of things changing all the time, dal baht, host family issues and the gossip around the village and orphanage.

Sunday we’ll celebrate Izzy’s birthday at the orphanage. I’ve got the kids all primed to sing the Beaver Song for her (“Go beaver, It’s your birthday!). A group of teen age volunteers just arrived today with their British teachers from Portugal. We’ll have plenty of helpers to fill the time during the school break and to help celebrate with Western style birthday games. Two weeks ago, Tom and Izzy organized their own version of the Iron Man for the kids. With the new students we did quite a brainstorming session today for lots of activities to do this next week. The textbooks are all put away and the mood tonight at the orphanage was relaxed and fun. No more teachers, no more books… Instead, I organized a wild game of Red Rover (aka the color game) and even the older kids joined in.

When I got back to my host family, there was a huge pile of corn in the front yard. Today they were harvesting and all the ears were out front ready to be shucked. I joined in to separate the husks from the ears which grew into a substantial pile like the ones I’ve seen them around the village these last few days. The kernels are all separated and laid out to dry on sheets and tarps in the front yards. After they are dried they are sold. I’ll miss having fresh corn around though, as we have had some roasted ears as snacks. I made the mistake of eating mine off the cob and was told “Fingers, sister!”. The first day I was here, I came home to help take individual kernels off the cobs with the family. Later, we were rewarded from the tedious work by some freshly stir fried kernels – a delicious treat.

The other day, the father of the family, a man my age who speaks only a little English, asked me if I liked his family. I was able to honestly say yes. Despite the challenges of being awake in the middle of the night listening to a screaming child or sweeping the kitchen with a small hand held broom used from a squatting position on the floor, I’m really happy to have a chance to experience another culture from such an intimate place in the family. They are careful to make sure I’m included in everything so I’m invited into the room with a small T.V. (on the nights the power is on) to watch with them in Nepali. I can understand the sitcom which looks like a 50’s T.V. show with its simple sets and overdone acting but watching the news by a broadcaster at a desk is challenging.

Last night I had the opportunity to mix up the cultures a little bit more. I was invited to spend the day and night with a Nepali family that my friend from home, Lisa, had met when she was in Kathmandu to adopt her now 14 year old daughter. Both of the parents had lived in Canada and done some traveling in Western countries so their English is great. They live in a second floor apartment in a town about a 15 minute drive away with their 10 year old daughter. I was welcomed with tea and toast with peanut butter, a flavor I haven’t tasted since I left the U.S. Their meals are served at a table with chairs and they use utensils to eat and on a western schedule. It’s funny using a fork after a week of eating with my hand but also very nice and much neater. It was also a treat to taste chicken again after living in a vegetarian family.

Sarita showed me how to make Momos, a Nepali speciality that I had tried in Kathmandu at a local restaurant. That night I was violently ill but these were delicious and made under much more sanitary conditions. I was hopeless at doing the delicate folding of the wrapper but still got to enjoy the treat, filled with greens, spring onions and garlic.

I also enjoyed a comfortable night on a bed with a nearby fan and no insects. At my family home, there are tiny little bugs that crawl on me and leave little red welts where they bite, despite the mosquito netting. I can hear their little bodies when they hit the linoleum floor and I have made a game of how many I can squish with my fingernail. When I was shucking the corn I realized they come from the ears as some were laden with them. It’s annoying but just part of the experience and made last night’s sleep all the more restful.

After a Western breakfast, I returned to the orphanage where the Portugese students were busy playing games and whitewashing the dingy dining area. The orphans had newly shorn heads, apparently done on the last day of the school term. In a conversation with one of the chaperones, I heard that the teenagers were not happy with their homestays and working as volunteers and wanted to cut their visit short by a day and return to Kathmandu for more shopping time. As the Nepali organizers diplomatically tried to determine what the disgruntled teens were experiencing, one chaperone loudly and barely controlling his anger told them they were there to work, not shop, and they had plenty of time for sightseeing and leisure in their schedules for the week already.

I was sympathetic to their challenges even as I knew the adult was correct. My first few days here I wondered if I would make it through two weeks. Being away for the night though, helped me to realize what I already knew on some level that this experience, as challenging as it is, is actually one where I feel like I’m getting more than I’m giving.

Sure, it’s hard to use the squat toilets and the bucket “shower”. Washing your clothes on a cement pad on the ground is not what we are used to and Dal baht twice a day is not our usual diet. Mosquitoes and insects have voracious appetites at dusk and through the night. But, seeing the smiles when I arrive at the orphanage, when the children call me Sister and cuddle up, when the older girls take my hand and show me the new flower in the garden, when they catch me in a tag game, when an adolescent boy clobbers me in ping pong, I know that this is a special place.

I’ll leave my cultural imprint by my silly songs and dances but I also hope that for a short couple of weeks, sharing our lives here together in this little village is a true multi-cultural experience that benefits us all. I hope my young Portugese friends will know that as well by the end of their week here.

(I’ve stumbled upon a wireless source. It doesn’t work in the cafe where they advertise wireless but they gave me the password and sent me across the street to sit on a stoop. So far it’s working so I’ll post this now and hope I can get a few pictures from last week on before the power goes out.)

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