Sunday, November 16, 2014

Being Here Now With A Kidney Infection?

It hasn't been long since my last post, but it feels like a lot has happened in that time.  I've gotten to learn some useful phrases in Nepali like "My wallet has been stolen." and "Can you test my urine for a UTI?"  I've spent some time volunteering at an amazing small orphanage here in Pokhara, made some new friends, and experienced the days of groggy pain that happen when the aforementioned UTI turns into a minor kidney infection. 

Actually that last part should be written in present tense.  I am currently in bed experiencing the heavy, nauseating pain of a kidney infection that ebbs and flows, sometimes attacking my lower back and sometimes my lower abdomen.  I don't want to complain here, but it kind of sucks.  I should have put it together a few days earlier, that sharp lower back pain + unabated internal infection + general malaise = kidney issue.  But it took a fever and a new kind of pain to finally convince me to take the $1.50 taxi to the hospital a few evenings ago.

When you picture a hospital in Nepal it's probably something along the lines of Mother Theresa of Calcutta tending to the dying on a throbbing, overcrowded porch of a humid, understaffed old building.  I did visit a few hospitals that were somewhat closer to that image, but with the arrival of foreign tourists and their dollars to Pokhara, the small private hospital I visited was closer to what I'd expect to find in the States.  CIWEC's building is brand-spankin' new.  They only opened a few months ago, and it's the cleanest and most professional space I've seen in this country.  So sterile feeling, in fact, that a few weeks ago I opted to get the Typhoid vaccine injection that I'd neglected to do back at home.  The front desk staff of Nepali women, dressed in impeccable Western style clothes asked me in crisp English to fill out a clipboard's worth of the expected forms.  They don't deal directly with insurance, and payment, by VISA or cash, is due immediately.  A consult with a doctor costs around $70, with additional fees for medication and tests.  A few other foreigners, coughing or on crutches, sat around on the black leather couches and we all took advantage of the free wifi to distract ourselves with our iPhones and avoid eye contact.

I had a quick consult with a Nepali nurse who took my history, reported a fever but otherwise good vitals and offered me tea while I waited for the doctor.  I've heard that without much else to go by, patients generally judge doctors mostly on their bedside manner.  I thought that the chatty and professional local doctor I saw was great.  Aside from the fact that he was wearing sandals, it was easy to forget how far away I was from the safety of The West and our billions of dollars in the medical field.  He repeated the urine test I'd had done a week ago at a sketchy alleyway pharmacy and confirmed that my bladder was indeed unhappy and that my Cipro regimen hadn't helped.  An American doctor, Robbie, joined the conversation.  He'd gone to med school at the same school where my dad did his residency and retained the comforting lilts of a Midwestern accent.  He'd fallen in love with Nepal doing Peace Corps here and had landed back in the country a few years ago with his wife, also a doctor and their kids.  Dr. Robbie asked me an unexpected question; "Do you feel sick?" and I gave a big, relieved, 'Yes!' near tears now because everything hurt and I felt awful and wanted to vomit and curl up but I didn't have the words to describe any of that.  He tapped the spot on my lower back where I'd wrongly assumed I had just a muscle ache, and everything suddenly contorted in pain and my breath got caught in my throat.  Yup- kidney.  But not bad yet.  I am fortunate that I was so close to a great hospital, decided to go in when I did and, mostly, that I could afford the $106 that the tests, antibiotics and consult costs.  They sent me home with a worried Max in a taxi, some different antibiotics, anti-nausea medicine, Valium to sleep, and my promise that I'd return to their 24 hour emergency room if I got any worse.  Since then I've been oscillating between feeling feverish, groggy, nauseated, perfectly fine and utterly exhausted.  The antibiotics went to work immediately and I think I'll be back to myself tomorrow.  That's the kidney infection news.  I'm happy with how un-dramatic that story was, and that to the degree that I'm experiencing it, that "kidney infection" is a lot less exciting than it sounds.

Before I got sick, Vince's friend and coworker in Kathmandu, Rose, put me in touch with the children's home; "Sam's House," on the outskirts of Pokhara, where she volunteered and lived for five months last year.  Before arriving in Nepal, I was vaguely aware of the exploitation and deceit that goes on with many orphanages.  Being here, though, I've seen many examples of how children and 'voluntourists' are exploited in a black market-esque grab for tourist dollars.  It's complicated and I know little about it, other than to steer very clear of about 90% of orphanages in Nepal.  But fortunately, through Rose's connection and getting to know the directors, both Nepali and American, of Sam's House, I'm thrilled to have discovered that this one is moral, loving and respectful of both kids and volunteers.  

I'd been hoping to spend more time at Sam's House, but with my brewing infection and my time in Nepal coming shockingly close to an end, I haven't been able to dedicate the time I would have hoped to.  I've learned though, that putting my dollars towards a solid organization will have a more meaningful impact than my short-term volunteering could.  I've thought back to JOIN, and how I didn't know the first thing about homelessess or who was who in the first month of working there.  By comparison, it seems hugely arrogant to assume that I can effect any change in such a short amount of time here.  With the exceptions of having value as a native English speaker and of being open to the immersive cultural experience that traveling offers; I'm pessimistic about a short term gig offering more to a community than just being a good experience for the volunteer.  Anyways.  I'll get off my soapbox.

Getting to hang out with the 22 kids at Sam's House was amazing.  I didn't blame them the first two days for being cautiously friendly towards the latest "ghora", but announcing that Rose was ''mero saati'' (my friend) gave me major street cred. It wasn't long before they were battling for my attention, the youngest one, 3 year old Siistaa, on my lap and a rotating cast on either side, proudly showing off their English homework, trying to teach me Nepali words for animals, or asking about nightmarish fractions.  I've never been to an orphanage before (Do we still have them in the US?) and didn't know what to expect, or how depressed I'd be afterwards.  Turns out that what struck me wasn't what these kids lacked, but what the house provided.  I noticed little things, like the house organizer, Shiva, smiling quietly and genuinely to himself when 'the battalion' of kids came through the front gate together, singing and dancing around in their school uniforms.  And how proudly the kids showed off their academic awards, displayed around the house, and confided in me that their hopes to become a doctor, a driver, or a NASA physicist.  Or how a five year old, wearing glasses and red ribbons in her braids, noticed one of the three 'house mommies' sitting alone in the gazebo and confidently skipped over to crawl onto her lap for a long, smiling, rocking hug.  I know that I only saw the smallest sliver of daily life at Sam's House, but I was deeply moved by how familial, comfortable and joyful the house was.  It felt good to be there, absorbed in the chatter and clatter and smells of a central kitchen.  I'm hoping I'll be up for going back again soon.  (Side note: If you happen to be considering an awesome volunteer opportunity that lasts more than a month and is in a beautiful and safe area, email me.)

I'm donating half the money from my CrowdFunding campaign I did to Sam's House, receive no support from the Nepali government and cover all of the children's medical, educational and living expenses.   

The other half of the funds I plan to donate to a small organization an American nurse here formed to conduct diabetes testing and education to the villages of Nepal. Diabetes is a large and often undiagnosed problem in Nepal.  With a diet high in carbohydrates (rice, potatoes) and a population drifting away from a more traditional and active lifestyle, a large number of Nepalis will die of complications from diabetes without ever having heard of the disease.  I was supposed to have spent the day today out at a village clinic, helping conduct the diabetes screenings, but, major bummer, spent most of the day in bed instead.

Oh yeah, I guess I could have lost a day to stressing about my lost/stolen wallet, but once I knew it was gone it was a sunk cost and not worth the stress.  Losing a small amount of cash is an inevitable part of traveling, and planning ahead, like carrying a backup card and the phone number to cancel the lost one, made the whole thing remarkably stress-free.  It was a cute wallet though.  But in the words of the great Dr. Jerome Sinsky (who likely plagiarized it from someone else), "The more you own, the more it owns you."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Things I'm Not Photographing

After a fair amount of wondering 'what's next?', waffling around potential options and beginning to feel the first hints of restlessness, I'm happy that volunteering at a small orphanage here is going to work out and will start soon.  So far details are totally unconfirmed, but I'm sure I'll have plenty to blog about there soon.

I haven't taken a photo in five days.  It's an incredible feeling to get to exist in this beautiful lakeside town at the base of the Annapurna range for enough time that I stopped feeling the pressure to document it.  It's similar to hiking well-loved trails in the Columbia River Gorge or visiting Multnomah Falls, where I've already captured all of the expected photos and can instead wander around without subconsciously thinking of my iPhone.  

It's freeing to wander this incredibly photogenic place and appreciate the unique beauty for it's own sake, in that moment, rather than giving into my natural instinct which involves more Instagramming than I'm proud of.

The things I'm not photographing:

A few hours kayaking alone on glassy Fewa Lake while the sun set and the jagged Fish Tail peak above turned from white to fiery pink and faded back to white.  There were osprey-like birds diving for tiny fish around me, clusters of floating lily pads that hosted a miniature explosion of biodiversity and a flock of egrets flying in formation low enough over me that I could hear the wind in their feathers.  

Watching weavers magically turn thousands of colored threads into cashmere scarves while casually yawning and chatting with other women.

Spicy masala milk tea with a scoop of brown sugar that's replaced my black coffee morning habit, and a new, colorful curry dish each day.  Deep fried yak cheese balls, muesli & curd, and an unhealthy number of banana lassis.  Discovering tongba- an awesome beer-esque beverage of fermented millet, served hot in metal containers, but realizing that the one thing I miss from home is a good, hoppy IPA.

Reading the latest National Geographic on the balcony on a warm, lazy afternoon and wondering which of the colorful paragliders above me is Max.  Having a fuzzy fellow around who makes this distant town feel like home and enjoys sharing an exciting scooter ride through the mountains or quietly listening to a RadioLab podcast together while it rains outside.

A photo wouldn't do justice to "my" alley where I feel more like a local than I did in Portland- where shopkeepers turned friends invite me in for tea and curiosity and friendliness override language barriers.  

Getting to feel a tiny bit grateful for this minor knee injury for really forcing me to slow down for what feels like the first time in my life.  Having time to reflect and read and journal and enjoy conversations for their own sake.

I'm also not photographing the scene of sudden diarrhea at 2am, scrabbling around for the Immodium, praying I've got enough toilet paper to make it until the store opens and wondering which banana lassi I can blame. 

(Okay fine, I took this picture.)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Back in Pokhara

So I didn't go to the Khumbu/Everest region for the planned Sherpa Critical Incident Debriefing portion of my trip.  As I mentioned before, I'd hurt my knee during a rough Jeep ride and overuse during our trek.  The physical therapist I saw (thanks again Matt!) said that I have "patellofemoral syndrome" if you're keeping track.  It's very common and with physical therapy, supportive tape, and minimizing activity, will eventually heal itself.  Huge relief, because I was naturally going into Worst Case Scenario Mode imagining grinding bones and early arthritis.  It's painful, but less bad than I'd thought- of course.

I'm bummed about not being able to do one of the major goals of my Nepal trip, and going to the Everest area has been a goal of mine.  What's keeping me from being completely bummed out is feeling a mix of emotions about the purpose of that trip that I'm choosing to not blog about.  I'll be saving a lot of money in not doing it and am now looking independently at plugging in somewhere where I can be effective in a different part of Nepal.  That update will happen soon but right now it's looking like I'll be spending the next 35 days or so volunteering at a small orphanage here in Pokhara.  I'm generally skeptical about voluntourism type opportunities in developing countries and I know that exploiting children is sadly common.  This opportunity though, is coming through an American friend who lives here in Nepal and spent 5 months volunteering at Sam's House.  We'll see.  If that falls through I have a few other options...the common theme in which is a desire to be more engaged in the culture and less of a tourist skimming the surface of Nepal.

Since my last post, I traveled back to Kathmandu for a few days to meet with the Critical Incident Debrief volunteer team from the Mazamas of Portland.  It was great to see everyone so far from the context where I've known them before.  We spent a day meeting with Sherpas who had lost family members in April's avalanche and facilitated a debrief/grief support gathering.  It was heartbreaking to hear the intimate details from the family members whose husbands, brothers and sons had been killed on Mt Everest that day.  While the details aren't for blogging, it gave me an opportunity to contrast their motivations for being on the mountain compared to Westerners'.  In my last post, I worried about whether it was selfish of me to put myself at some level of risk by choosing to recreate out here.  Sherpa climbers on the other hand, have chosen (or really- been economically forced) to put themselves at risk on the same mountains that we play on because no other options exist for their family.  My Sherpa friend back in Portland, whose father was a great high-alititude guide said "My dad climbed so I don't have to."

Again, while I'm not attempting some 8,000+ meter peak, the role that privilege plays in my recreation opportunities and ability to choose risk is difficult to ignore.  

(Durbar Square in Kathmandu)

(Remember when I said I was craving Cap'n Crunch? Drew, my new best friend brought me a whole box all the way from the USA!!!  It was amazing.  Thanks Drew!)

Several hours on a bus later, I'm back in Pokhara, a place that is quickly beginning to feel like home.  When I left last week, thinking it was for good, my Nepali didi (big sister) and I shared a tearful goodbye in the street during festival.  Being able to return here has made me grateful for her family's consistently welcoming presence and generosity of sharing meals with us.  Last night we had dal bhat with Monn (my didi's brother) and his family.  He, his wife, and three kids share a room with two twin beds and a basic kitchen in the other half.  Dinner tastes better than any restaurant and we laugh and chat with what little vocabulary we share.

(Physical therapist told me to do yoga, so I did. Lakeside at sunset.)

Yesterday a few of us rented scooters to explore the area around Pokhara.  Once we made it through the smoggy, crowded city streets, our trio switchbacked up a local hill to a gorgeous sunset view of the valley and lake.  I was surprised to scoot through a small farming village of terraced rice paddies and water buffalo that felt relatively quaint and untouched-feeling, considering it was perched on a hill above such a major tourist destination.

(Some kids let me try their Dasain swing.)

We look like a Colgate commercial.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Annapurna BIizzard

This will be a quick post because I don't know much about what is going on yet.  A freak blizzard on the popular Annapurna Circuit Trail has killed at least 28 trekkers and dozens more at least are trapped.

Here's a good BBC article on the latest.

And here's a heartbreaking account by a surviving Israeli trekker who was rescued though several of her friends were killed.

I'm in Pokhara, which is the nearest large town to the trek.  We're seeing helicopters buzz over for rescues and transport, but on the streets of this touristy town you couldn't tell that a massive tragedy was unfolding  so close to us.  I'm struggling to figure out my role in this.  It's hard not to take the first jeep back to Chamje, the end of the road on the Circuit, to see where I can help.  I'm conscientious of not wanting to get in the way of rescue efforts, but I hate just sitting here in Pokhara.  Last night I couldn't sleep, and it wasn't just my bout of food sickness.  If I wasn't lying awake thinking about the trekkers, I was dreaming about them.  It's heartbreaking to remember passing all of the trekkers on our last day of the Manaslu trek, knowing now that they were headed into a deadly blizzard.  Or that if I hadn't been forced to lay low because of my knee and sunburned lip that I'd have been out on an Annapurna trek too.  Or that if the cyclone had struck just a week earlier that it would have been Vince, Gabe and I trapped on a snowed-in pass at 17,000 feet.  A few days ago a French trekker was killed on our Manaslu route when he slipped and fell into the swollen Budhi Gandaki River.  It's absolutely humbling and chilling to think that so many people are dead having done exactly what we had been doing at a slightly different time.  Obviously I'm still coming to terms with this tragedy.

Via Facebook I'm in touch with families who are missing loved ones and trying to coordinate some information in a country whose strong point is not communication.  Ideally I would like to head up to the Annapurna region tomorrow for peer debriefing and trauma support, but it's difficult to know if heading up there would be helpful or just add to the chaos.  Even being on the ground here, it's tough to get news.  Hopefully I'll have a better update soon.  I'm supposed to be in Kathmandu in a week for the Mazamas' Sherpa debriefing trip, but this tragedy is looming as more important at the moment.   If anyone reading this happens to know someone who I could get connected with to get up there, or wants me to seek information on a specific person please email me.

Send your prayers/thoughts/good vibes towards the families of those missing loved ones and those still trapped in the snow.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Back from Manaslu Circuit Trek!

I just returned to the grid after an incredible 15 days well off the beaten trail trekking the Manaslu Circuit with Vince and Gabe.  Occasionally during the trek I’d find myself thinking ‘how the hell could I ever condense this word-defying experience into a blog post?’ And now, sitting in a small cyber cafe in Pokhara and getting to listen to my Spotify playlists for the first time in a while, I’m feeling that pressure!

The basics: Trekking is THE thing to do in Nepal.  I’d never attached that verb to anything outdoorsy I’ve done at home, but my understanding is that trekking differs from backpacking in that instead of traveling on trails created for the sake of hikers and sleeping in a tent, trekking generally follows historic routes that link villages and you sleep in small ‘tea houses’ instead.  Of course as trekking has become more popular and begun to generate huge amounts of income for Nepalis, trails and teahouses have been established in areas that otherwise wouldn’t support habitation.

I’d talked to people and spent a little time researching Nepal treks, but coming into this I felt pretty underprepared for the sheer physical endurance that it required.  I probably shouldn’t have spent my last few weeks in Portland solely going out for ‘goodbye beers’ instead of exercising at all.  Granted, Manaslu is one of the more difficult, remote treks in the country and we did it in a relatively short time period without porters.  But seriously. I don’t know why no one talks about how physically challenging long treks like this are!

The Manaslu Circuit Trek is in west-central Nepal and borders Tibet and Annapurna.  It circumnavigates Manaslu, which at 26,759 ft (8,156m) is the 8th tallest mountain in the world.  I’m not exactly sure, but I believe the trek is around 110 miles (117k) which really feels irrelevant because the elevation changes- not the distance- are where the intensity came from.  We spent 14 nights out, and had a few acclimatizing rest days built in as we neared Larke Pass (16,752 ft, 5,106m).

[I’m intentionally skipping the names of local places, but if you want actual specific or are thinking of doing this trek, talk to me.]

We had a marathon travel day by taxi-bus-micro from Kathmandu at 6am to the end of the road around 8pm.  I’m using ‘road’ in the loosest sense of the word.  I know that I have irrational fears (spiders, falling in the climbing gym, etc.) but I know the statistics and very real danger of taking buses in developing countries over monsoon-swept crappy mud roads that wind along mountains.  I was mostly convinced that I wasn’t going to survive that day.  Thank god for Vince and Gabe laughing it all off with the sort of fatalistic ‘if Ganesh wills it’ attitude they’ve acquired haven taken these buses for a few years.  At one point the bus was stuck in deep mud, leaning over a cliff (no joke, sorry mom.) and in fight or flight mode, I slid out the window.  That ride deserves a whole chapter.. all of the trekkers we ran into were talking about how terrifying it was.  I spent the last several hours zoning out in a happier place (now onto the ‘freeze’ response), assuming what I hope looked like a casual version of the crash position from those airplane emergency talks.

So I was thrilled when I finally got to travel by my own power along the trail.  Vince maintains that the miserable bus day was his plan so we’d all be happy to walk.  We walked a lot.  Because Manaslu is a restricted region we were required to travel with an official Nepali guide, but it really wasn’t necessary because Vince and Gabe know Nepali and are experienced trekkers.  Our Sherpa guide, Ang Chirring didn’t speak English and hadn’t been there, but was a nice guy who we essentially paid to tag along to comply with permit regulations.  He loves babies and little kids more than just about anyone I’ve met, and wherever we stopped for lunch or for the night you could find him in the kitchen, talking to or helping out the family there and holding a cute bachchha he’d found.

At the moment, Manaslu is not a popular trekking route so the villages at lower elevations maintain a subsistence farming lifestyle that hasn’t yet been hugely affected by Western influences.  Electricity is minimal and unreliable if it exists, and comes from local hydroelectric projects.  Cooking happens over wood fires, schools are far apart and inadequate, and access to medicine and family planning is minimal.  Large numbers of villagers leave to work in Kathmandu or abroad, so it seems that the overall population size has generally remained stable.  Goods and food that can’t be produced in the villages (especially propane and concrete) are carried for days along the same trails we hiked on the backs of porters or donkeys.  Villages along the trekking route naturally do better economically, and some ‘ghost villages’ are near empty as young people all leave to find work elsewhere.  It’s not uncommon for families to live separately as the men work abroad or as seasonal porters.  Villages are largely Buddhist, with some Hindu, and some obvious examples of Christian missionaries having been there.  As we neared Tibet, the art, language and people displayed more Tibetan influences because massive amounts of refugees have fled to this area of Nepal following the Chinese takeover and oppression.

I learned a lot traveling with an anthropologist and researcher who spoke Nepali, and felt so much gratitude not just to be in such a beautiful place, but to have access to intimate conversations that gave me insights into the local culture I never would have had as just a tourist trekker.  We talked with a porter who earned $6 a day carrying over 100lbs and hopes to become a climbing guide,
a father who cooked lunch for us in their firelit home and explained that he was one of very few living people who spoke his native language.

 A Gurung village woman who over local millet beer, told us the story of her love marriage as a teen and how she and her now husband had to brew a batch of raksi (wine) for their parents, whose approval of the raksi signified approval of their marriage.

Breakfast was always chapatti with eggs, tea, and a spoonful of peanut butter/Nutella we’d brought from Kathmandu.  We woke with the sun, ate, packed and pooped and then hiked until hunger or an inviting village convinced us to stop for a lunch break.  Lunch and dinner was almost always dal-bhat, which is eaten at least once a day by Nepalis.  For about $1.80 it’s a plate of rice (kanaa), veggie curry tarkari (usually steamed spinach, plus potato), cracker-like bread, lentil soup, and spicy pickled achar.  Best part is free, unlimited refills of everything which are really pushed on you.  Some of the first Nepali words I learned were “just a little bit” and “enough.”  In higher altitudes I discovered yak cheese and started ordering things like fried macaroni and yak cheese with egg and potato.  Covering so many miles each day at a high altitude meant that no matter how much yak butter tea we drank and deep fried Snickers we ate, we all lost weight.   Lunch might include some awesome aged yak cheese and chapatti and our carefully rationed snacks from Kathmandu were dried fruit, nuts, Snickers and electrolyte replenishments.  There aren’t really opportunities to buy anything along the trek.

It’s hard to write about hiking.  We went up, we went down.  Knees hurt, we UV-filtered water constantly, talked about poop and dating and what we’d eat when we got home (Captain Crunch).  We hiked past hundreds of waterfalls that rival anything in Yosemite.  Most of our path was along a river full of constant, unrunnable rapids.  In what felt like the majority of the path, tripping in the wrong direction would mean almost certain death.  I saw a heavily laden donkey fall and we saw a monkey plummet down a cliff, but no humans fortunately. Everything was massively gorgeous and completely defies my ability to describe.  The first time we saw the Himalayas was when the dawn broke through clear skies and we jumped out of our sleeping bags at 5am to watch the stars disappear and the jagged snowy giants around us illuminate one by one.  It was absolutely magical and cold and enlivening and joyful.  We spent the second half of our trek in the mountains and I honestly felt a jolt of awe every time I saw one of the many peaks.  They’re beautiful and daunting and change constantly throughout the day.  They hide behind clouds and reveal mountains beyond mountains as we kept climbing.  I didn’t take many pictures because I knew nothing would ever do the scenery justice.

We saw at most maybe 12 other Westerners trekking a day.  I’m so fortunate that English is the common tongue of travelers and Nepalis (following Nepalese).  We met a sweet Swiss couple, a fast solo Russian, a trio of Australians who reinforced my belief in Australians all being awesome, and many others crazy enough to want to be in that corner of the world.  All of our guides and porters hung out together in the warm kitchens where the food was made and delivered our dal-bhat refills to the tiny dining rooms where we ate.  We got cheap triple rooms with walls made out of stones or plywood, read Malcolm Gladwell, played cards and entirely skipped basic hygiene.  A week in I paid $2 for a hot bucket shower after a long day and felt like paradise scrubbing down while watching the alpenglow fade on the Himalayas through a hole in the stone wall.  Life was good.

Manaslu is a major mountaineering feat, attracting dozens of international climbing expeditions each year.  It’s the fourth most dangerous peak to climb after K2, Nanga Parbet and Annapurna, having claimed 59 lives since 1950.  While we were there a veteran Japanese climber was killed in a fall.  Most of the climbing teams we passed brought it up, and had conflicting stories about what had happened.  Only just now I read news reports confirming that Yoshimasa Sasaki, 59 had fallen into a crevasse and his body was recovered a few days later.  I couldn’t get the Japanese climber out of my mind while hiking.  Still can’t, actually.  

It was really cool to get to talk to foreign BAMF high altitude mountaineers.  Shockingly, they communicate like regular people and were happy to chat with lowly trekkers like us.  Very cool to hear their stories.  Especially my favorite, an exhausted Austrian who missed the summit and said that he’s going back to Kathmandu for ‘eating, drinking and f*cking.’  The only successful climber we talked to was a solo woman from Iceland who wasn’t sure if she’d set a speed record or not and is my new hero

Back at our relatively low altitude, the high point of our trek was Larke Pass at 16,752 ft. (5,106m).  It was my first time anywhere near that altitude. My first night sleeping high (around 11,000 ft I think) my heart rate was around 95, up from usual 60.  After that night I took Diamox to help with the side effects, and aside from hiking incredibly slowly, I was fine.  High altitude made my big muscle groups feel like they were being compressed when I tried to move, and I felt like a goldfish flopping around outside a tank.  I’d collapse each water break, feeling like I was trying to breath through a straw.  I think that Vince and Gabe were in better shape maybe.  Likely my backpack was too heavy too.  I don’t think altitude related illnesses are a big risk for this type of slow hike over a pass.

What was an issue for me was the sun.  Even with putting sunscreen on every break and trying to cover my skin, there was no way to stop it.  I’d gotten a decent gash in my shin, almost to the tibia a few days into the trek and a doctor I chatted with recommended I start taking Doxycyclin so it didn’t get infected at altitude.  Fortunately the wound was fine, but the Diamox + Doxycyclin combo left my Irish-skinned self way too susceptible to sunburn.  I’ll spare you a description and photo of a severely sunburned and blistered lip, but know that it sucks.  A lot.  Given how far we were from medical care though I’m so grateful that a blistered lip and Gabe’s sore Achilles tendon were the worst that happened to us.  It was a scary and humbling experience to be aware of our vulnerability when so remote.  I felt empowered but also completely inadequate with a Wilderness First Responder certificate days and days away from a hospital.

This trek was the type of thing that will go down as Truly Amazing Life Experiences.  I think I’ll still be processing what I saw for a while.  Being exposed to the level of poverty and lack of economic opportunity out in the villages is difficult.  I’m grateful to have gotten to be exposed to cultures so different from my own.  Physically I’ve never been in better shape and am proud of how much I pushed myself (meaning how much Gabe and Vincent pushed me).  I’m happy and tired and blistered and sore.  Flying solo for my first time abroad in the touristy lakeside city of Pokhara, in central west Nepal.  It’s been nice to enjoy luxuries like music, a Western style toilet (more on that later), and variety in my diet.  I miss dude time with Vince and Gabe, and my first night in my own room without two stinky boys was sort of lonely.  Fortunately, making friends has never been a problem for me and while I’m relishing the solo relaxing time, my next post will likely be about some of the great conversations I’ve gotten to have.

Life is good. I am healthy and happy and adjusting to backpacking life has been easy so far.  I continue to think about and miss everyone back home.  Love you all.  If you actually read this whole thing you are a marathon reader and deserve a medal.  Go watch a cute cat video or something.  I’m going to go tend to my bleeding lip and eat Korean BBQ.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Water Buffalo Momos & Public Cremations

This will be quick..past my bedtime and we're waking up at 4:30am to catch a bus out of Kathmandu. I'll likely be off the grid for a month or so while I go trekking in Manaslu & Annapurna. 

There's so much more I want to say about the Nepalis I've met and what I've learned about the caste system and economy and geopolitical history of Nepal, but instead of that essay here are some touristy photos :)
And water buffalo momos (tiny dumplings) are my new favorite snackiepoo.

Standard mealtime view. I don't know exactly what this is but it's some yummy omelette-esque Newari snack. 

Look who I found in Nepal! Getting together with Amit, who grew up in Kathmandu and now lives in Portland was so awesome.

Amit showed me a cool secret library. So peaceful compared to the constant chaos on the streets. 

You can pretty much outfit an Everest expedition with gear bought in the Thanek district of Kathmandu. Legit brand name stuff runs at regular US prices but there's a bunch of lower quality knockoff type stuff you can get for super cheap.

I got my skirt hemmed for 40 cents. I wish a photo could convey the crooked alleys of tiny workshops and kids playing soccer and old folks chatting and meat drying and chickens sleeping on Hindu statues that I meandered through to get here.

The Golden Temple at Pashupatinath temple complex. This is a very important Hindu holy site on the Bagmati River that I have neither the time nor the expertise to explain. I watched but didn't photograph a few cremations going on here. Very emotional and raw thing to see and I'm still processing.

Same thing, different view. There aren't many trees in Kathmandu because they've all been cut down for firewood.

These dudes were so high.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

First Day in Kathmandu

Bad news- I can already tell I'm going to be a bad blogger.  Like the title of my blog suggests, it's important to me to 'be here now' and feeling the need to write about my experiences might clash with that.  On the other hand, I want to keep in touch with people, so maybe between those two opposing pulls I'll just be a decent blogger.
This is where I am right now.. in Vince's kitchen eating breakfast of chai, toast & fruit. Notice my sweet technology.

Anyways, I'm in Kathmandu!  I arrived less than 24 hours ago and already like this place a lot, which is unusual for me because I usually don't like huge, densly populated cities.  Getting here was shockingly easy.. 12 or so hours overnight between LAX and Guangzhou, China where I shared a row with possibly the sweetest person in the world.  "Grandma Lucy" had been in the US for a hip replacemet kept passing me my favorite lychee candy and insisted I sprawl out over the empty middle seat to sleep.  

I don't know how long I traveled for.. maybe 20 hours and it was shockingly easy.. no hanger, jet lag, screaming babies.  And now I'm in Nepal!  I have a lot of unformed thoughts and a lot to learn about the history, geography, culture and language.  I'm ridiculously lucky to get to be hosted by my friend from California, Vince, who teaches high school anthropology at an international school, and his roommate Gabe who's working on a Fullbright/UN research project on HIV risk behaviors in the city.  Both of them speak Nepali and are amazing tour guides.. not just the touristy things but even this early on the trip I've gotten to be exposed to a more intimate and authentic side of local life than I'd have seen just staying in Tamel, the backpacker district.  

I have a lot of unformed thoughts and my mind is too open to have many observations or opinions yet. The stereotype of Nepalis being friendly is definitely true.  And the food is great so far.

Not the greatest photo but this stupa and courtyard are a 5 minute walk from Vince's place.

This is Kathmandu in a nutshell- sacred sites next to smoggy traffic.

I'm headed out for the day to visit the temple complex Pashupatinath where Hindus cremate bodies next to the sacred (and polluted) Bagmati River.  Then it's big Sherpa style dinner in town.  On Wednesday the three of us head out for what will be an incredible trek in Manaslu, and from there I'll head to Annapurna and Pokra.  Not that those names should mean anything.. they're just names right now to me too.  I'll be largely off the grid for the next month or so (sorry Mom!) Thanks so much for reading this.  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Uprooting & Aiming South

In the past few weeks I’ve become increasingly aware that I’m severely jealous of people who get to use uprooting/extended international travel as a form of escapism.  I haven’t read Wild but it sounds like Cheryl Strayed had some specifically shitty things going on in her life that merited ditching it.  I am so incredibly lucky to not have that kind of push, but it does make for a really tough emotional challenge to leave behind a life that has been comfortable, challenging, fulfilling and full of love.  I’m being overly dramatic about leaving.  Most likely I’ll be back in Portland in less than a year to start a Masters in Social Work at Portland State.  But the logical part of my brain that knows I’m embarking on an awesome, temporary adventure is overrun by the panicky, terror-stricken and sad part of me that doesn’t like leaving the constant connection of my cell phone data plan or the security of a paycheck, car and locked door.  Those fears don’t even come close to having to say goodbye to the amazing communities I get to be part of in Portland, the people I love or perhaps could have loved, a job I adored and my fantastic family.  As chatty/bloggy as I am, words sort of fail me.  My BFF Katie joked that they should have made me a T-shirt for my drive down from Portland that said “CAUTION: May Burst Into Tears At Any Moment.”  It’s been so embarrassingly true :)
"How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."
-Winnie the Pooh

The recap of leaving Portland:
Last day at JOIN coincided with our annual camping trip, which involved guitar and whiskey around the campfire until way too late and was a great reminder of how awesome the people I’ve gotten to work with are.  Symbolic passing on of my cell phone and list of “folks” to my replacement, Amber, was bittersweet but I’m feeling good about the transition.  

My goodbye party was a lovely blend of dozens of people who have turned Portland into my home.  There was a keg of Basecamp beer, amazing food by Katie Mays, Daniel, Carolyn & Liz an others, cornhole, and fortunately, very little photographic evidence of the night.

Packing was a fustercluck.  Has any packing experience in history ever not been a fustercluck though?  My stuff was distributed to homeowner friends (thanks Quinn and Chris!) and my poor little car was stuffed to the brim.  Very different experience from when I first drove up to Oregon and everything I owned fit in the trunk.  I’m a good accumulator!

Saying goodbye to Alberta House was, as expected, a sobby experience.  Roommate Brian waved bye from the sidewalk while I drove away sniffling...towards a burrito date with Hal a few exits south which totally saved me.  It wasn’t until 7pm that I put thought into where I’d spend the night and fortunately got dorm space at a lovely hostel in Ashland- one of my favorite cities.  (Check out The Ashland Commons if you find yourself in town.)  We stayed up too late talking politics and drinking hard cider and I could begin to feel my sadness of leaving already starting to lift.  The next morning Erik and I walked to the Ashland Coop (go there!) for local organic expensive breakfast and I hit the road again, fair-trade coffee in hand.

Right on the border of Oregon and California I got news that a letter from the DMV had arrived, informing me that my registration had been suspended because I’m a terribly irresponsible car-owner and had neglected to renew anything.  I spent half an hour literally waffling on the border, feeling like a dual citizen, debating which state to register in.  I went with California- not for any great reason, but I enjoyed knowing that my car full o’ crap wouldn’t be impounded on my journey.

Several hours of The Moth, This American Life, TED Talks, and The Dirtbag Diaries later, I was in the Bay Area.  Highlights from the drive include the massive wildfire that shut down I-5 for a while (without affecting me) but the 9 year old boy in me was super excited about scenes like this.

Also, California is droutrageous!

I wish I’d allowed more time for the drive down- every exit looked worth exploring.  But I was so happy to show up at Francesca’s sweet hotel in Pleasanton, where I felt really out of place with my mountain bike, backpack and Chacos among business suits and traveling execs.
Francesca and I caught up over sushi and a bottle of wine in our PJs.  I love that woman.  The ginormous consulting firm Accenture was kind enough to pay for my breakfast the next morning which was just so sweet of them.

I aimed south again, hit cruise control and sang along to Les Miserable and alternated crying and laughing at podcasts.  Have I mentioned that I love driving alone?  Yeah, I go a little crazy and have way too much time alone in my head, but I still wasn’t sick of driving even after day 3.

Being home is so good.  So good.  I absolutely love hanging out with my family, and we’ve got two dogs (Bella and Murphy) and a creatively named cat (Kitty), who are always happily underfoot.
 I’ve been eating well and my stuff has exploded to cover two different rooms.  Whoops.
I’m not ready to leave in less than 24 hours.  Not done with my to-do lists (travelers insurance? suspending car insurance?) or packing, and definitely not emotionally ready to take off.  Logically I know it’ll be good once I’m there, but it’s hard to get my scared brain to stretch in that way right now.  I don’t think I’m actually internalizing that I’m taking off tomorrow.  Weird.

It’ll work out though.  Today is the anniversary of my good friend Eunjey Cho being killed by a woman driving under the influence in Colorado.  Eunjey was on an epic bike journey from Spokane, WA home to Princeton, NJ and I continue to be inspired by his example of embracing the unknown and saying YES to adventures.  Eunjey is a huge motivator behind me doing this trip, and his life and death will likely be a theme throughout my journey.