Sunday, April 7, 2013

Andy Guessed It!

When I saw that my dear friend Andy had the correct guess in my little Facebook contest to see where I'll be going on my next mission, I actually made a little squeal sound. I might have clapped, too. Right there in my kitchen, by myself. You'd cheer too, if you knew him.

Whenever I see Andy, after a gigantic hug, he always has the same two questions for me. When are you going to come visit? and, When are you going to go back to your blog? Well, Andy, since you loved my old blog, I blew the dust off of it. Here you go, a post just for you...ABOUT you.

Before I can actually shine the spotlight on him, I have to talk about his wife Kira first. But Before I talk about Kira, I have to talk about her parents.

Kira's parents, Cathy and Ray, were friends with my parents and lived in Shelton back in the earlier years. Ray and my dad worked together for the US Forest Service. There were three girls in the family. I was closest to their oldest, Kira, because we were closest in age.  Cathy worked as an RN in the emergency room at Mason General. Many a summer night I'd spend the night with Kira, and we'd always stay up super late until Cathy finished work. Then she'd come home and share with us all the cases that came into ER during her shift. Like the one about the guy that cut off his toes with his lawn mower.

When Kira and I were middle school age, job transfers took their family from Shelton to Aberdeen, then onto Boise, Idaho after several years. My dad died while coincidentally working in Idaho, and when we got the news, Cathy was the first person I called. So much like a mom to me, she said, "I know, honey...Ray told me." I'll always remember the sadness in her voice.

Kira and I, as youngsters, always vowed that when we grew up, we'd move to Europe and live exciting lives and marry foreign men and spend our days sipping cappuccinos. While I stayed in Shelton, Kira did exactly that. After graduating from Boise State, with nothing tying her down, she took job as an au pair (fancy for nanny) in Switzerland.

While taking German classes, the pretty, fun, outgoing, Kira met a handsome, funny, inviting guy named Andy (finally! I am getting to the point!). Andy was in Switzerland working for Shell oil. Since like attracts like, they fell in love and in time, got married. Andy's job then took them to The Netherlands, then to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  I tease them that everyone in Abu Dhabi sneezes gold glitter. 

Andy is just one of the coolest guys on the planet. He's a good hugger. He makes you feel welcome. He is funny and friendly and all full of goofy, quirky, British phrases. To know him is to love him. Here is a picture of Andy and I at Kira's sister Jordan's wedding last May. (Contrary to how it may seem, I was sober here.) photo IMG_1791_zpsbe500da4.jpg

And here is Andy with his lovely wife, and my lifelong friend, Kira.  photo IMG_1792_zps3cf81de5.jpg OH! I almost forgot the second point to this story. Andy won the contest with his guess: In November I am going on yet another dental BELIZE! Yay for that! And if you are reading this because you used to follow my blog, but you don't know me and wonder why the heck I fell off the face of the got pretty effed up there for a while. But I will come back. I'll finish the Nepal story. I'll post regularly.  Writing was my faithful old friend. I miss it too.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Trek Chapter 4, Acclimatization Day in Namche

To my faithful blog readers, thank you for patiently waiting 8 months (eek!) for an update. So many of you wrote and asked if I was ok and why had I stopped blogging and didn't I know they loved my blog so much? As the months passed, you concerned folks stopped asking when I would go back to blogging and began to ask if I would go back to blogging. The truth is, in these last 8 months, things weren't ok. I got divorced. And any of you that have gone through it know that divorce yanks you upside down by the ankles and shakes everything out of you, leaving only the ability to somehow just survive the whole process. Hobbies, happiness, and the desire to wash one's hair become dim memories, while sadness, paperwork, and tearful discussions over parenting plans takes their place.

Shit happens.

Since it has been 2/3 of a year, you may want to back up and re-read chapters 1, 2, and 3 to refresh yourselves with the story and to reignite that desire to find out, just how is that chocolate cake prepared?

* * *

The next day was reserved for rest and acclimatizing, so we stayed a second day in Namche. If you go too high, too fast, you risk getting altitude sickness, so trekkers and mountain climbers will often spend two days here in this village while on their way to the higher parts of Nepal.

After breakfast that morning we took a short walk up a trail to a clearing where we had high hopes of, weather cooperating, catching a glimpse of Mt. Everest. It was cloudy, so we killed some time by wandering through a little museum that showcased the history of mountaineering in the Himalaya. Kamal, our porter, hadn’t joined us that morning since he wouldn't have to pack our stuff anywhere, and Chris and Michelle had gone off to be by themselves, which left Kalyan, Katherine and me to hang out happily on our own. We sat on the grassy hillside and shot the breeze while waiting for Queen Everest to reveal herself.

Soon the three of us were bored. We’d been waiting patiently for the clouds to part for, like, hours. So I handed my camera to Kalyan and told him to take my picture. “This is what my face will look like when I actually DO see Mt. Everest!”

Then I laughed at my own joke.

Our patience did eventually pay off and the clouds parted just enough to snap a few quick photos of the mountain in all her glory. Here it is…

Wait for it…

We made our way back down into the village and parted ways. Katherine and I headed to the cyber café where I banged out an email as fast as my fingers would go to Clarissa, giving as many details as I could recall about how the trek had gone up to that point, including Michelle’s lack of bra the day before. “So every time I looked at her I got an eyeful of nipple.” I even added. I emailed home, then did a quick scan of Facebook. The higher in the mountains you trek, the more you pay for Internet, so I worked fast.

We all met back at the lodge for lunch. I only picked at mine. At this point, the altitude was causing my digestion to move along at a snail’s pace, and it was all I could do to choke down a few bites of my meal. I always feel guilty whenever I am in a poor country and I let food go to waste. Really, I don’t like waste no matter where I am or what it is. But as much as I tried, I just couldn’t stomach it.

Katherine and I left to explore more of the village. Namche has lots of little stone pathways and nooks and crannies and we didn’t want to leave any bit of it unexplored. We tried to find the Namche weekend market. It was something I’d read about in Doctor on Everest, and by the way the author described it I knew I’d have to see it for myself. The problem was, we couldn’t find it.

As I leaned over a table closely inspecting some beautiful beaded necklaces I jumped when Katherine call out “Hey!” I was so focused it startled me. I spun around to see Kalyan and Kamal standing behind us…holding hands. Now, I have written about this before, about how it is totally common in some Asian cultures to see men showing affection to one another in public, but for some reason Katherine and I were totally caught off guard seeing our guide and our porter showing PDA. They must have read our faces because they instantly snatched their hands apart and laughed awkwardly. And I think I said something stupid and inappropriate, like “Whoa…mmm…that’s cozy.”

“We’re going to the market”, said Kalyan, re-directing our attention.

“Can we come too?” I asked, inviting us along. “We’ve been looking for it.”

We followed them to the edge of town, to the tip of the horseshoe, if you will, to a busy gathering of villagers socializing and laughing and exchanging fistfuls of rupees for chickens and spices and potatoes. The place bustled like a anthill clinging to a mountainside.

Look at this brave, young vendor.

Do you suppose the rent for his space is the highest or lowest of all the stalls at the market? The highest, for the amazing view of the entire universe, or the lowest, for risk of a shortened lifespan? He seems confident, though, clearly protected by a fortress of San Miguel beer, an impenetrable barrier keeping him from an early and accidental death.

We took some group pictures, and Kalyan and Kamal took the opportunity to make fun of their affection for one another.

As we finished up meandering about the market, Kalyan invited us along to go have some tea. “Do you want to go where just the locals go?” he asked. Of course we wanted to go where just the locals go. So we made our way inside of a building and up a steep, narrow, dark staircase into a tiny, dark, family owned restaurant with only about 4 tables. We sipped sweet milk tea and chatted. There was a soccer game on TV. Katherine and I (especially Katherine, being from the UK and all) wanted to see if the royal wedding was being broadcast, so Kalyan flipped through the channels. No luck.

The conversation turned to Chris and Michelle. Kalyan told us that Michelle had complained to him that morning that her hotel (remember, she chose a different hotel over the one he had reserved for us) was “really noisy”. I asked him, “What the hell does she expect you to do, wave your magic wand?” He just laughed.

We squeezed in for some pictures, then made our way back to the lodge to plan a meeting time for dinner.

I ate dal bhat that evening and when I finished I took advantage of the daylight that was left to go buy some souvenirs for my kids. I remember fighting waves of homesickness and trying to suppress the chronic lump in my throat. I went back to the cyber café and checked back in at home.

Before bed, I wrote in my journal: After I checked my email I went back to the lodge to hang out with Katherine and Kalyan and some of his local friends. Michelle’s name came up again. He said that in 10 years of guiding no one has ever rejected that hotel. We talked fairly late into the night. Then he got us water for the next day, extra blankets, and I joked, “While you’re at it, could you do something about the snoring man in the room next door?” Kalyan also told us that he had gone to Michelle’s room to check on her and when Chris found out, he told Kalyan (Kalyan imitates Chris’ Romanian accent in a confrontational tone), “You didn’t need to go to her room. I already told you she was fine!”

Katherine and I headed off to bed, in hopes of a good night’s sleep in preparation of our trek to Khumjung the next morning.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Trek Chapter 3: Namche Bazaar

Trekking the Himalaya: Where accessorizing means a headlamp, makeup means tinted lipbalm, and dressing up means your least dirty outfit.

To Namche Bazaar

We headed out and began what would be the hardest day of the entire trek. The trail made it’s way uphill, almost continually, for seven hours. It was really, really tough. I’d remember “slow and steady wins the race.” Or sometimes I’d hear Dory from Finding Nemo and sing in my mind, “Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!” Kalyan had instructed us to breathe in through our mouths and out through our noses and find a pace we could hold. I found a steady rhythm I could maintain. Again he allowed us to each go at our own pace, given none of us got too far ahead or too far behind. At one of the breaks Kalyan told me I was very strong and “I give you good marks.” A compliment from our guide! Now I had a reputation to maintain.

I had to keep reminding myself to look up every once in a while and enjoy the view. You are always going either downhill or uphill. Since you are never on even ground, and there were never ending piles of yak poop along the trail, I got into the habit of watching the ground in front of my feet. Because I used trekking poles and had a backpack, being a little hunched over and looking down became a natural position for my body, for both safety and comfort. But I’d realize long stretches would go by and so I’d pause for a moment and take it all in.

A great deal of the path ran along a deep gorge, which meant usually the inside of the trail was a cliff going strait up and the outside of the trail jetted so far down you could not hear the river. I was in the middle of a dry pine tree forest, dotted with wild rhododendron trees in full bloom. “The national flower of Nepal!” said Kalyan.

Yak trains would lumber up the trail. I’d hear them coming by the bells they wore on their necks. When you heard the clang! clang! you had only a few moments to scramble out of the way, because they moved surprisingly fast. Trekkers always yield for animals and always stay to the inside of the trail, lest the yak nudge thee off the mountainside. I was always nervous when these mammoth beasts passed by. For one, the trail is never that wide, two, they are big and scary, three, they have even bigger loads strapped to their backs, and four, they have long, curved, pointed scary horns that slope away from the sides of their heads and twist outwards. I always pictured myself being pinned to the cliff wall by the horn of a swaying yak.

We stopped for lunch, and I ordered Dal Bhat, the same as the day before. Dal Bhat translates directly to lentils and rice. It is eaten twice a day by the Nepalese. Did you hear me? The same meal. Twice a day. Everyday. It’s kind of reminds me of say, you know, any given Friday night in America and the wife says to her husband, “It’s Friday! Let’s go out for pizza!“ and the husband says, “No, hon, I already had pizza today. I went out with the guys at lunch.“ and the wife wouldn’t dream of torturing her husband with the same meal twice in one day, twice in a row no less! And the thought of doing that everyday- unbearable! So she suggests something else, like Thai food, and soon they are shoving spring rolls and cashew chicken into their mouths, happy to have averted disaster.

If you’ve read Little Princes (which I HIGHLY recommend) you will already understand that dal bhat is as much a part of Nepal as Mt. Everest. I am surprised they don’t have a picture of the dish printed on their currency, right beside their beloved mountain that graces every note and coin. When in Nepal, do as the Nepalese (right?), so I tried to eat as much dal bhat as I could. I always ate it at least once a day, and I really did enjoy it. It is either served very basic, with only the rice and lentils, or quite elaborate, also being served with any combination of curried chicken, sautéed spinach, yogurt, pickled vegetables, sliced carrots, cucumbers or radishes.

As I sipped on my sweet milk tea, I journaled: Just entered Sagamatha National Park. Michelle isn’t wearing a bra today so we all get to enjoy the view. She told Katherine that’s what European women do. Funny, Katherine is also European, but she still manages to keep her boobs bound nicely in place. Energy is pretty good. Diamox is working. No headache, just not much appetite…can still manage to eat, though.

Namche Bazaar would be our destination that day. The last two hours before reaching the village were grueling. I remember Kaylan saying “Oh, Namche’s just over that ridge line!” and I glanced up to see what looked like an entirely separate mountain. I continued on, step after slow step. I’d take breaks and chat with anyone near me who looked willing since there's always somebody going by on those trekking routes. I mostly found that whenever I’d start talking to someone I’d assume was American, they were almost always ended up being Canadian. I've concluded Americans don't venture out much beyond Mexico or Hawaii. I really didn’t meet many of us at all. Whenever I met any British people along the trail, I’d say “But you’re going to miss the royal wedding!” and they’d say, “Yes. Exactly.”

After gaining 3000 feet in altitude, we finally we made it into Namche. Even if I live to be 100 I may never see anything that will amaze me this much, and did you know I’ve seen the Mona Lisa? It’s a terraced, horseshoe shaped village that has the look of an amphitheater carved into the mountainside. This photo was actually taken the following day, above the village.

We made our way into a lodge where Kalyan and I were the first ones in, so he rounded me up some tea, then left to go square away the rooms. Quite a bit of time passed, and I wondered what happened to everybody. Eventually Katherine came in and told me Chris and Michelle had asked Kalyan to take them to a different lodge, because Michelle wanted a room with a private bathroom and shower. Mind you, the lodge Kalyan had lined up for us also had a bathroom and a shower, but they were just a jaunt down the hall from the rooms. Actually, it was quicker for me to reach that shower from my guestroom than for me to reach the shower in my bedroom in my own home.

Chris and Michelle later joined Katherine and I at the table. Michelle looked like death from the hard climb. “Don’t worry guys,” they informed us in an arrogant tone. “We got a room for you, too.”

“Don’t bring me into this,” I told them. “I didn’t even expect to have a shower at all, so one down the hall will work just fine. Furthermore, I think it’s very disrespectful to Kalyan to snub the rooms he’s arranged for us. I'll be fine where I'm at."

Eventually Kalyan joined back up with us we ordered dinner. The way it works in those trekking lodges is that there is no wait staff. The guides take the orders from their groups, then turns them in with a decided mealtime. Then the group meets back up in the dining hall and voila! The food is ready. Here is Kalyan taking our orders.

As we were deciding what to order, Chris and Michelle were being so rude to him, going through the menu asking ridiculous questions and bossing him around, like (I am not making this up) “Go ask the kitchen how the chocolate cake is prepared.” I was so embarrassed.

We headed off to our respective quarters: Kalyan and Kamal to the guides’ and porters’ areas, Katherine and I to the original lodge, and Chris and Michelle to their handpicked hotel. We had a few hours to rest and recover before dinner.

After getting settling into our room (we’d be spending two nights here to acclimatize, so we set up home a little more than at the other lodges) Katherine and I went and wandered around town. I quickly discovered it’s a pretty fun place to hang out, with a maze of little cobblestone walkways, unique markets, cozy bakeries and countless tiny shops filled with yak wool knitted hats and knockoff North Face coats. It was here, though, at 11,300 feet, that I really started to feel the altitude.

At higher altitudes, there is less atmospheric pressure. That means there are less oxygen molecules floating around any given volume of space. Less pressure means less oxygen entering your lungs with each breath. Your body responds by increasing respiration in order to get as much oxygen into your bloodstream as possible. Simultaneously, your body begins to rapidly create more oxygen carrying red blood cells. This process leaves you out of breath and exhausted.

What’s strange is, I couldn‘t match my brain to my body. Coming back to the lodge for dinner, Katherine and I made our way back up the path and came to a section where we had to climb up a few gradual steps . Something my brain saw as no problem, but about half way up (like, five steps) I had to stop for several seconds because I couldn’t complete the task all at once. We stood there, breathing hard and laughing at ourselves.

I actually did a double-take when I saw Michelle entering the dining area ahead of us. She could barely stand upright, and Chris had to help her walk. At the table she was in a foul mood. She was hating it there and wanted everyone know it. Michelle had admitted to us the night before that she hadn’t worked out in almost ten years, and she didn’t even know what the term trekking meant. “I looked it up online. It said walking. I didn’t know I’d have to be climbing up hills.” Here we were, in the tallest mountains in the world, and Michelle had no idea we’d be going uphill. She should have read the information packet. The last time I checked, there weren’t elevators up there.

Brace yourself. I am about to get really mean.

Better yet, while she was Googling trekking, it would have been advantageous for her to have narrowed down her search a bit and typed in, more specifically, trekking the Himalaya. Then she may have discovered that she’d be staying in unheated lodges, using some of the worst bathrooms she’ll encounter anywhere, crossing scary suspension bridges that bounce with each step and become terribly slippery in the rain, and would probably come across bugs in her food. She may have read that, pondered it for a couple seconds, and possibly came to the conclusion this isn’t for me. But she didn’t do that. She did nothing to prepare, and now she was miserable. If I had a small amount of sympathy for her the first day, I had no sympathy for her the second day. She felt completely entitled to be awful to everyone.

We met for dinner and after bringing us our food, Kalyan left us to eat on our own. When the meals came, Chris took one tiny bite of his pizza and pushed it away. “Too doughy.” They both sat there, mad. “Seems like such a waste.” Katherine chimed in. I wanted to high-five her. British and very proper, Katherine rarely said a square word. “It’s only a waste for them,” said Chris, and with disregard he waved it away. I sat there, FUMING. I am sure I had actual steam pouring out of my ears. Here we were, in a region of the world where everything we saw around us- every nail, every sink, every can of coke- was trekked in on a porter’s back or a yak’s back, in a third-world country where kids go hungry, but heaven forbid Chris doesn’t like his pizza.

I quickly ate my meal (or what of it I could stomach, sitting across from World's Two Most Self-Righteous People). I clicked on my head lamp and headed outside into dark night. I walked in the direction of the lodge and was ready to hit the sack. I saw Kalyan heading towards me from the opposite direction. I met him half way.
“They are making me crazy with how they are treating you.” I told him, finally addressing the issue.
“It’s ok. I have lots of demanding clients.” he reassured me cheerfully.
“No…it’s not ok. It’s never ok to treat someone like that.”
“Jessica…" He pauses. "...Not everyone is nice.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Trek Chapter 2: Phakding

A great deal of the first day was spent going downhill. I believe this is nature’s way of saying rest up now, for tomorrow you will be wishing a yak would push you off a cliff simply to give your burning legs some relief. But I am getting ahead of the story.

Early down the path we ran into a pair of porters coming towards us. Kalyan greeted them like long lost friends and enthusiastically shook their hands. “They are from my village!“ He announced to us happily. I quickly came to find he knew nearly every porter, guide, Sherpa and lodge employee we’d come across in this most remote part of the world and treated everyone as his family. He was quite the social butterfly.

Kalyan is on the left.

Soon our group spread out and an order between the four of us was established: Me out front, Katherine in the middle, and Chris and Michelle in the back of the pack. The first two days Kalyan mostly stayed with the two of them and allowed Katherine and I to continue ahead at our own pace. Later on in the trek he’d thank the two of us for not needing him as much, which allowed him to give Chris and Michelle (especially Michelle) the extra attention they required.

I had trained really hard for this trip. Dale helped me by giving me advice on which exercises were best for hill climbing and regularly reminded me that the more in shape I was, the less misery and pain I’d be in, and the more I would enjoy myself. I often silently thanked him throughout the week for pushing me to be prepared as I trudged up long, exhausting, unforgiving hills.

We stopped for a tea break. Because when you are hot and sweaty and working hard, you sit down for a cup of hot tea. When in Nepal, do as the Nepalese.

The view from my perch:

We hiked along and soon stopped at another small village to have tea. Again, we sat outside, as we always did when the weather allowed. As we got up to leave, I noticed Michelle’s zip-up sweatshirt in the bottom of her chair. “Don’t forget your jacket,” I reminded her, then tuned my attention towards Katherine to ask her about something unrelated. We continued on.

The path the first day wound down and around the Dudh Kosi, a churning, beautiful milky turquoise colored river that originates from the Khumbu glacier on the slopes of Mt. Everest. We crossed several suspension bridges on the route. Michelle did not do well at all. She cried and hyperventilated . Chris and Kalyan stayed close by and helped her across each one.

This one was my favorite. It spanned a deep, narrow canyon and the wind whipped throught there like crazy. It's decorated with prayer flags and scarves.

Katherine took my picture...taking a picture of the bridge. Notice the shoes. Y'all voted. I listened.

Eventually we made it to the village of Phakding, a cluster of cottages nestled on a small creek.

After checking into a small, white lodge, Kalyan showed us our rooms. Katherine and I in one and Chris and Michelle in another. Ours was small and basic, with a twin bed on either side. We got into the habit of photographing our room each night.

I really enjoyed getting to know Katherine better throughout the trek and as roommates, we had a ton of fun. She was born and raised in Wales to Chinese immigrant parents. What that means is when this cute little Asian girl opens her mouth, Princess Diana comes out. That was something my mind never got used to. She’s soft spoken and very sweet. I’d already worked with her the previous week in the dental clinic, but our stations were far from each other and I hadn’t spent any one on one time with her. One time in the clinic I caught her reading New Moon during our lunch hour. “Hey Katherine,” I said. “I live really close to Forks. Come visit me in America and I’ll take you there.” That was like, beyond exciting to her.

Like me, she is the middle child between a brother and sister. She’s been traveling alone for the past year. First, she went to Australia where she worked as a dentist and saved money so she could travel more. From there she spent some time in New Zealand, then onto Nepal. (How I love a girl with gypsy feet!). After our Nepal time was up, she headed back to Australia, then she is going to meet up with her sister who will be doing (from what I understand) a project for her medical residency in Cambodia. I was excited for her to be going to there and we talked about it quite a bit.

Necessary Tangent- I read a ton of books. Like, lots. I devour them. I read one on the way to Nepal, one there, and one coming home. I have another going right now. It’s on my lap, right here underneath the computer. About two years ago, I was wandering around the house, bored. I’d finished my last book and didn’t have another lined up to go. When Dale learned of my crisis, he told me he had a book for me, and trust him, I’d like it. It was called No Shortcuts to the Top, written by Seattle resident Ed Visteurs, one of world’s most elite mountain climbers. I read it, and he was right, I liked it. I liked it so much I continued to read all of Dale’s books on mountaineering: K2, Into Thin Air, Eiger Dreams, Touching the Void, Doctor on Everest. There was one topic in every book written about summiting Everest that I loved reading about: The trek to base camp. Through these books I learned about each little village the expeditions passed through. This part was often described in great detail. So when I headed down the trail from Lukla just over a week ago, I sort of knew what to expect. “How does it feel to walk the path of many famous mountaineers?” Dale would ask in an email. I told him I’d been thinking about it a lot.

We sat around the dining room in the lodge and settled in for dinner. It was a big room with a shiny wood floors, small rectangular tables along the perimeter, and a continual bench around three walls. Then came the bombshell. Michelle realized she'd forgotten her jacket, which caused her whole world to come crumbling down. She hinted heavily for Kaylan to go back and get it for her. He didn't, and I was glad. She'd been treating him like her personal servant all day already. Had it been an important article, like a down coat, he probably would have, but it was a simple hoody. He told her we'd check to see if they still had it when we passed back through that village at the end of the week.

I wrote in my journal:

Kind of bored. Very few other people here at the lodge. Did not bring my laptop- regretting that- wishing I could write on it instead of this tiny little notebook. Sitting here at the restaurant, just ate egg drop soup. Feeling really good, no problems with the altitude yet. I’ve been taking Diamox, so that must be helping. Not much appetite is the only thing I notice. Our guide is great but once our group gets settled in for tea breaks or meals he leaves us alone. I can’t say I blame him, I would too, Michelle is awful to him. She is driving me nuts. ENTITLED! She asked him to change the light bulb in her room because she felt it wasn’t bright enough. Then at dinnertime she complained that this place is dirty. Since I’ve never been good at keeping a lid on my thoughts, I spoke up. “What did you expect? We’re in the Himalayas. Did you not read the information packet?” She snapped at me that no, she didn’t read the information packet because she works 16 hours a day and doesn’t have time for things like that. So, of course I reply with “Well I have two kids, my own business, work full time, and I made time to read the information packet”. She comes to the mountains, UNPREPARED, and feels free to complain about the undesirable conditions. I swear I am going to go crazy. I have the urge to strike up conversations with complete strangers, I don’t even care if they speak English. I just want somebody new to talk to. How am I going to survive the week? Whenever Kalyan comes into the room I try to send a telepathic message to him apologizing for how rotten she is acting. But I don’t know him well enough say that to him yet, and I don’t want to come across as stirring stuff up. He told us that the thunder and lightening going on right now is supposed to be good for trekking tomorrow since it’s a dusty section of the trail.

I woke up to blue skies with a few fluffy clouds. This was the view when I stepped out my door and turned to my left.

There wasn’t much to do in the getting-ready process, considering we’d slept in our clothes and wouldn’t be showering. Kalyan knocked on our door with hot tea for us to enjoy before our established meeting time for breakfast. After brushing our teeth, adding a few more swipes of deodorant over the previous days’ layers, and shoving our sleeping bags into their pouches, Katherine and I met the rest of the team in the dining hall.

I journaled a little after I ate, and noted it was so quiet in that village you could hear the river running. I wrote: Just finished a vegetable omelet. Guess what? Michelle doesn’t like hers. Now she’s pouting and eating beef jerky. I am sitting as far from her as possible.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Trek Chapter 1: Lukla

It’s taken me a while to figure out exactly how to tell this story, this story that is the second half of my trip to Nepal. The trekking story. It’s complex. I could just say, oh, we hiked up into the mountains and when the clouds parted we saw Mt. Everest and we stayed in local little villages and ate lots of rice and drank lots of tea. I actually entertained the idea of glossing over many details and writing just that and leaving out the ugly parts. That way I wouldn’t have to fear people accusing me of being mean and insensitive, or writing in a way that makes me look good and others look bad. But if I left out the ugly parts, I’d be altering the story all together, and there wouldn’t be much of a story left at all. So here it is. The story as I experienced it. Not all of the story is mine to tell, so there are parts I am respectfully leaving out, but the rest of it I am sharing with you the way it happened to me.

To be honest, I was dreading the trek from the very beginning, and I even considered canceling and returning back to the US 10 days early after the dental portion of the trip was finished. This was all over one person. Out of all the volunteers on our dental team, only 4 of us remained in Nepal to trek after our clinic time at the boarding school wrapped up. In total, there would be six of us. Myself, our Nepalese guide and porter, and Katherine, a Chinese dentist from the UK who was my roommate. Also along was a married couple. I will not be showing any pictures of them, nor will I reveal their real names. For the intents and purposes of this story, I will call them Chris and Michelle.

I did not like Michelle from the beginning. I am putting that out there right now. She and her husband are from Romania, but recently immigrated to the US and have lived there for the last few years. She is a hygienist, like me, and in the dental clinic our stations were next to each other. She has, what my sister would call, “a jagged aura”. I noticed right away that she was very pessimistic. And she was bossy. I particularly don’t like this trait in a person, because I do not like being told what to do. I actually have this little motto that I pull out from time to time: If you’re not my boss, don’t boss me around. There were a few times when she told me specifically which instruments to use and questioned my choice of anesthetic. The way I’d hear her talk to her patients would make my spine go rigid. Once in the clinic I turned around to see her right down in her patient’s face. “Do you want to loose your teeth!?“ she demanded to know from this young boy. “Because you WILL loose your teeth if things continue the way they are. Is that what you want?“ She was never able to “go with the flow” and was extremely idealistic. And this is an appropriate time to point out this woman does not have children.

In the clinic she was always upset because she often had to face not being able to give her patients the level of care she’d be able to give at home. The first day I respected this, but by the end of the week all her constant dwelling on it did was annoy me. One day we were walking back to our guesthouse after clinic, and Michelle was crying over one of her patients; a young adult with a 7mm pocket (hygienist talk…why she measured it in the first place I‘ll never know, since there‘s little you can do about it anyway). I talked with her as we walked along. I didn’t really like her, but I didn’t hate her either, and I did attempt to make her feel better. “Michelle, don’t focus on what you didn’t do for that patient and think about all the things you did.” What I really wanted to know, but didn’t ask, was what the heck did she expect? Wouldn’t it be common sense that if you signed up to do dentistry on one of the poorest countries on Earth, you’d experience the frustration of too many patients with too great of need, combined with limited time and resources, which would force you to compromise your standards of ideal care? It seemed obvious to me that as a any type of medical volunteer, you’d have to come to grips real quick with the fact that you have to do the best you can with what you have.

* * *

Two days before the trek, Those of us going on the trip met our guide at the guesthouse one evening after clinic so he could give us a quick run through. When we met, he introduced himself as Colin.

This guy was clearly very much Nepalese. Now just why the hell was his name Colin?

We were in a country where people had names like Topgyl, Prasuna, and Tsering. Why did Colin have such a Western sounding name?

We were picked up at the guesthouse at 5am the morning of the trek. There was a strike expected that day (why I do not know) and we needed to get to the airport extra early in case said strike snarled traffic. Although we made it to the airport without any hang ups, I did see plenty of police in full riot gear lining the streets.

At the airport we had some down time so I decided to strike up a conversation with Colin. Up to this point I’d been around the same few people the entire trip. Now don’t get me wrong, my dental team was a great group of people, but I was looking forward to having a new brain to pick. I went and found him. Up to this point, the only words we’d spoken to each other were brief introductions.

“So your name is Colin?”

“Yes, Colin.”

Colin had a strong command of the English language, but his accent was also very strong. By the end of the trek I had almost no trouble understanding him because I learned how to understand him, but it was tough at first.

“Colin?” I asked again, raising my eyebrows.

“Yes, Colin”, he confirmed.

“How do you spell it?”

“K-A-L-Y-A-N. Kalyan. It means ‘social welfare’ “.

That made more sense. Now I was getting somewhere. So Colin was actually Kalyan.

Around 7am we walked out onto the tarmac and boarded a tiny little propeller plane with Sita Air painted on the side. One my mom would refer to as a “Puddle Jumper”. There were two pilots, the four of us trekkers, Kalyan, and a flight attendant with a baby on her lap. Every bit of space left in the plane was packed tight with random cargo. We stuffed cotton in our ears and taxied to the runway.

While queued up to take off, I pulled a small folded note out of my pocket. It was a letter from Clarissa. As we’d said our goodbyes the night before, she’d slipped it into my hand and told me to save it until I was on the way to Lukla. Clarissa is a dentist and practices in New Mexico. We hit it off right away and when we showed up at breakfast our second morning in Nepal dressed alike, I knew we’d be friends for life. We've even made a pact to climb Mt. Rainier together in July 2012.

Her little note put it all into perspective, and I was glad I hadn’t bailed out on the trek. She thanked me for opening up to her and becoming her friend and that she had a great time seeing this part of the world me. She told me to enjoy everyone else and reminded me to take some alone time. Not to read or journal, but to sit and be quiet and take it all in. She told me she’d miss me.

Her words gave my nose that tingly feeling. That feeling that you get just prior to your eyes welling up with tears. When I finished it, I said a quick prayer of thanks to God. I have a great family, have had many wonderful experiences, have been given even more people to call friends and was now sitting on a plane heading into the magnificent Himalaya. God has given me an amazing life. After giving thanks I had one last request for the big guy: A safe flight.

Soon after takeoff, we were out of the thick, hot, polluted air of the Kathmandu valley and into the clean, clear air that comes with areas void of too many people, factories, and cars. As the terrain became more mountainous I watched out the front window, between the two pilots, as Luka came into view.

The airport is often referred to as Lukla, because that is the name of the village in which it is located. It’s official name, though, is the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, after Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, the first to summit Everest. It is famous (or more aptly infamous) for being the most dangerous airport in the world. At 9000’ above sea level, the altitude makes it more difficult to create lift for planes taking off. The runway is only 1500’ long, and is built on a 12% grade. This means there is a difference of 200’ from one end to the other. To put it another way, you land going uphill and take off going downhill. Because there is no margin for error, the pilots who fly in and out of Lukla are among the best in the world. If there is a mistake upon landing, you crash into a mountainside. If there is a mistake on taking off, the plane falls off of a cliff. Please don’t tell my mom any of that.

The landing was abrupt and quick. They usher you off of the plane and into the terminal as fast as possible in order to swiftly load the next group of returning trekkers onto the plane and back to Kathmandu. Since the weather turns without warning (I’ve never seen anything like it) they get as many passengers into and out of Lukla quickly, quickly, quickly as the weather allows. Because of aforementioned dangers, they do not allow any flights when conditions are anything less than ideal.

We ate breakfast in the courtyard of a small lodge next to the airport. I ordered an omelet, a trend that would continue throughout the trek. Because of my gluten allergy, I cannot have anything containing wheat, oats, barley or rye. There goes pancakes, bread, oatmeal, toast, waffles, and cereal. As I finished my omelet and sipped my milk tea, I leaned back in my chair and admired the view of gigantic mountain peaks ahead of me. I couldn’t complain.

We met up with our porter. He was a petite, polite, dark-skinned man named Kamal. He always had a smile but knew very little English, so the conversation between he and I was pretty much limited to “Good morning Kamal! How are you doing?” I wish I could have gotten to know him better, because we spend a whole week together. He is 30, seemed full of personality, and word out on the street is that he is looking for a wife.

A porter’s job is to carry the load of the group. We each had a backpack with the gear we’d need throughout the day, like water and extra layers, but Kamal carried our big bags containing everything else we’d need for the week. Sometimes he’d walk with us, but most often he’d set out ahead of us and meet up with us later. Here was a man carrying easily his own body weight on his back, going strait up the mountains, reaching the destination at the end of each day usually hours ahead of us.

Our trek officially began just outside of Lukla as we passed under an archway welcoming us and reminding us HAVE A NICE TREK! We entered a region of the Himalaya known as the Khumbu, which is the area around Mt. Everest. If you followed this particular path all the way to the end, you’d eventually find yourself surrounded by rocks and small tents and a giant mountain looming in front of you: Everest Base Camp. There are many trekking trails around the Himalaya and you can travel on foot all throughout the mountains, but I was excited to be on this one. While we would not make it all the way into base camp, it was still beyond cool to me to be on the first half of this very famous route.

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Age 32. Mom, wife, smart aleck.