It’s Good To Be Home!

Hey all,

I return to the comfort of home (sort of… I’m in the USA again…), and have access to decent technology again! I’ve posted a large number of photos which I’ve finally been able to edit. A photo is worth a thousand words… so remember that when the photo page takes three or four days to load…



Posted in Business... | 1 Comment

Don’t Try This at Home: The Journey Begins

We crawl through a hole, G. and I. To call it a “tunnel” would be too generous; it is more an architectural mistake. It is as if the builder had set the frame of a building and then started laying brick from this end before running out at the far end. It is a dark hole just over a meter high, power lines running through it near the top right corner, and water pouring into it from the street outside, bringing with it the stench and filth of the Kathmandu streets. This hole separates our hotel from the main street, a second row of buildings built behind the first row and divided by a narrow alley. An unexplained oddity that occurs frequently in a city with no obvious system of planning.

G. and I are overburdened. We carry three bags each. A massive pack full of gear is strapped to each of our backs, forcing us to squat low and power through the hole. We each carry a blue and red plaid bag, both bursting with gear, and finally, a smaller backpack and duffel.

We emerge onto the street, and the scene is dismal. It has rained all night and continues to drizzle under a dark, grey, overcast sky. The rain has collected in pools all around the uneven road, carrying with it and collecting the garbage and dirt and feces of a city bursting at the seams. The constant stench that marks the beginning of total sensory overload anytime you leave the hotel is intensified by the rain. We jog down the road, overloaded but unwilling to let our gear get wet on the first day of our journey, before we even leave the city. We bang on the side of a taxi. The driver, dozing, wakes with a start, and becomes confused as he struggles to understand two deranged and dripping white men, obscured by baggage and the morning rain. We point down the road to indicate we want a ride, he nods, brow still furrowed, and we throw our things into the cab.

The rain is getting worse. We have been delayed a week and the Monsoon season should be ending, but instead it is intensifying. The afternoon showers of a week ago have become prolonged rainstorms. It is disconcerting, especially so because we are not entirely prepared. My bag is the only one with a rain-cover, and it has never been tested. By process of elimination, it becomes the one volunteered to ride on the roof of the cab when we run out of room inside. All my books, journals, and clothing are protected by an uncertain thin sheet. The plaid bags are guessed to be “water resistant” and they end up on top as well. G. and I finally climb in, clothing damp.

Even with the bags on top, there is still little room in the cab. G has a duffel on his lap, and I try desperately to avoid being impaled by the metal frame of his pack which has ended up perilously close to my eye. The final small bag has been jammed into the back of the cab, in the space between the top of the back seat and the window. We are cramped, and we still plan to pick up K.B. and have no idea what kind of baggage he will have. The cab jostles to life, gears catch in place and it lurches forward, rolling over various soaked scraps of colorful paper left over from a parade the previous night.

The night was strange and we are still processing it. It began with our Tibetan guide quitting at the eleventh hour; literally 11 o’clock the night before we left, when she demanded an absurd amount of money for her labor, something she had told us not to worry about on multiple occasions when we had asked. She is exceptionally smart, a native of Dolpo, and showed particular interest in the project, but refused to accept anything less than her ridiculous proposal, even after we repeatedly said we simply didn’t have that much money. After talking it over for a while and trying to make sense of her abrupt personality change, G. and I finally crawled into bed with less than four hours to sleep.

An hour later, however, what I initially took to be a dream turned out to be a parade of snare drums and trumpets. Our room extended over the hotel front door, merged with the buildings lining the street, and our windows looked out over it. The curtains were drawn, but quickly thrown open as G. and I looked down on a baffling scene. Nearly forty people were cheering and marching down the street, at two in the morning, preceded by a marching band. This unusual celebration of some holiday or marriage–we couldn’t tell–left us wide awake the remainder of the night.

The cab has begun to hit large pot-holes and between splashes of water I push G.’s bag back to keep it out of my eye. There is no traffic on the roads this early, and the driver is taking full advantage, avoiding the use of a brake whenever possible and accelerating over the rare straight regions of otherwise winding roads. We hydroplane around corners and make great time, arriving at our meeting place with K.B. several minutes early.

We make no attempt to get out of the car. The cabby looks around, confused. We don’t know enough Nepali and he doesn’t know enough English to explain that we are waiting for someone, we want to go somewhere else. We sit staring at each other for a minute or two. The cab driver has turned the meter off and G. and I both try and tell him it’s okay to let it run. In a city where cabs constantly stop for Caucasians, or break from traffic moving in the opposite direction to pull a quick U-turn, disrupt other vehicles to pull into oncoming traffic, and slam on the brakes inches from your hip just for the opportunity to make a few extra rupees from an unassuming tourist, it seems we’ve found the one unambitious cab driver in the lot, and he smiles and says it’s “OK.”

K.B. is like most other Nepali, the concept of time is beyond him. It would be a miracle if he were even awake by now. We wait five minutes past our meeting time and then call him on the phone. He proposes we drive to his house to pick him up. We hand the phone to the cabby to get directions, and after a three minute conversation it appears the cabby still doesn’t know where K.B. lives. He hangs up, drives down a few random alleys, and then asks for the phone again. He calls K.B., talks for another minute or so, drives forward thirty meters, then gets out of the cab and walks away. G. and I are left inside the cab, more than a little confused. The meter, we notice, is running.

The rain continues to fall. More than a drizzle now, it splashes and runs down the cab’s windows in great streams, and I think of my exposed bag. We wait another ten minutes, the only words exchanged between G and I, a question from him: “Uh… Should we go try and find him…?” and then silence as both of us try to make sense of the situation, but without stepping into the rain. K.B. finally shows up, entirely empty-handed. He gets in the cab, exchanges a hello, and then sits back, seemingly unperturbed there is no driver.

Time passes.

“Uh… We… Don’t have a driver?” G. seems to pose this question to the dashboard. I decide I’m going to be proactive. We have a bus to catch. I open the door, crawl out from my cave of baggage and stumble onto the soaking street. A few feet away is a dog with white and tan fur, large patches missing, trying to poop but struggling, a bloody mucus leaks from its behind. Beside it lies a dead dog, hit by a car and dragged to the side of the road where it decays. I hold up my arms in a useless attempt to prevent the rain from soaking my clothing and walk a few paces behind the cab before finding the driver, sitting in a tea shop drinking milk tea and chatting amicably with the owner. I catch his gaze, point, and then rush back to the cab as he waggles his head and then continues to drink his tea.

The dog is still struggling, soaked through. I push through bags to get back to my seat. “He’s drinking tea.”

“Oh. Okay.”

The meter runs.

A few moments later the cabby gets back in and pulls the cab forward. He and K.B. begin to talk in Nepali. K.B. is sitting behind him and gesturing and pointing frantically, no gestures of which the cabby can see unless he turns all the way around and drifts precariously around narrow roads with stone walls on either side. We reach K.B.’s place of residence to pick up his baggage. He has a large duffel full of supplies, something we didn’t anticipate, and then a small, pink, knock-off Sparrow pack capable of carrying maybe five-pounds for himself.

The duffel is smashed and twisted until it fits in the cab and we begin to bounce along the pot-holed road once more. We reach a main road and the cab picks up speed on the nearly empty street littered with plastic wrappers, rotting food, and empty tin cans all floating in a growing stream of muck that overflows the nearly-nonexistent gutters and spills onto the sidewalk and laps up in waves against store fronts.

We are headed north from just outside the southern boundary of Kathmandu toward a bus park near its northern tip. It is a brief tour of the reality we have grown used to the past few weeks. Twisted and knotted power lines dangle haphazardly along sidewalks, dipping low enough to threaten unwary pedestrians with decapitation or worse. An electrocuted carcass currently rots in a city hospital from one such incident. The boy died seven weeks ago and the family refuses to remove him until the electrical company pays the hospital bill. The story has made front page news in the English papers, which currently soak and disintegrate in the puddles on the road.

Roaming packs of emaciated dogs hunt through giant, soaking and pungent garbage heaps littering the side of the road.

We cross the Bagmati river, swollen from recent rains, and a disgusting brown color with garbage floating in it in giant heaps. Discarded papers, shoes, hubcaps, food, plastic bags, and other discarded pieces of civilization mix with the ash of burned bodies dumped in from a few kilometers upstream at Pashupatinath. It is a sickening pale-green brown of pollution and filth. The overpowering odor of sulfur and vomit that rises from it penetrates the car’s doors and invades our nostrils. The river is lined with tin and straw shanties. Several of the residents are already wading in the river with giant metal forks to collect something from the sludge at the bottom of the river, as they do every day.

We are finally stopped. A traffic policeman in a blue parka directs a three-way intersection where the light overhead has stopped working because of a load-shedding power cut. The city has no electrical grid, just a haphazard collection of wires that constantly demand power, which it cannot provide. So the city regulates the power given to each district, shifting available power around periodically and leaving whole sections of the city in a blackout for hours at a time. The buildings beside us rise high and lifeless with soaking plastic signs hanging at odd angles, banner upon banner crowding any available viewing space, but all dark.

A boy about seven in a soaking, red, muscle shirt wanders in the street and shuffles over to our cab window. His eyes are red and hollow, his lips blue and chapped. His whole body shivers. He reaches out with his hand, taps on the window, moans, and moves his hand to his lips, indicating he wants food. Water runs down his face as he continues to moan and repeat this motion until the traffic around him begins to move again, urged on by the policeman.

The road changes, going from potholed and uneven asphalt to uneven brick, then to uneven stone. We pass through narrow alleys where butcher shops have begun business. Lifeless heads of goats or water-buffalo rest on tables, their entrails spread over tabletops where the flies have begun to gather, their blood turning the streams of water red. The Groomers have also begun to emerge. They peel each others’ hair back, pull out lice and smash them between their fingers. People materialize in the dense downpour from houses, carrying black plastic bags with last-night’s feces in them which they place on the side of the road where they fill with water and spill over. Waste disposal typically involves burning. Small fires normally burn on every street corner, filling the air with black smoke and large pieces of ash, but this isn’t possible today in the rain.

Traffic begins to swell and surge on the road to the bus park, and after another twenty-five minutes of driving the cab pulls to the curb and we arrive. We pile out and stand around confused, unsure what to do next. I grab and flip open an umbrella as K.B. runs off to find our bus. G and I stand in the murky morning and hesitate. We’re unsure if we should unpack the cab. Is this the right bus park?

K.B. is gone for several minutes and our driver becomes impatient. I look at G, and say I’ll go search for him. The bus park is a large complex with several exposed concrete islands separating various lanes of road where buses are pulling in and out. Goats and other livestock are tethered to the top of some, where they stumble and slip on the wet roof-tops. Behind the exposed islands is a small, covered island and then an open air building complex covered in hastily-erected tin sheeting with refreshment stands and ticket counters bustling with people. I jog forward, unsure of where to go or what to do, but too uncomfortable with simply remaining stationary.

It takes me a minute of searching, but I find K.B. He is walking back from a distant, unseen part of the park under a red, plaid umbrella that contrasts strongly with his yellow and green shirt, covered slightly by a gray North Face vest. The shirt is unmistakable, with a giant green marijuana leaf covering nearly the entire front side bordered by the words: “Marijuona, because your friends just are’t very funny” (sic). He raises his arm high and signals that we should come over and join him under a portion of the covered island.

I jog back to the cab and we unload the gear. We pay the driver the first of our now limited monetary funds. We had to pull out everything we thought we would need for the next three months from an ATM the previous day. As I grab my bag, a pool of water that has collected at the base of the cover pours down my legs.

Under the island we are just as lost. We are next to a parking lot now, overflowing with colorful buses dripping with water. The lot is an explosion of green, blue, pink, and orange colors, and advertisements for “Coach Seating” or “DVD.” Most people waiting for a bus are gathered under the covered islands and the whole area is engulfed in a thick fog of cigarette smoke which stings my eyes. I feel cold, genuine cold, for the first time this trip and open my bag to pull out a sweater. The bag is mostly dry, the cover having done its job well, except for where the rain leaked in around the base. K.B. has wandered off again, but returns shortly with our trekking agent and porters.

The porters are all young and strong, needed for carrying the loads they are expected to carry over the high-mountain passes we plan on crossing. There are five, the youngest 19, the oldest 34. Hurried handshakes are exchanged, names I cannot possibly remember are given and then they grab our bags and walk off, carrying the loads to stack on top of the bus. We call them back, say some of our bags shouldn’t go on top. We don’t want to start out with wet bags, and tell them just to stick the bags in the back row of seats, which we’ll pay extra for if necessary. They continue over to the bus, a white 21-seater with blue and orange stripes that have bled down the side, probably when it rained as they were
painting the bus.

On top of the bus is a massive collection of bags stacked precariously high. We have had multiple conversations with our trekking agent, telling him we did not want the usual luxuries trekkers receive when traveling in Nepal. Normally, tourists sit at tables on metal folding chairs, drink tea from complete tea sets, and enjoy luxurious foods like apple-pie or lasagna when trekking. This has become a culturally accepted norm, and we shocked everyone by requesting none of these things be brought along. It would require an extra porter, and so we vehemently opposed any luxury and insisted on drinking tea from our own mugs and eating simple foods with our own plates and silverware. Judging by the size of the bags stacked on the bus and belonging to our party, these requests have been ignored and we are going to carry significantly more weight than we anticipated.

We huddle under the protective cover of the island, unwilling to go out into the rain and board the bus until it is absolutely necessary. I need to pee, and grab my umbrella and begin to walk toward the building complex to find a toilet. It is swarming with people, and I struggle to find my intended destination. I briefly consider just finding a quiet corner, a rather common practice around Kathmandu, but then find a sign with a male figure pointing around the back of the building. Outside, there are a collection of women who ask for money to enter the toilet: five rupees. I dig deep into my pockets, pull out a dirty bill and hand it to them, walk into the toilet and immediately regret not simply carrying out my initial impulse of finding a corner.

The women in front of the toilet are obviously not maintenance women. They may not even work for the bus department. They may just sit out front and try to catch unsuspecting tourists. In any case, their job doesn’t extend to cleaning anything. Several of the toilets have backed up and spilled over, leaving a shallow pool of urine and feces spilled across the length of the room, and the smell is overpowering. I hold my breath, stick as close to the wall as possible and tip-toe around to a urinal, quickly complete my business and rush out. This is, sadly, not an unfamiliar state for restrooms in this city.

The rain continues and time ticks slowly by. G. turns to K.B. and asks “How far do you think this storm system stretches across Nepal?”

“Today, I think it rains across all Nepal.”

We finally get a signal from one of the porters and rush over to the bus and clamber in. Three men sit inside smoking and the bus is filled with the noxious fumes, but they quickly depart and the atmosphere becomes a bit more manageable. The bus seats are stuck as close together as possible, designed for a population whose average height is around 5’4″, and so I am given a seat by the door where there is a little more room between the seat and hand rail that runs along the stairs into the bus. The seats are rusted, with torn cloth covering cold metal, and are exceptionally uncomfortable. In the front, there are simply benches laid haphazardly around the driver to maximize the number of people that can be jammed in the bus at one time. The front window is covered in decorative, colorful strands of yarn, giving the bus a rather festive feel.

Cold air flows in around me and makes me shiver. G. and K.B. sit behind me and begin talking to the Door Boy about the cost of seats we’re putting luggage on. Buses are operated by teams of two: a driver and a door boy who stands in the door way and screams out destinations and tries to attract customers. Our D.B. is about 17 years old, a muscular frame, and wears a blue shirt with a picture of a smiling puppy and two pink shoes. He has a square, baby face with wide, round eyes that give him a constant perplexed look.

The porters get involved in the negotiation and, outnumbered, the D.B. agrees to let us have the seats for free, so long as the bus doesn’t fill. A few minutes later the driver climbs in and the engine roars to life. A few more people climb in, but the bus is still mostly empty as we roll out of the bus park and into the street.

The door to the bus is never closed. It hangs open as the D.B. swings out of it, rain splashing against his face and body as he shouts to people on the street. Cold air blasts me in the face and rain splashes against my eyes, forcing me to close them to tiny slits as the city begins to slip by. The bus swerves around wandering cows and people that carelessly cross the street, oblivious to the traffic careening toward them. Large buildings begin to be replaced by smaller structures, roughly constructed.

Just before merging with the major highway out of the city, we stop at another bus stop and the D.B. leaps out and vanishes into the crowd, shouting. A middle-aged man holding water bottles in both hands climbs into the bus and shouts “Pani! Pani!” He gets no takers, turns to me, sees me looking and thrusts a bottle near my face “Water?,” he asks uncertainly.

I wave him off, but he is replaced by several small children, beggars. They hold out their hands and make feeble moaning sounds, looking as miserable as they possibly can. Some carry slips of paper with an English and Nepali paragraph written on it describing their plight and asking for money. They shove the paper at your face and continue to do so until they are brushed away. One boy asks me for money and when I wave him off he points at my hiking boots, moans and points at his own bare feet. He persists at this, grabbing my shoulder, until the bus begins to move again and he jumps off.

The D.B. is still not on board. He reappears every so often in the crowd, slowly following the rolling bus and jostling with other D.B.s for potential customers. He is very good. His baby face and perplexed look crave sympathy, and his loud voice and constant pulling on peoples’ shoulders convinces them to board our bus. He is not satisfied with only a few customers, but must win them all from other D.B.s, and quickly gathers a large harem.

A husband and wife join us, pulled from another D.B.’s stock and very unsure of their new bus. They wait a few minutes as we slowly roll, then stand and get off. Before their feet even hit the ground, the D.B. is on them, materializing out of nowhere, his innocent, baby look gone. He is angry, shouting, pulling, but the couple are insistent and walk away followed by his screams.

Salesman and peddlers of various goods continue to enter the bus briefly and jump off, several of our porters get off, purchase junk-food from a nearby refreshment stand and run to catch up, before we finally reach the end of the stop, and a now sopping wet D.B. leaps back on, bangs on the side of the bus twice in a signal to the driver, and we merge back with traffic and pick up speed. The bus is full now, and the D.B. temporarily sits next to the driver to dry off, but the door remains open, blasting me with cold air.

The urban sprawl of Kathmandu seems to go on forever. Breaks in buildings reveal rice paddies and other cropland, but just as quickly these are replaced by even more buildings. Buildings that initially seemed to be shrinking in size begin to grow again. Complex neighborhoods with multiple-storied buildings spring up. Advertisements for televisions, cars, and soft drinks never disappear along the roadside. After nearly an hour, we finally begin to climb a hill and leave the sprawl behind. The view outside the bus window changes, and we see numerous brick mills, each brick-red against the dark-green landscape. The mills gradually give way to green fields, woodland, and terraced farmland overflowing with water.

The bus reaches our first precipice, a brief flat zone before a steep decline down a narrow road into a sparsely populated valley. The driver pulls us past this point, slowly eases the machine over the edge and down the slope before pressing hard on the brake and bringing us to a stop. A pee break overlooking the valley. Several passengers spring up and clamber out.

The driver pulls the emergency brake and begins to climb out himself. As he gets up from his seat, his knee hits the emergency brake and knocks it lose. The bus begins to roll forward.

There is a pause, everyone in the bus hesitates, and the driver looks back across his body toward the wheel, confused.

Then all at once people begin to scream. I grip the hand rail hard and open my mouth, but this is all I can manage. The bus is beginning to pick up speed, roll down the hill toward a cliff-side with increasing velocity and the driver is still hesitating, unsure of what to do. Several passengers from the back begin to leap forward and climb over seats, and this seems to jolt the driver from his stasis. He leaps back into the chair, but is still unsure of himself. He grabs the wheel as an instinctual response, and we continue to roll. The bus is filled with sound now, the sound of people shouting and screaming, while I sit silent, opening and closing my mouth, watching my impending death accelerate toward me.

The driver finally comes to life, smashing both feet onto the brake pedal, and the bus comes to a screeching halt. The passengers in the aisle are thrown forward and land in a pile near my feet. The driver looks around in a daze, puts the bus in reverse and begins to roll it back up the hill. There is nervous laughter. We park at our previous position and he moves to get out again. I decide, suddenly, that I need to pee, too, and leap out onto solid ground. G. follows me and we exchange a look. “That would have sucked,” he says. I manage a weak smile. My hands are shaking.

A minute later we are all back on the bus and rolling downhill in a more controlled manner, though barely. The bus careens around corners, drifts over wet roads, and passes within inches of other vehicles heading up the hill. The road is narrow, and there is danger on either side. When we are closer to the cliff-side, I look out over a sheer drop with no kind of barrier preventing vehicles from rolling off. When we are hill-side to our left is a massive stone drainage ditch, several feet deep, covered in vines and mosses and just wider than our wheel. To the right are buses and dump trucks climbing up the hill. The driver only applies the break when needed, lets us pick up speed until we round a corner and see we can’t fit between the space provided between the hill and an approaching vehicle and smashes on the brakes. The door in front of me remains open, not even allowing me to separate myself from impending doom with a window and making me shiver from both cold and fear.

Within a few minutes the D.B. swings between seats to talk with G. and K.B. again. The bus is full and he wants 1200NRs for the seats we are taking with luggage. G. reaches into his wallet and pulls out a 1000 rupee note and hands it to him. The D.B. looks at it, frowns and gestures for more.

G. responds, “Two-hundred rupees for nearly killing us.”

K.B. and I begin to chuckle. The D.B. looks confused and K.B. translates loud enough for the entire bus to hear. Everyone bursts out laughing. Ha ha ha! Yeah! You remember that time we almost all died in that steel tube careening off the edge of the cliff!? Ha ha! That was funny! The D.B. sits down again. Apparently this is a good enough excuse for not paying.

Our bus is faster than most. It quickly catches up with traffic ahead and we begin to pass other vehicles on the twisting, narrow road. There are no painted lanes on the road, no indications of when it is okay or not okay to pass. Our bus swerves into the opposite lane and hurtles down the wrong side of the road around blind corners at excessive speeds.

I try to comfort myself with a false sense of security, reasoning that this is a normal behavior in this part of the world and accidents are rare enough that most of the people who go on these trips still seem to be alive, but this feeling is shattered time and time again when we come to a large traffic jam and have to creep around overturned trucks and buses. The entire front of one is missing, having smashed into a wall with excessive force.

As we turn and screech and zoom past other vehicles, the ride becomes rough. I am thrown
about in my confined space as the driver slams on the brakes, or the bus is violently pitched back into our lane to avoid a collision with on-coming traffic. My exposed knees are repeatedly banging against the partition in front of me, sometimes painfully, and when we stop for food or rest breaks I can feel them bruising as I walk around.

We are following the Trishui river, swollen and muddy brown from where its banks have invaded the surrounding landscape in the persistent rain. It is a clean brown, though, a healthy, bright, natural brown unlike that of the Bagmati. Waterfalls of various sizes are frequent on nearby hillsides, pouring down to the valley below. They, too, are larger than they should be, having eroded portions of the landscape and destroyed sections in mud and landslides.

The road is not immune to this excessive precipitation. Canals dug to direct water off the road have overflowed, and the water collects in sometimes massive pools along the road that we skid through recklessly. Adding to the excitement, we occasionally find whole sections of hillside collapsed on the road. Small passages have been dug out, leaving just enough room for a single vehicle to move through over loose and muddy rock.

Pot holes are common. The driver will suddenly slam on the brakes on an empty road and slowly move the bus over a massive missing portion of the road. Wheels will dip into wells, the bus will tilt, the weight of the bags on top increasing the angle of tilt, and we will lean out over the cliff-side at angles over twenty degrees, teetering on the edge of overturning, before the wheel catches the opposite side of the hole and we straighten out again.

The valley becomes shrouded in mist and we temporarily lose sight of the river. We pass a bus which has hit the drainage ditch and bashed into the hillside at an odd angle. Another bus that tried to avoid the accident is stuck in a massive pile of mud. Cold air continues to blast me from the open doorway. When we pass people walking on the road, probably from broken or crashed busses, the D.B. will rush to the opening and yell at them, invite them in, and the bus begins to fill well beyond capacity. People collect on all the benches around the driver, stand in all the aisles, and the bus begins to sag and teeter even more dangerously under the excessive weight.

We are barely three hours into a twelve hour ride and I already feel as though we have used up whatever luck we brought with us to prevent catastrophe. If not for the beauty of the landscape–the views from the tops of hillsides or along valleys that reveal an almost incomprehendible amount of color, darkened and deepened and standing in contrast to the gray sky and rain–I would be on the verge of panic. I cannot keep my eyes off it, the overwhelming explosion of life and biodiversity that I crave. I have not been in an environment like this since I lived in Australia, and I have longed to see it again. Kathmandu has been overwhelming, a chaotic and disgusting view of human overpopulation, of resource exploitation and destruction. To see such a vivid natural landscape is refreshing and inspiring. We have left civilization behind for the next three months.

We stop in a village along the way for lunch. K.B. claims he knows a good restaurant and we follow him for a few minutes down wide, muddy roads until we come to a large grey building with cafeteria tables set up along the inside. There is no menu, only dalbaht. It is served by two young girls in yellow dresses commanded by an angry looking fat father who sits in the corner and watches television. The girls never smile, and scowl at me when I try to thank them. Behind us is a woman, who I assume to be their grandmother, holding the youngest infant. The grandmother is ancient and lined, and I hope the infant only has a bad case of chicken pox. Its whole face and neck are covered in a large red rash with white pustules that rise out of the mess of unhealthy skin. It is silent and motionless while we eat.

Back on the bus, the number of children begins to rise exponentially as we get into more remote areas. The few signs we see along the road depicting the use of birth control are clearly ignored. Mobs of children rush after the bus, screaming as we pass. In settlements with only four or five buildings there will be fifteen or sixteen children of various ages chasing after us. They leap and smile and scream in wet and torn rags revealing skeletally thin frames and rotting teeth. They emerge from crudely constructed shanties and wave at us, as if the passing of a bus is the most exciting event that occurs in their day.

The physical abnormalities that mark a people without proper medical care are rampant. Here, a child with massive elephantitis: the whole right side of his face is blown up and hangs off his skull. There, a child with what appears to be no bones in his right leg: the useless shell of skin hangs flaccidly at his side and waves about as he hops. Missing limbs are common, large and infected-looking rashes more so.

We stop and pick up a group of three men who are shouting and smiling. One trips over the benches in the front, shoving several people aside until he is next to the driver, then sits staring out the front of the bus, swaying back and forth. He is exceptionally drunk, and when the D.B. tries to remove him from the seat he violently pushes back, lashing out with his arms and legs and nearly kicking the driver in the shin as we careen around yet another cliff-side corner. The D.B. hesitates, thinks better of trying to remove the man again and instead sits beside him and watches closely. The man continues to sway and smile, at one point he reaches up and tears down the decorative yarn hanging from the front window angrily, apparently insulted by the frills, and begins to wave them around in front of the driver.

I cringe in my seat, my body tightens up, just waiting for the moment when the drunken man will make another violent movement and send the bus off the cliff. Everyone sitting around him just seems amused at this point. He continuously leans on the driver and must be pushed off, at one point he violently grabs the drivers arm to read his watch, and the bus is jerked around the road as the driver recovers. Finally, he begins to amuse himself with the AC vents and this occupies him for the ten more minutes he stays on the bus before his friends disembark and call after him. He shakes everyone’s hand, smiles, and leaves. I relax again, slightly.

We pass through a valley around Pokhara and the clouds finally begin to clear a little. It is the middle of the afternoon and the sun and blue sky begin to shine down, making steam rise from the dense vegetation around us. Time begins to pass quickly despite the growing discomfort I feel in the torn leather seat, and while I try to nap I can’t, the landscape remains so beautiful, each section so unique, that I can’t take my eyes off it. I haven’t even opened my book.

Outside of Pokhara, during a break, the driver and D.B. pause in front of the bus and exchange concerned looks. They point and grab at the front of the vehicle, spend several minutes discussing something and then climb back in and continue around canyons and narrow roads. We stop at the next village and someone with a wrench and hammer is called. For several minutes he bangs on the front, walks away with 20 rupees, and we are off again, rising up over another valley and crossing over to the Kaligandaki river.

The sun has begun to set behind looming hillsides and the dusk obscures visibility. The road is no longer paved, just a muddy path beset with holes and overrun with landslides that threaten to push us off the precipice time and time again. We cross over flooded sections, pass through rivers simply flowing over the road and submerging nearly the entire base of the bus. At times, our wheels spin uselessly in the mud and we must back up and take another run at rough sections of the road. The Kaligandaki is also a muddy-brown color which cuts through increasingly green and uninhabited valleys as the light continues to fade.

When visibility is almost zero we finally see lights on the horizon signifying our impending arrival at Beni. It is a small town, resting at the confluence of two major rivers, and as far as the road can take us. Tomorrow, we begin to walk to Dolpo. The bus pulls up next to a hotel for us, and we climb out, stretch, and G., K.B., and I enter to arrange rooms. By the time we have keys for everyone, the porters have unloaded all our gear from the bus and it has left.

We have a massive collection of supplies, and we all see that the number of people we have will be insufficient to carry it. Tomorrow, with limited funds, we will have to find and hire another porter to come with us until we eat enough of the food to get by with only five.

Children run rampant in the streets throughout the night. Older siblings look after younger. There is also a large population of wild dogs roaming the streets, and power cables still hang low and unorganized around the street. We are not too far removed from Kathmandu here, but it is our last night in a village with a population greater than a hundred until Dunai, twelve days away, and the only major town we will see for the next three months.

Our beds are little more than wood planks with cloth over them, and we are forced to pull out mattress pads to make them comfortable. G. and I choose to leave the room and wander for a while longer, although tired.

Shortly after leaving the room, the rain starts up again and we are forced under cover. We stop for a late dinner of noodles and Sprite on a dusty patio restaurant where everyone is watching television. On the news is a story about a high-altitude plane carrying four American tourists that crashed in a region not far from us. The story begins with dramatic music, a series of shots of plane crashes from famous movies, a computer generated image of what the plane crashing would have looked like, and then pans over the actual wreckage. It is repeated every two or three minutes.

I wonder if the news has reached America, if any of my friends who knew I was traveling today will wonder if I was on the plane. I will not be able to get word out to anyone for at least 12 days, most won’t hear from me for months. I feel isolated. Our trip is truly beginning.

Later that night, we go to bed to the sound of rain pounding on the roof above. Tomorrow begins five weeks of walking over some of the roughest terrain I have ever experienced. G. and I will both be carrying 40-50 pounds, nearly twice the amount of weight we anticipated in order to make the excessive load easer on the porters. I am twenty pounds overweight, a consequence of standing behind a counter and drinking too many lattes for nearly a year, content to watch my life pass away in front of me. And I have never spent more than three consecutive days camping in the wilderness. Our first trek will be four times longer then that, our second nearly five times longer.

It occurs to me how completely unprepared I am. I agreed to this trip knowing it would
challenge me physically and mentally beyond anything I had ever done in my life. But I
realize now I have no idea what that truly means. I am limping with bruised knees, already physically and mentally exhausted before we have taken a single step on a trail, and I am trying to keep up with G., a cross-country runner and long-distance biker. I’m isolated, each day forward makes it that much harder to retreat, and I realize I am genuinely scared for what tomorrow will bring. I fall asleep after a long time, staring into the darkness, listening to the beat of the insistent rain.

A rain that will continue, almost unceasingly, for the next 25 days.

Posted in Adventures! | 1 Comment

Where Did Agnykari Go?

Hello Faithful Readers!

Some of you may be wondering where I’ve been over the last week and a half or so. I apologize, but it turns out I actually have valuable things I can be doing here in Kathmandu (though far less fun.) First, I had to attend and speak at an international climate change conference held here last week. Then I started to plan a little into the future and looked at some grad school applications, only to discover that many of them are due in a week. I have been scrambling to complete some essays and such, and have not had too much time to write another story, though I promise more soon.

In the meantime, I WANT YOUR FEEDBACK. I put this in caps, because most of you probably missed it at the end of the last blog (I can only assume… I think I have a readership larger than 4). Yes, even you, mystery reader who I may have never met. I want your feedback. Please comment or email me about my last story. Don’t be afraid to be critical: I write these stories in a noisy internet cafe surrounded by shouting people, typically with several reading over my shoulder, one leaning on me, and smashed elbow to elbow with people on either side. If I’m lucky, I can actually hit the save button before a random blackout wipes out my work and I have to type it all over again. In short, I don’t mind being told my stories suck. I’m not that attached to them (although out of politeness I would appreciate it if you could maybe include some way in which I could make them better.) How can I improve without any input?

Also, I put some more pictures up to entertain you while I’m occupied with other things. Enjoy!


Posted in Business... | 2 Comments

The Silver-Haired Man

(September 28th)

The silver-haired man with sunken, gray eyes and a deeply lined face sits off to the side on a blue ornamental carpet. His legs are folded in a relaxed lotus position, his hands resting in his lap, right cupped into left. His hair is long, pulled back tight against his head by a traditional Tibetan head-scarf and wrapped into a bun.

The head-scarf is made of bright red strands of wool and contrasts strongly with his hair and eyes. The latter, diluted by the brightness, appear bland, empty, almost lifeless if not for the powerful sparkle that shines through them. It is a sparkle of life and gratitude, of a general appreciation and wonder for the world.

The man’s face makes him look far older than he actually is, rough and scarred from a lifetime of hard work. But this overall appearance of weariness fades around his lips, which rests at a half smile, and work in tandem with his eyes to show an individual totally at peace and full of kindness.

He wears a black down vest, a North Face knock-off, and a worn wool shirt with the sleeves torn off to reveal the entirety of his arms. His tanned, muscular appendages also show a lifetime of wear and tear. His skin is growing slack and leathery. He wears thin wool  pants that could almost pass for formal wear. His exposed feet are hard and callused. He sits tall and proud.

We are sitting on his rooftop, a light brown, clay foundation built into a nearby rock overhang, giving the feeling of a half-covered balcony. The alcove is closed off on the opposite end by a wood and stone barrier and a large stack of cut branches, the winter’s supply of cooking fuel. Various pots and bowls filled with cloth, dirt, and various artifacts line the ground just below. The balcony looks out onto a series of hills, dotted with kitas, plots of land owned by the villagers, before giving way to the larger Himals beyond.

We are exchanging idle conversation over lunch in the village of Namdo, half a day’s dusty walk from Saldang on an exceptionally hot Autumn day. The silver-haired man’s voice is horse, fades in and out of whisper, as if he had smoked his whole life or suffered a major vocal-chord injury.

The previous day we sent two school children from Namdo, who commute to and from the village and Saldang every day, with a note expressing our desire to speak with him. We requested that he make a lunch of roti for us, which we would pay for. (This is a common enticement, we offer to pay someone for the interview indirectly by buying wine or lunch.) He has taken it upon himself to add terkari, spiced potatoes in a curry sauce with fresh green onions grown on the balcony.

We are surprised by the terkari, but the green onions are to-die-for! For the last 14 days we have had an invariant diet, a consequence of a limited budget and inflated prices when we resupplied in Dunai. Porridge for breakfast, roti (flour, water, and baking powder) with peanut butter and jelly for lunch, and dal baht (lentils and rice) for dinner. It is all plain, all tastes exactly the same day after weary day. This meal is an exceptional treat. G. and I make terkari burritos to the astonishment of the gathered Nepali, who laugh and joke with us as we thank them profusely.

The man’s daughter-in-law and two grandsons serve us. They climb up the ladder leading to the balcony, a log with steps partially carved into it, with trays of food and pitchers of tea balanced in awkward positions. When they arrive, the silver-haired man raises his arms and commands them, directs them to refill our tea or serve us more roti, and the three are a constant blur of movement while they are present. They look stressed and unhappy, and eventually the grandsons learn that if they are not on the balcony they will not receive orders and disappear all together.

We finish our lunch and lay out G.’s recorder to begin an interview. The silver-haired man is the volunteer president of Shey-Phoksumdo National Park and its buffer zone, and we are interested in what he has to say. We discuss knowledge, and what it means to be knowledgeable.

The silver-haired man believes in two types of knowledge. Traditional knowledge, or what you learn from experience and your parents, the knowledge of how to cultivate crops, of trade-routes and prices. And formal knowledge, what children learn in schools today. We also discuss faith. The man is a devout Bon practitioner, believes in the power of lamas to restore health and change weather systems. And then we discuss climate change.

Solar radiation enters the Earth’s atmosphere from space and provides all of the energy necessary to sustain life on its surface. This radiation is short-wave, a particular shape and form, but when it, like light hitting any object, reflects back from the Earth and begins to reenter space its shape has changed, and it is now long-wave. Long-wave radiation does not leave our atmosphere as easily, small portions of it become trapped in gases in our atmosphere, and preserve a small percentage of the heat from the sun. These are the greenhouse gases, some examples of which are methane, water-vapor, nitrous oxide, and perhaps most importantly: carbon dioxide. Without them, our planet would be a lifeless rock covered in ice; they trap and preserve enough heat to make the planet’s surface livable.

In the last 150 years, however, since the birth of industry and the large-scale production of factories which burn energy stores kept in carbon, this layer of gas has begun to change drastically. As humans burn carbon, it rises into the atmosphere in gas form and adds to this layer in the atmosphere, trapping more of the sun’s energy and steadily warming the planet. This is the Western-Scientific phenomenon known as global warming.

Global warming is a misnomer. An over-simplification of an incredibly complicated process. Although evidence suggests that the average temperature over much of the planet is rising, and rising well-beyond what can naturally be expected, our planet’s surface is far too large, and the physical feedback loops present on it far too complex, to simply warm all at once. Global warming is simply one aspect of a larger problem, climate change.

Across the planet, seasons are becoming more variable, storms or droughts more intense, and the biological world has begun to suffer. Massive migrations of organisms either north or up have already begun. When species reach the top of a mountain or the edge of a landmass, they simply go extinct. In the Himalayas, the massive upheaval of rock and ice shifts and fundamentally alters weather systems, but this has begun to change as glaciers melt faster than ever before in our experience. All of this is measurable, testable, and is, in brief, the Western science model of anthropogenic climate change.*

This model has little place in Dolpo. The Dolpo-pa are largely uneducated, illiterate, and have no exposure to Western science or its theories. Some have no idea that men have landed on the moon, or even that the Earth is round. Their knowledge of climate change is limited to what they observe in fields, and to the direct effects they are beginning to feel.

They have experienced variable rains and snows, have seen new birds and insect species in their fields. They find their neighbors raising new crops, and suffer from previously unknown diseases. They notice less snow on the mountains than there used to be. The silver-haired man describes these changes, points to distant mountains and says they used to have snow year round but now stand barren. He points to nearby hills and says those are his kitas, which he was unable to cultivate this year because of the unpredictability of the rain. His family has less food this year than they usually do. Finally, he mentions the scallions we have just enjoyed as a prime example of a new crop they can grow. Just five years ago, the lunch we have eaten would have been unthinkable.

The silver-haired man is not entirely unaware of the concept of climate change. As president of the Park, he arranged and attended an educational session recently in Dolpo presented by the World Wildlife Fund, an organization which is trying to get the word out. The impact of these talks appears mixed. The two themes we encounter most frequently in the villages are the dangers of the ozone layer and deforestation, both important, but neither directly related to climate change.

The silver-haired man understands this more than most. We talk about glaciers, and he knows the danger, knows they can disappear entirely, and if they do the water-supply of the entire area will run out. He recognizes the signs of climate change in his local community, and understands the connection between it and industry.

As we discuss these issues, the conversation becomes grim. The sparkle in his eyes begins to fade, becomes an object of expression, allowing us to see into his emotions and feelings, and even into his thoughts long before K.B. finally makes the translation of his words. His smile fades from time to time as he tries to answer difficult questions. Periodically members of his family come back up the ladder, his grandsons’ curiosity about visitors overcoming their aversion to work, and he breaks from his answers to order them to complete certain chores, to refill our tea again, to sweep away the dust blowing onto the balcony.

And then we come back to faith. We ask the silver-haired man if he thinks great lamas are capable of helping us to solve the current climate crisis. If, like their ability to stop or bring single weather events, they might be able to stop unfavorable changes in the climate. He is leaning forward to hear the question. Sitting closest to him, my face is only inches away from his, and as K.B. asks the question I see the answer entirely in his eyes. He shakes his head, his shoulders slouch slightly, and the sparkle in his eyes gives away everything he is about to say. I do not need to wait the three minutes it will take him, voice cracking slightly, to answer, or for K.B. to translate. “Yes,” he says, “great lamas could prevent this disaster if the whole world were to give them their faith. But that will never happen. You can’t make people believe what they do not want to believe in.”

The silver-haired man has become more somber now. His posture is more slouched, his smile almost gone entirely, but the sparkle in his eyes is still present, his kindness and optimism still shine through his defeated body. Our interview is not over, though, and we begin to talk about knowledge again. G. asks the man if the traditional knowledge he and his fellow visitors know can help them to adapt to the changes that are coming. The man’s upright posture returns a little and his eyes brighten. “Yes, it can help us adapt most of the way. Maybe 70 percent of the way.” G. asks how, then returns to the previous question, and asks what other knowledge the people can use to help them adapt the rest of the way. The silver-haired man pauses, and the excess light leaves his eyes. He seems to have anticipated this, but has no answer. He looks at us for a few seconds, then turns and stares back out at his uncultivated kitas in silence. His smile is gone, his eyes have entirely lost their light. They are straining, looking for an answer he cannot find, and his body sags.

K.B. tries to speak again, thinks the man has not understood the question, and G. raises his arm to quiet him. The silver-haired man continues to stare silently. The wind kicks up, dust and sand spill across the deck and make K.B., G., and I cower and cover our eyes for protection, but the silver-haired man remains motionless. Sand particles assault his eyes and face, but he doesn’t blink. I cover my face and lose sight of him briefly. When the wind stops I look up again and he his still sitting motionless, but now his eyes are filled with tears.

He turns back to us. His voice cracks and fails, his answer is barely whispered. He lists some ways scientific innovation can help the region, how tourism might bring additional income to his people, but it is clear he doesn’t believe this will be enough. It is clear he has realized what we also fear, that there is little hope for these people, there is no solution. The glaciers will continue to melt, and when they go there will be no water. No amount of science and innovation can give people in this village water. He understands his way of life, through almost no fault of his own, is becoming unsustainable.

The silver-haired man with teared up eyes has lost hope. He leans forward now, unable to summon the strength to sit up straight, and waits for K.B. to translate the next question. He cannot summon the strength to speak. He whispers answers now, voice breaking from time to time as G. continues to ask him about what this village can do. I am working in my notebook, my head down, concentrating on writing his answers in short form as best I can, when he stops speaking. It is an unnatural stop, it does not signal the end of an answer, but something else.

I glance up. The silver-haired man is staring at his grandson. The boy is no older than five, wears a red and white shirt with lettering on the back, torn and faded Levi jeans, and small, blue sandals with Spiderman spinning a web across the front. He is standing in the corner pensively, looking at us with an intense curiosity, waiting for the inevitable command from his grandfather. But the silver-haired man is silent. His mouth is slightly agape, his eyes have no spark. He slowly raises his right arm, holds it out to his grandson as if to make a command, but rather slowly flicks his wrist and signals the boy over. The grandson comes, sits next to his grandfather in confusion, and the silver-haired man wraps his arm around him, pulls him close in an enormous hug, his head resting on the boy’s, and his eyes fill with tears again.

He answers our question. Answers two or three more, holding his grandson, and then the interview is over. G. asks him if he has any questions for us. His first is what he can do to help, and we answer with information. We say he can continue to raise awareness, that many people we have talked to do not understand the source of their water or that the changes in the climate will continue into the future and even become more exaggerated. His second question is longer, takes several minutes to get out, and K.B. shortens it in translation. He says he is from a poor, “backward” area of the world, that Nepal does not have the resources or technology to fight climate change, but we are from a developed country. What is our country doing to fight climate change?

That night, we make camp at a small settlement named Rakyo, a small, flat section of ground nestled at the confluence of the Nagon river and one of its larger tributaries, where a few buildings and kitas have been established. On either side are high canyon walls, carved by the constant force of the Nagon over millenia, limiting our view of the sky to a football-shaped slice of stars. I find a half-collapsed stone wall and crouch behind it with a heavy coat and gloves to protect myself from the cold and look up at the sky. It is one of the first clear, moonless nights we have had in over a month, and the stars shine brilliantly, the white streak of the Milky Way acting as laces for the football-shaped section.

I stare upward and identify constellations, see meteors briefly light the night sky, follow satellites drifting through the stars. My eyes fill with tears. They are partially tears of empathy, but mostly tears of shame. I see the silver-haired man as we answer his second question. At first, we both simply hang our heads, sit silently for a few moments, hesitant. Then Gregory speaks. He says we do come from a developed country, that our country has the intelligence, the technology, perhaps even the money to potentially fix the problem, but that we simply lack the will. He says most of the people in our country do not believe a problem exists, and do not want to make the personal sacrifices necessary, however slight, to address the issue.

The silver-haired man does not understand. He answered as if he did, asked us what we personally were doing apart from this study, but his eyes betrayed his true emotions. He did not understand how this was possible, how a country as smart and technologically superior to his own could not see a problem or did not want to fix it. I can’t look him in the eyes any longer. They are full of confusion, and his smile has turned to a frown. I finally speak. As G. describes what he personally is doing to combat climate change, I add that the reason many Americans are reluctant to believe in climate change is that they do not experience nature as he does. They do not see glaciers, they get their food from grocery stores and do not see what he sees. What we are trying to do in the States is spread environmental awareness, to introduce the proper scientific concepts to our fellow countrymen, to teach about the deep connections that exist in nature and our role and responsibilities in those connections.

The silver-haired man smiles slightly at this, seems to regain a little composure. But it is clear he is still disappointed. He expected us to offer solutions to his problems. Instead, we have told him they are only going to get worse, and the people responsible are unwilling to accept responsibility. His grandson sits in his lap, looking back and forth innocently and not following the conversation.

The silver-haired man finally ends the conversation by thanking us for coming and for the work we are doing. He thanks us for caring about Dolpo. And then, just before we leave, he asks us to continue to spread awareness, to talk about what we have seen here. We promise we will.

I lie under the stars and think of this and tears fill my eyes. I feel I cannot possibly fulfill the promise I have made, and I am ashamed. This is, after all, G.’s project. He asks all the questions, I just sit silently by and take notes, occasionally passing him a question he has usually already thought to ask. All of his findings, all that we discover about these people, is at his discretion to publish. I will return to the United States an under-employed college graduate who was found in a coffee shop and is probably headed back there because of the debt I have incurred to go on this trip. I will have stories, that is all.

But then I think that perhaps this is all I need. There are over 15000 glaciers in the Himalaya, and 97% of them are receding. By some projections, within 20 years this and other climatic shifts will leave roughly 1.3 billion people in the greater South-Asian landmass without the water necessary to continue living their daily lives. That population figure is not static, however, by 2050, 1.3 billion is projected to be 2.2 billion. The polar ice caps are melting, and as a result the sea level rising. With a rise of only 2 more meters, island chains around the world, such as the Maldives, will simply disappear, and climate refugees from these chains as well as other coastal populated areas (an estimated 30 million from Bangladesh alone) will need to be relocated. The questions of how to mitigate the effects of climate change, or what is to be done to aid these people are no more scientific than the evidence presented by climate change skeptics to promote doubt and maintain the status quo of production and consumption. These are questions of morality, questions about the value of human lives and culture, and they are full of pathos.

The suffering that the Dolpo-pa and others around the Himalayan region will experience cannot be described solely in terms of science. It must also be described through stories and imagery, which raise awareness of their plight. It is the plight of villagers contracting previously unknown diseases, of uneducated farmers watching crops wither and die, and of a silver-haired grandfather holding his grandson tightly, worried about his future.

Looking at a satellite of my technologically advanced country float by overhead, my face stinging from the frigid night air, and my eyes filled with tears, I suddenly see what I can do. I do not need to be a respected scientist, I do not need to work at an influential company…

I can simply tell a story.

Tashi delay,


Note from the author: Faithful readers! I want your feedback! On the blog in general, certainly, but about this story in particular. It is one of several which I am considering trying to publish in one form or another at a larger or more professional scale, and I am eager to hear what you thought about it, if it resonated, if you understood the science, and if it kept you engaged. Either a comment on the blog or a personal email would be sincerely appreciated. For the climate change skeptics out there (as I’m sure there are a few) I do not want comments about the legitimacy of climate change. I am not willing to debate that at this time, nor turn this blog into a forum for it as I’m paying for my Internet and have better things to do. I will be happy to talk with you about that when I get back home, but for now, please limit your comments to your reaction to the story itself, and read a good book about science and the scientific method as you will find most of my arguments resting in it.

*I am not, nor have I ever been a climatologist. All of the information I presented is simply what I have accumulated from various readings and journal articles I have read as an incipient biologist. I consulted none of these sources for this piece. I therefore encourage all of you to not simply accept what I have said as fact, but instead research it for yourself. At best, my explanation is an incredibly over-simplified model of what is understood at this point. One book I have found particularly helpful is Usable Thoughts: Climate, Water and Weather in the Twenty-First Century by Michael Glantz and Qian Ye.

Posted in Adventures! | 2 Comments

The Forty-Five Minute Fall

(November 1st)

We are in a microcosm. A crowded, muddy square teeming with people. Smoke and the smell of burning flesh drift out from a tea house that lines one side, people rush to the counter and grab milk-tea in white plastic cups. Opposite, a high chain-link fence rises and surrounds an artificial, flat, gravel field that slopes up gently from east to west. In between lies a microcosm. A collection of familiar faces, individuals that represent the entirety of our trip jostling for an unknown position.

Here, the doctor from the French-funded clinic in Bhjier. There the headmaster and teacher from the Chrystal Mountain school. Beside us one of the translators we had considered at the very beginning of the trip. And, further on, the Bhutanese trekkers we had dinner with on the trail a few days earlier. I notice a hotel owner we became friends with in Dunai, and a soldier we met in Ringmo.

I see in them all of the stories that are mulling over and brewing in my mind. In the very movement and chaos of the crowd, I see a symbolic representation of the entirety of our largely disorganized trip: a preemptive nostalgia for a world I have not quite left. All are swaying, pushing, maneuvering within the flood of faces. We are all awaiting a plane.

You can’t drive to Dolpo, no roads exist that navigate the high mountain passes and narrow river canyons between it and Darbang, where the noise and convenience of automobiles end. To get here or out, you must walk or fly. To walk takes over a week, a massive and difficult trek through remote villages and jungle. To fly you have to rely on uncertain, high-altitude flights in thin air.

There are three “nearby” airports, but to get to either Jomsom or Jumla requires crossing difficult mountain passes. Often these passes close in early November because of snow, and so the Dolpo-pa mostly filter to Juphal, bottle-necking in my microcosm.

The average Nepali or Tibetan probably waits at least a week to catch a flight out of Dolpo. Especially as tourist season begins, rich Europeans (typically) are given priority and pay great sums of money to take up precious space on airplanes. Remaining seats are given to whomever seems most adamant about getting on, and hence the large crowd in front of us.

Our return to overcrowded, civilized life begins at the Juphal airport, where a seething mass of nearly 40 desperate Nepali push and shove and fight for 10 seats. Arguments are common, everyone must shout to be heard, and the square was filled well before 7:00 AM for a flight coming in at an unknown time… maybe 9:00. There is apparently no communication with either the flight or the airport where the flight is coming from. The only hint we have a flight will arrive was a call late the previous night from an airline ticket agent.

The sun has begun to break over the nearby mountains. They are mostly exposed rock, only the very highest peaks are snow-covered. The entire region is waiting for the snow which has come later and later each season.

Orange light reflects off the peaks and bounces down onto the tin-roof shanties that make up the entrance gate, ticketing office, and food court of the Juphal airport. The field where we stand is nothing more than an eroded mud square, which the masses trample every morning. We have found a bench near the side. No one else is interested in sitting as it reduces their visibility and chances of getting on the plane. G. and I don’t have to worry about that. Our dollars and skin color have assured us, and our guides, of a seat.

It was not easy, and we are upset. Today the sky is clear, the plane will arrive, but the weather has been bad and this is the first plane in a week. The pent up demand is such that despite ordering tickets nearly a month ago, we have still not managed to confirm our seats. We are no longer flying where we planned to be flying.

After trekking for three days, and then pushing for six hours on the fourth day to arrive at the airport on time, we discovered the flight we were suppose to board was non-existent. We were scheduled to fly to Nepalgange, a border town with India and then take a  12-13 hour night bus back to Kathmandu. But the Nepalgange flight has not arrived in over a week, the line awaiting the flight is long, and when the next flight will arrive is not known. We will have to wait. “Perhaps four, five days… maybe tomorrow.”

Either way, we cannot afford to wait. Dolpo is a land without banks or ATMs, all the money we expected to spend we had to bring with us from Kathmandu two months ago, and we have run out. We still have dollars to pay for a flight, but no rupees to pay for lodging. We have to take whatever flight is available.

The one we are waiting for now, the one “possibly”  arriving soon and headed for Pokhara, is nearly twice the price of our original flight. Westerners always get priority, and G. and I had no problem getting seats, the airline forcing two frustrated Nepali off the flight to accommodate us. But our guides are another story.

“We can do maybe one. Who is more important?,” they ask us. We are traveling with K.B. and Yu., and K.B. has all the power in this situation. We made him come down a day early under the pretext of ensuring our tickets were available and to gather some money owed to us by a dishonest business man in Dunai. But the real reason we asked him to come early is because we didn’t want to walk down with him. In return, he arranged tickets with his friends so that he, G., and I would fly, and we are just expected to leave Yu. behind.

We have made a promise to both Yu. and her father that we would pay for her trip home to Kathmandu and guide her there safely as payment for her translation work. G. is also infuriated by the principle of it all: K.B. is “tired of being here” and so he is willing to leave a 21 year-old girl alone in an unfamiliar place–the same place where he knows several people and could stay for free and get special priority for future tickets–just so he can leave a day earlier.

G. gets a special kind of pleasure by continuously pointing to Yu. and saying “She’s important” to the shocked faces of K.B. and the ticketing agent. They say there is little hope of getting four tickets, and G. becomes more frustrated and finally makes a bold move. He claims that Yu. must come with us and we are not flying without her because they are getting married in two weeks. Yu. is clever and quick, she immediately plays along perfectly. Congratulations and smiles all around, and suddenly a fourth ticket has become available.

Now we sit on a wood bench looking out at chaos on a mud field and awaiting a flight that might never come. The sloping gravel hill is the runway. Our tickets are guaranteed, we are told, because they were printed in Pokhara and are being flown here on the plane. We know better than to believe this, and sure enough the morning is spent receiving stressful news reports that there may not actually be seats available. Eventually our dollars and a small bribe (asked for, rather than proposed) do the trick,  and we are ushered through a pulled away section of the fence by men carrying what appear to be WWII rifles, into a section of runway set apart by razor wire.

We are in “Airport Security.” One at a time we are herded into a wooden partition for our bags to be checked. When we first asked K.B. about airport security, he seemed confident it would be more intense than most airports. He told us to expect metal detectors, x-ray machines, and frisking. But walking into the open-air room with a table to lay my bags on, I curse myself for ever believing this. It’s true, for the first time in nearly two months we see power-lines and the airport even has a radio-transceiver, but to think that anyone would drag an X-ray machine up here and then actually find the power to run it consistently is ludicrous.

A uniformed officer in blue camouflage opens my bag, sees it is packed full and might take a some time to search through, and so declares it safe. He closes the bag and picks up another. He doesn’t even open the bag of kitchen supplies. He pats his hands around the outside and moves on. He does frisk me, runs over all the contents of my pockets which I have not removed (not being given time), but as these appear to be non-offensive lumps he doesn’t even ask for me to remove the contents, just signals me forward and asks for the next person in line.

Apparently the airline officials think the plane is coming soon, but no one appears to be communicating directly with it. We stand in a fenced off area next to the runway and wait. Eventually a man holding a clipboard with all of our names joins us and appears to be irritated. He shouts questions regarding who has paid and who has boarding passes, and receives replies from various individuals sitting on the outside of the fenced area who want to get in. Several head counts are done, I get the impression that they don’t know how many seats are actually on the flight.

The Nepali man in front of us becomes concerned. He often turns and pushes us aside to get out and go check something on the list, we slide in to replace him, and then he forces himself back into a space that no longer exists, shoving us aside again. After he does this four or five times we get frustrated. We begin to yell at him and tell him he’s lost his place. He pretends not to understand, pushes us more, and faces away from the man with the clipboard.

The plane finally makes an appearance, just over the open-roofed tin shack which serves as the flight tower. Three people are there, using what appears to be hand gestures to signal the plane to land. It turns a corner of the canyon, briefly rests in the air framed by the 5000+ meter mountains rising behind it, then dips out of sight as it aims for the bottom of the downward sloping runway, which disappears from our view off in the distance, towards the cliffs.

There is a large bump, and the plane comes screaming up the runway, apparently using the upward slope as its only form of brake. It nears the end of the runway, turns to avoid falling off, and stops at an awkward angle before doors open and relieved Caucasian passengers stumble out, clearly shaken. It is a high-winged, turboprop Twin Otter with “Yeti Airlines” splashed across the side in green. It is our ride home.

It does not appear that everyone is going to be able to get on the plane. The Nepali push and shove themselves as close to the gate as possible, standing on each others’ heels and leaning forward to create a solid mass of Person. I, trying to be polite, have ended up at the back of the line, obvious as the European lackey. All their shoving comes to naught, however, when the clipboard man begins to call names from the list in the order of how much money we have each paid.

Our party is called third, and somehow we manage to slip through the compact clump of Person that will not budge from the front of the entrance gate, and stumble out onto the runway, where we are lined up into a far-more civil, single-file line. The plane has not been shut down. It sits puttering as luggage is removed and immediately replaced, and we are hustled on board.

The in-flight meal is provided by the flight attendant as we board the plane. She sits in a fold-out chair by the door in a smart, blue and white uniform and pointed, red heels with a tray of “Yeti Airlines” candies and a large wad of cotton on her lap. As we pass, she hands us two candies and two quick tears of cotton to stuff in our ears in order to alleviate the deafening rumble the interior of the plane makes as it shakes and rattles uncontrollably.

The interior is narrow, allowing only a double bench, a tight path, and a single seat per row for its ten rows. The plane is ancient, as indicated by the partially wooden structure that holds it together, and the rusted metal seats with torn and faded green leather. The seats do not stand up without assistance. As I approach my seat, I have to pull the back rest off the bench and jam it into an upright position before sitting.

I am in the front row. Before me is a giant wood partition that separates the cockpit from the cabin and contains a small poster of safety information, which is so old I can’t read it from a foot away. There is a sliding partition that is meant to separate and “secure” the cockpit from the cabin, but the pilot has jammed his own luggage into this place. The partition stays open, affording me a nearly 180 degree view of the outside world and the cockpit operations. I anticipate this perspective will not be beneficial to my peace of mind.

I strap in and open my book, habitually preparing for the long wait and boring speeches before takeoff. This does not last long, as clipboard man climbs into the plane and begins to yell and poke people. A hurried and loud argument begins between everyone on the plane. K.B., sitting behind me, suddenly grabs my shoulder and says “You need to get off the plane.”

“Uh… What?”

“We are getting off the plane.”

“Uh… Why?”

“Just come.”

K.B. has never been very good at explaining things, but I am slightly reassured when I move to pick up my camera and he tells me to leave it, that we will be back momentarily. A few of the other Nepali have begun to disembark, and as I emerge from the plane everyone stands around confused until we are asked to line up again outside.

Apparently the number of people on the clipboard and the number of people on the plane don’t match. Lining up, you would think, would be a relatively simple procedure, but not so. Again, we are asked to line up in the order of how much money we paid, but those off the plane first want to be as close to the entrance as possible and steadfastly refuse to back up for those who are supposed to line up in front of them.

I am taken by the shoulder and “inserted” into the line in a way that in a previous life might have felt like a grievous intrusion into someone else’s personal space. I stand unsteadily, using the people in front and behind me for support. I don’t have enough room to actually place my feet on solid ground. The whole line sways. After another minute, we are signaled to get back on the plane and resume our seats. The flight-attendant, as if seeing us for the first time, again hands us candy and cotton. We are short one passenger, the line-pusher from earlier, who is no longer coming on this flight.

I strap in again and prepare for a pre-flight safety demonstration, which I think involves the customer beside me asking in broken English, “My seat-belt?” and then the pilot steps in and guns the engine.

The plane, which was already loud and shaky, reaches a new pitch. It creaks and strains and groans under the strain and rumble of the engines. Speaking becomes an impossibility, thinking nearly so under the assault of sound. The pilot wants to get as much room for takeoff as possible, and takes the plane off the official runway to do so. We bump along an uneven stretch of bramble and grass, then turn and face the gravel slope.

To call what we did “flying” would be rather generous. In order to fly, I think one has to actually be moving above the level-plane of where the flight initially took off. Perhaps “gliding” would be a more appropriate term, but in either case, we started by falling.

The runway was not sloped uphill to help planes stop, it was sloped downhill to help them take-off. In a flat world, the runway was not long enough for the plane to pick up the speed necessary for flight. As we started our take-off, my stomach dropped in the familiar way it does on the crest of that first roller coaster hill before plunging down. My eyes were locked to the front window of the plane, as if desperately viewing an oncoming car crash.

The plane began to roll downhill and pick up speed, every now and again it would try to take off. It would lift slightly off the ground, and then the back end would rock backward, the tail surely missing the angled gravel by only centimeters, before the back wheel would catch on the gravel again. The friction of the wheel catching would slow our progress and bring the front of the plane crashing heavily down onto the ground, still facing the bottom (What!? Are you sure!) of the canyon ahead. In this fashion we rocked and rumbled toward the end of the runway, toward a sheer cliff, and then we were over it. We were falling, facing down toward the rushing Thuli Bheri River below, the pilots straining with all their might to pull back on their sticks.

Thankfully this downward motion was precisely what the plane needed to gather the speed necessary to let the engines kick in and support us through the air, and shortly after shooting out over the abyss, we were far more level than when we had started, and began to navigate the massive canyon walls on either side. There was little point to pulling up, as the flight is only 45 minutes long and the objective is well below the start-point. So, instead, the plane simply navigates its way around various land obstacles, our shadow dancing along the contours of the land.

We fly over what seems to be a dividing point for the landscape. To our right forested hills run as far as the eye can see, dotted with various settlements and fragmented by the rush of dozens of large rivers slowly filtering their way south. To the left are bare hillsides that rise high above, exposed rock and sand reflecting the sun’s light and giving way to the massive Himalayas beyond.

I sit back in my seat, unable to read. I am not sure how I am supposed to feel, what I am supposed to be thinking. Partially this is because the pilots do not appear to know how to get to their destination. They communicate over the radio and point to various landmarks. They seem to be engaged in a debate about which canyon is the right one to follow. But the real reason is that I am moving from one world to another, and I’m not sure I have given the moment its proper significance.

This plane’s engine is only the third I have heard in nearly seventy days. The first was after twenty-nine days of silence. A rescue helicopter swept through the sky overhead to pick up an unfortunate tourist. The second was two weeks ago when a rich pair of Russians came to Ringmo, decided they were tired, and paid over $7000 to have a helicopter land in a nearby field and pick them up. (We didn’t mind. We had started a conversation with them the day before and on their way out they resupplied our dangerously diminished medicine stockpile and left me with a bag of ridiculously amazing, hand-rolled, full-leaf tea.)

The smog rising over a nearby hill-side and coloring the sky a dirty brown reminds me that when I step off this plane, there will be cars visible, pollution will clog my lungs and assault my eyes and throat, and the pace of my life will accelerate dramatically. And yet I feel no great sense of loss.

I planned for this trip for five-months, dreamed of it, thought it my one opportunity to  finally connect with myself and with nature in a way I simply couldn’t do at home or anywhere else I’ve traveled in the world. But as I sit, journey completed, I feel no great sense of accomplishment or loss. I do not feel  changed in any dramatic way.

I have changed, certainly, but in far more subtle ways. I didn’t have the Life-Changing Moment  I was looking for. And already my experiences are fading into not-quite-clear memory. They rest in my head in a giant jumble. I know I will never be able to share some of them with anyone else, because I cannot possibly convey the context of the scene, the personal meaning. These memories will seem shallow and uninteresting to others.

I can barely recall some of them now, even without the aid of a rattling and creaking plane disrupting my thoughts. I feel no sadness at the extreme loss I know I am currently experiencing, and this disturbs me. I question whether I received anything of value from the trip, whether I really wanted to be here after all, or whether this will turn out to be another of those life experiences I talk about for a while but never pursue again in the future. I wonder if I will end up returning home to Colorado as lost as when I started.

The smog cloud signals our arrival at Pokhara. Cars become visible below, gliding over flat, paved roads. Off to our left, the Annapurna range rises dramatically. Clouds strike the peaks and split, are forced up and away from the sturdy and snow-covered pillars of rock. Even the pilots stop their bickering to observe them. The mountains captivate the imagination of every passenger, even those who have lived among them their entire lives. But this is a short flight, there is no time to savor any of this, before we are bouncing on a runway and taxing to a stop.

Luggage is unloaded and picked up, taxis are hailed, we rush to catch a bus before it departs, and I am back in the world as it was before.

Tashi delay,


Posted in Adventures! | 1 Comment

New Page!

Hello all!

I’ve received a lot of requests to describe what the people are like in Dolpo, and while I think this will be better accomplished with photos, I understand the desire. Ask and ye shall receive! I’ve added a new page to the top navigational bar… thing… It’s a brief description of many of the people I got to know, and will continue to grow as I think of more. I’ll make sure to include anyone I reference in a blog (and I’m sure there’s some way I could probably link each person’s name to when they’re mentioned… but that’s far too complicated for me to have figured out at this point.)



Posted in Business... | Leave a comment

Header Photo

Hey all,

Just so you know, the photo on the top of the blog is me at the summit of Bagala-la: the mountain pass I climbed while sick, which is why I appear super-happy to have made it up. It stands at around 5108ish meters. I specifically chose the photo because it exposes very few of my features (wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise).

I’ll try to add more photos in the future, but it is difficult to find a computer which supports/has the necessary software. It may have to wait until I’m back in the States…


Posted in Business... | 1 Comment

Short Stories From Kathmandu

The following is a selection of stories that I wrote the first time I was in Kathmandu, and which many of you received in emails (although now they’re actually edited a little and may make sense!). Some are gross, some are humorous, some are action-packed (not unlike Kathmandu itself) but perhaps most interesting is my general change in attitude as I remained stuck in an increasingly dirty and uncomfortable environment for far too long before packing up and heading off to Dolpo. Enjoy!


Arrival in Kathmandu

Suffice it to say, India was a dirty place, full of emaciated cows and dogs roaming the streets, piles of rot and filth everywhere, begging children and mothers, and the unnatural, almost chemical smell which is apparently commonplace in the Third World. The air was hot and humid and full of dust which assaulted the lungs, eyes, and spirit (A story about this later). In contrast, Kathmandu is almost downright pleasant. It is located in a valley surrounded by green, wooded hills that are constantly shrouded in cloud. Then temperature thus far (2 days) has been mild and the smells, although still present, are far milder. Despite the higher poverty rate, Kathmandu appears a much happier, cleaner place with far fewer tin shanties or piles of unattended garbage. Moderately well fed cows and dogs and chickens roam the streets, and it is smiles all around. Far more diesel is burned, however, and it is difficult to stand out on the streets during the day. Here the children come running up and smile and say "Namaste!" or "Hello! How are you!" and then run away giggling. No one begs, everyone smiles, and the drivers are a lot less crazy (although still no seat belts as you go barreling around crowded streets, horns blaring, brakes screeching, and near misses every 30 seconds or so). I''ve only been hit by one bike thus far, and it was by a young child who hadn't quite mastered the 60-0 insta- stop.

I met with the 12 or so workers at the NGO we are working with yesterday. We’re pretty much the biggest celebrities ever. (We are the first Americans they have sponsored.) Shy smiles all around, cokes immediately purchased for us, and after they all introduced themselves we tried to do the same but they just smiled and said they knew it all already. Apparently they have all been studying our every email and personal detail for some time now (although this did not help with the spelling of my name. At the airport they greeted us with a sign saying “Gregory Pierce + Jonathon Fenning”).

One of them was our guide from the airport, and he pointed out various buildings and things as we made our way to the hotel, none of which I remember. I’d like to say this was because I was busy absorbing the various sights and sounds of the streets, but no. I was just captivated by the women. The women! The strong, broad cheek bones tapering to a soft chin which define the Nepali face are the perfect framework for endless iterations on the perfect female form! All stand around 5’6″. All are slender. All have strong, dark, piercing eyes. All are independent and confident. And, according to what I have observed so far, they do all the important physical labor and have all of the responsibility. It’s as if Freida Pinto had been multiplied by a million, draped in really ornate robes and scarves and such, and then sent to walk around randomly, work reception, clean the streets, and in her spare time do all manner of other important jobs. If I don’t return, it will be because of the women of Nepal!

Hidden Costs

Nepal is a country of hidden costs. Case in point: our research visas. First, we were not permitted to receive them without speaking with some administrative bureaucrat face to face. We head over to the office, and end up talking to about six guys, each of whom looks over our file (which they’ve had for over a month), shuffle some papers, and pass us on higher up the administrative chain.Finally we get to talk to someone with real authority, and he tells us we will have to wait an extra month before leaving, but it should be okay. Passed to the next guy and this is where the trouble really started.

We have our translator and a professor at the university fighting for us in a 15-20 minute conversation, but they return and say something along the lines of “in order to get a research visa, we have to make a minimum $5000 deposit, and the university will than take an arbitrary percent of that as a fee.” Gregory responds with “Well, I’m a student. That’s why I need a research visa. Where am I supposed to have that kind of money?” Another 10 minute conversation but the guy holds firm. In short, it’s pretty much a scam, and going to Upper Dolpo on a tourist visa and a permit will cost us $500, but going with a research visa (which we only wanted to avoid the cost of a permit) will cost us a month and over $650! Really quite stupid, and not a cost either Gregory or I had anticipated. I’ll let you know if we ever get out of this town.

The Party Palace

Went out with D (our sponser at the NGO) and five of his friends last night in their traditional Friday night drinking. Unlike in the US, drinking is done with excessive amounts of eating, and as guests, we were entitled to the best of the best. They would spit out bits of Nepali at the waiter who would then come back with eight different “snacks”, which would be jammed in front of our faces along with all manner of beer. Every time my glass was empty and I wanted a break, it was immediately refilled, and every time the big bottle ran dry they would ask if I wanted more to which I would respond “No!” shake my head and wave my hands, and which they would of course interpret as “yes.”

As the night began to grow long and the vision blurry, with jokes and laughs all around, Gregory and I indicated that we might be headed home. But we were informed that this was, in fact, only the first round, and a second round of drinking and “dinner” was on the way.

Change in location, more drinking, and thank God today is Saturday and a holy day. As guests, we were not allowed to pay for anything, but Gregory and I witnessed a tab of nearly 12,000 rupees, or just north of $200. This in a place where we rarely spend more than $3 on breakfast. An interesting cultural experience, and it definitely taught me not to walk around at night any more. Each of these gentlemen who had beer and at least eight shots of whiskey drove home.


I saw my first wild monkey today! It just sort of walked across the street in front of me…

The Routine…

I’ve begun to settle into a more or less daily routine which begins with black tea and typically a trip to Thamel, the famous, trekker section of Kathmandu which caters to all of the foreign climbers that visit and teems with stores selling all manner of hiking gear at extremely discounted prices. Afterward, Gregory and I walk to the NGO, a 50 minute stroll through winding alleys and diesel infested highways, the best and worst parts of the city in terms of air pollution, begging, and filth.

At one point we cross through Durbar Square, a world heritage site and home of the living Goddess Kumari. (Or something like that. I won’t even pretend I can spell even the most simple Nepali name.) Kumari is a small girl, selected for her perfection, and then spends her days being pampered and draped in all manner of fancy garments, until a single blemish appears on her skin, which is a sign the Goddess has left her, and she is replaced by another girl (This occurs every few years. Fear puberty!).

Non-Nepali are expected to pay a toll every time they visit the area, but Gregory and I have mastered a fee avoidance strategy. We begin by walking, heads down as fast as possible into the square, waiting for an officer to begin following us. He will politely say “Hello? Hello?” as he approaches and we will ignore him until he is basically on top of us and then we will both turn simultaneously and begin our attack. I go low, leaning into him and making a cutting motion with one hand over the other and saying “WE JUST GO THROUGH! WE GO THROUGH.” Gregory goes high, making large sweeping motions in the air above his head and saying “WE GO TO HOTEL! WE GO TO HOTEL.” Each officer reacts the same: they pull back and hesitate, confused by this barrage of English they probably don’t understand and look around for help. We press in, continuing our attack and cutting off his sight lines. He leans back, shrugs his shoulders, and waves us on. Fee avoided!

We then head to the NGO where plans are made and permits are planned. This is rather difficult as neither Gregory or I have quite mastered the “Nepali Head Waggle” which is what they use here instead of a head nod to indicate yes. The waggle is sort of like them trying to draw a horizontal figure eight with their head, but is only millimeters away from being a head shake, and so we will approach with a plan and question like “Will this porter be available for these dates? Will food be available at this location?” receive the waggle in reply, misinterpret it as a “no,” become distressed, spend 30 minutes re-planning everything, only to discover the original worked fine and now we have just confused the whole lot of them. Then, of course, we must re-explain the plan, receive the waggle in reply, misinterpret again, and the whole process repeats itself. This could presumably be solved with a verbal “yes” or “no,” but Nepali politeness demands that they first say “yes” to everything, and then the reason “no” is the answer is often too difficult for them to phrase into English, so we move on before allowing them the time, and are again set back another 30 minutes.

We finish the day with Nepali lessons, which are entirely useless. Our teacher will say a word, we will repeat it and memorize it, then he will use it in a sentence and add all manner of extra beginnings and endings to it (I assume to conform with context.) We become confused, ask him to say the word again, and he will say a third, entirely different variety of it. We will repeat it, he will shake his head and say it a fourth way. We have tried to use some vocabulary around the office and everyone just looks at us funny, then says a fifth version of the word. After three days of 90 minute lessons, I know “How much does it cost?” “Thank you,” “expensive,” and can count to 10, but my 4 and 6 apparently sound identical.

I have been swindled once thus far. I was walking down the street yesterday and was mauled by two individuals who cornered me and started throwing flowers on my head and drew a big red dot on my forehead saying “Is good luck! Is good luck!” What I thought was just some initial over-zealous kindness ended up being a demand, they wanting 200 rupees for the good luck. I thought “like hell I’m paying these guys almost $3 for throwing some friggin’ flowers on my head, but I do respect them for cornering me so quickly” so threw them a 50 rupee note and ran off with their disappointed cries in the background.

On the way home, it began raining almost exactly as we left the office, which neither of us were prepared for, and the rain stopped almost precisely when we walked through the hotel door, and this morning I woke up with a sore throat. Good luck humbug (to quote Twain)! I shall not soon be swindled like that again… (although I can’t decide whether my bad luck is because the flowers and dot were a sham, or because I shorted those giving me the luck… I guess luck is funny in that way…)

Despite the new routine and frequent humorous episodes, I am beginning to grow tired of Kathmandu. The city is a constant sensory overload, the sights and sounds and smells beginning to wear on my ability to process information or find the positives in a culture and society overrun with poverty and filth. I am sick of seeing the gross disfigurations of a people without health care, the endless masses limping because they broke their ankle several years ago and it was just never set properly, feces in the street, and the endless smell of diesel.

Yesterday as we were walking we heard a weak meow from a small section of grass in an otherwise artificial alley. It was a kitten, no older than a few days who had been caught in the previous night’s rain and was clearly on the verge of death and probably would not last the remainder of the day. It is perhaps one of the saddest things I have ever seen. The poverty and begging here is becoming overpowering, and I am anxiously awaiting our departure to more isolated places in less than a week.

The Daring Hotel Raid!

All the work we are doing here in Kathmandu is not entirely related to our trip to Dolpo. When we return in November the Consortium for Capacity Building, the organization Gregory works for will be hosting a conference in Kathmandu regarding the topic of climate change with a wide range of discussions for undergraduate students and perhaps some higher ups in the IPCC.

Anyhow, for the past couple of weeks we have been touring various venues to host the event, and most of the time this involves me following Gregory around like a sheep, while he follows D. (the NGO is officially organizing the event, but G. is “consulting”) around like a sheep, and he talks to the event coordinator at some such hotel or something.

The other day we were doing this around lunchtime in a five star hotel and I was zoning out as usual when D.  received a call and had to run to some ministry or other. He exchanged a few last words with the event coordinator, then chuckled, then told us (as the topic of conversation had just been on lunches served at the conference) that she was offering Gregory and I a complimentary lunch to “test” it. He then respectfully refused, as is polite to do, to which Gregory and I quickly respectfully reminded him that “to hell with politeness, we’re students and a free meal is a free meal and you never turn that down!”

And thus it was that we were sat down in a fancy dining room with china and eight different types of forks. We, the grimy Americans which shirts that had not been washed in days and were stained with sweat, with rough and untidy facial hair, and with sandals dirty from weeks of walking the street. We who were supposed to be living in isolation; we sat for a complimentary meal served by wait-staff who’s suits, had they been made in the U.S., probably would have cost more than my college education.

The first course was soup, presented with spoons of various sorts that I had no idea which to use, and which I ended up slurping entirely inappropriately. Following this was rice with all manner of curries and potatoes and finely cooked lamb and a thousand other delicious and far-too-fancy-to-be-identified entrees, all of which I ate with the same silverware I used for my soup because I was still intimidated by the arsenal in front of me. I have no place in this world.

Post-entree feast came plates of fresh fruits and vegetables: cucumber slices, watermelon, mango, apples dipped in sweet yogurt,  and various other delicacies that the riff-raff on the streets just a mere 10 meters away will probably never experience. Was it wrong to enjoy all of this in a country full of such poverty and squalor as I have described in previous emails?

Probably, but these thoughts were soon erased with the rush of endorphins that accompanied the arrival of dessert. Placed delicately on a tray were chocolate cakes, chocolate truffles, fruit rolls, pies, “assorted mousses,” pudding cups, and others which I have only seen before in dreams (I also wasn’t aware mousse came in anything but chocolate). We gorged ourselves, we mangy Americans, and stuffed ourselves with the useless calories of pleasure.

Shortly after starting, the chefs emerged from the kitchen and witnessed our destruction of their beautiful tray. Looks of shock and pain were sent our way. Not of anger, but more of a “I spent hours putting all this stuff on here in just the right place! What large band of miscreants ruined it in so short a period!?”

Only to get the response that it was the two entirely inappropriately attired chaps at the far end of the room with the chocolate smeared faces and the giddy smiles of pleasure. And they aren’t paying. It was around this time we elected to take our leave, our welcome having run its course prior to a second round, and satisfied that the decision on whether we were actually going to use this hotel or not was almost entirely out of our hands.

Last Thoughts

And thus I depart Kathmandu! Kathmandu! Where a haze of pollution hangs over the city and has forced us to cover our faces in black masks whenever we go out to block the larger particulates of pollution as well as some of the offensive smells that are omnipresent. Kathmandu! Where cows run rampant through the streets, the streets of filth and feces that disappears into rising murky waters when it rains, and which one has no choice but to splash through with sandals, feel the dirty water seep all around his toes, and then shower as best he can when he reaches the sanitary sanctuary of his hotel.

Kathmandu! Where walking down the streets of Thamel at night one is peppered from all sides by offers for cannabis, hash, hashish, whatever synonym this particular shady figure chooses;. They sidle up, hands behind their back and casually ask, or walking through a crowd you suddenly find yourself inches from inquiring eyes, your nose assaulted by the stench of rotting teeth, and the quiet request for a smoke.

“Why?” you ask! “Did you not hear me say ‘no’ to the guy directly in front of you!?” or “Come on! Don’t you see the dreadlocked individual across the way with the giant pot leaf on his shirt!? Why don’t you ask him!?” but they are relentless…

Kathmandu! Where, despite the poverty, everything is “good price” and if you ask for the source of any product “it came from my factory!” Where you cannot enter the street without being descended upon by taxi and rickshaw drivers, pleading, begging, shouting for your business. Where everyone is your “friend.”

No, Kathmandu, I will not miss you in the least.

I don’t actually have anymore stories… This city has sucked all the fun out of life and the only way to survive is to focus on a routine. It never fails to shock.

A week ago it was a 12 year old boy with a vicious head wound sloppily bandaged, blood pouring down his face and his panicked friend desperately begging for money. Yesterday it was a man sleeping on the street, pants pulled down to his ankles and feces sprayed every which way, flies buzzing around madly. Today it was a dog who had clearly lost a fight, the back of its neck and head ripped open, bits of flesh hanging and swinging from it’s exposed spine and brain as it hobbled and limped slowly through traffic.

It never fails to shock, but I cannot put these vignettes into words that do them justice, cannot find humor in these situations, and can only hope for Monday when my life can begin again, when I can begin to care for things again.

Tashi delay,


Posted in Adventures! | Leave a comment

A New Appreciation for Toilet Paper

Family! Friends!

Hello again to you all! I rejoin the world of electricity and plumbing, motors and telecommunication, Kleenex and toilet paper and diapers (the latter not necessarily for me, but when you have an entire remote village with a child under two running around, diapers would definitely come in handy). I return after months of “roughing it,” my voice carrying only as far as I could yell, my world news only what I could see and hear directly, and depending on springs, rivers, and lakes for sustenance, cleaning, and direction (excluding, of course, a few satellite calls to the parents. Isolation is tough…)

Surely this was Living! Our adventure began with a 12 day slog through rain forest, through valleys and over peaks of such diverse, lush greenery I almost forgot we were headed for mountains. For 12 days we trekked, and saw the sun for 20 minutes. For 12 days we trekked and it rained, it rained, it rained, and it rained. Gear was soaked through, clothing was soaked through, paths became rivers or bogs of mud which swallowed boots whole and made you question if you’d ever see them again! I chose between wet and less-wet socks in the morning. I fought flies and bees and omnipresent leeches; made bedfellows with potentially rabid bats, fleas, mice, 5″ centipedes, and 6″ spiders. Yes! The leeches! Born on streams of rainwater, propelled by the atmospheric disruptions our steps created they made bee-lines for our boots. 12 at a time you would see, 3,4,5, inches in length and near impossible to remove! They bit, and I bled. Long lines of uncoagulated blood would run down my feet for hours at a time, pool in socks, mix with the blood of massive, growing blisters long after we had exhausted a 3 month supply of bandage and gauze. I carried over 40lbs (due to a rather unfortunate miscommunication with the porters), carried it as each day we rose and fell over paths of slippery rock and scree, over unmarked trails that narrowed to a single boot’s width, or disappeared entirely and one would have to simply step over and abyss, over a fall of several hundred meters. I groaned, I strained, I climbed over 15,000ft in pouring rain, I set up my tent in the howling wind and pouring rain at 14,000ft and shivered through a night and storm that would not end, and I sat by the banks of a river and cried from the sheer relief of having gotten across (a shin-deep, fast-flowing river. Directly to my left it dropped 300m, I started across and slipped, fell upstream to the right before backing out. Then with soaking boots and socks and confidence shaken, I had to try and cross again. This after a 700m climb already in steady rain, and a 500m climb to come that day before reaching over 13,000ft, now in entirely wet gear… oh, and 4 more river crossings… It’s times like that I feel emotion just sort of comes out entirely unfiltered.) I was whacked in the face by marijuana as we navigated fields of the enormous weed, I witnessed the bloated bellies of malnutrition on the snot-faced children of remote villages, I drove myself harder physically and mentally than ever before. That was the first 12 days.

Onward to Dolpo! To the rain-shadow! But the rain did not stop. We forded massive rivers, simply walked against the flow where they had over-run their banks and flooded the trail, and reconstructed broken bridges with logs and stones. Following stories of death and drowning (a mule and 2 porters) up, up, up until at last we came upon the turquoise waters of Lake Phoksumdo and the village or Ringmo. There, the sickness took Gregory. There he was bed-ridden for 9 days. There we fired the porters. And there I was renamed. Rebranded by a crazy park ranger who had lived too long in isolation and briefly joined our party; renamed as he watched me run errands, wake at 6 to do dishes in freezing water and rain, and tend to Gregory. Jonathan became Agnykari. Walking down village paths it was “Namaste Agnykari-ji. Tashi delay Agnykari-ji” (Although Gregory preferred a more crude suffix: Agnykari-bitch) My old, unpronounceable, foreign sounding name was forgotten and the villagers adopted my new persona. Agnykari: Obediant. (Gregory also consistently referred to me as “keta,” which is the more derogatory form of keto, meaning roughly, “infant boy”)

And still the rain persisted! Persisted as we began again, this time with a train of oxen. As we left behind the turquoise waters and the flowing fields of buckwheat. For 19 more days we trekked before settling back in Ringmo. To some of the most remote regions in the world! To brilliant views of endless mountains, each rising higher than the last over countless canyons and infinite horizons without the slightest hint of human existence! To Crystal Mountain, to Shey Gumpa, to Shamling, to Saldang, to Dho Tarap: some of the most holy places in all of Buddhism, where I lit butter candles and witnessed rituals. Past Shey the rain finally stopped, its parting gift to us a hailstorm at 15,000 ft before the sun finally burst through, but now it was just plain cold. Now I had to break through ice to collect water. Now we woke to the interior and exterior of the tent covered in frost. And onward we climbed! 5 times we passed over 17,000ft, the highest just shy of 17,800ft. 3 times we camped over 16,000ft, shivering in layers of clothing. And finally, on day 18, the sickness caught me. Stuck between 2 17,000ft passes, 2 days from the nearest settlement on either side and with dwindling kerosene (our resupply had failed to arrive) I was left with 3 options: sit and starve be airlifted out and end the study, or conquer the mountain pass ahead. Bacteria ran rampant through my intestines, pain shot through my gut and forced me to double over, and let’s just say I had some pretty bad runs… The first 2 choices were no choices at all, and so I strapped on pack and began to climb. At a time when thin air, steep trail, and heavy pack required nutrients, I couldn’t stomach them. At a time when dehydration could lead to High Altitude Sickness, I couldn’t absorb fluid. And yet I climbed! I’ll spare the gory details, but suffice it to say I climbed that 17,000ft pass and I sufficiently marked it as my own along the way. Marked it 8 times in 3 hours, and I imagine it will smell of it for weeks more to come! (And I do apologize to the French group coming the opposite direction. Tried to get off the trail, but sometimes the just wasn’t an opportunity…) It was here that Agnykari was briefly renamed again, to “he who poops many times a day” (which I will not be translating, as it’s kind of catchy) but thankfully this name, like my bowels, passed rather quickly. And who else do you know who can tell that story!?

And why do this? Why push myself beyond physical limits at ridiculous altitudes and shiver through nights alone, teeth chattering? For the people! The people of Dolpo, the Dolpo-pa, who live on the brink of collapse. As Gregory studied, we pried into their lives, we sat with them, drank tea with them, shared laughs with them, broke roti with the, ate champa with them, and learned from them. From dusty, poorly lit house rooms to rooftop terraces to colorful gumpas, we sat and heard their stories, learned their worries and fears, their joys and triumphs. Heard stories of livestock and family members consumed by avalanches. Found the communist-appointed head of Ringmo is, without hesitation, envious of his neighbors increased wealth. Listened to an old, toothless woman describe the death of her first husband and 2 of her 4 children; she stays up at night with pain now, thinking of how she’ll complete the work necessary to continue living herself. And we laughed when an old woman answered “what one thing would improve the quality of your life?” with “Nothing now, but in my next life to be a better man than my ex-husband.”

Most importantly, we pried and heard their perspectives on climate. I have watched a grandfather weep as he held his grandchild, middle-aged men and women lose their voices in contemplation, and the high-lama of the central gumpa of Bon (a religion that predates Buddhism and gave it many influences) wrestle with his faith as he questioned the role humans have regarding the climate, and the difficult future that lies ahead for these people. I learned what climate change means, not what it is. What it means for people living in fragile ecosystems, dependent on snows that no longer fall, dependent on rains they can no longer predict, and dependent on seasons which are no longer consistent. They talk of waterfalls they no longer hear, new birds and insects and diseases. They wear less clothing, burn less fuel, and watch their world changing.

But the power and kindness of these people is overwhelming, their optimism inspiring. I saw remarkable things in children. Children with uncertain futures. I played patty-cake with a child in Darbang, saw in her eyes unbridled joy and passion. A child in Saldang ran to me and gently held my hand, would not let go for 20 minutes and simply followed me around and in her eyes, which looked deep into mine, I saw all the innocence and trust once could hope for in the world. And in the brown eyes of a toddler standing for the first time, reflecting the turquoise of Phoksumdo, I found, I think, that missing piece of myself that I came searching for (in a sappy, emotional ending kind of way…)

I have lost, conservatively, 31lbs (41 since first hearing I was going to Nepal) and at least 4″ from my waist (wearing my old pants has become a challenge). My body type has changed entirely. I now stand tall, lanky, even gangly, with expanded, thick shoulders and lean, hardened legs (all this I discovered in front of the mirror last night. The first time in nearly 70 days I have observed my body from such a perspective and it came as quite a shock). I have sunken eyes and hollowed, gaunt cheeks, hidden by excessive facial hair that might make, say, an 18 year-old proud after a week of growth, or a religious fundamentalist. I have perma-dirt under fingernails, chapped lips that bleed periodically, and the beginning of a mullet beneath a massive, unkempt mat of hair. I have blisters on my feet that have not healed since they first began to form in deep August mud. I have new definitions for the words “wet,” “cold,” and “dirty” (Save the hour-long bathing extravaganza I enjoyed last night, I have bathed exactly 4.5 times since last I wrote in August. Initially this was because of what I view as a rather tragic design flaw: our solar shower required sun to heat water. Then through another rather tragic design flaw: it didn’t actually heat water.) But I am happy, I am content, I am healthy, and I am returned (to Kathmandu at least, more detrimental to my health and downright dangerous then Dolpo ever was. My eyes already sting and throat burns from the pollution.) I am rediscovering the simple joys and disgusts of civilized life.

Tashi delay,


Posted in Adventures! | 1 Comment