Namaste. That’s Nepali for “I salute the god in you” and the formal way most people great each other in this country. A pretty incredible way to say hello and a great indicator of the level of spirituality in this place and of the attitude of the people.
After a short flight from the exciting madness and filth of the Bazaar in Delhi, India, the plane came down through the clouds (sadly covering the Himalaya mtns. which the contents of the plane were craning to see) and onto the runway in Kathmandu. Just then, Bob Seger popped out of the bathroom and started singing.. Or not. As I walked off the plane and into the airport, the stress and strain of four sometimes hectic weeks spent between Morocco and Delhi quickly fell away. With soft round features on smiling faces, the Nepali people immediately seemed more at peace in life, more tranquil and content, certainly more welcoming and pretty darn friendly in general. It may have something to do with the fact that most of the population is either Hindu or Buddhist, two religions that peacefully co-exist. Or the fact that the country lies in the shadows of some of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful physical features on the planet.
The Himalaya mountains were formed when the Indian subcontinent slammed into Asia 60 million years ago with such force that the land in the middle buckled sending some straight up, creating the world’s youngest but highest mountain range. Nepal, the teeny 500 mile long country lying northeast of India, contains about 1/3 of that range and 10 of the 14 highest peaks in the world including the highest, Mt. Everest, that tops out at over 29,000′. The mountains are actually still moving upward, growing at something like 2mm a year. Crazy.
Anyway, they’re big and beautiful. And Nepal, with India on one side and Tibet/China on the other, has become a bit of a mixing pot for both countries, cultures, and the physical traits of each.
As the cab from the airport made its way through the nearby streets and into the capital of Kathmandu, the first thing I noticed was color. It’s full of bold, vibrant beautiful color everywhere you look – in the brilliant red, purple, yellow, orange and green of the flowers hanging from balconies, the vermillion (another cool word for red as I’ve learned), yellow and orange powdered tikkas adorning the foreheads of Hindus, multicolored saris covering the women, various pastel colors used to pain the mostly brick and wood and very unique (to me) balconied buildings throughout the town.
It was also full of the orange and red of the marigold flowers used as offerings at the Hindu temples. Especially so this time of year as I’d arrived right in the thick of Dasain, the most important Hindu festival of the year. I have yet to fully grasp the true meaning as every time I asked a local, they’d tell me, “It’s like Christmas for Hindus!”. Anyway, I think it’s about one of the thousands of Hindu goddesses (this one named Durga) triumphing over the forces of evil or something like that. What I can tell you is that there’s a shitload of pomp and circumstance involved, with parades, flowers and tikkas abounding throughout the city (including on the cars, motorcycles and rickshaws, many of which were adorned with the orange and red of the tikka – on grills, tires, you name it). And a lot of happy celebrating faces. The day I arrived in Kathmandu was the Durga Puja, the day of the festival on which just about every Hindu family in the country slaughters a goat in sacrifice for Durga. There was apparently even one slaughtered for every plane (including mine) that arrived that day. I didn’t see any of the slaughters but did see (and eat) plenty of the aftermath. At butcher stands around the city, severed goat heads were propped rather unceremoniously on the front of the counter, staring at me as I walked by. I happened by one with two poor live goats chained up to the same stall where two of their departed brethren’s gourds were sitting, just a foot or two away. I think they knew what was coming. They didn’t look psyched.
Kathmandu is an amazing city. Full of garbage, exhaust and loogey-spitting men just like Morocco, but with an energy, color and excitement I’ve not seen anywhere else. It feels much safer and inviting and I found myself just walking around the back streets in the old town away from the tourist zone (an awful technicolor mix of German bakeries, internet cafes, faux North Face gear, travel agencies and other, well, well-heeled tourists), amazed at the scene in front of me at every turn. It’s got the standard lot of produce hawkers (with beautiful mix of local oranges, bananas, apples, chillies, ginger, tomatoes, radishes, greens, garlic, root veggies, potatoes and other local fare) but also people selling baby chicks, roasted meats on sticks (not the baby chicks as far as I could tell), momos (Tibetan dough balls full of veggies or buffalo meat), all manner of hand crafted wood and silver souvenirs and yes, more hash (I’m certain now I have been offered drugs by every dealer between here and Marrakech – do I look the part that much?). But with more temples than bathrooms (I made this up but I might be right), you can’t turn around without taking in one of these beautiful religious sights, with believers either circling for luck, offering flowers, oranges, coconut or some other produce in prayer, or chanting Om Mani Padme Hum as they spin prayer wheels (as in the Buddhist structures, complete with, yes, brightly colored prayer flags flapping in the wind) as they pass. It’s an amazing thing to see so many people so devoted to their faiths, with those faiths exuding such positivity (at least for this agnostic fella) and inclusivity. There are even holy men called saddhus or babas, Hindu ascetics covered in brightly colored fabrics, some with dread locks, who’ve taken vows of poverty and now make their living walking the streets offering tikkas, marigold flowers and good wishes from little silver paint cans as they walk by. For a donation of course..
After just two days of this sensory smorgasboard, I was off to Pokhara, a little town northwest, to visit some new friends and do some trekking. To get there, I’d have to take a bus some 7 hours on the main ‘highway’ through Nepal, little more than a 100 mile series of single lane hairpins that turns out to be a racing proving ground for young drivers with death wishes, somehow licensed to take human cargo back and forth between the towns. I bought a ticket in a 14 passenger Toyota minivan, the ‘luxury’ way to travel, or so the guy told me. The luxury coach left two hours late and, by the time we were halfway there, included 21 people on the inside. And 7 on top. No, there are not seats on top. We’d officially doubled capacity and furthered our chances of toppling over by moving the center of gravity up somewhere near my head. Four of the legal passengers um.. puked..on the way there. Three of them inside the van. Yay! Suffice it to say I’ve experienced the horrors of travel that many long term travelers speak about like badges of honor. I’ll gladly give my badge up to avoid that scene again.
Pokhara, by contrast, was less puke-heavy. For a bit anyway. It’s a little town on the edge of a beautiful lake, with part of the Annapurna mtn range in view. A start and end point for treks through the Himalaya in the area, it’s full of the creature comforts and gear travelers need for prepping for or celebrating after a few long weeks in the mountains. On a good day, you can climb to the nearby high points in the area and take in something like 12 or 15 different peaks in an uninterrupted stretch, some of which are reflected in the lake below. A spectacular site, especially at sunrise, when the sun comes up and lights up the peaks first, then slowly inches down the faces, lighting ’em up in all their glory.
In addition to taking on the Annapurna Circuit trek, I’d come to Pokhara to meet two Nepali pals of a friend of mine from back in SF, Allison. Allison came to Nepal in 2002, met Narayan and Kaladhar (aka ‘Kala’) and they became dear friends who’ve kept in regular touch since then. About a month before arriving in Nepal, I started emailing with these two and felt like I already had friends when I got to Pokhara, where they both live. Just as Allison had promised, they turned out to be amazing guys. They bent over backwards (figuratively, although I’d love to see them try the gymnastics move) to make me feel welcome, showing me around town, inviting me over to their homes to have dinner with families, exlaining local life (the good and bad as I would learn more about) and customs, putting me up and taking care of me in their hotels and doing anything and everything they could imagine to help me along the way. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced hospitality like that before. Ever. As they explained, I was a friend of their ‘sister’ Allison and they were grateful to meet me. That reference sister reference seemed a little funny when I first heard it, but after nearly two weeks hanging with these guys, I now consider them brothers. I definitely owe them one when they make it to the US of A.
Fast forward a few days and now I’m the one sitting on top of a bus sprinting down the highway. not sure how it happened but now I’m hooked. It’s my preferred mode of transport. Okay, so these busses are quite a bit bigger and built to haul tons of gear on top. Where many locals, and now I, brace themselves against luggage racks, holding on for dear life in exchange for incredible views and fresh air.
I hopped off in a little nothing town called Besisahar and took my first steps up the trail, the first real ‘trek’ I’ve ever been on, and one that heads into some of the most beautiful alpine scenery in the world, the Annapurna range of the Himalaya mountains. Over the next 15 days, I hiked some 150 miles (estimates vary – some as high as 180), from a low point of ~2,500′ to a high of ~17,800′. In the process, I lost a few pounds, made a few friends (well, a lot), spent a lot of time by myself (both good and bad – as it turns out, I’m a social animal!) and did some solid soul searching. I’ll explain more later but suffice it to say that all of this travel and hiking has left me with one realization. I am an incredibly lucky person. I have an awesome family that I now miss more than at any time in the 6 years I lived ‘just’ 3,000 miles away in San Francisco (not to say I didn’t miss them then..). I have more wonderful friends than any man should enjoy, I live in one of (if not the) greatest countries in the world where I (and the rest of us) have more opportunity than most of the rest of the world – just waiting at my fingertips. I enjoy a quality of life and creature comforts that most of that ‘rest of the world’ will never know (some of which I now feel oddly guilty about), and have had a lot of good in my life that, until now, I’ve taken for granted. Funny that I’m writing this entry just two days before Thanksgiving – one that, sadly, I’ll probably spend with Nepali people that have never heard of the holiday, but one that I’ll celebrate in my own little way with these new realizations. If nothing else, I hope my ramblings make you think a bit harder about what you’re thankful for as you sit around the table with friends and family this Thursday. You’re some lucky mother f’rs just to be sitting there! Sorry for the language. But I mean it. It’s taken traveling halfway around the world for me to realize it but most of what I need to be happy in my life is sitting back there in the US. I wouldn’t have known all of it had I stayed home. Funny how life works some times.
Anyway, as if that weren’t enough time inside my head, I’m heading out again for a bit more trekking tomorrow. This time for a 23 day jaunt to and fro Mt. Everest Base Camp (and surrounding passes – comin’ in at just over 18,000′) in the Khumbu region of Nepal. I’ll be outta touch for a while but thinking of you all. And eagerly awaiting a reunion with each of you. Not sure when that’ll be, but I’ll have plenty mo’ stories and photos then.
Love you all. Happy Thanksgiving.
P.S. For those of you enjoying the photos, I’ve had a bit of a tragedy (in my little world that is) in that dept. I learned a valuable tech lesson when I accidentally compressed over 200 photos from the trek, all of which are now low res (read: shitty quality, grainy etc). These were my pride and joy but are unrestorable :(. But in keeping with the Thanksgiving thing, I’m thankful I didn’t lose them entirely and will now try to take a bunch more to share. All in stunning high definition. Muwahahah!!! Good night.