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hermosos elefantes

23 Mar

“They say that somewhere in Africa the elephants have a secret grave where they go to lie down, unburden their wrinkled gray bodies, and soar away, light spirits at the end.” -McCammon 

Hey! This is going to be controversial, so let’s get to it, shall we?

I was in Chitwan National Park at the end of November. It’s now the end of March. That should tell you how much it has bothered me.

When Lucas and I landed in Chitwan National Park, I saw elephants for the first time, in the same context as I see cars in Canada. They were walking down the street with their owners on their backs like it was no big deal. Oh my goodness, how I wanted to ride one, how I wanted to pet one! Elephants! Elephants! I love elephants!

I got my first close up of an elephant this day. She was old and was standing in a shack, tied up with a thick, heavy chain around two of her ankles and her neck. My tummy turned. Surely this must be a once over. Maybe this guy doesn’t know how to take care of  animals but I am certain that there are elephants here that are very well taken care of. As time passed and I walked through the town, I soon realized that every elephant here was kept in the same manner.

Once we found a place to stay, Lucas and I giddily looked at what to do in the National Park. Elephant riding come up a couple of times so I knew this was going to be fantastic time.… until my gut started to talk.

It was talking but it was only in a whisper, so I asked some questions: what kind of seats are used for the people on the elephants? My gut cleared its throat. Wait, elephants are extremely intelligent, what’s the training process for them to be able to do this? Why are they kept in the back yard of these houses like dogs? My gut was now talking.  We did some research.

We read an article written by someone who compared elephants to work horses. The author’s point was this: you have horses and they’re used for work, you have elephants and they’re used for work so it’s the same idea.  At this point, I still really wanted to ride an elephant but having grown up riding and caring for horses, this wasn’t logical to me. Work horses are given acres and acres to roam every day after working the farm. Horses are given love and care. Horses don’t need electric prods in order to “behave.” Non of the elephants I observed while coming in to town had such luxury. We did some more research. Elephants, because of their level of intelligence, would never give in to humans naturally. The relationship between elephants and owner is most likely formed on the foundation of abuse. To make an elephant obey, they are often first isolated from their families (which depresses them and so they search out other forms of companionship as they are highly social beings), given little to stimulate their minds and of course go through “training” that includes bullhooks and electric prods. After a certain amount of time, the elephant will feel like it doesn’t have another choice (does it?) and up goes elephant riding on the tourist pamphlet.

Lucas and I went to the Elephant Breeding Ground of Chitwan Nation Park and I walked out of there in tears. Picture this: you have maybe 20 elephants all chained up under a small wooden roof that barely shades them. Both of the elephant’s front legs and neck are chained. The environment is absent of the toys or tools that elephants need in order to stay engaged and stimulated. Half of the elephants have a calfs. Every single one of these babies are chained up just out of reach of their mother. The mama elephants stand there, swaying side to side repeatedly, never stopping as their baby tires to reach them, even for a moment, with their trunks.  This is a sign of psychosis which is brought on by not having their needs met and a lack of stimuli and space to roam freely.

We saw mamas and babies try to reach each other with their trunks within inches away but to no avail. I couldn’t bring myself to take a picture of this horror.

In one of my post about the Himalayans, I briefly touched on the subject of tourist education and how we, as travellers, need to educate ourselves on what’s really happening so we can help change these things. In regards to elephants, the brutality they face in “training” is for tourist purposes only.  When every single person who visits Chitwan asked for an elephant ride, you’re damn right there is going to be a market for elephants. It is our demand that is driving this.

I truly believe that people ride elephants because of a lack of awareness and a love of something mystical. Who doesn’t want to saunter down a pathway surrounded by jungle and animals, slowly swaying to and fro on a giant, mystical-like beast? I did. Shit, I still do. But I won’t.

If people knew that the elephant rides cause spinal damage, that they miss their families, that the only reason they are carrying people is because they were tortured into it, and that they get to go home to a small, concrete cage, I truly believe that the majority of people wouldn’t do it.

There’s a bright side to all of this. You can get up close to elephants without doing harm (which is really great news because I fucking love these creatures). You can go to sanctuaries to help out in other ways such as cleaning, feeding and bathing. How amazing is that?

I understand that some readers will be concerned with the livelihoods of locals if no one wants to ride elephants. My answer to this is that humans are pretty remarkable and can come up with things to create income for themselves without abusing animals.

I love opinions so if you have one, I would love to hear it (especially if you are pro elephant rides). However, please understand that I want to keep this space respectful, so keep it clean.

these are not my photographs. they were taken from google. a couple of them are from chitwan but i do not take credit for them. the day i was there, i was too upset to pull the camera out.

i do not take credit for these photos. they are not mine. some are of chitwan and some are what i witnessed.

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himalayan entry number 5: we can’t stop, we won’t stop. oh wait, our jeep just stopped. never mind, as you were…

21 Jan

“Earth and skies, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountains and the sea, are all excellent schoolmasters and teach some of us more than we could ever learn from books.” -Lubbock

I won’t write any more of the days in the mountains or coming back out. One of the gifts that travel has given me are memories that can’t be described to anyone else. Memories and feelings that are mine and mine alone to keep until the day I die. It is a bit torturous because all I want to do is share them with everyone I know and love but I can’t. Every single person who travels – and I mean really travels – will receive these gifts on their own time and they will hold them so tightly that they will always have them because no one, not even time, can take them away.

The day we got to Seribu Bensi, the last village on our trek before driving back to Kathmandu, was a day with many emotions. We had made family up there, in those crazy, glorious mountains and I already missed them. As Lucas and I approached the last bridge that we had to cross into the village, we hugged and held hands and hobbled across because we were so sore from the day’s work. We stayed in the village that night using the time to arrange a Jeep back to Kathmandu. What a hellish nightmare; because of the strike (remember we came into the mountains during a holiday and now we were leaving during elections strike… I know, I know… we are excellent at planning), everything was closed, no busses in or out and that meant all of the Jeeps and trucks were taken up. Except one and we got it, thanks to Lucas.

The next morning all vehicles leaving the village had to create a caravan with the police. Because of the elections that were proceeding, there had been some bombings of cars and busses in the previous week or so by extremists. Before our trek we kept in the loop by finding English newspapers and talking to our host. There were also political gatherings, parties, marches and so on throughout the country that we got to witness as we traveled. We were actually really surprised at the amount of involvement, advocacy and passion everyone had and wish that Canadians took such an interest in politics (extremists actions aside, obviously). Of course, this is Nepal’s second election and so perhaps Canadians just take it for granted.

I don’t have to go into detail about the road that we had to drive out on. If you’ve read the first entry you know it was intense but if you haven’t, you can find it under “nepal” in the categories on the right. It was just as bad as it was coming into the mountains but this time we were sharing the Jeep with four Spanish people.

The day was long. Having to stop and create a caravan with the police left us in a village on the side of a mountain for a couple of hours. We made some friends, ate some food but there was a question of our impending departure when we finally left about two hours later and were happy to do so: we had a long drive ahead of us and wanted to get started. You can image how excited we were when, as we were coming onto our fifth hour of driving, the Jeep stopped out of nowhere. It stopped in the middle of an inclined cliff road, on a mountain, at dusk around a bend where the massive dump trucks and busses coming down the hill around the corner couldn’t see us.

The Jeep stopped and everyone fell silent for a moment. The driver pumped his peddles and black smoke started coming out of the front of the Jeep. Then the Jeep started going backwards very slowly. As calmly but seriously as I could I said, “break.” It was all I could muster up. Well, that and the smile I was giving to everyone. The seven of us got out and all I could think of was that my mom told me to never get out of the car if it’s broken down, there is a higher chance of getting hit by another car. Did I mention the trucks coming around the bend?  I had to chuckle to myself and then my chuckle turned into a full blown laugh. You see, here we were, on the side of a mountain highway with a local driver who couldn’t be more that 25, four Spanish people who were driving me a bit crazy (they were lovely but they were all over the place), night time nearing, in Nepal. I laughed to myself as I took my camera out to take pictures of this glorious moment.

These are the moments that school can not give you. These are moments that a job can not provide you. These moments teach you something about the world, about others and about yourself. You see how you process things, how you react, how you carry yourself. These learning moments, the ones that come when you are not looking, are part of the memories and moments I speak of when I say that traveling gives you gifts that not even time can take away from you and that you tend not to even unwrap right away.

As time passed and Lucas and the driver tried to fix the Jeep, myself and the Spanish people felt helpful by slowing the oncoming trucks down by standing on this “highway” and waving our arms at them. Yes, that must have been very helpful, indeed.

I looked over and I saw Lucas and the driver hunched over the engine. They were communicating through hand signals and simple English words. More black smoke. Pump, pump, pump. More black smoke.

Ah! Wait! There’s another Jeep coming up the hill! We pull the guy over and make a deal with him: 4000NR and we are good to go… wait a minute, Lucas starts yelling at us to get into the Jeep, they have fixed it! We had already paid the guy we started the journey with so this is convenient, we’ll go with our broken little Jeep. We thank the second Jeep and we climb in as fast as we could at Lucas’ direction.

The seven of us get in. The pumping starts again. We start rolling backwards. I yell, “Break!” We all get out.

A local bus slowed to a halt. At this point it is hectic; no one seemed ready to commit to leaving or staying and the four Spanish people were looking at Lucas and I for direction: I get why they were looking at Lucas, he hooked everyone up with the Jeep. He planned the whole thing and made it happen. If you know him, you know what I’m talking about, he just makes shit happen. Lucas and I looked at each other and I see his “I’m done with this shit” face and he climbed onto the top of the Jeep and started handing me everyone’s bags and I stared shelling them out to everyone else like an elf on Christmas morning. We ran to the bus and climbed on. Yes, a very local bus with local people, indeed. I looked around and smiled. Nothing. I say “Hello,” probably a little too loudly and scurry to the back of the bus out of habit.

We make it to Kathmandu just as it starts to get dark outside and I sigh a very large sigh of relief. I mean, I go to sigh but because of the gas and pollution, I just end up coughing, but it’s a cough of relief and that’s what mattered for that day.

himalayan entry 4: the only thing that can be measured is the mountain

21 Jan

Never measure the height of the mountain until you have reached the top. Then you will see how low it was. -Hammarskjold

Day six was the day. It was the day we were going to scale to 4998 meters.

We woke up at 5:15am and got dressed to meet a couple that we were going to trek the mountain with. We met them a couple of days prior on the path and saw them again when we arrived in Kyanjin Gompa. They were hesitant to trek this one particular mountain but we talked them into it, reassuring them that we would do it together and they decided to come with us.

It took us nine hours, round trip. When we started, it was still dark but soon enough the sun had peeked over a mountain and the warmth of it was starting to lick our cold little noses. At such a high altitude, the sun and the wind threaten to do damage; the sun with its ability to burn your skin and the dry wind making your throat soar and your lungs weak. We dressed well for it; lots of sunscreen with layers upon layers to help protect us from the cold wind.

We were about two hours in when we saw three people coming up the mountain behind us. Two of them were on foot and one of them sat on a pony, (to say “rode” a pony would be giving them too much credit.) I was confused for a moment at this sight because ponies are usually used on the mountain with tourists when the tourist is sick from altitude but this person was ascending so they couldn’t have been sick.

As they came closer we saw that it was two local men and a tourist. As they came even closer we saw that the pony kept stopping and its chest was heaving at an alarming rate. Every time it stopped, one of the men would hit the pony with a stick. The four of us sat there watching this as we nibbled on our snacks, taking a short break. Once they were close enough, some people in our group had a verbal exchange with the locals. The locals yelled back, “Stop yelling, [the tourist] pay, we take them.”  As we continued our hike we discussed this as a group and here is the stance that I took: In many places around the world, the income of the people rely on tourist dollars. When tourists come, the locals need to meet the tourists wants and demands. The locals are doing what they need to do to make a living and so it’s the tourists that need to make a change in what they deem appropriate when visiting these places. The problem is the kind of tourist that pays to have a pony to ride on up a mountain, or an elephant ride, or a lion hunting excursion. Tourists need to be educated in how to travel. We can shape the rights and wrongs, we just need to educate ourselves.

Off topic but important.  Further into our trek, we sat and took another short break and while we did, we heard a rumbling that shook through the mountains and our bodies. Looking from the side of the mountain we were on to a mountain across from us, we saw an avalanche! The word “numinous” came to mind. I just read somewhere that it means to describe an experience that makes you fearful but fascinated, awed yet attracted. Mother Nature is the original powerhouse and when she wants to do something, there is no stopping her. We all sat there with our mouths open in silence. I looked behind me to scan the mountain we were on. It looked as though we were safe but I became even more hyper aware of my very vulnerable position on this mountain.

There were two different points on the mountain where I thought I would have Lucas go on and I would wait for him but I kept arguing with myself to keep going. I wanted to get up there, I wanted that success. There is nothing about me or my life that says “quitter” or “half-ass.” The conversations I had in my head were humorous though; it was a constant back and forth of worry and encouragement between me and myself, especially when I looked up and the tip of the mountain still looked so damn far away. In fact, Lucas was sharing our story with someone and to his enjoyment, he shared that I was talking to myself during the icy, more dangerous part of the trek, (I also talk to myself when I ski, whaddya know!) I kept saying “This is a dumb idea, this is unsafe and we shouldn’t be here. What am I doing here? This doesn’t feel safe.” Of course I followed up with “I am my mother’s daughter and I totally got this. I am going to get my ass up there and at the end of the day, enjoy a hot lemon tea. People go through much more than this just to go to school. I could be sitting at a desk at work right now.”  Then, after a while, my positive voice got tired of my my negative voice and was all like, Pshhhaaa….. Stay out of my business negative voice, I am doing this whether you like it or not so screw you and leave me…wait, I have to reapply sunscreen….“Babe, can you pass me the sunscreen? Ah, thanks!”… alone. I need to concentrate on not passing out up here.  Plus, I had a butterfly to leave up at the top for mom and I needed to get it up there.

About an hour and a half later we made it to the very top of the mountain. It was the last hour and a half that I was most nervous. We didn’t have spikes on our shoes, only poles, and it was icy. The path was icy enough to walk on but on either side of it my walking poles would stick three feet into the snow and if we weren’t careful, we could get stuck in the snow. There were holes in the ice and boulders to climb. There was blowing wind and blinding sun. There were snow leopard prints and we kept slipping and falling. We did it though.

Once up there we ate the lunch that Chime and Sumzu, our hosts, packed us; yak cheese, two boiled eggs, bread and peanut butter. It was a bit of a party because we felt so good that we made it and so there was a lot of hugging and smiling. While the others talked amongst themselves, Lucas and I went over and I hung the butterfly on the banner of the prayer flags for mom.

And down we went. Three and a half hours later, we were in the village again on our way to the shower and then off to eat some momos and dal-bhat.

We reached 4,998m that day but we all felt so much higher.

himalayan entry 3: i meant to take a hot shower but i got into a hot mess instead

21 Jan

Day five of trekking had me in some kind of hot mess.

Day five brought us to Kyanjin Gompa. This was the end of our trek into the mountains where we would stay and do day treks for a couple of days before hiking out. The previous five days allowed me to trek in the lush jungles and forests, in the fields, and on mountain cliffs. I had monkeys jump in the trees above me, I saw birds that are endangered and I saw wild horses. I loved every single second of the adventure I was on.

I started to allow myself to relax as I knew we were going to be resting in Kyanjin Gompa and I started feeling a bit emotionally tired. Trekking is incredible and the absolute experience of a life time but it’s also incredibly arduous and challenging. One must be emotionally and mentally prepared.

I was prepared, in every way. Until I got into the shower.

As we walked through the village, a woman with two young children came up to us. She was wearing a blue apron over her ankle length dress. “You need place to stay?” She held out her hand with a card in it and it read Snow Leopard. That’s the one we wanted! You see, as you climb you cross paths with others who are in different stages of their trek than you are. If someone offers a suggestions on a good place to stay, you usually take it – they know what they’re talking about and what you will need.

Her two children danced around us until the older one grabbed Lucas’ hand and then grabbed my hand. Out of habit I said, “Let’s lift!” and so Lucas and I followed the mama back to her place swinging her child to and fro, giggling and smiling.

She brought us back to her home and introduced us to her husband. He came out, walking slightly forward as if we had a light magnetic pull on him and said “Hello. Wel come.” His smile was huge, happy, radiating warmth and kindness. Radiating pride and hard work.

Just a side note: I wrote “wel come” in such a way because that’s how they spell it, but even more noted, that’s how they pronounce it. I thought it was really cute, the way they would pronounce each syllable, with a brief pause in between. I just loved it. 

We were happy to see clean beds and bedding and proceeded to unpacked our things. What I was really excited about was the fact that they had hot water so I was going to take a shower and absolutely enjoy the shit out of it. The shower was located in a different room and because of the way the structures are built in the mountains, there was about six inches of open space between the roof and the wall so all of the cold air came in. No big deal in a hot shower, right? Right.

I turned on the shower and out came hot water, running through my fingers, dancing in my palms.  At this point Lucas had taken my change of clothes and brought them to the dining room to warm them up by the fire. He was coming back in a couple of minutes with them so I could throw them on right away as it’s really, very cold at night.

Ok, my shins are wet, my arms are wet and I’m about to step under the water, excited and giddy, that I get to feel clean. Here I go, come to mama…

And then the hot water pressure ceased to exist.

It was at this moment that my hot shower turned into a hot mess. I started to cry but not one of those “sniffle, sniffle, pass me a kleenex, aren’t I cute?” cries. It was one of those pathetic silent cries with a super ugly crying face. Get this… I’m naked in the shower, crouched over, half wet, half dry, ugly crying, on a mountain with Yaks outside with window.

Oh, roller coaster of emotions, how I have missed you! Where have you been? GET OUT OF MY SHOWER! I started really crying at this point when Lucas arrived back outside the door with warm clothes. He started knocking on the door asking me to unlock it and when I got to it he rushed in asking me, “What’s wrong?! What’s the matter?! Talk to me!” Uh, hello, can you not see that I am PMSing and I’ve been on a mountain for five days and the hot water has dwindled down and took my dreams of a hot shower with it? No? I managed to get out, “I’m just having a moment.”  He wrapped me in a towel and I got dressed. Uh, best man ever, yes?

Looking back, even later that night, we agreed that this scene was straight out of a comedy and I was the naked, shivering, crying comedian. Oh, Lordy!

himalayan entry 2: “i’m too sweaty to be respected”

29 Dec

Hey! Here’s a great idea! Let’s go from Europe where we lived and breathed carbs and wine and then ascend 1300 meters our first day of trekking. It won’t be a thang.

1300 meters didn’t register in my mind when I heard it, even on the morning of. I was too consumed by how amazing my breakfast was. I was ignorant to the fact that something so amazing with sizzling potatoes and perfectly scrambled eggs could come from a run down shack on the side of a cliff. Heaven!

This is us eating our weight in carbs 2.5 weeks before our trek.

This is us eating our weight in carbs 2.5 weeks before our trek.

7:30am and we walk out the door. What a strange feeling, just walking out the door into the woods, sure that you want to do this, but beyond that, unsure of what comes.

We walked along the gravel road that veered off to the left, down into the green. At the turn off there was a man with a toothless smile, “Yak milk?” I looked at his Yak. “Aw, no dhanybhad (thank you)!” This man, with his toothless grin and muddy yak, set the mood for the day. It was going to be a great day with much to see and it was our second hardest day as well in terms of meters ascended. Did I mention that it was stupid hot?

When we started, we were both decked out in our full gear. I had my tights, ankle length skirt over top, Morano wool t-shit, running jacket, down-filled vest, grey sweater, rain jacket, hat, mitts and boots. Ten minutes into the trek I had stripped to my tights, the skirt and the the t-shirt. Why was I wearing an ankle length skirt? After doing the research, Lucas learned that women are more likely to be respected and accepted into homes and interactions with other women when they are dressed appropriately which, for the Nepalese, means a long skirt. I wore this particular skirt as I didn’t feel great about the other one we had picked up in Kathmandu. I caught the man who sold it to us touching himself after “helping” me with it. I found it odd that he was helping me in the first place and I was fully dressed with Lucas standing in near proximity. Bad omen. Bad vibes. I gave it away. Everything is an um, an experience… right?

The trek started out in beautiful, shady, forest but as we trekked upwards, it become dry and hot. As the hours passed I concentrated on the path and the ground right in front of me. I could barley look up to enjoy it unless we came to a stop or drank some water. It was incredibly steep and no matter how slow I walked, I was still panting, still feeling the lactic acid in my legs build up. At one point I was sure it would have been a good idea to stop and take a nap, I would have been ok with that. I didn’t care that it was in the middle of the forest, on a hill, in the sun.

Five hours into it we were at our first tea house. How excited I was! I made it to my first official “stop.” Lucas and I probably did a high five because we are nerds and said something nerdy to each other like, “who made it to the first stop? WE DID!” I remember it so vividly: it came out of nowhere, a log cabin with some picnic tables in front of it. Smoke was coming out of a chimney and the sky was so blue and so beautiful. We ordered garlic soup because it is supposed to help with altitude sickness and fried rice because it was fast to prepare. We wanted to get going as soon as we could breath easy once again.
First stop: garlic soup and fired rice lunch. Oh, and some classical music.

As I sat there, sterilizing the water, a group of 18 Parisians all sat down at a picnic table that had a lace tablecloth on it. Then I noticed that they had their own cooks and servers. They weren’t eating at the tea house, they were just using their facilities. As I walked around the property I saw  their own personal cooks and chefs behind the tea house quickly working away to get their cheese, peeled fruit, main course and fresh water on the table. I thought, oh, fair enough, these guys are older and they probably get one real holiday a year like the rest of us so good for them. And then the classical music started to blare.  Are. You. Kidding. Me? Did you really have the porter bring up a stereo so you could blast classical music while you ate your perfect, pristine lunch… on a mountain? Paaw-leease.

Lucas and I ate, sterilized some more water and started off again. Apparently the  second leg of this day’s journey was supposed to be “incredibly steep.” I kept asking Lucas who defined “steep” because I was pretty sure the first part of the day was incredibly steep as well.

As we were leaving, a group of young porters were sitting on the ground and I noticed their faces changed when they say me. I just thought I looked funny with hiking boots, a skirt, drenched in sweat so I thought nothing of it. A while later, while in the sun I looked down and realized that my black, Morano wool shirt is completely see through. They boys? Yes, they saw my braw, it’s shape and colour. If this were to have happened at home, I would have just changed my shirt and made a joke… no big deal but it’s extremely inappropriate to show such things in the Nepalese tradition. I looked at Lucas who was laughing and he made a comment about “wearing the appropriate dress” and “putting something else on, even though it’s hot… being respected.” I looked at him and said  “I’m too sweaty to be respected.” And that was that.

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We went on and hours passed. The terrain became even more dry and dusty but we had set a good pace – consistent, practised – that I didn’t feel like I was going to die anymore. And then it happened… we saw the sign “Sing Ghompa, 3300m.” Lucas said “I think this is it.” I stopped and replied, “Can you be sure of that before I get excited, please?” It was and it was beautiful!

It seemed to have came out of nowhere.  Sing Ghompa was made up of five families, all with guest houses. One family had some ponies, all of them had chickens and gardens. It was magical being up here and I felt like I had been transported to another world. The light was different, the air was different. As I hung our laundry up, I was hanging it beside a cloud. Everything was tinted in a pink shade because of the sun. It was remarkable.

I walked out of the families home which is also where they serve the food and turned to my left. Two young boys bareback on their ponies came racing up the stone pathway and up stone steps. I was in heaven and if I wasn’t, I sure as hell was close enough at 3300m.

What left the biggest impact on me were the stars. I have never seen stars look so large and so bright. Venus looked unreal because of its size and brightness and you could see the faint strip of the milky way. I would love to write “and you could breath fresh mountain air into your lungs” but you couldn’t. At that altitude I could feel my heart beat off rhythm here and there. It was a bit scary but expected.

The days were long but felt short. The nights felt even shorter. It was the beginning of something I would have never dreamed of.

himalayan entry 1: barfing ladies, sniffing creams and talking to mom

29 Dec
Two little bags and some gear the night before we set out on foot for 10 days. It was so cold but I was happy to have a toilet that I didn't have to squat over. It's the little things in life.

Two little bags and some gear the night before we set out on foot for 10 days. It was so cold but I was happy to have a toilet that I didn’t have to squat over. It’s the little things in life.

Growing up I would never have imagined myself hiking the Himalayan Mountains. In fact, when I speak of it, I feel as though I am speaking of someone else. Someone else has hiked them. Someone else has accomplished this.

But here I am with a yellow journal full of my scribbles of the daily events Lucas and I experienced on the trip, the moments of sheer frustration, acceptance, thankfulness, humbling and the imprint  it has left on both of our lives.

I couldn’t have written about this any sooner than I am, right now. I had to process it, allowing time to slowly massage the impact and meaning of what was experience  into my mind.

I will look back on this blog one day when I’m old and frail and read it with a happy yearning  of the days gone by.

The Morning we Left to Trek 

As we came down we found a candle lit at the bottom of the stairs. It was on a tray with bright flowers and a cup with some coins in it. The soft glow of the candle and the colour of the flowers were a contrast to the rest of the room which was concrete, cold and dark. Serita waited for us at the bottom of the stairs and told us that the candle was lit to ensure us a safe journey. She then took a red mixture and marked our foreheads with it. After that, we each received a flower. My flower was put into my pony tail because I am a woman and Lucas’ was put on top of his head because he is a man, as the Nepalese tradition goes. We were then given three coins each to put into the bowl of coins as an offering to the Goddess Lakshmi. I wanted to show Serita how much this meant to me and in true Canadian form, Lucas and I hugged her. This might not seem like a big deal to any one of my North American peeps but in the Nepalese tradition, hugging isn’t a usual form of affection that you observe. This thoughtfulness and effort to see us off meant something to me. I felt like a hug was a way to share Canadian affection and because we had created a relationship with Serita, it was welcomed with open arms… literally.

Getting to Dunche, where our trek was to begin, was an experience within itself. Actually, getting anywhere on public transportation in Kathmandu is an experience, but we did it everyday so we were going to do it again. We got on a bus and proceeded to a part of town that we hadn’t been to before. Amongst the yelling, the snot rockets, the dust, the gas, we found the second bus that we were to take. We were told to sit at the back of the bus. I was used to this as it wasn’t the first time this was requested of non-locals and I was perfectly fine with it but the seats in Nepal are made for the Nepalese people, who are generally much, much smaller that people in North America. Lucas had one hell of a time getting comfy.

This bus dropped us off on small road with two little shops in the middle of nowhere.

The "bus stop."

The “bus stop.”

I took my bag off and sat on a piece of concrete and watched a chicken walk back and forth at this so called “bus stop.” An hour and a half had passed by in the hot sun and that’s the only thing that had passed…there wasn’t a bus in sight. This is when I started to contemplated what we were doing. It’s always in these moments, sitting at the side of a road,  that one has these contemplative thoughts. I looked to my left and there was a five year old with her baby brother, making him cry, almost dropping him, picking him back up again… I had to turn away, my stomach couldn’t bear it! I turned to my left. The chicken. Ok, time to let Lucas teach me a card game while we wait for this bus.

As we played the card game, about 15 men gathered around us, (where they come from, I have no idea). Playing cards is popular there amongst men and you only have to walk around a couple of blocks to see it.  As I went to pull a card out of my hand, a man made a noise by drawing a quick breath and bent over to point to the card he thought I should pull out and present to Lucas. I followed his lead and he was right. The men totally enjoyed watching us play the game. For myself, it was an odd experience. Generally speaking, women don’t  gather around other women to watch them do things, whereas men tend to (think of arcades, chess, cards,etc.). Also, I have been travelling in countries where women have little to no rights so men paying attention to anything I was doing, be it with Lucas, was odd as well. Either way, I think it’s so crazy that things like this, like cards, can surpass language barriers and make people connect. I know for a fact that our card game made an instant connection with the locals because after the card game ended they told us that there was no bus that day; it was a holiday and the only option was the van that was sitting by the side of the road.

I looked at the van. Hey! Not to shabby for Nepal! I was actually excited! We were going to get to Dunche in this sweet little van and it’s smooth sailing form here. I got in like a puppy going to the beach.

Ok, the van holds eight people. Eleven got in. Wait, wait a minute, three just climbed to the roof. That’s ok, people do it all of the time here. I was just holding onto the back of a rickshaw the other day, no biggie. Let’s go!

Oh, what’s that? You’re not going to Dunche? Where are we going then? Ok, then we can get to Dunche? How far is it from here to there? Ok, that’s not too bad I guess. Let’s go!

As we went on our way, the driver of the van picked up every single person what was walking along the road. I understand why he did this; they don’t have a body governing transportation in Nepal like the TTC in Toronto, or the Metro in Montreal. If someone owns  any sort of vehicle they can pick people up and charge them appropriately. The more people they pick up, the more money they make. But let me remind you, this van holds eight people. At one point, I was squished between a woman and he toddler and Lucas, who was squished against the window. I looked around and there were 16 people inside this van, and 19 people on top. The sweat, the smell and the sounds. The Nepalese people don’t mind it if you squish them, sit on them, shove them over a bit to make room for yourself. That is how it is done in Nepal so they don’t mind doing it to you. The sliding van door did not shut; people just stepped up and held on and the longer this went on for, the harder I prayed that they would get off. You see, it became clear that most of the people were sitting on the left side of the van which is the same side the mountain cliff was on.

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It’s how things run in Nepal.

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That’s no Saint Nick on the roof.

 

I was nervous. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to keep my calm as the van stopped for each person and my breathing space became smaller and smaller. I was nervous that I would have to leave the van, putting Lucas and I on the side of the road without a drive. I was nervous that this wouldn’t end well.

And then a woman started puking.

I don’t mean puking in the way we Canadians do it. We get all sweaty and shaky, making noises, full of embarrassment. I mean this woman just sat there like nothing was wrong, calmly puking out the door. I had a vision of the scene from Stand By Me, where a barf-o-rama party starts all because one person did it first. I looked at Lucas and as calmly as possible I asked him to please hand me my blue pouch. I quickly and quietly took out a small bottle that I had put some lotion in. This lotion is Johnson and Johnson baby lotion and it came from the home of my Montreal family. They say olfactory sense is the most powerful sense to bring back memories. Well, I took that bottle and I shoved it so far up my nose… and I closed my eyes. I thought of Montreal and being with the family there. The sunny days, the kids, the kitchen, the food and laughter around the dinner table. It brought me right back to them. Lucas asked what I was doing and I’m not sure what I said made any sense because I was trying to make sure that I wouldn’t puke on him. I was too busy putting myself back to a place that was wonderful and safe.

It was a mess but we finally got to where we needed to catch our last ride to Dunche. It was an amazing, crazy, beautiful mess that stretched me farther than I thought I could go… and I wasn’t even on a mountain yet.

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The “good part” of the road. Treacherous.

To no surprise at all, once in the small community, we were told by locals that there weren’t any buses going to Dunche that day because of the holiday. We almost stayed the night in this community but Lucas and his wonderful, extroverted mind, flagged down a man driving a Jeep and asked him to drive us to Dunche for a price. And thank god it was a Jeep because I can tell you, the drive to Dunche is the scariest drive anyone could ever take in their lives. And I’ve driven in Italy.

The following is an excerpt taken from the Lonely Planet Travel Guide for Nepal. I read this before I left on this trip to Dunche so you can image what I was feeling:

“Road travel in Nepal poses a significant risk of accident. It’s uncommon to drive for more than an hour on any stretch of road without passing the burnt out shell of a public bus crushed like tin foil into the canyon below. You are 30 times more likely to die in a road accident in Nepal than in most developed countries.”

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Lucas took this from the car. We can’t see over the edge because of the clouds. Oh, that and the terror. Terror makes it hard to see things.

The rest is a bit of a blur for me and it’s probably better that it stays that way. I do know I was terrified but that it looked like there was some equanimity going on. The cliff roads we were driving on where exactly that: cliffs. The Jeep wouldn’t have rolled down the mountain side, it wouldn’t have hit trees and bushes while tumbling over itself. It would have dropped and kept going kilometre after kilometre until it hit the solid ground.  I thought of every single person in my life whom I love because I was not sure we would make it and instead of praying to God, I had a little chit chat with mom. I didn’t look at the road, there was no need, I could feel the Jeep’s tires move over the rocks and waterfalls, slowly inching it’s way and then speeding up again. I could feel every bump and every sway back and forth. What made me secretly lose it was Lucas. I felt him become scared and he is never scared. I felt him grip my knee and hold his breath. I felt his body temperature rise and I felt him stiffen. When he is scared, I know it’s scary.

Once we got to Dunche, and settled in, he showed my a video of the drive. He explained to me that at one point, as three wheels were on the “road,” one wheel was over the cliff. He didn’t have to tell me. I could feel it.