Slowly slowly: ascending Himalayan hills and traipsing through leech-filled forests on a Poon Hill trek, Nepal

Slowly slowly: ascending Himalayan hills and traipsing through leech-filled forests on a Poon Hill trek, Nepal

After a day in Katmandu, we moved to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal and the jumping off point for our five day Ghorepani/ Poon Hill trek, a hike that rajan repeatedly reassured us required no fitness prerequisites. Our guide, Pashaun, a 31-year old adventurer who climbed Mount Everest at least three times, seemed to categorize it as trivial so we all expected a leisurely stroll through the foothills of the Annapurna region. We tried to introduce ourselves and Paushan interrupted us, “I know you already”, pantomiming filling out the forms that would allow us to enter the Annapurna region. He knew we were foreigners and expected us to walk like ants, because that’s the pace all non-Nepalese move, according to him. Pashaun recruited our porters accordingly, selecting a comical cohort to lug our stuff (slowly) on our hiking adventure, which Liz openly admitted would contain kilos of Snickers. “Do you want me to pack you one?”, she asked Paushan. He shook his head no and repeated, “it’s ok, it’s ok”, and appeared to be calculating whether his out-of-shape helpers could handle this tiny girl’s candy collection. Introducing: The Porters He introduced them, “the fat man is my big brother. He’s very fat but very strong”. All of us swiveled our heads toward the Buddha in tank top and short shorts to see if he was offended- his easy going grin and giggle made it obvious that he didn’t care. Next was the skinny Asian man, whose maroon sweatpants and fiery handkerchief might have been an attempt to hide his twiggy legs. Finally, we had pashaun’s cousin, “the assistant trail guide”, who looked normal enough and supposedly had killer dance moves. When we heard that, we let out a shoot of glee and flashed him a thumbs up which he eagerly returned. The porters shyly blushed and giggled and Liz loudly announced, “we’re going to be family. We’re going to eat Snickers and dip animal crackers in peanut butter and I’m going to teach you (looking at the assistant trail guide famous for his moves) the banana dance”. Paushan laughed and said “maybe tomorrow. (His sneaky way of saying “no freakin’ way”) Let’s get moving”. And we were off! Piled into a jeep with our packs, bumping around the Nepalese countryside as we rose in elevation on the 1-hour drive toward our drop-off point. Suddenly we were there, down a gravel road with piles of rocks, steep enough so the driver didn’t want to take the car any further. The driver gave us a “good-luck-because-you’re-going-to-need-it” look, popped the trunk and released the Americans, green-faced and nauseous, into what looked like someone’s back yard. We climbed over the rubble and met up with a one-lane dirt road, where we’d be spending the first three or so hours of our trek. Paushan prodded us forward, “slowly, slowly” and we started moving. Beginning the Hike The morning wasn’t bad at all. We walked past pairs of schoolgirls in knee-highs and pigtails, linking hands with younger siblings on their way to school. We passed barefoot old women with bamboo baskets secured to their foreheads, climbing barefoot through the forest up into the hills. We passed a Nepalese teenager who stripped down to red undies for a swim in the river with the most incredible 6-pack we’ve ever seen, even no gym to be found. Up until lunch, we were feeling pretty good. The porters took regular water breaks and seemed to be sweatier than we were (understandable because they were carrying our packs). We feasted on fried noodles for lunch, completely unaware that we were weighing ourselves down for the real hike. The roads we walked twisted into increasingly steep switchbacks until it became impassable for vehicles. Then began the stairs. Hours and hours of stone stairs that never ended. As we huffed and puffed and panted, the porters had found their natural element and looked at us with pitying glances. After a couple hours of cursing Rajan (for his claim of easy trekking), we got to a point where we thought Liz might need to be carried up the mountain but fortunately our guesthouse was “just up the stairs”. Once we arrived at Ulleri, we collapsed into plastic chairs, cheered as we replenished our electrolytes with Everest beer and politely declined Paushaun’s invite to tour the town. Which was up more stairs. Day 2: Entry into leech land We woke up, wary about what the day would have in store for us. When paushaun promised an easier day, filled with “Nepali flat terrain”, we attacked our breakfast with a little more vigor. Especially because we tried the...

Nepal: A Good Way to Ease into Traveling the Indian Sub-Continent

Nepal: A Good Way to Ease into Traveling the Indian Sub-Continent

Both literally and figuratively, Nepal was a breath of fresh air after India. Well, the air is far from fresh in Kathmandu, where you breathe in a sandy concoction of pollution and incense but at least everything seemed a lot more organized. Whereas India is simultaneously a construction site (with piles of sticks, bricks and crumbling buildings), garbage dump and farm (win cows, dogs, elephants and of running free), everything in Nepal seems much more contained. The roads are still crazy, especially as they climb and wind through the hilly valley, but contain mostly moving vehicles- often pimped out trucks with Nike swooshes or Adidas decor (I still haven’t figure out why). There’s still animals but rarely roaming free and the dogs, cows and chickens looked well nourished and healthy.   In general, the quality of life appears surprisingly good: more widespread wifi than Panama and Portugal, ongoing construction to clean things up and aesthetically-pleasing buildings with stone facades and painted in cheerful colors. Prior to coming, some of the OP Jindal faculty told me about how they knew someone who worked with rescuing at-risk youth of the streets. She warns foreigners against giving money to children beggars because historically, they get beat up by older kids, who take the money and get them addicted to cocaine to secure a regular income. Supposedly, the young mothers in Nepal drug their babies so they look more sedate to encourage tourists to donate. Although we spent over a day in Katmandu, we didn’t see any of this, even in the touristy areas where you might expect it. My conversations with locals revealed that illiteracy is a major problem (only about half the population can read) and with girls dropping out of school early to get married. Even our trail guide, who has since sought out further education as he seeks his mountaineering certification, left school at the age of 10. I think I’m getting ahead of myself: of all the places on the Indian sub-continent I’ve visited (India, Sri Lanka and now Nepal), Nepal is the perfect place to ease into this crazy corner of the world. It has many of my favorite elements of India- bright colors, masala tea, extravagant arts, vegetarian-friendly meals, beautiful people- without some of the stress. The Chinese and Tibetan influence appears around town in Stupas covered in prayer flags, Buddhist monks in saffron robes, in the fried noodles and momo (tibetan dumplings) dishes on menus and in the music playing quietly in shops: Chinese flutes or chants with singing bowl meditation accompaniments. In Kathmandu, foreigners weren’t overwhelmingly obvious but by the Pokhara lakeside, there were more white people than locals (well, more foreigners. A lot of Chinese and Korean people visit). The menus obviously cater toward foreign tongues, with extensive continental, Indian and Chinese options in addition to the traditional dal bhat plates. We had our trip orchestrated by the amazing Rajan of wheretotrekinnepal and he made sure that everything went smoothly for me, my three coworkers from TIP (Aaron, Sarah and Liz) and Jon, Aaron’s friend who joined us from North Dakota. Temple Hopping in Kathmandu For the Nepalese, Katmandu is the place everyone wants to be- Nepal’s largest city and location of Nepal’s best universities and hospitals. For the visitor, there’s a few temples and cities worth visiting. We started at a newer Buddhist temple at the base of the valley. Three golden Buddhist deities towered over monks and visitors, who circumvented the site, prayers and spinning prayer wheels. From there, we hopped in the van to climb toward a higher area in the city and the site of he he monkey temple. Swayambunath, the monkey temple, is at the base of a religious complex that extends up the hill, and climbing the equivalent 5-6 flights of stairs was just a preview of the eternal staircases that we’d experience on our trek. From the top, we could see the entire city at our feet with an enormous stupa behind us and the village just kept going. We wandered past handicraft shops, along monasteries, listening to monks drumming and throwing coins into wishing wells. After Swayambhunath, we headed across the river to the next town of Patan.  This  ancient city (the corners of the town are marked with stupas from 250 BC!) is a UNESCO site known for its arts.  We hit some of the highlights- the Golden Temple and the five-story Hindu Kumbeshwar Temple, where little monks-to-be dressed in yellow robes and played with bamboo on the bricks. From Patan Square, we headed to Thamel, the touristy market region to feast on traditional dal bhat, a platter of various foods that...