Posts Tagged Around the World

Around the World 10

Day 31
Location-Nepal, Beni
Temp-50 C Altitude-7500ft Weather-Sunny
City population-550 Witnesses-2

“Our way is just our way.”

Our long hike nears its end as we walk down the narrow valley out of the Himalayas. The weather is incredible, even our porter has a spring to his step. We have been following the same river ever since our turning around at Johmsom. Not only has the river increased in size but it has slowly become feral in its appearance. It washes around corners, under cutting the bank, causing large landsides and rolls monstrous boulders down the river causing us to jump at the strange grinding sounds. It also surges; sometimes moving many feet up the riverbank, threatening to capture anyone foolish enough to stand too close. At times, just the sound of the rapids makes talking an impossible effort. As we round a corner, Kauncha tells us that we are almost to Beni. Tamara and I accelerate our pace, energized to be so near civilization.

Beni is a small town in the back country of Nepal, just a few valleys over from where we started our hike. It’s less of a town and more of a mid-way point for travel from other towns to Kathmandu. Yet, it has something that draws us to it like a moth to a light bulb, it has a road. Roads are what turn villages into towns. Just last year the Nepali government was able to extend a road to Beni, causing it to grow rapidly. I have heard that it is a town best avoided but by catching a bus there, back to Pokhara, it will save us at least three days of walking.

As we approach Beni, the trail progressively becomes larger until it is a small road. Gradually more and more locals join us on the road carrying sacks of potatoes, dirty faced children and dented pots. At a twist in the road, a large landslide has comedown and covered most of the road. A crude footpath around the slide is the only way past. As we stumble over the recently formed trail, we pass 5 men repairing the road with shovels and picks. In the middle of the road is a massive rock with a diameter of over 5 feet, it must weigh tons. A large muscled man with a ten pound hammer strikes a chisel held sheepishly by another smaller man. Small flakes of rock fly off adding to the pile of rock chips already at their feet. I am sure that I have seen this scene in a painting of the Hindu Hell; A man hammering at an impossible rock.

An hour later a 30 year old Chinese economy car rumbles past us, every panel has been damaged and crudely pounded back in to shape. Kauncha say, “Five years ago the road was far from here, but now it moves farther into the valley. In twenty years the road will reach all the way to Johmsom. The road is good but it steals smiles as it moves.” That seams like a strange thing to say about a road but I must admit that the people that we pass here are not as friendly as the ones we met in the mountains. The women give the impression of being tight jawed and walk sternly in their long thick skirts and half the men appear to suffer from various stages of intoxication. Right on queue a drunken man stops in the middle of the road in front of us and starts to bellow at his even drunker friend. They start to wrestle and almost knock Tamara and me over as we pass. Back to Civilization, why did I want to return?

Kauncha leads our ragtag expedition up the final hill to a three story hotel that advertises “Hot Water”. I negotiate a room from a creepy thin man behind the counter; his thick yellow fingernails are the longest I have ever seen on a man. He leads us to our room and our bags are dropped by our exceedingly happy porter. Tamara rushes for the shower as I buy a Coke for Kauncha and our porter. Sitting on the large balcony we look over the dirty town and talk about various parts of the trek; the sand storm, the unfriendly cow-creature and the mountains. I take this opportunity to pay the porter for his hard work. I pay him the amount we agreed on plus an extra day and a halves wage. His face displays disappointment and he complains to Kauncha in Nepali. Kauncha tells me that he wants his help to cheat me out of some money in a scheme of some sort. I ask Kauncha “Am I being fair in the amount of money I am paying?” “Yes” he says, “this sort of man is never happy, he is greedy.” With that the porter figures out that Kauncha has told me his plan, and says something else in a wicked tone. Kauncha become furious and takes the porters Coke, kicks and pushes him down the stairs, out the hotel and out the main gate that protects the grounds. When Kauncha returns he won’t tell me what the porter said. He tells me, “Forget that man, he is evil.”

That night Tamara and I can’t sleep. Our legs feel as though they are still moving, left right, left right. I can’t believe all the events that have happened in only a few weeks. Also, I am troubled as to how I should have handled the situation with the porter. We agreed on a more than fair price but I was made to feel I was being unjust. I think long and hard about if I was in his place how I would have liked to have been treated, yet I can’t find grounds for the porter’s attitude. Also I worry about the porter’s attitude and its sudden change. This whole town has my skin crawling. There seams to be an air of subdued violence.

At night, hotels like this one let their dogs out to roam the gated grounds. Since the dogs sleep during the day they fight and play all night. One such dog, sits under my window barking at the exceptionally large moon. It is not really a bark but more of a vomit of sound. The sound starts deep and low in the animal, gathering strength and weight as it moves up, finally being expelled thick and vile. If the dog didn’t instill such predatorial fear in me, I would open the window and throw a rock at it.

A collection of Roosters inform us that morning has arrived. Their insistent update drives us out of bed and into the overly bright morning. The dirty town of Beni has a dozen urban blocks with real concrete two-three story buildings. Huge Russian bus’s that look like long thin tanks, grumble past us in a cloud of diesel fumes. The “morning people” are up and shopping at vegetable carts or stocking their stores with lentils, newly made blankets and plastic hand bags. A couple of apples serve us as breakfast and we splurge on a Coke. The storekeeper dumps the Coke into a new plastic bag, ties a knot in the top and sticks a small straw in it. If we wanted the bottle it would cost 5 times as much, as the bottles are expensive. We have been off of Coke for so long that just a half of Coke affects our senses. With our Coke buzz, we find a small restaurant and take a seat outside. Sipping on tea we watch the commotion of the town flow back and forth. Its funny, but we have to get used to the chaos. Beni is like a mid-west town in America. You get the feeling that people never say exactly what they think and they seem to stare just a little too long, never looking directly in to your face. Even when they laugh they don’t blink. Speaking of creepy people, I spot our ex-porter hiding behind a bread cart spying on us. Just then a gigantic dump truck filled with river gravel pulls up in between us. Tamara and I take the opportunity to leave the area. I don’t like that guy!

We find the bus station area of Beni and look for a bus headed to Pokhara. The cost will be 45 Rupees ($0.85) each, for the 6 hour bus ride. We are told to be here early as there may be no seats available later in the day, even if we have a ticket. The greasy man behind the counter says “But sir, you are from a rich country! You have no need of riding with the people of the fields. We have a Land Rover and it only takes 2 hours to reach Pokhara!” Tamara and I really want to take the Land Rover but the cost is $30 each. That may not seam like a lot but we could live for a week here on that money. “The bus it is!” I tell the man as I hand him a 100 rupee bill. He looks disappointed but provides us with two tickets without looking in my eyes. He waves his hand for me to leave and motions for the person behind me to step up. I block that person and ask the man for my change. “You get no change!” He yells as he tries to reach the person behind me. We bicker back and forth for a minute until he realizes that I am not going anywhere with out my 10 Rupee note. He smiles as though it was a game and produces the 10 Rupee note from inside his pants pocket. It smells of diesel. The man behind me laughs and slaps me on the back in a gesture of approval. In fact, all the people in the line behind me smile at us as we leave the bus station. I guess it was a game after all. I wish someone would let me in on the rules!

Back at the Hotel, Kauncha says that he will find his own way back to Pokhara later in the week. We will meet at our hotel in Pokhara on the coming weekend. After gathering all our things we rush and board the ancient school bus. Our luggage is thrown on top of the bus along with sacks of grain, baskets of apples and I wonder if we will ever see our packs again. After an hour of thinking about it, it bothers me so bad that I climb up on to the roof to lock our bags up. After waking a boy that is sleeping on our packs, I padlocked them to the railing. Only after I did that, did the local men around me start to notice the packs. Before my locking the packs they were ignoring them. I think that next time I won’t make such a big deal out of our luggage.

The back of the bus smells of vomit but we are able to find a seat up at the front where it only smells like urine. For that reason I hang my head out the window, watching the wondrous scene of a frontier third world town; A large Tibetan woman herding her pack of small children down the street like a mother duck, Two men struggling over a shiny new shovel, A dump truck driver trying to un-snag a telephone line from the top of his truck. Over the next hour the bus fills up and soon there are three people to a seat with more standing in the isles. A hairy Mongoloid looking man climbs on to the bus and looks around for a seat. There are none so he plops himself next Tamara. He stares at me with blood shot eyes and says “Nan band shun may” which to me means “bla bla bla”. I shake my head telling him that I don’t understand Nepali, so he clears his nose in disgust, looks to the floor and immediately falls asleep. Normally I would sit in the middle to isolate Tamara from such unpleasantries but the window is all that will spare me from six hours of non-stop puking. Tamara knows of my extreme motion sickness so she says, “I’m tough! I can handle it, no big deal.”

Just when the bus is about ready to leave, two farmers and their wives knock on the side of the bus. The driver tells them that there is no room, but they yell and cry and in the end join the mass of humans in our bus. As we leave, a 12 year old boy climbs down from the roof and in the front door. He chats with the driver for a while then starts to collect tickets. There is no way he can fit though the completely packed isle so Tamara and I wonder aloud how he will proceed. Without a thought, he hops up on the back of the seats and climbs over the tops of the seats gathering tickets. Smelling of goats, he kicks and bruises people as he swims his way to the back of the bus collecting tickets. Then when he reaches the back of the bus he climbs out a window up to the top of the bus to continue his nap on my backpack.

Our ride is very uncomfortable to say the least. The road is horrible and the driver is fanatical in his passion for speed. He enjoys trying to pass any and every auto he can. Yet, every time he tries, he has to slam on the brakes and get behind the auto, only to try again and fail. The man next to Tamara sleeps though the abortive attempts, in fact he snuggles up on her shoulder. As I am about to move his head off Tamara’s shoulder, Tamara informs that she can handle it. Her strategy is; Every time the man starts to fall asleep and his head starts to lean over toward her, she will suddenly have to stretch causing him to wake up. Over the next hour they have a “cold war” of “accidental” elbows and unexpected pushing. The twists and turns of the road make almost half of the people in the bus sick. Most of the small children use the windows to revisit their breakfast, I know because I am out here too. I wonder what it looks like to have the bus lined with bobbing head sticking out the windows. Tamara and my legs, beaten to a pulp for the past few weeks, scream with every bump of the road. Our necks ache as the driver, also known as “the madman”, stomps the accelerator and then the brake with the beat of the wailing Hindi music being played over the radio. Tamara smiles and says that she had no idea that she could be this uncomfortable. She sincerely, I think, thanks me for expanding her horizons

Seven hours later we arrive back to Pokhara. We marvel at the restaurants that have wood and not dirt floors. The well dressed school children. It is amazing the luxuries that you can live without, yet are so happy to have available. Running water, flushing toilets and electricity keep us entertained for hours.

Kiran, our Jehovah Witness friend that helped us set up our hike, somehow “hears” that we are in town and comes over to see how everything turned out. With a smile he listens to our stories of the hike, even though he had probably heard them a million times before from other clients.

Tamara and I spend the next few days just relaxing and mending our resentful feet and legs. We lost more than a few pounds on our hike and so spurge on nice dinners of pasta, fresh baked bread and Yak. During the day we ride bikes around the town, take out a row boat in the lake or explore the country side by foot. The country side is made up of small homes surrounded by rice patties. At a tailor next to our hotel we have light weight pants made. While we were there waiting, Tamara draws a logo for our trip, a big bright sun flower with the world in the middle. The tailor sees it and somehow turns it into embroidery pattern and makes us some custom tee-shirts with the logo. More stuff to ship home.

Of course, I have to get my mandatory “third world shave and haircut”. There is nothing like getting a 65 minute shave, hair cut and neck massage from a true professional. With all the straight razors, hot towels and face tonics, I feel like a million dollars when I leave and only spend $.90 including tip. At night we climb up on the roof and watch the sun set on the gigantic mountain range. The air is so clear; we would be able to see someone climbing on the mountain if they were allowed too. The Annapurna Mountains are restricted from climbing for religions reasons. In situations like this I usually wonder that is on the other side of the mountains, in this case I guess we both know what is on the other side; A unfriendly cow.The three Tasmanian kids, the ones that we met in Kathmandu and then again on the trail, find us one night in a restaurant. It is nice to visit and have dinner with them. They tell us that their guide would get drunk every night and they think that he may have stole money from them. We are very happy with our guide, he did an excellent job. It was nice of Kauncha and Kiran to take care of us like they did.

Kiran finds time every day to come over and visit with us. He is the manager of the Fish Tail Lodge, a hotel named after the predominant mountain of the area here (Machupucuara, 5980 meters) that looks like a fish’s tail. More than once, he takes us to his two room home to have dinner. Kiran’s family lives in a cement apartment building that houses a number of large families. One room is where his three children sleep but in the other is the Kitchen, study and parents bedroom. There is one bathroom for the entire building that doubles as cloths wash room, bathroom and shower.

Tamara and I sit on the parent’s bed and talk to Kiran who is seated on a small stool. His wife turns on the propane to a small burner unit and in no time makes us the rice, vegetables and chicken that make up Dal Bhat. Kiran is 34 and has been baptized for 3 years now. The power flickers and he says that when he was 15 he remembers when Pokhara first got electricity. It was only one hour a week but in a few years it was two hours a day. Now they have electricity every day but Wednesday. He asks if we have electricity every day where we live.

After dinner he takes us next door to visit another Jehovah Witness family. The young couple has just gotten married. They both are pioneers, which means that they dedicate 90 hours a month to proselytizing, but lately the brother’s health has degraded. We visit for a while about being married and the changes it brings. When we head back to eat dinner, Kiran says “We don’t think that He will be alive for much longer. The doctors say that he has a large lump on his kidney but the operation to remove it will cost 650,000 rupees. That is quite a sum especially for a pioneer. ” Back at Kiran’s home we chat well into the night about life in Oregon, Nepal and our hopeful life in the future Paradise.The meetings are fun but they are starting to become boring as we only know about 20 words in Nepali. We are able to answer in English but only a few of the Brothers and Sisters know what we say. The small kingdom hall is very clean; it seats about 45 people on hard metal fold up chairs. The bible they use is a large King James Version, as they don’t have a New World Translation in their language yet. Everyone is incredibly nice to us, as nice as they can be and not speak the same language. We practice our few words of Nepali as they fumble with English. They are all drawn to my pictures of home but soon they and we lose their novelty.

Strangely, the men and women rarely sit by one another, even when they are married. In fact the men almost never stand and talk with women, even in groups. I ask Kiran why, although he sits with his wife, and he thinks for a long time. In the end all he can come up with is “Our way is just our way.” These social differences are entertaining at times. As an example, the Nepali men, Jehovah Witness or not, will hold hands and express friendship with other men much more readily then the women do with other women. Being an American male, it takes me a while to become comfortable walking arm in arm with other men.

On our last day in Pokhara we get up super early and climb up a 600 meter hill to watch the sunrise. We spend a few hours drawing the scenes around us with pencil in our sketchbooks. Our drawings seam to get better all the time. Soon the morning is gone and we hurry back to town as we are catching the bus to the southern part of Nepal. The Jungle town of Chitwan, famous for their wild Tigers and Rhinos, is our next destination.

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Around the World 9

Day 26
Location-Nepal, Kingdom of Mustang, Johmsom (North of the Himalayas)
Temp-36 C Altitude-9500ft Weather-Cold with 35 mph wind
City population-92 Witnesses-3

“We have a Buffalo Problem!”

We have finally passed threw the Himalayas to the other side but in some ways it seams that the mountains have only just started. The land behind the Himalayan Mountains is folded, crumpled and looks more like an unmade bed than a place where people raise children and grow food. The steep hills really start to wear us out and the thin air slows our progress even more. We feel stronger physically but we look more haggard than I have ever seen us look before. Deep circles have invaded our eyes. Scrapes, cuts and bruises cover us from head to toe. Our knees and hip sockets refuse to work when ever we stop walking. Tamara and I talk about the people who live in the area and that have to walk this far all the time. They can walk for weeks and be no worse for wear.

Tamara and I feel like weak invalids compared to the locals that we see walking at a steady strong pace. We see them in the far distance behind us and before we know it they pass us with a quiet “Namista.” They carry nothing on their backs. The men walk with their hands clasp behind their backs, looking at the ground. The women walk with their arms folded in front of them looking at the sky or river.

I have no doubt that if we kept walking for a few more weeks we could adjust to the simple lifestyle. That is something that I have been thinking allot about for the past few days. How people really don’t need much to have a happy life. I remember when I first traveled to a third world country, Peru. There we saw children playing without shoes. For a while it bothered me that they could not afford shoes. I asked one of the children if he had shoes. He told me in Spanish that “Shoes are expensive and not for playing. Feet are from God. Feet are free and for everything.” After a while of thinking about this, I came up with the personal conclusion that the quality of life is not dependent on the amount of luxuries. It sounds so obvious but it was a revelation to me. Three years later I am still working on that concept, refining and polishing it into something I can believe in. I understand the idea, but deep in my heart I still think that a million dollars will make me just a little happier. Simplicity is an elusive faith. Example; right now I want a car to finish the drive to Mustang. Yet would I, with a car, enjoy talking with the local people? Would I spend hours looking the incredible scene around me? Would a car be a luxury or a burden? These are the thoughts that travel forces upon me.

The next day we leave the comfort of the pine forested hills and enter the dry Kingdom of Mustang. On each side of us sits large quiet treeless mountains. They slope down steeply, forming a large flat riverbed. The ancient riverbed is over a mile wide but the river itself is only ten feet across. The river we have been following has slowly decreased to the point that we could wade across it if necessary. Kauncha says that it may be necessary. It is nice to no longer be climbing up and down hills, but the air here is very dry and thin. I seam to be closer to the sky than ever before. We stumble across the rocky riverbed and Kauncha tells us that once every year a flash flood comes and fills the entire area. It boggles the mind to think of that much water coming through here.There is no real path across the gravel, so we end up following a train of small donkeys. The small animals wear headdresses of bright feathers and small bells. On the neck of each donkey is a large bell that rings out loudly and can be heard from miles away. Two woven sacks, filled with potatoes or apples, are carried by each animal. I ask Kauncha where the mule train driver is and he tells us the driver walks many hours behind the mule train. “The Mules know the way”, he says.
runs ahead to eat some grass.
As the morning changes into day, the wind picks up. Suddenly a dust cloud, a hundred feet high, rises up and washes over us. The wind whips at our faces and our stumbling slows to a crawl. More than a few times we each fall, completely blinded by the wind and grit. Mule trains wait for no man and so quickly fades away into the distance. We stagger on stiff ankles and squint with blinded eyes for three hours. When the wind finally stops assaulting us we shake the sand from our hair and look around. We have veered off course but are still going in the right direction. In the distance a small town awaits our arrival.

A few more hours finds us near the small town. The low dusty buildings are made of stacks of thin rocks for walls and covered by flat wood roofs coated by mud. The outside walls are painted white. Over the road, the hidden inhabitants have hung faded prayer flags. Following Kauncha, we enter a small door with a painting of a comical dancing yak on the side of the building. Inside is a large cold common room with ten small private rooms around the perimeter. We rent a room and dump off our dusty packs. Kauncha quietly leaves and then reappears minutes later, followed by a smiling thin man. Kauncha brings the man over and the man says, “Namista, bie!” His name is Tiran and he is a Jehovah Witness that works as a tour guide. He lives in Pokhara but has to spend most of his time leading westerners around the Himalayas for employment. He speaks German and French but little English. Yet, we manage to exchange stories and talk of our families.

Tiran leaves, taking away a smile as large as our own. How strange to find a brother in such an isolated place. I wish he could have stayed and visited longer but he had to take care of his charges.

I ask the large woman, who acts like she owns the place, what we can have for dinner. She answers me with one word “Dinner!” So we ordered two “dinners”. Our meal consists of two steaming bowls of onions and tomatoes in a spicy broth, greasy fried bread and a small bowl of stale popcorn. We sit at a large central table that is six feet wide and ten feet long. Under the table is a deep hole with a metal bucket filled with ashes. Before I can figure out what the bucket is for a young woman comes in the room carrying a metal bucket filled with red-hot coals. An older woman follows her, all the time harshly yelling at her in Nepali. The cold bucket is replaced with the new bucket and warm air comes rushing from under the table. Now that feels good!

After warming up and eating our “dinner”, we finally feel good enough to look around. There is another couple sitting across from us. They look completely exhausted. The young man looks at me and says something in European. I crinkle my face and he switches to English. “You look exhausted!” he says. We talk for a while. They are from Norway and are on a two-month holiday. He asks me if I have tried a “Mustang coffee”? I say that I hadn’t and so he orders one for me. When he orders the drink, all of the Nepali men look up from their Dal Bhat and turn their heads towards me. I am told that it is the local drink of the people in this area. The large coffee cup emerges and is gently placed in front of me. The entire room watches me tentatively sip my first taste of Mustang coffee. It consists of coffee, apple brandy, spices and curry sauce. I’ll leave the description of the taste to your imagination.

The young mother comes back in the room followed by two young children. I go to our rented room and pull out my sketchpad and color pencils. Bringing them back to the table, I motion to the children to come and see what I am doing. I set up the sketchpad so that we all three can all draw at the same time. For half an hour we draw in the book. The two little girls draw flowers and strange animals. When I finally finish my Mustang coffee, the old woman comes in and sends the girls to bed with an abrupt clap of her hands. The small girls smile and say unknown but kind words to me.

Tamara and I retire to our small room and talk about the rest of the trip. We are mentality drained and physically wiped out. However, a larger problem has appeared. We have left most of our money in Pokhara. Even though the cost of hiking is very little, we only have enough for another week or two. The next town is called Johmsom. Johmsom, a 150-person town, has the last airport this side of Tibet. After talking about it, we decide to call an end to our hike and return by plane to Pokhara. It saddens us to quit the hike early yet we are ready to head back.
Now that the decision to head back has been made, our outlook quickly changes. We now talk about getting back to civilization, sleeping in a room with electricity and washing our cloths in a sink instead of the river. Gone is the feeling of adventure and excitement. Comfort cries out.

Morning comes much too soon and we start what will be the last day of walking. We are happy that today will end the twisting of our ankles and knees in the endless riverbed. The scenery is incredible yet our minds and bodies are just over whelmed by the demands we have placed on them.

When we finally make to the small town of Johmsom we are greeted with a rare sight, a gas driven vehicle. A small tractor drives down the only street, scaring the horses as it roars its way out of town. The large arch that protects the entrance to the town is filled with large brass prayer wheels hundreds of years old. Bright lines of prayer flags stretch from home to home. The thought of being in a real bed soon overwhelms us and we head strait to the airport.

The Johmsom airport is a small three-room building. Three angry men with large greasy guns protect the front door. They yell something at us and Kauncha says that the airport is closed for today. It is late and starting to get dark so we head off to find a room.

Our small hotel has a smoky common room where everyone meets for meals and visiting with other hikers. We order two Dal Bhat’s and splurge on a Coke. I strike up a conversation with a tall English girl. Her face is heavily worn with deep lines around her eyes. Thick muscled arms and legs protrude from her paper-thin hiking cloths. We talk about traveling in Asia and the challenges it brings. She says in a heavy English accent, “Fir exsample, I’ve bin waitin’ here fer tree daze. If tat bugger of a plane don’t show up morrow, I’m hoof’n it outta here!” She has been hiking for a few months and is now haggard in more ways than just physically.

At 6AM, the next morning we arrive at the dirty building that holds the sign “Airport” over the door. Kauncha bribes the dirty guards at the front of the building, so we can be allowed inside to buy our tickets. “We have to make money to feed our children!” a guard tells me as we step inside. The next thirty minutes are a blur of; weighing our luggage, buying luggage stamps, a fat man with rice on the front of his shirt ripping our stamps and complaining we need a exit stamp, going back and getting the exit stamp, same fat man ripping exit stamps complaining we need luggage stamps, showing fat man our ripped luggage stamps, him telling us that we need luggage stamps that are not ripped, me laughing at fat man, fat man not laughing, Kauncha giving money to fat man to let us though. The joys of a third world airport are so vast and varied.

We finally get into the waiting room of the airport. The small concrete room is dark and smells wet Yak. In the back of the room a small child holds a puppy. Urine runs down the front of the child’s jacket until the dog is finally dropped to the concrete floor. Three French hikers stand in the corner making fun of the locals, all the while smoking wet cigarettes and smelling worse than the dog. Tamara and I find a bench and look out the window at the chilly windswept morning.

Then something unimaginable happens. Two tall, bleached blond, American women come bursting into the room, complaining that they didn’t have time to put all their makeup on. The whole room is bewildered at the spectacle of the finely clad models, wearing brand new shinny hiking boots. Long painted fingernails point to the dog and they both scream, “That dog is peeing!” Tamara and I move as far from them as possible. We start to speak Spanish, hoping that we don’t look too American. Apparently, they are airline stewardess on a two-day leave. From their overly loud conversation, I deduce that they just flew into Johmsom yesterday, looked around, slept on hard beds, ate “Yucky” food and must now return to Kathmandu to catch their flight back to somewhere in American.

Over the last week or so, I have developed some sort of admiration and pride that Tamara and I have been able to reach this point in the Himalayas. The obnoxious laughing of these girls seams to taint all that, leaving me with a strange feeling of disgust for all Westerners.

The French people in the corner start to chatter and point out the window. In the distance a plane snakes its way down the valley, rocking back and forth like a child’s swing. The 12-person plane is blasted with wind gusts from every direction. Only the locals are not surprised and disappointed when the plane flies over the runway and returns down the narrow valley without stopping
Kauncha appears and quietly says that all flights are canceled for today because of the weather. “Maybe tomorrow”, he says with a shrug. The Stewardess’s detonate upon hearing the news. “I want that plane back here NOW!” one screams. “I will lose my job if I am not back today!” the other sobs. Kauncha quickly leads us out of the building and says, “People like that gather trouble to themselves.”

Sitting on the front steps of our hotel we convene a “war counsel”. Kauncha will not express an opinion, so Tamara and I decide to walk out. Yet, when we decide on “hoof’n it outta here!” our attention is drawn to the 27 kilograms of nylon and junk that makes up our packs. The thought of lifting them up and caring them 120 kilometers back the way we came doesn’t inspire enthusiasm. Kauncha says, “Have you thought about hiring a porter?” What two weeks ago seamed like a repugnant idea, becomes a first-rate plan.

Kauncha gathers a few dirty men and I interview them by looking into their eyes and asking their names. I feel like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars looking at Droids. In the end, we find a short young man with huge shoulders to carry both of our packs for $4.35 a day not including lodging or food. We leave immediately, back across the endless riverbed.

Our journey over the difficult terrain starts out bad. A large windstorm springs to life. The wind picks up and stings our faces with sand and dirt. At one point, the wind picks up to over 50 kilometers an hour and we hide behind a large rock for almost an hour. It feels like a tornado. We could not open our eyes or hear anything and could just barely breath. Tamara and I giggle at the misery of the situation. We laughed and laughed hiding behind the rock. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. We traveled over 20 miles that day.

The second day of hiking begins pleasantly. Being unburdened from our packs, we are able to look around and see the marvels around us. Bamboo, seven stories high, line our path as we walk by a waterfall that is so high that the water never hits the ground. As we are looking at the waterfall a bird with a wingspan of ten feet, flies past, leaving us doubting our eyes. All the time the Himalayas act as a canvas for this wondrous painting. This country is wild and so much bigger than us. That night we pull our sleeping bags on the roof of our small room and watch falling stars. I’ve never seen the night sky so clear.

The next day, the sun wakes us up and encourages us to get up early. Tamara and I walk ahead of the rest of our party, enjoying the morning. Our stone path is glued to the side of a steep raven. On the left or “upside” of the path, about 15 feet up, a small village watches over the river far below. Tamara and I talk about how we are finally becoming comfortable as travelers. We seam to have become more adept with dealing with the many strange situations that develop. Rolling with the waves, not imposing our form upon the environment we visit. At least that is how we feel today, being followed by a Porter and a Guide.

Just then, we approach a group of cows. Big cows. There is about 5 of them standing on the trail, blocking the way. I don’t think that there will be a problem because we have successfully crossed Yak, buffalo, lizards, crazy old men, naked children, horses, sheep, goats, donkeys as small as dogs, and dogs as large as donkeys. I pull a small stick off of a bush and wave it in the air yelling, “Move cow, move!” Unfortunately one particular cow, the largest one with horns over three feet long, decided that we were not going to give him any lip. It makes a frightfully deep and menacing sound and starts to walk right at us, all the time slobbering and thinking bad things at us. We are so startled that for a second we freeze. I announce to no one in particular, “We have a Buffalo problem!” To our right is a very steep cliff down to the river and so we start to climb up the steep bank on our left. One problem with our ingenious plan, we can’t climb up more than 2-3 feet and now the cow creature is too close for us to run back down the trail. Here is where it gets interesting.

A strange sense of destiny rushes over me. A monster has backed me into a corner with my wife behind me. There is no doubt in my mind that death or great injury will come to the demon cow or me in the next 30 seconds. Tamara will only be injured over my injured body.

The outside worlds slows down to a snails pace as a manic smile tiptoes onto my face. I can literally see the slobber drip from the bovine’s mouth in slow motion. A master plan springs to my mind; when the cow gets a little closer I can jump over it’s large horns and grab it by the neck. There, I will use my Judo skills I learned from Bruce Lee’s movies and let fate decide who will survive. The Bull can sense my Judo skills and so locks its eyes on me. I think to myself, “Well, it was a good life” and prepare for the inevitable.

Just as I am ready to jump over the 3000-LB bull, Tamara does something that only a woman would think of. She screams! “Namista!” she yells at the top of her lungs. Namista is the standard form of greeting in Nepal. Both the bull and me look at her wondering why she would do that. Just then a very old man sticks his head over the cliff above us. The old man yells something at the cow and it takes one last look at me and walks off, back to his awaiting harem. I start to shake as I think about what just happened; I don’t think my TV Judo would have worked. I am really glad that I didn’t have to die today. Who would have thought of yelling for help? I guess that is what Wives are for, finding better solutions to situations.

After a few hours we link up with the rest of our party and laugh about what would forever be known as the “Buffalo Problem”. When it starts to get dark we stop at a small village and find a restaurant. It is a Buddhist restaurant and so provides “Wader Buffaloe” on the menu. “Take this Cow,” I say to myself as I take a big bite of steak. It tastes more like a dark textile than meat but cow never tasted better.

I like being in top of the food chain.

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Around the World 8

Day 21
Location-Nepal, Somewhere in the Himalayas
Temp-42 C Altitude-7500ft Weather-Chilly with strong wind
City population-25-30 Witnesses-2 (Tamara and Christopher)

“Please, help my baby.”

We leave the small town of Tatopani and follow the river up into the mountains. We actually aren’t traveling on the mountains, just between them following the ever-shrinking river. The land that makes up the mountains is brittle and seams to always be moving. Earthquakes are an every week occurrence. As we move further into the mountains they are no longer visible. The giant monoliths hide behind the clouds, even though we are right next to them. The vegetation has become scarcer and more desert like in appearance.

I am not sure where we are on the map; I just know that we are on the same trail that heads to Tibet. As long as we stay on this trail we can’t get lost. Yet, the trail has become difficult to follow at times. With the all the landslides, we have to pick our way around many unstable areas. Sometimes the canyon becomes impossible to follow on one side and so we must cross to the other side on long wire bridges.

The bridges are built out of steel cable and wood planks. The Nepali government and even foreign governments pay for the materials to build the bridges. The bridges are well built, yet the maintenance is very poor. Every bridge we have crossed has had cracked or broken planks. To fix the holes in the bridge, the locals set flat rocks over the holes. At times the wind will pick up and causes the bridge to rock back and forth. So the process of crossing a bridge is complex, you try to step around the weak areas of the bridge while trying to fight the wind but you must not touch the steel cables as they have sharp steel slivers. It makes for a memorable 5 minutes, each time you attempt a crossing.

Here it is, a few days later and we are feeling much better physically. Our bodies have become used to the effort of hiking up and down hills. Also, we are getting used to listening to our bodies when they tell us to do or not to do something.

Tatopani was the last real town that we have seen. At night we stop at small collections of homes that are glued into a small pocket of the canyon. At these homes we eat a dozen different types of soup, but only one type of bread, Tibetan bread. Tibetan bread is a thick and heavy wheat patty that is boiled in animal fat of some sort. With full bellies and tired legs we sleep well under the provided thick wool blanket.

Thin tin roofs cover the stone and wood homes. Newspapers and wool rags are stuffed in every crack, to keep out the intensely cold nights. Outside of each home there is a dog. They are rarely visible in the daytime; in fact I think the owners keep them locked up. But when the sun sets, the dogs are loosed. When we started the hike the dogs were small and so didn’t notice them. However, as we have been traveling the dogs have increased in size and fierceness. The dogs are now to a size that I am fearful to leave the home after nighttime.

We are seeing less and less hikers as we progress toward Tibet. Today we haven’t seen one westerner the whole time. Kauncha says that most hikers turn back after a few days. I don’t blame them but Tamara and I really want to make it to the other side of the mountains and into the Kingdom of Mustang.

The trail we are following has just stopped at a large landslide. The thin trail is completely obliterated. The landslide looks like it happened ten or twenty years ago. It was so large of a slide that the “British Geographic Society” built a 120-foot steel cable bridge to the other side. For the last half-hour we have been waiting for our turn to cross. We are waiting because; on the other side of the bridge is one of the largest collections of sheep I have ever seen. The sheep have stopped at their side of the bridge. We would cross but there is now were to go, the sheep fill the trail for as far as I can see. They are everywhere, except for on the bridge. I understand their hesitation; the bridge looks to be a particularly scary one. Some of the wood slates are broken; leaving gaping holes that look down, a 150 feet, to the wild river below.

A man comes into view on the other side, fighting his way to the front. He kicks and beats the sheep to clear a path to the front. As he claws his way to the front of the line, one sheep behind him almost falls off of the cliff; it panics and pushes its way back onto the trail and into the flock. This action causes a visible wave of pushing and shifting that runs upstream and downstream of the wool river of sheep. When the wave hits the man, he is almost knocked off of the trail too. He yells and curses as he finally makes it to the front of the line. After he rests for a minute, he grabs one of the first sheep by its extra long horns. The kicking animal is dragged screaming across the bridge. Slowly, one then two sheep cross the bridge following the frantic long horn sheep. Then the spell is broken, a flood of sheep pour across the now undulating wire bridge. The entire pack of short white sheep starts to surge forward.

There is a small village of three to four homes on this side of the river, tucked between the river and the trail. Children and their mothers have come out of their homes to watch the migration of mutton. Tamara and I sit down by the locals and watch the sheepherder pass us, dragging his sheep. He lets go and the sheep tries to run back across the bridge. The man looses all of his composure and tries to beat the stupid animal with a slender stick. A few old farmers join our seated audience, and we all start laughing as the sheep out maneuvers the herder and runs ahead to eat some grass.

Just then, back on the bridge, a sheep gets its horn caught in the wire cables and stops. The unstoppable force of sheep behind him doesn’t stop moving. Some sheep try to jump over him but something bad is going to happen. I can tell because the entire group of people watching it, all make the same sound, “Oooohhh!” The stuck sheep busts free but the damage has been done. The build up of sheep causes one of them to fall threw one of the many holes in the bridge. We all, including the herder, yell as the sheep falls 150 feet into the churning water. The rest of the sheep merrily keep crossing the bridge as the humans’ watch the one lost sheep resurface and swim to the opposite shore. The entire audience cheers with relief! It climbs onto the shore and runs up the bank 50 feet and then stops. It just sits there; not believing it survived such a drop. Another herder appears on the other side and starts to climb down the bank, towards the sheep. By the time he and another herder get to the one lost sheep, the entire herd has crossed the bridge and is resting on our side of the river.

We should cross now while we have the chance. Nevertheless, we stay and watch the show. The audience cheers for the injured and scared sheep as he out maneuver his way around the two herders. The now angry men trap the sheep in a corner and move in to capture it. Our side of the bank explodes with shouts and cheers as the sheep again escapes. “Yaaaa!” rumbles down the valley. I look over to Tamara and she, along with everyone else, has tears in her eyes from laughing so hard.

Carefully we continue on our journey across the bridge and on down the path. We are used to the altitude now, although we are still climbing. The nights are getting colder and colder but the daytime weather is very pleasant. To help fight the cold, I buy a scarf from a local weaving woman. The dark blue scarf is beautifully made with soft wool of some kind. In Kathmandu, Tamara and I both purchased sweaters made of prickly Yak wool. These sweaters now serve us well in the hills. When the wind blows we put on our light rain jackets over the sweater and we become immune to the chill.

Small lizards sit on rocks sunning themselves as we walk. Tamara keeps trying to sneak up on one of the lizards and take a close up picture. The lizards have other ideas, so she runs from rock to rock with her camera in hand, chasing the quick reptiles. Kauncha quietly laughs at her and says that she acts like a “Newar”. I ask what a Newar is and he says that it is a caste of people that is very interested in nature and art. This whole caste thing is very interesting to me. Being from America, I pretend that there is no such thing as a caste system. But in this part of Asia, they live and die by the caste system. Instead of feeling trapped by their caste, most people feel protected by it. To better understand the caste system, Kauncha and I talk about it for a long time.Nepal’s population is around 21 million. It is growing at an incredible rate of 2.3% a year. All those people fit into about 60 ethnic groups and each group has their own language. The Nepali language is used to communicate between the different groups.

In places like Kathmandu, it was hard to tell the difference between the castes. However, as we have been traveling through the hills, we have passed though many identifiable ethnic pockets. Usually I can identify them by their hats or cloths. Here are the major castes that I know about. I have gathered most of this data from talking to locals about their and other castes.

Brahmans are the largest caste and look the most “Nepali”. They are the Hindu priest caste. They are always Hindu in religion, but have the most modern dress and mannerisms of all the castes. I find that they act slightly proud when dealing with other castes. Brahmans own most of the businesses in Nepal.

Chhetris is the other major Hindu group. They are the warrior caste, but are usually farmers. By having the highest social, political and ritual status they hold most of the powerful positions in Nepal. The Royal family, the Ranas, is of this caste, as is most of the army Generals. Chhetris have lighter skin, are taller and walk in a manner that makes themselves known as Chhetris. Head high and nose even higher.

The Newars are the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu valley. They can be Hindu or Buddhists. Of the few Christians in Nepal, most I met were Newars. They are known as very intelligent and quick witted. They are likely to hold very important jobs because of their high intelligence. Interestingly, most artists are Newars. Navin and his family belong to this caste.

Tibetans are the easiest for me to spot. Their eyes are very bright and their faces are wide, slightly Mongoloid. They are very friendly and always speak good English. In fact, they usually don’t know Nepali. They value education very highly. Somewhere around every large town in Nepal, there is a Tibetan refugee camp. When the Chinese killed the government and took over the country in the 50’s, they outlawed the Buddhism religion. Many Tibetans left the country to escape death or imprisonment. Even still, Tibetans flee Tibet using this very same road. The Dalai Lama is the most famous Tibetan.

The Tamangs are the largest hill group. They live outside towns and usually stay away from civilization. Their name means, “horse soldier”, as their ancestors came over the mountains with Genghis Khan, as his cavalry. Their faces are very Mongoloid like. Most of the “Sherpas” are actually of this caste. The real Sherpa people make up only a very small percentage of Nepal’s population. In the 1920’s, adventurers from England came to the Himalayas to climb the mountains. Nepal at that time was a closed country and fiercely protected its borders from outsiders. So the mountain climbers would travel into Tibet and China to climb the other side of these mountains. To get there, they would travel through the valley of the Sherpa people. Since that time, the name “Sherpa” has become more of a buzzword. Even though they have a reputation known worldwide as being nice and proud people, the truth is much different. Their small valley, by Mount Everest, has become so westernized that it severely affects their morality and attitude. Sherpa economy has become totally dependent on tourism to the point that they have no other skills or trades. A common joke in Nepal is that white people think Sherpa’s are everywhere and friendly, when in fact they are nowhere and always want something from everyone, except a job.

Then there are the Gurkhas. The Gurkhas are not a caste but more of a job. A Gurkha is someone of any caste that joins the British, Nepali or Indian army. Many Gurkha families live off of their fathers or husbands army wages. Back two hundred years ago the British needed some people to fight their wars. So they developed a specialized unit called the Gurkha. There is even a British recruitment center in Kathmandu and Pokhara. I remember during the war between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands an incident involving the Gurkhas. Gurkha units have a well-deserved reputation of being vicious and of never retreating. Because of this reputation, a whole division of Argentines retreated off of an island because of a rumor that a Gurkha unit was about to land.

The other group that I know about is the Manangis. They are a strange, isolated people that live on the other side of the Himalayas. They came from Tibet centuries ago and now live in their own Kingdom. The Kingdom of Mustang is tucked between Tibet and the Tibetan side of the Himalayas. The Chinese have tried to take the land but it is so small and the people so fierce that it remains free from Chinese control. Nepal has taken a diplomatic route and bribed the King of Mustang with money and a General position in the Nepali army. We are traveling to their ancient capital, a city called Muhtinath. It is the closest that we can travel to Political Tibet, even though we will be in geographic Tibet. The political Tibet, or China as it is now called, is 4 hours walk from Muhtinath. I am excited to be traveling to the Kingdom of Mustang.

The area we are traveling though just keeps changing. I find it strange how quickly the land can move here. Maybe if I explain about the Geography of Nepal you can better understand what it looks like.

Nepal is a small land locked country, only 500 miles long and 125 miles deep. It is maybe the size of the top half of Oregon. Even though it is very small, it has some incredible variation in Geography. The far south of Nepal is hot and humid jungle. The elevation there is only 400-500 feet above sea level. As you move north, 30,000-foot mountain ranges rise up out of nowhere. Just behind the Himalayas, is a huge 15,000-foot plateau. This plateau is called the “roof of the world, or as most people know it “Tibet”. Most rivers in Asia start in Tibet and travel around the mountains to the east or west. However, a few rivers flow through deep gorges in between the Himalayan Mountains. These rivers are actually older than the mountains that they flow threw. How is that possible?

Imagine that India does not exist. Tibet is beachfront property on the Mediterranean Sea. This is how it was 6 million years ago. The landmass that makes up India and Australian moved up from the south and hit the Tibetan land mass. As the Indo-Australian plate continues its push, it slides under the Eurasian plate. This causes the Eurasian plate to buckle and fold in the form of the Himalayan Mountains. Mountains like Mt Everest rise an inch every 8-10 months. Think of the energy it would take to raise Mt. Everest an inch!

So back to the river story. This river, that we are following, was flowing here before India hit Tibet. But, now it just has further to travel until it finds the sea. Tamara has even found some fossils of seashells on our walk. It is strange to think of this area, thousands of miles from the sea as once being a beach.

We have passed the half waypoint of our hike and are now leaving the mountains. They rise up on both sides of us like 15,000-foot cliffs. As we wind our way up out of the mountains we enter a different type of weather. The land is becoming drier and the sun always shines. It is slowly looking more and more like the pictures I have seen of Tibet.

During a rest stop I find a large rock that has an obvious seashell fossil in it. Tamara points out that it is very cool, but basically it is a large heavy rock. Our packs are already heavy and the addition of this rock could break me in half. So for the next 30 minutes I dig around looking for a fossil small enough to take home. I end up finding two, one I will give to my brother in law.The sun starts its decent and so we pick up the pace. In the distance we can see a small town on a hill. The town is made of stone homes with flat roofs of wood slats. On top of every home is a year supply of chopped wood, ready to be brought in and burned in barrel stoves. The trail leads up, out of the riverbed and into the quiet town.

A stone paved road divides the town. In front of every home, is a post provided for tying up your horse. At a small store a couple of horses are tied up in front of a building and I look around for the cowboys. It looks just like a cowboy movie. The only difference is that in this area, everyone is Buddhist. Being a Buddhist town, a large arch protects the entrance to the town. Inside the arch is a collection of prayer wheels on each side. As a thin man enters the arch behind us, he spins each wheel.

A prayer wheel is a metal cylinder that has a prayer engraved on it. When people walk by it they spin the cylinder and so say their prayers.

Kauncha halts our ragged train at a small teahouse and we drag our stuff inside. The polite Tibetan woman, who is the owner, invites us to stay. Kauncha says his goodbyes and again disappears.

The location looks so strange that, Tamara and I spend a long time just looking around the seemingly forgotten town. At a small home, we see a sign that offers garlic soup. Inside the stone and wood home sits three tables and a cooking fire, burning in the far corner. Up the stairs I can see two small boys playing with a ball made of a part of some animal. We visit with the owner, a Tibetan woman. She is polite but is concerned about her small daughter. She says that about a week ago, a hot bowl was dropped and the little girl burned her arm. She asks if I can look at the burn. I tell her that I am not a doctor, but she shakes her head and says that I can fix it. The little girl is so sweet maybe a year old.

The burn on the little girls arm looks like it is healing well. As I am looking at the burn, the mother whispers, “Please, help my baby.” I check our backpack but Tamara and I don’t have anything to help the burn heal any faster. I explain to the mother that the wound is not infected and is healing very quickly. The best thing to do is to keep it clean. The woman looks deeply into my eyes and then to my bag. “Please give medicine and make it better. She is small.” My insides tie into a knot as I again tell her that I don’t have anything to help. She turns away disappointed. I feel really strange about not being able to live up the expectations of the four-foot woman.

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Around the World 7

Day 18
Location-Nepal, Tatopani (three days walk into the Himalayas)
Temp-36 C Altitude-6000ft Weather-Clear and cold at night
City population-85, Witnesses-2 (Tamara and Christopher)

“I don’t know, but those cows look sort of Yakish.”

After some very relaxing days spent in Pokhara, we finally get serious about going on a hike into the Himalayas. After Sunday meeting we met a Brother, Kiran Thapa, and he is the manager of the “Fishtail Lodge and Hiking”. He agreed to talk to us about hiking. We must have spent two hours talking about what we wanted to do and what was possible for us to do.

One of the most popular hikes in Nepal is the Annapurna circuit. It starts out at Pokhara and travels north, around the three main mountains of the area to the border of Tibet. Then the circuit turns east and passes threw the Kingdom of Mustang, then over the Turlong pass and then south back to Pokhara. It takes about 4-6 weeks to finish and travels up to 16,000 feet over the very dangerous Turlong pass.

Another hike we could do is called the Annapurna Sanctuary. The three main mountains in the area are positioned in a triangle shape. In the center of the mountain is an isolated area called the “Sanctuary”, it is used as a base camp for mountain climbing. Kiran tells us that when you are in the heart of the Sanctuary the sun only shines for six hours. The mountains, all extremely high, rise so high above you that avalanches sometimes come down and cover the base camp. He showed us some pictures of the view there and it looked surreal.

Being that we only have a few weeks, we decide to do half of the Annapurna circuit. Just before the Turlong Pass we will turn around and on the way back, possibly travel into the Annapurna Sanctuary. The cost of a guide is very low compared to the peace of mind of not getting lost. It costs $4 a day plus food and lodging for us to have a guide. Kiran tells us that he has an expert guide, named Kauncha, which he trusts. To be legally allowed to travel on foot, out of the cities of Nepal you must have a Trek Permit. Depending on where you want to go and how long, you must get different types of permits. To get the permits is a long and multi-destination process, involving the police station, Immigration and some other conservation department. Kiran, at no extra cost, takes care of the permits for us as he is going to get some permits for some other hikers. Also he shows us where to rent sleeping bags at a good price. While he takes care of all that, Tamara and I spend the rest of the day resting up for our long hike into the Himalayas.

At four AM the next day, we leave our cold dark room and carry our packs down stairs. In the distance the mist has made the mountains look like they are floating on top of the clouds. As the sun comes over the horizon it lights up the stone monoliths with pink and dark shades of blue. It was very pretty and we are very excited to start our hike. When we get to the street, Kauncha our guide is waiting for us.

Kauncha is tall for a Nepali and wears an old dirty parka, sandals and worn pants. His thick hair has streaks of gray and his eyes look very old. When he greets us, he uses good but hesitant English and rarely looks us in the eye, instead looking at our feet.

Catching a taxi, we bounce our way out of town. I sit in the front seat and when ever we make a right turn my door swings open. The driver shows me a rope and indicates it can be used to hold the door closed, but the rope costs extra. Kauncha yells something at the smelly taxi driver and the rope is grudgingly provided for free. To make up for the lost “rope money” the driver speeds up to breakneck speed. When we arrive at the trailhead, ten miles later, we exit the vehicle bruised and very soar. Along the way, I took some pictures of children walking to school. When I got out of the Taxi, I forgot my camera on the seat. Remembering this I turn to walk back to the 35-year-old Chinese car. Before I could start, I see Kauncha snatch the camera back from the slimy driver. I quickly turn away before Kauncha turns around, because I am interested in how Kauncha will handle the situation. Would he try to keep it or extort money from me? The camera is an expensive but good test of his integrity. We will be relying on him for the next few weeks and I am unsure of how far to trust him. While I am thinking this, Kauncha walks up, hands me the small camera and escorts us away from the now upset and yelling driver.

Kauncha helps us put on our bulky packs. His own pack consists of a toothbrush, extra shirt, and an extra pair of sandals. I admire his simple pack. It is strange how western people throw money and technology at any situation only to complicate and over burden themselves. We show Kauncha on our map where we want to go and tell him that we are not sure how far we can or will want to go. He says that he doesn’t care how long we are away. He has no wife and no children, “My life is for Hiking!” he tells us.

It seams anticlimactic to start walking into the Himalayas when you get out of a taxi. But that is how we start. The trail is four feet across and crudely paved with stones. Kauncha says that the tax for the locals in this part of Nepal is to maintain their part of the trail. Each village has a particular part of the trail to maintain. We walk in the cool morning sun and slowly climb up and down small hills. At a small village, we stop at a home that has a sign that says “Phankakes and chikken eggs.” For just under $.45 we all eat too much.

As we walk further into the hills, the villages grow smaller and smaller. At the edge of a 10 home village we are confronted with a police checkpoint. Here, evil looking men with large sticks and silver stars on their caps take our visas and trekking permits. If any part of our paper work is wrong they will extort money from us or send us back to Pokhara. Our papers are heavily scrutinized for twenty minutes and then they reluctantly let us proceed.

We pass children pulling car size buffaloes, men gutting goats and women in the river cleaning rocks with water, soap and thin shirts. As we climb up higher and higher the land changes. For most of the morning, the land is very steep. All of the homes, gardens and even the trails are built on deep terraces built into the mountain. The locals strip the few trees that grow here of one third of their limbs every year, for firewood. This process keeps the trees alive but makes for some strangely shaped trees. As we pass an isolated group of dirt floor homes, a group of small children with runny noses run out. They stop behind a thin gate, point and chatter about Tamara’s blond hair.

As we reach the top of a particularly high hill, we are presented with an incredible view. Before us is a thin deep valley, snaking its way threw six glacier-covered mountains. The valley is so close to the mountains that when there is a landslide, it blocks the river till the river cuts through the blockage. With such a wonderful view, I feel much better about paying $120 in Government fees, Wildlife fees and the standard “White people” fees that make up the Trekking Permit. Even though the trail is used more by the local people than tourists, tourists use more resources and cause allot of damage in the form of garbage that they bring in. To help with the problem, the Government doesn’t allow plastic or aluminum on to the trails.

We stop at a small home for lunch. There a large Tibetan woman, wrapped in a thick wool skirt, cooks us flat bread and rice soup. We sit in front of her short, dirty home on bamboo chairs talking to Kauncha about animals. There are many animals around but they are hard to find he says. There are Panthers, Bears and Deer. I read that a hundred years ago Lions, Giraffes and Cheetahs lived in this part of Nepal. The British hunters killed most of the animals for trophies and the farmers finished the rest. So far we have only seen a monkey chained to a young boy.

When the woman brings us our food, Kauncha calls her “Didi”. He explains that “Didi” means older sister and shows her respect. Kauncha and Didi, talk like brother and sister while Tamara and I inhale our food. It is strong, hot and very spicy but gives us immediate strength. We finish our tea and pay Didi.

According to the guidebook that we bought in Kathmandu, the next part of the trek is called “the staircase”. It is a “endless staircase that rises 1000 meters”, the book says. Our packs, that seamed light at lower levels, have become evil packages of junk as the day progresses. For uncountable hours we walk up stairs and more stairs that are crudely cut into rock and dirt. When it gets dark, Kauncha suggests that we stop at a teahouse for the night. Teahouses are 1-5 room “bed and breakfasts”. They are very primitive but the only choice that you have, unless you bring your own tent. I have pushed myself to my physical limit on these stairs, so I gladly agree to stop. The newly discovered altitude makes our eyes feel strange. They feel like they want to pop out of our heads.

The homeowner, an old bent man, lights an oil lantern and his wife gives us two bowls of Garlic soup. It has large chunks of raw garlic floating in it but we eat like tired hikers. After our soup, we climb up the ladder to the second story of their wooden home. The entire building shifts as we enter our small room. The room is made of crude wood planks and a tin roof, with two cots taking up the entire floor area. We are provided with a candle at no charge. The thing about Nepal teahouses is that they look like dumps as you pass them in the morning, yet resemble palaces as you stumble into one at the end of the day. With our shoes removed we slide into our rented sleeping bags and mumble about the wonderful soup. The stars watch us fall asleep through the cracks in the wall and eleven hours later, the sun wakes us up the same way. At some point during the night I remember waking up and I couldn’t remember where I was. I was obviously outside, was I camping somewhere in Oregon? It took several minutes to remember I was sleeping in a thin house on the side of a mountain in Nepal. It was a strange experience in itself.

The morning is so cold that our angry leg muscles decide not to help us as we climb down the ladder. However, we are rewarded with the warm sun rising over the snowy mountains. Kauncha is up and is brushing his teeth with a ten-year-old toothbrush. The old woman is picking ash from inside the teakettle as the old man squats off the cliff. They all look at us, smile and continue their activities.

We start out slow, trudging up the last part of the “endless staircase”. When we reach the top, we are greeted with a mystic forest. Gigantic rhododendron trees with arms, faces and evil shapes block our path. Some of the trees are bigger than pine trees and they grow in bizarre directions because of years of selective trimming by the locals. As we enter the trees I being to experience a feeling of dread. After a while I understand why. The trees look like the trees from “Babes in Toyland” that came to life and attacked people. I tell Tamara and she says, “I knew I had seen these trees before!” The effect becomes complete as we enter a part of the trail that has us ducking under mangled arms that snag our cloths and stepping over twisted roots that lunge for our feet.

The air is clear and the sun is bright but I don’t feel so great. I pushed myself so hard yesterday that I over did it. After large hills, I have to rest and a few times I had to lie down to catch my breath. No one says anything, but I can see Kauncha and Tamara are walking slower so I can keep up. I am not used to being the weakest in a group. Tamara has no problems at all in carrying her pack. Her vitality somehow makes me feel worse. The people of this part of the world don’t measure distances in meters or feet but in the distance that a man can walk in an hour’s time. It is called a “kos”, I find that a kos takes me a hour and fifteen minutes. After a while the trail starts to take more out of me than just muscle, I am left running on only pride and gristle.

The path leaves the forest and climbs higher. The trail slowly deteriorates into a narrow dirt path almost glued to the side of steep cliffs. At times, landslides completely obliterate the trail and we have to detour. At one point I hear a young boy yelling something but don’t see anyone. Kauncha quickly signals for us to climb up the bank, off of the path. Just as we do a herd of cows rumble past us on the small trail. On the back of the second cow clings a boy of 10 years, hitting his cow with a stick yelling some sort of warning. The agitated cows look strange, with weird horns and wild eyes. Tamara say, “I don’t know, but those cows look sort of Yakish.” Kauncha tells us the cows are a hybrid of cow and yak. Yaks can only live at an altitude of 12,000 feet or above so the locals make hybrids that are much stronger than normal cows and can live below 12,000 feet. He also says that they are evil. “Never stand between a cow and a cliff. They hate their masters and so will knock off anyone they can. ” The yak hybrid cows do have a strange look in their eyes, so we give them as much distance as we can.Most of the homes are made of mud and bamboo with straw for roofs. Bare foot children sweep dirt patios and play with large longhaired dogs, as ancient women weave bright cloth. I ask Kauncha where the men are and he says that they are in the hills chopping wood, catching fish or snaring animals.

After eight hours of climbing with 12 kilos on my back, I make it to our stopping point for the day at 9000 feet. It was just in time as I had run out of all I had, ten minutes ago. Kauncha has ran ahead and reserved a room for us in a large teahouse. I collapse on the bed, thinking about how Kauncha took care of us by getting us a room. Normally, like most American men, I like to be involved in all the procedures of my travels, but it was nice of him. It almost feels like a Discovery Channel Expedition, where I would hire a guide to help us organize a trip into the mountains. I guess that is what I did.

I wake up two hours later with my boots still on and spiders in my hair. A moment of panic comes over me when I realize I don’t know where Tamara is. Looking out the door of our ransack teahouse I see Tamara, in the front yard, sketching the mountains. I wobble my way over to her on numb feet. The table and chairs that we are sitting on is right on the literal edge of a 1000 ft cliff overlooking a deep valley and in the distance the Annapurna Mountains. The time is 7 PM and the sun is just setting. Kauncha brings me a bowl of potato soup and some burnt bread with rancid yak cheese spread on it. He says, “Just before the sun leaves, it will make the mountains turn red.” I don’t know if it is how tired I am but I don’t understand what he means. Just then, the 25,000-ft chunk of Eurasian tectonic plate (mountains) in front of us turns from white and brown to pink. Then the pink turns red. The entire chain of the Annapurna mountain range begins to literally glow with a warm red color. Sixty seconds later, it is over and the sun is gone, leaving us scrambling for a camera. I can’t believe what we just saw! We tried to get a picture of the scene, but it was too fast. Kauncha smiles and says, “I told you it would turn red.”

Within minutes of the sunset, the temperature drops to around freezing. I finish my soup and we move to the communal room inside the dirty teahouse or hotel. Inside the “Snowland Hotel”, the communal room is just what I have always seen in adventure movies. Heavy wood planks make up the walls, ceiling and floor. Benches and tables line the walls and in the middle of the room is a steel barrel wood stove, glowing red-hot, surrounded by four long hair hikers. They are speaking French and nurse their damaged feet. In the back of the smoky room is a kitchen where two young women are burning potatoes and plucking chickens. We order some popcorn and beer and find a bench and table.

I strike up a conversation with a thin old man. He is from Belgium and has been hiking in the Himalayas for thirteen months. A few days ago he traveled over the Turlong Pass. The Turlong Pass is the roughest part of the Annapurna circuit. It is at an altitude of over 16,000 feet and is very stormy and dangerous. Every year, one or two people fall over dead from cerebral altitude sickness. Once every few years a party gets stranded at the pass and will lose a few party members to the elements. I ask him how the pass was and he says that it is as bad as it could be. He says, “My guide started to get the fatal brain swelling so we had to double time it down. Good thing too, cause we barely made it off before a bad storm came and closed the pass. A group of unguided Australians were following us and I think that they are still up there. We barely made it off in time, we couldn’t help them.” He kept stressing that they were unable to help the Australian, all the time looking into his teacup. “I hope they don’t die.” He says.

The old man and I chatted about hiking and played chess as Tamara wrote in her journal and ate popcorn. The Nepali porters and guides sit in a corner, drinking water and eating large trays full of Dal Bhat. They talk in hushed tones about their charges. The day’s walk catches up to me about 9 PM and Tamara and I climbed up a ladder and walked down a six foot high hallway to our padlocked door. The room is well sealed and so the subfreezing temperatures should stay outside tonight.

Tomorrow we want to climb the mountain, Pune Hill, behind us and watch the sunrise. It is a major destination for hikers visiting Nepal. I am so tired that I am not sure I can do it. But maybe some sleep will help.

At 4 AM we dragged ourselves out of bed. Kauncha is waiting for us as we emerge and tells us we needed to hurry. The path up the hill is very dark and partially covered with ice and snow. Slowly our eyes adjust and the moon helps us up the path. After an hour and a half, we reached the top of Pune Hill.

At the top we find 10-12 people that have come to watch the sunrise also. This is the destination of 80% of all hikers to Nepal. Of the people up here, 90% came strait here and will return to Katmandu with their trek in the Himalayas behind them. This sunrise, in this location is the reason that most have come, so they are euphoric to be at their destination. Slowly the sun lights up the sky behind the hills to the right and we all pull our cameras out. Even though Tamara and I have on every piece of clothing we brought with us, we are shivering. The wind makes the 15-degree morning feel like a 0-degree morning.

The sun procrastinates, but finally comes over the edge of the earth. The light strikes the tops of the mountains and they suddenly turn pink then red. We are at an altitude of about 12,500 and the sky is bright blue. The deep valleys on every side are a heavy green. I don’t think that I have ever seen something so beautiful in my life. We take about 45 pictures of the mountains. After an hour of watching the sun invade the terraced farmland, thousands of feet below us, we start the walk down. I look back at the hill and watch the wind blow hundreds of brightly colored Buddhists prayer flags.

When we get back to the teahouse, Tamara and I are both feeling very ill. Tamara has a slight breathing problem and I have a pressure headache that immobilizes me. Tamara is really worried that I may have the cerebral altitude sickness, but Kauncha says that it is not serious. “We will walk tomorrow, rest today.” He says to her. She sits out in the sun and reads a book and I try to sleep. I spend the whole day with an intense headache and nausea. I pushed myself way too hard the day before and am paying for it today. I just hate to let my body tell me what I can and can’t do. I need to become more balanced, but I wouldn’t be my fathers son if pride didn’t overrule my body once and a while.

Kauncha sneaks in every hour and checks on me. About 12 hours later, the pressure in my head is gone and I feel better. When I get to the common room, a bowl of hot Garlic soup is waiting for me. Kauncha is a nice guide. He is 39 years old, doesn’t smoke or drink and has never been married. His caste is Chherri and even though he is a non-practicing Hindu, he believes in all 3 million gods. Although, in a hushed tone he once he told me that there are a couple gods that he doesn’t believe in. I have looked at few other guides, some are drunk most of the time and others treat their charges harshly. However, Kauncha has treated us like little brother and sister. In fact he even calls us “Bey” and “Beyhine”, the Nepali words for little brother and sister.

The next day we leave at 8 AM and start a downhill walk that takes us down 1600 meters into a rhododendron forest. The trees here are even bigger than the last trees we saw. I never knew Rhododendron trees could grow this big. The forest is very quiet and I notice that Kauncha is being extra observant of the surroundings. I ask him what is he looking for but he won’t tell me. Later he says to me, “Don’t tell Beyhine, but sometimes young boys throw rocks and steal things in that forest.” I am glad that he didn’t tell me while we were walking in it.

Eventually we climb our way down to a river. The river is filled with white water, so much that it looks like a milk shake. Huge boulders, as large as houses, sit in the middle of the river. At times the river surges with extra water causing it to quickly climb the rocky banks. After a few hours of following the river up the steep incline we notice the mountains around us. Our trail has been climbing at a steep rate but the mountains around us have climbed at a dizzying rate. In fact, the hill on one side is the 6441-meter mountain of Hiunchuli and the other side is the 8,091-meter mountain of Annapurna 1. According to my guidebook, this is the deepest canyon in the world. The walls of the canyon move often with earthquakes and landslides. Because of this, the trails are often detoured around landslides. Every one that lives from here to Tibet, relies on this road to bring their apples, sheep or yak cheese to market. During a rest stop I talk to a young father taking his child to Kathmandu to see a doctor. The child has a wooden foot strapped to his stumped leg.

Even though it is only 3 PM, the mountains blocks out the sun. It makes the climb even trickier. Just when I think that the trail can’t get any worse, we come to the biggest landslide I have ever seen. Part of the mountain has come down blocking the trail and the river. Kauncha asks an old man, who is picking wild oranges, about the landslide. He tells Kauncha that the landslide came just a few weeks ago. It came down in the middle of the night and just missed the town of Tatopani by a 100 meters on the down stream side. Unfortunately, it blocked the river. When the people came out of their homes to see what happened they were met with a rapidly rising river. Most people were able to take the few things that they owned from their homes and no one was killed but the town was flooded for two days. The army came in and blew up the landslide with dynamite and the water lowered. Just as he was telling us this, a loud powerful “Boom” sounds down the narrow valley. They are still using dynamite, I guess.

We can see our destination, the small town of Tatopani, only ten minutes walk away. But the landslide has blocked our path completely. When we are sure that the blasting has stopped for the day we follow the trail of locals up 800 feet on the most dangerous switch back I could have ever imagined. The week old trail, which was carved out of soft dirt, took an hour to climb. Not an hour of walking, we had to use our hands to climb the steep and shifting trail. At one point we stopped because the next section looked too dangerous. While we were deciding if we should turn around and go back, a huffing Nepali man says “Namistai” and walks past us. On his back are three large sacks of potatoes and a bicycle. He stumbles his way down the 16-inch wide trail, only inches away from a 750-foot drop. Tamara says that she wants to go on and Kauncha says that he will follow us whichever way we decide to go. I decide that we should go on but not strap the packs to us. That way we can drop them if we need to. We nervously make our way across with out incident. Once we pass that part we stumble and slide our way down into the town of Tatopani.

Tatopani means “hot water”. There is a Hot Springs here that the locals come to for mystical healing. The town is very small, maybe fifty feet wide and a thousand feet long. A 6-foot wide, hand paved, rock path divides the two strips of stores, homes and repair shops.

Half way thought the town, we follow Kauncha as he turns into a large arched door. It is a small hotel with an even smaller walled courtyard. Inside the courtyard grow a dozen orange trees next to a giant poinsettia tree. Kauncha says goodbye to us for the night and I give him some money to eat and find a place to sleep. Nepali guides and porters don’t sleep alone in private rooms. They prefer to all sleep in a single large room on the floor.

Tamara and I ask for the nicest room they have. It only cost $.78 for our cement box with two cots and a dim light bulb. After we dump our packs we padlock the door and go to the café. It is an open-air five-table restaurant, built on top of the wall, over the six-foot road. We eat roasted chicken and Dal Bhat.

I strike up a conversation with some young people next to us. The one guy and two girls are from Tasmania. They just finished college and are spending a few months in Nepal. They tell us about their drunken guide. He is such a horrible guide, that they have tried many times to lose him. We really like visiting with them but I need a shower. As we were leaving, Pip (one of the girls) tells us to becareful in the shower.

The shower like all showers in Nepal, is solar heated. Being as the sun has left for the day, I am sure that the water will be very cold. I draw the short straw and so must go first. The wooden structure, that is the shower stall, is very old. When I open the door, the resident rat decides that he doesn’t want a shower today. I should have taken the rats advice. The brown water left me dirtier than when I went in and the thick moss on the floor left small insect bits on my feet. Tamara chose to abstain from that shower. Come to find out, the shower on the other side is the nice one, no one uses the one I used. I mistakenly thought that there was only one shower. Rookie mistake.

That night we slept great in our thick sleeping bags. In the morning, we get up early and walk by the river. Actually we can’t walk very well today and so we hobble over to the Hot Springs. We watch one hundred-year old women bath in the steaming brown soup that is called the Hot Springs. I finally get up enough nerve to take a dip in the hot water. Tamara joined me and it really helps relive our stiff ankles and aching feet.

We explore the strange small town. It consists of 40 buildings lined along the road. The six-foot road is the center of the town in more ways than one. It is used for selling blankets, trading salt, butchering chickens, playing soccer, men to carry rice, donkeys to carry potatoes and for old men to spit on. People are used to move most everything in the mountains, but donkey caravans do pass threw the town once and a while. They are usually loaded with apples or potatoes. Each donkey has a large bell that rings as they walk. Tamara and I really like to listen to the music the donkey trains make as they pass.

We spent our first restful morning in the Himalayas, drinking fresh squeezed orange juice on the roof top café. Listening to the river flow by, smelling the sulfur from the Hot Springs and watching a man below us on the stone road, take fresh sheep intensities and fill them with some yellow soupy stuff.

Nepal is Wonderful.

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Around the World 6

Day 15
Location-Pokhara, Nepal
Temp-22 (Celsius) Altitude-800 Meter Weather-clear and cool
City Population-20,000 Witness population-37

“I left my dress in Kathmandu!”

The car horns and constant bustle of the Kathmandu streets begins to wear on us. Most of our lives we have lived in the country and so we are not used to the ever present churning of the city life. We decide to leave the city and take a room in a small residential hotel, just a few houses away from Nabin’s home. The distance from the center of Kathmandu to Nabin’s home is only a fifteen-minute walk. It will take us a little longer because our packs are becoming filled with things like colorful Yak sweaters and Tibetan hand-made jewelry.

With all our possessions, we set out towards our new hotel. Most of the guests that stay in this type of hotel are Indian and Nepali businessmen. This is my favorite kind of hotel because it is simplistic and inexpensive. As we cross the river on the way out of town, I check to see if the dead cow is still there. It isn’t, but high up on the banks of the river is a small temple that is on fire. A crowd of wailing women surrounds the temple. As I look closely, behind the wailing women, I can see a white wrapped mummy under the smoldering wood. The dark heavy smoke drifts our way and I realize that we are seeing a Gaht in use. A Gaht is a small Hindu temple, which is used for the cremation of bodies. It is such a strange site and I fight the urge to take a picture since it would be very upsetting to the Hindus to take photos of this ceremony, we were warned never to do this. As I try to take a mental picture of the scene, the smoke drifts down the riverbank and comes our way. Our step quickens, to avoid inhaling dead people.

Every home in this area is surrounded with tall cement walls connected to their neighbors. It makes walking on the road a bit scary because with eight foot walls on each side, there is no where to jump if a car were to swerve at us. Feeling like rats in a maze, we follow four beautiful young mothers as they each carry a suckling child on their hip and a brass water jug on their head.

We find our hotel hidden behind a large steel fence. When we enter, the manager wants to know how we found his hotel. I say that our friend Nabin told us of the Hotel and he stands up straighter and says, “Mister Chitrakar is a fine man, you are most welcome.” The price for the very large room is $4 a night and that includes a meal.

The dinner provided by the hotel is Dal Bhat. Most people in Nepal eat Dal Bhat for their two meals. It consists of rice, curried vegetables and a lentil bean soup, which is poured over the whole thing. It is very cheap and since all the locals eat it, the food is fresh. For breakfast, they drink a few cups of tea. For lunch they eat two to three pounds of Dal Bhat. Then late at night they eat Dal Bhat for dinner. It is tastes much better than it sounds. In fact Tamara says that it is her favorite food. The good thing about eating the same food that the locals eat is that you rarely get sick. Of the tourists that we have talked to, the only ones that have gotten sick are the ones that try to eat the local version of western food. We seem to fair the best because we eat what the locals do.

We spend the next day reading books, drawing and visiting with the Chitrakars at their home. We sit out on the grass and eat oranges. I show Nathan, Nabin’s son, how to sketch and Tamara practices knitting with the girls. Nabin says that in the morning he has to drive to Pokhara to take care of some business and that we could ride there with Turo and him if we want too. That is the city we wanted to go to next, so we jump at the chance. “On the way back from Pokhara I can drop you off at the town of Chitwan. That is the town on the edge of the National Park. There you will see rhinos and other animals “, Nabin says. I ask if it is possible to see tigers and he says, “The Tiger will see you for sure, whether you will see the Tiger is not known.”

The more time we spend in Nepal the more we want to remain here. I think that we might extend our stay here. I had planed to stay in Nepal for four weeks and India for six weeks. However, we are considering changing our plans to stay six weeks in Nepal and four in India.

That night we sift through our packs, taking out every thing we will not need for the trip. We only take hiking and jungle cloths and a few other items. I think about George Carlin and his comedy routine “Stuff”. We have taken a backpack of stuff from home, now we are making a smaller package of stuff. It is amazing how little stuff you actually need to survive. We have a hard time sleeping that night because someone in the home next door is performing an all night chant, for her dying father. After each chanting session someone would ring a bell and blow a goat horn.

Before the sun rises we are awoken with a knock at the door. A sleepy small boy tells us “Mister Chitrakar will be here for you, in moments.” We take our packs down stairs and I pay our bill. Behind the counter, on the floor are four men sleeping like puppies. One gets up, takes my money, mumbles something and lies back down. We leave the Hotel and walk out of the gated grounds to Nabin’s waiting truck. His truck is a Toyota four door. It is very nice and is well suited for the roads here. At his home we drop off our unnecessary luggage and drive into the cold dark morning. Turo is very groggy and I barely understand him when he offers us some of his Japanese instant coffee. We decide to stick with our bottled water for now.

Since contaminated water is the most common way to get sick in third world countries, we decide to only drink purified water on our trip. The cost for bottled water can become prohibitively expensive. Therefore, we brought our water filter with us from home. We use it for our hiking trips in the Pacific Northwest forests, but with a $20 Iodine add-on, it is perfect for international travel. The only thing negative is that our water tastes like Iodine. Nevertheless, it is better than sick or catching some nasty bug. We also have stopped drinking Coke so much, and we feel much healthier. Of course eating only rice and vegetables can’t hurt either.

The roads of Nepal are very poor and so progress is slow. Pokhara is only 100 miles away but it will be a six-hour drive. The randomly paved road climbs into the foothills, slowly rising out of the mist and into the bright sun. More times, than I can count, we are detoured around a washed out section of the road or around a landslide. It makes this twisting journey even moretwisting. As we climb, I notice that the road is crumbling off on the cliff side. In a few sections, there are barriers but some of them have fallen off the brittle road, down unimaginably deep ravens. Then when we are at an altitude of about 1500 meters, we turn a corner and the road just disappears. This part of the journey is very dangerous. I have heard people talk about this part of the road in Kathmandu. This is the only road that connects Kathmandu and Nepal’s second largest city, Pokhara. The road was built by the Indian government as a way of influencing Nepal to trade with India and not China. The Indians are not known as great road builders.

The road, or large trail as it should be called, clings to the side of numerous mountains on its way up. It looks like the Grand Canyon with roads. I force myself to look away from the 700-meter drop off, just inches way from my window. Nabin whistles and Turo sleeps. There are no safety walls or guardrails on the side of the road, just empty space. I feel very ill, but I am becoming very skilled at keeping it a secret. For four hours, we dodge washouts, landslides, auto accidents and downed bridges. During most our travel, there is only enough room for one and a half cars to drive on the road at a time. Unfortunately the road is dominated, not by cars, but by large four axle trucks. The trucks are colorfully painted with scenes of Hindu gods having sex, fighting monsters or eating humans. It provides a grisly edge to a truly horrific drive.

As the drive continues, we ask Nabin questions about Nepali people and Nabin asks us questions about Americans. Nabin is interested in how Americans spend their money. When Tamara tells him that most of her friends pay $5 for a cup of coffee, he doesn’t believe her. Turo and me talk about his past assignments. He is 36 years old and has spent many years helping Brothers in foreign lands. He was assigned to Nepal to help the Brothers set up a one-day assembly and streamline the computers systems. Last year he was sent to Pakistan for eight months. He says that he really liked Pakistan because the people are so kind and hospitable. Turo asks, “Why are you not helping the Brothers in some of these lands you travel to?” “I don’t know what I could do?” I say. He says, “How about helping the Nepal branch with their computer systems?” I don’t think I am qualified for it and tell him that my service time is low and he says, “Jehovah requires different things from different people.” He talks for a while about how we can change into people that help instead of people that need help. After a while what he says really starts to sink in. It wouldn’t be hard to convert my life into one of giving, instead of one of taking. The subject changes as a truck almost pushes us off the road. It would have succeeded in knocking us off of the road, but instead it hits the bus in front of us.

The two, newly attached, mammoth vehicles in front of us take 20 minutes to untangle. In the meantime we stretch our legs. Nabin tells us that the last time that he was on this road he saw a 180 lb. Leopard walking along the road. I get back in the truck. For me the drive up to this point was very stressful; I couldn’t even take pictures of the scenic cliffs and crevasses. Most of the drive I had to just sit back relax and listen to a drama tape. Just when I thought the ordeal was over, I watch two huge trucks play chicken. On one side a 600-meter cliff and on the other a land slide. They drove so close to each other that they strike each other knocking off a mirror. No wonder, no one has mirrors on the side of their vehicles in Nepal.

The six-hour ride slowly comes to an end as we leave the Katmandu valley. We have moved north and up into the mountainous part of the country. As we turn the last corner, we see the Himalayan Mountains. They look nothing like the distant views we saw from Kathmandu. We are so close that they rise up in to the sky almost over us. They stand larger than life. It was a long six hours but the reward was worth it.

Pokhara is a small city. Most of the businesses here are for the many tourists that come here because it is the main entry point to climb the mountains. Whether it be climbing 25,000-ft. monoliths or hiking around them like we want to do, this is where you start your journey. There is another city to the east that is another entry point in to the mountains. That is where you go if you want to climb Everest.

Pokhara is built around a large lake and is dominated by mostly empty hotels and restaurants advertising apple pie. We drive to a more residential area. The structures are all built of concrete and have unfinished second and third floors above them. With inflation so high, like most third world countries, people store their money in building materials and slowly build onto their homes. The road ends and we bump our way across a field and stop at a home. It turns out to be the Presiding Overseer of the local congregation. He warmly greets us in Nepali, as he knows very little English, and invites us in. He gives us tea and then we are taken to a small hotel nearby. He and Nabin argue with the hotel owner for a while because since we are with them he wants twice the normal “local” cost. The hotel is close to the Kingdom Hall and so Nabin accepts the compromised price unhappily. It turns out to cost $2.50 per room and Nabin says that it is too much. The room is very simple, with two beds and an electric bulb that works only sometimes. It does come with it’s own bathroom, which is nice. The view from the roof of the hotel is incredible. We can see more than a dozen huge mountains, so close you feel like you could touch them.

After lunch, Nabin says that he is going to visit a friend and invites Turo and I to come along. Tamara wants to take a shower and rest up, so I go alone. The truck drives out of town and into the woods over the roughest road I have seen since we were in South America. A few of the potholes were so large that two cars could fit inside it. At the end of this road, we come to a real Palace. In the center of this remote area is a gigantic super resort. It is reached by Helicopter and only the ultra rich of Asia come here to golf. Nabin says that the manager is his friend. I ask how he met his friend and he says, “We were friends in school.” It turns out that Nabin’s father was the King’s personal secretary for many years. Since his family was from the most powerful and richest “caste”, Nabin developed many friends that are still rich and powerful. Turo tells me that there are many stories of Nabin’s father and his stand for Jehovah in the Watchtower and Awake. Just look up Nepal in the index.

We park and walk into the Resort. There a line of finely dressed women greets us. We are offered refreshments, while his friend is called for. The interior is unimaginable in its woodwork, expensive vases and gold carvings. This is nothing like the five-star resorts Tamara and I have seen before. This is for the Ultra Rich and Royalty. Outside well-dressed men cut the grass with medium sized scissors, while better-dressed women trim rose bushes that are so beautiful that they can’t be real. The resort only has 50 rooms and 48 are available. I can’t bring myself to ask how much it cost.

Nabin’s friend walks in and greets his old friend with a strong handshake and a loud “slap” on the back. They talk for a moment and then switch to English. “This is my friend from America!” Nabin says. “I am Sandu, I am honored to meet you.” He says. Sandu’s eyes are sharp and yet distant. We are invited to stay the night and share a meal with him. “The King’s son may be in tonight. They will have a grand Banquet. You must stay.” Sandu says. Nabin refuses saying “We have dinner plans already.” but he suggests we all try out the new golf course. Turo says that Nabin’s biggest weakness is his love of golf.

A few moments later we are on a golf course that I could have never dreamed of. Turo and I team up and watch Nabin and Sandu accelerate past us. Turo and I have only golfed a few times and so fall far behind. Quiet 14-year-old girls, carrying our golf clubs, walk behind us. Turo and I talk about how strange it feels to be treated like royalty. Both of us are uncomfortable with it. The golf course, which is facing the long chain of Himalayas, is bordered on the other side with a sheer 400-meter cliff. The cliff is one side of a two-mile wide and 1000 feet deep valley. The extreme height of the mountains in front of us and the depth of the valley behind us make me doubt my perspectives. Of course, I lose three golf balls off the cliff side. I blame my poor golfing on the unbelievable view. At a certain point, (third hole) the game golf is no longer fun. Mercifully the game ended and I lost to Turo by 25. Nabin’s score was near par. Mark Twain said, “Golf is a good walk, spoiled.”

We say our good byes and head back toward town. Later that night after a shower, Nabin takes Tamara, Turo and I back to the Presiding Overseers home. His name is Karri and he answers the door to his three-story concrete home with dark sunglasses and a face like a State Cop. He is stone faced as he welcomes us in to his home. Nabin translates into English for a while, but then gives up. We drink tea, eat some stale crackers and smile at his plump wife. She knows five words in English and I know maybe ten Nepali words. All of us feel very uncomfortable in the very quiet room. Our pink plastic chairs squeak on the thin green plastic carpet. Black and white photos hang on the painted concrete walls. In this type of situation, I have an ace up my sleeve, pictures of my family. I show her pictures of my parents, Tamara’s brothers and of the Pacific Ocean. She says something to Nabin and he says that she wants to know if all Americans are giants.” I nod my head “yes” and she again examines the photo’s. I find myself becoming uncomfortable when she sees the picture of my Kingdom Hall. It is so extravagant compared to Nepal’s Kingdom Halls. She leaves to finish making the meal that we are apparently invited for. Karri’s home, as all buildings in Nepal, is built with only concrete and re-bar. The floor, walls and ceilings are a seamless flow of painted concrete. We didn’t bring one of our new Yak sweaters, so when the sunsets we try to hide our shivering. Wood is scarce in Asia and electricity is expensive, so indoor heat is very rare.

A while later Karri’s wife comes down and says that dinner is ready to be served. Following everyone else, Tamara and I remove our shoes and walk up the concrete staircase. We pass the second floor. The second floor has no floor covering and has only two light bulbs. The cooking is done on a propane cook stove that lights up the dark kitchen. On the third floor, we walk through a maze of concrete walls. There are no lights but a fire is burning in a half barrel in the center of a large room. There are no glass windows on this floor just fabric to keep out the 20-degree wind. I can’t believe how fast the temperature dropped. Tamara and my eyes are unhappy with the air quality of the room so we sit by the door on small stools. They open a few “windows” when we start to cough at the smoke and then put more wood on the fire when we start to shiver. I feel like a bother. There are four other people in the room but I cannot see them very well because of the smoke.

I finally have to escape the smoke and one of the men follows me out. His name is Shiran and he smiles when I tell him I am a Jehovah Witness. “I am your Brother!” he says in poor English. We stand on the roof and watch the stars rise over the mountains talking about hiking. Even though it is dark, you can see the snow covered parts of the mountains glowing with some strange light. Shiran tells me that not many Brothers speak English here and he is grateful to be able to practice speaking it. He moved here from Kathmandu to become a mountain guide. His boss, Kiran, is a manager of a nearby Hotel and trek shop. Kiran is also a Witness.

We are called back in to the smoky room and a young boy brings stainless steel plates to us. Our plates are filled to the brim with Dal Bhat and roasted chicken. Karri’s family has really extended themselves for us and we were grateful. Luckily the light was dim and the smoke kept our eyes from focusing on the dark crunchy things in the rice. Tamara and I decided beforehand that we would never insult a Witness family by picking through our food. We will eat everything as is. When we are finished, our plate is taken and refilled. During most of the meal, I exercised my new skill of shallow chewing and swallowing quickly. It was a moment to remember. Sitting on crates in Nepal, eating some known food in a 20-degree smoke filled room, surrounded by Brothers that don’t speak English. Nabin and Karri chatted way like old friends.

In the morning, Nabin says that Turo and he must travel to Chitwan, 125 miles to the south, to help the congregation there. He says, “You may come with us. However, I think that you will stay here and go on a walk in the mountains. When you are done, take a bus to Chitwan and find a Tiger. Be sure a Tiger does not find you. When you get back to Kathmandu, call me.” I mention that I need to change my airplane tickets so that we may stay longer in Nepal. Taking my tickets he smiles and says, “I will take care of it, my Brother.” and shakes our hands vigorously and leaves without another word.

Pokhara is a wonderful place. The mountains are only a part of the beauty. Being far from the bustle of Kathmandu, the people are friendly. We try to talk to many locals and they seam interested why we would come to their town. The town is on the banks of a medium size lake. Our rented rowboat serves us well in exploring the lake. We really enjoy exploring the town. The roads are dirt and the abundance of roaming cows makes sure you watch where you walk.

The next day we catch a ride to one of the local Tibetan refugee camps. There are many Tibetan refugee camps that surround every city and town in Nepal. The camp has a few people behind makeshift tables, selling local crafts. Brass bowls, jewelry and warm fabrics all find their way into our packs. Back in the 1950’s, China invaded Tibet and outlawed their religion. So if a girl or boy wants to become a Buddhist priest they must leave their country and travel to Nepal or India. There is a temple in every camp and I am excited to find entrance in to this one. Removing our shoes, we walk into the large temple. The walls are covered with murals showing the life of Buddha and his path to enlightenment. During our exploring, I meet a sixteen-year-old monk that just arrived here from the 25-day walk out of Tibet. He is very bright and is interested in Physics and Hollywood. He speaks very good English and four other languages. Priests are not allowed to touch even the clothing of a woman, so Tamara explores the temple while we chat. I really enjoyed talking to him about his life.

Tibetans are very common in Nepal. Nepali people sometimes dislike Tibetans because they have a talent of opening business and make money. Tibetans do not believe in the caste system, so are freed from the idea of Predestination. They believe that with education and insight you can become anything, even a god. The Hindu faith really hobbles its practicers by telling them that they are only as good as their tribe or caste. It causes most traditional Hindus to not learn anything that is not needed to follow the profession of their caste. The literacy rate for Hindus is in the 40% but Buddhist literacy rate is in the 80%. Moreover, most of the Buddhist know two or three languages.

We spend many days eating Indian food, rowing boats, renting rusty bicycles and attending meetings. It is a restful town that is friendly because you are a Human and not a Tourist. The Brothers and Sisters are also wonderful and very hospitable.

We are invited for many meals with families and visit for many hours. Time just melts away. Some how the days fly by and the next Sunday sneaks up unexpectedly. As we are getting prepared to go the Kingdom Hall for the Public talk and Watchtower study, Tamara says, “I left my dress in Kathmandu!” She digs threw her pack and can find no dress to wear. We end up buying a local dress for her to wear to meeting.

The Kingdom Hall is next to Karri’s home. The Kingdom Hall is a small concrete box filled with metal chairs. The tiny stage has one microphone and tape player. Brothers and Sister greet us like we are long lost family. Even thought we cannot verbally communicate very well, it is an encouraging time for all. When the meeting starts, Tamara and I notice something very strange. The men are sitting on the right side and the women and small children sit on the other. Only Karri sits with his wife and two children.

All Jehovah Wittiness’ study the same thing, all around the world at the same time. So the Watchtower we bought with us from home, is the same one being studied here. The meeting is in Nepali but we can usually follow along and even get to answer a few times. The congregation has 35 in attendance, three Elders and three special pioneers. Pioneers are full time volunteers that dedicate a large part of their live to preaching about God’s Kingdom and Jesus’ life. Where as all Jehovah Witnesses preach to some extent, Pioneers reach out to take a fuller share.

After the meeting, we start on the two-mile walk back to our hotel. Along the way there is a crowd gathered around a young woman that is lying on the side of the road unconscious. Some of the men start arguing and a few of them start to punch each other. Some more men walk up and they are carrying large sticks. An upset crowd of about 25 people just stands, paralyzed, watching the fighting men and lifeless woman. I walk closer and see that a car or something has hit her. I can’t see if she is breathing but her long black hair is mixed with the color red. I look closer and get ill when I see the red is tainted with a milky gray. We try to walk around the crowd, as it grows angrier and louder. No one was helping the woman and I mentally struggle with what to do, all the while I’m still physically walking away. I want to push back the crowds and help her, but I am intimidated by the smell of anger and violence that is around us. I keep walking, not knowing if the medics were coming. I left her lying there, without trying to help her. Tamara felt that we did the right thing, getting away from the mob. She is probably right. For the rest of the day, I feel horrible that I did nothing for the injured woman. I left her lying on the road dying because I was afraid for Tamara and my safety. That means I am a coward. Maybe, worse than a coward. I need to talk to Tamara about my feelings, but I am so ashamed that I can’t bear to speak of it. Pokhara doesn’t seem so relaxing and enjoyable anymore.

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