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Nepal: Rites of Passage

 
There is a certain magic when flying that makes time simply interminable.  That feeling of doing something important without having much of anything to do in the meantime.  The knowledge of having something a little unpleasant, kind of inexplicable, occasionally unnerving done to you and with your tacit permission too, just so you can get to where you have to be. The rites of passage.

Something else.

Hell is other people, which is another way of saying that’s all there is.  On a plane, that’s all there is.

No choice. Unless you like tarmac.

All in.

It is, thank god, a relative, various hell and it can surprise you in spite of itself.

Twice I was jarred out of fitful slumber by the rumblings of the plane, only to find my seatmate, Raj, humped over her seat tray, using it was a makeshift pillow, head to the side, facing me. It was disturbing and fantastic and, amazingly, not a fluke.  I never realized the human body could stay bent like that for such extended period of time without experiencing total structure failure, but Raj just slept on, like she slept that way every single night of her life.

Was she showing off?  It was impressive, whatever she was doing.

The first time I awoke to find her like that, with her hands tucked under her chin, her pretty pastel nails just peeking out from under her jaw line, she looked like a robot I had decided to turn off simply because I had that power. I stared at her, using all my mental powers and animal magnetism to wake her up psychically with my glare.  Nothing.  Perhaps that only works on my dog.  Sometimes, even, Stephen.

The second time, Raj’s arms dangled and swayed, a little, from her sides, though her head remained at a perfect perpendicular angle to the tray and floor.  As I hovered over her, agape, with my hair mussed in sleep and my eyes squinting themselves back into focus, it looked like I had killed her but only then realized the extra, rather nagging inconvenience involved in the body dump.  The stewardess passed by and briefly observed this macabre tableau.  Our eyes met and I tilted my head and pursed my lips, a little, in a look that served pretty well as confession to my crime in close quarters. Maybe I shrugged, like Atlas.

Who gives a fuck?

She handed me some pretzel sticks over Raj’s back and continued down the aisle.

Despite Raj’s superhuman abilities to sleep through pretty much everything around her (totally showing off, totally), she seemed quite nervous about our landing, and had to sit put away in a corner, earplugs engaged, as we touched down in New Delhi.  She helped me with my bag, and as we shook hands as we departed at our respective gates, I took one last moment to admire her lovely nails.

I didn’t tell her about her brief stints as an automaton and as the deceased.

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Nepal: How My Mom Saved My Trip Before It Began

And away is up. And away.

When up is away.

Stephen bid me farewell as I headed toward the gate at Toronto’s Pearson airport.  He was very supportive of my decision to buck work and responsibility for the beauty and grander of the Himalayas, but I detected a certain melancholy in his demeanor upon my departure.  He would miss me as I would miss him, but there was little we could do about that. So I did what I could at the time, which was text my friend, Dejan, to enlist his help in alleviating what I imagined was Stephen’s crippling emotional turmoil:

From Me to Dejan:

About to board the place.  One thought: can you take Stephen to Hooters or something to cheer him up? He’s a little down.  Also, tell him I was kidding about the Sherpas.  OR WAS I??? See y’all when I get back 🙂 03/15/11, 5:54PM.[1]

From Dejan to Me:

You’re rude.  But funny.  Have a good trip!!! 03/15/11, 5:55PM.[2]

To save a few dollars (actually a few hundred dollars), I booked a rather meandering and dawdling flight to Kathmandu.  It started with a 7 hour and 20 minute flight from Toronto to Brussels, plus a 2-hour layover.  Then it was a 7 hour 55 minute flight from Brussels to New Delhi, followed by a disorienting 9-hour layover at the ultra-chic New Delhi airport.  From there, it was a mere 1 hour and 35 minute flight to Shangri la itself, Kathmandu.

As I sat by Gate 171, legs thrust out confidently in front of me and hands folded jauntily at the belly, I began to muse about the adventure before me.  I thought about how fucking awesome I was, headed into the unknown, facing head-on the challenges that were sure to come my way, of the people I would meet and the places I would see and, of course, of all the amazing food I was sure to encounter…

MOMOS!  Those delicious steamed or lightly fried dumplings that come with a sweet n’ sour spicy red sauce perfect for dipping MOMOS. A traditional delicacy native to Tibet, Nepal, West Bengal and Other Places, I had had momos (WONDERFUL MOMOS!) during my last day in India – devoured them, actually, from a street-side cart where the vendor shook his head in bemusement at my insatiable gullet.  I gave him many rupees and he gave me many, many momos, and it was GLORIOUS.

But in Nepal…

…in Nepal, I had heard, there were momos of all shapes and sizes, of all robust plumpness and delightful bounce, all savory delicious in their own way.  More than that.  You could get them in the streets.  You could get them in the mountains. You could get them stuffed with yak cheese!

YAK CHEESE.

Yak cheese. How to explain? It's like if all the other cheeses got together and tried to be just a little bit better and fell just a little short of that, THAT would be yak cheese.

And I did.

As I daydreamed and fantasized and whetted my appetitive in grand anticipation of ADVENTURE, my immediate surroundings faded in and out of conscious thought.  One minute, I was expertly navigating my way across bamboo suspension bridges and prodding bravely on while others collapsed at my feet due to altitude sickness and weak characters.  Another moment, and my backpack was poking me sharply in the spine as I slumped in my chair.  I saw the awed faces of the folks back home as I regaled them with stories of momos (MOMOS!!!) and snow leopards and yaks, and irritably wrenched my eyes open to check the clock above the airport bathroom to see if the plane would be boarding soon.  Then I heard it.

My mother’s voice.

“Ngọc!  You sure you are at the right gate?  Are you SURE?  ALWAYS CHECK.  You need to check.  Check now…check now…NOW.”

It was more than mere coincidence.  My mom and I have travelled many Places together, and it is always at the airport – on arrival and departure – that we very nearly unravel as a mother-daugther pair.  It’s the planes.  My mom, she’s terrified that they will leave without her – she is convinced, in fact, they are trying to leave without her – and in her single-minded drive to beat the planes at their own game, she will abuse airport staff, cut lines and DESTROY fellow travellers should they by some poor, cruel twist of luck get the slightest bit in her way.

These are Things I know.

And yet, I still don’t know any better.  Because I always try to defuse my airport Mom-Bomb by yelling at her to “RELAX, CALM DOWN, NOOOO, PUT IT DOWN!!!, and this has always and will always end with me feeling ashamed and guilty and her basking in total validation at my eventual apology.

So as I waited for my plane I tried, REALLY TRIED, to ignore The Voice.  But it was an exercise in ultimate and utter futility.

 

“…always…                                     ….check…                                    …always…

 

                                          …check…

 

                                                                   …always…                                     ….check…                                   

                                 …always…

…check…

 

                                                                                      …check…

            …check…

 

                                                 …check…

        …now…

                                                            …check…                                                            ….now…

                                                                                                            ….check…

Now!

Now!!

NOW!!!”  

NOOO!  I AM at the right gate.  Of COURSE I’m at the right gate!  Gate 171.  I’m sure, o.k? 

“HOW sure?”

Very sure. 

“Are you?”

Sure as sure. 

“Are you??”

Y-yes.  Sure.

“ARE YOU???”

Well, fairly sure…

Endgame.  There was no point in arguing with the me that was my mom in me any more than it was trying, however heroically and massively, to ignore it.  I sighed, reached for the travel wallet that was hanging around my neck, and proceeded to (double) check my boarding pass.[3]

Jet Airways.  Check!

Flight 229.  Check!

7:25 PM.  Check!

Gate 179.  Check.

Oh.  Lord.

Below are my actual, real notes of my reaction, given to you in their entirety:

March 15th, 2011  

HOLY FUCK!  IT WAS GATE 179!!!

(see above!)  Jesus GOD!  Rookie mistake.  Made it just in time, thanks to frantic

running, Tilley hat bashing against my pack as I flew.  Lesson here: ALWAYS

check.  Only way to be sure.

Always. Check.

The me that was my mom in me did a victory dance that day.

Thanks, Mom.

Hours later, in Brussels, I parked myself at Gate B33 and waited with bated stupor for the plane, making sure to check and re-check the gate every two minutes during my two hours at the airport.  It was a Herculean task in concentration.  8:00AM in Brussels meant 5:00AM in Toronto.

In travel time, this meant that from my perspective it was daylight out instead of dark and there were people about instead of none, and there was a sense of purpose in the air instead of listlessness.  My body was confused, aching and thirsty, but my mind disregarded all physical discomfort in order to focus on this one mantra:

Gate B33…Gate B33…Gate B33…

THANKS, MOM!!!


[1] I wasn’t kidding.

[2] I am.

[3] Travel wallets are dorky and lame.  They are.  I admit that.  However, they are terrifically convenient in busy airports, especially when you’re trying to stow away wayward liquids and gels, untying and re-tying your shoes, getting patted down by someone who, frankly, should have tried harder in life, and when you’re required to keep both your boarding pass and passport at the ready while dragging along your carry-on.  So there.

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Nepal: The Day My Knee Broke OR Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

A few weeks ago, I served up some raw notes of my trip to Nepal for your consumption.  Partly, it was an attempt by me to process the experience as only time and the comforts of home can allow.

Look into mine eyes.

This is what big looks like when it's immense.

Mostly, it was me being lazy about getting a blog post up before deadline.

Mmmbap!!!

Between bibimbap and blog, where do you think I went?

Imagine my surprise when I went online and encountered (because online is a Place, totally) comments from people who actually, really enjoyed the post.

Huh.

So, I figured Why not? Let’s do as my mind is doing anyway: (re)start at the beginning, jump to the middle, and eventually saunter on towards The End.

In my last post, I boasted to you that I decided to go to Nepal for many reasons, most importantly of all, that of daring prestige. That was a story of Heroics (of sorts).  In this post, I will confess to you that going to Nepal was a move, too, that would at the very least buy me some time while I contemplated my future outside of the cloistered safety of the ivory tower.

That, after all, is the magic and allure of the Journey.  Louis L’Amour put it very well when he said “[a] journey is time suspended. All decisions await arrival, and one travels on, day after day, accepting each as it comes” (1990: 168).

I had been living so long according to a plan, knowing three steps ahead where I needed to be in order to push still forward, pursuing a dream, a career and accolades I never really stopped to think I may not have wanted.

Stopping, it turned out, was easy compared to actually making the last, final decision to leave.  That decision took months and it was pure agony.

But then, I have never been good at making decisions: when you plan three steps ahead, the realization comes rather quickly that one choice always (in the sense that “always” is “inevitable”) leads to another.  There’s no avoiding it.

After all, as Mr. L’Amour also says, waiting at the end of a journey “is the harsh reality of decision and doing” (1990: 168).

That reality for me is NOW.  But in the meantime, here is a story about what happened THEN, on the day I learned that my body is at once my closest companion and immediate enemy and that sometimes the easy way out is, in fact, the best way.

Enjoy!

March 31st, 2011

Day 12 of 21

At the end of the day, I came to the conclusion that this day had been about the little things.

It had to be.

With the pain in my knee spreading to the upper and lower parts of my body and my feet all a’ blister, the best thing to do was appreciate what didn’t go wrong, and that’s what they call OPTIMISM! in The End.

Despite my reluctance to begin the trek, the day actually started off quite wonderfully.  Hem showed me Annapurna I, visible in the morning light outside our tea house, and I ate a “light breakfast” (2 eggs, sunny-side up, potatoes and onions, toast and tea) with the Holland Boys, whose jolly company I was very glad to be keeping.  They, of course – and in what I can only rationalize as their innate superhuman agility – would disappear into the horizon during the day, bouncing off rocks and cartwheeling down sheer drops and precipices, as I followed resolutely behind, one small sure step after another.

As we ambled along in The Trek, the landscape gradually went from being “Canadian” back to “sub-tropic”.  Essentially, this meant the gradual waning of jagged rocks, icy streams and conifers and the return of water buffalos, banxan trees and rhododendrons.

Water, buffalos?

Ladies.

We followed a river gorge for a time – professed to be one of the world’s largest. But it didn’t really seem like it to me. Though, what do I know about gorges?  It could have been big.  It was, by my estimation at least, very gorge-like.

But like most Things, gorges come and gorges go, and after a while we found ourselves at the bottom of a very large, very long, multi-leveled waterfall.

Or stick to the rivers and the streams that you're used to, baby.

Chasing Waterfalls.

What can I say? I was impressed.

Then, just about an hour from lunch:

  • Rain.  Lots.  Little.  LOTS.
  • Nagging to persistent to full on pain.
  • Rocky roads, “undulating” up and down, but mostly D-O-W-N.
  • A pace that was brisk, then halting and, finally, hobbling.

It was enough.

Since our decent from the apex of our journey – the highs of the mighty Thorung La Pass – my knee had begun to protest the punishment I was putting it through by periodically freezing up and/or sending sharp, very precise pain up the side of my body and straight into the back of my neck.  By the time we passed the waterfall, I was basically using my trekking pole as a crutch.  Hem suggested we take a bus to our destination at trek’s end today, and though I found that a bit of cheat, my mind eventually submitted its will to my body’s demands.

But then, a small surprise as we entered the Waterfall Restaurant, cruelly located at the bottom of some very steep and VERY slippery, stone steps.

Never again. Probably.

Waterfall in the rain with pain.

Chris and Tommy and their entourage from EcoTrek were there (we had met them at High Camp before taking on the Thorung La).

Rather, they were still there.

Turns out, Chris had been throwing up and was feeling dizzy and nauseous.  This, too, was a surprise, considering that he and Tommy had consistently left me in the dust each time we crossed paths.  The decision was made, for Chris’ sake, to take the local bus the rest of the way to Tatopani.  We elected to join them as we sat down to lunch…right around the time The Germans joined us.

Ah, Ze Germans!

They had run into me a lifetime ago, a few days after I started The Trek.  High-powered, well-to-do, outrageously personable and armed with the best that Nikkon has to offer, they had gained a mild celebrity among the Annapurna trekkers for their insatiable entitlements and prodigious appetites.

If they were tired, it was not because of unwarranted exertion or the previous night’s overindulgence in cheap Nepali beer or even the strenuousness of the terrain.  It was because the slow progress of Others (i.e. the old, the novice, the non-German) who audaciously got in the way of their German efficiency.

If they had to wait while they were hungry, it was because you had the nerve to order first.

If they were discombobulated with altitude sickness, well, it was because there was just too much altitude to begin with, anyway.

On this day, they filled the lodge with sleek abandon, as their harried guide scrambled after them, putting discarded gloves and trekking poles and backpacks into neat piles in the corners of the restaurant while presenting them with menus for their midday repast.  The man’s arms were little more than blurred streaks on either side of him, he moved so F-A-S-T.

They ordered first.

They ate so much chow mien.

It was epic.

I ordered a Fanta and when Chris asked if it was cold (he drank a coke to help the dizziness/nausea, but it was warm), I gave him the portion I didn’t already pour into my cup.

And so we waited for the bus, Chris pretty much passed out on a nearby cot.  There was a rooster that was being stored in an upside down basket in the room with us who kept crowing, CROWing, CROWING as if to resurrect the long-dead morning, but Chris kept his eyes closed even as I set my teeth on edge.

The bus ride itself cost 280Rs (about $4.00 US), and aside from a few parts where I was convinced we’d fall off the razor’s edge we were driving on, and my worry that Chris, with the aid of the ride, would throw up on me, I could tell by the dull throbbing of my knee that it was so very worth it.

Our refuge for the night, the Old Kamala Lodge, was a very nice place – spacious, clean, with some neat gardens (banana trees and all), and complete with en suite bathrooms for patrons.

Sometimes a cigar is just a banana, OK?

My childhood fascination with banana trees continues, unabated. No matter what the Freudians say.

And the room came with TOILET PAPER!!!  An absolute rarity in the “supply your own” ethos of the Himalayas.

And, much like the last couple of places we stayed at but still no less appreciated, I was able re-charge my batteries here, hassle-free (some places charge for this, others simply cannot accommodate you).

And, due to the altitude, it was actually pretty warm all around – my feet weren’t freezing after showering and I was quite pleased to discover that I wouldn’t need an extra blanket to pass the night.

And, because of the glorious proximity of the bathroom, I didn’t have to worry about having to “go all the way” to the bathroom.  Trivial?  Silly?  Revealing of my First World sensitive sensibilities?

Not. In. The. Slightest.

Not when your stomach turns on you in the middle of the night and you have to run – RUUUUUNNNN!!! – down 3 flights of wooden steps and around a dark corner to a cupboard size closet without plumbing but still, somehow, with water (hopefully water) standing EVERYWHERE between you and your destination: a battered squat toilet.

Not when, amid the snow and ice and the chill of the night, 40 total strangers find themselves sharing two outhouses located waaay behind the relative warmth of the lodge.

Not when the squats become ovens of hot poo once the cold is chased away.  And especially after the Germans make it to them before you do.

AND, I met up again with the Czech couple, the Ultra Cool Katz I had first encountered the night I shared my dinner hour with the Determined Korean Man.  They were headed home, finally, after months and months away.  As we congratulated each other on passing the Pass I learned that I – ME!!! – completed the trek across the Thorung La ONE HOUR before they – in all their sinewy vegetarian fitness – did.

See what I mean?  When the world as a whole is set up with trail and tribulation, it really is all about the small things.

It has to be.


References

L’amour, Louis. (1990). Education of a Wandering Man. Bantam Books.

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Nepal: Raw Notes, Slightly Filtered

Right around the time I stopped being a PhD student and started yelling at dayplanners, I also decided, since I seemed to be on some kind of roll anyway, that it would be a good idea to go to Nepal.  Specifically, to go to Nepal to trek (which I learned meant “hiking but MORE”) in Nepal.

Why?  WHY?!

Accident, impulse and circumstance.  My friend, Ernie, had done it the previous year…right around the time I was in India, where I had unwittingly signed up for a Buddhist pilgrimage.  With my Mother.

Yeah.

Ernie’s tales of ADVENTURE made me jealous, and they made me reflect on my own adventure with Mom as she lectured me on my poor life choices over cold vegetarian meals under the hot, punishing, unforgiving Indian sun.

Great dharma, big drama.

"That's quite something isn't it, Mom?" "You know, it not too late for you go to dental school. Or get married."

Yeah.

So, on a whim, I decided not only to emulate Ernie, but to out-do him.  Rather than an 8-day trek, as Ernie had done, I decided to trek the Annapurna Circuit, a 21 day MONSTER trek, nestled in all manner of ups and downs in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas.

Yeah.

Yet, there was also another, perhaps more pressing reason I decided to chose a seemingly random and outrageous task just to see it through.

There is a certain prestige that comes with first, saying you’ll do something crazy (or at least out of character) and, second, actually doing it.  I wanted that.  More to the point, I wanted that evolutionary leap that came after the fact: to gain that miraculous power that allowed one to shut others up and out by sheer dint of having accomplished impossible or unlikely things.

Given my self-imposed fecklessness, Nepal seemed a good a place as any to cultivate this awesome power.  So I went, survived (after a fashion) and came home.  That was six months ago.

Since I returned from Nepal, I’ve tried, really tried, to put my experiences into nice, articulate FABULOUS words.  I have failed LOTS at that.

Luckily, I keep a travel journal whenever I go wherever, and I noticed as I perused my entries that some of my writings of The Trek were pretty funny on their own.

So there.

Below are my actual, real notes of my first official day trekking, given to you in their entirety because they capture so well my special eloquence during my trek, both at the time and even now, despite the benefit of retrospect.

If I WERE a doctor, even a D.D.S, I'm sure my handwriting would be a prized and adored.

I need to learn how to write good.

Enjoy?

March 20th, 2011

WHY?!

Slept really well last night despite weird dreams involving Zap Brannigan.

I have no idea.

The trek today STARTED well, but by the end, I’m pretty sure I died a couple of times only to be cruelly brought back to life so I can finish what I started.  It’s my damned backpack – I need to unload some stuff because at the steep, going up parts especially it felt like I was carrying a safe full of gold.  Made of gold.

Also, I have discovered over the last few days but especially today that the human body is disgusting.  You don’t have to go outside where it’s “dirty” or to do dirty things, it seems we are built to be super gross.

You don’t have to do anything before you’re hair starts getting limp and grimy, you ears fill with wax, your nose fills with, uh, fill, your skin gets slick and blotchy, your teeth get fuzzy, and your nethers…you get grosser.

Also, you’ll smell.  People smell.  I smell.

Anyway, we followed a river gorge, saw and walked among terraced rice fields, entered, briefly, a subtropical forest (I have the bug bites to prove it), past a majestic (read: tall) waterfall (where we stopped to have lunch; delicious potato and veg curry for me), followed and were followed by some goats (complete with baby goats!), and took the long way, which was, ironically the easy way (not so very steep) to our final stop today, Jagat.

We’re staying at a place called the Eco Home.  There’s a cyber café across the street that I think has Guitar Hero.  Go figure.

"Anyone want to battle out 'Carry on my Wayward Son'?  Anybody...?"

A Cyber Space

Ernie was right: the first day is a killer.  I was huffing and at points and had to take numerous rests.  All that “training” on the elliptical seems so futile now…

It’s funny the things that pop into your head when you’re trying, through sheer will, to see an impossible task to the end.  For a good 40 minutes the words to the “Chicken Boo” cartoon would just not go away:

“You wear a disguise to look like human guys, but you’re not a man, you’re a chicken boo.”

Very quickly, it seemed, I went from sheer awe to the glorious views around me to sheer awe that putting one foot in front of the other could be so fucking hard.

Like, the hardest thing ever.

Purified water – with iodine tables – is disgusting. But I was so hot and out of breath and sweaty that I gulped it down like it was the fountain of youth.

Poor Porter Hem.  While the others from last night’s dwellings raced ahead of us – even with our head start – we had to trudge along at Cindy Pace.  He was really good about it, though.  He’s good at what he does, which as a porter, boils down to putting up with people and carrying their stuff.

At dinner, I met a retired Korean man who is on his fifth visit/trek to Nepal.  He did the Jonsom trek but got altitude sickness and had to turn back, and on this trip, his first attempt of the A.C., he made it to Manang and had to turn back.

Still, I’ve never met someone as happy as he was with what he did accomplish – with no regrets on “what could have been”.  His advice?  Trekking is not a race; there are lots of people who see it was a challenge to be conquered as hard and fast as possible and they miss the point.

Also: you can only go at your own pace.

Which brings me back to Ernie: the first day is a killer, but it gets better after.

Stop and smell the rhododendrons.

The grandeur of simple Things.

And don’t forget to take in the view.

How about that?

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