Sunday, October 11, 2009

Landslides and Leeches - a trekking journal, Nepal



These are excerpts from my journal written each night of a 7-day trek.

This was supposed to be the “bunny hill” of trekking – a short loop passing through Ghorapani and Gandruck (and many other villages), with a detour to Poon Hill for a spectacular view of the Himalayas. Fairly easy, good for all levels of trekking experience. Plenty of nature, plenty of culture, and nights in cozy teahouses along the way.

However, last week, a typhoon worked it’s way across southeast Asia and right smack into the Himalayas of Nepal, where it poured 72 hours straight, October 5-8, drastically altering lands and lives. Here is the news story: http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/SNAA-7WN4XX?OpenDocument&RSS20=03. And here is my story.

End of Day 2 – October 4
I am in a small village called Banthanti high in the mountains. We began climbing yesterday afternoon, and stopped to sleep last night in a village called Hile. Already 3 of our 10 people have turned back, too unhealthy (physically or fearfully) to continue the journey. We all have our own mountains to conquer.

So now we are 7, and though it will continue to be challenging for 2 of the others, I believe all 7 of us will complete the trek. We've had rain and clouds since we began yesterday (though it was extremely humid and warm below). Now we are slowly but surely moving above the clouds and the snowcapped peaks are beginning to emerge all around us. The entire trail is large stone steps, and sometimes waterfalls run right along and on the steps, sometimes we cross a suspension bridge over the river and see waterfalls on all sides.

I am really glad to be doing this to wind down from the film project and reflect on everything I’ve learned from the children. One child’s story and message, in particular, stays with me. “Don’t give up.”

Morning of Day 3 – October 5
Last night I was kept from sleep, haunted by a cry outside. The moon had been full and bright, and my room (which I insisted be a single this night), on the ground floor, hung over a deep chasm, beyond which lay another mountain, and beyond that, snow-capped peaks. I had three windows: one faced the courtyard where everyone gathered so I kept the curtains closed; one faced the chasm and peaks, and I kept the curtains wide open to be drenched in full moonlight while I slept; the third faced the back of the property, some sloping rice terraces and a grassy area where campers could pitch tents, but no campers were here this night. I drew those curtains closed.
As I lay trying to put myself to rest, a creature emerged from the rice fields with a haunting mournful cry. As it grew closer, it’s cry grew louder, until it stood right outside my window (the third window with curtains shut). I froze in my bed and held my breath, waiting to hear someone else open a window or something. All was quiet, everyone else was fast asleep. I dared not look out for fear of what I might see. It cried and bellowed, while I lay wrapped tight and clutching my pillow. The cry was everything painful – from a woman mourning death, to a woman giving birth. And it came to rest right outside my window.
Was this the Yeti perhaps? Was a baby being born? Or was I being affected by altitude. Why was I hearing this so loudly while everyone else slept? Why did it come to my window? If the creature wanted to get to me, it had only to turn the corner and pass the next window, which was wide open to the dark moonlit chasm.

Eventually, it quieted, and I figured it had moved on. I had to pee really bad. I mustered up my courage, found my headlamp, turned it on, and headed to the bathroom. Outside the window, a muffled moan. I had awakened the beast. It stirred and bellowed more as I hovered over the toilet then hurried back to bed pulling up the covers all around me and turning off my light. It screamed louder, begging for my attention, as if it wanted to keep me from sleep all night. Finally, out of frustration more than anything, I sat up and tore open the curtain just as it was screaming it’s loudest.

The moonlit grass glowed blue and still, and I saw right there in front of me….nothing. I stared into the emptiness, the beast screaming now, but I saw NOTHING!! Must be the altitude I thought to myself, jumped back into bed, and waited. The creature hmmphed and mellowed, and somewhere between the moon’s rise and set, we both slept. The last thing I remember hearing before I fell asleep was a whisper ‘the mountain lies ahead”.

The next morning (this morning as I write this), I asked if anyone else had heard the sound, the cries, the creature. No one heard a thing. I asked our guide, the sherpas, the locals…no one had heard it. Only me. I tried to describe the sound to our guide (a cross between someone dying and someone giving birth, or a cow in pain, etc.), and he immediately repeated the call back to me, a perfect imitation of the bellow. That was it!! That was the sound!!

So what was it then? What was this creature? “It is a bird,” he tells me with a smile. A bird. Of course. He went on to tell me the name of this bird, a Himalayan Quail, which is common in this region and elevation of the Himalayas. Many hours later, we stopped for lunch in a village. As I sat watching buffalo high up on the mountainside, the guide tells me “There is the bird you heard, on that sign.”

Note: I later learned that indeed, a baby was born that day, and her name - Avia. More on that in another blog! Meanwhile, the whispered message remains. The mountain lies ahead….my mountain lies ahead.

Later – same day
The rain pours down in gusty sheets. We are at our highest point of elevation on this trek, 3300 meters. I feel my head tingle in the clouds. This teahouse “Best View Hotel” creaks and shakes - I wonder if it will blow over, or perhaps crumble and slide down the mountain. The clouds are refusing to lift, clinging to the peaks like custard to chocolate cake. There is no visibility in any direction. When there is no view outside, then we must look within. The journey heads inward.

End of Day 4 – October 6
A storm has come in and slowed our journey a great deal. We have had to stop at a very small home which was supposed to be where we would eat lunch and then keep going. But some people are tired and weary, and need to rest more. Our clothes are soaking wet. I've pulled 5 leeches from my legs and socks just today (I've had 3 others before this day). There is no running water (other than the river), no toilet (other than a pit), and no electricity.

It is pouring rain and hasn't let up all day. The views are impenetrable, we are in a thick wet cloud all around. There is evidence of landslides everywhere, and we are perched in a ravine with a growing river tumbling down between and granite cliff on one side, and on the side we are on, damp wet earth which I pray doesn't give way. I am really really nervous here. We have descended waterfalls today, and crossed some bridges which may or may not be around tomorrow.

The rain continues to beat down. There is just a small common room with a stove to heat ourselves and hang our wet clothes to dry, but the room gets very smoky and I am having trouble breathing. We can't open doors and windows for fresh air because the wind will blow the candles out. It is cold. It is wet. It is dark. And it is pouring.

I would rather keep going, continue our hike and get to the town where there is internet, but it will be another full day away now.

A lone monkey clings to the cliff and picks grubs from the wet earth. I watch him for a bit, take some pictures, then something tells me to turn around. I do, and there I see a row of rooms half swallowed by earth. My heart pounds and races, yet I try to stay calm. I wanted to run in and tell everyone, but I didn’t want to create any more panic or fear than was already present. It was dark now, and the decision had already been made to stay for the night.


















Instead, I poke my head into the kitchen where the meal is being cooked. A young mother emerges holding a baby, and I take their picture, as well as a short video to show back to the baby. Baby points, and the young mother giggles loudly. I asked her about the mudslide, when did it happen? “Three weeks before” she tells me, then quietly slips back into the warm kitchen and sits holding her baby close.

After we have eaten and the candles have burned out, everyone goes to bed. I cannot. I am restless. I can’t sleep. I wander outside in the pouring rain and look around. I talk to our sherpas, still awake. “I have never seen rain like this in my life” says the oldest one, who has seen it all. I asked if he is nervous, and his eyes told me so.

For the first time that I can ever think, I am scared. I am terrified. And I am wondering how I will ever rest through this night with the damp earth pressing against the back of this inn and the river roaring down out front. And the rain that won't quit.


End of Day 5 – October 7
I'm still here!

I have survived the scariest night of my life, and am writing now from a place where at least we are not in ravine, there is electricity, and I feel safe.

The rain poured thick all night long, it didn't let up. Every time I lay flat on my back, I felt the vibrations in the earth beneath, and overnight a new waterfall formed and poured down only 10 feet from the door. The river raged and rushed and was twice as wide and deep by morning. Rain or not, we had to get an early start as we had a long way to go, and much time to catch up on.


Many lives were lost last night in Nepal, and we've heard that a group of 8 which was headed to Ghorapani didn't make it. We had just come from there. It's a really eerie feeling to have so narrowly escaped a deathly landslide. I'm sorry to say that I think the place we stayed last night will soon be washed away if this rain keeps up.

So today we crossed many many waterfalls and rivers. Our sherpas are very strong men, one is a gherka, and one had to carry some of us across a raging river, knee-deep, on his back - a river to our left which dropped into a waterfall on our right. He was solid, I felt as if I was being carried by a petrified tree trunk, something somewhere between a tree and a rock, but which moved steadily from one bank to the other, while water raged and rushed past.

Many people have taken falls - our trail and the rock slabs are slippery and in some places the waterfall just spreads to run right down the steps of our path. So far, I have managed to keep my balance - I take deep breaths and listen to the earth. I carry a rock I picked up the day before yesterday. I touch the moss on the trees. I hold my hands in the river and feel the water - how fast, which direction, where it has been, where it is going. It is so important to pay attention and look for signs all around to avoid landslides, and to cross rivers safely. When I hear birds singing, a waterfall is near. When I hear monkeys chattering above in the trees, there is usually deep thick mud coming.

When I feel the earth is solid beneath my feet, I stop and look around, appreciating the beauty of the trees, thick with moss, the fragrant flowers, the way the water glistens as it runs over rocks. The rain continued to fall the entire day today as we made our gradual descent in elevation, sometimes following the river, other times on a narrow trail clinging to the mountain slope.

Once, we passed through a mudslide in progress. Slowly and with careful attentive guidance, I stepped ankle deep, then knee deep, as I felt the mud move slowly around and past each leg. The earth was moving, under my feet, like I’ve never experienced before. I thanked the trees which stood their ground and reached out to lift me from the sliding mud. And I was grateful for every step which took me farther away from that gorge, that ravine….that deathtrap, for lack of a better word. I watched the short video I took of the mother and baby who lived there. And I watched it again. And I cried my own waterfall.
video

As we neared our next lodging for the night, the snow-capped peaks teased us, just shy of coming out of the clouds.

Perhaps the weather will clear somewhat tonight - it seems to be a bit lighter, but it is still raining as I write. While there is electricity here, the internet tower is broke, so I am still unable to post any news. Tomorrow they say we will reach a bigger place with more communications.

End of Day 6 – October 8
We woke to clear blue sky, with snow-capped peaks and lush green hills of Landruk. As the day grew, the clouds formed. I am completely and utterly exhausted - today was the longest day of trekking, but so worth it. We passed children in uniform climbing to school.

We climbed down down down, crossed a river, then climbed up up up. Most of the day we journeyed along a ridgetop, through the clouds. We reached a peak of 2100 meters. Late in the day we began a descent, and it grew dark. The ground was still slick and slippery, and it was pretty scary. I was glad to have my headlamp. I was glad to have brought several things – like trail mix, a water purifier, and a shirt I’ve had for almost 20 years that doubles as a towel and dries quickly. I’d wished I’d had a third pair each of socks and underwear.

I have been using the UV water filter with great success, it works fast and I can get the water from any source. The locals say this is the best way to go, using rechargeable batteries, nothing is wasted. I’m really pleased I picked the right one. I’ve offered it’s use to others in the group, but either laziness or fear kept them dependent on buying and using plastic bottles. Thanks to Puja (one of the orphans whose life story I documented), a vision of her river home and the piles of plastic that she scoured for food or drink come back to remind me what a horrible ugly waste it is to buy bottled water. Now I know firsthand where those bottles end up.

I haven't seen a warm shower since Kathmandu. Tonight I bathed with a small bowl of boiled water. I first wet and washed my hair and face. I then splashed it on my body, and treated my feet to a warm bath with the remaining water. Then, still some water in the bowl, I washed my socks. It's been such a great lesson to make the very most of every drop of water, take nothing for granted.

Did I mention yesterday how many leeches I have had? Too many, I've lost count now. I’ve named one of the sherpas my “leech gherka”, as he calmly treated the leeches off his own wounded and infected legs, then turned to treat mine. (image source: yeungstuff.com)

There are two things to carry to deal with leeches. Salt and sugar. First, sprinkle some salt near the leech and it will immediately wither away and roll off. Then you are left with a small hole and lots of blood running out. Sprinkle the wound with sugar. Sugar attracts the hemoglobin in the blood, and helps the blood to clot so a scab can form. Never stretch and pull a leech off. If you have no salt, or no tweezers, use your fingernails and scrape it gently out from the hole.

I have surprised myself on this trek. I have been faced with two of my biggest fears - landslides and leeches - and I have survived them both, and no longer fear them. But…

I’m so glad it’s over! I don’t feel the need to summit Everest. While I admire and respect those who do, I am quite content to have conquered my own mountains in 7 days.
from left to right: my "leech gherka", me, and my river-crossing sherpa

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Goats and God(s)



No, I am not packing a GOAT!

As I was preparing and packing for my trip to Nepal, I came across a BBC headline “Nepal hit by severe goat shortage”. Already loaded up with my own bags and camera gear, and a 50 lb. bag of donated North Face gear which I agreed to transport to Nepal, I joked that I would not be forking out another airline baggage fee to bring a goat with me, especially considering the fate awaiting the beast.

I am arriving in Nepal during the 15 day festival of Dashain. (one moment please while I resource some local experts, wikipedia, and some other blogs). Basically, Dashain is a blend of Hindu worship to the goddess Durga and animistic harvest traditions, ultimately translating into the ritualistic sacrifice of animals, particularly goats.

This is hard to stomach for a vegetarian as myself. Our drive from the Kathmandu airport passed several roadside goat gatherings, where they are amassed and roped and living out their last few days before taking their turn at the makeshift guillotine for goats. I can’t imagine what goes through their minds, if anything, as they watch their goat brothers being slit and skinned and stretched and hung, blood everywhere. I would probably be freaking out. But the goats, they seem at peace with it all. Or just stupid. I prefer to think the former, because it takes in incredibly wise and evolved soul to transcend the impending mass slaughter that these earthly humans perform on them. Tell me again who is the more evolved species, in a spiritual sense? I often wonder…

Any other time of year would find Nepal an easy place to be a vegetarian. I can always fill my belly with the traditional staple meal of Daal Baat (rice and lentils). But Dashain marks the time when families gather and meals are all part of the celebration - so families will serve the very best meat they have available, and that varies somewhat depending on the caste and wealth status. For most Nepali families, this is a goat. There are some who sacrifice a chicken, while a very few of only the very wealthiest families will slaughter a water buffalo (I’m not certain how that creature is all that different than the sacred cow, but they’ll kill, cook and eat it while the cows and bulls are left to roam free on the streets).

I observe, and I question; and when necessary I put the lens between me and what I am watching to lessen the impact on my conscience. Such was the case when we wandered past a courtyard where a young boy sat dangling his little legs off a wall as he watched his father and uncle prepping the goats. The heads of the goats sat nearby in puddles of blood, their eyes facing away, as their bodies were pulled from a tub and scraped of hair. (Just telling it like it is, folks).




I learned that not all goats are sacrificed – only the castrated males (BBC didn’t mention this). So nearby, just around the corner in fact, a couple of female goats hung out by some motorcycles and nibbled posters off walls. They weren’t the least bit concerned with the puddles and rivers of blood trickling past, it was ladies night out for all they cared.

Then dinner. Apparently the Ama Ghar Orphanage where we were invited to dinner was amongst higher status – water buffalo was served and shared with everyone from a high ranking Nepali police official to the 8 or 9 kids we brought from the Loving Arms Orphanage to the guests from America whose knees crackled as they sat awkwardly and struggled with scooping food in their right hands.




The dining room floor was only so big, so we ate in shifts of 15 at a time. I lost track of how many kids there were around, and how quickly they ate and ran off together to various other rooms to play as one big giant family.


Family. [Allow me a digression. My husband and I made a conscious choice to have only one child. But that does not make us a small family. In fact, I am an auntie, a great auntie, and an auntie to children all over the world. Come to think of it, I first became an auntie when I was only 4 months old. Here in Kathmandu, I have been introduced to a family of Nepali orphaned children as “Auntie Kymri”. I have always adored being called “Auntie Kymri” by my sister’s children, who are now grown adults, and who still affectionately call me Auntie, probably because they get a kick out of watching me become overwhelmed with nostalgic pride. Now I have this big beautiful family of children at the Loving Arms Mission who call me Auntie, and I am overwhelmed with pride, not for nostalgia, but for what is to come for this world, and the hope and inspiration these children have to share. The youngest, at just over 2 years, little “Babu”, called me “Auntie New” the first afternoon until my name had been repeated to him enough to learn. (Which he did much faster than many adults do!). To be the auntie of these amazing children who have endured a childhood that no child should ever have to live through, well, I am utterly humbled, and honored, to be their auntie. All the more family to be proud of!]

So what does this all have to do with goats? Nothing really, except their fate. You see, my nieces and nephews all share their home at Loving Arms Mission, where parents Kent and Shovah raise 12 kids in one home, and Nadine and Rajindra raise another 10 or so in their home. (Their stories are another article unto itself, and film in fact, stay tuned!). Because neither sets of parents were too keen on the idea of getting a goat and slaughtering it with all the kids, they began a tradition several years ago.

Kent came up with the idea of a piñata. A goat piñata. Every week of Dashain, Nadine gathers materials (cardboard boxes, tubes, paper) and builds a goat, filling it’s middle with treats and sweets.

When the day of celebration and sacrifice arrives, the family and friends gather in the garden and the piñata is hung from a basketball hoop for all the kids take their hand at slaughtering the beast. Blindfolded, the kids make strikes, as Kent raises and lowers the goat’s “noose” until the beast is dismembered limb by limb and blood pours in chocolates and candies.






Eventually, Auntie Happy came in for the kill!


On the road outside, an endless stream of goats makes their way through the village to meet their gods, their heads held high, crowned in pink tikka. Happy Dashain.


video