Tag Archives: Kathmandu

May 26-27, 2013: The Scarf

And so I, too, prepare to go, though I try hard to remain. That part of me that is bothered by the unopened letters in my rucksack, that longs to see my children, to drink wine, make love, be clean and comfortable again--that part of me is already facing south, over the mountains. This makes me sad, and so I stare about me, trying to etch into this journal the sense of Shey that is so precious, aware that all such effort is in vain; the beauty of this place must be cheerfully abandoned, like the wild rocks in the bright water of its streams. Frustration at the paltriness of words drives me to write, but there is more of Shey in a single sheep hair, in one withered sprig of everlasting, than in all these notes; to strive for permanence in what I think I have perceived is to miss the point. Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
That morning none of us were motivated enough to walk to the Organic Cafe. "Do you mind?" asked Ele. "No, no! I only suggested it so you would have someone to go with. There is plenty of hippie food back home," I said. We enjoyed the hotel buffet instead. I still had extra rupees to spend and planned on some last-minute shopping to pick up a few more gifts. Amanda and Ele offered to go with me. I found a pair of the downy slippers I envied back in Dingboche (and promptly used two weeks later on Mt. Shasta). We were talked into a shop by a scarf that had been calling my name every time I passed it on the street the past couple days. It turned out that Ele loved scarves so we were given the royal treatment by the shopkeeper once inside. Next stop was a textile shop to pick up more yak wool blankets for family. As I browsed, the shopkeeper prattled on in English, trying to be friendly and conversational. However, the clock was ticking. The longer I stayed the more distracted I became, as if California was already sucking my consciousness in that direction. He mistook my distraction for misunderstanding and told me his English must be bad. "No, no! It's great," I assured him. "My mind is just somewhere else." The hotel and inevitable trip home loomed ever closer. We passed DK on the street happily chatting away with a couple other guys. "You've been replaced," he told us when we met back in the lobby. Those guys were on the Annapurna trek that would start the next day. "Hello, goodbye. The story of my life," he said. The story of all our lives, I thought. If I didn't know he was miles away in Lukla, I may have suspected he overheard my conversation with Dovile on her last night. This wasn't the first time he would say something I had been thinking... or was it the other way around?
And still not one word had been spoken; only later did we discover that all thoughts, laughter, and emotions had been not similar but just the same, one mind, one Mind. - Mattheissen (43)
"Not always a bad thing," he continued. Not always indeed. It didn't feel that way now, though. The cab arrived on time at 10:30. DK tied a scarf around my neck that I would refuse to take off until I got home. It felt like a lifeline to Nepal. We hugged, he kissed my cheek and said "Keep in touch, okay?" "Will do. Thank you for the awesome time." Somehow those words felt inadequate. That was a great game. (Hook, 1991). Breathing got more difficult. I instinctively stepped outside as if more hot, humid air would help then turned around and said "Girls!" giving Amanda and Ele hugs. "Maybe someday I'll get to visit you in Queenstown," I told them. "Or we'll come to Calfornia," they said. "Yeah, come visit me!" This was a great idea. "You'll even have your own room!" I got into the cab and pushed aside a growing feeling of unfairness. These three people were now some of my favorite people on earth and I felt like I was just getting to know them. I wanted more time. "Every person with whom you interact is a part of the person you are becoming." - Abraham This is good news. I'd been so inspired by the three of them it's good to think that even if we never see each other again, they will always be part of who I become. Amanda inspired me for her ability to create a new life in a new country. Ele and her dad inspired me to work on a naturopath certification. DK inspired me to just be my whole authentic self. I would begin to write, study astronomy/astrology, begin my naturopath certification and play music again when I returned. The cab began to move forward and I looked out the back window to wave goodbye. First at Ele who looked contagiously tearful, then at DK. We locked eyes briefly, then I couldn't stand it anymore so I turned around and fiddled with my seat belt. I really didn't want to leave, yet was still so in love with life I didn't cry. Everything would be alright. How could it not be? Love was in control. I've heard it said that all the wisdom of the ages can be summed up in the following tune:
Row, row, row your boat Gently down the stream, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily Life is but a dream
The past three weeks were a beautiful, perfect dream. The cab and I floated to the airport, flowing merrily along with the traffic, dust and chaos, completely at peace with it all. When we arrived I let the men carry my bags and absentmindedly passed out my remaining rupees for tips. Sleeping on the planes and in Changi was easy. I drifted to the rental car center in SFO and somehow remembered how to drive. Once at the empty house that I used to call home, I retrieved the key my sister was kind enough to hide for me and stepped into a shower fit for a goddess. How wondrous this, how mysterious! - Layman P'ang Chu-Shih I tried to make sense of the reverse culture shock. What was I doing here? In California, all my material needs were satisfied in complete abundance. Yet I wondered if here I'd ever be able to feel the sense of warmth and community I did in Nepal. Somehow there must be a way to unite the two. What would it take? I looked forward to finding out...

May 25, 2013: Durbar Square

The next morning I met the girls downstairs for breakfast. I was a little tired, but still felt good. "I might still be a little drunk," I admitted to a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Amanda. Amanda told me about a book of Everest stories where people experienced the supernatural in the extreme conditions. Now THERE'S an Everest book that would be fun to read. I asked her if she was familiar with Graham Hancock. She wasn't so I suggested his books on the supernatural and the pyramids.
Thamel Eco gets festive. Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Thamel Eco gets festive.
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

We watched the dozens of resident sparrows hop in and out of all the planters. It seemed that every plant in the yard was in a pot. Good thing for the monsoons because otherwise they would be a lot of work to water. Three men worked at hanging bright new prayer flags from the balconies to the stupa in the center of the garden in honor of Buddha.
Typical Kathmandu Street. Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Typical Kathmandu street.
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

In the lobby we met our guide for Durbar Square, who was smartly dressed and possibly the most considerate person I'd ever met. After three weeks of trekking through the Himalayas and wandering the streets of Kathmandu we were quite impressed that a person would tell us to "watch your step" whenever we encountered a mere turd in the street. We followed him through the city on what was already a very warm morning. Hangover symptoms began to kick in as the temperature rose. Ele looked like she was feeling it too. What time did we get in last night? 3 am? Amanda, who got sleep, was chipper as ever. "Cheater!" I teased her.
Farmers' Market

Farmers' Market.
Photo credit: Amanda Tutton

We walked through a farmers' market. Our guide said this was the primary place where everybody in the entire city would come to get food. "We have markets that are closer to home," he explained, "but they don't always carry the variety that this one does."
Cows in the street

Cows in the street.
Photo credit: Amanda Tutton

Before long we were out of the Thamel District "tourist tunnel" and into the real Kathmandu. Cows wandered the street, masses of tangled wire dangled from ancient buildings, people tried to sell whatever they could from blankets spread on the street for maybe a few rupees a day. Cars and motorcycles squeezed by, horns blaring. Once at Durbar Square we waited outside a chain barrier while our guide took care of the entry fee.
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

The first monument we saw remained my favorite, for the childlike imaginative quality it possessed. It was a small, ancient shrine partially consumed by the roots of an ancient tree. I tried to imagine how the valley might have looked when the structure was first built. Even today it was still being used, as devotees kneeled in front, busily preparing colorful food offerings. There were so many temples and monuments, both Hindu and Buddhist, that it was almost overwhelming. I alternated between utter fascination and despair at the way they were, or more accurately were not, being preserved. Our guide knew all of them and talked about them in detail. In front of one he told us how the Kama Sutra evolved to coax the otherwise shy populace into having more kids. Government and religion were one and those in control believed that a greater population meant a stronger country. Erotic images found their way into the temple as a sacred act of creation.
Durbar Square was full of pigeons and cows, sentient being fed as a form of worship. Photo credit: Zebulun Pawledge

Durbar Square was full of pigeons and cows, sentient being fed as a form of worship.
Photo credit: Zebulun Pawledge

We walked into another temple with a wall of photos showing the most recent monarchs. We'd heard the story of the end of the monarchy in bits and pieces since our first tour of the Monkey Temple. In here we were able to put faces to the tragedy. Our guide told the story again, and emphasized that we cannot really know for certain what actually happened, because nearly everyone was killed and conspiracy theories abound. In short, one of the princes was in love with a woman, and became very angry when his parents the king and queen forbade him to pursue her for political reasons. One night he had been drinking heavily and got in an argument with his father. He stormed away from where the entire royal family was having dinner and returned with a gun (or guns), massacred his entire family, and eventually shot himself. Ten people were killed, four injured. A surviving uncle ascended the throne, until the monarchy was dissolved in favor of a republic in 2008. Nepal had been without a stable government since then.
Photo credit: Zebulun Pawledge

Photo credit: Zebulun Pawledge

Another highlight of our tour was a stop to see the princess Kumari, considered to be a living goddess. She appeared briefly in a window just after we arrived, only to be whisked away by her attendants. Our guide told us this was probably because someone tried to take a picture, which was not permitted. We walked up and down Freak Street, once a hippie hot spot, now the same as any other street. Amanda with all her extra energy went to explore more temples. Ele and I took a potty break and waited for her in the shade of a building, trying not to melt. Some men walked up and wanted to talk. All we wanted to do was sleep. They tried to tell us there was a party going on at the Monkey Temple. (Been there, done that.) Fortunately Amanda returned shortly and we were on our way without having to fend off any more unwanted chit-chat. Once back at the hotel, we ordered lunch. Soup and salad was about all I'd be able to handle in the heat, so I asked for a Greek salad and some hot and sour soup. Normally two of my favorite things. The salad was divine, the hot and sour soup was so spicy I coughed and my eyes watered when I tried to eat it. I'm a person who will put a slice of jalapeno on every nacho chip I eat and think nothing of it. That soup was HOT (piro). DK sat down with us for a minute looking like I felt. He suggested we might have time to do a cooking class later. At the moment all I wanted to do was sleep, but said a cooking class would be worth staying awake for. He left to go back to bed. "Ugh, I'm so jealous," I said as he walked off. Finishing the soup was starting to feel like work. We finished our food, made plans to meet up later, and I went upstairs and collapsed on top of my bed (it was still effing hot in that room) for a blissful 3 hour nap. Later I met the girls for dinner. (The cooking class was not to be, but later I found this blog post from another trekker who had managed to fit one in.) We walked through the streets of Kathmandu and tried to remember how to make decisions on our own. We chose a restaurant with a New Orleans theme for dinner, mostly because it was the first place we found. I looked at the menu and ordered a small salad, a vegetable dish and a Bloody Mary. "This is a small?" I said incredulously when the food arrived. What, am I back in the States already? Both dishes were enormous. I knew immediately I wouldn't be able to finish it but vowed to do my best. I nearly choked when I tried the drink. It was just Tabasco and ice. What was with all the extra spice today? A sparkling clean baby-faced kid showed up and sat down. "Who are you?" I asked. "I'm still trying to figure that out," DK said. Touché. "Hmm, yeah I vaguely remember you as the guy we started the tour with." "Hey, Tiff, do you know anything about cameras?" he said, changing the subject. DK pulled out an actual SLR. "Not really." Why, do I sound like I do? (Clueless, 1995) Ele did, and immediately they began playing around with it, resulting in some really cool photos. "Hey, share those, will you?" I said. Before heading back to Phat Kath for dessert, DK took a sip of my mostly untouched Bloody Mary and made a face that plainly said "Oh hell no." Yep, exactly what I thought when I tried to drink it. Downstairs below the Phat Kath was a menu for crepes. I ordered an ice cream crepe, picturing a crepe with a nice cold scoop of ice cream on top. We went upstairs and sat in the cozy little nest under the live grapefruit tree. The crepes arrived and the ice cream turned out to be wrapped inside, completely warm and melted. Oh well, it still tasted good. DK challenged me to a game of backgammon. I'd never played and my brain was moving way to slow to count the little triangles on the board fast enough to make it interesting. I enlisted the help of the girls to help me count, and also to include them in our activity. Poor DK had lost all patience by the time I lost spectacularly. Apparently I wasn't the great and worthy opponent (Hook, 1991) he'd been hoping for. "You should try it again when you're not so tired," he said. Yeah, I'll get right on that. I was still on vacation and anything involving counting wasn't exactly high on my list of priorities. The moon rose and Amanda made a comment about it. "Super moon tonight," I said. There would be multiple this year, and having a nearly full super moon on Buddha's birthday made it seem that much more special. The conversation turned to dating. Ele and Amanda seemed to think that it was hard to meet men in New Zealand. I couldn't argue, since the only Kiwi male I met in my two weeks there was our guide Ben. At the time Ben told me all the Kiwis were in Canada. I didn't meet any in Canada either, it took a trip to Nepal to meet one more. They're about as elusive as their namesake birds. The girls said that in New Zealand people don't really "date" or have dating sites like we do in the states. "Maybe you should start one," I said. "The list of couples I know who met online grows by the day." "Yeah, I see a lot of them too," said DK, meaning guests on his trips. We joked that in Nepal the site would be called "Many Shoes" instead of "Plenty of Fish." "I don't know that you really need it," I said. "All my past relationships started organically. The last one I met in a dog park and I didn't even have a dog. You just never know." "True," said Amanda. "You could end up talking to your future husband on a bus." "I met a girl on a bus once," said DK, and he told his story of a "chance" meeting with a Polish babe that ended up hot and heavy. "It was awesome!" he finished with a laugh that was dangerously close to a giggle. "You're the guy on the bus!!" quipped Amanda. Awesome, couldn't have said it better myself. Not long after she turned in for the night early. DK told a story of a fun party that got started in a bathroom when the weather got bad wherever they were. "What's the weirdest place you've ever partied?" he asked. I didn't answer but thought back... boats, busses, houses, apartments, bars, pubs, clubs, offices, streets, lakes, rivers, beaches, deserts, mountains, football fields, Disneyland, a set in Hollywood... Lukla... frankly, it would be hard to top Kathmandu and the Monkey Temple on Buddha's birthday. "What time do you leave tomorrow?" asked Ele. "10:30," I said. "I scheduled you a cab," said DK. I looked at him with so much affection in that moment. What a considerate thing to do. The man had done so many kind little things for us that he didn't have to do on this trip. I had "find a way to the airport" on my mental "to do" list for the next morning and was so relieved to be able to check it off the night before. "Thank you," I said, putting as much appreciation into the words and I could. Ele looked pouty. "Let's not think about that right now. It's still fun time," I insisted. So we just enjoyed each others' company until the Phat Kath closed. On the way home we passed a place called the Organic Cafe and DK suggested we try it. "Good luck getting Amanda to go with you there," I told Ele. Amanda was a meat and potatoes kind of gal. "I'll go with you for breakfast tomorrow morning if you'd like." We decided to see how we felt the next day. The gate to the hotel was closed and locked this time, but an employee hurried over to let us in. We said goodnight and I walked back upstairs on my last night in Nepal.

May 24, 2013: Active Day 19, Buddha’s Birthday

Breakfast at Thamel Eco.  Photo credit: Michael Allen

Breakfast at Thamel Eco.
Photo credit: Michael Allen

Day 19 was the last official day of the Active tour. All the guests except me, Ele and Amanda were scheduled to fly out. I had opted way back in the planning stages to stay an extra couple of days because the later flight saved a considerable amount of money. It turned out to be an extremely auspicious decision. Dovile had the earliest flight out that morning. I woke up early with her and we went downstairs for breakfast and more girl talk with Stacy about (what else?) boys. DK, Ele, and Amanda still hadn't made it back from Lukla and had to tell her goodbye over the phone. It was a disappointing turn of events, but she handled it in stride. After all, her next stop was Dubai and the beach; not a bad consolation prize. When he was presenting our certificates in Lukla, DK referred to Dovile as his ray of sunshine, or something to that affect. Indeed she had been for all of us. When her cab whisked her away, our world got a little dimmer. I tagged along with Stacy and Kevin while they did their last-minute shopping. First they bargained for pants, next we stopped in a shop where Stacy hunted for the perfect bracelet. I wasn't in the market for jewelry but kept coming back to a key chain with a lotus carving. I asked if they had any of the same symbols on a necklace, and they pointed me towards some in different colors. I asked again if they had any in the same color as the key chain. The shopkeeper then pulled out a bag with the designs. I chose the one I liked and he designed a necklace for me right there, making it that much more special. Up the street we were drawn in to a shop because of its huge chunks of pink salt out front. I'm in hippie heaven!" I exclaimed excitedly when we walked in.
I'm accidently photobombing this one. Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

I'm accidently photobombing this one.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

There was tea, pink salt, and spices abound. We bought some for friends and family and continued on, eventually ending up in a souvenir shop selling typical tourist trinkets like magnets and postcards. Kevin and I both had our eye on a collection of magnets that looked more substantial than most. He said he was out of rupees so I told him to just add it to mine. "Are you sure?" "Dude, you're my EBC brother now, I think I can manage a $2 magnet!" From day one, Kevin was keeping our spirits light with his wit and humor. We owed much of the laughter on the trail to him. Stacy was the warmhearted sort who fostered homeless dogs back home and helped keep us connected like a family. Like Dovile, they had to settle for a phone farewell. DK and the girls had finally escaped the fog in Lukla and were on their way back, just not quite soon enough. Their cabs probably crossed paths going to and from the airport.
Thamel District

Thamel District

It was down to me, Mike and Sara. I also followed them along for their pre-flight shopping. Their list, rather than Buddha masks, singing bowls, or yak wool blankets, consisted of items like water sanitation tablets. The two lucky ducks weren't going home, instead they were continuing on their world tour and needed to travel light. When it was time to meet in the lobby for their cab, we all hugged them goodbye. Mike had been so friendly with everybody with his ability to talk about nearly any subject. He followed none of my rules for staying healthy (eating fried snickers bars for dessert... whaaat?) and was the strongest guest on the trip, impervious even to kerosene fumes. Mike could light up a room with his laugh, Sara with her smile. "Brother from another mother!" DK said to Mike when we gathered in the lobby to send them off. He got that right. All of us were now EBC brothers and sisters and I loved them like family. Somehow Mike ended up in charge of collecting the trip leaders' thank you card and tips and handed them over. I don't know how much they each ended up with, but whatever it was it wasn't enough. The more I think about it, the more I believe that there's no job on earth more important. The three of them took our world-weary souls and over the course of three short weeks filled us with so much love and light that when I got home and looked at my thinner, healthier body I wondered how my overflowing heart could still fit inside. To me, that's priceless. The HimalayanWe waved at Mike and Sara through the back window of the cab as they idled down the alley and then turned on the street. A tearful Ele said she was glad she didn't end up going through this in person multiple times. Hmmm, maybe that was why I suddenly felt so drained. All the goodbyes happened so fast and at the moment I was feeling quite lost and alone with half of my family missing. I sat on one of the seats in the lobby and stared at the local newspaper "The Himalayan" without really reading it. Someone suggested the remaining four of us go to dinner and I enthusiastically agreed before heading back up to the room. Amanda stopped by later and we enjoyed some more girl talk. She told me to meet them upstairs when it was time to leave for dinner. When the time came, I walked up and DK was already in there with his guitar. "He came to wake us up," said Ele. I grinned. "That's a nice wake up call."
♫ The one scarlet with the flowers in his hair ♫

♫ The one scarlet with the flowers in his hair ♫

We walked through the streets of Kathmandu and ended up at a familiar staircase. The Phat Kath; now infamous because of the hat DK sported on sunny days in the mountains. Once upstairs I stared at the chalkboard menu for a few minutes and was at a loss as to what to order. It all felt so foreign and complicated compared to the simplicity I was used to on the trail. So I asked a man who worked there what his favorite item was and ordered it. I couldn't pronounce it at the time and still couldn't tell you what it was. A huge delicious plate of something containing lots of everything, including the first meat I'd had in weeks. Next priority was a beverage. The tantalizing cocktail menu that was off-limits on our first visit a lifetime ago was now all mine for the choosing. It all looked good, and I opted for a Phat Kath just for the name. Moments later, I was surprised when not just one Phat Kath arrived, but two. It was happy hour. Excellent, what luck. Over the course of conversation we learned that tonight was Buddha's birthday and there would be a festival at the Monkey Temple. Whaaat?? We were so in. What could possibly be more awesome? Apparently my luck wasn't running out anytime soon. We finished our drinks and DK led us on to a second nightspot. We walked upstairs to another cool hangout that I remember as a blend of funky and sporty. My kind of place. We found a table by a window with a view of a flat in the building across the street. For some reason this made the Kathmandu seem more real to me and my gaze kept returning to the window, just so happy to be there. Ele and I sat on one side, DK and Amanda on the other. The cocktail menu was huge, and all of it looked appealing. How to choose? DK solved that problem when he said he wanted to order the first round and have us guess what it was. A game! Heck yeah, surprise us. The drink was green and dangerously sweet. Either Amanda or Ele correctly guessed what it was (I don't remember the name now) and we ended up getting a second round. It was harder to hear DK and Amanda so I spent most of that time bonding with my Kiwi sister. Something inspired a toast to "happy as!" and the three of us girls raised our glasses. Where was my Kiwi brother? Surely he needed to be in on this one. When he returned, we raised our glasses again. "Joust, to happy as!!" We were the luckiest people on earth that night. DK said something along the lines of it was our choices that created the luck. Ha, well then lucky us for being the sort of people who make good choices and for being born in places where more good choices are possible. DK and Amanda were talking about The Bhagavad Gita. He asked me if I'd read it. Of course I'd read it. What was blowing my mind as I nodded was that he had too. Seriously, where had these people been all my life? DK talked about a custom trip he wanted to organize in another part of Nepal. What he was describing sounded perfect. "Yes! Sign me up!" I said. I completely trusted his judgement by now, as he seemed to be a sort of magnet for all things awesome. Anything Nepal-related already sounded good, and his idea was unique enough to put it above the rest. We moved on to a third nightspot. This place was bright and spacious and featured some live music. Local boys played and sang in perfect English, you'd never know it was a second language to them. Ele and I looked the menu over and were won over by a drink featuring lots of coconut. DK sat down and immediately appeared to become one with the music. A guy came up to our table and asked for a light. Neither Ele or I had one. When the guy walked away, DK chastised us for missing an opportunity to invite him to join our party. "I'm trying to help you out," he said. I admit that I was completely oblivious to the fact that the guy's asking for a light was probably not the primary intention. Still, flirting with complete strangers on my second to last night in town wasn't high on my priority list. Yet. It was almost time to meet to go to the temple. We walked back along the way of the hotel where we said goodnight to Amanda, who wasn't super keen on Type III fun. From there it was back to Phat Kath. Ele put another drink in my hand. I smelled it and immediately my body told me I'd have to choose between that drink and the Monkey Temple. I chose the temple and held on to the drink without touching it. The place was hopping. We were introduced to a man who had just successfully summitted Everest. Mountaineering royalty!! We're not worthy!! How lucky were we to meet one of them! When Mike, Amanda and I talked psychology back in Rivendell I mentioned the Meyers-Briggs put me right on the cusp between introvert and extrovert. Alcohol definitely tips the balance in favor of the 'E'. Get a few drinks in me and I'll chirp away merrily at anybody about almost anything. I started jabbering excitedly at my new mountaineer friend and learned that he was from Canada and was a businessman. We had that in common so talked about it for a bit. I asked him about his future adventuring plans and he didn't seem too keen on tackling any mountains any time soon. Who could blame him, I had a hard enough time just keeping it together at the base camp. He mentioned he dedicated his climb to a worthy cause and I told him that was wonderful and threw an arm around him. This is something folks with my kind of heart line tend to do, though maybe not to people we just met. It might have been a bit much for the poor fellow but I was too drunk to care. He introduced me to his friend who also summitted, a doctor from down south in the US, maybe Louisiana. They gave me a hard time for not finishing the drink in my hand so I donated it to them. Soon the party moved downstairs to make the trek over to the temple. My new climber friends decided to join us for the walk over. I had no idea where the heck I was going, and depended on DK and Ele to lead us there. On the way she saw a statue and remembering what she saw locals do earlier, touched it where there was a deposit of colored powder, and then painted a dot on my forehead where the third eye would be. Perfect. The festival was like everything else I'd seen in Nepal. An eclectic mix of modern west and traditional east. Western tourists like ourselves joined the devoted Buddhists and circumvented the temple block in a clockwise direction. Occasionally I found myself side-stepping one of the devout when he stopped and dropped in the middle of traffic to worship face down on the ground. Wow, this was the real deal. It was so amazing to experience something like that in person, at the time there was no place else on earth I would rather have been. In keeping with tradition, some of the faithful were giving away food. As sentient beings, we were allowed to receive this gift and sat in plastic chairs under a canopy with other participants. I wondered if the food had previously been offered to and blessed by the monks. We only stayed long enough to taste a sample before giving up our seats so others could partake. Not long after, our climber friends decided to call it a night. I continued on with DK and Ele and attempted to communicate what I liked about them as Kiwis so much. It was hard to put into words. "You're so authentic!" I said. "So much about where I'm from is about being fake. Fake and pretentious and materialistic. I try to be my real self at home and after a while it gets lonely and so I have to be fake to fit in. It's not like that with you." "You're one of us now," said Ele. If I wasn't so happy I might have cried. What a wonderful thought. ("What you seek is seeking you."- Rumi) If only my flight home in two days was to New Zealand. "My Kiwi sister!" I said. I tried to tell DK how much all these experiences meant to me, how grateful I was he decided to share it all with us, and how much he inspired me over the past three weeks. Again, it was hard to put into words, but I felt like he got the gist. He talked a bit more about his experience with Nepal, especially how wonderful its people were. A compliment like that really means something coming from DK. Not only has he been all over the world himself, the world also comes to be with him on these trips. "Yes, it's one thing to read about it, it's quite another to experience it," I agreed. Again. I don't think we ever disagreed about anything. We stopped at a vendor displaying a table full of candles. In exchange for a few rupees, we could light a few candles, make a wish, and then blow them out. Much like a big birthday cake for Buddha. Ele lit an auspicious number and blew them out. DK asked if I'd like to make a wish. My mind went blank. Could it really be I was totally devoid of desire? I was completely fulfilled in the moment and looked forward to whatever would come next. Hmmm, how "enlightened" of me. Well, if that wholehearted acceptance of 'what is' was a taste of enlightenment, it may actually be the one true desire worth pursuing. "It's already coming true!" I said. Isn't happiness at the root of whatever it is we want? What if we're already happy, what is there to want then? The feeling of want was replaced with total gratitude. Looking back, I suppose I could have wished for more time, maybe a double-header of Everest and Annapurna. We walked up some of the temple steps and sat down, talking a little, mostly just content to be a part of that magical night. It began to sprinkle, and apprehensive of another deluge like the one on Thursday, we headed home after only one lap around the Temple. The devoted would be walking all night and all day to reach 108. Ele and I crossed the street. Where was DK? He eventually made his way over. "There's my Kiwi brother!" I chirped. On the way home as we walked down to the bridge across the river the conversation turned to birds. Ele said the word, and smiling I said, "I love how you guys say 'bird.'" "Bird." repeated DK in that lovely Kiwi accent. My imaginary bird soared lightly on the sound. "Say it again!" I laughed. Silence. "I didn't mean to embarrass you, I really do think it's cool." "How do you say it?" he asked. "Bird," I said, putting heavy emphasis on the 'R'. You could almost hear the imaginary bird thudding to the ground. They agreed our American pronunciation wasn't as fitting. "The aborigines named birds like the sounds they make." he said, and then told us their word for crow. It did sound a bit like a crow cawing. We three little birds continued to the hotel, and approached what appeared to be a locked gate. Uh, oh, were we locked out? Not tonight; DK was able to push it open and we went upstairs to our rooms. It was still hot and humid so I passed out on top the bed, only to wake up later in a pool of sweat. I spread a towel on the cool bathroom floor tiles and slept there a while, too drunk and happy to care. If this didn't end up the best night ever, it was definitely in the top ten. I leap across the mountaintops, madly singing the song of all songs ... Wine makes drunk the mind and body But it is love which thrills the soul When I approach you, I feel the mad pounding of love The singing wonder The joy which opens blossoms on the trees of the world. Come to me, and I shall dance with you In the temples, on the beaches, through the crowded streets Be you man or woman, plant or animal, slave or free I shall show you the brilliant crystal fires, shining within I shall show you the beauty deep within your soul I shall show the path beyond Heaven. Only dance, and your illusions will blow in the wind Dance, and make joyous the love around you Dance, and your veils which hide the Light Shall swirl in a heap at your feet. Rumi

May 23, 2013: Active Day 18, Lukla to Kathmandu

The next morning down in the common room at breakfast, Bibak was nowhere to be found. Dovile, lively as ever, told us they emptied the bar of all available beverages the night before. She reminded me of Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark, except she drank the poor fellow under the dance floor instead of the table. Bibak appeared a while later, exhibiting a strange combination of hungover and flustered for having overslept. The weather had not improved, and was not likely to do so for a while. We needed to make it back to Kathmandu since all but three of us had flights the next morning. After some phone exchanges, DK told us that Mike, Sara, Me, Dovile, Kevin and Stacy would follow the porters to Surke to take another helicopter. The trekking season was ending, so from Surke the boys would leave us and our heavy bags to continue down the hill to their home village. DK, Ele, Amanda and Bibak would take a later flight and likely meet us that afternoon. The news of having to take a helicopter was a little disappointing this time because we would have no death-defying stories of the Lukla airport to tell when we got home. Just foggy pictures of "this is the runway we might have taken." To me it was another good excuse to come back someday. Since this was the last we'd see of the boys, they each tied prayer scarves around our necks. We then hugged them goodbye, telling them "thank you" and "dhanyabad" again for all their hard work and kindness. Stacy expressed best what we all were feeling as tears streamed freely down her face.
"Classic" Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

"Classic"
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Life soon provided some comic relief. We decided to take a group photo with the scarves. Someone handed a digital camera to a man who had clearly never seen one before. He looked at the the camera screen in amazement, pointing it every which way but at us. We laughed. He stuck his finger in front of the lens. We laughed more. The poor man seemed embarrassed by then, and someone tried to help him. Eventually we just passed the camera to someone else. Next thing we knew we were jogging to keep up as the porters began their flight down the hill. I think we all had a strange feeling as we waved and watched Bibak, DK, Ele and Amanda disappear behind the stone wall of the lodge, but there was no time to process it. It was all we could do to keep up.
The misty walk down. Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

The misty walk down.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

It was a misty, slippery hike back down to Surke, much the same as it had been on the way up. The difference was, this time we really flew. At one point I was caught on a narrow descent behind some slower trekkers. When it flattened out I overtook them and literally sprinted until I was in view of the frontrunners again, determined not to get lost a second time. Down in Surke, the porters dropped our big, heavy bags for the last time, bid us a final farewell, and without further ado, continued their trek home.
Enormous helicopter whipping ribbons of fog. Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Enormous helicopter whipping ribbons of fog.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Soon after, an enormous Russian helicopter flew overhead and then circled around to land, its rotors whipping a white ribbon of fog in a circle overhead. We had a guide with us from the same company as Sudip and Bibak, who was helping to look after us temporarily until our flight arrived. We asked apprehensively if this was it. Thankfully, it wasn't. The giant helicopter was sturdy enough to haul loads of sheet metal (to be carried up on porters' backs the rest of the way) but it looked ancient. We met up with our scrawny little puppy friend from day three, still looking hungry as ever. It was lunch time by now and after our morning trot down the mountain I was hungry too. I fished one of my organic raw food bars from my daypack and shared it with him, taking care to leave out any chocolate bits. I asked if anyone else wanted any, and got enough yeses to warrant digging my remaining stash out of our porter bag (which would have to be forcefully closed again). After moving up and down the mountain on the poor man's back these few weeks, they would finally be eaten. Better late than never.
Our little baby 3 month old helicopter.

Our little helicopter.

Eventually a perky little red helicopter landed close to the edge, keeping a respectful distance from the big one, which was still being unloaded. Our pilot told us it was just a baby, only three months old. We squeezed in and began the flight home, feeling increasing pressure from the heat and humidity the closer to the city we got. We landed on the familiar landing pad in Kathmandu, joking with the pilot that he was supposed to take us to Bali instead. "I'll take you anywhere if the price is right," he said. The look on his face told me he was playing along, but also completely meant what he said. We drove around to the front of the airport. I don't remember what vehicle we took, but it seemed bigger than the tiny old pickup we squeezed in on the way up. Sudip and his Aussie girlfriend Natalie were waiting, and walked with us to the van. "I've heard nothing but good things," I told her. "You all look tired," she said to us. Truth. Even more true would be tired, dirty, half-wild and completely happy. There was a lot of traffic in the city and the ride back was long, dusty and hot. By the time we reached our home in Thamel, we were very glad to be rid of the van and get settled back in to our rooms, which looked fit for royalty. Imagine the hot water lasting as long as you needed it to in the shower! What luxury! Mike and Sara had a room across from Dovile and I. The four of us decided to go into town and find an ATM. It had recently rained just enough to get the streets wet, and my $3 green plastic flip-flops were flipping mud/poo/spit up the back of my leg. We stopped back at the hotel and I changed into some trail runners. This was a mistake. When we went back out, the monsoon hit. The soft shell rain jacket I bought specifically for this trip because it had a hood finally got some use and held up nicely. However, the shoes filled up with water in seconds and wouldn't dry for days.
Not the disco dog, but a doppelganger. Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Not the disco dog, but a doppelganger.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

We looked at jewelry, where Sara and I both bought an infinity symbol. One jewelry shop had a mirrored disco dog, and Dovile took a picture for Kevin and Stacy. We paused to look at some of those knit socks I still had to have. A shopkeeper materialized and told us to follow him up a dark, narrow stairwell for more choices. "I don't want to follow him up there!" said Sara with trepidation. "I do!" I said and went up after him. It would be an adventure, I wanted those darn socks, and by this time I had zero fear of the locals, convinced they were some of the kindest people on earth. Upstairs in a den full of textiles, I found my socks and a yak wool blanket. Sara bought something too and we negotiated together. Neither of us had much change, just the 1,000 rupee notes from the ATM, and when we pooled it I ended up coming out ahead and told her I'd pay her back but never did (dhanyabad, sister). Mike and Sara took the textile stuff and waded back to the hotel. Dovile and I continued in the pouring rain. The nice thing about a monsoon storm is it clears out an otherwise typically dusty and crowded street. We walked from shop to shop in peace, apologizing profusely for tracking buckets of water in wherever we stopped. Eventually we made it back to the shop where Dovile promised to return for the Buddha mask a lifetime ago. "Do you remember me?" she asked the shopkeeper and proceeded to banter with him and talk him down on the price. I bought a lotus flower and just paid what he asked. It was reasonable. We headed back to meet the crew for dinner.
From left: Sudip, Sara, Dovile, Me, Mike, Kevin and Stacy Photo credit: Dovile Soblinskas

From left: Sudip, Sara, Dovile, Me, Mike, Kevin and Stacy
Photo credit: Dovile Soblinskas

Unfortunately, DK, Bibak, Ele and Amanda would not be returning that day. We met Sudip and Natalie and waded through the flooded streets for our final celebration dinner. I looked at the menu. Sweet, they have pizzas. I was craving cheese. "Should I get the 8" or 12"?" I wondered out loud. "Get the 12", we'll help you eat it if it's too much." said K-Fed or Mike. Maybe both. I ordered the 12" pizza and a Bloody Mary. My eyes widened and jaw dropped when the pizza that arrived looked more like 18". "I should know better by now than to order something in inches in a country that uses metric,"  I joked. "You better help me eat this."
HimaYAYA Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

HimaYAYA
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Rather than the usual t-shirts, this restaurant was wallpapered in giant paper "Yeti" feet. Our table got one to share. Everyone just stared at the blank canvas at first, and I got the ball rolling by drawing in the Active Himalayas logo. Then we passed it around and everyone added something. Stacy lettered in HimaYAYA and drew a stick figure DK with his green backpack, and finger pointing up saying "It's all downhill from here!" Dovile wrote all of our nicknames on the toes. Sudip supplied the time and date of our "summit." The others added a few inside jokes like "Don't worry about flushing the toilet, we're on holiday!" The foot provided a little bit of closure on our goodbye dinner, though we were missing our brothers and sisters who were spending their third night in Lukla.
Yeti foot, left side. Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Yeti foot, left side.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Sudip told us that Nepal stood for "Never Ending Peace and Love." A perfect description. He then couldn't resist a jibe at their neighbor saying India stood for  "I'll Never Do It Again." We laughed. After dinner, the rain had let up somewhat but the streets were still flooded. The water (though not so much the air) was also getting cold. We opted out of trying to find a nightspot in those conditions and just sat outside in the Thamel Eco courtyard and drank beer. One by one everyone went to bed until it was just Dovile and I talking about, work, life and of course boys. Dovile was 10 years younger. At 25 she'd had her share of love drama, yet had a more grown up view of her sexuality than most women her age. When I turned 25 I lost a fiancé, watched a younger sister marry the man of her dreams, and lost a grandpa all in the span of two weeks. My luck in love didn't improve much in the decade to follow. I told her when my last relationship ended I was so burned out I lost interest in playing the game altogether, deciding to do what I wanted, when I wanted for a while. She then asked the hard question I'd been avoiding asking myself. "How long has it been?" Dammit, now I had to think about it. I looked up and thought back. "Lets see, around October 2010. Wow, 2 1/2 years. A bit scary how fast time flies. The thing is, my life has been, dare I say it, more interesting single. In the past 2 1/2 years I've been to New Zealand, Canada, bought a house, and now am here in Nepal." We changed the subject to work. Both of us had jobs that required a lot of extra hours and felt that life would pass us by if we kept it up. We both agreed that DK led an authentic, mostly ideal life. She said I could be a guide. "I don't know if I'm tough enough to be a guide! The boys had to carry my pack to base camp." I said with a grin. "I don't know that I need to do what DK does, but it would be nice to do whatever it is that I authentically do." "He's got an awesome life where he gets to travel, live simply, and meet all kinds of people, which sounds great, but then who are you close to?" I continued and immediately felt convicted. Who was I close to anyway? All of my old friends were all married with kids or otherwise partnered up, and lived in different cities and countries. True I had my own house now, but I lived alone with only a flock of hummingbirds for pets. Why not do a job that I loved doing even if it meant leaving the country? The men at the hotel told us that they were closing down the bar. It was getting very late. We took the hint and when our beers were finished, walked upstairs to continue the girl talk in our room.

May 8, 2013: Active Day 3, Surke to Phakding

Kathmandu to Lukla We were up at 4 am for a 5 am call time. It was pouring rain, which didn't bode well for the planned flight to Lukla. To add to the bleary-eyed early morning confusion the hotel experienced one of the routine rolling blackouts that move throughout the city. Dovile and I finished packing by headlamp and then enjoyed our first of many early morning workouts in which it would take our combined strength to squeeze the porter bag closed and force the zipper around. We met the group in the lobby and then loaded up the van for the airport. The domestic airport consisted of the same rubble, garbage, mangy-looking monkeys and stray dogs that characterized the rest of the city. It hadn't yet opened so we joined the queue outside. Lucky for us, the rain had lightened up. Kevin was awake enough to observe one of the airlines was called Yeti. "Their tagline should be 'Yeti Airlines: We Do Exist!'" he quipped. We passed through an initial security screening consisting of a baggage scan and pat-down and picked up our boarding passes. One thing unique to this flight is you have a weight limit to your carry-on bag. Each is weighed before a pass is issued. We emptied our water bottles beforehand for this reason.
Hey guys, whatcha playin'?

Hey guys, whatcha playin'?

We went through a similar security procedure a second time to get to the terminal. Once inside we looked at the monitor. So far so good. Our flight was still scheduled to depart at 6:30, the weather must be better in Lukla. Not long after we sat down, the screen flashed "delayed to 7:30" due to weather. Bummer. We settled in to play cards, read, or fiddle with our phones. DK had told us earlier that the locals have a different idea of personal space than we westerners. We got a taste of this when a man walked up and began hovering nonchalant over the card game.
Define irony. Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Define irony.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

7:30 became 8:30. 8:30 became 9:30. DK and Sudip were on the phone and said the weather forecast didn't look good for the next two days. Rather than stay longer in Kathmandu and repeat this tedious morning ritual the next few days, we unanimously voted to try to hire a helicopter for an extra $200 each. By 11:30 our tickets had been exchanged. We got to leave that day AND we got to ride in a helicopter! The trip just got exponentially more awesome. Our group wouldn't fit in one helicopter so Mike, Sara, Kevin, Stacy, DK and I were to take the first flight. Ele, Amanda, Dovile and Sudip would follow in the second. The first six of us went out the back door of the terminal and then piled into a tiny, ancient pickup truck which embarked on a long, scenic drive through the airport to the helicopter landing pad.
From Left: Mike, Sara, Kevin, Stacy, Me, DK

From Left: Mike, Sara, Kevin, Stacy, Me, DK
Photo credit: Dan Keys

We got out of the truck next to a helicopter, took photos, and signed our lives away. Suddenly a whole crew of men showed up and started talking quickly in Nepali. Uh oh, what is going on? DK tried to call the pilot, a Kiwi he knew named Jason. He told me that Jason was from Queenstown, and flew rescue missions during the climbing season so we'd be in good hands. Speaking of rescue missions, it turned out that all the commotion was regarding a rescue. Someone up on the mountain wasn't going to be able to make the walk down and we would have to leave our porter bags behind in favor of more fuel for the mission. The porter bags would go up with the next flight. (Note: This is why it's a good idea to buy travel insurance. The rescue flight would have cost that person around $5,000.) They got the fuel issue sorted, we loaded up the helicopter and took off. There were no seat belts or ear protection. Jason was kind enough to open his window for some A/C. We cruised over the colorful buildings of Kathmandu. From the air it seemed like there was a brick smelter on every street corner. On the edge of town we saw an interesting religious statue, big enough to be seen some distance away from the air, though no one knew what it was. After the statue we started to get into the hills, all terraced, still mostly dry and brown.
Surke

Surke

Eventually the hills got steeper, and greener. We flew into a gorge and were treated to little cascades on either side. My mind started to hum the opening tune to Jurassic Park, especially since we were approaching the most beautiful waterfall yet. Then, just like that, we landed right above it. Wow, really?? I was happier than a slinky on an escalator. (Woo hoo! This is awe-some!)
The extra fuel we brought in favor of the porter bags. They unloaded it in Surke to make the helicopter lighter for the flight up on its rescue mission. They'd stop and refuel on the way back down.

The extra fuel we brought in favor of the porter bags. They unloaded it in Surke to make the helicopter lighter for the flight up on its rescue mission. They'd stop and refuel on the way back down.

I knew we weren't flying to Lukla, but I had a picture in my mind from the History Channel's World's Most Dangerous Airports of what Lukla would be like, and to me this place was a thousand times more beautiful. An organic farmer's paradise. Surke. (7,513 ft. / 2,290 m). I thought we were already in the mountains, but DK would say later that these were just foothills. 10,000 ft. foothills. We were in the Himalayas! "HimaYAYA!" Kevin would say. Perfect. It's in.
Seriously, they don't make them much cuter. Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Seriously, they don't make them much cuter.
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

The helicopter ride wasn't exactly short, and I needed to find a toilet. They had one outside of the building and it turned out to be the first of many Asian style toilets I would encounter, and actually come to prefer, on the trail. We went inside for the first tea break, milk tea (dude chiyaa) this time, and also enjoyed some ramen style noodles for lunch. In this tea house we met the first two of the world's cutest dogs.
Gotta love those ears!

Gotta love those ears!

The dogs in Kathmandu, while still cute, tended to be mangy, dusty, and exhausted from barking all night. The dogs up in the mountains were healthy, soft, perky little hiking companions. We petted this skinny pup who was begging for a bit of our soup, while his cousin was outside getting rolled by helicopters and having the time of his life. The other dog would run around barking madly at the choppers taking off and landing and got blown around quite a bit in the process. Eventually the others arrived, a little weak in the knees since their flight was a bit more exciting than ours, due to both pilot and weather. It was about 2 pm and daylight was becoming a consideration. Surke was about a mile or so below Lukla, our intended starting point, and we also arrived much later than originally scheduled. We had about 5 miles / 8 km to hike. We stayed long enough for them to have some tea and then hit the trail. Including today, it would take nine days of slow and steady acclimatization to reach base camp.
Prayer stone. You can see the good vibes radiating off this one.

Prayer stone.  Look closely to see the good vibes radiating upward from the symbols.

Shortly after departing, DK and Sudip stopped us to give us the rules of the trail. Rule #1: Let animals pass cliff side to keep from being bumped down the side by a mule or yak. Sudip had learned this one the hard way and was kind enough to let us benefit from the experience. Rule #2: Always obey rule #1. On the trail there would also be cultural rules to follow. Carved prayer stones were everywhere. So were prayer flags. The symbols carved or printed on each represented the sounds "Om mani padme hum" and repeated over and over. We were invited to invoke these sounds and asked to pass the stones on the left, keeping them on our right side. In villages we'd also pass prayer wheels. These were brass cylinders engraved with the same symbols that typically would be spun by hand, though occasionally we'd see one powered by water. We'd spin these toward the direction we were walking, clockwise, though the good energy would be sent in all four directions.
OM MANI PADME HUM is dedicated to the Great Compassionate Chen-resigs, [and] is found inscribed on prayer stones, prayer wheels, prayer flags, and wild rocks throughout the Buddhist Himalaya. Om Mani Padme Hum Pronounced in Tibet Aum--Ma-ni--Pay-may--Hung, this mantra may be translated: Om! The Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus! Hum! The deep, resonant Om is all sound and silence throughout time, the roar of eternity and also the great stillness of pure being; when intoned with the prescribed vibrations, it invokes the All that is otherwise inexpressible. The mani is the "adamantine diamond" of the Void--the primordial, pure and indestructible essence of existence beyond all matter and even antimatter, all phenomena, all change, and all becoming. Padme--in the lotus--is the world of phenomena, samsara, unfolding with spiritual progress to reveal beneath the leaves of delusion the mani-jewel of nirvana, that lies apart from daily life but at its heart. Hum has no literal meaning, and is variously interpreted (as is all of this great mantra, about which whole volumes have been written). Perhaps it is simply a rhythmic exhortation, completing the mantra and inspiring the chanter, a declaration of being, of Is-ness, symbolized by the Buddha's gesture of touching the earth at the moment of Enlightenment. It is! It exists! All that is or was or will ever be is right here in this moment. Now! Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
Prayer wheels. Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Prayer wheels.
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

The trail started out green and misty. We walked through lush green organic farms, with beautiful stone walls and houses. I marveled at a shelter for some of the animals, in which even the roof was woven from all natural materials, much like a basket.
Typical mule costume. Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Typical mule costume.
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Speaking of animals, in Nepal the mules were well-dressed and wore all kinds of bells, from small ones all around the collar of their draft harness to single enormous ones dangling below the neck. We couldn't see them through the mist, but would hear them ringing from behind and let them pass cliff-side (it was still too low in elevation and therefore too warm for yaks). It wasn't long before we encountered our first suspension bridge. As this was some people's first suspension bridge EVER, a scene from Shrek ensued. They started slowly and gingerly crossing, clinging to the rails on both sides. Ever have a friend who you knew was about to do something because they just got that gleam in their eye? Yeah, that "friend" was me. How can one possibly resist the urge to start jumping on the bridge given this opportunity? They caught that gleam in my eye as they turned around to scold me for rocking the bridge and laughed. Sorry, can't help it! Rocking boats (and bridges) is a Rakshasa specialty.
Notice the death grip on the handrails. By the end of the trek we'd all be skipping across.

BEFORE (Day 3): Notice the death-grip on the handrails.
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

AFTER (Day 15): Look ma, no hands!

AFTER (Day 15): Look ma, no hands!

namasteEventually the mist cleared somewhat and we passed some more houses. DK told us if we saw kids to put our palms together and tell them "Namaste!" Informally this is a greeting that means hello and goodbye, similar to aloha. Formally it translates along the lines of "I solute the God within you."
Namaste! The girls, except one, tended to be more shy. Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Namaste! The girls, except the one described below, tended to be more shy.
Photo credit: Eleanor Tresidder

Sure enough, most of them loved to play along and returned the greeting. DK was walking behind the group. We passed another kid, who after hearing "Namas-te!" from all of us, lit up like a Christmas tree when DK began chatting him up in Nepali. I turned around and lit up along with them, totally blown away. I asked DK later how long it took him to become so fluent, and modest as ever said he really wasn't, that the boys (our Nepali guides and porters) knew what they could talk to him about and what they couldn't. He was still learning every day. Well, he could have fooled me, and probably also that kid. We  stopped at our second tea house for lunch and more tea. From here we watched an avalanche of clouds roll down the mountainside. Lunch was delicious, fresh, local and organic. What could be better? "I'm so glad this life still exists for somebody," I remember saying.
Home of little twinkle toes.

Home of little twinkle toes.

Further up the trail we stopped again for, you guessed it, tea (chiyaa). Dovile made friends with a little girl who lived in the tea house. The little girl seemed to think we were so much fun she just had to dance for us. She giggled and swung her hips from side to side, hamming it up for the foreigners.  She used whatever English words she knew and laughed when we answered her. She was so cute we regretted leaving, and looked forward to visiting again on the way down. We ran out of daylight and had to don our headlamps before reaching Phakding (8,563 ft. / 2,610 m). Darkness brought out some spiders, and Amanda was not a fan. Hopping away from them interrupted her conversation with DK about books by Conn Iggulden. I was intrigued and made a note to add them to my reading list. It wasn't long after switching on the lights that we reached our home for the night and dropped our packs in the tea house common room. We were out of time to order dinner individually since all the food was made to order, so the group all shared our first yak cheese pizza, along with fries and some soup. Once we were all completely stuffed, they brought the menus out again and asked us to pick what we wanted for breakfast. (What?? You expect us to think about more food now?) This would become a post-meal-time ritual the rest of the trek. Eventually we learned what to expect on the menus and would consider what we wanted for the whole day at a point when we were still hungry. Or else we simply alternated between veggie momos and dal bhat. There was cricket on TV, and I was mesmerized both by the cricket and the TV since I don't have either at home. We met a couple of trekkers who were on their way down and asked them how it was. They looked much more... shall we say... worn than we did and we wondered what would look like by the time we were in their place. Back in Surke we heard that two porter bags did not make it on either flight and would arrive the next day. It wasn't until Phakding that we confirmed exactly whose bags were missing, because apparently some of the identifying prayer flags did not even last a day. Dovile and I paid the price for having such a heavy, crammed bag, as it was probably the ideal choice to abandon in favor of more fuel. "Nobody say anything about my outfit tomorrow!" she joked. We likely would have worn the same shirt three days in a row anyway, but having something different to sleep in and a toothbrush would have been nice. The lodge where we would sleep was separate from the common room, and very beautiful. Everything was wood, down to the carved stair rail. There were three western style toilets down the hall from the rooms, with a bin in each for toilet paper we were not supposed to flush. Not having a sleeping bag was no problem. At most of the tea houses, they would provide us with pillows and big, heavy blankets. Those of us without sleeping bags got a couple extra at this place. I took stock of my day pack and was thrilled to see the bar of soap I forgot I tossed in there after forgetting to pack it in our porter bag before it was forcefully and irreversibly zipped that morning. "There are no accidents!" I said to Ele as we washed our faces at the community sinks in the hallway. So ended a long and wonderful day. I don't think anyone had trouble sleeping that night.

May 7, 2013: Active Day 2, The Monkey Temple

The sun, roosters, and dogs were up early and so was I. It seemed the local canines were able to sleep like the dead all day because every night was an up 'till dawn bark-fest. Everyone else went down to a buffet style breakfast but I wasn't hungry so I just stayed in and enjoyed some quiet time.
Why we don't eat meat or drink the water.

Why we don't eat meat or drink the water.

When our 9 am call time arrived we went downstairs and met our tour guide for the day, a local woman whose name I don't remember, only that it started with an R. We walked through the real Kathmandu (vs. the much cleaner tourist district where we were staying) which was an eye-opening bit of environmental-disaster reality. Raw sewage poured into what might have once been a river but instead was more of an open sewer choked with garbage. This did not seem to bother the pigs rooting around down there in the slightest. We held our breath as we crossed the bridge. You couldn't ask for a better illustration to discourage us from eating meat (especially pork) or using the water to brush our teeth.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

We reached our destination, Swayambhunath, or the Monkey Temple and began the climb up a steep length of stairs to the top. True to its nickname there were quite a few monkeys climbing around the building and the trees. We were warned beforehand not to give food to the monkeys or they'd steal our hats, or make eye contact with the vendors or else they'd follow us up the stairs. The trouble with the second rule was, I actually liked what they were selling. One woman was carving what looked like a zodiac in stone. Want... Somehow I mustered the willpower to avert my eyes and keep walking. Next we came to a man selling singing bowls, which I already knew I had to go home with. Whatever willpower I had left immediately vaporized and I succumbed to a demonstration.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

He told me what all the symbols meant and I was enthralled. He then put one in my hand and made it sing. Nice, very nice. He put another one in my hand and played it, and this time hummed into the bowl as it sang. The sound of this one resonated somewhere deep. Yes! This was the one. I asked how much. $35. That was way too much, I knew from shopping for them online at home. I began throwing objections his way and he had an immediate counter to each. I started to walk away and sure enough, he followed. The best part of this game was that the price went down the higher we climbed. A few levels up, we settled for $10. I was happy I got my singing bowl, he was happy he didn't have to climb higher.
Pineal gland, or third eye. If you have the time David Wilcock's talk about its appearance in religious symbolism is worthwhile.

Pineal gland, or third eye. If you have the time David Wilcock's talk about its appearance in religious symbolism is worthwhile.

At the top of the temple, R told us more about all the symbolism. I saw an excellent example of a pineal gland symbol in this particular stupa. The temple had a great panoramic view of the city, though it was a bit hazy.
My mandala.

My mandala. No tools were used to create these perfect squares or circles. Often times they use a paintbrush with only 1-3 bristles.

The highlight of the Monkey Temple for me was the Buddha Thanka Treasure art gallery. (Thanka means cloth painting.) A charming young man who spoke perfect English gave a lecture on both the symbolism of the paintings and the discipline it takes to create them. Artwork always ends up being my favorite souvenir so I happily bought a mandala and promised to email them a picture of the painting in exchange for a more detailed explanation when I got home. I did not budget cash for this, so I paid for my painting with a card. They used a calculator to determine the exchange rate in rupees. When I signed the receipt the artist told me I had a very bad habit. "I have many bad habits I'm sure." I responded, bemused. He said I needed to be more careful to check the number AND the words on my credit card receipt rather than just signing it. Yes, good advice. I wasn't planning on using the card at all, but would keep this in mind if I decided to use it again. Rather than walk, we took the van back to the hotel and then walked to lunch at a funky little upstairs cafe, the Phat Kath. In the innocence of daylight it reminded me a bit of the Swiss Family Robinson tree house at Disneyland, only, well... cool. The cocktail menu looked very appealing, but I was still being good at this point so I ordered a delicious mixed-fruit lassa. DK asked me what made me decide to come to the Himalayas. "It's like the backpacker's mecca," I said. I was waiting for the right opportunity to make my pilgrimage, and found it when Active began organizing trips a few short years earlier. I chose Everest Base Camp over Annapurna because to me there was so much more history there, in the sense that I would be standing on the same ground as some of my favorite adventurers. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, Rob Hall, and last but most certainly not least my husband, er, hero Bear Grylls. Later on in the hotel lobby downstairs we met a Catholic priest who taught Protestant school in Bangladesh but lived in Kathmandu. Very kind, interesting fellow, and I couldn't help but envy his life a little bit. That afternoon we were free to wander the shops and pick up any gear we may have forgotten. Many shops specialized in jewelry or textiles. All smelled of dust and incense. There was a trekking gear shop on every street corner, and great deals to be had on brands such as North Fake or Pataphonia. Dovile and I browsed for Buddha masks and flip-flops. She promised a vendor to return for a particular mask and took charge of bargaining for the sandals. 1000 Rupee NoteWe changed currency in one of the many currency exchange market stalls for rupees in small denominations, 500 or less, for the climb. The exchange rate for rupees was about 87-1 at the time. It helped me to think of a rupee being worth slightly more than a penny. So 500 was a little more than $5. Anything higher than that and the tea houses likely wouldn't have change. (ATMs gave you 1,000 rupee notes.) Mentally worn down from haggling, crowds, dust, and blaring horns we abandoned the city streets to shower up and start packing the potato sacks before dinner. DK stopped by to make sure our gear was adequate. He thought both our down jackets were too light and recommended we rent heavier ones. They'd handle it for us in Namche. "You likely won't need it and might be cursing me later for having to carry it up there," he said. "I wouldn't curse you!" I laughed. The idea that I might curse someone for trying to keep me warm at 18,000 ft. was silly. Besides, the poor porters would be carrying it, not me. "Oh, good." He said something about my hei matau greenstone necklace, a mainstay on all my adventures since New Zealand. (The nice thing about writing is you can look stuff up. If you ask me about my necklace in person I'll forget the Māori hei matau and refer to it in English as a "fish hook.") "Yes, it works," I replied. "Safe passage over water, right?" DK wore an enormous toki, which represents leadership, strength, power, wisdom, authority, control, determination and focus. Good attributes for a guide. I considered asking him who gave it to him, as traditionally people don't buy greenstone for themselves, but decided the question was too personal. My head was starting to pound. This was the only time it would happen the entire trip and for that I am so grateful. I drank more water but suspected the cause was simply lack of sleep and spinal misalignment from trying to sleep on planes for two days. We followed DK through the crowded streets of Kathmandu for dinner, which was easy owing to the fact that he was so tall. He had his own look yet from behind the way he walked reminded me of Heath Ledger. We arrived at another nice restaurant. Instead of starlit views of the city, this time we were treated to live Nepali music. I ordered a salad and did my best to eat it all but my headache had killed my appetite. The host was concerned about whether or not I liked the food when he took most of it away and I insisted yes. DK saved me by telling them I was just full (pugyo) in Nepali. Once back I tried any energy medicine tricks I could remember on the headache. I never get them in real life and wasn't sure what would work. Tapping, Mirror Technique, Expanding Joints, Quantum Touch. The thing that finally worked was a few good yoga spinal stretches. One of them finally gave me the crack I was looking for and soon after I fell blissfully asleep, dogs and roosters be damned.

May 6, 2013: Active Day 1, Kathmandu

The time to board the five-hour domestic flight to Kathmandu had finally arrived. I went through security for the third time and had another uneventful flight. We began by soaring over the stunning green landscape and turquoise oceans of Malaysia. Soon after the water took on a brown, barren appearance that at first I took to be a desert. It's only when we crossed onto land again that I realized it was water. The land appeared equally inhospitable. Where are we? The in-flight monitor was no help. Instead of the "you are here" flight path we enjoyed on the international flight, we were stuck with a cheesy Asian talent show involving sock puppets and reruns of Wipeout. We crossed over huge brown rivers, or maybe they were they dry river beds. Eventually the land sloped upward and the pilot announced our approach. I looked hopefully across the sea of brown haze for a mountain peak and realized I must be on the wrong side of the plane. From Singapore, you want the right side of the plane to view the Himalayas and I was on the left.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Kathmandu
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Flying over Kathmandu, I was surprised at how big and colorful the city was. I'd had fair warning that it would feel third world and indeed the lower we flew the more apparent the crumbling buildings and scattered trash became.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Kathmandu airport
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

We landed and used a ladder to deplane. A bus picked us up and we drove a short distance to customs. The building was old and beautiful with brick masonry and carved wood. I followed the crowd to a big room with various wooden kiosks littered with paper. Okay now what? I overheard a man with a British accent loudly and bossily giving directions to a group of old ladies as to which lines on the form they needed to fill out and which ones the Nepali customs people didn't care about. I chose a kiosk within eavesdropping range and followed his directions to fill out a Visa application (the big form) in addition to the card from the flight. But the anal accountant in me filled out all the lines. There were no writing utensils. I didn't pack a pen and made do with my pencil. I followed them to a line behind a desk with a row of four Nepalese men. When I reached the front, the first man checked the length of my stay, collected the $40 entry fee, and gave me two receipts. Next I handed the pink copy of the receipt to one of two men who were checking forms and passports. Finally I proceeded to the last man who issued the Visa, which was a sticker rather than a stamp. From here I proceeded to the baggage claim. By this point I was tired, but perked up the instant I glimpsed my bag disappearing back to the employee-only side of the carriage. It made it! I almost skipped to the other side of the belt to await its reappearance and immediately stuffed all the coats I had been carrying with me "just in case" inside. They waved me through customs and I braced myself for the chaos that awaited outside the airport. Active had sent multiple warning emails before our departure about arrival in Kathmandu. Forget altitude. Forget base camp. Apparently our most difficult challenge would be getting from the airport to the hotel. I carried my own bag as instructed and found a man outside holding the Active Himalayas sign without any trouble. I then proceeded to walk the wrong way around a fence and was shooed in the other direction by airport security. The man escorted me to and then left me at a van as he went in search of another passenger. Not long afterward he reappeared with a girl who introduced herself as Amanda. Next we got our first taste of what we were warned of repeatedly before arriving. A man rushed up to the van and shouted aggressively that we must leave a tip and US dollars were OK. Amanda told him "no" but he persisted. She then shouted "we're with him!" and pointed to our driver who was ignoring the whole scene as he calmly got in the van and closed the driver's side door. At this, the man melted back in to the madness and we were on our way. Amanda was originally from Wales and exclaimed in her lovely British accent how intense that was. I told her she did great, especially since all I could offer while it was going down was a mute wide-eyed stare and a mouth slightly ajar.
Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

Photo credit: Kevin Cordova

We began the navigation through the narrow, dusty streets of the city. The closest I'd ever experienced to this before was in Mexico, but even that could not compare. It was order within disorder. Totally organic. No traffic laws, signs, lights or lanes. People, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, weird tractor car looking things, rickshaws... You name it, it was on the road and traveling wherever there was space to move forward. I was reminded of science movies featuring magnified blood cells all squeezing by each other, except blood cells tend to move in one direction. I was amazed at how well our driver navigated our relatively large vehicle through the bedlam right down to the point where he made a three-point turn in the middle of a crowded narrow street and backed into an even narrower crowded alley in front of our hotel with maybe a few feet to spare on either side of the van.
Thamel Eco Resort

Thamel Eco Resort

We checked in to the beautiful Thamel Eco Resort and received a note from our trip leader DK instructing us on where and what time to meet. My future roommate had already arrived, had the only key, and was not there. I waited outside the room until an employee let me in and checked the clock... my clock since there wasn't one in the room. It had been 40 hours of travel since I left my house in California. Nap time. I collapsed on my bed, so grateful to be horizontal. The rest of the afternoon was something of a blur. I met my roommate Dovile, a spunky and pretty blonde from Chicago who woke me up in time for our orientation with the whole group. "This is my first backpacking trip," she told me. "What?" I laughed, somewhat incredulously. "If Everest is where you start, what are you going to do next?" We walked upstairs to a yoga studio on the top floor of the hotel, and pulled some chairs in a circle. Including Dovile and I, there were 8 guests and two main guides (a third guide, Bibak, would join us on the mountain). Kevin and Stacy, a beautiful couple from Aspen. Mike and Sara, friends who just finished grad school in Colorado and were embarking on a world tour before starting work. Amanda and Ele who worked for Active in New Zealand. Our trip leaders were DK and Sudip. Both of them, but especially DK, had that "smell." The smell of someone who's ridden the back of the wind, of 100 fun summers, of sleeping in trees, and adventures with Indians and pirates. (Hook, 1991). They were good-looking and had the sort of charisma that made people want to be around them. This adventure was going to be a fun one. The trip was organized by Active Adventures in partnership with Earthbound Expeditions. I'd traveled with Active before in New Zealand on one of their Rimu trips and couldn't have been happier with the experience so they were easily my first pick to see the Himalayas. Our goal was Everest Base Camp, and we'd be together 19 days for the journey there and back. The guides gave us each goodie bags full of fun stuff like water purification tablets, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. I joke, but all these things were practically worth their weight in gold on the trail. Each pair of roommates received a porter bag to share with a potato sack to separate each person's belongings. Each porter bag had a different colored prayer flag to identify it. People who rented sleeping bags received one of these with a prayer flag to identify it too, in case it needed to be moved to another bag for weight distribution reasons. Later we went to dinner on a rooftop with a starlit view of the Monkey Temple. Insanely cool place. DK told us the meat was okay to eat here, but I was looking forward to jumping right in to the Nepali cuisine experience after reading about my friend Katie's experiences on her earlier Annapurna trek. I ordered my first dal bhat with ginger tea. Dal is lentil soup, bhat is rice, and it also usually comes with some sort of vegetable curry. I proceeded to start eating the dal with a spoon and DK tried to steer me in the right direction. In his gentle and polite Kiwi way, he told me the dal was supposed to go on the rice. I poured a little bit on, but still wouldn't get the right idea until I saw the locals do it later. Even then I never mustered up the courage to eat it with my fingers. We began to get to know each other better. Somehow I mentioned I'm from the Mojave desert and people asked me if we really have snakes and scorpions. Yes, we really have snakes and scorpions. Funny how something so ordinary to you can be so fascinating to others. Ele, Amanda and I realized we knew a couple of the same people through Active. Ele told me about a Nepali translator app she downloaded and I was immediately super-jealous of it. We'd hear the language all day on the trail, but I knew it wouldn't sink in for me until I also saw it in print. The app really would have helped. Even without the benefit of alcohol (in most cases, see keeping healthy on the trail), the group was warming up to each other and starting to feel like a family. IMG_3130That night was my first adventure with Nepali plumbing. After two days of planes, trains and automobiles I was rather greasy and keen on a shower. The entire bathroom was tile and a shower head on a long hose was simply attached to a wall. I turned it on and it proceeded to drench the toilet seat and the spare toilet paper on top. I closed the lid, found higher ground for the TP, and engaged in a wrestling match with the hose, since more water was pouring out of it than the actual shower head. We settled on a compromise where I looped the hose in such a way that the water poured straight down and held it over my head, trying with some success not to get it in my mouth or eyes. The entire bathroom was now a lake. Neither of us had packed thongs/flip-flops/jandals and made it our mission to find some ASAP. I was still on California time and wide awake even though it was after 11 pm so I begin reading The Snow Leopard. I'd read a few other famous Himalaya-related books already and was saving this one. It had been highly recommended to me the year before by a friend whose opinion I respect, and I was happy to finally open it up.