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Losing Our Way Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing. --------------------------------------------------------- Arundhati Roy (Indian author, advocate, activist)

no porter, no guide (mi)

NEPAL | Sunday, 29 November 2009 | Views [2073]

just can't resist... one more Himalayan picture for the website!  can you find ivan in this one?

just can't resist... one more Himalayan picture for the website! can you find ivan in this one?

no porter, no guide

in october, nepal trekking season begins. the height of it collapses in late november, so within just the two months i imagine that thousands of tourists filter through Kathmandu's international airport...or present themselves, as if in a stupor, at the mad northern indian border after hours of tumbling transport, ready for hours more... holding out hopeful fistfuls of rupees for official entry stamps. probably not many are satisfied with a basic 30 day entry visa though, as renewals are common discussion among tourists. if the two of us are at all representative of the trekkers' tide, we'll let you know that it took us less than two weeks to decide to get in line for an extension. there's a palpable feverish energy that swirls through the country in the autumn. it caught up with us quickly, and we gladly handed over the extra rupees for the chance to spend even a few extra days among the wild peaks of the highest mountain range in the world. for once, nepal is a country that advertises a truism to get your attention: “nepal,” the signs read, “once is not enough.”

once in the country, tourists typically follow a straight pull toward the magnet that is the capital city. ah Kathmandu, how shall i describe you?? between the two of us, ivan and i have walked an amusing number of capital cities. and among Washington D.C., Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris, London, Dublin, Brussels, Belize City, Bogota, Quito, Lima, Bern, Kampala and Delhi (Delhi for crying out loud!) and Kathmandu, neither of us has seen anything quite like Kathmandu when it comes to the tourist scene. since its birthing for a crowd of 1960's hippies, every roadside wanderer or first class traveler who has meandered through its streets can tell you that since then, it's been growing...and growing...it's grown so much it's turned into a giant plastic coca cola bottle. but whether you find this a nightmare production or your secret dream come true depends largely, i've decided, on how you would answer the following questions: A) have you just come straight from 3 months roughing it in India, where the sauna like climate and red ant like touts fused and sparked into a fire that flamed until it managed to literally set your outer skin on fire?! B) would you like to spend your traveling rupees this week on a gourmet Thanksgiving banquet , complete with real wine (not sweet) or ice cold (not room warm) beer? C) do you wish to spend this week lazily browsing through a veritable smorgasbord of good n' plenty clothing, paintings and handmade artisan craft, bookstores and wi-fi zones? D) did you leave your Northface pants, your Mountain Gear boots, or your...sock liners, trekking poles, etc etc etc? on the floor in a box, back across an ocean, a cab ride and a front door key at your neighbors' away? or E) do you have a low pain threshold and just so happen to be traveling the world in desperate need of a real-life AMERICAN dentist who will actually stop the procedure to ask you if the novocaine is working?! if you answered yes to any of these questions, i'd say, Kathmandu welcomes you to is a week's worth of joy! joy! joy! if your ATM card is working, you just might find yourself the happiest American-not-in-America. of course, to get the goodies, you have to play Frogger through the maniacal traffic and its fearsome yearly pedestrian deathtoll. even if you manage to bounce successfully through its seven or so directional streams (ping, ping, PING!), and make it to the other end of the alleyway cross-lined with a rainbow of GIANT store and restaurant name boards, you will probably have to squash yourself a tourist or three to get into an establishment door. but once in, the import biz is your oyster, and any product you're craving is yours for the bargaining. ah, Kathmandu and your celestial tourist bliss!

of course, no matter how high the city's brand of the deity Consumerism makes your lovely spirit soar, a week or so in Kathmandu (breathtaking ancient Durbar Square temple architecture and local tangled street scenes aside) is enough to satisfy almost anyone's cravings, and most tourists, newly outfitted in their fresh hiking attire, spread out like wildfire through the country. toward the famous east and coveted Everest, or on a northern route: toward Langtang valley. there are countless paths for the exploring trekker, making the “once is not enough” tourist-call a very real one. ivan and i decided to head west, to do the Kali Gandaki trek (also known as the Pokhara-Ghorepani-Jomsom-Muktinath) trek. you can begin this trek in a city named Pokhara, which holds Nepal's smaller, more laid-back tourist heaven. we spent a week there catching our first glimpses of the far off peaks of the Annapurna Mountain Range, the mountains we would soon venture into. to put it more accurately, i spent the week camping out in cafes, sipping latte after overpriced latte (mostly because on the first day i made the STUNNING discovery that i could actually request and receive a real live decaffinated coffee, ITALIAN BEANS no less, each with ground-depth, and topped with swirl-designed foam as if delivered directly to my awaiting hand by a genuine seattle barista! and i had quickly decided that it was a sign from above to dwell in appreciation for all the western world has to offer and had spent the week, well, blissfully appreciating. an activity i broke only to browse the occasional hemp shop for flowy clothing). meanwhile, intelligent ivan spent the week on day hikes in the surrounding region getting in shape. about three days into the trek, i found out the hard way i would have done much better to follow his lead. but safely tucked into my chic nepali cafe couch, i could scarsly imagine what two weeks of trail had in store for us. then, one morning at daybreak, my vacation was over, and we threw on our backpacks, waved enthusiastically to our cheering guesthouse hosts, and head out to the trailhead....

once every few countries, i've turned to ivan and said: “i'm going to tell everyone we know that they all HAVE to do this once in their lives!” one by one, i've compiled the itineraries: if you have two weeks and want to taste Africa – go travel Tanzania...go safari, go exotic island hop...go! if you have three weeks and a mouthful of Spanish, go to Peru...go climb ancient ruins, climb canyons, climb rural villages, go swim and sun, go dance, go taste, go...just go! but if you have a month, and you love to walk (and you HAVE TO LOVE TO WALK for this one) Nepal is your destination. like i said, it was october when we head out on our trek, and in october and november in Nepal, the clouds part and the sky opens up into a deep blue that stretches but does not crease like a cool wide ocean. in those months, the rivers are low and inviting, and you can skip across them to the next ceremonial village waiting to fold you into its ancient story. it is in the autumn when the colors of the Himalaya, the highest moutain range in the world, with its peaks and its farms and its monasteries tucked into its folds, shines under a warm sun spotlight. Tanzania has Kilimanjaro and Peru has the Andes and ivan and i touched them both this year, but if i could watercolor you a mountain, i would do it from my memory of Nepal.

the days on the trek were rhythmic. sunrise over the mountain peaks and breakfast served warm to us at 6:30 in the dining room of whichever guesthouse we had landed in the eve before, and by 8 we were into the newest day on the trail. morning was a spectacular time, each of us with our big rested grins and loads of curiosity, giddy expectations and boundless energy. the days brought challenges – the trail had us climbing up stones piled up on top of each other, forming a trekkers' staircase – up, up, UP! down, down, DOWN! across precarious bridges and through sandy valley windstorms. the air was clean only most of the time - the smell of donkey trains passing us by, dusty woolen blankets canvassing their backs loaded with native sacks of goods for sale. but the challenges came along with the sweetness of sinking a bit into village life – passing by yak and cattle, and hens and chicks and roosters that passed their days weaving in and out of fences. the fences led the way, guarding crop squares arrayed in a gold and copper plaid from intruding pests. i flinched at my first sight of the natural barbed wire that line those family fences - entangled bush throns – with berries and budding flowers adding a natural decoration. the farms were terraced, which i hadn't seen since ivan and i had spent a day back last spring at grand Machu Picchu in Peru. we would stop every hour or so at a porter's stone wall, set up through the years by natives as offerings of compassion to allow heavy burdened men and women to rest. we'd gulp water, take a picture, and start walking again. every hour or three, we'd come upon our next village. but with each passing village, i became more entranced with the feel of being there, out on the trail.

each village, and certainly each day, passed us into a fresh landscape - astounding were the number and frequency. our first days, down below, our breath was warm. our coats and local wool hats stayed stuffed into our backpacks. bright flora and wildly giant bamboo hugged the trail; deep layers of lush and velvet and mossy was the green landscape, sprinkled with low waterfalls and, consequently, mosquitos. but as we gained altitude, the insects died out and the wind would blow through me in the mornings and evenings, ducking into my collar and making me clench my bones. we began to walk through desert, and instead of scattered tropical flower petals, we crushed autumn leaves that lay frosted and glistening under the early morning sun. down below the villages were inhabited by Nepali Hindus, their foreheads and village temples showing off their religious adherance. then later the trail wove into Buddhist lands, and the stone religious monuments and iconography and wind-shaken prayer flags decorated the juniper-burned air ahead of us. the old patriarchs and matriarchs carrying their devotion in the hands, their fingers counting off wooden prayer beads as their breath carried their prayers out toward all the universe. prayer wheels lined the stone paths and ivan and i would spin them as we walked by, as if releasing our prayers out for the world, like worshippers raising the sign of prayer-filled incense. like the american poets praising God in the woods, there was the feel of constant recognition of holiness in those mountains. my heart burst with praise to the Creator of the mountains, the rivers, the sun! how blessed are we to behold earth's wealth! and how the villagers adorned their small towns to reflect that wealth! one after the next, the villages all seemed artfully positioned on the sides of Himalayan cliffs, made up of curved streets, tucked away tunnels and ancient stone buildings, all colored into the mountain landscape in hues of white and sand. only the deep dirt-fire color of the monasteries stood out, signaling the focal point of life. we drank in their beauty, every scene worthy of its own film. from the highest among them, we looked out and across to neighboring villages, oil paintings of which i had seen in Kathmandu and Pokhara. often i slowed and waited until ivan walked out well ahead of me, so i could capture the sight of him out there...i took photo after photo of him in the distance, underneath that wide sky and rounding a mountain bend, wanting to remember always what it felt like, those days we were young and healthy and took off after one another, across a Himalayan mountain range.

when we stopped for the evening, we sank into our evening meals around warm tables where all around us guides were busy chatting up their tour groups – paragraphs of information, underlined with interesting tidbits about Nepali traditions, etiquite, and family life. our supper plates would come out, overflowing with Dal Bhat, the local lentil and rice speciality, spicy and rich. or we would ditch the local plate and indulged ourselves in local soups or thick doughy pizzas and chow mein. one town offered us its orchards of crisp apples, crushed into juice - the best juice i have ever tasted – and sweet, steaming and crumbling apple pie. we did our best to curb our cravings and eat local, and stayed away from soda and beer, as all those bottles are hauled in, and hauled empty out, creating the complicated vibe of a local economy catering to a fairly insatiable tourist appetite. and my, were there ever tourists from all over the globe! every evening brought us a chorus of german, french, indian, american, italien, english and dutch and japanese...all singing praises to sights from their day.

unlike many of the couples and groups, we didn't have a porter to carry our equipment, or a guide to point the way. we attested to this fact every time we stopped at a mandatory checkpost to show our Annapurna Range entry passes. “no porter, no guide?” they would ask. in turn, i would point to myself and happily quip: “porter!” and then point to ivan: “guide!!” inevitably, they would laugh, and ivan would demonstrate a mock frown and reverse my pronounced order. “!!” and then we would walk away, hilarious ivan singing under his breath his own rendition of Bob Marley's “No woman, no cry”..... “Noooo porter no guide, no porter no guide......!!!!!”

nah - no porter, no guide. just the two of us making our way together, one step at a time.

eve after day...and ten days later, we arrived at our destination: Muktinath, a small pilgrims' town in the well known district of Mustang. Muktinath is home to a site both Hindus and Buddhists consider holy; there, a complex has been built. arriving at our lodge in early afternoon, we went to visit, and returned awed by the sweet spirit inflamed there by its centuries of visitors.

in contrast to the wild temple complex of Muktinath, the bigger district of Mustang is a surprising dusty kind of beautiful. it is sand-colored, ice-colored, and crop-colored. its only element of contrasting color is found in its strung up Buddhist prayer flags that seem to fly in wisps all over the valleys and mountain tops. they reflect the religious heart of its people, who breath prayers all day long while working, and are complimented by whatever remains in the region of pre-Buddhism (yes, imagine pre-Buddhism). the people are fed daily by the river and their tight networks of community roles and responsibilities. as if to testify to their years working the land, grandmothers in the region look as if they were born a century ago, and old men's skin folds with the same wind-worn, solar-browned droop. like most in Nepal, they rise before the sun, and live well into the night. they carry items in heavy baskets bound to their heads with torn strips of faded cloth. only in the last decades have they been introduced to plastic and to brand names, to strange lyrics and clothes, and to the Westerners sightseeing their lands, accompanied by guides and porters carrying their loads. if offered a “Namaste!” (meaning “i greet God in you!”) hands raised and folded in traditional prayer-like fashion, they smile broadly, and their children too. “Namaste!” they return (“i too greet God in you!”) their grandchildren burst out in singsong Nepali-English: “Namaste-chocolaaaaaaaaate!” calling out to you for sweets. and although their welcome and many of their work and traditions are found elsewhere along the trail, the people of Mustang feel particularly ancient. Mustang borders Tibet and until recently was completely closed to outsiders. today, not far across its southern-most border, you will reach the most northern point you can walk to without having to purchase an additional special government permit. we stopped there, and while i amused myself by watching a small child chasing around local farm animals wandering by on our cobblestone street, ivan asked permission to snap a picture of the sort of “do not enter” sign stationed there, and with satisfaction at our achievement, we turned, and head back.


writing this, i find i have forgotten to include at least a dozen or so tales from the trail. moments of abundant laughter, fear or some bizarre tale.... and the photographs, i know, do not do justice to the two weeks ivan and i spent out on the trail. those days, i believe, will turn out to be some of the most magnificent i will ever have spent in my life, wonder-filled and completely cherishable. it is an awesome earth out there. now here we are, some days after we bounced out of the bus and off our trek, back in the capital, Kathmandu. we came back to find that the year, after all, has flown by, and Thanksgiving holiday is already upon us. this year, i find i can hardly begin to name the blessings. we miss you and wish you a season full of wonders, wonders like those that come at 3000 meters up, on top of the world.


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