Emily Finds Sudden Interest In The Animal Kingdom

In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey writes, “I have no affinity for animals. I don’t hate animals and I would never hurt an animal; I just don’t actively care about them.”

Tina, I totally feel you on this. Thank you for being so honest and allowing me to feel I can finally come out of the closet regarding my Animal Indifference.

Animals are fine. I grew up on a farm. My childhood home was always overrun by dogs, cats, chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, and the occasional ox, horse, or baby deer.  I obviously think nature is awesome, and I usually consider wild animals to be much better at life than humans. It’s just that I am somewhat “meh” towards animals, as a group. Thus, I never thought I’d be interested in going on a safari. The idea of sitting in a hot 4×4 with a group of strangers, driving slowly through fields trying to spot a rhino or chasing down lions, sounds absolutely heinous/pointless to me.*

But then my colleague Matt, his partner Mandy, and I drove our rental car through Kruger National Park and…Mind: Blown.

If you want to get the thrills of the animal kingdom without pulling a Bear Grylls, drive a tiny rental car through the wilderness where you may just come face-to-fender with animals bigger than your vehicle (scary/awesome). Kruger National Park is the size of Massachusetts and has every crazy exotic African animal you can possibly think of, roaming free. We drove our baby car up and down Kruger’s red dirt roads for a day, and saw one million animals. Really. I counted.

There was definitely something cool about our self-made safari. I think it was because A) I wasn’t surrounded by tourists (I am tolerance-challenged when around other tourists – I know, the hypocrisy, WHATEVER!) and B) we found these crazy wild beasts all on our own, without the help of a guide or a radio or anything but our own eyes and Matt’s stealth-driving tactics. So, I rescind my previous comments about animals being “meh”. At least, rhinos, elephants, giraffes and water buffalo, when seen at close proximity in their natural habitat, just being totally free and huge and beastly, are very much not “meh”.

*Of course, I don’t judge people who go on safari. Just like I don’t judge people for having pets. These things are totally normal and fine activities for humans. They’re just not for me.

Photos!!!

ELEPHANT!

ELEPHANT!

Deer thingies and a wildebeest!

Impala and a wildebeest!

Cute deer-faced thingy!

Cute Impala face!

Wildebeest!

Wildebeest!

Monkeys playing with each other!

Monkeys playing with each other!

One of many phenomenal giraffe sightings! Giraffes are weird looking up close, by the way. They might be dinosaurs.

One of many phenomenal giraffe sightings! Giraffes are weird-looking up close, by the way. They might be dinosaurs.

This pond was teeming with hippos and crocs! Hippos are terrifying! So are crocs!

This pond was teeming with hippos and crocs! Hippos are terrifying! So are crocs!

Zebra! (Common statement by the end of the day: "Oh, nevermind, it's just another zebra.")

Zebra! (Common statement by the end of the day: “Oh, nevermind, it’s just another zebra.”)

Zebra and zebra baby hiding.

Baby zebra hiding behind mama zebra!

We basically drove through the Lion King(dom).

We basically drove through the Lion King(dom).

Blesbok!

Blesbok!

WARTHOG!

WARTHOG!

Blesboks in a line under clouds!

Blesboks in a line under clouds!

The last animal we saw was this elephant. We rounded a bend and there he was, munching on a giant bush, about 3 feet from our car. It was really cool until I realized he could basically just step on our car without even thinking about it. Then it was really cool and a tiny bit panicky.

The last animal we saw was this elephant. We rounded a bend and there he was, munching on a giant bush, about 8 feet from our car. It was really cool until I realized he could kill us in 5 seconds and make it look like an accident. Then it was really cool and also a tiny bit panicky.

Our giant friend.

Our giant friend.

He didn't even pay attention to us. His bush was really tasty.

He didn’t even pay attention to us. His bush was really tasty.

One serious adventure we had in Kruger was a rhino-induced traffic jam. The following slideshow tells this story. It was all very wilderness-meets-the-modern-man.

After a full day of quietly sneaking up on dangerous animals in our teensy vehicle and leaning precariously out the window to take photos, we exited Kruger and headed to a backpacker’s in Nelspruit. The next day, I left the wilderness behind in exchange for a second trip to Johannesburg and then some Cape Town exploration. But I am happy to have experienced this self-made safari. It’s possible that it was, at times, a bit…unsafe. But it’s also possible that it was worth it.

Sunset as we drove out of Kruger. You can see a giraffe silhouette in the distance. Very Southern Africa. Love love love.

Sunset as we drove out of Kruger. You can see a giraffe’s silhouette in the distance. Oh, Southern Africa. Love love love.

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Take Me Back To Swaziland!

It’s true that a job, and not my backpacking itinerary, brought me to Swaziland. In fact, I had originally planned on traveling though more of the Asian continent after my time in Nepal. But the opportunity arose to work on a short-term project on the ground in Manzini, so I made a “quick diversion” to the bottom of Africa to put my MPH to work for a few weeks.

Driving into Swaziland.

Driving into Swaziland.

Swaziland has the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life.

Swaziland’s sunsets leave you breathless. Photos really don’t do them justice.

It's pretty here.

It’s pretty here.

It's pretty here, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore here.

Lovely colors, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore.

Since May 2012, I’ve been working with a small team to help a Swazi organization design a sexual/reproductive health program that engages sex workers. We’ve been supporting the organization remotely, but the program recently received funding (with promises of more), so it made sense to make a field visit and take the first steps towards implementation (woohoo!). You can read about Ungakwenta! here.

Office shot! It's amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

Office shot! It’s amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

HIV testing campaign messages. Yay Public Health. Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

A man knows – to be the best, he has to test! Woo, Public Health Messaging! Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

I spent 11 days in Swaziland. It was not enough. I LOVE IT THERE. My colleague Matt and I put in long, productive, awesome days with the SRH program, and squeezed in a bit of wilderness adventuring whenever we could. It was phenomenal. Not only did I get to do the work I love, in the field, with amazing, dedicated people, but I learned so much about Swazi life and culture, met so many interesting expats and locals, and saw how my life might look if I worked here full-time. And, of course, I got to hike through crocodile-infested swamps and climb giant granite mountains and see a buncha crazy animals and finally eat fresh fruit all day instead of rice (sorry, Nepal. I don’t want rice for a loooong time because of you.)

This is Nyonyane Mountain, or Executioner Rock, so called because one upon a time, criminals were hurled from the peak. We climbed it in between rain storms.

This is Nyonyane Mountain in Milwane, or Executioner Rock, so called because once upon a time, criminals were thrown from the peak to their deaths. We climbed it in between rain storms.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on one of our hikes.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on the Nyonyane hike in Milwane. The hike took us through dense, jungle-y swamps. I thought I might die.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane Reserve, where we hiked up our first mountain.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane on our hike up Nyonyane.  More animal photos to come in Swaziland Post #2.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park…

Matt up ahead, hiking Nyonyane Mountain or Executioner Rock.

Matt up ahead, preparing to climb Nyonyane Mountain, which you can see in the distance.

Swaziland is a tiny country, with a soft, gentle, rolling beauty. The area where I lived and worked is lush, with steep green mountains covered in giant boulders that appear to simply pop out of the earth. It was summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, and though it was the rainy season, we were lucky to have mostly clear, hot weather. The mangoes and papayas and pineapples were the best I’ve ever had. There were amazing animals and so much nature for them to enjoy, in several huge wildlife reserves throughout the country. The culture is rich and proudly held by its people. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Everything moves slowly.

Matt and I stayed in an expat's house right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It's the second largest monolith in the world.

Matt and I stayed with a colleague right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It’s the second largest monolith in the world.

I hiked up Sibebe with Ben, whom we stayed with while working in Swaziland. This is Ben's arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

I climbed Sibebe with Ben, who is awesome and let us stay in his beautiful house while we worked and played in Swaziland. This is Ben’s arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

Hiking Sibebe.

Hiking Sibebe.

Sibebe again. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland. So glorious.

Sibebe. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland (after work or on weekends only, of course!). So glorious.

Interesting rock formation on Sibebe.

Aliens did this.

The third hike we did

The third hike we did was in Malolotja, a large wilderness reserve with tons of beautiful animals and its fair share of sky porn.

The hills are alive!...with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

The hills are alive…with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas. They were everywhere in Malolotja.

Of course, for all its beauty and kindness, Swaziland is not without its challenges. It has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Much of its population lives in extreme poverty. Serious public health and development problems are apparent everywhere. There are issues with dependency on foreign aid. But while all of this is important to know and understand, it’s just as critical to recognize all that Swaziland has to offer, to learn just how intricate and interesting the culture and history are, and to develop a well-rounded awareness of how things in this country really work. And I only just scraped the surface, but I can tell you with confidence that I would absolutely love to live and work there for a while. And I just might try to, when I start job-hunting later this spring.

My fellow hikers in Malalotja.

My fellow hikers in Malolotja, admiring what beauty lay before us. Although, while those hills are pretty, they’re a b*tch to climb when it’s 99 degrees out. Just sayin’.

As a final note, I took a million sunset photos in Swaziland because they were the most intense sunsets I’d ever seen. The Swazi sky alone may be reason enough for me to move there. And though sunset photos seem a bit cliché by now, I feel I have to share at least a few. So here’s a random sampling of my shots.

Artsy, Dancey, Rainy Jozi

I spent quite a lot of time in Johannesburg, where I stayed with Heather, an amazing woman I used to work with when we both led very different lives in Washington, DC. Heather has been living in Jozi for a few years now, and is a photographer and blogger (her blog, 2summers, is all about life in Johannesburg, and is pretty awesome – check it out!).

Johannesburg after a downpour.

Johannesburg after a downpour.

The Telkom Tower and some other Jozi buildings, as seen from a Hillbrow sidewalk.

The Telkom Tower and some other Jozi buildings, as seen from a Hillbrow sidewalk.

Heather and I got into all sorts of fun shenanigans in and around Johannesburg. We filled our days with art and photography, live music, and exploration. We also spent a fair amount of time hunkering down in coffee shops playing on our blogs and Instagram, due to Jozi’s decision to torrentially rain for about half of my visit.

Part of the Jozi skyline as seen from Hillbrow.

Part of the Jozi skyline as seen from Hillbrow.

The city as seen from the Melville Koppies (Afrikaans for "hills"). One of the reasons I love Jozi is that it is the biggest manmade forest in the world, with over 10 million trees. It actually looks like a city sprouting up from a dense forest. It's awesome.

The city as seen from the Melville Koppies (Afrikaans for “hills”). One of the reasons I love Jozi is that it is the biggest manmade forest in the world, with over 10 million trees. It actually looks like a city sprouting up from a dense forest. It’s awesome.

I fell in love with Johannesburg, and I really have Heather to thank for this – she showed me so much of the city, and I got to go places and do things I would never have done if I’d been touring Jozi alone.

One day, Heather and I attended an artist's tour of her works in the city. We walked around with Hannelie Coetzee who puts up awesome installations in often dark and otherwise-unnoticed areas of Jozi. One of her works is on the wall beside this underpass, where I snapped this photo.

One day, Heather and I attended an artist’s tour of her works in the city. We walked around with Hannelie Coetzee who puts up awesome installations in often dark and otherwise-unnoticed areas of Jozi. One of her works is on the wall beside this underpass, where I snapped this photo.

Coetzee's installation near the underpass, engraved directly into the wall.

Coetzee’s installation near the underpass, engraved directly into the wall.

Another of Hannelie Coetzee's works, on the side of a butchery in Fordsburg.

Another of Hannelie Coetzee’s works, on the side of a butchery in Fordsburg.

Another of Coetzee's works was in this abandoned and burned-out city post office. It apparently took a lot of work for her to be able to bring her tour group inside, since it's dangerous and condemned. Such a cool place to go, though.

Another of Coetzee’s works was in this abandoned and burned-out city post office. It apparently took a lot of work for her to be able to bring her tour group inside, since it’s condemned. Such a cool place to go, though.

Jozi is sort of like the NYC of South Africa (or, so I hear, of Sub-Saharan Africa in general). I love NYC, but I think I might like Jozi more (gasp!) because it is just a little rougher around the edges, a little edgier, a little more…well, African. And therefore more interesting. It’s big with a big city-feel (~10 million people, skyscrapers, the works), it’s multicultural, it has tons of boroughs, each with its own eccentric claim to fame. Also in Jozi, I found places and events that were the most harmoniously diverse I’ve ever experienced. By this I mean, many places Heather and I went, and many things we did, were about equally attended by people of both black and white race – and everyone seemed to simply enjoy themselves, together. This struck me because even in multicultural epicenters like New York, you’ll almost always find far more of one race than the other at any given bar or event or show. In the US, and everywhere else I’ve been, one race tends to dominate, depending on the scene. This was very much not the case in Johannesburg. I don’t mean to imply there is no longer racial tension or race-based issues in Jozi – there are plenty. And I know the racial harmonizing I witnessed is a relatively new phenomenon in South Africa, too. However, it was an interesting, enlightening, new, and highly positive experience. It’s something I wish was easier to find in my own cities.

Heather and I attended a Vieux Farka Toure concert at Bassline. The band is from Mali, and the music and dancing were incredible. This guy was showing some Malian pride, dancing with his flag the whole time.

Heather and I attended a Vieux Farka Toure concert at Bassline (one of two live music events I attended in Jozi!). The band is from Mali, and the music and dancing were incredible. This guy was showing some Malian pride, dancing with his flag the whole time.

Sunset at an art exhibit Heather and I attended at Circa on Jellicoe, a brand new art museum in Rosebank.

Sunset at an art exhibit Heather and I attended at Circa on Jellicoe, a brand new art gallery in Rosebank. (One of two art galleries/museums I went to in Jozi! My time there really was awesome – full of creative beauty and danceable soundwaves…)

An installation at Circa on Jellicoe.

An installation at Circa on Jellicoe.

Another shot of this really awesome piece of work.

Another shot of this really awesome piece of work.

I hope that this blog post changes some opinions about Johannesburg. The city has a terrible reputation, both globally and in other parts of South Africa, for having a culture of extreme violence and for being highly dangerous for tourists as well as the people who live there. Every time I mentioned to someone – whether foreign or South African – that I had spent time in Johannesburg, the reaction was unfortunately the same: surprise, incredulity that I’d spent so much time there, shock that anyone would want to go there – and then, when I would mention how I actually fell in love with the city, the reaction shifted to disbelief and a shrugging off of my opinions: “Well…if you say so…”  This is really disappointing to me, because I feel Jozi has a lot to offer and is being harshly judged by insiders and outsiders alike, often based on events of the past that are now changing and improving in the city. There is a lot of redevelopment happening in the rougher parts of Jozi, a focus on community engagement, and a rapidly growing art scene, which is amazing and driven by highly active and wonderfully talented street artists, photographers, performers, and poets. Sure, you have to be careful. It’s a big city with its share of big problems. But it’s also full of kindness and creativity and community. Johannesburg is a place I would like to live. You should give it a chance.

Ponte City in Hillbrow. This building is an example of how one of the rougher areas is being improved. At one time, this building was hijacked by gangs. Now, it's cleaned up and becoming re-inhabited by legitimate renters, with a large community center in the bottom.

Ponte City in Hillbrow. This building is an example of how one of the rougher areas is being improved. At one time, this building was hijacked by gangs. Now, it’s cleaned up and becoming re-inhabited by legitimate renters, with a large community center in the bottom.

Streets of Hillbrow.

Streets of Hillbrow.

Hillbrow is one of the more dangerous areas of the city, but Heather and I were graciously escorted by George, her boxing coach. After Heather's boxing session in Hillbrow one morning, George walked us all around the neighborhood. Here is George and an...interesting...restaurant we found.

Hillbrow is one of the harder areas of the city, but Heather and I were graciously escorted by George, her boxing coach, who lives there and seems to know everyone. After Heather’s boxing session in Hillbrow one morning, George walked us all around the neighborhood, giving us the grand tour and sharing his knowledge of the place’s history, having grown up there. Here is George and an…interesting…restaurant we found. It has an “automatical” sliding door!

Heather is part of a group of people who are extremely talented photographers using Instagram as one medium for their pictures. They held an "instawalk" around the Ghandi Square area of Jozi, and I tagged along. My photos aren't edited in Instagram, but I like them nonetheless.

Heather is part of a group of talented photographers who use Instagram as one medium for their pictures. They held an “Instawalk” around the Gandhi Square area of Jozi, and I tagged along. My photos aren’t edited in Instagram, but I like them nonetheless.

Shot on the Instawalk.

Shot on the Instawalk.

Shot on the Instawalk.

Shot on the Instawalk.

Shot on the Instawalk. Reflections!

Shot on the Instawalk. Reflections! This building was really shiny.

Shot on the Instawalk.

Shot on the Instawalk.

Ok, I did edit this one in Instagram. @emilylime3.

Ok, I did edit this one in Instagram. @emilylime3.

Shifting gears from the Instawalk:

Fordsburg, where there are a ton of Indian restaurants and sweet shops. Fun evening out for Indian food!

Fordsburg, where there are a ton of Indian restaurants and sweet shops. Fun evening out for Indian food!

Another building I photographed in Hillbrow.

Another building I photographed in Hillbrow.

At the Lucky Bean, the only place in South Africa Heather's found iced coffee. (I found more in Cape Town, but it was more of a coffee slushy so it doesn't really count). Regardless, this coffee shop was really cool.

At Bean There Coffee Co., the only place in South Africa where Heather’s found iced coffee. (I found more in Cape Town, but it was more of a coffee slushy so it doesn’t really count).

You can buy airtime AND diapers here.

You can buy airtime AND diapers here.

Some of the city, as seen from my walk around Hillbrow.

Hillbrow exploration.

And last, another piece of random and really cool artwork on a wall at 44 Stanley.

And last, another piece of random and really cool artwork on a wall at 44 Stanley.

I heart Johannesburg.

Someone give me a job there!

I Am Not My Stuff

FYI, this is a (rare) personal-feelings-and-stuff post…

Just before my plane left Kathmandu on the evening of December 31, I said goodbye to my much-loved host family, to the biggest mountains I’d ever climbed, to five weeks of learning and sharing, and also to a ton of my belongings.

The first three months of my trip round-the-globe required warm clothes, boots, thick jackets, wool socks, hats and mittens. I was in Europe in autumn and Nepal in winter. But the next part of my adventure is taking me into the sweltering summers of the southern hemisphere – to South Africa, to Swaziland, to Southeast Asia. It’s in the 80s and 90s in these places, sun beating down on the hot earth all day long. The fact that I wouldn’t need my long sleeves anymore meant I could lose some of the weight of my hiking pack. And I also felt it was time I tried to let go of some of my sentiment and attachment to material goods.

My friend Joe just started a blog where he describes a similar urge and writes, “I am not my stuff.”  I like this statement. I am not my stuff. I am not my things. I am not defined by my clothes or my shoes or my look or, really, any of my belongings or the things I cover my body with or fill my room with or have in my bag. At least, I am working towards finding a new definition of myself, for myself, that is not at all related to any kind of “stuff”, to “having” or “not having”.

So, I shed my belongings, leaving them stacked nicely on the bathroom counter of a dilapidated Kathmandu coffee shop/guesthouse, knowing someone would eventually claim them for their own use, to hawk, or to give to someone new.

I could have left clothes I didn’t really care about, clothes I could easily replace next winter at any Goodwill store. But instead, deliberately, I left my favorite things. I did this to challenge myself, to prove to myself that no, I am not my stuff. That I don’t need my favorite things to be me or to be happy. That I really don’t need much at all.

So, I left my favorite knee-high lace-up boots that I wore all over Boston and NYC last winter, working and visiting friends and dating and walking, walking, walking my favorite city streets. I left my favorite old wool sweater that was once a very special boyfriend’s, many happy and painful memories attached to it. I left my favorite blue and red winter hat that I’d bartered for just a few weeks earlier in some mountainous Nepali village, and the woolen mittens my father gave me when I was in college. I left my favorite blue and white candy-cane-striped leggings that I’d worn to my favorite yoga classes over and over again for the past three years. I left my best purple flannel that I have had since high school. And I left my once-favorite jeans and once-favorite corduroys, both quite worn but still perfect in their own ways.

I left my stuff on the bathroom counter, paid my $2 bill, and walked out. It wasn’t easy. In fact, I am still working on “getting over” the loss of my boots. Those babies were awesome. Nevertheless, I am glad that I followed through with my (very-last-minute) plan to detach myself from my belongings. And I take comfort in a quote from one of my favorite books, in which Patti Smith writes, “There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”  Patti’s right. There will be new boots and new sweaters and new favorite, worn-in-just-right jeans. And maybe next time I won’t get so attached to them in the first place.

Realistically, I’ll probably forget about most of the stuff I left within the next month, and certainly by the time next fall rolls around and I pull out my remaining warm clothes from their boxes in my grandma’s basement.  And the upside is now I have room in my backpack. Room for gifts from Europe and Asia and Africa. Room for a few pieces of professional attire I’ll have to pick up before heading into Swaziland for my job. Room for lighter clothes to keep me comfortable in the intense heat I’ve just entered.

When midnight of the New Year struck, I was in the air somewhere between Nepal and South Africa. The weight of my backpack had significantly diminished, and I felt lighter, too. At the risk of sounding trite, I feel that this trip has changed me. I just feel different. I feel free of so many pressures and expectations. Yet somehow, I still feel focused and driven. This is so exciting for me, because it’s why I left the USA in the first place. I wanted to figure out how to balance my career ambitions with the rest of my life, including maintaining friendships and making art and spending time in nature and practicing yoga. Can I have both worlds? I wrote in my journal last July, after a particularly challenging week at the office. Can I have my “dream job” and all those other things at the same time? And now, I feel like I can. I feel like I can do whatever the hell I want to do and be whoever the hell I want to be. I’m by no means done with the journey, but I’m happy to be traveling and happy to be in Swaziland next week, doing the work I love with people I respect and being in a new place – still having an adventure, in one way or another. And I’m excited to figure out how to maintain a balance whenever I decide to call this backpacking thing quits.

No, I don’t think leaving my clothes in a Kathmandu coffee shop bathroom on the last day of 2012 led to any big epiphany. Months of traveling and learning a huge amount about myself, and my place in the world, are more likely responsible for the above paragraph’s revelations. But I do think that shedding my belongings contributed in a significant way to how free I feel, as I welcome the first day of 2013, alone in Johannesburg, in a different coffee shop.

IMG_6245

Happy New Year.

Almost Heaven, Himalayas

The highlight of my time in Nepal was an eight-day hike into the Himalayas, alone but for my guide, Bijay. Bijay lives outside of Kathmandu but spends the majority of the year in the wilderness, trekking or guiding or staying at his parents’ “mountain home” in remote Western Nepal (you have to hike for several days to reach it; there are no roads). I met Bijay on Couch Surfing, he gave me a good deal, and he turned out to be a fabulous guide. Here is the link to his personal trekking website.

After discussing about a thousand trekking options with Bijay, I decided to hike to Tsergo Ri Peak in Langtang National Park. This trek involved a 9-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, 6 straight days of wilderness hikin’ for a total of 80+km on foot, and another 9-hour bus ride back to the capitol.

Langtang is well known in Nepal for its beauty and environmental diversity. Its extreme variations in topography enable several different vegetation zones to exist within just a few kilometers of each other – one of very few places in the world where this happens. It was really cool hiking through a thick, damp jungle-y forest one day, the next day through alpine timberline, the next through a red-bush-filled prairie, and the next over a snowy, rocky, barren, Mars-like terrain.

It’s hard to organize this post, because the entire experience covered 8 days and I want to share exactly 8 million stories and experiences with you. But that’s not possible, so I’ll try to condense and be succinct and also show you several yak pictures because I know that will make you happy.

Yak pictures make everyone happy.

IMG_5515Anyway. The trekking adventure began with the bus ride to the village near the trailhead, at the edge of Langtang. This village is only 36 km, as a bird flies, from KTM. The road that leads there is 140 km long. It took our bus around 9 hours to make the drive. It was, for all intents and purposes, a 9-hour-long adrenaline rush. I was completely and utterly exhausted by the time we arrived, even though I’d just been sitting all day. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. But mostly terrifying. Dad, maybe you shouldn’t read the next few paragraphs.

Bijay and I boarded a public bus and departed from KTM at 7:30 AM. Within a half hour we were out of KTM Valley, heading up into the mountains on a single-lane road. Another half hour and the road turned to dirt, and dust, and rocks. Big ass rocks. And no shoulder on either side. On one side, a steep wall of earth. On the other, a plummeting drop far, far, far down. Now the cliff’s on your left. Now it’s on your right. Now left, now right again. Up and down the mountainsides, up and down, between 1400 and 4000 meters altitude, crazy switchbacks all the way. You’re maybe going 20-30 miles an hour, but it seems mighty fast. Your bus is loaded, packed with people, with bags and boxes, with a huge metal wheel (?), with sacks of grain, with lumber. Bijay tells you there will also occasionally be a cage of chickens stuffed in the aisle, or a goat.

IMG_5750The bus is full, with people standing in between the seats, and there are between 5 and 15 people riding on the roof at any given time, as well. You can see their shadow when the sun is just right, the silhouettes of teenage Nepali boys clinging to your and 60 other peoples’ bags strapped to the roof. The bus careens down the road, kicking up dust, hitting and rolling over rocks you think are just a bit too big to be safe. The bus tips precariously as it rolls over the boulders, just far enough onto the edge of its wheels, cliff-side, to make your heart skip a beat. Again, and again. You clutch the seat in front of you, which is broken and falling hard against your knees.

IMG_5698You are torn between admiring the beauty of the terraced farmland below you and panicking at the thought of the bus rolling down the hill, which seems wholly possible with one false move of the driver. Bollywood and Indian rap songs play loudly, on loop. The girl in front of you vomits out the window three times. Two boys in the back are passed puke bags, as well. The winding road is single lane all the way, and really a bit too narrow for the large bus. But it’s the only road there is. You realize this is going to be one hell of a ride.

You can see the thin line of brown road curving around the mountain on the right.

You can see the thin line of brown road curving around the mountain on the right.

Sybrubesi, the village where we stayed the night before beginning the trek.

Sybrubesi, the village where we stayed the night before beginning the trek.

Just 70km outside of Kathmandu, my Nepali guide stopped recognizing the language spoken by the people living there. The culture had completely changed. If you read about it, Nepal is actually crazily diverse. All the more reason to get out of KTM! I wrote in my journal after the long bus ride: “The people live so remotely in their little stone or metal houses, placed here and there amidst steep mountainsides of terraced crops…no roads but the ‘main’ one…near Tibet, just 25km away as a bird flies. Police checkpoints every 15 minutes of driving. Buddhist area – prayer flags and stupas everywhere.”

Prayer wheels being turned by the stream water, in the middle of the remote mountains.

Prayer wheels being turned by the stream water, in the middle of the remote mountains.

The next four days, Bijay and I trekked into the wilderness, away from electricity, away from dirt roads, away from people, away from civilization. Into the wild, into the forest and icy Himalayan air, into these massive mountains, into Sherpa country and nearly into Tibet. (Then we hiked back out in two more days. Much less epic, but still amazing).

IMG_5785IMG_5767Here’s part of my journal entry after the first day: “…a beautiful and interesting hike. All the while, alongside a bright blue, freezing glacial river. Swift and powerful. Subtropical forest. Steep rocky trail covered in donkey and cow droppings. Passed a shepherd’s makeshift home as well as a few traditional mountain villages. Houses of rocks and mud. Monkeys everywhere. /…Tomorrow we’re going to end the day at a ‘big village’ of about 300 people. No roads – only walking in and out. Unbelievable how remote everything is. Bijay said this is nothing; some people in remote areas of Western Nepal can only get food by helicopter. /…At least a few hikers/guides die or go missing doing this trek every year. One was a 25-year-old woman from Colorado, missing since 2010, no one has any idea what happened to her. She simply disappeared. This fall, a guide died by falling off a cliff, though they think he may have been drunk…  Constant reminders to play it safe, never underestimate this nature. The mountains will always win. It’s humbling…”

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You can just see the red-and-white-striped peak of Tsergo Ri in the distance, my ultimate destination!

This is called a Mani wall. They are built periodically along the valley by Tibetan Buddhists. The stones are carved with ancient spiritual inscriptions to remember the dead. Some of the Mani walls are over 400 years old.

This is called a Mani wall. They are built periodically along the valley by Tibetan Buddhists. The stones are carved with ancient spiritual inscriptions to remember the dead. Some of the Mani walls are over 400 years old.

The second day of hiking, we reached Langtang Village at over 3,000 meters, the point at which you begin to feel the effects of altitude. From my journal: “…In a Tibetan language, Lang=yak and Tang=home (this village is home to yaks). / …Prayer flags everywhere. Walk clockwise around the stupas. Vast valley below us, snow-capped peaks all around. Huge no-name waterfalls. Yaks and monkeys. Red berry trees. I stood outside when we got here, watching the thick clouds roll up towards me from below, covering the Buddhist flags in a white haze. I can’t believe I’m here…”

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A frigid Himalayan dusk and my fabulous new Aussie friend Priya, the only other woman I met on my trek.

Clouds rolling up towards me from the valley below.

Clouds rolling up towards me from the valley below.

The third day, we reached Kyanjin Gumpa, a town near the end of a broad valley, at 3,870 meters. I wrote, “It is freezing in this mountain village. Freezing and unbelievably beautiful.” I did not feel my hiking ability had diminished due to altitude, though perhaps I slowed down a bit between Langtang Village and Kyanjin Gumpa. However, I could tell I was way, way high up when I tried to sleep. Breathing in bed was almost painful – mostly, I think, because the air was icy, icy cold, and before acclimatizing, you have to breathe deeply to get enough of that precious O2 into your lungs. The cold air woke me up a little bit more each time I took a breath. Trying to keep my head inside my sleeping bag was also ineffective, as this was suffocating after just a few minutes.

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See that reddish mountain in the distance, on the left? I climbed that.

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Another Mani wall.

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GIANT YAK.

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Another view of the mountain I will soon climb, as well as a stone structure housing a prayer wheel, spun by the rushing water of a hidden stream below.

I should mention at this point that the air in my bedroom was ice cold because the trekking lodges Bijay and I stayed in along the route were made of rough stone, uninsulated, and unheated. You could often see through the gaps in the stone walls to the frozen ground and windblown yaks outside. The only warmth we received was during mealtimes, and then only in the lodge kitchens from the small wood or gas fires used to prepare food. And starting on the second day of trekking, temperatures fell near or below freezing from early evening until mid morning.

This type of cook stove was used in every tea house along the trek, for cooking and warmth. But mostly for cooking.

This type of cook stove was used in every tea house along the trek, for cooking and warmth. But mostly for cooking.

It was really cold.

It was really cold here.

A little explaining: along major trekking routes in Nepal, there is at least one small guesthouse located every 4-8 hours of hiking. These guesthouses are staffed by locals year-round, paid for by trekking fees. The accommodation is very basic, usually involving a single bed in a simple room and an often cold shower or bucket bath. Hot meals are available, but in the off-season, when I did my trek, options may be limited. After all, every single item of food (and everything else, for that matter) must be carried in on foot from the nearest town, which becomes progressively farther and farther away the higher into the remote Himalayas you climb.

Along the trek, we frequently crossed paths with local people carrying MASSIVE baskets of goods up the mountain. I always felt super lame when we’d pass a little old man with a towering basket of firewood or canned food or water bottles strapped to his back and around his forehead, as I panted and sweated up the trail with my much lighter pack, its name-brand hip-straps snugly fitted to maximize comfort… Another effect of seeing these porters was that I never, ever wasted any food along the way. I would just cry if I spent my days lugging 60- or 70-pound containers of food up the mountains only to see a dumbass tourist toss out half her plate of rice.

Bijay told me that during high season, the guesthouses may become so crowded with trekkers that you have to wait hours for a meal. My trek was in mid-December, at the tail end of the shoulder season, and I was pleased that I wasn’t constantly surrounded by other people. I love hiking because it takes me into the woods, away from society, into places where I can be present with nothing but nature and my thoughts and huge, vast, sprawling landscapes not even worth attempting to photograph for all their glory and beauty and intensity and otherworldliness.  Also, after physically strenuous hiking all day, the last thing I would want to do is have to navigate a social situation involving a small kitchen packed with tourists from all over the world, all vying for food and heat from the fire. I only met a few other people along my trek, and this was wonderful because I really got to know a few of them, which I doubt would have happened if there were many more of us out there. However, throughout the entire trek, I didn’t run into any other Americans, I met very few women, and I didn’t meet any other woman trekking alone but for her guide.

The view from Kyanjin Gumba.

The view from the small mountain village of Kyanjin Gumpa, 40km from the nearest road.

Sunset in Kyanjin Gumba.

Sunset in Kyanjin Gumpa.

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Kyanjin Gumpa, 3870m.

IMG_5479 IMG_5483 IMG_5476The fourth day, Bijay and I awoke early and quickly ate porridge in the freezing and dark final moments of Himalayan pre-dawn. Our goal on this day was to summit Tsergo Ri, a 4,875m peak overlooking Kanyjin Gumpa, its top covered in waving prayer flags and offering a stunning 360-degree panorama of snow-capped peaks all around, some nearly 8,000m tall. I had never been that high before – my record was just below 4,000m in Colorado, and even that, I wasn’t totally sure about (I had to turn back on that hike due to lightning above the tree line, so I don’t know exactly how high I made it). But I really, really wanted to make it to the top of Tsergo Ri. I prayed the altitude wouldn’t do me in before I summited the clouded peak.

Just beginning the hike up to Tsergo Ri, that stripey peak up ahead.

Just beginning the hike up to Tsergo Ri, that stripey beast up ahead.

Bijay and I set out for the mountain just as the sun was coming up, though the sky was dark and foreboding, and the wind strong. The water in my Camelbak froze after just a few minutes of hiking. Thankfully Bijay was smart enough to fill his canteen with warm water, so we were able to share that on the way up. We climbed silently. Soon, we reached the 4,000m mark, after which I noted that every step I took was a new personal altitude record. And every step was slower than the last. I didn’t feel dizzy or faint, but I felt winded and tired. I reassessed my physical state every few minutes, knowing that I’d have to turn back if I started to feel altitude sickness. Happily, I never did, I think because I went so slowly. That said, we still made it to the peak in 3.5 hours, though Bijay said it usually takes at least 4. I consider that a win.

A few views from along the hike up:

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Nearly there...

Nearly there…

About the hike to the peak, I wrote in my journal: “Extremely steep dirt trails, near vertical but no plants or trees to hold on to. Windy and icy cold all the way. I felt like a snail. Wind blowing violently. Snow made visibility very poor.”

About an hour from the peak, it began to snow. The wind whipped the clouds around us, obscuring our visibility. For the rest of the climb, I couldn’t see farther than about 3 meters in front of me – just enough to catch the blue of Bijay’s hat up ahead. The hiking was safe, as we were simply going up, not along a cliff or through a forest. We were climbing up a huge field of big rocks, using hands and feet, and at times pulling ourselves up very steep, barren dirt paths. Exhausting. I had one of those brief mental fallbacks where I took stock of how it felt to be there in that snowstorm, at that altitude, not being able to see any view at all – “This sucks! Why do I do this? Why do I think this is fun? What is wrong with people, that we do these tortuous things for fun?!” – but then, suddenly, we were at the top.

Visibility during the snow storm, close to 5,000 meters.

Visibility during the snow storm, close to 5,000 meters.

A view of the peak, through the blowing snow.

A view of the peak, through the blowing snow.

Couldn't see too far in the storm, but what we could see was splendid.

Couldn’t see too far in the storm, but what we could see was splendid.

We sat behind a boulder in an attempt to shelter ourselves from the whipping wind and the stinging snow. We huddled and we shivered and we laughed at the fact that we worked our asses off to climb to the top of the world, only to be caught in a white whirlwind that kept us from seeing anything around or below us. The fact that I may have physically and mentally pushed myself harder than ever before, for no reason other than the challenge itself, made me feel a bit silly. But miraculously, within about 10 minutes, the snow suddenly stopped. The cloud around us blew to another peak across the valley. And we saw the vast, vast earth below and around us on every side.

IMG_5430 IMG_5399IMG_5428 IMG_5413I was so excited by the view that I actually started running and skipping back and forth across the summit, snapping photos and joyfully exclaiming expletives. But very quickly, the altitude reminded me that I really shouldn’t be running and jumping or doing anything faster than a snail’s pace at this point, so I surrendered my physical enthusiasm and simply stood in awe, munching a frozen piece of chapati and trying to keep my fingers from going completely numb. “The Himalayas are f*cking huge.”

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Above the clouds…

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Before we began our descent (“I felt like shit most of the way down”), I pocketed a tiny pebble from the highest point on the peak of Tsergo Ri. I am not really a sentimental person, and I certainly don’t collect things, but this mountain was not only my biggest physical feat ever but is also higher than the highest mountain in the Alps and the highest I may ever climb. I hope it’s not, but you never know.

Rocky trek down over 1,000m...

Rocky trek down over 1,000m…please excuse my finger, the goin’ was rough.

OUR HOME PLANET IS SO INCREDIBLE.

OUR HOME PLANET IS SO INCREDIBLE.

Side note: A 33-year-old Swedish personal trainer I met in Kyanjin Gumpa also climbed Tsergo Ri during the snowstorm. He’d previously summited Everest Base Camp and Mt. Kilimanjaro. He had the body of a god and was clearly born to overcome all sorts of physical challenges in his life. But he told me that Tsergo Ri was the most challenging climb he’d ever done, due to the weather conditions and the rapid increase in altitude (we climbed up over 1000m [after already starting at 3870m above sea level] in a matter of hours as opposed to taking a few days to gradually reach higher altitudes, like on Everest). So, this made me feel pretty empowered, as a smallish American woman who is certainly not a gloriously chiseled Swedish personal trainer and certainly not built by the gods to champion all types of incredible physical feats in life. I JUST REALLY FRIGGIN’ LOVE MOUNTAINS! IT WAS SO EPIC!

The next two days, Bijay and I made our way back down through all the vegetation zones, starting in snowy Kyanjin Gumpa, hiking along scenic ridges, and across glacial streams, to the warm and sunny village where we began nearly a week earlier. Then came the 9-hour heart-stopping bus ride back to my host family’s house in Kathmandu, where I gleefully took a real hot shower and hand-washed my absolutely disgusting trekking clothes.

View from the way down.

View from the way down. You can see a squiggly road on the mountain across the valley. That’s the way home…

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Almost back down to the town!

IMG_5355I miss the Himalayas already. My brief journal entry from the final day of the trek reads, “Trying to reflect on how I feel but maybe it’s too soon…I feel like I just completed something amazing, like I am so much physically stronger than I could ever have imagined, and that I really want a good, long, hot yoga class.”

By now, I’ve had some more time to think about the trek, but I’ll just share one brief note on my reflections. Since August, I have written in my journal, “Actually, this was the most incredible thing I have ever done in my life” on three separate occasions.  I think it’s safe to say 24 turned out to be a pretty fab year.

Here’s another yak photo.

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Eating Nepali Style (Or, How To Gain Like 7 Pounds In One Month)

I am lucky that I like traditional Nepali food (maybe a little too much!) because most of my days in Nepal centered around meals (or, more accurately, around a near-constant influx of high-calorie, heavily spiced food products into my now-overstretched stomach). In Nepal, I was constantly extremely full.

Daal, Baht, and Curried Veg.

Daal baht tarkari (translation: lentil soup, rice, curried vegetables), the traditional Nepali dish.

The first thing you need to understand about Nepal is that having seconds is not optional, but mandatory. Further, when you say no, it really means yes. A nod of the head means yes, as does a shake of the head. Even variations of “No…no thanks…please, no” really implies yes, give me more! in Nepal. This topic led to frequent discussions and lots of laughter between my host family and me, enjoying our wholesome and, at times, absurd cross-cultural exchange. My 12-year-old host brother Himal shaking his head yes to everything, always to my utter confusion, is one of my favorite amusing memories of my time with the Pandeys. We also decided if I really meant no, I would say, “American No!” instead of just “no, thanks”. “American No!” was code for “If you force me to eat more, I actually might be ill.”

Here is a typical dialogue that I had every few hours during my first weeks in the country (I later just gave up on arguing and submitted):

Any/all people serving food: You want more? [hovers overflowing ladle above my plate]

Me: Oh no, thank you so much, but I’ve had enough.

Server: Yes, have more. Have some!

Me: No, really, I’m full, it was delicious, thank you, but no.

Server: Ok, you have a little more. [Dumps ladle onto plate, usually followed by another serving of something else.]

REPEAT AT LEAST ONE OR TWO MORE TIMES.

I learned how to eat with my hand. There is actually a strategy to this - it's not just shoveling!

I learned how to eat with my hand. There is actually a strategy to this – it’s not just shoveling!

In Nepali culture you are actually supposed to say “no” first. If you immediately say “yes” to an offer of more food, it implies you’ve been waiting and waiting for more. So, say “no” a few times, then give in. Or don’t give in, and you’ll still get more food. You will always get seconds, you sometimes have no option but to have thirds, and you better clean your plate lest being considered an ungrateful guest or a “small eater” (while trekking, my Nepali guide referred to me as a “small eater” while apologetically explaining to a server why I didn’t want a fourth helping of rice. And I am fairly confident he said it with a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “She is…[sigh, pained facial expression]…small eater…”).

Anyway, here is how you will eat if you go to Nepal and choose to integrate with local culture (which I obviously recommend for so many more reasons than the food).

The typical day in Nepal begins with what I have decided to call “stomach priming”. You wake up around 5:30 AM, pull yourself out from under many thick blankets, and quickly pull on at least three layers of clothes. Finally, you wrap your entire body in a yak wool blanket to shield you from the early morning freeze of the Nepali winter. You head to the kitchen where your host mom (Aama) is already hard at work boiling water, heating milk, making daal (lentil soup) and baht (rice) and other foods to be eaten throughout the day.

Aama rolling chapati.

Aama rolling chapati.

Aama serving (huge) normal helpings of rice and curried vegetables.

Aama serving huge normal helpings of rice and curried vegetables.

You are promptly handed a mug of freshly strained milk tea, made by boiling ginger and masala and pepper and a variety of other incredible, fragrant spices in fresh cow’s milk (on a trek, you may exchange cow’s milk for the slightly more pungent and thicker yak’s milk). You are also handed at least 3 clementines, which you peel and eat, spitting the seeds politely into a cupped left hand. Next, you may be served a large plate of popcorn, or a bowl of corn flakes with hot milk, or, if they are on-hand, a croissant or pile of toast. Sometimes you get at least two of these options.

After breakfast you have a few hours to go about your business. However, if you happened to wake up and prime your stomach before your host siblings were up, when they rise you will once again be summoned to the kitchen: “Emily-didi, it’s time for tea!” You will then complete a second round of stomach priming only about 30 minutes after the first. I call this “second breakfast”.

Around 10 AM, you are called back to the kitchen for your second large meal of the day (“third breakfast” or “lunch”). This consists of the following*:

  • At least 1-2 cups of white rice
  • At least 1 cup of daal (thin lentil soup)
  • At least 1 cup of curried vegetables (usually potatoes or cauliflower, sometimes saag, a leafy green)
  • A pile of pickled vegetables, such as white radishes

*This is all just the first serving.

You eat this delicious food by mixing and squeezing and pinching it together with all the fingers of your right hand, and scooping it into your mouth at rocket-speed (or, if you’re like me, slowly enough that people notice and look at you quizzically or laugh with you at your apparently clumsy hand-to-mouth performance). You are then served seconds and possibly thirds of everything. The fact that you feel like you might actually burst open at the seams is irrelevant. You eat it all because Aama is an incredible cook and the flavors are always amazing. And also because you are supposed to.

You wash everything down with 1-2 glasses of hot water.

“You want orange?”

Yes, of course you want the orange. You don’t know why, but you want it. And the orange is actually a clementine, and it’s not one clementine, but three.

Daal, Baht, and Curried Vegetables. And Pickles. And Saag (green vegetables, spelling probably incorrect).

Daal baht tarkari, pickles, and saag (green vegetables, spelling probably incorrect).

An alternative to rice, which is also some kind of rice.

An alternative to rice, which is also some kind of rice.

Rice with pickle, saag, and some paneer curry.

Rice with pickle, saag, and some paneer curry.

Next you have a few more hours to do whatever you need to do, but before long, Aama calls you from the kitchen. “Emily-didi??? Come! We will have tea.” Spoken in a manner like there is no question about the matter. You will have tea.

I love the tea in Nepal, though the high frequency of teatimes took some getting used to. I have never been much of a milk drinker. At home, my only dairy comes from Greek yogurt in the morning and maybe some cheese during the day. In Nepal, the tea is made from milk. The instant coffee is made from milk. The paneer and ghee and porridges and many, many other things are made from milk. And not skim milk or 1% – we’re talking fresh-from-the-utter, thick, fragrant, fatty fatty fatty milk. Oof. Oof, but delicious in masala tea, at least. And in Nepal, you have a lot of masala tea. In fact, you overcome your coffee addiction because of masala tea. It’s just that good (and the coffee is just that bad).

The best thing in the entire universe.

The best thing in the entire universe.

With your tea, you will eat another few clementines, a packet of Digestives or other biscuits, or anything else that may be lying around the kitchen just waiting for already-extremely-full foreigners to inhale anyway.

After tea it’s nearly suppertime. Aama is busy as a bee in front of the gas stovetop, filling the house with the smells of saffron and curry and broths and sautéed vegetables. Soon, you join the family at the low table, and are passed another plate of the same food combinations you had at your 10AM meal. You clean your plate, draining the last of the broth by tipping your dish up to your mouth, following the example of your host parents. Aama sometimes licks her plate clean. You eventually do this, too, after you stop feeling awkward about it. You are served seconds, maybe thirds. You clean your plate again and again, drink your hot water, and then may be passed biscuits, rice pudding, or bits of chocolate.

You will eat all of this.

You will eat all of this.

Saag and paneer curry, which is delectable.

Saag and paneer curry, which is delectable.

Momos! I had these a few times in Nepal. They are quite labor-intensive to prepare, but I learned how to do it! And they are addictive.

Momos! I had these a few times in Nepal. They are quite labor-intensive to prepare, but I learned how to do it! And they are addictive.

In a half hour or so, it’s time for coffee. In the US, I never drink coffee after around 7PM unless I am pulling an all-nighter, but in Nepal, coffee is simply a half-teaspoon of instant coffee in a large mug of hot milk and sugar. It actually kind of makes you sleepy. So, you drink your piping hot coffee, maybe down a few more clementines, and, feeling more sated than you ever thought possible, say goodnight and go to bed. It’s somewhere between 8:00 and 8:30 PM.

You get at least 9 hours of sleep every night in Nepal. You have probably not experienced this much sleep, this regularly, since before you were in high school. It is glorious, but soon you realize most of your time in Nepal involves eating and resting, and you sadly bid adieu to your yoga abs. Goodbye, yoga abs. I really enjoyed you during the short period of time you existed. Goodbye…

Nepal in Photos

Nepal in Photos, MINUS the Himalayas – those shots deserve their own post!

Most of my time in Kathmandu, I lived with the Pandeys, a Nepali host family I connected with via a British friend of a German friend. My Nepali family resides in a big brown house just outside the city, close to the famous Swoyambhu (Monkey Temple!).

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Prayer wheels at Swoyambhu.

I loved my time with the Pandeys. I really feel like I have a family in Nepal after living with them for just a month.

In line with Nepali tradition, my Aama (mother) gave me a garland of marigolds and fed me three spoonfuls of curd as I departed their home on my last day.

In line with Nepali tradition, my Aama (mother) gave me a garland of marigolds and fed me three spoonfuls of curd as I departed their home on my last day.

My host brothers and me. And why yes I AM wearing traditional Nepali clothes! My very neon Christmas gift from the Pandeys.

My host brothers (aged 16 and 12) and me. And why yes I AM wearing traditional Nepali clothes! My very neon Christmas gift from the Pandeys.

My activities at the Pandeys’ involved eating an unbelievable amount of home-cooked Nepali goodness, helping my bhaiharu (brothers) with their English, hand-washing my clothes, chatting about Nepal and America, laughing about table manners and idioms and cultural opposites, drinking countless cups of masala milk tea, and making daily excursions to explore different areas of Kathmandu Valley and beyond.

Laundry day. Aama and I would spend a few hours on the roof, she efficiently laundering the clothes of her four-person family, and I t-e-d-i-o-u-s-l-y scrubbing my few totally wrecked backpacking outfits.

Laundry day. Aama and I would spend a few hours on the roof, she efficiently laundering the clothes of her four-person family, and I t-e-d-i-o-u-s-l-y scrubbing my few totally wrecked backpacking outfits.

I am so grateful that I opted to stay with a host family in Nepal instead of in a hostel, because I feel I was able to learn so much more about Nepali culture, and also enjoy a familiar atmosphere when I came “home” every evening or after my longer excursions around the country. For the first time since I began traveling, my days became somewhat predictable. I knew what to expect in the evenings; I knew where I would sleep every night; I knew what the food was like and didn’t have to worry about making it myself. I got to know the family dynamic and the flow of the days in their home. Though the structure that existed in my new home was at times a challenge after deciding my own time for months, it was also welcomed, as it allowed me to feel “at home” and a bit settled for the first time since August.

I found plenty of ways to occupy myself around KTM Valley. I visited numerous Hindu temples, Buddhist stupas, monasteries and abbeys, the botanical gardens, a Buddhist full moon festival, a classical Nepali concert, and several famous medieval city squares boasting beautiful and ancient spiritual structures and statues. I learned how to eat all my meals with my right hand, how to jump on and off a moving bus (or tempo or van), how to say a few key Nepali phrases, and how to haggle for jewelry and yak wool shawls like a pro (just walk away…just walk away). I reveled in being in such a dynamic setting once again, surrounded by warm-hearted people and extreme cultural and religious diversity, keeping every moment interesting as I worked to navigate my way through this totally new and foreign part of the world.

And now, too many photos!

Namaste, Nepal! (or, Awake Too Long For First Time In Asia)

I had a red-eye flight from Rome to Kathmandu on Sunday night, with a 4-hour layover in Qatar. I am cursed with the inability to sleep on planes, so arrived to Nepal, after crossing several time zones, completely exhausted around 5PM local time the following day. Next came an hour-long taxi ride to Balaju Chowk, the area of town where my Couch Surfing host lived with his small family.

In the smoggy evening haze of a Kathmandu Monday, my taxi careened down potholed or dirt roads, kicking up clouds of brown dust and narrowly dodging a never-ending onslaught of motorcycles, cars, pedestrians, buses, dogs, bicycles, cows, tempos, and rickshaws, speeding from seemingly every direction. My ears filled with the clanging cacophony of horns and shouting drivers, and I instinctively covered my mouth and nose with my scarf to keep from inhaling thick clouds of exhaust and dust. My mind filled with memories of a similar taxi ride in my first-ever trip outside the USA, when I arrived to Nairobi over three years ago.

People, people everywhere!

People, people everywhere!

KTM by night.

KTM by night.

KTM by night when the power goes out.

KTM by night, when the power goes out.

I soon learned through a series of convoluted phone calls – involving my taxi driver, my Couch Surfing host, and myself – that my host was unexpectedly out of town. In his place, his wife Sita fetched me at our designated meeting point, carrying along her two young children.  Sita spoke no English, but welcomed me into her family’s small apartment near Balaju. Three rooms – a kitchen, a bedroom, and guest room – cool cement floors, paintings of Shiva on the walls, a rustic bathroom with occasional running water, kitchen counters piled high with metal plates, tomatoes, potatoes and beans.

I removed my shoes at the door and gratefully dropped my 20-kilo backpack on the floor of the guest room, stripping off my jacket and scarf. Though the room was cool and dark, I was sweating and uncomfortable from a long travel, lack of sleep and dealing with the constant on-and-off maneuvering of my pack. I felt unpleasantly gritty from the new layer of dust clinging to my damp skin.

Sita silently brought me an aluminum plate loaded with an enormous helping of white rice, curried vegetables, and daal, the traditional (and, I’d soon learn, delicious) Nepali lentil soup. She handed me a glass of recently boiled water and a cup of sweet milky tea, shutting the door to my guest room behind her as she left. Feeling a bit awkward – does this mean I should stay in here? Should I try to visit with Sita and her kids? Is she being polite, or am I being rude? How can I communicate my gratefulness other than saying Thank You a million times and smiling? – I wolfed down the food.

I slept fitfully that night, my body’s rhythm skewed from the change in time zones and the lack of a real “night” the night before. I awoke Tuesday morning feeling pretty shitty, still not really having any concept of time or, for that matter, place. As soon as she heard my movements, Sita entered the room with another massive plate of food – white rice, curried vegetables, lentil soup. This new breakfast experience seemed only to contribute to the surreal nature of the morning.

Breakfast?

Breakfast!

Sita’s husband Bijay, who spoke some English, was still not back from out of town, and without him to communicate with, I hadn’t the slightest clue how far I was from downtown Kathmandu, how to get there, if I could walk there, or even what my options were for transportation. Usually when I Couch Surf, I am able to glean a bit of information from my hosts then be independent for the most part. But in Nepal, the absence of my host meant I had no idea where to begin. Perhaps I should have prepared better, but after months of seamless CSing experiences, there was nothing I could have done to anticipate Bijay’s absence upon my arrival.

I felt aimless all day Tuesday, unable to find an English speaker in the town, nor the Internet to show me where, in fact, I was actually located. I tried and failed to discover the way into central KTM through attempted conversations with the very friendly locals, including Sita. Further, I had no map for the area and was hesitant to just “wing it” as I usually do, foreseeing an obviously greater challenge in relocating my home base than anywhere in Europe (there was no street signage in Balaju and the narrow dirt roads all looked quite the same). Thus, I had to rely on Sita’s hospitality, which was immense: though I’ll never know for sure, she didn’t seem to mind me resting in the guest room at various periods during the day. She fed me a huge amount of rice and lentils, and we did our best to have tiny, broken conversations, mostly centering around the activities of her children, where her husband was, and that no, I couldn’t help with anything at all.

Nepali village. I didn't take photos in Balaju where I stayed the first few days (felt weird with my camera out) but this shot depicts a similar area.

Nepali village. I didn’t take photos in Balaju where I stayed the first few days (felt weird with my camera out) but this shot depicts a similar area.

Tuesday night, I didn’t sleep. Hating myself for allowing myself a bit of rest during the day, I tossed and turned until dawn, promptly dozing off just as the sun came up. My alarm buzzed around 9:30, and I felt even worse than the day before. I’d never experienced jet lag this bad before, and compounding this exhaustion was my inability to communicate and total lack of awareness for where I was. It’s a strange feeling, not having any idea, for over two days, exactly where you are. Sure, I knew I was at least somewhere near Kathmandu, but other than that, all I could tell was I was possibly the only non-Nepali speaker in a relatively small KTM suburb full of adorable schoolchildren, crowing roosters, stray dogs, Coca-Cola signs, open storefronts, dirt roads thick with brown dust, crazy motorcyclists, and non-English speakers.

Wednesday, Bijay returned, and he showed me how I was actually within a 30-minute walk from central Kathmandu. Bijay and Sita were extremely kind to me, but I decided that night, I would try to find a hostel in the city center. I felt I simply needed my own space and a place where I wouldn’t feel like a bad guest just sleeping until 1PM if that’s what I needed to get back on my feet. Further, I did not want to overstay my welcome, and felt that in my current state, I was contributing very little in the cross-cultural exchange that is a main purpose of CSing. Kicking myself for feeling a bit incompetent, and disgusted by my apparent sudden inability to feel comfortable in any given situation, I thanked my hosts with some Italian chocolates and headed into Kathmandu.

Bustling KTM. Bustling all the time.

Bustling KTM. Bustling all the time.

I had acquired a basic tourist map, but after a few hours of walking, found it ultimately useless. Most streets in KTM do not have signage, and not all streets were represented on the map. Further, the streets curved and forked when the map showed them as straight, and were straight when the map showed them winding. Eventually getting my bearings, I relied on memorizing landmarks to find my way: “second left after the yellow house”, “turn right after the blue Pepsi billboard”, etc. Though a better plan than using the map, this strategy also had some holes. For example, my directions to “take the alley by the Coca-Cola sign” or “it’s by the brown door with the orange flowers” proved pointless, given my far-too-late realizations that there are approximately one million identical Coca-Cola signs, and that every door is brown and adorned with marigolds. Nevertheless, I finally found a cheap (less than $5/night), basic guesthouse in the city center, and offloaded my packs once again, collapsing onto the hard mattress in a cloud of dust and dishevelry (it’s a word!).

Yak Cheese. It's super stinky.

Yak Cheese. Part of my dinner in the hostel, Night 1. It’s super stinky (the yak cheese).

KTM Hostel Survival Kit. (Side note: This is my first peanut butter in months. MONTHS, PEOPLE. You don't realize how much you need it in your life until you are outside the US and it costs like $8 everywhere. And no, All Of Europe, Nutella is NOT an acceptable alternative!).

KTM Hostel Survival Kit. (Side note: This is my first peanut butter in months. MONTHS, PEOPLE. You don’t realize how much you need it in your life until you are outside the US and it costs like $8 everywhere. No, All Of Europe, Nutella is NOT an acceptable alternative.)

I’m a little embarrassed to write this blog post, because I like to think of myself as someone who can handle extremely new and intense experiences with at least a stumbling grace, even as a solo traveler with tremendous jet lag. But more important than that, I want this blog to be honest. So, you’re getting the real deal…

In my guesthouse that night, I cocooned myself in my sleeping bag and tried to come to terms with the fact that I felt completely lost in a completely unfamiliar city in a completely unfamiliar part of the world, not knowing a soul and not being able to speak the first word of Nepali besides the obvious greeting, “Namaste”. I tried to stop with the constant self-shaming I’d been doing since arriving, but struggled to forgive myself for feeling so alien. I’d put myself in this position on purpose, after all. It was all a very deliberate shoving of myself out of my comfort zone.

Before sleeping, I waited for the power to come on and took my first shower since leaving Rome 4 days earlier, feeling extremely American as I stripped, shivering, and cursed the icy trickle of water. Who am I? I thought, disgusted with myself for feeling a general lack of enthusiasm. Aren’t I the same person who traveled alone to Kenya for 3 months at the age of 21, loving every moment of the challenge and rusticity I faced there? Yes, I think I am the same person. It’s just that sleep is extremely important to me and I was about to begin night #5 of “basically none”.

The power in Nepal goes out several times a day for several hours. This is known as "load sharing": not all areas of the country get power at the same time. A few shops have generators to keep at least one light bulb on when this happens at night. Here's a man selling fish from an open stall in KTM during a power cut.

The power in Nepal goes out several times a day for several hours. This is known as “load sharing”: not all areas of the country get power at the same time. A few shops have generators to keep at least one light bulb on when this happens at night. Here’s a man selling fish from an open stall in KTM during a power cut.

Came upon this market my first night out in the city, with generators keeping a few lights on.

Came upon this market my first night out in the city, with generators keeping a few lights on.

The first thing I noticed in KTM were the electrical wires. I actually got a small shock one day from stepping on a wire that I didn't see - but it was no worse than the time I got tear gassed in Nairobi...ha! Travel makes for some good stories.

The first thing I noticed in KTM were the electrical wires. I actually got a small shock one day from stepping on a wire that I didn’t see – but it was no worse than that time I got tear gassed in Nairobi…ha! Travel makes for some good stories.

I still didn’t sleep perfectly Thursday night, but I was able to have a restful morning in my own space, rising slowly and gently yoga-ing my way into a fully awake state. In the early afternoon, I decided I’d had enough of this jet lag bullshit, and headed into the city to begin exploring. I forcefully threw all my anxiety out the window and adopted a “f*&$ it!” attitude, pocketing my map after the first 10 minutes of walking and just meandering through the winding dirt alleys and maze of shops, stalls, carts, shrines and stupas, soaking it all in with an open heart.

Ceramic market.

Ceramic market.

Cloth market in KTM.

Cloth market in KTM.

Multipurpose shop in KTM.

Multipurpose shop in KTM.

KTM is really interesting because one second, you feel like you're in a crazy, bustling, dusty, intense developing country inner-city and the next moment, you're in a peaceful square with Buddhist stupas or Hindu temples. The religious structures are on every corner, surrounded by daily life.

KTM is really interesting because one second, you feel like you’re in a crazy, bustling, dusty, intense developing country inner-city and the next moment, you’re in a peaceful square with Buddhist stupas or Hindu temples. The religious structures are on every corner, surrounded by daily life.

One of many Buddhist stupas in KTM.

One of many Buddhist stupas in KTM.

Kathmandu is fascinating. It’s a complete sensory overload, but you can see beauty and kindness everywhere. I found the people extremely friendly – to the point where they will give you directions even if they have no idea where you’re trying to go (lesson learned, but effort appreciated!). Tourists are few in number and all decked out in some combination of hiking boots, trekking gear, dread locks, and towering backpacks. They all look unshowered and mountainous, the men bearded and the women makeup-free. The city’s shops and stalls sell beautiful artwork, silver and stone jewelry, Tibetan singing bowls, spiritual artifacts, tea and incense, wooden mala beads, handmade carpets, colorful weavings, spices galore, fruit, beans, dried fish. The streets are a speeding chaos – no, a frenzy – of animals, traffic, and people, requiring constant alertness and more than a little courage to cross the road.  Everywhere you turn there is a statue of Shiva, a Buddhist stupa, a Hindu temple, a stream of waving prayer flags.

I was helplessly – yet calmly – lost in KTM until well into the night, but the city never shut down (although the power did!). And finally, as I aimlessly navigated my way down a dark, crowded sidewalk, finally, after nearly 5 surreal, intense, sleepless days in the country, I grinned involuntarily and had that magic mental moment I’d been desperately waiting for: “Oh my god, I’m in Nepal…I’M IN NEPAL!!!!!”

Suck it, jet lag, culture shock, cold shower, disorientation, self-disgust, and lack of sleep, toilet paper, electricity, and all forms of communication. I AM IN NEPAL ALL BY MYSELF AND IT IS CRAZY AND INCREDIBLE AND DIFFERENT AND AWESOME. Journey on, Winter. Journey right on.

In Durbar Square, the most famous square in KTM. This square has temples and palaces that were built between the 15th and18th centuries.

In Durbar Square, the most famous square in KTM. This square has temples and palaces that were built between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Kathmandu Durbar Square.

Kathmandu Durbar Square. I learned 3 weeks later that I was supposed to pay $10 to get into the square. Somehow I missed that, and snuck inside, completely by accident…

There are cows everywhere in Nepal. This one is hanging out in KTM Durbar Square. Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion. It's a criminal offense to kill a cow in Nepal.

There are cows everywhere in Nepal. This one is hanging out in KTM Durbar Square. Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion. It’s a criminal offense to kill a cow in Nepal.

KTM Durbar Square, a lot of pigeons, and some babes

KTM Durbar Square, a lot of pigeons, and some babes.

KTM Durbar Square

KTM Durbar Square

Rickshaws!

Rickshaws!

A market in KTM Durbar Sq.

A market in KTM Durbar Sq.

I found it really fascinating how people hang out on, and sell things from the steps of the palaces and temples in Durbar Square. In the West, we traditionally keep our religious places silent and pristine, at times even with a sterile feeling. In Nepal, I actually really liked how the spiritual structures were simply integrated into the daily lives of the people who lived there.

I found it really fascinating how people hang out on, and sell things from the steps of the palaces and temples in Durbar Square. In the West, we traditionally keep our religious places silent and pristine, at times even with a sterile feeling. In Nepal, I actually really liked how the spiritual structures were simply integrated into the daily lives of the people who lived there.

Market in KTM

Another ceramic market in KTM

Fabric market. I may have purchased too many yak wool items from this guy. Especially since I'm headed into the South African Summer next...

Fabric market. I may have purchased too many yak wool items from this guy. Especially since I’m headed into the South African Summer next…

Bead market in KTM! There are a million shops just like this one, all in the same place, all selling rows and rows of sparkling beads. Obsessed...

Bead market in KTM! There are a million shops just like this one, all in the same place, all selling rows and rows of sparkling beads. Obsessed…

Aaaand the one thing I didn't like about living in KTM. But the upside is that after living in such a polluted environment again, I got a little antsy to get back to the Public Health World. Get ready, Swaziland!

Aaaand the one thing I didn’t like about living in KTM. But the upside is that after living in such a polluted environment again, I got a little antsy to get back to the Public Health World. Get ready, Swaziland!

ALL the trucks in Nepal are decorated like this. Apparently the truckers have a competition amongst themselves, based on whose truck is the fanciest. I saw some with glitter paint and also some with streamers and bows attached to them.

ALL the trucks in Nepal are decorated like this. Apparently the truckers have a competition amongst themselves, based on whose truck is the fanciest. I saw some with glitter paint and also some with streamers and bows attached to them.

Sparkly truck garlands.

Sparkly truck garlands.

This tractor wanted in on the competition.

This tractor wanted in on the competition.

Rome: Time Always Wins

Throughout my backpacking trip, a few themes have inexplicably developed. These are images or occurrences or references that appear over and over again, enough for me to notice and document. The least obscure, and perhaps stupidly obvious, of these themes involves time, clocks, age, and the unyielding authority of these constructions. In Rome, the power of time was omnipresent.

These ancient ruins, colossal and grandiose, intricately decorated, precisely sculpted, represented power, wealth, victory, and accomplishment in their heyday. Now, all that remains are carefully maintained mounds of rock, leaning columns, empty brick boxes hundreds of feet high. Men cut grass on riding mowers around crumbling, millennia-old temples to ancient deities. A woman, suspended forty feet up in a cherry-picker basket, carefully scrapes mortar and re-connects bricks to a top-heavy, teetering once-wall. Construction workers place modern-day scaffolding on the remains of a dusty Roman palace, now sagging on an eroding grassy hill. Once the most powerful empire in the world, the Roman legacy succumbs to time as a handful of laymen are paid minimally to try to keep the last stone piles from being reclaimed by the earth.

Inner Colosseo

Inner Colosseo

Inner Colosseo

Inner Colosseo

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Arch by Colosseo

Arch by Colosseo

Such detail. So old.

Such detail. So old.

Roman ruins.

Roman ruins.

Woman on cherrypicker fixes Roman ruins.

Woman on cherrypicker fixes Roman ruins.

Sun shining through ruins.

Sun shining through ruins.

This was the most astonishing structure to me, because it's so HUGE!

This was the most astonishing structure to me, because it’s so HUGE!

My days in Rome were filled with directionless exploration and staring in wonder, trying to comprehend how some of these massive structures still stand at all, how they were created so long ago, how many hands have touched these stones over time, how much the world has changed since they were built by emporers and slaves. Eventually moving away from ancient ruins, I walked through countless churches, each more splendid than the last. I found my way to famous, as well as seemingly forgotten, fountains, exquisitely groomed parks, bustling city squares. The sun shone hotly every day, making it warm enough to walk in a t-shirt and justify at least one gelato each afternoon.

My least favorite part of Rome was the Vatican.  It was packed with tourists – we literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder while examining the infinitely high ceilings and gilded chapels – and the staff was pushy and rude. Any aura of peace or humility was promptly squelched by one million gawking and chattering foreigners shoving past each other and snapping photos. I found the sunset much more marvelous than anything inside the Vatican walls (though I bet if I’d made it to the Sistine Chapel when it was open, I would have appreciated the art equally to the evening sky!). (Don’t gasp at my failure to make the Sistine, Grandma, I just couldn’t get there in time both times I tried…)

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD. The Vatican was nice, but it can't compete with the sunset. Sky 1, Man 0...

HOLY MOTHER OF GOD. The Vatican was nice, but it can’t compete with the sunset.

Wow.

Wow.

I die. The sky is just too magnificent to handle every single day.

I die. The sky is just too magnificent to handle every single day.

Saturday, I folded my clothes (some of them freshly hand-laundered in the hostel sink) and re-stuffed my backpack, hopped an evening train to the airport and said farewell to Rome, to Italy, and to the first leg of my adventure, thanking Europe for an incredible two months of both world- and self-discovery.

More Rome Photos:

The Youngest Thing in Rome

Rome was my final destination in Europe. My plane to Nepal departed from Aeroporto Internazionale Leonardo da Vinci di Fiumicino on Sunday, November 25. I took a train from Pisa to Rome on a Wednesday, allowing myself about four days to explore the endless marvels of some of our most iconic ancient civilizations.

I arrived to Rome feeling excited, but anxious. The air was heavy, thick with a breezeless humidity, palm trees standing erect and motionless in the warm evening. I felt I was still overcoming some of the internal struggle I faced in Pisa. After dropping my pack at a hostel, I pulled on my boots, pocketed a city map, and walked out into the night, hoping to find some clarity and rekindle my enthusiasm for indefinite solo traveling.

Walking through a serene Roman park.

Walking through a serene and empty Roman park.

I took off in the general direction of the Coliseum, not knowing if or when I’d come to it. I walked through vast parks, observed trickling stone fountains, passed pile after pile of red rubble surrounded by high metal fences – ancient ruins at every turn, half without informational signage: history crumbling, unnamed, all around me.

The moon was bright, and I followed its light up a hill, hoping for a view of the city at night. The palm trees and shrubbery thinned, and I suddenly found myself staring down at the unmistakable dark-windowed curve of Colosseo, basked in moonlight.

One of my first views of the Coliseum.

My first view of the Coliseum.

Suddenly breathless, I grinned and gathered myself, inhaling deeply and remembering what I was searching for: this feeling, of seeing myself from above, pinpointing my tiny self in a giant world, a huge universe, just chillin’ by my lonesome in a random corner of the earth, experiencing something brand f’ing new every single moment. Doing nothing but being in Rome. I hopped down the hill towards the massive amphitheater, keeping one eye on the moon and its astonishing three bright halos, brightening up the midnight sky.

The Coliseum area was nearly void of tourists at this hour. I had the imposing structure all to myself. I walked around it a few times, taking in its immense proportions and thinking how crazily hard it must have been to build without modern technology and machinery. Meandering nearby, I examined the detailed carvings on a few stone arches then headed up a hill towards a church, which I circled a few times without finding an entry point, but enjoyed seeing in the quiet Rome night nonetheless. Eventually, I slowly strolled back to my hostel, collapsing into bed and feeling at peace for the first time in over a week.

Here are some more photos:

Moon, stars, old things.

Moon, stars, old things.

Colosseo by night. The place was nearly deserted. Excellent.

Colosseo by night. The place was nearly deserted, which I found to be excellent.

The moon was so bright!

The moon was so bright!

Moon and Arch of Constantine.

The Arch of Constantine, close to Colosseo.

Another post on Roman Adventures coming ASAP!