monday memories / RTW trip: hugging hills and yaks

while i have my around-the-world photos out from their usual home in the garage, i think i’ll continue telling some more stories from that adventure. after the last post about thailand ...

flying into kathmandu from bangkok was like entering a completely different planet. (and we hadn't even gotten to india yet ... i know i keep saying that. india is a different universe altogether!) kathmandu in january: misty, dark, mysterious, ancient, impoverished, damp. we had to spend about a week gaining our bearings, figuring out which trek to do, getting all the necessary official papers and permits, paying fees, gathering gear. 

before our RTW (round the world) departure, curt and i had set up a very loose itinerary which we gave to our friends and family, including the american express offices in each country we were to visit. back in the days before email and cell phones, amex offered locations for mail and packages to be held for travellers. so out in kathmandu one day, searching for the office, i spied a young western traveller coming toward me on the sidewalk. i stopped her and asked her if she knew where the american express office was located. she pointed me in the right direction, and we went our separate ways, not knowing that moment began a long and deep friendship. 

a few days later, karin was on the bus to pokhara with us along with her bf chris, another young couple from canada, and a load of nepali people. the six of us became instant friends, all on the same adventure: trekking the 21-day annapurna circuit. but first, we had to survive the treacherous eight-hour, gut-wrenching, brain-jostling bus ride. the road from kathmandu (capital city) to pokhara (second city) was virtually the only road in nepal, and much of it wasn't paved. our bus looked like it had been through a war, but many didn't make it, evidenced by rusted busted bus parts strewn down the mountain cliffs. harrowing. but we survived. 

one night in the idyllic, lakeside village of pokhara (where i left my whole fanny pack -- wallet and passport inside -- at a store, and later retrieved it from a gentle woman who would have had a year's worth of income had she stolen my cash) and we started our trek.  

fortunately we were young, strong and fit. even so, our six-some dwindled to a four-some just a few days in ... canadian christine suffered terrible headaches, nausea and sleeplessness due to altitude. her system just couldn't acclimate, so they had to turn around. you can't mess with mother nature, especially around the highest peaks on earth. karin, chris, curt and i heaved onward and upward. 

elevation in METERS, not feet!the annapurna circuit was and still is the most popular trekking route in nepal. easy to navigate without a guide(though i would get one now, to learn more about the culture), from tea lodge to tea lodge, each equipped with shared bunk rooms, filtered water, people from all over the world, decent food (even "beritos" and "vejjie bergers" -- though curt consistently chose the local daal bhat 3x/day). and yet, we were alone on the trail most of the time. the scenery varied from lush terraced fields -- lemon trees, almost tropical -- to monkeys swinging through forests, to barren hillsides and mountains, to bleak desolate villages, to the ultimate peaks reaching the heavens. 

these paths and trails we walked on every day were the "freeways" of the nepali. they had to carry everything they needed in their villages on their backs, usually with a tump line strapped around their foreheads. crates of eggs, canned goods, coke bottles!, firewood, etc etc etc. and usually, the locals were barefoot. or in the simplest footwear. the calf muscles on these folks! you could tell the professional sherpas -- they sported expensive hiking boots. 

we learned early on, "hug the hill" (not me-hill, the mountain-hill). on one particularly treacherous 5-foot-wide trail along a rock face, along came a yak train which i mistakenly got on the outside of (as in, NOT hugging the hill), staring down a 200-foot sheer drop. adrenaline surging, i had to hug the yaks to stay on the trail. even though they are huge/scary/smelly creatures, they were less scary than my other choice. hug the hill, definitely. but when in doubt, hug a yak! (i did not make that mistake again. when i saw a yak train coming our way, i just found a safe place to pull over, hug the hill and wait for the beasts to pass.)

only wealthy nepali can afford to ride horseback to their marriage ceremony 

i didn't know a lick about nepali/buddhist/tibetan culture or religion. chris did, though, and kept us well informed, and he's good with maps, too. so many hours to talk while we walked. (such a blessing to have so much TIME to just be with people). but my interest in spirituality of all kinds and the religions of the world has grown since then. had i known then what i know now, i would have been spinning these prayer wheels at every opportunity!

curt is very strong (he carried a huge backpack so i could carry only a daypack), but has a weak tummy. he got sick pretty much in every country. this time, it was bad. the daal bhat eventually got to him. or maybe some unclean water. on about day 6 he was in a bad, bad way. so sick that while entering a village late in the afternoon, he didn't even manage to get off the main trail and dropped trou, as in, had diarrhea right then and there, on the trail. kinda like shitting on someone's front steps. we stayed in that village for three nights while curt lay in bed moaning and groaning and felt like he was going to die. i was sad to see them go, but karin and chris trekked on. i nursed curt in a little ramshackle dark, dusty room. we didn't have much in the way of medications, so we just had to wait it out. and waited. and waited. 

but he came back to strength. we hiked along the spectacular kaligandaki gorge where a dog found and followed us for three days (helping curt? he missed his dog so. perhaps this furry friend bolstered him.) we made it all the way up to the desolate, eerie muktinath, finding our stride. we missed our friends karin and chris who were ahead of us on the trail. we loved having them as hiking partners, and wanted to catch up. 

we kept up a good clip, walked long days. we thought we could make it to tatopani, the next village on the map, where we might find our friends. darkness came and we kept walking (not smart). we reeeeeaaaaallllly wanted to get there. curt's feet were bleeding. i don't remember but i'm sure mine were aching, too. we arrived in tatopani, found the tea lodge and entered the open-air dining room to gasps and applause. karin and chris were there, they knew how fast we must've walked to catch up to them, and they spread the news to the other travellers. we recieved a standing ovation by all! celebrated well and rested the next day. 

rest and laundry day, with karin

a few more days walking and we made it back to pokhara. where we both got sick. really sick. as in, all orifices exploding at once (vomit and diarrhea, the combo pack). fortunately, we had a private bath with western toilet. thank god! (and thank god i was the one with the camera, no photos of sick hilly here!)

 back in kathmandu, we enjoyed ourselves. lattes and pastries at the pumpernickel cafe ... 

 curt got a shave which he still talks about to this day ... 

we felt like heroes, having survived our own trek!

little did we know what was in store for us in india ... 


lessons learned: always hug the hills! stay alert,  for the next person you meet may just become a dear friend. 


postscript: karin and i are still friends, 20 years later. we still joke to each other "do you know where the american express office is?" she's super crafty and taught me how to make greeting cards, planting the seed that was to become eyechai. now she's busy with bigger things ... she and chris got married and just had a baby boy! but their little guy hasn't dampened their wanderlust ... they've taken him camping in botswana, namibia, iceland, and nevada!