Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Last Post

3 weeks ago, my brother told me I should blog while I still had the time, which was very wise advice, and which I of course ignored. Now we've been home an entire week and I still haven't gotten the last post down, and I'm starting to feel a little guilty about that. So here it is, the last leg of our trip:

Belgrade, Serbia was fun except for our outrageous hostel hosts. "Hostel" is a bit of an overstatement - we were put into one of two bedrooms in their house. They saw fit to stay up every night drinking and smoking weed until 7 in the morning, sleep in until 3pm every day, and frequently have sex in the room right next to ours. One morning I walked in on the woman sitting naked on the toilet, because of course there were no locks on any of the doors. All of which would've been fine by me if they hadn't been calling it a "hostel" and charging us $45/night for the privilege of living with them for 3 days. Oh well, at least I bought a bracelet from the naked toilet woman which will forever remind me of our happy times in their home.

From there we made our way through Bosnia, stopping but not seeing much in the city of Sarajevo, and finally we made it to Croatia, where we spent 4 days prancing around Dubrovnik with my friend Kelly. We swam in beautiful Croatian waters, ate terrible Croatian food, and went to an island that was inexplicably filled with peacocks and cacti! When I become rich and famous, I want my estate to be filled with peacocks and cacti. It was bizarre and lovely. It was also our first time hanging out with a real friend since we left for this trip, and that was really, really nice. And it reminded us that people who have not been traveling the world for 11 months actually change clothes more than once every 3 days! Silly.

By the time we got to England, we were thoroughly exhausted, and spent our time with Ross's family mostly just eating, drinking wine, singing along to 40s and 50s musicals, and drinking more wine. Ross also danced like a hill-billy at one point. Classic Family-Time Fun.

Then we went to Dresden, where we saw a man eating a cheeseburger with a fork and knife (so civilized!), more attractive men than I'd seen in the entire last year, and more mannish-looking women than you could shake a Birkenstock at. Strange place, Germany. We were there for only 2 days to meet up with our good friend Steve, and then all three of us took a train down to Amsterdam for maximum debauchery at a music festival called Dance Valley. And maybe a museum or two. I can't quite remember.

And after spending our last week in California with my family, we're now finally back home. It feels  strange. It's much cleaner and prettier than I remembered, which is nice, but it seems really unfamiliar. Either way, it is nice to be back home with our friends, my cat, and the lovely Vancouver mountains. Strangely, already the trip seems so distant that it almost feels like the whole thing might've been a dream. Hopefully some of our thoughts, memories, emotions and perspectives will remain with us and carry us through until our next trip. :)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


We're currently in Belgrade, Serbia after spending 2 days in Sofia, Bulgaria. We hadn't planned to come to this region, but we're meeting our friend Kelly in Dubrovnik, Croatia on July 18th, which left us just over a week to get from Istanbul to Dubrovnik. Throughout this whole trip we'd often talked about how we'd like to just go somewhere random without really planning it or reading much about it, so this week seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that. So we tossed our guidebooks, hopped on a bus and said, "FUCK IT! We're going to the Balkans and I DON'T CARE WHO KNOWS IT." And here we are.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, but then everything started to go a bit wonky.

When we first got to Sofia, we found it a bit of an eerie city which brought to mind such adjectives as "post-apocalyptic" and "ghost town." The downtown core was so deserted that we wondered if maybe a zombie virus had wiped out the whole population. We went into a mall right in the center of the city and were literally the only ones there. Until that day, I never realized how creepy malls are when they're completely empty.

Not a soul in sight except the man in the hat crossing the street:

We were just about ready to freak out and flee, but then we decided to go on a free walking tour of the city, and this turned out to be really cool. All of a sudden we were walking through a beautiful sector of Sofia, with pretty European style buildings, fascinating statues, and Roman ruins. We also learned a lot of Bulgarian history, which helped to put the state of the city into perspective. For example, much of the center of the city is mired in construction. The reason for this is they've been trying to build a new subway system since the 1960s, but it's still not finished. First the whole anti-communist revolution thing happened. Then they discovered priceless Roman ruins right in the proposed path of the subway. And because of rampant corruption they can barely afford to finance it all. So the subway is still in the middle of being built, 50 years later. Crazy.

Roman ruins in the central courtyard of the presidential building:

Frighteningly accurate statue of a former Bulgarian leader who was so reviled, he was actually axe-murdered:

The walking tour did improve our impression of Sofia, but overall it still seemed so desolate that we decided to leave after only 2 days. It feels wrong to say such negative things about a city where we only barely spent 48 hours, but nevertheless that was our experience. We had some good sausages there, though.

In keeping with our decision to just "wing it," we did no research before busing to Serbia. This, surprisingly, led to a bit of a disaster when we arrived: The bus dropped us off in the middle of some highway in the outskirts of Belgrade; we had no Serbian money, did not even know the name of their currency or the exchange rate, had no idea where we were or where our hostel was, and didn't know any Serbian words. Aha. So this is why we like to read up before going somewhere new. It's so we don't get lost and die in the middle of Serbia. I remember now.

Lesser travelers might have panicked in this situation, but we did the only sensible thing we could think of: we went to a grocery store and looked at the price of apples to figure out the exchange rate. Brilliant? I like to think so. Then we spent god knows how long wandering around with our giant backpacks in search of an ATM. Seriously, it's 2011, why doesn't every corner just have an ATM already?

Then another decade passed before we could actually track down a taxi. When we finally managed to find one, we immediately got into an argument with the driver because he was insisting that the drive would be four thousand dinars, which according to our apple calculations would be roughly 60 dollars. In the end it turned out he was just mixing up the words "hundred" and "thousand," which lead to a second argument when I tried to politely inform him of the correct words. Note to self: learn to just shut up sometimes.

We got to our hostel 3 hours later than planned, tired and incredibly irritated (and making a great first impression on our hosts, I'm sure). So I guess traveling with no preconceived expectations or plans is not quite as fun as I expected. Perhaps I will do a bit of research before we get to Croatia.

As for Belgrade, it seems nice -- there are actually people in the streets! -- but at this point we're starting to realize that we're not quite as gung-ho about sight-seeing as we used to be. It's a shame, because although we like it here, we just don't have the same level of excitement as we did even a month ago. We're pooped. We're ready to meet up with friends and family and spend time just hanging out, which is good because that is exactly what we have planned for the next month: First Croatia with Kelly, then Ross's family in England, then Germany and Amsterdam with Steve, then my family in California.

I think it sounds like the perfect way to ease back into real life, and I'm looking forward to that. :)

Thursday, July 7, 2011


We're back in Istanbul! We've spent the last 2 weeks doing a big loop around Turkey -- Ephesus, Izmir, Pamukkale, Antalya, and Cappadocia -- and tomorrow is our last day here before we bus to Bulgaria. There isn't much to say about all these places that isn't better said through our pictures, so I'll let them do the talking for me, except to add that we finally have very slight tans! And it only took 10 months of sunlight to accomplish. Yeah, baby. That's how it's done.

We have exactly 5 weeks until we are back in Vancouver. I don't know how this year managed to slip by so quickly, but now that it's nearly over I'm freaking out a bit. It's funny, in the beginning I was pretty nervous about going on this trip, but now I'm even more nervous to come back to real life. We have a ridiculous number of things we need to get done when we get back: find a new place, buy furniture, move into new place, change addresses and phone numbers, go through a year's worth of mail, do taxes, fix insurance and credit card issues, go to the dentist...

But aside from all that, what I'm even more nervous about is the "reverse culture shock" that I think will inevitably occur when we get back. Besides the occasional conversations on facebook, or with other travelers in our hostels, the only person I've talked to in any length in the last year is Ross. I'm slightly worried that I've lost the ability to converse with anyone else. I keep imagining that when we get back, I'm going to become that annoying person whom everyone detests because they keep associating everything to their travels.


Kathy: Man, it's so hot. I hate summer.
Me: This isn't hot! When we were in Cambodia it was so hot that...
Kathy: *Slaps Marina with a fish*

Random person on the bus: Waaaah, I forgot my iPhone at home.
Me: Shut up, motherfucker, and be grateful that you can brush your teeth in the morning with water that won't kill you.
Random person: *Slaps Marina with a fish*

April: Mmmm, I love chicken.
Me: Chicken is good. But did you know they eat guinea pigs in Peru?
April: *Slaps Marina with a fish*

I'm not sure why all these people have fish readily available in these scenarios, but that's pretty much how I think it will go down.

These thoughts have been on my mind a lot because we've had a couple of encounters with North Americans lately where I wasn't sure if they were whiny douchebags, or if my perspective has changed so much that I'M the annoying one.

We had just gotten off of a 9 hour over-night bus ride, and we were all piling onto a free shuttle bus that would take us from the bus station to the center of town 15 minutes away. Suddenly...

Angry North American tourist: THERE AREN'T ANY SEATS LEFT!
Turkish bus attendant: *mumbles something in Turkish*
Angry North American tourist: There are 5 of us! There aren't any seats! HOW IS THIS SUPPOSED TO WORK?!

This goes on for another few minutes. Meanwhile, everyone else is getting more and more irritated because we all just want to GO already.

Me, finally getting fed up enough to speak up: It's called 'standing.' It's a 15 minute bus ride, it's really not a big deal. You want my seat?
Angry North American tourist: No. I mean, I expect this shit in Indonesia, but when you pay 30 dollars for a bus ride, I expect better than this.

The bus attendant then speaks to one of the Turkish women on the bus and somehow convinces her to GET OFF THE BUS so that there would be a seat available for the gringo. Somehow this placates the North Americans enough that the 5 of them are able to shut up and get on the bus. (I still haven't figured out how ONE person getting off the bus solved the issue of seating 5 people, but there you go.)

Holy crap. There are so many things wrong with this picture I don't even know where to begin. How can someone be happy that they forced someone else to get off the bus (who, by the way, also paid $30 for her seat) just so they could sit down for their 15 minute bus ride? And what is all this "I expect this shit in Indonesia" bullshit? In Indonesia they would've pointed to the floor and said, THERE'S YOUR SEAT, buddy. In Indonesia this wouldn't have even been a discussion because there wouldn't have been a free shuttle in the first place. In Indonesia you may not have even gotten a seat on the 9 hour overnight ride, so be grateful you didn't have to stand up for that, you asshole. (There I go being "that person" already.)

Or am I looking at it all wrong? Were they right to get upset at this situation? I honestly don't remember if this is how most people think in North America, or if he was just an outstandingly arrogant person with an over-inflated sense of entitlement. I suspect that it's the latter. I really hope so, or I may not last long in Vancouver before going on a homicidal spree of unprecedented proportions.

Traveling is weird, man.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Istanbul, not Constantinople

Okay, I know I always talk about wanting to move to different cities we visit, but this time I'm serious: I want to move to Istanbul. Shut up, it's for real this time.

We spent our first 8 days in Istanbul, completely enthralled by everything. Granted, the first 2 days we just wandered around in a culture-shocked stupor, mumbling about how smooth the roads are, how fresh the fruit looks, and how amazing it is that the buildings have elevators. (When we first arrived at our hostel, we were deliriously hyper because it was 3am and we had been traveling from Nepal for 20 hours. When I saw the elevator I screamed, "ELEVATOOOR!" and giggled the entire way up, even though Ross and I were squished into the tiny little space with a large and somewhat perplexed Greek man. That is when I realized I had culture shock.) But once we got over that, we were like, daaayum, this place is actually fucking AMAZING, yo. In those exact words.

First of all, it was nothing at all like what I expected. I think, looking back, that I expected something out of Aladdin -- lots of dusty roads and little monkeys in fezzes running around. It was not at all like that. No one was wearing fezzes, and there was not even a single monkey, which was disappointing. Instead, Istanbul was an enormous, cosmopolitan city with well-dressed people in sky-high heels and cute little cafes and shops everywhere. The skyline is studded with beautiful mosques, while the ground is dominated by an inordinate number of adorable stray cats, which added to the city immensely. It is an extremely glamorous and eye-catching city.

More mosques than you could shake a doner kebap at:

Stray kitten + ancient sculpture = golden photo opportunity:

Another thing I quite enjoyed is the quirky Turkish culture. It seems like life is lived in the streets here -- people don't stay at home surfing the internet (like some people do back home, but I won't mention any names). They go to cafes, sit around on little stools sipping overly strong but inexplicably tiny glasses of tea, smoke hookah, and play Backgammon. There's much more of a community feel here than in North America, and I really like that. I WANT TO INFILTRATE YOUR COMMUNITY, Istanbul. And I must admit, the ubiquity of Backgammon has made me really want to learn to play. (Although I can't say the preference for tiny furniture and child-sized glasses of tea has particularly won me over.)


or alternatively, "WHY AM I SUCH A GIANT?"

What really grabbed us is that Istanbul is just European enough to be familiar, but just Asian enough to be very interesting -- a combination we've been searching for this whole year while scoping out potential future cities to live in. The fact that it's relatively cheap definitely doesn't hurt either. We half-seriously started to point out neighborhoods we might like to live in and restaurants we'd like to become regulars of. Not that we're thinking too far ahead or anything. Just because I've already made friends with the crazy neighborhood hobo, DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING, OKAY?

One potential future home, dog included:

I also had no idea how historically rich Turkey was until we got here. Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, The Ottoman Empire, The Byzantine Empire -- all those topics I learned about in history class, they all happened RIGHT HERE! How crazy is that? Considering that both countries I've lived in have a history no longer than 300 years (not counting Russia, of which I have no memory), that is PRETTY FUCKING CRAZY, if you ask me.

We actually got to see original sculptures from ancient Rome:

As well as original tablets with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs on them:

Is your mind blown yet? Because, I don't know if you realize this, but mine was.

We also visited Aya Sofya and The Blue Mosque, two absolutely stunning buildings which were impossible to photograph properly, but just trust me, they were great.

The marvelous Blue Mosque:

Part of the interior of Aya Sofya, built in 562:

The Basilica Cistern was fascinating and spooky. I had no idea what a cistern was before visiting this one, and when I learned that it's basically just a place where water is stored, I was a bit confused about why we were bothering to go see one. But then the reason quickly became clear: it's 100,000 sq ft, built in 532 and gorgeous. Plus, two of the columns are supported by giant Medusa heads for some reason. One of the heads is sideways, the other is upside down. I don't know why, but I like that. When those emperors built stuff, they really did it properly (and somewhat strangely).

They built this JUST TO HOLD WATER:

Creepy 1,500 year old Medusa head:

There were many more amazing sights - The Topkapi Palace, The Grand Bazaar, Suleymaniye Mosque, not to mention being able to go from Europe to Asia on a 5-minute ferry ride - but I'll just summarize by saying GO TO ISTANBUL, it will be fucking awesome and you won't regret it. And by that time, Ross and I will probably have moved there, so we can all hang out and play Backgammon. Alright, now this post is starting to sound like an advertisement or something, so I'm going to stop there.

Now we're in Selçuk, a cute little town right next to Ephesus, which are meant to be the most beautiful and well-preserved ruins in all of Turkey, if not all of Europe. (A side note about Selçuk: We just realized we can see the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, literally right from the terrace of our hostel. This place keeps getting more and more fucking amazing.) We'll be doing a tour of Ephesus today! I can't wait, because I am nerdy like that, and ruins make me giddy.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Perspective in Nepal

Nepal is such a different place from anywhere else we've been, that it's basically impossible to write a post about it without rambling away in a million different directions. Please forgive me if this is the least organized post I've ever written.

Here are some highlights of Nepal that I wanted to mention, which don't really relate to each other in any meaningful way but are kind of interesting anyway!

1. Nepalis are friendly in a very affectionate, touchy way. They hug, they hold hands (although not if you're of the opposite sex - God forbid!), they pat everyone on the arm like old buddies. It's so unbearably cute that it instantly makes you fall in love with everyone. (Strange, but true.) They also call each other "brother" and "sister," which I find very endearing and wish we did in English.

2. The majority of Nepalis live in remote villages that have little contact with the rest of the country. This results in hundreds of different cultures, all within one country, that each have their own language, clothing, traditions, and even facial traits. It's kind of mind-blowing. We think we're multicultural in the States - imagine if every state spoke a different language and even looked completely different. It would be MADNESS.

3. Many women wear saris, which I think may be the most beautiful thing a woman can wear. Deeply colorful, flowy and often shiny -- is there anything more feminine? The answer is no. Sometimes I simply can't stop staring at the women here. It's probably a bit creepy, but I can't help it. I want to buy like 300 saris and just keep wearing them for the rest of my life, but I won't because that would be expensive. And weird.

4. Pokhara is a charming little town. It's nestled in between a pretty lake and some of the tallest mountains in the world. We went paragliding and did a few hikes, where we were offered weed by various villagers who apparently really wanted to get us high. Pokhara was so pleasant, we frequently chatted about moving there. If only it wasn't for the thousands of tourists who flock there every winter to climb the Annapurna mountains. Why do tourists always have to ruin everything (except us, we don't ruin anything of course)? Sigh.

5. I think Nepal may have converted me into a trekker. Up next: Mt. Kilimanjaro!

6. Nepalis are religious, but in a laid back sort of way. Many are Buddhist or Hindu, but a bunch of them are a combination of both. They took Buddhism and Hinduism and incorporated them into each other. They just decided -- Okay, Buddha was the 9th reincarnation of Vishnu! BAM, two religions become one. I love when we can all just get along.

But there are also many downsides in Nepal. Lack of education, healthcare, clean water, electricity. A caste system, many homeless people, corrupt government. Landslides, poor roads, garbage, pollution. Basically any problem you can think of, Nepal has it. The scale and pervasiveness of the issues here leaves one shocked and depressed. It's the first country we've visited that really feels "third world." Even in Kathmandu, the capital city, there are still electricity blackouts every day. In the mountains, the villagers start their fires by blowing on them -- they don't even have bellows, a device that was popular before Jesus was born.

I know that money doesn't actually make people much happier. That is, there appears to be a threshold beyond which, as long as people have food, water, safety, health, warmth, families and love, they are content. Being here has made me think about this concept a lot. I don't know what the actual threshold is -- I'm sure it varies a lot depending on many variables -- but I wonder where Nepal stands on that line.

I can understand that people are reasonably happy as long as their basic needs are met, but my mind just keeps asking -- what about having running water inside your house? What about being able to go the hospital and being sure that the syringe they're using isn't dirty? What about having a clean street instead of piles of trash everywhere? What about being able to travel 200km without needing to spend 10 hours on a bus with people hacking and spitting everywhere? (That last part was mostly for my own nostalgia.) These things must have an effect on people's happiness. Or is it just that I'm accustomed to a different standard of living, so I give these variables more weight than a Nepali would?

I really don't know. I suspect that Nepalis are content for the most part despite these hardships, but either way my opinion is uninformed. I'd love to come back here someday and explore this country and its people a bit more. Bino has become a friend more than a guide -- we had dinner at his place with his brothers; he gave us lychees! -- but I feel like I want to delve much deeper into this fascinating place. I'm glad we came here; it's been illuminating and beautiful, even if a little challenging at times.

But tomorrow we'll be in Turkey, and I'm excited about that too.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Langtang, Part 2

...Suddenly, Bino shouted something to me and I looked over and saw Ross being eaten alive by wild animals!

Just kidding. That was to freak my mom out a little. No, I looked over and saw 2 figures coming down the mountain! My heart instantly flooded with joy. But then -- "TWO figures??" I thought. "One of them must be dead! But which one?!" And just as my mind started racing in a hundred new directions, a third figure appeared from behind! YAAAAYYY!!!

Unfortunately we still had to wait half an hour until the three of them made it down the mountain, so it wasn't instant gratification like in the movies. When they finally made it down and we greeted them at the bottom, I ran up to them crying with relief, to the great bewilderment of the two people Ross had hiked with. I didn't care. I proceeded to cry, shout at Ross for worrying me so much, and hug him in happiness at the same time, like some sort of crazy woman.

It turned out that the 2 people he'd gone with were pretty hardcore trekkers. One was an English guy named Stu, and the other was a Swiss girl named Babs. Babs and Stu hijacked Ross and made him trek with them not just to the first peak, but to the next one, which was even higher, at 4,600m! That's why they'd taken twice as long as they should have to return. I suppose the lesson here is, never ever go trekking with Swiss people. They are way more fit than you will ever be and they will fuck you up.

This is what Ross was actually doing while I was imagining him being gored to death by angry yaks:

Click here to see a panorama from the 4,600m peak that Ross hiked up to:

After our tearful hellos, we had some lunch, let Ross rest for a little while, and then started our descent. We all thought that would be the end of that day's craziness, BUT NO. That's not how it works in the mountains. We stopped at a guesthouse in Langtang Valley after walking down for 2 hours. We were chilling out with some Nepali tea when we noticed the hosts of the guesthouse putting sticks of incense into little figurines in the kitchen. Noticing our confused looks, Bino explained that an old woman in the village had died a few days ago, so they were doing a ceremony to ward off devils from the guesthouse. Not only that, but every house in the village had to do the same ceremony within one week of the death.

They invited us into the kitchen to watch the ceremony, and I'm so glad they did because I'd never seen anything like it in my life. A lama (Buddhist priest) started chanting loudly in Tibetan and ringing a bell. (He would continue to do this throughout the entire ceremony described below, for about half an hour.) The little figurines that they'd made were on the floor in the middle of the kitchen. These represented the devils. While the lama chanted, another man cooked a meal of daal bhaat (of course) and spooned little portions of it next to the figurines.

Meanwhile, everyone was handed a little ball of some sort of potato paste and told to circle it around their bodies and heads 3 times to protect them from the devils. (We later realized that the figurines on the floor were made of this same potato paste.) Over in the corner, an old lady had a photo album of their family laid out, and was rubbing the potato paste over the pictures -- this was to ward off the devils from the family members who weren't present. So thoughtful.

Then there was a lot of throwing of food. The lama tossed corn, salt, and rice into the air as he chanted. (I kept thinking, jeez, this is going to be a lot of effort to clean up later!) Then the old woman made a little pathway on the floor using flour -- all the way from the potato figurines to the balcony outside -- and this was to give the devils a way to leave the house. Then the three of them suddenly shouted and whistled very loudly, ostensibly to scare off the devils, but mostly I think it just scared me. Finally, the two men picked up the figurines and carried them out of the house to take them down to the river, while the old lady swept up the flour path behind them as quickly as she could.

We ran over to the window to watch them take the figurines outside. When they placed them onto the ground, 3 donkeys started eating the figurines and the daal bhaat offerings! And that was the end of the ceremony. Everything went back to normal and we were served dinner shortly after. I couldn't believe how incredibly insane the whole thing was - after it was over, I rushed to get my notebook and wrote down as many of the details as I could remember so I could blog about it later. Always thinking of my dear readers, you know. If only we could've taken pictures!

As if to give us a bit of a break, the next 2 days were largely free of mishaps and just involved many hours of walking downhill, back to the first guesthouse. Perhaps the most exciting thing that happened during these days was when we stopped for a break at a guesthouse on our way down. Ross and Bino decided to have some Red Bull (to give them WINGS!), and suddenly a donkey approached and went right for the Red Bull! Apparently donkeys LOVE that shit, because this guy would not leave us alone the entire time we were sitting there. It was the cutest assault by a donkey I've ever had the privilege to be a part of.

(That bandaid is on my nose because, the previous day while I was staring up at the mountain in search of Ross for 4 hours, I didn't have any sunscreen and my nose burnt so badly that I got blisters! The things I do for my boyfriend.)

On our last day of descent, during our last 1.5 hours of walking, we were caught in a huge rainstorm and everything, EVERYTHING, got soaked, even despite having raincoats and raincovers on our bags. So much for all the rain gear we bought. Bino even had us put salt in our shoes, an old Nepali trick to prevent leeches during the rainy season. I made an impenetrable salt barrier in my socks and shoes, but after about 5 minutes of walking through the rain, my impenetrable salt barrier turned into a saltwater bath. Still, none of us got any leeches, so I guess the Nepalis must know their stuff after all.

On day 9, we were meant to take the bus back from the trailhead to Kathmandu, but it wasn't running due to a massive strike. The political situation in Nepal is pretty sticky - the government has had one year in which they promised to write a constitution, but in that year, they spent about 90 minutes working on it, those fucking slackers. The deadline had been that very day and they still hadn't finished, which was what caused huge riots in Kathmandu. Four buses had been burned there just that morning. (This is a typical tactic during the strikes, although they usually let the passengers off first.) This is why our bus wasn't running. Couldn't blame them, really.

Bino insisted that despite all this political insanity, no one had ever harmed any tourists, so we were safe to go back to Kathmandu if we could find someone willing to drive us. He explained that even the rebels understand that tourism is the backbone of the Nepali economy, so they wouldn't do anything to the tourists. I thought, if they REALLY understood that, they wouldn't do any of this shit in the first place, because guess what? Burning buses down generally scares tourists off, even if you (usually) let them off first.

We spent most of that day trying to organize alternate transportation back to Kathmandu. Over the course of the day we found 4 other people who wanted to share a ride with us: Irina, an older Russian lady; Babs, the Swiss girl that Ross had trekked with 2 days before (the mountains are such a small world); and 2 other people that Babs met, Beatrice and Steffen. Eventually we found a Nepali guy with a 7-seater Jeep who was willing to drive us back to Kathmandu for the extortionate rate of $150. (Cost of the bus: $6.) We had 7 people, the Jeep had 7 seats - everything seemed ready to go.

Unfortunately Beatrice and Steffen had 2 other people with them -- a guide, who for the sake of the story we'll call Asshole, and a porter -- who also wanted to get back to Kathmandu. But because we already had 7 people, they said they were happy to wait for another Jeep. Great, we said. Thanks.

But then a few minutes later, you can probably see where this is going, even though the driver had previously said that he wouldn't take more than 7 people, and even though there physically wasn't any more room in the Jeep, and even though JUST MINUTES AGO they had agreed to wait for another Jeep, Asshole threw a huge fit and demanded that we let him and the porter come too. He even approached Ross and me, and told us a story about how he was good friends with the driver, and the driver wanted to let them go with us. (Bino later confirmed that this was a complete lie. The driver did not know Asshole and did not want to let them in with us, but was too chickenshit to say so to them directly.)

Things quickly devolved into a really vicious argument between Bino, the driver, and Asshole, all in Nepali, while the rest of us watched angrily. Bino later told us that Asshole had threatened him, "I'll see you in Kathmandu!!" and had also threatened that he would pay the driver an extra $50 and take the Jeep all to himself. He basically threw the biggest tantrum I've ever seen an adult throw, even though there was no room in the Jeep for them anyway. In the end the 7 of us left without them. Asshole.

But all of this would be academic anyway, as we would soon find out. We set off on our ride back to Kathmandu around 3:30pm. The first thing that happened was that the car's Check Oil light turned on. This was an Indian car, so in addition to a little light turning on, a soothing British voice announced, "Please check the oil pressure for your safety." It kept repeating this phrase over and over, every minute or so, and then with increasing frequency and urgency as time went on, until we finally decided that we should probably stop and check the oil pressure for our safety. This took about half an hour.

After driving for another hour, we came across a huge flood in the road. A waterfall to the side of the path had overflown because of the heavy rain. The current was so strong that we were a bit scared it might slide the car right over the side of the mountain, so we decided that we would walk through the water while the driver drove the Jeep across. (He was quite a brave dude, for someone who couldn't say no to an Asshole.) It was seriously fucking cold, but we all made it over and hopped back into the car, elated that we'd overcome the last of our obstacles. Ha!

From left to right: Steffen, me, Bino, and our driver. Our Jeep is already across the water.

After another hour, we had to stop because there had been a landslide. The road was now impassable (a bit like my impenetrable salt barrier must've been to the leeches, but even better). Everyone got out of the car, completely exasperated. By this point it was also starting to seem that the older Russian lady, Irina, was a bit insane. She was constantly marching around with her camera, recording every detail of the journey. Until we figured out that she's a film-maker by profession, this really amused all of us. She would do things like randomly point the camera at one of us and ask us to narrate, right in the middle of the landslide. (Here is her website. She promised to post the finished video of our journey on there when it's finished!)

This is Bino walking across the landslide before they cleared it:

Here, Irina asked me to film her walking marching across the cleared part of the landslide. In the foreground, Beatrice finds this absolutely hilarious.

Meanwhile, every time we started the car, the soothing British voice would recommend, "Put on your seatbelt for a safe drive." After encountering a landslide, wading through a freezing cold river, and being threatened by a very angry Nepali man, we couldn't help but laugh at the irony.

In the end it turned out that they wouldn't be able to clear the landslide that night, so after all that effort, we had to drive an hour back to the nearest village, spend the night, and try again the next day. For 4 hours of driving, we only managed to get about 14km that day.

The next morning, as we were about to leave again in the Jeep, Asshole strolls in to our guesthouse! I told you the mountains were a small world. He announced that there was now a bus going to Kathmandu, and ONLY Beatrice and Steffen were invited onto it, and the rest of us weren't. What a fucking child. Steffen decided to go with him on the bus to save money, but Beatrice had had enough of Asshole's shenanigans and stuck with us in the Jeep. Which was cool, because I liked Beatrice and would've been sad to see her go with Asshole.

We piled into the Jeep once more and started our drive for the last time. We had to hang around for 2 hours waiting for the landslide to be cleared, but they finally did it. Once we crossed it, the rest of the drive back went smoothly (almost unbelievably so, given the massive clusterfuck of the previous day).

Bino fell asleep on me on the drive back, and Ross couldn't resist snapping a photo:

So that was our trek. The second half of it seemed to be a bit disastrous, but like I said, somehow I had fun nonetheless. We met lots of interesting people, had many new experiences, and got a hell of a lot of exercise. I absolutely want to come back to Nepal again and do more trekking someday, a sentence I never thought I would hear myself say (or feel myself type).

Also, you should all go look at the pictures, because they're fantastic. :)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Langtang, Part 1

If you had told me 6 years ago that one day Ross and I would enjoy waking up at 5:30am in order to trek up and down a 4,000m tall mountain for 3-8 hours every day for 6 days, I probably would've laughed in your face like the surly teenager that I was. And if you had politely ignored me laughing in your face and continued to inform me that one day we'd actually pay hundreds of dollars for this privilege, I would've told you to fuck right off, because that is just ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. But for some reason we did it anyway, and it turned out to be pretty damn fun. Ha! Take that, Past Marina!

We met our guide, Bino, while sight-seeing around Kathmandu. He was funny, knowledgeable and so friendly that we were persuaded to go trekking with him after about half an hour and a couple of Nepali teas. We're easy like that. (Bino also liked Infected Mushroom, one of our favorite bands. That was, but probably should not have been, a factor in our decision to hire him.) The evening before we left for the trek, we paid him about half of the total fee. Even though he'd shown us his guide license, had spent the day helping us prepare and had been a model citizen in every way, we still spent that whole night worrying that he was going to take our money and flee to India.

But he didn't! Thank god. Here's Bino:

Our journey started with a bumpy 9-hour bus ride to the Langtang mountain trailhead. There were about 40 people squished inside the bus, plus another 30 bouncing around on top. Every minute or so, the man in front of me would clear his throat in an overly loud and disgusting manner, and spit its contents out the window. At one point he forgot that he'd closed the window and spat right onto it. This elicited no reaction from him; he simply opened it back up as if this had happened a thousand times before. Lovely.

One poor guy had to sit on sacks of rice during the bus ride. We dubbed him The Rice King:

We started our trek at 7:30 the next morning. Many trekkers hire porters to carry their stuff while they walk, but on our first day we decided not to, maybe because we thought we were in shape or something, I'm not sure. Either way, it was a huge mistake. I don't think I'm overstating when I say that the first day was hellish. We walked up and up and up, further and further into infinity, until I was sure my thighs were going to snap and my lungs would explode. And that was only the first 4 hours. I remember muttering, "I just want to lie down and cry" and thinking that there was no way I was going to make it through the next 6 days.

This is before I knew how horrible this day would be:

After lunch, we somehow walked up another 4 hours. Apart from not dying, the other good part of that first day was walking through field after field of wild marijuana plants. We were very much (one might say 'highly') amused by how much weed grows in the mountains of Nepal. I'd never seen anything like it before -- and yet the villagers were growing potatoes in their farms! If they'd switch crops, they could buy as many potatoes as they could shake a stick at! And there are lots of sticks in the Nepali mountains, trust me.

Bino marveling at the abundance of weed plants:

Finally, after a total of 8 grueling hours, we made it to the next guesthouse and collapsed in our beds feeling a smidgen proud, but mostly just exhausted.

1,500m to 2,420m in one day!

The next day, we made sure to hire a porter to carry my bag and the 2 sleeping bags (Ross carried his own bag). I started out feeling a bit embarrassed that I was paying some poor man (and later that day, woman) to haul my bag up a mountain, but it quickly became clear that this wasn't a big deal to our porter. The people who live in the mountains here are super-human. Porters are routinely hired to carry about 160 pounds of food or supplies up the mountain, so my little backpack and sleeping bags were obviously not a problem to this guy (or to the woman). The porters made it up there at least an hour before we did.

Here's me with our second (super-human) porter:

And this is the sort of thing the porters normally carry:

Once I got over my embarrassment, I was really glad we hired a porter, because the second day was significantly more enjoyable for me. We walked for about 6 hours, and even though it was mostly uphill, I had fun and felt excited rather than suicidal. The scenery was starting to get seriously beautiful and we were making quite a bit of progress up the mountain - by that night we'd climbed up to over 3,020 meters. (Plus, we were starting to see lots of yaks! Always exciting, even if a little life-threatening.)

The view from our guesthouse the third morning:

The guesthouse we stayed in that night was pretty rural - there was no electricity and no hot water. We were the only guests, so the family invited us into their kitchen while they cooked our dinner. This was like being invited to go back in time. The entire family was sitting around the hearth on the floor, chatting and drinking home-made rice wine. The mother was shoving snuff into her nose as she cooked. (There are still companies that make snuff?) There was also a horse wandering around outside, pushing the kitchen door open with its nose every now and then. I wish horses would poke their heads into my kitchen in Vancouver more often.

Once we made ourselves comfortable on the floor of the kitchen, we realized that we had completely embarrassed ourselves without realizing it (this seems to happen so often when you travel). In our extreme hunger, we had forgotten that our food was not being cooked by a restaurant chef assisted by line chefs, but by one woman, without electricity, on a clay oven with 2 burners. We had ordered 3 different things, all of them complicated, and she'd been cooking for us for 2 hours already with no end in sight. And because the custom is that no one eats before the guests, they didn't start cooking their own food (or Bino's) until well past 8:30, which in mountain time is basically their bedtime. They were too polite to say anything about it, but we couldn't apologize profusely enough.

Me, Bino, and the woman who spent over 2 hours cooking our dinner:

We were supposed to continue up the next day, but I was feeling short of breath, so instead we decided to stay there one more day to acclimatize. In the end it was a good thing we stayed, because this gave us the opportunity to redeem ourselves at dinnertime. That night we both ordered daal bhaat, a lentil soup with rice, served with vegetables and spicy pickles on the side. Daal bhaat is absolutely integral to Nepali life - the majority of the population eats it twice a day, every day, for their entire lives. That night we all ate together and there was much less awkwardness all around.

Altitude sickness really hits me hard:

We also witnessed a big argument amongst the villagers that evening. We were reading inside after dinner when we started hearing lots of shouting from outside. Even though we couldn't understand what they were saying, we could hear that they were shouting the same things over and over again. Bino explained that two of the neighbors were arguing because, I'm not even joking, one of the yaks took a shit on the other neighbor's field. They stayed out there screaming at each other for a solid half hour.

The yak in question? Probably not, but let's pretend it is.

By the next day I had acclimatized enough to continue, and by mid-morning we arrived at our final destination, Kyanjin Gompa. The scenery here was stunning: snow-capped mountains, yaks everywhere, fields of little purple flowers, and a tiny village nestled in the middle of it all. It was beautiful and surreal. We spent the day just hanging out with Bino. We visited the village cheese factory and the Buddhist monastery and drank rice wine with the villagers.

Kyanjin Gompa, 3,830m:

Cheese "factory":

Drinking raksi in the village "pub":

The next day took somewhat of a dark turn. Although we'd gotten to our final destination, we decided to go up to the next peak to get an even better view. We walked up a very steep mountain for about an hour before the trail suddenly disappeared and we had to clamber over rocks to continue ascending. This seemed really dangerous, but we followed Bino nonetheless because we are stupid like that. I had not even finished saying, "Bino, are you sure this is the right way? This seems a bit dangerous. One slip and you'd go rolling down the mounta--" when I suddenly slipped and started rolling down the mountain!

I had tumbled backwards maybe 6 feet when I stopped falling. I can't remember if I managed to stop myself by grabbing onto a bush, or if it was Bino that caught me and stopped my fall, or if these two things happened simultaneously, but in any event, I stopped rolling before I'd even had the chance to register that I'd fallen. It was only when I got up that the realization hit me. I cried and hyperventilated for about 6 or 7 minutes before I was able to continue.

At that point I decided I'd had enough - the climb was difficult and steep, we already had a beautiful view down below, and now I was fucking freaked. We decided to just head back down. When we had walked back down about 15 minutes, we ran into a couple who were passing us on their way up. Ross still really wanted to reach that peak, so we agreed that he would go up with the couple while Bino and I headed back down to Kyanjin Gompa.

On our way down we walked down a trail, not rocks, and I concluded that we hadn't been going the right way at all. I wasn't sure whether or not to be angry with Bino. At first I was, because it was pretty unprofessional of him to take us up that way, but in the end I couldn't stay mad at him. He had been an excellent guide the rest of the trip, and I think he had simply made a wrong turn and had been too proud to tell us that we needed to backtrack. I think he learned a very important lesson that day: don't overestimate the gringos, they are clumsy and unfit and will die if you're not careful.

Bino and I made it back down and played gin rummy while waiting for Ross and the couple to return. We expected him to be back about 2 hours later. After about 3 hours, we started to worry. We stopped playing cards, and I sat around staring at the mountain and picturing every possible scenario that could've happened. Did they all get pushed off the mountain by a yak? Fucking yaks! Or did they run out of food and water and die of exhaustion? He'd only had a Snickers for breakfast that morning and had almost no water left when we parted ways. Or did they just fall off the mountain like I had earlier? Most likely.

Four hours later, Ross and the couple had still not returned, and Bino and I were both thoroughly freaked out. We started to put together a search party. I continued to pace around and stare worriedly at the mountain. Suddenly, Bino shouted something to me, and I looked over and saw...

...To be continued tomorrow, because we're about halfway through the story and this post is already way too damn long. :)