Temples and Trials

It’s 3:55am when the alarm goes off. I was in a deep sleep, dreaming about…. I don’t know what. All I know is that I’m unhappy about being woken so abruptly and at such an unreasonable time.

When Dean and I first discussed our itinerary for this trip, we each picked three “bucket list” items that we each wanted to see. Mine are Angkor Wat, scuba diving the antiquities in Greece, and Machu Picchu. We had arrived in Siem Reap the evening prior and wanting to capitalize on one of my bucket list items, hired a tuktuk driver to pick us up at 4:30am to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.

It was now 4:15am and as expected, Mr. Pan, our tuktuk driver was outside waiting. We finished a quick breakfast of yogurt, sugary mueseli, and Nescafé, and hopped in the tuktuk for a surprisingly chilly commute through the jungle. The tuktuks in Cambodia are unlike the tricycle carts in India and Thailand. Instead, Mr. Pan drives a motorcycle, towing a metal trailer with a bench seat facing forward and a fold down seat facing backwards, reminiscent of a traditional horse and buggy.

We rode through the pre-dawn darkness to a check point where the Apsara Authority (the organization that governs the entrance to the park), punched our three day temple ticket and waved us onward. Another 10 minutes further into the jungle we arrived at the entrance of Angkor Wat. Any directions were unneeded as we followed the bobbing flashlights of likeminded tourists, headed toward the entrance point at the beginning of the causeway. If it had been light out, we would have seen that we were on the edge of a temporary, floating bridge, spanning the huge moat leading to the West gate of the largest singular temple in the area. Crossing the spongy walkway it was still almost an hour from sunrise, and even with the glowing half moon we could only see about five feet in front of us.

We followed the main entrance walkway of large uneven stones and tried to keep our footing. We noticed several of the flashlights grouping at the edge of the two reflecting pools at the front of the temple and decided to skirt to the mob’s right hoping to avoid the throngs that promised to continue arriving. Sure enough, there was only one other couple, setting up their camera nearby.

Prior to leaving, I thought Dean was crazy when he packed two large bags of camera equipment. However that morning, I learned that he hadn’t packed his 7lb tripod and therefore the iconic reflection shot of Angkor Wat with the sun rising behind the three towers was not possible. I told Dean that if I wanted a copy of that iconic shot, I could easily download it off the internet. A blessing in disguise as this meant that we could abandoned the busy reflection pools and walk closer to the temple, setting up the small tripod on a stone balistrade.

We could barely see the three front towers of the temple through the darkness and as the sky lightened to gray, a group of three Cambodians came over and sat under the balistrade, 3 feet away from us. They were each looking at Facebook on their phones, talking loudly, with a walkie-talkie blaring, echoing the voice of an authoritative gentlemen and shattering the prestine quiet of the early morning. After a few minutes, Dean packed up his camera and we decided to find another location from which to witness the sunrise, but were quickly told that the remainder of the temple wasn’t open and this is as far as we could go until after sunrise. We requested that they turn down the radio, but I don’t think they understood our English, so Dean motioned to the blaring radio and eventually, they turned down the volume.

For the next 30 minutes, we watched the sky slowly lighten and the temple emerge from the gloom, highlighted by the pinks and oranges of sunrise. The majesty of the moment interrupted by several more groups of tourists being told that they couldn’t proceed any further. But the beauty of the scene unfolding in front of us couldn’t be ruined. It was breathtaking.

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Angkor Wat Coming into Focus

When I chanced to look back to the reflecting pools behind us, a crowd of several hundred people were arrayed on the shores, several hundred more corralled on the temple walk. That’s one thing that we’re learning – we’re not the only people who want to see these beautiful, iconic sites around the world. And even attending during early, late, or off times, means that you’re still sharing with throngs of other tourists.

We were some of the first people to enter the temple and proceeded through the main gallery, past the restored libraries, to the back of the complex. Upon reaching the Northeast corner, I joined a line for the Bakan, the elevated inner gallery, which would allow us to be two of the first 100 tourists to take the steep stairs to the top level, providing 360 views of the Angkor city and the main shrine. The Bakan doesn’t open until 6:40am, which was in 30 minutes. I told Dean that I was happy to wait in line if he wanted to walk around some more and capitalize on the morning light. I spent the next 15 minutes enjoying the people watching, but started to panic when the line began to move at 6:30am, a full 10 minutes before posted. Dean hadn’t returned and I was extremely annoyed that 1) I might have to go up without him or 2) lose my place in line. With two minutes to spare, Dean appeared around the corner and joined me in the line. In true Krista fashion, I snapped at him. Making some comment about how I was worried that he wasn’t going to return in time and how I didn’t think he appreciated my sacrifice.

Here’s the thing about me – my anger burns hot and fast. I build up tension, make a barbed comment and once released, it’s done. I’ve moved on. Dean on the other hand, is a slow simmer. It takes a lot to anger him but often, my snarky comments light the flame, adding to the heat until he reaches a boiling point.

I lit the flame early that morning, causing there to be tension throughout the day as we fell into our patterns – me making comments and Dean fuming. Finally that evening, it came to a head.

We had returned to the hotel around 1:30pm, hot and exhausted after a day of doing “the small loop,” a tour of 5 different temples, closely located. At the fourth, Ta Prohm Temple, we had a miscommunication with Mr. Pan, which left us looking for him for over 40 minutes in the blazing heat. We decided to skip the fifth temple and head straight back to the hotel. We grabbed lunch at a highly rated Italian restaurant called Momma Shop. The lunch was delicious and we returned to the hotel with a full pizza as leftovers. After a quick trip to the corner grocery store to stock up on snacks for the next day’s trip, I joined Dean in the pool. With the help of the cold pool, a fantastic lunch, and several minibar beers, the tension had eased and we talked about our amazing day.

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Jungle Overtaking Ta Prohm Temple

I knew Dean was especially tired when he suggested a late afternoon nap. I nap every chance I get, however Dean rarely partakes, instead using the quiet time to read or relax. We both quickly fell asleep but I woke up after an hour and not being able to fall back asleep, decided to do some research for our next leg of the trip to Vietnam and Laos.

When Dean finally woke up several hours later, I was in the midst of booking tickets to Laos and back to Bangkok for Christmas. Throughout our travel planning, Dean typically has taken the lead on booking transportation (flights, trains, buses, etc) and I have booked accomodations (hotels, AirBnBs, etc). I was annoyed that I had to do the research and booking for what I perceive as “his responsibility.”

Having finally booked the tickets after several frustrating attempts on Air Asia’s website, I looked over at Dean, who was playing a mindless video game on his phone. I snapped and immediately made a snarky comment, asking how his “research” was going. I know it wasn’t rational. But in that moment, all of the tension from the day culminated in my statement and Dean, having finally reached the boiling point, angerly asked what was my problem. I immediately regretted my statement and apologized but the damage had been done and Dean needed some time to cool off.

We spent the next several hours, purposefully not talking to each other. Instead, I ate a dinner of leftover pizza, banana chips and Ritz crackers while Dean said he wasn’t hungry.

While brushing our teeth, I decided to bring up the subject as I desperately didn’t want to go to bed still angry. Considering that emotions were high, we had a civil conversation where we talked about our frustrations throughout the day. I was angry that Dean didn’t appear to appreciate me, and therefore I made snarky comments, pushing him further away. He talked about how my comments made it so that he didn’t particularly want to be around me. And when he stated as much, it made me want to push him away even harder.

You see, we’ve never really had to work at our relationship. We’ve always had a very easy way with each other, often talking through feelings and big decisions. So on the rare occasions that we do fight, neither of us really knows what to do. But we promised that we would work on our communication and tomorrow, we would have a “do over.”

We went to bed early and when we awoke at 3:55am the next morning, the power was out but our attitudes were a little better. As we got ready in the light of our phone flashlights, I could already tell that we were both trying.

This time, we decided to skip the crowded throngs at Angkor Wat, and instead go to Phnom Bakheng, the previous capital of the Khmer empire located on the only hill for miles. As we climbed the groomed path at 5:10am, we needed our headlamps to navigate the uphill, jungle trail. After some stumbling in the dark, we finally found the entrance, and climbed the steep stairs leading to the main level of the temple. Upon reaching the top, we realized that we were the only people there. We sat on the East facing stairs and were slowly joined by several more groups as the sun started to color the sky. No throngs of tourists crowding together for the perfect shot, no Facebook, no walkie-talkies. Just silence and a shared appreciation amongst strangers for the beauty of the scene before us.

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Angkor Wat in the Morning Mist

 

After the sun had fully risen, we decided to hike back down to Mr. Pan and our tuktuk, admiring the beauty of the jungle path and the western views that had previously been hidden by the night. Also waiting for us in the tuktuk was our leftover pizza which we promptly ate for breakfast, fist-bumping to celebrate our genius.

Our next temple, Bantey Shrey, was 35 kilometers away, and we were rewarded with a 40 minute drive through the countryside bathed in the early morning light. The main industry in Cambodia is farming; rice being the major crop produced in this swampy area. The fields were yellowish green and flat, providing a view of the large hill in the distance where the Khmer quarried both the lava and sandstone that was used in the 100+ temples in the region.

We fist-bumped again as we ordered two americanos from the snack bar outside of the temple, as we weren’t able to make Nescafé in our room due to the power outage. Remember, today was our “do over,” and after two early mornings, we desperately needed some caffeine to keep our energy up and attitudes in check.

We then proceeded to do “the big loop,” with the temples spaced further apart and on the outskirts of the large complex. Similar to the previous day, we were hot and exhausted by noon, but powered through, finishing by 1:30pm.

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Mr. Pan Leading Us Through the Jungle

A lunch of local fare and Singha beers prepared us for a dip in the pool. After a nap, I spent some time on TripAdvisor, searching for the perfect dinner and surprised Dean by choosing the Siem Reap Brewery. Over a beer sampler and a superb dinner, we talked about the improvement in the day and how each of us is going to have to continue to work to better communication. We went to bed early and while we didn’t have a 4:00am wake up call for sunrise, we did need to be at the Grasshopper Adventure office at 7:30am for our full day, mountain biking temple tour.

Neither Dean or I are big “tour” people. In fact, we’d spent the last two days dodging massive groups of tourists blocking doorways and posing endlessly for the same pictures. But bike riding through the jungle on the secluded trails linking the temples was definitely something that I wanted to experience.

We spent an extremely enjoyable day, riding through the massive Angkor complex and revisiting several of our favorite temples: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon. Our guide, Sambo, was very knowledgeable and told great stories about the history of the temples and the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. He pointed out countless interesting carvings and answered a number of questions that we had while touring the previous two days without a guide. Having been born just outside of Siem Reap, he had a very great sense of pride in the lasting monuments of his Khmer ancestors. As we rode back to town, we passed the outside of Angkor Wat and the iconic West facade. We paused for a picture in the late afternoon sun and it was a perfect moment to say good-bye to this magical place.

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South Gate of Angkor Thom

Heading to dinner that night, we were saddle-sore and famished, but extremely pleased with the experience. It was definitely one of my trip highlights and something that I’ll never forget. Not just due to the mystery and beauty of a place that I’ve dreamed of seeing but also because this is where Dean and I made some real strides in improving our communication.

And while I know it’s going to be difficult for me to tone down the snark, I am more aware of how it impacts Dean. And doing the work to improve our relationship will ensure we build something beautiful that will last a lifetime. Rather like those temples.

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Faces of Bayon Temple

There Are No Sidelines In India

The first rule of India for any foreign traveler – breathe through your mouth. India assaults your senses. The bouquet of aromas that you experience within any 20 foot walk can be varied and often, unpleasant. The sheer volume of people, living in close quarters in centuries old cities can create some unique problems.

For starters, there is often issues with implementing indoor plumbing and sewage systems. Public waste management is not widely accessible and culturally, most people think nothing of throwing trash on the ground, sometimes gathering it into small piles to burn. There is always a haze on the horizon due to exhaust, dirt roads, and the burning of garbage and crop waste. Cows, pigs, goats, and dogs freely roam the streets, their excrement smeared across the pavement. As you walk along the street, you can be hit by a cloud of exhaust from a tuktuk, smell the rich aroma of spices, dodge a pile of fresh cow shit, and catch a whiff of a cooking kachori all in the span of 5 steps.

There’s something to see everywhere you turn. The streets are lined with shops selling everything from spices to household goods to vegetables straight from the outlying farms in the countryside. There’s an endless sea of bright colored and boldly patterned saris, the women resembling peacocks sporting their intricate jewelry. The roads are narrow, winding through buildings in varied states of repair, some with interesting murals or architectural features that draw the eye and make you wonder about the beauty of the city in the distant past.

The cuisine is delicious, leveraging the fresh ingredients from the local farms. Every dish is served in a rich sauce or gravy, the base of which is typically cooking oil, making most meals extremely heavy. Any fresh vegetable or salad isn’t an option as foreigners can get very sick from unhygienic wash water. Both Dean and I have gained weight, in spite of hours spent walking each day.

It’s impossible to escape the constant sound of horns honked by every car, truck, motorcycle and tuktuk on the road. Vehicles use their horns for communication as traffic rules are lax, with people merging with abandon without care for oncoming traffic. Roads are choked by individuals pushing handcarts and it appears that any vehicle can pull over and park where it suits, heedless of the congestion building behind it – I often joke that India’s theme song should be “Move Bitch, Get Out The Way.” Additionally, music blares in every restaraunt, making conversation nearly impossible over TVs turned to full volume. The person who thought up the “Some goddamn peace and quiet” card in Cards Against Humanity surely must have recently returned from India.

Tuk Tuks In The Way

While people aren’t necessarily rude, there is an “I do what I want” attitude to the way in which people move through daily life with no apparent regard for the impacts to those around them. It’s a very “me first” society, with people cutting in lines and scrambling to get ahead. Growing up in a society with strict rules that govern polite interaction, and considering our experience in Mumbai, I can see how people think that Indians have a “fuck you” attitude toward foreigners. But while traveling Rajisthan over the last two weeks, we had the opposite experience.

We flew into Udaipur in the evening and immediately hired a taxi to our hotel in the old city. Cars aren’t allowed in the ancient and narrow streets of Udaipur’s Old City, so Dean and I walked a half mile towards the Maharaja’s old palace (now a museum) and through ancient complexes (called havelis) previously housing entire families of the upper castes.

The next day we were scheduled to meet the folks at Jatan, the NGO that Softchoice Cares had partnered with the year prior to build a computer lab in rural Rajasthan. Our contact, Raajdeep, had arraigned a car for the day and we drove to meet the Jatan team at their Udaipur offices before driving the two hours to Railmagra the building site. I was extremely excited to hear about the progress being made on the building and how it’s enabled Jatan to institute more and more programs that are impacting the rural communities nearby. The Jatan group was extremely excited to hear that Dean is an architect and asked him to look at the plans for their new building, breaking ground in 2018.

Jatan Railmagra Building October 2016

After a welcome ceremony at the Jatan Railmagra offices – that included friendship bracelets, marigold necklaces, red tika and tea – we ate a thali lunch with the entire office. We then drove the 20 minutes to the building that one year prior, was the shell of a single story building with a concrete staircase on the outside. Softchoice Cares had funded the construction of the first story in 2015 and the 2017 Board decided to return to build the second story. The group of 16 Board members and 5 additional family/friends spent two weeks building; mixing cement by hand, making a human chain to toss bricks from a pile on the ground to the stair landing and then onto a pile on the second floor for use in building the external walls, layer by layer. The building had no running water as the bathrooms were a dirt floored room being used to store materials and power was provided by a diesel generator.

We set up 30 Lenovo laptops, a 50 inch flat screen and Nintendo Wii in a windowless concrete room and were promised that internet would be available within the next month. I’ll admit, when we left the project, most people in the group were dejected. We wondered if the investment was wasted as there was still so much to do.

This year, upon arriving at the site, I was shocked. The crudely built brick square was a tiered, three story building, gleaming white in the afternoon sun. I giggled with glee walking up the dirt path as Raajdeep explained that they intended to build a concrete drive, lined with mango trees, leading under the large porte cochere on the side of the building.

Jatan Railmagra Building November 2017

Walking through the double front doors, we were in a large room with stairs to the second story on either side (now enclosed), the screens at each landing filtering the sun. The dirt floored alcove where our meals were cooked a year prior was now an office for the building manager while the storage room at the back became the bathroom with 4 shower stalls, 8 toilets and a large trough sink. The computer lab was the same concrete room, but now with cloth covers to keep the machines prestine. The TV had been moved to the largest room and is being used for presentations, etc. for trainings.

Railmagra Children at the Jatan Building

The now completed second story houses two rooms for break out groups or smaller gatherings and can be used as dormitories for multi-day training sessions and retreats. The bathroom layout mimics the first floor design and there are two individual rooms with ensuite toilet/shower for trainers or chaperones.

The third level is an open rooftop with temporary kitchen for making meals and tea. There’s plenty of space for activities: yoga, exercise, breakout groups, the possibilities are endless. Up a metal ladder and you have access to a smaller rooftop, providing a 360 view of the surrounding countryside. While Raajdeep told us about the buildings’ many uses, he also outlined future plans for a permanent kitchen, full time guard housing, and garden to support their nutrition education program.

I returned to Udaipur that evening, exhausted but happy. While there’s still a lot of work to be done, the amount of progress made in a year is astounding and I’m extremely excited to report back to Softchoice Cares with pictures, 360 photo spheres, and a full report of the impacts being made.

We spent the next two days in Udaipur, leisurely enjoying the sites: eating on rooftop restaurants overlooking the lake, admiring the lavish and well preserved palace, and taking a boat ride to Jagmandir Island for sunset. I had reserved a room at Jaiwana Haveli for our last night as I had spent a weekend there the year prior and had facetimed Dean from the rooftop patio. This was a special place that I wanted to share and I specially requested one of the two rooms in the tower to ensure we could enjoy the view from the same patio. Upon checking in, the owner learned that Dean is an architect, and again, he was asked to look at building plans and render his opinion. We spent almost an hour looking at the plans and afterwards, the owner shared his lunch with us and offered to provide a discounted bottle of wine after learning that we intended to walk the 15 minutes to a beer store. As we followed the bellman to our room, I was dismayed when instead of taking us to the tower, he took us to a second story. He opened the door to a large room with a bay window, overlooking the lake, and a private patio with a sitting alcove carved into the stone. It must have been one of the best rooms in the entire complex. Score!

Lake Pichola from Udaipur

This was only the first example of the hospitality we experienced throughout the next week. We had received a referral for a homestay in Jaipur from Dean’s best man, Brian, who had traveled to India with his wife in 2016. Pushpendra happily provided dates available for one of the five rooms in their beautiful home and asked about our plans. Upon learning that we had yet to reserve accommodations in Jodhpur, he recommended a homestay with relatives and also suggested we look into a camel safari in nearby village Osian.

We arrived at our homestay in Jodhpur and were immediately greeted by Madan, a stately older gentleman, who ushered us into his large sitting room and offered tea. Upon chatting with Madan and his son, we learned that his family is related to the Maharaja of Jodhpur – whose forefathers established the city – and still lives in the city’s 20th century palace.

As we settled into our room – which included a large bathroom and access to a terrace – we were invited to join the family for dinner later that night. After returning from an afternoon visit to the palace museum and crowded Sunday market, we went downstairs for cocktails and a few hours of conversation with our hosts and another couple staying in the home, a Brazilian diplomat and his wife currently stationed in Sri Lanka. Madan and his entire family are fantastic hosts, offering insights into their lives and the Indian culture, as well as taking an active interest in their guests. Upon learning that we were scheduled to travel to a safari camp in Osian, they helped arrange transportation and invited us to visit their property, a luxury safari camp (the original camp in Osian) located immediately next door. The night’s dinner was among the best we’ve had yet. It was an extremely enjoyable evening and when offered the option to join them the next night, we immediately accepted.

The next day, we explored Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort – a massive stone building dominating a nearby hill and the original seat of the Maharaja. We took Madan’s recommendation and opted for the audio tour of the museum instead of getting a local guide. The building itself was extremely well preserved and the audio tour had some fascinating information, explaining the history of the architecture as well as displaying some well preserved paintings, murals and artifacts from when India was a number of individual states, each ruled by it’s own Maharaja.

Even here, the Indian tourists were pushy. Crowding in front of different displays, yelling to family members, with no regard for personal space or quiet. At times, Dean and I chose to hold back, trying to avoid particularly annoying groups.

After leaving the museum, we wandered along the battlements, hoping to meander a bit and get away from the crowds. We found ourselves in a beautiful garden with only a handful of people, the fort towering above us just up the hill. I found a set of stairs, leading to the back wall, and seeing no signs or barrier, we decided to head up to look around.

The back of the walled compound overlooks an old area of town, called “The Blue City,” aptly named as the priestly caste called Brahmins who live there have painted their houses a light indigo color for centuries. We decided to see if there was an exit from the fort toward the Blue City versus leaving with the throngs of tourists arriving from the Old Town.

Jodhpur’s Blue City

Walking down the road, we were stopped by an intimidating looking guard, who said, “No access.” But when we asked if this was the direction to the Blue City, he smiled and pointed the direction we had been heading. The same thing happened with the next guard we passed, an emphatic “No,” then a smile pointing us onward.

We exited through a pair of elephant-sized doors set in the thick stone wall. We meandered the back streets of the Blue City, which had been built centuries before right up to the walls of the fort. The area felt no different from any other Indian city as there were chai stands, food stalls, and shops scattered along the road. However, the light blue color of the buildings added a layer of mystery and brilliance to the otherwise commonplace sights.

Back Way Out of Mehrangarh Fort

We left Jodhpur the next day for a quick trip north to Osian, a small village located on the edge of the Thar Desert and therefore the perfect location for several safari camps, catering to adventurous tourists. We whiled away the afternoon, drinking beer and playing several games of cribbage under a shady tent with our toes in the sand.

We took an evening camel ride through sunset – an experience that is sure to be one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done – and returned to camp to find out that we would be the only guests staying at Safari Camp Osian that night – the king and queen of the camp with a 5 person staff taking care of just us. Dean and I both wondered aloud at our luck.

Evening Camel Ride in Osian

The next morning we hopped a 5 hour train ride to Jaipur and were greeted by our hosts, Pushpendra and his wife Sneh. Again, we were amazed by the hospitality as we enjoyed a wonderful evening, Dean sampling single malt whiskeys with Pushpendra, while Sneh and I talked about their two daughters. I was shocked to see that it was past 10 o’clock when our dinner was finished and was sad when they told us that they had to attend a birthday party the following night. However we still had a good chance to spend time with the extremely interesting couple during our 3 days spent in their home. While saying our good-byes the night before leaving, Sneh gave us a set of coasters made from the famous Jaipur blue pottery; a kind gift from our new friends.

Our Wonderful Hosts in Jaipur, Pushpendra and Sneh

As I reflect on our time in India, I’m happy that we’ve had such a wide variety of experiences. I can understand how people are overwhelmed when first coming here. Life is lived on a different level – it’s gritty, in your face and doesn’t follow the rules of courtesy. At the same time, the people that we’ve been lucky enough to meet have been warm, hospitable, and gone out of their way to take care of us. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

I think it comes down to one thing – India demands participation. If you’re willing to penetrate the masses to meet the individuals, instead of being a spectator, you’ll get to experience the richness of this wonderful country.

Elephants Leaving Amber Fort Outside of Jaipur

That Time We Got Scammed In Mumbai

After our extremely disappointing exit from the Khumbu, 10 days earlier than expected, there were several necessaries that needed to be taken care of. The first, was a visit to the hospital to get my lungs and digestive tract checked out. Tsering recommended that we go to Swacon International Hospital, which caters specifically to foreigners and has better facilities than the local hospitals. They immediately took me to the “emergency room,” a large, sea foam colored room with several beds separated by curtains. The doctor asked a number of questions about my symptoms, listened to my lungs with a stethoscope, and ushered in a nurse who efficiently took my vitals. They then escorted me to a different area of the ground floor for a sonogram as sometimes, stomach issues can be caused by parasites. Next, they drew blood and took a chest X-ray. I kept thinking, this seems like an awful lot of tests for some diarrhea and a dry cough but didn’t say anything as I figured the doctor knew what was needed.

After an hour and a half of tests and paperwork, the nurse told us that we would need to wait to reconcile the bill and could have our lunch in their cantina out back. Outside, we could only find a parking lot with a number of cars, motorcycles and a single table with umbrella, so we sat down in some lawn chairs and got out our books to wait. After another hour, Dean decided to go inside to get an update. Apparently the giggly girl behind the desk pulled our file out from the bottom of a stack that she hadn’t been working on and told him it would be another hour.

Here’s the thing about Dean – he’s the most soft spoken and patient guy in the world, until he isn’t. We then decided to go sit next to the front desk, our physical presence a reminder that they needed to get this completed. After another 30 minutes, the girl handed Dean the bill. A whopping $400USD! He insisted on seeing the itemized receipt before payment while the girl insisted that she couldn’t provide it until the bill had been paid. A real Catch-22.

We also wanted to see the results before paying, however they relayed that the tests wouldn’t be completed for 2 days. Knowing a load of bullshit when he sees it, Dean told them it was not acceptable. So they quickly told us another 2 hours while Dean shook his head. Nope – you’ll have them done in an hour. So while Dean argued back and forth with the women behind the desk on several incorrect charges, one of which being an ambulance ride that we didn’t take, I waited for the results.

The nurse finally called me back to the emergency room, handing me a folder with my blood test results but not providing any detail as to what they meant. She did mention that everything looked normal, I think after she realized that I was getting really frustrated.

Here’s the thing about me – I’m neither soft spoken, nor patient. So when the nurse handed me a bottle of cough syrup, some allergy pills, and two pills for “pain” as the remedy for my ailments, I lit her up. I pushed the medicine back in her hands and told her in no uncertain words that this wasn’t allergies and we just wasted our money. It’s a bit of a blur, but I can remember delivering a litany on the substandard care provided and taking advantage of rich foreigners as we exited the building.

On the ride home Dean and I talked about the experience, our only conclusion being that they couldn’t find anything wrong and therefore we’re going to assume a clean bill of health.

We spent the remaining week and a half in Kathmandu, checking out the sites, eating good food, planning the next leg of our trip, and getting healthy. While my stomach symptoms and cough remained for several weeks, I felt a little better everyday.

However the hospital visit in Nepal isn’t the scam I wanted to write about – our experience in Mumbai truly defines the experience of “getting conned”.

We arrived in Mumbai in the evening and experienced a thrilling cab ride to the Colaba neighborhood (located at the south end of the city’s peninsula and a concentrated hub of colonial architecture) through the bustle of the world’s 5th largest city. Having visited Delhi last year (the 3rd largest city), I was prepared for the crushing mass of humanity and roads packed with cars, all merging and honking with very little regard for traffic laws and delineated lanes. However Mumbai traffic appeared to be a little more civilized. We drove out of the airport on a large highway, our cab staying primarily in the left lane. The slums crowded on either side of the highway and we watched as the one and two story, haphazardly built buildings stretched for miles.

The smooth ride abruptly changed after crossing the Banda Worli Sea Link bridge, a new city landmark that circumvents the mainland’s existing bottleneck connection to the upper part of the peninsula. We were now on the inner city roads during rush hour. The streets were flooded with people as we drove along Marine Drive, which parallels the famous Chowpatty Beach, a favorite among locals and sprawling with handcarts selling every type of street food.

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Mumbai’s Marine Drive

Our cab driver seemed to be playing a game at each stop light, accelerating as quickly as possible while dodging and honking at slower moving vehicles, until he encountered the cars impatiently waiting at the next light. It felt like I was in a bad race car movie and quickly developed a headache that lasted the remainder of the evening.

The next morning, we awoke and had breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel. The sun was peaking through the smog and marine layer, causing everything to have a pinkish orange glow. Dean strapped on his backpack and we headed for the ocean, wanting to see the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Gateway to India while the light remained golden and magical.

On our way, we saw a man walking a Boxer and I quickly crossed the street to make friends. Trigger is a sweet, 5 year old brindle who immediately snuggled up to my legs and I told his owner about our dog Bodhi, having the time of his life in Wyoming.

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Gateway to India

I was flying high after our encounter, sporting a smile as we walked. I thought this was the reason that a number of Indian people asked to take our picture while at the Gateway (a practice I find very strange but am willing to humor). Dean let me know it is because we are very clearly Western, something of a novelty in Indian culture.

We meandered the streets, enjoying the 18th century colonial architecture and watching the city come to life. Dean made a comment about a gentleman sitting crossed legged on his stool in front of a pan stall waxing his impressive mustache. Dean asked to take a picture and then ordered one of the fruit and spice filled pan leaves. The gentleman proceeded to grab a leaf, and open a number of metal jars, each filled with a different paste, spice or fruit. He spread the mixture with his fingers and once finished, handed the leaf package to Dean. For reasons that I can’t explain, the moment was magical.

I snapped a picture as Dean took a bite, the gentleman smiling behind his large, mustache and reaching his eyes. I had read about the hospitality and kindness of the Indian people and in this moment, I felt so connected.

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Mustachioed Man with Street Pan

We walked along the sidewalk, checking out the stalls filled with samosas, fried potatoes, and a number of other quickly made foods being eaten by the growing throngs of locals. We stopped to check our map and locate the train station as we still needed to book our travel from Udaipur to Jodhpur to Jaipur and across the country to Kolkata. A local heard us speaking English and hovered nearby. At first, I thought it was so that he could ask for a picture but upon striking up a conversation, he mentioned that he had lived in San Francisco and wanted to give us some friendly advise about the attractions in the city. When asking where we were going next, I answered honestly by telling him that we were headed to the train station to buy our tickets. He immediately stated that we would be charged “tourist prices” and if we’d like, we could meet up for lunch and go to “his friend” who would help us get a better deal. Having read the guidebooks about India, Dean was skeptical. However being an easy sell, I was willing to at least see if we could save some money by booking like a local.

After a trip to the train station to get a cost for our 33 hour overnight train from Jaipur to Kolkata (something that Dean has always wanted to do), we sent Rahim a WhatsApp message with a place to meet for lunch. He took us to a restaurant filled with locals and provided guidance on the different Indian dishes on the menu. When the food arrived, we invited him to join us and we spent an hour talking about his life as a software developer, traveling on contract to different places across the globe. I asked him a number of questions that only a developer would actually know – what language he codes in, what type of applications was he working on, what are some companies that I would recognize that he’d done contracts for. Enough to trip him up in a lie.

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Victoria Terminal Train Station

We then followed him to a street that was filled with small booths, one after another, with men sitting behind a counter with a computer in front. We sat down inside one shop and spoke with Javen, the proprietor. Rahim acted as the translator, providing us with bus times and options. We went back and forth on times and class of bus but finally had tickets and electronic confirmation for an AC sleeper bus from Udaipur to Jodhpur. We prepaid for our tickets from Jodhpur to Jaipur so that we would only need to WhatsApp Javen with the time so he could issue the tickets.

Rahim then took us through Crawford Market, a buy-anything street market where the locals came to haggle over everything from textiles, to spices, to household supplies. In the cab on the way back to Colaba, I invited Rahim for a drink. We went into an open bar and through a door to a dark room, sparsely filled with people. As we walked in, I thought to myself that this is where we would get robbed. But immediately felt bad as Rahim ordered 3 Kingfishers.

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Crawford Market

We sat drinking our beers, talking about the need for the dark, back room as local Indians have to hide their drinking since it’s not culturally accepted. As we were finishing the first glass of our 650ml beers, Rahim was on and off his phone, physically agitated.

He had been on his phone for the majority of the cab ride as well, and he now told us that his brother had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital, needing emergency surgery. I immediately expressed my sympathy and told him that if he needed to go, we’d be happy to pay for the beers. He quickly said that he was waiting for a friend to go to the hospital and call him with the details. We sat drinking our beers and it finally occurred to me what was going on when Rahim started talking about the cost of the surgery.

As you read this, I can only assume that you’ve already come to a conclusion as to the situation. However I can honestly say that throughout the entire day, I thought Rahim was genuine. He had spent over 4 hours with us, showing us around and building trust. Even providing his WhatsApp number, which is easily traceable.

Finally Rahim asked us for money – about $10USD. Dean nudged my knee under the table and gave me a knowing look which I interpreted to be an “I told you so.” I returned the look, which Dean interpreted to be “Give him money.” So as we got up to leave the bar, he handed him 500INR, about $8.50.

Expressing his thanks, Rahim walked a different direction, telling us to message him later. As we circled back to our hotel (suspiciously looking over our shoulder and going around the block to ensure we weren’t being followed), I was pissed. But more importantly, I was desperately disappointed. I truly believe in the good in people and Rahim had broken that, smashing the gift of my trust into a million pieces.

Dean then told me about the guidebooks, warning of similar situations and numerous other cons pulled on unsuspecting tourists. When I asked why he didn’t say anything and went along with it, he told me that he had, but I didn’t want to hear it. And he was right, I hadn’t.

Our next thought was around the validity of the bus tickets that we had just purchased. I immediately called the bus company in Udaipur, but the person on the other line didn’t speak English. I then emailed my contact at Jatan (the non-profit in Rajasthan that I had worked with in 2016), explaining the situation and asking for help. But wanting a more immediate answer, I went down to the front desk of our hotel to ask that they call the bus company. Instead, they dialed Javen and asked if the bus ticket was legit – and of course, he said it was.

When I went back upstairs, Dean was laying in bed feeling ill. Throughout the night, he was struck with a 100 degree fever, chills and stomach issues. I, on the other hand, felt fine. After discussing what we had eaten throughout the day, we concluded that Dean’s single bite of street pan, made by a man who minutes prior was waxing his mustache, must have been the culprit. He suffered through a miserable night and was still feeling poorly the next day, looking like he had the DTs, though his fever had decreased somewhat.

We ate breakfast on the rooftop, Dean barely stomaching a dry piece of toast. At 10am, we made our way back over to Crawford Market to confront Javen and ideally get our money back. I had spent the morning doing research and had found that the bus ticket booked for our trip to Jodhpur was a non-AC sleeper and only cost 815INR for the two of us, where we had paid 4800INR total. Confirming that we’d been had!

Meanwhile, Rahim had been sending me messages via WhatsApp, with the final message asking, “are you mad on me?” Are you kidding me you stupid little shit? You scam us and then have the nerve to continue to message me?! I wanted to send a scathing message with a series of choice words but Dean convinced me to turn off my notifications and ignore him. He’s a high road kind of person.

As we searched for the “travel agent’s” stall from the day prior, I immediately noticed that there was a different man sitting behind the computer. He appeared to be helping a customer, so we patiently waited. After about 5 minutes, we were invited to take a seat on the low plastic stools inside. We waited for another 5 minutes, when Javen came around the corner, the surprise in seeing us sitting in his office clearly reflected on his face. He took the captain’s chair in front of the computer and after several minutes, turned to acknowledge us.

Dean and I had talked about our strategy prior. I would be the calm, collected one and he would chime in with the muscle if needed. I immediately pulled my stool next to Javen and explained the situation. We would be getting a private car from our desert safari in Osian and therefore wouldn’t need to book a bus for the trip to Jaipur. Additionally, the 8:15am bus that he booked was a non-AC sleeper, not the AC sleeper that was originally promised. He made a show of opening an application on his computer however I showed him the timetable on my phone, having found a travel app that consolidated all of the options. It very clearly stated non-AC sleeper. He offered to rebook for an AC sleeper, but Dean interjected firmly that we wanted our money back. Javen then stated there would be a 10% cancellation fee. The tension increased as we both argued. At some point, I think he realized that we weren’t having it and he took out the key to his cash drawer and counted out our 4800INR.

We walked away from his booth feeling elated. We had won!

Dean went back to the hotel to lie down while I found some lunch and wrote in my journal. I wrote for over 2 hours, typing furiously about my feelings. I started out venting my frustration, wondering about the type of person that could commit 5 hours to lying. Wondering if everything Rahim said was by design, spinning a web of lies that would build our trust. I replayed the day in my head, trying to decide if any part of the interaction was genuine. I hated that he made me question the validity of our interactions and I hated that I had so clearly fallen for the lie.

After getting most of my frustrations out, I decided that I could forgive Rahim. But when I visualized the scene in my head, instead of forgiving him, I punched him in the face. Maybe it was too soon.

Instead, I decided that I wouldn’t let this experience change the way in which I view the world. I do believe in the goodness in humanity. Sure, there are some shitty people in the world. You meet them everyday. But if someone smiles at me, I’m going to smile back. If someone speaks to me, I’m going to reply. It costs me nothing to be kind. And hopefully, the next time someone has ill intent, I’ll be better prepared to see it.

The Death of a Dream

Still glowing from reaching our goal, the village of Phortse, Dean chose a path through the village that went past the Khumbu Climbing Center, the building Dean had helped design as a graduate at Montana State University and then later, lived in Nepal for 2.5 years to start construction. The project is funded by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, run by Jenni Lowe-Anker and her husband, Conrad Anker, a world famous mountaineer and climber. While the building has been in construction for the past 8 years, the school has been going for over 15 years, teaching Sherpa and high-altitude workers the technical skills vital to their safety in guiding and working on the mountains.As we walked through the site, I saw that all the external walls had been erected and the current building team was working on the supporting structure for the roof. The plan is to have the entire building complete for the 2019 climbing season (March – June) with a grand opening ceremony in the spring.

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View from the Future Library Space in the Khumbu Climbing Center Builing

Just beyond the climbing school is the Namaste Lodge where the proprietors, Lhakpa and Ngawang, welcomed us with delight. Well, they were mostly delighted to see Dean as he’s considered an extended part of their family. But they were very happy to make my acquaintance and immediately demonstrated their famous hospitality over a cup of ginger tea. After exchanging initial pleasantries and finishing our tea, they showed us to our room and I collapsed into my sleeping bag exhausted but proud.

That night, we shared the dining room with 4 boisterous Germans and after having rested throughout the afternoon, my appetite had returned to enjoy a full plate of dhal bhat – lentils, rice and vegetable curry. Unfortunately, my stomach did not cooperate and I found myself perfecting my squat technique shortly after. We had planned on continuing our trek up to Pheriche the next day but after the 7 hours of torture experienced on the way to Phortse, I asked Dean if we could take an additional day to rest before continuing to trek.

My sinus infection hadn’t improved, meaning that I carried tissues and ColdEase in every pocket. Now my stomach was choosing to rebel, forcing me to visit the back house several times daily and my appetite to disappear. I spent the morning sitting in the sun, chatting with Ngawang about our respective families and asking a number of questions about her life. Both Ngwang and Lhakpa have spent time in the US, so their English is fairly good and we were able to communicate easily.

A new set of trekkers joined us at the lodge around noon and I enjoyed speaking to a woman who shockingly enough, lives about 1 mile from us in Denver. What a small world! Dean had been down at the site, working with the current building team, Bud and Mike, but wanted to show me around the village a little since we intended on leaving the next morning. So in the afternoon, we slowly hiked up one side of the village, the hill being much steeper than anticipated, and worked our way over to the local Buddhist monastery (traditionally called the Gompa) perched on the hill overlooking the entire village. We enjoyed the view down valley, looking across and up to Mong La and the trail that we had painstakingly travelled the day prior. The peace was only broken by the “ooing and ahhing” from the nearby group of Spanish speaking trekkers, reveling at the same beauty.

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Buddhist Prayer Wheels Leading to Phortse Gompa

In packing that night, we discussed my health and weighed the risk of continuing our trek. While the brutal sinus pressure had subsided, I was still constantly blowing my nose and my cough had worsened. I hadn’t kept any nourishment in my body for the past 2 days, my appetite had vanished and so far, my body wasn’t responding to the first day of antibiotics. By any account, things weren’t looking good. As I took an Ambien to ensure a good night’s sleep, I told Dean that we would reassess in the morning and I quickly proceeded to fall into a deep slumber.

Eating my toast and Larabar the next morning, I wasn’t feeling any better. Alarms were going off in my head, red lights flashing “Danger!” But when asked what I wanted to do, that little voice inside my head said that I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.

Just before the sun had peeked over the looming peak of Thamserku, we slowly made our way up to the top of the village, stopping every few minutes for me to lean on my poles and catch my breath. A Sherpani woman was on the hill above us, herding her three yaks out of the village to graze, so I could clearly see the path we had to take – which according to Dean, would be the most difficult uphill of our day’s 6 – 7 hour hike.

While enjoying the sunshine at a porter’s ledge, where the trail finally had stopped climbing out of the village, Dean again expressed his concern over how long it had taken us to make the climb and my apparent lack of energy. I shrugged it off. We’d finished the hardest climb of the day and I figured if I could just warm up a little, I’d start to feel better.

As we tackled the next section of trail, a 3 foot wide cut in the side of a cliff, I experienced a few moments of light headedness and my right trekking pole slipped over the side of the sheer drop. In that moment, I knew that this was as high as we would climb.

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View of the Hillside Trail Leaving Phortse

The little voice inside me screamed. You see, I’m not a quitter. If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I charge into things, head first and open hearted. It’s both a strength and a weakness. God damn it – I wasn’t ready to give up. I could do this! But the thing is, I couldn’t.

I then did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – I turned around.

Tears filled my eyes as Dean hugged me, again stating that there was no shame in turning back. I didn’t want to hear it. I did feel shame, as well as the overwhelming grief of the death of my dream. We stood there for what felt like ages – probably closer to 10 minutes – perched on the side of a cliff in the sunshine while Dean’s arms encircled me as I cried.

Everyone was very sympathetic once we returned to the lodge and I was immediately whisked back to our room to lay down. Dean tucked me into my sleeping bag, ensuring an appropriate supply of tissues, Strepsils and ColdEase within easy reach, and I proceeded to cry myself to sleep.

I slept through the morning, got up for lunch in the dining room with Dean, and then returned to our room to cry myself to sleep for the remainder of the afternoon. At dinner that night, Dean watched as I half-heartedly ate half a bowl of RaRa veg noodle soup.

My symptoms persisted throughout the night and into the next morning, I could only stomach a cup of tea and a single piece of toast for breakfast. I think this is the time where Dean really got concerned as he started to insist that we head down to Namache the next day to seek medical help. However I still wanted to ride it out and thought another day of bed rest might help.

So reluctantly, Dean left to spend the day rock climbing with the guys from the KCC and allowed me to rest. I laid in bed most of the morning, hovering in that place between wakefulness and sleep, occasionally pausing for a bout of good crying. Not only did I feel miserable but I was also mourning the loss of seeing Everest Base Camp. More importantly, I think I was mourning the loss of the experience and the pride I would have felt in achieving that goal. I had dreamed about this for so long, and now I knew there was nothing I could do to make it happen.

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Khumbu Climbing Center Crew Climbing Off the Trail

The next morning, Dean made the call. It was time to head to Namche and get medical attention. We unloaded virtually everything from my daypack, overpaid a Sherpani woman to carry our big packs down to Namche, said our good-byes to the people in Phortse, and began the trek out.

I felt good during the 30 minute hike down the hill from Phortse to the river, but prepared myself for the brutal climb up to Mong La. Luckily, this side of the hill is shorter than its sister trail on the other side of the pass. Unfortunately, that means that the path is more vertical, comprised almost entirely of switchbacks and irregular rock stairs. I tried putting in headphones and counting my steps, but towards the top, with Mong La still towering above us, I could only manage 20 at a time before needing to sit down.

After an hour and a half, we finally made it to the top. The lodge owners remembered us from a few days prior and asked if I was feeling any better – I wasn’t. I spent our hour long break with my eyes closed, laying on Dean’s pack in the sun streaming in through the windows. Once lunch was eaten, we said good-bye (and good riddance) to Mong La and cruised down the long hill. We passed a dozen groups of trekkers, in the same state of struggle we had experienced days prior, causing us to christen the hill “Soul Crusher.”

The remainder of the hike was mostly downhill and we made it to Namche just after 2:00pm. We proceeded to the clinic and checked the placard listing the opening hours posted on the side door – Open Monday – Friday until 3:00pm. We had barely made it! As we proceed to the main door and we were confronted with a handwritten sign stating that the clinic would close at 1:00pm on Fridays, and is closed on Saturdays. Welcome to Nepal!

The next day, Dean consulted with Dawa, the owner of our lodge, and called Tsering to discuss our options. He was told that there was a slight possibility of getting a helicopter down to Lukla, otherwise we would make the 2 – 3 day hike out the next morning. At 3:00pm we received a call from Dawa, stating that he could get us a helicopter down to Lukla. Oh, and we had to be at the helipad at the top of the village in the next 20 minutes. We made a mad dash sprint up to the helipad, my big pack strapped to my back while Dean balanced my daypack on top of the large pack on his back, while his daypack was strapped to his front. I would have applauded his strength if I hadn’t been about to pass out. We made it to the helipad with 3 minutes to spare.

As soon as our helicopter landed, Dean hustled me up the step and I scooted along the back seat. He and Dawa then threw in our bags and we were away. The whole operation took less than 2 minutes. Tears had filled my eyes while saying good-bye to Dawa and once seated, I couldn’t hold back any longer. I unceremoniously cried as a large group of trekkers stood at the edge of the helipad, taking pictures of the fascinating performance.

The ride down to Lukla took no longer than 15 minutes and during the journey I was conflicted. I was heartbroken, tears streaming down my face, but we had just paid $300 for this helicopter and damn it, I was going to get my money’s worth of stunning views!

I was still bawling as we disembarked in Lukla and made our way to The Nest, our lodge for the night. We shared the dining room with several trekkers and a group of porters playing dice, all of which were giving me sideways glances as the tears continued to fall. Dean finally got the key to our room and ushered me upstairs. For the next 20 minutes, he rubbed my back as I cried. I felt like a complete failure.

Dean let me cry, allowing me to grieve. After my tears were finished and I was hiccuping like a small child, he said something that blew my mind (as he does on occasion). He reminded me that the reason why I wanted to take this trip was to learn and grow, to put myself in uncomfortable situations to hopefully gain perspective and become a better person. And this is how life works – sometimes, you have to deal with disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. Maybe, this experience could help me learn that some things are outside of my control. Not a welcome message to a person who is super Type A.

As I reflected on it further, I realized that he’s right. Life is all about change. It’s good to have big dreams, to constantly be striving for something. But you also need to know when to recalibrate. The learning happens throughout the journey.

I’ve learned a lot over the last few weeks. I’ve never questioned that I’m made of some stern stuff and that I can push well past my limits. But this experience has helped to remind me that I’m not invincible, my health is important and I need to listen to my body. I need to accept change and count my blessings. And maybe most importantly, this experience has demonstrated that I have someone who loves me more than anything, even the highest mountain in the world.

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Though We Leave the Khumbu – The Journey Continues

The Trek Begins

We started out our journey to the Khumbu like any new adventure; with me bouncing up and down, asking unending questions, and extremely excited for what lay ahead. I’d gotten a taste of the chaos of flying domestic during our trip to Pokhara so I was prepared for the endless waiting. All I knew is that we had one of the early flights of the day scheduled at 8:00am.  The departures waiting area was mayhem, even more crowded than our previous venture to Pokhara, people ruthlessly eyeing and snatching open seats. I finally snagged an end seat next to the gate, and opened my book to wait patiently. After two hours of watching airline employees, looking at other traveler’s tickets, and false starts, we learned that there was a “traffic backlog” on the runway that was causing the delay but had now cleared and we were finally out the door and on our way.

Similar to our flight to Pokhara, we were treated with a view of the gigantic mountain peaks presiding over the lowland network of valleys, however this time, the view held more than beauty as we were going to be trekking around these mountains, valleys, and peaks. After landing in Lukla, we took a short walk over to a lodge, The Nest, to get a cup of ginger tea, discuss reserving our room for the return trip, and left our return plane tickets in 18 days in the care of the lodge. Dean found a porter willing to take our heavy backpacks up to Phortse – a somewhat difficult task as the porters tend to prefer the longer treks which guarantees a longer trip and more wages.

Balaram, our porter, is a small, skinny man who appears to be in his mid to late 40’s. While Dean had provided the name of the guest house that we intended to stay at that evening, allowing Balaram to take off and meet us there, instead, he paced with us on the trail, consistently pulling ahead during the hard, uphill sections and waiting for us to catch up. It was humbling to be passed by the numerous porters, carrying heavy loads. I mean, I’m a Coloradan, not some pansy from the coasts, but watching these small men carry huge, awkward burdens at a slow and steady pace, wearing shoes completely inadequate for the terrain (sometimes flip flops), I couldn’t help but be impressed and humbled.

We made good time descending the hill out of Lukla to follow along the Dudh Koshi river below but as the afternoon continued, my energy started to wane. I had been struck with bad allergies on our last day in Pokhara, which had decided to morph into an aggressive sinus infection, causing me to get very little sleep the night prior due to a runny nose and sinus pressure. I’d taken Mucinex, but the medication hadn’t touched my symptoms, and I paused often on the trail to blow my nose. Per usual, my appetite flees when feeling ill and I had repeatedly told Dean that I wasn’t hungry, causing us to continue hiking on only a slight breakfast. He wisely stopped us for the day after three hours, two hours shy of reaching the village where we had initially planned to stop. I immediately collapsed into my sleeping bag while Dean went down to the dining room to order dinner. When I reluctantly left my warm cocoon for dinner, he made sure I ate everything.

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Trail Paralleling the Dudh Koshi River into the Khumbu Valley

The next morning we were on the trail by 6:45am. Feeling a little better, I was energized by the beautiful scenery and the fact that we had the trail to ourselves while the throngs of other trekkers heading into and out of the valley were still waking up and having breakfast. Crossing our first cable bridge, I was awarded a view up the valley and the realization hit that we would be following the river for most of the remainder of the day, meandering up and down on either side but always moving up between the big peaks.

We hiked steadily for four hours, stopping once for tea on a patio in Jorsale and again at Monju to purchase the permits that allowed us entry to the Sagarmatha National Park (a park that encompasses the Khumbu Valley). It had taken 20 minutes for Dean to work through the Nepali bureaucracy to obtain the permits. In the meantime, I had a conversation with an Army guard from Kathmandu. His job was to stand at the checkpoint to ensure travelers hiking out on the trail had the necessary permits. A national park enforcer if you will.

Dean and I continued on the trail, navigating a riverbed and dodging a number of middle-aged Japanese trekkers heading down-valley. Looking at this group, I thought to myself, “if they can do it, this should be a piece of cake.” A half hour later, Dean pointed to a cable bridge, located high above the river, and told me that we were now starting the hike up to Namche Bazar, our final destination for the day. Nonchalantly, he mentioned that our next 1.5 – 2 hours would be spent climbing the hill up to Namche. Um, pardon?

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Cable Bridges High Above the Dudh Koshi River, Namche Bazar 1-1/2 Hours Higher

The hill was no joke as this is where the trail leaves the river and starts to ascend along a higher position amongst the mountains. We started up the stairs, crossed the cable bridge suspended 200 feet above the river, and began the slow plod upwards. Immediately I fell in behind a group of porters and I worked to mimic their foot placement and pace. We stopped several times at porter ledges, multi-height benches of stone built into the hillside to allow for respite without the difficulty of dropping the load on the ground. At one of these ledges, Dean called my attention to the big peaks above moored in clouds, specifically pointing out the base of the Everest massif. My heart leapt. Getting an on the ground glimpse towards our goal, I couldn’t help but feel re-energized and for the next 10 minutes, we attacked the hill. But as Newton’s First Law of Physics dictates – an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. And that unbalanced force, my friend, was the extreme degree of the hill. I quickly fell behind the porters but was able to miraculously continue my slow upward progress. When Dean pointed out the first views of the village, perched another 100 feet above us, I couldn’t help but feel relieved. We had a brief respite at a permit checkpoint and then made our way up to our lodge.

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Sharing the Trails with Yaks

After dinner and a quick shower, I felt like a new woman. My sinus infection felt like it was improving, well, at least the Mucinex was making a dent in the symptoms and Dean had procured tissues, Strepsils, a hard cough drop, and Coldease, a Vick’s knock off. So I was fully armed to deal with the lingering discomfort.

The following day, our scheduled stay in Namche for rest and acclimatization, we awoke early and made our way to the top of the village to the Sherpa Museum and Nepal Army post perched atop a promontory overlooking the valley. This hike was intended both to gain additional elevation and enjoy the clear early morning views of the mountain peaks and villages that enclose the valley. As our lodge was located at very bottom of the Namche Bazar, a village built inside a steep mountain bowl, we hadn’t seen these views the previous day. We sat in the sun for over 30 minutes, enjoying the views of Ama Dablam, Thamserku, Khumbyula, Everest and other massive, snow covered peaks. Dean and I went to check out the museum while Balaram, who we had run into coming down the trail, waited outside for us.

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The First On-The-Ground View of the Top of Mt Everest

We said good-bye to Balaram for the remainder of the day, and decided that we would check out Namche Bazar. Over lunch, I made the comment to Dean, that notwithstanding some differences in architecture, Namche had the feel of a Colorado ski town, with restaurants, retail shops, and coffee shops at every turn. For some reason, I began this trek expecting everything to be more rustic. My imagination had built a picture of single story stone huts with low windows and outhouse toilets. However, most of the two and three story buildings appeared newly built with large, common dining rooms that boasted walls of windows to allow for the amazing mountain views. This village clearly capitalizes on the money flowing in from the trekking community and caters specifically to that population. It made me anxious and excited to see Phortse, as Dean had explained that it was often overlooked by trekking groups, who instead, opt for a different trail through Tengboche (a village across the valley that boasts a famous Buddhist monastery) on their way up to Everest and therefore a bit more traditional.

We left early the next morning, hiking the rock stairs to where the trail continues high along the mountain Khumbila above Namche. The path was sparsely populated and we enjoyed clear views of the sunlit, snow covered peaks at every corner.

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Empty Trails and Clear Skies (Thamserku Peak to the Right, Ama Dablam to the Left)

After a quick cup of morning tea shared with Balaram in Kyang Juma, we took the middle fork where the trail splits; the left fork heading to Khumjung and the right to Thangboche. The morning felt magical as we climbed steep irregular stone staircases through the deciduous forest along cliffs The sun had finally risen high enough to peek over Ama Dablam and the light made the terrain feel enchanted. The sun’s warmth was a welcome addition as there had been frost and snow the night previous and I quickly shed my gloves and coat.

At a porter’s ledge atop a haphazard set of stairs, the valley opened and Dean pointed out Phortse, nestled on a hillside across from us. All we had to do was hike up to Mong La, a village towering above us, down the backside of the hill to a river crossing, and then back up a hill to Phortse. The hill to Mong La appeared to be moderate and I actually told Dean, “No problem.” An hour and a half of slow plodding later, Mong La appeared to be no closer. My cold symptoms had returned with a vengeance and with each step, I became more miserable. I sat down on the side of the trail, completely unconcerned about the line of porters passing us, and had a good cry. Dean, being the extremely loving and patient man that he is, took my daypack and after an appropriate amount of time allowing me to vent of my frustrations, asked if I could continue for another 20 minutes to the lodge where we would eat lunch.

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Slow and Steady Up to Mong La (Phortse across the valley to the right and Mong La in the distance above left)

The lodge was perched on the edge of the hillside and has panoramic windows on three sides, allowing for 270 degrees of stunning views. However, I felt so poorly that the most I could do was stare into my cup of ginger tea as I waited for my bowl of vegetable soup. Dean also made me eat an energy bar and some jerky, trying to get both protein and carbs into my system to provide energy for the next two hour hike. After an hour of recovery and lunch, we started the trek down the back side of the hill to the river. This part of the trail is extremely technical, with mostly stairs and steep dirt track allowing for a quick descent to the river below. We took a 20 minute break at a lodge next to the river for a cup of tea and a Bounty bar (the magical coconut and chocolate candy that cures all ailments) before continuing.

Here’s where things got inspired – I decided to put in headphones and listen to music to help pace on the hour long hike up the hill to Phortse. After crossing the river on a short steel truss bridge, I hit play on my Soundtracks playlist and started plodding to the musical stylings of the Moulin Rouge soundtrack (no judgement). I also started counting my steps and at 350, I made Dean stop for a rest. During our break at 749 steps, we made a bet – Dean thought it would be 1200 steps to the top, while I thought his guess was conservative and went with 1500. It took everything that I had to continue up that hill but after 7 hours and 1376 steps, we made it!

Waking Up Above the Clouds

Because Nepal is located at the same latitude as Miami, the seasons are a little different than what we’re accustomed to at home in Colorado. In this small country, comparable in size and shape to Tennessee, the monsoon season begins in early May, bringing with it cloud cover and near daily rain, and lasts until late September/early October.Considering most of my knowledge about Nepal previous to meeting Dean was related to the Himalaya, I imagined a country that was comprised solely of snow covered mountains. Boy was I surprised when we decided to take a quick trip to Pokhara, starting point for most journeys to the Annapurna region and a bustling tourist enclave nestled against a lake among the lush high altitude jungle.

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Himalayan Flying – Clouds and Haze Below, Massive Peaks Above

We went to Pokhara on the recommendation of our hotel manager/owner, Sushil, as a diversion since we were unable to get the “reliable” early morning flights to Lukla – the starting point for our trek up to Everest Base Camp – for another 4 days. Sushil kindly put together an itinerary including flights and hotel for our two-day trip however, the night prior, we had gone to dinner with Dean’s close friend, Tsering, who offered to hook us up with a hotel. The only information Tsering had provided about the accommodations was “it’s above the Peace Pagoda, overlooking the lake.” I was a little suspect when Tsering said, “I’ll make a call,” but later that night Dean shrugged and let me know that is the way things happen in Nepal.

We arrived at the airport the next morning, ready for our 9:00am flight and were greeted by sheer mayhem in the domestic airport terminal. Once again, Dean had set my expectations, stating that your ticket may have a flight time, but the flights are often delayed due to inclement weather, plane shortage, air traffic congestion, or overall bad management and there is no obligation by the airline to update travelers as to the number of flights ahead of you or the estimated wait time. With this in mind I sat down to read my book and left Dean to manage the anxiety of figuring out when we would scramble to the bus that would take us to our plane and be airborne.

We arrived in Pokhara two hours later than expected, what I can only assume is a Nepali record. After landing, we grabbed our backpacks and started walking toward the lake, where we would find the area that catered to tourists and hopefully, lunch. Once fed, we decided to meander through the main drag, aptly called Lakeside, and then find a taxi to take us to Raniban Retreat, our Tsering arranged hotel.

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Lake Phewa from Pokhara

Since Dean speaks a little Nepali, he is responsible for ordering all meals and negotiating for transportation. He walked away from the first taxi driver as they wouldn’t take his original offer, but the guy tracked us down and ushered us into his the standard Nepali cab, a compact maroon hatchback Maruti Suzuki, hovering a mere four inches off the ground. Normally, the clearance of a vehicle is unimportant however in Nepal, where the roads are often a mishmash of pavement and rutted dirt, this can be a critical factor in your journey.

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A Bumpy Climb

We made an uneventful trip through the town and slowly started climbing the backside of the Raniban hill – crowned by the Peace Pagoda, a famous Japanese Buddhist monument and local landmark and “near” our hotel. I sat in the backseat, looking out the window and enjoying the view of the terraced valley beyond. The enjoyment ended once we made a turn off the paved road and started traversing steep and narrow switchbacks on a rough dirt track. This, my friends, is when the clearance of a vehicle becomes extremely important. At this point our driver started to bottom out, grind gears, and lose traction as he worked his way up the steep cobbly inclines. When we reached a flat spot just above the Peace Pagoda and determined that we were “near” to our hotel, Dean, whose thigh might have been a little bruised from my hard grip, paid our cab driver 1800 rupees, a 30% tip, and we grabbed our bags deciding to tackle the remainder of the hill on foot.

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450 More Steps to the Top

Up the dirt road, about 100 meters, we found the sign to Raniban Retreat painted onto a boulder lodged into the hillside, and started making the 450 step trek up to the top of the hill where we could see several white buildings perched. The climb was worth it. We were rewarded with a view of the entire valley, including all of Pokhara, the lake, and 500 vertical feet below us, the Peace Pagoda.

It was unreal – there’s no other way to describe it. Our hotel room faced due East, promising an unimpeded view of the sunrise from the small patio leading to the French doors. Not to mention, our bed was scattered with flower petals in the shape of a heart, flanked by towel swans. Seriously Tsering? Awesome!

The next morning we got up at 5:30am and were rewarded with a valley covered in a blanket of undulating fog. Scrambling out of bed we made a quick trip up to the elevated restaurant roof and sat in awe for over an hour, watching the sky lighten, the fog breath, and occasionally, catching a glimpse of pink Himalayan peaks through the humidity. Remember when I said that Pokhara is the starting point for trekkers headed to Annapurna? Well, it turns out that there is a range of extremely high peaks (2 of the 10 highest in the world) within view and the only thing obscuring them at this time of year is a hazy layer of humidity, providing us with just enough of a teaser to ensure that we make the pilgrimage back during the winter months so that we can see the towering peaks in full.

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Alpenglow Sunset on Annapurna over Lake Phewa and Pokhara

We learned that the Nepali word for “peace” is “santi,” and santi is exactly what we felt as we listened to the birds and marveled at the beauty of this place. If we would have stayed at the hotel located down by the lake, we would have been socked in the fog and missed the uniqueness of this experience. We made a pact right there that we would seek the road less traveled – a pirate’s code to try and find places that are off the beaten path in the search to find a more unique experience.

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Hiking Out of Paradise

Will we always succeed? Probably not. But we’re going to work hard to do our research. Because if we can find places like Raniban on our own, this is going to be one hell of a year!

The Beauty in the Chaos

We arrived in Nepal almost a week ago. Having talked about this trip for so long, Dean had set my expectations and highlighted some of the differences in culture. We hopped out on the dark tarmac at 10pm, being one of the last people to deboard the plane and were greeted in the airport by a long line to use one of the 5 automated machines for our visas, followed by an even longer line to pay our $40 (note the American currency instead of the Nepalese rupee) per person entry fee. If you know me, you know that I am an extremely efficient person who follows the rules and hates to waste time. But I settled in for some good people watching and we made it through with very little hassle.

Driving through the city, we were rewarded with a city adorned with decorations for the Nepali Hindu festival of Tihar. The most common of the decorations being assorted colored lights strung down the facade of most every building. Our ride to the hotel was quiet and quick as everyone was at home and the roads clear of traffic due to the Tihar celebrations. On arriving to our hotel we quickly collapsed into a deep sleep.

Waking up early the next morning, we had the city to ourselves with a few other early risers as we meandered through Thamel, the tourist quarter of Kathmandu. It appeared that every other shop was a trekking outfitter, cashmere supplier or art (read: tchotchke) dealer. Obviously, this area is prepared to take advantage of every tourist dollar available and ensure that you don’t leave wanting for any souvenir that Nepal can provide. 

Later in the day, we had the opportunity to leave the tourist quarter and see an older part of the city around Durbar Square. Dean’s friend Sushil had arranged for us to attend a Bhai Tika ceremony, the last ceremony of the 5 day festival of Tihar at his friend Narbottom’s house. Here’s the thing about travel, you try to make connections with people and learn about their culture but often you only touch the surface. We had the good fortune to delve a little deeper while waiting for 4 hours with Narbottom’s daughter, Namrata, and nieces, Samata and Sachita. We had the opportunity to ask an unlimited amount of questions about their lives and the Nawari culture. I hope they didn’t feel that I was grilling them, but I couldn’t help but be curious. We learned a lot about each other that afternoon, and more importantly, we found that we have a lot in common.

Toward 5:00 in the evening, both Dean and I were fading from jet lag, amplified by sitting in a warm room for several hours. Fortunately, we were soon shown the family’s rooftop terrace with a view across the city to Swyambunath Stuppa, more typically called the Monkey Temple. Invigorated by a cool breeze and the imminent promise of the Bhai Tika ceremony, we both were able to perk up. 

The ceremony is something that I will never forget as long as I live. Dean was asked to sit next to the three brothers of the family and was effectively worshipped as one of the family’s own siblings. We were given special foods that are typically cooked by the family’s ethnic group (Newar); lung, liver, prawns, mutton curry, and homemade yogurt were only a few of the delicacies on our plate. The love demonstrated within their family and the hospitality they showed us was unforgettable. This ceremony and the gracious hospitality served as a reminder for why we continue to travel – a chance to connect, learn, and share experiences with one another. 

I was flying high after our experience, especially after pictures with the entire family and after a nighttime stroll back to our hotel, through the old city with the family’s three daughters as our local guides. This feeling spilled over to the next day as we woke up early to go to Swayambunath Stuppa, the Monkey Temple. As we navigated through the busy streets of Kathmandu, we could tell that Tihar was over; the roads were crowded with cars & motorbikes adding to an ever growing reddish haze of dust and exhaust. When we arrived at the bottom of the hill to climb to the temple, I was shocked at the amount of litter discarded in the open spaces and the smell of rotten garbage. It was overwhelming and, I’m ashamed to say it, deflating. Here I was, feeling so high after the previous night’s once in a lifetime experience, and the scene of squalor sent me into a state of disgust. How can people live like this? How can they desecrate what is supposed to be a holy place with what appeared to be pure ambivalence? 

My feelings increased as we made our trip to the top of the the stuppa, the disarray worsened with trash thrown unconcernedly on the ground, street dogs with open wounds, and monkeys eating rice and other sacrifices from in front of the temples. It took two rounds of the stuppa and roughly 15 minutes of standing by myself, watching those around me, before I could finally start to find some calm. A little boy was walking in front of a group of adults, making their way around the stuppa, spinning the prayer wheels as part of their devotions. He smiled at me. His smile was so genuine, it was disarming. In that moment, I could tune out the noise, pollution, and wounded animals to just be a person, smiling back.

A seed of empathy was planted and on the way down the stairs, Dean and I talked about the challenges of the Nepalese people who culturally are still in a transition from historically biodegradable garbage to the modern world of packaging. I’m sure there’s more complexity to the issue but I can’t help but wonder if the pollution and garbage is normalized and perceived by the citizens as simply a part of life. Does that make the stuppa any less awe inspiring? Or people’s devotions any less holy? Or that little boy’s smile any less authentic?

During the 45 minute walk back to the hotel through the outskirts of the city, instead of looking at the trash, pollution, and squalor, I looked at the people. Men, sitting in a group laughing. Women taking care of their children. Tourists actively taking in sights that are so different than those they see at home. And I remembered that which yesterday, was so apparent to me; we’re all people living our lives and our similarities often are much greater than our differences.