Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Annapurna impressions

Now that I have documented the journey from a spiritual point of view, and Marc has documented the journey from a step by step point of view, I can share with you some of the funnier moments of the trip. There is sort of an order to all of this but then again not really. Some of this I wrote while on the journey and some of it afterwards. One computer and two people needing to write, along with the lack of electricity to revitalize by macbook air, has put a bit of a damper on the spontaneity of this blog. But not to worry, such is the life of the Broudo's unplugged and we need to go with the flow so to speak.

So here we go:

Photo courtesy of the internet
Driving in Nepal
If you don’t mind near death experiences every second of every minute you are on the road, and if you can get over the nausea from the endless twists and turns and the black exhaust fumes from every truck and car on the road — driving in Nepal is for you.

We were reminded on the trip from the airport that the Nepalese drive on the wrong side of the road — or at least from our point of view. But in fact, it depends on how you define which side of the road they are actually on.

In reality, most of the time, every car on the road is moving towards a head on collision. In both directions, in several lanes of traffic, every car is trying to pass the vehicle in front of it. They have developed a traffic language of their own which includes honking and blinking their lights. Some combination of these two is supposed to alert you to the fact that the car behind you is passing you, and would you please slow down, or move to accommodate this maneuver, without hitting the car coming rather quickly in the other direction!

Photo courtesy of the internet

In the midst of all of this, there are, of course, people and animals also trying to either cross the road, chat with their neighbours, or change a tire in the middle of the road. No one seems a bit uptight about it all. It seemed to both of us that in the time it would take to blink, there would be 100 head on collisions. Pedestrians, animals, motorbikes trucks, buses and cars seem to somehow coexist in the exact same location, without road rage, or any emotion of any kind. Even the honking and flashing of headlights are in the strangest way polite.

Photo courtesy of the internet

Marc and I on the other hand have a very hard time doing the simplest of procedures such as crossing the street, since it is impossible to know from which direction or in what lane cars, motorbikes or animals may be coming from!

The obligatory toilet update
Having left civilization behind, as you can imagine, the status of facilities we were likely to find along the Annapurna trail was on both of our minds. The reality of the squatting variety was (not to be too graphic) having an inhibiting effect on our bodily functions! That and the thought of leaving the warmth of our cozy sleeping bags to wander down the hall to that reality was less than enticing. And then, of course, the concern that after 16k of walking each day, and all of our muscles in spasm, would we be able to squat at all? And if we managed to squat, would we be able to pull ourselves upright at the end of the operation?

These were the things keeping me up at night!

I am happy to report that the reality has been much better than we expected. We have been treated to a couple of guesthouses with actual flushing toilets, and all of the facilities along the trail have been clean. Our muscles never spasmed, So both of us (if you were concerned) are upright and back to our “regular” selves.

Even the dung smells sweet
This is an exaggeration of course, but it helps me make my point. Hard to believe in this day and age, but this amazing place has not been ruined. Every step of the way, the views are breathtaking. Terraces planted with cabbage, garlic, radish, potatoes, lettuce, string beans, rice, millet, corn, soybeans and other things I couldn’t recognize, are everywhere. Cows, buffalo, goats, chickens and donkeys roam free. School children dressed in black uniforms with red ties in their hair run up and down the trekking paths as if we are not there. And amazingly, if you are not ready to walk 14k a day and sleep in clean (ish) but very basic accommodations (and in many cases squat to do your business and live without a shower for several days at a time), you will not ever see any of this.That is what is so very special about this experience and this place.

Away from the city pollution and for the most part eating organically grown produce the cattle are as natural as they can be. And so are the humans. So I wasn't kidding about the dung smelling sweet. If it wasn't for the night demons, I could get used to this place. 

A quick note about quick dry technology
We are of course equipped with quick dry everything. When discussing our gear with Dhana the day we arrived, he suggested that he would be washing out his socks each night for sure and there would be opportunities to do some light hand washing along the way. Soap was easy to buy along the route. No problems.

That night I washed out one of my three pairs of hiking socks, being quite sure that by the time we left two days later I would have all of my hiking socks clean and ready to get me through the trek. First myth shattered.

48 hours later, the socks hanging in our freezing room with no sun or heat to dry them were still dripping wet. What to do? Some quick thinking on my part, I set to drying my socks with the hair dryer provided by the hotel. Brilliant! One problem solved. But this hairdryer was not going to be coming with me on the trek Humm ...

We were heading into colder climes and wet socks or frosty underwear just would not do. We decided to bring all of the socks and underwear we had as well as a bar a soap and see how things progressed.

After day one of the trek, it became more than clear that washing anything and expecting it to dry over night was just not going to happen. Each trekking day ended around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon — exactly when the clouds lowered themselves over the remaining sunshine. And anyway, the water available for washing was so cold by that hour, that I was experiencing frostbite just washing my hands.

A code of conduct for all guests on how to act respectfully is provided on the back of the menus at each and every guesthouse. Not wearing revealing clothing is one of the first items. So if the frostbite wasn’t enough to keep me from laundering our dirty clothes, the thought of hanging up our quick dry under things on the wash line for all the guests, guides and porters to gawk at while eating every meal, seemed out of the question.

So my conclusion is: The myth that two pairs of underwear are enough (wear one and wash one), is just fine if you are in the desert. If you are anywhere else in the world (like on a trek in the Himalayas), my advice is to bring as many pair as will fit in your knapsack unless the feel of frosty artificial fibers on your privates is what get’s you going in the morning!

Cuisine along the Annapurna trail
Marc had pre-warned me, from his experience 34 years ago that we would probably be served dal and rice three meals a day and in small quantities — so best to bring a lot of snacks to supplement the meager offerings. But the reality, we soon realized, was rather different indeed.

It took us a couple of meals to realize that each and every guesthouse along the trail had an identical menu. At least the cover was always exactly the same, even if the list of items inside may be in a somewhat different order. We reviewed the menu from top to bottom at each meal, trying to find local offerings but found instead, Chinese, American/Italian and Swiss sounding menu items instead.

After ordering my first vegetarian Moussaka, it became quite clear, that these dishes were in name only reminiscent of their ethnic origins! To add to the intrigue, each guesthouse has their own interpretation of each of these menu items. The good news is that all of the food has been delicious and plentiful — and you never really know what will appear once you make your order — unless you order Dal Baht.

Dal Baht is the only truly Nepalese item on the menu. The direct translation is lentils and rice — but the more apropos translation is an “all you can eat buffet”. When you order Dal Baht, you receive a large plate with a heaping portion of rice in the centre. Surrounding the rice is a bowl of thin dal (lentil soup), curried potatoes and peas or (red) beans, pickled radish and chopped fresh greens. As you try to work your way around this enormous plate of food, the kitchen staff, or your guide (or both) come around to refill any of the above items until you burst from overeating. It is the cheapest item on the menu, and in our opinion (after trying almost everything they have to offer) the best.

An apple cup of rice a day…
With the eclectic food choices on the aforementioned menus, I got a bit too adventurous on day one and two of our trek. It soon became (alarmingly) clear that although Moussaka, or fried vegetable noodle sounded (and tasted) really good, it is definitely advisable to include at least one Dal Baht a day on our daily menu to keep the doctor away.

A hot shower on the trail is highly overrated.
At least half of the guesthouses we have stayed at offer hot showers, often with very lofty promises, such as “24 hours cold and hot showers”, or “Gas and Solar hot showers 24 hours”. In our naivety, we actually thought at least part of the title in each case might be true. As I have mentioned previously, we usually reached our day’s destination around 3:00 pm just as the air temperature drops and the sun disappears behind the misty clouds. Misled by our body temperature, artificially overheated by seven hours of hiking up and down the side of a mountain, we insanely thought we would test the validity of the clever advertising. I won’t go into the icy details, but needless to say, neither hot nor cold water ran sufficiently long or sufficiently to temperature to accommodate even the quickest of showers.

And now my rant about our ultra thin quick dry travel towels …

Clearly the reason why they are so quick to dry (we now know) is because they do not absorb a drop of water! So here we are, freeeezing, dripping wet, not even completely rinsed (both cold and hot water stopped abruptly without notice), with nothing between us, and hypothermia, except for these very expensive and completely useless travel towels!

Must be the elevation. I can find no other reason why It actually took two attempts for us to realize that a daily sponge bath with our trusty “wet ones” was a far superior to any hot shower offered free of charge along the Annapurna trail! 

When asked, would we do it again ...
The answer is not clear cut, and I think we both have different approaches to our conclusions. After discussing this with Bishnu (the person responsible for organizing our trek), we now realize that some of the things that may dissuade us from repeating this experience are quite easily avoided — which is heartening.

The walking as I have mentioned before is the most exhilarating part of the journey. We had perfect weather during the daylight hours and I truly feel I could have continued walking all around the world and back forever if I did not have to face the nights. My body got into the rhythm and if I kept my pace to a slow crawl, any number of hours and any number of steps up or down seemed doable. But the nights (which begin this time of year at around 4:00), were really hard to take. As positively as I tried to be, facing the late afternoon and evening and finally the night was difficult. Although we conquered the altitude thing with the help of Dhana and his Raki healing, the thought of setting out and not making it, would also weigh heavily on my decision to repeat this experience.

We are so spoiled in the West, with our overheated homes, cars, offices and shopping malls. We have become very soft, and I guess it is hard to go back to a more primitive way of life. On one hand, I don't want this place to change, but on the other hand, I crave a few more creature comforts, like a really hot shower and a warm place to sleep.

Bishnu quickly reminded us over lunch yesterday, that we simply have to choose a different time of year, and that we don't have to trek to altitudes to really enjoy what Nepal has to offer. So in two sentences he solved all of my problems.

So who knows. We return to Nepal on February 27th, and Bishnu has a camping trek leaving on March 15th. The Broudo's may be off on another kind of trek in March!

Tomorrow night we meet our India tour and the next adventure begins. We picked up our clean folded laundry yesterday evening and are all set to go. What awaits us, only time will tell!

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