Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It’s not so much altitude sickness as a breathless I-haven’t-been-able-to-feel-my-face-for-so-long-that-I’m-unsure-if-I-still-have-one delirium.

“I said, “Let there be light,” and so there was. And I said, “Let there be earth,” and so it is under your feet. And I said, “Let glorious mountains rise from the Earth’s crust,” and so here they are before you. You’re welcome.”

-My short speech to recent Finnish and Hollander acquaintances upon reaching the day’s destination, we were surrounded by Himalayan peaks. The sarcasm/humor was lost in translation or delivery, silence and askance looks pervaded. They avoided me the rest of the day. Perhaps it was due to my ‘mountain musk’ acquired after a week without bathing. Either way, their loss (I said to myself while crying in the comfort of my sleeping bag).

It’s not so much altitude sickness as a breathless I-haven’t-been-able-to-feel-my-face-for-so-long-that-I’m-unsure-if-I-still-have-one delirium. 

Sorry Mom. You still can’t collect on that travel life insurance policy. Of course, the policy doesn’t cover mountaineering accidents which, undoubtedly, the company would try group Himalaya hiking into and you’d end up settling out of court for a mere $35,000 instead of the $100,000 owed to spare an eighteen month legal battle—an emotional black hole—and such a sum is hardly worth a son. Even the unkempt derelict one of the three who’s current life motto is ‘Why shower, shave, or tweeze my nostril hair when the grime and defiant follicles will be back tomorrow anyway?’

I spent the last 25 days walking. A lot. Up or down, never straight. In tennis shoes that had been super-glued back together twice before beginning and three times during. With a backpack that’s zippers have given way to a tape-and-shoelace system to tighten and close. Filled with second-hand cold weather gear picked up in Nepal using the stratagem: ‘The more filth and tears the better the buyer’s bargaining position.’ About ten days in, at 17,800 feet, my pack was empty. I was wearing its contents. The sleeping bag was used as a scarf.*

I wish I could say the view was amazing, that the mountains mesmerized, that I played witness to angels dancing atop some of the world’s tallest peaks. All I saw was white. Clouds and snow, but for a sign telling me I reached my target I could have been anywhere—a white-walled room of an asylum or in a flurry of copy paper after an accident at Office Depot. Until then the scenery was incredible, afterwards the same. Nepal’s natural diversity is stunning; days were spent in lush valleys, rain forests, cloud forests, pine forests, barren high-altitude terrain, and even (very) high desert.

Ten days later, twenty days in, the clouds parted. I was surrounded by peaks, some elevated above sea-level by over 26,000 feet. A 360 degree panorama of jagged white pinnacles—who knew snow could be so violent? With the sun’s rise the mountains glow, grow gilded. It’s the moment the cacophony of the universe harmonizes in my chest cavity.

I would have kept walking but after 200-plus miles I ran out of trail. If I make it back before Christmas new shoes are first on the wish list.

Keep drifting.

*This is backpacker bragging, the I-roughed-it-more-than-thou boast, something I have no tolerance for receiving but am always eager to dispense. That’s me, always giving, a Saint Nicholas of the modern age.

A few days were spent hiking with other travelers, I prefer the company of the locals--they make me laugh more.

It took 25 days but I finally deduced why my feet were so cold.

My yak stare down; one glance and the 700-pound beasts parted to allow me passage.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I’m not spitting on the dead, I’m spitting out the dead.

“Someone got mugged walking to the World Peace Pagoda today?” It’s about a ninety minute hike uphill from Pokahara’s Lakeside tourist area in Nepal.

“Yeah,” the guesthouse clerk says, “Very bad.”

“How ironic.” It was constructed by Buddhist monks to promote world peace and people get robbed on the way up. I say, “That, that right there, is funny, I don’t care who you are."

“Not funny, very bad.”

“Yeah, but-”

He interrupts, “No, very bad.”



“Oh. Okay.”

I’m not spitting on the dead, I’m spitting out the dead.

What Katmandu lacks in air quality it more than makes for in UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Within a twenty kilometer radius seven monuments (together actually counted as a single Heritage Site--the first sentence was purposefully misleading to speed up your heart rate by two beats per minute, it’s the only pseudo-exercise you’ll be getting today, you workaholic) have been deemed UNESCO-funding suitable for upkeep and restoration, so why not spend a day at each? That the Indian Visa process takes a week is without coincidence, the moon is aligned with Jupiter and one of the larger asteroids in the outer ring, the divine in the form of the Buddha, Vishnu, or _______ (insert your favorite deity in the space provided) is requesting a visit to all. Just like a ‘DONATIONS ACCEPTED’ sign at a wat or temple, it’s more of a demand. Alternatively the day could be spent counting how many bugs have been entombed in the walls of your guesthouse room with the slap of hand (1,437), but you just bought a new memory card for the digital camera so what the hell or flea-in-a-dog’s-rectum rebirth?

Swayambhunath, a Buddhist hilltop Stupa overlooking the Katmandu Valley, is reached after a 300-plus concrete stair ascent fending off battalions of monkeys from claiming everything on your person as their own. Reaching the top, bent over and heaving, you’ll be eye-level with the Great Dorje, a brass-plated celestial thunderbolt. The symbol of the power of enlightenment, it destroys ignorance, just not yours. Sorry, but you’re going to have to accrue a half million dollars in student loans like the rest of us. When you finally catch your breath, or awake after passing out, please remember to circle the stupa in a clockwise direction. I don’t want to be responsible for the bad luck you accrue for going the other way. And all this time you thought you hadn’t yet won the Powerball due to something as trivial as probability.

Bodnath is similar in structure, but built on a grander scale. Despite being bereft of a naturally elevated platform like Swayambhunath, it’s one of the largest and most significant Buddhist monuments in the world. Known as Boudha, Lord of Wisdom, the stupa is said to be protective, purifying and wish granting, so be sure to spin each of the hundreds of prayer wheels as you walk three and a half turns around the stupa chanting your most beloved Buddhist mantra in order to make proper merit. Your forearms, they’re in need of toning anyway. You’ll never look like a rock star without veins protruding from wrists to elbows and that Steven Tyler Halloween costume will be an everyone-thinks-I-dressed-up-as-a-drag-queen disappointment.

If you’ve been longing to see strangers cremated, their ashes swept into a river, and children bathing in said river less than 100 meters downstream, then Pashupatinath is the place for you. Reported to be the second most sacred Hindu site on Earth after Benares, the holy Bagmati river is responsible for carrying the dead onto the next life. A messy reincarnation, aside from human ashes the river carries plastic bags and bottles, candy wrappers, latex condoms and vegetable curries post human digestion.

Less accommodating than their Buddhist counterparts, Caucasoids aren’t allowed into any of the surrounding temples. Even after putting one of those red dots on my forehead. So I spent the day observing funeral rites, breathing in the ashes and smoke of the dead, then spent the evening sneezing murky gray mucus, my body rejecting the deceased. It’s okay, they’re at a point in the life cycle where the rebuff is unlikely to cause offense.

Lame levity aside, the cremation ceremonies are incredibly business-like, each lasting several hours as families, and sometimes a sole individual, murmur prayer and mourn the life lost. Watching their loved one turn to charcoaled dust. Tourists taking pictures is the height of indecency.

Lame levity engaged, the cool thing about visiting a country whose Maoist government is classified as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ organization by the U.S. government: bragging rights. The good thing about living in a country where it’s illegal to kill a cow: your mother will never burn an exquisite cut of tenderloin. The advantage of living amongst people with an average gross income of around $500 per capita annually (over 80% live on less than $2/day): a $1 tip after dinner brings enthusiastic handshakes from the wait staff. Yes sir, you’re looking at Mr. Washington. He loves you too.

The Blog page title and my current locale are at odds, I’ve drifted out of Southeast Asia, it’s time to put this muddled travelogue to rest. With a three to five week (depending on enthusiasm and endurance) Himalaya hike on tap I don’t anticipate online activity in the immediate future. If I don’t post an I’m-not dead-yet-Mom entry within forty days it’s not that I fell victim to avalanche, demonic yaks or yeti, but rather became a member of the upstanding Sherpa community. You’re always welcome to reach me at 17,000 feet. Bring a Snickers bar.

Keep drifting.

At Patan's (5 km south of Katmandu) Durbar Square.

West meets East.