Nepal Trip Journal: 2001

September 27, 2001 6:00 PM

I'm on the Amtrak train just west of Davis and headed to Emeryville, where I'll catch a bus to San Francisco Airport. I just said a tough goodbye to Lil, who waited at the station with me for the train doors to open, then helped me carry my luggage upstairs and hugged me for a few minutes before heading to her car. I was so very honoured that she waited in the parking lot, occasionally waving to me, until the train pulled away maybe 10 minutes later.

Going on this trip solo, after Lil's decision to back out due to her sprained foot and her parents' health, was a very tough call. Up until the train pulled away from the station, I contemplated canceling the whole thing. And heck, with six hours to go until my flight leaves, I still might cancel! Part of what makes it so tough is that I'm not exactly sure why I'm going. Yeah, we got a good deal on the tickets, though the cancel-and-rebook, and Lil's subsequent cancellation, incurred fees. And with Lil staying around, we won't have animal- and house-sitting expenses. But that's not the point, really. I'm really going to miss her, and I have the utmost appreciation for her not insisting that I cancel my reservation too.

So why AM I going? I need a break, my management is willing to give me four weeks off (given the current state of the industry I hope I have a job when I get back!), and the Third World benefit of getting away from email and other distractions is much needed. I love Nepal, and in the Everest region I'll be going to an area universally regarded as being amazing, an area in which it really wouldn't be feasible for Lil to accompany me, and one I've never been to before. And I look forward to spending time with Ang Babu, Bijaya and Ram.

But there isn't a big super-duper thing dragging me over there, and even though I've allowed myself to get a little excited the past few days, I'm still pretty mellow about the whole thing. It's weird, and it makes me feel even more guilty for abandoning Lil for four weeks. Maybe there's foreboding coming from the recent September 11 terrorist actions that I'm not acknowledging. Or maybe it's just that I've been there twice already, and it therefore feels more 'routine'.

I certainly do look forward to the opportunity for practice. Morning sitting meditation, lots of walking meditation, and lots of 'live in the moment' awareness opportunities. And I tell you what; I'm really liking this Casio Pocket PC/Apple Newton keyboard combination! I anticipate an even wordier journal than years past...

September 27, 2001, 11:30 PM

Sitting at international terminal gate A8 waiting for my Cathay Pacific flight to load. Checkin was a breeze; I got there at 8:15 and was the second person in line. By the time checkin started at 8:45 there were maybe 10 groups of people in line. The attendant said that out of a plane capacity of 240, only 100 passengers were booked and even fewer would probably show up. SFO is nearly deserted, though it's not clear how much of this is due to terrorism fears and how much to the late hour.

Talked to Lil; good to hear her voice. Then got a pale ale at the airport bar. Security was no more stringent than I've experienced in times past; my hiking boots set off the alarm, which is par for the course. They were willing to hand-check my film. Only ticketed passengers were allowed to the gate, of course; they were looking for boarding passes, so I wonder if gate checkin is even an option anymore, even if you don't have checked baggage.

September 29, 2001, 11:50 AM

Well darn. I just realized that I've lost my keyboard. I must have left it somewhere at SFO. That means a lot of letter-by-letter tapping on the pop-up keyboard from here on out, since my Transcriber training was only marginally successful.

A 14.5 hour flight to Hong Kong, followed by a 10 hour layover here. Bought a better-sounding and more comfortable set of headphones, and some noodles for lunch. I've got an eclectic mix of music on the PDA; Phish, Grateful Dead, Mozart (Amadeus soundtrack), Miles Davis, Creed, Beatles, Rush, John Lennon, Pink Floyd and Enigma.

Called Lil after finally figuring out how to use the calling card I bought. Samsung's booth in the terminal has free Internet access, so I sent out some emails. I'm reading and really enjoying Herman Hesse's 'Glass Bead Game'; ironically Caroline recommended it years ago and I'm finally getting around to seriously reading it as I travel to see her. Hesse's Buddhist influence, first observed (obviously) in 'Siddhartha', is also very evident here.

I had some right lower back/kidney pain this morning which concerned me, but half a Tylenol 3 banished it. I've been drinking lots of water but my urine is still dark. I'll need to keep a close eye on my fluid intake.

Friday, October 5, 5:00 PM

I'm writing this from a computer at a cyber-café nearby my hotel (Sidharta Garden Hotel) because it's faster than pen-pecking on the Pocket PC. I'll just email it to my AOL and Pacbell email accounts, and merge it with the remainder of my journal once I get home.

It's been a pretty wild last few days, but in retrospect I feel no disappointment, only gratitude for those who helped me, regret for causing worry to my friends and family back home, and even a bit of enjoyment at the unpredictability of it all. Saturday morning soon after arriving in Hong Kong, I developed right flank pain indicative (from past experience) of kidney stones. Since my flight landed at 6:30AM and the transfer gate didn't open until 8AM, I had some time to kill in the lobby. So I popped half a Tylenol 3 with codeine, drank some water and lay down on the floor on my side. The pain dissipated within a half hour, so I thought my worries were over. Ha

The layover in Hong Kong was long (10+ hours) but uneventful. I had some noodles for lunch, read 'The Glass Bead Game' and listened to some music on the Pocket PC while I recharged its battery at a service AC outlet. About 1.5 hours prior to landing in Kathmandu, the pain re-emerged and got stronger as time went on. By the time we landed, I was very uncomfortable, even after taking another half Tylenol. Customs was no problem (they'd even given us visa forms on the plane) and my two pieces of checked baggage made it through. Alas, there were no luggage carts, so here I am in pain dragging three pieces of luggage across the checkpoint. I skipped the X-ray machine line and nobody complained, and I grabbed a cart on the other side.

Ang Babu, Ram, Bijaya and two other friends were waiting for me, and immediately sensed there was a problem. The pain further increased during the long bouncy taxi ride from the airport to Thamel. By the time I arrived at the most excellent and highly recommended Sidharta Garden Hotel (two doors down from Lhasa Rest House where I stayed in '99, and much nicer) I could barely make it up the stairs to my room. I collapsed in bed and spent the next few hours writhing in pain, popping Tylenols (at one point four in one four hour period) with no relief. Ang Babu stayed with me and was able to sleep for a few hours, but for me no sleep. I did enjoy the 'fireworks' outside courtesy of a heavy rainstorm with thunder and lightning. At one point I actually felt the stone moving from my right kidney around to my belly, and saw a bulge created just to the right of my belly button.

Finally, at 1:30AM, Ang Babu awoke and, seeing I was still in pain, convinced me to visit the local public hospital. We hailed a taxi, and they immediately took me to the emergency room. This place is nearly indescribable; rusted equipment, flaked-off paint on the walls, water dripping on me from the ceiling, etc. But the physician and assistant seemed competent. They took my measurements (pulse was 44) and concurred with my kidney stone suspicion. A painkiller shot in my butt enabled me to sleep for a few hours, from 2:30-6:00, after throwing up at the curb in front of my hotel after the taxi ride back.

Woke up feeling fairly ok; dull right side pain but nothing worse. Ang Babu had to go home to say goodbye to some German trekker friends of his, so I decided to explore Thamel a bit, looking for a phone to call Lil (the hotel can't make international calls) and change some money. About two blocks from the hotel on my return, the pain came back near-immediately and with a vengeance. I barely made it back to my bed.

At this point, Caroline called. Come to find out her husband's brother is a doctor at a private hospital called Everest Nursing Home, and is good friends with one of the preeminent urologists in all of Nepal, a Dr. B.K. Hamal who was trained in the United States. Dr. Hamal re-arranged his schedule so he could immediately leave the military hospital and see me at 8:30 that morning. Ang Babu was supposed to be back at the hotel at 8, but didn't arrive until 8:30. I needed to wait for him in case I blacked out during the taxi ride to Everest Nursing Home. We arrived at 9AM, and I apologized to Dr. Hamal for making him wait. He was very gracious and understanding, and immediately ordered X-rays, blood work and ultrasound for me (as well as a two-shot painkiller, which wiped out the pain near-immediately).

The result? I had a 1 cm kidney stone at the junction of the right ureter and bladder (a junction only 2 mm or so in diameter, so no way for the stone to pass). And a 5 mm stone in my left kidney. Spent the rest of the day doing a bit of shopping, and found a great cheap Tibetan restaurant a few blocks away from the hotel where I've been eating most of my meals.

At 8AM the next morning I was scheduled for a dye examination of my urinary system, called an IVP. Woke up at 5AM with big-time pain again, and had to take another two-shot set when I arrived at ENH. Five hours after the dye injection, there was no absorption by my right kidney, indicating complete right side system shutdown. Alarmed, Dr. Hamal (who comes from Dolpa region, and whose elder brother is mentioned in the book 'The Snow Leopard', so I'd bought him a copy of George Schaller's companion book 'Stones of Silence' at Pilgrims the prior day) scheduled a lithotripsy for 8AM the next (Tuesday) morning at the military hospital, which is ordinarily only used for military personnel and their spouses, children and parents. He got special permission for me; he was very concerned that if this lasted much longer I might lose my kidney. I also got some painkiller pills, and antibiotics to combat the slight infection.

After drinking nearly 3 liters of water the next morning, and waiting over a half hour for my bladder to fill, the treatment began. Two sessions, a total of nearly an hour. The only thing that hurt was my swollen bladder. They took x-rays between the two treatments, and after the second. Results were inconclusive; the stone still appeared to be there, or it could be a cloud of pulverized powder. But regardless my pain was eliminated at least for a time, and there was blood in my urine which (I thought) meant the right ureter was no longer blocked. Cost was 16,000 rupees. I met with Dr. Hamal that afternoon, and he decided to schedule an operation for the next morning to insert stents in both ureters, look for stone pieces and if possible remove them. The pain returned Tuesday evening, alas, after a visit to Bhouddhanath and And Babu's home, indicating that the stone wasn't gone.

Wednesday morning; success. Great drugs they used to put me under; some wild hallucinations! The operation took over 2 hours and cost 40,000 rupees. Dr. Hamal was able to remove all the fragments from my right ureter (confirmed with X-ray). He spent 45 minutes on the phone with Lil that evening to convince her I was safe to travel. The next day, he saw me again to receive the remainder of my payment for the surgery, and see for himself that I was on the mend. What a wonderful man. I owe him a nice gift when I return to the States.

This morning we were scheduled to fly out for Lukla at 7AM. Spent Thursday afternoon buying the guys' clothing and equipment. 20-seat plane departed at 7:30 and made it almost to Lukla before bad weather turned it back. Tried again at 10AM with same result. We're certainly getting our money's worth from Royal Nepal Airlines! Strangely all the other airlines reportedly had success in landing in Lukla, but better safe than sorry is my attitude. Bijaya and Ram don't mind; they've never flown before so this is great for them. Will try again tomorrow at 7AM. Otherwise I'll get a refund and we'll trek in Langtang or the 0Annapurna Sanctuary instead. There's no more time to do an adequate Everest trek without having to fly out of Lukla (which is obviously unpredictable) instead of trekking down to Jiri which was the original plan, and as it stands Cho La won't happen.

October 6, 2001 7:30 PM

I'm at the Chumoa Guest House (in Chumoa) after a really nice first day of trekking. Our flight took off just after 7AM (all the guys had stayed at my room last night for the second day in a row) and this time the Himalayas were clear. We had good daal bhaat in Phakding and, despite the boys' objections, stopped here at just before 3PM instead of pushing on for Namche. This'll make for better acclimatization, take it easy on my just-recently operated-on body, and save the climb to Namche for the cool weather of the next morning.

October 7, 2001 5:30 AM

I fell asleep last night before finishing. This hotel isn't new and fancy like those I can see up the trail, but it's warm and cozy, the owners (a couple with young boy assistant and baby girl) are friendly, and the daal bhaat is tasty and cheap.

Our traveling companions for the afternoon and evening are a very funny 10 year old boy named Isi and his 19 year old female friend Yanksi. Isi has a quick wit, a vibrant imagination, an expressive body and no intimidation about his comparatively young age. Yanksi is pretty with a dry wit. We met them on the Royal Nepal flight attempts Friday. We're all sharing a six-bed dormitory room.

I've developed either allergies or a cold, because I'm sneezing a lot. Sometimes I still have blood in my urine; first thing in the morning, and after lots of walking. Apparently the weather has been terrible here the prior week and four trekkers are lost in the snow on Cho La and presumed dead. I'm carrying around 19 kg and uphills are somewhat slow going. Will have to see how today goes with the climb to Namche.

October 7, 2001 7:30 PM

Quite a challenging uphill slog today to Namche. We had chapatis and 'Sherpa' (Tibetan yak butter and salt) tea for breakfast, and visited the gompa in Monjo; the Lama there is the father of the woman who runs last night's lodge. He's taken a vow of celibacy; apparently that's ok with his wife (he says, as long as he hasn't left her for another woman!). A very hospitable man who gave both Ang Babu and I prayer scarves. Ang Babu brought prayer beads along that I'd bought him at Bouddhanath and joins me in prostrations and circumnabulations; I feel very fortunate to be able to share some Buddhism with him and he is eager to emulate and learn.

The climb from Chumoa to Namche (3450 meters) is just under 800 meters and quite steep in spots. I was quite fatigued; much more than I should be at just over 10,000 feet in elevation. My sneezing has been supplemented by coughing; I've probably got a cold, and I'm assuredly also feeling the aftereffects of Wednesday's surgery. Tomorrow I think I'll do a dayhike to Khumjung, 300+ meters higher, and based on that we can decide what to do. If we decide to press on to Gokyo I may hire a porter. Otherwise we can visit Tengboche Monastery then turn around and head back to Jire. That'd give us plenty of time to visit Namdu and also Pokhara, which Bijaya and Ram have never seen and Ang Babu has only passed through.

The gompa here in Namche is also quite amazing; three large prayer wheels and a room with numerous paintings on the wall and Buddha/bodhisattva statues of all shapes and sizes. I had daal bhaat for lunch (along with two hard-boiled eggs) and decided on something with a bit more protein for dinner (noodles and yak cheese). I sponge-bathed and changed clothes here at the Sherpa Guide Lodge, and am sleeping in the dining room with the Nepalis for 100 rupees per night. Walking through town wasn't exactly a pleasurable experience; trekkers haggling with poor street vendors over the equivalent of a few cents, Western music blaring from bakery and bar doors, etc. There are dozens of lodges here; the one we decided on without much comparison shopping is run by Yanksi's grandmother. Namche has electricity and satellite telephone service, and this lodge even offers email at 50 rupees per Kbtyte! I rang up Caroline and Bimal and asked them to email Lil and assure her that I was well.

October 8, 2001 6:30 PM

A really nice day today. Woke up at 6AM and finished reading 'Steppenwolf', which I then traded for a copy of 'War and Peace' that was here at the hotel. Found the Claritins finally and took one, along with a Tylenol 3 and the kidney stone medication regiment.

We left about 10AM and made the steep climb to the Panorama hotel, Everest View hotel ($175 per night) and world-famous 'highest bakery in the world' in Khumjung (apple pie for me, chocolate danish for Ram and Bijaya, and croissant for Ang Babu). We also visited the gompa in Khumjung; unfortunately a group of noisy Germans arrived as the old woman (I assume lama's wife) was opening it for us. They gave quizzical and sometimes condescending looks after seeing me do my prostrations. This gompa is the reputed home of a Yeti scalp, which the Ama (Nepali for 'mother', used to refer to an older woman) was willing to show us (after we made a donation, of course).

Next stop; the gompa in Khunde. The lama wasn't there; it was being tended by two Tibeten women, one young and one old, neither of which spoke any Nepali. Ang Babu made the touching observation that they both seemed so happy, and their village seemed so peaceful, in the absence of modern conveniences like telephone, television and Internet. An ironic comment considering that, seemingly to a lesser degree each time I visit as the modern world further invades, this 'innocence of yesteryear' is what attracts me to all of Nepal. The modern world isn't all bad of course; I sure appreciated the high tech equipment and training at Everest and Blue Cross Nursing homes my first week here, for example!

An interesting incident happened on the way back to Namche. We were accosted by a group of Buddhist nuns of various ages, originally from Tibet, in search of funds to repair and expand their facility. I gave them 100 rupees. Behind me was a group of Westerners whose Nepali guide urged them to ignore the nuns' sales pitch. Turns out they were in a hurry to get back to Namche so they could stuff their stomachs at the bakery; 'chef Herman' had promised them a special treat. The self-centeredness of some of these trekkers sickens me; they'll haggle with some poor street merchant over the equivalent of a few cents, while all the while thousands of rupees are spilling out of their pockets.

We've decided to head down to Jire after visiting Tengboche tomorrow, instead of trekking beyond up to Gokyo. The high mountains have been cloud-obscured every day so far; what's the chance that if we were to trek four days north (followed by 2-3 days back south) there'd be anything to see? My health's not the greatest, and Ram's also catching a cold. I've no longer got blood in urine and the stents seem to be secure, but why tempt fate; I highly doubt that my travel insurance company would pay for helicopter rescue for someone who went remote-location and high altitude trekking four days after being in the hospital.

This hotel has satellite television and a VCR, and via the former I've just learned that the US and Great Britain have just cruise missile-attacked selective targets in Afghanistan along with a massive Northern Alliance offensive, and that there's been a large demonstration in Pakistan. Sadly none of this surprises me in the slightest; I'm somewhat comforted to learn that at least indiscriminate and comprehensive bombing of Kabul didn't occur. My pessimism of the future of the human species at hearing this news is balanced by the joy at seeing the boys interacting with new friends Isi and Yanksi, esp. how Ram has taken Isi under his arm as his 'little brother'.

October 9, 2001 6:00 PM

For two days our hosts at the hotel in Namche had assured the boys that they'd get a discount on their food but refused to cite specific prices. Upon checkin they'd also been told that they could sleep in the dining room for free (100 rupees per night for me). Well, surprise surprise, upon checkout this morning they got charged the same food and lodging rates as me. Ang Babu got their housing charge dropped but still felt quite bad about the whole thing.

We left Namche at around 7:45 and, upon reaching the first village of Kyangjuma, we decided to drop our things at the very nice Amadablam Lodge and Restaurant and dayhike to Tengboche instead of dragging all our gear up there and taking a chance at the few, small lodges. We'd already left some stuff with Yanksi since we'd need to pass through Namche again on our way back.

I woke up in a sour mood this morning, and events of the first few hours didn't lift it much in spite of my morning attempt at meditation. There was the lodge owners' deception, of course (Ang Babu and I had talked of karma a few days ago, and he consoled himself with the thought that although we'd lost some money, they'd in his words 'lost their spirit and were degraded'). I once again had blood in my urine, dark red this time (by this evening my urine was again clear). And I miss Lil terribly, and am worried about her after yesterday's news of military action. I tried to call her on the satellite phone in Kyangjuma this morning but only heard the answering machine beep; I have no idea if my message was decipherable. So I called Caroline from Tengboche and asked her to email Lil to see if I could fly back on the 18th, 20th or 23rd.

An hour of hard hiking down to the Dhudhe Kosi river put me in better spirits, and the climb back up to Tengboche was quite challenging. We arrived just after noon, and found out that there'd be a puja at around 1PM (we were told to wait for the sound of horns before entering). We grabbed some lunch and proceeded to wait; I snapped some photos of the amazing views north and east when the clouds allowed.

At 1:15 Ram asked a young monk and discovered that the puja had already begun. We entered and sat along the right wall. There were around 40 monks present, from young boys only a few years old to old men. It was touching and flattering to see my Nepali friends emulate my meditation posture. We all appreciated the chants, ringing bells and occasional bursts of clashing cymbals and blaring horns. Puja ended at 2:30, and after a few prostrations and a few photos of the ornate interior and enormous Buddha, we headed back to Kyangjuma.

Arrived back here in under two hours, shared a small pot of milk tea (and some complimentary potatoes with the boys and lodge workers in the kitchen) and am sitting in the warm (fireplace in center, and solar battery-powered electricty) dining room awaiting daal bhaat. Minor trivia; the toilet is divided into men's and lady's sections, and they've fabricated a seat over the obligatory hole-in-floor (the simple pleasures we miss...). I'm struck by Ang Babu's sunny personality no matter how much weight's on his back or how tired he is.

Another thought; the porters we trekkers pass must think us daft to work so hard at something we supposedly do for 'pleasure' on 'vacation'. I also feel pangs of guilt each time I see a porter painfully struggling up the hill with a load of beer, sodas and bottled water for the pampered trekkers. This morning we passed a group of porters cooking their meal of deedo (millet mush), which for hill people is (along with barley) a cheaper and therefore more common meal than daal bhaat. They enthusiastically offered to share their meager meal with me and resisted my 25 rupee payment. Once again I encounter the dichotomous nature of humanity (the generous porters, versus the greedy lodge owners), within the same half-day.

October 10, 2001 7:00 PM

I'm sitting here at Cafe Daphne in Lukla, listening to Tracy Chapman on the stereo and waiting for my swiss cheese quiche to arrive. Obviously, I'm easing my way back to modern civilization. A long day of hiking today. We left Kyangjuma at 7:15 and were in Namche one hour later. Picked up our stuff at Yanksi's shop and said a tearful goodbye to little Isi. I'd thought Yangki didn't like me much, but was touched when she presented us all with prayer scarfs. We left Namche by 9AM and stopped at Chumoa Guest House for excellent daal bhaat with potatoes. Our hostess is very pretty and charming, with 7 year old and 6 month old daughters, and insisted on only charging me the Nepali rate for daal bhaat and no charge for milk tea and boiled water (I slipped her an extra 20 rupees anyway).

While waiting roughly an hour for food, I fully grasped just how challenging the upcoming trek to Jiri would be (when pressed, all the boys also admitted they weren't looking forward to it either). I was also remembering Ang Babu's gift for understating time-to-destination; his 'easy short day to Lukla' ended up being a whole lot more uphill than I'd remembered and we didn't arrive in Lukla until after 4:00. Plus until tonight I'd again had blood in my urine, and a constant urge-to-urinate suggested a possible bladder infection. So when Ang Babu secured tickets on tomorrow morning's RNAC flight back to Kathmandu (there's a plane sitting here so we're not dependent on the normal prior Kathmandu-to-Lukla flight) with the Nepali discount for the three boys, the right decision was clear.

Spent the evening talking with a Japanese guy who screamed past us on the trail and met us on the streets of Lukla (not, by the way, the most picturesque Nepali village I've ever seen, a typical 'airport town'). He's also a Soto Zen practitioner and was delighted to meet a kindred spirit. He looks 20 but is actually my age; we hope to rendezvous at Chokyi Nima Rimpoche's lecture on Saturday morning. A very strong trekker, traveling solo, who came from Pengboche starting at 7AM. Gotta wonder, though, going that fast if he had much time to appreciate what he was passing.

The boys running the hotel were grumpy when we first arrived (probably because ever-thrifty Ang Babu was negotiating for every last rupee of 'Nepali discount') but brightened up when I complimented them on their upstairs shrine, mentioned that I was also Buddhist and that I'd had the honour of attending His Holiness the Dalai Lama's (whose pictures are all over the lodge) lectures earlier this year.

October 11, 2001 6:40 PM

My probable last night in Thamel. This morning we took off just after 7AM, just before encroaching clouds would have held us back. Kathmandu was still fog-covered, so we temporarily landed at Faplu. The boys therefore got two exciting takeoffs (paved strip at Lukla, dirt strip at Faplu) for the price of one. The takeoff at Lukla was especially exciting; the very short runway's on a downward slope, so the pilot gunned the engines full-throttle then released the brakes. Our wheels left the pavement just before the end of the runway. Our primary pilot, of 15 years' experience, is Bijaya Lama of the Tamang culture and was educated in the United States (Fort Worth, Texas and Long Island, NY...his brother is a tennis pro in Chicago, IL). He spoke with me during the interval in Faplu, about:

When I got back to Sidharta Garden Hotel, I immediately called Lil (and then took a shower). How good it was to hear her voice! She had indeed received my satellite (actually analog cellular) call, and had succeeded in getting me wait-listed on several RNAS flights, as well as researching an alternative Thai Air flight series that routed through Bangkok. I suspected that AA only had access to a subset of RNAS's seats, and a trip first to the RNAS and then Cathay offices indeed has me on flights returning the 16th!

On the way back to Thamel, we stopped by the bank, where I put the remainder of my travelers checks in Ang Babu's account for all four boys' education (I'll also give him all my remaining rupees when I depart). The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent reading 'War and Peace', having another excellent dinner at the economical Junbesi restaurant down the street, sending out a few emails and writing postcards (I'd also sent some from Namche).

After dinner I also took a stroll through Thamel, something that never fails to depress me a bit (or a lot). Fresh-scrubbed Westerners strolled the streets, being accosted by entrepreneurs hawking Tiger Balm, crudely made figurines, drugs of all sorts and knives. They blithely ignore the abject poor beggers crying out for a few rupees; one poor soul with legs ending at the knees dragged himself up and down the street with his hands, stumps scraping the dirt, and the looks he gave me when I gave him first 10 rupees on the outbound trip, then 100 on the return, seemed to peer into my soul. I cannot imagine a life like that, and seeing so many like him, in contrast to my clean clothes, full belly and fat wallet, fills me with not a sense of acceptance, but of hopelessness. I don't know if I'll ever forget the small young boy, with bled-through head bandage, who was either asleep, unconscious or dead on the sidewalk we traversed between the RNAC and Cathay Pacific offices yesterday, nor forgive myself for not getting involved when I saw the policeman there (who I later realized was paying the boy no attention but instead was clearing out the sidewalk merchants, who ignored the boy and blithely reopened their wares after the policeman had passed).

October 13, 2001 6:00 AM

Yesterday was, generally speaking, a lot of fun. We took the 5:30AM bus to Namdu, which necessitated being out of the hotel by 4:45AM. Unfortunately, loud dogs and loud French tourists (Jean Marc, the manager, is French, and Sidharta specializes in French travelers) kept me up past midnight, and I also had a bout of chills. Come morning I discovered the reason why; severe diarrhea. And just in time for a 8+ hour bus ride!

The ride was truly nuts, and more than a little bit dangerous. By the time we arrived at the ticket office, the only seats left were on a narrow bench (realistically seating no more than 5 persons but supposedly seating 7) at the back of the bus. Joining us was Ram's sister and her small young boy. As the bus wound its way out of Kathmandu, it picked up more and more passengers, standing in the aisles. At the second toilet break, the boys and I, and about 15 other persons, climbed on top of the bus to lie atop the lumpy bags full of shoes. This of course only gave the bus conductor the opportunity to pile more people inside.

9:45 AM

At lunch, I would have prefered chow mein, but my only choices seemed to be restaurants with only daal bhaat and toilets, or an expanded menu but no toilets (you can guess which I chose). Up and down we bounced into and out of valleys, giving me a sense of the strenuous Lukla-to-Jiri trekking that I'd evaded. 5 km from Namdu we got a flat tire. Finally, at 2:30 PM we arrived.

What sweet parents the boys have! Ang Babu and Bijaya's mom is nearly illiterate (she can't read or write her name according to Ang Babu, and only knows a bit of English from the days when the highway ended, and trail began, prior to Namdu). Their dad has a 10th grade education and teaches through the 7th grade in the local school. He and a friend, a secondary school math and science teacher, are avid chess players and spent nearly all evening grappling with the chess program on my Pocket PC.

6:30 PM

Ang Babu and Bijaya's mom is so sweet, a wrinkled older woman with a ring in her nose. She was amazed that I was so short; 'like Nepali men' she said. We actually managed a reasonable conversation considering her feeble English and my feeble Nepali and nonexistent Tamang. She hovered about me as if I were her own son, wrapping a kerchief for my head in case of fever, exhorting me to drink more and more, feeding me guavas (which apparently, even more than bananas, are an effective stool firmer) looking VERY concerned when at one sitting I popped my three kidney stone medications and four anti-giardia pills (yes, the emergence of 'rotten eggs' gas tipped me off to the exact diagnosis of the malady).

The family situation, as is seemingly the case for much of Namdu, is somewhat complex. The father first married (arranged) as a child; this union quickly dissolved. While in school in India, he met another woman and remarried, brought her back to Nepal but she eventually returned to her maiden country. Meanwhile, the mother had married and divorced; it's not clear to me whether this union produced any children. Father moved to Namdu and met mother. They never married, but had Ang Babu, Bijaya and a younger daughter together. Mother and father broke up, both remarried (mother had Pasang), both divorced, and then got back together with each other (but to this day have not officially married).

After an hour's rest, we visited Ram's house. Ram's dad, as I previously imagined him, is a simple man of generous, innocent heart. He has two wives, which are sisters. Ram has two older sisters, two younger sisters and two younger brothers (not clear to me which are full- and which are half-).

Then it was off to Keshab's house for daal bhaat. Keshab is married to Ang Babu's sister. They have two boys (Keshab has subsequently had a vasectomy); 3.5 and 5 year old (the latter Furba, who I'm sponsoring). Keshab looks dreadfully gaunt. About a week ago, he was attacked by 'some insects like bees only much larger' while working in the fields and received 7 or so bites on his lower body. Apparently 4-5 bites on the face are commonly fatal, so he's lucky. But he's been getting thin since soon after I last saw him in '98. He still drinks, smokes and now chews tobacco too. Ordinarily I'd think AIDS, but I highly doubt he's been unfaithful, his wife looks healthy, and Ang Babu says he hasn't received any blood transfusions. Tapeworms? Cancer? He's been resistant to seeing a doctor, claiming he still feels strong, but he and Ang Babu plan to visit a hospital in Kathmandu for his insect bites (which are bleeding and infected) and I've asked Ang Babu to insist on a more thorough physical while Keshab's there. Lack of money isn't an acceptable excuse; I'll pick up the tab. 32 years old is too young to leave this life and, along with it, a wonderful wife and two young boys.

9PM and off to bed for me; the boys went off to observe the death ceremony performed by the neighborhood lama for a neighbor. I would have liked to witness it too but was exhausted; considering the lack of sleep the night before and my condition, slumber was in order (good choice...the boys returned home at 11PM). Slept great, only woken occasionally by the sound of mice in the roof. For the first time in three barking dogs!

Caught the 7AM bus back to Kathmandu this morning. Much smoother trip; plenty of seats when we boarded, nearly empty for the majority of the trip, which because of the lighter bus and consequent high speeds took only 7 hours (including a half hour lunch break for lunch).

Stopped off in Thamel for my luggage then headed for Bouddhanath; I'm staying at the Sun-Beam Guest House a block away. I took a much needed shower and changed clothes, then headed to Cosmos Communications (owned by a friend of Ang Babu) to catch up on email. The owner both recognized me (it had been two years since we'd seen each other) and remembered Lilliana's name! Had to chuckle; surrounding me were at least a dozen young monks checking email and on various chat programs. One young guy's robes were well-matched by the cool shades he was wearing. Fortunately, none of the monks seemed to be perusing porn sites...

October 14, 2001 10:00 PM

Last night was a lot of fun. After checking email, I called Caroline, who was nursing the baby. Ran across the street to check on film developing fees. We (myself, Ang Babu, Ram, Keshab and their friend the taxi driver Samsher) had an 'ok', slow-service dinner at the hotel. I had a grilled (melted) cheese sandwich and tomato soup, and Keshab had his first hamburgers.

The conversation began with a discussion of AIDS and birth control education. I was heartened to learn, contrary to my prior fears, that the officially sanctioned message for unmarried couples was more than mere preaching on abstinence (Bimal had said that one of his past jobs was in broadcasting, and that he lost the job when his sex education talks had grown too explicit). In fact, the billboards I'd noticed on the way to and from Namdu seemed to be quite explicit, judging from the pictures, about not having sex with strangers, not exposing yourself to bodily fluids of strangers, not using unsterile needles and not receiving unsafe blood transfusions (as well as reassuring folks that AIDS can't be transmitted by mosquitoes). In fact, the government is now airing commercials urging prostitutes to insist that their partners use condoms, and I saw many 'practice safe sex' billboards, complete with cartoon condoms, on the way to Pokhara today. The US could benefit from such pragmatism. Nepal's policy on non-AIDS-preventing birth control isn't quite so liberal; apparently a health services worker in Namdu recently received a stern talking-to by the village elders when he gave a three-month-duration hormone injection to an unmarried woman.

October 15, 2001 5:30 PM

Anyway, the conversation eventually turned to other matters. Samsher met and proposed marriage to his wife of three years, while on a nearby village 'fishing trip' with his aunt. They have a two-year-old son together. Samsher and Keshab in particular find it incredulous that Lil and I aren't planning on having children; they can't fathom a man not wanting to continue his 'blood line' with at least one son. We also talked about how Social Security, pension and other retirement programs reduce the necessity of having children to take care of folks in old age, and that the US's comparatively non-agrarian economy relied more on brains and less on more-is-better manpower.

Yesterday morning at 6AM we headed for Pokhara on a local bus, though at first I wasn't sure we'd make it to the bus stop in time. First the boys guarding the front office couldn't find the key to unlock the gate. Then Bijaya and Keshab weren't ready. Then Samsher's taxi ran out of gas. So we flagged down another taxi. This local bus (which, versus an express bus, will stop in villages and along the side of the road to pick up and drop off passengers) had no storage up top, so at some points there were folks hanging off the sides. We stopped for lunch at 9:15; too early for Bijaya and I, who munched on roasted soybeans and potato somosas. Good thing, for the others who had daal bhaat ended up on the toilet much of the afternoon and evening. It was here that, via BBC television, I first heard of the anthrax incidents in the US.

Eric's friend's Hem Raj's (whose arm is in much better shape than two years back) hotel, Tranquility Lodge, was full, so we took a $25 (for five) room at his nephew's place, the Octagon Lodge. Ang Babu was astounded at the price I paid, but the boys were equally astounded by the cleanliness and newness of the place. I could have paid much less, but wanted to thank them for their care during my entire vacation.

They rented a boat and swam, and developed Ram and my four rolls of film (plus an unexposed roll I'd accidentally mixed in) and Ram broke his camera, ruining another roll. Meanwhile I first did some email (using a pathetically slow and five-rupee-per-minute Internet connection), bought some more roasted beans to tide me over to dinner, visited the peaceful lakeside gompa I'd first discovered two years ago (did two 40-minute meditation sessions with walking meditation in-between), bought some incense and journals, a 15 rupee apple tart for me and a 35 rupee 'hackie sack' for the boys.

For dinner it was fries, momos and beer at one restaurant, followed by pizza (one carnivorous, the other veggie, and Keshab's first) and spinach-and-mushroom lasagna at Hotel Snowland (where I'd bought Caroline appeasement pizza two years earlier....was still as tasty as I'd remembered). Started getting constant-urge-to-urinate, slight pain in right kidney and bloody urine again; wonder if the bus rides are jolting me too much. I've also been having painful pressure change effects and partially clogged ears, and Ang Babu noticed wax buildup in my right ear; may have to get this checked when I get home.

I'm amazed by how absolutely dead Pokhara is; even more devoid of tourists than Thamel. Not that I'm complaining; all was quite peaceful. But the businesses here, so dependent on tourist dollars, must really be hurting. And the only other Americans I've met this whole trip were the couple in Namche. Off to bed after buying some stationary. The guys stayed out a while longer.

October 15, 2001 8:00 PM

This morning, I awoke at 6AM in time to see Machupuchare briefly emerge out of the mist to the north. By the time we got to the bus park, all of the Annapurnas plus Machupuchare were revealed in their glory. We caught a 7:45 local bus; the ticket takers refused to honour the standard Nepali discount (I think because they saw that the boys were with me) so ever-thrifty and -resourceful Ang Babu only bought four tickets, then convinced the bus conductor to sell us the fifth seat at the greatly reduced price of 55 rupees (normal price 150 rupees). I finished reading the most excellent 'War and Peace' during the ride, and gave it to Ang Babu. When we got back to Sun-Beam Guest House, I happily discovered that they'd found the glasses I'd left behind the prior morning. Ang Babu, Ram and I did some email, then I had a roll of film developed and bought some more incense.

Caroline, Bimal and I were supposed to have dinner at their place tonight, but when I reached her on the phone at 5:30 she canceled citing the difficulty of getting a taxi to run from Swayamboudhanat back to Bouddhanath, and her concerns about me wandering around unfamiliar streets in marginal neighborhoods after dark. Understandable but a little disappointing both because I was looking forward to seeing them again and because the boys had hoped alternatively to have dinner with me too. I ended up eating alone and plentifully; a beer (my urinary system was fine this AM but I'm again having problems), egg chowmein and egg fried rice, and veggie momos. Waiting for Ang Babu to stop by for one last visit to Bouddhanath. Lil may also ring me up this evening. I've just showered and am just about packed and ready to go.

October 16, 2001 7:30 PM (HK)

Ang Babu arrived at 8:45PM and he and I left for Bouddhanath, sharing my set of prayer beads. It was a fine last night; hardly anyone there (save on old lama alternately using a cane and wheelchair, his young attendant and a handful of accompanying Westerners). The illuminated stupa was beautiful under the starry skies, with the sounds of an evening puja coming from an overhead window.

Ang Babu spent the night in the hotel room's other bed, after first running home to return a bicycle and grab a late dinner. The other guys showed up at 5:15 AM vs the previously-agreed 5:45; they thought I had to be at the airport at 6. A surprise; they'd also brought Furba; what a sweet boy!

Fortunately, I'd bought enough prayer scarfs the afternoon before in Bouddhanath, which I gave to each of them along with a few choked-up words of thanks and encouragement. Ang Babu, Bijaya and Ram also gave me scarves. Then it was inside to pay the 1100 rupee airport tax, check in my baggage and myself and head for the gate. Security surprisingly said I couldn't hand-carry my box of AA batteries; they checked them to Hong Kong, and Cathay has forwarded them on to SFO. A group of young children were on the plane and several of them got sick in their seats after dinner (during the initial descent?), and a white-haired Western man pulled out his magic trick set (rings, hankerchief, string, etc) to cheer them up.

After a little email at the free access terminal, and a little dinner, I'm sitting here at my outbound flight gate, reading 'The Odyssey' (which in my opinion the film 'Brother Where Art Thou' only faintly resembles) and listening to Mozart. On the way walking here, I noticed security police with alertly held rifles; a sign of these sad times.

Loose Ends

Bijaya's left hand's little and index fingernails are extremely long, while the others are a more 'normal' size.

There was a pretty significant military presence on the roadways leading to and from Namdu and Pokhara. A reflection of the government's desire to control the Maoist situation, coupled with the Nepal army supplementing and in some cases replacing the police.

Saturday afternoon the 13th an interesting thing happened. A small, dirty, tattered girl approached me outside my Bouddhanath-area hotel and asked me to buy her family some milk. When we went across the street to a store at her direction, the store owners laughed, said 'very expensive' and quoted me a 150 rupee price for 'dairy whitener'. I immediately thought 'scam', acted belligerent to the shop owners and wasn't fully present to receive the sweet- and innocent-smiling girl's thanks and offer to visit her and her family the next day. When I told the boys about the situation, they informed me that 'dairy whitener' was indeed what Nepalis called evaporated milk, and that 150 rupees was a fair price. Delusions are indeed inexhaustible, and this one caused me to miss out on what could have truly been a meaningful human interaction.

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This page was created on October 30, 2001. It was last updated on August 10, 2009.

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