Saturday, April 16, 2016

The interwebs

Just a brief note on the internet. I heard before I came that they don't really have wifi here. Just a little bit, and it's "bad" - so don't plan on any internet. So, I told everyone I wouldn't have any internet but since my phone company had said that I would have texting, I was expecting that. Totally wrong. No texting. I could even text in Mongolia five years ago! No texting here. And I hadn't bothered to unlock my new phone, since I thought I would have service. Well, actually, I do have service. I have 4 bars, it just says SIM card not allowed on network. So... we're intentionally being blocked. Considering the trade embargo that has devastated their country, seems a small price to pay in return. At any rate. So I go to buy a cheap phone, a story I won't tell now. It's a story of stress and hardship (sort of) and leaving after two sweaty hours with no phone. But I DID leave with an internet card for 5 hours of pre-paid time, and the knowledge to always bring a bandanna with me to mop the sweat off of my face in the future (haven't left home without one since). And a guy from Israel who at the end had helped to translate for me when I thought all hope was lost reminded me to sign out from the computer or else the timer would continue to run and I would lose that card. Well, duh.

I heard that some plazas and hotels had wifi. I wondered if the hotel I had seen near my casa had wifi. As I approached I saw a throng of Cuban people outside sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the walls, all on devices. How odd. It turns out you can ALWAYS tell if a place has wifi - because there will be a throng of people there, all on devices. Glued to them. Not looking up from them. I of course become one of those people as well when I go for my morning internet attempt. It's so funny to have designated spots where people are all on devices: usually phones, rarely laptops, and then everywhere else is device free! Cubans don't have data access here, so outside of the few plazas or hotel orbs, they are rarely on their phones - only for actual phone calls! I kind of like it - I feel like maybe we should have something similar.

Usually people get hour long cards, but thinking ahead, I got the fancy five hour card. I got on the wifi for the first time thinking, "This is so easy! Wonder why people said it was hard?" and then 10 minutes later it went out, and I couldn't get back on it to log out of the system and stop the timer. I tried every five minutes for over an hour. No connection, no log out. Bye, bye five hour card. Was good to have used you for 10 minutes. Now I just buy the one hour cards. The wifi is actually much less fickle in the smaller towns. Even when the power goes out, the internet stays on! So you have hundreds of people on benches and fountain edges at night in a tiny square, all blinking in the pitch black at their glowing devices. It feels like it's some sort of comment on these times in which we live, but I am not sure what...


So as I was leaving Habana, now over a week ago, some cars - maybe police, I couldn't tell - went down a nearby street with sirens. My taxi driver seemed annoyed by this - I thought oh, maybe it's some sort of fancy convoy. Except then a big truck drove by with crazy billowing white steam coming out from behind it so i thought oh, street cleaning. How odd since it's so filthy here, but i guess that's why they clean the streets. So we drove off in the opposite direction, and went to turn down a street, only to see that the entire street was a total white out. You couldn't see more than 5 feet ahead, up to the sky. This happened for a few more streets before we found one where the smoke had lessened so we could cross it. Turns out they bomb for mosquitoes. That "steam" was a crazy amount of chemicals being sprayed - with people just walking through it. I thought wow - that would never happen in Berkeley. But, they have a massive mosquito problem here, which causes many terrible diseases, and with the spraying they have essentially none. I have no idea how frequently they spray, but it certainly works - there was only one night in Santiago De Cuba when I was bitten by mosquitoes. None of their windows have screens - nor glass. They're not really windows, rather the hole that a window would go in, with wooden louvers over them. With it being so hot here, and the need to keep them open, I can see how mosquitoes would be a huge problem.

I'd forgotten about it until today when I had to leave the casa I am staying in because they were going house to house doing fumigation. You are actually forced to allow them into your house to fumigate. They don't do the bedrooms... but still. I was even nervous about it out on the streets, and I will say, it smells really badly. If toxicity had a smell that would be it.

Again, I'm not saying it's a bad thing to do, this is one solution to a really bad problem they had, and i for one have no other solution to propose. I just wonder if people are maybe not given the proper warning and information so they can avoid the chemicals as much as they should. I saw people walking blocks through solid white chemical spray... or maybe they know and don't care. Quite possible.

Fun while it lasted

All my life I've had straight hair. Really straight hair. It started out course, changed to being fine, but always straight. I had to burn the crap out of it in the 80's with a curling iron to get it to do the tiniest of flips for my Farrah Fawcett 'do. Even then, they would last like two hours. Even with some approximation of hair spray. My mom hated that haircut, she said I looked like a lampshade. I did look something like that tall, thin guy on Fat Albert who looked like he was wearing a lampshade with his eyes poking through. Was his lampshade red? In my mind it was, but that was eons ago, and I have no internet here, so I can't just go and google fat albert lampshade. The unfair (to me, as a teen) part of all of this is that my whole immediate family, aside from myself, has curly hair. My mom has curly hair, my twin sisters do, my dad would if he had longer hair... why was my fate so bleak? Now, clearly, this is a clear case of the grass being always greener, and hardly the end of the world, but as a youth, it certainly felt unfair. For a while I wondered if my parents were really my parents. But then, I saw a picture of my mother at about 6 years old and me at 6 years years old, and we looked like twins. SO that theory flew out the window. My mother, on the other hand, ironed her hair so it would be straight through her youth. Again, grass. Greener. So it was the fall of 2014 and it had seemed to me like my hair was frizzier than usual when i was drying it. Something had changed... so one day i decided to just let it dry naturally, and I kid you not - I had wavy/curly hair! It was amazing. There were some actual curls. My mother pooh poohed it - like oh, it's just wavy. But I knew. And my new curly hair haircutter confirmed it.

It changed my hair life - it took a couple of weeks to not feel like I looked like I was wearing a wig - it's very strange to see your reflection so altered - but after that, it was like hair heaven. I didn't need to wash it frequently any longer. Every 5 days! I didn't need to ever use a hair dryer again. I could go to sleep with a wet head and wake up with curls! I could wake up, spray water on my head. Take one minute to scrunch it and walk out the door. It was, truly, a dream come true. Plus, I really feel like it better fit my personality. With straight hair it was always so prim and proper. Now i had this hair that did what it wanted, and I just went along with it - and loved it.

The funny thing was people kept saying "hormones". And, I thought, no, that can't be. I had recently been through a procedure to freeze eggs earlier that same year, at which point they found that I was unusually fertile and had actually been given too much hormone stimulation, so I knew my hormones weren't dropping off. Plus, all of the people I had known who had their have change to curly, it happened in their early teens once their hormones had kicked in. Again, no bells going off here, no 1+1 = 2. So I went along happily thinking it was just one of those things until all of a sudden this past fall - so nearly a year later - it clearly was straightening again. I went into complete denial. It must be the weather, must be the fall. Must be less humidity. Surely it will come back... and for whatever silly reason, I used Cuba as the final test. Knowing it would be crazy hot and humid here, I figured I would see what it does here. Just to be sure. Well, it is with a very heavy heart that I can report it's over. My hair is back to being straight. I mean, it has some really, really slight wave. But nothing I hadn't already had. Basically, straight. Turns out that my procedure which spiked my hormones literally off the chart, also made my hair curly. I just had never associated people saying "hormones" with an artificial massive increase in hormones. Not sure why... seems so obvious now.

So now, back to my old boring hair self, I wonder - better to have known a year of hair greatness than never to have known it at all?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

In search of special

When I travel, I look for what differentiates a place from other places, what is the combination of traits that makes it unique? Are there a combination of traits that make it unique? Sometimes the answer is not really. Cuba is not one of those places. Cuba is wonderfully unique. I really wish I could speak to people here about Communism, and their take on it, but my Spanish is nowhere hear good enough to engage in political discourse unless it's to assure people Donald Trump won't become the president, and English is definitely not commonly spoken here except in the service industry, which is small. I am going to try to ask my Casa Particulares owner tonight more about this.

Cuba is really, really hot. They tell me it's winter now. It's in the 90's each day with humidity that probably doesn't even register on the scale it's so high. Baracoa has been less humid and even pleasant at times, but not the other areas I have been to. This heat I think is what drives people to leave their doors and windows open at night, which creates this level of intimacy where you walk down the street and feel as if you are a part of each home. These homes are small, and don't have entrance ways, their front doors open right into their living space, so you are literally a foot away from being inside someone's living room - the open door right in front of you. The scene is nearly always the same - a TV that's on, a number of chairs, often a sofa and/or overstuffed chair as well, and people in what often seems to be their underclothes sitting around, motionless, watching. It's as if the street is their entrance way or hallway. The aesthetic is so reminiscent of the 50's. I want so badly to photograph these vignettes. To produce a series of open door living shots. But, it doesn't feel right to do so without asking, and asking would 1. be awkward and stressful and 2. either result in a no, or something that looks more like a portrait because they would then be too self-conscious and posed. I would need to actually spend time with the family to get the kind of shot I want, and that's not going to happen on this trip. But, I don't feel badly photographing if there's no one in the room, that doesn't feel like a violation to me, so I have grabbed a couple of shots here and there of momentarily unpopulated living spaces. I've never been in a place before where people are just so un-self-conscious about their intimate living situations, doors and windows opened to anyone to look into. This is the most special aspect of Cuba to me. There are others, to be sure, but this is the most surprising. If I couldn't afford more than a fan and it was 95 degrees in my house, no question I too would open my door to the breeze and cooler air. But, I would definitely be conscious of what I was wearing, and how I was acting, and because our living spaces are laid out differently, and generally are larger, I wouldn't be sitting three feet from the open door living my life. It's the combination that I find to be such a treasure here. And also yet again another reminder of how much space we as Americans take up, and how lucky we are that a 1200 sq. ft. house is not considered large.

La Comida

Everyone says the food in Cuba is terrible. Bland. Bring hot sauce. Bring your own food. The New York Times had an article on how there are finally some good places in Habana, but of course they are fancy, expensive, need a reservation, not likely to go on my own and sit reading a book kind of places. Plus, I can't say they sounded like the kind of places I would like anyway.

Much to my surprise, the food here has been quite good! Granted, I'm a vegetarian who eats some fish, some seafood. I hate the term pescatarian, I have never identified with it. When I was 6 my parents raised us to be vegetarian, and I am now the only one in the family left who hasn't gone back to eating meat. My mom lasted until last year, which is pretty impressive. Firstly, the fruit here, as to be expected in a Caribbean island, is fantastic. The bananas are nothing like the bland, mealy things we eat at home. The mangos are incredible. There are some odd fruits I have yet to get used to, there's this one called the guyana which has a nice flavor, but it has these seeds which are about 1000x harder than grape nuts. I had to ask how it is meant to be eaten because I tried to chew a seed and nearly lost my crown. It turns out they eat the seeds, but they don't chew them, they just swallow them. I am pretty sure my digestive tract would not be overly welcoming to these beebees, so I ate around each seed. But the fruit juices, or just jugo are phenomenal. At first I worried about the water situation - normally in a developing country I would never drink or eat something that might have been rinsed in bad water or have bad water in it without being cooked, but I've pretty much thrown caution to the wind here. Okay, sure, I won't brush my teeth using the water, and I only drink the juice at the Casas where I am staying, not on the street, but still. For me, it's risky. Then there are the meals. Breakfast is standard fare. Eggs, bread (the bread is quite good), fruit, tomatoes and cheese. The sandwiches here are often pressed and toasted in those machines I still think of as all having come from an infomercial. They are quite good. They make a mean tuna sandwich. And then the fish dishes are also quite good. It's of course very fresh - I am trying not to think about whether the fish is a bottom feeder and how much mercury it might have in it - those are thoughts best left in California. And I have found the sauces to be quite tasty, and I'm pretty picky. Granted, some are over salted, which my mom would love, possibly because they have heard we pick on their food for being bland and thus the overcompensation with salt. Not sure. I have had better roasted vegetables here than in 95% of the eating establishments in the Bay Area. And the coconut milk fish in Baracoa, along with their vegetarian stews are fantastic. Granted, I am someone who finds one restaurant she likes and just goes back over and over again when I travel, but the fact that I have found so many I like was a surprise to me given all of the warnings. I was expecting it to be like Mongolia. Which definitely had the worst food I have eaten in any country, and worse yet for a vegetarian, though my traveling partner would have said the meat was no better. In fact, she pretended to be a vegetarian for the last week of our trip, having had her lifetime supply of mutton and mutton parts in the first two weeks.

The other thing I have done a lot of is eating meals prepared in the Casa Particulares in which I have stayed - I may have just gotten lucky, but the home cooked meals have been amazing and so cheap! A dinner with twice as many courses and food than even I can eat has been 9$. Breakfast is $3-5. I will say that the hotels - of which there are few relatively speaking here - have some of the worst food. I think they are trying to cater to some ideal of a tourist and losing the Cuban flair in the process. Granted, it wasn't long ago that there weren't private restaurants, or very few, and you either had to eat in state run restaurants, which I hear are awful, or eat at people's homes, but I can't imagine the home cooked meals were worse then? Maybe the reputation is a hold-over from then. At any rate, I've been very pleasantly surprised so far at the food, let's hope it continues! I have three more towns/cities to visit.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

De amor y odio

My first few days here I totally fell in love with Cuba - most of the things I had heard seemed untrue - no one really bothered me trying to sell me things. Then again, I am a professional-level ignorer. You know all of those times that you wish that you could just walk away from someone mid-conversation? If you're an introvert like me then you probably understand this most - just some boring conversation eating up the time you could be spending by yourself. So from all of those times I couldn't just walk away or pretend I didn't hear someone calling to me, I have a lot of ignoring pent up in me, just waiting to get out. And get out it does! You know (if you have cats) that even though they don't turn their heads to you, you can tell they hear you because their ears move? I don't even twitch my ears. Nothing. So, from that perspective, things have been fine. But, I got really fed up with Cuba yesterday, I even almost told some guy off, because I was just so fed up with the relentless cat calls. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not someone opposed to this in limited quantity. Occasionally someone in Oakland cat calls me, and I am actually flattered! I think, oh, that's sweet. But this is a whole other level. Even with my professional ignoring, it's either the snake hiss, "ssssssss" but loudly, or it's the loud kissing noise call. Both of which make it sound like they are calling an animal. Not a human. I try to make eye contact with people. I try to smile and say hello (in whatever appropriate language term), but I learned quickly in my first two days it was not possible to make eye contact with men. First it's the noise, then it's the aggressive posturing and the look like they want to ravage you right there in the street. It's truly disgusting. First I thought oh, I must have looked at the wrong type of guy. I'm sure I can say hello to old men. NOPE. oh, well, these guys have their arms around their wives/girlfriends/whomever, they must be safe. NOPE. What about this guy with his son? NOPE. And after two days of trying to find a single guy who wouldn't make obscene gestures to me, I realized it wasn't possible and put all men on my ignore list. Every single one. Must there be some who are not this demeaning? I mean, I'm sure somewhere there are, but at least 80% are not. If not more. But even though ignoring works for people trying to sell you things or give you a taxi ride, it does nothing to shut up the cat calls. It just means I don't need to see their faces when they do. This only left women to try to make some sort of human-in-passing connection with.

So, coming to Santiago De Cuba, I was relieved to see the ignored men made fewer calls. But what I didn't expect was the reaction from the women. Holy moley. They start the look at your head, down to your toes, back up again, very obviously, and then have this look on their face like you are that mutilated dead bird you just passed in a pile of garbage. And not one woman, but EVERY SINGLE ONE. I went on a two hour walk yesterday and did not succeed in having a single woman treat me kindly or return my hello. Why? Why the hostility? Why be so rude? I wasn't wearing anything odd or flashy. Sneakers and an Old Navy cotton maxi skirt. Tattoos aren't common here because of the cost, but not something that's frowned upon. I felt like I was in an episode of mean girls. I asked Jose, my Casa Particulares owner, about the situation. My Spanish is pretty terrible, and his English possibly worse, but he immediately understood my question and had a one word answer (in Spanish), money. The lack of money was why they were looking at me like that. Was the reason they couldn't be civil to me. He said it's just really ugly in Cuba. I can't ignore the US's part in this due to the ongoing embargo that congress still won't lift, but I won't address that now.

Which leads me to my question of yesterday - why do I want to travel in a country where everyone is so damn rude? Where there's no human connection whatsoever except for service people in the tourist industry? I read nothing about this in the guide books. Do people just not notice when they are traveling with a partner because they don't look to interact with the general population? they currently have something like 3 million tourists a year come through Cuba. Which sounds like a lot, but really isn't apparently. They expect 25 MILLION Americans the first year the embargo is lifted! What a total disaster that would be. They have no infrastructure, they don't have nearly the room, and frankly, the attitude towards any travelers is just so bad, it's hard to imagine this would go over very well. People don't think I'm from the US - it has nothing to do with that. They think I'm from Europe. But then again, most people stay on buses in groups of their own and probably don't notice, so I guess in that regard it's no different than anywhere else. I just think of Nepal, my current favorite country that I have traveled to, and I think of how warm and kind the people are there, how your everyday encounters with random people on the street left you feeling encouraged, and I really miss it.

I was ready to pack up yesterday. Some guy cat called me last night when I was in a foul mood having been giving the look of death from women all day long, and i ignored him and he said in English (which is rare) "Oh, you won't talk to me because I'm black?" and I almost screamed at him, "No, I won't talk to you because you're acting like a total asshole and disrespecting me by making those obscene noises! Do you seriously think a woman wants to be treated like an animal? What is the matter with you?" but luckily my Spanish couldn't come close to forming two of the words in those sentences let alone the whole thing so I walked off furious. As an aside, I have never seen this happen to a Cuban woman...

Today I am calmer, especially after having a good meal and deciding it's best to not try to say hello to anyone. But it leaves me looking from the outside in like at a movie, rather than a place I am participating in experiencing, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. In heavily Muslim countries in Africa people won't talk to you, either, but they are never rude, they just ignore you, and you know that going into it, that they are taught to not talk to non-Muslim strangers, so it doesn't feel so bad.

I hope the tides turn in my next location, because I really, really, really want to love Cuba, and from what I have seen so far, I feel like it's possible. But for now we'll leave it at love/hate.

Friday, May 09, 2014

The Retreat

Where to even begin??
It's funny when you have expectations, but you have no idea what they are. You can't identify specifics or a way that you thought something was going to be or what it was going to look like. All you know it's that your ill defined nebulous expectations were not met.

I did a yoga retreat in Pokhara, Nepal. It sounds exciting - no? I've never done anything like this before, so certainly my expectations weren't formed by prior related experiences. I will start by saying the residence portion was better than any hut I stayed in while trekking (which is saying very little). It had electrical outlets, and lights, and walls that don't have gaping holes to the outside. These are all good things.

As soon as I got here the owner guy told me we are all one big family and I felt myself cringe. Why is the idea of some hippy-esque family so anxiety producing? Maybe I don't want to be part of one giant family with a bunch of youngsters looking to find themselves and thinking something called a "retreat" is the way to do it. Maybe I just want to keep to myself and not feel obligated to talk to each of my new family members. Why is there so much pressure to be social and friendly? What if I want to keep to myself? What if I think everyone is annoying?

I walked into my room the first night, that I was supposedly sharing with one other person to find three beds and two other people already there. Not a huge deal, but why not just say that you're in a room with three people? Why advertise two people per room? And apparently I lucked out because other rooms have four beds squished in. I happen to have two of the greatest roommates ever, so that's made it palatable. The attached bath? A squat toilet. There's just no escaping the squat toilet apparently. I thought I left those mysterious holes behind with trekking and roadside bus stops. Apparently not!

Immediately after my arrival it was chanting time. There are three meditation sessions per day, *in addition* to the chanting session, which is really singing. It sounded to me exactly like a drum circle in Golden Gate park, so I chose to stay in the room instead - which is right next door to the studio room so it sounded like I was in there anyway. It turns out that was the best timeslot of the day to take a nap.

No hot water in the entire establishment. After a really long day of yoga and meditation I'm going to go out on a limb and say a hot shower would be nice. Or even a warm one. Sigh.

I think I also have expectations around cleanliness which are laughable as it turns out. The yoga mats have not been washed in... a month? Two? Ever? Not exaggerating. And we bring them outside each day for morning outdoor yoga! Then we put them back in the yoga room damp with many little insect visitors and use them again a couple of hours later. The yoga room does not smell good and has not ever been vacuumed (it's carpeted) but I will say you get used to the smell pretty quickly.

Our room has also not been cleaned anytime recently. Certainly not in the five days I was there, nor the four days before that I have on good authority. No bathroom cleaning, no floor cleaning. Large mats of hair and who knows what else float around the floor. It's got one of those bright green faux grass colored low-knap outdoor carpets which hides everything quite well, thankfully. Except the enormous spider. It was bigger than a daddy long legs, with FAT legs and a big hourglass body. It was gross. I generally have no aversion to spiders and try to get them into a plastic container to throw back outside when I have them at home, but this was a whole different level of spider. I squealed like a school girl and did an icky spider dance. Then I tried to shoe it outside which didn't come close to working. I had imagined kind of guiding it across the room and out the door. It had other plans. It was FAST and ran right under another bed across the room. So, I left it there. Then it turned up later in the bathroom stranded by my cold psuedo shower attempt, so I went and asked the manager if he wouldn't mind taking it out. Thankfully they did not mind.

One of the more difficult aspects for me was the eating - the food itself was actually pretty good, but we were woken at 5:30, and had over an hour each of yoga and meditation and hiking amongst other activities before we were able to eat breakfast at 10:30. FIVE hours of focused awake time before breakfast?! I was ravenous by the time breakfast rolled around - I nearly gnawed my arm off a time or two. And yes, for those of you who know me well, you probably thought 5:30 was a typo above, but no, it was not. I got up at 5:30 am for 14 days straight on my trek and then 5 days for this yoga retreat! It is possible hell is freezing over.

While the food was good, the treatment of the food was not nearly as careful as it should have been. An unusually high number of people got bacterial stomach bugs there, they washed the dishes and raw fruits and veggies with the normal water, which is contaminated for western guts, so I stayed away from anything that wasn't cooked, compulsively dried wet utensils I was given, etc. I felt very lucky to leave without having gotten a stomach bug. My roommate was not so fortunate.

The other daily activity I abstained from? Group nasal cleansing. I mean, I have three neti pots (mostly because I have to buy new ones on the way to Burning Man when I forget mine) and have no issue with using them, but shared *communal* neti pots which aren't sterilized? and are filled with regular Nepali bacteria-full water? No. Thank. You. You've got to be kidding. I am surprised no one has come down with that brain eating amoeba yet.

The yoga was decent - I like my teacher at home much better, but this was fine. There wasn't much (any) emphasis on proper position and they seem to encourage people to push to get into complicated positions which fuels the fire of the young men whose egos are easily prodded. But, I just ignore their fighting and groaning and did what I could. No blocks or modifications or anything so I made my own sometimes.

The meditation was pretty tough for me. We did a number of techniques that I really enjoyed that involved sound - separating the three parts of the aum aka om and meditating on each for a while, or sight - candlelight meditation was also very good. The silent meditation is tough and felt pretty torturous after the first 10 minutes, as did maintaining the cross-legged posture for an hour. I would be having third party conversations with myself about the conversations I was having and it would spiral out from there.

All in all I am definitely glad I went - I became a lot more flexible, and learned some good meditation techniques, but I cannot even tell you how happy I was to leave and not have to be ruled from 5:30am - 9:00pm with a bell ringing my every next activity. I bee-lined to the store in Pokhara when I left and ran into two other folks who had left the day before who had armloads of candy and cookies. HA! You get to feeling pretty deprived after a while and all I wanted was chocolate. Chocolate and a special bag of gummis. mmmmm...

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Day 10 - Discomforts & Awe Inspiring Beauty

Ten days without the internet or any communication really.  A couple of times there has been some texting ability but I only look at my phone when I am setting the alarm for 6am. Otherwise I keep it in airplane mode since you have to pay a decent amount to charge devices and I'd rather not - especially since sometimes there is no power at all like tonight. 

Apparently they lost power three days ago. No reading for me! My nook is dead. It's funny the things you assume you will have each night - like an outlet. There have been two nights of ten so far where the rooms have an outlet. Some don't even have a light bulb.
Today I had thoughts of my friends and family and my kitties and my garden and house - for the first time in who knows how many days.  It's amazing how entrenched I have become in trekking. I have no idea what day it is or even really who I am.  Every day is reduced to a number of steps and a breathing rhythm. I have three different rhythms depending on how steep the trail is. And with the steps comes counting. One two three one two three. If I am not completely focused I'll definitely fall, these trails are covered in loose rock and gravel and sand and dust. Or more importantly I'll miss a breath and struggle for oxygen for the next 30 seconds which is hard to come by at high altitude, while climbing.  It's a more intense meditation than I've ever experienced before. No room for the mind to wander, or any entertaining of outside inquiries. 

Interestingly, I quickly moved from "oh no, how many more steps up??" to not seeing a set of steps as an entity that needed to be completed, but just part of the path to the next place. Steps up were not going to ever really be completed, because there are always more. So, instead of trying to see when I would be done or how many more, or what was around the corner, I stopped looking. I would look 10-20 feet ahead so I didn't fall off the mountain and could pace myself for the present conditions, but I stopped trying to see what torture awaited me and just went. It's amazing how much easier it is without your mind getting all freaked out or overwhelmed or depressed at the down when you just worked so hard getting up. I was thinking it would be nice to be able to work more like that, or live more like that, but that is going to be much, much more difficult. I hear people talking about living in the moment. I'm not sure how it's done with deadlines and meetings and appointments and too much to do with too little time to do it in. Maybe I'll practice in my months of sabbatical and see what I can bring with me back to the working world.

And then, eventually, the six or seven hours of climbing and descending is done and I am back in another "hotel" assessing the level of discomfort I'll be experiencing for the night before I dive back into game of thrones.
Things to consider:
  • Is it REALLY fucking cold outside? Almost every night. Guess what? No heat. Anywhere. Each hotel has a wood burning stove in the dining area and that's it. 
  • Is there any mortar between the stones of the building? Not usually. Though the ugliest, always stay in a plastered or stuccoed building if there is one. Tonight is the first out of ten nights - living large! 
  • Can I visibly see the gaps from the room to the outside? Typically yes - with stones and no mortar of any sort every gap between each rock is a direct connection between the inside of your room and the outside. Often they hang sheets to give privacy between rooms since the gaps are so big between the boards. Tonight I fashioned a latch extension from a water bottle cap so my door would close. 
  • Is the squat toilet inside or in a separate building outside? How far must I go in the middle of the night? Important Note! If the room is too close to the squat toilet then I will hear the door banging all night and the room will smell of raw sewage. The room may smell of raw sewage anyway I found out.
  • Electrical outlet? Ha!
  • "Mattress" quality: the foam ranges from one to two inches thick and is in varying states of decomposition.  On a good night there's still a little give and my spine can't feel the wood planks directly.
One night in the second coldest place (about 25 degrees inside) my room was full of stove smoke for the entire night because of how the draft came through from the house next door. I awoke with frozen black lungs. Another night my "bed" platform was somehow attached to a ladder in the room next door that all of the porters and guides used to get up/downstairs so at 5am it felt like someone was hitting my bed with a sledge hammer for an entire hour.

I will say your standards sink woefully low pretty much immediately. One room I was in had hooks! Some places have some sort of shower, a pipe trickling water is pretty exciting and somewhat rare.  Some only offer a bucket they will fill with hot water but I assure you in sub freezing temps, no outdoor bucket shower is happening

Generally I have been freezing. Because of the extreme exertion I am pretty much drenched in sweat as soon as we climb the first 500 feet which is almost always within the first 30 minutes and then around 10am the wind kicks up and i freeze in my wet clothes. If I were a smarter person I would have brought more than one shirt. Sadly, I am not.

All this to say that there is a large amount of discomfort which in no way comes close to negating the INCREDIBLE scenery here. The mountain views are more beautiful in person than you could imagine, and the alpine forests... dense with bamboo and rhododendron trees and pines, all of which are gnarled with thick moss growing on their trunks. Definitely some of the most beautiful forests I have ever seen. It's really important to actually look up because you get so focused on looking at the massive stone steps you are going up or down that sometimes you can forget where you are. I of course have to remember to stop walking when I do look up, a lesson I have had to relearn more than once.

I do sometimes want to throttle the trekking company owner who mislead me left, right and center about this trek: the level of difficulty, the temperatures... easily twenty degrees colder than he told me. But it's been an amazing experience and I am really happy I have another three days before the crush of email and internet and communications will bear down on me. 


I've been waking up at 5.30 every morning.  Not willingly, but by the time I put on my hiking boots (since I so brilliantly and intentionally left my flip flops in Kathmandu), get myself out of the room which often involves extreme strength to undo the latch, and walk to wherever the squat toilet is, I can't easily fall back to sleep. If you know me well, you are probably wondering what happened to Sara right about now. You'll be even more surprised to see my bed time.

"Wake up" at 6 when my alarm goes off, snooze until 6.10, quickly dress and pack up my bag. 
Breakfast at 6.30, on the trail by 7. 

Sometimes tea around 9, sometimes not. 

Lunch anywhere from 10.45 to noon - always Dal Bhat, which is rice, lentil soup, a curry and often a green.  

Arrive at destination between 1 and 4. 

Unpack the few items in my duffel bag, take out sleeping bag and fluff. 
Grab nook and read game of thrones and nap. 

Put in dinner order around 5, eat at 6:30.
In bed reading at 7:30.
Asleep by 8:30.

Wake up often, lamenting how cold it is and how I have to pee and how far the squat toilet is.
Shower every other day,  laundry every 5 days.  


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What a difference a day makes

Alternate title: one step at a time.  

There were times yesterday morning, the first day, that I thought I wouldn't make it. I couldn't imagine how my exhausted legs would carry me any further let alone up thousands of feet which are mostly steps. But after lunch it got progressively easier and today was great!

The walking view for the day
Firstly,  we could see the Himalayan peaks for nearly the entire six hours of walking, which is so inspiring.  Langtang is gorgeous!! Secondly,  I finally got to a place where I felt like even though I was climbing at a turtle's pace, I didn't need to stop and I could go on at that pace indefinitely. Instead of seeing the next steep uphill that seemingly goes on forever and praying there wouldn't be another immediately following, it's just one step at a time and before you know it, you're up! Also, we saw a one day old yak. I did subsequently see a goat being birthed on the last day, but that's not such a photogenic occurrence.

Baby Yak!
You may notice my grammar getting a little less precise and my sentences shorter.  Maybe even lacking prepositions? The more I get immersed in trying to communicate with someone who has limited English skills, the worse my own language gets. 13 days from now? I may have only a five word vocabulary. Slowly, slowly (note: combined those are one word), up, up (also one word),  down, maybe and 10 minutes. Because as it happens, somehow, everything seems to be quoted at 10 minutes. I finally had to tell my guide that he had to be honest with me about the timing. He said, "but for some people..." - I said yes, but for this person you know now how slowly I walk, so tell me based on ME. And he agreed, and for the most part he complied. Except for the last long day. He was afraid I would be unhappy with the washed out, run-out slot canyon we had to climb so he didn't tell me about it. I was *pissed*. After 6 hours of hard climbing and descent already? You need to know about a slot canyon that's 80+ degrees and dead still. Breezes don't descend down in the walls. Only garbage. The mountain people apparently don't like that they are meant to take care of their own trash (this according to my guide), so they throw it wherever, which tends to be on or near the trails. At that point of the trek I had been walking in a general grouping with 5 other guys for about four days and they all agreed it was the worst once I reconnected with them at the "hotel" for the night. A swiss guy Alan and a San Francisco guy (the only I met from the US actually and ironically the one whose name I couldn't remember), a french guy Max, a french guy Vincent and a guy from Mauritius, James. 

A word on the accommodations: rustic.  That probably makes them sound more glamorous than they actually are. The word tea house evokes some sort of far east romance and mystery... for me at least.  Not one communal squat toilet outside in a separate shack with rooms that don't even have full walls or windows. Or electricity.  Did I mention it gets cold at night here and is super windy? They are all named Lovely Teahouse or Peaceful Teahouse. Or some combination of Lovely, Peaceful, Namaste and Moon.  So tonight's accommodation has the communal squat toilet inside! I feel like I am living in the lap of luxury here.  Seriously.  And the electricity turns on at 5! No outlets but for a very expensive fee they will charge one device for you. The nook? Not sure it was the best idea. It only lasted one night. Game of thrones reading  withdrawal commencing...


That was what I was naming this post in my head for the morning portion of Day1 of trekking.  Where you wonder what in the world you were thinking and also why you would once again believe what someone from a "yes" country says. That's what I call the countries where it is impolite to ever say no or something bad even if the answer is actually no.  Or bad. Because as far as I am concerned,  4000 vertical feet gained on day 1? Frickin torture. That doesn't even scratch the surface of the feet we wet down. For the first number of hours all climbs had an equivalent down. It made me want to cry. 
The very start - looks innocent enough. Our first destination is the mountains in the upper right.

The guy from the trekking company who provided me the guide and itinerary? I believe he said something like "you do not need to be an athlete to trek here. All you need is an open heart and desire for " some bullshit or another. Are you kidding me? I completed a half marathon four weeks ago and thought I might actually not be able to complete trekking Day 1 on more than one occasion.

Now mind you, I have gotten a bit out of shape. I trained for a half marathon right before I left but haven't since exercised once except for yoga and in fact anti exercised in Bhutan where I was prior to Nepal.  (Flashback to Bhutan for a moment or two) Two weeks in a bus every day,  most of the day. This is what photography tours consist of.  Our photo group did one hike and I had a sinus infection so only did about a third of it.  Have you ever eaten EVERY SINGLE meal three times a day for nearly two weeks at a buffet? I now have! Cross that off the bucket list. Not only that but the Bhutanese are a strong and very hard-working people,  so they need a lot of fat and carbs to keep going. Understandable.  Tourists on a bus all day? Do not need buffet food high in white carbs drenched in oil as it turns out.  Perhaps my new bus butt will come in handy as a caloric reserve for this trek? 
The first village - maybe 15 minutes in.

However, once I got my breathing pattern ironed out after only about four hours, which originated from some fantastic advice Atlanta gave me about running (you need to take in more oxygen than you exhale), the afternoon was not nearly as bad as the morning.  I just had my guide chhabi's voice in my head - slowly, slowy. And we trudged on. 

Kids in the first village - and last we would see until the end.
Unfortunately we were not alone and in fact there were some huge groups ahead of us and coming back down from the later days of the trek (this first part is an out and back) so the place we were supposed to stay had no beds.  And the place a little lower didn't either.  And the last hope place said they didn't but asked a very nice German woman Monica, likely my age, if she would share with me and she did.  And so I didn't have to sleep out back in some ratty broken tent or on the dining room floor. On the way up I had thought to myself I will literally sleep anywhere tonight.  Turns out I did not exactly mean that!

Funny thing was people who arrived after me got rooms.  I thought they didn't have any? Well what they meant was I have no room for you, but if you are three people,  I have a room for you. My guide only after the fact explained that because I am only one person,  they don't want to give me a room if they can get three people into it.  Assuming I can trust chhabi's promise, this will be the only night for room contention. The other areas have many more places to stay. Let's hope!! (editor's note: that
was not the only night this was an issue)

Monday, April 28, 2014

Bhutan: retrospectively

I had no desire to write anything when I was in Bhutan.  Photography tours tend to do that - at least that was my experience with Patagonia as well. If you have a spare minute, which you rarely do, you want to edit more photos.

What did I think of Bhutan? Firstly,  It is sparsely populated.  There are more people in Kathmandu than in the entire country of Bhutan (pop: 700K) by a factor of three.  Secondly, there is one road that goes across it east to west, and aside from the far south that borders India, it is extremely mountainous.  Read: hair-pin-turn-sheer-drops-always-under-construction-landslides road. The scenery is beautiful, but pretty homogenous. Magnolias, rhododendrons, and beautiful orange ferns growing on old gnarled trees. But days and days and days of this.

For photography it's a wonderful place as there is no shortage of dzongs (the monastery and temple combinations) 

and ornate doorways for monks to walk through.  

Beautiful doorway. Monk.
Did I mention the prayer flags and stupas? 
Prayer Flags
Incredible amounts of both. And the baby stupas!! I like to speak in my baby voice when I speak of them as Arjen can attest to because they are so damn cute. Only an inch or two tall.

Baby Stupas!
But Bhutan really reminded me a lot of Mongolia - the opposite in terms of topography - steep high mountains versus open steppe,  But the kind of place that time really hasn't caught up with yet.  Lots of seemingly unending undeveloped open spaces, not a ton to see, but a vastness to be experienced. If their high fees and limited visas continue, which it seems they will, then I suspect it will remain like this for some time to come. Fishing is illegal, rock climbing is illegal, other things I have forgotten.

Some interesting tidbits: hydro electric power is their main export and it goes entirely to India. India gives Bhutan large subsidies to keep it that way and to keep China out. We would be told how a whole town had burned down - three times no less. When I asked where the money came from to rebuild it, the answer was the government - from Indian subsidies. Also of interest, the laborers are all Indian as well. There's a two year road building program that brings over Indian workers because they can make more money there, and apparently Bhutanese don't know how to build roads. ?Interestingly I also just learned that all of the hydro electric power from Nepal is also sold to India - and then India sells it back to Nepal at a 3 rupee mark-up! This is why Nepal has such a shortage of power and it is off for 10 hours each day in Kathmandu.

I'm going to have to say the quality of construction is poor. Not of the local farmhouses, those seem very well made, but of the the tourist accommodations. The buildings are fine-ish, but I can attest first hand to the lack of skilled labor - specifically plumbing and electrical.  Open wiring with uncovered splices for the fans inside more showers than I can count. Inside the shower! Where water is spraying on them! One night I went to turn off the bathroom light and got a massive shock. Another time I unplugged the phone and then plugged it back in, but it wouldn't stop making a ringing noise so I picked up the receiver and sparks flew out of the side and it started burning! That was hysterical. I'm still laughing about it remembering it now. That was the same room whose hot water heater didn't work and had wires coming out of the end of it and they told us we just needed to wait a little longer. Another time in a "high end" brand new hotel I thought the bathroom smelled terrible so I asked Arjen and he confirmed it was raw sewage. We asked for another room but instead they said they fixed it... which was clearly not possible without venting the main stack and resealing the toilet. Needless to say we went back in to a strong stench of ammonia which 15 minutes later was back to raw sewage. So we moved rooms. You can see why the rest of the group thought we had very bad luck with rooms. We did.

The local bus

So yesterday I took the local bus from Kathmandu to a town whose name I can't remember which is the starting place for the Langtang trek I am now on.  The bus was not as large as a regular commercial bus and on the back it had painted "express". 

First of all,  it was completely rusted out and totally falling apart. Had I known how many people would cram on it, I might have been more concerned. The bus had seats for approximately thirty people.  Small people.  The seats were bench seats like a school bus but seemed to be made of cement.  It wasn't more than two minutes before my tail bone was crying.  Did I mention the trip took 10 hours? 

It turns out that for locals they can come on the bus for free and stand in the aisle.  The aisle which was approximately 2 feet wide and 8 feet long (this is not a full-sized bus, if it were it couldn't get over the mountain roads).  There were no less than 30 people at any given time in the aisle.  They were draped over the seats as well and sitting on top of seated passengers.  My guide got two small children on his lap for half of the trip.  
Note the person outside as the bus is driving.
The fascinating part was that even though there's a law that no one can sit on the luggage on top of the bus,  as soon as we got out of the city people poured out to climb on top.  Whenever we came to a security checkpoint they had to either cram inside which was already a sardine can,  or walk around the checkpoint when it was possible and meet us further along. The bus had about 90 people on it.Some of whom were just hanging off of the side of it while the bus barreled along at moderate speeds.

Did I mention the woman in the seat directly in front of me was throwing up out of our shared window for about 8 of the 10  hours? She kept trying to eat at each stop and i knew I'd see it flying by my seat 30 minutes later.  Sure enough! 
Just hanging on to the side. The woman in front of me had taken a break from vomiting so I could take a picture.

Or that the reason it took two hours longer than expected it's because we got not one but two flat tires? And these tires are bigger than tractor tires.  At least three feet in diameter. 

And as goes without saying the road was very twisty and very rutted with a sheer drop thousands of feet on one side.  Like bhutan! At one part where they had earthquakes a few months back and had a massive landslide the road was barely wide enough for the bus and was seriously banked.  I was half expecting to see some of our fellow top side travelers falling past the window.  Luckily we all made it safely! And next time I am taking the tourist bus. 
Yes, this is the road.