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.