Thursday, April 29, 2010

Thailand Part IV: Diving

Friends (written yesterday)

Pics are up!

I've also uploaded a bunch of videos as well from the entire trip:

So I made it back to the States, and right now I am curled up on the sofa at my friend Jessica's house in Berkeley as she is trying to get her 9 month old baby down for a nap. I'm trying hard to tell my body that its not the middle of the night, so finishing off my blog before I head to the airport for my flight to Seattle made a lot of sense.

So I left you on the afternoon in Phuket when I was on cloud nine because not only had I found a liveaboard boat to go diving on, but Mark was able to come with me too! After giddily packing and storing my larger bag, I raced back to the dive shop in time for our transfer north to meet the boat. I met Mark there, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief...I didn't want to let myself believe that he was going to come along until I actually saw him there. He was grinning from ear to ear, as was I, we were both just dumbfounded by the number of things that had to line up in order for this to happen. Plus, we'd both gotten such a good last-minute price that we felt almost guilty, especially since we were essentially kicking one of the dive guides out of his cabin. I was especially glad for Mark to get to see the Similan Islands before the season ended, but also just for him to experience some fun diving after having dived for "work" so much lately.

The drive was a good couple of hours and Mark and I talked and kissed like honeymooners. Some of the new group asked him how we knew each other, and after he mentioned we'd only met a few days ago, they looked at us incredulously. I really admire Mark's directness, he is direct the way I am direct. I think that's what immediately attracted me to him, especially when you consider his approach that day on the beach. He is also wickedly funny, and great to talk to. In the evenings on the boat, we'd often just lie on the bed listening to Mark's music and tell each other stories...he'd have me in stitches. We both share the notion of a "traditional" life being extremely overrated- I really admire his ability to set his mind to wanting to do something (like learn to dive and go straight to a divemaster qualification during four months in Thailand) that others would scoff at, and just go do it. I am very similar and I think subsequently we understood one another.

The boat itself was quite sizable- 3 decks and about 7 separate living cabins. The first deck housed living areas, kitchen, and dive equipment. Below deck was more cabins and then the second deck had a dining/living area, captain's area, and our cabin. We got really lucky- every other cabin you simply walked inside and you were immediately met by 2 bunk beds. Our cabin was far more spacious and housed a double bed. We jumped on it like children when we first walked in. The upper deck was a large sunning deck.

I was going to have a really good time. I kept thinking about the SNL skit "I'm on a boat" and smiling.

That evening we set sail after a really good dinner where we chatted with and got to know the other divers- from 13 different countries in total. We were warned that the crossing to the Similans might be a little rough, so I took some seasickness pills.

They weren't kidding, after a few hours the boat was rocking so hard that I had to lie down, and was eventually able to sleep.

The trip consisted of 3 full days at sea where we completed 4 dives a day. On the last morning we'd do 2 dives before heading back to Phuket. I've never done more than 2 dives in one day, so I had some trepidations at how I might react or feel at the end of that many dives. Not that there wasn't enough surface intervals to have much risk of decompression sickness, but still, I was wondering whether it would take it out of me.

Well, we soon fell into a rhythm with the schedule. Which I'm sure you'll all agree was extremely stressful. Wake up around 7:30am for coffee and a dive briefing. First dive then a delicious breakfast like banana pancakes and scrambled eggs. Then an hour to sunbathe, read, or nap and our second morning dive followed by an enormous lunch. Follow that with a delicious nap and our third dive of the day. Then the highlight (of my day) was afternoon tea and CAKE followed by either a sunset dive at 5pm or a night dive at 7pm. Then dinner and an evening to socialize, read, chill to music, or sleep.

Sounds difficult, no? It was.....;-)

I certainly didn't get bored with the dives themselves. In fact, the more I dove (is it dove or dived?) the more I wanted to dive. It had a cumulative effect on me. And I LOVED diving with Mark. Besides the coral being superb, fish being colorful and the water crystal clear, a dive can be often dictated by your dive buddy. Many of the other divers on the trip were photographers and/or the kind of divers who will patiently wait in a line 6 or 7 divers long to get a quick look at a tiny seahorse. Mark and I are both not like that. We like to explore, really swim, and not linger anywhere for too long. I really appreciated that about having him as a partner underwater. Our styles meshed. Also, since he was practically a divemaster, we were given permission to separate from the group and do our own thing. Which usually had us separating from the other divers from the very descent and discovering that we'd covered quite some ground by the time our 50 min/ 50 bar limit was reached. We would often surface and think "Where is the boat?" and it inevitably had to come quite a way to pick us up!

I really love that feeling that I first get in the pit of my stomach as I look at my buddy after we've first jumped in the water and acknowledge that all is OK and I'm ready to descend. Its such a magical feeling - to know that you're leaving the world as we know it, and are about to enter the whole other world of this planet's water. I especially enjoy it right at that moment when the water passes over the level of your mask and you first have to clear your ears to equalize. Then you know its game on. I had to be careful to descend slowly, my ears did present some trouble to me over the course of the five days...I think I was still very congested after my Khumbu cough. And Mark would always float down head first, kicking his way to greater depths where I preferred to just float down nice and easy with my feet first.

I thought about Jennifer a lot on the first few dives. Then I became a lot more confident until not even the night dive unnerved me.

We saw some incredible sea life. We saw moray eels, manta rays, leopard sharks, octopus, as well as a huge variety of fish and coral. My favorite moment was on a dive where Mark and I had typically swam away from the group. We were observing an octopus that had settled on the sea floor and were waiting for it to move again. We were shoulder to shoulder when Mark looked up for a second and then grabbed me fiercely and turned me around to look out towards the "big blue beyond". In that moment a huge manta ray swam up and over our heads, so close it took my breath away (well, not literally because its really bad to not breathe continually underwater). I think I said "Jesus F$#^&ing Christ" into my regulator. We were super excited and couldn't help but gloat about it afterwards on the boat, much to the chagrin of the other divers who hadn't seen it. Some even suggested that perhaps we were mistaken, and since neither of us had a camera, maybe we were making it up? Whatever! They were just jealous.

The night dive was really fun- and it was Mark's first. Once it was really dark out and we were relying entirely on our flashlights to see underwater, I was mesmerized by the color of the water as the light from the bottom of the boat shone down into the blue underneath. It reminded me a little of diving in the cenotes of Mexico, with different shades of sapphire. So utterly beautiful.

So after four days of diving, I still really hadn't had enough. It was a little exhausting- by the time dinner was served each night I was pretty pooped and I slept pretty well. I was, however, ready to get back to some air-conditioning. We were both so tired of dripping with sweat 24/7. It wears after a while. I missed the last dive on day 4 as I wanted to have a full 24 hour window left before my flight to Bangkok in the morning. On the night of the 3rd day, the crew informed us that the compressors had broken and so we'd be pulling into a port for the evening. We were all happy for the chance to get on dry land and walked around for a few hours, getting ice cream at the 7-Eleven. Some members of the group had a little too much rum and were hard pressed to get back in the water in the morning...

The following day we returned to Phuket pretty early, around 3:30pm. Mark and I said a quick farewell while I went back to my hotel to collect my bags, but it turned out that Mark's sister was back in town and he spent the evening with her. Sadly, I didn't getting the chance to say goodbye, but I have a feeling that I'll see him again someday.

I was super wiped out by the time I got back to my room. I was supposed to meet up with Allison, my friend from Cali and Semester at Sea that evening. So I showered and packed for tomorrow then waited to hear from her via Facebook... Not hearing from her, I headed out to do some last minute shopping and ended up grabbing a movie for some delightful air-conditioning. Someone who I didn't recognize had written on my wall that evening, and it wasn't until around 10pm that night that I realized it was Allison's friend giving me info on when and how to meet up with them. Was sad about that, but by 10 I was absolutely spent and crashed out pretty hard.

The next morning, I grabbed a cab about 8:30 am to the airport and began my long journey home. I had a four hour layover in Bangkok and a five hour layover in Hong Kong. I finished my book on Buddhism and began reading "Then they killed my father" - a memoir about the Cambodian genocide of the 70's...not exactly cheerful reading, but gripping nonetheless. Long journeys always make me feel a bit lonely and this was no exception, plus I was missing Mark. Soon, I knew, I'd be in a "different world" in all senses of the world.

And so I am.

I will try to write an epilogue of sorts when I get back home tomorrow. In the meantime, I hope you've enjoyed reading my stories as much as I've enjoyed writing them!

Much love,


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thailand Part III: Beaches

I'm sitting at the airport in Bangkok (God do I know this airport well by now!) and with some free time before my flights Stateside, I think I'll take the opportunity to write about my last week in Thailand before I get home and "normality" sets in and the memories are not as fresh.

I've had an incredible end to my nearly two month sojourn. When I was trekking in the Himalayas, I couldn't imagine being back in the heat of Thailand, but that fact hit me all too abruptly when I flew all the way from Lukla to Phuket in one day... I left you last in my hotel room in Phuket town (strangely, my guidebook recommended making the city center a "base" - an idea which is very flawed indeed). After a long needed sleep, I checked out of my room, stored my bags and set out into Phuket Town with the idea of finding a dive shop to discuss liveaboard options to the Similan Islands.

Unfortunately, Phuket town is not exactly a tourist hub, and it took me a frustrating hour just to find someone to do my laundry! After walking for what seemed like hours, I found a small travel agency who explained to me that I might find what I'm looking for with Similan Pro Dive, but that there office was far away. He offered to take me there in his car, which was extremely kind of him. So, off I set and happily chatted with the dive staff at their shop. Not wanting to commit to their 2 night/3 day trip right away without shopping a little, I accepted their kind offer to drop me off at the bus stop to catch a public bus to Patong Beach, where many more dive shops were located. After a quick bite to eat, I found myself in Patong and quickly realized that this was the main tourist hub of Phuket!

After chatting with several dive shops, I settled on an incredible 4 night/5 day liveaboard with Eden Divers for the insanely good price of 14,000 baht including 16 dives and equipment! It didn't leave for another two days, so I decided to go to Ko Phi Phi in the morning for one night and then return in time to catch the boat heading to the Similan Island, Ko Ban, and Richelieu Rock. I was so excited.

Having met a couple of Brits on the main beach in Patong who recommended a small new hotel that was cheap in Patong, that evening was spent grabbing a cab to and from Phuket Town to grab my bags and laundry, before checking in to my new digs and packing an overnight bag. I also squeezed in another heavenly Thai massage.

The next morning a minibus picked me up and transferred me to the ferry dock for the 90 minute crossing to the exquisitely beautiful Phi Phi Island. The water was emerald and the beaches blindingly white. I was excited to arrange a longboat to take me over to Phi Phi Lei in the early morning as I'd heard that the boat trips during the day took you to this famous beach (from the movie "The Beach" with Leonardo Di Caprio) did so along with hundreds of other tourists, which would spoil the ambiance for me, I think. After spending a few minutes wandering around the little town looking for a place to stay, I happened across a sign advertising a camping trip where you got to stay on Maya Beach (The Beach) overnight in a small group and wake up to the sunrise there! I was absolutely sold and giddily excited when I met up with the group of us lucky enough to have figured this out around 3 in the afternoon.

We had a wonderful crew of people, there was about 13 of us altogether, and the evening turned out to be one of the most memorable on my trip. And this had a lot to do with a certain someone that I met there: Mark. Mark, is a devastatingly gorgeous and fun-loving, 36 yr-old adventurous American/Aussie from Aspen, Co., who had been in Phuket for the last few months completing his DiveMaster training and was going to Ko Phi Phi with his sister and her three girlfriends. We immediately hit it off. In fact, during the first half hour or so that we were on Maya Bay, frantically taking photographs of one another, Mark asked to have a picture taken with me. A little surprised at this stranger's enthusiasm, I agreed, only to be further shocked when he looked at me and said "Why don't we just kiss now and get it over with, as we both know its going to happen sooner or later tonight?"

I relented ;-)

And so began my lovely week-long romance in the stunningly romantic setting of the Islands of Thailand's Andaman coast.

On arrival in the bay, some of us opted to "swim" to shore which was MUCH farther than it first appeared. It ended up being about a 20 minute swim in a strong current, but it didn't matter. That evening was spectacular: to be able to watch all the throngs of tourists leave, having that idyllic setting just for our little group, to be able to watch the sunset, eat dinner, share some drinks, dancing, and fun...and then find a little spot on the sand to sleep - it was amazing. And being able to share that with someone new simply added to the experience.

It was a little difficult getting to sleep that night- no matter what you were still covered in sand, and sand is actually harder than you'd think to sleep on. But we were rewarded with the incredible bioluminescence washing up on shore during the night, and then a chance to watch the surrounded hills and formations begin to blush pink in the approaching sunlight in the morning.

The following day Mark and I explored the other side of the island just after breakfast. As we were leaving, we happened upon a blue sea snake that was amazingly out of the water and slithering along the rocks right where we walked. We happily snapped photos.

All too soon it was time to take the longboat back to the larger boat to Phi Phi Don, unfortunately, the staff had forgotten my overnight backpack and I had to kayak, frantically, back to shore and then back to the boat to retrieve it in time.

Back on Phi Phi Don, I wandered the narrow streets checking out the island and its many beaches. It was such a hot afternoon that soon all Mark and I could do is sit at a bar and order cold drinks to stave away the heat. I opted to finish writing up my Nepal experience, and then met up with Mark in the delicious cold air con cabin of the boat back to Phuket where we laughed and shared life stories over fruit smoothies.

I was almost starting to regret my decision to take the 4 day is just so rare to connect with someone the way Mark and I were, AND while on vaction! However, his sister was planning on doing her PADI Open Water course over the next four days, so Mark had to be there for that.

On getting back to my hotel, I gathered my bags and went over to the Dive shop. Horror. The owner told me that one of the generators on the boat had blown and that the trip was cancelled. Worse than that, the only other liveaboard boat going to the same destinations with another company was full and wouldn't accept any more customers!

I was so terribly disappointed, and walked over to Mark's hotel to tell him the news. At least we'd get to spend more time after dinner, Mark took me on a tour of Patong on the back of his moped and I whooped for joy, especially when he rode really fast. I was having a great time, and I was sure I'd sort something else out to do the next day.

Well, I sure did!!!!!!!!!! The following day I puttered around the resort, did some shopping and checked email. The dive shop was supposed to be looking into other dive trips for me, more than likely a bunch of day trips together. I assumed that Mark was out diving with his sister. Walking by "West Coast Divers" I decided to go inside and just try ONE MORE TIME to see if they'd had a cancellation for their trip that was leaving that night.

I happened upon the owner of the company and she agreed to let me go, because she was going to give me one of the staff cabins on the boat! I was so excited, but wanted to tell Mark that I wouldn't get to see him again before I left for the States. Since West Coast is where Mark is doing his Dive Master course, I mentioned him to the owner in passing conversation, and she says "Oh, poor Mark...his sister is sick and not doing Open Water anymore" - to which I responded, "Um, can I please use your cell phone?!"

I called Mark, who confirmed that his sister had changed her mind about the course, and then I told him that West Coast was letting me go on their liveaboard, and did he want to join me since there was space for him too??!! He couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. It seemed the stars had aligned for us to go together.

With only 2 hours to go before the transfer to the boat left Phuket, it was a mad dash about town to get laundry, and get packed. My hotel charged me for a half-night, but I didn't care: I felt like a 10 year old on Christmas Morning. I was going diving for 4 nights and 5 days....and I got to have my very own DiveMaster as a dive buddy!

Yay me!

Well, I'm out of time, so I will finish writing about my liveaboard trip till tomorrow.

Much love,

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nepal Part IV: Trek to Everest Base Camp

First of all, the photos are up!!! Here is the link:

I write to you from Paradise on Ko Phi Phi Island in the Andaman Sea of Thailand...quite the change of scenery from when I last wrote (indeed from 2 days ago!) It is so strange to be back here, and away from all the people I've been with everyday since March 30th...that I really must write about the finale and trek down from Everest Base Camp before that world becomes clouded over by beaches and emerald green waters.

I left you with my climb of Kala Pattar at 18,200 feet with Don, one of the climbers. Most of the other trekkers were tired and/or sick when we arrived at the tiny settlement of Gorak Shep (the highest partly-inhabited settlement in the world at just over 17,000 feet!), but for some reason, I was wired and ready for action, so since Don wanted to do another acclimatization hike, I decided to accompany him. This location reminded me of Moss Isley from the original first Star Wars movie. A band of Sand People and Jawas would not go amiss in this sandy landscape. As it was afternoon, we expected clouds to have gathered over Mt. Everest, obscuring our views...but I whooped like a kid on Christmas Day when 30 minutes into our climb, the clouds parted and unveiled Sagarmatha in all his majesty. We got some incredible shots from this trek, and I was so happy to share this with Don, whom I've developed quite an affection for. He is inspirational: at 65, he is the first total hip replacement recipient to attempt the summit of Everest. And I could not keep up with him on the way up, the man is seriously in good shape! Way to go "SB"!

On the top of my highest peak on the trek, we happily took a bunch of pictures as we sat on the very narrow ledge that was literally strewn with prayer flags and rock cairns. We had to be quite careful on the descent, sliding down on our butts :-)

The other reason that I climbed Kala Pattar this day instead of the day after Base Camp was that there was still a small chance that I might be allowed to stay the night there and then re-join the trekkers the following day. Joyce, Don's wife, was offered the opportunity as a way of spending more time together before his summit bid, and Joyce was happy to have some company for the descent the next day. Unfortunately, after some very confusing, complicated, and albeit frustrating miscommunication with Alpine, Joyce opted not to stay the night, and as such, I was not permitted to stay either. I was extremely disappointed and could think of little else to wipe the vexation from my heart the following day.

Looking back on it now, I feel different. I think that getting the opportunity to see Base Camp was incredible, but perhaps it was best that only climbers stayed and settled in together as a cohesive group. It would have been amazing, but I am thrilled that I didn't get so sick that I was not even able to trek the entire way, as many of the trekkers unfortunately had to turn around days before.

Incidentally, I am only now, finally, over my Khumbu cough and cold. I can't remember the last time I had such prolonged symptoms, but I am glad that I waited to go diving until tomorrow, as the amount of congestion I have been suffering with would have made it impossible to equalize pressure in my ears.

Don and I made it back just in time for dinner and then I literally collapsed into bed, and had a fitful, breathless sleep before our "big day".

It took 3 1/2 more hours of navigating sharp jagged rock and ice to get to base camp, and a little more to reach the space occupied by Alpine Ascents: a prime location directly at the foot of the Khumbu glacier. The sun that day was so bright, that even with glacier glasses, the glare was apparent because my camera often couldn't handle how bright the conditions were.

I'd been imagining what base camp would look like for years. For some reason I always imagined approaching it on the right, but in reality you approach from the left. There are hundreds of brightly colored tents that sit on laboriously constructed and flattened rock platforms. Yaks bring in loads but do not stay long enough to create more pollution. Toilets are made in tents, the seat sits over a canister, which is later literally carried out of camp: on the back of a porter!!!! The air is thin, but the atmosphere is heavy with palpable anticipation.

The Alpine Ascents camp was incredible- the meal tent was enormous and stocked with all kinds of goodies from the States: Peanut butter, jelly beans, maple syrup, chocolate...and for the afternoon- we were told to eat anything we wanted while the kitchen prepared us a lunch. The kitchen is fully stocked, in fact, the sheer volume of equipment, gear, hardware, oxygen canisters, tents, etc etc is staggering. Its hard to imagine all of it arriving on the back of Yaks.

After lunch we took a walk over to the mighty Khumbu Glacier- the most challenging and dangerous part of the climb, leading to Camp I, usually in about 9 hours of walking, unroped, over and up crevasses with the aid of stepladders. We sat and watched, for about an hour, a lone climber making his way down towards us through the ice, and it was really mind-boggling to imagine that there was genuinely a navigable way through this maze. It does not make for an attractive prospect, for me at least!

We bid goodbye to Don (who's tearful parting from Joyce moved me to tears, of course) and the Sherpas and made our way back down to Gorak Shep. My heart was heavy. And sad. Much of it inexplicable. Until we met up with our brave climbers once again as they themselves walked up to Base Camp from Lobuche...once again, there was an emotional exchange of good wishes and goodbyes as we passed the group one by one on the trail.

After another night at extreme altitude, we were all more than ready to DESCEND to a more comfortable amount of oxygen. The hypoxia was taking a toll on our strength and spirits. The following morning, however, I was able to rest while the group tackled Kala Pattar.

Around 11am, I got a surprise visit from Vern and Derek (who had been recovering from Bronchitis down in Pheriche) as they stopped for some Ra Noodle Soup on their way to Base Camp. I was so happy to see my friends again, and dosed up on big bear hugs from my lovely Vern. And on some songs, of course as Vern is never on the mountain without that guitar of his.

Thus started my rather melancholy descent. Not that the hike itself wasn't beautiful, in fact, I really never got the sense of "oh, we've been here before I wish it were new...." I was just in a different head space- I most definitely had connected more with the climbing group, and now our numbers had more than halved, AND would continue to shrink the following day in Dingboche when the Island Peak Climbers, 4 of them plus climbing sherpas including Suzanne, left us for their summit bid. I missed my friends and felt somewhat lonely. Its weird going from a group of 44 strong, to a group of 8 (eventually in Lukla we were down to 5 plus Pasang!!). And I'd be lying if I didn't say that a small part of me wished I was in Base camp training for the summit bid as well. Never thought I'd say that!

We doubled up the amount of ground covered on the way down as opposed to the way up. Our days were long but very methodical and by now I was in a predictable rhythm. Breakfast of porridge and eggs around 7am, walk till lunch, stop for lunch of soup, sherpa bread, potatoes and veggies with tea, then walk all afternoon usually stopping around 4 or 5pm. Then tea with popcorn followed by a "sponge" clean in my room as I set out my sleeping bag, changed into my fleece and went back to the teahouse common room to read before dinner. Then dinner, and usually bed around 8-9pm. Rinse and repeat.

We met up with two trekkers who'd had quite an ordeal with illness in Pheriche, and with most of the group still recovering from various maladies, we made for quite a slow walking bunch. The trail back to Namche Bazaar was so ridiculously long...a path carved into the hillside with bend after bend after bend after bend in the road! You were always convinced that the town would magically appear around the NEXT bend, and it didn't! I was so happy to get to the Panorama Lodge...and was moved to tears when I was told that I would be getting my own room that had a SHOWER! Trekking strips you down to your most basic a shower can be ridiculously good entertainment. I was ecstatic to both shower, and have the luxury of doing some laundry...just enough to get us to Lukla before getting to my other bag of clean clothes in Kathmandu.

Well. That plan all went to hell in a handbasket. We arrived in Lukla in the afternoon of the 15th of April, tired but happy to be back and ready to get our flight in the morning. Joyce, Doug and I had a celebratory cake and latte at the local cafe before we settled in for a yummy meal shared with heartier souls that night at the Namaste Lodge. Everyone was very excited about our mutual return to civilization, especially the victims of the Himalayan "plague".

So, it was with eager spirits that we breakfasted the next morning in preparation for being called over to the airport for our Twin Otter flight back to Kathmandu. Except that we weren't called until 11:30am, by which point the clouds were starting to hover thick in the sky and cast a gloomy grey over our hopes. After a couple hours at the airport which more closely resembled a nuclear silo, we piled into a coffee shop next door and ordered cheesecake and coffee to raise our spirits. I was overjoyed when Jen lent me a book (as I had finished all of mine already) "The Time Traveller's Wife" of about 650 pages. I was thinking at the time: it will be a shame to start and not finish this, but I can always get it stateside if I enjoy it?

I finished that book.

Our day 1 of waiting was ended when we were informed at about 4:30pm that our flight was cancelled due to bad weather. Disappointed and dirty, we trudged back to Namaste Lodge and awaited the plan for the next day. As with most scheduled flights, passengers arriving the next day with confirmed reservations would get the chance to get on planes before we did, despite the fact that they had not been delayed a day. You basically get put to the back of the line each day, and only get on a plane if somehow people don't show up for their scheduled times. So, we were happy when the owner of the guesthouse bought us new tickets for the "second wave" of flights for the next day (we were on the third on the 16th) as it meant we had just as much of a shot at the flights as those with tickets for the 17th. However, the second wave of flights didn't arrive from Kath the next day. We were screwed. And it was my birthday. Don, Joyce, and Juhie decided to fork out over $800 each for a privately chartered helicopter who's pilot was willing to fly in this weather. The rest of us bid them adieu and hunkered down for our 3rd night at the Namaste Lodge.

Pasang was very kind and had a cake baked for me for my birthday...which was very odd indeed. We spent the day waiting to get out on a flight, which meant that we really couldn't go for a hike or be gone for any significant period of time in case our plane was ready. I read all day, then after dinner and my cake (!!) I was horrified when the room clamored to watch English Premier Football League on TV. Yuck. I left and went for a walk back to the trail head and watched the gathering storm as lightning flashed across the night sky. I felt very lonely and sad. Happy 34 ;-(

The following morning we were awakened by Pasang at 5am with the news that Alpine Ascents had decided to send a helicopter for us. YAY!! And thank goodness that the 3 optionally paid for their own yesterday as there was only space for 5 on the chopper. Sadly, Pasang had to stay behind and wait for a flight. The helicopter eventually arrived around 9am and we were whisked into the air and to Kathmandu, flying in a very dramatic and very LOW altitude over the mountain passes (eek, I can see the hill that we're cresting!!) and through the gathering cloud and bad weather. It was an exhilarating experience, and I enjoyed the chopper a lot more than the planes.

Well. By the time we were picked up at the airport and transferred to the Yak and Yeti, my nerves were frayed, no, actually they were completely shot. When I learned that despite the fact that I didn't get to enjoy the luxuries of our Kath hotel for the previous two nights, that I would have to fork out over $100 to get a room that evening (none of my fellow trekkers were willing to share their rooms with me for half the price...ugh!) or find a new guesthouse for the night, I decided in that moment that I just needed to get the hell out of there. I was done. Finished. I wanted to get back to Thailand. It was a choice between more time in the Islands, or another morning in crowded, dirty, Kath. It was clear.

The only problem was that the whole time we were dealing with weather in Lukla, a similar issue was going down in Europe, but on a much grander scale. The volcano in Iceland. Flights were overbooked. And I didn't have a confirmed ticket until the 19th.

I decided to risk it and go standby.

I was not comforted by the ticket agents downcast face and repeated warnings of "very low possibility madam". I waited and waited, deciding to be ok no matter what. Miraculously, as about 13 of us gathered to here the standby announcements, I overheard someone saying "oh- he bumped me for number 8 on this list because HE was Star Alliance or some crap"...and I quickly piped up, arm waving, "I'm with Star Alliance Member Reward program!" "Where is your card, Madam?" "Oh, I never carry the card but the number is 13456673!!!"

Silence. Then "Ok, you get the third and final seat".

I couldn't believe it! I made the plane (just!) and on arriving in Bangkok, decided to axe the potential of dealing with the political tensions in the city by getting on the next flight to Phuket instead of taking an overnight bus. It was only $59. What the hell??

I was delirious by the time I landed in Phuket, at the height of a massive thunderstorm. I got a cab to town, found a semi decent guest house with air con and crashed out deliciously.

Well, I'll leave it there! I'm going diving tonight for four nights, so I will update you all when I get back! My trip is coming to an end, but I am determined to stay "present" and enjoy each moment as it comes.

Much love,


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Nepal Part III: Trek to Everest Base Camp

So we have finally arrived back in Lukla on our 15th day of trekking!
It has been an incredible journey and one that I will not quickly

I last left you on the afternoon that we arrived in Tengboche to visit
the monastery there, having detoured to stuff our faces with delicious
apple pie and real espresso at the bakery. Afterwards we went to the
visitor's centre and watched a short documentary on the history and
purpose of the monastery, followed by the opportunity to witness the
monks chanting. It was a mesmerizing experience, in fact, listening
to the methodically and rhythmic words put me into a meditative and
very relaxed state, such that when it was time to depart- I had to be
knocked back to reality.

Descending from the monastery through a lovely birch forest, we came
upon our accommodation for our sixth night on the trail: The Rivendell
Lodge (which was named after the home of the elves in Lord of the
Rings- very exciting for a LOTR geek fan like me). It was in a
beautiful setting with views extending over Everest and Ama Dablam.
That evening was especially memorable for me as Vern and I were joined
by a wonderful guitarist named Ryan, who was a climbing member of
another expedition sharing the lodge that evening. After dinner, we
sat playing and singing tunes until about 10pm (which is in fact quite
late to be up on this trip, we've typically been going to bed around
8pm, so its not as lame as it sounds!) for a rapt audience of mostly
sherpas who clapped and sang along. I even got the chance to try out
"I've Got You Under My Skin" in an a capella style with clapping for
percussive background. Lots of fun.

The following day brought me my most memorable experience of the trek.
I had the incredible opportunity to witness the climbers receivng a
"Phuja" ceremony, where they are blessed by Lama Geishy to climb
Sagarmatha (Everest). A Lama is a Buddhist teacher, a holy man, who
is believed by the people to be a reincarnation of a Buddha. I
watched, entranced, as the Lama chanted, beat a drum rhythmically, and
then one by one, blessed each member of the climbing expedition with
prayer shawl and red corded necklace. After we were each given a
handful of rice which we threw in the air for good luck. It may sound
corny, but it was an extremely emotional experience and it had me in
tears very quickly.

Once the climbers left, the few trekkers who'd come the hard way up
the mountain to see the Lama were lucky enough to receive our own
Phuja. It was something that I will not soon forget.

We spent the next two nights in Pheriche (approx 14,000 feet)- the
following day being somewhat of an acclimatization/rest day. By this
point, a number of us had succumbed to hypoxia related conditions:
Harris had been flown by helicopter back to Kathmandu for a GI virus,
and now about four others were sick with GI/AMS symptoms. The degree
to which we were all at risk of getting so ill that we couldn't
continue trekking, was not something I had given a great deal of
consideration to. As it turned out, one of the climbers, and six of
the trekkers got seriously ill on the trip at some point, and four had
to turn around before getting to base camp! In Pheriche, I came down
with a cold, but nothing more serious than a slight temperature and a
hacking cough (which still...eight days later has not gone away).
From what I can tell, the trouble is caused by a combination of
factors: 1 - altitude. Lack of oxygen (hypoxia) causes a weakening of
the body's immune system making it more difficult to ward off bugs in
the first place, and harder to battle them once they are contracted 2
- melting pot of people from everywhere all crammed into teahouses
which become petri dishes for germs 3 - huge amounts of dust on the
trail get into your lungs and cause respiratory problems 4- Yak dung
and trash is burned and get into the atmosphere, and therefore, into
your lungs. Yuck.

Despite being quite ill, I still managed to sing to an even larger
crowd that night in the beautiful pine, large common room at the
Himalayan Hotel, which got so hot from the 50 or so bodies in there
that it seemed ridiculous to be dressed up in warm hiking gear.

After hacking all night, I was separated from my roomate and given my
own room to recover in the next day - score! I had a lovely hot
shower, napped, read, and tried to regain strength for the next
day...and more elevation gain. The sunsets at Pheriche were
astounding...lots of pink skies providing a dramatic backdrop to the
towering peaks all around us.

The next day was to be the last that the trekkers were walking
together with the climbers, and having gotten quite attached to the
latter group, I was not looking forward to saying goodbye. After a
morning visit to an Italian Atmospheric research station, I joined the
climbers for the afternoon steep slog up to the settlement of Lobuche
at just over 15,500 feet. I was definitely beginning to feel the
altitude, but pressure breathing seemed to help a lot. This was the
first night that I woke up in the night kind of gasping for air, and I
succumbed to taking half a tablet of Diamox...falling right back to
sleep. Lobuche was a tiny village...the facilities were becoming more
basic the higher we climbed. On the way, we stopped at a memorial
site to climbers that had perished on Everest. It was a sombre
location, covered in epitats and colorful Tibetan Prayer flags. I
found the memorial to Scott Fischer from the 1996 disaster.

That day the landscape really became more grand and awe-inspiring, now
we were walking alongside the towering giants like Nuptse. I snapped
a LOT of photos...can't wait to share them!

Arriving at the teahouse with the climbers, I was dismayed to learn
that our two groups would be in separate accommodation that evening.
However, after taking some tea and preparing to leave, Lakpa Rita came
over and invited me to sleep in Jan's room that night, and enjoy my
last evening dinner with the climbers. I was overjoyed and had a
thoroughly memorable evening talking, laughing, and sharing with my
new friends. Victor even shared one more scene from "The Holy Grail"
with me...which had me in stitches.

Having held it together the night before, I was not having such luck
in the morning. I sobbed my heart out as I hugged and bid goodbye to
Vern, Garrett, Victor, Jack, and....Quatchi! Yes...I decided to give
Quatchi to JR for the remainder of the expedition, as he said he'd be
happy to carry him up to the summit of Everest with him and his
mascot, Spike. So, as I type, Quatchi is at base camp preparing to
tackle the Khumbu Icefall to Camp I. Can't wait to see the photos of

Wiping away my tears and trying hard not to think about the potential
perils my friends would be facing in the next six weeks, I joined the
trekkers (although Don, a climber, was walking on with his wife Joyce
and the trekking party through to base camp, so one goodbye could
wait) as we headed on up to the trickily high base of Gorak Shep at
almost 17,000 feet! On arrival, I was quite pleased with how cute our
wooden little teahouse was, and we were given the afternoon to rest.
Rest? I was feeling pretty good, SO- Don and I decided to tackle Kala
Pattar ( a peak of just over 18,500 feet) that afternoon because of
the good light, instead of waiting until the day after next when the
group was scheduled to summit it together in the morning.

Initially, I planned to just walk half way...but I got summit fever
and Don and I decided to go all the way to the top. The views were
astounding and we got some incredible pics.

Will have to leave it there for Lukla and will finish this
tomorrow in Kathmandu!

Love to you all!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nepal Part II: Trek to Everest Base Camp


I'm starting where I left off before.

The first night at the beautiful Panorama Lodge gave me my first (of many) opportunities to sing my little heart out. Vern, one of the guides (and one of my favorite peeps on the trip) had a harmonica, John played the guitar and I sang along to a bunch of my favorite songs: Me & Bobby McGee, Summertime, even some “Hound Dog” by Elvis. I ended the evening with an a cappella rendition of “Mercedes Benz” by Janis Joplin and I had the entire room belting it out along with me. It was a wonderful evening and has since been repeated many times.

It’s Day eight of the trek and we are happily acclimatizing in Pheriche at a lovely little lodge called the Himalayan Hotel. I have finally succumbed to the dust and germs and am madly fighting a cold which had me very clogged up last night (though it didn’t stop me from singing a few song requests!).

The realization that I only have two more nights to hang out with the climbing group is starting to hit me hard. I have developed quite an attachment to several members of the expedition and each time I think about saying goodbye, especially considering the dangers they will be facing in the next six weeks, I get all choked up with emotion.

Vern and I have become quite close as a result of sharing songs together each evening. We’ve also shared our life stories and I find his tenacity, warmth and gut determination (having climbed and guided for the last 31 years) to be incredible. I will miss his warm smile, crazy eyebrows, and crazier outfits (he would often wear bright blue running shorts over tight black spandex shorts). Mostly I will miss his bear hugs and the fact that I get a true sense that he really gets who I am.

Derek has been a blast getting to know, he is a fearless “gangsta” type. Hard as nails, tough to the core, and a little rough around the edges when it comes to expressing his opinions, we hit it off early on. He is crazy enough (and a definite kindred spirit) that he went along with a skit that we put together where he wore my hot pink panties over his black long johns in a dinnertime impersonation of Vern. It had the room in hysterics, and thankfully, Vern took it really well. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Derek also gave me two new nicknames: “Player” and “Sex Kitten”. I didn’t object to either ;-)

A slightly more surprising connection was formed with a climber named Victor, 44, from Dallas, Texas. It was obvious from the start that he was extraordinarily intelligent, handsome, and an extremely successful business man, owning a successful and international private equity firm. At a lunch stop we fell upon the topic of favorite SNL skits, and Victor mentioned how much he also enjoyed one of my personal favorites, “I’m on a Boat” with Andy Sanborne. And so, sharing his headphones we rocked out together, and I saw a very fun-loving side to him. That afternoon we hiked together, and to my delight, discovered that his love of musical theatre didn’t stop with Phantom of the Opera (I had sung “Think of Me” at his request the night before) and we happily spent the next 3 hours or so (breathlessly!!) belting out show tunes. It was so much fun, I wasn’t even aware of the steep inclines that we were tackling except that I couldn’t sustain any of the long notes.

Then climbing became much more difficult when Victor chose to share another of his extraordinary talents: he could quote long passages from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, complete with perfect accent, intonation, and character. I was laughing so hard that at one point I literally collapsed on the trail, unable to continue, clutching helplessly at my sides.

Since that afternoon, I have found Victor’s company to be refreshing and he always has wise and witty insights to share during table conversation. I do hope that we will stay in touch.

It has been very interesting to observe my friend Garrett on this trek in his professional role. He is most definitely in work mode, and displays an almost super human, courteous, politically correct, and non-inflammatory attitude 24/7. Sometimes it’s strange to not see him let loose and relax, but I have the utmost respect for his dedication and laser focus to the task at hand. And that is no easy task- I certainly do not envy the responsibility he shoulders, and I am deeply impressed at the wisdom and experience he is able to share with his climbers. Having said that, I look forward to seeing the more relaxed side to him, getting a drink together in Seattle this summer on his return.

Getting back to the trek, our second day in Namche Bazaar was designated an acclimatization day, but we spent the morning hiking up about a 1000 feet to the Everest View Hotel to get our first official snaps of the mountain, surrounded by his more beautiful partners: Lhotse, Nuptse, and the staggeringly beautiful Ama Dablam. We gathered on the balcony to have tea (again!) and I relished the impressive views taking a ton of pics before we headed back down for a free afternoon.

Derek and I teamed up and headed into town where I bought some prayer flags and earrings, and he purchased a rug for the inside of his future “home” tent at base camp. We had a great time laughing and sharing stories and that evening settled in with wine to eat popcorn and then dinner with our group, which inevitably ended in more guitar playing and singing of songs.

The following morning we headed out early on a de-tour from the trek to base camp - to the little town of Thame where our Sirdar, Lhakpa Rita, was born and raised. It was a stunning four hour walk, which we learned Lhakpa had to walk TWICE, SIX DAYS A WEEK, in order to attend school in Khumjung. Staggering. Descending into Thame, which incidentally is also the home of Passang, we saw our first authentic Yak, which belonged to Passang’s father whom we waved to as we passed. That night we stayed in a lodge that was owned and operated by Lhakpa’s sister.

After freshening up, several of us walked the steep hill above town to visit the Ringboche monastery above Thame. The Lama (Buddhist teacher that is supposed to be a reincarnation of a former enlightened Buddha) had died the previous fall, and so the community was in waiting for another Lama to be “discovered”. The monastery was a very serene location and the interior walls were laboriously patterned and covered with intricate artwork- much of it was extremely erotic in nature. We learned about the Tibetan Buddhist chant “Om Mane Padme Ohm” which is supposed to help cleanse the soul of the six negative emotions. Enjoying a picturesque sunset on the trek down I was again, flabbergasted at the astonishing beauty of this valley. We again enjoyed a thoroughly satisfying meal and headed to our rooms around 9 o’clock.

Day five took us back down towards Namche Bazaar where we took a detour to Khumjung, home of the school established for children of the Khumbu region by Sir Edmund Hillary. This was the day that was entirely highlighted by my time spent with Victor- that evening we celebrated Allison’s (another climber) birthday with a cake, and Victor kindly shared his awesome Monty Python talents for her and the crowd that inevitably gathered when he let it rip. I was happy for the ability to laugh sitting down this time. Victor and I watched “Touching the Void” together after dinner and I enjoyed the context of the movie even more by being surrounded by these incredibly talented mountaineers. After the movie, Victor recounted his story of being partially paralysed by a rock fall on his climb to the summit of Aconcagua in South America. It was an insane story of heroism and bravery which resulted in his life being saved. He honestly admits to being mad to climb these mountains, and he, Allison, and I had a very interesting conversation about their next two months on Everest. For Allison, this is her second attempt as her entire expedition team was turned around at the South Col eight years ago due to bad weather. She recounted a horrifying story of her summit attempt when her oxygen tank failed and she was convinced that she had cerebral edema before one of her guides discovered the malfunction, after almost 45 minutes of breathless, excruciating climbing.

How lucky am I to get to have conversations like this? Seriously?

Day six took us higher still and we all began to feel the lack of oxygen and the increasing need to practice rest steps and pressure breathing. The morning was a leisurely descent down a valley towards lunch where I was absolutely not hungry but ate after the guides insisted that we had quite a climb ahead of us in the afternoon. I met my first Polish trekkers that day about five minutes before arriving at the café where we ate. The Poles are everywhere!

That afternoon’s climb was rather long, but I found it quite easy as we soon formed a long snaking line of people all limited in pace to the leader at the front who was consciously trying to only push the climbers to 40% of their physical capacity. As a result, the climb was slow, steady, and quite manageable. Our destination was Tengboche, which was also home to the region’s largest monastery of the same name. On arrival, we were told that the monks were engaged in quiet prayer, but that there was a lovely bakery just a few minutes walk away which would provide a wonderful respite and diversion.

Okay, gotta go, internet very expensive here. More soon!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Nepal Part I: Trek to Everest Base Camp

I last left you a world away in the tropical country of Thailand. That last day before my flight to Nepal was jam packed and extremely fun. The most memorable part was going to a movie, and experiencing that everyone stands up and sings the national anthem to the King prior to the start. It was very interesting to experience.

The following day I was very very excited to be heading to Kathmandu. It was an early start, but I heavily underestimated how long the cab drive was going to take. I arrived at the airport with little over an hour before my scheduled flight was due to depart, and I still had to retrieve my trekking duffle bag from left luggage. Then there was a huge line at check-in for Thai Airlines. Luckily, I made it in time, but it definitely was a very brisk walk to the gate.

During the entire flight, my skin was literally buzzing with excitement and I almost felt sick to my stomach from the eager anticipation of embarking on one of the most incredible adventures of my life. We landed in Kathmandu; I parted with $40 for my Nepalese 30 day visa and was immediately greeted by Alpine Ascents, and got a big hug from my friend, and Alpine Ascents guide, Garrett. It was good to see a familiar face as I eagerly greeted and shook hands with every other team member as they arrived.

This trip was going to be particularly exciting because the trekkers have the amazing opportunity of hiking alongside the 9 heroic individuals who are planning on summiting Everest. I can’t tell you how wonderful it has been to share tea, breakfast, trails, and dinners with these fabulous individuals, getting to listen to their stories, and discovering the genesis of their drive to climb the world’s tallest mountains, as well as learn about the inevitable driving ambitions that permeate other aspects of their lives.

On arrival at our hotel, aptly named The Yak and Yeti, we checked into our rooms and spent the afternoon doing a gear check with our trekking guide, Suzanne. Suzanne is a warm and competent climber who lives in Seattle (when she’s not guiding) and I liked her immediately. She has incredible poise and is great at giving advice as well as listening.

That evening, we all showered and headed out for our welcome dinner at a local restaurant. Despite the fact that we were all heading out for over 3 weeks in the mountains, and were all gore-texed to the hilt, none of us thought to bring along a rain jacket for the evening. We were caught out in a torrential downpour just minutes from the hotel as the heavens opened and lightning streaked across the sky followed by cracking thunder. We huddled under an awning waiting for a van that took us all sopping wet to dinner. It was a lovely evening chatting with some of my fellow trekkers and climbers. This was a group of extreme characters and I could immediately tell that I was going to have a very good time indeed getting to know some of these people.

Jack, for instance, made quite the first impression. 60 years old, from Seattle, he had come to this expedition straight from Papua where we had just climbed one of the 7 summits, the Cartenz Pyramid. He met me, took my hand, and said, “well, what’s your name…and more importantly, what’s your room number?” Why is it that men over 50 always find me irresistible?

The following day we awoke early and embarked on a city tour that encompassed 3 wonderful temples in Kathmandu. Our guide’s name was Krishna and we visited 2 incredible Buddhist Stupas, and then one Hindu Temple. Buddhism in Tibet is far more liberal than it is in Thailand; our guide likened the comparison to “Catholicism vs. Protestantism”. The temples are not encrusted in gold, instead, they are whitewashed walled complexes with the seeing eye painted on the conical structure at the top. Moving in a clockwise direction, always, people use their hands to turn the “prayer wheels”, literally sending thousands of prayers out into the universe to bring good luck to the spinner.

The Hindu temple was a little more shocking. The two religions reside side by side in Nepalese culture and it is warming to see the harmony and sometimes intermingling of the two belief systems. When we arrived at this glorious 16th century building built along the river, there was a cremation ceremony about to take place. This location is the Nepalese equivalent to the Varanasi sacred cremation site in India on the Ganges River. A woman was being prepared for cremation by her family, her body laid out on a funeral pyre of wood next to the river, which was little more than a brown trickle strewn with litter and evidence of extreme pollution. They set fire to the wood and began singing a song. It was a very strange thing to witness, and stranger still was the fact that many tourists began videoing and taking photos of what I thought to be an extremely private family affair. It was a strange experience and really made me think long and hard about mortality…after all, you don’t get to see a dead body publicly burning everyday.

That afternoon we had free and I enjoyed a refreshing swim in the hotel pool before changing and deciding on heading down into the old part of the city to explore. No-one else seemed to want to go, so out I trudged, guidebook in hand, on my quest. Luckily I had brought along my rain jacket because after about 20 minutes the heavens opened and lightning lit up the darkening sky. It ended up being one of my more eventful evenings traveling- some pretty crazy events ensued. Firstly, it was impossible to read the map since none of the streets were signposted in English, so I had no idea where I was or if I was heading in the right direction. After asking several people the way to Durbar Square, I felt confident that I was going the right way. I was questioning the wisdom of my decision as I looked around with dismay at the seemingly thousands of cars clogging the street arteries, pumping out their disgusting engine filth while they all simultaneously honked their horns at those brave enough to try and cross the street. It was a cacophony of noise, dust, exhaust fumes, rain, and people, and I was utterly exhausted and overwhelmed within a half hour. I asked some Police upon passing to ensure I was still heading in the right direction and they told me that I was actually going in the exact opposite direction to Durbar Square. They pointed for me to turn around. I was getting extremely frustrated, but I persevered and eventually came across another tourist who spoke English and pointed me in the right way. The rain was falling hard now as I found myself dodging motorcycles, my jeans completely soaked through, in Durbar Square with its 30 or so temples in just a 3 block radius.

The atmosphere was electric. With the sky ominously dark with storm clouds, and the rumbling thunder, and the strange spires, shapes, smells, and people all hurrying through the streets covered in running muddy water. It felt like I was in a movie. It was the magic hour.

I settled under the awning of a temple to wait out the storm, which quickly appeared to be useless as it showed absolutely no signs of letting up. A couple of stray dogs congregated around me. I was so wet but found myself feeling exhilarated because I was completely surrounded by locals- there was not a single tourist in sight!

After wandering the streets in an attempt to find some dinner, I found myself lost yet again. After stepping on a dead rat, and walking in circles, I was ready to just get a cab back to the hotel – but I was unable to flag one down because of the incessant rainfall. My only hope was to try and figure out the way home on foot. It took me over an hour, and by the time I recognized my hotel’s street, I was severely overcome with noise, dirt, and wet. I stopped in a promising enough café called “Coffee and Sandwich” to order a coffee and sandwich to go. They didn’t have any coffee. What the hell? So I grabbed a chai from across the street (watching in wonderment as they poured gobs of Hershey’s chocolate syrup into the cup) and sadly had to down it very quickly as they had served it minus a lid in the kind of paper cup that saturates too quickly to be suitable to hold liquid.

What an evening. I was utterly spent and a little traumatized by the time I got back to the hotel where I did a final check on my gear, set it down in the lobby, and passed out in bed.

The following morning we were all extremely relieved to see blue skies, which really boded well for our flight to Lukla (flights in the tiny 7 seat Twin Otter planes are often cancelled due to cloud cover and passengers can be left stranded for days waiting out the weather on a first-come first served basis). I was still on an excited high and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know some of my fellow trekkers and climbers. Everyone was in high spirits. Jack and I plotted to play an April Fool’s joke on everyone by telling them that no flights were landing in Lukla, but it sort of fell apart. After several hours of waiting at the airport, we filed through security (curiously the airport has separate lines for female and male passengers) and got on board our tiny plane for our risky flight to the Himalayas.

The landing strip at Lukla is a scant 1500 feet. I was told that it was an extremely hairy descent and landing with barely any room for error. Brad, one of the trekkers, is in the Air Force and so secured one of the seats at the front of the aircraft to truly take everything in. He was absolutely in his element and whooped with joy as we came in for our final approach, which was, quite simply, astonishingly crazy. I have never clapped with more sincere appreciation for a safe landing in my life.

As I stepped off the plane and my eyes were first greeted by the sight of these majestic mountains, I shed my first of what would undoubtedly be many tears. It was so very beautiful.

It was day one of the trek. We had a relatively flat and downhill hike of about 3-4 hours to do before arriving at our first teahouse. We have been staying in teahouses every night on this trip and I have been extremely impressed at the standards of accommodation and food provided. On arrival, there are always copious amounts of tea provided, along with cookies, popcorn, or crackers. Generally, there is Sherpa tea (which is a deliciously rich milky tea), Lemon Tea, Hot Lemon, and Black tea on offer. We drink tea maybe 4 times each day, so the name “Teahouse” is entirely and literally appropriate. Mornings have generally begun with breakfast around 7, and then the onslaught of being fed constantly begins. We will have muesli and warm milk, then eggs and hash browns or pancakes for breakfast. After a few hours of hiking we generally stop for another round of tea then lunch, then a few more hours of hiking and then afternoon tea which sometimes leads directly into a full blown dinner! I have eaten so much food, it doesn’t feel like a trekking holiday at all- this is a luxurious “everything is taken care of for you” experience.

That first night we stayed at the Sunrise Lodge in Phakding. On the way, I chose to hike with a couple of our Sherpa helpers: Passang Tenji Sherpa and Lhakpa . I’ve come to adore these two wonderful individuals, as well as all of our wonderful Sherpa helpers, porters, and cooks. They are the most incredible people: they are always smiling, they never complain, they are so helpful and constantly anticipate your needs before you even realize that you have them. And they are the most ridiculously fit and strong people I have ever seen in my life. Even more than the Inca, I think. Constantly while hiking along the trail, we come across porters coming in the opposite direction, carrying the most mind boggling-heavy loads….all with a canvas strap across their FOREHEAD. I’ve seen them carry entire pieces of wooden furniture, 3 or 4 duffel bags all strapped carefully together, and baskets filled six feet high with canisters of fuel. They are so very strong and I can only wonder at the beating their necks receive.

I learned that Passang was 37 years old with a wife and child in Kathmandu, and Lhakpa was 26 and already married 2 years. Their English was excellent and they soon had me laughing with their stories. I learned that Sherpa men and women tend to be named after the day of the week that they are born, followed by a middle name that tells them apart. That’s why we have 3 Lakpas. Passang means Friday and Lhakpa is Wednesday. I casually mentioned that I was born on Saturday, and I was immediately nicknamed “Pemba” , which then was morphed into “Pembanita” and the name has stuck with my two Sherpa friends. They are wonderful guys.

I also had the pleasure of chatting for a couple of hours with Lhakpa Rita, our head Sherpa, or Expedition Sirdar as it is called here. Lhakpa is a legend and this will be his fourteenth ascent of Mount Everest at 43 years of age. I was a little starstruck as I listened to his stories of becoming a porter, then Sherpa, then Climbing Sherpa and eventually joining Alpine Ascents and moving to the United States 10 years ago. Lhakpa has just gotten his US Citizenship but it has been a long hard battle, including five years spent apart from his 3 children whom he left in the care of his family members in the small Himalayan town of Thame (which we had the pleasure of visiting on Day 3). I asked Lhakpa whether he was on the mountain during the disaster of 1996 and I listened intently as he described what it had been like, waiting out the storm and listening to the communications from the stranded guides such as Rob Hall, whom he had known personally. Alpine Ascents had absolutely decided not to attempt their summit bid on that fateful day of May 10- bad weather had been predicted and unfortunately for the 12 victims, had been ignored by other expedition teams. It was quite incredible to be walking with this man and get the opportunity to hear his first-hand account.

On arrival we settled to tea and then enjoyed looking at and purchasing some handmade jewelry from a local woman who had hiked in over thirty miles to set up a stall specifically for us at the lodge. I bought a beautiful necklace made of Yak bone. After dinner, I went for a little stroll back over the suspension bridge across the river with John, who is a journalist writing an account of the Everest Base Camp trek for the Notre Dame University journal. The smell of burning Yak Dung hung heavily in the air along with the stench of burning trash. I was feeling very overwhelmed at the realization that I was actually here….actually in the Himalayas, and about to see Mount Everest with my own eyes. I slept pretty well that night (each “room” had 2 twin beds in them) even though I had to use my -20 degree bag as a blanket instead of cooking inside it.

Since that first night we have steadily been making our way up the valley and acclimatizing as we go. Our second day brought us to the trade capital of the Khumbu Valley region: Namche Bazaar. It’s a large community built on a precipitously steep hillside. The day was extremely warm and I was quite happy hiking in shorts and a short sleeve shirt. The sun is perilously strong here so I slathered in sunscreen and wore a baseball cap. This is by no means an empty trail – there are lots of trekkers and many many Yaks and “Zobkyos” which are a cross between Yaks and cows. Yaks have much longer fur and long horns that curl straight up in the air. The “Zo’s” are a little concerning as they most certainly feel that they have right of way and will happily crush little trekkers who unknowingly step out in their way or perhaps don’t give them enough clearance for their bodies and their loads. Every so often, there is an angry Zo, which we are advised to give a wide berth, because those horns would easily gall anyone who was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There are also picturesque little villages, sunburned children running around barefoot, lots of metal suspension bridges over precipitous heights and churning rivers underfoot, and thousands upon thousands of Tibetan prayer flags decorating every building and structure that we pass. It all really adds to the atmosphere of this hike, which is as much a cultural experience as it is a mountainous one.

We stayed for two nights in Namche Bazaar to acclimatize. We stayed at the sumptuously beautiful “Panorama Lodge” which had a killer view and a cozy Red main room covered in wooden tables, benches draped in red carpet, and lots of photos of famous climbers adorning the walls. Our main host, “Mama”, was a stupendous example of hospitality and immediately produced a cake proclaiming “Wel Come back Alpine Ascents”. The lodge also had a wonderfully stocked bar, and I welcomed a lovely glass of pre-dinner sherry after taking a delicious shower and changing into my warm fleece pants and down jacket.

Every meal with our group is a huge social gathering…with over 30 of us it can get quite boisterous. In the first few days, we naturally segregated into “trekkers” and “climbers” and each group sat at their own table. However, we have since most definitely intermingled a little bit more, but with clicks between certain individuals noticeably forming. In many ways, this feels like summer camp and gossip is already rife among expedition and trekking team members, although for the most part, it has been pretty harmless.

By that third day, many members of the team had succumbed to some form of illness- be it altitude related, respiratory-related (due to the large amounts of dust and burning dung in the air) or the most common, gastro-intestinal. Now its day six, and most of us are still just suffering with respiratory ailments, and the dreaded “Khumbu cough” which is hard to kick once it sets in. Our guides are very good about ensuring that we all cover our mouths and noses as we trek to protect our lungs as well as possible, but the coughing, at least for me, has been rather inevitable.

The first night at the beautiful Panorama Lodge gave me my first (of many) opportunities to sing my little heart out. Vern, one of the guides (and one of my favorite peeps on the trip) had a harmonica, John played the guitar and I sang along to a bunch of my favorite songs: Me & Bobby McGee, Summertime, even some “Hound Dog”.

I’ve got a really bad internet connection, so I’m going to send this out now and continue another time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Cambodia Part II: Angkor What?

I've uploaded the Cambodia pics! Here is the link, hope you enjoy them!

I left you on my bus journey five days ago heading to Siem Reap. It started badly when I realized that Andrea was not in her seat on the bus. I tried, in vain, to explain to the staff on the bus that we needed to wait for her as she had paid for her ticket, but they didn't understand me. Oh well?!

The ride was about six hours long and was quite trying on the senses. For those of you that are fans of my blog, you may recall a certain bus journey I had to endure in Chile in 2008, where an alarm kept sounding every 30 seconds for no apparent reason. Well, in Cambodia, the bus drivers honk their horns, for no apparent reason, incessantly every few seconds. They honk to say hello to other cars, they honk to warn people who are walking on the street, they honk when they haven't honked in
several seconds. After a while it really grates on the nerves and I cursed myself that I hadn't brought ear plugs.

To make it even worse, they were playing loud Khmer pop songs....AND a really bad martial arts movie...AT THE SAME TIME! yikes.

Good thing I was reading a book about the art of Buddhism. Read: sarcasm.

We stopped half way for some lunch. The heat hit you like a slap in the face as you stepped off the bus, and then continued slapping for the next 20 could feel your own sweat trickling down your legs. I decided to have what the locals were having...which was some kind of greenish looking soup, with weird brown looking fried thingies, and pinkish meat. It tasted OK and it cost 50c so I didn't complain.

At least not until later that evening...more on that in a moment.

We arrived to the usual ONSLAUGHT of Tuk Tuk drivers asking whether "Lady, you need tuk tuk to hotel? I know nice guest house, will take you", though they were particularly aggressive this time. I ignored them all, as usual, and immediately walked over to whomever was NOT screaming at me and haggled a $2 ride to my hostel choice. No, I didn't want to stop at another hotel on the way. No, I didn't care if my choice was "far far from town". No, I didn't want to see temple on the way. No I don't want to stop at shop. No, I don't care if I lady travelling on her own. No, no, no, no, no. I just want to get to my hostel. Thank you.

Jeez. Its like pulling teeth and you have to be downright nasty to get through: this is a land where "No" means nothing to the sellers, they see it as an opportunity to win a sale through repeating their sales pitch again, and again, and again (not to mention, that together with the Khmer accent...the words come out so harsh and the intonation sounds like they're yelling "hey you stepped on my foot!!" instead of making a proposition (this became ever more apparent during the temple visits at Angkor Wat, where you are greeted by a sheer CACOPHONY of "Hey Lady, you want cold drink?", "Hey Lady, you want food?", "Hey Lady, you buy postcard? Only 3 for $1!!! (which my future travel buddy, Camille, from France, hysterically corrected by calmly replying "No, its 3 for only $1!) "Hey Lady, you want pineapple?"...and so on. They SCREECH their questions at you- and I heard these expressions easily hundreds of times each day at Angkor Wat...the intonation of those voices have made easily as indelible an impression on me as the temples did themselves, which is kind of sad.)

Finally got to my hostel and was delighted to find an air-conditioned room overlooking the pool, including breakfast, for $17. Wonderful. Dropped my bags, and literally raced into my bathing suit and jumped in the pool. Amazingly refreshing.

I headed into town for dinner that evening with two lovely British girls named Katie and Becky. We started on foot and then decided to grab a tuk tuk (apparently the annoying tuk tuk driver from earlier was telling the truth about the distance, although this turned out to be a plus for me instead of a minus) to a little food stall area by the river for some cheap eats. He clearly had no idea where he was going and dropped us at some random restaurant at which point he refused to respond to our request to be taken where we'd been asked. We all were just so frustrated that we got out and plonked ourselves down there to eat. Sometimes, its just not worth the fight. And I have to say, the "fight", was definitely worse in Cambodia thus far compared with Thailand.

Our meal was lovely and the three of us ate handsomely for only $9, although the fresh spring rolls I ordered were disappointingly bland. I was too hungry to care. We all enjoyed a lovely conversation getting to know each other and then we headed back to get to bed, having decided to brave the 5am departure for sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Angkor What?

Not for me. That night, my stomach awakened me with the command that its contents needed to be emptied. Over the next 36 hours I wretched and writhed around in blissful travellers' tummy agony. Oh how I enjoyed crawling back and forth to the bathroom on my hands and knees. How I enjoyed laying there and counting the minutes tick by. How I loved not having anyone with ambulatory skills nearby that could kindly fetch me some water and flat sprite. How slowly the day passed.

On the bright side, I read over half of my new book....and I had A/C so that I wasn't sent over the edge with being ill AND relentlessly overheated. I was also very grateful that we had a bar/restaurant in the hotel...and that the staff were kind enough to read in my face when I finally made it down the stairs with the words "water and 2 bottles of sprite, please, now please" that I wasn't going to be able to wait the customary SE Asian amount of time for service.

In the end, despite the fact that Andrea had disappeared (she emailed me saying that she took a later bus but she'd given in to the tuk tuk driver's guest house recommendation and not come to Earthwalkers where I was staying) I was glad that I'd given myself 4 full days in Siem Reap since I missed a day and a half being out of it.

So, the second day...feeling a little wobbly still, I tentatively ate dried toast and tea for breakfast and struck up a conversation with a French girl who came and sat nearby. She was also travelling alone (yay!....Becky and Katie did a one-day Angkor wonder and had already left) and after some persuasion, as she was on a tight budget (to which I responded that I would pay for the tuk tuk for the day tour of the temples anyway, and I'd prefer to have the company) she agreed to join me as we hit the road to see the Eighth Wonder of the world. Camille was wonderful and very inspiring. She had been "working" her way around the world for the better part of a year, at age 23, and explained that she left France with only 500 euros to her name, and still managed to have about the same amount in her bank account today. See folks? You don't need money to travel!!! Just guts and determination....(and hopefully a passport from a developed nation. ugh.)

Our driver, Si, was recommended to me by Katie and Becky. He claimed to speak English, but that was questionable. I completely forgave him because he never failed to smile...all day long. I called him "Smiley". He was lovely and gave us zero pressure- which was very refreshing.

On that first day, I explained that I wanted to see some of the outer temples and save Angkor Wat itself for the following morning at sunrise. No sense in seeing the Big Kahuna on day one and having the other sites not have quite the same impact.

Camille was the perfect temple companion because she took her time, and was a bit of a history nerd like me. I was worried that I might get "templed" out, as I sort of did in Thailand, but nothing could have been further from the truth here. The more I saw of these incredible 9th, 10th, 11th century stone meccas built by Kings, married with nature (sometimes overtaken by it, such as the trees at Ta Prohm) and dedicated to the practice of Hinduism and Buddhism, the more fascinating they became.

The crowds were another thing. They were annoying. Though not as annoying as the hawkers. Which included children. Tiny children. I had a little girl, barely 3 years old, try to sell me 10 postcards for over 15 minutes while I rested on a tree trunk. We agreed that, sadly, her first words were undoubtedly "only 1 dollar", and not "Mommy".

We were very lucky that day to have also had a reprieve from the heat in the form of an early morning rainstorm that cleared the air nicely. I even had to wear a jacket on the tuk tuk ride in because there was a chill! It meant that we were able to spend most of the day getting in four or five temples before heading back to town for lunch.

My high spot for the day was the temple of Bayon: which has faces carved into numerous towers; a fabulous display of the egoistic nature of its designer King Jayavarmann VIII. It was captivating to look at the level of detail that went into all of the art work, the painstaking depictions of everything from legions of a women giving birth!

Camille and I took lunch in downtown Siem Reap. The town itself did not impress me much: it was a tourist trap and the prices were surprising (woo hoo! It just started thundering and raining here!) The smog, traffic and noise all made me thankful for my choice of hostel. After another slightly disappointing meal (I had a "platter" of Khmer food, but none was to my liking except for the banana in coconut milk dessert), we walked back to our hostel and enjoyed a lovely evening in the pool and getting to know our fellow backpackers.

The next day was the highlight of my trip to Cambodia. Together with another hostel guest, Marius from Norway, the three of us decided to rent bicycles and brave a 4:30am departure in the morning to catch sunrise at Angkor Wat, before tackling the "Grand Circuit" of just over 40km of road in total.

It was so exciting to don my headlamp and head out into the dark streets, dodging cars on the same mission as us. It was a 10k ride out to the pearl of the temples, and you could just make out a glow in the sky as we parked our bikes and took what felt like a surreal march to heaven along the long path across the moat leading to the glorious structure that is Angkor Wat.

It was one of those moments that I'll never forget. It was spiritual.

That is, until we parked ourselves by the lake to capture the rising sun on our cameras together with a couple hundred other tourists ( including of course the Japanese tourists, who, I'm sorry, but who CANNOT EVER shut up and appreciate a truly tranquil experience like the rest of us manage. They have to shriek at each photo and share, and point, and yell at one another with wild hand gestures.) It was still magical, regardless.

After a few hours of clambering inside the giant building itself and climbing to the top of its highest turret, we set off on our bicycle discovery and took in about four more temples before we crashed for lunch. Of course, I ate at the woman's stall who hadn't screamed at me- telling her so as well. She understood.

My favorite was Preah Kanh because it had the same trees as Ta Promh magically taking over the walls and roofs of the structure, but it also had very intricate tiny passageways and rooms that you almost had to crawl through. Wonderful.

After lunch, Marius and I decided to begin the long ride home as we were completely beat, and the afternoon sun was starting to get brutal. Oh my god. That bike ride was so very very long. I was so happy to make it back and quickly got in the pool. The three of us could barely move, so we decided to ask Si to drive us back to catch the sunset. We all went to the popular sunset spot, but turned around after we realized that it was just the classic sunset looking at the sky from a hill, and we wanted to see the changing colors on the walls of the temples themselves. Si, so generously, zoomed us back over to Bayon so that we could see the faces change shade with the setting sun.. Unfortunately, after about 20 mins of exploring, a guard came by to inform us that it was "cloe". Not a spelling error.

That night, someone said the magic word "pizza" and we happily devoured a large spinach and mushroom washing it down with good ol' Angkor beer before taking our wrecked limbs to sleep.

The following morning I awoke early to bid goodbye to Camille who was busing it to the border and then getting the train to Bangkok. Interestingly, she would only arrive about an hour before I did, and my flight didn't leave until that evening!

I spent the day chilling out mostly. I read, swam and wrote my blog. Si gave me a ride into town. He was so lovely. He even made me well up in my throat and choke back tears when he bid me goodbye at the airport. He thanked me for being "special lady good customer", and asked if I might email him to help him with his "very bad engrish". Of course I agreed, shook his hand, and then as I waved...he yelled out what he'd said to me the previous 3 evenings..."Good night Miss Anita...see you in d morning!"

The flight was strange. 35 minutes in total, and they served a full meal. Weird how the Thai's will constantly haggle and then give things away like that when they're not expected? I shoved mine into my backpack as I was not feeling good - again! Can't say I'm a fan of Khmer food :-(

Landing in Bangkok, I grabbed a cab to my familiar hotel in Rambuttri.

Today was amazing. I did SO MUCH in Bangkok and I have a far improved opinion of the city as compared to before. I saw the giant reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, took in the crazy crazy narrow market streets of Chinatown, rode the river boat along the Cho Phra, saw a VIP movie at the cinema (think food and blankets provided!), watched Thai people doing mass aerobics in Lumphini Park, took in the skyscrapers around Siam Square and then rode the Sky Train home.

Then I wrote this. Didn't mean for it to be so long...but sigh......

Tomorrow, I head to the airport at 7:30 for my flight to Kathmandu. Not sure if I'll write much in the next two weeks as I head to Everest Base Camp. You can follow the journey online at

Will be back in Bangkok on April 19. Till then,

Much love,