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The David B Adair Not Memorial This Time Newsletter
January 9, 1992
In the first week of October I flew from Bangkok, Thailand to Kathmandu, Nepal and caught a hazy, far-off view of Mt. Everest out the airplane window. I met my friend Rick, who Iíd travelled with in New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia, and Thailand, and his friend Andy. Kathmandu is a great place and completely unlike any other city Iíd seen. Most building s are only two or three story and made of red bricks, and the streets are narrow and typically teeming with a combination of people, bicycles, cars, trucks, bicycle rickshaws, motorized rickshaws and cows. Since Nepal is a Hindu country, cows are sacred, never eaten, and allowed to strut their stuff through the city like they own the place. If you kill a cow in a car accident itís as serious as killing a person and you can be sentenced to 20 years in prison. (Iím really tempted to say Holy Cow!, but that would be stupid.)
We spent a few days organizing our trek, then left on an arduous nine hour roof-top bus ride on Nepalís main highway. The road was sparsely paved and more like a logging road than a highway and we were covered with dust by the end of the day. The next morning we were waiting for a truck to take us to the trail start when we saw a local man having some kind of seizure. When I went over to help hold him, his friend took off my boots to put the leather tongue in the guyís mouth. A big crowd of people stood around not helping and just chuckling at me wearing one boot. I found out later that the people think when a person has a seizure that he has been temporarily possessed by spirits and they donít like being involved. As the man was explaining this to me, something got in his eye and he said "Bad things are happening because we are talking about this."
Our two to three hour truck ride turned out to be six and a half and was easily the most difficult trip any of us had ever taken. The truck looked like an old Russian army truck and had a 15 foot bed with low sides and a rusting metal frame above the bed to hang on to. As we waited more and more people started getting on until I thought, this is impossible Ė all these people canít ride like this as we left probably 15 more people jumped on until every square inch of that truck was filled. I was standing on the tailgate, straddling the frame and there were six locals literally hanging off the back. I estimated there were 80 people in, on and around this truck. I just couldnít believe it. There were about 9 tourists and the rest locals, and they never complained once or acted like it was unusual. The road was absolutely bone-jarring and the frame started breaking. It was a welcome relief when the wheel started falling off and we were forced to wait for repairs.
We started hiking on the Annapurna Circuit and planned about three weeks for it and maybe another week for a side trip to the Annapurna Sanctuary. After weíd been walking a couple days I asked someone how many miles the Circuit was. When they told me I said "Two hundred miles? TWO HUNDRED MILES?!" I had no idea. As it turned out we walked about 375 miles in 31 days.
The hiking was beautiful, through forest and cultivated fields at the lower elevations and barren desert-like conditions up higher. We could see snow- and glacier-covered peaks that were 26,000 feet (Everest is 29,000). We started around 2,500 feet and the highest point we walked was 17,800. Weíd walk for maybe four to six hours in an average day. In the first week my legs got really sore but after that I felt great and the walking was sometimes hard but always enjoyable. We stayed at little inns that were scattered along the route, and both the lodging and food were so cheap. The lodging was from 12 cents to 50 cents a night and with food I was spending around $6 a day and eating huge amounts. The lodge just before the pass cost an outrageous #1.10 per person. It was relatively so expensive that it was frequently the second most talked about subject. The most talked about subject was, of course, the status of your bowel movements. Almost everyone gets side at one time or another in Nepal, and you could be sure that a group conversation of any length would include a round-table discussion of what our colons were or werenít doing. I got a funny stomach a few times but usually a trip to the loo would take care of it in a rather dramatic fashion. See, weíre even talking about it now!
At higher elevations there were fewer Hindus and more Buddhists who most likely had come from Tibet. The villages were very medieval-looking, made of gray stone and usually hugging a hillside for protection from the wind. The people are so interesting and colorful, and the children are both the cutest and dirtiest Iíve ever seen. In the winter the only water is made from melting snow, so part of their adapting to the environment is not washing during the cold winter months. Now if you canít wash in the winter, thereís not mush point in washing in the summer, is there? You see kids with faces and hands so dirty youíd think theyíd be cleaner by accident. The sight of these kids eating with their hands (which all Nepalis do) then licking them clean when theyíre just black with dirt is amazing. I was told that in the winter they donít wash their dishes, they just lick them clean and reuse them.. If you order a tea and as theyíre serving it they see something floating in it, theyíll dunk a finger knuckle deep trying to get it out, as if somehow thatís less offensive than the floater. The best one, though, was my friend who ordered mashed potatoes and watched in horror as this kid with black hands mashed them with his hands.
Rick and I went to a 500 year-old monastery where most of the village was involved in some prayer ceremony. It was a pretty small room, darkly lit, and filled mostly with old women with the most weathered faces, chanting rhythmically, spinning prayer wheels with their right hands and counting prayer beads with their left. We stayed for quite a while and they offered us a few kinds of breads, one like a tortilla with enough dried chili to kill you. They gave us some liquid in a little bowl and it tasted all night. I whispered to Rick "itís some kind of soup" and he said "itís not soup, itís Tibetan tea with salt and yak butter." Somehow it didnít taste nearly as good after he said that.
We went on a really brutal day hike up to a lake that was close to 17,000 feet. It took 12 hours and just about killed us, but was beautiful. The entire side of the lake is a huge glacier, and the water is a deep green. And an added bonus; as we looked through binoculars at the surrounding mountains, we saw a yeti, the abominable snowman Ė and he was with Elvis! It made the whole day worthwhile. One thing the hike did for us was make every other day seem easy in comparison. Crossing the pass was a big day Ė climbing about 3,700 feet to the highest point and then descending 5,200 feet to the next town. Quite a few people suffer from some amount of altitude sickness and have to try again or go back, and people that ignore it occasionally die.
We did the sanctuary, and it was really spectacular. You hike into a bowl-shaped canyon where you are surrounded by huge mountains and glaciers. It snowed really hard the night we were there and I pondered the prospect of being snowed in and having to kill German tourists for food. We didnít get snowed in, but the five inches we did get blanketed the whole valley and made for a beautiful view.
I had never hiked for more than six days before and didnít know how Iíd like it, but as it came to the end I wished I could have kept going. The people had been so nice and the walking so fun that the prospect of being back in a city wasnít appealing. Our last day was very long and it rained, which is very unusual in November. The first vehicle weíd heard in a month was the gravel truck that would take us to town. It was an abrupt welcome back to civilization. I donít know why everyone says that gravel trucks are so comfortable to ride in the back of. I found it quite rough.
I was planning to leave in a few days for India, and most people were leaving Nepal in droves because it was getting quite cold, but as I kept remembering back to the trek and how much I liked it, I decided to go on another one, into the Langtang valley. I went with an English girl, Ann, and we had a great time. On the way to the trek I shared the roof of the bus with about 10 goats. We hiked for 10 days through steep, wooded valleys. On Thanksgiving Day I took a day hike to a 16,500 foot peal called Tsergo Ri. I found out later that Ri means hill. As I wheezed and gasped my way to the top I thought of it as more than just a "hill." I also had my one year anniversary of this trip while on this trek.
One night we stayed with a family that rents out a room, but because of its location, sees almost no tourists. Their house and lifestyle were probably very typical of people up in the mountains. The house was about 15 feet square and divided in half between sleeping area and living area. The large room was very dark, with only one small window covered with plastic. The fireplace was just a three-foot square section of the floor with no chimney; the smoke just vented out holes in the ceiling. All the cooking was done over this open fire on a small metal three-legged pot holder. There were no counters for preparing food, so it was all done on the floor. There was no running water Ė it had to be carried up from the river in milk cans. They didnít use chairs, they sat on the floor. There was also no outhouse, but there was a field. It seems like itís best described by what it doesnít have. Besides burning wood, they also burned yak dung. (Yaks are basically just huge boring cows, kind of like Germans.) You would expect burning yak dung to be fragrant, but surprisingly it isnít. Next to the peopleís bed there was a five foot pile of dried yak dung, and you couldnít smell it. (But you still imagined that you could smell it.)
As we were finishing the trek we came across a Dutch woman who had developed a bad case of pneumonia and was being carried out on the back of porters. It was really amazing. This woman was about 5í 10" tall and weighed about 150 pounds, and the guys carrying her were about 5í 5" and 130 pounds. They put a strap around the womanís rump and over their head, which is how they carry everything. They had to tie the womanís legs in a bent position to keep them from dragging on the ground. The trail was so steep in parts that it would be hard walking without carrying anything, and it was an amazing feat that these guys could carry her. As I passed some 16 year-old porters taking a break I lifted their packs to feel the weight and literally could barely lift them.
Just by chance we were offered a ride back to Kathmandu in the same British Embassy jeep instead of the public bus. And I suppose it was, in a white-knuckled, clenched butt-cheek sort of way. After about five minutes of careening wildly around blind corners and swerving to miss pedestrians, our nerves were already shot, and the driver turns around and says, "Iíve never been on this road before." Oh, thatís comforting, you putz - maybe you should think about slowing down. One of the mysteries of the third world is that no one is ever in a hurry until they get behind the wheel and then they become lunatics.
Nepal has a population of 18 million, and it is one of the poorest countries in the world. In a magazine, I came across some statistics comparing about 45 countries, both third world and industrialized, and itís really interesting. The average income in Nepal is $170 a year, ahead of only Afghanistan at $150 and Cambodian at $110. The U.S. is $22,000. Nepalís literacy rate is 26%. Most western countries have between 400 and 600 people per doctor - Nepal has 20,000. Not surprisingly, their infant mortality rate is 118 for every 1,000 births, compared to 8 per 1,000 in the U.S. Even Bangladesh has a better rate than Nepal.
After a two month stay I left Nepal on a marathon journey by bus and train to southern India. The trip took 82 hours, including a 56 hour train ride. The funny thing about the train ride is that I enjoyed it. I was in India for only a week, but liked what I say. I had the cheapest meal Iíve had to-date. Itís called a thali, and itís a banana leaf placed on the table with a pile of rice and four or five kinds of curries, most of which are loaded with chili. Thereís no silverware, you eat with your hands, and when youíve finished the first helping, they just bring more. The cost of this is 23 cents.
I flew from India to Sri Lanka and spent a month here, including Christmas and New Year. I celebrated by sunbathing on the beach. Certainly the single most interest thing I saw here was an exorcism. It was an all-night affair (I only lasted til 2 AM) and looked exactly like voodoo scenes you see in movies, complete with frenzied fire-dancing and a dance with a live chicken on a guyís head. At one point the 16 year-old girl who was possessed (the possessee?) was dancing around like she really was possessed, and after she recited some kind of verses in front of a picture of Buddha, she fainted. She seemed to be looking a little better by the time I left.
In two days Iím leaving to go scuba-diving in the Maldives for a week, then Iím back to India for a couple of months. Iíll end this letter with a quote from "Riding the Iron Rooster, By Train Through China" by Paul Theroux, which describes so well how I feel about my travels:
"This Chinese trip was so long and it had claimed so much of me that it stopped being a trip. It was another part of my life; and ending the travel was not a return but a kind of departure, which I regretted."
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All everything © 1997 by Dave Adair.