Go back to: Dave's Newsletters or to Dave & Whit's Page
The David B. Adair What Makes You Think We're Interested Newsletter
The More Than You Wanted To Know Edition
I started and never finished writing about my time from leaving Russia and traveling around Turkey and the Middle East. I returned from what turned out to be 25 months of travel just days before Christmas, two years ago. After working for a year and a half I decided to meet my old traveling buddy Rick in Nepal. Rick has been living in Singapore for the last two years or so. The plan was to go trekking, then I'd look into doing some computer work in Kathmandu. I hoped to find some paid work, but was willing to do volunteer work for a while. More on that later. I moved out of my place in Berkeley and put all my stuff (there's not that much of it left, really) into my mom's attic, and parked my car with a car cover in her driveway. I have no idea what I'd be doing without my mom's support (go mums!)
I flew out of San Francisco September 14, with planned stops in L.A., Seoul, Bangkok, then on to Kathmandu. The trip started with a bang. As it turns out, the bang was two of the tires on our 747 blowing out on takeoff from L.A. We didn't know what happened, but we knew something happened, because the vibration was so severe that the shades of the windows started falling down, ceiling tiles were shaking up and down, and a speaker fell out of the ceiling and hung by its wires. I thought to myself, I don't like this. I wished we'd aborted takeoff, but I guess it was too late, so as we became airborne I started thinking about the likely outcomes of our situation. We flew low over the control tower so they could look under the plane to see what was happening. After a few minutes the pilot said that due to a "technical problem" we would be landing back in L.A. in one hour. I joked that I didn't want to be on the 11 o'clock news. As it turned out, I was on the news, but I kind of liked it. Although the pilot didn't tell us it was happening, we flew out over the ocean and dumped most of the fuel before we landed. I don't know if they do that to reduce the size of the fireball or whether it's to lighten the load. Anyway, that's why it took an hour before we could land, and though I appreciated the chance to change my underwear, that's a long time to sit and think about what might happen. I can summarize pretty simply what I saw as the choices of what might happen: 1) nothing, 2) maimage, or 3) death. Since we now know that I didn't die, I see that hour in the plane as a rare chance to think about my own mortality in a very non-theoretical way. I thought, "This could be it; I could die today. This is really unusual." I was a little surprised how calm I was, and was busy complimenting myself when I looked around and noticed old women sleeping and kids playing and people reading magazines. I hate that. How are you supposed to know if you're doing something impressive if you don't compare yourself to others? I'm still struggling with that concept.
The TV news stations had picked it up on their scanners what was happening, so when we came in to land, along with probably 20 fire engines and police cars on the ground, there were about eight news helicopters in the air, and it was being broadcast live. There was also a group of people standing along the chain-link fence outside the airport watching. I'm sure that none of them hoped the plane would burst into flames. The landing was thankfully anti-climactic; we landed very smoothly without trouble. As we came out of the plane, we could see the two wheels next to each other, sans tires. It was the two front tires of one of the sets of four. As we came out of the airport, there was a mob of reporters, sticking cameras and microphones in people's faces and sort of pleading with us to say something dramatic. After elbowing my way to the front to claim my 15 minutes of fame (I'm exaggerating; I didn't elbow much, and it wasn't 15 minutes), I did get interviewed, and saw myself on the 11 o'clock news! Sobbing hysterically finally comes in useful.
One guy on the flight, Mike, who is terrified of flying, was reading "Fear of Flying" as we took off. I said of all the books to read, why would you choose that? He said, "Because the chances of getting in a plane crash while you're reading that book are astronomical." I don't think he was kidding. When we later were flying to Korea, I said something to Mike about getting some sleep, and he said "What, are you nuts?! That's when it happens! As soon as you're not prepared, kaboom!, that's it, man, it's over." I think he was serious about that, too.
We didn't end up leaving until nearly two days after we tried the first time. There was a group of people who came to be pretty close (including Mike, the Fear of Flying Guy), and I've been running into to them trekking and in Kathmandu for the last three months. I said goodbye to the last of them a few days ago.
The rest of the flights weren't as dramatic. It was about 12 hours to Seoul, then 6 hours to Bangkok, where we spent the night, then 4 hours to Kathmandu. I was sure that Rick would be impatient since I was two days late, but he was late too, and arrived just four hours after I did. We spent 10 days basically hanging out in Kathmandu and, for me, trying to get into a traveling frame of mind. It's an adjustment to go from a hectic working-a-lot schedule to the usually relaxed flow of travel. I don't imagine I've generated much sympathy with that problem. Yeah, it's pretty darn tough all right, but I'm just the kind of guy that can handle it. Hanging out, doing nothing for days on end? - I'm your man.
I saw a cremation that was interesting. Nepal is the only officially Hindu country in the world, in spite of a large number of Buddhists and a smattering of others, including Christians. (India is usually the country associated with Hindus, but it's officially a secular state. The other Hindu enclave is Bali.) It's customary for Hindus to be cremated when they die, normally on a wood fire next to a river. There's a very holy temple of Pashupatinath, near Kathmandu, where people are cremated daily. It's a beautiful setting, and a very public one where you can witness the cremations just a few yards away. The one I saw was a relatively young man. Wood was stacked in a square pile, about three feet high, on the stone platform next to the river, and straw was added to the top. The body was laid on it, with the face exposed. They performed a brief ceremony, and poured what I think must have been butter on the body, and then they lit the face first. They covered the body pretty quickly with wet straw (I think to make sure the fire burns slowly and the body is completely cremated) and wood; a man was in charge of tending the fire. What was strange by my standards, and probably yours, was that after a few minutes the swelling of the body caused both arms to lift up out of the flames about 45 degrees. The fire-tender took thick, green bamboo poles and placed them on the arms to hold them down. Later the feet stuck out through the end of the fire, and the tender tried to push them back in. When he couldn't do it, he used the bamboo poles to break the knees and fold the legs back into the fire. Is that more than you wanted to know?
Rick and I decided to go trekking in the Everest area. Rather than flying into the nearby airstrip, we walked in from the nearest road, about five days worth to the airstrip. The trek was great, but at first it was pretty hard. I wasn't in very good shape when we started, and the trail cuts across the valleys and hills, rather than following a valley. There's hardly a flat spot on the whole trek. On one day we climbed vertically 6,600 feet to the top of a pass then dropped 2,600 feet over eight hours of tough walking. The next day we walked about 75 feet to one of the other lodges and back; we needed that rest day. As we rested, we watched the steady procession of porters carrying huge loads to the Saturday market at Namche Bazaar. With few exceptions, if you see something on the trek, it was carried in on someone's back. The porters have strong woven baskets that they carry with a strap across their forehead. They are loaded with anything from beer bottles to oranges to water buffalo meat, and they are so heavy that they're difficult for me to pick up. One group had stacks of reinforcing bar inside their baskets. I picked up one of the loaded baskets and could barely get it off the ground.
Although it was very hilly, we didn't reach much altitude until the seventh day when we reached Namche Bazaar, at 11,000 feet. From there on it's only higher elevations. Although people have died at 8,000 feet from altitude sickness, most people won't have symptoms at that altitude, but many will at 11,000 feet. Severe altitude sickness is relatively common in the Everest area, and something that trekkers spend a fair amount of time discussing. Usually it's people on short vacations who try to go too high too fast who have problems. As I was walking down from the village of Gokyo, at 16,000 feet, I saw two people coming up helping a man who was so sick he couldn't stand on his own. The worst thing you can do is go higher. He ended up being rescued by helicopter the next day. I heard that last week someone was rescued from the same town but died of altitude that night.
We had a particularly difficult day when we tried to cross a pass that's 18,000 feet high. People do it quite a lot, but not often enough for it to be well marked and easy to follow. Rick and I were walking with Brigitte, who I'd met on the plane and run into at Namche. We were expecting a 6-7 hour day, but had been warned it was a little hard to find the trail. We found out later that on the way up were never on the correct trail. We were climbing over boulders and following trails that just petered out, until we could get a pretty good view of the narrow pass. It was a brutal scramble up loose scree for the last 50 yards, down on all fours with a full pack and going up two steps and losing one. At that altitude, it's absolutely exhausting. I've never been so happy to get to the top of a pass before, which will help explain my disappointment when I looked over the edge and saw the it dropped about 3,000 feet almost straight down; it was completely impassable; we were at the wrong pass. It seemed like a bad dream. It was about 5 p.m., the sun was getting low, it was getting cold, and we still had a glacier to cross when we got down the other side. After lots of "this is unbelievable" mutterings under my breath and at some volume, we decided we didn't have time to look for the correct pass; we'd have to go back down the way we'd come. Through no fault of our own, we found the main trail and had an easier time getting down. Meanwhile the sun had set, the full moon had risen, and the water in our water bottles was freezing as we walked. We walked for 3 hours in the dark, and 12 hours, with few stops, for the day. If I hadn't seen myself do it, I wouldn't have believed I could walk that hard for that long. The advantage of long days like that is that they make all the other days seem easy by comparison. We had some other tough days, including three other times at 18,000 feet, but nothing else compared.
We met a couple from New Zealand, Graham and Juliet, who were traveling for a year, and planned to be in San Francisco in the spring. I told them that they could stay with me if I was home and I'd be glad to show them around. I started telling them about when Rick and I were there and what a great time we'd had staying with people and how we'd done some work on a farm. I asked if they knew where Cheviot was, and Juliet said that's my home town. I thought, this is so great, she's going to know my friends. It turns out that the two guys we stayed with and had such an incredible time with are her brothers! I've had some surprising coincidences before, but that one's impressive.
I lost close to 20 pounds trekking. Before coming to Nepal I was on the "Ben & Jerry's Bulk Up For Trekking Diet", which I found to be particularly effective in putting on the pounds. Once here I went on the "Go Trekking, Get Giardia, Squirt Water Through Your Anus Diet", which was equally effective in taking the weight off. (Does that border on bad taste? I can never tell.) Speaking of "using the facilities", they can be a bit of a challenge when you're trekking. You don't see any porcelain the entire time you're gone. The nicer toilets will have four walls and a roof and a hole in the floor that you hope you can hit while holding a flashlight in your mouth and trying to keep your trousers off the floor. I never know whether it's better to breathe through my nose and gag, or plug my nose and wonder what's going inside my mouth. (There's no way you can eat your lunch in one of those places; I don't even try.) They're just open pits underneath, and they range from "bombs away" deep to "that's more than I want to know" shallow. It's pretty gross when it gets near the top, but if you drop something you have the advantage of being able to reach in to get it out. At one of the lodges I was witness to the cleaning of the outhouse. They lined a wicker basket with plastic, and a guy wearing fingerless gloves was shovelling the, um..., stuff (defacatum crapiolus in Latin) into the basket and carrying it off on his back a load at a time. I'm pretty sure I would want, at the very least, fingers on my gloves, if not a full scuba outfit. You know where he was taking the, um..., stuff? To fertilize the potato fields. You know, like that potatoes I was eating two and three times a day. Which takes me back to the first part of the paragraph about getting giardia. What goes around comes around, and unfortunately, sometimes it's in the form of defacatum crapiolus in your mashed potatoes. As they say in the chapter on diarrhea in one of the guide books, "It's a brave man who farts in Asia."
I've stayed at the same guest house since I've been in Kathmandu, and the guys who work here told me they make $20 a month. Plus, they work seven days a week and about 15 hours a day. They're working when I go to bed, and they're up before me. That works out to be about 70 cents a day. Things are cheap here, but last night I spent close to $5 on dinner, and that's a week's wages for them. The taxi ride I take twice a day to work is one day's pay, the Mars bar I had today is a day and a half pay, and so on. A doctor that works for the government make $60 a month.
Brigitte was volunteering in a hospital, and told of a pregnant woman who came in with a troubled delivery. She'd never been in to see the doctor, and her water had broken four days before. Her midwife had said, oh, it's no problem, you don't need the doctor. Eventually it got bad enough that she came to the doctor and he had a terrible time delivering the baby. When he finally got the baby out, the umbilical cord had gotten infected, it smelled bad, and the baby was dead. At this hospital, no mattress or sheets are provided, or food. This poor woman, who wasn't even washed after all this, slept overnight on the wood table with blankets from home. The doctor told of a woman who pregnant nine times into her third trimester and had one live birth.
I met a retired veterinarian who's been volunteering here months at a time for 11 years. A lot of the work is medical, and he tested 300 kids for worms, and only found five kids who didn't have them. He found about five different kinds of worms, including one about the size of half of a pencil. One kid after treatment expelled 200 worms that size. He read that in third world countries parasites consume 40% of the food supply. He was walking down the street in Kathmandu and felt something, and when he went into a bathroom and looked, he found one of those big worms had crawled out for some fresh air (who could blame it) and was doing a rumba in his undies. I don't know about you, but I think that's gross. Maybe I'm just sensitive.
One of the things that keeps my traveling, besides that it's not working, is my love of "funny English". I don't actively seek it out, but I try to read every t-shirt with English sayings that passes me by on the street. Local English-language newspapers are a great source; menus can be fun. I was in a Benetton store in Kathmandu, and they had a t-shirt that said "Blue family, good lookin'." I asked the guy what that meant, and he looked at me like, "hey, you're the one that speaks English, what are you asking me for?" Also, "Hopes have once again found the fuel." An ad in the paper was titled "You Are a Non-Nepali, you've been searched the teacher to teach -you Nepali-well." He also offered a "free sight-seeing service each a month." This is what kills me: if he's a language teacher, why doesn't he ask one of his students if that ad makes sense? I hate to repeat it (not really), but my favorite was from Sri Lanka, where an ad for a secretary in the newspaper required "a command of the English language that is much better than good".
I've been back in Kathmandu since November 9, doing something in between living here and just passing through. I've been looking for work, either paid or as a volunteer, and it's been a fascinating experience. I've been working for about a month with an NGO (non-governmental organization, same as a non-profit) that is administering a literacy program for women. It's funded by U.S. AID to the tune of $3 million, and the goal is to teach 300,000 women how to read and write in two years. Only about 20% of women in Nepal are literate now. It's a huge undertaking, but the actual teaching will be done by about 300 different local NGOs. The coordination required on a project that size and that geographically diverse (it's in 66 of the 75 districts of Nepal), in a country where most of the NGOs don't even have phones, is mind-boggling. We can't even rely on the mail to be sure that correspondence makes it back and forth. I've been designing a database for them to keep track of all the different NGOs and locations where the training is taking place.
It's been amazing to witness the different work habits and ways of thinking of the Nepalis compared to the U.S. (That sentence is way too generous.) It has been horrendously frustrating witnessing the differences. I asked the receptionist for the phone number of a store. She looked in her personal phone book, didn't have it, and said to me, "I'm sorry, but I don't have the number." I asked if she had a phone book, and she said "yes, it's right here." I said, "CAN I HAVE IT???" Why didn't she look there? Why didn't she suggest it? Why didn't she say, "hey, great idea, here it is" instead of just handing it to me?
I left Kathmandu to go to a 20 day silent meditation retreat in Bodhgaya, India, the site of Buddha's enlightenment. I hope someday to write about that part of the trip.
Go back to: Dave's Newsletters or to Dave & Whit's Page
You can contact me at DavidAdair@myrealbox.com
All everything © 1997 by Dave Adair.