Update on Hands in Nepal fundraising efforts

Rural village in the Annapurna range taken from my recent trip to Nepal in October-November 2010.  (For more photos and stories on my trip to Nepal, please refer to older posts located under “Nepal”).

Hello Readers!

As some of you are aware, I’ve been actively fundraising over the last two months to try to raise money to help a fabulous grass-roots NGO called HANDS IN NEPAL (www.handsinnepal.org) build a new school in rural Nepal.  A recent trip to the Annapurnas back in late October/early November struck a cord in my heart and made me realize how impoverished these wonderfully, peaceful and loving villagers are.  Over 80% of Nepalis live in rural areas that have little or no access to education.  I believe strongly that education is the key to a better future and a better life. Thus, I have worked hard over the last year or so finding NGOs that work in education and help to improve the accessibility of education and learning to the masses, especially in poor, third-world countries.

I’m pleased to say that over the last two months I’ve been able to raise over $1,000 for HANDS IN NEPAL mainly through the sales of hand-made pashmina scarves, yak-hair blankets (made in Tibet) and other local Nepali products.   To me, it feels like a win-win situation as I’m able to offer beautiful products to my friends and family that are made directly in Nepal (and Tibet for the blankets) and donate all the funds directly to Hands in Nepal.  After two weeks hiking from village to village through the Annapurnas, I saw firsthand how hard these women work to sell their beautiful, handicrafted products.  They would be sitting there all day long, some of them not much older than twenty selling their handwoven scarfes, blankets, hats and gloves all for the mere price of two US dollars a piece!  For us, it is less than a cup of Starbucks coffee but for them, it is a day’s living (as the average salary in rural Nepal is less than $2/day).

As someone who has been so incredibly fortunate to have traveled to these amazing places, I feel like it is a requirement to give back to the community.  Hence, I contacted Hands in Nepal and have worked with them ever since on trying to raise the necessary funds to help build new schools.

Per Hands in Nepal, here are some amazing facts on what our money can help build or buy:

$20 = Cost of Student Annual Supplies

$50 = Chalkboard and Teacher Supplies

$600 = One-year Teacher Salary

$1500 = One year Boarding School Scholarship for one orphan

$6,000 – $8,000 = New construction of a four room schoolhouse

Thus, it is amazing to me what a long way our money can go in such a poor country!

Last night I held my fourth fundraising event, a wine and cheese party at my home where I told the story of HANDS IN NEPAL and offered a select collection of Nepali products for sale, all in the name of charity.  It was such a wonderful feeling of accomplishment to hit over the $1,000 mark! It felt so good….like nothing I’d ever experienced in corporate America (I was in sales for many years).

There is something so special and magical about giving back that just makes me feel complete and my hope is that I can eventually reach the $8,000 mark to build a new school in rural Nepal and have a lasting impact on an entire village and generation of people.  It will take time of course to raise the money but with the help of my friends, family and children as well I plan to achieve it!

To learn more about Hands in Nepal, please visit:  www.handsinnepal.org

Some exciting news is that Hands in Nepal’s founder Danny Chaffin’s mother Jan is headed to Nepal this weekend to see if she can start up small sewing co’ops for the women.  Many rural Nepali women are forced into prostitution as there is no other way out.  Human trafficing is a huge deal in Nepal and Jan is hoping to start up another NGO to help these women and give them more options and hopefully a better life!

Global Issues Nepal Poverty SOCIAL GOOD TRAVEL BY REGION Volunteering Abroad

Final Thoughts: A Trip to Remember

I arrived home in one piece, thankful to be safe and sound and home with my family.  After the hugs and kisses from my two young children, my mother and my wonderful husband who allowed me to leave him for 17 long days half way around the world, I unpacked my suitcases and tried to settle back in to life at home.  For some reason, I found it hard to readjust.   Everything back home seemed so over the top.  The house felt too big, my closets of cloths felt too large, the cupboards of food felt too full.  The house felt claustrophobically full of too much stuff.  Too many things.  Guilt and shame spread throughout my body like a chill.  How could life here be so incredibly different than in Nepal?  How could we have so much, too much, when people in Nepal live happily and peacefully with nothing.  It didn’t make sense. 

I realized immediately that I was going through a reverse culture shock similar to what I had experienced after returning home after eight months living in France.  But this time it was different.  This time it motivated me and inspired me to do something about it.  I had changed, that is for sure.  Now it was time to do something about it.   

Over the last few months I’ve been in contact with HANDS IN NEPAL and other non-profit organizations in hope to someday help make a difference.  It is hard to say right now exactly what I’ll be able to do and when, but I’ve promised myself that I’ll do something whether it be fundraising for a school in Nepal or even volunteering there in the future.

For now, I try to keep myself abreast of news in Nepal by following the news, keeping in touch with Hari and reading books on Nepal.  I recently picked up a book titled “Little Princes” by Conor Grennan, which is a phenomenal, highly inspirational read about a young, American man’s attempt to find the families of trafficked children in Nepal.  It is an unbelievable story and beautifully written.  Proceeds of the book sales go to the non-profit organization that Conor started called Next Generation Nepal (NGN) (www.nextgenerationnepal.org).  I highly recommend reading this book!  Here is a link to the review on Amazon.com:



Now that I am finished telling my travel stories of Nepal, I am next moving on to the other part of the globe, Central America, to discuss my recent volunteer trip to Costa Rica, another highly inspirational experience that taught me a lot.  I hope you enjoyed my Nepal entries and look forward to writing about Costa Rica!  Pura Vida!


Leaving Nepal

We spent our last night in Nepal attending another Culture night (music, dance and food representing a variety of diverse Nepali Cultures) with Rajan, the President of Earthbound Expeditions.  Another couple from Spain joined us for the last hurrah in Nepal.  The couple was recently married and spent the last two weeks on their honeymoon in Nepal touring the remote Mustang region, a newly opened trekking area which has very limited facilities (basically camping the entire time) yet is supposedly Tunbelievable. 

We had a wonderful time sharing stories of our treks and praising Rajan for his remarkable service and commitment to ensuring every need was met on our trek.  Another friendship was made with the “social ambassador” himself (see post dated 2/28/11).  Rajan depends a lot on word of mouth for his business so we promised him that we would complete a review of Earthbound and our trek on tripadvisor, which I gladly did immediately upon my return to the states.  Earthbound has over 126 reviews on tripadvisor to date and all are 5 stars.  To read the reviews, go to: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g293890-d1148178-Reviews-Earthbound_Day_Expeditions-Kathmandu.html)

Since this was my last night in Nepal, I had time to discuss with Rajan and also reflect on what the “third eye” had discovered and learned in Nepal.  Hari, our cultural, nonstop smiling and laughing guide really taught us a tremendous amount and our experience in Nepal would not have been the same without him.  We learned about the importance of religion in Nepal and how Buddhism and Hinduism coexist somehow without problems.  We also learned about how the culture is struggling to move ahead into the future.  There needs to be some give and take between abandoning some of the old traditions and customs (such as the caste system which is still very prevalent in Nepal) and modernizing to newer, more western traditions.  For instance, living together as an unmarried couple is pretty much unheard of in Nepal and is unacceptable.  Marriages are not always “arranged” per se, however, the entire courtship process in Nepal is much different than it is in the States.  Prospective brides are usually picked out from the village or a neighboring village and are of the same caste.  The prospective groom meets with the young woman and talks to see if there is any interest in a union.  Love marriages happen but are not that common.  Dating before marriage is still something that isn’t really done. 

As for the male and female’s role in Nepal, women do not have anywhere near as many freedoms and rights as women do in other countries.  Women are expected to work very hard, raising the children, keeping the house, cooking the meals, and working in the fields.  It is the male that holds the most esteem, respect and responsibility in the family structure.  The oldest son is responsible for caring for his parents as they grow old and often returns to the village to help out with the harvesting, and is involved in important religious ceremonies and holidays.  Due to lack of opportunities and poverty, many women end up in prostitution, either by choice or not.  It is a sad reality that needs to be addressed. 

Hari, as a twentysomething, modern young Nepali man with a bright future, hopes that Nepal can move ahead economically and socially soon.  However, change is slow and the government is very corrupt.  There is a lot of opportunity in Nepal yet no real infrastructure or jobs.  Hari hopes someday Nepal can follow the path of other neighboring stars such as India and South Korea while retaining their rich cultural heritage and importance of family.  It is a mixed bag that is for sure.  For one thing, the people in Nepal are lovely people and their culture is absolutely amazing.   Yet they are much too poor overall and lack education and opportunities (ranked 142 out of 177 countries on the UN Human Development Index; 82% Nepalis live on less than $2 a day; Literacy rate of 48.6%—-facts from Lonely Planet Nepal 8th edition).  It is a tragedy however hopefully bright stars like Hari and Rajan, through their work, will help move Nepal slowly forward, one step at a time. 

We left Nepal early the next morning, headed for our final leg of the trip, a few days in India.  It was a bittersweet feeling boarding the plane.  As we lifted off, we passed above the vibrant green rice terraces, stacked up towards the sky and over and beyond the magnificent snow-capped mighty Himalayas.  I felt that I had experienced a lifetime in only two weeks.  It was a peculiar feeling.  I was very sad to be leaving but I knew deep down in my heart, that I would be back.

Our final night out during the continuation of The Festival of Lights, in Kathmandu Nepal:




The Monkeys at Monkey Temple

It was our last full day in Nepal so I wanted to make the most of it.  We had been away from home for two weeks now but it felt like a lifetime.  I find that when you travel, the further away from your own life at home you get, the longer it feels like you’ve been gone.  That is one of the beauties and pleasures of traveling off the beaten path.  You can only find and remember home if you seek it.

For our last day, instead of lounging around our incredibly beautiful, luxurious, living museum hotel, I wanted to get right into the thick of all things cultural and do a tour of all the ancient, magnificent sites of old Kathmandu.  With the help of Rajan (Earthbound Expeditions), I hired my own English-speaking guide and driver who took me on a mini-three hour tour of the stunning temples and palaces of Durbar Square, and then a visit to magnificent Swayambhunath, also known as The Monkey Temple.  

Located in the heart of the ancient city of Kathmandu, Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site, is a complex of beautiful temples and shrines representing both Buddhist and Hindu culture and architecture.  Most of the buildings were built between the 12th and 18th centuries, and was the place where the kings lived and were crowned up until the early 20th century.

Here are some pictures of my favorite sites in the square:

Leaving Thamel:

Shiva-Parbati Temple:

Maju Dega Temple:

Kumari-ghar (Built in 1757 and home of the “Kumari” or living goddess):

Taleju Temple:  Built in 1564

Kumari-ghar again:  Look at the gorgeous woodwork:

To learn more about Durbar Square or Nepal:  Visit www.kathmandu.gov.np


After taking in as much as I could in Durbar Square, my driver took me on another wild and crazy, chaotic drive, up the windy roads filled with trinket shops and monks, to Swayambhunath, or The Monkey Temple. 

I thought about how to describe the place and found that there were really no words that I could conjure up better than Lonely Planet.  Per the 8th edition of Lonely Planet Nepal:  “A journey up to the Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath is one of the definitive experiences of Kathmandu.  Mobbed by monkeys and soaring above the city on a lofty hilltop, ‘The Monkey Temple’ is a fascinating, chaotic jumble of Buddhist and Hindu iconography”.   It is something you have to see and experience for yourself to really understand it’s significance and beauty.  It is quite a site! 

As we entered the grounds, there was this immense expectation and anticipation of seeing monkeys.  Where are the monkeys?  I wandered, looking around a bit confused.  Lone behold, after taking my first steps up to the temple, the place was loaded with monkeys.  Monkeys were everywhere….climbing up the steps, eating on the railings, nursing their babies, posing for pictures, chasing tourists, fighting each other, and my most favorite of all, swinging for the colorful prayer flags that lined the trees!  In fact, you couldn’t even escape the monkeys even if you tried. 

Here are some pictures of the monkeys at the Monkey Temple:

The sights at the temple:




The stupa:

View on top of temple, overlooking massive Kathmandu:


The Social Ambassador

The president of Earthbound Expeditions, Rajan Simkhada, is an amazingly talented, impressive and humble man.  He has worked in Nepal’s tourism industry for years, was raised in the villages and now resides in Kathmandu where he runs his travel agency.

Earthbound Expeditions was created over 14 years ago, and is a leading adventure tourism agency that leads the traveler “off the beaten path” on trekking trips throughout the Himalayan darlings, Nepal, India, Tibet, and Bhutan.  Over the years, as Earthbound gained raving reviews and more and more customers came, the company branched out into philanthropy work focusing on responsible, sustainable (social and environmental) travel.  His company promotes rural development by giving back 10% of their profits each year in these areas.    Per Earthbound, “responsible travel is a new way of travelling and trekking for those who’ve had enough of mass tourism.  It’s about respecting and benefiting local people and the environment-but it’s far more than that”.   It involves respect for the local culture, minimal environmental impact and giving back to the community.  In an increasingly global world, social responsibility and tourism go hand and hand and it is refreshing to find a company dedicated to working with and for their people. 

Besides running the trekking company, Rajan is also very busy in his philanthropic work.   He is the founder of Mamata Volunteers a non-profit organization that matches US volunteers with customized volunteer programs within Nepal.  Below is information on the scope of Mamata Volunteers, written on their website, www.mamatavolunteers.org:

Mamata Volunteer’s mission is to provide volunteers with a customized program that will enable them to make an important contribution to the people of Nepal, while also gaining an in-depth experience of Nepal’s language and culture that will stay with the volunteers for the rest of their lives. Join us and experience this unique Cultural Immersion and Responsible Travel Program in Nepal one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Mamata Volunteers is a non-profit organization stationed both in Nepal and in the United States. As a part of our Volunteer Program, Mamata first provides instructional training on local language and culture and only then do we place our trained volunteers in schools, hospitals, orphanage and communities across the region. Volunteers will have the chance to teach English, stay with children in local care houses, and help with community based programs like health camps, environment cleaning, empowerment of women and more. Come join us for a truly life changing experience at the Top of the World, Nepal.

Rajan also serves as National Director of HANDS IN NEPAL, a grassroots non-profit organization founded by a young, highly talented American man, Danny Sprague Chaffin, that focuses on building schools in rural Nepal.  Their first school (a four-room schoolhouse made of stone and cement with a tin roof) was recently completed for the cost of around $6,000 and provides education to over 80 children in the village of Dharka.  To learn and heard more about his story, you can visit the website at:  http://www.handsinnepal.blogspot.com/

You can also see an amazing documentary of Danny’s experience on YouTube.  Here is the link and it is definitely worth a view and incredibly inspirational:


Finally, Rajan and Earthbound is the leading patron and sponsor of the Buddhist Bal Griha Orphanage in Kathmandu, Nepal.  The Orphanage provides a home for over fifty children who come from disadvantaged rural communities.  In many cases, the families simply cannot afford to keep their children so they are abandoned.   


It is amazing people like Rajan and Danny (and all the others out there in the world) who are making positive change in Nepali people’s lives.  Something that should inspire each one of us travelers to follow in their path and make a difference in the world, whether it be a financial donation, volunteer work or simply a smile.  I believe that sharing our unique cultures, respecting and learning from other cultures, and helping others, all go hand in hand to make the world a better place!


To learn more about Earthbound Expeditions and their work please see their website:

Adventure travel and treks:


Responsible Travel:



Other awesome non-profits working to help Nepal:




A Living Museum

Our hotel in Kathmandua, The Dwarika’s Hotel, is a treasure of a find.  It is a World Heritage Hotel (one of only two in Nepal) and is a sort of living museum.  The hotel has a unique and fascinating history.  It all began in 1952 when the founder of the hotel, the late Dwarika Das Shrestha was on one of his morning jogs around the city and noticed that several ancient, exquisite woodcarvings dating from the 14th century were being cut down by carpenters to be used as firewood in the face of modernization.  Horrified and angry that these ancient cultural jewels were being destroyed, he begged them to stop.  Over the years, the saving, restoration and preservation of these woodcarvings became a lifelong passion and resulted in the building of The Dwarika’s Hotel.  The hotel was built using these gorgeous woodcarvings and terra cotta artifacts and captures the beauty of Nepal’s ancient cities.  It truly is a work of art and is continually being restored and preserved to this day.  There is even a school located on the hotel grounds where carpenters are trained in the creation, preservation and restoration of the ancient woodcarvings.  It is quite an excellent example of how tourism and cultural preservation can go hand and hand. 

For those interested in learning more and seeing more intricate photos of this amazing hotel, please see their website at:  http://www.dwarikas.com           

 Here are some photos of the lovely hotel.



Airport Syringes

We sadly left Pokhara the next morning for our short half-hour flight back to Kathmandu.  The plane was bigger and better than the last flight from Jomson but still not a jet.  I had mixed feelings about returning.  Yes, I was excited to be finished with the trek and shortly returning home to my husband and two young children (4 and 6 years old…still that delightful, imaginative age where they cuddle, laugh and think I’m the best!).  Yet, I was very sad because I knew that we would soon be saying goodbye to Hari and Chhring, who we had spent the last two weeks inseparable—- laughing, learning and sharing our different worlds.   Our goodbye to Chhring came sooner.  He was headed home to his village via an eight hour bus ride, followed by six hours hiking up to his remote village where his young wife and baby awaited his return. 

We waited for our flight in the crammed, smoky departure lounge of the small Pokhara airport.  I was thirsty and wanted to purchase a Sprite but just couldn’t do it when I learned it cost $4.  I had spent too much time in Nepal!  But there were some things that I had to remind myself of the importance of using that “third eye”.  Like the dirty, fly-infested women’s bathroom inside the Pokhara airport.  It wasn’t the hole in the ground that made me cringe.  After two weeks with rarely a western toilet in sight, that didn’t bother me anymore.  It was the other thing I noticed.  The dirty, used syringes lying naked on the floor.  I chose to look the other way but it really brought everything I learned and saw in Nepal back to home.  Remember the third eye! 

The flight was nice and smooth and soon we returned to the same vibrant green rice terraces and the low-lying coating of smog that covers Kathmandu Valley like a blanket.  We were welcomed at the airport by Hari’s wife, son, uncle and niece, with a Namaste and of course a marigold necklace.  It was such an honor to meet his family.  The only regret was that we couldn’t speak the same language.  We wanted to tell them how wonderful Hari is and how much we love Nepal.   Hopefully our warm, glowing smiles made them understand what words could not say. 

The seven of us all piled into Hari’s uncle’s small sedan with four of us smashed in the back and three in the front.  This is not something I would do at home but it is quite common in Nepal where cars are expensive and safety standards are much different.  It was an uncomfortable ride back in the insane traffic and driving madness of Kathmandu.  It was still the festival so more people than ever were out and about, shopping, visiting family and hitting the roads in jam-packed, overflowing buses headed off to the villages.  We arrived at Hari’s neighborhood an hour later to see his pride and joy:  His cybercafé.  Hari had spent three years working in Dubai in order to save enough money to start his business and it was a major accomplishment for a 28-year-old Nepali.  Unfortunately he is having a tough go at running the business since the government has daily electricity shutdowns of sometimes up to 6 hours in order to conserve energy.  As a developing country, Nepal does not have enough power to keep the country going so they have to turn it off.  It doesn’t reflect well on running a business that’s for sure but it sadly is a way of life.  Nepal desperately needs better infrastructure so they can move ahead like their neighbors India and South Korea who are booming.  But it never seems to happen.

We took our final snapshots of us together at our hotel and said our goodbyes.  It was very touching because Hari had secretly bought my children a gift.  He gave me one pink and one red handmade Nepali journal made with rice paper and a hand-woven bag for each child.  I was very humbled by his gift.  He wanted my children to have something special from Nepal.  And they did.

Here is a beautiful picture of Hari and his family in Kathmandu:

Inside Hari’s cybercafe, Kathmandu:

 The blessing of the cow on the streets of Kathmandu:


Indiana Jones

We woke early to darkness and silence.  It was 6 am yet no other guests were up and there were no yaks grunting or bell-jingling of a passing mule train to break the silence.  It was time to go to the airport and pray the planes were flying.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like Jomson.  I was just ready to move ahead to Pokhara…beautiful, dreamlike heaven.  I had heard from many that Pokhara is a special place, the Shangri-La of Nepal.  Gorgeous mountain views of the Annapurna range in all their glory reflect across the aquamarine Phewa Tal lake.  Besides Pokhara’s serene setting and beauty, Pokhara is also known as a more laid-back Thamel (the touristy, shopping district of Kathmandu) and offers the visitor an array of shopping, dining and adventure-seeking sports.  I couldn’t wait to get there.  Initially we had only planned on flying through Pokhara but due to a few back-to-back days of extra hiking we were able to land an extra day into our tight schedule and looked forward to enjoying it in Pokhara with our friends Hari and Chrring.

The airport experience was frightening.  A large group of trekkers were lined outside the gates at ten to seven with weary, tired looks on their face.  The machine-gun clod airport security guarded the small airport doors with looks of superiority and boredom.  Finally, at seven am the doors opened and the hordes filed inside.  There was no rhyme or reason to the ticket lines:  Just lots of budding in line, pushing and shoving.  Hari, whose miraculous guiding expertise, saved the day once again and got us the last four tickets on the flight.

Next we headed to the “women’s” and “men’s” lines for our pat-downs.  Each passenger went through a private room, where their entire body got a check for weapons.  It was funny because there was so much fuss back at home in the US about the detested pat-downs and how it invaded privacy and personal rights.  Yet pat-downs are just a fact of life traveling in Nepal and India.  At any airport, you have at least two of them (in Dehli, even three!).  It never bothered me one bit and instead, made me feel much more secure.  I found through my travels that security is on an entirely different level.  Bags and luggage is hand-checked, smelled and tested.  Pat-downs are fierce, and the intimidating guns are there to remind you to stay in line.  You can’t even enter the Dehli airport without a printing out boarding pass.  The security is so intense that there are dudes with enormous guns waiting outside every single door into the airport.  No ticket, no entrance. 

We boarded the small, 14-person aircraft with elation and fear.  I detest small planes and was nervous about this flight even before I left the States (see earlier post:  Is it Safe?).  The plane was old and you could barely stand up inside.  I held my Buddhist prayer beads tightly and tried to relax.  Hari found my nervousness humorous and tried to make me laugh.  The engines revved up, my heart fluttered and my palms were soaking wet.  Then we started to go, not fast, not slow, down the runway and gently lifted into the sky.

The plane flew at an alarmingly low altitude (Only 10,000 feet!) which felt so strange after hiking ABOVE that altitude for days.  You had to crane your neck to see the mighty mountains soaring above you 15,000 feet up into the sky.  I tried not to look at how close we were to the rocky sides of the mountains or how the plane barely made it over the trees.  I squeezed the beads tightly yet marveled how much the flight reminded me of a scene in an Indiana Jones movie (for those readers who are not as old as me, Indiana Jones is an adventurer whose first big movie was a hit in 1981 called Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Alas, we saw the gorgeous green, terraced rice fields and the outline of a town tucked away at the base of the mountains.  It was Pokhara and we landed safe and sound into the hot, bright sun once again.  I finally let go of my prayer beads yet did not take them off until I arrived safely at home in Minnesota several days later.  I still needed them for surviving the drive of terror in India!  That will come later!

For now, here are some lovely shots of the flight and beautiful, serene Pokhara.

The flight:

The runway:

Inside…too close for comfort:

Even a flight attendant!

The views outside the window….

Views outside the window:


Lovely Pokhara…at last!


A hike with a Monk

The next morning we set off for the last leg of our Annapurna trek:  The short, four-hour trek to Jomson, which is the major hub in the region and boasts an airport, hospital and other resources.  We had made it over three-fourth of the Annapurna Circuit trek (there were about six more days of walking if you wanted to complete the entire circuit making 19 days total).  We were ready to be done, though.

The walk was probably the most uninteresting one of the trek.  It was brown, rocky and barren without the unbelievable mountain sites you normally see.  We followed a huge river valley, one foot in front of the other, walking at a good speed as we had an extra motivation to arrive quickly to Jomson.  Hari, our unbelievably, magical, “can make anything happen”, guide had called ahead to Jomson airport and had confirmed there was one more flight out that morning to Pokhara.  Pokhara….just the sound of it brought images of breathtaking mountain views, gourmet food, much wanted shopping and fun!  It represented the finish line, the celebration, and heaven. 

A funny thing happened along the way.  In front of us, we approached a party of three walkers and noticed a monk, dressed in his long, flowing maroon robe.  He was doing some sort of a pilgrimage to the next monastery.  The sight of him in his magical robe, walking so effortlessly in sandals, made me smile.  I waited behind our group and took some photos of him.  As I started to pass him along the trail, I noticed he was wearing a white knit hat that said USA on it.  I had to laugh.  Again, what are the odds?  A Buddhist monk walking the Annapurna trail in his American hat! 

As we neared Jomson, my nerves were driving me crazy.  I wanted to make that plane yet I didn’t.  Hari had promised hot, delicious meals (other than our standard Dal Bhat, the national food of Nepal), lots of beer and fun.  Wouldn’t that be better than spending yet another night without a western toilet?  We walked and walked, as fast as we could, and noticed the wind begin to pick up.  Wind is one of the main reasons why flights are unpredictable in mountainous Nepal.  They fly small (14-person) planes, relatively low throughout the valleys (10,000 feet!) so it can be quite dangerous.  The flight was the one and only thing I had been nervous about my entire time in Nepal (well, besides making it over the pass).  I had read in Lonely Planet and researched on the web that airline safety is not Nepal’s forte.  I’ve flown a lot in my life but I do not like small planes.  So I was very anxious about it. 

Four hours later, we arrived in Jomson and literally walked right up to the airport with our packs on.   It was a strange feeling, walking right to the airport.  But security was still tight.  In fact, it was surprisingly tight.  There were a few military guys waiting outside holding their big, intimidating guns to make sure no one who wasn’t wanted got through.  To our dismay, the last plane just left.  The winds were too strong so the airport closed.  It was only one o’clock.

We headed back to our “hotel” (it was actually a hotel and not a teahouse…a sign of civilization) which was directly across the street from the airport.  The afternoon was spent resting, reading, and an early happy hour of jacks and Tubourg with our friends Hari and Chrring.  It was also a special night because it was gratuity night.   Guides and Porters are paid a small stipend for their work however the big reward for their services is the tip.  We wanted to make sure they were well-paid for their incredible service, loyalty and help.  Yet we also didn’t want it to feel awkward given the difference in monetary standards between what is a good tip in America and Nepal.  As I mentioned earlier, most Nepali people survive on less than $2/day so we had to be sensitive about this imbalance.  Before we left for the trek, we had asked Rajan, the owner of the trekking company, what is standard and opted to give them the standard plus a little more.   As a Westerner, you often find yourself in an uncomfortable situation in which you desperately want to give them everything you’ve got, to help them succeed and build their lives, but you know you can’t.  You hope that the memories of the time you shared together and your friendship is a better gift than just the money.  But you also are well aware that the money helps tremendously to gain a better future for themselves and the next generation. 

Here are some shots along the way.


Here it is!  The walk with a Monk:

And here is Chrring, 22 years old, strong, happy and smiling still (word has it that he is taking English lessons in Kathmandu and hopefully will be promoted to a guide):

The town of Jomson.  Traditional houses.

Our hotel with the airport across the street:

A much too common site in Nepal.  Cow eating garbage:

Need I say more? 


The long hike down

After our initial jumps of joy and jubilation, followed by the throngs of fellow trekkers in line for the primo photo op, a tasteless mint tea, and hugs abound, we set off for the long, knee-aching hike down. Unfortunately I was so focused on making it to the top of the pass that I kind-of forgot we had a very long way left to go. Probably the worst part of the hike remained: Six more, grueling hours descending 6,000 feet until we would be done for the day. Even the mules were tired.

The trek down was surprisingly dangerous. It was very slippery, loaded with ice and plenty of loose rocks along the steep path. My knees killed with a sharp excruciating pain during each, careful step down. The craziest thing of all is that we were soon passed by a couple of Belgium guys on mountain bikes! It was extraordinarily dangerous and shocking that it was even permitted. There were points on the trail when the bikers had to get off and walk their bikes down because it was so steep. Perhaps what was even more surprising was the fact that they had to carry their heavy bikes all the way up to the pass on their backs, at such high altitude. At least the ride down was easy despite the danger involved to themselves and other trekkers (there were a few close calls).
The landscape turned barren, bleak and brown. There was no vegetation in sight. It was the closest point along the trek to Tibet and I felt like we were on another planet. Yet despite the starkness, the landscape was beautiful and serene. The foothills and slopes of the brown mountain landscape looked like freshly whipped butter. The folds went on and on into the vast emptiness of the land. The pass was now far behind us and in the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the mountains juxtaposed nicely against the dirty brown landscape.
We walked down, and down, and down, dragging our feet while conversation flowing steady but slow. There were no teahouses along the way for a tea break or snack. Nothing but the land. The familiar “Are we there yet” questions began to creep back out of my mouth, even though I didn’t want to be the wimp. My 68-year-old father pressed ahead, continually amazing me and Hari alike. I followed painfully as the third and Chrring with the two thirty-pound backpacks and as always a smile, was at the end of our group.
I felt bad even thinking about being tired and “struggling” with the hike. For this is a way of life for most Nepalese. They didn’t have the latest gear: The REI brand, heavy-duty hiking boots, the fleece jackets, sunscreen, trekking poles, and serious backpacks. No they didn’t have any of these “luxury” items which are a trekker’s standard. Instead, they hiked uncomplaining in worn-out sneakers, torn pants, old coats, no sunglasses, and sometimes even flip-flops. The guilt crept in my head and made me feel ashamed. Ashamed of my complaining and sad that our lives had so many material comforts that are unknown to most of the world. Life isn’t fair, that is for sure.
Finally, like an oasis in the dessert, the tiny, brown formation of a village appeared within the distance. It was still an hour away but at least we finally saw it and knew it was real. The village of Muktinath awaited us and it was only at 11,512 feet! We could barely walk when we arrived. Utterly exhausted. Thankfully, we FINALLY had a hotel with a hot shower, yet it was still outside our room. It was the first hot shower we’d had since leaving Kathmandu. Plus there was an unexpected surprise….the long-forgotten western toilet was in our room! No more walking to the communal holes at two am. I was overjoyed at these small plumbing luxuries that we always take for granted at home.
The day was spent relaxing in the bright, warm sun on the rooftop deck of our teahouse. Happy hour was more joyous than usual since we were at a lower altitude where it was a little safer to drink and we were celebrating. We only had one day left of hiking and then we would be off to Pokhara, the real reward of the trek.
There was nice local shopping in Muktinath. The next morning before setting out on our final walk, we did a little shopping and I negotiated a new hand-woven, wool scarf for the “morning price” of $2.00. Wow. I still wear it happily today.

Here are some pictures along the way.

Even the mules are exhausted:

 After the pass:  The long hike down:


Porters from large trekking group taking a break:

Off in the distance, the village awaits…at last!

The rooftop deck:

The $2 scarf:


The Gates of Hell

At last, we made it to our final destination Thorung Phedi before the highlight of the trek: The infamous, intimidating Thorung-La Pass at 17,769 feet/5416m). Thorung Phedi is an extremely remote place with only two small “hotels”. There are no shops, no cafes, no trees….just barren, brown landscape. Little did I know it was the place from hell! Well not that bad but it gave you the feeling that you were trapped. It was the point of no return. You either made it over the pass or you had to walk all the way back to the beginning. The worries of not making it over the pass loomed over each trekkers head with the realization that you weren’t exactly sure yet how your body would react to the altitude (severe altitude sickness is not something you can mess around with. If you ignore the signs and don’t descend, you can die). After nine grueling days of trekking and feeling completely unhygienic, you just wanted to get over that damn pass and get back to some sort of civilization (even if it lacked the long coveted western toilet).

As you enter the main teahouse at Thorung Phedi, you are instantly shocked by the stinky, gamey smell of hundreds of trekkers, who like yourself are filthy and haven’t had a hot shower now for a number of days. You are crammed like sardines into the main dining area which is the only place warm enough to pass the time before bed. Most days, there is barely a spot to be had so you end up sitting on the concrete steps, uncomfortably close to an unknown smelly hiker, or standing. We opted to stand and I’m glad we did as we met the owner of the teahouse’s son, who had a lot to say. Apparently his father started the teahouse many years ago and today (of course his son didn’t tell me this….I heard it from our trusted guide Hari) the family is very wealthy in Nepali standards. They spend the short six-month season at the teahouse, working like a dog, and then leave to travel around the world. Even more unbelievable was the news that this young man’s brother lives in the United States, in my hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota (population @ 2 million). It was one of those strange moments when you realize what a small world it truly is!

Unfortunately the lodging situation was less to be desired. There really wasn’t anywhere to go except the jam-packed dining hall because our room was miserable. It was literally a square, refrigerated box lined with stones and an attached bathroom (just a hole but it was luxury to have it in our room and not down the hall or worse yet, outside). It was so ungodly cold in the room that you had to wear everything you had (your Gortex coat, long underwear, hiking pants, wool socks, wool hat, wool sweater, and gloves, which of course were all very dirty by this point), AND you had to lay under your sleeping bag with a yak-wool, heavy duty blanket on top. Being from Minnesota where the winters can easily get to 10-20 below zero F, you would think that I would be ok with the frigid air but it was absolutely miserable. The little sleeping I did accomplish was spent with my head under all the covers trying not to suffocate.

It was a terrible night (thankfully the only bad night we ever had). We ate dinner early, and tried our best to go to bed by 6:30 PM knowing very well that we wouldn’t sleep a wink given the high altitude, the severe cold, and the anxiety of the next day. The knocking on our door began at 3:30 AM and I seriously felt like I had never fallen asleep. The thought of getting out of bed when I was already frozen to the bone wasn’t pleasant but the thought of having to spend another night in hell was worse. So I jumped out of bed, of course already fully clothed (since I slept in them) and joined our small group for breakfast of hot mint tea and Tibetan bread with honey.

We set off in the pitch black dark at 4 AM along with the hundreds of other trekkers slowly stumbling up the mountain, huffing and puffing into the darkness. It was cold, windy and quiet. Each step was slow. You could hardly breathe. It was the highest point I’d ever been in my life and I was quite worried about getting altitude sickness. Yet ironically, the beauty of the starlight trail lined with the twinkling glow of headlamps made me relax and stay focused. One foot in front of the next, breathe slowly, I told myself.

It was slippery and so dark. A few mules almost lost it over the edge. It was incredibly exhausting as well. Like walking up a treadmill with no air. Yet we kept going because the memories of the Gates of Hell obsessed my brain and the visions of a nicer place awaited me.

Hari was my all time savior. He was my cheerleader, motivator, drill sergeant…you name it. He kept me going and took excellent care of me. He wasn’t the least bit concerned about my 68-year-old father who has been climbing much bigger mountains than this pass. Hari was concerned about me: A stay-at-home Mom with two little kids who he’d talked to on his cell phone. We’d become good friends and his focus was on getting me across the pass.

After an hour and a half of endless, baby steps up with my little-kid questions “Are we there yet”? and Hari’s continued response “Only five more minutes”, we were closing in. I was too exhausted to realize he was lying to me but of course it was only in my best interest because he knew I would make it.

Finally, as the sun began to rise and it hit 6:30 AM we could see the pass. I was breathing fine which was such a relief. I surprised myself and realized in that moment, that anything is possible. It almost felt better than finishing a marathon (which I did ten years ago and then couldn’t sit without hurting for an entire year!).

After such a long journey and so much time spent together, we had to get a few celebration shots with Hari and Chrring. We couldn’t have done it without them. Reaching the top was a moment I’ll never forget!

Here are some photos along the way (Note: I included some from the previous post, heading up to the pass because I thought they were good shots. Unfortunately the pictures are in REVERSE order….some kind of technical difficulty here but you get the point. The first ones are at the pass at 6:30 am, climbing up are the next ones).


Up, Up, and Away

I was awoken to the feeding of the mules, gearing up for their long day of transporting goods. Today was going to be a long, brutal day. The scheduled hike for the day was supposed to be to Yak Khara, only four hours away. But we wanted to get ahead of the hordes of trekkers in Manang and keep going. Thus we opted to continue on going up all the way to the last village (Thorung Phedi at 14,570 feet) before the highlight of the trek, the Thorung pass.

The trek was grueling, yet the scenery and company were fantastic. The mule trains dwindled as did our fellow trekking groups and you really felt like you were out there in the middle of nowhere. The surrounding mountains were as majestic as ever and it was so peaceful that the only sounds you could hear were our labored breathing and exhalations as we climbed higher and higher into the thinning air.

One thing that continued to amaze me was the contrast between the two worlds: The old and the new. We were in the middle of nowhere with hardly enough electricity to eat through a meal at the teahouses yet porters who made nothing in our standards were walking by chatting away on their cell phones. It was unbelievable. As I mentioned before, there are few phones along the trail and internet access is not great either. Yet I was able to use Hari’s cell phone from at least 80% of the trek to call home and touch base with my family. One night, Hari even volunteered to escort me fifteen minutes up the mountain from our village in the moonlight in order to get reception to call home. It struck me as quite remarkable and reminded me just how small the world is getting.

Although the trek up was long and exhausting, we still pressed on, filled with interesting conversations and lots of laughs with Hari and Chrring. It was hard to believe that the trek for us was nearing an end (due to time constraints, my father and I were only doing half of the Annapurna trek. The full trek can take up to three weeks to finish). It was hard to imagine not being together and sharing these moments of laughter, joy, tranquility and spirituality together. We had become such good friends in such a short time. Yet we were very tired from all the physical work and quite frankly, dreaming of that western toilet and hot shower and warm bed which seemed forever away.

As we neared the end of our 9 hour hike up, dragging our feet and looking forward to a hot meal, I realized that I had made it to the highest altitude I’ve ever been to before (14,570 feet) and thankfully, I felt fine. Altitude sickness can be a serious problem starting even before Manang (at 10,000 feet) and unfortunately, if you get altitude sickness at this point you have only two options: (1) Get emergency evacuation via helicopter which costs a fortune, or (2) Walk ALL THE WAY BACK….at least 6-8 days walking depending on how bad you feel. Thus having no sign of altitude sickness at this point was a very good thing.

Finally, after hours of trekking we finally saw a brownish brick building in the clearing. We had made it to the last village before the pass, Thorung Phedi, a world of its own.

Here are some pictures along the way (Note the third picture: There is a man standing on top of the building which gives you a sense of the size of the mountains. The last two pictures who the remote village of Thorong Phedi which consists of two teahouses and nothing else but wind):