Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The “I did it my way” Award (New Year's Reflections)

I'm interrupting my Nepal chronicles to reflect on the closing of 2014. This year was absolutely full for me, from having major surgery, to officially graduating with my Master's, to commissioning into the U.S. Navy, to side-stepping animal dung all around the Himalayas. I was musing about my "plan" for 2015 and couldn't help but remember a post I wrote last year which describes the way I've always "planned" my life. Not to discount the merits of writing down goals and going after things tenaciously and all, but I still feel like this approach works pretty well too. Thoughts? 

The "I Did It My Way" Award
Original Post: June 10, 2013

In Japan, a couple of my friends made some poignant assessments of me that stuck in my head.

1. While we were all discussing my knack for strange things to constantly occur in my life, my friend Sean mused something to the effect of,“ it’s like you aren’t compatible….” To which I asked “not compatible with what?” And, in confused amusement, he finally answers “….with….everything…..else.”

Ha! I think that’s pretty accurate, actually.

2. While my friend Rebecca was explaining to her mother the reason why she ended up naked in a public bath that electrocuted her, she began with “well Dana is the kind of person that once she knows something exists, she has to try it….”

Again, pretty dead-on.

3. I can’t even remember what we were discussing but at some point Rebecca joked about me being bull-headed and I proudly announced that I did, in fact, earn a “I Did it My Way” superlative during my semester abroad in college. To which she, without hesitation, agreed, “of course you did.”

And I really did. After nearly four months living in Europe with a group from my University (detailed in the posts starting HERE), we had a little ceremony before heading back to the States where we all were given cute little awards describing traits that were seen in us throughout the semester.  And to my confusion and surprise, mine was called “I did it my way.”

Perhaps it was because my professor was just as bull-headed as me and at times, just as immature, which I pounced on. Perhaps it was my little stubborn stint of “finishing” my homework in order to go to Spain for the weekend (homework written in three different handwriting styles given that my friends sat in the floor and scribbled with me furiously while the cab was on its way to pick us up). Perhaps it was jokes I made, like when the professor left a little snarky note in our living area that said “there is no dish-washing fairy so wash your dishes,” and I later realized the name of the dish soap we had was “Fairy,” leaving me no other choice than to point out that there was, in fact, a dish-washing fairy….

Or perhaps it was because I ended up getting a grade below what I thought I deserved and I fought for so long with that professor about it that she actually hung up on me during our last phone conversation. In any case, after seeing various traits in other people, she saw in me – determination to go my own way.

But regardless of the reason I end up doing things “my way” – be it that I’m just being stubborn or because it just doesn’t occur to me to do things “normally” – I feel like it usually works out. But that can be difficult to explain to other people. Like everyone these days pushing bucket lists and "life coaches."

I feel like I’m constantly being pressured to tell people my “plans.” What do I want to do “next”? What are my “goals”? What’s my personal “development strategy”?  I always end up sitting there looking back on how my life has “developed” thus far and the only way to describe it is how most people describe my “not-compatible-with-other-things” life in general: Random.

I ended up in my career because I was tired of being in small towns and my friend told me she spent a semester in D.C. – so I did that. Even though I knew nothing about D.C. or politics or cared. I just went on a whim in order to get to a big city.

I ended up in grad school because my ex-boyfriend wanted his Master's and didn’t want to go alone. So I did it too.

I ended up in a band because I got bored one day and started perusing Craigslist for some kind of creative outlet. Even though I'd never sang in public before outside of church or school choirs.

I’ve “ended up” in a million different places that turned out great just because a door opened and I happened to be curious. I feel like I trip into things, rather than laying out plans and steps to get there. Like how my friend ended up a helicopter pilot because she fell off an elephant playing polo in Thailand and was air-evac’d to safety, making her think on the ride “huh, I bet I could fly one of these things….”

(I freaking love that story….)

But how do you explain ‘elephant polo accident-like events’ as your only “plan” for figuring out your future? “I’ll know it when I see it” also doesn’t seem to work when serious people ask what your ideal next step is.

So I end up stammering in general terms about wanting to “hone the skills I’ve developed” and “use my experiences to create world peace”...etc. etc. And in the end, I figure I’ll just do it my way, and see what happens. After all, I did win an award for that approach....

Monday, December 22, 2014

Nepal 3: Stone stairs and animal poo: My Himalayan journey

Monday was Trek day. Kim's husband helped us pack most of our things into one giant pack the night before:

Here Kim is wearing our pack

And here is a comparison to a normal backpack on Christin
We hired a guide and a porter (A "sherpa," if you will, though Sherpas are actually a specific people group that live at a very high elevation and they are the ones who take folks up to Everest. We were definitely not going that far so our porter was of the non-Sherpa variety but most people call all porters Sherpas, so I digress...). Our porter would be carrying our pack throughout the trek so we kept everything under 50 lbs total. Which, as you can imagine, meant we weren't taking much - we basically all had one outfit (with one to spare for emergencies) and no plans to shower (which was fine since I'd already scalded all my sweat glans off in Kim's shower in Kathmandu).

To begin our trek, we had to fly to Pokhara, so our first adventure was exploring the domestic air travel procedures. The airport basically resembled a construction site on the outside, and a warehouse on the inside. There was one row of kiosks representing each domestic carrier and the airlines were named things like "Yeti" and "Buddha Air." This was exactly the aesthetic I wanted going into a Himalayan adventure.

Walking into the airport

front door


Our plane was a small propeller filled so full that a poor guy had to ride in the jump seat, awkwardly staring at the other passengers.

hey buddy! you're going the wrong way!

The flight was short and it gave us our first glimpse of the peaks.

We landed in Pokhara and walked towards baggage claim, which ended up being this:

Where someone handed our bags to us through the front window like a Taco Bell order.

We gathered "Christina" (the name we gave our giant bag after realizing we had a ticket for "Christina" instead of Christin. Thankfully no one cared that Christin's ID didn't match her ticket and both Christin and "Christina" were able to get on the flight) and headed out to find our guide.

Our guide's name was Dom. There was a group of Nepali men who we assumed were guides standing around at the gate and we spent a few minutes awkwardly staring at them before finally hesitantly inquiring "Dom?" in various directions to see if he was there.

He wasn't.

Though fortunately we didn't have to wait long for him to drive up and after quickly making a shocked face upon taking in the height of Christin and I, he grabbed Christina and we all took off in his jeep. We drove towards the trail head, catching glimpses of "Fishtail" mountain along the way, 

That pointy cloud in front of us is actually Fishtail. The peaks looked fake because they were so tall and cloud-covered. 
and stopped to have the first of many Masala teas (which was a relief to me since the drive was making me a little vomiting-goat-y...).
Me, my tea, and a gorgeous river.
We took our jeep up as far as vehicles could go, then we got out and finally started our journey on foot.

And here's how our trek proceeded from here on out: Every time we started walking, Christin and I (the un-experienced hikers) would put on several layers of clothes, hike for 20 minutes, then ask Dom to hold up so we could stop and take off some of our clothes.

Every. Time.

So after our de-layering, we continued the start of our trek.

The terrain changed throughout the journey, so I've bunched everything into four main categories in my brain:

"Terraced Fields"
"Lord of the Rings'ish"
"Fern Gulley-esque"

We started with Terraced Fields. I had seen photos somewhere of Bali years ago and all I remember were these gorgeous hills where the landscape was in terraces, stair-stepping down the hills and I always wanted to see something like that. When I learned that there were fields like that all over Nepal, I was stoked. (And I also decided I probably never needed to go see Bali then. Sorry, Bali! This is awkward...)

Our trek started out as a series of stone stairs.  -- the whole dang trek ended up being stone stairs. Like, seriously. There were very few moments where we were not in the process of going up or down a stone stair the entire four days. I marvelled at the fact that there are entire communities all the way up in those mountains because there is no level ground to be had. They call it "Nepali flat" - you're pretty much always going up or down.

And because there were no cars around now, things were moved by mules. And the villages usually had water buffalo, goats, and various other pets roaming around as well. So our stone stairs were often the bathroom of choice for these animals, so there wasn't a day that went by that didn't involve stairs and manure.

But -- the views. I felt like I was already at the top of the world on the first day because we headed straight up the sides of mountains (of terraced fields) and you quickly couldn't even see the bottom of the valley below, just a giant crevasse between you and another giant mountain (of terraced fields).

a village in terraced fields
more fields up close

stone stairs among terraced fields

stone stairs heading up the side of the mountain...

....stone stairs looking down into the valley....
..stone stairs by a typical restaurant....

stone stairs in my sleep. stone stairs in my dreams....stone stairs in my soul!...
I mean, seriously. We climbed all the stairs. All of them. All of them ever made.

But I wish you could understand how crazy high and open it all felt. Breathtaking.

We stopped and ate Dal Bhat

 and ended the day arriving at our first Tea House:
Sitting outside our tea house overlooking this amazing expanse of pure World
Tea houses are all along the trekking routes and they provide a room with a bed and heavy blankets, a public toilet (which is typically a hole in the ground that we lovingly refered to as the "squatty potties") and they offer meals. They aren't heated, so we also brought small sleeping sacks to cocoon ourselves up in under the blankets. Everything is incredibly inexpensive (like 4 bucks a night to stay) and you meet other trekkers along the way, so it's a really cool experience.

Outside of the tea house

One of our rooms (which also had incredible views)

I fell asleep that first night to the sound of mule trains outside my window, where people led lines of mules with tinkling bells on their collars to transport goods. It's like the high altitude version of the CSX.

We got up early the next morning, had breakfast and masala tea, then headed out again.

Putting on our clothes, hiking 20 minutes, then taking half of them back off...

At some point we stopped to buy souvenirs because how often do you get the chance to haggle over jewelry on the side of a mountain? Here I am, mid-negotiation:
Even at high altitudes, shiny things=girl magnets

We had about 5-6 more miles of stone stairs ahead of us so we bought our things and headed into Lord of the Rings territory.

More in the next post.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nepal 2: We're big in Nepal

We left off as I finally landed in the country I intended to get to.

I was exhausted and learned that I needed to traverse the airport by a crowded, slow moving shuttle bus that was filled with everyone in Nepal, including their women's soccer team (that part isn't an exaggeration -- apparently they'd just come back from winning some tournament in Pakistan so that part was kind of cool...had I not been so tired and squatting on top of my own carry-on at that point, it would've been even cooler.) It was then that I first started to realize that I definitely don't fit in Nepal. Physically. As in I basically tower over everyone like this:
Bill Murray -Lost in Translation
and I was blatantly stared at during the shuttle ride.

After finally entering the airport, there was a whole slew of things I needed to figure out I had to do involving forms and lines and photo machines and passport stamping and there were no pens anywhere to complete the forms with, and long story short at one point I directed all my exhaustion and exasperation at one single man when I approached him with what I can only imagine were Crazy Eyes and asked for his pen. He wouldn't give it to me.

That man is lucky to be alive.

I eventually do obtain a pen and make it through customs and find Kim and her husband patiently waiting, and we head to their house where Christin, the other girl who is on this adventure, has been sleeping because her flight from London arrived at a humane hour earlier that day.

I finally get to sleep myself and the three of us girls get up the next day to start our trip. Kim explains to us that we are arriving right as the SAARC summit is about to take place, which led to some unexpected hilarity for us because Nepal decided at the last minute to spruce the place up a bit for company.
Nothing to see here, just painting the curbs real quick before Bangladesh and Afghanistan arrive....

People were painting, broom-sweeping streets, power washing trees... at one point, our cab driver bursts out laughing and points to a large area of dirt partially surrounded by a makeshift fence of blue material. He explained that the government had intended to landscape that area but didn't get around to it in time so they just put up the fence instead. It's like the nation-state version of shoving your dirty clothes under the bed so your mom doesn't know they still exist.

The summit also caused us more than confused amusement: it changed our travel plans. For some reason no one could explain, Nepal shut down all air traffic during the summit so what should've been a less than an hour flight back from our trek was now going to be a potentially 6-8 hour drive back in an SUV.

Which, I must say, is a heck of a lot better than travelling by bus, as I learned.

And here's where I interrupt my own story to tell you someone else's. Kim explained to us that because most people don't typically travel in cars around there (most have motorbikes - if you saw the traffic, you would too), they often get motion sickness when they have to travel by bus. She went on to tell us of a particular ride she took once, wherein the person in front of her had brought their goat for the bus ride. And that's the day Kim learned that animals can also get car sick, as the goat began vomiting at regular intervals. The bus doesn't stop for vomiting (or defecating...) animals, so after awhile Kim had had enough and asked her friend to switch seats for a bit to get Kim away from Vomiting Goat. And what happens as soon as Kim changes seats? Well, her new seat is by an open window and apparently there are also people riding on top of the bus -- who are also getting car sick.....(you see where this is going)  and all of a sudden: Kim has vomit on her lap out of nowhere. It had come through the window from above. Like magical snow flurries of vomit. She should've stayed with the goat.... (incidentally, I also get motion sickness as seen here, so I took to using phrases like "I'm feeling a little vomiting goat-ish" whenever my fellow passengers needed to know to roll the window down or feed me.)
So we now had a long car ride to look forward to after we traipsed around the mountains. Before we headed out for our trek, we got settled into Kim's place a bit. Kim explained that we'd need to use bottled water for everything -- drinking, brushing teeth, etc. Which of course we had a hard time remembering so we were constantly plagued by the fear that we'd end up like Charlotte in the Sex in the City trip to Mexico. Kim also explains that the electricity often goes out without warning and that while there is a water heater for the shower, there's no way to control it so once you start using it, you better shower in a hurry as it will continue to increase in temperature until you melt your own flesh off. My final initiation into settling in was drinking coffee with buffalo milk as creamer. Kim stopped me before I added it to smell and make sure it hadn't gone bad. She said it was fine.

I sniffed and couldn't understand the difference.

But thankfully it tastes better than it smells and with caffeine in my veins, I was ready to take on Nepal.

Kim took us to all the favorite tourist spots in Kathmandu like the Swayambhunath (the "Monkey Temple"), Durbar Square, and hippie-mecca Thamel. We'd have some time to do more sightseeing after the trek so I'll post more about those places later, but for now I'll leave you with some shots from Monkey Temple because those guys were just so darned cute.

View of the temple from our drive up 

The actual "Stupa"of Swayambhunath 

Buddhist monks during prayer rituals
Our crew
Taken right before that little guy tried to steal something from Christin. The monkeys there are considered holy so there's not a lot you could do. Not that there's ever much you can do to a monkey thief. 

Because: Monkey Butts

Monkeys are a theme in my travel adventures so I was delighted to find some in Nepal right off the bat. We'd go on to see "street cows," mule trains, and Water Buffalo, but that's all later.

One last funny thing we encountered before starting our trek was: We're Big in Nepal.

Like, literally, and also as in we were like celebrities because we are giant pale women.

We were swarmed by what felt like paparazzi while touring the Monkey Temple and what started as a couple young girls asking for a photo with us ended up being a time-consuming full-on shoot where everyone switched in and out to take pictures with these crazy looking westerners.

I stepped away to document the madness

Next post: The Trek Begins.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Nepal 1: Getting there is half the fun... right?...

Well I made it back from my Nepal adventure, and it's taken me a while to get the energy up to write a new post because I caught a nasty virus during my trip and I've had things to catch up on like tap water, daily showeringetc. but: here we go!

I left for Kathmandu and had a layover on the way in Dubai for 8 hours, so I decided boredom and FOMO would definitely not let me stay in the airport that long, so I ventured out.

Actually, first I ran into a friend of mine on the plane who lives in Ethiopia. As in, I hadn't seen this man in person in years (because he lives in Ethiopia) and sure enough, there he comes down the aisle of my Emirates airplane, NBD. I get his attention across the middle row of seats and he's like "what are you doing??" and I'm like "going to Nepal!" and he just says...."of course you are!"

I love how small the world is.

So back to Dubai. My friend and I get off the plane after the 14 hour flight (wherein I proceed to not sleep at all, but I do finally discover Portlandia and read several chapters of Mindy Khaling's book, so not such a loss) and he's been to Dubai before and says it's totally safe and easy to get around during my layover, so he goes off to his connecting flight, and I:

discover how ridiculously gigantic and overwhelming the Dubai airport is. (8,500 acres gigantic, to be exact. I know this. Now.)

Oh my gosh, you guys. I walked at least a couple miles and I still wasn't anywhere helpful and people kept telling me "no, you need to go to @#*%@ *%115688 XZOO" (which is what it sounded like to me because they mentioned so many different areas of the airport and different terminals that my brain broke). And I couldn't find a place to drop off my heavy carry-on, and I couldn't figure out where I needed to be to board my next flight 8 hours later, and I was already getting blisters on my feet before (!) my trekking adventure in the Himalayas, and finally I just sat down and tried to gather my wits. And prayed. Prayed for discernment in my sleep-deprived state of being in that giant city of an airport.

Then I eventually found the ONE (one! in allll of the airport kingdom) location where I could drop off my bags.

Then I remembered I was supposed to ask my airline for a food voucher since my layover was so long.

Then I remembered how far back my airline counter was.

And I immediately let that food voucher go.

After another moment where I just had to sit and gather myself, I finally drop my carry on off and find out how to jump on their public rail system to begin my own self-guided tour of the city.

I'm able to purchase a Metro ticket pretty easily, hop on the train, and settle into the Universal Language of public rail systems: Staring silently up at the rail map while acting like you don't care about anything. Ah good, I fit in here.

I head to what I originally was going to see - the Dubai Mall (which I thought had a ski resort in it. We'll get to that way later). But then I realize the train goes above ground quite a bit, allowing me to just take in the city views, so I abandon my first plan and decide to take the train as far as I can and just get a feel for the city. (Because what I haven't mentioned is that I also have a layover in Dubai on the way back home from Nepal -- a 24 hour layover. We'll get to that eventually).

Here are some of the sights I was able to take in:

Crazy cool buildings
The Burj Al Arab, AKA the "Sailboat Hotel" AKA "the only '7 star' hotel in the world"

aaand - The Burj Khalifa. !!! Tallest building in the world. Yes, those are sky scrapers that it is towering over.

I wanted to see the famous man-made Palm Island, so I start to try to figure out where I could take the train to get near it when I realize the group next to me are pointing to a map. I don't understand their language but I finally ask one of them if they speak English. They do - hooray! And they, too, are trying to go see Palm Island. Travel buddies!

Turns out they were a group of very kind Polish people who ended up taking me along with them all the way out to the tip of the Island, having to stop and help me when my metro ticket stopped working, and slightly changing their plans to accommodate my schedule.  I loved them.

Here we all our on the Persian Gulf. Me, my Poles, and the thin glorified Fanny Pack I'm wearing under my shirt that makes me look slightly pregnant with cardboard. Lovely. 
Here we are riding the Monorail that goes out onto the Palm - and those are rich people's houses.

There is the Atlantis resort where rich people vacation when they get sick of their own private beaches and nice houses. 

The Island is interesting, because it's totally man made and apparently looks like a giant palm tree out in the water, though I couldn't tell at the time since I wasn't seeing it from the air. But ridiculously rich people buy houses out there and the Atlantis hotel is out there, so it was fun to see. I finally had to leave my Poles and begin my journey back to the airport.

And good thing I did, because after I returned to "Terminal 1" where my bag was, I asked where I should go for my next flight and was told: "Terminal 2...you can take a $25 taxi there."

I'm sorry, what was that? Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 are so far apart that I have to take a cab that costs five Starbucks beverages? And why am *I* paying to get around *your* airport? You can pay to form islands in the shape of landscaping and you all don't have shuttles??

(Side note: Apparently Dubai Airport is hoping to become the "best airport in the world" - I have some not so subtle suggestions for them as they attempt to achieve this...)

So I skeptically jump in a cab and travel to this elusive Terminal 2 and lo and behold, it does cost that much and that is where my next flight leaves from. How convenient.

I manage to board my 5 hour flight to Kathmandu in time to completely pass out, waking only when we land around 10:00 pm, nearly two days after I originally left D.C.

I'm so tired by that point that I practically maim a man for not giving me his pen to fill out the several customs forms I need when I land, but more on that in the next post.