35

From Amputees to Diamonds: Delhi in a Nutshell

Delhi

Our first day in Delhi captures India in a nutshell. We were up and out early, walking the streets and on the Metro while the city was still calm. The Delhi Metro is a newer, cleaner, more organized version of the NYC subway system. It was easy to navigate, air conditioned and featured a Women Only car, a great response to the city’s international reputation for being an unsafe place for women.

We followed the flow of traffic through the street from the train station to the Red Fort. Zach suggested that we move to the sidewalk instead of walking in the street with the rickshaws, bicycles, and cars. But as we squeezed between two rickshaws to get to the sidewalk, we were assaulted by the acrid smell of urine amidst a crowd of homeless people, waking up on from their night’s sleep against the buildings. We worked our way through the crowd of mats and sleeping bodies, which turned into an organized line of people sitting on the sidewalk, cradling bloodied limbs in dirty bandages. I tried not to look, but couldn’t escape the line as we were both headed in the direction of the Red Fort. Hundreds of people were waiting to see the man at the end of the block who was sitting on a cardboard box with a huge roll of gauze and a giant bottle of iodine next to him. My feet kept moving, but my mind was like a deer in headlights, absolutely stunned.

Zach loves his audio tour of the Red Fort!

Zach loves his audio tour of the Red Fort!

We crossed the street and stopped to breathe for a minute before continuing toward the Red Fort. The fort was big and old; but the fort as described by the audio tour was dazzling and majestic. Zach and I have developed a fondness for audio tours, as they bring back to life places that are skeletons of their former selves, ones whose fountains no longer work and that have been stripped of their mirrored ceilings and silk curtains.

We spent the afternoon exploring the side streets and spice market in Old Delhi until the internal fuel light went on. You are about to run out of gas, it said. At which point, we made our way back to the train, back to our comfort zone.

We got off the train in New Delhi and went window shopping for jewels. The jewelry collection at Mehrasons showroom was the most magnificent collection of bling I have ever laid eyes on. It beat the Diamond Exhibit at the Field Musuem, put Elizabeth Taylor’s collection to shame and made Tiffany’s look downright boring. Indian jewelry is a bit like Bollywood: a gaudy, dazzling affair. Earrings that look like peacock feathers, studded with emeralds, sapphires and diamonds and necklaces the size of a child’s bib sit next to necklaces made of gold strands woven to look like fabric, with jewels embroidered into them. For the second time that day, I was speechless. Well, almost speechless. “Could I see that?” I asked the salesman. “Sure. Why not?” He smiled as he lifted 50 grams of gold off of the mannequin. When I sighed at the price, he said “Don’t think about the money. It’s not about the money.”

But in Delhi, it is all about the money. You have heaps of it or you have none. I suppose this is the case in many places, but I’ve never seen the evidence in a more drastic way than our first day in Delhi, which will always be the day of amputees and diamonds.

27

We Got Got: Scammed in Delhi

Agra Bazaar

You’ve probably heard that India is a budget traveler’s paradise. This is true, but there are a few things that make it expensive. Sure, you can splash out for a hundred dollar dinner in Delhi or Mumbai just like any city in the world. I’m talking about the unexpected expenses. If you let it, India will clean out your wallet faster than anywhere else.

We landed in Delhi a few weeks ago, and we’ve been scammed twice (as far as we know), and deflected a few other attempts. The first time was pretty minor; a taxi driver from the airport told us the meter had rolled over, and against our better judgement we paid him double the fare. Whatever. It was a mistake and a few bucks down the drain. SERIOUSLY, I’M OVER IT. Ok maybe not, but I’m working on it.

The second time happened just minutes after the first and will be much harder to recover from. Here’s how we were grifted out of more than $150:

The aforementioned scammer driver disgorged us and our three massive backpacks, duty free purchases, and other assorted hand luggage from his cab at New Delhi Railway Station. We needed tickets and had read that they can be difficult to get on the day of travel, so we were a little nervous about navigating the station.

As we approached, if was as if someone threw chum in the water. The sharks smelled eau d’traveler stink. We looked around for some kind of ticket office, and after the slightest of pauses he pounced.

“Tickets, please,” in a very official voice.

“Uh, no tickets. We need to buy tickets.” Looking back, I’m sure his face lit up at this moment. He pointed to sign that read ‘Ticket Holders Only,’ then to his map, and said “You need to go to this office: DTTDC.” Little did we know he was in cahoots with this “DTTDC.” I’d read that there was a special tourist bureau at the station and assumed this was it. It sounded bureaucratic enough.

He looked at our big bags. “I will get you rickshaw, you pay Indian price!” As if he was saving us money.

We thanked him for his help and piled into the rickshaw. The driver dropped us at the office that the helpful old gent had indicated, which was blazed with signs reading “Train Tickets” and even “Government of India Tourist Information.”

We were hustled into a comfortable office and then the real scam began. A well-dressed young man told us in perfect English that no trains were available for more than a week to our desired destination. After a few keystrokes on a computer that may or may not have been plugged in at all, he deduced that no tourist buses were available for a similar period of time, and local buses took “fifteen or sixteen hours” and were unsafe. The latter was probably true but the former certainly not, because on our way back from this trip we took the local bus and while it wasn’t comfortable, it took only about six hours.

“What are our options to get there today?” We asked. We were intimidated by staying in Delhi and wanted out of town as soon as possible.

“Well, you could take a taxi. It will be expensive.” He quoted us a price over US $250. This was way out of our $40 per day budget. We talked about maybe going somewhere else instead. But this would throw the rest of our schedule off and be more hassle and expense.

“Is there any other way to get there?” This was his signal to go in for the kill.

“Hmm, well you can take a private car.” And after a few more keystrokes in his magic box, “It will be $160.” After some deliberation and seen in light of the higher taxi price we decided to just bite the bullet and go for it, taking an expensive lesson about trying to buy train tickets on the day of travel.

A few days later, we discovered that this office wasn’t actually a government tourist representative but, as it seems obvious now, a tour operator/car hire company. How officials can allow such brazen disregard for their authority to continue under their noses I still have no idea. I suspect that there were train tickets available, and I know that the government run bus service was a viable option on the day of travel. Don’t make the same mistakes we did, kids! If it doesn’t seem legit, it probably isn’t.

Wait, there’s more. I’m writing this while en route to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and were just the targets of YET ANOTHER scam. Again, a helpful fella at the New Delhi train station saw us coming and insisted that we needed “boarding passes” in addition to our printed tickets to avoid fines of “over $200″ on the train. I was suspicious but listened to him because I’m a sucker and it’s not uncommon for foreigners to jump through some hoops in India. He took us on a little run-around intended to make us miss our train, in the hopes that we might hire him to drive us to our destination. Luckily we sniffed it out in time and told him to stuff his boarding passes. We had absolutely no problems on the train, and it’s a lovely way to travel.

Traveler scams are infuriating, but don’t let them get in your way of enjoying a place. India may be better at scamming you than you realize, but its a fantastic place to visit (more on this soon). Just remember to be cautious, the more we fall for the scams, the longer they’ll stick around. Sorry guys! We’ve learned our lesson.

51

At Home in an Indian Kitchen

Cooking class-8199

We didn’t know any Hindi when we got to India. We were helpless when ordering food in a restaurant and often just pointed to something. On our first few days, dinner was usually a complete surprise. “Oh! Okra! Did you know they eat okra here?” Didn’t see that one coming. There were times when we wound up with rice, naan, and potatoes. But others when a beautiful, mystery dish showed up. For me, that was Sahi Paneer, a rich, creamy, ever so slightly spicy tomato curry style dish with chunks of cheese (paneer). It was delicious and I knew my dad would love it.

The thing is though, I don’t usually cook Indian food. I don’t really know how the spices work together, but know that one dish often has tons of different spices. And what makes it so saucy? How’d you get so tasty? I silently ask the plate in front of me. I wanted to  be able to come home and make Sahi Paneer for my family, but didn’t really know where to start.

There are signs for Indian cooking classes all over Rishikesh. We went to a few restaurants that were advertising cooking classes to test out the kind of food we’d be learning to make, but were disappointed by the results: too rich, too salty, or just plain nasty. But we all know that the best kind of cooking is home cooking. So that is where we took our class, in a home.

Home cookin'

Home cookin’

Our class was about an hour and a half and ended with a delicious lunch of Sahi Paneer, Aloo Palak (potato in spinach sauce), Aloo Parantha (potato filled flatbread) and Vegetable Biryani (spiced rice with vegetables). All of the chopping was done ahead of time and the measuring done with a single spoon. Our job was to take pictures and write down how many teaspoons of turmeric goes into each dish. Our teacher claimed that his English was “not so good,” yet he knew all of the English words for spices, vegetables, and tools. Maybe it was thanks to the English- Hindi picture charts hanging around the room, or thanks to his daughters who speak English very well and were assisting with explanations.

Our teacher’s cooking style was “a bit of this and a bit of that,” “a big spoonful of salt, a half spoonful of garam masala,” though he did give measurements for our sake. Every dish started by heating oil and cumin seeds and at some point, a bit of chili and garam masala were added. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the very rich Sahi Paneer wasn’t made with cream, but with cashew nut milk. Who knew?

I enjoyed watching someone cook easily and comfortably with flavors and spices that are foreign to me. The benefit of the cooking class, versus trying out a recipe from the internet, is that we had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in someone’s home, cooking with their dad who is a good cook. Subol was laid back, friendly, and an informative teacher, which is exactly how my dad taught me how to cook. Except I had to chop more in those lessons.

43

Spiritual Enlightenment is Hard

Oohhmm

5:20 AM – Woken by very, very loud horn
5:30 AM – Chant mantras in sanskrit
6:00 AM – Meditation
8:00 AM – Breakfast (Rice, nuts, tea)
11:00 AM – Traditional kriya/hatha yoga
12:30 PM – Lunch (Dal, curried vegetables, chapati, rice)
4:00 PM – Pranayam (breathing exercises)
6:30 PM – Chant mantras in sanskrit
7:00 PM – Meditation
8:00 PM – Dinner (Dal, curried vegetables, chapati, rice)
9:30 PM – Ashram gates locked

This was our schedule for the time we spent in the Kriya Yoga Ashram in Rishikesh, India. Sex, alcohol, and garlic were strictly prohibited anywhere in the ashram facility, and quiet conversation was only allowed with members of same sex in private rooms, outside of mediation and mealtimes. Silence was to be observed at all other times. If you’re looking for an authentic spiritual experience, this is the place for you. We thought that was what we wanted, but the demanding schedule and rules wore on us pretty quickly. We lasted three days.

I think it was the repetitive food (so much rice!) and prohibition of conversation during meals that did us in. To be fair, we were warned that the food offered was “very simple,” and we could have eaten elsewhere (at additional cost of course). I found the yoga and breathing (pranayam) exercises to be accessible and useful, and the mediation challenging but relaxing. A certain amount of proficiency was expected in meditation, which we didn’t have, so some instruction in that regard would have been nice, but it was at least an opportunity to reflect and relax. I think I learned a few things about myself through the meditation and mantras.

My initial reaction to the mantra chanting was to retreat. I saw these as religious rituals that I had no interest in. So, just like my Catholic school days, I sulked awkwardly in the back. Eventually I realized that my presence was distracting others so I played along. I still think it’s silly to chant sounds to whose meaning I’m completely ignorant, so I stayed in the back, muttering “Brangelina, Yamaha, Shaquille O’Neal, kazaam!”

After day three, we’d had enough of quiet time and really missed coffee, so we high-tailed it to a more easy-going facility. At Shiva Yoga Peeth we’re allowed to come and go as we please and attendance is never required. We can mainline espresso and garlic bread (ew, not at the same time), and there’s twice daily ass-kicking yoga and significantly less ass-kicking but very nice meditation time. Oh, and we can actually talk about our day during dinner! What a revelation!

Your mileage may vary. I can see how the quiet life in a traditional ashram could be extremely beneficial. It wasn’t right for us, but I’m glad we gave it a whirl.

38

When the Going Gets Tough

Most of the time traveling is fun. But sometimes being away from home is really hard.

Like when you’re sick and don’t want to learn about a new place, you just want to lay in bed and watch Modern Family and snuggle with your obese cat, not the skinny cats who eat the garbage around here. But the power is out (like it is every day) and the laptop is dead. That’s when it’s hard. So then you just lay in your bed in your cheap hotel room, sweating and staring at the wall that is painted four colors of blue and has a hose sticking out of the corner, dripping water on the carpet.

Or when you have a Skype date and you spent the extra money on a cell phone plan with the guy in the tiny stall with the dusty cell phone parts and lots of flies who said everything would work once you give him the money. And then he made you feel crazy for double checking that it would work and asking for a receipt. Ha, a receipt! And then of course, it doesn’t work. And that’s the third time this Skype call didn’t work. And the person at home is frustrated. That’s when it’s hard.

When you’ve got your fifty pound backpack on and you explode into tears on a street corner in Kathmandu, even though you’re almost thirty years old, but thirty year olds have shit days, too. And some guy is trying to sell you a wooden flute and you wipe your snotty nose and say, “No thank you,” through your tears and he says, “Very nice flute, make a good and happy price, just for you,” and you clench your jaw and try very, very hard not to scream in his face that you never, ever want his stupid fucking flute for any price. And he just stands there, waiting.

It’s hard when friends are getting married and family members are going to the doctors and there is nothing you can do about it, but just sit there. Maybe write an email or “like” it on Facebook. I Facebook like that you had a baby. Sweet.

The world is big and beautiful and we’re grateful to get to see it, but not having a home can be challenging. Often one of those shit days is followed by an excellent one and all of the details work themselves out. The Skype conversation happens eventually, the flute man finds another tourist to prey on, and I go find a pizza and a beer or a stray cat to play with. I suppose getting homesick is just as much a part of traveling as that moment of excitement when you see a turtle while diving. If you don’t have lows, you won’t have highs.

That being said, I can’t wait for some blueberry pie, a Longtrail IPA and a big group of friends and family when we get home next summer.

42

On and Off the Beaten Path in Nepal

nepal-meta-post-7717

When you leave somewhere and go to a new place, you can either feel comfortable and complete with your experience or incomplete and wanting for more. Circumstances vary, but for all the places we’ve visited on this trip I can confidently say I’ve been ready to go when the time has come. Everywhere, that is, except Nepal.

We’ve just left Kathmandu after staying in the country for a month, and we feel like we could easily have stayed for twice as long or more without growing bored. Some places are just a great fit, and for us Nepal was that place.

Why go to Nepal?

Simply put: trekking. Sorry New Zealand, but the best trekking (or hiking, tramping, walking, whatever you call it) in the world is in Nepal. The country was essentially built on walking, as a large part of the population lives in rural mountain villages with no road access. Trekking is just business as usual. Some of these local trails have been converted to tourist routes, but there are plenty of routes that are still literally off the beaten path.

Guided vs. Unguided?

With much of the tourism industry built around trekking, Nepal has no shortage of excellent guides at very reasonable prices (around US$20 per day). And taking a guide is a great way to go. A good guide will help you with everything involved with trekking, from booking buses to renting gear and making sure you’re safe and healthy along the route. Our awesome guide, Pradeep from Nepal Para Trek, even taught us the basics of the Nepali language along the trail!

We loved our experience with a guide and it made the Annapurna basecamp trek very easy for us, logistically at least. That said, you probably don’t need a guide. On our second trek, Pradeep was unavailable so we went alone and it was a much different experience. We were able to connect more closely with the local people along the trail because we were forced to interact with them during mealtimes at teahouses. My strong recommendation is to take a guide on your first trek so that you can get the basics down, then go unguided on your second trek for more of an adventure.

Teahouse vs. Camping Trek

Most trekking in Nepal is from village to village, and you stay in simple teahouses run by local families that provide your meals. This, as you might expect, is awesome. The other option is to camp, with porters carrying all your food and equipment. As far as I can see the only reason to go on a camping trek in Nepal is if there’s something you absolutely HAVE to see where teahouses don’t exist (Kanchenjunga Basecamp, for example). But why be so picky? Relax, enjoy yourself, and sleep in a real bed in a teahouse. It’s cheaper and unique. You can camp anywhere in the world but few places have the kind of trekking infrastructure that Nepal does.

What’s staying in a teahouse like?

Kyanjin Gompa Guest House

Kyanjin Gompa Guest House

Rooms are simple, with thin foam mattresses and heavy blankets. We brought rented sleeping bags ($1.50 per day) with us at the recommendation of our guide and were thankful. Nights at high elevation get VERY cold, even when it’s scorching hot in Kathmandu. Warm showers are sometimes available, usually at a small cost ($1.50-$3). I usually took a cold shower or skipped it because my long hair takes about a week to dry in the damp mountain air.

Accommodation is cheap (from free to $3), and the food is good. We spent about $15 per day on food, which included a lot of rice but very little beer, which gets expensive ($4-6.50, 600ml) because it has to be carried up the mountain.

Other Pursuits

While trekking is where Nepal is best, there are certainly other things to do. If you’ve got the funds go rafting or kayaking on what some say are some of the worlds top ten whitewater opportunities, or live in the lap of luxury for a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere.

Shopping in the charmingly chaotic Kathmandu neighborhoods of Thamel and Old Town is fun for a little while, but most of the shops begin to look the same after a day or so, because, well, they are all the same. A recurring joke with our trekking buddies when discussing the location of anything in Thamel was, “Was it between the big knife store or the hemp t-shirt shop?” There are many bargains to be had though, with t-shirts from $4 and knock-off North Face down jackets around $25.

Kathmandu Bro Smiles

Need to Know

For any trek you’ll need a TIMS (Trekking Information Management System) card and permit for the area. TIMS cards can be purchased in Kathmandu and cost $31, and permits are usually purchased at the local National Park Office you’ll be trekking in; most cost around $20. Permits to climb peaks or hike in some areas can get very expensive (up to $500), but if you’re on a normal tourist trail that shouldn’t be an issue. Maps are available in most towns for $3-$5. Look for a map with a scale around 1:50,000 to be useful.

Tourist buses go between Kathmandu and Pokhara daily for $6, but for more obscure trips you might have to take a terrifying and uncomfortable local bus. Look for the possibility of a private jeep if available. They’re more comfortable and similarly priced to the buses.

Oh yeah, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Nepali people, who are lovely and welcoming and excited to share their country with you. It’s a melting pot of Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese cultures that’s really unique and quite fascinating. Most people speak good English and are eager to chat, though some in Thamel may just be trying to sell you fake jewelry or hashish. As usual, be on guard, but don’t be scared to talk because someone might be after your rupees, you can always say no and walk away.

I could go on for days about Nepal, but this should get you started on any journey there. If you have any specific questions we’re happy to help! Just ask in the comments or email us.

Recommendations:
Kathmandu:
Alobar 1000
Elbrus Home
Himalayan Java
Roadhouse Cafe

Pokhara:
Royal Guest House
AM/PM Organic Cafe
Old Lan Hua Chinese Restaurant
Busy Bee’s Bar and Restaurant

47

Trekking in Nepal: Langtang

The Langtang Trek in northern Nepal offers an incredible opportunity to live among Tibetan refugees and spot red panda and snow leopard (though reports of sightings were infrequent and dubious) in the foothills of the Himalaya. Unfortunately, getting to the start of the trek can be a bit of an…adventure:

Despite the thirteen (!) hour bus ride that involved getting stuck in a landslide inches from certain doom, countless delays at military checkpoints and every kind of weather, we made it to Syabru Besi and the start of the trek. Phew.

Itinerary:
Day 1: Syabru Besi (1300m) to Lama Hotel (2300m)
Day 2: Lama Hotel (2300m) to Langtang (3300m)
Day 3: Langtang (3300m) to Kyanjin Gompa (3800m)
Day 4: Rest day in Kyanjin Gompa
Day 5: Descend to Lama Hotel
Day 6: Descend to Syabru Besi

The first two days of this trek came as advertised, with two kilometers vertical gain they were challenging but possible for anyone with a moderate level of fitness. Things were made worse for us by persistent rain and fog, and an equally persistent illness that we both contracted on the aforementioned bus ride from hell. So we were rewarded with exactly zero mountain views for our entire ascent up the valley, but isn’t hiking long distances about delaying gratification anyway?

We’d scheduled a rest day in Kyanjin Gompa, which wasn’t entirely necessary for resting purposes but provided an opportunity to explore this mountain village and its surrounding peaks. Tired of walking and both still feeling a bit under the weather (pun very much intended), we chose to take a pony ride! After inquiring with our host (who advertised “HORSE RIDING AVAILABLE”) he responded,”You want horse ride?” with some surprise, then “Ok, I go catch horses” [emphasis added].

After the initial embarrassment of trotting around awkwardly on a horse that felt too small to carry my weight I realized “Hey self, you’re riding a horse in the Himalayas. Enjoy it!” And then I did. When I learned my horse (I dubbed him Joey Chestnutt and Christina’s Poopeater) was nearly as old as I am I felt better about trusting him not to fall off narrow mountain pathways with me teetering on his back. I hope he enjoyed his well-earned reward of cabbage afterward. Ya done good, Joey.

If we were feeling better we would have climbed one of the smaller peaks around the village, like Kyanjin Ri (4200m) or Tsergo Ri (4800m), but instead we played cards, drank tea, and visited the local yak cheese factory and Buddhist monastery. For a town that’s a three day walk from any kind of road, there’s kind of an amazing amount of things to do. I almost expected a movie theater or mini-golf course to pop up around the next corner.

During one of our many tea stops we met a Kiwi dude named Warren who was planning on staying up in Kyanjin Gompa and living amongst the yaks for a week. He was taking his time to do all the day hikes in the area (some more than once!) and relax in his mountain retreat. This was something we wished we’d thought of before shoehorning this trek into the last week on our Nepali visa. Food was only slightly more expensive than Kathmandu and accommodation was actually cheaper. We would have enjoyed the opportunity to unplug, unwind, and soak in the local culture for a few more precious days.

The walk down was painful on the knees and feet, but not physically challenging. Some real warriors tried to descend from Kyanjin Gompa to Syabru Besi in one day, but that felt excessive and punishing on these old bones. We split it up into two days and were grateful.

Needless to say, we took alternate transportation back to Kathmandu. The knock-off Indian Landcruiser driven by an eighteen-year-old and packed with eleven people felt positively secure, and a bargain at $6, compared to the rickety old bus on one-lane mountain roads.

If you’ve only got time and effort to spare for a short, easier trek in Nepal, Langtang is a good choice. Immerse yourself in the Tibetan culture and mountain wildlife, and leave a little extra time for relaxing in the Himalaya. If we could do it again, we would’ve stayed a few more days in Kyanjin Gompa, and maybe linked this trek with the Gosainkunda Trek, which over an additional three or four days walking takes you back to within an hour drive of Kathmandu.

16

Dal Baht Power: Trekking Food in Nepal

Tea house-6353

Trekking to a guest house is such a treat! In New Zealand, we were carrying our food and stove and sleeping in huts. In the US, we would carry our food, stove, tent, and end the day by eating noodles on a log before retiring to our tent. In the Nepal though, we show up empty handed to a guest house and order a plate of fries. Some trekkers complain that guest houses crowd the trail and detract from the whole get into the middle of nowhere aspect of trekking. But we love them. We love them for the hot food and warm beds and conversation with local people.

“When did you kill this chicken?” I asked the cook at the guest house in Chiule, along the ABC trek. I was sitting in the kitchen, watching them cook dinner.

“Today,” he tossed the chicken into a massive wok and glanced out into the yard at the remaining chickens, pecking in the grass.

“How did you kill it? Cut the head off?” I was half making conversation and half curious as I didn’t see any sort of dangle the chicken upside down set up.

“No knife, too dangerous. Throw a rock at his head.” The cook answered while shoving the chicken bits around with a spatula.

I gasped and laughed almost choked on my tea. You see, without the guest house, you’d never know that another culture kills their chickens with a rock to the head.

 

The folks on the mountains eat and serve what they grow (with the exception of Snickers, noodles and canned tuna). People grow rice, millet, potatoes, cabbages, and carrots above 3,000 m. They make Yak cheese and simple stovetop breads like chapati and fried Tibetan bread. Since both the Langtang trek and the Annapurna Base Camp Trek are in similar climates, the menus at the guest houses serve similar dishes, with the exception of meat. The Langtang region is Buddhist and doesn’t eat or serve meat. The menus feature fried noodles, veg fried noodles, egg veg fried noodles, potatoes, veg potatoes, egg veg fried potatoes, rice, veg fried rice, egg veg fried rice. You get the point.

 

“Dal Baht Power, 24 Hour” is what the locals claim. Dal Baht is a Nepali set meal of dal (lentil) soup, white rice, curry vegetables, and pickle that varies slightly from place to place. On the ABC trek the dal was a thin yellow soup and in the Langtang region it was brown and thick. The pickle isn’t a pickled cucumber, but any kind of vegetable, usually a tomato in a spicy vinegary sauce. The dal delivers your protien, rice fills you up, curry gives you nutrients and spicy pickle keeps the whole thing from getting boring. It’s no wonder the porters eat it for every meal. We ate from the same menu for 18 of our 30 days in Nepal and often stuck with Dal Baht. After awhile, we did get tired of the same options. Do I want potatoes again? Not really. But that’s not the point. The food is trekkers food. It’s hot, nutritious and filling. And just when you start to get tired of the menu, someone whispers rumors of chocolate cake in Kyanjin Gompa or real pizza in Chhomrong and you pick up the pace.

701

Annapurna Base Camp: Best Trek Ever.

Annapurna- Group shot-6635

We found an older copy of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal while staying at Alobar 1000, our hostel in Thamel, a touristy district of Kathmandu. After flicking through different treks, we settled on the trek to Annapurna Base Camp because it was longer than anything we had done, but had guest houses where we could sleep and eat. There was a significant elevation gain and the base camp itself was an exciting destination. While planning, we went back and forth on whether or not to take a guide. We had read on So Many Places’s blog that it was not necessary, but we decided to go for it anyway. We liked the idea of supporting the local economy and it made us feel safe as we were trekking higher and longer than we had been before. Our guide, Pradeep, is a nephew of a friend of a friend, which is typical of Nepali business. If I can’t help you, I’ll find you someone who can. Pradeep took care of all of the details: obtaining our permits, renting gear, booking bus tickets, and choosing guest houses. All we had to do was walk, snap pics and decide what to eat at meal time. The following are a few excerpts from our trekking journal to Annapurna Base Camp.

Day 1 | 5pm | Landruk

Zach: Lunch at Pothana (1890m) after 90 minutes of walking up stone steps and trails. Very hot at times, but great in the shade. Cooler than Pokhara, but definitely still summer. It’s great to walk to villages rather than campsites. Paying a few bucks for fried noodles and veg versus eating in the dirt makes life a lot more enjoyable. No, it doesn’t feel like a backcountry adventure, but it’s great in its own way. We thought New Zealand did it best with their hut system, but Nepal has it beat!

Christina: I just pulled my big toe nails off. They had been dead for awhile and one day of hiking was enough for them. Wrote some post cards and am trying not to write all of my them, but it is hard because it is so beautiful and exciting. We have views of the Himilayas to the north and rice terraces to the south. Tried a glass of roksi, the local wine made from millet. It was horrific. Smelled like rubbing alcohol and I couldn’t finish the glass. Also had our first dal baht experience, which was a solid meal: lentil soup, rice, greens and pickled veg.

Day 2 | 3:30pm | Chhomrong

Christina: Zach’s muesli this morning was so good. Served with warm, sweet milk. I had Tibetan bread with honey, which wasn’t enough for a meal, but tasty and I supplemented it with peanuts from my backpack. Highlight: Nepalese tea (similar to chai). Amazing. Hiking today was killer. Stairs for hours, but passed the time learning Nepalese from Pradeep. It is really challenging to learn just by sound. We were walking single file. Pradeep would say a word, I repeated it, then passed it back to Zach.

Day 3 | 4pm | Bamboo

Zach: Great morning walking. Day began with a steep descent out of Chhomrong and steep ascent to Sinuwa. Long break there, then a few hours of awesome forest walking while white gibbons jumped from tree to tree around us. They are very photogenic animals. I was particularly struck with the beauty of the wild forest. Theres a special kind of order to the completely unordered chaos of old growth. This walk has everything. Pheri betew-la (See you later!)

Day 4 | 1pm | Machhapuchhre Base Camp

Christina: It has been on and off raining all day. The clothes we washed yesterday are soaking wet because of the rain and heavy fog. Not a huge deal, except that I have no dry underwear. After hiking for four hours, we decided to stay at Machhapuchhre Base Camp instead of continuing to ABC. Everyone going out into the rain looked miserable. Lunch was amazing- a huge pile of fried potatoes, egg, greens and yak cheese, followed by a Snickers and pot of masala tea.Didn’t even realize how hungry I was, which is a sign of altitude sickness, so even better that we chill here. Side note: Even though this is the Annapurna Base Camp trek, I think I prefer  looking at Machhapuchhre. It is so steep and so fierce. Not as tall, but that’s ok by me. We can still be friends.

Zach: We’ve met a lot of awesome people on this trek. David and Eva from Australia, Andy and Sam from England, Lindsey and Cody from Chicago via Mongolia. Just caught a glimpse of Annapurna South, Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) and surrounding peaks for about 15 min before the fog rolled in again. Some people have been waiting three days to get a glimpse of the mountains. All the more reason not to rush. Go slowly. Soak it in.

 

Day 5 | 6pm| Annapurna Base Camp

Christina: This morning was SPECTACULAR. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. We hiked a whopping 90 minutes to Annapurna Base Camp. We had a great photo sesh with Eva, David, Pradeep and Lok. Just as we snapped our last picture, the clouds and heavy fog crept back in. We considered hiking down to Duerali this afternoon, but decided to stay, play cards and enjoy the rest day. It’s not like we’re going to have a chance to come back to this amazing camp in the sky.

Zach:We were just visited by a herd of sheep and goats at Annapurna Base Camp. The shepherds are coming down from the hills for the winter They trek up in the spring and by the time they head down (with help from the monsoon) the grass has regrown in their steps as they return. Pretty cool to see exactly how these shepherds are mimicking nature. Bucks and rams are mixed in with the herd, they “rotationally graze” the valley, and live amongst the herd for months at a time. They don’t own the land, but they use it and manage it. Simple. Why does it have to be so complicated?

Day 6 | 4pm | Himilaya

Zach: It’s amazing how much shorter this trail feels heading down. Knees and toes hurt, but we’re both holding up really well for six days in. This was the first day in awhile that I felt like I earned my dal bhat at lunchtime. Not complaining, the short days were great and we avoided AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).

Day 7 | 7:30pm | Chiule

Zach: Harder day agin into Chiule. When we reached town, cheers of joy were shouted. I’m so glad we hired Pradeep. Having a guide basically means not having to worry about any of the little details or decisions that would be difficult or create tension between Christina and me. Everything from the bus tickets to where we eat lunch is already settled. On top of that, Pradeep is knowledgable, patient and so kind that his attitude inspires the same behavior in the rest of us. It’s been great sitting around the table with David, Eva, Pradeep and Lok trading stories about traveling and trekking. At ABC we sat around for hours spinning a yarn and laughing. That has been a huge and unexpected benefit of this trek.

Day 8 | 8:30pm | Ghorepani

Christina: What started off as a really challenging day turned out to be a really fun one. Early on, I was ready to throw in the towel. The trekking was uphill all morning in the humid jungle, stopping every 15 minutes to check for leeches (I found 3 and freaked out each time). The day turned around though when we stopped for a break and saw a newborn mountain goat, wobbling around on its 10 minute old legs. From there, the day just got better. We hiked along a ridge covered in wildflowers, through gorgeous groves of trees into Ghorepani and got in just as the rain started. We ordered beers and chips, our first of the trek, we splurged on some wifi, I skyped mom and dad and posted a few pics. Mom met Pradeep and Lok on Skype. They said “Namaste from Nepal,” and “You are always welcome to come visit our Himilayas,” which was really heartwarming. It sounds silly to miss wifi after just a week, but makes a huge difference to be able to share and be in touch. Especially when you can Skype from the middle of the Himalayas.

Day 9 | 3:30pm | Uleri

Thank you Pradeep!

Zach: Beautiful trail from Ghorepani to Uleri. Lovely undulating countours along the riverside with a gradual descent. The trail was well formed and wide enough to walk two abreast; a trail made for chatting. Among other conversations, Christina and I discussed the similarities between Nepali trekking trails and Kiwi tramping tracks. The consensus was that they both get an A, but Kiwis have a decidedly more hands-off approach. Where in Nepal, there are bridges and stairs, in NZ there would be fords and scree slopes. I think I prefer the heavy hand.

Day 10 | 4pm | Pohkara

Christina: Our morning trek from Uleri to Birethanti was easy, light hearted, and calm. We sailed down steps as fresh faced trekkers going the other way were experiencing their first dose of steep stone stairs. Our “Namastes!” were cheery even though we were a leaving mountains that I knew we would not see again for a long time. 10 days was the perfect length of time to be in the mountains. From Birethanti, we took the most harrowing taxi ride I have ever experienced back to Pokhara.

 

Zach and I decided that we want to spend as much of the rest of our time in Nepal in the mountains as possible. After a few rest days, we are going to go to the Langtang region and headed out on another trek, this one for just a week. Zach and I looked at our budget last night. We are over what we expected to spend in Nepal, but kind of said the hell with it. The trek will cost us each an extra $300, which is nothing for another amazing, big mountain experience. We also decided to hire Pradeep again. Bring on round 2!

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Eight Tips and Tricks for Traveling in Bali

Crowds at Tanah Lot

We’ve just left Indonesia after spending a month touring around Bali, Lombok, and the surrounding islands. Along the way we’ve learned a few things that we would have liked to know before we went, and because we are nothing if not public servants, here they are:

  1. For travel between the islands of Bali, Lombok, and the Gilis, take Marina Srikandi boats. They’re priced the same as all the other fast boat operators, but they have the largest boats and don’t oversell them. Trust me, getting seasick is a great way to ruin a day of your trip.
  2. Like a lot of Asian tourist destinations, the tout system runs deep. To avoid paying the tax, go directly to the source for things like rooms, boat tickets, airport transfers, laundry, etc. If you ask someone to arrange anything for you or even point you in the right direction, be prepared to pay for the service. Free information is rare.
  3. That said, we found the security and open market competition of Agoda.com or Booking.com helpful for locking down rooms a few days in advance. Proprietors lower prices on empty rooms as the date approaches and the price-shopping power of the web is fully in your favor. You can probably get even cheaper rates if you wait until you get to a place and hit the streets, but you’ll spend a lot of time carrying around your luggage and sweating. Usually it’s worth the few extra bucks to just book in advance – even though it violates rule number two above.
  4. If you like spun out waiters offering you crystal meth after dessert, go to Gili Trawangan. If, not stick to the far more family-friendly Gili Air.
  5. We found the water in Nusa Lembongan and Penida clearest and best for diving, but the wreck of the USS Liberty near Amed was awesome as a historical relic and massive, easy to access wreck. If you’re in the Gilis, snorkeling is a must do.
  6. Don’t bother climbing Gunung Rinjani unless you really dig wading through trash and feces on your way up a miserable, dusty hike.
  7. Catch the Bali sunset at Tanah Lot. There are multiple temples there so you don’t necessarily need to stay at the first one you see.
  8. It’s crazy cheap to hire a driver for a day in Bali and see loads of stuff. Five of us shared a car for US$55 for ten hours and saw way more than we ever would have hoped for if we were on our own.

That’s it for now. I’m sure there are more, (share them in the comments!) but this should get you started on any trip to Bali.

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