There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world. Varanasi is not a place so much as it is an experience of complete immersion into the heart and soul of India. It is an encounter that defies definition. Varanasi simply must be experienced.
Varanasi is called the heart of India because of it’s geographical location on a map. But I think there’s a more anatomical and literal reason for it. Varanasi lies on the holy Ganges river, and the river pumps through Varanasi like blood circulating through the chambers of the heart. People move along the streets to and from the ghats like blood flowing through veins and arteries. The pulse of activity along the ghats of Varanasi seems to throb like the pounding pulse of a heartbeat. It is a place of recurring disposal, purification and renewal. Day after day, night after night, the rituals continue without missing a beat. Just as they have for centuries, and will continue to do so for years to come. The moment activity would come to a halt in Varanasi, it’s as if India herself would die.
So it goes on.
Nothing can prepare you for a visit to Varanasi. No matter how many photos seen, videos watched, or words read, when you arrive at Varanasi for the first time, it is like being born all over again – learning everything by being flung into complete and utter immersion. All senses are on overdrive. You are no longer reading about it or watching it, you are right there living it, breathing it, feeling it. You are an integral part of life and death itself.
Those are my words, written in my journal of my most recent visit. That’s all I had to say. To describe every part of the experience would detract from the whole of it, so I left it at that. The same goes for photos. Sure, I’ve taken massive amounts of photos during my immersions in Varanasi. But they are just scenes, just parts, pieces of a whole, and really don’t do justice to the entire sensual experience that is Varanasi.
During my first visit, over 12 years ago, I wrote a lot more in my journal, and I took a lot more photos. When I return to a place, I see it again with fresh eyes, a “new camera” in my mind. Then, when I get home, I like to compare notes and images with previous visits. Has the place changed? Or more to the point, have I?
Following are the words I wrote about Varanasi 12 years ago, transcribed from the pages of my journal, which at the time, I never imagined would be read by any eyes other than my own:
This morning’s event was the highlight of the whole India experience for me – a float trip down the most scared of rivers, the Ganges.
The sun shone pink, beautifully lighting the steps of the ghats in the early morning. All the colors were a treat for the eyes. Somehow, the grime and poverty faded away….somehow, being on the river just calms the senses and the soul, and everything appears tranquil and idyllic.
There is all the activity at the river’s edge –
The laundry being beat and flogged on stone slabs, and colorfully laid out to dry in the sun…
The locals who come to bathe and cleanse themselves in the Ganges river….
scrubbing themselves vigorously and getting all white with suds…
and then plunging fully into the water, which somehow didn’t seem so polluted or filthy at all in that moment.
There are those who walk down the steps of the ghats daily to meditate in the morning sun…
And there are those who come to the holy river to live out their final days in rented bungalows so they can die on the Ganges – the ill, the weak…the dying….and eventually the dead, whose bodies are burned by the river and then washed out into it. The men’s bodies are ignited and burned at the chest, and the women’s at the pelvis. Whatever remains after the flames burn out is simply left to sink or drift off down the river, following a trail of candles and marigolds….
The building closest to the crematorium ghats have gone all black with smoke, but the rest of the river’s edge along the ghats is colorful and alive, very much alive, yet all at once, serene.
It was a transcendent experience, to have those quiet moments of floating along the peaceful river without any touts or beggars or crowds.
While there was plenty to see that shocked the senses, perhaps most surprising was the sighting of river dolphins. Yes, river dolphins. Right there in the Ganges, right smack in the midst of activity – bathing and cleansing, cremation and pollution – the dolphins broke the water’s surface surrounding our boat. I couldn’t believe I was really seeing dolphins, wild animals, amidst this hub of human activity that has been happening in the same place for centuries. Yet there they were, river dolphins. They could swim anywhere(!), but they chose to be right there at Varanasi, and at that moment, right where we were. Unbelievable. To see these “enlightened” and highly-evolved creatures choosing to be here led me to conclude that the Ganges is indeed a holy river and a truly mystical experience. In those brief moments, watching corpses burn and dolphins play…it all made sense. Everything made perfect sense.
But once back ashore and climbing the steps of the ghat, my senses were again slammed with the filth, the touts, the lepers, the beggars, the unpleasant smells, the reality of humanity…and all that is India…
Something changed inside me that day.
And 12 years later, something changed inside me again. This last time, I watched and listened as my companions tried to describe the first-time experience they had just had. A conversation took place over dinner by a fire, under the stars, during which each person reflected upon and processed their experience of Varanasi, trying to make sense of it all and fit it into context with their own respective faiths. One thing was apparent. No matter what they felt or not, what they understood or not, they are forever changed.
I suppose being pumped full-throttle through the chambers of a heart will have that effect on anyone. Varanasi is more than a spiritual place, it’s a pure experience of the heart.
When you think Calcutta, do you think slums, poverty and filth? Or do you imagine art, joy and beauty? A visitor to Calcutta will see what they want to see, but the camera never lies. It’s all there. Open your eyes.
Children of Calcutta
Upon landing by air in Calcutta, I couldn’t help but notice the lush green surroundings – a rather surprising twist on my preconceived image of a sprawling, polluted, crowded city in West Bengal. I was whisked away by a comfortable air-conditioned vehicle to the luxuriously comfortable and air-conditioned Taj Bengal, where I looked out over a green landscape dotted with purple bougainvillea and bright red flame trees. I was further enchanted by lovely tweeting birds nesting in the plants of the window box. I grabbed a few quick shots with my iphone….
…before pulling out my camera gear to charge batteries, change memory cards, wipe lenses, and do all that not-so-glamorous maintenance work of a travel photographer.
So this is Calcutta. Through the window….it looks like a beautiful dream.
While it’s certainly more comfortable to sit in an air-conditioned room or vehicle watching everything from behind the glass, you’ll barely scratch the surface. And it’s easy to be bothered by the heat, groaning every time you step out into it and focusing only on how uncomfortable you are. I’ve seen it happen, I’ve watched, and listened to, others do this. Three words: Get over it. The people of Calcutta live in this heat every day, with no A/C in their homes, cars or rickshaws. Your body will acclimate, you’ll adjust, and you’ll be glad you made the effort to accept it and immerse yourself into everything that is Calcutta.
Once you’ve successfully crossed over into the realm of being completely at one with the hot sticky humid environment of Calcutta, you’re home free. You’re no longer just a visitor…. you’re a part of life….
The afternoon was dedicated to visiting the “must-see” of this off-the-beaten-tourist-track city, Mother Teresa’s Ashram. No words can describe the overwhelming emotion of visiting not only the Ashram itself, but the nearby orphanage established by Mother Teresa. In her words, it is a refuge for…
“The hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” — Mother Teresa
To step into a room where knee-high children with big brown eyes hold their arms up to you, longing desperately to be held and carried, and to be told “please don’t pick them up” was a real test of my maternal heartstrings. But I found an agreeable compromise by sitting on the floor to read a book while the kids climbed onto my lap and leaned over my shoulders and watched my face as I was able to engage and love them without too much emotional bonding. This was an undertaking not for the weak of heart, and all I could think about was finding my strength in compassion and focusing on the power of love. Pure love. The Mother Teresa kind of love – love for all, and attachment to none. I somehow made it out without adopting a dozen children – although not without shedding a dozen tears. Photography was not permitted in the orphanage and I would have left the camera anyway. Some things are to be experienced with only the widest aperture of heart, not lens.
The next day, Calcutta revealed even more beauty than I could ever have imagined, with a visit to the Calcutta Flower Market on the banks of the Hooghly River. I always make a point of visiting local markets wherever I travel, for purposes of both cultural immersion and photographic opportunities. To simply walk through snapping pictures does not the experience make – the photographer must engage all the senses, listening and smelling and touching, in order to capture the image that tells the story.
I’m not so sure I succeeded in just one shot, and I really wish cameras were equipped with a scent-mic, in order to record smell. Sound, however, can be shared in a video clip, which also gives a good sense of the pace of activity in the flower market.
Now, what the video doesn’t show, and the camera can’t really capture, is the temperature. It’s hot. The outdoor temperature is in the upper 90’s (and it’s early). As if the heat in itself weren’t enough, it’s humid too. Like, candle-wax-dripping-wet humid. Now imagine that heat and humidity while under tarps in a crowded space, where you can’t walk more than a few steps without brushing, or being brushed by, a hot sticky body of someone else. And there’s your sense of touch put into words.
Still with me? Good. I spent way more time exploring this market than I had anticipated, and I savor every moment of that experience. The hustle, the bustle, the voices, the sounds, the scents, the odors, the feel, the life…..oh, the life. At times it was like walking through someone’s hot tired breath, but with wafts of freesia and roses. I was fascinated by vendors who spent hours of their market day just sorting and picking through flowers – imagine, doing that for your living. Working with flowers, nature’s beauty, and never taking a single one for granted.
As it turns out, there are flowers and art everywhere in Calcutta, sometimes obvious, other times, not so obvious. Here, a streetside tattoo artist creates flower tattoos on the arms of a young man, which are then dusted in bee pollen to prevent infection.
A trip to the northern quarter of the city called Kumartuli, also known as the potter’s village, revealed more arts and more body parts. Here sculptors and artisans work to create clay idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, for use in shrines and festivals all over India…and the world.
So now, if the thought of Calcutta conjures up images of joy, beauty, and art, then I have succeeded in shedding light on this amazing and wondrous city of India… with my images, with my words, and with my heart and lens wide open. Namaste.
Continuing preface: My initial intent with this series was to document my first visit to Egypt 25 years ago in order to compare with my upcoming assignment in Egypt scheduled for February. Obviously, since I posted Part I last week, circumstances have changed dramatically! My purpose is not to cover or coat-tail the current events, but I cannot ignore them either as I publish these posts. When I began publishing this series last week, a colleague of mine had been in Egypt with a group, and they were safe on the Nile in southern Egypt as of Friday. I have just learned this Monday morning that they have been safely exited and are now in London, so I can put my focus back on digitizing my journal here. If you haven’t already, check out Part I of Remembering Egypt.
REMEMBERING EGYPT (journal series, Part II)
Ugh, This morning was full of running around getting things done. Worth a mention was the visit to the train station to ask about tickets. From the moment we walked in we were stared at – Marie’s bare shoulders, my light hair – we stood out like sore thumbs.
As we entered the station, there were men putting down large red carpets in the corner of the room in preparation for prayers. Only the men could pray publicly. If the women wanted to pray, they must not be seen (our guide tells us). I remember even in the mosque yesterday that there was a special area in the back of the room for women to pray without being seen; and even so it was only recently that they were allowed to enter the mosque at all!
There weren’t many women to be seen at the train station. When we went to get in line, our guide (still the taxi driver from yesterday) told us that we must wait by the wall because women were not allowed to wait in line. He was going to do it for us. I didn’t like the whole situation and I kept nagging Marie that we should have just gone to the travel agency suggested by the paper I got before leaving London months earlier. But we were already there and our guide did as he promised. Who knows how much we may be getting ripped off in the process but oh well. Fear and trust don’t mix well, so I opted for trust.
So off we went from there to the Pyramids. On the way through the city the front tire blew out on our little taxi – a minor inconvenience and we just had to go with the flow, ultimately taking another taxi.
At the Pyramids we found our “friends” (they always greet us and add “my friend” to every sentence when they’re speaking to us), and they were waiting to take us by horseback to Sukkara. I couldn’t go more than 2 meters without the guide changing my horse! By the end of the day I’d been on all four horses. Despite these problems, the journey was incredible!
We first rode on a path alongside the banks of the Nile river. There were stray dogs at several crossroads who would growl and looked extremely vicious. I was scared enough that I really appreciated being up on a horse! We went by small farms and villages. We passed by so many military posts. I was so curious as to what they did there. Eventually we cut across down a side street and into the desert.
We rode along the edge of the desert for quite some way, me with the guide who was keeping close watch on my horse. It was so neat to watch the rolling hills of sand sweep by as we galloped through. I lagged behind but finally got the feel of rhythm with my horse as we reached the end. We checked out the step pyramid and rested a bit. Lo and behold there was our original taxi driver waiting for us with a brand new tire and all set to drive us back to Cairo.
We drove back on Sakkara Road (I think?) along the river through rural farmlands. We stopped at a busy corner to have some drinks, and the locals were quite intrigued with us. Children were working – pulling oxen or riding donkeys with loads of farm harvests. One small girl wearing pink was smiling in curiosity as she’d never seen foreigners before. After a lengthy communication ordeal, we took a picture with permission and encouragement from her father. We thanked her by buying her an ice cream, and her father beamed. She was too cute! But the women covered head to toe in black were downright frightened of us, disappearing anywhere we went.
We got back to the train station in plenty of time, and observed people on the platforms as they observed us. I wondered what it must be like for them, living in poverty, to see us boarding a First Class train to take us overnight to Aswan. For them, the journey would cost one pound and take 4-5 days on a dirt-floored train with no windows or doors, that stops at every village for anyone to get on with any of their animals. They look at us but show no expression. They must hate us, I wouldn’t blame them. They only watch and wonder about our lives as we do them. I was intrigued by three men in particular – they stared at Marie but said nothing. Their eyes said so much though. After they’d had their fill of watching us, they looked away, up to they sky, as if they were reflecting, or praying even. What was going on in their minds? What were they thinking? Where were they going? I took one last look at them then boarded the train, stepping out of the filth and dirt into a world of clean luxury. I stepped into a different world, and these three men were soon far from my thoughts.
The train ride was excellent. After dinner, Marie and I went to our friends cabin and had some drinks. After a bit, the discussion turned to politics. This was troublesome and I won’t get into detail, but at one point they were drunkenly singing “We are red! We are white! We are Danish dynamite!”, and that should give you some idea of their ethnocentric view of the world. We woke up in Luxor, hungover and unmotivated to get off, so we decided to continue with the Danes all the way to Aswan. What a horrible mistake that was. What a horrible place.
The temperature was well over 110 degrees in the shade when we found a travel agent. We got a s#%& deal, but managed to visit the Aswan High Dam. It was so hot out there. I know this huge dam out in the middle of the desert is a remarkable modern feat of engineering, but it still looked grotty (is that a word?) and old, not at all what I pictured from Dr. Kim’s lectures. I took pictures for his sake anyway, after all he praises that dam for saving lower Egypt from constant flooding or something (I’m not in the mood to sound intellectual, sorry, it’s hot and I’m on vacation).
Anyway, from there we took a motor boat to an island of the Philae Temples where there stands a Temple of Isis (God of Evil), appropriately. It was really too hot to appreciate the 4000 BC temple.
And the people there – who were demanding us for some money even though we’d already paid the seedy agent – really put us on edge. So our unfinished tour ended at the unfinished obelisk, which closed at 4:00PM. We were really p.o.’d.
The rest of the day was S(expletive), but we managed to arrange a felucca for the next day. Wearily, we walked through the market streets busy with locals doing their shopping. It was so dirty and filthy…and smelly. I was sickened at the fact that we had to buy our food there. Oh, and conducting business transactions with children was most odd.
Our first hotel was horrific and frightening (and unsafe with broken locks and obvious signs of forced entry). I won’t even mention the toilet facility, if you can call it that. We left in darkness and found another hotel, more expensive and a slightly better quality, and we finally fell asleep out of sheer exhaustion and relief in knowing that tomorrow we would be leaving this dreadful place.
– to be continued –
Please return for the third and final Part III, when we cruise the Nile for 3 nights on a tiny open-air felucca, and I celebrate a most unmemorable birthday in Cairo with “Pharoah’s Revenge”.
Preface: As I prepare to head to Egypt next month, I thought it would be an opportune time to reflect back upon my first trip to Egypt, over 25 years ago, and to share some of my early days of travel, writing and photography.
While many things have changed, and continue to do so on a daily basis – particularly in Egypt right now – much of what I read from the pages of my journal is a classic and universal “first time off the beaten path” perception of a 21-year-old backpacking penny-stretching college kid determined to see the world.
While other college kids were backpacking through Europe, that simply wasn’t exotic enough for me and my friend Marie. So when we’d had enough of sunning on the gorgeous beaches of Ios in the Greek Isles, we decided to get on a plane to Cairo and check out the Pyramids…in hottest July (what were we thinking?). With no return tickets and no set plans and no idea where we would stay, off we went with a “Let’s Go” guidebook, tiny backpacks slung on our backs with cheap straw beach mats we’d picked up in Greece, flip flops on feet, and cameras in hand. And journals, of course.
Remember, this was long before iphones, digital cameras, laptops and other tools of the modern-day blogging nomads. There were no ipod buds in my ears, rather, I wore the clunky headband of a Sony Walkman and carried a few cassette tapes in the backpack to remind me of home. I took pictures with this stuff called “film”, and composed on something known as a “notepaper” with an instrument called a “pen.” It is the pages of my handwritten journal that I have transcribed to share here.
The year is 1986. The U.S. had just retaliated against a Berlin discotheque bombing by conducting airstrikes over Tripoli in neighboring Lybia, and U.S. relations with Qadaffi and the Middle East were tense all over (sound familiar?). But at 21, we were convinced that our mere presence would constitute an international peace-keeping mission, and off we went.
REMEMBERING EGYPT (journal series, Part I)
Day 1 EGYPT??!! Oh my God (Allah?) I’m in (expletive) Egypt! Hello Third World. Hello Pyramids. Hello Arabs. Hello poverty. Hello camels. It’s all here! This is the place! The real deal!
Our flight from Athens was something else, if that didn’t frighten us, nothing will! The people crammed on to the Egypt Air plane as if it were a Stones concert or something – there was no specific seating, no non-smoking section, just take what you can get. The landing was more like being flung down a bowling alley, but we made it. We headed to a good, reasonable hotel in Heliopolis where we met some travel buddies – two guys from Denmark, who invited us to share the cost of their Cairo taxi tour the next day. Cool.
DAY 2 Our first adventure in Cairo is the TRAFFIC. No lights, no signs, no lines, and apparently no laws! Just lots of horns. That’s how it’s done in Cairo, you just beep your way through the streets and intersections, and our taxi driver played his horn in the orchestra of Cairo like a skilled musician.
When we first began driving I kept thinking to myself “this must just be the bad part of town” and waited for the nicer parts of town to appear. As the day went on I realized this IS Cairo. This IS the way they live. It’s ALL like this. Half-finished housing, broken windows, dirty dirty streets, and poverty everywhere – there IS no nice part of town!
The most fascinating observation about the people is that wherever they are at the time of prayer, they stop everything, throw down their rugs, and pray. In the streets, in the train stations, in the markets and the cafes. You can hear the call to prayers over loudspeakers throughout the entire city. Five times a day. Every day.
We went first to see the Muhammed Ali Mosque – we had to remove our shoes and cover our shoulders and legs. In every part of the mosque there was always someone to tell you about the room then ask for your money. We so wanted to learn everything we could, but we’d never have lasted beyond the first day if we kept this up! So we learned instead to be politely rude and to refrain from smiles and eye contact or appearing even remotely interested because then you get hooked in to listen and it costs ya!
From the citadel there was quite a view – but as far as the eye could see was nothing but pollution, crowded streets, traffic, dirty buildings, dotted with colorful garments of clothing hanging outside windows to dry. Miles and miles, endlessly, this is Cairo. This is how it really is.
We drove on beeping our way through traffic to “Old Cairo”, which quite frankly doesn’t appear any older than the rest of the city. We walked down the market streets (souks). So many things to see, so many things to resist temptation to buy. (Darn! Why didn’t I save more money?!). We sat and had a drink at a café on the street. Our (taxi driver) guide smoked from a giant pipe about 4 feet high. After a rest we moved on to the Egyptian Museum for a quick browse,
then off to a restaurant to eat….
Real authentic Egyptian food! This place was cool and interesting. The floor was laid with large rocks lined with smaller pebbles (I was barefoot so I noticed these things). The roof was thatched up with some sort of palm fronds, and the walls of opaque glass were painted with scenes of Egyptian customs.
Ah, the menu! Finally, a real authentic meal of pita bread and those other foods I usually make from a box mix at home. First came the light salad and dips – tahini sauce, and a hummus flavored with mint leaves. I ordered falafel and rolled vine leaves and Marie had foul with sesame. All of it was sooo good!
After lunch we beeped our way through the city to the Pyramids. You could see them right there beyond the dirty city buildings, as if they were in the center of a downtown street. But as we got closer, we saw that they stood on the city outskirts and on the edge of the desert. THE DESERT! The Lybian Desert, which forms the edge of the Sahara Desert stretching across all of northern Africa! Wow. Just think, this sand I step on is the same body of sand that Qadaffi hangs out in. I’m cool with that.
There was no way we were going to visit the Pyramids without riding a camel. So we found ourselves 4 camels and a little boy to guide (?) our caravan. I got along really well with my camel, which I named “Filter”.
We wandered up to the Pyramids, past the Sphinx (or “swings” as our Danish buddies pronounced it), and took pictures on our camels, with our camels, off our camels. I really enjoyed it – my camel was pleasant (as far as camels go) and comfortable.
However, the exciting part was taking off and landing. Yes, I’m referring to the camel! Like any mammal, a camel has four legs. But the camel can only bend two at a time to sit down, and the front ones go first! This is when you realize that the camel is a really tall animal with really LONG legs! Try to stay on a camel when he is kneeling without sliding down his neck. Fun stuff.
So we watched the sunset from the Pyramids and then went to a shop and paid a ridiculous fee to see the “Sound and Light Show” at the Pyramids, what a rip off! But there we sat like tourists listening to the voice of the English-speaking Sphinx and getting eaten alive by mosquitos.
Finally back to the hotel after a long day. Tired, hungry, and a headache to boot. Watched a bit of Arabic tellie to get an idea of the media here – just as crazy as the traffic! Too weird. I really wonder what they’re saying. I really wonder….
– to be continued –
(Editor’s Note: I’ve decided to break this out into a series of several posts, given my tendency for wordiness and an admitted lack of skill at editing my own journals. Hey, it’s a journal, not a 1500 word article feature that anyone has hired me for. And this is my personal blog!)
I hope you’ve enjoyed this enough to return for Part II, when we ride horseback through the desert to Sakkara, visit a train station and splurge on a First Class overnight train cabin to Aswan! In Part III, I chronicle our felucca cruise on the Nile and visits to Edfu, Luxor, and Karnak. And hey, if you happen to have a blog of your first trip to Egypt, are a 20-something modern day backpacker, or are currently blogging from Egypt, I welcome you to share your link in the comments!
These are excerpts from my journal written each night of a 7-day trek.
This was supposed to be the “bunny hill” of trekking – a short loop passing through Ghorapani and Gandruck (and many other villages), with a detour to Poon Hill for a spectacular view of the Himalayas. Fairly easy, good for all levels of trekking experience. Plenty of nature, plenty of culture, and nights in cozy teahouses along the way.
End of Day 2 – October 4 I am in a small village called Banthanti high in the mountains. We began climbing yesterday afternoon, and stopped to sleep last night in a village called Hile. Already 3 of our 10 people have turned back, too unhealthy (physically or fearfully) to continue the journey. We all have our own mountains to conquer.
So now we are 7, and though it will continue to be challenging for 2 of the others, I believe all 7 of us will complete the trek. We’ve had rain and clouds since we began yesterday (though it was extremely humid and warm below). Now we are slowly but surely moving above the clouds and the snowcapped peaks are beginning to emerge all around us. The entire trail is large stone steps, and sometimes waterfalls run right along and on the steps, sometimes we cross a suspension bridge over the river and see waterfalls on all sides. I am really glad to be doing this to wind down from the film project and reflect on everything I’ve learned from the children. One child’s story and message, in particular, stays with me. “Don’t give up.”
Morning of Day 3 – October 5 Last night I was kept from sleep, haunted by a cry outside. The moon had been full and bright, and my room (which I insisted be a single this night), on the ground floor, hung over a deep chasm, beyond which lay another mountain, and beyond that, snow-capped peaks. I had three windows: one faced the courtyard where everyone gathered so I kept the curtains closed; one faced the chasm and peaks, and I kept the curtains wide open to be drenched in full moonlight while I slept; the third faced the back of the property, some sloping rice terraces and a grassy area where campers could pitch tents, but no campers were here this night. I drew those curtains closed. As I lay trying to put myself to rest, a creature emerged from the rice fields with a haunting mournful cry. As it grew closer, it’s cry grew louder, until it stood right outside my window (the third window with curtains shut). I froze in my bed and held my breath, waiting to hear someone else open a window or something. All was quiet, everyone else was fast asleep. I dared not look out for fear of what I might see. It cried and bellowed, while I lay wrapped tight and clutching my pillow. The cry was everything painful – from a woman mourning death, to a woman giving birth. And it came to rest right outside my window. Was this the Yeti perhaps? Was a baby being born? Or was I being affected by altitude. Why was I hearing this so loudly while everyone else slept? Why did it come to my window? If the creature wanted to get to me, it had only to turn the corner and pass the next window, which was wide open to the dark moonlit chasm.
Eventually, it quieted, and I figured it had moved on. I had to pee really bad. I mustered up my courage, found my headlamp, turned it on, and headed to the bathroom. Outside the window, a muffled moan. I had awakened the beast. It stirred and bellowed more as I hovered over the toilet then hurried back to bed pulling up the covers all around me and turning off my light. It screamed louder, begging for my attention, as if it wanted to keep me from sleep all night. Finally, out of frustration more than anything, I sat up and tore open the curtain just as it was screaming it’s loudest.
The moonlit grass glowed blue and still, and I saw right there in front of me….nothing. I stared into the emptiness, the beast screaming now, but I saw NOTHING!! Must be the altitude I thought to myself, jumped back into bed, and waited. The creature hmmphed and mellowed, and somewhere between the moon’s rise and set, we both slept. The last thing I remember hearing before I fell asleep was a whisper ‘the mountain lies ahead”.
The next morning (this morning as I write this), I asked if anyone else had heard the sound, the cries, the creature. No one heard a thing. I asked our guide, the sherpas, the locals…no one had heard it. Only me. I tried to describe the sound to our guide (a cross between someone dying and someone giving birth, or a cow in pain, etc.), and he immediately repeated the call back to me, a perfect imitation of the bellow. That was it!! That was the sound!!
So what was it then? What was this creature? “It is a bird,” he tells me with a smile. A bird. Of course. He went on to tell me the name of this bird, a Himalayan Quail, which is common in this region and elevation of the Himalayas. Many hours later, we stopped for lunch in a village. As I sat watching buffalo high up on the mountainside, the guide tells me “There is the bird you heard, on that sign.” Note: I later learned that indeed, a baby was born that day, and her name – Avia. More on that in another blog! Meanwhile, the whispered message remains. The mountain lies ahead….my mountain lies ahead.
Later – same day The rain pours down in gusty sheets. We are at our highest point of elevation on this trek, 3300 meters. I feel my head tingle in the clouds. This teahouse “Best View Hotel” creaks and shakes – I wonder if it will blow over, or perhaps crumble and slide down the mountain. The clouds are refusing to lift, clinging to the peaks like custard to chocolate cake. There is no visibility in any direction. When there is no view outside, then we must look within. The journey heads inward.
End of Day 4 – October 6 A storm has come in and slowed our journey a great deal. We have had to stop at a very small home which was supposed to be where we would eat lunch and then keep going. But some people are tired and weary, and need to rest more. Our clothes are soaking wet. I’ve pulled 5 leeches from my legs and socks just today (I’ve had 3 others before this day). There is no running water (other than the river), no toilet (other than a pit), and no electricity.
It is pouring rain and hasn’t let up all day. The views are impenetrable, we are in a thick wet cloud all around. There is evidence of landslides everywhere, and we are perched in a ravine with a growing river tumbling down between and granite cliff on one side, and on the side we are on, damp wet earth which I pray doesn’t give way. I am really really nervous here. We have descended waterfalls today, and crossed some bridges which may or may not be around tomorrow.
The rain continues to beat down. There is just a small common room with a stove to heat ourselves and hang our wet clothes to dry, but the room gets very smoky and I am having trouble breathing. We can’t open doors and windows for fresh air because the wind will blow the candles out. It is cold. It is wet. It is dark. And it is pouring.
I would rather keep going, continue our hike and get to the town where there is internet, but it will be another full day away now.
A lone monkey clings to the cliff and picks grubs from the wet earth. I watch him for a bit, take some pictures, then something tells me to turn around. I do, and there I see a row of rooms half swallowed by earth. My heart pounds and races, yet I try to stay calm. I wanted to run in and tell everyone, but I didn’t want to create any more panic or fear than was already present. It was dark now, and the decision had already been made to stay for the night.
Instead, I poke my head into the kitchen where the meal is being cooked. A young mother emerges holding a baby, and I take their picture, as well as a short video to show back to the baby. Baby points, and the young mother giggles loudly. I asked her about the mudslide, when did it happen? “Three weeks before” she tells me, then quietly slips back into the warm kitchen and sits holding her baby close.
After we have eaten and the candles have burned out, everyone goes to bed. I cannot. I am restless. I can’t sleep. I wander outside in the pouring rain and look around. I talk to our sherpas, still awake. “I have never seen rain like this in my life” says the oldest one, who has seen it all. I asked if he is nervous, and his eyes told me so.
For the first time that I can ever think, I am scared. I am terrified. And I am wondering how I will ever rest through this night with the damp earth pressing against the back of this inn and the river roaring down out front. And the rain that won’t quit.
End of Day 5 – October 7 I’m still here!
I have survived the scariest night of my life, and am writing now from a place where at least we are not in ravine, there is electricity, and I feel safe.
The rain poured thick all night long, it didn’t let up. Every time I lay flat on my back, I felt the vibrations in the earth beneath, and overnight a new waterfall formed and poured down only 10 feet from the door. The river raged and rushed and was twice as wide and deep by morning. Rain or not, we had to get an early start as we had a long way to go, and much time to catch up on.
Many lives were lost last night in Nepal, and we’ve heard that a group of 8 which was headed to Ghorapani didn’t make it. We had just come from there. It’s a really eerie feeling to have so narrowly escaped a deathly landslide. I’m sorry to say that I think the place we stayed last night will soon be washed away if this rain keeps up.
So today we crossed many many waterfalls and rivers. Our sherpas are very strong men, one is a gherka, and one had to carry some of us across a raging river, knee-deep, on his back – a river to our left which dropped into a waterfall on our right. He was solid, I felt as if I was being carried by a petrified tree trunk, something somewhere between a tree and a rock, but which moved steadily from one bank to the other, while water raged and rushed past.
Many people have taken falls – our trail and the rock slabs are slippery and in some places the waterfall just spreads to run right down the steps of our path. So far, I have managed to keep my balance – I take deep breaths and listen to the earth. I carry a rock I picked up the day before yesterday. I touch the moss on the trees. I hold my hands in the river and feel the water – how fast, which direction, where it has been, where it is going. It is so important to pay attention and look for signs all around to avoid landslides, and to cross rivers safely. When I hear birds singing, a waterfall is near. When I hear monkeys chattering above in the trees, there is usually deep thick mud coming. When I feel the earth is solid beneath my feet, I stop and look around, appreciating the beauty of the trees, thick with moss, the fragrant flowers, the way the water glistens as it runs over rocks. The rain continued to fall the entire day today as we made our gradual descent in elevation, sometimes following the river, other times on a narrow trail clinging to the mountain slope. Once, we passed through a mudslide in progress. Slowly and with careful attentive guidance, I stepped ankle deep, then knee deep, as I felt the mud move slowly around and past each leg. The earth was moving, under my feet, like I’ve never experienced before. I thanked the trees which stood their ground and reached out to lift me from the sliding mud. And I was grateful for every step which took me farther away from that gorge, that ravine….that deathtrap, for lack of a better word. I watched the short video I took of the mother and baby who lived there. And I watched it again. And I cried my own waterfall.
As we neared our next lodging for the night, the snow-capped peaks teased us, just shy of coming out of the clouds. Perhaps the weather will clear somewhat tonight – it seems to be a bit lighter, but it is still raining as I write. While there is electricity here, the internet tower is broke, so I am still unable to post any news. Tomorrow they say we will reach a bigger place with more communications.
End of Day 6 – October 8 We woke to clear blue sky, with snow-capped peaks and lush green hills of Landruk. As the day grew, the clouds formed. I am completely and utterly exhausted – today was the longest day of trekking, but so worth it. We passed children in uniform climbing to school. We climbed down down down, crossed a river, then climbed up up up. Most of the day we journeyed along a ridgetop, through the clouds. We reached a peak of 2100 meters. Late in the day we began a descent, and it grew dark. The ground was still slick and slippery, and it was pretty scary. I was glad to have my headlamp. I was glad to have brought several things – like trail mix, a water purifier, and a shirt I’ve had for almost 20 years that doubles as a towel and dries quickly. I’d wished I’d had a third pair each of socks and underwear.
I have been using the UV water filter with great success, it works fast and I can get the water from any source. The locals say this is the best way to go, using rechargeable batteries, nothing is wasted. I’m really pleased I picked the right one. I’ve offered it’s use to others in the group, but either laziness or fear kept them dependent on buying and using plastic bottles. Thanks to Puja (one of the orphans whose life story I documented), a vision of her river home and the piles of plastic that she scoured for food or drink come back to remind me what a horrible ugly waste it is to buy bottled water. Now I know firsthand where those bottles end up.
I haven’t seen a warm shower since Kathmandu. Tonight I bathed with a small bowl of boiled water. I first wet and washed my hair and face. I then splashed it on my body, and treated my feet to a warm bath with the remaining water. Then, still some water in the bowl, I washed my socks. It’s been such a great lesson to make the very most of every drop of water, take nothing for granted.
Did I mention yesterday how many leeches I have had? Too many, I’ve lost count now. I’ve named one of the sherpas my “leech gherka”, as he calmly treated the leeches off his own wounded and infected legs, then turned to treat mine. (image source: yeungstuff.com) There are two things to carry to deal with leeches. Salt and sugar. First, sprinkle some salt near the leech and it will immediately wither away and roll off. Then you are left with a small hole and lots of blood running out. Sprinkle the wound with sugar. Sugar attracts the hemoglobin in the blood, and helps the blood to clot so a scab can form. Never stretch and pull a leech off. If you have no salt, or no tweezers, use your fingernails and scrape it gently out from the hole.
I have surprised myself on this trek. I have been faced with two of my biggest fears – landslides and leeches – and I have survived them both, and no longer fear them. But…
I’m so glad it’s over! I don’t feel the need to summit Everest. While I admire and respect those who do, I am quite content to have conquered my own mountains in 7 days. from left to right: my “leech gherka”, me, and my river-crossing sherpa
Antigua, Guatemala The bluebird school bus weaves its way assuredly through the diverse landscape north of Guatemala City to Antigua. As much as my body wanted to nod off like the girl covering her head next to me, I could not shut my eyes from the beautiful countryside we were traversing. The air was fresh, mild, warm, tainted with the smoke of burning trash, and the wind just enough to keep comfortable in this central American climate. After a quick shower of cool water, I relax on the rooftop patio of my modest accommodations. I hear birds everywhere. Scanning the horizons, I see that Antigua is surrounded on all sides by lush green volcanoes topped off in clouds. I feel the centuries of vulnerability in this place. The crumbled ruins here are the remains of earthquakes, volcanoes, mudslides, and who knows what else. Nestled among the giant mountains, the valley town of Antigua provides a false sense of security – these giants can erupt and destroy the town in any given moment. The earth here is uneasy, the terrain broken and the country is mapped out with fault lines. A land in geographical turmoil, where nature dominates, and humans continue to choose it’s beauty over their own safety. The rich colors of Guatemalan textiles also paint the houses, and a walk through the town is a feast for the eyes. With every disaster, a new and brighter coat of paint decorates the facades. They rebuild and inhabit this valley time after time, and I don’t blame them. It’s a comforting place, and I’m comfortable here, too.