Highlights: Nepal

Kathmandu Dosas (at Pilgrim's): Even though the bookstore staff was rather grumpy, we have to hand it to the cafe in the back for serving up, on multiple occasions, some mighty fine Dosas.

A real shave: This would be Eli and I'm speaking about my first real straight razor barber shave, complete with multiple aftershave creams, a head massage, a $1.50 price tag, and absolutely zero nicks or cuts.

Patan and Bodhnath: Both of these are tourist and guidebook staples, but they both served well at giving us a little more of a complete perspective on Kathmandu and the Kathmandu valley. Plus, Patan's Durbar (Palace) Square is more impressive (and better maintained) than Kathmandu's, and Bodhnath's Stupa is just completely impressive.

Chitwan Pramila's Dal Bhat: Simply the best. Twice a day for two weeks and we still looked forward to more.

Traditional Songs: This one is two fold. The first part contains the ones we learned from Pramila around the farm, in the bamboo tower and in car rides. The second part contains those (some overlapping) that we learned from Jhalak on the trek. While we could theoretically hum some of the melodies, the words are almost completely lost on us. If you can ignore the intro to this video, the rest of it is a pretty good example of one of our favorites.

Pokhara Asian Tea House: Cheap and delicious home cooked fare by the most cheerful guy in town. There are only about 10 seats in this back-alley corner so you have to arrive a little early, but it's well worth it.

Mardi Himal Trek: Spectacular. Enough said.

The Atmosphere: While the craziness of Kathmandu is intoxicating in small doses, Pokhara's more relaxed version of the same (with farm more natural beauty surrounding it) make for an easy place to spend a little longer.

And a few last observations... • A buyer's paradise for knockoff everything and anything: trekking gear by the truckload, guide books that look so real you can barely tell they're not and store names (Wal-Mart, a small shop that sells yak wool pashminas, Fedup Express cargo shipping, and M.C. Donald "Nepalese fast food").

• Mopeds and motorcycles: a helmet seemingly only for the driver but none of the 2-3 passengers.

• No diapers for the babies (that we saw), only fleece/terry-cloth lined pants that get washed out and thrown on the roof to dry.

• The rumored Indian head-wobble-of-agreement tends to be more a head tilt and shrug in Nepal. Yes? No? Unclear.

• Nepalese Smokers: prevalent, but somehow nowhere near as intrusive as their western counterparts.

• Some of the hardest working people (especially the women) we've ever seen.

• Where else can you find a village where the adults and children are all equally excited about playing on a giant swing?

Location:Bangkok, Thailand

Field Notes On Mardi Himal

After arriving in Pokhara and spending a couple days exploring we set about on a six day trek. Pokhara, which is surrounded by the Annapurna Range, exists almost entirely on this sort of nature based tourism so there was no lack of help finding where to go. In an effort to avoid some of the tourist crowds, we opted for the Mardi Himal Base Camp trek - a newer route that only in the last three to five years has become anything more than a camping, DIY affair. Here are some snippets and observations from our first-hand encounter with the Himalayas: Duration: 6 days Guide: Jhalak

Day 1 Pokhara to Kande by taxi Kande to Bhichuk Deurali

• Jhalak picks us up in Pokhara and we take a taxi towards our starting point. En route, we pick up a just-finished wooden shelf for his kitchen (he had ordered it the week prior and spotted it while passing by the shop). We enjoy chiya on the roof patio, while Jhalak and the taxi driver saw the legs down and jam said shelf into place in the kitchen next to us. Not how we thought we would start the day, but a better way to be introduced to the man that would guide us through the forest for the next six days than we could have expected.

• The hike starts from Kande, a small hillside village. A dog joins us there and will stay with us until our lunch stop.

• Weather for the day is day is mostly hazy with bursts if strong sun. Our backs are soaked through by thirty minutes in.

• An embroidery of a temple adorns the fence across from our dal bhat lunch stop, twisting in the breeze. We never saw another one like it.

• Many stone steps up, up, up. Donkeys with gentle bells, old men wi grass on their heads in flip flops, and a maximum of eight other trekkers pass us on their way down, down, down.

• Bhichuk Deurali, our first stop at 2100 meters, is reached by early afternoon, with only 3.5 hours of hiking behind us. We have a 200 rupee room, several cups of masala chiya, dense cloud cover, and a touch of chill late at night.

Day 2 Bhichuk Deurali to Low Camp Ukalo, Ukalo, Ukalo.

• Spectacular sunrise number one. The heavy clouds break, revealing Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri to the north. The trail splits off from here - to the left, Annapurna Base Camp, to the right our path to Mardi Himal.

• Steep uphill climbs through moss laden trees. Magical, surreal. We can practically watch them breathing.

• Lunch at Forrest Camp after 3.5 hours. Long wait for dal bhat made for a good rest. We are joined by a Swiss couple - Nora and Sam, a group of four Germans, and the two guides accompanying them. From here, we will all pass and tail one another on the rest of the trek, becoming a rambling collective.

• Tough to describe the intensity of the constant uphill climb - think unpredictable steps made of rocks and tree roots, sometimes so tall it is more about hoisting up than stepping.

• Rhododendron trees, with low hanging branches and uniform, hearty leaves, make up the bulk of the forest.

• Arrival a Low Camp, approximately 3000 meters, paired with more dense cloud cover and some late evening rain. Super rustic accommodation with peek-a-boo, wood plank walls and dirt floors. Evening brings temperatures cold enough for jackets and hats.

• Eli passes time with some carving, Casey with some reading. Later, we all huddle around the very welcome bonfire, drying our sweaty clothes by hanging them off our knees.

• Dal bhat - after a long, long wait and co-cooked by Jhalak - is eaten from our laps, with smoke in our eyes, and we turn in, exhausted, around 9pm.

Day 3 Low Camp to High Camp

• We watched the porters for another group leave with 40kg each on their backs - Converse sneakers on their feet - while the sun rose over our previously hidden backdrop of Machhapuchhre.

• As expected, more steep uphill on the three hour ascent to High Camp (elevation approximately 3800 meters) as the vegetation thins out from temperate rainforest to low, thick tufts of grass and small wildflowers.

• One, skunk striped yak encounter. No injuries to report. All is peaceful.

• Early High Camp arrival in far colder weather, prompting the immediate donning of any and all remaining dry layers (including, almost unanimously, a two hour sleeping bag hibernation - warmth and rest. Double win!)

• Still heavier cloud covering, with much more rapid changes. Short breaks of blue sky would be quickly swallowed up as we, quite literally, watched clouds come up one side of the ridge to spill over and down the other, looking much like dry ice.

• Lunch and dinner huddled in the heavily smoke filled kitchen/dining room followed by early bed.

Day 4 High Camp to viewpoint to High Camp High Camp to Siding via Low Camp

• 5AM alarm puts us outside under the frosty, crisp and clear sky with Machhapuchhre, Annapurna South and Hiun Chuli lit up in the moonlight, shared with our Swiss companions, Nora and Sam.

• 6AM departure towards Mardi Himal Base Camp. High altitude, wet grass, icy moss, and some vertical climbs, all under the pressure of beating the incoming morning cloud cover.

• We stop at MH Viewpoint (~4300 meters), just shy of the Base Camp to avoid some altitude sickness. Spectacular 360° views including the above mentioned peaks as well as Annapurna I, Nilgiri, and several others.

• Back down to High Camp for breakfast by 10AM, completing the first two of six hours of descent for the day. Uralo, uralo, uralo. (Down, down, down.)

• We backtrack to Low Camp via the same tree root steps and branch off from there towards the tiny village of Siding (1900 meters - a one day descent of 2400 meters, for those keeping track), Machhapuchhre again (or still?) sitting front and center.

• Tired legs and delirium set in two hours from our destination. Wobbly knees led to stumbles for Casey and serious relief washed over us when we reached the simple guesthouse nestled on the side of a terraced valley full of rice and millet.

• Incredible dal bhat with garden veggies, minted pickle, and hot buffalo milk. Thank you, Laksmi!

Day 5 Siding to Astam

• Wake up weary of more downhill, but masala chiya and remembering to go slow brings calm.

• Through the fields - balancing on the top edge of the terraces, over bridges, past waterfalls. Picking up little stone mementos and slipping them in pockets.

• We are joined for an hour by school children on their way to class, which starts at 10am. Hopping down broad steps, they jet ahead of us and shout hellos and goodbyes.

• Pause for a sit and a soda in Lumre, at the base of the hill. Onward along the road, some noodle soup, and back up never-ending steps towards Astam.

• Visit to Jhalak's aunt. We sip chiya, attempt to finish buffalo buttermilk (unsuccessfully) and play with the baby on the porch. A heap of little kids show up and shyly hang around.

• More climbing, really staggering at this point, up a final path to Astam Eco Village. More highly priced than expected, but by no means expensive. Bio-fuel, rain water collection, beautiful gardens and actual relaxation.

• Feeling accomplished, even with two hours ahead of us for the last day.

Day 6 Astam to Suikhet - Suikhet to Pokhara by taxi

• Longest wait for a simple breakfast. It turns out some teenagers were in charge and learning how to cook. All tasted delicious though, so it didn't matter.

• Yes, still shaky legs...but this is eased by the rush of pride from actually finishing.

• We thankfully take the easier way down - a rambling dirt road as opposed to the vertical drop route.

• Hitch a ride to Jhalak's house from the main road, enjoy more dal bhat (thanks to his wife) and play volleyball in the driveway with his two kids and their friend.

• The peace of the mountains in the distance, we are quiet as we re-enter civilization via taxi and witness the bustle, the pollution, the tourists and our own sensations of all of this.

In Nepal, the offers for trekking tours are plentiful and we feel grateful to have luckily happened upon one that suited us well - being mellow and less traveled than many of the routes. Negotiating a simple trek (one that doesn't have everything set up beforehand) is a dance in itself, but we now appreciate having traversed that part of it all. This was by far the most challenging, and duly the most rewarding, hike we both have ever been on. Part mediation, part physical endurance challenge, part awe inspiring views, part cultural exploration, and completely worthwhile.

PS. Should anyone reading this find themselves in Nepal and seeking a first rate guide, we wholeheartedly recommend Jhalak. Leave us a comment, or email us if you know us, and we can pass along his phone number!

Location:Pokhara, Nepal

The Rhino Quest And The Little Adventures

Nepal is nothing if not one big adventure. This was true for us from the moment we left the airport, hurtling through the dark and the rain on foreign streets while shopkeepers looked on and the hotel hawker who'd jumped in our cab babbled endlessly. It was true as we wandered the Kathmandu streets the first few days, dodging motorbikes, cars, pedestrians and dogs, while also trying to ingest the massive amount of sensory input. And it was true on the seven hour bus ride to Chitwan that took us along the edge of 500 meter cliffs overlooking a river while our driver played chicken with each oncoming vehicle. But the moment it all came into clear focus was the day after we reached the farm and Padam, a trained jungle guide, had us, our co-volunteer Madalina, and three volunteers from the orphanage next door walking through thick brush and scrawny trees while the thunderous (truly) sound of a seven year old wild rhino passed us unseen.

What to do? Keep tracking it until you can see it, of course, but if it runs at you (at 40km/hr), run perpendicular. We only saw it briefly and partially covered that first day, but less than two weeks later were back in the jungle with another group staring down into a pond where some of our co-volunteers had just witnessed two of them fighting. After one of them lumbered off away from us, this one got out to sun itself and, seemingly, pose for a photo op before wandering off as well:

There's something kind of incredible (not to mention humbling) about being just another animal in the forest around such huge and powerful creatures. The day before departing the farm we were treated to the rare opportunity of seeing three baby rhinos up close - an experience entirely different, but no less magical than the above, given that they're still wild. All three were orphans and are left to roam the jungle during the day, but are being helped along during their early years to survive without their parents. When I say up close I refer to the feeling of their leathery armor under our hands and the goo trying to escape their nostrils smudging into my shoes.

In writing about adventures, it must be noted that transportation around the country is an adventure in itself. I mentioned the cliffs and the games of chicken, but there is also the loud Nepali pop music on the bus speakers, the goats and people riding on top, and the overselling of pretty much every available inch of space. On the 3.5 hour drive from Chitwan to Pokhara, Casey and I had the chance to really contemplate the latter part of this as the 26 people in our 18 seat minibus looked on in amusement at her sitting on my lap; the lady next to us working her way through multiple barf bags, the guys next to us seeming genuinely worried for my future child producing capabilities. If I could've moved any part of me in any direction I would've grabbed the camera and taken a picture of the situation. Alas. This isn't entirely different from the day we met the above mentioned baby rhinos when 10 of us called this mighty steed our ride:

I also don't think I can discount the smallest of adventures we had - perhaps typical of any country where tall, very pale folks such as myself show up in remote and extremely rural villages - on our many walking trips to...pretty much anywhere. As we would pass any of the houses with kids it would usually go something like this:

Child: "HELLO!NAMASTE!" Us: "Hello! Namaste!" Child: "WHATISYOURNAME!" Us: "Casey/Eli. What is your name?" Child: "WHEREAREYOUGOING!WHATCOUNTRYAREYOUFROM!"

...and so on and so forth, sometimes including a request for chocolate (ridiculous not only for the obvious, but also the heat which, at around 100° F and somewhere in the 90% range for humidity, would have liquified any such delightful treat), other times granting us a new companion for the equivalent of a couple blocks as we made our way along the dirt road. At other times, the almost desperation for a social outlet or foreign friend was clear. Casey spent some time next to a millet field with a sassy thirteen year old that was not only keen to take pictures together, but also dramatically forceful in making sure her new friend didn't leave (even for dinner).

These bigger adventures are necessary as we travel. They speed up the pulse and change things up in exciting ways. But we've learned, if we didn't know already, that the smaller ones are equally necessary - slowing time down more and heightening our awareness of ourselves and others as we enter into these new communities and friendships, even if they only last a few blocks.

Location:Kathmandu, Nepal

Food Porn: Nepal

Speaking of food grown on the farm... I never would have guessed it but Nepal has turned out some amazingly delicious food - so much so that I think it deserves a little space of its own.

If what you think of is Dal Bhat (lentils and rice) for Nepali cuisine, then you'd be essentially right. What we were treated to on the farm, however, was dal bhat twice a day served nearly every time with fresh buffalo milk yogurt (curd), curried vegetables and often a pickled something or other. If you're me, it was all mixed in a pile with a fresh chili pepper. If you're Casey, it was mixed bit by bit. Anything twice a day every day has the potential to get a bit boring but Pramila is an amazing cook and changed it up just enough every time that even after two weeks I was still looking forward to it. Favorites include the aforementioned jungle spinach, whose stalk, pickled, was spectacular, and whose leaf made for the creamiest spinach I've ever had, as well as the yellow skinned cucumbers, which are much bigger and juicier than the small green ones we grew up with.

The days at the farm also always started off with tea. Sometimes it was fresh cut Lemongrass (fresh being exponentially more impressive than the Lemongrass tea at the tea shop I used to work at) but more often it was the national standard of masala dudh (milk) chiya. This most excellent mixture of milk, cardamom, cinnamon, tea, sugar and possibly a secret ingredient or two is almost as important as dal bhat for most Nepali and for good reason - it's ridiculously delicious.

Pre and post farm our options and explorations expanded a little to include some Tibetan fare which, with the thousands of Tibetan refugees that now call Nepal home, is fairly common. These include the millet beer previously mentioned, thukpa - a noodle soup along the lines of Vietnamese Pho, millet pancakes with honey, Tibetan milk tea with salt and butter (wow), and one of the more interesting bread items I've had on the entire trip. On the menu it just said Tibetan bread with jam/honey. When it arrived it was a little bigger around than a large bagel and looked sort of like a plain donut but without the hole in the middle. The reason it seemed so unique, though, is that its taste and texture put it somewhere between a donut, a soft pretzel and regular bread - not entirely new, but not quite like any one thing I've ever had. Throw in my soft spot for honey and it's a shoe-in for my best of list.

And finally (though I won't pretend that the above is all Nepal has to offer) there are those little curiosities and side snacks... • The sugar bowl on the table at a restaurant in Pokhara that had cardamom pods and cloves sitting in it for flavor. Amazing. • The "Winter Melon" tea in a can that we just couldn't resist sampling. It ended up tasting like either a popcorn or cotton candy Jelly Belly, though neither of us has had one recently enough to remember which it is. • The small fresh bunch bananas, about half the size or less of those in the States with a sweeter taste and small hard black seeds throughout. • The dried snack food of peanuts, crunch dried noodle type things and beaten rice. When I say beaten I really mean chewy flattened rice. We happened to spy a couple of girls making this one day; the rice laid out on a mat and the girl operating a long wooden arm like a seesaw with her foot that would drop the heavy opposite end down onto the rice. • Dasain's Tika Day Salad (our name, as Padam only called it salad, when we asked): a stunning combination of shaved dried dates, shaved coconut, chopped apples and bananas and a hint of sugar in fresh plain yogurt. We're thinking it would've also been delicious with a hint of cinnamon as well. • The recycled soda bottles, complete with date of manufacture. I had a Fanta while on the farm marked 1994 (the contents were definitely not that old, thankfully), though the below vintage Slice was unmarked. I guess I should actually say reused soda bottles instead of recycled, as they're all collected back, cleaned (I assume), and refilled until they kick the bucket.

Location:Paknajol Rd, Kathmandu, Nepal

Sitamai: Celebrations

By way of the aforementioned hour-long-10km-taxi-bus ride, we arrived to the farm late in the afternoon sweaty and a little sleepy, with dirt in our nostrils and curiosity in our pulses. It was the end of September and, for those of you not in the know, Eli's birthday was the next day (Friday the 30th). After getting settled, receiving a henna tattoo from Dipika and her best friend Monita, enjoying the first of many delicious dal bhat dishes, and being safely under the protection of our mosquito net, we passed out - but not without fleeting wonderings of what was to come with our time here, what makes birthdays really memorable and why we celebrate them anyway, and the new faces and names of those who had invited us graciously into their home floating in front of us in the dark.

The next day, I helped to grind toasted sesame seeds into a paste in the kitchen. It was satisfying to work with my hands, and particularly so because the grinding was done with a large, smooth rock on a wooden board. In the middle of this meditative prepping, I asked Pramila how, and more importantly if, Nepali people generally acknowledge birthdays. It turns out that many people aren't sure of their exact age or date of birth, particularly of the older generation, so the tradition of celebration doesn't really exist. This is changing somewhat, with the development of medical centers and health/birth awareness, but not at all swiftly. Pramila wanted to know, immediately, whose birthday it was and, cornered, I spilled the beans. This moment seemed casual enough and faded with the morning.

After some exploring in the late afternoon, we ate more dal bhat and cleaned up at the water pump. As dark came, some local kids wandered into the yard...then some more neighbors...then folks from the orphanage next door...then Madalina, a volunteer from Romania who we rode to Sitamai with, strolls in with her host family. We were wondering what was going on, fairly obliviously because of the size (approx. 30-50) of the village and the nature of people to wander in and out. Next, Pramila and Padam dragged a chair out into the middle of the yard and ordered Eli to take a seat. They had invited everyone over for a birthday celebration of Tika giving, music, and dancing! Here is Eli right before that realization...and right after receiving flowers from a stream of people and Tika from Padam.

The general mood of the village was already celebratory thanks to the national holiday of Dasain being just ready to begin. More folks were home for the gatherings, puja (devotional activities) and associated festivities; Eli's birthday was a great way to harness that energy into a night of traditional folk songs (farmer centric), drumming, and the rest. It was near that same night that the moon was to be seen and barley/corn planted, and set to seed in a dark corner of the home. The fun was surprising and exhilarating; we wanted so badly to record some songs, but decided instead to just hang out with the present moment.

Dasain essentially celebrates the victory of gods and goddesses over demons, and does so in intricately timed and highly representative ways. There is also a focus on family and the renewal of community ties during this time, hence the build up of excitement and amount of gatherings during these 15 days. As part of an offering to the goddess Durga, goats are sacrificed nationwide and the blood and meat is considered auspicious. We were invited to, and attended, a sacrifice in the village at 7am. What resonated most with us was not only the commitment to ritual, but the fact that each and every part of this animal was both honored and utilized for two families. They had raised it and they would go on to worship it and their gods by way of this process. (Though the family insisted I could photograph any part of the event, I decided the aftermath was more appropriate for me):

There is an all day Tika event, during which the elders of the families bless others by placing a holy mixture of rice, red dye and curd on the third eye area of the forehead, sprouts from the planted barley/corn are tucked behind ears or in braids, and sharing a specific wish to each person. This happens first in the immediate family and then throughout the village, as most everyone is related where we were staying. Women and men wear new clothes on this day, adding to the official excitement of the day, and we (and Madalina and Corine, another farm volunteer from Switzerland, and Kelli, from Chicago) were not left out of this part:

Swings are constructed at the entrances to villages; symbolic and literal vehicles of the requirement to have one's feet leave the earth, particularly on Tika day. They are taken down several weeks later around the time of yet another festival, Diwali. Many we saw, and used, were made of gigantic bamboo poles and rope - and the clear pros were the children and Nepali men of the village, who could stand up and get insanely high. The day we went to visit Pramila's parents (just the girls went), our taxi driver pulled to a stop near one and insisted we all get out and swing. By far the most awesome taxi ride I had in Nepal. Below is our driver, and then Dipika and Monita demonstrating the two-person tandem approach. My form was terrible, but I had fun:

While Nepal is decidedly rich in culture, tradition and ritual year-round, we feel especially lucky to have shared this time with not only a family, but an entire community. The stateside equivalent is inviting someone new (a stranger from another land entirely) into your home for a combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. We can only hope to return or pass along the favor, and open door, sometime.

Location:Chitwan, Nepal