Fiascos and Flights

This morning I woke up at 8 am. Which was a problem because my flight was taking off at 8 am.

I have been on hundreds of flights, and I’ve never missed one before. I suppose that’s what happens when you book an early flight the day after a holiday party, though.

I’m visiting my dear friends in Mexico for the week, and since I booked my flights pretty last minute- I had to get creative. Detroit has lousy connections, so I picked a flight from Chicago to Cabo. I figured I could just catch an early flight from Detroit and make it to Chicago in time for my 2pm flight. It was risky, but totally do-able.

When I got home from my company’s holiday party, I debated staying up until my flight but thought it would be best to just “rest my eyes for a bit.”

I realized how terrible of an idea that was when a text from my roommate wishing me safe travels woke me up at the same time my flight was departing.

I darted around my room muttering “fuck, fuck, fuck” and throwing things into my suitcase. (I had the ambitious idea that I would pack for my trip in the morning before heading to the airport. Another poor decision.)

I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry, but I didn’t have time for either of those so I went into crisis management mode instead. There were no other flights that would get me into Chicago in time for my 2pm flight. No train or bus either, and I didn’t know of anyone driving there today. I don’t own a car, but realized that would be my best chance at making my afternoon flight, so I rented one.

By 9:30 am I had acquired a snow covered little blue car with Texas plates, and I hit the road.

The drive between Ann Arbor (where I live) and Chicago is about 4 hours so I had almost no margin for traffic or winter roads. I was taking a big risk, but I really didn’t want to have to rebook my flights. Luckily, the sun was shining, the roads were clear and the traffic was moving. I drove much faster than I probably should have been driving, but I was making really good time. Things were looking up!

Then, of course, with about 30 minutes left of my drive, the gas light went on. I really didn’t have the time to get off the highway and get gas, so I just kept going. The gas light is just a warning, right?

I started to get more and more nervous the closer I got to the airport. With about 10 minutes left the gas light started blinking and I knew I had a problem on my hands, but at this point I was nowhere near a gas station. (Should I just rename this post: Poor Decisions?)

Now, I’m not a gambler but today was already so full of taking risks, I figured one more couldn’t hurt.

About a minute away from the car rental drop off the car started making some funky sounds and started slowing down, and I held onto the wheel for dear life as if I could somehow will it to keep going. And it did.

I pulled into the car return port, amazed at how perfect the timing was. There’s no way that car would have made it another mile. I handed over my keys and hopped into mama Kulka’s car (mom to the rescue!) and we sped towards the United Terminal.

She handed me a Tupperware of her homemade persimmon walnut bread, and I raced to the check in counter with my glorious food in hand. I was going to make it!

I scanned my passport and to my surprise, I saw a message pop up on the screen, “No reservation found for this passenger.”

How could this be? I could not have gone through this entire ordeal and not have a flight. I aged a couple years in just one morning, and it couldn’t be for nothing.

Fortunately, I realized that my flustered self had just gotten the airlines mixed up and I was just at the wrong terminal. The bad news was that time was still of the essence, and I broke a sweat just thinking about how fast I would need to move in order to make it to the next terminal. For the umpteenth time today, luck was on my side. My mother is a very smart lady and very good at this airport drop off thing, so she had waited out front, “just in case.”

With her help, and the help of TSA precheck, I made it to my gate with time to spare.

I’m currently on my flight to Cabo, smiling to myself about how sometimes in life, “things just work out.”

Conversations with Strangers: Joel from Ann Arbor

I was having coffee on the lawn of my guest house in Tolka, overlooking the terraced hills of the Himalayas when an older gentlemen with the most soothing voice struck up a conversation with me.

His name was Joel, pronounced Joelle- the Italian way. He was born and raised in Ann Arbor, but has been living on an island off the coast of Tuscany for the last 9 years. He used to live in Nepal- working in the villages to aid the blind, and speaks fluent Nepalese as a result. We talked about Nepal, and it’s kind people and beautiful culture. We also chatted about life, and how the world really is a small and funny place. In life there are no coincidences, and it was certainly no coincidence that I met Joel on the last full day of my trek.

Best advice you could give someone?

“Go slowly.” Everything is going so fast these days, that it’s only when you slow down you can begin to see where you are.

What was your happiest moment?

Nepal.

His answer was simple and direct. Some things just don’t need explaining.

Namaste Joel. Thank you for the serenity you brought me, and for the reminder to slow down. I hope to take that with me on my journey home, and I certainly hope our paths cross again.

Day 10: Tolka to Pokhara

The End. Fin. Cue: We are the Champions. Follow with “Closing Time.”

In what seems like a blink of an eye (if blinking were really hard and took ten days of going up and down hills) my trek has come to an end.

Immediately after exiting the trail, and seeing my taxi waiting to take me back to Pokhara- I passed a beautiful French family of four that was just starting their trek to Annapurna Basecamp.

I gave my bamboo stick to the girl in the family, who must have been around 12, and Gambu gave his stick to the little boy, who was maybe 9. I told the girl that I had already taken the stick up to ABC and now it was her turn.

They all looked so happy and excited, and I nearly started crying because of how wonderful it was that they were doing the trek as a family.

Because, you see, I too did the trek with my family.

Of course, not as literally, but in our own way- they were with me. I carried them in my heart.

36 years ago, almost to the day, at 8:15am my father was in Pokhara starting the Annapurna Sanctuary trek himself. He was 27 years old, and also going alone.

Right before I left for my trip, he sent me a photo of his journal entry from that day. The only legible thing I could make out was that he was starting his trek and that he ate a banana. It was very poetic and to the point- much like my own writing. I too, kept a journal throughout my trek that maybe one day I’ll get to pass along as well.

Today is Thanksgiving and although to me this holiday only means vacation days that I can use to leave the country, the spirit of the day is not lost on me.

I spent the day thinking about just how grateful I am to have parents who instilled in me a love for travel and raised me as a global citizen.

My father followed along throughout my journey- reliving his own adventures in Nepal from when he was around my age.

And my wonderful mother, who is always happy to listen to my travel stories even when I know some of them raise her blood pressure, was cheering me on from afar the entire time.

I am thankful for them.

And I am thankful for my brother, who checked in to see if I was enlightened yet.

I am thankful for my girlfriends, who lit up my phone whenever I got WiFi with words of love and support.

I am also thankful for my adopted family- whether in Cali or Mexico, who are always faithfully reading my stories and showering me with encouragement.

I’m thankful for everyone else who came along for the ride (hike?) from all over the world, and showed their support in word or thought.

I was never alone- you were all with me.

And now, I am thankful for the deep tissue massage, hour long facial, poolside resort, and evening of room service that I treating myself to today.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and Namaste!

Day 9: Jhinu to Tolka

The four hour trek from Jhinu to Tolka felt like a walk in the park. If, let’s say, that park was actually a jungle with waterfalls, old suspension bridges with missing wooden planks, and oxen running through it.

I don’t mean to brag, but my room in Tolka had an outlet and real walls and a wooden door.

The toilet was still outdoors, but it was a western toilet and I was in absolute awe of my luxury. I couldn’t help but laugh at just how happy these simple things were making me. Soap and toilet paper were still nowhere to be found after ten days, but oh well.

Although ten days on the trail wasn’t always physically comfortable, these were some of the most wonderful days I’ve had.

Watching the sunset over the hills of the Himalayas, I started to feel a little nostalgic. Earlier in the day, in a rare showing of emotion, Gambu and I declared that we would both miss each other.

Gambu has been my guide for the entirety of the trek, but proved to be a lot more than that.

He was my companion, my protector, my medic, my teacher and my friend.

I learned early on that Gambu does not mess around. He’s been trekking through Nepal and Tibet for years, and knew every shortcut, every village, and pretty much everyone along the way.

At the start of trek, he picked a bamboo stick off the ground and handed it to me.

“Paul, take this stick.”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Take the stick.”

Not even an hour in to my trek I realized the stick was my new best friend on the steep downhills.

The next morning, we were headed up to watch the sunrise at Poon Hill, and Gambu said,

“Paul take a hat.”

“Nah I’m good.”

“Take the hat.”

Sure enough, an hour later I was beyond grateful to have my hat. I realized that listening to Gambu was a very good idea.

He did everything from pushing oxen, donkeys and snakes out of my way (true story) to helping me drain my blisters at the top of ABC. While we walked, we kept a comfortable silence, but he would sometimes sing or whistle Nepalese tunes and the musical accompaniment was always incredibly soothing.

He pushed me harder than I would push myself saying, “You are strong. You walk fast. We go further.”

I appreciated that about him, and I learned to love how he always gave two distances, for example:

“It take six hours to get there. But we do it in four.”

Every morning he had a black coffee ready for me when I woke up, and in the evenings he always knew when it was time for ginger lemon tea. In fact, once when a lodge didn’t have ginger- he found some and grated it himself for my tea.

Sometimes I think Gambu knew me better than I knew myself. After I had a small salad for dinner at ABC, I was starving an hour later and Gambu knowingly turned to me and said,

“Still hungry? How about an apple pie? And if they don’t have them- I’ll make one myself.”

Part guide- part mind reader, I tell you.

Now, is it possible to do the trek without a guide? Yes. But- I cannot imagine doing it without Gambu. I would have missed out on an entire encyclopedia of Nepali knowledge.

In fact, trekkers without guides would often overhear me talking to Gambu and would ask him questions or advice.

They would later turn to me and say, “you have a great guide.”

I always smiled and said, “I know.”

I never had to worry about reservations for accommodations, and I always wound up with a nicer room or an extra blanket. It was also comforting to have an extra set of eyes on my things at all times. And, as a female traveling alone, even when some other guides or porters gave me the heebie jeebies, I always felt safe because Gambu was never more than a few steps away from the moment I woke up to when I went to sleep.

When we parted ways, I gifted him my ASICS and we half joked about how next we have to conquer Everest Basecamp!

If any of you dear readers find yourself heading to Nepal, let me know and I can put you in contact with my guide. It will be the single best decision of your trek!

Namaste Gambu and dhanyabad and for everything!

Day 8: Bamboo to Jhinu

I noticed the further I go downhill, so does the quality of my writing.

You’re probably thinking that someone who has nothing but time on their hands and is just walking for hours on end has all the time in the word to think about deep and profound life things.

Alas, that is not the case. I’m not on some “Eat. Pray. Love.” journey to find myself (I’ve had those and they’re great- totally recommend). For this trip I just wanted to walk for miles and be absolutely blank.

My mind moves through a million thoughts per minute on a regular basis and I wanted to think about nothing for ten days.

Now, some people might say, “can’t you go somewhere relaxing to think about nothing? Like a beach- heard of those?”

Nope. There is a difference between quieting your mind and doing nothing. I can’t do nothing for ten days. That actually sounds like my worst nightmare, and I’m completely incapable of it.

Anyways, for the curious- my daily thoughts go something like this:

“Step, step, step. Concentrate- don’t roll your ankle again.”

“Is my tetanus shot expired?” (Yes, yes it is.)

“Argh. Rock. Ankle. Fuck.”

“Un kilomètre à pied ça use, ça use. Un kilomètre à pied ça use les souliers…Deux kilomètres à pied ça use, ça use…”

“Slow down- easy on the knees champ.”

“Ouch. Toes. Mmm, that’s uncomfortable. Are they infected yet?”

The views of the mountain and the villages tucked in between rolling hills were as spectacular as usual, but today was extra special because I had a treat waiting at the end. Throughout my trek I was looking forward to two things: 1. Reaching Annapurna Basecamp and 2. Relaxing in the natural hot springs in Jhinu after.

Nothing like getting into a hot tub with all your closest sweaty friends from the trek!

I spent two hours soaking in the hot springs that evening. I usually think of small enclosed bodies of water as cesspools of human filth, but cozied up next to the old French trekkers and Nepali guides, my achy muscles felt so good that I just couldn’t care.

Speaking of the French, I have decided that when I get old- I’d like to be an old French lady.

Poles don’t age particularly well, and they only talk about politics and religion and complain about everything as they get older. (My mother is the only exception to all of these things.)

Along the way I keep passing a group of French trekkers in their 60s and 70s and they are the most fabulous people Nepal has probably ever seen. They do group stretches in the morning and evening, and they always rub their muscles with some woodsy magical ointment. It smells divine.

They all have colorful high tech gear- not like my old Nike leggings that I’ve sewn together a few times and a bamboo stick.

Also, they travel with full sized bath products. Who does that?

Only the fabulous French.

Anyways, I really that this post was about absolutely nothing and absolutely everything at the same time. Thanks for riding along.

Day 7: Annapurna Basecamp to Bamboo

I hopped out of the icebox called a bedroom that I shared with a Thai and Taiwanese girl, and caught the sunrise over basecamp to say goodbye to the glorious view of Annapurna.

I sat silently looking at the view that I had pushed so hard to reach, and started reflecting on my own life and personal goals.

What do you do when you had set a goal and you pushed yourself as hard as you possible could to reach that goal- and you reached it. What happens next?

It’s like climbing a mountain. What happens when you get to the top? (Other than the obvious going back down- don’t be a smartass reading this.)

I realized that I had come all this way and still had no idea how to answer my own question- but it was time to head down.

After two coffees, and navigating the difficulty that is peeing in a hole when the floor of the toilet is all iced over- I looked at Gambu, smirked and said, “let’s rock and roll,” and we started off into a trot downhill.

While passing all the trekkers who were just now heading to ABC, I felt like a marathoner crossing the finish line, giving away high fives left and right, accepting congratulations in the form of Namastes all the way down. I’ve never ran a marathon, so I really have no idea what that finish line is like, but I’m sure it’s just as glorious.

I was greeted with comments of, “wow- you’re quick,” and smiles from trekkers and porters alike. I realized that people recognized me since there weren’t many other solo, small blondes, carrying their own pack and a bamboo stick, ripping through the trail.

Just me.

Along the way I passed my frenchies, who softly kissed my cheeks (ooh la la) and bid me, “bon voyage.”

Next, I passed my roommate from Deurali, Dr. Nick, who gave me a firm handshake and wished me a safe journey home.

Then, I passed Harjit- who was a theme throughout my journey. Harjit, his wife, and in laws sat behind me on my flight from Abu Dhabu to Kathmandu. I ran into him sightseeing in Kathmandu, and proceeded to run into him at least every other day on the trek- always enthusiastically greeting one another, and after the third or fourth run in saying, “see you later!”

Harjit boomed a “well done” and firmly kissed my cheeks, with the pride of a man who has known me all my life. Our run ins had come full circle, but I joked that I’ll probably see him soon anyways!

Gambu and I continued on our merry way downhill for the next five hours- dropping over 6,000 feet by the end of our day.

Needless to say, my knees are creaking louder than the floorboards of an attic, and I’m running low on Advil (but no worries, I still have rum.)

I ended the evening still buzzed from excitement of being at ABC that morning, and looking forward to soaking in some hot springs the next day.

Although I peaked, my trek isn’t over yet- miles and miles to go baby!

Day 6: Deurali to Annapurna Basecamp.

Today was the big day: Annapurna Basecamp. It was the highest peak of my trek (13,650 ft or 4,130 meters), and the goal I had set for myself.

Gambu and I started from Deurali and ripped through Machhapuchhre Basecamp to Annapurna Basecamp in 3 hours. Although the trail itself was easier today, the altitude made it incredibly hard to breathe and I had to remind myself to slow down every time I started to feel dizzy.

Nevertheless, we arrived swiftly and were greeted with blue skies and glorious snow covered mountains, and all I could think was, “wow.”

This was living!

I climbing to the highest viewpoint, faced the mountains and dramatically threw my arms in the air and reveled in the glory.

It was everything I dreamed it would be- and I was going to be unapologetically cheesy about it.

After six days of pushing myself harder than I thought I could, it felt so good to be at the top. I’m nowhere near done with my trek, of course, but making it to ABC was still wort celebrating.

Once I was done basking, I decided it was time to rest.

I took my shoes off, unwrapped my toes and immediately knew I had a problem. Blisters had developed under my toenails and the only way to feel any relief would be to drain them.

So I took a big breath and grabbed a needle and tried to get deep enough to hit the blisters. I pride myself on my incredibly high tolerance for pain, but I couldn’t stop wincing while trying to push all the pus out.

I had to make a deeper slit above my nails to let everything drain and hopefully dry by tomorrow. Gambu noticed that I was having a bad time, so he sat down next to me and took my beat up feet in his hands.

He proceeded to go at it, with a pair of old nail clippers and a needle, while I yelped and laughed- my naturally reaction to pain when I’m too proud to cry. It was quite the ordeal, but I was lucky to have him power through my whimpering.

Then, at alarming rate- the perfectly blue skies turned grey and it started to snow. I could see my breath in the cold air, even indoors. I put on almost every article of clothing I had, until I was wearing three thermal layers, two coats, and three pairs of pants.

At 13,000 feet it’s best to keep your head clear, but my body wasn’t warming up so I got a little help from some Nepali rum mixed with hot water.

I spent the evening bundled up in a common room, watching my breath dance in the cold air, while feeling warm in all my glory.

Or the Nepali rum. Unclear.

All that matters is that I made it up to basecamp today and I’m really proud of that.