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.

Day 5: Sinuwa to Deurali.

I basically floated today. My legs no longer shake when I stand, and I propel myself up steps even when they’re up to my hips. My new baseline is uncomfortable and slightly sore, and I’ve learned to be happy with that.

Granted, I’m fueled by coffee and Advil- but I also think my body is accustomed to getting beat up every day.

Yesterday Harrison reminded me that our bodies are actually stronger than we think they are. He told me that anytime we think we are too tired or in too much pain, it’s actually all in our heads.

Of course, when he tried to convince me that the pain of my toenail falling off was also mental and that I could will my toenail to stay on, I really had to draw the line.

That shit hurts, and I’m going to keep taping my toenail to my toe until I’m ready to tear it off.

Anyways, even with my throbbing toenail, we arrived in Deurali fairly early. We had made a six hour journey into 4.5 hours in true Pauline and Gambu fashion.

Nevertheless, all of the guest houses in the village were already full and I didn’t have a room. Gambu, crafty as he is, arranged for me to sleep in the store of the lodge, next to the open space where all of the Nepali porters and guides slept together.

I shrugged and said, “no problem.” It’s amazing how much you stop caring at some point.

Fortunately, after chatting with another guide, Gambu found an empty bed in a tiny room, made from plywood and stone. I would be sharing the room with Nick, a lovely British doctor in his 70s. We laughed at our awkward introduction, neither of us had had a roommate like one another before, but I assured him that I didn’t snore and made a great roomie.

I spent the rest of the day sitting on a bench outside, basking in the sun, listening to the waterfalls, and resting my legs.

Tomorrow I’m climbing to Machhapuchhre Basecamp and Annapurna Basecamp- the peak of my trek. It’s a big day, and I couldn’t be more ready for it.

Bring it on.

Day 4: Nadapani to Sinuwa

I bid adieu to my French friends, laced up my boots and headed towards Sinuwa with Gambu. By now, I felt used to the Nepali flat (constantly going either uphill or downhill) and was starting to feel stronger. I even started to appreciate how the steep inclines would naturally stretch my calves out while I walked, which felt more efficient than stretching after.

We made it to Chhromrong for lunch, and I was on my way to pee in a hole in the ground (Nepali version of a toilet) when a tall, tan and handsome stranger appeared on the trail.

Naturally, I gave him a wave and he wandered on over to have a chat.

His name was Harrison and he was a Canadian who left everything behind to travel. He had just come off the Annapurna Circuit, and was now trekking the Annapurna Sanctuary as well. I was of course intrigued, but his next stop was going to be Dovan- two hours past where I was headed for the evening.

I politely excused myself with the classiest thing I could say to a good-looking man, “I have to go pee in a hole now- catch you later,” and let Harrison go on his merry way.

We were headed in the same direction, so unsurprisingly I caught up with him shortly after, and we matched pace.

Gambu asked Harrison where his end point would be today, and he responded, “Sinuwa,” instead of Dovan. Earlier he had joked about staying there if it involved a candlelit dhal bat dinner with me, and now I rolled my eyes at his “coincidental” change of plans.

So, we ended up walking to Sinuwa together and talking the entire way. (Okay, Harrison talked while I huffed and puffed my way uphill.) He towered over me, so his steps were equal to two of mine, but I appreciated his slower pace on my behalf. Every once in a while, I noticed that my pack would feel a little lighter, and realized that Harrison would gently push my pack up so that it would be easier on me- it was quite sweet.

Once we made it to the village, we decided to split a room, for financial reasons and warmth, of course.

We spent the afternoon together, and I learned he was a former football player, turned vegetarian, meditating Zen Buddhist. Very type B, to my very type A.

It was refreshing to talk to someone who was so different than I was. He was insightful and introspective, on a mission to better know himself. Whereas, I know myself quite well and tend to stay away from deep conversations. I realized that his calm was contagious and I found myself sharing a lot of the thoughts I had been having about my life, that I was to hesitant to even admit to myself.

He later asked me what my spirit animal was. Harrison was a wolf- prideful and independent, but happy to also be part of the pack.

I am a mantis shrimp.

I am small, but strong and fierce, and I see the world in more colors than most people do.

We were clearly in opposite exhibits of this zoo, but somehow it worked.

The rest of the evening was lovely, dhal bat dinner and a cozy night in. The next morning he headed off to Annapurna Basecamp- a nine hour trek, so I gifted him the rest of my Quest Bars and wished him well.