Sunday, 30 December 2012

Annual Attempted Self-Improvement-Palooza

Yeesh, time flies!

I had actually forgotten that I'd made any resolutions for last year - thanks, sieve-for-a-brain! - but I managed to do OK, OK here defined as 'achieving my usual 2-out-of-3-ain't-bad success rate'.

I cocked up a few times but my punctuality is better - success!

I did not manage to detach myself from the internet to the degree I'd have liked - dang!

I did do a comic for every day of last year - extra success! - and have decided to keep it up because it's fun :-)

So the attempt to be less internet addicted rolls on as a non-resolution task and here I am, faced with a brand new year.


What to resolve...?
 OK, here we go.

  • Resolution The First: Start Getting Into Gardening Properly
    I have gotten excited about gardening before here, here, here and here but despite my noble intentions I've mostly been doing maintenance fiddling rather than planting anything new or learning anything particularly advanced in the gardening skill set.
    So this year I'm going to buy some plants and then do my level best to keep them alive.
    As I'm doing this resolving in summer this means that there's some things I won't be able to plant until winter/spring but if I manage to plant anything at all I'm going to count that as a success.
    Even if it's a collection of herbs and a tomato plant in a pot grown on my balcony at the flat.
  • Resolution The Second: Read A Book A Week
    I started recording what I was reading in 2009 and depending on what I was up to that year I got through a varying number of books.
    28 in 2009 (I started keeping the journal in June).
    73 in 2010 (By far the most successful year).
    34 in 2011 (Hey, woah, what happened there...?)
    21 in 2012 (WHAT!?)
    So yes, this year I want to ratchet the reading back up again.
    New stories, new knowledge, new writers to admire, more inspiration.
    I'm going to aim for 52 books, with the loose goal of a book a week and if I manage more than that then I'll just get to be smug about it.
  • Resolution The Third: Start Sewing
    Remember The Very Hungry Caterpillar fabric I bought?
    This year it is becoming quilts.
    It is becoming at least three quilts and then depending on how obsessed I am with quilting by that stage I'll either make the rest of the material* up into quilts for later** or put the material aside to make the quilts when the time is right.
    I want to try making clothes as well. I've put myself off in the past by imagining getting the measurements wrong and making clothes that don't fit or just cocking up and ruining the material.
    I look at lovely material and hate the idea of screwing it up by cutting it out wrong or ruining it somehow but I'll never learn if I don't squash that aversion down and just let myself make some mistakes.

* I bought so much material. 2 m of each of the... maybe 7 patterns?

** Later = when people have babies

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Nepal - Week Three

Day Fifteen to Day Sixteen

Our last two days of trekking were amazing in that we covered what felt like a ridiculous amount of distance in a much shorter time than it had taken coming the other way.

Of course they had been easing us into things at the start of the trip and there is a significant 'up' portion that you climb up to Namche that is a lot less strenuous when it is a 'down' from Namche, though your legs get a good work out keeping you braced safely as you go down the slope.

We had known we weren't here in the busy season but this was even more apparent at this point.
Coming up there had been constant foot traffic and numerous jopkyo and donkey trains every hour.
Coming down we only saw a handful and most of the foot traffic was incoming hikers who didn't realise how chilly it was going to get.
We'd had to carefully cross patches of ice that hadn't been there when we'd come up, caused by little streams that run down the mountain trickling across the paths, and that was more than a bit nerve-wracking next to the long drop at the edge of the path.

Arriving back in Lukla it felt like we'd been away for much longer than the two weeks we'd been walking.

Day Seventeen

We woke up bright and early for a quick breakfast and hustled down to the tiny airport to wait for our plane back to Kathmandu.

The thing about the plane back to Kathmandu, of course, is that the weather has to be good for the small planes to be able to fly.

The weather has to be good at Kathmandu, at Lukla and at a particular pass in between before the plane can leave Kathmandu and arrive at Lukla to pick us up.

No dice.

There was a bit of cloud in Kathmandu and the wind never really settled down.

We waited at the airport until about 11:00am and then went to wait in a little restaurant next to the terminal, staring morosely at the sky.

This put us in a suddenly tenuous position as our international flight back to Melbourne via Bangkok left at 1:30pm the next day and if we missed it, given the time of year, there was no guarantee we'd be able to get another flight in time to get back for Christmas.

Flights weren't officially cancelled until 12:00pm and until then we wouldn't be able to get the travel insurance pay for the only other way to get back to Kathmandu - a helicopter - so until then we twiddled our thumbs and hoped.

Once the official word came through our guide got on the phone to arrange two helicopters to come pick us up.

Unfortunately a lot of other people had had the same idea and many of them weren't fussed about travel insurance or didn't have any to fuss about.

For the rest of the day we watched helicopters come in and leave and knew we were moving up the queue but we didn't get to the front of it until 4:00pm which is when the helicopters stop flying because visibility isn't high enough.

So after getting up at 5:00am we wandered back to the lodge we had stayed at the night before, to stay another night and to try keep from being too nervous about the idea of missing flights.

Day Eighteen

We were up earlier than we needed to be, made sure that we were as organised as we could be and that we were wearing the cleanest clothes we had left as we were now going to be getting onto an international flight after two weeks of trekking.

Two weeks of trekking with minimal showers outside of camp showers (ie, a cloth and a bowl of warm water) and most of us not having washed our hair for the full two weeks because we didn't want to catch a chill on the trek.

The night at the hotel would have been nice, especially the shower part, but at this point we were just hoping that the helicopters would turn up and get us to the airport in time.

The helicopters landed at about 8:00am, had to refuel, de-ice their windscreens, and load our bags up before we could look at leaving.

The helicopter flight was a hell of a thing. Not much turbulence but you were a lot closer again to the treetops and mountains than even the small aircraft flight had been.

I got to sit up front and watching the countryside with its small towns go by, the terraced hills and mountains slowly giving way to flatter ground and larger communities until we reached Kathmandu was almost worth the hurry and bother of having missed out on the scheduled flight the day before.

When we landed someone from the hotel met us with the luggage we'd left in storage and there was a flurry of activity as we hurriedly packed our kit bag contents into our regular bags, made sure we hadn't left anything pointy or inappropriate in our carry on luggage, shed layers we didn't need any more and tried to ensure we were as un-stinky as possible.

Once we'd managed to get ourselves sorted it was time to head straight into the airport to go through about six levels of security checks, check-in for our flight and board the plane.

And in that sudden hurry, without a chance for a last look around or much in the way of reflecting, we were leaving Nepal.

It was definitely the most demanding trip I've been on in my life.

Having the usual comforts unavailable doesn't usually faze me but when one of those comforts is the comforting idea that if something goes wrong you can quickly access medical care, you get a bit nervous.

If someone had been seriously sick or injured their only real option would have been being airlifted to Kathmandu hospital by a rescue helicopter.
Nepal is still a developing country with very little in the way of medical care available, especially in the rural regions.

You usually saw at least one rescue helicopter passing overhead a day and while it was reassuring to see that they were operating dependably, it also drove home the fact that you needed to be careful, that what you were doing really was dangerous.

It's also remarkable how taxing you can find the cold if you're not used to it, especially when you're tired and constantly on watch for something that could constitute an altitude sickness symptom.

One of the tricky things about this trip has been successfully explaining it to people now that it's done.

It was amazing, one of the most rewarding things I've done but the tricky or difficult bits are a lot easier to explain or imagine so some of my friends seem convinced that I had a terrible time.
It's a lot harder explaining a moment of wonder or the constant 'holy shit, look at where I am!' jolts your brain got every time you looked around.

I am so glad that I went and if anyone else is considering such a trip and would like to hit me up for advice, feel free.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Nepal - Week Two

Day Eight and Day Nine

These two days get their own description because of my brother.

He woke up Day Eight feeling terrible having - despite precautions - caught some kind of tummy bug.

He didn't feel too bad at the start of the day but he didn't feel well enough to eat his breakfast.

He managed to walk for about two or three hours before his body decided to take matters into its own hands and eject whatever was bothering it out of his mouth over the edge of a cliff.

And then he felt magnificent!

Until he tried to continue walking.

Because he hadn't had breakfast and his body had just emptied out whatever else it had in reserve and an amount of liquid and left him low on fuel and a bit dehydrated.

He gamely tottered on for another half hour, stopping to rest every couple of minutes as our guide monitored him, before announcing that he was definitely not going to make it to the camp under his own power and asking if he could stay the night at one of the local hostels and catch up with us at the camp the next day as it was to be a rest day.

I did NOT like this idea.

I was NOT leaving my baby brother alone in a strange town by himself while he was sick in a third world country.

Our guide was explaining to him that this wouldn't be a fantastic option anyway as he'd still have to make it to where we were stopping for lunch because the porters had his luggage and he'd have to keep a porter and a guide with him and pay for their lodging and meals.

Blah blah blah, time to take matters into my own hands.

I hired him a horse.

A shaggy little mountain pony that they saddled up and popped him on.

My father and I were sent ahead with one of the sherpas leading the way as our guide waited with my brother and the guy readying the pony. Within about half an hour my brother had caught up to and overtaken us, looking quite cheerful now that he wasn't trying to walk.

At the camp we found he'd tucked himself in for a restorative sleep with some rehydration fluids close by for sipping and was feeling much better.

At this stage it was still uncertain whether the bug had completely worked itself out of his system and left him in a state where he'd be able to carry on walking with us on Day Ten.

We stopped by every now and then to check on him and bug him about drinking water if he happened to be awake.

The next morning he stirred himself out of bed to come join us at breakfast.

He ate a small amount of plain foods for breakfast, kept sipping at rehydration fluids and had some small walks around camp after sitting in and chatting with those of us who didn't go on the optional walk for that day.

Then he went off for more naps before re-emerging at lunch and then dinner for more plain food and liquids.

Day Ten

Thankfully a day and a half of taking it easy and getting plenty of fluids saw him come good and when we set off on our climb to Lobuche my brother was able to keep up comfortably as we all took it easy up the ridge to the yak pastures.

The yak pastures were on a large plateau, higher up than we'd been before and were quite a sight before a bank of fog rolled in and obscured them.
As we donned our windproof gear for the first time a light snow started to fall, hardly more than a dusting but it was an amazing thing to walk through in the mist.

Before lunch we had to cross a small patch of ice, our first for the trip which made us glad we weren't on one of the icy mountain pass treks, and then it was time to climb climb climb.

Lobuche was the second highest place we would spend the night and by this point we were all carefully watching ourselves and each other for signs of altitude sickness but aside from people experiencing a lowered appetite we were all doing quite well.

Day Eleven

The walk to Gorak Shep alongside the Khumbu Glacier was reasonably smooth if not completely flat going but was one of the tougher days of walking we'd had.
I'm not sure if it was just the altitude and lack of oxygen tiring you out more quickly or the fact that walking along on a flat surface able to see where you're going is a bit mentally wearing but by the time we got to Gorak Shep we were a bit achey and puffed.

There wasn't to be much rest yet though because after lunch it was time to trek to Everest Base Camp and back.
We got to leave our daypacks behind which was great and wear our puffy down jackets which was extra great.

The walk to Base Camp was incredible.

We saw Nepali guinea pigs, snow fowl and other birds that seemed to be doing quite well despite the lack of oxygen.
There was a bit of up and down, not too much but it was made more challenging by operating on 50% of our normal concentration of oxygen.
The trek there was estimated to take about two hours.
It did for some members of the group but for my Dad and I, who are short of leg and a little bit low on puff, it took three hours.
My brother had waited a half hour at the Base Camp for us and he was there when we arrived so we could take photos together and feel smug as a family.

Standing at Base Camp was a bit of a moment for me.

A few times during the trip I'd thought 'What the hell have I gotten myself into?' and had wondered if there was a point where I'd realise I wasn't going to make it all the way.

Each day was manageable, we were never pushed to go faster than we felt comfotable with, we were taken care of and fed well and got an adequate amount of sleep for the most part but the physical exertion along with the cold at night and the constant awareness of hygiene and altitude made for a bit of stress at times.

Standing there I got to think 'Shit, I actually did it! I trekked to Everest Base Camp! I am standing here with my father and my brother in a place where a large percentage of the human race will never come! This is incredible!' closely followed by 'Man I can't wait until we have a sit down!'

Heading back we had to hurry slowly because it was going to be a very close thing for us to get off the rocky and perilous part of the trail before we lost sunlight - the consequence of walking slowly.

We made it, just, reaching the flat approach to the town as the light faded, and leaving boot marks in the light dusting of snow that still covered the ground.
We collapsed into chairs around the fire at the lodge and sipped cups of hot tang - one of the stranger things we came to look forward to while trekking - and recovered.
Dad had been especially knocked about by the rush back and almost fell asleep in his chair.
We had to help him out of his boots and a few of his layers so we could dry them out for the next day.
He woke back up for dinner and then we all turned in for a good sleep before it was time to start heading down.

Day Twelve to Day Fourteen

On Day Twelve the Canadian son, my brother and my godfather's son were the only ones who opted to get up at 5:00am to climb Kala Pattar. The rest of us were still a bit tired, not wanting to brave the temperatures they'd encounter and felt we'd probably gone high enough.
They managed to climb Kala Pattar and get back down in time to join us for breakfast where they explained that it had gotten so cold that they hadn't been able to operate or indeed feel their hands at all for a time.
The views sounded amazing but I am not built for that kind of cold and felt satisfied with my decision to leave that part of the adventure delegated to my brother.

The next three days were a steady retracing of our steps down the mountain. Marvelling at things we'd been too tired or tunnel vision-y to notice on the way up, feeling a bounce in the step as we descended to slightly more oxygen-rich levels and high on success at having achieved the goal of our trip.

As thoughts of home started to pop more frequently into our heads we entered the 'fantasising about various foods and not having to use hand sanitiser before eating every single morsel' part of the trip.
The fact that we were returning home just in time for Christmas didn't help this at all.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Nepal - Week One

Nepal blew my mind.
Straight up blew my mind.

I've travelled a bit but it's been a long while since I went to anywhere so out of my normal range of experience and it makes you pay a degree of attention you mightn't if you were somewhere more familiar.

When my father asked me back in May if I wanted to go on a trek to Everest Base Camp I was excited but nervous.
And then December rolled around quicker than I thought it would and found my father, my brother, my godfather, his son, a woman my father and I have both worked with, and a woman she knows through another friend sitting at the airport waiting to fly to Nepal.

Day One

We flew from Melbourne to Bangkok, got the plane from Bangkok to Kathmandu, and the moment we landed at Kathmandu the eyes were wide open.

Bangkok airport is a HUGE, modern structure.
Kathmandu airport is a single storey brick building that looks like it was built in the 1960s or there about.
Outside the taxis are all cars that look like they were built in the Soviet Union and may very well be fitted with their original tyres which have fossilised on the rim.

Being driven through the city to the hotel we quickly realised there weren't any road rules per se.
People just nudged in and were moving at a speed that there didn't seem to be any collisions.
Lanes were invented and abandoned at a whim.
There were no road markings.
We were told that they do have a few traffic lights in Kathmandu but due to daily power outages they don't actually use them as traffic lights that only work some of the time would cause more confusion than calm.

The edges of the streets were torn up as the government was in the process of having the front room of most buildings knocked down to widen the road. These rooms were mostly built without permission by the building's owners/residents as there wasn't really a planning permission system in place when they wanted to do so.

The power poles that lined the streets were hung with thick ropes of wires as it seemed that whenever someone wanted to hook into the power they just added another line.

Our group got together to meet our guide and the two other group members who we didn't know, a Canadian father and son who were my father's age and about my age respectively.

For dinner we went to a restaurant called Nepali Chulo where we sat on the floor on cushions at a low table and were served a variety of dishes - curried meats, steamed vegetables, rice, soups and breads.
As we ate, people in traditional dress from various regions took turns performing the corresponding traditional dances.
At the end of the evening a man inside an elaborate peacock puppet costume moved through the diners, bowing the head at the end of the puppet's long neck and operating its mouth in some ingenious fashion to accept tips.

Day Two

We were taken to see the Pashupatinath Hindu temple complex and Boudhanath Buddhist Stupa.

Pashupatinath was incredible.
The street leading up to the temple was lined with stalls of people selling religious icons and strings of flowers for pilgrims to buy before entering the temple.
There was an old people's community home for Hindu elders who have no family to care for them. One old gentleman waved at us quite cheerily when he saw us peeking through the gate.
Down by the river were flat pedestal-like protrusions where some people were building funeral pyres for their loved ones.
We saw one person being prepared for the pyre, family or friends taking their shrouded body down to the water to ritually wash their feet to purify them before the funeral proceeded.
It felt a bit intrusive to watch something so important but we didn't linger there long as there was the rest of the temple complex to observe - from the outside as non-Hindus couldn't enter - and many small shrines to walk amongst.
People hawking goods and gifts wandered about, trying their luck with various tourists.
Monkeys were running around on the roofs of the temple and freely in the forest behind the shrines.
The scent of ash, incense and the river emphasised the fact that this was somewhere unlike I'd ever seen before.

Boudhanath by comparison was quite calm.
There were still plenty of people around but it was in town and the stupa itself was ringed by shops that formed a perfect two or three storey circle around the stupa.
The size of the stupa was quite impressive as were the many lines of flags that ran from its tip to its corners.
While we watched men with ladders climbed in a precarious fashion to throw buckets of yellow wash over the dome.
You could see where dry materials were being ground and mixed to make paint or washes for the upkeep of the stupa.
There were also piles of powdered incense which people could buy in little packets to burn during their observances.
Prayer wheels were everywhere and every now and then you would catch the sound of chanting, either from monks or pilgrims in small temples amongst the shops or from recordings floating out of the shops.

Day Three

This morning we got up nice and early, got our kit bags ready and headed back to the airport to fly to the tiny airport at Lukla.
We waited for about an hour before being taken by bus out to the part of the airfield where the small planes depart, we drove past members of the Nepali military being put through their paces jogging around the airfield.
Even though the plane only seated about 20 people it had a flight attendant who squeezed her way up the aisle to offer us wads of cotton to put in our ears and mints to chew or suck on during the flight.
The flight through the valleys and past the mountains was amazing, especially as they were so close and every movement of the plane and touch of the wind was very evident in such a small craft.
The landing strip at Lukla was tiny. I mean tiny. We all spontaneously applauded as we touched down and wheeled around to stop by the small terminal building.

At a little field behind a house in the town we organised our kit bags and day packs - watched by locals who were tending crops and leading chickens about on strings - and then set off for our first bit of trekking, a short walk from Lukla to Ghat.
It was our first experience of the dusty winding paths and the lusher part of the track and having to step out of the way for strings of jopkyo (half yak, half cow hybrids) and donkeys being used as pack animals.
It was also our first experience with the nature of the weather in the mountains.
It was quite warm and mild during the day but the moment the sun dropped behind the mountains at about 4pm, the temperature drops somewhere between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius.

We slept in large sturdy tents in lovely warm sleeping bags.

Day Four to Day Seven

We spent these days discovering the joys of 'Nepali flat' - a term meaning that if the amount of up encountered is roughly the same as the down encountered they consider that flat - and the various considerations of the trail.
Every day you'd wake early, be given a cup of tea, organise your kit bag for the porters to carry away, organise your daypack for yourself, have a hearty breakfast, fill up your water bottles with boiled water and start walking.

The water had to be boiled because the local water isn't good for non-locals and for a similar reason we had to use hand sanitiser before every meal as the local dust and dirt we'd picked up while walking wasn't something you wanted to accidentally ingest.

We'd stop for lunch along the way, another huge meal of multiple dishes, and we'd catch our breath and look around a bit more.

The ever present mountains were almost too big to be accepted as real. You'd stare at them, you'd know they were mountains but your brain kept insisting they must be a movie backdrop or something because mountains just don't get that big.

The towns we passed through were well populated with wayhouses for hikers and little shops that obviously did quite well during the busy seasons, a time when anywhere up to 200 or more hikers could enter the national park each day.

After lunch we'd scoot on to get to our camp where we could relax, catch up with journal writing, play cards, go for smaller walks and just hang around chatting before dinner.
At dinner time they would light the yak-dung stove and we'd have a few hours of comfortable warmth in the dining building before the fuel ran out, the puffy jackets went on and it was time to go tuck ourselves into our sleeping bags again.
We rarely stayed up past about 8:00pm or 8:30pm due to lack of heating and generally feeling a bit tired after walking and being at altitude.

The higher we went the colder it got at night and the more you'd try to convince yourself that you didn't really need to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. You always lost that argument but you'd have it for a while because climbing out of your nice warm sleeping bag to trot across the campsite to the freezing toilet was not appealing.
And when I say freezing I'm not being hyperbolic, at night it was 0 °C or less even at this lower altitude and at one campsite the water in the toilet cistern actually froze solid.

By this point we'd been through the big town of Namche Bazaar and seen the local market where villages from kilometres around bought their supplies, had a rest day there to help the acclimatisation process, visited Thyangboche Monastery - arriving just in time to hear the monks going through their daily service and for me to accidentally sit at the parping end of a long mountain trumpet.

Simply amazing.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Brain Go Poop

Yep, can't think of anything to write.

All obsessed with getting my last bits and shits packed for Nepal.

Once I get back I'll do a couple of big posts about it and then I will probably be able to shut up about it.

To a certain extent...

This is going to be my theme song for the trek.