Friday, December 29, 2006

An Open Plea to My Fellow Americans

My fellow Americans, a desperate situation has arisen that necessitates the efforts of all Americans back home to remedy the situation. Everyday before going to work at the Refugee Center, I pass by several cambios along the way. And everyday I'm shocked to see the exchange rate of the US dollar plummeting on a daily basis. 2 weeks ago, the exchange rate was 1 USD = 72 Nepali rupees. Today, the rate of the US dollar against the financial powerhouse that is the Nepali rupee, has dwindled down to 68.64 rupees. The dollar has hit a 20 month low against that upstart punk, the Euro, and is almost half the value of the British pound.
Who can resist such marketing strategy as this? The Nepalis are onto something here.

So what does this all mean?
It means I can't spread the American way as easily since my spending power is being continuously reduced. But there's a way that you can help bring pride back to the American dollar. Now this goes against everything I've previously said in the past, and against everything I stand for morally, but I ask you, my fellow American, to do something that we do best.
SPEND MONEY. Spend lots and lots, if not all of it. Spend it on the mindless crap that you don't need. Go crazy with mindless consumerism consumption fever. And stop saving for a rainy day. Global warming is screwing up weather patterns anyway, so stop procrastinating, and spend money now. And more importantly, buy American. I know this is difficult since everything is made in China or in some sweatshop in Southeast Asia, but there are still a few industries that are nearly 100% American. For example, the tobacco industry. For those of you that smoke, stock up and buy more. There's something you can do on a rainy day. For those of you who don't smoke, what are you waiting for? No better time to start than the present.
And then there's the auto industry. Sure our Japanese and German counterparts make better, more reliable, more dependable and overall better designed cars. But look on the bright side, when your Ford or GM breaks down, it'll give yourself more of a chance to spend money on your friendly neighborhood mechanic. Now there's some good honest Americans you can trust. Better yet, buy a plane!! But don't buy that Euro-trash Airbus crap. Get a good old fashioned, American built Boeing. Just picture the look on your neighbors face when your roll into your driveway with a brand spanking new jumbo 747. You'll be the envy of everyone. And while you're at it, buy a house with an oversized garage for your new toy. If you already own, buy a couple more. Get a summer home by the lake and an extra small plane such as a Boeing 757.
So my friends, the time is now. Post Christmas sales are calling you to spend, spend spend, so I can do the same abroad. After all, it is the American way.

Give me liberty, or give me Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas in Kathmandu

This is my third Christmas away from home, and after travelling for over a year, this one is the saddest of the three. Even three in a row is a lot for my standards.
not exactly the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, but the Bodnath Temple in Kathmandu is just as colorful, and just as visited.

But I'm glad I got to spend Christmas with friends and good company. Christmas was a cross cultural affair this year. I celebrated Christmas Eve in kathmandu at the New Orleans cafte, along with an Israeli friend who is Jewish, an Eritrean lady living in India, and a young Belgian family living in Kathmandu for a year studying Buddhism. All in the country of Nepal which happens to be predominantly Hindu.
your everyday cow and a bunch of pigeons in a city square. Nothing out of the ordinary for Kathmandu.

We ordered a traditional Christmas set dinner which included Tom Gai Thai soup and Japanese tempura vegetables. we listened to traditional Christmas music consisting of Tablas and Indian guitars. we gathered around the stage are for the traditional Christmas snake charmer yuletide flute performance. The snakes of course were traditional Christmas cobras. As part of the set dinner we were given Christmas presents which were Christmas ornaments with the likenesses of all your favorite Christmas holiday characters such as Shiva or Ganesh.
not exactly Jingle Bells, but more of the Hindu temple type.
colorful marigolds

It did feel more like Christmas this year than my previous two years. Probably because the weather is chillier here in Nepal than in Brazil and Cambodia, the two places I spent the last two hot and humid Christmases. Amazingly enough, there are plenty of Christmas decorations and lights here in Thamel (Kathmandu's backpacker ghetto). Of course they don't treat it as a holy holiday, but more as an excuse to party. Both Christmas Eve and Night seemed more like New Year's Eve in the streets.
Christmas day was a work day at the Art Refuge. Here's some photos of the Tibetan refugee kids:
the Tibetan Refugee kids at the ArtRefuge
one kid donning masks made for an art project
this kid with the wig reminded me of Monte Hall for some reason

this girl is my favorite. I'm afraid I might get Angelina Jolie syndrome, and take her home with me.

Season's greetings, and a very merry Dónde está Ché Pelotas?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Journal of My Trip to Everest

My quest to climb up to the heavens nearly became hell for me on my way back down.
Sagarmatha in Nepali, Chomolungma in Tibetan, or Mount Everest to most

Here's my journal entries and photos from my Mt. Everest trek. Any sense of bravado that I felt after the first strong 5 days of hiking was completely shot down by altitude the next 3 days. Then there was the need to be emergency helicoptered out of the Himalayas after nasty coughing fits and clogged lungs. Apparently one out of four never make it up to Kala Pattar(18,546') the main viewpoint to see Everest up close, due to altitude sickness. I'm grateful to have summited Kala Pattar since seeing Everest up close is nothing short of spectacular. But the way I felt the last few days, is nothing I'd like to feel again anytime soon. This entry is long, and I guarantee nothing for the viewer at home other than lots of words, many repeated, and possibly a few new vocabulary items, but highly doubtful.

12 07 06 Day 1: Lukla 2840 m (9,372') to Phakding 2610 m (8,613')
Waking up at 4:30 AM is quite a shock to the system. I'm glad I arrived bright and early for my 6:15 flight on Agni Air to find the Kathmandu Domestic terminal doors closed up until 6:00 AM. Then sat around for 4 hours before flight was cleared due to weather. After crossing the foothills, I quickly realized why the flights get delayed and cancelled so much. We got thrown around in this little 16 seat puddle jumper as if God himself was swatting at us as if we were a pesky fly. Landing is no easy feat as you pretty much nose dive after clearing the hills (first view of the Himalayas is spectacular by the way) into a runway that looks the size of an aircraft carrier landing. There's a viewing building at the end of the runway set into a huge mountain. It's amazing we stopped in time without hitting it. I think it's because the runway is partially angled upwards. Or maybe God decided to stop playing with us when he realized we weren't pesky at all, and pulled on the back of the plane to make us stop. The runway is smack in the middle of this hill of a town, Lukla.
cockpit of Agni Air Flight 101

The tiny town of Lukla as seen from the plane, and the tiny runway in the middle of town.

From there, I met my guide Tika (pronounced just like the savory Indian masala dish) and we started to hike to Phakding. In Nepal, as of October 27th of this year, you are no longer allowed to hike up the Everest trail independently. You must now use a guide. However, the government doesn't require English as a mandatory requirement, since Tika speaks but maybe 10 solid words of English (this was after I was guaranteed by the trekking company of having an English speaking guide). Could be a long 14 days in the Himalayas. He is trying though, I'll give him credit for that. He's carrying a Learning English workbook with him, although he doesn't have the audio tape that comes with it. So, it doesn't have what the information he's learning translated to his native Nepali tongue. It would be similar to me carrying around a swahili book with no english translation.
Staying at a teahouse in Phakding. Throughout the trek, there are teahouses scattered about the trail, which house and feed you. You get a nice bed for about $1.50/night and hot meals for about $2.50/meal. There's no heat though, just one central woodburning stove in the dining area. Instead of wood, they use yak pucky to fuel the fire. Rooms are more than adequate, but at night, freezing cold. It is the Himalayas after all. Prior to the guide requirement, doing the Everest trek was a pretty cheap deal. Guides are about $15/day, which still isn't a bad deal.
Today was an easy 2.5 hour hike, but feeling a bit of the effects of altitude. I'm sure I'll feel it tomorrow when we hike up to our next destination Namche Bazaar. Oh yeah, saw a 1997 UC Berkeley Extension course catalog at the teahouse. Weird.

12 08 06 Day 2: Phakding 2610 m (8,613') to Namche Bazaar 3440 m (11,352')
Got back on the trail at 7:30 AM and made it to Namche Bazaar at about noon, including a 10 AM lunch at Jorsalee. The second half of the hike was a tough slog of about 2600' of straight vertical climb. We took it slow because of altitude, but still beat the pace by about 2 or 3 hours. Surprised I don't feel nauseous. I think it's from all the ginger tea I've been drinking which is supposed to help altitude sickness. Some trekkers take a rest day here to acclimate, but my guide said we'll keep heading up tomorrow. Hope the altitude gods stay on my side.
yak traffic on the Everest trail

Namche Bazaar is a town built into the hillside. Surprised it has everything you need from trekking gear, clothing, has German bakeries and even internet. Although the latter costs a fortune, but is surprisingly quick. I can't believe how they haul all this stuff up here on their backs from Lukla. The Sherpas, local Nepalis, they're the real heroes. I took advantage of the shops here by buying throat lozenges and a towel. Treated myself to a warm shower since I smell like ass.

the real superheroes

this one is carrying my supply of necessities for the trip

do you know who this is?

chief weapons inspector for Maoist rebels activity

cattle and yak welcoming committee in Namche Bazaar

12 09 06 Day 3: Namche Bazaar 3440 m (11,352') to Tengboche 3860 m (12,738')
I've never felt so small in my life. Sitting in the village of Tengboche with Everest in the distance and majestic snow capped Herculean mountains surrounding me, I feel like a tiny speck on the planet. Hiking up here I got my first glimse of Everest in the distance, at about 45 minutes into the hike. It was an incredible feeling to actually see it in person, even from far away. Took photos holding the Nepali flag as a souvenir. We arrived in Tengboche at about 11:30, and again the last half was a hard slog up. We beat the pace again and Tika said I was very strong (wow, make it 12 solid words of English), that brought a smile to my face. I took it as a major compliment, not that I want to be a Sherpa or anything, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless. So far, haven't really felt the altitude. Hopefully, that feel good feeling continues.

sunrise view in Namche Bazaar

first view of Everest (the mountain that looks like it's smoking clouds)

dork with Nepali flag

the town of Tangboche. In lower right, you'll see the Global Transmission satellite dish installed. Didn't function right though, not enough electricity up here.

throwing gang signs in the Himalayas

photos of Tangboche Monastery, high in the Himalayas

mani stonescript

12 10 06 Day 4: Tengboche 3860 m (12,738') to Dingboche 4410 m (14,553')
Got into Dingboche at 11 AM, after a 3.5 hour hike from Tengboche. We blazed trail again, and for the second day in a row, Tika did the hike in a pair of loafers instead of the usual hiking boots. He's either trying to rub it in (his trekking skills), or he's got a job interview at the top.
Arriving in Dingboche, now well above tree line, the trek has taken an almost out of this world appearance. The landscape is desolate, dry, barren and windswept. Massive peaks of the Himalaya surround the valley, dwarfing this tiny enclave. The people look more jagged and ragged, with a romanticized Tibetan look of sun and windburnt cheeks, and exhausted looking eyes. As for me I still feel pretty good. Still hiking strong, no ill effects from altitude, and just a bit of a cold. Glad to be taking an acclimitization rest day tomorrow and plan on hiking up to Chokkung, about 400m up valley. Supposedly it's better to hike upwards and then come back down on rest day then it is to lay dormant. We'll see about that theory. And oh yeah, man this place is f*ng cold.

mani stones and prayer flags along the trail

town of Dingboche being dwarfed by Lohtse

temple with Ama Dablam in the background

sunset on Ama Dablam from Dingboche

sunset on Lohtse from Dingboche

12 11 06 Day 5: Dingboche 4410 m (14,553') to Chokkung 4730m (15,609') and back Today was a bit of a dissapointment. Did a side hike up to Chokkung about an hour and a half away. Unfortunately, the sun never showed it's face, and it snowed pretty much the entire hike. In fact, it snowed the entire day. Wasn't a pleasant hike, and was more for acclimating than anything. Snow was pelting us the entire way back dawn to Dingboche, and the fresh dusting of snow hid some ice patches making hiking a bit tricky. At one creek crossing, a yak decided to cross at the same time as us, going in the opposite direction. With nowhere to go, I just waited for it to cross and hopefully not turn it's yak horns towards me. Fortunately, for the most part they're tame creatures. But still, seeing a 1000+ pound creature coming your way with nowhere to go is quite intimidating. Spent the rest of the day holed up in this incredibly cold place. It's amazing that people can live up here. Had a bit of a headache in the afternoon, possibly altitude catching up with me. Fortunately it went away around dinner time. Hopefully I'm acclimatized now before tomorrow's hike up to Lobuche.
I'm concerned about being snowed in, but right before going to bed, I was pleasantly surprised to see not a cloud in the sky, and beautiful stars shining bright.

12 12 06 Day 6: Dingboche 4410 m (14,553') to Lobuche 4910m (16,269')
I feel like my head is about to explode. Altitude has hit me like a Mike Tyson upper cut. After the steep climb past Dukhla, my pace came to a crawl. The rest of the way to Lobuche wasn't steep, but putting one foot in front of the other felt like walking with concrete shoes. Took a diamox after lunch, and hopefully that helps. Tomorrow is the big day, the push for Kala Pattar to see Everest. Hopefully I feel loads better tomorrow. Can't write anymore, head weighs a ton.
Tika looking styling after a fresh snowfall, in his authentic Hortn Face jacket

room for rent: beautiful views, quiet, peaceful, low crime, no heat, no toilet, public transportation 5 days away

memorial for a climber who died climbing Everest

12 13 06 Day 7: Lobuche 4910m (16,269') to Gorak Shep 5170m (17,061') to Kala Pattar 5620m (18,546')
Woke up feeling like crap. Altitude was beating me up, and I was intimidated by the task at hand. First was the morning hike from Lobuche to Gorak shep where we'd be spending the night. The hike normally should be 2 - 2.5 hours, but the altitude was kicking my ass and it took about 3 hours to complete. Took a 2 hour lunch break, and mentally psyched myself up for the afternoon 1600' foot climb up to the top of Kala Pattar. Amazingly, I started up strong climbing up. But the last 75' must have taken me 45 minutes to accomplish. At this altitude, I constantly had to stop every few steps to try and catch my breath. The top was so close, but felt so far away. But at about quarter after 4, I summited Kala Pattar, and the tallest mountain in the world was smack dab in front of me.
taking a breather halfway up Kala Pattar. That's Everest to the left with Lohtse in the foreground

looking up towards the rest of the hike to the summit of Kala Pattar. No, it's not the white peak, but the brown one up front.

Everest coming into view as we keep climbing

It was so beautiful.
It's so massive. I felt a great sense of accomplishment. Altitude was still beating me up though. At this elevation, the oxygen content in the air is about 50% of that at sea level. Over the past few days, I'd have trouble sleeping, shortness of breath, loss of breath, and general lethargic lack of energy. It feels a bit like your worst hangover times 20. Once the sunset (which was absolutely stunning), we hiked down Kala Pattar to Gorak Shep. By the time I got down, I was completely exhausted. I walked into the lodge at about 5:45, and passed out in front of the fire with a cup of hot lemon tea in hand. I skipped dinner, and went to bed at about 6:30. The diamox I started taking was helping with altitude sickness, but it has one dreadful side effect. It makes you have to pee a lot. And for some reason, this only happens in the middle of the night. It's hard to get a good night sleep when you have to make the sub-freezing walk to the toilet 5 times a night.

view from the top of Kala Pattar. Had to switch to a fisheye lens, since Everest, Lohtse, and the Khumba Glacier couldn't fit in my normal lens.

there's a brown patch in the glacier in the left to middle of the picture. That's Mt. Everest Base Camp for climbing expeditions. There's nothing there this time of year other than the remains of a helicopter that crashed years ago.

sun begins to set as we head down from Kala Pattar.

12 14 06 Day 8: Gorak Shep 5170m (17,061') to Pheriche 4200m (13,860')
Woke up with absolutely zero energy. I had nothing in the tank, but I knew I had to get to lower altitude. After being so focused on summiting Kala Pattar the previous few days, all I could think about was getting the hell off the mountain. Going from 17,061' to 13,860' above sea level would be a welcome respite for my lungs. Who would have thought that 13,860' would be paradise for my lungs. Most of the trip down to Pheriche is downhill, but there are a few uphill parts. Whenever I go on a hike that's the same return way down, I always dread the downhill on the summit approach, because I know these will be uphills on the way back down. The start of today's hike was one of the aforementioned uphills. After 10 minutes, I was exhausted. Every step felt like what I'd imagine a 105 year old body would go through. Thankfully at this point, my guide Tika took my backpack, and carried it the remainder of the day. I am forever grateful and will make sure to tip him big. Finally at 3:30 in the afternoon we arrived in Pheriche. Thank god the last portion of the hike was all downhill. I'm looking forward to a well needed self-imposed rest day tomorrow. To regain some strength from the last 3 exhaustive days. On a positive note, tonite I completely finished dinner, my first full meal in 2.5 days.

12 15 06 Day 9: Pheriche 4200m (13,860')
Took full advantage of rest day. Got out of bed at 12:30 after going to sleep at 7:30 the previous night. When I did finally get up, I knew something was wrong. During the night, I'd get this weird gurgling noise when I'd breathe. It felt like mucous was in my lungs that I couldn't get out. When I woke up, it was impossible for me to take a full breath. Anytime I'd try, I would go into a severe coughing fit. And at this altitude, you need every bit of oxygen you can get. Most of my other altitude sickness symptoms were gone, but this new one seems a bit more serious. The people in the village felt that I needed to get down to Kathmandu asap, to seek medical treatment and to get to lower altitude. After a $245 2 hour phone call with my insurance company, I got clearance for a $5000 emergency helicopter to pick me up tomorrow morning to bring me to Kathmandu. It was decided that it would be too dangerous for me to do the last 32 km, 3-day hike back to Lukla where I was supposed to catch my flight to Kathmandu. It's hard to describe what I'm feeling. My lungs feel heavy and clogged. They feel like they're working at 50% of capacity which is not good at this altitude. When I'm resting like I am now, I actually don't feel that bad. But walking anywhere beyond 15' would be exhausting. I'd start going into major coughing fits. The phone calls to my insurance company were strenuous and the I'd be out of breath during the conversation. Fortunately they were very helpful and told me which hospital to go to when I got to kathmandu. Altitude sickness is pretty common up here, and Norvie Escort International Hospital is supposed to be the most westernized. All sorts of thoughts go through your head when you're not feeling your normal self and you know you're going through a bit of a medical emergency. One is how badly I wanted to shower today. It's been a week, and it's what I looked forward to on rest day. Everyone told me not to, since they thought it would make me weak. Well ok then, but man am I going to stink when I get to the hospital. Another thought is how whenever you go through stressful (I'm avoiding the words life threatening or anything similar, since I know once I get down to lower altitude I'll be fine) situations, all I can think about is love. Love for everyone who will read this, love for everyone I know. Love for my nephew dawson whom I haven't met yet, but whom I'll see in May. Thoughts of people I'm close too or were close too. Lots of thoughts of family. While waiting for the phone line to be patched in this afternoon, I thought this and had to fight tears from rolling down my eyes. Then you start wondering things like if I weren't around, who would notice? Who would care? The other thought I kept thinking is that when my mother reads this, she's gonna tell me I should go home. Mom, don't worry (although that's an oxymoron in the Mommiem-Webster Dictionary), I'll be fine. Two years ago, I was in Cambodia when the tsunami hit, and my mom said I should fly home immediately. If you look at a map, technically speaking, she was more in than I was, since her home in New Jersey is closer to an ocean than Phnom Penh, Cambodia is. So mom, don't worry. Everything will be fine.
Writing this has been therapeutic, an now I look forward to getting a good night's sleep and then resting in Kathmandu. As long as I'm lying in bed, or sitting around doing nothing, I feel fine. I now look forward to volunteering at the Tibetan Refugee center, and feel an incredible sense of accomplishment of seeing Everest as close as you possibly can without climbing it.

12 16 06 Day 10: Pheriche 4200m (13,860') to Kathmandu 1300m (4,265')
Riding shotgun in a helicopter going through the Himalayas is one of the most exhilerating/frightening rides you could ever partake. You feel every gust of wind when you go through a valley or go over a hilltop ridge. Once on the ground, it was time to deal with the expensive invoice for the 90 minute rescue/thrill ride, and the insurance company wrangling to pay for the aforementioned thrill ride. This took way too long since all I wanted to do was get to a doctor. Eventually I got to the hospital, and already noticed I was breathing easier in the lower altitude despite the Kathmandu pollution. Blood test, chest x-ray, and a really comfortable be to rest on, and one hour later, a diagnosis of an allergic infection. Apparently it's nothing major, but the doctor told me at high altitude, it can be very dangerous. As I might have guessed, the weakness I've been feeling is a combination of altitude sickness, exhaustion, and lack of sleep. So it was good of me to get down as quick as I did. As a consolation prize for not hiking the last 3 days, I was given cough syrup, anti-germicide gargle, and a once a night orange pill of some sort. Still feeling sick right now, and have shortness of breath when climbing stairs or overexerting myself. But all in all, I was glad to see Everest up close. It's something that I'll never forget, but not something I'd neccesarily want to do again anytime soon. But at least my body's not working as hard to get oxygen. Eventually the cough will go away, like any cold. But luckily it won't develop into anything like pneumonia if I were to remain in high altitude.
final shot taken of Everest on the way down from Kala Pattar

Speaking of magnificent peaks, how about Dónde está Ché Pelotas?