Monday, August 30, 2010

dreams realised

hello, himalaya.

My cough still rattling around in my lungs, I took the short 500 rupee cab ride up the enormous hill to Sarangkot for what was promised to be a spectacular view of the Annapurna range. I was not disappointed. I sat breathless, wordless, pulled out my sketchbook and stared a while before setting my pen to the paper.

Suddenly I was surrounded by a bus load of excited Greek tourists who happily snapped the scene away with all sorts of cameras.

"Where are you from?"
"I'm an American living in Istanbul."
"Wow! Are you here with friends?"
"No I came to Nepal alone."
"What? You came here alone? You weren't afraid?"
"No," I laughed. "I generally travel alone."
"Wow... Hey Maria!" (I forgot her real name) "Come look at this girl!
She's American and she came here alone! She's not afraid!
And how are you getting down from here? By taxi?"
"No I plan on hiking down the hill."
"By yourself?"
"Yes, I've been told the trail has a lot of hikers on it."

The women kindly wished me luck and hopped onto their bus in a flurry of Greek. I began to search for the trail down to the lake— which was not easy to find— and once I had climbed down a considerably steep section, I suddenly became aware that I was completely and utterly alone in the woods. I had been repeatedly told by various people that the trail was safe with a continuous flow of hikers, but here I was, on a beautiful but slippery steep path that often disappeared under a mountain stream. If I fell, no one would find me. If I was mugged, no one could help me. This was potentially one of the dumbest decisions I had made, but I had been told I'd be fine. I decided that it would be easier and quicker to keep heading downhill than to climb back up to Sarangkot.

I slipped on a wet rock. My right leg was gashed open in two places and blood was running down into my boot. I washed my leg as best as I could with my water bottle and applied pressure with a few napkins. The wounds were so clogged with dirt that the bleeding soon stopped. Thankfully I didn't slip off the side of the hill or twist my ankle! I picked myself up, took in the beauty around me, and continued down my path.

It took me about two hours to get back to Peace Eye, where I showed off my stupidity to Olan, who shook his head with a smile. I vowed never to hike alone, even if an entire village tells me it's ok.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

ballpoint, gouache and coffee

blue sky, green lake

I had arrived in Pokhara a sticky, sweaty mess coated in road grime. The sun was setting when Melissa and I parted ways. Melissa was off to the hills for a yoga retreat, while I planned on chilling out by Phewa Lake and doing a little hiking. Though I was exhausted and had developed a rattling cough from the previous weeks' pollution, I couldn't have been happier. As I lugged my bags in the direction of the lake, I felt like I was in the middle of some incredible dream. Green trees, green lake, green hills. Colourful saris, men in tans, black shiny water buffalo. I had finally seen the Himalaya on the bus ride in, and hoped they'd grace me with their presence in the morning. After asking for directions at a local bookstore and a couple of guys on the road, I eventually found my way to Peace Eye Guest House, highly recommended by Lonely Planet and well within my skimpy budget.  

The sun had left by the time I arrived at Peace Eye, and not having a reservation, I was nervous that the little guest house would be full— which as it turned out, it was. The owner, a kind-faced man named Chiran, must have felt sorry for the dirty, tired wire of a girl in front of him, and showed me to the last available room. It didn't have a bathroom and was very basic, but it was nice and clean— absolute heaven. I set down my bags and made a beeline for the shared shower room to feel human again.

Eventually I wandered down to the café, which was a small, really cool outdoor space with if I remember correctly, a thatched roof. I plopped myself down at one of the tables with my sketchbook and flash light (the power had gone out), ordered a beer and some fried rice. A couple of the other guests were hanging out, reading by candle light. We nodded to each other and exchanged those knowing, traveller smiles. My Kathmandu cough was getting pretty bad— I couldn't go five minutes without feeling like I had pulled a muscle in my abdomen. Chiran thoughtfully brought me some lemon honey ginger tea to soothe it, along with a candle to draw by. I felt like the luckiest girl— I was surrounded by warm souls, I had my sketchbook and paints, a cup of hot tea, and I could feel the mountains of my childhood dreams behind me.

The morning light brought with it excitement— if there was light, there was sun, which meant there was a good possibility the mountains were visible in the blue sky. I climbed to the roof terrace and was astounded— Annapurna and Machhapuchhare, right there. One of the guests I had met the night before was standing in wonder, camera in hand. He had just completed the Annapurna circuit, and told me that this was the first time he had been able to see the mountains in a near-month spent in Nepal, despite trekking in their foothills. We decided to climb to the roof of the taller, next door building for a better look.

After a much needed cup of coffee and a chat with my new friend Olan, I headed out to walk as far as I felt like walking around the 4.43 km2 lake. The sun was burning hot, and saturated all the colours around me— everything was so vivid, bursting with life. I sang a little song in my head as I hiked along in the summer heat.

On the way back home I stopped for a light lunch at a Newari restaurant, where I devoured a delicious lentil patty topped with a fried egg called a wo. The wo was served with a tangy sauce that I suspect has mustard oil in it— I've been googling for recipes and hope to find one soon!

As I sat on the restaurant deck with a soothing post-wo tea, I pulled out my sketchbook and started to draw, immersed in a great wave of contentment.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

the road to pokhara

As our month in Nepal was coming to an end and the students at Shree Mangal Dvip were busy with exams, Melissa and I decided it was the perfect time to head north-west up the Prithvi Highway to the lakeside town of Pokhara. We were fortunate to discover that one of our student's fathers ran a trekking company, Swiss Nepal Family Trekking & Expedition, and so we were able to get bus tickets on a comfortable and safe bus for only 400 rupees. I highly recommend checking Swiss Nepal Family out if you want to do some exploring in Nepal.

The bus was meant to leave at 7:00 am, but as we had learned, there's time, and there's Nepali time. I'm not sure when we left, I decided to ignore all time-telling devices for this adventure. The journey from Kathmandu to Pokhara is allegedly eight hours, but I believe it may have actually been more like eleven— we were met with several landslides that backed traffic up for miles. Thankfully, we were in a comfortable bus!

I had my window fully open the whole way to feel the rain, smell the trees and hear the splashing wheels. I was exhilirated, I felt like a child; full of wonder and excitement. I was heading toward the Annapurna range, and if the universe decided to smile upon me, I would finally be able to see what I had dreamed of seeing since I was seven years old. All those afternoons I spent pretending I was climbing the Himalaya on my bunk bed, pitching tents with my sheets, feeding my panda porridge out of a pot I stole from the kitchen. I dreamt of yaks, butter tea, snow-capped peaks, Hillary and Norgay. All I wanted was a glimpse.

Suddenly, fifty miles outside of Pokhara, the sky parted, and every breath in my body was taken from me.

a touch of yellow

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


I've set foot in two synagogues, countless churches and mosques in my life, but prior to Nepal, I had only visited one Buddhist monastery, Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, New York. There was snow on the ground, and a tremendous weight in my heart. At the gentle coaxing of my sweet friend, who was studying at Namgyal, I wrapped myself up in my warmest scarf and crunched down the white streets toward a wooden house of wild colour. I felt like a mouse; I wanted to hide, but the warm eyes and smile of a red-robed monk did something to quiet the thunder in my chest.

Nearly a decade later, as Melissa and I were circling the stupa in Boudhanath, we looked at each other and agreed that the day had come to visit Tsamchen Gompa. We passed the brilliantly painted monastery every day, but we were always going to or coming from something. Time was necessary to appreciate the little building, which was delicately painted from floor to ceiling in elaborate murals.

As I gazed into the eyes of Buddha from the upper balcony, I thought about that dark winter night in Ithaca. Years had evaporated like breath in the cold, memory and the notion of a past felt like something I had dreamt the night before. Aware that soon the smells and sounds of Boudha would be a dream, I tried to grasp every possible molecule of the moment— the wind, the pigeons, the laughter, the om mani padme hum, the snapping of prayer flags. A figure approached, a monk. We exchanged smiles and quietly chatted for a few minutes before he invited me and Melissa into the shrine room.

Wisps of incense, glowing golden butter candles, my heartbeat, his voice— I wanted the moment to last forever, but it passed in a blink.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Every morning I jumped out of bed with the excitement of a child, and peeked through the rough beige curtains of my window in hopes of catching a glimpse of a snow-capped peak. I had read that Nepal in the summertime is very modest with its mountain views, veiled in unfathomably large monsoon clouds. I knew they were near— I sensed it. Mountains that mighty can be felt like a pulse in your arteries. But where were they?

The month was sailing by on those enormous clouds, and I had yet to see even a hint of mountain— except upon flying in, where the Himalaya lay stretched out in their pointed white glory above the clouds. I remember blinking out of my little airplane window in disbelief. There they were, silent phantoms whose names and faces I had longed to become familiar with since childhood. My summer was passing with wonder and discovery each day, that though I hadn't seen what I had hoped to, I had experienced so much more than I could have ever dreamed. Beyond the things I have seen, the people I have met are mightier than any mountain.

red, yellow and blue