Monthly Archives: October 2002

Running the Birganj marathon

What I did on Friday, October 4, 2002, does not constitute a normal day in Birganj.

A normal day in Birganj begins with coffee at Himanchal Cabin and ends with a book in bed by nine o’clock. The Friday of October 4, 2002, began with a shot of a starter’s pistol and a hundred Nepalis sprinting through downtown Birganj.

There are no elephants in Birganj, unless it’s Friday, October 4, 2002, which in that case there are three. There would be no lumbering elephant named Krishna Prassad milling about in Birganj unless it’s Friday, October 4, 2002.

The day only comes once a year and that’s enough, considering that Friday, October 4, 2002, includes suffering an limitless, boring speech on Christianity by a Nepali in Hindi.

Since it is allowed, I’ll begin with It all began with . . .

A cultural program being filmed at a secondary school in Birganj.

A cultural program being filmed at a secondary school in Birganj.

It all began with a changing of the guard in Birganj. My long time singular male site mate Luke had left for the United States. The same day he left, Rob, who had been the other singular PCV when I had first arrived in Birganj, returned from medically imposed exile.

The social dynamic changed. Suddenly I was being coaxed into riding murderous Ferris wheels and sitting through Hindi magic shows and watching street-side snake handlers laugh as their toothless cobras bite them.

If I hadn’t been with Rob, I wouldn’t have been on a rickshaw that was stopped by a random headsir of a random private school who had decided, perhaps randomly, to hold a marathon to raise money for a government school. A marathon is 26 miles, except in Nepal where it can be 15 km.

We were invited. If we came, there might be free food and endless staring served with the usual side dishes of relentless badgering about my notorious bag of US visas and the question, Why are you not married?

Having a coffee at Himanchal Cabin might be a day-long activity.

Having a coffee at Himanchal Cabin might be a day-long activity.

Weigh that with the prospect of explaining to yet unknown numbers of people questioning me why I didn’t participate in the marathon for the remaining 19 months of my service in Birganj. The prospect of jogging in the oppressive heat wasn’t so awful.

Rob and I showed up that morning. It was Friday, October 4, 2002. The school was packed with people with hand-drawn numbers pined onto their clothes.

Jane-Erie even showed up, which was strange because Jane-Erie had bought a ticket to run in the marathon, whereas Rob and I had just been guilted into showing up. She was the real volunteer. Rob and I were just hoping for some free pizza or daal bhaat in a worse-case scenario.

As the crowd gathered behind the starting tape, a jeep rushed to the front of the crowd. Out stepped a man that looked no less than 106 years old. We were told this was the oldest man of Birganj.

They called him, Sabundha eckdam boudha Birganj manche, which translates as, That’s Old Man Birganj.

Unless I didn’t hear correctly, Old Man Birganj was 106 years old, which was a shock since Old Man Birganj looked 106.

Look back at my photos of my host family and you’ll see what I’m talking about. My host father looked easily as if he was in his early 50s when he was actually in his late 30s. Life is hard.

Back to the race, which was about to begin. Before Old Man Birganj cut the tape, however, the women were given their three-minute lead in the race.

After the women left the auspicious occasion, Old Man Birganj blessed the runners, cut the tape, and was rushed back into the jeep before the surge of runners decrowned Old Man Birganj. We ran.

Actually, I’ll be honest. I had come with the full intention of not running in the marathon. I work sneakers and shorts as well as my college T-shirt. I was dressed for athletics, but Rob and I only got from the gates of the school to the main road before Rob told me his plan.

Let’s get a rickshaw, Rob said while rubbing his hands together as if he had a plan, which he didn’t.

We made good time. As we began down Main Street, we passed runners of all ages.

We were headed south towards the Indian border where we’d turn east and then north again and back to the school. Just past the Ghantaghar, we came to the first checkpoint.

My bike was parked among these in the main bazaar many times.

My bike was parked among these in the main bazaar many times.

The kid tallying the runners’ positions yelled, What’s your number?

We’re cheating, Rob yelled, pausing for a moment before shouting back at the kid, We’re number one!

Things got ugly at the next checkpoint. Kids were waiting with water straight from the water system of Birganj. Runners were chugging water swimming with amoebas and who knows what else.

Rob and I were talking about this when one overly excited kid threw a one liter bottle of dirty water at us, hitting rob in the chest and exploding like a well-designed fragmentation grenade. We laughed because, well, what else could we do?

The race continued like this. The absurdity of life in Birganj is sometimes too much to take. At one roundabout we had our rickshaw wallah make a victory lap while Rob and I stood and cheered on the onlookers.

Just past the halfway mark (which was India, actually) we passed a woman, perhaps in her 50s, wearing a sari and white sneakers, jogging along with at a fair pace.

When we finally made it back to the school and negotiated a price with the rickshaw wallah (NRs 100 for full tour of the perimeter of Birganj) we met the elephants that had been walked in from Chitwan National Park for a fair to be held on the school grounds that evening.

Even though the fairgrounds were still being worked on, we decided to check things out before it got crowded.

And as we came just inside the grounds we saw the mantelpiece of the fairgrounds coming to life before our eyes: the Ferris wheel.

Just a week had passed since Rob and I had flaunted our stupidity by riding on this piece of mechanized death. We left, finally running.

Vacation Annapurna, part 4

Tukuche to Kagbeni and back to Pokhara, days 9–14

We had another lazy morning on Monday (day 9). Liz and Andrew had left early that morning to climb a nearby peak while the rest of us had elected to eat lots of Danish pastries and wander the sleepy Western town of Tukuche. Laurel, Tony, Moser, and I wandered over to the Kali Gandaki River to look for saligrams, fossils encased in black stone that date back, so I’m told, to the Jurassic period when the Himalayas were underwater.

I didn’t find any and though we passed countless shops selling them I didn’t buy any either. We went by the distillery for a tour but were told that we’d have to come back in the afternoon. Tukuche was an interesting enough place. The one thing that struck me about the town were the cows. Since leaving Pokhara, Tukuche was the first town with wandering livestock. And they were vocal cows, too, impulsively bleating loudly. It was uncanny how loud the cows in Tukuche were.

Andrew posed for this shot atop a small Buddhist monastery in Marpha.

Andrew posed for this shot atop a small Buddhist monastery in Marpha.

Before long Drew and Liz showed up from their expedition and we were off to Marpha (2680 m), just a few hours walk away. After arriving in Kalopani, our major upward ascent was behind us.

The scenery was softly changing into arid plains less majestic, rocky peaks along the Kali Gandaki riverbed. If you looked northwards along the riverbed you could see for miles and miles.

Marpha was the largest town we’d come upon since leaving Pokhara. Hotels advertised pool tables and darts. The streets were lined with Tibetan women selling cheap silver work and fabrics made on hand looms. We stayed at a bustling lodge called the Neeru Inn.

The Didi was especially robust and busy. The women in the hills are so much, well, affable than the women I the Terai.

I mention this because Andrew was quitting smoking. How does this relate? Well, perhaps nicotine withdrawal caused a psychotic reaction and that’s why he asked the Tibetan Didi to marry him.

She said, No, which wasn’t so much of surprise, but she followed it up with, I don’t like American men.

A woman would never say this to man in the Terai, and we had all been hastily conditioned to the Terai women’s condition. We needed to be shaken up.

Andre receives a surprised birthday cake and custom embroidered Tata shirt.

Andre receives a surprised birthday cake and custom embroidered Tata shirt.

That night we slept well knowing that the next day we wouldn’t be going anywhere. Moser and Tony had stayed behind in Tukuche hoping to catch André and Naomi who were lagging behind. Wednesday, October 16, 2002, was Andre’s birthday and we’d been dragging around birthday gifts for him in our backpacks for the past week.

Moser and Tony caught up to us on Tuesday morning (day 10) and we were thinking that André’s gifts were going to become belated. It wasn’t until just before sundown when André and Naomi fell into the hotel. He hastily made some preparations with the Didi for a birthday cake for the next morning.

Just after Moser and Tony arrived, there was some commotion in the lodge. Some arguing that was just a bit too loud. We asked the Didi who told us that a trekker had accidentally killed a pack donkey on the trail the day before.

North of Marpha, pack donkeys travel the dusty trail on their way to Jomsom.

North of Marpha, pack donkeys travel the dusty trail on their way to Jomsom.

The donkey’s owner, a tall, gentle Tibetan man from Upper Mustang had come to make a settlement.

But the trekker, an useless Canadian by the name of Paul, was refusing to come to any agreement and threatening to walk out of Marpha unless the train drivers acknowledged the donkey’s death was not Paul’s fault, ergo he had no responsibility to pay.

The basic story is this: on a small crossing over a creek, Paul started across a bridge spanning around ten feet and four feet high at most when a donkey from a train came onto the bridge as well. Paul held his ground as the donkey approached. When finally the donkey made to pass Paul on the bridge, the donkey fell, breaking its back.

Paul said he braced himself on the donkey as it passed and then the donkey lost its footing and fell. The train drivers said that Paul pushed the donkey as it came upon him, causing it to fall. Who knows? I wasn’t there.

I do know that this trekker was an asshole and caused a lot of unnecessary turmoil in the community. It wasn’t until Moser intervened as an interpreter that things calmed down, but still Paul was upfront about his unwillingness to pay any money for the dead donkey. Hell, I bought a boat that’s sitting at the bottom of a lake.

Things went back and forth throughout the day, until the evening meal. Moser and I had just sat down to a nice, steaming yak steak when the train driver came in quite drunk.

See, it was the high day of Dashain, when many Nepalis sacrifice goats, praise Shiva, and imbibe booze—probably, in this situation, the apple brandy from Tukuche.

The enraged train drivers let the community know that Paul the Donkey Killer was planning on walking out of town without paying his share for the dead donkey, which caused some ruckus.

It became apparent to Paul that unless he agreed to at least pay for 50% of the dead donkey, things were going to be very bad for him. Outside the hotel was a mob of a dozen or so drunk Nepalis with bandannas over their faces, some packing khukuri knives.

If he tries to leave, it will be very bad, one quasi-sober Nepali commented to us.

The flood plains that stretch out between Jomsom and Kagbeni and beautiful and fertile.

The flood plains that stretch out between Jomsom and Kagbeni and beautiful and fertile.

We relayed the message to Paul who, stupefied, realized he was going to have to cough up the money. We weren’t in Canada and there was no Canadian Mounty to swoop down and save Paul just before a drunken Nepali chopped his head off. Nope. He’d just be dead.

Which didn’t happen, thankfully. Instead, we promised to walk Paul to Jomsom to talk to the CDO and police offices as he was aware of how close to a painful death he was.

Wednesday morning (day 11) after André’s cake was eaten, we walked to Jomsom and passed the site of the donkey slaying.

The donkey’s body was there, but badly mangled. We asked. Apparently, the Buddhists wouldn’t put the donkey down and left it in the elements. It survived for two nights until finally some wild jackals came and ate its eyes, hind legs, and part of its back. Then it died.

We breezed through Jomsom only stopping to check in at the ACAP office and make our weekly security phone call to Peace Corps HQ in Kathmandu.

Andrew and I managed to get some free baseball hats from Om, owner and manager of Om’s Home Hotel in Jomsom, which exists only because of its airport and the army base that guards the airport. Otherwise, it’s a just another dry, dusty Mustang city.

As we continued along the Kali Gandaki riverbed towards Kagbeni, where we were planning on meeting Beth, a N/194 PCV posted there. Just before we came to the bridge with Kagbeni in view, who else crossed our path other than Beth and Zach. Zach, Beth’s boyfriend and fellow N/194 PCV, was headed back to Kathmandu.

They were going to Jomsom to spend the night as all flights leave Jomsom early in the morning before the winds pick up. So we all walked back to Jomsom. We couldn’t stay at Om’s because it was full. We found a nice enough place, appropriately titled the Trekker’s Lodge. The highlight of that evening was another yak steak.

Abandoned lumber near Titi Lake

My favorite from the trek: Orphaned lumber atop an unpopulated hill somewhere near Titi Lake.

When Thursday came (day 12) we finally made it to Kagbeni after Zach flew off to Pokhara and then to Kathmandu. Beth’s little village is the farthest most point in Mustang that trekkers can go without buying a special pass for the Upper Mustang region.

That pass goes for US$ 700, and you also must have a local guide hired for the duration of your trip. Beth took us to the farthest point where we looked out along the arid plains of Mustang. It was beautiful.

The rest of the city is much like it was a thousand years ago. Really. It was clear to all of us Terai dwelling flatlanders that Beth’s Peace Corps experience was much, much different than ours.

While many of our cities are stumbling towards a mockery of modernization, Beth’s post is stuck in a time before the earth was round. When we made it back to Pokhara I saw the French film Caravan that portrayed a more extreme version of Kagbeni. It was filmed in Mustang.

The most exciting thing about Kagbeni was the availability of the BBC. Beth showed us the hotel she herself has something of a news habit.

As we watched the BBC rehashing the news of the bombings in Bali and the Philippines, an American woman came out of her room and tried to stare us down, Isn’t the reason we’re here is to be away from this? and gestured towards the TV, implying a deep contempt.

We live here, we yelled back in almost unison. Alas, we had been on vacation for twelve days and none of us held our tongues for this woman who eagerly spoke her ignorance.

We explained that we were Peace Corps volunteers and that, we were pretty sure, none of our mission statements said anything about not watching TV for news as a reason to join the Peace Corps or coming to Nepal.

In front of Om's Home in Jomsom, the last night during vacation we spent as a group.

In front of Om's Home in Jomsom, the last night during vacation we spent as a group.

Our vacation days were numbered and we knew it. The level of energy that we had at the beginning for renting bicycles, sinking boats, and killing chickens was lost. We laughed about a man in Nayalpul beating a duck and ate our daal bhaat.

On Friday (day 13) we had to head back to Jomsom to catch our flight on Saturday. We took the long way to Jomsom from Kagbeni so we could visit Panglang, where another N/194 PCV, Justin, is posted.

What I had seen at the Titi village I saw in Justin’s. Just off the main path, but seemingly as remote as if we were on the moon. The village was quiet since the people were in the fields harvesting grain.

Our last evening in Mustang was spent running errands around Jomsom. I bought some apple brandy from Marpha. Andrew, Colin, and Moser each bought 10 kgs of Mustang apples to take back to their friends at post.

We went to Om’s to have dinner and play ping pong and pool. Two older German development workers (salaried, in comparison to a volunteer) taught us a ping pong elimination game that involves about seven people and constantly running around the table.

We had to work hard and have as much fun as possible before the end of our trip, but we were beat. I could barely managing keeping the cue ball on the table as Moser and I played pool. When we paused for dinner we decided to have elections from our posse. We elected

  • Andrew: Best beard/Dirtiest camper
  • Colin: Drinkinist camper
  • Laurel: Least likely to survive/Camper who had the most fun
  • Liz: Most likely to survive
  • Scott: Cleanliest camper
  • Tony: Camper who had the least fun

Finally, our final day (day 14) came and that was that. We were handed over our boarding passes, loaded our baggage and ourselves in a plan headed for Pokhara. Once we got into Pokhara some of us were getting on buses and others staying in town for a night. The end is nigh!

We walked across the tarmac to the Beechcraft, propellers burning away at our vacation, which was, by any account, amazing.

Vacation Annapurna, part 3

Ghorapani to Tukuche, days 6–8

Friday morning, October 11 (day 6), came early at 4:40 a.m. We’d have to be on top of Poon Hill (3210 m) by 6:00 a.m. to see the sunrise so we tried to gather ourselves in a civilized manner. Kara was on wake-up duty and after she roused us we all sleepily wandered into Liz’s dark room wondering if we’d find a frozen corpse.

Instead, Liz had wrapped her ankle and was tying her shoes for the morning hike as we looked on in groggy-eyed disbelief. Surely, this was ominous: hiker with hurt ankle and a week more of hiking ahead of her pushes herself on a unassuming, scenic hike only for something awful to happen.

Andrew doesn't trek, be blazes a path.

Andrew doesn't trek, be blazes a path.

Instead, we shrugged our shoulders and made our way topside. The hike was uneventful, mostly because at 5:00 a.m. the hike was in the dark. The first thing we saw at the top of the hill was an observation tower, and then a teahouse.

As we waited for the sun to give us some light, we drank hot chocolate and Nescafé. It wasn’t long before the hill became crowded with other trekkers. As the Sun started to warm us on the hill, the clouds covering the Himalayas cleared out.

The morning light began hitting the Annapurnas, which was a beautiful sight. Annapurna I (8091 m) was recognizably taller than the other mountains in the region. We didn’t have much time before the clouds came to cover the mountains.

We had a sense that we had come to a show where the curtain had been raised and then dropped. The show was over. We had some breakfast at the lodge and then began our hike to Tatopani. It was easy days hike mostly downward that Andrew, Kara, and I did with much leisure.

As we came into the village of Sikha, an adolescent kid came up to us asking, Do you want to buy a hat? The kid had no hats. Andrew about that. You can give me the money, and I will bring you a hat.

Our idea of satire. We met this kid along the way, bought some oranges from him, and made him pose.

Our idea of satire. We met this kid along the way, bought some oranges from him, and made him pose.

For some reason this kid really annoyed Andrew, who began telling him what an awful business the kid had. As the conversation went on we came into Sikha proper and found a kid selling oranges.

See, this kid has a good business. He is selling oranges, and he has them, but the lesson was lost on the kid. We bought a few oranges and began talking with the younger kid. He was a spritey kid with a ragged baseball cap.

He offered to be our porter and carry our bags for us to Tatopani. The kid was about eight or nine. In the end, we liked the kid’s personality enough to hire him on as our guide to Tatopani, an hour away on a straight path.

The kid had a great vibe to him, sort of street smarts for the Himals. But he was our guide. We asked him questions:

Us: If you are going to be a guide, shouldn’t you carry a khukuri?

Kid: No. If I carry a khukuri, people will think I am a Maoist.

Us: Do all Maoists carry a khukuri?

Kid: Yes. If they are carrying a knife, they are a Maoists. Or a farmer.

We lost a lot of time being goofy with this kid. We would send him ahead to talk to other groups of tourists or other Nepalis to make sure there was no danger. The kid liked our games and pandered to our childishness.

Finally we came to the bridge that would take us to Tatopani and we had to say goodbye to our guide, but not before we took a picture of him carrying all of our bags.

When we got into Tatopani we found Liz waiting for us. She’d raced ahead thinking that she was behind us on the trail. She hadn’t died, but beat us all to Tatopani by a solid hour or so. We ditched our bags and made our way to the town’s namesake, the tato pani.

The city is next to a hot springs and has a couple of pools full of naturally hot water. Tatopani (1190 m) is located in the middle of a valley and so the scenery wasn’t as spectacular as it’d been the past couple of days, but the springs sure were nice.

From Kalopani, the Annapurna range was right above us it seemed.

From Kalopani, the Annapurna range was right above us it seemed.

Saturday (day 7) was going to be the toughest day yet. The hike to Kalopani was straight up all day long. We’d ascend roughly 1,340 m before reaching Kalopani. It was a long, unpleasant day filled with stunning scenery. At one point we could see landslides washing away the side of an opposing mountain.

It took several seconds for the sounds of crashing rocks to get to our ears. We went slowly for various reasons. Most of us were getting sore, and Colin was feeling ill and lagging behind. When we finally made our way up to the continuous villages of Lete and Kalopani, we were at 2530 m and ready to stop.

It was at this point that I realized that my passport had parted ways from my person. We had to cross a police checkpoint where our ACAP permits would be stamped. At first I realized that just my ACAP permit was gone, but as the gears chugged along, I visualized my Peace Corps passport being in that wallet, a missing wallet.

Fortunately, I kept some money, my credit card, and a photocopy of my passport in a different location. The police let me through without much hassle, but after a long day of walking and feeling my legs singeing with pain with each step, the prospect of whiling away more time in a police office upon returning to Pokhara was no appealing. I put it out of my mind.

Our hotel in Kalopani was the nicest we’d come upon so far. We were back in the neighborhood of the Himals again and it was cold at night. The dai put some hot coals under a large table in the dinning room that heated our legs under the table.

We drank hot chocolate and watched the sunset. But we were sad, because Colin was sick an unable to keep up with our pace. That night he stayed in Ghasa, perhaps two or three hours behind Kalopani. It seemed a possibility that he had AMS).

We decided that the next morning we would send Team Jhapa down to Ghasa to check on Colin.

The village of Choyyo near Titi Lake is a small place cradled right in the Annapurnas.

The village of Choyyo near Titi Lake is a small place cradled right in the Annapurnas.

Liz and Andrew left early on Sunday morning (day 8). The rest of us would wait at the hotel until Team Jhappa returned. Kara and I decided to take a day hike to Titi Lake, an hour walk upwards from Kalopani. After breakfast, Kara and I started walking through a dense forest.

It was cool and crisp in the shade of Dhaulagiri. As we walked through the village of Titi we realized how rarely people venture off the trail. In any of the other villages on the main trail, kids would run out of their houses with their hands extended demanding, Sweet?! Sweet!?

But just an hour off the trail, the folks of Titi hadn’t a clue what to do with us. Our two-minute walk through down was treated with wonderment. We got some directions to the lake and headed up a small pass towards a clearing of the trees. When we came to the crest we saw something: a pond.

Titi Lake wasn’t much bigger than a Terai rain puddle. At first, we couldn’t believe it and walked on, and on, and on, for another hour until we realized the unthinkable: Titi Lake sucked.

We walked into a small village on the side of Niligiri, huge mountain that separated us from Jomsom. The village comprised of a tap, several fields of grain, and two of three continuous homes. They were staring.

Chiye painchha? Kara yelled to a man staring from his roof, asking if tea was available. Chiye painchha? he asked back, confused.

The man, not quite sure if he was hearing what he was hearing, asked us again: Chiye painchha? Painchha. He motioned for us to come up.

What people use for ladders/steps in Nepal is interesting: half of a tree trunk has steps carved into it and then is fastened to the roof. I find it quite brilliant and always feel adventurous climbing one.

We were led into a sparse living room. I thought of my host family and how cheery they always were with me. So were these folks. They gave us apples and fed us black tea with sugar. We talked to the family and played with the kids a bit.

The wild flowers were calling out to Andrew and Kara, who frolicked about.

The wild flowers were calling out to Andrew and Kara, who frolicked about.

If Colin hadn’t been sick then Kara and I would be in single-file, continuing our death march to Jomsom. Instead, we were just hanging out with some local yokels. The time came and we had to be off, but we took some photos and promised to send them to the family, which we will.

Alas, I have the photos and Kara has the address. It’ll work out.

When we got back to the hotel we found only Moser and Laurel. Team Jhapa had returned with Colin, the Phoenix rising, and everyone else had left for Tukuche an hour and half earlier. I packed my bags and quickly ate some sukuti.

We all knew that the hard hikes were over. Tukuche was only a few hours away and mostly level. As Moser and I began our walk, we noticed that the trail followed a dry riverbed as far as the eye could see.

Stay on the trail and arrive on time or take a shortcut and perhaps get lost and lose some time? Moser asked.

Take the shortcut, I said.

Not long after starting our trek, the group poses for my camera.

Not long after starting our trek, the group poses for my camera.

Though the riverbed was faster and eliminated all the ups and downs of the adjacent trail, my ankle suffered the uneven surface of riverbed stones, but it was scenic. The farther north we came the more arid the scenery was becoming.

The green mountains were getting browner and rockier. We arrived in Tukuche (2590 m) at a place owned by a Dutchman that Alisa at Hotel Nirvana in Pokhara suggested to us.

He likes Clint Eastwood, she said, handing us a business card with simulated burnt edges and the name branded into the card with an iron: the High Plains Hotel.

So on a windy, dusty Sunday afternoon in October, a kid from Amarillo walked into the High Plains Hotel in Tukuche, just 42 miles from Tibet. Johnny Cash was playing on the radio. The place was done up like some saloon from Arizona circa 1850.

Tukuche was almost famous for its distillery where brandy is made from apples and apricots. We relaxed that night, playing cards, drinking brandy, and listening to Hank Williams

Vacation Annapurna, part 2

Pokhara to Ghorapani, days 4–5

I was in debt and getting the hell out of Pokhara. Every day we had been in Pokhara, we had done little else (especially myself) than run errands and prepare for our trip around the Annapurna circle.

Once again, Andrew out did me as the lightest packer. All he brought was a child’s backpack that he’d bought in Birtamod the night before he left. The backpack broke the morning we left Narayanghat as we were coming down the stairs at Shana’s place. It just fell of his back. So Andrew bought a backpack, and I bought a Nikon N60. I had photos to take.

A goat and I share the roof of a bus on our way from Pokhara to near Beni for our trek..

A goat and I share the roof of a bus on our way from Pokhara to near Beni for our trek..

On Wednesday morning, October 9 (day 4), we met for breakfast at place called the Lemon Tree. It had the standard Lakeside menu of expensive quasi-Western fare. We’d meet and get on a bus headed for Nayalpul, where we’d get off and begin our trek.

All of this happens just as we’d planned except for the meeting part. Suddenly, folks couldn’t remember if we said we would meet to take a bus to Baglum, on the way to Nayapul, or if we would meet at the Baglum bus park in Pokhara. We just left wondering if we’d see André and Naomi again.

The ride Nayalpul was spectacular. The bus was stuffed full of people, and some folks got to sit on top of the bus. (Peace Corps can terminate, i.e., fire, a PCV for riding on top of a bus.) There was a goat up there to keep people entertained.

We had vacation for the next two weeks for Dashain, the festival’s climax being the sacrificing of goats. As the bus lurched into the hills, we were passed by herds of goats slathered in colorful paints to mark ownership. Like goats to the slaughter.

Here, I consider the slaughter to come once these goats reach Pokhara for Dashain sacrifice.

Here, I consider the slaughter to come once these goats reach Pokhara for Dashain sacrifice.

After an incredible bus ride, we arrived in Nayalpul ready to hit the trail. We bought some boiled eggs and descended into the city to cross the bridge to the ACAP office, where we could enter the conservation area.

As we walked single file through the muddy streets of Nayalpul, I saw a Tibetan woman wind up for a big spit, and before I could do anything, her spit splattered on my left thigh.

Naramroo, Didi! I said in a shocked and confused voice, the caboose in our train.

Then just five feet away, I came upon Moser, who had paused along the road. I too paused to stare at an incredible sight. A man, doubled over and nearly crouching, mumbling loudly in the street, was vigorously flogging, with a four-foot switch made of reed, a duck. We were speechless.

As the man was beating one duck, a second duck was fleeing in the other direction. Why in the world was a man beating a duck? A duck? For the remainder of the vacation, during dinner we would discuss discuss possible motives for beating a duck.

Die you duck! You’re so damn cute and quacky! Die!

We could never figure out why. There’s no explaining it.

The hike that day was straight up. That section of the trail is known as the 3,000 Stairs. Supposedly, we climbed 3,000 stairs and 3,000 feet (1000 m-ish).

Day one of the trekking begins, with each of us shaven and rosy cheeked.

Day one of the trekking begins, with each of us shaven and rosy cheeked.

We had left Pokhara, 884 m, began walking in Nayalpul, 1000 m, and arrived in Ulleri at 1960 m. Granted, the bus had done a lot of work for us, but my legs felt like they’d taken 3,000 steps.

The view from Ulleri is incredible. Our hotel sat on a ridge and faced some of the lesser peaks of the Annapurnas. I’d never seen mountains that big so close before. I can’t describe the view.

After we had our hot showers, thanks to solar power, we sat and drank chiye and prepared for our evening meal. I was ready for some dhal bhaat and perhaps even some maasu.

When we talked to Didi, she told us that the only maasu available was goat and that we’d have to pay for the whole goat, since we were the only folks there interested in Nepali food. It was a bit expensive, so we passed. Another day, we said.

The next day, Thursday (day 5), we embarked on another uphill battle towards Ghorapani. I would call the hike quaint and pleasant and not difficult at all. The path has been set with slate rocks and is really just short of being paved.

There’s a small village every 20 minutes or so offering patios with comfy chairs and pastries from some mystery German bakery or some such nonsense. It’s easy to take your time on the trail.

From Ulleri, the scenery became denser with greenery cut by frequent waterfalls and small brooks. On several occasions we took breaks alongside streams so clear you’d think the water was safe.

As we made our way into the outskirts of Ghorapani Kara, I saw a porter carrying a basketful of chickens. We thought quick and bought a couple to take to our lodge just up the hill, in case they didn’t have any maasu available.

Which they didn’t. In fact, you’d think that the folks at this lodge had never seen a train of ten trekkers arrive with a pair of chickens before by the way they reacted to us. Still, we settled in a scoped out a basketball course of a nearby school.

The views from Ghorapani (2750 m) were even more spectacular that I could imagine. Our lodge sat on the top of the ridge and faced Tukuche Peak (6920 m), Dhampus Peak (6012 m), and Dhaulagiri (8167 m), the seventh tallest mountain in the world.

In the middle of enjoying the beautiful scenery, the Dai came to me and said, You’re going to have to kill the chickens. I’m a Buddhist. The cook’s a Buddhist. And there’s no one else around to do it. We’ll clean them and cook them, but you’re going to kill them.

With khukuri in hand, I prepare to chop the head off a chicken that would be dinner.

With khukuri in hand, I prepare to chop the head off a chicken that would be dinner.

It wasn’t bad or good news, just not the sort of thing you expect while your gazing at world’s most beautiful mountains, You’re going to have to kill your dinner. Enjoy the views.

I stepped up to the plate and Kara said she’d kill one, too. The Dai was shocked and disgusted, You are girl—you can’t kill chicken, he said, barely ruffling Kara’s feathers but instead lessened the likelihood of the chicken’s survival.

The time finally came and we were called to the back of the lodge, to where the chickens are kept and killed. I was handed a khukuri, the banana-shaped knife and an icon of Nepal, and I realized that I was going to chop-off a chicken’s head.

First, Kara would hold a chicken and I’d kill it and then we’d switch. As Kara held the chicken’s legs and wings I took the chicken’s head in my left hand.

Just do it quickly, sobbed the vegetarian, Laurel. Please don’t make it suffer, Scott. The pressure was on. Laurel had just explained to me that she was a vegetarian because she herself couldn’t kill her food, ergo she had no place eating meat. Moser stood fast with my camera, ready to capture this moment in my life, for better or worse.

In my first swipe I killed the chicken, almost taking its head completely off with a single blow; however, the head dangled on. Laurel screamed and I saw red. According to those present, I went into a rage, wildly hacking at the neck in an maddened attempt to completely severe the head, but never managing to get the head completely off.

Finally, the Dai came to me and I gathered myself, noting that I’d splattered some blood on my pants. He bled the chicken while I stood open-mouthed with a soiled khukuri in my hand.

The khukuri, the pool of blood, and the leftover chicken head remained.

The khukuri, the pool of blood, and the leftover chicken head remained.

Kara was white and in no shape to participate in the bloody death of another creature. Colin took the reigns and I held up my end of the previous deal and held the wings and legs for Colin.

Colin took the knife and readied himself nonchalantly. With brutal apathy, Colin took a first swipe at the chicken’s neck with about as much force as if he had just let the knife fall.

The chicken let out and awful squawk! and struggled in my hands. Colin quickly realized that he had to get down to business and broke into a frenzy trying to kill the chicken.

Alas, the chicken’s neck kept finding its way into the narrow part of the oddly shaped khukuri. Moser and the Dai counted a total of nineteen blows before the chicken was forcibly shuffled off this mortal coil.

Colin crouched and had his photo taken with chicken’s head in one hand and the khukuri in the other. Then he took a nap.

I went back inside the lodge and watched Moser and Liz play basketball with some of the hotel folks. I didn’t see it happen, but it wasn’t long before Moser was helping a maimed Liz into the lodge.

She had fallen on her ankle and badly sprained it. In a matter of half an hour the ankle was so swollen I couldn’t put both hands around it. The ankle became an ominous black and red color, as if it were an impending storm to rain on our parade.

Ironically, Liz was the resident nurse on our trek. She made an awful patient. We made plans of who would stay behind with Liz if she couldn’t come along and whether it would be easier to go on to Jomsom or hike down to Nayalpul and catch a bus back to Pokhara.

Liz wouldn’t hear of it. She kept it on ice and elevated and even said she thought she’d be able come along on the morning hike to the dubiously named Poon Hill (3210 m), an hour hike from Ghorapani and the place for incredible views of the sunrise and the Annapurnas.

That night, we ate chicken.

Vacation Annapurna, part 1

Narayanghat to Pokhara, days 1–3

Our vacation really began at around 4:00 a.m. in Narayanghat on Sunday, October 6 (day 1). It was our last day in the Terai before we escaped to the crisp air and mountain views of Pokhara and its beautiful (we had been told so) Fewa Lake. But the Terai is a harsh mistress.

We had decided to stay at Shana’s place in Narayanghat instead of a hotel and slept en masse on the floor of the extra room. And for some reason Shana’s Didi (the land lady) came into the room at around 4:00 a.m. and turned off the fan, effectively turning the room into a toaster oven. We awoke on the first day of our vacation medium well, still a little pink in the middle.

Andrew and I mug for the camera in Chitwan, just north of Narayanghat, while stuck at a security checkpoint.

Andrew and I mug for the camera in Chitwan, just north of Narayanghat, while stuck at a security checkpoint.

We were a group. No, we were a mob. We were aware, from the beginning, that we were the mischief-makers of Peace Corps, doomed. We were Andrew and Liz, both serving in Jhapa (known as Team Jhapa).

We were also all the volunteers from Rajbiraj: Tony, Laurel, Kara, and André. We were Moser from Ilam, Naomi from Parasi, Colin from Nepalgunj, and myself from Birganj. We were ten. Again, we were doomed.

Before we knew it, though, vacation had begun and we were on the road and stuck in traffic just north of Narayanghat. Drew and I engaged the locals to kill time. First, we walked up and down the line of Tata trucks and buses saying hello to folks and buying baked goods.

Conversation entertained us for maybe half an hour until Drew and I found a place to rent bicycles. We rode through the traffic to the police checkpoint where we met the Major, the police managing the security checkpoint.

Drew took point. Do you believe Osama bin Laden is in Saptari district? Drew asked with a straight face. (It’s a theory that I had heard before.)

Perhaps, said the Major with an equally straight face.

What do you think of Saddam Hussein? asked Drew.

He is not good. He supplies arms to the Maoists, replied the Major.

Soon that conversation was exploited, though it was interesting to find out that the Major had been in the Balkans with the UN peacekeeping forces.

What did you think of the Balkans? asked Drew.

It is awful place, said the Major, both stoic and smiling, but the women are . . . friendly.

After about an hour or so and an argument over the cost of renting the two bicycles without bells for 20 minutes had finished, I mean, really, if we were rich Americans, would we really be renting bicycles from a shack on an anonymous road for 20 minutes while taking public transportation?

Never mind. We were on the road headed to lakeside Pokhara. The rest of the trip was uneventful. When we finally arrived on the outskirts of Pokhara, we were all a bit disappointed. Alas, Pokhara was not heaven. The buspark was as terrible a place as the likes of anywhere else in the Terai.

This next part of the story isn’t so much fun to write about, but it must be mentioned. I’m currently filling insurance paperwork and I’m going to be careful what I mention at present. But what I can say is that a Nepali is quite happily in possession of my camera or its cash equivalent, which is about a gabillion rupees.

After arriving in Pokhara, my day was spent flying through Pokhara in a taxi in search of a bus and its driver and conductor. I found the bus, but the other two individuals were elusive.

So it goes. I didn’t dwell on the loss too long besides the four hours I spent on Monday morning (day 2) in a Nepali police station trying to secure a form for my insurance.

Even though I had the police form in my hand, I couldn’t relax. I felt the acute loss of not having a camera and being on vacation is a truly beautiful place. In the end, we were sort of wrong about our initial impression of Pokhara. The scenery improved the farther we moved from the poor.

Having fun on a boat we would later sink in the middle of Fewa Lake.

Having fun on a boat we would later sink in the middle of Fewa Lake.

The difference between Pokhara and Birganj is that the poor people are everywhere in Birganj, there’s no zoning. How are you going to forget the horrors of poverty during dinner when a rickshaw slum is directly across from the nicest restaurant in Birganj? With no rickshaw slums in sight, I should have been able to enjoy myself.

After a tuna sandwich and a pep talk from my friends, a group of us decided to go for a nice boat ride on Fewa Lake.

I plead the Fifth. I’m not going to incriminate myself or my friends, though Team Jhapa conceptualized our final solution.

I will say that five of us (Laurel, Kara, Drew, Liz, and myself) were on a boat that sank in the middle of Fewa Lake. It wasn’t anything sudden. The sinking of a large wooden canoe takes some time (around three hours). And we did it. We sank a boat. It sunk.

Andrew enjoys a smoke while kayaking in Few Lake.

Andrew enjoys a smoke while kayaking in Few Lake.

There we were, on the middle of a large lake with nothing but our clothes in hand. Actually, Kara had our clothes in hand as we’d been swimming just prior to the sinking.

It was something to behold. I looked back and there was Liz, holding onto the aft of the boat, completely underwater. Kara had a panicked look on her face as she stood on the sinking boat, holding cameras, shoes, whatever, high in the air while descending into the water.

Kara seemed to believe that the boat would cease its sinking, which didn’t happen. Not too slowly, Kara descended into the foul waters of Fewa Lake to no avail.

As this happened, Andrew yelled, Save yourself! Swim for your life!

After a moment, we were back on the dock, unsure of what to do. It didn’t matter what we said. We were on a boat that sank in the middle of a quite large lake in full view of the high season’s tourists. Guilty. We decided that we should pay for the boat and walk away.

What really caused the sinking was the constant in and out and jumping and splashing.

What really caused the sinking was the constant in and out and jumping and splashing.

Right then. No haggling over the price. Just pay up and go home, which we did. Now I have a deed for a boat that is sitting on the bottom of Fewa Lake. It belongs to us, the chosen five. The walk from the dock to the hotel shall be known as the Walk of Shame.

We were all drenched. Andrew had lost his shirt. The girls had all their clothes, but a pair of shoes had gone down with the boat. We told ourselves that completely drenched people walk down the streets of Lakeside all the time. Yet we knew that people knew. They didn’t see victims, only boat sinkers, which is what we were.

The next day, Tuesday (day 3), we spent getting ready for our trek. We had to buy ACAP trekking permits to enter the Annapurna conservation area.

Note the side of the boat. Apparently we couldn't read.

Note the side of the boat. Apparently we couldn't read.

I also had to buy a camera, which I wasn’t sure how I’d do. I had managed to get in touch with my parents who were wiring some money to my bank account so I could draw some money to purchase a camera, except on the day before we were supposed to leave and the money still hadn’t cleared.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I was thinking I would wait a day for my money to clear and then start the trek a day late.

It wasn’t until Akash, a Nepali we’d made friends with in Pokhara, came and sat with me at a café on Lakeside. He had the misfortune of being along for the ride when we crazed Americans sank a boat. The first thing he said when he saw me the next day and sat down with me was, I can’t believe we sank a boat in Fewa.

When I told him that I was planning on being in Pokhara for an extra day to wait for my money to clear and then catch up with my friends Akash asked quite frankly how much money I needed for a camera.

It was an awkward question, because unless I bought a point-and-shoot camera that I would just make redundant with another camera, I would need a lot of money. It seemed excessive to ask a Nepali I barely knew, who I had just met and then sunk a boat together, for a loan of that size.

But I did ask! And he gave me the money! I ended the day severely in debt and ready to get the hell out of Pokhara before any more boats sank or I lost another camera.