Archive for the ‘Travel Logs’ Category

International Women’s Day

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

So I’ve not been a very good blogger of late… apologies for not recording these events sooner.

Monday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. Though it is celebrated around the world, I’ve never participated in or even been aware of any special events in the U.S. I know they exist, but they’re not well publicized or attended it seems. In Congo, it’s quite a different story.

I was in Bukavu on Monday, out early, to cover the annual parade that marks International Women’s Day here. I knew it was going to be a scene, but this was spectacular. There were thousands of women — I don’t know how many and I couldn’t get an official estimate, but by my own guess I’d have to say around 5,000 women at least. And they were dressed to the nines! Each group that marches — local NGOs and women’s associations, UN divisions, international NGOs, etc — dresses in matching clothes. Thus under a bright, hot sun (my shoulders are only now starting not to ache from my neon sun burn), one of Bukavu’s main avenues transformed from an often muddy, jaggedly pot-holed roller-coaster, into a rainbow of the city’s women.

The colors were outstanding! And the patterns, all together like that, a vibrant swirl. The singing and dancing of the women along the route was uplifting and made one think that if all of these women could come together, in force, they could do anything. They could really change this war-torn place…

Even as dark clouds moved in, pushing the sunshine out, and an absolute downpour drenched us all, the women did not stop. Nor did they step out of beat to the music playing as they walked. Nor did their arm swinging fall out of pattern. And they were smiling — well, a lot of them were. I even saw one lady who seemed to have lost a sandal to the raging river the street had become keeping up with the others, utterly unfazed, and happy.

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC

Women in the rain, with pearls, on International Women's Day, Bukavu, eastern DRC


The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

The rain didn't stop, and neither did the women marching on International Women's Day in Bukavu, eastern DRC

They kept this up for several hours more, though I bailed after about one hour or so in the rain. I was soaked and cold. I  had tried to take cover under a tarp hung over  a seating area, but I was on the edge. A fine spot while the rain fell straight. But when it started to come in sideways, it was all over. Roger, my ever-steadfast translator, was soaked too. And then Debi, our driver, found us! God knows how he maneuvered the car so close to where we were, but he save the day, whisking us back to dry clothes and warmer bones.

I did try to return to the parade to catch some speeches and see more action, but by then there was no way to get through the traffic back to where we’d been or anywhere near the route’s finish line. With two more interviews to go that afternoon we had to turn around.

The rain only let up late in the afternoon and most marchers had dispersed around the time we did, give or take an our or so. And yet, the day was certainly not a wash (sorry for the terrible pun…). It was wonderful to see so much spirit and enthusiasm among women here — so many of whom have suffered terribly as a result of the country’s ongoing and brutal conflict. It was inspiring to see little girls get into the mood and tell me that the day was their day to call on the government to support girls’ education, to ”say what we think” and to “be valued.”

Even as violence goes on and as women are so often it’s victims, this day displayed their remarkable resilience and courage. It reminded me, as so many things here do, of what I take for granted, of how lucky I am and how little I’ve really ever “endured.” I am grateful for the perspective.

The 15-hour bus ride

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

Oh, did I say 15 hours? Silly me, I meant 21 hours. Local bus. Lots of stops. Not comfortable, imagine that? Here’s a run-down:

Our vessel of ill repute

Our vessel of ill repute

Hour 0: Bina and I arrive in Surkhet (pronounced Sur-ket) and find a bus (really a large minivan) that will take us to Napalgunj where we can transfer to an overnight bus that will get us all the way back to Pokhara – home base for the Three Sisters Adventure Trekking (the company about which I am writing) and for Bina and me. We are told the trip will take 2.5 hours.

Hour .5: first stop (to pee etc)

Hour 1: second stop (to pee etc)

Hour 2: third stop. Yes, to pee, etc, but this time we stop in a town where we can buy some food. Bina procures us some yummy bean curry and spinach as well as several delectably greasy potato samosas and sugary fried treat. We eat in the van.

Hour 3.25: arrive in Napalgunj. But before letting anyone off of the bus, the driver makes a quick swoop to the local hospital for one of the patients whose fallen ill. He is a grown man and has been moaning and swooning for at least an hour now. He looks as though he is barely conscious, really. But when we arrive at the hospital, it’s closed. Yes, you read that correctly. Closed. Bina said there was some kind of strike here too… We did pass at least a dozen police decked out in riot gear, which seemed odd… Anyway, since the place was shut, we turned back around and made a beeline for the bus depot. I have no idea what happened to the man who was ill. He seemed to have some folks looking after him, so I’m hoping they saw to it that he was cared for.

Hour 4: Bina finds us our bus to Pokhara (what I would have done without her on this journey, I have NO idea…). This time, it’s a veritable bus, big and green, slightly hammered on the sides and containing about 10-12 rows of four seats (two per side). I buy a Pepsi.

Hour 4.25: We settle onto the bus. The seats are not comfortable, though I’ve been assured by the nice gentleman at the ticket booth they will be. The foam cushions quickly give way and render the seat as good as a slab of wood. My chair doesn’t go back far at all, the ones in front of us go back so far my knees are pushed up against them and Bina’s seat reclines to such a degree that the person behind her will have little leg room himself. Think positive thoughts. Bus makes a small circle around Napalgunj rounding up more passengers.

Hour 4. 5: Bus heads out of town. I move one row up, hoping to give Bina and I each our own seats, but soon a man sits next to her and then me. Her companion soon falls asleep basically on top of her – slumped sideways practically in her lap. She’s too polite to say anything. I nudge him awake and ask to switch seats with him. He obliges.

Hour 5-11: Driving. Frequent stops. Pee breaks, picking up and dropping off passengers. At one point three men with very smelly bags of fish get on. All the seats are full so they see fit to settle in the aisle right next to me! The smell is intense and I think this will not be OK for the next 10 hours. When I budge one of the bus workers and point from the smelly fish bag to the roof (hoping he’ll understand that I mean, please please please! ask the men to put their belongings up top) he reassures me – “only 10 minutes.” Felt a little bratty and whiny about my reaction, but, look, I’m human.

Hour 11: Dinner stop. Bina’s been sick a couple of times – very discreetly and only out of my sight when we stop. But she’s not doing well on the long ride. We both order ramen noodles for dinner. No dal bhat, please. I find the elusive chocolate biscuits for which the West Nepalis apparently have no taste! Even Bina wants one!

Hour 12: Total darkness outside, bus comes to a rather sudden halt. Soon enough there is clamoring off and then back onto the bus by passengers – mostly men (most of the passengers are men, but the few women seem less inclined to do the on-off shuffle). Bina is able to explain from what she’s hearing that there is an accident ahead. I get out to investigate. The rows of buses extend beyond where I can see – in front of me and behind. Granted, it is pitch black when all the bus lights are turned off. But in the 20 minutes I am outside, several more buses and trucks pull up and park on the side of the road – the other side – I guess, ours is already full.

Three men are outside our bus having a lively conversation in Nepali. To my great good fortune – being nosy, curious and linguistically deficient – one speaks halting English. He tells me the line of buses is 100 deep (I’m skeptical, but there are a lot of buses). He says two buses have collided up ahead. They are blocking the road. There are dead bodies. Police will come in the morning and decide what to do and maybe open the road.

Since I can’t see the collision, I have no idea if the police have arrived or not, or if, in fact, there are dead bodies or any injuries. But I’ve not heard any sirens or seen flashing lights. Given what we’ve already experienced and witnessed with the swift reactions and successful responses of the Nepali police elsewhere, I’m inclined to believe the man, that they are, as yet, no shows here. (Maybe I’m not being generous, and I do apologize if so, but it was late, and I was really tired.)

Hour 12.5: Feeling totally helpless and frustrated, I return to the bus. Bina has asked to switch seats. It’s a good thing, because her broken-and-therefore-too-far-leaning-back seat is quite effective at inducing sleep. I can’t do anything, in fact, but close my eyes.  Until, that is, the man behind me starts to push on the seat trying to get me to move it up. I try to explain it’s broken, nothing I can do. Bina tries to help too. He seems resigned.

Hour 13.5 or 14 (not sure): Man behind the seat puts his head on my seat and settles into sleep that way. He is breathing on me. I (awkwardly – this is so weird!) touch his face in an attempt to signal – not OK, please remove nostrils from the crown of my head.

Man behind the seat then reaches over the seat and, yes, between my knees to try and pry some mechanism on the seat he seems to believe will fix it and bring my seat forward! I swat his hand indignantly, making very clear he and his hand will be coming nowhere near my personal space – broken seat be damned! There is foul language involved. Again, a little embarrassed and hoping, assuming, no one really understood the English, just the message I was trying to convey. I think tone of voice is fairly effective for that. But I mean, his hand went between my knees! Big sigh. This is getting rough.

Hour 14-17: sleeping. Bus totally black. Bus totally not moving anywhere. But the Hindi pop music that has been blaring on the radio during the rest of the ride is off. So, apart from a spate of loud conversation between a mother and her child, which probably lasted 30 minutes or so (they were apparently nonplussed that most of the rest of us were trying to sleep), I did get some rest.

Hour 17: Bus comes to life. It’s now about 5 am. We are told the road has been cleared.

Hour 17-18.5: Bus turns on, turns off, turns on, turns off, turns on, turns off – you get the point – as it creeps through the logjam of traffic created by the collision. Still never saw any police or heard anything, but that really means nothing. My vantage point was limited.

Hour 18.5: Stop to pee, drink tea, morning break.  Bina and I decide definitively, we hate the bus. Hate it. We are told we have two more hours.

Hour 19-21: Fewer stops, and mostly to let passengers off. Though one short stop serves a somewhat mind-boggling purpose: from what I could tell, the bus pulled over only to allow passengers an opportunity to ogle what was apparently an accident off the side of a cliff. What a strange, and intrusive, procession it seemed. Everyone piled off, looked, piled back on and the bus continued.

Hour 21: Arrival in Pokhara. Too tired to even rejoice. Glad I did this, makes for a good story. Next time, I fly.

The Helicopter ride

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Sometimes, being the only foreigner around and thus drawing a certain amount of otherwise undeserved attention, has its perks.

Col. Madan and me

Col. Madan and me

When Bina and I finally got ourselves down to the airport runway for our flight out of Talcha, it was to be a helicopter ride. That we were getting out and not spending another day wondering about our fate was the best part. But equally exciting was that this would be a chopper – always more fun than some regular old airplane. And, as it turns out, I was in for a real treat.

After landing and unloading his cargo of World Food Program-donated rice, the helicopter pilot himself got out for a quick stretch of the legs and a salute to the policemen monitoring our departure. One of them pointed in my direction and the pilot, Col. Madan K.C., then approached me jovially wishing me “Welcome! Hello!” I greeted him in return and we had a warm exchange. In the space of only a few minutes he told me he’d been the pilot in 1996 to rescue a Texas doctor from atop Everest and was featured in the Imax movie about that same disastrous climbing season (he saved two people actually, Beck Weathers and Makalu Gau, in one of the world’s highest ever helicopter rescues). Then he invited me to join him in the cockpit after take-off to see “what it’s really like to fly a helicopter.” I, of course, accepted, but wasn’t sure if he was serious.

Soon thereafter we boarded and Bina and I settled into our bench seats at the rear, hugging in relief that we were actually on the move. Only moments later, one of the crew called us up front and after lifting off from the gravel ground, I was summoned into the cockpit onto a small Nepali stool made of straw. Settled snuggly between Col. Madan, a former Nepali Army pilot with 35 years experience, and his co-pilot, who actually did all of the flying, I started in on a half-hour long rhapsody of oohing and aahing at the views. What an incredible sight! The front of the helicopter is all windshield, rounded from the aircraft’s floor to its roof, offering a sweeping sight. Mountains rolled by one after the other in a continuous relief of distant and hazy blues and, as we descended, farmland greens. Nepal from the air is spectacular.

To top it all off, Col. Madan told me a bit about his adventures – landing a helicopter at 23,000 feet on Everest with space enough for only one side of his aircraft’s landing gear. The other half of the copter swayed perilously in the thin air. And on one of his take offs during that rescue, he was forced into a precipitous drop off of the mountainside before being able to regain elevation. Seeing that he could handle all of this, I knew I was in good hands, and clicked away with my camera.

When we landed Col. Madan and I exchanged phone numbers and emails. He told me he’d soon be in New York. I suggested we get coffee. I hope we do. I have a strong feeling he has many more stories to tell…

Is it my Karma?

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

So the stomach bug is not so unusual. But the series of canceled flights on this journey are starting to stack up in suspect ways…

I was supposed to be in Juphal, the Dolpo region, to watch the three sisters’ mobile tourism training for three days – until Nov. 3. Our plane was scheduled for 8 am but Bina only came to find me to head to the airfield (this was is also just a bare gravel strip in the midst of looming mountains) at about 9:30 am. Once there, we waited for about an hour. Initially the plane was to come in the (increasingly typical) 10-20 minutes. But 20 minutes later, the flight was canceled. We’d have to try tomorrow, Bina told me. We’d be on the first flight, 6 am.

Then my bug attacked. So, we aimed instead for the 8 am flight again. And actually got on, though this time at about 9:45am. But we made it, without incident to Surkhot. There we waited an additional two-and-a-half hours for our flight to Jumla. I didn’t mind much as I slept for a lot of that. The only troublesome bit was the waiting room after we went through security. The entirely too distinct smell of urine seeped from the nearby toilets. Soon enough, the police let most of us in the room sit outside until we boarded …

Once in Jumla my only mode of transport was my feet, until the end of my hike. After five days of walking, Bina, Fhulmaya and I reached Talcha, where another airstrip provided transit from the region. Having left Rara lake early in the morning – 6:45 am among an intense morning frost – we got to Talcha by about 9:15. Our flight was supposed to be at noon to Surkhot from where we would board a local bus to Pokhara. So we found a sunny place to sit, Bina and Fhulmaya tracked down some elusive biscuits and we ate a little snack. Fhulmaya started her walk back to Jumla at about 11:30 am.

The Nepal airways flight scheduled before us came and went at about noon. Ours was next in, yes, 10-20 minutes. Thirty minutes later, yes, it would come, in about 10 minutes. Then the police whistle sounded and a woman in uniform cried, “Strike!”

Within several short minutes of her call, a band or about 30 or so rowdy adolescent boys began marching up the airfield.

The strikers in action on the airfield

The strikers in action on the airfield

Bina translated that they were demanding that rice prices be lowered and that they be better allowed to travel from the area. I never quite understood what this latter complaint involved, whether or not they were legally barred from getting airplane tickets for some reason or the tickets were too expensive or what. The rice price issue, I gleaned, was legitimate, with prices having recently skyrocketed, Bina said. Yet the details remain murky here too because before and after the boys’ protest, I had watched at least three helicopters land and unload dozens of rice bags with big block letters saying “donated by the World Food Program.” These were added to the two-to-three already heaping piles of such bags sitting on the edge of the runway. So, I’m still hazy on the exact circumstances of the rice problem…

Anyway, what it meant for me was, after four-five hours of waiting, there was no flight. We were stuck in Talcha, not an especially appealing place to be. And we didn’t know for how long. Maybe we’d get out the next day? Maybe a flight would still come that day? Maybe we’d be stuck for five days? There was no road for vehicle travel to walk to and Fhulmaya had long ago left us, meaning the option of walking back to Jumla was out, it being doubtful that Bina and I could have easily found our way. Plus, I didn’t really want to do the reverse walk…

And, apparently, the Nepali police – who have a base in town and whose presence was ample enough – could not find a way to simultaneously allow a plane to safely land and let the boys peacefully protest away from the airfield. This confused me greatly.

I also realized that, despite all the international travel I have done, I hate not being in control (for those who know me well, feel free to sigh, smile and shake your head knowingly, laughing at what is soooooo obvious…). I hated not being able to get the police to just sort everything out. I hated that I could not call a customer service representative to get me on another flight. I hated that there was no other airport to try. I hated being stuck, immobile, impotent, having to wait. I can be very impatient.

So I hemmed and hawed and moaned and groaned and Bina let me vent, nodding gently and agreeing that it was all pretty awful. We found a room in the one hotel in town and Bina went to try and find more information. This entailed her listening in alongside several villagers as the police, airline representatives and boys had “discussions” and reporting back to me at various intervals that they were “discussing” and that the boys were making “demands.” Nothing changed. So I read, we ate our dal bhat for dinner, and we slept hoping some resolution would come the next day.

In the morning, Bina and I trotted over to the airport tower – a tiny, two-story wooden thing that looked more like a tree house than a control station. Inside we tried to find out if a plane would come. The man in charge really couldn’t say. Maybe? Then yes, Nepal Airlines would come. Then, no, they wouldn’t. Then maybe Yeti Airlines (our carrier) would come, then, no for sure and for an indefinite period, they would not come. Then maybe a helicopter would come and maybe we could get on it. But he didn’t know and wouldn’t know for several hours. A UN flight would come, but we could definitely not get on that.

UUUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!

I went outside to work on a story.

After about an hour Bina came running over – a helicopter was coming in! We have to go!

So I huffed my way breathlessly up the hill to our hotel, grabbed my pack, hastily paid my bill, and marched as swiftly as possibly across the village to the airfield. There a man was collecting money for the flight, but for some reason there was intense confusion about what I was to pay and whether in US Dollars or Nepali Rupees. Fearing I would miss the flight, I did kind of lose it then. No one could tell me what was going on and the conversations flying around me, at least three at once, all in rapid Nepali, with no one explaining anything to me, just overwhelmed me. And that’s when my hemming and hawing became a little too loud… But as usual, Bina dealt with me and got me onto the helicopter safely and graciously accepted my apologies for losing my cool. Big sigh.

So we made it out. But that’s not the end of the story. The helicopter ride turned into a real treat and a much-needed boon during what would continue to be a long, long, long journey home…

More on that in the next post.

A letter to Genoveva

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Dearest Genoveva!

You must come to Nepal! Especially the more remote far West – the Dolpo, Jumla or Mugu districts are where I’ve been spending time. They are all well beyond the tourist juggernaut of the Annapurna Range or the Everest region (juggernaut being a relative term, of course, this is Nepal…). Nevertheless, during the length of my trek from Jumla to Rara Lake, four days in all (plus one short morning to get to the closest airfield from which we could fly out), I saw not a single foreigner on the route. I was the only one around until the other European lady showed up in Talcha, at said airfield. It’s the only way out if you don’t intend to walk back to Jumla (and, by the way, I do mean airfield, not airport – the runway was a gravel path on the flat landing of a hillside outcropping…there were no buildings to speak of and only a small wood-frame airport tower).

But that’s really not why you, in particular, should see this place. Rather, it’s because you are the only person I know who will not only barely quibble about the accommodations in this part of the world, but will truly appreciate them! Why? The medieval torture bed!

This photo should be self-explanatory...

This photo should be self-explanatory...

The guesthouses here are as basic as it gets, including the plywood beds! Yes, plywood! No springs, no mattress, no shock absorption. Just as you like it! It IS your medieval torture bed transported across the globe. You will be in heaven.

You see this is not a part of Nepal that gets a lot of Westerners coming through. And most of the guesthouse owners we asked, told us that the majority that do visit, camp out with their own gear. So there hasn’t been the same incentive to spruce things up as in the more touristy sectors of this mountainous country (or so I’ve been told – I’ve not seen that yet, though I am hoping to get a taste starting tomorrow for two-three days).

The rooms have all been fairly similar – nothing fancy – just the beds and a single light bulb after dusk. Once we even had an outlet to charge things too. That was a rare treat. The dust from the trekking route was often ever present inside, though our place at Rara Lake kept more of this at bay than some others. Here there was also an evergreen carpet, made of felt I think, to cover the floor rather than just mud or more wood. Not quite your favorite Astroturf, but a similar aesthetic. The walls were plain wood and unpainted. In several of the other guesthouses the design effect included two-tone paint jobs of white and brown with plenty of the white paint splattered on the doors and window shutters. It reminded me of one of your bedrooms during college – the one with purple walls and pink splotches, I think? Was that your senior year? Same idea here, though maybe without the intentionally comic undertones…

Though each place provided blankets, I was very pleased to have my sleeping bag. I would definitely advise for warmth and cleanliness to bring yours too when you come.

I haven’t even begun to tell you about the outside – the truly beautiful views and deep deep quiet along the way. But that’s for another letter. I am confident this here is enough to entice you… And, when the bruises from my hip bones fade, I might even venture a journey back here with you!

Much love, D

(p.s. I actually didn’t mind any of this at all either, though, admittedly, I was only out there for a limited time. But it was really fun and a nice part of the adventure to stay in such simple places. Maybe that’s why we get along, you and I? A shared appreciation for such things?)