Posts Tagged ‘mountains’

Farm patrol in Rugari

Thursday, October 21st, 2010


If anyone were to tell you that Congo is a beautiful country, don’t doubt it. I saw some truly spectacular countryside today.

Roger and I accompanied the Indian peacekeeping contingent from the Rugari COB (TK) (part of MONUSCO, the UN mission in Congo) on their regular farm patrol where they walk through the vast cultivated countryside whose farmers they are sent to protect.

Hill upon rolling, bright green hill, plotted in neat round rows for beans, sorghum, cassava, potatoes and other vegetables. The terrain was rarely flat, often offering long vistas over the valley below and towards the mountains opposite. The farmers were genial, greeting us graciously as we passed with big smiles, energetic waves and “Jambo! Habari!” (Hello! How are you!) Children hollered happily as we passed, they shy ones warming up after the initial shock of seeing my white skin – Mizungu! Plus, Roger is so sweet with them that few can resist cracking a smile once he goes in for a robust high five handshake.

The land was lush and the footpaths slick and muddy. They cost me my footing once on a downhill slope. Note to self: find walking stick before next rural Congo trek. It makes one feel a little more sheepishly clumsy because the locals run up and down these paths in sure bare feet or meager plastic sandals. Here I was with my water-proof, extra comfy, good soled Tevas and I couldn’t hold it together. Typical.

Besides the fact that we saw a really special area, the reporting was fruitful. More on that in the story…

Home now

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Or, really, for almost two weeks…! Strangely, though I should have posted this days ago, there hasn’t been a chance. Between Thanksgiving, jet lag, and jury duty it’s been busy…

Thankfully, I do think my jet lag is finally starting to recede (though at a play earlier this week I couldn’t help but doze a couple of times – and it was a really good production!). It was iffy there for a while. My first three or four days home I felt distinctly like a 3-year-old who really needs a regular afternoon nap…

It’s been a nice return home, however, with Thanksgiving and all the over-eating accompanying the annual feast. Seeing my family and friends and sharing some of the experiences from my journey has been a treat.

Now that everyone has headed home, however, I am forced to come to terms with the return to my normal New York life. Already, I miss the constant distractions of travel; of having all of my senses on high alert for strange new smells, sounds, tastes and views; for eager conversations with people whose stories are variously inspiring, harrowing, and moving. I love waking up not quite knowing what the day will be, though knowing all the same it will be exactly and utterly what I make of it.

Yet coming home has also given me some time to reflect on this trip. The Congo is that rare place that on some levels is totally depressing. The horrifying effects of protracted conflict are visible in every rut of the road and crumbling shack; in each ragged tear of a child’s clothes and tall wall topped with barbed wire. The desperate state of so many people and institutions there is often hard to see.

Yet on other levels, Congo is filled with daily examples of hope and promise and strength and survival. I am thrilled to have found a couple of those in my stories and to have met some of the people that embody them. It is a uniquely personal and gratifying experience. So far I’ve heard from several people about whom I wrote who are pleased with the results, which is the best feedback possible. And I’ve had at least two emails from others wanting to do something – in these cases donate money or mobilize humanitarian organizations to respond to some of the situations I explored in my pieces. To say this is more than I expected and that I am thrilled is an understatement.

Nepal, obviously, was a very different place and left me with very different feelings than did the Congo. But being there was equally invigorating. What I surely enjoyed most was the experience of being so far away while trekking – no cell phones, no computers or Internet, no T.V., no radios, no running water and only a single, spare light bulb in our rooms after sunset (if we were lucky). It’s so rare these days to feel really remote and I loved it.

Other elements of the visit were special too. In particular, the general warmth of the Nepali people, the vibrant colors of their clothes and jewelry, and the physical scenery, which was stunning. It’s quite a humbling experience to look up to Mountain peaks of 7,000-plus meters and consider one’s place on the planet. Yes, we are small. Quite another experience when told that for Nepal, these peaks are small! To me, they (being several summits in the Annapurna range) looked and felt like they were floating in the sky – it couldn’t actually be possible that they were connected to the ground and rose so precipitously, I thought. But, of course, it was and it was amazing to see. Out west, the mountains were not as close to where I walked and loomed overhead somewhat less powerfully. But they still outlined and underscored the vastness, emptiness and utter quiet that was so often all around.

Khatmandu was beautiful, though it is more crowded than many places I’ve ever been. I actually got stuck in a human traffic jam one afternoon while walking in the old part of town! Luckily I was directed through a series of snaking side streets and small tunnel-like passageways that helped me circumvent the crowd. And the shopping there … what’s a girl to say? It was endless and some of it was really beautiful. I did bring a couple of treasures home.

So now it’s time to get back into a routine here in New York, finish several more stories and start planning the next trip. Even I’m curious to see where that might be!

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…