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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In the land of the Buddha...

In the Land of the Buddha,

One perk of joining the Peace Corps is not only to be able to work overseas, but also the possibility of border hopping in lands unknown during the time abroad. As most of the countries where volunteers serve border numerous other countries, it is fairly easy to obtain a visa, cross the border, and do a bit of cheap sightseeing during breaks from school, or when work is slow. For every month of service overseas, we accrue two vacation days to do with as we want, and most of us here hoard our days and lump them into two or three short vacations throughout the two years of service. Even though living overseas might seem like adventure enough, the truth is that after a few months, the daily grind here becomes just as tedious as anywhere else in the world, and it’s not long before most of us are staring dreamily at our maps on the walls in the anticipation of a little excitement. So this March, faced with an entire week of no classes due to spring break, I decided to plan my escape. The destination of choice? Nepal.
Let me say this: I was not meant to be a flatlander. I was raised romping around in hills and am not happy on a flat plane- a year and a half in this deserty place has confirmed this fact. So, fueled by Mountain Wonderlust and stories of friends and family who had visited Nepal before, a few weeks ago I dusted off my backpack and set off towards the airport. As luck would have it, there were some family friends of my uncles who were from the capital and were kind enough to put me up for a few days and get me pointed in the right direction.
I arrived in Kathmandu, tired after a night spent on an airplane, but pumped to start exploring. After filling me with some delicious Nepalese food, my Nepalese friends oriented me a bit around the capital and then set me in the right direction to do some exploring of my own. I visited some of the oldest Buddhist temples in the country, worked my way through the cultural maze that is Dubar Square, and climbed to the tops of the Stuppas to take in the views of the city. It just so happened that the day that I arrived the elderly Prime Minister passed away, and within a day, the entire city turned into a giant procession, with literally thousands of people lining the streets to watch as his family took his body to the river for the burial rites. We watched as they drove past the apartment, then later on TV that night, watched as his family and the elders preformed the lat rites and set his body on fire on the banks of the river. Even though I studied Buddhism a bit at UM, and am generally familiar with Buddhist and Hindu burial practices, I have to admit that for me it felt a bit morbid to see them set fire to him, and watch as he burned to a crisp surrounded by thousands of people. In comparison, western burials are so sterile; besides the viewing, you generally never see the body-it’s comfortably encased by several thousand dollars of wood, metal, and silk for most, if not all, of the ceremony. And even if families choose to cremate their loved ones, it is done in the privacy of a funeral home or crematory, and presented later to the loved ones. So it was quite an experience to watch a dead body burn on live television.
After a few days in the capital, the noise and dirt did me in, and I said goodbye to my Nepalese hosts and took off for what I had really come to see: Some Mountains. Because of my limited time, I decided to forego the Himalayas and instead went west, towards The Annapurna Mountain range, a less famous, but equally as stunning range that runs throughout Nepal. I took an 8 hour bus trip from Kathmandu to the city of Pokhara, stopping off halfway though the valley to take a newly built cable car to a popular temple built on a the top of a mountain, where Hindu families go to sacrifice goats for yearly pilgrimages. At first I was confused at the number of goats people were bringing up with them, and the mysterious lack of goats returning back down the mountain. It wasn’t until I saw everyone hauling large bloody sacks onto the cable cars with us as we went back down that I realized where the goats had gone!
I arrived in Pokhara (a complete haven for hippie trekkers) towards the evening, found a hostel, and began getting things in order for a short trek. I rented the basic equipment, bought a trekking permit, and arranged for a guide. The next day at dawn my guide (a young woman who works for an all female trekking company, for rural gender development) and I set off, and we begin making our way up in the foothills of the Annapurnas on the ABC trek (Annapurna Base Camp). For the next four days we wound our way though small villages, tea house settlements and lush terraced hills, over rivers, up ridges, and down through deep valleys. Nepal was one of my first times I have ever traveled solo, and it was an amazing experience. The trekking routes are like entire communities in themselves-all the guides and porters know each other, as well as the locals who run the teahouses, and within a day or so you begin to see familiar faces and meet up with other trekkers. At the end of every day, everyone gathers around the teahouses, eats piles of rice and Dal Bhat and swaps stories until the lights switch off and the hillside towns go dark. Although even up the hills, technology is never far away. At one point on our decent back to the valley, we were walking past a small group of hill women on the trail, all in traditional garb, barefoot, and hauling overloaded straw baskets attached with straps across their foreheads. Just when I was thinking how neat it was to be in such a simplistic and rustic place, miles away from any cars, trains, planes or technology, I heard a strange beeping noise, and one of the old ladies pulled a cell phone from a fold in her tunic and started chatting away on the trail!
We finished the trek, and I went back to Pokhara with some new friends to get a hot shower and stretch out my sore feet before leaving for the capital. The next day I caught a small plane back to the Kathmandu to start the journey back to Ashgabat. I made it to the airport in time, but due to bad weather our flight was canceled from Delhi. To make a long story short, I couldn’t get a connecting flight, and so after a day and a half at the airport offices, I had to transfer airports, apply for an emergency travel visa through India, and sweet talk my way onto a plane back to Ashgabat without a ticket. It took about 4 days, but I finally made it, a few days later than expected and with my nerves a little worse for wear. And despite the complications of the last few days, this trip only reinforced that I want to return to Nepal for a longer time to do it justice. But for now, the memory of cool mountain nights should be able to sustain me through most of the hot Turkmen summer, and in the meantime, it’s back to the grind once again. So, until the next adventure.


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camuhrun! said...

Whoa Megan, what a crazy adventure! I love reading your posts, a great distraction from the boredom I suffer through at Purdue. Can't wait to hear some of your stories in person....take care!