Costa Rica: A Narrow Escape

 

It came as no surprise that I had been bitten by a tick and had the tick disease – Lyme or some other debilitating ailment. After all, I was living in the Costa Rican jungle with 13 animals, 4 of which had tested positive for Ehrlichiosis, another tick disease. It had been a particularly dry dry season and the ticks were partying wildly out there in the dense flora, or so I thought. Then I heard that a house could actually blossom with a tick infestation — started by one pregnant tick that dropped off an animal in the house. She could lay 1000 eggs in a house. It seemed ticks were partying wildly inside my home. Tick disease is no joke — I knew people who had it, and it messes with every aspect of a person’s body and life. I did not want it, and here I had it.

We had been removing ticks from dogs for over a month when I saw a small, somewhat painful lump on my stomach. I mean really small, minuscule would be the best word to describe what I saw. But — I reasoned to myself — those 1000 newborn ticks would be infinitesimal in size. A full grown tick is only the size of a match head. I dug at the thing with my inept tweezers, trying to remove it from my flesh. I could still see a tiny something sticking out from my flesh, and — did I just see it move!? Some of the ticks we removed from the dogs were alive and their creepy little arms and legs would wave around as you transported them, via tweezers, to the drowning jar. ‘Help, help’ — they would seem to be pleading for their lives. I even saw one climb out of the water and up the inside wall of the jar. It very nearly escaped before being plunged back into the drink. We were merciless in the elimination of every tick we encountered imbedded in the flesh of our charges. Still, four out of five dogs tested positive for Ehrlichiosis disease. And the fifth had been on antibiotics for it during the time the others were acquiring it. Nothing like a jungle dog to keep you busy and broke.

But the dogs were all on their prescribed meds. Surely our home was not beset by an infestation and my imagination had simply been overly sensitized by this month-long tick debacle. I put a small bandaid with ointment onto the wound I had created with the tweezers, and said nothing to Aaron, my partner in this jungle enterprise. I only needed his help to tend to the five puncture holes left in my back when one of the eight cats in our care, all supposedly domestic cats but clearly with a measure of insanity thrown in, flung herself at my back for no apparent reason, and clung on with the claws of one paw as her weight dragged her downwards. The tick I would keep to myself.

A day or so passed and it was time to change my bandaids. I yanked them all off and jumped into the shower. Drying off, I was horrified to spot in the mirror a rosy circle around the tick wound! Immediately I checked google for Lyme disease images and, sure enough, my rosy circle looked exactly like the one in the photograph. Well, it was no real surprise — did I really think I was going to come out of this tick fiasco unscathed? And was this house actually a festering breeding ground of near-invisible baby ticks, all skittering around famished for a blood meal? I flew into a whirlwind of panicked brainwork: Where was the closest doctor? How would I get there? Carless, we were a 20 minute walk on a rough jungle road, just to the bus stop. The bus system is notoriously unreliable; a taxi — or a person with a rust bucket vehicle who needs money — is notoriously pricey. I phoned the local medico and spoke in broken Spanish while the receptionist replied in broken English. After telling him my dilemma he said, ‘Oh, you have the tick out? Then don’t worry, it’s all okay now’. He must have missed the part about the red circular rash though I repeated it several times. It actually seemed that he had no interest in understanding what was happening with this pesky extrañjero who was intruding upon his day, nor did he seem compelled to even pretend to possess a hair of empathy for her circumstances. I convinced the man to book me an appointment with the doctor for the next day, composing in my mind a lecture on the possibility that he was temperamentally unsuited for his current vocation.

I had been periodically checking the site where the tiny perpetrator had infected me. At one point I wondered if the red rash wasn’t fading a tiny bit. A bit later I was examining the offending spot in the bathroom mirror when my eyes happened to fall on the claw wounds. Hm. Did they seem to have red rings around them also? Was it possible to get tick disease from the claws of an infected cat? My mind reeled with the mystery of it all. Could I have multiple tick infections; was I a seething hotbed of Lyme disease or Ehrlichiosis?

As the clouds of mystery slowly dissipated and the solution dawned brightly, sheepish relief flooded over me like a tidal wave. The bandaids — purchased here in Costa Rica and clearly made with some caustic type of glue — had caused the red rings! I didn’t have Lyme disease! Our home was not infested! The sky opened up and angels appeared, singing on high — some were even tooting on those horns that you see in the religious pictures. I had had tick disease and I was cured!

 

 

Note: This story is dedicated to my friends who do/did have tick disease — I wish the cure was this simple for them.

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Costa Rica: By Night …

 

Shuffling groggily to and from el baño with my flashlight is a nightly event in our Costa Rican Tico casa. Not wanting any surprises from unknown creatures under my bare feet — cockroaches, geckoes, whatever — I shine it on the floor before stepping out of bed. I had been increasingly aware of a resident gecko or two on the ceiling of our bedroom. Kind of amused, I do not feel unfriendly towards them and their seemingly random chirping. Yet, I had come to consider the possibility of a gecko falling on me in the night while I slept, or — perhaps worse — pooping on me. I have been known to awaken from sleep to find myself snoring lightly with my mouth open — yuch, what a revolting possibility this brings to mind! It was with this thought, as I was on my return trip to bed last night, that I casually shone my light at the ceiling and high on the walls in an attempt to locate a critter.

I was instantly startled awake by the appearance in my beam of a critter! Not a gecko but an enormous scorpion sprawled across the wall above where my sleeping head had lain not minutes before! The scream was out of me and Aaron was on his feet — it seemed in the same millisecond — well before he was awake. When he spotted the intruder, his horror mirrored mine. After all, Aaron is an actual arachnophobe. At that point everything went into a whirl — we decided without words that it would have to die, since there was no safe way to trap such a huge, dangerous beast. In a fluster of brooms and scuttling and tumbling and scrambling-into-hiding scorpion, and prancing and shrieking people — which I am positive lasted at least an hour — the scorpion eventually lost the battle of hide and seek.

 

In that moment, though relieved to not be wondering if it was on the loose, hiding in our bedroom and no longer having to elude the creature, I felt quite ashamed and sorry. (In our defence, we had never before killed a scorpion but always caught and released them outside. This one was just so huge and daunting — and so near to me asleep in my bed. Somehow it seemed a particular affront to my safety.) The poor thing had no desire to harm us. It was large enough to be a pregnant female; perhaps she was looking for a place to have her babies. I felt sick inside at what we had done. Still I couldn’t truthfully say I was regretful. My stomach knotted with an irrational sense of self defence mixed with guilt, at having taken the life of a creature bent on minding its own business — feeding, procreating, the basic stuff of life.

But still — how will I ever turn off the lights or shut my eyes in my Tico bedroom again?

{The scorpion on the left above, photographed by Aaron White, is the first scorpion (wild) encountered by both of us, in a home in San Pedro, Lake Atitlan. The scorpion on the right, also photographed by Aaron — clearly in a mad panic — is the unfortunate creature in this story, and was in fact, much larger, possibly double the size of the Guatamalan anthropoid}

Note: It should be mentioned that we have heard from locals in Central America, that the younger and smaller the scorpion, the more poison, therefore pain and other symptoms, the recipient of the sting is likely to experience. It is explained that a young scorpion has less control over the dose, whereas a more experienced one wants to save the lethal dose for its prey.

Costa Rica: Breath of the Jungle

FLORA & FAUNA

Photo credits:

Most wildlife & birds: Aaron White
Most plantlife & others: Kath Perreault

 

 

In planning our travel in Central America, Costa Rica was not on the itinerary, mostly due to the high cost of living and westernized culture we had heard about. Our interest was piqued, however, by tales of abundant wildlife and natural phenomena. Perhaps we would spend one expensive week there, and do the rest of our time in Guatamala, Nicaragua and Panamá. That was the plan — that is, until we saw an ad for a two month care situation in the jungle near Dominicalito, Costa Rica. Long story short, we got the gig and here we are, with two free months in a Tico casa in a remote jungle, in exchange for caring for pets (13 rescue dogs and cats! — see my last story for details).

 

Our Costa Rican experience began in San Jose, where we booked a shuttle bus to Matapalo Beach on the Pacific coast. We were scheduled to spend a week as innkeepers, filling in for friends from Canada before going on to our Dominicalito destination. When the driver pulled in for a rest stop at Rio Tarcoles, shops and bańos, and pointed me towards the ‘cocodrilos’, I expected a couple of tourist-friendly beasts to be paddling around in the rio hoping for picnic scraps. I was astonished to witness about 25 enormous crocodiles basking and swimming along in the river below a high bridge. Sure, it is a popular tourist attraction, drawing hoards of oglers each year. Nonetheless, my reaction to the sight of the powerful creatures below was visceral — I was both horrified and mesmerized. I had no doubt these reptiles were wild enough to devour me for lunch if I made a false step on that bridge and ended up in the water below.

 

Our first evening at Matapalo, we expected to flake out early with travel exhaustion. Not so. When a kerfuffle broke out at a neighbour’s home, we were treated to a lengthy display of shenanigans from a troop of local white faced monkeys, as they swooped from tree to tree, scampering over a rooftop and mischievously taunting the dogs by shaking palm fronds at them. Highly amusing! We then headed to the beach to experience an outstanding sunset performance in oranges and pinks, just happening to encounter a 3-toed sloth draped lethargically over a tree branch. When the creature did make a move, it was with such painful languidness that I felt like I was watching a suspenseful movie, wondering where that 3-toed paw would land. We marvelled at our first live sloth and crocodile sightings, all in our first hours in Costa Rica! Over the week at Matapalo we were to see several sloths, even a mother with baby on board, as well as repeated visits from monkeys. Easy to see why ‘monkey’ is a term used for impish and rambunctious beings. Aaron captured the classic beauty of a wide variety of birdlife — herons, egrets, ibis, stilts —fishing on a laguna nearby. However, I think I am happy to report that I did not see the crocodiles that were reported to be spotted swimming in the ocean at the mouth of nearby rivers.

 

Our time at Matapalo was definitely one of exceptional wildlife experiences, as we wrapped up the week with an unexpected encounter with a mama sea turtle! It was past mating and gestation season so we weren’t even looking for the signs. After dinner with friends, Aaron took a stroll out to the beach to gaze at the stars. He was momentarily puzzled to see some odd looking ATV tracks in the sand, before realizing it was the track of a turtle! We followed her trail to discover a sea turtle, her shell about 2’ in diameter, energetically carving out a hole with her flippers. After the mother turtle laid her eggs and made her exhausted way back to the sea, our new European friend stayed with the eggs all night, guarding them against night poachers that were seen skulking about. In the morning a conservationist was called in to relocate the eggs to a safe spot. We moved on to our next adventure at Dominicalito a couple of hours south, with dreams of young turtles making their arduous yet joyous way to the sea.
(Turtle photo by Stefan Schmidt)

 

Iguanas and geckos abound in Costa Rica. At Dominical Beach I spotted an iguana shooting out of sight up a palm tree — it must have been two feet long, without the tail! As I walked the beach one evening, I was delighted to spot in my path, this perfect little seahorse. So now I know they really exist, are not like unicorns and dragons, much as they seem to be like creatures.

 

 

D8FDBFEE-F777-4DC4-B90A-83DAD8C53395Arrival at our jungle casa (kennel), thirteen needy pets launched at us in one stroke, you would expect there to be little else but those animals to capture our attention. Still, it was impossible to overlook the massive shift of sensual experience which happens with immersion in a Costa Rican jungle. Though it was dry season and had not rained in months, the very air felt swampy — heavy, humid and hot. Growing gills to breathe did not seem out of the question. And the volume! My head filled with a cacophony of sound unlike anything I had experienced. Chirping, whistling, buzzing, clicking, hooting, roaring — why, there are even creatures that produce car alarm sounds and wolf whistles, not to mention the gutteral roar of howler monkeys! Though their growls are a frequent sound in the background, beginning at 4 or 5 a.m., the monkeys themselves are shy and elusive. We saw our first troop just last evening at nightfall. The feisty creatures invaded our yard and seemed to be demanding that we vacate the premises with suitable threatening growls and advancement towards us. We made a hasty retreat inside with the dogs, still unable to get good shots. Aaron has had opportunity to shoot the friendlier white faced monkeys, right in our back yard, as seen below.

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‘Seething with life’, cliche though the phrase may be, is likely the most apt way to describe this jungle. Butterflies of many colours abound, and of course, we spent much time trying to capture the magnificent blue morpho butterfly with our cameras. Elusive as they are massive, we only managed to get distant, slow motion video, unloadable here. However, I have included a google image of the famous creature, much larger than the fabulous blue metallic butterfly beside it. Other insects, crawling and flying creatures — cicadas, grasshoppers and locusts up to 4” long, moths, dragon flies, cockroaches, giant banana spiders, scorpions, leaf cutter ants, the impressive golden carpenter ant which is pure art!, fireflies and more, whose names I don’t know — all cohabit in this jungle and some join in song with a multitude of birds to create a discordant kind of harmony. Below see photos of many of the above mentioned.

 

 

 

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Density of plant life and the constant shedding, cycling of leaves and blossoms, is another remarkable feature of the jungle. Everywhere are blankets of dead leaves, crackling on the jungle floor and creating colourful images in the stream beds. Particularly fascinating are the epiphytes, plants which exist on air. Attaching themselves to a tree yet not a parasite, these plants draw their moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Orchids can be epiphytes though not all are. I confess to often not knowing if a particular abundant jungle plant is wild, cultured or perhaps even gone-wild. We enjoyed fresh bananas from our tree, and remain hopeful about the mini pineapples we see growing — exotic backyard bounty to us northerners!

 

How creatures such as agouti and coatimundi find their way through this dense mass of undergrowth is a mystery, though this feature may be a source of comfort and refuge for them. I was lucky enough to see an agouti at about 4 feet away, as it escaped capture, though there was no Kodak moment as it appeared and disappeared into a hole instantly. The coatimundi is another small jungle creature. Though I know that the jaguar is native to these jungles, it is generally not seen near human habitation.

The famous Costa Rican toucan makes a raucous cry. Below is a frequent morning visitor to our backyard tree as we enjoyed our coffee. Many birds of this jungle seem to be elusive yet vocal, however below are some that Aaron managed to capture with his patient and skillful telephoto lens — black vultures, hummingbirds, yellow headed caracara, trogon and the great kiskadee.

 

It has been a most educational nature experience — this jungle saga — both in the ways of the jungle and the ways of rescue animals! Below are sweet Zuma & Bigote.

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Costa Rica: In the Jungle with 13 Rescued Pets

Costa Rica: In the Jungle with 13 Rescued PetsF79829FC-98D6-4450-B332-1330DC4FC734

Twenty days into our first Trusted Housesitters house and pet care position (check it out: https://www.trustedhousesitters.com/su/XJvrMJrL), and I just now have the time and space to breathe and put the experience into words. We are in Costa Rica, near a tiny village called Dominicalito, living in a Tico house in the jungle — caring for 13 pets: 5 dogs and 8 cats, all rescue animals! Yup. We came into the situation eyes wide open, nobody twisted our arms. After all, two months in Costa Rica, rent free! Being animal lovers, it was easy to convince ourselves that the pets would only be a bonus. All that animal love! When we discussed the prospect, we agreed, ‘Sure it will be hectic at times with all that dog exercising and pet feeding’. There would be logistics to work out, of course, but it was clearly a windfall for us.

 

Turns out, there were a few factors we had not considered. March being the hottest month of the year in this area, up to 94F/34C temps daily, is one unconsidered factor. No a/c. That’s a whole lot of hot and humid; we find ourselves feeling something akin to sopping wet dishrags much of the time. I have learned what it is to have my entire body slick with sweat, so slick I could probably be mistaken for a water slide.

In the photos, the property appeared to be fenced – well, it kind of is, but the gate is broken! Which means dogs, given any freedom to explore as dogs must do, will go AWOL in the jungle at times. Never mind the worry when, at 10 p.m., the final of the five drags himself through the door, covered in mud. Imagine my dismay when, casually examining one dog’s ears, I discovered about five apparently famished jungle ticks securely latched and feeding. Further investigation found all dogs had ticks and one was actually infested. In about a week we’ve removed at least 100 ticks from her. She is said to have ‘sweet meat’ and to attract the little parasites, a fascinating tick fact I did not know. This work is not only time consuming but hugely disgusting! Another mesmerizing tick fact I recently became apprised of: it is possible to have a tick infestation in a home. One pregnant, blood engorged tick (that drops off a dog) can lay 1000 eggs in your house. 40F70254-DBA6-4A86-B131-2F6B6E8D5943,

 

With that in mind, yes — we have reconciled ourselves to carrying out daily and rigorous tick population control. (And the dogs are treated regularly with Nexgard. Imagine if they weren’t!) The google image below is a pretty good facsimile of the creatures we have been pulling from our charges. We are a little preoccupied at the time, to be taking photos of the nasty parasites ourselves.
According to the ad, a 15 minute walk takes one to the highway where a bus can be ridden to Dominical or Uvita, where groceries and other amenities can be purchased. Perhaps if you race down the road in power mode, or if you are a 19 year old athlete, the walk is 15 minutes. But who power walks or jogs in 90+F temps? It takes us 20+ minutes walking quickly on the gravel, multi-potholed road, prancing across a flood to keep our shoes dry. The way back (exhausted, stinking hot and loaded down with supplies) is all uphill, with a couple of steep patches at the end. Timing for this segment is closer to 30 minutes. And then there is the actual catching of a bus. We have learned in our 3 weeks here that if you are at the highway 15 minutes earlier than the schedule indicates, in the off chance that the bus arrives early, and are willing to wait 45 minutes beyond the scheduled arrival time – there is a possibility you will catch a bus to your desired location. You are probably standing in the hot sun during this time, waiting to (maybe) catch a bus. One time we even caught a bus 10 minutes before the scheduled time! Hitchhikers are not picked up in Costa Rica. Trust me, I know — if anyone would be cut some slack on this unspoken ‘rule’ – two white haired, red faced, sweating senior citizens with too many bags to carry, would likely be chosen. Of five hitching attempts we have been picked up once, by three surfers from Spain who made the mistake of making eye contact with us.

Now before you accuse me of being one of those travellers who go to a foreign country and want everything to be run exactly the way we do it at home, and spend all their time complaining about the differences — I’m NOT LIKE THAT at all. I love the differences – it’s why I travel. I embrace whatever culture I am partaking of, with curiosity, openness and warmth. It’s just that — this has been a HARD 20 days!! Never mind cultural differences, it’s just been WAY harder than I expected to care for 13 pets on a remote acreage in a humid tropical jungle, that’s all.

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However, now that we have a (kind of) routine that (kind of) works, let me breathe out and tell you about the fabulous aspects of being in a remote tropical jungle caring for 13 animals. I’ll start with the wildlife! Oh my, it really is true what they say about the abundance of wildlife inhabiting Costa Rican jungles.

We begin our day before dawn, awakened by the haunting call of the howler monkeys. Rising by 6, when it’s not exactly cool but less hot, we are blessed by the wafting presence of blue morpho butterflies — enormous, luminous, blue-winged and fluttering their way along jungle pathways, finding food before the heat comes. While they come in droves from daylight on, by 8 and rising temperatures, they are no longer to be found. An elusive creature, the blue morpho passes so quickly that it is hard to photograph or video, however I am sharing this google images photo below.

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Toucans are daily visitors to our trees and we often discover we’re being spied on while having our coffee on the back deck. Craziest looking birds, I swear they aren’t real but are cartoon characters. And that beak! How do they fly with that huge thing jutting out front? (Photo credit: Aaron White)

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Howler monkeys, when calling at dusk, give our jungle retreat a decidedly ‘heart of darkness’ feel, with their warning and ferocious tone. While we saw numerous howlers at Tikal in Guatamala, their Costa Rican cousins seem to be more timid as we have not seen one, despite hearing them frequently throughout every day. Their wildcat-like call has actually become a part of the fabric of constant background sounds in the jungle, along with insects and birdsong. The clicking, whistling, buzzing, hooting, whirring stream of sound here is punctuated randomly by sharp bird calls and howler rumbles, all sounds flowing together into one weighty soundtrack that screams of aliveness. (Or, in the case of the following photo of Nelly with an iguana conquest, the ongoing fight for survival among the jungle creatures.)

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Other creatures I’ve seen here in the Dominicalito jungle are coatimundi, iguanas, butterflies in many colours (even lime green), geckos, cicadas, 4” grasshoppers, a sneaky stick bug disguised as a brown twig, that got temporarily entangled in my floor sweepings (it flew away in a flash of rusty orange after I freed it!) and many varieties of birds. Of course we have also seen a couple examples of the (justifiably, in my opinion) maligned cockroach. Add the multitude of vivid floral offerings, plants and fruit trees and, barring the last mentioned creature, it has been pure joy to encounter a jungle seething with life. We’re eating bananas grown in our yard, ripened on our counter!

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Another bonus, just recently acknowledged to myself, is the physical strength I am gaining through the care and exercising of these animals, added to the crap shoot of heading to town for supplies. In retirement, my biggest complaint (maybe the only one) has been losing my fitness routine. Well, it seems that, despite the difficulty of climbing a rough gravel road, uphill and loaded down, sweating under the sizzling sun, some part of this misery is actually good for me.

What else is to love about this experience? Well, the pets of course! Truth is, I was in love the minute I (almost) stepped through the door. There was such a cacophony of beasts all clamouring to greet me that I couldn’t actually move through the doorway in one step. I needed to stop and introduce myself first. After three weeks of chaos — through trial and error we are discovering the idiosyncrasies of each pet’s personality, likes and dislikes. Having established some routines and boundaries, it is far more manageable than our first mad week here, and almost beginning to feel liveable — for the next six weeks, that is. I have no doubt we will both be jubilant to part ways with our jungle kennel and soar to the cool climes and civilized espresso shops of Canada, with a sense of wonder at the accomplishment of this, at times, seemingly undoable task.

 

 

ADDENDUM: I will say, though, that eight cats is just WAY too many cats for any home to house! Though there are times now that things are positively relaxed around our little jungle casa.  (Still —No danger of me ever becoming the neighbourhood cat lady…)

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Trekking:Altitude Sickness

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Post note to Trekking Nepal: Having been reassured that altitude sickness was not a concern on the trek we were taking, with elevations reaching only 10,500′, I barely looked into the symptoms. After our return I researched the condition more fully and discovered that everything that was occurring for me falls within the list of symptoms for acute altitude sickness: insomnia/wakefulness, lack of appetite, nausea, dizziness, tiredness/muscle weakness, shortness of breath. A couple of other symptoms that I didn’t experience are headache and vomiting. It is recommended that persons experiencing these symptoms at elevations not climb higher for 24 to 48 hours, then reassess. Severe altitude sickness is the next phase and can be dangerous, involving symptoms such as irrational behaviour, coughing up frothy liquid, seizures and death! Had I read this before my trek I may have made a different decision about going forward. Because I am here to tell about it, and did not need to be flown out by helicopter for about $1000 – I am glad I went onwards, upwards and completed the trek. I did learn the hard way that it is important to pay heed to that key phrase in the trekking world – ‘slowly, slowly’.

For further information on altitude sickness go to altitude.org

 

 

Trekking Nepal, Poon Hill

 

Trekking in the Himalayas – does it get any more exciting than that??!! As the date for departure to lofty places grew near, we could hardly contain our anticipation. We had been travelling and living for 7 months in boiling hot Asia, and were far from equipped for mountain temperatures or climbing. Fortunately Pokhara, Nepal, our jumping off point, houses a wealth of trekking shops where equipment can be purchased or rented. Being caught in sudden and torrential downpours during this two day shopping excursion caused a flicker of anxiety but certainly did not douse the fires of our trekking fervour.

We would be a party of four: my partner, Aaron and me, our guide, Karna, and our Sherpa, Rudra. The route of the 5 day trek would begin with a taxi ride from Pokhara to Nayapul (1070m) where we would begin hiking and arrive at Tikhedhunga (1540m) on the first day. The following days would cover Ulleri (1960m) – Ghorepani (2860m) – Poon Hill (3193m) – Tadapani (2630m)- Ghandruk (1940m) – Nayapul, with another ride back to Pokhara, spread over the five days. This little hike is considered the baby of trekking routes, compared with the Annapurna circuit or Everest Base Camp which can entail three or four weeks of trekking to elevations of more than 17,000′. It was even suggested that we could do this little stroll without guide or sherpa. I have to admit I was feeling uncomfortably pampered at the prospect of some other person carrying most of my supplies, especially after I saw Rudra, our porter. He stands about 5’3″ and weighs about 120 lbs. However, I consoled myself with reassurances that I was fuelling the Nepali economy by hiring its citizens to ‘accompany’ our trek. Not that we needed them, they need us! We packed light, a fact confirmed on the trek when we noted the enormous loads under which many other porters laboured.

 


Day One we set off in a taxi to Nayapul, bumping along the mountain road, cramped, and clammily warm in the tiny 90s vintage car. I’m proud to say I kept my cookies for the entire one and a half hour joggle. We had a bright day for hiking and set out with spirits high. When I say bright, I suppose I mean bright for this area because, although the sun shines abundantly, the viewing experience is often akin to looking through a gauze curtain at the mountains and distant scenery. Our thirty days in Kathmandu and Pokhara included itchy, burning eyes and raspy chests, just part of the package. Sad and disappointing in a land so ripe with natural beauty. A week or so later we were told by a local man who lives up a mountainside overlooking Pokhara, that the air was perfectly clear when he was a boy, just 30 years ago and Pokhara was all village and farmland, without the tourist infrastructure that exists today.

Nevertheless, off we marched from Nayapul, spirits aloft, along the riverside for the first leg of our journey. Bucolic scenery kept our hearts light as we wound along the riverbank, marvelling at groups of pack animals – ponies, donkeys, water buffalo – meandering the trails with their shepherds. We were thrilled to witness Indigenous people going about their daily lives, marvelling at how hard they work to carry provisions up and down the steep trails – farming, gardening, forging a life out of the land. It seemed every step was an education, with a new astonishing sight to marvel at. Our guide, Karna shared his ample supply of information, gleaned from a lifetime in Nepal. At one point we passed an entire family, men and women of all ages, up to their elbows in the butchering of a buffalo. Karna informed me that they were of the Margar tribe, one of five tribes which inhabit these mountains. As we continued along, he pointed out plants which are used in local medicine, including moss used to promote healing of a flesh wound and another leaf crushed to make a natural paracetamol for headache, fever and pain. No pharmacies are to be found in these mountains. Imagine living so self reliantly!

 


We arrived slightly tired but fully satisfied with our first day, at the Chandra Guesthouse in Tikhedunga, delighted with the brilliant display of orange honeysuckle covering the buildings. A dozen loaded ponies clattered through the narrow streets past our small but adequate room and I wanted to pinch myself at the novelty of such an experience. After a cool (brrrrrr) shower, I was introduced to Roasty, a garlicky refried mashed potato dish with veggies, yak cheese melted on top. Yum, who knew the Nepalese have comfort food at its best? Yak cheese is a mild but tasty, hard yellow-white variety of cheese which is widely used in Nepalese cooking.

 

 

Day Two we set out filled again with high energy and bright spirits, despite the wakefulness of my night. Arriving at a tea stop we were astonished by our first views of mountains as snow capped Annapurna South sparkled and winked at us. It was a surreal moment for me. Though we had planned and hoped to do amazing things on this Asian adventure, in that moment I was deeply astonished to find myself actually in the Himalayas, witnessing such a spectacular scene. Of course no reproduction can ever do the original justice.

 

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I must admit at this juncture, that I had a different, perhaps naive idea of what a trek in the Himalayas would be. First, I had imagined the four of us, pioneers hiking in solitude for miles and miles with not another soul to be encountered, only the sounds of nature tickling at our senses, except perhaps a few hard working Indigenous people and their donkeys appearing in our landscape from time to time. While we did encounter many local people and had the privilege of witnessing their daily lives, and we did take a few solitary steps, there were, in fact, many other western Trekkers seeking the same experience as we were (of course!). It actually proved enjoyable to confer with some of them along the way, sharing stories and travel experiences (while sneaking a break from the sometimes gruelling work of trekking). Another misconception I entertained was that we would find ourselves eating every meal of dal and rice – sitting in a circle on the floor in some mountain people’s home, and that sleep would be on a mat on the same family’s dirt floor. Actually, we got to order our food from a menu at a guesthouse each meal, and sleep in an austere but private room. Another area in which I was greatly mistaken is the actual terrain. For some reason I was picturing open hillsides and wilderness with little growth, ice capped mountains towering beyond. In fact there was a lot of forested area, including an entire two days of meandering through a glorious rhododendron forest, trees towering as tall as forty feet high and blossoms radiant with colour! Another surprise was the almost constant development to be found along the way – homes, barns & gardens (terraced) of Indigenous people, guesthouses catering mostly to Trekkers, small provisional stores or craftspeople & farmers with their products arrayed for the viewing and purchasing pleasure of passersby. Sadly, another factor of which I have already spoken, the vision of pristine views and sparkling clean air was shattered by the daily haze of smoke and smog which blankets the Himalayas. The final surprise was the seemingly endless winding stone stairs. For days we climbed both up and down these stepped paths. I was awed that most of these stairways and paths were ancient; people had built them centuries ago in order to carve out a life of farming and foraging from this mountainous land. What incredibly tough people! Karna, our guide and information man, told me that although the average life span in Nepal is about 65 years, indigenous people in these mountains tended to live much longer. I can easily believe this with the constant cardio workout and natural diet lacking processed junk foods consumed by these mountain people.

 

 

 

As Day Two progressed, and afternoon waned, the sky darkened with clouds and gusts of wind slapped at our cheeks. Exhaustion dragged at us as we lifted our bodies ever higher. The first sprinkles brought out our rain protection as we soldiered onwards, stairs stretching and winding upwards forever it seemed. Rubbing a slight tarnish to our buoyant spirits – why hadn’t we found a way to keep up our exercise routines and stay a tad more fit while travelling these past six months – we were anxious for the work of trekking to be done. Just when I thought I couldn’t lift myself up another stair, a sign welcoming us to Ghorepani loomed large ahead. Oh yes! The sky opened at about the same time; icy, biting raindrops splashed over us and I somewhere found the energy to gallop to the top of the stairs where our guesthouse awaited us (or did I just imagine I was galloping?).

Rudra our ever faithful porter, had gone ahead and prepared our top floor room for us, bathroom and hot shower included (!). As we entered, the panorama of snow packed mountains that lambasted us through massive windows rendered me speechless. Were we at the Planetarium having a virtual viewing experience or was this real? After drinking in my fill of the splendid vista, I collapsed onto the bed, staring in wonder at the rapidly forming icicles that dripped from our eaves. My breath puffed from my mouth in steamy clouds. I swore I could not climb those stairs again – such was my exhaustion – however both hunger and cold eventually drove me down to the warmth of the dining room where a wood stove in the shape of an oil barrel radiated and glowed in a friendly way in the centre of the room. Starving from calorie burning activity, I reverted to my standard craving for carbs, and guess what – pasta was on the menu! Who thought, in Nepal? As I hungrily dug into my first mouthful, it was all I could do to force myself to swallow the saccharine sweet, candy-like glob of congealed muck that lay upon my pallet. I really should have known better. This was far from my first experience of disappointment with Asian versions of western food. I picked at what I could, worried about offending the cooks and went to bed thoroughly unsatisfied. Oddly, being so depleted, I still found myself starkly wakeful yet another night.

When the knock on our door came at 5 a.m., I dragged my clothing on and grabbed my hiking poles. This was the morning to witness the sun rise resplendently over the mountain peaks from Poon Hill, the highest point on our route. I first attributed my sluggishness to lack of sleep and food as I forced my body up the steps behind the others. Kind Rudra, minus his porter’s load, stayed beside me and, seeing my difficulty, offered to carry my small pack. Glimpsing the others in the darkness above, I laboured upward. At some point I realized that this complete absence of bones I was experiencing, the barely resistible urge to lay down on a cold stone stair and drift happily off to sleep, this dizziness, shortness of breath and emerging nausea – it just had to be more than simple lack of sleep and nourishment. Could I be experiencing altitude sickness? I had been reassured that this would not be a concern on this route so it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. Discussion with the expert (Karna) ascertained that this was the most likely explanation for my malaise. In the daylight that had broken meanwhile, it was clear that there would be no view at Poon Hill due to overcast (and smoggy) skies. It was decided that climbing on to the summit was unnecessary. After slowly making our way to the tower at the halfway point, we returned down to Ghoripani.

After a scant breakfast due to my lingering sensations of altitude sickness, I had a powwow with our guide, Karna, and he laid out the options. Continuing on meant climbing yet higher before descending, not a recommended course of action when altitude sickness symptoms are present, yet he claimed it to be a possibility if one went ‘slowly, slowly’, a phrase we’d been hearing from the outset of the trek. Other choices involved heading back the way we came – downhill, or spending a day acclimatizing at Ghoripani before going on. The very mention of going back brought a lump to my throat and the threat of uncontrollable tears. Ruin everyone’s trek? Never! The layover day option did not suit my impatient nature. So we agreed to forge onward – slowly, slowly – and see how it went. It turned out that ‘slowly, slowly’ was just the ticket, and, while dizzy at times, my body rallied and I enjoyed another day of spectacular scenes of nature and culture. A large part of our trek this day three was through the aforementioned rhododendron forest – spectacular! We reached the (new) highest point without mishap and I declared my victory over the mountain with a photo op.

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A stretch of rugged hiking remained in Day Three’s route, so onward we forged – up, up, up then down down, down and then again some more of that. While my little crisis seemed to have been overcome, we had not anticipated the wear and tear those long downhill stretches would take on Aaron’s fairly new knee replacement. Arriving at Bhanthanti (10,700′) for a late lunch, those knees desperately needed a rest. Though the decision to stay or go was with Aaron this time, I did a silent happy dance in my head when he chose to stop overnight rather than continue to our scheduled point. I was beat! Besides, at this guesthouse, a pony lived under the restaurant; we could see her through cracks in the floor, smell her horsey aroma and hear her neighing. Who wouldn’t want to stay at such digs? Truthfully, I was so done in that I climbed into bed fully clothed, unshowered, intending to rest just a few minutes. I did not rise again (no dinner, an unheard of phenomenon in my world) until morning. Now this is not to say I slept. Unbelievably, I was still – after several virtually sleepless nights – unable to fall into a good slumber. Exercise, fresh air – isn’t that the recipe mom always gave as a sure-fire insomnia remedy? To top these conditions off, a new health concern had arisen after lunch in the pony cafe. Poor, poor Aaron! Rushing outside every half hour to vomit, he slept not a wink either. Seems something he ate at the Tranquility Inn did not agree with him and he was not feeling so tranquil.

We arose the next morning, Day Four – haggard, stinking, throbbing with pain – and were a sorry, pathetic company that set off trekking that day. I don’t know what our guide and Sherpa were thinking at that point – perhaps some phrases that would include ‘old geezers’ and rolled eyes had they been thinking in English. At least I didn’t have to get dressed before setting off, having slept fully clothed from the previous day. It seemed truly miraculous that Aaron trekked at all that day after the night he spent. I have no doubt that each nausea inducing step took every ounce of his will to execute. I know that when we arrived a couple of hours later at the previous day’s destination, Tadapani, and mountain vistas that were absolutely to die for, he – quintessential photographer, naturalist and mountain lover – lay his head down on his arms and moaned softly, deliriously for the hour or so we spent there. And did I see his lip tremble slightly when Karna announced it was time to set off again? I’m pretty sure I did.

 

 

Somehow we got through that day – it was gruelling for both of us though downhill most of the way, we plodded along. We arrived at Ghandruk, a hillside village overlooking terraced gardens and pastoral valleys. A hot shower would have been welcome but alas there’d been no sun that day so the solar power that heated water was not to be. We satisfied ourselves with a light wash, light dinner and bed.

 

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I slept! Finally I slept. Upon arising on Day Five of our trek, mostly recovered from our collective litany of woes, we both felt like a million bucks, bright and ready to seize the Trekkers life with a vengeance again. We set off for the short hike to Nayapul, a skip in our step, a song under our breaths. We had survived the worst and were into our final day of trekking. Arrival at Nayapul found us questioning that assertion a few times on the harrowing taxi ride down the dirt mountain track. Views over the cliffs were dizzying and I found myself wondering about the maintenance of this cranky old taxi, especially the brakes.

Nonetheless, we arrived safely to Pokhara and, though it seemed like weeks since we had set out on our ‘little’ trek, – I felt satisfied that we had gone, we had seen and we had conquered, with the help of our guide and porter. And – though some might be inclined to think I just described the trek from hell – well, I prefer to think of it as a great metaphor for life:                                   We plan with specific expectations – The actuality pretty much never turns out as we had envisioned – Our lives are enriched.

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The Prajapati Family, Bhaktapur, Nepal

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While staying at Bodhnath, a large Tibetan community near Kathmandu, Nepal, we hired a taxi to go to nearby Bhaktapur and were taking the day to explore the ancient village. It had been badly hit by the earthquake eleven months previous, and the devastation was in clear evidence, yet the charm of the village and resilience of its inhabitants was as resoundingly evident. Without the air of desperation that can be so redolent in some local shopkeepers, taxis, etc, wishing to earn a few rupees that day, the merchants of Bhaktapur made it clear they were open for business despite this major setback. The attitude seemed to be that their culture had a lot to offer us westerners and it would be our privilege to accept the offer. I appreciated this perspective.

 

We were ambling along, debating which narrow stone path would lead us to Pottery Square, when a young girl walking in the same direction struck up a conversation with us. She was wearing a crisp blue and white school uniform, as was her younger brother, and I presumed they were returning home at the end of a school day. In very clear English, she asked where we were from, how long we were staying and if we liked Nepal. She introduced herself and her brother, Purnima and Yaman, asking for our names in return. When she learned that we were headed to Pottery Square, with a confident air she offered to lead us there and invited us to visit her family’s home. So off we went following the children, myself thinking once again how very very different things are in Asia than in the western world. The innocence of children initiating conversation with strangers and leading them to their home? An unlikely scenario back home.


When we arrived at their home/shop, a small brick enclosure with shelves of pottery items on display, the children’s mother was waiting with a warm smile, surprised but clearly pleased to see tourists in tow. Did I detect a look of pride directed towards Purnima? The mother, Larimi Keshari, set to making tea while, Purnima and Yaman went to change clothes. Their father, Binod appeared from the back room and introduced himself, clearing a space and gesturing for us to sit on short stools. I was delighted at this warm welcome as I had so many questions swirling around in my brain. How had the earthquake affected them? Binod looked up, gesturing with his hands upward and replied, “Before earthquake? My home is six floors high. Now – this.” It was a one level brick hut with shop in front and living quarters in back. Binod told us that each family member had had their own floor before the earthquake, now they all live in the one room behind the shop. He smiled and shrugged with resignation. “It will take time,” he told us. Although there is government money promised for rebuilding, none has come yet and it will not be enough to replace what was there. When asked about the day of the earthquake, Binod told us that he and his daughter were alone in the shop when the earth began trembling. They ran away and were massively relieved to find that all four in the family had survived unscathed. Only their home was razed to the ground, leaving a dusty pile of broken bricks. Their home and shop had been rebuilt in the small footprint of the original six floor building.

 


Binod embarked upon a lengthy explanation of the pottery making process, showing us the manual pottery wheel that he had devised for times without power. It was made from a vehicle wheel, and spun with a wooden stick. Yaman, though shy and silent, stayed near his father and assisted eagerly in demonstrating use of the manual wheel. An interesting side fact that we discovered about present day Nepal: The country does not produce enough electric power for 24 hour use, therefore the electricity is turned off for 13 hours of each day, during different hours each day (leaving minimal essential power, ie. bathroom light). We never did quite get used to this, but had to accept that our various electronic devices would not always be available for use. Not so bad for us, but for those who use power for their livelihood, this could prove very challenging. From different local sources we heard that the government is working on deals with the Chinese and Indian governments to increase availability of electric power, there being an apparent ‘power’ struggle between the two countries to have influence in the struggling Nepal.

 


Having been curious about the hair style of some Nepali men, in which one lock of long hair is left at the back, I had to ask Binod about this. He shared that it is a Hindu custom, tied in with religious beliefs, and that all the men and boys have their hair cut into this style together during a ceremony and that it is a very expensive process. He and Yaman graciously posed for a photo displaying their hair.

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We were more than happy to buy a few pottery items from this hard working, optimistic family and publish their address and phone number for future travellers to Bhaktapur. The Prajapatis reinforced for me yet again the amazing fact that has been demonstrated to me across my seven month travels in Asia – that, despite tremendous hardship, even tragedy, the human spirit to survive and thrive, to be happy with their present day world, to be grateful for their loved ones – that this is the predominant force which reigns in their lives, rather than the tragedy that altered their world in such enormous ways.

Larimi Keshari, Binod, Purnima and Yaman Prajapati can be found at:
Pottery Square
Tanaka, Bolachhen – 12
Bhaktapur, Nepal
Telephone: 6614975
Mobile: 9841432613

 

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