Wow. I’m writing less than half an hour before a taxi comes to pick me up and take me to the airport. To go home. As in away from India. Weird, but also very exciting.

My last day in Delhi/India also held a great experience worth sharing.

While burning time in Agra before catching my train a few days ago, I was mulling over what Delhi sights I wanted to see when I came across a note to myself (written with a handy four color bic pen) back in January that I should take a cooking class recommended by the Lonely Planet. I called the place up on a whim (Parul Pari’s Cooking Studio) have expecting the number to be out of date. To my luck, Parul answered and booked me in for a class on Monday morning.

An agonizing trip involving both auto and bike rickshaws, multiple sets of directions, and a friendly neighbors cell phone finally brought me to the South Delhi suburb of Junkurai Extension. Here’s where the Bourgeouis comes in.

All other encounters with ‘upper classes’ were paled by my impression of this upscale residential district. It reminded me of the expat community LWIG and I came across in Ghana while doing some project research. Completely gated houses and apartments. Enormous lush, green trees. Fancy cars lining the empty roadways (no honking to be heard). And only the occasional glassed in shop front.

Since I was already late for the class, I rushed right inside to meet my teacher, a fellow by the name of Lelath (who I would peg at about 27 years old). I soon learned that he had been cooking since the age of 12, and was aspiring to open his own cooking scho0l after saving enough money. While he proceeded to make final preparations for our class, I sat in the lobby of the chic guesthouse and observed some (very beautiful) Indian girls about my age getting ready to go do some sightseeing.

I was kind of zoned out, but suddenly came to my senses when I heard them conversing in what appeared to be British english accents. I glanced over at them fumbling out of their room, and, dressed to the nines in fashionable saris, there was no doubt that this was their first (and best) language. Interesting! I wonder if they were educated in Britain, and how long they came back to India for? I didn’t have a chance to chat with them before entering my cooking session, but it was a fascinating observation.

The class wasn’t really me doing TOO much. (Mostly observing Lelath’s excellent cooking skills). However, I did learn how to make a delicious aloo gobi (potato cauliflower curry), tomato dal, parantha (whole wheat stuffed flat bread), paneer roll, and chapati. Nothing was near as difficult as I expected, and thus, I’m excited to bring a ‘taste of India’ back to you all at home.

Definitely a fun experience for my last day in the country, and I’m happy I was able to observe another element of the ‘new India’ culture.

Now, I’m off to catch my train to Germany. I will promise one last (and more conclusive) post once I arrive home. See you all soon!

Riding the Metro

April 5, 2009

My return to Delhi has been high and above my first, somewhat shell-shocked, introduction to the city. Upon arriving late last night, I easily found a (nice) guesthouse with zero issues. Was it some unmeasurable travel ‘ability’ that I acquired? Or maybe, more likely, the “touts-people” could sense a bit more confidence in knowing where I was going, and what I was doing.

Today, I had two goals in mind (one slightly more interesting than the other):

  1. Go to the main Delhi tourist attraction, the Red Fort.
  2. Complete a “culinary tour” of old Delhi that I read about the previous night in the Globe and Mail travel section. (It was pretty much identical to what was in my Lonely Planet, but I still felt rather lofty completing the suggestions of Globe travel writers in Canada after less than 24 hours).

Now, shockingly, my highlight from the day was neither of them!

After a bit of ambling arould near my guest house and the New Delhi train station, I found the New Delhi “metro” station which I figured could get me quite close to the Red Fort. What I found was a public transportation experience unlike anything I expected.

I walked down two wide open sets of stairs to reach a beautifully clean marble clad ticket area, that could have fit just as well in a glitzy North American airport. There were few people loitering around, and I quickly found my way to the clearly labelled signage; finding the exact fair I needed to pay, and route I needed to go. Purchasing a token was a breeze (from a person, not like one of the perpetually broken machines in NYC), and before entering into the “station” area, both me and my bag underwent a complete security check (metal detector and x-ray). Talk about confidence in security!

The subway ride itself was more comfortable than any other I have been on. Aside from the silence in the train, all you could hear was the clear english voice describing what stop was next before reinforcing some of the Delhi Transit “rules”.

“No listening to music on the train. No eating. No sitting on the floor. No bothering other passengers.”

I was pretty blown away. Apart from the sad transit system in Calgary, I’ve been fortunate enough to use the subways in Montreal, Toronto, Washington, New York City, and Boston—and this is far and away the best. As I emerged near the Red Fort, I was brimming with questions:

Did all classes of Delhi residents use the train? Why wasn’t it more busy? How did they keep it so clean? Had it been more haphazard to start with, and that is why they implemented so many rules?

During a great chat with a few guys my age in the beautiful Red Fort courtyard, as well as my subsequent trip home, I came to find out a few things:

  • It’s mostly the upper class commuting in from the suburbs who use the metro.
  • It was only non-crowded because I took it mid morning on Sunday. (When I rode home at around 3:30, it was packed with people).
  • The efficient train design is taken from either South Korea or Japan (they didn’t know which one).

And so my enthrallment with public infrastructure continues, and now I’m greedy to know about the plans for Metros in other Indian urban centers. Costs versus benefits? Not sure, but even though they didn’t use it, the two guys were surely proud of it.

After making fun of me for not knowing their favorite Cricket and Bollywood stars, they responded to my election inquiry by indicating that they definitely thought the Congress was going to win.

“Of course they’ll win. They built the Metro for Delhi!”

The Infamous Taj

April 4, 2009

I truly saved the best for last, both in my journey through the sub-continent, as well as my three day stint in Agra. This morning I woke at 5:00 am to witness the sunrise at one of the word’s most famous architecture sites, the Taj Mahal.

Despite all of the photos and flowery descriptions I was plowed with beforehand, I truly found it an awe-inspiring experience.

As you can see from my vague allusion above, I’m in the last days of what has been a phenomenal journey. I won’t float you with my usual pontificating consideration, but I will state that the end leg of any period of time is really exceptional for the clarification it brings. For me, the excitement of heading out to Vancouver for new work, living, and involvement has provided a good basis for goal setting. More relevant, however, are the conclusions (or simplifications) I’ve reached on some of the enduring topics of travel.

As I was walking through Agra Fort yesterday, one of these realizations hit me abruptly. It is striking how differently people can explore the endless forts, palaces, temples, and tombs in India.

Maybe a visitor will:

  • Take in the curves, shapes, and colors of the architecture; and relate it to their own perception of beauty.
  • Imagine the monument as it was historically. Soldiers wandering through forts. Kings holding conference with foreign visitors. Peasants worshipping at temples.
  • Consider the relevance of the historical site to the modern India, and how it plays into the ever-evolving culture.

There’s more, I’m sure, but these are the main ‘lenses’ I have found myself looking through. I might lean toward one or the other depending on what mood I’m in, but hopefully consider all of them at a particular place.

And I’m happy to report that I did this morning while touring the Taj with an old friend from high school/university.

The symmetry of the buidling is breathtakingly remarkable. First, in the sheer size of the tomb, minarets (large cylindrical tower), mosque, and jawab (fake mosque built specifically for the purpose of symmetry). However, as you move closer, it is difficult not to be taken with symmetry imposed with every last carving and embedded stone. These small and large scale details in symmetry are a major component to the Taj’s beauty.

Being with another engineer (and a geological one at that), we couldn’t help but stand in wonder of the construction process of the building. Built entirely of white marble, the Taj Mahal took 22 years to build! In a similar manner to my awe at the Mehrangar fort in Jodhpur, I could simply not even imagine the man, horse, and elephant power accompanying extreme artistic ability and ingenuity to put the entire structure together.

How were the detailed carvings placed so perfectly inside each of the complex domes? How did they find the artisans to carve each piece of marble with such immaculate detail?

The tomb (yes, it is just a tomb) was built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The demonstrations of extravagance by these (fairly) recent Indian rulers should cease to surprise me by now, but I still can’t help but remain critical of the massive capital dedicated to these structures at the time.

Did the emperors not feel a sense of guilt at their affluence, especially in comparison to the toiling peasants around them? I suppose that’s my harshly western bias jumping in to judge, but I must be honest in stating my critique.

The entire visit took just over two hours, but is a memory that, I think, will sit with me for quite some time. I head back to Delhi this afternoon where I will take in a few sights missed last time around before jumping on my plane ride home.

A Walk Along the Ghats

April 1, 2009

After emerging from the Shanti Guesthouse, it is a short five minute walk down to the first of many ghats (stairway down to water) along the holy river Ganga. (It is usually spelt Ganges, but most people here pronounce it as the former).

The first ghat you encounter is also arguably the most striking. The burning ghat of Manikarnika. You’re overwhelmed with the smell of smoke and the heat from many burning fires on top of the already overwhelming temperatures. (30 degrees plus). When you emerge from the buildings surrounding the ghat, you see dozens of men, young and old, sitting peacefully along the steps watching these burning fires.

It doesn’t take you long to realize that the fires are in fact burning bodies, and a local Indian will soon explain to you the subtleties of the cremations taking place. Young men are burnt in white cloth, young women in red, and elderly (above 60) in gold. I saw two white clothed bodies and one red. The spookiness of this setting is paradoxically set against extremely loud, blaring music. (Which could as likely be heard from a New Delhi dance bar). Perhaps this represents the complex set of emotions family members face. Mourning in their farewell bid to loved ones. Happiness in setting them on to moksha (escape from the eternal cycle of rebirth). Interestingly, women are not allowed around this ghat for fear of throwing themself on the burning pyres (a traditional Hindu practice called sati).

Despite the loud music and spiritual setting, you soon encounter numerous boat drivers looking to take you on a ride down the ghats, or young men looking to sell various illegal substances.

The next major sight you pass is a huge boat loading ghat for Indian pilgrims. Each boat contains at least thirty people, and is manned by both a set a paddlers as well as a tour guide to explain all the different places along the Ganga. To your right, you become somewhat transfixed with an endless collage of painted advertisements for various restaurants, guesthouses, silk shops, cafes, and book stores. However, you are brought to attention as yet another boatman offers a ride.

“Special non-tourist price. Only 100 rupees for one hour!”

If you’re walking in the evening, you’ll now pass a series of boys enthralled in various stages of cricket games. Careful! You don’t want to be hit by a flying ball. Day or night, the water now becomes much more populated with Hindus of all castes bathing themselves in the water.

Just like the bathing pilgrims, the holy saddhus (religious ascetics on their wandering journey to enlightenment) become equally more populous. They are most often dressed in orange robes with long hair (either dirty or in dreadlocks), big beards, and bare feet. In observing them, there seems to be a bit of a high-school culture mixed in with the respectful life of worship. In the evening you will see groups of the orange saddhus sharing laughs or, occasionally, getting into a bitchy confrontation with one another. Sometimes, they will ask you for money as you putter by, which is, of course, good karma.

You will now reach the main ghat, which, day or night, also happens to be the most colorful. A Hindu temple sits adjacent to the water, where you will hear a perpetual medley of drums, bells, and chanting. Outside, numerous tables offer flowers, candles, and jewellery to offer the deities within. In addition to the vibrancy, you are introduced to a new echelon of touts. Men dressed in white approach you with a friendly (though rather awkward) offer to shake your hand. If you oblige, you will note their physical hand strength as they offer you a head massage, neck massage, or shoulder massage.

“Good Deal for neck massage! Ten Rupees only!”

I was somewhat in disbelief when I saw a near naked white tourist being rubbed down by one of these massage-wallahs in the early evening hours. This time also happened to correspond with an important worship period at the ghat, and thus there were at least 400 people gathered not 20 meters away from him. Simply bizarre.

Once you pass by the children offering post cards, the temple, and many tables with cold drinks for sale, you will observe the most dense population of bathing pilgrims of the entire length of the ghats. The men just go in their underwear, but the women bathe in their beautifully colorful saris–creating quite the visual impression. When they’re not bathing, families gather underneath broad unbrellas supported by thick stocks of bamboo. If you mingle in this busy area for little more than a few minutes, you’re sure to find some wonderful conversation. I tend to attract the guys about my age in the midst of university. Talking to peers in this sense is fascinating, and brings a further incite into the terrifically complex tapestry of ‘Modern India’.

Once you make it out of the busyness, you’re guaranteed to be dripping with sweat unless it’s the early morning or night. Hence, the holy water doesn’t really look that dirty, and you might even be tempted to go for a dip.

Further along is the cloth washing ghat. Ten to fifteen men slap their shirts, trousers, sheets, and saris with all their might before being laid to try across the steps. What another colorful sight!

Before discovering the hangout of the local cows and water buffalo, you pass by another burning ghat (this time without the DJ) and the bathing ghat for southern Indians. The activities of the animals is quite amusing, and as they aimlessly swam about in the water, or hurriedly rush up to meet each other, they might remind you of a pet from home.

The last encounter you might make before turning back is a series of young girls selling candle flowers to set out on the Ganga. (Another guarantee for good karma). Their intelligence certainly charmed me, and the chattiest one, Babbita, demonstrated her knowledge by first asking for a “loonie or toonie”, and then reciting the (correct) conversion rate for the Canadian dollar. A successful bargain on their part.

The Kayaking Adventure

March 30, 2009

Last week, I enjoyed one of the true highlights of my entire trip. Cian and Jess (my two friends from the Annapurna Circuit) and I embarked on a four day kayaking clinic organized by a brilliantly run company called Paddle Nepal. We started for a day of learning on the Phewa Lake in Pokhara, and then took three days to make our way down the Lower Seti river towards Chitwan National Park. Every day was the perfect mixture of challenge, exercise, amazing views, inciteful conversations, delicious food, and thrilling white water rapids!

Here are a few photos from the trip:

Unloading the gear from the bus at our river put in point.

Gear Unloaded from the Bus

Launching into the river! (Our two instructors, Ron and Suresh)

Getting ready to launch in!

The view from where we stopped for lunch.

Where we stopped for lunch

Our campsite was pure luxury. (Or at least it felt like it). These candles lit up the way from the tents to the toilets and the eating area–it looked pretty amazing.

Candles Lighting Up Our Camp Site

One of many falls following an exciting series of rapids. (I wish I could tell you I flawlessly rolled up from this one, but alas, I had to be rescued).

Falling after some rapids.

Jess standing up after we banded together in some of the still water.

Standing up on the kayaks in still water

Cian pulling some expert moves after one of the more difficult rapids.\

Cian coming out of the rapids.

Our instructor, Suresh, doing some wild moves on one of the eddies just after a rapid.

Suresh doing tricks in the rapids.

Here’s me getting pulled along after a particularly harsh fall in the rapids. (It’s kind of like learning snowboarding–there’s lots of bumps and bruises).

Me getting pulled in a rescue.

This time I get to show some success–here’s me performing a roll just outside where we stopped the second evening.

Me performing a successful roll

The view from our second campsite.

View from the campsite on the second night

And here’s two shots of me successfully coming out of the rapids.

Coming out of the rapids

Happily exiting a difficult rapid

And finally, a view of everyone on the water.

Everyone on the water

It was a thrilling time to say this least, and I must admit that I think I’m hooked. Luckily, I think BC offers a wide assortment of opportunities to take on some more river kayaking once I’m back in Canada!

Miserable Mountaineering

March 26, 2009

Reader Beware: Rather biased diatribe contained herein. Avid mountaineers would do best not to read this entry.

In an effort to minimize the size of my backpack for the trek, I opted to take only one book–which I was already halfway done. Bad decision? Perhaps, but I was optimistic at the time that dense material and little reading time would have it work out perfectly.

Consequently, I finished The Beautiful Mind after about a week, and was itching to trade in for a new one upon reaching Manang. This book, by the way, was excellent. A superbly written and well researched glimpse not only into a schizophrenic life and the challenges it invokes, but also the realm of mathematic academia in the 20s to 30s–a thriving time period of study I was never aware of!

In any case, after evaluating the rather dismal choices at the village book store trade shops, I was left with a fairly easy decision. As much as I wanted to grab one of the nine Clive Cussler/Tom Clancy/Danielle Steel paperpacks, I managed to hold myself back. The only other choices was a startling selection of literature on Scientology or a well read copy of ‘Annapurna: The First 8000 m’ descent. Since I was in the Annpurna region, what a perfect book to read, right?


Aside from the novel interest of reading about places I was passing through, I found the book eye opening in the worst kind of way possible. Oh, and it was extremely poorly written.

My apologies to all mountaineers out there, but this book left me absoultely despising the sport and all its history. Here’s why:

Picture France in 1950. They’ve just come out of a (rather devastating) World War. (The Second one in about forty years). Their economy, infrastructure, and basic social ammenities need major support. The perfect time to send eight French men on a costly mountaineering expedition to a very poor foreign country with the goal of climbing the world’s first 8000 m peak.

I’ll admit, I don’t know whether or not the funding for the expedition came from the French government, but I can guarantee that the trip was immensely costly.

Upon arrival in India, they made their way with a train full (literally) of equipment to the Nepal border, where they begun the trek up to the Annpurna region. This was also where they began employing hundreds (again literally) of “coolies” whose sole purpose was to carry their climbing gear.

For two months, they dawdled between Daulagiri and Annapurna trying to decide what mountain to attempt, what route to take, and how to do it, before actually beginning the ascent. Without the modern equipment available today, this was by all measures considered, an ENORMOUS risk. The temperature, altitude, landscape around both peaks, and lack of oxygen tanks created a situation where success had a frightful probability. Yet, considering these odds stacked against them, the team not only put themselves and the money invested into them at risk, but also the many Nepalese lives they were employing.

So was this courageous heroism? A brave group of men ready to do what no one else had done before? I guess you might be able to think of it like that. But to me, this was utterly stupid, and further, very selfish. These men had families at home requiring their support, and yet they sacrificed EVERYTHING for the thrill of climbing higher than anyone else.

I am a rather risk averse person, but I would be curious to hear an argument as to why climbing up the mountain was a wise decision. Nationalistic pride? Creating of national role models for French youth? ..Maybe?

*Spoiler Alert*

In any case, only two of the entire team made it to the peak of the mountain, and due to their rushfulness and lack of consideration of the monsoon, both ended up with amputated fingers and toes. A great deal of equipment was left on the mountain (environmental damage and lost money from the expedition). Though the non-attentive attitude toward their Nepalese support team did not mention any Nepalase injuries or deaths, I wouldn’t hesitated to assume that they very much occurred.

The story was pretty agravating up to this point, but it wasn’t until the next juicy little kicker that I got really disgusted.

As the expedition descended from the Annapurna region, it was entering into the monsoon season–perhaps the most important time of year for Nepalese farmers. On their range of endless terraces, preparations must proceed rapidly for the rice planting.

Hence, many less Nepalese men were available to haul around all the heavy equipment used in the expedition. The solution?

Kidnap them.

I’m not kidding. Maurice Herzog (the expedition leader) passively describes the inconvenience of the Nepalise not being available to haul their equipment out, and the requirement of forcing them into their party. He complains at the delay this causes, and tries a bit of guilt ridding by arguing that the ‘coolies’ were really angry at first, but after they walked with them for a few hours, they had a smile on their face. Even more, though the ‘coolies’ were escaping at night to return back to their villages, they continued to forcefully abduct more unknowing villagers.

How could these men, fifty years ago, lack such basic critical thinking skills and human empathy? For two months they witnessed the adverse conditions these people struggled through all year long, and yet felt compelled to kidnap them for the non-urgent job of getting their equipment out of the country.

And all for what purpose? Back to my pontification from above–national pride? Personal pride? The sheer thrill of doing it?

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around how this all happened, and am curious to do a bit more research about other mountaineering expeditions at the time. What was the logic behind all of it? Was nationalism in international politics really that powerful so as to literally race up the highest mountains of the world?

Finally, I realize that this is woefully hypocritical to pass such judgement after spending the past four weeks completing ‘thrill activities’ with no other goal than the personal satisfaction they brought me. Guilty as charged. I will argue, however, that the conditions surrounding my visit to Nepal were quite a bit different than Maurice’s and the Annapurna expedition in 1950.

Give it some thought, I’d be interested to know what you think.

Tatopani was the site of our last ‘rest’ day on the Annapurna trek. Not only was it home to luxurious hot springs for our aching limbs, but it also had one of the best guest houses of the entire hike. We indulged in lasange, pizza, and beer. Outside of the reading, relaxation, and eating, I found some time to wander about the town–where I met Chimla, a beautiful Tibetan craft seller.

I stepped into her shop vaguely interested in buying some jewellery as presents for family and friends. The store was initially empty when I walked inside, but after a moment, a lady rushed in to greet me with a cheery ‘Namaste’. I mumbled back a Namaste in response, expecting I was about to hear a sales pitch on the various bits of jewellery on display.

Instead, she surprised me by ignoring the display of handicrafts, moving back to a dusty seat behind her small counter, and initiating friendly conversation with me before inviting me to sit on a stool in front of the counter.

Following her initial inquiry into my home country, she delved into a description of her family living abroad. She explained that her parents were living in Toronto, her Aunt in New York City, a Uncle in London, and some cousins who had moved about to various parts of Canada, the states, and Europe. She then offered that she was waiting on the details of her Canadian visa before moving over to be with her parents.

If she noticed I was taken aback by all this information, she didn’t show it, and immediately started asking me questions about Canada. What part are you from? Do you know Toronto? Do you like it? What about Montreal? Canada is really big, isn’t it?

In answering her queries, I got my brain back in gear, and began to think of my own questions for her. Why was her family all leaving Nepal? Did they miss it? Would she miss being in Tatopani when whe left?

Chimla explained to me that she wasn’t in fact from Nepal, but was a Tibetan refugee living here. She described how her family had more freedom to live by their Buddhist beliefs and values, operate their handicraft shop, and be free of fear living in Nepal than in Tibet. However, even life in Nepal was quite difficult–especially with the new Maoist government. Thus, her parents decision to move to Canada. She was left to take care of the shop as well as her younger brother and sister.

Despite how odd it might seem, this was my first real encounter with a Tibetan person, and the way she non-chalantly discussed the difficulty in simply living in her home region really jolted me. How was I so unaware of this cultural presence in Nepal so close to the Tibetan region? Clearly, this stimulated a deep curiosity, which hasn’t really ceased since this encounter.

How big is Tibetan emmigration? Where are the largest Tibet immigration regions? Have they built monasteries for worship in North America and Europe?

Our conversation concluded around the topic of the Tibetan New Year celebration which was quite close to the time when I met her. This year, it was intended not to be celebrated as sort of demonstration against the Chinese rule. She told me that apparently the Chinese gave various Tibetan people all sorts of food and celebratory items to overpower the ‘holiday avoidance’. However, when Tibetan people began celebrating, they were jailed and killed!

I’m not sure about the accuracy of what she described to me–but it piqued my interest nonetheless, and provided a fascinating glimpse into the culture of Tibetans in Nepal. Definitely something to learn more about.

So I thought it would be appropriate to share a little bit of the eye-candy I got to experience on my trek. Three cheers for looking, and not reading, right?

Day 2: Kude – Syang. Here’s an example of some of the impressively terraced fields we saw all along the trek, but particularly prominent at the lower elevations.

The terraced hillside in the lower Annapurna

Day 3: Syang – Tal. A few porters stopping for a rest in Tal. Their luggage? Just a few live chickens.

One of the many that we saw

One of the many that we saw

Day 4: Tal – Chame. A clear view of one of the lower mountain massifs.

The Tremendous mountains onlooking settled valleys

Day 4: Tal-Chame. Some snow capped peaks to reward a long day of trekking.

Snow capped peaks

Day 5: Chame – Upper Pisang. Definitely one of my favorite days on the trail. We had clear views all day long, brilliant weather, and it was our first close up gander with the Annpurna range.

The Annapurna Peaks coming into full view

Day 6: Upper Pisang – Ngawal. These rustic villages felt like they were from the 1500s, but were filled with the most friendly and hospitable people on the trek.

The Ancient Looking town of Ngawal

Day 5: Chame – Upper Pisang. A beautiful sunset.

Sunset from Upper Pisang

Day 7: Ngawal Rest Day. Perhaps the best views of the entire trek from our acclimatization trip up the hill. This is Annapurna II.

Up on the mountain top near Ngawal

Day 8: Ngawal – Manang. A clear view across the lake by Manang towards the pass we would soon be crossing. (YIKES!)

View over the lake in ManangDay 11: Throng Phedi – Muktinath. An early morning (6:30 am) to make it up (1000 m) over the pass and down (1700 m) to the new region of Mustang.

Nearing the Throng LaDay 11: Throng Phedi – Muktinath. Success! Made it to the top.

At the long awaited Throng-La Pass (5400 m up!)

At the long awaited Throng-La Pass (5400 m up!)

Day 14: Jomsom – Marpha. Some interesting piles of wood we saw all over the people’s houses set out to dry.

Wood drying on roofs in Marhpa

Day 14: Jomsom-Marpha. As the sunset came in, so did the smoke–leading to some rather unspectacular views for the remainder of the trek.

A view of the encroaching farm field burning smoke.

A view of the encroaching farm field burning smoke.

As I mentioned before, one of my favorite memories from the trail were the interesting conversations I was able to have. Unfortunately, these weren’t as plentiful as I would have liked, but I will do my best to describe the conversations of two particularly interesting Nepalis. Here’s the first.

Embarrassingly, I did not write down this inciteful man’s name–but his comments and reflections have resonated with me long after forgetting his name. (For ease of reference, I will refer to him as Camrat).

Raised in the lower hill region of Chitwan (right in between Pokhara and Kathmandu, but about 30 km southward), this fortunate fellow was able to attend university in Kathmandu. Similar, in a sense, to my own experience of going away to university, that’s also about where anys similarities end. Even a middle class person in Nepal faces grossly more challenge than a westerner, or even a similar person in India.

What makes this so? (From my rather non-sensible, Lonely Planet informed, traveler perspective):

  • An economy that retains agriculture as it’s backbone, but without the infrastructure to support livelhood improvement for 80% of the country’s population who are farmers.
  • An unstable government faced with changing political power on an almost yearly basis only matched by the unhappy citizens who augment the instability with frequent strikes and demonstrations. (My border crossing adventure a case in point).
  • Landlocked in the highest region of the world. Certainly there are a few resource benefits of being close to the Himalayan range–however, in many ways it seems the challenges are much more. The difficulty of laying a road, power line, or water pipe are made many times more complex in the strenuous region where the population has settled.

I digress.

Camrat studied commerce in Kathmandu, and soon after worked in a bank for three years within the city. Though he found this job interesting, and was rapidly promoted to a managerial position, he recently took a job at a telecommunications company close to home. He is liking the job and learning about a new form of business, but is itching to find a place back in the banking sector as soon as possible.

Hearing this movement of job positions I could very much envision in my peers at home, I was curious to hear his perception on the challenges Nepal faces as a developing country, and what areas should be the focus for the country’s growth.

He explained that, as I mentioned before, the country’s primary industry is farming, and for effective growth, there needs to be diversification into other areas. I prompted him a bit further, and he was adamant that business services were the best opportunity. He related Nepal to be the ‘Switzerland’ of Asia–limited by a landlocked geography, but levered up by financial and business services. Or perhaps, he suggested, maybe more a long the lines of southern India’s technology outsourcing. I’m not sure that even the broadbrand infrastructure is yet available to foresee that as a true opportunity, but his adamant convictions pulled my interest.

“What would be necessary to grow these industries?” I asked him.

Again, he didn’t think long before stating two primary factors:

  • Greater foreign aid. He suggested that a base level of financing was necessary to build the infrastructure needed for the businesses services. Basic human living standards were needed, and of course, education. It was bizarrely similar to the goals set forth in the Jeffrey Sachs book I had only recently finished.
  • Liberalized trade conditions. He quoted an important agreement made at the most recent World Trade Organization meeting where Nepal’s production would receive lower tariffs. I’m not familiar enough with this to provide a critical dialogue on the trade agreement, but I was astonished at how well informed and opinionated he was on the issue.

Our conversations changed directions a bit after he asked me some questions about living in Canada, being a student, and what I liked about Nepal (the standard bunch). After this, I learned that he was rapidly traveling by foot to Manang to visit his parents, who had just recently moved there. (As, from what it sounds, was a retirement adjustment). Nonetheless, his very western sounding opinions on foreign aid and trade conditions provided some tremendous food for thought over the coming days.

What was the basis of the Nepal education system? Did it draw from the same British colonial legacy as India’s? Was everybody in favour of foreign aid? Would foreign aid even be useful in the consistently unstable political arena? Is trade liberalization just a further means of projecting foreign products INTO Nepal, or is it a reasonable way to enhance the diversity of this nation’s industries?

And, as the real kicker: what is the role that tourism plays as a major industry in Nepal–both positive and negative? As I sit writing this from a beautiful new computer in the tourist hub of Pokhara, which could all too easily be mistaken for Kensington in Calgary, the distillery district in Toronto, or downtown Victoria on the coast, I’m rather hesitant at how such ammenities can exist alongside an electricity system providing power 10% of the day, non-existent water treatment, and migraine-inducing local transport. Am I really “contributing to the local economy”, or simply having a grand old time in further dispossession of a beautiful, but poor, country?

Back From the Mountains

March 18, 2009

Two and a half weeks on, I have returned safely from an amazing trek in the Annapurna region. Defined by incredible snow peak views, fascinating encounters, and wonderful conversations–there’s much more than I could hope to capture in a description herein. Nonetheless, I’ll give it my best shot.

After arriving late in Pokhara (the second largest city in Nepal) yesterday evening following our most difficult day of trekking, we treated ourselves to a delicious Italian dinner including pizza, salad, and ice cream (a bit of a shock the the senses). My indulgences did not end there though. This morning I treated myself to something I’ve been dying for over the past ten days: the latest copy of the Economist as well as Time (yes, Michele)  accompanied by an enormous breakfast and REAL coffee. Delicious. I also feel a bit more in touch with the world around me again.

Backtrack to the trail, I will try and describe a few highlights that truly made the trek one of my favorite moments of this journey.

  • The company. Traveling with some other foreigners turned out to be a really enjoyable factor to the walking. Cian (the Irish guy) and Nick (from Vancouver) made for some stimulating conversation, amplified observations, and more than few detractions to western, homegrown humour. I think this was especially important for me after being wrapped up in my overly-serious unending thought all through India. Not only that, but I got some tremendous city-living tips from Nick on Vancouver and some useful insights on starting as a junior engineer from Cian. Through the trip, we encountered a girl named Jess from Britain to joined our brigade in the second half of the trek. The same age as me, and also a civil engineer, she’s joining the British army in little more than a month. Thus, many more interesting conversations and questions.
  • The sights. The Himalayas are as awe-inspiring as they’re made out to be. Even though I was a little hesitant in terms of what to expect from my inevitable comparison to the Canadian Rockies, it was a feast for the eyes like no other. What made the circuit most visually unique is the sheer diversity of landscape that you encounter. At the lower elevations between 500 and 1500 m, you experience a lush, tropical climate which is quite warm and filled with bright green trees, bushes, and flowers.

    The hill sides are impressively terraced in activity that must have taken years of back breaking work. As a perfect representation of the climatic change, we went from eating apples from fresh orchards one day to picking ripe tangerines the next. I suppose this is normal in an environment which gives you 1000 me gains and losses in a single day.

    The upper reaches brought you closer to the snow covered peaks of the Annapurna massif, leading to the very much needed requirement of my three camera batteries. Augmenting the beauty of the peaks was the astounding size of them. As we walked between the villages of Chame and Upper Pisang, we spent four hours climbing alongside an enormously beautiful wall of bright red granite. It is most definitely one of my visual highlights of the trek.

    Up higher, past the interlude of a semi-modern village called Manang, the landscape became dry, stark, and barren. Perhaps what you might picture when considering the Tibetan landscape. Our many layers of clothing were put into full force, and evenings were spent gathered around heating stoves (powered by cow/yak dung) drinking endless pots of tea. Accompanied by a series of good books, this was by no means a decline in the enjoyment of the trip.

  • The accomplishment. Of course, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of completing your two undergraduate degrees which is still so vivid in my mind. But nonetheless, reaching the peak of the Throng La pass at 5450 meters was unreal. After passing innumerable ridges where we ceaselessly invoked each as the ‘last one’, reaching the ribbon of prayer flags and a modest sign claming that we had reached the top was an outstanding experience. Short of breath from both the altitude and our four hour 1000 meter climb, we paused for a glass of tea before embarking on the equally strenuous 1700 m climb down. Though this accomplishment was the highlight, reaching the final village of the trek yesterday was quite a reward in of itself, which we boosted with three bottles of Coca-Cola, some Yak cheese sandwiches, and a fresh cinnamon bun.
  • The encounters. The tourist fed infrastructure of the village life along the trail made it surprisngly difficult to engage in deep conversations with the local people. That being said, I reaped some tremendously inciteful words from a Tibetan lady living in the lowland town of Tatopani and a fellow my own age working as a banker in the hill region of Terai. These are worth a more complete description in a separate post, but must be highlighted here as a very unique and valuable part of my trip. Beyond the direct conversations, each day was filled with many observations of different local people, and reflections on the challenges of their livelihoods. Particularly poignant was the sight of tiny Nepali men carrying massive loads in the occupation of portering. In addition, you certainly recognized the statistically prominent role of agriculture in the Nepali economy.
  • The food. (Last one, I promise). I must emphasize the very much unique nature of tea-house trekking. This is NOTHING like what you do in the Canadian Rockies, and can only be characterized as pure luxury. I’m serious. This is the best I’ve eaten during the entire length of my travels, and yet, I was in the most remote region conceivable. We ate 3-4 meals every day starting with muesli, porridge, or eggs and toast; followed by meals of noodles or potatoes, and concluded with the Nepali dish of ‘Dal Bhaat’ (rice and potatoes topped with lentil stew). So; not only do you not have to carry food, cooking equipment, or a tent, but you’re able to lounge around completing an altogether minimum of chores while the guest house owner takes care of everything for you. A fine experience indeed.

The next few days will see my completely gluttonous slowdown in the more-and-more tourist infested city of Pokhara (it’s getting high time into busy season). I’m sure a few more fine meals will be coming my way, perhaps a massage, and lots of enjoyable reading. For now, I’m off to meet my friends for a boat ride around Lake Phewa, and afterward, some celebrations for Jess’ 23rd birthday.

Hope you are all well at home! Can’t wait to catch up.