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Ramadan in Morocco
Adventures in renting abroad Africa Festivals Abroad Middle East Morocco

TBT: The Ghost of Ramadan Past


Recently I’ve been feeling a bit nostalgic for my Middle Eastern adventures, learning Arabic, and gorging on Ramadan sweets. I stumbled across all these old photos from Morocco and decided that’s where we should start.

Ramadan in Morocco
Camel on the beach in Morocco

What is Ramadan?

First, for those who don’t know, Ramadan is a month of fasting. Muslims do not eat, drink, or smoke between sunrise and sunset. Obviously, there are many variables and exceptions which I’m not going to get into.

If you are not Muslim, no one expects you to participate. Of course, different countries have different rules. In the UAE, for example, you can get a ticket for drinking water in public even as a foreigner. Whereas in Lebanon, tons of people smoke and drink on the street all day long.

Moroccan Culture Shock

I’ve traveled to Morocco twice. In 2010, a mere 20-year-old, I arrived with no idea what Ramadan was and little knowledge of the Middle East (or the world).

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The first time I heard the zowaka (the early morning city alert that fasting was beginning again for the day), I sat straight up in bed thinking there was an air strike.

Ramadan in Morocco
Marrakesh Market

It was the first time I ever experienced culture shock. I’m glad I did though, because I’ve managed myself quite well in a host of countries since.

Ramadan in Morocco
Morocco might be the most colorful and photogenic place I’ve visited outside of India

Morocco Part II: Culture “oops”

I returned to Morocco in July 2013 for a one-month Arabic course. I stayed with a Berber woman in Tetouan and her family. She didn’t speak any English or French so we essentially became pro pantomimes in this month.

Ramadan in Morocco
Berber woman in the Tetouan market

The family was incredibly good to me. I cringe thinking about how little clothing I walked around in. It was hot. I was 23. I was whole-heartedly feminist despite the cultural consequences. And I saw no problem with what I was wearing.

Ramadan in Morocco
Me on a day I dressed somewhat decently (2013)

I see the problem now. There’s pushing the limits and then there is just blatantly ignoring them. Part of traveling is realizing when you make a travel “oops” and try to never do it again.

Ramadan Food

The family never said anything. Even when I paraded down the hall in the middle of the night in shorty shorts and a tank top to use the bathroom (cringe).

They still invited me every evening for Iftar (the first meal of the day after sunset). In Morocco, this means lots of dates and harira, a lentil and tomato soup.

Ramadan in Moroccoa
Harira
Ramandan in Morocco
Typical Moroccan Iftar: dates, egg, sweets, and hariria

For some, fasting means waking up early, going to work or school, and carrying on the entire day as normal (without food or drink). Of course, there are others who try to sleep the day away.

Ramadan in Morocco
man napping in Asilah market

The best part of Ramadan is how alive everything becomes at night. From sundown until sunup everyone is gathering on the street, having a mint tea, eating, and enjoying themselves. It’s really like a month-long party.

Ramadan in Morocco
Marrakesh Market

So here’s to all my friends celebrating Ramadan and to everyone else who indulged in my bout of nostalgia. I’m definitely feeling the “itch” to get back to the Middle East. Maybe next Ramadan.

Asia India

Big Fat Punjabi Wedding

I met Happie over the summer quite accidentally. A group of Americans plopped down in the middle of my “not so foreigner filled” city (Chandigarh, for anyone not paying attention) for an intensive Punjabi language course. Most of these were college students on scholarship. They only stayed 8 weeks. At the end of their course, I hosted a girl, Morgan, since her sponsored housing had run out. It was through her that I met Happie, the Punjabi language teacher of the course. She was just as her name might imply- happy, cute, and fun.

So in late November, I woke up early in the morning and caught a 6am bus to Faridkot, a town in Punjabi near the Pakistani boarder. If you haven’t heard of it, no worries, I couldn’t even pronounce it correctly when I got to the bus station. Four hours later, Happie’s brother picked me up and drove me to her house, a two-story farmhouse. I met some of Happie’s friends from college, friends from Faridkot, and her family. Then the craziness of all the activities began.

Day 1:
Morning: Happie showed me some of her engagement photos with her future husband (they both looked really beautiful, like Bollywood stars or something). She said she had deferred taking more photos until after the wedding because she didn’t feel comfortable with him yet. It was interesting to me how completely calm she was. She had only met him once before (he lives in Canada; she’d been skyping with him for almost a year) but only once very calmly said, “I’m a bit nervous. I don’t really know him.” This seemed to fall in stark contrast to my American friend who recently married her boyfriend of four years (whom she lives with) and was a wreck of nerves before her wedding.

Afternoon: Mehndi (henna) session on Happie’s patio consisting of Happie’s friend and two other girls doing everyone’s mehndi while we drank chai and chatted. Since I had broken my arm three days prior, I only got mehndi on one hand. Happie, as the bride, had incredibly elaborate designs. Her friend produced some eeriously impressive artwork on both her hands and feet. I was sort of jealous of how ornate her mehndi was that I briefly contemplated marrying some random Punjabi man just so he could get a green card and I could have pretty mehndi on my wedding day.Mehndi Wedding

Mehndi Wedding

Ultimately, I decided a lifetime of marriage wasn’t worth a day of pretty hands and feet. But the mehndi session was quite fun.

Mehndi Wedding

Early Evening: The photographer took photos of all the girls out in the field.

Punjabi Wedding

Punjabi Wedding

Some of the older women had gathered in the same patio area and were singing together (then one woman would come forward and sing a line or two by herself while everyone kept clapping). Someone explained to me they were singing “marriage advice” to Happie but funny advice. I think an English equivalent would be something like, “Sure you’ll love marriage when you’re on the beach on your honeymoon but just wait until five years of cleaning up his toenail clippings.” (No one said this specifically in Punjabi but I think that was the kind of advice being given). All in good jest, of course.

Evening: I changed into one of my “suits” and met some more of Happie’s friends from Faridkot. We talked inside for awhile before walking around to the back of her house where a large fancy tent was set up, fully furnished with a buffet-style bar, dance floor, speakers, and DJ. We ate and then started dancing.
Everyone danced, even the oldest women (actually, they were the ones who would make you stand up again if you sat down). Some of the older men would throw stacks of ten rupee notes into the air and then hired help would scurry around people’s feet collecting the notes. Then, they started firing guns out in the farm. Punjabi Wedding

Punjabi Wedding

Punjabi Wedding

Punjabi Wedding

Night: Close to midnight, the family decided to do a tradition (I don’t know the name) in which they cover the bride in turmeric. Turmeric is related to ginger and is usually found as a bright yellow powder. Traditionally, it is used by Indian brides before the wedding to make their skin take on a golden glow. That night we all gathered around Happie on the patio and took turns rubbing a turmeric paste on her face and putting a little oil in her hair. I think this tradition was supposed to be done at 4am before the wedding but I guess since everyone was already at the house, doing it around midnight worked better.


Punjabi Wedding

I’ve actually used turmeric paste before. It’s good for psoriasis but stains your skin yellow. Apparently it looks much better on the ‘wheatish’ Indian complexion than on Caucasian skin. While Happie looked beautiful after her turmeric treatment, I never developed the “golden glow”, just an awkward Simpsons’ yellow.

Punjabi Wedding
Happie all cleaned up

Night continued: It was fun seeing everyone getting ready for bed. Mattresses covered almost every inch of the foyer area for all the male relatives to sleep. I shared a room with Happie’s two friends from college. Everyone just piled into her house and slept there. None of that hotel and privacy nonsense we Americans “need.”

Day 2:

Punjabi Wedding

Morning: Breakfast parathas! My favorite part of Punjab. A bit like pancakes, parathas are made from wheat flour and stuffed with vegetables (potato, onion, cauliflower, radish, etc..). They are fried and one eats them with dahi (curd, plain yogurt).

Then I started getting ready. From Happie’s house we drove down the road to a very large event center where Happie was in the middle of a photoshoot looking totally fabulous. Indian brides typically wear bright colors (red most traditionally but I’ve also seen orange, yellow, and pink). Seeing Happie all dolled up, I developed Indian wedding envy again and started rethinking my potential random Punjabi green card marriage ever-so-slightly.

Punjabi Wedding

Afternoon: The groom’s family arrived at the event center. The bride’s family had a long ribbon blocking them from entering the premises. The groom bargained with her friends and female cousin. In order to “get to” the bride, he must agree to pay a price to the sister/young female relative. I don’t know how much he agreed to pay. I know they started off with $1,000 but came down to something reasonable pretty quickly.

Then we all drove to the Gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) for the marriage ceremony. Happie’s cousin stayed with me to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself. We left our shoes outside and covered our heads, walked in, knelt before the alter, put some money in the donation box, and moved to the side. I was pretty happy about the “moving to the side” bit because the fancy leggings that came with my dress were much too large. This could be solved by tying them tightly, but with a broken arm, I couldn’t tie them properly. Lest, I spent most of the ceremony worried about keeping my pants on. The cousin came to my rescue after and tied them properly for me in the bathroom.

The religious ceremony was short and sweet, about the same length as a typical Protestant wedding ceremony. Some words were read in Punjabi, and Happie’s finance lead her around the alter with a piece of orange fabric four times.

Punjabi Wedding

Late Afternoon: Punjabi WeddingWe returned to the event center. The entire area was decorated with nice chairs, couches, tables, and decorations. There was a stage with music and a large buffet area in the back. I’m guessing around 500 people had attended. Happie and her new husband sat on the stage as the guests lined up to say congratulations and give them money as a present. After a few hours, I went inside with some of her friends were there was another buffet. Happie ate with the groom’s family.

Send Off: Even though Happie won’t be moving to Canada for a few more months, the symbolism in Indian weddings (and American weddings) can be a bit overwhelming. Just like how in the US our Dad’s walk down the aisle and “give” their daughters to the grooms, symbolizing a departure from daddy to hubby, Indian weddings do something similar. In Happie’s case, she symbolically left her family and got in a car with the groom’s family and drove off. She gets slightly teary-eyed during this process, understandably.  Also during this time, older uncles were again throwing handfuls of money on the couple and on the car. In this case, the hired help even climbed on the car the collect the rupees.

Punjabi Wedding

Evening: Happie’s friend, Aman, invited me to her house for the evening. I met her family and she took me into Faridkot to the main Gurdwara.

Punjabi Wedding
Aman looking pretty and me looking awkward with my cast

Overall, it was a really wonderful experience. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a language barrier between me and most of Happie’s family/guests. Despite that, her family went out of their way to involve me and get to know me. I really enjoyed just observing the craziness and excitement in her house. Also, her friends all spoke English and explained some of the traditions as well as just chatted with me casually. In all, it was by far one of my favorite weekends in India.

Punjabi Wedding

*Professional Photos taken by Piyush Bedi

Asia India

12 Days of Christmas in Varanasi

I didn’t spend 12 days in Varanasi, only 3. But it was a pretty amazing place; one of my favorites in India for sure. I mostly just wandered around taking photos. I wanted to post the photos of “daily life” in the religious city. It’s probably the pain killers, but I decided writing about Varanasi would be more fun to the tune of “Twelve Days of Christmas.” So bare with me….

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

12) Twelve Boats a Floating

Varanasi

Obviously not just 12. Many, many more than twelve. The evening Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat is attended by thousands. We were on the boat and could barely see through all the boats. Then another crowd comes by foot and observes from the ghat. The Aarti is performed by seven priests who commit to the Lord Shiva, Mata Gange, Surya, Agni (Fire), as well as the whole universe made by the Lord Shiva.

11) Eleven Birds a Flying

Varanasi

Early morning on the Ganges, a man feeds the birds.

10) Ten Bags of Laundry

Varanasi

People use the Ganges for everything, include laundry. These men wash clothes on these boards, undeterred from their extremely close proximity to a small burning ghat (area on the river where bodies are burnt)

9) Nine Bathers Bathing

Varanasi

The Ganges is probably most famous for its bathers. Changing rooms dot the ghats. The river is considered sacred and the water is used in rituals and for purification. (I’m counting the two bathers further up on the ghats to get to the #9).

8) Eight Players Playing

Varanasi

I can’t tell you how many times I saw kids playing cricket along the river. One guy even let me play catch with him briefly.

7) Seven Priests at Aarti

Varanasi Aarti

Aarti is performed in the evening as well as the morning. My first day in Varanasi I woke up at 4:45am in order to see the morning ritual, and I’m glad I did. The ritual was much more impressive up close.

6) Six Vendors Selling

Varanasi Vendors

Markets. Markets everywhere.

5) Five Holy Cows

Cows India

Cows are considered God-like in India. Beef and cow-killing is banned in many areas. Cows generally roam the streets (including walking with the cars). Here are some just sunning on the ghat.

4) Four Sleeping Sadhus

Varanasi Sadhus

Sahus are religious ascetics/holy men. Their divinity is shown through their departure from material wealth and mainstream society in order to focus on the divine. They spend most of their time contemplating Brahman and meditating.

3) Three Scared Goats

Varanasi

Goats can also frequently be found wandering the city. Like foreign tourists, the goats have similar trouble crossing the busy streets. This morning, a mother goat and her two kids took off during a brief lull in the cars and bikes. Only one kid made it to the other side. The other freaked out and ran back to the starting point. In a moment of true humanity, one of the vendors picked up the baby goat and walked it across the road back to its mother.

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2) Two Vendor Kids

Varanasi Vendors

These two kids paddled their boat along the Ganges to sell flowers to tourists and pilgrims for 10 rupees for a little cup (15 cents). People place flowers in the water as an offering.

1) And an Elephant by a Palm Tree

Varanasi

This morning I wandered around the old city, including the parts not frequented by tourists. One of my favorite things about the little alleys was how decorated the doorways and walls could be, often with little elephants or flowers.

 

Asia India

Indian Healthcare



Dealing with a broken bone anywhere, I’m guessing, isn’t very fun for anyone who isn’t a masochist. Mostly, I’m considering the broken bone in India a general blessing as opposed to the Untied States. To date, I’ve only spent about $130 total on: 3 doctors visits, 6 X-rays, pain killers/other medication, a sling, a cast, and the removal of said cast. Not bad at all in my opinion.

Arm Update:

Today I was less than thrilled with my hospital experience. I don’t have any complaints about the actual doctor. He’s been fine (though very persistent that just putting a cast on me and not performing surgery was a medically sound practice and insisting all American doctors would have performed surgery). I like the doctor. I was really excited to get my cast off today.

UNTIL I saw the cast removal device. It was literally just a saw. And the person in charge of sawing it was not my doctor. I had no idea what his credentials were. He definitely couldn’t speak English. So, first he picks up the scary saw, plugs it in the wall, revs up the drill, and immediately walks too far from the wall and the plug rips out. This does not inspire much confidence.

It’s then I realize the device is literally held together with duct tape.

Indian Hospital
Not pictured: the duct tape between the butt of the saw and the cord

Indian Hospital

He tries plugging it back in with no luck. The other two sockets don’t work either. It takes three men to find another saw and plug it in. They start sawing and I’m terrified my arm is going to get chopped off. He is pushing down really hard on the cast until the saw goes through and starts cutting into my skin and I jerk away. Not speaking English, the guy very lightly touches his finger to the blade to show me it won’t cut me. He then proceeds to jab the blade through the cast and deep into my skin some more. At this point I’m physically pushing the second man (whose job was to keep my arm still) away.

A woman comes over and tells me it won’t cut me, its just vibrating. I tell her its hurting a lot and they all just proceed to let the man saw some more. Eventually he just cuts it off with scissors and I can see the mark on my skin and a bit of blood.

Indian Hospital
Doesn’t look so bad here since I put on the gauze to prevent it from infection

The cut wasn’t that deep, a bit like a cat scratch, but I expect more from a hospital. After my X-Rays I went back to the doctor who was absolutely horrified to see the cuts. I didn’t bring it up at all. He just took one look  and told me “that’s not supposed to happen,” and said he should have cut it off himself. He apologized a number of times. They aren’t so deep but it means I can’t wear the temporary cast for support until the cuts heal.

I didn’t realize how much more my wrist would hurt now that the cast is gone. I still can’t work out so I’ve gained like 5-10 pounds this month and feel absolutely giant. Luckily I have a maid do my dishes 3x a week for 100 rupees ($1.50) but I still feel bad making her do them. Then Rohit cooks for me. So really, besides the being fat thing, its not the worst existence. I’m going to try to do an hour to two hours of simple walking everyday until I can go back to the gym.

Other Interesting Differences in the Hospital:

  1. In India, the problem with sex selective abortion led to a disproportionate number of males to females, especially in the northern regions. In Haryana, where I worked last year, those numbers were visible in the data we had (though this data was less than ideal). Something like 92 girls to every 100 boys. In 1994, India banned sex-determination during pregnancy. Parents find out the “old-fashioned way” whether or not their baby is male or female. Multiple signs have been hung around the hospital explaining this. Indian Hospital
  2. During one of my hospital visits, two Buddhist monks were waiting with me for the doctor.
  3. When I went into the little room to get my X-Rays some guy was sitting in the chair eating his lunch by the machine. Also, out of 3 incidents of X-Rays, they only had me wear protective gear on one batch.
  4. It’s just too cheap. I paid 500 rupees ($7.60) per visit and 300 rupees for 2 X-rays ($4.55) and that’s at a private hospital. While I didn’t appreciate the arm slicing, it was worth saving hundreds of dollars.

This, of course, is my private hospital experience. Government hospitals are even cheaper and, according to the people I’ve talked to here, quite good. The problem is overcrowding. People will wait in line for hours to be seen. According to the few people in India I’ve discussed this with, the ideal is to know someone at a government hospital who can get you in and get you a bed. Otherwise you have to pay more or wait. I can’t even imagine how healthcare is being affected by demonetization and what that means for people without bank accounts.

 

 

 

 

“Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act”

Croatia Europe

Inside a Croatian Wedding

With Rachel’s bachelorette weekend looming in the near future, and her wedding only 2 weeks away, I’ve been preoccupied with marriage recently. A large part of the reason I am visiting the U.S. this October is to attend her wedding. With all recent the matrimonial preparations, I’ve been thinking about the last wedding I attended and realized I never blogged about it.

Three months ago I attended my first Croatian wedding for my friend, Sara, and her new husband, Mislav. It started with about a month of me wavering back and forth between if I should fly to Zagreb (I desperately wanted to) or if I should stay in India (and save money, work, be responsible, etc..). I told my mom the ticket was a bit pricey. She told me, “It’s worth it to keep these types of friendships alive.” That was all the excuse I needed.

Wedding Zagreb
Sara and Misalv

I met Sara 6 years ago in Budapest, Hungary. Sara was an Erasmus student studying in the same university as me (CEU). For those of you unfamiliar with Erasmus, it is a bit like an EU-funded study abroad program for European citizens. Martina (also from Croatia) and Lena (from Germany), along with Sara and I, formed a bit of a small “group” within our larger international group of friends at the time.

Having never lived abroad before, my first week in Hungary I felt incredibly out-of-place and a bit nervous about spending four entire months in a foreign country. Despite being part of a study abroad program, the university was comprised almost entirely of Master’s students, all older than me by a few years. At the time, I was a radically different person than I am now: shy, studious, a bit “type A.” I had my future entirely planned out: graduate school, PhD in history, staying with my college boyfriend forever, living comfortable on the East Coast. I was not the type of person who would try couch surfing, living in India, trekking alone in Nepal, or backpacking solo through the Middle East.

But once I got to Budapest, I started questioning who I thought I was and who I wanted to be. I made so many intelligent and independent friends living all over the world and I started wondering how I could continue living such a cosmopolitan existence.

This is a long-winded way of saying my time in Budapest, and with Sara (and Martina & Lena) is still extremely important to me. So, despite the slightly expensive cost of the plane ticket from Delhi to Zagreb, I decided that it would be great to see these girls again and keep these friendships alive. I’ve met so many people traveling and most of those friendships look a bit unraveled. I barely speak to anyone from my Master’s program despite only having graduated about a year ago. I’ve met so many unique people and many who I’ve cared about quite deeply. But, ultimately, when you move every year, you lose contact. So when I get a chance to reconnect with important people, I feel as though I should take it. And when Sara sent us a message inviting us to her wedding, I started checking plane tickets.

Budapest Night Life
(From Right to Left): Martina, Sara, Lena, and me circa 2010 in Budapest, Hungary

Plus, in July 2016 it had been 11 months since I had been in a Western country and I was starting to feel desperate for some familiarity. Yes, at this point Croatia counts as familiarity. It has beef, short skirts, and it’s relatively easy to buy normal products like tampons and moderately priced good wine.

I landed in Zagreb near the end of June and Sara picked me up from the airport. I felt a slight bit of anxiety before she arrived. Perhaps the four of us had changed too much. Maybe we were too different after 6 years and it would be an awkward trip. We had had a reunion in Budapest 3 years prior when I was living in Prague. But 3 years is still a long time.

Two weeks later I was bawling in the airport, wishing I didn’t have to leave and go back to India (I was obnoxiously sleep deprived which didn’t help).

I had so. much. fun. The first day I visited with Sara and met her (then) finance (now husband), Mislav. When you meet a couple and can instantly note the spark between them, it makes celebrating their relationship even more special. Mislav had me laughing all through dinner; he seemed like a great guy. Then Lena flew in from Germany. Since Sara was (understandably) pre-occupied finishing her wedding planning, Lena and I made ourselves scarce and took a bus to Dubrovnik to enjoy the sea and some sun before the big day.

 

The Wedding

Croatian Wedding
Me with Sara and Lena before the wedding

Sara had some friends to her apartment a few hours before the service for drinks and snacks. Even after she left for the church, we continued drinking at her apartment. The we drove to downtown Zagreb and got to take the funicular up the hill to the church for the marriage.

Croatian Wedding
Pre-wedding drinks

Zagreb

Zagreb
Riding the funicular

The ceremony was short and sweet (great for Lena and I since it was entirely in Croatian). I found it interesting that the bride and groom enter the church and walk down the aisle with the priest. The father leading his daughter down the aisle is very American and few people partake in that ritual.

Croatian Wedding

Then we all left the church for the reception!

Sara and Mislav hosted their reception at the Mimara Museum in downtown Zagreb. It’s a cool art museum which had a spacious lobby and reception hall perfect for the event. Sara put the three of us at a table with some of her colleagues at the library in which she works so it was a very “young professional” table.

 Mimara Museum
Martina and I in front of Mimara Museum

After Sara and Mislav had their grand entrance, we began the first of SEVEN COURSES!  After the first course, Sara and Mislav had their “first dance” and were soon joined by the majority of guests. Then, a pattern emerged: eat, drink, dance, repeat. Literally, after an hour or two, the live band would cease playing, the colorful lights turned out, the regular lights flashed on, and everyone returned to their tables to eat. The wine flowed, the guests indulged. Then, within 30 minutes or so, the lights turned off, the band retrieved their instruments, and the dancing resumed. This lasted from around 8pm until after 4am.

Zagreb Wedding
Photo courtesy of Lena
Zagreb Wedding
Lena
Croatian Wedding
The music consisted of a mixture of popular English sounds and some Croatian music

The food was delicious. My favorite course was actually the first:

Croatian Wedding
Course 1

I could eat sliced meat and cheese for every meal. Salami and prosciutto aren’t meats I have the pleasure of eating often in India. Pork isn’t very popular. Fancy cheeses seems to be of a new “thing” in Chandigarh but still a rarity for me. Sadly I filled up on the meats in the first round of food and had difficulty eating much of the rest:

Croatian Wedding

Croatian Wedding
Course 2: soup
Croatian Wedding
Course 3: A heavenly traditional cheese pastry. Possibly called “strukli” but possibly not. I’m still working on my listening skills…
Croatian Wedding
Course 4: A fabulous plate of schnitzel and other cooked meats
Croatian Wedding
Course 5: assorted pastries
Croatian Wedding
Not a course-wedding cake! (Served around midnight)
Croatian Wedding
Course 6: lamb  (served at 1:30am)
Croatian Wedding
Course 7: Goulash (served around 3 am)

Around 3:30am (approaching 4am) Martina, Lena, and I said our goodbyes to Sara and left for Martina’s apartment. Lena and I both booked ridiculously early flights for that morning so once I got to Zurich for my layover I was extremely sleep-deprived and passed out hard on my flight to Delhi.

To reiterate, as someone who moves almost annually, I cycle through friendships faster than I would like. Most of these people probably have no idea how influential they have been to me or how often I think about them. I credit Budapest with most of who I am today. I don’t throw around the term “life changing” often but those 4 months truly were. I’m so happy with my decision to attend Sara’s wedding. Besides being an amazing party and getting to experience a Croatian wedding, it, more importantly, gave me a great excuse to revisit old friends and reminisce on old Budapest times.

Asia Nepal

Getting Carried Down a Mountain and a Modern Case of Trench Foot: 24 Hours to Escape Everest Pt. I

 

Only 24 hours ago from writing this, I was sitting on the side of a road sobbing uncontrollably, unable to put any pressure on my foot as the top layers of skin had ripped away, leaving only raw, sensitive flesh that felt like razor blades every time I took a small baby step. The closest drivable town named Salleri still remained 2 whole hours away. This is where a jeep of my friends was waiting for me so we could leave the God-forsaken mountain trek and return to Kathmandu. I had put myself through hell for that jeep and 2 hours from the finish line I was left immobile. In 48 hours I had walked for 15 hours and around 50km up jagged rocks, through thick mud, over landslides, straight up for 4 hours, straight down for 2 hours, up a waterfall, through a river, exposed to leeches… I had done it all. For 4 days every action I took had been in order to leave the Everest region and return to Kathmandu as quickly as possible. Mentally, I was over it. I wanted to go home. I had waited 3 days for a plane that never came. I had agreed to pay for a helicopter but the weather was too bad for it to fly. I was feeling jittery and ready to get back to India to enjoy the few days remaining on my new tourist visa before my flight to the US. So jittery, I actually agreed to redo the most taxing and difficult part of the entire trek in half my original time. And it seemed like, just as I was almost there, just as I could almost taste the freedom, everything was caving in on itself.

Unfortunately, my foot would prove to be only one of many problems that occurred in those 24 final hours.

Taking a moment to back up, I have just finished my trek to Everest Base Camp (yay!). Most people doing EBC (as I discussed in my last blog) fly from Kathmandu to a mountain town named Lukla to do a moderately difficult 12- to 14-day trek. However, for those of us that like to make life difficult for ourselves, you can also take a jeep to Salleri, a town 55 km (34 miles) away from Lukla. This adds an extra 4 grueling days and the path is significantly more rugged and demanding compared to the more popular route. I told everyone that would listen that this was the hardest part of the entire trek, and I was happy about being able to fly from Lukla back to Kathmandu instead. Even on the third day of white fog blanketing Lukla and preventing anyone from leaving, I was telling my new trekking buddies in foul language how horrible that trek was, how crazy they were to attempt it, and that I was never repeating it.

Ten minutes later my bags were packed and I was walking down the mountain with them. I had panicked. The weather looked bad for more than a week and I worried that I’d get stuck in Lukla forever. I desperately wanted to get back to India for the mere week I had on my new visa. My friend’s Nepali guide said if we worked hard we could do the whole trek in two days and then take an overnight jeep. It seemed like a sure thing. The flights didn’t. So I took off.

Our group consisted of 2 Nepali guides from different tour companies, their clients (1 Aussie guy I had met early on, 1 Chilean girl no one knew), an American guy I met near the beginning of the trek, and 1 solo, lazy chick (me). We were all pretty desperate and determined to get out for different reasons and I believed we would, no matter how terrible it was. You can only drive to Salleri, after that the path is too choppy for a vehicle. Let me stress this: the only reason I agreed to this trek was because it would only take two days and a private overnight car. Any extra time and I would have mortgaged a house in Lukla and just given up on leaving the country.

The first day was taxing, but we made it halfway. The second day was brutal. It consisted of a 4-hour steep uphill climb full of blue skies in which we could watch airplanes and helicopters happily busing relaxed tourists out of Lukla while we sweated and panted underneath them. We had made the wrong decision. The weather was beautiful. It taunted us. By the time we were only a few hours out, I was significantly behind my group due to a pain in my foot. I told them to go ahead though, I’d hobble down the mountain as fast as I could to the jeep waiting for us. The hard part is over, I thought. Now it’s a gentle downhill for only about 2 hours. No worries. I even joked with one of the guys about the two of them leaving me in Salleri since I was too slow and he said, “that would never happen, we’re in this together.”

So let’s return to 5:24pm September 19th: Gwen is sobbing uncontrollably trying to remove a wet sock but the pain of even that is so much she can’t take it.

It will get dark in an hour and I’m two hours out. How do we solve this problem? Two Nepali men walked by on the path and saw me bawling and stopped to see what was wrong. They made a moaning noise upon seeing my foot. One tried to touch it and it made me sob more. The overly saturated skin was falling off leaving raw flesh. Luckily one spoke English quite well, better than most of the locals I had met. I explained that I needed to get to Kathmandu and my friends and a jeep were waiting for me in Salleri. I told him I had no phone and no number to contact them. I asked if I could arrange a horse; they said they didn’t think it was possible but convinced me to stand up and start walking with them. One of them took my bag and the other gave me an extra walking stick.

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My foot before it was too bad to walk (August 19, 2pm)

They stopped other locals to inquire about a horse but it wasn’t a possibility. They suggested I stop at a house for the night but I explained again that the jeep was waiting for me and I had no way to tell my friends that I wasn’t coming. Maybe my friends would wait for me for hours or even cancel the jeep. What if they sent a rescue party? No. We needed to get to Salleri as fast as possible. Plus, selfishly, I desperately wanted to leave. I guess I was hobbling at an extra pathetic pace because then one of the guys turned to me and said, “Ok. We carry you.”

And that’s how two Nepali guys started carrying me down the mountain.

The taller one took my bag and my walking stick. The smaller one, no taller than me and probably around my weight, bent over and threw me on his back and took off down the mountain in flip flops. After about 5-6 minutes he would get tired and I would go back to hobbling.

I guess two Nepali guys carrying a beat up looking blonde down a mountain sparked some curiosity among the locals (there were no other trekkers in the area at this point in the day) because eventually another random Nepali guy joined our group of aid workers. Mostly only the small English teacher took me, but once the taller one gave it a try and, despite his appearance, he wasn’t as strong as the little English teacher.

At one point the English teacher, carrying me best as possible, came across a small flood on the road. Instead of just walking through the ankle-deep water, he decided to walk to the edge of the cliff, and in a moment of sheer terror, he jumped on a large rock on the edge with me on his back and then proceeded to hop from rock to rock. We were literally playing a piggy-back hop scotch game on a rocky ledge.

 

Anything to get to Kathmandu.

 

Yet another guy joined us, bringing our entourage number up to a whopping 4 Nepali locals and me, the sun-burnt, trench foot ridden, smelly trekker. The fourth to join our crew was a similarly short guy but it didn’t take long for us to realize he was the strongest of them all. He carried me for significantly further than the other two had at any point and would put me down for only a second before lifting me again and running across a swing bridge or up a river bank.

Dusk set. We stopped and asked a woman if we could borrow her motorcycles parked in front of her house but she said they didn’t work. More carrying. We stopped for tea and they ordered a jeep to be brought as far up the road as it could go. They said only 15 more minutes of carrying me. It was 7pm now and pitch black so they strapped a headlamp to me.

At first I felt a bit guilty for what these men were doing for me, but at some point I had a feeling they were enjoying it a bit. It seemed like they wanted to see who could carry me the longest and go the fastest and they would laugh and joke around. I heard one of them saying he wished he had a head strap to carry me the way porters carrying their 50 kilo loads through the mountains. At some point they experimented with innovation and slung a jacket under my butt to help support my weight without touching me anywhere inappropriate.

15 more minutes. I suspected my team arrived in Salleri at 5pm. I had mentioned to them that I may be an hour or so behind them so I hoped, knowing that I was injured, they were waiting patiently and weren’t too worried about me. I hoped they wouldn’t be angry at having to wait; I knew how desperate we all were to get to Kathmandu. More than anything I hoped they hadn’t assembled any sort of search party for me yet. As we finished our trek, I scrutinized every flashlight-holding passerby to determine if it was one of my friends or one of their guides.

And then finally we got to the beautiful jeep and drove to Salleri. And then we drove around Salleri looking for any foreigners in lodges. And then, when I didn’t see anyone familiar, the jeep driver called his jeep driver buddies and told me,

“Yeah, a jeep with some foreigners left an hour ago.”

But no. It couldn’t be my foreigners. I barely spoke with the Chilean girl so sure, maybe she left. But the two guys? We had been in it since the beginning. We’d talked about life and death and every juicy detail in between. They knew more about me than most of the Indian people I’ve been hanging out with for a year. They knew I wanted to be back in Kathmandu so badly that I had agreed to walk 48 hours in the worst trek I’ve ever done. And the one had even laughed at the idea of leaving me behind as if it was a ridiculous statement only 5 hours ago. He told me we were a crew now. We were in this together. And I had told him, “You guys leaving me in Salleri is the only thing I can think of right now that would bring me to tears” while chuckling at the absurdity of the hypothetical situation.

“Yeah, its your friends,” the English teacher said, “They are in the next district over.” He handed me a small cellphone that looked like it had been rejected from the year 1998.

“Hello?”
It was one of the guys.
“Where are you?”

            He said something I couldn’t understand. I asked him to repeat. Again just gibberish. I asked a third time as politely as I could muster.

            “We had to go,” he said.

Four words. We had to go. And then silence. He hung up. Just like that. So I was stranded in Salleri, alone, with a destroyed foot, 4 Nepali locals looking horrified at the situation, and a driver who wanted his 800 rupees ($8) for rescuing me. The English teacher told me to spend the night in a lodge and I could go to Kathmandu in the public jeep the next morning. But I was devastated. I felt totally dejected and abandoned. Betrayed. Friendless. Plus, I wanted time to see a doctor about my foot in Kathmandu and I wanted to get back to India.

So I told them I wanted to take the jeep to Kathmandu that night and we agreed on a price: 16,000 rupees for the 9-hour ride. $160. It was a lot. Cheaper than most tourists get a jeep for (the going price is $200), but they typically split the cost between multiple people. More expensive than my plane ticket from Lukla to Kathmandu. I can’t stress how upset I was in this moment. I hadn’t washed my hair in three weeks. My foot was swelling and tingling. The time on my India visa was dwindling. And at this moment in time I really hated Nepal and really wanted to leave. Plus, emotionally, I was wrecked. I had opened up and been kind of these people and felt as though, since I was the weakest link, I was too inconvenient to wait for.

So I agreed on the price and it was agreed that two of the Nepali guys would accompany me to Kathmandu for free (my way of saying thank you for their help). And we left.

I spent most of the car ride thinking about this kind of balance, about how these men who didn’t know me had gone out of their way to help and the people I felt closest with hadn’t. I thought a lot about the type of person I wanted to be and how Westerners are so much more selfish than the people I have met in India (and Nepal) when it comes to favors.

A lot of emotional stuff went through my head that night. Eventually I drifted off around midnight with the jeep bumping manically up and down the rocks of the jagged rock and dirt road from Salleri. But soon I would wake up at 4 am on the side of the road to an empty van….

I’ll post the second part of my 24 manic hours finishing my EBC tomorrow. Before you hate too hard on my friends, the pt. 2 involves a bit of redemption and a visit to the police station.