Encounter with a Superhero: Baht-man

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“Here comes the bus!” Kumar said, as a pack of mules rounded the corner.

Two days into our trek, we were sitting under a sheltered, family-style table waiting for the rain to pass, and these mules looked like wet puppies, trudging through the mess.

We had stopped for lunch a convenient 20 minutes before the pour came, joining a few others- a Slovenian woman and her two porter/guides- at the tea-house restaurant. All three were charming and energetic, a perfect trio with whom to pass the raining time.

Kumar and Gunnis were the names of the two Nepalese- Kumar speaking almost fluent English, and Gunnis not so far behind. The restaurant owner, who also joined our half-time party, had a comprehensive grasop on our language as well, being able to explain the housing loan market (16-22% interest) and the price of a college education (12 bucks a month for tuition, room and board in Nepal’s capitol city, Kathmandu). Wow on both parenthesis.

After Greg and I finished our fried noodles and chicken curry, respectively, Kumar pulled out a volleyball he’d packed for the trek.

We played a semi-game at the table, tipping the ball from one upright-sitting player to the next and laughing at the occasional tricks we’d all play on each other. It was such simple fun, and I always find myself enjoying this type the most.

The tricks continued with a few that Kumar and Gunnis had up their sleeves. They were mostly bar tricks- first, safely slashing a dollar bill from between two bottles without having them tumble, and second, turning a handkerchief into a toy mouse then having it jump to scare the built-up rice out of me. To calm my nerves and continue to pass the mini-storm, we began singing and taking turns serenading each other with love songs from our respective countries. Again, such simple fun, no pressure, no restraints, no judgment, just fun.

Now 4 days into the trek, we’ve had a few more simply enjoyable experiences, let alone the unbelievable joy in being surrounded by the world’s highest mountain range.

This morning, we were walking out of the village called Chame (Kah-may) that we’d stayed the night in. A little boy, who was most likely 5, but looked no older than an American 3 year old, was also on our same trail, lollygagging around. He had an all red outfit on- a red knitted hat, a red sweatshirt and a pair of red sweatpants that sagged in the back some to reveal a little munchkin cheek. He had a smile that was unyielding and a high energy I’d kill for (especially after hiking a total of 21 hours in the past 3 days and having 7 more long days to go). The boy took a quick liking to Greg and they started chasing one another around, even up steep inclines. When they both settled, we were hundreds of feet out of town. The boy cut the competition and reached for Greg’s arm. I’d never seen something so cute as how bouncy the boy walked holding hands with my sure-footed boyfriend.

My jealously then raged, at either of them. I, too, wanted someone to hold my hand through the Himalayas, so I ran to catch them and grabbed on to the little boy.

We tried signaling to share our names. At first, the small one said his name was Baht, but then he pointed at a pile of ever-present mule poop and called it baht too… Who knows.

I began singing a song Kumar and Gunnis had taught me that was famous in Nepal. Baht-man, we ended up calling him, caught on and in his itsy teeny cutie voice, he began singing too. My heart dropped and filled up at the same time.

I turned to see if his dad was close behind but all I could see was our porter. I hoped Baht-man understood me when I asked, “Where mommy, where daddy?” Pointing in the same direction we were going, I imagined he got my question, but when our porter came from behind to confirm with the boy, I was fully confident he was heading back home.

So we continued and along the way, precious Baht-man had gone to the side of the trail to pick flowers for both Greg and I to place in our ears. He also collected some pine cones and leaves for Greg alone to have. We thought he was just the sweetest little boy angel ever, ever, ever.

By the time we got to the next small village we’d been walking merrily with Baht-man for almost 30 minutes. I wondered which house we were coming up on would be his, and so I asked.

Where is Matir (we’d come to learn this meant mommy)?

Baht-man didn’t say a word and all the villages looked at him confused. I got immediately worried, thinking he was lost, poor boy. Thankfully, this man always saves the day, our porter came from a few minutes behind to Sherlock Holmes this situation. After some back and forth of almost bickering, our porter says to Greg and I, as if the just past being a baby had stolen out of our pockets and used that very same money to send a hitman after us, “he’s a liar”.

Turns out, Baht-man was actually from Chame, our starting-point village and had just tagged along as far as he could. Baht-man looked slightly ashamed but I gave him smiles, kisses and reassurance that we were happy to have played with him, deceiving son of a gun or not.

Again, thankfully, our porter worked it out with one of the local villagers to walk Baht-man back to Chame. We waved good-bye to our sweetheart manipulating bad boy and continued our day’s hike. And another again, I say, though simple fun can notably go awry- it’s still my favorite kind.

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Himalaya Bound

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We’ve been in Nepal, mostly just hanging around a small touristy town called Pokhora. Quietly set beside a soft green lake, the town has given us room for recuperation after an energy-stripping tour of northern India.

We especially needed to the recoup because our next plans take us trekking through the Himalayas for the next 10-12 days. We were originally thinking of hiking to Everest base camp, but have come to find the Annapurna circuit, a route that encompasses the world’s deadliest mountain (50% death rate), is much more extensive in its scenery and terrain coverage, and is highly known- especially in the mountain man realm- as the greatest trek of the world.

So Greg will just save Everest base camp for a stop on his way to the actual summit, and I will just read a picture book on it…

One day in this lakeside town, Pokhora, we rented bicycles and road out of town towards a waterfall. I got a silly cruiser-type bike with a basket on the front and Greg got whatever form of a mountain bike the street renter had. Mine fared fine, but Greg’s first bike gave out on him halfway to our destination. One of his pedal cranks fell off entirely, so he had to ride back a good two miles with only one side of his bike working. We were lucky that Greg knew a thing or two about biking from his cross-country bike trip a few years back, or else I would have had to balance him on my handlebars.

In Nepal too, people honk everywhere, every second. With two-lane streets the width of a one-way street, I suppose it’s a safe practice, but that doesn’t undermine its annoyance on the ears. Feeling the right to claim my own two-wheel territory, I flicked my pseudo-horn often. It felt fabulous, and I had not an ounce of remorse for contributing to the aching sound pollution that’s been incessant since we arrived in Asia.

When we parked our bikes in front of the waterfall gates we questioned their security without having any locks. With no other choice, we were forced to trust humankind, leaving them free as an unmanned bowl of Halloween candy.

20 rupees is about 28 cents and that’s how much it cost to see the waterfall. We read a story about a German tourist dying there during a flash flood in the 1970s. As a precaution, I assume, they have since gated round the waterfall, designating a few safe viewpoints. From none of these point, however, can you actually see the waterfall. It’s definitely there because you can hear its rushing current and see the pool at the bottom- you just can’t get past the gates or at a good enough angle to see the waterfall itself.

I felt ripped off 1/3 of a buck. Dang.

Anyways, we managed to fuss up this quiet town a bit when we went kayaking- it was my first time but of course, not Greg’s. In the center of the lake was a tiny temple island- our first mission was to dock there. It took Greg 4.5 minutes to book it straight there, his paddles going from right to left evenly an peacefully. It took me 20.25 minutes to get there, my paddles flailing aimlessly and splashing all the way to Guam. I kept going in uncontrollable circles instead of the clear path Greg had taken. I screeched a few accidental times which attracted the attention of tourist boats and the like. One boat housed a full load of Chinese tourists staring at me, talking about me and not so surreptitiously laughing at me- none of which helped my frustration as I paddled one way, but somehow turned the opposite.

In the end, after circles and circles and a few more, I made it safely- no tipping- around the lake. My arms the next two days were sore, but I thought I shouldn’t count my pain before it hatches with our 10-day trek coming next…

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Like a Bird

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Under our guesthouse lobby’s refuge, I am guarded from a Nepalese rain shower. Habitually striking in the afternoon, the rain today has hardened to hail and leaves a gushing mote in place of the encompassing street.

Thankfully, the crashing lightning held its temper until a few hours after we’d descended from being 10,000 feet in the plain air.

Before this morning, I’d never been paragliding, or done anything of the sky-sport sort, so my expectations had no direction as we wound up a crunchy dirt road. Opposite to my experience, adventurous-since-birth Greg had already been skydiving, hand-gliding, taken pilots lessons and flown an acrobatic plane. He pretty clearly knew what was in store as I blindly prepared for an exhilarating first-time rush.

Twenty minutes up the mountain, we arrived at the launch site. My Russian tandem guide, Victor, strapped me into the seemingly measly harness while reciting seemingly simple instructions.

“Everything will be okay,” he also added. “You’re with me.”

Nice to meet you, Vic, I think I trust that.

I actually did surprised myself at how little my nerves were acting up as I ran off the side of a Himalayan mountain- my fate in the hands of a supportive gust of wind and what looked like a triple-king-size sheet connected to our harness via floss (the extra-strength kind).

The take off, though, happened too fast for worrying- it was smooth and powerful, and I began soaring within seconds.

I didn’t feel an immediate rush in my gut or a burst of adrenaline like I thought I might. I did feel amazed and safe, however, and the vulture flying to my side made me feel superhuman.

Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” song came into my head with such audacity, and until I landed back on my two human feet, it repeated itself with no shame.

Not too long into the flight, Victor strangely pulled out a video camera and began filming the other paragliders. I asked what he was shooting for and he said for his own personal pleasure- he makes videos with invigorating music and effect behind them.

Cool, I thought, but at the same time, I got a bit nervous, feeling as if Victor was texting while driving. I assured myself that if I went down, though, he would too.

I moved my concentration to the lake below. There were ripples heading the same way I was- it was the wind that guided us both, and it was such a thrill to be one with that force.

Preoccupied ol’ Victor redeemed and surpassed my satisfaction on the last leg of the 30-minute flight. He pointed to a paraglider who was setting up to do acrobatics.

“I am the only one from my country (Russia) to be able to do this trick,” he spoke. “Two people in America can, and that guy is Serbian, watch.”

Above the lake, the paraglider front-flipped over himself, again and again. Each time he flipped, the canopy lost its form, and the glider was free falling until he made it around a full circle to catch the wind again. It’s the most advanced maneuver, Victor said, and if you mess up and don’t catch the wind perfectly, you’ll tumble to your death.

“Sweeeet, can we do a trick?” I then asked.

“Not so safe,” my skilled Russian guide replied.

Argh, not what I wanted to hear but I cradled his caution.

“Can you swim?” he spoke again.

“Ya, course, why do we land in the lake?” I wondered, thinking shouldn’t they ask that before take off?

But before I could answer my thought, I felt a jerk to the left and then a sudden spinning movement further that way. I also felt as if I’d fallen off of my seat, and my stomach felt the drop, too. The trick was called a helicopter, and it was the horizontal equivalent of what the Serbian below was performing.

When we landed, just as smooth as take off, I unstrapped from the harness, feeling so energized by the trick, and so excited to jump on Greg with all my excitement. He took longer to descend so I watched and waited not so patiently, all the while, overhearing the already-landed guides do post-flight chatter.

“Did you guys see Victor do a helicopter with his passenger?” one guide said. “Nuts, I can’t believe he did that.”

Ah-that’s me, that’s me!

I grinned so big to go along with my adrenaline, and Greg landed but a few seconds later. I ran over to share my smile, and of course get a little wahoo smooch. He felt excited about his tricks, too, and happy for all my enjoyment.

“Glad you loved it,” he said. “So, bungee jumping next?”

….

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In India… It’s No Problem

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Yesterday at 7:15 pm, we boarded our slightly delayed train toward the border of India and Nepal. We were scheduled to leave at 11:45 am, so it was only just a 7-hour delay.

“It’s no problem,” most of India would say.

It’s a phrase they use often.

Cows sharing the streets with cars, bikes and pigs? It’s no problem.
Arranged marriage? It’s no problem.
A 4 foot 8 tiny rickshaw man pedaling up hill with two not so tiny Americans behind? It’s no problem.
You want to try to drive rickshaw, tourists? It’s no problem.
You want to eat authentic Indian food that will put any mere mortal on his knees for two days? It’s no problem (no no, it no spicy).
Food to go? It’s no problem (we will just wrap your oily noodles in newspaper and send you on your way).
Have to go pee pee? It’s no problem (when there’s a wall, there’s a way).
Oh, no wall around? It’s no problem (just drop your pants anywhere. Poo poo okay too.)

One crazy thing in India never outweighs the next.

We had an X-rated driver the other day who, after affirming Greg was my boyfriend (and not brother or Sherpa), said “Me- I fooking wife everyday, me strong man.” In the 40-minute trip there, and the same back, we never heard a PG comment out of him.

When we went to the Agra Fort, the palace in the former capitol city, there was an area that our guide, Kumar, glamorized as the queen’s bath house. With a lock on its door, her pamper spot was restricted to the general public, though Kumar said famous people and VIPs were occasionally welcomed.

Unbeknownst to me, Greg and I aren’t apparently all that important, and so Kumar told us we’d have to pay off the guard if we wanted to go in. 500 Rupees later, which translates into 13 bucks, it’s no problem.

And the last example I share, though these anecdotes are not exhaustive cases:

The holy Ganges river runs through a spooky town called Varanasi. Bodies are burned along the Ganges’ shore and their ashes are dumped in its current. In a few cases, deceased bodies are not cremated before being thrown in the river. Instead, anyone who was either under 10, a holy man or had been killed by cobra bite, goes into the river entirely. At sunrise and sunset, wooden boatloads of tourists paddle up and down the Ganges to view these Hindu passing ceremonies. Our boat’s rower, a local with great English, explained all of the burning rituals to Greg and I. Jokingly, after hearing the cringing details, Greg asked if he could jump off the boat for a swim. All at once, 8 I laughed and shivered in disgust as I waited for a sarcastic reply back to Greg. Should have guessed it, though, the man’s response: sure, sure, it’s no problem.

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Red Dots and Blue Necklaces

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Today, opposite of Delhi-belly stricken and most miserable yesterday, was a relieving and wondrous day, unveiling India’s beauty at every holy cow-inhabited turn.

The city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal and former Capitol of India, is less crowded, polluted and hectic, relatively speaking, though still housing as many cows, pigs, goats and monkeys. A second sight aside from the Taj Mahal is the Agra Fort, where the Indian emperor lived before the British took control of the country.

The Taj Mahal, built in 22 years, is perfectly symmetrical from every angle. Many an architect have come to disprove that fact and are slapped in the face by its repetitive truth. Made of marble and encrusted with semi-precious stones of onyx, topaz, turquoise and beyond, the monument was built as a commemorative token of the emperor’s love for the most beautiful of his three wives. In translating her beauty, the Taj Mahal is a flawless manifestation.

Again, we white folk stood out in a crowd of Indian tourists and locals, attracting only smiling attention. In the midst of tourist hustle, we feel sometimes slighted, but once that barrier is passed, the Indian people have been nothing short of warm and endearing, and incredibly so. It is the industry I have come to blame–far from the overwhelmingly genuine Indian culture.

At the Taj Mahal, I saw a ridiculously cute baby sitting in a photographically opportunistic setting. I tried to grab an under-the-radar shot, but was, darn it, caught before my truly artistic talent could flourish. The family began speaking gibberish to my ears, though it sounded up beat. Next thing I know, a feathery girl in a royal blue sari came over to pose the baby. Not the shot I was going for, but it started a gorgeous exchange of smiles.

Nagma was with a big family, age 2 to aged grandpa; she was visiting from Bangalore and she was 15. She spoke a little English from school, but was the only one to do so. She was so happy to hear me from America and together we took countless pictures- her vibrant dress outshining my khaki shorts and trekker’s shoes (not that I’m a trekker, yet). A lot of our interaction was with touching and neither of us thought it uncomfortable to hug together. I think we found each other to be beautiful, though neither of us strikingly gorgeous. When we said goodbye, Nagma reached around her neck to release her blue-beaded necklace. She put it against me and said “here here, for you it make me happy to give.”

Cheesy I may be, but I’ve long hoped for an offering in the name of quick but profound connection. I was so happy in my heart as I hugged Nagma in praise, and at the same time, unknowingly, Greg had gone through our bag to pull out something of mine -a pink-colored, braided headband. He gestured for me to give it to Nagma and I was appreciative of his kindness and creativity. I tied the headband around her and the contrast of Nagma’s deep black hair was striking.

We hugged goodbye on our left and right sides, with one of those half cheek touch, half kisses on each side as well.

Nagma was not the first or last of this admiring and kind nature. It is for these exchanges that I feel most passionate about India. I say this in full disclosure, India has been by far my most difficult travel experience, let alone being horribly difficult in the scheme of my forever. Delhi belly had me at extreme dehydration, and depression seemed not a far off condition- the ear-aching honks, intruding cows, bombarding crowds, inescapable pollution, hungry-for-flesh mosquitos, thrown in with intense heat, exhaustion and becoming a human fountain from two ends (sorry, but kinda not), all leading me to feeling this way (thank goodness for having an amazing shoulder to cry or sleep on in my boyfriend).

When a friendship is made, however, all these havocs disappear and I can smile upon this country so wholeheartedly. My examples are now plenty.

On one day, we met Anil. We had bought some small paintings on old postcards from him and were impressed by his English. He seemed like the perfect person to ask some novice Hindu questions of ours after touring a palace in Jaipur, a medium-sized city, dubbed the “Pink City”, southwest of Delhi.

Starting with the basics, we asked the meaning of the red dot worn on the forehead of most Hindus. “For man, it mean for good luck and good health,” he said as he muffled through his drawer. “For woman, it mean for good luck and good health for husband,” Anil added, placing a red circular sticker between my eyes.

“You look very beautiful,” he said. My boyfriend agreed, feeling very safe with my newly dedicated forehead.

We also asked Anil why we see men more than women, why cows roam freer than people, why a lot of men have red-dyed hair and so many other first-time-to-India questions. Answers to come, but coinciding with this human connection post, I’ll continue with how warm-hearted Anil was with Greg and I. Interrupting his selling gig, he didn’t pause for a second before answering our thoughts. He shared his afternoon tea with us and walked us down the bazaar to introduce us to his sister. She too, had a sweet and welcoming demeanor.

In another instance, we were on a 15-hour, overnight train and there was a family with three children one cabin over. In the isles, I spent most of my awake hours laughing away with them over photoshoots, our small shared vocabulary, some universally recognized patticake, patticake and my bright blue nail polish- using which, I painted 7-year-old Supria’s toes.

As I consider myself a people person, kids especially, it is no surprise that I am enamored by such characters. Never so much, however, have people offered such redeeming compassion for my otherwise tumultuous thoughts toward this experience, and though countless hectic hours have poured out a river of tears from my eyes, I have felt an unmissable warmth, aside from the above 90 degree weather, in such charming and wonderful people.

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