Thursday, December 25, 2014

Kicking Butt and Counting Flowers on the Kepler Track

Josh and I decided to spend Christmas hiking the Kepler Track. We knew we'd be away from family, far far away in New Zealand, in the summertime as opposed to our normal winter holiday season, and we figured where else would we feel at home than in the wilderness? So we booked ourselves on one of New Zealand's nine Great Walks.

Normally when we Americans think about taking a walk, it is a shortish excursion. But that is not the case in New Zealand where the term "walk" is really a euphemism for a "long, hard slog" or an "arduous adventure with great views" or what-have-you. Still, we were game and even though I hadn't been able to don my tennie shoes in over a month because of a massive scab bursting from the back of my heel, we set out on this wee walk/adventure.

Normally, one hikes the Kepler Track in a counter-clockwise direction, starting in Te Anau, then sleeping in the Luxmore, Iris Burn and Moturau huts before completing the loop back to Te Anau. Because we were late to book (only deciding two months in advance) we weren't able to hike in the usual direction or book consecutive night stays in all three huts. So our trek went as follows:

  • Day 1: Take a shuttle from our hostel in Te Anau to the Rainbow Reach car park and hike a gradual incline for 22.2 km (13.8 miles) to the Iris Burn Hut.
  • Day 2: Relax and recuperate at the Iris Burn Hut with day hikes to the waterfall and nearby river beach to be eaten alive by sand flies.
  • Day 3: Hike straight up and then across a ridge for 14.6 km (9.1 miles) to the Luxmore Hut and then drag our exhausted butts on a side trip to the glorious and quite wet Luxmore Cave.
  • Day 4: Hike 13.8 km (8.6 miles) mostly downhill to the Kepler Track car park and hitch a ride with some friendly expats back to Te Anau.

All and all, we covered more than 50 km (31 miles) in 4 days including more than 3,000 ft of vertical elevation gain and drop. Let's just say, I was beat at the end of each day and Josh came up with a new phrase for describing my end-of-day stride: the Zombie Waddle. Nice, isn't he? Alas, it was an apt description and I can't fault him for that, especially as he carried the majority of our gear.

Exhibit A: Josh's pack (at left); Mine (at right). Yes, he is a good husband. :)

In addition to the Zombie Waddle, I also found another way to pass my time on the trail--counting wildflower varieties. I found 57 different types in all! Yes, fifty-seven! That is not a typo. And they were all different, although some were less different than others--such as the small white daisy with the green center (top right) same same with the hairy yellow center (bottom right), larger version with a yellow center (top left) biggest version with a hairy stem (bottom left) and whatnot (unpictured plethora).

I also spotted several nearly microscopic flowers growing on moss and in what gardeners call bedding. Those came in little yellow varieties, white stars, white bells, white bells with red stripes, gray cactus creations, and a few other not-so-exciting-but-it's-still-a-new-variety-goddamnit! types.

My favorite was either this barely lavender beauty (lower left) or this bluish orchid-like flower (top right) or maybe one of these white ones, it was hard to pick!

Most of the flowers were seen in abundance, sometimes prompting irritation when I realized that I had already seen that one. A few were one-timers that I was bummed not to see again (or photograph the first time). Still the flower hunt kept me moving forward as my feet cried out for me to stop and my calves threatened to lock up and drop me on my face. Josh, meanwhile, maintained his chipper charm and pulled dozens of smiles across my face as we starred out on ever more impressive landscapes.

Yes, we really did hike through all these landscapes and more in our four day Christmas extravaganza!


Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Things We Carry

Every day we carry things, physical things like our wallet and cell phone and intangible things like our past and relationships with loved ones. Traveling with all my belongings on my back really makes me think about what I choose to carry and what I choose to leave behind. It also makes me contemplate what I ask others to carry for me.

Last week I trekked to a lodge in the mountains of Nepal. We hired porters to carry most of our belongings, something I have done only one other time in my life -- nearly a decade ago when Josh and I trekked to Machu Picchu in Peru on our honeymoon. And just like before I felt oddly conflicted over whether it was right to hire someone to carry my things. At home, I love to backpack and I normally carry everything I need (although Josh often carries more than half our shared gear). So I wondered what about being in another country made it okay to pay a stranger to carry my things?

I'll start by revealing what I didn't let them carry for me, the things I carried myself:

  1. My first aid kit, a change of bandage for my recently surgeried foot, neosporin to spread on any new wound.
  2. My purple down jacket and wool beanie to guard against possible foul weather.
  3. The case to protect my sunglasses and Chapstick for my lips.
  4. A collapsible dusty blue baseball cap I knew I should wear but couldn't bring myself to do so.
  5. My passport stuffed with spare Nepali rupees and old airplane ticket stubs.
  6. My tiny wallet with cash, credit cards and my U.S. driver's license -- never leave home without it.
  7. Our old point-and-shoot camera in its new Nepali-made fabric case.
  8. A red water bottle acquired in South Africa nearly a year ago which leaks when I'm not careful and which I've embellished by slapping on a sticker advertising my friends' paragliding tour group in Thailand.
  9. A map of the area where we are hiking, minus a compass to help me get my bearing. I decide that the GPS on my iPhone will serve that purpose in a pinch.
  10. My small green headlamp -- ever the Girl Scout, ready for calamity, hopeful for an easy trip.
  11. A fruit leather and granola bar to alleviate sudden hunger or low blood sugar.
  12. A pair of purple trekking poles to ease my journey.
  13. Two little notebooks and a pen for jotting down inspiration.
  14. My cold, congestion in my sinuses, phlegm in my throat, which I spit out from time to time, lightening my load.

All this was packed into a tiny red waterproof backpack (15). Although my load was light, it was much more than I am used to. Josh has been carrying me in so many ways over the last eight months I've forgotten what it feels like to be self-sufficient without him.

And yet, I am not. The Nepali porters carried my change of clothes, my iPad and its charger, my watercolor paper and paints, my toiletries, vitamins and medications, my flip flops and extra snacks. For this I tipped them $10 US and I felt weird about it. Who am I to burden strangers with my things? And yet I also wondered who I would be to take a stand against porters making a living by carrying things for tourists? This is an important source of income for many Nepalis and my stuff was not particularly heavy. They are fitter for hiking than I am and they wear good shoes, unlike the Peruvian porters that schlepped our stuff up mountains in cheap plastic flip flops. I smiled at the porters and tried not to complain when my still-healing foot was angered by the rugged terrain and my light pack.

I wonder too about the things the porters carry which I cannot see. Do they carry the debt of share cropping? The sorrow of family members without enough to eat? The joy of a new child on the way? The dreams of a better life? Do they carry resentment or gratitude towards foreigners like me? These things I do not know, nor do they know the other hidden things I carry. The titanium plate and seven screws in my right ankle, the first aid kit in my pack, the passport stuffed with money, the heart that misses my husband, the eyes that see sorrow and beauty in the same vista.

For me, traveling creates a space where I can ponder these things. Where I don't have to rush about to catch the bus or crunch one last number before an important meeting. It provides time for me to reflect on the meaning of my life and the possible meanings of other people's lives as we move side-by-side on the same path with different destinations.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Moving Mountains

Note: The last couple weeks I have been in Nepal traveling with a group of writers, photographers and poets. Together we made up a Deep Travel workshop led by a dear friend of mine in partnership with two other amazing women. We saw things I never saw during my first visit to Nepal in 2011 and I thought about my writing and what I have to say in new and challenging ways. Our final writing exercise was an invitation to write a short vignette about an experience we had in Nepal and describe it with imagery and our reflections. Below is what I choose to write and then read aloud at our final dinner and celebration.

Three baby goats scamper across a slate-shingled rooftop, startled as an old man tosses corrugated metal onto the roof. Sheet after sheet, he stacks the flexing material, anchoring it in place with a few heavy rocks. I move along the stone path, deeper into the hillside village.

A little girl in ragged green sweatpants and a dirty gray shirt approaches me. She is curious but unsure. I say, "Namaste Bahini" (hello, little sister) in hopes she will understand. I cover my eyes with my hands and then throw them off, shouting "peek-a-boo!" She is solemn at first, but then gets the joke and starts to laugh. We play at this for a few minutes, her laughter growing with each iteration.

Suddenly she grabs my hand as if I'm a ghost that might disappear. She leads me straight to the stone yard where her young mother is shaking the rice seeds from their husks. The girl's mother brings out a multi-colored rattan stool for me. It is not optional and I oblige. The little girl perches on her own stool, smiling into my face. We don't speak the same language and I wish I had paid more attention in my Nepali Language class a few days before.

A second girl joins us--more confident than the first. She tugs on my dangly cut metal earrings so different from the gold hoops she and her friend wear. She is inquisitive and unbothered by my otherness. We gaze into each other's eyes, scrunch up our noses and giggle. Our faces are so close I can almost feel her breath on me. Snot runs from her nose, but I don't care. She is like my little niece, a treasured jewel, a lick of honey in sour lemon tea. She picks up my left hand slapping it against my right, playing me like an instrument as she sings a song in Nepali.

A third girl joins us, this one smaller than the other two. She wears a pink hoodie whose zipper has broken long ago and is now stitched shut. Her eyes are bright and her smile uncertain as she asks me questions in Nepali which I cannot understand. The three circle around, tug at me, touching me with abandon, like blind children trying to see me through their dirt encrusted fingertips. Within a few moments, I have ceased to be the weird white woman intruding into their village and have become their plaything. I am loving it.

And yet I know that this cannot last. I will return to the lodge to toss back handfuls popcorn and happy hour cocktails with my travel companions and live in my world apart from these girls. And they will likely grow up to become women with very few options. Someday soon, their joy and spontaneity will be replaced by days full of dirty laundry and share cropping. Silently, I ache for these three precious girls and all the others like them in Nepal, the USA and around the world who don't have the right to do what they love. The grand views of Annapurna South and the Himalayas that evoke endless possibility for me seem but an insurmountable barrier for the Nepali women who lack the freedom to choose their own destiny in this land of dust and poverty.

A village near Gurung Lodge.
Drying corn and ragged prayer flags stand watch over the village along with a black dog.
The remaining two goats after the third has jumped down to safety.

My little Bahini with her brother.

Such amazing smiles and laughs shared with these girls.

The school I hope these girls will someday attend.
Bahini's beautiful and young mother sifting rice.