Tales from the Trail: Nepal

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I’ve already shown you pictures of Nepal and talked a little bit about the logistics and practical side of what it’s like to trek the Ruby Valley Trail and go off the beaten path. More posts are on the way about the Tamang Cultural Heritage Trail and my time in Kathmandu, but today, I want to tell you about some of the crazy things that happened along the way. All those random stories don’t fit neatly into some types of posts, so I wanted to do one with just the funny or interesting things that happened! Think of this as one reallllllly long post of unrelated short stories.

The Flight Apocalypse

So, when I booked my flight to Nepal I got a KILLER deal on my ticket. Round trip, I paid $1100 to fly out of Charlotte all the way to Kathmandu on Etihad Airways thanks to obsessive and constant vigilance on every travel website in the world (the cheapest deal I found besides that was $1500). Anyway, this deal was only available on a third party website (like Expedia) and it was one I had used before with no problems. So I booked it. Well, when the time came to check in for my flight, I wasn’t able to do so. I called the airline and was assured there was no problem with my ticket and that everything was fine, I just needed to show my documentation at the airport. I could not check in in Charlotte because there is no Etihad desk in Charlotte, but I was assured at the American desk that my ticket was fine. When I got to Chicago (where the Etihad flights began – it was American Airlines before that), I was informed that I could not be checked in because my ticket was booked incorrectly and I had SIX MINUTES to call the travel agent and fix it before the flight list was finalized. I was overcome by nausea as I waited on hold for four minutes before getting an agent on hold, and the ticketing agent spoke with him. My time was up and the agent said he could extend it, but only for another five minutes. At that point, I told my friend Bobbi to go run through security so she wouldn’t miss her flight and that I would see her in Kathmandu one way or another, even if it meant buying another ticket at the last second. So the seconds are ticking away, I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown and thinking I’m about to charge a $6,000 plane ticket onto my credit card when, with 30 SECONDS to spare, the ticketing agent says “DONE!” and hands me off to the gate agent, who runs me through security. I was the last person on the plane.

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The view on the way home – not too shabby

I’d like to say that the disaster ended there, but it obviously did not. So, when I booked my flight, I called Etihad directly and reserved gluten free meals for all of my flights – literally 8 months in advance. The gluten free meals showed up on my online itinerary, I asked every single person I spoke to on the phone before the trip if they were confirmed, and I talked to THREE separate people at the airport who said that they were confirmed. Well, guess what? There was no gluten free food on either of my flights – including the one that was 14 hours long! Of course, I ate before I left and I had snacks with me, but 14 hours without a real meal is a very, very long time. I was even assured while in the air that the flight from Abu Dhabi to Kathmandu was guaranteed to have my food…but guess what? It didn’t. Airplane food has never looked so delicious as when surrounded by 300 people eating it when you can’t have any.

And lest you think I could suck it up and just have terrible diarrhea (sorry) for the rest of the flight, oh no. Even if I wanted to do that, it was not an option, because in the process of rebooking my ticket at the last second, my carefully selected seat was changed to a middle seat in the middle of the big middle row. For a 14 hour flight. THE HORROR. Oh, and that seat was broken and didn’t recline. Yeah.

However, there was a bright spot in all this. The people who sat next to me were AMAZING. On my left, I had the sweetest old Pakistani woman who had been visiting her son in America for a month. On my right, I had an Indian mechanical engineer who had just spent 3 weeks visiting America for the first time for work. They were the sweetest people ever (the engineer and I are now Facebook friends and he comforted me about the election) and they kept trying to find me gluten free food because they felt so sorry for me. Even though it was one of the worst flights ever, it ended up also being one of the best. I love travel!

The Bathroom Situation

So the burning question that everyone (mostly my mother) wants to know is – what are the bathrooms like in Nepal? This is actually one thing that I almost never think about when I travel, which is perhaps ironic given how many stomach problems I have. But I guess when you’ve spent a significant portion of your career out in the woods for 10 hours a day, having a “real bathroom” is less of a concern. However, this is my mother’s number one question both before and after I travel. So, here’s what a bathroom in Nepal is like!

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About to enter my first real Nepali bathroom – here goes nothing!

So, there is no running water or indoor plumbing in most places in Nepal. You can certainly find “western” toilets in areas with lots of tourists, but we were not in areas with lots of tourists, so that meant we were using outhouses. I would say that on average, they are bigger than the average outhouse (as I write this, I realize that most of you have probably never been in an outhouse and I find myself suddenly wondering why I have such extensive experience in this area), and definitely bigger than a porta-potty. That’s because they are squat toilets, so you sort of need more room to maneuver.

Interestingly, every single bathroom we used had a ceramic bowl to squat into. Apparently, there has been a big sanitation push by aid organizations out in rural Nepal, so we never had an actual hole-in-the-ground situation. However, as you can see, there is no seat and there is no mechanism by which to flush, obviously. So you squat down, placing your feet on the textured edges of the ceramic, and then use a bucket of water to wash everything away. There is no toilet paper unless you bring your own.

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Pretty much standard – this was at one of our homestays

We were all a little nervous about what would happen when we actually had to “go” to the bathroom, especially with unfamiliar food and the constant threat of waterborne disease (thank you, Grayl water bottle, for protecting me!). On our first night in a village, we all got up in the middle of the night for a group trip to the bathroom, and I was a little cracked out on Ambien. Upon emerging, I proudly proclaimed in my half-asleep stupor “I am a f*cking LEGEND! I just sh*it in a Nepali squat toilet!” I’m sure you did not want to hear that story but Bobbi and Allison declared it the quote of the trip and laughed until they cried. We continued to refer to ourselves as “f*cking legends” every time we successfully used the bathroom for the rest of the trip, because everyone can use a little encouragement from time to time.

Confession – I actually loved the squat toilets. Once I got used to them, it was basically the best thing ever. It’s a much more natural way of doing things, shall we say, and I totally get the appeal. That said, it is REALLY hard to stand up using only your legs from a low squatting position after you’ve been hiking 10 miles a day for two weeks up and down mountains, so like, maybe a bar to grab onto would be good. I missed the squat toilets so much that I actually bought a Squatty Potty for my house when I came home. I am not kidding. It is life changing. It is now the only toilet in my house that I use.

Falling in Cow Poop

By all accounts, the three of us had a very successful hike thanks to our amazing guides and porters.  We avoided disaster…for the most part. On our last day of hiking together, we were very nearly at our destination village after a long day of descents. We had taken a lot of “shortcuts,” which I think is actually a Nepali word for “torturously steep and rocky downhills”  and were at a fork in the road, trying to decide the best route. Our guide went off to the right, and I followed him closely, carefully avoiding a huge pile of cow poop on the trail. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks and turned around, not sure if we had gone the best way. I tried to back up and turn around at the same time and went rocketing to the ground, landing directly in the cow poop – camera and all. “Oh, shit!” our guide yelled as he rushed to help me up. “No, literally, shit!” I said as Bobbi and Allison laughed hysterically until they cried. My whole right side was COVERED in cow poop, as was the bottom half of my camera and basically my entire ego. I ended up with some cuts and scrapes on my arm, but it was all too funny not to laugh about.

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Boishe – water buffalo! Probably not the cause of my demise but I will blame them nonetheless.

Apparently, Bobbi thought so too, because right as we were falling asleep that night and the room was completely silent, she started hysterically laughing out loud. “You’re thinking about Danielle falling in the cow poop again, aren’t you?” Allison said. “OF COURSE I AM!” Bobbi crowed. “Me tooooo!” Allison laughed back. “I hate you both,” I said.

Breaking My Hand

In what is actually the least exciting story of the trip, I broke a little bone at the base of my left hand (near my wrist) on my last day of trekking. Bobbi and Allison had gone home by this point, and it was just me and my guide Hari and porter/comic relief, Laxman. Our last day was entirely downhill as we headed to the village where we’d be picked up to go back to Kathmandu the next day. There was a particularly steep section and I slipped on loose dirt on the trail and put my hands down hard to break my fall. It hurt my hand a lot at the time, but honestly, my whole body hurt by that point in the trek, so I didn’t think that much about it – I figured it would go away. Well, it didn’t, and I didn’t sleep that night because it hurt so bad and I was determined to save my “good” pain meds for the drive back to Kathmandu and plane ride home, since my knees hurt a lot when I travel (but only when I sit – weird, right?). When I got up the next morning and turned on the light, I had two big bony bumps on my hand and wrist that definitely were not there the day before, and my whole hand and wrist were swollen. We were in a rural village, so it’s not like there was a hospital nearby, so I did the only thing I could – made myself a cast out of a camping towel and an ACE bandage my guide had.

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My MacGyver cast – I was very pleased with my handiwork.

They wanted me to go to a hospital when I got to Kathmandu, but my mom is a nurse and she told me I couldn’t get a hard cast on my hand since I was flying so soon and my arm would swell in the air. I’m not sure I would have wanted to go to a hospital in Kathmandu anyway, so my soft cast and I suffered together til I got back home.

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I prefer to think of it as a cool accessory no one else has caught onto yet. Plus, it was excellent for garnering sympathy from the locals, who also were extra nice to me since I was traveling alone at this point.

The Hippie Pants Incident

So, while in Nepal, the three of us spent approximately 50 percent of our time exclaiming “Ohmygod!” about the scenery and the other 50 percent of the time freaking out about how much we loved everyone’s pants. People there wear loose fitting pants with a long tunic over the top in a huge variety of prints and colors. Lucky for tourists, you can buy them dirt cheap in Kathmandu for about $3 a pair if you’re a good negotiator (and more like $6 if you don’t negotiate at all). Even though I knew AJ would think they are hideous, I was so excited to go back and buy all the pants I could find as soon as I got back to Kathmandu. There was one pair I really wanted to buy, but they were way too long to fit my mom, and I was getting them for her. I explained that to one particular store owner and he said “Oh! I have a sewing machine right here! I will hem them for her!” So I sat in his tiny shop on a little side street in Kathmandu at about 9 o’clock at night and we chatted away like old friends while he ripped out the elastic and hemmed the pants for her. I learned all about his family (he has siblings all over the world), where he grew up (five minutes away from his shop) and what all his kids are doing and saw pictures of all of them. I told him what life is like where I live and tried to explain the election to him when he inevitably asked (impossible) and he invited me to dinner at his house the next night. Had I not been flying out the next day, I absolutely would have went. He was the sweetest man – and he even gave me a little present to give my mom from him. So cute!

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Hard at work on my mom’s pants!

And that experience perfectly sums up one of the best aspects of solo travel – it opens you up to so many interactions that you would never have otherwise. I can guarantee you that if I had been with another person, I would never have sat in that shop for 45 minutes and talked about life with a Nepali tailor in Kathmandu because I would have been too focused on the other person to get that opportunity.  Especially traveling solo as a woman, people want to take care of you, engage with you, and help you. And yes, while there is a tiny minority that might want to hurt you, most people look out for you and are just interested in hearing your story. My favorite part isn’t telling my story, though, despite what this blog might imply — it’s hearing theirs! I find that I learn the most from simply listening. I’m willing to bet they’d tell you the same thing.

LEAVE A COMMENT: What’s your best travel story?

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2 thoughts on “Tales from the Trail: Nepal

  1. Wow. Just wow. To say that this was an eventful trip is like saying that the election here was eventful! I can’t believe the plane story (with the broken seat, oy vey). But like you said, no matter what goes down, it is the people that make the difference! I’m not even going to try with my “best” travel story. These are far too good to sully.

  2. You said that these stories didn’t ‘fit’ elsewhere … but honestly as I echo Susie’s “Wow. Just wow” sentiment, I also reflect and think that it is stories like these, the small insights, the way you craft your narrative (you really do) that make THESE the most compelling tales of all. I have loved all the pictures and other post and sure I will love whatever else you post about the trip, but something tells me I will always think of THIS when the thought of you and Nepal comes up.

    There are so many amazing memories I have from solo travel through the years … and you are right that a large part of it is simply being open to the experience.

    I am with Suz that I don’t want to clutter too much – but there is one I remember well, on a flight from Boston to Newark NJ, waiting in the airport for a delayed flight. I got to chatting with a young woman (early-mid 20s like myself), based on the books each of us was reading, and it really was just a great experience. I was a year out of college, she was a senior, and as it turned out she and her parents were going to a Shakespeare in the Park performance and she said ‘wanna go with us?’ and I said Sure! There was no romantic element – we just clicked and she was super cool and after her parents go over their (understandable) confusion we just had a nice time chatting away, then I headed on my way, she headed back to school and we never ended up talking again.

    This past weekend we stayed at a B&B, which really used to be a huge deal, but are apparently slowly dying off … I always loved them for the interactions and sense of ‘home’ that you open up to. There were two other families there – one also with a kid at Ithaca College, the other with a son at Cornell. The one family was a bit reserved at first, but the other was wide open to chatting away – as was the host. We got to enjoy nearly 2 hour breakfasts each morning full of stories about everyone and everything. It is these interactions that bolster our faith in humanity.

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