Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I headed north passing through Medan and Banda Aceh, before taking a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh. The town of Iboih was half developed and most everything was closed due to Ramadan. However, this didn’t cause any problems as we spent the majority of our time underwater. Known to be the best place in the Indian Ocean to dive, it’s unnecessary to say that we had a blast. Larry, Kaitlin and Nick went on multiple fun dives, while I completed my open water diver certification. Although a small achievement, I was extremely proud of myself for getting over my fear of scuba diving. After a handful of dives, we spotted: reef shark, sting rays, moray eels, turtles, puffer fish, octopus, sea cucumber, sea urchins, lionfish, catfish, rainbow fish, and a million other unknown colorful creatures.
On some of my dives, I saw motorbikes and cars sitting on the ocean floor as a result of the 2004 Tsunami. We spoke with Norma, the owner of our bungalow, about the affects the Tsunami had on a Pulau Weh. She said that 11 people had died, the island wasn’t hit nearly as hard as Banda Aceh where over 61,000 people were killed. She told us that the people on the island stopped eating fish because they were finding human parts in them and that they began to eat a lot of dried sting ray as so many washed up onto shore. She made it clear that the natural disaster was tied to religion, she mentioned people being saved maybe because they were good muslims and mentioned how she didn’t see many children in the mass graves, she didn’t know why, maybe they were spared. She remembered people climbing up coconut trees and after the destruction, individuals from Medan coming and stealing family land from the deceased. The destruction on Sumatra was unimaginable and we were looked forward to learning more in Banda Aceh.
We all like to think that we are open-minded and have global perspectives, however we all make preconceived notions, and I am no different. After watching a VICE episode filmed in Banda Aceh about Sharia Law, to be honest I was a little nervous about visiting. I recalled them interviewing a man who had pledged his alliance to ISIS and the strict law that forbid public display of affection, western dress, non- conservative dress, drugs and alcohol, the meeting of non- married couples, and homosexuality. The episode showed a man receiving 80+ canes in the town square for breaking what felt like a petty crime. I checked the state department site to make sure there were no dangers for tourists and was eager to learn more about these differences. It turns out, it felt just like many other Southeast Asian cities. It wasn’t dangerous and didn’t feel oppressed. We had to be mindful of our actions, dress appropriately, and avoid eating in public due Ramadan. However, wherever you travel you should be respectful of the local culture and religion. Locals were friendly and shouting, “Good morning!” and “What’s your name?” as they sped by on their motorbikes. We thoroughly enjoyed the wealthy city (from oil) and explored the markets and many colorful fishing boats.
On our first night, we met up with a CouchSurfer who took us out for street food and when his phone flashed 6:40, we heard the mosque sirens and broke fast. He left for 2 hours to pray and we reunited around 11 pm. He picked us up with his friends to eat a second meal as most individuals fasting eat very late then again at 4am before prayer. We ate Aceh noodle soup with seafood and drank juice that consisted of avocado, jackfruit and coconut. He showed us around the Masjid Raya, which was the most beautiful mosque I have seen on our travels. The intricate marble screens were beautiful, the complex was enormous and it was immaculately maintained. 12 umbrellas modeled after those in Medina (Saudi Arabia) made it feel very modern. We learned that the small Banda Aceh airport, which offers 6 flights a day, has 2 direct flights to Medina per week. Our CouchSurfer told us how difficult and expensive it was to make a pilgrimage there or to Mecca, but anyone that did was extremely lucky.
The next day, Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I visited the Tsunami museum, which was not only well done, but also heart wrenching. Between fighting with the Dutch, a civil war and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, this city had a hard history. As we entered the museum we walked through a dark hallway with 98 ft. walls of dripping water, this represented the height of the waves in Aceh.
Both earthquake epicenters (9.2 magnitude and 7.5) were only 250 km from the state of Aceh, however its affects were seen in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India, Maldives, Somalia, Malaysia and Seychelles.
Of the 250,000 people that were killed from the tsunami, 61,000 were in Banda Aceh.
Similar to stories we heard in Sri Lanka, locals walked out on the exposed ocean floor collecting fish, unsure of what was happening. The ocean receded 900 ft. before the initial 98 ft. wave crashed the shore.
4 mass graves are located in Banda Aceh, where the victims of the tsunami rest.
In Aceh history, tsunamis are known as le Beuna, a warning from Allah to all of human society to get back to the right side of life.
We would have loved to spend a few more days in Banda Aceh (and in every other town we’ve visited in Sumatra) but had to catch our flight to Jakarta. We boarded the plane to an announcement stating, “Any trafficking of drugs will end in the penalty of death.” It was obvious that all of our bags had been thoroughly searched as zippers were opened, clothes were moved and books pages were ripped.
Olala & Oong Bungalows (Iboih) – both offer cheap accommodations with great meals; also try Dee Dee’s Kitchen next to Rubiah Divers
Rubiah Tirta Divers (Iboih)- the only locally owned dive shop on the island, you get lots of personalized attention, but don’t expect the staff to start early. They offer great Ramadan specials, open water PADI certification 3,200,000 rupiah ($240)
Ramadan street food (Banda Aceh)- at 4pm (only during Ramadan) the streets are lined with delicious sticky rice, sweets, fruit soup, noodles, fish curries, fried tofu, peanut salad and fruit. By 6pm, everything is sold out and everyone is closing shop. Take it to go and eat in private or wait until sunset to eat with the locals.
Not only is Lake Toba the largest lake in Southeast Asia, it is the largest volcanic lake in the world. Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I spent 2 days relaxing around the sleepy town of Tuk Tuk and were thankful we were not visiting during high season. We observed a local wedding, enjoyed local coffee, and (they) ate fresh water fish and crawfish. Lake Toba is home to Christain Batak people; we visited execution sites as Bataks practiced ritual cannibalism until 1816. We drove by numerous churches, tombs and traditional Batak homes. It felt like traditional homes were the affordable housing option for lower income individuals. The newer more elaborate Batak homes seemed to be built solely for tourism. We rented a motorbike, drove along the “coast” and visited some extremely hot, hot springs. The lush and volcanic landscape reminded Larry and Kaitlin of Hawaii.
We headed north to Berstagi, a small hill town that sat among volcanoes and that we came to cherish. The volcanic soil made it ideal for growing produce and we passed fields of cabbage, green onion, pineapple, orange, and coffee. Exploring the markets and street food were among our favorite activities. The highlight of our time spent in Berstagi was hiking Gunung Sibayak (volcano). We began hiking at 4 am in order to catch a beautiful sunrise. The crater and fluorescent yellow vents were a sight but nothing in comparison to the view across the valley of Gurung Sinabung (2,450 m). As I was posing for photos with some locals, Nick shouted “Look behind you!” Black smoke began to rise from the massive volcano, it was an eruption. For anyone that knows me, I began to slightly panic. I looked at the girls that I was taking photos with and asked if this was normal. They said no and that they were scared. Little did I know that it is an extremely active volcano and has small eruptions 2-5 times a day. I was being punk’d! The most recent large eruption was in May 2017 where 2 aid workers were killed trying to rescue residents. We hiked down the volcano’s backside through lush jungle and soaked in some hot springs at the bottom.
Sibayak (Lake Toba) – budget friendly rooms right on the lake, when you are ready to leave, simply flag down the ferry.
Wisma Sibayak (Berstagi) – cute rooms for 60,000 rupiah ($4.50) tucked off of main street, excellent find and strong wifi.
Family Baru (Berstagi) – try the coffee, ginger & egg white drink, you can’t go wrong with any of the food.
After taking a 3-month break from Southeast Asia, it was nice to return. Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I purchased the cheapest flights from Kathmandu to Indonesia and landed in Padang (West Sumatra). The rice paddy fields, fresh fruit, street food and paved roads were back! 90% of Indonesian’s population is Muslim and it felt like we drove by a beautiful mosque every 5 minutes. Almost every woman wore a hijab and during the call to prayer you could hear it from every direction. The handful of Westerns we saw at the airport and in Padang had a surfboard in hand and was headed to the islands.
As we explored the clean, quant city during the day, it felt dead. Most of the restaurants were closed or had fabric veiling the door. We saw signs in Indonesian which translated to special service non-Muslims. This confused us. We walked along the river then near the ocean. Locals honked and screamed “hello.” Students interview Kaitlin to practice their English and the Indonesians smiled at us curiously. We laughed at the local mode of transportation, opelets, which were souped up vans with tinted windows, rims, and a pounding base. By 2 pm, large tables were set up along the road selling bags of noodles, sweets, and other foods “to-go”. We all took a nap, tired from only getting 2 hours of sleep during our transit and returned back to town for dinner. It felt like we were transported to a young hip city! There was street food everywhere and teens hung out at coffee, grass jelly juice, noodle, and meat kabobs carts. Then it clicked. All of these unique things were happening because we had arrived halfway through Ramadan, the largest Muslim holiday of the year. Although this eventually caused small complications with access to food, appropriateness of eating in public, increased traffic, and increased ticket fares; we were excited to experience the holiday.
The next day, we took a bus to Harau Valley, often called the Yosemite of Asia. Tall walls of metamorphic rock lined the sides of the valley. Nick and I were looking forward to climbing, however the only rental shop was unfortunately closed due to the holiday. We stayed at Adhi Homestay, a cute cluster of bungalows that sat among waterfalls, flooded rice fields and fruit trees. We heard fruit constantly dropping out of trees, and enjoyed all sorts of fruit, including: bananas, jackfruit, passion fruit, wild guava, cacao, durian, soursop, dragon fruit, milk fruit, breadfruit, tamarillo, jicama, salak and coconuts. We ate our weight in passion fruit and I helped a girl climb a large tree to pick them. At 6:30 pm we heard a loud siren. Coming from Hawaii, Larry thought this was a tsunami siren. It followed with many call to prayers that echoed off the valley walls. This was the siren that marked sunset and those fasting were now allowed to eat. We learned that Muslims refrain from eating, drinking water, smoking cigarettes, and other worldly possessions (including sex) from sunrise (4:30am) to sunset (6:30pm). However, children and menstruating women do not participate the entire month.
We spent a day relaxing, exploring nearby villages and taking a cooking class. We learned how to make chicken (young jackfruit for the veg option) rendang, a local Indonesian dish that is similar to a korma curry. We also made an eggplant and tempeh dish, and learned that tempeh originated in Indonesia. Unlike tofu, which is pressed soy milk (using mature soybeans (gold in color)), tempeh is made up of the entire bean, compressed. We also made some fried vegetable patties and banana jackfruit patties. We ate dinner with locals and foreigners and Nick, Larry and I had our cards read by a spunky local who had some surprisingly accurate things to say.
On our last day in the valley, we hiked a steep ascent to enjoy a panoramic view. Volcanoes in the distance peaked out behind clouds and we could hear the call to prayer from the mosques below. The majority of the green valley consisted of flooded rice fields and fisheries. We observed henna, chili, clove and cacao growing. We saw a scary scorpion the size of my hand, but thankfully no snakes. Indonesia is notorious for its pythons. A few months ago a farmer disappeared in Sulawesi only to be found in the belly of a python nearby. Our guide informed us that this was rare, however in West Sumatra snakes eating children have become a pressing issue. The government has made it legal to hunt snakes for the local’s protection. We continued hiking through the jungle, crawled through caves and swam in waterfalls. Another surprising fact we learned was that Harau Valley was based off of a maternal society. Men had to pay a female’s mother to marry and it usually costs 16,000,000 rupiah ($1,200). It’s difficult for a man to find a wife as she must be in another group, approved by the village chief, and the man must be able to afford the dowry proposed by the mother. If a man is wealthy, like in many Asian countries, he can have many wives.
That evening we took 3 modes of transportation to Northern Sumatra and traveled 515 kilometers (300 miles) in 16 hours.
Sari Rosa – similar to lunches in Myanmar, this local shop serves a dozen of small veg and non beg options and rice, you pay for the dishes you eat.
Try buff (water buffalo) or chicken rendang, chili grilled fish and abundance of tofu and tempeh. During Ramadan, sweets can be found everywhere. Try the fruit soup, green rice flower balls covered in fresh coconut and filled with palm sugar, butternut squash sweets or a pink coconut milk soup with tapioca squares.
Although Nick and I were having a hoot in India, after 2 months we were beginning to feel exhausted. We crossed into Nepal by land and the difference was night and day. Nepalis smiled at us and helped us cross the border. They made sure we got on the right bus and pointed out their favorite momo hut. Nick thought it was all a trick or maybe we were getting scammed but I assured him that Nepalis were the kindest of them all. The 11 hour bus ride from the Indian border to Kathmandu was exciting to say the least. We were surprised by how undeveloped the only road into the capital was and we followed a deep gorge the entire way. We saw vehicles teetering off the edge and although our bus driver drove like a lunatic (like all bus drivers in Asia) we were thankful when we arrived safely.
I was elated to be back in Nepal and although Kathmandu was dusty and touristed I was excited to return. The affects from the 2015 earthquake were very present and Kathmandu reminded both Nick and I of the soviet era capital of Mongolia (Ulan Batar). We appreciated the law against unnecessary honking. We watched people line the street and march for their favored party in the upcoming election. The election was a big deal as this was the first local election in 20 years. Nick and I spent a few days running errands and arranging our trek to Dolpo before picking up Larry and Kaitlin (our friends from Hawaii) from the airport. Before trek we spent a few days exploring the city.
We spent Buddha’s birthday at Boudhanath Stupa
Durbar Square (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Pashupatinath Temple (Hindu)
Garden of Dreams
My highlight was spending time with Sri and Tsewang, friends I met in Nepal in 2012 and later worked with when I worked for an adventure travel company, Above the Clouds. We had many meals together and gained local knowledge on the election, Mustang, politics, and climate change.
After our 20+ day on trek (Dolpo Trek blog post), Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I were excited to head to Pokhara, mostly looking forward to bathing and eating. I remembered Pokhara as a small lakeside city with lychee trees and ping pong. However, the amount of development and construction in the past 5 years was astonishing. It felt like any college town from the states plopped into the rainforest. There were hundreds of hotels and I was surprised to see fast food chains and box stores.
Before leaving Kathmandu we were thrilled to find lychee season begun! We prompty ate 4 pounds of lychee and many mangos before boarding our flight for Indonesia!
Momo Hut- palak paneer momos, palak and peanuts, garlic and cheese chilimomos
Utse- a Tibetan restaurant that offers great hot pots and Tongba (hot water poured over fermented millet)
Fren’s Kitchen- great tofu steak and best wifi in Thamel
Fire & Ice- a delicious pizza place for Western cravings after trek
Rosemary- Western breakfast
Lassi- a delicious local lassi stand on Thamel Marg (40 R for a small, 70 R for a large)
Roads- 5 years ago I had a remarkable experience in Mustang, Nepal. Nick and I knew that we wanted to travel in a remote area (specifically in Western Nepal), however heard that Mustang changed due to a newly built road. We wanted to experience a culture not yet impacted by connectivity and decided to trek in Dolpo, Nepal. We were thrilled that Nick’s childhood best friend Larry and his partner Kaitlin would be joining us from Hawaii.
During our 20+ days on trek, we noticed that there seemed to be no thought that went into the development of roads, specifically around how it would impact the local culture. People seem to come into remote areas and build roads before there is even access to vehicles (we saw this in the canyon to Nawwapani). Our guide told us that locals expect there to be a road connecting Dolpo in 3-4 years. People want development and access, however it doesn’t seem like there is enough thought in the planning, only considering immediate economic impacts. On our travels, we found that roads in Darjeeling were well planned. Locals had access to the road, however it was about a half-hour walk and it not only preserved the environment, but also the culture.
Money- When trekking, most tourists give all of their money to a large company in Kathmandu to plan and arrange their entire trip. We found that although this approach is more encompassing, it is more expensive and only supports some local staff. We found that it was hard to arrange a trek in remote areas without strong contacts. In Mongolia, Nick and I got lucky with a local recommendation from Lonely Planet, however in Nepal, we compromised with using a company to find our guide and help with permits and flights. We decided to pay for food and shelter as we went. We were surprised to learn that during our guide’s 16 years of guiding, this was the first time he had lead a trip like this in Dolpo.
We were happy with our decision as we felt we were paying more to the local community in comparison to a big trekking group. In many small villages, we were able to stay with a family in a teahouse, while another group (the only trekking group we saw in 21 days) camped outside and ate food brought from Kathmandu. We feel our approach allowed for a more authentic experience, however was more difficult as we carried our own gear, ate 28 dhal bhat meals (lentils and rice), and got cold and wet. Later, we did discover that our guide and 2 porters were not getting paid what we were told, however tried to compensate this by providing them with a nice tip at the end.
Yartsa Gunbu- This fungus grows on insects found above 13,000 ft. in mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet. In Tibet, it is literally translated to “winter worm, summer grass.” It is valued in China as an herbal remedy and 1 kg is valued at $20,000. Yartsa Gunbu is predominately found in the Dolpo region of Nepal. The Chinese created this economy and most families in Dolpo earn their yearly income in 3-4 weeks of collecting, then focus on sustenance farming the rest of the year. Every year, less and less Yartsa Gunbu is found. It’s a double edge sword because it provides an economic opportunity, however there is no regulation on how collectors treat the environment. Trash, feces and make shift tents litter mountain passes. Camps run on a Yartsa Gunbu economy and locals trade one piece ($5) for a beer. Police are sent to the mountains and monitor remote areas for security. Collectors seem to treat each other well, they look together and families send their children up to collect in order to make money.
Day 1- We flew from Nepalgunj to Juphal and the highlight of the mountainous flight was the scary landing. We hiked 3 hours through green barley fields and a deep dry valley to Dunai. The view was remarkable and the snow capped mountains were a constant reminder we were trekking in the Himalayas. In Dunai, curious kids greeted us and directed us to a teahouse. Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags flew from the top of each home and elders walked around the town spinning prayer wheels and counting mala beads.
Day 2- We hiked 5 hours to Chhepka. We began in the desert, followed a raging blue/ green river, and then hiked in woods. Mossy trees, birds, suspension bridges, and rain. We passed abandoned villages as all of the locals moved to higher elevation to search for Yartsa Gunbu. The woman at the local teahouse made the best Tibetan butter tea. We noticed one of our porters being treated poorly as he was Buddhist and the other porter and guide were Hindu. He carried a heavier load and was responsible for far more tasks in comparison. We read about this phenomenon in The Snow Leopard, which was written in he 70’s and were surprised to see it continuing to happen today.
Day 3- We hiked for 5 hours up and down to Chunnuwaur. We continued to follow the river and eventually exited tree line. We passed many lines of horses and mules, the head animal wore a beautiful bell and headdress made of yak hair.
Day 4- 3 ½ hour hike to Phoksundo Lake. We hiked up to a viewpoint and saw a spectacular waterfall. We were greeted by smiling snot-covered kids in Ringmo, holding their hands together screaming “Namaste.” We played Frisbee near the glistening lake and visited an 800-year-old Bon monastery. Bon is religion that came to Tibet before Buddhism, however buddhist doctrines and rituals have been incorporated making it the sixth branch of Tibetan Buddhism. We walked past stupas, and noticed the auspicious swastika symbol is reversed in Bon (yungdrung).
Day 5- Phoksundo Lake is 3 miles long, ½ mile wide and ½ mile deep. There is no life in or on the fresh water lake; there are no algae, fish, or boats. Today, we took a “rest day” and hiked 4 ½ hours along a ridge above the lake. We had a great view of Upper Dolpo. We listened to wild jackals in the evening and watched mules eat salt. When the man of the teahouse returned from visiting his second wife, he made us a delicious roasted marijuana seed (non psychotropic), tomato and chili paste to eat with our dhal bhat. We learned that the communist party may have won the election and wondered how this would affect Nepal’s political future.
Day 6- 2 ½ hours to Yak Kharka then 3 hours to Bagala basecamp. We had beautiful views overlooking the gorge and looking back at lake. We dropped into a green meadow with glaciers surrounding us. We ate lunch in Yak Kharka, a village that consisted of 1 stone home, covered in drying dung. We ate with a group of 15-year-old girls going to the mountains to collect. They said they would spend 15 days collecting and expected to find 1 Yartsa Gunbu per day. Dark clouds chased us up the valley as we hiked to Bagala base camp. I noticed the running river, brown dirt surrounding the river and green lush grass. Tan desert rocks lined the canyon. Melting ice turned into waterfalls, horses grazed and yaks moved to lower elevation. We set up camp at 4,500m (14,763 ft.) just in time for snow. The pass and glaciers sat in the clouds; we were in a snow globe.
Day 7- We were the first trekkers of the season to hike up and over Bagala Pass 5,169 m (16,958 ft). We crossed an icy river in the morning and saw blue sheep above. I heard rocks move above us as the ice began to melt. We saw big marmots, purple flowers and huge glaciers. We hiked for 6 ½ hours, and along the ridge of a valley at the end. We didn’t need any altitude medications, however felt slow. Our heart rate and breathing increased and we felt nauseous. We slept at the base of Numala Pass.
Day 8- Again, we were the first trekkers of the season to cross over Numala Pass 5,300 m (17,600 ft). Although higher, this pass felt easier than Bagala. We came down into a high and dry environment that reminded me of Mustang, which made sense as I could see upper Mustang behind some mountains. We could see dark storm clouds but were so high we could also see clear baby blue skies above. We walked down mossy meadow humps, saw herds of big furry yaks and followed the river to Dho Tarap. We saw ancient homes, piles of drying dung, green houses and motorbikes (which are walked 2 days from Tibet during an open 1 month trade agreement). We saw tsampa (ground barley) being ground by the power of the river. We visited a school and hiked for a total of 7 hours.
Day 9- Rest day. We visited a 700-year-old Bon Monastery, Ribo Bhompa Gonpa. We watched the locals plow fields with yaks. I spent time playing with a young girl who lived at the teahouse and was fascinated how she imitated her mother. Growing up, I remember pretending to talk on a cell phone or use a credit card but this young girl was pretending to herd goats, grind chilies and carried her doll on her back wrapped in a scarf. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and drank local barely wine.
Day 10- It seems like the landscape changed every 2 days. Today was dry with waterfalls, it reminded me of the Southwest, USA. Nick, Larry and Kaitlin ate blue sheep at lunch, the first time eating meat since we left Kathmandu. Every tea house/ tea house tent seemed to carry Chinese products. Rice bags, soda cans, and ramen wrappers were written in Chinese. Goat and sheep covered the hiking trail and we trekked for 7 hours. I watched a goat/ sheepherder roll wool on a hand spindle while he walked.
Day 11- Kaitlin was sick. We were back in the forest following the river and the grassy mountains resembled Switzerland. The hills were alive with the sound of music. Dhal bhat was getting more expensive at 500 R ($5) per plate while in Kathmandu it was 100 R ($1). We saw enormous 200 ft. trees, it reminded us of Colorado. We camped at a lower elevation and the climate was hot. We slept in a meadow with purple lavender like flowers and horse skeletons. Part of the trail shimmered in the sun and the silver rock looked like glitter. We hiked for 7 hours total.
Day 12- Today, we hiked from 6:45 am to 4 pm and gained 1,500 m (4,921 ft.) in elevation. It was a hard day and my legs felt like Jell-O-O. Wild marijuana grew everywhere, Gompa Village sat in the mountains where walnut trees grew. We met a man traveling from Upper Dolpo who had lost his 11 yaks and was on a journey to find them. We stopped by some hot springs (tatopani) and had to bush wack for an hour back to the main trail. Nick had back pain. We walked with the Nepali military sent to monitor the Yartsa Gunbu collecting which began the following day. We were happy when we made it to the top, however the last hour walk in the pouring rain was cold and frustrating. We camped at Jangla Base Camp 4,300 m (14,100 ft).
Day 13- We were surprised with Nepali sweets from Bchandra’s family (one of our porters) who was camping close by to collect. We hiked over Jangla Pass in a cloudy meadow and dreamt of food, as we were getting sick of dhal bhat. Larry made a great discovery of covering your poo with dried yak poo when no rocks could be found. Genius. We had an easy day (4 hours) and napped in the afternoon although breathing was difficult due to the elevation. We played cards in the evening.
Day 14- We woke up to rain, then snow, and waited for an hour in hopes of better weather. Eventually, our guide said, “We must go over the pass or we may have problems.” We trekked over the snowy pass not able to see far in front of us. We came down to a tent camp, where collectors were staying. We left the canyon and were back in a lush forested environment. The landscape reminded Nick and I of Northern Vietnam. Waterfalls, Rhododendron, moss, fallen leaves. Women wore clothing that looked similar to hill tribe clothing in Southeast Asia. It began to rain as we approached Dhule. We hiked for 6 1/2 hours. We spent the evening in Dhule, which was busy with collectors and helped locals clean Yartsa Gunbu with toothbrushes. We hung out with some local kids and ended the evening with dhal bhat, mutton and tongba (warm millet beer).
Day 15- We spent the evening under a leaky roof during a thunderstorm. We had roti (similar naan) for breakfast and were not use to the aspect of chewing, as dhal bhat does not require such strong jaw muscles. We hiked along terraced fields (corn, potatoes, squash, green onion and millet) and honeybee logs. We learned that 1 family of bees live in a log per season and our guide gets 200 kg of honey per year from 20 logs. We hiked through forest. Birds chirped, water rushed and we spent a few hours at hot springs. We hiked for 4 hours through lush forest to Kayam, a village of 2 homes. When the clouds lifted we were surprised with a breathtaking view.
Day 16- Our guide and porters collected wild bamboo shoots for dinner and stole lettuce from gardens. We observed bridges, rain and moss. We stopped in Thakur, where the clay home with a thatched roof provided us with fresh buffalo milk. The home was dark and smoky and we ate dhal bhat for lunch. Goat and buffalo meat hung above the wood stove to dry. We hiked for 3 hours today and camped on an unprotected saddle.
Day 17- We got little sleep due to high winds and rain, and our tent repeatedly collapsed. The next morning we trekked over a small pass. There was a lot of rain and we continued to drink copious amounts of buffalo milk. At lunch I was embarrassed after my new dog friend came running up to me in the woods and ate my waste before I had time to even think.
After 5 hours of trekking, we entered the hunting reserve and the national park pass was 3x what we expected. We spent the afternoon in Dhorpotan where Larry and Kaitlin played Frisbee with kids and Nick washed laundry in the river. I pumped water and had a lovely conversation in attempted Nepali with a local about her kids, siblings and age. The town consisted of scattered huts in a valley and there was no town center. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and ate an abundant amount of Indian snacks we bought from a nearby store. That evening Nick and I began to feel ill.
Day 18- Thankfully today was a rest day in Dhorpotan. Due to overconsumption, food poisoning or a change and diet, Nick and I spent the previous night and early morning projectile vomiting into our camping pot, bags and in the backyard. Hundreds of dogs barked the entire night. The next morning the dog and chickens made sure to clean up our mess. It took 4 days for our (which now included Larry’s) system to get rid of the Indian snacks.
Day 19- Today, the weather was warm and sunny. We crossed suspension bridges, water buffalo roamed the woods and Larry found a leech on him. We were trekking at a lower elevation and walked through a dead forest that was killed by a fire 20 years earlier. The clouds looked so close, I watched them expand and they moved quickly. For the first time on our trip Nick and I mentioned missing home. Maybe because it had been so long since we had talked with our families; we were worried that everything was okay.
We passed snarling Tibetan Mastiffs showing their teeth. By day these dogs were chained but at night they roamed guarding homes. We sat on animal skins and ate dhal bhat for lunch. Nick, Larry and I were still sick from the Indian snacks and beginning to have sharp pain under our rib cage. Good thing we only had a few more days of trek! We camped and the clouds looked bright in the dark sky. We listened to cow bells and jackals in the evening. 4 ½ hours of hiking.
Day 20- We woke up to a clear view of Dhaulagiri. This mountain consists of 5 peaks and is 5 miles tall or 7,900 m (26,810 ft). The clouds moved quickly over Jaljala Pass and our view of Dhaulagiri was quickly obstructed. We trekked 4 hours downhill to a teahouse where we ate candy and explored the town.
Day 21- We took an adventurous 7 hour bus to Beni where we drove past snow covered peaks on a “road” that was carved into the mountain side. We ate some local plums, which were the first fruit we’d had in almost a month. At a bus stop we ate samosas and jalebis then boarded another bus headed for Pokhara. We reflected on our remarkable trek and looked forward to bathing.
Dhal Bhat- 28 meals
Days camping- 11
Days in tea houses- 10
Other foreigners’ spotted- 6 (an anthropologist, linguist, trekkers and a runner)
Varanasi is 1 of the world’s oldest continuously inhibited cities and 1 of Hinduisms 7 holy cities. Pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges River and families come to cremate their deceased, liberating them from the cycle of birth and death.
Varanasi was intense and like most of India was aggressive, polluted and dirty. Military presence was high and angry bulls filled the tiny alleyways. I was pleased that it took almost 2 months before a bull rammed me, as a fear of cows would have been inconvenient. However, the culture and tradition that filled the city was unique and spiritual.
Nick and I spent the majority of our time along the river observing the 80 plus ghats. During the day the weather was hot and there were only a handful of locals on the banks. We hung out with wandering cows and fed some paper from our guidebook to hungry goats. We watched men paint tar on boats with their bare hands as we had previously seen locals painting fences in Kolkata without brushes. We people watched then continued to the burning ghats.
We approached a burning ghat where we saw 20 bodies burning and 10 soaking in the river before being cremated. We could walk within 10 feet of the fires. We observed and were curious. We had many questions that were later answered by some generous locals.
Bodies come to Varanasi within 1-2 days of dying. They are wrapped in cloth, white for men, orange for women and red for young women. Children, pregnant women, lepers and Brahmin (priests) are not cremated as children are innocent, leopards will transfer their disease and priests are pure. Instead, a large rock is attached to their bodies and they are sunk in the river.
Untouchables, individuals in the lowest caste, wrap their bodies and carry them on decorated bamboo stretchers down busy alleyways to the ghats. The most popular ghat is Manikarnika Ghat where 200-300 people are burned per day and they work 24 hours. The deceased families, identifiable as they have shaved heads, splash water from the Ganges River on their deceased and let their body soak.
The body is placed on a prepared pile of wood and a calculated number of logs are placed on top as the cost of the cremation depends on the weight of the wood and type (sandalwood being the most expensive). Cremations cost on average $12- $71, however families who cannot afford this often place whole bodies in the Ganges. We were told that where the body is burned, closer to the river, on a platform, etc. all depends on your caste. Various spices and ghee are sprinkled over of the pile before being lit. It takes approximately 3-4 hours for a single body to burn. We watched over 15 cremations in various stages. Near the end, the worker rearranges the burning logs, ash and body with a long bamboo stick. It’s easy to identify the body being jabbed, as it’s soft and almost blubbery in comparison to the incinerating wood. The final ceremony includes breaking the burning skull with the bamboo stick, in order to let the spirit escape. After the body is fully burned, the ash is collected in a large pile on the bank. We were told that workers go through the pile searching for jewelry to keep or sell before the ash is washed into the river.
Nick and I sat and observed for hours. Myself and 1 other tourist were the only women among many men. Women are forbidden to attend Hindu funerals as they may cry, which as bodily fluid is viewed as a pollutant. We could hear the bodies burn; they didn’t crackle like the wood, but sizzled and popped. Clouds of smoke overtook the area with ash afloat.
Nick and I also explored the city and visited Vishwanath Temple. This temple was of the highest security we’ve visited and took multiple security checks and documentation our passports before we gaining entry. A local fished a lay of flowers out of a holy pool of sour milk and placed it around nicks neck. They then took a handful of the coagulated milk and mud (clay texture) and rubbed it across both Nick and my forehead. This brought good luck and smelliness to our families.
We took an evening boat ride along the river. At night, the ghats were full of Indians enjoying music music and spotting a famous Bollywood actress. On the boat, we watched the glowing flames on the banks, pilgrims bathing, children at swim practice and youth playing cricket and other games on the steps of the ghats. We lit a lotus candle and watched it drift through the river.
Varanasi was by far the most touristed placed we have visited in India, however we understood the draw. Westerners are so removed from the process of death. Between practicing yoga and meditation or contemplating death and culture, Varanasi was a though provoking place full of magical energy.
Kashi Chat Bhandar- this busy local spot is delectable! We enjoyed the aloo tikka (potato chat), tamatar chat, pani puri and kulfi fadoola for desert.
Dosa Cafe – great dosas, idly, vadas and other South Indian specialties
Nick and I went to the Bengaluru Train Station and stood in line to buy tickets. Of course, the line was chaotic with cutting locals and unnecessary merging. In addition, needless to say, our tickets were never checked on the train. However, as we stood on the platform we watched the sweeper women who were sweeping all of the human fecal matter off of the tracks. Life in a India is hard and there were constant reminders, like cows with split hoofs searching the streets for garbage, differently abled folks crawling on the floor of the trains begging for money or hungry street kids with eyes full of tears.
As the train approached there was a fight to get on. Nick was able to push himself on about 10 people before myself. As he sat, a 65-year-old man from outside poked him and began yelling, “I put my handkerchief on that seat so you better move!” Obviously Nick was on the train first so the seat should belong to him. I sat down next to him and he warned me we might have an interesting encounter. The man got on and was screaming! “Move now! Get up! This is my seat!” We looked around at all of the staring locals to see whether or not this was the practice and if we should give up our seat. Of course, no one helped, as in most scenes. We have been told that many Indians fear of getting involved and raising a voice as it could turn on them. Nick told him we’d wait for the conductor but we all knew the conductor would never come. Nonetheless, he started grabbing my bag and I asked him to stop touching my things. He bounced into a boxing stance with his fists in the air saying, “Touch me see what happens! Touch me!” Nick and I looked at each other; touching him was the opposite of what we had asked. I had had it. I yelled, “Maybe if you were more kind, people would do what you asked!” Zing. I told him haha. I exasperatedly rearranged some bags on the bunk above and squished myself above, while Nick awkwardly sat next to him for the next 3 hours. This is just one of the many interesting and unpredictable encounters we’ve had in India.
We arrived to Mysuru, home to Ashtanga Yoga, incense, essential oils, beedi (Indian cigarettes), and woodcarving. The tourist town was empty of foreigners but full of local tourists as it was a holiday weekend. We explored the Mysore Palace, grandest of India’s royal buildings. It was originally built in 1897 then rebuilt in 1912 after being destroyed by a fire. It reminded me of a palace from Beauty and the Beast or Anastasia. It was full of mirrors, stained glass, chandeliers, and gold and blue archways. At night it was decorated with 100,000 glowing lights.
The next day, Nick and I took a series of buses to Coorg, stopping in Bylakuppe. Bylakuppe was the first ever Tibetan refugee camp established after the 1959 Chinese invasion. Within the 6km tuktuk drive we notice a difference in physical attributes, attitude, architecture and dress. We visited the Namdroling Monastery, ate some momos and thenthuk before continuing to Coorg.
After passing through Coorg, we took a bus (the cheapest and most dangerous rollercoaster ride we’ve ever been on) to Mukkodlu. where we expected to meet our trekking guide. Due to some miscommunication, there was no guide and we wandered until we found an inviting homestay. We hiked 8 miles to the highest peak and got some great views. The landscape was lush and green with rolling mountains. It was nice to escape the hectic cities and spend some time in nature.
Hotel RRR – queue for tables like at ski resorts and wait to be served veg thalis served on banana leaves (always eat with your right hand and your left is reserved for the toilet)
Vinayaka Mylari – queue and eat masala dosas with coconut coriander chutney (no utensils will be found here)
McDonalds – We may or may not have tried McDonalds McVeg and Aloo (potato) Tikka meals.