Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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More than worrying about whether I would be able to carry my heavy backpack while trekking the Lower Mustang area in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal, I was concerned about altitude sickness. I had learned the hard way during a two month visit to Ecuador late last year that I do not react well to elevations over 10,000 feet. Though I was fine in Jomsom, Kagbeni, and Marpha, all of which are at lower elevations, the town of Muktinath lies nearly 12,500 feet high, and the temple of the same name is 300 feet higher than the town. Just to be safe, I popped a high-altitude sickness pill the night before and opted for a 4WD jeep rather than making the four-hour trek each way.

As directed, I arrived at 8:30 a.m. and was told the jeep would be delayed until 9:30. Two hours later, I was still waiting; the jeep needs a minimum of 12 passengers to make the run and since I had opted to travel in the low season no other customers had arrived. Fearing that I would miss my opportunity to visit Muktinath altogether, I pressed the issue and the manager finally pointed to a rough, rocky trail leading to the upper reached of Kagbeni. “You go top, get jeep.” Fortunately I had done some day-trekking around the area and knew the road to Muktinath was in the general direction where he pointed, so I scrambled up to the top of town and stuck my thumb out. Sure enough, a dust-caked jeep soon jounced around a corner and rumbled to a stop in front of me. “Muktinath?” I asked. The driver hopped out and unchained the back door of the jeep; I squeezed in with a family on Indians on a pilgrimage to visit the temple.

For the next hour our hotshot driver threaded a needle between soaring cliffs on one side of the rough graveled track and precipitous drop-offs that plunged thousands of feet to the valley floor, at times taking curves at a frightening speed that had us all banging on the roof for him to slow down. When the jeep finally rolled into town we breathed a collective sigh of relief and shakily climbed out.

Village of Muktinath, at more than 12,000 feet of elevation in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal

Village of Muktinath, at more than 12,000 feet of elevation in the Himalayan Mountains of Nepal

My rubbery legs carried me through the tiny village, not much more than a handful of brightly-painted wooden structures, to the trail that ascended to the temple itself. Halfway up I turned and looked down upon Muktinath, regally backed by a purple and blue Read More

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I stood on the stairway leading to the Buddhist Monastery in the Himalayan town of Marpha, holding onto the railing for dear life as as gale force gusts shredded the gauzy Tibetan prayer flags cascading down from the hilltop. Like every other day in Nepal‘s Lower Mustang Valley, ferocious winds had begun roaring down from the mountaintops in mid-morning and would continue until early evening. Struggling to keep from being blown over, I perused the tiny village that spread beneath me.

Incessant winds rip down from the mountains every afternoon in Lower Mustang, shredding prayer flags on the hilltop monastery

Incessant winds rip down from the mountains every afternoon in Lower Mustang, shredding prayer flags on the hilltop monastery

Marpha is notable for it’s many-storied old stone houses, built by hand without benefit of mud or mortar, and for the delicious apples grown in the lush valley that snakes between the Nilgiri and Dahlugiri Himalayan ranges. While I found those facts intriguing, what most caught my attention were the stacks of split firewood that lined the edges of the flat roofs of every home in town. Read More

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There was no hint of shade. Glittering piles of grey-white sand, the result of wind and rain-eroded micaceous rock from the surrounding mountains, carpeted the valley floor and the high-noon sun mercilessly reflected off the desolate platinum landscape. My pack was growing heavier by the moment and I felt my feet swelling inside my hiking boots, pressing corns against the rough leather. I winced with each step and tried to focus on where I planted my feet so as not to twist an ankle on the loose rocks that littered the trail.

Sere landscape on the Marpha to Jomsom trek, the driest area in all of Nepal

Sere landscape on the Marpha to Jomsom trek, the driest area in all of Nepal

I have come to the Jomsom area to prove something. After injuring my knee in Mexico in 2010 my body started giving me fits. My left hip, knee and lower back ached constantly and I had to cancel my plans to trek the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal later that same year. Though I fought it with every fiber of my being, gradually I accepted that my trekking days were over.

Earlier this year I had to return to the U.S. for three and a half months. It almost killed me. With no access to the affordable organic, fresh, seasonal food that is abundant overseas, I began eating unhealthily and gained 15 pounds. My Yoga and meditation practice faltered and I felt unhappy and stuck. Finally, I concluded the business that was keeping me Stateside and rejoiced. I was free again to hit the road. I headed for Pokhara, Nepal to pursue my Yoga, meditation, and Buddhism practices with renewed vigor. Within a month I dropped all the weight I had gained and my knee and hip were behaving nicely. I began to wonder if perhaps my trekking days were not done. Read More

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Outside, motorcycle horns screamed and taxis dodged pedestrians streaming through the narrow streets of Thamel, the backpacker district of Kathmandu. The ever-present dull gray smog was matched at street level by crumbling concrete buildings with black mold dripping down their faces. I stepped over a pile of mud and paving stones discarded during the city’s ubiquitous construction and wriggled my nose as the scent of rotting garbage wafted up from the street. Around the next corner was the doorway I sought, where a small, unremarkable sign announced: Garden of Dreams.

When not in use for concerts or events, the open air amphitheater is a popular spots for picnics, meeting friends, and young lovers.

When not in use for concerts or events, the open air amphitheater is a popular spots for picnics, meeting friends, and young lovers.

Inside, no hint of the exterior cacophony pierced the thick garden walls. People lounged on lush spring grass carpeting the steps of the semi-circular Greek-style amphitheater and spoke in hushed tones. The ordered garden, hidden courtyards, and burbling fountains in this oasis of peace and tranquility provided the perfect opportunity to wind down and escape the constant craziness of Kathmandu.

Serenity reigns supreme at the Garden of Dreams

Serenity reigns supreme at the Garden of Dreams

Burbling fountains grace smaller courtyards off the central amphitheater

Burbling fountains grace smaller courtyards off the central amphitheater

This neo-classical historic garden was originally installed during the 1920’s by the late Field Marshal Kaiser Shumsher Rana (1892-1964). Originally dubbed the Garden of Six Seasons, it was considered to be one of the most sophisticated private gardens of the time. Its use of European inspired elements such as decorative outdoor furniture, verandas, pergolas, balustrades and Read More

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A couple of months go I was contacted by a representative of SteriPEN, the manufacturers of a hand-held ultraviolet (UV) light water purifier, asking if I would be interested in testing their SteriPEN Freedom device. I almost never accept products for review, but due to the amount of time I spend in developing countries where the drinking water supply is unsafe, I had been seriously considering purchasing a portable water purifier even before they got in touch with me, so I happily agreed to try it out.

SteriPEN Freedom hand-held ultraviolet (UV) light water purifier

SteriPEN Freedom hand-held ultraviolet (UV) light water purifier

When the package arrived I read the instructions, charged it up, and tucked the small device in a side pocket of my backpack. I had intended to try it out the moment I arrived in Pokhara, Nepal, but a month after arriving, it still sat unused in my pack. I thought about it every day that I refilled my plastic one-liter bottle from the five-gallon reusable drinking water jugs provided by my guest house, but I continued to procrastinate. I reasoned that since I wasn’t adding to an already severe plastic waster problem in Nepal, there was no real need to test the city water.

In truth, I was afraid. The idea of drinking a glass of water from the tap in a third-world country, even after it had been treated with an UV light that is proved to destroy 99.9% of bacteria, viruses, and protozoa (giardia and cryptosporidium), made me more than a little uncomfortable. Read More

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Paying to Volunteer - Scam or Legitimate Social Program?
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Sarita was only 13 years old when her parents sold her to the owner of a hotel in Kagbeni, high in the Himalayan Mountains in the Lower Mustang area of Nepal. For the next year, she slaved in the kitchen, preparing meals for the 10-20 men who stayed at the guest house. She was paid 8,000 Nepali rupees for the year, about $91 USD. Sarita hated the work, but without any means to pay for food and lodging, she was trapped. Then one day she met Nicky Chhetri, who along with her two siblings, Dicky and Lucky, had opened Three Sisters Trekking Pokhara Nepal. Nicky was scouring the mountains for underprivileged girls who would agree to be trained as trekking guides. If Sarita could find her own way to Pokhara, Nicky promised, she would be given food, lodging, education, and specialized training that would allow her to become one of the first female trekking guides in what had, up till then, been an exclusively male profession.

Three Sisters Trekking Company and Hotel

Three Sisters Trekking Company and Hotel

The Chhetri Sisters had seized upon the idea of female guides because many trekkers, especially women, reported feeling unsafe on the trails when accompanied only by male guides and porters. They battled Nepal’s male-dominated society, never giving up on their idea regardless how many times they were told that only men could be licensed as trekking guides. Finally, they gained permission and set up their own school in the top floor of an older building on the north end of Pokhara, using the remainder of the building to house the girls. Read More