Back on the Trail – Eyes toward Stok Kangri

It may be seven months off, but when you’re headed towards the ripe old age of 57, and there is a  20,000 foot mountain  called Stok Kangri beckoning you, you have to respond to its call with a training regime. Unfortunately I was just gearing up my program when all hell broke loose at work, which has wreaked havoc with my workout plans, but I’m doing my best.

One place J and I re-visited a couple of weekends ago was our old favorite, the Cady Way Trail. We started to hike it back in 2011 when we were preparing for Kilimanjaro and I’ve been meaning to write about it since day 1 of this blog. In fact, there’s still a partially written post in the drafts folder.

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Over the last six years we’ve watched this urban/suburban trail change – almost a microcosm of the larger world around it. Case in point – there was a little rundown house we always used to look at with a slight sense of incredulity. The windows were cracked, the washer and dryer resided in a strange outdoor closet, and my personal favorite was the trough for feeding the owners’ collection of pit bulls. Six years later – the house was gutted, windows replaced, the outdoor washer and dryer vanished, and landscaping has substituted for  the dog feeding trough.

Cady Way is long and hot and winds between the backs of houses, past a little used golf course (or so it seems), by a high school and culminates in a high pedestrian bridge that passes over one of Orlando’s long wide boulevards, studded on either side with Mexican restaurants and car lots. Oh – at the far end of the trail there is a beautiful little memorial area to remind hikers of a couple of brutal murders that occurred there a few years back.

Aside from the normal prurient interest in getting to see everyone’s backyards abutting the trail – the most interesting place is an odd building that was part of the old Naval Training Center. J and I are convinced it’s a listening center for the military – that location that’s monitoring cell phone traffic. All we know is there are never any people present, there’s a loud hum, there’s an odd asphalt track that he runs around a field for no apparent reason, lots of gas canisters and double barbed wire fences. There’s no telling what it really is – but it certainly lends itself to speculation on what can otherwise be a brutally boring hike. (In face, we’ve never photographed it for fear of being observed!)

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Cady Way has no spectacular sites, no vistas, and only a few spots that even qualify as “natural.” But it’s long (10 plus miles round trip), it’s really hot (and hence meets my theory about stressing your body for high altitude), and the little changes that you see year by year create just enough interest. By now it’s like an old friend that’s giving an “atta girl” to help me get up that mountain.

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The Man in the Mist – Mt. Jefferson

We’ve all been there. That one thing that keeps you powering on, even when your legs and your mind say this is a really dumb idea.

For both J and me (and maybe daughter A and her boyfriend N – although i haven’t asked them) the man in the mist on Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire’s White Mountains did just that.

It had taken us forever to find the trailhead, which seemed to veer off of Google maps onto some narrow dirt road. And once there, the hike up the rocky, fog-laden trail was more uncomfortable than awe inspiring. The one overlook was a bleak landscape of grey fog, with none of the autumnal offerings we were hoping for.

We’d just encountered a miserable family of four – two parents, two kids – one of whom was scampering up the rocky cliffs like an energizer bunny while his older sister wept below and threatened mutiny if forced to go further.

We knew we were near the top, but we were still in the fog, The goal was starting to seem less and less significant. A was making serious queries about the rationale for further climbing.

But just at that point – looking for all the world like an older Jamie from Outlanders – a figure emerged through the mist. In a vaguely European accent he said it was no more than 20 minutes to the summit and he  had already come through the pass from the next mountain, which he summited already that morning. At that point, it was only the fact we’d all collectively seen him that reassured us we weren’t having individual delusions.

So we kept on climbing. It took us another 45, not 20, minutes but we got there. Sometimes it just takes a man in the mist. J claimed he was the spirit of adventure. Something most of us don’t get enough of in our lives.

An Announcement- Stok Kangri, India

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Stok Kangri is a snow covered mountain 6153 meters, or 20,187 feet, high. Yes, that is a reference to Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and I don’t expect to see a snow leopard, dead or alive, anywhere up there.  It’s supposed to be pretty arid.  And, it’s only partially snow covered. But Kilimanjaro is what started J and me on this summit journey, seven long years ago. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’re off to Stok Kangri in the Kashmir region of India starting on June 24 of 2018.

To top it off – it’s not just the two of us, but our friend SB, from Alaska, is going too! I sent a casual Facebook post to him about our tentative plans, and within 72 hours he’d committed. SB is the person who gave me that last push – and I mean a literal push – to get up that last steep incline to the top of Mount Elbrus in the Caucuses region of Russia when I started this blog in 2014. Ever since, J and I have said how much we’d like to climb with him again –  and now we are! He’s climbed Denali and Aconcagua and actually knows what he’s doing. Provides a lot of confidence for J and me.

This is going to be a first. We’ve made it to 19,347 feet on Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2015. But we’ve never made it to that elusive 6,000 m/20,000 ft. peak. This is our one chance, before we go totally grey and spend our time sitting by the fire – although in Florida that would mean before a cool air conditioner. There will be a lot of more details to come.

The training begins.

Betwixt a Swamp and a Summit – New Bedford, Massachusetts 

 

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I was on a scallop boat. The young deckhand/engineer/jack of all trades was giving us a detailed explanation and guided tour of life on a scallop boat. Replete with information about the days where you can fish all you want outside restricted areas, the code of ethics that governs which of your competitors you can trust (think, the “codfather”), and what it feels like to be 20 hours out from shore with no cell connection and a questionable satellite phone. He hated, he said, to look at the red survival wetsuit that was laid out for display on the table in the dining area.

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This was all part of the Working Waterfront Festival in New Bedford, Mass.  Ever since daughter A’s boyfriend N moved there I had been fascinated with the idea of this festival. And when a work obligation was rescheduled – and $100 roundtip tickets were available, fate conspired to make New Bedford next in the adventure roster.

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It’s barely three hours from Orlando to Providence RI via JetBlue. And from there, it’s a quick 30 minute jaunt to New Bedford. So as not to defeat the purpose of our remarkably cheap plane tickets, we also rejected the expensive and not very interesting hotels, opting instead for a true Airbnb. Sylvia, our landlady, lives in half of a lovely, 1857 house. Her son, a Unitarian minister, lives in the other half. She couldn’t have been more gracious, the room was lovely, and despite a shared bathroom not for a moment did I feel we didn’t have a private space. $59 per night. This is the real Airbnb – a genuine bed ‘n breakfast.

Friday night was Portuguese food.  Turns out you should never have just one but at least two carbs. Rice and French fries. South Beach cuisine this wasn’t. The “stuffies”, stuffed quahog clams, added a bread course to the other carbs. The famed New Bedford scallops lived up to their name – and believe it or not, I had grilled quail.

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We had more Portuguese food for breakfast, and topped it off with a visit to the Whaling Museum. The Working Waterfront festival followed. It was largely a local event – I haven’t even mentioned the booths advertising ball bearings or the cooking demonstrations. After, we took a jaunt to and a hike on the Audubon Allens Pond Park. Boggy on the inland side, wildflowers in between, and a classic New England coast. A and N wanted to make sure I explained this was the South Coast of Massachusetts- not to be confused with the Cape or points north. A local brewery visit followed, topped off by another classic New Bedford seafood dinner and a ritzy cocktail bar.

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In between dinner and drinks we made our way to a local fort. It was completely fogged over. But of all things a Revolutionary War historical reenactment was going on. It felt like we’d wandered into a wannabe Twilight Zone episode.

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Sunday involved more breakfast – this time at a Cape Verde restaurant, Izzy’s. New Bedford has a diverse immigrant population and many people from Cape Verde  – in Florida, we think of Cape Verde as where the hurricanes come from. A faculty basketball game for N and J at N’s school was next up, and the meantime A and I ventured off to explore Providence. The males in our party eventually met us there, and we did some further exploration before ending up in the Italian area at a really excellent restaurant whose name escapes me.

A highlight was the outdoor Sinatra concert we wandered into.

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It was only a couple of quick hours back to Orlando. And then road construction meant it took half that time again to go the brief ten miles back to our house, for a midnight arrival. This was a totally unplanned and spur of the moment trip. I’d do it again tomorrow.

Hurricanes, Tornadoes and Surge, Oh My

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I wanted to start posting about our next summit plan – which is still in a nascent stage – but events in my home state of Florida have preempted that.  We were here for Charlie’s visit in 2004, followed by his pals, Jeanne, Frances, and Ivan Jr. Last year, Matthew decided to call, but he was shy and hugged the coast, never getting up the nerve to come in.

Not so with Irma. One of the stylists at the salon where I got my hair cut the Saturday before the storm (if one is going to go, go out in style) described Irma as a “mean old church lady – the type who stands at the door and makes you spit out your gum.” They were actually boarding up the windows as the last snips were being taken on their clients’ hair.

Well, Irma certainly displayed those characteristics and more. My office closed after work Thursday and remained closed through Tuesday. This was all to allow lawyers and staff to engage in that great Florida tradition of preparing for the storm, living through the storm, and then undoing all the preparations you’ve made. For those of you newbies to hurricane land, this involves things like: Moving all the porch furniture in. We lined our 4 front porch rocking chairs up in front of the front windows – a little slice of porch in the living room. Carrying the canoe from a far corner of the yard and balancing it atop two ladders in the garage where it presently hangs over all the other junk we store in the garage. Bringing at least 25 potted plants inside for temporary shelter in the home office. You get the picture. And let’s not forget making ice and worrying about all the frozen food you just bought at Trader Joe’s.

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After days of anticipation the stress level here in Orlando was so thick it could be cut with a knife. And Saturday into Sunday no one could believe it when Charlie’s story repeated itself and Irma decided she wasn’t interested in the Gulf Coast vibe of Tampa and instead would go due north, making almost a beeline for an area just west of Orlando. I awakened about 4 am or so, having heard wind howling and trees crashing for hours. Based on Facebook posts, more people were awake than asleep the entire night.

The wind lasted well into Monday.

We fared well. Believe it or not, we did not lose power. We either paid our dues during our 8 day loss with Charlie and karma was with us this time – or the replacement poles and wires were stronger. We do have a tabebuia tree leaning 30 degrees toward our house and no tree people anywhere in sight to help. And portions of fence are down with not a single 4×4 fencepost to be found. The neighborhood lost multiple hundred plus year old live oaks. But compared to those who still don’t have electricity or whose houses were wrecked by flooding – we were very lucky.

We have just planned a last minute spur of the moment trip to visit daughter A and boyfriend N in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I’m looking forward to some hurricaneless weather. Oh, wait, there’s another guy possibly looking for a place to stay in the Northeast. His name is Hurricane Jose.

Lake Apopka Loop Trail, Florida – Amid the Alligators

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We were supposed to start at 9:30. Which still wasn’t early enough given the projected mid-90s temperature – but would certainly have been preferable to 10:30 when we finally set off on the Lake Apopka Loop Trail. I had heard great things about the trail from someone who hiked parts of it in the fall. Her account omitted two facts. 1. It’s not a loop. 2. There is absolutely no shade.

The trailhead (it turns out there are two, since, as mentioned, it’s not a loop), is fifteen miles from downtown Orlando.  It starts in a park in some lightly populated areas.  For years Lake Apopka was one of the filthiest lakes in Florida. Victim to agricultural runoff, the lake was basically dead. But a few years back the state started buying up the surrounding farmland, and recreated the wetlands that had previously existed.

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The birds have come back – I’m not sure about the fish, but the alligators have definitely returned. More in that below.  And there are more dragonflies, grasshoppers, moths, butterflies, and of course mosquitoes than one can count.

The trail goes around the northern part of the lake, and is approximately 14.5 miles in each direction. The part we hiked is compressed gravel and dirt. It follows the top of a narrow levee a few feet high that separates wetlands from the lake. In a few places the water can flow under the levee. In a hurricane, it would be wiped out.

The levee had more significance after we spoke with a couple at the beginning of the trail. They pointed out an alligator head poking out of the green algae and remarked how many they had heard further down the trail. A few feet of elevation was a good thing.

Although you might not technically be in the middle of nowhere, Lake Apopka Loop Trail feels like it. As we walked along the endlessly flat path, the palms and rushes cleared on one side to reveal an enormous vista of the lake. There were hardly any boats – I think we saw one all day.

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Looking up from our boots and the white grey trail provided some variety . Ospreys, hawks, falcons, herons, and anhingas drying their wings. And although we couldn’t see them, to our sides we could hear a remarkable amount of life in the swampy water. Ducks and frogs, but most startling of all were the grunts of alligators. I started to have fantasies about what we’d do if we encountered one sprawled across the path in front of us. And then suppose we turned around, only to find one lying across the trail in that direction also.

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Such thoughts were getting me nowhere. We finally saw an informational billboard with a trail map – and realized the trail did  not in fact go around the whole lake. If we’d planned to hike 14.5 miles, as we had originally planned in the cool of our air conditioned house, we were going to have to hike 14.5 miles back also. Despite the hot noonday sun, common sense kicked in and we decided to hike 5 miles out and 5 back. We stopped at mile 4 at what appears to be the only historic landmark – an old pump house with a shelter where there was at least a vestige of shade. There’s a marshy lake nearby where we counted at least 15 alligators. My Kind bar had completely melted.

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The next mile is open to vehicles for a wild life drive and we finally saw some other humans, most of whom looked at us as though we had lost our minds. By that point we might have.

At mile 5 we turned around and tried an even brisker paced for our return. By now we were completely drenched and the heat index was well over 100. Even the alligators had gone to sleep, and  now the spookiness of the trail came from the eerie silence.

After a couple of miles, we saw a black shadow down the trail, about the size of a bear.  I saw no way that a bear could possibly reside in this environment but J pointed out they habituate easily….as we drew closer, we found ourselves face to face with an older English gentlemen on a motorized scooter. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and was apparently just out for a sightseeing ride. He was by himself, which didn’t seem like a good idea in the best of circumstances given the warnings at the beginning that you were to buddy up before starting the hike. In any event, we had a nice conversation- although I couldn’t resist a quip about mad dogs and Englishmen. After he’d had a rest he trundled along, soon overtaking us.

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We finally made it back to the old faithful minivan. J suddenly had a complete dehydration or heat stroke experience that started with nausea and then left him with an enormous leg cramp. I’d moved over to the drivers seat but even in the passenger seat he couldn’t stretch out the cramp. It began to pour on  the 15 mile drive back – one of those blinding Florida rains where you can only see six feet in front of you. But all I could keep thinking was that at least I wasn’t trapped between two alligators! That put everything else in perspective.

Everest Base Camp – M and S Speak! Guest bloggers.

IMG_0142It did all start in 1991. Only one of our now four children had been born. She (A) spent much of her time in a plastic contraption that we called her rocket seat — a plastic rocker with a foam insert and a carrying handle that proved very useful for lugging her around to all the restaurants we still planned to go to with our good friends M and S.  The fact we were 29 and 30 and found ourselves with an infant offspring was not about to deter us.

As the years went by and the offspring expanded to include three others, we four parents found ourselves in high risk environments – such as a fondue restaurant with four under 8 year olds – with hot oil, fire and long sharp forks – and various other and sundry similar problems and situations. They are the subject of another blog post – or possibly even another website.

But throughout it all was always what we used to call our travel fantasies. It could be Vietnam, New Zealand, wherever. Just something more than New Smyrna Beach or – heaven forbid- the Outer Banks. We called it travel p**n – the fulfillment of our travel fantasies – but I’m concerned WordPress and Facebook will block the  phrase of what we actually called it. Just understand – it was supposed to be the ultimate escape and self realization.

Travel po**n kept us going through many a career shift, stressful work situation and the other vagaries of life in the ’90s and ’00s.

After some preliminary trips to see if we really were compatible adventurers – see Iceland Part 2 – The Golden Circle, or All Roads Lead to Fludir, we decided late 20’s angst could translate to mid 50s midlife crises. So we went for it. I’ve already published J’s and my experiences on our trek to Everest Base Camp with friends. Here’s the take from the other bedroom in our amazingly cold tea houses in Nepal and how it happened:

M and S speak:

“You could definitely do it!”

J nodded emphatically as he picked up the conversation thread from MR. As always, J’s contribution focused on the technical specifications. “It’s all trekking. There’s no climbing, so no ropes or crampons.  We go alongside the Khumbu Glacier, not across. Highest we get is only 18,000 feet at Kala Pattar—that’s the best views of Everest.  Kala Pattar is steep and there’s some scree.  But you should be able to make it!

MR chimed in eagerly at each reference, “It’s basically just a really long hike.”  “You’ve got boots and rain gear. You’ll just need to buy some poles.” And “Kala Pattar is an optional day. We could just leave you behind.” [They did.]
E familia.

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“Just leave me behind,” S called out, only half in jest.  He was sitting on a rock, head bent down, one arm stretched in front of him, palm facing out.  It was the universal signal of defeat.  We had updated the wills before we left but our Nepalese guide, Z, wasn’t having anything to do with S dying. “You have to keep moving, S.  It’s not good to sit too long at this altitude.”  I caught up to where S had planted himself.  It wasn’t like I was moving any faster.  Z exhorted both of us with the now familiar, “Tomorrow will be easier.”  Z told us things that weren’t always 100% true.  Like “rest days” were anything but.  Turns out every day was hard and “rest days” (a/k/a acclimatization days) were the hardest!

Since S and I spent most of the time staring at our boot tops, we are grateful for MR’s detailed posts which we can confirm are based on contemporaneous and copious notes.  S and I huddled exhausted around the yak-dung fires in tea houses fighting to stay awake long enough to eat dinner.  MR was on-line busily researching and cite-checking.  It was enough for us to simply say, “We did it!”

“We did it” began long before we were captured, smiling but completely, utterly spent, in the photo taken at Base Camp.

“We did it” began years ago at that very first meal with MR & J talking about how, one day, after the kids were grown, we would go on a “couples vacation.”  Until this year, that continuing conversation had yielded only a few extra pounds, a shared condo in St. Augustine for the Gentlemen of the Road concert, and a long weekend in Iceland functioning as something like cold-weather gear crash dummies for one of MR and J’s upcoming summit attempts.

“We did it” included:  going to a gym to attempt to regain something resembling good shape (and updating the wills just in case); buying a ton more gear than MR and J let on would be required; flying twice as far as we had ever flown; trekking ten times farther than we had ever hiked—and that was twenty years before; sharing close quarters and more about our bodily consumption and elimination than we were comfortable; and worrying that we might end up ruining someone else’s trip of a lifetime by succumbing to altitude sickness or injury.

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We did it” also included:  being graciously welcomed into the homes and monasteries of people from a rich and vibrant culture; sharing the trail and tea house conversations with travelers from around the world; getting, if not to the top of the world, then pretty close; beating back the demons that taunt us as we age with the bold statement that we’re not dead, yet; discovering that friendship can survive the trek to Everest Base Camp; and, having taken every step together as a couple, finishing the last, longest, hardest day together.   Our marriage is the stronger for it.

MR and J were right.  We could definitely do this!

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Work Wanderings – A Tour of the Eastern Seaboard

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I’ve been fortunate that mostly I haven’t had to travel for work. I’ve been able to reserve travel for days of vacation where email chains me only because I allow it to. This is a good thing, because I’ve never successfully merged a business trip with pleasure on the side.

So when I faced an absolutely horrific week of work travel, I thought it might be time to don my big girl pants and not allow myself to wallow in misery for the sake of doing so. I had just returned from Cincinnati two weeks before, where my client and I stayed at a hotel that barely met the standard of a Best Western in a very small city.  The room had the classic under window heating/air conditioning unit that chug chugged away all night like the little engine that could.  Eventually I just turned it off.  And let’s not forget the restaurant that was unable to manage more than six or eight people at a time, leaving me to eat a black bean veggie burger at the bar. The server wasn’t at all sure they still had them, and I did have the feeling that steely icicles had only recently been microwave melted from the patty. Believe it or not, the convention of the moment – because it was a true convention hotel – was for pastoral music ministry. I kept hearing people hum How Great Thous Art as I went up the elevator.

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So after Cincinnati I had a one week break in Florida and it was back on the road again. Left on a Sunday for Buffalo, New York- a place I had never been before. The highway from the airport was lined with bright orange daylilies. I stayed at the Hotel at LaFayette. It turns out boutique hotels are no more expensive than a Hilton Garden Inn. The hotel, in the midst of slightly rundown mid city Buffalo, was built in 1902 by the first female U.S. architect. It had a beautiful central staircase, and a brewery down below. My room looked out onto a public terrace, which left a bit to be desired from the privacy perspective, but it was huge and cool and the muted colors – a grey toned Italianate poster filled the whole wall over the bed – and provided a respite after a long day.

After a return trip that took me through Detroit back to Orlando, on Wednesday I took off again, this time for Northern Virginia. Flying into Dulles, stops in Fairfax and Falls Church. And once my work duties were over, it was time to drive – starting st 7:30 at night – to Richmond, Virginia, the site of the next work obligation.

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Arriving at 10, I stayed at my second boutique hotel of the week – aptly named the Quirk. It is a converted department store, themed around pink. There is original art work in each room, the mini bars are in pink retro mini fridges, and the bathrobes aren’t terry cloth but a lightweight cotton calico.  The ceilings were easily 15 feet high.

Before I returned to Orlando, I got to have lunch with my niece G, a recent Virginia convert from California, at the Kitchen on Cary. And yes, I really did have a sandwich that involved fried green tomatoes, Virginia ham, and pimento cheese.

I didn’t manage a whole lot of steps or much training at all last week. But driving back down 95 South to the land of the pines (for you Wagon Wheel fans out there) – through the green kudzu entwined forests, close to North Carolina – I felt so at home. I haven’t talked a lot about North Carolina on this blog. I may have just hit the point where I have lived in Florida over half my life – but I still call North Carolina home.

But knowing where home is just makes adventure the more exciting. Next up – we think we’ve found a 20,000 foot fairly non-technical mountain.

I’m Going to Kathmandu

The change from tea houses on the Everest Base Camp trek to the Yak’nYeti Hotel in Kathmandu was like the proverbial night and day. Hot water. Toilets that actually flushed and had attached seats.

We arrived in Kathmandu at the airport with the monkeys (see Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport) in mid morning and headed to our hotel.  The Yak’nYeti is a former palace and offered a breakfast buffet that ranged from American style scrambled eggs to Chinese food to Indian food to plenty of yak cheese. And who knew from what fruits the juices came. The clientele were as international as the food.

After 12 days in the middle of nowhere, J and I felt shopping should be our first urban trek. I found that Indian style  Nepalese clothes fit me quite nicely and were a steal. Silk rugs from Kashmir also seemed like something that should migrate to Orlando. We were struck by how much more Indian Kathmandu’s culture was  than what we’d encountered in the Himalayas.

Street crossing is an art in Kathmandu. There are no stop signs or traffic lights. Occasionally a traffic cop makes ineffectual arm gestures in an attempt to curb the cavalcade of scooters, cars and motorcycles.  The crossing technique involves identifying someone who looks like they know what they are doing, and edging your way close to him or her. Eventually a mass of people all apparently doing the same thing congregates at the edge of the street. At one coordinated – but unspoken – moment the whole group moves with one accord across the street, hoping that the sheer mass will provide some protection.

The gardens at the hotel were lovely and we took full advantage of sitting outside in the sunshine and simply recovering. It was the first time in 12 days that we hadn’t awakened to hours of trekking. M and S  bought a gherka knife for their son.   Not sure what that says.

The next day was our arranged full day of sightseeing. M was still under the weather, so J, S and I, together with our guide, took off in a ridiculously large van to see the sights of Kathmandu. Actually we started off on foot and the van caught up with us later.

First stop -Durban Square.  Very dusty; many unpaved roads, some due to roadwork going on in connection with the really staggering earthquake damage from 2015. Bins of juniper and burning incense helped counter some of the other smells.

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There was an election going on and political party banners flew everywhere, as numerous as prayer flags in some locations. There appeared to be the Maoist Communists, the Soviet Communists (their flags still bore the old hammer and sickle), and some other party that I never did figure out but the flags were green.

Apparently until the introduction of cast concrete Kathmandu was considered a dream city – occupied by intricately carved wooden gods and goddesses, and elaborate residences. Much of the cast concrete collapsed in the earthquake, and the remaining  palaces  are slowly being rebuilt, but many are still propped up by ladders and metal poles, and you can see long cracks running down the facades.

We saw the monkey statue and the Shiva statue – many people making their devotions as a daily part of life.

I was most struck by the palace of the Kumari – the living goddess. She is selected at about age 5 or 6 and spends the next seven or so years living in a small palace that she is forbidden to leave. She’s tutored and cared for by the palace ladies. There’s a small tree in the courtyard that she can see. At age 12 or 13 she returns to regular life and the process starts all over. Apparently some times you can see her in the window – we didn’t, but could see shadows of the palace ladies and hear the murmur of voices.

We walked around the Thamal, had a soft drink, and waited for our van. We were off to the Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, in honor of the number of simians that inhabit the grounds. It’s on a high hill with a spectacular view of Kathmandu.

A series of stupas, large and small, hearths where incense was burning, smell of butter lamps – all interspersed with small shops every which way. And lots of prayer flags.

I especially liked the black ebony seventh century Buddha. Simple and elegant, it cast a serene shadow over the hustle and color of the rest of the temple.

By then we’d been sight seeing for several hours and headed back to the hotel. That night we were treated to a farewell dinner at a restaurant that served Nepalese food (most of which we’d tried before in more genuine circumstances) and featured folk dances from different regions of Nepal.

Saturday was our last day, and we had a 7:20 pm flight to Dubai, followed by a straight through flight to Orlando.  Our last excursion was to the Great Stupa and the surrounding monasteries and squares. The Great Stupa is fully restored and at 167 feet towers over the area.  There were many devotees chanting, and there were special places where they could rest and fast.  Just before we left I ventured into one of the monasteries.  I wanted one  last experience of those incredibly overwrought colors, oranges and reds, the scent of the juniper, and within the midst of it all, the serenity of the crimson robed chanting monks.

Everest Base Camp Trek – The Final Day: Namche to Lukla

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Day 11 of trekking – we crossed the top bridge, along with yaks, monks, and lots of wind

For what it was worth, it was Wednesday. By now days of the week had ceased to have much meaning. It was an overcast day, good for hiking, which I hoped would assist with the very long last day of trekking that lay ahead.

After fried eggs and Tibetan bread (similar to a puffy naan), we departed Namche on a very steep and stony trail that descended almost all of the way to Phak Ding, where 12 days ago we had stayed at the Snowland Hotel, our first tea house. We had lunch at Hermann’s, a Western style bakery and sandwich place. By day 12 our guide apparently felt we needed some encouragement and familiar food to face what he warned us was going to be a long afternoon of uphill climbing to reach Lukla.

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Even though we’d trekked most of the same route before, going the other direction made for a totally different experience. Flowers had bloomed since we were last there, and asters, pansies, amaryllis, and roses adorned the small villages.  We keep expecting to find Lukla around the next corner, only to be disappointed. One exhausted trekker had resorted to horseback – he appeared to be lashed onto the horse while two guides hauled them along the trail.

After seven hours or so we started to encounter more people, including loads of school children wearing blue and red uniforms. After several more turns – each of which we thought must be the last one – we climbed one last set of stone stairs and there was the arch from which we had started twelve days and many thousands of feet of elevation before.

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That night we stayed at the same hotel where we had had tea before starting the trek. Dinner was a celebratory affair – our two porters both attended, and we finally learned more about them. They were both 18, and were awaiting their university entrance exam results, which had been delayed due to the political situation in Nepal (the reasons for which still elude me). Their village was two hours from Lukla, and they had lived at a hostel for their high school years.

Our night’s sleep was disrupted by music and loud altercations from the downstairs disco, interspersed with the sounds of barking dogs. We found out the next day that apparently one group of porters had been quite unhappy with their tips. A reminder that what was holiday for some was work for many.

We all arose at 5 to walk to the airport. The plane was the first motorized vehicle we’d seen for almost two weeks – in fact, the first wheeled vehicle of any sort.

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We boarded our remarkably named Tara Airlines flight, buckled in, and took a deep breath.  The plane fell off the end of the runway into a cavernous valley and then climbed to the level of the lower green peaks, snow capped summits towering in the distance. We were flying – but we’d been even higher at Everest.