Travel Stories That Will Restore Faith in Humanity

Continuing from my last post on uplifting travel stories, here are a few more that will make you believe that people are good everywhere and restore your faith in humanity.

Thank You For You!

One of my first solo travels abroad was to Morocco. I spent three weeks volunteering at a women’s empowerment center in the capital city of Rabat. My assignment was teaching conversational English to anyone who wanted to learn. Since there was no formal structure, I made the lesson plans, and delivered them alongside one other instructor. Often times, I would come up with creative ways to engage the students by talking about Moroccan food, weddings, places to visit, etc. Now that I think about it, I myself wanted to learn about these things.

having faith in Morocco
Students at the women’s empowerment center in Rabat

My students were 18-70 year old women and only one male. Though it was a “women’s” empowerment center, men were allowed to attend classes for free as well. The reason these people enrolled for English lessons also varied – some wanted to get ahead in their careers, attend an international conference, or travel abroad, others simply wanted to watch the television show “Desperate Housewives” in its original format!

In terms of their English proficiency, the students were all over the map, from beginner to advanced. Most of my students attended class every day for the time I was there, but most likely had periods of discontinued learning.

So for three weeks, we spent a few hours laughing, learning and sharing. The women would show me their wedding photos, while I would encourage them to explain traditions involved in a Moroccan wedding to me in English. They would write out family recipes in English and hand them over as homework assignments. They did a presentation about the best weekend destination getaways around Morocco and how to bargain at the souk (market).

On my last day at the center, the students threw me a farewell party, which came as a surprise. No staff person had instructed them to do so, it was purely the students initiative. When I arrived in class that day, a table was set up and chairs moved into a circle. There were homemade cookies, fresh brewed mint tea, presents and notes.

travel story from Morocco
Farewell party in Rabat

Needless to say, I was deeply moved by their gesture. Though their English proficiency had not drastically improved through my teaching, their faith in humanity had. They asked me why I took my precious vacation time, spent my own money to travel all the way from USA to Morocco, only to teach English to these strangers who I had never met before? It sounded like a bizarre idea, but they thanked me for it. As we had our last conversations around the table, they turned to me in their broken tenses and said, “Thank you for you!” I don’t know if they meant thank you for being who you are, or simply thank you, but it stuck in my head, and nine years later, I am still sharing this heartfelt story.

Your Home Is My Home

Couple of years ago, I was invited by the US Embassy in Bucharest, Romania to represent USA at one of the biggest book festivals in Europe. I stayed a few extra days to explore the rest of the country with a female run tour company – My Romania.

Read more about my books and representing USA as a children’s book author at BookFest Bucharest.

Ramona was the the proprietor and guide for My Romania. She and I spent a week together, driving the northern and western parts of Transylvania in her SUV. On our first day, she picked me up from Cluj-Napoca airport and we headed to a small village in Maramures.

We checked into a family-run B&B in a village named Hoteni. All I could see on our way there was vast agriculture lands, hay stacks, farm houses and narrow roads. When we passed the old wooden gates (typical architecture of this region), and entered the grounds, there were two houses on either side of the lawn, as well as a farm in the back. I was the only guest staying at the guest house, while the owners lived in the other structure.

humanity in Romania
Ramona and neighbors at Hoteni

Over the next few hours, I met a Romanian lady, Ana Pop, who owned the place. She and her husband were famous singers/ musicians who recorded albums and performed internationally. They ran the B&B as a side business, mainly to host their friends when they were visiting Romania.

The Pops extended families also lived down the street. One of Ana’s sisters cooked breakfast and dinner for the guests. Another sister, who lived down the road, stopped by to “check in” on the latest arrival. With not many things to do in the sleepy village, news of anyone visiting traveled quickly. Soon, people were dropping by with fresh cut roses, cherries from their backyard trees, and bottles of local wine.

Ana and her sister didn’t speak much English, so Ramona translated our conversations. We sat on traditionally woven carpets that covered every inch of the poorly ventilated wooden home, sharing stories, and laughing for hours. Ana showed me her photos performing in every part of the world. When I insisted, she sang me some songs from her album. Her voice was beautiful! The sisters dressed me up as a traditional Romanian bride and took photos of me around their house. The clothing brand Anthropologie had done a photo shoot here so I pretended to be a model. We all had so much fun!

travel stories from Romania
The Pops enjoying dressing me up in Romanian outfits

After dinner, one of the sisters, Ileana, asked me if I wanted to visit her house. I only understood this through Ramona’s translation. I accepted her offer and went with her alone in her car. Neither of us spoke the same language. We didn’t have a translator. But the language barrier wasn’t as big of a challenge as you may think.

A few minutes later, we arrived at her place. Ilena lived alone in her family home in the same village. Her husband has passed on and her adult kids worked in the big city. She split her time living in the city and the village. I understood all of this without translation. She took me inside and showed me her white lace textiles and woolen rugs. These are considered prized possessions among Romanian women, and often passed on through generations. On a pleasant summer evening, we walked in her beautiful garden filled with fruit trees and flowers. I understood that gardening was one of Ilena’s hobbies. She plucked a prized red rose and handed it over to me, “as a gift,” she said, with sparkles in her eyes.

Then she took me around the house to show me where she kept her spare keys. She explained to me that I could return to Romania anytime, take the keys and stay at her place even when she wasn’t home. She asked me to bring my husband to Romania next time and consider her place to be my own.

Ilena and I had met for the first time only the day before. We didn’t communicate much verbally, but bonded with our hearts. In just a few hours, she trusted me so much that she offered me her home. Such is the power of a human connection.

Ileana and I still keep in touch through Facebook. She messages me in Romanian, I reply back in English. Sometimes I use Google Translator to write longer sentences. But between Emojis, GIF’s and photos, we seem to convey our feelings to each other. Someday, I plan go back to Hoteni and use my spare key.

A Driving Angel

I flew from New Delhi, India to Kathmandu, Nepal for a 10-day volunteer vacation with Volunteers Initiative Nepal. The organization helps villages in remote areas of Nepal with various initiatives such as education, women’s empowerment, infrastructure building, sanitation and more. Their coordinator had arranged for an airport pick for me.

humanity in action in Nepal
Volunteers at VIN Nepal

On my arrival, Danish, my driver, was waiting at the airport with a sign that had my name on it. In an old battered car, we drove toward Thamel, the heart of Kathmandu City, which was going to be my home for several days. On the way, we saw dirt roads, broken street lamps, and almost no traffic lights. There were traffic jams, incessant honking, chaos all around – similar to India, but worse. Nepal looked like what India would have 30 years prior – without roads and rules.

After dropping me off at my budget hotel, Danish gave me his cell phone number (he had an old flip phone) and told me he would pick me up the following day to take me to the office for orientation. But if I needed anything in the meantime, I could call him as well.

In just a few hours, I started coughing violently, possibly due to the pollution in Kathmandu Valley. Though Nepal has some of the world’s tallest mountains and vast open ranges, the valley traps in heat, exhaust and pollutants in a densely populated city.

The next day, when Danish came to get me, I asked him to take me to a pharmacy. He helped me purchase a mask, antibiotics and nasal spray. That helped somewhat, though I ended up developing fever and cold as well.

Still, I continued to take breaks and work for few hours each day, visiting villages and projects. One afternoon, Danish drove me to Nagarkot, a village at the rim of the Kathmandu Valley known for its views of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest. The higher altitude would do me good, he suggested. On our way back, we stopped at a rest stop for samosa, chai and mo-mos.

travel Nepal
View of the Himalayas in Nagarkot

We had interesting conversations during our long drives together. We talked about our families, cultures (how Indian and Nepali are similar but different), religions, hopes for education, peace, and much more.

One day, Danish came to me apologetically. He said he won’t be able to drive me tomorrow because he had to travel to another village for his sister-in-law’s wedding. It was a remote location and he probably wasn’t going to have cell service there either. He promised to return the following day though, so as not to inconvenience me. I assured him that I would be totally fine taking a taxi (which are super cheap and safe in Kathmandu) and that he should enjoy the wedding for as long as needed. “No need to rush back,” I said.

When I lay in bed that evening, I received a call from Danish. I was alarmed because I knew that he would have been engaged at the wedding around that time. “Is everything allright?” I asked him. He said that he felt really bad about leaving me alone in Kathmandu, so he stepped out and went to a pay phone in the village to check on me. Because I was a guest in his home country, he wanted to make sure I was well looked after. And he felt guilty that he was attending to personal needs over professional duties.

Even though, I don’t think he could have done anything from miles away, Bhumi was more concerned about my comfort than his family wedding. I thanked him and told him to have some laddoos (sweets) on my behalf.

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Did these travel stories help you restore some faith in humanity?

Why I Ditched That Luxury Vacation For A Volunteering Trip

For some travelers, a ‘holiday/ vacation’ is synonymous with a relaxing time, or maybe just another break to do nothing and just chill. While I also had the option for the same, I decided to do something different and take a volunteering journey to Nepal. I had no idea how it would turn out to be like! Yes – to be honest, I was tensed and skeptic thinking whether I can really do this or not. But once I was there, all my doubts melted away. I knew that this was one of the best decisions I’ve ever taken and here are the reasons why I feel good about ditching the regular holiday for a more meaningful one.

Discovering Myself

I’m bothered by certain social causes that catch my attention on and off. I feel bad to see the little boy at the traffic signal selling balloons to earn his daily bread. Nobody cares to stop and ask him what he wants to do in life. This is just a small incident – there are probably hundreds of other things that catch our attention, and then get wiped off our minds. On a volunteer trip, I can actually do something about it, and bring smiles to others faces.

Doing Something for Others

There’s no denying that all our lives we work, we earn, and we spend on ourselves. Instead of complaining, I accepted  that life isn’t easy for all, but if we can help others to live better, then we should. As a volunteer in an orphanage in Nepal, I had to take care of the toddlers who became like my own kids in no time. There was an immense sense of satisfaction to see them happy when they were around me. Maybe, we can’t totally change someone’s life, but even if we can give them a moment of happiness – that counts!

Spending More Time with Locals

When we are on a holiday, we mostly spend time doing nothing. We barely make any effort to know the place and the people, often being too busy clicking those endless selfies that we can show off to the folks back at home. A volunteering journey, on the other hand, is the best way to connect with the natives of a place. During my stay in Nepal, I was living with a host family who took care of me like their own. Not even for a day did I feel like a guest at their place. It was fun to adapt to their way of life, follow their customs, take part in their festivals, and attend family gatherings. Now that I’m back home, I know that I have another family in a faraway land, and I can go back to visit them whenever I want to.

Exploring Unique Places

On a regular vacation, we mostly visit those listed touristy places that are almost always crowded and overpriced. Often, I’ve seen that those places are hyped and not as good as they appear in photographs. Quite opposite to that, a volunteering journey can endow us with the opportunity to explore the hidden gems of the country – courtesy: the local friends! I went for a hike in the Himalayan trails, and trust me when I say this, I’ve never seen a view so beautiful. The tiny little villages tucked on the slopes, the majestic mountains covered with snow right in front of me, and the humble people who called me for a warm cup of tea just made my life worthy. Witnessing the gorgeous sunset with the Himalayan backdrop is something that has left mark on my mind, and I can visualize it every time I close my eyes.

Meeting Like-Minded People From Around The World

During my volunteering trip, I realized that the world still has good people. There were folks from different parts of the world, people of different age groups and from different walks of life, who came together for a common cause – to help the little ones at the orphanage. We brainstormed together, thinking what we can do better for the kids. We worked together for hours, sharing thoughts and ideas, planning games and activities for the children, we fundraised to buy stuff for them and renovated the care center to make it more vibrant and lively. It was such an amazing experience that I would probably never had if I chose just another regular holiday.

I was lucky to find an organization like Volunteering Solutions, who offered me the opportunity to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal and supported me throughout my entire journey. The time that I got to spend with those toddles there has left a mark on my mind, heart & soul.

If you are also craving to set out on a meaningful journey, then don’t procrastinate. Know that there are millions of people out there who need your help. And if you have the time and strength to make a difference in their lives, you must do it.

~ By guest blogger Riyanka Roy from Haryana, India. Roy has traveled extensively throughout India. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

How Not to Fall Sick on Your Next Vacation

You planned every detail, put aside savings, and waited all year for that two- week vacation abroad. The last thing you want to do is fall sick during your time in the magical new place and not be able to enjoy it.

Unfortunately, our bodies do get sick every so often depending on what we expose ourselves to. Many people try to keep their bodies as healthy as possible though by taking supplements, so that when we do get sick, our bodies have a larger chance of fighting off the disease or infection. For example, by keeping a healthy liver, digestive system and overall immune system by taking supplements (look out for unify health coupons), our bodies are kept strong and ready to fight infection. In our day-to-day life, we come into contact with co- workers, friends, kids and neighbors who could pass on an infection to us. Travelling intensely magnifies your chance of picking up germs, as you pass by thousands of people at airports, train stations and attractions. Add to that the changes in weather, time, altitude, latitude, sun exposure, air quality, food, water, and sleep patterns and your body becomes a lot less resistant to fighting the cocktails of bugs you may have picked up along the way.

After travelling to almost 50 countries, I still don’t have all the secrets that will prevent you from falling sick. I travel almost every month and do fall ill from time to time. What I have learned through my own pitfalls is that taking certain precautions can help keep you healthy while on the go.

1. Drink lots of water – but not tap water – throughout the trip. Make sure you drink only boiled or bottled water from reliable sources. Keeping hydrated will help you deal with many illnesses caused by heat, humidity and high altitudes.

2. Avoid taking ice in your drinks. Oftentimes, tap water is used for making ice, so be sure to ask the server if the ice is made from filtered water before consuming it. To be safe, drink only pre-packaged sodas, juices or hot beverages. A few weeks ago, I thought I was drinking a vitamin-packed fresh orange juice at a market in Cuenca, Ecuador, but ended up with a stomach flu due to the unfiltered water mixed in with the juice.

Eating at the market in Cuenca, Ecuador
Eating at the market in Cuenca, Ecuador

3. Carry a surgical face mask when travelling to cities where pollution may be a problem. Properly wash the mask from time to time or use a disposable one. Changes in air quality can cause respiratory problems, sinus and throat infections or even the flu. Not realizing that the valley trapped all the pollutants from motorcycle exhausts, I found that my expectation of breathing clean mountain air in the Himalayas was unmet. The moment I arrived in Kathmandu, I started coughing insatiably and had to run to the pharmacy for medicine.

Motorcycling through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal
Motorcycling through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal

4. Do yoga, meditation and stretches every morning. Even if you are not used to exercise, you will find that a few minutes of engaging your organs will aid in better digestion and give you more energy to enjoy the rest of the day. If your hotel offers group exercise classes or a gym facility, be sure to take advantage of it.

Doing yoga every morning in Bali, Indonesia
Doing yoga every morning in Bali, Indonesia

5. Do not forget to take your vitamins every day just as you would at home. If you take multivitamin products like o.n.e. multivitamin, fish oil, B capsules, probiotics, or any other supplements, don’t stop just because you are on vacation. My chiropractor swears that if you take 1000 mg of Vitamin C and 3 to 4 tablets of zinc daily, you will never fall sick.

6. Use your judgment before deciding where to eat. Don’t think that just because the restaurant is well-rated it will meet your sanitation requirements. Take a peek into the kitchen to ensure that the floors and counters look clean, there are no flies or insects hanging around, and the chefs are wearing gloves and hairnets for protection. Especially when travelling to third world countries, it’s important to understand that every culture has its own standards of hygiene.

7. Many people may say otherwise, but my advice is to eat a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables when travelling so long as they are peeled and properly washed. Constipation is the number one complaint that travellers have, so make sure you get your required daily intake of roughages. I love going to the Caribbean as there is always a variety of affordable fresh fruits available.

8. Don’t eat street food. It can be very tempting to eat where the locals eat so you can taste authentic dishes and save money, but try to have self-control. Know that street food is not always bad, but your stomach has not yet acquired the native enzymes to break it down properly. While in Honduras, I gave into temptation and tried Baleadas (wheat taco) prepared by ladies on the wayside and came home with a rare type of Caribbean hook worm.

9. Eating at people’s homes can be a bit trickier. You don’t want to sound like a snobby foreigner and also want to be grateful to your host. Be polite and use your good judgment. In India, it is considered rude to decline food or drink when you are invited into someone’s home. It doesn’t matter whether you are hungry or not, you simply have to accept it.

10. Long flights, strange beds and flat pillows can cause back and neck aches that make a trip less enjoyable. I always take my own Tempur-Pedic pillow with me, even if all I have is a carry-on bag. If you don’t find the bedding comfortable, ask the hotel’s housekeeping staff to bring you a firm pillow, preferably with an anti-allergy pillow cover.

Disclosure: I am not a medical professional and this article is not meant to appear in a medical journal. These tips are based solely on my own personal experience of working as a travel writer and crisscrossing the world every few weeks.

Go Eat Give hosts Destination Nepal in Atlanta

As a part of its focus on raising cultural awareness, Go Eat Give hosted its monthly Destination Dinner on Saturday, June 14 at Himalayan Spice Restaurant and Bar in Atlanta, GA, showcasing the country of Nepal.

The first hour or so of the event found the 60 or so participants either mingling or watching the World Cup at the cash bar. From there they moved into the dining room where they sat at two long, family style tables. The food was served from a buffet that sat just outside of the dining room.

go eat give nepal

Appetizer included aloo jeera (potatoes with cumin seed), chicken choila (grilled chicken marinated with Nepalese spices and garnished with onions, ginger, garlic, and cilantro), and plain bara, which is a bread-like patty made with ground black lentil beans. The main dishes consisted of chicken korma (curry made with yogurt, cream, and coconut milk), dal tadka (a curry like dish made with red lentils and tempered with aromatic spices), and chau chau (Nepalese style stir fried noodles). Accompaniments included Basmati rice, Indian-style naan, and mo mos (steamed dumplings stuffed with with either vegetables or chicken). For dessert, a traditional Indian gulab jamun (fried, round doughnuts soaked in sugar syrup) was served.

nepali food chau chau

In addition to a delicious array of Nepalese food, the event also included several speakers and two dance performances. Two of the speakers, Sanjeeb Sapkota and Shailendra Bajracharya, were from the Nepalese Association in Southeast America, or NASeA. NASeA is an organization that aims to promote Nepalese culture and values in the Southeast, both for those who are from Nepal and others. The speakers informed guests about the warm, happy disposition of Nepali people despite the immense poverty that plagues the country. They also spoke of the fact that 8 of the top 10 highest peaks in the world are located in Nepal, as well as it being birthplace of Lord Buddha. While there are many fascinating facts about Nepal, the stories of its people interested me the most.

sugam pokhrel speaks at Go Eat Give Destination Nepal

Keynote speaker Sugam Pokharel, Nepali native and producer at CNN International and soon to be CNN’s New Delhi Bureau Producer discussed the issue of kidney trafficking in Nepal. He stated that due to their poverty and lack of education, many Nepalese are duped into giving away their kidneys either by bribery or by being lied to. They have no bargaining power, and often times do not know that they are having an operation to remove their kidney until after the fact. He showed a trailer for a documentary he produced on the subject, which will be released by CNN International on June 27. Pokharel also spoke about CNN’s Freedom Project, a campaign to end modern day slavery.

Rashmi Kharel one legged dancer

Entertainment for the evening included two performances of traditional Nepalese folk dancing. First was Rashmi Kharel, an inspiring woman visiting from Nepal. Kahrel lost one of her legs at the age of 9 after she was hit by a bus while she was playing outside her house. After years of being told she would amount to nothing due to her disability, she was able to realize her dream of becoming a dancer and today travels all over the world to perform. Wearing a traditional Nepalese outfit, she awed the crowd with her performance. I was struck by how easily she gyrated her hips to traditional folk music. Even if she had both of her legs, I don’t think I would have been able to tell the difference. She really is an inspiring example of what it means to persevere and follow your dreams.

nepali dancers Atlanta

Second performance was by a group of three Nepali teenage girls. Also adorned in traditional Nepalese outfits, they moved their hands and feet to a slightly slower traditional Nepalese folk dance. Although their dance was not flawless, their nervous smiles and the sidelong glances they exchanged throughout made the entire performance extremely adorable to watch.

Overall, the event was a great exposure to Nepali culture. The food was delicious and made me want to come back and try everything on the menu. The speakers and the performances gave me insight into the people and current issues they face. If I had to pick one thing I touched me most, it would be that despite suffering from immense poverty and exploitation, the people of Nepal are a kind, joyous group that I think anyone would love to experience firsthand. While I may not be able to visit Nepal in the near future, Go Eat Give’s Destination Nepal event successfully transported me into the small country nestled in the Himalayas, even if for an evening.

To see more pictures from the event, visit Go Eat Give’s Facebook page.

~ By Allie Williams, intern at Go Eat Give.

Instant mob

Since there was no way I was going to even try to climb up Mount Everest, or even Base Camp, I decided to take the easy way out. Several airlines offer mountain flights that take you over Everest and other mountains in the Himalayas. In one and a half hours, you get up close to the highest peaks in the world and the cost is only $100.

The one problem is flights in Nepal are extremely dangerous. Every year, there has been at least one major plane crash in which all passengers died. With unpredictable weather, fog and mountainous terrain, airline pilots have to be very well trained when flying in Nepal. Now, the authorities take more precautions and cancel flights if there is any chance of a mishap.

My Mountain Flight was scheduled for 6:45am. I got up very early and reached Kathmandu domestic airport, checked in, cleared security and reached my gate. Actually, the entire terminal is one large room with a few doors serving as gates. The airport seemed quite dead but a number of flights were scheduled as stated on the monitor. The announcement said “Due to bad weather, Kathmandu airport is closed. There are no flight flying in or out at this time. Mountain flight is now scheduled to depart at 7am.” This wasn’t bad, only a few minutes delay.

At 7am, the same announcement repeated stating a new time of 7:30, then 8:00, then 8:30, and so on. Meanwhile, more and more passengers started gathering inside the waiting hall. There were flights scheduled to Lukla (starting point for trekkers to Base Camp), Pokhra (a beautiful lakeside city), mountain and several other places. In a few hours, the entire place was packed with people with very little standing room left. Needless to say, all the seats were taken and the bathrooms were filthy. There is one book/ gift kiosk, a tea stall and an internet café at the airport. All of those were doing good business.

Suddenly a mob gathered and broke out into music and songs. Someone played the guitar while people from various nationalities sang Jingle Bells, It’s a wonderful world and other lyrics that were known to all. I could make out some of the singers were from China, Europe and Middle East. It was quite amazing to see how they had a common denominator of music and American pop culture.

Here is a video of the instant mob at Kathmandu airport looking to kill time by singing anything and everything!

As I would find out after a few mornings at the airport, Kathmandu airport typically does not operate before 10am. So even if you have a booking early in the morning, you will be spending at least a few hours waiting at the airport. My recommendation take a good book, learn a few songs, carry your laptop (they have WiFi for a fee) or best, don’t book a flight before 10am.

Turning the Wheels

Kids grow up quick in Nepal. They have to support their parents, raise younger siblings, and help out in the fields before and after school. When in school there’s often a lack of teachers and many of the children sit in the class unsupervised. Poverty and hardship breed creativity and resourcefulness, whether it’s a kite made from rubbish for play or packets of noodles as shoes, or using an old bicycle wheel for playing.

In November 2011, I visited Kathmandu, a few villages around it and Okhaldhunga which is a remote and rural area in the Eastern part of Nepal, staying with and observing the daily life of local people. I was taking pictures for an upcoming exhibition that will showcase life in Nepal and raise funds for the non profit, Volunteer Initiative Nepal (VIN).

Nepal is a poor country which is reflected in it’s infrastructure. Water and electricity are hard to get. Traveling the short distance of 230 km between two cities can take locals one and a half days by bus. My interest was looking at how people live day to day life in difficult conditions. How they work, eat, play and laugh together. My intention is not to paper over the cracks of the hardships of their lives but to show how they maintain self-respect and a level of normality in constantly challenging circumstances.

During my visit, communication wasn’t easy. The younger generation helped a lot thanks to some education in English, but where that failed, smiles and gestures and the natural openness of the people was the language of the day. At the end of the trip I was left reflecting on the contrast between, the modernized world with the imminent stress of the credit crisis, the over-consumerism and the self-centeredness; and on the other hand the reality of living with hardly any material goods but with a sense of love and belonging.

This project was done with the cooperation of VIN and Friends of VIN and I thank them for their support.

 ~ By guest blogger and professional photographer, Elisabete Maisao Dos Santos. Elizabete lives in Holland & recently visited Nepal to photograph for a fundraiser and exhibition benefiting VIN which will be held in Spring 2012

Honeymooning at the top of the world (part 2)

Continued from part 1…

We start our second day crossing the Dudh Kosi (Milk River) on a steel suspension bridge about 50 metres (165ft) above the river – it’s a thrilling feeling with mountains on each side and the roaring river below. As we cross, the wind pushes us to one side and you feel slightly unbalanced and we both have butterflies in our stomachs.

Crossing one of many suspension bridges

The last 3 hours of the day’s trek is a steep ascent – more than 1000 meters – just up, up, up…until we finally reach Namche Bazaar at 3,440 metres (11,286 ft). This was definitely physically the hardest day of the whole trek but the next day is a rest day to give our bodies more time to acclimatize to the altitude. Well, “rest day” – the term is a bit misleading and sounds better than what it is. The point of a rest day is to climb above the altitude you are sleeping at, spend a couple of hours and then descend. This will help the body acclimatize faster. So we climb 350 metres (1150ft) uphill, have a break while watching recreational planes land and take off. The attraction is the highest located hotel with a view of Mt. Everest at 3880m (12,730 ft). So if you are rich enough you can fly directly to this hotel spare yourself the walking, see Everest and fly back. In the afternoon we watch the movie Into Thin Air based on Jon Krakauer’s account of the fatal summit attempts in 1996.

For days we walk along narrow trails that wind around cliffs, go down to the bottom so that we can cross the river that runs through, then it’s back up the mountain, around the mountain, ascending, descending, ascending…We walk through valleys surrounded by beautiful blankets of autumn colors. The smell of pine forests remind me of walks with my mom back in Denmark where I grew up. But Denmark is one of the flattest countries on earth and Nepal one of the highest. The contrast could almost not be bigger.

It gets colder in the mornings and the landscape becomes more barren and unforgiving. At Tengboche (4,360 m/14,300 ft) we spend our second rest day. There is not much to do; the village seems to only exist for the trekkers passing through except the monastery (which must be the highest located monastery in the world!) which is now said to be home to 60 monks, reflecting its financial prosperity. However, it is also said that fewer and fewer young boys join as monks as they prefer to work in mountaineering or trekking-related activities.

It was my first experience inside a Buddhist monastery – the humming sound of about 40 monks chanting prayers was slightly hypnotic and calming and because I didn’t really understand what was going on it became all the more exotic and mysterious.

Monks chanting prayers at Tengboche Monastery

Nowhere in the world is a trek more spectacular than in the Everest region. It’s where four of the world’s six tallest peaks Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu rise above everything else, crowning the towering ridges that straddle the Himalaya.

Mountains make you feel small and insignificant – in a good way – it makes you see yourself in a different perspective. While walking you have time to reflect on so many things that you might not normally do in your everyday life. It makes trekking therapeutic experience both mentally and physically.

We are starting to feel the altitude; slight headaches and short-of-breath-ness. Our guide assures us that eating loads of garlic will cure our symptoms, so we eat cloves of raw uncooked garlic. I’m sure our breaths must have smelled really well…

Late morning on day 9 we reach Gorak Shep – a 3 hour trek from Lobuche. We are now at (5170 m/16,961ft) After an early lunch we take the trail to Everest Base Camp through the once vast Gorak Shep Lake. It’s strange to see sand and sea shells at this altitude. After a couple of hours we reach the Khumbu Icefall which is regarded as one of the most dangerous stages of the South Col route to Everest’s summit. Climbing through the icefall can be an extremely dangerous adventure as the icefall is continually moving, sometimes as much as two to three feet in an hour, and I’m happy that we are not doing that. We have reached the goal of our trek. We are standing at the foot of the tallest mountain above sea level! It’s incredible!

My husband and I at Mount Everest Base Camp.

When we arrive back at Gorak Shep, my husband is not feeling well. He is nauseous and has a headache – clear symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and that your body has not acclimatized well. We go to our room to take a rest before dinner – he is still not feeling well after an hour and I’m starting to get a little cold. Like most lodges along the way, this one also consists of 4 wooden walls, no insulation and a little window. I go downstairs to order a hot drink and to inform our guide that my husband is not feeling so good. Our guide jumps to his feet and runs up to our room to check on my husband. Within 3 minutes he is back downstairs to inform me that we are leaving NOW! We have to pack and leave NOW – immediately. I’m too focused on leaving instantly that I don’t have time to be nervous about my husband, and I trust that we are in safe hands.

It’s 5.30pm and the sun has just set over the Himalaya and we are about to walk on a small stony path – IN THE DARK! Now that’s scary! Luckily, we have a full moon so the landscape is slightly lit up and this merciless place corresponds to what I imagine it must be like to be walking on the moon. There are no sounds in the night – only our footsteps on rocks can be heard – it’s absolutely silent, like we’re wrapped in an invisible blanket. It’s so beautiful and unreal – this moon landscape at the top of the world; it’s rough and poetic at the same time.

We finally get down to an altitude of about 4280 m (14,070 ft) and we will stop here for the night. Thank goodness the decent seems to have helped my husband’s condition; he says he feels better. Or maybe he’s just too exhausted to feel sick. I’m exhausted – it’s been a long day with a 7am start and it’s now 9pm. Last time we ate was 10 hours ago. My husband goes straight to bed and the guide and I eat a small bowl of noodle soup.

We backtrack down to Lukla over the next couple of days and it feels good to be finishingour trek. It was an amazing experience – an experience you could never have predicted. It’s definitely a honeymoon to remember – but I’m sure most honeymoon couples will tell you that. It almost feels like this was a symbolic trip of what is in store for us in our future life together – sometimes life is uphill and you’re out of breath, but after that it’s downhill and life is effortless and sometimes you don’t feel well, but by supporting each other we will make it. We started this journey together and we are going to finish it together.

~ By guest blogger, Ann Wilson. Ann is founder and CEO of Friends of VIN. She lives in Netherlands with her husband and travels to Nepal every chance she gets. To support Friends of VIN, visit

Honeymooning at the top of the world (part 1)

First I would like to kindly thank Sucheta for letting me write a guest entry on her blog! I recently met Sucheta in Nepal where I was re-visiting VIN (Volunteers Initiative Nepal) whom I worked for last year. This year I set up a partner foundation called Friends of VIN (visit our newly launched website Friends of VIN) and I was in Nepal to catch up with VIN’s founder Bhupendra Ghimire and to check out our new project location in a remote area and rural area of Nepal; Okhaldunga.

But let’s briefly rewind to 2008 – it was a leap year…and the reason I remember so clearly is that this was the year where, on February 29, I proposed to my then boyfriend. Only 2 weeks prior had I heard about this old tradition of women being “allowed” to propose on this day. It’s believed to originate from Ireland in the 5th century when St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for a man to propose. Tradition has it that in case the woman’s proposal was rejected, she would receive 12 pairs of gloves – so I thought: what the heck – I have nothing to lose!

Two and a half years later – July 2010 – we got married on a boat in Amsterdam– and it was a fantastic day!

We discussed a couple of options for our honeymoon – We wanted something out of the ordinary – not the Maldives or any other luxury beach holiday. So we came up with the South Pole on an old Russian expedition ship or trekking in Nepal…and since my husband knows how much Nepal means to me and since our very first conversation included Nepal, he wanted to experience it with me. And there was an extra bonus for me – my lifelong dream of working in Nepal as a volunteer would also come true.

We were greeted at the airport by Raju Shrestha – co-owner of the travel agency Himalayan Rejoice with whom we had booked our trip. The first days involved sightseeing of many of the famous sights in Kathmandu; the Swayambhunath Temple (also called the Monkey Temple – guess why…), the Boudhanath Stupa, the Kumari’s (Nepal’s living Goddess) Palace, and Durbar Square.

We rose early to go to the airport as we were on the first flight to Lukla. The airport terminal for domestic flights was quite chaotic compared to European standards…a lot of shouting and waving of tickets in the air – there was no check-in line; it was sort of just a lot of trekking tourists with sleepy looks in their eyes huddled in pairs or groups while their trekking guides were trying to get all the luggage checked in.

Finally we were on the plane – but ended up waiting outside on the tarmac as we couldn’t take off due to the mist in the valley. This is quite a common phenomenon in Nepal – and it means that many flights are delayed or cancelled. So if you are planning on going trekking in the Everest region and want to fly in to Lukla, you should give yourself a couple of days at each end of the trek to allow for changes to your flight schedule. Or maybe you don’t want to fly into the world’s most dangerous airport, but will opt for a 7-10 hour bus ride to Jiri and then start walking…In the beginning of November this year, around 3,000 trekkers were stranded in Lukla because no planes could leave or arrive for the matter due to bad weather.

Seemingly randomly, our guide found a porter that he already knew – among hundreds of men. It’s amazing how that worked. Our porter works independently meaning not through a travel agency and doesn’t own a mobile phone, so I guess we were lucky that he wasn’t on another job…

Hundreds of porters waiting for a job at our arrival at Lukla airport.

And then…After a hearty breakfast of potatoes and chili we take the first steps of the first meters of many thousands. It is like we have landed somewhere in the 1700s; cows, chicken, yaks and dogs are running among the many children who are chasing the animals with wooden sticks or playing in the shade. Men are carrying heavy loads of everything ranging from firewood to dirt to bags of rice on their backs. Women are busy tending to their farms and household chores, washing the dishes at the public water pipe or taking a shower – also at the public water pipe. A stark contrast to our urban lives back home in Amsterdam.

The route takes us through beautiful greenery and sounds of people and animals. Every now and again we come face to face with a yak train – which of course has the right of way. You can always hear them coming by the sound of the bells dangling from their necks and it’s important to go towards the mountain so that you don’t get pushed off the cliff accidentally…the yaks are carrying goods to the villages higher up as well as trekkers’ backpacks.

We pass many shrines and stupas which you must always walk around clockwise. We also pass many Buddhist prayer wheels and you are encouraged to spin them as you pass. In this way, the prayers are spun out to the universe and will save you from chanting them. In the distance we see lush forest rising high up until they eventually meet the raw grey and brown mountains with their snow-capped peaks which will dot our horizon over the next couple of weeks.

Hills, mountains and rivers make up the landscape on our way to Everest Base Camp

As you would expect we meet our first ascent of many and for about an hour our legs (and lungs) are given a good work-out – far better than any gym can offer. And the views are just stunning, the fresh air sweet and soothing, so much better than the Kathmandu smog and dust.

More coming…

~ By guest blogger, Ann Wilson. Ann is founder and CEO of Friends of VIN. She lives in Netherlands with her husband and travels to Nepal every chance she gets. To support Friends of VIN, visit

Same same but different

India and Nepal are two neighboring countries that have a lot of similarities and a few differences. Often times you would hear the phrase “same same but different” in reference to contrasting the two. My own personal experience aligns quite well with this.

Like India, women in Nepal wear salwaar kameez and saris, adorned with glass bangles and bindis. Married women wear red. Shawls and sweaters have similar fabric (wool and pashmina) and patterns. Married men wear an angular Nepali cap, which is different.

Majority Nepalis are Hindus so the culture and traditions are quite similar to those in India. Joint family system, arranged marriages, respect for elders are some common values.

Nepali is the main language in Nepal, but most people also speak English or Hindi. I found Nepali to have a lot of common words with several Indian languages (there are 13 officially in India) which made it relatively easy for me to understand. I could initiate a conversation in Hindi with almost everyone and they would understand.

The food is quite similar as well. A typical Nepali meal is daal (lentils), bhaat (steamed rice) and sabzi (curried vegetables). This is common in Indian households too. Northern India tends to add more meat and wheat (bread) dishes to their meals but the three staples are eaten across the country. There are mithai (sweet) shops in Nepal that are identical to those in India, selling snacks, street food and sweets. One needs to watch where they eat from for fear of diseases. Un-bottled water is strictly a no-no.

Bollywood is a major source of entertainment in both India and Nepal. Everyone seemed to be caught up with the latest movies and hit songs. My TV set in the hotel room had multiple Indian channels (perhaps more than Nepali) that broadcasted soaps, movies and music 24×7.

Haggling when shopping is also a common experience. Nepali shopkeepers will offer you a price for an item and will quickly come down to as much as 33% of the original price, if you are a good negotiator. Like India, there are different entry fees to monuments, museums, etc. for residents and foreigners, sometimes the difference is as much as 15 times.

The infrastructure is quite poor in Nepal, as it used to be in India before. There are mandatory power cuts for upto 18 hours a day to balance load shifting. Public places have dirty bathrooms and low hygiene conditions. Roads are bad and traffic congestion makes traveling small distances very time consuming. Like India, roads are meant for everyone from foot traffic, cows to motorcycles and buses. The pollution in Nepal is also worse than India. Overall, I felt like Nepal is now what India used to be 25 years ago.

Kathmandu – not what I expected

Urban sprawl in Kathmandu

My perception of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal was quite different than the reality. I had envisioned a metropolitan city, neatly maintaining the balance between the old and new, cobblestone pathways leading to the Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas where peace and fresh air fills into your lungs, streets of restaurants and bars where hippies, adventurers and spiritual seekers gather in the evenings sharing their stories….it was none of this!

First impression of Kathmandu reminded me of a hill station in north India. Narrow streets, traffic, pollution, old buildings, slums, dirt, tiny shops selling everything from plastic toys to gold jewelry, restaurants advertising Indian and tandoori food, constant honking of horns, animals and people sharing the same roads, temple bells and chants ringing in your ears, dogs barking. If I have to describe it in one word, that would be “chaos.”

One of the main roads in the city

The infrastructure in Nepal is perhaps one of the worst in the world. The best road in the country is broken, bumpy and less than optimal to say the least. There are no traffic lights, lanes or even driving rules. You will often come within inches of another car or bus while driving, or even walking down the streets. Drivers do not look out for pedestrians so it’s only in your own interest to be extra vigilant and get out of their way.

The noise and air pollution in the city compares only to that of Mexico City and Beijing. A face mask is highly recommended. Locals and visitors are found covering their nose and mouth in all public areas Bring ear plugs of you want to get some sleep in the nigh, especially if your hotel overlooks a main road. Ipods also come in handy to drown the noise.

Thamel (the tourist area) in Kathmandu

The most surprising element during my visit was the people of Nepal. They are the friendliest, most sincere and helpful I have ever come across anywhere in the world. Everyone from my waiter, shopkeeper to taxi driver would start making a conversation with me and go out of his/her way to ensure my comfort. I never felt unsafe or had a fear of being cheated the entire time I was in Nepal.