Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How an Election Led to a 15 Day Trek...

This is a post that has been some time in the making. However, I did not want to post until the dust settled so as to not cause unnecessary worry for friends and family. 

Tuesday, November 19 was Election Day in Nepal. The days leading up to the election were quite eventful, but not in the same way elections are eventful in the United States.  And from what I've seen during the past two weeks, I'm eternally grateful to live in an country that has free and relatively fair elections.

Not long after we arrived in Nepal, we learned that the country would be holding their second democratic election in their history. The first took place in 2008, one year after the 10 year long civil war ended.  The war was essentially the Maoist rebels attempt to overthrow the Nepali monarchy. The monarchy eventually gave up power and an interim Democratic government was out in place until a Constitution could be established. After the first election, the Maoists were not happy with their representation in the Constitutional Assembly, which failed to produce a permanent Constitution.  Now, 5 years later Nepalis are again trying to select who will be writing their Constituiton. 

But a month before the election, various Maoists parties threatened to enforce a "bandh" (pronounced bahn-da) which is a strike.  The strike was to prevent all transportation, except emergency vehicles, from using the roads for the ten days before the election. This was not a government enforced strike but a party enforced strike, in an effort to protest and discredit the elections. 

Our original plan to continue volunteering after the Everest Base Camp trek changed for various reasons, but one was that we were to go to Chitwan for a few weeks and then come back to Kathmandu during the election for safety purposes. For more reasons, this plan didn't appeal to me... so I headed to Pokhara. My thought process was that it was a tourist town that would be left alone from any election violence, it was supposed to have a cool vibe (which I can now attest to) and it wasn't the madness that is Kathmandu. (Remember, I live in a community of 50,000 people spread over a 40 mile distance... I don't "do" big cities well.)

A few days after I was settled in Pokhara, I was enjoying a milk tea at a second story cafe when I saw a handful of UN jeeps roll in to town. It dawned on me that this was probably an effort to monitor elections. My hunch was confirmed when the next day another white jeep rolled past that was labelled "European Union Election Monitoring Commission."  And then I thought: "Wow! I've heard of those countries where other countries 'monitor' the elections. And now I'm in one.  This could get interesting."  

And interesting it got. 

On Sunday, November 10, the bandh started. (Sunday is actually a "work" day in Nepal. Saturday is the only "weekend" day.)  I made my daily stroll down the street to search out where I would have breakfast. It was eerily quiet. All store fronts were closed except for restaurants, thankfully for me. I had breakfast and then walked further in to town. The streets that were bustling with motorcycles and vans and Nepali tractors were empty. Kids were literally playing soccer in the street. I sent a message to Annette to see what the vibe was like in Kathmandu. (She had decided to stick to the city and pursue other volunteering opportunities there.)  Her response was that she was ready to start a game of cricket in the streets of Thamel, a typically chaotic town center. 

And then my mind switched from observation to action. I began to consider if this strike really lasts 10 days, my rupee stash might not last me that long and who knows if ATM's would be refilled. Considering they are not a reliable source of cash on a normal day, I could imagine the bandh could make getting cash tougher. And then I thought... if transport is stopped, how does food get to the stores? I made a stop in a little grocery store.  My provisions were 3 Snickers and a bag of pistachios. (If you are laughing at my choice... it's ok. It's laughable.) I think I didn't want to panic and stock up on a ton and was being optimistic that this thing would blow over. 

My next stop was lunch somewhere. I usually sit by the lake but decided streetside could be interesting today, and more peaceful than normal.  Shortly after taking a seat, a taxi with a giant megaphone blaring a Maoist candidate's propaganda drives by followed by no fewer than 40 motorcycles with passengers waving the Maoist flag. Even though I was only 10 when the "Iron Curtain" fell, there was still something unsettling about seeing the hammer and the sickle waved in front of me.  

And then a strange thing began happening. Store owners began to crack open their store fronts.  They seemed to be assessing the situation as to whether or not they were in the clear to open for business. (The first day of the strike was to stop all traffic and business, but then businesses could open after that. And tourist busses were NOT to be impacted by the bandh.) By 3 that afternoon all businesses were open and Pokhara seemed to be back to normal. 

A few days later I met with the director of a children's home about volunteer opportunities. We made a plan for me to come over when the girls were done with school, help with homework, hang out, and help the director and his wife with English.  I was psyched to finally have an open door. And then he said that I will have to wait until the bandh was over for me to start as there was no safe mode of transportation for me to get to the home. Bummer. 

I didn't want to wait in Pokhara for another week so I began to consider that maybe trekking would be a good way to escape the election madness. Everyone around seemed to be hiking this legendary "Annapurna Curcuit", a route that typically takes 2 to 3 weeks.  For a week or so I had been hanging out with my new friend Ho. I met Ho while walking around the lake one day. This was the shirt he was wearing...


You might guess how we met. The exchange went something like this...
Me: "Hey! Did you go to Illinois?"
Ho: "Yeah!"
Me: "I was born in Peoria."
Ho: "So was I."

What?!?  I would have hit him with an Elaine Bennis "Get OUT!" shove if I had known him a few minutes longer. Needless to say, we became fast friends. So it was with Ho's encouragement that I set out on the Circuit. But not without hesitation. I would say that I was reading the headlines of Himalayan Times and the Kathmandu News a little more than the average tourist. I was also checking to see if the Nepal election news was big enough to make the international news wire so I could be prepared for a concerned email from the parental units. Apparently the Obamacare fail was bigger news. News of petrol bombs and tourist busses WITH police escorts being attacked made me have to go to the toilet almost instantly. But these appeared to be isolated incidents.  My second hesitation was whether or not I was capable of doing this trek without a porter. Ho was confident in my ability and promised his own porter service if worst came to worst. We decided on Friday, November 15 to take off on Saturday the 16th. We spent the day getting our permits, provisions and our bus tickets. The ride was 5 hours from Pokhara to Besisahar, where we would start the trek. I prayed much of the way. Minus a nagging headache the entire way, the trip was without incident.  Well...any bus trip in Nepal is full of various incidents but relatively speaking, all went well. We took another bus to avoid walking on the dusty "road" to Ngadi where we began to walk. I was now able to breathe a sigh of relief knowing the election would come and go while I was walking around in the Himalayas. 

Day 1, or "Afternoon 1" we shaved 4 kilometers off the 200 kilometer trek by sleeping in Bahundanda. There we met Brian and Kristen, a couple from Virginia who had sold their house to travel the world. Check out their blog at happytobehomeless.com. We all landed at the same "hotel". The fact that the sign said this place was NOT in the Lonely Planet sold us. These people had a sense of humor. 


The next day was a haul to Tal. But when I came around the bend and saw this amazing sandy riverbed, my response was a shocked "Whaaaat??"


This would be the first of many such responses on the trip. The travel blogs don't lie when they say the views of the Circuit are constantly changing. Unreal. 

And then, once in Tal, Ashley (a guy) from Austrailia was added to the crew.  Some formation of the crew has been together ever since.  Currently we are "Ho and the Ashpurnas".  Our first CD will be released soon. We have given each other theme songs and often DJ Jazzy Ho cues up the perfect song for the moment.  We've had many intense games of "Whist", my new fave card game that Ash taught us. And the laughs never seem to be in short supply. It really is amazing how total strangers can end up traveling together for weeks and not get sick of each other. Well... I'll just speak for myself. But I've loved my time with these guys. 


Day 4 was Election Day. We had spent the night before in a village called Tamang. Our host asked that we take breakfast at 6:30 so they could go to vote. We figured that since voting only happens once every 5 years, we could oblige them. Our route that day took us 20+ kilometers uphill to Upper Pisang. Halfway through the day I noticed that we were passing many more Nepalis than normal. Then it dawned on me, they were going to vote. The law requires that all Nepalis return to their hometown to vote. This is no small task as there are villages that are over a week away and accessible only by foot. Halfway through the day, I decided to congratulate every Nepali I saw for voting. The exchange went something like this:

Me: Election?
Nepali: smile
Me: Voting? Election? You go vote?
Nepali: Yes! Yes! (Showing finger that had been inked to prove it.) Election finished. 
Me: Yay! Good job! 

These two ladies walked two hours to go vote AND two hours back. This is awesome and amazing and inspiring.  


Seriously, people of the United States of America. If 70% of Nepali people turn out to vote with many traveling days to make that happen AND enduring threats and violence in addition, our voter turnout should be at least that. 

Ash and Ho were a ways ahead of me for these exchanges. I'm not sure if they were embarrassed or annoyed.  Or it could be that they are just faster, as the "Tortuga" name from the Camino lives on. Regardless, they claim they found my enthusiasm for voter participation entertaining. That night, there were few rooms in the inns as so many had traveled so far to vote that they spent the night. 


The next morning, the Nepali police, who were ensuring security at the pollong places, rolled out of town as we made our way to Manang.  We asked a few locals about election results. No one appeared to know anything. And news indicates that results are still days away. I remember hearing how in the first Afghan elections that the votes had to be brought to Kabul on the backs of donkeys. I did see many donkeys the next day and it made me wonder if the sacks on their backs were filled with ballots.  I was having another one of those "I know where I am, but how did I get here moments."

And then the focus was back on our trek.  Ho, Brian and Kristen opted for a side trip to Tilicho Lake, the world's highest lake and the best views of the Annapurna  Range. The Ashleys headed straight for the Thorung La Pass. Ho caught back up to us 4 days later in Marpha. The scenery has been absolutely incredible. Pictures don't do it justice but here are a few attempts...








Now we have 3 or 4 days left.  It all depends on how much time we stay in Tatopani, which translates "hot water" named for the hot springs there. I'm just a little excited to soak there... for a long time...

...AND celebrate Thanksgiving. I've decided that this is the holiday I will miss out on the most during my 9 months away. I have spent the last 9 Thanksgivings in Longboat Key, Florida where Aunt Nancy creates the quintessential Thanksiving feast that is making my mouth water just writing about it. But instead of being jealous of all of your amazing Thanksgiving feasts, I've decided to imagine that I'm partaking in your feasts, just as many of you are partaking in "The Journey" with me. 

So, I have MUCH to be thankful for. I'm thankful I live in a country where voting is a right as much as a privilege that I should not take for granted. I'm thankful I'm able to travel to countries who can't necessarily say the same which makes me even more thankful for where I am from.  I'm thankful for a body that is able to complete such a trek so I can see God's creation in some of the most remote, and beautiful parts of the world. I'm thankful for the INCREDIBLE people I've met during the last 2.5 months. I truly believe that at the end of this journey, these people will be what this trip will be all about. You have blessed me greatly. I'm thankful for the INCREDIBLE friends I have back home who have encouraged me in so many ways during the planning of this trip and continue to do so each day.  This has been a very unexpected part of the experience...not that people would be discouraging but that they would be SO encouraging!  And I'm thankful for my amazing family who loves me no matter what crazy advetures I find myself in and encourages me as well.  I'm thinking of you all whether you are in Florida, Peoria or Fort Wayne. 

Wow.  I'm blessed. The end. 

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