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I'm coming home


I'm coming home

In just under a week I'll be on a plane back to the U.S., ending one of the most incredible years of my life. Trying to sort out a year of memories and experiences is futile, but here are a few things I've already realized: 

The people were even better. I got to meet some of the most playful and generous people on this planet. In the midst of reading about all that is going on in Paris, Beirut, Nepal, and Syria, despite all of the horrific things that have happened, I am still convinced that this world is full of good people. People whose kindness and compassion blew me away. I was given the benefit of a doubt from Vietnamese who suffered in the war. I was invited into someone's home that was the size of my bedroom growing up. I was given couches, equipment, food, directions, hugs, and so much encouragement from strangers. People are incredible and I can only hope to pay it forward someday when I have a home. 

The adventures were way bigger. Last week I ran with (okay, away from) a bull with flaming horns in Spain. I will never forget what it felt like to trek with a 15 kilo pack to 5,416 meters, or to wake up on a mountain in the Austrian Alps the morning of my birthday. I got to climb the longest routes of my life in the Dolomites and Arco, care for 433 wild dogs in Thailand, swim in waterfalls in Laos, jump off a moving train in Prague, compete and actually place in a climbing competition in Kathmandu, trek in the Laotian jungle, the high Tatras, the Alps, and the Himalayas, and volunteer with the most inspiring organization I've seen in a long time in Nepal. 

And the hard times were worse than I imagined. I struggled with being developing country sick, injured, exhausted, more lonely than I've ever felt in my life, and injured again. I've had bed bugs, wiped out on my motorbike, almost drowned in a tunnel in Vietnam, fainted a few times, had a lung infection (maybe altitude sickness, actually?) at altitude, left my purse on a train, slept on the sidewalk, cried every time my tendinitis kept me from climbing, unknowingly hosted generations of lice in my hair for a month, and shit my pants in public...twice. 

Even though there are always going to be more places I want to explore, I couldn't be more ready to see my family and friends again. Truthfully, I can't wait to settle down and have things like a toothbrush cup, mugs, books, a dresser, a bike, a garden, and heaps of chipotle. America, you're beautiful. 

I don't know what's next or where's next yet and that scares me. So don't ask about that yet, just for now join me in saying, holy shit this happened. Thank you for believing that it would happen and for encouraging me along the way. Thank you, thank you, a million times, thank you.


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Trail Journal: Annapurna Circuit

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Trail Journal: Annapurna Circuit

Total cost: $390
Total days: 15 (13 trekking, 2 resting)

Day One: Bulbhule To Bahundanda.
Hours of hiking: three
Elevation gain: 840m to 1310m

Pokhara to Besi Sahar via bus: $3.50, 4 hours. Bus leaves at 6:30 am
Bumpy bus ride winding through jungle and rice terraces. Everything is so green and lush, with moody fog tangling in the hilltops and mountains.
Besi Sahar to Bhulbhule via bus, 1 hour. $2. Leaves every half hour.
Started trek with Emma from Germany and Rodrigo from Brazil. Really nice pair, enjoyed chatting but ate some questionable roadside Dahl Bat that smelled and tasted like urine. Stopped in Bahundanda for the night because we're a little ahead, they continued on. Hot springs here for swimming and washing our funky selves. Water was actually boiling, I could only dip my feet in for a few seconds. We hiked back, ate and I started reading A Walk in the Woods. Seems appropriate. Crazy storm throughout the night, woke my tired butt up it was so violent. 

Day Two: Bahundanda to Chyamche
Hours of hiking: four
Elevation gain: 1310m to 1385m

We got up at 5:30 and left by 7. After about an hour of hiking we reached Bahundanda two, learning a very discouraging fact: there is an upper and a lower section of most villages. We checked in with ACAP and hiked on, running into two Germans who we had met briefly the day before. We then proceeded to run into them again every few hours, in Gharmo and again just before Jagat. The trail is mostly empty so we keep seeing the same people over and over again. It feels like one big, smelly community. It was hot today and we needed to stop a few times to douse ourselves and refill our water in the high rivers (grateful!). The scenery is slowly changing from rice terraces to rivers and waterfalls. It's already the prettiest hike I've ever been on. We stopped for the night in Chyamje and were delighted with a 100 rupee room ($1) and free hot showers. Though it had only been two days since I last showered, I was reaching a new level of rank junkiness due to hiking in full sun. We slept with a beautiful waterfall outside our room and the Nepali constitution was passed, leaving us wondering how locals felt about it. Huge day for Nepal day. 

*Recommendation is to get up even earlier for this day, steep climb in full sun!

Day Three: Chyamche to Danakyu
Hours of hiking: six
Elevation gain: 1385m to 2200m

We got up early today, around 4:45, had breakfast and hit the trail by 6. We had a long, steep climb but luckily made it up before the sun came up. We are seeing so many waterfalls that we've stopped counting. It's insanely beautiful. We hit the village of Tal after a few hours and stopped for second breakfast of coffee and crackers and accidental naps in the sunshine. Life is good. We saw the Germans again! They love their late starts (how German are they, really?) and brunches. We followed the river and kept crossing waterfalls, met a woman who tried to sell us ganja that looked like goat turds, then we met another pair of trekkers, Virginie and Alex. Alex is from Oregon and Virginie is from Belgium. The four of us caught up with the Germans again and made a nice group of six for the day. We hiked through Dharambanda and made it to Donaque, where we got free accommodation but food prices are starting to rise. It had been an eight hour day so we collapsed in bed by 7 pm, after reading and playing chess (we're wild like this). The Germans pushed on to the next village so hopefully we see them again tomorrow. 

Day Four: Danakyu to Dhikur Pokhari
Hours of hiking: eight
Elevation gain: 2,200m to 3,240m

I wish I would have showered. We didn't get out of our teahouse until 7:30 and had an immediate 500 meter climb. I don't know what my deal was but I immediately started to feel light headed, like I was going to faint. I had a big breakfast of muesli, hot milk, apples, two hard-boiled eggs, and coffee. But I felt terrible. Everyone was really patient though and waited for me, Virginie even carried my bag and hers for about 100 meters! What a strong lady. We stopped many times for me and they fed me peanut butter, chocolate, Snickers, and a liter and a half of water and electrolytes. Slowly, eventually, I started to feel better.

After about four hours we made it to Chame, spinning the prayer wheels and talking about everything from most underrated chick flick to Buddhism to siblings to coding websites. The kids we are seeing on the trail are getting cuter and more gremlin-like which is my favorite, with rosy cheeks, wool clothes, and big, unblinking eyes and nose and ear piercings. They're starting to ask for sweets though, which feels tricky because we want to help but a few Snickers is not going to make a long term impact. Tricky stuff. We pushed on past Chame to Daramhsala and then arrived in Bhalbuensa in high spirits because we had finished our day just as it started raining. But when we got to the only teahouse in town, they told us they had rented it all out to the workers building across the street. We begged to sleep on some pallets or the floor, as we were tired and wet, but they didn't budge. At this point it was 3:30 and we hadn't had any lunch and the rain was really coming down, so I got two boiled eggs and everyone had some crackers and we trudged on the last 1.5 hours to Dhikar Pokhari. The hike was beautiful though and we walked along a cut out road along a cliff tracing a river. The last 45 minutes were pretty hard (I keep coughing) but we finally made it. I took my first bucket shower in the dark and we all got Dal Baht. The nights are starting to get colder, I am writing this with three layers on in my sleeping. Looking forward to just five hours tomorrow and then our first rest day!

Day Five: Dhikur Pokhari to Munchi
Hours of hiking: eight
Elevation gain: 3240m to 3500m

Today was hard. It was supposed to be only five hours but it ended up being eight. Getting to Upper Pisang was a quick push up a hill, but then we followed a ridge and started to go back down the back side of the hill, losing too much elevation. I was not feeling well and going down mean that that we had to make that up plus four hundred meters to get to the next village, Ghyaru.

Finally we saw the hill. It was in full sun and pretty steep, about 500 meters of switchbacks to the top. We spread out according to our speeds and I was dead last, wheezing and feeling generally pretty terrible. There were two of the slowest mofackin pumps on the hill and you better believe I sat there and dripped my liter Nalgene back to full. I started this trek with just a simple cold, but these long days have been hitting me hard; it's getting hard to breathe and I am still feeling dizzy. I finally joined the others at the top and the view made me forget my rattling lungs. We had tea, ate crackers, and took some photos before heading on. It was relatively flat after that climb but I was so wrecked I stayed behind the group and wasn't able to ever really catch up. The scenery was beautiful though, we could finally see Annapurna 2 and 4 and before the day was over we saw Annapurna 3 too.

We hiked down this crazy lunar road with about three inches of dust to the village of Munche. We were only an hour away from Manang (where we wanted to spend the night) but I was wheezing and felt really weak so we crashed for the night. I had a hard time sleeping with my sore throat and was up most of the night coughing and feeling generally terrible (poor Max). I finally ran out of medicine, cough syrup, and lozenges so at 1 am I took a hot shower, which loosened my sinuses and soothed my throat enough to let me sleep. 

Day Six: Munche to Manang
Hours of hiking: one
Elevation gain: 3,500m to 3,540m

Today our one, measly goal of trekking the one hour to Manang was hard for me. I slept most of the morning and finally was able to get my hands on some Sudafed from some kind Canadian travelers who heard I was sick. Virginie and Alex hiked to ice lake (1,000 meter climb, no big deal) during the day so Max and I headed to Manang. We accidentally hiked past it, which I took as a good sign that maybe I had a bit more stamina in me. We checked in, ate, bought more medicine and tried to sleep, but I ended up staying up most of the night as my coughing turned into vomiting. 

Day Seven: Rest day in Manang
Max was starting to come down with something too so we decided to have a rest day here. I went to the clinic in town, which was really fortunate timing as they had just opened after the earthquake and I was their first customer. They thought my cold had turned into a bacterial lung infection so they gave me amoxicillin, paracetamol, ibuprofen and the always classic doctor advice of 'don't be stupid'. The bill was a staggering $64 and I reminded myself it would have been so much more in the U.S. and besides, you can't put a price tag on health right? So I started dosing, we watched Seven Years in Tibet in the town cinema (luxury!) and just relaxed the rest of the day. Virginie and Alex are planning on leaving tomorrow to continue the trek, but Max and I will wait it out at least another day. I think he's getting sick too, so together we're pretty gross to be around. 

Day Eight: Rest day in Manang
Last night I thought it was going to be another long night so I ordered a pot of ginger tea but the drugs must be working because I actually fell asleep around midnight. It was wonderful! I'm feeling much better but it seems Max and I have traded places, as he's really sick now. We said goodbye to Alex and Virginie this morning and are planning on just resting and watching movies today. We might need to take another day tomorrow, which is ok because we have so many extra days for this trek, now that we're skipping a side trek we wanted to do, the beautiful and steep Tilicho Lake. Hopefully he feels better soon, but Manang isn't the worst place for resting. We get to look at Annapurna 2, 3, and 4 all day and are even doing laundry and flying through books. Plus there are a bunch of cafes here and we might watch another movie in the cinema, so we're ok for a while. 

Day Nine: Manang to Ghusang
Hours of hiking: one and a half
Elevation gain: 3,540, to 3,930m

I slept through the night! We spent our morning drinking coffee and reading and then headed to Ghusang, only one and a half hours away. Not a bad walk at all, just what we needed to get moving again. Only two guest houses here with comparable pricing so we picked the one with the better view, on the left side of the road. Lots of reading, eating, music listening, and gin rummy to end a nice day. It's feeling incredible to see snowy mountains all around us now. 

Day Ten: Ghusang to Ledar
Hours of hiking: three
3,930m to 4,230m

Our plan is to hike the three hours to Ledar today. I'm nervous because I am not quite at 100% - breathing at this altitude is still tricky. I feel like I can't get a full breath, as if I am inhaling through a straw or something. It's not too far and I don't think it's steep. I took a half pill of altitude sickness pills this morning and I am spitting my stupid lung infection out of my nose and mouth. I am disgusting but hopeful I can kick this today or tomorrow before we make for the pass. We're only hiking 300 meters today, not bad at all. 

...and it wasn't! We stopped in Yak Karkha for lunch and caught up with the cyclists we met at the end of our second or third day. It was fun to chat with them and this English man who had given me a bunch of Paracetamol in Manang. We spent the night in Ledar, our hostel owner was sweet and begged us to stay because her husband was in Manang so she was alone for the night. These Chinese trekkers came and, as usual, our hostel owner was not happy they stayed here. It really does seem like everyone in Asia hates the Chinese. Max and I played gin rummy again and breathing and sleeping seems easy. 

Day Eleven: Ledar to Thorung Phedi
Hours of hiking: three
Elevation gain: 4,230m to 4,540m

Only a three hour day, so we started late, too late actually. It was a beautiful day though, casual walking below clear skies – until we crossed the suspension bridge. Then it was up, up, up. We crossed some sketchy landslides, some that they had repaired already with retaining walls, but others that were pretty narrow with loose rock. We arrived at Thorung Phedi and stayed at the upper teahouse and met Ryan and Rachel, two Peace Corps volunteers who had just finished teaching English in China for the last two years and were taking the slow way home. They told us it was a short walk to high camp so we will join them on their hike tomorrow morning. 

Day Twelve: Thorung Phedi to High Camp
Hours of hiking: one and a half hours
Elevation gain: 4,540m to 4,850m

This walk was short, we gained 300 meters of elevation in just one short kilometer, so it was quite steep. It is getting chillier and the Himalayas are starting to open up; we can see Chulo North and South now. So beautiful. We met Mike and Frannie, the sweet Colorado couple who are on a month-long vacation AND who both rock climb and ski. Ryan and Rachel ski and Max and I climb, so the six of us geeked out hard on gear and stories. It is refreshing being around short term travelers because they were so excited to be here and appreciate everything. Along with Ryan and Rachel, we pretty much spent the afternoon and evening hanging out and chatting about gear, travel, and skiing, which was fun to learn about. 

This high camp was the most expensive on the trail; we ended up spending 1,850 rupees or $18.50 for accommodation, lunch, dinner, and breakfast. Budget for this!

Day Thirteen: High Camp to Muktinath
Hours of hiking: nine
Elevation gain: 4850m to 5416m to 3800m

Today was the biggest day of the whole trek. Max and I woke up at 5:15 am, which was actually late. We had breakfast in the semi dark, packed, and hit the trail by 6:15. Our goal was to get through the pass and back down to Muktinath, meeting everyone at the Bob Marley. Temps were frigid and we were on the trail before the sun was up. Reynaulds was killing my hands and we were approaching 5,400 meters so breathing was extra difficult. My cold still hadn't left me so I was wheezing and spitting stuff up. But eventually the path got a bit more even and the climb wasn't as steep. We somehow made it to the pass in two and a half hours, which was actually quite fast as we had thought it would take four. The pass was beautiful, full of prayer flags and between Thorung and another mountain. It felt so incredible to finally be up there, walking up I was alone and started to glimpse the flags and felt so light and happy, I started smiling to myself like a fool.

The walk down was insane. We descended 1,300 meters and it was beautiful, but man my knees were killing me. It felt amazing to be able to breathe though and the warm air was really nice. We ended the night at the Bob Marley hostel, which felt like the freaking Hilton. It had hot showers with stones on the sides and the ground. I was able to shampoo, condition, and use soap, that beautiful trifecta, the first time that had happened in about nine days. It was incredible. We drank celebratory beers with Rachel, Ryan, Frannie, and Mike. Dinner was luxury; for me delicious Nepali Gnocchi until my stomach hurt. For sure the beta. We also met Ian from Canada and this kind of strange Australian couple, Chelsea and James. They manage a watermelon farm in central Australia and seem to truly hate it. Or at least they hate watermelons and the sun. But they were nice enough and our group hung out until we were delirious with fatigue, mumbled goodnights, and I am going to sleep. 

Day Fourteen: Muktinath to Kagbeni
Hours of hiking: three
Elevation gain: 3800m to 2800m

I woke up so unbelievably sore, more than any other day on the trek. Max, Rachel, Ryan, and I had breakfast, bought some snacks, and headed to Kagbeni. Kagbeni was a bit of a detour, as we were originally going to go to Jomsom but Kagbeni is this old Tibetan village so we wanted to check it out. We set out for what was supposed to be a three hour walk but we stopped for some apples, I learned how to weave on a loom, and we ordered the slowest food order ever. It ended up taking us five hours, which was ok. The environment has changed to arid desert and it looked like southwestern U.S., or so I am told.

Kagbeni is really beautiful, these bright green and red fields suddenly appearing amidst all these brown rocks, this beautiful village tucked into the side of this foothill. We walked through the village and totally surrendered to our Americanism so we went to Yak Donald's for dinner and sleeps. They had lukewarm showers, wifi, and best of all yak cheeseburgers, fries, salad, juice, and beer. 

I am feeling so demotivated. Not in a bad way either, its just that we did the pass so we are all a bit lazy now. Our focus has been building up to the pass and now that we have done it, we are sort of just...walking. 

Day Fifteen: Kagbeni to Jomsom
Hours of hiking: two
Elevation gain: 2800m to 2720m

We started a bit late this morning but it was ok because we only had a two hour day. The trekking today was even more arid desert, like nothing I have ever experienced before. I'm told it looks like the southwestern part of the U.S. We walked in and out of a dried out river beds that wind their way through a long valley corridor, with steep dry rocky foothills on either side and the snowy Annapurnas towering above the whole thing. It was surreal. The wind was very powerful too; well actually two parts wind, one part dust. I've never walked through such a windstorm before, my teeth were coated with sand and the front of my legs were all chalky. 

We finally made it to Jomsom though and it has such a strange feel to it. The town sort of lines the river and as you walk through on either side it feels like you have reached the end of the town, but then suddenly there will be a German pastry shop, then nothing for a half km, then the town starts up again. Our plan was to get to Jomsom and mountain bike back the last part of the circuit, but we found out we couldn't rent bikes like we'd hoped. After a bit of wandering, we learned our options for getting back to Pokhara were now limited to walking (freeish), busing ($14), or flying ($115). Walking was out of the question for me since my friend Kelly will be here in a few days. Ryan and Rachel will be getting jobs soon so they are going to fly. Max and I are cheap, so we will ignore the rumors of the treacherous rides and take two buses back to Pokhara. We ended the night just hanging out, chatting over chapati and curry, about everything from China and gear to how India will not let Max back in, to how excited I am to have a home again. I can't believe the trek is over! I am really happy with how it went overall, though I wish I would have been healthy. 

Day Sixteen: Jomsom to Pokhara
Today started Nepali style with us arriving at the bus stop at 6:30am and the bus meeting us there around 7:30. No big deal, we just kept eating chocolate croissants at the cleverly placed German pastry shop outside the bus stop. The first bus was like a roller coaster and I was grateful for my motion sickness pills. The ride was beautiful, and we got to see the scenery in reverse: rocky outcroppings to jungle, to waterfalls everywhere, to rice terraces. We managed to not throw up (although some people on our bus definitely did) and we made it back to Pokhara in 12 hours. We unwisely did the math and learned it would have been faster to hike the 50 km from Jomsom to Pokhara, but whatever, we made it and nothing separates us from hot showers, pizza, real coffee, and chocolate. 


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no for real, let her eat cake


no for real, let her eat cake

Juna, Sita, Kamala, the three musketeers. Messy, matted hair. Skinny frames, dirty clothes, huge smiles, 100% sass. I didn't stand a chance.

It was Juna’s birthday today. It was her birthday, and she didn’t even know it until it was almost over. Her Mom, busy with a full time job, seven kids, and no husband, had forgotten. Luckily Juna happened to see a calendar and so my little Nokia phone rang around 7 pm tonight, it's Juna's birthday! Can you come outside?

I opened my door and there they stood, Juna standing in the middle and looking absolutely radiant in her ratty clothes and wild hair. She proudly handed me a piece of chocolate and gave me a hug. 

I stared at this fresh teenager as I remembered my own 13th birthday. I remember preparing my whole family for it, announcing that I would be a teenager soon, so they could no longer call me Elizabeth or Wizzy (don't ask). Now I would answer only to the elegant Liz

But Juna, she almost missed her birthday.

I swear I’ve made every mistake in the book with these three. Their stories have broken my heart a million times. And so I try to make it better by buying them lunches, drinks, cookies, ice cream, and a trip to one of worst places on earth: the zoo. And even as I am doing this, I know it's not sustainable and just creating a dependence on western tourists. So I am starting to meet with their parents and reach out to various NGO's to figure out how to sponsor their schooling from abroad. 

But tonight, I couldn't help myself. The girl had never had her own cake, had no presents, and almost missed her birthday. On the walk to the bakery Juna stopped everyone she could to give them a piece of candy and announce that it was her birthday. If you could have seen that smile. I’ve never seen anyone glow like that.

Happy Birthday, sweet Juna.  


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finding generosity in Nepal

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finding generosity in Nepal

'I would like to invite you to have coffee at my home tonight', she said.

English class had just finished and she stayed after to speak with me. She had a nose ring, brown eyes so warm they could have been maroon, and an affectionate way of grabbing my hand. 

Since I started at Purnaa, she had been helping me with my terrible Nepali pronunciation and I had been teaching her English class. That day we learned how to say our favorite foods in class and when I joked that mine was coffee, she laughed and invited me to her home. Yes, yes, yes, of course I'll come to your home. 

It was raining when we left work, her holding an umbrella over both of us as she offered bits of English along the way.

When we got to her front door, she turned to me sheepishly, 'its only one room' and we walked in. The room was small and cozy, with lights strung along the pink walls, photos of family members everywhere, and two beds side by side that created a narrow path for me to walk down.

I sat across from her 17-year old-daughter as the coffee was brewing and I learned that she was going to university to be a doctor. This is huge anywhere, but it's especially incredible for a woman to get that level of schooling in Nepal. They served me coffee on a tray with sliced apples as they helped me learn more Nepali phrases. Se-yow, apple. Choree, daughter. Amah, mother. Ramro, good.

When her husband came home, they drove me home together. Halfway home, he turned to me and asked if I liked ‘buff’ (buffalo meat). I responded yes, so he pulled over and got out of the car. I kept talking with her, silently wondering what was happening until he got back in the car and handed me a coffee filter filled with grilled buffalo meat and rice from his friend’s food stand. Buff for you!

And so I fought my tears, as I accepted yet another gift from these people who knew more about sharing what they had than I ever will. 

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