Archive | September, 2012

A Quick Update

28 Sep

In the last few days, we saw the Taj Mahal from at least three different angles:

It was incredible how the building completely dominated the whole area.  It was beautiful. Nothing more to say.

We received love advise from one of our tuk-tuk drivers:

“Bob Marley said, ‘No woman, no cry’, but in India, no woman means ‘No chapati, no chai’.”

We saw the Amber fort at Jaiprur:

Alan referred to himself as an “Americ–“

We spent sixteen hours on a train, taking it overnight from Jaipur to Amritsar:

It should have only taken thirteen and a half, but trains and running on time are phrases vehemently opposed to each other within the borders of India.

Also, at one point, Dane’s bed was used by food vendors to sell their goods. Dane was in the bed at the time.

We saw the border between India and Pakistan:

There were hype men at the border, pumping up the crowds watching the flag lowering ceremony!

And we saw The Golden Temple at Amritsar in the daytime and the night:

 

Tomorrow, we’re off to Delhi for a few days. More posts to come.

Eric Stories

27 Sep

Eric’s dear mother, God bless her, tried to teach young Eric table manners when he was growing up. He would counter, “Mom, we’re at home. Table manners are stupid!” To which she would reply, “Well, Eric, what if one day you get to have dinner in the White House? You’ll need to know how to act.”

On two recent occasions, Alan and I sat through dinner with Eric, and although we weren’t eating at places as nice as the White House, Eric’s table manners and knowledge of the finer aspects of dining fell short. He should have paid more attention to his dear mother.

Sitting in our hostel in Varanasi, we realized we were nearly a month into our vacation and had yet to have a real night out at a bar. Trekking to Everest Base Camp, although there were bars along the way, didn’t provide many opportunities to go out for a few drinks, and the old city in Varanasi had no bars. But we really wanted to have a proper night out.

Our guide book informed us there were two hotels in Varanasi with bars. We hopped in a tuk-tuk and told our driver to take us to the one we randomly chose, Prinsep Bar.

Prinsep Bar was at a fancy hotel. We were dropped outside the gates of the hotel and were greeted by security guards. Our white skin, however, acted as a security pass, and we were waved right on through the gates.

The bar was a bit fancier than what we were looking for, but it was a bar nonetheless. So, we sat down and ordered drinks and food. Near the end of our first beer, we were informed our food was ready. We just wanted to eat it in the bar in front of the TV showing sports highlights, but we were escorted to the dining room, which was even fancier than the bar.

The meal was fantastic and so was the service. We may not have been dressed for the dining room, (Dane was wearing a bathing suit and Alan was still wearing his hiking shorts) but none of the team of servants made judgments. They catered to our every need, bringing out each course with perfect timing and served it on our plates with a smile.

After we had finished eating, they cleared the table and placed a bowl in front of us. The bowl was not filled with water. I glanced at Alan. He shrugged. I placed my hand over the bowl. Heat rose to meet it. It seemed an odd time to be serving soup at a meal, so it probably wasn’t that. I looked over at Eric. He was in the middle of gulping it down.

One of our servers saw this, and for the first time that night, a server didn’t know exactly what to do. He hesitated, then just decided to come out with it:  “Sir, that’s, umm, for your fingers.”

Alan and I started laughing. Eric, not knowing how to react, put his face in his napkin and starting laughing too.

One mistake at a fine dining establishment is forgivable for anyone. Everyone is capable of mistakes. Eric, however, is like the NFL’s replacement referees. He makes them all the time.

At our only other fine dining experience on this trip, a few days earlier at the end of our trekking experience, the tour organizer took us to a steak restaurant to get our feedback. Dinner went rather smoothly. It was only after we finished that Eric’s manners fell apart again.

Eric had been quiet throughout dinner. For anyone who has met Eric, this is uncommon, the same kind of uncommon as the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. So, our tour organizer, who was sitting across from Eric, asked him if he was still tired from the trek.

Alan burst in, “He barely got out of bed today.”

Then, Eric burst out, “I haven’t even brushed my teeth!” as his breath carried across the table.

Our tour organizer leaned back with horror in his eyes before bursting out in laughter. We all laughed. What else can you do.

Eric’s rebuttal:

Well, clearly I don’t have much ground to stand on here.  But I will say a few things…

As far as the steakhouse, all I can say is Alan is right, I didn’t get out of bed all day.  I was so happy to have internet, a bed and TV again in Kathmandu that I never felt the need to leave my bed!

In terms of the bar, I have a few excuses.  First of all, since the majority of my meals over the last three years have been at kimbab chungook (essentially a Korean fast food place), I clearly was not prepared to go to such a fancy restaurant. However, the few times that I went out to eat with my co-workers in Korea, we did go to some nice places. Often times when the meal was finished, they would serve some sort of sweet drink as a dessert.  To be completely honest, that’s exactly what I thought was happening his time.  Clearly, I was wrong.  And last but not least, so I can deflect all the blame from myself, I’m going to go ahead and blame my mother for not preparing me for such restaurants!  Sorry mom!!

End rebuttal.

Sorry Mrs. Vanston, your son is never going to be prepared to dine at the White House.

Varanasi: Our First Experience with India

23 Sep

When you’re standing near a fire, and the wind changes direction, blowing hot smoke in your face, it feels like one of the worst things ever. Your eyes start to burn and water and your lungs seize up, as you turn away and start to cough. Now imagine the fire you are standing next to isn’t a normal fire, but a fire in the midst of cremating a body. We all experienced that in the holy city of Varanasi, India.

Eric:  Dogs, rats, cows, monkeys, pigs, donkeys all roaming the streets and alleys of Varanasi. The streets are like a zoo.

Dane:  There’s nothing like having to go shoulder-to-shoulder with a cow in a narrow alleyway just to get to where you need to go.

Eric:  Or being confronted with a cobra and a man who made it seem like he would let the cobra bite you as you walked by unless you gave him a “donation!”

Alan:  Everyday we had to step over a two hundred year-old dying woman who was constantly moaning and muttering and whose face detailed every pain she had been through in her life.

Eric:  Varanasi was by far the most chaotic place I had ever been. There is no order anywhere you go. The only consistency in this place is that no matter where you want to go a tuk-tuk will take you there for 100 rupees (~2 USD).

Dane:  Of course, we’re probably still getting ripped off there. The locals that piggybacked on our tuk-tuk rides, payed 10 rupees max.

Alan:  And the bribes offered to the police officers, so the tuk-tuk could drive in non-tuk-tuk areas, was only 5 rupees.

Dane:  There aren’t really traffic jams on the street. There are just jams of everything. People selling things, people asking for “donations,” rickshaws, tuk-tuks, soldiers, children, cows, pedestrians. It all gets jammed up together.

Alan:  You forgot the dead bodies being paraded through the streets on their way to the ghats.

Eric:  Yeah, it was a real shock when we saw that first dead body being dunked in the Ganges.

Alan:  Ceremoniously.

Dane:  Especially since the first body had its face exposed. Most of the rest were fully covered.

Eric:  I woke up one morning and smelled the familiar smell of a bonfire on my shirt. Then, I realized it wasn’t the smell of a typical bonfire.

Alan:  Around the ghats, especially the burning ghats, there’s sort of an eerie feeling.

Dane:  The fires were pretty stunning the first night, though, when we stumbled upon it. It’s very serene. Very powerful.

Alan:  But that feeling is interrupted when you are asked for a “donation.”

Eric:  Or if you want to buy hash.

Dane:  At least we were spared from being asked to buy things or donate toward things when we caught that boat ride along the banks of the Ganges.

Eric:  Yeah, the sunset cruise was nice.

Alan:  Except we couldn’t stray too far from the shore, or the buildings that met the edge of the water, because the police might see our boat.

Dane:  Yeah, the Ganges is still flooded from the rainy season, so the police have ordered all the boat drivers to stay off the river. But some enterprising young Indians are flouting that order or bribing the cops to look the other way.

Alan:  Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a full view of the city at sunset.

Eric:  We could still see the pilgrims bathing in the water to purge their sins. And putting that horrible water in their mouths! Some sins just aren’t worth getting rid of.

Dane:  Hahahaha. All right, the last thing we need to talk about here is the process it takes to get alcohol. They don’t sell it in the old city where we stayed, so we had to obtain it illegally.

Alan:  For all the times we got ripped off in Varanasi, this was the one time it was worth it.

Eric:  A CAN OF BEER COST MORE THAN DINNER!

Dane:  Coming from Korea where alcohol was sold on every corner during every hour of the day or night, this was a bit of a shock. In Varanasi, obtaining alcohol was akin to obtaining heroin in the Vatican.

Alan:  We had to order it from a shady character at our hostel 15 to 20 minutes in advance, and you had to pay in exact change.

Eric:  And he wanted me to coordinate the time on our watches and was concerned because they were off by 3 minutes.

Alan:  For fear that if he had to wait too long for us to meet him that he’d be caught by the nonexistent police.

Dane:  When he had obtained the beer, too, he wouldn’t just give it to you at the designated meeting spot. He then would request that you follow him down a dark alleyway.

Eric:  Then, he would tell you to wait again. Disappear. Then, reemerge with the beer.

Alan:  The whole thing was bizarre.

Dane:  And he would speak to you in a whisper the whole time.

Eric:  I could never hear what he was saying.

Dane:  I suppose that’s why we ventured to Prinsep Bar one evening, away from the old city, to try to get beer.

Alan:  It was a fancy bar. And then we had dinner at the fancy restaurant attached to it. Eric did not fit in.

Dane:  We’ll save that story for the next post. Eric Vanston’s trials and tribulations at a fancy restaurant:  a true idiot abroad.

Alan:  More like Eric Vanston:  a true idiot.

Eric:  I’m ready to defend myself.

Altitude Sickness is Real

21 Sep

After the minimal research we did about altitude sickness, we really only found out two things.  One, it is not something to mess around with, and two, it can affect anyone.  Even if we did loads of physical training, there is no way to simulate how your body will react to such high altitudes.  At base camp, there is half the oxygen in the air that is at sea level!  Well, as luck would have it, my body was nowhere near prepared for the lack of oxygen, and I actually got a pretty bad case of altitude sickness.

The first sign of it was in a village called Namche Bazarre, over 11,000 feet above sea level.  I woke up early on a clear day to try to get a view of Everest.  As I was climbing, I started getting the first of my many headaches.  At this elevation, it wasn’t too big of a deal and simply drinking a lot of water was all I needed to ease the pain.  I told our guide, Ram, about the headaches and he replied the same way he replied to just about everything,  “No problem!!” He claimed headaches were no big deal and everyone got them, “just make sure to drink a lot of water.”  For the next couple days I followed Dr. Ram’s orders and felt just fine.  I still had a few minor headaches, but nothing too serious.

On day 8 of our hike, we followed up a rest day by heading towards a village called Lobuche, over 16,000 feet above sea level.  In the morning, I felt no different than any other morning, but as we started hiking, that quickly changed.  The first sign of it was blurred vision.  I was just walking along and, boom, out of nowhere, the river started looking really blurry to me.  I thought it might just be an issue with my contacts, but it continued.  I felt quite tired and was grateful that about 20 minutes after the initial signs started, we stopped for tea.  I drank a ton of water but clearly wasn’t feeling great.  I hadn’t said more than three words on the hike, which Alan mentioned for a loud mouth like myself, meant something was clearly wrong.

I didn’t want to stop, so I tried to tough it out and hike the remaining two hours to get to our tea house.  Luckily, the night before we met another American guy who was on his way down.  He gave us a drug called Diamox which was supposed to help with altitude sickness.  Upon Ram’s advice, I took half a pill and was on my way.  I felt alright for about 15 minutes until things started to get bad.  At this point I was past any macho, pretending to be fine routines and everyone knew that I was pretty sick.  I trailed behind the group for much of the next two hours and frequently needed to rest.  Having altitude sickness was a weird thing for me because it was like nothing I had ever felt before.  It kind of felt like I was just drifting through the fields, like I was in a dream or something.  I also felt slightly drunk because I didn’t have a very vivid memory of what we had done that day.  Finally, I was incredibly tired and felt like my eyes would just close at any minute while walking along the path.  We finally got to the tea house and all I could mutter was, “I need a bed.”

Ram told me some sort of wives tale about the altitude being able to attack me if I feel asleep so I promised him I would stay awake.  Two hours later I woke up and said, “Whoops!”  The rest helped a bit, but when I went down for dinner that night, I was at my worst.  I couldn’t keep my eyes open, I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t stand Ram because he kept bugging me, saying, “You have to eat!”

I was able to get down half a piece of bread before I just said I’m going to bed.  Ram tried to give me some words of encouragement saying that in the morning I would be fine and would be able to move on.  After I went upstairs, I later found out there was a meeting about me that I wasn’t aware of.  Ram met with Dane and Alan and basically said there were only two options.  One, first thing in the morning I would have to start walking to a lower elevation, or two, in the morning, he would call a helicopter rescue!

Luckily, for both me and my wallet, I didn’t need the rescue, and once I started taking the Diamox more regularly, I felt a lot better.  I still had some pretty bad headaches and a loss of appetite, but I was able to finish my goal and get to Everest Base Camp!

The next day as we were walking along, Ram had the quote of the trip as he tried to make fun of me.  He told me that my engine was made in “China and not Japan!”  Coming from Detroit, that was far from the pick-me-up I was looking for, but it made me laugh for the first time since I began feeling symptoms of altitude sickness. I took that as a good sign.

Everest Base Camp Trek

19 Sep

The altitude is no joke. Breathing heavy, I would stare up the slope, gathering the energy to move one leg forward. Then, I would swing the other leg around, staggering forward like a baby learning to walk. And my body handled the altitude better than Alan and far better than Eric.

The weather was good for the start of our trek. We departed Kathmandu early in the morning on a propeller plane bound for Lukla Airport (2843 m / 9,327 ft). The flight was smooth and the landing, though it looked scary from the windows of the plane, was also smooth. We gathered our bags, handed them off to our two porters, and began hiking immediately. Our guide led us downhill for roughly two hours until we reached our place of rest for the night. It was our easiest day.

We ate lunch and had the rest of the afternoon to kill. This would be a constant for the entire uphill portion of our trip. Our guide would lead us on a 2-4 hour hike, and we would arrive for lunch at the tea house where we would be spending the night. We played a lot of card games to kill the time. Another thing that was readily apparent was that we were the only ones at the tea house. It was reminiscent of The Shining. In fact, we couldn’t recall seeing that many people on the trail. We had read that September was the start of the busy season, and we were hoping to meet people along the trail, but apparently September 15th is the actual start of the busy season. We began our trek about ten days before that magical start date, so we wouldn’t be seeing many people in the tea houses or on the trail.

The next day we arrived at Namche Bazaar (3,440 m / 11,286 ft), or the last outpost of somewhat modern civilization on our trek. I classify ‘modern’ on this trek as having access to non-solar panel-provided electricity and internet access. Namche also had many stores, bakeries, and bars. They also had a rather impressive open air market for being so high up in elevation. We spent two days there to acclimatize.

Our day of acclimatization turned out to be one of only two days we saw Everest. Eric woke up early to hike to a Japanese owned hotel, the highest five-star hotel in the world, to see Everest, but by the time he got there the clouds had already moved in to obscure the view, though the clouds did break enough for him to capture a few pictures. Alan and I slept in and followed our guide around town. A few hours after Eric saw Everest, we also saw it from a nice vantage point just outside of town. We were excited by the site of the mountain and couldn’t wait till we could see it up close from Kala Patthar (5,545 m / 18,192 ft). Unfortunately, that day would never come.

As we climbed higher, the towns got smaller. There was no internet, the electricity, when available, was provided by solar panels, which meant the lighting was very dim, and western toilets became very, very scarce. There were also fewer tea houses, which meant the few hikers on the mountain were pushed together. So, we did get to meet some people.

There were two large groups of British students who were trekking for charities, like a fun run but instead of amount of miles or kilometers covered, I think it was probably based on altitude. We also met two Canadians who spend their holidays trekking various mountains and mountain ranges. They were on the same ascent schedule as us, so we saw them at most of the stops up the mountain. We also met a climbing enthusiast from Seattle who gave us his extra Diamox, medicine for altitude sickness, which would prove to be very important.

About 16 hours after we received the Diamox from the climbing enthusiast from Seattle, Eric needed it. The altitude caught up with him. His vision started to blur, and he became incredibly tired. That night at dinner, he could barely eat. Our guide pulled me and Alan aside and told us if Eric didn’t improve, we would have call a helicopter take him to Kathmandu.

Luckily, in the morning, Eric felt slightly better and continued to improve throughout the day. (Eric will detail his experience with altitude sickness in a later post.) We pushed on higher to Gorak Shep (5,164 m / 16,942 ft) and then Everest Base Camp (5,364 m / 17,598 ft). Our guide was happily shocked Eric recovered and made it all the way up to Base Camp. He had never seen anyone so far gone recover to continue the trek.

Base Camp was great. We celebrated with high fives, Snickers, and Everest Beer (one split between the three of us). We walked along the glacier, took pictures, and basked in the accomplishment of our goal. The weather had been good in the morning we left for Base Camp, so we were fairly confident we would be in store for a good view of Everest from Kalla Patthar at sunrise tomorrow morning.

That thought ended quickly, however, when it began raining on our way back from Base Camp. It continued throughout the night and was snowing when I stepped outside to pee at 2 AM. When our alarm went off to wake us for the hike to Kalla Patthar, it was a nice rain/snow mix. We decided not to hike. Later that morning, we saw the two Canadians that we had seen in many tea houses along the way. They had made the hike through the rain and snow. One of them tried to make the best of it. He said there were a few breaks in the clouds and the views were amazing. The other one said it was shit. It was cold and it was shit. Normally, the truth lies somewhere in between two conflicting stories, but in this case, the second was is likely closer to the truth. One thing they did agree upon was that Everest was not visible.

We started our descent. Going down for me was harder than the ascent. We went down in only three days, so the hikes were longer. Going down also hurt my knees. And it was raining. It didn’t stop raining until we got to Lukla. Thankfully it stopped there. If the weather isn’t clear, there is no flying out of Lukla. When planes take off from there, they need to be able to see the mountain peaks that surround them, otherwise a crash would be imminent. By the time we reached Lukla, we wanted nothing more than to be off the mountain. We had been unlucky with the weather, and we were exhausted from the last three days.

The trek wasn’t perfect, but we did, all three of us, accomplish our goal of reaching Everest Base Camp, a place with only half the amount of oxygen in the air as at sea level, a place more than three miles in the air, a place so high almost all of you reading this have only exceeded its height in an airplane. Weather may not have been on our side, but we stood at the foot of the top of the world. That will forever be with us.

Everest Tomorrow

5 Sep

We’re excited. Six hours from now we’ll be on a plane to Lukla to begin our trek to Everest Base Camp.

This, however, means the end of any updates to this blog for roughly 15 days. Kathmandu has slow internet. It’s so slow, in fact, it took Alan several hours to upload his post on North Korea. I can’t imagine we’ll find better internet at any of the stops along the way up the mountain.

Nepal so far has proved to be fun. We went canyoning the other day and spent today exploring the temples of Kathmandu. We also rode on the bus of a madman for three hours, where the possibility of driving off a cliff or hitting another bus on the roadway were near possibilities every minute.

Those stories and the rest of Alan’s North Korea trip, however, will have to wait till after Everest. Hopefully the internet in India is better than here because we have plenty of stories and pictures to post and should have plenty more after the next 15 days.

We’re off to see the top of the world!

North Korea Day One (Aug. 28)

5 Sep

Finally I’m back in a land with internet. Firstly a little bit of back-tracking. That morning when Eric and Dane were stuck in Seoul were the most frantic few hours ever. I was in contact with the tour agency only via email that morning because their offices still weren’t open and Simon had said that they wouldn’t have any information about possibly getting the guys out on a later flight til later that morning. After having my internet connection cut and told that Gmail could not connect (thank you China) I decided to go to the offices and talk to Simon directly. I figured I had plenty of time anyway. My flight to Pyongyang was scheduled for around 1pm and it was still only 8:30am.

I got to the offices to find Simon frantically running around and asked him about how we could get Eric and Dane to join us, when he interrupted ‘Did you get my email?’, I said ‘no’ to which he stopped and said, ‘so you don’t know about the flight’s new time?’. The flight had now been moved forward to 11am. It was now around 9.30am and that’s when we were talking to Eric and Dane about having to make an instant decision. I disappeared out of the office having to get back to my place, pack and get a taxi for the most disorganized start to any trip I’ve done…without my traveling companions.

Unfortunately for me I picked up the most relaxed and clam taxi driver any city could offer, clearly the sweat dripping from my brow and panic clearly written all over my face hadn’t translated but I arrived with a few minutes to spare. I met Simon again and asked him had he heard from Eric or Dane but because of all the extra hoops they now had to jump through in terms of making 26 hours in Beijing into 24 hours and trying to get an emergency visa for China in Pyongyang I had a sinking feeling that I was going to start this tour alone. I eventually got to the boarding gate 2 along with the others who had had their mornings cut short, the gate was opened and boarding for Air Koryo direct to Pyongyang had begun.

When we got onboard we got our daily newspaper of how Kim Jong Un was doing a marvelous job of running the country and a magazine of all the recent accomplishments of the North Korean regime. The flight attendants were dressed in red uniforms and were passing out drinks from a trolly that I’m pretty sure was taken from my grandmothers dining room. I think they had put on some brakes of some sort but every time they had to stop the trolley I saw the flight attendant wedge the top of her shoe under the wheel for assurance. Once I had got my drink it was time to settle into the Pyongyang Times and catch up on all things North Korea. I did find one article, titled “Fact Remains Fact”, that both Koreas would agree on and it was about their colonial past under Japanese rule. One thing for sure that they can come together on is their disliking of how Japan dismisses some of their claims about how their people were treated during that time. Other titles included: “Plotters to pay dearly for crimes”, “Scandals of Lee’s confidants lambasted” (in relation to Lee Myung Bak’s dodgy dealings in the south) and “Mass rallies congratulate supreme leader on attaining top military title” (regarding Kim Jong Un promoting himself to this position). And then there are many pictures of the new leader Kim Jong Un waving, smiling and generally just been a good bloke!

We were also reminded during the dos and don’ts meeting that we should not fold the newspaper over the face of Kim Jong Un if he was to appear on the front page. They told us about a tourist who was smoking in his hotel room and after putting out his cigarette tossed it in the rubbish only for the ambers to burn a hole in the newspaper and of course it’s burned a hole through Kim Jong Un. The cleaning lady found it the next day and he had to write a formal apology and had his tour ended immediately! After finishing the Times, I kicked back and tried to enjoy whatever movie they were playing. Next stop, Pyongyang.

The tip of the typhoon that kept Eric and Dane from traveling had hit Pyongyang so our drive from the airport to the hotel wasn’t much. I couldn’t really make out anything along the drive as the rain poured down. Amy assured me that it would pass during the night and we’d wake up to a wonderful day and take in all the sites the next day. I got to my hotel, checked in and Amy told me to come down for dinner around 7ish. She brought me into the restaurant and there was my table for 10 but just one place set. The guides weren’t to eat with the tourists in the hotel so I was left to my own devices while the waitresses came out, looked, giggled and disappeared back into the kitchen. I met up with an English couple for a beer but as everyone was to be up at cock-shout it was an early night.

There was plenty of room for Dane and Eric had they made it.