29 January 2013

Under My Umbrella :: a Bridal Shower

I'm just going to come right out and say it: I think life celebrations are important. I think that making sure that those celebrations happen, even when you live thousands of miles away from family and friends, is really important.

All of this is to say that I recently threw a bridal shower for a dear friend who is getting married this March in her native England. It was my first bridal shower I've ever thrown, and as they aren't common in the UK, this was the first shower Vikki had ever attended. I'm not going to say it was the equivalent of a UN cultural exchange conference, but I'm not going to say it was far behind, either. 

I went with a slightly themed "Under my Umbrella" champagne and sweets shower, keeping the games to a not-too-cheesy groom/bride quiz and cheeky 'Wedding Advice' madlibs (because no one likes that 'make a wedding dress out of toilet paper' game. No one.) Amos and I stayed up late the night before fluffling tissue paper pom-poms and making balloon chains, which is a bit harder than DIY-ers on the internet would have you believe. In an effort to add some ambience to the cement balcony, I opened up umbrellas and set them outside our sliding doors, and I printed off photos of umbrella-holding couples from Pinterest to brighten up the walls... which lead me to realize my printer was out of ink, which lead to a frantic order from Amazon.jp, which lead to me trying to put ink in the printer while in my bath towel an hour before people were set to arrive and I realized I should just give. it. up. 

I made way too much food, bought way too much champagne; I somehow ended up with cream cheese in my eyelashes after making the hor d'oeuvres (not a lie). A very talented lady-friend baked a Union (!) Jack (!!) cake, of which I am still in awe and want to show off like it's my first born child.

I know what you're thinking: tissue paper pom-poms, a professional-as-shiz cake, tea sandwiches, balloons, and mimosas? This IS the stuff of bridal shower dreams.

You know those beautifully staged photos of showers on wedding blogs? You won't find those here. These are a bit fuzzy and katty-wampus. But the shower was cute, and it was heartfelt, and I think that's what matters.

Also: Carlo Rossi comes in bottle in Japan. BOOM.

Vikki and her husband are moving back to England when their assignment ends and not shipping their things. In light of this, we all gave them bottles of champagne to drink and toast during the next year. One lady gave a bottle of gin instead, "for when you're champagne'd out.' This lady may be very, very wise.

Our snacks included dill, cucumber, & salmon tea sandwiches, wasabi deviled eggs, brownie cupcakes, shortcake cookies, lemon tartlets, cheese and crackers, and veggies and dip. I'm telling you, add wasabi to your deviled eggs next time you make them. You will not be sorry.

We had quite a few women (and two of the cutest babies you've ever seen) join us, and those that were not pregnant or baby-toting joined in for after-shower drinks at the local bar, where we met up with the guys. Because the best showers are the ones that last long after the scheduled end time, right? In fact, I'm sure Martha Stewart would agree. 

16 January 2013

Christmas in NEPAL

It was an adventure. That's the best way that I can describe it. An adventure. I've been sitting on this post because I'm finding it surprisingly difficult to put into words. The emotions and experiences of those weeks were all over the board: it was simultaneously overwhelming, exciting, breathtaking, humbling, encouraging, challenging. I was exhausted by the time we made it back to Japan. The only thing I could really think was 'Oh my god, I love heated toilet seats.' After an epic trip, the only thing I could cognitively communicate was my relief that my toosh was finally warm. I know. To be fair, the bathrooms in the Himalayas in December are a new level of cold, and my backside gets bitchy about anything below -20C.

*  *  *

We landed in Kathmandu late on December 15th, a month ago yesterday. It was past midnight by the time we got our luggage and found our guide, successfully navigating the throngs of men calling out 'Sir, Brother, prepaid taxi here!' 'Do you need a ride, Madame? Come here, I'll take you!' We hopped in the car, an unmarked, slightly beat up early 90s sedan, said hello to our driver, goodbye to our guide (as he lives in the opposite direction), and headed to the hotel. The city was really quiet. As we were driving on unpaved streets with boarded up and unfinished buildings, a dog barked and scared a cow, which ran into the street and almost T-boned our car. This was the only traffic we saw on our 25 minute drive. We've travelled a fair amount, but all I could think was "Where the hell are we...?"

Luckily, sunrise the next morning brought a new perspective of Kathmandu. While the city is short on paving (and long on road 'improvement' projects, which seem to just be ripping up sidewalks), it's bustling and busy during the day, with shops and storefronts that come to life. At night, shop owners roll down steel doors, which gave us the incorrect impression of abandonment. Once we cleared that up, and realized people really do live here, it was a fun time. The day after we arrived, we were busy finalizing plans and and picking up additional gear. It was overwhelmingly cool to be entering shops full of heavy-duty mountaineering gear and renting what we needed. It was overwhelmingly overwhelming to be renting a -20C sleeping bag with a liner (making it -30C) and be told not to worry because there will be plenty of blankets we can layer on top. Eeeps. It slowly dawned on me that this trip might be a little colder than I had prepared for. While I knew my gear would hold up, I was a bit worried about my mental state. My stiff upper lip isn't anything to write home about.

Our second day in Kathmandu we spent sightseeing the city. It's totally dusty and chaotic, with no discernable traffic rules and so many beautiful temples and stupas. The presence of Hinduism left deep marks on the city, and it felt almost Indian with the bindis, the curries, and the music. It was really unlike any other city or country I've been to. There was more honking than I could take, we were offered a cup of tea every three minutes, and once we had been walking around for a bit, it was like a lightbulb went on and I thought to myself "Oh, so this is how you can 'do' Kathmandu." It's a city where you don't wait for the cars to stop, but instead slowly and steadily just walk into the street, trusting that the scooters, motorcycles, cars, taxis, and cows will go around you.

Day 03 in Kathmandu, and it was time to leave for the Himalaya. We were READY. The plane, unfortunately, was not. High winds grounded us, and we spent about 8 hours in the tiny airport, watching them update the flight times on the PowerPoint slide that served as the departure screen. We didn't make it out that day, and flights were cancelled the next day as well. We ended up hopping on a helicopter into Lukla, as they can handle the winds that ground tiny planes. (There were several questions to Amos-the-Engineer about the hows and whys and is-it-really-safes?). We took the most impressive, beautiful ride. When Everest came into view, it was, quite literally, breathtaking. It's just... huge. I never thought I'd actually see it in my life, and then, BAM, there it was. Everyone else put up their cameras, and I couldn't take my eyes off it as I mouthed Hail Marys.

From there, we quickly picked up our porter and started hiking, since we were already a day behind. The villages had buildings built of gray stones, and the trim and metal roofs were bright colors of orange, green, blues, and yellows. It seemed as if a Caribbean color scheme decided to get busy with a Polish village and make babies in the Himalayas.

We planned to spend the next 13 days in the mountains, trekking up to Gokyo Ri, then over Cho La Pass to Everest Base Camp. Our days quickly feel into a nice routine. We would stay at tea houses, which were little lodges run by Sherpa. Each morning we would wake up, pack up our bags, and head for a hot breakfast, where I would always drink tea and eat Tibetan bread, which is kind of like Indian fry bread with honey, which was almost always frozen solid. We would drink hot water to hydrate, then be on the trail shortly thereafter. Our porter, Latchuman, would eat his breakfast a bit before us, and grab our bags while we were eating. He'd load them up on his back and begin the hike ahead of us. Amos and I only had to carry daypacks and our pace was purposely very slow to help with acclimatization. We felt pretty spoiled, truth be told, especially when we would see the loads other porters were carrying. There are no roads in the Khumbu Valley, so every single item not grown or made there is flown in, then put in a basket the size of a man's torso and carried up the mountain by men who balance it on their backs with a sling over their heads. Sherpa are not exceptionally tall, and these men (and boys, really) would be carrying loads over 150 kg. I was simultaneously impressed and scared for their spines.

Lunch would be at another tea house, then we would stop for the night between 2 and 4. We'd layer up, then head to the dining room, which were the only place with any heat. In the center of the rooms there would be a wood burning stove, always with a enormous kettle of water on top. The stoves, unfortunately, got less and less warm the higher we went. Above a certain elevation, there are no trees, so they burn dried yak poop. It doesn't smoke and it doesn't smell, but it also doesn't produce that much heat since the nutrients and energy were already used up by the yak. The dining rooms were not warm, and unless you were almost touching the stove, you were also not warm. We would eat an early dinner before going to bed, as our sleeping bags were more comfortable than anywhere else. I'd hop in my twin bead, praying that I wouldn't need to use the bathroom at night (I always did, damn it). I snuggled down to keep my face warm, trying to ignore the fact that the mummy sleeping bag only seem to accentuate my showerless, smelly state. The next day it would begin again. The scenery was breathtaking. The Himalayas seem newer than other mountains, even the Rockies. They are rougher, bigger, more wild, more rugged. I was awed. I was cold. Really cold.

*  *  *

Knowing an embarrassingly little amount before we landed in Nepal, I learned that 'Sherpa' refers to the people that live in the Khumbu Valley. (You hire a guide or a porter that may be a Sherpa; It's an ethnicity, not a job description). Sherpa immigrated to the area about 400 years ago from Tibet, probably for religious reasons. Unlike Kathmandu, this region was primarily Buddhist, and fit closer to my 'imaginings' of what Nepal would be like. I went through a phase from 15 to 19 where I loved Tibetan prayer flags, wool purses, and fleece vests, and my inner teenager had just found Nirvana. Namaste, you guys. Our guide, Gadul, grew up in a nearby village. He knew our porter from their childhood, and they always worked together. We felt totally confident in their hands. We were impressed by how friendly and kind the Sherpa were that we met. English (and German and Japanese) was spoken with surprisingly frequency. Unlike other trips we've taken, we were able to use only Nepalese-owned businesses, which is exactly how I like to spend my money. Be still my little world-travelling, progressive leaning, sustainability-encouraging heart.

*  *  *

On Christmas Eve day, we approached Gokyo Lakes at about 15,000 ft, dropped our bags, and headed up Gokyo Ri, which summits at 17,575 ft. The hike was long, and Amos and I were both feeling the elevation. Because of our delay arriving to Lukla, we had sacrificed an acclimitization day and we had been gaining elevation steadily since our only rest day at Namche, moving up about 1,500 feet a day. Now, in addition to the usual gain we were adding in the peak and would need to press on the next day to begin the approach to Cho La pass, which would also bring us well about 17K.

Gokyo Ri was amazing. From the summit you could see Everest, Cho La, Lhotse, and all the way into Tibet / China. The white caps stretched for as far as the eye could see, and the weather was cold and crisp and clear. Gadul, Lachuman, Amos, and I were total smiles. We momentarily forgot how long the day seemed, and we climbed down as quickly as we could, given the sun was setting and all our water was already frozen in the Camelbacks.

By the time we reached the tea house, I couldn't ignore a headache that had been building. Altitude plus bright sunshine plus probably-not-enough really cold drinking water seemed to do me in, and now I was feeling nauseous. None of this was particularly worrisome: a straightforward case of mild altitude sickness, and I skipped dinner and headed to bed. Unfortunately, this meant Amos spent Christmas Eve in the teahouse reading alone (or, rather, next to a strange Russian and an antisocial American). He had been battled a bad cold that, while the fever only lasted 48 hours, had settled in his chest and made climbing difficult, even though he was in good shape. While I was sick in bed, and he was cold and reading alone, and since this was a HOLIDAY, for Pete's sake, he came up with a plan. Instead of pressing on, spending the next four days climbing over 10 hours a day on windy, exposed ridges, we would stick a Gokyo for a day and take a slower route back down. This, Amos felt, would swing the trip squarely back into the 'fun' camp, backing away from the 'slog' that it threatened to become. Besides, in his infinite wisdom, Amos had planned for us to climb Gokyo Ri first because it was the best view and toughest climb: as we went closer to Everest Base Camp, we would be too close and the mountain would disappear from view. At this time of year, too, EBC is an empty field. All tents and signs of expeditions are packed away for the winter.

It was decided. We spent Christmas Day hiking the back Gokyo Lakes and then began our climb down, stopping to visit the schools and hospitals in the region. The benefit of this plan was that it would give us extra time in Lukla to make it back to Kathmandu in case our plane was again delayed. It also allowed us time to stop at a schmancy Japanese hotel and drink masala tea with this view of Everest:

Of course you would, Japan. And bless you for it.

The hike down was easy. We passed traffic jams of yaks and horses and trekkers and porters, all covered with the reddish brown Khumbu valley dust. We made it to Lukla two days earlier then planned and saw a group of people waiting at the airport. Yup, flights were again grounded  and helicopters were the only way in or out. However, the cost is significantly higher to return back to Kathmandu than it is to leave. On the way into the mountains, it's fairly easy to hop onto a rescue helicopter that is already headed up and, thus, paid for. You simply give a little extra to the pilot in exchange for a seat on the already scheduled ride. (I asked if our guide was SURE this was kosher, and he looked at me like I was crazy. Okay, Nepal, I'll play by your rules.) On the way back down, this isn't an option, so you're stuck paying big bucks. Shoot. We crossed our fingers for good weather and killed time the next two days at Starbucks Lukla, which is in no way related to the Starbucks Corporation. We did not make it to Hard Rock or Yakdonalds, which both looked pretty intriguing and equally independently entrepreneurial. We also spent a fair amount of time drinking tea, kicking it with South Africans and Australians who were also waiting to get out, and staring at the sky, wondering how planes could be delayed when the weather, on our end, was bright blue skies.

In the end, we made it out BARELY in time for our international flight, with just enough time to shower and repack before heading to the airport (stinky clothes all in one bag, and apologies to any TSA agent who opened that up). Our flight home from the Kathmandu International Airport was busy and chaotic, with no open seats to wait in and the permeating smell of overflowing toilets, and when we finally made it to Hong Kong I was positively gleeful to be in a warm and completely clean-smelling building for the first time in weeks. We had a bagel sandwich, drank too much non-instant coffee, and glutinously enjoyed the wifi. As happy as we were, though, it seemed so easy and sanitized; it wasn't long before we realized that we would really, really miss Nepal. That's the thing with adventures: you may be wishing to be home while you're gone, all Bilbo Baggins style wanting-your-tea-kettle-and-hobbit-hole, but in the end, you can't be anything but so happy you went.

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