N and I left at the end of May, flying nonstop into Delhi to catch a night's sleep before continuing onto Kathmandu in Nepal. There, we instructed a taxi driver to take us to the Suzuki dealership in a certain part of town, where we met up with another couple--good friends from our Berkeley days whom I will mysteriously call Petra and Mike. Magically, nothing went seriously wrong, and we found them waiting for us. We stayed at Petra's extremely generous aunt's house and explored Katmandu before heading out to Pokhara to begin the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek the next day.
The trek itself was lovely, but the story is much like any traveller's experiences there in late May/early June: beautiful mountains playing hide-and-seek among the clouds, rainfall, prolific flora, and welcoming tea houses with hot food, decent beds, and the occasional hot shower. I became obsessed with omelettes for whatever reason--my body probably craved the protein. The really unique aspect to our trip was the adventure involved in obtaining and then ridding ourselves of a guide and porter.
In Pokhara, we hunted around for a guide and porter, mostly because we wanted to support the local economy (Petra and Mike were the enlightened ones in this respect). We were also looking forward to seeing some of the incredible feats of strength--I had heard stories of porters running up the mountains with packs, the strong-for-their-home-elevation tourists lagging behind with nothing on their backs. N and I were won over by an older gentleman named Lale, who ran a shop and told us that he was a guide, and that his wife looks after the shop when he's trekking. Petra and Mike didn't like him as much, but he was willing to agree to our demands, specifically that the guide carries a pack and that we could push the schedule.
Making group decisions is hard (especially in retrospect when things go badly), but I'll freely admit that I pushed to go with him. We made a deposit for 7 days, him thinking that we would take 10, and us thinking that we might well take less. I'm fairly certain that he agreed that we would get money back if we returned early, but it's hard to remember.
The next morning, we came to meet Lale, and he said that we were waiting for our guide and porter. Aren't you our guide? No, it would be his nephew. Feeling a little deceived, we waited, and waited. Eventually the guide arrived, and we caught a taxi then a bus, and we picked up our porter somewhere along the way--our guide's friend. At some point, the bus broke down and we had to transfer to another one. Given that the first bus was full, it was crazy crowded, so we sat on the top with the luggage and food being transported, which is illegal. When we passed the police, they called up, and the guide and driver said we're tourists, and he waved us on. Apparently tourists get to bend the rules. Given that tourism is the nation's largest industry, this almost makes sense. Regardless, the grumpiness from being lied to and the guide being late lifted, and we enjoyed ricocheting through the mountains, ducking under power lines and branches, and seeing the spectacular views of tiered farmland.
Fast forward, and everything came to a head that night. I'm the least confrontational of the four of us, and so I opted out of the epic discussion that evening. Apparently Mike offered progressively easier options, but still with a fast itinerary. There were angry phone calls with Lale, and I could head voices from where I was trying to sleep. The guide and porter simply claimed that it was too hard and that they had never carried packs before. Again, I wasn't involved much in this, but by morning, we set out without them, intent on visiting Lale and asking for a partial refund of our deposit when we returned.
The rest of the hike was stunning from the tiny flowers to ginormous mountains. We played cards wrapped in heavy blankets, read next to windows framing cloud-filled valleys, and I got to take steroids for altitude sickness.
When we got back to Pokhara, Lale refused to refund us, and said that if anything we owed him more money. We got the tourist police involved; we told them we were happy to pay for the two days time that the guide and porter actually worked (one day up with us and one day to return by themselves). Then the tourist police laid the smack down (our guide was probably not licensed) and we got our money back. I have no problem giving money to people, but A) if I'm going to donate money, I want it to be to a good cause and not because I'm being ripped off and B) it's not okay to allow the precedent that might hurt future travelers. We think Lale tried to follow us afterward, but we savvily ditched him by getting in a cab. It's sad because Pokhara was really beautiful, and I think we would have stayed there longer had we not been worried about Lale doing something stupid.
Petra taught me that everybody's got a water buffalo.
Baby goats!! Oh, and, you know, gorgeous mountains.
After recovering from the trek, we had some more fun in Kathmandu, and then settled on doing a land crossing to India. The bus ride was a little tedious, but I got a fair amount of reading done. Our first real stop was Varanasi. There, we indulged in food, showers, and air conditioning. We found Lonely Planet's recommended Blue Lassi and Brown Bread Bakery, which were as good as the book described.
The next morning, we took a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges, where we saw the docks in full action, as well as a the body of a deceased holy man floating down the river. After more eating and rest, N and I opted to head out to a tiger park while Petra and Mike stayed in Varanasi for another day before heading off on their own adventures.
Himalayas to Varanasi: opposite extremes in almost every way conceivable.
We didn't see any tigers at the park, but we got plenty of AC, decent food, showers, flushing toilets, and rest. This was all especially important because both N and I were having stomach issues--this was probably my fault for going for some sketchy street food. We were also burnt out from numerous scam attempts and logistic issues during the trip. I won't detail them; it's just a hazard of travel. We ended up resigned to just spend a significantly more money on drivers in the second half of the trip to make things easier--we wouldn't have been able to see the Taj Mahal otherwise. We also splurged on a fancy hotel in Dehli that had mood lighting settings; we considered it and the tiger park to be our three-year wedding anniversary gift to ourselves.
People washing and playing in the Ganges (left). N at the Red Fort in Delhi with the longest beard he's ever had (right).
Sunrise on the Ganges.