(I've changed the name from "Rants" given that I can't really rant about many things that frustrate me here, at least not without getting into some sort of trouble. As such, you'll have to wait for the book.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Trip to Nepal Part 3 - Pokhara

Apparently the number two tourist destination in Nepal is Pokhara. To be honest, I didn’t know much about it before we went. I used to take pride in doing my homework before traveling someplace. Preparation for this particular trip sort of slipped through the cracks. In fact the trip as a whole was at risk of not happening, at least for me, due to professional responsibilities. In the end it seemed that canceling the trip wouldn’t have made a huge difference with what was going on with our staff and work in Somalia. I would, in the end, make a trip to Mogadishu soon after we returned to Nairobi and it seemed that it went quite well.

Priya and Liz
But all that drama with my work meant that my entire preparation involved packing a bag and making sure my family made it to the airport to catch the airplane on time. My poor wife shouldered the burden and complexities of getting everyone else ready and worked with Liz to determine, generally speaking, what we were going to do and when. Once on the ground, and a few time zones separated from my office, I did in the end become less useless.
We opted to fly to Pokhara from Kathmandu. It’s a choice between a full day’s drive or a short flight. Given our limited time in the country and two small children, the choice was a no-brainer. Though we might have deprived ourselves of the interesting and beautiful countryside afforded to road travelers, we more than made up for it with clear skies and spectacular views of the Himalayas – this time moving westwards towards along the Annapurna range.

view of the Himalayas on the flight to Pokhara

It’s the kind of thing that can almost make me weepy. I grew up with a fascination with, and hunger for, time in the mountains. I can’t seem to ever get enough. The past twelve and a half years I’ve spent working in Africa has resulted in very little time spent at altitude. It’s a cost that I signed up for but it’s one of the things that I miss the most. I do hope to rectify that at some point but for now, I need to take what I can get.

our Yeti Airlines plane at the Pokhara airport

I must say that the magnificent views of the Himalayas through an airplane window was cruel tease, akin to a hungry person seeing a brunch buffet through a locked door. If I were embarking on a trek, the tease would be eventually answered by the unlocking of the door to the buffet. Alas, not this time.
Pokhara has a nice little airport teeming with locals and energetic trekkers. Our bags were delivered to us by a tractor pulling a luggage trailer. I remember when we were living in remote Kibondo (Tanzania) and flying in and out of Kigoma airport, luggage there was delivered by Datsun pick-up (for those of you who remember Datsuns). 
the rope-tow raft to the hotel
I was told in advance that we would need to take a boat to get to our hotel. And so it was. It was an interesting little crossing that we ended up doing multiple times. I would consider it a feature of the hotel rather than an inconvenience (I suppose the guy pulling the rope that tugged the raft back and forth might think otherwise). The lake, on which the hotel was perched, was a quiet and still body of water wedged between lush, green hillsides and the town itself. The water seemed relatively clean though I suspect that a fair amount of sewage makes its way into it from the community.
Kinaya in the pool; note the prominent Fishtail peak in the background
The hotel had a pool and we ended up spending a considerable amount of time there. The girls love the water and I certainly wasn’t opposed to it, particularly since it came with a view of the Annapurna range (when not obscured by clouds).
caught this guy dangling off a branch for a sip
Liz had been to Pokhara before and did justice to her tour guide role in taking us to some very nice places to eat. She also advised that we get up early on day two in an attempt to see sunrise over the Annapurna range. I was game. I wake up early anyway and it was worth a shot, having been warned that often times they are shrouded in clouds.
tourists gathered to watch the sunrise
We were up at 4am and crossed the still lake in the dark of the early morning. The taxi we had reserved was waiting for us. He would take us up the windy road along the shoulder of hillside to where we would view the sunrise. This particular viewing is a thing, as I’ve seen from time to time in my travels. The west end of Santorini in Greece is a known place where people gather to watch the setting sun. The solar eclipse is another. Here, in what felt like it was the furthest place in the world from the Greek islands, hundreds of people were gathering from all over the world to watch yet another natural phenomenon – the simple yet amazing rising sun catching the Himalayas.
Our taxi driver played a bit of tour guide and escorted us to what I think was a restaurant. We ordered a couple hot teas and made our way up a spiral staircase to the roof. It was packed with people but we were able to find a couple of plastic chairs facing the dark mountains off in the distance. Everyone was sitting in the dark, chatting as if we were in a theater rather than high on a chilly Nepalese hillside. We soon had our teas in hand and watch the faint light of the sun start to appear. It didn’t seem long before the first ray of sun caught the tip of Mt. Machapuchare (meaning "fishtail"). While Fishtail is generally the star of the show, in fact it's not an incredibly big mountain as compared to the others in the neighborhood. Clocking in at a mere 6,993m. (22,943ft.) it's fame relies upon both its proximity to Pokhara and it's prominent shape. 
Mt. Machapuchare, aka "Fishtail"
Quickly people began to notice, almost with a cheer, and phones were raised to photograph the event. In fact there were only a couple of cameras (including mine) that were not also phones. It’s interesting to see how that has changed over the years – from 35mm, to digital, to phone.
good that I'm taller than most tourists
Unfortunately for the masses gathered for the event that morning, the clouds obscured much of the view. A peak would appear and then disappear. Hopes would raise and then be dashed. Very quickly people began to find their transportation and wind their way down the hill back to town. We soldiered on, half hoping for a change the weather, half just enjoying being where we were. Eventually we too made our way down the spiral staircase. On the lower level people were selling fabrics and other tourist items. There was a loom where the fabrics were being made. We ended up getting something, partially I think as something besides a photo that would take us back to the experience.
making fabrics on a mountain top
We were back at the hotel and it was still fairly early in the morning. We were able to rally the troops and head off to breakfast. We had time to walk around, hit the pool for a bit before heading back to the airport to catch the flight back to Kathmandu.

Kiran on the boat
For the remainder of our time we explored as much as we had time for. We visited temples, the zoo, more temples, etc. We had lots of yummy food. Much to see and do and amazing how much we were able to fit in over a week. We’ll definitely need to go back.

Trip to Nepal Part 2 - Mt. Everest Flight

Mt. Everest Flight
This was a gift from Liz. Very generous, I must say. And it was a surprise. There were a few hints here and there but by the day before we left, I knew what was going on. In fact it amounts to a fairly short trip of about an hour but involves getting up early and all the necessary obligations of a domestic flight. We just didn’t have any bags.
early morning checking in at Buddha Air
The Kathmandu domestic airport is adjacent to the international terminal. Both are relatively small but adequate for the job. Early morning in the domestic terminal it is bustling. We find our way to the Buddha Air counter. Though there are Nepali nationals taking domestic flights for work or to see family, the bulk of the people in the terminal were foreigners traveling to some trekking adventure. Children are almost non-existent given, as I mentioned earlier, these are generally ambitious and expensive ventures. Our girls seemed to stand out given that the few children that were there were Nepali.
One general observation about the experience was the energy in the building. Unlike most airports where you have a lot of weary and/or anxious travelers trying to get from A to B, here the sense of excitement was palpable. As I thought about it, this is bucket list territory. For many in the room, this was the adventure of a lifetime. Many, if not most, had gray hair and were in their 40s to 60s and looking rather fit. At the completion of our flight a 68-year-old man even made the comment as we made our way from the plane to the awaiting bus. He smiled as the girls were trotting across the tarmac and said, “I’ve waited my whole life to come here and do this. These girls are doing it as children. What a great opportunity for them.”
the striking Melungtse, 7,181m./23,560ft.
By the time we boarded, the sun was beginning to rise. The sky was clear (except for the smog) and we anticipated good viewing. I would have expected an airplane with slightly larger-than-normal windows given that it is dedicated to mountain sightseeing but oh well. They were also a bit scratched up in places and occasionally slightly fogged up but overall they did the job.
Everest coming into view on the right
Even before leaving the ground you can see the snow-capped mountains in the distance. When we were arriving in Kathmandu we didn’t see much due to evening haze and the fact that we were on the opposite side of the plane from the Himalayan range. We just saw a glimpse of a frosty peak looking across the laps of people across from us. Now, early morning, we were beginning to see the highest mountains in the world in all their glory.
Once again I was on the wrong side of the plane. But the seating on the plane was just two rows of single seats so it was easy for me to get up from time to time and shoot photos across someone’s lap. I have to say, it’s one of the most amazing things you’ll ever see, that is without actually standing on one of those peaks.
Everest in the center
As we approached Everest, it was game time. One by one we were allowed in the cockpit to view the highest mountain in the world over the nose of the cockpit. I admit that I was pretty excited about it. I’ve never had aspirations of actually climbing it but there’s no question it’s been on my list to trek in the Himalayas – as yes, seeing it with my own eyes. Seeing it from an airplane is not the same as seeing it from an adjacent mountain top but I’ll take it.
they did well, having woken up so early
It wasn’t the only star of the show, needless to say. It’s sitting in the middle of a pretty impressive crowd. The entire range is quite stunning and we had clear blue skies providing a wonderful backdrop.
As I sensed the plane beginning to turn around, I was a bit disappointed. It was too early if you ask my opinion. The advertisements show the plane cruising near the mountain but in fact it never gets that close.

Nonetheless it was an amazing experience. The girls were a bit tired from waking up so early. Kiran fell asleep on the way back to Kathmandu. Understandable but seemed like a shame to allow those views to go by unviewed.
We were back to Liz’s by 9am. Not a bad way to spend an early morning.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Trip to Nepal Part 1 - Kathmandu

I started writing this blog entry in Kathmandu and didn’t get very far. Weeks passed and now I'm in London, with a trip to Somalia in between. Life comes at you fast. Who has time to write about it.

Nepal was a busy trip so I'll break it up into two or three entries.
amazing faces...
The trip itself was in danger of not happening. Just days before we were to leave, Mogadishu experienced the largest single attack in its history. We lost a staff and people were very shaken as over 400 people were killed. In the end we decided to go but that I would When I was at the keyboard I was generally going through work emails and keeping tabs with what was going on in Mogadishu after the attack.
I’d never been to Nepal before so when the idea came up to visit my sister-in-law (who works there doing basically the same job I do) the question was simply a matter of when. In fact I’d discussed traveling there many years ago with my brother to do some trekking. It was around the time that began work with Harvard in Tanzania and so the planning stopped. It’s been in the back of my head from time to time since then but the opportunity never really presented itself until now.
adding color to the stupa
It’s a bit tricky to travel with small children sometimes, all the more going to a place like Nepal. It’s not that it’s not kid friendly. It’s probably similar to Nairobi in that regard. The challenge is that one of the main reasons to travel to Nepal is the Himalayas. It’s costly and complicated. There are certainly people that do remote trekking with children but it’s not easy.
We obviously had the advantage of at least staying with someone who lives there which helps tourism immensely. In addition to the great fun of hanging out with Liz, we could also take advantage of her knowledge of Nepal, particularly Kathmandu. In fact it ended up sealing the deal that we wouldn’t go on a trek due to limited time and the numerous other great options. The trekking will be for another time. It needs to happen though.
zipping around town; girls obviously not wearing seatbelts
There isn’t really a straight forward way to get to Kathmandu from Nairobi. We ended up with a lengthy layover in Dubai but not really long enough to leave the airport. As a result we were a bit tired on arrival. Interestingly there’s a 2 ½ hour time difference. I’m told the half-hour thing is due to Nepal’s desire to be different from India. In any case, it’s weird. But manageable.

Our time in Kathmandu was spent in a variety of ways. As I mentioned it’s not a destination for families with small children, for the most part, so the things to do that accommodate children are not that obvious. To be clear, there is no shortage of children in the city. Locals and expat residents do just fine. It’s just that tourism and kids tagging along don’t always go hand in hand. Given that we were hanging out with a “local” (albeit one who is not a parenting “insider”), we ended up having no problem combining the interests of everyone.
We visited historic areas of the city (about 4 separate outings), lots of yummy restaurants, the zoo (more impressive than I might of thought), swimming, some shopping (not much) and hanging out with Liz and friends. Also, we arrived just prior to Diwali (aka Tihar in Nepali) and were able to benefit from the lights and festivities that go along with the holiday.
eating bone marrow stuffed in intestine, among other things
The air in the city is pretty bad and I’ve never seen so many people wearing masks. Even for me I felt it in my eyes and throat. Our air in Nairobi isn’t that clean but it’s far better than this. It definitely would be a downside to living there. Traffic is bad but I don’t think it compares to what we deal with where we live. Nairobi is pretty insane when it comes to traffic.
Otherwise, I think I could get attached to the place. The people seem to be very friendly.
Granted, having a couple of cute girls in tow generally makes people warmer – unless they’re being annoying. Then all bets are off.
The proximity to activities would be fantastic. In addition to trekking, there is endless mountain biking, paragliding, running in the hills, etc. that would suit me. I thought it was going to be a fun place and it turned out that I was right.
high five if you like chicken