Nepal New Year

I visited Nepal in 2011, just before their New Year celebrations in April. The signs said they were celebrating 2068. If you think back to 2011, that’s when small bands of creative cyber maniacs were threatening us with the Mayan calendar exploding… the world ending. Remember those memes? The Mayans only planned the calendar to 2011, so after 2011, the whole world was going to end. But Nepal was celebrating 2068. They’d been over it for half a century already, right? No worries there.

The Sherpa New Year happened over a month ago (it rolls for 2-4 weeks, depending on  your village). But today is the Nepali New Year. And as it happens, this is when crops begin reaching toward the sun, the land wakes up, and things really come alive. When I was there two years ago in April, we walked through forests of wild rhododendron trees the size of oaks in New England. It felt like a new beginning. Not just because a number flipped over from 99 to 00, but because the world was beginning anew.

Happy New Year, my Nepali friends and family. Happy 2072.

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Location, Location, Size

I am fascinated with a little Asian country. Most of you know which one by now. Consider that Nepal is about the size and shape of Tennessee. It contains the population of California (33 million) and is sandwiched between the two largest countries in the world: India on three sides and China (Tibet) on the north. Nepal’s borders with India are open, allowing floods of Indians into the tiny country where they scrape out an existence only slightly less meager than the one they had in India. Much to the chagrin of the Nepalis, who are left to wrestle them for jobs, resources, space. They’d rather the border be closed, or regulated much the way Bhutan and India have done.

The China-Nepal relationship is insteresting as well, from the 1700s when Nepal was forced to sign agreements of neutrality towart Tibet. Which carried into 1955 when China held Nepal to that neutrality. Which takes me to this article, reporting that Beijing has announced plans to build a train and tunnel under Mt Everest, through to Nepal. You might have to take that news with a grain of Himalayan rock salt about this size…

Him Salt

 

Because apparently (according the the same article) Beijing also announced that is was building a rail to the US across Siberia and Canada. Ahem. At least that’s what they’re reporting to their people.

But the thing I return to is the idea of being a tiny, neutral country in the midst of all the gigantic nationalism they’re surrounded by. That’s an interesting thing to think about. Because it’s easy to be the biggest, to assert your might and force those you’ve defeated to do things. It’s quite another to be able to live between those mighty behemoths and cut your own unique path.Map

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Traveling with Record Holders

Occasionally I stop and marvel at the turns I’ve traveled on life’s path, at the amazing people I have run across and worked with. Two years ago today I was in a car with five other people for eight hours on a thin and curvy Nepal road. The company wasn’t unremarkable. In 2012 Chhurim Sherpa became the first woman to summit Mt Everest twice in a single season. There was an Indian woman on her heels going for the same record, but, with a little support, in the way of supplies, Chhurim pulled it off and stood on the summit of Everest twice inside of a week. When I returned to Nepal I not only met her, but traveled with her for several days. We did some NGO work together at a school in rural Chitwan. And we had some fun, too. The combination of Diamox and malaria meds made us a little loopy. Thanks to Mary Beth for being my trusty travel partner and comedian all along the way.

Happy birthday, Chhurim! Climb on!

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Aerial Views of Shanghai and Stuff

Of all the places your stuff could be from, Shanghai ranks at the top. It’s the place where new things are packed into innumerable colored boxes bigger than your living room. Those suburban living room sized boxes are stacked by the thousands like Legos and sent floating on the great blue, half way around the world to your local box store.

I am a Story of Stuff person. Meaning, I subscribe to the thoughts they promote about mass production and the way we buy things. You should definitely watch the video above if you haven’t seen it, but I’ll Cliff Notes it for you as well: Make things better rather than make things more. You can’t make stuff (the stuff we buy, from running shoes to iPhones to TVs and party favors) the way we currently do and continue to survive on our Earth. It’s a linear system of production that relies on our planet’s resources too heavily to continue doing it indefinitely. We’ll mine, chop and harvest all our resources, leaving a barren, polluted world if we keep doing what we’re currently doing. So The Story of Stuff enlightens us to this and suggests that we buy less, buy smarter, reuse and quit thorwing things in the trash. Then be active about making manufacturers change the way they build things so we aren’t throwing out an iPhone every 13 months. Make things better rather than make things more. That’s the basic message. Because you’re wrecking the planet if you don’t. Ok, now back to photos of Shanghai and a few statistics that might explode your mind.

The first time I went to Nepal we flew over Shanghai just after sunrise. I wanted to see China from the air, specifically, the largest city in the world. Shanghai was estimated in 2013 to be just short of 24 million people. Population density of the city proper is 9,700 people per square mile (3,700 per square km). Kind of makes you wonder how many people would live in your house if it was in Shanghai, huh? The city proper contains more people than all of Taiwan. So while I didn’t know any of these numbers while I was flying over it, I knew it was huge, dense and intriguing. Why not see that with my own eyes, right? Here’s a photo I shot from 38,000 feet. [Click photos for larger view.]

Pretty stunning: a handful of towers on the lower left, factories on the right. Factories making stuff. My mind often thinks about what is being made in factories with white plumes coming out the stacks. I hope it’s really useful, reusable, green stuff, because while I’d like to believe that the photo quality is due to the airplane window, it’s more a result of the air quality. It’s seven miles of air we’re looking through here.

Here’s a photo I took a moment later of another section of Shanghai.

I was drawn to the colors (highly exaggerated here, they were pretty grayed out through the smog) and shapes, particularly the oil refineries – one on each river inlet – and the row of freighter docks in the upper right. There’s a park, too, and blocks and blocks of highrise dwellings. I studied the details of this photo for a while once I brought it home.

Tonight while I was perusing my old photos I ran across these pictures again and I wondered if this section of Shanghai was identifiable enough that I could find it on a map. Google Earth didn’t let me down. I found it immediately – the same section of the city that I’d photographed four years before.

The oil refineries made it easy (lower left and upper left). Then I noticed the water. Look what’s in the water in the upper right. Freighters. In this little clip below…

I counted 13 freighters in this little rectangle of water that Google captured. So I began to wonder about China exports and I looked up some numbers. Scale quickly becomes unimaginable, but I like to ponder my place in the world and the creation of stuff, so follow with me while I wrap my head around the scale of shipping in Shanghai…

Imagine for a minute a single box of size 8 shoes, fresh out of one of those factories in the first photo. It sits on a pallet, shrinkwrapped with stacks 10 boxes high by 10 wide by 10 deep of its identical neighbors. That’s one pallet of 1000 pairs of shoes. Now load the pallets a couple high and a couple wide in a cargo shipping container twenty feet long. You’ve probably seen these metal boxes even if you don’t live in a port city. They are the universal unit that massive quantities of stuff is shipped in. This metal box is known in the cargo industry as one TEU (twenty-foot equivalent unit).

Now stack 10,000 to 18,000 TEU on a single cargo ship and push it into the Pacific, bound for the USA. Imagine all the stuff that lives in just one of those boxes, or just one of those ships. Seattle accepted 900,000 TEU in 2010 and shipped out just over half that number. (LA received almost 4 million TEU in 2010 and exported just short of 2 million.) Shanghai became the first port to ship out over 30 million TEU, which it first did in 2011. Singapore is a half million TEU behind, in second place.

If you want more statistics, there are about 17 million container boxes in the world and five to six million are in transit at any time. I get stuck on little things sometimes, so I also thought, if Seattle, LA and the rest of American ports accept twice as many full containers as they send (because we are the best. consumers. ever.), then we ship out half a million empty containers every year out of Seattle alone. Sending boats around the planet with nothing in them? What a waste!

But wait! (Insert 2 am tv sales voice here.) There’s more waste! Also, 90% of the world’s goods are transported by ship and about 10,000 container boxes are lost at sea and according to this article, occasionally one of these lost containers has toxic chemicals (pesticides, industrial cleaners) end up in the world’s oceans and poison the fish you probably eat. And so, as I think through statistics, which are way more interesting to me than RBIs and OBP (due respect to baseball) I wish for less stuff. I hope you do too.

I still like the view of Shanghai from 37,000 feet, though and I hope to pass over it again some day soon. And I hope the air is cleaner next time. Until then, Here are my initial reflections of the first time I saw Asia from the air.

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Pigeons and Buddha

How many pigeons?
How long did it take you?
Did your eyes deceive you? 
(answer below)
(Don’t count the tiny chunk of a tail on the far left)
Did you count ten?

There are eleven pigeons. I looked at this image (it shows up on my computer desktop frequently) for about a year before I saw the eleventh pigeon. Maybe because I was busy looking at the marvelous instead of the mundane. But the other day my 9-year old told me, “I wish people could fly.” He meant like a bird, not in a machine. Like a pigeon. Not like a million pound jet airplane. Because it seemed more marvelous to him. And I love double checks like that because then I have to go back and decide what is mundane and what isn’t. Nothing in this photo is mundane, as far as I’m concerned. Neither is the million pound jet that takes me there.

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Water (Garden) Park

The first full day in Bali, we toured a tropical botanical water gardens. I tiptoed through acres of flora I’d never met before. Glorious mists permeated the warm air. There were waterfalls and sweet little rattan tables with umbrellas, tons of food (we had someone crack open a fresh coconut for us) and fruity drinks and… and… waterslides. Okay, so we were at a waterpark. (It’s a family vacation after all.) But I preferred to think of it as a botanical garden, which was easy since the place was bursting with colors and giant leaves and butterflies. I was a fan of just laying in a tube on the lazy river. It passed under real banyan trees and palms and banana trees in climates that actually allowed them to flourish naturally. Novel for the waterparks I’m familiar with. The flora was covered in this post, so on to my people-watching escapades. 

Aussies make up the lions share of Westerners here (Darwin is just a two-hour flight), and based on today’s survey, they aren’t far from Americans for girth. Often found over-baking in direct sun (Aussie lobsters, anyone?) in scant swimwear a few sizes too small. Their general tourist antics included hovering at the edge of the swim-up bar for a few too many and seeing how much of the path they could coat in the contents of their stomachs. I think it was their spring break week or something. Or one can hope. On the flip side, about half of the attendees were locals, or at least Indonesian/Islanders. So many petite, gorgeous, golden bodies in swimwear. Not far off of my perfect (Magnum PI) vision of Hawaii, really. Thinner, with more tattoos. And quite possibly the ultimate human contrast to the specimens of Australia we saw. I’m not a tat person, but one Balinese man, bronzed and sinewy, had Hindu gods inked all over – Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh. All in monochrome except hints of red. It covered his chest, shoulders, upper arms and back in incredible detail. And on his shin: Jerry Garcia smoking a joint (to match?). Yes, I was staring, but I was on the lazy river and, well, he was nice to look at. As Indonesia is a Muslim country, (Bali holds its ground as the only Hindu island of the archipelago), I also learned what a Muslim swimsuit looks like: Full coverage, much like full rain gear, but closer fitting… and it works. And was interesting enough that I took it in with my eyes rather than from behind my camera.

I spent most of the day floating on the lazy river under giant fig trees, hibiscus, plumeria and so many flowers I’d never seen before. There were even giant bees to match – about 2 inches long. But the sheer numbers of new flora was beaten out (narrowly) by the plethora of new foods I ate for the first time that day: fresh passion fruit, mangosteens (man, those are heaven!), Indonesian fried rice, traditional Balinese chicken something, achars, chutneys and salsas that I can’t even begin to describe effectively, spicy avocado gazpacho, Indonesian curried lamb, two bitter veggies I couldn’t identify, and, get this, beef bacon. Who knew you had to travel to a Hindu island (where cows are sacred?) to be offered beef bacon.

The little guy with a fresh passionfruit

But I still perfer to think of it as a tropical water garden. With food and tattoos.

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Mt Dickerman Photos

The North Cascades in February. Usually this route is inaccessible until June. There is too much snow to manage, it’s prone to avalanches and requires too much plowing for winter maintenance, so they gate the road about 10 miles down, right before the perpetual gravel section that washes out every spring. But this year is an unusually low snow year (the East Coast has been greedy and is taking it all), and we’ve had warm temps and so many clear days (like at least 7 this winter), so while skiiers and snowshoers are grounded and slumped in their depression, we’re able to get on top of Mt Dickerman. The first half of the hike was littered with other exuberant hikers, but we were alone for the last four hours, and stayed to catch some golden light and returned to the lone car in a very dark parking lot.

The coolest thing about this little summit is that is gets you a decent view of Glacier Peak – Washington’s fourth-highest mountain (Rainier, Adams, Baker, Glacier – the four above 10k feet). But Glacier gets largely ignored by the greater hiking community because of its remoteness. You can’t see it until you are deep in the Cascades, on another peak. And that’s in summer time. Remember, the winter view of the mountains around Seattle usually looks like this…

because of our lovely omnipresent cloudcover. But here’s what happens when we get an off year (which happens about every 10 years). Click any photo to see it larger.
Glacier Peak from the summit of Mt Dickerman

Snowy trails near sunset

A view to the Olympic Mountains – that’s The Brothers in the center.

This is Monte Cristo just before sunset

And this is a panorama from about 10 images. The original is larger size on Flicker.

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The Pressure of Novelty

I often think about the effects that Western travel is having on the developing world. What if Mallory or Hillary had never decided that climbing Everest was a thing? Adventurers and explorers are amazing and I won’t talk them down, but today’s travelers come in masses large enough to change destinations from quaint, cultural islands, into pulsing masses of tourist sprawl. That’s a credit to the locals in those places, actually, having made a livelyhood from others who visit their homes. But what’s the price? Overdeveloped land that accepts more people than is is meant to support? Lowering water tables? Unmanaged trash piles?

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Aside from the impact of such travel, it’s so novel to experience a land where laws are less established, wild places are less protected, and wild animals are not separated from visitors as much as they are here. Things we don’t generally consider doing in the West: riding through an Asian jungle on elephant back to see wild rhinoceros. They are a tourist attraction and bring in much needed money, but what is the expense? Attempting to tame three-ton animals well enough that this can happen? I can’t help but flash to an elephant losing it and trampling tourists along the way. In this situation, piles of tourists flood the park for the chance at an encounter with elephants, rhinos and even Bengal tigers. This makes more demand for more guides, which leads to wider paths, more hotels and ultimately, overdeveloped land that supports fewer tigers. And that’s the most intriguing thing that the tourists came for in the first place.

But there are some exceptions. This photo is from the back of a female Asian elephant, looking at a mother and baby wild one horned Asian rhinoceros which has just been moved from endangered to threatened. It’s one of the few success stories from such a situation: The locals figured out that Westerners wanted to see the rhinos, so they put laws and enforcement in place to help the last 200 in Nepal. This brought money, which allowed more enforcement, which allowed the rhinos to recover. A hundred years ago there were only 200, today there are 2500 of these wild animals. A success story in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. And perhaps that is the sort of travel that we should aim for and encourage – the kind that promotes environmental improvement, resource sustainability and responsibility for ourselves wherever we go.

You can see more of my photos on Instagram.

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Observation and Objectives

One summer day in 1985, I stood with my brother and grandmonster (I had just seen St Elmos Fire) atop the twin towers, overlooking New York. I was 15, my brother was 13 and we were living for a week in Grandma’s one bedroom flat on the upper west side, about three blocks from Harlem, when such things seemed to matter more. We’d seen Radio City and Rockafeller, Coney Isle and Chinatown, but overlooking the whole of the city from the tallest roof, and from behind razor wire and a chain-link fence was most memorable. So no one jumps, Grandma stated matter-of-factly when I asked why we were caged in way up there. For about an hour I looked through the fence squares down at the tiny everything below. I have no photos of that trip.


On September 1 of 2001, my Maid of Honor sent me a beautiful email describing the view from her temp job on the 80th floor of the WTC. I was 9 months pregnant and thrilled for her to be living the big city dream she had envisioned after growing up in rural Michigan. ‘Airplanes below me’, ‘tiny boats on the Hudson,’ and a view forever of the most formidable city in the nation. The morning of the 11th, she managed to get a quick email out detailing her plan: walking home from Midtown across the Brooklyn bridge, from her newly assigned temp job. Then systems went down. Missed it by days. I was a mess for a while after that. 

Twenty nine years passed between my first and second visit to NYC. I live on the other coast now, but traveled to NYC for a trade show last year. It was the first time I’d been to that city in 29 years. I spent Saturday morning in the financial district, hoping to see the new WTC building. I wandered through the deserted district on that clear, frosty morning, stunned that of the eight million people in this city, none of them were in sight. Not a one. I passed bronze memorial reliefs on adjacent walls, but couldn’t see in the complex for the construction barricades, so I walked to Battery Park just after sunrise. It gave the best photos that morning, with the top of the tower shining in the sun, except where there were still a few missing panes of glass at the very top corner.
This year is 30 years since I first visited NYC. In advance of my visit, I attempted to find observation deck hours, hoping they would mesh with my conference schedule. Open Spring 2015. January is decidely not spring, though one can hope…. It’s probably not consequential that I spent the whole weekend in NYC talking to people about climbing the highest mountain in the world. We all have our objectives. Some are closer than they seem. Some are farther. One of mine seems to be on the observation deck of a certain building. Maybe 31 years will be the time for me to stand up there again.

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Cultural Organization

In Nepal, as long as you have any connections at all, it possible to pull off grand feats. It simply takes scratching one back in return for whatever you need. Need to speak to the media, scratch. Need to have your airport luggage processed first, scratch. Need an audience with the Prime Minister, scratch, scratch. That’s how it happens. I have indeed been party to this mode of operation and indeed, these specific examples. But America is different. We have channels. We have protocols and we have instructions, forms and rules enough to batter any reasonable human into submission with its bureaucracy. It’s our process, darnit, and we run it like a boss.

Next week I’ll be at the New York Times Travel Show as a marketing lead for AC and his guide company. About 10 days ago he asked me to contact someone and get his Nepal dance show on a stage during the highest traffic day of the show. It’s the NY Times. It’s a trade show that brings 70,000 people in 3 days. It took 2 weeks just to book a hotel room. Undaunted, I scoured the trade show website and found nary a phone number. Email. No reply. Another email, no reply. I feed back to AC that the NY Times is still printing on paper, plans just a tad in advance for these things, and probably had all these slots filled two months ago. He sends me to search again. Never doubt the tenacity of a Sherpa climber. I wring a contact our of the only sales person I can reach. Kind, doubtful, email sent, offering to fill cancellation spots or whatever is available. Bingo. Twenty-four hours later, we’re locked in, performing on the stage nearest our booth so that 70,000 people can walk past and see Nepali dancers performing and hear about International Sherpa Guides show specials.

Rabbit out of hat. Next up, coordinate dancers, their taxi driver, stage decorations and … who gets to speak? Of course. But who better to pitch travel to Nepal, right? I’m on it.

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