Coming from Morocco and Jordan, the cultural difference in Nepal was evident during our taxi ride from the airport to our hotel in Kathmandu. We arrived during evening rush hour, and the streets were congested with cars, motor bikes, and people crossing without apparent traffic signals. Our driver's aggressive weaving and honking kept us alert (and slightly alarmed), yet I immediately felt like I could breathe freer (with no thanks to the Kathmandu smog). Unlike in Jordan and Morocco, where I was sometimes awkwardly the only woman on the street outside the heavy tourist areas, I immediately noticed that ALL of the people were on the street in Kathmandu, including plenty of unaccompanied women. And when we met with our trekking guide company to prepare for the week's adventure, the men we spoke with gave Simon and I an equal amount of eye contact! There may still be some serious inequalities at home, but I will never again take for granted how lucky I am to be a woman in the western world. That said, all of the Nepali people we met were welcoming and kind. I was surprised to feel so at home in Nepal, as I'd been harboring some insecurities about our trekking plans due to a dodgy past experience with high altitude.
The first time I experienced the physical effects of high altitude was with Simon's family in the Peruvian Andes, hiking the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu (the less traveled and supposedly more scenic sister to the better-known Inca trail). The highest point of this trek was on the second day, at 4,600 meters above sea level on Salkantay mountain. We ascended nearly as high on the first day, camping for the night at just under 4,000 meters in a pristine clearing with a view of snow-capped mountains ethereally illuminated by a density of bright stars. Given this setting, I would never trade the memory of that night, but it also turned scary for me when I awoke in the middle of the night with a headache so pounding that I could see flashes of light pulsing behind my closed eyes with each throb. I was also very nauseous, and stumbled my way in a haze of pain out of my tent and into the disjointedly beautiful night to the outhouse several yards away, where I was indeed sick. Back in my tent, I swallowed probably too many Advil with several swigs of Gatorade and went back to sleep. I later learned that such headaches are a common symptom of altitude sickness, a result of the brain being short of oxygen in the thin air. In the morning, the pounding was gone, but the next 24 hours, which included climbing several hours up and back down a steep mountain trail, were accompanied by nausea, total lack of appetite, a dull headache, and general weakness. I was very proud of myself for walking the entire way without asking to ride one of the mules that our guides had on hand for this kind of situation (although in retrospect, I probably should have ridden the mule). I am good at masking pain, and I don't think anyone realized how sick I felt. When we reached the highest point of the trail, I collapsed onto the ground, declining to hike an optional additional 40 minutes to and from a nearby glacier lake....my attempt to muster the will to do so made me actually cry. Simon, untouched by the altitude, wanted to take a photo in front of a wooden sign stating the site name and altitude level. In the photo, Simon looks happy and triumphant (as he should, having just climbed a mountain), and I look like a propped-up corpse. He sweetly stayed behind with me during the lake excursion. A day later, having climbed back down to lower altitude, I regained my health and really enjoyed the trip. My 24 hours of discomfort was insignificant compared to the chronic pain and illnesses born by many, including people I personally know, but I want to make the point that mountain trekking is not typically at the top of my list of preferred travel activities.
Seven months later (only seven months later!...the speed at which events have occurred and life has changed in this very short amount of time seems profound), we embarked on another mountain trek, climbing 3,800 meters (roughly the altitude in which I experienced the pounding headache in Peru) into the Nepalese Himalayas. Simon planned most of our extended honeymoon this summer while I burned myself out working long days at the Carnegie Foundation and wedding planning in the evenings. I wanted to see Tibet and/or Bhutan, but those destinations proved too tricky to work into our plans, given their respective visa processes and our timeline. Instead, Simon proposed a Nepalese trek through Himalayan villages, culminating in the town of Tengboche, where there is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. As with all aspects of this trip, beautifully planned by Simon during that busy and stressful time for me, I said "sounds great, book it!," feeling so thankful (and still SO thankful) to have a partner who plans. I naively imagined us walking on flat roads through towns, with Everest and the other Himalayan peaks a picturesque and fairly distant backdrop. It only dawned on me shortly before arriving in Kathmandu that we'd be trekking halfway to Everest Basecamp, straight into those picturesque peaks. With everything already set in motion, I laced up my hiking boots, and we flew with our trekking guide, Bhimsen, on a terrifyingly tiny passenger plane to the starting point of our trek in Lukla. In Lukla, we landed in what Bhimsen matter-of-factly called "the most dangerous airport in the world." We survived!
As expected, the Himalayas are gorgeous. The snowy mountain range on the horizon is preceded by lush greenery sloping toward an opaque blue-green glacier river, with trails periodically adorned with Tibetan Buddhist flags and stupas (shrines). Despite the steep climbs into ever-increasing altitude, the daily walks between the Sherpa towns in which we slept were manageable, averaging about four hours of hiking each day. On our second night of the five-day trek, in the 3,400-meter town of Namche, I felt a dull headache as I laid down to sleep in our clapboard tea house bedroom. I prayed that the existing oxygen would be enough for me, and that our precautionary slowness on the trail that day would pay off. I really wanted to be present to experience our final destination and the monastery in Tengboche. As I tried to sleep, a dull headache persisted right behind my forehead, and I realized I was replaying that night in Peru over and over again in my head in a stressful and unproductive way. I grabbed my cell phone (hooray for tea house electricity!), typed the above recollection into the tiny touchscreen keyboard, and banished that piece of stressful thinking to android land. There must be a mental element to dealing with high altitude in addition to doing all the right physical things: taking it slow on the climb, drinking lots of water, etc. Miraculously, after spending an hour staring at a tiny glaring screen in the dark, pounding away with one finger, I felt relaxed and headache free. Hints of it would return over the next few days, but never more than a faint pressure. I imagine I would have problems going all the way to Everest Basecamp (nearly 6,000 meters), but I now feel like I can manage altitude up to 4,000 meters.
Arriving in Tengboche, the highest point on our trek, was particularly rewarding after the brutally steep final two hours of our four-hour hike from Namche. Lung-constricting altitude forced us to ascend the unrelentingly steep and dusty trail at a tortoise pace. Simon is naturally faster than I am, and I naturally pace myself by whoever I happen to be with, so he insisted that I walk in front. Tengboche's panoramic mountain views were sudden and stunning as we crested the trail and found ourselves in the tiny village, which consists of a few tea houses, a few cows, several monks, a brightly painted monastery, and, oddly, a German bakery. The monastery opens to tourists in the afternoons, and we sat against the back wall listening to the monks' vibrating chants. It is a beautiful, beautiful place. Our trekking clothes were not quite warm enough for Tengboche temps, and we spent the evening huddled around the wood burning stove in the dining room of our tea house. I found it necessary to wear a ski hat to bed every night on the trek, but in Tengboche, I also wore my down jacket inside my sleeping bag. Again, we survived!
In the remaining two days, we descended back to Lukla, taking a detour that offered more amazing scenery and Buddhist architecture. As we headed back to Kathmandu in another flimsy airplane, with stunning mountain views outside the foggy windows, my thoughts were fixated on the hot shower waiting for me, having not properly bathed in six days. It was not until several hour later, after transforming back into a clean, warm, comfortable person, that I could positively reflect on the trek. For me, the act of trekking is not entirely pleasant (I prefer shorter day hikes and reliable plumbing). However, the sights seen along the way, which would be otherwise unseeable, make the experience worthwhile. Over time, selective memory cherishes the truly phenomenal moments: a monk's hypnotic meditations, the afternoon sun perfectly balanced above a stupa's spire, the glossy fur coats of healthy mountain dogs, the mountains changing color in the twighlight. Simon wants to come back someday and trek to Everest Basecamp, and I hope he does, but Tengboche was enough for me.