Adventures in Helambu

The original title of this post was intended to be “Leeches Fucking Suck,” but after everything that took place over the last 9 or so days, giving the title to the leeches doesn’t feel right. The leeches were a somewhat interesting B-plot at best.

Normally, when I say I’m “going on an adventure,” I’m merely dramatizing to add some flavor to what is otherwise a fairly mundane life. But my field visit out to the region of Helambu, Nepal fully qualifies as the most adventurous week-plus of my 27 years of existence.

So what was I doing out in the Nepali countryside, you might be asking? My primary task with Aythos is to design and implement a program evaluation survey so that the organization can begin determining the effectiveness of its program of training Nepali farmers to plant, harvest, and sell cash-crops to improve their economic development. As you might imagine, electronic communication infrastructure is still pretty lackluster even in Kathmandu, and effectively nonexistent in the countryside (not to mention many of the farmers are illiterate), so administering the survey actually requires us to go out into the field and collect the information ourselves. Since this is Aythos’s first attempt at program evaluation, they wanted me along to answer any questions that might pop up during data collection. The plan was to hit 6 villages over the course of 9 days, with the itinerary being Nakote -> Dechenthang -> Tembathang -> Ghangyul -> Bhremang -> Palchowk. It was an ambitious plan, and I was super excited for the opportunity.

For a born and bred city boy, I think I have a pretty decent appreciation for the outdoors. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most fit person in the world, and I’ve never done a proper camping trip, but not for lack of trying! My friends in the Bay and at Syracuse know that I made plenty of attempts to go hiking and enjoy the beautiful nature that both California and New York have to offer.

The beginning of our trek!

That said, I severely underestimated this trip from the get-go. The very beginning of our trip saw us on a 5-hour bus ride out of Kathmandu into the Helambu region. We got off the bus at a village called Timbu, where we began a 5-6 hour hike to Nakote. What I didn’t realize was that this part of the trek (the hardest, by far) went straight uphill for the entire duration, for an elevation gain of about 1,000 meters. By the time we got halfway through, I was dying; my legs were cramping in places I didn’t even realize could cramp. Somehow I made it to the top, but not after a whole lot of assistance (my colleague who was born in Helambu took my backpack for me halfway through, and also got me a walking stick – now I understand why people use them).

Disclaimer: Gross details ahead!

Physically, that first day was the most demanding, but the next few days were tough in their own ways. Over days 2-5, I contracted and then got over a minor gastrointestinal issue where I started pooping a lot (I became a master of squat-pooping). During that stretch we moved from Dechengthang to Tembathang, and then through to Ghangyul in one day, where I basically moved like a zombie the entire time. During that stretch, we also passed through a pretty thick jungle that was chock-full of leeches. Not only did a bunch of leeches feast on my ankles, but somehow, one of those little fuckers snuck all the way up my left leg and adhered itself to my inner thigh, disturbingly close to my crotch (to this day, I will never know how it got there). Naturally, I had the misfortune of discovering this fact while I was in the bathroom; you can imagine that bathroom session was very unpleasant.

End of gross details!

In case you actually read all those sordid details, here’s a photo of AN ADORABLE PUPPY to cleanse your palate.

Things mostly picked up from there. At Ghangyul, we reached our highest elevation for the trip (2,500+ meters). At that point, the hikes got easier (and who knows, maybe my body got a little more fit too.  One can dream), the views were always spectacular (they were amazing from the beginning, but I could enjoy them more), and engaging with the farmers was always fun and interesting (most of them always thought I was Nepali, specifically Hyolmo, the ethnic group that resides in Helambu, so the process of them figuring out I’m American was always hilarious).

While things were great overall, I did have what was probably the closest near-death encounter I’ve ever experienced on the trip from Ghangyul to Bhremang. The first part of that trail basically ran along the cliffside (which terrified me the entire time), and forced us to cross a landslide in order to continue on the path. While I won’t say that slipping on the landslide would lead to certain death, the way things were laid out, if you slipped and couldn’t re-establish your grip before the gravel of the landslide ended, you basically slipped off the edge of the cliff.

So, I’m shambling across the landslide, using my hands to grab onto rocks that served as solid handholds, and digging footholds into the gravel with my boots. At one point about halfway through, the gravel under my right foot gave way, and I felt myself slipping. It was at that moment, for a split-second, I thought to myself “I could actually potentially die here.” Ultimately, I was able to stabilize myself and just booked it the rest of the way across, but it got real dicey for a hot second.

The danger’s mostly passed at this point, but just to give you a sense

So yeah, adventure in every sense of the word. For good measure, the way from Palchowk to where we could take a bus back to Kathmandu was a good two hour’s descent, through mostly wet, slippery stone stairs. During that last leg, I had my worst fall of the trip (haha, get it?) which left a gnarly scrape on my hand and a huge bruise on my ass. Fun souvenirs to take back to Kathmandu with me.

All in all, it was an absolutely incredible experience. Not only did I have an amazing opportunity to take in the gorgeous nature of Nepal, which is a huge reason why I’m here in the first place, but I also got to engage (in a limited fashion) with many of the farmers that Aythos works with. Helambu was a region that was badly hit by the earthquake in 2015, with many people in the region still living in temporary shelters. Nonetheless, so many of them took us in to feed and provide us accommodation (we compensated them for all of that, of course). They offered me medicine while I was sick, and were constantly inquiring about my health. These people demonstrated generosity, resilience, and optimism that is truly humbling and heartwarming. Being in their presence, and doing what little I can to try and make their lives even slightly better is an experience I’ll carry with me forever.

As always, here is a selection of photos from the trip. For more, check out my Flickr page!

And seriously, leeches fucking suck.


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