With no mates, what’s a Teacup to do?

It dawned on me as soon as I woke up in the hotel. I had no friends. Feeling lost, I dined alone with my cooked breakfast. For the past 18 days, I had been surrounded by my Everest group. They were there when I woke up and there before I went to bed.  We shared the ups and downs of hiking to Everest Base Camp (quite literally) and now there was no-one. It was just me.

Kathmandu was the hardest place for me to meet other travellers. Having travelled the world I knew the tricks. I met people all over the place – two Dutch blokes watching porn on their mobile (pre smartphones) on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Mongolia, randomly met my friend Tom at a hostel near the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand, and then again as he passed me on his tuk tuk to Lake Titicaca in Peru, in common rooms, kitchens and dorms and on different modes of public transport across the globe. In fact, on my way home from Nepal, I ended up chatting a fellow Brit who was on the same flight back to London. Even when I took the bus from Pokhara, and got caught up in a five-hour strike, I ended up befriending an Aussie and Argentinian.

The difficulty of meeting people in Kathmandu when you’re a solo traveller, is that there isn’t a central point to meet other people. Sure there’s the pubs, but I’m not that confidant striding into a dark pub or bar, ordering a drink and walking up to a group of random people and start talking. The same with cafes. Either people are with their friends, on their smartphones, reading or writing their diaries. I even replied to a thread on the Lonely Planet’s forum – The Thorn Tree. But alas, she replied too late.

In Kathmandu, people are merely passing either to or from their trips to the mountains. There are no hostels, mostly guest houses and besides, I was only paying between £4-£8 for my own room and en-suite. I was certainly taking advantage of low season prices. But the downside to this is that there wasn’t many people around.

I decided on two solutions – volunteering and organised trips.

I read in the Bible that is the Lonely Planet about the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project – KEEP. As an avid supporter of sustainable tourism, I had planned to come here to find out about hiking trips and ways to become a green traveller. I ended up staying in crazy, busy, polluted Kathmandu for four weeks, teaching English to a group of porters and guides.

The last time I taught anything, I was only 17 and was completing my  Community Sports Leadership Award. Here in Nepal, I was co-teaching with a retired French English teacher with 38 years of experience. Yes, I can write and yes, I can teach how to pronounce things correctly, but I can’t explain the nuts and bolts of the English language.

Having just come off the Everest trek, I knew the what information trekkers would need and the conversations and questions that we would ask our guides and porters. As a Brit, I was determined my class would know about home. We are known as Great Britain, the United Kingdom, or just Britain. England isn’t Britain, London isn’t the capital of Scotland and England is certainly not in France!

We taught directions, parts of the body, different words for being sick, continents, grammar and in return I leant firsthand about the Nepalese culture and country. One of the lads was a monk from the age of eight, and when he was 20 or so, he wanted a girlfriend, so left the monastery. For traditional Nepal, this is not the done thing, but he did it anyway. Another young lad ran away from his village during the civil war when he was 14 to live with his aunt in Kathmandu. He’s now 18. I cannot begin to imagine what that is like. For some of my students, they have a four-day walk to get home. Growing up in Nepal is a world away from my childhood where I was driven to and from school, or had a 30 min walk back home.

We really do have it easy here. But I digress – I really enjoyed teaching. I also learnt more about my mother tongue from a French woman and met some wonderful people from different backgrounds. Travel is about learning. I certainly did here. Feeling throughly ashamed of myself, I now have a grammar book to work through.

The kindness of strangers*

I’ve come back from Nepal slightly jaded from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. As a tourist, you are constantly bombarded by shop owners and street sellers trying to get you to buy something. You step into their shop, you get the hard sell. You walk down the street, someone follows you asking you to buy tiger balm. Someone asks if they can push your trolley at the airport because you’re limping, they ask for a tip. Someone wants something, and it comes at a price.

You accept this. It’s a way of life and like us all, they’re trying to earn a crust, Unfortunately, it left me skeptical of anyone asking if I needed help or generally being kind.

But not everyone.

Having been caught in a strike for five hours at somewhere between Pokhara and Tansen, I, along with three other travellers were deposited on the main road in Lumbini – the birthplace of Buddha after being on the road for 15 hours. It was pitch black – they were load shedding at the time – and there was no one about. After 10 mins of walking down a dark, but wide dirt track, we realised that none of us knew where the Korean Monastery was – our bed for the night. Scratching our heads at a junction, a motorbike sped past, then came back.

A man got off the back and asked us where we were going. It was obvious that we were lost. He then phoned a taxi, and waited until it came, before carrying on to their destination.

After thanking him, he simply said: “We have to look after tourists in our country.”

Back at home, I was taking a very early train from the Sussex coast to Oxford. A family of five (including two young children) boarded the train and were going to a 40th birthday up in Crawley. Brash and loud, I upped the volume on my smartphone turned mp3 and tried to look inconspicuous. Then they started drinking (and before you ask – no – the kids weren’t drinking).

It’s going to be a long journey, I thought. I considered moving, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I stayed put and watched the world go by though the window.

The catering trolley came down, and I was desperate for a cup of tea. Unfortunately, all I had was a £20 note and 90p in change. The tea was £1.90. The catering lady didn’t have any change and I thought I would have to forfeit my tea.

But then, the dad offered a £1 and I got my cuppa. It was a small act of  kindness. After all, what’s a quid? But it restored (some) of my faith in humanity. When in need, people are there.

I think we should celebrate the kindness of strangers, no matter how small.

What random act of kindness has a stranger done for you today? 

*In case you were wondering where you’ve heard this before, it’s from a line in Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire. “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”.

Happy birthday to me

It was so cold. Under every laboured breath, I took a weary step. My body had finally had enough, and half way up Kala Patthar, my legs gave up on me. I sat down on a rock and started to cry.

It was my 30th birthday and I had paid to do this.

The day before, we trekked for eight hours to Everest Base Camp (EBC). My group and I started climbing Kala Patthar – which means black rock in Nepali – at 5.15am from the last village before EBC – Gorak Shep. We wanted to catch the sunrise over Everest and the Himalayan range.

It was always going to be a slow ascent. Every 10 steps, I needed a rest. At some 5164m, the air was thin and it was -15C. When I stopped, my muscles cooled down. Starting each walk became more painful than the last.  With my  head down, I clung onto my walking poles and dragged myself up the rocky path.

My guide, Isuri bounded over to me. “Are you ok?”

I tearfully looked up at him. “It’s so hard!”  I was exhausted, hungry and tired.

“Only  half way to go.”

“Only half way!” I cried. I knew the first half was the ‘easy’ bit. But there was no way that I would be able to get to the top for the sunrise. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to be only 6km from the summit of Everest – from the roof of the world.  I dried my tears and got up from my rock. If anything, it was going to be my mission to get to the top – no matter how much my thighs were screaming for me to stop.

In total, it took me two and a half hours to summit Kala Patthar and join the rest of my group. I was rewarded with the glorious sight of the sun peeping behind Lhotse, the mountain next to Everest. Layered up with thermals and our down jackets, we basked in the morning heat, before heading down for breakfast.

Although we had lost our acclimatisation days thanks to the bad weather ,we were lucky to hike to EBC and Kala Patthar – the viewing ‘platform’ for Everest without getting too sick. When I went, EBC was just a collection of rocks on the Khumbu Glacier. During the climbing season it’s busy with tents and those wishing to scale the highest mountain above sea level. But we had EBC all to ourselves and the sun was shining! It was an epic way to start my 30’s.

New posts very soon

I come to you with my tail between my legs. It’s been a while since I’ve written on here. But just because Wordpress’ 2011 challenge has finished, doesn’t mean I’m abandoning this blog.

Oh no. I’ve been having the time of my life, and now I’m back from my travels with my head full of blog posts.

In case you’re new to my blog, or haven’t been on here for a while, I’ve been in Nepal hiking, teaching English and generally having a poke around the country. As a travel blogger and modern photographer (and by that I mean with a digital camera and a Flickr account), you have to weigh up writing about your experiences while on the move vs actually experiencing those experiences. With the lack of a Netbook, I found myself in the Internet café a lot, concentrating on writing or talking to my friends and family at home. I was not talking to the people around me, who were also concentrating on emails or talking to their friends and family. The point of travelling is seeing a different side of life and meeting other people.

So I stopped worrying about teacup and cake and went about meeting people and doing crazy things such as paragliding over Pokhara or hiking to Annapurna in the snow. Posts on these, the rest of my Everest experience and my impending move from the coast to the “city of dreaming spires” – Oxford – coming very soon.