Jeff Raisley

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Mike Miller, Cathy Dawson and I spent nineteen days on a mission trip to Basa village in Nepal in mid November through early December. We trekked to the remote village in the Nepal Himalayas to help initiate a hydroelectric project for a community that has never had electricity. The villagers cook and heat their homes with wood-burning fire pits. The villagers suffer health problems from inhaling smoke each day, and the nearby mountain forest is threatened from wood cutting. Indianapolis First Friends Quaker Meeting sponsored our successful fund raising project. So, we were able to purchase two hydroelectric generators for the village.

We rode in a bus with our crew of porters, kitchen staff and guides, along with the hydroelectric equipment, from Kathmandu to the end of the road in Jiri. While the 250 lbs. of equipment was carried on the backs of porters direct to Basa, we took a circuitous route through the mountains to enjoy trekking the middle Himalayas in the Solu region.

In Basa, Mike, a retired electrical engineer, and I met with the local project engineer, Chandra Nepal. With the village leaders, we inspected the waterfall-fed stream, which will serve as the hydro-power source for the electricity generator. Mike reviewed the plan with Chandra for construction of a small directional dam and power station and for stringing wire from the power station to the village. Mike was satisfied that the plans are sound and he was impressed with Chandra’s practical approach to the difficulties of creating electricity in such a remote area.

A major concern, however, was that only one generator was delivered to Basa. We had contracted for two. The problem was resolved at a meeting back in Kathmandu with representatives of Techno Village Co. (the supplier of the generator equipment). It was interesting to participate in a business meeting with company representatives and the board of the Basa Village Foundation NGO. The meeting started with tea and the utmost civility. However, voices began to rise, and eventually I had to demand that the Company and NGO reps explain in English to Mike and me the problems and commit to a solution. The explanation we received was that only one generator was in stock and the second was to be available for transport to Basa within three weeks. Because the Company reps are high caste Brahmins and the NGO members are from the lower caste Rai people, who are farmers, there were some communication problems and distrust. However, the problems were resolevd and the second generator was transported to Basa three weeks later.
The water site is a beautiful waterfall/stream a rigorous 20 minute hike from the village. The only effects on the environment will be: 1) a little dam that will help the water flow narrow at a natural funnel to maximize flow into a pipe during dry season (winter); 2) a cistern and shelter for the generator; and 3) poles within the village to lift wires up to the homes. The plan is to pin the wire to a rock wall along the waterfall and then string wire underground up to the village to minimize the number of poles needed.

While the equipment is owned by the Basa Village Foundation NGO, the system will be run and operated by a village co-op. Two village-wide meetings were held while we were in Basa, and there was great enthusiasm for the project within the village. A “code of conduct” was agreed to by the villagers as to the provision of labor by the village to construct and maintain the system, as well as a sliding scale for villagers to contribute financially for an initial buy-in and then monthly maintenance of the system. It is anticipated that construction will be completed by early summer. So, I hope when I return to Basa in the fall I will see lights in the village.

The system will provide very modest electricity to the 62 homes in the village. Each home will only have enough power for the equivalent of about 4 low-wattage light bulbs. But the villagers don’t have TVs or high-power appliances. They just want to be able to see around their homes at night without burning wood or kerosene.

Cathy, Mike and I had a fun and challenging trek to Basa. The high and low point for me was climbing 14,000 ft. Pike (Peekay) Peak. I scurried up to the top solo, got lost coming down and had an adventure fighting my way through heavy underbrush, a rhododendrun and pine forest, and sliding down a frozen waterfall. I came down the wrong side of the mountain, because it was covered in a cloud allowing me about twenty feet visibility and I got disoriented. The trail I was following at the base of Pike was washed out by an avalanche. As night fall was fast approaching and I was beginning to look for shelter to survive the night, I found a boot print I recognized and was able to make it back to camp. Our sirdar, Ganesh Rai, and 4 of our crew were still up on the mountain. looking for me.

Next morning Ganesh, Mike and I hiked back to the top and had spectacular views of the Everest massif and other 8,000 meter peaks along the Nepal-Tibet border. Photography was a challenge with 40 mph winds. As we neared Basa, we were met by the village musicians, who piped and drummed us into the village. The villagers showered us with flowers, and matrons pushed cups of rakshi (home-brewed spirits) into our hands. During our three days in Basa we visited many homes as well as the school. The students performed traditional Rai dances for us.
Cathy’s experience as a teacher and massage therapist were put to good use. While we trekked, she worked daily with two of our porter-students to improve their English. She gave the less shy members of our crew massages for sore muscles, and delighted the 70-year old wife of the Lama of Gaur with a first in a lifetime massage. In Basa she taught the kids rhyming and clap/slap games to aid their English acquisition.

We also distributed shoes to all of the guys in our crew and some of their children courtesy of First Friends. I delivered some materials for the school, including bookmarks made by kids in Hamilton County Juvenile Detention Center. And I gave the student dancers Beanie Babies.
Another favorite memory of the trek is sitting with our crew by a campfire under the huge starlit sky with white-capped mountains looming across huge and deep valleys. One night Ganesh and Buddiraj Rai, the assistant guide, told me the stories of their Rai forefathers and the unique customs and rites of the Khaling Rai.
Lastly, I’ll forever admire Mike Miller’s “slow but sure” approach to trekking at age 71. He made camp timely everyday and had the energy to hike up Pike and shoot photos in tearing wind and cold. And he has the technical knowledge to have helped the local engineer and Basa Village Foundation NGO to refine the plan for the hydroelectric system.

Back in Kathmandu we enjoyed the quiet of the Nirvana Garden Hotel, but hung out at the Kathmandu Guest House for social life. Friend Uttam Phuyal, manager of the KGH, introduced us to several other philanthro-trekkers. Over milk tea and beers we shared ideas about service projects in Nepal and travel adventures. Our own adventure ended with a feast at Niru Rai’s house the HQ of Adventure GeoTreks, the expedition company which took such good care of us on the trek.

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My intention was to participate in the great biker hajj to Sturgis, South Dakota, for Bike Week with several biker friends. “Sturgis” was about the only motorcycle experience I lacked. I bought a Honda Super Bee for $90 from a guy who was traveling cross-country and broke down in my hometown of Goshen, Indiana, when I was fifteen. I rode all over the Midwestern U.S. on that old Honda. When I was nineteen I did a 7,000 mile trip from Indiana down through Mexico on my next bike, a Suzuki 500. But after I wrecked my Harley and nearly killed myself, I vowed I was done with motorcycles. I’m a middle-aged attorney with wife and kids for Gods sake! That was my third serious bike wreck, and I feared three was all fate may have allotted me. But old biker friends were going to Sturgis, and that last adventure on a bike beckoned.

How could I experience Sturgis without breaking my vow? A rental Harley seemed like a good solution, so I rented a Road King in July and did a weekend ride with three friends. But fear had a hold on me. When my front tire skidded on gravel on a curve on State Road 135 in Southern Indiana, I had flashbacks to the last wreck. In that one I was thrown over the handlebars between a tree and a truck-size boulder as my out-of-control bike went over a creek bank and into the water. My front brake locked and I was thrown over the handlebars on a country road when I was sixteen and was hit broad-side by a car at nineteen. I recovered and rode again. No problem. But my last wreck, maybe because I’m older with family responsibilities, imprinted a fear I’d not felt before. I decided the vow covered rental bikes too. But I was determined to experience Sturgis. I decided to drive my new Sebring convertible to Sturgis and hook up with my biker buddies out there. But Sturgis, I found, was not what I sought. I discovered what I was really seeking in small towns across the Midwest and in a spontaneous pilgrimage to Wounded Knee.

On a hot cloudless day in August with the convertible top down I left Indianapolis and drove State roads across Western Indiana, Illinois and Eastern Iowa. When the Sun was setting I stopped in a little town, Allison, off State Road 3 to gas up and find a place to eat. A young woman pulled up beside me in the parking lot of Casey’s Market, and we struck up a conversation about her two little redhead kids in the back seat. When I asked her advice about a place to eat, she said there weren’t any places she could recommend, but she was on her way to a friend’s for pizza and I was welcome to join them. So I spent the evening with two unwed mothers, Candace and Jen, and their four little kids eating pizza, drinking Pepsi and playing with sparklers.
Jen’s brother, Brian, had committed suicide just a few weeks prior and Jen told me that Brian had always wanted to go to Tibet and see the Himalayas. His ashes are interred in his mother’s garden. I told Jen that I would put her in touch with my fiend KP in Nepal, who runs a Himalayan guiding company and he could arrange for some of Brian’s ashes to be scattered in the Himalayas. She was very grateful for the offer, and Jen and Candace declared that I must be an angel sent by God to answer a prayer. (I would have thought that an angel deserved better than sleeping in his vehicle at a rest area on I-90 just west of Albert Lee, MN, but I was too tired to find a campsite and set up my tent by the time I stopped to sleep after leaving Jen’s house past midnight.)

The next day in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I met my friend Bernadette. We became acquainted the previous fall on a dive trip to Palau. She had invited me to participate in a Sioux Indian powwow through her brother Lantz’s contacts, but Lantz’s wife decided to have a baby instead. Bernadette explained that without Lantz, we would not be welcome as the powwow was not open to outsiders. It was ferociously hot, so instead, we went to Palisades State Park, which has “the old swimming hole” for locals. It’s where a creek balloons into what looks like a quarry to Hoosier eyes, but water can cut sheer walls in granite over tens of thousands of years just like the cutters did in a few decades to make the limestone quarries around Bedford and Bloomington, Indiana. We sat on a boulder dangling our feet in the water and reminisced about diving in Palau. Just down-stream three teenage boys in cut-off jeans repeatedly jumped off a 20-foot wall hooting and bellowing like crazy men.

A surprise thundershower sent us briskly on our way to dinner at Crabby Bills — a seafood restaurant in Corson, S.D.! (Probably borrowed the name of a well-known restaurant on the west side of Tampa Bay.) After dinner I returned Bernadette to her new-born niece’s side and found myself again driving late at night and too tired to look for a campsite. I slept in my car at another rest area on I-90 (near Mitchell, S.D., famed for its Corn Palace). I thanked God and Lee Iacoca’s successors for the comfort of my Sebring’s reclining seats as the South Dakotan version of Crabby Bill’s shrimp and I settled in for the night.

Throughout the night of August 3d and the following morning rain was a constant companion. I passed thousands of bikers as I closed in on Sturgis. Maybe it was the rain, but they seemed like lemmings determined to reach their fated destination. The rain ceased, and heat and humidity returned by early afternoon the next day, a Sunday. Creeping through Sturgis behind a seemingly endless line of Harleys, I finally made it to the Full Throttle Saloon, where I was supposed to meet John, Randy and Mark. I looked throughout the grounds, booths, pavilion, bars and port-o-pots of the Full Throttle, but didn’t find my Indianapolis biker buddies. I crossed the street to the Glenco Campground, where they were supposed to have a campsite. They had checked in, as had 8,000 other campers who had paid the $100 fee, which Glenco charges whether you stay one night or all month. I snuck past security and hiked all over the sprawling grounds looking for my friends, but gave up after a couple hours of fruitless searching. No answer to my cell phone calls.

I spent the rest of the day and evening trying to enjoy the Fellini-esque parade of bikers and “bitches” in their costumes of leather, blue jeans or buckskins with accessories of doo rags, ear rings, tattoos and pony tails or shaved heads. But I found myself alienated from the great congregation of tricked out bikers. I felt like a Christian in Mecca during Ramadan or a Cathar-heretic during the Inquisition. While I could talk the talk and walk the walk, I just couldn’t get into the performance art of it. I left my biker leathers at home, and was walking around in sandals, trekking shorts and a t-shirt bearing the logo of a climbing-gear company. Although leather-clad bikers like to think of themselves as rebels, their politics and cultural values tend to be extremely right-wing (except with respect to nudity, pornography, drugs and hard rock ‘n roll). Looking like a tree-hugger, I worried that I might be suspected of opposing global warming or advocating gun control.

To escape the Sodom & Gomorrah of Sturgis, I drove out to Devils Tower, Wyoming, in the early evening and stopped in Sundance on the way. The county fair rodeo was going on just outside of Sundance, and it was a joy to see the clean cut enthusiasm of the kids in their roping and riding contests. At a restaurant in Spearfish I chatted with Biker-for-Christ Don, who’d brought his16-year old son to Sturgis to help witness to the godless hordes. They were dressed in typical biker uniform and Dad had the tattoos and accoutrements of the serious biker. I didn’t despair of their ministry because bikers are drawn to expressive affinity groups, but I suggested they time their services to be late enough that hangovers had passed but earlier than when the serious substance abuse of the evening would commence.

Refreshed by a break from Sturgis, I made another attempt to locate my friends at the Full Throttle. Alone and forlorn I stood on a table, while Joan Jette and her band belted out hard but good-time rock and roll. While scanning the crowd for my wayward friends, I was forced to endure the view of an amazingly sculpted stripper who slowly rotated about on the mechanical bull in the middle of the grounds, while surrounded by chest-thumping and hooting bikers. After midnight I headed back to a rest area on I-90, just east of Sturgis, and fell asleep once again in my car.

The following day I drove up to Mt. Rushmore and spent an hour or so hiking around the grounds and not seeing the presidents because of fog. I pitied and feared for the hundreds of bikers that rode through the fog to see more fog at the end of their ride to the Park, but thankfully I saw no wrecks.

During a late breakfast at the 1880 Keystone House Family Restaurant in Keystone, while studying my maps, I had an epiphany. Sturgis was no different than Daytona’s Bike Week without a beach; it was largely a larger version of other biker gatherings I’d experienced – macho exhibitionism, sex, drugs and rock & roll. I no longer fit. For me, it was a bridge to nowhere. To make this adventure meaningful, it would become a pilgrimage. I would go to Wounded Knee.

An ancestor of mine was the only cavalryman killed in the “action” at Wounded Knee. My journalist Mother wrote a story for our hometown newspaper, The Goshen News, in 1977, about our ancestor, Lt. James DeFreese Mann, because she attended, as a representative of the family, his “Last Roll Call” — the 100th anniversary of his graduation from West Point. I had recently re-read her article while perusing the family scrapbook during a visit with Mom.

I find it both intriguing and perverse that I have an ancestor who managed to get shot, possibly by friendly fire, since the Sioux weren’t doing much shooting, in one of the most notorious events in the sad history of the conquest of the Plains Indians by the U.S. Army. (Another ancestor is Cotton Mather of the Salem witch hangings infamy, but at least he had the compensating distinction of being a famed scholar, preacher and educator.) I don’t pretend to know a lot about the Indian Wars generally or the Wounded Knee massacre specifically, but my Mom’s article quoted from contemporary reports about the events of Dec 29, 1890, and Lt. Mann was even interviewed by reporters while he was dying from his wound. He claimed that the “Bucks” shot first and then the soldiers “poured it into them.” Whoever shot first, the result was that the federal soldiers killed 300 Oglala Sioux, mostly women and children. As far as I know, no one from my family has made a pilgrimage to the place where our ancestor was shot while participating in the massacre. Perhaps a pilgrimage to Wounded Knee by Lt. Mann’s ancestor would qualify as some sort of atonement.

Traveling through the Badlands National Park and the reservations of the Lakota, Oglala and Rosebud Sioux, one must be struck by the inhumane and cruel-joke of the government to have “reserved” this land for the Sioux people. While there is a stark beauty to some eyes, The Badlands are one of the most inhospitable areas in North America to human existence. The landscape is harsh, grim and the heat oppressive. And the cruel joke continues. State Road 40 is a rough but decently paved and maintained road angling southeast from Keystone toward the Pine Ridge Reservation. When it becomes a BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) road, it ceases to be paved. My poor Sebring endured 40 miles of gravel across Pine Ridge before reaching the Badlands National Park Visitors Center and pavement again.

The ranger at the Visitors Center told me that I might be disappointed visiting Wounded Knee, because “there’s not much there.” There is certainly truth in his statement, but then, there is not much there throughout the Badlands.
On the east side of the road at the site of the massacre were a couple forlorn booths with handcrafts for sale. An old man slept at one and a couple of kids played in the dirt by the other. On the west side of the road is a white circular building containing mostly posters and propaganda for AIM (American Indian Movement). There are testaments to Russell Means and Leonard Peltier and the demonstrations, minor insurrections and violence perpetrated against and by AIM. There was surprisingly little information about the history and events of the 1890 massacre. On two hills behind the building are two small cemeteries. I looked around both, but didn’t see any monument to the massacre. I asked, and a Sioux man pointed toward a fenced area of about ten by six feet back in the closest cemetery to the AIM building. Within the fenced area is a six-foot high granite monument with names of victims and a description of the massacre. (Although my Mom’s article said 300 of the 350 Sioux at Wounded Knee were killed, I counted fewer than 40 names on the monument.) A few token offerings were scattered around the base of the monument.
I placed two stones on top of a steer’s skull at the base of the monument as my offering of symbolic atonement. I had purchased the rocks for $1 each from a group of Oglala kids at the intersection of two gravel roads on the reservation. Their Dad told me he wanted to “encourage entrepreneurship” among his kids. I stood alone by the monument and looked back across the road where the Sioux had camped under the leadership of Chief Big Foot, who was known as a man of peace. I prayed for the souls of the Indians who were killed there; and for all the other Indians who were killed to allow the western expansion of the USA and for the sins our nation has committed against Red people and Black people in becoming the colossus it is and that we Americans today will live up to the great principles of individual freedom and equal opportunity we profess and for the soul of my ancestor, James DeFreese Mann, who spent 13 years of his life fighting in the Indian Wars for a cause in which he firmly believed and who left a young widow and child at Ft. Riley, Kansas, where he was temporarily buried before his remains were transported to Arlington Cemetery.

Back in the AIM building, I made conversation with the middle-aged woman sitting behind a counter. No other visitors entered the building while I was there. I overcame my hesitation and told her about my ancestor’s participation in the massacre. She evinced no hostility and only mild interest. She didn’t know that a cavalryman had died in the action, but thought she recalled reading the old newspaper accounts that quoted Lt. Mann. She said the way the Center got most of its materials was from “people like me giving them stuff.” I told her I’d try to send a copy of my Mom’s article. (Another broken promise by the white man.) I donated a few dollars after being pestered by her son for a contribution to a fund for his baseball team. I felt gouged but also paid $20 for an AIM T-shirt.

When I left the Center I started to drive into the town of Wounded Knee and was confronted by a hand-painted sign on poster board stuck on a rusted metal chair by the side of the road, “Drive Slow Stop Killing Our Children.” The town had the depressingly ramshackle look of other Reservation settlements I’d seen. I made a slow U turn at the first drive and then headed south to pick up US Highway 18.

I drove old State highways most of the way home: US 18 across South Dakota, State Road 3 across Iowa, and US 150 across Illinois. And I finally got to use my tent and sleeping bag camping on the banks of the Missouri River at Snake Creek Park in South Dakota, Beeze Lake in Iowa, and Kickapoo State Park in Illinois. Ripping along the two-lane blacktop with the top down and then performing the rituals of setting up and taking down a tent in the great outdoors filtered the vestiges of alienation out of my system. I spent a delightful evening in Hampton, Iowa, taking in a Dixieland concert by a local group on the town square across from the courthouse. The easy grace, friendliness, and middle-American prosperity of the folks in Hampton are Exhibit A to counter the pundits’ contention that small town America is dying.

I don’t claim that my little spontaneous pilgrimage was in any sense an act of redemption. My ancestor thought he was fighting on the right side of a war. It is hard for me to see things from his point of view, but I accept that he thought his side was in the right. But on the way back home to Indiana, I found myself wondering whether America would try to understand “the other” before we begin another war. We certainly didn’t in the invasion of Iraq. Do we have a deeper understanding of the people we are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan? I pray, futilely, I know, that our descendants will not need to make pilgrimages to atone for more massacres.

What I sought in Sturgis was not there for me. I am no longer a biker and felt more like a voyeur than part of that community. I was the other. But I found something else in my spontaneous pilgrimage and drive across the Midwest. I found a bridge and crossed it back into the dark past of my ancestors, who killed and herded the Natives of America into reservations. And I found that I still feel connected to communities like the one in which I grew up: small Midwestern towns and cities with folks friendly enough to invite a stranger in for pizza, where teenagers play in the ole swimming hole, and a band plays in the town square on a Saturday evening. Despite living in cities like London, Chicago and Indianapolis since I was nineteen, small-town middle-America still welcomed me as one of its own. It was not what I sought, but it was what I found on my way back home.

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It was an almost perfect trekking experience. Our 16 members were the first group of trekkers to fly to the 2-year old Kangel airstrip. The pilot took a pass on the first attempt, but circled and made an excellent but thrilling landing on the hump of graded dirt his second try. Near the end of our first day of hiking we were surprised to be invited to the Dipwali celebration in the market village of Neli. We were entertained by local musicians and dancers, and then members of our group were invited to join in the dancing, which we did with gusto if not finesse.
The next day we were greeted outside of Basa village by a group of local musicians. We were led to the center of the village by the musicians thumping, blaring and tooting. There we were overwhelmed by the reception of the villagers. Every child, woman and man in the village had lined up to place garlands of flowers around our necks. Local luminaries gave speeches of welcome, while we were served copious amounts of rakshi (distilled spirits) and chang (beer). Chris Rubesch, Ursula Scriven and I delivered school supplies and letters from American school children to the children of Basa. Max Rubesch created the Basa air force by distributing paper airplanes and plastic flying saucers to the village kids. Mike Rubesch joined in the kids’ favorite sport — net-less volleyball. And Chris and Max free-styled with school kids using a tied bundle of flowers for a hackey sack.
We spent 2 & 1/2 days in Basa being entertained by a dance program put on by the school children and teachers and visits to homes around the village. The pastor of the Christian church proudly invited us into the little dirt-floor church supported by the 9 Christian families of Basa. We also visited the two traditional Rai sanctuaries outside the village. Rakshi, chang, and food was pressed on us by gracious villagers throughout our stay. When it was time to leave, we were piped and drummed out of the village by the town band and the villagers again lined up to place flower garlands around our necks. We were amazed that so many flower garlands could be created by the villagers, but growing flowers and creating beautiful garlands is the local art form.
Basa is almost untouched by the outside world. We were only the 4th group of “white people” to visit the village. The first tourist commercial transaction in the history of the village took place,
according to our local informants, when one of our members purchased a knife from a local family. Instead of causing concern, this excited members of our crew who live in Basa, and they began speculating what villagers could sell to tourists, if Basa could become a regular trekking
destination. We discovered that our cook, Purna Rai, is a “purket” or shaman in the Rai tradition. He invited us into his home, which was outside of Adheri, our next campsite after Basa. We were granted the rare privilege of witnessing Purna perform a healing ritual in his home, which involved
him entering a trance state, chanting, dancing, and performing rituals with various sacred objects around an open fire, while 3 other Rais pounded and beat on drums and shields.

The next day we parted with Joel the Elder and John the Yeti, who would be faced with a hike up the 11,000 foot Ratnaga Danda, as they circled back to hike to Paphlu and fly back to Katmandu.
The rest of the group hiked on up through the middle-Himalaya region of Solu to enter the high-Himalaya of Khumbu. Because the area around Basa valley is not visited by trekkers, our hikes through Solu were delightfully peaceful and allowed for noncommercial engagement with locals. As we entered the Khumbu and crossed onto the Everest Base Camp Trail and then entered Sagarmatha National Park at Jorsale, the trails became jammed with trekkers and yak trains.
The daytime temperatures in the lower altitudes of Solu got up to the high 80s to make for sweaty hiking. The higher altitudes of the Khumbu brought the temperatures down for more comfortable hiking, and the beautiful great valleys and huge flora-covered hills of the Solu gave way to the great white peaks and rushing glacier-fed rivers of the Khumbu.

But the number of trekkers and yaks on the Base Camp trail caused traffic jams at bridges and enough dust that a handkerchief over the nose & mouth was sometimes necessary. We didn’t have any rain, and the sky was clear everyday, so, once the tough hike up Namche Hill was behind us, we had spectacular views of the Everest Massif and all the great peaks of the Khumbu Himalayas, including my favorite mountain, the beautiful Ama Dablam. Our high point was about 13,000 feet at Shyangboche and the Everest View Hotel, where we had morning tea and gazed out at the amazing views of Everest, Thamserku, Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Nupste, Pumori, and other white-capped peaks.

Our northern terminus was the Sherpa capitol of Khumjung, where we visited an ancient Buddhist monastery, the Hillary School and Kunde Hospital. While we were in Khumjung, our three fastest hikers, Chris, Max (the 20 somethings) and Greg (our old fart fast guy) hiked on to Tengboche Monastery for a visit to the Monastery and to enjoy the magnificent view of the Everest Massif on the Monastery grounds, completing the 2-day hike in less than a day. Dr. Bill parted company from the group when we left Khumjung. He and Himprasad hiked off to complete the hike up to Everest Base Camp and to climb 19,000 foot Kala Patar for the classic view of the Himalayan range and views into Tibet. The remainder of the group hiked back to Lukla airport via Namche Bazaar and Monjo. We befriended a Tibetan shopkeeper in Namche, who offered quite good deals on Tibetan & Sherpa handmade goods, clothes and gems. Our group probably made her budget for the year with our many purchases.

At our last night in Lukla we had the traditional banquet with our porters, kitchen crew and guides. It was a rollicking affair with dancing and rakshi drinking. Purna outdid himself with a multi-course
feast and chocolate cake for dessert. Our 28-member crew was delighted with the cash tips we gave them and the many items of clothing and gear our group donated to the crew members and their families. It was also an emotional and inspiring event. Our sirdar, Ganesh Rai, who is one of the finest human beings I know, gave a speech in which he thanked our group for what we have done for the Basa School, and the whole village. By using Adventure GeoTreks, we employ many of the men from Basa. Because the villagers are subsistence farmers with small plots of land, Ganesh explained that most of the village farms cannot support a family for an entire year. So, outside employment is required in order to make enough money to buy food during the months when local food has been exhausted. Adventure GeoTreks is the only outside employer that purposefully hires from Basa, because the owner of the company, Niru Rai, is from Basa and has remained loyal to his home village.

The one great disappointment and upsetting event of the trek was that friend Bruce was infected by a parasite in Katmandu the night before the trek started. He became dehydrated and very weak the first two days of hiking. His condition continued to deteriorate in Basa. Given that
there are no medical facilities in Basa, Dr. Bill and Ganesh recommended that Bruce be evacuated by helicopter. The chopper evac was another first for Basa. But it was bitterly disappointing for Bruce and his wife, Donna, who were wonderful companions and had been so looking forward to the trek.
Back in Katmandu, we reunited with Cousins David & Mel, who toured Nepal with the intrepid octogenarian, my friend Joan. They reported that they had a great time touring by plane, car, foot and elephant with their guide, Raj. But, like those of us who did the temple tours around the Katmandu Valley, they experienced info overload about the many incarnations and manifestations of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, and Buddha.
Our trekking group was a wonderful and eclectic melange of personalities, which created an interesting and harmonious community in the meal tent and at tea time. We were plagued with some stomach and charpi (toilet) issues. But the group was blessed with Jude’s great spirit and perseverance, Ursula’s gentle thoughtfulness, Leslie’s happy-go-lucky attitude, Karen’s wise and helpful advice, Susan’s grit and willingness to share about dropping her sunglasses down a charpi
hole, Mike’s inquisitiveness and note taking, Joel the Younger’s video-cam work and adventure experiences, Bill’s care and concern for Bruce and his travel experiences, Gregg’s toughness and love of a good beer and cigar, Max and Chris’s youthful energy and generosity to Nepalese children, John and Joel the Elder’s self-deprecating good humor, and Bruce and Donna’s warmth and lack of self-pity despite Bruce’s severe illness.

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One summer 2000, after kayaking for a week in the outer islands of Tonga, I touched a whale.
Tonga is an island nation in the South Pacific, the only island group in Oceania that wasn’t conquered or colonized by a Western nation. It is the only surviving hereditary monarchy of the Pacific island nations. Tongan kings traditionally weigh over 300 pounds and wear an apron woven from pandanus reeds.

The week of kayaking was guided by a local company, Friendly Islands Kayak Co., which is owned by a Kiwi couple. Our group was an eclectic and cosmopolitan group made up of a Swiss couple, an Aussie couple, two Canadians, a Swede, me (American) and two guides, a Canadian and a Tongan.

We paddled around the Vava’u group of islands, tent camping and cooking out on pristine sand beaches. We had several tough paddling days battling wind and surf, but each day we arrived at our campsite with time for snorkeling and exploration of the mostly deserted islands.
The social highlight of the kayaking expedition was an ‘umu feast in a remote village called Mata Maka on one of the outer islands. We dined with the village elders while the village girls entertained us with traditional dancing. The dinner featured pig, which was roasted in a wood-fired pit-oven for twelve hours. But it included about thirty different dishes spread out on the floor in front of us. Our group made a small dent in the massive amount of food prepared for us. But no one felt bad about the leftovers, because everyone drank so much kava (the Polynesian version of distilled spirits) that no one felt anything other than a delightful alcohol-induced party high.

Umu Feast

After we paddled back to Neiafu, the only city in the Vava’u islands, I had a few days of free time before my flight to Auckland and then home. Neiafu turned out to be a wonderful place to kill time. I participated in a fruit bat hunting (with cameras) expedition in the jungle led by a New Zealand research biologist; crewed in a yacht race on a French-captained yacht; hung out with a couple Englishmen sailing around the world; shared poetry with an American who was sailing around the world but met and married a Tongan woman and had instead anchored off Neiafu for ten years; and had tea each afternoon with four Kiwis in their seventies who had spent their childhoods in Tonga but had to flee the islands to avoid capture by the Japanese during World War II. The most memorable experience, however, was swimming with a humpback whale and her calf.

I spent half a day on a whale watching boat. We spotted a bull, mother and calf humpback whales. Several hundred humpbacks spend July to October around Tonga mating and birthing and then training their calves before swimming south to their feeding grounds in Antarctica. Adult humpbacks are forty to fifty feet in length.

The bull kept its distance, but the mother and calf teased us. Whenever we got within fifty yards of them, the whales would dive. Anjo, a speedboat captain who I had met in my wanderings around Neiafu, offered to take three of us off the slow moving whale watching vessel to try to get close enough to the whales to swim up to them. The superior speed of the speedboat might allow us to approach the whales before they dove away from the boat. A Floridian, a Japanese guy, and I jumped at the chance.

Fifteen times we approached the mother and calf when they surfaced, and then we jumped in the water and swam as fast as we could toward them. Each time the whales sounded before we reached them. The boat captain gave us one last chance as he was low on fuel and it was time for us to get back on the slower boat to be taken back to Neiafu. The three of us dove in with fins kicking as hard and fast as we could. Anjo told us splashing bothers whales, so we kicked with our fins below the surface and didn’t stroke with our arms to minimize splashing.

Mother Humpback

The mother and calf didn’t dive this time. They swam just below the surface staying about twenty yards ahead of us. Tashio, the Japanese guy, tired from the fifteen times we had already swam after the whales, gave up the chase after about fifty yards. Kevin, the Floridian, broke off after one hundred yards. I kept kicking. After another fifty yards of pursuit, the whales stopped. The mother let me swim up beside her, but kept her baby on her other side away from me. I swam up beside her huge eye, turned on my side and looked through my snorkel mask into her eye, which was as big as my head. She looked back at me. Our eyes locked. Time stopped. It was if we were looking into each other’s souls.

She rolled and nudged her calf with her flipper to encourage the calf to swim over to me. The baby whale swam up to me, swam under me, then circled around me, and let me caress its tail. It was extraordinarily smooth to my touch. The calf returned to its mother’s side. They began to swim off slowly. I swam with them for about one hundred yards, but then another whale-watching boat approached. The mother gave on great flick of her tail and they vanished deep into the dark water below me.

I stroked back to the speedboat and clambered up the ladder and dropped over the gunwale. I could barely stand. My legs were vibrating and shaking so much from the thrill and power of the encounter. For a few moments, the otherness separating the mother whale and me had vanished. We looked into each other’s eyes and saw trust and acceptance, instead of fear and danger. She trusted me to caress her baby. I trusted that she would not crush me like a minnow with her gigantic tail. I can still see her awesome eye in my mind’s eye. And I remember how she trusted me with her baby. It would be a good thing for our finite planet if humans could see the soul of all other species, especially the endangered ones.

The Author; Nightfall on the Outer Islands of Vava’u