Sunday, December 18, 2005

It's going to be a white jul!

Hi everyone,
Just got home from town at 2am and it's snowing. How exciting! My Swedish friends all laughed at me of course when I skipped and danced about in town, but I still think that it is exciting. I hope you like this picture of my street tonight.

I have talked Swedish most of the night and find it hard to write in English. I can't quite understand Swedish, as they talk so fast, but I seem to be able to talk Swedish when drunk. (Some of you may say I was always a better listener than speaker!!!).

Sweden is not so cold. It actually feels warmer here than Christchurch in winter because you are warm whentever you are inside. Outside is so cold but it is dry so even though my only pair of shoes have a large hole in them I can still run in the snow!

The thing that is causing me problem is the dark. Believe it or not I can't sleep. I feel like sleeping around 7pm, (4 hours after dark). I don't sleep then, as it is too early, but I don't feel sleepy again until way after 12pm. As I try to wake about 8:30am to make sure I get as much daylight as possible, I am getting really tired.... Sweden is really strange and does strange things to your body. Atleast there is snow and it is looking like it will be a white (jul =) Christmas for me as more snow is forcast. Yippee.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Kayak Nepal!

After the competition I had only a short time left in Nepal and suddenly it felt like time was running out. I had decided to head back to Pokhara so I could spend my last week kayaking, and hopefully fulfil my paddling goals of completing a mini expedition. This meant I would miss out on the last week of The White Water Circus Project, but that was unavoidable.

On my first day back I paddled the Upper Seti, one of my favourite runs in Nepal. It's a bit like a longer version of the Lower Matakitaki in New Zealand. That day I paddled with a truly international team of Bob from Canadia, Aussie Dave, Nick the Brit and Rynsuke from Japan. It was a really fun, and because the river has dropped it was quite different from the last time I paddled it.

The next day the same guys were off to paddle the Upper Modi Khola. I was tempted to join them but I thought it was too difficult. I decided to join a trip Anton was leading on the Marsyandi instead.

That night at dinner I tried to make sure the trip would happen. I was keen. Anton was keen. All we needed was one more person. All the other Swedish paddlers were also keen, but maybe later, or they needed to talk to someone else who wasn’t there. Arghhh!! Later was not going to work for ME because later I would be in Sweden! In the end as everyone was leaving the restaurant I said, "Well if the trip isn't going then I'm going to paddle the Modi Khola instead". Everyone looked worried.

I still wasn't sure about going on the Modi Khola trip. The guidebook describes the river as “very steep (30m/km) and technical”, and quotes someone as saying “[it is] the most continuous river any of us had ever paddled”. So I asked Anton, who had already run the river, for advice. I didn’t like his answer.

However, I really, really wanted to paddle the river, and the guys encouraged me to come with them. Even Charlie, the lovely French-Nepali Man who runs the kayak shop, thought I should give it a try. I guess what in the end made up my mind was that somewhere deep inside me I believed I was ready for this river, despite what my friends thought. The Extreme Slalom had given me a lot of confidence, and that day on the Upper Seti I had even stayed upright on the one rapid that always turned me over. I felt I was as ready as I ever would be and I wouldn't get another chance.

So the next morning I started up the path to Annapurna Base Camp, carrying to my two dry bags and a paddle. Following me was my porter who had the hard job of carrying my kayak. We provided good entertainment for the trekkers who were walking along this popular track in their normal hiking stuff. The trek reminded me of Mick Hopkinson commenting how a swim kayaking could quickly turn a well equipped kayaker into a poorly equipped tramper. I felt like a poorly equipped tramper!

It was hot and the trek was a lot harder than I had imagined it would be. One of the other guys was obviously sick as he slept through the entire lunch stop, so I grabbed his bag and added it to my load. After all I would need his help the next day so the least I could do was lighten his load now.

When we finally made it to our home stay I went straight to the river. I had seen some of the rapids during the walk in and I was terrified. Down at river level things didn't look much better. The rapids were smaller than I had imagined, but they were hard. Tricky drops were followed by undercut boulders, and one rapid led straight into the next. As I bush bashed my way down the river bank I realised that portaging wasn't going to be as easy and the river was basically in a canyon and a long way below the walking track.

I emerged from my scouting covered in bid bids and made a decision. I would get on the river and I had five rapids to test the water. After that the river entered the canyon and it would be too late to change my mind... With that decided I only had one thing left to do, and that was to prepare my mind.

Those involved in adventure sports know all about peak experience. That is when you attempt something that is at the limit of your skill and experience. Such an experience is hugely satisfying but it can also be extremely tiring. Often at such a time you let yourself get so stressed about the upcoming challenge that your muscles burn out extremely fast. My challenge was not just that this river had some of the hardest drops that I had ever paddled, but that it had over 60 such drops. If I was going to succeed, I had no choice but to stay relaxed.

That morning I woke early after a long sleep, and lay awake listening to the song “Come dance around the world” on my mp3 player. This would be like of a theme song for me, and I played it in my head whenever I was scared as I danced down the river.

In the morning it was still cold as we lowered our boats down to the river and paddled the first few drops. I was nervous of course, but I was doing ok. On a river like this no one can really “look after you”. Your more experienced mates help you out by going first, and giving you a signal but ultimately it's up to you to make the lines and catch the eddies. That day I learnt by watching the other paddlers and copying how they moved. However for the longer rapids, you’re can’t see so much so you have to be able to read the water yourself.

Of course I had a few problems early on. I miss-read one drop and ended up rolling once, and then there was another drop straight away so I rolled again. Another time I missed a ferry glide and ended up in a very nasty section with lots of huge boulders. Luckily instinct told me to lean onto the rocks so I made it through them. I REALLY didn't want to roll there. I decided not to miss any more ferry glides.

As the morning went on the rapids kept coming one after another. All of a sudden I realised I was a lot more relaxed on the water. I had become confident that I could catch the eddies, make the ferries and boof the drops. I was there. I was doing it. I was living my dream.

By the time we got off the river that day I was exhausted. I had started to make mistakes on the easier rapids. The others were the same, even young Nick the probe master was really happy to see Birethanti. He had led most of the river and had a couple of heart stopping moments during the day. One time he ended up getting stuck side surfing a hole, hoping that the guy following him was not going to land on top of him.

That night a I got the ‘peak experience high’. I had come off the river exhausted but after dinner I suddenly found I couldn't sleep. After everyone else had gone to bed I couldn't sleep so I lay awake listening to my mp3 player until the batteries went flat.

The next day I woke up feeling tired and flat. I hadn’t slept much and my stomach was upset so I was low on energy. We still had half the river to paddle so there was no time to feel sorry for myself.

On the river I had to concentrate hard, which I found very difficult. There were several big rapids left. Once on a nasty shallow rapid, a detour because the main channel was blocked by huge fishing net, I lost my concentration and ended up scrapping along the bottom upside down. It wasn’t a very nice experience. Another time Nick held the stop sign up and we all stopped not far above a big drop we couldn’t see. One by one the others disappeared down until I was left at the top. I had no choice to follow over the drop, which turned out to be big and exciting but friendly.

After some time we came to a dam, where most of the water was diverted. We carried round the dam and put in again below it but there wasn’t much water. It felt like I was a ball in the pin ball machine, and it wasn’t fun. This section was full of huge boulders and we could only dream what fun it would have been before they built the dam. Sadly, this is the case for many rivers in Nepal and more seem to be added to the list all the time.

The last section we ran was the Lower Modi Khola which is a little easier. I had paddled it a couple of weeks before and this time I couldn't believe how easy it seemed. It went by so quickly! I was looking out for one of the rapids I had rolled in last time, but I had improved so much that this time I didn’t even notice it until I was on the bus back to Pokhara.

At the end of the Lower section it was time to say goodbye to the other guys. The rest of the team were paddling down the Kali Gandiki, but I couldn’t face the six hour bus ride waiting at the end, so I had decided to return to Pokhara.

I carried all my gear up to the bridge and then across the bridge to the road. Just as I reached the road a bus going to Pokhara stopped. I threw my kayak on the roof, and climbed up there to sit beside it as I was still in my kayaking gear

Travelling on the top of the bus that day was magical. From the top of the bus you have such a great view, of the people, the river, the hills and the mountains. Nepal is so steep it is amazing they have built roads at all. It is something that is easy to miss from inside the bus, but from the top the amazing view unfolds beneath you.

On top of that bus I also felt all my experiences in Nepal come together. I felt I had grown up on the Modi Khola. I now felt I had achieved my dream, and that I could go home satisfied. Even after the bus driver charged me an outrageous tourist price I still felt elated.

Back in Pokhara I still had 3 days left and I still wanted to paddle the Marsyandi. Unfortunately I my friends still weren’t keen. My body wasn’t in very good shape and wasn't getting much energy from my food. I was really sick. I rested for one day and then went to Charlie’s to meet somebody interested in paddling the Marsyandi. If they hadn’t been building a huge dam on the Marsyandi spoiling the paddling for future generations, I wouldn’t have considered paddling in that state. If it hadn’t been my friends Danny and Karla who I met in the shop, I wouldn’t have gone either. But it was, so I went.

The next morning I met international team outside Charlie's shop. This time I had the company of Uri from Spain, Kejii from Japan (our new probes), Danny a Pom, and Karla who hails from Switzerland.

As we climbed aboard the bus to the river I felt really tired and hungry. I wondered where I was going to find the energy to paddle this river. Luckily the antibiotics started to work just when I needed them, and I managed to properly digest the bowl of noodle soup I had for lunch. It was hardly the ideal preparation for this, a grade four, high volume river, but it would be enough.

The Marsyandi is described as one of the best rivers in the world. It is a kayaker's dream with lots of high excitement rapids and many playwaves. It is also a beautiful river where you get magical views of the mountains, and we also saw monkeys playing along the edge of the river.

The Marsyandi, for me, was the river where I realised just how much I had learnt. The rapids were big and we ran most of them without any bank scouting. I felt out of energy, and was a little lazy with my paddling but still I felt confident. Now I knew enough to pick my own lines and to spot the nasty holes before I ended up in them. I could tell which rapids would be okay and which needed more careful scouting. I was no longer just relying on others to make decisions for me, I could make them for myself.

That night as I carried my boat out of the canyon just before the dam, I realised that I hadn’t rolled that day. We had paddled some big rapids and so this fact said it all. My paddling had really improved a great deal since I had first come to Nepal.

The final day started with a little bit of DIY. Nepalese roads can be tough on boats and the previous day I realised that the trip had caused the mended plastic on the bottom of my boat to split again. We applied a little melted plastic bag to the boat and applied some duct tape over the top. That was enough to reduce the rate of water water coming in to a more manageable level.

This second day of paddling was generally a little easier, but there were still a few hard heart stopping rapids. On one rapid it looked like it was just big friendly waves but turned out to be a bit of a hole. A couple of us found this out as we ended up surfing the hole up the right way but underwater!

All in all it was a nice long run with the sun shining and some fun waves. The water was plenty hard enough for me as I still wasn't feeling well. By then I think I could have enjoyed a nice relaxing float trip. In the previous 7 days I had spent one day trekking, five days paddling and the other day sick in bed! I was still glad that I gone on the trip as the Marsyandi is a great river and many of the rapids we paddled will soon be drowned.

On the long bus back to Kathmandu I looked backed on the last week and I felt really proud. I had overcome my own doubts and achieved my paddling dreams. I had seen some awesome places. I had done some wicked paddling. What more is there to life?

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Himalayan Challenge

I went to Nepal to indulge myself in kayaking. To immerse myself in white water, and become a stronger more confident paddler, that was my dream. Part of that dream was to compete in the Himalayan Kayak Challenge.

However, as we all headed back to Sukute Beach Camp to work on The Project it felt as if my dream had started slipping beyond my reach . Suddenly, I had a lost a lot of confidence and I had even taken a couple of swims. Maybe I didn't really want to kayak after all?

As this was the first time since I took up kayaking that I had found myself in this situation, I didn't know what to do next. Suddenly, easy grade 3 rivers had started to feel scary. And the pressure was on, with the competition starting in less than a week I didn't have much time. So that week, while teaching the Nepalese kids kayaking basics, I also had to teach myself a thing or two about kayaking.

As usual, luck was on my side, as Sukute Beach Camp is next to the Bhote Kosi river. This is one of the most easy to access rivers in Nepal with great paddling from class 2-4. Also with me at Sukute was my paddling buddy, Anton, who also worked as a kayak instructor at Kajaktiv where I had taught during the summer. Now Anton is only twenty but you would not guess it. He is an awesome play boater, as it turned out, a kind teacher. He first took us down the easy section of the river, and taught me to boof. Later he led us down through the trickier upper section, and while I still quite scared I managed to follow him okay. Another day I paddled with some Irish paddlers. Many laughs later and I was beginning to find my form. I had found what I had lost, my river smile!

By the time the competition morning came around, I was still a little shaky in my boat but determined to enter the competition. And the competition started in the deep end with an Extreme Slalom, on the grade four rapid called Dazed and Confused. The previous nights partying and my last 6am English lesson meant I was a little dazed and confused myself when I finally made it to the rapid after missing the first bus and waiting 4 hours for the next one. "It'll only be a few minutes" they had said. "Yeah right, even Nepali time moves faster than that!"

The slalom course started with a tough move from the gate 1 to gate 2 which lay in a flushy micro eddy. Next was a ferry across very fast moving water to the other side where gate 3 lay. After that were plenty more challenging but achievable moves. With my late arrival, I only just managed to squeeze one quick practice before the real run.

In the starting gate I was nervous. I thought about skipping gate 2 as several of us had decided that was the tricky one which maybe should be skipped. But I decided I was here to compete and complete the whole course. I was determined.

And then it was my turn. I caught gate 1, and then 2, and then I just made the eddy for 3, although I had to give it some hard paddling to get into it. I was elated!

Then my inexperience started to show. In my excitement I nearly went through gate 3 the wrong way, and lost many vital seconds paddling round in the eddy. I also misjudged the next move, a comparatively easy move straight down the drop. I ended up surfing the wave above the drop for what seemed like a long time, before rolling over, and coming up just before I passed through gate 4.

The rest of the course went by in a daze. It was bloody hard work, and I was really tired. I was dazed, confused and exhausted.

In the end I missed only two gates (mainly through tiredness), and the compulsory cartwheel that I didn't even attempt in my huge creek boat. Given my struggle to even reach the start line I thought it was a bloody awesome effort, and I was stoked. So I was a little disappointed when the results were posted that night. I was last, even though only one of the others had caught more gates than me!

The next day was the freestyle competition. Now, I don't really consider myself a freestyle paddler, and especially not in the enormous creek boat that I was paddling. So, my hope for this day was to simply not to come last, again.

I decided it was a day to have some fun. I got out my pois and lightened up the atmosphere while the boys were competing with a bit of poi-ing to the tunes coming out of the stereo. It seems that even in Nepal a freestyle competition is just not a freestyle competition without a sound system and some funky tunes.

All 5 of us girls "made" the final. With the wave being a tricky beast even for the best paddlers, I decided my aim was to have some fun. Before my turn I prearranged some help from Irish Brian on commentary to play it up about how serious I looked. Then for my turn, I kept going out as if to start and then coming back, as if I was waiting for the right time to make my move. And then I made it. I pulled out my shortened pois and spun them around me while in my boat - a much harder move than you might think. If only wished I could do such a move while surfing the wave!

After that I really had lost my focus and for my proper turn I hardly caught the wave at all. I thought I would be out of the competition, and was relieved it was over. But no, the other girls were also struggling under the pressure and I was into the next round.

Then I realised I really did want another go. I wanted to show everyone I could at least catch the wave. Well, one thing led to another, and at the end of the day the person having the most fun won the rodeo for 2005. And that person against everyones' expectation was Me!

Waking up on the last day I had only one more event to complete, the down river race. This event was to be on the same stretch of river that I had tackled first after coming back to Sukute Beach Camp. However, today, only a week later, I felt confident paddling the stretch of water on my own.

I thought I could compete well in this event with my background in multisport kayaking, but as it turned out, the race was more about reading the river that I realised. Any time I made up on the few short flat sections I lost on the moving water. At the end of the day, working with the kids during the week, and the first 2 days of competition had taken all my mental energy. On the last day, I just didn't want to win enough.

I came third in the last race, and was placed third overall in the women's competition. At the prize giving I was given a cool wooden sculptured plague to take home with me. It was nice to have something to keep, to forever remind me of what I had achieved in this amazing week. One where I helped underprivileged kids learn new skills, and also taught myself a lesson or two about life and the importance of believing in oneself.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

White Water Circus project

A lot can happen in one month in Nepal. Plans can go astray, and life can end up more exciting than you had expected. The initial plans for my last month in Nepal were to start with two weeks of hard kayaking, compete in an international kayaking competition and then spend the last week working on a project teaching kayaking to Nepalese children.

The month started with a down hill slide for my kayaking. I wasn't enjoying paddling, and had even taken a couple of swims on the Seti river (the warmest and most swimmable river in Nepal!). Luckily, all of us paddlers felt we'd rather be working on The Project, than paddling, so we packed up our stuff and headed back to Sukute Beach.

The Project is The White Water Circus Project which teaches Nepalese children circus and kayaking. It is a mainly Swedish project, run by my friends Inka and Britta from Sweden and Ram from Nepal. I had met these guys while teaching kayaking in Dala Floda (Party capital of Sweden) during the Summer. Most of the other volunteers on the project were young Swedes, but there were also some Nepali kayakers. We all were all friends of one of the project leaders. It was basically a bunch of friends doing something useful in Nepal.

My time working on the The Project was extrememly interesting because it was organised in a low key way. This meant that we all got a say in how the project should go, but also meant boring meetings. The fact that the leaders hadn't decided the goals of the project before we started and to some extent they still didn't agree when it was finished, made it extra challenging.

The thing that makes it particularly difficult to run a project like this, is that the culture gap between Sweden and Nepal is huge. In my opinion, Swedes are highly privileged, for instance they get paid to have babies or to find new work, and sometimes I think they don't realise quite how lucky they are. Nepal is on the other hand a very basic society where people are mostly just concerned with looking after their basic needs. For instance, in our village, only some children got to go to school, and the girls seldom attended for more than a few years. As
The Kiwi Girl, I was neither Swedish nor Nepalese, so I had a unique viewpoint. As only an English speaker it also meant that everyone else could talk about me behind my back!

As it turned out, we had too many of us there to teach kayaking and not enough equipment. I had come to teach kayaking so this proved a little frustrating until I solved the problem on day two. That day I woke early and headed down to the beach to find the children already running about. From that day on I became The English Teacher.

That first day something amazing happened. I was helping Inka and together we taught the children a few basic phrases, "Hello my name is Clare", "I am twenty six years old", "How are you?", "I am fine". The amazing thing was that in the morning only some of the kids knew the phrases, but by that night the big ones had taught the small ones, and everyone knew the phrases.

That night we went up to the village and celebrated a festival with the locals. First the children dragged us 20 minutes down the road to one of their houses and put nail polish on us for a tikka Then we went up to village. While climbing up the dirt path in my jandals, I realised why so many festivals follow the moon, as even in the forest the bright moon lit the way and meant we didn't need a torch. At the village we were shown the alter surrounded by offerings and were given huge flower necklaces, as we were guests. We were encouraged to dance, and I even got the chance to play their noisy trumpet-like instruments (actually a reed instrument), and this huge thing like an over-grown trombone.

As the week continued I felt I learnt so much from the kids. They tried to teach me Nepali, and except for "Ticha" which means both "Are you okay?" and "I am okay", I was a poor student. Luckily they were better students of English than I was of Nepali. There is only so much English you can teach in a few hours, so I wanted to teach them things that I believed would help them get their foot in the door. Initially, I taught them manners, "please", "thank you", and how to look someone in the eye when you speak to them. Obvious stuff for us English speakers but not so for Nepalis.

After that I wasn't sure what to do next. Day three, I found myself alone on the beach without a translator and that is when I realised that I really wanted to do this alone. You should be able to teach English without translation! It was hard at first, but it was the start of one of the most amazing things I have done!

Many of the children were young so my first challenge was to keep them amused. We started the mornings with the phrases, and as their attention faded, we started playing games. First I taught them body parts, head, shoulder, knee, foot etc. This was great as the action of pointing to the body parts, kept everyone interested. After that we started singing nearly the well known song, "Head, shoulder, knee and foot, knee and foot". As the kids really liked to sing this worked really well.
The next breakthrough came that afternoon when I found some time to teach English just to the girls. The girls were generally older, but had not spent so much time at school, so they were very shy about their English. I was playing a game with my Nepali dictionary to get them to practise, where they would look at the Anglicised version of the Nepali word and guess what it was. It was then I realised that many of them knew a lot of English, the main problem they had was with pronunciation. From my problems with learning Swedish I knew exactly how they felt!

So from the next morning onwards, I started going through the alphabet and practicing the sounds. I would draw the letters in the sand, and then we would all practice until they could all make the sound. The difficult letters were s, f, l, b, v, and p, and of course th. I had never taught English before, and had no language to explain how to make a sound, but somehow I managed to communicate what was needed. For example, th is the breath out of 'h' and then the lips of 't'. So we practiced 'h', 'th', 'h', 'th', and made it into a game getting faster and faster.

Every morning we would still play the body parts game, when the kids started getting restless. This got more and more complicated as the days went on. The kids really enjoyed the addition of 'bottom', and 'aeroplane'. 'Aeroplane' was a joke which I couldn't resist when I saw one of the kids doing 'arm', with both arms out like an aeroplane. The amazing thing was that they also got the joke! We also played the action game, so they know eat, throw, kick etc. The body parts were really useful, as I used them when I was looking for a word to go with each sound. No A for apple here!

After a week I believe the kids were speaking a lot better. For instance, if I wrote a word they knew in my sand blackboard they could say the word. It was a great feeling. All I wanted was just to make the lessons last as long as they could. To do this I had decided I would like the children to get a copy of the words we had learned, together with the sounds so they could remember them. Unbelievably one of the kids had the same idea, so he drew a picture of the body and I filled in the words. All that was left was a fun expedition to the town 30 minutes away by local bus, to find the photocopy machine - of course there was no sign in English but the local people pointed me in the right direction! The local people were very friendly, one even tried to chat me up while I was waiting on the top of the bus to go home!

During the week, I was also involved in teaching kayaking which was somewhat more difficult. On the water we always had a Nepali kayaker doing the instruction and we were simply there to help out and rescue the kids. It is a real challenge to help someone on the river when you don't have the language skills to tell them what to do, but luckily the kids were so strong and had good balance so it was never a problem. However without language, it proved impossible to persuade them to tip over and do a wet exit. To teach kayaking was a special thing to do, particularly to teach the girls who were so strong but would normally not get the chance to go kayaking. I just hope they continue kayaking - in a few years they could be some of the strongest girl kayakers in the world. Go girls!
It was very sad when the week came to an end. We had a final circus performance at the Himalayan Challenge competition, which two of the older boys introduced in English - I was very proud. We also had a small kayak race, and all of the kayakers did very well, one even went straight through a small hole and stayed upright! Afterwards it was time to say goodbye, and it was a very sad time.

The local parents thanked us with more flower garlands, and painted our faces red. There was a party with Nepali music and dancing on the beach. I joined in the dancing and the music making with stones from the beach. After a while, some of the local women also joined the dancing which was special for me. Afterwards, I was really tired and sad and emotional. I just didn't know what to do next. I ate dinner and went straight to bed!

All in all, an AMAZING experience!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Project in Nepal

During my time in Nepal I was involved with working with some local village children for a week, on what is known as the whitewater circus project. This project was a Swedish based project that taught kayaking and circus to Nepalese children. As part of the project I also taught the children English starting at about 6am!! You can read more about it on this website from Nepal...

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