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Ladakh is special (this entry is super long)

Leh, India


This is the first internet access I've had in a week, and I depart the day after tomorrow for another trek through remote mountain wilderness for twelve days. I have a lot to write, and this internet connection is spotty and fairly expensive. So, please excuse this load dumping and any accompanying sloppyness (i.e. lack of sequential order, addressing an inconsistent audience with variable tense, and any other grammatical mishaps).

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At the village of Lamayuru, I got off the bus full of twenty-somethings from Bombay feeling both relief and excitement. It was a long, jarring ride in a seat that simply doesn't square with the length of my legs, so I was pleased to give it up to another passenger when my stop finally came. The Bombay crowd had chartered the entire bus, and had been kind enough to stop when I flagged it down on the side of the road that morning. They were mostly young professionals and graduate students who were vacationing up north to escape the stifling heat and drenching monsoon back home. They were clearly from the Indian upper class. They were convinced that I was a "professional" mountaineer, which tells you something about the amount of time they've spent outside of the city. It was fascinating to watch them experience such a vastly contrasting region of their own country, which Ladakh certainly is. In some ways, I think I was actually more at home in this mountain landscape than this group of Indians. They were clearly into the Bollywood scene, but their Hindu culture was still readily apparent. Juxtaposed to the gregarious Kashmiri bus driver and the reserved Ladakhi fare steward, the youthful city dwellers from the South rounded out a pretty good sample of the diversity of people in this country.

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Lamayuru is seriously cool. All of the buildings (homes, hotels, monasteries, schools, etc.) are made principally of mud brick. The architecture blends so seamlessly with the surrounding natural landscape that at times it becomes challenging to decipher where man-made structure begins and nature ends. It's truly beautiful and inspiring. The aging chortens (Tibetan Buddhist statue of sorts) look like sandcastles that have endured one or two rising tides; dilapidated and smoothed over, yet retaining their integrity, as if to return to the earth with grace and poise. It stikes me that the entire built infrastructure around the globe is deteriorating all the time, but the edifices in Lamayuru really display just how temporary our human endeavors are. The Buddhist teaching of Impermanence comes to mind as you observe men building an identical chorten next to another that has endured many years of harsh weather in service to this community.

I ventured above the Lamayuru monastery to the higher chortens and prayer wheels. This is also where the local monks come for silent meditation retreats. Looking down at the magnificent gompa on the cliffside, the perspective is very nearly dizzying. On the horizon above the gompa emerges steep and jagged snow-capped peaks leading into the Zanskar region. All of the Tibetan artwork with figures seemingly floating between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm began to resonate much more with me from this vantage point. Perched in an elevated cave staring out at the junction of earth and sky, the Tibetan Lamas sit in meditation for hours, days, weeks, months, and even years at a time. Not many of us could survive for long under these harsh conditions, let alone reach a heightened state of mind and clearer view of reality. When you exchange a glance with one of these Lamas, their eyes, smile, and overall presence suggest a life well-lived. These are the masters of the Art of Living.

The main gompa and monastery at the highest point in the village was built right around a cave where Naropa, a major figure in Tibetan Buddhism, meditated for awhile in the 11th century. I was imagining the scenario if you happened upon this sage sitting here a thousand years ago. He spent his life walking great distances between natural dwelling places that he found suitable for meditation. Among the historical individuals whom I admire, one common theme that emerges is a large portion of time spent walking. It is very conducive to simplicity, self-reflection, touching nature, and meeting strangers. This is why I go trekking, with the hope and intention of following in the footsteps of the wise ones.

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After a great and tiring first day of hiking from Lamayuru to Phanjila, my guide, Konchok, and I have taken shelter with a family in a "homestay" arrangement. This valley holds about fifteen families, and this house seems to be a central gathering place. As I write in my journal, there is a Buddhist nun with her prayer beads sitting directly across the room from my guide and another fellow who are drinking a strong barley alchohol and telling what appear to be outrageous stories. This is a truely eclectic gathering, complete with a gangly, white, bearded guy. The host just took time to explain to me that, "we don't work too hard, this is more of a mindful life here". I dig it.

This particular house had a "western" toilet. While I'll admit it felt great to sit on the white porcelin throne, the composting squat toilets are certainly preferable from an environmental standpoint. They not only contribute to making very valuable soil for farming in this arid and rocky earth, but they also require no water, no pipe, and no waste when the throne eventually breaks and must be discarded in the nearest landfill (i.e. river). When I was travelling in New Zealand working on various organic farms, several of them had composting toilets of very similar design to these in Ladakh. Those Kiwis were seriously keen on getting back to a subsistent way of living, which the Ladakhis have mastered, and in an inhospitable environment at that.

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Climbing the wooden ladder to the rooftop, I heard chanting and drums coming and going in the swirling winds above. Nothing beats live tunes from the local monastery on the hill at sunset!

Arriving in Ursi at another homestay, I discover that my bed for the night is about fifteen feet from where the family keeps the farm animals. They were mostly agreeable housemates, although either the yak or the cow had a bit of a snoring issue. But, the fresh milk in my chai tea made up for it.

This morning I walked up the hill to the local gompa which is currently under repair. I was able to meet the artist who is painting the new walls, which was very neat. There were also several elderly monks and about a dozen townspeople who were volunteering their time to help with the construction work. The costs of the work on the gompas are taken care of by donations from the villagers. I decided I wanted to subtley contribute, but they insisted on first sitting down for some tea, then signing some paperwork for both parties, and finally being given a lovely prayer shawl as thanks for my donation. I exchanged some invaluable smiles with the monks and laypeople as I continued on my way.

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Walking about an hour past the village of Ursi on the trail leading to Tar La pass, which we will attempt tomorrow morning, I came upon a herd of twelve mammals. According to my sweet guidebook, they were either blue sheep or siberian ibex. I was solo, so I wasn't making much noise and was able to get quite close before spooking them. Nature is nature, as Konchok likes to say.

While at the new gompa in Ursi, I began speaking a little English with the local schoolteacher who stopped in. He thought it was a very dangerous idea to attempt the Tar La pass as we intended to do the next day. The other six or eight people working in the area were given a translation of our conversation by my guide, and the discussion began. One of the monks who looked particularly weather-worn insisted there was an alternative route that wouldn't have too much snow and was definitely passable at this time of year. It was at this point that I realized Konchok and I might be the very first trekking party to do the pass in 2009. This added to the thrill and mystique of the trek, and also augmented the number of butterflies in my stomach. We're going to give it an early start in the morning and just see how it goes. If we are strong enough in the lungs to reach the summit, (16,000 ft) the greater amount of snow will be on the downside. I don't know if we should expect a cornice and huge slippery slope of ice and snow, or a possible path on dirt and rocks between the snow patches. If it seems too dangerous, we have no reservations about turning around after taking in the supreme views at the top.

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Uh, we're now halfway down the east (down) side of the Tar La, feeling really strong. There is evidence that we're the first trekking party this year: zero footprints anywhere, a horse carcass that had died before or during the winter, (we later saw the broken leg about 100 meters further down the slope) and the villagers in Ursi said that two other parties had attempted and turned back earlier this year. I think the significant snowmelt must have been just in the last week or so. A stroke of good fortune.

Confirmation...At the first house we came upon in the village of Tar (there are 12 households with 70 people total) the three guys working outside the house looked at Konchok and me with surprise and enthusiasm. They informed us that we were in fact the first hikers they had seen since last year. I was thinking that was pretty cool, so I got excited and we all shared a good smiling session. They also said it would not be possible to get any pack animals over the pass at this time, so we were lucky to be traveling light without a tent, stove, food, etc. I guess we were traveling fast as well, as everyone was skeptical that we had finished the pass in less than six hours with decent sized packs.

The landscape here in Tar draws comparison with some parts of southern Utah in that the rock is different shades of red, orange, and cream and it tends to rise quite abruptly. I think it is sedimentary, smooth in parts and crumbling away in others. There are many poplar and willow trees, and this is the first time I've seen a cottonwood along the streamside. This settlement is uniquely encircled by immediately steep rising mountains on all sides. There is a cool spring at the top of the village which is distributed to every home and barley field via narrow canals dug into the earth with little more than a gardening spade. One gets the feeling this little slice of land was meant to be inhabited by animals, and the Ladakhis in Tar are doing a simply beautiful job of living here.

The idea of living off the land with a community of friends and family in a habitable and scenic environment is very attractive to me. These people have carved out a lovely existence in this place. Although some of the traditional culture is visibly fading with the younger generation, there still seems to be a strong identity and also contentment in this way of life. Things will inevitably continue to change, and perhaps at an increasing rate, but the smiles and pleasant energy of the Ladakhi people here suggest that they intend to keep on keepin' on. In some small way, I intend to carry forth a few of the cultural aspects that I'm particularly fond of. All distinct world cultures seem to be streaming into more of a global village (dare I say monoculture?), which may only accelerate in time. If in fact this trend is inevitable and irreversible, then why not attempt to harness the highest achievements as well as the beautiful subtle nuances of the smaller, more traditional and more ancient ways of life? Alternatively, perhaps this ancient wisdom and traditional way of life will make a resurgence if/when any substantial "sustainability" movement ever gets off the ground in the developed countries. Skills of survival and subsistence have been almost completely lost in the "developed" world. Fascination will lie in the unfolding of the mysteries and complexities of our time. I primarily wish to be one of many voices for peace, simplicity, and sustainable innovation. We only have to believe that we can create the world we want to live in. Before we can solve the climate crisis and other pending global issues of importance, individuals must cultivate peace within themselves. Only when we reach a critical mass/tipping point of human beings who are balanced within can we ever hope to solve the imminent issues facing our earth.
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"Ju-le" is Ladakhi for "hello", "goodbye", "thank you", "your welcome", among other things, I assume. The craft of speech these people have is in the myriad intonations that can be used for expression with this single word. One woman gave me a tired, yet sincere "Ju-le" as I was descending from the gompa and she returning home from a long day of working the fields in the blazing sun. I got her meaning.

Traditional Ladakhi women wear their hair in two long braids that are joined at the tips to create a circle on their back. The tips look almost dreaded, and some of the braids look like they haven't been touched for months, if not longer. I'm guessing one reason for this hairstyle is to avoid getting the head wet in the winter months that regularly see negative thirty degree temperatures, but that's just a guess.

This place is spectacular! The high arid mountain landscape is very special in and of itself. Add to that the fascinating and easy-going Ladakhi people, the beautiful Tibetan Buddhist gompas, chortens, mani walls, and prayer flags. Throw in some serious exercise for the lungs and legs, and you have one hell of a trekking experience. Hiking in the Annapurna region of Nepal was very special. Somehow, Ladakh seems to be the next level still, with more demanding terrain, far less tourists, and more isolated and unique culture. Come to think of it, I believe I've seen less than twenty or thirty foreign tourists since I left Dharmsala almost three weeks ago. I've been the only foreigner at my place of rest each of the last six nights and most of the nights before that. I really can't believe there aren't any other travelers around here right now, but I'm not complaining. The main trekking season isn't until July, but the weather has been great thus far. It feels good to take the road less travelled.

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The homestay is a really great way to trek in Ladakh. In addition to the cultural exchange while cooking in the kitchen, the bed is relatively comfortable and it may just be the lightest way to travel as well.

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Ladakh is a spectaular venue for cloud-viewing; a very nice way to pass the time in contemplation.

There are no guns in these villages, as far as I can tell. There are lots of guns in Kashmir.

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Firewood is fairly scarce here. They mostly use twigs from the poplars and willows (after feeding the leaves to the animals) to stoke the kitchen stove. It requires almost constant attention to heat water to a boil, so one of the daughters is always sitting in front of the stove, which is a great location when the sun disappears behind the mountains.

They plant six to eight feet long trimmed branches into the ground to start a new willow (or poplar) tree. Tar is particularly pleasant because it is shaded by the surrounding mountains for a couple of extra hours a day. (Shade is generally hard to come by in Ladakh. Sometimes we'll be on the trail, ready for a rest break, and we won't find a single shady spot for fifteen minutes or longer.) Perhaps the extra shade in Tar is the reason the trees are so happy here, creating more shade and giving rise to grasses and small plants along the canals and turning this little patch of arid mountain land into a green oasis. I don't know if the water source here is a spring or an underground river. I'm also not sure what the difference between the two is...

The canyon below Tar is where all the water runs after the irrigation system usage in the village. I'm still using chlorine tablets to make sure I'm safe, (this is not a good place to come down with any nasty water-borne illness) but the water here must be about as clean and pure as it comes, especially in the context of India. It is easy to forget that you are in India here. I go some days on the trail and in the villages and I see only a handful or two of other human beings. In the rest of India, it is challenging to find respite outdoors for thirty seconds before being interupted by a horn or one of the 1.2 billion people living in this beautifully cramped country.

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Wandering between the sparse shady spots, I breathe, I reflect, I am. This streamside tree with a dry grassy patch will do just fine. Happiness lies here, in contemplation.

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Every Ladakhi kitchen I've been in has very nearly the same layout. There are way more copper bowls, pots, and tea kettles than seem necessary, but perhaps they are all in use during the long, cold winter months. This particular kitchen has a sick and dying mother in the corner bed. She has a terribly deep cough, and the look on her face is one of pain and agony. This culture doesn't hide death away, but rather puts the process right in the middle of family life. I seem to be the one most affected by her anguish, which tells you how naturally and gracefully the Ladakhis deal with death. Tibetan Buddhism teaches that the process of dying illustrates the true character and wisdom of the individual. For this reason they have immense respect for the figure of Jesus, who handled a torturous and excruciating death will complete peace and compassion. Because of the belief in reincarnation, there is significant right and ritual to assure the loss of this life transitions as well as possible into the creation of the next. We're accustomed to the idea of a dying person "passing away" to another place. In this region, there is no concept of "away". Only change.

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We've been trailblazing, navigating, and contemplating along the trail. I do some of my very best thinking while walking in nature. One foot in front of the other, you stay present.

"Above all do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked into my best thoughts and know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it." - The Buddha

This has become more than just trekking for me. It has evolved into what could perhaps be called a pilgrimage or sorts. I'm living a bit like a pilgrim at present.

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The rockslides to the West of the trail between Hibti La pass and Mangyu La pass today were a wonderful exhibit of nature's art. The maroon, cream, brown, and orange colored rocks were blending together as on a canvas as they gradually slip and slide down the steep slope. Toward their inevitable sedimentation in the valley below, the mountainside is a very patient yet persistent piece of canvas that is always being painted. The artist is mother nature, and the medium is father time.

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There is a process whereby nature is governed. That is to say, there is a law of nature. That law is the supreme truth. Gain experiential wisdom of that law, and know the truth. This is liberation. Rocks, plants, and animals experience nothing but this law, but perhaps have no concious method of discerning its properties. Man is equipped with the method (aptitude) of logic and reason to discover properties and patterns of nature in order to gain knowledge of the law which governs all things. Total knowledge means total harmony with the law, resulting in peace and happiness. I believe this is what the Buddha, Jesus, Aristotle, and many other saints and sages achieved in their lifetime. I've got a lot more observing to do!

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The composting toilet at the homestay in Mangyu is three stories high! Konchok and I slept on the rooftop under an incredibly starry sky. During my morning ritual, I kept making sure nobody was using the lavatory on the story below. The hole in the ground on my level perfectly aligned with the hole in the ground on the level below, which led to the ground level where the compost was collected. I can say with great confidence that I will never again see my duece travel such a distance!

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Sometimes when you're traveling you can get a pretty good sense for what kind of foreigners have preceded your visit to a place. Walking in between Lamayuru and Alchi for the past five days, I've been suspecting that the trekkers who traveled before me were the generally "good" kind. There was little if any evidence of their stay, and my interactions with the locals were so genuine that they had obviously not been burned by any unpleasant interactions with big white guys before. So, that was encouraging to discover that many mindful travelers do exist, and some of them have picked this route along the way. I'd guess that less than a dozen foreigners have stayed with some of the families that hosted my guide and I. Most of the hard-core trekkers who come through this remote and challenging terrain travel with horses to carry the tents and stoves and food. Unfortunately, they miss the interaction with the families if they remain at the campsite. I'm not particularly fond of sleeping in tents, so the homestay is ideal for me!

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Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised to find columbine flowers here in Ladakh.

At a slightly lower elevation, (11,000 ft.) the mustard seed crop provides sharply contrasting yellow patches to the already striking blue sky, green trees, maroon and orange rock, and bright white clouds and snowy peaks. This spot is gorgeous.

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It seems inevitable that more development and population inflow will arrive in Ladakh, but who knows because I thought that would have happened already to a much greater extent than it has. We walk down a mountain into a valley without a single motor or commercial sign whatsoever. I'm curious as to what my reaction will be upon arriving back into "mainland" India where there is an entirely different notion of personal space. Part of me is looking forward to jumping back into the full-on noise, smells, color, and chaos of urban India. But, for a couple more weeks I'll certainly savor the serenity of Ladakh.

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My natural tendency is usually to be reticent toward development. Whether that means building a road in a pristine river valley, or attempting to improve the "quality of life" for individuals by other means, I immediately hesitate and qualify because so many times development projects have been executed or conceived very poorly without sufficient knowledge of the economic, cultural, and environmental consequences. But, I've heard first hand accounts of what a huge blessing it was to a certain village when the construction of the road finally reached their valley. The answers must lie somewhere in the middle, but I still am not convinced a road should be built for proven econonmic benefit if that action carries significant cultural and environmental burden for the community.

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Part of me wishes I hadn't decided not to take any photographs during my solo traveling. There have been so many instances where I've thought, "that would be an excellent picture". But, I'm sticking to my philosophy that you immediately take yourself out of that special moment when you reach for the camera to capture it. Mostly, I'm just not a very skilled photographer! Hopefully this blog has sparked your imagination, because there's magic in these mountains. The flapping prayer flags are a constant reminder.

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Wow, arriving into Leh, I'm amazed at how jaded I've become toward other travelers after being largely alone the past three weeks. All I can think about is how to get away from all these tourists and dive back into the oasis of complete immersion of authentic culture. In other words, these car horns are too much!

Atop the Leh Palace, the sunrise is spectacular as the far reaching view is illuminated with gentle rays. This palace is a smaller version of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, the former residence of the Dalai Lama. Both are now museums.

I met this afternoon with my new guide and his son who will be accompanying us for a twelve day trek through the classic Markha Valley and then across the remote and elevated Karnak. The father and son are Tibetan, and their family has been living in exhile in a refugee settlement just outside of Leh since 1959, the same year the Dalai Lama was forced to flee the nation he ruled.

Picture, if you will, Chairman Mao and the Dalai Lama sitting at the negotiation table in Beijing. Mao is widely regarded as one of the most forceful political figures in recent history, and the Dalai Lama is a self-proclaimed "simple Buddhist monk" who was about my age at the time of the first Chinese invasion. Needless to say, Tibet had no chance when China decided to invade and implement rule in their country. The Chinese government has always maintained that they "liberated" the "serfs" of Tibet from their brutal and antiquated "feudal" system of government. This propaganda seems to have some parallel with the notion of the "white man's burden" which attempted to placate the naysayers of European colonization. You must portray the conquered masses as having lived in deplorable conditions, thus being fortunate to have such benevolent nations to "liberate" them. The Chinese are quick to point out that Tibet held its "first election" in 1961 as proof of their rightful action to forcefully take control of this region.

The Tibetans have played the historical role of the "conquered" people, losing many lives and their land and their way of life. But, the Tibetans are a resilient people, and they have many, many allies across the globe. One of the ironic twists of this story is that as a result of their exile, and the international attention that followed, Tibetan culture, and particularly its unique form of Buddhism, has spread around the world. This is in no small part due to the precense of the Dalai Lama, but also many other Rinpoches like Chogyam Trungpa, who settled in Boulder and started Shambala and Naropa University.

I find it very difficult to agree with Chinese propaganda like the recent headline in a paid advertisement in the Hindustan Times: "Emancipated Serfs Become Masters of Their Homeland". That seems to imply that their leader, the Dalai Lama, intentionally and systematically opressed his people. I just can't get my head around that one. This guy is the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, the boddhisatva of COMPASSION. But, let us not forget Howard Zinn's message in, "A People's History of the United States": The "winners" always write the history books. Perhaps this time around, educated citizens from around the world can help to give the "losers" a voice.

Here is a quote from the Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Center in New Delhi:

"Tibet of the past has often been described in the Western media as "feudal", but it is absolutely inapt and also misleading since this perception is based exclusively on the Marxist interpretation of the society in Europe of the Middle Ages. Tibetan society was neither as rigid as the medieval European society nor was it based upon the system of holding land by giving one's services to the owner which alone explains feudalism. Mobility was not restricted to permanent upper strata of the society. There were no official or social or land-holding classes, or even hereditary "castes" in Tibet. There was, however, an aristocracy. But this too was service-oriented and consisted of both lay and monastic officials. There was the underpinning of the Buddhist ideal of renunciation and service in the life of those who usually consituted the aristocracy, particularly from the clergy side. Tibet was self-governing, economically self-sufficient, and culturally thriving sans any significant social contradictions. The government of Tibet maintained postal services, an army, a currency, and an organized legal system. It also collected taxes in a regulated and systemic manner."

Having given the subject some thought, I must say that the Tibetan nation is extremely complicated and unique. I can almost understand if the Chinese did not fully grasp the entire political, commercial, cultural, and spiritual institutions of the Tibetan culture. Or perhaps they just didn't care, determined to expand their land holdings into the Tibetan plateau.

Some say that Ladakh is more like Tibet before the invasion than the current manifestation of what now lies under Chinese control. The Chinese-made posters of present day Lhasa (the former capitol of Tibet) paints a picture of another modern metropolis, with the only thing distinguishing this city being the Potala Palace on the hill.

Sometimes I find myself growing very frustrated with the Chinese government for doing their darndest to wipe the Tibetan people off the planet. At other times, I realize that the world is in a constant state of flux, and to try to preserve it as is would be the work of a madman. There is now a proud and far-reaching Tibetan diaspora which, hopefully, will continue to spread new seeds of their culture and spiritual traditions over fertile soil in countries across the globe. One thing is almost certain: Far fewer people would have ever heard of the Dalai Lama or his Tibetan Buddhist tradition if Mao had not given orders to his army to invade Tibet. Considering Mao's tragic and horrific legacy, perhaps that "simple Buddhist monk" was the victor of that first meeting in Beijing after all.


permalink written by  Katy and Mark Lewis on June 6, 2009 from Leh, India
from the travel blog: India and Nepal
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We are two siblings from Colorado (aged 24 and 26) who find ourselves simultaneously between a job and a graduate school program. We both came down with a case of itchy feet, so we're going searching for the cure while we've got the chance!

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