26 November 2007

Omelettes in Jodhpur and Lassis in Jaipur

We've hit a real travelling wall. Again. India does that to you.

Being enterprising, overachieving doctor types, we had been whizzing through India at a breakneck pace. However, the consistent three-hour train delays, the miasma of pollution that besets every city, the incessant noise, and the even more incessant touts finally wore us down. We decided to scale back on our travelling and, instead of trekking out to Jaisalmer, the westernmost tourist destination in Rajasthan, we have decided to stick with Jodhpur, Pushkar, and Jaipur.

Jodhpur was a relief. Also known as "the Blue City," its buildings are painted varying shades of cerulean and aquamarine. Initially, this was a mark of status, and now it supposedly functions to ward off mosquitoes. Its fort, the Meherangarh, towers over the city from a rocky perch, and claims to have never been taken in its 500 year history. The Meharangarh is still owned by the maharajah of Jodhpur, and he struck us as a surprisingly conscientious ruler. Although divested of actual kingly powers, when he inherited the title he took over the crumbling fortress and restored it. The initial renovations were funded by proceeds from the sale of bat guano that littered the palace, and later by the tourists that came to visit (is there much of a difference?). He even solved the dilemma of the "Indian" vs "Tourist" prices by justifying the latter with an excellent included audio tour and free camera priveleges.

Pushkar was next. It lays claim to being one of the holiest cities in India, with 400 or so odd temples (including a rare Brahma temple) dotted around a small central lake. Here no alcohol, meat, or eggs can be had for any price and holding hands in public is not allowed. Unfortunately, we decided to come for the annual Pushkar Camel Fair (sponsored by Vodafone! Be a Part of the Live Epic!), and holy it did not seem. Besides the hundreds of camels and traders camped out west of the fair grounds, thousands of pilgrims surged into the town in order to bathe in the lake on the day of the full moon. Our 48 hours there was characterized by extreme pollution from the hundreds of campfires, constant noise from the four or five competing citywide PA systems, and gangs that were suprisingly adept at filching cameras (luckily not ours). The entire event was not nearly as National-Geographic-worthy as it might sound. It included such kitschy events as a tug of war between barefooted Indian women and burly white guys (the former won), parachute drops, and camel races. All this was topped off by our hotel, which was undoubtedly the biggest ripoff in India. Not only did the owner—a holy man himself—charge us ten times the going rate for a hotel room, but when we hired a private taxi to go on to Jaipur he tried to convince us that we should also transport his brother with us for free. (A major accident on the road! They called for him urgently! Notwithstanding the fact that his brother was sixteen and had spent the hour before primping to meet a girl). Ah, travelling in India.

Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, made us realize something. We are unabashedly "city people." On arrival here we stumbled upon a McDonald's, which we frequented three times in fewer days (no beef, but the Chicken Maharajah Mac can hold it's own against the Big Mac) and purchased tickets to Saawariya, a three-hour-long Bollywood epic showing the Raj Mandir Cinema, the world's only meringue-shaped movie theater. Dirty, polluted, and hectic, some travellers bypass Jaipur for the more picturesque cities in the south and west. However, it is not without its charms. Painted elephants and decorated horses share the road with the rickshaws, scooters, and cars. The old city, nicknamed "the Pink City," has rows of bazaars that sell anything from spices to Singer sewing machines. Planted at the intersection of 2 major roads is the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds. Here, royal women who observed purdah (veiling of women from men and strangers) could choose a nook in this remarkable tiered building and peep out behind plaster screens. And, of course, Jaipur has its own fort, named Amber, but pronouced Ameer.

In overhearing a conversation between our hotel owner in Jaipur, I have come to one sad conclusion. Travelling as a tourist in India (and most other countries) exposes you to the worst segment of society. By that, I mean the touts, the travel agents, the hotel owners, the shopkeepers. Paramount in their interaction with you is their desire to earn your money. Our hotel owner is from Agra, and a guest was doing a day trip out there to see the Taj Mahal. "You will not like Agra, " he said. "The people you meet there will harrass you and follow you around. We in our circle there know nice people, but you as a tourist will be meeting a different circle." It is only rare that we meet an exception.

We did indeed yesterday, when we made a 7 hour return journey to Ranthambore national park to spot some tigers (we failed). The highlight of our trip was not sighting wild animals in the sanctuary, but rather a visit to our driver's sister's new house, where they treated us to chai and guava sprinkled with chili powder and salt. They proudly took us around their new home, pointing out the marble doorframes and the spacious kitchen. They offered to let us stay the night so we could attempt another safari in the morning. When we politely declined they were truly disappointed, and our driver on arrival back in Jaipur offered to take us to his house for dinner. There were no strings attached, no attempts to visit "my uncle's souvenir shop." Only much appreciated and genuine hospitality. It was a breath of non-polluted air.

We have to tell you about Agra, yet. But the Taj Mahal is better told in pictures, and those are yet to come.

17 November 2007


Varanasi defies superlatives. Which is a good thing, since I may have used up all my superlatives in my account of travel through Tibet.

But, I get ahead of myself.

Kathmandu to Darjeeling
We arrived in Kathmandu at the start of Deepawali (or Deepavali, or Diwali), the festival of lights. That very fact made us regret treating Nepal as only a stopping-through point on our way to India. The entire city was out, awash in color, candles, light, and hospitality.

It was the latter that most impressed us. We had planned to drive across Nepal to its eastern border and cross, by land, into India. We were loath to break our no-flight rule, since we'd already had to do it once to return from Central Asia. Unfortunately, the Maoists were against us. They were, so we were told, particularly active in the east of the country, the part through which we would have had to drive. Add to that the usurious price-increase demanded by the three-day holiday, and over-land travel became prohibitively expensive and, possibly, dangerous.

So, we broke our rule, and booked a flight. The hand-written ticket which we were given was accompanied by the travel agent's wife's home-baked traditional sweet breads (not to be confused with sweetbreads, thankfully), a not-to-be-refused tilaka, a reservation at his favorite Nepali restaurant, and a pre-order of his favorite meal—he actually showed up not an hour later to join the regulars there in cards. (That the regulars included more than a few creatures bedecked in exoskeletons didn't detract from the fact that the food was amazing).

And what a flight that was! It was your typical, developing-world, risk-your-life sort of flight (a twenty-nine seat, properller-driven plane skirting the Himalayas, owned and operated by such a reputable organization as Yeti Airlines), and it lasted forty-five minutes and at a mere 15,000 feet. Lower, incidentally, than we were on land, not three days before. But such stunning views!

We landed, made our final over-land border crossing this trip, on foot into India, and were immediately met by the touts that make this country famous. Crooked rickshaw drivers who promised to take us one place, dropped us off twenty minutes later (for what was supposed to be a three-hour trip), and demanded a full pecuniary consideration. Cousins of friends of sisters-in-law who owned certain shops that we were sure to want to visit. Brothers who could give us special deals. Taxi Romeos, with their Brylcreem'd hair, faces like dissipated potatoes, to-the-xyphoid shirts flashing chains of gold, and porn-star mustaches the thickness of which makes you wonder how they maintain their weight, ever ready to whisk us away to dream-like destinations the likes of which exist only in their minds. And in the Lonely Planet.

But, we ascended to the nearly 7000 foot elevation of Darjeeling, crammed in the back of a jeep designed for five, jostled by an unequivocal lack of asphalt.

This was India for beginners, and a great way for us to be eased into the subcontinent. Honestly, we did a whole lot of very little. We drank tea (how can you be in Darjeeling and not drink tea?). We visited a tea plantation (closed for Deepavali). We met snow leopards (in a zoo). And we drank more tea. Darjeeling was pleasant.

Until we found out that there was Marxist rebel activity at the foot of that hill, too. This was the rebel activity of the blow-up-a-doctor's-car sort, and it threatened to keep us stranded up in the mountains, away from our scheduled train (which may, in the end, not have been a bad thing).

Thankfully, the strike providentially lifted long enough for us to cram ourselves, with twelve others, into another jeep made for five (the driver had to reach between some unfortunate soul's legs to change his gears) and make the treacherous descent down to Siliguri, and into the waiting arms of the train station.

And to begin what may—nephrolithiasis aside—have been the worst thirty-six hours of the trip. To date.

Train stations in India are seething pools of humanity, sleeping under stairs, balancing on their heads cardboard boxes the size of which would have caused Ayn Rand to shudder, drinking from places they shouldn't have been. But—in an attempt at a different sort of humanity—the stations are equipped with "retiring rooms," should you have the misfortune of booking a train at such a God-fearing time as 4:05 am. This attempt at humanity, though, is little more than an attempt. See, the retiring rooms are also home to myriad, multi-legged denizens of the dark. We spent our night, huddled in chairs (it's not a good sign when the sheets have droplets of blood on them), fending off fleas, roaches, bed-bugs, geckos, mosquitoes, flies, and the klaxon of passing trains. Being awoken for the fourteenth time by the patter of many-jointed insect legs on your scalp makes you ill-disposed to board an Indian train for what is supposed to be a nineteen-hour journey.

But, board the train we did. When we booked these tickets, we decided to splurge and go for the highest class we could (this splurge cost us on the order of $2 each). Little did we know that the highest class on these trains equals the lowest on other trains.

To say that we were crammed is to understate the case. There are six beds to a berth, four together in a sane, horizontal configuration, and two squeezed against the wall of the aisle. It was into these two that we were assigned. They are less than a person wide, less than a person long, and are meant to fit both you and your luggage, which you are instructed—in no uncertain terms—to padlock to yourself. You are shielded from the outside world by a curtain on one side—through which multiple hands enter, all night, in search of alms or a loose camera—and what passes for a window on the other, darkened on both faces by decades of neglect.

It didn't help that the train's progress consisted of fifteen minutes at a crawl, followed inexplicably by a rest for thirty. The entire way. It covered the 457-mile journey at a speed of eighteen miles an hour, landing us in Varanasi after midnight.

Ah, Varanasi. How can you describe this city? It is an assault on senses you didn't even know you had.

Sudden colors. Pure, deafening pinks and yellows, ochres, oranges, and blues. The sounds of cows, goats, ghats, people, burning corpses, whistles, motorcycles, horns, and generators. But people sit idly by on their push-carts of bananas, barefoot, oblivious. The unctuous smell of the feces of any animal imaginable, juxtaposed with the pungent, olive-green smell of lit juniper incense. The crush of people, their hands on you, around you, their hallo-meester-rickshaw?s and hallo-sir-opium?s and konichiwas, holas, or hallomoney!s in your ears, their amputated limbs asking for alms, and their eyes imploring you to take a picture of them (at a decent price, natch). The grit on your tongue that is nothing more than the admixture of dust, grey exhaust fumes, and cremations. Your sense of safety finds itself victim the first day you get here and you realize that hotels lock their doors at night, for good reason. This is not to mention your sense of propriety, which is stripped when you turn the corner of an alley onto an older woman, her gorgeous sari hiked over her sagging hips, bent on her haunches, washing herself from a spigot placed in that particular alley corner for that particular purpose, having done her business and unaware of the smell, the sight she creates. The heat oppresses. The sun is beastly, its rays trapped in the pollution, intensifying everything. Not a single sense survives the attack that is India's holiest city.

And no wonder. It's said that dying in this city affords liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. Through the city runs the Ganga, that holy, and wholly-polluted, river in which everything—from bodily functions to the washing of cows to laundry to the quenching of thirst to the final disposition of the deceased—happens. Add to this the sanctity of your bovine companions, and you begin to understand the stuff makes this city what it is.

Into it we went. After three months of lugging around down jackets, fleeces, gloves, and hats, all in preparation for three hours at Everest, we finally decided we would ship the stuff home. We hired a rickshaw to take us to the post-office (hey...it's a confusing city...). But, for reasons inexplicable to us, there was significant police presence on the streets, and they stopped our rickshaw driver somewhere short of some random post office. We paid him and, not realizing he had been aiming for a place that we hadn't intended to go (we'd scouted out the post office the day before), set out on foot.

On finding the post office, we were commensurately greeted by another mustachioed tout who shuttled us—of all places!—to a tailor. This man summarily sewed our belongings into a cotton pillowcase, with a Keith needle, too-thin thread, and a running-locking stitch. Twenty minutes later and Rs 50 lighter, we discovered that our friendly tout had disappeared, having surreptitiously collected his commission.

We wended our way back to the post office and were invited behind the wood-and-glass dividers separating the efficient staff from the rest of us plebeians (imagine that!). Our be-bindi'd helpmeet handed us a Magic Marker (really!) with which to address said pillow case and a mimeographed (really!) customs declaration form. This latter was peppered with such inscrutable confounders as "Choose the [X] of the package," followed by two blank lines. (It turns out the correct response to this particular double jeopardy is to fill the two lines with "Only gift items.") We paid him more than the average GDP of a small country for ten pounds of winter wear, sent "registered." All this means, though, is that we get a nine-digit number with which we can complain if things go wrong.

"But don't worry sir. Everything OK." We'll find out in a matter of months.

And so, we retired to our fly-surrounded, but eminently peaceful hotel. We thought. It turns out that the twelve hours between sunset and sunrise that night were a major holiday in Varanasi, a particularly hallowed time for citizens of the neighboring state of Bihar to wash in the Ganges. And, starting at 4pm, the pilgrims arrived. The holy river filled itself with nearly-naked bodies brushing their teeth, washing, lathering, praying, laughing, splashing, floating candles, throwing garlands, eating, chewing paan, and, in general, being holy amidst the countless peeing cows, braying goats, clicking geckos, and squawking monkeys who joined the celebration.

We snatched our cameras, found ourselves a boat made of little more than six garishly-painted planks of wood and commanded by a centuries-old Charon in a blue turban, and plunged ourselves in the wash of life and death that is this amazing city.

15 November 2007

Liberia it is, then

Well, most of the hand-wringing and obsessive e-mail checking is done (who am I kidding? I'll persistently be an obsessive e-mail-checker). It turns out that we will not be in Sierra Leone come the beginning of the year. Instead, Mercy Ships is set to go back to Liberia in February, which is where we'll be joining them.

We're definitely excited about this opportunity. Since we've done all this reading on Sierra Leone, though, we're having to catch up a bit on what's been going on with Liberia. Excuse a bit of history.

Liberia is Africa's oldest republic, founded in 1821 by the American Colonization Society as a place for freed American slaves to return to; it gained its independence from the US 26 years later. Things were stable for a century and some, but between 1980 and 1989 a series of coups and counter-coups toppled the Americo-Liberian elite government in favor of a more authoritarian government under Samuel Doe, then a Master Sergeant in the military.

The country didn't really come into the modern eye until late 1989, though, when a ruinous civil war broke out, led by Charles Taylor, an Americo-Liberian who had the backing of Burkina Faso, the Cote d'Ivoire, and Libya; he gained popular support in the face of Doe's supposedly dictatorial rule. Over the next fourteen years, however, the ensuing violence saw over a quarter of a million people killed and countless others displaced. Finally, in 2003, under pressure from western powers, Taylor stepped down and accepted asylum in Nigeria, from which he was extradited just last year to face trial.

Things settled down. On 8 November 2005, after a run-off election, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf—the erstwhile head of the UN Development Program for Africa, and a Harvard-educated economist formerly in the employ of Citibank and the World Bank—became the first female head of state to be elected in Africa. And she's brought about significant change, most recently including work toward the cancellation of Liberia's international debt.

As it stands though, Liberia is—according to some estimates—the poorest country in the world. Its population of 3.3 million survive on less than a dollar a day. Street lights first hit the streets of Monrovia just a few months ago, but electricity and running water are still unaffordable for most of the population. Pictures of the country one year after the election, courtesy of the BBC, can be found here.

So, that's Liberia where it is today, as far as I can tell from this side of our time there. Mercy Ships have accepted President Johnson-Sirleaf's invitation to return in February, to help in the rebuilding of the country's medical infrastructure. We're excited to get there.

11 November 2007

The high, the holy, and the hideous

The worst toilets in the world are above 12,000 feet.

But, then, everything about the two weeks that have passed since our last post from Xi'an has been in the superlative. The highest. The holiest. And the most hideous.

Xi'an to Lhasa
Officially, it's the Qinghai-Lhasa railway (unofficially, it's the Lhasa Express), and it first opened thirteen months ago. The highest railway in the world, it spends its last twelve hours above 3,000 meters. The Canadian-designed carriages (first, you design the coolest cars in the world, then your dollar beats ours. What's next? World domination?) fortify the ambient air to 24% oxygen and each passenger's bunk has a supplementary oxygen outlet. Unfortunately, you have to ask for the nasal prongs, and we forgot to do so.

This railway is, like many things we've seen, a complete marvel of Chinese engineering (why is it that the Chinese can build roads and railways and information infrastructure to rival any place else in the world, but they can't build a toilet to save their lives?), but its construction was controversial from the get-go. Further evidence of the Han attempt at repression of places they're not welcome, or a well-designed way of getting resources into what has been one of the poorest provinces in China? (I'm avoiding talking about whether Tibet should be its own country or not. This has been re-hashed by thousands of people more informed about the issues than I.)

Regardless of its effect on the economy and culture of Tibet, though, the railway is spectacular. It hurtles up from 405 meters above sea level, to its highest point at just around 5000 meters. The track would have disrupted the native migration patterns of several species; instead, tunnels were cut underneath it, along these studied migration paths. And in those places where the train crosses permafrost, the rails are cooled to keep the frost as permanent as possible.

Plus the food was great.

What can be said about Tibet that hasn't already been said? It is haunting. Magical. A completely mystical experience, without even trying to be. Despite assertions (read: propaganda) throughout the city about Tibet's "inalienable part of the motherland," it was ruled by its clergy as an independent country from the 17th century until 1950, during which time China invaded (er, "liberated") the plateau. An uprising in 1959 was crushed, leading to the exile of the current Dalai Lama in India, and the status quo. With the influx of Chinese interest and money, the overall standard of living in Tibet (Xi Zhang, or "Western Treasure House," in Chinese) has significantly risen, but so has sentiment against these "liberators" and their destruction of native Tibetan culture.

Lhasa itself is divided into a poorer, more cultured, eastern Tibetan section, and a richer, grandiose, western Chinese section. The difference is palpable. The Chinese habit of building big plazas in front of the most important structures in a town results in a tree-lined, concrete, completely un-frequented area directly in front of the Potala palace and its masses of prostrating pilgrims. What you end up feeling is the stark juxtaposition of the financially rich, spiritually poor post-Cultural Revolution culture against the financially desolate, spiritually rich culture of Tibet.

Lhasa houses the Jokhang monastery, Tibet's holiest monastery and the claustrophobic center of worship and pilgrimage. Being surrounded by masses of pilgrims, arranged in a slow-moving line, pushing you past gold-laden images of Tibetan Buddhist deities, juniper incense, and yak-butter candles is a throat-tightening experience. And then, there's the Potala, the old seat of power of the Dalai Lamas. This palace-cum-monastery rivals any religious or political structure I think we've ever seen (including the Vatican, quite honestly). Why is it not one of the world's seven wonders?

Religious tourism
Permit an aside. To date, we have seen Muslim and Buddhist holy sites, and we're about to head to Varanasi, India's holiest city. And we've been struck by how public, how communal, how open the worship is. We in the west, we Christians who are so firm, so philosophic about what we believe—we're also closeted. Sure, we can talk your ear off about propitiation, about transsubstantiation (or consubstantation, if you will), about the vagaries of Pauline theology, about eschatology a la DTS, but God forbid we actually prostrate ourselves before the symbols of our faith. God forbid we even admit we go to church, for that matter, let alone kneel publicly.

But here, in the holy sites of Islam, of Buddhism, people make no excuse for their prayer. Head to any of the mosques or medressas of Central Asia, and you're bound to walk into a five-minute reading of the Koran followed by public prayers. Walk into any temple in Tibet and you will see hundreds of pilgrims, their foreheads touching dirty concrete, before the frightening, fanged statues of their gods. You will see kids touching their money to their heads and offering it to the glowering statues. Where have we gone wrong? Have our modern and post-modern philosophers robbed us? Have we suppressed something so important, so integral, in the pursuit of something more fleeting? To quote the words of one such philosopher, responsible for so much of the way we in the west now think:

Not their love of humanity, but the impotence of their love, prevents the Christians of today from burning us.

Lhasa to Shigatse
Let me just say that Lhasa, at 3650 meters above sea level, is ridiculously high. It is the world's highest capital (OK, it was until the Chinese liberation; the distinction now belongs to La Paz, Bolivia). And its air contains only 60% of the oxygen that you're used to. Climbing a flight of stairs winds you. Saying more than a few sentences at a time is impossible, but that's alright, because the leaden curtain hangs over your brain prevents you from holding that much information in your head at one time anyway. Lhasa, though, is the lowest point on the Tibetan plateau, and after four days of acclimatization, we headed south, along the 920-km Friendship Highway, to cross the Himalayas into Nepal.

Our path took us past Yamdrok-Tso lake and the town of Gyantse, with Tibet's biggest stupa, (enclosing 70 rooms and 10,000 images) before settling our first night at Shigatse (3850 m).

Shigatse is home to the Tashilhumpo monastery, Tibet's biggest, and the seat of the Panchen Lama—of the two highest Lamas in Tibetan Buddhism, this one has Big Brother's tacit approval. The Dalai Lama's very images are not permissible in China. But Qoigyijabu, China's pick for the Panchen Lama, is everywhere (the exile Tibetan government claims another lama as the true eleventh Panchen Lama, but he was unfortunately taken captive by the Chinese when he was six years old, becoming the world's youngest political prisoner). And, of all the thousands of monasteries we saw in our eight days in Tibet, the Tashilhumpo was the most impressive.

Shigatse to Shegar
Shegar is the entrance to the underworld. You didn't know that, because it's in none of our textbooks. But believe me. It is.

It's a one-street town built only for the purposes of travellers stopping along the Friendship Highway, and it has nothing to recommend it. The sheets were last washed when Nixon declared Beijing's wall great. The toilets are, frankly, a hole in a concrete slab, two stories above ground (there's a delay...). The bedbugs' attempts at feasting on your flesh are thwarted only by the fact that you're wearing every single piece of clothing you own. And the dogs join the drunken revellers in merriment until about 3am. That, and it's over 4,500 meters above sea level, making life just that much more comfortable.

It was on our way there that we reached our highest point of the trip, a pass at 5248 meters above sea level (that's 17,218 feet, and higher than we've ever been).

Everest Base Camp
The next morning, we left at 5am for the pinnacle of our trip. Along the way, we watched our driver break a chain-link lock to get us through an un-manned checkpoint.

How do you describe Everest? You can't miss it. It's the one that touches the sky. It's so high, it disrupts the Gulf Stream and has its own weather. And, the first time you lay eyes on it, you are humbled. It's beautiful. It's not hard to imagine people worshipping that mountain. Or having an irrepressible desire to climb it. The road to Everest base camp (5200 meters) passes the world's highest post office (leave it to China...), the world's highest national flag (ditto...), the world's highest monastery (Rongphu, a Tibetan monastery we weren't allowed to stop at), and the world's highest toilet.

We spent three hours just watching the mountain, as the sun rose over it and the snow plume at its peak gradually increased from a small wisp to frank cumulus clouds, as the light on its face changed from faint orange to resplendent white, and as the temperature climbed from –23 degrees Celsius to something less Canadian. We watched truckloads of Chinese tourists drive up, take a picture, and drive away. And we hiked a prohibited hour past base camp, to its face (we didn't know it was prohibited till later).

Despite the hell of crossing the Himalayas in November, seeing this mountain's beauty made everything worth it.

We left Everest Base Camp and started out across the Tibetan plateau over non-existent roads (our driver was literally picking out paths in the rocks and rivers), past vistas of the Himalayas and incongruously-located villages, and overnighted in Tingri, which is just like Shegar, but with better views. It's, maybe, the gateway to Purgatory.

Tingri to Zhang Mu to Kathmandu
The road from Lhasa to Tingri (if you do it straight) is paved. The road from Tingri to the border is, well, just a shadow. The first three hours of it are OK—dirt and gravel, but downright gorgeous. You climb to your last pass (5190 m), with the early-morning sun catching the dust thrown up by passing trucks in triangular sheets of light; you get your last glimpse of this side of the Himalayas, a panoramic view from the crest of the pass, well worth the 50% oxygen level, the tachycardia, and the wheezing; and then you hit Nyalam.

After Nyalam, the road is closed. Until 6pm. The only way to bypass this is to convince the local doctor that you've got severe mountain sickness. Nobody succeeds.


We crossed the gate at noon, and began the precipitous descent, into rain and sleet, past child laborers (I'm not making this up) building this last stretch of highway, and went down, down, and down, off the edge of the world.

Trees appeared. And waterfalls. And colour. The clouds were no longer below us. And the leaden curtain over our brains began to lift. We revelled in the sea of oxygen.

The road is a 30-km-long, muddy, rock-laden, less-than-one-car-wide, serpiginous path hugging the edge of the world's highest mountains. In its usual post-6pm-traffic, this last short stretch takes four hours to complete. We were at the border at 1:30.

Here, we said goodbye to our driver, hoisted our packs, and crossed the Friendship Bridge on foot. And with that, we descended into the color, chaos, and confusion, the madness, mud, and masses that will describe our next four weeks on the subcontinent.

(More pictures coming soon...)

Thank you

First, let us simply say thank you. A full 85% of the money we need to get us to Africa has either been pledged or already donated. We're amazingly humbled. Thank you to all of you who have believed in our little mission.

That said, I realize it's been a while since we've posted anything about any sort of Hope and Healing. This has become essentially a travel blog. I apologize for that...the reason, mainly, is that where we're going to be is still up in the air, so a lot of our preparations have been put on hold. Mercy Ships is still negotiating with the new government of Sierra Leone to allow us to go there, and I check my e-mail frequently with hopes of any news.

As it stands, the only thing we know for sure is that our start date in Africa has been pushed back a week—into early February—while these negotiations continue. Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, or elsewhere in Africa are all possibilities.

So, we'll keep you posted as soon as we find out about anything.

And, speaking of donations, if you're in the mood for doing so in a different way, check out FreeRice.com. It's a word quiz, sponsored by some amazingly large corporations, that donates rice through the UN for however good your vocabulary is. The words aren't easy (I have no idea what a weald is), but the concept is great. And you'll be amazed at how many words you thought you knew.