Homeless in Nepal!

The loveliest people and mountains are found in Nepal. My wife and I were recently privileged enough to make a 4 week trip to this amazing country. We arrived at the beginning of November after 33 hrs of flights (it seems about as far as you can get from Canada!). Here are 7 essential parts to being homeless in Nepal:

1. THE PREP. In many ways we were in a perfect position to leave the ‘Canadian versions’ of Ryck and Steph and become the ‘international versions’ of Ryck and Steph. Also, our beloved osprey backpacks were pressuring us for another international adventure (sometimes I like to think that our bags are sentient and when we travel we’re really just porters carrying them to new countries and over mountains).

Next, all of our belongings were already in storage unit, and we had no mortgage or even rent to worry about. You see, we are currently homeless. After leaving our home of 3 years in Saskatoon last year, we never achieved more than ‘no fixed address’ status. We have bounced from town to town working for 6 months around Canada and this has culminated in our current trip. When forms ask us for our address we smile and put in our parents address.

2. TO NEPAL! Nepal has held our thoughts for quite a few years. Some amazing friends made the journey before us and struck up the desire in our hearts. Being avid hikers, we also loved the idea of exploring the Himalayas. The land of giants that plunge as high as airplanes into the blue and poke holes in the jet stream.

Arriving at night, the airport was organized chaos. People were there to herd us to our next task, but no system was obvious or particularly efficient. We were shuttled from one desk to the next to get our visa on arrival and stood in lines we weren’t totally sure were intended for us or necessary, but finally made it to the final line. This line inexplicably had another security check complete with metal detector and X-ray scanner for carry on bags. Carry on bags! The ones we just got off the plane with may not be safe enough to carry into the country!

A little confused, I put my bag onto the conveyor belt and started to empty my pockets of a handful of Hong Kong coins, not wanting to set off a metal detector in this odd airport. But a security guard stopped me and just pointed that I should walk through. With a ridiculous amount of metal on me I started imagining what was about to happen after setting off this metal detector in spectacular fashion. The security guard simply nodded approvingly and sent me on without any trouble. The cherry on top was that the bag scanner wasn’t even on!

3. THE NEPALESE PEOPLE. A main highlight for me were the amazing people we met on our journey. The guide that we had arranged for our trek met us outside the airport, and with a big smile he adorned us with traditional Buddhist scarves as a welcome. Despite our fatigue we had lots of questions for him on our way to the hotel which he answered patiently. The cab ride was a soft introduction to the chaotic driving culture of Nepal where the only rule seems to be to honk before you do anything. Our guide, Bhabi, was an amazing, self sacrificing, patient and doting man that never had a bad day. Judging from the other guides we met this was the rule not the exception.

The Nepali were so welcoming and helpful everywhere we went. Their lovely nature and commitment to family is also evident in their language. To address one another they use bai/baini meaning little brother/sister, also dai/didi meaning older brother/sister etc. The truly great part of this system is that every time you address a stranger you first have to guess their age!

4. THE HIMALAYAS! These giants are an obvious attraction for anyone venturing to Nepal. Standing among them at high elevation fills anyone with wonder and awe. We spent 14 days trekking the Annapurna Circuit and it was phenomenal. The landscapes varied from jungle to desert to alpine to high altitude. Hot springs abounded and we sat in one thinking about how just 3 days ago we were at an altitude of 5416m (nearly 18000 ft) in -25 Celsius conditions at the Thorung La pass. Endless cups of tea were enjoyed resting our legs and backs from the days trekking. In total, we had 11 days of trekking travelling over 160 km with around 7000m of elevation gain! (That amounts to about 15km/day).

5. POKHARA! This is the second biggest city in Nepal, and though only about 300km west of Kathmandu it is a full days bus ride through some crazy terrain and traffic. The tourist area of the city borders the lake, and features an oasis of good food, drink and hotels that we fully indulged in after spending a couple weeks in remote towns! A highlight here was renting a party paddle boat for just the two of us to cruise about the lake in style. We set off down the shoreline of the lake and around the island temple, beers in hand. It was lovely.

6. CHITWAN NATIONAL PARK! This was something of an after thought on our trip and we only decided last minute to take a break on our way back to Kathmandu. It was meant as a small detour but travelling just 75 km on Nepal’s roads can easily take 4 hours!

To our delight, we didn’t have to go far to see elephants in town as they would walk right by you on the roads (accompanied by their owner of course). We stopped to pet as many as we could!

I was told Chitwan means the heart of the jungle, and jungle is what we got. Waking up at the crack of dawn, we spent an hour cruising into the park by canoe (picture a hollowed out tree with 15 tourists crammed in it and a local man standing at the back paddling). The next 4 hrs took us quietly back to town. We saw some spotted deer, rhesus macaw monkeys, wild boar, alligators and almost a wild elephant. The almost could also be translated as ‘we heard an wild elephant and if we waited too long could’ve been killed’. I will explain…

We had been informed at various points that wild elephants were more dangerous than alligators or rhinos, and we needed to carefully follow our guides instructions if we came across one. These words came back with force when suddenly we stopped and could hear deep breathing and the snapping of relatively large trees only about meters away! Our guide was listening intently and we received these helpful instructions in a forced whisper: “I’m 90% sure it’s a rhinoceros, but if it happens to be an elephant we have to run that way as fast as we can!” Poised to take off we watched anxiously as the gray outline of an elephant appeared with a long trunk sweeping through the trees! Luckily it was already angling away from us so the best course of action was to sneak away before he noticed us!

We didn’t get to see a single rhino on our long walk. So we decided to console ourselves with a relaxing lunch on the river facing the park. And what happens to just walk out just down from us, two rhinos! From the safety of the river bank we probably got to see them closer than if we had been hiking anyways!

However, the coolest thing we saw was actually a bird! Apparently, it is rare to see great hornbills but we were fortunate to get a few glimpses of them and hear their odd mating calls that sound like a barking/growling dog.

7. KATHMANDU/TEMPLES/STUPAS! Kathmandu was bustling and a bit chaotic, but also charming in its own way. There were still signs of the city rebuilding since the massive earthquake in 2015, and if you walk down any street long enough you’ll come across an amazing stupa or temple built some centuries ago.

My favourite place was colloquially dubbed the monkey temple and the name was immediately obvious on arrival. We had walked about 2 km to get there, so I stopped to buy some peanuts from a street vendor (something I hadn’t done yet on the trip but for some reason the urge just struck me). Admiring my bag as I made it across the street to the foot of the temple, I looked to find Steph who had gone ahead. The next thing I knew a swarm of monkeys (honestly like 10-15!) descended upon me! The next moment a large buggar climbed a statue and swung around it, extended his arm and smacked the bag. Reeling, I spun away and gripped the bag tighter. I now had monkeys bumping into my legs reaching their arms up at me like beggars. I looked down at them and was distracted just long enough for another to take a running leap behind me, elevating himself at least 3 feet off the ground. I noticed him just in time to yank the bag of peanuts higher. Bewildered and laughing, I now had no idea what to do. I could see all the locals and Steph were enjoying the show, and some were sympathetic enough to yell that I should hide the peanuts in my bag. Easier said than done with a pack of monkeys ready to take advantage of any misstep. Later on the way up I discovered that feeding them was possible (and fun) in small handfuls!

The town Canada forgot.

The call was simple enough. Travel to a remote area of Canada to provide medicine to needy people. I was expecting a rough town with a jagged past. What I found was heartbreaking. A town that seemed forgotten. Forgotten in spite of the gruesome school shooting by a minor that took 4 lives and wounded 7 others.

So where do I even begin? I was optimistic initially. I arrived after dark and found my place nice enough. I woke to the sun the next morning delighted to find that the town is situated on the East side of a beautiful lake. The hospital has the most wonderful view right along the shore with dazzling sunsets.

Reality set in quickly in clinic when I saw a paper chart waiting for me at the door of my first patients room. It was not the first I have ever seen. In training once I had to fetch an old chart to look up information that had not made it into his electronic record years ago. A call back to former times. My first thought was “how do I even use this thing?”. It didn’t get easier from there. I struggled to find old notes, old x-rays, old prescriptions, past medical conditions. I couldn’t help but be surprised that I found myself wishing there were some sort of manual to use a ‘technology’ so simple. Then it struck me, is this the type of care a scarred and hurting town gets? Has everyone forgotten about La Loche?

I struggled my first days there. Trying to come to grips with the lack of proper medical resources and care for a town in need. Trying to understand how a town of roughly 3000 people could have 2 grocery stores, 2 take out restaurants, a bar, a gas station and a liquor store. The other businesses in the town are government buildings. At about the same size Port Hardy had a hotel, restaurants, cafe’s, hardware stores. It seemed a town of potential that had never been realized. Like a beautiful swingset on a beach without any swings…

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La Loche is a town with a marred past. Not just the school shooting either. It boasts one of the highest crime rates in Canada, including violent crimes like homicides. The nurse and physician residences have been broken into and sometimes gutted on several occasions, mostly when vacant. There was quite obvious damage to the deadbolt of my apartment. Dogs roam the streets unhindered and wild, free to give chase to joggers that may happen by. The hospital was ill equipped for its residents’ needs. There was no patient room to properly protect others from contagious TB patients. Resources for those with an acute mental health crisis were lacking. The emergency room had no proper place to house them, and when they needed specialist help in a secure facility it was a monstrous task to transport them out. Health care workers faced burnout due to chronic understaffing. One day we had to discuss transferring the patients that were currently admitted because we only had one registered nurse in the entire hospital (we usually had 3). Public health initiatives are badly needed here, as many parents bottle feed their children up to 3 years of age. Due to poor nutrition almost every child I see had a mouth full of cavities and too many are anemic.

La Loche was an enigma. I could not fully understand or accept how it came to be, and why nothing was happening about it. I asked fellow physicians what they were able to understand about it, but found out they were also puzzled and disappointed. Reaching out to town residents, they most often shrugged. They were almost complacent, resigned. As if the question was one they had not thought of for a long time. Some were, rightfully, a little taken back and defensive. When they saw my heart was genuine, they often offered that it was complicated. The suicide rate is up to 40x the national average. Few people here haven’t been affected by it. The legacy of residential schools is still fresh as well. Local schools only closed their doors in 1976 and 1983. Adults no doubt still live with the hurt these institutions.

Around half the adult population is on some sort of social assistance. Those that decide to work are often chastised for being too good for welfare. This town, this land is their community, their lives. They visit one another in their homes. Family ties run deep in La Loche, the majority of people have one of 5 common last names. Their streets are even named after these families. Some go out on the land hunting and go fishing on their beautiful lake summer and winter.  It is hard for people to leave their land and family, but then their is little industry to keep them employed. Drugs and alcohol rule the town relatively unchecked.

A town forgotten. The massive mobilization of public health and community resources was strangely absent. I think that is the most frustrating part!

“Why do people have to drink so much?”, I lamented to a gentlemen I was stitching up. He had been hit in the head with a wine bottle after passing out. His reply?

“People here are hurt”.

So where is the massive public push for more health resources for addiction treatment, public health initiatives and mental health supports. I can only answer that this town is politically weak and isolated, and easy to forget. Just another blip on the map of historically terrible First Nations and Metis relations.

I have not forgotten.

 

Voices of La Loche.

“What are you taking pictures for?”, I heard in an unfriendly tone. I froze a little. It wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong but I did find myself in a Northern first nations town and was trying not to be disrespectful in any way. After explaining who I was she took it upon herself to give me her informal tour. “Welcome to LA! <hoarse laughter> That’s what the locals call this place…”

“In my language my name means butterfly.”
And so began my tour…

 

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“They put those up for the kids after the school shooting”.

 

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“Two of my brothers are in there. Died as kids.” I did not want to open any wounds with any kind of response begging an explanation. I could only look on sympathetically.

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“People stand outside the liquor and offsale stores at night. We call them zombies. They slowly walk up begging for money or booze to anyone that walks by.”

 

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“They call this (area) the bermuda triangle. People come drinking down here, and don’t make it home!” The three points on the triangle were a bar, a liquor store and another bar. When asked where they end up her reply was “The cops get em or they end up in another bed or on the street”.

 

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“I’m a wino.” <hoarse laughter>
Parting ways (she was heading to the liquor store), she couldn’t help but ask if I could give her money for wine. She asked even though she knew I was a doctor. With stubborn sincerity I explained I couldn’t do that for her, knowing it was for alcohol. Maybe I would have seemed more real to her if I had given it…

 

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“Where are you from?”. It is a simple enough question but it happens too often here. I wear very casual clothes, jeans and t-shirts. I suspect it is the color of my skin. I am in a huge minority in La Loche. People assume I am a teacher or in health care. When I tell them I am a doctor it is met with silence. I’m not sure what it means.

 

 

 

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“I love the land. I hunt and fish. It’s my home”. I had asked another gentlemen why he stayed in such a rough part of Saskatchewan.

 

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A health care worker told me, “I was going to leave years ago. I was stressed and couldn’t take it. But I stayed because I wanted to help the people here.”

 

Stay tuned for more.

Our First Urban Hike! (Saskatoon)

IMG_4230So what is urban hiking and is this even a thing? These are 5 things you need to know!

1. The inspiration came from realizing that Steph and I will walk long distances up mountains with 40 lb bags, and not thinking anything of it. Yet on a casual weekend a walk of more than 3km seems like a cruel and unusual task.

2. A shift in perspective is needed to change a seemingly mundane task of walking through town into an adventure. It was actually quite refreshing to see the city in the same way we look at a typical hike.

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3. Embracing the winter is a key value Steph and I both hold. Making the most of cold weather can turn a long, dreary winter into a joy.

4. Exploring the city intentionally brought us to places we never even new existed. We learned more about Saskatoon and got to see some new parks and neighbourhoods along the way.

5. It actually is a thing! I got curious partway along the hike, googled it, and found an interesting community.

https://urbanhikersf.blogspot.ca/2014/07/what-is-urban-hiking.html

So we started off! Our plan was to follow as many parks as we could and end up at a new park area called the Northeast Swale (full disclosure I have no idea what a swale is).

We had a ton of fun together as tourists in our own city and discovering new parts of town. Due to a gross miscalculation, we ended up hiking for 24km over 6 hours! We really appreciated the urban aspect of the hike at that point and stopped in at the Yard and Flagon pub to celebrate!

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To Haida Gwaii.

Formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, the people of Haida Gwaii took back the name of their island and their heritage.  They have been inspiring examples of how a First Nations group can take back their culture.

I am sure Steph and I were not alone in not knowing where or what the islands of Haida Gwaii were or represented. I find us Canadians are so spoiled with the riches of a vast and beautiful country that we overlook so much of its beauty.  Haida Gwaii is breathtaking in both scenery and culture, it is an absolute must on anyone’s travel list.

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The Haida people were a clear highlight of our trip to the islands. They were so friendly and had such a strong sense of culture. It was inspiring to hear them talk about their ancestors and their history.  Archaeologists and their elders agree that their people have lived on the islands of Haida Gwaii for over 14 000 years. Their stories and oral history line up remarkably well with the fossil record. For example, they tell a story about a great beast that was more fierce and destructive than any black bear they knew. It killed many men and was sighted mainly on one part of the island. Researchers later went into the area and found a cave with the skeleton of a grizzly bear (which are not native to the islands). Around the skeleton they also found several arrow heads!

On our boat tour with Haida-Style Expeditions, we were taken to Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve. There we met the Watchmen, Haida men and women who took posts on various important islands to protect them and their artifacts from tourists and also serve as interpreters. A local elder named Jags guided our tours of the islands, telling stories of his people. He was a powerful speaker and only struggled when trying to keep the ancient stories of his people brief, or when talking about the atrocities his people endured.

Haida will do anything for someone in need. A legitimate form of transportation found in travel books and blogs is to hitchhike! They loved to show off their land, tell stories, and share their culture. We attended Skidegate days in a small town and were welcomed into the festivities.

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Another of our highlights was attending “Dining with the Kings”. A retired couple hosted people in their home for a night, serving gourmet food in a 3 course meal. Their dining room was transformed on weekends into a 20 person dining lounge! It was an amazing and intimate experience that was just so typical for Haida Gwaii.

We were quite sad to leave the island and no doubt will be back sometime in the future!

To Party Hardy.

Port Hardy, BC was the first stop on our journey.  It is nearly as far North as you can get on Vancouver Island. Port Hardy is a mining, forestry and fishery blue collar town.  It had its hay-day long ago and has been trying to recover ever since.

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Port Hardy by the sea!

We would not have picked it on the map because we probably would not have found it. My best friend had moved out 4 years ago and was the primary reason for making it our first stop.

Our home was a 1 minute walk to Story’s Beach. The sandy shore was the perfect setting for evening walks, and also prime ground for crabbing at low tides.

The first night I was on call at Port Hardy I came in at 3am to assess a patient who eventually needed to be sedated and I placed a breathing tube due to severe pneumonia. Then had to wait a few more hours until a plane could land at the little airport. The medicine there was rarely boring to say the least!

The hiking was amazing there! Our best trip was out to Raft Cove via the Mackjack river.

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The adventure started with a 3 hour driving with 4 of us crammed into the front seat of my friend Chris’ truck. We saw plenty of black bear as we wound our way down the maze of logging roads until we got lucky and found the overgrown trail head in the middle of the wilderness.  With a paddleboard, canoe and kayak we weaved our way for 2 hours down the tidal river until we hit shore at Raft Cove. We surfed, had fires, walked down the beach and had such an amazing time!

I would go back to Port Hardy in a heartbeat. It was a quaint little town on the edge of the wilderness with no shortage of adventures!

 

To Run Away.

“It’s a dangerous business… going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
-JRR Tolkien

I have always felt a yearning to explore and travel. To see new things, try new things, and learn new perspectives. I was never fully able to pursue these because I was on a career path laid out in stone. Bachelors, post-grad, residency, each flowed into the next. There were always small changes in direction but little in the way of big decisions.

During this time and in my work with the public, I saw people stuck in jobs, houses, relationships and situations they didn’t like. Feeling trapped, it seemed like many felt no agency to change their circumstance, or were not hardly even aware they had accepted their lot in life. (To be sure, I am not referring to those who cannot change their situation). I imagine a hypothetical life where they went through the motions, got a job, bought a house, got married, needed to keep working to support their house and marriage, maybe accepted a job they didn’t love for financial stability. That is when inertia sets in. It can be painful and difficult break from the routine of life, and it is far easier to accept one’s fate and trudge onward.

My mind filled with these thoughts, Steph and I decided to run away for a little while.

My job as a family physician affords us freedom in working nearly anywhere in Canada with financial stability (minus the crushing debt I incurred). We were carried out of a comfortable way of life in Saskatoon, and started our work-cation. Buying a sea-can for short to long term storage of our possessions, we drove over 2000 km to Port Hardy, BC on Vancouver Island. With some stops at our parents homes and Vancouver on the way.

The trip also turned into a foray in minimalism. Everything we needed we had with us in our little Toyota Matrix, along with all the necessary camping and hiking equipment, our hobbies, and the bare minimum for clothing.

A last highlight for me was our total lack of end-game planning. We had no idea where we’d end up besides Port Hardy and Whitehorse. We didn’t even know how we were going to get to Whitehorse, but this is probably a story for the next blog.  We are well into our journey now and still don’t have a settled plan for what to do next. I love the freedom and sense of adventure this instills. A lack of plan opens up the space to listen to my desires and truly pursue that which means most to me. It tears down all the excuses that keep me from truly being creative and active in deciding my future.