Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Washington memories...

While wandering about places that after five years have become so familiar, and thinking back over all the memories that these places recalled, I was wondering myself which image - if I had to choose one - I would choose to synthesize our five years in DC.

As I couldn’t pick one, I select them all...

(Ps: have a close look, you may find yourself in one of them!)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

2480 16th St., NW - Apt. 724: adieu

Our last night in our apartment...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Perpetually on the move

Emanuele, who left Washington to Maputo in June and went through all the moving process just a month before us, defined it ‘l’imbuto’ (the funnel)*. We rather called it ‘la centrifuga’ (the centrifugal-machine).

Different wording, but the same concept. Our last two weeks in Washington have been quite hectic. Close and return our apartment, disassemble and sell our furniture (and my Vespa, sigh sigh...), pack our stuff and organize the shipment of our boxes, renew our Indian visas, say good-bye to our friends...

If I have counted well, this was the eighth move in ten years, the eleventh in twelve years. After each of them I ask myself why the hell I didn’t choose to become a bank clerk in Milan.

But soon after I start thinking what the next destination could be...

(*) www.capobelsky.it

Friday, August 27, 2010

My first day at the Bank

Lasciate ogni speranza o voi che entrate

From my archives - a short story of my first days in Washington and in the US…

[…] let me now start telling you about my adventures here in the States. I know a story should start from the beginning, but allow me to start this story a few days after the beginning, and precisely on the day in which I reported to the office: Tuesday February, 22nd, 9.00 am local time.

The building at 1818 H Street, NW - Washington, DC - I have to admit - is rather impressive. It occupies an entire “block” (the basic road unit in the States) and it is surrounded by concrete fences and upright policemen. As an ancient middle-age castle, its shadow strikes the same fear on the neighbourhood. I was told that the former four independent buildings (the towers?) have been unified by a glass and steel structure to form the present building (the castle!). If the result, outside, is as I said pretty impressive, the interior is even more impressive. Because of this glass structure, the main hall is enlightened by sunlight, and there is a huge artificial waterfall in the middle of the hall surrounded by evergreen trees which creates a “tropical forest” ambience...

Still a bit confused in looking around, I showed my letter of appointment to the lady at the desk, asking where I should go. I was told that the African Region, the division where I’ll work, is not in the “MC” building (the main complex), but in the “J” building, just across the street. A bit disappointed for not working in that amazing environment, but still excited by my “first” day of work, I crossed the street and entered into the J building. The J building is definitively less impressive than the main one, but equally nice. The sixth floor (where I had to go) is full of well taken care plants and colourful African decorations, and the floor is covered by a “clean” fitted carpet (don’t be surprised if I was struck by this detail: I spent my last year in the UK!). The offices are not particularly spacious, but they all seemed bright. There, I met Beula, the unit’s secretary (or programme assistant, as the new protocol prescribes), that, after the usual welcoming ceremonials, told me that my manager was in a meeting for the whole morning, and offered to show me my desk. I will talk more about Beula in the future, because she is really worth an entire chapter. However, I don’t want to lose track of the events that so deeply characterized my first day of work, and, probably, my existence from now onwards…

We returned to the lifts, so I sharply deducted that my office was not at the same floor of my manager’s. Fair enough. I couldn’t see however which button Beula pushed because there were other people in the lift, but I immediately realized we were going down. Again, fair enough. The lift stopped at each floor to let the people in and out, and at each floor I was ready to go out. But Beula didn’t move. Fifth, fourth floor… nothing… Third, second… still nothing… I was a bit worried: the first floor here in the States is in fact the ground floor in the rest of the world. However I thought my office could be in another building. Logistically it wouldn’t have been convenient, but the idea that I could be sent to the main building relieved me a bit. But my illusion did not last long, just the time of one floor. We reached in fact the first floor, and still Beula didn’t go out of the lift… Only when the door opened at the B1 floor (the basement) we finally went out and only then I realized with horror how terrible my days at the World Bank would have been…

As in a probably worst version of Kusturica’s “Underground”, the office (?) was situated completely under-ground. The first thing that I noticed was that there were no windows at all, and the only sources of light were a sequence of greenish, cold, trembling neon-lights. As in Kusturica’s “Underground”, as in Dante’s Hell, as in a medieval hall for torture, a dozen of employees (slaves?) run here and there in this dungeon, more similar to mice in the subway’ rails than to human beings. In this miserable environment I was desperately looking for a sign of humanity, but nobody did pay attention to me, probably because the hostile environment had already taken away from them any residue of humanity. Only my two neighbours raised their tired and heavy heads from the screen of their computers and turned to give me a sad welcome. And only then I noticed with disgust and terror their grey faces and their glassy eyes - as that of those creatures that live in the abysses of the oceans and have altered their physical structure to make up for the lack of light and to adapt to the eternal darkness. I screamed in terror and turned around ready to escape, but Beula had already left, taking away any remaining hope that I would find my way back to the surface again…

In this hopeless framework, only two things partially comforted me. First, as all American happy end stories want, it doesn’t matter from where you start, but where you arrive. American stories are full of self-made people who started at the very bottom before building their empires, and “democratic” Americans seem to like this kind of stories and these kind of modern heroes (it’s sufficient to spend half-hour in any American bookshop). So, if I have to adapt to these new rules - and if this is what future puts aside for me - well, I believe that B1 is bottom enough. Second, and at this point probably more important for my spirit, there are two floors below mine: B2 and B3. That is to say: it could have been worst!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Washington is not Libreville

And this is, on the contrary, the first picture I took in Washington, when I arrived in February 2005.

Mathilde had just moved to Libreville, Gabon, and was complaining about the heat...

(The below is the second picture I took in Washington...)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Washington, adieu...

My last picture of DC: on the Memorial Bridge, from the taxi on my way to the airport

Our last two weeks of July were spent to close - this time seemingly for good - our chapter in DC. And while this time the moment of parting has been less emotional than that of one year ago*, probably because in the past months we slowly got used to the idea and therefore arrived better prepared to it, the general feeling remained the same: we will be missing DC.

At the same time, while queuing in an ordinarily way at the traffic light or in a shop, while roaming in well-stocked supermarkets and in green and clean parks, while calling a green number to have a service immediately done, a subtle conviction progressively anchored in our minds. That it’s true, we will be missing DC: we will be missing the ‘easiness’ and the comfort of it - but to grow we needed to leave it and experience the other side of the moon as well.

Therefore, adieu, Washington: we will be missing you, and perhaps one day we will be back. But today we don’t regret our choice...

(*) http://www.matteoandmathilde.org/2009/09/10-reasons-why-we-will-be-missing-dc.html

Friday, August 20, 2010

Ladakh today

Having still vivid in our mind the images and the memories of our trip in Ladakh, we could not remain indifferent to the recent events that hit Ladakh.

Beside the incredulity, the sorrow and the feeling of impotence we felt watching the images of these beautiful places completely devastated (places that we feel a bit ‘ours’ now), what grips our stomachs and our hearts is the uncertainty about (and the impossibility to know) what happened to the people we met and with whom we shared a few moments of our recent life. Pemba, Pemma, Dorge. But also the people whose name we don’t even know or remember: the yak-herders near Sumdo Chimnu, the lady that sold noodles and coca-cola on the way to Dung Dung La, the families that opened their homes and hosted us…

But even if these people happen not to belong to the 160 or more that died during the flooding, an inconvenient question still tortures our minds. What will it happen to them now?

The Ladakhis live a decent subsistence economy in which the food and fuel produced during the short growing season is stored and consumed during the long and harsh winters.

The harvest for this year is gone, the small-scale water channels and the other mud-brick infrastructures destroyed, and it will probably take several years before they are re-built and become functional again. And I doubt these people have savings or own other resources or alternative livelihoods that would allow them to cope with the consequences of a disaster of such magnitude...

What will it happen to them now?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

10 reasons why we liked Ladakh

(1) Because I could finally trek without being wet during the day and frozen during night (ref. Iceland & Alaska) (Mathilde)

(2) Because I could finally trek without carrying all my stuff on my shoulders (ref. Iceland & Alaska) (Mathilde)

(3) Because I enjoyed the sense of peace, solitude and seclusion that I have been missing since I arrived in India (Matteo)

(4) Because we looooved the Ladakhi food (particularly the momo* soup) (Matteo & Mathilde)

(5) Because I trekked higher than the Mount Blanc! (Mathilde)

(6) Because in the deep of my heart I always dreamt of being a mountaineer (Matteo)

(7) Because after four months in Delhi at temperatures ranging between 43o and 48o, the average 26o-28o in Ladakh (5o-7o over night) seemed heaven to us! (Matteo & Mathilde)

(8) Because I was allowed not to shave for an entire week! (Matteo)

(9) Because after 7 days trekking I didn’t have a gram of cellulite anymore J (Mathilde)

(10)Because we have never seen so many stars as in the Ladakhi sky over night... (Matteo & Mathilde)

(*) dumplings

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Next challenge?

Stock Kangri, 6,137 m, the highest mountain of the Stock Range.

Imposing.

Technically not too difficult, I estimated it takes nine days in total (from arrival in to departure from Leh - including acclimatization, etc.) to climb it.

Targeted for summer 2011.

Anyone interested in joining*?

(*) Mathilde already said she will be waiting for us at the Maldives.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Above 5,000

Crossing the invisible line of the 5,000 m

Les M&M's on the second highest motorable pass in the world (Taglang La, 5,359 m)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Towards Tibet

The last few days in Ladakh allowed us discovering another incredible part of this already incredible region.

After having obtained - not without difficulties - a special permit to be able to get close to the China border (there has been a war between China and India on these mountains in 1962), we left Leh and with trusty Pemba we went up the gorges of the Indus river towards East - until when the landscape begun to progressively open out, and the horizons to extend.

We had reached the far-east part of Ladakh, almost at the border with Tibet: the region of the yaks and the nomads, the region of the Tso Moriri* and of the Tso Kar lakes - a barren plateau (we were almost at 5,000 m asl) surrounded by more gentle peaks than those in the Stock and Zanskar ranges.

If Ladakh looks desolate, this part of Ladakh seemed even more desolate. When we finally reached Kozok, probably the only existing settlement near the Tso Moriri, we really had the impression to have reached the last stop before the end of the world...

(*) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5zxrbvRRdM

A taste of the Buddhist-Tibetan culture - a few more pictures (2)

Colourful fluttering prayer flags that send spiritual messages off into the wind

Celebrating the Gu-Stor with strange rituals and typical masked dances

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A taste of the Buddhist-Tibetan culture - a few more pictures

Ancient Gompas dramatically perched on rocky outcrops

Bald monks that wander about in their red and yellow garments

Spinning prayer wheels that slowly release prayers and mantras

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A taste of the Buddhist-Tibetan culture

Ancient Gompas dramatically perched on rocky outcrops. Bald monks that wander about in their red and yellow garments. Spinning (rigorously clockwise) prayer wheels that slowly release prayers and mantras. Colourful fluttering prayer flags that metaphorically send spiritual messages off into the wind...

Our trip to Ladakh revealed itself being also an opportunity to get in contact for the first time with the Tibetan-Buddhist-Himalayan culture.

And while - it’s true - we spent most of our time in remote mountain paths, we could not avoid however to breathe the atmosphere of this Buddhist ex-kingdom. We managed to visit a couple of Gompas (we particularly liked that of Lamayuru, which dominates a tiny valley before entering into the Zanskar Range) and we found ourselves by chance in Kozok right when the local Gompa was celebrating - with strange rituals and typical masked dances - the Gu-Stor, one of the major Buddhist festivals in Ladakh.

In the end, we can’t say we got to the heart of Buddhism - but we certainly had another taste of this mosaic of religions that is India.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A few more pictures from Zanskar Valley

Les M&M’s in Zanskar Valley

Eden or Zanskar Valley?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Beautiful Zanskar

As much harsh, rough, dramatic, apparently inhospitable is Ladakh (or, at least, what is commonly considered Ladakh, i.e. the Indus Valley and the Stock range), as green, blooming, and flourishing is the Zanskar Valley.

Here green (a lush green) is the predominant colour - but the yellow, the blue/violet, and the white of the flowery meadows make the landscape bright (we saw an entire meadow of edelweiss!), and the sharp and snow-capped peaks that surround the valley (the Kun and the Nun above all) give the valley a more ‘alpine’ touch.

We just had a taste of this less popular (because more difficult to reach) valley, but we would have certainly loved to stay longer had we had more time. Perhaps next time...

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Our team

We haven’t yet ‘officially’ introduced you the team that loyally accompanied us during our trek in Ladakh. Let us make up for our shortcoming.

First of all Pemba (on the left side), our guide: a Sherpa from Nepal who comes to the Indian Himalayas from May to September to cover the slack (rainy) season in Nepal. Attentive and caring, we can say he has been our guardian angel for two weeks. And for those that do not know it (us included until this trip), ‘sherpa’ does not mean ‘porters’, as most of us erroneously believe. In fact, the Sherpa are an ethnic group and highly regarded cast of the Nepalese mountains. Chapeau.

Then Pemma (on the right), our cook. He surprised and spoiled us by changing menu every day: from the classical rice and dahl, to various Nepalese and Tibetan delicatessen, to french fries (!), plum-cakes for breakfast (!!), and (once) even a chocolate cake (!!!) (we never understood how he managed to bake it). But more than his delicacies, what literally astonished us was that he managed to bring two cases of fresh eggs along the trail without breaking a single egg. He never revealed us how he did...

And last but not least, Dorge (at the center), the donkey-man. Always cheerful and smiling, it seemed he was enjoying the trekking as much as we did. Interestingly, in the end he covered twice the distance we covered, as he spent half of the time chasing the donkeys that were running away at every occasion.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ladakhi hospitality - a few more pictures

Family picture

Playing with children

Playing with children (2)

Family dinner

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ladakhi hospitality

Everyone who travelled to Ladakh before us told us about the Ladakhi hospitality.

We first-hand experienced the Ladakhi hospitality during our second day of trekking, when, while passing through a barley field, we were invited by the family of that field for a tea. And while the man of that house was making our guide drunk by keeping on serving him chhang (a homemade liquor made of barley), we were shown the house around (particularly the kitchen, where dozens of pots and pans - symbol of status and wealth - were proudly displayed above the stove) and played a bit with the kids - half-frightened and half-seduced by our presence.

We were so pleased by the genuine kindness of this family, that on that evening we decided to spend the night in a small village’s homestay rather than pitching our tent somewhere in the mountains. We had dinner with a lot of people (supposedly the whole family - even though I am not sure I understood all the degrees of kindred), slept on thin mattresses covered by piles of rugs and blankets, and of course played with the children of the house.

One of the reasons why I yearned for Ladakh after nine months of ‘densely populated’ India was to somehow rest from the (no offense) sometime overwhelming presence of people all around you. I had imagined my two weeks in Ladakh without meeting a single soul. But in the end never been so happy to have had the opportunity to spend some time with these two Ladakhi families...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Trekking in Ladakh - a few snapshots

Higher than the Mount Blanc*

River crossing

After five days trekking, finally a shower!

(*) Konze La: 4,950 m asl according to the Lonely Planet; 4,912 m asl according to our GPS (Have also a look at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6hssS-aiB0).

Monday, August 2, 2010

The ‘moon walk’

We said in our previous post that Ladakh is a paradise for trekking. And in fact the highlight of our trip to Ladakh has been a multi-day trekking across some of the most remote valleys and of the highest passes of the so called trans-Himalaya.

It took us a couple of days to really leave the last Ladakhi villages behind us, but once we finally reached the core of the Zanskar Range, the backbone of Ladakh, we felt on another planet, overwhelmed by the silence, the solitude, and the sublime beauty of this harsh landscape.

They say that trekking in Ladakh is like walking on the moon. We can’t agree more...