Karen Custer Thurston
"Not A Sanctuary"
Unexpected horrors of a diminutive size await two trekkers in the middle of the night on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek....
My rumbling, angry gut wakes me during deep sleep. Vomiting is imminent. After a few bleary seconds, I recall that I’m in my Spartan guesthouse room, in the middle of this moonless night. I’m here for my bid to complete the Annapurna Sanctuary trek out of Pokhara, Nepal.
“Hurry!” shriek my intestines. This belly conversation is too familiar. I’ve had countless Giardia mishaps during my years of world travel. Developing countries with dodgy sanitary conditions and equally dodgy water quality are at high risk for these pesky intestinal parasites. The evil little critters have found me again. Grabbing my flashlight, I frantically scramble to find my trekking boots and socks.
Hearing a new sound, my sleepy brain registers rain pattering on the roof. Finding my rain jacket, I hurriedly stuff my arms into the sleeves. I’ll be getting wet but being soaked on this hurried trip to the toilet is the least of my problems.
My mind scrabbles to organize what I’m doing. Think, Karen. The toilet is on the ground floor. You’re on the second floor. Those stair steps were dodgy earlier and now they will be wet.
Ok, then. Sorting through the essentials, I skip the socks. Reaching for my heavy trekking boots, I shove my toasty feet into the cold leather. Stuffing the long shoestrings into the boots, I notice that the rain smells fresh and sweet but these boots smell like years of my crusted, dried sweat.
My trekking partner and I are one day into this 12 day trek. Weary from yesterday’s effort, these legs do the best they can, limping to open the door and light my way to the wooden staircase. Watch it. Go slowly and don’t fall.
Luckily, the rain drizzle is a mild temperature. At least I have a handrail for the steps unlike the notched log I have had at other hostels on Nepal treks. Notched log stairways are an accident waiting to happen for a tired trekker.
As I navigate downward, I see a light near the toilet. No light shines elsewhere. Electricity does not exist on the AS trek.
Why is there a light? Who is that?
My trekking partner, Beth, and I had trained hard for this adventure. Close friends from our respective fitness businesses, Beth wanted a savvy woman with trekking experience in Nepal to try for the Annapurna Sanctuary. Since I had completed the Annapurna Circuit, Gokyo Ri and Everest Base Camp treks, she asked me. I liked Beth. I figured she would be an easy travel partner, which she was for the flights from the U.S. to Kathmandu, Nepal, then onward to Pokhara.
Beth is half my age, dark haired like me. We are often guessed to be mother and daughter, which makes us laugh. We don’t mind. We do have that kind of a relationship.
As I step off the bottom of the staircase, I see it is Beth with her flashlight.
I ask, “Hey. What’s going on?”
She answers, “I’m dying.”
Gesturing to her to give me a moment, I step into the squat toilet. It is my Holy Grail. I made it. In time.
The squat toilet we use is a large porcelain bowl installed into the wood floor with foot grids on either side of the open hole. There is nothing to hold onto for balance, ergo, the “squat” name and visual. We expected squat toilets on this trip. We know how to use the nearby bucket of water and the water faucet for gravity flushing. In even more remote areas that do not see foreign trekkers, a rough hole of proper diameter is cut into the wooden floor with no suggestion of where to place the feet. With nothing nearby for balance, you figure out where to stand, although previous visitors with bad aim do complicate foot placement in nasty ways. Strong leg muscles are helpful. Falling onto the foul floor is bad form.
As to the fragrance in this squat toilet, the nearby bar of soap is flowery fragranced. Remembering horrific rural toilets from other treks, my heart and nose are happy the clean condition of this hostel’s Holy Grail.
Stepping out of the toilet, I feel heaps better. Your good feeling will be brief, my travel memories remind me.
Beth is waiting. I ask her, “What do you think this is? And both of us?”
“I don’t know but this is terrible.”
“How many trips?”
“No idea. You?”
“First trip. Why are we both sick?”
"No idea.” She emphasizes the “no”.
“I’m just going to hang out down here.”
We are way too gutted to carry on any intelligent conversation. Nausea and diarrhea do that. I’m always amazed that I can forget the disemboweling stomach distress when I feel immortal and I skip around on my international adventures. Then, Pow! All the memories come back with the next inevitable retching and heaving.
Under a bit of overhanging roof, we stay mostly dry and silently wait for the next wave of this mystery plague. This night’s quiet is soothing. We whisper because of the sleeping staff, our guide and the group of Chinese trekkers who arrived earlier in the day.
The Annapurna Sanctuary is popular with international hikers. Beth and I aren’t surprised to see other foreigners, as well as villagers, walking the path for school, walking to other villages, carrying building supplies and items for market. These parents, grandparents, great grandparents and their children walk faster than I do attired with their inexpensive and thin-soled sandals, cheap daypacks, nothing like my expensive equipment I proudly bought for trekking. Even attired as I am, these local Nepali villagers will out walk me with speed and distance any day.
I wish I had talked to the Chinese group when they arrived. One of the reasons I travel like this is meeting people of other nationalities. Generally, someone speaks English and will translate. Finding out how much we have in common, sharing talk about families and work, finding common purpose in why we travel like this are great joys to discover.
The dates we chose for travel indicated leech season. Beth and I saw that in our research but thought, “How bad could leeches be?” We shrugged it off as unimportant.
We would regret that.
Earlier that day, I had found my first leech, bloated with my very own red blood of Karen, on the back of my neck. Feeling something tickle, I had reached back, pulled my hand away, seeing it covered with blood. Even though it wasn’t that much of a smeer, I was grossed out having found something sucking my blood without my permission. I take that kind of thing personally. Growing up in the heat and humidity of the American Midwest gave me plenty of icky experiences with ticks, chiggers, mosquitos, biting deer flies, horse flies and ground hornets. Midwesterners love arguing about which bite is worse. They are all bad. I’d also seen 14 inch long leeches in Colorado ponds so I thought on this trip, hey, at least I’ll be able to see a leech coming from a mile away, so to speak.
We wearily lean against the guesthouse wall, in awkward silence. Waiting for our personal gut symphonies, I’ve no what time it is.
Time drags when you’re not having fun.
At some point in the endless night, Beth says, “What is that?”
I say, “Where?”
She answers, “There.”
Darting my beam of light around, I see a small, small something that looks different from the dirt. When I peer closely, it is moving. First, it is about half an inch long, and then it is a dot. Then the half an inch, then the dot.
We are seeing our first live, moving leech, out on its own holiday.
It wants to holiday with and picnic on us.
We watch for a while, amazed at how fast it is closing in on our feet. While projective vomiting and diarrhea are our reality, Beth and I also have hot bodies. Leeches are drawn to heat, which indicates a tasty meal of warm, delicious blood.
Nepal’s leeches are notoriously difficult to see and as difficult to feel. Leeches’ saliva has anti-coagulant to increase blood flow. These leeches are completely unaffected by silly foreigners’ mosquito repellant. There is no known way to dissuade them from searching you out and latching onto you for a meal.
Leech families probably tell outrageous stories about their day and their victims. “Yeah, honey. It wore a bathing suit and I invited everybody I knew. We had an epic time until the little twins, Bertha and Clyde got squished.”
As I watch this thing inching toward my hot body for its midnight snack, I think, “Just step on it.” Not a big deal. I do that all the time back home. I aim a boot stomp, with deadly aim and force. Then I check the bottom of my massive rubber boot sole and see no dead leech. Where is the body? No way. The leech is still alive on my boot sole. It must have fit into one of the groove grids of my boot. Did it do that on purpose or was it an accident? Am I dealing with a sentient being?
Putting my booted foot down, I see the same leech has rounded the corner and is on the side of my trekking boot, humping its arching movement steadily upward to my bare ankle faster than I can believe.
Without thinking, I perform an aerial ballet and finger flick that sucker off with a curse before landing on both feet. I award myself a 10 for sticking my landing. Beth is speechless (perhaps envious of my skyward launch) because we have been told that the leeches are OUT IN THE GRASS of the surrounding meadows, NOT on the dirt area near the guesthouse. I’ll bet staff had a good laugh.
“Guess what we told the Americans? And they bought it!”
Of course, during our separate Leech Dance with the Monsters of Blood, our waves of nausea and diarrhea persist. Beth and I amuse our selves by counting the icky things. During this dizzying melee, on one visit to the toilet, I spy leech #15 climbing up out of the toilet towards me. How the heck did it get there? I toss a second bucket of water down the hole sending it to Davy Jones Leech Locker.
When not admiring my evasive maneuvers, Beth is spotlighting her own incoming Lilliputian army. As we independently scan and guard our territory, our two flashlights light up the darkness like carnival spotlights to all the kids in town to come have a swell time. Maybe the leeches recognize the flailing of the lights and are streaming in, in high hopes for having that swell time.
The night blurs with intermittent, whispered shrieks of “I can’t believe how fast they are!” and “Get that one!” and an occasional “Die, you sucker!”
Beth and I are weary, weary.
We are dehydrated.
We eventually run out of body fluid.
We can no longer honor the Holy Grail squat toilet with our offerings.
We are empty vessels, empty handed in our obeisance to our Grail.
Trudging upstairs to our sleeping quarters, we end the night of battle as the sun rises.
Copyright 2021 Karen Custer Thurston
Photo #1: Beth
Photo #2: Unsplash, Haseeb Jamil