In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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In High Places 2

I arrived in Kathmandu in the evening of the 11th November 2007. The journey had been long and uncomfortable and I was glad to be out of the plane. As we checked through the customs desk, a jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant played over and over again. And as it took a long time to get our visas issued, the jingle became a torture.  But eventually we were through.

I emerged, with my kitbag, into the chaos of the arrivals hall where hundreds of locals tried to take my baggage from me. Their aim was to get me to use one of their taxis, for which they’d get a commission. Our hotel had sent a bus with several of our trekking group that had arrived before us and they swiftly grabbed our luggage and stowed it safely aboard. Nevertheless, I was accosted by several of the teenage baggage boys trying to get me to give them dollars. Not a good start. Just before I climbed onto the bus, I looked up at the sun setting behind some hills and wondered what I’d let myself in for.

The journey to the hotel was mostly in the dark. I was tired and a bit dazed after around 17 hours of traveling and the comfort of the bus seat was most welcome. Shortly after we left the airport, we entered the built up area of Kathmandu and it was lit up with what looked like thousands of candles. Diwali – the festival of light – was being celebrated and our local guide told us that this was the third day of the festival. It was beautiful, and a magical welcome to the this new world I was entering. Every window had at least one tiny light shining and in the near total darkness it felt like we were being driven through a forest of candles. Only the occasional silhouette of a building or the odd wall lit up by vehicle lights spoiled the effect. Being in that jet lagged state made everything a little surreal.

The bus stopped and we all trooped out. It turned out that we had another 10 minute walk to get to the hotel, which was situated down a narrow street in which the bus wouldn’t fit. The bags went ahead, transported by hotel porters, and we made our way along behind them. Even in the evening, the traffic on these narrow streets was busy and for the whole walk we were assaulted by horns and revving engines as we braved the non-existent pavements. I’m glad it was dark so I couldn’t see exactly how close we were to the traffic.

At the Kathmandu Guest House, we were assigned rooms, and in a blur of activity we unpacked and all met in the restaurant for an evening meal of Dhal Bhat. I don’t remember much of that evening as the jet lag was no longer lagging. But at some point in the early hours I was woken by a number of pigeons all of who wanted to get into my room.

The following day was best described as a pleasant assault on the senses. We had a whole day to explore the city and in the morning we went on a tour of the main religious sites. The place that stands out in my memory was the Pashupatinath temple, a Hindu religious complex of great importance. The Great Hindu god Shiva takes many forms and as Lord Pashupati, he is worshipped here. As non-Hindus we were not allowed in the main temple but as we crossed the sacred Bagmati river we saw a number of cremations taking place on the opposite bank.

The river is sacred because it flows into the Ganges, and the ashes of the dead are scattered in the river so that they may also joint the Ganges. I watched, fascinated, as boys waded and swam in the filthy water to pick through the remains for any valuables. The smell was of sweet incense, as it was in so many parts of the city despite the piles of refuse, mud and water in drain free streets.

Thamel is the busy tourist hotel area of Kathmandu and it’s narrow streets and colourful shop displays were exciting and frantic and brash. I walked back from Durbar square to the hotel, all the while fearing the seemingly inevitable collision with a motorbike or rickshaw. But they are much better than I gave them credit for and they know how to deal with an inexperienced westerner like me. A range of horns and bells warned me if i strayed into the flow of traffic and I soon learnt to walk confidently and make no unpredictable moves into the street.

I managed to avoid the street salesman with a tiny violin and bow for sale with a sharp ‘no thanks’ and avoidance of eye contact, which made him try his luck with the next person. I chatted with a local who just wanted to practice his English. To my shame I assumed he was distracting me so his mates could pick my pockets. Of course that wasn’t the case – too long living in London taught me the wrong assumptions. All through the trip I found the sincerity and friendliness of the locals was so evident that it was almost too good to be true. Cynical western ways were suspended for a couple of weeks.

Power lines and telephone cables were strung haphazardly from telegraph poles and the sides of buildings as if someone had draped them in advance of their being tidied up. The fire risk was unimaginable as most business had cloth or wood signs advertising their wares. And the buildings were so close together that a fire in one would be disastrous for all. The signs themselves were amusing, with almost all of them in English but with bizarre spelling or grammar.

My first day immersed in a new culture was an amazing experience but I think it took a couple of days to realise how different everything was, by which time I was experiencing even more differences on the trail to Everest Base Camp.

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Kitchenwatch 4 – When things come together

It’s called a living room, but that doesn’t mean you have to live in there all of the time. Both Rufus and I have struggled a little bit remaining in one room during kitchenwatch. We’ve had walks together and I had considered leaving him out in the garden while I went shopping. The threat of thunder storms and the need for me to be around some of the time as the builders discover more little legacies from the guys who built the kitchen extension meant I didn’t want to do that. So we’ve lived in the living room for most of the last 10 days.

Today, the builders were due back to finish off the fitting the bits and pieces, check the water and replace the fridge and washing machine. As we wouldn’t really be needed I decided we’d head off for a morning on the hills. The weather forecast was for a cooler morning which meant better conditions for both of us. So after making sure the builders had everything they needed, we set off.

The plan was to revisit the waterfalls on the hill above the River Tawe near Cerrig Duon stone circle. We set out from the car and there was a chilly breeze but we soon warmed up as we walked. It didn’t take long to climb the side of the hill on an old sheep trail. They’re always the best way to ascend a hill as sheep take the easiest route and we often follow their tracks for this reason. Today, in the cooler weather, Rufus was ranging far and wide, enjoying the freedom to investigate interesting aromas without me calling him back.

At the crest of the hill, we surprised some green sheep, their wool dyed to identify them. A few years ago I saw pink sheep, the red dye having run and faded over time and once I saw a flock of multi coloured sheep. There were reds, greens and blues and with the fading creating subtle differences in shade, the effect was surreal.

The sun had warmed the morning up as well and it was pleasant as we walked over the flat of the hill. We found the stream and followed it against the flow. I stopped to take photos of the waterfalls and Rufus waded and paddled and lapped at the fresh water. Suddenly, I realised we were fairly close to Llyn y Fan Fawr. This circuitous route had brought us close to the southern end of the lake and although we still couldn’t see the water, I knew from previous times (when I’d been lost in mist and had passed the lake without realising) exactly where I was. I took the executive decision to head for the lake. Rufus was already ahead and I knew that once he saw the lake there’d be no stopping him anyway. So off we went, a little further than I had planned. We’d done the climb and the going was flat with a few little ridges. On one of those ridges, I saw the water and Rufus charging towards it.

We sat on the bank of the lake for a few minutes and I threw stones for Rufus to chase or catch. He seemed to be doing well with plenty of energy and I was feeling good and over to my left was the path that led up to Fan Brecheiniog. It was very tempting to set off but I wasn’t sure as I hadn’t planned it and it was only a few weeks ago that Rufus was seriously ill. But all the time we’ve been walking this past two weeks he’s been strong and although his right knee is stiff when we get home, it’s never stopped him from charging out into the garden at the least excuse.

So we set off slowly up the path. It’s steep and rocky and I kept a careful eye on Rufus; as he was ahead of me it wasn’t hard. He was pulling away and at first I called him back to try and ease his pace. But he was happy, and eventually I let him go. It’s a short but sharp ascent and although I’ve done it many times, it’s not often I do it without at least one pause for breath… ahem… to take photographs. This time I managed to do it in one go. I think it was because I kept my pace slow and steady. At the top of the path, we stopped to chat to a trio of walkers also making their way up. Rufus was keen to get going so I left them behind and we set off for the final pull to the ridge.

I love the top of Fan Brecheiniog. It’s my favourite mountain in the Brecon Beacons national park. The views are stunning and on a day like today, they were all visible. The lake was a deep turquoise blue and clear enough that I could see the bottom of the lake around the banks. A breeze kept the sun’s heat at bay. We walked along the top with a sense of space and freedom that is one of the reasons I love it here. There were more people on the mountain today than I have ever seen in one go before. We passed a group of about 20 young walkers all chatting away; I overheard one say he loved this mountain because of the solitude and I chuckled at the irony. We passed two small spaniels and their owners and there was much wagging of tails as Rufus said hello.

At the far end, Foel Fawr, we sat and enjoyed the view from the cairn back along the way we’d come. Rufus was looking bright and still had energy to wander about but I didn’t want to push things, so we turned around and headed back down. I’m constantly on guard looking for little signs that his blood disorder is coming back to the point of paranoia but there was nothing. At the lakeside, we chased stones again and then set off on the direct route back to the car. Despite days of fine weather, it was still boggy underfoot and I struggled to find a fairly dry path through it all. Above us, two Red Kites wheeled and soared in the warm air. By the time we reached the river again, we were both starting to tire a little but as we neared the car, Rufus was still walking faster than me. He was glad to get onto the back seat and have a lie down, though.

The journey home was uneventful and every time I checked on Rufus, his eyes were shut or drooping. We got home just in time to speak to the builders. They had just finished and were clearing up. Everything that was planned to be done had been finished, apart from the wiring in of the oven, underfloor heating and sockets, which is due to be completed on Monday.

I have a kitchen!

Although I was tired from the walk, I managed to clear the living room of it’s temporary kitchen (kettle, toaster, sandwich toaster and water) and started to fill the cabinets. As there are so many more of them than I had before, I still haven’t filled them all and I’m still trying to decide where everything should go to make the most of the new layout. It’s all strange at the moment and I’m sure I’ll change my mind before the week is out. Rufus has indicated his approval by having his food and drink there.

There is still work to do to finish it all off. I will be having the gas fire and boiler replaced later this year and all the existing pipework runs through the kitchen, so that has been left for the time being. I haven’t decided what to do with the space by the window where the units used to be, but they left me offcuts of worktops which I can use to make a breakfast bar of sorts. And I have to decide on the tiles I want so that I can get the builders to come back and do those.

But I have a kitchen. Now all I need to do is learn to cook!

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Kitchenwatch 3 – the canine perspective.

Dave’s finally lost his marble (there was only ever one in that big head of his). I was having a post breakfast doze on Wednesday when all of a sudden there were some people in the house. I barked a bit for appearances sake and went back to lie down, as Dave seemed to have it all under control. Next thing I know, there was a lot of odd noises coming from the kitchen area. I had wondered why a lot of my food was in the living room – I guess it was luck he’d moved it there before they came.

Anyway, I took Dave out for a walk and when we got back, the people had moved bits of the kitchen out into the drive. Including the cupboard where my food is kept! Dave didn’t seem too surprised and that’s when I began to suspect a conspiracy. Sure enough, for the rest of the morning Dave was quite relaxed while the people cleared the kitchen of everything. Even the fridge, that sanctuary of ham. Gone! He knew what was happening and hadn’t told me.

I had an appointment at the hair stylist in the afternoon and when Dave picked me up afterwards, we went straight off to the river where we had a splash about and then a picnic on the river bank. It was most enjoyable but I knew he was only trying to make up for the disturbances of the morning. Sure enough, when we got back to the house, the people were gone and so was the kitchen. It was just an empty space.

Thursday was more of the same. The people returned and this time they dug the floor up and dug holes in the walls. We went walking in the hills but it was all still going on when we got back. By Friday I was tired from all the walking and having to keep an eye on the people and on Dave in case he did something equally silly with the living room. But fortunately we had a lie-in and the people didn’t show up until the afternoon, after we’d strolled around Fairwood Common. After they’d gone, Dave pointed at the ceiling and went on about ‘fresh plaster’ and ‘looking good’. It was pink, and I don’t do pink. I wasn’t impressed and instead I used mind control to get him to give me more than my usual portion of ham.

This morning, I was up ready to take on the people and find out when the kitchen was going back in. But they didn’t show up and instead Dave disappeared off mumbling something about new tyres. It’s a rubber thing, apparently. Not my scene but I don’t judge. It turns out we have the whole weekend free of the people before they come back to make more noise next week.

I indulge Dave some of his bizarre whims despite not really understanding them and I’ll give this one time. But it better be good!

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Kitchenwatch – 1

It’s been a long time coming but finally I decided to upgrade my kitchen from stone age to modern age. Many things have prevented me doing this in the past. The main one being the ongoing subsidence which, although largely cured, has left me a bit nervous of splashing out a great deal of money on major internal improvements in case the walls fall down. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but if I had to do remedial work to the structure, it would probably involve removing internal fittings as well. And then there’s the cost. Have you any idea how much a nice drawer handle is?

Finally, there was the decision on exactly what did I want? Shaker, modern, solid, soft close, granite, wood, gloss, metal, overhead, underfloor? My kitchen is small, even with the extension, and I wanted to make the most of it. But how? I’m no design visionary and every time I tried laying things out I was left with a small square of space in which to stand while surrounded by units.

But then I had a brainwave. Before the extension, my kitchen was a tiny galley style affair. With the extension, I could return to the galley style and bring some of it back into the old kitchen area. With a built in oven, that would free up much of the extension for a breakfast table. If my life were a cartoon (some say it is), a small electric lightbulb would have appeared above my head.

Fast forward through the purchasing process to last week. I spent most of my spare time clearing out the kitchen. To give you an idea of what that meant, I found a brand new frying an at the back of a cupboard. I have no idea when I bought it. I found a collection of empty rubbish bags showing the progress in style of the council’s bag decoration. Early bags were made with thicker plastic, for example. And the font has changed on the directions printed on the bags.

On Friday, I was given my delivery slot. I was told at the time of buying that delivery would be today, and that I would be given a two hour slot. That’s great. I had the chance to take Rufus for a walk, clear the front room to allow storage of the units and take a trip to the local recycling site with a car load of rubbish. So imagine my surprise to get a phone call while Rufus and I were dodging stealth cows and watching a little foal playing with it’s parents on Fairwood Common. “It’s the delivery driver here, we’re 5 minutes from your house.”

20 minutes later, I was screeching* to a halt outside my house where the van was, indeed, parked and the guys were unloading the units. 45 minutes of huffing and puffing later, there was a complete kitchen, with oven and hob, sitting in some cardboard boxes in my front room. Everything but the kitchen sink. Which turned out to be there as well.

*may have been a gentle and considered parking maneouver, ensuring the vehicle ended up parallel to the kerb without the tyres touching the pavement.

Rufus and I started to gather all the rubbish that was going down to the tip. As you can see in the photo below, he did his bit in preparing the cardboard. Then, after a busy 20 minutes sorting all the recycling out and trying to figure which container it all went in (the guys working there were really helpful with that) I was driving back home and finally managed to get to sit down after 5 hours on the go.

They come to fit it next week. Between now and then I have to eat my way through the contents of the freezer (Rufus has offered to help with that), finish emptying the cupboards and set up a temporary kitchen where I can make tea or coffee while they work.

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The Simple Things

There are some simple things in life that really aren’t that hard to get right. This blog is about one of those things – customer service.  The basic premise for me, which holds true for many situations, is that if you promise to do something, then do it, or explain in good time why you can’t do it. The measure of good customer service is not just whether it is 100% perfect first time but how, when things do go wrong, it is dealt with.

Here are two recent examples that illustrate my viewpoint.

We are told that we are living in hard times, and small businesses are struggling. Support your local trader, they say. I used to support my local grocery shop until the first time we had a really bad snow fall, with roads blocked and traffic at a standstill. Then, to support the people he had previously asked to support his business, the owner of the shop raised all his prices. He’d had deliveries because he was on a main road. He just chose to support his profit margins rather than the loyal customers. He went out of business a little while later because we all stopped supporting him.

It sometimes seems, based on the level of customer service, that many traders don’t really need our business. In fact, it seems that they only provide us with a service out of a noble, charitable sense of duty. So when I went looking for someone to replace a gas fire and back boiler, I should have been eternally grateful that anyone was able to offer that service. And I was. He turned up, looked around a bit, muttered some technical stuff and then said he’d get back to me with a quote within a few days. That was four weeks ago. Clearly a more deserving cause came along and mine was relegated to a back burner. Or boiler?

The bigger companies are more financially sound and are able to help more people out of goodwill alone. So when I went to a big company to ask them if they would consider selling me a kitchen and fitting it too, I was a little more hopeful. And to it’s credit, the big company said “yes, we’d love to sell you a kitchen and we can get someone to fit it as well”. They did a good job of designing a kitchen just the way I wanted it. And since I’m not very good at that sort of thing, they also steered me away from the bizarre and unworkable ideas I’d had and gave me a practical solution. But silly me, I went away and decided that I couldn’t afford the quote and needed something a little less expensive. So I rang them up to ask if it was possible to save some money. Well, I tried ringing them up. But the first number I was given turned out to be a local insurance company, who explained that they didn’t offer a kitchen design service. I used the general number for the big company and for two days running, every time I got through someone picked the phone up and put it down immediately.

Not easily deterred, I finally got through on a different number they had forgotten to hide from me and explained to someone that I needed to save some money. I asked if it would be possible to do this when they came to my house to do a final measurement. They said yes and gave me an appointment, 11am today. I even checked that they had my address, to which the person said yes. Imagine my surprise when I had a phone call from the big company this morning to ask what I wanted from our meeting, and found out that the meeting was for midday, not 11am, and that no one was coming out to see me. I would have to go to the big company. Again.

Maybe I’m a fool, But I went. And to it’s credit, the big company managed to retrieve the situation. And that’s the measure. Yes, they shouldn’t have got things wrong in the first place but it was a simple mix up. The measure was that when I turned up a little annoyed at the big company, the gut I dealt with apologised, explained how he was going to make sure that didn’t happen again and provided a swift and pleasant service changing my design. The result – I placed an order with the big company, because they got their customer service right. And an added bonus is that they might be able to get me a gas fitter to do the fire and boiler.

 

 

 

 

 

Pride and Prejudice – by Rufus

Just over a week ago, I scratched an itch. Just the once. Well, maybe twice, possibly a little more. Who’s counting? Little did I know what it would lead to.

Dave spotted it and for some reason, decided I needed to go to the doctor. So with little warning (and certainly no chance to get myself looking my best) I was in the car and in the waiting room. There were lots of other dogs there, all shouting and making a fuss. I like to keep quiet and listen when I’m there. After a bit of a wait (what is the world coming to?) I was taken in to a small room with a high table. I’ve been here before and I find the best thing to do is wag my tail and look happy. Sure enough, I was plonked on the table. At least Dave couldn’t complain because when I’d weighed just before going to the room, I’d lost over a pound!

Next thing I know the vet is prodding me and poking me and squeezing me. He stared into my eyes (I stared back into his), he stuck a cold metal thing into my ears and hummed and aahhed. Then he… well, I won’t say where his finger went but I’m afraid I considered it most unnecessary – I have my pride you know! The upshot was that he found that I have environmental allergies! I have long suspected that I am allergic to Dave in the same way that he is allergic to me. Clearly this was the proof I needed.

The vet gave Dave some medicines to give to me – Dave tried to keep them hidden but I saw the tablets. Tablets mean only one thing – chicken. He thinks I won’t notice if he wraps them in chicken. I play along because… well… it’s chicken. He also had some stuff for me ears and for my eye. I’ve found that with the ear and eye drops, if I make a deal out of it then Dave will make a fuss and give me a treat once he has succeeded in administering them. You may begin to understand why I like going to the vet, despite his errant fingers.

I made sure I didn’t scratch much when Dave was looking and to be honest, I did feel better. But out of the blue, today, he took me to the vet again! This time, it was a nice lady that looked at me and she was much kinder, keeping her fingers to herself. I may have behaved myself more because she was nice but I’ll never admit that to Dave. She gave me a steroid injection to help with my skin, which she said was looking good. Maybe I did stand a little straighter when she said it. So what?

When I got home, the injection had taken effect and I felt the need to bark at everything for a while. I also eyed up Dave’s weights and thought it might be a good idea to work out for a while. After all, I may go back to the vets again and I may see the nice lady vet. I want to look my best for her. I have been told a steroid injection will have this effect. But not long after, we went for a long walk on Cefn Bryn and I walked, ran and sniffed the need to visit a gym out of my system. After all, there were sheep and horses around and Dave needed me on top form to protect him from them.

I always know when Dave has a new lens for his camera, because he invariably points it at me. Today was no exception and for most of the walk I was staring into the front of a fisheye lens. Surprised I know this? Living with Dave, I know just about everything there is to know about photography. If nothing else, listening to him go on about this bit of kit or that bit of kit helps me get to sleep. When we’re preparing to go out I know I have at least 10 minutes to get ready as this is the length of time it takes him to decide which camera and lenses to take with him. I indulge him his little eccentricities as it usually means a longer walk.

Once again, I am grateful to Dave for the use of his photos. You can tell the ones taken with his new lens because they look all bendy (I believe the correct term is ‘distorted’ but bendy is a better word and it makes him scowl).

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