Because I’m half Swiss, I like to organize, although perhaps my methods are eccentric. Readers tell me that they’re intrigued by my references to various botanicals, or Swiss culture, or Irish politics, and would like to learn more. For a fast-paced read, I omitted many cultural and scientific details. I’ll be blogging about them instead. Each book in the Falcon series has its own posts that describe places I travel to for background research, and plants that feature in the books. The Inspiration blogs are general, ranging from music I like to write by, to my thoughts about religion, animals, and other topics. You can either browse all posts, or click on each category. If there’s anything you’d like to know about in particular, drop me a note through firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @GabrielleAuthor.
Writing a novel is hard, tedious, lonely, and occasionally inspiring work. Day after day the sentences accrue, the pages grow longer. But who truly writes for themselves, now that Emily Dickinson has been dead those many years.
When will the pay-off come for those weeks of desolate doldrums, those hours spent shut up with a host of imaginary friends to the detriment of real people waiting for attention?
That is when having the support of a writer’s group makes a difference. Just having the chance to air a small slice of the novel reanimates it; the viewing through different eyes, the chance to connect with an audience, however small and skeptical, keeps the hope alive that one day your book will reach many, move some, anger some, make some see things a new way.
It’s like running a marathon and having someone with a bottle of fresh water along the way, having your neighbor down the street wave at you, having a child proffer you a bevy of balloon.
It doesn’t help you win the race, but it makes the going easier.
The sixth day of our trek starts in Dovan, where my friend Jan and I had a lovely meditation at the river the night before. We spend a few hours in the gloomy forest, but get enticing peeks at the snowy Annapurna range and nearby Macchupuchre, known as Fishtail
At Deurhali, the trees start to thin. We’re now at 2900 meters, about a 1000 meters higher than the tree-line in the Swiss alps. (almost 10,000 feet.) By the time we’re close to Macchupuchre Base Camp, the usual thick fog has settled in. I make a tactical mistake not following our porters closely, and find myself wandering along the lodges in search of our party. Here’s where I find out that the tea houses are not all the same. We have been staying in the nicer ones.
Our party arrives, including my sick spouse, who is now running a fever and coughing so hard he sounds like a barking seal. This is a clear case for the antibiotics I brought, and we start them at once. Fuel is hard to get up this high. Porters seem to carry in everything on their backs. The main room of the teahouse is kept heated, and after all the tourists are served and have returned to their rooms, the porters and guides sleep on the cushioned benches that line the periphery of the dining area. At least that way they can keep warm, because after carrying all our belongings, they don’t have room to pack extra warm clothing for themselves.
The next morning makes the cares of the night before seem far away. Our destination, Annapurna Base Camp, is less than two hours away for the motivated hiker. Confident that I won’t get lost on this short stretch, I’m off and away. I can definitely tell I’m at 4000 meters, but other than slight shortness of breath and a mild headache, my body seems to rise to the challenge. Once I reach ABC, at ten in the morning, I position myself at a table at the edge of the terrace. As I climbed, the snowy peak of Annapurna South faced me directly. Off to the right, the other mountains in the Annapurna range unfolded. Now I let myself open to the peaks and their energy, before turning back and contemplating Macchupuchare again. I feel suspended and cleansed by the energies between the mountains, which I visualize as a sea of moving blue waves moving through me. It’s a transcendent moment and the highlight of the trip.
Only later do I find out from my friend Jan that much of the nearby glacier has melted, exposing nearly half a mile of moraine, just out of sight.
The return is hard on me, and by the end of the trek, I’ve picked up an annoying cough. Our second to the last day I walk in a dissociative trance, putting one foot in front of another, my mind a depressive blank. Bliss has evaporated, replaced by exhaustion and gratitude for the company of my friends and our supportive guide. Eleven days on foot. It’s not so much that my body rebels. My mind can’t cope. I want working lights and washing machines and fresh fruit and internet access.
Now I have them again.
But I can’t forget that I have access to those luxuries just because I was lucky enough to be born in the West, to a middle class family.
Makes you think.
We start our trek to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayan foothills near the town of Pokhara. A private car takes us to Nayapul, where we pile out, anxious to be on our way. Our cheerful porters Anik and Teka hoist up their packs and start off ahead. Nayapul seems to go on for a while. Rows of tiny shops crowd the dirt street: jumbles of modern clothing, alternating with shops with wooden display shelves of chips, bottled water, and soft drinks. The absence of pavement means we’re kept alert by oncoming traffic, often the bleating trucks from India known as Tatas. Dogs lie in dispirited heaps in front of stores or snuffle among the garbage. There’s some buying going on, but mostly people line the streets, chatting, smoking, or looking at cell phones. Unlike some other impoverished areas of the world, the Nepalese do not try to frenetically engage with the tourists, although some call out as we pass.
The hot sun, humidity, and traffic combine to make us long for a more natural setting. After an hour we’ve walked through fields and crossed a river. On the other side of the modern bridge, our guide Madan takes care of our trekking paperwork while we take a long lunch break. A young woman is painting a second-story ledge there; finally she climbs off it by exiting through an open window. We’ve noticed a lot of paint ads. Nepalis are serious about painting their lodges, especially after the monsoon’s come through, and a new influx of tourists are expected. Blue corrugated roofs crown the buildings, mostly white with decorative elements. Unlike Bavaria, people here don’t have the leisure to plant many flowers, so we see them mostly sprouting up in unattended wasteland. Thickets of blue morning glory wave tendrils in the air; cleome, the spider flower, pops up here and there.
Dwellings give way to pasture land, clumps of grass with thickets. There’s no large-scale grazing. Animals are encountered singly, humped buffalo or a rangy goat. Amazingly, chickens roam without molestation by the mournful skinny mutts.
We spend the night in a lodge in Tikedhunga, balanced on a hill-top above a rushing waterfall. All night long the sound of rushing water fills our ears.
The next day our friend and trekking companion Ted sees a mushroom harvest in progress and buys mushrooms. We inveigh on our wonderful and accommodating guide, Madan, to have the lodge prepare them as part of our lunch. As we continue on, Madan shows us the ripening millet heads in nearby gardens. Fields of emerald rice are spread out below us as we climb.
Lodges and tea houses seem to be the only businesses about; if it weren’t for the tourists, like us, the area would have almost no income. Harvests are not adequate for generating cash. Some lodge owners have put an effort into making their places attractive; plastic buckets filled with marigolds and dahlias add brightness and cheer. The Nepalis we pass greet us without great cheerfulness, but I also don’t see any looks of hostility. Our porter, Anik, brightens up as we get to know him, and reveals a fondness for singing and dancing. The porters, Anik and Teka, and our guide, Madan are from a Tamang village. The Tamang people are known for business acumen. Anik explains that he and the other tribesman have Mongolian origins, unlike the people of Nepal who have an Indian origin. Indian people are of Aryan descent, and lack the sharp cheekbones and slanted eyes of the Tamang, and numerous other tribal people.
The trail for Annapurna continues in the Himalayan foothills. The morning after Tikedhunga we cross a river and are confronted by a challenging series of stone steps cut in the hillside. We’re on our way to the village at the top, Ulleri, 1960 meters. I climb ahead of our group, happy I invested extra time in training. Every time I start to curse the never-ending stairs, I notice another group of school children climbing next to me. They have to make the trip all week long. School starts at ten. The children are wearing uniforms, and also have to pause and rest, like we all do. Occasionally we all have to step to the side for mule trains or ponies descending. It’s a long way to the top. So long.
After a tea break and an impromptu fight between a Tibetan mastiff and a skulking stray, which stops when a couple of tourists lure the stray away from the teahouse with kind words, we descend into a river gorge. The high cliffs provide welcome shade. Ferns that could be maidenhair and staghorn cascade down the stone sides of the mountains. Lunch at Banthanti is enhanced by the cilantro from the nearby garden.
We spend the night in Tadapani, a big settlement, where once again Madan takes care of paperwork for us. Morning call is for 4am for a visit to Poon Hill and views. After finding out that we’ll have similar views further along the trek, I decide to sleep in.
We hike down to another river, the Kimrong Khola. A noisy Chinese party interrupts my quiet meditation. They prance back and forth across the bridge, yelling exhortations to each other and taking photographs.
Soon after crossing the river, the real forest starts. I’m comfortable in the gloom and the shade, as the sweat of climbing has drenched my T-shirt. Though many other people are underway, during the day our groups spread apart. It’s easy and fun to imagine myself as a solitary explorer in the days of the East India Tea Company, mapping a route to Annapurna. The thick forest crowds right up to the edge of the path. The trees are mostly rhododendrons. Though they’ve already bloomed in spring, I still find their reddish twisted trunks and dark green leathery leaves attractive. Delicate plans with azure blue dainty blossoms dot the stone pathway. The dappled shade gives ways to vistas of steep rice terraces shrouded with mists, and then the forest comes again. I notice other flowers, orange flowered ginger and what could be a type of trailing snapdragon, or asarina. The rest of journey, several days more is mostly through this terrain, until we pass Dohvan and the tree-line. Then we’re close to Annapurna. Check in on the next post…
To research the third book in the Falcon Series, I decided to travel to Nepal. In The Falcon Soars, Peppa Mueller journeys to a Western province: the Humla region, which would have involved several weeks of traveling and camping. Instead, though the climate and terrain would be different, my friends, husband, and I chose a trip to Annapurna Base Camp (4100 meters, 13,451 feet), for a taste of the trekking experience.
Our research on treks and our subsequent experience have both practical and journalistic components. It’s my intention to deal with each separately. In this entry, I’d like to discuss the logistics of trek planning, and give my honest opinion as to the best way of traveling.
I started off my preparations by reading Trekking Nepal, by Stephen Bezruchka and Alonzo Lyons. This is a hard-core trekking book, which relies heavily on Dr. Bezruchka’s early experiences in Nepal, before trekking became popular. Bezruchka suggests a simple approach, like many of our friends did. According to them, it’s possible to travel to Nepal and once there, engage porters and a guide oneself, although Bezruchka does stress that those doing so are responsible for the safety and well-being of the porters.
In addition to lots of travel in Europe I traveled off the beaten path in Mexico a few times, and consider myself a seasoned traveler. But let me tell you, working through a trekking company in advance helped make this challenging journey endurable.
The landscape is grand and beautiful, but after you’re done walking at the end of the day, you’ll want a place to relax and sleep. After the initial novelty of a new culture wore off, I found the lodge environment a challenge. The owners do their best, but they’re doing business in a country with no sewage system or trash pick-up. Laundry is done by hand under running water, and the smell of used cooking oil permeates the large dining rooms where people settle in. The villages on the Annapurna Base Camp trek have between four to fifteen lodges, of varying quality. (I know this because I looked at a couple of different ones once, when I got ahead of our porters and arrived early).
Stephan Kocher of Swiss Family Treks (http://www.trekking-in-nepal.net/index.php) organized a wonderful guide for us, Madan. Madan brought two porters from his village, the vivacious and friendly Anik and a young, quiet fellow, Teka. It took some close observation to learn what Madan did for us, because he’s very humble. He chose the best lodges, and confirmed reservations, some several times. On the descent, we stopped at a lodge in the middle of the afternoon, and some of us wondered why we didn’t keep going. Shortly after we got there, it poured. Could be a coincidence, but it was consistent with Madan’s level of service.
As soon as we arrived at each lodging, while we collapsed, he and the porters made sure our food would be prepared in a timely fashion by taking our orders, and then Madan prepared our purified drinking water for the next day. (You can buy bottled water, but the plastic containers pile up in the garbage heaps.) In his unobtrusive, quiet way, Madan wrangled the best rooms, and made everything look effortless.
While the Swiss connection and its implicit focus on competence and good service was a factor in choosing Swiss Family Trekking, I have no personal reason for recommending Kocher’s company other than the experience we had. I just saw what happened with some other trekkers.
One group did not have reserved rooms because of some rescheduling, and had to walk down from Annapurna Base Camp for ten hours, part of it in the dark. A young Chinese girl actually got separated from her party and ended up in a tiny village by a river, bawling her eyes out. It’s definitely worth it to go with a reputable company.
Annapurna Base Camp is one of the most popular destinations, right behind Everest Base Camp. The physical exertion involved in climbing up to ABC is definitely challenging, but does not require alpine skills, and there is no tricky footwork involved. It just takes stamina. I was unprepared for the immersive experience in constant humidity, except at the end of the ascent. You will never feel completely dry. Avoid cotton shirts, which will hang on you like a shroud. Do not be a fool like I was, and bring cotton bras, because you will feel self-conscious trying to find some place to dry them.
The sun is shining. Quick, hang up some clothes
Wash a pair or two of socks any time you see the sun peeking out, and make sure your back pack has a place to hang something, so it can dry while you walk. Oh, and bring toilet paper.
One more item of note: my friends wanted to hire a private driver through SNFT to bring us to Pokhara, the gateway to many treks and our trailhead. Before I actually experienced the highway, I thought this was an extravagance. Now I regard it as one of the best decisions we made. The road is harrowing, and the buses are packed full. I got nauseated even in a private vehicle with AC; a bus ride would have been a disaster.
With a good guide, friendly porters, and some enthusiastic traveling companions, you’ll have a memorable experience. You’ll see things you never would elsewhere; both beautiful and depressing in a Third World country. And you can say, as I do, that you’ve met the Annapurna challenge.
Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.
Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.
You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?
And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you #travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.
Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.
The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.
Dedicated to Hilarie B.
In The Falcon Flies Alone, Peppa seeks out a stranger in the Swiss city of Basel. Desperation sends her to the Mission in search of a man she only knows by name, Christian Engler. As she approaches the grand building, she narrates: My eyes were drawn to the roof with its clock tower, crowned by a bell, and guarded by the Evangelical cross on each side. Two obsessions of the sober Swiss Protestant: God and clocks. All it needed was a bucket of scalding, soapy water to symbolize cleanliness, and the trinity would be complete.
Although these days, the Swiss are not known for church attendance, in the fifties religion played an important part. It wasn’t so much that there was a deep, mystical and fervent custom of worship, but that religion informed the notions of decency and obedience that were thought appropriate for young women. In that sense, Switzerland was similar to Ireland and most of the United States.
The obsession with punctuality and cleanliness though, is noteworthy. Swiss people still arrive on time; if they are early they will generally withdraw somewhere, in order not to be a nuisance, until the appointed minute has arrived. The desire for cleanliness is carried to extremes. For instance, cleaning your apartment yourself before you move out is not recommended. The agency your landlord hires will be checking places you never thought of. A covering of dust behind the wall radiator, or a lime build-up on the inside of your faucet will disqualify you from getting your full deposit.
Even more surreal is the—ahem—toilet situation. Restaurants and hotels feel it’s appropriate to post signs in the stall. This doesn’t just include obvious instructions, such as notifying the staff if there’s an unhygienic situation. Sometimes there are poems, or instructions about using a toilet brush, that I assume are meant to be funny. I’ve included an example from our community garden, which explains the correct usage of the brush. Scratching your head with it is completely wrong, brushing your private parts with it is somewhat incorrect, while crouching at the side of the bowl and assiduously scrubbing, is laudable.
A community garden is one thing, but when I see these types of signs posted in a nice restaurant, I’m actually left scratching my head (though not with the toilet brush.)
It was the nineties. We listened to Aphex Twin, Portishead, and The Cure, and painted the walls of the bedroom dark blue. I ordered exotic plants from various mail-order sources: sassafras and avocados, also khat trees and San Pedro cactus. With the latter plants I hoped to alter my #consciousness without supporting the netherworld of drug dealing. I had come to dislike and distrust street drugs and the addictions of various friends saddened me. Yet I still yearned for a personal transcendent experience.
That meant I was simultaneously someone who judged those who couldn’t wait to toke up, and yet, I was someone who was fascinated by those botanical miracles that made us see things in a new way. I just didn’t want those experiences coupled to dependence, and the drudgery of waiting around for a dealer’s call.
Around this time my friend occasionally worked for The American Botanical Council, a non-profit based in Austin, Texas, where we also lived in our colorfully painted house. Under the auspices of the American Botanical Council, we attended the October 1996 conference on Entheogens at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. (where else). An entheogen refers to a hallucinogenic plant used in a sacred ceremony. Many so-called primitive cultures, especially in the Americas, have long-standing traditions involving hallucinogenic plants and shamans.
I attended lectures from anthropologists like Christian Ratsch and chemists Kary Mullis, Alexander Shulgin, and Dennis McKenna. For the first time it became clear to me that people could pursue a serious study of plants without becoming ensnared in the dead end of addiction. While many use conscious-altering botanicals to numb and deaden themselves to the impact of their actions, in the shamanistic tradition, botanical allies are used to confront our demons. This was my understanding of it anyway. Being newcomers to the San Francisco scene, we never partook of anything stronger than margaritas, though the whole affair vibrated with secret rendezvous, and we glimpsed a sacramental altar in one of the other hotel rooms.
It awoke my interest in the works of pioneering ethnobotanists though. I read Wade Davis’ account of Richard Evan Schultes’ discoveries in South America, and felt honored to interview him in San Francisco. I’d also hoped to meet Albert Hofmann, the Swiss discoverer of LSD at the conference, but when knee surgery prevented his attendance, I contented myself with the signed photo he sent.
Even as my self-experimentation dwindled, and then stopped, I retained a fondness for the counter-cultural icons, and a fascination for the anthropologists that spent years of their lives investigating shamanistic traditions. I honor all methods that lead to an awakening to our unique selves. Sometimes its Eastern mysticism or a shamanistic experience; more often wisdom comes quietly, without fanfare, in bits and pieces.
1996 Entheobotany Conference
Back row: Second from left, Alexaner Shulgin, fourth from left, Kary Mullins, on the right Dennis McKenna
Frpnt row: Fifth from the left: Christian Rätsch
My series had a hard time finding a publishing home because it’s set in Switzerland. Americans don’t know about Switzerland, I was told. But perhaps you’re one of the Americans (or Aussies, or Indians) who like to find out about things you don’t know.
So let’s talk about Switzerland.
While in a remote alpine village, Peppa mentions longing for the urban atmosphere of her hometown, Basel. In the cozy cafes there one hears German and French, as well as Swiss.
Swiss? What’s that?
Because if you look on Wikipedia, you will see four official languages, none of them Swiss. They are German, French, Italian, and Romansh, which is a left-over language from the Roman conquest.
This all in a country about twice the size of Massachusetts.
Those are just official languages though.
The five largest cities in Switzerland are Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne, and Bern. Three of those have German as their official language. That means the written language is German. However, the spoken language is Swiss-German, also known as Dialekt, or Mundart. (literally mouthmethod). As a Swiss person myself, I can assure you Swiss-German is not German. Peppa describes it like this: “Even our dialect, singsong and sprinkled with diminutives, was a twittering echo of their menacing, guttural speech.”
After several years of living in Switzerland, Germans understand Swiss-German. Except for rare instances, they never speak Swiss-German, though their regional accent may migrate to more a sing-song intonation.
How does that translate into cultural attitudes? Well, for example, Switzerland didn’t join the European Union, along with Norway.
The Swiss-Germans travel everywhere. But they remain very Swiss.
They like to learn English and other languages, and often try to make signs in English as well. Here’s an example below. The expat community calls this Swinglish.
Multi-tasking. Nowadays, for a woman that might mean checking your phone for messages while changing your toddler’s diapers, while scheduling your bikram yoga class, so you can work on your dissertation afterwards. Women (at least in the West) have many choices these days.
As the old postcard shows, in Peppa Mueller’s day, women had a lot to do as well. Think of Betty, Don Draper’s wife in Mad Men. She had to cook steaks, fend off the amorous attentions of Don’s boss, make a mean cocktail, and grind her groin against the Maytag washing machine for some satisfaction. (Don was busy with other ladies).
In order to understand Peppa’s eccentric choice to collaborate with Ludwig Unruh, gentleman poisoner and dapper anthropologist, we have to understand what life was like in the fifties for girls.
Here’s Ludwig talking, trying to convince Peppa to work with him.
“You think a scrap of paper from Radcliffe will earn you respect? You’ve been out in the world now. You’ve seen a woman’s place. You can expect at best, a life of refined confinement, treated as a mix between a domestic servant and a concubine. And at worst, imprisonment, perhaps a spell in a mental institution, till they’ve broken you.”
He does kind of have a point, doesn’t he?
I like the show Stranger Things. It’s a mash-up of eighties movies like E.T. and Poltergeist, but that’s not why I watch it. Eleven, a girl with psychokinetic powers, is a delight to watch.
My Peppa Mueller trilogy is already written, so Eleven is not an inspiration, but rather an affirmation: viewers and readers want vulnerable, yet strong, female heroes.
Eleven is ravenous, but polite. The cool exterior, the laconic and precise voice, bely a terrifying power. There is something so controlled about her exterior, until all control is abandoned, and she unleashes her power. We enjoy watching someone so young and so fragile suddenly take control of a situation.
Like my character, Peppa Mueller, she has a father who can only relate to her as someone to aid his experiments, though in Eleven’s case, the man she calls Papa is no blood relation. Like Peppa, Eleven isn’t sure how to act like a girl. El traipses around in a borrowed pink dress, looking faintly ridiculous. Only her lack of self-consciousness saves her from humiliation.
That, and her superpowers.
Peppa’s falcon totem superpowers are not nearly so cinematically impressive, but then I’m aiming more for Lisbeth Salander than Stephen King’s Carrie. With limited superpowers, Peppa has to rely on deductive reasoning and some cunning, as well as some good friends.
Even with those differences, in the universe of female superheroes, there are less than six degrees of separation between Peppa and El.