Tag Archives: Paiya

Trekkers & Treats – Nepal – Chapter 8

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Route = Paiya (2770m) – Surke (2290m) – Phakding (2610m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m)

Date = 14-15 March

 For a third day in a row Angtu has L&D up and walking by 7.30am.  Today they need to reach their long awaited beacon of luxury, however long it takes.   At last the snow covered peaks are getting closer as the trail turns north towards the high Himalayas.  The landscape is stretching and distorting, becoming taller and deeper and steeper.   Below the path, the slope tumbles 1,000 metres to the cold blue thread of the Dudh Kosi river.  Overhead buzz 18-seater Twin Otter planes landing and taking off at Lukla – so dwarfed by their surroundings that they resemble tiny white insects, impossibly vulnerable.  D&L watch as the insects touch down with absolute precision on the 30 metre wide strip of runway on the edge of a cliff, braking hard as they disappear from view, roaring up the 12% gradient to stop, they hope, in less than 527 metres, at which point the tarmac ends and the mountain begins.

In the village of Surkey, they round a corner to find 30 people blocking their path.

L:  Whatever’s going on?  Is it a wedding?  A funeral?  A protest march?

D:  It’s a trekking group.

L:  Oh.  What on earth are they doing here?

D:  Umm…trekking.

L:  But these are our mountains.  Make them go away.

D:  You’d better get used to it.  We’re about to join the main route to Everest Base Camp.  You’re going to be sharing your mountains with a lot of other people.

Angtu: In the busy season, if the weather’s good, maybe 30 flights land at Lukla every day.  That’s nearly 600 people coming in.  And 600 people leaving.  A lot of people.

L: A LOT of people!

Angtu chats to the group’s guides, shaking hands with them and laughing.  He returns.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  They’re going the other way.

After a brief stretch of supremely flat engineered trail, they pass a junction, lose the trekkers, and the surface beneath their feet crumbles once more.  From here, for a few hours, there is nothing and no-one, no people or donkeys or lodges, just pine trees and views and the roar of the Dudh Kosi tumbling over boulders far below.   The trail clings to the side of the mountain, and the drops are dizzying.  It’s beautiful.

P1020413 (3)They come to Moshe, a medieval-looking collection of tiny stone cottages and doorways in rock-faces.  The land is worked – divided into little stone-walled fields and compounds.  There are no shops or lodges or tea-houses.  More than anywhere they’ve walked through so far, this place seems utterly untouched by tourism and modernity, separate, forgotten.  Lukla’s town and airport are invisible and yet just a few hundred vertical metres above them.  They are right in the flight path.  Some days 1000 people pass over their heads, but each is oblivious to the other.  They are worlds apart.

The village goes on and on.  And on.  Moshe morphs into Chaurikharka, with its neat, good sized houses newly painted.  There is an almost continuous display of long mani walls, prayer wheels and prayer flags along the main street.  Everything is tidy and well maintained.  There are no people, no donkeys and still no shops or lodges or tea-houses or bustle of everyday living.

L:  Where is everyone?  It’s bordering on spooky.

D:  You’re probably just hungry.

L:  I am quite hungry.

On and on they walk, through the village, looking for anywhere that might provide lunch.  But no-one is opening their kitchens to feed hungry porters and trekkers, and there are no porters or trekkers to feed.  This is a community not on a trading route.  All the foot traffic heading to Lukla will bypass this valley.  However unlike Moshe, it seems there’s money trickling in from somewhere – Lukla’s tourist dollars reaching them by osmosis – to fund the maintenance of houses, walls and lanes.

L:  D’you think a community is better or worse off if they can benefit from tourism without the tourists?

D:  Better off, surely, without hundreds of the likes of us marching through.

L:  But there’s no life here.  Without the passers-by, there’s no commerce.

D:  Or worse off.  I don’t know.  You’re confusing me.  I need my lunch.

On and on they go.  The few buildings that might be lodges are closed.

Angtu:  Hungry?  We’ll find somewhere soon.  At least it’s flat.

L:  It’s definitely uphill.

Angtu grins, dismissing the insignificant gradient.

Angtu:  Nepali flat.

At the very top of the village is a huge empty lodge.  It is open.

After lunch they emerge onto the main route opposite what looks like a smart English country pub.  The engineered paving is back, flat and smooth and wide enough to drive along, lined at intervals with lodges and restaurants and tea-houses, and busy with trekkers and porters.

There is a clear division between trekking porters and commercial porters.  The former work with tourists, and are usually young, well equipped with footwear and appropriate clothing, and their tumplines suspend waterproof kit-bags supposedly limited to 30kg.  They trot along the trails, skipping up and down the steep slopes at twice the speed of the trekkers.   They cover a relatively short distance per day, as they are limited to going only as far as the trekkers can manage, and earn about $15-20/day.

Commercial porters supply stores and lodges with food, consumables and building materials.  They tend to be older and dressed more simply, shod in trainers or crocs or even sandals.  Their tumplines support a doko basket, loaded with as much weight as they can manage – there are no limits.  Often they are carrying as much as or more than their own body weight.   They move slower, rest more frequently, and carry a short T-handled walking stick called a tokma, on which they can balance their load to rest while standing.  They cover more ground and earn less than trekking porters, being paid by the kilo.

P1030455 (2)There is also a hybrid third group – the expedition porters.  These guys tend to look and dress like trekking porters – young, fit and reasonably well equipped.  However, it seems that they too are paid by the kilo as they carry ludicrous loads, the furthest distance, to base camps at the foot of the world’s highest mountains, covering many miles a day.  They are doubled over under towers of chairs, rolls of carpet, steel folding tables, mattresses, drums of climbing gear, cooking gas cylinders, pots and pans.  It’s seasonal and punishing work, but lucrative if they can get it.

As has become a pattern, the day has by now clouded over.  In the village of Ghat, they spot a small tatty-looking sign to their destination, and Angtu seeks directions.  They leave the main route and cross a swathe of landslip.  A young woman overtakes them, cheerfully swinging a large mouse in a small cage, and talking on her phone.

D:  Umm…Angtu?  What’s….?

Angtu:  It’s a rat trap.  The rats eat the food supplies, which is very bad.  So she will take it to the far side of the river, to set it free where it can’t come back.

As if the mani walls and prayer wheels and prayer flags and stupas weren’t clues enough, they are reminded yet again that this is Buddhist country.

They cross the Dudh Kosi on a suspension bridge, feeling the chill of the water waft up around them, and climb through pine forest.  Though surprised at the approach on what is barely more than an animal track, every minute they expect to arrive, to walk through the doors of welcoming luxury.  Forty minutes later they reach a tiny farming village teetering precariously at the top of an enormous landslide.    Angtu again asks directions.  They follow a high walled lane, climb over a fence and walk through a yak enclosure, to arrive at an unsigned single storey stone building.  They have arrived.

The door is opened by a tall slender Nepali woman whose poised stature and fine features are unlike the small, soft, rounded faces that they have become familiar with.   The interior is stylish and comfortable – books and cushions and Buddhist artwork.

P1020431 (2)Angtu acts as translator and go-between, making sure they have everything they need.

Angtu:  Tea?

L:  My usual.  Hot lemon please.

Angtu:  No hot lemon.

L:  Oh.  OK.  Tea please.  Could you ask for the wifi password?

Angtu:  No wifi.

L:  Oh.  Well.  Never mind.

Angtu:  Are you ready to order dinner?

D:  Yes.  Can we see the menu?

Angtu:  No menu.

D:  Right, what is there?

Angtu:  Spaghetti or dal bhat.

L:  I think I’ll have….

Angtu:  And you have to both choose the same.

L: Oh.

D:  We’ll have dal bhat.

Angtu:  And salad?

L:  Green things?  For the first time in 10 days?  Yes please!

Angtu:  OK – we’re going now.

D:  Hold on – where are you off to?

Angtu: Down to Phakding.

L:  That’s an hour away.  Why aren’t you staying here?

Angtu:  They don’t have a room.

D:  Are they full?

Angtu:  No.  There are no other guests.  But they don’t have a room.

He shrugs and grins and rubs his tummy.

Angtu:  We have friends in Phakding.  We’ll eat momos.

Their room is cold but beautifully decorated and the duvet is thick.  The bed is….

L:  Oh.

D:  What?

L:  Hard.  It’s a futon mattress.  It’s less comfy than the lodges.

The dal bhat is tasty, but the salad is scrumptious.  L abandons her rice and gorges on unidentified greenness:  crispy and crunchy and bitter and sweet and lemony and fragrant.  There are herbs and little beans or peas or nuts – she can’t tell which.  She doesn’t care.  She just keeps eating.

D:  It’s risky.

L:  What is?

D:  That salad.  It may make you ill.

L:  It tastes much too good.

D:  You’re living life on the edge.

***

Angtu and Phurba return in the morning.

Angtu:  So was it worth it?

L:  No.  Though the salad was amazing.  But I never would have booked if I’d thought they wouldn’t give you both a room.

Angtu:  We saw friends.  We ate momos.  Maybe too many.

He disappears discreetly for about the 5th time that morning.  This is most unlike him.  Usually he is happy to share his bathroom habits with his trek-mates, having first chosen a nice viewpoint:

Angtu:  It’s my time – natural toilet!

They are alone on a hillside of pines, paralleling the river and the main trekking route.  Between Phakding and the river are fertile fields and a series of polythene greenhouses.  At around 2,600m, this is the region’s kitchen garden, with a 9 month growing season and plenty of moisture, providing greens for the higher, colder settlements further up the trail.  Angtu whistles.  A tiny figure emerges from a greenhouse half a mile away.  They both wave and whistle some more.  Angtu smiles.

Angtu:  My friend.

They join the main trail, following the Dudh Kosi upstream, past small-holdings, stupas and mantra- painted boulders, shops and tea-houses.  They pause to watch a group of laden cattle crossing a suspension bridge.

P1020459 (2)D:  Are those yaks?

Angtu:  Or naks.  Yaks are male.  Naks are female.  But these aren’t either.

D:  So what are they?

Angtu:  These ones are dzopkyo – half yak, half cow.  You probably won’t see proper yaks till we get higher.

D:  OK.  Chopki.  Got it.

They pass through a checkpoint and Angtu heads off with a fistful of paperwork.  A sign says “Welcome to Sagarmatha National Park – World Heritage Natural Site”.  They sit on a wall to wait and read about the park.

L:  As well as Everest, it’s got 7 other peaks over 7,000 metres.

D:  Excellent.  We’ll see some of those.

L:  And glaciers.

D:  Cool – we’ll see some of them.

L:  And “the unique culture of the Sherpa people”.

D:  We’ll see some of that.

L:  And snow leopards and red pandas.

D:  I doubt we’ll see those.

L:  It gets 30,000 visitors…

D:  Yikes, I hope we don’t see all of them.

L:  ….a year, which has massively boosted the local economy and made access for local people much easier to things like healthcare and schools.

D:  That’s good.

L:  And has led to a lot of investment in infrastructure, such as bridges and trails.

D:  That’s good too.

L:  But it also means the cost and demand for food has gone up a lot too.

D:  Not so good if you’re not getting an income from tourism.

L:  No.  Guess what percentage of the park is forested?

D:  Tell me.

P1020921 (2)L:  3%.  Hardly any.  And guess how much is barren land over 5,000 metres?

D:  Umm….

L:  Too slow.  69%!  Most of it’s over 5,000 metres!

D:  What’s the rest?

L:  Grazing.

D:  I’m worried about the 3%.  The trees.

L:  You’re not allowed to burn firewood in the park.  From live trees.  They only burn yak dung.  And rubbish.  And dead trees, though there really aren’t any.  And they’re replanting bits.

D:  OK.

Angtu returns.

Angtu:  Shall we go?  Slowly slowly?

He’s worried about the big climb ahead to Namche Bazaar.  The guidebooks describe it as torturous.  L is coughing much less now but he’s not sure how she’ll do.  He’s still not feeling great himself.

They stop for lunch in a restaurant crammed with several large trekking groups, and sit at the end of a long table feeling overwhelmed by the crowd.  Outside it begins to rain.

P1020476 (2)It’s still spitting when they make their way alongside the river bed, on a path of worn-smooth river stones.  Ahead across the river are two long suspension bridges, one above the other, reaching from one hillside to the next.  The lower one is no longer used.  The higher one is a very long way up.

They start to climb.  People keep getting in the way.  To their surprise they overtake one group after another, one person at a time.  Most of these trekkers flew straight into Lukla yesterday and so are less fit and less acclimatised.  L&D have been walking for 10 days.  They bounce across the suspension bridge happily, watching others cling to the swaying sides in terror.  It is a very long way down.  The drizzle turns to rain and sets in.  They put on their waterproofs and set off up the broad, sandy zigzagging path.  It is mercilessly steep.  They get into a rhythm, overtaking trekker after trekker after trekker – not because they are faster but because they don’t need to stop and rest.  Even Angtu can hardly keep up.

Angtu:  We are strong!

L:  I feel strong.  I can breathe!  It’s amazing!

Angtu:  Stop and rest?  Or keep going?

L:  Keep going.  I’m fine.

D:  It’s not a race, you know.

L:  Of course it’s a race.

They’re treating themselves again. While they can.  The Yeti Mountain Home is right at the top of Namche Bazaar, almost in the cloud.  After last night they are braced for more disappointment.  At the door, boots are traded for the crocs provided.  The sole is flapping off one of L’s crocs so she has to walk with a limp to avoid tripping over it.  They are welcomed, given hot towels and a pot of lemon tea.  The reception area is bitingly cold, but their bedroom is cosy and comfortable and carpeted.  It has panoramic views down over Namche Bazaar.  It has a heater!  An electric blanket!  Great thick duvets and great thick mattresses.  An en-suite bathroom!  The shower dispenses masses of scalding hot water, solar heated on the roof above.  They shower, wash their hair, and get straight into bed.  It’s the middle of the afternoon.  It is heavenly.

P1020478 (2)There’s good news – the hotel is giving Angtu free accommodation and meals.

L:  And Phurba?

Angtu:  He will stay in town.  I’ll find him somewhere.  I’ll look after him.

L:  Oh.  Somewhere nice.

Angtu:  This is normal.  It’s how things are.

It’s not ideal but they accept it.  They’re grateful for Angtu’s free place.  He joins them for supper.

D:  How’s Phurba?

Angtu:  He’s happy.  He’s found friends.  I had dinner with him.  More momos.

Three bowls of soup arrive.

Angtu:  Not for me – oh, ok then.

They finish their soup.  Vast amounts of Chinese food arrive.  The unexpected flavours make a nice change.

Angtu:  Not for me – oh, ok then.

There is much more than they can eat.  But Angtu is not one to waste an opportunity.  He eats until he is about to burst.  One of the waitresses is married to his wife’s brother.  They leave him there chatting and go back to bed.

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Little Donkeys, Little Donkeys… – Nepal – Chapter 7

 

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Route = Ringmo (2720m) – Trakshindu La Pass (3070m) – Jubing (1680m) – Paiya (2770m)

Date = 12-13 March

Angtu is at a loss as to why D&L don’t get up at dawn, like all the other trekkers he has led and set out before sunrise.  Every day he tries in vain.

Angtu:  So breakfast tomorrow…what time?  6.30?  7.00?

D:  Or 8.00?   There’s no hurry.  We’re not walking all day.

But now Angtu needs to put his foot down.  They have a lot of ground to cover and he now knows that L can neither breathe nor walk downhill.  He digs in.

Angtu:  (firmly) I think 7.00 will be OK.  Leave at 7.30?

P1020269 (2)The early morning light drapes the hillside with a chilly blue hue, but the sky above is clear.  In the distance a curtain of morning mist opens briefly to reveal an immense white pyramid, and then closes again, as though they imagined it.  They climb steep cobbled lanes, past orchards and neatly fenced paddocks, and, still cobbled, still steep, on a sunken lane through woodland.  At the top a covered gateway leads them to the Trakshindu La.  The 3070m pass is scruffy and windswept – a bare earth farmyard with a lodge, barns and animal enclosures.  Contradicting all outward appearances, inside the lodge dining room every table has a pretty cloth and a vase with fresh flowers.   Near the door is a huge copper basin filled with water, in which freshly picked marigolds float on the surface.  An elderly woman arranges them lovingly.  It is entirely unclear where in this harsh landscape these flowers could possibly have come from, or whom they are for.

On the far side of the pass a thin cloud blurs the landscape.  From a monastery compound resonates the deep chanting of male voices to the beat of a drum.  Beneath them the serpentine village of Nunthala emerges.

There are several remarkable things about Nunthala.  One is the donkeys.  There are suddenly hundreds of them, in enclosures, on terraces, grazing on dust or being loaded/unloaded, and parading through the village nose to tail.  Another is that the main street looks like a snapshot of a prosperous Cotswolds town.  On each side of the path are large three storey houses with generous front gardens, paved and edged with trees and flower beds and enclosed in neat dry-stone walling.  And lastly there is the tin shack.P1020297 (2)

L:  Look at the tin shack.

D:  It’s a tin shack.

L:  Look at the sign.

D:  It’s a…..snooker hall??

A large tin sign on the large tin shack says “Snooker House”.  And to clarify matters for the disbelieving, there are pictures on the sign of people playing snooker.

L:  Umm…how much does a snooker table weigh?

D:  Well over a ton, I’d imagine.

L:  And they got it here….on the donkeys??

Nunthala is a day’s walk from tiny Phaplu airport and the nearby town of Salleri, from where there is a tarmac road to Kathmandu.  As such, it is a gateway village, hence the donkeys.  Trains of pack animals transport heavy goods such as gas, kerosene and rice from the roadhead to settlements en route to Everest Base Camp.   The new sandy ribbon road project has also reached Nunthala, in theory providing access for motorbikes, jeeps and tractors.

Walking between terraces of intensely green buckwheat and pink cherry blossom, they are forced to step aside at intervals, out of the way of approaching donkey trains.P1020354 (2)

Angtu:  Right!  Go right!

He waves them out of the path of the oncoming four-hooved traffic.

L:  Must we always pass them anticlockwise?  The opposite way to the mani stones?

Angtu looks at her blankly.

Angtu: You should be on the inside.  The uphill side.  Or they will push you off the edge.

L:  Oh.  That makes more sense.

D:  Idiot.

P1020315 (2)The trail becomes punishingly steep, a waterfall of dust and boulders.  They continue down, glad of knee supports and trekking poles.  Below, they can hear, and then see, an icy blue river and a huddle of huts.  This river is their first glimpse of the Dudh Kosi – which they will follow for the next two weeks, all the way to its source, where at 4,700 metres it flows from the Ngozumba Glacier through Gokyo’s sacred lakes.

The tiny settlement of Chhirdi is one of the simplest they have passed through.  With the exception of a single two storey building with a blue-painted balcony, the buildings are low, made from bare stone, wood and tin.  It is not clear which are used for animals and which are habitation.  Goats graze on the steep shrub covered slope above.  Half a dozen women of various ages are sitting on the wall outside the largest building.  All have their faces lavishly adorned with gold jewellery.  They wear enormous hoop earrings, large gold disks spreading across their left nostril and cheek, and golden pendants hanging from septum to mouth.

“Rai people” murmurs Angtu Rai.

They are grateful to reach Jubing – to remove their boots, to rest up in their toy-sized room, so small that there’s no space to shut the door unless they are standing on the bed, to wash in a bucket in the tiny tin wash-house, and to find working internet.

L:  Finally!  I’ve got a response!

Further into their trek, L has attempted to book some luxury.  At $140/night half board they have very high hopes for warm rooms, en-suite bathrooms, hot showers and delicious food, but have so far had no response.

D:  What does it say?  Are we booked?

L:  It says: “Sorry to not getting you back sooner I was in the silent Meditation for a month and I couldn’t use any mail or phone.”  Oh.  Curious.  But yes, we’re booked in.

***

P1020324 (2)Angtu has been firm again, and in the morning they are on the trail by 7.30am – heading uphill pretty much all day.  The landscape is stunning, the sky is blue, and the temperature pleasant.  They wish they could dawdle – taking two or even three days to cover the ground instead of just one.  Ahead on the path a woman, stick in hand, gracefully flicks cattle dung from the ground into a doko basket on her back.  Bamboo, fruit trees and even the occasional palm grow beside the trail.   Angtu and Phurba chat and laugh.  Phurba sings and quacks like a duck.

Angtu:  I’m thinking of putting him on a dating website.  “Phurba Sherpa, age 27, height 5’3”, very strong and handsome, sometimes his head works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

P1020338 (2)At the top of a steep flight of stone steps they pass through a monastery gateway.  There is a choice – more steps to the gompa itself, or a pause for a tea-stop.  L opts for tea and basks in the sun.  D heads for the steps.  At the top, prayer flags flutter and the gompa door is open.  Inside, his socks slide on the polished wood floor.  The walls and ceiling are alive with colour, shapes and patterns.  Layers of fabric forming cylindrical frills, in reds, greens, yellows, blues and white, hang from the ceiling.  One wall is made up of niches for prayer books.  Two green-skinned drums stand sentinel over low cushioned benches for monk meditation.  Outside again, the sunlight is dazzling and the lush green valley is spread out at his feet.

The village of Khari Khola trickles across the hillside for a kilometre or more.  They are charmed by everything: the cottages, washing lines, haystacks-up-trees, an arbour of blossom across the path, stupas and prayer flags, terraces and meadows, lodges and shops, of which there are plenty.  Sadly they have to move on.

P1020359 (2)In a tea-house in Bupsa they order noodle soup and omelettes.  The owner’s tiny son shares a bench with D, playing a game on his mother’s phone.  He edges along the bench, studiously ignoring D.  D peers towards the screen and gives advice.  The boy takes no notice, loses the game and slides closer to D.  They both study the screen.   The boy loses the game.  He hands D the phone.  D loses the game.  The boy rolls his eyes and reclaims the phone.  He loses the game.  The boy gets comfortable, turning sideways, leaning back, using D as a back rest, feet on the bench, phone on his knees.  D drinks his tea.  The boy loses the game.

They climb.  And climb.  Magnolia trees are flowering in the oak forest.  The path is steeply stepped and rough going.  The donkey trains are frequent.  Angtu points across a thickly wooded gorge to a village on the far side.

Angtu:  See Paiya?  Over there.  That’s where we’re going.

D:  Great!  Not that far then.

Angtu:  Quite far.  Maybe 2 hours, maybe 3.

L:  Three hours?  But it’s just there!

Angtu:  We have to go round.  A looooong way round.

They begin the contour to reach the head of the gorge.  It goes on and on.  Paiya remains just over there but never closer.  The trail consists of tall and irregular stones forming cobbles, in a soup of liquid mud.  It is narrow, and very slippery.  There’s nowhere to rest away from the mud.  They have been on their feet for 9 hours and counting, and have climbed over 1,200 metres today.  It takes all their concentration to keep their footing.   Every now and then they negotiate an ammonic swamp of donkey pee.

L:  Why do all the donkeys pee in the same place?

D:  Dogs do.  Maybe they’re leaving messages.  Being sociable.

L:  Traffic jam ahead.

The trail is entirely blocked by donkeys.  Angtu goes off to investigate.  He returns.

Angtu:  A rice bag split.  They’re eating it.

D:  Might they move on?

Angtu:  Not till 5 o’clock.

D:  Why 5 o’clock?

Angtu:  They’re on a break.

D:  Right.

There is no way to edge around them on the uphill side.  So they scramble down off the trail onto the steep bank below, and make their way slowly past.  Phurba holds L’s hand and stands downhill of her to prevent her falling.  She hopes none of the donkeys will stumble off the path and squash them.  They have nearly made it when the donkey train begins to move.

Angtu:  It’s 5 o’clock.

P1020378 (3)They climb back up the bank and onto the path, still behind the donkeys, and follow them into Paiya.  At the entrance to the village there’s another hold-up.  A workman has left a hammer on the narrow metal bridge, and there is no way one particular donkey is stepping over that hammer.  No way.  After some ineffectual shouting and pushing, the hammer is removed and the donkey train continues.

The Bee Hive Lodge is pretty and has flower beds edged with upturned beer bottles.  Their room is ridiculously dark and has thick leopard print velour blankets.    They put on their head torches despite there still being an hour of daylight outside.

In the cosy dining room is an Israeli family with four small cheerful children.  Impressively, they too have made it here.  There is also a German who speaks fluent Nepali, eats with his hands and drinks water from a jug.

German:  I’ve walked all over Nepal, for 30 years.  Done every trekking route there is.  Many times.  And I think that this could be the toughest.

L:  Should we feel like heroes or fools?

D:  I’m thinking about it.

They go to bed early.

L:  D?

D:  What?

L:  Are you asleep?

D:  Yes.

L:  Oh.

D:  What?

L:  Nothing.

D:  What?

L:  Everything smells of donkey pee.

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