It was the day of the juga. My nearly two-week trek in the Langtang, Gosainkunda and
Helambu regions of central Nepal with my delightful and unflappable 21-year-old guide-porter, Pempa Tamang, was mostly fabulous fun, though very hard work because we walked up and down the hills like happy maniacs. With the good must come the bad, unfortunately, and the morning of September 24, 2014, the next to last day of our journey, quickly turned into a Third World horror film that simply would not end.
Almost nobody treks in Nepal during the monsoon, from June until early September, for two
very good reasons. 1. Who wants to walk through heavy rain and slosh through mud every day, especially when you can barely see the landscape? 2. During the monsoon many trails are infested with blood sucking leeches, which the Nepalese call juga. Thanks to climate change the weather is increasingly unpredictable, and the heavy rains continued throughout my otherwise lovely walk with Pempa.
Most mornings were clear and bright, with dark clouds forming by noon and sheets of rain
pouring down shortly afterwards. I am a life-long nighthawk, but morph into a morning person while trekking, because an early start is mandatory. Pempa and I carried that even further than normal, showering, shovelling down breakfast and hitting the trail by 6:30 a.m. each day. It was wonderful. The birds were chirping, the skies were bright blue and the trails were ours alone for a few hours, not that there were many trekkers on the trails that early in the hiking season. We walked very, very fast, and reached our daily destinations late in the morning every day but one, almost completely avoiding the rain. In one case we started so early and walked so fast that the slow folks were just finishing their breakfast when we arrived at our scheduled destination. I flirted with the idea of continuing on that day, but we had already gained 1,000 meters of altitude that morning and the next day’s scheduled walk required another 1,000 meters of ascent. We could climb 2,000 meters in a day but it would be courting altitude sickness if we didn’t come back down a considerable distance, which was not an option. Walk high and sleep low is the trekking rule. Besides the rain was starting.
On paper the 24th looked like the shortest, flattest and easiest day of the schedule which
Lhakpa Dorgi Sherpa Shangu, the assistant leader of the wonderful trekking company, Kamzang Journeys, drew up for us. Lhakpa and I planned this walk while we were trekking in the Zanskar Mountains in northern India in August, to fill in the time before my next trek with Kamzang, to Dolpo in western Nepal, starting October 1. He assumed, reasonably enough, that the monsoon would be over in mid-September as usual, but the day before Pempa and I set off for Langtang, Lhakpa joked that I should keep an eye out for leeches because it was still raining. At least I thought he was joking. Pempa, my ever-optimistic companion, who would be walking in his home territory, disagreed, arguing the rains were nearly over and we would be fine. He was right, despite the heavy rains which we almost totally dodged, until the 24th. To that point Pempa had only pointed out one leech hanging off a plant on the side of the trail and another leech on his shoe, which was easily removed.
The day’s hike started fine, but after about 10 minutes Pempa had to stop twice to remove
leeches from his clothes and the rain began to pound down upon us. He showed me there were dozens and dozens of leeches hanging off plants on both sides of the very narrow trail, desperately reaching for a host to latch on to and dine on their blood. It was nearly impossible to walk without coming in contact with them. In hot weather I usually walk with my shirtsleeves and pant legs rolled up to stay cool and avoid my pants getting covered in mud, but I looked down and saw a leech on my bare forearm. Pempa helped me remove it, but the ‘fun’ was just beginning. I rolled my sleeves down to my hands and my pants over my trekking boots, which helped a bit, but I still kept finding leeches on my pants, including one chillingly close to my private parts.
I tried walking in the middle of the trail to avoid the leeches but there was a shiny green
surface on the center of the path that made it remarkably slippery. I managed to navigate it for a while but finally my feet went out from under me and I hit my head on a boulder. No blood. No concussion. Just a swelling lump on my noggin. I was slipping and sliding but I stayed in the middle of that path. I’d rather hit my head on another boulder than be ravaged by bloodsuckers. Suddenly we both stopped dead in our tracks, finding ourselves face-to-face with a meter-long poisonous snake (salpa in Nepalese), which slithered away into the grass a few seconds later after Pempa pelted it with stones.
At the next village we stopped for tea and the woman of the house said the local snakes are
“very poisonous,” and if I were bitten it would be “big problem” but not a fatal one. “Salpa is as scared of you as you are of him. He does not want to see you,” she explained. “Juga are very happy to see you, however. They are not poisonous. They just want your blood,” she added with a chuckle. She and her husband assured us that our ordeal was over. The rest of the way was free of juga problems, which was a relief to hear. Unfortunately, they were wrong. VERY, VERY wrong. The next two hours were pure hell. I pulled a total of 22 leeches off my body and clothes before reaching our destination, Sarmathang. At one point I removed five separate leeches from my clothes and on another occasion, four. I became an expert at flicking them off my arms and legs. Pempa helped me with the difficult ones. It also rained very hard for those two utterly miserable hours.
I realized early on that I was going to have to grit my teeth, keep picking the leeches off
myself and just get through it because there was no other alternative. My mantra was ‘this too shall pass.’ It seemed like the torment would never end, but finally the trail widened
considerably and there were no more leeches to contend with. When we finally arrived at our teahouse, I removed my boots, as dictated by Helambu custom, and quickly walked up the stairs to the dining room, relieved the nightmare was finally over, and was greeted warmly. Suddenly the owner’s face darkened and he loudly exclaimed “JUGA,” pointing at a fully engorged leech oozing along the base of my left big toe, on top of my socks. I instantly knew why it was so enormous and my heart sank. I raced downstairs and removed it, plus another leech that was crawling out of one of my hiking boots.
I sipped some soothing Nepali chai while Pempa did his best to dry out my passport and
plane tickets on the hot stove. I didn’t want to see the carnage, but finally rolled up my pants, pulled my trekking socks down and discovered huge globs of coagulated blood, mostly on my shins, plus a few openings in my skin where the blood was taken. I grabbed a bar of soap, went to the outhouse and washed my shins in a bucket of water, again and again. Leeches are not normally poisonous, but they can cause an infection if your wounds are not carefully cleaned, so I did a very, very thorough job. Later I devoured two enormous mounds of dahl bhat, the ideal Nepali trekking food, washed down by a huge bottle of Carlsberg beer and began to feel vaguely human again.
I went to my room and noticed that Pempa had placed my boots upside down against an
overhang outside to dry. I moved them closer to my ground floor room, then reached for a key to open my door. At that moment another disgustingly engorged leech fell to the ground from the top of my shirt. I totally freaked out, grabbing a nearby sandal and completely lost it, literally pounding the leech to pieces, creating a pool of my own blood. A quick look at my boots revealed what happened. There was a significant amount of blood in one, which the leech had obviously been inside. It fell out of the boot and landed on my chest as I was holding the boots upside down while opening the door. My apologies to whoever’s sandal I used to take out my frustration on that disgusting leech. I tried to take a nap but I twitched every time I imagined that I felt something on my skin, fanatically checking my clothes and body for leeches, finding none. It took me a couple of days to get past that.
A few hours later three trekkers arrived at the tea house, telling a similar story about their
own encounters with the leeches. They used umbrellas held out in front of them to knock the blood suckers off the plants while walking down the path, but didn’t seem to fare any better than we did. Probably because they were dressed in shorts and had no long pants to put on. We had some good, gallows humour laughs together and later that evening I joined them in their room to swap horror stories, eat dinner and consume lots of beer. They were great company, but Pempa was the best. I have no idea how I would have gotten through this ordeal without him, possibly the nicest and most positive companion I have ever travelled with. And now a Facebook friend. No matter how awful things got he always had a smile on his face and at a shelter we discovered beside the trail we rested and recounted what we had been through and began laughing almost hysterically like the two gold miners in the final scene of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, after realizing that all the gold they had slaved over for months to collect had been blown away by the wind, back to where it came from. Nature’s joke was on them and now it was on us. And that’s why I still laugh, in between shivers, when I think of that day. They say the worst experiences make the best stories. Maybe, but this is one story I could have done without.
The following day we arrived back at my beloved Kathmandu Guest House and I took the
longest and hottest shower of my life, after collecting all of the clothes I brought with me on
the trek and passing them to the hotel laundry service for cleaning. Happily, the rains had now stopped and a few days later I flew off with a wonderful bunch of new trekkers to Dolpo in western Nepal, where fresh adventures awaited, including a massive snow storm that killed dozens of foreign trekkers, porters and guides. But that is another story.