We got mugged on the way to the World Peace Pagoda, but it didn't go down exactly the way we'd expected.
After being advised by the Lonely Planet that there had been in recent years a string of tourists who'd reported getting mugged on the two-hour forest hike from the small lakeside town of Pokhara to the hill-straddling World Peace Pagoda, we'd elected to leave our more important possessions -- camera, passports, etc -- in our $7-a-night hotel room, figuring they'd be safer there than in the path of Maoist muggers.
We'd already had a busy day -- Aliyah had run for an hour that morning, then we'd kayaked on the lake for two, and after lunch we'd walked for at least another hour before even reaching the trail head -- and as we set off on the hike, we were already pretty tired. But exhaustion was quickly replaced by awe, as we chugged along a small dirt path bordering beautiful, brilliant green rice paddies peppered with smiling Nepalis.
After getting lost a couple times -- once being offered help by a Nepali teen who spoke excellent English but would only give us directions if he could act as paid guide (denied), and once by a group of Nepali women and girls who spoke no English but seemed tickled to point us in the right direction free of charge -- we set off into the forested hills on what seemed to be the correct path. We scrambled up over hundreds of mossy stone steps, and after passing and briefly chatting with a dazed and confused British trekker, we quickly realized we were otherwise the only hikers on the mountain.
The scenery was gorgeous, lush, green, and serene. We listened to bullfrogs croak loudly and watched as a family of monkeys scampered past us, not ten feet away.
"This is a real forest," Aliyah said.
The mugging happened about an hour into our forest trek. Aliyah stopped in the narrow mud path. She bent over at the waist, her eyes glued on her shoes. And then she let loose a shriek that could have raised the dead.
"What's wrong?" I nearly yelled, racing toward her.
"Oh my god!" Aliyah screamed. "Get them off me! Get them off me!"
"Get what off you?"
Aliyah turned around, sheer terror spilling across her frantic face, and pointed to her feet. I immediately saw what looked to be a three-inch long earthworm crawling across her ankle. As I looked closer, I saw several more, ranging in size from one to four inches, crawling all over her shoes. Several were actually wriggling through the synthetic mesh of her Nike running shoes, their tails flapping wildly in the air as they struggled to bore through shoe and sock to the tender flesh beneath.
Leeches. They were everywhere.
"Oh shit," I said like a soprano (not a tough Italian Soprano -- a high-voiced fragile soprano).
As Aliyah continued to scream in terror and bounce around like she had to pee really, really bad, I began whacking her shoes with the Lonely Planet and my water bottle. That didn't do much good.
I knew that picking leeches off the skin can raise the risk of infection, and that the preferred method of removal is either a lit match or a pinch of salt (think of those childhood shriveling snail experiments). But I figured there wasn't much harm in me plucking leeches from Aliyah's shoes. No harm other than me having to touch a bunch of disgusting leeches, that is.
As Aliyah continued to totter on the edge of a nervous breakdown (to her credit, it was terrifying, and I learned later that during the whole awful episode Aliyah was under the mistaken impression that leeches could actually burrow beneath her skin and make themselves a nice home snuggled among organs and veins), I began nervously pulling at the tails of leeches half-buried in her shoes. This was easier said than done. Leeches are strong and resilient, wriggling and fighting each time I tried to grab them. And as soon as I pulled one off Aliyah's shoe, it would immediately try to attach itself to my thumb or forefinger.
A couple minutes into this awful exercise, I looked down at my own feet.
"Oh shit," I said. My feet and ankles had as many leeches on them as Aliyah's, and they were burrowing similarly into the mesh of my crappy athletic shoes.
At this point, Aliyah did what I've since dubbed her "banshee impression," rounding on me with frightening red-faced anxiety, pointing to her shoe, and screaming at a glass-shattering pitch, "Get it off me! Get it off me!"
I looked down. The biggest leech yet -- at least four or five inches -- was wiggling its way below Aliyah's bloodying sock and into the dark dampness between cotton and flesh.
"If I pick it off it could get infected," I said as calmly as I could, simultaneously thinking, "I really do not want to touch that thing."
"I don't care," my terrifying girlfriend screamed. "Get it off NOW!"
I know when an order is an order. I yanked the leech off immediately.
It is worth noting, I think, that while I appeared to do an admirable job of keeping a brave, calm and commanding front during the leech episode, I was inwardly as terrified as Aliyah. I've got a thing about my feet, and a thing about bugs, and a thing about snakes, and this whole catastrophe seemed to be a grotesque marriage of the three -- an army of tiny bloodsucking snake-like bugs attacking my feet. I was scared and grossed out.
A few minutes after discovering the leeches, we actually decided to keep going toward the World Peace Pagoda. We didn't know how far it was, but we figured it couldn't be farther than the hour we'd just hiked into the isolated forest. But as soon as we reached a dead end a few minutes later (the whole time, Aliyah continued to pause to examine her feet and freak out every fifteen seconds or so), we realized the smartest course of action was to head back.
We ran. We'd already exercised hard all day. But while we were basically running on nothing but adrenaline and fumes, we were somehow able to race down the mountain at a furious pace. Terror will do that, I suppose. It's a wonder one of us didn't slip and fall. Especially because I spent much of the run leafing through the Lonely Planet to make sure I was well-versed in the art of leech removal.
We stopped a couple times during this twenty-minute run to pluck leeches from our feet (there were still several digging through our shoes) and for Aliyah to worry about the blood on her socks and the constant red drip-drip-drip on the back of my left calf.
Close to the base of the mountain, we ran into three old Nepali women carrying bundles of sticks. We must have been quite a sight -- two terrified, scrambling Americans roaring down the mountain, pausing only to shake and hit our feet.
"Namaste," I said, offering by way of explanation, "Leeches."
As we neared (relative) civilization, and as Aliyah grew more worried over the nearing inevitability of having to actually see the leeches on her feet, I adopted what I'm sure was the grating habit of greeting every Nepali we passed with a cheery "Namaste!"
We quickly crossed a bridge over the dammed lake, hit a road, and found a small store. A man with a colorful fez was sitting outside. I asked him for matches. He gave me a box. I asked for salt. He spooned some into a makeshift paper packet. I threw down 100 Nepali rupees (about $1.50) and told him to keep the change. Then I ran outside, where Aliyah was still freaking out.
Still under the mistaken impression that leeches could tunnel under her flesh, an outcome that Aliyah was half-convinced would require the certain amputation of both her feet, Aliyah buried her face under my baseball cap and cried while I started to remove her shoes and socks. We were sitting on a low concrete platform -- not unlike a stage -- and we quickly drew an audience of perhaps thirty interested Nepalis.
Aliyah peeked out from under the hat as I removed her left shoe and saw three preschool-aged Nepali boys staring at her with confused amazement. She managed a gurgling laugh from beneath a veritable sea of tears.
I took off Aliyah's left sock, which was dotted with blood. There were no leeches on her foot.
"OK," said the man in the hat who had sold me the matches. "You are OK."
I took off Aliyah's right shoe and sock. No leeches there either. Both feet had two or three bloody bites on them, but none of the leeches that had made it to her flesh had stuck around for seconds. They'd fed and bolted.
"You are OK!" said my friend in the hat. "No problem."
And then through a complicated series of gestures and broken phrases, he made it plain that the leeches had bitten Aliyah and then split.
"This happens to all Nepali women one or two times a day," he said in hobbled English.
Aliyah soon stopped crying.
I was waiting for the crowd to disperse before I took my own shoes off, but after a couple of minutes of them waiting and watching, it became clear that wouldn't happen. So, I took off my shoes with much flair and fanfare (even announcing "Tada!" once). One of my shoes had a big wormy leech in it, but otherwise, I too was clean. One of the Nepali women plucked that leech out of my shoe and inspected both of our shoes and socks to make sure they were clear of blood suckers.
My friend in the hat gave us a bag for us to dump our shoes and socks in (we were still far too afraid of the possibility of sneaky hidden leeches to put them back on) and we began the long three-mile walk back to our hotel...barefoot. And laughing the whole time.