Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tall Girl in...Nepal

I found there were highs and lows to lankiness on the spectacular Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal. On the plus side, having a long stride enabled me to cover maximum distance with minimum effort, allowing plenty of time to gawp at the world's highest peaks. Thanks to my 36" inside leg measurement, I could keep up with my companions even when drained of energy and wheezing in the thin air at 5000metres.

On the downside, doorways were an issue. Dashing to the long-drop loo during the long and freezing nights, I would crack my head on the doorframe as I shot into the outside dunny - which registered a mere minus eight degrees - then crack it again on the way out. This happened regularly and painfully and it was difficult to tell if headaches were caused by altitude or dwarf-sized doorframes.

It was slightly embarassing to be knocking 6ft and carrying a small daysack while diminuitive porters lugged three large backpacks each, weighing up to 60kg. Our porters did seem particularly tiny - barely 5ft tall but strong and tough as yaks. They sprang up the steep steps with indomitable determination while we gasped like fish out of water and slowed to the pace of a sloth. Even after Day One we were all in awe of their incredible strength and cheerful, friendly dispositions.

Summiting the 5545m Kala Pattar peak at 7am, I wished I were porter-sized. After a strenuous , high altitude climb in temperatures of approx -10 degrees, I found myself perched on a prayer-flag covered Pride Rock. Only, unlike the Lion King, this was supposed to be the best place to see the sunrise over Everest. I didn't wait to find out. In danger of losing all ten fingers and all ten toes, I was so cold I didn't give a damn that if I stood up I could be buffeted by the wind and fall several hundred vertical metres, off the narrow rock. At that stage I was in a kamikaze state and could only think of getting down and getting warm. I stood on the rock and wobbled in the wind like a giant skittle veering towards a strike, then shot down the mountain before the sun had a chance to rise.

The porters were just getting up when we got back to our lodge. Still warm from sleep and well rested, their smiling faces looked with interest at our group of lanky, shivering Europeans. It was clear that our foreheads had "AMATEURS" written all over them.

After the Base Ca
mp trek I took a five hour public bus to the Chitwan National Park. As is the tradition of public transport space saving, 3" of leg room had been sacrificed between the seats. I had to sit diagonally, taking up more than my share of the seats, and as the bus filled up, another three people crammed in beside me. Feeling very guilty for taking up so much room, I tried to demonstrate to the small teenage boy next to me that my knees physically didn't fit. I didn't mean to be a selfish foreigner hogging all the space, it was simply a case of poor ergonomics. He looked pained but uninterested and after thirty minutes I tried offering round Polos by means of compensation.

Teenage Boy studiously kept his eyes shut as I proffered the packet, so I moved on to the Nepalese lady beside him. She made a lunge for a sick-bag and revisited her breakfast as we swung round a corner and I abandoned my compensation policy. Thereafter, Teenage Boy studiously examined the back of his eyelids, his skinny knees jammed next to mine and discomfort all over his face. Meanwhile I developed a severely numb bum and nursed my bruised knees for a week.

To add insult to injury, a two-hour "rhino spotting" elephant ride in the National Park resulted in zero rhinos and two dead-legs. Maybe the jungle and I were just never meant to meet.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tall Tibet

After nine days in Tibet I thought I had developed a stoop. My main hazard was, predictably, monastery doorways and most of those not destroyed by the Buddhist-purge of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, were built in medieval times, when the monks were considerably smaller than they are even today.

All doorways involve a cautious duck in this country, but several times in the Baiju Monastery in Gyantse and the Jokhang in Lhasa, I had to fold double to fit through the gap. One momentary lapse in concentration, tearing your gaze from a house-sized golden buddha and you could well break a nose or knock yourself out. A German girl I was travelling with was sporting two black eyes by the time we arrived in Lhasa, having done just that!

We happened to be visiting the Tashilunpo Monastery in Xigantse during the peak of the pilgrimage and the place was brimming with rural locals paying their respects. Often finding ourselves in huge queues trying to exit tiny rooms, I was once waiting patiently beside a tiny, wizened old lady. Her head just about reached my elbow but she beamed a gap-toothed grin at me and we started a sign language conversation of sorts.

It went a little bit like this:
"You're very small"
"You're very tall"
"Are you going to ask me for money?"
"Is she going to give me money?"

Unabashed by the vast white person looming over her, she shoved and jostled good naturedly and eventually pushed ahead of me in the queue, glancing back between people's shoulders with a mischievous grin.
For a country of such minute people - cleverly evolved to be low to the ground on an immensely high and windswept plateau - the Jeep we took to Lhasa had acres of legroom. Admittedly, despite being a six-seater, the only way in and out of the vehicle was via the passenger door, the heating didn't work meaning the windows were constantly frozen on the inside and it limped over the high altitude passes at walking pace. But, nonetheless, we were able to enjoy eight-hour journeys through quite outrageously beautiful mountains in surprising comfort.

Totally falling in love with the traditional Tibetan boot - bright red and black wool, knee high and beautifully embroidered - we were devastated to find they didn't stretch to even a reasonable size 6. My friend, observed by a crowd of spellbound local onlookers, valiantly tried to squeeze her petite feet into the felt footwear but was defeated. With my size 8s, I didn't even bother trying - sadly not even the men's would suffice.

Low tables were an issue - the majority of my meals were eaten from my lap as, not being able to fit my legs underneath, I couldn't get close enough to the table to eat off it. The locals thought this very funny and, as when walking down the street, they would stare upwards in friendly wonder, nudge their companions and mime the whole "You're a giant" thing while giggling and wanting to shake your hand. All reports about the fabled Tibetan friendliness and hospitality were in no way exaggerated, they were the most wonderful and resilient people.
During our trip, my favourite example of the famous Chinese space-saving techniques was the bath in our hotel in Gyantse. Three feet long at a push, it filled the whole wall of our pocket-sized bathroom and was 90% useless, except for perhaps washing clothes, a baby, or small dog. When I got into it my knees were folded up under my chin, leaving a good two feet of leg high and dry. In the end I stuck to the shower and prayed for it to be hot. Which it wasn't. More like off-cold or the temperature of a paddling pool in British summertime. A real home from home!

Tall India

In northern India I was surprised to feel almost small - compared to the men at least. With their impressive stature, for once I felt less of a haystack in a field of needles.

But what was particularly eye-catching was their fondness for flares. Wrapping their long, fine limbs in slim-fitting flares, teamed with 1970s long-lapelled shirts in orange and yellow stripes, they considered themselves very much "on trend". And to be fair they looked pretty good - fortunately the shorter, dumpier types stuck to conventional, contemporary cuts, but the young and lean looked pretty impressively retro-dapper.

In this country there are several advantages to breathing from a higher stratosphere:

1) Your nose is further from the heady cocktail of street stench, including mostly cow dung, dog excrement, human sewage and rotten vegetables. Some shops and homes generously burn incense to mask the smell but it's best to put as much height between you and the debris as possible.

2) The tallest person gets the tallest camel. On safari in Rajasthan's Thar Desert , I was awarded "Johnnie Walker" who was a docile, amenable giant in urgent need of Listerine. And I did well, the others had grumpy, stumpy mounts with a chafing stride and similarly asphyxiating halitosis. B
ig is best!

3) It is easy to intimidate pesky, leering youths. Groups of five or six giggling boys in their late teens seem to hang around monuments, palaces and forts with no interest in national heritage, but a strong thirst for a tourist-fix. Deliberately hanging back until you've passed them, they break into fits of hysteria as they try to photograph your bum. Summoning my full height and all the headmistressly presence I could muster, it was very satisfying to catch them in the act and give them a good public dressing-down in front of their mates.

Many tourists did their best to blend in with the locals and avoid unwanted attention by covering up and adopting local dress. This was never going to work for me. I would dearly love to be able to wear one of those beautiful saris, but the ladies are all so petite and filigree-boned that I'd probably be mistaken for a transvestite. Standing out is one thing, standing out and being spat on is quite another.

And finally, a heightist travel blog would never be complete without a reference to doorway heights. On the whole I didn't have any problems in India as it is possible that a positive legacy of the British Raj was to leave behind generously proportioned doorways. This was the case in most places, except the Maharaja Mahal palace in the Jaisalmer fort. It has intentionally low doorways designed to force people to stoop as they entered a room, automatically showing respect to the maharaja, should he happen to be in the room. Well, at least that place provided a tenuous explanation.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Tall Girl on...sporting success

A couple of years ago I saw an advert in the newspaper for "The Sporting Giants of London 2012". Intrigued, I discovered that the British Olympic Committee were looking for tall people - of unproven sporting ability - to become the superstars of the 2012 Olympics. Gold medals flashed up instantaneously on my eyeballs and I went to the website to find out more.

To qualify girls had to be a minimum of 5ft 11" - tick. They had to be under 25 years - tick. And they didn't have to be experienced in any of the sports in question, namely volleyball, handball and rowing - definite tick. I clicked on the application form to see what else was required. Where was the catch? Starting to fill in my details, I was confident that I was just the physical goldmine that Seb & Co had been hoping to unearth.

However, my enthusiasm waned when I was forced to detail my sporting record. As a list, without the embellishment of adjectives, it was depressingly substandard. "List the sports that you have played to a) County b) Regional c) National d) International level" it demanded. Hmmm, where does the Gore Court Ladies Hockey team fit in? There were only two teams and I was in the second one, on a good day. Humiliatingly we were the only team that got relegated to the grass pitch on a regular basis - even the Boys Under-8s were considered more impressive.

Going back a bit, when I was 13 I did once go to County netball trials...but my name wasn't read out and I never got to wear the hoodie. So if we're being strict about this box ticking thing I couldn't honestly say I'd "played" at County level. But then Kent's a big county and, had I perchance been born in Rutland, I might have had more of a chance. Having failed to receive a County call-up I then diverted my efforts to hockey - at least that involved boys. My school was oestrogen only so I became a very diligent attendee at hockey club training sessions and Saturday matches. Yet despite being a die-hard supporter of the Men's 1st XI, and sometimes even the 2nds too, I picked up none of their skills and soon learnt it was better to keep my sporting attempts out of sight of potential admirers.

Contemplating the form once again, I racked my brains for other glimmers of sporting success. I won the infants' running race at sports day two years running. I was reasonably successful at riding but the committee didn't seem much interested in horses. I once did a trampolining competition (maybe that was County level?) but broke my nose during a somersault a few weeks later and quit. I did row for a while at university - that was relevant experience - but despite training like a Duracell bunny plugged to the mains, I only went in a boat twice in two terms so gave up. My final competitive effort was mixed hockey for a university intra-mural team, but I was more successful as the Social Secretary than in the goalmouth. So although one of my cross-dressing themed training sessions lured a whole men's rugby team to join the club, dramatically boosting numbers, I failed to make the touring side.

So, my Olympics form looked a little like this:

County sports - none

Regional sports - none

National sports - none

International sports - none

Maybe I wasn't quite the winner they were looking for.

I decided to give up on my latest grand plan for international fame and tried to exit the site. Having only filled in the first half of the form - personal details and some feeble sporting efforts - I accidentally pressed SUBMIT. It appeared to be the only way to exit the site but now the poor people on the committee would have to plough through my woeful application. How embarassing I thought, and promptly forgot all about it.

Several weeks later, a fat letter arrived through the door of my London flat announcing that I had been selected to attend Olympic Sporting Giants rowing trials on one of five dates of my choosing. Gobsmacked, I read on - bring sports kit, energy drinks and be prepared to be pushed to the limit. Envisaging being yelled at by a spit-showering do-or-die coach, turning more and more purple before eventually collapsing over my ergo machine, I felt pretty unenthusiastic about the whole thing.
I never wanted to win gold for rowing - you have to sell your soul to training, mess about with boats in all weathers and end up with shoulders like padded coathangers. No, what I'd imagined all along was a successful career for myself in volleyball, preferably of the beach kind. It takes place in rather sunnier climes and the players are considered fit in both senses of the word. It's an awesome game too. I played obsessively during a two week trekking trip to the French Alps with a group of male friends who re-enacted the Top Gun volleyball scene - without, they insisted, any homosexual undertones - every afternoon.

So, disappointed not to have been given a chance at my chosen sport, I politely declined the invitation to humiliate myself at Olympic trials. At 5ft 11" I was the minimum height required and at 24, the maximum age allowed. In short, I was too small and too old to be Britain's next Sporting Giant. Seb, mate, you missed out.