Happy Easter from Agra, India, home of the Taj Mahal only minutes down the road from our hotel. We arrived this morning by train from New Delhi and this Easter will go down in memory as one like no other but impressions of India will follow later. This is the story of our time in Nepal.
Upon landing in Kathmandu, Nepal, on March 31 we were informed to set back our watch one hour and 15 minutes from Bangkok time. Strange time change and when asking why, we learned it was to differentiate from India, which is 15 minutes West of Nepal since after all they are two separate countries as yes, they are. Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal and really the only large city left in the historical Kathmandu Valley and surrounded by the foothills of the Himalayas which because of the horrendous smog are seen only as distant shadows. Flying over the city showed us the crowdedness which we would experience soon but first one had to deal with Nepal immigration and the buy- upon- arrival visa which is a story in itself. It was almost at the last minute of our very pleasant Thai airlines flight from Bangkok that the paperwork for Nepal was handed out, including the Visa form which showed where a recent passport picture needed to be affixed. We had extra passport pictures with us but not that what was also required for admittance to Nepal….25 US dollars or Euros, since Nepal does not accept even its own currency for entrance. Obviously we were not the only tourists taken off guard at the foreign passport gate. Nepali’s and SAARC Countries were not subjected to the fee and happily walked through another gate while about 100 confused foreigners lined up at another gate wondering how in the heck we would find US dollars or Euros while so far from the countries where they are actually manufactured. I remained in line while Tom went on an ATM mission together with some very frantic tourists. Tom was even mentioned in the line as being the only one who was not losing his cool. True to form he calmly asked and did not appear upset in being sent left, right, upstairs, downstairs and eventually Tom walked through the Nepali passport exit gate and was not seen again for probably 30 minutes at which time I wondered if he found the solution to this whole dilemma and was waiting for me on the outside to join him. He eventually returned, with the correct amount in US dollars and the only ATM in the Kathmandu airport is indeed outside and I wonder how many chose not to return to pay the fees due, but of course on the way out of the country you are screwed since the correct papers for exit will not then be in your hands. Luggage was another matter. Before you can enter the area where your checked in luggage can be retrieved you have to go through security where they screen the hand baggage you brought in but do not check anything upon leaving with the rest of your luggage (?) Oh well. We were blessed to have the manager/owner of our booked hotel still standing outside with an ELS STRICKLAND sign held up high. Never before have I been so relieved seeing my name in print. Bhishnu, from the Katmandu View Hotel came through for us many more times during our ten days in Nepal.
Our inner city Thamel hotel was probably less than 10 KM from the airport but the sights, sounds and smells of Katmandu sent us in sensory overload long before arrival. I wonder if I would have ever complained about traffic in Bangkok, Australia and New Zealand if we had chosen to travel with the rising sun instead of the setting and seen Kathmandu first. Kathmandu traffic is beyond description but I will try. Very narrow, dirt streets, packed with pollution belching vehicles, low quality fuel, total lack of emission control and whether they have two wheels, three, four or more they are all destined to be there first and at all times will try to pass whoever is in front of them even if that means totally ignoring the left side of the street they were meant to drive. It is a given that upon passing the horn will be honked and since all are passing all, never waiting for even an opportunity, the incessant honking is an absolute lesson in futility. That is Katmandu and Nepal’s traffic in a nut shell. Most of the time the traffic is of course totally tied up and still, every one honks. Pedestrians account for over 40% of all traffic fatalities. It was during this drive we learned that electricity is only available in Nepal 8 hours out of every 24 and the hours while we were there appeared to be between 4.00 and 8.00am and 4.00 and 8.00 pm. Prime times? Power is still needed the rest of the hours, especially for the hospital located across the alley from the hotel, so diesel fueled generators operate during the off hour which adds not only to the noise but also the pollution and I learned to use my recently purchased Thai headscarf as a mask. Garbage covers and lines the streets and in the morning women sweep the alleys and on the spot the trash, including lots of plastic is burned. Our first hours in Nepal were spent exploring the narrow alleys of Thamel, lined with stores all ready to have us enter and see the wares. While years ago it was the tie-dyed hippies crowd which frequented Kathmandu , now it is the gore -tex hiking bunch it attracts evident by the merchandise displayed. Every other stand carried North face products, Mamot and trekking poles. While some enjoy the banter needed to bargain for prices, we do not. We learned that the prices asked are hugely inflated and through artfully negotiating on both sides one usually only has to pay a third of the original asking price. Not on our list of enjoyable moments, we truly prefer the ability to walk around, look peacefully at the items and see a price affixed which we either want to pay or not. In Nepal, like Thailand, that is not going to happen. Begging is quite common in Nepal partly because both Hinduism and Buddhism encourage the giving of alms. It is a very difficult, heart rendering dilemma ….to give or not to give… when encountering children on the street who point to a store and then raise their hands to their mouth. Feed me? We learned that Kathmandu has over a 1000 street children, lured by the easy money and that by giving you encourage a life style which serves no one, especially not the child. We learned of the various agencies in place assisting and supporting the children of Nepal who have been orphaned through the latest uprising, the insurgency which placed the Maoists in charge. Over 12.000 Nepali’s were killed and many more are still in jail while their children roam the streets. An organization recently formed is called “one Voice” and made up through efforts of Norway, the Netherlands, Japan and the USA. Upon our return we hope to assist the Nepali children and learn more about how to raise Kathmandu’s children’s living conditions while remaining loyal to the Nepali culture. The child who broke my heart was a little girl, at the most 4 years old. Sitting alone by the side of a congested, very busy street, tin cup in front. I squatted in front of her and asked. ” Who, my child, is looking after you”? Without any expression she stared back. I noticed a bottle of water next to her and a rag over the railing to protect her from the sun and knew somewhere close, someone was watching and would take the money I left in the tin, praying that somehow that little effort would help this little girl while knowing it would not. It is especially around the religious shrines where lines of beggars can be found, knowing where the tourists are often headed. Standing on a street corner, looking at our map we were approached by two “Holy men” who without asking planted a Tika on our foreheads and demanded significant payment for a “blessing” we did not request. It was frightening at first and while we have tremendous respect for the Hindu and Buddhist religions and respect their tradition , having two fake Holy men paste a large red dot on our forehead while unaware did not sit well with us. Let’s say the Tika, ticked us off and while walking quickly away I started rubbing it off while Tom pointed out that I had now successfully dyed my whole forehead red. We scrubbed each other clean with only our own spit at hand and learned to watch out for future Holy men. We learned that the true Holy men are in the temples and treat all with respect. At our hotel we met a couple from Belgium, Miriam and Arnold who have trekked at regular intervals through Nepal for over 20 years and days earlier finished a twenty day trek with their 5 year old son Arno. Quite a feat. They came within 500 meters of Everest Base camp.
Nepal is a country that needs to be seen and explored with an open mind. It is one of the poorest countries on earth and greatly depends on the tourism trade. Tourism has been down these past 5 years mainly because of Nepal’s political unrest and now by the trickledown effect of the World’s economy. Last year’s insurgency brought the Maoists in control but it was very evident during our stay that all is not well. On the day we had bus tickets for Chitwan Park, a supposedly 5 hour drive away, a strike took place which closed the roads in the whole country for the day. We were unaware and together with a young worker from the hotel walked to the bus station. We thought nothing of the quiet roads, only driven by motor cycles, since it was after all only 6.30 am. Our escort did not mention the strike until we arrived at the bus stop where many other tourists were waiting and learned for the first time of the boycott/strike called by a disgruntled opposite political party. It was evident that all knew in Nepal except the foreign tourists who were waiting in vain for buses which never arrived. I questioned why our hotel had not informed us of the strike and instead had us walk to the bus stop with one of their employees but remembered reading that the Nepali people love to please and it was evident that our young friend hated to be the bearer of bad news and had chosen to avoid the inevitable for as long as he could. We headed back to our hotel, a little disgruntled and disappointed with hopes to leave later in the week. Later in the day we walked briefly through Kathmandu but after seeing the streets lined with heavily armed and armored Military Police and groups of young people carrying opposition party and Maoist flags we headed back to our hotel and spent the day reading on the roof top. Ironically my book was titled “prisoners of birth”.
We took a three day guided trek and hiked through Shivapuri National Park up to Nagarkot and back to Bahktapur and are forever changed by the experience of trekking through Nepali’s beautiful hills and villages. We met our guide Jun the night before leaving. It is highly advisable to hire a guide, not only for the safety, security and understanding it offers but it also provides employment and brings money into the hill’s economy. Jun, is a very well read, highly intelligent and insightful young man who has guided tourists, clients as he calls them, now for 14 years. When he asked us where we lived we noticed a small smile when he heard America. We learned the next day why. He mentioned that not often, but at times he has guided American clients but they always said they were Canadians but still he knew through listening where they were truly from. He asked us why they would not have wanted to disclose, was it being afraid or ashamed? We told him that we could not talk for them, did not know their reason, but that we were neither afraid nor embarrassed to say out loud there where we lived. Friendship with Jun started immediately and he shared so much with us about his country’s history, struggles and disappointments. While still driving the chaotic streets of Kathmandu, on our way to the trek take- out point, Jun asked us “You live in America and now see Nepal. What does Nepal have to do”? Our reply was that America does not have the answers still his question stayed close in my thoughts during the next three days hiking. Nepal is second in the world with riches in water supply still the country does not come close to supplying electricity. Spending time in the villages while waiting for lunch at a teahouse gave us opportunity to observe wholesome living. In the village all have their part to perform and Nepal village life can teach us all about sustainability. Elderly women sat on the roof sorting the grain while others attended to the children who happily were doing what children do best….play and make noise. The younger women were attending to the beautiful terraced fields with their babies very close by just like the goats had their kids, the buffalos their calves, the chickens their chicks all within reach. Throughout the villages we were greeted with” Namaste” while hands were placed in respectful prayer with head bent. Often after our Namaste exchange the village children opened their hands and asked for “balloons, pens, chocolate, money?” signs of the tourists and Jun explained the wrongdoing to the children if their requests were met and we agreed. Jun himself was raised in a mountain village and his marriage to a girl from a nearby village was arranged at the age of 15. His marriage did not last. While a devout and sincere practicing Buddhist he believes all are entitled to find their own life partner. He moved with his son to Kathmandu a couple of years ago so that his son can have the advantage of a good, private school education which Jun supplies through his earnings as guide while they live together in only one small room. Education is very important for the Nepalese and children are taught English from Kindergarten on and we were amazed by the Nepali children in their ability to converse with us. After primary school all the subjects are taught in English only. Both private and government schools demand their students to wear uniforms and while the government schools are free, the uniforms are not which adds a financial burden to many. In Nepal, public display of affection between men and women is frowned upon and was never seen while there. What is very noticeable is the affection the men show for each other and men holding hands, or with arms draped over shoulders, even sitting on each other’s laps is constantly observed as well as the obvious love the women share for each other and usually walk with arms linked. None of this carries sexual overtones but does appear somewhat bewildering when raised in a society where usually men only slap each other on butts during football games and are afraid to show any additional affection in case it is misconstrued. Traveling Nepal allowed us to look closer at our own culture and life style. On our first day hike while covering 800 meters uphill mainly done over baked steps and watching the village women carry their heavy load up these steps after their weekly shopping trek to town I mentioned to Jun how in America women pay money to climb steps and described a stair climbing class. He thought that to be hilarious …Pay money to climb stairs which go nowhere? Yes and let me explain stationary bikes and treadmills. Jun taught us how to trek in the mountains and basically he slowed us way down and introduced what Tom now calls the Himalayan shuffle but it meant hiking for 20Kilometers uphill while never needing to stop for a rest. There is no reason to catch your breath when it is not first lost. Jun described the distant brick ovens seen in the valley and how the brick industry is one of their exports, with high quality bricks sent to Japan and China with lesser quality bricks manufactured for Nepal. He mentioned the same for all the products made in Nepal, high quality for the exports with considerably lesser products to remain. We noticed his boots which were not near the quality of ours while his feet equally deserved and I wonder when this country will learn to treat their own people with the same respect as they give to their visitors. It was noticeable at the teahouses that it was Jun who was always served last, long after us, while we shared the table and would not leave until Jun had finished his meal. The main dish in Nepal is called Daal Bhat and is basically white rice with lentil soup on the side. Sometimes curried vegetables and meat are served with it as well as a small dish of pickles; however they are not the pickles we are used to. Jun, like most Nepali’s eats this dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day in and day out. He ate it at every meal we shared and we asked him if he ever gets tired of it, bored with it? He looked at me bewildered. “Why? It is food”. I decided to join him one day and strictly eat Daal Bhat and was tired of it before the day was over and went back to changing it up with fried rice and chowmein and even that became tiresome. The choices we want in our diets and how we miss them when we cannot. We heard Sanskrit chanted outside the temples and at times we would stop in for a visit. We were careful to dress within Nepal’s culture but I was glad to learn that I did not have to hike in a skirt and that modest shorts are acceptable for men and women on treks. When stopping by a temple I asked Jun whether I needed to don a skirt and he simply replied it was not God asking women to wear skirts and to whom did I listen? It showed again the gentleness of his soul. If we ever return to Nepal it will be for trekking and it would be with Jun. We returned by bus to Bahktapur and in Nepal a bus never gets full. The roof will be filled with people and there is always room to hang on. With not even standing room left a mother entered with 5 children who stood so tight in front of us there was no way to even lose balance. The youngest child was a little girl around three who was wedged in tight. I patted my lap and held out my arms inviting her up. She was hesitant at first until her elder brother nodded his head and for the rest of our trip she sat silently in my lap looking out of the window and at times peeking a glance at me. When it was time for her to depart, she very gently placed a kiss on my cheek before folding her tiny hands and bowing while whispering Namaste. I was deeply touched. This Namaste had no strings attached. In Bahktapur there was a palace Jun thought we wanted to see, filled with antiques. All over Nepal, foreign tourists pay to enter to see the sights, cities and squares. This palace was $ US. 10.00 each and we decided Jun and his son would be better served with this money and declined and added it to Jun’s tip instead with the words that he had shown us Nepal’s true palaces and antiques in the valley’s villages and the extra-ordinary terraces which took centuries and generations to create and now feed the people well.
During our final three days in Nepal we were able to take the bus to the town of Sauraha, outside of Chitwan Park where we arrived at Hotel Parkland, very hot and sweaty after a 7 hour bus ride and met up with 5 outstanding young travelers. Sanna from Finland and 4 young Americans. We stayed together for the next couple of day’s hectic park adventures and enjoyed tremendously our time with them even if it made us miss our own children more. Sanna finished her studies in Social work in Finland and is spending time now in Nepal, working as a social worker and the stories she shared made us realize the hardship of especially the women and children in Nepal. Nicole, one the American women, teaches in a Katmandu private school and hopes to continue teaching in Nepal for a couple of more years. She finds it more rewarding than teaching in America since in Nepal the children still know that education is a privilege. Together we went elephant bathing which was not at all what we had envisioned. It was not standing in the river while gently pouring water over an elephant. We were on top of the elephant, no saddle or seat and the elephant took us down the embankment, into the river where it filled its trunk over and over with water and happily spouted it over us before rolling over and tossing us off. Naming this event “Tourist bathing “would be more apt. I asked our guide whether the river we now were splashing around in was the same river we canoed earlier in the morning and sighted crocodiles. Yes, indeed it was but he reassured us the crocodiles were down stream. That gives the same confidence as learning that the peeing section of the pool is on the other side of where one is swimming. It was wonderful to be once again removed from the city and able to see the moon and a starlit sky and awakened not by honking traffic but by the singing of exotic birds and elephants trumpeting the rising sun. One evening a group from a nearby Thuro village performed the age old stick dance and Tom joined them and became the star of the show. Very early, on our last morning in the park, we took a jungle ride, again on an elephant. This time there was a large padded seat with room for 4 . We had previously noted steps/ladders out in the nowhere which made no sense until an elephant was placed in front and we learned of their mounting purpose. Our jungle ride became quite intense when our driver (mahout) spotted a large rhino with her calf, pulled out a cell phone and started texting! Yes! Our mahout had a cell phone and coverage! That’s more than ATT has in Nepal. Obviously he made contact with the other elephant mahouts and the Rhino chase started in earnest. We no longer followed paths but went straight through the jungle while it was my face which tore apart the spider webs and sadly my glasses did not fully survive the assault. It all went by fast and briefly we wondered about the sensibility of it all. Do rhino’s not become very aggressive while protecting their young? Days earlier a guide on foot had been attacked and severely wounded by a charging rhino and here we were, chasing them through the jungle. We were right on their tails and at times the mother rhino would stop and turn at which time the elephant would be held back. Surrounding sounds made us aware of the other elephants involved in the chase and roundup and eventually, in a clearing the rhino’s stopped and looked dejectly at us, wondering maybe what would be next. We felt sympathy for the rhino’s but could hear that we were outnumbered and that for the others it had been an experience of a life time. On the more peaceful ride back many animals were sighted, including a couple of wild boars “Razorbacks”. Later that day we again boarded the bus back to Kathmandu. The drive offers great views of living by the river and the busy road. Small children walk inches removed from large trucks and buses, seemingly oblivious of the danger.
Nepal has two seasons, dry and wet and the times to visit are the months before either season has set in. For mountain trekking October and November were mentioned as the prime months while March and April are still considered good months since the heath and monsoon rains have not yet started. With temperatures in the Chitwan Park reaching near 40C degrees while we were there we wonder what the summer, wet times are like. Clothing was more relaxed and shorts, t-shirts and swimsuits were acceptable, thank goodness.
In the Kathmandu Post, English version, we found a poem written by 11th grader Aastha Khanel. While we do not know who she/he is, the poem beautifully speaks loudly about Nepal, now..
I was up one morning,
And gazed at the horizon
I no longer see the reddish hue,
I find dark bloodshed clouds instead.
Nepal is a peaceful country
Where the tales, I heard long time back.
No longer doves fly across the skies
Vampire, bats hunt the silence of our night
Brothers against brother,
Dust to dust and ash to ash is what they believe in
Mothers are crying in agony
What could equal the grief of their dead ones?
I wish I had a Pandora’s box
I would open and let fairies come out
Make my land as I have heard in grand Pa’s tales
A land of love and peace.
Namaste Nepal. We wish you well. We wish you peace. Tom and Els.