Sunday, September 5, 2010

To Nepal and back again

It's nearly been a month since Tristan and I visited Nepal, and it seems as a dream. Nepal is an amazing place of contrasts: high mountains - low grasslands, beautiful natural country side - extensive dirty cities filled with pollution, Nepalese living in poverty - rich tourists flaunting themselves around. Kathmandu is the ultimate contrast - while ordinary life is so suffocating busy there are quite little hidey holes to breath. I was however impressed with how the contrasts worked in sync with each other and how the people (no matter how hard their lives are) can still have so much strength, culture and kindness.

10 days is not enough time to experience Nepal, this was compounded by the fact that Tristan and I were both ready for a holiday where we could chill. We didn't venture out of Kathmandu much - truthfully we didn't venture out of Thamel (the touristy area we stayed in).

Most of the time in Thamel we explored the small Restaurants and Pubs away from the busy streets. We spent our time sampling the delicious local cuisine, having a quiet drink and play Uka or Canasta.

Occasionally we listened to some live music and I can tell you quality of cover bands are the same world over. We did however have a chance to hear the local group, Samundra, who played traditional Nepalese music which was a pleasure to listen to.

Our trips in and around the city were quite adventurous, although the first place we visited was the Garden of Dreams, a quite place built within the city for Romantic interludes. Well not actually built for romantic interludes, it was built in 1895 as part of the palace. It suffered a period of neglect then was has been reinvigorated by local and overseas conservation groups. Now it is a peaceful place where you could have peace and quiet.

After one year of marriage - we're obviously not the interluding type!

Or at least not on purpose!! As white tourist we managed to gain lots of attention.

Such as when we saw the sign for a 'Dance Bar' we went in because we were up for a boogie. When we saw the stage and pole - we really thought 'What have we got ourselves into!'

When people went on stage and started dancing – we were even more confused – because it was just dancing! The woman got up and shook their hips, the men got up to do some awesome bollywood dancing. The pole was basically to whirl around on. We thought we had gone into the twilight zone!

After a little while of watching some of the dancers came and sat with us. Asking us to buy them a drink and we did because we thought why not… but Tristan leaned over and asked 'I wonder if this is like the Wire – they get people to buy drinks for them and that's how they get their money!'

We thought we had cracked the way things worked out here and felt very street smart. So we sat back and enjoyed ourselves. When we told the dancers we couldn't afford any more drinks, they slowly drifted away to other groups. Until we had just one dancer sitting next to Tristan and on my side a woman who worked in the club. While I'm having a broken English conversation with the woman next to me (She's me showing pictures of her husband and children).Tristan is being told how nice his wife is, and how pretty she is (ego boost!). During his conversation Tris leans towards me

"She just told me that she finishes here at 12." I look at him a bit dumfounded. "She wants us to come back to her house."

"For what?!"

"I don't know! She just keeps us asking us to come back!"

Well, I turn my attention to the woman next to me – who explains it would be 500 ruppees! She was pointing at the drinks… but I'm sure that's not what she is referring to. I tell her, and then tell Tristan to relay to message to his conversation partner that we were leaving on a tour bus at 6am and we had to go, thank you we had a wonderful night!

Then we paid our bill and RAN AWAY!!!

The next morning we looked up the dance bars – the poverty forces many of these men and women into this industry. Here's a couple of articles on it:

The next day we decided to trek down to Durbur square, the religious centre of the city. While on our way down we started to have chat with a young man, a local arts student, who promptly started to follow us. He was playing tour guide. I have to say that compiled with the fact that the streets were chokingly busy made this a situation to hard for me to handle. We ended up buying our 'freedom' with rice and oil. We started to move back through Durbur square when we were being approached by a 'Holy Man' who would want donations – and that was it I had, had enough and we went back to the hotel.

I'll admit I'm completely embarrassed about how I reacted to the whole situation – I hated being out of control of the situation, hated how we were conned and most of all hated how I felt angry at this man who was trying to get food for himself and his family. It was one of the few times I have had to face such poverty which is so in your face. After days having people including children asking you for food or money and saying no was stomach churning. Tristan told me that a lot of the begging was organised, a lot of the children had families but chose to stay on the streets because of the money and food and that the only way to solve poverty could not be through a tourist actions – but through social reform. I thought at the time that this was heartless and wanted to believe that Tristan was wrong and there was something I could do.

After all that I gave Tristan the ultimatum, I wanted to get out of Katmandu – I needed some air to breath. The next day we went down to Chitwan National Park a 6 hour bus ride through the mountain. Since we booked last minute we got the seats on the back of the bus – the seat was steep –my feet couldn't even touch the floor because of the lack of suspension, I learnt what it was like to fly up high!

But with all this I enjoyed the bus ride, the Nepalese country side is amazing. The mountains are so green and it was interesting to see the farms and the villages. There were little cable cars (really just a metal box) and occasionally flying foxes that are use transporting people up and down the mountains and over the river.

When we got there we met with our travelling companion, Constantino – a lovely guy from Spain. He was the only other person in our hotel. We stayed in this lovely little bungalow, double bed with mosquito net. Sure the electricity went out a couple of times, and sure the hot water didn't work but, it was so damn humid hot water was not needed.

The experience there was amazing. We went through the forest saw elephants, two types of crocodiles, monkeys and a gadzillion birds!

We also saw…


And not just one… three!!!

The first one we saw while on a canoe trip…

Well, not while on the canoe trip we had to get off the canoe. We were told to be very quite, but since the tourist is the stupidest animal in the world we had people shout 'Why have we stopped!'

We got to run through the grass (higher then me!) and see a big male Rhino. He was so majestic, so magnificent. As he moved, you could see his armor move so intricately. Wow!

The second time we saw a Rhino was while we were on elephant safari (aka elephant paparazzi!). Four people were put in a box on an elephant and had to straddle a corner. Not the most comfortable way to travel! There were about 8 elephants all together.

Our elephant will be named 'Miss Tetchy' because she liked to stop in the middle of nowhere for no reason and was scared of little tiny wasps!

After a long ride around the jungle and the grassy savanna we started hearing men making bird calls. My heart started pumping, would we see something exciting?! We moved towards the sounds and found another Rhino. The elephant driver pointed and said 'Small Rhino! Small Rhino!' and we thought after seeing the big male rhino, this one was indeed small. It was only after a couple of seconds to realise he wasn't referring to the female; he was referring to the baby. He so cute!

We got a couple of pictures as the Rhinos moved off. I was happy, but the driver wasn't. We started following (see elephant paparazzi!) – and that was all good until all 8 elephants had surrounded both the mother and the babe. The mother didn't seem to fussed, but the babe was not happy.

He started to move this way and that – trying to see if he could get out of the elephant circle. He couldn't.

So he did the only thing instinctual to him… charge… right at 'Miss Tetchy' the Elephant.

Since I'm writing this you can assume that we survived. 'Miss Tetchy' turned her tail and ran for it and with her we went crashing through the jungle with a trumpet of fear. Life didn't flash before my eyes I was too worried how this bamboo saddle would survive and if we fell, what it was going to be like underfoot of a rampaging elephant. Thankfully, we came out of it with a few scratches and bumps – and I guess one hell of a story to tell. I was incredibly glad that we had an uneventful journey home.

The last full day in Nepal was spent touring Katmandu valley.

First a visit to a Buddhist temple, which we walked around wondering if we could take photos. It was only after we did a full circle that we saw a Tibetan monk taking photos that we thought it had to be fine!

We saw this huge statue in a side temple – you couldn't help being awed.

Next we moved to the Monkey Temple – a Hindu temple which, well, had monkeys!

We had been warned that like our previous experience someone would just try and guide us. This did happen, but after a few firm 'No thanks' he went away only after he showed us the cremation area – here I was thinking 'oh are they cremating offerings?' I was 'dead' wrong! (Sorry!)

It was extremely confronting. But when you look at how many people are around, it is hard to have a private life. Everything is out in the open. Tristan was reading a book on Nepal. The Nepalese can be very confronting in their questioning; a routine feature of their conversations is the question why? Why are you doing that? Why are you going there? But this is like our greetings and small talk. There are standard replies that are soon learnt and will satisfy all but the most ardent of inquisitor. While being forced to be public these standard responses can be evasive thus keeping some of their lives private.

The rest of the temple area was interesting, but since it was holy day it was packed. The amount of people there was staggering. What's more staggering was the amount of beggars – they were starved, disfigured and there was a large amount of children. While we gave to couple of people, it was not enough. Nothing we could give would ever be enough. It illustrated the hard truths that Tristan was telling me a couple of days before. It made me very somber.

Our last place to visit was Baktapur, a medieval city which use to hold the royal palace. It's temples and palaces were stunning. It was also amazing to see how this old city was still a working city. Peoples whose families had lived there in its prime still did and still worked the trades. We saw knitting, pottery making and so many other trades.

Nepal was an amazing experience, less suffocating then India and it is somewhere where we will go again. Next time we will see Mount Everest, go on a 8 day trek to find some Bengal tigers, experience the country in its full. We will also volunteer at a orphanage – while we cannot change the world, maybe we can make an impact on a couple of lives – as repayment for the impact that they have had on us.

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