Falling in Love in Nepal

I am falling in love with 25 children in an orphanage here in Rampur in Southern Nepal.  Because this little town has neither wireless (at least not today) nor a functioning keyboard in this tiny internet cafe, you will have to ignore typos (they are just too hard to correct in a timely fashion) and the lack of photographs as there is no way to connect my memory card to this computer.

My fingers are getting lots of exercise jamming down the keys.  To get to this tiny village, it’s a 45 minute hot and dusty road filled with gravel and rocks that make the chip seal of Texas seem like a polished surface.  Today my host family pulled out a bicycle and asked if I knew how to ride it.  Oh, sure, tik chaa (no problem).  That’s when I was warned not to move the pedals backward or the chain would fall off.  “Are there brakes?”  “Of course!”  I didn’t literally ask if they work.  I found that out the hard way.  The seat is almost vertical so every once in awhile when I can’t stand it anymore I coast to a stop, jam it back down and continue riding.  My knees come almost up to my chest but it’s a faster ride to town.  In the heat, that counts for something.

Since I arrived here on Sunday morning by bus from Chitwan National Park, I’ve been getting lots of exercise.  My first 3 hours at the orphanage that afternoon were to play with the younger children while the older ones studied for their exams.  Who knew i (SHIFT KEY IS TEMPERMENTAL) would be playing Bomb Blast for the first hour, a game that involves throwing a makeshift ball made out of scraps of rubbery plastic at each other with rules that took me a long time to figure out.  “Sister!  You’re out!”  “Sister! You’re in!”  On day 2 I got it but I was also ready for some alternative games.  We’ve played everyone I can think of from my childhood – Red Rover, Red Light, green Light, Hide and Seek, etc – most of which they already knew from other volunteers.  Yesterday, I took a new tack and introduced some singing games which were a big hit.  And, for all you ST gals, they now know the Beaver Song, even if they have no idea what a beaver is.

In the mornings, I help the older students study.  Yesterday, it was a 5th class social studies exam where I got a look into the Nepali school system.  They study things like why witchcraft is bad, the work of the various government organizations and the natural resources of all the surrounding countries.  Listening to the chatter in the room reminds me of the sing song voices of the little guys on the buses in Kathmandu who yell out the names of the places on the route.  Everyone was reading aloud, memorizing the text which they parrot back to answer the questions.  Even my adult “sister” who is attending university classes, reads outloud as she studies.

(just lost my post from here to end _ arrgghh)

After study time, I help in the kitchen, washing dishes at the pump and mopping the floors.  When I return to my home, it’s time for dahl batt, eaten on the floor of the kitchen with my right hand.  We have tea at 6 a.m., milk tea at 3 and dahl batt again at 8 p.m.  We also have warm milk from the cow before bed which seems to be helping me sleep or maybe it’s all that running from Bomb Blast.

 

My famly has been very welcoming.  There are 4 bedrooms for the father and mother, their two sons and their arranged marriage wives and one 3 1/2 year old boy.  The “living room” is on the porch and their is a small barn where the cow and her calf live.  They grow all their own vegetables and have a tree with bananas AND  MANGOES.  The village is very friendly as I walk by and  most people greet me with namaste.  Children ask me for chocolate and one young teenager can’t believe I’m 56.  I like her already.

In Chitwan, I rode another elephant, this time on a platform with 3 f riends and saw another rhino from on top.  I also saw a just born baby elephant at the breeding center in town, very cute.

I also walked around a Thuro village, a native Nepali tribe< seeing their mud homes>  sometimes I have to remember these are real people, living real lives, even as it looks like something out of National Geographic.

Time to saddle the bike back up and head back for tea and a little rest in the heat.  Time takes a different dimension here in this rural area and I should be good an mellow after 2 weeks here.  Maybe I’ll also stop being sore from too many games of Bomb Blast.

 

 

 

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Living on the Edge

Seeing a corpse laid out on the edge of the river for cremation just before entering the three most challenging rapids of our white water rafting trip seemed like a bad omen. Up until that point, I had actually had a very enjoyable day. With four young friends from our hostel, we had journeyed by tourist bus to our rafting place about 2 hours south from Kathmandu. The bus was crowded and I shared a seat with a German man about my age. He never spoke a word for the first hour as he snapped lots of photographs out the window. The views of the mountains were mesmerizing. The road, pitted with holes and stretches of gravel, wound up and down the mountain side which seemed to be at an almost vertical pitch. It was a very narrow road with a steep drop off on the side where it was better not to look. As this is the most direct route to India where most of the goods are imported from, the road was filled with colorful trucks. Somehow, we managed to share the road with vehicles moving in both directions but on the narrow corners, we sometimes had to wait for each to pass before continuing.

After an hour, we stopped for breakfast at a simple roadside restaurant. I had an Indian samosa, spicy and filled with mashed potatoes, and Nepali tea. Back on the bus, my seat mate and I struck up a conversation about our travels. He has worked in Asia for many years and now travels regularly to Africa. His stories were very interesting (including having a gun put to his head in Sudan) and the time passed quickly.

When we arrived at our rafting place, I spotted the piles of helmets next to the paddles and life jackets. My heart rate increased. This was not going to be the easy ride down the river that I had heard about. Actually, when I first signed up for this program in Nepal I said that it all sounded great except I would skip the rafting part. Once in the country, people assured me it was an easy ride except for maybe one part. My friend, Rosalie from Quebec, had had the exact same reaction to the rafting. We encouraged each other to try it, convinced that it wasn’t going to be that challenging and we may as well go with the others.

Once suited up in our old and worn life jackets and helmets, our guide went over the paddling and safety rules. We all paid attention as he told us what to do in case the boat tipped over, what to do if we were alone in the river and how to do different kind of rescues. What the heck was I doing here?

There were a group of bankers from Kathmandu joking and laughing on the bank of the river. A couple of them joined our group on the raft along with a young woman from China, a father and son from Denmark (he was a doctor – great) and our group of four.

We set off after practicing our paddling skills, leaning into our strokes and tucking one foot under the seat in front of us. As we went through the first set of waves, I calmed down and started to enjoy the experience. This was fun. What was I worried about? The first set of real rapids though were soon upon us. Our boat tipped wildly up and down as the water swamped us from either side and we were instructed to paddle “Faster! Faster! Harder! Harder!”. At times we were backwards or twirling around. People screamed. I grabbed the rope to hold on and then, we were through.

There were stretches of the river where the water was calm and we could enjoy the amazing views. Not having a camera on the water, I tried to remember the steep sides of the mountains coming down to the water, the long suspension bridges connecting the sides high above and the cable cage where a group of children were pulling themselves home after school. Our guide told us of how every year children drown in the river, pulled in by the current.

There were many sets of rapids. Some were really fun, bouncing up and down on 5-6 foot swells of waves. They had creative names like the Butterfly and Ladies Delight. Others were more frightening as the boat tipped or got swamped. Each time we got through there was the thrill of having conquered the rapid.

And then we reached the hardest part. This was where the men on the side of the river were piling stones to make a cremation pier for the deceased lying in a white shroud on the river bank. Our guide said that we were now at the most challenging mile of the river. There were 3 sets of rapids. He told us if we fell out which side of the river we should swim toward. Oh great. The first two were indeed more intense as our boat pitched and tossed. The hardest was the last, a class 3 plus at this time of year (and over 5 in the monsoon season). It was called the Upside.

Almost immediately, I knew this was trouble. There was a big hole of water behind some rocks. The banker fell in first as our boat tipped almost vertically to the right. I held tightly onto the rope and then I watched as our guide and Rosalie fell in. I held on as long as I could, probably only moments, and then knew I was going headfirst into the river.

My first thought was the disbelief that the thing I had feared most, falling into a rapid and being trapped underwater, was actually happening. I was aware that I was doing somersaults under the water, something I had only learned to do in my 30’s when I finally conquered that fear. I was out of breath and may have surfaced once only to hit the under side of the raft or maybe just not high enough to get air. Around I went again in another somersault. There was a part of me that knew my life jacket should get me to the surface but it sure was taking its time. My jacket was also up over my face as my helmet seemed to be covering my eyes. After what seemed to be an incredibly long time, I finally surfaced. After gasping for air, I pushed my life jacket down on my shoulders so I could see and realized there was no sign of a raft anywhere near me. I remembered that I was to stay in the middle of the river and basically floated there, unsure what to do next.

Eventually, off to my left came a raft. It took awhile to get close to the boat and I couldn’t find a rope to hold onto. I was pulled over the side by my life jacket, the same skill we had learned in our rescue lesson, and after two big tugs, and feeling like a trophy fish dragged onto a fishing boat, I was in the raft. With a sigh of relief, I looked up and there was a boat full of unfamiliar faces. “Are you alright? Are you alright?” It took me a moment to answer, still in shock as to what had just happened. Someone pointed to my arm with a nasty red scrape from my hand to my elbow. I realized my finger was bleeding but otherwise, I was alive and intact. I finally gave a thumbs up, still unable to articulate anything.

I huddled down in the back of the raft as their guide shouted instruction,s “Paddle faster! Paddle harder!” as we hit the next set of rapids. I held on in shock as we rode up and down, up and down the next set of waves. As the water settled, I was almost giddy with relief. I was alive.

Maybe 10 minutes later, my raft caught up with us. As they maneuvered to the side, I jumped back into my place in the back of my boat, grabbed my paddle and caught up with my raft mates. Rosalie, the only other person on the boat who had dreaded falling into the river and I compared notes about our survivor experiences. She had come up under the raft a couple of times before she was able to surface and was afraid she was going to die. Others in our boat helped her up as they worried about where I had gone. Manish, our Nepalese banker, told me that he had surfaced to see me somersaulting through the water. Our guide was distressed to see that his paddle had disappeared as had one of Rosalie’s sandals. I was so glad that I had decided to leave my prescription sunglasses in my bag on the shore.

At our dahl baat lunch on the river side, we had more time to process our respective experiences. Manish said that he kept picturing me somersaulting under the water and worrying about me. Rosalie said how ironic it was that the two of us who were hesitant to do white water rafting were the ones who ended up in the river. Maybe it was the universe pushing us through our comfort zones which were tested again on the last few sets of rapids.

Our lives were not completely out of danger for the day as we boarded the public bus for the next two hour ride to Chitwan National Park. I was squeezed into the last seat in the back next to the window with maybe 10 inches of seat. My daypack was on my lap and my knee was jammed into the seat in front of me. An airline seat would be luxurious in comparison. We raced down the road, passing trucks and bumping over the roads. Each time the horn blew to indicate we were passing, I just held my breath and hoped we would survive this journey. I practiced my deep breathing, unable to control anything beyond my next breath. All I could see out the window was the steep side of the mountain and it was probably better not to be able to see what was on the other side of the road as we passed truck after truck, brakes occasional squealing at times to avoid collisions.

When we reached Chitwan, we stretched and breathed as we piled into the open back of a tiny Jeep to take us to our lodging at the edge of the park. Katrina and I are in the elephant room, a simple room with a luxurious hot shower and mosquito netting for our beds.

Sleep did not come easily as I replayed the tape in my brain of my time under the river over and over. Eventually, the sounds of the peacocks and insects lulled me to sleep along with the help of a Tylenol PM to ease both the pain in my hand and my addled mind.

Morning came early. Up at dawn, we enjoyed a Western breakfast before walking over to the park dressed in our muted colors (red and white forbidden). Our day started with a wonderful ride in a dugout canoe down the river. I was glad to have my binoculars (a wellness gift I got the day before I left home) as we spotted birds of many kinds. There were several kinds of egrets and herons, brilliant blue kingfishers and helicopter kingfishers who hovered in the air looking for their breakfast. We saw a pair of native peacocks in their mating dance and an eagle. The crocodiles were not yet out. They grow to 18 feet long here, and yes, people do get eaten.

Out of the boat, we followed our two guides to the edge of the forest. There we learned that we had another lesson in how to deal with an emergency, this time what to do if we saw certain animals. For one of the rare, one-horned rhinoceros, we should either climb a small tree, hide behind a big tree or run in a zig zag pattern. For sloth bears, we should clump together and yell. For a tiger, stay calm and look him in the eye as you backed away slowly. For a wild elephant, run. Rosalie and I just looked at each other. Were we really going to be in danger again so soon?

Yes. Within five minutes, our experienced guides spotted a rhinoceros through the trees. Hushed, we could hear its grunt and could glimpse just a bit of its grey hide. Scanning for a tree to climb, I saw the huge animal move. We spent the next half an hour or so following our guides carrying big sticks through the forest tracking the animal, moving quietly, heart beating just a bit faster.

Eventually, we came to the edge of a grassy field. Just ahead was another rhino just visible through the grass. We tucked ourselves behind a huge cotton tree for a look, cameras on and ready. The two ton animal came toward us, suddenly alert and annoyed by our presence. Our guides yelled and whacked sticks to the ground and then threw one directly at him as we huddled, frightened and excited behind the tree. Now what?!

The rhinoceros just settled in, munching away at the grass. Our eyes were wide as we stood nearby, maybe 20 feet away from this endangered rhinoceros, taking pictures, mouths open with amazement that we were actually seeing such a sight. After awhile, the rhino just walked away as we returned to the forest, once again sharing stories of our reactions to such an incredible sight.

The rest of our 3 hour jungle walk was less exciting but no less interesting. We saw huge hives of bees where the sloth bears like to visit, tiger claw marks on the trees, signs of wild elephants and a couple of huge crocodiles on the river’s edge. Our guide pointed out medicinal plants and flowers including one that closed up its leaves when you touched it. We heard tales of how local people collect rhinoceros urine for its medicinal powers to heal earaches and asthma. He also told of his stories of encounters with tigers and bears. Just a couple of days ago a guide was wounded by bears when a tourist went off the trail and got between three bears. There has been a man-eating tiger in this village that killed 6 people last year before being shot. Once they have the taste of salted human blood, he told us, they come back for more.

Despite the dangers of tigers and crocodiles, I’m so glad that I’ll be in this area for my orphanage work the next couple of weeks away from the pollution and noise of the city. First though, I have another day and a half of adventures here in the park before my friends leave on Sunday. Stay tuned. Once the power comes back on, I’ll share them with you.

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Life in a Nepali Village

Watching a pot of rice cook over an open fire is a very quiet way to spend some time especially when the person who is giving me a cooking lesson doesn’t speak any more English than I do Nepali, which is to say, not very much. I’m just back in Kathmandu for a quick night before leaving again in the morning for Chitwan, home of the National Park and also my homestay and orphanage volunteer work.

The last couple of days I have been alone in a home in a little village about an hour from the city. The air quality alone was worth the trip as were the beautiful views of the mountains and fields nearby. This is my “cultural” week and this experience was intended to give me a peek into a different part of Nepal and practice my new language skills. The rest of the week I’ll be on a public bus heading south via a rafting trip down a river and some time in Chitwan National Park before meeting my family.

The first hour of my village stay was the hardest. There were several women there doing laundry, preparing food, sweeping the floors but my host (the one who speaks English) wasn’t around. My stomach was causing me some distress and the smells were a bit overpowering for me. The oldest woman eventually brought me some tea and smiled with her very crooked teeth and then I knew I would be ok. I thanked her and declared the tea delicious (I had learned something!). Awkwardly, I settled in with a book on a bench overlooking the scene.

Later, my host, a young man of 29 came home and took me to see his farm. He grows oyster mushrooms in several damp hay covered huts. He is up at 1:30 in the morning to harvest them each day before a truck comes to take them to the city. There are also 3 cows, a bunch of goats and surrounding fields where they grow wheat, potatoes and a few vegetables. This is the farm where he grew up and where his father and brother also live.

In Nepali families, women move into their husband’s home when they marry. Some are “love marriages” but more are arranged when the girl is in her early 20’s. The father in this family had two wives so there were plenty of women to do the work. My host was only recently married and it wasn’t until last night that she shyly spoke to me and asked my name. She ended up being my cooking teacher this morning and I was glad to have made a connection with at least one of the women.

Children, on the other hand, are easy. There was a nine year old girl and a five year old boy, both of whom reminded me of students I have had. The girl was bright, spoke very good English and wanted my attention almost all the time she was home from school. With her brother, we started playing hide and seek (a great way to see the rest of the house!) and evolved into endless games of Hangman. The boy, from my perspective, was quite spoiled even being fed by spoon by his mother. It’s hard to get a handle on what happened in this family without having the experience of being in any other homes. Overall, the Nepali people are very friendly but I suspect these women have seen lots of guests come and go and are a bit tired of it. Imagine the different homes of people you know and trying to figure out the whole country from that experience without the language.

I took a walk around the village with the 19 year old daughter who was very sweet greeting her friends as we walked. Last night she and her friends entertained me by singing a song, dressed in their national costumes and did several dances (think Bollywood for the motions). They invited me to join them for the last one amid much laughter.

Yesterday morning, my host (whose name I never got), took me for a hike straight up the mountain behind the house. I know I was in decent shape before I left home (now over 2 months ago) but whether I’m more out of shape, the altitude or some other excuse, my heart was pounding as I climbed. He graciously stopped every once in awhile for me to breathe and take in the gorgeous views back toward Kathmandu. We climbed through pine forest past adobe like houses and up to a temple at the top. Apparently, the whole village climbs the mountain for special celebrations. Between all the manual labor, they must be in great shape!

The women, for example, go out at the end of the day to gather grasses for the animals. The women all wear the traditional dress – baggy pants, an over top and various shawls and scarves with bright red tikkas on their foreheads. Married women always wear at least some red. The loads they carry back up the hill to their homes are huge and heavy with baskets on their backs held in place by a rope over their foreheads.

I had lots of spare time to read my new book written by a sherpa who was on Mount Everest during its terrible season in 1996 (when Jon Krakauer wrote Into the Wild). The author is the son of the first man to reach the top and it’s an interesting read about his spirituality and his relationship with his famous father. He prays at the temples I have visited and I’ve learned more about the Sherpa culture.

On the last day of our language class, we visited a gorge where it is said, a god sliced through the mountains to drain the lakebed that is now Kathmandu. We also drove up the hillside where men chop big hunks of rock into gravel size pieces. I can’t imagine doing that day after day.

Monday morning, our little class dispersed around the country – the guys to their flight to Lukla and a 4 hour hike to their monastery and Debbie and me to our next places. Being back in the hostel tonight is fun as I have met all the people who are there tonight at some point in their time here in Nepal. It’s going to be quiet tonight without the guys.

Maybe there will even be power. The last three nights I was there the power was out and yesterday in the village, it was out most of the day and night. Running water, flushing toilets, electricity – these are things I won’t take for granted after this trip. Yesterday when I was with Anjuna, the younger girl, I mentioned the word stove and she had no idea what that was. The kitchen at the home is a dark little room with no windows, a fire in the corner and a one burner hot plate for gas cooking. Meals are eaten sitting on the floor, always barefoot inside and dishes are washed at a tap outside from a water barrel. After the cooking this morning, I did all the days’ dishes and squatting on the ground is not my favorite way of doing them! But, the potatoes I helped to cook were delicious cut on a stand up knife, cooked in oyster oil with tumeric, salt and cumin (and a mystery ingredient that couldn’t be translated).

In the morning, we had tea and biscuits. Dahl baat, the famous rice and lentil soup sometimes served with vegetables (today – mushrooms) is served for the other two meals at about 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. I’ll be eating it twice a day for the next 3 weeks or so. I suspect I won’t be anxious to be making that when I get home in June!

As I left the home this afternoon, the grandmother motioned for me to follow her and blessed me with a big spot of bright red tikka on my forehead. Some of it chipped off in the car on the way back and the rest got washed away in my long-awaited shower here. Still, it was a great way to finish my time in their home. I’ll also appreciate the bed with a bit of a mattress on it at the hostel which is luxurious compared to the board bed I’ve been sleeping on the last couple of nights.

OK, quick before the power goes out here in the internet cafe, I’ll try to get this online.

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Nepali, Stupas and Cremation

Yo kitaab raamro chha tara dherai mahango chha. Impressed? My middle-aged brain is working very hard these days to learn some Nepali before I head out to a local village on Monday. Translation? This book is nice but very expensive. In theory I can say all kinds of things now but without my Everest notebook, the words don’t always come out of my mouth when I want them. Yesterday afternoon while the young ones in our group went into Thamel for a night of partying, I took a walk out of town. The further I walked the more rural the landscape. When I was about to turn around, I met a young man of 19 years who joined me. I ended up walking up to his village which was in a gorgeous spot under the mountains surrounded by beautiful fields of grass. Women in traditional dress had huge baskets on their backs as they gathered the grass for their cows. Indra Jeet introduced me to his parents and all of his “aunts” and the many children who giggled at me and ran around the corner when I pulled out my camera. I tried out my lessons telling them my name, where I was from and asking them how they were feeling. They looked shocked that I could speak any Nepali but answered my questions and smiled a lot. So did I as used up the limits of my more accessible vocabulary. Indra wants to be Facebook friends now. Such is the juxtaposition of the old and new here.

I’m back in Thamel to post this blog where there are plenty of foreigners but in our neighborhood where our hostel is located, we are in a part of Kathmandu that doesn’t see many white faces. Yesterday as I walked down a street, a man in front of me kept turning around to look at me. To him, I was strange, while at the same time, the goats tethered next to the goat meat stand were strange to me. (One volunteer saw one beheaded the other day.) Now that I have been here a week, it’s amazing how familiar this city has become. I know the shopkeeper up our little street, which ATM will give me money, how to take the local buses and other handy things. I’m not shocked when the power is out two evenings in a row. I keep my headlamp handy and my batteries charged. Candlelight dinners are actually nice as are the candles on the stairs to lead us to our dahl baat.

There are still plenty of new experiences to be had here. On Thursday we had a day off from our language class to go on a sightseeing tour. The first of the 3 temples was Swayanbhumath, also known as the monkey temple. Indeed, there were plenty of monkeys as well as lots of opportunities to buy souvenirs of all kinds. There was a little pool full of coins and people tossing them into the middle trying to get them into a pot for luck. The view over the city was hazy but far reaching. I watched some monks lighting butter lamps, people turning the prayer wheels and people praying at the temple.

After lunch, our next stop was Bouddhamath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. It’s a huge white round building strung with prayer flags and Buddhist eyes looking out in all four directions. The biggest surprise there was hearing my name called out as I circled the stupa. It was Louise and Jim from Marlboro, Vermont! We knew we were all in town, albeit on opposite sides of this city of 3 million people, but I never expected to run into them! Cue up “It’s a Small World After All”.

Our last temple was a Hindu one called Pashupatinath, open only to Hindu people. The nearby river, though, is open to all. It was there that I had a most unique experience for me – to observe a cremation. The river is a holy site where people are cremated and their ashes are returned to the river. The river itself is filled with trash of all kinds. Cows, monkeys and dogs rested or wandered nearby as two bodies were being consumed by flames. There is a series of cement platforms along the river where many cremations can take place at the same time. Near a bridge, a more upper class cremation was happening with men in suits watching nearby. Down the river a bit, a body was in a casket with family and friends gathered. We took seats on stone steps across the river with many other people to observe the ceremony.

With my binoculars, I could see the women weeping and wailing in their green sarongs and a young boy of about age 10, wearing a dirty green tee shirt and shorts, clearly distraught. Feeling awkward about being a voyeur, and yet one of a mostly Nepali crowd, I watched as the body was moved onto a pile of wood. After some ceremony of draping the face with marigolds, an orange cloth was tied around the head and a white shroud covered most of the body (although a foot remained visible). The boy circled the body three times with a burning torch before setting the head scarf on fire. A man added firewood around and over the body, covered it with straw and the serious burning began. The women and children, except for the boy, all left as the men remained nearby. In the meantime, there was a young man in the river pulling out burnt pieces of wood and throwing them up toward the pyre. As we left there were three cremations going on, smoke blowing up river. It was a fascinating and yet, intense, experience, especially after having put my own parents’ bodies into a crematorium after they died.

Today is my last visit to Thamel before I leave Kathmandu. Lindsey, the other “mature” volunteer and I are hanging out here before we have dinner in a restaurant for the first time in Nepal. Our younger classmates are back at the hostel nursing hangovers after their overnight here yesterday. The field trip we were supposed to do this afternoon has been postponed until tomorrow, after our last language class.

My time in Nepal has been rearranged so that I’ll do my home stay and orphanage work in Chitwan before I finish my time here with a trek. That will save me a lot of time on buses traveling from place to place. I’ll just be back in the city for a night before I fly out on April 17. It may be time to say goodbye to wireless internet again for awhile but I’ll post again when I get a chance.

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Kathmandu, Nepal

It has been a long time since I had a curfew or shared a dorm room. It has also been a long time since I tried to learn a new language or find my way on crowded local buses to locations filled with twisty busy streets. Kathmandhu is unlike anywhere else I have ever been. I will admit to some culture shock but I’m not sure how much is living as a student where I am the oldest by far or the culture of this big Nepalese city.

I flew here on Air India, switching planes very quickly in New Dehli. I enjoyed looking out the window as we landed, my first glimpse of India. The transition to my other plane was a very hasty one, running through the airport with only a glance at the fancy shops filled with perfume and booze, looking more like a French airport than an Indian one.

As I boarded the flight in my convenient aisle seat, a man wanted to sit next to his wife so I gave it up for his seat in the middle on the other side of the plane. It’s all about karma here in these Hindu countries and mine proved advantageous as the Nepali woman next to the window said to switch so she could sleep and I could look out the window. Like a child on an airplane, I love looking out the window and seeing the Himalayas for the first time was a thrilling sight! I would have missed the view entirely from my old seat. Not only that, but my seat mate has invited me to her house for dinner. So did a woman I met on the bus here today after I played peek-a-boo with her young child. The people here have definitely lived up to their reputation as friendly ones.

I also had the privilege of meeting my sisters-in-law’s friend who they met when they were here to adopt their infant 8 years ago. I spent a very interesting afternoon learning about her work with child trafficking and domestic violence, both way too prevalent here in this country. We also discussed the atrocities of the Maoist uprising that lasted for 10 challenging years in Nepal. The stories were horrifying. It has been about 7 years since then and things have settled down here with a new government. I also got to see their brand new hours old puppies just delivered that morning as a surprise to all.

My first moments in the airport here were challenging. I had miscalculated the cost of my visa – $100 payable in U.S. currency. Without enough cash, I put my bank card in the ATM only to have it say it was invalid. With a pit in my stomach, I tried my credit card and was happy to have that work, although the interest charges are outrageous. Without internet or a phone, I wasn’t sure how I would straighten out the mess but it seems to have resolved itself. I got money out of the ATM near my hostel yesterday and you can imagine my relief. Now I have my daughter’s Indian phone fired up with a new sim card. If I get lost, I can call the hostel for help which makes me a little braver with my explorations.

In some ways, surprises are representative of life here – unpredictable and sometimes challenging. My first glimpses of the city as I rode through the city with Lee, a volunteer just arrived from South Africa, in the car of our language teacher, were shocking. Even after being in Indonesia, the traffic was loud and busy with no apparent rules. At one point a group of cows came toward us. In Nepal they are considered sacred and wander where ever they wish. The road was pitted with potholes, there was trash all over the sides of the roads and lots and lots of people in front of the shops.

The turnoff to the hostel was a dirt road, almost impassible from the ruts. We moved slowly through the people walking up the hill and then turned off into a smaller road barely wide enough for the small car. Again, trash lined the streets and buildings with stoops ran right up to the road. There were lots of stray dogs and an occasional chicken and I spotted a few goats as well. As we backed into the hostel gate, I could barely get out as the door opened only a few inches.

Keshav led us into the hostel. The classroom is about 8×10 with 3 small benches, cushions to sit on and a white board. The “dining room” is about the same size with a few tables and chairs. The kitchen is dark but serves lots of traditional food – rice with vegetables and lentils as well as some pasta to ease the transitions of the foreigners.

My bed is a board with a thin mattress and a thick comforter. The first night I had on all my warm clothes, things I haven’t even looked twice at since I left Vermont. I shared the room with a girl from Scotland. The next night we added a woman from Switzerland and when they left for their projects, Debbie from Belgium arrived yesterday and Eva from Germany came after hers finished. Now I understand why I never got a roster of volunteers. There is lots of coming and going every day as people are all in different stages of their programs.

It’s an international crowd. In addition to those already mentioned, there have been people from Australia, California, Russia, Denmark and Finland. My “class” consists of 3 men, Debbie and me. I am the oldest by about 30 years except for an Aussie who is scheduled to leave for 8 weeks in a monastery teaching English to monks. We will all leave on Monday for our various next adventures. Two brothers from Australia were scheduled to leave at 5 a.m. this morning for an Everest trek to base but instead one is in the hospital sick with a fever, vomiting and diarrhea. I didn’t feel very well last night either but today is much better.

Yesterday, 8 of us came into Thamel which is the area of the city for backpackers and foreigners. This is where trekkers buy their supplies and tourists their souvenirs. It’s a warren of narrow streets but also have some internet cafes so I can write today! We wandered through Dunbar square with its temples, had chocolate cake on Freak Street, the scene of the hippies in the 60’s, and shared some beer in a rooftop cafe. To get here, we took a crowded little bus filled with locals (our hostel is on the edge of the city) about 40 minutes and then walked about 20 minutes. Debbie and I found our way back here today so we could catch up with friends from home on our computers. I’ll be able to check email closer to the hostel at the internet cafe there but without wireless there won’t be any pictures to post. While I was here, I bought a pair of Nepalese cotton pants to supplement my 2 pairs. They were about $5.00 after a lot of bargaining. It gets down into the 40’s or so at night and without heat in the hostel, I’m wearing my fleece all the time. Today I braved a cold shower and washed my clothes in a basin to hang out on the roof.

Ah, the roof. That’s where you can see the snow covered mountains on a clear day (not so often in hazy Kathmandu), the lower “hills” higher than the mountains at home, as well as the other rooftops and buildings nestled together in our area. People chat from their balconies or rooftops to neighbors, you can see everyone’s laundry hanging as well as their flower pots and water tanks. There is a boy across the way with yellow rimmed sunglasses who always waves to me and yesterday got together a wild soccer game in the dusty driveway. I watched one woman during her laundry in the alley way and after a couple of hours, she was still at it.

Walking around the neighborhood, there is a school for high school age kids wearing their blue blazers, lots of little shops selling everything from cell phones to bananas, many homes and little narrow mazes of streets. It’s not far from the Kalinki intersection, a major intersection where buses both local and regional gather, a market on the ground of vegetable sellers and skywalks across the road. Crossing streets is a challenge given the traffic so that makes life a lot safer there.

Going with the flow is the name of the game here. People’s projects change all the time and despite the flurry of emails I had with the people here from home, now there is a new plan. I will be at the hostel for the first week, doing daily language classes. I’ve learned some greetings, pronunciation rules, names of food and some history of the region and its people. These will continue until Monday when I leave for a couple of nights in a village homestay to experience more of the culture. From there, I’ll have one night back in the hostel and then south to Chitwan National Park for some rafting and other things. Then, off to Pokara for a week long trek and then back to the Chitwan area for my 2 weeks in a homestay and work in an orphanage. At least that’s the plan for now…

One of the challenges here is that the electricity is turned off for awhile in a seemingly random schedule. So that I know I can “post” this, I’ll end here. I’ll check my email some time in the next few days but I’m not sure when I’ll find wireless again. Thanks again to all of you for your comments and e mails. Time restraints make it hard here to respond but know I appreciate them and will respond when I can.

Now, the next challenge is to find our way out of this warren of streets back to the bus stop. This will be my first time with Debbie to do it alone. At least I know how to ask directions now!

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Zip lines and Cleavers

The first couple of zip lines were surprisingly easy. After almost 2 1/2 hours in a van picking up my flying cohorts – 3 young Israeli men, a honeymoon couple fresh off the plane at the airport and a saucy Brit, just off the train from a month in Burma, and a scenic drive up through the mountains, the guides were ready to get us flying right away. We walked down some steps through 1500 year old virgin rain forest to our first platform. Strapped into our harnesses and wearing our helmets, our crazy Brit was the first to zip. With little time to worry, I was next up flying across huge chasms to the platform on the strangler fig tree ahead of me. Sitting in the harness, I held onto the connecting piece and twirled around as I traveled. The landing is quick, “Feet up! Feet up!” as you are caught by the guides, giggling with excitement and adrenaline.

The Flight of the Gibbons is a new place and is already one of the most visited places in Thailand. There are 18 lines high up in the trees, one of which is over a half kilometer long and believe me, you can get up quite a speed descending over that distance! It was a little like the top of a roller coaster at the beginning, that pit in your stomach feel as you descend, but it sure didn’t take me long to learn to scream a bit to let off steam and enjoy the twirling before crashing into the next platform in the sky. Between some of the platforms there were some swinging bridges to walk across and in one place, a set of steep stairs up to the next place. As the others took a smoking break, the 3 Americans hightailed it up to a scenic spot where we actually spotted a family of gibbons swinging merrily through the trees. They made it look so easy and so fun.

After awhile, the shorter lines started to seem too short and the landings became easier. To shake up the complacency, the next platform didn’t have any lines leading from it, nor stairs nearby. Spotting the hole in the platform, I looked down to see a huge rope descending straight down a story or two. The heart rate started to increase a bit as I realized that was our next line – straight down. Hooked in, I started a slow descent being held by the rope to the guides above. Having amazing senses of humor, they enjoyed my gasp as they increased the speed suddenly for a quicker descent. Yikes! Laughing let off the steam that time. I must have been on an endorphin high the whole 3 hours or so I was out there!

To keep things interesting, we had a double line across two more platforms. The newlyweds kissed in the air as the cameras rolled. I was matched up with the Brit, about my age, to much kidding. It was an unusual first date, our second being another double straight down descent and the third dinner with the group afterward. And no, that was it, as we parted ways at the end. Too cheeky for me.

As much fun as I was having, I had a time of minor panic at one of the platforms. Where was the line to the next one? This time, we could “fly like the birds”. The harness line was attached to our backs, think Peter Pan in the movie. We were instructed to just leap off. What?! Nothing to sit in? Nothing to hold onto? My brain knew that leaping off a platform where I couldn’t even see the ground below was not a smart idea, even if it knew somehow that I was connected to a wire way above my head. I couldn’t do it. As I was trying to talk myself into making the leap, I felt a push from behind and there I was flying through the air, and laughing my head off as I approached the cargo net where I made my crash landing. I wonder what my heart rate was as I climbed up to the platform!

The whole experience was such fun, seeing the jungle from the tops of the trees, traveling through the air with the gibbons, connecting with new friends in a very fundamental way given our circumstances huddling together on the platforms in the sky, waiting for our next turn. The other woman took my camera and made a couple of videos of me crossing and we all took pictures of each other. I liked the Israeli guys right away as they guessed my age at 45 and looked with wonder at the old lady in the van. From the shocked looks on their faces across the first couple of lines, I’m not sure they enjoyed it all as much as I did, at least the first few times. Age has its advantages. I was gleeful!

I was the oldest again, by far, when I was picked up yesterday morning for a Thai cooking class. This time, we traveled by an open truck, sort of like a Tuk-tuk for more people. All the others were already in the back, so I slid into the jump seat behind the driver. We stopped at the local market where I knew most of the veggies and spices from Bali. Back at the school, actually someones’s home, we gathered around our chopping blocks with huge cleavers to slice up the ingredients. We had some choices as we fashioned different varieties of curries, soups and noodles. Bashing together the ingredients for a curry paste in a mortar and pestle takes a lot of arm strength as the cinnamon is a stick, the pepper in its green casing, and the star anise a tough little customer. The results were delicious as we made each course, ate it together at a table, tasting each others varieties and then resumed our places by the cleavers and woks. I enjoyed the international flavor as we discussed our travels and gave each other advice about things not to be missed in Asia. I had chosen the half day course which, given my full belly, was a good choice. The people left to make three more courses were looking a little stressed as I left.

After some digesting, I made my way around the corner to pick up my laundry. It was only this morning that I discovered that I have lost one of my bike gloves in the process. That darn Velcro must have stuck to someone else’s clothing. I guess it wasn’t as cheap as I had hoped to have my laundry done again.

The massage I used to console myself was cheap. A couple of nights ago I had tried the blind Thai massage. Thai massage is done fully clothed as the therapist uses pressure points to move and push on your body to release tension and open the energy lines. The blind are supposed to be especially good at this, using their sense of touch to find the blocked places. It was intense at times but I felt great afterward. Next to the laundry, I tried an oil massage for 200 baht, about $6.00. For an hour on a mat on the floor (unfortunately with a TV going in the room), she stroked and pushed me into a puddle of relaxation. With a pedicure, I’m now ready to leave for higher places.

I’m heading back to Bangkok on a flight this afternoon. It will be hard to leave this place where I have made new friends and enjoyed the comfort of a soft bed, hot showers and full breakfasts. On Saturday, I fly to Nepal where the quality of life will be different in many ways. I’ve enjoyed my week here, being a tourist, trying new things (elephants! zip lines!), enjoying delicious organic food at the local cafe, meeting wonderful people and living well inexpensively. Nepal was my original destination on this adventure abroad. Once again, I’m not sure about internet access there, but I’ll post again from the Himalayas when I can. But first, one more night in Thailand.

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Elephants, Bikes and Tuk Tuks

Riding an elephant was a new experience for me. So was feeding an elephant with big tusks that just happen to be at eye level and tongue that looks quite erotic. After learning the command for “open up”, I would shove a small banana or a 6 inch piece of sugar cane into the cavernous opening. It took just a few minutes to empty a whole basket of food into my new favorite elephant. From then on, we were best friends and if what I hear is correct, even if I show up again after a few years, he will still remember me. You know, elephants never forget!

With my new Swiss friend, Laurence (female), we spent yesterday at the Patara Elephant Park. I had done a lot of research to figure out which of the 15 or so elephant places around the city was a good match for me. Some are little more than tourist shows with elephants painting pictures or bathing in mud. Some places chain their elephants or treat them badly. The one I chose has rescued many elephants from the surrounding hills where, in former times, there was a lot of logging done by the hill tribes that lived there. “My” elephant, was rescued from a circus when he was 2 years old. Some elephant places only keep females, as they are gentler, but Patara is also a breeding facility. Their hope is to return elephants to the wild and apparently they have been quite successful in their programs. The results of an elephant honeymoon were evident as we walked down the path and could see two huge moms with their babies, munching and nursing at our gathering point. There’s nothing quite as cute as a baby elephant and being able to touch and play with them was a great start to the day. One leaned into me and I had to move my foot quickly before being stepped on.

That was a good lesson. After learning much about the care of elephants and donning our woven shirts, made by the local tribes, we were led down to the river to meet our new friends. Each of the 7 of us had our own charge to care for and a mother/daughter pair got one of the moms and her baby.

Except for the other human mom, I was probably the oldest person by about 20 years. (She declined to ride and walked the rough elephant tracks up hills and down instead.) I’m not sure why they chose me to take on the feistiest elephant, a male aged 8. At the end of the day, I won a surprise elephant kiss for doing the best job with an elephant that day. We never know what skills we have until we try new things!

We learned how to check their health – flapping ears, waving tales, sweating toenails. We had to check and see if it slept on both sides (dirt on their skin), counted their huge droppings (7 is ideal from the night before) and even take apart and smell their droppings – surprisingly benign. You can tell an elephant’s age by the length of fibers – short for young elephants, longer for those whose teeth have worn down.

We led our elephants down to the river by the ear for their bath. Using woven buckets, we poured water over them and scrubbed them with brushes. There is a lot of elephant to wash including around their eyes and behind their ears. Mine indulged me with a shower of my own, spraying me with a lot of force from his trunk. In the heat, it felt great!

Now clean and fed, it was time for their exercise. Each of us had a trainer nearby who lives with the elephant to help us learn the commands. There are 3 ways to mount an elephant and my favorite was to give the command to raise a leg, grab an ear, step on on his ankle and leg and then hop over the top. You have to sit further forward than on a horse and grab with your bare feet behind its ears. As the ears flap, you keep your feet engaged on his body, using those thigh muscles you work so hard to firm up at the gym. The first time we headed down into the river I couldn’t believe I could keep my balance but before long as we climbed a steep elephant trail uphill through the jungle, I started to gain a little more confidence. Two babies walked freely along with the big 7 up to a waterfall about 45 minutes away. At one point, we stopped to walk them across the road where it took my aching muscles a few moments to remember how to move on their own.

It’s amazing how these huge animals can navigate the rutted paths they follow. Mine would stop and steal a branch of leaves when he could and the babies would wander in and out between the elephants without a stumble. I was startled at one point when mine let out a loud trumpeting sound. I don’t know what he was saying but it was impressive!

Once we reached the waterfall, our lunch stop, I dismounted and my elephant went right into the water, lay down and rolled completely under. I’m glad I was off at that point! He was the only one who did that, enjoying his boyish youth, I guess.

The humans gathered on a bamboo platform above the river to enjoy a delicious Thai spread laid out on huge banana leaves set up as a table cloth. There was sticky rice with different flavors wrapped in individual leaves and cooked, fried chicken and bananas, several different coconut and banana flavored treats and a variety of tropical fruits. After we had eaten, all the leftovers, including the “tablecloth” were gathered up and we fed them to our elephants.

Now it was time for a swim. My elephant was the last one in and given his tendency to submerge himself earlier, I was a little nervous about our time together in the water. Indeed, I almost fell off his side as I was pouring baskets of water on him and he decided to roll, but I grabbed onto a rope tied around his middle and hung on. Once again, he indulged me in a shower but this time, I was in my bathing suit and ready for it.

Taking a different way back, it was about another hour to climb over the guardrails, across the road, and up a very steep narrow path for our return. On the way down, leaning way back to stay balanced, I was trying to memorize the feelings of being up so high on such a grand animal. The lumps on his head were quite firm, and although not really hand holds, provided a nice place to rest my hands. His skin was quite bristly, covered with coarse inch long hairs. We wore special pants to protect our legs from the rough skin. His flapping ears had visible veins on the backsides and the cartilage made a good hand hold for mounting and dismounting. Holding an elephant’s trunk is quite like holding a large snake with the strong muscles curling and uncurling around your hand or a bunch of cornstalks or grass for a snack. Mine had tusks made of the coveted ivory, sharp and imposing when at eye level but otherwise innocuous. Both males and females can have tusks of various sizes but my guy was well endowed. And yes, he was well endowed in another way as well. It was definitely a day I’ll never forget.

This morning, I exchanged my seat on an elephant for a more familiar one, a seat on a bike. When I arrived at the bike tour place, I found there were only two other participants – a mother/daughter pair from Singapore. It quickly became apparent that “Mom” was not very able on a bike (it really is important to know how to brake!) so they quickly hired a Tuk Tuk, a little motorized vehicle to follow behind the guide and me to carry the two women. I love to travel by bike to learn about a place and this tour started off on city streets but quickly turned out into the countryside. There were lots of stops, starting at a temple (“Thai people start their day at a temple so it brings good luck to the people and safe travels”), then a bakery (free samples!), a school for Cambodian and Burmese refugees, a community of lepers, a candy factory, an orphanage for Hill Country tribal children and a local market. Along the way, we learned about Thai customs and people and got glimpses of different homes from a suburban middle class neighborhood to country shacks.

Not surprisingly, my favorite stop was (no, not the bakery), the school. We were led into a classroom of 6 year olds – perfect! Our guide had brought 4 pieces of plastic fruit and my job was to teach the children the names of them in English. Using lots of years of kindergarten teaching experience, it didn’t take me long to get right into my element. It was so much fun to play games with the kids and sure enough, most of them had learned the names by the time I left (at least for a little while). I asked if I could sing with them and we launched into Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. It was an easy comfortable lesson and I had many new friends when I left there. The teacher seemed grateful for a little break and I got my kid fix.

Along the way, we could see evidence of the flooding that swamped Thailand in October. I saw pictures at the orphanage of the water flooding the rooms which looked so much like the flooding in my town this summer. I passed a huge pile of discarded furniture outside of town and water marks along the fences. Unlike in the U.S., the clean up in these little towns was all done without government help. They have made good progress but also worry about more flooding during the next rainy season.

At the end of the tour, it was my turn in the Tuk Tuk for the ride back to my room. I am staying in the old city and have enjoyed lots of walking through the narrow streets. There are many guest houses, temples and massage places in the neighborhood and I’m writing from my new favorite cafe, The Blue Velvet which has organic food, a beautiful garden and yummy fruit shakes. Laurence and I strolled through the streets of the Sunday market the other evening, much like a Gallery Walk in Brattleboro. There were shopping options of all kinds from high quality handcrafts to black jelly drinks (Jello like cubes mixed with milk – not so great). I have to confess that I passed on my opportunity to try the fried grasshoppers, silk worms and large crickets. I’ve had enough new experiences this week already. Maybe the next time I see them…

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Bali to Chiang Mai, Thailand

Picture a slightly overweight Thai man in a hot pink leotard with a white sheer mini-dress with wings on the back, a flowery headband and a page boy haircut. Now add some disco music, two pretty boys behind him on a little stage and some loud guttural sounds to go with the beat. Add some Richard Simmons-like moves and you’ll know what I saw on the television this morning when I woke up in my basic hotel room near the airport in Bangkok. I won’t add the image of me trying to keep up with this early morning aerobics class!

I rarely turn on a television but waiting for the time I could go eat my free breakfast (a ham and cheese sandwich with cabbage on white bread with the crusts cut off, juice and tea), I decided the television would provide a cultural experience and indeed it did! From infomercials taking place with old people in rice paddies exclaiming about a product that came in a jar to a Thai fashion show, I knew I had woken up in a new place. As I ate my breakfast, I read through a book on the swap shelf called, Thai Love. It was written in 2 languages to guide a man through the process of dealing with Thai women who ply a certain trade. Ok, then.

It’s just another variation on a worldwide theme. In Bali yesterday morning, as I chatted with my taxi driver on the way to the airport, we got onto the subject of American politics. Since Obama went to school in Indonesia, he is very well thought of in Bali. From there, the conversation went to the Bush administration and then back to Bill Clinton. On this point, Made was clear. “If I was with Monica, I would have done the same thing.” And then the subject turned to how much he wished he had met me earlier as he would like to make me happy too. “You are very beautiful and I like you very much.” Like in the Thai guide to Love, I had to take it all with a grain of salt, but now I can say I had my own version of the Eat, Pray, Love thing without the risk of AIDS (very prevalent in Bali) or a broken heart.

I was glad that I had allowed extra time to get to the airport. The traffic was backed up with cars and scooters on the way to work in the touristy areas. Once at the airport, (undergoing renovation to modernize it), I got a lot of walking in. First, I was told to go to the international building as my destination was Thailand. Once there, they said to go to the domestic terminal as my first flight was to Jakarta. At the desk, it took a whole team of people to get me my boarding pass as they had just started a new computer system the day before and I had a paper ticket. Fortunately, I had plenty of time and patience and eventually I got my boarding passes.

On my first flight, I was seated next to a man named Andy who was my age and had children the same ages as mine. His English was perfect and we chatted about his work with a German company that makes cranes, our children and retirement among other things. For him, the retirement age is 55, a far cry from my 65. As we neared Jakarta, he pointed out the flooding we could see from the air and the hundreds of cargo ships waiting their turn in the harbor. He helped me through the airport until I reached immigration and then said goodbye.

On my flight to Bangkok, I sat next to a young woman who didn’t speak English so I tuned into my seat computer. I watched a video about Bali, about an hour long, that did a great job summarizing my trip with footage of places I’d seen and explanations about customs I had observed. It was so nice to recognize familiar sights and know I’d had a chance to experience them. I loved Bali.

Once on the ground in Bangkok, my usual long-lasting supply of patience was pushed to its limits. Hundreds of people (I had time to count and estimate) filled a giant waiting area several football fields wide. Instead of lines, there were people packed together looking far forward to the immigration counters. From where I stood, I couldn’t see the counters themselves only huge overhead video screens advertising various products. After about 45 minutes of barely moving ahead 3-4 feet, I left my place and started investigating the scene. I noticed one counter that had a real line and two officers, rather than one. I decided it was time to cut bait and start all over. It was a good choice, especially as I met a charming group of Japanese students who had just finished their university studies. After a few days in Bangkok, one was going to bike from one end of Japan to another. I had found a kindred spirit and although I’m not sure he really believed that I had done the same thing in the U.S., the time passed quickly. With a quick glance backwards, I could see that the people standing in my former line were still there. Pfew. My gamble paid off.

I had wondered where my checked bag would be since it had been over an hour since I landed. It was at one of over 25 baggage claim areas and I spotted it quickly waiting for me on the side of the conveyor belt. With another sigh of relief, I quickly cleared customs and found the shuttle bus for my hotel.

By then, it was dark and I had read on Trip Advisor that the only eating options nearby were a 7-Eleven and some street carts so I ordered my dinner from the hotel restaurant. I was the only customer but I still enjoyed my first Thai meal, so familiar from so many Thai restaurants in the U.S. I toasted my arrival with my first Sangha beer, a delicious beverage in the humid air.

After dinner, I took a little walk across the foot bridge on the nearby river. There was a temple where an “orchestra” of instruments similar to the gamelon in Bali were playing while Thai women in fancy dress danced and monks sat nearby. There were several huge floral arrangements with signs on them. Was this some sort of funeral? I have no idea. There were several street dogs hanging around, one of which barked at me a bit, so I headed back for a good night’s sleep.

Going into the Bangkok airport from the arrivals area was as efficient as the entry had been inefficient. I zipped through my check in and security and made my way out to the gate. I loved watching the planes from so many different places land and take off from China or Singapore, places I have yet to experience. I chatted with an Italian man, about his travels to see the 7 wonders of the world. He encouraged me to visit Cambodia and Vietnam, something I an considering for my free time in April.

On the short flight to Chiang Mai, I enjoyed a conversation with a businessman from Singapore, here to set up an international conference. He has to work today but I am here in my guest house finishing up this post surrounded by guidebooks, brochures and a good map, trying to decide how to choose between the many options for tourists here. I have a nice room on the first floor where I can have tea and snacks during the day and a breakfast area for the mornings. This will be my new home for this week and I’m ready to head out and explore. Look out Chiang Mai. Here I come!

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Mud pits and the Star Spangled Banner

The music in the car was reggae, just like in the cafe the night before. It was easy to forget I was in Bali until I looked out the window and saw the now familiar shrines and women carrying things on their heads and little petrol stations with liquor bottles outside a shop, holding the fuel for the hundreds of scooters that drive by.

Coming back to Thomas and Sylvia’s house in Sanur gave me the perspective of my first impressions of Bali to compare to my experiences now almost a month later. Sanur seems much busier, full of more vacationers in the big hotels on the beach and less spiritual than the many little villages that I have traveled through. It’s still Bali and still beautiful but I’m also glad to have had the chance to see and learn much more about this part of Indonesia than many of the sunburned white people on the beach.

I also got to do two of my favorite things – sing in a chorus and see a wonderful school. Sylvia sings in an international chorus and I was invited to come along for the night. Since they needed another alto, I got to sight read the harmony part of an eclectic collection of songs from the Java Jive to a Christian hymn. We sang a rowdy Australian ditty (the director is from there) and the Star Spangled Banner they are preparing for a 4th of July concert. For that one, I switched over to the soprano section where I realized again how challenging that anthem is both musically and for non-native English speakers, verbally. “Why does your anthem mention bombs bursting in air?” I’m not sure my explanation was particularly helpful but my singing the melody line strongly definitely was. After working so hard on the first part, we never got to sing the last line. “Coitus interruptis”, quipped the saucy Aussie.

During the break, Sylvia introduced me to an American who is part of a pre-K – 11th grade private school called The Green School. We quickly found we had many things in common and he invited me to come visit his school. It has been featured internationally on CNN, the BBC, etc and there was a group of Chinese educators coming for a visit after school the next day. “Come early”, he said, “and I’ll show you around. We don’t usually allow visitors while the students are in class, but I’ll make an exception for you.”

The school is about an hour from Sanur so Sylvia called her favorite driver to take me the next day. Little did I know that the drive would be as interesting as the destination. First, we stopped at a post office so that I could mail a package home. My daughter’s birthday is in May and I knew it would take 2-3 months for a package to arrive by boat from here. I chose the slow route as it cost almost $30.00 to mail a package weighing less than 5 pounds. I tucked in her present (shhhh), some musical instruments I bought for my school, a dress and a skirt I had made here and a few odds and ends.

Back on the road, Kariada and I talked about all kinds of things from the Balinese customs around holidays, families, affairs, and divorces to some of the finer points of Hinduism and spirituality. We passed a cremation ceremony where the ashes were just being collected to take to the sea. We talked about the Hindu belief that the souls of people come back to their families sometimes in another generation. At 12 days old, a medium is consulted to learn about the soul of a new baby. He told me that his grandmother talked to her husband, through the medium, to learn that he was returning in the form of her new grandchild. Boys are expected to take care of their mothers as they age (and girls leave the family compounds to join their husbands’ family) so they are particularly valued. Once married, women never return to their original home so affairs are tolerated so that families stay together. Kariada explained with multiple generations living together, they have to work together to keep everyone happy and everyone weighs in on a potential new wife marrying a son as she will become part of the household.

We talked about the upcoming holiday, Nyepi, which is held on the eve of the new year (this year in March as the Balinese calendar is a shorter year). It’s a time of total quiet and rest, some say so that the evil spirits think everyone has left and won’t bother them this year, others say it’s more of a time of quiet and meditation. Everything is closed, including the airports. There are no cars on the road, food is not cooked, no one leaves their home. Food is prepared the day before including for any tourists. Imagine what the world would be like if we all stopped moving for a day!

Upon arrival at the Green School, I was immediately struck by the welcoming and friendly vibe that I got as I entered the bamboo gates. There is a little outdoor cafe (everything is outdoors as there are no walls) and a coffee stand. The students here grow the coffee, roast it and sell the lattes and iced coffee drinks to the parents, staff and visitors. That is the philosophy of the school – for students to be engaged in real activities that support their own learning, the community and the earth. Ben gave me a great private tour of the various buildings, one for each class, as well as a huge “heart” building that’s 3 stories of bamboo holding the library, computer lab, science center and classroom space as well as other things. The buildings are all made of sustainable bamboo and have won awards for their design. The older students have helped to draw, clear land and build some of the buildings as part of their work. Windows are made from old car windshields and cubbies shaped like a pineapple or amoeba are made from bamboo. My students would go crazy for the giant bamboo pirate ship.

One of the first things that I saw was a huge mud pit. I wish I had been there earlier that day to see the younger students playing! There was an aquaculture place for the 5th graders, pigs, goats, chickens and endangered Balinese starlings which they are helping to raise in their aviary. There are rice paddies and organic gardens where students grow their own food. They are close to being off the grid with their solar panels and a unique vortex waterway for hydro power from the river. One of the stunning buildings is a huge bamboo bridge that spans the river. I sat in briefly on a marimba/drum band practice and peaked into early childhood classrooms where children were napping in the heat or reading quietly. If I’ve ever seen a school that resembles a jungle version of Marlboro (where I teach), this is it. Substitute a snow ball field for the mud pit and our students would feel right at home.

The bus load of Chinese visitors was waiting at the gate as I left, sipping an iced mocha from the school coffee shop. What a treat to see such a place and my thanks to Ben for taking time out of his busy day to show me around.

This morning, there is packing going on all around. Sylvia and Thomas will be moving into their house this weekend, leaving this rental home behind after three years. I have been packing as well, getting ready for my flight tomorrow to Bangkok, and then on to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand the next day. The best part of the day was first thing this morning when I checked my email and saw that my daughter Emily got into grad school at Yale! She’s going to make a great nurse/midwife and I’m so excited for her. With the technology of Face Time, we were able to share a face to face conversation from the other side of the world, and the other side of the clock, her day ending as mine began.

My time in Bali is coming to an end. Sylvia and I will do a yoga class this evening and then I’ll set my alarm for my early taxi ride back to the airport. It has been a full and wonderful experience, being here on this magical island. I’ve had a great safety net here with Sylvia and Thomas helping me to experience the “real” Bali. My huge thanks to them and to the wonderful people I have met here.

It’s time for me to fledge and strike out for a new place on my own. I go this time, though, with increased confidence that I can navigate my way through new Asian places.

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