A Sweaty Tourist in Bangkok

One of the hazards of traveling in Southeast Asia is temple fatigue. Having donned my long sleeves and a long silk skirt, I braved the 100 degree humid temps here in Bangkok and did the mandatory sight-seeing temples yesterday. I started out early to join the lines to see the Royal Palace and the famous emerald buddha first. The sparkle quotient is really high here with walls and roofs covered in shiny mosaics and lots of golden statues surrounding the buddha figures. Like in Bhutan, there are piles of shoes outside the temples as the visitors pad in barefoot to pray and observe in front of the statues. The crowds got thicker as the day progressed, pilgrims from all over the world coming together in these sacred places. One of my favorites was the world’s largest reclining buddha, barely fitting into its building about the length of a football field and reaching several meters high. The feet alone were taller than me and made of mother of pearl inserts – the most beautiful feet around.

Another highlight was the Temple of the Dawn. In order to get to this one you have to cross the river by ferry. On the opposite shore you can see the spire sticking way up into the air in the Khmer style of Cambodia. What I didn’t know until I arrived is that you can climb way up onto the tower using a set of really steep outside stairs. Despite the heat, I made the mid-day climb, sweating profusely but enjoying the view from high above the river. There were few people up there and I could pretend it was all for me, this aerial view across the river with spires of other temples shining in the hot sun.

Before I got to Bangkok I was overwhelmed by the various forms of getting around this huge city. I was happy to figure out the boat system, though, and took an express boat down the river to the central pier passing barges along the way and seeing the fast long tail boats whizzing up and down the river. I boarded the SkyTrain to get to another part of the city where I visited the Jim Thompson House. He was an American architect who is known for making the Thai silk industry into an international phenomenon. In the process, he made a lot of money and used it to procure an impressive collection of Asian art and build a beautiful teak house. Unfortunately, he disappeared on a trip to Burma and was never heard of again. I enjoyed seeing the collection and his unique home. I also managed to find my way back to my guest house which was an accomplishment in itself by walking, skytrain and a boat. For my first day on my own in several weeks, I did alright.

The flight out of Bhutan was the scary experience that I had expected on the way in. Flying up and over the high mountains we could feel all of the up and down drafts. My seat mate and I kept exchanging glances as the jet shook from side to side and up and down with mountains just off to our sides. Indeed, it takes so much fuel to make the climb that we had to make a stop in Bangladesh to refuel. Apparently, the plane can only carry so much fuel to make the steep ascent. I just kept reminding myself that they do this every day – well, most days at least. I always feel a little more secure when there are monks on the plane and I was delighted to see my friend, the monkette in the airport who was also flying to Bangkok. I shared my photos of us with her and she came back over to where I was sitting and gave me a set of Malaysian prayer beads. It was a special moment. Maybe some day I’ll see her in Malaysia as she gave me her monastery address as well.

Back at the Bangkok airport, I spent the night with Marleen, my fellow Vermonter who needed some assistance to get on her early morning flight since she has been on crutches or a wheelchair since crashing her bike in Bhutan. Later in the morning I met up with Claudia and Virginia from our Bhutan tour who had a day planned with a private tour guide and were gracious enough to allow me to join them. We started the day by driving out of the city and boarding a boat to experience the Floating Market. Boats jockeyed for position in the crowded canals. We bought a bunch of bananas to bring to some elephants and some delicious coconut ice cream for us. I also bought some mangosteens, the tropical fruit I hadn’t tasted since Bali. On one deserted canal a monitor lizard swam in front of us. When he climbed up on the bank we got to see his impressive size. There were also huge snakes that you could carry and photograph for a fee. No thanks.

Back in the air conditioned car, we drove to the Bridge on the River Kwai. The bridge was destroyed during WWII but has been rebuilt. There was an impressive museum dedicated to the memory of those who built it and a railway for the Japanese using POW labor. The cemetery across the street is filled with the graves who died in the process. It was a sobering experience learning of the many who suffered there.

Our last stop was an elephant farm. Passing tapioca and sugarcane fields, we arrived at the elephant farm after a short drive. Since there were only 2 elephants reserved I was going to bow out but I ended up riding on the spine of Virginia’s elephant, a very bony experience. Fortunately it was only a short distance down to the river where we were to bathe the elephants. I seem to attract elephants who like to roll under the water so when this one started to go down I quickly jumped off. I left Virginia to do the scrubbing while I became their photographer dripping on the shore. Other elephants wandered down to cool off in the river and I was happy to be nearby and being soaking wet was actually a good experience in the heat of the day.

It was a long drive back to the city and the other two had a late night plane to catch so I got into a taxi to reach my guest house on the edge of the backpacker district. It has turned out to be a good place – simple, inexpensive accommodations on a quiet street near lots of restaurants and with good wifi. I decided to spend an extra day here to just wander about and enjoy Bangkok.

This morning I started out with a vague idea of places to see. Along the way I stumbled upon a parade at the Independence Memorial. It turns out to be Thai Labor Day and the people were protesting about the minimum wage. I wandered down streets and canals finding the street where you can buy golden statues of all kinds, canals with people hanging out in their homes, a beautiful park, more temples (I didn’t go in) and the chaos of Chinatown. I ended up in the electronics section where men and women were busy fixing circuit boards and televisions in the heat of the sidewalk. I also wandered through the warehouse area near the river and watched men load huge bags of garlic into baskets and chilies dried in the sun. The fresh pineapple from the street vendor really hit the spot.

For a change of scene, I decided to take the canal boat and Sky train back to Siam Square that I had passed the day before. The air conditioning revived me as I wandered one of the world’s largest shopping areas. Every luxury store was represented as well as all kinds of tech stores including an Apple store. I checked out the cinemas on the 6th floor teeming with Thais enjoying their fancy cinemas but decided to go down to the bottom floor to get something to eat. Again, there were restaurants from all over the world – some familiar like Swensens ice cream and McDonald’s – and others representing all kinds of cuisine from Korean to French. I also discovered the Gourmet Shop, a kind of Whole Foods that imports food from all over the world as well as selling the more prosaic things like rat poison and fabric softener.

I had thoughts about walking at least some of the way back to my guesthouse but as soon as the heat hit me I changed my mind and got on the modern air conditioned SkyTrain to the canal boat.

In the morning I’ll be taking a bus to an island a few hours east of here. I’m looking forward to some cool ocean breezes and activities I’ll describe in my next post. One month from today I’ll be on a plane home. Time sure does fly when you’re having fun!

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Cycling with Yaks

In this most spiritual of countries, today we hiked up over 10,000 feet to the Tiger’s Nest, the most sacred monastery built high up on the side of a mountain cliff. It is said that the second Lord Buddha was flown up to a cave by his Tibetan consort in the form of a tigress. Today I climbed down into that same cave that goes deep into the mountain. We also visited the temples where a monk sat chanting and beating a drum while incense scented the air. One can’t help but be in awe in such a setting 3000 feet above the village of Paro. To get there was our final day’s challenge. We climbed up a steep dirt path for about 2 hours before reaching a tea house where we stopped for the twice a day tea stop. From there it was another hour of climbing until we reached the highest place. That’s where the steps go down the face of the cliff, cross a bridge past a waterfall and then up another set of steep steps to the temples. All along the way were colorful prayer flags waving in the breeze some shot across the air by arrows.

We have visited several temples on our last few days in Bhutan and know the routine. First the shoes come off, long sleeves and long pants put on, sunglasses and cameras put away. At this sacred site, the police checked to make sure cell phones were left behind with the cameras. I’ll have to take the images inside in my head of the various carvings, offerings, butter lamps burning and elaborate paintings. I was glad I had my camera though as I started the descent down the stairs. On the way up were a group of Malaysian monks we had met at the top of a mountain pass a couple of days ago. That day, one monkette, aka a nun, indicated to me that she was very interested in my bicycle. After several tries, I held onto the seat and handlebars as she had her first bicycle ride. We attracted a lot of attention from the other tourists as I ran along side of her like a parent does with a young child learning to balance. She was a spirited one and we had an instant camaraderie. As I was descending the stairs today, I was delighted to see her again as she came laughing up the stairs calling out to me, her biking buddy. After some hugs, laughs and photographs, we each headed off in our own directions carrying the joy of our shared moments.

In order to go east and west in Bhutan, you have to go up one of the twisty mountain roads, through a pass and back down the other side. In our biking these last few days, we have spent hours perfecting our descending skills, dodging potholes, trucks and cows as we flew down the mountains sometimes for hours. My favorite moment, though, was when we came across some wild yaks grazing by the side of the road. I’ve never been around yaks on a bike and one of our women found out to keep your distance as the yak threatened her. We were also high up where the rhododendrons were in their bright red glorious bloom and we could see snow covered peaks in the distance. In Bhutan, most of the Himalayan peaks are unnamed and none of them are climbed. The people here believe that there is a deity on each mountain that would be offended by having climbers on their mountains.

That’s one of the special things about being in this spiritual country. Our guide has made sure to follow the customs of the country with us including stringing prayer flags at the top of our highest climb to bless our journey. At one temple we were each given a sacred knotted string to wear around our necks to protect us. We have been blessed with oil and spun prayer wheels of all sizes to send our prayers to the heavens, bells ringing as they turned. At one picnic site there were woven spirit catcher like things lying on the ground. When some women picked them up for souvenirs, our guide showed his distress. Since we didn’t know what karma they held (maybe there were offered to help a sick person or to change a bad situation) he warned them to leave them be. You can buy new ones in town, he explained.

Like in Nepal, there are shopping opportunities wherever tourists gather. On the way down the mountain today there were women with their wares spread out on colorful cloths. We spent some time in the shops yesterday in town where many women filled their suitcases with prayer flags and jewelry. I was looking for a CD of the chant that has been in my mind since Nepal. Coincidentally, some of the same group of Malaysia monks was in the shop with me. When I hummed the tune, they showed me which CD was the one I wanted. A monk helping me choose a chanting CD – that was another special moment.

We have not been in tourist areas most of this trip however. We made it to the center of Bhutan where white faces are a rarity. Rarer still is the sight of lycra clad women riding bicycles past farms and villages. Many waved as we passed and everyone returned my smile. Children held out their arms to touch our hands as we rode past and some ran along beside us. As we climbed hills on our bikes, women stopped their chores to watch us pass and men grinned.

In the center of Bhutan is a giant valley where the endangered black necked crane spends the winter. As we reached the valley floor after a challenging descent (one woman took a bad fall on a hairpin turn and has been on crutches with colorful bruises ever since) we could see for miles. Our colorful lodge was perched on the side of a hill and we each had a small wood stove in our rooms to keep us warm. In the morning sunlight, we hiked across the valley and then climbed straight up the side of a mountain to visit a Tibetan style temple in the village there. I was especially interested to see how the Tibetan temple varied from the other ones we’d seen as I had just finished reading an autobiography of the Dalai Lama which finished with his escape over some of these same mountains from Tibet to India.

From the temple, we rode back up to the same mountain pass where we had started our descent on the first riding day. This time, we rode down the other side to the river confluence and then back up to ride back to Paro, the home of the only international airport. Altogether it was 70 kilometers, some downhill, some uphill and some with intense headwinds. All along the way the views were beautiful either from high in the mountains, past terraced fields or along the river and through villages with their colorful buildings. In Paro, we are spending three nights in our lodge also perched on a hillside. There are four sets of stairs to get from the reception area (where there is wireless internet) to our room. Just going to and from the restaurant is great exercise. We can also see the planes landing and taking off, all of one or two a day.

Yesterday we rode our bikes out to the most western part of the country where the road ends and some low mountain treks begin. The road is cut into the side of the mountain in many places but now we are old hands at negotiating the occasional traffic and the ups and downs. Tomorrow, it will be our turn to board the flight back to Bangkok and leave this amazing country behind. Before we go, we’ll enjoy one more dinner. We know the menu by heart – red rice, stir fried pasta, some sort of potatoes, steamed vegetables, fiddlehead ferns or asparagus and a mouth sizzling chili, cheese and green bean dish. We might enjoy one more round of the special dumplings called Momos (that I also had in Nepal) and probably toast with one more glass of Druk 11000, the Bhutanese beer that only comes in large bottles.

It’s been a quick 10 days here in Bhutan and in a country that I hope will retain its unique culture as it joins the 21st century. Today our guide offered prayers in our last temple visit that we will all return to Bhutan some day. I hope the gods were listening.

(Apologies about the duplicate and some triplicate photos in the last blog post. The internet here is inconsistent and pictures seem to magically appear, disappear and sometimes reappear. I hope things will go smoother this time.)

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Cows Up. King Back.

The queen of Bhutan gave me a thumbs up as I stood respectfully next to my bike on the twisty mountain road. The king was in the car in front and by the time I realized it was him, I had only a glimpse. There’s something about being with royalty that makes for a special day in Bhutan.

We knew right from the beginning how important royalty is to this Himalayan Kingdom from the moment we got off the plane. Fortunately, I had already heard about the landing in Paro with the plane wings seemingly skimming the mountains as you come into the landing strip high in the mountains so I didn’t panic as we landed. I had seen Mt. Everest from the plane – a real thrill – and before I knew it we were landing. We were all a bit bleary from our meeting time in Bangkok at 3 a.m. Wake up calls at 2 a.m. are a difficult way to start a day. As we were flying the three hours to Bhutan, I couldn’t remember packing my bathing suit and some other things. When we got to our lodge, there they were.

As we came down the stairs of the plane, one of the first things we saw was a huge billboard of the King and Queen’s recent marriage. Our guide met us in the airport and filled us in on the history of Bhutan as we drove into town. Although the 4th king had given the power back to the people in 2008, this 5th king still has the final vote in the government and deep respect from the people. His father (the 4th king) has four wives – four sisters who come from the village where we are staying and had turned the throne over to his eldest son. Our guide has heard the rumor that the astrologer is saying that the new queen is pregnant with a son. We’ll see.

Our first day was filled with learning the history and culture of this country known for making decisions based on Gross National Happiness. We visited a cultural/handicraft school where we looked in on classes in painting, sculpture, wood carving, embroidery and weaving. We visited a traditional Bhutanese house where we could see the intricate decorations both in wood and paint. We spent some time wandering the town, doing some shopping and getting a feel for this unique country. People still wear traditional dress. The men wear a tunic that comes just below their knees and knee socks. Women wear long skirts and jackets. There is also formal wear that our guide put on when we visited a temple and the king’s fortress.

Hanging out at the temple is the way many of the older folk spend their days. Spinning hand held prayer wheels, grinning with their betel nut stained teeth, they walk around and around the temple always in a clockwise direction. Others hang out by giant prayer wheels with their prayer beads, chanting prayers or talking with their friends. Everyone prostrates themselves as they enter the temples with their giant Buddha and elaborately carved figures. Paintings, like the ones we saw at the school, cover the walls with their colorful and detailed pictures of the lives of Buddha or the lives of local saints and figures. Butter lamps burn and monks preside – sometimes young ones. Already I’m becoming familiar with the three main figures – Lord Buddha, Guru Rimpoche, the second Buddha, and the guy with the long beard who united Bhutan.

By the time we drove up to our lodge high in the mountains, we were really tired and hungry. After a delicious meal by the woodstove, we settled into our rooms. In the morning, my room mate from Florida was having difficulty breathing. She had experienced altitude sickness before and was ready with medication but she still suffered for the first couple of days with a bad headache, breathing trouble and vomiting. While she rested, the rest of us headed out for our first bike ride starting with the steep descent down into the village. The air was cool and fresh through the forest. Once near the river, we crossed the bridge and headed up the other side. As you would expect, a country made of mountains is not easy cycling. As we climbed and climbed up the other side, I knew that the option of riding back up to the lodge was not one I would likely take. I could tell I hadn’t been on a bike except for a few days here or there since Hawaii and with the extra weight of a mountain bike and without my clip in pedals, I worked really hard to get up the steep ascent. Some walked, some gave up and a few with their own pedals and having trained, seemed to buzz on up without too much trouble.

Once at the top though, the view down the valley was worth it. Prayer flags in the trees, the temples and fortress we had visited the day before, the king’s residence – all were visible from our vantage point. On we went for another hour or so. Our bike guide called them rollers but I would call them steep ascents and winding descents. We passed prayer wheels powered by waterfalls and a giant painting of the second Buddha – Rimpoche painted on a large rock wall; not my usual scenery on a ride. We enjoyed a picnic lunch at the end of the road not far from where you can start a trek to Tibet about a 3 days walk away. There is a monastery high on the hill where monks meditate for months without talking and barely eating.

The way back was a sweet ride with great downhills that we had climbed before and a few ascents. When I got back to the road where a truck would pick up our bikes, I was there ahead so I decided to ride or walk my bike up the steep hill until the truck came along. It was a pleasant surprise to find that with my granny gear and having warmed up, I made it all the way up to the lodge. That night we enjoyed a dance performance of Bhutanese dance with colorful costumes and live music.

I woke up early the next morning and walked over to the nearby temple while my room mate slept in a bit. The same chants I had heard in Nepal were being played and I circled the temple spinning the outdoor prayer wheels and enjoying the view down the valley. The caretaker came by and opened the temple for me so I settled into a cushion for a little quiet meditation, a very Bhutanese and pleasant way to begin a day.

Our biking day was to begin at the top of a mountain pass. The bus twisted and turned as we climbed higher and higher. The road was much like that in Nepal, especially as it is being widened and still under construction in many places. The same colorful Indian trucks were carrying merchandise and passing each other in tight places. At the top, we visited the 108 chortens, each with a special relic, to honor those who had died in a skirmish with some Indian rebels a few years ago. One of the queens had a temple built at the top with stunning views down the valley and I saw the same rhododendrons I had seen in the mountains of Nepal still in bloom.

As we descended, instead of being tucked into a bus, I was in control of my own descent this time from the seat of a bicycle. We rode 30 kilometers downhill, calling out cars behind us or trucks up ahead and warning of potholes and bumps. We also called out when a cow was in the road. They are sacred here and have full run of the country. It was noisy from our voices as there was barely a smooth stretch of pavement. It took focus and concentration but it was a sweet ride. I had to stop and remember to look around at the mountain villages, the views of the road winding down the hillside below us and the terraced fields. At one point in a village, I felt like I was in the Tour de France as children blocked my way yelling “Bye! Bye!” and chasing next to me on the bike.

As we got further down, our group spread out. I stopped to talk with some school children walking home in their colorful uniforms. I met the Bad Boy of Bhutan, an impish youngster who wiped my hand with a stinging nettle. I used my best teacher voice to express my anger at being tricked. The other children stopped their laughing and looked chagrined. One explained that he was a naughty boy and when I asked if he was the only one in Bhutan, they laughed with me.

As I caught up with our guide further down the mountain, he was hurriedly adjusting his national dress. The king was coming down the same road we were cycling! The king is an avid cyclist himself and our guide hoped he would stop to see us and briefed us quickly on the etiquette of being in the king’s presence. There were only a few of us there when the police vehicle came first, flashing his lights. Suddenly, there they were- the king in the first car, the queen in the second smiling and giving me a thumbs up, and then they were gone. Feeling quite special, we headed down the mountain grinning at our luck. Two days in Bhutan and we had seen the King and Queen – special indeed!

After lunch, we hiked out to the Temple of the Divine Madman. Passing through a village where the people were constructing new mud homes, we got a peak into rural living, similar in some ways to Nepal but with more intricate buildings. At the temple a young monk (maybe 8 years old) blessed us with oil and a large wooden penis and an arrow. Yes, that’s right. In this area of Bhutan, you often see large penises painted on the sides of buildings as a way to ward off evil. As a group of women, we had our giggles as we passed the Phallus gift shop on the way back through the fields.

The last part of the ride was a long ascent from the river up to our lodging high on the side of a mountain. In the morning, we got to ride all the way back down. At the bottom, we turned onto a rough dirt road to ride through the fields and villages to the start of a rafting trip. My sandals went on the raft (I swapped shoes with someone who didn’t have river shoes) but I opted out when I heard that there were rapids of the same size that threw me under water in Nepal. It all worked out well as three of us rode our bikes along the river and took photographs of the rafters. As a bonus, we also got to cross a huge suspension bridge across the river and met up with the rest of the group for a picnic lunch. Just before we met them, I heard a voice say, “Quickly! Quickly!”. I turned to see a van full of police. I suddenly stopped my bike, jumped off and looked up to see the queen just a foot or two from my face. She smiled and waved (my old friend from yesterday!) and kept going.

After lunch, we donned our formal wear which here means that all of our bodies are covered from our ankles to our necks. Despite the heat, we enjoyed a tour of the fortress. Inside is the most holy temple in Bhutan where the King and Queen had their marriage last year. The monks were chanting and beating drums in the next section as we learned about the paintings depicting the Lord Buddha’s life, the wheel of life and other figures depicted on the walls and saw the giant carved figures.

Nearby was an archery match, the national sport. Earlier we had tried out the traditional bow at a place near the river where I was one of three people who hit the target, but these men were using highly technical bows. The distance was 140 meters long – longer than a football field and whenever anyone hit the target (which seemed an impossible task given the huge distance and the wind) each team would do a chanting dance.

Bhutan is working hard to develop itself as a more modern country while at the same time they are trying to preserve their traditions and culture. Tourism is becoming a big part of their income which obviously influences this place that has been tucked away in the mountains for so many years. Some call it the last Shangri La and from what I’ve seen the last few days, it certainly feels like that. The people are sincere and friendly and have a wonderful sense of humor. They obviously love their royal family and are incredibly respectful. Buddhism is a huge part of their culture and temples and shrines are everywhere. It really is a magical place. We’ll be back on our bikes in the morning, heading up to yet another mountain pass. I wonder where the queen will be tomorrow?

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Betwixt and Between

Yesterday morning I was riding in a car past men pushing bicycles loaded with hundreds of eggs or fruit or piles of blankets. Women laid their vegetables out on the sidewalk to sell as cows wandered by in the streets. Today I’m looking out my 4th floor window at planes landing at Bangkok airport. I’m in culture shock. Those things I used to take for granted are now a luxury. Here I can recharge two things at the same time and know that the power will be on the whole time. I have a pot to heat up water for tea, a hot shower, access to a fitness room and a huge swimming pool and a most comfy bed with soft pillows and clean sheets. I can get food of any sort in the restaurants downstairs (I had some delicious pad thai when I got here last night) and internet access (for a ridiculous fee). I felt guilty using so much water for my shower and went around turning off most of the lights in the room.

Leaving Nepal I was full of mixed emotions. Like all the volunteers I spoke with, we all had our moments wondering if we really wanted to stay in a place that had so many challenges from hard pillows to a place where things are unpredictable and change all the time. When I got back to the hostel, I met up with some volunteers I had met before and a crop of new ones just finishing their language training. I was sorry to hear that two people I know had ended up hospitalized with digestive troubles (both are alright now), one had to be flown down from her high altitude monastery because of altitude sickness and others had dealt with other minor challenges. I felt very grateful that besides a couple of days with digestive issues and a bunch of itchy insect bites, I got through unscathed. I found it funny that I slept particularly well in the same place where barking dogs and hard beds had made it so challenging to sleep when I first arrived.

Still, along with the challenges, Nepal is also an incredibly wonderful country. The mountains alone make it a special place but the people are also some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. For example, I had a new roommate join me my last night from Australia, a young woman just arrived in the country. I gave her my own orientation to the area (as each volunteer does for the others) including her trip to the phone shop where I have been several times. (The owner always likes to see me coming with a new client and wished me a fond farewell.) Alex had brought Indian rupees instead of Nepali ones which her bank had told her were equally used in Nepal. Not true. We went to a bank to exchange them where we learned that not only are they not used, it is illegal to bring the large bills into the country! With a fistful of money that is illegal, neither of us was sure what to do next.

The bank teller took us downstairs to a tailor shop. Not exactly sure what was happening we sat and chatted with my meagre Nepali and their hesitant English while we waited for something to happen. It turns out that the tailor called in his friends who each arrived carrying a wad of Nepali bills. Knowing the exchange rate was accurate, Alex was delighted to realize that the teller was finding a way to solve her problem and with enough friends, she had her Nepali rupees. He explained that Nepalis can cross the Indian border without a visa and they would exchange them there. He then invited us both to tea. Upstairs, we shared our stories. Alex has an invitation for a visit to his village and I made a donation to the school that he has helped to build there (using up my Nepali rupees). Such is the graciousness and generosity of the Nepali people. In my time there, I had many offers of meals and visits from strangers I met on a bus or on a walk.

At the airport, I went through several security checks including full body pat downs before making it to the gate. Coincidentally, the gate was used for two flights – mine to Delhi and the other to Bhutan. I was spending all day flying back to Bangkok to meet an early morning flight with my group when another plane was flying directly there. So it goes… As I climbed the stairs to the jet, there was yet another security check, this one by Air India. Apparently Nepal doesn’t have the best reputation for being thorough and the Indian staff does their own screening. The flight was great, flying right over the temples I had seen and the mountains where I had survived the twisty, narrow roads by bus. The Himalayas were on the other side of the plane but I could glimpse their snowy flanks from my seat.

We were screened again in order to enter the Delhi airport. This time I had a chance to get a little taste of India. I perused the shops where I could get a free holistic health consultation, listened to live music with a sitar and a drum and had my first ice cream in two months. Each flight had Indian food served by flight attendants wearing saris. I still haven’t touched the ground past the airport but like the Korean Air flights to Bali, it gave me a little flavor of a country.

Back in Bangkok, I’m spending today enjoying the creature comforts before leaving to meet the bike group at 3 a.m. for our flight to Bhutan. I did a work out on the elliptical, did an hour of yoga and am heading for the swimming pool to beat the humid heat. I’m still not quite sure what I will do when I return here except that I’ve signed up for a bike trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia. I always figure traveling by bike is a good way to see a country.

Time to put my guilt aside and swim. There’s a cold drink out there by the pool with my name on it.

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Himalayan Highs and a Terrible Low

I suspect I had a silly grin on my face the whole first two days trekking in the Himalayas until tragedy struck at the end of the second day. Before the grin came the tears as I left my home stay family. When the father took my face in his hands and said in tentative English how happy he was that I had been their guest, we both got teary. As I waved goodbye to them and my British friends, the tears flowed freely as the taxi took me to the bus. As challenging as my time was in southern Nepal, I made good friends there and it’s always hard to leave friends behind.

Fortunately, the four hour bus ride to Pokhara was much easier than the way south. This driver did not seem to have a death wish like the previous one and this time other buses passed us. After the rest stop, I had a nice conversation with my seat mate, a man from Portugal who sells speciality corks for wine and liquor bottles. Almost all the corks in the world come from his region and I learned a lot about the industry.

As soon as I got into Pokhara, I was happy that it was on my itinerary in Nepal. My guest house was near the largest lake in Nepal, a peaceful place with colorful boats to rent, surrounded by large hills and on a clear day – an amazing view of the Annapurna Himalaya range. This is a huge tourist town and all the amenities were there – Western food, coffee shops, internet and enough souvenirs to satisfy any shopping urges. I treated myself to a tuna sandwich as I caught up with email and had a small can of beer that night in my guest house. Wouldn’t you know that my body no longer seemed to know how to digest anything but dal baht and I had a great case of indigestion that night.

In the morning, I enjoyed my first hot shower in weeks and shortly thereafter, my fellow language classmate, Debbie from Belgium, showed up on the bus from Kathmandu with Jorge, our Sherpa trekking guide. Early the next morning we headed up into the mountains with our porter by taxi to begin our week of trekking. Our first real glimpse of the high peaks was breathtaking. I had seen a glimpse of the highest ones from Pokhara but being so close was surreal. The taxi bumped its way down the twisty road, crossing stream beds, navigating potholes and mostly driving on the shoulder that was smoother than the road. After a quick check in with our permits, we were on our way, climbing uphill immediately.

After being in the smoggy city and the sweltering south, the mountain air was clean and refreshing. The temperatures quickly climbed as we ascended and before we knew it, we were mopping sweat from our eyes. The trail narrowed as we got higher up the valley until, by the end of the day we were walking through villages about the width of a car perched on the sides of the mountains.

All over the trekking routes are tea houses – little lodges where you can eat basically the same menu and choose from a variety of teas. Each day we had tea stops every few hours and in the evenings, spent the night in a tea house. The rooms are basic – just a couple of typical hard wooden Nepali beds with a thin mattress, a quilt and a pillow. Sometimes there might be a bare lightbulb but headlamps are usually the only light in the evenings. The walls are the thinnest of plywood so you can hear everything in the adjoining rooms from conversations to the zipper of a sleeping bag or a snorer.

Lucky for us, in the next room the first four nights were some new friends that we met early on the first day – Karen and Pat. They are Americans about my age and Karen is from Keene, New York, the next town in the Adirondacks where we have spent many days hiking. We know several people in common including Rebecca who biked the western half of the Northern Tier with me!

On the second day, the serious climbing began. A lot of the trails are stone steps built into the side of the mountains. After crossing the river, we headed straight up, basically for the rest of the day. With the morning sun on us, we heated up quickly but I kept a steady rhythm uphill as I climbed. I was pleased that I was ahead of Debbie – not that I’m competitive but she is 30 years younger and has some breathing problems – so it built my confidence to know I could climb at altitude without suffering too much. We took breaks every once in awhile for tea or to let a parade of pack ponies pass us. They carry huge loads including bags of cement and even live chickens to deliver to the mountain villages that dot the hillside. Human porters also carry hefty loads on their backs with straps across their foreheads to help with the weight. As in the rest of Nepal, life is lived to a large degree outside so you can see people bathing, washing clothes and dishes, cutting grass for the animals and other chores as you pass.

The second night was spent at Ghorepani, our highest lodge. It is cold once the sun goes down and I bought myself a yak wool hat to help keep warmer. Even at high altitudes there are shopping opportunities and this town is where people leave for an early morning ascent so there are several tea houses. We gathered around an oil drum wood stove where laundry hung on lines above and people from many countries gathered for conversation. I sat next to an American who has been living in Bangkok for many years who was trekking with his two teenage sons. The older son hadn’t been feeling well with a stomach bug so they had stayed an extra day at the tea house. When the son went upstairs to rest, I talked with the father and son about their lives and advice about how to spend my time in Bangkok.

When I went upstairs to get my clothes to hang by the fire, the dad went upstairs to check on his son. That’s when his life changed forever. I heard him yelling his son’s name and Pat, a cardiac nurse, and Karen, an EMT went into the room. The son was apparently dead and they started doing CPR. They hoped that an epi pen might start his heart so I ran into the adjoining guest houses, shouting and asking if anyone had an epi pen or a doctor. By the time I got back, it was too late. Brian had been declared dead by a young American doctor who was staying at another lodge.

The rest of the evening passed in a shocked blur. The family had been trekking without a guide which caused lots of confusion as to how to manage. Eventually, the Nepali police came and his body was taken to the police station down the mountain a bit. The father had to call his wife who was visiting family in Holland and to let the other two siblings know the terrible news. Those of who are parents were especially upset, sympathizing with a parent’s worst nightmare. I heard the dad say, “I can’t believe this is happening!” as events unfolded and all of us were struck by the disbelief and the challenge of trying to come to terms with such a shock. It reminded me of the night one of our Northern Tier riders was killed and that sense of shock and conversation among strangers trying to understand what has happened. The logistics of dealing with a death in the high mountains was also discussed. How can a father make decisions under such conditions?

No one slept much that night, especially as we were leaving at 4:30 a.m. with headlamps to climb to the top of Poon Hill for a sunrise view of the Annapurna range. The climb was cold and difficult – more uneven rock stairs to climb, our breath blocking our vision, and Debbie struggling with her lungs. Our minds were clouded with thoughts of Brian and his family, even as we tried to resume our trek. Getting to the top was a triumph and although the view was not entirely clear, we still had the satisfaction of a successful climb. After a cup of tea (you can get them anywhere!), we headed back down for breakfast.

The guests were abuzz with news and we learned that Brian’s body was to be cremated on the mountain, which is what the Nepalis living there do, after the paperwork was completed in two languages. Apparently, Brian had epilepsy and the theory was that he had suffered a seizure soon after he went upstairs, had vomited and choked while lying on his back. I hugged his father as we were about to leave and spoke the platitudes of grieving that one hopes will offer some comfort. Our hearts were heavy as we left, climbing up to a nearby ridge where he and his younger son would trek out in another day or so.

The restorative power of nature helped us get us back to some semblance of normalcy as we hiked through gorgeous forests of rhododendrons in full pink and red bloom and glimpses of the Annapurna peaks through the mist. The sun never broke through that day, reflecting the grey of our moods, as we ascended and descended up and down muddy and snowy trails, sometimes through the jungly forest, other times along stream beds and finishing the day with another straight up climb to Tantepani.

Once again, we donned our warmest clothes and settled in by the wood stove. Many of the same trekkers from the previous night were with us and we took comfort in the closeness of the terrible experience we had shared. Our conversation also veered away to our lives in our respective countries from Russia to Dubai, Scotland to New Zealand and other places.

In the morning, our guide woke us at 5:30. “Ellen – the mountains”. I opened the door and my jaw dropped. The whole range was lit up right in front of us all across the horizon. Snowy peaks, jagged into the sky, had shown us their full morning glory. Cameras clicked as we all tried unsuccessfully to capture the grandeur of the moment.

After breakfast, we started out into the jungle with the peaks off to our left much of the day. Our guide told us there are monkeys and tigers that make their home there but we didn’t see them that day. Instead, we stopped frequently, trying to frame pictures of the peaks through the trees and to rest our weary knees, suffering a bit from descending so many uneven stone stairs.

We arrived at our next tea house early in the afternoon and took advantage of the day to visit the local monastery and tour this larger village. The village is built into the side of the mountain so in order to go anywhere you need to climb either up or down. There are no overweight people that live there.

Early in the morning, once again I heard our guide’s voice, “Ellen – the mountains”. I should have been prepared but once more the sky was lighting the peaks of the Annapurna range, invisible in the clouds the day before. Debbie and I ate our breakfast outside bundled up from the cold but eyes wide and voices stilled, trying to take in the reality of the view in front of us. Below us, we could hear the morning chants of the monks in the monastery and I finally solved the puzzle of the snippet of music that had provided the rhythm for my trek – it was a Buddhist chant I must have been hearing somewhere earlier that stuck in my brain (an ear worm, the Germans call that).

Very reluctantly, we resumed our descent turning back many times to view the mountains as the light changed. We passed more rural homes along the way – people living their lives in the shadow of the Himalayas. There were terraced fields of rice and grass, buffaloes and cows and more teams of ponies carrying their loads up. It was also Nepali New Year and the ponies wore decorations on their heads.

Several hours later, we were back in the village where we began, completing our circuit. After a celebratory lunch and a couple of Advil for the sore calves, we got back into our tiny taxi for the 2 hour ride twisting our way up out of the valley and over the “hills” back to Pokhara. The New Year festivities were in full swing right near our guest house. Debbie and I were the only westerners we saw as we wandered the carnival rides, food booths, games and live Nepali music. The field was packed with people wearing their finest clothing as children begged for cotton candy, vendors hawked their wares and screams were heard from the rides. Debbie and some new Belgium friends joined our guide for the evening of rock music but I decided to spend some quiet time on my own in my room. I could still hear it all, though, and stepped outside to view the fireworks.

I was still awake when Debbie returned which proved fortuitous. She had heard that there was to be a strike in Nepal beginning on Sunday which was the day I was supposed to take a bus back to the city to catch my flight to Bangkok. It was only a rumor but I got up at 4:30 to confirm it with the owner of the guest house. He was able to score me the last seat on a tourist bus leaving at 7. I hurriedly packed my bags and was ready to go, banana pancake in hand to eat on the way.

After 8 hours of bumping along, I am back in the city. I’m writing from Thamel, the Westerners part of the city, where I’ll pick up a couple of souvenirs I was going to get in Pokhura and beat it back by the tuk tuk bus to the hostel in the another part of the city before everything shuts down. Since internet access is limited and nothing is supposed to be running, I wanted to get this online before I disappear again into cyberspace. Apparently the flights still go but getting to the airport can be a challenge. The hostel has a little van so I’m hoping that won’t be a problem for me. Hanging out there for a couple of days will give me a chance to sort through my pictures and repack for Bhutan. I’ll add a few photographs now but will post more from Bangkok when I get a chance.

I’ve wanted to do a trek in Nepal for over 40 years. Now, I just want to do another one…

(Sorry, no photos. For some reason they won’t upload here. Just picture snowy jagged peaks for now and I’ll try again asap.)

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Life in Chitwan

“Go Ellen, It’s your last day! Go Ellen, It’s your last day!. Aryan, the youngest child at the orphanage was an immediate fan of the Beaver Song, a fun and silly song and dance that I taught the younger children last week. On Issy’s birthday, all 25 children chanted it for her along with the classic birthday party games and chocolate cake. Today, at my leaving ceremony, it was a solemn and sad (for me at least) occasion as each child stood in a long line with bright red flowers and a bouquet to thank me for my time here and a final Namaste. I received my bright red tika on my forehead and a hand drawn picture along with a short speech by one of the older students, thanking me for my contributions. I gave the orphanage a gift of some new ping pong balls and paddles as everyone seems to participate in that game on the cement table with bricks as the center “net”. Each child also got some chocolate and an American flag sticker I have been carrying around for months as I said a few words to each one. They are used to volunteers coming and going but for me, it’s the end of a wonderful, albeit challenging, experience.

One of the things that seems consistent in Nepal is the inconsistency. Plans change all the time and I’ve never known from day to day what my role will be. With the Portugese students being here for five days, routines were changed. Local village children were brought into the school for 3 days (at 7 a.m.) during their holidays so the volunteers would have someone to teach. Sometimes, they had volunteers at the orphanage as well, other times not, according to no particular schedule. Tom and Issy had organized a whole schedule for the two week break including art classes and sewing projects, but fitting them in forced everyone’s patience. We were told some mornings to do an academic hour so we had poetry, spelling and essay writing competitions. If nothing else, I’ve learned to be flexible and spontaneous and grateful for many years in the classroom.

Last night the routine was thrown off by yet another unscheduled event – a wild and violent hail/thunder and lightning storm. I helped my family pile up the shucked ears of corn under a tarp for the fourth day in a row as clouds gathered and rain threatened. It’s a laborious process to take a yards worth of drying cobs and make them into a huge pile. I know because I helped both pile it up and then spread it out again in the hot sun each day and I have the blisters to show for it.

This time,though, the threat was real. The rain started just as I reached the orphanage. Instead of working in the garden, several children, Tom and Issy and I gathered in the meeting room where we started working on a jigsaw puzzle. Not long afterward, the power went out and we were trying to complete a puzzle by the light of two flashlights and about a dozen children. One of the boys came in with a dish full of pea sized hailstones and from there it was just fun and games in the dark. Without the critical eye of the head teacher and the dark we had a jolly good time.

Having the power go out has been more the rule than the exception these last several days. Nepal relies on hydroelectric power and the need is way beyond the availability. As the dry season stretches on into June, the rivers are low and there are more and more rolling blackouts. The power is on for only an hour or two a day lately and sometimes just in the middle of the night. Although there is some sort of schedule, none of us really know what that is. I was grateful today that it came on for a couple of hours while I was home so I could recharge my phone and ipad enough to use them. Once the monsoon rains begin this summer, there will be more electricity. I’ve walked into town in the hot, dry heat a few times to use the internet, only to find that there was either no power or no internet. That one time with wireless was a lucky fluke as even a wired computer doesn’t work without power. I’ll post this from Pokhara, my next destination.

In the morning, I will leave my host family for a short taxi and a long bus ride north into the mountains which just made themselves visible after the cleansing rain last night. When I came home tonight, there were several new faces on the porch. Expect the unexpected here in Nepal! The older daughter-in-law and her son left sometime last weekend and I haven’t seen them since. Today the sister of the other daughter-in-law and some of her family members arrived for a few days visit. I’m hearing lots of Nepali conversation out my window as I write and I had my own last dal baht meal as they visited.

When my family has had their conversations in my presence, I find a quiet meditative place to sit nearby and listen. I have become braver in trying out my Nepali but most of the time the conversation just wanders by me as I sit nearby. There has been lots of down time during the afternoons between orphanage stints when the heat and humidity slows everything down. I’ve done lots of writing and reading and too many games of solitaire to pass the time. Each day I’ve forced myself to take a long walk to get some time in my hiking boots and some exercise but I come back sweaty and parched.

When I walked north to the forest the other day, I was greeted by strangers, hands clasped in Namaste all along my way. Wandering around the village reminds me of walking around a campground . People live outside here much of the time so as you pass by you see people hanging out, eating, doing chores and even bathing. Even in town, the shops are all open to the street so you can see inside each one as you pass.

At one little shop, a 14 year old girl took me by the hand and had me sit down. Her whole family came out to meet me and ask the usual questions, “What’s your name? Where are you from? Where are you going?” which I can now answer in Nepali. When I said I was going to the forest, they warned me of the rhinoceros and the rock pythons that are both dangerous. As I approached the woods, there were 3 young boys sitting on the edge of the river. They told me they had just seen a rhino and remembering the charging one I’d seen in the national park, it seemed a good time to turn around.

There is no shortage of wildlife here from the tiniest insects infesting my room (my body is covered with tiny little red marks from the bites) to the wild elephants and rhinos. There are also many species of birds, including one with bright yellow feathers and another with brilliant green. Last night I woke up to the sound of something moving behind my bed. Eventually, I got up my courage to reach out from under my netting, grab my headlamp and investigate. I was glad to see it was just a little frog walking on a plastic bag. The lizards make loud sounds but are harmless and I’ve seen a couple of huge but shy spiders in my room. One was on top of the netting one morning. This afternoon there was a large snake next to the porch that I saw before my “father” and “sister”. Knowing there are many poisonous ones here, I decided I should tell them about it. They went after it with a big stick, killing it and throwing it in the garden. I felt bad about the killing but they told me it was dangerous and I’m not in a position to judge.

Animals are only one of the challenges here. Issy has been having digestive issues for over two weeks and is only able to eat bananas and drink Sprite. My friend, Lee, who is a South African man who was in my language class and arrived at the airport with me the first day, surprised me the other day by showing up here in Chitwan. He left with three other men to fly near Mt. Everest for a placement in a monastery teaching English to monks three weeks ago. While there, his shoulder became displaced. After hiking over four hours to the nearest doctor, he was reassigned to volunteer here closer to medical care. We enjoyed catching up on news of the many volunteers we have met. A couple have had to leave because of health issues and today, Lee joined that club. He has several large sores on his legs that have become infected and undiagnosed. Doctors here are stymied and there are new sores growing so he reluctantly, flew home today. I’m lucky to be healthy.

I did feel very far away from home when I received news that my grandmother in Florida died this week. My heart goes out to our family members as I mourn from a distance. She was following my adventures by my blog and I’m glad that she was a hearty supporter of my journeys, that I got to visit her last year, and that she died peacefully.

The rapid-fire Nepali conversations continue as I finish writing and get my things ready for my 9 a.m. taxi in the morning. As interesting and heart-warming as this homestay and volunteer time has been, I’m ready for a couple of days off before I begin my trek in the Himalayas. One can only eat so much dal baht…

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Mixing Cultures

If you had a crying 3 1/2 year old in your care, what would you do?
a. Give him some banana bubble gum
b. Give him whatever he wants
c. Nurse him
d. Give him a cleaver and a vegetable to hack
e. All of the above

Believe it or not, in this Nepalese family where I am staying, I have observed all of the above strategies. When his mother asked me if my children were like him with his many tantrums, I diplomatically said there were times when they acted like that. It becomes a fine line to walk when living in another culture to respect the way things are done balanced with the urge to show a different way.

At the orphanage, the children have been busily studying for their week of exams which finished today. Each morning I have worked with a student asking them questions to help them prepare. Their questions come out of their texts which they have been memorizing all year. It is incredible how much they remember, quoting paragraph long answers verbatim. I was impressed by the math facts and procedures that the young children have mastered, whipping off triple digit multiplication at lightning speeds, where we struggle to get our students to master their times tables at that age. The twist comes when you ask a question related to the text that is not phrased exactly the same way or that requires some in depth thought. At this time, they give you a puzzled look like you just asked how many men live on the moon.

This morning a 5th grader explained all about a Wordsworth poem but didn’t know most of the vocabulary that the poem contains. That’s not on the test. So, as a teacher, how much do I correct and explain and how much do I just make sure they remember their recorded memorized answers? If I were to be here longer, I certainly would work harder to add a different dimension to the education but in just a couple of weeks, my influence has to be around other things. I did do quite a dramatic reading of a Roald Dahl poem in the back of the book which I’m pretty sure the students understood and we all had a laugh as well.

All of the classes are held in English, except their Nepali class. It’s impressive that these kids are studying basically the same curriculum that we teach at the same ages but they also have to learn a new alphabet, number system and vocabulary at the same time. It has been a good education for me, as a teacher, to be exposed to an alphabet that is completely foreign to me. Even the numbers are made differently so I feel much like my students do as they learn to read and write and do math in our school.

Since I arrived a week ago, I’ve been the only volunteer at the orphanage. Yesterday though, a British couple who is here for three months returned to town from their week long break. He is a retired British army colonel and she a retired postal worker. Their way of dealing with the children is different than mine. He has some raunchy limericks that the boys crack up over while she helps organize sewing projects and other classes for their free time coming up the next couple of weeks. “Dal baht, dal baht in your tum, tomorrow it comes out your bum”, chanted the colonel today at the 10 a.m. Dal baht feeding. Meals are all referred to as Dal baht because that’s all that’s eaten. My host family is vegetarian but they also grow all their own veggies. I’ve actually enjoyed eating the food although I admit to some hunger between the 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. dal baht times.

Tom and Izzy, the Brits, gave me their own guided tour of the local village yesterday, a 45 minute walk from here. One of the stops was a hardware store (all stores are open to the street) where they discovered a scale for weighing out the goods. Izzy goes in for a weekly weigh in and I took my turn. Once I did the calculation from kilograms to pounds I was pleased to find I have lost almost 10 pounds since I was in Hawaii. All dal baht all the time has advantages for weight loss along with the running and chasing games I’ve been doing at the orphanage.

They also showed me where they buy their daily Mars bars (they special ordered them for the colonel) and a cafe that serves cake. I’ve yet to have a piece but I hear that all the flavors taste the same. Both Izzy and my host brother have a birthday on Sunday so I’ll get a chance to do my own taste test. It was great to have some English speaking people to share experiences with. We were able to commiserate about the Nepali way of things changing all the time, dal baht, host family issues and the gossip around the village and orphanage.

Sunday we’ll celebrate Izzy’s birthday at the orphanage. I’ve got the kids all primed to sing the Beaver Song for her (“Go beaver, It’s your birthday!). A group of teen age volunteers just arrived today with their British teachers from Portugal. We’ll have plenty of helpers to fill the time during the school break and to help celebrate with Western style birthday games. Two weeks ago, Tom and Izzy organized their own version of the Iron Man for the kids. With the new students we did quite a brainstorming session today for lots of activities to do this next week. The textbooks are all put away and the mood tonight at the orphanage was relaxed and fun. No more teachers, no more books… Instead, I organized a wild game of Red Rover (aka the color game) and even the older kids joined in.

When I got back to my host family, there was a huge pile of corn in the front yard. Today they were harvesting and all the ears were out front ready to be shucked. I joined in to separate the husks from the ears which grew into a substantial pile like the ones I’ve seen them around the village these last few days. The kernels are all separated and laid out to dry on sheets and tarps in the front yards. After they are dried they are sold. I’ll miss having fresh corn around though, as we have had some roasted ears as snacks. I made the mistake of eating mine off the cob and was told “Fingers, sister!”. The first day I was here, I came home to help take individual kernels off the cobs with the family. Later, we were rewarded from the tedious work by some freshly stir fried kernels – a delicious treat.

The other day, the father of the family, a man my age who speaks only a little English, asked me if I liked his family. I was able to honestly say yes. Despite the challenges of being awake in the middle of the night listening to a screaming child or sweeping the kitchen with a small hand held broom used from a squatting position on the floor, I’m really happy to have a chance to experience another culture from such an intimate place in the family. They are careful to make sure I’m included in everything so I’m invited into the room with a small T.V. (on the nights the power is on) to watch with them in Nepali. I can understand the sitcom which looks like a 50’s T.V. show with its simple sets and overdone acting but watching the news by a broadcaster at a desk is challenging.

Last night I had the opportunity to mix up the cultures a little bit more. I was invited to spend the day and night with a Nepali family that my friend from home, Lisa, had met when she was in Kathmandu to adopt her now 14 year old daughter. Both of the parents had lived in Canada and done some traveling in Western countries so their English is great. They live in a second floor apartment in a town about a 15 minute drive away with their 10 year old daughter. I was welcomed with tea and toast with peanut butter, a flavor I haven’t tasted since I left the U.S. Their meals are served at a table with chairs and they use utensils to eat and on a western schedule. It’s funny using a fork after a week of eating with my hand but also very nice and much neater. It was also a treat to taste chicken again after living in a vegetarian family.

Sarita showed me how to make Momos, a Nepali speciality that I had tried in Kathmandu at a local restaurant. That night I was violently ill but these were delicious and made under much more sanitary conditions. I was hopeless at doing the delicate folding of the wrapper but still got to enjoy the treat, filled with greens, spring onions and garlic.

I also enjoyed a comfortable night on a bed with a nearby fan and no insects. At my family home, there are tiny little bugs that crawl on me and leave little red welts where they bite, despite the mosquito netting. I can hear their little bodies when they hit the linoleum floor and I have made a game of how many I can squish with my fingernail. When I was shucking the corn I realized they come from the ears as some were laden with them. It’s annoying but just part of the experience and made last night’s sleep all the more restful.

After a Western breakfast, I returned to the orphanage where the Portugese students were busy playing games and whitewashing the dingy dining area. The orphans had newly shorn heads, apparently done on the last day of the school term. In a conversation with one of the chaperones, I heard that the teenagers were not happy with their homestays and working as volunteers and wanted to cut their visit short by a day and return to Kathmandu for more shopping time. As the Nepali organizers diplomatically tried to determine what the disgruntled teens were experiencing, one chaperone loudly and barely controlling his anger told them they were there to work, not shop, and they had plenty of time for sightseeing and leisure in their schedules for the week already.

I was sympathetic to their challenges even as I knew the adult was correct. My first few days here I wondered if I would make it through two weeks. Being away for the night though, helped me to realize what I already knew on some level that this experience, as challenging as it is, is actually one where I feel like I’m getting more than I’m giving.

Sure, it’s hard to use the squat toilets and the bucket “shower”. Washing your clothes on a cement pad on the ground is not what we are used to and Dal baht twice a day is not our usual diet. Mosquitoes and insects have voracious appetites at dusk and through the night. But, seeing the smiles when I arrive at the orphanage, when the children call me Sister and cuddle up, when the older girls take my hand and show me the new flower in the garden, when they catch me in a tag game, when an adolescent boy clobbers me in ping pong, I know that this is a special place.

I’ll leave my cultural imprint by my silly songs and dances but I also hope that for a short couple of weeks, sharing our lives here together in this little village is a true multi-cultural experience that benefits us all. I hope my young Portugese friends will know that as well by the end of their week here.

(I’ve stumbled upon a wireless source. It doesn’t work in the cafe where they advertise wireless but they gave me the password and sent me across the street to sit on a stoop. So far it’s working so I’ll post this now and hope I can get a few pictures from last week on before the power goes out.)

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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.

 

 

 

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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