Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Culture shock in Varanasi

Sunrise on the Ganges. The Ganges is possibly the holiest place in all of India if not the whole world. Ironically, it is also the most poluted. Five hundred faecal coliform bacteria per 100 mL of water is considered safe enough for bathing. Samples from the river indicate more than 1.5 million bacteria per 100 mL of Ganges water.

We took off through the thick fog of Kathmandu's outdated airport with Air India- an airline which tops the black list on travel advisory websites. We flew this company using the same dubious logic of most Air India customers: "hell, it's got to be safer than the bus !"

Perhaps because Nepal is India's smaller and less famous neighbour, or perhaps because most people visit Nepal after India, Nepal is forever compared with respect to India. They always say the same thing: "Nepal is like India, but different". We, of course, went to Nepal first and will forever see India with respect to Nepal. Here is our first impression:

India looks a bit like Nepal- there are cars, goats, and cows bustling about to the sound of honking horns in a kind of street havoc. BUT, India's is a paved havoc. That, and the cows are bigger. They're huge ! Cows in Nepal are poor, emaciated, mangy little beasts. Cows in India are rich, fat, robust bovines with massive horns often seen chasing naked children off the road. Otherwise, India looks like Nepal. In time, this first impression will be proven wrong. Nepal and India are utterly different, and don't believe anyone who tells you this "same but different" nonsense. The Nepali people, of course, know that they are not Indian and, to avoid any possible confusion, they actually invented their own distinct time-zone exactly 15 minutes ahead of India's.

After landing in India and setting our watches straight, we caught a pre-paid taxi service which navigated us successfully through the chaos to drop us off near Varanasi's old town. From here, we spent a long time haggling with a shabby rickshaw tout and came to an agreement which neither of us understood completely. This is the first among many similar experiences we will encounter throughout our India travels. Prior to coming to India, I had never met an Indian without a fluent, Abu-accented, command of my language. Furthermore, language was never a significant barrier in Nepal. Thus, we were a bit surprised to find that the majority of Indians on the budget-travel circuit do not, in fact, speak much English.

After getting about halfway to our desired destination we had a heated altercation with our rickshaw tout over something neither party understood and had to elbow our way out of the gathering crowd of curious on-lookers. We then wound through the impossibly old and narrow streets of Varanasi, our massive backpacks scraping a layer of grime off the crumbling plaster walls, desperately looking for the Ganges. We couldn't find it. Worse still, we made the mistake of asking one of the locals for directions. Attempting to capitalize on the commission racket, our new friend tries taking us to several guest houses before finally dropping us off near the river and demanding five rupees baksheesh for his service. After refusing, we are chased out of the old city and stumble inadvertently onto a dark and smoky ghat full of dead bodies burning in the night. Apprehensively, we approach the fiery pyres and are surprised to find ourselves so close we can see a leg, a foot, toes. An arm burns off and falls to the ground. A man in a dirty white turban is attempting to to put it back on the pyre. He can't manage it- instead, he chases the severed limb around the ground with two sticks, trying unsuccessfully to pick it up.

Katlijn begins to feel a little queasy at this sight, so we head straight for our desired guest house, chosen because it is perched strategically above one of the Ganges' famous ghats. Within minutes we are already haggling over the inflated price of a room barely big enough to fit the bed, with one tiny screen window too dirty to let in any light but still having enough holes to leak in a steady stream of mosquitoes and the ashy smoke emanating from the corpses below. It's late and we are too tired to explore other options, so we roll out our sleeping bags and try to get some sleep.

In Varanasi, the monkeys come out at night.

When I was in Nepal, I used to think the monkeys were cute, funny, fuzzy little creatures providing hours of entertainment and plenty of atmosphere. Now I hate the little monsters. They begin by performing what sounds like a late-night tap dance on the corrugated roof of our budget accommodation. As the show reaches its climax, things get out of hand and, from the subsequent screeching, clawing, and scampering, I gather that a giant monkey fight breaks out. As more and more monkeys pile on each other above us, the whole roof shakes and rattles.

Then the dogs start.

Egged on by the brawling, roof-top, monkeys. First one. Then two. Then a hundred. All the dogs in Varanasi are barking at the monkeys, and then at each other, and then just for the sake of barking. Varanasi turns into a nighttime zoo of canines and apes all trying to out-bark each other. The barking induces aggression and I find myself imagining poking a small rifle through the holes in the screen window of our strategically located sniper position, gunning down the unsuspecting mutts. For Katlijn, the situation is worse. The constant yapping becomes so irksome it seeps into her sub-conscious so that when she finally falls asleep, she actually dreams of violently bludgeoning helpless puppies with a blunt object.

Then the bongos start.

Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump. At first, the holy man's drums are barely audible above the symphony of animal noises outside. But once you notice it, you can't stop listening. Thump. Thump. Thump-thump-thump, made more obtrusive by its irritating childlike simplicity, it consumes my very being until the incessant thumping becomes a roar above the howling monkeys and yelping dogs, driving me slowly madder, until I want to throw open the shutters of the dirt-stained windows onto the choking Ganges, inhale a lung full of ashes mixed with dead body smoke, and bellow out over the flaming corpses,

"Oi, Bongo man ! Shut up ! We're trying to sleep !"

But I don't do this. Instead, I lie awake in my bed listening, unable to stop myself, to the ceaseless thumping, imagining myself taking one of those Tibetan horns, big as a python, positioning it right next to the bongo-playing sadhu, and exhaling with all my might into its sonorous chamber generating a massive, deafening, horn blast. I would then casually glance over at the sadhu's frail frame, like I never noticed him before, and say politely,

"Oh, I'm sorry about that, Mister Bongo Dude. It's my religion"

And with only that explanation, I proceed to let loose another thunderous honk. HA ! Let's see you bongo over that, bongo boy !

Needless to say, I didn't get a lot of sleep. Dreary-eyed, we clamber down to the dingy cellar of our low-budget accommodation for breakfast. The grumpy chef emerges from his dark kitchen: a fat, balding Varanasi resident with a perpetually tired look on his face and huge bags under his eyes, the product of whole generations of screeching primates. He slowly fumbles around on the table looking for the menus, then throws them at us across the room so they land on the table with the pages fluttering open. After disappearing into his kitchen for ten minutes, he re-emerges and we tell him our order. The cook doesn't speak a word of English, not even the words "pancake" or "banana", so he motions us to write it down on a notepad before returning back to his kitchen. After some time, he re-emerges and studies our hand-written order disapprovingly, scanning it for errors, until finally, he finds one. Thrusting his stubby finger up and down on our notepad he says, "room number", and disappears again.

Naturally, it was quite a while before we received our breakfast and left the confines of our tiny stifling room to emerge onto Varanasi's hazy river-side ghats. We are immediately approached by touts, trying to take me for a boat ride, trying to get me into their shop, trying to stick a long thin medieval-looking implement into my ear to get the "best ear cleaning, no problem, I give you good price !" By the time we reach the main ghat, touts are coming at us from all sides with their hands outstretched,

"Hi ! Hello ! Where are you from ?", one grabs my hand, "Canada ? Good country. My brother is from Canada. Lot's of Indians in Canada", but rather than shake my hand, he is squeezing it about painfully.

I try to pull away, he holds on.

"No problem, I give best massage, good price", I watch helplessly as he manipulates my fingers into obscene gymnastics. Finally, with Katlijn's help and using my other hand, I manage to wrench free from his iron grip, but it's too late:

"Five rupees," he demands.

Trying to escape this tout, we walk briskly away towards an aged sadhu sitting cross-legged on the stairs beckoning us toward him. Surely no tout will bother us around this respected holy man. He is wearing a tray full of variegated colours into which he dips his finger and places a saffron tikka on my forehead. At first, I naively thought this was a kind blessing, but then he demands five rupees baksheesh- our would-be saviour turns out to be just another tout in sadhu's clothing.

View of Varanasi's ghats in the haze. The turqoise boats on the right can be used for transportation between the various "ghats", or steps leading down to the river for bathing.

Even the children are in on it. A young boy and his brother picked us up for a boat ride to watch a nightly dance festival from the water. When he dropped us off again, he tried to double our originally agreed upon price based on a fabricated misunderstanding. When we walk off his boat and refuse to pay him anything extra, he yells at us "bad karma !" This is initially laughable until I stop to think about it, and it occurs to me that an eight year old kid just told me the Hindu equivalent of "go to hell !"

This rickshaw driver, shown with his tree-wheel rickshaw and my backpack, offered me a ride to the station in his helicopter.

Main street Varanasi. You should see this place at rush hour !

By nightfall, I needed to get back to our guest house so I ask the nearest rickshaw driver to take me to the main ghat. Like all cycle-rickshaw drivers, mine is thin, dressed in rags, and destitute. Happy to get my business, he smiles revealing a row of sickly red teeth, rotting away from a life of chewing paan. Paan is a popular Indian digestive made from betel nut wrapped in a leaf. Unfortunately, betel nut is both cancerous and mildly narcotic so that many Indians consume it like chain smokers leading to ruddy, rotting teeth- an affliction which has reached epidemic proportions in Varanasi. Betel nut is illegal in most parts of the world outside of India.

Being peddled around Varanasi on a rickshaw by day is scary enough. Riding one at night is downright terrifying. The cars and trucks have only dim, often mal-functioning, headlights. It's hard to tell them apart from the motorcycles careening madly through the chaos. Cows don't have headlights. Monkeys don't have headlights. Everything you can possibly imagine is a potentially lethal obstacle. Nevertheless, my poor rickshaw driver, sweat dripping through his tattered rags, pedals as fast as he can. Periodically, he swerves violently to avoid a flock of chickens, a pothole, or a pedestrian seen just in time, and I have to hold on tightly as our rickshaw tilts on two wheels, the third spinning wildly in the air.

After a good half hour, we still don't arrive at the main ghat and I start wondering where we are, quickly coming to the conclusion that, wherever we are, it is not where I want to be. I tap my ragged, panting driver on the shoulder, and ask him "how much longer until we get to the main ghat ?"

He replies by trying to repeat what I said with a confused look on his face. He pedals to the side of the dark, busy road and stops the rickshaw. I ask again and he repeats again. After a few more of these exchanges, it quickly becomes apparent that his understanding of the English language can be summarized by only two phrases: "30 rupees" and "no problem"- enough to land him a client, but not quite enough to get him to where he needs to go.

By now, a large crowd of Indians gathers around me and my frail, betel nut addict- most of them just staring at me in awe, many engaging me in inane conversation "Hello ! Where are you from ? Canada ! Good country. My son lives in Toronto. Lot's of Indians there", but none having the requisite map reading skills I wanted.

After several futile minutes, trying to say the words "main" and "ghat" in as many ways as I know how, while each Indian individually puzzles over my map, some sort of group consensus is reached and everyone confidently points my rickshaw driver in a seemingly random direction, sending us peddling furiously, once more, through the night. My driver turns around, flashes me his rotting teeth and yells back "no problem", giving me absolutely no confidence whatsoever we are pointed in the right way.

After a long time, I can hear the cadence of my driver's peddling growing slower, his breathing growing heavier. I don't blame him- it's late and we've been travelling a long time. At some point, he points to a dark hole in the wall and asks, "hashish ? Marijuana ?" and I say, "No thanks". Nevertheless, he stops the cart anyhow and disappears into the hole leaving me sitting on his little rickshaw wondering if he understood my answer properly.

It isn't long before I'm approached by a nearby Indian (there is always a nearby Indian). "Hello ! Where you from ? Canada !? Great country. My cousin works in Calgary. etc." Fortunately, this one miraculously turns out to be a student at the University with perfect, Abu-accented English. We chat for some time before my driver finally emerges out of the dark hole in the wall with a joint hanging out of his mouth and a bong tucked into his loin cloth. I ask the Indian student whether he thinks my rickshaw driver will be able to get me to the main ghat.

The student assures me, "He's no good, but the ghats are just a few blocks from here so no problem." And with that, we are off once again, the scent of marijuana trailing behind my driver's smoldering weed as I wave back at the student thanking him for his help.

Indeed, it wasn't long before we finally arrived at the main ghat. Of course, my driver asked me for twice our originally agreed upon rate. However, I was too tired and happy to be back to give up much of a fight. I just paid him his money and waved goodbye to my stoned rickshaw wallah. He flashed me one last betel nut smile before finally pedaling out of my life and into the night.

I could already sense the presence of the hand massage touts nearby and was preparing myself for the inevitable gauntlet when, without warning, the power goes out and my surroundings descend into pitch blackness. Instinctively, I stick my hands deep in my pocket for protection, hoping to fool the masses of touts I know to be coming at me now from all direction with outstretched hands, desperate to give mine a good squishing. But it does no good, instead, my guard down, I feel a cold spot of paint dripping between my eyes which, slowly adjusting to the dark, can barely discern an old man's withered hand moving away from my forehead. "Fiver rupees", the tout in sadhu's clothing demands for his blessing.

I quickly learn that Varanasi's famous ghats are a death trap in the dark with no lights to illuminate the many holes, steps, and river side drop-offs. Slowly and carefully, I walk back towards my guest house. I can already hear the scampering monkeys preparing to begin their late-night corrugated rooftop tap-dance extravaganza which will begin the unstoppable chain events leading to a thousand barking dogs- another sleepless night. I begin to wonder:

Since when did I become afraid to ask people for directions on the street ?

When did I begin walking around in fear that somebody might try to shake my hand ?

Why are there twelve light switches in my room, and only one light bulb ?

What the hell is wrong with this place ?

On the way home, I pass by a real sadhu dressed in yellow and orange rags with a small sac containing a few coins. I give him a ten rupee note. "Thank you so much, and bless you" he says to me, and somehow I feel instantly better. A bit further, a young western woman wrapped in a warm pashmina waits for me by the river-side. When I approach she tells me she feels uncomfortable walking alone in the dark and asks me if I can walk her to the hotel. I don't blame her. As we walk along the Ganges together, I tell her about my rickshaw ordeal.

"Did he really not understand me ? Was he stoned ? Or was he just trying to scam me into paying more money ?" One never knows, we agree.

Back at my hotel, I over-hear some recently arriving tourists ruthlessly grilling the staff like suspected criminals, completely certain that they would somehow be scammed unless they spell out in great details every aspect of their agreement beforehand and write it down on paper, their misplaced anger giving them away as recent victims of Varanasi's shakedown.

That night, the monkeys took their show elsewhere, the dogs didn't start their chain-reaction barking, and even bongo man, god bless him, provided us with one night of blissful sleep. By morning, we had our order ready for the grumpy chef in neat block-letters with our hotel number clearly written on the top. When he emerged from his dungeon kitchen, he put both hands on the table, bent over our notebook, and studied the papers carefully for a long time while we waited anxiously. Finally, he made a low grunt of reluctant approval, eyed me suspiciously for a moment, and returned to his dark kitchen which soon emanated the sweet smell of banana pancakes. I discovered a new respect for this chef's grumpiness- I'd be grumpy too if all the tourists I baked pancakes for talked to me like a common thief. Whatever is wrong with this place, it is cyclic leading both visitors and locals alike to badger each other.

Varansi at morning time in gorgeous pastels.

Less tired, our stomachs full of banana pancakes, we set off to explore Varanasi again. Over the initial shock of so many people treating us like walking money bags, we focus our attention instead on the vast majority of people bathing and bustling about the ghats. There are rich people, poor people, old people, young people, holy men, hippies, body builders, kite flyers, cricket players, and any other sort of person you can imagine doing anything you can imagine: bathing, swimming, playing, rowing, eating, cremating, dancing, defecating, laughing, crying, singing, praying, meditating, and more.

Colourful ghat-side characters. After cremating their deceased, Hindus will shave their heads and dress in white. Unlike in the west, white, rather than black, represents mourning.

As the days go on and we become use to life on the Ghats, the touts grow less and less prominent in the kaleidoscopic hubbub until they, too, are just another type of person, like any other, going about their business. In fact, we don't even notice the tourists. We know they must be somewhere, having chatted with them at our guest house and dealt with the touts that cater to them; India's tourist business is booming like never before. It is just that the tourists are a minority. Overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of local people, they disappear completely into the crowd, replaced instead by a feeling of authenticity like no other place we have visited.

Daily life in Varanasi. Can you find Katlijn in this picture ?

Varanasi is, of course, the final earthly destination for Hindu souls. Though many Hindus will not see Varanasi in their lifetime, it is most likely where they will come to die. It is, at very least, the most auspicious place to have your body cremated. Hindus believe that if your life expires in Varanasi, you will be immediately offered moksha, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

Not everyone can afford to burn their loved-ones near the Ganges: the priests, ceremony, and wood cost considerable sums of money. The wood is particularly expensive, and three different types are provided to accommodate a range of budgets. Those who can't afford wood can use a nearby electric crematorium, which is also significantly more environmentally friendly. However few people are willing to do this since wood is integral to Hindu cremation rites, providing a symbolic connection between the body and the earth.

Given the high cost of wood, it is weighed carefully and sold by the kilogram. These people are experts in knowing exactly how much wood is needed to burn a given corpse.

Katlijn, on the Ganges with a burning candle in a small paper cup of flowers. These candles are lit and set afloat the Ganges in memory of a recently deceased. In the evening and early morning, throngs of these candles can be seen floating mystically along the Ganges.

The dead burn along the Ganges' ghats twenty-four hours a day. The Indian concept of a funeral is exactly opposite that of the West. Instead of a solemn and private affair around a body made artificially to look alive, the Hindu funeral is an entirely public spectacle set around a raw burning corpse. It is a place to contemplate death. While bodies are burning around you, there is a constant sound of ceremonies, drumming, and music filling the air which, combined with the many colours and varieties of people, creates a special mystical and spiritual atmosphere completely unique in the world.

A boatman looking over his shoulder at Varanasi's ghats.

Looking back on Varanasi, it was the highlight of our visit to the sub-continent: India at its most vibrant and irritating. It is simultaneously busy and peaceful, colourful and dark, magical and raw: exploding with life.

Just before leaving Varanasi, a snake charmer suddenly takes his cobra and raps it around my neck. I am seen here hoping this particular tout knows what he's doing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Farewell to the world's highest country

Andrew's stocking, hung with care in our budget accommodation... and what's this ? It looks like Andrew's been a good boy !

Nepal is home to eight of the ten highest mountains in the world. Of these, we only managed to see two of them during our trek through the Annapurna Circuit: Daulagiri (Number seven at a height of 8167 meters), and Annapurna I (Number ten at a height of 8091 meters). While we won't have time to trek up to the other mountains until our next visit, there are alternatives.

Andrew at 9000 meters: no signs of altitude sickness.

Nepal offers perhaps the most scenic mountain flights in the world. Unfortunately, Kathmandu's dubious airport is strategically located in a part of the valley nearly always covered in a thick blanket of early morning fog. It took me three trips to the airport before there was barely enough visibility to allow planes to take off. However, once you do manage to catch a plane, it will get you your shot of nearly all the great Himalayan peaks with almost no physical effort. It isn't quite the same as walking up there- the sterile cabin environment just can't reproduce the experience of actually earning the view. On the other hand, this is the only way you can enjoy gazing upon the world's highest point with a gin and tonic in your hand.

Mount Everest. Elevation 8848 meters. Highest point on earth.

A couple of weeks ago, in an over-priced Indian budget hotel room in Jaipur, something attracted my attention: barely visible through the snowy static of the television screen was a a picture of Sir Edmund Hillary: most likely the first person, together with Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, to reach the peak of Mount Everest in 1953. Edmund Hillary had just died. The only photograph taken on Everst's peak commemorating the successful joint Nepali-Indian-British expedition, is of Tenzing taken by Hillary. It has become a very famous image since appearing on Nepal's own "Everest" beer label.

Interestingly, in 1999, they found the body of George Mallory and his partner frozen just beneath the summit fueling speculation that they had reached the summit many years earlier in a 1924 expedition. It is still not clear whether they froze to death on the way up or on the way down. While, Tenzing and Hillary are still credited with the first successful Everest conquest, George Mallory is more famous for his stoic reply to a journalist questioning the purpose of climbing Everest: "because it's there".

These days, you need to meet three necessary requirements to conquer Everest: you must be an experienced mountaineer, totally nuts, and filthy rich (not necessarily in that order). It costs 60,000 Euros just to be given permission to climb Everest. Nevertheless, though many die each year "because it's there", wealthy people continue to pay the exorbitant fee for their chance. In Nepal, you can hear many of their stories. Some of these stories are gripping, such as the definitive adventure book written about the tragic 1996 expedition, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (also a film). However, my favorite story is that of Briton Maurice Wilson, who enacted his cunning plan to crash a private plane halfway up the mountain and then simply walk from there to the top. He was found frozen to death in a light sweater a few hundred meters from the crash sight, proving that harboring only two of the necessary three requirements for conquering Everest is not sufficient.

Katlijn and I will have to leave our definitive shot at Everest for our next visit- though on our budget, we'll have to satisfy ourselves with the view near the base camp. We were sad to leave behind Nepal- one of the poorest and most admirable places on earth. From their office in Kathmandu, our guide, Mahesh, our porter, Vishnu, together with our initial Nepali contact, Ram, waved us one last goodbye as we crammed ourselves and our backpacks into a tiny white car and risked one last harrowing taxi ride to the foggy airport en route to India.

Christmas Eve in Kathmandu

Andrew and Katlijn showing a little Christmas spirit Kathmandu-style.

As a wise man once said, "What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child ?". With this thought in mind, we returned to Kathmandu in search of a western-style Christmas dinner. Let's be honest, the best thing about Nepal is not the local food, it is the fact that there are enough decent foreign restaurants that you can avoid eating it entirely. A new brand of swanky foreign run restaurants have popped up all over Kathmandu, one of the best being "Kilroys" owned and operated by an Irish chef. We had to reserve early for Christmas dinner as it is perhaps the only place serving up a decent meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, hot buns, and a large selection of tasteful wines. One can only wonder where in Nepal they managed to find a turkey, but it tasted incredible so we didn't ask too many questions and spent the entire evening gorging ourselves on Christmas goodness.

Over the next several days, we explored Kathmandu and its surroundings. Kathmandu is an awkward blend of the most exotic ancient and the most uninspired kind of modern. The streets are tiny, crowded, and pot-holed. They wind haphazardly around crumbling structures, home to a rats nest of rickshaws, touts, and dog pooh. One can't help but wonder how on earth it will ever be possible to modernize a place like this. They'd basically just have to bulldoze the whole lot and start over again, and come to think of it, this probably wouldn't be such a bad idea. Many parts of town are destitute and falling into decay. Much of this is not the kind of graceful decay of ancient civilizations, the buildings brooding over a time forgotten. Kathmandu's is a poor, humiliating, concrete modern decay.

We met up again with our Himalaya guide, Mahesh, to get his advice on where to buy some electronics- a card reader for our digital camera and some headphones for our ipod. He leads us to a hole in the wall full of dusty 80s era audio technology- the kind of devices used in local buses where the pounding rhythms of Nepali pop music can barely be heard above a low fidelity crackle. The shop is run by two old ladies who show us their stock of audio headphones. For a moment, I stop to admire the superior craftsmanship of the imitation Sony boxes. It's amazing- you could swear it's the real thing until you open the box revealing a shoddy product on which no respected electronics giant would dare gamble away its trusted brand name.

We ask the shop keepers a few simple questions about their goods to help us decide what to buy. Their response is to shake their head from one shoulder to the other- an irritating Nepali gesture that means neither "yes" nor "no". In fact, as far as I can tell, it means nothing at all- a gesticulation of such utter meaninglessness that it can't possibly be translated or understood. It is the non-answer given to such vital queries as "Do you have anything other than Daal Bhaat on the menu ?", "Are those ice-cubes made from tap water ?", and "Is that milk pasteurized ?". In the face of such total absence of information, there is nothing one can do but acquiesce, defeated, and buy whatever junk they are trying to sell you.

However, while it must be said that modern Kathmandu is a stumbling junk heap of a city, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting its prouder and more dignified past in the old city and the surrounding Kathmandu valley. In fact, you can pretty much avoid seeing Kathmandu itself except as a kind of wasteland between the tourist sanctuary of the Thamel district, full of backpackers buying last minute North Fakes from the multitude of trekking shops, and the ancient exotic of the Kathmandu valley.

Christmas day turns out to fall on Kathmandu's laundry day.

Some of the most interesting places to visit are the Buddhist temples and Tibetan refugee villages which dot the entire Kathmandu valley. We visited the most important stupas, Swayambunath and Bodnath, where the monks allowed us to sit with them during their ceremonies. One of the monks begins with the low, ethereal, Tibetan chant. Over top of this barely audible rumble, an entire room full of at least 50 monks begin to chant, rhythmically and in unison, the syllables of a verse. Suddenly, a cymbal crashes, winds cry, and horns blast in an ear-splitting cacophony to break this contemplative rhythm. According to an Irish student of Buddhism I met later, the Tibetan verses simply describe a scene which the monks attempt to imagine in great detail as they repeat the verse over and over. The banging of the percussion and the harsh horn blasts are intended to represent the grand entrance of the Buddha, or one of his incarnations, into this scene.

Tibetan Prayer flags fluttering over Swayambunath Stupa. The watchful eyes of Buddha gazing in all four direction over the Kathmandu valley. The nose-like sign below the eyes is the Nepali number one; it is a symbol of unity.

In Nepal, both Buddhists and Hindus have worshiped peacefully together at the same temples for years. Both Buddhist and Hindu shrines are juxtaposed in the same compound. Furthermore, Swayambunath stupa is over-run by monkeys who are considered sacred animals by Hindus. Thus, Swayambunath is affectionately known as "The Monkey Temple" by the locals.

Temple residents de-fleeing each other.

Tibetan horns and cymbals.

Nepal is the lesser known home to its legendary people: the birthplace of Buddha and refuge to many of his modern spiritual followers, the Sherpa people who are still paramount in the ascent and exploration of the world's highest mountains, and the fierce Gurkha warriors many of whom still serve as the Dalai Lama's personal guard and are employed by the British military. The traditions of these and Nepal's other people have remained intact over the years. Unlike India, Nepal was never significantly influenced by the British who decided early that the rugged hill side terrain would be too difficult to colonize. In fact, after initial conflicts with the west in the early 1800s, Nepal shut themselves off completely and the country was almost entirely unseen by foreigners until 1951.

The most important residents of the Kathmandu valley are the Newari. They are the inventors of the pagoda and therefore their architectural heritage, disproportionate to their fame, can be seen throughout Asia. Furthermore, the painfully spicy Newari meat dishes serve as a delicious caveat to the bland and soupy lentils otherwise dominating Nepali food. While reading an entertaining and informative book by a Nepali girl once worshiped as a living goddess, called From Godess to Mortal: The True Life Story of a Former Roayal Kumari by Rashmila Shakya, we became most interested in these people and visited their ancient and once-glorious cities at Patan and Bhaktapur.

Patan's Durbar square provides the largest density of Newari architecture in the world.

Examples of Newari architecture.

Newari girl walking the medieval streets of Bhaktapur.

Black wool drying over a green water tank.

Newari Potter.

Bhaktapur in graceful decay. At first glance, many of the old buildings appear dilapidated. Closer inspection reveals elegant Newari touches.

And what do you think the sport of choice is in Shangri-La ? Hacky-sac, of course. Children all over Nepal can almost always be seen enjoying a good hack. Too poor for our decadent western style cloth bags, children forge their makeshift hack-sacs out of a tangled ball of elastic bands rummaged from the garbage !

Friday, January 11, 2008

From Pokhara to Chitwan

"Honking car horns is prohibited". Like most Nepali road signs, this one is entirely ignored.

All the Annapurna backpackers end up in Pokhara. Thus, it isn't long before we bump into a few of our trail friends and arrange a celebratory dinner- no daal bhaat allowed. After researching the most expensive restaurants in Pokhara, we come across a French bistro with an impressive wine list. You can always count on the Nepali for a solid effort at foreign cuisine, and while you could get a better "steak au poivre" in Normandy, what other French restaurant in the world has waiters serving you in North Fake jackets and hiking boots ?

Pokhara use to be a major destination on the Himalayan hippy pilgrimage in search of a free-love, free-pot, Shangri-la, but it now caters primarily to fat German tourists. Still, we had a lot of fun here and enjoyed some pretty tasty food before finally deciding to move on.

The gang meets up for a celebratory dinner at a French restaurant in Pokhara. On Andrew's right is Evan from Nelson, BC, after completing both the trek to Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit back-to-back in about 40 days. Beside Katlijn is the Scotsman who attempted the Thorung La pass one day too late. Behind them are two Dutch girls who also just completed the circuit and joined us for a night of heavy drinking.

Andrew paddles Katlijn around Phewa Tal in a dugout canoe, flanked by Annapurna South.

Katlijn and her Nepali paragliding pilot giving me their last signs before running off a cliff.

Katlijn soaring above Phewa Tal and Pokhara. She flies within arms length of eagles. Eagles are often attached to the paragliders above Pokhara to help find and navigate thermals.

Inspired by the Korean Himalaya Woman, Andrew, Kimchi held convincingly between his metal chopsticks, enjoys a Korean pork barbecue in Pokhara with Katlijn. Koreans are avid hikers and some very authentic and tasty Korean restaurants have opened in Pokhara to cater to this demographic. In fact, we both decided that this was the best Korean food we had tasted since visiting Seoul a few years ago.

With a bit more time on our hands, we did some research on the bus situation in Nepal. It turns out they have something called "Tourist buses" which, for about 50 rupees extra (about 50 cents), provide you with marginally more comfort and safety. We take one to a small turnoff in the middle of nowhere and ride on the roof of a connecting bus going up to the small medieval town of Bandipur. The trip up to Bandipur is perfect for a little roof-riding as we climb above the clouds and are offered fantastic views of the Himalaya in the distance. Bandipur itself is a picturesque Newari town full of friendly people and some nice day hikes. We enjoy one relaxing day exploring the surrounding hills before continuing on to Chitwan.

Main street Bandipur, a perfectly preserved Newari village.

There is no way to catch a tourist bus from Bandipur to Chitwan so we are crammed into a small jeep so full of people that arms and legs spill out of the windows- there is simply no place left to put all those limbs. We can hear the creaking and groaning of the rooftop buckling under the weight of so many passengers sitting above us. We take this for a half hour before being herded onto a public bus by a skillful tout, and pushed towards two seats at the very back with malfunctioning seat backs which, to the general amusement of the bus staff, force us to stare blankly at the ceiling for several hours before finally arriving at the city of Sauraha near Chitwan National Park.

Chitwan is a long way from the cold Himalaya mountains. It is located in the Central Terai region of Nepal. The park together with the neighbouring reserves and conservation areas encompasses almost 1500 square kilometers- mainly sal forests and grasslands. It is host to 450 species of birds and 50 different species of mammals. It is also one of the only safari parks of this type where you are actually allowed to walk through the park, though you must at all times be accompanied by knowledgeable guides for safety. We decide this is the best way to see Chitwan, despite some small risk of wildlife attacks.

We get up early in the morning and enjoy a peaceful paddle down the Rapti River in the mist. Along the way, we see marsh mugger crocodiles, and a bizarre looking creature called a "gardial" which is a kind of prehistoric crocodile with jagged teeth and a long snout- they have not evolved at all in the last 150 million years. We also get a very close look at a one-horned rhino above the river bank.

View of the misty moody Rapti River from our dugout canoe as we hunt for crocodiles.

A marsh mugger sunning itself in the late morning. We owe the term "mugger" to British soldiers who watched these creatures emerge camouflaged from the reeds and drag local villagers to their watery death.
Before entering the sal forest, we are given instructions on what to do in the event of an attack by the various animals living in the park, except a Bengal Tiger. When I asked about this, he suggested the chances are pretty low, but I imagine there isn't much we can do about it anyhow. According to our guide, tigers hunt mostly at night and are not very active during the day. However, there are some incidents every year due to tigresses protecting their cubs or older tigers which discover that humans are relatively easy prey. A reassuring thought, for sure !

An endangered one-horned rhino. If you are ever charged by a rhino, the correct reaction is to run in a zig-zag pattern and drop articles of clothing behind you. This is often enough to throw off rhinos which have notoriously poor eye-sight and rely mostly on smell. If you are lucky, you will survive, intact, with your underpants still on.

Entering the Sal forest.

Claw marks of a Bengal Tiger. These markings together with its pungent urine demarcate its territory.

Our first morning is our most successful. It feels like walking through a fence-less zoo. We encounter spotted deer, barking deer, sambha deer, wild boars, rhinos, langur monkeys, red-face macaques, several gardials, and countless exotic birds. Katlijn and I march between our two guides who are armed with small staffs.

A Bengal Tiger sighting is the ultimate prize of any Chitwan safari and both Katlijn and I want to see this more than anything, until we hear a cat-like growl emerging unseen between the Sal trees and watch our guides turn pale. They motion us to stay still and position themselves in front, fingering their staffs. It occurs to me that our guides are shorter than me and a shade too spindly to take on a tiger with a couple of bamboo sticks. As they eye each other apprehensively, I can see them thinking the same thing. We slowly move away from the forest and further up the path where we are told to crouch down and wait. "It's a tiger !" one our guides whispers. We wait a long time, not quite certain anymore that we actually want to see a tiger, but nothing emerges from the forest.

Afterwards, our guides agreed they heard two sounds: a rhino and a tiger. I only heard a tiger. In fact, a bit shaken from this experience, I pretty much only hear tigers in the forest for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, the afternoon is relatively uneventful. A wildlife safari is actually a more relaxing experience than I had imagined- it tends to involve a lot of waiting around in a wooden safety tower hoping for something to happen while, in fact, nothing does. After several rounds of "hammer, paper, scissor" I fall asleep for a few hours before our guides wake us up and tell us our safari was over for the day.

As it turns out, we had inadvertently timed our safari for the one day in the year that the villagers are allowed to go out to the grasslands and pick grass for use in their houses. They were singing loudly and deliberately make a lot of noise to avoid wildlife encounters, in direct contrast to what were were trying to do. Consequently, we met a lot of villagers, but hardly any wildlife in the afternoon.

Chitwan National Park was originally a plot of land used for royal hunting expeditions. Since it was reserved only for this purpose, it was spared the worst of habitat poaching and most of its animal species survived. However, the People's War resulted in deteriorated security in the area and both animal and habitat poaching resumed over the last ten years. The rhino population was reduced significantly and only a handful of tigers remain today. With improving security, police stations can now be seen throughout the park patrolling the area. If the political situation continues to improve, the park will be saved.

The nearby villagers have grown accustom to gathering wood from the forest which is of a superior quality to the wood they are allowed to use in their conservation area. In fact, it appears they are using the grass gathering day to smuggle it out. In most cases, the locals bundle the grass on their back and herd it to their village. There are so many of them doing this that, from the observation tower, it looks like the meadows are alive and the grass itself has decided to move into town. Our guide uses his staff to poke at one of the grass bundles revealing that many of them are decoys used to hide blocks of wood inside. It is such as simple ruse that the police are probably more or less aware of this and allow it to go on to some extant.

Villagers on grass-gathering/wood-smuggling day.

Villagers loading a dugout canoe with grass bundles. Interestingly, the original people living in the Chitwan area evolved a natural resistance to malaria.

The village at dusk.

We stay at a a gorgeous village in the middle of the jungle hosted by a friendly young Nepali woman. We decide to order the barbecue chicken, not having ever seen that on a Nepali menu before. This turns out to be an enormous evening-filling production involving catching a chicken, killing it, making a fire, and roasting it cave-man style. Sometime in the middle of the night, we finally get to eat our chicken. The overall gastronomic experience is always one part taste and one part atmosphere. This chicken was among the best we had ever tasted and even the best restaurant in the world could never fully realize the experience of eating it around an open fire with the Chitwan locals celebrating a successful day of gathering and smuggling.

Unfortunately, this inspiring dinner will forever be tainted in my mind by the fact that I spent much of the next day throwing it up all over the forest floor. At one point, I found myself retching next to the bloody chicken feathers- perhaps its ghost exacting revenge on me from its poultry after-life. Katlijn, however, was unaffected and enjoyed a full day safari while I recovered.

By the following morning, I was well enough again to walk back to Sauraha. We went briskly through the forest, barely stopping to watch the wildlife, so we could get to the Rapti River in time to help bathe the elephants.

On the way back to Sauraha, Andrew stops at the elephant breeding center to feed a baby elephant the last of his digestive cookies.

Giving an elephant a bath is sure to capture the youthful soul in anybody. As we desperately try to climb up on the elephant's back, the trainer shouts commands causing the elephant to try to shake us off. It rolls around, shakes about, and sprays us with its nose. Meanwhile, children again, lost in the fun, we all forget how old we are and splash about together with the giant beasts.

I think one can safely say that it is a lot more fun to have a bath with an elephant than to actually ride on one. We decide we need to try an elephant safari that evening just to see what it is all about it. It turns out that an elephant safari involves being squeezed into a small box full of fat German tourists, and rocked about uncomfortably as the elephant waddles slowly through the forest. On the bright side, it is amazing how close you can get to the wildlife on an elephant. Deer are perfectly comfortable with elephants around, even when they are loaded with obnoxious tourists squeezing their camera triggers. Even the rhinos seem to barely notice us, sitting around lazily barely noticing us hovering over them.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Annapurna Circuit: Days 15-17

Day 15
Tatopani to Ghorapani (Elevation 2420 meters)

Mule trains carrying supplies between the Annapurna villages. Mahesh says that once the roads are completed on either side of Thorung La pass, most of the mules and porters will no longer be needed.

While it is an easy hike into Pokhara from Tatopani, we make a detour to Ghorapani, meaning “horse water”, and a place of no particular interest. The main purpose of heading up to Ghorapani is to make a side trip to “Poon Hill” which is considered one of the most spectacular lookouts in the Himalaya. We are very sorry to leave the comforts of Tatopani, especially considering Mahesh estimates a steep, uphill, eight hour climb to get to Ghorapani. This also means that by the end of the day we are again at a reasonably high elevation guaranteeing us another cold night.

Katlijn saying "Namaste" to the children along the way to Ghorapani.

Katlijn in the lead, we storm to the top in under six hours, two hours under the estimated time. I put my bag down in our room, rest my legs and shoulders a few moments, grab my towel, then head off to a room optimistically titled “hot shower”. We spend the rest of the evening huddled around a log fire while I experiment with the local take on a European pouss-cafe called "Mustang Coffee" which is basically coffee with mixed with millet wine. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't do this to a decent cup of coffee, but its an improvement on pure instant coffee.

Andrew recovering from his shower in front of the fire system.

Day 16
Ghorapani to Tikedungha (Elevation 1525 meters)

Mount Dhaulagiri (Elevation 8167 meters) from Poon Hill. Seventh highest mountain in the world.

In song, we hear Mahesh approaching shortly after five AM the next morning. Watching my breath swirling in the air before me, it is hard to convince myself to exit my cozy sleeping bag into the cold dark. Fortunately, I had cleverly anticipated this problem the night before and slept fully dressed with my headlamp and trusty North Fake tucked away deep inside of my sleeping bag, already warm and ready for the ascent.

It takes us a half hour to get to the top of Poon Hill, guided by Mahesh, our headlamps, and the stars. According to Mahesh, Poon Hill “must” be seen at sunrise to fully appreciate the experience. Sunrise, it turns out, happens quite a bit later up here owing to the mountains blocking the horizon- something, for whatever reason, I had not cleverly anticipated. This leaves us standing around in the cold for a good hour before the sun peeks mercifully over the front of Machupuchre immediately melting away our cold spirits and coating the Annapurna and Dhawalagiri ranges in a breathtaking orange and pink light. Katlijn was well on her way down before sunrise, too cold to linger, enjoying gorgeous views of Annapurna South and Dhaulagiri on the way between a forest of Rhododendrons. I spend some time on the top taking photos and absorbing the views while sipping some quality Masala tea offered to trekkers at the top. In high season, Mahesh says that over 600 backpackers are crammed up here in one morning. Fortunately, we are here much later in the year and have traded away these crowds for somewhat colder weather. There are only a handful of other people around me chattering quietly in various languages and accents.

After breakfast, we descend steeply down a green valley for several hours- an experience for which my knees won’t fully forgive me for another three days. Mahesh informs us that along the way, we will encounter Maoist rebels which control a large percentage of the rural parts of the country including passage to our destination at Tikedungha. The Maoists are a militant communist party that have been waging a ten year "People's War" to overhaul the existing system with a communist classless, and caste-less, system more conducive to improving the plight of rural peasants. As a part of these activities, the Maoists have been extorting money from foreign tourists on occupied trekking routes for years.

The way this works is that you are asked to make a "voluntary donation"- "voluntary" being Maoist for "the last person who refused to give money is still recovering in the hospital". George Bush labeled the Maoists a terrorist organization so Americans are most likely "asked" to give a bit extra. Being from Canada and Belgium, we are welcomed by the Maoists with a smile and given a short lecture about how they plan to use the money to help rural communities followed by long and more animated tirade about the evils of American imperialism and how they fund a corrupt government to drop bombs against them. As we are not Americans, he gives us a two hundred rupee discount and a receipt that reads "voluntary donation" which we have to keep with us: the Maoists are civil enough to only ask that we donate money one time so if we are ever stopped by Maoists again we can just show them your slip. Of course, we wouldn't need this slip if our donations were really voluntary, but this logic eludes them entirely.

Mahish (right) negotiating our payment with the Maoists.

Let's face it, the Maoist's really are a terrorist organization and their People's war has not only worsened the plight of rural farmers, it has cost about 15,000 Nepali lives and resulted in irreparable damage to the ecology due to habitat and wildlife poaching during the weakened security. It's not exactly the kind of organization you want your tourist dollars going to. Thus, ripping the Maoists off is a kind of tourist sport and is even fervently encouraged by the guides and porters who will aid you in this endeavour. In our case, we give all our papers to Vishnu who goes on ahead knowing that Nepali people are never stopped by the Maoists. Katlijn, Mahesh, and I follow behind. Mahesh tells the officer that we flew in to Jomsom and are hiking down in seven days. When asked for our papers, we tell them our porter has them. Not willing to make much of a fuss, they believe our story. At two hundred rupees a day plus our two hundred rupee discount for not being American, we feel like we have done our part. Other tourists often band together around somebody who already has a "voluntary donation" slip from some other part of the country. Interestingly, I read later in one of the local papers that the Maoists have pledged to stop this extortion. However, I can tell you this is definitely not the case and there was even a recent incident where a Swiss trekker was badly beaten by the Maoists for refusing to pay.

When we got into Tikedungha, I chatted with an American at the lodge curious about his Maoist encounter- he got the 200 rupee discount too by posing as a Canadian tourist ! We spend our last evening reading and relaxing with Mahesh and Vishnu.

Andrew, whose game has steadily been improving, fails yet again to beat Vishnu at a round of Carom. Carom is best described as a cross between snooker and crokenol. It involves sinking small wooden disks into one of the four corner pockets. It is a thoroughly addictive game played all over Nepal.

Day 17
Tikedeungha to Pokhara (Elevation 884 meters)

The four of us after completing the Annapurna Circuit.

It’s an easy and pleasant three hour walk through shaded trees down to a nondescript village called Naya Pul where all four of us, together with our bags, cram into a tiny taxi which could comfortably fit about two. Our pubescent chauffeur confidently lurches around goats and potholes for an hour before we arrive, a bit shaken, at a mid-range hotel room in Pokhara. After basking in showers with that elusive combination of both hot water and high pressure, we take the entire contents of our backpacks to a shop where we are able to haggle a good per kilo price for laundry.

Cows and motorcycles.

We spend a few hours wandering around the streets of Pokhara which line the picturesque waters of lake Phewa Tal. Pokhara is shamelessly touristy which is exactly what you want after 17 days in the mountains. Everything from authentic Italian pizzas and gelato to a decent cup of joe are widely available.

A professional is needed to shave away Andrew's three week old mountain growth.

Soft as a baby's bottom ! Enjoying a fresh banana lassi with a recent copy of the Himalayan Times.

In the evening, Mahesh and Vishnu take us out for a “special” dinner, which turns out to be Daal Bhaat again. “Daal” means “lentils” and “Bhaat” means rice. The combination of “Daal Bhaat” basically summarizes the entire Nepali cuisine. Vishnu likes to refer to this combination as “Nepali Pizza” perhaps referring to its ubiquitous presence- there must be some sort of law requiring it to show up on all restaurant menus.
To eat Daal Bhaat properly, you take your soupy lentils, pour them on your rice, and shovel it into your mouth with your fingers. It’s not that I’m putting Daal Bhaat down, I love lentils as much as the next guy. The first time I tried Daal Bhaat I thought it was great. In fact, and I realize this isn't a huge compliment, it really is the best thing on the menu. But seriously, every meal !? I spent three weeks with Mahesh and Vishnu and never saw them eat anything else. Actually, without exaggerating, I have never seen a Nepali person eat anything at all besides Daal Bhaat. Mahesh tells me that when baby turns six months old, there is a huge celebration where all the villagers turn out to acknowledge the auspicious occasion of the infant’s “first Daal Bhaat” and the beginning of a long and happy life of lentils.
As it turns out, this particular Daal Bhaat really is special as it comes with mutton. From what I understand, most families can't afford meat and only eat it on very special occasions about once or twice a year. I can honestly say that this is too bad because the non-vegetarian version of Daal Bhaat is seriously tasty stuff and we thank Mahesh and Vishnu for restoring our faith in Nepali cuisine.
I have received a lot of e-mails about this blog, mostly to the effect of "why didn't you just go to a Thai beach ?" so I feel I need to defend Himalayan trekking. "Yes", it was cold. "Yes", the high altitude caused some minor headaches. And "yes", we ate a hell of a lot of daal bhaat. But Katlijn and I both enjoyed the amazing scenery, people, and diversity immensely and highly recommend this to anyone of all ages. Get a porter if you need to. Try a lower elevation trek if you need to. Nepal is a hiker's paradise. We are seriously considering coming back again next year for a trek up to the Everest base camp. I can't wait !