Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Namaste...from Nepal! Yup, Kathmandu here I come!

Oct 2nd. Delayed flight from Bangkok (took off nearly 4 hours late!) got me into my first port of call in India, the great city of Delhi, in the wee hours of the morning. I knew i had to find Cosmic Air to try and get a quick (and cheap!) flight out the same day to Kathmandu in Nepal. Hmmn... well, that would mean the Cosmic Air office (situated in a dingy wee corridor in the basement of a smelly building in Delhi International Airport; lets just say this part of the airport didn't feel or smell so international!) would have to open at some point! So, after checking with the Alitalia folks next door, "Yes, yes it will open at 9am"...."Oh, not open yet? Now its 10am...i think they are definitely going to open today", then "OK honestly, we have no idea if they will open at all".... wouldn't it have been just a wee bit easier if they had said that right from the beginning! Anyway, I decided to undertake the stalking method and just sit outside their offices in the off chance someone would actually turn up.

While enjoying my time in the smelly corridor, I made a new friend in Vijay (a lovely Nepali man serving in the British Army in Iraq and was home for two weeks holidays; and who used to be in the Gurkhas!) who came along and decided to do the same. We had a great chat.. and then another Nepali gentleman arrived (whose name escapes me!)....and an Israeli guy. Why was Cosmic so popular, I hear you ask? 1) It is the cheapest flight to Kathmandu. 2) All the other airlines were saying they were sold out for at least a week due to it being festival time. And so began the discussion about our different options; which were somewhat limited really. Pretty much train or bus to Nepal.. hmmn! What to do!

Suddenly, Vijay and my other Nepali friend jumped into action; deciding to take matters into their own hands! After much negotiations with many little men who suddenly came out of the woodwork and had a habit of gesticulating very loudly and then herding us into different corridors, then there was some money changing hands and of course we had to have some haggling for the foreigner in the group (that would be me! - the boys wouldn't leave me behind, how sweet!).. we had tickets! Everyone just kept saying, this is India! This is how things are done! Apparantly there were always seats available, you just had to know the right person and pay a bit more to get one! I definitely felt at one point, after handing over $100 and my passport to complete strangers, who were grumping at how difficult it was that i was British and not Nepali, and then waiting around with three brand new Nepali pals (another gentleman had joined the gang - he too was a Gurkha in a previous life; who knew so many Gurkhas hung around Delhi Airport!). At one point i definitely thought... "Hmmn, isn't this exactly the type of situation my mother told me not to get into?". But i knew i was in good hands - seriously, i may be naive, but you do get a vibe from people. Oh yes, that and the fact poor Vijay ended up having to pay for half my ticket 'cos Delhi International Airport (ha!) doesn't even have an ATM and i didnt have enough cash on me (no-one takes credit cards it seems, especially not for this type of dodgy deal!) so I couldnt pay him back till we got to Kathmandu! Think he was the one who was nervous I'd make a runner once we reached Nepal but no fear, once we landed and went through the gigantic visa process at immigration which took nearly two hours, phew there was an ATM allejujah, thank you Nepal!!.. so I paid Vijay back and with lots of thanks for getting me there in the first place, said my fond farewells! Wow - what an adventure already!

Checked into my hotel, Holy Lodge (after listening to Hari, my crazy taxi driver who wanted me to marry him (purely on paper, ma'am, trust me!) so he could move to the UK to work! Yes...quite the interesting character!..also invited me to stay with him and his two children as he had an extra room in his house and there would be no funny business, "I promise, unless you want a boyfriend"..), then headed out to check out Thamel, the backpacker mecca of Kathmandu!

So a little on the Nepal and its capital. Landlocked between India and Tibet, Nepal is an amazing mix of subtropical jungles and icy Himalayas. It has eight of the ten highest mountains in the world (ok, so it shares one or two of them with Tibet but hey.. still amazing!). With over a dozen major ethnic groups, over 50 languages and dialects spoken and two great religions, (Hinduism and Buddhism as well as older tribal beliefs, still alive and practised), Nepal manages to remain a happy place with no history of religious strife. Having never been colonized, it is the worlds only Hindu kingdom and talk about national pride! They certainly have it here! So whether you want to trek, bike, raft or just hang out; you have to check out this happy, relaxed lifestyle!!! And so, how to describe Kathmandu? A medieval time capsule? A holy city? A tourist trap? A hive of bustling activity...all of the above. And I loved it! With a population of just over 700,000, it is definitely a melting pot. One of the first things you notice; everyone smiles - and i mean big smiles!!! Then of course lotsa questions... do you need "rooms, trekking, rafting, tours, internet... any help at all"... but everyone is so polite; its fantastic! Bizarre tho' to think that it ranks as one of the most polluted cities in the world right up there with Bangkok and Mexico City...still love it tho'.

Don't get me wrong, Thamel is way more touristy than i ever expected. Tons of guesthouses everywhere you look, loads of shops selling funky Nepali clothes, jewellery, knick knacks...brightly coloured saddhus (techically these are holy men although there are those who come running up and stick a thikka (bright red marking) on your forehead (sometimes before you even know what is happening.. yes, that happened to me!.. and then they demand money... these guys are not the real deal, real saddhus do not ask for money) - so yes, i got "thikk'ad" pretty quickly on my first day and then gave way too much money in my panic of "what do i do!"... (my friends all agreed i'm completely useless!) but hey, in my defence, you don't want to mess around with holy men, and i wasn't quite sure of the etiquette at that time! Now i know; you live and learn!). But like i said, it had a great atmosphere and lots of fab restaurants, cafes and bars, everyone was so friendly.. I immediately felt at home!

Oct 3rd. Up and out bright and early to check out the town. So many tiny streets, not that that stopped the hundreds of taxis, rickshaws, bicycles and seemingly endless crowds of people squeezing past! Walked for ages trying to decide what I'd do during my 3 weeks here. When would i go to Tibet; would i go hiking in Pokhara or the Kathmandu Valley (Nepal is known for its incredible trekking and there are so many options including Everest Base Camp - a 3 week trek! Uhhh, no chance of Ms. Couch Potato attempting that....someday maybe tho'). As I pottered away into a wee courtyard looking for a bookshop, who do i come across but my wonderful pal Ariel, from Gibbon fame in Laos .. yah!!! Brilliant to see him again! He was planning another one of his amazing adventures (cycling from Lhasa in Tibet back to Kathmandu this time.... by himself, no mean feat!... and lets just say he has had many amazing adventures on his travels..). It's a bit difficult doing independant travel in Tibet - usually you have to go as part of an organised tour (as i would later find out!) so he had met a friend, Raji, who runs the fabulous Massif Mountain Bike Company in Kathmandu (check it out everyone if you are interested in doing some fun adventure in Nepal (see Raji told you i'd give ya a plug!!!) www.massifmountainbike.com) organizing his visa. I was introduced to Raji, and Indra (who runs Drift Nepal; a brilliant rafting company next door to Raji) and Babu (a snake charmer no less but now a fab raft guide too - more on that later!). They were all gorgeous boys; so, so lovely! Sat and had chai with them ..would later tease them that every day when i popped round, no matter what time, it was chai time! Ariel and I went off pottering; lovely to see so many people with giant red thikkas on their foreheads and straw behind their ears as part of the Dasara festival. Everywhere you look there are beautiful colours, especially the women and their gorgeous saris; so vibrant..fab! Oh yes and did i mention the odd cow or two walking through the streets.. of course as Nepal is a Hindu kingdom, cows are sacred so pretty much get to hang out wherever they want, and you have to walk - or drive in the case of the rickshaws, motorbikes and cars - around them!

Oct 4th. Determined to do some serious sightseeing today! Set off to see the famous Pashupatinath.....Nepal's holiest Hindu pilgrimage site, which is an amazing mix of temples, cremation ghats, half naked saddhus and lots of pilgrims visiting. Often described as a smaller version of Varanasi, in India.... it is quite startling when you see them up front and centre, many cremations taking place. Apparantly there are more than 20 a day here. Saw quite a few myself while i was visiting. At one of the ghats, where a mother had died, her eldest son was dressed in a white loincloth type garment, with a white ribbon around his head and walked around the body three times clockwise. He was wailing and crying, being held by his family members. Women are not allowed to be there when the fire is lit, as they are deemed "too soft" and might want to jump on top of the pyre; their emotions getting the better of them! Met a guide called Amok who showed me around and explained so much! Fantastic guy and great information; a little over my head as there are so many gods and names to remember in the Hindu religion. I have to read up more on this! Tons of monkeys here too - yuk, not so keen on them! Even the royal family are cremated at this temple complex (they have their own section)...Oh yes and of course like all temples in Nepal, there are tons of Karma Sutra images everywhere - quite the juxtaposition from the reserved "no showing of any public affection" attitude that is pervasive here (i begin to notice the guides love to show you all the different KS poses carved throughout the temples..hmmnn) but hey, everyone to their own.

The saddhus are from many different sects; saw the almost naked ones (can't remember their official name but as you can see, they cover themselves in lots of coloured paints and very little else, and smoke charras all day (essentially marijuana so they are in a perpetual state of "high"ness) most of the time; a Hanuman holy man dressed completely in heavy clothes and with a monkey mask in deference to that holy deity (wish i'd gotten a pic of him; looked amazing and a wee bit scary!); and then there was the Milk Baba disciple. What a kind and gentle guy; quite young but very spiritual and has been a holy man for seven years; you could just get that feeling he was good - seriously! Amok said he was one of the few really holy men living at the temple; he invited me in to have tea (chai of course) with him and to ask him any questions at all, which of course i did. We had a great chat then he wondered if i'd like to hear some holy songs on this special instrument he learned to play (think its a harmonium? does that sound like a musical instrument name????) as part of his order's teachings (also he doesn't eat anything all day; just drinks milk and tea, and has one small plate of rice each evening..). And so I found myself, with Amok, a lady who was hanging out praying with him, and two other gentlemen who began playing the drums and cymbals. We all sat cross legged in this tiny room for about an hour, listening to this beautiful holy music! Loved it! Especially when some other tourists came by for a nosey and were wondering what was going on, and why couldn't they come in and hang out with the Milk Baba.. hahaha! No, seriously it was very hypnotic and calming; I really, really enjoyed my time here! The Hindu religion is very interesting - so much of it is about good and bad karma; how you present yourself in this life on earth, and depending on that, how and what you come back as in your next life...obviously this is probably complete rubbish and I have to read up TONS more of course..but that's the super quick initial touristy take on this ancient and amazing religion!

So after Pashupatinath, I headed off to the Boudha area of town, 5km from downtown Kathmandu, where i found one of the worlds largest stupas. Wow it is quite impressive to see, let me tell you! Boudha is acknowledged to be the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside of Tibet. The Tibetan people call it simply "Chorten Champo" (the Great Stupa) and since 1959 it has become the mecca for Tibetan exiles in Nepal. As well as being just huge, it is also quite an interactive monument, as you can climb around the stupa's base and look up to the 23 different platforms of decreasing sizes, reinforcing the notion of the stupa as a mandala, or meditation tool! (see what i have learned in Nepal already!). Check out the cheeky wee monks i chatted too who were hanging out practising their English and asking for the quintessential "do you have a pen, just one pen" that all children around the world, seem to have cottoned on to - seriously you hear it pretty much every country you visit.. too funny!! You can see blue eyes, painted on all four sides, and thirteen beautiful golden steps, representing the path to nirvana (if you are really good!).. Prayer wheels are mounted around the perimeter wall; it is said that each spin of the prayer wheel here is the equivalent to reading the mantra embossed on it, 11,000 times (wow, i spun alot of prayer wheels.. hope i get some good luck from that!!). Such a different atmosphere here; hundreds of peace flags everywhere, lots of monks walking around. Really loved it here; and definitely made me curious as to how this would compare to the real thing when i visit Tibet.

Then back to Thamel to try and sort out my silly Tibet trip; so many travel agents but have heard some horror stories so want to at least try and get a decent one. Ended up meeting Bishnu, who is connected with my guest house. Very nice and we had a good laugh together. Of course he is a smooth talker, no surprise, but will probably book with him and just get it over and done with.

And so it was time for chai again - i think i'm officially addicted. Off to meet Raji and Indra again.. love these guys! So sweet and feel like i've known them for ages! Raji is organizing my ticket to Goa but he is hilarious in his Nepal time line. "Stef, dont worry, maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after for your ticket. No big deal, dont stress!". Hmmnn... everyone in Nepal is very relaxed and seem quite happy with their lives and think some of us - ok me - need to chill out a bit, lose the watch and just RELAX...yes ok, im working on that! But seriously, i can't stop smiling here.. and this is only Kathmandu. Haven't even explored the countryside yet! Or Everest or the Himalayas (too cloudy right now, bummer... but can usually see the H from Kathmandu apparantly!).

So here is a great story about my new friend Babu. He is Nepali but went to India for a few years (i think it was a few years?) to learn how to become a snake charmer! Seriously! He learned quickly and was very good at it. So then he decided to come back to Nepal, and of course show his friends his amazing talents. So imagine the scene, him and a big crowd of his pals, all sitting waiting outside this hole for a cobra or other giant snake to appear once Babu's hypnotic music and mysticism starts! So they wait, and wait and wait. Finally when they are all getting a bit fed up and thinking, does he really know what he is doing... something appears. A cobra, an anaconda.. some other dangerous snake, I hear you cry! Ahh, no actually, a tiny wee frog popped out in front of the crowd, then hopped off about his business, leaving Babu sitting there thinking.. "this isn't quite how this was supposed to turn out". Hmmn.. needless to say the boys were not that impressed (hey, Babu's words not mine!) and Babu, well, he is now a brilliant rafting guide here in Nepal! Great story and so funny to hear over a wee cup of chai!

Oct 5th. Another relaxed day in Kathmandu. Went to see Raji again about my ticket..nothing yet.. aahh.. that boy will drive me mad! Then off to ancient Durbar Square to see the many temples there. Many of them were built in the 16th and 17th centuries and are really quite impressive and very beautiful. You can clearly see the different Chinese, Indian and Nepali architectural influences here. And TONS of Karma Sutra references everywhere. I know I mentioned that earlier but seriously, it is too funny when my guide, a different guy this time, called Rama, a very nice boy...needed to show me each and every reference! Interesting juxtaposition that they believe the reason the very graphic images are on the temples (ordered by ancient kings apparantly!) is to show them what happens once they get married so they are not afraid, because before marriage sometimes they dont even kiss (well, the more strict Hindus here anyway!).

Another interesting temple, the Kumari Chowk, is where the Living Goddess resides. Yes, this is pretty much the gilded cage for a little girl, who is "chosen" or "found" at birth, in a process reminiscent of how Tibetan Buddhists look for their reincarnated lamas...According to a very strick selection process, at around the age of 3-5 yrs old, elders come together and interview hundreds of young girls; they are put through a number of specific tests to determine whether they are "the one". For example, they are put in either a darkened room (or courtyard depending on who you speak to!) with lots of dead animals heads, as a test to see how they react. If they freak out and cry (like any normal 3 or 4 yr old - hello, i would be crying too!), then they are not the chosen one. If one of the girls is fine and this strange event doesn't phase her, then she is potentially the one! Other tests include picking out garments or belongings of previous LG's (again similar to the lama process...) The current Living Goddess was installed in 2001 and is looked after by a family appointed to her. She cannot see her own family during her period as the Goddess (as this would be too sad for her apparantly - umm yes!), and lives here showing her face and smiling and waving, once a day, to pilgrims and tourists alike. Her feet cannot touch the ground so she is lifted or sits in chairs and is carried wherever she needs to go. Once she menstruates, she is no longer bound to be the LG.. and can return to her family and live a more normal life, the only caveat being she cannot really marry. Well, the rules do not actually say this, but tradition has it that any man who marries an ex-Kumari goddess dies very young, so that's kind of off putting for any suitor, wouldn't you say! Such an interesting and very different culture here!

Some other highlights.. got my pic taken with yet another holy saddhu.. think this one was real! The current festival, Dasara (I think?) is going on, so many people are walking around with their gorgeous red thikkas (looks so good!). Beautiful saris in amazing colours float past you; people are so curious and want to ask you questions; where are you from; do you like Nepal, are you married; would you like some chai! Did i mention that it seems everywhere i go, people offer for you to sit and drink chai with them - "hey its our festival. Please come visit with us and chat.. on the house of course, it is our pleasure!" Just amazing! I also love the mysticism and very different beliefs here for example; rub a fertility god and wish fervently, and you WILL get pregnant - my guide swears by it! Met tons of Rama's pals - very nice boys.. especially Krishna who is so well read... He has read way more classics than me, and - in a really nice way - asks tourists he meets if they will send him a book or two as English books in Nepal are pretty expensive. He read Life of Pi and wasnt impressed but loved Kite Runner (me too!) and Zen of Motorcycle Diaries (haven't gotten to that one yet!). Promised to send him Memoirs of a Geisha when i get back to Boston, as its one of my fave books!

Some more sightseeing later in the afternoon (yup, I don't mess around you know!) - the famous Swayambhu Stupa to give it its correct name (also called the Monkey Temple)! Walked there from town - not another tourist to be seen. It wasn't that far - about 40 mins the way i went (think i got lost again) but it was lovely as i went through lots of little lanes and saw the local people hanging out, chatting it up in their neighbourhoods; and everyone again was so smiley and nice! You feel so safe here in Nepal, its incredible. Maybe i'm naive but i really feel that way. Anyway back to the stupa. Set atop a conical hill, it has 356 steps up to it, and once you get to the top, there is an amazing view of the Kathmandu Valley. Tons of monkeys hanging around waiting to steal your sunglasses - yuk! This stupa is apparantly the most profound expression of Buddhist symbolism in Nepal. Inscriptions on the stupa have been positively dated to the 5th century, and this simple looking structure hides immensely complex physical representations of Buddhist cosmology and the purpose of of walking around it is to meditate on all of this (quite heavy!!). The solid white washed dome (garbha) symbolises the womb or creation. Set in niches, statues of dihyani (meditating) Buddhas correspond to the four elements of fire, earth, air and water) and a fifth is set at an angle, for the sky or space. The eyes are those of all-seeing Ali-Buddha - staring in all four directions. Again there is the thirteen steps towards enlightenment! So another gorgeous temple visited. Should be feeling pretty spiritual with all these temples and holy people i'm hanging around with!

So of course later i hung out with ma' biking/rafting boys again - had some chai and momo's - yummy Tibetan food a bit like dim sum Chinese dumplings - with them.. then off to bed as i'm heading out to Pokara tomorrow at 4:30am yikes.. when Bishnu picks me up! Yup, another early morning!


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