Monthly Archives: March 2014

Bangkok, 30/03/14

Bye bye Nepal.
I love the people of Nepal – so friendly, so cultured, politically aware and generous.

I returned to Kathmandu and caught up with my friends there.
My last night with the Gurungs we shared a bottle of wine, laughed and danced. As Rupa, wife of Prem’s brother, said “my family is romantic and funny”. What could be better?
I shed tears to be leaving, and I have a small collection of silk scarves now, to wish me good luck on my travels.

Bangkok could hardly be more different.
Though Nepal has a majority of Hindu, some of who practise animal sacrifice, (apart from cows), it is very easy to be vegetarian. Thailand is ostensibly Buddhist, but vegetarian food is limited. It’s hard to identify the street food and frankly, some of it is quite scary.
Here, the roads are wide and well maintained. Nepal is dusty and polluted. The Thais drive within speed limits and at a reasonable distance from other vehicles, while driving in Nepal is anarchic and chaotic.
Nepal is a country that has scenery that could appropriately be described as awesome. Thailand is pretty.

However, Bangkok is a big city and it is to be expected that there are pros and cons.
I usually cannot walk for more than 2 minutes without the call, “madam, taxi?” This presupposes that
a) I have failed to notice the line of bright pink taxis lining every street, as well as the even more colourful tuk tuks,
b) as a westerner I cannot use my legs

Accidentally I discovered that carrying a post office parcel deflects this, presumably because they know where I’m going and it’s not far enough to warrant a taxi, even for a foreigner.

In fact, the post office was remarkably efficient compared to England.

The underground and sky train are air- conditioned and easy enough to master, while Thai people do not push and shove.

Many people here do not understand English and do not speak it in any recognisable form, so it’s hard to get help when you need it.

Thai people find it hard to multi-task, which can make things difficult in restaurants.
Then there is a stream of middle-aged western men with Thai women in tow, and I saw a fold-up street stall selling Viagra, Cialis and Valium.
I think the people genuinely want to modernise and “develop” but have been overtaken by a foreign value system.

So far I’ve seen the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, which was impressive and also a quietly spiritual experience.

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Monday 17/03/2014

I spent two days in Pokhara, which lies between a lake and the mountains. “Lakeside ” is an easy-going place, with lots of tourists wearing Nepali clothes and lots of young Nepalis wearing western gear. The para gliders over the hill on the right side of the lake look like a flock of birds, there are so many of them.
Then I set out for Chitwan National Park, where I stayed for two nights. I went to see the elephants. The males and females are kept separate, the latter being in the “Breeding Project”. I found this distressing, as the elephants are shackled by chains binding their front feet together and tied closely to a post, so they can barely move. The young ones are not chained as they stay close to their mothers, but they will never be free and are destined to be used for the elephant safari. It is slavery, pure and simple.
So I went on the guided walk and the jeep tour. I did go to the elephant bathing, though, as I felt that there, at least, they could be able to enjoy themselves, but in reality they were still under the command of the mahout. Anyway, I got drenched by an elephant and was able to feed him peanuts.
The safari was well worth-while. We saw deer, wild pigs, wild peacocks and got very close to two Asian rhino. They are very different from the African ones, with prehensile lips and heavy plates and folds in their skin.
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We saw both kinds of crocodile; the gharial, which are endangered and only eat fish, (seen here in the breeding park)

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and the marsh mugger, which eats anything and is apparently the source of the verb to mug someone.

About twenty minutes from the end of the tour, a young leopard crossed the road. She stayed until we caught up with her, then melted into the elephant grass. As we watched her go, we spotted a larger leopard about twenty feet away. I think I have been incredibly lucky to see leopards again, they are so well camouflaged.

I also went to see the Tharu stick dance, which is worth going to even if it is a tourist entertainment. Both men and women dance around drummers,though separately, twirling and knocking sticks together with split-second timing, making a complicated rhythm. It seems like fun for the participants, though I imagine a lot of sore fingers and arms while they are learning.

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There was also a man pretending to be a peacock. It was ridiculous but also he was a very good mimic.

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My next destination was Lumbini, birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the Sakyamuni Buddha. Inside a temple is a stone believed to mark the exact spot and a worn stone sculpture of the scene, with his mother, Maya Devi, leaning on a peepal tree at the time of her delivery. This image dates back to the 4th century AD but some of the brickwork dates back to 300 BC. She was apparently caught short on the way to her father’s palace and is said to have bathed in the sacred pool outside.

There is a large monastic complex, with temples, monasteries and stupa from around the world, many of them under construction. Each Buddha statue has a different attitude, some smiling, some sad , some serene. At the Tibetan monastery there was chanting, the clashing of cymbals, blowing of conch shells and free cups of tea.

The journey to and from Lumbini by coach is long and arduous, but also passes through a beautiful valley. A kingfisher blue river winds between verdant terraces, glimpsed through goldy-green forest. The scale is enormous, with hundreds of feet above and below us, and the road and houses on the edge of the precipice. Yesterday, as the full moon, was Holi Day, festival of colour and love. All along the route, on my return to Pokhara, people covered in paint cheered and waved and were dancing in the street. In Pokhara I went to the street concert and was annointed by several people and sprayed with water.

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It was a day of colours, smiles and joy.

Pokhara, Sunday 09/03/14

I’ve only been in Nepal a couple of weeks, but certain things have left their impression on me;
-Sitting on the terrace at the Gurungs’ house on 2nd March, with snapdragons, freesias, pelargoniums all in bloom
-Reading in the paper that Maoist insurgents had kidnapped a class of children in a rural school, to add them to a “children’s army” that they want to contain 50,000 members
-Also reading that Nepal has 50 public holidays, 3 of which are for women only.
-Hearing about the Kumari, or living goddess. A young girl is chosen out of candidates from a traditional clan. She leads a cloistered life until she reaches puberty when she is replaced. She has no choice in the matter and would find life difficult afterwards.
-The simple but profound expressions of their beliefs, e.g. A poster in the dining room of my hotel, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” Or in a work of fiction, “We are all just the universe expressing itself “.
-The two kinds of fig tree found on “chautaara” or resting places for porters, (often religious shrines, it seems). One is the peepal, or bodhi, which has heart-shaped leaves and is a female symbol –

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The other is the banyan, which represents the male and has aerial roots –
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These are just a few examples of what I am experiencing here, but I should continue with the story of my travels.

From Kathmandu I took a seven hour bus ride to Pokhara and was met by the young son of Jagannath and Him Kumari Gurung, with whom I was to stay. We went by taxi to a small town a few kilometres away. He put me in the front of a jeep with his grandmother, my bag on the roof and then went off. Behind me were four or five ladies and several people climbed on the roof. No-one spoke any English. After about an hour wait, when everyone had completed their shopping, we set off on a narrow winding road in rather poor condition, with a bus in front of us and a stream of lorries coming in the opposite direction, which meant the driver sometimes had to pull over. This was not much of a problem for me, having driven round hairpin bends in the Cevennes in France, but then we drove off the road and into the river bed. We forged the river several times and sometimes along it, scrambling over gravel and stones. Then the jeep started up a rocky road into the hills. After some time and a considerable climb, we reached Lwang village, at 1640 metres and with a great view of Macchapuchre, or Fishtail mountain.
Him Kumari greeted me with a tika, ( or tilika) and a garland of flowers.
This is where I stayed –
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The first picture is of the kitchen area and my bedroom was on the first floor on the left in the second.
I stayed there for two nights. Neither of them spoke much English, but we muddled along and they were both delightful.
This is the mountain

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And on my second night there was a thunderstorm

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Cooking was on a small fire on a clay floor, where people sat cross-legged and eat with their right hand. They run a little shop, (the room under my bedroom), and the village has an Annapurna tea plantation, of which they are very proud.

From their house, I returned the way I came, back to Pokhara and checked into a hotel. In a sudden change of circumstance, which I am starting to get used to, that evening I found myself sitting in the Moondance cafe, where I saw two green parrots in a Peepal tree, while Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” played in the background.

Pokhara, Saturday 08/03/2014

Two days after Shivaratri was the festival of Gyalpo Lhosar, the start of a new year in Tibet. At that time I was staying with Shiva Shrestha and his wife, Maya, who is a Sherpa and therefore celebrates this occasion. The most important time is the first three days. I was given Changkol, a drink containing beer, a kind of dried milk or cheese, cashew nuts and other things I’m not sure of, and served with Khapsey or decorative pastry. It has a strange consistency and is a little chewy and sour, but I was honoured to be offered it.
Shiva himself is a local hero. He belongs to the Rotary club and to an international Friendship Force which promotes Home Stay opportunities around the world – though I made contact with him through Servas. He has been voted “the friendliest” at one of their conventions and has many certificates of merit. He has built two schools and initiated local clean-up rubbish campaigns for the river and streets in Kathmandu. He welcomed me into their home for two days and also took me to see the Kopan monastery not far from his house.

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He then arranged for me to stay with the Gurung family, quite some of the nicest people you could wish to meet. Eleven family members were living on three floors of a building in Kapan, a confusing warren of dusty streets. Prem, the father of two children, drove me all round the city and beyond. He, his cousin and his brother explained so many things to me about their culture, history, politics and daily life. Unfortunately the women in the family did not speak such good English, but they were so kind and looked after me very well.
So I was able to visit the Bouddhanath Stupa, with the compassionate eyes of the Buddha and was bought a string of prayer flags to hang there.

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We went to temples and monasteries in Kathmandu

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And Bhaktapur, the old capital of Nepal.

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Well, I was overwhelmed.
But I also learnt a lot about daily life. They had to bring drinkable water up three floors to the kitchen. Electricity is only available some of the time and washing is done by hand up on the roof. Though they were not all vegetarian, they prepared daal bhaat, a dish of rice, lentils, curried vegetables and pickles, in large quantities for me. The children were delightful and at a young age spoke excellent English.
They bought me a necklace, arranged for me to go to another Home Stay, invited me back on my return to
Kathmandu and presented me with a golden scarf when I left!

Next update soon, as I have free WiFi for a change.

Kathmandu, Saturday, 1st March 2014

I arrived in Kathmandu in the afternoon of 26th Feb. to find that the following day was the festival of the birth of Shiva, Shivaratri. This is celebrated at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, in the sanctum of which is a Jyothirlinga. Babas (ascetics or anchorites) come from all over India and Nepal and devotees come in their thousands.

So the next day I set out from my hotel . After about an hour I joined the crowds and a rapidly lengthening queue of brightly dressed people. There were police and cordons making it difficult to reach the temple, so I decided to simply ask if I could go through. And it worked! As I was moving off, two guys followed, saying they were with me and we were tourists. It was a stroke of luck, because they were Turkish and lived and worked in Kathmandu, so they could show me around.

The crowds were gathered on the banks of the Bagmati River

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The queue was to get into the sanctum, but as non-Hindu we were not allowed in.

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However, we saw lots of phallic symbols

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Babas, speaking to the crowd, smoking chillums and marking our foreheads with tilaka.

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There were Hindu funerals on one of the banks, with the rituals that go with the burning of the bodies.

And there was a mock mountain pilgrimage to ascend in bare feet.

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Although I did not feel able to stay until the lighting of the holy fires at dusk, it was a day full of the weird and wonderful. Amidst all the confusion, it is still, as the handout concludes, “a place of meditation to realise oneself as part of the Supreme Self”.