Amazing Nepal February 2004 Part 2
"Elephants, Campfires and Sadhus"
Sunday February 22. At 5:45 we received a wake up knock to begin the day. We fumbled in the dark to get our things together. All the Nepalese guests departed and we were left with 2 Japanese girls, a French couple and us. We took a 6:30 nature walk as our guide explained that if we came across a rhino we should hide behind a tree, if we came across a tiger we should stare at him in the eyes and that the sloth bear is the most aggressive and we should make noise, clap our hands and dance. No rhinos, tigers or bears were seen on our walk. After a breakfast it was time for another elephant ride. With only 6 of us, we were told we would go in 2 groups and for some reason, my Dad and I got split up as I departed with the Japanese girls and him with the French couple. I sat directly behind the elephant rider and waved goodbye to my Dad. Our elephant was rebellious and kept stretching down to eat leaves and tear up trees as the rider would try to re-establish control by hitting him over the head with a metal rod, making a large bong sound. We saw a small deer and some monkeys, but animal sightings were scarce. Sometimes our elephant would refuse to budge, until with a few more hits on the head, he would continue again. When we returned, my Dad's group was just getting back, his elephant was coming in on a slow trot and let out a large roar. I was about to snap their picture when my Dad warned, "Move out of the way." When he was safely off the elephant, he told me that they saw a rhino by the river and the elephant and rhino were aggressive with each other. The elephant was flapping his ears and running towards the rhino and they were locked in a gaze. Finally, the elephant stamped the ground and let out a loud trumpet sound and the rhino turned back across the river. He said his rider could not seem to gain control and he kept hitting the elephant over the head 50 or 60 times on the way back. The elephant tried to topple trees and once tossed a big log with his trunk. The elephant bellowed 3 times on their way into camp. After this adventure, my Dad and I both limped back to our room and were ready to relax. While sitting on the deck, monkeys sat across the river and the sound of peacocks echoed through the jungle. Later they had elephant bathing, as the elephants emerged with riders bare back on top. My Dad was feeling adventurous, so he handed me his possessions and headed into the water with the elephants as others joined in. At 3:30 we were scheduled for the jungle triathlon-elephant ride for 1.5 hours, walk for 15 minutes and then a float down the river. My Dad was really uncomfortable as he straddled the front of the elephant and I was perched on the side. The elephant rider dug his toes into the ears of the elephant and hit him on the head every time the elephant tried to stray from the path. We did not see any animals, but were anxious to get off the elephant, the elephant kneeled to the ground and we climbed down the front. We walked along the river and then our rustic canoe was waiting for us. As we peacefully floated, the sun was just going down and the sky turned a beautiful orange. Once it was dark a big fire was lit and the guest gathered around. I asked one of the sweet guides to sing me some Nepalese songs. He went and got a small drum and with a lovely, shy start he began to sing as his friends joined in. A few guides even began dancing by the fire in a Nepalese style dance. There were now 3 Australian guests, 3 Nepalese guests, the 2 Japanese girls, a man from Argentina, a couple from Chicago, and the couple from France and us. After a few songs, one guide asked if anyone else wanted to sing. There was a lot of giggling, but no one willing. One of the Australians said, how about "House of the Rising Sun" and suddenly one of the Nepalese guests with a low drone voice began to sing it. Then the two Japanese girls sweetly sang a song in Japanese. At 9:30 we were ready to rest and we fumbled back to our room in the dark.
"Thursday February 23, 2004-Tharu Village"
Wake up knock at 5:45am in the dark again, as I took a kerosene lantern to try and put my contacts in. There was fog enveloping the river. We took a nature walk and then were scheduled for a visit to a Tharu Village with the Chicago couple. We walked along until the view of the village was within sight. There were rice paddies and people dressed in beautiful bright colors working the land. We were greeted by a beautiful young girl who helped our guide figure out the best way for us to navigate the rice paddies; if you made a wrong move you may end up in a sludge of muddy water. The villagers stared at us, while the children became excited and began to chatter between themselves at the sight of the foreign visitors. My Dad brought several small toys that he passed out to the excited children. David from Chicago had a digital camera and showed the kids their image and laughs broke out when they saw themselves in the camera. We went inside one place that reminded me of a Native American dwelling. People were harvesting rice, sitting on their porches, couples were riding together on bikes, with the women adorned in their beautiful red saris and pashminas. There was a shyness to the people and some seemed slightly bothered by our presence, but most were friendly. The trip to the village took about 4 hours. We were hot and tired when we arrived back at the resort. On our way back, we saw a crocodile on the shoreline. The resort manager told us that there was a domestic airline strike so we would not be able to fly back on Yeti Airways for our return to Kathmandu scheduled for the next day. He said we would need to hire a taxi or take a bus to take us the 6 or so bumpy, dusty hours back and return our tickets for a refund at Hotel Vajra. I sat on the porch eating sunflower seeds as two cleaning boys came by my room. I offered them a handful of seeds as they looked with curiosity at the sight and taste of this exotic snack. At 3:45 it was back on top of an elephant; feet straddled around a pole, but more room since they let my Dad and I go alone on this ride. We saw two wild boars scurrying past and a small deer, but for 2 more hours, we saw nothing. But, right towards the end of the trip, we heard the roar of an elephant and branches snapping and all of a sudden our elephant rider pushed his feet hard into the elephants ears and he began to trot quickly through the forest as branches were whipping past my legs and one snapped me in the face. There were branches snapping and elephants roaring as we came upon a sloth bear foraging for food in a hole a few feet away from us. All the guests were excited about this discovery. We went back to the room for a rest. I noticed that I was becoming thin on the trip, as I didn't have much appetite for the food, but I was feeling good. There was something about being in Nepal that made me feel radiant and alive, despite having hair that was a tangled mess and the thick layers of dust on my skin. In the evening after hearing more Nepalese music by the fire, one guide offered to take just my Dad and I for a special walk at night through the jungle. I sensed a twinge of fear, but decided to seize the opportunity and go for it. So, at 9:00pm in complete darkness, my Dad and I and two guides with sticks in their hands trudged through the forest with two small flashlights. With the small beam of light we walked a path in the jungle filled with rhinos, sloth bears, wild boars and tigers. We listened for breaking branches, the stars filled the night sky and there was a crescent moon that was just lovely. My adrenaline was pumping as I looked around with my limited vision. After about 15 minutes of searching, we arrived back to the resort. Unfortunately for us, while we were gone, two rhinos were within view of the resort deck that we missed out on seeing. These rhinos had also come along the same path that we were on just minutes before. It was not my luck to see a rhino, but I was happy I did not come face to face with one in the dark.
"Tuesday February 24, 2004-Back to Kathmandu"
We had planned to sleep in and forget about any tours, but I heard the neighbors knock at 5:45 and since I was awake, decided to get up. One more morning of fumbling in the dark. I turned on the sink and there was no running water either. We joined in on a bird watching walk in the morning. On our way back, the hotel manager told us that the 5 day strike that we were concerned about was on and that we should head back to Kathmandu as early as possible. So, besides a domestic airline strike, we were also in store for a nationwide strike on our last days in the country. Still, I felt lucky to have done as much as we had on the trip up until this point. At 8:30 we were whisked away on a canoe across to a waiting taxi for our long drive back to Kathmandu. One our way, we passed through another Tharu village as people were milling around and staring at us as we passed. We also passed 3 military trucks filled with soldiers carrying automatic rifles, maybe preparing for the strike. It felt a little scary being around so many young men yielding guns. We spent several hours driving along the side of a cliff, bumping through potholes, with dust, washed out roads, buses and horns as we followed a big flowing river down below. About 5 hours later we arrived in extremely crowded Kathmandu where there was a huge traffic jam. We breathed in the smog and went back into culture shock after being with no electricity and peace and quiet for 3 days. We headed back to the Hotel Vajra and saw all the familiar faces of the friendly staff and the beautiful cleaning lady with the shy smile. It felt so refreshing to take a shower and our old room 306 was still waiting for us. We sat on the rooftop to unwind as the wind blew through the air. We met friends for dinner at Fire N' Ice and then shopped the crowded streets of Thamel with beeping horns and rickshaws on every corner. Several times, I just barely escaped being run down by a car or motorcycle. The trip was feeling like it was coming to an end.
"Wednesday, February 25, 2004-Dhulikhel and Strikes"
I woke up early to watch the sun come up on the roof of Hotel Vajra. I was awaiting the sound of monks chanting. I sat there alone on the roof as birds were chirping and roosters were crowing. I heard cars beginning to stir in the streets, which meant that maybe there was no strike after all. If the strike was off, we would be able to go ahead with our plan to visit the mountain town of Dhulikhel that was suppose to have nice hiking and great mountain views. After a few minutes, I heard a quiet start to the monks chanting and the tabla drums were beginning to echo through the city. After breakfast we asked the hotel if they thought it would be okay to head to Dhulikhel or not. Everyone seemed unsure of whether the strike was on or not. The hotel manager told us he thought it was just a school strike so they arranged a taxi to take us to Dhulikhel. I felt slightly hesitant about embarking on the trip during our last days and not wanting to get stranded somewhere. But, since the hotel thought it was okay, we decided to go for it. We spent a few more hours of shopping in Thamel and I bought some colorful Shiva and Ganesha shirts and some patchwork pants. Our taxi met us at 1:00 for our drive to Dhulikhel. The roads were pretty empty on the short 19-mile drive from Kathmandu. The only vehicles on the road were cars and buses that said "Tourist Vehicle Only", which made me feel like it might not be the best idea to be out during this strike. We arrived safely at the impeccably maintained Dhulikhel Mountain Resort. It was pretty much deserted as 6 staff members came to greet us. There were only 4 other guests staying at the large hotel, a German couple and a couple from India. It's sad the way the Maoist situation is affecting tourism so much with beautiful hotels sitting empty. Being one of a few guests, we received top treatment as a white tablecloth was laid out for 2 diet cokes on the patio. We were then guided on a short village walk. The people in this village seemed more reserved and suspicious. The mountains that Dhulikhel is famous for were completely covered in clouds. Later, we sat with the other 4 guests on the patio and had interesting conversations centered around philosophy. Since we were the only guests, the 6 of us met for dinner. The staff was extremely attentive and at the end of the meal one of the waiters said to me, "Goodnight, dream in color." After dinner, my Dad started getting chills and began to feel sick. We were both given a warm water bottle to sleep with as I snuggled up in bed, beginning to worry about my Dad.
"Thursday February 26, 2004-5 star Living"
I awoke at 6:30, while my Dad slept. I sat outside on the chilly morning as a thick haze filled the air. There were no mountains in view. The strike weighed in the back of my mind, hoping we would not encounter any difficulties returning to Kathmandu for our flight home on the 28th. The staff in Dhulikhel seemed much more concerned with the strike then the people in Kathmandu. I asked if we could go hike to a temple that I had heard about in the area, but they told me it was not possible because they couldn't drive anywhere and it would not be safe. We were told that we should only take a walk close by the hotel. We and the other guests discussed the strike situation and we were all concerned. So, we placed a call to Hotel Vajra and asked if they could send a driver a day early to pick us up. We were told they could not pick us up and they were not sure if they could even send someone the next day because of the strike situation. So, it became a rush to figure out how to get back and since the mountains were obscured, the hiking was limited and my Dad was sick, I was ready to go. After about an hour of phone calls and haggling, we found a local taxi driver that was willing to take us back to Kathmandu. The streets were almost empty of cars, shops were closed and people were walking everywhere. The closer we got to Kathmandu; we saw more cars and taxis, which was relieving. These strikes give you this uncomfortable feeling like you might get stranded somewhere. My Dad was feeling sick and weak. Since we had a free room at the Hyatt for the last night, we decided to go a day early. Arriving at the Hyatt was another culture shock, as we entered a 5 star hotel with all the modern luxuries. The contrast to the poverty of Kathmandu was shocking. My Dad rested in the room as I sat on the patio overlooking the Boudhanath stupa (among the most important Buddhist worship sites in Nepal). When my Dad awoke, he began a course of Cipro to fight off whatever sickness he had acquired on the trip. We walked to the Boudhanath stupa and on our way, we ran into the Australians that stayed with us in Chitwan. The stupa was visually interesting with prayer flags and bright colors and small shops encircling the area. Buddhist monks and tourists and children surrounded the place. I felt mixed emotions as the trip was coming to an end. I felt sadness that I may never return to this fascinating country and curiosity about what the political future holds for the enchanting people of Nepal. In the evening, my Dad turned on the TV and I realized what a huge waste of time TV is and I hoped that when I returned that this would not be a habit I returned to so regularly. Before bed, I sat on the Hyatt patio reflecting on the trip and preparing for my last day in the country.
"Friday, February 27, 2004-The end of the road"
I awoke and opened the curtains of my elegant room and saw prayer flags from my window. The large stupa was within view. I was still concerned about my Dad's health, but he seemed to be feeling better. The end of a trip is always hard, as you lose some of your sense of adventure. However, the trip had so many amazing moments to treasure. The highlights of the trip were the Buddhist monastery on Tibetan New Year, lovely Pokhara, my little Pokhara guide singing me Nepalese songs on the trail, Shiva Ratri festival, the Island Jungle Resort staff singing by the fire and although uncomfortable, how could I ever forget riding on top of an elephant in the forest and coming upon a sloth bear. Most of all, it is the lovely, gentle Nepalese people that I will always remember. We made our plan for the last day and decided to go to Pashupatinath again since my Dad was feeling sick and it was close by. When we arrived there, we witnessed the end of a cremation. The three sons of the deceased, with shaven heads took the burning logs of wood and tossed them into the dirty, blackened water of the Bagmati River. I heard the sound of sizzling logs hitting the water and the smell of burning ashes filled the air. The scent of this place began to make my Dad feel dizzy and he sat for a rest. At the end of the cremation, the sons took a small white bag, which contained the top of the skull, and they walked into the water and buried the skull under a rock in the river. Then, buckets of water were filled as the cremation platform was cleaned, bucket by bucket until nothing was left. We meandered through the grounds of the temple and were the only tourists to come upon a large group of Sadhus who posed for my photo, but of course requested a donation for the privilege. As we walked along the river we saw 2 monkeys mating on a cremation platform. My Dad was feeling weak, so we headed back to the Hyatt as full security surrounded the hotel. It looked like some important diplomat was staying at the hotel. On my last day, as I sat at the 5 star hotel overlooking the city, I began feeling more detached, like an observer rather than participant. My focus was returning back to my life in Austin. I was happy that my Dad was starting to feel better. He was even able to eat some bread and soda at the hotel. We walked through the crowded, dirty streets filled with street vendors, buses and cars and visited the ethereal stupa for one last time. The stupa was bustling with activity. At an internet station outside of the stupa, I sent an e-mail to my family. There were monks in red robes sending e-mail right next to me. At the stupa there were teenage girls adorned in beautiful, colorful garments with flags in their hands. We found out they were part of a Nepalese movie being shot. What a perfect ending, we started out with a Tom Cruise movie in LA and ended the trip with a Nepalese movie in Kathmandu. We watched the movie being shot and just like in LA, we were skirted back away from the set. That afternoon we were told that the 5-day strike was cancelled, after only 2 days, the city was again alive and thriving. I spent my last evening in Nepal sitting on the outside deck of the Hyatt as I took in the last sights and sounds of the extremely fascinating country. In the snap of a finger, I was whisked away on an airplane and looking back now, it seems like a distant memory, but one that I will cherish forever.