Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Across the border to India

Another travel day but this time we would cross in to India! We were able to put away the Nepal guidebook and crack open the India one. However first we had to cross the border which is a task that can always be tedious.

The bus dropped us off in no mans land between the two countries and our luggage was off loaded on to 2 big wooden pushcarts. We headed straight to the Nepalese customs and passport office that we could have easily just walked right past. Our one final task was to change our Nepalese Rupees into Indian Rupees. In what felt like a hole in the wall we swamped currencies and then walked across the border into India!

Instantly things changed. More hectic if you can believe it!  The road leading to the border was manic. Huge heavy trucks, the ones all decorated, were lined up all jostling for position, honking furiously as bikes and cars all weaved through trying to just get on with normal life. The shops and stalls were all open with people buzzing around. As we walked we made our way through the madness to a nearby hotel to freshen up before continuing our bus journey.

Our next destination was Varanasi but an all day drive away! The Indian roads are bumpy at best and besides hanging on, we spent the hours starring out the window watching the traffic and sites in various villages and towns. Each village brought a new dose of stalls, vendors, traffic and commotion. Also lots of waves, smiles and nods to the people out the windows. It was entertaining but we were ready to give our backs a break and get off the bus.

Here is some video I shot in traffic throughout the day.  Turn your volume down because there are a lot of loud horns in the video which is the norm in India.

Our hotel in Varanasi served fantastic food and we were welcomed to India with a fantastic Paneer Butter Masala – cheese pieces covered in a thick Indian spiced sauce with rice; and a chicken tikka masala – tender chicken pieces cooked in a tandoori oven covered in a think masala sauce with rice. Add some Naan bread and some Indian sweets for dessert and you have the makings of a fantastic meal. It may sound scary but it is absolutely delicious!!  The photo is of us after dinner happy and full.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Birth Place of Buddha

We woke the next morning to the unexpected sounds of elephants trumpeting nearby. Our simpler life wish had come true, no electricity. All of Nepal’s electricity comes from India who rations it, causing Nepal daily brown outs. This one happened early in the morning and with the fan off we could also hear something scurrying in the ceiling. We were quickly wide-awake hearing the scurrying noises that led to some squawking and wild scratching before the sounds abruptly stopped. Eek!

After breakfast, we piled in our own private bus and headed off for Lumbini – the birthplace of Buddha, near the India-Nepal border.  

Too many hours later as we neared Lumbini where we ran into some traffic from road construction. As we crept along at a snails pace, I stuck my head out of the window to see what was going on. A loud horn sounded and I was spooked back into the bus, but in doing so my glasses hit the edge of the window falling off my head. In a slow motion scene right out of a move, I tried to grab them, but could only watch as they dropped to the dusty gravel road. “My glasses”, I yelled!  Sitting near the back of the bus I dashed up the aisle I hearing Steph shouting, “Stop, stop, stop!” Throwing open the door I jumped out of the bus, running and dodging through the traffic of cars, trucks, carts and animals to try and find my glasses.

I found the edge of the bridge where they should have been from memory but without glasses I was having a hard time seeing them in the chaos of traffic and dust from the road. The details were a blur, literally. Luckily one of the locals on a bicycle shouted and pointed down at the road. Bingo! There they were, scratched and bent by the fall, but still in one piece, amazingly! I thanked the man and shook his hand before turning to find the bus. Running back, I found our guide who knew where the bus stopped and eventually ran into Steph who was also off the bus at this point. Boy did I have some explaining to do! Ok, Ok, I know now not to stick my head out of the bus window with glasses on but we were moving slowly so I knew I could find them ☺

Steph later told me she had a few anxious moments saying, “I stuck my head out the window watching you dodge traffic peering under bikes, carts, trucks and animals. Then the bus started moving as traffic suddenly decided to clear and I lost sight of you as the bus found a spot to pull over.”

My adrenaline was racing as I settled back in my seat.  You'll be glad to know I kept my head inside the bus for the remainder of the journey that took us to the jungle camp.

Another glacially slow lunch (albeit quite yummy chow mein!) awaited before we headed off for a bicycle ride to see the Master Plan – a giant project to build up the area around Buddha’s birthplace. Setting off from the camp, we had a mile or so to ride on the roughly paved and chaotic road. You know the ones…cars, buses, motorcycles, trucks all honking mixed in with buffalos, goats and dogs. Needless to say we were nervous at first but found our way without any issues despite our rear brakes being practically shot.  Riding required a little extra forethought in panning your movements in a crowed area but we managed.  Keep Steph in front, dodge traffic, yeah we're good, no worries!

We didn't get the real name for the development but in Lumbini its referred as Masterplan; an idea conceived in the 1970’s. It is a huge development project that has been going for years and will continue for years because its being developed at the same pace with which they cook food. Many nations are building temples to commemorate the place where Buddha was born along with some Nepalese cultural sites and buildings.

We started at the German temple, finished in 2003. It was huge, colorful and it’s gold leafing glistened in the sun. Walking around it, the gardens depict Buddha’s life in various scenes of statues, from birth to enlightenment. As temples go, it was no shoes allowed so we strolled on the amazingly smooth sandstone walkways. There were also some enormous prayer wheels to spin which you can see Steph with in the photo. The decoration inside and on the outside walls under the awnings were very detailed and so brightly colored.  Especially for something built in the last 10 years.

Riding on a bicycle through the development was a neat way to see the grounds and a good thing because it covers a big area. The place where Buddha was born is marked by ruins and a monstrosity of a building constructed some years ago.  They have a stone that marks the exact spot and people from around the globe travel to see it. There are lots of prayer flags strung up everywhere and Buddhist monks going about their business on the site. We had fun with one of the monks who was doing lap after lap as we just admired and took photos of him.  He was so gracious smiling and seemingly enjoying the attention.

One last surprise awaited this evening back at the camp. It was a fairly simple camp with dimly lit paths and candles in the room (in case of a brown out). On the way to dinner we learned that Ben and Nora had just gotten engaged! What a surprise! Ben found the right moment in the candle light and she said "yes"!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Elephant Safari

The next morning was our long awaited elephant safari through the jungle in search of the rhinos and other animals. Amazingly, the elephants came to pick us up at our lodge which isn't surprising after the fact because most of the lodges in the area have their own staircase used to mount the elephants. Ben, Nora, Josh and myself all got on the same elephant, Maya, a 12-year old – rather young in comparison to the others. We were the last group to mount but thanks to Maya’s youthfulness, she whizzed past several others on the way to the park to Josh's competitive amusement.

We sauntered through the town towering over all the other road traffic taking up more than our share of space before finally reaching the park's entrance to the jungle.  Starting on the paths we kept an eye out for animals but before long we started making our own path courtesy of Maya.  She would just walk through light brush while snapping off small trees with her trunk to make room for herself.  All the while grabbing a snack here and there.  Walking through the trees, dodging low hanging limbs and leaves on an elephant was a fantastic way to see the scenery.  Compared to a jeep, the elephant safari allowed us to feel a more natural part of the habitat, although the loud bunch in front of us did their best to let the animals know we were coming.

Our safari continued through the shaded forest and then out in to a clearing to cross a river! Slow and steady, Maya stepped down the bank and waded across the river.  Even despite the strong current she just took it in stride!  Well done Maya.

At the beginning of the safari, the lack of wildlife was overshadowed by the sheer fact we were riding an elephant but unfortunately, the rest of the safari was about the same – sauntering through the forest with not many wildlife sightings, only deer…and no rhinos!

Below is a fun series of me tipping our Elephant who passed the money up to the driver. That sure is one cool party trick!

So what do elephants do after a walk through the jungle?  They get a bath!  After disembarking the elephants, we headed down to the elephant bathing location to see what the fuss was about.  Here they get a nice scrub down after their morning’s work and getting a bit more freedom to show off for the crowd.  The handlers skillfully climb on and off and played tricks with their elephants in the water.  There was lots of trunk squirting, elephant surfing, and deeper water trunk posing for the cameras.  Eventually they did get their official cleaning by the handler who scrubbed them down with a stone (yes, a stone, but imagine how tough their skin is!). They seemed to truly enjoy it – one laying there like it was getting a fancy massage!  Now if we could just find cucumber slices to cover the elephants eyes it would be a true makeover moment!

In one hard-not-to-laugh-at-moment, this poor sap found himself stuck in knee deep mud trying to take a shortcut.  A little later we snapped a great shot of him trying to clean his laundry like the locals.  I think his jeans are going to take a little longer to dry than the ladies' saris.  Classic!  Having taken a load of pictures, we went back to grab a simple, ahem – 2 hour, lunch before our afternoon canoe trip and visit to the Elephant breeding center later that afternoon.

Hopping into open top jeeps we had a few minute ride to the canoe launch site.  The canoes were old style, carved straight out of a giant tree.  It was an laid back cruise down the river.  Along the way we saw the same gharial crocodile as on the elephant safari and some birds along the banks.  The most stunning was probably the kingfisher – the namesake of the 5 star airline we took to India.  However, we were expecting more!

Now, I will be brief about the elephant breeding center because we all were quite emotional about it. It was actually more of a training center. Here in Nepal they use elephants in all forms of industry, including tourism.  This center breeds elephants, training them to have handlers, instead of taking elephants from the wild to fulfill the industrial needs. That is the beneficial part. But, the emotional part was that they endure harsh training and are chained by one leg and sometimes 2 legs for the majority of the day. They can roam the forest between 10am and 4pm, but that doesn’t seem nearly enough. We all left this center with heavy hearts and mixed emotions.

As the sun was getting low in the sky we had one final challenge: to get to the jeeps on the other side of the river, we had to find our way across a sand bag bridge.  Luckily, we managed no problem, hopping in the jeeps for the few minute ride back to the camp.

On our way to dinner we randomly found a cute little bat hiding in a archway which we promptly flashed awake with a few photos.  I'm sure to him it was like our alarm clock in the morning - annoying!

We had a fairly good chicken tikka masala dinner and some horrible cocktails. We should have known – alcohol is mainly there for the tourists and when they also have Mexican food and “American chop suey” (whatever that is!) on the menu then you should realize they are just trying to please the western visitors and they truly have no idea how to make cocktails (or any non-Nepalese food)! Fair play, lesson learned!

Elephant Safari Photos

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Friendly Village

Before we get to the tour I wanted to talk about the pace at which food is prepared in Nepal.  It’s glacially slow.  At least an hour and possibly up to nearly 2 hours for a rather simple lunch.  One of the main reasons is down to food hygiene and the fact that it needs to be cooked fresh.  However we found out that they seem to only have one cook and most kitchens were probably only one burner as well.  So when one table sat down the kitchen was swamped let alone multiple tables at once.  It definitely took some adjusting to and a supreme amount of patience because some people in the group could already be finished before you had even begun.  It strikes you at how little we wait for food.  Hurry up with that Big Mac already!

We found out first hand how slow it could be in our free time before the tour.  We unfortunately walked in behind another table because well over 2 hour later we were the last to leave.

After settling into the lodge – decent little garden cottages - we headed out by open top jeep on a village tour.  Having done a few of these in the past, I was skeptical because they can be extremely bad…being completely staged and simply a means to get you there to sell you sub-par souvenirs. However, I was completely blown away and had to eat my words. We walked through a small village full of incredibly friendly, warm and welcoming people.  House after house they invited us in, came out to say hello, let the women interested hold the young children, show us there animals, no strings attached.  They seemed to be just delighted that we had taken the time to visit.  Some of them even wanted to just practice their English which is always good fun.  We were able to get a good feel on how the live from the size and decoration of their houses to way in which the prepared food to the livestock on their property.

Gaining our nerve and pulling out the cameras, we attracted every kid under the age of 12 who would pose for as many photos as you would take them. In return, they only wanted to see the resulting image on screen.  So much so that they almost couldn't stand to wait for you to take the picture before starting to run over to see the result. They all wear such bright and colorful clothes and must think we are boring dressers. We met so many people and kids who all had such big smiles on their faces, probably mimicking us! Some of them obviously wanted to chat to practice the little English they knew. Others, generally the older (e.g. MAYBE 20 years old), stood quietly in front of their house, obviously hoping you would see them and come converse and take pictures.

The lady in red with the round tray of flour seemed to so enjoy herself.  Besides her huge smile she was constantly making the others in her family laugh by dancing around without a care in the world.  She then showed us how she tosses the flour and spins the disc around.

Later on we found a man separating lentils from their husks/shells. He had a big pile of lentils in a cone shape and was using a round basket top to fling another layer on top, then fanning the pile to separate off the husks. With a bit of translation help from the guide we persuaded him to let me have a try.  After watching his routine quite a few times I followed suit and scooped up a few handfuls of lentils into the basket lid, walked over to the pile and nervously tossed the lentils on to the pile. Its a small art form to do this where you gently spin the basket lid as you throw, lofting the lentils so they spread evenly onto the pile. I was a little heavy handed but manage to do ok. Otherwise I’d have been cleaning up after myself.  Steph was nervous I was going to toss his lentils all over the place! Below you can see his throw then my throw.

During the walk, I also tried some of the local dances and jumping rope with some young children. It was an incredible experience walking around the town meeting people, shaking hands, photographing the kids and just soaking in the atmosphere. As the sun set for the day over this remote village, we couldn’t help but think it would be nice to go back to a simpler world.  Its a startling reminder at what what a high pace life we live our lives...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Adventurous Drive to Chitwan National Park

Bright and early we checked out of the hotel because we were scheduled on an early morning bus that would take us to Chitwan National Park.  The bus station was about a 5 – 10 minute walk away and to save our backs the group leader organized a taxi cart our luggage to the bus.   This required a volunteer to go with the luggage to keep it safe. A free taxi ride? That’s got my name written all over it so I volunteered.  I can guard a few bags, no problem.

The taxi was a small beat up hatch back and loaded down with 14 rucksacks and 2 passengers the suspensions was maxed out.  On the console between the front seats the driver had an old box stereo speaker that I guess used to be his sound system but wasn't working anymore.  It didn’t give him much room to shift gears but somehow he managed.  I climbed in shotgun and we raced off to the bus station.

At one of the t-junctions the driver must have forgotten how much extra weight we were carrying because he flew straight into it saying, “ohhh”, when we realized his breaks weren’t going to get him slowed down like usual.  I rattled off a weary joke that made us both laugh laugh – luckily there wasn’t much traffic because it’s a free for-all at those junctions. Traffic lights – who needs ‘em?! Just go for it but be ready to stop!

Nearing the bus depot, I wasn’t 100% sure what bus we needed and neither was the taxi driver.  It was a divided 4-lane road with bus after bus lined up nose to tail in the left lane.  He stopped in a few places to get out and ask where we needed to drop the bags. By stopped, I mean wedged his taxi in between buses with just enough room on the right for traffic to pass - of course horns blaring as they passed.  Once he figured out the correct bus, the only way to unload the luggage near the bus was to block the right lane of traffic. So there we were, hurrying to off-load the bags in the middle of the road, again, traffic backing up behind, horns sounding and engines revving. We ended up throwing the all the bags between two buses in the street just so he could clear the traffic jam.  That left me stuck with a mountain of bags, between two buses on a manic road guarding them for dear life.  The bus attendants came up babbling something in Nepalese, pointing at some scribble on a piece of paper, trying to take the bags to the back of another bus.  I did my best to convey NO to them until the group arrived to confirm it was the right bus.  Whew!  That sure got the adrenaline pumping at 6am.

Bags loaded on the correct bus, we found a seat and got comfy for our 6 hour journey.

Kathmandu sits in a valley surrounded by the Himalayas that tower over the city.  Needless to say there are a lot of mountain roads – curvy with steep drops, narrow bridges - the works! Our bus set off to climb to the rim of the Kathmandu Valley then descend steeply to the flat region of the Chitwan jungle. Normally this wouldn’t be so bad but with the quality of roads and the driving style of the locals, the ride was interesting, to say the least! We were passing slower cars on blind corners, screeching to stops at bridges to let a bigger truck through or overtaking other buses with people on top at speed up on inclines. Also I don’t know how the suspension copes with the roads because they are so bumpy and rugged.  Its a wonder we didn't have a flat tire.

Since we were on a local bus, it stopped occasionally in local villages (or almost stopped…people jumped on and off while it was still moving most of the time). At one stage, we picked up a young guy that liked to hang out the door. He was entertaining for a while until he got off. Check out this video of him! Steph wouldn’t let me try though which I don’t understand why!

Once our nerves settled down it was "smooth sailing".