Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mighty Himalayas-Nepal: Round the World Leg 3



When I was 17 in my first year of college I remember outside the caf there'd always be people selling stuff like tapestries and t-shirts and  "tobacco" paraphernalia and brightly colored gloves. It was those gloves that always caught my eye. "Made in Nepal," theyd say.  Nepal.  The very word evoked images of cultures of far off lands!  Over the years Nepal became many things to me, all of which I wanted to one day realize. To just be, to just exist, to just breathe the air of Kathmandu in the foothills of those mighty Himalayas is what drew me to Nepal.

*I have been less discriminating choosing pictures to share for our time in Nepal. Nearly everything caught our eye. It is such an intensely unique place and we wanted to share that experience.

Like Thailand, we departed the United States from EWR so this time I had no qualms about "taking a bus" to New York! Easy peasy and so old hat for us at this point (;

We flew Qatar Airways which I'd read so many good things about so was super excited! We had an arguably cool reception at check-in but very good service on the flight, especially regarding my vegan meal plan.

The seat configuration was 3-4-3. We were in a 3. Our neighbor was already settled into his window seat when we arrive and I smile (b/c I know Chris will not) and gave the typical "hello" nod.  Chris shimmies into the center position and we haven't quite had a chance to sit down yet when the conversation begins.  Have we ever been on a plane like this?  Did we know anything about the airline?  How about when theyd be serving meals?  Where are we from?  Whats our final destination? How long will we be away?  Chris meets my eyes.  Though his face is outwardly expressionless I can read a hundred things in it and I actually do feel genuinely bad for him-not bad enough to switch seats but the fact he had Crutch and Taco Bell next to him for the Puerto Rico flight and now this....for 15 hours...is not lost on me.  Tough love, I think-this interaction might be good for him.  And really, I liked the guy. He was about our age.  Single.  His first trip out of the country and hed researched and saved up for a long time.  I think he was just super excited and wanted to learn and share and live in the moment.  That said, he monopolized Chris the entire flight.  There were more than a handful of times I would have liked to interact with my husband but he was continuously otherwise engaged.  And not by choice, ha.  It was a very long and lonely flight for me.

At times of turbulence flight attendants would walk in parallel down the aisles like Ponch and Jon announcing fasten your seatbelt which for some reason sparked a flash of nostalgia like being on a class trip as a young student! At one point the passenger in front of me reclines his seat with the force used to pull a lawn mower starter cord and clocks me right in the forehead with the plastic movie screen. Of course nobody SEES this as the cabin is pitch black. "Jesus God!" I call out reflexively. And of course nobody HEARS this either as we are right over the engines. If the passenger behind me who a. had HIS seat completely reclined and b. had an EMPTY seat next to him hadnt asked me if I could "unrecline" mine maybe my face wouldve been more than 4 inches from the screen that battered me. Otherwise, an uneventful flight so I am thankful for that.



Doha kissies during short layover in amazing Hamad International Airport. It is beyond huge and super clean and offers what everyone wants out from an airport: a giant teddybear sitting under a desk lamp.







Kathmandu

I am beyond excited when, as our plane begins its descent, we see out the window lush green mountains and spiny dusty ridges-our first glimpse of the Himalayas! Then, Kathmandu Valley which lies in the foothills and is, itself, a UNESCO World Heritage Sight.

Brief but fascinating history lesson before we land: The Kathmandu Valley has been the politically and culturally dominating part of Nepal. Its legendary and documented histories are so interrelated that these are difficult to separate. A political establishment of the area is dated to the beginning of the Christian era, the Kirati period. This was followed by the Kichchhavi Dynasty from the 3rd to 9th centuries. Patan is believed to have expanded into a consolidated town by the end of the 7th century. The town of Kathmandu was established by a later Lichchhavi king. After the 9th century, there is a dark period until 14th century and the arrival of the Mallas, which is an important period for the flourishing of Nepalese art and architecture. These developed into a growing spiritual orientation towards Tantrism, making it difficult to separate purely Buddhist from purely Hindu art. From the middle of the 13th century, the city of Bhadgaon (Bhaktapur) prospered and became a major training centre. The valley was divided into three rival kingdoms (Kathmandu Valley, Bhaktapur, and Patan), competing between themselves and bringing the artistic expressions to the highest point by the mid 18th century. In 1769 the valley was conquered and united by a leader coming from the outside, Prithvi Narayan Shah. He made Kathmandu his royal city, and the Hanuman Dhoka Palace his residence. In 1833 and 1934, two catastrophic earthquakes brought destruction, and some of the monuments had to be rebuilt using much of the original elements and decoration. (whc.unesco.org)

Tourist visas can be obtained on arrival in Kathmandu and Id read countless times online to bring two passport photographs (which, oops we forgot about so many thanks to 24 hour Kinkos before we left!).  It turns out, we learned as we looked around after arriving, you can do all that right there at Nepali immigration using machines before getting in line. So there are lots of ways you can do this: print forms online and bring completed with your photos (so everything is done beforehand); print forms online and bring completed but use photo machine at Nepali immigration to take photo (so a mix of beforehand and upon arrival); or bring nothing and use the machine to take your picture and complete the forms, print, and submit to immigration mere steps away (doing all upon arrival). I think even knowing this I wouldve still done all beforehand but this is good info to have.

Immigration wasnt exactly service with a smile (in fact, it was hands-down the worst welcome to another country we have ever had) and while we were so so excited and this made us feel like deflating balloons we didnt hold it against Nepal (;

Thamel
I wanted to spend one night right in the thick of things in Kathmandu's very touristy neighborhood of Thamel. We knew from research theres only one way out of Kathmandu airport and that's by taxi so we went to a desk where a guy was more than happy to help. But by "help" Im sorry there is always a piece of me that thinks "swindle."  So, with a  big smile (swindle), he leads us to a van where two men assure they will "take excellent care of us" (swindle). Out of our comfort zone but knowing we have no real choice if we want to leave the airport we get in the car and give the address for our first hotel.  Along the way, jockeying through an endless sea of cars, each following its own rules and each blowing its horn incessantly, we engage in all sorts of conversations (us: what's your favorite food: them: dal baht) and learn the SAARC summit is being held in Kathmandu during our stay and our hosts point out the city is on its best behavior at the moment-and well-guarded as military is abound. We allow the conversation to take its inevitable turn to whether we need a driver for any part of our stay.  Which, we actually *do* and we know this. We had considered renting our own transport but at points we had vast distances to cover (with suitcases) so a car wouldve been better and some points we had shorter distances to cover so a scooter wouldve been better-since neither option really fit our needs we had planned to use drivers and/or public transportation.

Because no red flags popped up during our exchange in the car we feel comfortable enough to go to their office and negotiate a transportation agreement appropriate for our stay in Nepal. We drop our bags at our architecturally stunning hotel (sneak in a few quick pictures) and follow our contact by foot, getting our first taste of Kathmandu!

The streets of Thamel, how to describe... As my first impression of Kathmandu they were the filthiest yet the most vibrant I have ever seen; a juxtaposition I would experience throughout our stay in Nepal leading me to refer to it over and over again as the land of beautiful contrasts. I bolded that because I feel really good about that being the perfect description. It's like the land itself wrote those words across my heart.

The sun is setting and we are walking very quickly down the narrow very dusty very crowded dog-filled streets, trying very hard to Hansel and Gretel so we will be able to find our hotel again. Our contact, Suzel, warns us to stay to the side as a never-ending stream of cars and mopeds sometimes inch, sometimes fly, by, alllllllll blaring horns like someone's just been married.






Round a corner and up some steps we remove our shoes and add them to the pile of others outside the door. We are at Adventure Maypole Treks run by Santosh Adhikari.  Santosh greets us and leads us to his office.  He offers us some tea, "just tea-no obligation," he says. We share the usual but always fascinating getting-to-know-you/welcome-to-my-country exchanges (us: what's your favorite food him: dal baht) then share our itinerary. He makes some calls and gives us a quote. He steps out to allow us to discuss. It *seems* on the expensive side based on the admittedly little research we'd done beforehand but there is no wifi and, with Santosh's computer only on the other side of a desk, I briefly consider hopping over and running a few quick searches.  In the end we negotiate down to the higher side of what we had been prepared to pay and leave still not really sure wed made a good decision.



The sun is long set; we put on our shoes and head back down the steps where we will attempt to find our bearings on where are we, where is our hotel, where do we change money, and where is dinner (: We round the corner back down the narrow ally when two "Sadhus" (holy Hindu men) approach. They are very old clothed in reddish yellowish garb and large wood beaded necklaces, dreadlocked hair and long grey beards, carrying a little bowl. Two of them side-by-side chanting in the narrow ally block our way forward. They split and move toward each of us. I remember not being "scared" just feeling really confused because it happened so fast-within a second he was very very close to me and there is no reason two strangers' bodies should be that close. He places a flower in my hair. Now he raises his hand near my face and instinctively I arch my back, leaning away, but his long arm easily reaches me and smudges my forehead. He is speaking now. They have given us a blessing and now they want money. One thing I had come across in my research (not of this situation but my research in general) is that "real Sadhus" do not/should not ask for money-which, I dont even know whether that is correct. The line seems to blur if you proactively wish to photograph one, which we had known from previous travels is sometimes the case for lots of people not just holy men. Anyway, we were beyond unprepared for this encounter. We were completely thrown off guard and on top of that had no rupees with us since we sort of had been whisked from plane to hotel to Maypole office. I know b/c it's just how we are that normally we would have given them something but we were so flustered we sort of squeezed between them and made an escape.

Under the light of a neon sign we unfold a map and looking up at Chris I see he has a large goop of red on his forehead. "So do you," he says. The Sadhus had given us a tikka: a mixture of abir, a red powder, yogurt, and grains of rice. The most common tikka is red powder applied with the thumb in a single upward stroke. I try to rub mine off (because I remember thinking at the time that it seemed sort of poser-ish) but this proves very difficult and I am left with a faded red smear across the length of my forehead. Now, off to find dinner!  We work our way through traffic, horns, and lively crowds (odd note: crowd comprised of unlimited supply of male Australians with top knots) in search of a place we'd found during our pre-trip research: Shree Lal Pure Veg Restaurant for some vegan/Nepali food.

I typically rank "ambiance" pretty high on my list of "things that are important to me when choosing a restaurant" but I know going into it that this is not a place for that. A local family is finishing up as we arrive and we have the place to ourselves for a while until a group of German tourist guys come in who we talk with a bit. Free wifi is offered here and the password is on the wall-worked perfectly well.








The gentleman who takes our order seems to double as hotel reception/concierge (as events unfolded, like streams of people negotiating the price of a room, we concluded the restaurant also offers lodging) and chef. He is super welcoming and very friendly.  He speaks with us in Nepali and English to choose dishes that best suit our tastes (us: what's your favorite food him: dal baht). One dish on the menu that looks interesting is sort of a tasting plate-a little bit of everything. This would be perfect but it says in a hundred different ways you cannot share this. Even after the Germans beg to have this rule overlooked, it is enforced.  We end up choosing parathas which are like stuffed flatbreads-Chris chooses potato and I choose onion. Our host makes a little side bowl of cauliflower and potatoes especially for me which is really kind. He also serves us a side dish that he swears we will love but which oh my word turns out is not our thing at. all. Sour/spicy pickles. We force down a good bit of them and ball the rest in a napkin which I tuck in my bag to hide and dispose of later so as to not hurt his feelings.


The our dinner experience is great and exciting the food itself is "fine" but nothing to exactly write home about. Like most of the food we end up having in Nepal there is a very heavy Indian influence so in some regards lacks its own personality (unlike, say, Sri Lanka-which to this day is the best food we've eaten abroad). I say this because the fact the food did not blow us away is less a reflection of the restaurant and more a reflection of the area. Really, we should have dined at our hotel as they receive insanely good reviews and the ambiance is lovely.

We finish dinner around 9pm and reentering the city streets was like a weird Willy Wonka illusion-they are completely deserted. Stores closed, people gone, lights out. It's like the world spun and deposited us in a completely different place than whence we entered! The only other life at all are the dogs-running down the street usually in groups of 10ish who show very little interest in us as they seem to be dealing with some serious dogworld issues of their own (lots of howling and barking going on).





This time though-walking the deserted alleys of this ancient city-is our first opportunity to really explore. Again, that intense contrast: mountains of trash and beautiful symbols of culture and peace and prayer simultaneously pepper every street. Every shrine, every bell, every prayer wheel (g-g-g-g givvvvve meeee the kniiiiiife) is given our full attention. If you know anything about Nepal you know then that this takes quite a bit of time as there are countless shrines, bells, and prayer wheels along the streets of Thamel. Notwithstanding, we eagerly welcome each encounter.




The best part of the evening though, for me, is without a doubt the introduction to butter lamps. I'd not known of these. A "conspicuous feature of Tibetan Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the Himalayas," these lamps traditionally burn clarified yak butter but more often vegetable or palm oil.



In the Buddhist tradition the light from the flame of the butter lamp symbolizes the wisdom of the awakened mind, dispelling the darkness of delusion and mental obscurations. Offering butter lamps creates harmony and generates merit while promoting success, prosperity, longevity, and world peace, as well as helping to avert obstacles, pacify the upheaval of the five elements, and heal disease. When offered on behalf of the deceased, prayers are usually recited for their liberation in the bardo (the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth) and rebirth in a pureland (creativehandnepal.com).

Each time we encountered them I'd inhale, close my eyes, and relish their very unique scent and what they stood for to so many of the Nepali people. Even now as I write this, months later, I can so easily, so fondly, call to my mind, call to my heart, the unmistakable scent of those candles....

Eventually we find our way back to the hotel and are able to pick up where we left off earlier on our oohs and ahhs at the sheer beauty of this building: Kantipur Temple House.

It's a strange location to reach-we go through a dirt and cobble street and pass by some "dance music bars" but once we go through the large wooden doors everything is very nice.  It looks amazing online and in person it does not disappoint-it is one of the most architecturally impressive lodgings I have ever seen and I feel that is saying a lot. I absolutely love it. We begin in the courtyard.
























We had chosen online a Deluxe Room as the other options were not of the same Newari style-an indigenous architecture of striking brick work with unique and intricate wood carving created by the Newar people in the Kathmandu Valley and rarely unseen outside of Nepal. Every inch of our room, the hallways, and the lobby is so *beautifully* detailed that really words can not convey the appreciation and respect we felt for the people whose hands painstakingly created this masterpiece. The feeling we get as we study and touch and marvel at everything around us is the reason we love to travel and experience other cultures <3





The room itself is spotless and, just as we had read in other reviews, there was a stylish brass carafe of water waiting for us on the bedside table (though did not partake). The large benchseat at the window overlooking the quiet courtyard was lovely. KTH has nearly 24 hour hot water-which I don't need to travel to Nepal to know this is a luxury many do not have but as you follow our time here you will see this was def a reminder. Also, greatly appreciated, a schedule of power "on/off" times which was super helpful so we could plan accordingly. One improvement perhaps would be to offer some fresh fruit in the room (we were spoiled in Thailand, such a nice touch to quite literally get some local flavor during your stay).













The Eyes of Wisdom. Virtually every Buddha from countries like India, Nepal, Thailand, Burma, China and others, has a pair of eyes casting down as if in a meditation state, and enriched with a spiritual aura. This style has been a model for various generations of artists while depicting them in various Buddha images. In Buddhism, there are two kinds of eyes, first the inner eyes or eyes of wisdom, which see the world of Dhamma, which is also known as the Third eye of the Buddha, while the other is called the outer eyes which is also called material eyes which see the outer world. Therefore, it may be seen and understood easily that the eyes in the Buddha images are also of two kinds. The material eyes are the two eyes which see the outer world while the inner eye, or the one which sees the Dhamma, is the one in the middle of the two material eyes. This inner eye is also known as the urna (buddha-heads.com). The squiggle "nose" is devanagari script for the number one which symbolizes the unity of all things.

We wash the day off (weird: the bath linens are paper thin and raggedy), turned on the semi-working space heater, and snuggle into bed.  That first night, under the all-knowing eyes of The Buddha, I fall asleep in amazing Nepal feeling indescribably thankful that another travel dream has come true!

Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park
We had sight-seeing planned for this morning but we were up until after 3:00 am solidifying our upcoming activities so we slept in (we knew we could see those sights later in the stay). I hop out of bed run to the window and excitedly pull back the curtains and take a deep breath-smiling.  Good!! Morning!! Kathmandu!!!



We pack up and check-out and order hot green tea and sit in the courtyard garden as we wait for our driver who will be here in about an hour to whisk us away to our next adventure.

The courtyard garden is so Nepal-pretty and so Nepal-perfect it's like a movie set. I honestly couldnt have imagined a more appropriate or picturesque setting. Birdies flitting among pots, carvings, flowers, bells, statues, planters,  fountains-all the perfect mixture of woods and stones.













We have a *dream* of a morning in the charming courtyard for about five seconds b/c the driver is early!  Overall I did feel though that Id had enough time to etch every detail of that experience in my brain so we reluctantly say our goodbyes to the beauty of Kantipur Temple House but look forward to what lies ahead: today we head up to the mountains! (The only "mountains," a friendly local joked, are the Himalayas-all else are "hills.")



Shivapuri Nagarjun is a national park on the outskirts of Kathmandu which offers excellent hikes and gorgeous views of the valley. The journey from city center is not a long one but it is a beautiful one as it literally and figuratively meanders up and away from the chaos below.

We chose Shivapuri Heights Cottage, nicely tucked into a lush hillside high (6,ooo ft) above both the valley and the clouds, for our mountain retreat. I loved the quaint and homey look of the Bougainvillea Cottage and I had such positive communications back and forth regarding availability, diet, directions, etc, which were all answered completely, kindly, and promptly (love that) that I was certain we'd be in good hands!


We knew from these emails that while the SHC hosts go above and beyond to ensure their guests receive clear and helpful directions on reaching the location there can sometimes be confusion on the part of the driver so it is no surprise when Geebon our driver (whose favorite food is dal baht) stops in a little village to ask directions.




video



We use this opportunity to purchase some water for our upcoming stay in the mountains.  As we pop out of the car and begin perusing the stalls (reminded us of the similar stall-like stores in Tamil) he also exits the car and "stands watch" over our belongings inside, which-who knows whether it was necessary. And while it hadn't occurred to me to secure our items (bad me, naive me) I did feel he was taking good care of us when I saw this. We approach a stall to place our order and people step right in front of us which is quite bizarre as this happened with ridiculous frequency in Thailand as well. No concept of line here? Eventually, we order two cases of water in Nepali. The lady who helps us is nothing to write home about (not all that friendly-maybe she is related to the customs guy) but her "cash register" (a wooden box) I did like.


Walking back to the car we are approached (I hate being approached) by rando slick guy saying there is a big ceremony tomorrow morning and points to a temple and wants us to meet him there. I look at Chris and it's like we have a wordless conversation. Me: I don't know-maybe it'll be fun? Him: No way Carrie this guy just wants money. So we do the smile/walk away/no thank you/still walking away and he follows, us still smiling/no thank you.  We return to the car and ask Geebon about the ceremony which either he is unfamiliar that there is a ceremony or he is unfamiliar with the word ceremony, as he repeats it back to us with questioning inflection: ceremony?

We see local women working in the fields. Geebon explains a woman with red on her forehead is single, with painted center part is married, with neither is widowed.


Geebon next asks if we'd like to make a quick stop in the temple across the street (same one Slick pointed to) which of course we do! We are the only foreigners at the temple which otherwise has several locals. What is so interesting about this-and really this applied to Kathmandu as a whole-is that temples and even just places of prayer (shrine, wheel, etc) sit out in the open among everyone. It is impossible to walk through the streets and not see tens of locals pausing to engage in prayer or ritual. It is so different than home, for lots of reasons. Again, why travel is so special.


So back to the temple: turns out this is the temple of the Sleeping Vishnu, Hindu god of preservation (which had been on our list of things to see)! Who'd guess the Budhanilkantha Temple, holding the largest, and what is argued as the most beautiful and most enigmatic stone carving in all of Nepal, is tucked away in this dusty hillside village!

"Sleeping Vishnu is a large reclining statue of Vishnu as Narayan, the creator of all life, who floats on the cosmic sea. From his navel grew a lotus and from the lotus came Brahma, who in turn created the world. The 5m-long Licchavi-style image was created in the 7th or 8th century from one monolithic piece of black stone and hauled here from outside the valley by devotees. It’s one of the most impressive pieces of sculpture in Nepal.

Only Hindus can approach the statue to leave offerings of fruit and flower garlands, but visitors can view the statue through the fence that surrounds the sacred tank. Narayan slumbers peacefully on the knotted coils of Ananta (or Shesha), the 11-headed snake god who symbolises eternity. In each hand, Narayan holds one of the four symbols of Vishnu: a chakra disc (representing the mind), a conch shell (the four elements), a mace (primeval knowledge) and a lotus seed (the moving universe).




Vaishnavism (the worship of Vishnu) was the main sect of Hinduism in Nepal until the early Malla period, when Shiva became the most popular deity. The Malla king Jayasthithi is credited with reviving the Vishnu cult by claiming to be the latest incarnation of this oft-incarnated god. Every subsequent king of Nepal has made the same claim, and because of this they are forbidden, on pain of death, from seeing the image at Budhanilkantha.

Vishnu is supposed to sleep through the four monsoon months and a great festival takes place at Budhanilkantha for Haribodhini Ekadashi – the 11th day of the Hindu month of Kartik (October–November) – when Vishnu is said to awaken from his annual slumber." (more on that later) (loneyplanet.com.) 

Star of Vishnu-predates Star of David by thousands of years
As always, we leave a donation as a sign of respect.





We head back to the car to continue our journey to Shivapuri.










At the base of a steep hill we unload our bags and wait for further instructions. What happens next I will refer to as the Great Shivapuri Luggage Walk of 2014.  After some debate among what look like local villagers about not sure what (my guess: why on earth did these two bring so much stuff) two boys grab the large case and an older lady attempts to help a younger guy with the medium case which a. we were about to step in to decline when b. she lifts it about an inch off the ground, shakes her head, puts it down, and walks away. The young guy carries that monstrous hulk sherpa-style up up up up the hill. A petite fellow who you know even carrying our overstuffed case weighed less than either of us yet up the mountain he went with no complaints from his body. Which...can't be said for us. When we finally caught up to him we were sweaty and out of breath.








making friends along the way
video




defeat of those who came before? not encouraging...


























Our friendly and smiling hosts offer us a welcome drink and we have a moment to take in our surroundings.



My first impression of this mountain respite is: Peace. The kind of place where if life dealt me a harsh blow I'd just want to disappear for a while and get myself together this might very well be it. Writing these words takes my mind right back to that mountain top, the gentle breeze, the soft song of the wind chimes, the beauty of the valley below. Just nature and serenity, two of life's most precious gifts.





We are informed weve been upgraded to the Jasmine House which I was worried b/c really I'd liked the Bougainvillea Cottage. The Jasmine House opens to a common lounge space with one guestroom on each side and a ladder which leads upstairs to the Main House which has a dining room, lounge, and terrace (all beautifully decorated).






lots of great local reading













In the end I love how things turn out b/c the Jasmine House room and bathroom are perfect and I just couldn't be happier. Except the rando sundries in the bathroom that weren't displayed in a "for guest use" kinda way but more in a "I use this to get ready each morning/is someone already staying in this room" kinda way. We laughed and joked and tried to explain it away but it didn't help when I found children's clothing in the drawers as we unpacked (:

The only suggestion I could make is (again) perhaps some fresh fruit in the room and (oh please please would be so nice) a set of comfy robes and slippers.
















I *love* this stool and spend the rest of our time in Nepal looking for one to purchase and bring home.






Our amazing hosts!






A second door in the room leads to a quaint little private porch surrounded by gorgeous blooming flowers and overlooking the valley below. It is here we are greeted by another super friendly host: Indie. It should come as no surprise that Indie is a german shepherd as whenever we can we choose lodgings with resident pets! I am sitting on the edge of the porch. Indie approaches, I smile, talk sweet, pet, and we exchange kissies. Then she backs up and freezes. Ok this is weird...I thought we were getting along pretty well but I may have misjudged b/c now she's staring at my foot like it's a cartoon ham. I verrrry slooowly follow her gaze. During our get-to-know-you pets and giggles she has surreptitiously placed by my shoe a small rock. Oh I get it! It's play time! What a perfect life-fetch in the hills of Nepal!


















video






Outside our porch between tree limbs are prayer flags which we'd seen countless time throughout Kathmandu but which now, right outside our door, I feel is the best point to describe. Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five: one in each of five colors. The five colors are arranged from left to right in a specific order: blue, white, red, green, and yellow. The five colors represent the five elements and the Five Pure Lights. Different elements are associated with different colors for specific traditions, purposes and sadhana. Blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. According to Traditional Tibetan medicine, health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements (wikipedia).











That first night we climb the ladder to the lounge upstairs where our hosts have laid out an array of delicious snacks such as onion patties, crisp roti, spicy vegetable dip, popcorn-and even beer and wine. Here we have the absolute pleasure to meet two amazing couples. It was just like our time at Four Seasons Tented Camp where the conversation centered mainly on travel. It isn't often you meet other couples that have traveled Sri Lanka (:


Touches of candle light in the main house makes for a great ambiance!

Nearly all dishes served are animal-free which I greatly appreciate the efforts of our amazing hosts to make that happen and I greatly appreciate the openness of the other guests to not complain (: It is a really wonderful candlelit meal in a beautiful setting with great company.




A guest given the royal treatment on her birthday!



Chris and I return to our room and see the warm accent lights in the Buddha alcoves have been turned on-so cozy!



We close the evening on our private porch watching the stars of the sky twinkle above and the lights of Kathmandu valley twinkle below.




To take the chill off we take a warm shower but the water quickly turns cold so we sprint wash and wrap ourselves in the (sorry-again: ratty!) towels and jump into bed and succumb to the warmth of the hot water bottles that had been placed under our covers during dinner (: I'd never experienced a hot water bottle but make no mistake: I will never sleep a winter night again without one!


We snuggle together and the thought playing over and over through my mind like a filmstrip on repeat was how one of the couples said how they were served tea at sunrise-of course I found this endlessly appealing! I was worried though-did we need to request this or somehow signal we would love to engage in this amazing activity? We hadn't expressly asked and now, in bed, it was too late and I was disappointed. As I fall into sleep I keep a positive attitude about it and hope, like waiting for Santa, that tea will greet us at daybreak.

Imagine the pure JOY when I hear the faint tinklings of a teaset being left on our porch shortly before 5:00 am!!! A hint of pink in the sky, roosters, and chirping birdies welcome a new day in Nepal! Life, in the form of goats, car horns, and dogs-lots of happy dogs, begins in the valley below. Then: bells, activity. From the temple at the base of the hill. Sigh. Haribodhini Ekadashi. I know most times it is probably for our own good but sometimes I wish Chris wasn't so cynical! (Remember Slick? There really *was* a ceremony.)





video

We have breakfast as a group on the terrace, joined of course by Indie and friendly canine companion Honey.





video






Today we take part in an organized SHC group day-hike with the other 4 guests. Lunches have been prepared for us (vegan for me-many thanks SHC!) and I am *beyond excited* to hit the road and experience the beautiful nature of Nepal!  I feel like I could lift a truck at that moment I am practically bursting with so much energy and so much excitement!!  Woo hoo!! (fist pump, chest bump, cartwheel)

Funny how that goes...b/c embarrassingly early in the hike I think, "man what's going on this is harrrrd." I look around and while, fine-its "steep" I am just not understanding how I am actually out of breath. I had been equally perplexed at the sad showing Chris and I made getting up the hill upon arrival. I mean I'm no athlete but we aren't novice hikers so what gives? "The altitude," they all say. But I think they are just being nice.

Chris will back me up on this: I am just not a complainer. But. I complained more on that hike that I have in aggregate my entire life. And I can probably count on one hand the number of times an activity was so bad I wanted it to end and this hike was one of those times (: Writing it now I am even thinking to mySELF "what a baby" but if I'm honest I have to confess there were times I felt I just. couldn't. take. another. freaking. incline. 

The hike to the park is very pretty and I enjoyed this perhaps even moreso than the park itself: we see temples, goats, cows (with blessings, love that), children, flowers, crops. And after paying 500 rupees/pp to enter the park we see friendly locals in dress shoes dress pants and leather jackets trying to climb a tree-good times!
































This guy was hanging out with a bunch of his friends on the side of a steep mountain!




video















You *know* I pet every animal I encountered (:






































































































































































Tonight we have another amazing dinner. Beyond amazing really as our hosts have prepared lasagna-one traditional/meat and one vegan. Can I just tell you-that vegan lasagna that night at that table in that cottage on that mountain in that country was *thee best* I have ever had. (licks pen tip) I am putting that dish down in history.



Though our time at SHC was special and unforgettable, more adventures lie ahead!



This morning we have an early departure for Nagarkot, the second-highest point on the Kathmandu Valley rim and famous for its stunning Himalayan views, including Mt. Everest if you are lucky, enhanced by stunning sunrises and sunsets! Our driver Vishnu motors us up up up as we snap counless photos of Nepali life along the way (his favorite food...dal baht).






























video






























Finally we arrive at "hotel town." Nagarkot is densely packed with an endless array of lodgings. We had chosen Peaceful Cottage as this hotel was overwhelmingly the one that came up when googling "best views in Nagarkot." In my defense, even now, as I google photographs of this, it seems like it'd be a solid choice....

Pulling up, there is a winding walkway down to the newer rooms and a steep stairwell up to the restaurant (which doubles as front desk) and the older rooms. We had reserved a newer room as online the older rooms looked...not our style. Lots of parts of the grounds were very "Nepal" and exactly what we'd come to love and expect on our journey, however, though I knew in advance that portions of the property were under construction I was still a bit surprised at the degree of shambles in some areas.

The Nepal nice:










The shambles:




Nonetheless, I easily excused the mess of renovation b/c I was here for the view so that was a compromise I had been prepared to make when I booked. We check in and a friendly energetic petite gentleman with a zipped-up leather jacket and tap shoes escorts us down the winding walkway to our room where he gives us a choice of two available-both look exactly alike so we allow him to choose. He chooses the room on the end so we will have neighbors only on one side (which thanks-we appreciate that logic). The room is simple but modern and as appeared online we have no complaints at this point (well, ratty mis-matched towels but is that even worth mentioning anymore?).

We leave our bags and head back up to the restaurant, Cafe du Mont, for lunch. It is a circular tower-like structure with large windows along the perimeter overlooking an expansive terrace-both offering, if you are lucky, views of the mighty peaks. We are not lucky; cloud cover is heavy. After lunch we take warm tea to the terrace which nicely compliments the cool, crisp air and patiently wait for the clouds to part and reveal the grandeur of the Himalayas. We wait. And wait and wait and wait and wait. We have become pros at waiting and every now and then I sit straight up, point, and say (yell?) in uncontrollable excitement, "Is that them!!!? See? There? Or (dejected) is that just a cloud?" A cloud. Always a cloud. We take turns napping in our terrace seats, me making him *swear* he won't fall asleep on his watch (which, please. Every family vacation photo album includes a montage of Chris sleeping at pretty much any place imaginable). Well maybe he didn't sleep b/c later when reviewing photos on the camera I see like 500 shots of birds in a nearby tree.







You're supposed to be looking at mountaints not us!
The sun sets with nary a glimpse.



No matter-tomorrow morning the warm glow of the rising sun on the Himalayas is still a very real possibility!

We return to the Cafe for dinner. It is nearly full but very cozy with the warm glow of portable heaters sprinkled between tables. The windows, which by day tease you with the promise of mountain views, by night become mirrors reflecting guests illuminated by soft lighting. It is a bit chilly and Tap Shoes sees I am hugging my arms to keep warm so he scoots a heater over and points it my way. Very nice thank you! Tonight we start with some vegan tenders and sauce. Chris has a local dish and I choose vegan pizza based solely on a single review I'd read online. It really was not incredinly tasty but I give props anyway given we are in the mountains of Nepal where probably a fraction of the population has never even heard the word "pizza."






Dinner would have been so quaint and perfect but for one large group that honstly did ruin the experience for the rest us. They were quite loud and disruptive. They kept passing a cell phone around the table playing the same video, at top volume, over and over again, laughing like nuts. This went on the entire dinner. Other guests were clearly not happy either. I in a very kind manner asked Tap Shoes if he could perhaps have a word with the (loud) guests. He tilted his head to the side, held out his arms in a "what can I do?" manner, turned, and tapped away. Not cool.


As we stand and gather our coats and gloves Tap Shoes approaches and hands us two hot water bottles wrapped in (of course, ratty-we are seeing a theme here) towels. (Though make no mistake-he could've handed me bars of gold and I still would say he made a bad choice by not ssshhing those people.) I excitedly recall the previous few nights at SHC: all toasty and nestled into a cushiony bed in the mountains of Nepal! I smile and hug the bottle in my arms with anticipation as we walk back to our room.

The room. The room has no heater and is damp and freezing. Literally, so cold our teeth are chattering and our bodies are shivering. And we havent even taken off our coats and hats and gloves. Before we decide how to address this we go out the back of our room to our balcony to see the stars-which is when Chris notices how poorly the room is constructed. Aestheitcally lottttts of issues (Chris: My favorite is one inch of cardboard shims on the doorlock) but the most appalling thing is that one window does not have glass! Only screen! No freaking wonder it is sofaking cold in the room! Anyway, I lay back to take in the beautiful sparkling sky when guess who comes out of their room? One of my favorite dinner guests. He drags out a lawn chair, sits, and watches videos. Nothing like ruining some more cherished moments dude. Sigh. All part of the adventure, I remind myself, and let it go.

Back inside we hope a nice hot shower will help warm us up but surprise! We remove our gloves and run our fingers under the showerhead. The water is lukewarm at best yet this is still warmer than we are presently. We are sooo cold and sooo miserable. We do the unthinkable, we strip. We huddle under the barely warm streams of water until it turns cold then, even though they say naked bodies = heat, we do what seems most logical: layer ourselves like homeless. We put on every item of clothing from our suitcases we can and finish that off with our coats hats gloves scarves-all of it. It was a pretty uncomfortable night and, having not seen the mountains, I begin to question my choice. Still, I hold out hope for tomorrow!

Wake up, today is Thanksgiving Day! A beautiful day to see the Himalayas!  We had set our alarm to sound shortly before sunrise b/c dammit we aren't missing one second of our last chance to see them! Bundled up from bed it was pretty easy to shuffle out the door and begin the short but steep trek up to the terrace when we are stopped by TS (who idk why but I'm surprised is up and about so early). He says nono, we are too early for sunrise. I explain with fervor I don't want to miss a second and he seems to understand and promises if we come back in an hour it will be perfect. Unsure.....very unsure....we turn and head back to bed. An hour later we "take-two" and waddle our bundled selves to the terrace. His timing was right on.



We watch as he takes breakfast orders in the restaurant and the other host on premises (the cook) tenderly waters the flowers and carefully cleans and straightens the tables on the terrace. He became my favorite. He wasn't the most cordial fellow but he seemed to take pride in all tasks and that scores high with me.

So our last few hours here I look...


and look...




and look.



No Himmys.

We climb to the highest portion of the terrace even though I'm not entirely sure it's cool b/c even for Nepal standards it seems a hair unsafe (See Lipton's Seat). But others follow (are they from last night?) so I feel safety in numbers (not from falling to my death, but from getting in trouble for being somewhere I might not supposed to be). We try to take our own picture, the Himalayas, shrouded in clouds, behind us when one of the others (from last night?) smiles and motions he will happily take our picture! I feel bad I was so mean to him/them in my mind. Maybe he/they "didnt know" they were being so disruptive. Because what jackass would knowingly ruin cherished moments then offer to help us capture one on film? ("Film," ha.)




Here though is where I need to tell you something so important. So so important. This hotel. With "the best views in Nagarkot." Is a pure. Load. Of. Poop. Particularly in the morning. You have a high rise *literally* (SNL) blocking the sun rise. And I could see the people in their tall luxurious viewing station high rise looking at us looking at them. Did I tell you I can read minds, too? They were all thinking the same thing, "Poor saps," as they sipped their coffees and turned back to the sunrise. So now I know I have made a poor choice. Perhaps, once upon a time, this hotel really was the best. But those days are long gone. Just, long long gone. Like, longer than a few months ago gone when I made these reservations. Chris: "I could write a book about how much this place sucked." Please, let our experience be a lesson to you. Even if on a clear day there are decent views from the terrace there are just so many other better looking choices in the area. Despite liking the guy who waters the plants and despite believing Tap Shoes is a super hard worker, there is just really zero reason to stay here.

So from Un-Peaceful Cottage and Nagarkot we saw no mountains. I can't say I was crushed; I knew it was a chance, we are dealing with nature who can be fickle and unpredictable.  

We skip our planned hike down to Sanku due to Chris's old man knee (he'd hurt it hiking in Shivapuri) and as we motor along down the mountainside Vishnu is sorry for the clouds and says he'd been to Nagarkot 3 times in the last month and never had a clear view. This is sad but, an eternal optimist, I hold out hope I will see the mighty Himalayas yet!


Up next: City of Devotees!



Bhaktapur
Lying along the ancient trade route between India and Tibet, Bhaktapur is surrounded by mountains and provides a magnificent view of the Himalayas. Once the capital of Nepal, filled with terra-cotta and wood-carved monuments, palaces and temples with elaborate carvings, gilded roofs, and open courtyards, it is the largest and best-preserved of the three Newar kingdoms of Kathmandu Valley. Translated as "City of Devotees," Bhaktapur, with more temples per square foot than Patan or Kathmandu, is overflowing with ancient Hindu and Buddhist worship and culture and dotted with pagodas and shrines reflecting some of the finest religious architecture in the entire country. 

Known as a living heritage, an open museum, and Nepal's gem, the town’s cultural life is also proudly on display. Artisans weave cloth and chisel timber by the roadside, squares are filled with drying pots and open kilns, and locals gather in communal courtyards to bathe, collect water and socialize, often over intense card games. There are no rickshaws, tuk-tuks, or taxis allowed inside the city, an inconvenience more than made up for by the quiet and clean air, and is far enough out of town to keep the crowds away. To view this tapestry of Nepali life visitors must pay a town entry fee, which goes into protecting and maintaining the temples (bhaktapur.com, wikipedia, lonelyplanet).

We choose Hotel Heritage based on its history, beauty, and location and are given welcome drinks and satin sashes upon arrival.



HOTEL HERITAGE is the first deluxe hotel built in Bhaktapur, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a boutique hotel which successfully blends traditional Nepali look and feel with modern amenities. The hotel is located a short 7-minute walk from Bhaktapur Durbar Square. History comes alive in this establishment where Malla, Rana, Newari and Mithila influences, as well as Hindu and Buddhist traditions all blend effortlessly to create a tasteful, cozy and unique hideaway.











The hotel is beautifully decorated.

Every part of the hotel has an intriguing story to tell. With an aim to preserve ancient architecture and traditions, we have collected construction waste from the demolition of old structures, and refashioned them into various uses at the hotel. The beautiful windows on the front elevation, and some of the antique marble and stone floors in the entrance come from the rubble of a royal palace, and are over 400 years old. Handmade clay bricks with Newari script dot the hotel's interior, and were also salvaged from a royal residence.

Every piece at the hotel has a story, a history, the handiwork of Nepali artisans, and a flavor of the local community. Almost all of the furniture in the hotel is either antique, or built from repurposed wood at least 200 years old.





































Bhaktapur's four squares (Pottery, Durbar, Taumadhi, and Dattatreya) are a short but stimulating walk from Hotel Heritage. As they say, it isn't just the destination it is also the journey. From the hotel we walk towards the little bridge that crosses over a river of trash (and I say that with love). We purchase tickets (1,500 NR/pp) for the square at the guardhouse and begin our journey up the old narrow dusty cobbled street. Scooters and bikes inch by. Horns blare. Both sides of the road are alive and bustling with activity as storefronts open and proprietors use brooms to beat the dust from their wares and sweep it from their (sometimes dirt) floors. It is another beautiful day here in Nepal! Dogs, tails wagging, zig-zag across the street or contently lay in pockets of shade. Also I have in my notes "lake of loogies" whose details, due to the halo effect, have thank goodness faded.
















We are lucky enough to encounter a wedding ceremony! I *love* the beautiful clothing the women are wearing and as I look at them they look at me and ask me to join them! What an honor!!





video



The girls are warm and welcoming. They ask to take my picture then I ask can we take yours also; they marvel over the fact they see themselves on our digital camera (: They invite us to stay but there is so much to see and so little time!

Dirty-faced children approach and ask for money ("for school books," they say). Locals pass and all look, some over the top of their Michael Jackson masks-which we joke about getting but really should b/c each time we wipe or blow our noses the tissue is filled with dirt.











video


video


Little pups so cute being shepherded by 6 year olds who seeeeem to be doing an ok job until we see a dead one laying in the ditch ):
































We have our special dinner that night at Shiva Cafe Corner where our smiling host is awestruck we place our order in Nepali. The space is pretty active as tourgroup of elderly Europeans or Australians (that's right I can't tell the difference) is holding a meeting. Still, we toast-thankful for our time in amazing Nepal. All is right with the world.

The next day our exploration continues.















We arrive at Pottery Square.  Workers group the pottery and line the pieces up like soldiers. It is early so only a few rows are completed. We see an older woman in a bright red wrap dipping a piece into a bucket of water, coloring the dull grey exterior. We walk around and watch as wheels spin to make wet clay into works of art. And are shooed away by one crabby old man as we walk by and glance (not stare) into his workshop. If you don't want people to look, close your door. We do not purchase souvenirs often but I thought it would be a really cool reminder of our time in beautiful Nepal to have a special piece displayed in our home. We wander, perhaps wrongly, into what looked like a storage area as pieces were willy nilly strewn about. I can still smell the dust and pottery as I write this. A woman approaches and motions to the pottery as if to say "take your pick." My eyes scan the piles like hidden picture and there it is: a piece that speaks to me. I happily overpay as she wraps my treasure.










We head next to Taumadhi Square. We see a group meal being served on one of the platforms-we don't know the context but to witness the event felt very special. 



"Taumadhi holds what ends up being my favorite shrine. Found at the base of a temple and quite large compared to most; very simple and rustic yet still quite ornate. That really beautiful combination of bells and candles and stone and dust that only Nepal can offer. I could have watched for hours (probably did) as countless locals paid their respects.












































Finally, Dattatreya Square. A baby goat lies in a shaded corner and happily accepts my pets.









We have a perfect little lunch in Cafe de Peacock overlooking local life below and the dog across the street who keeps popping out of a second story window.











A man after my own heart <3


We wander down side streets and browse endless supplies of, among other things, felt ornaments, knitted gloves (finally got to buy mine right IN Nepal!), and lokta paper, the last of which we purchase to use as Christmas cards the next month.







Dhulikhel
Enroute to Kathmandu the next day we stop in Dhulikhel for another view of the Himalayas.











The snowfed mountains seen from Dhuklikhel are a fine panoramic. When a blue haze covers the lower portion of the mountains, they seem to be floating in the air. Green inviting hills of which still virgin and some turned into beautifully carved agricultural terraces cater to the beholders' pleasure. Geographically, the plains rise gradually up to the green mountains and further into the snow-capped Himalayas. The panorama offers a view of the Himalayan ranges stretching from Mount Annapurna in the far west to Mount Karolung in the Far East. More than twenty Himalayan peaks can be seen from Dhulikhel (wikipedia).

Umar our driver tells us we are almost guaranteed to see the mountains from Dhulikhel. He says it might take a while, but chances are high you will see them. He takes us to High View Resort which has a grand seating area overlooking rolling, terraced hills below and offering a front row seat to (drum roll) the Himalayas!






We choose a table right next to the terrace perimeter facing the mountains-I'm not taking any chances. We presume since we are not overnight guests it is best to pay for our use of the hotel terrace by ordering teas (for me) Everest beers (for him) and springrolls and fries....




We were there...a long time. The hotel was not pushy at all but we did feel it was right and proper to continue to fund our seats so we kept ordering food and drinks long after we could actually stomach them. Plates would come out and sit untouched as I stared at the band of clouds hoping for another glimpse.




We waited...



And finally....



So so so amazing <3

We head back to the car, where Umar has been so kindly and patiently waiting, and begin our return to Kathmandu Valley. 

Patan
A destination for connoisseurs of fine arts, Patan is filled with wood and stone carvings, metal statues, ornate architecture, including dozens of Buddhist and Hindu temples, and over 1200 monuments. patan.com Even though it is the third largest city in Nepal with a population of nearly 200,000 Patan has a decidedly more intimate feel. Zero tourists. Seems foreigners don't like to cross the Bagmati River which is what separates (protects) Patan from the sea of crowds.

Because I fell in love with their "Attic Room" we choose Traditional Homes Swotha for our exploration of Patan and our last few nights in Nepal. Though smaller and more intimate, like KTH and HH this property is so impressive on many levels: it is a restored Newari residence so again we have that great architecture, history, and culture. And it is located literally steps from Patan's Durbar Square. We are walked to our room and when the door is opened for us the first glimpse inside is one I will never forget. Sets of long white curtains fill themselves with the breeze from the open windows they cover and billow dramatically into the room. A nearby door leads to lovely rooftop deck which overlooks scores of neighboring rooftops. I couldn't have imagined a more perfect sight!











I love Patan. Without a doubt it is my favorite city in Nepal. Patan's Durban Square is smaller than the others but just as filled with gorgeous architecture.



That night we have the opportunity to witness a large celebration. The square is packed with locals seated and standing listening to speakers on a makeshift stage make excited declarations! Whatever it is, it is a positive affair as the crowd is in good spirits. This night, as the streets are alive with locals, we stroll aimlessly, pet dogs, pop in local stores once in a while to pick up a package of accidentally vegan coconut cookies, and return more than once to a little stand selling hot tea. It is one of my favorite nights in Nepal <3














video




video



video


I LOVED this girl. I wanted to take her home <3 She followed us around for some time.




Along a busy thoroughfare in Lalitpur, near Kathmandu, a passageway leads into a large, open-air courtyard. In the back corner, there's a modest home, with a red sign outside that simply reads, "Living Goddess". A narrow wooden staircase leads up to the second floor, where the goddess spends much of her childhood. She's called a Kumari, which means "young, unmarried girl". She's worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists in Nepal, who believe she's a reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga.

Kumari Devi are pre-pubescent girls, believed to be the reincarnation of the Hindu goddess Durga - also called Taleju in Nepal. They are chosen based on several physical characteristics, but also have to pass a series of tests. There are several Kumaris in Nepal - the most important, in Kathmandu, lives in a royal dwelling called the Kumari Bahal. The goddess is believed to vacate the Kumari's body when she first menstruates. The Kumari is selected from the Shakya or Bajracharya clan of Kathmandu's Newari community.

There are many rules. For one, her mother has to apply special makeup to her daughter's face in intricate designs. The girl isn't allowed to go outside except for festivals. On those occasions, her feet must not touch the ground. That means someone has to carry the young goddess. Furthermore, the Kumari is not permitted to speak to anyone besides her family and close friends (bbc.com).

The experience was intensely serene.









Back at Swotha we turn on the liquid propane heater that has been left in our room (I insist we keep the windows ajar to avoid death-as instuctions are in Nepali and English however I know for a fact the people staying below us speak neither) and take a shower to wash the day off. Except the water, which is guaranteed to be hot, is cold. They tell us wait 20 minutes and try again. Two hours later it was barely tolerable so we take fast chilly showers. A bit frustrating and not the cosiest end to the day but we snuggle together for our first night in Patan.



Kathmandu
Today is our last full day in Nepal and on tap is Kathmandu. We wake early to watch the sunrise from the terrace <3 The birds and locals welcoming another day in this beautiful land.
















We start with a hearty breakfast at Swotha.



Then we walk the few miles from Patan. Our hands, out of habit, meet and clasp then quickly release, remembering to be respectful of the hosting culture.  We love this experience. Just mixing into everday Nepali life.













Which includes wild monkeys! Cute to us (from a distance of course-see our close encouter in Sri Lanka) but pests to locals-one monkey grabbed onto a child being carried by a mother who broke free and spat on it.





























We arrive to Kathmandu Durbar Square and pay our 750 NR/pp. Immediatley the non-stop, and I do mean NON-STOP, inquiries begin. And by "inquiries" I mean "harassment." Not once, twice, thrice, etc are we approached by a local and solicited to hire them as our "guide," but CONSTANTLY. And I should make clear it isn't just that they are interrupting us, I could deal with that, it is that they are very, very aggressive. They acost us as we enter a temple and wait for us to exit and acost us again. We honestly can not even enjoy our time. I am a pretty tolerant person. And it was even getting on my nerves. Just, bordering on disrespectful. Actually, not bordering on it-being it. We had printed material in advance and had a nice little walking tour we had hoped to enjoy. Impossible. We left. And to be on the other side of the world and leave such a special place basically unexplored is a big deal. But that's how bad it was. I would recommend going in the morning or the evening as they seem to troll smack in the middle of the day. Which, if we had known we would've avoided.










video

Our exploration continues. We really want to see Swayambhunath and Pashupatinath. We start walking and eventually, after hitting a few dead end streets, question our direction. Chris says should I ask a local or a shopkeeper? I say, "Without a doubt, a shopkeeper. They can't follow us and ask to be our guide." No sooner are the words out of my mouth does Chris stop a local walking towards us in studded jeans and Michael Jackson moon boots. Pretty stylish actually for a 20 something Nepali dude. Chris explains we are trying to get to Swayambhunath, are we going the right way? The local laughs which isn't encouraging b/c we have been walking for quite a while. He says I will take you there.

In the course of a milisecond the following happens.

1) I silently curse Chris.

2) I think jfchristmas we just got away from "guides" at Durbar Square.

3) Where was this guy headed that he is fine all of a sudden walking miles out of his way to escort strangers to a temple?

4) Is this a trap?

5) He says he doesn't want money, he just wants to be our friend.

6) Is this a trap?

Well we kind of don't have a choice now and I am so annoyed with Chris I could wring his 17.5 inch neck so I let the two of them walk ahead and I hang behind, seething.

I love being wrong. I *love* it. His name is Bikram. From what we can understand from our conversations in broken English and Nepali he is a college student, his favorite food is dal baht, and he is a famous marathon runner that everyone knows and loves. I have confidence in the first two facts and while the third may have gotten a tad lost in translation it does seem to be true at least in some regard b/c everywhere we go he either has friends or quickly makes friends and they do his bidding.




video


Our day with Bikram was...so many things. Interesting to say the least. Really the perfect way to end our time in Nepal. As we walk I pull out a pack of gum and offer him a piece. He looks at it in curiosity and smiles and he puts it into his mouth. I dig in my bag and extend my hand to give him an unopened pack which he is hesitant to take but b/c I insist he bows his head and obliges.


He take us to Swayambhunath, where we are ok to just see the outside as he promises us Pashupatinath is "way, way better" (Bikram is Hindu). He takes us on a local bus where I share my chewing gum with the driver (who lets us all ride from free b/c he is from Pokhara and Bikram's family is from Pokhara) and with many interested passengers who tell me they like my skin. We play "how do you say" in English and Nepali which makes for a fun time.

We arrive at Pashupatinath. Our time here is very intense but very special. An entrance fee of 1,000 NR/pp is waived after Bikram has a conversation with the guards.  Further, Bikram has arranged access for us to areas of the temple which we later learn is closed to non-Hindus and is not something we take lightly. It really is *such an honor.* We did not take many pictures during this time as we we didn't want to risk being disrespectful.

Pashupatinath is set along the banks of the Bagmati River, considered holy by both Hindus and Buddhists. Hindus that have died are, in open ceremonies, cremated on these banks which can be viewed by tourists across the river on the adjacent ghat. We were on the Hindu side and respectfully witnessed the cremation of several individuals. According to the Nepalese Hindu tradition, the dead body must be dipped three times into the Bagmati River before cremation. The chief mourner (usually the first son) who lights the funeral pyre must take a holy river-water bath immediately after cremation. Many relatives who join the funeral procession also take a bath in the Bagmati River or sprinkle the holy water on their bodies at the end of cremation. The Bagmati River purifies the people spiritually (wikipedia). Death, just as much as life, is part of each society and it was a privilege to witness of such an important experience in Hindu culture.








Bikram adamantly insists he return us to our Patan hotel. Chris and I would rather be left off in the square or really anywhere else b/c isn't is a bad idea to tell strangers where you are staying? We try several times to get out of going back to our hotel but we fail. We approach Swotha and Bikram enters the lobby and gives the manager his card. He walks back to us. Though he expects to walk away with only our friendship it only seems right to thank him compensatorily-we give the costs "saved" from the busride and the temple entrance plus some. He looks at the money in my extended hand and refuses. We insist. He bliges. He then takes my hands in his then lowers his face and makes several motions. He wants to see us again tomorrow but we repeat this is our last night and we leave for the airport in the morning. He asks do we need a ride; we do not. We ask for his email to stay in touch. He says he will return to our hotel in the morning but gives us in the meantime his phone number and "his brother's" phone number in California.  In a namaste gesture he bows several times and leaves us.

Our thoughts are mixed. It has been an odd day and now this "stranger" knows where we are staying. We talk to the hotel manager (who we really really liked from earlier interactions) and explain how everything "seems totally fine" but how he had insisted he drop us off. The manager said he assumed he was our "guide" we had hired b/c when he came into the office he had introduced himself as such and we say "not exactly" and relay the day. The manager asks us if we gave him any money and we say we did in the end b/c it seemed the right thing to do. I step in and relay how, to me, he seemed genuine and we don't want to make him out to be a bad guy, that we are just being cautious. The manager understands our concerns and says it was a bit aggressive for him to come to our hotel then assures us he is on notice and will keep a special eye out for our room.

That night Swotha sets up a candlelight dinner for us on the rooftop deck. Shortly though we grow cold and move our meal indoors. We toast. It is thee most romantic and perfect ending to our stay in Nepal.




Departure
This morning we wake to pigeons cooing on our balcony (:



The water in our hotel room is not hot. Or warm. And we have some long days of travel home ahead of us and not showering isn't really an option. The front desk has a solution. They lead us through the building to another wing that is much more contemporary and allow us to shower here. A bit unconventional but it'll do. Afterwards as we have breakfast waiting for our driver  to arrive Chris (textbook Virgo) is on edge waiting for Bikram to arrive-the whole situation has stressed him out so he is happy when we climb into the car and head to the airport. When we arrive he lets out a deep breath and says he can finally relax since we are out of Bikram's grasp.  We look around at some shops and Chris gets a snack. Then another snack. Then a latte. Airport security approaches us and waves us to go with them. We are thoroughly confused. They lead us to an entrance to the airport and guess who? Bikram! "I wouldn't be more surprised if I woke up with my head sewn to the carpet." I can see he has things in his hands-paper and a pen it looks like but I am not sure. Maybe his email address? His expression is one I can't forget-like, pleading for us to come to him. I would be fine to talk with Bikram but Chris is not game so we just wave and smile and quickly take the escalator to the boarding area.

Which is actually a good thing b/c Chris looks at the time and asks "What was I thinking? We didn't have time to eat snacks our plane is leaving soon!" We arrive at pre-boarding security and there is a line for women and a line for men. The line for women is much shorter so I take the bags in my line to be scanned. Then I wait. and wait and wait. Because Chris is a foot taller than everyone else and (seemingly) the only white guy at the airport it was easy for me to spot him in line. He was getting nowhere. I approach a guard and explain we are late, can my husband please be expedited. They very kindly oblige with no hesitation and we whisk ourselves to our departing flight.

Dhanyabad to the beautiful people of Nepal. Nepal ati sundar desh ho.


Our view from 32,000 feet Kathmandu to Doha
Qatar
We scheduled our flights to have a full day layover in Doha, Qatar. Qatar Airways and Qatar Tourism Authority offer complimentary city tour which sounded like a perfect way to end this leg abroad! We stopped by the atm before meeting for the tour and everything seemed cool until it didn't dispense any cash.  We have a quick snack and it seems so so fitting, being in the middle east, to have some falafellllll and some taboulehhhhhh. And yes it is "airport food" but even so we expect it to be way way way better than what we make at home. It is not.





We walk towards the shuttlebus with a group of others from around the world. They are old and pushy and bully their way to butt in front of us to board. It had crossed my mind when we registered for this tour to mention I am claustrophobic and ask if it is possible to have a seat in the front but I thought that is so weird. Busses are only two seats across anyway so it will just be Chris and me I will be fine.  I see the windows have levers so I choose a window seat b/c if I start to feel closed in I can at least crack it open to get some air. Nothing is as it seems. The bus is packed. It isn't only two seats across. And it isn't just Chris and me. After I am seated at the window and Chris nooks in next to me a magic "aisle seat" is "unfolded" which now means there is a solid row of people from one window to the next and I have no way out. I immediately reach for the lever on the window and pull furiously until the guide announces over the sound system, "Ma'am, Ma'am-the windows do not open." (Closes eyes, goes to safe place.)







I found the people of Doha very friendly and very welcoming and very good-natured. They seemed please at our attempts at Arabic and enjoyed helping our pronunciation.  The city is absolutely gorgeous, at least the part the government wants you to see (: I would definitely return to visit Qatar as its own destination. This was a wonderful addition to our round the world!

जीवन सुन्दर छ
الحياة جميلة


No comments :

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.