Apr 18, 2008

A Maoist new year

Back in Kathmandu, back to pollution and hectic activity in the streets. After nearly a month in Nepal, I can definitely say my favorite parts of the country are in the mountains - the quaint villages with welcoming souls and without pollution.

We spent about 3 weeks in the Pokhara area - the town itself and mountain surrounds. Every traveler I've met who has been there says the same thing - Pokhara sucks you in and it's really hard to leave. I kept saying, "tomorrow I'll leave," and then the next day i'd say the same thing. I'm still not sure what it is about the place, perhaps the laid back atmosphere, lake, mountain views, nearby treks (Anapurna region and others), and of course the local people, some of whom we'd hang out with everyday. We stayed longer to wait out the election as well, then had to stay to celebrate New Year's. Happy 2065! (different calendar in Nepal...) No space age stuff here in Nepal yet though.

After Panchassee (see last blog entry), my 2nd favorite place in Nepal is a town/village called Bandipur. It's in between Kathmandu and Pokhara, perched up on a ridge with 360 views of rice-terraced valleys below. The town was on the old trade route between India & Tibet and they have recently been restoring the main drag which has Newari-style architecture. Think Nepali row houses with doors you have to duck under (well, if you' above avg Nepali height that is). I've hit my head a number of times in this country. There are no vehicles in the town and by 8pm nearly everything is closed, especially if the power is out. I'd say there were no more than 30 tourists there at a time during my 5 days, and for some reason most people only pass through staying one nite - they seemed to be on packaged trekking tours.

While I tried for early morning mountain views the first 2 mornings, instead I was treated to a "white lake" view - complete cloud coverage over the valley below, with some nearby hills peaking out to say good morning. It was like being in a plane above the clouds, but outside - not looking over the wing through a tiny window. stunning. There's not a lot to do in Bandipur but wander the paths, chat with people, watch folks bathe & fill water containers at the natural spring water spouts, and take in the scenery. Somehow I kept getting pulled into random experiences as I kept trying to venture out of the main part of town. One day I head guitar playing & singing and asked a little girl about it. She took me upstairs in the home to a Christian prayer meeting. I was quite surprised when I realized they were singing Hallelujah and had bibles in hand, given the majority of the country are Hindu or Buddhist, or a combination of the two. They even had an English/Nepali bible for me to follow along. The singing was lovely and the loud praying (everyone speaking at the same time) interesting to observe. As with most visits in Nepal, the meeting ended with tea.

The next day I was drawn to singing outside a temple, and a woman who was walking outside invited me in. It was a small prayer session for a Krishna temple. This group was mostly women over 60, with a couple kids and one man who read the prayers. Mostly they sang and one person would dance in the middle of the circle. Of course they quickly motioned for me to dance, so I had to oblige. I had no clue of the dance style, so I did some twirling & hand motions similar to those that the women were doing while sitting. My new favorite phrase is "what to do?" You just gotta go with the flow.

Later that day I started chatting with a 12 year old girl named Pragya (well, she started chatting with me with the usual "where are you from" "what is your name" "how long in nepal"). She invited me inside to see her currency collection, so I said sure. First we talked as she finished her daily work of wiping down the dirt floor with water. Then we went upstairs to her "international bedroom". She clearly engages with a lot of travelers, as she had little mementos from all over the world. Mom brought tea and Pragya took over my camera to photograph her home and us. She insisted I come back later that evening bc she wanted to "make me pretty". Sure enough when I returned she spent an hour & half doing up my hair in a variety of styles and painting my face with make up. The orange lipstick stung my lips (likely very old), and the homemade heavy black eyeliner was a bit smudgy. but what fun!

The next day, the owner of my guesthouse took me along with him to the equivalent of the rehearsal dinner for his niece's wedding. I felt honored to be there, but I think the bride was a bit skeptical of my presence. Her family was taking pictures of me as the oddball guest. As the tradition, upon entry to the tent I washed my hands, gave her tikka (the red pigment placed on the forehead), placed a flower petal on her head, said my wishes for a happy marriage and long life, and gave her a gift of 100 rupees. (luckily i had been instructed beforehand...)

I didn't really want to leave Bandipur, but alas, I came back to Kathmandu to check out some sites I missed the first time around. Over the next week I'll work my way down to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, to meet up with Ariella and Susan before heading to India.

If you haven't been following the post-elections in Nepal, the Maoists have a decent lead in the coalition assembly and will be the ruling party. Due to delayed voting in some places bc of unrest on election day and recounts, the final results are not in, but the Maoists have given the king 28 days to vacate his palace (which they plan to turn into a museum). Overall the elections went very smoothly and peacefully. My bus from Pokhara to Bandipur was stopped for a while as I watched a Maoists parade process down the highway, with a local winning candidate perched atop a car as the highlight of the celebration. Everyone was covered in red pigment - all over their faces - to mark the celebration. Fascinating.

So as the country brought in the new year 2065, the Maoists indeed have a lot to celebrate.

As luck would have it, my friend Campbell from Wharton (who also just quit his job and is traveling for a year) arrived in Kathmandu yesterday. So great to see a familiar face, in Kathmandu!

p.s. did I mention how exhilarating riding atop buses/jeeps is? yes, i held on tight. much better than being squished inside in very uncomfortable positions...

Apr 9, 2008

Never Ending Peace And Love

According to a menu in a small mountain town, NEPAL = Never Ending Peace And Love. I believe it, despite the political unrest that has been building up to the very major election here on April 10. Since we arrived on Mar 23 the election has been the talk of the country, as well as the headlines on all the newspapers. Maoists and some other small parties have been the culprits of most of the violence. Sadly politicians have been murdered and kidnapped. Gun shoot-offs, cadres beating up cadres of other parties, knife fights and more. However, as a traveler, I've only been privy to the peaceful Maoist rallies - motorcycle gangs driving through town waving communist flags, trucks with loudspeakers praising the working man's party doctrines encouraging voters. I must admit, it is pretty trippy to be somewhere that is about to experience a major political shift depending on tomorrow's outcome. If the Maoists do win, then the country will become communist. If not, the newly established democracy will endure. Either way, the constitution will be re-written by the new constitutional assembly. Formerly ruled by a king whose brother murdered the entire royal family in order to become king about 5 years ago, this is a very historic event. Everything is supposed to be closed on election day, but i've learned that the tourist area where i'm currently hunkered down in Pokhara (5 hours west of Kathmandu) will be open for service. Tourism is the #1 industry in Nepal.

Back to peace and love, the people in Nepal are stunningly beautiful inside and out. The women are gorgeous, the men are hot. I hate to make generalizations, but it's true. and the kids! the spirit, the laughs, the playfulness, the smiles. We have made some incredible little friends who speak English better than many adults and just want to hang out and have photos taken of them without asking for money or sweets or pens (they like the pens here). "One photo, one photo" is the common cry as we walk by, especially in the mountain villages. Of course we always comply and love their giddiness as the run to look at the photo on our cameras.

I met a Hungarian named Viktor in Kathmandu - i was drawn to his large self-made pinhole camera he carried down the crazy streets. After a second spotting at a Tibetan Buddhist stupa (temple), I sat down to ask him about his camera. As luck would have it, I ran into him several days later in Pokhara. He had highly recommended I trek to a small mountain village in Panchassee and he happened to be leaving for the place the next day. Susan had sadly sprained her ankle and Ariella was looking into a yoga retreat in Pokhara, so I asked Viktor if I could tag along with him. His answering Yes made for a truly blessed next five days.

I was hesitant to trek because of my back issues. I hadn't done any serious hiking in a year - in fact it was a year to the day since I was in the emergency room after injuring my back again. Months of physical therapy and the past three months carrying my bags on the road had increased my strength, but I wasn't sure how I'd feel after trekking. Four hours uphill later, I was in awe of the ridge-top location looking across valleys down both sides of the mountain and didn't even think about my back. While I was sore the next day, I was thrilled that I made it step by step, even carrying my own backpack. Panchassee means Five Seats. The seats are the five mountain peaks that comprise this very sacred area. A revered yogi had come here to be enlightened/die and others have followed his lead. The peaks, caves, lakes and other natural beauties are believed to exude spiritual energy. Sunrise looking out at the Himalayas enhanced the peaceful bliss for me.

The guesthouse where we stayed for 5 nights is called the Happy Heart Hotel and is run by three incredibly special women. All single, no kids, never married. When asked if they like it that way they responded, "No husband. No children. Free." I guess I fall into the same boat. As Viktor had said, you can taste their happy hearts in the dal baht and other meals they cooked for us. Viktor had stayed with them previously for 3 weeks (with his anthropologist friend who lived there for 8 months) and so we were considered family. Instead of sitting in the dining room with the few other trekkers that would show up for a night, we spent most of our time sitting in the small kitchen where they cook over a fire. Much of my time was spent listening during the 5 days, whether it was to guides and the didis ("sisters" - which you call women like "aunty") speak in Nepalese or listening to birds or just the wind. No electricity meant candles after an early sunset. Squat toilets and a cold water bucket shower, of course. Viktor and I took long day hikes, which I calculate to include up and down roughly 10,000 stairs over the course of the 5 days. seriously. there are stone paths that connect the villages that are spread out all over the mountains and valleys. Apparently many paths get washed away with the monsoon season, but then the villagers all work together to rebuild. Quite a concept. The morning we left the didis sat Viktor and I down and adorned our foreheads with a red pigment dot and tied a traditional prayer cloth around our necks. It was an incredible moment. Sadly by the time I was down the mountain my dot was a huge smudge as I had wiped the sweat off my brow continually.... The photo above is a pinhole image of me and the didis made by Viktor. He carries around his darkroom and creates prints for everyone he photographs. He's a special soul.

Meanwhile, back in Pokhara Susan and Ariella had been volunteering daily at a local NGO, the Butterfly Foundation, helping prepare a new building for its preschool for orphans and other disadvantaged kids. I joined them when I returned and helped finish up the colorful paintings of butterflies, flowers, and painted a colorful mandala. Susan has an incredible natural ability and drive to befriend the local children, anywhere. We walk down the street and kids will say "Susan!" and give her a local handshake. Ariella and I have been telling her she must work with children upon returning to Seattle. She made a special friend (the most intelligent little boy we've met), Manish, whose parents own a bookstore/Gorkha knife shop. Manish's mom invited us all for dal baht and we enjoyed a lovely home cooked meal in their modest home behind the shop. We've also befriended the owner of our now local bar where we make a daily appearance, even if briefly. Jossi, the owner, painted with us at the school and has encouraged us to stay in Pokhara, although we didn't need much encouragement.

When we first arrived in Nepal we spent a few nights in Kathmandu, which is an intense and polluted city. Despite that, I loved walking the narrow streets and checking out how people live. The buddhist stupas are incredible places to visit, especially joining the tibetan buddhists walking in circles around and around the stupa turning the prayer wheels.

This is definitely phase 3 of the journey, as we're now used to paying $7/night for our own rooms (less if we share), $1 for breakfast and generally living on less than $20/day. I've gotten used to squat toilets outside of our hotel (sorry to harbor on the bathrooms, but it's a real change), and don't flinch as much when I come home to a cockroach in my bathroom. Okay, maybe I do still jump....

We'll move on from Pokhara once the buses are running again after the election. Next stop is Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. Back to serious heat and mosquitoes. Around the 27th we plan to travel overland to India, but I'm not sure if we'll actually be able to leave Nepal. If we do, I will be back.

Oh, I forgot to mention how great it is to greet everyone with Namaste!

So, I've spent today uploading photo albums to my blog. LONG overdue....

When you have some time, peruse my new slideshows:
Melbourne (yes, back to January!)
Sydney/Cape Tribulation
Indonesia (3 albums)

Next I'll upload Cambodia. I'm still working on editing Nepal in real time, so hopefully sooner rather than later I will share this beautiful country. How could the home of the tallest mountain in the world not be so magical?