Coming Full Circle

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Ending Where I Started

Getting to Chiang Mai from the Surin Project is a 14 hour journey. All of the mahouts gather to send of the volunteers. A flurry of “lob pop gon mai” (hope to see you again) and wais (bowing), with a few hugs thrown in much to the chagrin of the Thai, followed by a group photo and we were off. The first hour of the trip is the truck ride from Ban Tha Klan to the bus station in Buriram. Watching the green countryside roll by in the setting sun, we said good bye.

Buses in Thailand are actually pretty comfortable, especially the VIP Gold Class buses. The seats recline and have leg and feet rests. Snacks of crisps (potato chips), water, soy milk and a sandwich are provided throughout the course of the trip and the bus stops for food about 2 hours into the trip. The only uncomfortable part of this particular trip was the temperature. It was cold. Very, very cold. Once again I was grateful for the $5 wool blanket I had purchased in Nepal.

For the first 1.5 hours, I tried to type on my computer. Finally, I gave into the cold and tiredness. Huddled under the blanket provided by the bus with my other blanket pulled over my head, I slept for most of the remainder of the trip.

Christmas in Thailand

Being in a 95% Buddhist country and having traveled enough that I’m not sure what day it actually is, Christmas just sort of made itself known through the Santa hats worn by workers and Christmas carols playing at the market and shops. My plan was to spend Christmas at the Elephant Nature Park with my friends (and a few elephants.) Unfortunately for me, the park was completely booked for volunteers, overnight guests and day trip guests. But Christmas wishes do come true (and being a repeat volunteer and visitor helps.)

Every year at Christmas, the Elephant Nature Park holds a Christmas show. At the show, all the various groups at the park do a performance. The mahouts, students from the village, massage therapists, gardeners, staff and volunteers all contribute to the show.  Under the auspices of Christmas, everyone also receives a gift in appreciation for their work throughout the year. Santa (and Santee, the female Santa Claus) make an appearance to help Lek, the founder, distribute the gifts.

When Chet asked me if I wanted to go with Miss Patty to help set up for the Christmas Show at the park, I jumped at the chance. Christmas day morning, we loaded our sleigh (actually 2 vans) with the gifts, some desserts and a bottle of SamSong “rum” and headed off to the park.

Decorating for the show started in earnest after we had a chance to eat lunch. Balloons were inflated and banners hung with care. The tree was decorated with lights and tinsel, and boxes wrapped in paper and bows placed underneath. The stage was set and lights were strung from the ceiling. In short order, the feeding platform of the park was transformed into a wonderland of colors and was ready for the show.

Party balloons with Mae Do heading for her shelter for the evening.

Party balloons with Mae Do heading for her shelter for the evening.

The local village children started the show with their traditional hill tribe and Thai dances, looking so adorable in their traditional dress. Rocky did a magic show. The massage ladies did a traditional Thai dance. The mahouts played Christmas songs with a Thai feel on their flutes made out of PVC and drum made out of a bucket. And for the fourth year in a row, Chet did his fabulous job as emcee.

The best part of being at the park for the Christmas show was the chance to catch up with friends that I haven’t seen in several months. Just like a family gathering, everyone was there. Hugs, smiles, laughter and talk filled the evening. Just the way Christmas should be.

Chet and my annual Christmas pic.

Chet and my annual Christmas pic.

Afternoons in the Park

Much of my last week in Chiang Mai was spent seeing what it would be like to just exist without filling my days with motorbike rides and tourist activities. Not wanting to be confined to my guest house and longing to be in the sunshine, I headed for Nong Buak Hard Public Park. A little oasis of green nestled into the southwest corner of the old town.

The park boasts a small lake with bridges crossing over it and a fountain, playground area for children (which I believe is where all of the metal playground equipment we grew up with went when it was determined it was too unsafe), and a bevy of vendors selling fish food, bird food, people food and renting mats to sit on. Inside the park, the sounds of the city fade away, replaced by the cooing of the pigeons. Stopping to rent a mat (10 bhat ($0.30) for as long as you want to use it) I headed for the south side of the lake, out of the spray of the fountain, away from the other farang (foreigners) in their bikini tops, and in the sun.

My mat in the sun in the park.

My mat in the sun in the park.

Mostly I spent my time writing in my journal, reading a book and thinking about some of the massage workshops I want to develop in 2014. I also was on a mission to start making the coin flowers for my friend Chet’s monk ceremony that will be coming up in June 2014. During the monk ceremony, hundreds of coin flowers are blessed and then thrown out to the people in attendance. Catching one is believed to be good luck (and like kids racing for candy from a piñata, a chance to tear the ribbon flowers apart for the coins at the center.) And the majority of three out of my last four trips to Thailand have been spent making these flowers.

Making the coin flowers seems like it should be a traditional craft that everyone knows. Strangely, this actually isn’t the case. Many Thai are surprised to see a farang making these coin flowers. The flowers are made by taking 4 pieces of ribbon and folding them origami style into flowers or fish or boxes (I only know how to do a couple of the flowers.)

One of the days that I was sitting in the sun making the coin flowers, two Thai girls set up their mat close to me. After a while of watching me, one of the girls came over and asked me (in Thai) what I was doing and wanted me to show her how I was making them. She spoke almost no English, so using mostly gestures and having her follow along, I taught her how to make the most simple of the flowers. When we finished one, she wanted to make more so that she would remember how to make them. Eventually her friend, who spoke more English, pulled their mat over to join mine and we spent the next hour and a half making coin flowers and talking. With their help that afternoon, I was able to accomplish my goal of 100 coin flowers for the week.

My first 100 coin flowers for Chet's ceremony.

My first 100 coin flowers for Chet’s ceremony.

Elephant Time

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Family Time

My first stop upon returning to Thailand, was Taphan Hin in central Thailand to spend a little time with my Thai family. Family is such an important facet of Thai culture. Over the years I have become the oldest sister in the Tabjeen family, being only 3 years younger than mom. As often as possible when I visit Thailand, I try to make it a point to visit the family.

This visit, they set up my own “home stay” room. The room used to belong to Pa (aunt) Lee before she finished building her house. Now Nat uses it on the weekends to teach a special English class to a few of the kids that live in the neighborhood. The room was adorned with a bed with a silk coverlet and a blue mosquito net, pink curtains and my own bathroom. Dad even made sure I had my own source of bottled water. Such a sweet gesture to ensure my comfort while I am visiting.

Having my own room was also necessary now that Nat, Gao and their baby Nong Name and Gao’s sister are all living in the main house with Nat’s parents. Nong Name, my 6-month old nephew, is a 10 kilo (22 pound) bundle of joy and sweetness. This child is surrounded by love and caring. Lung (uncle) Buhm takes care of him every day. Just seeing the love and happiness radiating from Lung Buhm’s face when he is holding or playing with Nong Name warms the heart.

One of the days Nat took me to his school to help teach English. Nat truly enjoys teaching and wants to set his students up for success in being able to read and speak English. Having worked in the tourist industry, Nat has a true appreciation of how important this skill is. Arriving at the school, I was greeted with the obligatory stares and giggles from both the boys and girls. The interest continued as we were teaching with the grade 6 girls that gathered outside the classroom door about half way through the morning.

The morning was spent working on basic conversation skills with the grade 3 and 4 students. Keeping it simple with things like: “How are you?”; “I am fine, thank you. And you?”; “I am fine.” We also played some games to keep it interesting. In the afternoon, the entire school (about 35-40 students) joined together in the classroom. My task… teach them how to sing Jingle Bells. A slow yet successful process, culminating in a rousing singing of Jingle Bells that was a little sketchy on the verse but solid on the chorus. Two of the kids dressed in Santa costumes and came in dancing during our singing.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

The students and I after learning Jingle Bells.

This trip I also did my best to try to avoid the hospital. Last visit, around 1 AM I found myself on the way to the urgent care due to a small bout of food poisoning. This trip, on the way home from the school, I found myself at the side of the road thanks to a small bout of something (probably food related). I made Nat promise not to tell his mom.  Usually I have no problem eating Thai (or Indian or Nepali) food, so having this happen twice is really unusual for me. Mom was a bit worried that evening when I couldn’t eat very much, sticking to rice and grilled chicken.

Instead, ant bites almost resulted in a trip to the doctor. Thailand has 7 different varieties of ants. I am allergic to at least one variety. The bites swell up, becoming puffy and red puffy and itching incessantly. Quickly I learned the words for ant (moot), mosquito (yoong) and itching (kraan). Insisting that I knew what was wrong, everyone in the hospital housing area produced every manner of pill and lotion that they thought would help me. The bites scoffed at the pills and calamine lotion. Eventually, the best solution was the topical steroid that Nat had. Before I left, Dad made a trip to the pharmacy resulting in two full bottles of the Kanalon Lotion for me.

This trip the request was made of me to make a western dinner. A request I couldn’t refuse since it came primarily from Dad, a wonderful man who does everything he can to make sure that I am comfortable when I am there. We settled on spaghetti, since that was the only thing anyone could come up with that represented western food and that I thought I would even have a remote possibility of successfully making. Somehow the combination of fresh tomatoes, basil, onions, garlic, tomato sauce (actually more of what we would call ketchup), ground pork and red pepper flakes transformed themselves into a sauce that reasonably resembled spaghetti sauce. Everyone said it tasted delicious, even better than the pizza restaurant in town. My heart was just happy seeing the joy that it brought to everyone.

Hanging with the Elephants

Volunteering at the Surin Project is less about doing work than it is about showing mahouts and other tourists that there is an alternative to the ways elephants are currently used in tourism. The balance of using elephants for tourism and protecting the elephants from harm is a particularly delicate balance. Elephants need to eat and mahouts (the people who care for the elephants) need to support their families. An elephant eats about 10% of its weight in food each day. To support that type of appetite, mahouts must find a way to earn money.

Mahouts and their elephants living at the Elephant Study Center in Ban Tha Klang (where the Surin Project is based) are given a stipend of 8000 baht a month. Almost half of that money goes to feeding their elephant, driving the mahouts to find supplemental income. Some of the options that mahouts have are: using their elephants in the twice daily circus show at the center where they do tricks for the entertainment of the tourists; offering elephant rides around the center piling 3-4 humans plus the weight of the saddle (150 pounds/75 kilos) on the back of the elephant; leaving their family at the center and taking their elephant to work at trekking camps elsewhere in Thailand; or leaving their elephants on chain all day while the mahouts work in the fields or other employment outside of the center.

The Surin Project offers another alternative. The Elephant Nature Foundation offers an additional 8000 baht per month to mahouts that agree to have their elephants be part of the Surin Project. The mahouts must agree to a set of rules to be part of the project. Mahouts are not allowed to use a bull hook, a foot long stick with an 1.5″ heavy metal hook on the end, used for controlling the elephant and sometimes as a means for punishment. Elephants are not allowed to be in the circus, to give rides or to participate in festivals. And the elephants must be off chain for 4 hours each day.

Off chain time is spent on forest walks, bathing in the river or roaming, swimming and eating in the enclosure. These activities are where volunteers can make the most impact in demonstrating that another form of tourism exists. Showing the mahouts that tourists are perfectly content in walking with elephants instead of riding them or bathing the elephants instead of watching them perform tricks, is the first step in helping to change the culture.

Forest walks allow volunteers to watch and be near the elephants. The elephants glide gracefully through the forest, the cushion on the pads of their massive round feet absorbing the weight of each step. The anatomy of an elephant’s foot still amazes me. Elephants essentially walk on tiptoe with tough spongy connective tissue for the sole. The spongy shock absorber and ridged and pitted sole are what allow an elephant to move so silently and sure-footedly through any terrain. The main sounds are the swishing of their bodies while they pass through the trees, the occasional snap of a breaking branch as one decides it needs a snack, and the chatter of the volunteers and mahouts.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Nong Lek enjoying her walk in the forest.

Another activity where volunteers have the opportunity to interact with the elephants is walking to the river and bathing the elephants. Each of our trips to the river took different paths. The first walk was through the village to the road that would take us to the river. I’m pretty sure that a group of farang (foreigners) walking through the village drew more looks than the 11 elephants walking in front of us. The second walk was through the rice fields that have been burned off and are waiting for the next crop of rice to be planted.

Bathing elephants is an activity that has always been a very rewarding activity for me. Ever since the first time in 2008 when I splashed and scrubbed Jokia at Elephant Nature Park during a day visit, bathing elephants has been one of my favorite ways of interacting with elephants. In the river, we are given a bag of food to first feed the elephant. After eating, we begin scrubbing and splashing the elephants to get the dirt off (so that they can apply a new layer of insect repellent and sunscreen when they get out of the water.)

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bath time for Jaeb and Warrin.

Bathing Nong Lek was wonderful. She’s one of the smaller elephants on the project, so much easier to get around with in the water. Su Chad, her mahout, is also very adept at getting her to follow commands such as putting her head down in the water or getting down on her side. With her it was like two children playing and splashing in the water. Of course, she is a bit bigger of a kid and I had to be careful to watch where her feet were going (as that is the most dangerous part in the water.) I got to scrub her body, behind her ears and her forehead and trunk and the top of her head. Looking into her beautiful sweet eyes felt like there was a soul-to-soul connection.

And then her friend Nam Fon came to play. This pair can often be seen playing in the water. Like children, they will sit on each other, hold each other down and just toss about playfully. Watching them do this in the enclosure or during the bath on the forest walks is amusing. Experiencing it close up and almost getting sat on is a whole different experience. Thankfully I managed to escape in one non-flattened piece, laughing the entire way out of the water.

Life at the Center

This week being my second visit to the project, the changes are what were most apparent to me. The biggest change is in the elephants and mahouts that are now part of the project. Only 5 of the elephants and 3 of the mahouts that I met last April are still part of the project. The elephants and mahouts that have left had their reasons. The most common reason that the mahouts leave the project is that the mahouts feel they cannot abide by the project rules consistently. Other times, they decide that they can make even more money taking their elephant somewhere else. Both reasons underlie the depth to which the change needs to occur in the elephant tourism culture.

A new minimart has opened within the study center. Now we no longer have to walk into the village for treats such as ice cream, chips (crisps) or the occasional beer. Poi with her loud cheerful voice and laugh greeted us every time we walked past the shop, which was several times a day. Mornings it was often a remark on the weather: now mai ka? (are you cold?) or now mak mak (very cold). During the day it would be waving her small child’s arm and saying “hello”, or “bye bye” in the evening. Over the course of the week, I am pretty sure our group was responsible for making her profit for the month. Especially when we cleared her out of beer, buying one for each mahout on the project at the final dinner.

A more pleasing change for me was getting to see the enclosure and forest when it is green and lush. All the green leaves on the trees provides a beautiful compliment to the reddish brown dirt, clear crisp blue sky and grey and pink elephants. On walks, the sunlight filtering through the leaves just added to the beauty. A far contrast to the dry brown landscape I had experienced before.

Every climate in the world has its own standard of hot and cold. For Thailand, right now is the cold season, which typically means lows of 60 F (16 C) and highs of 85 F (30 C). This year is unusually cold. In fact, even the farang (foreigners) on the project were cold. Every evening around 10 pm, a cold wind would start blowing. The wood houses do very little to stop the cold wind from blowing through, making for a cold night bundled in whatever blankets I had available. In the morning, after a breakfast involving cuddling with a warm glass of coffee, cocoa, tea or hot water, we would join the mahouts around their fire waiting to get started on the daily chores. At night, the field outside my house where the non-project elephants are chained was dotted with fires to help keep the elephants a bit warmer.

The field outside my house is home to 5 non-project elephants. Most of these elephants stay on chain nearly 24 hours a day. The little guy closest to my door was really not happy about his predicament of being on chain. Many times it looked as though he was plotting and trying every possible tactic to get the chain loose. Even when he would be moved to his alternate spot just around the corner he would continue his struggle. His constant straining at the chain made me sad and at the same time secretly root for him to be successful.

At night, the 3 younger elephants in the field would sleep laying down. The light of the full moon would transform their color to a ghostly pale grey. Seeing the sleeping elephants by that light was almost eerie, as if it was a specter of a future for these young elephants.

The sight of the non-project elephants being on chain, giving rides or walking down the street carrying their own heavy chains, is a sight that never gets easier to see. To me, seeing the elephants carry their own chain almost seems like putting salt in a wound. Not only does the elephant have the chain around their ankle all day, even when not attached to the post, they have to carry the weight of the chain. Nothing can be done other than to send the elephant caring thoughts, continue to volunteer and educate other tourists, and hope that the elephant tourism culture can change before it is too late.

A Little Work

Projects are another way volunteers contribute to the success of the Surin Project. Often the project teams are a combination of mahouts and volunteers, providing an additional interaction opportunity. The projects this week included planting corn, making a perimeter around the field to hopefully protect it from cattle that use that area to graze, and transferring elephant poo from a poo box to a box where it will continue to decompose and be turned into fertilizer. Cool weather and a volunteer group that was anxious to do work made quick work of the projects.

Recently, the Surin Project purchased a small amount of land where they can raise sweet corn for feeding the elephants. The mostly grey-brown clay soil had been tilled by tractor, leaving large clumps in long furrows. Our job was to go along, dig a hole every foot or so, place 5 seeds in each one and cover the hole. Having done work like this in Thailand, I made sure to pick the right tool for the job. The best tool for digging holes is a long metal pole with a curved piece of metal at the end that looks like one of the straws you get in a thick drink that acts like a spoon. I started digging and Nana (the driver for the project) dropped in the seeds and covered the seeds using his bare feet on the wet clay. He patiently allowed me to do the first 5 or so holes. Then he made me switch places with him. Taking the hole digger, he quickly went to work digging holes just deep enough for the seeds in almost straight rows. I took off one of my shoes, following behind dropping seeds and covering them using my bare foot in the mud. The corn seeds had a strangely unnatural pink color.  I’m not sure if the pink is a fertilizer to help it grow faster or something to keep the seeds from rotting while they germinate. By the end of our work, my hands were covered in bright pink dust and my foot was covered in mud.

The next day, we went back to the field to hang a sign indicating that it is property of the Surin Project and to create a perimeter around the field to protect the seed and seedlings. Farmers will take their herds of cattle through the rice fields that are between planting so that they can graze. The perimeter involves posts sunk deep into the mud every 8 or 10 feet or so, strung with the plastic string that is the primary binding mechanism used in Thailand with plastic bags tied along the string to make it visible and provide a deterrent to the birds that are another threat to the seeds and seedlings.

Nana was in charge of gathering the small trees or branches, each a couple of inches in diameter, for the posts. At our stop on the way to the field, Nana only found 4 poles that met his liking. Using 2 or 3 strikes of the machete, the small tree was taken down and just as deftly using the machete the small branches were removed leaving a pole. Once at the field, Nana set off on a quest for more branches. Watching Nana gather tree branches to use for poles is watching a masterpiece in action. Once he found all the acceptable poles he could that were at ground level, he moved to getting branches out of the tall slender trees. He would shimmy up the trees, and with a few hacks of the machete, down came branches.

While Nana collected branches, Ocha and Chris began digging holes and Siobhan and I  made our best attempt at hanging the sign. The sign, made out of plaster board painted a pale green with darker green letters, was not as easy to attach to the tree as it seemed it should be. The first obstacle was getting the nail into the plaster board. Eventually we managed that task without cracking the plaster board. The second obstacle was attaching it to the tree using the single slightly rusty 3 inch nail that Ocha had brought with him from the center.

The fields are surrounded with berms. Some berms are only a foot high, others are several feet high. This particular berm was about 3 feet high with the trees growing out of the slope about a foot and a half from the flat path along the top of the berm. At this point I should probably mention that Siobhan and I are the two shortest volunteers. Leaning across the gap, I held the sign while she worked on hammering the nail into the tree. Some progress was made, but not enough to successfully attach the sign to the tree. In the process, strikes of the hammer that missed its target were creating a crack in the plaster board and raising concerns in our minds of the likelihood of the plaster board staying on the nail should we even manage to get the nail into the tree. After discussing the situation with Chris who noticed us struggling, we decided to use the nail to balance the sign and to just use some of the string to tie it in place on the tree. At least it was still up that afternoon when Vincent and I went back to finish the string around the perimeter.

Elephant poo at the project is recycled in two ways. The first is using to make poo paper, which is turned into goods that can be sold. The second is to compost the poo in to fertilizer. To support these efforts, all the poo is gathered into poo boxes near the elephant shelters. For the fertilizer, the poo is then transferred to a composting box where the necessary ingredients are added to help it decompose completely. The last project that I helped with was moving the poo from the shelter by Nong Lek and Kahm Koon (two of the smallest elephants on the project) to the composting box. The tricky part was not working with Chris to carry the basket of poo but rather trying to figure out where to dump the bucket and having enough momentum to make it easy. Only once did I actually fall in the compost box. Definitely a moment of comic relief!

Making Friends

A real emphasis at the Surin Project is getting to know the mahouts as well as their elephants. On the first day, we do an ice breaker game to learn everyone’s name. We call it the “ay ya” game. A ball is thrown around the circle and the people on either side of the person catching it have to say “ay ya”. If they mess up, they have to stand up and name one of the people in the group, farang naming mahouts and mahouts naming farang. Failure to name a person correctly results in the performance of a dance in the middle of the circle.

Through out the week, friendships form. Even if they aren’t based on much conversation. One of my favorite mahouts was Su Chad, the mahout for Nong Lek. Su Chad is a quiet, older mahout. Surprisingly, this quiet looking man has quite the mischievous streak. On our way back from cutting sugar cane, Su Chad first cut my team pieces of sugar cane to eat. Then he proceeded to take a dry sugar cane leaf and sneakily tie it to another mahout’s bag that was strapped across his back. Then he tied a piece of sugar cane to make a tail. It was really hard not to laugh out loud at what was transpiring. I’m not sure if the other mahout noticed or if it fell off. The next day, when we were bathing Nong Lek, he splashed me with water, so I splashed him back. Later that day when planting corn, he pretended to get my foot with his hoe.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Su Chad giving Nong Lek her morning shower.

Another favorite pair of mahouts was Pan and Em, mahouts for Warrin and Jaeb. In my mind I think of them as the masked bandits, always just a bit mischievous. For the duration of the week they wore hats that covered everything but their eyes. In fact, I didn’t even recognize Em at the Mahout Dinner on Friday evening. Pan is round and jovial, always greeting me with a robust “MJ”. Em on the other hand looks like a stick figure acting as a clothes hanger. The last walk through the forest, I ended up walking with Em and Pan and their elephants. They kept trying to convince me that I should be a mahout. Talking in Thai (or trying to talk in Thai), having closer contact with Warrin and Jaeb and laughing made for a wonderful end to my week.

The interaction with the mahouts culminates in the Mahout Olympics. Mahouts and volunteers are separated into four teams comprised of a combination of mahouts and volunteers. The activities vary by season. This week the first event was a slingshot contest. The mahouts practice almost daily with slingshots, so I feel pretty proud of the one time I actually hit the bottle since I had only shot a slingshot once during the week. Next up was Mahout Basketball. Here the 2″ diameter round seeds are tossed into a plastic bottle that has been hung on a post. Between events, Vincent and I practiced with Krow (one of the mahouts on our team) for the third event. This event involved taking 5 seeds in the palm of your hand, tossing them and catching as many as possible on the back of your hand and then tossing those up and closing your hand around them. Practicing with stones was one thing, using the slippery seeds was another. At least I managed to catch 2. The last event was the 3-legged race. Despite a tricky transition where both Aed (a quiet mahout that I don’t think I had met until the Olympics) and I opted to take off our shoes, we did really well with our “nueng (1), song (2), nueng (1), song (2)” managing to take third place.

Friendships are also formed between the volunteers on the project. The group of volunteers that came together this week was one of the best groups that I have had the pleasure of volunteering with since I started volunteering in 2010. Many of the nights were spent talking late into the night about a variety of topics. Sometimes it was just one-on-one chats, other times it was 2 or 3 of us gathered around the table at the meeting point by the light of the makeshift Christmas tree (a dead tree branch that had been planted and strung with lights and ornaments, reminiscent of the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas) until the wind and cold drove us to say goodnight. One of the best nights was listening to Christmas songs and talking about what Christmas means to each of us and our favorite Christmas songs and movies. Hopefully our paths will cross again.

On Top of a Mountain

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The Beaten Path

Bhaktapur at 5:15 AM is dark. And cold. No streetlights to illuminate the cobblestone streets and ancient wood carvings on the buildings, only the occasional headlights from a truck or motorbike. The young man at the Nyatopola Guest House was not happy that I needed to leave at that hour. Getting up and waiting in the cold and dark was worth every minute for my experience that followed.

During our day together on Thursday, Shankar invited me to attend a puja (ceremony) for the 45th day after his mother’s passing. For the puja, we needed to travel to his village high on mountain a little over 65 km from Kathmandu by car plus a 2.5 hour hike. His daughter, Swastika, skipped school that day to join us and to be my guide/interpreter during the ceremony. Picking me up at 5:30 AM we were off on our adventure.

We left the car at a small collection of shops at the base of the mountain, parked in front of the shop of someone from the village. Crossing the road, we began our trek up the mountain. Walking up and down the mountain is a part of life for most people who live in the villages dotting the lush green terraced slopes. Jeeps can make it up the steep dirt road, but the price is high and the ride is not any easier than walking. So if you want to get up or down, you walk.

The well beaten path gives testament to the thousands of feet that have traveled over it. As sure-footed as a mountain goat and as if his feet remembered the path from traveling it many times before, Shankar led the way for the beginning part of the hike. Carefully watching his foot placement in some areas, I followed closely in his footsteps. I’m not sure how many of the rests we took were for the sake of Swastika or if they were out of concern for me. Several places the path went up the side of the hill at a steep grade, other areas were a little more gentle, like the portion of the dirt road we walked along for a bit.

As we walked we talked about a variety of topics, mostly about his mother and life in the village. He talked some about his mother. How after she had passed, he and his younger brother carried her all the way down the mountain on a bamboo stretcher resting on their shoulders and barefoot. (I can scarcely imagine how difficult that must have been, especially having climbed up and down the steep slope.) And how when she was sick, he drove her up to the house in his car and at one point the whole village came to help push the car up a particularly steep part of the road. Sometimes you could see the sadness in his eyes as he talked about his mother. Even though the process of mourning is surrounded by celebration of life to ensure good things for the soul in their next life, it doesn’t change the sadness a child feels at the loss of their parent.

Along the way we encountered some kids on their way to school in their uniforms of dark blue pants and light blue striped shirts worn over warmer clothes. Some feigned disinterest me, others eyed me with suspicion or curiosity (I’m never quite sure which it is.) After awhile we had gained a very large following. Every time we stopped, they would also stop. Eventually there was some discussion about me. I told them (in Nepali) that my name was MJ. Shankar also provided some of the answers or interpreted what they were saying.

Almost 2.5 hours after we started our climb, we reach the village, left the kids at the school and made the final short climb up to Shankar’s home. As we approached the top of the road we were greeted by a welcoming party that had been eagerly awaiting our arrival. Two malas (garlands) of gold and maroon marigold flowers were placed around my neck and I was given some red flowers and some more marigolds as everyone said “namaste” to me in greeting. Everyone was extremely happy that we were there.

Shankar's village

Shankar’s village

Honoring a Mother

The particular puja Shankar and his brothers were performing is a means to offer devotion and respect for a relative, typically for a parent. Performed on the 15th, 30th, 45th and 60th day after the passing of the person and then monthly until the one year anniversary of the death, the ritual is seen as a way to alleviate any sufferings the person’s soul might be experiencing as it wanders the world for the year.

Cows are viewed as holy by the Hindus and therefore the dung is considered pure. Using a softball sized pile of dung, the ground where the puja is to be performed is purified. Shankar’s youngest brother mixed the cow dung with water and carefully spread a thin layer over the entire area. The selected area was where their mother’s body was placed when she was brought out of the house after she died. Once the area was purified, only Shankar, his brothers and the priest were allowed to step there. When the ground was dry, mats for the priest and the brothers were placed accordingly and the trays of banana leaf bowls containing rice, sugar, salt, turmeric and ghee were readied.

Amidst the flurry of ceremony preparation, food preparation, daily work and preparation for the larger fire puja set for the next day, I was introduced to the family and given the basic tour of who lives where. A tin cup containing hot milk was produced, followed by a plate of food. Everyone was very curious about me and wanted to know my history. After the 10th time and her sharp memory from Thursday evening, Swastika was very effective in providing the answers (my age, America, single, no children). And following the answers, while the men of the family chatted, I leaned over to Swastika and said “they are trying to find me a Nepali boyfriend, aren’t they?” With the Nepali side-to-side head shake, she smiled and said “yes.”

As time grew closer for the puja, the brothers readied themselves. Dressed only in a white cloth around their waist, the first step was to change the strings they wore across their chest. Following a specific pattern, the new yellow string was placed across the chest and the faded white one was removed. The old string had to be broken, because the spirit in the string is so strong that if another person tried to wear it they would have a burn left on their skin, and tossed somewhere. When they were ready, they took their places in front of the priest. Shankar sat in the middle with his younger brother to his right and his youngest brother to his left.

This puja was clearly for the sons to honor their mother and not a large family ordeal. A few of the family members gathered around for the ceremony, although most kept on with the work at hand. People were sent to gather missing items, extra small bowls and a container of water. Cell phones rang and were answered a couple of times. All while the priest continued with the ceremony I tried unobtrusively as possible to take a few pictures (with permission). Mostly I just sat and watched tying to make sense of what was transpiring and wishing I knew more about the symbolism of the ritual.

In the center of the area, three bowls made of banana leaves filled with rice were placed, the center one with a lit piece of special grass and a puri (fried bread), another with just a puri and the third with a copper bowl of turmeric. Mantras were spoken as offerings were made of the sugar, salt, turmeric and ghee. In synchronized movements, the strings around their chests were moved from the right shoulder to the left and back to the right. Tikka paste was prepared in a tin plate that looks like an artist’s paint tray.

Performing the puja to honor their mother.

Performing the puja to honor their mother.

At the end, everyone received a tikka blessing using the yellow tikka powder. The priest first gave Shankar and his brothers the tikka blessing. After all of them had their blessing, then Shankar gave the priest the blessing followed by the wives, the uncles, the sisters, and the children. When all the others had been blessed, Shankar came up to me and said that he thought it would be best for me to have one too. And with that, the ritual was done.

The brothers changed back into their all white clothing and covered their heads. Food was served in the house where the youngest brother lives. The metal plates were piled full with rice, curry, dal and pickle. The elder males had the place of respect on the slightly raised platform, a seemingly continuous flow as one would finish and another would come sit down in their place. Shankar’s youngest brother is a cook as well as my personal photographer, taking my camera and making sure there were pictures of myself and all the family eating. Shankar and his brothers were the last to eat, this meal being the first of the day because of the ritual.

Before heading in to eat, negotiations had started amongst the uncles and Shankar. Shankar’s uncle had organized a large puja for the next day, to which the whole village had been invited. A similar puja had been arranged after the passing of Shankar’s mother, which Shankar was unable to attend. His uncle wanted to know why he couldn’t attend this time. At every excuse Shankar provided, the uncles countered with some means to overcome that obstacle. First was Swastika’s school and missing two days in a row. (Uncles: Missing two days won’t make any difference on her exams.) Next was that I had already paid for my hotel in Dhulikhel. (Uncles: how much did she pay? (I’m pretty sure they would have taken up a collection if I told them).) After that was that we didn’t have enough bottled water for me to drink. (Uncles: we can have some brought up on a jeep.) Lastly was that where Shankar’s car was parked the owner of the shop was not going to be able to close his doors. (Uncles: A flurry of phone calls to confirm that there was no way to close the shop and what could be done. Resolution: Shankar could walk down the mountain, move the car, and come back up (either by foot or jeep).)

Doing the right thing and happiness is always more important than money. It was clear to me that Shankar staying would make everyone, including Shankar, happy. I told Shankar that I had no problem with staying in the village and that the cost of the hotel booking was truly unimportant. And with that, it was settled. Shankar, Swastika and I would be staying in the village. Shankar would make the trek down and back, to move the car and buy water (and an unnecesary roll of toilet paper/tissue) while he was there.

Shankar and his nephew headed down the mountain, while Swastika, one of the nieces, Shankar’s youngest brother and I headed up the mountain a little further. Swastika wanted to take me up to show me a couple of the temples in the village. The first temple was a small cobblestone wall surrounding a courtyard containing two bells and a colorful shrine. The next temple was down in a valley, bright with green crops and yellow mustard plants. After that we went to visit their other grandmother, a beautiful 81-year-old lady worn by sun and farming. She commanded that I sit, and sent the girls to go and fetch some sugar cane. The girls came back with two large stalks of sugar cane that were about three times as tall as they were. The cane was proficiently cut into smaller chunks and peeled so that we could chew on the fibrous mass to get it to release its sweet goodness. Before we left, we had to have a cup of warm and spicy tea flavored with a touch of black pepper to give it an additional bite.

Returning to the house, we joined in with the food preparation for the next day. The amount of food preparation that goes into feeding over 200 people is pretty impressive. The first job they let me help with was making the puri (round fried bread made using corn flour). My job was to help make balls of dough that the remaining 5 people were rolling out into flat perfectly round circles for cooking. At one point, Amrika asked me if I wanted to try rolling them out. To put it simply, I’m not very adept at rolling and flipping the dough in the right way so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin and ends up in a perfect circle. Being taunted with fresh hot cel roti (circles of dough like a doughnut but with the flavor of a funnel cake made using corn flour), I relinquished my rolling pin and block. After my snack, I went back to rolling the balls of dough.

As we worked, Amrika worked on learning a little English which actually involved a great deal of laughing. One of my habits that I picked up in Thailand is to say “ok, ok”. Amrika started mimicking me when I would say it. Through Swastika she was able to say a few other phrases by the end of the afternoon, including that she wanted to come to America with me. In between laughing, the kind old gentleman that looks a lot like Grandpa Walton from The Waltons, would smile his toothless grin and admonish her to work more and talk and laugh less.

While most of the family worked on food preparation, the rest tended to the evening chores. At one point, it was suggested that I try milking the cow or buffalo. While I would have been game for it, I opted not to. Which I think was a preferable choice for both myself and the buffalo.

As dusk started to settle, Shankar returned from his trek. Car was moved and I had two more bottles of water.

Life on the Mountain

As evening settled on the mountain and the temperatures began to drop, all the activity moved inside. The cheerful noise of people eating and talking resonated off the mud brick walls insulating us from the cold. The happiness of family and community apparent in the tenor of the talk and the smiles on the faces. Shankar was certain I was bored and many times offered that I was welcome to take a rest whenever I wanted to. Even though I couldn’t understand a single word, I was fascinated and warmed to be in the presence of such genuine love and didn’t want to miss any moment of this experience. After dinner, we moved to the other house where a wood fire was built in the cooking area and most the people went to work peeling and cutting the vast quantity of squash that was need for the curry the next day.

Finally it was time for sleep. Even though it was only probably 8 pm, I was exhausted from the long day of rising early, hiking up a mountain and meeting the family. My bed was in the youngest brother’s house. A solid Newari bed made of a wood platform and an inch thick mattress covered with the thickest blanket I’ve ever come in contact with. (Shankar’s youngest brother had brought it back from Saudi Arabia where he has been working.) I snuggled into my bed, head covered with a scarf that had I had been lent, and sank into a sound sleep in the pitch black room. The warm heavy blanket and the warmth and insulation provided by the mudbrick walls made for one of my most comfortable nights sleep of the whole time in Nepal.

Without electricity, life rhythms definitely flow with the rising and setting of the sun. Once I could see a faint thread of light around the wooden shutters and was sufficiently sure that other people were stirring about, I decided it was time to get up. Watching the day get started filled me with a sense of contentment. Each person efficiently and happily performing their chores. Large pots of warm mush (flour and water) was made for the cattle. Cows and water buffalo were milked. Goats were brought out to their stakes and their bundles of food hung from the posts. The embers from one fire being used to start the other. People washing and brushing their teeth with the cold mountain water. Shankar said it must seem strange to me. Just because it is not my normal doesn’t make it strange. In fact, at the heart of it, watching the rituals just enforces how similar all humans are despite their culture or where they live.

Of all the sunrises on the Himalaya that I saw during my week in Nepal, the sunrise from the village was by far the most beautiful. For the first time I was truly able to appreciate the height of Mt. Everest. Instead of being a small triangle on the horizon, its height a victim of perspective robbing it of the respect as the tallest mountain deserves, it appeared as a peak that truly stands above all the others.

Removing Obstacles

Preparation for the Fire Puja was a furry of activity, each person doing their part to make certain that everything was as it should be The main preparation was the area where the puja would be performed. The eldest uncle was in charge of building the altar, a 20″x20″x4″ two-tier square built out of cow dung. Once it was made, he proceeded to decorate it using white flour and red and yellow tikka powder. The white representing peace, the red action and the yellow perfection. At each corner were three flower petals. On the east side, was the name of god (Rama). On the south side, was a conch shell. On the north side, was the weapon of Rama. In the center was a wheel with spokes going to each corner. Along the sides was a scalloped pattern looking like a garland made out of powder.

Fire puja preparation.

Fire puja preparation.

The jovial priest with his effervescent personality arrived wearing a bright orange jacket with silver reflective strips and began his process of setting up the rest of the altar. Several people helped to find ways to string the cloth banners with Sanscrit writing on the wall as another altar was set up for Shankar’s mother and the images from the pantheon of Hindu gods. Music was playing on a loudspeaker, and every now and then at the appropriate moments, the priest would throw in a “hare Krishna” or just a “hare”. When I asked what I could do to help, he said to dance. In demonstration he put his hands in the area and spun around sounding a solid “hare”. My version was a much weaker attempt.

The blowing of the conch shell indicated that the ceremony was beginning. The recorded music that had been playing was replaced with a 3-piece band comprised of an accordion, a pair of drums and cymbals. Once the playing and singing began, it carried on continuously throughout the entire day. Listening to the music, it was easy to become mesmerized and start chanting Hare Krishna along with the music. The men of the village took turns filling in as one needed to go do something or just to give them a break. The constant mantras of hare Krishna filling the air, carrying the praises down into the valley and up into the heavens.

The Fire Puja is considered to be very powerful and has many benefits. For the living, the ceremony fulfills wishes, removes obstacles, improves health and increases merits. For the deceased, the ceremony is a method of purifying negative karma in order for the soul to attain a higher rebirth. During the elaborate ritual, the offering is made by tossing a large number of specific substances into the fire. Among the substances offered during the Fire Puja were barley, sugar, ghee, cel roti, and coconuts.

One of the more interesting offerings was the mound of cow dung covered with flowers. Shankar explained this to be a traditional offering to honor Krishna for saving the people from Indra’s wrath. A long time ago, the ancestors used to make offerings of their crops to Indra. Krishna came along and told them to not make the offering to Indra. This made Indra angry and so she ordered the god of rain to send furious and relentless rains and the god of wind to blow mighty winds. The ancestors went to Krishna and asked what they should do, so he told them they must lift the village to make it a mountain. All the ancestors worked together and with the help of Krishna’s little finger, they lifted the ground and were able to be protected from the wind and rain.

Offering to Krisha.

Offering to Krisha.

Shankar was absent for a good portion of the fire puja, as he isn’t allowed to celebrate through singing or clapping of hands for the year while he is honoring his mother. Mostly I again just watched and tried to take in all the detail, wishing I knew more about the symbolism. Prayers would be said by the uncle and the priest over a substance and it would be added to the fire by the priest. This pattern continued until all of the substances had been offered. The words of the prayers being overshadowed by the mesmerizing sounds of the band playing and chanting.

Finally it came time for everyone to participate. Each person was given a handful of barley and then came to stand behind the priest. I wasn’t going to participate until the priest handed me a handful of barley. Shankar was quickly summoned to explain the process to me. While chanting the name of god, offerings are thrown into the fire 3 times. The process was repeated with sugar and coconut. Lastly was a handful of marigold petals. The petals were thrown into the fire while walking around the altar. Coming back around to the starting point at the front of the altar, each person got down and bowed. This process marked the end of the first part of the ceremony.

After a short respite while the area in front of the other altar was finished being prepared for more ritual was performed. All the time the band continued to play the mesmerizing music. People from the village had begun arriving and finding places to sit on the ground in front of the house. The uncle’s oldest daughter was in charge of giving tikka blessings to the people as they arrived. Children that arrived looked at me with that blend of curiosity and suspicion. (Looking back at pictures, I would have looked at myself the same way given the state of my hair having not been brushed and my clothes having been slept in.)

Once ready, the next part of the ritual started up. The priest began by pouring a circle of water on the ground. Next he placed offerings of sugar, salt, grains and tikka powder around the circle at the six points of the star that represents knowledge. The fervor of the celebration picked up with a flurry of spinning, chanting, playing music, blowing conch shells and ringing the bell. The cacophony of sounds meant to ensure the gods hear the prayers and send their blessings.

As mid-day approached, we slipped away from the ceremony and took our last meal with the family before heading down the mountain. Once we finished our meal and bags had been loaded with fresh spinach, squash, garlic, ghee, and fresh cows milk to take back to the city with us, it was time to say goodbye. Shankar suggested that I go over to the group and say namaste to the village. When I did, the priest came over to me and insisted I first dance, indicating that I mimic him in turning with my hands held up in the air. He then placed a mala around my neck and insisted I spin again. Then he gave me an orange and insisted on one final spin. Laughing and happy, I bowed and said one last namaste. Then off we went, accompanied by his brother and one of the uncles for a short way down the road.

Going down a mountain is much faster, although not necessarily easier on the body. We avoided one of the particularly steep areas by taking the road for awhile. With great concern, Shankar kept reminding me to go slowly. I followed him, carefully placing my feet in his footsteps. Along the way, two gentlemen from the village caught up with us. They joined us, carrying Swastika’s backpack as she was struggling with the weight and had developed blisters on two of her toes. They reacted when great concern when I slipped and plopped down on my bottom and again when Shankar also slipped. An hour and a half after we left the village, we arrived at the car.

My final night in Nepal was spent in Shankar’s home. The long drive home was punctuated by stops to buy fresh butter and pick up my belongings from his brother’s house, taking time for a cup of tea and to show pictures of the ceremony. At home, I met his father, a lovely and happy old man and we had a delicious, filling meal after our long two-day journey. Shankar’s wife and everyone ensured that I was comfortable and warm. Covering myself with a fleece blanket and then the quilt, I slipped into peaceful sleep.

In the morning, after the flurry of getting the children off to school and eating some of the most delicious rice pudding I have ever had (Shankar’s wife promised to teach me how to make it the next time I visit), we took our breakfast and I loaded all my pictures from our two days onto Shankar’s computer. His father seemed so happy to see the pictures and spent the 45 minutes that I was gone to walk into Bhouda to buy a few more souvenirs looking at them continuously. Not many people have cameras in Nepal, so seeing pictures of relatives and of the village was particularly special for him.

Finally it was time to head to the airport. Shankar’s father insisted on going with us. At the doorway, his father standing outside the door and me just inside, I was given a tikka blessing, a mala and an orange. The blessing was to ensure a safe and successful journey.

The whole family is a truly kind and genuine group of people who I am so fortunate to have encountered.

A Touch of Nepali Culture

Throughout my blogs I have said very little about some of the customs that I have encountered since I felt they deserved their own special discussion.

Eating in Nepal was one of the most interesting cultural differences I encountered. Nepali eat their food using their right hand. All the food is mixed together on the plate using fingers and then eaten. My food was typically given to me with a spoon as no one expected me to follow suit. On the morning of our stay in the village, they made me a traditional meal of dhindo (thick corn porridge) and sag (cooked spinach). Several people were concerned that I would have difficulty eating this with a spoon. So, much to their amusement and surprise, I followed by example and ate using my fingers. Eating using fingers as the utensil actually makes great sense as it allows you to enjoy the texture as well as the taste of the food. At lunch, I also used my fingers, quietly and without fuss. Shankar noticed and just gave me a nod and a happy smile. Eventually someone else noticed, followed by a warm smile and a laughing comment.

Love is also shown through food. Plates are piled full of food. When the plate is nearing empty, more food is offered. Politely I would accept additional food saying torre (just a little) so as not to offend and to accept the hospitality. The idea of just a little seems to be lost on most people out of wanting to show love and caring. By the last meal in the village, Shankar’s youngest brother actually obliged by only giving me a true little bit more.

Another cultural practice that it took me some time to adjust to was Swastika and other children asking an elder person permission before doing something. The first evening that I ate with Shankar’s family, the kids asked me if they could eat prior to going into the kitchen to take their dinner. In the village, Swastika would ask permission to stand (leave after eating) and to go to the bathroom or off to spend times with the village kids. Such a simple act that shows how elders are honored in Nepali society.

The beautiful more intimate greeting between people was another cultural aspect that I found endearing. At one point during the puja on the second day there was a brief time where people took time to greet each other. The greeting is done only between people of the same gender (with the exception of the old man who greeted me following this ritual). For this traditional greeting, a pair of people say namaste with their hands in prayer position and a bow of the head, then two hugs are given with hands placed on shoulders and changing sides left to right with each hug, then fingers are placed with the thumbs at the third eye (just between the eyebrows) and with fingers touching a final bow is given while uttering namaste and the name of god (Rama). This manner of greeting is to show that you recognize and honor the god that is within each of us. As I was leaving, I honored Shankar’s wife this way.

Heading for the Himalaya

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Getting Settled In

From the air, Kathmandu appears as a mishmash of colorful buildings crowded into a valley. The pinks, blues and greens of the buildings providing splashes color in the otherwise tan cityscape.  Tribhuvan International Airport is by far one of the smallest international airports I have ever landed at. Without jetways the passenger loading and unloading is done directly from the tarmac. On the way to immigration, signs telling interesting facts about Nepal hung from the ceiling. My favorite: Nepal is home to the tallest mountains and the shortest people in the world. After completing my visa application, waiting in line and paying my $25 for my visa on demand, I dove into my first experience of Nepal.

True to the guidebook’s promises, a barrage of taxi drivers were vying for my business. All I really wanted to do was find an ATM so that I would have Nepali Rupees. Not that having rupees was completely necessary, as most people in Nepal will take US Dollars instead. The first two people that approached me were less than helpful. A third guy, sitting along the windows, pointed me in the direction of the ATM. He too was a taxi driver, and since he was kind enough to help me out and was going to charge me $2 less than his competitors, I accepted his offer.

As the rickety white taxi car pulled up, I almost immediately began to doubt my choice. Still, I got in and off we went into the Kathmandu traffic. Kathmandu traffic was a whole new experience for me. Traffic fills the streets in a chaos of each car and motorbike attempting to find the least bumpy spot of the road, which often means the center or the opposite side of the road. Cars seemingly go every which way and there is a distinct lack of traffic lights. At some of the more major intersections, police are stationed to help provide some sense of order in traffic flow. Honking as communication is necessary, but far less pervasive than in India.

Between two calls to the Shechen Guest house for directions, the driver assured me that he knew where it was just couldn’t remember exactly. Those rea not very reassuring. Eventually, after a trip up a slightly paved street, asking yet another person where Shechen Guest House was, a U-turn, and a trip down a small alley, we arrived at Shechen Guest House.

From the outside, the guest house was picture perfect. The rooms looked out on a lush green courtyard and the brightly colored side of the temple from the attached monastery with strands of prayer flags fluttering in the light breeze. Inside, the drab room with paint that had seen better days and the musty smell was less appealing. The people were friendly, the location was very near the stupa and the proceeds go to the monastery, so that made the room tolerable.

Anxious to explore, I struck out in the direction of Bhoudanath to see one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal. A short walk and I had my first sight of the white dome, topped with a gold square painted with Buddha eyes on each side, and a gold spire reaching into the clear blue sky. Prayer flags fluttering in long strands streaming from the spire to the four corners. Circling the stupa, spinning the prayer wheels and counting “om mani padme hums” on their malas, were dozens of devout Himalayan Buddhists. Some monks in their deep maroon robes, old women dressed in traditional Nepali fabrics, and people wearing every day clothes made up the worshipers. At the Hindu temple at the front, people were making offerings. An old woman in her maroon robe was stationed outside the shrine door. She called me over and gave me a blessing, for which I gave her my only small rupee bill (50 NPR). I climbed up on the stupa platform, spinning prayer wheels and taking pictures. Seeing the stupa was just what I had hoped it would be.

Bhoudanatha Stupa

Bhoudanatha Stupa

Bhouda is home to several monestaries and the energy of the area reflects their presence. Chanting, drumbs banging, cymbals crashing and horns blowing were omnipresent as each monestary had a different schedule for their prayer sessions. Around the stupa, recordings of “Om Mani Padme Hum” chants played continuously. Collectively it was actually quite soothing.

Kathmandu is a city that is too large for its britches. Approximately 3.5 million inhabitants live in this city with an infrastructure less than adequate to support that size of a population. Most streets are almost paved, at least in the centeral part of Kathmandu. Going out to the edges of the city, such as in Bhouda where I was staying, the roads are a combination of remnants of paving and dirt. Electricity supply is far greater than the demand, requiring rolling balckouts at least once if not twice a day. The rolling blackouts are a part of life, as evidenced by the schedule posted in the lobby of the guest house. Which, if you miss that sign, can lend to a bit of confusion upon returning to your room and finding that there is no power.

Touring Kathmandu

Nepal is just starting to tap into the tourist market. Almost a reflection of the city itself, the idea of providing quality service as part of tourism has not completely been realized. Instead, key tourism destinations generally charge a hefty price to all foreign (non SAARC (South Asian Agreement for Regional Cooperation)) tourists. In one day of sightseeing, the total entrance fees that I paid was 2600 NPR (or $26). The perception that all tourists have money is also clear in the phrase “150 rupee not big money to you” (or 200 or 300 rupee). By the end of my first day of sightseeing this attitude toward me as a foreign tourist had me feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

My one day of sightseeing was full of the must see locations such as Pashupatinath, Swayanbunath Stupa, Patan Durbar Square and Kathmandu Durbar Square. I do belive that my trip would not have been complete without seeing these sites. The most effective way to see the sites is to hire a driver for the day. Hiring a driver was where fate smiled on me. Shankar, a man with a friendly face and demeanor to match, picked me up promptly at 8 am. Piling into his white taxi car, off I went to see Kathmandu.

On the way to our first destination, Pashupatinath, Shankar and I talked about Himalayan Buddhism and other topics of interest. He gave me history on the city and the area. About the three kingdoms, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, that were joined together to form Nepal. He also explained how a long time ago the Kathmand valley was a lake that a king was told to drain so that the kingdom could be established there. Finally, he also gave me advice about the guides at the tourist locations. Because Shankar doesn’t have a tourism license, he is not allowed to walk around with me and explain the temples and the practices. He strongly advised to get a price from the guide. Advice I should have heeded more stringently.

Pashupatinath is a large Hindu complex known primarily for the cremation ghats. After Shankar showed me some of the smaller outlying temples, including one where I recieved a couple of blessings. One being a yellow many stranded string tied on to my right wrist while a prayer was being said. Another was a tikka on my forehead. The gentleman at the temple explained about the Shivalinga (primary symbol of Hindu worship) and the four faces on each side of the pillar in the center of the Shivalinga. Depending on your troubles, you would pray to the appropriate face.

After that small temple, we were approached by a guide. Later Shankar told me that the guide was being very beligerant about the fact that Shankar was telling me about the place and that he would report him if he didn’t stop. To my face the guide was friendly. And when I asked about a price he said to pay “whatever made me happy”. Herein lies the mistake that I made. Being a trusting person coming from a fixed price system that hates to barter, I was not insistent about a price. Off I went with the guide for my hour or so tour.

The guide provided a wealth of information about the rituals and the history of the place. The primary ritual he explained to me about was the beliefs around death and cremation in the Hindu faith. When a person dies, the body is cremated and the ashes are cast into the Bagmatti, the source of the Ganges river. The rituals go beyond just a cremation. The body is wrapped first in white cloth  (for purity) and then gold cloth. The sons carry the body to the river for purification on a bamboo platform. The body is blessed and the gold cloth is removed, because our bodies enter the world naked they should also leave the world naked. After the body is prepared, it is carried to the cremation platform and placed on the pyre of wood that is waiting. The eldest son is responsible for placing the fire in the mouth. What this means is that the eldest son circles the body three times with a lit offering and then places it in the mouth of their parent. Only sons are allowed to perform this part, if the person had no sons thenthe attendant for the platform would perform this duty. After the fire is placed in the mouth, the body is covered with straw and the cremation begins. With the body are gold placed in the mouth to wish the spirit wealth in the next life and bags of rice to wish that the spirit never gets hungry in the next life.

The rituals extend beyond the cremation. After the ceremony, the members of the family perform a ritual to be purified. The sons will shave their head and face, save one lock of hair, and will wear only white for the next year. Rituals to honor the parent are performed once every 15 days for the first 2 months, then once a month for the rest of the year. On the far bank of the Bagmati from the cremation platforms, people were performing these rituals. In addition, for the year the sons are only allowed to eat pure foods and are prohibited from eating items such as garlic or anything that has been dried.

Our tour continued to the far side of the river where many stupas and shrines had been built. Many of the shrines are home to holy men with their continual chanting, smoking of cannabis and offering tikkas to tourists. My guide lead me to one of the “official” group of holy men (which in retrospect I suspect is a group that is more for show) where I received another tikka blessing by three men with their faces painted and wild hair (at a cost of 300 NPR ($3)). My guide also showed me the reflecting shrines. A series of 11 shrines built in perfect alignment so as to appear like a reflecting mirror of shrines. The king built these shrines in the hope of finally bearing a child. 11 is a key number because the 11th incarnation of Rama is the one for fertility and child bearing. Also from the far side of the river, we were able to watch the whole cremation process from purification to lighting the pyre.

At the end of the tour came time to pay. Apparently whatever my guide felt would make me happy was 4000 NPR ($40). 4000 NPR is what Shankar was charging me for the whole day of taxi service. I told him that I could only afford to pay 1000 NPR ($10) (in reality I was thinking that it would only be 500 NPR) and even paying 1000 meant that I would not be able to pay entrance fees or buy souvineirs. Yes, my emotions got the best of me and tears flooded to my eyes. Clearly, I was not happy. He had told me before that if they make someone cry, then they will cry the rest of their life. When he offered me to take my money back so that I wouldn’t cry, I should have taken it. As I walked to the Shankar could read my face and knew what had happened.

Leaving Pashupatinath, we headed for Swayanbunath, one of the largest stupas in the world perched atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. Swayanbunath is also known as Monkey Temple, so named for the many monkeys hanging about searching for food. Visitors need to be wary that they don’t hold their cameras or purses in a way that a monkey can snatch them thinking they are food. Shankar was able to walk around with me here and explain about the temple. We walked around the stupa admiring the white plaster, the gold square atop painted with Buddha eyes on each side and the spire reaching up into the blue sky. Prayer flags streamed from the top of the spire to all four corners, their red, yellow, blue, green and white flags representing the elements and blowing in the breeze to carry the prayers off into the heavens. Walking around Swaynbunath was a terrific respite from my experience at Pashupatinath and helped restore my spirit for more sightseeing.

In Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism peacefully co-exist at many of the temple complexes. Some people believe that Buddha is an incarnation of Rama, facilitating the existence of the two religions hand in hand. At Swayanbunath, several Hindus were making offerings at their shrine while Buddhists circumambulated the stupa spinning the prayers wills and reciting “om mani padme hum.

For lunch we headed to Patan Durbar. Durbar is the term for a square where the royal palace is located. On our way in, we stopped at a fruit stand for Shankar to purchase some fruit, a nice assortment of oranges, apples and bananas. Fruits are sold by weight, as measured by a balance scale with a basket on one side and weights on the other. The restaurant was hidden away in a courtyard just off of the main square. While waiting for my food, Shankar shared his fruit and explained that he can’t take food that isn’t pure while he is respecting his mother’s spirit since she had passed away 40 days prior. Outside of the home the only guarantee for pure food is fruit.

Patan Durbar square is filled with a variety of temples adorned with intricate wood carvings. Again, being a tourist location, Shankar was technically not able to tell me about the temples, so I carried my tour guide book with me and read some of the information at each temple. Wandering away from the square, we visited a variety of smaller temples tucked away down narrow alleys in small courtyard areas. Looking at the amazing brick and wood architecture was as interesting as seeing the temples. The cobblestone alleys were flanked on both sides with mud brick buildings that look as though they have been standing there for centuries. The ornate carvings on the window sills and eaves of the roof mimicking the carvings of the temples.

The last stop for the day was Kathmandu Durbar Square and an ATM as I was quickly going through my rupees. On our way there I made the comment that if I couldn’t find an ATM then I would not have enough money to pay the entrance fee and to eat. He told me that if I couldn’t find money, then I could come eat with him and his family in his home. I happily agreed to that prospect. When we arrived at Durbar Square, he dropped me off since no parking was available and pointed to the entrance and where the ATMs were on the other side of the street. Agreeing to meet at 5 PM, I wearily headed off for my last sight of the day.

I’ve decided that whoever designed the game Frogger had clearly experienced trying to cross the road in Kathmandu. The key is to hold your hand out as cars and motorbikes approach, kindly asking that they stop for you. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Using the protection of some locals to cross the street, I made it across and back successfully.

Almost immediately after paying my entrance fee, I was approached by a person wanting to be my guide. I told him that I had my guidebook and that I would be fine. He blithely replied that the book was written by foreigner and wouldn’t tell me all I needed to know. I simply walked on. A little further on, another want-to-be guide approached me. He told me that the Kumari Bahal (House) was open and did I want a guide. Again I declined and headed for the house. Kumari Devi is a living goddess. A young girl is selected  based on 32 stringent criteria to serve as the goddess until she reaches puberty and becomes impure. At the appointed time, the Kumari Devi approaches the second floor window of her house and looks down at the chowk (courtyard) full of visitors hoping to catch a glance of the living goddess. Pictures are not allowed and she will not make an appearance until is confirmed that all visitors have put away their cameras.

Filing out of the courtyard with the throng of visitors and being accosted by women trying to sell postcards, I headed for the main square. At this point of the day all the temples I had seen blended together in my mind. I stood and looked in my guide book for details and another man struck up a conversation with me as he pointed out the big bell used to call people together for important announcements, the dancing platform and the hippie temple. His initial statement of wanting to just talk for free was after a time followed with an offer for tea and to talk more. Out of a combination of wariness and only having a limited amount of time, I declined and walked away.

Attempting to escape the continual offers for guides and to buy souvenirs, I climbed the stairs to the top of one of the temples. Unfortunately, at the top was a gentleman who I was hoping was also just there to look down on the sights of the square. I was wrong. He too wanted to be a guide and it had been a very unlucky day for him as far as helping tourists. He too struck up a conversation, offering to be my guide. During this conversation I adamantly explained to him how tired I was of being treated like I had money just because I was a tourist and that $1.50 or $2 or $3 adds up to be big money. I told him that for them to look at tourists like they have money is the same for me to look at all Nepali like they are not kind and just want to take advantage of foreigners. He persisted in spoiling my attempt at some respite from the crowds so I climbed down the stairs and headed toward where I was supposed to meet Shankar, hoping that he would be there earlier than our appointed time.

The best and most special part of my day was the very last. Shankar repeated his offer for me to join him in his home for dinner and to meet his family. I gratefully accepted this generous offer. His simple home is on the third story of a typically narrow Nepali building, tucked off the main road. Only his wife was home when we arrived, as his daughter and nephew were off collecting his son from school. His wife handled the surprise gracefully and then insisted on making a second curry because I was there, despite my insistence to not do anything special. When the children arrived, they were definitely surprised. The boys were quiet and shy, hiding behind Shankar or his daughter as much as possible and whispering the questions they wanted to ask. Swastika, his daughter, is learning English in school and is quite proficient in it. While she was shy at first, as the evening wore on she began asking questions about my likes “do you like pets?”, “do you like birds?”, “do you like to camp?” among other questions. While she and I chatted, Shankar, his cousin (who had arrived while we were eating) and wife tried to make sense of my life since as a single, 43-year-old, traveling and living alone, I don’t fit into any Nepalese paradigm. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end a very long day.

Some Really Tall Mountains

The key when flying into Kathmandu is to get a seat on the right-hand side of the airplane. As the plane approaches Kathmandu, passengers on the right side of the plane get the best view of the Himalaya. Coming from a place with mountains, the height of the Himalaya is truly impressive.

No trip to Nepal would be complete without seeing Mt. Everest. Since I didn’t have the time, training or inclination to even trek to the base camp, I opted for the easier approach of taking a Mountain Flight. Most of the small Nepali airlines offer 2 or 3 Mountain Flights each day. Departing early in the morning, when the skies are the clearest and the views are the best, the planes fly down the mountain range toward Mt. Everest and make a turn and come back up to Kathmandu. Six- to 20-seater planes are used so that all the passengers have a window seat.

My flight was on Simrik Airlines. Nothing instills confidence like the manager of the airline giving a small talk before we boarded about how Nepali airlines have been banned from flying into the European Union citing their poor safety record. With that in mind, the 18 of us boarded the vintage 1900C Airliner. I’m sure not everyone appreciated the low cabin height, vintage upholstery, seat belt buckles that required lifting the metal buckle to actually insert the tab into the buckle or the 3 air sickness bags in the seat pocket; however, I thought it was awesome.

Rattling down the runway we lifted into the clear blue skies. Heading down the Himalayan range, the stewardess would walk down the plane and point out key mountains as we went by. As we neared the turn, everyone had a chance to walk up to the cockpit to see Mt. Everest head on and take pictures. Karma, the agent that had booked my flight, ensured that I was on the best side of the plane. While I didn’t have great views on the way out, I was lucky to be on the side closest to the Himalaya on the return trip, offering much better views of all the peaks on the way back to Kathmandu.

Mount Everest from the air.

Mount Everest from the air.

To be honest, as mountains go, Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) really isn’t that interesting. Seeing the tallest mountain in the world is impressive; however, its 29,028 feet (8848 meters) is really hard to perceive from the air or from a distance. Looking at the mountain it is merely a granite pyramid covered in alpine glaciers. Several other much more interesting mountains live in the limelight of their big brother.

The most interesting mountains to me are ones that have different faces and contours that catch the light giving the mountain a character of its own. Ganesh Himal (24,350 feet (7422 meters) is one of the Himalaya peaks actually visible from Kathmandu on a clear day. The broad face with three points like a circus tent and covered in snow catch the sunlight like a cloud with sharp edges floating above the Kathmandu valley. Gauri Shankar (23,405 feet (7134 meters)), the holy mountain, has double peaks and a deep bowl that give the mountain depth. The mountain is considered the dwelling place of Shiva and no one is given permission to climb the mountain (either by the authorities or by Shiva). Melungtse (20,660 feet (6297 meters)) looks like a mountain that was never finished, leaving a snow-covered curve of granite in place of a point.

Escaping It All

After my one day in Kathmandu, I was ready to escape the overwhelmingly big city and find something that would hopefully match the image of high snow covered mountains and friendly people that I had in my mind of Nepal. On the advice of my friend that had served in the Peace Corps in Nepal, I headed to Nagarkot. A small hill station higher (7,201 feet (2195 meters)) in the mountains about 1.5 hours from Kathmandu purported to have great views of the Himalaya and provide the ultimate location to just relax and enjoy life.

Leaving the city behind, the drive to Nagarkot took me past tan mud brick houses with wood trim painted bright purple or blue, and up narrow winding roads. By narrow, I mean so narrow that two cars couldn’t pass each other easily, let alone trying to get around the occasional bus or truck. Potholes added another feature to the journey up the mountain.

My destination was Peaceful Cottage Hotel. The minute I arrived at Peaceful Cottage I knew I had definitely made the right choice. Perched near the top of the hill overlooking valleys on both sides and a view of the Himalaya stretching across the horizon, the snow capped peaks reaching into the blue skies, I instantly felt better. The air was crisp and clear and felt amazing on my lungs that had been growing ever more clogged with smog and pollution. Even the people seemed to be more genuine and friendly than most of the people I had encountered in the city.

My room was a room fit for a princess. Located in the new building (so new that it was still under construction), the room with its tile floor and wall decorated in rock was a breath of fresh air from the mustiness of the Shechen Guest House. Two of the walls occupied by near floor to ceiling windows offered an amazing view of the valley and the mountains. One wall decorated in rocks ranging from small pebbles to stones, creating swirling patterns. The heavy wood headboard reminiscent of the temple carvings I had seen so many of the day before.

The most spectacular moments of the day at Peaceful Cottage are sunset and sunrise. At sunset, the red glowing sun slowly sinks into the mists of Kathamandu valley giving everything a mystical quality and taking the heat of the day with it. Sunrise is a must see event, especially from the rooftop. Around 6:30 the first blush of light touches the top of the highest peaks of the Himalaya making them glow like diamonds. As the sun continues to rise, the peaks are painted a blushing shade of pink, the light emphasizing the various faces of the mountains. The beauty of the mist filled valleys, dark foothills and the gentle pink of the snow capped Himalaya is breathtaking. Sunrise is also when Mt. Everest is the most visible, although it is merely a small triangle on the distant horizon.

Sunrise from Nagarkot

Sunrise from Nagarkot

My time in Nagarkot was dedicated primarily to relaxing, writing and just enjoying the view. During the day, I chased the sunbeams across the patio, moving every so often as the shade of the building overtook where I was sitting. In the evening, I staked out my spot at one of the tables in the dining room. Every so often I would take a break from my writing to enjoy the view of the Himalaya and the falcons circling over the valley or to visit with other guests or the staff.

I quickly became friends with Laxman, one of the staff with a vivacious personality, sparkling eyes and genuine heart. He would come over to chat often and made sure I had a thermos of hot water and the occasional cup of tea. The afternoon of my first day he took me on a motorbike ride to visit his village. As I watched him get his bike, I noticed the ritual that he did prior to moving or starting the bike. Three times he passed his hand over the engine then touched his head and chest with his fingers three times. As I never asked, I can only assume that this was asking the gods for a safe journey, which given the state of the roads around Nagarkot was probably a good thing. Laxman’s village is maybe 2 km from the hotel nestled into the side of the mountain. The village’s population of 200 people lives in clusters of homes for each family group. Laxman’s family members have three houses there belonging to brothers and sisters. I met the water buffalo and goats and most of his family. His brother’s sister made us tea. Sitting and drinking the tea I really wished that I knew more Nepali so that I could understand what his sister was saying. Laxman was not exactly the most helpful translator, his jokester personality often making me question if what he was translating was true or not.

After we left his village, we headed up toward an area that is a typical gathering spot for locals on their day off (Saturday). Several buses and large groups of people were playing music, dancing and cooking. We looked at the view for a little bit, then the group of women from Bhaktapur noticed me. One of the kids hooked up some music to the speaker they had brought and the dancing began. Surrounded by women in their bright fuschia and red and turquoise saris, I tried to follow along and have fun. At every turn, I would find a cell phone being used as a camera pointed toward me. One of the women showed me how to do their local dance, which hopefully I didn’t mess up too badly. After 30 minutes of laughing and dancing, we headed back to the hotel. Getting to experience the true spirit of the people makes my heart the most happy. These type of experiences are the ones I treasure most when traveling.

When in Nepal, Do as the Nepali Do

I’ve always found it the best approach to do as the locals do. This axiom applies to everything from eating to dressing appropriately.

While it almost never snows in Kathmandu, it does get very cold. Most buildings have no heat. The first night in my room at Shechen Guest House, I had trouble sleeping because I was so cold despite being dressed in long pajama pants and a thermal shirt and was buried under a thick blanket. After having dinner with Shankar and his family, I realized the importance of keeping my head covered. That night (and for all nights after that) I slept with a bandana on my head. Amazing how just a thin piece of cloth can make such a difference. The second night I was actually sweating.

Shawls or blankets are a key feature of almost every Nepali’s daily outfit. When I made my decision to head to Nagarkot, I knew I would need this extra layer if I had any chance of actually staying warm. My $5 investment in a green woolen wrap was well worth it in the chilly air of Nagarkot.

Ever since I was a child traveling with my dad, I have made it a point to try and learn at least a few words in the native language. Nepal is no different. On my first taxi ride I asked how to say “no” and “thank you”.  Slowly I added to my vocabulary, especially with the help of Laxman and Shankar. By the end of my time in Nepal I now have an 18 word vocabulary where I can say: hello (namaste, nameskar), thank you (thanyibar), a little (torre), hot (tatu), pani (water), cold (tishue), my name is MJ (meru namu MJ ho), what is your name (Que namu ho), no in 3 different ways depending on context (huay naa, huay dai naa, chay naa) and I love you (maa tameli maya gatzu).

Two Full Days

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Monument to a Queen

“Wow!” Not one of my more articulate moments but that is all I could say at the very moment I walked through the red sandstone gate and took in my first view of the Taj Mahal. My jaw literally dropped at the splendor of the white marble against the clear blue sky. The delicate carvings appear like lace in a beauty befitting a queen and the shallow pools leading up to the building reflecting the beauty up into the heavens.

First view of the Taj Mahal

That sight alone was worth every minute of the drive there, which was actually quite pleasant. My expectations for an arduous journey had been set well before I went to India by a friend that had traveled there a few years prior. Other than the traffic getting out of Delhi and getting into Agra, the trip was a peaceful journey using the Yamuna Expressway across flat green-brown fields punctuated by yellow mustard fields and the chimneys of brick furnaces rising up through the morning haze. A mere 3 hours after leaving the house, we made it to Agra. Agra has not yet figured out the necessary infrastructure to support a monument of such magnitude with the average 20,000 people who visit this New Seventh Wonder of the World daily. A mad chaos of cars, trucks, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, and cows sluggishly made their way through the town, across the river, around a sharp U-turn along the river and finally into the streets around the Taj Mahal. I think the only people not really bothered by it all were the cows.

Once parked, the car was instantly assaulted by people wanting to sell books, post cards, magnets and I have no idea what else. Narrowly escaping them and the many touts offering rickshaw rides to the gate and the people offering to be a guide, we bought our tickets. Entering a big attraction like this is when being a woman in India is a benefit. Separate entry lines are designated for Gents, Gents with High Value Ticket (i.e., foreigners that have to pay 750 rupees instead of the 20 rupees Indian and SAARC people do), Ladies and Ladies with High Value Ticket. We had the shortest line possible, Ladies with High Value Ticket.

Other than being a “guide”, locals make money by offering to take pictures of people in all the classic poses (on the bench, standing, making it look like you are holding the Taj Mahal by the top spire). The fee is about 50 rupees per shot, and it is actually worth it. So after going through the photography session, which I can’t complain because our guy took the same pictures with my camera that he was also taking with his, I was able to really take in the beauty of the place.

The Taj Mahal is built with perfect symmetry, with Shah Jahan’s beloved wife’s sarcophagus at the center of it all. (The only exception is the sarcophagus of Shah Jahan which was erected beside her sarcophagus.) Looking at the large white dome, flanked by two smaller domes to each side and accompanied by four white minarets reaching into the clear blue sky, the symmetry of it all is subconsciously taken in while marveling at the beauty. Entering the mausoleum, the awe continues. The marble screen surrounding her tomb is carved into a detailed latticework, each panel being carved from a single piece of marble. The walls are bejeweled with flowers and borders made from rubies, lapis lazuli, and malachite. The intricate beauty of the place can scarcely be elaborated by mere words.

Example of the intricate stone work

Example of the intricate stone work

As a person that generally travels alone, I know how nice it is to actually have pictures of yourself at the places you visit. I also think that it is nice to offer to take pictures of couples instead of them taking a picture and trading places. The first couple I offered to take their picture, had apparently heeded the advice to not let anyone offer to take your picture for fear they will run off with your camera. Being an honest person, I felt a little sad by their reaction. The next couple I offered to take their photo also appeared hesitant, so I offered to let them hold my camera while I took their picture. That made them relax. And after I took their picture, they insisted on a picture with us in it.

After lunch and collecting my photos, we headed to a park on the opposite side of the river from the Taj Mahal. Working our way back through the Agra traffic was again a bit of a challenge, taking longer than you would expect in a small town. The near deserted park provided a peaceful view of the Taj Mahal and a chance to take pictures that are void of other tourists.

Getting into the Thick of It

After easing into India culture the first part of my trip, I finally took the plunge and dove into it head first like it was an ocean of cold water. Delhi By Cycle offers bicycle tours around Old Delhi. Instead of just looking at the chaos that is Delhi, you actually get to experience that chaos first hand by riding a bicycle through it. Meeting at 6:30 AM, we climbed on our bright orange bikes and off we went. Flanked by our guides in their bright orange jackets, we rode through alleys that were barely wide enough for our bikes and a person to pass, past people starting their day around fires of burning trash, through slightly wider alleys, and along busy streets. Going on the tour was a truly incredibly way to experience Delhi.

Along the way, we stopped at particular points of interest for our guides to explain various landmarks and to snap the occasional picture. We made stops to look at the old British architecture of buildings long since empty but still owned by families and to gain some history bout the city. We stopped to see places such as the Red Fort, St. James Church, and the Jama Masjid mosque. In some places, local people would gather to see the tourists and maybe to listen. On a couple of occasions people begging for food or trying to sell trinkets approached the group and were quickly shooed away through the sternly spoken Hindi words by one of our guides. Most of the time, the people along the way would just say “Good Morning” or “Hello” as we passed by and the kids would stare at us wide-eyed and a little shy.

Looking around at the people gathered around small piles of burning trash or that are washing at the community water pump, the initial gut reaction was a bit on the side of “what a terrible existence this must be.” Going beyond that paradigm, I started realizing that this is just their life. Homes do not have running water or central heating. And these activities are their morning rituals, no different from anyone waking up anywhere in the world.

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The olfactory assault was a little harder to get over. The combined smells of urine and burning trash resulted in a pungent combination. Women sweeping the area in front of their homes continually stirred the urine scent as it mixed with the dust and was catapulted into the air. The smell of trash burning was layered onto pf the already pungent smell. In particular the man burning a large plastic tarp, the odor of melting plastic permeating the air. All of this combined with the exhaust from the cars, trucks and motorbikes and the general smog that hangs over Delhi left an acidic taste in my mouth and throat.

The highlight of the Yamuna Tour was a short boat ride on the Yamuna river. Leaving our orange bikes under the watchful eye of one of our guides we made our way over the flood barrier wall to a home situated on the bank of the Yamuna river. Donning life jackets we climbed into the small boat that was rowed downstream while our guides explained various facts about the river, such as 18 sewage/rain drains dump directly into the river and the lotus like plants on the river are merely remnants from cremation ceremonies. We passed by a person on his barely buoyant makeshift raft collecting trash from the river to sell. We finished our river tour with a viewing of the cremation grounds (Nigambodh Ghat) where the last vestiges of one of the morning’s cremations was still burning and the ashes from another ceremony were being cast onto the river.

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After a chai break, we hopped back on our bikes for more of the city life. We passed by the large group of men gathered in the hopes of finding some work for the day. Another large group was waiting in line for polio vaccinations. The morning ablutions had given way to the start of commerce. Food cooking provided an olfactory respite. Fruit stands and stores were starting to open up. During this stretch of the ride it was imperative to start making friends with the bell on the bike and how to use it, as the number of people, bicycles and motorbikes in the alleys had increased significantly. By the last bit of the ride, I felt like a true participant in the conversation of honking and bell ringing. Short rings to let people know that you are there, longer more insistent rings to try to urge people to get out of your way.

At the end of the tour, Mr. Joseph came to collect me and continue on with my day of sight-seeing. First stop was at the Red Fort, the primary landmark that I wanted to see. The impressive red sandstone walls are another testament to the incredible appreciation Shah Jahan had for architecture. Many of the inner building are made from white marble, with inlaid stones and carving similar to the Taj Mahal. The smooth white marble providing a lovely contrast to the rough red sandstone.

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It was only noon and I was on stimulation overload between the sights and smells of the bicycle ride and the hordes of school children at the Red Fort who wanted to take their picture with me. To add to the over stimulation, I ended up going out the main entrance of the Red Fort and walking along the street for some distance. Immediately after exiting the compound, I was flooded with taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers and tuk tuk drivers all asking if I needed a ride. In retrospect, it might have actually been worth 20 rupees to have them take me the short distance to the parking area.

The night before I had discovered that the charging cord for my tablet had died. Our main objective for the afternoon was to find a replacement cord. It is at times like this where I wish I didn’t have a tablet that uses proprietary adapters for their power supply. First we went to Kahn Market, an area with several electronics stores. Mr. Joseph and I went from store to store asking them about a cord, several of them trying to say that it was the same as an iPhone 4 cord, and others just looking at it, shaking their head and saying to try the next one. The consensus was that, if there was an ASUS tablet cable to be found in the city of Delhi we were going to need to go to Nehru Place.

After a lunch break, a pleasant place recommended by Mr. Joseph, we headed into the Delhi traffic to Nehru Place, which is most of the way across Delhi. At this point, let me just say that Mr. Joseph is a saint. Nehru Place is a morass of electronics vendors and people offering software and laptop laminating. I didn’t think it was possible to actually hock that much software. Mr. Joseph persistently guided me through the place, again stopping at several stores. Strangely, the ASUS store didn’t have a cord but sent us to 107-A in another building. 107-A is a small niche in the wall where we found a young man who apparently had all the necessary connections and minions to carry out his bidding. He was able to produce not only a charging cable but also a converter plug so that I can still use the charger when I get back to the States. And if the charger should have problems, it has a 3 month guarantee.

The last stop was the Lotus Temple. A Bahai temple designed to look like a lotus flower, the bud of the lotus formed by the white architecture and the opening petals pools of blue edged in white stone. Having seen the temple from the air, it gave me a whole new appreciation to how far across the city we actually were. Partly out of not wanting to keep Mr. Joseph waiting too long and partly out of exhaustion and overload, I stayed just long enough at the temple to take my shoes off, walk around the temple, read a little about the Bahai philosophy and reclaim my shoes. The temple is really beautiful and a very unique piece of architecture.

Driving (Riding) in India

Driving in India is truly an art to be appreciated. With all manner of vehicles vying for their spot in what first appears to be a discombobulated mess, it is possible to eventually discern a vague pattern to it all. Traffic lanes are quickly abandoned. Details like turning from the furthest lane left or right is a convention that is also mostly abandoned. Vehicles insistently make their way into lanes or across traffic, usually resulting in a cacophony of honking.

The horn (or bell for bicycles) is the primary means of communication. Long and insistent honking to indicate the desire to pass or the irritation that you are in their way. Short honking to say I’m here so watch what you are doing or that I am going to make my way through this traffic no matter what. Painting on the back of trucks remind other drivers to “Blow Horn” so that they are aware you are behind them and want to get around. Honking becomes so insistent that it is easy to believe that drivers must honk their horn every 20 seconds or they will go into withdrawal. Some horns are solid and strong commanding attention. Other horns make you laugh at the weak attempt to demonstrate their presence. The high-pitched tweedle-tweedle-tweedle-tweedle of the large trucks almost laughable for the oxymoron the sound creates.

Just navigating the tangled mass of roads is an impressive skill. Being a former part of the British empire, the layout of streets in Delhi make pervasive use of traffic circles. Each traffic circle looking almost identical to the one before, just differing in the number of spokes coming off the circle. The center most often green and occasionally boasting a statue, the curbs painted yellow and black. Adding the traffic with cars going every which way requires adept driving and amazing knowledge of quickly knowing where you are going lest you get caught going around the traffic circle again and again.

My admiration for Mr. Joseph grew with each successive time we headed off into traffic. This quiet man had such a solid approach to driving that seemed to be in direct contrast with his outward demeanor. Rarely did he ever get riled by the traffic. He simply played his part in the dance, honking when necessary and being insistent in getting to the front of lines at stop lights and crossing across traffic (either perpendicularly to or in line with the traffic) always ensuring the safety of his passengers. Not only did he navigate the traffic expertly he always seemed to know exactly how to get to where he was going efficiently.

Keeping Things Safe

India takes public safety very seriously. Perhaps if this level of attention was upheld locally, we wouldn’t have some of the problems that we do. The security is consistent across airports and tourist monuments.

All the bags, whatever you happen to be carrying, are scanned. Then you queue up in the appropriate line, ladies in one, gents in the other. After walking through the metal detector, you step into a small screened off area where you receive a pat down by the same gender official, often including the use of a wand to check again for metal. At first this whole process feels a little invasive from a western perspective, that is until you gain the appreciation for the seriousness at which security is taken.

At airports, once your security scan is complete, your boarding pass is stamped by the official. Your airline provided carry-on tags are also stamped, indicating that they have been screened. The tags are checked at the gate prior to boarding the plane. Not sure what happens if you somehow made it through without the stamps

The importance of security checks extends beyond the scanning of bags and people. During my shopping expedition to Nehru Place, we had to park in the garage. Prior to entering, we were required to stop so that an offical can scan the undercarriage of the car using a mirror. I’m sure a visual scan of the interior is made as the official walks around the car with the mirror.

Life in Chiang Mai

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Tourist Season in Chiang Mai

High season in Chiang Mai brings a whole different feel to the otherwise lazy and laid back atmosphere the rest of the year. The traffic on the roads is more ubiquitous, changing the ratio of motorbikes to cars. Parades of tuk tuks filled with tourists like clown cars sputter down the streets. Large lumbering tour buses attempt to navigate the sometimes narrow streets and blocking traffic as they make the u-turns from the inside moat road to the outside moat road. The Thai that work the shops and markets in this area have taken on an air of exasperation with the constant stream of foreigners. Rare is the greeting of a genuine smile and heartfelt “sawad dee ka” in this area of the old town, especially from the workers the 7-11 at the heart of the backpacker area.

Taking detours down small sois (alleys) to avoid the hordes of tourists and the exhaust from the traffic reminds me that the area around CM Blue House is more than just a collection of coffee shops, massage shops and guest houses. Well before this area become the hot destination for so many young people backpacking their way across Southeast Asia, this neighborhood was and is home to many Thai people. Even on the more popular sois, looking closely you can see the homes. Some of the inhabitants have used the boom in tourism to their advantage turning part of their homes into restaurants, laundry shops, bicycle rental places and other types of shops. The rest come and go, carrying on with their daily lives. I often wonder what they think of all these farang (foreigners) roaming about the sois.

Shopping, Football and Herbal Steams

One of the advantages of being on my ninth journey to Thailand is that I can pick and choose what I want to do with my days without having to feel like I need to fill every available moment with tourist activities. Almost every day involved a trip to Fitness Thailand for a workout and venturing out for food, usually to the Chiang Mai Gate night market. Also managed a trip to Worowot Market for some shopping, a couple of Monday morning Denver Broncos games and an herbal steam.

Worowot market is a bustling hive of shops, generally consisting of two buildings and a plethora of additional shops. The streets around Worowot market are crammed with cars, motorbikes, songtheaws and people. Both buildings offer opportunities to purchase pretty much anything you might need. The only real difference is that building 2 feels like you are trapped in an MC Escher painting. Staircases leading to ramps and more ramps leading to stairs that lead to ramps, all of them lined with stalls selling everything from clothing to housewares to food. I bought a couple of shirts and some peanut yummy goodness (a sticky mixture of puffed rice, dried coconut and peanuts) and decided to save my energy for being in a crowd until the Sunday Night Walking Street.

My Monday mornings were spent at Thai 1 On Bar and Grill eating breakfast and watching the Denver Broncos play their Sunday Night Football games. The first Monday I was pretty much by myself, other than Tony (the owner) and Chien (his right hand man). Felt a little funny to be the only one yelling at the TV about bad plays and cheering for touchdowns, and I’m pretty sure Chien thinks I’m a crazy farang (as did the group of young European tourists that had arrived to eat and play pool). When the broadcast would show views of Denver on the return from commercial, I would show Chien and tell him that is where I am from. Made him very excited to see it and he doesn’t believe that Denver and Chiang Mai are the same size.

The next Monday, Tony had the game on the TV before I even got there. That Monday I was joined by 3 guys from Chicago who were just rooting for a good football game, and 2 guys from Boston that were rooting for the wrong team. Definitely a fun way to watch the game. Guess I should have actually packed my jersey (although I’m not sure I would have had room for it in my already near full suitcase).

After two days of intense training, Jo (the other student) and I headed to Spa Mantra for an herbal steam to detoxify everything that had been stirred up by the massage work. Spa Mantra is a beautiful spa located just outside of the old town. The warm and soothing interior is dressed in lush fabrics and plenty of places to relax. Upon arrival, an ice-cold, slightly sweet tea garnished with rose petals to prepare the body for the steam is served in traditional metal cups that look like small bowls. After drinking our tea and checking in, we were led up the stairs where we were given lockers for our purses and a tray containing a sarong and a hair cover. After changing, it was time for the steam.

The 8′ x 8′ room was filled with luscious smelling steam infused with beneficial herbs so thick you could barely see across the room. After awhile, maybe 15 minutes, the helper opened the door and told us it was time to come out for a few minutes. During our break we were served a room temperature brown tea with a delicious taste that I couldn’t quite recognize. The tea helps to bring the impurities out of the body. After giving our bodies a few minutes to cool, it was back into the steam. We repeated this process two more times, each time the cool tile benches became a more welcoming contrast to the hot steam. Once we could take the heat no longer, we emerged from the steam room slightly light-headed and sweat oozing from every pore combined with the moisture from the steam. A cool shower finished the process. The treatment was rounded out with hot Butterfly Pea Tea, a delicious blue hot tea that helps to improve circulation and cleanse the blood, and a plate of watermelon.

Of Keys and Motorbikes

Keys and I have a real issue in Thailand. Last trip, I blamed the number of times I left my keys in my motorbike or my guesthouse room door on the wrong dosage of a medicine I was on. This trip, I’m lacking that excuse. And while the frequency of leaving the keys in my motorbike has decreased, I’m still finding it to be a problem. Especially when I leave the ignition in the “On” position, which is a new twist to this habit. Even more problematic is when I leave it that way for 2.5 hours, as that tends to drain the battery. Fortunately, the automatic motorbikes have a kick-starter for just such instances, so long as they are on the big kickstand. The tricky part is getting the motorbike up on that stand when you only weigh half as much as the motorbike. The unfortunate part is that I actually got good at it after I left the keys in the ignition and on for another 45 minutes the next day, again draining the battery, just not as completely.

Riding a motorbike in Chiang Mai is still an experience that I relish. The weaving amongst the cars to the head of the line at traffic lights, the crosswalk taking its role as a motorbike waiting zone. The surge forward as the light turns green. Or actually, just slightly before the light turns green in that pause after the opposing traffic light turns red. The happy smiles from other motorbike drivers. The wide-eyed stares by young children squished between parents or riding standing in front of the driver. The school girls piled 3 to a motorbike with their matching uniforms of navy blue pants, orange shirts and navy blue bows tied in their thick black hair.

Of course, the opportunity to have a small mishap is always present. Fortunately, my second incident in 9 trips to Thailand was just a minor one. I was heading home after a 35 minute ride around Chiang Mai to charge the battery in the motorbike and was turning onto the moat road. Following the motorbike in front of me, I attempted to squish by the line of cars waiting to turn. By squish, I mean that there was just a very narrow strip of asphalt to precariously steer along without scraping the car next to me. Unfortunately, my motorbike skills are not quite good enough to do that, and I ended up tumbling off the pavement. The kind gentleman on the bike behind me helped to right my bike, get it back on the asphalt and generally put the mirrors back in their more appropriate positions. The motorbike and my body both sustained a few scratches but generally stayed in fine working order.

Long Road to India

About 2 years ago, I was invited to India to visit a family that I had met at the Elephant Nature Park (2 years in a row). Each time since then that I would send one of my email blogs, I would get a short message reminding me that Delhi is only a short flight from Bangkok. So this year, I decided to go visit. While it may be a short flight, the process for getting a visa to get in the country has been long, long road for me.

Shortly after booking my flights for India in September, I started the rather confusing India visa application process through the designated visa provider in the US, BLS International. Starting mid-October I began worrying about the fact that I had not heard any word on the status of my visa. As my November 14 departure date drew ever closer, my anxiety and panic rose. My attempts to contact the helpline proved futile. Finally, 6 days (3 business days) before my departure, without a visa or my passport, I had no other option but to report my passport as stolen and procure a new one so I could at least get to Thailand.

Once in Chiang Mai, I started the visa application process again. At the same time, my initial application was approved and a multi-entry visa was issued to my now invalid passport. Apparently, invalidating the old visa and just assigning a new one to my new passport is not an option. The in-person visa application requires an interview with the Consul General, an abrupt man who uses his power to make applicants feel insignificant and seems to lack any sense of compassion. After a 30-minute berating that left me in tears about the concerns of reporting a passport as stolen (yes, I know that a terrorist could steal my identity), how I was accusing India of this situation (I wasn’t, I accused BLS International), that obviously my passport wasn’t stolen (since I had a picture of my visa) and how there was no room for emotion in this situation (once I lost any sense of composure I was trying to maintain), I was sent away to get additional proof he required for the application. I found myself thinking that it was hard to believe that a country that honors Gandhi, one of the most compassionate men ever to have lived, would choose this person to represent their country.

On November 20th, I finally managed to get my application submitted, and at that time I was informed that it would take a week to get the visa processed. My flight to India was mid-day on the 27th and I still needed to fly to Bangkok to catch my flight. The cloud of anxiety still loomed over me as I began to formulate back up plans for getting to India.

After trying to not obsessively check the India visa website (the 8 times I did between the 25th and 26th, all it said was that my application was in process), I decided to make a trip in person to the consulate on the morning of the 26th. I am still convinced that the Visa Processor gentleman is the only person with compassion at the Chiang Mai India Consulate (with the exception of the door sentry, who on the second day of attempting to submit my application said “happy, happy, no tears” on my way in.) His kind smile and gentle demeanor was a welcome contrast to the Consul General. When the processor gentleman saw me, he went to get my file, and asked me when I was planning to fly. When I responded with that evening, he asked me to come back that afternoon.

Thanks to his kindness and compassion, at 2 PM (well outside the designated hours for picking up a passport) I am now in possession of a single-entry visa and will make my flight for India. And thankfully airlines do not charge extra for same-day flight arrangements.