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).

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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.

Festival Time in Chiang Mai

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Festival of Lights

Since starting my adventures to Thailand in 2008, the Loy Krathong Festival has been on my bucket list of Thai experiences I needed to have. The amazing beauty of postcard images of hundreds of sky lanterns glowing orange floating up into the dark night sky was something I wanted to see with my own eyes.

Held on the full moon of the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar, this festival is celebrated by lighting and releasing khom loy (paper sky lanters) into the sky, hanging colorful fabric or paper lanterns and setting krathong (offerings made of banana leaves, flowers, incense and a candle (krathong has no actual translation)) off down the river. The paper sky lanterns that are launched into the sky and the krathongs that are floated down the rivers are meant to symbolise the drifting away of bad luck and misfortune and provide the opportunity to say prayers asking that wishes and hopes for the future be fulfilled.

Northern Thailand combines the Yee Peng Festival with Loy Krathong. Yee Peng is the Lanna festival of lights. And in true Thai fashion, the whole festival lasts for 3 days and is filled with events and people lighting off fireworks and firecrackers. Hotels and guest houses fill up early. In fact, having forgot to make my reservations when I booked my trip in September, I actually found myself staying at a new place for the first two days of my trip. The Western House Hotel was pleasant, but not the same as coming home to the CM Blue House.

The highlight of the celebration for me was going with my friend Lek to the mass launch of khom loy at Mae Jo University. Designed primarily as a photographic event, thousands of people turn out to participate. Many are tourists and all the anouncements are made in Thai, English and Chinese. Lek picked me up around 4 PM to give us ample time to wind our way through the heavy traffic in the hopes of claiming some piece of turf before the whole massive expanse of green was covered in people, lighting torches and khom loy. Definitely glad Lek was driving the 13 kilometers to Mae Jo. As she expertly wove her way through the heavy traffic, I was able to truly appreciate the variety of smells and sounds of the city and countryside. The sweet smell of flowers wafting on the light breeze competing with the sour smell of exhaust from the cars.

Entering the compound, we were given plastic sheeting to sit on and greeted by the chorouses of young Thai girls welcoming us to the festival. The field was layed out with rows and rows of torches containing candles that would be lit at the right moment in the ceremony and used for lighting the khom loy, most of them surrounded by early comers. We staked out a spot, I by a torch, Lek in a spot not too far from me where she would hopefully have a good vantage point for snapping photographs. After claiming my spot, off I went in search of a khom loy to purchase. A never ending monologue (in all three languages) was broadcast over the loud speakers, explaining the purpose and meaning behind the ceremony. The grey skies threatened rain. While it didn’t actually rain, it did provide a dramatic backdrop for the first early khom loy that were released while waiting for the event to begin.

The ceremony began around 6:30 PM with a demonstration how to properly light and let the khom loy fill with warm air to carry it off into the heavens. Following was a demonstration on how to pray and bow according to Thai tradition, including a couple of practice bows by the entire audience. Finally, a very long sermon was given, the gist of which was about stilling the heart and allowing for inner peace and happiness in your heart, your friend’s hearts and the hearts of all people everywhere. Maintaining focus on a long sermon given all in Thai is not easy and it was often that I would find my attention drifting to the steady stream of khom loy that were being launched into the dark sky.

After the sermon and the circumambulating with candles, it was time for the big moment. The spotlights lighting the field were turned off. People were instructed to light the torches and their khom loy and then to wait for the cue to release the lanterns.

Lighting a khom loy is definitely a two or more person process. A girl from Australlia helped me with mine. Once the parafin ring is lit, the lantern fills with hot air and slowly begins to rise. The heat from all of the khom loy becomes a bit intense with that many people so close together. The orange glow is truly magnificent. While holding the lantern, prayers and wishes are said in preparation of relase. On cue, all the lanterns are relased, floating up into the night sky carrying wishes and prayers and honoring Buddha. As the lanterns reach altidue and are caught by the wind they make a road of wishes drifting off into the distance.

Just like the postcards and images I had seen, it was truly a beautiful and amazing spectical to behold!

Holistic Navigation

Usually one of my first orders of business upon arrival in Chiang Mai is to get a motorbike. The freedom a motorbike provides is unparalleled. I’m not tied to finding a tuk tuk or a songtheaw (shared taxi) to get to where I want to go, especially when I have a whim to go to Tesco Lotus (department store) for this or that or need to actually get to somewhere specific since street pronunciations are not among my strength in speaking Thai yet.

The trade off though is that it is easy to miss out on the details of being in Chiang Mai. Or the chance encounters that can occur. Since I figured traffic would be miserable with the festival, I opted to not get a motorbike right away. Which made for a lot of time in my shoes, with many benefits. The biggest benefit has been running into people that I would have otherwised missed if I was zipping here and there.

So after two days on the back of a motorbike or on foot, I got my motorbike. And for the first trip since 2008, I have found myself without my trusty Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai with its cheerful, colorful maps and tips for things to see and do. Being without my trusty friend feels a little sad. We have been together through many Chiang Mai (and surrounding areas) motorbike adventures. To be fair, my map is being held together by a lot of tape and doesn’t fold very well anymore. Perhaps it is time for a new map. In the meantime, I am making due with the free tourist maps that are definitely lacking in detail (like streets and a consistent scale).

After so many kilometers on a motorbike during my past trips, I have a pretty good feel for most of the roads around Chiang Mai. Still don’t know them quite as well as the back of my hand, but I’m working on that. The combination of no map and a vague sense of the streets makes for a bit of what I call holistic navigation. Using holistic navigation methods, I follow the other motorbikes and cars that generally look like they know where they are going and hope I end up where I want to be. For the most part this type of navigation has been successful. When it fails, I find myself exploring parts of Chiang Mai that I haven’t seen before, which is not a bad thing.

Being a Non-tourist

One of my aims for this trip is to just exist in Chiang Mai. To not fill my time to the brim with tourist activities and motorcycle adventures. Some days are dedicated to training. Outside of those days, I have no set schedule. So far this approach has been fruitful, both mentally and in having experiences I might have otherwised missed.

On Sunday night, as I was making my way along the inside moat road admiring the little candles being placed along the sidewalk as part of the Loy Krathong festival, I ran into two of my friends Aek and Mix. They were on their way to meet friends to go to Amooga, a Thai barbeque restaurant, for dinner and invited me along. And by invited, I mean they told me I was coming along. I never made it to where the main festival activities were taking place. Instead, I had a much more satisfying evening spent with friends and experiencing a meal I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience otherwise.

Thai barbeque is a type of hot pot meal, although instead of boiling the food in the water, the steam and heat are used to grill the food on the top of the plate. The cooking plate is placed over a burner on the table and the trough around the edge is filled with water. To start, everyone fills a plate (or two or three) with whatever types of meats and vegetables they want to eat. The meat options ranged from steak and chicken to squid, and everything in between. Still not sure what half of the options were. Then the cooking and eating begins. My eyes were definitely bigger than my stomach. Not to worry though, the boys took care of finishing all the food on the table (much to my astonishment) and two bottles of SangSom The whole meal, including non-alcoholic beverages and coconut ice cream for dessert, cost 199 baht (or just under $7).

On the way back to the old town, we stopped to launch a krathong. My krathong had banana leaves folded into intricate points, giant yellow marigolds and purple orchids. I lit my joss stick (incense) and the candle. Keeping the candle lit proved to be a futile task in the light breeze that had started blowing. Placing a few strands of hair on the krathong, I made my wish and let it go in the Mae Ping (river). Sadly, I don’t think my krathong made it very far as it had trouble catching the current and ended up bunched against a branch with several other krathong. Still, just maybe my misfortunes will be floated away and my wish will be granted.

Rain, Rain Go Away…

November is a transition from rainy season to cool season in Chiang Mai. The warm daily rains of the wet season are replaced with sporatic cooler evening storms. Many days the clouds just threaten. The last two nights though we have been graced with torrential rains. The first night I was caught on the other side of the old town with my motorbike. I had forgot how cold riding a motorbike in the rain can truly be. Even on the short journet back to the Blue House, I found myself trying to take as much advantage of the heat of the other cars as possible.

One of the Loy Krathong events is a parade showcasing brightly lit, highly ornate floats bearing the winners and contestants in the Noppamas Queen beauty contest. All of the floats and participants were staging when the rain started falling. All the beautiful women, dressed in their finest were rescued from their floats as fast as possible and all the parade participants went scurrying for cover. I headed home as quickly as possible, lacking either a rain poncho or an umbrella, assuming the parade was cancelled given the torrential rain that we had all night.

The other downside to the rains is the number of mosquitoes. The voracious mosquitoes take any opportunity to grab a drink of blood. Finally resorted to buying some mosquito repellent. I think the mosquitoes are just laughing at it though as I’ve managed to continue to amass welts from bites.

I am also now the proud owner of an adorable blue umbrella with a polka dot trim. Hopefully I don’t have to use it too much, especially while riding my motorbike.

Stepping off…

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Welcome to the Adventures of Gypsy Gal!

The Gypsy Gal (me) likes to travel and likes to write, so this blog site is a melding of those two passions. Here you will find the tales of the Gypsy Gal on her travels throughout the world.

I have posted some of my tales from previous trips and look forward to posting more very soon.

Read, imagine the sights and smells, and enjoy!

More Elephant Time

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The Little Ones

The park has two new darlings that everyone is fawning over. Naavan is about 6 months old and is a cheeky little fellow. His birth was a complete surprise as Sri Prae, one of the landmine victim elephants, never showed any signs of being pregnant. This 300 kg little toddler is curious about everyone and everything.

On the first day the volunteers experienced Naavan’s curiosity first hand. The group of volunteers had just got out of the river after bathing the elephants and the ensuing water fight. Around the corner came Naavan, rushing ahead of his auntie and mom to the river for bath time. He decided to check out our group, which collectively sent us scurrying up volunteer hill (no longer called that, but that’s what I know it as.) One of the volunteers just couldn’t seem to get out of Naavan’s way whichever way he went and ended up getting chased almost to the river. Watching the chase gave us all a good laugh.

After bath time, Pom let us have a photo opportunity with the new family. Pom asked me to help her with the bananas by putting them out for the adult elephants. Naavan hasn’t quite figured out how to eat bananas, making them more of an object of curiosity to be played with than eat. What was even more curious to him was the bag of bananas I was holding. Instead of playing Tug-of-War with Naavan, I opted for Keep Away. Not that I had a chance of winning either, my odds were better with Keep Away. A few nudges from him and a bit of scrambling on my part I successfully got all the bananas out of the bag. That little guy is really strong!

The other new darling of the park is Dok Mai. She was just 16 days old when I got to the park. The cute furry little elephant is so sweet to watch as she figures out her trunk and feet, like a new baby figuring out their hands. Dok Mai is the second baby Dok Ngern has given birth to at the park.

Dok Mai and her mother are currently secluded in a shelter until Dok Mai is a little older. At around 4 to 5 weeks Dok Mai will be old enough to be around other elephants and the two will be able to rejoin the family group. In the meantime Chiang Yim, Dok Mai’s older brother, is not handling the arrival of his baby sister very well. His behavior is erratic like a child trying to get the attention he was used to. Unfortunately, when a 4 year old elephant decides to have a tantrum things can get a little crazy.

Spending Time with the Elephants

Having been to the park so many times, I definitely have my favorite elephants that I like to spend some time with. Volunteer elephant bathing time was at the end of the day. Generally this was when I got to see two of my favorites, Mae Do and Mae Lanna. Mae Do has a broken pelvis from a forced breeding program and is one of the most immediately recognizable elephants at the park. She and Mae Lanna are never far apart.

My time with Mae Do was considerably less this trip. She and Mae Lanna have a new shelter that we didn’t visit on our elephant walk, which is typically when I would spend the most time massaging her hips. (Yes, you can massage an elephant, it’s all about providing healing touch.) Additionally, with 49 volunteers it his hard to find that time where she isn’t surrounded. On the last day I had a little alone time with Mae Do and her mahout. Mae Do’s mahout always recognizes me. His english continues to improve, at least at a faster rate than my thai.

Another favorite elephant pair is Jokia and Mae Perm, the superstars of the park. Mae Perm is the first elephant rescued by the park and holds the status of reigning matriarch. She is amazingly compassionate and serves as guide for Jokia who is blind in both eyes from abuse. During our elephant walk we spent the most time with this pair. Because Jokia is blind, you have to touch her trunk first when feeding her. If you touch the underside of her trunk, she will put her trunk up and allow you to put the food directly in her mouth. The important part is to not throw the food into her mouth. Technically, feeding the elephants directly in their mouth is against the safety rules, but then all rules have an exception.

Not All Fun and Games

The volunteers at the park help offset the operating costs. Which means doing some of the work. Each day we had a morning chore and typically had an afternoon project. The typical morning chores include elephant poo to clean up the shelters, elephant kitchen to clean and help prepare the food for the day, cutting corn for the elephants’ overnight eating and mud put to make sure the elephants have sufficient mud to apply as sunscreen. My favorite morning chore is still cutting corn, followed closely by cleaning up elephant poo.

Corn cutting typically takes up the whole morning and into the afternoon. The fields are about an hour from the park and 300 bundles are needed to feed the growing herd. Cutting corn involves the opportunity to use a machete. Which is probably why I like this task so much. (Yes, I still have all my toes and fingers. Only injury to report is a blister.) Using a machete to cut corn in the middle of the Thai countryside surrounded by bright green rice fields is actually quite cathartic. It’s also a point of pride for me if I can keep pace with the Thai workers that are there to help us. I am getting faster bit still not quite as fast as they are. Maybe next time.

Elephant poo is fun because it often provides unexpected encounters with the elephants. One of the shelters we clean is the area around where Dok Ngern and Dok Mai are currently staying. Straying from his typical mantra of “more work, less talk”, at this shelter it was “more pictures, less work”. At least for a little while.

Blessings for Long Life

Lek, the founder of the park, has been rescuing and caring for elephants since the late 90’s. In 2003, through a very generous donation she was able to buy the property that currently comprises the majority of the park. Last week marked 10 years of the park operating as an ecotourism organization in this location.

On Tuesday, a ceremony was held to commemorate the 10 years. As we came up the stairs to the upstairs platform room we were greeted by a common room transformed into a sacred space. At just about head level, blessed white string made a grid. Above each cushion on the floor was a piece of string tied in a loose knot. At the front of the room a large tripod of sticks had been erected, a different offering at the base of each stick. The string from the grid wrapped around the tripod and to a Buddha image on a little shrine. The string connects us all and the tripod represents the way we support each other.

Sitting at the front of the room were six monks, one in deep red robe providing contrast to the traditional saffron robes associated with monks in Thailand. The ceremony was performed by the monks and the shaman from the village. Very little was explained about the actual content of the ceremony, so I can only interpret based on what I have seen at other ceremonies. Candles were lit, offerings were made and blessings were said. During a long bit of chanting, that even the monks seemed to tire of, a large tray of small candles were lit. At another point in the ceremony, following the lead of the shaman wrapping the string from above Lek and Derrik’s head around their head, we pulled the strings down so that they were either touching our heads or holding it in our hands while they were in a wai (hands together like a payer position.)

At the end of the ceremony we were told to keep the string as it represents long life. Some people tied the string around their wrist in several bands. Alternatively, the monk in the deep red colored robe was willing to say a blessing and tie it on your wrist. In total breach of Thai culture, I performed my wai with my hands at my heart instead at my forehead. Then in an effort to not make contact with the monk since I am a female, I managed to drop the string on the floor. While he was wrapping the string around my wrist 3 times and saying the blessing, the first loop around my wrist slipped out of his fingers so he had to very carefully, without actually touching my skin, pick it up. Hopefully the blessing is still valid despite the several gaffs that occurred. I’m sure it is.

OK, Some Fun

Doing the mud pit requires some people getting in the muddy water and breaking up the dirt around the edge with a hoe to make mud while other people bring more water up from the river. Often this chore is touted as a free spa trip, since some people pay good money to be slathered in mud. Eve and I decided to go all out and rub mud on our cheeks, nose and chin. In reality it was putting on war paint.

Rule #1: wear your oldest possible clothes. People with water and mud make for a enticing combination. Every person in the mud pit was waiting for who would be the first to start the mud flying. It begins innocently, using your hoe to splash the backs of the people on the opposite side. From there it escalates to grabbing a bucket to pour or splash mud on each other. Another tactic is to just tackle the person into the mud.

Rule #2: not even bystanders are safe. Once the people in the pit are sufficiently mud covered, the mud fight expands outward. The first casualties are the ones bringing water up from the river. The next casualties are the onlookers that have decided to actually come down to ground level.

Rule #3: do not wear your contacts. I only discovered this rule after the fact. After several buckets of mud to the face, I actually had someone with river water help rinse out my eyes. Not sure how sanitary that was, but it was better than the mud.

Once everyone was sufficiently coated in mud and exhausted from laughing and playing, we headed to the river to get the first couple of layers of mud off. As we paraded by a group of day visitors, I’m sure they thought we were crazy. But what better way to show how much fun being a volunteer can be. Three days later I think I finally have all the mud out of my eyes and ears.

Special Moments

My most favorite elephant at the park is an old trekking elephant named Jarunee. Jarunee’s back is rippled from years of carrying a saddle and tourists and she is blind from old age. For all my previous visits, Jarunee was part of an elephant pair. Last year her best friend passed away. With the arrival of Naavan, she has become one of his aunts. This lovely old lady has a new chance to get the social support and love she needs from being part of a family group.

Because Naavan’s family group doesn’t yet come to the platform for feeding, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to spend some very special time observing Jarunee and her new family. Naavan was initially interested in us. He checked us out and then his attention quickly turned to a log that was there.

Watching him puzzle out moving the log was sweet. While using his trunk to check it out, it moved much to his surprise. Again a little nudging with his trunk and again it moved. So he gave it a try using his leg, this time suspecting it might move. After that he rolled it a few more times using either his trunk or his foot. And then he was distracted by some other new thought.

One Night in Hong Kong

The first stretch of my long journey took me to Hong Kong for an overnight stay. Since I was only in the city for a little over 12 hours, I opted to stay in the Kowloon area where lodging is typically cheaper. Leaving my luggage at the Left Luggage in the airport and armed with my Octopus card and 380 HKD, I headed into the city.

Conveniently located about 3 steps away from the B1 exit of the Jordan MTR station, the New Lucky House is a rather dodgy looking building. Readying myself for an adventure, in I went. The Hoi Shing Hotel occupies two flats on the first floor in the New Lucky House building. The rickety elevator took me to the first floor where I was faced with a barrage of signs pointing to the variety of “hotels” on this floor and eventually located my hotel. $52 does not provide for especially luxurious accommodations in Hong Kong. My 8′ x 10′ room offered two beds that comply with the Asian standard of firm, and a bathroom that is smaller than a standard size bathtub. But it was clean and had air conditioning and an adapter power strip for people travelling with US plugs.

Kowloon by night is a crazy mix of neon lights and traffic. For a few minutes I stood there with my mouth agape taking it all in. Running low on cash and the ATM’s unwilling to give me more, I wandered over to the Temple Street night market to see if I could find something cheap to eat. Fortunately, the food on my two flights was good and I decided that I didn’t really need to eat.

Hong Kong at 6 am is much different than Hong Kong during the day. The streets are virtually empty, the neon lights are sleeping and the MTR stations deserted. The whole city felt as if it was pressing the collective snooze button to delay waking up.

Until Next Time

Leaving Thailand is always a little emotional, even though I know I will return. My journey back involved 5 airports and 4 airlines. Sadly, with each progressive flight taking me further away from Thailand, the standards of food quality and amenities decreased. At least I had interesting people to talk to and an empty middle seat on the long flight from Tokyo to Seattle.