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Namaste Nepal

3rd September 2010, Boudha, Nepal
So I've finally left India and come to Nepal - a brand new country for me, how exciting! Due to the rain and sickness I've not covered a lot of ground as yet, but I've got heaps of pictures to bore you with, both from Nepal and Ladakh, including some post-disaster ones to give you an idea of how things looked there - nothing gruesome.

After taking a day off to rest up and email (and feeling miserable and guilty all day), I went back to volunteering, and put in a further four days before leaving Leh. The most productive days were those spent working with the local woman, who sang and laughed, working tirelessly all day. Their menfolk were not as hard working on the whole, with a ratio of five minutes work to ten minutes standing around leaning on shovels, which was frustrating. My natural bossiness made me crack the whip and try to squeeze more work out of them, with varying degrees of success. Tourist numbers were dwindling, and there was still so much work to be done.

I spent most of the time at the hospital, with one day at Choglamsar, where hundreds of bodies were thought to be still buried in the feet-high mud. I switched from using the woks to move mud, to putting the dirt on sacks, folding them in half and carrying them in front of me to the huge heaps piling up outside the buildings. I stopped using this method when I began to lose the feeling in my arms; there's a strip along my right forearm that's still not back to normal. By the last day I was carrying the mud the way I knew best - filling the sacks and putting them over my shoulder, postman-style. I could shift much more this way, with the help of Graham, a retired farmer from Devon, who would shovel the mud for me and assist me in hoisting it onto my shoulder. He had utilised a small trolley and dustbin, and was moving large quantities very efficiently. The only downside to this was feeling the wet muck ooze down my back; I certainly did look a mess.

I lost it completely on the way home that last day, had a miniature nervous breakdown. I was far too filthy to try and hitch a lift in a car; my back and the seat of my trousers were caked in wet mud. I waved half-heartedly at a pickup that didn't stop, then resigned myself to walking back. I'd overestimated my energy though; I could hardly manage to put one foot in front of the other. I'm sure some of it was knowing that I'd finished now, my work in Leh was done. I stumbled slowly up the hill, holding my mask to my face to protect me from the worst of the dust and exhaust fumes. I cut through the steps lined by shops and stalls to get off the road. I knew I looked a state, and it doesn't do to be scruffy in India, but figured people would understand I'd been doing my bit. I stopped for a brief rest then carried on, eyes down, willing my feet to keep moving. I glanced up and saw a woman sat next to her husband by a stall looking straight at me. I smiled wearily and said "julleh", whereupon the couple looked me up and down with a look of disgust on their faces. "I've been digging out the hospital," I protested, trying to justify my appearance.

On I staggered, crying with exhaustion, keeping my head down lest I see any other disdainful looks. A short while on my emotions got the better of me, and I sat on the pavement, my head in my hands, sobbing. I knew I was making a spectacle of myself, but couldn't stop. A nice man asked if I was okay, and I looked up to see that I'd drawn a bit of a crowd. I explained that I was just very tired, and thanked him for caring, and continued on my way, snivelling. Finally I made it up the hill to the main bazaar, and I looked at all the lovely, wrinkled Tibetan ladies selling vegetables on the pavement. I passed groups of young men, fit and strong, standing around, sitting, laughing, chatting. Why weren't more of them helping? Particularly at the hospital, just a short walk away. It is they and their families that may need to use it one day, not me. If all the men in Leh had put in an hour or two at the hospital, it would have been clear already.

I kept telling myself everyone has choices, and other people's choices are no concern of mine - it had been my mantra the previous few days, to try and stop myself feeling angry at those people who have chosen not to help. There were two groups of people that still provoked my wrath though, and I had a lot of trouble keeping it together when confronted by them: beggars and shoeshine boys. The former group are mostly women who, from their facial features, are quite obviously not from the region. Healthy looking females, sometimes with babies. There were more in Leh since the disaster - I wasn’t the only one to notice that. I guess they were spread out around the villages, and had since moved into the city. Call me cynical, but I wouldn't be surprised if they migrate to Goa for the winter along with a lot of the businesses from Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. They would turn up at the hospital at lunchtime to get a free meal, then spend the rest of the day panhandling. "There are people worse off than you right now," I would tell them. "Why don't you go and help?"

The shoeshine boys did it to me every time. I'd tell myself I wouldn't bite, but I always did. Everyday, morning and afternoon, three or four clusters of shoeshine boys along the way would offer to clean my shoes. Everyday I told them that I was going to volunteer - my shoes would get dirty that day and the next. Sometimes I managed to be polite; sometimes I'd snap and shout at them. That day I snapped, kind of. It was the third group to accost me, three young men, one with a baby on his lap. I squatted down to talk to them, telling them again that I'd been at the hospital, helping. I reminded them that they could one day need the hospital. They sat laughing in my face. I pointed at the baby on the man's lap. "One day your child may need to use the hospital, but if it is not cleaned what will happen?" They laughed. I pointed to another boy, "what if you break your leg, and the hospital cannot treat you? Why don't you help?" Pointless. I continued out of their sight, then ducked into an alley for another crying jag.

By now I was an emotional wreck, but managed to make it to the bridge in Changspa, just two minutes from where I was staying. I sat on the banks, the rush of water drowning out my sobs, and noticed that a large section of the other bank had collapsed into the flow. More will too; all along that bank was a huge crack, the earth and stones swaying out over the stream, waiting for gravity to take its course. I tucked my knees up into my chest and rested my head against them, thinking how I was over India and pleased I was leaving in a few days time - then remembering that I first have to survive two days in Delhi. I had no idea where I was going to stay, but planned to find somewhere half decent with room service, so I didn't have to leave the room until it was time to fly to Nepal. The wind got up and I started to shiver, but still I couldn't stop the tears from flowing.

After about twenty minutes, Surindar happened along and stopped to talk to me. He's one of the nice waiters from the Booklover’s Retreat, my favourite restaurant in Leh (and not just because it's right next to my guesthouse). He told me that the owner was going to close up in ten days due to the lack of tourists. He'd return to Himachal and wait for the Goa season to start. I asked about his family; he'd married in April, and spent just six weeks with his wife before coming to Leh. He told me he'd spend the first two months in Goa alone, and then send for his wife. The brief chat was just what I needed. I finally got myself under control, and continued to the guesthouse - where I was thrilled to find that grandma was stoking the furnace for hot water. She said she'd seen me coming. For I think the first time in my eleven days volunteering, I was able to stand under a lovely warm shower and get properly clean.

I flew to Delhi on the August 20th - submitting to the bizarre security rigmarole at the airport. Strangely items of clothing are not allowed in hand luggage, and many people were also having batteries confiscated (fortunately my rechargables slipped through the net). After security you then had to leave the departure lounge, and point to the hold luggage that you had already checked in before it was loaded onto the plane. On arrival at Delhi I phoned Chris, hoping he'd booked somewhere for me to stay; he hadn't, but I was able to find somewhere near the airport without difficulty. I did as I'd planned, staying in the room ordering room service (Rs120 for plain rice - that's nearly two quid, almost as much as at home! I wasn't impressed), and immersed myself in the Internet. I had literally hundreds of pictures to upload, both to pbase and the commercial site I use.

Two days later I was back at the airport for my flight to Nepal. I bumped into Donna there, which was lovely. She was on her way back to Australia, and we had a nice catch up whilst waiting for out respective planes. My flight was only a short one, just over an hour in the air. As the plane taxied up to the terminal at Kathmandu, one word sprang to my mind: tinpot! Not in a bad way, it was just that Nepal's International Airport had a decidedly provincial feel to it. As I disembarked, the air felt a lot cooler than it had in Delhi, and the humidity - while still high - was not as stifling. I somehow managed to be one of the last passengers off the plane, but the second at the immigration booth, where I paid my US$100 for a 90-day visa, and got stamped into the country by a chirpy man in a traditional Nepali hat.

Once I'd collected my pack (after following my golden airport rule of always going to the loo before you encumber yourself with the bulk of your luggage, whether you think you need to or not), and shuffled through customs control, I found myself in a room with a couple of tourist desks - money exchange; pre-paid taxis. I spotted a sign for SIM cards, and knowing what a bleeding palaver it had been to get sorted with one (well, three and counting) in India, I headed over, realising I'd probably be paying over the odds, but the convenience outweighing the rip-off factor. There was also the fact that I'd given Chris a bit of a hard time for not booking me a hotel in Delhi (I had dropped hints, but men aren't big on picking up hints, are they?) - after the ear bashing he'd received, I figured he'd probably sorted me something out here, and daren't leave the airport without checking. It was a good move, as he had, and I was told to sit tight as the pick-up from the hotel was on its way (I think he'd booked it about ten minutes before, being one to leave everything to the last minute, bless him!).

Not long after, a smiling man held up a card with a variation of my name on it, and escorted me to a tatty minibus for the ride into the city centre. I happily soaked everything up on the journey, my head snapping from side to side trying to take everything in. The people were a lot paler skinned than I'd expected (most of the Nepalis I'd encountered in India were quite dark - tanned, maybe?), and I saw many more smiling faces than I'd been accustomed to in India. There didn't seem to be that much traffic . . . so why then was the air so polluted? I could taste it, and it made my eyes sting. I have the annoying habit of trying to compare everywhere I go to places I've already been; the closest I could come here, was Myanmar, although I wasn't really sure why I felt that. A certain sense of having gone back in time maybe.

It wasn't too long before we arrived at the Nepalaya Hotel, where the manager asked me what I would like to pay for a room, it being low season; the prices normally start at $20. I was so exhausted I couldn't think straight - how much is a dollar worth? How much is a Nepali Rupee worth? I had to convert to Indian Rupees, and told him that I considered INR600 to be a reasonable price for the small but clean room (with a very pretty bedspread, not that that really counts for much!). A "simple breakfast" of eggs, toast and hash browns (over here that means fried potato) and tea or coffee was included in that price, and the place did have free wifi (although it didn't work very well in the room, only the corridor).

The first thing I had planned to do was get my head down - I'd not slept properly for around a fortnight, and my brain was beginning to turn to mush. Unfortunately I'd not bargained on the building work going on next door. I put my earplugs in and rested, although sleep was out of the question. The manager had pointed out that the hotel had a rooftop restaurant, but when I went to get some dinner I was told "food not possible", and directed to a nearby restaurant. I ate and went to sleep . . . to be woken by mosquitoes at half past four in the morning. I went on a killing spree, and eventually got back to sleep . . . to be rudely awoken at seven thirty by the building work. When I was then told that breakfast was also not possible I threw my toys out of the pram, tired and irritable bunny that I was; the good people quickly went out and bought supplies, cooking me a very tasty breakfast soonafter.

Time to explore Kathmandu - and my, what a lot there was to see! The city is full of cute little shrines and statues, freestanding or set into walls. Hindu deities nestled next to Buddhist carvings and stupas, all anointed with a red or orange paste called abhir. Offerings placed on each and every one - slices of banana, and other fruit and veg; rice pressed onto the mouths of the figures; incense sticks burning alongside; and little bells which folk rang as they said prayers. (I was now comparing the country to Bali, where the devotion of the inhabitants is similarly ubiquitous.) Nearby there were a number of baha or bahal, courtyards guarded by fascinating fu (a cross between a dog and a lion) statues. Women sat on the pavement selling vegetables; men sold the same from baskets on sticks balanced on their shoulders; porters struggled through the crowds, with impossible loads suspended from straps around their heads. Motorbikes and cycle rickshaws with amusing sounding hooters weaved in and out of the pedestrians. Even in the pouring rain, I loved the place.

I bought a raincoat and a better umbrella - my Indian one kept collapsing on my head and tangling in my hair - and discovered a way to wrap the strap of my daypack around the handle, so I could go hands free. This allowed me to take pictures without my camera getting too wet . . . although the lens is now making odd noises . . . how many lenses am I going to get through this trip?! I spent hours tramping around the city, exploring Durbar Square and the back lanes of the Old City. The inclement weather meant it was better to concentrate on details rather than scenic shots - fortunately the photogenic city had a lot of details to offer. I was lucky enough to be in town for the Gai Jatra, cow festival. Legend has it that a way for Hindus to achieve moksha (the escape from the cycle of death and rebirth, similar to Buddhists’ nirvana) is for them to die holding the tail of a cow. Obviously not everyone is this lucky, so to remedy this situation anyone who has lost a loved one in the previous year can partake in the Gai Jatra Festival, parading a cow through the city. If you don't have a cow, then dress up a child as a cow (or at least stick a mask of a cow on their heads). There were other children dressed as sadhus . . . although I couldn't help being reminded of Butlins and Captain Blood by the drawn-on moustaches ("chuck him in the pool" - remember that, anyone?).

I wandered further afield, to the ghats on the banks of the Bagmati River; the ancient city of Lalitpur or Patan; climbed up to the Swayambhu temple complex to the west of the city, and watched the monkeys stealing offerings to the gods. I'd started to develop some stomach problems, but having read that Nepal was pretty slack on hygiene - and that it was the capital where most people get sick - I'd been expecting it. I can usually manage to soldier through any such trouble, with the assistance of codeine, and I did for the first few days. But then things got the better of me. I won't go into too much detail, but if I throw in the phrases "projectile vomiting" and "through the eye of a needle", I think you'll get the general picture. In the end I had to give in, and spent a day lying guiltily in bed, thinking of all the things I should be doing but wasn't able to - even looking at the computer made me feel sick. I felt totally drained, and hardly had the energy to stand up.

It was time to leave Kathmandu, as much as I'd enjoyed the city. I dosed up on Imodium, checked out, and got a taxi to my next destination of Bhouda, just six kilometres away. The distance may have been short, but it took an hour and a half to get here, most of that time spent within spitting distance of my chosen guesthouse. My taxi driver's sense of direction was about as good as mine. Despite phoning the guesthouse three times for directions, and stopping and asking numerous people, he had a lot of trouble getting there. At one point he called a maroon-robed monk over, asking him where it was. The monk turned to me and said, in near perfect English, "I'm sorry, I can't understand him; I'm from South India."

We got there in the end, and I limply staggered in and asked to be shown to my room, which I'd reserved the previous day . . . only to find that none of the rooms in the guesthouse had attached bathrooms - in my present condition, this was not a viable option. Fortunately they suggested another place just a few yards away, which had attached rooms, plus a vegetarian restaurant that emphasised hygiene - I'd come to the right place! I spent the rest of the day sleeping, venturing out for a tentative meal and a pot of "healing tea" - just the ticket.

I felt heaps better the next day, although my energy levels were still rock bottom. I did manage to wander down to Boudhanath though, Nepal's largest stupa, and a pilgrimage point for exiled Tibetans. The place had a very peaceful feel to it, and I popped down again at dusk, joining the throng of Tibetans circumambulating the slightly mouldy mound. I spent a rainy day exploring Pashupatinath, the most important Hindu place of pilgrimage. It is to Nepal as Varanasi is to India: it's the place to die, or at least be cremated. It's a lot less crazy than Varanasi though; quite peaceful in fact, asides from the monkeys, who are a little on the aggressive side - which is one advantage to the rain, as you can fend them off with your umbrella. The rain has hardly stopped since I arrived in Nepal - not surprising really, as it is the rainy season. The monsoon is getting a tad tiresome though, and I'm looking forward to seeing the back of it.

I'll be moving on in a day or so, next destination Bhaktapur, another ancient city. I've got a few more sites to see before I begin my ten-day silent Buddhist course, and then I guess I'd better do some trekking. I'm planning on the Annapurna Circuit . . . or at least half of it.

So until next time, ta ta.


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