Loving Bhaktapur

6th April 1993, Kathmandu – I took Rich on a walking tour of the city, Durbar Square, etc. and we stumbled across the US embassy library, so we popped in there for a couple of hours to catch up on current events at home. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by one of the shirt embroidery shops and placed an order for the shirt we were having made, which would commemorate our trip as a whole. The front had 22 flags embroided on it, one for each country we were visiting and the back had a map of the world on it. Order those for the exorbitant amount of 750 rupees, $15, then cruised around Thamel that evening, book shopping.

7th April 193, Kathmandu to Bhaktapur – Thought we would head out to Bhaktapur today to have a look but before our departure, we ordered these red woolen pullovers with cotton lining for 550 rupees each.

Jumped on the Nepalese version of a matatu out to Bhaktapur, but we got off way too early in the middle of nowhere and ended up walking quite a bit. It was an interesting walk, though. Instead of weeds growing on the side of the road, it was marijuana plants, tons of them. We walked a bit longer but tired of that quickly and haled down the first minivan going towards our destination. Finally arrived in Bhaktapur and wandered around yet another Square named Durbar. Looked at the temples, which all looked the same, then sat in the square where Rich checked out the art museum.

While sitting out there, I met a Nepalese boy who must have been about nine who sat there and we spoke Nepalese to each other. Rather he spoke Nepalese to me and I tried to speak Nepalese back to him using my limited vocabulary. We wandered around the city, which I much preferred to Kathmandu because it is 85% pedestrian streets, so you get that feeling that this is what the city really is like. Wandered to another square where the largest temple in Kathmandu valley stands. The square was teeming with small children playing and I took many photographs of them.

After a couple of hours of walking, we headed back to Kathmandu to see if our flag shirts were ready. The man making the shirt held up the one that was finished and both Rich and I were blown away at how awesome it looked. This man knew what he was doing and it was worth every cent. We rested, then went out drinking for happy hour on one of the various rooftop bars.

We had many-many San Miguels and ended up talking to a bunch of Californians. Two were this couple from Los Angeles, total southern California people who both work for the various TV production companies. The third was a girl named Christine Smith, who had been living in the Berkeley Hills, but her house burned down in the great Oakland fire, so she was using her federal money to travel. She said the money was supposed to be used to replace her belongings and she figured since a lot of her stuff came from other countries, she was justified in using the money to travel and replace her possessions per the government’s request. Went out for a late dinner and stumbled back to the room shortly after that.


Reuniting with Rich

Kathmandu, Nepal – Changed hotels yet again because the last hotel had too many Israelis in it. After living in London and seeing the way different nationalities traveled, I used to think the Americans and Australians were bad. Israelis are the worst to be around. They are louder and more demanding than Americans if you can believe that is possible and they are so obnoxious when they are together in one big group, which is all the time. You never meet one Israeli, they only come in groups of 10 or more.

Anyway, changed hotels, then headed to the mini van stop to try and get out to the Bodhnath, the largest stupa in the Kathmandu Valley. Got on the mini van and was told yes it would go out where I was headed. 30 minutes later, we were at the end of the line and they were telling me to get out, no stupa inside. I was told to transfer mini vans and after I boarded the second vehicle reconfirming that it was headed to the Bodhnath, I found myself back in Kathmandu 30 minutes later, so I had been sheisted for a total of 4 rupees and one hour of my time, big deal, I had time to kill. I was not expecting Rich for at least 4 or 5 more days, plenty of time to see this thing.

Went restaurant hopping, eating a meal at each during the afternoon. Then I decided it was time to take down the original note I had left for Rich and put the newly revised one with my new hotel location in its place. Got over to the Kathmandu Guest House message board, but the note for Rich was gone. That could only mean he had arrived in Kathmandu already.

Left him a second note telling where to meet, then went looking around Thamel in the used bookstores, the easiest place it would be to find Rich. No such luck, so I headed back to the message board about an hour later to find him standing there holding my second note looking at it incredulously. He could not believe I had left him two notes in the three hours he had spent in Kathmandu so far.

We went out for dinner and beer to celebrate his birthday and catch up on each other’s escapades over the last three weeks. It turns out the snow was really bad on his side of the mountain as well, so bad that he could not get over the pass and he walked back to Pokhara down the same side.

Girls in a Temple

Kathmandu to Patan, Nepal – Walked around Kathmandu this morning looking for yet another hotel because the one I am in is too expensive. Did find a room at my mom’s hotel for 80 rupees, more my style, grabbed breakfast, then picked up my photos that I had taken the day before at the stupa. Those photos were awesome. I am getting better at it, but still need to learn what the difference an 11 and a 5.8 F-stop will do time I guess.

Headed through the craziness of the market street over to the bus stop, jumped on a bus, which was uncrowded, an amazing thing for Nepal and rode the 15 minutes out to Patan, a city to the south that is divided from Kathmandu only by a river. Patan is just like Kathmandu in architectural style and feel, but the difference is there are not tons of people in cars everywhere, a nice change. Started walking towards Durbar Square, yes there is one in Patan as well, but managed to find the Golden Temple down at side street instead. Of course, I had gotten lost and just happened to stumble on to this temple, but I found it all the same.

Had a look at it, but could not get as close as I would have liked for all the leather articles are banned in the inner courtyard and when your money belt is made of leather, it prevents you from doing such things. From there it was to Durbar Square, which is literally jam-packed with temples and Tibetan crafts salesmen wherever you looked. There were not that many tourists here, so it was a much nicer environment. I wandered around the Square looking at the temples, but after seeing so many in India, they are all beginning to look the same. In addition, you are not allowed to enter any of the temples, so there is no way for you to differentiate between them, they all look very similar.

Most are the three to five tiered Nepalese style with a few of the Hindu/Ranakpur Indian type temples interspersed here and there. After looking at the temples and walked around the city, I found a Buddhist monastery, which was actually very impressive. The courtyard of this structure, which is both a temple and a monastery, was packed with all sorts of intricate metal sculptures. There were also a few children running around as well. After my look around, I went through more back streets back to the bus station for my return journey to the Kathmandu.

Rested at the hotel a bit, then ventured out to do a bit of shopping. I went into one of the numerous shops, which sell those strong cotton woven duffel bags. I needed to buy one due to the sheer quantity of stuff I purchased in the Nepal. I needed a separate bag to contain it all in to be shipped back from Bangkok.

I went into the shop knowing I would not pay more than 200 rupees for the largest one. The shopkeeper and I began the bargaining process and no more than 5 minutes later, I was leaving the shop with my new duffel. The price started at 350, I was not in the mood to play the bargaining game. The shopkeeper’s comment was that I was a quick man to bargain with. It was getting dark, so I bought some food for dinner and upon returning to my hotel, I noticed they had the satellite feed from Hong Kong broadcasting the North Carolina versus Kansas NCAA quarter final basketball tournament. I was estatic and immediately glued my butt down on to the couch to watch the game. Too bad I was changing hotels the next day. I might be able to see the final game.


Swayambhunath, aka the Monkey Temple

Kathmandu, Nepal – Woke up, used my hot shower, then checked out of my hotel and moved to the hotel Potala around to the corner across from KC’s Restaurant, a little cheaper with a better view and a roof deck. Once I got and settled in, I grabbed my camera and water bottle and embarked on the 2-kilometer journey out of the city to the Swayambhunath, aka the Monkey Temple. It was a nice walk through the Kathmandu back streets, save the hell climb up a flight of stairs virtually straight up.

Finally reached the temple and stupa itself. The temple consists of the main stupa, which is a solid white concrete dome with a very tall gold block type structure on top of it. The block has the Buddha’s all seeing eyes painted on each side of it along with the teeka or third eye symbolized as a dot above the other two regular eyes. The teeka symbolizes the Buddha’s clairvoyant powers. Below the eyes is a squiggle mark, which is actually the symbol for a Nepalese numeral one its significance being unity. Up above the block with the eyes are the 13 gold rings, each getting smaller, making the top of the structure looks similar to a church steeple. Each of the rings signifies one of the 13 degrees of knowledge and 13 steps that must be taken to reach Nirvana. Nirvana is represented by the umbrella at the top of the steeple.

Around the base of the stupa are what seemed to be a couple of hundred prayer wheels encircling the entire structure. As the worshippers would come up the stairs, they would pray at this huge brassed colored Dorje or symbol for the great thunderbolt, then ring this huge bell next to it, which was supposed to symbolize the sound of thunder. They would then move forward and walk always clockwise around the stupa, spinning each and every prayer wheel. I mentioned earlier I thought the prayer wheels were Tibetan, actually that they are just part of the Buddhist religion, each with the words Om Mani Padme Hum inscribed on it plus to add to the day core, there were streams of what appear to be different colored flags tied to the spire of the stupa flowing down and out over the whole of the complex.

Upon further inspection, the flags were actually painted with the words and symbols of different Buddhist prayers called Mantras. The people here believe that when the prayer wheel is spinning or the flag fluttering in the wind, the prayer is being said. I wandered around the Swayambhunath complex for a while looking at the smaller temples and taking almost a roll of photos. The alternate name of this place is the Monkey Temple and with just cause for there are literally tons of monkeys crawling all over the stupa and smaller statues surrounding plus the locals bring food to feed them so whenever there is people around, there are tons of monkeys.

After spending a while at the stupa, I thought it was time to move on. I went by a nearby Gompa or Tibetan Buddhist monastery to have a look around and came across a prayer wheel that must have been about 10 feet high, not one of the more notable sites around Kathmandu. Headed back to the city to grab a bite to eat and have a wander around the Durbar Square again, as I do not think I did it justice the first time.  Lunched on Freak Street, then looked at the temples in the Square more closely this time. As I was looking up into the eves at some carvings, I noticed the face of a tourist peering out of the uppermost window of the temple looking tower behind. I had a walk around this Square looking for an entrance to this place and eventually found it in the Nasal Chowk, the dancing courtyard of the old royal palace.

The courtyard had a statue of a dancing Shiva in it, hence the name, and the courtyard was surrounded by a very European looking white building of the old palace, which is now a museum holding artifacts from the previous king’s reign. In each corner of the courtyard was a huge tower, the largest one the Basantapur being the one accessible to the tourists.

I had a wander through the king’s museum, which was really boring since it is an exhibit for Nepalese people and nothing is in English. Then headed over to the tower and climbed the narrow staircases to the top to get a good view of the Kathmandu. After my view, I wandered around the Square some more looking at the Tibetan crafts when I remembered I needed to change money. Since this was Saturday, the Nepalese equivalent of Sunday in Britain, everything was closed. I started walking where I knew there were black-market money changers, but to my surprise they all had the day off. The previous day I could have used a baseball bat to beat the buggers off, but during my 20-minute walk back to Thamel, not one money changer approached me. Of course I could not find one when I needed one.

Dropped off a note for Rich at the Kathmandu Guest House and priced some duffel bags to hold all the crap I had purchased so far before heading to the hotel to crash out.


Durbar Square Kathmandu

Pokhara to Kathmandu, Nepal – Got up at 5.30 a.m. and finished packing my bag. I was finally leaving Pokhara for Kathmandu. Met both Som and Ram who hung around and chatted to me until my mini bus left. When the bus finally pulled up, I said my final farewells to the boys. I know I will make it back there and see them again some day.

Had a rather uneventful bus ride to Kathmandu and arrived in the capital city in the mid afternoon. Hired a bicycle rickshaw to take me to the Thamel section of town, the section where all the travelers hang out. Found a hotel no problem, but it was expensive, 250 rupees a night, but it had its own bathroom with 24-hour hot water, worth the splurge for one night. Once I had put my bags away, it was time for some food and a look at the real Kathmandu, not the tourist section of the city I was staying in.

Met Mike Gavin this journalist I trekked on and off with for a few days and he gave me his address in Hong Kong to look him up in a couple of weeks. Grabbed a bite to eat, then headed towards Durbar Square, the center of old Kathmandu.

Kathmandu is a bustling city with cars, rickshaws, bicycles, and pollution all flowing up and down the ancient narrow streets. Made it to Durbar Square and that is when it hit me. This was the Kathmandu people usually talked about. Durbar Square is literally surrounded by temples. It almost seems like they were constructed in a haphazard mish-mash fashion all over the Square and outlying areas. All that I can see are the towers of temples over the Square, so cool and so bizarre. I had a walk around the Square and what you know just my luck another festival was starting. I noticed the wooden cart with the 15-feet high Christmas tree on it, decorated I might add, being prepared to be pulled through the Square and celebration of the Seto Machhendranath festival.

I walked around taking pictures and eventually ended up taking a seat on the Trailokya Mohan Narayan “Vishnu” temple facing the Square waiting for the festivities to begin. It turned out to be a non-event with the military men marching down the street, playing music followed by the Christmas tree chariot being dragged along by about 50 kids. No denying the chariot was not impressive. One of its wheels was taller than I was and people sitting near me were tossing coins at it as it passed, but it definitely was not as exciting as animal sacrifice or anything like that.

Once the chariot had passed, the Square emptied of people so I could wander around at my leisure checking out the ornately carved rafters under each temple’s eves. Many of the temples had some definitely erotic carvings, so I took half a dozen photos to show people at home. Once I had had a decent look around the Square, I walked through the narrow streets of Nepal to get a feel for the city before heading back to my hotel to use that hot shower I was paying for.

Went down to the Central Telegraph Office around 8 p.m. assuming they had AT&T direct and was told there was no collect call facility to the States from Nepal. On top of it, many of the places here charge you 10 rupees per minute for a collect call anyway. So you are paying for the call twice. Guess I will be calling the folks from Hong Kong then.

Out to dinner at one of the famed Thamel restaurants, the Four Seasons, and ended up sharing this table with a British girl from London. Had a great time chatting away to her for the next two and half hours while enjoying the best pizza and beer since I have left America. I do not know who came here and taught the Nepalese how to cook, but they did a hell of a job.


Final Day in Pokhara

Som’s House Above Phedi, Nepal – The bloody rooster woke us up at half past four again and by 6:15 everyone was up and starting their daily duties. Som and I had tea with his family, then we bid them farewell and I thanked them heartily for such a nice time.

We had to make an early departure and get back to Pokhara as not to be charged another day’s rental on our bikes. We hiked down to Phedi, got our bikes out of storeage and made the one and a half hour 15 km fide back to Pokhara. Thankfully it was 90% downhill so little effort was needed riding that early in the morning. We returned the bikes, had tea and rolls for breakfast then I crashed out at 9:00 a.m. exhausted from the previous two days.

Awoke at 1:00 p.m. and got some food then hung out with Ram for a while. There are absolutely no tourists in Pokhara now, partly due to the bus strike, and partly because tourism’s just down so it was a lazy day around town. Saw Som and his sister at the lodge we were staying at and chatted with them for a while. No power tonight so “nothing to do Kathmandu.”

The buses are running again and I’m booked on the 6:30 a.m. bus to Kathmandu tomorrow – finally. With only a month’s Nepalese visa I’ve seemed to have no problem spending three weeks of my time in Pokhara. Made some good friends in the process, but I think a lack of time in the country warrants a second visit next year.


Chaitra Dasain on a Nepalese Homestead

Som’s house above Phedi, Nepal – God only knows what time it was when the rooster in Som’s house decided to start crowing, but the sun was nowhere neat being up. I really wanted to kill it as it was only about four feet away cock-a-doodle doing for half an hour or so. A short while later, Som’s family was all awake and when his grandmother opened the door from my bed, I could see the sky over the hill across the valley turning that pink-red color just as the sun was coming up.

We got up at 5:45. The entire family was already awake and had our morning tea. About an hour later, Som and I went to go out over the top of the ridge behind his house to buy some sugar for his family. This was another major hike as the ridge behind his house is twice the size of the one we climbed to get to his house in the first place. After another 30-minute climb up of this second ridge, we looked down at Phedi and it looked like it would from an airplane, so small and so far down. We climbed over the top of the ridge, and there were yet another breathtaking view of Annapurna and Machha Puchhre rising up over the next valley. This view was better than any I had seen up near Jomsom or Pokhara because the sky was clear and blue and we were much closer to these mountains than before, so imposing and so beautiful. Of course, I had left my camera down at Som’s house, so no photos were taken.

We walked down the backside of this ridge through the houses scattered along the side of the hill and stopped at what appeared to be someone’s home to buy some sugar. His house doubled as his shop and Som had to wake the man up and tell him to get us some sugar which was stored in an old petrol can. Met Som’s brother over on that side and then we headed back to Som’s house to give his sister her cooking supplies. On the way back, we stopped at Ram’s in-law’s house and what you know he was there. He had come up from Pokhara that morning when he heard that Som and I had gone to the mountains. He came up as well with his brother-in-law. We hung around Ram’s relative’s house in the sun for a few hours while his brother-in-law got ready for the festival.

Today was the first day of Chaitra Dasain, festival held twice a year honoring the Nepalese goddess, Durga. This festival was actually a smaller version of the Dasain held in January and February every year and is the largest in the country. The goddess Durga fought in one over the forces of evil described in the form of a buffalo in their folklore. So many buffalo and goats are sacrificed during both these festivals in the goddess’ honor. Hopefully, we would see a buffalo lose its head today over in the market. At about 12:30, everyone was ready; me, Som, Ram, and three others and we headed back up the ridge with the incredible view of the mountains on route to the market. We stopped in at a few people’s houses along the way, and I guess the boys found out from these people that not many people were going to the market today. Instead, we made our way down the volleyball court at the local schoolyard. The court sat on one of those narrow terraces cut into the side of the mountain and played volleyball for a while. From the court, we could look up to the top of the ridge and see a white temple structure up there.

I could hear the Nepalese blowing this long horn, the sound echoing across the valley signifying they were about to slay another buffalo, very cool. We finished playing the game and headed back over to the top to Som’s house to help make dinner, but along the way, we came across a family outside their house who had just finished sacrificing their buffalo. The body of the buffalo was sitting in the path decapitated with the blood flowing from the neck over the edge of the terrace and down into the field below. The buffalo head was sitting over near the porch of the house, eyes still open and glassy like it never knew what hit it. Some told me that they were supposed to kill the buffalo with one cut of the axe or sword but sometimes it took two or three hits to actually get the head to come off.

After seeing this buffalo carcass in the path, I think it was quite all right that I did not get to see the killing first hand. It already reminds me of the slaughtering of the cattle in Uganda a little too much. Back to Ram’s in-laws to say good-bye to him for the evening and head up to Som’s house for dinner. As we were climbing up the terraced field up to his house, we could hear all the women outside his house screaming at something and when the house came into view, we could see a man in a red shirt being pushed down the path in front of Som’s house by another Nepalese guy. The man in the red shirt had obviously been drinking too much Roxi, local wine celebrating the festival and was just being a typical public drunk. One old man, one of Som’s neighbors who also had his fair share of Roxi picked up a large tree branch around when Som’s sister held him back drunk on the head with it. The crazy man in the red shirt got pushed along the path toward his house as all the women in Som’s house continually screamed at him. All other men came out of their houses and started to assist forcefully the drunk down the path. The crazy man was screaming and yelling away and once he was down the path where Som’s family could not see him, they climbed down the terraced fields to scream at him some more.

Being the only person in a five mile radius with fair skin and blonde hair, I stayed in the background as not to attract the drunk’s attention. I like the women scream at the drunk and went back to Ram’s in-laws where I got to meet his wife and two sons. Good to see them since I had heard so much about them. The drunk moved on and I bid Ram farewell until the next morning.

Up at Som’s house, we had the traditional, the same dinner of rice, dal, and cooked buffalo meat, fresh and once the dinner was over, they started cooking this bread they make only for this festival. It is a rice flour base, a little sugar, and deep fried in buffalo fat. Som’s sister made the first one and when it was done cooking, she handed it to her father who broke it into four pieces and through one piece into each corner of the room as an offering to Durga. Once that was finished, it was an all you can eat fest of rice, roti. Som’s entire family and I ate and ate and ate this bread for almost two hour solid. His sister was continuing to make the bread unrelentlessly. Som’s father and uncle were well into the homemade wine and smoking the chillum but they continued to eat.

When we were all chock a block full, the final rice roti was made and everyone had to have one bite of the last bread as it was the final one. On that note, Som and I climbed into bed as his father prepared the next course.

Next course – We started eating at 5:30 and it was now 9:30. His father prepared some rice they had grown themselves and served a bit to everyone in the room. It was sweetened with sugar as a dessert and Som told me they believed this was special rice that would cure whatever ailments you might have. I could only eat about half of what they served me and after assessing the amount of rice left on everyone’s plates, it seemed to be the norm. Everyone was full and tired of eating I expect. So, the once the goats were to their post in the corner, everyone hit the sac and this was the Chaitra Dasain.

This festival is not a real public festival that has a lot that tourists can see. It is more a low-key family festival and I felt lucky to have been a part of it with Som’s family. Throughout the day as we had been walking around, I was using Som as my interpreter to ask different people about the Bonne Manchie to see what other versions of the tail there are. The different accounts and descriptions of the beast are to follow. Som’s father had a first hand citing for me to record. Bonne Manchie, the Nepali jungle man also known as the Yeti.

Sleeping in a Nepalese Household – Chaitra Dasain Festival

Pokhara, Nepal – I was going to head to Kathmandu today via mini bus, but there is a national bus strike, maybe tomorrow. I woke up late and lounged around. It was really warm today, so warm that for a minute I thought it was a Sacramento type spring day. Brought two more T-shirts and now I am finished buying clothing. Walked down towards dam side again, then back to the room to figure out which photos I was going to give to Ram.

Labeled the photos, ate lunch, and saw Tracy and Cam to arrange our time for dinner again. I met Som later in the afternoon and we played carrom board for a while. In talking with him, I learned that Ram is married to Som’s cousin. I also learned that he and his brother paid two hundred and fifty rupees a month for the room at the hotel. When I told him that it was $5 in my money he started laughing. He could not believe how cheap it was for us to come and travel in Nepal.

Met Cam and Tracy for dinner and we set up a few meeting points where we were going to leave each other notes. They are heading through Southeast Asia on their way home, so I am sure we will bump into them again along the way. Kathmandu Guesthouse and the New Mary V, Bangkok were the two stops so far. Said good-bye to them and crashed out for the night. Som woke me up at 6 o’clock this morning so I could catch my bus to Kathmandu. I went over to the bus station and asked if there was going to be a bus today. Som had said the drivers want strike again. The folk at the travel agency said there would not be a bus today and to come back tomorrow morning. The cause for all this chaos is that late last week the Nepalese Government lifted all price subsidies on major foodstuffs such as rice and sugar and on fuel. The government had to lift the subsides to become eligible for some IMF and World Bank funding, as both those organizations oppose any price subsidies at all. With the prices going up on all subsided items namely fuel, the bus companies said they were going to raise ticket prices to account for the jump in the fuel prices. The government transport secretary said they could not raise their prices and would have to just adjust their books to account for the increase. The Communist Party here thought this would be a great issue to cause public outcry upon, so they began a publicity campaign telling all truck and bus drivers to strike nationwide on March 29th. So 29th March, no buses or trucks went anywhere throughout the Nepalese Kingdom. They announced yesterday that this strike would continue today also including all taxies, motorbikes, and bicycles in an attempt to paralyze the country.

I waited around for the bus for a short time and in talking to other people there as well, I heard there was a roadblock on the outskirts of Pokhara to ensure the prevention of any rebellious truck drivers from getting into the city. In talking to one of the travel agents here, he said the bus owners were waiting for a ruling from the transport minister allowing them to raise their prices. Another rumor I heard was that the transport secretary was out of the country and had to return to Nepal before a decision could be made.

A short while later, a lone vehicle equipped with a loudspeaker attached to the roof went driving slowly down Pokhara’s main street. I found Som and asked him to translate and he explained that the man in the car was saying things like, “Give those who do not have jobs, jobs, too bad, Royal Air Nepal is still flying today.” The strike could go on for three days or three weeks, great.

On that note, I am headed up to Som’s house for the Chaitra Dasain festival tomorrow, as it does not look like I will be leaving Pokhara anytime soon. Went and changed my bus ticket to April 2nd, do not know if buses will be going by then, but I am getting a little bit tired of Pokhara, not much to do once you have been in the city for three or four days. Met Som about noon and we rented bikes, then headed off towards his house on the hills above Phedi. He said it was not far and I had no idea how far we were heading, but this seemed like something interesting to do while this strike was on.

We rode out of Pokhara on the opposite side of the ridge from Sarangkot, so I was seeing an entirely different set of terrain in the Pokhara Valley. We rode uphill for about two hours, passing through the most amazing sections of outer Pokhara. True Nepalese villages with women cutting the  wheat with scythes and the huge covered stacks of dried straw for the animals, great photographic material. Once we had reached the village of Phedi, we left the bikes in this chai stall and began the 30-minute hike to the top of the ridge overlooking the city. Little did I know, I was on another trek and this hike certainly rivaled anything I had done on route to Tatopani.

It was all almost straight up, but through the most beautiful jungle, tall moss covered trees with a bed of furns covering the ground everywhere we walked. We hit the crest of the ridge, where Som’s house sits and had to rest for a few minutes before actually going up to his house. His house is one of those made almost entirely of mud with earth beaten floors and thatched roofs, plus it has got the most amazing view looking out over the valley down towards Pokhara. There are terraced wheat fields surrounding their home with about four other houses sitting up on this ridge.

Inside Som’s house, there was a fire burning in a pit in the middle of the room and a little bit of smoke around the level of your forehead. Most of the smoke goes up into the thatched peak of the roof, but as smoke does when there is too much, it gets lower and lower to forehead level before pouring out the door. The ceiling had very very low cross beams and I could not stand up fully in any section of the house. Above the cross beams, they had placed some planks and Som told me that two of his sisters sleep up there at night. That explains the plank balanced against the beams in the corner that the girls climb up and down every day.

We relaxed in his house resting after the ordeal of getting up there, drinking sugared tea with the added flavor of salt, many Nepalese people like salt and sugar in their tea, a very different tasting cup of tea to say at least. It reminded me of drinking sea water like when it goes gushing down your throat when you are bowled over by a wave. After our rest, we walked across a couple of terraced fields to a neighbor’s house where I was introduced to them. These people had another incredible view from a different angle and from their house we could see Naugdada over on the next ridge across the valley. The place had taken me the entire first day of my trek to walk to. I had no idea I was going so far.

The front yard of this man’s house was covered with freshly cut wheat and a woman who appeared to be his mother decorated with ornamental nose rings like a bull was taking the wheat, beating it with this thing that looked like a short sledge hammer to get the husks loose. Then taking the whole lot and putting it in a basket to shake around and make the husks fly out. Cows, chickens, goats, all the houses up here seem to have one or all of the three tied up in their front yard. The man at this house started asking me questions with Som translating. The first one being what my caste or title was.

I told him we did not have a caste system and then cleared Som about it. He explained that there were 13 castes in Nepal. His and Ram’s being Gurung, one of the larger ones with a group of people who did not specialize in one trade or profession. In their caste, there are a lot of people, both rich and poor and it is one of the ones in the middle, not a bad one at all. The lowest castes are those of tailors, shoemakers, and porters. I asked a bit more and confirmed that these people are born into their caste and there is no way to change castes, not even by marriage.

People also use their caste as their surnames as well. Ram “Gurung”, Som, Kagi “Gurung” interesting. Som left me and went back down the hill to put the bikes in a safer place for the evening leaving me here sitting on the edge of a wheat field overlooking the valley to right. Som’s entire family is coming up here for the festival and Ram and his wife may be coming up here as well. Finally figured out how those two are related. Ram married Som’s cousin. Tomorrow is the festival and we are going to the market to see some goats and buffaloes sacrificed. It should be really interesting, gruesome but interesting.

Of all the places I have visited so far, I am beginning to think Nepal is my favorite. Right below is Malawi, then Zimbabwe. The people are so friendly and it is pretty together with their politics and tourism. If I managed to find work in Hong Kong, this would be my first return destination.

When we first arrived up here, we went to Som’s friend’s house and the woman there mentioned to Som that she remembered the time she brought a French couple up here, and I guess the man did not like his dal bhat because he literally tossed it aside. That couple was taken back to Pokhara the same evening. “Bola manchi”, crazy man was the woman’s response. Som is a lively 17 year old not too unlike myself at that age and I met him while trekking. It was great of him to invite me up here to experience this festival the Nepalese way.

How I keep hitting these festivals at the right time and hooking up with locals who are willing to show me how they really celebrate is so amazing. I would love to show Ram and Som America for 10 days, some in Sacramento, some in San Francisco. Ram could not believe there were films shown on international flights, and I described how large an American supermarket was to Som and he had a hard time believing it. It would blow their minds and I would love to see their reactions. Give me five years and I will see if can afford it.

Som returned and we sat in his house eating rice and vegetables and this really amazing pumpkin soup for dinner. Som has got three sisters, one 25 who was doing all the cooking and one 19-year-old brother. His family is more than cordial and even though I speak pidgin Nepalese, there was not really a language barrier because they are really patient and with Som’s help to get their point across. We were exhausted from our ride up here, so everyone bedded down to sleep shortly after dark. Sleeping at Som’s house was a real experience. His mother went outside and brought in the mother and baby goats and tied them to a post in one corner of the room. The hen, the cock, and five chickens were all under a basket not too far from the goats and Som’s mother laid down a mat in front of this mini farmyard to go to sleep.

The girls climb to their plank up to their bunk rather smoke yard, imagine above the fire. Som’s other sisters laid down on another mat, Som and I in one bed, Som’s grandmother in another corner, and Som’s father and cousin in the other bed. It was a real treat being able to see how these people live.

Befriending Som

Pokhara, Nepal – I woke up, packed my bag and rode down to lakeside where I had gotten a room at the Namastay Lodge the same complex Som lives in. Met Som and he told me Ram had left early that morning to go home. I guessed his family had run out of rice and he needed to take some up to them. Told Som I would meet him later and after getting my new room sorted out I made the ride up to old Pokhara again to get my trekking photos developed.

Dropped the film off, then went to some of the student book stores up there to see if I could get some basic reading books for Ram. He really wanted to learn to read and write English, I could see that whenever we would sit down for our reading lessons while trekking. I ended up getting him four English books for 125 rupees. Back to the photo place two hours later to get the pictures, then I coasted down the mountain to lakeside. Met Som, showed him the photos, then we played carrom board for a while. Som and I went shopping and I bought a whole bunch of the embroidered Nepalese eyes T-shirt. There are the nicest affordable gifts we found so far while traveling, so everyone gets one. They are averaging around 130 rupees each.

Som told me he was going to cook a dal bhat that evening in his room, so I did not need to go out to dinner. I rode my bike back to dam side and made the 25-minute walk back to the lake. Managed by some more T-shirts on the return trip, bringing the T-shirt total up to 13 by the time I had retired to bed that evening. Som cooked us a pretty good dinner that evening and a I sort of probed and got more information about Ram from him.

He said Ram really needed the money for his family because they were eating millet. Som said it was too gross for him to eat it himself. I gave Ram a total of 1500 rupees on top of the 2300 I paid him for being my guide. I also paid 1260 rupees for his plane ticket and gave him some books and stationery worth 150. Hopefully, it will help him out enough to get him back on his feet. We talked about a lot of things before I gave him the money. He is going to buy new shoes for trekking and we talked about buying two chickens, a hen and a cock, so his family would have eggs to eat when rice ran out. After spending 10 days with him, I could tell he was honest and would use the money in the ways we discussed.

We also talked about his joining a trekking agency, so he has steady work as a guide, but he said the agencies take too much of a cut and that is why most people are independent. Som said he was really pleased with the plane ride and the extra help I had given him. So, I am thinking that was the best thing to do.

Down the Mountain to Pokhara – Day 10

Trekking, Day 10, Jomsom, Nepal – Woke up this morning at 6 and climbed up the ladder out back up onto the roof to have a look at the runaway. An inch of new snow everywhere. Went back inside and climbed to back into bed, woke up about an hour later and sat outside our lodge in the sun. For the first day in a while it was really clear and the sun was blazing down. This only made the snow covered mountains that much more impressive, so Ram and I took yet more photos.

We put the camera away and decided to take a walk down to the runaway to have a look at it and when we got there, we found a fair amount of people just hanging around the airport shack, in case a plane could make it up here. The sun had melted the snow and now the runaway was just a massive wet gravel in weeds rather like a deteriorating parking lodge.

We were standing there talking to this other American guy when all of a sudden this air raid siren went off signifying that a plane was arriving. No way, no one was prepared for it and Ram and I went running out of the airport and back to the lodge to grab our packs. Back to the airport, checked our bags and walked out to the runway to wait. The twin-engined propeller plane landed and all 15 of us flying boarded completely filling the small plane.

I sat by a window on one side and Ram sat across from me by the other window ready to try this flying thing out. When he first saw the plane, Ram said it was big. I then told him there are airplanes that hold up to 400 people. He just could not believe that one. Our bags were loaded, the door closed, and the engine started. While we were still sitting on the runway with the engines idling, the stewardess crawled up the isle offering each passenger one sweet and two cotton balls to plug your ears during the flight. Once every one had their cotton in place, the plane moved out to the end of the runway, really started those engines up and started our take off.

The plane took off and pulled the tightest circle, not very far from the mountains themselves over the valley. Then we were off towards Pokhara. Ram handled the take off well and was content just looking out the window during our flight. We flew below the tops of the Himalayas so I was able to look straight across at them, amazing. I took a few photos out of the plane as well. Our plane landed in Pokhara and we deplaned into the 70-degree weather, still clad in our down jackets and 10 layers of clothing. After a short walk back to my hotel, I said good bye to Ram. Gave him my T-shirt and my gloves and told him I would meet him over at lakeside later.

During the trek, I had actually broken my record for days not showering, which previously had been 8 days set in Africa. The record now stood at 10 days in Nepal. I cleaned up, rented a bike, and headed over to the lake where I met Som and Ram hanging out at Jomsom trekking. We chatted for a while and then Som, Ram, and I went to look at this hotel I was going to stay in.

As we were heading over to the hotel, I heard this voice yell, “How is it going?” When I looked up, it was Cameron, this kiwi dude we had flown from Cairo to Nairobi with. I could not believe it. That was five months ago, and I remembered they were headed the same direction, but I thought they were miles ahead of us. Cam said, he and Tracy had gotten struck in Africa, specifically Malawi in Zimbabwe. About the same time, Rich and I got stuck in India. I arranged to meet them for dinner, then I went to this hotel to stay in.

After looking at the room and leaving a deposit, Som, Ram, and I left to go have a beer, but my bike was gone. We did not notice anyone in the hotel grounds, but the bike definitely was not there. Som said that one of the boys of the hotel proprietor sometimes borrow the bikes left around and that is probably what happened. We went out on the street looking for the bike and after a cursory search, Som assured me the boy would bring my bike back a little later.

On that note, we headed to this restaurant to have some beers to celebrate the end of my trek. Ram, Som, and I had two beers each and Som because he is smaller was getting pretty looped. Ram was not far behind and I was a little less than Ram. It was strong beer. We had a great time chatting and after I had paid our 360-rupee bill, $7 and 20 cents, we went looking for the bike again. Ram said he was going to the trekking shop and that he would see me at about 8 or 9 the next morning. Som and I went looking for the bike and I began describing it to him. As an example, I took him over to this bike parked on the side of the road and said, okay this aspect of the bike just like this bike here is the same. I described the bike more and more each time pointing to this bike on the street saying just like this one. It even had a lock and chain wrapped under the seat like the one we were looking at on the street. I guess the beer had really dulled my senses because after my describing the stolen bike and pointing out the similarities with this bike parked on the street, Som finally asked me if this bike was my stolen bike. I pulled out my keys, tried the lock and pop it opened. We had found the bike just parked outside the shop on the side of the road, too lucky.

I took my newly acquired bike, said good-bye to Ram, and told him I would see him in the morning before heading back to my hotel to change clothes and meet Tracy and Cameron for dinner. Out to dinner with them and we caught up during the last five months while they were in Africa. They told us the situation in Zaire has gotten worse since we were there and that the overland trucks are not going into the country anymore. They said one of the trucks sort of went missing. Cam also said the situation in Nairobi did not get any better. Everyday at Ma Roches someone had a new horror story. I still have no reservations about leaving Kenya or the Kumuka Safari early.

We left the restaurant and as we walked by a local’s place, Ram called out teak-cha to me and I called back “topai kek teak-cha?” “malai teak-cha” was his response.