Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nepal - January 7, 2009 - Pokhara

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Today the weather was beautiful. We started off right on time, but an hour down the road our bus was stopped in a roadblock having something to do with a labor dispute we know nothing about.

People came up to our stopped bus trying to sell water, apples, oranges, roast corn, and a local snack food something like very spicy Cheetos. The Canadian girls, Alison and Alicia, found some children and gave them stickers, hair clips, and finger traps. Eric got off the bus several times to try to talk to people, and other people got off to take pictures.

However, things got more and more tense, angry shouting, blocking of all traffic, even rickshaws, instead of just trucks and buses. Right outside our bus, I saw one man threaten to hit another with a board, but the fight was broken up by army officers. After that Bupendra told everyone to stop taking photos outside the bus.

After 2 1/2 hours a cheer went up, the log across the road was removed, and traffic attempted to move forward. The problem: on the other side, both lanes were solid with traffic facing us. I'm sure that behind us people had done the same thing, making it virtually impossible to move in either direction. The tailback went on for miles, but our stops to get our lane cleared grew fewer as we went along.

It was a very bumpy, uncomfortable ride through beautiful scenery. Rivers running through canyons of increasing depths, terraced farmland, and eventually the Himalayas rising in the distance. We stopped at a pretty restaurant for a so-so meal (for consistency of good food India beats Nepal hands down), then watched the sunset turn the mountains pinky orange as we finally made our way to Pokhara.

We are staying at the Trek-o-Tel, which is actually quite a lovely hotel. Hot water--ah, bliss! I had the best shower of this entire trip. Cable came on at 7:30, with HBO, CNN, BBC, Bloomberg, a Japanese news station in English plus a couple in Japanese, a few sports channels in different languages, plus the usual Indian and Nepalese fare.

Tomorrow morning begins with climbing to the top of a mountain to watch the sunrise, but Lois, Eric, and I have decided we are not up to climbing mountains in the dark. So we will start our day with breakfast at seven, pick up our plane tickets to Kathmandu, and then hire a taxi to take us to a cave and a waterfall.

Our tour members have broken up into groups now, and go their own ways more and more. Kyle has made friends with one of the younger women who came on the trip alone, and now rarely hangs out with us old fogeys. Some of the young adventurers are going paragliding. We're going to see some of the local sites in this resort town.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Nepal - January 6, 2009

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Nepal - Chitwan - Part Two

All around us we see conditions ever so much better than those in India. People are farming with oxen and buffalo, but their crops are good and their homes, though small, are tidy and freshly painted. Little kids call and wave to us--but they do not beg from us. Children in school uniforms file down the roadsides morning and evening. We saw a Tai Kwan Do class out for a run this evening, and kids playing soccer and cricket. To us, Nepal so far feels much more "normal" than India.

This evening we talked with the owner of the Sapana Village resort where we are staying. He is part of a Dutch program to bring entrepreneurship to Nepal, and has built quite a nice place here. His main problem is the cost of energy and the unreliability of local electric power. He has a generator, but cannot afford gas to run it 24/7. However, he is planning to install solar panels to get around those problems.

Nepal's electrical energy crisis is due to global warming. With the Himalayas to provide snow and ice runoff, it's no surprise that when the country developed electric power they chose hydroelectric. But the winter snows no longer fall. We are here in mid-winter, and there is only a light powdering of snow on the mountain tops. No snow, no runoff, no water in the rivers, no hydroelectric power six months of the year. Only during monsoon season and immediately after can the power plants work efficiently.

We were forewarned, so we brought flashlights, but there are candles and matches in our rooms. We are far out in the country, so it is very dark here at night. Also quiet. This is the only place we have stayed that doesn't have television, not that we care. Who needs television when we have elephants?

Our tour is winding down, and sadly, we are glad. It's been too hard on Lois, Eric, and me, and we are very tired. The tour was misrepresented to us, so our fellow travelers think we are either stupid to think we could handle a GAP tour at our age, or a bunch of old fogeys who gripe too much. That is not the kind of impression we are accustomed to giving.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Nepal - January 6, 2009

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Chitwan National Forest - Part One

Today was a beautiful day. We started with an elephant safari ride through the forest. I didn't care what it did to my back--I was determined to do it and I did. The forest is lovely. It looks like the set for a Tarzan movie, but it's real.

By the way, click on any of the still photos to see them in a larger size.

Our mahout knew where to take us to see wild game. We saw several rhino families, who practically posed for us, along with spotted deer, mule deer, wild pigs, peacocks, and huge crocodiles. I took pictures all the way, figuring some of them were bound to be good.

We didn't see either sloth bears or tigers, although both live in the forest, nor did we encounter any snakes.

After the ride we walked about two miles into the nearby village, where we shopped for souvenirs and had lunch at a very nice restaurant. Then we walked back to our resort.

Eric took a nap while Lois and I took the tour of the elephant breeding facility.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Nepal - January 5, 2009

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This morning we were told to put our bags outside our doors at 7am for an 8 o'clock departure. But as we were doing so, Bupendra came by and told us to put them back in again: Nepal was closed. (A whole country was closed?)

All the roads were closed and the border was closed again. The cable was off, so there was no way for us to find out what was happening.

At breakfast, though, Bupendra got a phone call--all clear. So only about fifteen minutes after our original schedule we piled into a psychedelic bus right out of the 1970's and drove to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. Along the way we saw long stretches of Nepal, farm country punctuated by villages and the occasional small city.

While we are not seeing indications of great wealth, there is no sign of the grinding poverty of most people in India. Here the people are enterprising. There are far fewer beggars [we encountered only a handful in tourist areas, and none elsewhere], and no indication of homeless people [at least we did not see anyone sleeping outdoors]. There are more schools--every village has two or three--and more kids in uniforms and backpacks.

Yes, it is dirty here, too, but it is the same perpetual dust due to being half-way through the six months without rain. What we are not seeing are the piles of garbage that are everywhere in India. There are shacks and straw huts, but they are outnumbered by small brightly-painted houses.

So far the food is not as uniformly good as it was in India. Today's breakfast was mediocre. Lunch--in a horrible stinky place along the road--was no choice, same rice and dal for everyone, and overly spiced. The vegetable plate I had this evening, though, was beautifully displayed and quite good.

The temples at Lumbini are beautiful, built by Buddhists from different countries.

Lois doesn't understand the point of preserving the ruins of a temple built at the place Buddha is purported to have been born. Eric tried to explain that it is the same as the curch in Bethlehem built over Jesus' supposed birthplace, but she doesn't get that, either.

We finally got a chance to buy some souvenirs. Both Lois and I bought singing bowls, which we can get to work sporadically--it takes practice. She also bought a prayer wheel, and I bought a small Buddha for Dudley, my Zen cat.

The fog lifted and the sun came out this afternoon, and we are hoping for better weather for the rest of the trip. It was after dark and there were stars out when we arrived at the lodge in Chitwan National Forest. Not a light was on--and from the very little, very dim lighting we saw in homes and businesses along the way, it's obvious that electricity is very limited here. The power has gone off several times since we arrived in Nepal, so it's a good thing we brought flashlights. Once we found our rooms we also needed our flashlights to find our way to the restaurant, as the paths are not lighted.

They have a cat and a dog here, real pets who joined us for dinner. So nice to be able to safely pet them without worrying about disease.

This is only the second cat I have seen on the trip, and I have formulated a theory that they live in the country, but stay away from the dust of the roads. As fastidious as cats are, I don't think they could stand to be perpetually dirty.

We saw our first rabbit today, too, a white bunny belonging to the woman who ran the refreshment stand at the Monument for World Peace. The poor bunny was supposed to be white, but it was all grimy from hopping around the parking lot.

Tomorrow we take our elephant safari into the forest in search of rhinos, spotted deer, sloth bears, crocodiles, and maybe tigers.

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