Day 212, Sat, Dec 2, 2000 – 6:00 meeting at Drift Nepal for 3-hour bus ride. I hunted down a coffee before departure, but still wasn’t awake until we got there. We had a quick salad lunch, then helped to unload the equipment and inflate the rafts. We expected a little work, but we thought it was a bit dodgy when we had to join in to pull the bus backwards out of a hole. Most of the Drift Nepal guys were Nepalese except for “Brother Love” an appropriately named gregarious guy from the US Midwest somewhere. His take on life is “to enjoy it, cause you only live once – and be good to each other”. There were two big groups of Americans and Spaniards, so an Israeli guy and me were the odd men out. Brother Love gave us a quick lesson on rafting lingo and technique and a briefing on the river. We were put into two rafts and I was in the front of the Spanish raft. With my limited Spanish and their much better English, we had a great time trying to obey the fast and furious commands of our guide, Shanji. It was pretty easy going with a simple “Hard Left!”, “Back Right!” until we approached a rapid and our intensity picked up from the sound of the rapids and the splash of icy water. Shanji began the “All forward!” “Back Left” “Harder, Harder”, then “High side left!” and those of us on the right jumped over to the left side in a flurry of paddles, helmets, water and adrenalin. It was just in time, as we slammed into a massive boulder and the left side rose precariously. We slid down the rock, slipped some rapids and one more 360 degree spin later we had successfully negotiated “Gerbil in the Plumbing”. A quaint worldwide rafting tradition is to give quirky, off-the wall (yet descriptive) names to each rapid. The boys at Drift Nepal were excellent in this regard -next up was “Frog in the Blender”. After each success, we did a “paddle high five” and our confidence grew, notwithstanding the lack of understanding of some of Shanji’s commands. The ride was incredible, much better than a roller coaster as there is always the unknown factor that something could actually go horribly wrong at any moment. This of course adds to the excitement. Our boat was very lucky to survive unscathed, but we had a good-natured laugh when three people were thrown from the other boat. By the end of the day, the class fours gave way to a class five “Midnight Special” which we had to get out, walk around, and watch with envy as the expert guides ran it. We eventually met the bus which took us back to the put-in point where we changed out of wet clothes, had some warming tea and pitched our “tents” which were actually was no more than rafts leaning on some paddles and some sleeping bags tossed underneath. The guys whipped up a hardy spaghetti dinner, which we wolfed down and then we sat around a small campfire to stay warm. Some people headed off to some kind of river celebration that was happening up the road, but I couldn’t be bothered to exert any more energy. After everyone else turned in, I curled up around the campfire with my sleeping bag and read some of “Conversations with God” – thinking this would be a quiet and inspirational setting under the stars. After a while, the kids who had been helping around the camp joined me and we had one of those great conversations in which neither party understands a word the other says – sort of like conversations with God.
Day 213, Sun, Dec 3, 2000 – Freezing cold.
The coldest I’d been on the entire journey – colder than walking in
the Russian sleet, unheated showers in Africa, and nights in the Himalayas –
and there I was standing in the bushes with a very shy and temperature-sensitive
part of body exposed to the elements. I
had purposely stopped drinking water early last night so I would not have to
“use the facilities” in the middle of the night.
The plan failed when I woke up at 3:30 AM. There were some suspicious
sounds from the other raft, which reminded me that along with recommending
toiletries, warm clothes and flashlights, Drift Nepal had also mentioned
contraceptives. I thought anyone who could perform in this weather is worthy of
admiration. The sun finally came up
and the camp rustled up a funky oatmeal mush with fruit and grains and other
misc. unknown items, which we ate around the fire.
For a long while, no one was willing to move.
We finally accepted the inevitable and put our wet clothes, life jackets,
splash parkas, and helmets on and carried our “tents” down to the river
again. The river was beyond cold,
reminding us that it is made from melted Himalayan snow and ice.
As we learned yesterday, our feet remain submerged in a layer of water at
the bottom of the raft throughout the journey.
Some of the Americans had the brilliant idea to wrap their feet in socks
and plastic bags and secure them with duct tape.
The Nepalese got a good laugh out of that and 10 minutes later they were
just as cold as any of us. After
the initial shock, we had a great run for the first hour.
Then we had a tremendous karmic payback when the other boat had a chance
to really laugh at us for a change. In
the excitement of the whitewater, we did not hear Shanji screaming “HIGH SIDE LEFT!!”.
Before we knew it, we had slammed into the wall of the canyon and flipped
the entire raft over - dumping all of us into the churning rapids of “Liquid
Bliss “. The name is very
deceiving. I went from paddling furiously to submerged in the blink of an eye
– I was even still holding my paddle. The
icy water immediately collapses your lungs, making it difficult to breath –
which is ironic because your adrenalin is telling your body to breathe faster.
I remembered to lay back and face downriver as instructed during our
briefing and decided “screw the paddle” when it kept me from using my hands
to ward off the boulders and walls. The
current was incredible. I tried to
“swim” (ha ha) to the shore, but the river had other ideas, like slamming me
against a wall where the river elbows to the left.
My hands were up, holding the wall, but I could feel that the wall was
hollowed out under the waterline and started to pull my legs under.
The welcome sight of the safety kayak was about 10 meters away and I
could see Bhutu yelling something to me but could only hear rushing water.
Finally I made out “HOLD ON! I’M COMING”.
I bent my knees to reduce resistance, then pushed off the wall as the
kayak approached. Once I grabbed
the towing loop on the back of the kayak I was thankful, to say the least, I
wasn’t about to let go and tried to catch my breath.
Then I realized Bhutu was paddling like crazy but he couldn’t get
anywhere. He yelled back at me,
“KICK YOUR FEET!”. In my relief
to be plucked from the rock, it hadn’t dawned on me that I was dead weight.
I kicked like crazy and after what seemed like an eternity we finally got
the upper hand against the river and headed to the shore.
I crawled up on a dry rock and laid back spread eagle, breathing heavily
and looking at the clouds. I hiked
50 yards back and waved to where the rest of the crew was gathered.
I hadn’t gone the furthest down stream, but I was the only one trapped
against a wall. It was really an
incredible experience – of course I wanted to get right back in and do it
again. At least that’s what my adrenalin said - my brain would
later overrule and hope that we would not get dumped again. We had two hours left, including all the rapids from
yesterday, and then “The Great Wall”, named after a huge drop, and “John
Holmes”, because it is long and hard. The
other raft got stuck on the peak of boulder for five minutes and they had to get
out and cling to the slippery rocks while Brother Love got it off. We survived - getting stuck once, where we nearly lost
someone - and finished with a flurry of paddling, yelling and splashing as we
got in and out of “Dazed and Confused”.
After a paddle high five, we drifted lazily down the river admiring the
canyon walls and mountains in the distance.
Unfortunately, cameras were out of the question during the trip due to
the wetness involved. We all would
have loved to have a video of the action during the rapids.
Maybe next time I’ll have one of those waterproof video cameras like
scuba divers. Of course, it may be
a long time until the next time I get a chance to really think about that
Day 214, Mon, Dec 4, 2000 – After the bus ride
back, I was exhausted and crashed with Naomi after a hot shower and a huge pasta
dinner. Naomi went for the steak,
although we're not sure if it was cow or yak meat. Today we slept in, did a
little shopping and interviewed a few guys:
Ganrats: "Job, family, to be happy"
Navaras: "My family and my sources of life"
Mustad: "Education. And I think social work is very interesting"
Rajish: "My girlfriend, my family and my friends"
Sedi: "Having a good job and no drugs"
Afterwards we checked out of the Guest House and took a taxi to Bhaktapur, the third of the valley kingdoms. We checked into the Traditional Guest House, a true backpackers place with clod showers and toilets outside our floor. We were on the third floor, with a view over the temple rooftops. This town is further from the beaten tourist path and serves as the antidote to the hustle and bustle of Thamel. We walked around Durbar and other squares - the windows, balconies and roof struts are like wooden versions of the stonework in Jaisalmer.
We had lunch on the roof overlooking the square, then a local student gave us a tour of the area, explaining the history and many intrigues - ancient (between the gods) and more modern (between the three Kathmandu Valley kingdoms). We saw such divergent tidbits as a god with a garland of human heads, elephants copulating in the missionary position, a statue whose sculptor lost his hands to preserve the King’s status over his neighbors, and some visions of hell’s punishments that would rival any in Italy, including teeth-pulling, ear-burning and head-crushing via ram horns.
Incredible stories, coupled with some beautiful children wandering around town. After reading the rave reviews in the guest book, we couldn’t say no to the guesthouse owner's famous stew. It was delicious, and he served a bottomless bowl. I think Naomi petered out after two and I had four. We asked for the recipe, but the owner, Ganesha, said it was a family secret.
Bhaktapur is wonderful in the daytime, thanks largely to a German-funded development project, but at night it is eerily quiet and more mysterious. In the wonderfully car-less, peaceful medieval old town, we heard only the sounds of conversation, dishwashing, television, and babies crying. It reminded us of wandering in Sighasora or Venice (minus the water). The only blemish was the sound of Garth Brooks emanating from a small café as a kid in a Metallica t-shirt swept the day’s cigarette butts out to the street. Outside Tachupal Tole, the sounds of prayer chants and chimes drifted from one temple while the sounds of teenage laughter and smoke of dubious origin wafted from another. It was great to see the temples in the silent hours with only a few light bulbs and lamps lighting the neighborhood – with enough imagination (or cheap Nepali rum) you can just make out the sounds of the King’s musicians and dancing girls from 400 years ago. The whole scene was quite the opposite of the frat party of Thamel and we found ourselves wishing we had stayed here longer. We walked on for another hour. A block from the hotel I heard the unmistakable mandolin parts of “Maggie Mae” and had to stop to listen to the finale of the song. Notwithstanding the love we feel for the Eastern exoticism, we really miss our music. Maybe we should have taken advantage of the Irish pubs in Thamel after all.
Day 215, Tues, Dec 5, 2000 – Last night was
freezing cold, with Naomi wrapped up like an astronaut with every piece of
clothing she had. We woke to cocks
crowing and kids playing in the street below our window.
Ganesha made delicious Tibetan bread, omelets and coffee, and then gave us
"Life is very strange. We cannot take care of all the times of our life.
Even when we are, we don’t – it is like a game, some children playing
at a game, like football. We have to help each other – even dogs and birds.
We can say nothing bad about people because we don’t know – we
can’t judge because we are all the same.
When I do good, I get something – in this life or the next life –
slow or fast. Karma is very
important, but I cannot say what Karma I have – that is for God.
I cannot take my money when I die
It is much warmer during the day in the sunlight as we toured the other neighborhoods of the ancient city. We admired the incredible woodcarvings, particularly the famous peacock windows on many postcards. Every street seemed to have a hidden courtyard where statues and temples await discovery. We had lunch on a roof watching the flower and fruit market below, flute sellers, and a wedding band parade, dressed in shiny red coats like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. At Potter's Square amongst the pounding, kneading and spinning clay, women sifted grain, kids played jump rope and chickens and goats stepped gingerly around the finished clay pieces drying in the sun.
We shared a taxi with a girl from Texas out to the Changu Narayan temple – an unusually colorful one on an out-of the-way hilltop at the end of a street where corn dried hanging from windows along with the laundry.
Back at Durbar Square, we visited the royal palace, with the intricate golden gate acclaimed as the most important piece of art in the Valley. Behind it was a medieval pool with 6-foot gold snakes. The palace art gallery featured some very detailed violence and sex amongst the gods. The scenes are bloodier than any crucifixion scene and the sex is more intricate than Kama Sutra texts. We met our student guide from yesterday and gave him some money for schoolbooks, then shopped for some of the local woodcarvings, lured by the sounds of mallet and chisel.
Back at the guesthouse, we retrieved our bags, said goodbye to
took a taxi up the terraced hills to the small village of Nagarkot. We had come for the famous postcard view you see all over the
Valley. It is meant to be the best
point in the valley to see the Himalayan range and get a distant glimpse of
Mount Everest. We got there just in
time, as the sun was setting behind us. We
climbed up the steps of the hotel to the rooftop viewing gallery and were sorely
disappointed. The mountain range
was a faint line of white, turning slightly pink on the horizon.
The crowd wondered what kind of equipment the postcard photographers had
(not to mention how long they had to wait for the perfect shooting conditions).
Day 216, Wed, Dec 6, 2000 – In spite of last night’s disappointment, we still awoke at 6:00 for sunrise just in case it was more dramatic (with the rationalization that you only live once). The crowd was much thicker, having heard the same propaganda, but the views were not much better. It still didn’t look like the postcards, so we bought a huge panoramic shot from a little kid selling armfuls of rolled tubes.
Over breakfast we flipped through some magazines from Hong Kong, thinking of the next leg of our journey through Asia itself. The ride back to Kathmandu was 1.5 hours through green fields and brown towns with plenty of goats and the ubiquitous children with sweaters but no trousers. We checked back into the old reliable Kathmandu Guest House – by now the staff know us very well and have our bags out without even asking. We made our way back to Durbar Square to tour the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world at 800 years young. The museum included great views from the top of one tower with erotic carvings and history lessons on the Kingdom’s past and gradual, but incomplete, slide toward democracy this century. Not surprisingly, the museum omitted any references to the mass killing of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1990 or the hard-line Marxist movement which continues in the countryside. As in most constitutional monarchies, the King has no real power politically, just the respect of the populace, most of whom are uneducated. As in England, the gossip level is huge, centering on the private proclivities of the royal family.
Naomi went shopping and I returned to Durbar to try to interview some of the Sadhus there. I
met Anol, a student trying to earn money as a guide (this
is a fairly popular vocation for locals, particularly when the tourists are
young females). Anol agreed to
serve as my interpreter, and we proceeded to have one of the most comic and
animated interviews we’ve had on the trip.
They said God was most important, specifically Shiva, to whom they have
devoted their life. I asked what
message they would have for Americans who can’t travel to Nepal. They said they loved America.
I asked why, since America represents a love of material things and money
and a lack of spirituality. Anol
knew what I was trying to get at, but we went around in circles for 10 minutes,
one guy finally said in broken English that it would be good if I gave them some
money. I told him of course I would
pay for their time, but I was trying to learn something.
He said it took too much time. Anol
finally broke down and said they are only interested in money.
He said I should meet his guru, so we made an appointment for tomorrow.
Back at the hotel, we watched more CNN coverage of the
election “crisis”. It’s
hilarious reading how other countries are getting a kick out of the USA’s
version of democracy. Apparently,
Libya’s Gadhafi has offered to send election observers to ensure a fair count.
Most of these countries would have taken up arms in civil war or bloody
coups by now, but the US is much more ruthless, calling out the attack lawyers.
Tonight we heard them arguing in court, sounding much like the doubletalk
we heard from the fake sadhus today.
Day 217, Th, Dec. 7, 2000 – Since our trip to Nagarkot was such a disappointment, view-wise, we decided to splurge on one of the famous mountain flights over the Himalayas on a tiny prop plane. We woke at 5:30 hoping for good weather for the 7:00 flight on Shangri-La air. The plane sat two in a row so everyone had a window seat. The views were unbelievable and we soon forgot all the bad things we said about Nagarkot (except for the terrible food). The pilot called each of us up to the cockpit so we could see the whole panorama through his windows. It was breathtaking – a horizon-stretching jagged white blanket over a gray base with wispy clouds blowing off the peaks of the highest mountains. Nepal may be just another small country in terms of length and breadth, but it is the tallest in the world. In a half hour we passed 8 of the ten highest mountains in the world. Above them all at the far Eastern edge of the Himalayas is the majestic diamond-top of Everest. Known as Chomolungma in Tibeten and Sagarmatha in Nepali, It has stood as a symbol of the mountain gods and Earth Mother since time began, watching over the entire world. No one set foot on the top of it until 1953 when Norgay Tenzing and Edmund Hillary reached the summit – 28 years after Mallory, who explained that he wanted to climb Everest “because it’s there”, disappeared. His frozen marble-white body was recently found not far from the summit, renewing the debate about whether he made it to the top before breaking his leg and dying. Now hundreds of people (some say “tourists”) can claim bragging rights, supported by the most modern of climbing, convenience and communications equipment. In spite of this, the climb is still treacherous, as anyone who has read “Into Thin Air” or seen the related IMAX movie can tell you. We circled around Everest, seemingly within spitting distance and headed back so the right side of the plane could get a close-up view. The whole flight was over in an hour, swooping down over the terraced mountainsides of the Valley and over brown sprawling suburbs.
Back in the city, we met two Servas members; Sunil, a film director who is somewhat well known in Nepal, as is his wife Nisha, an actress. They recently finished a film about the young Kumari Devi goddess.
Nisha: "I think to be a good person also. Some people say “big person” is important, but really it is to be a good soul. Also, for me my family is the most important – my son and husband and mother – everyone really."
We walked back to Durbar, where we met up with Anol again,
but unfortunately his guru could not make it.
I carried on past kids playing hacky sack with tied up rubber bands and cows munching plastic bags to a shop selling the incredibly detailed thangka paintings particular to Nepal. I bought one in gold paint with a ying-yang circle in the center symbolizing the balance of positive and negative energy in the world - it helped restore my balance after seeing that photo. The thngka shop was family-owned with the sons doing the painting and selling:
We also hooked up with our friends down at Drift Nepal again and got their views (although it was after hours and they may have had a few drinks already)
Chudup: "Business: to have a business card so people know you are out there."
KP: "To be happy. It doesn’t matter what you are doing or who you are, just be happy. Unfortunately, you need money too or you cannot do anything in this world. Don’t forget where you come from and who you are."
"Save the nature, love the life and be satisfied with what you get. Nothing more than that."
We had our last, long leisurely dinner in Kathmandu,
listening to Van Morrison at a steakhouse.
Sometimes Western music does add to the experience of Eastern travel.
If you would like to follow our adventure to Thailand, please click here: Photojournal December 8 -14, 2000
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