Friday, 16 November 2012


Last week, as I was reached the half-way point in my trip here in Nepal, I started contemplating how best to spend the rest of my time.  I had planned to visit Chitwan National Park and the neighbouring village of Sauraha after my Pokhara trip.  However, anticipation was killing me and I decided to move my jungle trip up a bit.  So on Friday 9th November, I took a short flight south to Chitwan.  The weather was much warmer than Kathmandu, which has started to get fairly chilly in the evenings.  I arrived at the hotel, Travellers Jungle Camp, around midday. It was a beautiful spot, with well-kept gardens and cheerful,  friendly staff who collected me from the airport, which was 30 minutes away from Sauraha.  They sat down with me and planned my stay, giving me precise timings for activities.  This is a hotel that definitely doesn’t run on Nepali time! 

After deciding on my itinerary, I was shown to my room.  I was delighted with it, as it was not only immaculate, but had a bath with hot water. For someone who has had mostly cold showers since the start of October, this alone was a massive bonus to my trip!

At 3.30pm I returned to the hotel restaurant to meet my guide, Salik, who took me through the town and around the local area, pointing out birds and animals as we went.  I got my first glimpse of the elephant hattisar or stables.  I can’t say it was pleasant seeing these beautiful animals chained up as they were, but it was certainly interesting to see them up close.  We kept walking, and we had a close encounter with what Salik believed to be a snake which was hiding deep in bushes.  We think it had just raided a bird’s nest but the foliage was too thick to be sure.

Continuing our tour, we walked along the banks of the Rapti river to an area which was meant to be good for spotting rhino as they came to bathe in the evenings.  However, we weren’t in luck.  Eventually, we came to a museum with a rather small and random collection of bones, print casts and information boards about different animals.  Walking on, we came to the outskirts of the town where it meets the river, where a number of small bars and hotels were situated.  We stood on the river bank watching the sun go down as well as looking at a rather toothy and large marsh-mugger crocodile which was resting on the opposite bank.  As the sun set, we made our way back to the hotel.

That evening, I was brought with 3 other guests from the hotel to the Tharu Cultural Programme.  This was a show put on by the native Tharu people, with dances and traditional music.  It was entertaining and the building was packed out with people from many of the hotels around the village.  Apparently the dancers did the same show every single night!

After a decent night’s sleep, Saturday arrived.  I got up very early to go for my elephant safari at 6.30am.  The place was quiet when we arrived, with just a few tourists milling around.  I got my photo taken with one of the elephants before being shown to a tower to climb onto another elephant for the safari.  I was joined by 3 strangers and the mahout (driver), which to me seemed a bit much, even for an elephant.  However, we turned out of the clearing and across the river, pausing so the elephant could take a drink, then headed off into the jungle.  It was a strange sensation, riding through the trees and bushes at such a height, but it was certainly the best way to see wildlife. Along with peacocks and other birds, we saw a few herds of spotted deer, some wild pigs, the occasional Rhesus Macaque monkey and another marsh-mugger.  Sambar deer lay in dense thickets, chewing the cud, the sun was slowly rising and making itself visible through the trees, and everywhere I turned there was something to look at.  We marched through for nearly 2 hours, but I was disappointed that yet again that the rhinos and big cats had avoided us.

Emerging from the jungle, we were greeted by a crowd of tourists waiting for their turn on the elephants.  I was glad I had one of the first trips in, as I may have seen a lot less wildlife as the day got busier and more people were traipsing through the jungle.

I headed back to the hotel for a hearty breakfast, and changed into clothes that I didn’t mind getting wet.  At half 10, another guide from the hotel and I walked down to the river where an elephant was being washed.  A couple of people got the chance to get in the water and help, and after my guide had a word with the mahout, I was invited in.  I was helped on to the elephant’s back, and I had sat there for only a few seconds before the mahout called something out in his own language, and I received a face full of river water from the elephant’s trunk!  Again and again I was showered by the elephant, until I was completely soaked through.  I couldn’t help but laugh, even as other tourists stood on the banks taking pictures of me.  The guide also had my camera and took photos as I was doused with water.  The mahout began to lead the elephant into deeper water, before calling out something else.  The elephant quickly knelt on one side, making me slide straight off into the river! The crowd laughed, probably because of my surprised scream as I fell off.  The mahout helped me back up, and as soon as the elephant was standing up again, he called for her to shoulder me off again.  I could understand why the people on the bank were laughing as I couldn’t stop laughing myself!

Eventually, the mahout brought me back to the shore and the elephant lay down in the water to let me off.  A few tourists asked for a photo of me after I got back on to dry land, with my clothes and body soaked through.  I was never more grateful for a hot bath than when I got back to the hotel!

After the hilarity of the morning, I was happy and excited for the afternoon; a canoe ride down the river before a jungle walk and a visit to the elephant breeding centre.  The canoe ride took off from the same place where we watched the sun go down the night before, and as soon as I saw the boat I was aware of just how low it sat in the water.  I got in nervously, as I knew that one wrong move would throw us all into the river.  Sitting down, I was feeling a lot closer to the water than I liked, but as we set off from the shore, I quickly lost my nerves and started to enjoy myself, letting my fingers drift in the cool water.  There was so much to look at; swifts and sand-martins skimming low over the river in droves, wader birds rooting around in the shallows for food, golden ducks flying from the banks in couples, a mongoose diving into the rocky areas of the shore looking for snakes or bird eggs, and a number of crocodiles that were either lying in the sun or slipping into the water and swimming right under the boat!  I was lucky enough to see another type of crocodile, the gharial, which has a long, thin snout and is a fish-eating croc, which posed no threat.  The marsh-muggers we saw were huge, and I wasn’t sure I liked being quite so close to them.

The canoe ride was enjoyable, and soon we were steered towards a bank to disembark and continue the journey on foot.  With just my guide with me, it was easy to slip through the vegetation quietly, picking wild plums as we went, and it was nice to get to see more wildlife this way.  I imagine that with a group, it would have been much harder to see anything, but we kept quiet as we walked.  A wild pig ran across our path, leaving behind a wake of destruction where it had been digging around for food.  We saw more spotted deer, and were right above a marsh-mugger as it lay on the bank soaking up the sun.  We went deeper into the jungle and I came across a water snake skin, perfectly intact, with even the eye-caps still in place. 

Walking further, we didn’t see much but we became aware of a sharp smell.  The guide told me that this was the scent of a rhino.  We kept going along the path, until suddenly the guide threw his arm in front of me and we quickly turned back the way we came, half running up the trail.  We had been less than 5 feet from a rhino, far too close for comfort.  We ran back to a thicket where I was told to quickly climb a tree and stay there until it was safe.  The guide moved forward again, and we were surprised to find 3 army soldiers coming along the path, heading towards the rhino.  My guide stopped them and warned them, pointing out the grey mass lurking in the bushes.  From my spot up the tree, I could just see its back and ears through the vegetation.  Slowly, the soldiers moved forward, beating sticks against trees to spook the rhino and encourage it to move away from the trail.   Eventually, it ambled off deeper into the jungle, and I was helped out of my perch to continue the hike.  Talk about a walk on the wild side!

A couple of monkeys, birds and termite mounds later, we emerged out of the jungle and headed across a clearing towards the elephant breeding centre.  Lots of baby elephants stood with their mothers as the staff threw down massive bundles of fresh grass for them to eat.  It was even worse to see the little ones chained to posts, and some clearly wanted to get closer to the people standing watching them.  I was able to get some beautiful photos of them though, and after a while my guide and I turned away and headed back to Sauraha.

The final morning of my trip was another early one, as I was up to go bird-watching at 6.30am.  It was very misty, which didn’t make it very easy to see birds, although I did see some gorgeous white egrets and storks by the river, along with smaller birds which hopped along the path in front of us.  Again, as it was so early it was still very quiet, but as we walked on we came across a few groups who were also out bird-watching.  I was surprised that there was any birds left to see, with the noise some of the people were making! I suppose the time spent running around in fields and poking around in hedgerows as a youngster had taught me to keep quiet when looking for animals and birds, but a few people in the groups clearly hadn’t the sense to keep the noise down!

After the walk, I was greeted with another filling breakfast before heading off to my room to pack my things, read for a while, and generally take it easy until check-out at 12pm.  I had a last walk around the town before I was collected by the hotel staff and taken back to the airport for my flight home. 

I really can’t stress just what a brilliant trip it was.  Before booking it, I had started to doubt if I would go at all, but I’m so grateful that I did.  It was a fantastic, unforgettable experience!, and one that I would recommend to anyone.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Allllll By Myyyyseelllllf

This post is less of a ‘Here’s what I did this week’ post and more of a philosophical one.  Bear with me.

Independence has always been an important aspect of my character.  As a youngster I didn’t mind my own company, and during the tempestuous teenage years (Oh the joys! The heart-breaks! The betrayals! The multitude of exclamation marks in my diary!!) I found that being alone was often preferable to company.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I love the time I spend with friends, family, and even making new acquaintances and forming new relationships.  These are the times that are memorable, that make each day different and new and exciting.  Sharing an experience is sometimes the best part of it, and I’m so grateful for the people I share these things with.  But sometimes, other people bring drama, and sometimes I need to take a break from it all, to evaluate, assess, and then go back for round 2.

If there is something I have learned over the years, it is that not only do I like having time to myself, but that I need it to keep hold of my sanity.   Whether I’m curled up in a blanket with a riveting read, or belting out cheesy pop songs in an empty house, or driving my car out in the countryside, I always find comfort in knowing that when I am alone, there is nobody expecting anything of me, no-one berating me for misspent time, or pulling me out of my reverie to return back to the real world.   Especially after my job finished in September, I knew the difficult questions about the future would start.  And it is these questions, or perhaps the expectations of concrete answers, that made me want to take a life-pause, and get away to consider my uncertain future, alone.  So here I am, in Nepal.

A lot of people used the world ‘brave’ to describe my trip, proclaiming that they could never do it alone.  Like my choice to be independent was something worthy of praise rather than the result of a somewhat-selfish need to do things the way I wanted without anyone to oppose.  So I disagreed quickly and brushed it off.  I have never seen anything else particularly brave in it because I knew I would be among friends if things got tough, and that even thousands of miles away, my closest friends and family were only a quick message away.  In this sense, I would never be alone when I needed someone, so I had nothing to fear.  As for natural disasters/accidents etc, a stranger summed up my own feelings by saying, ‘If you’re born to be shot, you’ll never die of drowning.’

However, when I came to Nepal, I didn’t realise that there would be any question about me feeling independent, or that new and different expectations might arise from being here.  Ah, the wilful naivety! Unless we become hermits, caring for nobody and with nobody to care for us, we must always be able to account for ourselves, where we have been and what we have done.  I expected to come and go here as I please, without having to give reasons or agendas.  I have to admit, for the first few weeks, I found the reality tough.  I had the occasional feeling of a stroppy teenager (a decade late, might I add), thinking, ‘Why do I have to say where I’m going? It doesn’t MATTER if I’m late/early/not there, why do they need to know what I’m doing and why?’  What I forgot was that other people might actually care about where I am, or why I am going; even the people who were strangers to me less than 6 weeks ago.  But then again, I misjudged the kindness and consideration of those around me, and I have since learned to be grateful for their care instead of thinking their curiosity was driven by a need to be in control. 

In recent weeks, I found myself making myself even less independent by relying on others to plan things for me, to make my visit more exciting and memorable.  Somehow I got it into my head that I couldn’t do these things alone.  I was giving up my freedom willingly!  These other people rose to the task admirably and helped me have days worth writing about, rather than those which I spent doing laundry or reading the news online.  (Not that the latter were bad days, in fact many were very comfortable and happy, but they were just not worth noting.)  But it took a passing comment from my brother to wake me up.  He simply said, ‘You can do anything you want’.  And it’s true. 

After that, I started thinking about my time here.  If there were things I didn’t want to do, I didn’t have to do them.  I had worried about my trips being planned for me and not being what I expected them to be, but then realised that when the decisions were left in my own hands, I could do whatever I wanted.  I took back the control that I had given away so freely.  I booked a spa in Pokhara for three days later this month, because when I imagined going there I saw myself spending time in that particular place.  I moved up my trip to Chitwan National Park to this weekend because it seemed as good a time as any and I didn’t feel like waiting.  Suddenly, I started to get back the feeling of independence I had felt when I booked my tickets for Nepal all the way back in May.   This was good! This was the way things were meant to be all along!  If I didn’t sleep well one night, there was nothing to stop me from having a rest day to myself to make up for it.  If I wanted to make a trip to Thamel just for a change of scenery, all I had to do was make the decision and go.  The beauty of this trip was in my sense of independence, and until this week I had felt like I had lost that.  I realised that my mini-moods about not having freedom were my own fault, and that if I wanted things to change, I was the one that had to do something about it.

Of course, there are times that my behaviour might seem odd.  My host family may wonder not only about me taking trips on my own, but why I spend hours reading or writing alone in my room.  But this had always been part of my plan.  To give myself time to share what I have been doing with people back home, which I hadn’t done so well the first time here in Nepal.  Or just to lose myself in beloved book that I hadn’t had the space or inclination to read at home because life (or 'How I Met Your Mother') got in the way.  Or to plan for my future, a plan which is starting to take shape and should be more fully formed by the time I get home in 6 weeks.  But as I plan ahead, I already know that my independence will be a predominant feature –  finding a job, getting my own place, and basically becoming a fully-fledged adult.  Admitting it is the first step... I am not a teenager, or a carefree student anymore.  I am a GROWN-UP.   I have to PAY BILLS and CLEAN ALL THE THINGS and BE RESPONSIBLE! (click here to see what on earth I’m going on about if you don’t get the reference.)

The times when I visit beautiful temples or shop in the city or take a weekend to visit the jungle are the times that are worth sharing and will be what I remember most from this trip.  But the times when I can cut myself off from the world entirely are the times when I feel most like myself, and I can see what lies ahead more clearly.  When I think about my first trip here, it was time spent evaluating and assessing that really changed me.  I’m hoping that this time will be no different, and maybe in the future I won't need to take time off away from the world to figure out who I am and what I'm doing.  I'll just know.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Party Time in Nepal!

Around the country, people have been enjoying Dasain, a fifteen-day celebration which is the country’s biggest festival.  People eat special food, spend time visiting each other’s houses and have a little bit of raksi, homemade Nepali wine!  I lost count of the amount of invitations I received from people, even those I barely know, asking me to come to their homes and share their food.  As I have already said, Nepali generosity goes above and beyond all expectations. 

October 23rd and 24th marked the main days of the festival, and the place was buzzing with activity.  On Tuesday 23rd, I set off for Sirutar once again to see my family there, as well as the Shrestha family in Sirutar, who invited me to receive tika.  This is a mixture of rice, yoghurt and red powder called sindur which is placed on the forehead.  Tika represents the all-seeing third eye, and Hindu ceremonies are often marked with this blessing.  The more recognisable bindis, or dots worn on women’s foreheads, also represent this third eye, and have become a fashion accessory as well as a representation of divine protection.

Once I finished there, I headed back to Gatthaghar to meet with the headmistress of the Astha Women School, a school for those who were unable to finish their education when they were young.  She invited me to her home as well, and I was given a generous meal there.

The following day was spent visiting my host’s extended family and neighbours, and on this day I received tika no less than 5 times!  It was a nice feeling to be included in this practice, and on receiving it each time, I was given a handful of beaten rice to eat, as well as a piece of fruit, some flowers in my hair, and some Nepali money.  To be honoured this way is something the majority of tourists here in Nepal can’t experience, and I really appreciated being a part of it.

Talking of exclusive access, on Saturday 20th October I took a rather long journey up high in the Kathmandu hills to a Hindu temple called Palanchok Bhagwati.  I was able to witness the ringing of temple bells, the huge procession of people through the building, each placing marigolds and gifts down for the gods and goddesses there.  To be honest, some practices are completely beyond my comprehension, but I watched with interest.  However, when I was inside the temple, I had to make a hasty exit from the place when I realised a little black goat I had watched being blessed earlier was about to be sacrificed.  Even as a meat-eater, and someone who has actually eaten goat, this was too grotesque to handle and I had to leave.  However, as much as I may hate it, it is seen as an essential part of the religious rites here.  Maybe it won’t always be that way, but it’s not for me to turn my nose up at practices I don’t understand.   I just couldn’t bear to witness it. 

Religion is something from which I have always been separate; merely an observer on the practices and customs of each one I encountered.  Faith and worship often confuse and confound me; if you are Christian, looking at Hindu and Buddhist practices must have the same effect.  Similarly, explaining Christian beliefs to a Hindu or Buddhist, or any other faith, can often lead to the same bewilderment.  However, being separate from religions has its benefits.  I can watch a Christian service, take part in a Hindu ritual, visit a Buddhist monastery, and view each as simply a culture’s way of making sense of the inexplicable; the mysteries in life.  Some people choose to reject religion altogether, or to refuse to learn about different faiths in case doing so shakes their own belief, but I think this is simply a way to close yourself off to a rich world of views.  Where is the capacity for appreciating a culture which is so tightly bound in its faith if one rejects religion altogether?

I’m glad that I’ve learnt to be sensitive to other world views now even if they aren’t compatible with my own, which is definitely something I have noticed more in myself since my first trip to Nepal.  Who am I to say who is wrong or right? If someone wants to worship God, or many gods, or goddesses, or spirits, how can I possibly know which is right?  We’re all just making sense of the world in the way which suits us best.  If faith gives comfort, joy, something to celebrate, or even the motivation to do good for others, then why not embrace it?  By opening my mind and allowing myself to learn about various religions and their practices, it has made me more tolerant and accepting of what I see.  I know it has made me a better person and I’m sure it would do the same for anyone else who gives it a try.