As you may have noticed, the publishing schedule for this ol’ blog here is not exactly…rigid. I am currently back in Delhi but this post is primarily about Nepal. I would lurv to post more frequently and at some sort of predictable cadence, but it is important to me to be present in my daily activities and paradoxically the urge to write always comes naturally whenever I'm on a bus or train with tons of time but no way to hold a laptop steady. So instead I end up spending these 14- and 22-hour journeys being insanely bored, and then carving out a few hours to write when I can actually hold a computer still.
…Like right now: Home sweet home in Gurgaon! Damn is it good to be back here in suburbs of Delhi with Vallika and Sada, with all of this India experience under my belt. I’m sort of wrapping up my time in the north of India and I didn’t want to head south without seeing them again. They are pretty entertained by the little bit (“tola tola") of Hindi I have picked up, my extensive food (“kana”) knowledge and my horrendous transportation stories.
So before I go down south, I should back up and recap the some of the north.
Rewind to the beginning of September.
I had originally gone to Nepal to renew my Indian visa, and planned to leave Nepal as soon as it was ready. But when I got sick on my trek, I ended up with more time in Kathmandu and found myself having the best time ever. It could have been Kathmandu itself or more likely the people I met there, but when my Indian visa was ready, I wasn’t ready. And it turned out that I couldn’t leave even if I had wanted to, because there were daily transportation strikes so buses were being cancelled regularly. And then there was a petrol deficit, making it even more difficult to find a ride. Never in my life did I think I would find myself in Nepal. Nepal was like, that place wayyy over there, somewhere over there, like “Made In Nepal.” It wasn’t until the earthquake that Kathmandu was even on my radar, but I ended up spending the whole month of September in KTM and loving every* second of it.
There were Nepali hipsters. You could feel the Nepali pride from the locals. The days were long, happy, lazy and for the most part barefoot. My guest house, Secret Garden, was an oasis in the middle of the crazy city of Kathmandu. It was the kind of place people came for a week and ended up staying for seven months. (As a side project, the owners of Secret Garden run a hugely impressive disaster relief program for the earthquake - their volunteers have built over 45 homes and one temporary school in the villages outside Kathmandu. I know I’ll be back there doing one of those programs in the not-so-distant future.) The vibes were just too good.
Each morning, I’d wake up by 7am and everyone was up and soaking in the morning outside. Reading, drawing, playing guitar, writing, juggling, drinking tea. Bud, a suuuper laid-back always-smiling Californian who had been living at Secret Garden for a year, was always up first because he slept on the roof so he awoke at sunrise. One day I asked Bud if he went to college and he said “yeah, but it took me a long time to graduate,” so I said “cool, where’d you go?” and he said “Grateful Dead Tour University.” (Hi Bud. Miss you, bud... Bud...)
Every day I ate boiled eggs and toast for breakfast. Some days we’d go to Phat Kath cafe and lounge there for hours and hours. Many nights after dinner I'd visit my friend Imran, aka the Cookie Walla, at his counter where he made the most delicious desserts: crushed cookies, sliced bananas, vanilla ice cream, a slice of coconut pie, chocolate syrup and condensed milk.
It was around 80 degrees in KTM but felt hotter. The pollution was terrible. I often couldn’t see the sun during the day and yet the haze made the sky even brighter — I was constantly squinting. Each day it rained in the afternoon for a couple of hours and then at night it would drop to around 70 which was very pleasant. Most nights we’d grab dinner at a nearby restaurant and then everyone would hang outside at Secret Garden. Many, many jam sessions. I was on vocals sometimes which was a lot of fun but man I really don’t have that Mariah Carey voice I used to have when I was nine… slash I never had a Mariah Carey voice and if anything I was forced to sing the Boys II Men verses because my sister and/or Julie Carlton were always Mariah… but you get it.
[Above: Secret Garden by day]
[Above: sunset, from the roof of Secret Garden]
Near my guest house, the shops were plentiful and colorful, filled with all sorts of handicrafts. Like parts of New York City, some neighborhoods in Kathmandu were dense with multi-level buildings housing shops on all floors. Shops piled high with junk covered in dust, shops selling all the different kinds of crap you can imagine, shops selling wholesale party supplies. The streets were crowded but tolerable. I actually enjoyed the chaos of Kathmandu. Honking horns. Too many zooming motorbikes for the city’s narrow streets. Live music (read as: awful cover bands) blaring from the second-story bars at all hours of the day and night. The city had a hustle to it that many backpackers felt the urge to escape but that I actually felt quite drawn to. Neighborhoods far and wide, lots of alleyways and crevices to discover. A city incessantly abuzz and yet never in a rush.
[Above: a lovely handicrafts shop near Secret Garden]
[Above: the streets of Kathmandu]
One morning after chilling out perhaps a little too hard for three weeks straight, I decided to take a trip to the mall. You know, like, put some SHOES on my feet and GO somewhere. I was so excited to see what a mall in Nepal was like! The modern epicenter of the city! I had just finished breakfast at Secret Garden and was getting up to grab my bag and head out when I met Laetitia, a French girl who had just arrived. She said she was living and working in Varanasi (India) and was just visiting Nepal for a couple of weeks. Laeti is 26, had dreads until she chopped them two months ago, and didn’t bring a cell phone with her to Nepal. She is a nurse. She had visited Varanasi in February, stumbled upon a job cleaning and dressing wounds for impoverished people in the city, ended up liking it and has been there since. Coincidentally Varanasi was going to be my first destination when I got back in India. I asked her if she wanted to join me at the mall. Without even thinking about it she said hell no. But we proceeded to spend every day of the next month together. (LAETI I MISS YOU BIG TIME ALREADY.)
On my way to the mall, I passed a cake shop with a window display so lovely that I stepped inside to see if there was anything small and sweet I could grab. I chose a rum ball — a sort of chocolate-y, mousse-y, cake-y ball the size of my fist. It was delicious. Unfortunately the mall itself was awful in every way. The stores were not western stores (which I expected) but they weren’t awesome Nepali stores either (which I was hoping for). Instead, they were sort of random, junky stores selling second-hand Forever21 clothing. And even with nothing but junk inside, somehow the mall had eight floors. There were multiple methods of ascension and descension (not a word, I'm aware) — escalators, elevators, stairs — but each was in an opposite corner of the building and none of them were connected. You’d come up off the escalator and it would not continue on to the next floor. You had to cross the floor to the elevator in the opposite corner. And then the elevator would only go up two more floors, so you had to cross the floor again for the stairwell. Did I mention there was no air conditioning? It was impossible to navigate in any kind of methodical way and believe me I know my way around a mall. (Lisa Johnson I know you can vouch for me). One entire floor was an arcade — dark, unairconditioned and honking with arcade game noise — that you had to walk through to get to the stairwell on that floor. I was sweating profusely, zig zagging these floors just trying to find a store where I could buy some cool Nepali t-shirt. I never did find one. It was so hot inside that I couldn’t bear the heat outside and so even though it was mid afternoon and I decided to take a cab home and then chase that terrible mall trip with a one hour massage.
Another day in Kathmandu, I met a girl named Katie at a cafe. She is from Perth, Australia and plays the viola professionally. She has played in Les Miserables! And she will play this winter in The Lion King. She was in Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp. I mentioned to Katie that I had wanted to do a day trip to Shivapuri National Park, and Katie wanted to get some exercise in preparation for her trek, so we decided to go together. Most people take a bus to the base of the mountain and hike the 5km from the base to the top (where the National Park is). We decided to skip the bus, go all out and walk the full 20km from the center of KTM to the top of this mountain.
[Above: about 90 minutes into our walk to Shivapuri. We are walking the road you can see, toward the National Park at the top of the mountain on the left. Total distance 20km].
[Above: along our walk to Shivapuri... baby lambs! They were like little puppies!
When we asked if we could take a photo, this woman scooped them up like they were her children. And for all intents and purposes, they were. We were enamored.]
[Above: further up the mountain, this man was trimming his land with a traditional Nepali knife.]
[Above: looking down on the valley towns, from about a quarter of the way up the mountain.]
Well, we’re not sure if we ever did find the “National Park.” We made it to the base of the mountain, we made it up the mountain, and then we trekked for nine hours… but we were in the jungle. Tiny trails covered in leaves. No signage. No other people! We kept thinking we were just about to hit the “main trail” and it just never happened. But then we stumbled upon some kind of secret shrine: a big, rushing river with colorful Nepali prayer flags draped across all of the trees surrounding it. Hundreds of prayer flags, blue, yellow, green, red and white, forming a canopy over this river.
And a small cave on one side, with all these tiny golden buddhas placed inside it:
It was so awesome, we figured we must be getting close! So we took off our shoes and forged the river, still determined to find the National Park. A few hours later, we still hadn’t. It was getting dark and starting to rain. Regardless it had been a great day, so we began our descent. (Katie later admitted to me that during that last hour on the trail, she thought we were going to end up having to sleep in the cave because it would have been too dark and slippery to hike downhill, and she was assessing in her head whether we had enough food between the two of us and whether our phone flashlights would have enough power to last through the night. LOLZ.) When we finally reached a real road, we hitchhiked a ride from two Nepali guys around our age who were also heading to KTM. They did not speak a word of English but somehow they got us safely to the center of KTM. A cab would have cost us at least 2000 rupees so we tried to give them 100 rupees each just to show our appreciation but they looked completely puzzled when we offered. We forced the money on them and they both looked embarrassed to take it but then they asked us for a selfie together and we laughed and smiled and all was good. The next day, before heading off for her Everest Base Camp trek, Katie stopped by Secret Garden and gave me a small set of prayer flags she bought for me — the same ones that were draped over the trees by the river.
A few days later, me, Laetitia and our friend Thomas (pronounced Toma, and also living at Secret Garden) decided to get out of Kathmandu a few days. Thomas is also French (like Laeti), but he moved to Nepal two years ago to start an organic farm in a village called Chaughada (pronounced Chow-gah-dah), set in a deep valley just 60km outside Kathmandu and yet still a 4 hour bus ride away. Thomas said we could come hang at his place there, meet his Nepali ‘family’ who is from Chaughada, and help out with some stuff on the farm. Thomas rode his motorbike, Laetitia and I took the local bus. When we arrived, it was around 5PM. The sun was setting behind a beautiful mountain range in the distance.
The bus dropped us off by a very small cable bridge, which stretched over a river that looked so inviting after our four hour bus ride that we decided to just drop our bags and get in. A few minutes later Thomas found us bathing in the river and joined us. The three of us were having a swimmin’ old time, so excited to begin our short little vacation in this beautiful place. After twenty minutes or so, Thomas told us we better get going back to the house, because it will be dark and the pathway is “narrow.” We said we’d meet him back at the house but he assured us we’d never find it without him. He was right. Laeti and I had no idea what we were in for. We were in the middle of miles and miles of rice fields. We could see light in the distance — aka “the village” — but no apparent way of arriving there. Thomas led us to a path which cut through the rice fields, and ladies and gentleman “narrow” was an understatement. The path was literally no wider than my shoulders. I could not even stand with my feet next to each other — just one foot in front of the other. Flanked by water on either side.
[Above: rice fields for days; the pathway through the rice fields. Picture these at night.]
So, we walked in the dark for ten minutes and then twenty minutes, concentrating hard on putting one foot in front of the other. I looked up from the path for ONE SECOND to assess my surroundings and — WHOOP! — there I went! Slipped right off the side of the path, into the river. GUYS I FACEPLANTED INTO THE RIVER. With my clothes on, with my backpack on, with my iPhone in my hand (I was using the flashlight). Laetitia of course grabbed my iPhone immediately to save it from dying, but I was so shocked that I lay face down in the river for about a minute before collecting myself and hoisting myself out of there with Laetitia’s and Thomas’s help. They were being great friends, asking me if I was hurt and if I was okay, and I was just hysterically laughing. I could not believe that I just fell into that river, fully clothed and with my backpack on! Like, What The Actual F*ck!!!
Back at the house Laetitia and Thomas were being all serious, asking if I was okay, and I was like guys, it’s okay if you laugh, that was hilarious. After two days Laetitia finally admitted that she was laughing hysterically to Thomas but didn’t want me to feel bad, so she would turn around and laugh and then look at me very seriously and ask if I was okay. This was some time in late September and I still have a black bruise on my hip.
Chaughada was the most remote place I have stayed so far (there was no running water at all) but it was also the most luxurious. The outside bathroom, which Thomas built entirely himself, was made of beautiful bamboo. Not only was there was a ledge to rest toiletries on, there was also a pretty big mirror. The kitchen had every piece of cookware you could imagine. (Still just two burners, but every kind of spice and knife and wok and pan you can think of). There was a hammock. We were not allowed to wear shoes inside. Thomas had strict rules for how to clean the kitchenware, which water containers to use and how to hang our laundry.
[Above: the dishwashing station at Thomas's house. With no running water, there was a manual system for rinsing and drying each kitchen item.]
Each day, Laeti and I would go down to the river and play. We’d be barefoot much of the time and we were always kinda covered in dirt but I never felt dirty.
[Above: walking from Thomas's house down to the river. This is also where I faceplanted on the first night.]
When we met Thomas’s Nepali family, two things I’d been correlating all my life became very clearly un-related: remoteness and poverty. Thomas’s family - all eight of them — lived in a very small home in the middle of the rice field, a thirty minute walk from the nearest bus stop (which was still a four hour drive from the nearest city, Kathmandu). In all honesty I had expected to meet a family that was underfed, uneducated and unhappy; stuck in the middle of the rice fields in Chaughada, unable to escape an unfortunate life of farming and sweating, waiting to be rescued by Thomas’s organic farm vision come to fruition. But in this case ‘remote’ did not equal ‘poor’ at all. Yes, they were all barefoot all the time and they shared two bedrooms and one very small television among eight people - perhaps the kind of life you hear about and go, ‘I could never live like that.’ But I could read no sadness or discomfort in their faces at all. They had an abundance of food, enough to serve us overflowing platefuls and then serve us seconds and thirds. The youngest of the family, a 3 year old boy named Nimesh (aka “Babu,” which means baby), went to school every day. I caught a glimpse of Nimesh’s homework on the countertop — already learning English. This family was healthy. Smiling. Nimesh chasing me around the house screaming and bursting with laughter. I originally felt like I was miles and miles from “civilization,” but I was actually smack in the middle of it. Simpler, yes. Certainly less developed from a technological standpoint. And different interpretations of the same essentials… but the essentials of civilization just the same.
On the way from Chaughada back to Kathmandu, Laeti and I took the local bus. Riding the local bus was like riding the subway in New York. Crowded and sweaty, but clearly the way of life, and I found safety in knowing that these local buses were running every day, tens of times a day, relied on by the people of this nation… whereas the private buses were simply chartered to schlep tourists around as needed. We also decided to ride on the roof of the bus since many of the Nepalis do this. Riding on the roof was even better: incredible views, a fantastic breeze instead of dripping sweat inside, and most importantly visibility. How comforting to be able to see from up top that, hey, the reason the bus is sideways is because we’re driving through two feet of mud but we’re gonna get through this!… rather than being trapped inside wondering what the hell is happening and are we about to topple over. Barreling around those mountainside cliffs and being able to see that the bus actually WAS perfectly centered (okay not perfectly) on the dirt road! We're not going to slide off the side of this mountain! So much less anxiety-producing. Anyway mom and dad I know these ‘safety’ proof points mean absolutely nothing to you so I’m really sorry to publish this and I promise I won’t do it again. HoneyBadgers, I took some sick GoPro videos of the bus ride and they are coming your way.
The end of September came and my visa was up and Laetitia had to get back to work in Varanasi. We decided to take the bus together directly from Kathmandu to Varanasi (22 hours), and spent 5 days wondering whether we’d be on a bus that day because India was blocking the export of petrol into Nepal. It was actual torture thinking for 5 days that that day in KTM might be our last. Saying goodbye to everyone was really, really hard. I knew this place now, I got this place now. My perception had gone from ‘Made In Nepal’ to having it made in Nepal.
I was so thankful to be riding the bus with Laeti and not alone — the two of us held it together but alone I surely would have cried.
When we finally arrived in Varanasi, I went to my hostel and Laeti went to her apartment and we made plans to hang the next day.
Varanasi stories coming soon.
[More pics from this post here.]
[More pics from this post here.]
*Almost every second.
When I first got back from the trek, Mountain Ram (the owner of the trekking company) felt badly that he couldn’t refund my money, so he comped me a nice guest house — much nicer than the one I’d been staying at… or was it. On the first night, I thought I saw a cockroach in the room but it must have scurried behind the bed so I thought I was seeing things. But on the second night, he crawled right past my foot around midnight, and so it began, the ten minute stand-off between me and this creature. I did not want to kill him, but I also did not know how to safely pick him up and get him out of the room, and there was no way the two of us were going to sleep in there together. I was alone in my room, and all of the guest house staff were already sleeping (because, you know, I would have totally gone downstairs to be like “someone needs to kill this bug for me”). So I had one of those “we’re all living things… except I’m human and you’re a bug, so sadly you’ll need to be the one to die” moments, and started to spray him with bug spray to slow him down before slapping him with my flip flop. But when I realized I had actually killed him, I started to whimper alone in my room, just kinda crying to myself because I felt like a big human monster.
I started looking around the room just to make sure he didn’t have any family members living with me, and to my unfortunate surprise noticed multiple other bugs in the room. Five more bugs. Twenty more bugs. Holy shit, there were like fifty bugs on the carpet. I started to have a freaking panic attack because it was after midnight and I couldn’t switch guest houses and I also COULD NOT sleep in that room or even be inside it for one more second. It was like me versus the bugs, and I was totally outnumbered. I’d kill one, and three more would come crawling out from under the bed. Not like friendly green grasshoppers. Like small red roaches. I was so creeped out and felt so helpless that I went downstairs to the lobby where the whole guest house staff (about eight people) was sleeping on a big bed on the floor and crawled right in there with them. The twelve year old boy woke up and looked at me, confused. “There are a lot of bugs in my room,” I whispered to him. He didn’t exactly understand but he got the gist that I was going to be his cuddle buddy.
I woke up at 5AM, went up to the room, emptied my bags and shook out every single item to confirm there were no bugs in my stuff. Including my toiletries. EVERYTHING. I checked out of there and booked it to Secret Garden guest house, where I stayed for the rest of my time in KTM.