Star Date: July 2008
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Good day - Nepali greeting)
"As far as I knew, he had never taken a photograph before, and the summit of Everest was hardly the place to show him how."
(Edmund Hillary, 1919 - 2008, New Zealand mountaineer.
Five years of continuous travel! With Japan, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Borneo, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam, Laos, China, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, The Philippines, Papua, New Guinea, Sri Lanka, India, and Sikkim behind us; we started our 6th year of travel heading across the remote areas of Eastern Nepal.
This exotic diverse country is dwarfed by their mighty neighbors of China to the north and India to the south. And thus Tibetan Buddhist descendants blend together with their Indian Hindu neighbors in a whirl of colorful traditions, music, and culture. Each Hindu temple is surrounded by Buddhist prayer wheels and every Buddhist Stupa has Hindu shrines to worship. After all Buddha is the 18th reincarnation of Krishna so all the teachings are mixed together. Buddhists have lively pujas, mixed with silent meditation, while their Hindu neighbors relish in noisy ceremonies, smoke, food and offerings. Whatever temple you choose to visit will be a treat to the senses.
Nepal is crowned by the mighty
Himalayas, (Sanskrit - Abode of the Snows) with treks to Everest
Base Camp and routes such as along the Annapurna Range. Treks through fascinating, welcoming villages full of Sherpas and
Nepalis of all castes has long been the main drawing card to Nepal.
The hot sweltering plains below continue to the Indian border -
stretching across Western Nepal, an unexplored area, (except by
Joseph in 1994), due to it's remoteness and flat landscape. We
discovered in this visit, our 4th, that the foothills between the two
distinct areas are hiding many unknown villages to explore with
their shy, gentle inhabitants. In fact as soon as you cross
the border from India one can breathe a sigh of relief from the loud
overcrowded conditions to the south. This poor,
undeveloped country holds secrets behind every hill and a welcoming
smile on every face for those willing to get off the tourists route.
Off on a speeding bus downhill we were only slowed down by a flat tire. Retreads enter a whole new dimension here and in India. Completely balled to the point of shiny, tires then have a crooked strip of rubber glued around them. Surviving on a song and a prayer it is common to hear a bang or feel a thud and have everyone pile off the bus to look and or 'sidewalk supervise' the repairing of the offending tire. This is always good for a delay of at least half an hour and once you have accepted the situation, it is possible to enjoy the 'Now' and explore the countryside or village you are stranded in, not to mention finding the perfect bush in need of watering. Often the area is really remote and a great experience with locals or a spectacular view is just around the corner. On one bus 3/4 of the passengers were asked to walk up the hill because with the extra weight of the cargo thrown on last minute to make some pocket money for the driver, the bus couldn't make it up. We always volunteered to jump out and walked leisurely through serene thick pine forests before piling back into the vehicle, like a Chinese fire drill and speeding down the other side.
As we descended from 8000 feet it gradually changed from thick clouds, to thin mist, to bright sunshine. Choosing the perfect spring-like year round climate of Dhankuta we hopped off the bus. After settling into a guesthouse with picturesque views over the surrounding mountains, we sat under a large plumeria tree enjoying fresh lychee with the locals. There we met Thore, a professor of Political Science at the local college (grades 11 & 12). Afterwards we bought vegetables and he invited us home to cook them. One thing you quickly learn in Nepal is that everything is up and only takes '5' minutes to reach - that is if you are a Sherpa in Ironman condition. Realistically you are still climbing vertically 30 minutes to one hour later, wondering when the 5 minutes is over and you will reach your goal. So it was up to Thore's home. But the walk through the old narrow streets, pine forests and rural villages was, as always, worth the effort. Arriving at his house about an hour before dark we toured his small farm, the bio gas system and gazed across the valleys as we ate dinner with his welcoming daughter and wife. Walking home in the dark we were guided by a full moon, stars and a chorus of frogs and crickets. Returning the next day Joseph loaded books on the family computer and the following day he was invited to talk to an inquisitive class of 70 students at Dhankuta College. As we became closer Thore shared with us that in the past 8 years of unrest in Nepal over 50,000 people have died in fighting with 50 people in this small town alone. Being a proponent for change he was charged with unproven subversive activity towards the Monarchy and sent to the local jail for over a year. Walking the streets of Dhankuta and witnessing the cordiality and respect with which Thore was greeted it is obvious this town has welcomed the much needed changes in Nepal.
A Kingdom without a King. The whole royal family was killed (the third time in history by relatives) only 5 years ago and this remaining monarch had existed under suspicious conditions. The King sent packing, the Royal Palace will be turned into a museum and one of his recently discovered Swiss bank accounts returned to the people's coffer. With the current struggle between the Maoists and the Labor Party raging, Nepal has a long road ahead, weaning and adapting from centuries of Monarchy. This change has the hopes of everyone soaring as the newly formed government vies for a balance between the two main factions. A newly formed parliament consisting of businessmen, farmers, and a surprising 30% representation by the terribly suppressed women of Nepal, presses forward - the first leader quitting after only 1 month. Economics devastated by political unrest will slowly recover and these poor folk will once again regain their power. Change comes hard but once the growing pains have subsided it is hoped that this vibrant yet mellow country can grow and prosper. As in so many areas we visit, only time will tell.
A highlight of our time in Dhankuta was the weekly Thursday market located in a tiny village several kilometers northeast of the town. Again we sat under the shade of the trees eating fresh lychees and watching the pan play of color, textures and sounds from dozens of surrounding villages.
Choosing a city half way to Chitwan we were surprised to jolt to a halt in the middle of nowhere and have the driver point down the direction of a dirt road. We soon discovered that we were at the entrance to Koshi Tappu Wildlife Park, not the town of Koshi Tappu. Well, we were here, why not have a look. We hired a one-man powered 'rickshaw truck' for our bags and to jump on through puddles. Down we headed on the muddy dirt trail leading to the wildfowl reserve. We spent a fascinating afternoon back in villages hand made from dung and thatching. Dung is an amazing building tool. Used as fuel or plaster mixed with euchre mud, when dried it is durable and completely odor free. We sat in the shade with villagers anxiously posing for photos and even met a Grandma claiming to be 106 years old.
Bus after bus zoomed by us, loaded to the gills, but lacking these Gills, and we realized that because we had lost track of time in the little villages we had probably missed any buses heading west. We flagged down an express tourist bus loaded with Indian and Nepalese tourists. Thinking it was worth the extra money not to be stranded in the middle of nowhere without lodging, we were happy to be speeding on our way. All of a sudden the bus slowed down, pulled a U-turn and sped back where we had just come from 30 minutes ago. We stopped for 45 minutes while they loaded 30,000 lbs of Cat Steven's bananas on the top. Finally we started again, heavily loaded but the pockets of the drivers would certainly be fuller. Delays, pit stops and who knows what put us into Chitwan at 3:30 am and the town was shut up tight. We sat under an awning waiting for the town to wake up when 2 young guys from Italy were tossed off a bus from Katmandu. Together we hired a car to Sauraha and fell fast asleep in our room on the river.
Chitwan means "heart of the jungle"
and these steamy jungles were once ruled by Royal Bengal tigers, herds
of wild elephants, one horned rhinos, crocodiles, dolphins and 43
other species of large mammals. As villages encroach, many
rhinos and some of the once 450 species of birds still exist, but
sightings are rare with impassable mud tracks and 30 ft high
'elephant' grass providing cover. The dry, hot season drives
whatever animals remain in Chitwan further into the dense, tangled forests. Villagers in the
forests still use jungle herbs and garlic to
ward off malaria, a deterrent to all but the most hardy inhabitants. Logged off in the 1950's this became Chitwan National Park in 1970. Hiring an elephant and his 'mahout' to follow
the jungle paths in search of animals is the best and certainly most
entertaining way to see the
park. Sitting atop Mudumalai, our gentle giant over 10 feet
ground, provided a memorable 5 hour observation of life in the Sal forest
jungle . Just remember that the Royal Bengal tigers have gone the
way of the Nepali Kings, even if the guides tell you differently.
Elephants are used for many different purposes: religious ceremonies, tourism, rescues, research, and labor. Most 'mahouts' or elephant owners are more than trainers, they are joined at the soul with their animal. They are their friends. It is common to see a small boy, barely 3 feet tall, 'control' his 9 ft tall buddy with a small twig. At one time it was only permissible for the emperors to own elephants and they were even traded to Roman rulers in exchange for horses or other rarities. It is always amazing to see one of these walking road blocks on busy roads, totally unaffected by the traffic whizzing by. These gentle giants have always fascinated us; from the first time I saw one in the little circus tent in northern Wisconsin as a child, to the plains of Africa, to the jungles of Asia and India. We were able to have unique up close encounters with the 20 elephants and their 6 babies at the nearby Elephant Breeding Center. It is always fun to watch the antics of the babies as they thrash around, wrestle with branches, play tag and try to act grown up. Bred and raised here, the juveniles are taken away with their new mahout and trained. Once trained they are taken in town to get adjusted to traffic and they are exposed to fire, people, animals, etc. Skittish elephants and tourists don't do well in India or Nepal. Soon the educated juveniles start their life in one of their many areas of service.
We learned some interesting facts about elephants. Their trunks, with more than 40,000 muscles in them are an extension of their nose and lip (a human has 650 muscles in our entire body). They are extremely strong - yet sensitive enough to pick up a grain of rice. Elephants communicate in sound waves below the frequencies of human hearing. They cool off by fanning their ears but prefer a good cool dip. They are excellent swimmers and after a bath they will have a sleep; always standing up. Gentle, sensitive, and with great memories the family group has a greeting ceremony when a friend that has been away for a long time returns home. The family unit is guarded by the tusker, or male sporting ivory tusks, but these valuable tusks are often cut off to dissuade poachers.
careful attention to their young and can be seen frolicking with the
little ones. At one reserve in Africa there were too
many elephants so the wardens relocated some of the old males.
The young juveniles started causing trouble. It was finally
necessary to return a couple "Grandpas" and the problems stopped
immediately. Elephants honor each other, their elders and pay
special tribute to those who die. Maybe our fast moving
society could learn a thing or two from these wise mammals.
And so it goes.........................................Next Katmandu and even Colorado & Wisconsin, on the other side of the globe. Until next month Keep Smiling and remember to keep spontaneous and flexible, even when first setting foot on the summit of Everest! We are glad you stopped by. Thanks for keeping in touch! Take care!
Love, Light &
$1.00US = 68 Nepalese Rupees
Foreigners can only cross from Darjeeling India into Nepal via Pasupati/Kakarbhita.
We met Deepak from the Chitwan Forest Resort, who said he managed the resort with a Swiss man and cleanliness was utmost in their program. If you want a change from the almost clean Nepali routine give them a call. Rooms starting as 300r. Phone # 00977 56580052 or 9845044150.