Categories
Nepal

16: Celebrating Tihar (Diwali) in a Rural Nepali Village with 12 Other Volunteers

Dear readers,

If you’ve been following along with my travels, you will notice that the story from this point on is significantly hastened. Recently there’s been so many forward-looking developments in my life, and I hope to sooner share those, rather than colourfully detailing my 95-day journey in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, there are significant turnings of the wheel that led to where I am now, and this story deserves a proper ending. For there are such valuable lessons which are just dying to be morphed into words. 

Oct 21st – 29th, 2019

For the first time ever, I taught english for an hour in the mornings, and would continue doing so for the next week. The kids in the neighbourhood all rode their bikes or walked to Tara’s house, where I gave lessons in a hut made of mud & coconut palm right outside his home. I would continue doing so for the following week, occasionally switching off with other volunteers. Without my usual coffee, absorbing the liveliness of the 7-13 year olds was a great way to invigorate my morning. What a joy teaching is. A highlight was when I taught them a song called “Wild One” that I learned as an instructor at Wilderness Awareness School, and changed the words around a little bit to reflect animals they’d be familiar with such as tigers and rhinos. They sang with such vitality! You can hear a snippet here…

For a few hours I was the only volunteer at Tara’s and Anjana’s house, and was hopeful that it wouldn’t be for long. Hastily, my wish was granted. That evening Ana from Colombia arrived, a few days before her husband, Richard, who hails from Colorado, USA. She was a dance teacher and he, an elementary teacher, who met when he took dance lessons in Colombia. They were traveling the world for an entire year, looking for the right place to settle down and continue teaching. Recently coming from China, they’d spend a few more months in Nepal, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, before heading back to the States, where they’d take a road trip all the way through Mexico and down into Colombia. Right on!

The following day, Oct 22nd, saw the arrival of Mikey from New Zealand. He has quite the heritage – coming from the indigenous Polynesian Maori tribe. Their “haka” war dance is imitated by the New Zealand rugby team before each match. Over dal bhaat (the twice-daily meal of most Nepalis consisting of rice, lentils, and vegetables) and Tiger beer we watched the final game of the 2019 Rugby World Cup together in Tara’s house. Unfortunately, the only time New Zealand scored was when the power went out (which amusingly happens very regularly, since Nepal buys electricity from India on apparently a pretty limited budget).

Left to Right: Jerry, Catinka, and Celina

On Oct 23rd, the Germans started to invade. We acquired Lars & Andre, a duo who proudly adopted the title of “low-budget scientists.” I would end up trading my recently finished copy of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse with Andre for The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, a thought-provoking book that I would fanatically read during my upcoming 7-day Himalayan trek. That evening also brought Celina from Switzerland, who naturally spoke German as well. She was a down-to-earth gal who had traveled as a solo female in some not-so-touristy (and assumedly dangerous) countries like Pakistan. 

The 24th of October brought Catinka from Germany, a radiant lady who had just spent a week in Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. She was excited to share with everyone this “new card game” called “Caboo” which I had actually learned at my first workaway in Goa, India, but pronounced “Cabo.” One of my all-time favourite card games, it became a regular evening activity and really brought people together in cheerful spirits. 

That day also saw the arrival of a french couple: Sonya and her husband, and their two small children! Aged roughly 1.5 and 3 years old, they were reportedly much happier here than anywhere they visited in India, due to the overcrowding and lack of any kid-friendly attractions. Here they could play with the animals, roam freely around Tara’s property, and to some extent play with Tara’s children. I was confounded that traveling with toddlers in Southeast Asia was even possible, and though their children’s frequent cries made me cringe at the thought of parenthood, I had so much respect for them for giving their kids a wholly different type of education.

Left to Right: Ana, Me, Catinka, Mikey, Sonya (and Elza), Richard, Rosario

By the 25th all the volunteers I met at Tara’s house were present. We acquired our last German, Jerry, who was an amazing sketch-artist. She met Catinka elsewhere in Nepal, and eventually took Catinka’s suggestion to volunteer with us. And last but not least, there was Rosario from Italy. A fun, light-hearted, middle-aged man, he really enjoyed trying little sweets in every country he visited, and was just a pleasure to be around. His accent made every word that came out of his mouth so beautiful.

It was such a lively group – and at 12 people it was the most that Tara had ever hosted at one time. He was glad there were so many hands, because the day I arrived he started a huge project to repaint basically his entire house. The outer walls turned bright purple, and the hundreds of concrete pineapple-shaped balcony posts were painted gray, as well as the outer bricks, accenting the white trim underneath. The inner walls were over the course of roughly a week entirely transformed from a faded light-blue to a vibrant blue-green. When Tara was asked about the choice of colour, he said that he chose green because it resembles what waking up used to be like for thousands of years – that is, surrounded by luscious nature. It is pleasing to the eyes, and comforting to the spirit. 

We would paint from roughly 9 AM – 2 PM, with lunch in between. In our free time we’d go for walks, searching humorously for hard-to-find products like toilet paper. Otherwise at our home base we’d often play games in the evening, or sit on the rooftop drinking beer, conversing over cooing pigeons and colour-changing skies. On our off-day we all ventured into the Ghaila Ghari Community Forest (which was basically a less expensive version of Chitwan National Park). There we had 2 rhino sightings, and in addition plenty of monkeys, some deer, and elephants (but with people riding on top of them). 

There was a healthy balance of work and play at Tara’s house. Almost all of the volunteers were put to the task of painting, as Tara was hoping to be nearly finished by the final day of celebrating Tihar, where painting/redecorating is one of several commemorative activities. 

Tihar is known as Diwali or Deepavali in India, and is one of the most important observances in the Hindu tradition. It could almost be compared to Christmas in the West. Plenty of multi-coloured lights, most of which flash on and off in a variety of patterns which would typically be viewed as obnoxious back in the States (but felt very fitting for Nepal) decorated virtually every house in the village. On the third day of Tihar, houses glow in a more traditional fashion, with numerous candles illuminating every floor of the house.

Most memorable were the community get-togethers that took place every night at a different person’s house, where we danced and sang. Percussion instruments such as the tabla (drum) and mini hand cymbals would accompany our voices. Singing was primarily in Nepali, yet I recognized one of the tunes as the Maha Mantra (“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”). However, what really unified the locals with us volunteers was when Ana, the dance teacher from Colombia, was asked to lead a dance that everyone could do. Somehow, she acquiesced into guiding us through the Macarena. Every volunteer was reluctant to join in, yet eventually there we all were: dancing together to the Macarena, among other western and latin american music. It was so strange, and so fantastic.

What a community gathering unlike anything I had experienced before! This is their very special time, where one might expect strict observances of Hindu-only gatherings, singing only spiritual songs. Yet it was the exact opposite. Just as how they all share the duty of hosting each night’s gathering among several households, they divvy up the time spent dancing and singing to make everybody feel welcome. And in the end, I don’t think it was just for us. They gained something from our song & dance, too. 

To give you an overview of what is actually being celebrated during Tihar, what follows is a breakdown of each of the 5 days:

One. Kaag “Crow” Tihar – thanking crows by placing sweets on the roof. Crows are known as the “messengers of death,” so by keeping them happy, they won’t be harbingers of bad news, at least on that day. 

Two. Kukur “Dog” Tihar – thanking dogs by giving them a tika (red marking between the eyes) and garlands of marigolds. Dogs are knows as the “gatekeepers of death,” who help human souls transition from the earthly plane into heaven/the afterlife. 

Three. Gai “Cow” Tihar and Laxmi Puja – to give thanks Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, candles are lit in the evening, and a special “puja” (worship/prayer) is conducted. It is additionally a day of thanking cows by giving them large red markings all over their bodies, as well as garlands and fresh grass. Aside from being sacred creatures, their products (milk for sustenance, and urine & dung for cleaning) have contributed to the survival of countless Nepali families (though like India, cow meat is never eaten). 

This one, our volunteer group was invited to witness. There was singing, dancing, and eating of holy foods prepared specially for this day. We each also received a big, clumpy, red tikka, about an inch in diameter, on the center of the forehead.

Four. Several different celebrations depending on one’s cultural background occur on this day. Some give thanks to the ox, others worship Govardhan Mountain, and others celebrate the start of a new year, and/or the divinity within themselves. At Tara’s house, there were gambling card games, too.

Ananta & Aakriti, the son and daughter of our hosts, Tara & Anjana

Five. Bhai Tika or Kija Puja (Brother’s Day) – Sisters give their brothers a multi-coloured tika on their forehead, as well as a gift, to ensure long life. Brothers return the favour to their sisters, and those without siblings receive a tika from another family member. 

Receiving a tika from Aakriti while Tara holds a stencil-like object on my forehead

This last day was especially memorable for us volunteers, as instead of tending to our typical painting duties, we made our way to the original meet-up point for Tara and his volunteers: the Honda Showroom. There, one-by-one, we all received tikas from Tara and Anjana’s children. Ladies received one from Ananta, their son, and guys from Aakriti, their daughter. Tara, our host dad, did however not receive a tika since he had a close relative die within the past year. Following this, we feasted on a special yogurt/fruit dish, our “24-hour power” meal of dal bhaat, and one of the best foods I had in Nepal: “sel roti” – a scrumptious donut-like food made only during Tihar out of rice flour, coconut, banana, and sugar. I came at the right time!

There was now coloured-sand “rangoli” artwork in front of the plants that I previously hid behind to sleep.

At the Honda Showroom it was such a warm, indescribable feeling to be invited back into their home as a recognized guest, and to receive a tika just like any other family member, after I was invited inside roughly a week ago as a complete stranger who was asleep on the ground outside of their business. At our first encounter I was offered water and tea, and was driven on the back of a motorbike through the rain to arrive after a long journey at my final destination: Tara’s house. Now, instead of my first day, it was my last. The sun was shining, the temperature was cozy, and I was surrounded by people who I knew, and in a wider sense of the word, who I loved. I went from being a rather disoriented and exhausted tourist, to a valued member of their community, albeit ephemerally so.

Although I came to Tara’s house with hopes of contributing primarily to gardening and teaching for my own sake, I spent most of my time painting. And in the end, this was the best work that I could have done for them. I’m happy that I was able to make a significant contribution to the well being of Tara’s family, and all the future guests. Perhaps since I was the first volunteer of our steadily growing group, Tara entrusted me with the main painting duty: using a roller to evenly apply the main colours, while most others were given the smaller (but equally important) detail work. I felt privileged to serve him, and to feel like a part of his family. In the end, it was a win-win situation. 

This is the real beauty of traveling: Getting to know a place and its people. Being open to whatever is in store for you, and being vulnerable to share who you really are with whomever you meet. When you have the humility to serve, and not just be treated like a king (which all over Southeast Asia is relatively easy with an average Western income), it serves you several fold in return. For in the Anthropocene (aka the human era), what makes a place is its people. And how can you see one’s true colours when you place yourself above another? When you choose luxury over authenticity, and the only purpose of other humans in your environment is to serve you?

The ephemeral nature of such cultural exchange opportunities means there is little pressure to impress, whether host or volunteer. Chances are, I’ll never see any of the faces who lit up my experience at Tara’s house ever again. And especially in such a unique opportunity of having 12 volunteers from all around the world under the same roof – why waste such precious moments being anybody but yourself? Why ruin your “vacation” by second-guessing how much of yourself you ought to reveal? This spirit is pervasive among most travelers who I meet, and makes personal connection so easy.

I once was a rather anti-social creature, but especially when traveling I’ve learned to embrace my extroverted side. For by freely conversing with others, especially those who come from a different background than you, there is so much to gain and so much to offer. In the process, you somehow get to know yourself and humanity as a whole a little better too.

Hop hop hop,

Per

(here)

Categories
Nepal

15: Volunteering for a Nepali Family, and Sharing Kindness with Strangers along the Way

Oct 19th, 2019

I had a wonderful night’s sleep in my $3/night private tent, and upon ordering a french press from the bar at Sunsetview Cafe & Jungle Bar, my host helped me book a bus for later that evening. It was to take me from Thakudwara, in the far-southwest portion of Nepal, to Bharatpur, which was about 100 miles away from Kathmandu. Near Bharatpur I would be volunteering at my third Workaway since the start of my Southeast Asia trip, 40 days prior. Since it was going to be approximately a 14-hour ride, my host suggested a night bus, so I could arrive in the morning and not be stranded somewhere in the middle of the night. A sound plan, I thought. However, it didn’t work out so seamlessly.

But, before my bus left at 4 PM I had plenty of time to kill. I explored some rural areas, bathed in the Girwa river, and ordered some killer home-made french fries (my first time eating fries since in back America.. so yumm).

It was a pleasant surprise that allowed for some valuable cultural exchange. The rugby game started, and since they were big fans they taught me the basics about how the game is played. I’d never really watched rugby before, and found it comparable to American football, and in some ways more exciting. We enjoyed each other’s company until the time came when I was to venture onwards by bus. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to the most hospitable host I had yet met in Southeast Asia, as well as the kindhearted ladies who worked there. But, life must go on. 

The bus ride was notably rough, but authentic. I was surprised to see a big tv screen on the standard, non-touristy bus, just like the one that I took over the border from India to Nepal. And just like the prior bus, they played music videos (and a popular show involving a back-and-forth singing competition between a child and adult) at an obnoxious volume. To make matters worse, I was in the very back of the bus, and to say that the roads were bumpy would be like saying that the Himalayas are kind of tall. I honestly can’t recall any prolonged ride in any sort of vehicle that was more consistently turbulent than this. And this is on their main “highway” that runs through southern Nepal in the relatively low and flat region. And I thought India was poor. They at least sometimes had well-paved roads. There were no smooth sections in this. At all. It was too bumpy to read or write, and too loud to hear my own music through my earbuds. All I could do was look out the window, try to sleep, or write some poetry in my head.

At one point the seat next to me literally fell off of its frame after hitting a deep pothole. I looked at it, and all I could do was laugh. This is Nepal! I made eye contact with the man on the other side of that seat, and he laughed too. It was maybe 10 PM, and I had been sitting near him for some time, so he scooched over to strike up a conversation. 

He was really friendly, but I could barely hear him over the loudspeakers, which made his broken English even more difficult to understand. Nonetheless, I gathered that he was in the Indian Army, and would be spending time in Kathmandu before he goes back to India. He asked if I had a SIM card for Nepal, which I didn’t, and so he insisted on giving me his, for free. They’re super cheap in Nepal anyway, and I’d still have to pay for data, but it did save me the hassle of trying to find a store that sells SIM cards. So, I kindly accepted even though I didn’t really plan on using it (I never did purchase any data for it). 

I talked with the nice but strange fellow for a little while, until we ran out of things to talk about. Both of us could barely understand each other. He added me on Facebook, where his name is Heaven’s King (why?). I also gave him my Whatsapp number, through which he would consistently seek contact over the course of the next few weeks. I think he just liked me because I’m American, which I don’t really mind, but don’t really appreciate either. If I’m to be judged by something external to my personality, I’d hope it’s by my ripped clothing or dragonfly necklace. 

October 20th

At some point between talking to Heaven’s King and finally falling half asleep for a moment, only to be flung out of my chair as we hit another pothole, it became the next day. Approaching 2 AM, I was watching the blue dot on my phone get closer and closer to my destination on the map, which was happening sooner than anticipated. Despite how excruciating that bus ride was, this wasn’t a good thing. I wanted to arrive post-sunrise for logistical and safety purposes. My host said he would pick me up at 6 AM from a Honda Showroom near his home. But by the time I arrived in the city of Bharatpur, it was only 4 AM. 

Now, being alone in a relatively large city for Nepal (population: 280k) in the dead of night, alone, with 3 travel-months worth of luggage, was a little intimidating. Especially since the city resembled the run-down parts of Detroit, but if all of the garbage trucks dumped periodically on the side of the road instead of a waste facility. A few scattered people were hanging out on the street, but it was silent for the most part. No businesses were open. No wifi to contact my host about arriving early. Barely even any cars on the street for such an urban landscape. 

Since the next bus wouldn’t run until 5:30/6, I decided to take a rickshaw out of the city to get dropped off at the Honda Showroom. My driver was very wholesome, and only asked of me 400 Nepali Rupees ($3.35) for the maybe 15-20 minute ride. I was ready to pay 1000 since it was the middle of the night, and he could have easily kidnapped me, but he actually didn’t try to scam me, unlike 90% of the Indian drivers I rode with. 

Now it was only around 4:30 and I had an hour and a half to kill before my host, Tara, would arrive. I was so tired and happy to be on solid ground, I laid right down on the concrete in front of the Honda Showroom, relaxed my head on my backpack, and finally rested. I kept one eye open for the first 15 minutes to feel out the area. It seemed like a safe-ish semi-urban area, so I hid behind some potted plants as much as I could, and dozed off into lala land. Oh how I had never slept so fantastically on hard ground in my entire life!

When the sky was barely lit an older man walked by, noticed me, and woke me up. He was friendly, but confused about what I was doing sleeping infront of what was presumably his shop. I explained how my host was picking me up but I came too early, and so he gestured me to follow him.

Uhoh. Am I in trouble? Is he going to report me to the police? Where is he taking me? His demeanor was however calm and helpful. Maybe this has happened to him before

He walked me into the room above the Honda shop, which turned out to be his home. As I entered he told me to sit, and soon his wife came with two full cups of water. I explained with more detail my situation, and I think he vaguely understood. His english was very limited, but we could communicate the important things, such as how he knew my host, Tara. That was a huge relief. Plus he had a phone to call him. Amidst trying to contact him, his wife came in with two more cups of hot tea. How hospitable Nepali folks are to complete strangers! 10 minutes ago I was sleeping on the ground right outside his business, now I was sitting peacefully in their home drinking tea. 

The time passed 6 AM when Tara was supposed to be there, and still no answer. By 6:10 he told me once again to follow him, and led me back down the stairs. Hmmm, is he going to tell me how to walk there? 

Next thing I know he hands me a helmet and tells me to hop on his bike. Woohoo! I love riding on motorbikes with semi-strangers. 

It started raining on our way there, and his nice button-down shirt got totally soaked. He didn’t really seem to mind, and once we got to Tara’s house it was obvious he was welcome there. He walked right in to their open-air kitchen/living room, sat down, and accepted a cup of tea from Anjana, Tara’s wife. 

I met an older couple, Thomas and Mitte, who were from Sweden and working on renovating a house nearby. Incredibly, they come from the same tiny neighbourhood in Sweden, but first met each other all the way in Nepal a few years back. They knew Tara from volunteering, and now share meals together while working on building their dream home together.

Eventually Tara came down covered in paint, and suggested that I rest upstairs for the next few hours. He showed me around their humble home and guided me to the bed where I’d be sleeping for the next week or so. 

Lying in a real bed in this Nepali countryside, I was in heaven. There was a constant chorus of “coos” thanks to the 50+ pigeons and other birds right outside my window, and very rarely any vehicles passing by. The road outside his home was unpaved, and Google Maps didn’t even recognize that it existed. The air was fresh, moist, and warm (but not too warm). The people around me were kind and peaceful, and for the first time in a while there was no need to start figuring out how I’ll get to my next destination. Needless to say, I slept like a sloth. 

Later in the day I arose from my slumber and met the only other volunteer there – Mary, from Germany. She showed me how to do some of the volunteer tasks such as picking up the milk from our next-door neighbour and walking the dog. Our stroll revealed a few tiny shops selling snacks and beer in the area, as well as basic necessities for Nepalis (therefore excluding hand sanitizer and toilet paper). Most of the houses nearby, though they weren’t in the best physical shape, were boldly colourful. Outside were plenty of chickens, goats, dogs, ducks, and people. A group of grown men were fanning a pile of rice with a huge mesh sheet, other kids were playing soccer or just sitting outside with their mother while she works on some handicraft or chats with her neighbour. It was a community where everybody seemed to know everybody in the area, and all took care of each other. It was one of the most gorgeous, inspiring congregations of human beings that I had ever experienced. 

Every time we walked past a child we’d say “Namaste!” or “Namascar!” with palms together and they’d perk up with a huge smile and return our “Namaasteeee.” Out of all the neighbourhoods I had stayed in while volunteering (2 in India, 1 in Nepal, 1 in Thailand), I loved this one the most. For it felt most like a real, thriving community, despite how outwardly poor most folks were. In fact I’d say it was the poorest of them all, and correlatively, the most close-knit. 

Anyway, after seasoning my tongue with some conversation in German, we ate the classic Nepali dinner at Tara’s house: Dal Bhaat. It consists of rice (and I mean a lot of rice), plus a smaller portion of cooked vegetables, and a side of lentil “soup.” Some folks prefer their “soup” (more like slightly liquidy lentils) poured direct on top of their rice. Others (like me) prefer to scoop rice, veg, and lentils into one bite while keeping all of them separate. I experimented with different methods, for I would be eating the same meal for lunch and dinner basically every single day for the following week. 

I ate with Thomas & Mitte, Mary, Anjana & Tara, and their 2 children: Aakriti and Ananta. It became almost immediately evident that Ananta loves riddles, and at age 10 speaks better english than his father. Aakriti, 15 or so, is much quieter, at least around other volunteers. I wondered what life would be like for her. If I was a teenager, and all these strangers from all over the world were staying in my family’s home, eating with us, and doing work for us, would I get really sick of meeting new people? I’d imagine sometimes its more fun than others, depending on how well you get along with the current flock of foreigners. 

After dinner I retreated back up to my room, admiring the stillness in the air. Finally some peace and quiet after spending a month roaming around a country 1/3 the size of the US but with an extra billion people. Don’t get me wrong, I loved India, but I loved Nepal in an entirely different way. Many Indians likes to think that Nepali people are basically Indian, as if Nepal were a part of India, but the two countries and their inhabitants remain quite distinct, despite many similarities.

Sure, their languages are similar, and Hinduism predominates in both countries, and to a westerner their dress and decorative style are similar. They both drink masala tea, eat mimosas, and drive tuk-tuks in their cities. Yet Nepal is significantly poorer than India, their government (and its history) is very different, and they have their own unique traditions to celebrate shared Hindu holidays. Another key difference is in their staple foods. Though both consist of rice and vegetables, they’re prepared and spiced in very different ways. 

Furthermore, the way population is spread geographically over Nepal’s territory is radically different from India, which has a great impact on their culture, lifestyle, and economy. 68% of Nepalis rely on agriculture as a living (compared to 50% for India). And with Kathmandu as Nepal’s biggest city at about a million inhabitants, it’s still smaller than fourty-six Indian cities with populations over a million.

It seems nonetheless that Nepal is slowly becoming more like India as it turns more into a “developed” country. Thus, when looking at the countries historically, their differences are stark. Since the start of the Common Era, India was the largest economy in the world for 19 out of 21 centuries. Looking at Nepal before 1950, they didn’t even have roads, schools, or hospitals, let alone a bustling economy. Being landlocked and rather isolated from the rest of the world thanks to the Himalayas, they mainly traded with India, and a little bit with China. Large swaths of the population were basically entirely self-sustaining, but those numbers are dwindling, for better or worse. Most of those that still exist are in extremely isolated Himalayan villages. 

To put a cap on this post, I invite you to imagine what a life in such a village would look like. Nobody in our community uses money. Growing rice & millet and herding buffalo provides for our livelihoods. Trading with neighbours, the value of each commodity is clear enough. A coin symbolizing the value of something is unnecessary, and engaging in the production and upkeep of a monetary system only amounts to a waste of time and energy. No need for so many boring, meaningless jobs. No need for roads to take our goods to far-away places. Everything we need is in walking distance. We know all of your neighbours, and without the incessant drive to constantly be producing capital, spend time getting to know them. The divide between work-life, family-life, and leisure-life is largely disintegrated.

The divide between the natural world and the human landscape is similarly not so apparent, as your homes are built of materials directly from Earth. The streetlights are replaced by the stars and moon, the television replaced by the sunset. The games we play – arise organically, out of the curiosity of the mind meeting the natural world. The traditions we practice – inherited wisdom from timeless generations, invoke a sense of life being so much larger than one’s mere conscious experience. 

Our inner lives – are much more vibrant, too. Without such a constant stream of entertainment to fill the void of boredom, stillness is a regular part of life. The fears and anxieties that in modern society silently torment one for their entire lives – are heard, and are more or less seamlessly dissolved as the mind awakens to reality.  

Sure, this sounds quite dreamy. I mean not to overlook the immense amount of suffering that is still present in such lives. These traditional communities would indeed benefit from some modern products such as hospitals. And yes, (in my subsequent travels) often times I met folks in these isolated mountain communities who greatly enjoyed watching singing contests on their smartphones. But if they were forced to choose between all or none of the developed world’s proclaimed “advancements,” so long as they’re aware of the inherent consequences of those advertised perks, I doubt that any of them would make the switch. Do you? I welcome disagreement, so please share your thoughts if you so desire. 

Namaskar,

Hoppper

Categories
Nepal

13: Arrival in Southwest Nepal: Pristinely Primitive [Mahendranagar; Thakurdwara, Nepal]

October 16th, 2019

Inevitably, after 35 bedazzling days in India it was time to finally say goodbye, and say hello to Nepal. I enjoyed a traditional Indian breakfast of Aloo Paratha (pan fried potato/wheat flour bread with curd and spicy pickled veggies) for the last time in who knows how long. I thanked the amiable folks who hosted me and helped guide me towards some amazing experiences at Rishikesh’s Indian Culture Hostel. Backpack on, sunblock on, keen awareness on, I strutted off towards a towering riverside temple to kill some time before my night bus to Nepal.

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A tuk-tuk brought me from the temple to the Rishikesh bus station, where I took a bus to Dehradun. From Dehradun a night bus would ship me over the border into Mahendranagar, Nepal. Confusedly, Google Maps had labeled the town, “Bhimdatta.” Thus, when asking for directions, nobody had any clue what I was talking about. This was my introduction to Nepal. Even Google is primitive in this country (Unlike India, where it’s relatively accurate and well-developed as far as maps are concerned).

The bus ride was slow, bumpy, and rather uneventful. Oddly, although this was definitely no luxury tourist bus, they had a very large, bright, and painfully loud TV playing Indian music videos almost the entire time. My seat was right underneath a speaker, and I had to keep my earbuds in the whole time for protection from the over-amplified sounds directly above me. It was too loud for me to even be able to hear my own music, so I sat patiently in mild pain for most of the 12 hours required to reach Nepal. At least the music videos were… odd. There was obvious influence from American videos, yet maintained an Indian colourfulness and playfulness. Plus, these were nowhere near as outwardly sexual. It was risque to even show a couple quickly kissing on screen.

Thankfully the person next to me had a child, and around 10 PM they asked for the music to be turned down. It fell silent for 10 minutes, and then music came back on nearly as loud as before. After some time I adjusted, though it still hurt to take my earbuds out. I managed to doze in and out of slumber, until all the sudden I realized…

October 17th, 2019 H2TXdBPKR2OYO7Txw5jGbQ_thumb_ace1.jpg

It was bright out again and many people were getting off the bus. I tried to follow, but the driver told me to stay on. As the bus was inching forward I looked out the window to find all those passengers walking ahead of the bus. We were about to cross an enormous river (the Sarda), which drew the border between the two countries. I was so curious if all those people chose to walk over the border simply because it was a beautiful morning, or if there was some deeper significance behind entering one’s home country by foot. Unfortunately my curiosity remains unsatiated.

Once off the bus in Nepal, I had to pass through 3 different security checkpoints, none of which even searched my bag. It was all just filling out forms and smiling like a naive American tourist so they know I’m not a terrorist. At first I was rather intimidated by the abundance of heavily armed guards dispersed along the first few kilometers of road. But they smiled back at me and I felt a little more secure. fwd5kbxWQfin1ctlYiOsqA_thumb_ace2Still, I had a strange sense that maybe I was doing something wrong, since I had to walk 15 minutes between checkpoints down an empty, trash-laden road in order to receive my visa. Regardless, 50 US dollars later I got my visa without any issues, plus a wad of some really cool Nepalese Rupees. They had animals like tigers, rhinos, and elephants decorating one side, and Mount Everest on the other.

What I found fascinating is that the largest denomination, the Elephant-backed 1000 Rupees banknote, is only worth 8.3 US Dollars (1 USD = 120.6 Nepalese Rupees). Imagine buying a car with $10 as your biggest bill. This doesn’t even equate to that, which really says something about Nepal’s economy. For even India’s greatest denomination, the 2,000 Indian Rupee, is at least worth about 26.5 US Dollars (1 USD = 76.3 Indian Rupees). That means spending the equivalent of 26 bucks in India is about as big of a deal as spending $100 in the states. But in Nepal, spending roughly 8 dollars is like spending $100. What a completely foreign land I found myself in. And I loved it!

So, with pocket full of animals and a fresh 30-day tourist visa, I was able to continue my journey forth.  A rickshaw brought me to the Mahendranagar bus station, where I hopped on a bus towards my first stop in Nepal. It was a relatively short bus ride compared to what I was used to, taking only 7 hours until I hopped of near Thakurdwara, where I would stay for 2 nights. It was a much needed break from the long bus rides required to reach semi-central Nepal, where I had been planning to volunteer for the third time through Workaway. So I saw a big green space called “Bardia National Park” in between the western border and my destination, and went for it.

The rickshaw on the way to my guesthouse literally had to cross through a river (the bridge was under construction), which concerned me that it might breakdown in the middle of the dried-up riverbanks before it reaches the “road” again. Thankfully we plowed right through and he took me to my humble abode: Sunsetview Cafe & Jungle Bar.

For roughly $3/OntOMmacSAKqA6o+mHKTGQ_thumb_ad5f.jpgnight I had a personal tent to sleep in, which was protected by a natural structure made of dried mud and coconut palms. There was even electricity, a fan, and a lockable chest to store valuables. The guesthouse/cafe had only two other tents, which meant the maximum guest capacity was around 6 people. This wasn’t due to lack of space or resources, rather, the host wanted to give the utmost hospitality to his guests. Two sweet women worked there too, one young woman from France who was his girlfriend, and another young traveler from Romania who was also volunteering through Workaway. The place had a very home-y feel to it, especially since the host still lived with his mother in a building right next to the cafe.

Once settled in, I crawled out of the tent only to notice a large grapefruit-like thing falling from a tree. I picked it up, brought it to the host, and he not only informed me that it was a pomelo (like a sweet grapefruit), he brought out a cutting board and knife so I could eat it right then and there! I talked with him for at least 20 minutes about life in Nepal and how it compares to India. He told me that Nepali people have big hearts. Not that Indians don’t, but unlike India, you’d be hard pressed to find scammers or simply rude people in Nepal.

After he helped me make plans to visit Bardia National Park the next day, I utilized the remaining daylight by going for a leisure bike ride. The bike was free, of course, and offered me a sweet taste of life in the Nepali countryside. Lots of rice farms, cows, chickens, kids playing in the streets, quaint trickling creeks, and burning piles of plant (and plastic?) material. Houses were colourful, some well-maintained and others falling apart, and the streets were less trash-filled than those I was used to in India.

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Since I had lost my travel-essentials bag (hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and band-aids) the day before, I figured I’d bike to the village’s nearby “Tigerchowk Market” to restock. The challenge was that there’s no such thing as a CVS or any sort of recognizable corporation in this village. Most of the vendors didn’t even have signs above their storefront. You just look inside and see if they’re carrying the type of stuff your looking for. This made for a fun and engaging hand-sanitizer hunt.

Here’s basically how it went at every shop I stopped at.

Me: “Namaste :)”

Owner: “Namaste :)”

Me: “Do you have hand sanitizer?”

Owner: “What?”

Me: (gesturing how one applies hand sanitizer) “You know, like soap for hands. But NO Water. Just making hands clean.”

Then either 1 of 2 things: 1. A friendly smile and a “no, sorry,” or 2. A “hmmm…” and they hand me baby oil, or lube, or a bar of soap.

This happened LITERALLY at least 10 times as I would zig-zag across the street following the recommendations of shop-owners looking like a very confused tourist in a very non-touristy place. Yet every time I was redirected, I could only laugh more at the fact that most of Nepal is so undeveloped by western standards that they don’t even have hand sanitizer. Hah! I loved it actually. It was so nice to be in a land that capitalism hasn’t completely taken over (yet).

The sun was starting to set, so I rode back, hands unsanitized and now somewhat gooey thanks to the baby oil I accidentally bought and applied. Upon returning I drank an incredibly satisfying Gorkha beer (named after the Nepali soldiers) and finalized plans for the next day with my host. After 3 tuk-tuk rides and 3 bus rides since my last time sleeping in a real bed, I could feel the need for a long, restful slumber. By 9:00 I was in bed, listening to the chorus of insects with a mild breeze occasionally slipping through the tent, and I slept like an exhausted, oily baby.

Next: A stupendous adventure through the Nepali jungle – tracking tigers, elephants, and rhinos with only a blunt stick for defense. If you’d like, hop on my adventure with the “follow” button to be notified of my next blog post 🙂

Namaskar,

Hopper

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india

12: Strangers or Dangers? +The Beatles Ashram [Rishikesh, India]

October 14th, 2019

I passed out early the night before so I could hit the Beatles Ashram with some fresh energy the next morning. It was a good thing I did, because there was far more to explore than I had expected. And though I knew it had been closed for some time, I was shocked by how much the jungle had taken it over.

Construction along the banks of the Ganges began in 1963 per Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the “founder” of Transcendental Meditation. Intially built were 84 meditation huts and a large concrete visitor center/guesthouse, though several more structures had risen up by the time The Beatles stayed there in early 1968. With other musicians such Donovan and a couple Beach Boys soon following suit, the place gained some short-lived popularity. Maharishi abandoned the site in the 70’s, and it wasn’t until 2015 when it finally reopened to the public. Meanwhile, nature made quite a few renovations, as well as the trespassers who vivified the walls with colourful art and quotes paying homage to the Beatles and other Indian cultural figures. The result today is a glorious concoction of human and non-human activity. 

Right when I entered, a huge monkey came plummeting over the concrete walls aside me as I cringed in defenseless hope. Soon I found a firm defensive walking stick, with which I wandered around the stone huts and Maharishi’s residence, and eventually into the vacation-stay of the Beatles. As my all-time favourite band, it was so awe-inspiring to walk into the rooms where they stayed and composed most of the White Album, among other savvy tunes. I could picture them jamming right where I stood, and was engulfed in a gracious, peaceful feeling. I wandered into every nook and cranny of the structure, fantastically wondering about where Ringo or John would have slept. That pattern continued into basically every other building that was still standing, as I was determined to uncover as many the hidden gems of artistry and exotic plants as I could. 

After 2.5 hours of exploring I covered the entire area, so I walked out to the Ganges for some fresh, cool air. The sun’s reflection was glistening, Babas were bathing, and langur monkeys were swinging from vine to electric line. I splashed my face with some river water and felt refreshed enough to start the hour-long walk back. 10 minutes outside of the Ashram, on the border of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve, I re-stumbled across a heap of cow skulls & bones lying at the intersection of two paths, and re-questioned if this was indeed sign of the ominous bengal tiger.

Thanks to my education at Alderleaf Wilderness College, I knew that felines leave signs like this at cross-paths to mark territory. I stopped to look for other tracks and signs, and two passing Indian guys were intrigued as well. A baba (aka guru) then strolls by, and the Indians asked him in Hindi if this was tiger sign. The baba showed no fear, and started down the skinny path into the jungle to investigate. Upon return, he (somehow?) confirmed that it was indeed tiger sign! Whoa.

Soon enough I found my way back to urban development, and felt secure in the crowds of humans and unassuming cows. The sun was close to setting, so I sauntered into Parmarth Niketan Ashram, where I was recommended by some folks at the hostel to attend a Puja ceremony. Like the ceremony I saw the day prior, it started just before sundown, and involved releasing leaf-cups of fire and flowers down the river. Unlike the day prior, here were hundreds of Indians (and some tourists) singing praise and performing rituals around a large central fire. Though I didn’t really know the significance of anything that was happening, I was entranced by the chorus of voices with the sun setting behind a towering Shiva statue on a platform over the Ganges. Both human and non-human aspects of the scene were stunningly gorgeous.

On the way back to my hostel I gobbled down some paneer masala and had another rather uneventful night. I worked on writing a report for Waste Warriors on the interviews that I conducted in Dharamshala a few days prior, and hit the sack before 10 to prepare for yet another long day of walking adventures ahead of me.

October 15th, 2019

For my last full day in Rishikesh (and in India as a whole) I had planned to do a 7-mile hike up the mountains and through the jungle to a renowned temple called Neelkanth Mahadev Temple. It’s a common pilgrimage site for many Hindus, as it was apparently built in the spot where Shiva consumed poison originating from the ocean, turning his throat blue in colour. I was interested to see the temple but more excited about the journey. With a defense stick, a packed bag full of essentials, and a collected mindframe I was prepared to face my biggest fear in the Indian jungles: a troop of angry monkeys. After being chased down by monkeys on only my third day in India, I had a healthy respect for those formidable primates.

In about 30 minutes I had reached the point where the jungle path apparently met the road, but I was skeptical. It was a steep and narrow trail with no signage whatsoever, just a dotted line on my phone’s map indicating a path. Miles of uphill hiking through a hot, humid, foreign jungle full of monkeys, tigers, and poisonous scorpions was certainly intimidating yet intriguing. I’m driven to do that which I’m afraid of, for with a healthy attitude, it is really conducive to growth. However I was completely alone and nobody knew of where I was. There is a point when the virtue of Courage turns into the vice of Recklessness, and this felt on the verge between those two.

To allow myself some time to reflect, I walked over to a lookout point of Rishikesh where I saw a few people taking pictures. I asked them if they knew anything about a hiking path, and they declined. After extensive deliberation, I decided to go for it, knowing I can turn back at any point if it feels too dangerous. Still, sometimes the world has a way of leading you in different directions, and always at the perfect time. For I was only 20 feet away from embarking up the trail when a car pulled up right next to me.

“Hey! Where are you going?” asked an Indian guy in the backseat.

“I’m about to hike to Neelkanth Temple. Do you know the way?”

“No, but we are driving there too! Do you want to join us?”

“Well I was planning on walking,” the determination to at least start down this jungle path after mentally facing my fears was burning, but this opportunity just seemed too perfect to pass up. In the end, my intuition told me to take the safer option – so I hopped in a car with a bunch of strangers.

And just like that, the way my entire day would unfold had completely changed. I was now listening to American pop music with four 30ish-year old Indian dudes, rolling down the rugged road and making conversation. They were from the Delhi area, and had already been road tripping together in northern India for a few days. Ashish explained that they worked in construction and farming, and some of them were brothers. I tried making conversation with the whole group, but it soon became apparent that the others didn’t speak as much english. Nonetheless, they still managed to offer me some whiskey and a hash cigarette, which I found rather ironic. They (excluding the driver) were pre-gaming their visit to a sacred temple! I guess there are several takes on the morality of consuming mind-altering substances in Hinduism, just like any other religion.

You could say the drive was “bumpin” – to music and on the actual road. We made it there in about an hour (that would’ve been a long hike) and they were excited to show me the process of paying one’s respects. We first washed our hands and mouth, took off our shoes, and purchased a dish of offerings such as flowers and a sugary delicacy. We were funneled into a line that wrapped around the heart of the temple, offered flowers at different points, and received a bindi-like marking resembling a trident between the eyebrows where the third-eye is. Naturally many pictures were taken, but only after the rituals were completed. After that there wasn’t much else to do up there, so we meandered back down.

With a limited amount of potential discussion topics due to the language barrier, the drive back was quieter than the drive there, but I think they were still happy to have me around. We stopped to take a few more pictures on the lofty drive back, and they all were very excited to add me on Facebook. Like many other Indians, they seemed delighted to simply be hanging around a blonde-bearded American. We made it back to town and walked onto the Laxman Jhula bridge, which I must’ve crossed at least 10 times already. I finally joined the overwhelming hoard of picture-takers I always had to weave through, and felt no shame in hindering the foot traffic by snapping pics with my new friends.

It is really inspiring to realize how little communication is necessary in order to befriend someone. We reflected each other’s smiles, soaked in the same sights, and now continue to occasionally communicate over Facebook. They call me friend, brother, and so on. One even messaged me, “ok brother ❤ love you.” Always will I be deeply grateful for their friendship, and for the auspicious way they saved me from such a treacherous trek.

We said goodbye after retreating from the bridge, and I returned to my hostel – fulfilled with the day’s journeys yet not entirely exhausted. I made my way to that same beach on the Ganges as a couple days prior, and soaked in the moist mountainous air one last time while taking in the calm activity around me: a cow standing in the sand, a Baba meditating by the river, hippie tourists chatting nonchalantly. It was an exquisite last day & night in India.

Next stop: Nepal! Stay tuned (click “follow”) for a month in Himalayan heaven filled with mountain-trekking for 7 days, tracking tigers & spotting rhinos, volunteering to teach english & paint, and being constantly surrounded by some of the most warm-hearted people I’ve ever met.

Thanks for reading my blog. Please comment and/or like if you feel so inclined.

Namaste,

Hopper

Neelkanth Mahadev Temple, Rishikesh, India, or in Hindi: नीलकंठ महादेव मंदिर, ऋषिकेश, भारत