Day 53 – Location: Pokhara; Nepal.
I went off in the morning to find the Visa office in Pokhara, which was quite a long walk in the heat. I eventually found it and it wasn’t too much hassle getting the visa extended by 2 weeks, costing me around thirty pounds and an hour of time. I walked back to Lakeside and stopped on the way for a freshly pressed sugar cane drink, which Anja had recommended to me. The woman passed the sugar cane through an engine press a number of times, the sugary juice pouring out into a glass. It was tasty and very refreshing. I’m sure my teeth protested but who listens to those moaners?
I spent the afternoon working on the blog, shopping and planning, deciding to go paragliding the next day. Unfortunately after dinner I went to book it only to discover I was too late and the places had already been filled. Damn you happy hour beer! I emailed Jet Airways asking them if I could change my return flight date to Thailand. I contacted Anja to let her know I could visit her in a few days now I had the visa. I spent a chilled out evening in the restaurants.
Day 54 – Location: Pokhara; Nepal.
A day of nothingness, just buying presents for Anja’s host family and working on the internet and my diary. Although the photo blog is far behind, the written part I keep separately and is much more up to date. I ran into Nick and Balthi (Anja’s Swiss friends) in the street, who were about to go to Bardia national park, in the jungle far in the west. I wanted to go but with two days travel just to get there I couldn’t justify the time, I’d have to settle for much more touristy Chitwan national park instead. I tried to book a bus to Besisahar, where Anja lives, but was told tomorrow is the biggest festival day of Dasain and so most buses were not running. Any that were would be on a first come, first served basis. In the evening I noticed my rat buddy from the other night run out of my bedroom, squeezing through the narrow gap under the door. To stop him returning I blocked it with an awesome barrier of drinks bottles. Knaw your way through that, Roland!
Day 55 – Location: Pokhara > Besisahar; Nepal.
I woke up at 4am, I think disturbed by my awesome rat barrier being moved. Roland was trying my patience. I couldn’t get back to sleep, and at about 6am I took a taxi to the bus park. The price was higher because it was the big festival day. At the station tourists and locals milled around in a zombie state, and a guy with one leg hobbled around begging. I asked at the counter for a Besisahar bus and luckily there was one going soon. I got in and there were only about ten of us on the bus, mostly trekkers; the big Annapurna trek begins in Besisahar. I hauled my big bag to the roof and locked it to the rack. We set off about half an hour late. As we passed through Pokhara we stopped at some big bus stations lined with food stalls. At each one, more and more locals piled onto the bus, and I had to put my other bags on my lap, there was no space under the seats. My legs were sandwiched behind the seat in front.
At each bus station dirty beggar boys rapped on the sides of the windows with begging bowls. The locals and conductor would shoo them away. I saw one boy sucking and blowing on a plastic bag: breathing glue. A lot of street kids abuse substances like this and get sucked into a circle of begging and drugs. According to the guide books, giving money to kids doesn’t help and just encourages more to do it, instead it’s better to help organizations which take kids off the street or encourage them into more productive lifestyles. Most of the locals certainly don’t give to beggars and I’ve seen signs about tourist respect, one of the points being “do like the Nepali, don’t give to beggars”.
Pokhara was dead for 7am in the morning, nearly all the shops were shuttered up. The big holiday was for everyone. As we drove out of town we’d pass homemade swings, one of the festival’s trademarks. Some were just rope and a plank of wood hung in a porch but the real eye catchers were the huge bamboo or wooden ones which stand taller than a house and have a very long rope swing in the middle. People can get some real height from these. Their construction must be pretty difficult and Anja told me she’d seen a guy at the top of one tying the swing on – a fall from there would definitely be a broken body.
It was quite cold and foggy today, unlike the past few weeks. The wind billowing through the window was chilly, though I didn’t have enough space to put on a jacket with all my heavy stuff on my lap and a father with son in his lap to the side. More and more people crammed onto the bus until there were two or three guys hanging off the door ledge holding onto the outside rail. My bum started to go numb on the hard seat. We occasionally passed guys with bikes carrying trailers filled with small statues for sale in the markets. Every guy seemed to have the same load, I’d seen similar stuff at the sheep market. We stopped up a hill for a rest stop to use the toilet where you could buy freshly roasted peanuts and boiled eggs.
At the next big town, Dumri, a dusty and bustling place, we stopped to let passengers on and off. The guy who sat next to me started to chat to me in English. We crossed a big river and started climbing up the valley to the north. The guy worked in Pokhara and was heading to visit his family for Dasain. We chatted for the next hour as we wound up through villages. To one side a big river wound through a forested gorge below. In some places big rocks were lodged in the drains at the side of the road where landslides had happened. We crossed small rivers which flowed over the road, splashing through them on banked, ruptured tarmac. They must have to repair those all the time. We went past a bizarre quarry wall featuring huge paintings apparently with something to do with Germany judging from the flag, and zigzagged down near the big, turquoise river. Along the roads at every settlement loads of families waited with luggage bags, and every bus we passed was jam-packed; every one had people hanging out the doors and sometimes sitting on the roofs.
I got off a few km before Besisahar and a man waved at me from a house at the main road. The driver had dropped me in the perfect spot, right opposite Anja’s house! Anja came out to meet me and introduced her very friendly host father Rezham, and his wife Chita. They both speak limited English but enough to get by. As we passed through the building the locals we ran into greeted us. Rezham and Chita live alone on the first floor of a modern Nepali building and although basic by western standards, for Nepal their home is quite luxurious; with carpeted floors in the bedroom, a living room with comfy seats and a TV, with a homely bedroom for volunteers. Rezham and Chita have hosted volunteers for a number of years now; they get rent from them and a payment from the volunteer agency too. This year the only volunteer is Anja. There was a basic squat toilet room with a shower, open to the elements through the glass-less window. A little balcony overlooked a nice view of rice fields and hills beyond.
We were immediately taken into the kitchen to receive a tikka, the red spot on the forehead which is a Hindu blessing. Chita had a tray with all the tikka ingredients, red dye, rice, yellow dye and bits of plants. As Dasain is a special occasion, the tikkas are very big, covering a big chunk of the forehead compared to a normal tikka. We sat as Rezham murmured a chant and stuck the rice and red dye on our foreheads, finishing with plant leaves stuck into our hair. We were given a small banana, apple and sweets to eat as part of the ceremony.
Rezham told his “sister” (his name for Anja) and me, “brother”, to come with him downstairs. We went to the next building to meet the elders. This day of the festival everyone goes from house to house visiting relatives and respected people to receive tikkas from them. We were going to meet Rezham’s mother. A queue of people were outside her door and they were getting tikkas from her, whilst we said “Namaste” (greetings). His mother had a yellow tikka, rather than red, meaning she is widowed. Widowed women also aren’t allowed to wear red clothes. She added to our tikkas, doing a similar chant, and gave us more hair plants and food. We gave her some small money which is customary when you are getting a blessing from the elders. We left to let other people in the queue get their turn. Rezham was very eager for us to experience the culture and was encouraging us to take photos throughout, which was great. He had his own digital camera and was taking plenty himself.
We popped to an adjacent room, a kitchen, to meet Rezham’s brother and his aunt, another old lady who I photographed.
His brother spoke some English and showed us inside his fridge, which looked like a butcher’s shop. The meat inside was part sheep, part goat. A few days before Rezham had had a goat sacrificed for his family, which Anja had told me about, and shown me some grisly photos. The goat had been placed in a drawn circle, and then prayers were made. An executioner man had come along with a big kukiri (Nepali curved sword) and then lopped off its head in one. Anja said the body and head had freakily continued to bounce around for a little while after its death! The goat was then butchered on the house roof, the low quality bits like organs and the head being given to lower caste families, and the good bits kept for Rezham’s family.
We went back to their house and after chilling on the balcony for a bit we were served dahl baht, the Nepali staple of rice, lentil soup, curried vegetables and this time, curried goat, from the sacrifice. It was pretty tasty. Anja sneaked me her goat as she didn’t like it much, but didn’t want Rezham to see and be offended! Rezham tried to fill me up with constant offers of more food and I had to refuse after a few extra helpings before I exploded!
We chilled out on the balcony chatting and reading and then Anja took me for a walk through the rice fields to a little temple. We passed locals, Anja having simple Nepali conversations with them, and followed an irrigation ditch where Anja found a crab, delighting in trying to get him to grab a piece of grass so she could lift him up. There were some really big yellow and black spiders in huge webs in the trees, some were almost hand-sized. Wherever there were trees and bushes you’d see them. Sometimes their threads crossed impossibly long distances. The webs can be really hard to see at some angles and Anja walked face first into one, just missing the big spider above. Thankfully for her she’s not scared of them, but like most people she doesn’t really want them crawling all over her face!
At the end of the fields was a tree supporting a long Dasain swing, where kids were messing around and men played cards. We greeted them and Anja had a go on the swing.
We were at the edge of a steep slope into the jungle below, at the bottom was the wide river. We skirted around the edges of the fields to the little temple, walking past colourful flowers and some traditional houses. A little girl followed us from one house and her parents asked me to take her photo. Unfortunately she wouldn’t stop moving so I didn’t get a good one.
After negotiating our way through the fields we reached the temple which seemed disused. Inside were a row of phallic holy stones with withered offerings. Rezham later told me the temple is mainly used by one caste very infrequently, though he occasionally goes there himself to make an offering. We sat here for a while, it was nice and peaceful away from everything, all you could hear was the river and the jungle.
Back at the house we drank tea supplied faithfully by Rezham, and some families came around to receive tikkas from Rezham and Chita. Many of the fathers spoke English and were curious to find out about us westerners. Rezham showed me a photo album containing pictures of his past volunteers, all Germans. One guy was massive and me and Anja laughed at the thought of him trying to survive in Nepal’s local buses and doorways.
After dark Rezham took us to a house down the road, much more basic than theirs, where me met a big family. Along with other visiting families, we were led inside to a bedroom where an old, sick man was lying in bed, giving people tikkas. An old lady came along and gave us tikkas and more snacks. Anja had showered earlier thinking the tikka-giving was over, but there is no refusing a tikka! The red dyed rice from the tikkas falls off your head throughout the day and gets everywhere – Rezhams living room floor was red by the end of the day!
Afterwards we waited outside for Rezham, receiving another tikka and some small change from a local mother. I’d seen Rezham giving money to some of his tikka receivers so it seems to be a two-way process, sometimes you give elders money, sometimes they give you money. We went home, stopping at a shop where one of the staff was quite strange and clearly high or drunk. Rezham told us the man is an alcoholic and he doesn’t approve of him!
We had dahl baht for dinner and in the evening we all chatted and more families came to get tikkas from Rezham and Chita. I took a brisk shower – they don’t have hot water but it wasn’t as cold as some places I’ve been. Anja is dreading the next season – winter – as the bathroom’s completely exposed and the water will be freezing! We turned in for the night after some reading on the balcony.