Thursday, 28 June 2012

Volunteering at Edventure Nepal Orphanage

First sights of Nepal: children living in poverty
Nepal was a place of many realisations for me. When I crossed the border and had to navigate my way to the airport alone, on the back of a cart amidst political crisis and angry villagers brandishing guns, although I was fearful of my own safety my prevailing thought was surprisingly one of gratitude. For the poverty that I witnessed as I took that terrifying drive to the airport was like nothing I had ever seen before. Despite my circumstances, I was able to be thankful even in that moment that I have grown up with food on the table, clothes on my back and wanting for nothing. I realised that all of my perceived problems were merely trifling and "first world". And then as I trekked in the overwhelmingly beauty of the Nepali countryside I was struck not only by the simplicity of peoples lives but also by their incredible kindness. To quote Shantaram "there is no act of faith more beautiful than the generosity of the very poor". 

Fun with a little 'babu' on Phewa Tal
I love children and had many wonderful, life affirming and hilarious encounters with gorgeous Nepali village kids during my trek. This prompted me to ask my guide Prem if he knew of any orphanages in Pokhara and, as luck (or the universe) would have it, he told me that his friend Amrit owned an orphanage a ten minute scooter rider from the guest house where I was staying. No sooner had I got back from the trek than I went off with Prem to find out about Edventure Nepal.

Edventure Nepal, based in Pokhara
Edventure Nepal is a charity registered with the Government of Nepal (registered charity number 2631/32882) to carry out welfare activities for underprivileged children. It is also affiliated with the social welfare council, Nepal Government and the governing and monitoring body for all social organizations working in Nepal. Headquartered in Pokhara, Edventure Nepal aims to provide the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, health and education to disadvantaged children who have become victims of social and political injustices, which is widespread in the Nepali society. Unfair social structures, traditional caste system, widespread illiteracy and the decade-long insurgency are mainly responsible for the abysmal condition of Nepali children. There are thousands of children in Nepal who are living in a very poor conditions. There are many others who are working as child labour in factories and as domestic helps in Nepalese households.

The girls use stationery I bought for them in the orphanage
On that first day I spent some time with the founder of Edventure Nepal, Amrit Tiwari, learning all about his journey. As a youngster Amrit had had to overcome difficulties faced by his own family, including sickness and a threat of debt. As a typical conscientious Nepali son, Amrit worked hard for many years to ensure that his family were provided for. Once the immediate problems faced by his family had been resolved, Amrit turned his thoughts to how he could help those who were in greater need than he. 

The girls before Amrit rescued them
Amrit has a background teaching English in Kalika English Secondary School and due to his skills and dedication was promoted to the position of Vice Principal. Prior to starting the orphanage, he had had 1.5 years of experience of working in the tourism industry in a major travel agency in Kathmandu. Using his entrepreneurial skills and taking the consultancy of friends and contacts, Amrit set up Edventures Nepal in April 2011. It is a totally grass roots project set up and maintained by Amrit himself and it is still is in the early stages of growth. Amrit began by renting a large house in Pokhara in order to be able to provide accommodation for the orphans. He then took in a woman, Tulasi, who had worked with him previously at the school he had taught in. She had been stuck in an abusive relationship for years and had a spinal injury that made life very difficult and painful for her. Tulasi also had a daughter, Laxmi, to whom Amrit was also able to offer shelter. 
Yemuna now

Amrit brought in three girls, sisters, who were homeless, living on the streets and doing hard manual in order to survive. Tulasi is the eldest. She had severely cracked feet and hands from working 16+ hours per day in a guest house in exchange for just a small meal. Tulasi was provided for at the orphanage for a year - given food, schooling and accomodation and she has now been adopted back into the village by a local family. (Amrit aims to be able to keep the children until they are of an adult age, when they can enter society again in a useful role, preferable being able to offer help to the villages from where they came in their new professional capacity.) 

Ganga now
Yemuna, the second eldest girl was seriously malnourished when Amrit found her, with veins protruding from her neck. Showing signs of emotional suffering, Yemuna very quiet and displayed little interest in what was happening around her. Ganga, the youngest of the three was also brought in and given food and shelter. Under Amrit's paternal wing, the girls were all provided with education and now Ganga and Yemua attend the local English private school, eat three nourishing meals a day and their health problems are showing signs of abating. Amazingly, both little girls - entirely illiterate when Amrit found them - have, in the space of one year only, learned to read and write and can not only speak Nepali and some Hindi but can speak, read and write some English as well. The incredible progress of these two bright little sparks is a true testament to the dedication of Amrit (himself only 28) who continues to provide as much education for both girls as much as he can in and around their schooling. The girls receive the love of a mother from Tulasi and the guidance of a father from Amrit, who calls them his 'family'.

Me with the girls at the orphanage
I was so impressed with the orphanage, as have many other volunteers who have been and worked at Edventures Nepal before me. The project is organically growing and previous visitors have provided practical help in the form of provision of internet services, a washing machine (so that the girls no longer have to wash their clothes in the river), a white board and a dining room table so that they can now sit at the table and eat rather than sitting on the floor. 

Taking everyone out for pizza!
I spent a few days with the girls, playing with them and teaching them some English songs. I was struck by their intellect and eagerness to do their English homework (which they completely diligently and accurately) with me. At one point I asked them if we should colour in the beautiful pictures they had drawn, but I realised that they did not have any colour pencils. So I brought them some stationery, coloured pens, pencils, sharpeners, notebooks, activity books (which they seized on with great delight) and a Disney picture book. I also treated them, along with Amrit, Tulasi, Prem and his family and some other travellers to a pizza dinner in Lakeside. It was really fun to go on an outing with the children and to watch them as they devoured their pizza and ice cream - which makes a change for them from dahl baht! In addition I gave Amrit advice on marketing the charity including setting up an Edventure Nepal Twitter feed which can be followed online at @EdventureNepal. However, seeing the valuable work that Amrit does and continues to do on a daily basis, I desperately wanted to be able to contribute in a way that was more lasting. 

Mausam, the little boy we want to bring out of poverty
As the economies of scale are now in place, Amrit would like to be able to offer a home and schooling for other children - and there are plenty in need for him to choose from. In particular need at the moment is a little boy known as Mausam Paudel, the son of Jagat Prasad. Mausam's mother eloped with another man and left the village when her son was only 9 months old and she is now no longer in contact with the family. His father has poor eyesight and as a result, cannot work and cannot care for his son. Mausam's father begs for food and his son is neglected. The child is forced to wander the streets and live off handouts from neighbours. When he was very young, other local families helped out and provided him with food, but now that he is growing older it has become difficult for the other people in the village (who are themselves very poor) to sustain him. The child is currently living on the streets, begging and does not attend school. A neighbour of Amrit's in Pokhara, knowing of his work with the orphanagae, alerted him to the plight of the little boy who lives in the remote village of Nawaldada.

The good news is that Edventures nepal is able to offer Mausam a safe home (in the existing house that Amrit rents for Tulasi, Laxmi, Ganga and Yemuna) and private education. The total costs of this will be £1,000 for the first two years of his life at the orphanage. This sum will cover:
  • Accommodation in a family environment
  • Clean water
  • Nutritious food three times per day
  • Clothing including school uniforms
  • Education at a private English school
  • Additional tutoring mornings and evenings
  • Educational materials
Although it costs only £500 to provide for the little boy for one year, to bring him into the orphanage, Amrit will need to raise the funds required for a minimum of two years living costs in order to be able to provide him with some level of security. Do not forget that raising children is a never-ending responsibility and, once committed to this child, Amrit will need to be able to provide for him for the rest of his young life and therefore find the ongoing funding in order to do so.

In the first instance I realise that this sum of money is a realistic sum to raise so I call on you all, friends, family and dear readers to help me raise the £1,000 required to save this little boy's life. 

To make a one off donation of £10 click here:
To make a one off donation of £20 click here:
To make a one off donation of £50 click here:
To make a one off donation of £100 click here:

If you live overseas and would like to make a donation of another amount, Western Union is the safest and easiest option. Please click here for more information:  

Do something amazing today. Change a little boys life. Any amount - large or small, is appreciated. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Sleepover in a Tibetan Settlement

Tibetan prayer flags litter every building in the camps
Ever since I was a young child I have had an interest in Tibet, Tibetan monks and Buddhism. My inherent interest in this culture was only enhanced by my recent stay in Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. Tibetan people seem to me to emanate a natural peace in spite of all of the social and political challenges that they have faced. When I landed in Nepal, the Tibetan theme continued as I realised that despite its relatively small size, this country is home to an estimated 30,000 Tibetan refugees and Tibet is everywhere - whether that be in the form of handicraft shops, the sound of the "Om mani padme hum" mantra echoing from shops, prayer flags fluttering overhead, even Lama schools - you can't help but see the Tibetan influence exerted on Nepali life. 

Washing hanging to dry inside the camp
The refugees began to arrive in the early 1950s but came in their droves after the Lhasa uprising in 1959. The Nepali government helpfully operated a fairly relaxed policy towards the entry of Tibetan people, partly feeling unable to stop it due to an inability to enforce tight border controls and seeing their provision of shelter as a good solution to a potential human crisis of great magnitude. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), temporary sites were set up in the 60s to house the refugees and support was provided by aid organisations and the US government. This arrangement was in place until 1986 when Nepal and China entered into agreements that Nepal would no longer accept Tibetan refugees and severely restricted the movements of existing Tibetans within the country. (ref 'Tibetan Refugees in Nepal'

Houses within the settlement
I had heard that there were two settlements within driving distance of Pokhara so Kevin and I got on the scooter I had hired and drove out to stay for the night. We found the entrance to Tashi Palkhal settlement on a busy main high street - a large Tibetan gate behind the bustling market stalls out on the road to Baglong and pulled in. Inside was an ordered, if shabby settlement of concrete breeze block houses, punctuated with services buildings such as a health clinic, a nursery etc and of course, a large stupa (a mound-like construction containing relics and used in Buddhist worship) and a monastery. We immediately got picked up by a Tibetan man who seemed a bit slow but unsure of the protocol we allowed him to lead us. 

Tibetans going about their daily life in Tashi Palkal
He showed us into the monastery and we were flung unsolicited into the quarters of an extremely old and decript Lama who was lying there on a mat in filthy quarters. We prostrated in front of him (we weren't sure what else to do). He spoke no English and realising that we appeared inept, somewhat cantankerously showed us the door. So we wandered around exploring the rest of the monastery.  It was strange seeing the intimate lives of the monks - their scarlet habits drying out on the concrete floor. A number of young monks appeared to live there - one popped out from behind the curtain (having been disturbed by our unsubtle guide) revealing himself to be half naked in just a scarlet vest - nipple showing. But despite our blaitant voyeurism (and the "no outsiders allowed" sign in the centre of the camp) the inhabitants were all very friendly and warm. 

The couple who sold us handicrafts in their house
It wasn't long before we were hustled into a tiny (but very neat) house to buy some Tibetan handicrafts. We sat cross legged on a low divan whilst the gentleman showed us his bags of wares, meanwhile his podgy wife brought out the Tibetan butter tea. "She's done this before", I thought but apparently all guests receive this beverage which is an integral part of Tibetan culture. The tea is indeed made with butter and although sounds rather tempting, is pretty fattening and disgusting. Apparently nomads can drink up to 40 cups of butter tea per day and the calorific content lends itself to high altitude living plus prevents the chapping of lips. I don't really like the drink and am mindful of how cloying and unhealthy it is but the old lady kept refilling my cup after every sip. Apparently this is customary and the only way to avoid it is to leave the cup full until you want to beat a retreat then to down it in one! (Thank you wikipedia! ).

An old monk presides over the butter lamps 
There was a shrine to the Dalai Lama in the house (although little else) and candles and butter lamps were flickering in the gloom. Despite the ludicrous price I was quoted, I spent money on some bracelets and prayer beads as gifts for family and friends. I felt that if money were needed, it was here. After handing over the cash, we went for a wander and I asked if I could meditate in the monastery. The docile guide disturbed the young monks (again!) from behind their curtain and a very young lad was sent to unpin the silk prayer flag that covered the door, unlock it and open it by means of the giant and beautiful silk tassles that adorned the huge golden circular door handles of the temple. I sat in an easy meditate stance - physically the cross-legged position has improved so much for me since the early days of the ashram. Afterwards, we lit a butter lamp, paying the very old monk who presided over them 10 rupees for his troubles. 

Butter lamps 
Inside the temple

The Tibetan elders meditate together 

As we were about to leave, I noticed another building and asked the guide what it was. "A meditation centre for the elderly" he replied. Although I was with Kevin who wasn't that into the spiritual aspect, something inside me made me ask if we could go and look inside. I am so glad that I did. What followed was possibly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. We rounded the corner to see a meditation hall, kind of shabby like an old church hall and inside were 12 or 13 Tibetan elders. All were sitting on cushions, twizzling prayer sticks in front of them. Some had cataracts, some had paunches, others were skinny and stick thin. All were ravaged by old age, ill health and the weariness of lives blighted by conflict, humiliation and expulsion. But they were at peace. 

Sheep & goats next to the monastery in the camp
Welcoming us in, we took our places on mats on the floor. Inexplicably - in their midst - also taking his place on a prayer mat was a donkey. Each elder was mid chant - as one voice rose, another fell - syncopated, in their own rhythm and tune but the effect of it was truly hypnotic and above all - totally peaceful. The energy was divine - not in a sweaty, orgasmic, Shiva kind of a way - but in the total quietitude of Buddhism. I tried to stop the tears that glistened in my eyes from rolling down my cheeks. I didn't want to alarm those gorgeous, beautiful, welcoming people. I could have stayed with them there all day but sensed that Kevin felt a little uncomfortable, so I forcibly pulled myself out of that most magical of moments. I am sure it will stay with me for eternity. 

Devi Falls in the underground caves
Thanking (and paying) our guide, Kevin and I scooted away back to the Tibetan settlement where we were staying. We had a quick lunch in the Tibetan Yak restaurant. I ordered veg but was presented with a watery bowl of thukpa with lumps of grey "buff" (beef) which I had to send back. Instead we ate plain chowmein - Tibetan food is really very austere. Then we made a visit to the Gupteswor Mahadev (Shiva) Cave and underground Devi waterfalls. The cave visit was a real highlight of the Nepal trip. As we descended into the subterranean world formed by natural rock there, at the mouth was the biggest, most incredible Shiva linga I have ever seen. I payed my respects, walking around the enormous thing and feeling the power from it. I wondered how many thousands of hands had touched it's tip. Concealed within a grotto was a stone statue of cow, from whose udders dripped real milk onto a linga below it. Insane. We descended through a network of tunnels and steps in the dripping dank and it was so cool! I had visions of the 80s cult film "The Goonies". I also fought a natural urge of claustrophobia that bubbled up. Being below the earth is a strange feeling that can incite a certain kind of terror. But, I got through it and as we reached the waterfall at the end - oh my! What a wonderful sight! Through shafts of light in the rock, jets of water plumed and fell into a natural pool below. I was mesmorised and at that moment, as we sat precariously on a damp rock, gazing out at the light, I was truly present. 

Hanging out on the scooter in the settlement
We went back to our room in the 'Tibetan guest house' which was really one spartan bedroom in an otherwise locked community hall where Tibetans stay when they visit other members of the settlement. Kevin and I lay there in the dark of the afternoon storm and the total silence of the rest of the Tibetan camp. It would have driven me mad before - being 'stuck' in a place with no diversions but vipassana as equipped me well for such occasions. Kevin dozed, I read and wrote and afterwards walked outside alone, breathing in the fresh evening air, restored and lush from the downpour. Later on we drove back into Pokhara to get some dahl baht to eat. The two little restaurants in the settlement were closed as apparently Tibetan people only eat at home during the evening. After dinner, Kevin drove us back - my rented scooter was without a headlight and I had to shine my torch to light the way over potholed roads - it was completely insufficient in the black of the power-cut-night. 

Elders make handicrafts outside their homes
I gripped onto Kevin as he drove us (at first on the wrong side of the road - he is Swiss) through villages that were unrecognisable to me. At one point we neared towards a flashing light. Oh shit! The police! We had to explain that it wasn't our fault we were driving without a headlight but they seemed to understand that we had been jibbed by the rental man and let us off without so much as asking for a bribe. Kevin finally got us back to the camp. I was so thankful, at that moment, for his manly capabilities. As a relatively new driver and nervous in particular driving at night, even on well lit European roads, there is no way I could have found our way back through the Nepali countryside in the dark. 

Oxen in the street outside the settlement
The settlement we slept in

Morning prayers in the monastery
The next morning I awoke at 4.50am and made my way to the monastery. It was eerie and silent walking through the settlement in the grey of the dawning light. But there was life - people on their way to work and in the monastery itself. One of the small chamber rooms was open revealing a giant prayer wheel (perhaps 5 foot in height) and two very elderly ladies were walking in circles around it, turning the wheel as tradition dictates - it is said to have the same effect as orally reciting a prayer - and muttering their mantras. Other women rambled the grounds, circling the monastery over and over again as they prayed fervently, beads in hand. Every time the huge wheel completed a full circle a piece of wood that protruded from one if the sides sounded a bell. I stood and watched.  There is something so mesmeric about the ceaseless ritual of Tibetan Buddhism. 

Tibetan butter tea for breakfast
Elsewhere the monks were rousing from sleep. Emerging from tiny cells, they scratched their shaven heads, rubbed sleep from their eyes, washed their faces and brushed their teeth. I followed them up into the prayer room, intending to stand outside as they began their chanting - sitting cross legged and facing one another on two opposite sides of a narrow room containing cushions and benches, as well as books, manuscripts and a Buddha shrine. Imagine my surprise when one of the monks beckoned me to come in and join them. I quietly sat down next to a very young monk who was playing the traditional instruments and closed my eyes to absorb their guttural chanting as the sun rose. I don't know if any of you have ever listened to Buddhist monks chanting - at first it can be disconcerting - you imagine it to be a peaceful, soothing noise. In fact, often the voices of the monks are very low - unbelievably so and it can almost sound a little scary at first. They chant out of sync, starting verses as others finish, breathing out the syllables in an almost vibratory fashion, reminiscent of bubble-blowing. As they do so, they read the Sanskrit prayers from beautiful calligraphy on rectangular shaped pieces of paper, plucked from colourful boxes that sit in front of them.

The monks awake for morning prayers
I was taking in the scene when suddenly the monk at the front directed a few others to leave the room. I was just wondering what could be so important as to interrupt their prayers when the monks came back in carrying a giant barrel of toast. I then realised that the monks had stashed their knives, plates and mugs on the prayer benches, ready to receive their morning breakfast. Whilst they chanted and prayed continuously, pieces of white bread toast were handed around - as was a jar of jam and peanut butter which each monk applied conservatively and mindfully to his piece of toast.  I also noticed a couple of young monks had some packets of supplementary digestive biscuits to accompany their meal! I don't know what I was expecting Tibetan monks to eat for breakfast but it certainly wasn't jam and peanut butter on toast. 

Tibetan monks breakfast
Just as I was looking on (I confess, somewhat hungrily), the senior monk directed a young monk who hastily ran to me with a plate, a cup and a generous helping of bread. I waited my turn for the peanut butter and jam, feeling quite guilty that I was participating in their yummy breakfast and yet not in the gruelling schedule that no doubt charactises their monastic day. I walked back to the settlement to collect Kevin and saddle up the scooter, reflecting on the generosity and beauty of the Tibetan people and possibly the most unforgettable and spontaneously spiritual breakfast I had ever enjoyed in my life - jam on toast with the monks, amidst incence and prayer. 

My helping of toast and butter tea

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Escape to the Nepali Country

Nepali countryside
And so it was that I went deep into the Nepali countryside in search of mountain air, peace pagodas and Tibetan monks. The journey began as all good journeys do, with a stinking hangover. We had made sure that my last night in Kathmandu was a good one but the after effects were not conducive to 7 hours on a non AC bus in 35 degrees heat. I had the misfortune of having to sit next to a Fijian ex army guy who was sipping whiskey from a plastic bottle at 7am in the morning and regaling me with tales of carnality and alcohol. The 200km ride to Pokhara on the one potholed road was not without incident. We had to stop at many road blockades guarded by locals who were strongly enforcing the bandh (nationwide transport ban). Groups of men gathered menacingly together beneath hand-daubed posters and there were even stuffed mannequins hanging by the neck. It was all very Mayor of Casterbridge-esque. The poor Nepalis who had risked a ride in our ‘tourist bus’ were stopped at one such blockade and turfed out by the scruff of their necks by their fellow countrymen. I didn't envy them having to walk in the blistering heat.

View of the mountains from the guest house
After a false start on the accommodation front for the first night (yet more enormous cockroaches!) I checked into a chilled guest house called Peace Eye run by a nice couple – a Nepali guy and his German girlfriend. Nestled away from the madding crowds of Central Lakeside and in the shadow of the summit of the infamous 'Fish Tail' mountain I was very happy there. My room was a haven – bright and airy with cane furniture and a picture of Bob Marley on the wall. Power cuts are frequent in Nepal and so I spent many evenings cuddled up, reading by the glow of candlelight in my divinely comfortable bed. 

I read. I wrote. I slept.
I wrote. I corresponded with friends. I slept and slept and slept. In fact I was almost horrified at how much sleep I had. I soon got into a routine – breakfast in the mornings, reading, writing and yoga in the afternoons. The haze and the heat slowed me down and I got very good at practising the maxim ‘just be’, relaxing in a way that I have never managed to do before. Every day the temperature would build to intense, unbearable levels before breaking with a dramatic storm around 4pm. I enjoyed this time: locals battened down the hatches, hurriedly closing shutters and bringing plant pots inside. When the storm came, the whole of the Himalayas resounded with the sound. I would take a post-yoga shower, staring out at the storm through the open window as the water poured on me and around me, watching the leaves on the banana trees shaking in the tempest. Afterwards - silence was restored and the air was full of promise - new life, new beginnings.

The sun beginning to set over Phewa Tal
Pokhara is a beautiful jewel of a city that is situated on the shores of Phewa Tal, the second biggest lake in Nepal. I enjoyed a lazy afternoon being boated around by a very attractive Nepali man (it’s a comfort to know that as a western woman, wherever you are in Asia you can always find a handsome man willing to take you out and show you a good time). I got the boat and the man for a snip and we went out till sunset – splashing around and swimming together. 

Boats on Phewa Tal as dusk descends
He rowed us into a peaceful cove below a traditional Nepali house perched high above a descending row of rice terraces. A woman bent low amidst the crops. The only sound was the tinkling of the bells on the necks of cows that nibbled on the pastures. We sat on the shore as the sun went down and drank millet wine procured by a local lad from a nearby farm. At this time of day the lake was like glass. We put life jackets on, which allowed me to swim out without fear.  As the mists descended, fishing boats quietly floated by making elegant black silhouettes in the sky. We could see the last of the mountains in the dying sun, the peak of the Fish Tail rising proudly from the jagged peaks of the Himalayas. 

Messing about on Phewa Tal
The locals like to say that 'Nepal' stands for ‘Never Ending Peace and Love’. Although my trip had started out as being quite the opposite, I soon started to manifest good company all around me and to instigate sanga (community) wherever I went. One morning, I went with a group to swim across the lake. It wasn’t far – perhaps only 500m at the point where we crossed, but in 2009 I came close to drowning when I got caught in a current in Uruguay and swept out to sea. Until this point I had always been a very strong swimmer but fear gripped me now whenever I went out of my depth. About 20m out into the Phewa Tal I was suddenly choked with the familiar panic as terror rose in my throat. I began to hyperventilate and turned to head back. And then I was struck with a moment of clarity. I was strong. I could physically swim the lake no problem. The only thing that was holding me back was my own mind and, importantly, lack of control over my breath. So I started to breathe – long and deep. And I made it across the lake and back. Yoga teaches us that breath is life and increasingly I am beginning to believe that good breathing is the key to health, happiness and success in achieving your goals.    

Prem and Kevin, 2/3 of the trekking team! 
People come to Nepal to basically do one thing. To trek. I hadn’t planned on it and wasn’t really organised for a mammoth Everest or Annapurna base camp trek. Add to this the fact that the season was ending, avalanches were happening every day as the snow started to melt in the afternoons and prices were steep. I had the option of going it sans guide (apparently Annapurna is very easy to navigate) but directions were never my strong point and I didn’t wish to be alone for days on a mountain range. So I consulted with the guest house owner and decided to do a short trek around Panchase, from which I hoped to be able to get some good views of the mountains despite the increasingly hazy weather. I headed off with Kevin (a Swiss French dude who was staying in Peace Eye) and Prem, our Nepali neighbour who had promised to guide us.

Our bedroom for the night
The trek was absolutely, stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful. The first day was incredibly hard going – the transport ban necessitated having to walk for 4 hours just to get to the start point. But, every cloud and all that - this meant we got to walk around the Phewa Tal as it awoke. Sleepy fishing boats heading out for the morning's catch, woman washing in the lake, children heading out to school. Trekking uphill up hundreds of stone steps in the blazing heat of afternoon sun was difficult but we were rewarded on the first night with a stay in a beautiful traditional Nepali house. Kevin and I bunked into cute twin beds in a tiny stone attic, painted burnt sienna. The father of the family cooked up some incredible dahl baht (the national Nepali dish, eaten, of course with hands) and I went inside their tiny mud thatched hut for seconds, which was generously ladled out to me. I woke up in the middle of the night and stumbled out to the loo to look up to the velvet black sky which was punctuated with a billion stars.

Water buffalo on the pathways
We woke at 4am and got on the move – a steep ascent to Panchase. Setting off in darkness we happened upon many groups of wild water buffalo munching grass unassumingly in the dawning day. We ascended to the lookout at Panchase (we had done a total of 2,600 metres) and were presented with a hazy view but saw the sun rise and managed to make out the snowy tipped peaks of Dhaulagri 1, 2, 3, 4, Nilgiri, Maachhapuchhre, Manasalu, Lamjung and Annapurna 1, 2, 3 and 4. Afterwards we took a little trip to Badauri temple (a Shiva temple, of course) with a gorgeous inner sanctum and even a 'sleeping Shiva statue which seemed appropriate. So I rang the bell (which was wrapped in ribbons) to awaken the God, lit some incense and and performed a mini puja in the silence of the day. 

View of the sun rise through the haze
After our rapid early morning ascent, relief at descending quickly gave way to splintering pain in my left knee. A legacy injury was giving me gyp. After an hour of traversing the steep stony steps down I was practically crying in pain. Being hindered by ill health is not a great state of affairs and the rest of the day was marred with unbearable pain. I thanked the universe that I hadn't attempted anything more adventurous. 

The guest house at Dhampus village
We spent the evening in the sheer gorgeous ness of a guest lodge - another Peace Eye outpost in the village of Dhampus. It was a beautiful, typical Nepali building with wooden carved archways, perched on the edge of mountainous terrain overlooking the peace and motion of the paddy fields, and villagers below. We watched the sunset and ate more dahl baht out of brass bowl inside a whitewashed cottage dining room replete with tableclots and red rhododendrons in vases.  I slept beautifully and awoke just before sunrise. The light was already shining through the open oak shutters - morning blue tinge, the hazy moutain air. Below the village was awakening: women carrying woven baskets full of leaves on their heads and a little boy whooped and shouted through the paddy fields. 

Weed was everywhere! 
Nepal is a country of astounding natural beauty: silvery stones, blood red earth and much flora and fauna. In one day we saw stick insects, grass hoppers, a lizard and many wild orchids and ferns. Kevin and I were also excited to come across marijuana - bushes and bushes of the stuff was just growing everywhere! The trek path cut through terraces, fields and gorgeous little traditional Nepalese houses - tiny affairs with thatched roofs and neat porches, the occasional stable. 

Old men in their topis 
Each house has a small plot of land to grow maize, millet and rice - just the right amount to feed a family. In front of most houses sat elderly family members, children or women undertaking toiletry, splashing about in the stone mounted taps. I greeted most of these people with a friendly "namaste" which was received to varying response. Some would reply with a warm smile, pressing their hands together in the respectful greeting. Others were nonplussed or nonchalent. I wondered what they must think of me in my hulking, lurid whiteness, taking these paths that they labour along everyday for leisure. It was a humbling experience - seeing how simply people live - how they survive even though they have nothing at all. People just going about their work - women with the baskets, men with the oxen - it is unthinkably different to the lives we lead so full of diversion and activity. 

A cute family who mobbed me for chocolate!
There were many good encounters also - cute kids excitedly gathering round for a photo, for sweets, rupees or 'school pens'. I had so much fun playing with the kids, 'high fiving' them, letting them take pictures of me with my camera. Prem noticed how much I enjoyed the Nepali children as we went through the villages and so I asked him if he knew of any orphanages where I could volunteer my services. It turned out that he did know somewhere, in fact his good friend Amrit had an orphanage very close to Peace Eye. We agreed that I would visit on our return. 

Village children on their way to school
We had a morning break for chai and noodle soup (another staple foodstuff) at the immaculate house of Prem's parents. His father seemed to be the typical patriarch and was wearing a 'topi' hat that is sported by most Nepali men. His mother was also in traditional dress with a great bit cummerbund type thing around her waist (this seems to function as a bra for women as their boobs go south). She also had tikka, a nose ring and red wool plaited into her hair. 

Photograph of Prem's parents
I'd just been reading in Shantaram about the author's experiences in the slums of India and his observation that, despite the abject poverty, all of the people are clean. All of the houses are spick and span. All of the women are bejewelled and adorned. I absolutely LOVE this detail about India and Nepal - the pride in appearance and the attention to beauty in spite of a lack of all else. They have nothing but one thing can always be guaranteed: houses are clean and women are fancy. We rounded off our trek with a morning climb to the Sarangkot viewpoint to see the sunrise and a breathtaking view of Pokhara. Our happy little crew descended the steep mountain slopes in the dawning day, culminating with a delicious meal of home cooked fish prepared for us by Prem's wife back at the ranch. Kevin and I then - in time honoured tradition of trekkers who have been stuck up a mountain for days or weeks on end - went to the barbers for a shave (his head, my undercut - I got an 'Om' symbol shaved into it) and a restorative head and shoulder massage.

Me and Kevin hit the barbers
Walking is a meditative experience but it was especially so for me on this trip. Kevin's English was limited - as was Prem's. I can speak some French but for the most part, our little group walked in silence. I think that prior to vipassana, the idea of going on a trip for 4 days with two other people who spoke little or no English would have filled me with horror. But in my new found state of calm, I was able to enjoy the trip with minimal communication with my comrades and instead enjoy the thoughts that came to me as I walked. 

Finished! The trekking gang back at the ranch
Nepal had been good for me - it was a time of growth. It was an opportunity to again know that I am at peace with myself and happy inside. I possess an untouchable wisdom within. I realised that despite leaving India and encountering the secular, my spiritual bubble hadn't burst entirely. The lessons that I had learnt there continued to apply. Although perhaps not so spiritually ardent as before, my next chapter would continue - and it would be one of creativity, growth, world travel, friendship, happiness and karma yoga... The orphanage beckoned...

Friday, 1 June 2012

What Sophie Did Next

Kathmandu is named after the traditional Kaasthamandap
temples found in Durbar Square
After my long and passionate love affair with India, Nepal felt like a mildly disappointing rebound shag. OK perhaps that is a little unfair. I shall begin again, a little more objectively... Slightly heartbroken and more than a little bit knackered after 5 days of journeying, I landed in Nepal's capital. After spending a month in the peace of the Indian mountains arriving back into 'the real world' was a shock to the system: hustlers, hawkers, coffee, bars, alcohol, tourists, noise. It was bewildering. Having presumed that I would be travelling a deux, I hadn't done much planning and therefore didn't know my way around or what to expect. Without a partner in crime and facing the confusing cartography of Kathmandu alone I was psychically - as well as physically - lost. For a little while anyway. 

Temples in Bhaktapur 
Emotionally exhausted, I slept the sleep of angels in white linen sheets. But bad dreams haunted me in those early nights. Thoughts turned in my head like a screw: "I forgive you, I forgive you for not being the person I wanted you to be.. But it is hard, walking these filthy streets of Kathmandu, trying to find my groove - not with you. Booze, charris, neon lights. Crap cover bands. Western food. Bring me butter lamps and mountain air. Heavy incense in Shivas lair. Nightly puja with Govinda - dazzled by Sunshine's glare. A distant memory - India - you're not there. Instead, I grit my teeth - inhale the Kathmandu St. and walk to my own beat. Own beat." 

Carving in Durba Square
Enough of self-indulgent poetry. Those who know me know that I bounce back pretty quickly. I picked myself up. I checked into a decent hotel with wifi and a hot shower. I manifested male company in the form of a beautiful spiritual Chilean man (Sebastien) who slept in the room next to mine. I spent the day wandering the ancient and ramshackle courtyards and temples of Durbar Square, taking in the magnificent architecture - numerous temples, erotic carvings, colourful sculptures, Shiva linga and the home of Kumari, the living goddess. I got excited and made plans for Nepal and beyond. Once more I felt lucky to be alive and to be alone.  

The doors in Nepal are too small for me! 
But despite all of my new-found enthusiasm, external events made it difficult to completely immerse myself in Nepal. In fact, everything surrounding my arrival in this country resounded with the clang of an inauspicious bell. Just a couple of days before a flash flood in the Seti river had killed over 60 people (stupidly, at the time, I had worried for Tom). The minute I set foot across the frontier I found myself at the mercy of a bandh - a political strike, enforced by the people - grinding the entire nation to a halt. Not only this, but villagers out in the sticks were angry - some brandishing guns. It was terrifying. No sooner had I set foot in Kathmandu and wearily set my pack down in a shop to order a coffee than I was unceremoniously turfed out. In the surrounding areas shopkeepers scrambled to pull steel shutters down over their shops as a mob approached! There was rioting in Kathmandu. I had no choice but to run to the safety of my hotel and sit it out. Worrying about what people back home were thinking, I could not get online. "Load shedding" or power cuts happen every day here in possibly the only capital city which goes without electricity for 6 hours per day. 

A goat tethered to a door in Bhaktapur
At first it was frightening, but when I got used to the political situation, it was just inconvenient. I learned that, although strikes were usual in Nepal, I had arrived at a unique time when the new constitution was being drawn up by the government and the country was split - the Maoists wanted a federal republic based an indigenous identity but other groups wanted a geographically divided state, fearing the Maoist stance might divide the country, strengthen rivalries and ultimately result in civil war. Agreement could not (and would not, I was later to learn) be reached. During this time there were several strikes by both opposing groups was no transport, no shops and little services available, even to tourists. Sometimes shops would shut without a moment's notice. I wasn't enjoying the noise of Kathmandu, it's incessant hustle and bustle and the macho tourists. I was seduced by the tranquillity and authenticity of Nepali countryside. I had big plans to hire a bike and head off into Pokhara via the temples and mountain views of Gurkha and Bhandipur but the transport bandh meant that I was stuck and going nowhere fast. Surrendering once more, I just had to make the best of it. 

Time stands still in Bhaktapur
Together with Sebastien, I visited the ancient Newari town of Bhaktapur. It was breathtakingly beautiful wandering the labyrinthine streets, weaving between the brick buildings, smiling at bonny Nepali babies and dodging mad dogs, chickens and goats. Here, grass, rice, garlic and sweetcorn were hung or laid out to dry in the sun. Old women picked their way through drying pottery. Woodsmoke burned in our nostrils. Temples here - shrines there - a conglomerate of ancient architecture the whole thing was a timeless playground. We got lost in the maze of the streets, walking through time.  

The burning ghats at Pashupatinath temple
One evening, we went to the cremation ghats at Pashupatinath. It was a beautiful walk through the old part of town with tiny butchers and fish shops laying out the goods on wooden tables in the luminescence of one naked bulb. At that time of day the wares were closer to decay themselves than the corpses on the pyres. For the first time I witnessed the funeral rite and up close on the burning ghat, not on the other side with the tourists (Sebastien and I have become expertly thrifty backpackers, evading fees wherever we can). Here the cremations of Hindus and Buddhists take place 24/7, with the male relatives of the family taking care of the burning, bringing the body and building the pyre around it.  

Inside the Swayambunath monastery
It was much less visceral than I had envisaged - no bones or skulls visible, just a poignant pair of feet. Apparently sandalwood is used to mask the smell of the flesh. The menfolk, stripped to vests and shorts, expertly choreographed the ceremony, stacking the blaze with elegant sticks of grass dipped in river water. There were Buddhist monks chanting in an eerie fashion (their bass tones resembling a didjeridoo blowing bubbles) as another body was sprinkled in ghee and burned and we walked by others in varying states of burn down. It was very affecting - the sights, the smells, the bureaved getting their hair shorn. The gentle quiet dignity of the rite, families of different religions burning their dead and mourning together in peace. I couldn't help myself and turned my head from Sebastien to weep silently next to the Bagmati River.

Swayambunath temple stupa 
One morning I awoke at dawn and walked the awakening streets all the way to Swayambunth temple - the so-called 'monkey temple' due to the simian critters that fidget and play in the surrounding areas. I took morning puja in a little Hindu temple on the way up then climbed the breakthtaking stone "pilgrim's staircase", lined with beggars, hawkers, monkeys and stone carvings of peacocks and lions. At the top I was blinded by a golden stupa out of which peers the eyes of the Buddha, staring eerily out over the awe-inspiring views of Kathmandu valley. No sooner had I arrived than I was accosted by an Indian man wanting "to talk". Not wanting to be discompassionate I humoured him and we sat in the monastery discussing religion, philosophy and karma. However, i made my excuses when the conversation inevitably turned to marriage. I literally cannot have the whole "but you're 30 and you're still not married" conversation again! 

Prayer flags - everywhere
I spent time wandering amongst the mind boggling multiplicatives of stupas and lingas. The best moment was when I sat beneath a golden Buddha in the energy of an elderly Tibetan monk who was sitting next to me. I could feel his beautiful light emanating beside me as I gave metta (love and compassion) to all human beings. I turned the prayer wheels and watched the prayer flags - ubiquitous here - flutter in the azure sky and the city through the mist. I sang khirtan songs to myself all the way back - swathed in silk scarves and a sarong. Prayer is a good way to start the day.

Relaxing with a beer at the Hyatt Hotel
Just to counter-balance the spiritual, Kathmandu afforded plenty of opportunities for decadence and for me to get used to being 'first world' again. One day Sebastien and I headed out to the Hyatt hotel and literally and metaphorically splashed out - kicking back next to the pool with a beer. After many months of being cloistered up in conservative clothing, it felt strange to reveal my body and I was self conscious in my bikini at first (yes, me)! I also had a couple of nights out in Thamel where I was not short of offers for company from men of all nationalities. Most of them it seemed to me, were Gung Ho-ers dressed in Goretex. Not my bag, sweetie. I was mildly amused by how Western all these people seemed, how different from those I met in India. On several occasions I had to check myself, make sure I wasn't being an 'India bore' by evangelising about the motherland and stop making caustic remarks about people "needing to climb mountains to prove their masculinity to themselves"! 

Eating Indian dosas at Pilgrims cafe
I did, however, meet one lovely man, Lorne from Colorado (there I go with the Yanks again) who also stayed in the same guest house. He had such grace and a gentle way, I warmed to his beautiful aura and dulcet American tones immediately. When I told him the story of my arrival he took me in his expansive and muscular arms (he is, of course, a footballer) and embraced me. The three of us went all out on a traditional 11 course Newari meal, complete with tacky, tourist oriented entertainment - two Nepalis dressed up as a peacock and came round pecking the guests and one 'yeti' who resembled Zippy from Rainbow. I felt like I was on a cruise! Later, Lorne and I propped up the bar discussing the three 'gunas' (natures of the mind), astrology and how crucial it is to 'let go' - to quote a timely quotation that I read in Autobiography of a Yogi "Do not do as you want and then you may do as you like". Later that night as I was preparing for bed there was a knock at my door. I answered and the gorgeous outline of Lorne loomed. He pressed a copy of Shantaram into my hands. This is a book, an epic tome about India that I had been wanting to read forever and here it was, being delivered to me.  

Having both Lorne and Sebastien come into my life proved to me my own powers of manifestation. Finding myself alone in Kathmandu, I had wanted some enjoyable male company, voiced that wish to the universe and I was duly provided with it - with not one, but two gorgeous boys. Still feeling very much in tune with the theme of destiny, I wanted to understand their significance. A reminder maybe of what I had lost? Both of these men had fallen in love on the road and were off to Switzerland (Sebastien) and Italy (Lorne) to claim their European ladies and build a happy-ever-after. And yet love continues to elude me. Perhaps both men were sent to me to show me what it is like when a man finally decides to grow up and settle down. Whatever it was, we had much fun together and I was grateful for their company in those initial days. Kathmandu was saved. I was happy. And then - finally - good news! Tourist buses were allowed to go into the country. I took a risk and booked a ticket - to escape the incessant smog and noise. Onwards into Nepali country for my own little adventure...

...(to be continued)

Thanks to Hotel Red Planet for their wonderful hospitality and especially to Mahesh for his political knowledge! I will miss you guys

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