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...

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