India and Nepal: A Travelogue
- Submitted by: Mark S. Nowak
- Submission Date: 07th Feb 2005
Index of days:
March 1, 1996: Chicago -> Paris
March 2: Paris -> Delhi
March 3: Delhi: India Gate, Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk
March 4: Delhi -> Mandawa
March 5: Mandawa, Holi Festival
March 6: Mandawa -> Jaipur: Jantar Montar, City Palace
March 7: Jaipur: Palace of Winds, Amber Fort
March 8: Jaipur -> Samode: Samode Palace
March 9: Samode -> Sariska: bicycle ride, tiger safari
March 10: Sariska -> Bharatpur -> Fateh Sikri -> Agra
March 11: Agra: Taj Mahal, Baby Taj, Agra Fort
March 12: Varanasi (Benares), Sarnath, Ganges River
March 13: Varanasi: Ganges River, Bharat Mata Mandir
March 14: Varanasi -> Kathmandu
March 15: Kathmandu: Thamel, Burbar Marg
March 16: Kathmandu: Swayambhunath
March 17: Kathmandu: Durbar Square, pre-trek briefing
March 18: Kathmandu: Pushupatinah, Bodnath Stupa
March 19: Kathmandu -> Lukla -> Ghat -> Phakding
March 20: Phakding -> Benkar -> Monjo
March 21: Monjo -> Jorsale -> Namche Bazaar
March 22: Namche Bazaar (rest day)
March 23: Namche Bazaar -> Thyangboche
March 24: Thyangboche -> Everest View Hotel -> Namche Bazaar
March 25: Namche Bazaar -> Monjo -> Benkar -> Phakding
March 26: Phakding -> Ghat -> Sir Edmund Hillary Schhol -> Lukla
March 27: Lukla -> Kathmandu
March 28: Kathmandu -> Delhi
March 29: Delhi -> Paris -> Chicago
I recently returned from an 4-week vacation to India and Nepal. Travel and flight arrangements were taken care of by Earthwyz (email@example.com). The Northern India Highlights portion was arranged by Himalayan Travel, Inc. which contracted The Imaginative Traveller and the Everest Adventure was run by Peregrine. Northern India Highlights cost me $1175.00. The Everest Adventure cost $1225.00. My airfare which included my Air France round trip flights between Chicago and Delhi and my Royal Nepal Airlines Kathmandu to Delhi flight was $1371. I had to throw in another $70 at the Connaught Palace Hotel in Delhi for an extra night prepended to my Northern India Highlights tour since I got in so early. I spent another $569 ($284 in India -- $54 of which was for my Varanasi to Kathmandu Indian Airlines flight -- and $285 in Nepal) out of my own pocket while there as well. My two nights stay at the Ambassador Hotel in Kathmandu which resulted from my plans to visit Chitwan Nation Park not working out cost $54.10. My Indian visa cost me $40, and my visa for Nepal which I obtained at the airport in Kathmandu cost $15. All that comes to $4519.10. This still doesn't include vaccinations, film, gear and other equipment, but it should give you an idea of the costs involved. Film and developing cost around $200.00 alone. My four long distance calls from India which came to 114 minutes cost $296.29.
I carried various travel brochures, printouts of the wealth of knowledge I collected and compiled from the more than generous people on the net, Fodors India (wish I had a book on just Northern India), The Lonely Planet Nepal (great overall info), Frommers Nepal (good trekking info specific to my trek) and Nelles Guides Nepal (great pictures). As far as luggage went, I had a backpack with a hipstrap (in which I placed a smaller backpack) and a sort of rolling duffel bag that could be carried by hand or via a shoulder strap.
March 1 Friday
5:25 PM Chicago to Paris non-stop (Boeing 747) on Air France flight 55
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March 2 Saturday
8:05 AM arrive in Paris
11:00 AM departure for Delhi, the capital of India, on Air France flight 178
We took off about a 1/2 hour late. I had some tomato juice but didn't have much of an appetite for the food. The movie was 'Sabrina,' and it was pretty good. I was able to nap. The internet distance calculator had the distance between Paris and Delhi at 4090 miles.
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March 3 Sunday
We were due to arrive in Delhi at 12:05 AM. They reminded us before landing that no pictures of the airport were allowed from the plane windows. We actually landed at Indira Ghandi airport around 12:30 AM. India is 11 and 1/2 hours ahead of Chicago. According to the internet distance calculator, I was now 7469 miles from Chicago. It was quite warm and very dark -- Delhi isn't the best lit city at night. Immigration and having my passport stamped went smoothly. I changed $200 for some 6760 Indian Rupees before picking up my big bag. The conversion rate at the time was about 33 Rs for $1 or about $3 for 100 Rs. I don't recall ever seeing a bill larger than 100 Rs. This made for a sizable wad of money. Five thousand of those rupees were 100 50 rupee notes stapled together. This practice tends to make holes appear in their money which makes them more likely to tear. Unfortunately, torn bills are not likely to be accepted.
It was probably around 1:15 AM when I stepped out of the luggage area into the prepaid taxi/hotel reservation atrium where numerous boothes were set up along the walls. A man called out to me from one of them trying to get me to get a taxi through him. I said I was being met and continued on past the guards at the door to the outside where a somewhat chaotic crowd of people holding up signs were behind a barricade. I walked up and down the barricade and couldn't find a sign for the Imaginative Traveller (or Odyssey as they are known in India). I had been afraid this would happen.
I was approached by a young man who wanted to help me get a cab, but I said I wanted to wait a while longer. The guards at the airport doors were turning people away so that it looked like you couldn't get back in to get a prepaid taxi. I met a middle-aged woman from England who also couldn't find her ride. She was waiting for another plane to come in with more people from her tour with the hopes that their ride would take her as well. We waited together for a while.
Eventually, around 2:00 AM I decided that I'd be better off finding my own way to the hotel. I went to the airport doors where the guard at first tried to bar my entry, but I insisted I needed to get in to get a prepaid taxi. When he understood, he escorted me inside and tried to steer me to the nearest agent, but the man who had originally called out to me noticed me and waved me over. The fare to get me to the Connaught Palace Hotel was 220 Rs. I was motioned out another exit where there were more men holding up signs which made me wonder if my guy had been waiting there. If so, I still didn't know how I could have covered both exits.
My taxi was a huge white car that looked like it had been built 40 years ago. It took a moment to start after my bag had been placed in the trunk. My driver grunted more than said anything, so I repeated the name of my hotel. We drove on the left side of the road. The streets were not well lit which made the fact that many vehicles didn't turn on their headlights seem even more crazy. My driver chose to drive with his brights on in the hazy air. The street lights were yellow.
Maneuvering around other cars, people on bicycles and other obstacles in the dark was a little scary. I saw a sign with an arrow pointing the way towards Delhi. It was somewhat disturbing when my driver did not take that route. There I was thinking I was 7500 miles from home, that I had just arrived and now I was going to be killed. When my driver started to pull over to the side of the road in a fairly deserted area, it was more than disturbing. As it turned out, he was only slowing down and going around speed bumps in the road. This happened a number of times. It was quite a relief when we finally arrived at my hotel. I checked in, tipped the bellboy 20 Rs for his efforts and called home from my room -- number 409. I used AT&T Direct and talked for about 30 minutes. The hotel still charged 66 Rs for the service.
I arranged for a wake-up call at 8:00 AM and fell asleep with the TV on. It was nice to know India had Beverly Hills 90210 and NYPD Blue. The call came on time playing music by Jean Michele Jarre, but I didn't get up until around 9:17. Breakfast was pretty unappetizing and a bit lonely even if it was at Tiffany's. This was something I would have to get used to -- or try to anyhow.
From my room I could see vultures on a nearby water tower. It gave me my first opportunity to use my binoculars on the trip. Jerry Porter, a math professor from the University of Pennsylvania, moved in. We would be roommates during my stay in India. It turned out that he also had to find his own way to the hotel after he wasn't picked up at the airport. We went down for the noon briefing from Rachel (36), our British tour leader and trouble shooter as she called herself. She said the hotel was operating at 125% capacity. She told us that India is more a developing world country than third world. It can be difficult and has its bureaucratic pitfalls (e.g., forty-five minutes for a bank visit is not unlikely). Things happen slowly. Usually things go smoothly, but you have to expect some problems.
We would be staying in palaces converted to hotels in Mandawa, Samode and Sariska. Power cuts (often quickly followed by matches and candles) were common. The water supply is usually pretty good, but we might have to wait for hot water to reach our rooms which may in the end come out of the cold water tap. The water in the desert would come from wells, and usually the water outside of cities is pretty good. Rachel had no injections, doesn't take malaria pills and drinks the tap water. We were told to stick with bottled water.
The food was supposed to be milder (spicy, but not hot) than Indian food we had at home. Our options would often be between Indian, Chinese and Continental cuisine. Rachel told us that the local Indian guides love to take you shopping in places where they get kickbacks which means that the prices will be higher. There was also a scam going around where someone would throw cow manure on your shoes and then offer to clean them for a tip. Some people in our group had already become victims of this technique.
There were 25 of us in the group. We were a varied group from all over the world. It was good to see that there were a good number of people around my age and even younger. Henry at 78 was the oldest. He was a Pole who moved to England after World War 2. Throughout the trip we would sometimes speak in Polish with each other. We had to fill out a form which asked for blood type and whom to call in case of emergency. There was some time before our 2:00 PM tour of Old Delhi for lunch, so I went out with Jim and Carol and Dick and Sue, two married couples from Canada, to a place Rachel had directed us down the street. I had dosa masala and a cola. It went down okay and only cost 28 Rs.
We boarded a bus for our tour. Our guide was Mr. Singh. Nine million people are supposed to live in Delhi. We parked by the huge Secretariat buildings and had to walk under a bridge to get a better view. We also saw the round Parliament building and some dressed-up monkeys dancing and playing drums on command. I never took a picture of them because their owners would then ask you for money. The tree-lined streets strangely reminded me of Mobile, Alabama. At a stop, I saw a boy washing car windows for money. I also saw a bus with a huge ad on its side: AIDS KILLS, CONDOM SAVES.
We stopped by the India Gate (or War Memorial Arch) which looks something like the Arc de Triumphe in Paris -- only a lot smaller. It's a monument to the Indian dead from World War I. Just as we were boarding the bus to leave, a couple of men with baskets containing snakes sat down by the entrance of the bus hoping to make some money by performing some snake charming. We stopped by where Mahatma Gandhi was either cremated or where his ashes are kept, but the place was closed and guarded.
Then we visited the Red Fort where we saw lots of pigeons, peddlers and beggars. It was pretty crowded outside. It seemed that wearing sunglasses and ignoring the peddlers at the Red Fort entrance was the best way to get them to quit bothering you. The fort was big, ornate and nice, but I was more impressed with the Ashoka trees. It has 75-foot high walls and was built by the Mogul Shah Jahan of red sandstone in the mid-17th century. The Moguls are descended from the Mongols.
I was disappointed that we didn't actually visit Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. It was completed in 1656. The mosque is built of red sandstone and white marble. Our guide just pointed at it. We were told that there are 92 mosques in Delhi. Mr. Singh also didn't even mention Chandni Chowk, a once imperial avenue down which rode lavish cavalcades. Today everything rides down Chandni Chowk: bullock carts, limousines, horse carriages, scooters, taxis, a sea of humanity interspersed with cows and donkeys. I had to settle for the view I got of it from the Red Fort.
The streets were more spacious, less crowded and cleaner than I expected them to be. Traffic seemed fairly light during a Sunday afternoon. We got back to the hotel around 5:15. We weren't supposed to get back until 5:30 or 6:00. I was disappointed that there wasn't much interest in seeing the Sound and Light Show at the Red Fort that evening. I had seen these shows in Greece and Egypt, and often they can be a bit melodramatic and boring, but nothing else had been suggested in its place. The show was supposed to tell the history of the Red Fort. The price for it was the cheapest I've seen in all of the countries I've been to that present them.
Dinner wasn't until 7:30, so I ended up talking with Lisa (a 23-year-old physical therapist from Melbourne, Australia), Maritsa (40), a window from South Africa who has a son, and Marie and Marc, a married couple from Canada. Marie teaches French and Marc is in some kind of sales/construction. Maritsa had been in India for about a month, and Marie and Marc had been here for 5 days. India was the last stop for Lisa's 10-month travels around the world. They went out for a walk and dinner. I was invited, but I decided to wait for the others. I ended up finding my way to the roof where I got a better view of the city. The lights on some buildings were just starting to go on.
I wore jeans and a short-sleeved shirt to dinner at Gaylords where I had the chicken kiev. On our way to the restaurant, I saw a man urinating on a wall. I mention it because it would become a fairly common sight. Water was marked up from 12 Rs to 25 (Pepsis were 20 Rs). The plastic bottles were usually labeled with a statement that the price of the water should never exceed 12 Rs which was inclusive of all taxes. We noticed that everywhere we went water never seemed to get down to that price. In the end dinner cost me 220 Rs.
Dinner would be my first unpleasant experience with Hans, a German transportation engineer, who seemed to enjoy arguing and was so anti-smoking he had several of us move so that he could sit far away from any of the smokers at the table. Rachel said she wanted our feedback on the tour of Delhi, so I told her about our local guide not showing us as much as expected. I sat across from Karen, a lawyer from England, and her obese smoker friend Jo, a nurse. I learned that they were on my flight from Paris. When the man who met them at the airport asked where the third person he was expecting from the flight was, they said they didn't know, and with that, they left for the hotel.
Some of us took a different route back to the hotel. Jenny, an accountant from Sydney, Australia, led the way -- I'm glad someone knew the way. The streets were dimly lit, and I wasn't very comfortable walking down back streets. A girl with a baby begged us for money. Crossing the street was even a challenge, and sharing the way with a cow still seemed unusual. Our surroundings looked dirty and poor. The city seemed to be in a haze. The silent stares we received on the way made me uncomfortable.
Jerry had given me 3 of the postcards he bought that day. I used all of them before turning in. CNN and other cable channels didn't come in too well. I was in bed at 10:45 PM and slept well.
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March 4 Monday
Delhi -> Mandawa
We had a wake-up call at 7:00 AM -- more Jean Michele Jarre. I had awakened a number of times before that starting around 4:30 AM. At breakfast I tasted some awful milk and moved on to something else. It cost me 18 Rs to send my three postcards. Our plan was to depart at 8:30 AM and arrive around 4:00 PM. We left a little after 8:30. Rachel had warned us that the condition of the roads and maneuvering through traffic which included monkeys, cows and camels would make our average speed come down to about 40kph (or 25mph). She told us she was feeling somewhat under the weather today which wasn't very encouraging. I ended up sitting on the right side of the bus next to a window. Maritsa joined me. The cattle did roam freely on the road, and the ride was pretty bumpy.
We saw a large statue of the Hindu god Shiva on the road. Shiva is distinguished with a crescent at his forhead and is both the god of creation and destruction. I saw more men apparently urinating in public on the side of the road. We stopped at markets along the way. People bought bananas. We got a lot of stares as we walked up and down the street. Colored powder for the Hindu Holi festival which is celebrated during the full moon in March was being sold. Children often throw the colored powder or shoot dyed water at passersby during the festival. Maritsa dabbed my left cheek with it. It would be the first of a great deal more. An Indian young man ended up adding more to my cheek and chin before we were on our way. Claudia, an Italian-American living in London with her husband Francesco, and Karen were smeared with the stuff pretty badly.
The ride was bumpy, but scenic, and I enjoyed it. We could see women wearing beautifully and brightly colored sarees working in the fields. It seamed rather strange to me that you never saw an Indian woman not wearing one. Men, on the other hand, wore rather drab outfits. We stopped for bush bathroom breaks, cattle, markets and lunch. I had dosa masala and water for lunch. During the trip we saw sheep, goats, oxen, vultures, peacocks and lots of acacia trees.
Mandawa is in the heart of Rajasthan's 'Shekhavati' area and is renowned for its painted frescoes and ornate havelis (old several-story mansions). Rajasthan is made up of two words: 'than' means land and 'raja' comes from a word meaning princes. It was the land of princes. Castle Mandawa is a maharaja's palace that has been turned into a hotel. It was beautiful and ornate. It has authentically furnished rooms and original murals. The rooms (although it was difficult to ever get excited about the bathrooms) were amazing. When we arrived, we attracted a lot of attention. Many children came up to us. It was a little overwhelming, and initially, one was not sure what their intentions were. Hans actually pushed a child away from me. We had to walk up to the castle where we were greeted with red dots on our foreheads (known as tika marks) and colorful garlands were placed around our necks in welcome.
After settling in, several of us took in the views from the castle roof. Some of the local children waved to us. I could see huge vultures flying around -- some very close to us -- and perching in trees. There was also a peacock nearby. I was glad I had brought a pair of binoculars. Jerry, Lisa and I ventured out of the castle to take a look around and do some window shopping. We soon came across a circle of dancers and men who beat on drums as they danced. It took us a while to notice that none of the dancers were women -- they were men very well dressed up as women. Some children soon joined us. They took us by the hand and walked with us. They were very friendly, but neat isn't a word one would use to describe them. The older boys led us to shops, but they never entered with us. Our companions were inquisitive and had an intensity that made us a little uncomfortable. They didn't do anything wrong, but we had yet to get used to the culture. Another interesting and surprising quirk was how many men and boys you see holding hands. At first the thought of homosexuality comes to mind. Even when you tell yourself that it is just part of their culture, you're still very aware of it each time you see it. It's been suggested that since males and females are separated so much that it's one of the remaining ways they can experience affection.
Lisa was asked if I was her husband, and she said that I was looking to me to back her up. They said something flattering about me, but since then I heard they said that to another woman about the man she was with. Some of the children did in the end ask for money and what sounded like shampoo. The sun set while we shopped. We were actually looking for some cheap outfits -- pajamas -- to wear for the festival because Rachel had warned us that the festival involves lots of colored powder getting all over everyone. Claudia's shirt which originally had a lot of white in it had been died pink by the stuff earlier in the day. Pajama is actually an Indian word, and it describes very well the kind of clothes we were looking for. Jerry was the only one of us who bought anything. We decided to get back as it was getting dark.
Lisa and I joined the others in the open lounge by a small bar. We talked while I had a beer that on an empty stomach went delightfully to my head. I was quite buzzed when we walked (actually, it felt like I floated) to the courtyard where we ate a buffet-style dinner outside. I pointed out stars and constellations to the others on the way which was softly and beautifully lit. The stars were very easy to see in the desert of Rajasthan. The castle had quite an ambience.
I sat with Claudia, Francesco, Jenny and Karen. The numerous castle lights had a wonderful effect. I ended up accidentally serving myself dessert -- well, the rest of the dinner was a buffet and they had left it out. A Indian man with a huge white moustache came out and danced with fire on torches in each hand. I'm sure I would have appreciated his dancing more if Rachel hadn't told us her nickname for him -- Itchy Brastrap. It soon became apparent why she had picked such a name. His dancing was not unlike what you would expect from someone wearing a bra that made him want to scratch his back. He danced from table to table. He was followed by a singing woman and a musician who played a stringed instrument. The music was, uh, Indian.
I changed into jeans and put on a long-sleeved shirt. One of the locals, Anil?, led us on what I called the Mandawa moonlight mystery tour. Rachel and a bunch of us walked through the dark streets hoping to see some festival dancing. We soon came to a spot not far from the castle where a crowd was setting up a large round space that had silver garland hung overhead. We were too early. We waited for a while and talked with each other and the locals. Katherine was wearing shorts, and she attracted a lot of attention.
Anil then led us a good distance through the streets to a similar arrangement, but this one was crowded and already going. Christmas lights hung overhead. A man beat a drum on an elevated platform in the center of a circle of dancing men -- some dressed as women. There was also someone playing something like a clarinet. Each dancer carried a stick about three feet long. The dancing involved spinning around and in rhythm with the beat striking sticks with the man one side of you and then the with the man on the other side of you. Many of the onlookers were women and children. I heard the dance referred to as keen-dare or something like that.
We were invited to join in. Rachel, Jerry and some of the others were already inside the circle. I asked Claudia if she wanted to join in. She said that she felt we were being put on show.
And with that ... we entered the circle.
We were given sticks, and warmly welcomed into the revolving circle of rotating dancers. I was between a young man and one of the men dressed as a woman. It was hard at first to get the rhythm down, but it soon fell into place. It was pretty wild. I got a lot of encouragement and approving words from the people around me, and my partners seemed to be thrilled to have me there even though I would often make mistakes. It was a pretty aerobic dance. When the music ended, my partners rushed to shake my hand. The man who was dressed as a woman took hold of my hand improperly, so I had to adjust it to shake hands. The people came up to us and greeted us warmly. Someone tried to tie a saffron scarf around my forehead, but I declined fearing it meant I would have to take a bigger part in the dancing. I regret that because I soon learned it was just an honor they were trying to bestow. I didn't refuse later attempts, but for some reason scarves just wouldn't stay on my head.
Rachel told us that this had never happened to her before. A young man told me that foreigners rarely participate and that they were very happy that we did. They were very friendly.
We went back to the first circle where I danced longer than anyone else in our group -- long enough to get a blister in my stick (right) hand and have it bleed. I worked up quite a sweat. I did get much better at the dance though. For a long time the partner behind me (as far as the revolution went) was a young man who's movements were both sharp and graceful and quite cool-looking. My other partner was boy who seemed to mess up more than I did. There seemed to be adult men around making sure that the dance went smoothly. They also were encouraging as were many of the onlookers.
On our way back six of us (Jenny, Rachel, Lisa, Maritsa, etc.) had chai, a sweet tea with milk. It was very good. We drank it sitting on the porch of the cook surrounded by friendly locals. Some wanted to know why I wasn't sitting with my 'wife' Lisa. Our deception seemed pretty obvious and I joked I didn't want to interfere with her as she was sitting with other girls. It was pretty funny. Jerry and I talked before turning in. I ended up washing some of my clothes as well. I wrote and finally went to sleep around 1:00 AM.
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March 5 Tuesday
I dreamt one of my old girlfriends had become evil and intentionally malicious towards me. I've read one of the side effects of the anti-malarial Lariam (mefloquine) is bizaare dreams. We got up at 7:15 AM. After showering, I put on a red T-shirt since a dull red seemed to be the most popular color for the colored powder used during the festival. I saw an owl look at me outside one of our windows and then disappear into a hole in the wall. I had breakfast with Jerry, Carolyn (29), who is from England, and Marissa (29), a doctor from Australia. After packing my still moist clothes, I joined the group for a walking tour of Mandawa and its havelis. We were allowed into people's homes to get close views of the artwork on the walls. I have to say that I wasn't all that impressed with them. As with many sites in India, it seemed that much had decayed, and I had to try to imagine how beautiful they might have looked during their heyday. However, it was very gracious of the people to allow us into their homes to get closer looks. At one home we were able to climb onto the roof from which we could see the castle. I could see children looking at us through a window from up there as well. I did end up buying ten postcards at one of the homes. Later I gave Jerry three of them.
The havelis are owned by the rich 'Marwari' business community. It is said that such abundance of colorful art exists to counteract the arid desert landscape.
We shopped as a group for expendable pajamas for the day. Several times I noticed someone pointing me out and mentioning the dance last night. At one of the shops -- one Lisa, Jerry and I had been to the previous evening -- we had chai, but few people bought -- the shopkeeper just refused to go down in price. He was probably afraid that if he gave one person a discount, he would have to give everyone the same discount. Rachel bought us bags of colored powder for the festival. The festivities were gathering momentum as powder was starting to get on people. When we left the shop and were headed back to the castle, Marc put some colored powder on Hans, who then reacted violently. He started to kick him hard. Marc at first was taken aback, but he then grabbed Hans and pinned him against the wall. Hans said that this wasn't funny to him and that he expected Marc to reimburse him for his shirt. When Marc let him go, Hans kicked him again. Marc looked like he considered getting into it with Hans, but since Hans didn't seem to be attacking further, he just continued to walk away.
Later I heard Hans saying he wanted Herman to apologize for saying he was acting like a German bastard. Hans also refused to contribute to the tipping kitty Rachel was collecting for the tipping of the local guides and the staff who carried our bags among others. Hans said that he hadn't read anything in the contract he signed with his travel agent and that he had no contract with the Imaginative Traveller, so he had no intention to pay anything more. He also thought all meals were included in his package -- they were not.
Anyway, by the time we got back to the castle we were pretty well covered with reddish powder. The children would come up to us and were usually quite friendly about it. They would have their hands upraised to indicate their intention and usually we would just have to step towards them to have them smear the stuff on our faces. When we entered the courtyard, we got together for numerous pictures. Someone volunteered to take pictures with our cameras and I'm sure it was more than he bargained for as just about everyone had their camera out. Strangely and fortunately, for some reason the powder didn't seem to stick to me or my skin very well. To Rachel's surprise I could shake it out of my clothes pretty easily. We checked out of the castle, got hit with more powder and checked into the Desert Resort which was not very far away. It was very nice. The rooms were more like large huts -- no two seemed to be alike. They looked like they were made of adobe or cement. They were very ornate and cute. Sue and Dick had one that had a tree growing through it. Jerry and I had to climb some stairs to reach ours (room 47) which was opposite Carolyn and Marissa's.
There was a pool. I ate lunch and enjoyed some conversation while some swam. I had some vegetable pokora. A westerner who said he lived in Mandawa working in construction was also at the pool. Children would come up to him and his friends to smear a lot of colored powder on their faces. The wiew of the desert was wonderful. There seemed to be an abundance of birds wherever we went. I could see animals coming to drink by a pool in the distance. Hans was a big topic of conversation. One of the other guests had been on a tour with Rachel and was fluent in German. He had also been to Chitwan Park in Nepal. Rachel asked him to help her go over the brochures with Hans. He did, but it didn't seem to do much good. Later Hans came by the pool and spent a lot of time talking with Rachel's friend's girlfriend.
Around 2:30 or 3:00 Rachel, Jerry, Marissa, Carolyn and I walked back to the castle to observe more of the Holi festival. On our way we were joined by some children. I would often not a take a picture of the local people I wanted to take out of a respect for their privacy, but sometimes it was out of a dread of being asked for money after taking it. Throughout our stay we got a lot of attention -- much of it unwanted. It was impossible to just blend in, and sometimes the people would just stare at you. In the castle courtyard we saw a huge crowd. Many men were dancing and beating drums. Men dressed as women danced on round platforms that were raised by other men. It was quite a party. We got a lot more powder on ourselves. As we watched, I could see many beautifully dressed women looking on from above. Apparently, women don't have much of a role in the festival. There was a procession involving a cart. A man with a pole twirled and spun it around in one area. Another man seemed completely out of it as he danced with bottles. When one broke, he put a piece of the glass in his mouth and continued to dance. I took a lot of pictures here. I was amazed some of our group decided to stay at the hotel to play bridge. You cross the world, and you stay in your hotel?
Around 4:30 the women started to leave. Rachel was by the Maharaja who was covered in red powder. He was gracious enough to let me take his picture. Rachel arranged for a jeep to take us back to the Desert Resort. We had to wait a bit, but the ride in the back of the covered jeep down the streets was wild. By the time we got back the others were already on camels. Rachel had them wait for us to get on ours. I think they must have left the largest camels for last because when mine rose up, I felt a lot higher (and more unsteady) than I had been when I rode one in Egypt last year.
As it turned out my camel was a horny male. He would try to sniff the rears of female camels -- interested ones would lift up their tales and drip profusely. We rode to the some of the surrounding villages. Another tourist videotaped us. It was quite a long ride, and by the end of it my butt was really sore.
Before dinner, I joined Lisa in the courtyard of the hotel and wrote postcards. One postcard never arrived at its destination. The dinner buffet was at 7:30. I sat with Claudia, Francesco, Jerry, Maritsa and Lisa. By now Hans was a source of great amusement as we tried to make sure all the seats at our table were all taken before he got there. It's not that he was merely insane, but he genuinely seemed to try to be offensive whenever given the opportunity. I had chicken, beans, 7Up, a beer and taking a chance -- salad. The entertainment was the same as last night's.
After dinner, I went for a walk down the road in the light of the full moon. It was good to just take some time to soak it all in. I walked by some resting camels before turning back. I sat in the courtyard for a while watching the full moon before turning in. Making time for such things is much harder at home.
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March 6 Wednesday
I got up at 7:00 and showered. Our wake-up knock came. We had breakfast at 7:30, paid for dinner and drinks and left around 8:30 for Jaipur. This time I sat in the back on the right side near Marc and Marie who were all the way in back. We talked quite a bit. I really enjoyed the wild ride -- you feel the bumps in the road a lot more in the back. My butt was still sore from the camel ride -- it felt like some kind of bed sore, so the ride didn't help that situation. It was still fun though. I really enjoyed most of our time on the road -- the sights of animals and the country, the people working in the fields, the feeling of the road beneath us (and boy, was there ever feeling). Of course, I'm the kind of person who loves driving trips. On our way we saw school girls wearing white shirts and blue skirts. We stopped at a place where a man was making clay pots. At another stop some bought Indian whiskey. We arrived in Jaipur by 2:00 PM.
Jaipur is popularly known as the 'Pink City' from the colored sandstone with which buildings in its old walled city are constructed. It is the capital of the state of Rajasthan, 262 km from New Delhi. It's a busy city, and it wasn't long before we noticed beggars. Jerry and I got room 319 at the Hotel Arya Niwas. Rachel raved about this place. Apparently, it is run by two brothers and there is a sign discouraging any tipping because they feel they pay a fair wage. We were told not to tip. It doesn't stop the staff from lingering after they've brought up your bags to be of more help, but my bellboy left when he realized I wouldn't be giving him anything.
The shower was a hose next to the toilet.
I took a look at the view from the roof where they dry clothes, but there wasn't much to see. Around 2:30 PM Jerry, Maritsa and I had lunch in the hotel cafeteria after Jerry changed some money. I had spinach balls and a banana lassi (a yogurt shake) for 26 Rs. At 3:00 PM we went on a tour of Jaipur which started with the Royal Observatory (or Jahar Montar). Jantar Montar was pretty impressive. It had a number of instruments which included the largest sundial I have ever seen. It was 90 feet (28m) tall. They had a smaller one as well, and I climbed up both of them. There were also some smaller structures dedicated to signs of the zodiac which you could climb as well. I climbed up the one for Sagitarius. You had to pay 50 Rs for a permit to take pictures which I didn't get. Karen returned to the bus early not feeling well.
At the nearby City Palace complex I did buy a 50 Rs picture permit as well as a Pepsi. There was a museum there that housed textile and weapon galleries. Some of the weapons were meant for fighting tigers while wearing armor. We also saw various works of art and ornate rugs.
Afterwards, our local guide Pappi took some of us to a jewelry factory and store. Jaipur is known for jewelry. They gave us a little tour and allowed us to take some rough garnet as souvenirs. Jerry bought silver. Lisa considered an expensive ring, but didn't buy. Jenny looked around as well. I bought some garnet earrings. They cost me 550 Rs, but the man's first offer was 750 Rs. I didn't accept anything to eat or drink while we were haggling. He kept telling me, 'You can see the quality.' Not being a gemologist I told him I couldn't and that I really wasn't that interested. He would keep reminding me it was my decision. I said that I didn't even know if my girlfriend would like them. You always had to be ready to leave to get the lowest price. In fact, I walked away a few times before actually buying them. Afterwards, I asked for a 7 Up and got it.
Jergen, Hans' German roommate who spoke little English, sat next to me in one of the larger motorized rickshaws during our ride back to the hotel. Before we left the shop, we each took the other's picture in the rickshaw. Dick and Sue sat behind us. It was a wild ride. The sun was setting, the streets were crowded and the air was dusty and polluted. It was fun as we maneuvered around people, animals and other vehicles. There were cattle, people on bicycles, near misses, the light from brights, the sound of horns and so many people.
I didn't know it at the time, but as we were leaving, Lisa thought she might miss her ride back to the hotel. She started running and slipped in the street, scraping her face pretty badly. It looked worse than it actually was. I talked with Antje and Catherine. They were roommates. Antje is a business student from Germany and had some trouble speaking English. She and Jergen knew each other slightly before the trip. Catherine was from Canada and was planning to study art. I had to wait to use the phone just off from the lobby to call Sara before dinner at 8:00 PM. I called AT&T's USA Direct (000 117) to get the operator and have my credit card billed. At first I got a few busy signals. Sara and I talked hurriedly for 16 minutes (there was a digital counter on the phone which started when the call was initiated). Rachel poked her head in while I was on the phone to tell me how to find the restaurant.
When I got off the phone, I didn't have any trouble finding the Golden Sand restaurant and joining the group. Jo and Karen didn't go to dinner with the group as they were not feeling well. I don't believe Lisa made it there as well. I sat at the head of the table next to Rachel who sat on my right and Herman who was on my left. Herman and his wife Rita have been living in India in Puna(?) for about a year and a half. He works for Philips and was transfered there from Germany (although he is from Holland) for a 3-year stay. It has been a difficult adjustment. We spent a lot of time talking about working for engineering corporations.
Our food took a very long time arrive -- which was usually normal, but this time it took forever. Rachel told us an amazing story of how she tried to get home from Greece in time for Christmas once in the early 80's. She had almost been raped by a Libyan student in Greece who eventually broke down in tears before letting her out of his apartment. Her bus caught on fire. When she was met in England by family, they got into a car accident on the way home.
We never did find out what the problem was, but when the food arrived, some of it was cold. Jerry complained to the waiter. At first the waiter hesitated. Then he stuck his thumb into the food to check for himself. I had never seen anything like that before and burst out laughing. Even now, it makes me laugh to recall that scene. At the time Jerry covered his face with his hands. The waiter took the plate to the kitchen and soon brought a another(?) one back. Rachel said that usually the service was much better and that this had been very unusual.
I had water, vegetable soup, chicken fried rice. Not being thrilled with Indian cuisine, I usually tried to eat Chinese food every chance I got. This will probably amuse those who know me since Chinese food isn't exactly my first choice for cuisine either. They gave us free ice cream coffee drinks for all the waiting we did.
Table of Contents
March 7 Thursday
My butt was still sore in the morning. We received a wake-up call at 7:00. Jerry was the first to shower -- or rather bathe out of a bucket. There was news of bombings in Israel. Breakfast was at 7:40, and we had what we had ordered the day before on the bus.
Rachel informed me that the Imaginative Traveller had no knowledge of my Indian Airlines ticket to Kathmandu from Varanasi. I had a voucher for it and had paid for it, but there must have been some kind of mistake down the line. I sent Himalayan Travel a fax with all the information to have them tell Imaginative Traveller's London office tell their office in Goa to issue the ticket. The fax cost 200 Rs. I was worried now that even if I had to pay for the ticket again that there might not be any seats available. Rachel told me not to worry.
Lisa's face was pretty scabbed, but it looked like it would heal just fine. I sat with Claudia on the left side of the bus. We stopped by the Palace of Winds (or Hawa Mahal). Hawa Mahal was beautiful, but it also seemed to be covered in bamboo scaffolding. Our next stop was the Amber Fort 11km north of Jaipur. Construction on the Amber Fort began in 1592 in the ancient capital of Amber by Raja Man Singh. I took a few panoramic pictures when we got off the bus. It was quite a site. We rode elephants up the hill to the palace. It was my first time on an elephant. There were four people plus the driver per elephant. Antje sat on my left. Jerry was behind me. The driver made a point of making sure we didn't hold onto the bar that held us in because if we dislodged it, it was quite a way down. The elephants were quite big and ornately painted (or possibly tattooed). The trip was very leisurely. Just like in tourist attractions back home, there were people with cameras that would take your picture on the elephant and later give it to you for a fee when you got off the elephant. I had someone use my camera to take my picture, so I didn't buy one. I think the elephant ride would have cost 250 Rs if you went on your own.
There were hundreds of wild monkeys all over the place. They were more common than squirrels at home and much more aggressive. It's best to keep your distance from them because they can carry hepatitis and rabies, but they will sometimes follow you -- especially if they see you have food. When we were leaving, I saw one grab someone's bag from behind and run with it. The man made as if he was going to chase the monkey, and it dropped the bag. As usual, there were always birds everywhere.
It was hot and sunny. Herman hadn't come. I heard it was because he wasn't feeling well. All over the place we were beseiged by aggressive salespeople trying to sell us all kinds of things like purses and little fake cobras that seemed to move in small baskets. I bought a small purse for no one in particular back home. It cost me 100 Rs. I had talked the guy down from 200 Rs, but I later learned I could have gotten it for as low as 60 Rs. Now that I had a small purse I ended up granting requests to store people's elephant pictures in it.
The site was very beautiful and I took quite a few pictures. When I was leaving, I took a picture of one of the salesmen selling food. It was a great picture, and he gave me his address on a card so that I could send him a reprint. I bought 20 postcards for 50 Rs and paid another 50 Rs to take pictures. Asking prices for puppets started at $10 or 350 Rs, but you could get them as low as 50 Rs or 40 Rs.
We then went to a silk carpet factory where after a small magic show, they demonstrated all phases of carpet production. I tend not to be too crazy about magic shows. They're all tricks and illusions that are not explained to you, so whenever I see a trick it's as if the performer is saying, 'I have a secret. I have a secret. I have a secret.' Anyway, I really enjoyed watching how they applied flame to a carpet to burn off ends that stick out. It was pretty neat. I have been to a carpet factory in Egypt, but they didn't show us that part.
In the display room, they offered us free rum and Pepsi, vegetable pokora and bananas while they showed us various carpets. I thought I'd have to be pretty drunk to buy one of their expensive carpets. I guess they were cheap by western standards, but they still weren't worth it to me. Still, others did buy. I sat with Marc and Marie and talked with one of the salesmen. One of the more interesting comments the man made was that of the people that come through the door the ones who buy carpets tend to be the serious or sad-looking people. He said you can't sell anything to happy person who is content with what he has.
Back at the hotel, I picked out a bicycle for the bike ride to Sariska -- number 28. The original plan was to bicycle to the castle in Samode, but it was decided bicycling to the tiger sanctuary would work out better. I had a large fruit plate of mangos, bananas and apples, vegetable pokora and water from the cafeteria for lunch (44 Rs). You would write down your order on a ticket and they would call you when it was ready. I talked with Catherine, Antje and then with Jenny and Lisa. I wish I had as much vacation as Jenny had. Often on the trip it seemed that even though my traveling companions paid more in taxes every year, they lived better than we do in the States.
Thirteen of us wanted to see an Indian movie or part of one anyway, so Rachel negotiated a price with a man who seemed to be in charge of the motorized rickshaws in front of the hotel. She referred to him as scum. In the end it came to 5 Rs per person. Carolyn, Marissa (on Carolyn's lap), Paul (a 26-year-old high school teacher from Australia) and I were in one. When we were dropped off in front of the theater, no one collected any money from us.
The theater was amazing. Coming off the streets and into the building was like going to a different world. It was huge inside and clean with blue carpeting. There were different tickets for diffeent levels in the theater and prices varied accordingly. The levels were named after gem stones. We bought emerald tickets (21 Rs). Inside I thought I was in one of the largest regular movie theaters I had ever been in. People brought their babies with them. Their was a music video with singing and dancing and a rather provocative ad before the movie actually started. It was scheduled to start at 6:00 PM.
The movie was titled 'English Babu Desi Mem' and was about an English Indian who goes back to India and falls in love with his dead older brother's daughter's son's caretaker. There was some English in the movie which helped a lot. The music and dancing were pretty good -- kind of in the Michael Jackson music video style. We didn't stay for the whole thing. By the time we left, the sun had gone down. It was another 5 Rs to get back, and our driver was there to make sure all the money including the money to get to the theater was collected.
Claudia, Francesco, who had bought a carpet, Jerry and Jenny, who bought two, went out for dinner. When they came back, they said they saw what they took to be the celebration of the brother-sister festival that was going on. Rachel later said that it was a wedding. I stayed and talked with Marie, Marc, Lisa, Marissa and Carolyn. I wanted to call home, but the phone was in use. I bought a roll of 36 exposure 200 speed film for 150 Rs, postcard stamps for 12 Rs and 20 postcards for 40 Rs at the hotel shop. Jerry and I talked for a while before falling sleep.
Table of Contents
March 8 Friday
Jaipur -> Samode
We were up by 7:00. Jerry washed first. I did my best to shower. I wrote a postcard and mailed it. I talked with Marissa at breakfast after sitting with Rachel, Jo and Carolyn. Again I thought of calling home. At roughly $2.60/minute I'm glad I didn't. We took the bus to the remote village of Samode 40 km northwest of Jaipur. This time I sat on the left side towards the rear with Lisa, who I learned is the oldest child and to my surprise didn't like the movie 'Strictly Ballroom.'
At one of the stops I joined others in buying rum for 80 Rs. We saw a funeral procession en route. I was sitting next to the window when Hans decided to give Lisa advice about her acne. He asked her if she ate a lot of dairy products. She said no, but he told her that if she would cut them out of her diet, her complexion would improve. He said he knew because he had the same problem. I was stunned at his insensitivity especially since her face still had scabs from her accident. Hans really had a gift for it.
The Samode Palace, one of India's most beautiful heritage hotels, was very beautiful. There were courtyards, several floors, a roof you could walk on and every room (actually each room was more like a suite) was beautiful and different. Everyone went around checking out each other's rooms. Jerry and I were in room 202. Our beds were raised fairly high. We had an area for entertaining, a changing room on the way to the bathroom and a toilet you had to take stairs to reach. After settling in, I went to check out the view on the roof and toured rooms.
A bunch of us ended up sitting in a covered ornate area overlooking a courtyard. I thought of it as the blue room since the overall effect seemed to give off that color. We had lunch while we chatted. I had vegetable pokora, french fires and soda. I talked with Paul about the United States, Chicago and health care.
After a while, Jerry, Lisa, Maritsa, Jenny, Antje and I went exploring Samode on foot. We were soon joined by locals who pointed things out and ultimately showed us things they wanted us to buy. They seemed to try to match up one of them with one of us. A young man named Patel stuck with Lisa and me. I think he said he was 27 and not married. The town wasn't very big. We were looking for the market and apparently we walked right past it and were on the verge of leaving town before we turned back and explored other avenues. We lost Jerry and Maritsa for a while. We took our shoes off to visit a mosque which we wouldn't have even recognized had our guides not pointed it out to us. Jerry ended up going into the school and giving a little talk.
Patel tried to sell me some paintings, but I really wasn't in the mood to buy. I had seen some in the stalls on the castle grounds which had appealed more to me. He also showed me his coin collection. If I had any coins on me, I would have added to it. They made a last ditch sales effort before we went back into the castle. I went back to the stalls and bought a couple of silk paintings for friends. They cost me 325 Rs, but the price had started at 500 Rs.
At 4:30 Karen, Antje and I hiked up the stairs to the fort overlooking the Samode Castle. It was a good climb. Karen was out of breath, so we took breaks on the way up. There were two guides up there waiting for us. At first I was annoyed at that, but they did unlock the fort and let us in, pointing out sights as we went along. The view of the castle, the town and the valley from the fort was amazing. I climbed onto a wall and risked a long fall by walking along it to take a picture of some structures in the surrounding countryside. I regretted getting out on the wall since looking down made me less steady. One of the guides warned me not to climb up there, but by that time it was too late. I got back safely enough, but I wasn't about to that again anytime soon.
A doorway led down some stairs, but we could see bats hanging on the walls. There was another entrance to which our guides motioned us, but after seeing those bats we weren't about to go into any dark doorways. We explored inside, but we couldn't climb to some places because the stairs weren't safe. Marissa and Carolyn came up. They were soon followed by Jerry, Herman, Rita, Francesco and Claudia. I gave our guides 10 Rs for their help. Two young guides had come up with the new people and they led Karen, Antje, Claudia, Francesco, Carolyn, Marissa and I around the fort to a good spot for watching the sun go down. Antje wasn't feeling well and had to find some bushes to relieve herself. It gave one the feeling that it was only matter of time before we would all be sick. We took pictures and talked while we waited. We saw animals and heard what I think were sounds from a nearby temple. There were dark dogs playing downhill from us. The sunset was beautiful.
Afterwards, we hiked down around the palace and talked about E.R. and George Clooney in the fading light. Our way back took us near some residences and we attracted some attention as we passed.
Back in one of the castle courtyards, we rested. The place had been decorated for a big group of people from Colgate-Palmolive that was due to arrive shortly. There were many brightly colored flowers arranged in patterns on the ground for them. A child danced for us to a musician's music. Then we saw a puppet show that was pretty good. There were a good number of flies or gnats flying over our heads. I later heard that when Hans saw these things over Catherine's head, he told her, 'You attract flies.' She told him that he really knew how to talk to the ladies.
I ended up buying a puppet for my friends Toni and Dan and their daugher Lauren.
Our 8:30 dinner was moved up to 8:00. It was a buffet dinner. Since it was again Friday during Lent and I still Catholic I had to avoid meat which was no small sacrifice today. It was hard to find food I liked and the chicken they served looked pretty good. Worse yet -- Hans was at my table. Rachel, Antje, Jergen, Jo and Karen were also at our table. I had vanilla ice cream for dessert even though it's considered risky. We were a bit pressed against the wall, so getting up for the buffet was a little tricky. The Colgate crowd of about 80 arrived. We could see them from above all dressed in the same outfits. From the roof we could see their dancing show.
After a while, we tended to migrate to the blue room where we talked and drank a lot of rum and Pepsi. Jerry drank gin. We took pictures and enjoyed fireworks. Some of us ended up dancing at a party on a lower level. It seemed to be a private party for an interracial couple (white man, black woman) and their small child, but we were welcomed in. It was fun. The stars that night were beautiful.
Eventually, it got late enough that we were disturbing other guests, so the party (or what was left of it) moved to Rachel's room. In the end it was just Rachel, Maritsa, Paul and Jergen. We all expressed how sorry were were for Jergen as he was Hans' roommate. We drank more rum and listened to music on Marc and Marie's walkman. Rachel played a tape of a hilarious song about someone with a detachable penis. Exchanging Hans stories was fun as I jotted down notes on the day's events. Maritsa said Lisa's eyes welled up with tears when Hans made the dairy products comment. It turned out that this was Rachel's second to last tour. I think she was planning to quit her job after just one more tour in Turkey. Jergen left the party for a while to call his father for his birthday.
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March 9 Saturday
Samode -> Sariska
I left the party around 1:45. I just didn't feel like drinking any more. I wasn't drunk or even buzzed by that time. For some reason the stuff became really distasteful. I left the rest of my rum in the room. I woke up around 5:16 AM feeling pretty lousy. I felt feverish and had chills. I also had diarrhea. I felt like vomiting, but my stomach was empty. I induced it anyway, and even though practically nothing came up, I felt somewhat better. I returned to bed and was able to sleep.
Jerry showered first. Apparently he had warm water. I was feeling pretty badly now. By the time I tried to shower, the shower was only a trickle and there was no hot water pressure in the bathtub faucet -- only very cold water. Washing myself in it was very unpleasant, but I managed. However, it was still too cold for me the way I was feeling to wash my hair in it. I decided to do that in the bathroom sink which as it turned out only had scalding hot water. I ended up lathering there and rinsing under the bathtub faucet. I skipped shaving today. I felt pretty miserable and blamed the castle for my condition. I took a roll of toilet paper with me just in case I needed it on the road today. All I had for breakfast was some tea and possibly some juice. I couldn't get anything else down, but I did take a banana with me for the road in case I felt better later.
I had hoped all the vitamins and minerals I had brought along would help keep me from getting sick. I was taking a mutivitamin, 500mg of vitamin C, 400 IU of vitamin E, 1000mg of calcium, 1500 mg garlic capsules and 200 mg of grape seed extract every day. Sometimes I took echinacea/golden seal capsules.
I had some trouble finding my bag at first when they were loading up the bus and ended up not paying for last night's dinner. I had thought Rachel would collect all that from us. The locals made a last ditch effort to sell us paintings and trinkets as we were boarding the bus. Patel was there and he said he knew I had bought some paintings in the castle after I had told him that I wasn't interested in buying any paintings. I didn't tell him that I didn't like his as much as the ones I did buy. In my present condition these hassles were even less welcome. I sat towards the back on the left side alone and rested on the way to Sariska. Sariska is in Rajasthan 110km from Jaipur. After a while I did end up feeling better, but I still didn't get off at our rest stop. I was trying to save my strength for the bike ride into the tiger sanctuary. I ended up getting into the fetal position across the seats. I heard someone coming up the aisle and stayed down. It turned out to be Hans. While he was standing over me, he said he felt like spitting. I ignored him by pretending to be asleep.
By the time we started the bicycle ride, I was feeling pretty well. It was about midday. The ride was to be broken up into three segments. Those who wanted to would ride bicycles the last 33km to Sariska. Rachel asked us to make sure no woman was ever left bicycling by herself as a precaution. The first leg took us through a village where there were many kids. We got a lot of hellos and waves, but some boys also threw sand and rocks. Someone tried to remove Carol's hat. The bus rode up ahead while the bike truck followed us. There was quite a bit of traffic, and you had to be aware to stay on the left side of the road. Claudia stuck with me during the first leg. I didn't feel so great after the first leg, but I thought I could continue. The second leg had less people. We saw monkeys on the side of the road. Jerry and I stopped to take pictures of some vultures feasting on a dead animal during one of the first two legs -- first leg I think. It looked like a goat. You could actually see the birds dig in with their beaks and rip out flesh.
After the second leg, I was not doing too well, but I didn't want to quit, and I thought I was okay enough to finish. I bought a Limca for 10 Rs on the bus and rested before the last leg. I think we got down to only 10 people for the last leg -- we had started with 24. Marc, Jerry, Katherine and Herman bicycled the last lag. There were plenty of monkeys on the last leg. The gap between riders grew quite a bit, and I was alone for a good part of the way. I wondered if I was the only person who wondered just how freely the tigers moved in the sancuary. By the time I finished I was feeling awful. I wasn't the last to finish.
Around 2:00 PM I was in room 203 shivering with fever wrapped in a blanket in bed. I felt terrible. I would get dizzy when I stood up. I still had diarrhea. Apart from that, the room was beautiful and spacious. The bathroom was so spacious there were windows to it from the main room. I took an anti-diarrhetic and an antibiotic. I was genuinely concerned about my health. The thought occurred to me that I wasn't supposed to die on my vacation. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and jeans and went to see Rachel. I did want to go on the tiger safari, but I wanted to let her know how I was feeling and what she thought. Moving around seemed to make me feel better than when I stayed in bed.
I ended up going in an open jeep in the back with Herman, Rita and Jenny. Maritsa sat with our driver. The safari lasted for about three hours. The sun was out. At first I spent a lot of the time with my eyes closed and resting somewhat slumped over waiting for others to spot animals. Then, I would look. We were in a convoy of jeeps. I had my camera and binoculars which were very useful. Sariska Wildlife Sanctuary has about 26 Bengal tigers in 800 square kilometers, so there wasn't much chance of spotting one. It also has bulls, deer, boar, jackals and birds. Some of the more prominent species include tiger, sambar, chital, nilgai, four-horned antelope, wild boar, hyena and jungle cat. They know how many tigers there are from their unique paw marks in the ground.
The landscape of Sariska is dominated by sharp cliffs of hills and the narrow valleys of the Aravalis. The forests are dry and deciduous. Within the sanctuary there are ruins of medieval buildings. The ruins of the temples of Garh-Rajor of the 10th and 11th centuries are scattered in the jungle. The best time to visit is supposed to be from February through June.
I felt better as we went. We didn't see any tigers, but we saw plenty of deer, wild pigs, spotted deer and peacocks. One of my favorite moments was at a watering hole where we saw many animals come out of the forest to drink.
The sun set on our way back to the Sariska Palace Hotel. It made the landscape look beautiful. At dinner I sat on Rachel's right and only had chicken soup -- more accurately, mostly just the broth from the chicken soup I ordered. The power went out briefly during dinner and candles were lit. I gave Rachel 110 Rs for my camera fee for today, the soup and the water and left early to go to bed. Before going to my room, I went out to see the nice pool I had heard the others talking about earlier. The stars were beautiful. Although I knew better, it would sometimes amaze me that the stars were the same as the ones from home. I did know better, but sometimes India felt so strange and foreign that it gave me the feeling I was on a different world.
I went to bed around 8:00 PM.
According to my Frommers Nepal book, I had all the symptoms of salmonella food poisoning -- 24 hours of fever, chills, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. I had all of those symptoms to some degree. But I'll probably never know for sure.
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March 10 Sunday
Sariska -> Agra
I woke up after 1:00 AM and kept waking up until 6:30. I felt much better. The diarrhea was gone. I bathed first. We spent the day driving to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, in the state of Uttar Pradesh. I sat on the left side of the bus with Lisa. It was a hot day on the bus. Sometimes the fans (you didn't think we had air conditioning, did you?) wouldn't work and you had to tap them to get them started again. Even then, it wouldn't always work. We stopped for fruit on our way. We had time to visit the Deeg Palace. It was very picturesque. We toured the grounds and saw women washing clothes in the same water where we could see a giant turtle swimming. Clothes were drying on nearby steps. There were huge birds flying around overhead. We explored the inside where we had to take our shoes off.
As we were leaving, a guide wanted some money for his efforts or some kind of donation for allowing us inside. I didn't have much in terms of small change. I gave what I had (2.5 Rs), and he seemed to grunt to indicate it was too little -- well, too f***ing bad. I by this time was getting pretty annoyed at all the tipping. It's very important to have small bills on hand for such things, or you end up tipping too much, but they don't make it easy to get small bills, yet something always seems to come up where you need them.
Between having to get to my hotel on my own when I arrived, the aggressive way people would hit you up for money in one way or another, the stares, the bathroom facilities, getting sick, unappetizing food and the status of my plane ticket to Kathmandu India was becoming less and less exotic and more and more annoying.
What seemed to be a huge wasp nest was hanging high above the doors to a temple there. We attracted a lot of attention. When I tried to take a picture of the gardens there, a bunch of young locals wanted to be in it which was fine. We saw some huge vultures before we left.
We had some trouble finding the Eagles Nest Hotel where we had lunch. I paid 60 Rs for two cups of tomato soup and a vegetable sandwich -- yes, that's what it was ... really. I was lucky. Some of the others ate cold pokora. I also had a Pepsi for 10 Rs which I drank while sitting with I think Lisa, Marc, Marie and Jenny before we boarded the bus and continued on.
We visited Keoladeo bird sanctuary at Bharatpur around 3:00 PM. I've read that this was a wetland that was maintained by the local maharaja for duck hunting. After a few migrating and local species were almost wiped out, hunting there stopped in the 1960s. Over 300 species of birds including many species of stork, crane, ibis, kingfisher and ducks can be found there.
Paul and I boarded cycle rickshaw #79. The cycle rickshaws took us into the beautiful wetland bird sanctuary. Our driver asked us if it was our first time in India, where we were from and if we were married. He said we should bring wives next time. He talked about India playing Pakistan in cricket. The whole country seemed obsessed with this game. He cycled us out for a while. We got off and walked around a bit. We had a local guide pointing out birds for us. We then rode some more, walked around some more and saw more birds. My binoculars came in very handy here. The birds were beautiful. We saw a hoopoo, an owl, a king fisher, egrets, cyrus cranes, painted storks and what I think were parrots. Then, the rickshaws took us all the way back. Jenny hadn't joined us as she wasn't feeling too well. Hans had stayed back as well. Claudia joked that she might have wanted to be with Hans. I pointed out that Jenny had a room to herself and that it wouldn't be very difficult for them to get together. We filled Jenny in on our musings when we got back to the bus.
As a group we decided to change our itinerary by visiting the abandoned 16th century Moghul capital of Fateh Sikri on our way to Agra instead of having to double back tomorrow to see it. It was an easy choice since going there tomorrow would have added to the time on the hot bus. The City of Victory built by Akbar the Great was impressive. We arrived not too much before sunset. I took a lot of good pictures. There were some boys who wanted to perform for us by jumping a good distance into some green water. Our local guide here made a comment about how back in the days of this city three wives was nothing and that nowadays one wife is too many.
The salespeople here were very aggressive. There were shops along the walls and children would try to start up conversations with you, get your name and then try to get you to commit to visiting their shops, saying it didn't cost anything to look. One boy, Samo, tried to get me to go to his shop (#5). He called me Mark Taylor after the captain of the Australian cricket team.
We had to take our shoes off and I had to wrap my lower body (since I was wearing shorts) in a wrap an attendant provided to enter Salaam Chistie, the white structure that contained the tomb of the holy man who prophesized 3 sons -- one of which was the father of man who built the Taj Mahal. The walls were meshed in a way that you could see outside. A popular practice was to tie a piece of string onto the mesh for good luck. An attendant was unravelling some string from a spool and handing out small sections of it that he tore off so that we could do the same. I decided against it expecting to be asked for some money, and motioned that I didn't want to participate. Others did. When our local guide came by and saw that I hadn't received any string, he told the attendant to give me some and the attendant refused. That was fine with me.
Outside there were goats on the stairs and bee(?) hives hanging in the vaulted gateways high overhead. We passed another gauntlet of sellers of jewelry and assorted knick-knacks (or dust collectors as I like to call them). Then, we were off to Agra. It was hot even after the sun went down. The ride was pretty wild in the dark. Sometimes the oncoming headlights would be very bright, sometimes they wouldn't even be there. We were jostled around a bit on the bumpy road as we maneuvered around people, cattle and whatever else was on the road.
Up until this point I was pretty amazed at how well traffic seemed to move. The streets would be crowded with all manner of vehicles and animals, but somehow the traffic seemed to move better if not faster than traffic at home. It reminded me of red blood cells in capillaries. When we finally reached Agra, we found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam where we did not move for some time and our flow was much more like the stop-and-go of bad traffic at home.
We saw a wedding procession. Men carried what looked like 4 white potted neon lights in front of the groom who was on a white horse.
When we arrived at the Hotel Amar, I called Sara as soon as I got to our room -- #513. It took some effort, but I was able to convince the staff that I could call AT&T USA Direct from my room. It was up to them to make it possible. Rachel came by while Jerry was in the bathroom, and I was on the phone to have us sign a birthday card for Marc.
We talked for about 30 minutes, and by the time I came down to the hotel restaurant with the card, the only seat I saw open with our group was at a table with Marissa and Carolyn. I sat with them, and we talked about the differences in health care between our countries.
As usual, service took a long time which really bothered me this time since I had hopes of joining another table after our meal. I had water and chicken fried rice for 97 Rs. Getting the bill sorted out and everyone getting their correct change took some work, but we got worked out.
I joined the others in the hotel bar after dinner. Rachel told us Hans hadn't been happy with his bill at dinner in Sariska, so he made 'corrections' to their menu so that the items cost what he thought they should. He submitted the menu with a bill to the hotel for 2400 Rs -- the amount he felt he should be paid at the rate of pay he is used to back home. The staff had asked Rachel about it. When we left Sariska, the key to his room couldn't be found. Rachel entered his room and found that the folder full of envelopes and stationery had been ripped to pieces. In Agra, Hans had asked to have his own room. Rachel explained to him that he would have to pay an extra charge for that if they even had an extra room available. He told her that he wasn't asking so much for himself -- it was for Jergen's safety.
While we were in the bar, a man who claimed his name was Mark joined our conversation. He said he was from Canada and that he was on a honeymoon that would take him all over the world. He said he made some good investments and that his wife is a television producer. He entertained us with some magic tricks. I thought he was kind of weird and didn't trust him very much -- perhaps it's just the effect of growing up in Chicago, but his story sounded a bit strange.
I took the opportunity to take notes on the day's events. It was a running joke that I was taking notes on everyone else.
After some people left, we played Rachel's KFM (Kill, Fuck and Marry) game. Someone would pick three members of the opposite sex and you had to choose one to kill, one to fuck and one to marry. Marissa went first. Then she picked names for Rachel. Given the new Mark, Marc and myself as choices, Rachel chose to kill Mark (since she didn't know him), fuck Marc since he was already married) and marry me (since I was still available). At least those were the reasons she gave. After that, we decided not to pick people who were in the room.
After the bar closed, we ended up in Rachel's room. We were down to Rachel, Marissa, Carolyn, Maritsa, Paul, Jergen, myself and the new Mark which was strange for a guy who was supposed to be on his honeymoon. We continued to play KFM. Paul fucked Antje and married Lisa. I killed Rita, fucked Sue and married Carol, but only because I didn't have the option of killing them all. Jergen killed Lisa, fucked Antje and married Claudia.
Table of Contents
March 11 Monday
After a while, the new Mark left. Jergen, Paul, Maritsa and I talked while Rachel, Marissa and Carolyn talked in another part of Rachel's room. I left around 1:30 AM to get some sleep since I planned to be up for a trip to the Taj Mahal before dawn. Jerry got up for a bit after I came in.
We got up around 5:15 AM and met Claudia, Francesco, Marissa and Carolyn in the lobby at 5:30 AM. We talked a motorized rickshaw driver to take all six of us in his 3-wheeled vehicle to the Taj Mahal and negotiated a price of 60 Rs for the whole group for each way. He would wait for us to come out. It must have been quite a sight to see Marissa and Carolyn in front with the driver and Francesco, me and Jerry in the back with Claudia mostly on Francesco driving down the streets of Agra to the Taj Mahal in the still dark morning. There was some activity on the streets, but for the most part it was minimal.
As it turned out, we were early. We arrived at about 5:45, and it didn't open until 6:00. The stars and the moon were out. There was a small group of tourists waiting to buy tickets, but it seems like we were in the first ten to arrive that day. During our short wait, we could see someone washing himself under a water pump and a number of dogs. Tickets cost 100 Rs between 6:00 and 8:00 AM and between 4:00 and 6:00, but they only cost 10 Rs during the rest of the day. Sunrise and sunset at the Taj Mahal costs you, but it is worth it. The Taj Mahal was beautiful.
We entered a huge courtyard which led to an inner entrance to the enclosed Taj Mahal. Someone mentioned that it was best to avert your eyes until you were actually standing inside in front of it. I thought that was silly. It was getting lighter, but it was still quite dark. I took a panoramic picture hoping the 400 speed film in my disposable camera would be able to capture the delicate shading, but it didn't. However, by the end of the day, I had over a roll of film with pictures of the Taj from many different angles. It seemed that it was very difficult to take a bad picture of it.
I was amazed at how few people were there to see the Taj at dawn -- perhaps 20 or so. As the sun came up, we took a number of pictures. Locals would come up to you and offer to show you good picture spots and then ask for a tip. I ended up dishing out 3 Rs for one such picture with the Taj framed by an arch. I walked up to the Taj and around the reflecting pool there since we had quite a bit of time before the rays of the sun would get over the trees. There was a sign at one point that said taking pictures was prohibited beyond that point. Jerry allowed a guide to lead him all over for good pictures. It was best to watch a guide lead others and then go there on your own.
When it comes time to enter the Taj itself, you have two options: take your shoes off and leave them with an attendant or get wrappings for your shoes from an attendant. Either way, prepare to pay. It should only cost 1 or 2 Rs, but I was now out of anything that small and I wasn't with my small group. Even though it's not much by western standards, paying ten times above the fair price (10 Rs) to rent wraps for my shoes was annoying -- even if he did put them on my feet.
I walked around the magnificent tomb. The Yamuna River flows in back of it and you can look out at Agra from it. The view was wonderful. As I entered the tomb, I found I had picked up a guide. I didn't mind so much since it was nice to have some of the aspects pointed out. I just wish I had been able to understand him better. I gave him 10 Rs as well. When you go to get a closer view of the area above the actual tomb, they ask you for a donation. There went another 10 Rs. The actual tombs were down some blocked off stairs and you could see them just barely if you bent down low enough to the ground. The princess for whom the Taj was built is in the center, and her husband was buried next to her after he died.
Sure enough our driver was outside waiting for us when we left. Many of the shops still weren't open. Jerry bought some postcards from one of the street vendors before we boarded the rickshaw. Our driver took us back to the hotel where we had breakfast with the others. I showered and changed and met Rachel in the restaurant. The key to her room was missing. I, of course, wondered about Mark from last night. When Rachel finished her breakfast, she and I took a motorized rickshaw to a hotel where there was an Indian Airlines office. At first it turned out we went to the wrong hotel, but the right one wasn't that far away, but it was on the opposite side of our hotel.
The representative from Indian Airlines said that if my ticket for my flight to Kathmandu from Varanasi had been paid for I would have had it, but he charged me less than I had originally paid for it. He said that he was giving me all the discounts and that I was flying as a child. I paid $54 in cash and hoped my $79 would be refunded after I got back home. I was a little distressed at not being able to find my wallet and having to get the cash out of a different place.
After dropping off Rachel at the hotel, my driver took me to the Itimad-ud-daulah, otherwise known as the Baby Taj. It is a structure containing tombs on which the Taj Mahal was based. I was hoping to meet up with Lisa, Jenny, Marc and Marie there. We took a bridge over the Yamuna River which also flows near Delhi. My driver said he would wait for me. I made my way past people trying to sell me things, some poor children and probably crippled beggars to get inside. I wasn't comfortable carrying my backpack with too many important papers with me in the crowd. The ticket I bought at the Taj Mahal was supposed to be good for 4 sites, but for some reason I had to pay an additional 50 paise (1/2 of a rupee). I didn't think I had such small change on me, so I gave the attendant 10 Rs and hoped for change. He didn't have any either. He said he would give it to me when he did have change. By this point I was just not happy, and I still hadn't found my wallet. I was getting pretty stressed out.
I couldn't see the others when I got inside, so I started to circle the structure. It looked like the Taj, but much smaller. On my way there were monkeys that started to approach me. I was in such a mood that I was considering what I would do if I had a baseball bat with me. The Baby Taj was very close to the river, and I could look out over the water and see cattle hanging out on a huge sand bar.
I soon caught sight of the others leaving the structure. I was not happy that I would end up visiting it alone which meant any tipping would be my responsibility, and I was lacking small change. I had to take my shoes off again and leave them with an attendant. I thought about telling him to allow anyone who wanted them to steal them. Sure enough, inside a guide I barely understood attached himself to me. I told him I didn't have any tipping money. This got me nowhere, so I went around inside with him pointing things out. It turned out that I remembered I had saved some coins as souvenirs, and they just happened to be in the small pouch in my backpack. I gave the man 1 rupee and left. I gave the shoe man nothing. He wasn't happy about it. Neither was I. I joined the others and bought a guide book for 250 Rs. It was one that Lisa had bought in Jaipur, but the hotel shop had sold out by the time I had gone to buy it. I was surprised that when I gave the ticket attendant a 50 paise coin, he gave me my 10 Rs back.
My driver was waiting. Jenny joined me on the trip back to the hotel. She paid 20 Rs while I paid 70 Rs for all my trips. Our driver showed us a book in which he had favorable comments written from his other passengers. He offered to take me to some good shopping places, but I thanked him and joined Jenny in talking with Francesco and Claudia by the pool. I was very relieved when I found my wallet deeply hidden in my backpack.
I ate lunch in the hotel with Sue, Dick, Jerry, Jim, Carol and Jenny. I had chicken fried rice, a cola of some kind and water for about 100 Rs. We got into a discussion on the importance of calculus.
Since we were staying past checkout time, we had to move all our belongings into three rooms. I put mine in room 502. The elevator had trouble when we arrived, so I ended up taking the stairs most of the time.
At 2:00 PM we visited the Agra Fort as a group. It was beautiful and spacious, but by far the best and most memorable view was of the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna River. I saw what looked like a Japanese family there. Afterwards, we took the bus to the Taj Mahal. I sat towards the rear of the bus on the right side across from Lisa who sat in front of Paul. We arrived just before 4:00 PM when the price would multiply by ten. The line to get in in the large inner courtyard was enormous. I had to climb up some stairs and take two pictures to get the whole line caught on film. Rachel said she had never seen the line this long before. It also seemed to be mostly Indian men. I had to admit it was nice to have seen it in the morning, so I didn't have to worry about getting in in the afternoon.
Rachel passed out our tickets and we got into line. It took a while, but we got in. It seemed like women could get in faster in a different line. I took more pictures. The Taj Mahal looks different throughout the day from the way the light falls on it. You can't tell from looking at it, but the four pillars around it actually lean out from the main domed structure so that in case of an earthquake they would fall away instead of onto the tomb itself.
A photographer took a few group pictures and some individual ones. I ordered a few. The Taj was really beautiful. The site was filled with people, but it wasn't that bad. Our local guide showed us around inside the tomb after we took off our shoes. This time I didn't tip the shoe attendant rationalizing that with 10 Rs I had a lifetime shoe watching right at the Taj Mahal. With a flashlight our guide showed how a light shining on the ornate, intricate and translucent artwork in the walls spread beyond where the light struck it.
We had time to leisurely walk around, take pictures and just soak in the Taj Mahal. I noticed a bee hive hanging high on the Taj itself. I took plenty of pictures past the point where a sign said you couldn't take pictures. Rachel spent some time sitting on the lawn in front of the Taj working on a very difficult crossword puzzle. I tried my hand at it and got nowhere. Some people not in our group soaked their feet in the reflecting pool. It made for a good picture. Jerry and I tried to get in some last pictures right before sunset as we were leaving around 6:00.
I ended up having to borrow money (150 Rs) from Jergen to buy a black Taj Mahal T-shirt before we left the complex. We voted against going to the marble shop after we got past more salespeople to get on the bus. We had a good guide and a good driver, Mr. Singh. I was very thirsty and bought a 7 Up. I could see the Taj Mahal in the distance as we drove away.
We had dinner in the hotel. I sat with Paul, Jo, Jergen, Jenny and Karen. We had a great time laughing at all kinds of things. I had some beer, chicken noodle soup, tomato soup, water, naan and a Coke for 126 Rs. While we were in the restaurant, the photographer came by in the lobby with our pictures from the group visit of the Taj. I bought 3 of them for 150 Rs. Jerry had been out when the photographer came, so he didn't get his pictures then, but I believe he was able to get them later.
We had some time before we left for the train station at 9:00 PM. I sat in one of the rooms with Claudia, Francesco and Jim. Francesco showed me how the staff had ruined his running shoes when they washed them. I had to pay 39 Rs in phone charges before we left.
I was falling asleep on the bus to the train station for our overnight sleeper train to Varanasi. Rachel asked for 8 volunteers to be in carriage A1 while the majority would be in A3 which is where I ended up. When we got there, the lack of street lights (plus the one near us didn't work) made for quite an experience organizing ourselves and the porters who carried our bags to the train. Even now it amazes me just how dark it was. The stars were out and very bright. The porters carried our bags on their heads.
I got a bunk above Jerry. There was no wondow and it was pretty tight. Across the aisle were compartments that held four people. Marc, Marie, Jenny and Lisa were in one near me, and it looked like they had a lot more fun being together. We didn't have the whole carriage to ourselves. Katherine, Antje, Karen and Jo were in the one across from me. Jergen was in the bunk next to mine. The train was supposed to leave at 11:15 PM, but left a little after that.
Getting ready for sleep was kind of fun in an adventurous exotic way. It was quite an experience trying to get my blanket unfolded in my small bunk which also contained my large backpack. Rachel told us it was like a Marilyn Monroe movie. I gave Rachel a hard time by joking that that was before my time and adding, 'Who's Marilyn Monroe?' I think Rachel told me to shut up at that point. I wouldn't have traded with the crowded compartments we saw full of Indians. A night in such quarters would have been awful. It remined me of the trains the Nazis took Jews in to concentration camps, but they did have windows.
I ate some Life Saver type candy as I wrote for a while before going to sleep. I wished I could be sharing this experience with friends back home, or that they could have a similar experience. I felt a cold sore developing on the left side of my lower lip. When I settled to go to sleep, I didn't use my blanket or the second available sheet. Since I couldn't see outside, my compass at least could still verify we were headed further east. I turned off the light over my bunk. As I fell asleep, the only sensations I had were the sound and vibration of the train moving in the dark.
It had been quite a day.
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Getting ready for sleep was kind of fun in an adventurous exotic way. It was quite an experience trying to get my blanket unfolded in my small bunk which also contained my large backpack. Rachel told us it was like a Marilyn Monroe movie. I gave Rachel a hard time by joking that that was before my time and adding, 'Who's Marilyn Monroe?' I think Rachel told me to shut up at that point. I wouldn't have traded with the crowded compartments we saw full of Indians. A night in such quarters would have been awful. It remined me of the trains the Nazis took Jews in to concentration camps, but they did have windows.
I ate some Life Saver type candy as I wrote for a while before going to sleep. I wished I could be sharing this experience with friends back home, or that they could have a similar experience. I felt a cold sore developing on the left side of my lower lip. When I settled to go to sleep, I didn't use my blanket or the second available sheet. Since I couldn't see outside, my compass at least could still verify we were headed further east. I turned off the light over my bunk. As I fell asleep, the only sensations I had were the sound and vibration of the train moving in the dark.
It had been quite a day.
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March 12 Tuesday
Varanasi (or Benares) is the city of Shiva, the most sacred Hindu city and a major pilgrimage site where many orthodox Hindus come to die. Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi ends the cycle of death and rebirth. Instead of being reincarnated, they attain Nirvana. Consequently, the city is full of elderly and crippled people begging in the streets. Hindus try to come to Varanasi at least once in their lives to bathe in the waters of the Ganges. The name Varanasi is derived from the names of two rivers that meet there. Kashi (which means City of Divine Light) is another name for the city. Buddhism is to Hinduism much like Christianity is to Judaism in that the Buddha never claimed to be anything but a Hindu and Jesus was a Jew.
We were supposed to arrive around 7:00 AM, but we were a little late. I ended up following Jerry to the bathroom after I woke up. The train station was bustling with travellers and people selling food. We followed the porters who carried our bags to our new bus which drove us to the Hotel Ideal Tops. The city was crowded and dirty. The air was hot and dusty and full of fumes. This was easily the hardest city for me to enjoy. All of our rooms weren't ready, so some of us had to wait in the lobby for a while. The local Imaginative Traveller agent collected our airline tickets so that he could reconfirm them. I hated giving up my ticket since getting it had been such a hassle and Rachel and I both figured my seat was confirmed since I had just obtained it yesterday. Breakfast wasn't included this morning, so we had to order and pay for it ourselves in the hotel restaurant.
Jerry and I were in room 314. I took a shower (which flooded the bathroom floor) while Jerry ate breakfast. When I asked for towels, I only got one. After Jerry came up, I went down for breakfast. I ate with Jenny and Jo and stayed to talk with Jenny. I had eggs, juice and Thums Up cola which was awful for about 110 Rs. Jerry took the opportunity to do some laundry. I did the same when I got back up. The phone in our room wasn't working, so I called Sara from the lobby. They charged me 95 Rs for the time. The cold sore on my lip was hardly noticable, but the glands under and on the left side of my jaw were getting sensitive. I wrote my friends Chris, Andy & Heidi postcards. I needed stamps, so I went out to try to find the nearby post office. It turns out I made a wrong turn (left instead of right) when I got out of the hotel, so I had to postpone mailing the postcards.
At 3:00 PM we went on an afternoon excursion to Sarnath, a city ancient even when the Buddha visited it in 500 B.C. It is just 11km from Varanasi. Sarnath is famous for being the site of the Buddha's first sermon. We visited the museum there where we saw the Lion Capitol on an Ashokan pillar which was built by King Ashoka at Sarnath and can be seen on present day Indian currency. We struggled to answer my question about to whom Buddhists pray. Paul ended up talking with a bunch of school children who arrived there as well.
There were quite a few monks and beggars around. Children would come up to us while we toured the Buddhist complex and saw Sarnath Deer Park wanting us to buy some souvenirs. We had to take our shoes off to enter the Sarnath Temple. Walking around in my socks didn't seem the best way to go. Some of the others wore sandals (Birkenstocks and Tevas) and walked in bare feet inside the temples which looked pretty good to me, but Jerry didn't think it was better since then you got you feet dirty instead of just your socks. Strangely, the temple with its paintings depressed me. Some Buddhist beliefs seemed so silly to me, and it made me wonder about some of my own. I got out of tipping for my shoes again. I just didn't have small change, and they didn't make it easy for you to get it.
We ended up having time to visit a nearby Tibetan Buddhist monastery which I really enjoyed. We could hear the monks chanting when we entered the complex. We had to once again take off our shoes to enter. The monks were sitting in rows chanting. We were welcomed inside and allowed to take pictures as we moved in a clockwise direction around the room. The experience was very cool. I donated some money into a collection box for taking photographs. A sign asked for a meager 2 Rs. I gave 5 Rs. It was refreshing not to have someone come up to you and ask for money. They even offered us fruit before we left -- I had an apple. I think the thing that struck me most was how welcome I felt. Before we left the complex I stopped by a little shop they had. A woman was running it. There were some very nice crafts there. I asked how much they cost and was amazed at how little she was asking. I bought a wall hanging made out of wool that has a small bell in its center. Just when I was feeling quite drained, I felt really good again.
Back at the hotel we had to have someone come up to fix our toilet so that it flushed. I rested. We planned to go to a restaurant around the corner for dinner at 7:00 PM, but it turned into an outing to the ghats on the banks of the Ganges River where laundry is done, people bathe and corpses are cremated. The ghats are really just steps that go down the banks to the river. Not everyone decided to go. We took two taxis. Six of us got in each one. Traffic was probably the most outrageous and frightening I had yet seen in my life. We drove quickly in poorly defined streets where you couldn't always tell where their borders were. They were crowded with vehicles, pedestrians and all kinds of animals. There were times when we had to go over the median and drive on the wrong side of the road. It was crazy. It was hot and there was a lot of dust in the air as well.
Eventually, we had to abandon the taxis and go the rest of the way on foot. We moved quickly and at times we seemed in danger of losing people. There was some kind of celebration going on by the river. When we got there, it was crowded. I believe we were at Dasashwamedh ghat (not from any signs, but it's supposed to be the main ghat), and it looked like we were at the center of a lot of activity. We decided to hire a boat to take us on the river. At this point I was tired and hungry. I felt drained and was not having the best time. Sue and Dick gave up and decided to find their own way back to the hotel. Rachel, Carolyn, Marissa, Lisa, Jerry, Jergen, Jenny and I hired a boat. On the way we paid 5 Rs for small ashtray type containers that held a candle and flowers and floated on the water. They were being sold by little girls who very loudly with high whiny voices demanded to be paid. When we pulled away from the banks, we lit the candles and released the flowers onto the water. It was a ritual meant to be performed at sunset, but it was beautiful in the evening dark.
Music was being played as our oarsmen rowed us up and down the Ganges. We saw a number of ghats. One of the oarsmen said that I looked like a famous Indian movie star. I must have been getting a tan. We almost didn't go to Manikarnika ghat, the cremation ghat, but I'm glad we did. No pictures are allowed there. We saw three fires, each a corpse being burned with wood. There was a smoldering area nearby -- perhaps where one was cremated not too long ago. There were also two wrapped bodies waiting to be burned. The deceased's closest male relative dressed in white stays for the entire burning. The ashes are then thrown into the river.
One of our oars got away and would have gotten away if I hadn't put my hand in the polluted water to grab it. When we got back to the river bank, we had to climb back up to the streets. I saw a little girl squat down to go to the bathroom in full view of everyone on the way. We had a crazy walk to the restaurant. I don't remember ever seeing a street sign, and I didn't like the idea of getting lost here. We ate at the El Parador. Fortunately we were able to wash our hands before we ate, but that didn't mean the water we used was safe. I sat with Lisa and Jerry (and I think Jergen) and had very spicy nachos and three Pepsis much later than I would have liked. I paid around 125 Rs for the meal. They wouldn't accept one of my 50 Rs notes since it had a torn corner. We didn't tip, so Rachel returned to tip for us. Our cab got us home by 11:30 PM. I gave Rachel 60 Rs for the taxis and the boat ride.
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March 13 Wednesday
We were awakened at 5:07 AM with a knock and the doorbell. Tea was provided in the lobby. At 5:30 we took the bus to Dasashwamedh ghat again for a boat ride on the Ganges. The sun still hadn't come up, but the ghats were crowded. We walked past people bathing with almost nothing on to reach our boat. We took much the same way we took the previous night, but this time there were bathers all over the place. Old men were sitting cross-legged in the lotus position. Brahmin priests sat under huge umbrellas offering prayers. I could see a young Asian couple serenely sitting side by side in the lotus position on the banks of the river at the top of a ghat. They were meditating with their eyes closed facing the rising sun. It was a cool sight. There were also holy men on the ghats as well.
The sunrise was beautiful. We were between the rising sun and the city and its ghats. I took a few pictures of the rising son as well as what looked like a dead cow floating down the river between us and the sun. What amazes me is that my Fodor's India actually mentions the possibility of a carcass floating by. When we returned to the cremation ghat, we could see four or five fires. Bodies are burned continuously there. When we disembarked, some of us went up on foot to where the cremations were taking place. I stood a few feet from a body that was all bound up and soon to be cremated. The closest male relative to one of the bodies being burned was there wearing white with his head shaved. Most bodies are cremated, but there are five conditions for which cremation is not performed. These include holy men, children, pox victims and snake victims.
We walked through the streets and alleyways. The heat, smoke, smells, beggars, mamed and disfigured old women and scams for money were getting to me. I let a little girl who seemed sincere put a tika mark on my forehead. Then she hassled me for money. She was very persistent. She would have been very happy with one or two rupees, but I gave her my torn 50 Rs note just to get her to leave me alone. Maybe she could spend it. We walked through too much of this.
Herman came up to me and talked to me. I told him I was ready to leave India. He said that he had been thinking the same thing. He said he'd been working for his company trying to make something out of this mess and that this trip wasn't helping him. Varanasi was definitely the hardest city we visited.
I saw and photographed a golden domed temple -- we had to enter an adjoining building and go up some stairs to see it. I don't think we were allowed inside. I'm not sure what it was called. We visited the temple of Shiva. Again we had to take off our shoes.
A vote was taken as to whether we should go to Bharat Mata Mandir (Mother India Temple). Most didn't want to go. I wasn't exactly having a great time, but I didn't want to start cutting things out of our itinerary. All it took was one person, so there wasn't much danger of us cutting it out. Hans, however, had a bad reaction when we did go. Again we had to take our shoes off to enter, but once inside, there is nothing that makes you think it might be a religious place. There is a huge relief map of India in the floor. I've read that the mountains are not drawn to scale. I wanted to buy a postcard of the place. They were 2 Rs each, and my smallest note was 50 Rs. The sales clerk just gave it to me for free rather than give me change. I was quite pleasantly surprised. I came away liking the place even if it was a tourist trap. Marc liked it too.
Back at the hotel, I had scrambled eggs, toast, juice and tea for breakfast. Rachel reimbursed me the 220 Rs I paid for the pre-paid taxi when I arrived in Delhi. I think Jerry had to be reimbursed 350 Rs. We filled out evaluation forms. Rachel announced Air India was on strike, so some people had to make alternate flight arrangements. I pitched in 100 Rs for everyone to get her a gift and learned that there were seven of us going on to Nepal. Some of the others would continue in India for another week. I talked with Henry Chouser for a while.
I went to my room, showered, did some laundry, shaved and napped. My annoying yet hardly visible cold sore was still with me. I had no desire to go exploring Varanasi on my own. I wrote postcards to Marie, Hilary, Loanne, Perry & Mary, Kris & Jenny and my father and my sister. I walked to the small post office and sent them. At the hotel I exchanged another $10 fearing I would run out of cash. I would need 150 Rs for the departure tax to Nepal and another 300 Rs when I flew back home from Delhi after my flight from Kathmandu.
Jerry took a cooking class with Marissa and Carolyn. Afterwards, he told me that it seemed like the female instructor had ignored him. I read about Nepal while Jerry read a book of his own. Lisa came around witha card for Rachel. Jerry knocked on Jergen's door for her, so she wouldn't have to face Hans alone. I repacked my stuff before going down for dinner with Jerry. We met the others in the hotel bar just after 8:00 PM.
Our farewell dinner was at a nearby hotel we walked to. We had initially planned to eat at a nearby restaurant, but we changed our minds at the last minute. In retrospect I think the restaurant would have been a better idea. We were seated at a very long table. Jergen was on my right and Antje was on my left. Karen sat across from me (at a diagonal towards my left I think). I think Paul was directly across from me and Karen was at a diagonal towards my right. Each person's order was numbered. It still took a very long time. We ate outside under a glaring light. I asked for candles to reduce the harsh contrast. Keeping them lit proved difficult. Of course, by then everything was seeming difficult. Every now and then it looked like a bat would fly overhead. Mosquito coils were lit all around us. I had chicken fried rice, a Pepsi and chicken noodle soup -- at first Jergen got mine by accident.
Rachel got a scarf and a silver anklet and bracelet from the money that was collected. Antje had a bad sounding cough and was trying to find a lost ring. We had some language barriers which made me feel a bit isolated. People started smoking and Marissa, Rachel and Jerry had a conversation on abortion which didn't improve my spirits.
Dinner cost 99 Rs.
There was a party in Maritsa and Lisa's room. Marc and Jergen kidnapped Lisa and took her to Marc and Marie's room.
Table of Contents
March 14 Thursday
Varanasi -> Kathmandu
This was a hard day.
I showered (using the term loosely, of course) after Jerry. When I got down to the hotel restaurant, there wasn't a free seat with anyone in my group, so I sat alone uncomfortably waiting for service until Jim came over from his table and joined me. Rachel and then Lisa joined us. Jim and Lisa left, and then Paul joined Rachel and me -- I lingered at breakfast. Lisa had bought a 'silk' rug for a fanatstic price. Rachel thought she had been taken but didn't want to tell her.
It seemed like most of the group came to see those of us going on to Nepal. We met in the lobby at 11:00 AM. I thought of us as the Nepal 7: Katherine, Antje, Henry, Jergen, Jo, Karen and me. None of them knew which hotel they were staying at in Kathmandu, and no one seemed inclined to check. It was frustrating because I thought that if we would all be in Kathmandu at any given time, we might be able to get together. There were many handshakes, hugs and cheek kisses. Rachel, Claudia and Lisa kissed me goodbye. Copies had been made of an address list anyone who wanted to had added to. It always amazes me how I can travel with some people, share special experiences with them and then almost casually say goodbye knowing that most likely I'll never see them again. I wonder if had circumstances not brought us together, if we would have gotten along as well. Certainly you try to make the best of any situation especially when you're on vacation. I would miss them.
I tipped Rachel $20 as I was getting on the bus to Varanasi's airport. The local Indian agent handed me all of our tickets. We decided to stick together as a group. Customs was intense. We filled out disembarkation forms, got lots of paperwork stamped, had our bags X-rayed and checked and had to get tags for all our carry-ons. I was afraid I'd never see my big bag again. I pointed it out to the people who were loading the plane to make sure it got loaded because it looked like it was being placed on the side as if it wasn't intended for my flight. Men and women went through separate curtained boothes. Camera batteries weren't allowed even if they were in your cameras, but my camera was so small and so deeply buried in my nested backpacks they didn't bother checking it that thoroughly.
It took a while to get all of us through. Then we waited. Indian Airlines flight 252 was scheduled to leave at 1:15 PM. I had read that the best view of the mountains when you fly in from India is on the left side of the plane, but it was a free-for-all in getting seats on the plane, a Boeing 737. I ended up with a window seat on the right side of the plane. Katherine sat at my left. The rest of us were scattered throughout the plane. It was a sunny day. I pulled out my compass to monitor our direction. We were given a snack.
We were scheduled to arrive in Kathmandu at 2:25 PM. I was going to be rushed because I planned to check into my hotel and then make arrangements for a trip to Royal Chitwan National Park for the next day. The view from the right side of the plane was definitely not disappointing. Descending into the Kathmandu Valley was beautiful. Just before we landed I could see the famous stupa with its eyes facing in four directions in the distance.
A people mover took us to the modern looking airport building. It was definately cooler here. I think our elevation was around 4200 feet here. According to the internet distance calculator, I was now 7616 miles from Chicago. I think I was the only one of the seven who changed money at the airport. I changed $200 at an exchange rate of about 54 NRs to $1. I then obtained my 15 day visa for Nepal for $15 in U.S. currency. The others had obtained theirs ahead of time. I also had to fill out a short arrival card. Everything was eventually stamped, and I was ready to join the others. Henry, Jergen, Katherine and Antje waited for me. Karen and Jo had already gone.
We got our luggage and said our farewells. I was not happy that no one could tell me where they were staying. When we stepped out of the terminal, the departure area was full of people trying to get our attention. I quickly saw my Peregrine sign, and they saw their Odyssey sign.
Again I felt as if I had stepped into another world. The nature of my vacation changed as if I had finished one book and was opening another. (I had finally arrived in a country where there were no McDonalds.)
I met and shook hands with my trek leader Dawa. Dawa was a Sherpa. The Sherpas are the people who live in the Everest region. A boy carried my bag to the jeep. Dawa suggested I give the boy some Indian currency, so I gave him 10 Rs. He probably didn't think I had already changed money. Dawa, a porter boy and 2 others in the drivers section drove me on the left side of the road to the Hotel Shanker, a 4-star hotel. While talking with Dawa on the way to the hotel, I was constanlty distracted by the sights from the road. I saw a Ferris wheel in operation. Dawa told me that this would be the first time he would be the trek leader.
At the hotel, Dawa had me fill out lots of paperwork. I filled out the trekking permit form and gave him three passport pictures, my three airline tickets (I always hate surrendering those) and my passport (I'm not too keen on surrendering that either). He needed all those things. Dawa warned me not to drink any of the tap water in the hotel -- not to even sing in the shower.
Peregrine couldn't arrange a trip to Chitwan for me -- Dawa was able to get someone on the phone for me. The man at the hotel desk suggested I take an organized tour. He showed me a brochure for 3-day, 2-night stay at Tiger Camp in Chitwan that would cost $130. It sounded good at first. At that point Dawa left with all my valuable papers. The man at the desk wouldn't accept a credit card as payment for the trip, and he didn't want to talk about it in front of his boss. I told him to make the call and book my trip for me. I would pay when the man who runs the trips would come by later. A bellboy helped me take my bag to my room. They have tipping boxes for the help, so I didn't tip him yet.
I had been given a roommate (or rather my roommate was given me), but he wasn't around when I settled in. I found that the lock on my bag was missing. It was a disturbing find, but nothing seemed to be missing. When I went over all the material I had on Chitwan and realized that if I went to Chitwan on one of the tourist buses I could save something like $80, I was less than enthused about taking the packaged trip. I didn't want to pay in U.S. currency as what I had on me was obviously limited. Plus, there seemed something shady about the way the man at the desk wouldn't talk about the deal with his boss around. I changed my mind about the trip and called the man at the desk to have him cancel it. He wasn't pleased and told me I could talk with the other guy when he arrived. He called and I explained that the trip cost too much. He eventually went down to $100, but I still said no.
My roommate, Paul Cook, arrived. He was a dentist from Milwaukee who had just returned from an Annapurna trek. He seemed to be in a rush. He was going to spend the next few days exploring Kathmandu and the surrounding area. He said I seemed like a nice guy but insisted we take down each other's addresses just in case. He said the trek was harder than he expected it to be, that his girlfriend would've had a hard time with it and that it was better she hadn't come. I very much missed my girlfriend. He had moleskin all over his feet. He told me people in his group got sick and that you have to buy Cokes from the people on the trekking route to stay hydrated. I felt uncomfortable around him.
I still had to venture out as the sun was setting to Thamel, the main tourist district, where I hoped to make arrangements for my own trip to Chitwan. Things didn't look too promising.
I spent some time in the hotel shops where I met an Australian couple who were on a Peregrine trek to the Everest Base Camp. They would be going further than my group, but I later learned that you can't see Everest from there.
I got my bearings and set off from the hotel not really sure just where I should go. It was already twilight. Crossing streets was an adventure in itself. You basically take your chances and have to be very alert. I had to pass the Royal Palace on my way to Thamel. I was looking for a travel agent that could get me on a bus to Chitwan. I walked into Classic Nepal where an older man and a young man, maybe a teenager, tried to help. The young man, Razu, called a couple of places, but the tourist buses in the morning were already full. They didn't recommend I try the public buses as they are less safe and there are numerous stories of buses overturning. I just had to accept that I wouldn't be able to visit Chitwan on this trip.
I very much wanted to call home, but Dawa had told me to definitely not call from the hotel because it would be very expensive. Somehow I didn't think I'd find anything cheap. Razu took me around a corner and up the street into Thamel to a place called Global Communications. There I was able to call Sara for less than a minute and give her my number, so she could call me. It would be cheaper that way. Nepal is 11 hours and 45 minutes ahead of Chicago time, so noon in Kathmandu is 12:15 AM in Chicago of the same day.
I saw Razu waiting for me while I talked with Sara in a private booth. I wasn't sure what his intentions were, so that made me a little nervous. I'm from Chicago after all.
We talked for about 30 minutes. The whole thing cost me 190 NRs. I learned I could send email from there as well. I knew I would be back tomorrow to try that. It was around 8:00 PM when the place was supposed to close when I left. Razu left with me. I only learned his name when we reached the intersection where we would part company. I wanted to thank him with more than just words, but he said that I was a guest in his country, and he just wanted to show his hospitality. I was now definitely convinced I was in a different world after leaving India.
Lonely Planet Map of Nepal Map of Nepal
I made it back to the hotel okay after only one wrong turn. It was easy to figure it out. I was disappointed about Chitwan, but I was determined to make the most of it. The hardest part would be not having specific things to do in and around Kathmandu, but I also knew that if I had gone to Chitwan that probably would have meant two gruelling 7-hour bus trips with no guarantee of spotting Bengal tigers or rhinos. At least I had already been on an elephant in India. The guy from one of Rachel's past tours I met in Mandawa said he came close to seeing a rhino in Chitwan but hadn't.
I ate at the hotel restaurant. Paul was there, so I joined him. It seemed like we were the only Americans there. It was a grand ballroom type restaurant, and many of the guests seemed to be French or German and very well-off. Paul told me that the French Embassy was very close to us -- the U.S. Embassy was just up the street I had walked earlier. Paul was impressed with how much I got accomplished just stumbling about in the streets. Paul did end up giving me some good advice. Paul seemed very impatient with the hotel service. I thought he obviously hadn't been to India. They did take a very long time in getting him his bill. He didn't stay for the whole time I was down there. I made a point to remember next time to always bring something to read at my meals. My meal which consisted of chicken fried rice and 2 small Cokes. Always in India and Nepal the bottled soft drinks come in bottles smaller (about 250 or 300ml) than we're used to at home -- not as satisfying as one would like. Dinner cost me 200 NRs (or roughly $4) after the Peregrine 20% discount.
I was able to buy a small lock for my bag for 120 NRs in one of the hotel shops. Since I wouldn't be going to Chitwan, I now had to arrange for accomodations for the two nights I expected to be out of town. I didn't have vouchers for the Shanker Hotel for those nights. The man at the main desk told me a single room would cost me $84 per night, but if I stayed with Paul, it would cost me $42. Paul and I walked down the street towards the U.S. Embassy to a small shop for an evening water bottle run -- much cheaper out of the hotel. I would become a regular patron of that shopkeeper's establishment. It was very dark out. Always when leaving the hotel, we had to fend off rickshaw drivers who were more than willing to take us anywhere. I bought a Sprite (9 NRs if you drank it there and left the bottle) and two bottles of water for 20 NRs each. While we were out, I stopped in at the Ambassador Hotel across the street. There it would only cost me $25 per night for a single room.
I think Paul wanted me to stay with him since I was now a friendly face from virtually the same area in the U.S., but the savings were too good and I knew I would be more comfortable in the privacy of my own room where I could fall asleep with the TV on. I also still wasn't too comfortable with Paul. He did seem a bit disturbed -- pretty negative, and he would go on and on about things as if he couldn't let them go. His eyes seemed a little glazed over and spittle would gather at his lips. It made me think he'd spent too much time at high altitude or was suffering from some kind of post traumatic stress. I also had to show him how to activate the power for the air conditioning in the room. It made me think I would do better here than I had at first thought.
Paul asked me to sell him one of my water bottle which I did. I wrote before going to sleep -- Paul had moved our twin beds apart. He woke up a few times in the night. I know because it would wake me up.
Table of Contents
March 15 Friday
I got up around 7:30 AM, showered, shaved and went down for breakfast. At first there was some confusion about whether I would have to pay for it, but being with Peregrine, the breakfast was included. I had toast, orange juice (3 small glasses), tea with leaves that I couldn't keep out of my cup and scrambled eggs.
I checked out and had a bellboy carry my large bag across the street to the Ambassador Hotel (P.O. Box 2769. Fax: 977-1-413641 Tel: 414432,410432.) where I gave him 10 NRs for his efforts. After you check out, they give you a card you need to present to the doorman before he lets you out. The staff at the Ambassador Hotel seemed to be much friendlier. Having my own room and bathroom was very nice even if there was no bathtub as in the Shanker.
The temptation to stay in my room (#202 I think) and watch music videos from India on channel V was great. I had some slight diarrhea, but other than that I was feeling much better today. The sun was out, and things looked much brighter in every sense of the word. I went over what my group will tour and ventured out with my Lonely Planet book to do a walking tour or two. It was lonely, but I was trying to make the best of it.
I walked over to the Global Communications office ignoring sellers of various wares on the way. I sat down to send Sara an email message. They had two PCs for editing email messages. An American girl sat at one of them. It cost 60 NRs (about $1.15) per kilobyte, and the girl on my right pointed out that 1 kilobyte was about 12 lines (which made sense -- 12 times 80 characters is 960). They gave me a printout of my message when I was done. My message was 4K, so it cost 240 NRs. I know the American girl was in medicine because her message ended up printed out on the back of mine. She wrote that one of her friends was hospitalized probably due to some kind of parasite. This was not encouraging news. As I would often do there, I paid with large bills to get coveted small change.
I explored the Thamel district. It's basically a huge outdoor mall consisting mostly of shops, restaurants, hotels and travel agents. At first it was difficult not to get lost -- even using the maps in the Lonely Planet book. Street signs were virtually nonexistent, and the streets tended to look pretty much the same -- narrow and crowded. They were filled with people, animals, cars, bicycles and rickshaws, and they were lined with shops. You had to be very careful when crossing them. I had to ignore lots of sellers, and I was pretty good at it. Tiger balm, hats and knifes are among the items sold, but you can also get whatever you need for trekking trips. I was also asked if I wanted to change money a few times. Also, a couple of times someone offered me pot. Marijuana happens to be legal in Nepal. I'm not much of a souvenir buyer, and for now I was just checking on what was available and asking prices.
Although the morning was quite cool, temperatures rose quite a bit during the day. Shorts weren't very common, and by the afternoon I would sometimes wear a T-shirt and a long-sleeved shirt around my waist.
I noticed that Nepali women seem to be wear more western clothes than their Indian counterparts. There were lots of school kids around. The air was very polluted. I tried to breathe through my nose at all times. Kathmandu is in a valley that traps the air.
I ate lunch at a recommended restaurant called Helena's -- very hot thin pizza and a couple of Pepsis ... not bad. It cost me 129 NRs. Eating alone wasn't great, but I had my guide book to occupy me.
I did one of the walking tours spelled out in the guide book taking pictures as I went. At first I was missing some sites because many of them were smaller than I expected, yet they could have been 1000 or 1500 years old. At one point I found myself in the busiest intersection of Kathmandu where 6 roads meet. It must have seemed strange to all the people as I took pictures of an everyday sight for them. I saw quite a few uniformed schoolgirls in the streets.
Most of the other tourists seemed to be German. The younger westerners here seemed to look like hippies.
I also took in the commercial Durbar Marg where airlines and VISA have offices. There seemed to be plenty of uniformed guards and police around probably because I was very close to the Royal Palace. Afterwards, I rested in my room for a while and washed a pair of socks. I learned that the wool sweaters in the hotel cost about $12 to $16. I was hoping to do better on the streets.
At about 6:00 PM as the sun was about to set beyond the valley walls I returned to the Global Communications office to send Sara another email message. I wanted to fill her in on how my day had gone. The 3K email message cost me 180 NRs. On my way back to my room in the light of dusk I could see and hear huge, loud birds flying between the treetops. When I looked closer, I noticed that some of the birds were actually the largest bats I have ever seen. They were larger than crows. I could tell they were bats because I could see them land of tree banches and hang upside-down.
I stopped at my favorite shopkeeper's shop and bought two bottles of water and a Sprite for 49 NRs. He smiled at me when I came up. I ate dinner at the hotel. Due to a misunderstanding, the spaghetti I ordered had meat in it. Oh, well. Dinner cost 145 NRs. I ended up turning in early since I wanted to get an early start the next day with a visit to Swayambhunath Stupa, a Buddhist temple way on top of a hill overlooking Kathmandu. I planned to visit on foot and take in more walking tours as well.
One of the times I left the hotel to go to Thamel today I was asked by an American (I think) girl for some help with directions. It was funny that I was actually able to help her out.
It was lonely, but I was getting by. Having my own room was nice. It provided a refuge from the crowded, dusty streets. I had spaghetti for dinner and ended up falling asleep with the TV on -- my TV had a sleep timer. Ah, just like home. Well, actually, nothing here was just like home.
Table of Contents
March 16 Saturday
My bed was pretty big, but it was also rather hard since Nepalese beds have no springs, just a mattress on a wooden platform. That was fine with me since I can pretty much sleep anywhere. My room looked out over a street, but at night it was very quiet. I woke up in the middle of the night, and it took me a moment to identify the sound I was hearing as the ticking of the clock on the wall. I dreamt I was going to fly a helicopter. I started out later this morning than I had planned.
I ordered a farmer's breakfast of scrambled eggs, tea, orange juice (hopefully canned) and toast before setting out for Swayambhunath. I decided to send Sara another email message on the way, but when I got to the Global Communications office, I found it closed. Saturday in Nepal is like Sunday in the Western world. I continued on to the stupa. I had some trouble finding my way through the winding streets. I knew which way to go, but sometimes I couldn't find a street that seemed to be able to take me there. I was still a little nervous about walking scarcely populated streets by myself.
It took me a while, but I eventually found my way. I crossed a small river that was little more than a stream on a very thin wooden bridge. The water looked pretty polluted. There were people bathing in the filthy water. On the other side there was a whole field of wool drying in the sun. I had never seen anything like it.
I could see the stupa up the hill, but I still had some trouble finding my way to it. I rested on the way and bought a cola from a woman in a small cafe. At the base of the steps, there were all kinds of annoying people trying to sell various trinkets. I remember lots of bracelets that I thought were actually being sold at a good price. At 4000-4500 feet it was quite an effort to get to the top. There are some 300 steps, and I had to take a break before I reached the top. I was hoping all the walking was helping me prepare for the trek.
I walked clockwise around the stupa taking in the views of the Kathmandu Valley. It was pretty hazy, so Kathmandu wasn't very clear. However, I was able to see the Royal Palace among other sites. The stupa is like a huge upside-down white bowl with four statues of the Buddha facing each compass direction. If you know your Buddha statues, you can tell which direction the one you're in front of is facing. On top of the inverted bowl is a cube. Each side of the cube has a face with eyes looking out over the valley. The noses look like question marks, but they are the Nepali symbol for the number one. Above the cube are ascending rings that decrease in size which represent the levels to enlightenment. At the top is an umbrella-like structure that represents nirvana. Prayer flags are strung from the base of the structure to the umbrella. It's huge and very impressive. There were, however, a large number of irreverent pigeons sitting on the inverted bowl.
There were a lot of monkeys around here as well. Many small flames were lit on the ground. I'm sure a lot of the religious aspects of the place escaped me. In the end it was pretty commercial up there. Various prayer wheels were being sold, but I had read that the prices here would be very expensive. One guy tried to be my guide, and after trying to be nice, I just walked away from him. There was a long line of Hindu women trying to get into a temple that I at first thought was dedicated to a fertility goddess. It turns out it was really a smallpox goddess temple -- go figure.
There were more small flames (candles?) in a Buddhist temple with a large prayer wheel in the wall. Getting down was a lot easier than the climb up. Getting back wasn't obvious, but I made it. I decided to stop in at Global Communications just in case they might be open and to get their hours. Fortunately, when I got there around 12:30 PM, they were open, and I was able to write Sara another message. Their hours were just abbreviated today.
I bought an off-white hat for the sun on my way back to the hotel. The street vendor initially asked for more than $5. I got it for 100 NRs (less than $2). I wish I had better luck with sweater prices. It didn't look like the rickshaw drivers were going to make any money off of me soon.
I spent the rest of my afternoon resting in my room -- okay, I watched TV as I rested. I ended up watching Fantasy Island -- so humiliating. I had tomato soup, fries and a cola at the hotel. It was funny watching the hotel staff gathered around the restaurant television set watching what I think was a soap opera. Before sunset, I walked over to Global Communications to send Sara another email message. With so many shops closed and the way Kathmandu gets dark after sunset, it looked like I'd have to leave Durbar Square with its temples for tomorrow.
I hadn't had much luck meeting people, so my Saturday night was pretty low-key. The next day I would have to change back to the Shanker hotel in the morning, and I was looking forward to meeting the rest of the people on my trek at the pre-trek briefing in the afternoon. I was feeling well -- I hoped so ... I was taking about 11 pills a day. :-)
My Saturday night was spent sorting through my belongings and repacking in my hotel room. I seemed to be missing some $40 worth of Nepali currency which bothered me. It wouldn't be until June 19, 1996 that I would find the two missing 1000 rupee notes in a buttoned pocket of one of my short-sleeved blue shirts. I had chicken kiev for dinner, but like all my meals, I didn't finish it. The hotel staff must think I hated their food. I watched TV -- lots of old reruns (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Baywatch, LA Law). I also watched BBC news, so I was able to get the major headlines.
Table of Contents
March 17 Sunday
This morning after not finishing my breakfast of eggs, toast, tea and juice (150 NRs), I checked out of the Ambassador and charged my balance of 3066.75 NRs ($54.10) to my Master Card. I carried my bags over to the Shanker again. I saw Paul again as I walked up to the main entrance. He seemed as spaced out as ever. A couple of Australian women with Peregrine vouchers were ahead of me at the desk, and at first I thought they might be on my trek (I was wrong). This time I was in room 412 which had two levels -- you have to take stairs to get to the beds. I wasn't given a roommate yet.
After getting settled, I set off for Durbar Square. It was beyond Thamel. Durbar means Palace, and it had plenty of temples as well as lots of tourists, kids, beggars and alleged holy men (it was hard to tell if they were dressed up as a scam). I had to shoo away kids, wannabe guides and sellers of all manner of goods. I mean just because I'm in their country doesn't mean I have to tell them my name and where I'm from. They have a different concept of personal space here. I tried to ignore them by reading from my book about the area.
I climbed up some temple steps and went by the residence of the Kumari, a young girl who is considered to be a living goddess. She's replaced when she reaches puberty. I also walked down Freak Street which was popular in the 60's when Western hippies would come to hang out here. There was a lot of dust in the air.
I kept going south towards Patan until I reached the river. It was part of a walking tour, so I followed it. The path took me by gardens, tent/shack homes, back yards and the windows of a long schoolhouse. On my way back I bought a Pepsi. It was very easy to get dehydrated here.
My route took me through Thamel and to Global Communications where I emailed Sara for another 180 NRs. My legs were pretty tired by this point. I stopped by my favorite shopkeeper for a Sprite before returning to the hotel for the pre-trek briefing.
I think I'll always remember the past couple of days as the days I just hung out in Kathmandu. I was ready for a change.
I had some time to rest before the 4:00 PM briefing. The briefing was in the front garden of the hotel. I was pretty tired after yesterday's walk. Only half our group was at the pre-trek briefing. Dawa briefed Bill (an Australian, 49, married with a daughter) who had just arrived and was on high blood pressure medication, Anne (UK, 35?, married with a son), Wendy (Anne's mother-in-law, 50's) and me. The other 4 were still rafting in Chitwan. I ended up with my own room for the night which was nice. I was surprised they didn't pair me up with Bill.
Anne, Wendy, Bill and I met at 6:00 PM and walked to Thamel for dinner at K.C.'s. It was pretty good and it was nice to have company again. I paid 215 NRs for cheese pizza, a cola and a 7Up. We then took a stroll down some Thamel streets I hadn't been down. Bill bought a hat for 250 rupees even though I told him not to pay more than 100. I was wearing my boots every day in Nepal, and they were quite dusty by now.
Table of Contents
March 18 Monday
I woke up at 6:45 AM. It took me some time to get up, take a nice hot shower and get out of my room. I went down for breakfast and had an egg, some toast, tea and a sip of tomato juice which I hated. Anne and Wendy joined me just before I got up to leave for the Global Communications office where I picked up my first two email messages from Sara almost 36 hours after she sent them. They keep the messages in a binder and often try to highlight the addressee's name. I sent her a short note for 120 rupees since I had to literally run to join the others on the 9:30 AM the bus tour of Kathmandu. Receiving her messages only cost 60 rupees. All seemed to be going pretty well again.
The bus tour took seven of us and our guide to Pushupatinah, the most famous Hindu temple in the country. As non-Hindus, we couldn't go inside. Here, however, were were able to see four cremation ghats on the sacred Bagmati River. They were across the river from us, and we were allowed to take pictures of them. Unfortunately, at the time no one was being cremated.
We watched worshippers and what might have been a sacred cow from across the river. Bill walked around on his own taking pictures. Apparently, a girl offered to sleep with him for $90 or something like that. Some of the others complained of not being able to understand our guide too well. I could understand him pretty well. Perhaps it was because of my trip to India. We sat on benches for a while just taking in the seen. I let our guide look through my guidebook. He was surprised at how much it cost.
As we were leaving, there was a man who claimed he wanted no money. He just wanted to show us that he could lift a huge rock with his penis. And with that, he pulled it out of his pants, looped some clothing around the rock and his penis and proceeded to lift it into the air.
On our way back to the bus we saw a wrapped body lying next to the river water by a ghat being prepared for cremation. I was glad the Nepalese allow pictures at their cremation ghats.
Our next stop was Bodhnath Stupa, the largest stupa in Nepal. It is also one of the biggest Buddhist shrines in the world. There is a Tibetan gompa next to it. While there, we took our shoes off to visit the gompa. There was a boy monk by the door as well as a giant prayer wheel. We also walked clockwise around and on top of the stupa. Prayer wheels encircled it. It was very slippery up there from what seemed like wax or animal fat.
We met some people who just got back from our trek. Most of them were women. They thought the trek was harder than they had expected, but they all made it just fine.
I rested after we got back, checked for email and had a vegetable burger and a Pepsi at Helena's for 100 rupees. I got another message from Sara. This one cost me 40 rupees. I bought an orange Fanta and some water from my favorite shopkeeper before returning to my room.
While I was there before 3:00 PM, my new roomate arrived. I believe Andrew was my age and an accountant from Australia. He was going on an Annapurna trek and rafting in Chitwan. A phone call prompted me to join the others for our 3:00 PM meeting in the garden in front of the hotel. There I met Deb, a nurse, Deb and Arnou, two friends who were both 27, (all three were Australians) and Rob, a Canadian. They had just arrived from their Chitwan trip. Deb and Arnou were friends. They and Rob had been on the Annapurna trek with Paul Cook. Our kit bags were distributed. Mine was number 156. Each had two sleeping bags and a hooded jacket.
Andrew joined Wendy, Anne, Bill and me for dinner at KC's at 6:00 PM. I had a cheese pizza and Pepsi for 190 rupees. I left around 7:15 PM to call Sara for one minute to have her call me back. We talked for about 30 minutes which cost me 190 rupees. Someone was waiting, so I had to get off the phone. It was probably a good thing considering how much the calls ended up costing Sara.
I bought an orange Fanta (9 rupees) from my favorite shopkeeper on my way back to the hotel. I repacked my stuff for tomorrow. I would leave a lot of stuff in my big bag at the hotel.
Unfortunately, while I was flossing my teeth, a filling in a lower left molar popped out. I was pretty worried about this. In a matter of a hours I would be taking a Russian helicopter to the Himalayas far from the nearest modern dentist. My tooth was sharp and now sensitive to temperature. I was afraid it might get infected.
I wished I had bought another bottle of water, and Andrew quickly and generously offered me one of his since he had time to buy more. I gratefully accepted.
Table of Contents
March 19 Tuesday
Kathmandu -> Lukla -> Ghat -> Phakding
I didn't sleep well that night. I kept waking up. My cold sore still hadn't gone completely away. I had a wake-up call at 4:40 AM. I did my best not to wake Andrew as I got ready. This meant that I also didn't shave. I took the last shower I would have in a long time. The hot water felt great. I put on sock liners, light trekking socks, my boots, a light T-shirt, my blue long-sleeved shirt and my parka. I decided to leave the hooded jacket they had given me and use my parka instead. I brought my big bag, my kit bag and my backpack out, and went to eat breakfast. At that hour I had no appetite, but I made myself eat some toast and drink some orange juice. I left my passport, a credit card and $173 in a hotel safety deposit box.
The sun was rising as we drove to the airport. We drove past the international terminal to the domestic terminal. We had to wait around a bit before we went through security. Only Arnou's kit bag was opened. Fortunately, the weather was good because the planes and helicopters won't fly in cloudy weather. I read that they say, 'The clouds have rocks in them.' Helicopters, however, can handle worse weather than the Twin Otter STOL planes which are often used. The planes seat about 16 people. The Russian helicopter was big. We were flying Asian Air. Twenty-two of us and two small kids filed in and sat facing each other across the baggage that was tied down in the middle of the compartment. I sat on the left side between Anne and Rob. The helicopter took off for Lukla around 7:15 AM.
Cotton was passed around to plug in our ears because the noise in the helicopter was great. We also were given some candy. The views were stunning and spectacular even though you had to really twist to be able to see outside the window at your back. Towards the back of the helicopter you could see light from outside making its way through the spaces between metal. The green hills of the valley and the mountains were beautiful. The flight itself took about 45 minutes. After we landed and disembarked, the colder temperatures could instantly be felt. Views of snow-capped peaks were visible.
There were a number of Sherpa huts and lodges providing accommodations. Lukla is at an elevation of 2800m or 9186 feet. It is a fairly large village and the most popular base for trekking in the Khumbu region. Days could be spent hiking and visiting the Sherpa villages, Thyangboche Monastery, Khunde Hospital, Khumjung Hilary School and trekking towards the Everest Base Camp.
We settled into a lodge and ordered food. Dawa was busy getting our two Sherpa Guides and our three porters. We had time to walk through the village. This was actually Dawa's home town and where his wife lives. Rob and I walked down the airstrip and waited hoping to get pictures of the next flight in. The airstrip is right on the edge of a cliff, so I'm sure it can be a thrill to land in a plane there. I learned Rob is a computer programmer. While we waited, we saw several young men carry huge bundles of wood on their backs past us. We didn't get our pictures before it was time to eat. Two more helicopters had come in.
We ate around 11:00 AM. I had tomato soup and vegetable fried rice for 100 rupees. A bottle of water had become four times as expensive here since all of it has to be carried up on the backs of people or animals. The last bus stop was in Jiri which was about a week's trek away.
Our Sherpa guides were Lapka and Mingmaw. Our porters were Buddhi, Bag and Dil, who seemed to always wear his wool hat. I was surprised at the tennis shoes they wore. They seemed to be quite comfortable in them despite the rugged path we would be on and the loads they would be carrying. I later heard that Peregrine had offered to give them boots, but that they had declined the offer.
Then, ... we were off. We followed the course of the Dudh Kosi (which literally means Milk River from all the white water) high up the valley wall overlooking the beautiful green valley below. We were on the east side of the river, but we would cross it often. The trail would take us mostly northward and upstream. We moved downward in the valley towards the river. We passed by mani stones (stones with chants/prayers written on them) -- always on the left side to get the blessing, prayer wheels and many prayers flags. Dawa told us that the prayers on them were the chant 'om mani padme hum' which means hail to the jewel of the lotus. Although most of Nepal is Hindu, the Sherpas are predominantly Buddhists since their ancestors came over the mountains from Tibet.
The sun was out. I started with my parka on, but once we got moving with the sun overhead, it quickly got pretty warm and even hot. I stripped off my parka and wore it around my waist for a while. At a rest stop I stuffed it in my backpack which made it all the more heavier. In many places the path was rocky and you had to keep looking down at your feet to make sure you didn't trip.
Dawa and one of the guides would usually stay behind us and the other guide would take up the lead. Sometimes the guides would sing as they walked.
Our hiking brought several mountain peaks into view. We remembered Kusum Kanguru (6369m) by calling it Kissing Kangaroo. The name actually means Three Peaks which describes it pretty well. We saw Konde Ri (6093m) and Khumbila (5761m), the sacred mountain which no one is allowed to climb. Dawa took my picture in front of it.
We crossed the river using a suspension bridge. The views were stunning. The mountains were so close. We passed through villages. The path (there really was only one main path) took us through a pine forest containing rhododendrons. The shadow of myself wearing my new hat reminded me of the original Kung Fu TV series, and its theme music kept running through my head. Bryan Adam's song 'Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman' also started running through my head. It tended to make me feel lighter and the walking easier.
We ran into people coming back from Thyangboche. The path was hardly crowded. Dawa told us that October and November were the busiest months. We shared the path with animals that were a cross between yaks and cows, zopkio. Generally everything carried into the area is done so either on foot or on the backs of animals like these. At higher elevations we would see yaks doing more of the carrying. We were told to always stay uphill of these animals since it wouldn't take much for them to accidentally knock you off the path down towards the river.
I perspired quite a bit as we made our way on the path. This tended to make me pretty cold when we stopped to rest, so it was always a good idea to keep extra dry clothes you could slip into in your daypack. This, on the other hand, tended to make your pack heavier which made you perspire even more. We saw quite a few of the local Sherpas on our way. It seemed that they coughed and spit quite a bit.
We made our way through the small village of Ghat (2500m), crossed a suspension bridge and settled in Phakding (2652m or 8700 feet) in about three hours. Rather than tent camping, we would be staying in tea houses. They are simple, dormitory style accommodations made of thin wood and can be found all along the Everest trail. I think this first one was called the Beer Garden Resort or something close to that. Dawa gave us the option of getting our own rooms, so I suggested we do that.
Our guides would often help prepare and serve the food wherever we stayed or stopped to eat. I had a hot chocolate (20 NRs). My tooth was so far still just sensitive to liquids. Arnou wasn't feeling well, and I was afraid I would get sick. Getting sick out here was a bigger deal than in Kathmandu.
I ended up in Room 3 which had two small beds and no electricity. I could hear the water flowing just outside down to the river. My room was between Rob's and Deb and Arnou's. The walls were very thin, and you could even see slightly through the small slits between the boards. The doors to the rooms had padlocks on them. I had brought a combination lock with me because I had read that I might need it for room doors, but I ended up only using it on my kit bag. I changed my socks and shoes. My hiking boots were very dusty.
I went outside, and it was at this time that I had a strange and powerful deja vu experience. I was talking to Dawa just outside the tea house. He warned me about going off alone and being out on the trail after dark. He said I should be back by sunset. I felt as if I had experienced this if even in a dream possibly years ago. When I went back upstairs to my room, I heard Deb and Arnou talking about a deja vu experience Deb just had, so I shared mine with them. It was a weird coincidence.
The trek with its trails, villages, rivers, mountains and exposure to a different culture at times had a Tolkien-like feel to it.
Dinner was scheduled for 6:30 PM. Warm water was brought to our rooms in small basins for washing. Those basins would be the closest I would come to bathing for the duration of the trek. I tried to nap but couldn't. There was virtually no real barrier between the dining room downstairs on the ground floor and our rooms, so I could hear all the activity. I was gettting cold, so I put on my long underwear and joined Deb, Anne, Wendy and Dawa downstairs in a conversation on long underwear. Dawa told us about a hard trekking experience he had with a diabetic man named John. I was still cold, so I put on my parka.
I learned that Deb is a nurse. Water containing some kind of disinfectant that colored it pink or purple was poured over our hands for washing before dinner. This was the custom for all our meals during the trek. Our dinner table was like a covered picnic table. We sat on a long bench on one side. The other side had a bench built into the wall.
I had garlic soup, egg fried rice and a Sprite (60 rupees) for 165 rupees. I had read that a guide had said that garlic soup was good medicine for the altitude and that the locals eat a lot of it. The food was delivered to the table staggered -- as in not all at once. Afterwards, I brought down my water bottle to have it filled with hot boiled water. I still ended up adding iodine tablets to it. As would be our usual custom, we ordered breakfast before going to bed. As was the custom, we would write our orders off of a menu into a ledger next to our names and keep a running tab during our stay in each lodge. We would settle the bill right before we left the lodge.
There was no electricity (no TV on this trip) or even fire for heat. Deb, Dawa and Bill played Chase the Ace -- apparently a local version of Uno -- while most of us watched. Considering how much we played it, I'm amazed I can't remember the rules for it as I write this.
Our only light came from a kerosene lamp. It was so quiet it almost seemed like we were the only trekkers in the village. I stepped outside before going to bed to see the stars and was awed by how they filled the sky. It was beautiful. I was amazed. I don't recall ever seeing the stars twinkle like that and so brilliantly. I remember seeing the constellation Orion vividly and the star Sirius as I picked out other stars. This probably would have been the best night to look for Comet Hyakutake, but we didn't know of it at the time. It was at its brightest on March 25th.
We took turns using the outhouse which doubled as a shower. It was between the lodge and the stream that flowed down to the river. I was still somewhat constipated.
I lit one of my candles to help me get ready for bed. My flashlight came in very handy. I slept in my clothes and my gloves in one sleeping bag. Being quite tired, most of us were in bed around 9:15 PM. The Sherpas slept downstairs in the dining room. I woke up a few times in the night and noticed that the thermometer on my key chain read 45 degrees.
Table of Contents
March 20 Wednesday
Phakding -> Benkar -> Monjo
I woke up at 6:30 AM. The view of the mountains was fantastic in the morning. It would take the sun a while to clear the valley wall. We were brought more warm water in a pan for washing before breakfast. We ate around 7:15 AM. I had a breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs, porridge (oat meal) and tea for 195 rupees. We settled our accounts before setting off after 8:00. Mine came to 295 rupees.
I was surprised my legs felt as fine as they did. Perhaps all that walking before the trek made a difference. Actually, my legs did pretty well during the entire trek -- it was my lungs that had trouble on the climbs. Today's climb wasn't too bad. We had learned from yesterday not to carry as much in our day packs. Unfortunately, this meant more weight for the porters to carry from our kit bags on their backs. It looked like each carried three. The guides carried a medical kit and oxygen just in case of an emergency. Today my parka, my toiletry bag and my guide book went into the kit bag which helped a lot. Unfortunately, that meant I would be pretty cool until the sun climbed above the valley wall, but that didn't take very long. I never did quite master carrying only what I needed yet being comfortable throughout the day.
We crossed the Dudh Kosi again on a scary suspension bridge. The rail cables got lower as you got towards the center. Dawa helped Wendy across. I took a picture of a small Nepalese boy. We would often exchange greetings with the locals as we passed each other on our way. We would say, 'Namaste,' which is more than just a simple greeting but a statement conveying respect for one's soul (or so I've read). Hiking seemed much easier today. The pace even seemed quite leisurely. I didn't wear my sunglasses because we spent a good amount of time in the pine forest but still very close to the river. The remnant of my fever blister was still with me. We saw beautiful Himalayan pigeons, more Zopkio and rhododendrons. The peak of Thamserku (6808m) came into view.
We rested in Benkar where Rob shared some candy and we took some pictures of our group and some Zopkio. We had to cross at least one other rickety bridge before we reached Monjo (2835m) where we would spent the night. Some of the wooden bridges had holes in them, yet the Zopkio didn't seem to mind them. We got into Monjo just after 11:00 AM. We ordered lunch and unpacked. The rooms were upstairs again. This time I got room 9, and Deb and Arnou were across from me. The doors to the rooms had padlocks on them here as well. I changed my clothes and put on thermal underwear. This lodge had the benefit of having three outhouses.
Today I had garlic soup, egg soup, fried potatoes and hot chocolate for lunch for 150 rupees. A thin, grey, dirty cat with a loud meow joined us in the dining room. It looked like it might have worms and was very dusty. The cat seemed to beg for food, but we didn't have any scraps for it. I let it sit on my lap for a while. Arnou couldn't stand to have the cat even near her.
After lunch, I joined Dawa and Deb for some frisbee playing in an open area near the lodge. Bill and some of the Sherpas joined us. Dill really got into it. Dawa had packed the frisbee in the medical kit. It was a lot of fun. It made for quite a sight -- the valley, mountain peaks and us playing frisbee. I wish I had a picture of it. No one seemed to be especially good at it and the wind made it harder. We soon had quite an audience, but we ended up having to clear the area when some Zopkio carrying tents for other trekkers arrived.
We saw more trekkers today. I had read that the French and Germans tended to walk with two ski poles, and it appeared to be true.
I was still somewhat constipated. I rested and wrote in my room wearing gloves against the 55 degree temperatures. You couldn't just lie around for too long or you would get cold. I think I tended to be more sensitive to the cold than the others.
It turned out that Bill had a blister on each foot. The trek seemed like it was fairly leisurely paced so far, so I asked Dawa how long it would take him to do our entire trek on his own. He claimed he could do it in a day if he had to -- all the way from Lukla to Thyangboche and back to Lukla. We were a bit skeptical, but the Sherpas did have a way of surprising you with how well they could get around in this environment.
My ears were ringing as usual. I ended up fixing my bed for the night early. I played Chase the Ace with Dawa and Deb and did pretty well. Warm water was delivered to our rooms around 5:00 PM. My hands were having a hard time with the cold as they kept drying out. I wasn't shaving, and I wouldn't for the duration of the trek. It was good that mirrors were scarce.
At times I was struck with how really cool it was to be there, but at others I had a hard time and couldn't wait for it to end.
The stove in the dining room was lit which made me very grateful. There were also solar powered lights in the room as well. Arnou had a game called Pass the Pigs in which you throw these two little pig figurines and get points by the way they land.
There were other trekkers at the lodge this time, and the cat got a better reception from them. However, the different groups didn't seem to mix much.
I ate tomato soup, garlic soup, vegetable (or egg) fried rice and tried Chung, the local beer made from fermented rice. Dawa said he didn't want us drinking alcohol at the higher altitudes, so this would be a good time to try it. The beer was only 15 rupees. It tasted a little like rice wine and was served in a small glass. I noticed that sugar had been added to it. It was okay. The whole meal cost 165 rupees.
We had a big trek tomorrow up to Namche Bazaar. Anne and I thought we should have done it today, but we had to be careful about acclimatizing to the altitude.
I refilled my water bottle with hot boiled water again and was in bed by 10:00. I wrote notes and noticed the temperature reading to be 50 degrees before falling asleep.
Table of Contents
March 21 Thursday
Monjo -> Jorsale -> Namche Bazaar
By morning the temperature in my room got down to 45 degrees. I woke up around 4:12 AM and went back to sleep. I was up by 6:30 AM. My bowels seemed to be in better shape, but my hands were still having a hard time. I had brought some hand lotion but nowhere near enough.
Today would be a tough day. Dawa told us we'd cross three suspension bridges as we climbed to Namche. He told us we could pack our rain gear away as he didn't expect rain.
I had black tea, and at least one apple pancake and oat porridge for breakfast for 110 rupees. We settled our bills before we left. Mine was for 425 rupees. I was cold but anxious to start. Dawa took care of our national park entrance passes and had our trekking permits checked at the entrance to Sagarmatha Park where there was a small visitor center. There was plenty of conservation material posted there. Sagarmatha is the local name for Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world. We entered the park just before Jorsale (2805m).
We first had to go down a steep hill past a huge tree to get to our first suspension bridge. The bridge was quite long and looked looked new. Our next bridge was much more rickety. When we crossed again, we had to climb up to the bridge. It was suspended high over the river. It was at a point where the Dudh Kosi and Bhote Kosi rivers merge. The roar of the flowing water filled the air and gradually died down as we continued our climb. The sun was out, and as we climbed we could see the beautiful valley from which we had come. I kept taking pictures as we climbed higher and higher as each progressive view of the valley seemed better and better.
It was a tough uphill climb to Namche Bazaar. Soon, however, we caught our first view of Everest -- big time stop-and-take-lots-of-pictures moment. Everest's peak rose above Lhotse's ridge and to the left of its 8000m peak. We also saw Tawoche and Nuptse. As we continued it was not easy going at all, and we got pretty strung out, but it was beautiful. There were lots of pine trees on the trail.
I met a dentist from Montana on the way. He was planning on living in Nepal for the next four or five years. We slowly made our way up together for a while. It was quite an effort.
As we got closer to Namche, cool winds picked up. Sometimes this would stir up dust from the trail into the air. We stopped at a bend in the trail where Namche first came into view. The views were spectacular, and we took a lot of pictures.
During the trek sometimes we would see a helicopter going up or down the valley. Dawa had told us to bring at least $100 worth of currency with us so that in case we needed to pool our resources together for a helicopter rescue, we would have it. I had read that it could cost something like $2000 to be airlifted out by a helicopter.
Namche Bazaar (3446m or 11300 feet) is the largest village in the area and is generally considered the entrance to the Everest region. It is U-shaped and perched on the edge of a gorge. I had never seen anything like it. Situated in the lap of the Khumbu Himal range, Namche Bazaar is about 241km from Kathmandu. The distance can be generally covered by trekking within 15 days. This place is the home of the legendary Sherpas, who are famous for being the world's most sturdy mountain climbers. The Sherpas migrated to this area from Tibet a couple of hundred years ago, and their culture and language still reflect their Tibetan Buddhist background.
We stayed at a lodge, the Foot Rest, in the heart of the village. There were many shops lining the streets with books, postcards, Zopkio bells and other items a tourist might want. I later heard that the merchants wouldn't bargain very much. I had read that just about everything is marked up anyway since it has to be carried up from Kathmandu, so I didn't buy any souvenirs. The village also had electric power for at least indoor lights and whatever the satellite dishes I saw were for. I read that the power was hydroelectric. There was also a very informal post office, a bank where you could exchange money and a place where you could actually phone home -- for over $3.00 a minute.
My hands were definitely having a hard time. The climb had been tough, but I was still wishing we could accelerate the itinerary. In the dining/living area, I had a pot of hot chocolate, potato soup, mushroom soup and tomato cheese pizza for lunch for 260 rupees. Rob and I had to share a room this time because another Peregrine group going to the base camp was staying at the lodge as well. We were in room H. The lock had extra keys, so we each had at least one. You needed a key for the outhouse which hung inside the lodge on the wall. I changed my shoes and socks and put on my thermal underwear.
I joined Rob and Deb on a walk that turned into a tough hike to get a view of Everest. We had taken a wrong turn which took us on quite a hike -- not what I was looking forward to after the climb to Namche. Another traveler coming down told us we were headed for the small airstrip, and a view of Everest would be no sooner than another 45 minutes or so. We decided to turn back which wasn't as easy as expected since the path was very steep and somewhat slippery. When we got down, we went to the visitor center where we were supposed to go in the first place. The visitor centor is up a hill off to the side of the village by a military base that has a basketball court. You can get a view of Everest from there on a clear day. Unfortunately, Everest's peak was obscured by clouds, but we got a great view of Ama Dablam. It has a distinctive crystalline pointy peak. The visitor center also has a nice and informative museum which contains exhibits on the surrounding mountains and the Sherpa culture. I signed the guest book and added my email address, but to date I have yet to receive any email from anyone who might have seen it.
I talked with people from the other group. It looked like the couple I met in the Shanker Hotel shop were among them. Today turned out to be Deb's birthday. She wouldn't tell us how old she was (I think she eventually told us she turned 35 or so before we went our separate ways), but we celebrated it at dinner. Each of us wore some kind of makeshift goofy hat. I think Bill wore one of Anne's bras. I wore my black hat with rupee notes hanging from it. Even Dawa wore a hat. I had cheese tomato pizza, grilled toast, french fries, tomato soup, black tea and a small coke for dinner for 223 rupees. It was generally so cold in the living room that they didn't need to refrigerate the soda that was locked in a cube-like case roughly in the center of the room. (Actually, our rooms were like refrigerators at night.) A chocolate covered cake with candles was brought out for Deb which she shared.
We played a trivia game of questions we made up after dinner. Mine were mostly tourist type questions, but we had quite a variety. Arnou asked one about malaria. The hats and games had been Anne's idea. We played Chase the Ace before turning in around 10:15 PM.
Table of Contents
March 22 Friday
I woke up after 3:00 AM, but went back to sleep. I got up around 5:15 to join the others on a trip to the visitor center to see Everest at dawn. It was a quite a hike so early in the morning. Unfortunately, the cloud cover was too great, but the views were still amazing.
We had breakfast when we returned. I had oat porridge, scrambled eggs and black tea for 93 rupees. I took off my thermal underwear before Dawa took Rob, Anne, Wendy, Bill, Deb and me for a hike towards Thami (3810m). Today was supposed to be a rest and acclimatization day, but I figured any day that I don my backpack isn't going to be all that restful. We first had to climb out of Namche to get to the path. The initial uphill was hard. I used my sunglasses a little. We saw some yaks. It was our first yak sighting, and everyone scrambled for pictures as they passed. I wasn't quick enough, but I knew we'd see more.
We walked high above the Bhote Khola River moving west. From our elevation we could see small terraced fields below us. We walked among pine trees and saw some beautiful flowers growing just off to the side. I think someone said they were irises. The walk through the forest was relatively flat. The views were great.
At the very small village of Phurte at what I think was a chorten (a small stupa with prayer flags surrounded by mani stones) Rob turned back. We continued on and saw a monastery on a hill. We ran into a woman we had seen at one or two of the lodges we stayed at. She had volunteered to deliver some mail for the post office, and I think she was going to the monastery way up the valley wall. We figured it would take her another hour or so to get there. We continued to the next small village where there was a shrine before turning back.
We saw some deer in the forest during our trip back. The clouds had rolled in, and it began to snow. I was glad I had worn my parka because the snow started to come down pretty hard. There was also quite a bit of dust in the air, and it became difficult to take. It would get in your eyes and mouth.
I think I hit my head on the doorway of the lodge when we got back, and I don't believe it was the only time. In case I haven't mentioned it, the people of Nepal tend to be quite a bit shorter than westerners, and the doorways often serve as painful reminders. I'm 5'11', and in my boots I'm probably a good 6 feet tall.
I had cheese toast, tomato soup, a small order of fries and hot chocolate for lunch (143 rupees). Rob moved into his own room since the Everest Base Camp group had moved on. I sat in my room for a while taking down notes while the snow just kept coming down. I felt a little bit like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz' -- this sure wasn't Kansas.
Wearing jeans had definitely been a mistake. The information booklet I received from Himalayan travel didn't make it clear just how bad an idea they were. The booklets from Peregrine that the others received were much more clear -- cotton jeans take forever to dry, and modern fabrics that dry more easily are the much better way to go. Of course, Dawa with his Sherpa constitution had no trouble wearing jeans all the time.
I was worried that the weather wouldn't be good enough for our helicopter to pick us up and take us back to Kathmandu in time for my flights home. I also had a problem with boredom. There just wasn't that much to do. I regretted not bringing a book with me. You could walk around, but you were already doing some serious hiking routinely. Plus, it was cold and snowing. I had an electric light in my room, but I would gladly have traded it for some heat.
My tongue was a little sore at the spot where it would go over the sharp edge of my missing filling. I put a large bandage on my right upper thigh at my groin because the area was getting sensitive from rubbing. It seemed to help a lot. The skin on my hands had dried and cracked and sometimes bled slightly.
The snow just kept falling. There seemed to be a large Japanese group staying in tents within view of my window, and I felt sorry for them. I was surprised anyone would stay in tents when there were so many inexpensive tea houses available. Perhaps they didn't want to risk not finding enough rooms.
You could definitely feel the altitude here. Even relatively simple tasks like running up the stairs to your room or trying to get both of your sleeping bags in a small bag that went into your kit bag (you'd be surprised how much effort it took to scrunch those sleeping bags into a bag smaller than my little backpack) would have you breathing heavily. Sometimes I'd forget and run up the stairs, and think, 'Oh, no,' as I realized the discomfort I'd shortly be in.
Deb and Arnou went out and played in the snow.
Around 5:00 PM a small wash basin with hot water arrived at my room. I washed my hands and face and tried to wash my hair without shampoo (since I didn't have any fresh water with which to rinse it). It didn't work out too well.
I joined the others in the dining room where most people read and laundry dried over the lit stove. The heat was very welcome. There was concern over whether we'd be able to move on tomorrow if the snow kept falling.
Wendy beat me at a game of boxes.
I had black tea, a small order of fires and tomato soup for dinner (93 rupees). It wasn't much, but my appetite wasn't there which made me nervous. Wendy, Anne, Deb, Dawa and I played cards for a while. I put another bandage on my leg. We played Chase the Ace, 7's and one of Dawa's new games before turning in around 9:00 PM. I ended up sleeping in my parka.
Table of Contents
March 23 Saturday
Namche Bazaar -> Thyangboche
I woke up around 12:30 AM feeling somewhat nauseous. I belched a couple of times, and it left a taste of rotten eggs in my mouth -- not a good sign. I was cold, so I put my second sleeping bag over my first. I then went back to sleep wearing my gloves, hat and scarf. I woke up again around 3:30 AM. When I woke up at 5:00 AM, I went to the outhouse which was quite cold. I was still having those egg burps.
Namche was covered in snow. The view of the snow-covered peaks around us at dawn was spectacular. I took a couple of pictures before coming back inside. I was hoping I'd feel better soon because the skies were clear which meant that we'd do the hard trek to Thyanboche monastery today. The temperature in my room was 39 degrees Fahrenheit. I could see my own breath. I cancelled my own breakfast and had a pot of tea instead (45 rupees). Arnou, who had become very sick during her Annapurna trek, told me that her terrible malady had started with egg burps. I settled my bill for 857 rupees.
Since it was Saturday, we were in for a treat -- Namche's Saturday market. Sometimes people came all the way from Tibet to trade there. We explored the market between 8:20 and 8:45. It was very crowded and the streets (actually, they were cobbled walkways) were very slippery from the snow. The market was on two levels and going up and down the stairs was treacherous. One woman was throwing ash on the steps which helped. There were animals, meat and assorted goods all over the place.
We left for Thyangboche (3875m or 12713 ft) around 9:00 AM. I was still wearing my thermal underwear and gloves. We had to climb out of Namche first. We had a great view of some yaks by the Sherpa Cultural Center. It was a nice hotel with a stupa in its courtyard. The trail we took had few trees. One wrong step to the right, and it would be a long way down. I needed my sunglasses because of the glare from the sun reflecting off the snow. The landscape had changed dramatically. We had been hiking in a valley forest, and now it really felt like we were in the Himalayan mountains. The views were stunning. The river was far below us, and mountain peaks surrounded us.
We saw some Himalayan thas which looked kind of like deer from far away. They tended to blend in with their surroundings very well, which explains why it always takes an effort to find them in my pictures. Our movement was mostly horizontal and fairly leisurely. We took time for several picture breaks and some snowball throwing. It was fun. I took pictures of the peaks of Nuptse, Everest, Lhotse and Thamserku on the way.
We reached our lunch spot at the Ama Dablam tea house and lodge at 11:00. I had felt a bit crampy, but I was okay. I ordered yak steak just to try it -- not to mention I was missing the taste of cooked meat. Unfortunately, they were out of yak meat at the time. Sherpas won't kill any animal. They can, however, eat meat from animals that have died in an accident. Meat may also be brought from outside the region for tourists. I ended up ordering a plate of boiled potatoes and a Coke (105 rupees).
While we waited for our lunch, I rolled three snowballs into the parts for a good-sized snowman. The others joined in and helped finish it. The local people seemed to be surprised and amused by it.
At some point while we were inside through the window I noticed a small boy urinating right on the path just outside the building. It was warm enough to take off my thermal top. Lunch ended up taking two hours. I would often share my yellow highlighter so that everyone could mark our progress on their maps. When we were leaving, the woman who seemed to run the kitchen said goodbye to us. She seemed to add that she felt she should pay me for making the snowman.
It took us about another hour to make the steep descent to the Imja Khola river. We were back amongst the trees for this part. Parts of the trail were rocky, muddy and slippery. At one point I got hit in the back of the head with a snowball. There were some people on the trail having a snowball fight. My ears popped, and the snow disappeared as we descended.
At the lower elevation of the river it was quite a bit warmer, so we rearranged our clothes before crossing the suspension bridge. On the other side of the river we passed through the small village of Phunki Thanghka (10650 feet). A stream there drove several water-driven prayer wheels. I was with Deb, Arnou, Bill and Rob (though Rob often went ahead) for the worst climb of the trek. In India Jerry had told me this climb is called the Thyangboche Wall. It was very hard on me. I thought it ranked right up there with marathon running and century cycling. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have tried to stick with Rob, Deb and Arnou who had just done the Annapurna trek together before this one. Rob often said that he thought the Everest trek was easier than the Annapurna trek (besides the fact that they stayed in tents on that one), but everyone else said it just seemed that way since he had gotten used to trekking at these altitudes.
It took us about two hours to make the climb. There was no escaping the slow steady climb on the path through the trees. I found myself again concerned for my life -- we don't have hills in Chicago! We did take a few breaks, and the views were beautiful. We saw local women carrying unbelievable loads on their heads steadily walking upwards breathing with tongues hanging out of their mouths. This climb was just plain nasty. Lapka, however, seemed to have no trouble with it and was amused at our efforts. Rob did pretty well too. He felt that it was best to just keep a steady pace instead of starting and stopping a lot. Deb and Arnou used walking sticks.
We kept saying that the monastery should be around the next corner and were met with disappointment far too often. When Bill said he could see prayer flags and that the monastery had to be around the next corner and we couldn't see them, we were skeptical, but fortunately, this time it proved to be true. We later heard that Dawa had kept telling Wendy the same thing -- that the monastery was just around the corner to keep her from giving up.
We arrived at the monastery just after 4:00 PM -- just before Everest was obscured by clouds. At the entrance to the monastery plateau there was an elaborately decorated small arch-like building. I'm glad I had time for at least one picture of me with Everest over my shoulder. Someone pointed out the first South African Everest expedition that was staying there at the time. I read that Nepal requires fall climbs of Mt. Everest to be completed by November 15 and that climbing permits are only valid for a specific season.
We stayed at the Trekkers' Lodge. It was a dormitory with very wide bunk beds and a long table in its central room. It was unusual in that it had a concrete floor. I read that it had been built by New Zealanders and that it was run by the National Park. Dawa, Wendy, Anne and Deb arrived about thirty minutes behind us. There were only three private rooms, and we decided to let the women take them. Wendy looked exhausted and soon retired for the night. Anne told us she had said she never would have done it if she had known what kind of climb it would be. I felt exhausted as well. I had no appetite, and I was cold until they started a fire in the stove in the center of the room. The room also had huge windows by the table and electric lights.
I changed into drier clothes, and Dawa gave me some antiseptic cream for the bleeding, cracked skin on my hands. We hung up some of our wet clothes on ropes near the stove. We were supposed to spend two nights here to give ourselves a rest day tomorrow, but the accommodations were such that it was a no contest vote to head back tomorrow.
In search of an outhouse I went for a walk around the monastery. In the twilight the mountain peaks were partially visible through the clouds and fog. It was surreal -- like a village in the clouds.
I dreaded the 'dead time' I expected back in the lodge before we went to sleep. I was so glad we had decided to cancel our rest day. I was pretty dead at dinner. I had some potato soup, toast with jam and black tea (68 rupees). I had read that some monks said that the best food in town could be found here. After dinner, Rob, Anne, Dawa, Bill, Deb, Dill and I played Chase the Ace until we went to bed around 9:00. Most of the porters sat by the stove or at the other end of the table. There were 4 bed spots on a bunk. Rob and I shared 4 of them. Bill slept above us. I woke up a few times, but I used only one sleeping bag -- it was definitely warmer having the stove nearby. I dreamt of meeting up with old classmates.
Table of Contents
March 24 Sunday
Thyangboche -> Namche Bazaar
I got up at 6:00 to see Everest at dawn, but it was behind clouds. I walked around with Bill, Anne and Deb. Wendy was feeling better. At breakfast I read to the others the personal account I had obtained from the net of someone who had stayed at the same lodge. Perhaps my account will be read at the Trekkers' Lodge someday as well. I had an apple pancake and black tea for breakfast (68 NRs). We settled our bills before we left. Mine was for 151 rupees. The way water dripped off the rooftops onto people made me see a market for gutters here. The melting snow drips on you whenever you enter or exit buildings.
The 8:00 AM monastery tour was interesting. I think our bearded guide was Swiss or German. At first we weren't sure if he was a guide. He gave us an overview of Buddhism and the history of the temple. The temple had burned down several years ago and had been rebuilt with millions of dollars donated from all over the world. It is the largest in the region. I remember him telling us that the foot-like imprint in a boulder just outside the entrance is believed to have been made by a spiritual figure who could fly who touched down there.
Beyond the front doors was a square courtyard with a pole holding up colorful prayer flags in the center. Across the courtyard were some more stairs. We had to take our shoes off to enter the gompa, but it was nice not to have to pay anyone to watch them. There was a huge statue of Buddha inside. It was so big that getting a good picture of it was difficult. The room had rows of pads where monks would sit. There were also two huge drums hanging in the room. The walls were ornately decorated.
Our guide told us of the serious water problem at the monastery. He said that 30,000 people come to visit every year and that they can have as many as 600 at the monastery some days (today was a very light day). The facilities have trouble coping with them. I donated 50 rupees for the water project they're working on before we left.
It looked like some of our faces got some color from yesterday's trek. We hadn't worn our hats much since we spent a lot of time under pine trees and were so hot from hiking.
We left around 9:15 AM. Going downhill was much better. Some people said it was harder on the knees, but it didn't bother me, and there was no way I would prefer climbing to descending. The forest views were beautiful on the way down. It didn't take us long to reach the village with the water-driven prayer wheels by the river. While we rested there, Rob shared some of his candy with us.
Some clouds rolled in, and the climb back to the Ama Dablam tea house and lodge was slow. It got cold, and my parka was off. I took off with Rob at a good pace mostly just to stay warm. Lots of yaks on the trail slowed our progress. It looked like a huge Japanese group was on its way up on an expedition to make an IMAX film.
Our snowman had mostly melted, but the lady in the kitchen remembered us. It started to snow. I had hot chocolate and played a game of solitaire. They had yak meat today, so I ordered the yak steak. It was delicious. I ended up paying 103 rupees for the hot chocolate, yak steak and a hot lemon drink. We would often cradle our hot drinks and soups in our hands to warm them.
Only Anne and I were willing to hike up to the Japanese built Everest View Hotel with Dawa in the falling snow. The others took the same trail back to Namche that we took to get there. I'm glad I made the trip. The landscape shrouded by clouds and falling snow was surreal. I'll never forget it. Unfortunately, the climb to the Everest View Hotel would take us back to the altitude we had started the day with at the monastery, and it was a hard climb for me. It was nothing for Dawa, and Anne didn't seem to have as much trouble with it. I may have had to carry more weight than she did, but it depressed me to think I was that out of shape. Still, I'm glad I went.
Dawa pointed out musk deer on our way. We touched on the village of Khumjung and saw Kunde in the distance. I had a hard time keeping up, and my heart was pounding. In my hat, gloves and parka the effort caused me to perspire quite a bit. I started to lag behind. However, it wasn't too long before we reached the expensive hotel. At 12,700 feet, it was 1400 feet above Namche Bazaar. It mostly caters to rich Japanese, but it still doesn't have sit-down toilets. It did have running water though.
The hotel seemed mostly empty. We sat at a table next to a window that would have given us a view of Everest had the weather been clear. Anne bought herself tea, Dawa coffee and me a hot lemon. I chipped in 25 rupees because she didn't have correct change. Our server was dressed in a suit, and I think the cups/glasses had the name of the hotel on them. The rest of the way to Namche was much easier.
The grounds of the hotel were neat. The views in the clouds and the falling snow were wild. We passed a tea house and went by the small Syangboche airstrip which seemed deserted. Dawa took us on a route off the path. We heard rolling thunder and had great views of Namche during our slippery and steep descent on the path I had started on with Rob and Deb the day we first arrived in Namche. It felt unreal. We came across what I think was a yak on our way. The last stretch into town was very muddy and slippery. We had to be very careful not to slip. My boots had definitely earned their keep on this trip. I wouldn't be surprised if I hit my head on the lodge door when we arrived.
When Anne and I described our impressions of the trip, Wendy said I was a pessimist. I thought I was just a realist. I was often amazed at how optimistic she and Anne could be. Compared to them I didn't know who wouldn't look like a pessimist. Anne said that she thought that the trek had been easier than she thought it would be. I have to say that even though we didn't share the same outlook, I'm glad Anne and Wendy were on the trip. They did make it more fun.
I was back in room H. We planned to eat in Monjo and stay in Phakding. Despite the difficulty I had with these days, I did enjoy them, and I am glad I was there. Though I would do a few things differently in the future in terms of clothes, reading material, hand lotion and going when in better shape.
I changed into drier clothes and played Chase the Ace with Dawa, Deb and Wendy before dinner. I finally tried dal bhat. It's a dish made with rice and lentils and is a staple of the Nepali diet. It's a huge dish and is pretty expensive. I also had a Coke, tomato soup and a hot lemon before I was done. It cost 195 rupees in all. It was a running joke with us the way Wendy seemed to have an omelet at every meal. Tomato soup was another very popular choice. Just about everyone had it. Some other choices included fried vegetable momos (which was a Tibetan dish something like ravioli without the sauce) and chapatis (Indian flat breads).
We played more Chase the Ace after dinner. I went to bed at 9:00 but had trouble falling asleep.
Table of Contents
March 25 Monday
Namche Bazaar -> Monjo -> Benkar -> Phakding
I woke up after 4:00 AM. I dreamt I was on a trip and that I met up with Marc and Marie from India.
I got up around 6:20 AM. The temperature in my room according to my thermometer was 34 degrees. It made me think of a song to the music of Shaun Cassidy's 'Da Do Run Run Run' song. It went like this (keep the music in mind): Woke up in the morning ... I was freezing to death ... da do run run run, da do run run.
I had Tibetan bread and two hot lemons for breakfast (70 NRs). Tibetan bread is a fried flat bread. It didn't look like the Tibetan bread I had seen the others previously order. I was disappointed by it and ended up not finishing it. As sunlight streamed through the windows into the dining room, I could see the dust floating in the air. Deb had gone to the visitor center to get pictures of Everest because the morning skies were clear. I was coughing slightly and my hands were cracked and bleeding which made me think I had to get out of here.
Someday I'll know why I came to this place ... da do run run run, da do run run.
We left around 8:00 AM. Rob and I ended up going ahead. Snow hung in the pine tree branches melting in the bright sunshine. At first the trail was icy and slippery. My ears popped as we descended quickly. Descending meant more oxygen and warmth -- now there's an optimistic thought. We stopped at the dilapidated tea house for another view of Everest and waited for the others.
We crossed three bridges. Rob went even further ahead, and I spent a lot of time alone. It was nice. Sometimes while trekking we would get good whiffs of the smoke burning in nearby stoves. It seemed to bother me almost as much as cigarette smoke. I think it was today that I saw what seemed to be two young couples on the trail going our way. I think they might have been Australians from the cute koala one of the girls had sticking its head out of her backpack.
At the Sagarmatha Park entrance at Jorsale we rested. This time I noticed a sign posted that said: 'When you are in the park, take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.' I liked it.
We arrived in Monjo around 10:40. I almost didn't recognize the place. I had tomato soup, vegetable fried rice and a Coke for 175 rupees.
We left for Phakding by 12:30 and arrived in about two hours. Most of the time I was between Rob and the others. The skies clouded over by the time we arrived at the tea house. This time I was in room 4. Not being able to stand it anymore, I asked for two wash basins and washed my hair with shampoo. It was still cold enough that things couldn't really dry in our rooms.
A fire was started in the dining room stove which was very welcome. I think they might have burned yak dung. I had read that due to the shortage of wood, yak dung is often dried out and burned for cooking and heating. Arnou, Deb and I talked about whether the girl should help in choosing the engagement ring. I had a hot lemon (10 NRs). Arnou threw together a game of scattegories which we played until dinner.
I had tomato soup, cheese pizza, a Coke and a hot lemon (220 NRs). All were very good. I tried to play scattegories after dinner, but I just couldn't get into it. It had started to drizzle outside.
Three Japanese girls and their guide were staying there as well. They were at a different table (the table at which we had been when we stayed there the first time) and were working on origami. Dill went over to them, and they showed him how to make something out of paper. Rob taught Wendy, Deb and Anne how to play hearts. I just watched.
I think it was this evening (or maybe the evening spent at Thyanboche) that Arnou later recalled Bill trying to explain to Dill what the title to the book _Circle_of_Friends_ meant. When he got to the word friends, he said that that's what we were. It was very touching.
My spirits started to go down. I felt like I was reduced to being a cave man huddling with others next to a fire to get through the night. All the games we played spent time, killed time. They're supposed to be enjoyable, but I doubted we'd play them if we had anything better to do or under different circumstances. I just couldn't be a part of it anymore. I felt like I was fasting, but not with food -- but with my everyday life. I was doing without it. Perhaps it was good for the soul.
I saw this as time that could have been spent accomplishing other things but was lost. I wish there had been other things to do. It just felt so empty. The time was empty. I'm in Nepal, and we huddle around playing cards.
Deb, Wendy and Anne talked about how much potential was lost in our porters -- espially Dill who seemed to enjoy learning, reading and origami. They mentioned the idea of sponsoring one of them somehow. They wanted to tip significantly beyond what Dawa suggested. I wasn't sure how right it was to impose our Western goals on them.
I was in bed around 9:30. I was in Rob's old room this time closer to the stream outside, and the white noise of the rushing water was conducive in generating wild images. I still wonder how much the Lariam I was taking was affecting my mood.
Table of Contents
March 26 Tuesday
Phakding -> Ghat -> Lukla
I slept in one sleeping bag and no gloves this time and had lots of bizarre dreams. I woke up a few times in the night. My dreams included many strange images. My friend Andy was in a dream. I was staying at someone's place instead of a hotel. My friend Bob kept phasing in but in bed. I saw my old girlfriend Hilary with colored blotches on her face. I was talking to Andy while another girl tried to eavesdrop. I threw my hot chocolate over my shoulder into her face, and she walked away. I could see her bare back with blotches that later looked like muddy rocks on her back. I was traveling with Dawa, but he left me to go climb a high mountain. He was dressed for being with others. There were monkeys on my way home. That's all I have from the notes I took. Weird. Mefloquine again?
I got up around 6:20 AM. I also woke up after 2:00 and 4:00. The clouds hadn't lifted and the ground was wet. There might have been mice in the lodge, but I'm not sure. Lapka delivered hot tea and hot lemons to our rooms. Anne and Wendy had suggested we get served in bed last night. I had a hot lemon (10 NRs).
I had a cold pancake with honey for breakfast (45 NRs). We settled our bills and left around 8:40. My bill was for 285 rupees. The Japanese had left before us. It started to rain on us, and we walked in fog. It did make for an awesome landscape. It wasn't raining all that hard. I put on my thin emergency rain poncho, but it didn't seem to help much. My legs got wet, and the warm from being covered with the poncho made me perspire enough that I wondered if I was staying any drier by wearing the poncho. I knew my jeans would take forever to dry.
We saw what looked like a cow with a broken right front foot. It looked pitiful as it walked down the trail. We knew the locals wouldn't kill it, so we didn't know how long it would go on suffering like that. We crossed the river at Benkar.
I started to get very worried about the weather clearing in time for our helicopter to take us back to Kathmandu. Getting back to Lukla involved climbing out of the valley away from the river. Climbing in the falling rain with the prospect of being stranded in Lukla was not pleasant. I was pretty miserable.
Some of us wanted to see the school Sir Edmund Hillary had built for the children nearby, so Lapka took Wendy, Anne, Deb, Rob and me off the main path down towards the river. We had to climb rock walls. I started to think that I would break my leg just as we were finishing the trek. I almost slipped, but one of the local people put his arm out to catch me if I fell.
We walked through the school complex and saw classes in session. I think a door was closed on us because we were becoming too much of a distraction. The climb back to the main path was hard but eventually we met up with the others.
Rob and I were the first to arrive at the lodge where we had eaten lunch when we first landed in Lukla. We didn't want to wait for the others in the growing cold. I had a hot chocolate and a hot lemon when we got there. My room was room 202. It was a corner room with thin walls, and I expected to feel the wind at night. My clothes were wet. I changed into drier ones and took clothes down to dry by the stove in the dining room. Even the money I had in a bag around my neck was wet from my perspiration. A travelers' check for $100 was in pretty bad shape. I was hoping I could still cash it when it dried. I have to admit that at that moment I regretted going on the trip.
I had tomato cheese pizza, tomato soup and a Coke (about 260 NRs) for lunch. Some children poked their heads in for a while. I then spent the afternoon sitting in front of the dining room stove drying clothes and taking in the warmth. Some wacky recorded music was played.
I met a guy named Stefan who was an engineer from Austria. He said he was on a 3-week trek with a group, but he got sick, so his group left for Namche without him. He looked quite well and clean for someone who'd been trekking for a week or so. We sat next to the stove talking for a while. He also felt that the people who had been on the Annapurna trek before this one had gotten used to trekking at these altitudes and that's why they found it easier. He also thought that a lot of wood was being wasted because the homes were thermally inefficient. We actually talked quite a bit. He told me that when he had been to Nepal before, he hated it. He didn't htink he'd ever come back, but over the years it's drawn him to come again. It seemed like a strange coincidence that he'd be telling me this at this moment.
The fog hung thickly, and I prayed and prayed.
Our farewell dinner was quite good. I had roasted chicken, dal bhat and some chicken curry. Dawa got us some chocolate cake. He said that out of the 100 or so groups he's been with we were the best. We gave him a hard time saying that he must say that to all the groups, but he claimed to mean it. I was warm. It made for quite an announcement since I had had such trouble being warm on the trek. We played games like Pass the Bottle. Anne and Wendy had some of the craziest game ideas. In Pass the Bottle we made two teams which included our porters and guides. Then we raced to pass a bottle from between our knees to the next person's knees. Stefan joined us for the festivities.
We drank rum, sang and danced. (That's what was missing on this trek -- alcohol.) We did a slightly different version of the hoki poki than I'm used to. There was an attempt at the chicken dance. I think the locals were very much amused. The Sherpas (including Dawa) sang their songs and performed their own dances. It was fun. I was feeling better because stars had become visible outside the windows.
Bill had quite a bit to drink. He started calling Anne and Wendy POMs. I learned this meant Prisoners Of her royal Majesty. He also told Deb that he suspected nurse Deb with sleeping with Dawa our first night in Namche from the sounds he heard coming from her room. Eventually Bill had to be taken to bed.
I gave Dawa 700 rupees as a tip for the three porters and two Sherpa guides. He had suggested between 500 and 700. I also gave Wendy 100 rupees for the caps she had bought the porters. I went to bed around 10:30. More clouds seem to have rolled in, and I could no longer see the stars. I fell asleep hoping it would be clear when I woke up.
Table of Contents
March 27 Wednesday
Lukla -> Kathmandu
I woke up around 4:39 AM and could see stars outside my window. I had a dream about observing John Travolta acting out some plot. I got up after 6:00. The skies were clear and sunlight was beginning to fill the valley. I packed and had to change the battery in my camera. I didn't finish my breakfast of oat porridge and hot lemon. Bill was pretty hungover.
At 7:36 Dawa passed out our helicopter boarding passes -- Asian Airlines again. We waited in the frisbee area just outside the lodge right next to the airstrip. It was a hard wait. Around 8:50 the siren sounded to announce that a helicopter had taken off from Kathmandu. Eventually a helicopter, a plane and another heicopter arrived before ours did. It was a little nerve-wracking, but it finally came. It was great to see.
Dawa suggested we sit on the right side this time. We had to go through security again. I wasn't sure just how I would have picked up any exposives or guns on the trek, but it was pretty painless. I sat between Wendy and Deb. We were given cotton and candy again. The views were great. It was hard to believe the trek was ending.
Arnou suddenly started crying from sudden and terrible sinus pain. It seemed to get better fairly quickly.
Kathmandu now seemed so polluted and deliciously hot. We were driven the short distance from the helicopter to the airport terminal. It seemed a little ridiculous after all the walking we'd already done. A bus shortly took us to the Shanker Hotel. Rob and I were given room 111. I repacked after getting my passport and plane tickets and returning the Peregrine gear. My plane reservations had been confirmed for me. I took a wonderful shower and shaved nine days of growth away. I traded Rob $20 for 1100 rupees.
I was so happy to be back in Kathmandu. My legs never did get all that sore and I never got any blisters. I had some raised itchy bumps that reminded me of hives around my waist towards the back. Perhaps it was from wearing the same clothes for so many days.
I went to Global Communications where I picked up email from Sara and sent her a message (300 NRs). On my way back to the hotel I stopped in at the Ambassador Hotel and bought wool sweaters (1500 NRs) for Sara and me. I changed another $20 for 1073 rupees at the hotel desk and talked with the others in the front garden. It was so weird to be back, warm and clean. I bought a Sprite and water (29 NRs) from my favorite shopkeeper and took his picture. I wish I had his name and address, so I could send him a reprint.
I returned to Global Communications and called Sara for one minute, and she called me back. When I got back to my hotel, I got a message that said my flight to Delhi tomorrow had been delayed. I would now leave the hotel at 2:00 PM instead of at 9:30 AM. This made me nervous again. Schedules don't mean as much in this part of the world.
I bought a Peregrine T-shirt from Dawa for 200 rupees. I changed another $10 at the hotel before dinner. We met at 6:00 PM in the hotel lobby. As we headed out for Thamel, I gave Dawa four of my AA spare batteries. He had asked us earlier if he could buy them since they were so hard to get.
We ate at the Rum and Doodle and treated Dawa. We ate outside with lit candles. The restaurant has foot-shaped boards with messages and signatures from trek groups all over its walls. We filled one out titling it Dawa'a Virgin Tour since it was his first trek as trek leader. We had steak, Cokes, Sprite, French fries, cauliflower and cheesecake. It cost 400 rupees.
I'm not sure just when it was, but towards the end I brought up Paul Cook to Deb, Arnou and Rob since they had been on the Annapurna trek with him. I didn't want to talk about him earlier in case they liked him a lot more than I did. It turns out he was quite an object of humor on their trek as well.
Dawa said he'd take me to the airport tomorrow. When we got back to the hotel, Deb, Rob, Wendy, Anne, Bill and I talked in the Kunti Bar for a while before turning in. I was in bed by 10:45 PM.
Table of Contents
March 28 Thursday
Kathmandu -> Delhi
I woke up around 6:00 AM. It was hard getting back to sleep. I showered first and met the others for breakfast at 8:30. We wrote down our addresses and had photocopies made for each of us. I window shopped in the hotel. My hat would have only cost 60 rupees here. It was hard to believe that the best deals seemed to actually be in the hotels. I went back to my room and watched music videos while waiting. I'll never forget some videos I saw during my stay in Kathmandu. There was one by Sting, another was a disturbing remake of the Bee Gees 'How Deep Is Your Love' and there was one by the Foo Fighters.
At 1:00 PM Rob and I came down to join the others in the lobby. Dawa was there and we joined the others for lunch. Dawa had coffee, and I didn't eat. Sara had hidden a couple of cards in my luggage and included a picture of us from my 29th birthday. I showed the others her picture since they had heard so much about her during the trek. A call at 2:00 told me to take the jeep outside to the airport. I checked out and was given a card for the doorman that basically said I had paid my bill and I could leave with my bags.
My fellow trekkers gave me quite a send-off. I took one last picture of them. It's hard to think that after sharing such an experience and getting to know each other like we did we would most likely never see each other again. We came from all over the world and to be together in one of the most remote places I've ever been. Leaving them could not be anything but a loss.
Dawa and three other men joined me in the jeep. It would take me thrity-seven hours to cross the world and get home from the time I left the Shanker Hotel. Two men got out of the jeep and Dawa got a bag at the Himalayan Adventures office on our way to the airport. We also went by Dawa's home. Dawa told me he has a brother-in-law in New York.
Dawa couldn't go into the terminal with me. I gave him $20, shook his hand and said goodbye. Then, I was on my own again. I was a bit confused in the terminal. My noon flight had been delayed until 5:30. I first had to pay a 600 NRs embarkation tax to fly to India. I took care of that at a window and was given a special pass. The line for Royal Nepal flight #205 to Delhi was stalled for a long time. Having my bag checked and getting through passport control up some stairs took a while. I was going to have to pick up my bag in Delhi. I had written on a form I had to fill out that I was on holiday rather than trekking because they collect trekking permits on departure, and I wanted to keep mine as a souvenir. I got through to the huge waiting lounge without a problem.
I spent the rest of the Nepali currency I had (that I knew of) on a chicken sandwich (140 NRs). The plane boarded before 5:00 PM. While I was in line to board, a girl (Indian I think) told me she had been there this morning for the flight and had been waiting all day. I told her that I had received a call the day before notifying me of the delay. She said no one had called them.
We had to walk outside to reach our Airbus A310. Our luggage was on the ground, and we had to identify it and have it placed on the baggage train before it would be loaded into the plane. I remember noticing an American family with I think 3 kids with maybe two girls. They looked well off and had apparently been on a Mountain Sobek tour.
My seat was 9E in the middle of the plane. There was a woman on my left, a man and a monk on my right. I wish I could have had a window seat so that I could get one last look at Kathmandu, the valley and the mountains. I could only catch a few glimpses of the outside through the windows from where I was.
The captain told us we'd be flying at 35,000 feet with a flight time of about 1 and 1/2 hours. I could see Kathmandu on my left as we took off after 5:40.
I felt strangely sad. I watched my compass as we turned West/Southwest towards Delhi. As I was watching it, I realized that my compass had become not just a tool but a momento of my adventure in Nepal.
The captain pointed out the Annapurnas to our right. I could just barely see mountains after we broke through the clouds into the sunlight. The clouds looked like a sea of cotton.
I had to fill out an Indian disembarkation card again. I had a Coke with my meal. As I sat in my seat reflecting on the past four weeks, I felt more connected with everyone around me. I realized that we are all in our own ways just trying to cope with life. It wasn't a particularly new thought, but it seemed more pronounced at that moment.
Indira Gandhi Airport was a hot 29 degrees Celsius. The place was almost familiar. I had no problem getting through passport control and getting my bag. At 8:00 PM I went outside only to come back inside after climbing up some stairs to reach an Air France ticket counter. I had to carry my bags and show my tickets to get inside. There I was told that the counter wouldn't open until 11:00 PM which meant I had three hours on my hands for waiting. After 9:00, I had my big bag X-rayed. They taped the lock and returned the bag to me. At 10:00 I was second in line waiting for the Air France counter to open. It was an experience to watch the workers prepare the counter for opening.
When the counter finally did open, I was able to get window seats for my remaining flights. I had to pay a departure tax of 300 Rs. Then, I went through another security check to enter the departure lounge. I had another 3 hours to wait before my plane took off.
I bought a small pizza and a 7Up for 55 rupees. For a while the flight status board on the wall said that Air France 177 to Paris was delayed. It was 11:22 PM, and I was tired. I checked out the duty free shops which were ridiculously expensive and tried to stay awake. Before midnight, a young man came up to me and asked me if I'd fill out a survey on their transit lounge. I definitely didn't give the bathrooms good marks -- they'd need to install western style toilets first. There was at least one water fountain, but on the question concerning it they needed one more multiple choice option on the questionnaire: There's no way in hell I'm even going to consider drinking out of the water fountain.
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March 29 Friday
Delhi -> Paris -> Chicago
The message board said Air France flight 177 was on time, but we couldn't enter Gate 3 yet. I had some apple juice and tea for 50 rupees and spent time sitting on some steps and watching people. There were quite a few mosquitos around. Around 1:18 AM I went through another security check and was waiting in Gate 3, and at 1:45 AM I was sitting in seat 42K on an Airbus 340-300.
My flight was scheduled to take off at 2:05 AM, but we didn't take off until around 2:45 AM. A little Indian boy sat next to me on my left. It was his first time on a plane, and it happened to be with me. He kept talking and talking with me when what I really wanted to do was rest. He said he wasn't going to sleep, but I knew that resolve wouldn't last. His father, mother and sister sat across the aisle.
I ate and then managed to sleep most of the time. The movie was 'Get Shorty.' I had seen it before and hadn't thought much of it, so I pretty much slept through it. After about a ten-hour flight, we got into Charles DeGaulle Airport around 8:00 AM -- just 20 minutes after we had been scheduled to arrive.
I waited at Gate C88 for my 1:25 PM flight home on Air France flight 54. It was going to be a long day as I continued to chase the sun across the sky. Boarding was supposed to be at 12:45, so I took some time to walk around. Things were really expensive. I became hungry and considered eating some left-over Snickers bars, but I didn't expect to find a water fountain as easily as I would at home. I was surprised when I managed to find one. I could see a Concorde jet outside the window.
I took a melatonin pill to help minimize jetlag, set my watch alarm and zoned for 3 hours (or tried to). There was a crying baby, a German (I think) family, etc. around me which made resting less easy. At 12:55 PM I was on board a people mover that took us to our plane. My seat was 6K, so I had to go up the stairs again on a Boeing 747-200. A woman asked me to take her picture for her, so I did. I saw a bunch of high schoolers who had been on a three-week trip to Spain and were looking forward to getting back home. One of the guys initially sat next to me but went downstairs after he was asked so that a man's wife could join him.
I ended up watching 'Sabrina' again. It was still Lent, so I grudgingly passed up a beef stew meal for fish. Of all the days to prolong during Lent, it would have to be Friday. We were scheduled to arrive at 3:25 PM in Chicago. By the time we landed my legs felt like they were atrophying. Passport control was easy and customs never checked my luggage.
And so ended the hardest vacation I have ever had in my life. I lost enough weight that I was below what I weighed in college seven years ago.
Then came the culture shock. It was so weird to be back home. That night sitting on the couch watching The X-Files seemed unreal. Getting back into my routines seemed familiar yet fake somehow. I was still on mefloquine for a week after getting back, and it was then that I had one of my most nightmarish dreams of a woman turning into a monster. It was frighteningly vivid.
I would come to explain my trip to India and Nepal to a friend that it felt as though another room had been added to the house of my mind -- another place or dimension I could step into. (Of course, the mefloquine probably hadn't worn off yet.) The trip was very enriching even if it was hard on me. The hat I wore while trekking has since been washed, and it shrunk so much I can no longer wear it. Still, I have no plans to throw it away. Any comments, feedback or corrections are most welcome. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Indian tourist visa: $40 (cash)
Meningitis, Typhoid, Hepatitis A vaccinations:
Mefloquine(anti-malarial), diarrhea medicine, antibiotic:
long underwear, film shield, iodine tablets, DEET insect repelent, backpack, fleece gloves, shell gloves