26 March 2010


Hello Everyone! Oh my goodness - all I can say is I'm sooooo sorry that I neglected this Blog ... please forgive me? My last few days in Sauraha - and then Kathmandu - were very hectic and I didn't have time to get to an internet cafe, and then when I came home, I jumped straight back into family life (after 2 days of trying to get home in the first place and a nightmare journey which - unexpectedly - involved 4 airports).

And unfortunately I haven't got time to update this properly today as I will have to devote a few hours to typing up my diary first BUT I can now post links to my Nepal pics on Facebook so please - for now - enjoy these! :-)

Sunsets & Silhouettes of Nepal

My Beautiful Heffalump - Sundar Kali

Out & About in Nepal (1) - Kathmandu (host family) to Sauraha

Out & About in Nepal (2) - Sauraha & Chitwan National Park Area

My Whirlwind 24 Hours in the City of Kathmandu (with Brandon)


26 January 2010

Day 22 - Life On The River

Day 22
I spend the morning writing my Blog to Word. Just as I'm about to finally post it - after 2 1/2 hours work - the electricity goes. Along with that, the net goes. Bum. I have an early lunch and head off to the Women's Centre for my English lesson. No one is there. Very odd. I wait but still no one comes. I head up to the corner to the Headmaster's shop but he is not there either. I double check with myself what day it is - Tuesday. There is definitely school on Tuesdays. I eventually give up and, scratching my head, I wander into the village. I head to a different part today, determined to find suitable gifts for my young nieces. There was nothing really for them on my trip to Uganda but I want them to have some sort of keepsake from my travels. After picking up a few more things for my son along the way, I eventually find a shop called "The Womens Skills Development Project". There are the usual polished stone necklaces, elephant figures and Om signs. But they also have a fabulous display of batik prints. I snap up quite a few for myself, and a few extra for friends. I can't believe what a bargain they are and am tempted to blow the rest of my budget. I get chatting to the man who runs the place and he shows me a booklet explaining about the women who make the batik and other handicrafts. It is a similar tale to the women that I teach; that they have been abandoned by their husbands, or they were orphaned at an early age, or married off as children. They are totally uneducated - not even being able to write in their own language - and, in some cases, looked over for marriage due to diseases such as lepracy. The women in the photographs on the pages of the booklet have big smiling faces and proudly hold up their work. I ask where the project is based as I would love to visit but, alas, it is in Pokhara which is a few more hours from here. Well the least I can do is support them in that case. I select a few more batik paintings, some ceramic coasters painted with elephants in the traditional and cartoonish Nepali style which I've grown to adore, and some hand-stiched rabbit dolls. Perfect for my nieces. He has a beautiful jewellery collection - some of the nicest pieces I've seen. I select a few necklaces for myself and them come across two tiny metal bracelets with polished stones, almost hidden away from sight. They are the last two left and absolutely perfect for my niece's miniature wrists. The total price for my now overloaded arms full of trinkets - less than a tenner. I can't quite believe it and wish I had found this treasure trove earlier.

More than happy with my lot, I decide to have a lazy afternoon by the river. The sky is clear, the sun is shining and Dal has asked me to take a couple of photos of the sunset in this area for the brochure so, technically, I'm still doing my bit as a volunteer. All the while enjoying a San Miguel. Bonus! I spend a good hour watching the 'river life'. It is very busy at this time of day with the locals returning from the jungle on the other side of the river and lining up to hitch a canoe ride to the other side. They are heavily weighed down with bamboo and elephant grass and massive bundles of 'greens'. They wait patiently, sometimes having a quick wash in the river to pass the time. The women sing and the men pass around smoking pipes. There's no rush. I channel their vibe and order another San Miguel.


The sun starts to set and I can see why Dal chose this place for the photographs. I am sitting on a reclining wooden chair on a raised piece of sand at the edge of the river. In front of me is the wide river, flowing down from the Himalayas and deceptively calm looking. On the other side, there is a large area of sand and grass bordered by the wall of jungle growth. Smack bang in the centre, just above the jungle wall, the sun is huge and changing from yellow, to orange, to red. It creeps down the skyline and hovers behind the trees, casting a beautiful pink glow across the river and highlighting the beautiful characters in the faces of the locals. I start snapping, struggling to capture the colours and peace around me. Again, I find myself wishing that my loved ones where sat beside me to witness this for themselves. There is a frantic half hour as the locals cram into the canoes, patience growing thin as the disappearing sun threatens to plunge us all into darkness. Just before the light finally goes, I pack up my things and head towards the short cut home.


Full set of "LIFE ON THE RIVER" photos on Facebook:


On my way home, an old woman pops her head up from behind a counter of a small shop. She calls me over and offers me some Dahl Baht (lentil mixutre that is poured over rice). I thank her but explain I'm actually on my home for dinner. Maybe another day? "Yes!", she exclaims excitedly, "you come tomorrow". I say I will try. She notices the tattoo on my wrist and asks if I am "Nepali". No, just in love with an elephant, I smile. She looks confused. She then asks if I'm married. Well, ummm, kind of. She raises her hands, shaking them above her head, and rushes into a back room. When she returns, she beckons me to lean closer to her - which I do. She then plants a red sticker (a bindhi) on the centre of my forehead. She stands back and smiles. "Now ... Nepali!" she says. I thank the strange but generous lady and start off up the road. She runs after me and, upon catching up with me, presses a very small bottle of rum into my hand (how did she know??). She is speaking in Nepalese now, I think she expects me to understand. I nod and she laughs, again raising her hands above her head and shaking them. She doubles over and laughs some more, all the while talking very fast in Nepalese, which I certainly haven't been here long enough to grasp. Again, I nod and thank her and start walking backwards down the road. Confident she's no longer following me - she is still laughing in the middle of the road - I turn to face the right direction and make a mental note not to take this short cut again.

Rounding the corner, I see the lights on inside the Headmaster's shop so I stop by to say hello. Where were the women earlier, I ask. Oh, busy, he explains. Okay then. Suddenly he jumps up from his bench and starts rummaging around under the table. "Wait wait wait" he tells me. Finally he finds what he has been searching for and the basket that I watched him start making the other day lands on the table in front of me. I'm very impressed with the finished product. I pick it up and admire it, making all the right noises of approval. He smiles and says "It's yours". Awww! We share some of his wife's honey tea and I help rope in some passing tourists. He sells them some honey for the twice the price that he sold it to me the other day. Naughty man, ha ha. His wife wants to take our picture with my camera so we get into position. "No, wait" he says and reaches down behind the counter. When his hand returns to view, it is clutching something fluffy. As he arranges it on his head, I can see it is a wolf hat. He says he is now ready for his photo. What a sense of humour!


Back at the guesthouse, Isha says it is time for my cooking lesson. We had arranged this earlier in the week as I really want to learn how to cook a proper Nepali curry. Although I tend to groan silently when I am faced with curry and rice night after night, I can't deny that they taste out of this world. We both head into the kitchen with Dal and Kumar. Pots are prepared with oil, spices of all different colours are brought out, coriander is chopped, ginger and garlic is grated. A whole chicken is chopped up with a meat cleaver, bones and all. As everything is added bit by bit to the hot, spitting pans and woks, I scribble in my notebook and take a few pics. The smell is beautiful and I can't wait to try it out at home. I know that even my son - the fussiest eater in Britain - will like this recipe.

Bellies full, we all settle in the dining room. Shova is searching on You Tube for more Miley Cyrus (oh dear god, what have I done?), Dal is chatting with his friend Som, Isha is clipping her nails, and me reading A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. When Shova heads off to bed, I quickly post the Blog update that I typed earlier and then sneak off to my room, leaving Dal and Som to catch up in peace. In my room, I call my mom. She sent me an email earlier saying she is sick - has been for a week - and I feel terrible that I'm here and not at home looking after her. We chat for a while and she assures me that she doesn't need me to come home early. She calls my son to the phone and a lump forms in my throat. He says he misses me and I want to reach down the phone and give him a big hug. So homesick now. He lets me know what I've missed on Celebrity Big Brother (this is the first time I've asked since I left - haven't I done well?) and fills me in on the party he hosted the other night. I ask him if he's being nice to my mom and he confidently tells me he is. I don't want the call to end but I can hear my mom worrying about "free minutes running out" in the background. He passes the phone back to her. I tell her that I am never going away again - she sounds unconvinced.

With the call finished, I am surrounded by silence. In Africa, the night was alive with crickets but Nepal is eerily silent. Occasionally you will hear an elephant across the road trumpet in protest at the lack of activity or start banging the tin roof of their stable with their trunk, summoning more koochie. But only occasionally. That's why everyone goes to bed so early here. It's dark, it's freezing cold, and there is nothing going on. I try out the 'singing bowl' I bought today as it sounded so beautiful in the shop that I figure it might cheer me up. I clang the edge of the bowl with the wooden implement and then run it around the edge, just as the shopkeeper did. Clang. Clang. Clang. CLANG. I give up. My bowl doesn't want to sing for me. Stupid bowl.

Days 19 - 21

Day 19
Up and out of bed - scrambled egg on top of a toasted croissant that I bought from the German bakery in the village. Bizarrely, there is one. Shova is still in a strop and I can hear sobbing coming from her room. I wear ear plugs when I sleep and wonder whether this has been an all nighter. Dal appears and tells me he thinks it's her "time of the month" and that he can't handle all this emotion. I assure him that he is a perfectly normal father in that case and promise him that she'll calm down soon enough. Besides, it's unnaturally cold and foggy this morning and I doubt any of us are in the best of moods.

After 4 cups of sweet black tea (I'm addicted now), I get ready for the day. We are heading to the Elephant Breeding Centre this afternoon but this morning I am going to have a wander in the village and do some souvenier shopping. I have tried to keep away from the shops as much as possible because otherwise I would have been home by now, broke but surrounded by beautiful trinkets.

As I'm leaving the guesthouse, I see the family gathered outside the main gate. Dal is reading a sheet of paper and Sunita is giving a young boy (about 11 years old) some money. Dal looks sad as he studies the paper so I walk over to the group and ask if everything is okay. I learn that the young boy has been born without a tongue (at which point he opens his mouth to show me and I try my hardest not to look horrified) and his younger brother is blind. Their father died last year, and then their mother committed suicide soon after. The mute brother walks miles and miles per day, visiting as many villages as possible, begging. With my heart strings well and truly pulled, I take out 100 rupees from my purse and hand it over to him. He produces a separate piece of paper and Dal says that I need to write my first name and the amount of my 'donation'. Not sure what the point is but I of course oblige. Our group gives the boy about 300 Rupees in total and after a small bow, he slowly wanders off down the path. Poor thing.

Feeling a bit flatter than a few minutes earlier, I set off towards the village. I'm not in the mood for shopping yet so I head to the internet cafe instead. Just as I am logging in, my mom phones me. She is panicing about the bandah and wants to know if I've heard anything else. I assure her that Dal won't put me in any danger and that I'm positive he knows what he's talking about when he says it shouldn't concern me. She asks me if Dal is the same man that drove me into the middle of a forest fire. Errrm yeah.

I try to soothe my mom with assurances that I will not put myself in any danger and I will keep in touch in the days leading up to my travel with any further news. Content with that, she heads back to bed and I update my Blog.

Blog complete, I venture out to browse the tempting shops. They are all fairly similar (even in price) so it's fun to try and find something vaguely unique. There are the usual wooden Om signs, hoards of elephants and rhinos in all sizes (I could do some serious damage here with credit!), bracelets and necklaces made up of gorgeous polished stones and metals, incense burners, a variety of posed Buddahs. I could buy one or two of everything I see but luckily have a very small luggage allowance and an even smaller budget. I manage to find something pretty unique for each of my loved ones and am about to head back home for lunch when I spot an art gallery across the road. I decide to have a little look, knowing full well that I won't be able to buy anything. The man behind the counter tells me that he is the artist and what I am looking at is traditional Thanka art. I can't begin to do justice to what I am seeing through words as they seem like living, breathing beings. The paintings are done on fabric and depict scenes in and around temples, surrounded by mini Buddahs and animals and villagers. Some characters are so small that you barely notice them and some are large enough to study the individual facial features. The scenes are so detailed that you almost have to press your nose against them to appreciate each delicate flick of the brush. There are tiny gold strokes all over the scene which the artist tells me is 'real gold'. I am quite mesmorized and, in a small voice, ask the price. Just over 4,000 Rupees (under 40 quid). I umm and aahh and do some quick maths in my head. I could just about afford one - that is if I don't spend a single penny for the rest of my stay. Defeated, I thank the artist but explain that - as much as I would love to - I can't afford to buy any of them. "Good price, good price" he urges. I shrug my shoulders, feeling embarassed. He rummages under the counter and brings out a large display book. He flicks between the pages and starts to lay out on the counter some other works of his. They are not Thanka art but they are just as lovely. On a large skeleton leaf, he has painted a detailed and colourful local mountain scene. They're lovely and, better yet, well within my budget! I snap up the ones that I consider 'the best', hand over my cash and skip down the street with my 'original artworks' tucked safely under my arm. Small success.

It's 2:30pm and the weather is beautiful now. Perfect for our afternoon at the breeding centre. I sit outside the guesthouse chatting with Dal and some other family members who have arrived for lunch. Sameer and Sundur Kali wander past and, spotting me, Sameer points in the direction of the stables and lets me know that Saki is home. Hoorah! No time to go and see him now sadly as we're heading off soon.

At 3:00pm, we all pile into the jeep, nibbling our freshly roasted maize, and bump along the road to see the baby heffalumps. We have to cross the bamboo bridge again as the canoe is out of action but I am relieved to see that some improvements have been made since my last visit and sacks of cement have now been put down. We practically run across the bridge, laughing in the face of danger.

As soon as we reach the breeding centre, we see two little babies helping themselves to some cooked rice from a large pot. They are so cute and I watch them for ages as they struggle to roll the rice into the ends of their weak trunks and then find their mouths. It is a hit and miss affair, much like when human babies are learning to feed themselves. But, dare I say it, cuter! I am so spellbound by these sweeties that I don't even notice when Sunita starts tapping me on the shoulder. The taps get harder and I spin round - instead of seeing Sunita, I see a baby heffalump looking at me expectantly. Sunita grins and says "He's been standing here for about a minute and you didn't even know!". Now that he has my attention, he starts to seek out the cookies I am holding, forcing his trunk into my curled fingers. Unfortunately he has a cold and my hand now looks like something out of Ghostbusters. He has the cookies though and is happy. I am less happy as I have left my hand sanitizer at the guesthouse.

We spend ages with this little guy - giving him a few cookies each and laughing as he goes to each of us in turn looking for more, with absolutely no loyalty to any of us. He is a perfectly formed mini-heffalump but his wrinkles are less defined and his hair is still fine (and ginger!) and has not yet turned into bristles. He is just like any other toddler and, unlike his lumbering mother, he is giddy and staggers and breaks into little runs as he weaves in and out of our crowd. A very young boy is in the stable area making koochie for the elephant family and he begins to give the baby some very small, very green koochie. It's too cute - like dollshouse food.

With the elephants all back in their stables and the sun setting, we head back to the bamboo bridge. I manage to grab a couple of shots of the sunset but, frustratingly, my photos don't capture the true beauty of the glowing red orb behind the trees against a moody pink and orange sky. Must read my camera book again!

Back at the guesthouse, we all gather around the barbeque and feast on roasted maize, curried chicken, Nepali potato salad and buffalo strips until well into the night. We laugh and drink beer and swap tales. For dessert, we enjoy apple pie and glow-in-the-dark custard (seriously - I have no idea what was in it). At about 10:00pm, Saki's head appears over the wall - "Neffy! Namaste!" - he comes into the garden and shares a cup of Nepali tea with us. He explains through Dal that he has heard about what happened with Rupa and Sujan but he still wants me to come and help out and spend time with Sundur Kali - whenever I like. What a perfectly wonderful day.

I head off to bed at about 11:00pm with a new book - Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri and read by candlelight. Bliss.

Day 20
I treat myself to a full breakfast today. Not good for my disappearing waistline, and not good for the budget. Bah. I sit with Dal and Isha in the garden by the still smouldering barbeque. It's not even 10:00am but the sun is already shining. Dal says it's going to be a good day. Saki appears and says that at 10:30am, he will be taking Sundur Kali to the river and that he wants me to come and help. Apparently Sameer hasn't been taking her regularly this past week and she is in desperate need of a really good massage. I rush back to my room, shower and put on my 'elephant bath' clothes before heading over to the stables to say good morning to my beautiful girl. I feel that every time I see her, our bond gets stronger. And I really don't care how corny that sounds! I always go right up to the front of her and throw my arms around her trunk and just rest my head and stroke her plump, velvety cheeks. She pushes softly against me and closes her eyes. When I release my hold and wander to the side of her, she turns her head as if to say "Hey! I was enjoying that!". I am a sucker for this and I trot back to dutifully resume my position.

We eventually set off at 11:00am. Outside the guesthouse, Dal offers to take some photos for me. I climb up Sundur Kali's trunk and then deliberately drop my "don't do that stick". I command Sundur Kali to pick it up for me and hand it over. She does it perfectly and I'm chuffed to bits. Saki says that since I'm already up there, I may as well drive her to the river while he walks. All through the village, tourists stop and stare and - yes - I can't help but feel quite superior, hehehe. We are first at the river so we claim the shallow area of water which has already been warmed by the morning sun. I hop down and let Saki take Sundur Kali into the river as I want to set up my camera for Ali to use. Sundur Kali - quite excited at the prospect of a massage - starts to collapse onto her side into the water before Saki has given the command and is ready. As a result, he loses his footing and nearly plunges head first in the muddy water. Quietly pleased that I opted to let Saki take her in, I giggle and take photos of his mishap instead. I then hand my camera to Ali, grab a large stone and head into the water myself. Saki concentrates on Sundur Kali's neck while I start working my way down her back and bottom. The mud and dust gets into all her wrinkles so you have to scrub quite hard, throwing water over her to wash it away - along with dead skin, yuk - at regular intervals. But she loves it. Sometimes she helps you and sprays herself with water as she lies, with her head half submerged, in the water. Her breathing is relaxed and once we finish one side, we instruct her to switch over. Then we start all over again. My arms ache and unfortunately Sundur Kali has decided to release her bowels so I'm now dodging floating poop the size of dinner plates - but I'm happy. Very very happy. Saki starts on her ears which Sundur Kali doesn't really like very much. She keeps trying to stand up so I head round to the front and sit in the water at eye level with her, smoothing her and talking to her softly. This settles her instantly and Saki continues his ear cleaning without the risk of getting crushed.

Bath time over, Sundur Kali is sparkling and perfectly relaxed. Saki and I hop up onto her back and are about to drive her out of the river when she decides that she's not actually quite finished yet and would like a quick shower. Saki, being far more in tune with Sundur Kali's movements, jumps up and out of the way just as she raises her trunk and sprays us with muddy, sandy (& poopy!) water. He tries to get her to stop but she is having too much fun and sprays us about 4 times before deciding that she's quite clean now and is content to head home. Cheeky girl!

Saki jumps down and I drive her back through the village, completely soaked but deliriously happy. Locals call out "Good mahout!" as we go past and I smile from ear to ear. I am getting very good at making Sundur Kali cross the road ("chai ha chai") and can make her "talk" - i.e. trumpet - as we pass tourists ("bohl bohl bohl") which gives them a good show. I am in my element. Having not actually been to Uni yet for one reason or another, I wonder what qualifications I need to start a zoo keeper degree - specialising in heffalumps of course. I dream all the way back to the guesthouse where I climb down from Sundur Kali and promise her I will be over tonight to say goodnight.

I quickly change into dry clothes, grab my English books and head over to the Women's Centre. We go round the circle saying "Good Afternoon, how are you?" etc and then settle into our lesson. Most of the women have shops which either they work in themselves or which are run by family members but their English is so poor that many tourists just give up trying to buy from them and head into the main village instead. Therefore, I have decided to teach them a few basics such as "Do you have any tomatoes/bananas/shampoo?" and then "No, I'm sorry ..." or "Yes, they cost ...". Our lesson lasts an hour and a half and when I leave, I can hear them all wandering up the path behind me, repeating the lesson over and over. I am smiling.

Back at the guesthouse, I add photos of our trip to the Breeding Centre and Sundur Kali's massage to Facebook. Due to various interruptions in the net connection, it takes a little longer than anticipated and I realise with some frustration that I could have actually written my Blog in Word while I was waiting for the uploads. Grrrr. Once I'm finished, I head over to the stables and give Sundur Kali a few goodnight kisses while she lazily munches on her koochie. Saki says that he is very happy I am here and that Sundur Kali is very happy too - he hopes I will come again with my son one day and meet Sundur Kali's baby.

Back home again, Dal has a visitor, Som. He is a childhood friend who has been travelling the world documenting birdlife and writing books. We sit up chatting and drinking rum, discussing a variety of interesting topics: Gurkhas (Nepal used to have 24 kings - the king of the Gurkha region declared war and then Nepal became one. Because the Gurkhas were such good fighters, the rest of the world decided they wanted them fighting for their side, and so the Gurkha regiment was born); going to the movie theatre when they were kids (it was an hour walk and they sat on the floor with their legs touching the screen in the 'cheap seats' - they had bad necks for days afterwards); the loss of family members (Dal's brother died at 9 years old and is buried by the river); the cotton tree down the road (it has watched over them all their lives and knows all their secrets - when they were kids, it witnessed Dal saving Som's life when he was drowning); Michael Palin (Som was on the same plane as him when they reached Everest during Michael's "Himalayas" trip); past lives and planets (Dal tells us his grandmother believed your spirit goes to another planet when you die - and this continues forever. Your spirit never ends); Buddah's birthplace (not India as widely believed, absolutely 100% born in Nepal - although I'm aware that I might hear this argument in reverse if I happened to be in India lol).

I go to bed with my mind spinning and I dream about cotton trees and planets.

Day 21
I can't resist opting for the full brekkie again - potatoes with honey has become a 'must have' to get me going in the mornings. No wonder my jeans are getting tight.

After my shower, I emerge from my room quite shocked to see the sun shining so brightly. It is not even 10:30am yet - this weather two days in a row has been unheard of so far during my trip. I roll up my jeans and whistle all the way to the gate where I bump into Dal. In a radical "the-sun-is-shining-so-let's-do-something-crazy" moment, I announce that today is the day I am getting my tattoo. Dal, happy to humour my weather induced madness, decides to accompany me. Before I can change my mind, we are bumping along the dirt road and less than a minute later, we arrive at the small, uninviting tattoo parlour. The young man behind the counter doesn't speak a word of English so I let Dal explain what I would like. We manage to convey to the man that I want the wording written very thin, and not thick like the ones he is trying to persuade me to have. He tries to charge 2,000 (about 20 quid) so I put my purse away and say I will get it done in England instead. Suddenly, the price drops to 800 rupees. Much better. He says to come back at 2:30pm when he has had a chance to draw my design. Happy with that, Dal and I head off. We pass the art gallery and I beg Dal to stop as I want to look at the Thanka painting again. He follows me in and, seeing me engrossed, asks what I love so much about it. I stutter over my words - I end up just smiling and saying "I don't know, it just says something to me". I go on gazing and Dal chats to the artist. When I am satisfied, we head back to the guesthouse, taking a route along the river. Dal suddenly pipes up and says "Listen, you want that painting and it seems a shame that you are so close to having it but can't afford it. I got the artist to agree on 3,000 rupees and if you really want it, buy it. You can pay me for the accommodation and food when we all get back to the UK". I'm gobsmacked. Does this man's generosity know no bounds?? I thank him over and over and say I will definitely think about it but would feel bad to be in debt to him with no immediate way of paying him back. He assures me that it's no big deal to him ("after all" he says, "it's only 4 quid a night"). I really appreciate his gesture but I just can’t agree to buying the painting. Maybe when I come back again.

I head to my English lesson at 12:30pm and today we discuss families and daily routines. I learn that one girl, Anita, gets up at 4:00am to study and prepare her lessons - she teaches Nepali at a local college - and then comes here for her lessons at midday. She spends her afternoons cutting grass to earn extra money, then prepares food for her family of 9. She finally gets to bed after cleaning the house and the cow's stables at about 11:00pm. She's 20 years old. I think back to my life at 20. Quite a difference. A 10 year old girl has brought her mother today for her first lesson. The girl is at boarding school in Kathmandu and wants her mother to learn English so that she can have a better life. The mom doesn't even know how to say "hello" so I think I will have to sit with her separately next time and go through some basics. The rest of the class throw themselves into conversations with each other, practising listing the members of their family in English, turning to me occasionally for assurance that they are getting it right.

We finish up at 2:00pm and I head back to the tattoo parlour. I enter the shop but no one is there. I sit and wait, sipping from my water bottle. It's hot and I'm dizzy from the walk - really don't want to faint mid-tattoo. How embarassing. I wait and wait. No one comes. It's a strange thing here in Nepal but everyone is so trusting. Shops are left unattended for hours. Dal leaves his laptop and motorcycle helmet outside on a table at night, with no apparent concern about theft. Bizarre. Finally, just before 3:30pm the tattoo artist arrives. I have no idea where he's been and he can't explain to me because of the language barrier. He gestures to me to take a seat in front of him. He puts a balm on my arm and is just about to start when the electricity goes out. There is nothing for it but to sit and wait. He fetches some tea for us from a cafe next door and we sit in uncomfortable silence for about 20 minutes. I look around the walls at all the wonderful designs. There are Om signs of all different styles, various depictions of Ganesh and lots of Buddahs sitting on lotus flowers. I impulsively decide that I want to incorporate a lotus into my tattoo and draw a rough sketch. The tattooist draws a much better version and we eventually agree to put it at the centre of my wrist after the words "Sundur Kali". Perfect. With the power restored, he starts. Ouch ouch ouch. Quite sore getting a tattoo on your wrist. And it's worse in complete silence. It's comforting when you can chat through the pain of a tattoo as it takes your mind off it. Now however, I just listen to the dentist drill-like buzz of the needle and concentrate on my breathing. 15 minutes later, he's finished. I take one look and practically dance around the room - I love it! It's exactly what I wanted and I am thrilled that I now have my beautiful elephant's name permanently a part of me. I could kiss the guy but I know that would not go down at all well in this culture. I pay up my 800 rupees and skip up the road. On route, I see Saki and Sundur Kali ahead of me so I quicken my pace and call out to them. Saki stops and commands Sundur Kali to sit down. I catch up with them and show off my new tattoo. Saki gasps and says "Oh - is very good!". I then show Sundur Kali and Saki commands her to "talk" - he says that she said 'thank you'. Tee hee. Saki lets me drive her back to the stables and my spirit is lifted even higher.

The evening at the guesthouse is spent enjoying fish curry and watching music videos on You Tube. Shova finds a Hindu dance video featuring Kylie Minogue which is quite surreal ("Chiggy Wiggy" - look it up!). We then have to listen to various Michael Jackson tunes at Kumar's request before I get a chance to play one and opt for Counting Crows. Much to my relief, everyone loves it and starts tapping their feet. They ask me to choose another one so I find Matchbox 20. Again, it goes down really well with the family and they even try to join in on the chorus. Unfortunately, my popularity wanes when I decide to play John Denver's "Country Roads" but it is soon restored when I play Miley Cyrus for Shova. Phew. After a while, it is just Dal and I left and we log on to Radio One's website and listen to Greg James. He is playing Foo Fighters much to my delight and Dal and I end up discussing music festivals. Dal tours them all summer, selling traditional Nepalese trinkets out of his caravan. We listen to the radio and chat until about 10:00pm when the temperature drops to an uncomfortable level and I retire to bed with my book. After I turn the last page, I reflect on the last couple of days - they've been so wonderful and I have been so lucky to have more time with Sundur Kali. Good times! I can't believe I am now counting down to leaving her and heading back to Plymouth where elephants don't walk the streets. Bad times *sniff*

Note: Get well soon Mommy, love you xxx

25 January 2010

"101 ways to disappoint your mother"

So ....... I got my third tattoo today :-)

The tattoo parlour in Sauraha village

Yup, I can hear my mom screaming at me now ...

Looks clean enough to me, ha ha

"Sundur Kali"

Me & my non-English speaking tattoo artist

The tattoo is actually much nicer than it is coming out in these photos but hey ho. Also, just looked at the photo in 'large size' and the tat looks wonky. I swear it's dead straight and in the right place. Must be how he is holding my wrist. I will take another pic when the redness has gone down.

Hope to be back later for a proper Blog update!!

24 January 2010

Switch over to Facebook!

Sorry everyone - no time to update the Blog today as I've been out frolicking in the sunshine with Sundur Kali. Hoorah!!! I did manage however to put an album on Facebook full of pics of my last couple of days here - at the Breeding Centre and having a river bath. There were just too many photos that I wanted to share and I couldn't be bothered with the tedious upload system they have here on Blogger. Facebook wins again!

So follow the link and ... enjoy!


Neffy x

22 January 2010

Day 18 - Strikes & teenage tantrums

Day 18
I apologise in advance for this rushed Blog post but I have to be quick at the internet cafe this morning as I have a few things to sort out - like checking whether my insurance will validate me changing my flight in the event of a political strike! Also need to phone the Embassy and let them know that I'm here and planning to travel. We'll see what they say. There is a lot of mixed information coming through this end about the forthcoming 'bandah' planned to start on Sunday. Whether it will be cancelled, or whether it is going to last for a month - either of these are a possibility but no one has any real idea. My friend Carly and my mom have been searching the internet for more information for me and it looks as though it's cancelled but word here is that still nothing is certain. Not sure if it's safe to travel even by the supposedly safe 'tourist buses' (with plain clothed armed guards) and then when I do get to Kathmandu, how will I travel around the city? My mom tells me that she watched a video last night when the last bandah was in force and even people on bicycles trying to move around the neighbourhood were surrounded by people and forced to get off and walk. Oh my.

So anyway - on with yesterday's events. I woke up and - guess what - yup, had brekkie and a shower. One day I will surprise you all and do something crazy and out of character like .... I dunno, not shower lol

I spent the morning soaking my clothes in a bucket whilst reading another Maeve Binchy book ("The Dublin Four") and then I set about washing my stuff African-style on the veranda. Up to the roof, hang everything out to dry and lay my jeans on the hot clay tile roof like everyone else seems to do with their thicker fabrics. There is no 'school' at the Women's Centre for me this afternoon as it's a half day in Nepal (and tomorrow - Saturday - is their 'holy day' so no school then either) so instead I wander down to the internet cafe and update my Blog, reliving the whole jungle experience with Sundur Kali all over again. Oh I wish I could go with her into the jungle every single day! Maybe I will become a mahout and just stay here ...

Back at the guesthouse, Sunita arrives home (yay!). Her Principal has decided that she can have the weekend back at home seeing as her father is still visiting from the UK - and there is another relative here now that she wants to see again. I ask her who, wondering if Dal's wife is arriving soon but she says "you silly!". Awww. Dal and I head down to a German Bakery so that I can buy some rolls for lunch - I really fancy a tuna and mayo sandwich. I honestly can't eat any more curry. Possibly ever. After a very satisfying lunch, I spend the afternoon taking photographs of the hotel for Dal's new brochure that we've been working on. I fold the towels in the bedrooms properly (rather than just dumped on the side of the bath which is their usual practice) and pick some flowers from the garden to set the scene. Dal loves it and tells the staff that this is how he wants to find the rooms from now on. I can feel their eyes burning into me. Ooops.

The afternoon passes in a blur as I'm so busy taking photos and then finalising some 'write ups' in the brochure about the various tours on offer. It feels good to be doing something worthwhile as, after all, I did come here as a volunteer. Dal has refused to let me pay for my evening meals as a thank you for all my hard work - I try to explain that's not the point of volunteering but he won't back down. I will be eating with the family from now on.

Dal has collected Shova from school whilst I was busy amending the brochure and as they pull up on the motorcycle, she jumps off and flounces into her room. Dal follows but she locks him out. There is a lot of yelling going on (from Shova) and Dal walks over to where Sunita and I are sitting, giggling. Shova is annoyed with him for being late to pick her up - and more importantly, picking up Sunita first when it wasn't even planned for Sunita to be coming home at all today. Her nose has been put out of joint. The wrong footed teenager continues to stamp and holler and slam doors and even manages to air her feelings so that even I will understand by screaming "I hate you! You are the worst father EVER!". Dal makes his way over to her bedroom, followed by Sunita and the mother. After another five minutes or so of yelling and crying, Dal and Shova come out of the bedroom and get on the motorcycle. Sunita comes over to me and explains that Shova is moving to live with her grandparents (albeit without any kind of bag, I notice). Dal just shrugs and they drive off down the road. I place a bet with Sunita and her Uncle Kumar that Shova will be back tomorrow, full of apologies. Sunita says she will be back tonight.

We waste some time on You Tube and after only half an hour or so, Dal and Shova reappear at the entrance to the guesthouse. Shova is furious and stomps back to her bedroom where loud wails are heard throughout the rest of the evening. Dal says that the grandparents had told her she was being silly and there was no way they were becoming involved with something so petty. Oh dear. We all eat chicken curry for dinner (except Shova who is crying herself sick in her bedroom) and then sit out on the main veranda chatting until late into the night. We discuss the bandah, blonde hair/blue eyes vs dark hair/brown eyes (I want to look like Sunita - she wants to look like me). We go back on You Tube and find some traditional Nepali folk music and dance around (Puja, I remembered the 'change the light bulb / twist the door knob' dance you taught me so I didn't look too much of a wally - or maybe I did). It's a lovely family atmosphere and we're having such a good time. Before I know it, I have been convinced to stay on an extra day so that I can attend Sunita's school fete on the 29th. That leaves me with only one day in Kathmandu which wasn't really the plan but hey ho, plans change I guess. Ideally she wants me to stay until the 31st as that is her birthday but there is no way that's possible as my flight leaves the next day.

Dal heads off to bed and Sunita and I browse through copies of Elle and Glamour magazine that some tourists left previously. We sneak into the kitchen and share an ice cream at 11:00pm and discuss all the crazy fashions we've been looking at. Sunita is desperate to come to England for college next year and tells me that her father is considering it. He brings her lots of clothes from Primark and he showed her a photo of the shop once - she really wants to go to Primark more than "anywhere in the world". She has decided - as much as she will miss her mother - she would like to come to England and do her A Levels, then go onto Uni and eventually become a doctor. Dal has already told me that she is an A student across the board so I hope she gets what she wants. As we sit in darkness on the kitchen floor (the power went about an hour ago) taking turns to slurp our sneaky ice cream, I ask her what excites her most about the possibility of moving to England. She thinks hard for a few seconds and then announces with her head held high: "I will be able to hear Rhianna on the radio whenever I like". Bless.

21 January 2010

Day 17 - Sundur Kali: Queen of the Jungle

Day 17
Wake up feeling a bit lost. Had a dream last night featuring a lot of important people in my life – some of whom are no longer with us. Wish I was back home. Lie around feeling sorry for myself. I am starting to feel a bit frustrated and lonely here – I am somewhat ‘trapped’ in Sauraha because, unless your days revolve around the heffalumps (which mine no longer do at the moment), there really is nothing much to do. It is a small village, a tourist drop off point. See the heffalumps and then move on. I don’t have the budget, nor the courage, to set out on my own further afield. The buses here are far scarier (although in better condition) than in either Barbados or Africa and the roads are just insane. Nope, I’m better off staying put. I do try to push these feelings away as I know how ungrateful it must sound to my friends and family back home. I’m in this wonderful, sweet smelling country, surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen and I’ve had a river bath with an elephant – I shouldn’t be able to find anything to complain about. It’s hard to really explain without sounding like a spoilt brat really … I’m just homesick I think.

After my breakfast and shower, I walk to the village to visit the net cafe. One thing I really like about this one is the free tea and coffee. There are other net cafes closer by but the lure of something free (and warm!) makes me walk that extra couple of minutes. I settle down and update my Blog. The Manager asks me if I am a journalist or a writer seeing as I am in here every day. I say I guess I’m kind of, sort of, a little bit of a writer. Even if only my close friends and family find it of any interest! lol

At 1:00pm, I walk up towards the Women’s Centre, armed with my English curriculum books that the Headmaster kindly loaned me. But alas, they are studying Maths today. Well, that is something that I most certainly can’t help with being the only GCSE that I failed miserably (10 points for writing your name on the paper – check). The lesson is in Nepalese so I bow out politely and say that I will see them tomorrow. A dog takes issue with my presence and decides to chase me away, barking and foaming at the mouth. As I run around a corner, a man on a bicycle ploughs into me and we both end up in a bush. I anxiously check behind me but the dog has lost interest. I apologise profusely to the man who simply says “No problem”, dusts himself off and hops back on his bike. Blimey, how refreshingly polite. I however have landed on my dodgy knee and limp back to the guesthouse.

I drown my sorrows in a few cups of black tea before giving myself a mental slap and, after changing into suitably coloured safari clothing, I cross the road to the stables. Ali is making koochie by himself so I plonk myself down on the straw beside him and go about helping him. He tells me that Saki is not coming back until tomorrow now which is rather disappointing to hear as I really wanted to do the jungle safari with him rather than his older brother, Sameer. On cue, Sameer appears with Sundur Kali – back from ‘duty’ at Chitwan National Park – and when she sees me, Sundur Kali raises her trunk high and opens her mouth. Ali laughs and says “she want koochie”. Ah I see, I am just the ‘koochie lady’ – guess I have missed her more than she’s missed me. Ali starts to clean the straw and dirt from her back while Sameeer has a cup of tea. I lean against the front of Sundur Kali’s trunk, wrapping my arms around it, and give her a big ol’ smooch. Gosh, I really have missed her. I feel like crying with joy. It’s lovely to feel her warmth again and she leans into me as well. She doesn’t move her head, she’s just content on us leaning against each other. Can’t begin to explain how content I am with this – I could eat, sleep and die in this position, all the while with a smile on my face. Once Ali has finished cleaning off the debris from her back, I help him and Sameer strap on the box seat. Sameer asks if I want to drive Sundur Kali to the jungle – of course I do! I grab the lower part of her ears, she lifts her trunk slightly for me to step onto and when I’m in position, she lifts me up and I scramble onto her head. I really must remember to get a photo of this as it’s absolutely one of my favourite things to do!

We set off – Sameeer walking along beside us and me perched up high on Sundur Kali with my “don’t do that” stick. I am in seventh heaven as we walk through the village – me and my heffalump. It’s a bit hairy at times as, along with camels, Sundur Kali is a bit wary of chickens, babies, motorcycles, dogs and goats. And we see a lot of these on the way. She stops and turns her head to hide (as if!) whenever one of these things comes across her path. I have to give her a kick behind her ears (which I hate doing) and force her to keep going. Please don’t hate me Sundur Kali!

After about half an hour (which would have taken 10 minutes on any other heffalump), we reach the jungle entrance. I climb into the box seat behind me, Sameer takes his position as the driver, we collect three tourists from a ‘tower’ (some steps up to a platform where people can board the elephants easily) and we set off.

Mahouts waiting with their heffalumps for tourists

Heading into the jungle with Sundur Kali

We must be in the jungle no more than 5 minutes and I’ve just begun to tell Sameer about the jeep safari yesterday and how Dal and I saw a Black Rhino when one of the tourists squeals and we all look left – a Black Rhino! Literally, right there!! I am slightly paniced as it is looking right at us – will it charge? Nope. It hasn’t spotted us – only Sundur Kali. And really – it’s not going to take her on is it now? The rhino keeps grazing and, once satisfied, starts to head into the bush. A white bird (an eegrit I think?) is perched on its back hitching a ride. No one has spoken at all for a few minutes – we’ve all been too busy taking photos and trying not to scare it away. I am chuffed to bits – two days, two Black Rhinos.

A birdie hitching a ride

We continue with our trek. Sundur Kali is very gentle – even as she is demolishing sapling trees which are unfortunate enough to be in her way. I video her as she stomps them down with her huge feet, not giving a second thought to going around them. She also doesn’t seem to take into account that we are higher than her and insists on going through some quite thick parts of bush testing Sameer’s reactions as he tries in vain to stop branches from hitting us square on in the face. He fails. But we are all laughing and having a great time. We see spotted deer (so beautiful!), beautiful Kingfishers, little orange monkeys, and even some sunbathing crocs down by the river.
Awww, ickle orange monkey

Sunbathing crocs

View of the river - so peaceful

Stunning Kingfisher - these are the most brightly coloured birds I've ever seen. Amazing.

We even come across some more Black Rhinos – a male and a female. They seem to be gearing up for a fight but Sameer says it is a mating ritual. They butt their heads together and then walk around in a circle, following each other, until they turn and face each other and start headbutting each other again. Not the most romantic courtship I’ve ever seen but each to their own, ha ha.
Oooh another rhino! (a small one tho)

Mating? Or fighting?

We head down to the river so that Sundur Kali can have a drink while we are crossing to the other side. We bump into her friend, Puja, who greets her by doing a loud fart in her face. It doesn’t seem to affect their friendship though and they nuzzle each other before we move on.
Puja crossing the river

A spotted deer watching us leave the jungle - shame it's a blurry photo, he was beautiful. And look at those antlers!!

We spend a good 4 hours in the jungle, spotting the most beautiful forest life. I wish it was safe to walk in these parts as some of the fungus growing on the tree stumps (yes, fungus) is really quite amazing. I would love to photograph it. Unfortunately, a lot of my photographs today end up being totally blurred as it’s quite hard to have a steady hand when Sundur Kali is rocking and rolling and demolishing the forest beneath you. Ah well.

Eventually we leave the jungle and head back into town. My legs have totally seized up and muscles that I didn’t know I had are screaming in agony. It’s actually quite hard work to keep yourself steady in a box seat on an elephant. Not quite the leisurely ride I had been expecting. I opt to walk back some of the way as I literally can’t stand it any longer and Sameer is still firmly rooted in the driver’s seat. I stop to cross the road as I want to check my emails in the internet cafe and Sundur Kali decides to stop too. She looks over at me as if to say “What are we doing now?”. I give her trunk a quick hug and say I will see her later. Sameer gives her a kick behind the ears (a bit less affectionate than my own gesture) and she slowly lumbers off.

After checking my emails, I head back to the guesthouse – but not before popping into the stables to say goodnight to Sundur Kali. She is lazily munching koochie and batting her long eyelashes. Ali is giving her a pedicure (bless) and Sameer is cooking up some rice and ‘greens’. I can’t wait until Saki is back tomorrow and I can ask if him it’s alright for me to come and visit more often. I realise now that I only have 6 or 7 days left in Sauraha and then – who knows when, or even if, I will ever see my beautiful heffalump again *sniff*

Back at the guesthouse, I sit chatting with Dal and we stumble onto the topic of tattoos. I tell him about the two I already have and he asks will I get another? I tell him that I’ve been playing with one idea and ask his opinion. He agrees that it’s a lovely idea and so I ask him to help me out with it. With the finished design ready, we draw it in place to see how it will look … what do you think? Can you guess what it says?

20 January 2010

Day 16 - Playing with fire

Day 16
Last night whilst walking home from the village, I bumped into a man called Jurgen (a German film maker) who the locals affectionately call Ganesh Dai. He has been living here and on off for about 10 years now and usually stays at the original guesthouse where I was placed. He observes that he hasn't seen me around at mealtimes and I explain that I moved hotels. He says that he is looking to use somewhere else in furture also as he's not happy with the standards anymore. I tell him Dal and Wild Horizons and he says he will definitely come and check it out with his wife. He also informs me that there is a banda coming up - a political strike - and no transport will be operating. He thinks that it will start on the 26th and last for about a week. Needless to say, this worries me greatly as I'm meant to be heading back to Kathmandu on the 28th. He tells me quite a scary story of a previous banda he was here for and, eager to catch his flight, he ignored advice not to travel and set off on his motorbike. During his journey on the windy cliff roads along the Tisuli River, he stopped for gas and when he set off again, he realised that some 'rebel' type soldiers had stolen his petrol cap. As he drove away, some of the 'rebels' actually tried to set light to his bike by flicking lit straw at his now unsecured petol opening. YIKES!

I reached the guesthouse, worrying and fretting. Dal assured me that even if there is a banda, they will let the tourist buses through without too much problem. I really don't need anything else going wrong on this trip so I sincerely hope so. Dal then told me that he had booked us a on jeep safari tomorrow and has already informed the Headmaster type guy that I won't be teaching until the following day. I'm pleased to be going on a jeep safari but a bit put out that on the flip side I am missing out on my prepared English lesson with the women. Dal says it will keep and that they are only too pleased for me to be seeing a bit more of their surroundings. He goes on to further surprise me by telling me that he has booked an elephant jungle safari on Thursday - with Sundur Kali! YES! Now that definitely lifts my spirits :-)

We spend the rest of the evening chatting about random stuff such as Dragon's Den and The Apprentice which leads us to discussing "gaps in the market". I am desperate to go and see Buddah's birthplace after learning that it is only about 3 hours from here but no one organises such a tour. I'm hesitant to set out alone and find overnight accommodation so I'm stuck - and frustrated. Dal agrees that this would be a great tour to organise so we put our heads together and work out ways he can do it in the future. All the while, a resident blind mouse is running back and forth from the French doors (bang!) back to the bar (bang!), round the side of the bar into some stacked boxes (bang!). He rests for a few minutes and then starts again. The French doors are actually open but the poor thing never manages to aim in the right direction. And on other nights when he does make it outside, he registers the cold - so it seems - and darts back in, only to resume his headbanging assault course all over again. It's just one of the things I've learned not to really notice anymore lol

So anyway - onto today. After breakfast, I am feeling a bit lazy. Homesickness has set it. I spend a completely self indulgent few hours, snuggled in my sleeping bag, reading and wishing I could just pop home for a cup of tea and then come back. Dal knocks on my door at about 11:00am and tells me that I should not wear bright colours on the safari - especially not red, pink or white. I consult my wardrobe and root through my red, pink and white tops and other brightly coloured clothing and start to worry. In the end I find a bluey/greeny top and a pair of green combats. By 12:00pm, I am sat having soup for lunch. By 12:45pm, I am holding my breath as we cross the river in a wobbly Nepalese 'canoe'. By 1:15pm, I am bouncing along through tall elephant grass on the back of a safari jeep, happily taking in the scenery. And by 2:00pm, I am stood by the side of the jeep watching an out of control fire about 12 feet in front of us and wondering how cross my mother will be with me if I don't get out of here alive?

Setting out on our safari - it was all going so well ...

Our canoe - basically a hollow log

Everything was going so well. The six of us sat in the back - me, a Canadian couple, an American, a French guy and a Brazilian guy. Dal was up on top of the jeep cab with his binoculors and telling us when he had spotted some deer or some beautiful bird. We would stop, oooh and ahhhh, take pics and then be off again. Two other jeeps were behind us but we were all spaced out enough not to notice. The elephant grass on either side is very tall - I estimate about 9 ft. It is difficult to see through to the lake but that makes it all the more fun when we do manage to spot something. Further up the track, Dal draws our attention to some sunbathing crocodiles. They are HUGE and I'm very glad we are on the other side of the lake.

Entering the forest

Rudolf on holiday

Black Crane drying its wings
Sunbathing crocs
Our bumpy but fun jeep safari continues - we leave the elephant grass and enter some thick forest. When the forest eventually clears, we are back in the elephant grass for a while - and then forest again. In and out like this for about an hour. It's very beautiful and I love looking at all the trees which I have silently named Helter Skelter trees. They are massive - wider than your front door - and around them are thick tree-like vines which wind their way up from the root of the tree all the way to the top. Just like a helter skelter! :-)

It is when we reach another section of tall elephant grass that we sense a problem. First, the air around us has suddenly got warm and as we continue along the path, we can definitely smell burning. The six of us in the back strain our necks to see if we can see the source. Rounding the next corner, we are confronted with a lot of smoke and as the wind blows across the path, beyond the smoke a raging fire comes into view. There is a jeep in front of us, stopped, and people are milling around wondering what to do. The fire has caught on both sides of the path and rages and leaps and then goes quiet again before the flames shoot up bigger than before. The six of us exchange nervous glances and I catch Dal's eye. He gives me a look that says I shouldn't worry and gallantly jumps off the top of the jeep and goes to speak with some others. Some local men are frantically trying to stamp out some of the smaller flames which are nearest to the road, ignoring the fact that right next to them are flames as high as a house. We all get off the jeep and some of us - me included - film the scene in front of us. The flames are getting bigger and hotter so we quickly get back in the jeep to await instructions. Dal comes running back and explains that help is on the way but, in the meantime, we have to try and get to the other side of the fire "just in case". I'm sorry, did I hear that right? We have to get to the other side? So, you mean, willingly go through the burning flames on either side of the road. Okay, I know I am not running directly through the flames but the prospect of flying cinders and possible burnt skin or loss of my eyesight etc seems scary enough. Everyone is getting out of the jeep again and I follow their lead. Before I can utter a word of doubt about this 'plan', our jeep roars off and - due to the bump in the road - it does a Starsky and Hutch jump with the flames licking on either side. I must admit - despite the element of death - it looks quite cool. Then, quite suddenly, Dal is ushering us through "quickly, quickly!!" and we are expected to follow the path the jeep just took. Everyone is ahead of me so I just blindly follow, hoping that my stupid sandals don't trip me up (why didn't I wear my trekking shoes today??). It is seriously HOT as we pass through the flames and can feel the hairs on my arms sizzle from the intense heat. We continue to run up the path, far away from the main fire (there are lots of other little ones springing up around us now as the wind has carried the lit straw and grass) and we eventually come across our jeep. Dal is still hurrying us along and yells at us to quickly get back on the jeep. We all jump up and, with some of us still hanging onto the back with one leg in and one leg out, the driver roars off up the road. We stop after about 3 minutes and everyone gets their breath. Dal says that for one frightening minute, he really didn't think the fire was going to let us out. Oh ... my ... god.
Stopping to observe the fire - not that we had much choice

Okay, it's getting bigger people ... errrmmm. Now what?

Doesn't look like much from this angle but it was big and it was hot and we had to run through it. Scary times!

Drama over, we continue on our safari - although seeing some deer through the trees or grass no longer holds the kind of wonder it did before we all nearly died, ha ha. We continue to spot them though, along with more crocodiles and birds. "Yeah yeah, where's the Black Rhino - only one of those bad boys could top the fire", we all joke. We come across a crocodile breeding centre and Dal says we will stop here for a 20 minute break. Anyone who wants to go in should pay 100 Rupees at the booth and be back at the jeep in plenty of time. Dal accompanies me inside and the poor bloke ends up taking the rest of our jeep-friends on a guided tour of the croc dens. The crocs are very sweet - I conclude that they would make super pets if they didn't have an urge to eat you.
Cute baby crocs

Back in the jeep, we continue on our safari. More deer, more birds ... the sun is starting to get lower and it's certainly getting colder. Everyone in the jeep is a bit down because we haven't seen any rhinos, or tigers, or bears. Dal shouts into the driver's cab and at the next 'junction' in the forest, we veer right and the other jeeps veer left. Having survived the fire, I'm not sure we should tempt fate and go off the beaten track but Dal seems quite pleased with himself. The jeep stops every 100 yards or so and we stay deathly silent. Every so often, the driver and Dal will both get off the jeep and stalk into the forest or the grass, leaving us tourists as prey it seems. Everyone has, by now, given up. We are cold, a little hungry, and just want to get back really. The jeep sets off down the bumpy track. I am looking to my right, admiring the beautiful lake and the orange sun setting and thinking, if it wasn't so dangerous with all these animals 'supposedly' living here, this would be the most ideallic setting for my mom to build a log cabin.

Just then, the jeep stops suddenly and Dal says in a hushed voice "look, look!". To our right is a massive Black Rhino - literally less than 20 steps away from our jeep and as big as a small elephant. I am totally mesmorized - and aware that he could kill us all in an instant. But he doesn't seem bothered by us - he is lazily pulling at some vegetation having his dinner. I balance on the back of the jeep with one leg almost touching the road. Everyone is eager to get a couple of photos and just as I finish reviewing a couple, I look over again and find the rhino staring at us. Our jeep takes off without warning, causing me to nearly end up on the road! Dal explains excitedly that the Rhino had made eye contact and would have charged if we had stayed around. We stop around the corner and wait. We can hear the rhino coming through the vegetation - loudly. Just as we see his big black head appear out of a bush, Dal bangs furiously on the top of the driver's cab and we are speeding off again. The rhino steps out onto the road and watches us fade from his view. Dal is laughing, my jeep-friends are all saying 'wow' and 'oh man'. Me? I can't stand any more excitement! Pleeeease just take me back to the comfort of the guesthouse where I can crawl into my nice safe sleeping bag and forget about random fires and charging rhinos. Neffy The Intrepid surrenders - I don't think I'm cut out for this :-p

Ooooh! Black Rhino!!! (centre)

Wow, right? Just wow.

And so - after another wobbly canoe ride, a cold walk home, some freshly made thick cut chips, and a bowl of warm water for my frozen tootsies - that's exactly what I did. Snuggle snuggle Phew. On reflection, it was an absolutely incredible day and I'm soooo glad I got to see the infamous Black Rhino. A lot of other tourists go on this safari and don't even get a glimpse. Not sure I would do it again though, my nerves are shot!
Let's hope the elephant safari tomorrow is a little less eventful ...

19 January 2010

Day 15 - The long walk to ... nowhere

Day 15
Yesterday I bought a map of the local area and discovered that a Shiva temple is quite close by. I figure it is about a 10 minute walk so at 8:00am I have my breakfast (porridge again) and after a boiling hot shower (bliss!) I set off. I walk through the elephant camp and out the other side, along some tiny dusty paths and onto larger roads, through a few village settlements, into a forest and out the other side. I look at my phone to check the time and realise I have been walking for just under an hour. My map reading never was any good. I ask a woman passing by on a bicycle if the Shiva temple is in this direction and she giggles with an imaginary friend and says "yes, you go, you go". I carry on walking. The ground has now become very rocky and I stumble a few times. I am quite sure I would have a sprained ankle if it wasn't for my strudy trekking shoes. I stop to buy some bookmarks made out of elephant dung paper. I've been looking for this little shop everywhere after hearing about it. They have such nice things - I'll definitely be back.

A typical Tharu house

Local orphanage

Mange ridden dog

Holy cow! :-p

Village cutie

Making my way through various villages

A little further up the road I find that I am walking alongside a river. I scratch my head. I don't remember this on my map but I can't check to be sure because - clever me - I've of course left the map back at the guesthouse. The road bends to cross a bridge. There is no other turning, and nor can I go straight ahead but I can't see any sign of life anywhere.I decide to cross the bridge. A man with a horse and cart is coming in the opposite direction so I ask again whether I am still going in the right direction for the temple. He smiles and nods. I plod on.

Crossing the bridge - "Are we nearly there yet?"

The cart and horse man

Eventually, after yet another trek through another bit of forest, I reach a small village. There are some boys gathered around a raised table (about waist height) playing some sort of game. I ask them about the temple. They all laugh and talk in Nepalese before confirming that I should just keep going straight. After a further 10 minutes or so, I have to ask again because it really doesn't seem as though I'm getting anywhere. A woman in front of her house making a mat tells me "that corner, you go" and points ahead of me. Yay! I've made it! It has taken me nearly an hour and a half and, despite the cold and fog, I'm starting to get hot and bothered. I quicken my pace, eager to see the reward of my determined walk. I round the corner, camera at the ready, holding my breath. I stare ahead of me. I blink. I rub my eyes. I blink again. In front of me is a low wall enclosing the entrance (through a rusty old broken gate practically hanging off it's hinges) to a 'garden' that is actually better described as mud with leftover building materials scattered around. And in pride and place at the centre of this enclosure is what I assume to the Shiva temple. It is a very modest building and really nothing at all to write home about - no seriously, at all. My guesthouse is nicer. Where are the ornate carvings? The unique age old architecture? The bursting colours? It definitely has none of this. Just to be absolutely sure, I ask some passing children if this is in fact the temple. They say yes and then in the same breath demand that I take their photograph.

Ta-da! The temple in all it's glory. What do you mean "is that it"?

Woo ....... hoo

The demanding kiddies

Well, I'm gutted. That was really probably not worth such a long walk. And now I have to do it all again in the other direction. I gather up my tripod and stomp my way back through the village. I now know why people were laughing when I told them where I was going. I grumble to myself that I will check with Dal from now on 1) distances of things on my map, and 2) whether it's bloomin worth it! On the way back through the village, I stop to watch the boys playing their game. They do tell me the name of it but, after repeating it to me three times, I still don't quite catch it. The game consists of a big square board made into a table. It is covered with chalk dust and in each of the four corners is one hole in the table surface (a bit like snooker). There are white and black game pieces which are flicked across the table between the thumb and the middle finger, rebounding off the sides and - hopefully - dropping into a hole. There is one red piece which is the Queen. It looks like quite an addictive game but, although they ask me to play, I still have a loooooong walk back and I need to have some lunch before meeting the Women's Group at 12:30pm.

Boys at play

Just as I reach the bridge again, I hear a tiny voice calling 'Namaste' from the forest to my left. I look through the trees. The little voice keeps calling until eventually I spot the source - a small child, perched half way up a tree. He smiles. Not sure why he's up the tree but he seems happy enough so I smile back and cross the bridge. I hope that was the right decision and he's not still stuck there tonight!

Child up a tree - amazing what you find on country walks ain't it?

Big bug

I get back to the guesthouse just before 12:00pm and tuck into some vegetable chow mein. I have finished reading Wild Swans now (very interesting book following three female generations through the cultural revolution in China) and have started reading Light A Penny Candle by Maeve Binchy. Love her stuff.

At 12:30pm, I cross the road over to the path which leads to the Women's Centre where they learn Nepalese, Social Studies, Maths and English - studying the subjects on a rotational basis - for just 2 hours per day. The Women's Centre (or 'school') looks pretty much like an elephant stable, made up of 8 thin pillars with open sides and a straw roof covering. It is not a particularly warm afternoon so I'm quite glad the 'school day' is so short. I make my way over and introduce myself to the 9 women who are attending today. There are usually about 15 per day although attendance very much depends on home life (such as a child's sickness or a husband's drunkenness). The man who has set up this Women's Centre (hereon in referred to as the 'Headmaster') runs a shop at the corner of the road selling baskets and honey. He lets me do what I want today as I don't have a lesson plan prepared so I go round the circle of women and ask them to introduce themselves and tell me their ages. This is done with varying degrees of success. They are all at very different levels. Santi is a confident girl of 22 and sat to my immediate left. She tells me she works very hard to practise her English and as a result ends up interpreting my following questions for the rest of the class. We go around the circle again asking about their families - how many members there are, whether they have children, what jobs do the different family members do etc. Seems that they were all married off as young children so they did not attend school. They can't read or write in Nepalese let alone English but they are eager to learn because of the booming tourist trade. As Santi points out, how can they sell bottled water or souveniers if they can't offer these things in a polite way or work out the correct change. They feel that they need this school very much to survive and become independent. I also learn that most of them are divorced with children (the women range from 19 to 45 years old). As a result of divorce, they have practically been shunned by their families and are desperately trying to support themselves. They hire themselves out as farmhands or do ad hoc cleaning in hotels - but nothing is full-time and jobs come and go. They all really want to better themselves and have a chance to stand on their own two feet like Western women. I feel incredibly lucky (for the umpteenth time in the last few months) about my heritage.

The Women's Centre / school

After I have got to know the women and they have relaxed with me, 'school' is signalled as finished and I arrange to meet them tomorrow at 12:30pm for our first English lesson together. I go back with the man who is acting as the Headmaster (he still hasn't introduced himself to me and I keep forgetting to ask his name! lol) and we sit outside his shop chatting about how the school came about. His wife brings us tea mixed with honey which is very nice indeed. The sun is shining and I listen to his story. His brother did very well at school (naturally gifted) and eventually became a Professor in Kathmandu. Over the years, the brothers talked about how wonderful it would be to help the 'lost women' of Sauraha - i.e. the former child brides - who found themselves turfed out of their homes by their families, but through no fault of their own.

Dal got talking to the brother - the Headmaster - one day and agreed to rent out some land which he owned behind this man's house. The women spent three months sitting on the cold ground in the harsh icy wind coming straight from the Himalayas before eventually the brothers had raised enough money to build the 8 pillared structure and roof (about 80 quid). At this point, a volunteer from Denmark who had become disillusioned with her work at a local orphanage offered to come along and teach 'conversational English' to the women. By the end of her trip, she had also paid for and even helped to lay the straw roof (cost of about 15 quid). And so the official 'school' was born. It has been up and running for just under a year now. The brother in Kathmandu advised how to organise it properly (using a register etc), set them up with some contacts in the Government so that they could get school books and then left them to make what they wanted of it. At first, there were approximately 95 women attending regularly - literally spilling out into the surrounding fields - but gradually numbers have dwindled as life here becomes harder. On average, there are about 15 women per day. In the monsoon season (June, July and August) no one comes at all as they are usually busy rebuilding their homes. The Headmaster tells me that these women are really amazing people and so full of life. When the school gets a recognised status (they must have 100 enrolled and regularly attending pupils for this) he wants to call it "The School for Model Women of Sauraha". I think that's lovely.

The Headmaster tells me that the women desperately want to learn handicrafts so that they can sell souveniers and also sewing. I think that's a great idea but he tells me that he has no idea how much sewing machines cost - but he will take me to find out if I am interested in trying to help in the future (he knows I am strapped for cash and continuously tells me that my "time" is more valuable). I tell him that I am definitely interested and I would be happy to accompany him when we have a chance. We finish our honey tea and he takes me on a tour of his shop, obviously very proud of his baskets which he makes by hand in 1-2 days flat. I tease him and tell him that isn't possible and he barks at his wife who appears with some straw and a bowl of water. Seconds later, he has started making a basket and tells me that when I come for school tomorrow, he will be finished. His wife takes an opportunity to show off her talents also and brings out some beautiful flower stands she has made using banana leaf, and some bracelets made of 'holy wood'. I think they're so pretty, and made of natural and recycled materials - I wonder whether they would go down well at the markets in the UK? I really wish I had the contacts and savvy to make something like this possible. I've been thinking about it since seeing all those beautiful paper bead jewellery in Africa. How can I get it to the UK and sell it on? With all profits going to these two organisations I've come into contact with. Answers on a postcard please!

Wetting the straw to begin making the basket

Winding banana leaf around the straw

Taking shape ...

Not the finished product but one similar

The wife's creations

Finally our chat winds down and with the cold evening drawing in quickly, I head down to the internet cafe to update my Blog (hey there!). I am determined not to make the same mistake as last night and am actually aiming to get home before dark this time. Finding myself at the opposite end of the village to where I am staying without a headtorch at 9:00pm last night was not at all fun. I have no idea how much elephant poop I stepped in but I could probably make quite a few bookmarks if I tried ...

Reading by candlelight before bed