Hello again everyone! Well, I made it to Nepal safe and sound. After leaving my house in Devon on Monday at 11:00am, I finally made it to Sauraha yesterday. Yup, it took a little longer than anticipated, staying at two different 'host homes' before finally arriving at the elephant camp. But the unexpected route has been fun and I've already made some good friends along the way. Hoorah! Right then, let's do this ...
This is officially the first day of my trip to Nepal but at the moment I am still in Delhi. I have been on an overnight flight from Heathrow and it is now 11:00am here, I am sipping a Tiger beer (it's helps with the jetlag *wink*) and eagerly awaiting the call for my flight. I have had a wander around the airport to see if I could pick up a souvenier but, alas, my budget will not allow me to spend $30 on some tea leaves. I have opted, obviously for a beer at only $4, and I am given change in Indian Rupees. Ta-da! A souvenier is born.
Finally my onward flight is announced and I settle into my seat on the slightly smaller plane. The flight is little over an hour long but there is still time for a lunch service and free beer. Easy Jet please take note! After my "too-hot" curry lunch, I have a little doze (that will be the morning beer kicking in then). Minor turbulance jolts me awake about 20 minutes later and I look out of the window to see that we are flying alongside a very long snow peaked mountain range - The Himalayas! I have never seen anything like this and I can't take my eyes off them - absolutely breathtaking. As I stare, I suddenly have an overwhelming urge to go trekking and can now totally understand why people have a desire to reach the top. I don't have the time, funds, or equipment this time round, but watch this space! We follow our flight path along the mountains for about 20 minutes and soon the green-brown mountains of Nepal appear below us. These too are just beautiful and I am glued to my window, following their curves and ridges with my eyes. Little houses start to appear on the top of the ridges and slowly but surely, the mountains drop away and we enter flat land once again. This time though, it is a carpet of buildings. I can barely make out roads because the buildings are so tall and tightly packed in. There are satellite dishes and crazy mazes of electricity cables everywhere. It looks very chaotic and I pray to all things holy that Gita is there to meet me at the airport.
I heard someone refer to Kathmandu Airport as similar to an American high school. And they are right - if they made that observation in 1984! What a bizarre place. And the whole saga of getting a visa is unnecessarily complicated and confusing. You leave the plane, walk indoors to a circular counter where everyone is huddled around filling in their forms (much like in a post office or bank). Then you take your bits of paper to a random line - your guess is as good as mine even though you weren't there with me. Left or right or centre? Just pick and hope for the best. People are constantly being sent away and into a different line as they reach the front but luckily for me, I stuck to the left and was correct. However, when you reach this point you then find two booths facing each other. You go to one, hand over the form, and he points to the booth behind you and so you turn - minus the form - and go to the next man. He asks you for the $40 fee which you pay (duh). He then points to the first man and indicates you turn around again. So you do this and the man hands you a stamped receipt to say you have paid and asks to see your passport photos. Satisfied that you have them, he then points to the man you gave the money to and so you turn again and hand over the receipt. He takes that and points behind you again (by this point I was dizzy!). So back you go and at this point the first man finally gives you your visa and wishes you happy stay in Nepal. Blimey!!
I collect my bag and rush outside into a mass of taxi drivers and impatient relatives. I am thrilled to spot Gita right away and she jogs over to me, giggling, and links my arm to walk to the taxi. She is a very beautiful 25 year old Nepalese girl with long black hair, lilac painted nails and skinny jeans. Jeans?! The taxi ride is fast and furious, dodging motorbikes, people, buses, dogs and cows. I try to take it all in but the jet lag is taking hold. About half an hour later, we turn off the main road in Kathmandu and set off down some smaller streets. It reminds me of a crazy, dusty version of St Malo! The narrow streets that threaten to take off both wing mirrors simataneously, the tall buildings made up of cafes, shops and apartments, the busy and colourful street life. I wish my mother was here as she would be loving this! The buildings have coloured flags strung between them and Gita tells me that they recently had some celebrations here, hence the decorations.
We turn into an even smaller street and the taxi stops outside a large wooden carved door. Gita helps me up two flights of enclosed stairs with my rucksack and onto a large patio area which overlooks the street below. Off the patio, there is the corridor behind us leading back to the stairs, a corridor directly in front of us (with three doors leading off) and then a spiral staircase leading up to a roof terrace. Rupa (27) appears from the corridor in front of us holding her two month old baby, Aruna. She hugs me and tells me that she is glad to finally meet me after so many months of emails. She then introduces me to her mother (mother in Nepalese is 'ama') but she doesn't speak any English so we just nod at each other and say 'Namaste' (pronounced nam-a-stay). I am sleeping on the level below in Gita's room so we dump my bags there and then all huddle in Rupa's room while her mother tends to Aruna. It was warm when I landed at 3.00pm but in the last hour, the temperature has dropped considerably and I am wearing my coat and hat. We all are. As Gita, Rupa and I shiver under a blanket on the double bed, their mother warms her hand over a coal fire she has set alight on a metal dish and then places it on Aruna's feet, then bottom, then head. She repeats this for more than half an hour before the clothes are warmed in the same way and the baby is finally dressed again. I notice that Aruna has a black string tied around her waist and Rupa explains that this is to ward off ghosts and "all bad things".
We go through Rupa's family albums and then mine (no one can believe how tall my son is, as usual). We are all still huddled under the duvet, laughing at the embarassing family photos, and I feel very at home already - it's like I've been here so many times before but I just seem to have forgotten, ha. Then Rupa, as if reading my mind, presents me with two bracelets and clasps my hands in hers. They are beautiful but don't quite fit my huge English hands. Not a problem for Gita and Rupa who rub cream into my hands and then both take turns forcing the bracelets on. My hand is now very red, but the bracelets do look nice. I'm glad of that ... because they certainly aren't coming off in a hurry!
After dinner at 8:00pm of rice, dal (lentins in a green/gray coloured liquid), cauliflower curry and pickle, I give in to the jetlag and make my way downstairs to Gita's room. The room is off the main staircase to the street but it is behind a separate gate so I feel quite safe. In the room it is freezing. Seriously. Leave all of your windows open for a few days while you're on holiday in January, come home and don't bother putting the heating on. That's how cold it is. I thank my mother in my head (and even out loud) a million times for the termal pyjamas she bought me for Christmas. I decide to keep my hat on also. I step into my sleeping bag on the floor and then flop onto the bed. Bad idea! I just about nearly break my back. I jump up again and lift the mattress. Well, the 'mattress' can't be more than an inch thick and is on a wooden bed. The pillow is similar. I fold the mattress in half but it is still incredibly hard. I am too tired to care and I'm sure that despite the noise, the cold and the concrete plinthe I seem to be retiring on, my jetlag will aid a restful night's sleep.
Wrong. Barely slept a wink. And the cold plays havoc with my bladder these days (must be getting old!) so I was up and down, up and down. At least we have a 'squatty potty' here in Nepal, unlike the muddy hole in Africa. A 'squatty potty' is similar to a hole in the ground but at least there are places to put your feet and some even have a flush mechanism.
After the few winks I do eventually get, I wake up to the happy, tinkly music coming from the streetlife below and with the sweet smell of incense all around me. Rupa knocks on my door shortly after and tells me there is tea upstairs. I slowly begin to peel my sleeping bag off, wondering whether I can in fact manage to hop up the fight of stairs with it on instead. Bah. I drop it from my hands and it puddles around my feet. The cold doesn't hit me immediately, but when it does, I actually gasp. I shiver and shake, teeth chattering, as I search the floor for yesterday's clothes. These too have turned to ice overnight and it is not a good experience putting them back onto my warmed skin. I want to cry. I hate the cold!
Upstairs, I climb into the double bed with Gita and Rupa and their mother brings us black tea and biscuits. The mother has the coal fired up again and is soothing Aruna's head with warmed oil. Rupa explains to me that it is to help close up the 'soft part' of her head.
Once we are truly warm through and bundled up against the elements, Rupa and I head down to street level to try and find a SIM card. I haven't been able to phone my mom or son yet and I'm sure they are eager to know if I'm alive (one would hope). When we do eventually find the one shop in Kathmandu that seems to sell them, the man asks for a photocopy of my passport. For a SIM card? I don't think so matey. Reluctantly, I tell Rupa that I will leave it for now and try to contact my family another way. On the way back to the house, I buy some Red Bull (packaged differently in stumpy cans) and some oranges for today's bus ride to Chitwan.
Back at home, I wait for Gita to dress (she is taking me to the bus stop) and sit up on the roof with Rupa and Aruna. The view of street life is brilliant from up here and it is all go go go in Kathmandu today. Looking across and behind at neighbouring rooftops, we see families doing laundry, eating breakfast and playing badminton. It's like a whole other world up here - a bit like in Mary Poppins! Ha!
We go back downstairs for our breakfast - pumpkin curry. For breakfast? I'm not sure my stomach will like this but I'm grateful anyway and don't leave a scrap on my plate. It's actually very nice, but it is definitely a curry for breakfast.
At 10:30, Gita and take a taxi to the bus stop which is just outside of Kathmandu. As we approach, it dawns on me that the 'bus' I am taking is exactly what I should have expected. It is the 'taxi van' style - as in Africa and Barbados. I ask Gita again how long the journey will take. About 4 hours is her reply. Yes, thought as much *groan*. She tells the driver where I need to be dropped off and then wishes me a safe journey, gives me a hug, and disappears. I ask the driver if I can sit up front with him and he agrees. Well that's a bonus at least. I climb in and then wait. And wait. After half an hour, we are off. We head up the street, round a roundabout, and back down. We pick up about four people on the way but end up back at our original bus stop. And again we wait. A man is sitting up front with me now and introduces himself as Madhav. He is 26 and a police officer. He is travelling to Chitwan to work in their district for the next six months. He reads the newspaper to me and we chit-chat for a while until the driver sets off again. I boarded the 'bus' just before 11:00am and it is now 12:20pm. I look out of the window, dreaming and taking in the sights. The journey is gorgeous, but also a little terrifying. When we leave Kathmandu, we start weaving up and down through the green-brown mountain ranges that I saw from the plane. We are racing along narrow cliff edges with other buses and trucks coming at us in the opposite direction, around blind corners, just as fast. I hold my breath around each corner and across each bridge (none of which are fully intact at the sides). As the journey continues, we start following a river. Madhav tells me it is the Tisuli River. It is very wide and we stay with the river for the rest of our journey to Chitwan. A couple of hours in, we stop at a roadside 'service station' (a cafe with some toilets outside) so that the drivers can switch over and the passengers can buy water etc. I share my oranges with Madhav and another man who has squeezed himself into the front of the bus with us. Madhav takes my picture by the river but to me it looks like I could be anywhere in the world and doesn't quite capture the beauty of it all. Honestly, from here to Chitwan, the scenery is breathtaking. I have never seen a like it and I want to paint it or climb it - just be a part of it! The mountain ranges are surrounding us on both sides with our road and the river (now becoming wider and fast moving) running down the middle. The colours are amazing and the smells coming through my open window are sweet. Despite the fact we are already more than four hours into our journey and not at our destination yet, I am happy.
The bliss doesn't last however as we soon hit a wall of traffic. The mountain ranges have come to an end on our side of the road and have been replaced by forest. Lined up alongside the forest is a line of traffic for as far as the eye can see. Our driver pulls in and I get out my book, ready for a long wait. Just as I settle, the driver swings out again and starts bombing down the opposite side of the road. Other drivers who have left their vehicles and are standing at the side of the road signal and wave at him to stop but he carries on. I suddenly wonder if we are riding with a man on a suicide mission and seriously contemplate jumping out the next time he slows to a reasonable speed. We drive like this, passing the line of trucks and buses, for about three miles before pulling in. He has seem ambulances coming the other way so he is getting out of their way. Good idea! Once they have passed though, he is off again. I look at Madhav but he just shrugs and smiles. Luckily, we don't get very far this time as we obviously reach the scene of the accident. The police have blocked the road and so we finally stop. Everyone gets out - a girl aged about 7 years old is sick at the side of the road. Nice one driver. I give her parents my water and they thank me. 15 minutes later, the police begin to let everyone pass and we all scramble back on the bus as quickly as we can while the driver impatiently beeps his horn at us.
After a further 15 minutes, we finally reach Chitwan at 6:00pm. The 4 hour trip has actually taken 7 hours and I think I actually held my breath for about 5 of those hours. Still, on the plus side, I probably have a butt like Claudia Schiffer now with all that clenching! I retrieve my rucksack from the top of the bus and wait on the corner where we have been dropped. I am looking for Rupa's brother who is meant to be meeting me, although I have no idea what he looks like. Helpful. Madhav comes over to me and asks if I am lost now. I explain the situation and he asks for Rupa's number which I hand over to him. Whilst speaking to Rupa, he gestures for a pen and then writes down another number. He finishes the call and then dials again. I have no idea what is going on so I just hope Madhav has everything under control. I worry as he is speaking that no one is going to collect me and I have to find my own way from here. It is dark and cold and I feel very small. Thankfully, when Madhav finishes the second call, he explains that the brother is on his way so I just need to wait where I am and he will no doubt turn up. He gives me his number "just in case" and then hops on a rick-shaw and rides off. I'm alone. An old woman starts to chase some men around trying to put a chilli and a 10 Rupee note into their hands. They are all running from her, in circles, so when she approaches me, I naturally do the same. I am assuming this is similar to gypsys who try to give you heather in England. When she gives up, I make my way back to the 'meeting point' and I notice a motorbike has pulled up. A man gets off, removes his helmet and makes his way over to me. He smiles and introduces himself as Sujan. I say hello but no more. Rupa didn't tell me her brother's name and I don't want to give any information away. He tells me that he thinks I am his guest. I smile and shrug. Finally he says "I am brother of Rupa". Ah-ha! It is only after I am on the back of the motorbike and racing through the dark streets of Chitwan that I wonder whether this is all an elaborate plan between this man and Madhav, and maybe Madhav had never called Rupa in the first place. Sheesh, when did I get so paranoid?
I'm happy to report that Sujan did not turn out to be a con artist or a murderer and he duly took me to his family home in a suburb of Chitwan. I am shown my room and introduced to his parents. I explain that I thought I had already met his parents in Kathmandu with Rupa, but he laughs and says that although he calls Rupa his sister, they are actually in-laws. Mystery solved, I am then introduced to his parents who, again, don't speak any English so we smile and say 'Namaste'. Although in Nepal the electricity is turned off at the grid during certain times of the day, we have it at the moment so Sujan and I watch a bit of television before our dinner - cauliflower curry, rice, dal and chips. I notice that his mother does not eat with us but instead stands beside us (hands resting on the table) waiting to spoon more food onto our plates as we finish each small portion. Sujan explains to me that this is their culture. She will eat only when the father has eaten (and he then tells me that the father is having a nap). Bless her. Sujan also tells me that it is natural for them to 1) eat with their mouths open and 2) make a lot of noise, such as slurping. He apologises in advance which I find quite amusing.
After dinner, Sujan and I play cards by candlelight as the electricity has now finished for the evening. We play until gone 11:00pm, but tiredness finally gets the better of me. It's been a long day. The mattress is the same as in Kathmandu, as is the pillow, so I hop into my sleeping bag placing bets with myself about how much sleep I will manage tonight.
About 3 hours is the answer. And I'm shattered. And cold. It is not as cold as in Kathmandu but it is still foggy and chilly. I dress in jeans, a long blue top and pashmina and make my way upstairs. Sujan's mother brings me black tea and biscuits and I settle on the sofa with my book. An hour or so passes and I decide to re-pack my rucksack as I threw everything out of the floor last night in a panic that I had lost something (it turned up in my handbag instead). Sujan's mother comes and stands in the doorway watching me as I do this, and she is still watching as I put an extra layer under my top and put on double socks. Okaaaay then. I go back upstairs and mime that I would like to help her prepare lunch. She understands and brings me some potatoes to peel. I am halfway through when Sujan appears back from work (on lunch I assume) and asks me to come downstairs to the Charity Organisation office. I follow him down and am greeted by a representative who tells me a bit more about the work I will be doing (pooper scooper by the sounds of it) and then makes me sign a form saying that I am here "by my own free will". I then hand over the fee and in return get an official looking 'volunteer card'. Oooh la la.
Sujan heads out again and I make my way back upstairs. The sun is starting to appear so I go and sit on the balcony with my book - Purple Hibiscus' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Before long, lunch is ready - surprise surprise, it's cauliflower curry, dal, rice and chips. I see a pattern here ... I must admit, I struggle to finish this time but Sujan's mother is watching over me and I don't want to offend her. Task completed, I retreat back to the balcony to finish my book.
At 1:00pm, Sujan arrives home and, after he grabs a bite to eat, we jump on his motorbike and head towards Sauhara and - finally! - the elephants. Sauhara is about 30 minutes away and halfway into our journey we start to see a lot of police at the side of the road. Further along, we begin to see the army. I'm a little unnerved to say the least and it doesn't help that Sujan doesn't know what is going on either. When we reach the village, the police presence increases and I joke that it is because they know someone important is coming today but Sujan misses my joke and asks "Who?".
We arrive at my guesthouse (cute) and after dropping my bags off, we jump back on the motorbike and head down to the river for a quick beer. Even here there are hoards of police. We look across the river and see armed guards and a convoy of cars ready at the riverside. Hmmmm. We have our beer and sit in the shade. We chat about random things and I learn that Sujan is a civil engineer. He tells me this because when I ask him about hobbies, he says he likes drawing - but only in a mathmatical sense. Fun times. He starts to loosen up after his beer and the conversation flows a bit more easily.
Just as we are thinking of leaving, crowds of people start appearing and the police are moving down to the riverside. We follow of course. A couple of official looking men are walking down towards canoes which are waiting for them. They are wearing heavy looking coats (considering it is now about 26 degrees outside) and fancy looking hats. Sujan breaks into a broad smile and exclaims "It's the Prime Minister!". I look again - we are only about 50 feet away now and so I start snapping photos of the person I think looks most like a Prime Minister. Is it bad that I'm in a country where I can't recognise the government? I think so. Must read more! After about 5 minutes of excitement, the PM has crossed the river in his canoe and got into his car. Everyone moves away from the riverside and goes back to their business. I'm quite chuffed that I got to see the PM - even though I'm still not entirely sure which one he was, ha!
Back at the guesthouse, Sujan and I drink tea outside in the gardens and he teaches me some basic phrases in Nepalse. The pronounciation is very hard and it is going to take me a lot longer to get a grip on this. African is a doddle in comparison! Pretty soon it is dark and Sujan heads off home. Santos, a young boy who works at the guesthouse, offers to walk me up the road to where the elephant camp is. I of course JUMP at the chance and off we go. When we arrive, I almost fall down at the sheer size of these beautiful creatures. It is one thing to see them far away from you in a zoo, or from above at some of the viewing enclosures, but this is insane. I am stood right next to an elephant and I can barely move or breathe. This is single handedly, without a doubt, the most incredible moment of my entire life (after the birth of my son, of course - but hey, that was painful, this isn't!!). Saki (the main elephant 'driver') tells me that her name is Sundar Kali and that it is okay to touch her. I reach out and stroke her trunk. All I can think is "I'm touching an elephant! I'm touching an elephant!". A lifelong dream of mine just came true and the two men on either side of me have no idea how much this means to me. I keep a lid on the tears. Her trunk is warm and surprisingly soft. I speak to her (it's private what was said, ha ha) and she moves her head towards me and touches my neck with the side of her trunk. She bats her eyelids at me and then puts her head lower down so I pat the front of her head. She is quite simply the most amazing creature I have ever seen and I am madly in love. I want to live, in this stable, forever! Saki bursts my bubble however by informing me that work starts at 5:00am. Right then, in that case I think I might have an early night ...
*** Photos tomorrow!!! ***