17 January 2010

Days 11 - 12 (with pics)

Day 11
The noise has been non-stop all night. Indians sure know how to party! I wake up to my alarm at 7:00am and can already hear the group outside, banging pots and pans and talking all at once. I ignore my hunger until 8:30am hoping they will be off soon but eventually I have to go out to the main veranda, weaving my way through the crowd. I sit at the table furthest away from the hustle bustle and try to settle into my book while my breakfast is being prepared. The Indian party decide that I look lonely and all come and stand by my table to continue their loud conversation and manic gesturing. One man actually sits at my table and, aware that his eyes are on me, I rest my book down for a second. He smiles and asks to read my palm. I politely turn him down but he presses me. I explain that I would rather have surprises in my life and not know what my palm has to say about my future. He looks at me like I'm crazy. He then goes into an unprovoked rant about how English people are lazy and selfish (I try to explain my purpose here as a volunteer but he talks over me). He tells me that India is the only good country and if I want a good life, I must marry an Indian. I thank him for his 'advice' and pick up my book. He keeps talking until Ram comes over and asks him to move along. The Indian man says "But she is enjoying my conversation". Not sure what planet he comes from but I shoot him a look that I am sure translates in any language. He moves on.

Ram sits with me after breakfast and we share some sweet Nepali tea. I ask him how he came to work here and he tells me that he left home at 11 years old to find work in Pokhara (a couple of hours from here) as his family could not afford to support him any longer. He slept on the street - without a blanket - for 3 days before the owner of the hotel he was sleeping outside offered him some cleaning work. He got no pay for this, only food and board. When he was 13, he was promoted to reception - but again without pay. For over a decade his family didn't know if he was dead or alive. When he was 23 years old, a friend from his village happened to spot him and rushed to tell him that his mother was dying from internal bleeding. Ram rushed home in time to say goodbye to his mother. She had died from multiple untreated ulcers which Ram now believes she developed due to the stress of sending her only son away. He went back to Pokhara and luckily found work as a trainee trekking guide. He did this for a few years before finally returning back to Sauraha and his remaining family about 18 months ago when Dal offered him a Manager position at the guesthouse. He says he would prefer to still be trekking (and almost convinces me to book a 3 day trek!) but he knows his father will die one day soon and he can't bear the agony of not being around to look after him. I think back to when my own son was 11 years old - could I have sent him out into the unknown because I couldn't afford to feed him? And then deal with never knowing what had become of him? I probably would have gone the way of Ram's mother.

At 11:00am I do some more laundry and head up to the roof to hang it out to dry. Today, Dal is taking the whole family (including me as an honourary member) to a festival in a nearby village. It is a religious festival and there is no work today in Sauraha - even for us elephant drivers. Everyone is very excited so I get ready and meet them all outside. Dal and his ex-wife sit in the front of the jeep, and I sit in the back with his daughters (Shova aged 13 and Sunita aged 16) and their friend. The back of the jeep just has two benches facing each other and a very sides. I hope there are no sudden stops on the way or I'll be on the road.

When we arrive, the place is madness! A good 5 minutes walk from the main gate and we still can't see the end of the queue. It goes on and on and on. I have never seen anything like it! Far in the distance, behind a wall of metal sheets, we can see the festival in full swing. Dal goes to buy the entrance tickets (a process which seems to have no real system - just a poor bloke in a booth surrounded on all sides by a seething mass of impatient people waving money) while us girls hang back. When he returns, he says there is no way we're waiting in this line or we won't get inside before lunchtime. He approaches an Official and soon enough we are ushered past everyone else right to the front. The rope is lifted up and we squeeze under it and through the main gate. Inside, Dal tells me that he in fact told the Official that the foreigner they were with was a celebrity in England and it would "not be good" to make me wait. Ha ha!

Inside is just as crazy as outside. I have never seen so many people and I am definitely the only white face in there. We push and shove our way through the crowds to the food arena and take a seat at one of the makeshift restaurants. Looking around, it's a bit like a Nepali Glastonbury. There are stages with bands playing, stalls selling clothes and incense, facepainting etc. Dal orders everyone a portion of fried chicken, steamed momo (a bit like dumplings) and Buff chow mein (buffalo). After our food - and a power struggle with the kids about candy floss - we head off to the funfair section.

Nepalese Roti - it's sweet like a doughnut, made with rice flour and fried. Soooo good!
The crazy crowds

The first thing we hit at the entrance to this part is another queue. I stand patiently, behaving typically British, but Dal grabs my arm and pulls me through with the rest of the family. I mumble "sorry" as I crush people's feet as I am dragged. Inside, there are even more people than before! I actually start to feel it's a little bit dangerous. I ask Dal what all the excitement is about because all I can see is a big wheel and a couple of other fairly basic rides. He points to a large structure with a colourful board suspended above two large curtains. The board depicts on one side a very beautiful woman, and on the other is a snake with the same woman's head superimposed on it. I shrug, none the wiser. He tells me that the "foolish Nepali people" want to see the woman that turns into a snake. My eyes bug out of my head. Are these people for real?? Dal explains that Nepali people still believe that things like this are totally possible (when really the con artists who own this 'freak show' are actually experts in lasers and other 'tricky' technology). It only costs 20 rupees to see (about 20p) and I'm actually half tempted, but the queue puts me off.
The "Snake lady"
This little boy asked me to take a photograph of him

Instead we opt to head to the large pavilion, inside which are those crazy motorcyclists who ride round in circles up the steep walls. Can't remember what they are called but I know I've always wanted to see them in action. And for just 20p, this is an opportunity I'm willing to queue for. Finding the queue is another thing however. There seems to be no real system for this particular attraction and it is a question of opening the floodgates, letting as many people rush through as the man in charge thinks is safe, and then shutting them again - which results in the people left outside getting their faces and ribs crushed against the metal gate railings. I stand back and watch this happen for 2 performances, trying to muster up the courage to get involved in the crush. Just as I'm about to give up, Dal pulls his old "celebrity" trick again and we are snuck through a side entrance. When the next performance is ready, the man in charge lets us walk up the stairs to the top of the pavilion and find our prime positions before opening the floodgates for the 'peasants' ;-)

Well the show is just as amazing as I had hoped. The motorbikes whiz round the top of the circular wall, just inches from my face. They get faster and faster, and they whip money out of people's hands (as tips) as they go past. They let go of the handlebars and act as though they are just cycling down a country lane. Next up - and a big surprise - a few of them park their motorbikes at the bottom of the pavilion and then start racing around the wall in cars! I whoop and shout along with the rest of them and hold out a 10 rupee note for them to grab - this is all very exciting! A few minutes later and all the drivers are safely at the bottom of the pavilion and the crowd is going crazy. Well worth the 20p.

Shova and her friend

It's meeee, hello!

Zoom zoom zooooom

Showing off :-)

The cars

Back outside, we head to the shopping stalls part of the festival and the girls go wild for traditional dresses and saris, sweets and honey (that's a big thing here in Nepal). I buy myself a traditional outfit for less than 3 quid - no idea if it will fit although I think probably not. Still, it'll make my wardrobe back home look nice. After about an hour of shopping, Dal says we have to get back. Cue cries from the girls "But we haven't done our henna!!". Dals says that there is just no time and that he will sort something out another time. We have very stroppy teenagers on our hands for the journey home. Only when I ask them about what kinds of music they like do they crack a smile and break into Shakira and Akon.
Eyeing up the beautiful fabrics
Nepalese sweeties
Heading home after a fab day! (l to r) Family friend; Shova; Dal; Sunita; ex-wife

Second class travel

Third class ...

Back at the guesthouse, the family heads off to see the grandparents and I play cards with Ram and eat poppadoms. Mmmm. Although we had a bit of sunshine today (for about an hour), it is freezing cold again now and so I have a hot lemon and honey to ward off any cold induced bugs growing in my chest.
Poppadoms and cards

Day 12
Strange day today - very upsetting and hugely frustrating.

Last night, I checked my emails just before bed and there was one from a girl who had found me on Facebook, read about my volunteering trip to Nepal and was asking how she could go about doing it too. I gave her all the info and said "Let me know when you're coming!". Her email last night surprisingly informed me that, after contacting Rupa, she had been told that the Project had been cancelled. I went to sleep very worried about her email.

This morning, I telephoned Sujan after breakfast to relay the information I had been given - and my worst fears were confirmed. Under duress, Sujan told me that - yes - the Project is finished. Rupa does not want to be the President of the organisation any longer for reasons he could not/would not divulge. I told him that I had thought for a few days that something was up because 1) Saki 'suddenly' had to go to India to buy an elephant and 2) although the Project is meant to be quite a full programme, so far I've pretty much made koochie for hours on end. I hadn't initially said anything because I thought my feelings were quite ungrateful considering the opportunity I'd had to be with Sundur Kali so far. But I must admit, making koochie is not really what I paid all my money for. My conversation with Sujan is difficult - suddenly there is a language barrier that didn't exist before. He won't give me a straight answer to any of my questions and I am becoming increasingly frustrated and worried. I just basically want to know what I'm supposed to do next - continue working with Sundur Kali or whether I have to stay away from the stables. I reach a dead end with him so I phone his sister, Rupa. She is even more difficult, just telling me to "stay put" and that they will pay for my accommodation until I go home. She informs me that an elephant safari is 1,400 rupees. What the??? That's not really what I want to know! I telephone Sujan again and lay it out clearly for him - if I'm not working with Sundur Kali (which is what I paid to be able to do) then I require the balance of my money returned to me so that I can make my own way around Nepal. If I am supposed to finish the Project and continue as is, then where do I stand with the organsiation? Am I insured etc? Does Saki know what's going on? He pretends not to understand and mumbles randomly, telling me that if I am so unhappy here, maybe I should go home. I am flabbergasted and say it has nothing to do with my being happy or unhappy! I just want my heffalump back!!! In the end, I lose my rag completely and mention lawyers (albeit an empty threat) but with this word resounding in his ears, he suddenly completely understands what I've been saying and tells me that he will be over within the hour to refund the balance of my money.

After the phone call, I feel numb. I have been so happy and completely in my element with Sundur Kali. My wildest dreams have finally come true and I was really getting somewhere with my commands. As cheesy as it sounds, I felt like I really had a bond with her and when I am sitting in a cafe in the village having a cup of tea, she turns her head and reaches out her trunk when she sees me. Melts my heart every time. Now I'm just plain old heartbroken.

I wait anxiously for three hours, not getting any answer on either Rupa or Sujan's phones, before he finally arrives at the guesthouse with my money. He sits me down and launches into an apology about the whole situation. He says that he is sorry that he cannot really explain but it is really not his place to. All I should know is that the Project is over and that Rupa no longer wants to be a part of it. I'm none the wiser but at least I have some of my money back. I explain to Sujan through watery eyes that this had probably meant more to me than past volunteers and that I just can't believe my bad luck. Sujan can see how upset I am and says that - if I will agree to let him - he will take me to the Elephant Breeding Centre for free way of apology. After drying my eyes, I accept his offer. No point crying over spilt milk - the Project is over. And as gutted as I am, I am determined to make the most of my time here. And I also fully intend to visit Saki and Sundur Kali when he gets back from India anyway - maybe he will let me do a bit more driving on the sly ;-)

The Elephant Breeding Centre is about 15 minutes away from Sauraha by motorbike. On arrival, we are faced with a river to cross so we hop into a hollowed out log (no, wait, oh - it's a canoe) and are paddled over. After paying an entry fee of 30p (seriously), I run excitedly over to the stables and it is not long before I am rewarded with seeing a baby heffalump. Oh my goodness, this has got to be the cutest thing in the world. Forget puppies and kittens - this baby is dripping in cuteness. The mothers are all chained up, as are the 'teenagers' but the babies are allowed to roam around freely, in and out of the broken fences separating the stables from the paths. One smart tourist has brought a sticky bun with him and after getting clearance from the staff, holds it out for one of the babies nearby. Baby comes toddling over (shaking his little head) and grabs the bun before dropping it on the floor. This happens a couple of times as the baby hasn't got complete control of its trunk yet, poor thing. I take advantage of the other tourist's forward thinking and get up close while he tries to help the baby eat. Sooo soft. The bristles on its skin are yet to turn into the wirey type that the adults have, and its little ears and thin snake-like trunk are adoreable. I take in every inch of the baby, comparing it to Sundur Kali. Most noteable is the feet. The toenails are yet to turn hard. The baby finally finishes its bun and wobbles off back to its mother. My face aches from smiling.
Squidgy heffalump baby - cuuuuuute!

After about an hour of gazing at the babies, I realise I have probably kept Sujan here long enough and we head back towards the river. On the way, my mom phones - first time in 2 weeks! - and I'm thrilled to hear her voice. I want to tell her about the Project going under but I'm aware that Sujan is eavesdropping. I ask her to phone me tomorrow and explain that we are in the middle of trying to cross a river (the canoe we came in is unmanned at this point). She asks me which river it is so that she can tell the government where to find my body. Thanks mom :-p

After whistling across to some men on the other side and using various hand signals, Sujan tells me that we have to use the bridge. Which bridge, I ask. The bamboo one that we saw when we came over. Oh, the bamboo one that looks as though it should be condemned?? Righteo then. Off we trek. It is now getting dark and, with the prospect of the bridge looming, I ask Sujan if we can't just remove our shoes and wade across. After all, the river is only a few feet deep surely. He tells me that although it is quite shallow, it comes straight from the snow on the Himalayas and our feet will freeze before we reach the middle. If we're not swept away first that is. Bridge it is then.

The decidedly dodgy bamboo bridge

I am pleased to confirm that we did indeed make it across to the other side - in one piece and completely dry. Phew. Back at the guesthouse, the family are just sitting down to a meal and Sujan and I are invited to eat with them. They even anticipated our return and have made a special curry portion just for me - without chilli. Bless! The girls are leaving for their boarding school tomorrow and I present Sunita and Shova each with a silver engraved bracelet (60p). They blush and wring their hands before getting the nod from Dal that it is in fact quite okay to hug me. Awwww. They then show me that they have had their hands done with henna. Dal explains that he was harassed endlessly this afternoon until he had agreed to return to the festival just to get this done. What a sweet dad. The girls then excitedly show me a cone of henna that they brought back with them - for me! I thank them and ask them if they will do it for me later and Sunita takes charge and says that she will do it.

Dinner with the family

So after dinner, once Sujan has left, and at about 9:00pm, we start to put the henna on one of my hands. It is only about half way through that I think back to when I when I attended my best friend's brother's wedding many years ago. It was a Hindu wedding and all the bridal party had henna applied to their hands. Suddenly, I can hear my best friend in my head saying "This takes about three hours to dry .....". My best friend is also laughing in my head. Grrrrr. I look at the clock - I'll be up past bloomin' midnight! Too late now though so I settle into my seat with a rum and coke and let Sunita do her stuff. Her 'stuff' turns out to be a little bit less intricate than the henna I had received at the Hindu wedding and by the time she has finished, it looks like she has drizzled thick melted chocolate over my hand. I remind myself that it's just a bit of fun and to just 'go with the flow'. At midnight, when I finally take the henna off, I am left with what looks like a tropical disease. The henna is a bright orange and the lines are so thick you can hardly make out the detail. Bless her, she did try her best though. I can't remember how long it takes for henna to fade so if you see me quite soon after my return to the UK, please don't run away - it's not contagious!
My henna

Sunita's henna (and the silver bracelet I bought her)

Mini Buddha shrine - these are everywhere
At the river, chilling with Sunita (the girls put the braids in my hair, not me!!)


Friggin' BIG beehives!! These hang from almost every building. "Dear Lonely Planet: Please include this in the next edition of your guide. Some people are allergic to bees!"

"Let sleeping dogs lie". These little guys are here every evening, warming themselves on the sand that has retained some heat from the day

The view of the elephant stables from the roof of the guesthouse. Sundur Kali's is the first one (tallest) on the left

The pretty flowers that grow up all around our guesthouse and along the roof

Our neighbour taking in his goats for the evening

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