Nepal Through the Eyes of a Grown-Up

Reading back the answers my girls gave in their homeschooling task this morning, I thought I might have a go at it myself. It only seemed fair. – Fergus

Oh, go on then, seeing as everyone else has had a go. – Janet

1. Describe a journey in Nepal including 5 things that are different to England.

Fergus: Wait a minute, didn’t I already write a post all about this. Alright, alright, I’ll do another one. How about walking through Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu.

Thamel streets are narrow, uneven and pavementless, flanked by a dizzying repetition of small trekking shops, travel agencies, brassware shops, carved wood shops, ethnic clothes shops, bakeries and restaurants for every national cuisine. Looking up, your vision is filled with placards, billboards and signs for trekking guides, travel agencies, trekking gear shops, restaurants, bakeries, guesthouses…

Every few steps, hawkers offer tiger balm, wooden flutes, strings of beads or approach playing excruciatingly screechy sarangis. “You want? Good price. Where you from, my friend?” And if you dwell for even a second on a window display or stall, the owner comes rushing out. “You like? What you look for? Where you from, my friend?”

And then there’s the traffic; in a land without pavements the car is king, but it’s the motorbikes that’ll get you. Weaving in and out of the pedestrians, cars, carts, wheeled stalls and bicycles, motorbikes come snarling at your heels, beeping for right of way.

Mix into all of this the CD and ethnic goods shops that all play the same Om Mane Padme Hom tune relentlessly on repeat, the dust in the air that has you rasping within hours and the occasional scabrous street dog, and you have journey that is always exhilarating, no matter how short.

Janet: As I’m writing this on the plane, I’ll reflect on the journey this morning to the airport.

Kathmandu awakes to the sound of baying dogs, tea-vendors and the unceasing honking of horns. We leave the hotel before dawn, bleary eyed but ready for the adventure of a new country.

As I leave this strange and wonderful land behind, I notice with an affectionate fondness the myriad of tiny shops, the haphazard layout of the streets and the stunning backdrop of 360 degree mountain ranges.

I am no longer afraid of the seemingly endless series of what we would call ‘near misses’ on the roads in England. The swerving of the taxi past the rickshaws, mangy dogs and motorbikes feels calm at this early hour compared to many of the journeys we’ve made.

It’s a little out of town to the airport, which means we go past some of the more humble residencies of this city. After 3 months, it still never ceases to make me draw in breath sharply and clench my stomach to see some of the places people call home. I vow never again to complain about the children sharing a room as I see the families crowded into shacks with no fronts, huddled around a fire made of rubbish to keep away the morning chills.

We arrive to the usual barrage of offers of help to carry bags (for a few rupees, why not?) and polite enquiries of, “Three daughters? All same same?” which has recently almost been usurped by, “What happen?” in reference to Scarlett’s broken leg.

I’m struck by the contrast between the many and varied international airports I’ve travelled through compared with this one. It’s the little things. Like the fact that the entire row of seats tips forwards as Scarlett sits down – they’re not screwed to the floor. And the fact that we spot 4 birds and 1 cat on our way to the departure gate. Indoors. That’s not normal.

We’ve overstayed our Visas due to Scarlett’s accident, only by a day, but we expect to pay a $66 USD fine. However, with a muttering of, “Today, 17th”, and a characteristic wobble of the head, we are waved through passport control with no fine to pay. So we have a relatively large sum of money in a currency you can’t change outside of Nepal, no bank, and the limited airport shops. The choice is between some T Shirts that don’t fit any of us, some chocolate, a fridge magnet or a coffee. We settle on a drink each and a T-shirt for Evie (she’s one down) and give the rest to a children’s charity.

It’s a lovely way to spend our last morning. Nothing is quite ‘normal’ but that’s kind of what makes it fun, and it’s definitely what makes it Nepal.

2. Finish this sentence: In Nepal, I have learned…

Fergus: …to slow down.

The internet in Nepal is so slow it is often unusable, so I quickly had to break my web habit. Facebook loses it’s shine when it takes 40 minutes to load. Travel takes ages. Food comes slowly in cafés. Bureaucracy requires more chitties, desks and members of staff than I ever though possible. In fact, any kind of organizational task needs a whole day setting aside to perform.

But if you slow down, it’s fine. When in Nepal, go as fast as the Nepalese go.

Janet: …to be polite. Now being British, we pride ourselves on being polite. I like politeness, and I like people to treat me with courtesy and respect. But even the famed reserve of the English cannot compare to the Nepali culture. The way that everybody in this land conducts themselves is both alien and admirable to me. I realise, slowly, over the months that we spend here, the difference between what I think is polite and what is actually polite here. For example, it’s fine to ask personal questions about your family, your job, even your income. But it’s not OK to raise your voice, to be impatient or, worst of all, to loose your temper.

It’s sometimes a subtle touch of the arm as you hand over money, a nod of the head to acknowledge thanks, and of course the head wobble, but if you can get into the local body language you find people respond with a smile and with a polite interest in getting to know you better. I’m glad we stayed long enough to get a real feel for this part of the Nepali culture.

3. Finish this sentence: In Nepal, I have enjoyed…

Fergus: …spending every day with my family.

Trekking together was wonderful. It gave us the time to talk and to listen. And there’s something about walking that makes thinking somehow clearer. But even in the cities or Sauraha, we’ve had time to really enjoy being in our little family unit. No school or work to separate us. No demands from laundry, shopping, housekeeping or garden to drain our free time. Just us, every day; talking, learning, laughing, playing games, eating, exploring.

Janet: …the mountains. I simply love being in mountains. Since the age of about 13 when I went of my first walking holiday with a group of girlfriends from school I’ve been totally hooked on mountain walking. My greatest achievements in mountaineering don’t amount to much: I’ve done the coast to coast walk (solo!) and the Yorkshire and National 3 Peaks, but nothing on earth can compare to your first view of the Himalayan Massif.

There are no adjectives adequate for the spectacle. I won’t do it the injustice of trying to describe it in words. But for me, this is what I came to Nepal for, and stepping onto the summit of Gokyo Ri and turning around to admire the view on all sides will always be my personal highlight.

4. Finish this sentence: In Nepal, I have endured…

Fergus: …the unexpected.

Of course, Scarlett’s accident was the biggest unexpected event, and I realize now that it threw us all into shock. But there have been other changes of plan, too. Not going to India. Not going to Sri Lanka. Rejigging our time in Thailand to hit most of the beaches after Scarlett’s cast is finally removed in February. Plus, just going to new places means one never truly knows what arrival will bring with it.

Having the future so much in flux can be unsettling but it’s good to be shaken out of my routine. Not knowing what might happen tomorrow brings today into focus and makes me notice the passage of time in a way that I never do back home.

In fact, being thrown into unexpected situations reason – good and bad – is much of what makes travelling so rewarding. In responding to a challenge, you find out who you are and what you’re capable of; you grow.

And doing the same thing you did yesterday never made for much of an anecdote.

Janet: …bureaucracy! OK, so obviously the worst thing that happened was Scarlett breaking her leg, and the resulting shock that I was thrown into. But if you wanted to make a bad situation worse, you couldn’t have done it better than adding in a dose of Nepali bureaucracy to the equation. As a previous post describes, it’s one thing I’ll be glad to leave behind. Not that I’m expecting SE Asia to be much better, I’m just hoping not to have to do anything so ambitious that involves any level of paperwork!

5. Describe a Nepali person you have met. Include what they look like, their personality and your opinion of them.

Fergus: I’m going to go for Phurba Sherpa, too. We were walking with him day in, day out for nearly a month, and got to know him better than anyone else we’ve met.

He had the physique common to many Sherpa people; broad shoulders, thickly-muscled calves, the body of a man who has carried massive loads into the clouds, year after year. He was always calm and polite. He seldom smiled, although the kids would make him laugh sometimes, especially in their wilder moments.

Quiet, understated, assiduous and reliable, he was always working to smooth our relations with locals, to help us order food or find the best place to stop, and was always on hand when needed from dawn till dusk.

He was a family man and, I guess because he was away from his own kids, he became very protective and kind to our own, several times carrying one girl or another when they ran out of steam and often buying sweets or snacks for them as we walked.

Turning up in the Everest Region completely without a guide was a gamble, but it paid off in meeting Phurba.

Janet: One of the silver linings of Scarlett’s accident is getting to know some of the people in Sauraha, near Chitwan National Park. Having returned there to rest and recuperate, some people welcomed us back like old friends, most notably a shop owner who was always very taken with the girls. Being triplets, they attract a lot of attention, and he sold them 3 lovely dresses which he was very proud of as they walked down the main road in them on an almost daily basis.

When he saw Scarlett’s leg in a cast, he was genuinely heartbroken, he took my hand in both his and vowed that if there was anything, anything at all he could do to help us, he would help. He said he has a car, and could drive us to hospital any time of day or night if we needed it. It was very touching.

The help we ended up taking was his offer of teaching Scarlett the Nepali ‘Tiger Moving Game’. As Evie and Jemima headed off to elephant bath time each day, Scarlett and I would make our way down the road to his shop, where we’d play a couple of rounds of this local chess-like game. It helped us to get a change of scene, it gave Scarlett something to look forward to, and made her feel special when she would otherwise have felt left out.

He was a middle aged man, a little larger than the typical Nepali build, with the smart dress sense of a man who has made it into the middle classes of Nepali society. Softly spoken, but outgoing and friendly to everyone, he chatted to us about his early morning badminton matches, the births and deaths within the local community, and the trouble of keeping the dust and bugs out of the shop.

I’ll miss the slow pace of these daily conversations and the feeling of belonging to a tiny part of the community that this friendship gave me and Scarlett during our unexpectedly long stay in this small part of the world.

6. Make 3 recommendations for an English person who is planning to visit Nepal.

Fergus:

  • Learn to love lentils. Seriously. You could never call the Nepali diet adventurous. In fact, most Nepalis eat the same meal every single day: daal bhat (which literally means dahl and rice but is normally served with some or all of wilted spinach, mild vegetable curry, yoghurt, bitter pickles and popadom). You don’t visit Nepal for the food.
  • Get fit. Walking up mountains is a lot easier if you’ve, well, walked up some mountains before. Even English ones (which our guide thought hilarious we called mountains at all).
  • Don’t get carried away buying trekking gear. Like most foreigners we were kitted out in expensive boots, base layers, thermal layers, fleeces, goretex jackets, walking trousers, walking socks, buffs and hats… while many sherpas wore jeans and even flip-flops, with a carrier bag containing trainers and a jacket for when they got higher. Not that I’d go that far, but really, only good boots, walking socks and a warm jacket are really essential. And anything you don’t have, you can buy much cheaper in Nepal once you decide that you need it.

Janet:

  • Trek! You can’t go to Nepal and not see the mountains. Train for it, prepare for it, buy the right equipment for it (possibly in Thamel at a fraction of English prices) and enjoy it. You won’t regret it.
  • Lower Your Expectations when it comes to accommodation. You need to learn to be delighted by hot water, rather than disappointed by lack of it. Only then can you truly appreciate your surroundings.
  • Look Out for those cliff edges. You could break a leg.

7. Finish this sentence: The thing I will most remember about Nepal is…

Fergus: …mountains. No, elephants. No, mountains. Can I have both?

I fell in love with the mountains when we were trekking, and came to love being close up to elephants in the lowlands. In both cases, as I spent more time in their company I came to see their idiosyncrasies. They no longer looked the same (as one another, I mean – I can tell a mountain from an elephant), and I could see what made each interesting, impressive or beautiful.

Janet: …the helicopter ride out of the Annapurna region. The ultimate day of highs and lows. The shock of Scarlett falling. The realisation that it wasn’t just a sprain. The waiting for the insurance to call back. The relief that they would pay for her to be flown out. The crowd of people taking photos as the helicopter landed for us. The way their hair blew back as we sat in the cockpit and waved. Their friendly gestures in many languages, pointing at legs and thumbs up signs, conveying their get-well-soon messages. The stomach flipping take off. The breathtaking panorama of mountains surrounding us. The gnawing anxiety over what Scarett’s X ray would show. The growing guilt that it was my idea to come here, to put her in this danger. The relief that the hospital was well equipped. The surprise that it was in Kathmandu. The dawning of the idea that this could be the end of the trip. The trouble of sleeping on the sofa-bed that first night. The wondering what would happen to a local girl, aged 8, with no such medical care, if the same thing happened to her. Ultimately, the gratitude in realising that we are very, very lucky. Very lucky indeed. These are things that I will remember for ever.

3 thoughts on “Nepal Through the Eyes of a Grown-Up

  1. Well, it’s one week before Christmas here and I was going to send your card to Chitwan…

    Love the blog. It sounds as though Nepal has blown away the cobwebs and left you with a clear eye for our world. Will you return to Kota Bharu on your journey? More pics???

    Love Grandad Alan

    Like

  2. Can I second Grandad Alan’s request for more pics? Would love to see what the girls are up to. Am loving the blog and am constantly anticipating the next instalment. Love Mrs P x

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s