Thursday, April 24, 2008

Out of India... and on to Nepal.

Bus was at 8:30 a.m but it was recommended to be there by 6:30 a.m., I have no idea why. I decided getting there at 7:45 was good enough. As is my habit, I like to ask hotel managers how much rickshaws should cost to where I need to go -- since the drivers almost always see a white face and double or triple the going rate. "Bicycle rickshaw no more than twenty rupees" I was told. Okay, I headed out, found a bicycle rickshaw and got on precariously -- I have a lot of stuff. The man told me it was 40 rupees (of course). I told him the hotel said it was 20. He grumbled okay. He biked me for about 20 minutes and I felt bad because he was an older guy and it was fairly warm out, so I gave him 30 rupees total as a tip. "Ten more," he says. "No, we agreed on 20." "Ten more." That's not what we agreed on, I said and he made a face at my money - grimacing and sticking his tongue out. Forget it, I'm never tipping again. I'm just a walking ATM anyway.

The bus was going to be pretty crowded and it was due to be a long slog. I climbed on board and settled in for a snooze. I was in a little trouble because I didn't have any money left. It didn't make sense to get more Indian rupees out and pay 5 dollars for the transaction (at least) for just a few more bucks. I could make do on the last remaining Cliff bar I had as breakfast and some roadside dosas or samosas for lunch and worry about dinner after I get Nepalese money. But the roadside cafe we stopped at for lunch was pretty pricey but Indian standards so I didn't eat. I wandered about taking pictures of Indian trucks. I love them!
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We stopped again later in the afternoon, and I bought a bag of chips -- determined to hold out. I had 30 dollars in American money in my pocket specifically for my Nepalese visa (they only take dollars, isn't that strange? I had to buy 10 dollars, but I had a twenty in my wallet since leaving NYC. While at the roadside cafe, I noticed a large group of Israelis standing off on the side of the cafe, snickering and taking pictures at the bushes. I wandered over to find out what could be so interesting. Well, it turns out the "bushes" were marijuana plants. LOTS of them. HUGE.

Got back on the bus for the final couple of hours to Sounali and the Nepal border. We were instructed to get off the bus and walk 100 meters to immigration out of India. Then across the border where we would get our Nepalese visa. It was kind of anti-climatic. Just a big sign we walked under saying Thank you for visiting India. Huh. I guess that's that.

Nepal had no electricity. This was a running problem throughout India as well -- power constantly goes out. Sometimes it's scheduled, sometimes not. We trooped over to fill out forms by candlelight. Then we had to produce our 2x2 inch photos (some didn't have them -- amateurs!) and our 30 dollars. The jerky little man took a look at my 20 dollar bill, held it to the light, noticed a small tear (REALLY small tear) in the border of an otherwise crisp, new 20 dollar bill and refused it. He handed it back to me, gruffly, "No good." I'm sorry, what?!? India and Nepalese money is in appalling shape, and I did often have money turned down because of a tear or a hole -- or faces made when they see the shape of it or the size of the denomination). But flatly turning down American money for a small tear??? MY MONEY? I was SO upset. "But it's MY money!" I said, waving my American passport in his face. "It's FROM America!!!" Just then an Austrian guy I had spoken to briefly at the last stop came over and whispered for me to let it go and come with him, we'd fix the problem. The Nepalese immigration people had told me to go to the money changers. I couldn't believe it. We walked up the street where the money changers merely taped the tear. Idiots. I went back with my taped money and again, that jerky guy through it back in my face, "No good! Bank won't take!" I turned to who I thought his supervisor was and showed him the money. "No good," he sneered. "But it's fine! It's brand new!" "Not my problem," he grumbled, not looking at me. Suddenly I VEHEMENTLY HATED NEPAL. In India, the national saying is, "No problem!" Anything could happen, "No problem." Apparently Nepal's theme is "Not my problem"? Again, the Austrian, Markus, took my arm. "Ask if anyone has an extra 20." Why would anyone have an extra 20? I was the only American there. But I asked, and sure enough, a French guy near me had an extra. Thank goodness. I tossed it at the nasty little man and he inspected it and pushed it through. Then I had to wait outside until it was processed in about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Markus explained to me that he'd heard a girl get upset about something to do with the process and the petty little men had gotten all Soup Nazi on her and denied her a visa altogether. "NO NEPAL FOR YOU!" She tried again the next day -- turned down again. Eventually she had to go to another border. They called me back inside, all smiles and "Welcome to Nepal!" Oh shut. up.

Now I had the minor issue of no money for a hotel. My plan had been to stay the night and then move on to Chitwan Nat'l park the next morning. Most people were either moving on to Pokhara or Kathmandu next. Markus said he was going to Pokhara. I asked a man if there was an ATM nearby and he laughed. "No ATM here. No banks open for 3 days. Election!" Oh boy. I went to exchange travelers checks. But, when I had received them, the bank never told me to sign them immediately. I had no idea. So I pull them out, and there's no signature already on it, so the Money changer guy won't take it. Frankly, all I had to do was turn around and sign it and they'd never know I didn't sign it the day I got them. But I was screwed. So I asked, can I take money out using a visa (my bank card has the logo). No no no they say. But I did that all through India, I said (it was a great way to use my atm like a visa card and avoid the usual 7 dollar transaction fee because they'd only add 3% generally, and I only take 100 out at a time). Suddenly they realize what I'm saying. Oh yes, that will work -- but not until 9 a.m. tomorrow. But my bus leaves at 6:30 a.m. Meanwhile, I have no cash for dinner or the hotel. This was not bright on my part, I admit -- but I hadn't had any problems getting money out in darkest India -- but I hadn't counted on this election deal.

The hotel guy told me there were many buses to Chitwan, not just at 6:30 and that I could pay for the hotel and dinner in the a.m. That was a relief. But then I ran into Markus and was looking at the map of Nepal and realized that it made no sense for me to go to Chitwan first and then Pokhara and THEN Kathmandu. I should go to Pokhara first. Markus very thoughtfully lends me 1000 rupees (about 15 bucks) and I decided to trail him to Pokhara. Which is a good thing I did because we timed it so that we were on a trek on the day of and before Election -- when all buses were shut down. Dinner of chow mein and sat with Markus and a French Canadian guy and a silent Israeli guy talking (except for the Israeli) before bed.

Up at crack of dawn for breakfast and bus to Pokhara. 6 hours they said. Ha. It was a local bus and we made 3 stops within 1 km it felt like. Or we'd sit for 10 minutes somewhere. M and I were going crazy. Plus he's about 7 feet tall so he was miserably cramped in the tiny seats.
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(this is my "going crazy" look + fish-eyed lens = hot)
The bus took 12 hours, careening along sheer cliffs, snow-capped peaks in the distance. The country was beautiful. All the farmers have built these amazing terraced fields down the sides of the mountains for their rice paddies. I must say I was pretty nervous for most of the ride.

(this is a picture of one of the guys who worked on the bus - they clambered like monkeys up onto the roof to secure luggage even while the bus was speeding along. Lots of passengers rode up on the roof as well. I considered it but didn't head up there.)
At one point we hit a bump and luggage came crashing down on M's head. In his Ah-nold accent, he loudly exclaimed, "Luggage fall on my head - NO PROBLEM!" and the bus exploded in laughter and clapping and the locals repeating, "No problem! No problem!"

Sometime after that, a gas can on the roof tipped over, dousing me and everyone around me in gasoline. The bus pulled over and everyone got out for a bit. I decided to find a bathroom -- or rather a private bush somewhere. I must say, that was the most scenic ladies room ever.

We reached Pokhara and a taxi was waiting for us. It was all so green and lovely and clean. Our hotel was great. I think we may have been the only ones there.

Since my time in Nepal was short, I decided to sit right down and figure out a 2 day trek up at the base of the Annapurnas immediately. Markus decided to come with me since he thought maybe he should start light before trying a 10 day trek. The hotel arranged the trek with a guide and we were to leave at 8:30 a.m. In the meantime, M and I retreated to our various rooms for a little clean up and then walked to get dinner in the town. We heard Pokhara had good steak houses and we could not WAIT. The first two places we tried were out of steak and tried to tell us no one had it. But the third place had steak and while I wouldn't exactly qualify what I hate as a steak -- more like some strips of well-done beef -- it was still exciting to eat cow again after 5 weeks. It was a pretty darn good meal actually -- and Markus is good company. Went back and repacked my stuff so I could store all the unnecessary stuff and prepare for the next morning. I think I meant to watch a little HBO before sleep but I don't remember much after I crawled into bed. I was liking Nepal more and more. Perhaps it is "No Problem" after all.

Up early again, stow my stuff in the office and a quick bite in the restaurant with M. We have to catch a bus and it's hit-or-miss due to the election. We head for the stop and wait a bit. I spotted a young man in a Britney Spears t-shirt. I had been seeing a lot of these t-shirts which I found amusing so I asked to take his picture. M. told me I probably made his day.
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The bus arrived and shuttled us up into the foothills. We put our packs on and followed our guide up a trail that left me a bit breathless very shortly. Oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?

We walked past a couple of farms, children came out and trailed us for a bit -- same old thing - "Chocolate? Pens? Rupees?" The view was amazing but I was a little disappointed that the snow-capped mountains weren't terribly visible. Just a couple faint edges of some minor Annapurnas. Still, it was difficult to believe how huge they are. We were pretty high up ourselves, but they still towered in the distance. We at last came to rest at a hilltop temple of some sort that was empty. I was absolutely dripping. Staggered out of my pack and wandered about for a bit before it was time to head onwards.

In a bit we headed downwards again to a small village for lunch. As we waited for food, we found ourselves inundated by small boys. I got out my iPod and speakers and started a dance party, which then turned into the boys showing me various kung fu moves.
Dance Party!

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They could not get enough of the music and speakers but clearly preferred Michael Jackson to Stevie Ray and Johnny Cash. They did, however, like saying, "Johnny Cash!" Oh well, what do they know.

After the dance party (which was probably not a wise decision on my part as now I was exhausted but I did get to take a break while Markus swung them all by turns into the air) we started onwards because clouds were gathering behind us. Menacing clouds.
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felt the spritzing start soon and a farmer invited us to take cover under his porch so we didn't get drenched. And thank goodness, because I stuck my hand out into the fat and heavy drops and it was the coldest rain I've ever felt in my life. Instantly, the air went from upper 80s to 60s at least. We loitered with the farmer for awhile until the storm passed. Talked about the election and all the parties that were going on. The farmer told us that many of the villagers would race down the hills after voting to vote again in town where they had another home (after scrubbing off the mark on their thumbs with chemicals).
We didn't much farther to go after the rain petered out so we continued on.
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We were staying at a guesthouse at the end of the foothills with an amazing view. Upon arrival, we settled in for coffee and a beautiful sunset. M. and I sat there most of the night, watching the lights of Pokhara far, far below.

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1 comment:

Ryan said...

Loved reading this! Sounds amazing. I'm quite jealous.