Thursday, June 25, 2009

Spoke too soon

The final 2 days were harder than we'd planned. Both Richard and I were sick for the first time all trip. Richard was only mildly queasy, but I was shooting the toxins out of both ends as fast as I could. It started on the overnight train, and continued through the layover in the airport and onto the long flight home. Not a great way to end a trip, but better than being laid up on the trip itself. It means we didn't see anything in Delhi, since we were too exhausted to leave the airconditioned airport. The only good news was that we had plenty of time at the airport to fight for our plane ticket refunds to get back most of the $500 we had lost at the beginning of the trip with our missed flight saga.

By the time we reached Toronto, we were all happy to be home again. Happy to be wearing different clothes again. Happy to see our friends. Happy to see my overgrown garden thriving with the wet spring, even without my care.

I've spent the last week organizing my photos now, and have finally been able to upload a bunch of photos to go with my word blogs. Feel free to go back and take a look at some of them. I was able to upload all of these photos in less time that I spent trying to get just one photo uploaded in Asia. You gotta love our Canadian high speed internet! If you'd like to see more photos (I have over 1200 :) ) feel free to check out more on my facebook page.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The End of the Trip Now

Unbelievably, we are at the end of our 2 month travelling experience. We slept our last night in a bed until we're in our own beds in a couple of days. Between now and then, we have an overnight train trip back to Delhi, our first train trip in India. Unbeknowst to us, May-June is the Indian school summer holiday period, so Indian families are all travelling themselves, and we've been unable to secure any train tickets. Even the special last minute tourist ones are sold out. We've spent more time in taxis in the last 2 months than Adrian has spent in his entire life combined previously. But given the heat, it's been a relief.

We've landed in India in the middle of an Indian heat wave, and it's impossible to sleep in tiny guest houses without fans or air con. We've had to go "upscale" and pay for the middle budget hotels instead, up to $30 a night, just to be able to cope with the heat. No one really knows the temperature anywhere, but I just googled some sites and found that Varanasi (the town that we were just in) was having temperatures over 50 degrees. Now that's hot!!! I don't know how we're going to get used to Toronto's cool temperatures (only 25 degrees) again.

We're all ready to get home. It's been a fantastic journey, and we are all still talking to each other and still enjoying each others' company. I asked Adrian if he was tired of his mommy and daddy yet, and he said no. He did say he missed plain macaroni and cheese from a box, and can't to get home and make it again. He's really stretched his eating repertoire, but he's ready for some reliable and predictable food again, he says. I just want to eat food that I've cooked for a change, instead of eating out every single meal. And I want to stay put and know where I'll be sleeping the next night.

Of course, our time at home will be short-lived, because Richard will be flying out to BC only 5 days after we land, and Adrian and I will be following him by car a few days later. But that's a million miles in the future. For now, I'm going to head out and enjoy one last meal of tandoori chicken and roti, and do one last kora around the Mahabodhi Temple. Then it's off to Gaya by autorickshaw and hopefully to a relaxed trip back to Delhi.

The next time you'll hear from me, it will likely be from Toronto. Unless Toronto has started having power outages of its own and it takes me a few weeks to get on line from somewhere again. You never know.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Buddhist Circuit

We've covered a lot of territory in the last week, which helps explain my slowness in posting. We left Pokhara for Lumbini by public bus 4 days ago. The bus was hilarious. It left nearly 2 hours late. A woman brought a couple of chickens on the bus in a basket and sat in the aisle with these chickens nipping at my elbow. A few hours later, a grandma got on the the bus, and since all the seats were already taken, she sat down right in my seat and squished me over. Bus seats are not particularly comfortable at the best of times, and now I was sharing a seat with another person. We sat together for 2 hours, sweating away. After she got up, a father tried to get me to hold his daughter for him, but I'd had enough sharing and insisted on having my seat to myself. He found someone else to hold her while he hung out with his buddies.

As we crossed into the Terrai state, we met the Maoist strikers, who stopped all traffic. The bus driver kicked everyone off the bus, and turned around and left for Pokhara. We stumbled around in the heat (44 degrees) with the other tourists trying to figure out what to do. We eventually decided to hire rickshaw bicycles to take us the 2 hours into the next town where we were supposed to be going. We only paid $7 for the ride, and those rickshaw drivers really earned their pay, even though it was probably more than their week's wages.

Once we arrived Lumbini, we visited the first of the 4 famous Buddhist pilgrimage sites - where Buddha was born. The town was really spread out, with lots of international monestaries and pagodas, so we rented bikes and rode around. The heat was intense, but it was all so beautiful.

The next day, we took a 15 hour taxi ride from Lumbini, Nepal down to Varansi, India. We stopped along the way to see Kushinigar- where Buddha died. We had a crazy Indian taxi driver who darted in and out of cars all day, and honked non-stop. I had to close my eyes, because I was sure he was going to hit someone. It was anything but relaxing, but we did cover a lot of territory, despite having to stop and detour around a bunch of election celebrations blocking the roads.

We spent 2 days in Varanasi, and visited both Sarnath - where the Buddha first did his teaching, and Varanasi- site of the famous Ganges River. Sarnath was peaceful, but oh so hot. Varanasi, on the other hand, was insane. Such noise and commotion with so many Indian pilgrims and their families celebrating down at the Ganges River bank at sunset. We saw lots of bathing ghats, as well as cremation ghats. Fortunately, I stayed far away from the river this time and just took pictures (unlike my last visit 15 years ago when I swam in the river and subsequently contracted both giardia and hookworm which stayed with me for over a year, despite many drugs). There were almost as many cows as people down at the ghats, and also people gathering the cow dung to make patties to burn. Mingled with the smells of the men's pissing wall, the smells were overbearing. It's strange to interact with animals so closely, even in cities.

And yesterday we arrived in Bodhgaya - where Buddha achieved enlightenment, again by taxi, after all trains were booked up, even for the tourist quota. Bodhgaya is hot and dusty, but small enough to get around easily on foot. We're indulging in a hotel with a/c, with daily temperatures around 42 or 44. We walk around in the mornings until we're too hot to think, and then head back to the hotel for the afternoon to cool down.

Richard and Adrian have read The Hobbit together, and are now halfway through the first book of the Lord of the Rings. Adrian has never been much of a reader, but somehow he's gotten hooked on this series here, which is almost worth travelling half way around the world for. After looking at Buddhist archeology for a while each day, I guess it gives him a good break. They're hoping to finish this book before we return home now. And just a few more days to go.

Trekking and More Trekking

We arrived in Pokhara ready to do some trekking. We learned quickly that in order to get into the Annapurna region for even one hour of hiking, you have to pay $30Us each. Ouch! So we decided to trek around the region on smaller treks just outside this region, but within view of the snow capped mountains. Our first daytrip, we took the "scenic route" up to see the World Peace Pagoda, and were accompanied by dozens of leeches. Fortunately, they only got on our shoes, and not inside our socks, before we removed them. We had to run through a particularly wet, shaded area because they were everywhere. Adrian was very freaked out by them, but none of them attached on to us, so it wasn't so bad.

The next day at breakfast, we got word of another 2 hour strike, so we rushed to take a taxi up to Naudanda to began a 2 day trek to Sarangkot. Sarangkot has beautiful views of the snow capped mountains, particularly at sunrise (5am). We then hiked along a ridge and took a scenic 6 hour trek down the mountain through rice paddies and farmers' fields. We managed to avoid more leeches, for which we were relieved.

Next time we come to Pokhara, I'd like to do a long trek, but the cost was too high for a family, even in low season, and the fear of leeches and high temperatures was not timely now either. There's always something for next time!

Power Outages

Once again there has been more than a week since my last blog entry, and again, it is for reasons beyond my control. Namely, power outages and more Maoist strikes. We have been shocked by the number of power outages we've experienced in all 3 countries we've visited. We don't think there has been a single day in nearly 2 months of travelling when there wasn't atleast one outage. Some outages only last a few minutes, but many last for hours. Some we notice more than others, because there's no back up and we aren't prepared, but others are while we're in swanky tourist places with generators that kick in seemlessly. We've learned to never go anywhere after dark without a flashlight. I've been stuck in darkness naked in the shower about 5 times so far, and often in outdoor bath houses where I haven't a chance in getting back to my room without a light.

The funny thing is how tolerant the local people are to these outages. Imagine trying to run a business when the power keeps going out. With internet cafes, suddenly you're kicked out and the cafe can't handle any more business. They usually don't charge you for the time before, because they understand you probably lost what you where doing. And the restaurants have very limited menus when the power's out. They can cook food with wood and propane gas, but there's no electricity for blenders and fruit shakes.

We've learned that it's useless to pay extra money for ceiling fans and a/c without first checking whether these are covered by generators or not. If not, it's a waste of money.

Sometimes these power outages are scheduled, and the locals tell us how long the power will be out for. Other times, they surprise everyone. In some places, the power can be off more time than on. Last night in Bodhgaya, the power went out 12 times after 7pm. Each time, the generator kicked in after 1 minute, for lights and ceiling fan, but no tv or a/c. We were trying to watch a movie, which was silly. After another 15 minutes, the power would be back, but not for long. You can't help but get exasperated.

We asked locals what the cause of the power outages were. Burmese people said the Burmese government sells too much power to China for its peak periods, but doesn't care about its own people, who simply don't have enough. Nepalese people blamed the problem on global warming, with a decrease in the amount of water coming during the monsoons, and therefore damaging the hydro dams which provide the majority of electricity for Nepal. And Indians say the problem is too many people putting too much demand on the current system, with the Indian government not paying for infrastructure of more electricity.

All I know is, I'll never complain again about the rare power outages we experience in Canada. I'll also make sure my generator really would work if needed. And maybe I'll see if I can work out some complicated backup system with our used car battery like the Burmese people do. They manage to run tv's and lights and all kinds of things on these cheap back-up plans. Perhaps we'll be in their situation in a few years and I want to be ready.

As for strikes, I thoroughly enjoyed our nearly 3 weeks in Nepal, but I was absolutely relieved to cross the border into India and know that I'd been inconvenienced by my last strike. In total, we'd gotten through 4 strikes in our short time. For the first 2 days we simply walked/trekked instead of taking other options. By the third one, we left early by taxi to arrive before the strike time began. The final one was the worst. We were on a local bus that arrived at the state border of Terrai, a stronghold for them, only to be kicked off the bus, with the bus driver dissappearing instantly with the bus. We eventually arranged for a 2 hour rickshaw ride into the next town, at our expense. All this at 44 degrees in the middle of the day! Apparently strikes go up and down in frequency, but this was rediculous. I can't believe the government tolerates such widespread strikes across entire states and even a country, to shut down all activity. Again, how can people tolerate such interruptions to their business and plans???

Monday, June 8, 2009

Special Opportunities

Travelling as a family for 2 months together provides opportunities or change in subtle ways that are often not predictable. First, there is the gradual opening of Adrian's eating habits. For those of you that know my picky eater, you know that I was a bit worried about how he was going to fill those hollow legs of him while starting the trip disliking rice and anything with flavour and spice. He truly has expanded that repertoir. In Burma, he decided that he finally was starting to like the feeling of spicy chilis on his tongue, and the subsequent tears it brings. He and Richard regularly now have chili eating competetitions. Richard wins, but he also wins the hiccuping contests that come with eating chilis for him. A surprising favourite food of Adrian's has been "buff momos", as in Tibetan steamed dumplings filled with spicy minced water buffalo meat. Many restaurants in Asia also have spaghetti or macaroni on the menu, but he's found these can be hit or miss, and sometimes are scarier to him than the Tibetan standards. He threatens to return to his limited eating when he returns home, but I'm not sure that it's possible to close the food door once it's opened. At least that's what I'm hoping!

As for my relationship with Adrian, I can't believe how much on the cusp of adolescence this boy of mine is. Some days he seems like an adult, or at least as much so as Richard and I on vacation! We have yet to meet any other children on vacation with their parents, so he hangs out exclusively with adults, except for occasional interactions with local children. Because of his height, the locals invariably think he's older than he is, and he's had his share of teen age girls fawning and falling in love with him who are probably 14 or even 18 years old. They don't seem to believe us when we tell them he's only 11. He even got to join us in a club one night in Kathmandu when we decided to check out a live band. He sat there sipping his Fanta, but otherwise was one of the gang, despite his annoyance at the man at the next table blowing his cigarette smoke on him.

But then the next minute he is my little innocent boy. On many of our long treks, he walks hand in hand with either me or Richard, something he quit doing in Toronto many years ago. (I even have a few photos to prove it!) As soon as we see people or get into town, he's independent again, but he really likes the physical connection. And it seems natural, considering that in the last 6 weeks, we have spent only minutes apart from each other, maybe only 3 hours in total, and that includes sleeping. Every night so far we've all shared one room, so he falls asleep with us and wakes up to us, and really seems happy with this. We laugh, we talk, and over and over he asks me to tell him stories about himself. What his birth was like, how old he was when he learned to skate, how I taught him to ride a bike, a review of all his life moments. This trip is more than just what we're seeing in the countries we're visiting.

Of course, this intense togetherness is also changing my relationship with Richard, and in a good way. As any of you know who know me, I'm a fiercely independent person who really likes doing things for herself. And yet, here in Asia, I'm learning to play the role of "wife". Learning to hang back and let Richard take care of me, while I stand with Adrian. When we arrive at a new town and the touts are hussling us to get us into their taxis, I simply smile and say my husband is taking care of this decision, and they leave us alone. It's really quite freeing! So while it's a role I'm developing for the outside world, it's also a way of helping me stop being so dominant. So bossy and pushy. During my meditation retreat, I realized what a poor listener I was. It's hard to be both a good listener and pushy at the same time. Richard doesn't always like having to step up and take charge when the situation is difficult, but actually he's pretty good at it. He's more engaged in life, and so we're more engaged with each other too. It's a good cycle. We've been having great conversations about our 14 years together, actually getting around to touching on some of those tough conversations that we never have time for in Toronto. And through all the travelling, we're laughing tons and really enjoying each other's company. I'll speak for myself, and say that we really haven't fought or disagreed or really been ugly with each other for 6 weeks straight. Maybe we should do travelling full time! We don't seem to get tired of each other, even when we're 24/7.

I feel really blessed. This trip has been more than I hoped for. I'm sad that we weren't able to make it to Tibet, but other than this regret which only leaves something open for the future, I'm happy and content and think this is my best travel experience yet. In the past, I've mostly travelled alone, but I love having someone around me all the time to share my experiences. I love my family. Asia has been the mind-blowing opportunity for Adrian I had hoped it would be, and travelling independently has really hooked Richard in a way that I think is paving the way for our future years together. Enough waxing poetically, it's time to kiss this cyber cafe goodnight and head back to the hotel, before we lose power again and this blog fades into the ether.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Chitwan National Park

We couldn't turn down the chance to do an Nepalese safari to Chitwan National Park, so here we are. My first ever safari! We arrived on Monday afternoon to a surprisingly quiet village of Sauraha, just outside of the park. It's almost monsoon season, so there's very few tourists around, and the hotels and lodges are getting ready to close up shop for a few months. We chose a small budget resort that looks an awful lot like our thatched roof cabana in Tulum last March. There are palm trees everywhere, and the highest humidity that we've experienced yet. But the village is set along a river and is very compact, so we can easily walk around everywhere.

Our first morning here, we woke up at 5:30 am to pouring rain, so our first safari was cancelled. We enjoyed a sleep in instead, and then made it down to the river to watch the elephants bathe. This is quite the experience, because tourists are invited to sit on the backs of the elephants while the elephant trainers shout commands to the elephants. Commands like "spray the tourist with your trunk" or "roll over and dump the silly tourist into the river". Both Adrian and I joined in the fun, while Richard stayed on the sidelines playing photographer. We starteed out going together, but also rode the elephants on our own. Elephant skin is spiky and hairy, but surprisingly smooth. It's fun being thrown into the water, and then grabbing onto the ears to pull oneself back onto the elephant. Elephants also get scratched with brushes to keep them clean and feel better, but mostly this event is about getting the tourist wet.

In the afternoon, we made a safari into the park with a guide, first as sitters in a flat-bottomed row boat, and then as walkers. We saw many small animals like monkeys, a crocodile, deer, some large form of squirrel/rodent, and many. many birds, including a peacock and kingfishers, but not the elusive rhinos or tigers. The sounds and smells of the jungle were enchanting nonetheless.

This morning, we woke up at 5:30 to a overcast but dry day, so we started out on our elephant riding safari into a community forest buffer zone just outside of the actual park. We rode 3 of us in a basket sitting on top of an elephant, with the driver sitting just in front of us. Believe it or not, it was pretty comfortable, except for the frequent tail slaps on my toes. And this time we saw the rhinos, and very close up, only 2 metres away! Because wewere on an elephant's back and rhinos have poor eyesight, it was safe. The rhinos didn't ever try to move away from us as we got close to get photos. First we saw a daddy, mommy, and a baby rhino family, which is appropriate considering our little family of 3. They stayed mostly in the water, but we got very close to them. Next we came accross another rhino, and this time he got out of thewater so we could see how massie he was. Not quite as large as an elephant, but close. We also saw 10 deer, a monkey, and lots of birds again, especially beautiful blue ones. Pretty stunning!

We've got one more afternoon here, and we hope to visit the elephant breeding centre on bikes where there is a pair of baby twins, the first ever in captivity, and another baby only a few weeks old. And then we've been tourist long enough and we pack our bags and head to Pokhara to do some more trekking. It's been fun on this safari!!!

(I would try to upload some of my photos of this part of the trip, but the internet connection is pretty slow here and it doesn't seem to work. I may need to wait till I get home to add the photos.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Kathmandu Scene

In general, we've been really impressed with the places we've visited. Kathmandu, on the other hand, is a bit disappointing. I visited here 15 years ago when I was young and single, and thought it was one of the greatest places on earth. This time, it seems overly touristy, over priced, and not so interesting. The downtown Thamel part, that is. Plenty of Pashmina shawls to buy and tiger balm hawkers, but that's all. The first hotel we stayed at was so noisy and had mosquitos, not to mention the hardest bed and pllow of our trip. And there are no Tibetans here, and no Buddhist souvenirs. So we decided to make our purchases quickly and head out.

We spent the first day bargaining for a thanka, a Tibetan painting. Richard and I had decided to indulge ourselves in one thanka as our major purchase on this trip, and our only visa card purchase. After shopping around all day, we settled on a really high quality mandala painting designed by the Dali Lama. If you come to visit our home when we return, it should be in our living room as a daily reminder of this wonderful trip.

The next day was very unusual. There was a country-wide strike by the Maoists. The essentially demanded that all stores stay closed, and requested that there be no wheels on any roads. No bikes, no rickshaws, no cars, no motorbikes, nothing. So, what could we do? We walked, of course, to a temple only 3 kms out of the city, perched on a hill. We'd been planning to visit the Swayambunath Temple, but this seemed like the best day, with the city streets desserted of vehicles.

This is the classic Kathmandu temple with the 2 eyes and what looks like a nose but is really the Nepalese number 1 that look out at you from 4 sides. It's quite distict, and has a really nice vibe there. This temple is also known as the Monkey Temple, because of all the monkeys that live in the trees around the temple. Adrian fell in love with these critters, and we could barely pull him away at the end of the day. He loved watching their silly antics, and how they drank juice from garbage juice boxes, and teased each other. He especially loved the mommies and their little babies, who clung to the mommies for dear life as the mommies jumped around and dug through garbage looking for food. These weren't the scary monkeys of India, and these had seemed to have gotten used to the people around them, especially since many people feed them directly or simply leave them garbage.

At the end of the day, we decided to check out th Durbar Square, on a day when we didn't need to pay the hefty ($7.50 US for foreigners each) fee. What we didn't realize was that we also walked straight into the square where the Maoists were demonstrating. We tried to lay low, and did escape without notice, but there were huge crowds, all chanting and waving wooden batons around. They were harrassing anyone with wheels, but they left us alone.

We were happy to wake up today to a little noise and see that life was back to normal on the street and the strike was over. So we rented bikes for the day and our new friend, the thanka salesman, took us for a bike ride out of the city up to the top of a hill to view another new temple and monestary. It was the most stunning aray of Tibetan buildings we have seen yet. Beautiful colours and designs, all made by sculpting cement and then painting.

The ride back, however, was during rush hour, and I have never heard so many honking horns and seen such chaos. Even at busy intersections, they mostly operate like 4 way stops, only with bikes, cars, motorcycles, rickshawa, and pedestrians all competing for space. Adrian was a little freaked out, and it shows what a fantastic cyclist he is that he could even manage it. And without a helmet, of course. Richard got knocked once by a motocyclist a bit, but otherwise we managed unscathed. Quite the experience! I'll nver worry about Adrian navigating the Toronto bike lanes ever again.

Trekking in Nagarkot

After a few relaxing days in Bodhanath, we were ready for some mountain vistas. We hired a taxi to drive us up to a Nepalise weekend getaway. It's only 28 km from Kathmandu, but it's over 1000 metres higher (around 2100 m) and took 4 hours to drive. We did make a small detour to visit a particular temple en route, but Adrian calculated the drive to be about 7 km/hour. I have never seen a road in such terrible condition, even in India. There wasn't close to one lane that had solid pavement, and trafic was 2 way. The entire road was filled with rocks and potholes, and yet no one seems to complain. They are such a tolerant folk.

Upon arriving, we decided to splurge on a mid-range resort ($20 US) at the very top of the mountain. It was clearly quite a nice resort once, but hadn't had any maintenance in many years, and everything was dusty and crumbling. The view was stunning! We had clear skies at both sunsets and sunrises for 2 days, even though we had to get up at 5 am to see the sunrise. We could see the entire Himilayan mountain range on one side, including Everest in the distance, and the Kathmandu Valley on the other side. The Himalyans are snow-capped this time of year and appear very sureal, as they are so high in the sky we originally thought they were only clouds!

The first day we just daytrekked around the area. We did a 4 hour trek to Katikke and Sankhu, winding down through villages on walking trails. The terrain was very steep, and we walked lots of switchbacks.

When we returned to our hotel, they were filming a Nepalese music video. We got to watch the dancer part and hear the same Nepalese pop song repeated over and over. There's a real Asian esthetic about the pop music, very much like we heard in Burma, and same in Japan, but I can't say that I can fully appreciate it.

The last day, we woke up early and decided to walk back to Kathmandu. We started by walking to a watch tower in the middle of an army training camp. Adrian was a little freaked out to see a bunch of soldiers training in the middle of the road with guns slung over their shoulders and yelling orders and slugging bags of sand around for practice. He was more enamored with their obstacle course training.

After this, we just walked straight down, looking for lots of short cuts through farmers fields. By doing this, we met Raj, a 14 year old orphan, who offered to show us more shortcuts and guide us down into the valley. He was a great resource for us, since he knew all the locals, and they let us walk through their fields. He spoke great English and told us he learned it 1 hour a day at school, and that he really wanted to use it, but he lived too far away from more tourist areas to ever use it. We walked for 5 hours with him, not quite all the way back but he walked us to a local bus station and helped us take the city bus the final couple of kilometres. We would never have made it down the mountain so quickly, not found the right bus without him. We arrived back in Bodhanath with tired feet, but really it didn't take much more time than when we taxied it!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tibetan Village of Bodhanath

After the long flight to get here, we were happy to settle into this tiny village of Bodhanath. We were recommended to come here instead of Thamel, the downtown centre of Kathmandu that is overly touristy. We love it here! Basically we've been seeking out the Tibetan centres of India and Nepal, and finding ourselves most at home there. Not that we're Tibetan, but Tibetans seem to bring some cleanliness and order to wherever they go, and for any of you who have spent any time in India or Nepal, you know that these country could use more cleanliness and order! The Tibetans set up guesthouses for reasonable rates (usually only $8 a night for the 3 of us, or $10 if Adrian is dying for a little tv time), great Tibetan restaurants with a little Italian food for the kids, and make sure everything stays safe, cleanand friendly. We love the "Hello" and "Tashi Delek" we hear shouted at us from every young kid.

We haven't done a lot here, except soak in the atmosphere and walk around the central stupa. Every night the entire community comes out to walk a kora (3 times around, in a clockwise direction) between work and dinner, between 6-7pm. We join in, and feel a part of it.