Friday, May 26, 2017

Go Tell It On the Mountain 7

April 15, 2017

Woke up this morning to a pretty good rainstorm.  How lucky that we didn't book our helicopter flight for today!  Today we were traveling to Pokhara, a small resort city northwest of Kathmandu and the gateway to the beautiful Annapurna mountain range.

We had to consolidate everything we wanted to take with us into one bag;  we would be flying on a smaller plane, and each passenger was only allowed ten kilos.  It was pretty easy to just leave all of our cold-weather clothes behind, as we anticipated much warmer weather in Pokhara.  Marron Trek company would hang onto our extra luggage until we returned to Kathmandu.

a rainy morning in the pretty hotel garden

We had a fair buffet breakfast in the hotel dining room, then met a drippy Hari in the lobby.  He had to walk from the bus stop to our hotel in the rain - poor guy - but he was still smiling.  He would be traveling to Pokhara with us.  We arrived at the Kathmandu airport by 8:30 a.m. for our 9:40 flight on Yeti Air (don't you love that?)  Again we had to pass through security and a pretty thorough pat-down to get into the terminal.   A large delegation of fit-looking Koreans waited nearby in the same small domestic terminal, a huge pile of equipment(?) bags stacked near the counter that had yet to open.  The bags were labeled "Eurasian Mountain Tours," and I wondered if they were climbing mountains all over Europe and Asia.

It was a long wait to check in at the tiny Yeti Air booth, which wasn't much bigger than Lucy Van Pelt's service counter.  Passengers couldn't check in until a sign with the correct flight number was hung on one side.  We passed through yet another security scan and pat-down, and had another long wait at the gate.

 A bus carried all the passengers for the flight out to the little 30-passenger plane, and with no overhead storage, all carry-ons had to be held in our laps.  Once everyone was seated, the lone flight attendant pulled up the stairs, and came through the cabin with a basket of hard candies and cotton balls (ear plugs?).  The pilot's door popped open, and soon the flight attendant was opening the main door and lowering the stairs.  The pilot shot out of the cockpit, walked all the way to the far side of the tarmac, and disappeared down a cement stairway. The whole time he was gone, the flight attendant stood facing the door with her hands behind her back, avoiding eye contact with any of the passengers.  The pilot soon reappeared, strode back across the tarmac to the plane, the stairs were raised, the door was closed, and without a word, we prepared for takeoff.  Potty break??  

tiny plane full of people - very cozy
We were only in the air twenty-five minutes, and got a few peeks at the Anapurna Mountains through the clouds.  Landing at the tiny airport in Pokhara, we walked to a small stone building marked "Baggage Claim."  Two men pushed big carts full of luggage to the outside of that building and said to come outside to claim our bags.  No need for conveyors at this small scale operation.

airport in Pokhara

Hari led us to our new driver, who took us directly to Davis, or Devi's, Falls, a limestone landscape washed away to beautiful strata.  A narrow gorge led to a small waterfall at one end - not particularly outstanding as far as waterfalls go.   Hari said the falls are much bigger just after rainy season.  The falls are so named for a Swiss woman who was swept away in a flash flood while swimming there in 1961.

Seat covers, Nepal-style, in our new driver's car

From there we walked across the busy street to Gupteshwore Cave.  It looked like a simple shopfront, with many small vendor's stalls, and a group playing traditional Nepali music in a little room off to one side.  From here we descended many, many steps down into a cave; some passages had very low ceilings.  It was quite warm and steamy inside, not what one would expect in a cave.  Halfway down was a small temple to Lord Shiva, where people were offering flowers and incense.  Continuing down the sometimes slippery, precarious stone steps, I couldn't help thinking about the fact that we would have to also ascend said stairs.  At the bottom, you can look through a narrow gap in the stones to see where the falls enters the cave.  Then it was time for the strenuous climb back up out of the cave the same way, squeezing by others on their way down.  Not sure it was worth the effort, but it was definitely a good workout!

you can see drops of water on our hats from the drippy cave
It was a short drive from the cave and falls to the Fishtail Lodge, accessible only by a floating raft that is pulled across Phewa Lake by a tireless ferryman who pulls and coils the long green rope that spans the two shores.  Fishtail Lodge is a lovely, green oasis on a small peninsula tucked up against forest-covered hill.  The grounds are meticulously groomed with beautiful blooms around every corner.  We were greeted with a "Namaste!" and some tasty lychee juice at the main circular building, then were handed our room key on a huge wooden fish. The rooms are set in circular cottages, maybe ten or twelve rooms per cottage.  Our room had a definite sixties vibe, with dated paneling, twin beds, and curtains that we had to keep shut for privacy, making the room quite dark.  We had to use the big fish to lock the door from the inside or outside, and an iffy flushing toilet that sometimes belched spontaneously.  The power also went out from time to time, but only for a few seconds.   However, it was comfortable enough, and we were happy to learn that the Lodge is endowed to a non-profit that helps provide cardiac care to the less fortunate of Nepal.

lovely property

staff devoted to caring for the expansive gardens

Hari waited for us to get settled, then we all went back across the lake to the Moondance Cafe on the main street near the lake.  This was clearly a place that catered to western tastes, and we enjoyed some good pizza; the Everest beer, not so much.  Power went out for a short time here as well.  The best part of the lunch was another chance to chat with Hari.  He is a wealth of knowledge and generously shared his views on anything that came up.

After lunch, we walked a short distance to a crowded boat launch, crowded with tourists and with boats.  Hari asked us to wait while he went to arrange for a boat.  After some time, he returned and led us to a long boat nearby.  An older man with hennaed hair welcomed us onto his canopied boat, complete with a wool rug covering the center seats.

The gentleman conveyed the three of us to Tal Barahi Temple on a little island in the southeast part of the lake.  It was busy with worshipers, both Hindu and Buddhist, along with many tourists.  It was hardly spiritual, though, with lots of noisy kids running around.  We took a short walk around the island, then headed back to our patiently waiting boatman.  Unfortunately the storied mountain peaks were not visible today, but we still enjoyed a lovely, leisurely ride past green hills and little coves.  It was leisurely for us, but not for our boatman, who only broke stride once for about fifteen seconds from the island back to our hotel.  Impressive at any age.

We said good-bye to Hari around four p.m., and returned to our room, sending some much-needed laundry to be done.  A housekeeper knocked on the door, handed me a little blue rectangle, and said, "mo-kee-toe."  I must have clearly looked confused, as I had no idea what she was talking about.  She pointed inside the room and said, "Mo-kee-toe.  Ma-cheen."  I still had no idea, but said, "Okay," and closed the door, confident that I figure it out.  I looked carefully around the room trying to decipher the cryptic message, and finally found a little plug-in device, like a room freshener, in the wall between the beds.  It had an identical little blue thing in it; apparently this was some kind of mosquito deterrent.  I felt like a genuine Sherlock Holmes.🕵🔎


Monday, May 22, 2017

Go Tell It On the Mountain 6b

April 14, 2017 continued...

Our wonderful guide, Hari, was waiting for us at the airport upon our return from our morning flight over Everest.  We jumped right back into touring, and our first stop of the afternoon was one of the most startling and memorable, Pashupatinath.  Entering, we saw more monkeys, and some brightly-colored holy men in orange and white with wild hair; one was playing an accordion-type instrument, and was surrounded by a small group of onlookers.  You could pay to take your picture with them.  We were confronted with women hawking beaded necklaces, and when they persisted, Tim told them, "Later."

Monkeys at the gate

Pashupatinath is a sacred Hindu temple and crematorium, and it presents a stark example of our cultural differences.  Situated on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River, a shallow, grey-black waterway, this is where many Nepalis bring their dead to be cremated.  It is believed that the soul won't realize a body is dead, and will try to re-enter it; so cremation must take place as soon as possible, often just hours after passing.  On the far side of the river are several cremation ghats,  square cement platforms used to burn the bodies for all to see.  It took a moment to process just what it was we were seeing.

The oldest son, accompanied by his family, performs the cremation, bringing the shrouded body to Pashupatinath, performing rituals, building the pyre, and tending the fire as it burns.  He must then shave his head and dress all in white, the color of mourning in Hindu culture.

Hari said many different ethnic groups perform cremations here, and they each have unique rituals.  We saw three or four fires already burning, a group making a stretcher from bamboo, and a family in the process of preparing a body.  This group held a long, white cloth around the body so it was not visible to onlookers.  At one point, all the family members wept as they walked in circles around the deceased.  It was heartrending to witness.  In our culture, this is a very private moment, but here hundreds of Hindus lined the riverbanks and filled the bridge over the river, along with the tourists.

The white cloth on the right is shielding a body from view

many onlookers
Just in front of the main temple, across the river from where we stood, was a platform that could only be used for royalty or high officials.  This is where the royal family was cremated after the 2001 massacre.  Today a body was being cremated on that same platform, which may have explained the large crowd of onlookers.  After the 2015 earthquake, fires burned here day and night for the hundreds of victims of the quake.

The main temple behind, only open to Hindus
Once the fire has died, the ashes are sent into the river, which will eventually join the sacred Ganges.  We saw barefoot boys wading in this same water with bamboo sticks in hand, looking for coins that were thrown in by mourners.

On our side of the river were some circular platforms used for other rituals.  On one platform, a family sat and offered food to their ancestors.  Hari said this is part of the cremation ritual; the deceased's family gathers for a ceremonial offering to the departed soul (locally known as "Shradha"), led by a Hindu priest.  It may take place at home or at any holy place like this.  The mourning lasts for one full year, and restrictions determine which foods may be eaten during that time.

The eldest son wears white and has his head shaved
Behind us was a row of small shrines dedicated to Shiva.  They were arranged in such a way that one could stand at one end and look straight through all the shrines to the other side.  Inside each shrine was an identical, large shivalinga, the phallic symbol that represents the intertwined male and female, and is a symbol of Shiva.

As we turned to head back toward the entrance, the women who were hawking necklaces at the entrance had tracked us down - quite impressive in this crowd, although we certainly didn't blend in very well.  They said in English, "You said 'Later!'"  We applauded their tenacity, but it was still a "no, thank-you."

On our way out, we walked through an area where many holy men, Sadhus, live, subsisting on minimal shelter and food.  Smoking cannabis is a big part of Sadhu rituals, and hundreds of holy men travel here each year for the Hindu festival of Maha Shivaratri, when the ban on marijuana is temporarily lifted.  Many locals take part in the festivities as well.

Next, we drove about forty-five minutes through heavy traffic to the city of Bhaktapur, Hari's hometown and home to many  of the Newari ethnic group.  It is billed as the cultural capital of Nepal, and dates back to the 8th century, when it was the capital city of Nepal.  It is considered a living museum, displaying the depth of Newari culture that has remain unchanged for generations.  Many great festivals take place here each year.

The city is laid out in an interesting pattern, with city gates and four big squares that serve as hubs of activity.  We walked from one square to another by way of narrow alleyways, the rich culture of the city evident with every step.  Hari led us to yet another upstairs restaurant, this time the Cafe de Peacock on Dattatraya Square, with a wonderful view of the oldest temple in the city and the busy square below.  I had vegetarian cashew rice, as we watched an old man trying to sleep off the New Year's eve celebration, (here called Bisket Jatra), of the previous night.  He sprawled across the edge of a pillar, and did not look at all comfortable!

We watched sacred goats wander through the colorful crowd.  A man pushed a bright blue and green cart into the square, and fed sugar cane into a contraption to extract the juice for something that looked like a snow cone.

After lunch, we wove through the crowds to a big square (named Yoh Si Khel), where the main part of the Bisket Jatra festival took place.  The night before the new year, a huge tug-of-war takes place between the eastern and western parts of the city.  Then a huge chariot carrying a statue of the god Bhairava is pulled by hundreds of people to this open ground so that the god may enjoy the festivities.  An enormous tree trunk, a Yoh Si, lingum, is erected and inserted into the yoni stone, the female base.  This trunk remains for twenty-four hours, then is taken down to signify the start of the new year.  We were disappointed that we kept Hari from being able to participate in the festivities with his family, but he was quite good-natured about it.

the chariot

the huge tree trunk erected in the square
We continued on through the streets, when Hari said he would show us his house, and told us the story of how he was at home when the earthquake hit, and his home came down around him.  He had to dig himself out of the rubble, but was lucky not to be seriously hurt.  He spent hours helping neighbors escape, and was relieved to know his wife and son were unharmed.  This area was the hardest hit, and the damage was evident everywhere.

on the streets

We arrived at his home, and ducked our heads to enter the narrow passageway where only parts of the walls were still standing.  We walked through a small courtyard where two young boys were playing, one was Hari's four-year-old son.  Behind the courtyard was a small room at the back that survived the quake.  We were welcomed into their one-room home, with one bed and a couple of chairs, and met his mother, brother, nephew, niece and his lovely wife.  They kindly offered us a cup of soda, and we sat and visited for a bit.  I wished we had something to give them in return.  I remembered I had a package of mechanical pencils in my bag, and gave one to each of the children.  What a lovely and gracious family.  Luckily, they have a temporary home outside the city while repairs are slowly being made to their true home inside the old city.  We felt honored to be welcomed so generously.

We said, "Namaste!" and headed back out into the holiday crowd.  Next was Taumadhi Square, where a stage was set up on one side, and the square was teeming with people.  The centerpiece of the square is the tall, raised, multi-roofed Nyatapola Temple, the base of which was absolutely covered with festival goers.  This unique temple was built in 1702, and is one of the tallest temples in Nepal.

Nyatapola Temple

Hari and his fellow citizens

a family posing for pictures
Our final stop was Durbar Square, where we entered the courtyard of the Palace of Fifty-Five Windows through the "Golden Gate," circa 1754, considered by many to be the "most lovely piece of art in the whole kingdom."  Inside the gate, we passed by a military guard and lined up to go through to the inner courtyard.  There we saw a huge stone pool that served as the king's bath.  We filed in and out through an extremely narrow doorway.

Beautifully detailed Golden Gate

Statue of King Bhupatindra Malla looks across to the palace.
He completed the construction his father began.
We enjoyed the festive atmosphere back out on the street, including the many groups of drummers and musicians.

We drove back to Kathmandu - unfortunately, Hari had to make the long drive with us, just to pick up his motorbike and go right back again.  We hoped he would make it back for some of the festivities that night.  We were still full from our late lunch, so we skipped dinner and went to bed.  What an amazing day.