Pokhara, Nepal. . . .La la la!

20160203_163343

Crossing the Nepal border from India on a bicycle rickshaw was pretty cool. . . even after an overnight train from Goa, a scathing visit in Delhi, another over night train to Gorakhpur, and then a 3 hour local bus ride to Sunauli.  We got to Nepal exhausted and starving, wondering where to go next, and stopped for our first meal.

Mo-mo’s and chow mein are staples in Nepal.  The vodka is questionable, but it is available everywhere, and after a 1700 mile journey to get to this exact moment, we deserved every drop.

20160203_165353

After dinner, we decided to go to Pokhara.  Besides, what was 8 more hours on an overnight bus, anyway?!  Clocking so many hours in so little time, our rating on the Hardcore Richter Scale just kept going up.  Booyah!

We caught a local bus for 375 Indian rupees and scored the best seats.  Loud Nepali music blared through the speakers, and despite the bumps and the laughing, I slept for most of the ride.  We left the border around 8pm and arrived in Pokhara at 5am the next morning.

It was cold.  Real cold.  In fact, when the bus stopped, I could see my breath and didn’t want to go outside.  Brrrrr.  Coming from Goa in the 90’s just less than two days before, it was like going from the height of summer to winterrrrrrrrrr way too fast!

I put on most of the layers I had with me in my small backpack before venturing out into the cold morning.  It was still dark and too early to go to any hotel room, so refuge from the frigid air was a frivolous desire.  The only open thing near the bus stop was a small place that served chai.

We walked in and sat at one of the five tables in the place.  It felt like night.  A man stood next to a small fire near the front entrance making chapatis and chai.  There was a quietness in the cold air, but it wasn’t desolate, it was more Zen feeling.

A young boy brought two cups of steaming, hot chai to our table.  The steam, like the breath of tea, was one of the only visible things in the early darkness.  I noticed two men sitting at another table–dressed in heavy jackets and scarves–bundled up appropriately for the weather, but wearing flip-flops on their feet.  They sat quietly hunched over their cups.

I was quite perplexed that the windows and door to this little hole in the wall were just open.  The doorway didn’t even have a door, actually.  It made me wonder why they wouldn’t want to close the space to conserve heat of some kind.  Who the heck wants to eat or drink in a place that’s outside in winter?  Nepali’s are tough.

We got two more cups of chai to kill time and borrow warmth, and after an hour, we took a taxi straight to our room.  We crashed hard and for many hours.

20160208_104349Pokhara is a pretty mountain town surrounded by the Himalayas.  It hadn’t rained in weeks when we were there, so the sky was too hazy to see any of the great mountains in the distance, but we still got gorgeous views. . . and a decent latte!

The town is set next to a mystical lake.  It looks like the Lochness monster might lurk in the waters and, if you’re lucky, you might just see the tail hidden in the fog that hovers above the surface.  There’s a windy dirt road that traces the contours of the lake, stretching for miles from the city out into the small villages.

20160205_161822

20160204_173525

We spent a couple afternoons walking along that road.  The pastoral landscape was beautiful from afar. . . . and it was so peaceful bumbling along the countryside.

20160205_154625

On our way back into town, we caught a fantastic view of a bus.  Some things are so similar to India.  Don’t you just love it?!

IMG-20160217-WA0000

I found Pokhara to be filled with heaps of cool street art–murals, graffiti, mandalas.  And the people?!  So lovely.  So happy.  And so very little. . .especially the women.  Unlike places in India, I noticed a lot more women in Pokhara running shops, restaurants, guesthouses.  They seemed to have a dominating presence on the streets–all huddled together in different turfs talking about the obligatory gossip, I’m sure.

20160205_140016

 

20160205_161620

Our first night we got lucky and stumbled upon happy hour at a bar across the street from our guesthouse.  We didn’t even know until we ordered two drinks and the waiter brought out three?!  We thought he either got the order wrong, it was going somewhere else, or we had an unexpected guest. . .but it turned out to be the deal of the evening: buy 2 get 1 free.  Okay, twist my arm.  Now, give me three more!!  And did I mention that I got 106 Nepali Rupees for ONE US dollar?!

After a few days of wandering around the city, we made friends with a very special little baby named Rocky.  He was hairy, stinky, and almost too cute, but we went to visit him every day we were in Pokhara.  We actually both got sick from the extreme weather shift, and spent a lot of time in our room drinking ginger lemon honey tea, but we made it out at least once a day to give Rocky a banana.  I think he gave us therapeutic cuddles, too, so he wasn’t the only one benefiting.

We adopted a place called Cafe Europa as our main eating spot.  It had four tables, cool murals, and one of the most fun, sassy ladies in town cooking.  Everything Lakshmi made was from scratch right in front of us and it was delicious.

Lakshmi was around 25 years old–married at 13–with long black hair and a Marilyn Monroe beauty mark by her left eye.  She would dart back and forth in the kitchen saying nonsensical things, all with a big smile, and if we said anything to her she would reply, “I cooking you looking!”  And if we ever asked her for anything she would shoot a naughty grin, with one hand on her hip, and say, “Not possible!”  But it was always possible.  Sometimes she would say “Not possible” at the same time she was doing the impossible thing.

“La, la, la,” was another one of Lakshmi’s sayings.  She would say it really fast in the space of a verbal pause or even totally at random.  It was like whimsical Tourette’s and it was kind of hilarious.

Lakshmi’s son, James, liked when I took his picture and was very confident as he pointed and directed me on how to photograph him.  This particular day he was grounded from not coming home the previous night, so he had to sit in the restaurant all day in Lakshmi’s sight.  He sat quietly in the corner table staring at the kids playing on the street.  I could tell by the look in his eyes he knew he was wrong, but he didn’t regret it one bit.  Whatever fun he had was worth the day of sacrifice.

20160206_150554

On our last night in Pokhara, we brought a bottle of whiskey to put in our ginger lemon honey tea.  Lakshmi was in her usual spunky spirits and gladly accepted when we offered her a shot of whiskey.  We didn’t know, but soon found out, she liked to drink!  Heh.  After the first shot, she came to our table, “la, la, la,” and our bottle of whiskey magically disappeared and ended up next to the chopping board in her kitchen.

Before we knew it, a whiskey party was happening.  Lakshmi’s husband and one of his friends came and the shots continued. We even made friends with a lovely French traveler who joined us for a few rounds.  I then got ordered to go into the kitchen and make my own ginger lemon honey tea, so I told Lakshmi, “I cooking, now YOU looking!”  We both laughed and hugged.

20160207_212622

The next morning, we packed up our room and said goodbye to Pokhara.  But this time, instead of taking two locals buses and then trying to catch a train in Gorakhpur, we opted for the cheap, masochistic single bus option. . .THIRTY-TWO HOURS, 680 miles, straight from Pokhara to Delhi.  Duuuuude!

Since we took a night bus on the way to Pokhara, I was excited to see the landscape on the way back.  We didn’t get the best seats for this round, but had the funniest Tibetan neighbor in our row.  He had long hair and deep life lines carved into his tan skin.  In his right ear, he wore a turquoise and coral earring.  I didn’t get his name, but his smile was good enough.  I knew we were kindred spirits when the bus hit such a large bump we went flying into the air. . .me and the Tibetan friend laughing like maniacal teenagers, smiling at each other, reveling in our mutual joy.  Truthfully, the bus ride was so bumpy I wished I had packed my sports bra!

The countryside views we flew past were like post cards.  Some of the landscape looked like patchwork quilts of bright green and brown squares, sewed together by yellow and purple floral thread.  Multi tiered hills, rope bridges, goats, dogs, and mint green rivers whirled by.  It was poetry in motion.

20160208_145533

Several hours later, we stopped for chai–although they call it “milk tea” in Nepal.  We were definitely far away from anything and the people were entertained by my presence.  The woman making tea was using a cool, clay stove, and she smiled as I sipped her brew.

The journey to Delhi was long and funny.  There were so many older Tibetan women on the bus and they kept making the driver stop so they could pee.  Now, we were in the middle of nowhere for most of the drive, so the driver would just pull over anywhere.  The men would go in one direction and the women in the other.  I thoroughly enjoyed my strange bonding time while squatting, even though none of us ever said a word, and I felt very blessed to share such moments in this beautiful land.

Until next time, Nepal!  Namaste!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India/Nepal Visa Run

A few weeks ago, we braved leaving our glorious jungle bubble in Goa to go on a trek of epic proportions across mother India.  Heh.  We traveled 1700 miles (2700 km) by train, bus, and rickshaw to a funny place on the Nepal border, called Sunauli. . . .to explore a bit of Nepal and exit the country for my visa.

If you’re American, you get a 10 year visa, but you have to exit the country every 180 days (6 months).  For this kind of visa, the 6 months begins when you arrive in India.  For people other than Americans, the most common visa is a 6 months visa, but the visa begins when it is issued, not when you arrive, so make sure to check your dates when traveling.  There’s not that much current information about doing the visa run to Nepal on land, so here it goes.

In India, you can’t just rock up to the train station and get a ticket.  Nothing here is *that* easy.  You see, there’s so many people trying to ride the famous trains, you can only go to certain stations to purchase tickets where they have “tourist quota.”  So, our adventure began with a 2 hour drive south of Anjuna to the Margao station.  If you’re in the area, that’s where you need to book your tickets.  Not all of the trains run every day and some of them only bi-weekly.  Btw, the Rajdhani Express is real nice.

Anyway, when we got to Margao, I was surprised to see the crowd waiting for the ticket room to open.  As soon as it did, like in a classic parody of this quirky culture, the whole group ran to get in line first.  I’m often amused at the opportunistic, sometimes rude/survival-of-the-fittest nature of people around here, but in a place with such a large population, how could it be any other way?

Living in Anjuna is much different from the rest of India. We don’t have the crowds or the same amount of pollution as in other places like Delhi or Mumbai, and the vibe around here is more like a holiday than the dirty, dusty, daily grind of everyday living.  Out there, India offers a plethora of confrontational and beautiful lessons to anyone who can see.

A real good lesson to be learned in India?  Personal space is a luxury.  Really.  People stand extremely close in lines, or in shops, or most public places, and it’s normal.  Coming from a Western culture, I have to remind myself that the woman who almost stepped on my toe, or cut in front of me, isn’t being rude.  She’s just making her way.  Like the traffic rule. . . “Might is Right”. . .it applies to many aspects of life here.

20160129_074842

With luck on our side, we got some of the last tickets available to Delhi, and jumped back in Dinky-Doo.  There’s never a dull moment while driving in India.  I know I’ve explained the traffic before, but one of my very favorite things is watching the trucks pass.  You never know what is going to be in the back of it. . . . a pile of beautiful women in colorful saris, furniture, one man sleeping while standing, school kids in their matching uniforms.  It’s really unpredictable.

20160129_083704

A few days later, a rickshaw pulled up to the Chill-Inn and we set off on our adventure. . . .

A 28 hour train ride to Delhi awaited us. . . . but only after our favorite breakfast. . . masala dosa. . . .

20160131_093751

Are you wondering what the heck that is?  It’s like an Indian crepe, but even thinner and a bit crisp, and on the inside is potatoes and peas with spices.  It’s a typical South Indian dish and it is served with a spicy coconut chutney and a vegetable soup for dipping or sipping.  Mmmmmmm.  Ooh, it’s a  yummy meal for only 60 rupees, too.  Dosa is also always made fresh so it’s a good thing to eat if you’re traveling.

After breakfast, we headed to the Thivim station just outside of Mapusa, pronounced Mop-sa by the locals.  It is the main station in North Goa and it’s quite nice, by Indian standards.

20160131_101538

IMG-20160131-WA0018

In case you’re wondering, that is NOT my big roller bag.  My bag is the tiny red back pack behind me.  That’s right.  We challenged ourselves to live out of small backpacks in many different temperatures for two weeks.  How many things do any of us really need?

The Rajdhani Express arrived and we settled into our berth just fine.  We booked the A/C sleeper class which has bunk beds and tends to be a bit cleaner than other compartments.  The windows don’t open and sometimes it gets cold, but mostly, it’s nice and comfortable. On this particular train, they provide blankets, pillows, towels, and serve a lot of pretty good food.

If you’re looking for train tickets, the Upper berths and the side ones are the best.  If you get either of those options, you can take naps whenever you want.  The other beds are communal until it’s sleeping time.

For many hours, I stared at the motherland whizzing by.  We passed so many bridges.  Bridges that looked half done and then abandoned, bridges with men at work in sandals, bridges that didn’t appear to have roads attached to them at all, or even have anything to go over–a repetitive wasteland of bridges going nowhere; endless mounds of useless concrete.  There was something sad, but, I don’t know, artistic about it?!

Underneath some of the concrete arches, people bathed and washed their clothes; kids played.  The bridges provided a necessary refuge.  In the end, I suppose all things can find a purpose. . . even the unfinished, forgotten, abandoned things.

Green fields with crops also whizzed by.  I noticed many fences that looked like fabric barriers, but they were just random saris drying in the sun.  When we went through cities, I saw kids playing Cricket next to heaps of garbage, people lying in rope beds near the tracks, and all different kinds of animals sniffing for food.

After a decent sleep, and almost 30 hours, we arrived in good ol’ Delhi.  Delhi is not my favorite place, but it is an experience and it has some amazing restaurants.  Dal Makhani and garlic butter naan are to die for in these parts.  Do yourself a favor and get butter chicken with a heaping basket of naan.  I guarantee a good time!

However, getting out of the train station in Delhi is an assault on the senses.  I forgot to mention that a lot of the trains in India, well, have toilets that are just holes that go down onto the train tracks (newer trains have flushing toilets).  I’ll give you a few seconds to imagine what that might smell like in an extremely high population city station.  Heh.  Got it?!  Signs advise to not use the toilets at the stations, but not everyone is good at following rules.

We didn’t go to Delhi to go to Delhi.  We went to Delhi to catch another train to Gorakhpur, but stayed a day to enjoy some of our favorite sights and foods.  We stopped at a cute little hole in the wall on the main road in Pahar Gange Main Bazaar.  That’s a good area in Delhi if you’re looking for a place to go.

The tiny restaurant had a low ceiling, quirky pictures on the walls, and a random assortment of travelers from everywhere.  A cute, old lady with white, frizzy hair dressed in a floral skirt sat down at the table behind us.  Her cigarette smoke wafted out onto the main road and blended in with the Delhi dust and she fed a hungry dog a piece of her buttered toast.  I assumed, by her calm nature, that it wasn’t her first time in India, or Delhi.

We sat in the early morning sun drinking chai–watching rickshaws, bicycles, carts, tourists, and life pass us by–absorbing the typical honking sounds of the city.

20160202_102955

The dust and dirt in the air quickly becomes a nasty phlegm in your throat.  It’s all part of the Delhi experience. . . .along with the garbage.  In fleeting moments, the dust and dirt is charismatic and beautiful.  In a city with so many people, anything goes.  Laundry hangs wherever it can, people drive however they want, and there are no boundaries for anything.  The good, the bad, the ugly is all mixed together everywhere you look, so you have to confront all aspects of life.  It’s amazing and horrible. . . but it’s so  REAL.

 

20160202_092627

In western cultures, we are too good at hiding things.  We put everything and everyone in a specific place–behind walls, fences, or even buried in the ground–and forget it exists.  But the garbage is still there.  The crazy people still live.  The poor people are still poor.  When everything is out in the open, you can’t forget, and it’s sort of humbling.  What’s that saying, “Airing our dirty laundry in public”?!  Well, we all know it’s there, so what is the point of hiding it?  Food for thought.

When you walk around in a place like Delhi, there are thousands of opportunistic people in every direction.  For example, a guy walking past us noticed Amit’s broken shoe and asked to fix it. . .

20160202_093238

He was essentially a traveling cobbler with a whole contraption he carried like a briefcase.  He glued and sewed and buffed for 60 rupees.  The locals watched and laughed as Amit got “overcharged” (they thought), but it was only one dollar, really.  People are hungry for rupees and being observant, for this dude, paid off.

We were running late for our train to Gorakhpur, so instead of taking a rickshaw to the station, we were advised by locals to take the Metro (subway).  It sounded like a good idea, so we happily joined the masses shuffling underground.

20160202_142633

The first segment was fine.  We got out of the metro and then had to run to another part.  The next subway had such a large crowd trying to get on, I literally got swallowed into the crowd of people and moved by group force onto the subway.  It was scary and kind of exhilarating.

20160202_143321Just after this picture was taken, and a few laughs were had, I felt something near my hip pouch, but didn’t think anything of it because we were all stuffed in together and figured someone just moved their arm next to me.  But then, the train stopped, and Amit’s wallet was GAWN!  Yep.  Just like that.  Note to self, opportunistic people come in all shapes and sizes, and an overly crowded subway train is the perrrrrfect place to pick pockets.  Be on guard, people.  Luckily, he didn’t have much in his wallet, so other than mourning the actual wallet, we didn’t lose anything important.  Whew!

Back at the Delhi train station, we were once again accosted by the perplexing aromas.  Another overnight train ride to Gorakhpur awaited us, and this time we got the side berths, so we lounged and binged on shows for most of the ride.

Our neighbors on the train were three men.  They sat together eating weird spicy snacks, listening to funny Hindi music on their phones, and one of them was always crushing chewing tobacco with lime in his hand.  They were nice enough.  Sometimes neighbors on the trains can be a bit confused or judgmental at biracial couples, but these dudes were more like intrigued.

Close to Gorakhpur, one of them men stood up and pulled his shirt off his belly.  The man behind him wrapped this back brace looking thing around his midsection.  It reminded me of the olden time ladies helping each other with corsets or girdles.  I asked if it was for his back and he laughed, making fun of himself, and then confessed it was to hide his belly.  WHAT?  I had to laugh.  This was definitely a first for me.  The man then explained he was returning home to get married and he wanted to look good at the train station.

Trains in India run on IST.  That means they are late a lot.  Our train turned out to be 6 hours late, and when we asked why, the attendant didn’t even know.  It’s the Bermuda triangle time zone on the tracks, apparently.  I don’t have many pictures from this part of the journey because the window was too dirty to take any.

By the way, there’s nothing in Gorakhpur.  Unless you are going to Sunauli, I don’t think you would ever go to this place.  It’s in the middle of nowhere, but we found out, you can get “tourist quota” tickets there.  Varanasi is also a few hours south.

From Gorakhpur, we took a local bus. . . .blessed with being able to get a seat. . .and rode 3 hours to Sunauli.  This was the kind of bus with sunken, old seats, and stuffed in the same manner as the subway in Delhi.  I was totally amazed how people stood for 3 hours like sardines in the aisle.

The India/Nepal border was bustling with foot traffic, bicycle rickshaws, trucks, and a cloud of dust.  I rode in my first bicycle rickshaw to the immigration office. You can get a Nepal visa on arrival and it’s $25 USD for a 15 day visa.

Forms filled out, passport stamped and Nepal visa put in, we got back into our bicycle rickshaw and crossed the border. . . .

20160203_163201

On the other side, a whole new adventure began. . . .