Tuesday, 19 November 2013

That elusive Indian border

So I was up for 6:30am, a day earlier than planned, so I could go rafting. OK then, that'll be time for the second motorbike ride of your life, this time with a big pack on your back for extra fun.

There were SO MANY tourist buses parked along the road, and many more locals making the most of the opportunity by selling various cures for the morning to us foreigners. Nepalis don't need cures for the morning, because I'm fairly sure that they don't actually sleep.

Bit of a kerfuffle with the buses as per usual. Yes, I'm going rafting. No, I don't have a bus ticket. Go with it, this is Nepal. But I somehow slept on a Nepali bus, which I'm guessing is because I didn't purchase one of their morning cures. That said, I did wake up a few times to incredibly bumpy roads and scary corners. Yes, they'd forgotten to pave a few bits of the main east-west highway in Nepal. In fact, make that the main highway in the whole of the country.

Don't particularly want to fall down there
But this is Nepal, so I just had to go with it.

We stopped off on the way at the place that EVERY bus seemed to stop at by the looks of things. And as this is Nepal, they all turned up at once, which made getting food in the allocated time a bit of a challenge. Also, if you call it "scrambled eggs" on your menu, I expect you to scramble multiple eggs, especially for the price you're charging.

It also meant there was a massive queue for the toilet - the delight of a squat toilet, because this is where I had to become all cultured. Actually, people complain about squat toilets, but I don't mind them too much - especially since you can't sit there for ages and hold up the entire queue in them. That said, they're never clean, and they're most certainly not designed for use with trousers. Or maybe that's because I'm a bit useless, but there you go.

OK, now we're leaving. And we nearly left the Italians behind, which amused me a fair bit at that time of morning.

It was barely half an hour before the bus stopped again. "Rafting!"

OK, that'll be me.

No, we've definitely stopped outside a house.

No, this is Nepal, and the garage is a rafting storeroom. Go with it Anselm.

My guide was a guy called Kumal who was a bit of a legend. He'd even developed a mildly British sense of humour in his time. He'd worked in Afghanistan for a bit too, so maybe that's why. But not as a Gurkha soldier, which confused my sleep-deprived brain, but there you go.

The Trisuli river is incredible too - good scenery in between the various (fairly tame actually) rapids.

And you'll have to rely on Google Images for some pictures, as I didn't particularly want my camera getting wet.

We finished at some nondescript town called Mugling, where we grabbed a bit of food, which is mildly heavenly after rafting, especially since they give you as much rice and dal bhat as you want. But no extra meat, even if you ask and look like a disappointed carnivore when they refuse.
You know you've been in Nepal too long when this is nondescript
After that I met Santos, a guy who is the same age as me yet owns the rafting company. Fair play to him. We jumped in a shared jeep and waited for it to fill up so we could head up to a beach for the night.

Of course, full means full in this country. Even when you're squashed in with your pack on your lap, someone else will want to join you on the back seat.

And to make things worse, she put the window up too. Because I clearly like to sweat in hot foreign countries, while squashed in the back of an overloaded jeep.

Needs a few more people hanging out the back. And maybe someone on the roof.
The beach was the one that we started on this morning as well. Yes, you're going to raft the same stretch of river tomorrow. And because we can't communicate with the travel agency properly, the third day is Tihar - but if you like, you can come stay and celebrate with my family, at no cost.

But I've already booked a hotel in Chitwan for that night, because I was told that we'd get there on the third day.

OK, no third day of rafting, but you'll at least make it to the hotel in time, because my place is on the way to Chitwan. Or at least I'm fairly sure that's what he was saying to me. The language barrier was a little bit of an issue.

So much for the plan to raft from Kathmandu to Chitwan. Just the same 20km of river twice, with long bus journeys at either end.

I'd finished rafting at about 3:30, but even for me 6:30pm was a bit early for another meal. And they put chips with it for some reason. I know I'm a white man, but that doesn't mean I like chips. Got a live show of them putting the sacrifice for the first day of Tihar down though - every restaurant/shop/business couples as a family home here.

OK, time for bed. But I have chest pains again. Oh, and food poisoning. In a tent, on a beach. Even more fun.

Day 2. "My friend, breakfast was 7:30. It's now 8:30." Quelle horreur. No my friend, I am not Nepali, so I don't do mornings.

For my second go at the same stretch of river (I'm not bitter or anything...) I was back with Kumal and a load of Chinese tourists who seemed to be dressed for some sightseeing. Yes, they had their SLRs draped over their t-shirt and jeans outfits. Genuinely.

Were they not aware that rivers are generally quite wet?

So this time I decided I was bored of staying in the boat and that I would much rather swim through the rapids. And got the associated funny looks for it.

OK, back in the boat. Before Kumal persuaded me to swim through another few.

During which he was madly pointing to my left.

Then I hit some rocks.


Ah, that's why he was pointing to my left.

Swimming in rapids is easier said than done.

This over and done with, we decided we'd race another boat down the river, and when we got bored of just racing, we just splashed each other. Because we're all mature adults, obviously.

This photo is not at all related to the current blogpost. Apart from the fact it was taken in Nepal.
Rafting done and I wasn't sure whether Santos was trying to tell me to hurry up or to take my time and enjoy my food. But I'd swum through rapids today, and I was even hungrier. And he mentioned pasta a lot. But this is Nepal, they surely don't have pasta here?

Oh. They can't pronounce the letter P around here. He was trying to say "faster".

Running for the bus with a 15kg pack on while totally exhausted just wasn't happening, but thankfully it waited for us. No, don't worry about the luggage rack, just overload the inside of the bus some more with it.

OK, time to change bus. No, you can't go on the roof, because of something about a "traffic problem". I just nodded and went with it, even though I had no idea what he meant by that or its relevance to roof-riding. But there we go.

Tarmac. Tarmac. Dirt track.

And it was bumpy! And so, so slow.

And we're heading north. Chitwan is definitely to the south. And the journey's going to take 6 hours.

Oh, it's not possible to reach Chitwan tomorrow. Now you tell me, when I have no other option. Please ring my hotel in Chitwan please. No, not tomorrow, do it today. And thanks that I'm not going to enjoy this now, because you've just messed me around.

The bus got stopped by people dancing in the road a few times. And no, they won't move out of the way until the driver gives them some money. For getting in the way and dancing. This is Nepal, go with it.

We pulled into some small town in the middle of nowhere at about 8pm. Santos called it a "small city", but that was most certainly pushing it. It had a couple of restaurants and shops, and that was it. But we needed to change bus again.

"Do you want to go on the top deck?"
Me on the "top deck"
So my first experience of roof-riding was in an empty luggage rack, in the dark, on a dirt track. Very uncomfortable. And even scarier than normal, especially when the first bit of road puts the bus on a 30 degree angle.

And yes, they genuinely call the roof the top deck here. It even has a "front seat" on the "top deck".

Made it.

Oh wait.

It's time for an hour-long trek down the side of a mountain, in the dark. And because of the whole kerfuffle over getting to Chitwan, my mind decided that it had had enough, wanted to become its crazy self again and I started to have a mild panic attack as I walked down there. Yes, I genuinely thought about falling down the side of a mountain so the air ambulance could rescue me.

I could just about force myself to keep on walking, however much I wanted to sit down and be alone.

Didn't change the fact I was more than dripping with sweat though.

I don't want to dwell on this too much, but even when you're travelling, which makes pretty much everyone incredibly jealous of you, the smallest things can trigger your mind - and can drag up absolutely everything that means that you have the mental health problems in the first place. My medication is probably the reason I made it to the bottom though. But I felt awful, incredibly awful - and just wanted to sleep.

Everyone has an inappropriate uncle, even Santos. But his inappropriate uncle just seemed intent on teaching me Nepali. Fair play. So jeto is eldest brother, canto is youngest brother and bansjee is who knows what. Inappropriate uncle was CANTO. I was JETO.
I got given some food, which this being a small Nepalese village was rice and some dal bhat. But I massively appreciated it, because (relatively) rich white man was turning up and being treated like a king by some Nepali villagers who'd probably never seen a white man in the flesh before.

Canto convinced me to have a glass of milk as well. He has a name, but I can't for the life of me remember it.

It was warm and tasted of burning, as did everything here.

And there was a baby buffalo sat around the corner. Casual.
Alright mate
I actually got a bed to sleep on, which was more than I expected. This was a proper mud hut with thatched roof - no Western comforts here!

I was woken up the next day at 7am, because it was apparently time to get up.

No, it most certainly isn't.

But you've let me stay at your house and you're feeding me, despite your quite obvious poverty, so I'll get up.

It's a proper Nepali village - and I have no idea where I am, apart from 6 hours north of Bandipur. There's definitely no wifi to check it out on Google Maps, so I'll have to live without knowing. Because, of course, it's really important for me to know these things.

I'm a novelty here though. An object of staring and bemusement. And great amusement and giggling for the women. In Britain, we'd call this "racism", but here it's fine, because "it's their culture". Yeah, whatever.

And it was the biggest Hindu festival of the year, but they decided to ask me about my religion. And what I thought the "best religion" was. Well this is awkward. I've not had nearly enough sleep and I've got to remember how I came up with the rubbish I put on my job applications.

CANTO, CANTI, JETO, JETI. Jedi? No, jeti. What a shame.

And Santos' sister is genuinely called Santa. I thought she meant Sandra, but no, definitely Santa. Incredible.
Newsflash: Santa is Hindu
They wanted to initiate me properly, so I got given a tikka and a Nepali hat (take that, souvenir-buyers).

And I must join in with the SINGING AND DANCING, SINGING AND DANCING - which seemed to be the little English they actually knew.

So I joined in, and just tried to imitate Bollywood. I wasn't far off being right actually.
White man can dance
Oh wait, you must give money to the person who's decided to dance as well. Right, this is how it is. Stop making me so suspicious please.

But apparently I can choose a Nepali wife from any of these lovely ladies.

"Do you want this one?"

But since I had to be up at 4am I decided to be a boring white man and go to bed instead. Having caused a small village to have a power cut by plugging in my laptop, I actually slept in my bed, but only after slipping over on the way to the toilet and causing the buffaloes to make a fair amount of noise about my plight.

At 2am though, they repeated the only English they knew. SINGING AND DANCING, SINGING AND DANCING.

No, I'm up at 4, I need to sleep.

Eventually I gave in though.
I'm a proper Nepali now
Token dance done and I sneaked off and back to sleep.

We only got up at 5:30am in the end anyway.

OK, let's have some bread. I can't eat a lot, it's 5:30am.
Maybe I should try this whole "getting up early" thing more often. Nah, cba
Though had I realised the scale of the hike that awaited me, I probably would have asked for some for the road. If you can call it a road. Uphill, uphill, uphill. Hi Himalayan foothills, this is my first experience of trekking - please treat me well.
Yeah, that'll do I suppose.
3 hours later, we made it to the bus. Despite the fact that Santos had hurried me and insisted that me taking photos was the difference between life and death, it wasn't leaving for half an hour. I like how they hurry me up but can't do anything on time themselves. And running with a 15kg pack on your back on a mountain path is a quick route to the air ambulance, not getting to the bus quickly.

Logic level: Nepali.

Time to ride on the roof again though, and this time on the most comfortable seat: the spare wheel.

Selfie level: expert
The bus seemed to stop at every house (there's no such thing as a bus stop around here) and we had to dodge power lines every 5 seconds, but you do get a good view from the roof. And it's a better insight into Nepali life than the tour bus crowds get in 2 weeks of their stupid guided tours.

A few hours and not many miles later, we all had to get off the roof though. There wasn't a lot of space inside, so a load of them went for a walk up the road, I presumed to get another bus. But they left their bags on the roof of THIS bus. "Traffic problem, traffic problem" apparently.

There was just about space for me though, but even five minutes trapped between the metal doorframe and an armpit isn't a lot of fun.

Oh, the traffic POLICE don't like roof-riding. Why didn't you just say POLICE? I know things get lost in translation, but if you know the phrase "traffic problem", then surely "traffic police" isn't too difficult for you?

Around the corner, out of sight of the police, and everyone was back on.

Following the law, Nepali style.

A bit further down the road several buses had been pulled over. They all looked like a classic Nepalese photo - people hanging off the sides and far too many people on the roof.

Yes, more traffic police.

So we all got off, walked around the corner and back on the roof again.

Except this time, the policeman came for a wander round the corner and could see what was going on from about 500m away.

I have never seen a conductor hit the side of the bus so quickly to tell the driver to go.

On to the road south and we were now inside. Apparently there is a big, bad traffic problem here.

Actually, the only traffic problem was the crazy driver. Potholes? Nah, we'll fly over them, because this is a bus.

And the other problem was that Santos suddenly foisted the cost of the trip for not just me, but also him and his two sisters, on to me. After assuring me that this was for "no cost".

How about using the 40 dollars you got off me for the non-existent third day of rafting?

Dishonesty is what annoys me. I know your family is poor, but I offered you money but you didn't want it. Tell me how much things are going to cost, especially given how much you've messed up my schedule already. Flights are unforgiving deadlines.

Oh, and I can pay for a meal for 4 too. Well, noodles. Because you've given all your money to your father, and justified this to me as "he's very poor". No, that's not how it works. You have to tell me what I'm going to have to pay for BEFORE, not as it happens.

So I told him I was not a human ATM with an unlimited money supply, and he seemed to get the picture. I think.

We waited 2 hours for a bus to stop to take us to Chitwan. Or a lorry. Or dumper truck. Or any mode of transport that would get us there! Santos slightly redeemed himself by bribing a conductor to let me on to a tourist bus though, even if it nearly became the most uncomfortable hour of my life as I squatted in the aisle with my feet trapped under some bags of some agricultural product.

Thankfully some people got off, and I could grab a seat. Finally.

The 100 rupee bribe wasn't enough though, and I had to pay 200 more. No complaints though, I was there. Well, I was somewhere. It seemed a lot like a hotel gateway, and I know the trick - drop them off at the hotel that gives them commission.

No, it's the bus park.

Thanks for telling me that when you told me to GET OFF.

But your hotel is a "long walk". You need to take a jeep.

By "long walk", he meant 10 minutes. So I took the most complicated instructions ever, and tried to put them into my phone. Which was on low battery.

The instructions were correct too - several friendly locals confirmed them along the way. And strangely, they all had a room to let. But no, I will lie and tell you I've paid in full so you just give me the directions.

I was quite thankful for the instructions when my phone finally died on me. Even if I had to turn right at a rhino statue, then left at an elephant statue. Statues which actually existed, however crazy they sounded. This is a national park I suppose, so I'll let them off.

I thought my hotel was down some dodgy backstreet, as it was pretty dark down there. But no, just a power cut, because festival lights are far more important than peoples' house lights.

Or my laptop's battery life, which died just as I brought up my reservation. Lovely.

The lack of light also seemed to affect my judgement, as I turned down a 500 rupee buffet on the basis that it was too expensive. 500 rupees is just over £3. I've definitely been in Nepal too long.

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