Posted by: vonzwecktrek | June 16, 2009

Island life again…this time in Malaysia

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Funny to think that Malaysia was never even on our radar before this trip began…it never even occurred to us. And here we are thinking it’s so amazing that we couldn’t imagine having missed it. It is a little more expensive than the other Asian countries- but not more so than Singapore by any means. We had 3 weeks to see as much as we could before we had to be back in Singapore-so we didn’t waste a minute. We took a bus across the border to the port town of Mersing, where we caught a ferry (just in the nick of time…we had to run) to Tioman Island. We had thought that our beach/snorkeling days for this trip were over- but we just couldn’t seem to give it up. And after the wonderful Indonesian island experiences…we just had to try it once more.

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Tioman is roughly the size of Catalina and is dense rain forest with only around 5 or 6 villages scattered around the coast. We went straight to the least inhabited one on the west side and rented a bungalow that was on stilts and actually set IN the water. When you sat on the balcony you felt as if you were floating on the sea. Every afternoon or evening there would be a rainstorm and we’d watch the lightning light up the sky. One night it was occurring behind a huge cloud so that the whole cloud would light up from the back. I can’t remember ever having seen that before. It rained so forcefully that is was scary at times. The snorkeling was incredible and we saw dozens of different kinds of butterfly fish, angelfish, parrot fish, and one giant cuttlefish. Once again we swam with giant sea turtles, this time with the Greenbacks instead of the Hawkbills we had swam with in Indonesia. Behind the row of civilization there was a long strip of wetland area. We were walking along it and thought we saw small crocodiles swimming along, or perhaps they were snakes? The zig-zag pattern in which they swam certainly looked like a snake movement. Then we realized they were huge monitor lizards! Some were 5′ long and their forked tongues constantly flicked out of their mouths. We saw at least 20 swim by in one hour. They’re kinda creepy if I must be honest. Prehistoric. The locals like them and feed them (hence the large numbers I presume.)

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On the 3rd day we decided to explore a bit and took a boat and just our daypacks to the other side of the island. The boat was too small for the trip and the water very rough. The big waves and the boat slamming down had the kids giggling, and me worried about my kidneys. We snorkeled some along the way, then got out at the village of Juara and stayed at the cheapest place we could find; a pair of bungalows on the beach called “Beach Shack” run by “Tim”, an old Australian surfer, and his Malaysian wife. She cooked up mean dishes of sweet and sour chicken, curried fish, and on the 2nd night a special BBQ with bbq crab which is a specialty dish of Singapore that I never got around to trying. We didn’t step foot off that place for 3 days except to take the ocean kayaks out for a spin. When we had first gotten there we were so hot from the long walk from the boat that we couldn’t think straight. Owner Tim could see it and directed us to jump in the water. Prettiest beach you ever saw and it beckoned us..the water so cool and clear. Imagine our surprise when the owner walked up to the water’s edge with his pet monkey on his shoulder and started wading in! Even more surprised were we when the monkey leapt off his shoulder into the water and started swimming towards us! He climbed right on top of me before I could blink and sat on my shoulder. He was quite tame and gentle (thank God). Later in the day he climbed up on Drew’s shoulders and groomed his hair for a good half hour.

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One night the only other guest staying there told us that every night the sea turtles would come up and lay their eggs on the beach. We saw some turtles near the edge but they kept their distance. Partly because we wondered if we might be scaring them, and partly because we were called in to dinner- we gave up and went inside, promptly forgetting about them. The next morning I walked the beach and sho’ nuff- 2 identical very weird tracks side by side, leading right up out of the water straight up to the trees. I followed them, and at the trees there was a very wide but shallow pit dug. At first I thought it was 2 turtles, but then realized it was round-trip tracks. Lucky for this turtle, there is a turtle sanctuary on the island, so the eggs (all 100 of them) will be gathered and re-buried in an enclosure where the monitor lizards won’t get them.

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Finally it was time to leave the Beach Shack. Instead of taking the boat back to Salang we decided to hike over and across the island through the rain forest. The other hotel guest was a local and when he heard we were taking that trek he told us about the time when he saw a huge cobra on the trail…in full upright position where he came to about 3′ feet tall. Lovely. But locals LOVE to tell you these experiences . You mustn’t let it deter you. I have to admit we were a little jumpy at first..I could see the relief in Tim when halfway into the walk we finally ran across some other hikers, letting us know we weren’t the only crazy tourists in the jungles. The walk was strenuous, sometimes muddy, and took us a little over 3-1/2 hours. We were drenched with sweat within 5 minutes- but it was amazing. We saw 2 types of monkeys and at one point just closed our eyes and listened to all the incredible sounds. We came around a bend with Tim in the lead when I saw him jump straight into the air….he had come within inches of stepping on a great, big monitor lizard! But hey…at least it wasn’t a cobra!

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When we got back to Salang we found that a group of young college students had occupied the room next to us. They were a mixed group of boys and girls and were from Saudi Arabia. I enjoyed watching their nuances. I wondered if this was the first trip of this sort for them…mixed group and un-chaperoned. We were all sitting on the porch enjoying the afternoon rainstorm when 1 of the boys began chatting with Tim, confiding that he’d tried whiskey for the first time last night and they’d all stayed up till 4:00 a.m. I was horrified to later hear this news. Sure enough, they kept us up all night long- going back and forth between rooms and giggling…closing doors. Even when Tim got up and yelled at then it brought us only a short period of muffled noises. But we made sure to get up bright and early, and didn’t bother to keep the kids quiet at all. I guess you could call it the revenge of the square, middle-aged parents. The college kids eventually stumbled out with bloodshot eyes and embarrassed smiles. Would American kids even have been embarrassed? I doubt it.

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a tour guide leads a group of Malaysian vacationers in stretches prior to giving them a snorkeling lesson

Posted by: vonzwecktrek | June 14, 2009

no chewing gum allowed in Singapore

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KvZ. Did you know that chewing gum is illegal in Singapore? Turns out there’s a lot I we didn’t know about Singapore..and we are suffering from acute culture shock having come straight from Kolkata in India to this impeccably clean futuristic dream city. We weren’t sure whether Singapore was a country or city…it’s both! And did I say that Kathmandu was “Switzerland clean” compared to India? Well, Singapore is not even in the same league. The airport feels like something out of a sci-fi movie…Tim was walking along mumbling something about George Jetson…as we walked straight from the airport into the “metro” where you could eat off the floor…AND it’s air-conditioned. That amplified, sci-fi sultry-but-sterile voice fills the air, telling you which stop you are at, while everyone ignores you in order to read their text messages or play with their PSP’s. I love it! It’s actually a relief to be ignored (only a few people have taken photos of us) and I think it’s because Singapore is such a diverse collection of people that Western tourists are just one more group in the crowd. Normally I don’t like modern cities because I just feel like I’m in Miami or something, but this is SO contemporary that it’s eye-candy for the Architect in me. Also, we haven’t been in a developed modern city for sooo long…I guess it’s a welcome change. When the metro raised up into an elevated track above the city and we got our first glimpse of the skyline, I swear it looked just like an architectural rendering of a city-scape….the sky was blue with big, white puffy clouds, little tiny people far below were running around- immaculately dressed, ultra-contemporary buildings everywhere you looked, no congested traffic….really just the ideal futuristic city. We tried to figure out why it was so clean, because we didn’t see janitors running around. Then we noticed that people were not throwing trash everywhere! Can you believe this? And nobody, I mean NOBODY was spitting! Incredible! In India and Nepal everyone chews that awful, red tobacco and then they spit it out anywhere…someone will choose a spot on a wall to spit the first time…and everyone else will follow suit until the wall becomes completely red…then they’ll move onto another spot. When we found out that chewing gum is not allowed to be sold in stores here it hardly surprised us. I think spitting is probably illegal too..there are signs everywhere that say “No Spitting”.

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Orchard Road, Singapore’s popular shopping street

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after a red-flight from Kolkata Singapore’s ultra modern MRT was much appreciated

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Segways on Sentosa Island

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We decided to stay in “Little India” (which at first we could not keep accidently saying “Little Italy”) because it was cheap. But we also thought it might be a good segway out of India…so we wouldn’t miss it too much. A good decision because it is SWAMPED with Indians and Indian restaurants…except that the buildings are all new and sterile and there are no rickshaws or beggars. I have not seen one beggar in Singapore…not ONE. I would bet that is illegal too. In a country where drug trafficking is punishable by death, and free speech isn’t even a concept readily understood, I wouldn’t risk begging either. One night we happened to come back to our hotel on a Sunday evening on the bus, and weren’t paying much attention to the stops, when all of a sudden at least 20 Indian men piled on. Sure enough…the Little India stop. We jumped off and the entire town was swarming with Indian men in their 20’s to 40’s. Evidently they get 2-year contracts to come over here and work (construction jobs, manual labor mostly) so they are here without their families. Sunday night they all come hang out just stand around in groups talking…hundreds of them. Pretty cool for them really, to socialize this way.

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bridge at Clark’s Quay

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world’s largest ferris wheel the Singapore Flyer at 528′ high sits next to a floating soccer field

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Drew and Becca getting a luge lesson at Sentosa Island

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dining pod at a restaurant at Clark’s Quay

We’re staying in a hostel and we have a room with 2 bunk beds..perfect. Typical hostel with breakfast included and a “living room” area with TV and internet. It’s very clean and about twice what we’re used to paying. There is no possible way to stay on budget here. Have you ever heard that Singapore is great for shopping? Well, only if you happen to have a couple of thousand bucks in your pocket. One night we went out to a Mexican restaurant on the river and nearly spent our entire daily allowance. We also splurged and went to Singapore’s “playground” which is an entirely man-made island just across the water and complete with well-placed sand beaches and a complete theme park called “Underwater World”. The kids loved it…it had a complete aquarium (cool fish we’d never seen before such as huge cuttlefish. sea angels, giant spider crabs, and the mammal “sea cow”.) It had a rotating tower from which you could see all of Singapore below, a “luge” ride where you speed downhill in we got to try out those cool “Segway” motorized upright vehicles that you stand on and zip around. The next day we walked through the Botanical Gardens that are so neatly groomed that you felt like you were on hotel grounds. The “Theater on the Bay” is an amazing pair of theaters (one outdoor and one indoor) right on the water, and of course there was Chinatown. We took the metro everywhere. Speaking of China, we were annoyed when we had to fill out so much paperwork for our China visas, indignant to pay so much for our Indian visas, but downright insulted when discovered we couldn’t even begin to think about going to Russia without a “written invitation”. Besides that requirement, you must also be in your country of residence WHEN you apply for the visa, which of course is impossible for us. I was incredulous at to why they would make it so hard for us to come just for a visit. Then I remembered the requirements for getting a visa into our own country and was quickly put in my place. The US demands more paperwork, red tape, and money than probably all the countries we’ve been to put together. Still…we can’t help be feel let down that we will not be able to go to Russia..especially when it is SO CLOSE! So we’ve scratched that one off our list and have settled for seeing Malaysia instead, a few extra days in Singapore when we come back from there, and maybe tacking Japan onto the very end. Hmmm. Just writing that last sentence reminds me that I don’t really have much to complain about. Bye bye to Russia….Here we come, Malaysia!

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looking down from high atop the tower at Sentosa Island

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Sentosa tram // Becca finds the first store with lots of cheese in a long time

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checking out the sharks at Sentosa’s aquarium

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Posted by: vonzwecktrek | June 13, 2009

Out of India

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Kvz. When we were planning this trip and we told people we would be spending 2 months in India, people would exclaim “two whole months in India?!!” Even Indian people would say this. “But India is huge!” we’d protest. Well….we ALMOST made it 2 months. But the cities did us in I think…it’s just getting so damn hot now with summer approaching. If we could have afforded the flights to jet over to the beach in Kerala we would have. But since we do need to make sure we end up having enough money to fly home in the end, we decided no. Tim had booked a flight wth a stopover in Singapore on the the way to Hong Kong. Why not leave India just a bit earlier and extend that stopover by a week to see another country? So we did.

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life in Kolkatta thrives on its streets and alleys

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) was hot as Hades, so we headed straight for the most affordable place we could find with a swimming pool (our typical M.O. for big, hot cities). This turned out to be an old colonial-era hotel with country club and golf course attached, that is now thankfully full of Indian members instead of colonists. By staying at the hotel we became “members” for a few days which meant pool use. In the evenings we would sit in the open-air club-house restaurant and watch the golfers come in for the night. Tim asked how much golfing fees were for the fun of it…the man replied “150.” Tim looked at me…did this mean $150? The course was beautiful and would definitely cost that much in the States, but why would the man quote in dollars? He wasn’t…it was in rupees, and the green fees were $3. (Of course, caddies are a Tim would have to rent clubs) but Tim chickened out anyway when he saw the skill level of the other golfers.

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Kolkata is very polluted and traffic-congested…no natural gas requirements for all vehicles like in Delhi. But most Indians consider it their “cultural capital” and for good reason. Many events and concerts are held there and the city is dotted with grand sights. We visited the Victoria Memorial which is huge and elegant..white marble with a fantastic bronze stature of the Queen Victoria herself out front. Unfortunately pigeons adore her and white poop lines stream down her face, which nobody bothers to clean up. I told this to some English travelers we met later and they didn’t find it nearly as funny as we did. The kids loved Kolkata for it’s relatively modern and well-equipped bookstores and restaurants, and the subway was efficient and convenient (though very sweaty) but not nearly as sweaty as taking a cab ride which would result in stand-still traffic. While you choked on fumes you would also sweat right through your clothes without moving a muscle…so the metros were a better option. Everyone was courteous and helpful like they’ve been pretty much everywhere in India. Once you get used the idea of not waiting in an organized line and merely pushing your way to the front, then that aspect doesn’t bother you so much either. But you really do have to be aggressive. If you don’t display that you have your elbows out and make sure you are plastered right up to the guy in front of you, then everyone will take you for an amatuer and basically elbow right past you. Looking at them right in the eye and shaking your head also helps. Once I was waiting to buy train tickets and was off my guard for just a second when a man just pushed right up in front of me and handed his money to the counter. Almost as an afterthought he glanced back at me, so I took the chance to say “Thanks so much for butting right in front of me..I really appreciated that.” He looked surprised and apologized. Being tired and sweaty, I replied “Don’t apologize…just don’t do it anymore!” He proceeded to secure his tickets, but afterwards helped to translate English for me to the ticket man and made sure I got the right tickets. I actually almost felt guilty when I left.

The sheer poverty was absolute in Kolkata, but not any more so than Delhi. It’s just so more desperate in cities…living on a cardboard mat with a plastic tarp draped over you for a home is something we are used to seeing in U.S. cities, but only with adults under them. Here it is entire families. And they’re not there for the night…they LIVE there. You can’t help but be depressed when you see these conditions. But when I see villagers living simply with no electricity and just the bare neccessities, but I see that there is a strong sense of community with their farming providing them with enough to eat, I don’t feel sorry for them. In fact, when we visited the Sunderbans and walked through the nearby village at dusk, we saw men playing cards and board games, children playing cricket in bare feet, women laughing in groups while their infants ran around naked…and this village has no electricity or motor vehicles. The only food comes from the rice and veggies they grow, the fish they catch, and the occasional chicken or goat they slaughter. They trade honey for items they can’t produce. To me, this is not poor. I may not envy the straw and mud huts they live in, but I do envy that type of community…a type of outdoor social activity that I haven’t experienced since childhood where I ran the streets with the neighbor kids and played “kick-the-can”. It seems that some of this social community has been lost in developed nations, what with kids going straight from school to soccer or dance practice, then to homework at home. The parents go straight from a hard day’s work, through their enclosed garages, to their kitchens to prepare dinner, then to their couches. They are both hard lives I suppose…I don’t really know who is the better off.

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scenes along the way to The Sunderbans in the South 24 Parganas

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hay and chickens being transported

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And oh…what a beautiful place to live…the Sunderbans. We took a 4-hour bus ride brom Kolkata through an organized tour (too hard to do independently) for a 2-night stay in the “Sunderban’s Tiger Reserve” lodge right in the heart of it all. We took a boat past the endless forests of mangroves along miles of saltwater canals snaking through them. Near the lodge where we stayed was that village I was talking about above, and they had large patches of green, green rice fields surrounding their homes. But there’s always a catch to living in such a beautiful place, right? Here it’s those pesky man-eating tigers…the only consistent “man-eater” left in the world. Darn. Between the years 1800 and 1900, it is estimated that tigers in India killed as many as 300,000 men. Now the man-eaters are limited to the Bengal tigers of the Sunderbans, and just this year, in 3 months, and with all the protections in place, 15 people have been killed. With odds like this you almost hope NOT to see a tiger. But we’ve been on a quest to see one this whole trip. We’ve seen all the other big game in the wild; lions, hippos, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, zebras and wildebeests in Africa, a leopard, rhino, crocodiles and more elephants in Asia….we wanted to add a tiger to our belt.

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copy of a famous photo from the Sunderbans

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these tracks are as close as we came to seeing a tiger in the wild; missed it by a matter of hours!

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Becca and Drew watch patiently from one of the lookout towers we visited

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the local villagers put on a play for us at our bungalows

And what was really cool was that we had just happened to see 2 separate specials on the Sunderbans within the last 2 weeks on Discovery or National Geographic channels, so we were able to quickly identify the silly “mudskipper” when we saw it, and the fiddler crabs. We saw huge storks, giant water monitor lizards, spotted deer, rhesus monkeys and many birds. We honestly feared for the villagers, knowing by watching those specials that is was indeed honey-collecting season which would require them to go deep into the jungle. These are the men are still killed by tigers…the fishermen and the honey-collectors.They perform many rituals for good luck before they leave, and wear masks on the back of their heads (tigers never attack from the front evidently…I wouldn’t want to test this theory). Maybe I’m not jealous of their lives afterall. The boat rides were wonderfully peaceful and very relaxing. We had opted for the “tents” at the lodge because they were the cheapest, and they were the nicest tents I ever saw, if you could even call them that, with ceiling fans, concrete floors and attached full bathrooms. We met some English travelers on the boat who were surprised and slightly horrified to hear we were heading to China for 2-1/2 months.They had all traveled there and claimed it was the hardest travel they’d ever experienced…hardly anyone spoke English, and many locals were downright rude. Now I’m the first one to ignore negative comments usually, preferring to see for myself. But these folks had traveled extensively and to all the same areas of Asia and Africa as us. They didn’t seem at all surprised that we’d spent so much time in India. It got us to thinking…maybe 10 WEEKS is a bit long for one country. But where should we go instead, I asked. With everyone throwing out suggestions and us discarding the places we’d already been to, the most enticing places left Moscow, which we could take the Trans-Siberian train to from Beijing, or Japan. There’s no internet here, but it will be interesting to see what we come up with in Singapore!

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Drew talking with out guide

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Becca reads up on Sunderbans tigers

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local couple relaxing by the river

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our dock area at low tide

The 2nd day when we were walking up to one of several wild-life watchtowers, we saw distinct tiger tracks in the mud. The ranger said they were very fresh…probably 1 day old. This was on the other side of the chain-linked raised walkway that leads up to the equally-well fortified watchtower (they don’t take any chances with tourists). This was the closest we got to seeing any tigers however. Guess this is the price to pay for nearly poaching them into extinction. Also…I guess they just weren’t hungry enough.

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women and birds fishing

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But alas, it was not to be…Guess those tigers just weren’t hungry enough.

Posted by: vonzwecktrek | June 12, 2009

Back in India for Rhino spotting


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wild rhino in Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary

KvZ. The Nepal trek had ended nicely, with the tour company back in Kathmandu treating us to a night out at a nice restaurant with traditional Nepalese food and dance. We had originally planned to take a bus over the long haul back to India to explore the northern Darjeeling area, but after reading in our guide book…”traveling on an overnight bus is probably the most dangerous thing you can do in Nepal…in the course of researching this book, we passed 10 fatal bus crashes in a 10-day period which between them killed 200 people” …we decided to fly. Our destination was just to get as close to the Indian border as possible, since there were no flights directly into the areas we needed to get to. This bummed us out to no extent since bus travel and border crossings in such rural areas can be hell, but we had no choice. Our premonitions were correct.

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back to Kathmandu and a dinner show courtesy of Trek Nepal contact Laxman for help in arranging a Trek

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dance show

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moving on toward the town of Biratnagar in east Nepal

The flight out from Kathmandu airport was such that when your flight was ready to leave, a man would just yell out the destination to gather up the passengers.The town we landed in (in Nepal still) was a few hours from the border so we had to hole up in a dirty hotel (nicest in town) and take a bus the next day. The hotel room itself was large and the bed was big too, so we opted for one room, put Drew in the bed with us, and took the cushions off the couch and laid them on the floor for Becca. I laid one sleeping bag over the cushions and covered her up with another.. But she moves around alot when she sleeps, and I think the sleeping bag came off the cushions..anyway, the next day she was covered with bed bug bites- the first ever this trip. To make matters worse, we didn’t really realize what they were till we’d left the hotel, and apparently they keep on biting until you take a shower. Can it get any worse? Just read on. When we got to the bus stop Tim was immediately surrounded by bus touts (a typical occurrence) and we were just kinda standing around being a part of the circus when Becca tugged my arm and said “That man just took Drew!” I saw Drew being literally dragged away, who was struggling…I then saw Drew put his feet on either side of a bus door to prevent him being stuffed into it…I also took in that this was all being done somewhat in humor because I could see other locals laughing about it, and Drew didn’t seem overly upset. It still pissed me off to no end. With no time to inform Tim what was going on, I headed towards the bus, and as I was marching up I saw the man give up on Drew and take his backpack on board instead…all these antics in a supposed attempt to get us all to ride “his” bus. I yelled into the bus “Give me the backpack!” and he ignored me. It yelled “Give it to me right now or I’m gonna KICK YOUR ASS!!” Still no response (perhaps he didn’t speak English) so I had to board the bus and grab the backpack myself. As I was getting off he gunned the engine and pretended to get going. When I grabbed Drew’s arm and headed back he sounded the horn right in our ears. I decided right then and there it was time to get out of Nepal before I killed someone. But the adventure wasn’t over…we hadn’t seen bus rides like this since Africa. They packed them in exactly the same way…people so crammed into the aisles that they were eventually leaning over the “lucky seated” passengers. Except in Nepal people ride up on TOP of the bus as well. No wonder the bus casualty rate is so high…they’re not even strapped on! And when 80 people are packed onto 1 bus in 100 degree temperatures, of course someone always throws up. This time it was the lady right next to me in the aisle. Some splashed on my arm and I just brushed it off… barely phazed me. Old hat.

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along the way to the border town of Kakarbhitta

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transportation safety standards are non-existent or overlooked

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The border town itself was an assortment of cardboard shacks, piles of trash, and dirt roads. Tim and I joked that we should spend our next anniversary there. We had overstayed our Nepal visa by 2 days due to it taking extra days to get our Chinese visas, but our tour company told us there was a 3 day “grace” period and the fine would only be $2/day. Evidently the border police were not aware of these rules. Even when Tim called the tour company and they verified it on the Nepal government website, the police were non-plussed. Of course they had no computers. They stood determined to charge us over $100 for the error of our ways, and Tim was equally determined to not be extorted, so a battle of the wills ensued. After much chest puffing on both sides, Tim partially caved and attempted a “half payment” bribe of sorts. They started to take it- then with a sudden change of heart they brushed us off and said “Just go- tell your story to the Indian side.” We liked that idea, and the Indian officials didn’t seem to mind at all that we overstayed our visas in Nepal. Just suffice it to say we probably shouldn’t try to re-enter Nepal anytime soon, given that we never got our departure stamps!

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Becca signs the Indian immigration officer’s book for re-entry into India

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walking back into India

Back in India we headed straight to Siliguri where we stayed in air-conditioned and cable-TV comfort for a night to recover….but still not recovered enough to rough it even by the next day; we secured a PRIVATE jeep and sat our 4 happy asses in what normally carries 11 for the 3-hour ride up the mountain to Darjeeling..gleefully spreading out and ignoring the hard stares of the cramped passengers in all the other jeeps (didn’t they know what we’d just been through?!) Darjeeling is called the “Queen of the Hill Stations” and is known world-wide for it’s wonderful tea. Tea plantations dot the surrounding hills, and on clear days you can see the snow-capped peak of the Khangchendzonga, India’s highest peak of it’s Himalayan range, and the 3rd highest mountain in the world. Alas, the lousy luck we had with visibility in Nepal was sticking with us and we couldn’t see a thing the whole time we were there. But the scenery was still fine and we made the best of it by walking a lot around the town and enjoying the cool weather. We stayed in a Heritage-type hotel with gorgeous dark woodwork on the ceiling and floors and the old original windows…but with the added modern conveniences of flat screen TV and HEATING!! Heaven. The Darjeeling Zoo was great because it had animals we’d never seen, such as the Snow Leopard, Red Panda, and Tibetan wolf. Within the zoo was also located the fascinating “Everest Museum” where we got to read about all the attempts on the mountain, starting with of course Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s ascent. Tenzing lived in Darjeeling most of his life and was the director of the museum for many years. On the walk back from the zoo we ate at a tiny cafe which hung from the cliffs and offered great views of the valleys and plantations while we gulped down fresh-steamed momos. It rained a lot and we celebrated Tim’s birthday on a particularly rainy night…we’d planned to go out for a nice dinner but never made it out. I had to brave the storm to go pick up the birthday cake that Drew had reminded me to order the day before. Naturally I slipped on the wet pavement while balancing the cake in one hand, crushing the entire top. Perhaps that was for the better as they had misspelled his name as “Tin.” But it tasted great nonetheless, and Tim enjoyed his presents of Indian and Nepalese souvenirs. Happy 47th honey!

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our transport up to Darjeeling, we opted to rent the whole vehicle instead of sharing it with the standard 10 passengers

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47 years young, or old depending on the day

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one of our favorite hotel rooms in a long time (electricity most of the time, intermittent TV cable, excellent food delivered to the room, and a clean bathroom)

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Darjeeling Zoo’s red panda

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name aside all they make here are Darjeeling’s best momos

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calls for the area’s independence from India are still seen throughout Darjeeling

The thing about Darjeeling that you would never expect is that it is terribly polluted. We went up there expecting to breathe fresh mountain air and all we got was a lung-full of carbon dioxide. The vehicles all pump out black smoke. It doesn’t help that tourists like us ply the streets in lines of endless jeeps (riding 4 in what should seat 11, for instance) which also have no emission controls. We had enough after a few days and headed to Jaldapara National Park. We are still searching for that ever-so-elusive tiger, and we also heard they had rhinos there. The lodge was definitely dated, and the dorm room facilities disgusting (even Tim wouldn’t go into the bathrooms which I don’t think had been cleaned for a decade) but I managed to upgrade us into two of the nice double rooms and we ended up enjoying our stay there very much…right on the edge of the park and very peaceful with all meals included. We got up before dawn the next morning and piled into a jeep for our safari. They took us straight into the park where we hopped on the back of an elephant (just us 4 and the mahout) and headed out into the grassland. First we had to cross through the jungle for awhile where we saw birds and deer. Off in the distance we saw the tell-tale signs of a rhino…those huge ears sticking up in full-alert status. We couldn’t help but notice the mahout gave the elephant an order upon which the elephant picked up several large rocks and handed them up to our “driver” (!) This of course is in case the rhino charges. We approached the rhino cautiously but before we knew it we were within 15′. The rhino became quite interested in us at this point and we motioned to the mahout that we were quite close enough, thank you very much. He was beautiful. When he was convinced we weren’t coming any closer, he proceeded to ignore us and continued munching on the tall grass around him. Their skin looks so much like body armor that it’s uncanny. This guy was a “Indian one-horned rhino”. We left him eventually and approached another one very shortly…behaving in the same exact manner. The safari was such a success to us that we couldn’t even get excited about the jeep safari the next day, but believe it or not we did eventually see another rhino from a distance. We went up into a watch tower for awhile…no tigers though –big surprise.

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Drew re-routes Darjeeling’s famed toy train as a local girl looks on

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heading to the town of Madarihat and Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary by train from Siliguri

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workers picking some of the area’s well loved tea

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town of Madarihat

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After 3 days in the National forest it was time to beat it back to Siliguri to catch the 10-hour overnight sleeper train all the way to Kolkata. But the only tickets we could get were in 2nd class (berths with just a curtain to draw) and the berths weren’t even near each other. This means we wouldn’t have our own separate lockable compartment, which was bearable…but not having our kids nearby was not acceptable. Then we heard from another traveler who had taken this same train and had tied his shoes to his ankles while he slept so they wouldn’t get stolen, only to be woken in the night to someone tugging at them from the other side of his curtain. That sealed the deal…we flew. Unfortunately all this flying domestically is going to hurt us budget-wise in the end, but that’s another bridge for another day.

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rhino as seen from atop our elephant

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wild peacocks were abundant throughout the area

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leaving Madarihat via train, we had to use the luggage area above the seats


Posted by: vonzwecktrek | May 6, 2009

Nepal Trek

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Annapurna South 7,219m (23,684ft) makes an appearance as we approach Tadapani on day 2

KvZ. We arranged a trek in the Annapurna range of Nepal out of Kathmandu, so we needed to take a bus to Pokhara to meet up with our actual guides and porters. We used a guide who came recommended to us by Tim’s friend Joe; the guide’s name is Laxman. After spending one night in Pokhara, the crew picked us up the next morning in a minivan to take us to the trail head. I was surprised at the sheer number of people that came with us for just our family of four: 1 guide, 1 assistant guide, 1 cook and 5 porters. I knew that they would be carrying all the food we would need for the entire week-long trek, as well as 2 tents, sleeping bags, mattress pads and cookware. But when Tim and I have primitive camped in the past we have carried everything of course ourselves. So why so many porters? And we had even decided to carry some of our own gear to reduce the loads for the porters: Tim is carrying all his own, I’m carrying most of mine, and the kid’s stuff plus the sleeping bags went to the porters. This left Tim with his huge pack as always, me with one of the kid’s big packs which was fine, and the kids with just small daypacks with their rain gear, toiletries and books/journals. So the pack we gave to the porters was my big backpack stuffed full and about as heavy as usual…and I was very glad I wouldn’t be carrying it up a mountain. It probably weighed about 30 or 35 pounds. But it’s a good pack with padded waist belts and the perfect size, weight for the small, dense stature of the Nepalese porter. So imagine my surprise and dismay when I saw my pack thrown in a basket with loads of other heavy items…to be carried on the back of one porter!! First they throw everything haphazardly (or so it seems to me) in a large cone-shaped basket. Then they tie a strap around the back of the basket which then runs over their forehead…they carry none of the weight on their hips or shoulders. These guys aren’t much taller than me, but they are STRONG. Porters and village people alike have carried loads in this way for centuries.

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Kristin’s state-of-the-art backpack used as our extra on the trek was hauled through the Himalayas in a wicker basket (doko) // Drew prepares himself for the climb ahead

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how many does a family of 4 need to camp on the Annapurna circuit

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local ladies take a break on the way up the trail

But back to the question of ‘why so many porters?’ First of all…no state-of-the-art equipment here, folks. Everything is big, bulky, and heavy. No freeze-dried food, no lightweight cookware, no compact stoves, and no water filters. And these guys eat like horses!! Much of the gear I’m sure goes toward feeding the monstrous appetites created by their strenuous work, so it’s kind of like a vicious circle. I really did not like to see them loaded down so heavily…there is supposedly a 30 kg limit to what the porters carry…it looked much heavier than that to me. I would estimate it to be around 90 pounds. I tried to pick one up and couldn’t even budge it, which got a smile out of them. But the guide assured me that the loads would lighten greatly as the days went by. And I had no way to weigh the packs and see. I try to keep my guilt in check by reminding myself that we are employing 8 people in this process who are very happy to be working. We are going to camp only half of the nights, with the other half being spent in teahouses in villages. The porters will still cook for us whether we sleep in the tents or teahouses, but we’ll eat our meals in the teahouse dining areas.

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a teahouse kitchen along the ways shows a stock of pots, pans, kettles, plates, cups etc… that was similar to what our porters were lugging up and down the mountains

I had just finished reading “The Snow Leopard” which is the true account of a man’s journey through the Annapurna range and onward to the Dolpa region in he 70’s. His journey took many weeks and of course he was climbing over major mountain passes covered with snow and enduring major hardships. Still, I gained some comfort from noticing he was exactly my same age when he made this incredible journey…and his path started out on the same trail we’ll be following. If he could do what he did, certainly I can make it for 1 week with the added amenities he did not have! In his book, he wrote a separate entry for each day of the trek which I have decided to do here. That way, my feeling for the whole experience won’t just be summed up by one entry at the end but rather on a day-by-day basis, which I think is more telling.


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Machhapuchhre 6,993m (22,943ft) also known as Fishtail Mountain stands in the background of the village of Kimche

The original plan had been to drive as far as possible which is to Birethanti, and then walk from there for a good 6 – 7 hours. However the road had been washed out in Birethanti so we had to start walking from there. Since we didn’t have enough daylight we had to stop in Kimche for the night and we’ll have to make up for lost time tomorrow. But Kimche is lovely and just what I imagined a Nepalese village to be. The houses are made of the local rocks or wood, the roofs are slate or thatched. They pile the cut wood in neat stacks which fit into niches in the rock bases of their homes. Everyone has a patio and the houses cascade up the mountain, and water runoff from the mountains is piped to most of the houses and to the common areas. Stairs hewn of rough rough rocks make up the staircase that winds up thru the village. When we got to the top we sat and looked at the view of the valley and river below and gazed at the snow-covered peaks of “Fishtail”, “Hiunchi” and “Annapurna South” mountains beyond. A line of pack mules slowly made their way up the stairway we’d just finished climbing with their bells around their necks ringing their arrival. The mules wear brightly colored headgear and carry heavy loads. The woman who owns the teahouse we’re staying at is quick with a smile…her husband is an artist of sorts who carves whimsical items from wood. He is also a photographer and displays his photos of wildlife on the walls. The village children play in the big, dirt play area and a few of the boys “shoot” us with their slingshots which consist of a rubber band and a stick. The sticks fall way short and we laugh..they laugh with us until their mother shoos them away. We only walked 2-1/2 hours today and I’m beat. Feeling a little nervous about tomorrow!

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locals washing clothes in the Modi (river) Khola at our starting point in Birethanti

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Becca and Drew approaching Kimche // Fishtail Mt.

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men in Kimche taking a break with our porters in the background setting up the kitchen for the night

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Kimche houses


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I found out today that Sir Edmund Hillary made his historic ascent to the summit of Everest on May 29th, which is my birthday… a fitting piece of trivia to learn about as I’m trekking in the Himalayas. The guides woke us up early this morning; just before sunrise. Barking dogs had given us restless sleep, but Laxman greeted us with hot tea in our tea-house quarters. We had full breakfasts of eggs, toast, and rice porridge and headed up-hill. And up-hill, and up-hill some more. The entire day from 7:30 – 4:00 with a 1-hour break for lunch was UPHILL. I’m almost too tired to write in this journal…but so glad I rented a trekking pole as I relied heavily on it today. We trekked through 3 or 4 small villages along the way, all equipped with numerous teahouses. For these first few days we are on the official “Annapurna” circuit which is a loop that takes around 19-23 days, but our smaller loop is called the “Ghoripani” loop. You can hike either of these loops without the need for any camping as they have villages sprinkled throughout the trail. However, we are going off the beaten path just a bit so that we will for 1 night be away from any village and only near a rustic lodge. Many of the teahouses strive to be eco-friendly with solar showers and organic gardens. None of them have heating. As I write this I’m in full long johns and fleece, in my sleeping bag, in my bed! I can’t imagine how cold it will get tomorrow night when we leave the “circuit” and go higher to camp.

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porters show Drew and Tim how to play Carrom during the lunch break

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Becca passing by a local man along the trail

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village of Tadapani

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You’d think that by staying most of our nights in tea houses we’d have lessened the porters loads because they could buy some of their food from the villages. But no…the villages and teahouses charge a premium of course, so the porters still lug everything up in order to save every penny…even eggs and cabbage! They cook it in separate outside designated “camping kitchen” areas at the teahouses that allow it, and the staff sleep wherever they can…in the shed, in the basement..they don’t bring tents for themselves. Some of the porters only wear flip-flops on their feet…the others wear tennis shoes. I remember reading in “The Snow Leopard” how the expedition leaders bought hiking boots for all the porters, only to find out the porters immediately sold them and showed up barefoot as usual.

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view of Annapurna South from Tadapani

Today Laxman noticed that my hat said “Mt. Kilimanjaro: 5895 meters”. He said they have “hills” this size in Nepal also, but they don’t bother to name them. Nepalese humour I guess. On one of our breaks, high in a village, I sat on a stone wall and looked over to see a ladybug on a bush. I just had to smile. My friend Tibe who recently passed away and who I’d just said my private farewell to in India, had LOVED ladybugs. I can remember her pool bath was decorated in this theme. She loved them so much that at her memorial I’m told that her daughter asked everyone to think of Tibe anytime they saw one, and then handed out boxes of ladybugs to everyone present to release into the yard. So here was her memory, already paying me a visit, as if to say “You can say goodbye, Kristin, but I won’t let you forget me.”



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Kristin and Drew watching the sunrise from Tadapani before heading on to Dobato

I woke up at 1:00 a.m. late night with anxiety, and couldn’t fall asleep again for hours. We were up for another brutal 7-hour day of uphill hiking into no-where land and I just was worried about my knees (which were just starting to hurt on the high steps)as well as my fitness. We were in terrible shape for this trek and we knew it…and told the tour booking company so. Although we walk everyday, very little is strenuous, and only on the occasional hikes do we get any cardio. What if my knees totally blow out when we are a minimum 2-day hike to any road?

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checking out a map before leaving Tadapani

The guides woke us up at daybreak and served us our usual hot tea at the door, plus a bowl of warm water to wash up with, which is divine when it is this cold. When they first knocked on the door I was dreading getting up until I heard Drew’s voice say “WOW!!!” The sun was a big, orange ball just coming up over the hill and lit up the beautiful Annapurna South peak in all it’s snow-covered glory. The highest mountain we’ve ever seen in our life at an impressive 26,795ft. No one has ever successfully summited it and most have given up trying. We set off out of the cute village of Tadipani and found ourselves in a Rhododendrum forest (yes, Rhododendrum TREES!) which are in full bloom with their big, red flowers. The trees lay amidst lichen-covered boulders. We eventually came out onto a huge valley and sidled along it, climbing all the while. I saw tons of ladybugs…every 10 or so minutes. When we took a break, 3 of them crawled onto my daypack to say hello. I saw them all day everywhere and they kept me going. We listened to our guide’s story of how he was a sherpa for an Everest expedition and made it almost all the way up before having to turn back when his Japanese client got severe altitude sickness.

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along the trail to Dobato

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Our porter’s loads still look ridiculously huge, and their baskets seem over-flowing. They keep to themselves..always sitting apart on the rare times when they meet up with us on the trail. They NEVER eat with us. I’ve given up trying to change the ways of such things…some things are just as they are. But they are quick to smile, especially when Drew is rough-housing and such. Drew never seems to run out of energy and just plows along. Laxman and he are buddies and they make up games to play along the trail. Becca (the guides call her “Backa”) has felt guilty ever since the Pokhara Holy Festival for all the plastic she threw into the environment in the form of water balloons…so she decided to make up for it by collecting plastic along the trail. My budding environmentalist. She also makes constant “field notes” regarding animals she sees and then later will research them on Google to find out all the statistics of each animal and will write that down too. She tells us she wants to be a field biologist when she grows up and I have to smile…because she doesn’t seem to realize that she already is one.

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our version of the Hillary Step below the summit of Everest, just not quite as high

As the day wore on my steps became impossible small, barely moving at all at the end. My family moved on ahead but one guide stayed right with me. At least the porters never passed me, which would be quite humiliating considering my pack only weighs about 15 pounds. But although I often feel disgusted with my ability, I alternatively am amazed at myself. I’ve never hiked close to this altitude before. I’m in the Himalayas!!! I climbed 2500 feet today alone! And when I felt I couldn’t take another step…somehow I always did. Now we are sitting cozily in the lodge in the middle of no-where with a small wood-stove fire burning, writing by candle-light, about to be served dinner. Our tents are set up and waiting. This is the highest we’ll go on this trek for which I’m grateful. I’m quite high enough.

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Dhaulagiri 8,167m (26,795ft) the world’s 7th highest mountain as seen from our tent in Dobato

Last night when we got into the village, it was so hazy from wild fires and low cloud cover that we couldn’t see Dhaulagiri peak that we’d hiked so far to see, with all it’s accompanying ranges. I have to admit I was disappointed. But this morning when I stuck my frozen head out of the tent and into the 30 degree morning air…there it was…the 7th highest mountain in the world at 8163 meters. People do climb this one. We ate our typical breakfast and our milk tead and took off. The old Nepalese man who owned the lodge we camped by hiked with us for awhile. Through our guide translating, I asked if he’d ever seen a snow leopard and he said he’d seen tracks in the snow many times. Today was our first DOWNHILL and we were loving it- especially the kids. The landscape changed from Rhododendrum forest to evergreen…and then finally oaks. We were descending incredibly fast. We stopped at a small house in a clearing and the old Nepalese man picked up a package…a hollowed out tree trunk to carry! Apparently it was a beehive he was taking somewhere. Tim tried to lift it, which was being carried the traditional way with the strap across the forehead…but could barely budge it. This man is probably in his 70’s. At one point he stopped to pick a Rhododendrum flower and handed it to Drew, who said “Thank you” in Nepalese (which got him a big smile from the man as well as me.) Eventually we came out of the mossy forest into a huge valley which we traversed…still going down, down, down. And that’s when my knees pretty much gave out. I have a knee brace on my left knee and try to baby it with the help of my ski pole. So of course it was my right knee that started hurting. The pain increased and then both were hurting. Tim had hyper extended his knee a bit yesterday, so at the end we were both hobbling along like (American) 80-year olds..using our walking sticks like canes. I seriously thought I might not make it..but what choice did I have? And even if I did make it…how was I to ascend 6 hours tomorrow?!! I felt myself getting emotional but tried to stay focused on the time to lose it.

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In the end I we did make it. I literally just laid down right on the bench of the lodge and did not move for an hour. Tim checked his GPS and informed us we had descended 4000 feet that day…in 4-1/2 hours. On the up side, this valley is like Switzerland…the hills are terraced for farming and little villages dot the steep, multi-colored hillsides. Unfortunately the visibility is still very poor…except for very early in the morning. The ibuprofen seems to be working (I’d kill for an ice pack) and Tim asked the guide to let me sleep in a real bed tonight instead of the tent (my Prince Charming.) AND, I found out that we hiked farther than planned today so the we only have a 4-hour hike uphill tomorrow (not 6.) I’m relieved it won’t be downhill again as that seems to be worse on my knees…but what I’d give for a little good-ole Kansas FLAT LAND RIGHT NOW!!! Nepal knows no moderation. Becca and Drew are outside “dueling” with bamboo poles, having a blast. Where DO they get their energy? And I was worried about THEM being able to do this trek?!

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Laxman works on Drew’s knee // Kristin wraps hers, Tim’s was getting better by this point and Becca’s did not start hurting until the last day

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finally, Swanta comes into view

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Laxman and the Teahouse owners in Swanta


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Kristin gets ready for the day’s hike before leaving Swanta

Last night I decided to splurge on an exorbitantly priced cold beer, only to discover it was lukewarm. It’s freezing cold outside, but they store the drinks in the kitchen…the only room with any kind of heat source (the stove.) But you can’t blame the high prices- someone had to carry that in on their backs afterall…or their donkey’s backs. By nightfall my sniffles had turned into a full-on head cold. “Geez…what next?” I asked. I found out soon enough…as I crawled into bed I glanced to the wall and glimpsed the biggest, hairy spider I’ve ever seen in my life. I had to get back up, go downstairs and ask a porter to kill it for me…it was just too big and hairy, with about a 5″ leg span. Even the porter seemed impressed with it’s size. He killed it with his flip-flop and carried it out in his hands. Now it’s morning, my knees are still aching, and we’re about to climb up the hill to Ghoripani. I’m afraid to ask anyone how many feet we climb today. But hey, like Tim said, “Did we expect a trek in Nepal was going to be easy?”

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If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Nepalese or mountain gods are trying to dampen my spirits..almost like their saying “Let’s give here freezing temperatures the night she sleeps in a tent, make crappy visibility all-around, then we’ll blow out her knees, fill her head with snot, offer up warm beer…..oh, oh..yes! And then we’ll top if all off with a giant, hairy spider in her bedroom!!” All I have to say? Bring it on.

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what goes down must go up?

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Now we’re in Ghoripani…I made it, and all is fine. The hike was beautiful, and once we hiked down to the river and crossed the bridge it was all uphill which my knees do (relatively) fine with. We crossed many bubbling streams with almost tropical foliage (ferns) and passed through amazing tiny villages full of goats, milk cows and dirty little children peeking out at us. As we neared the town of Ghoripani we saw the first Western hikers we’d seen in days. We laughed alot today and were in good spirits. The guides served us hot Tang when we arrived (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!) We turned down the tent…all 4 of us this time, and opted for rooms in the teahouse. Tim and I even had a hot shower. Oh…and it’s snowing

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along the way to Ghoripani

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Drew and Tim at Poon Hill

Another bone-crunching descent day. I thought I’d never make it….really. Ghoripani where we stayed last night is where everyone goes to make the 5:00 a.m.-still-dark-hour-long hike up to “Poon Hill” for the sunrise…where on a clear day you can see a panoramic view of about 7 magnificent peaks of the Annapurna range. It’s a 1000′ climb, and I was already really worried about the hike that day- knowing it was all downhill. It killed me but I decided to skip it. Becca was more than happy to miss it with me, but Tim and Drew braved it and were rewarded with the clearest views that anyone had seen for weeks…probably due to the light snow we’d had the night before. I was so happy that they got to see it- and they video-taped it for me, knowing I would have wanted to see it too. I felt a little sad and regretful that morning…I have a hard time missing out on anything. ..especially once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The fact that I did so means I’m getting old (and wise, I suppose) which is only more depressing.

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Drew and Laxman at Poon Hill with Annapurna I 8091m (26,545ft) far left; Annapurna South at center; Hiunchuli 6,441m (21,126ft), and Fishtail at far right

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“downtown” Ghoripani

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locals along the way Hile

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lunch stop

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back on the trail

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sling shot practice

We saw Langur monkeys and eagles today..hiked along mountain springs with the clearest water you’ve ever seen. About 6 hours into the hike I came to very much respect my earlier “wise” decision. You know how toddlers walk down stairs? Side-step style? That was me…but with my ‘cane’. Pathetic I know..but hey- I MADE IT!! I may need knee surgery after this, but I hiked the Ghoripani loop without having to be air-lifted out!! Tomorrow is our last day of hiking and our guides assure us it’s relatively flat- so I’ll probably make it. As I sit here in the village of Hile drinking my semi-cold beer, my view is across a huge valley… halfway up both sides of the mountain are covered with terraced farmlands and tiny houses. A man just walked by with such a large load of bush branches that all you can see his legs…he looks like a walking bush. The sun is setting and the tea house where we’re staying is as darling as anything with vines growing up the side, colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind, corn husks hanging from the balcony…. a woman shoos the chickens away from the house into the coop…big pumpkins sit on top of the outhouse..whether to dry out in the sun or to keep the corrugated roof from blowing off I’m not sure. Signs like “seperet rooms” and “very peace setting” make me smile, and laundry is hanging up to dry everywhere. A boy practices archery below. Trekkers sit on the balcony sipping tea or a beer and swap traveling stories. Photos just never do this sort of ambience justice.

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the night’s fresh poultry and other supplies arriving in Hile

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the guys actually cooked us a congratulations cake the last night


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Knowing that this was the last day of our trek made us all take our time and cherish the views. Before we left the teahouse we recognized a German lady that had also been at our teahouse in Ghoripani the night before. She did the knee-crunching descent the day before too, in a little less time than us. She also had done the early Poon Hill hike that morning. She is 68 years old. We saw her again at the end of the day..she beat us to Birethanti as well. The day was relatively easy and fairly level. We saw series of large waterfalls which emptied into bright, green pools…one particular waterfall cascaded into 3 separate ones. At one point we got to cross the b ig river by jumping from one rock to the next. We passed the old Maoist checkpoints where the rebel Maoist used to demand large “donations” from trekkers. Now that the Maoists run the government, the checkpoints stand empty.

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My knees held out but I was exhausted when we reached the minivan. I looked behind my some way into the ride back to Pokhara and every porter and guide was asleep. Except for Becca of course, who was reading. When we had inquired about an appropriate tip at the tour office, he had suggested a tip of 5 – 7% of the total tour amount. We tipped almost 10%, which the guide distributed evenly. They seemed content with it, but spread out among so many it really didn’t amount to much. The porters all shook our hands vigorously and waved was a little sad to see everyone go. We had bought our 2 guides little “Annapurna-Ghoripani” patches as well…and we exchanged emails and phone numbers so that we might hook up when we got back to Kathmandu. Now I’m clean and in our hotel room, our laundry has been sent out, and I’m relaxing on a warm, soft bed. Back to comfort and civilization. Oh…except the power’s out.

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Posted by: vonzwecktrek | May 3, 2009

That’s why I’m going to Kathmandu

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looking west from our hotel in Kathmandu with Swayambhunath (monkey temple) on the hillside

Kvz. I have a memory of when I was quite a young girl singing a Bob Seger song at the top of my lungs..”I’m going to Kathmandu!” when my friend Neena (whose parents were from India) interrupted me and asked if I knew where Kathmandu was. I blinked. It was a real place? She told me it was in Nepal…which was close to India. I decided I must go there someday. Well, by golly, here I am. Thanks for the seed Neena, though I doubt you ever remember planting it! It wasn’t easy getting here either…3 hours of classic red tape and numerous lines at the Varanasi airport for just a 1 hour flight, but we just went through the motions. We’d actually expected Kathmandu to be a big, noisy city which we’d want to leave quickly but we were all quite pleased to find that we loved it! It was such a change of pace from India that I think we needed at that time….fellow tourists everywhere! Tourist shops galore! International food! Toilet paper for sale on every street corner! No cows in the streets! (Well, only a few per block) and the place looked so clean! Almost Switzerland clean! They even pick up the trash off the streets! Of course, we were only seeing one particular area of Kathmandu which is called Thamel and is of course the designated tourist zone…almost like a Disneyland for tourists. I remember feeling this same almost embarrassed surprise in Agua Calientes in Peru. Everyone slammed the place, but hey…when you’ve been in the sticks or non-tourist areas for weeks, a cozy internet cafe, a cappuccino, and a good bookstore can do your soul wonders. Thamel district kind of reminds me of my town of Leucadia..or what Leucadia would like to be. It’s full of laid-back tea houses, quaint bookstores with incense wafting out of the doors, restaurants with hanging paper lanterns and veggie menus which are a mixture of Nepalese and Tibetan cuisines, patchwork and embroidered cottons and silks, felted purses, silver shops, and camping store after camping store. The shop vendors are laid back too and don’t harass you constantly to come into their stores, leaving you to wander aimlessly in and out.

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drumb shop in Kathmandu

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Durbar Square in Kathmandu with the Kasthamandap (house of wood) in the background that Kathmandu derived its present name from

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Holi Festival celebrants take a break

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Drew reloads with plastic bags and color dye (he got nailed a few times on this mission)

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So there’s always a catch, right? Our hotel seemed wonderful, with cable TV, AC, lots of outlets for our electronics, wireless internet…all for only $40 bucks a night. What more could anyone ask for? Well, electricity actually. Turns out the power is out for 16 hours a day in Kathmandu- yep, you heard me right. And half of the 8 hours it is turned on is usually in the dead of night. So while the hotels tout TV and internet, the truth is that what you’re really paying for is a bed. Then we found out about the festival. Remember that Holi Color Festival that we thankfully just missed in India? The one where they throw paint and colored powder on unsuspecting passerbys? Well, alas…it’s been reincarnated in Nepal as the “Holy” festival…alive and kicking. Of course we didn’t realize it until we were right in the middle of town center. Luckily, few people here can afford expensive paint to arm themselves with, so they settle for little plastic bags which they fill up with water and twist the tops, essentially making a water balloon which they hurl from the endless rooftops and upper-floor apartment building which top the street-level shops. No one is safe. It’s all done in humor, but I noticed that it’s done sneakily as well. No one wants you to know where the weapon is coming from so they wait till you’re not looking. Many of the shop owners are in on it as well. They hide in their shop till you’ve passed by, then nail you from behind. I found that if I maintained eye contact and watched my back as much as possible, I seemed to stay dry. But I resigned myself to getting wet and eventually did get nailed. I didn’t mind so much until I noticed that they had particular targets…lone, young women. Then I noticed that almost all of the attackers where young men who seemed to be using the holiday as more of an excuse to behave badly than anything else. The more I noticed this the more it pissed me off. The poor women were obviously just trying to get to work or home from it, when 4 or 5 men would all hurl balloons at them at once, completely soaking them. They would try to laugh it off, but you could see they were also annoyed. Then the inevitable happened…the armed and dangerous spotted Becca. She was just a little too far ahead of us, and when the first one hit she panicked and started to run because she had several brand new books in her backpack, along with her precious journals. When she ran, the balloons really started to fly. When she cowered and started to cry, I just snapped. I heard myself yelling on them to pick on someone their own size…she’s just a little girl for God’s sake! They stopped..I’m sure in fear for their lives. We emptied out her soggy books as quickly as possible and helpful, sympathetic shop owners handed us plastic bags and advised us to “please be careful” and to head on back to our hotel. We succumbed.

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this guy was lobbing balloons onto our rooftop from a good distance away

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Drew and Becca help our hotel’s staff re-load for an assault on the guys shown below

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But the best answer to being a victim is revenge, right? The next day was the actual “day” (yesterday being the runner up day) where people would actually use coloring powder as well as water. We saw several tourist deliberately go out on the town, dressed in white t-shirts for the occasion. They came back completely covered in paint, like one of those “blue men” from that Las Vegas show. We decided to stay put. Then we happened to go up onto the rooftop to see the entire hotel cleaning staff (mostly all women) filling water balloons with the speed of a civil war cannon loader and hurling them at the enemy; the people on the neighboring rooftops. Every now and then there’d be some sort of mutiny and they’d start hurling them at each other. Then the would throw them at the hotel guests watching, and we’d all scurry for cover. No one was safe. Drew begged Tim to go out and buy some balloons so off they went. They came back well-supplied and rather wet. Then the three of them (Becca included) proceeded to engage in the warfare for the next couple of hours while I enjoyed my novel in the safety of the hotel courtyard. They even nailed pedestrians below! Becca let one drop and accidently (to everyone’s horror) hit a motorcycle who just happened to have a dad in the front, the mom in the back, and their infant held in the middle. Of course it landed right on the infant’s head. The infant was ok evidently, but they all felt horrible and Becca was reduced to tears once again. (I felt a little less sorry for Becca upon hearing this story…I figure it was Karma in reverse). I was glad when the whole thing was over, and I can guarantee you that if I was a local, I wouldn’t venture out on those 2 days either. A “holy” festival? More of a survival of the fittest…the fittest being the ones who can afford shops, and apartments on the top floors and the weakest being those poor schmucks who are stuck on the ground!

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our room did not get cleaned this day as the hotel staff was busy defending their turf

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Drew and Becca hanging out in the hotel’s courtyard the day after the Holi Festival

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Durbar Square (above and below)

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Drew trying out his new Nepalese horns.

Posted by: vonzwecktrek | April 26, 2009

Holy Varanasi

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priests tending to pilgrims in Varanasi

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Kvz. Varanasi is probably considered the holiest city in India. Most all pilgrims try to come here at least once in their lives, to wash away their sins in the holy Ganges river. But if they can’t make it during their lifetime, at least there’s a good chance that their relatives will bring them here for their funeral, as it is a most auspicious place to be cremated. Our first 2 nights we stayed right down by the “Ghats” (steps that lead to the water’s edge) so as to be “close to it all”, and slowly walked from one ghat to the next. Quite soon we came upon our first “burning ghat” and slowed down to take a look. Nothing happens fast in India, so we eventually took a seat (close enough to see but not close enough to be too conspicuous.) First the deceased was carried out on a sort of stretcher and laid gently down on a bed of large timbers. He was dressed in his nicest clothes. Then they wrapped him in a shroud and sprinkled sandalwood and flowers over him…and covered him with many more sticks of wood placed on top of and around his body. The more money a family has, the more sticks will be bought. They sprinkled what I think was kerosene and lit the bonfire. It promptly went out and had to be re-lit..more sticks were added after much conversation. During all this time no ceremony in terms of speech, prayer, or song was performed…just the act of men trying to light the funeral pyre (not a woman in sight.) Finally the fire took hold (I felt as relieved as the next guy) and all the men just walked away. Maybe they stayed nearby- I’m not sure. I had thought that they floated the corpse in the water but they don’t. Someone tends the fire and then at the end I believe they throw the ashes/remains into the river.Since the whole burning process takes hours, we never witnessed a funeral beginning to end, so I’ve had to make some guesses as to the process.

Varnasia also known as Benares as described by Mark Twain – “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

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carrying a loved one to the Ganges for the purification ceremony before cremation

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watching the proceedings from afar at the cremation firewood stack // flower and garland vendors in Varanasi

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nightly Puja ritual at the Dasaswamedh Ghat

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sadhu sitting and oxen singing(?) by the Shivala Ghat in Varanasi

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boys playing cricket at the Shivala Ghat

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 Babaji temple (above)

One day Tim visited a temple dedicated to Babaji and Lahiri Mahashay both guru’s in the lineage of Paramanhansa Yogananda who founded his church at home in Encinitas

Lahiri Mahashay lived in Varanasi and initiated thousands into Kriya Yoga

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We continued on our way along the river and saw the typical ghat activities of people washing, bathing and swimming along the banks. Cows were everywhere. The faecal bacteria count is about 1 million times what is considered safe for swimming. What with people actually bathing in this toxic water and the crazy traffic problems, I’m surprised there aren’t bodies lying everywhere. It was so hot though…even I wanted to jump in! It was as hot as Africa! And regardless of it’s toxicity, one can’t deny it has a magical presence to it. Near sunset we headed to the main ghat for the nightly ceremony. It was much like the one we experienced at Haridwar but much, much bigger. 8 or 10 young Indian men in costume stood on platforms and moved in slow, synchronized movements to the music…all the while clanging bells and waving incense. Dozens of boats watched from the river as well. There were very few foreigners compared to the hundreds of Indians and amazingly no one harassed us, leaving us free to bask in the spiritual ambience and to people-watch. Like in Haridwar, I was amazed to think that this huge ceremony takes place nightly!

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Drew and Becca playing at one of the many ghats

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looking down the Ganga past one of the burning ghats

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lots of laundry gets done along the river

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The next day we decided the only way to beat the heat was to get a place with a pool. We had to move to a hotel on the outskirts of the town center which we thought at first to be a detriment, but soon realized was a blessing. This journey each day proved to be a jaw-dropping event that defies description. We spent the days doing homework while lounging by the pool. The pool attendants were attentive to the point of being annoying…every time you adjusted yourself on your lounge chair they would rush over to re-tuck in your pool towel!! In the late afternoon we’d take a rickshaw for the 30-minute hair-raising ride into town. This ride was like being IN a carnival instead of just watching one…I’ve never seen traffic like this..not even in Delhi. One night we decided to count the beeps of our rickshaw’s horn on the way home…after over 200 honks in less than 10 minutes we lost count. I’ve come to the realization that this horn-honking is a life-saving practice to counter-act the haphazard, life-threatening driving practices you see everywhere. On the backs of trucks they even paint “Horn Please” or “Use Horn”. Unlike in America where drivers use it mostly out of annoyance or revenge…here it is used to warn pedestrians and cyclists to “stay the path” and not make any sudden movements lest they be surely run over. The horns in India are as varied as the Gods, and often play a short, lively tune in place of a beep.

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local restaurant and paratha (flat bread) shop with a garland vendor as well

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walking along the ghats at night with sporadic cows and moths by the millions

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the streets of Varanasi are every bit as interesting as the Ganges and the ghats

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its smiles like these that are why we are coming back to India some day (and, the guy in front is pedalling a rickshaw with the other 4 guys on it!)

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most women are not so liberal with there smiles

The streets are lined with shops and hundreds of people crowding in and out of them. As you get closer to the ghats the cops don’t even allow any type of vehicle because there just plain ain’t room- so you walk the rest of the way into town. I scored on a great glass bead shop along the way (Tammy- you’d love it!) and bought a bunch to mail back and make jewelry with some day. In the old part of Varanasi there are many alleyways which snake every which-way and it’s easy to get lost. The alleys are sprinkled with restaurants, tea shops, chapati stands and guest houses. Locals walk by holding their babies whose faces are often covered with heavy eye make-up, which is quite alarming to see the first time. Several nights we found ourselves trying to find our way out and back to the main market streets quite late at night. This is exactly what the guide book suggests NOT to do. However it never felt too dangerous or scary. Of all the festivals we’ve accidently stumbled onto, we missed India’s “Color Festival” by one day- for it was to happen the day after we were to fly to Nepal. This is a holy celebration where everyone throws colored powder and colored water on everyone else….anyone on the streets is fair game- tourist and local alike. We had several locals tell us that they NEVER left the house during this festival! Tim and Drew (especially Drew) were very disappointed we’d be missing it. Becca and I were quite relieved.

other pics from Varanasi and getting there:

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leaving Kahjuraho

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around Allahabad

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pics from train door while moving through Allahabad…

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kite flying is a big past time here

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cow patties put up to dry in alley in Varanasi

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We decided to go to the ceremony again one night in order to see it from the water. I found this to be even more surreal. I bought a “candle boat” and carefully lit it and set it afloat. A very good friend of mine in California died senselessly a few weeks ago and it’s been a difficult time for me…I have not been able to bring myself to write about it until now. It’s been very frustrating and lonely to be away during this time, away from mutual friends…and not being able to attend her memorial service. It’s too private and painful to share here, but just suffice it to say that I finally found the courage to say goodbye to my friend Tibe on that night…on that holiest of rivers; the great Ganges which translates to “Great Mother” which I found be-fitting. As I watched the candle float away I felt extreme loss, realizing how much I would miss her. Goodbye Tibe. I love you.

Posted by: vonzwecktrek | April 25, 2009

Indian safaris and head bobbles

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Tim’s famous wild leapord “butt” picture

Kvz. We left Khajuraho for the Panna National Park where we would go on a Indian Safari, mainly in search of the tiger. On our African safari we saw all the big animals except for those 2 ever-elusive big cats: the leopard and the tiger. This National Park is a tiger reserve, and we stayed in a luxurious lodge just outside the entrance gates. We had to get up before dawn and it was quite cold…we donned our Peru hats and dug out our long underwear for the open-jeep ride and watched the sun rise slowly over the forest trees. Our guide and driver took up the front seat, and we hadn’t gotten more than a mile into the park when our headlights shined directly on a huge stag (Sanbar deer) with a gigantic rack of antlers. He was just standing there motionless, and I joked in a whisper “does he think we can’t see him if he doesn’t move?”. But then I noticed that the driver was much more interested in what the stag was staring AT. Sure enough, peering intently into the bush we saw a leopard crawl by. We were amazed…we didn’t even expect to see a leopard at all! Then he walked across a clearing and we saw him clearly. He was a male, around 3 years old, according to our guide. Then he noticed us and crouched down low, peering at us before scampering off. We moved up the jeep and got to glimpse him once more..what a beautiful creature. Our professional photographer (Tim) was taken by surprise and the lighting was bad, so no decent photo was to be had.

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the jeep followed the dirt track

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elephants followed nothing but their mahoot’s commands which included walking right over small dead trees and crossing streams

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We never did see a tiger, but we felt extremely lucky about the leopard. And we took a boat ride to see a gigantic 9′ crocodile from 40′ away, sunning itself on the rock. We could see his jagged teeth hanging over his lips. They prey on fish and frogs, but will settle for tigers and leopards too if they stray too close to the water’s edge. We also climbed up on a full-grown bull elephant and rode through the jungle for an hour. There was some semblance of a trail, but the elephant strayed from it often, mowing down trees in his path without hesitation. We soon noticed the mahout (elephant trainer/rider) was directing the elephant verbally and instructing him to either remove a low-lying branch (which he’d do with his trunk) or take down an entire tree (which he did with his legs and then sheer mass.) It was amazing and we had to duck constantly to avoid being scratched…trying not to think too much about the possible environmental damage this trip was causing. We were surrounded by deer and langur monkeys. Our guide was wonderful, energetic, and so knowledgeable about the birds (Becca had her trusty Indian animal book along) and we were able to identify many. What a day.

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Panna’s Jewel of The Jungle Lodge

We had planned on leaving Panna and splitting up the long haul to Varanasi by staying overnight at Satna. But then we read some travel blogs where Satna was described as nothing more than a concrete jungle, and that they were eaten alive by bedbugs. We decided to stay in our “Jewel of the Jungle” (name of hotel) another night. How could we resist when we were practically the only guests and were pampered head to foot? Due to Mumbai, the economy, and it being just outside of high season, this is often the case and it is not uncommon to find yourself alone in a place with a staff of 16 or more. It’s a little unsettling and decidedly imperialistic, and definitely you will have NO PRIVACY. We’ve long given up trying to convey to them that we can take care of ourselves…they need the tips and we will oblige. Once we asked if we could eat our lunch in our room instead of the big, lonely restaurant. They carried over a table with chairs, tablecloth, and full place settings and set it all up in the little garden area in front of our balcony!! Staying an extra night here instead of Satna was an easy decision. Tim and I took a sunset stroll through the village one evening. The sun was setting over the cultivated fields with the river beyond. Everyone nodded to us with “Namaste”, the boys playing cricket motioned and yelled for us to join them, the brightly dressed women were gathering water from the public wells with their shiny, silver buckets, the men gathered on benches in front sipping Chai….Many houses were piled high with ceramic pots for sale and you would occasionaly see someone mixing up clay. The Indian village that seems to be doing well. We bought our toilet paper and laundry detergent from the local shop and headed home.

sites around Panna’s village:

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It was time to high-tail it to Varanasi, so we chose the private car to Satna instead of the public bus, and from there got seats on the 3rd class sleeper for the 10 hour day-time ride to Varanasi. The compartment in this class consists of a regular bench for 3, but above the seat are 2 tiers of full-length beds. Really a great set-up, for when you tire of sitting up and reading you just climb onto one of the beds and take a nap. It’s all open (no closed compartments) but it’s much better than a bus ride. The kids LOVE it of course, and play tag by climbing from bunk to bunk. Between naps and reading, we snacked on hot snacks and chai teas offered by the vendors that pass through the train at every stop. In India, men will unabashedly come right over and sit next to Tim and chat with us for awhile. If he has his laptop open it’s a great ice-breaker as they will look at some of the photographs we’ve taken in their country. They always ask where we are from and what we do for a living…whether Drew is a girl or old Becca is. Then, just as suddenly they’ll nod their head and be off. I don’t think this is explicit just to us either…I think it’s common to wander around a train and meet people. So different from our culture.

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I think we’re finally getting accustomed to the Indian “head bobble”. At first we would all have to suppress giggles whenever we saw it…it’s not a up-and-down nod, but a nod to the left or right. As far as I can tell, this can mean “yes”, or it can mean “no”, or it can mean I’m not sure, or “more or less”, etc. At times I also found it frustrating. Once I exasperatedly said to a taxi driver “What does that mean? I don’t understand..yes, no maybe, what??” And how did he reply? With another head bobble, of course.

Posted by: vonzwecktrek | April 24, 2009

Temples, temples, temples

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checking out some of the temples in Khajuraho

Kvz. It was time to see some old temples so we headed out of Gwalior on the train to Orchha, and found ourselves in fairy tale land. Orchha is in the countryside in the middle of nowhere…not near any cities, and is flat and green for miles. The wide and very green Betwa river runs through the middle of it which is strewn with huge boulders. Dotted amongst this setting is hundreds of little, beautiful well-preserved Hindu temples from the 1500’s, and when you climb up to the top of one of them you can see this landscape for miles. The town is so small that the annoying hotel/tour touts don’t really bother with it all…the “town” is basically 2 dirt roads that criss-cross each other. We decided to go for it and stay at the main palace which was government-run. Called the “Jehangir Mahal” and built in the 1600’s it had been a favorite place for the Mughal Prince of the time to stay when he visited, and once again we felt like royalty for a day in this gem of Islamic medieval architecture. We spent 2 days just exploring the ruins at our leisure. I had a quickie henna tattoo applied to my right hand just for fun, and bought a jingly ankle bracelet and toe ring like all the married women wear. I bought lots of silver jewelry. The vendors all say that business has been so slow ever since the Mumbai bombings. They are always very happy to see me coming. I had given all my jewelry I’d bought so far to my mom to take home last month when she visited, so I’m at ground zero again. Yippee!!

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Becca sleeping like a princess in Orchha

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Kristin working on price and terms

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Drew draws another crowd // Kristin getting some Henna work done

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The Betwa River running through Orchha

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Orchha Palace

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sites around Orchha (above and below)

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burning incense and chanting for Vishnu at a local temple as folks in Orchha are mainly Vaishnavites

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Alas, we couldn’t afford to stay in Orchha much longer (palaces and silver) so off we headed to Khajuraho to see the famously x-rated temple architecture there. Remember when I said I’d never take a 3rd class train in India on purpose? Well…in these rural areas there is no other choice. We waited nervously on the tracks for the train to come and planned our attack..we’d beat everyone else on and Tim would get in from one end of a car and I’d get in from the other. The first person to find 4 seats together would save them and yell to the others. When the train approached it we saw that it was frightfully full. As it came to a stop we kept walking along, wishfully thinking that eventually we’d get to a car less crowded. By this time everyone had gotten on the train except us. And then it started moving! It was leaving! No way were me missing this train. We ran to the nearest opening and jumped one by one onto the slow-moving train with me taking up the rear. Right into the baggage car. Five men were shaking their heads at us, but they helped us on anyway, and we promised to move cars at the next stop. At least Drew had fulfilled a life-long dream; to jump aboard a moving train…and into the baggage compartment no less! (We’ve already jumped OFF a moving train once when we couldn’t seem to get out in the allotted time, so I guess this was the only logical next James Bond-like experience for him to long for.) When we finally moved to a proper passenger car we were amazed how everyone politely made room for us, and Becca land I even lucked out and got window seats in the aisle to ourselves. Tim and Drew were welcomed into a compartment full of a huge family where a few of them spoke enough English to make it interesting. The guy next to me complimented me on bringing my kids along. He said “not too many Americans will bring their children to India.” What a shame. He had first asked if we were sisters, so he is officially my favorite person in India so far.

This train route was unique in that the tracks had only been finished for one month (before you had to go by bus) so going through the most rural, serene countryside you would see people in the fields just STARING at the train like it was something from outer space. All of a sudden we heard a loud thump and rattle and the train stopped. I was sure we’d hit a cow who was probably not used to the train whizzing by and hadn’t yet learned to avoid it. Everyone piled off and looked under the train but thankfully it was just a air hose that had pulled apart and was quickly (thankfully) fixed.

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leaving Orchha – trains are not exactly carbon neutral but are the safest form of transportation in India

Tim spends most of his time on trains hanging out the door snapping photos

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our friendly seat partners enroute // repairing the train outside Khajuraho

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Having had just enough drama for one train ride, thank you very much, we gratefully arrived in Khajuraho and spent a wonderful 3 days exploring the town and it’s surroundings. The first day we saw the obligatory and deservedly so 10th century temples that were built by the Chandela dynasty. The town is so isolated that the Muslim invaders never found it, so it escaped the desecration besieged upon so many other sites. The jungle also claimed it for many years until it was “re-discovered” by the British who found it marvelously well-preserved. But what it is most famous for is it’s Kamasutra-like sculptures that are carved all over the outside of the temples. Some of the poses make you downright blush. I was a little nervous about the kids, but they noticed NOT ONE of the erotic images. Thing is…you have to stand and stare for awhile, tilt your head to one side and ponder the tangle of arms and legs for a minute before “Presto!”…you finally get the picture. Kids don’t have the patience for that. These temples are probably the most intricately carved temples we’ve seen on the trip and are incredible works of art. We saw many beautiful, young Indian couples wandering around, and weren’t surprised to learn that this romantic site is a popular honeymoon spot. No doubt.

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looking up at a temple ceiling at Khajuraho of incredible craftsmanship

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Being the “festival magnets” that we accidently are, we found ourselves in Khajuraho the very first day of a 2 week music-and-performing arts festival. The first night was to be VIP night which meant the governor of the province we are in (Madya Pradesh) would be attending. We had a choice between .60 cent seats and $2 seats..guess which ones we chose? I felt a little imperialistic when I found myself seated amongst several hundred Westerners, and looked over my shoulder to see the packed Indians in the section in the back. But what tourist in their right mind wouldn’t buy the better tickets? To one of the most famous festivals in India? These were world class performances…classical Indian dancing and music. The outfits were of course splendid, and spot on. (Have I been watching too much BBC?) Evidently this type of music practically takes a math genius to master with much intricate timing involved. During the performance I noticed some huge birds flying about overhead. I thought Becca, my animal lover, would appreciate the sight so I whispered over to her and pointed. She replied “Oh…those aren’t birds mom. They’re giant Flying Fox bats.” Becca is amazing with her animal knowledge…she leafed through a “Indian Animals” book at a store for 10 minutes one day, and then proceeded to later inform us that the animal we saw in the tree in Thailand was a Giant Flying Squirrel, and bird we thought was a parrot was actually a “Blossom-headed Parakeet.” We went back and bought her the book, and now she’s our resident animal expert even more than ever.

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The next day we decided to do an outing to see two things…see the Raneh Waterfalls, and then go see alligators (“no, they’re called Gharials mom”) at the Gharial sanctuary. Although no one bothered to tell us that there was no water at the falls this time of year, and that no one had spotted a Gharial at the sanctuary for at least 5 years. So the von Zweck family got “had” again…but the guides made no apologies and directed us to focus instead on the amazing canyon views (where the water completely fills up in rainy season) instead…and they were right of course. The canyon was incredibly deep and rock formations spread clear to the horizon. We also saw some huge antelope-like animals (just had to ask Becca, and they’re actually called Nilgais) spotted deer, a peacock, and Langur monkeys. And we consoled ourselves further by remembering that after one sees the amazing Iguazu Falls in Argentina…nothing else can quite compare anyway. The canyon probably ended up awing us way more than the falls ever would have. We’re headed to a National Park next…in our never-ending search of that ever-elusive tiger.

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on the way to dried up Raneh Falls

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Posted by: vonzwecktrek | April 12, 2009

The Taj Mahal

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Kvz. We headed back down the mountain from Mussorie to head to Agra…home to the Taj Mahal. We’d slowly wandered from Delhi up to Mussorie in little hops and now we found ourselves a long ways away, so we opted for the “Mussorie Express” sleeper train and it was wonderful. We had a first-class cabin of our own with a locking door. We climbed wearily aboard at 10:30 p.m. and arrived in Delhi early the next morning. We’d already been to Delhi so this was just a stop-over…we jumped on another 1st class train for the 5-hour ride to Agra and had our own first class compartment again. Our hotel had a nice courtyard and was clean, and very cheap…so we could even afford 2 separate rooms. The catch? We found out it was wedding season in India…no one is safe. The ear-piercing music and fireworks started at 10:00 in the evening and went till 3:00 in the morning. Plus people were playing cards in the courtyard and having entirely too much fun. But who needs sleep when you’re going to see one of the most amazing structures in the world? We hired a rickshaw driver for the whole day to take us to the Red Fort, the “baby Taj”, and then the big Taj. His name was Guddu (rhymes with Voodoo) and he was patient, spoke great English and is just an all-around great guy. We had to rush a bit to get it all in, but the grand finale was of course the Taj Mahal where we arrived a few hours before sunset. Getting into the place was like getting into a rock concert. Long lines to get through security, everyone jostling to get in…Becca almost got turned back because she had books in her backpack (big no-no evidently…no reading allowed in holy places) and Tim DID get turned back (had to run back and leave his daypack with Guddu) but it was all worth it when we walked through the big arch and saw that famous long strip of water with the Taj at the end. All that white marble is just astounding and the domes are simply beautiful…the whole ensemble is perfectly proportioned to me. Then when you get up close you are amazed to find thousands of semi-precious stones embedded into the marble! There was a impossibly long line to get in (now it was like a line to BUY the tickets for the rock concert) but of course you don’t come all this way and not see Shah Jahan and his beloved wife’s coffins side by side, forever together in this monument he built for her after she died giving birth! Local lore has it that the Shah had decided to build an exact duplicate of the Taj Mahal but in black marble, directly across the river from the original one…where he would be buried in a ying-yang type harmony with his beloved. His son said he was crazy, that they couldn’t afford it , and locked him up in the Red Fort where he could just sit and see the Taj from his balcony…till the day he died. A rather sad love story. We lingered for hours and were rewarded by seeing it change from a brilliant white color to a rose color as the sun set behind the city.

Getting to the Taj by road

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traffic in Delhi / Drew sitting shotgun in Guddu’s auto rickshaw in Agra

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oxen, bicycles, rickshaws, camels and more all share the road together

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Drew got a little restless by about 15th hour of being on trains – which stop freguently for reasons usually unknown to us. Male passengers pile out onto the tracks to buy tea from locals

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waiting to get in the Taj

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We asked Guddu to please take us to a good, local Indian restaurant for dinner which naturally was wonderful. We offered to buy for him but he said he’d wait and eat with his wife. As we were leaving we heard music and chanting next store and found out is was a family doing an all-night ritual in honor of Krishna. He offered to let us take a peek and we saw the entire extended family sitting around of the floor playing various instruments and drums and singing. As soon as they spotted us they all jumped up and invited us to join in. They said they would be doing this all night, till dawn. I wondered what the kids did…would they stay up or just kind of fall asleep where they were eventually, the way American kids fall asleep in front of the TV? We begged off because we were exhausted and they waved cheerfully goodbye.

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The view of the Taj Mahal that the Shah had from his prison / palace on the Red Fort grounds (left) // one of the incredible buildings found at the Red Fort (right)

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a doorway of the Red Fort

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The baby Taj Mahal

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Kristin takes in the gorgeous inlaid stonework at the baby Taj // Drew and Becca at the baby Taj

The next day we did a day trip to the World Heritage Site of “Fatephur Sikki” which is another huge fort that was once the capital of the Mughal empire in the 1500’s. The architecture of this palace is Indo-Islamic and it had lovely gardens enter twined among the palaces. It was a great way to spend the day and Becca and Drew played hide and seek among the buildings. As we were walking along, a fair-sized piece of a roof broke off and crashed to the concrete sidewalk below. Yikes. Guess it’s not our time to go yet.

sites along the way to Fatephur Sikki…

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cow dung patties are used for fuel and are everywhere, from rooftops to headtops and roadsides

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locals getting around town

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folks getting water from the well at Fatephur Sikki

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Indian people are beautiful inward and outwardly

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The next day we hit the road. Since we had splurged on those 2 first-class trains for the long hauls and this trip would only be a few hours long, we opted for 2nd class. Walking into the train car was like walking into the New York stock exchange. Everyone was talking over one another, some shouting, everyone jostling for space…in other words, total chaos with us right in the middle. First you must politely but firmly (or they would just ignore you) eject the family of 5 out of your 3-seat reserved bench. Then you shove everyone’s suitcases over to make room for yours, all the while trying to keep out of the vendors way who is carrying a tray of ‘scald your face’ hot Chai teas right at eye level…all the while giving hard looks at the passerbys eyeing your bench. When you finally sit down you get to enjoy everybody else’s chaos for awhile till everyone gets seated and the hubbub dies down. And this is SECOND CLASS…in third class there is no assigned seating. I never saw a conductor so I assume that some of the passengers are free-loaders who need to find spaces as well. Through all this chaos my kids were just standing passively in the aisle, looking bored. If Tim and I can just keep our stress levels in check and not pass it onto them in these situations, they will surely come out of this trip as the heartiest, most easy-going travelers on the block. And I’m sure we’ll have to do 3rd class at some point in India..but I can honestly say I won’t do it on purpose.

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Once the train started everything was fine, the countryside was pleasant, and we soon arrived in Gwalior, which is known for it’s fort. You’d thing we’d be sick of forts because we’d just seen 2 big ones so recently, and now I do think I’ve had enough of them for awhile. But Gwalior was really cool I must admit. The main palace (Man Singh-15th century) had been used as a prison for some time and we ran around getting lost in the dark dungeons which were filled with hundreds of bats. The fort soars high above the town so we clambered up the crumbling steps of one of the old buildings and enjoyed the view which was panoramic and went for miles. On the long, steep walk up to the fort there were large 15th century Jain figures carved right into the rock, reminiscent of scenes we saw in Egypt. The fort also houses several wonderfully ornate 9th century temples which still look perfect….like time has stood still. We decided to splurge and eat at the Taj hotel restaurant on the way back (of the famous chain now well-known because of the Mumbai attack) which had been built within a grand, old remodeled palace. Very Maharaj and ridiculously expensive (by India standards) but great waiter and great food. Finally we headed to our hotel looking forward to collapsing in our beds after the long, full day. And arrived just as the wedding next door was gearing up.

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holy dogs // tunnels of the Gwalior Fort

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the folks here sit on motor scooters like we sit on our couch at home


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