Travels with the Beard – Nepal and Beyond

Our travels, chickens and surviving life

Yogic Swan

Chitwan is a hot, dry area in the south of Nepal, running along the Indian border. In contrast to the mountainous north of the country Chitwan is mostly flat, with vast flat-floored valleys, and jungle areas criss crossed by a number of rivers.
It is probably best known for its National Park which attracts foreign tourists, who come to bask in the considerable dry heat of the jungle, and stare at the crocs, rhinos, and snooty camels who live there. (I have never crossed the path of a camel who has not given me a haughty stare, so I do not feel that this is an unduly unfair observation.)
But our friend Karma also lives in Chitwan, although she and her husband are newcomers there.
Two months ago they relocated from Kathmandu when Karma was offered the opportunity of supervising the opening and then the running of a new brick factory.
Her husband was also given a supervisory position, allowing them both to work; and to work together.
She rang us in England shortly after starting her new life in Chitwan,
“It is good here, yes, but boring,” she told us, “the villagers all go to bed at 6pm!”
“Why?” we asked,
“Because of the rhinos!” she said, and laughed.
I wasn’t sure laughter was entirely appropriate at that juncture, but hey, what do I know about rhinos – maybe THEY have a sense of humor.
“They come out of the jungle at 6pm,” Karma went on, “and eat the sugar cane.”
Right oh. I like an animal with regular eating habits.
I remembered what Karma had told us as we borded a Chitwan-bound bus in Kathmandu, and squeezed ourselves along the Nepali size aisle, and into the Nepali size seats. We were looking forward to our visit.
We did a bit of relocating ourselves a couple of hours into the journey – Tod discovered an army of small, biting red ants clambering all over him, so we settled down on the back seat of the 18 seater bus for the rest of the trip.
It was wonderful to see Karma again. The bus took us into the middle of nowhere, and right to the new, not yet working brick factory.
We discovered that 2 new one storey buildings had been constructed next to it, providing Karma and her husband with a room to live in, an office to work from, and a spare room too.
The other key workers in the new business had settled into rooms of their own.
The heat was dry and breathtaking. Karma, her husband, Tod and I sat down outside and drank lemonade.
The land was perfectly flat as far as the eye could see, and it rolled out in front of us, shimmering below a thick heat haze.
Rice and potatoes were growing all around, and a river ran sluggishly behind the compound.
Karma had started to make good use of the spare land her company had bought, and had dug a large pond and already stocked it with fish, with a view to providing some extra food for the workers.
A colony of frogs had moved in too, and demonstrated their amazing and amusing ability to run across the surface of the water. How cool is that? Frogs who can walk on water!
Goats and chickens played around, and a rather lovely large white bird that Tod and I thought was a goose, but Karma assured us was in fact a swan, stood on a grassy mound, gazing into space,
“If you watch, he’ll do yoga for you,” Karma said, grinning.
We watched, and he did.
Would you believe, the swan slowly raised one leg and stretched it out behind him, pink web neatly pointed downwards. Then he slowly stretched the wing on the same side, until it was completely extended, each feather clearly visible and neatly aligned.
He remained staring slightly upwards, towards the sky.
Oh boy! A yogic swan!
So there we have it. A very brief glimpse of a hot, remote area – a new home to a pleasant group of people and a seemingly content group of animals.
Oh yes, and a yogic swan.
But the nearby small, isolated village is home to a number of families with ‘issues’ shall we say. Just the day before we arrived a villager in her 60s had been beaten up by her own family and thrown out of the house onto the track outside, where a number of other villagers also beat her, to within an inch of her life.
Why?
Because they say she is a witch.
This is not an isolated occurance, and there are other similar examples.
Karma’s brick factory, although not yet up and running, will be fully automated. There is housing (of sorts), water and a toilet for the workers.
Karma will supervise 2 meals a day for them.
She took us across the river the next day to see round a neighbouring brick factory. It is worked entirely by hand. There is no water supply for the workers and no toilet.
The temperature was already in the 30Cs at 9am as we walked around the factory. All the work is done outside, and our horror mounted as we saw the conditions there.
Bricks were laid out everywhere as different family groups worked on them by hand in the searing heat.
Ponies pulled carts laden with bricks from one place to another.
We saw many children working there, one as young as 4 years old.
A brisk burning wind fanned brick dust over everyone, everywhere, and we covered our mouths as best we could.
The workers and children had no masks and several children had eye infections. Some of the adults seemed ill.
We wanted to give money to some of the workers who seemed most in need – actually we wanted to give money to everyone there – but Karma was very firm,
“I’m sorry,” she said, “you can’t. There are 300 workers here, and it may well cause a riot.”
Protesting did no good. She was sensibly adamant.
We walked slowly back across the river weighed down by helpless guilt.
Even the revelation that Karma was personally helping some of the families there did nothing to alleviate our guilt.
Nothing could.
Life seemed suddenly a little bit darker. As well it should.

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Bhutan 2

On the day we tackled the Tiger’s Nest climb our two young Bhutanese guides arrived at the hotel to pick us up exactly on time.
We, unfortunately, were 15 mins late, due entirely to that damn rogue 15 minutes, which had tricked us yet again, and managed to add itself onto the rogue Nepalese 15 minutes! It’s a long and confusing story….
The two lads just laughed. In the land of Gross National Happiness what’s 15 minutes between friends?
Our first impression of Bhutan was that it is neat and ordered, with magnificent scenery of towering mountains and deep valleys.
They told us that it teemed with wildlife, and we found that easy to believe. We had the impression of neatly cared for remoteness, and for sure tigers and yeti roamed the thickly forested slopes of some of the world’s highest mountains.
I already knew that I would be able to ask (and I DO mean ask) a horse if he/she would carry me a third of the way up to Tiger’s Nest.
I had the awful feeling that the horse I’d ask might look at me with horror or disdain, and decline.
What would I do then? Ask another, less discerning horse the same question? Risk another embarassing refusal?
Tod thought it was funny.
But when it came to it I couldn’t do it, and I can honestly say that part of the reason for my decision to attempt the whole climb under my own steam was fear of equine refusal, of equine laughter, and fear of the look that said,
“You must be joking; you need an elephant, not a horse!”
Well, I don’t think there are any elephants in Bhutan, so off we set.
It was very quiet and still as we stood and stared up at Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
We had never seen a sight like it. The mountain face upon which it balances is mostly bare rock, which is itself unusual, as the area is almost completely covered in forest elsewhere.
A couple of very large black birds floated on the currents, circling each other on a level with the Monastery. They looked like moving black specs at that height.
My breathing refuses to work on any upward inclination, and believe me, this wasn’t just ‘any’ upward inclination – this was the side of your house.
Of course taking deep breaths doesn’t achieve a great deal because there isn’t as much oxygen in the air at that height – 10,000ft.
We seemed to be alone on the track and our two guides eventually gave up tut tutting sympathetically and trotted on ahead.
I struggled grimly on with Tod by my side.
We eventually realised that we were late starting the climb, and we began to pass a steady trickle of fellow climbers who’d already reached their goal and were now descending.
They were in various stages of exhaustion, although none as bad as I was! That really didn’t bode well, and there was a great deal of sympathy extended in my direction.
Now I’ve said it before, but I really do have to say it again; if you want an ice breaker in any part of the world take a Tod with you.
It’s not JUST the beard, it’s the smile above it too.
There was not a group, not an individual that we passed who did not stop and chat, shake hands, smile, laugh.
I was glad – it gave me extra time to catch what breath I could.
While we sat waiting in Kathmandu airport for our flight to Bhutan we realised that the ‘Departures’ board in front of us was showing incorrect information. One of the many passengers who we warned about this was a young Chinese-looking man who grinned broadly and thanked us.
We ‘met’ him again as we visited the site of the world’s largest sitting Buddha in Bhutan, and he and Tod greeted each other like long lost friends. We all laughed.
So it was perhaps not entirely unexpected that we bumped into this young man yet again, as he and his guide came down the track towards us at Tiger’s Nest.
We all sat down and chatted. He told us he was from South Korea, and was going on to Darjeeling to check out the green tea plantations there. We too were on our way to Darjeeling.
But before that I had to get to the top here!
Two hours later I reached the ‘Horse Car Park’ and just after, the ‘Canteen’.
We sat down at a table outside the wooden dining house, and the lads brought us cold lemonade. I hope you won’t feel jealous as I tell you that we sat drinking the lemonade staring across at the Monastery. We were on the same level, and felt we could reach out and touch it. It was breathtaking.
However, in order to actually REACH it we had to descend quite a considerable distance, and then ASCEND the other side of the ravine that separated us from Tiger’s Nest.
We had a wonderful lunch first! while I whinged about being a condemned man….
From that point on we were alone on our climb – everyone else had finished and gone on down.
I puffed, panted and sweated, but was absolutely determined to get there. I did NOT want to see an ‘I told you so’ expression on any horse’s face.
Tiger’s Nest is built over caves in the rock face where monks meditated in ages past. It has been rebuilt twice following destruction by fires. The last fire was blamed on villagers who, having harvested their crops in the valley below, then set fire to the stubble. Whether or not a spark, or glowing ember actually travelled so far up the mountain as to set fire to the Monastery will never be known, but the villagers accepted responsibility, and rebuilt Tiger’s Nest.
Oh the feeling of achievement as I actually set sweaty foot in the Monastery!
Tod was disgustingly bright and unsweaty….
As you might expect, there is little to see inside, and the 11 monks who live there have no comforts, save the knowledge that they are truely closer to God.
Our 2 guides did not bother waiting for us, assuming that I would need another 4 hours to get back down, so off they went.
Imagine their guilty surprise when we trotted into the forest clearing at the mountain’s base no more than 30 minutes after them! They both jumped, and switched their mobiles off, staring at me as if Tod had descended the mountain with another woman.
I just don’t have the problems going down as I do going up!
Tod and I stood for a while in silence, staring up at Tiger’s Nest, that Gem, that Marvel, and thanking the chance that had posted a certain magazine through our door one cold and rainy winter’s day.

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Bhutan 1

Towards the end of 2010 on a cold winter’s day in the north of England, a magazine dropped through our door. It wasn’t for us – our friend who lives with us subscribes to it, so the magazine lay untouched for a day or two until Tod picked it up & flicked idly through it.
We were sitting in the conservatory at the time, and the rain was hammering on the roof, reminding us how bleak an English winter can be.
I glanced across at Tod and the photo on the front of the magazine caught my attention. I craned my neck to see better as Tod closed the mag and himself stared at the photo.
I went over and sat by him and together we looked closely at the photo of probably the most amazing Buddhist Temple we had ever seen.
It was perched on the side of a mountain, hanging on above a sheer drop of thousands of feet, clinging by some miracle to rock and thin air.
“Where is it?” Tod asked, and I just knew that he didn’t really care WHERE it was, he just wanted to go there.
“Strangely, it doesn’t say” I told him, “I’ll email the mag and find out.”
So that was it. This remarkable spine-tingling, soul-touching Monastery was added to our list of ‘things to do’.
It is known as Tiger’s Nest, or Tiger’s Den, and is situated at 10,000ft in the country of Bhutan which, oddly enough is near Nepal.
We knew next to nothing about Bhutan, except this:
In 2009 while we were living and teaching English in the remote village of Salle in Nepal we spent a lot of time with Kalyani, who was then the village school headmistress.
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before laughter was never far away when the 3 of us were together.She has a wicked sense of humour.
There were already 3 teachers at the school, and a fourth joined while we were there. He was a young man from Bhutan, who came with a sad story.
He and his family were refugees now living in Kathmandu, following a land slip in Bhutan which had completely removed the family house and land.
We do not know why they then relocated to Nepal, but they did so, and he then got the job as a teacher in Salle.
Unfortunately he was a somewhat gauche and difficult young man, who did not endear himself to the village by demanding 4 sacks of rice for his monthly salary, rather than the standard 3.
“Maybe he has a piggy appetite!” Kalyani told us, “How can he eat so much?”
Her aggrieved tone made us laugh, and we had some fun speculating on what he was doing with the extra sack of rice.
But unfortunately for the young man the food in the village, or it might have been the water, did not agree with him, and he seemed to be constantly suffering from an upset stomach.
His route to the school passed by the house we were staying in and he took to waiting for us outside, and walking with us. Of course we collected Kalyani on the way, so that meant the 4 of us would walk together. It was not a happy troupe – the young man complained constantly about his health, and managed to get on Kalayni’s nerves in a big way,
“How is your stomach today?” she’d ask him, and he would moan & groan and provide far too much information for our comfort!
Tod and I would fall about laughing just watching Kalyani trying to remain polite with the poor chap, but it eventually reached the point when Tod, Kalyani and I would hide in the mornings, and wait for him to walk past the house, before we set off for school.
Early on Tod had named the unfortunate young man
‘Bubbly Bum’ (for obvious reasons) and Kalyani just loved that name. I am ashamed to admit that the 3 of us were often to be seen, and heard, walking along one mountain track or another singing:
“Bubbly Bum, Bubbly Bum, here comes Bubbly Bum!”
Oh dear.
We flew from Kathmandu to Paro in Bhutan early one bright, warm morning.
Now I don’t consider myself to be a particularly sneaky person, but I do sometimes work on a ‘need to know’ basis with Tod where our adventures are concerned.
This was one of those times.
I hadn’t mentioned to my better half that the runway at Paro airport would probably fit into our back garden, and that there were only a small number of pilots trained to land there; oh, and that the approach was along a valley just about wide enough for the plane to fit wing tip to wing tip, with a sharp bend at the end.
Actually, I didn’t mention that to anyone, and certainly not to my friend Maria (H) who often says something along the lines of “What are you getting poor Tod into now?”
We landed ok, although you are certainly aware not just of the proximity of mountains outside the windows, but of the sudden rush and squeal of brakes as the plane struggles to stop before the end of the runway.
We all got off & nearly everyone took photos – you don’t often see a plane standing at the very end of the runway.
There was a lot of nervous, relieved laughter.
I mentioned to Tod that I had been a little economical with our transport details – he took some photos.
A day later we drove to the base of the Tiger’s Nest mountain.
We couldn’t see the Monastery at first, the mountains are thickly wooded right up to the tops, and we didn’t have a clear view.
We walked closer, uphill through the forest, across a sloping clearing and into the forest again.
“There they are,” Tod said, pointing to a surprisingly silent group of 30 or so horses standing amongst the trees. They almost seemed to be holding their breath, wondering who was going to ask for their help to reach Tiger’s Nest.
They were small, sturdy creatures, each wearing colourful blankets as saddles. I noticed how big their eyes were, how long the lashes.
The moment of truth. Would I ask one to carry me half way up? Or would I give it a go under my own steam?
I dithered.
“Come on,” Tod said, and reached a hand out, “You can do it.”
I took his hand and prayed he was right.
I am so glad I did.
10 minutes later and I was already out of breath. The effects of altitude are many and horrendous & would fill a blog on their own. But ok, I was also not quite as fit as a butcher’s dog.
We emerged from the forest again and WOW!! There it was. So far above us that we had to crane our necks right back to look that far up.
Surely there cannot be anywhere a more spectacular sight, a more majestic sight, rising from the calm quietness of a silent forest, up into the perfect blue of a clear sky above.
Tiger’s Nest – a Marvel.
Sigh. I knew I wouldn’t get up there.
Surely only mountaineers and mad people get up there. And Buddhist monks who spend a month getting there, and never come down. Why would you?
It took me 4 hours but I made it.
I reached the Temple and stood in front of the Buddha; I stared down from the unprotected edge of the rock; I wondered at the dedication of the 11 monks who live there, and I envied them their peace.
Getting down was a doddle!

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Fun In the Village

That afternoon was great fun!
Kalyani helped us to make sure that everyone there in the room got something, and also took something away for others in their family.
The hair shampoo and soap were probably the most popular, but the socks, hair clips and watches ran them a close second!
This time we’d brought some make-up for the girls, and Kalyani took charge of the distribution, oohing & aahing at the eye shadow and nail varnish colours, and pinching a couple for herself! We all laughed!
The village lady who’d given us Lucky the cockerel on our last visit wasn’t able to join us. She was ill, but she’d sent her eldest daughter and youngest son to say hello to us.
We’d brought a warm pullover for the little boy, working on the assumption that he’d have grown somewhat in the intervening years. But actually he didn’t seem to have grown at all, and was still the adorable small, shy boy he’d been than. The pullover hung down to his knees! Not to worry, he’d eventually grow into it!
He came over to Tod and stood leaning against his leg, smiling shyly. I spotted the tell-tale glint of a bit of a tear in Tod’s eye.
We sent a bag full of goodies to the young lad’s mother, and quite a bit of money too. She was still bringing up 9 children without a husband, and therefore without an income. Her husband had become very ill a few years ago, and had committed suicide.
The room filled up with newly picked rhododendron flowers – nearly everyone brought us a bunch.
I asked Kalyani who the 2 lovely young girls sitting quietly in the corner were,
“You know who they are!!” Kalyani laughed, “They’re the youngsters from the house next to where you lived in 2009!”
“NO!!” Tod and I both said together, amazed. We couldn’t believe it. These were the 2 tomboys who had been a constant presence outside, and often inside, our room 4 years ago!
They had even climbed the tree outside at the back, and thrown peaches in our window!
They had danced & sung for us, & took every opportunity to practice their English.
They were loud, sweet and funny, and made us laugh.
Now here they were all grown up, & so far removed from the tomboys of the past that they positively drooled over the make-up.
The village yak/buffalo milk man came over to shake our hands & give us cups of milk. His granddaughter is Susila, Parbatti’s best friend. We learned that Susila was now at school in a village 30 miles away. Of course she was living there, and hadn’t been able to come & see us.
In 2009 Susila had had a white rash all over her legs & her mother asked us if we could cure it.
We took photos of the rash and I eventually asked my Dr in the UK what it was. It seemed it was a fungal infection, and when we returned to the village in 2011 we took with us a possible cure for it.
Now Susila’s grandfather told us that the rash had completely cleared up, and he thanked us.
We gave Parbatti a bag of goodies for Susila, plus the presents Sue and her girls had sent for her, and Parbatti promised to deliver them in the next few days.
We’d brought a lovely frilly, baby girl t shirt for Laxmi’s (Kalyani’s sister’s) baby, and handed it over with soap and shampoo. Oops!Bit of a bloomer! The baby is a boy!
But Laxmi was thrilled anyway, and stuck the t shirt on her baby right away.
Our friend Carolyn had sent half a dozen beautiful baby outfits & word of their arrival had already gone outto the families of the three tiny new additions to the village. They arrived, and were duly dressed in the new clothes. We have some fantastic photos!
During the afternoon our room filled up with bottles of Raxi, the local home brewed firewater.
Most of the villagers have some in their houses, and this is really the only present they can give us.
We politely took each container, and stood them all in a row.
When we left the village we asked Kalyani’s Mum to give them back, and apologise that we hadn’t had time to drink them!
Grandfather came in with some honey he’d just liberated from his bees. He is such a kind hearted man & knows we love honey.
But, as with the Raxi, we asked Kalyani’s Mum to return it to him with our apologies.
Grandmother tried it on again! I made a point of giving her a goody bag early on in the day, but later she told kalyani we’d forgotten her.
She did exactly the same 2 years ago, so we all played along and gave her more soap and shampoo.
The daylight eventually faded and the room emptied.
We suddenly realised it had been raining all day.
Molly invited us to her house, and we all traipsed over the mountain peak and down the slope to the little house with the fantastic view over the valley.
Molly’s son Buddha Llama thanked us for the dog biscuits we’d brought, and positively forced his elderly dog to munch a couple in front of us.
I felt sorry for the creature, but haven’t forgotten that this is the canine who attacked poor old Woolly Dog on the occasion he’d followed us to school.
I glared at him. He glared back. No love lost there.
Kalyani, Tod and I left the village the next morning.
We walked to Lohrimani, where for the first time ever we could take a bus back to kathmandu.
Parbatti was waiting there to see us off. Bicass, a happy friendly boy from our class, was also waiting there for us. He was wearing the fleece pullover we’d brought for him, and wanted to thank us.
An assortment of villagers, children and Kalyani’s aunts & uncles milled around, waving to us.
Molly appeared and hugged us. She touched my face and asked Kalyani to thank us both for coming back to the village, for remembering them.
We got on the bus, all of us close to tears.
Parbatti stood at the bus window looking miserable. Every so often she looked up & waved to us. We waved back.
As the bus began to move off we heard her shout,
“Fiona! Tod!”
and craned round in our seats to wave again, to wave goodbye to her. She was crying.
An hour later we stopped in Maina Pokhari for 5 minutes to pick up more travellers.
I jumped as someone banged on the window next to me. It was Susila!
She had rushed out of class to meet the bus & say hello and thank you to us.
She had become a lovely young lady, and we were thrilled to see her again, albeit for a minute only.
She stood waving after the bus as it pulled away, in much the same way as her best friend Parbatti had done.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those of you – too many to name – who contributed in any way to the goodies which we took to the village, and who also gave us money for the villagers and children.
Believe me, your generosity was much appreciated.

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1st Day in the Village

We heard the sound of childrens’ voices as the first light of a new Himalayan day began to sidle in through the cracks in the wooden shutters over the glassless windows.
They were gathering down below the small, wooden balcony outside our room; chattering and laughing, running about and chasing the chickens. The kids were waiting for us to emerge so they could shout, “Hello! Hello!” and of course they were waiting to see what goodies we had for them in those heavy rucksacks we’d lugged all the way from England!
I won’t spend too much time whingeing about my aching back and sore legs. An uncomfortable night spent on a rock hard bed, with my jacket for a pillow, and a lumpy cover to keep the cold away was probably to blame for my seized up joints!
Suffice to say it really wasn’t one of my better mornings, but by the time I’d staggered about moaning and groaning, found my clothes & given them a good shake in case someone else was already in there, and pulled my walking boots on, I felt a bit better. Just a bit….
We opened the rough wooden shutters that passed as a door, and stepped over the threshold onto the balcony. I smiled to myself as I recalled the number of times I’d actually fallen out onto the balcony. No such indignity today, thank goodness.
Tod was disgustingly bright and smiley, and as soon as the kids saw him they squealed and raced up the rickety ladder to join us – the balcony swayed and creaked under the onslaught and I felt the first worry of the day coming on.
The kids jumped around laughing and pulling Tod’s beard & practising
their English on us, but I noticed that although these were village children who we knew from our previous visits, there were none of ‘our’ class amongst them.
Where were they all?
It was a national festival and school was off, but even so we couldn’t see any of our class of 2009.
Kalyani’s mother climbed into the room behind us through a kind of hatchway that opened from her house next door. She came over to the balcony and shooed the kids away, pulling us back into the room and closing the shutters.
In the dimness that descended we saw she had laid Nepali tea and boiled eggs on the floor for us. We thanked her.
She is a truly kind and thoughtful woman, a mother hen whose caring nature could translate into any other culture.
After breakfast we began the major job of unpacking and organising the gifts. We had no idea when Kalyani would arrive, and until she did we had no way of discovering where ‘our’ children were.
We pretended not to notice that the door was pushed slowly open & one by one the children slid quietly into the room & sat on the floor whispering & giggling, watching us.
Kalyani’s room is no more than 10ft by 12 ft, but you’d be amazed how many small Nepalese children can pack in and still leave room for Tod and I to pile clothes, pens, hair shampoo, soap, towels etc, onto the bed.
We had just emptied both rucksacks & established some kind of order amongst the gifts to be distributed when a voice shouted from behind us,
“Tod! Fiona! I’m here at last!”
We turned and saw our Little Ant, Kalyani, standing grinning in the doorway.
The carpet of small children at our feet parted as if by magic to let Kalyani, Tod and me grab each other in a group hug. We were all talking at once, so pleased to have met up again after 2 years.
Kalyani was hot and out of breath. She had come as quickly as she could to join us, and had been walking since 1st light.
When we finally emerged from our hug, and plonked down on the floor together, we noticed that one or two of the children were crying, and Kalyani’s mum was sobbing.
But we HAD kept in touch from the first time we’d met in 2009, when Tod and I had spent 5 months in Nepal. We’d managed to reach Kalyani by mobile phone at least 2 or 3 times a month since then.
We knew that she’d applied for a visa to join her husband in Australia, but when she told us now that the visa would be through any day, we were shocked. It was really going to happen.
Kalyani wanted us to spend time with her in Kathmandu before she left for Australia. We were already 2 days later than planned in our itinery due to the strikes, and were due to go south to Chitwan in a day or so to see Karma. But we said yes. Of course we said yes.
We agreed to leave the village and return to Kathmandu with Kalyani the next day. We felt sad already. A sense of loss hovered over us.
But for now we needed the answer to the riddle of the disappearing class of 2009, and it was now that we discovered just how much had changed in the life of the village since we were last there in 2011.
The village school, where we had taught and had so much fun, had been demolished and rebuilt further up the mountainside. It was much bigger now.
‘Our’ class had dispersed, with some of the children moving on to the local state school, some leaving school completely, and some moving out of the area, either to study or accompanying their parents who had found work elsewhere.
Kalyani herself had lost touch with most of our class.
But right on cue Parbatti leapt through the door & grabbed Tod and me, laughing and sobbing at the same time. We hugged her. Parbatti is a wonderful bright, softly spoken. shy girl who was in our class.
The last time we saw her, in 2011, she had been standing on an isolated track outside her family house, waving goodbye to us as we walked with Kalyani to another valley.
Parbatti watched us go, waving and crying silently until we turned a bend in the track and lost sight of her.
Friends of ours, Sue and her granddaughters, had ‘adopted’ Parbatti, and have sent her letters and presents. We had brought bags of goodies from them for Parbatti and her best friend Susila.
We asked Parbatti about her family and her schooling – she was still attending the state school, and still uncomplainingly walking up to 4 hours a day to get there and back. She told us her family were all well, and that she was still enjoying school.
Eventually the large tears that had been running down her face constantly since she arrived stopped, and she wiped her eyes with a handkie I gave her.
But then Tod passed her the bag of presents from Sue’s girls, and if the look of astonishment and pleasure that appeared on Parbatti’s face could have been bottled, it would have lit up the whole of Nepal for a year.
She sobbed, sitting there on the floor with the bag on her lap, her tears making little damp patches as they fell on it.
Now our Ant is not known for her patience, and as Parbatti was being slow opening up her presents Kalyani grabbed the bag and began rummaging in it. There was total silence in the room. All eyes gazed and all breath was held as Kalyani started pulling out the goodies. The ‘oohhs’ and ‘ahhs’ got louder as the goodies mounted up, and when the envelope containing photos of Sue and her girls came out, Kalyani and Parbatti were swamped by a mass of squealing children as they all tried to look at the photos at the same time. Tod and I tried to bring some order to the scrum.
We rescued Parbatti’s presents for her and asked Kalyani to tell the kids that we had something for everyone – no one would leave without a present, and that went for the adults too.
But we judged it prudent not to give Parbatti the presents WE had brought for her just yet – she looked rather shell shocked, and was quietly reading through the letters Sue’s girls had sent her.
In the absence of any other member of our class of 2009 we decided on a plan of action. With Kalyani’s help we filled half a dozen bags with a variety of goodies and clearly marked the childrens’ names on them. Kalyani’s father agreed to deliver the bags to the children he knew were still in the area.
That left us with a pile of goodies ready and waiting to be distributed! Ha!
By this time the room was packed to the rafters with villagers old and young, laughing and talking, squished together on the floor like sardines, and overflowing out onto the rickety balcony.
I felt a worry coming on. Would the floor collapse under the weight?
We noticed several villagers in the throng that we specially wanted to speak to:
Molly had come in; the yak milkman was there; Kalyani’s sister was there; half a dozen village men had come to see Tod; and of course grandfather and grandmother had arrived.
Kalyani’s mum was sitting in a corner of the room laughing, chatting, and wiping away the occasional tear. It seemed that her happiness for Kalyani’s impending new life was weighed almost equally against her sorrow at losing her daughter.
Tod and I took deep breaths, grinned at each other, and began the distribution.

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We Reach the Village

The bus plunged down the steep track that had been gouged out of the mountain side & for 20 minutes or so slithered along on the red clay surface at walking pace, allowing us to take stock.
It was indeed a ‘new’ track, but the most astonishing thing was that alongside the new track a veritable village of new houses had sprung up.
For the most part they stood on newly created terraces which had already been planted with the new season’s crops, & millet and potatoes had already begun to grow. Not a bad effort so early at 7,000 ft. They looked lusciously green and healthy.
Goats stood about here and there pulling leaves from those trees that had survived the onslaught of man’s need to destroy, create, expand, & which still remained standing amongst the newly cut terraces. Water buffalo contemplated life from the shade of their newly built shelters, and chickens strolled here & there scratching for seeds.
We very quickly lost our bearings & were unable to work out which way the track was taking us, but we began to ascend the side of the valley more & more steeply, & the bus engine began to scream & screech with the effort. We staggered over the brow & plunged downwards once again. Then began a series of mind boggling, stomach lurching switchback turns as the bus stopped, & reversed at each one, skidding & skittering from side to side as it got going again.
We reached the bottom of an unfamiliar valley & began the steep climb up the other side. The track was no more than a matter of a foot or so wider than the spread of the bus wheels, & of course there were no safety barriers. We crawled slowly upwards. As we got higher the view became breathtaking, spectacular, and one that most humans could never grow tired of.
This valley was forested right up to its mountain tops, & the vast number of shades of green in the vegetation and trees shimmered in the sunlight and turned in the breeze.
We stared out the window at the roof of the world and tried not to look down.
The light was beginning to fade as we crawled through what we realised was the rhododendrum forest. It had just come into flower and the massive, gnarled rhododendrum trees were covered in wonderfully red blooms; truly a sight to behold. But I hadn’t always felt so affectionate towards them – this was the very forest we’d had to climb through on several occasions in order to reach or leave the village. Well, I should say that this was the forest that Tod & Kalyani had had to drag me through, and push me up the really steep parts!
Ha! I would never have to suffer that indignity again! Tod and I smiled.
And then suddenly we emerged from the forest & knew exactly where we were. Lohrimani was in sight.
Apart from half a dozen new houses the village of Lohrimani appeared mostly unchanged, & the bus pulled up outside Kalyani’s uncle’s shop, a small wooden shed packed with sacks of rice and herbs.
Wearily, very wearily, we got out, and were immediately swamped by villagers who had come from Salle to meet us, and wanted to say hello.
It was so very good to see them all again. This was what we had come half way round the world for.
Kalyani’s father, another couple of her uncles (don’t forget that Kalyani holds the world record for having the greatest number of aunts & uncles) and Molly & her son Buddha Llama who had been in our class.
They bundled us into the shop and made Nepali tea.
Molly hugged me so tightly that I couldn’t breathe, and we grinned at each other and shook our heads. She hadn’t changed in the last 2 years, but I couldn’t tell her that as I didn’t speak her language, and she couldn’t speak mine. But somehow that had never mattered to us, and we knew that we were friends, friends from vastly different backgrounds & cultures, but friends nevertheless.
Another of Kalyani’s uncles beckoned us outside & Kalyani’s father told us in pretty good English that we could ride to the village in a truck.
Deja Vu!! but this time I managed to scramble in with just a bit of help, and then Tod & I held on for grim death as we were thrown round in the front seat for 30 minutes.
At long last we were within sight of the village again.
I can’t tell you how good it was to finally climb down the steep path & stop in front of Kalyani’s parents’ house.
We looked around. In the dim remaining daylight Salle didn’t seem to have changed – the view out across the valley, the houses, the chicken huts….
Kalyani’s mother rushed out of the house & hugged us both. Grandfather came as fast as he could & hugged Tod again and again.
He grabbed my hand, touched my face, and hugged me too. I noticed he had lost the sight in an eye since we had last seen him, and I wondered if it was due to some simple problem that could easily be fixed if only he lived in some other country. But he still seemed to have retained his old vitality & sense of humour.
We were tired. The villagers had put our heavy rucksacks upstairs in Kalyani’s old room, and now they ushered us up the unstable ladder onto the wooden veranda, and into the room to eat.
Hard boiled eggs and chips – they had remembered!
Then they left us, and we heard them shushing each other and laughing as they closed the door on us.

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The Bus Journey

The bus left more or less on time, and we drove through the smog along the Kathmandu Valley, picking up new passengers as we went.
There were about 40 seats on the bus, & when they had all been taken people began to stand in the aisle.
Of course every space on this bus was smaller than you’d find in Europe or the USA – the Nepalese are considerably smaller than us – & it was impossible to sit straight, with legs out in front. In order to fit we had to slant slightly to the side, knees pointing left or right.
On this particular journey Tod was sitting by the window & I was next to the central aisle.
As the aisle filled up with swaying, seatless travellers the human crush overflowed across the seats and across those of us unlucky enough to be sitting in them.
In no time at all I was squashed hard against Tod, and unable to lean back on my seat because a woman had slipped an arm down behind my back & was resting her head on the top of my seat. She began to snore.
Now it must be said that the Nepalese do not harbour any principles of personal space, and nowhere is that more obnoxiously obvious than when travelling on a Local Bus.
I couldn’t move, pinned as I was at a decidedly awkward angle, and I bagan to sweat.
The bus was by now massively overcrowded – even the roof space was jam-packed, & we could see a row of sandal-clad feet hanging over the edge above our window.
We started to climb up and out of the valley and the bus, overburdened engine roaring, slowed to a crawl. It laboured up the hills, bumping & crashing into craters, bricks & stones on the rough surface of the track. It swayed ponderously around bends, leaning over, over, further & further, seemingly often just beyond the point of no return, then crashing back into an upright position.
The scenery outside the windows changed quite quickly from smog-laden, jumbled brick factories, half built houses, & pocket handkerchief patches of cultivated land, to the steeply sloping lower reaches of the magnificent Himalayas.
A wall of squealing Nepalese suddenly swayed in the aisle, lost their balance and fell on me. In complete panic I began pushing them off me, shouting & trying to catch my breath. But it was Tod who grabbed & shoved, leaning over me to push them back into the aisle, and pulling me towards the precarious safety of the window.
I wanted off that bus! I wanted to scream & run for the door. But of course that was the problem – I knew I couldn’t move anywhere. I was trapped. Tod & I couldn’t even change places – there was no room.
So I just had to breathe deeply & hang onto my sanity.
Ten hours later we reached the first, and only town in the region, albeit a very small one by Western standards. I’m reasonably sure that Chericote has a law that obliges its residents to walk up & down the main street & round the square constantly. Because that is just what they do, in massive, moving waves of humanity.
The bus has to edge slowly through them, horn honking & driver shouting, making for the relatively clear road across the square.
This time we stopped in the square, & amidst much loud talking & hand waving the bus began to disgorge 20 or 30 of its occupants.
I breathed a sigh of relief; but too soon.
Now here’s a strange thing:
There is a Wicked Gnome in Nepal that blinds the travelling Nepalese to the fact that in order to exit a bus the way must be clear & free of INcoming travellers. And conversely, in order to board a bus the way must have been previously cleared of all those travellers wishing to exit said bus.
Sadly, the Wicked Gnome is stronger than anyone can imagine, and keeps Common Sense locked in a deep, dark cavern, from which it seems unlikely that he will ever escape.
Tod & I watched open mouthed as Nepalese travellers LITERALLY CLIMBED OVER ONE ANOTHER in an attempt to either exit or enter the bus AT THE SAME TIME.
Unless you have seen this you really cannot comprehend.
We are talking old ladies, babies, young men & women, the works.
That Wicked Gnome really has a lot to answer for.
Eventually we set off again, and an hour later reached Cowah – the ‘Village of the Damned’ as we call it – at the top of the valley.
Here the Wicked Gnome had a trump card up his sleeve, because before anyone could move a group of local shopkeepers began loading their wares into the bus. The aisle rapidly filled up with sacks of rice & boxes of bottled beer, standing 3 ft high and completely blocking the way.
Only when everything was loaded in did half a dozen travellers inside the bus stand up & insist that they needed to get off, and they proceeded to attempt to do just that.
Yes, I hear what you say, but believe me, this is the staggering TRUTH!
And of course, not only did travellers leave the bus, in a scrambled heap, but then another half dozen got on. Tod & I lifted an elderly lady over a stack of sacks of rice, one of which had split and sent its contents over several seats.
Eleven hours in that bus must surely be enough for any mortal. I know it was for us. But it was a 12 hour journey.
We had been told that the buses now go down the valley to the village of Lohrimani, an hour or so from our destination, but we were completely unprepared for the route it now took.
We turned off, onto a completely new road.

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To Begin the Journey

Kalyani (the young village school headmistress with whom we had become friends in 2009 during our 5 month stay in her village) was detained in her husband’s village by the death of his grandmother.
Kalyani’s husband lives and works in Australia & so couldn’t be there, but of course Kalyani was expected to take part in the ensuing ceremonies.
We understood.
She sent her youngest brother to accompany us up to the village,
“You must not go alone,” she said, “it is too dangerous these days.”
Please don’t get the idea that Nepal as a whole is dangerous for foreigners – I don’t think it is. But we were traveling up to a remote, isolated region, not far from Everest, and very far from ‘civilisation’.
We also had with us 2 large rucksacks stuffed with goodies for the village children and adults, & quite a bit of money to give to them.
We had therefore immediately become a potential target for the unscrupulous have nots, and would almost certainly not have reached the village with our luggage or money intact.
Kalyani’s brother looked 12 years old but was actually 17. He came with us in a taxi to the bus station to buy the tickets that would get us up to the village.
The bus station is not one of our favourite places. In 2009 it was nothing less than a stinking cess pit. In 2011 it had been somewhat cleaned up; but now it seemed to have slipped back into the realms of unbelievable filth, and massive piles of crawling rubbish.
No one collects rubbish in Nepal.
No one cleans it up.
No one seems to take responsibility for it, and to be honest no one seems to be in the least bothered by the piles of rotting garbage which stream in unsightly ribbons down the sides of so many mountains, and gather in mounds to block so many rivers.
The monsoons wash the rivers clear again, but no one seems to care where the rubbish ends up.
The story of our time in Nepal is very much tied up with the stories of our chaotic travels here.
Each journey is an adventure.
But when the ticket seller told us that there were no longer any micro buses on the route we would have to take up to the village, our hearts sank. That meant we’d have to travel in a Local Bus. Much more risky.
The mountain tracks are rough, high, and narrow, and the safety barrier hasn’t yet been invented over here.
Last month yet another Local Bus slid over the edge of a mountain & 26 of its occupants were killed. Odd that; because usually every occupant will die – the heights involved are breathtaking.
So we bought tickets for seats on the Local Bus the next day for the 3 of us, and a seat for our rucksacks.
If we’d allowed our rucksacks to travel on the bus roof they would doubtless never have arrived.
Time in Nepal has become confusing. How did it manage to get ahead of the UK by 5 hours and 15 minutes??
We asked the hotel reception to call us at 5am. Kalyani’s brother said he’d call us at 4.45am. The taxi was due to pick us up at 6am.
The best laid plans….
Kalyani’s brother woke us up at 4am. Reception rang us at 4.30am.
OK. We were up. No problem.
I went into the bathroom to wash. Every bathroom here has an open vent/grid in the floor out of which a faint odour of sewers will often creep, filling the room with a disagreeable smell that seems to stick to the towels and sneak onto your clothes too.
You get used to it.
I began to brush my teeth, carefully, using water from our filter bottle, and leaning over the basin.
Without warning a huge bubble of putrid air belched out of the vent on the floor behind me & completely smothered me in the worst, the most disgusting, abominable stink I had ever experienced.
I retched, dropped my toothbrush & the water bottle, ran out of the bathroom & threw up in the bedroom.
Tod grabbed me & sat me down, then quickly slammed the bathroom door shut against the raging stink inside.
I threw up again and sat shaking on the edge of the bed.
Unfortunately we needed our washing stuff, which remained in the bathroom.
In situations like these you need a quick thinking Tod, and he grabbed my perfume, opened the bathroom door, and emptied most of my ‘Opium’ into the stinking haze inside.
I would just like to point out that I wasn’t peeved at this astonishing misuse of my precious perfume, probably because I felt too ill to protest.
Adding insult to injury the taxi driver couldn’t sleep & picked us up at 5.30am.
So we and our rucksacks were settled on the Local Bus in good time for the 12 hour journey to the village of Salle.
We were about to start yet another adventure!

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The Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu

Over the past few years we’ve spent many days wandering the streets of Kathmandu. We’ve seen the sights, dodged the sprawling piles of rubbish, avoided the pools of rancid, smelly water, and marvelled at the enduring testaments to bygone splendour tucked away round every corner.
How we feel about Kathmandu can be neatly split into two:
We love it. We love the now familiar sights and sounds; we love the all pervading smell of incense; we love the smiling people who endure so much simply to survive.
And we dislike it. We dislike the all too pushy shopkeepers (who have forgotten the government dictate that they must not hassle tourists); we dislike the corruption that sends creeping tendrils into every walk of life. And what could you find to like in the fact that the only water available to the residents of Kathmandu is delivered in water tankers once a week, and that electricity is rationed to the bone.
The latest in a series of general strikes kept us trapped here 2 days longer than planned. We wanted to be away, up to the small village of Salle in the Everest Region, up and out of the Kathmandu Valley smog, up to see our friends once again – after all, that is why we are here.
Our large, heavy rucksacks are packed with presents for the children and villagers of the small, isolated village where we attempted to teach English for 5 months, 4 years ago.
This will be our second return, but exactly as before, actually getting back up to the village is fraught with problems.
So we wait and wait. The ultra grimy heat begins to get us down – you can taste the polluted air in your mouth. We begin to cough, and the constant disturbed nights sleep takes its toll.
I fall over the straps of our rucksacks which wait by the door of our room – Tod’s fault for leaving them there; I drop the only towel on the dusty, dirty floor, rendering it unusable – Tod’s fault for, well, some reason or another; I can’t find my hairbrush – Tod’s fault again; My face cream shoots me in the eye under pressure from the altitude – the final straw.
I’m lucky.
“We need to go & spend time at the Garden of Dreams” Tod says, and smiles that smile of his that makes everything ok again.
So we go, walking slowly and carefully along the narrow, morning streets, avoiding the water that most shopkeepers are throwing down outside their shops to keep the filthy dust at bay; swaying out of the path of speeding scooters; jumping out of the way of dashing taxis; politely refusing rickshaw rides; and laughing as Tod is offered drugs for the umpteenth time.
“Do I look as though I smoke it?” he asks me, peeved,
“Yes!” I tell him.
We leave the tourist area & walk along a wide boulevard lined with street sellers, beggers, and tiny crying children who may or may not have parents. We walk in silence, weighed down with guilt.
A high wall, high enough to block any view of what is behind it, suddenly looms on our left. We walk along to the small, arched doorway in it. ‘Garden of Dreams’ is etched into the brickwork above our heads, and we pass through the doorway and turn sharp left.
The ticket seller smiles at us and asks for 400 Rupees, surprisingly less than on our last visit. We pass our money through the glassless window & take the proffered tickets.
We walk half a dozen steps and enter the Garden of Dreams.
As on our previous visit 4 years before we stand and stare around, marvelling at the sight that has unfolded in front of us.
The noisy rush of sound from the street outside is suddenly so muted as to be almost excluded; the filthy, grime filled air that habitually blankets Kathmandu is kept at bay here by the tall trees and gentle breeze.
We breathe deeply.
A couple of nosey chipmunks rush across to us and then race each other up and down the thick trunk of an impossibly tall, exotic looking tree. We smile.
And then we stroll over sloping grass to what looks just like a perfect Victorian band stand, and settle down on the seats around the inside.
We sit in peaceful silence and stare around.
The ‘Garden of Dreams’ is described as ‘a neo-classical historical garden.’
It was created by Field Marshal Kaiser Shumsher Rana in the early 1920s.
We gaze at pavilions, fountains, pergolas in a mixture of ancient Greek style beauty & European colonial style facades.
The large pond is classical, and through its clear water we watch fat, slow moving goldfish weaving in and out of the floating water lilies.
After Kaiser Shumsher’s death the Garden fell into disrepair. Its eventual renovation was financed by the Austrian Government, and the Gardens were opened to the public in 2006.
It is worth noting that the 200 Rupee entrance fee means that probably only foreigners will benefit from this wonderful, unique Garden.
We strolled about & then sat under the high, cool columns of one of the pavilions. We had coffee, served to us by a friendly, softly spoken waiter who told us he was proud to work in the Garden of Dreams. We understood.
Some time later, when we felt refreshed and renewed, when the Garden had worked its magic on us, we left that peaceful, elegant oasis of calm, and walked once more back through the teeming, airless streets of Kathmandu, ready for our forthcoming trip to the village of Salle.

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A Welcome Return to Kathmandu

We forget, don’t we?
The brain has a crafty mechanism designed to obliterate those most difficult or uninspiring memories – memories that you don’t want to revisit, whether you know it or not.
Things you swore you’d never do again; situations you prayed you’d never have to face again.
So, here we are again, back in Kathmandu!
The trip was, well, tiring. I swear I will never do it again. If only there was an easier way to get here from the UK. But if there was, maybe Nepal wouldn’t hold the attraction that it does, and wouldn’t reach out and drag us back here again and again.
We saw within 5 minutes of settling into the micro bus outside the airport, and setting off towards Thamel, that things in Kathmandu had changed during our 2 year absence. Not for the better.
The roads were in a worse state of repair than 2 years ago, and God knows they’d been bad enough then. We crashed, bumped and crawled along, avoiding the moving mass of humanity that thronged the route, and peering through the clouds of grimy dust at the all too many shades of humanity that sat or lay at the side of the roads.
Sad eyed women with tiny babies wrapped in filthy cloths; elderly men seeming abandoned, and staring into space; unwashed children chasing each other through piles of rubble and old bricks that seemed to be scattered everywhere.
Somehow, there seemed to be more people, more rubble, more decay than we remembered.
We arrived at the hotel in somber mood.
But we cheered up when the staff recognised us and made a fuss! Well, they made a fuss of Tod and his beard. We laughed.
We spent our first full day wandering round, renewing our aquaintance with various shopkeepers & drinking Nepali tea as if it was going out of fashion.
The worsening economic situation in Kathmandu has forced several of them to relocate over the last 2 years to smaller, cheaper premises off the tourist track. They bemoaned their fate, and the fate of their country.
It seems that the Nepali parliament is still in uproar, making any semblance of governing the nation unrealistic.
And, what do you know, there is a general strike today and tomorrow.
4 years and 2 years ago we sat through several general strikes, unable to travel, unable to do anything at all – all shops and offices were closed.
One shopkeeper who had the temerity to open up was rewarded by having his shop burned down.
This time however, maybe 25% of shops in the tourist area are open for business, in defiance of the strike. They have had enough.
But there is little electricity in Kathmandu – certainly not during the day. 2 years ago the noise of generators struggling to provide light to the shops and offices was a constant background roar. But now they are all but silent, having fallen victim to the worsening financial situation. Petrol comes in from India, and it is expensive.
Now here’s an odd thing:
Nepal is usually 5 hours ahead of the UK. I say ‘usually’ because believe it or not, some fiendish quirk of fate has provided Nepal with an extra 15 minutes. Yes. I kid you not. It is now 5 hours and 15 minutes ahead of the UK. What on earth has happened? Where have they nicked it from? Has Nepal somehow moved through space faster than us? Have we in the West stumbled and lost a quarter of an hour somewhere? Is our 15 minutes floating around in the ether, discarded and lost?
Will an astronomer spot it one day heading in our direction?
Or is there someone amongst us who should have been famous?

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