Monthly Archives: November 2015

MYANMAR – A hike up Zwegabin mountain in Hpa-an

“It’s got a good view.”

(Written by Steph)

It was a sentence that drew me into my future, and saw me pushing my husband off the top of whatever he had forced me to hike up in order to get to said view. Nick likes a good view. Normally the kind that requires some sort of laborious ascent. 

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Zwegabin mountain in the distance

Today’s “good view” was from the site of 1000 Buddhas (because we hadn’t seen many already) and was to be earned by walking up 10 times more steps. THE steepest steps I’ve ever seen. There must have been at least 3 step’s worth in each one. Talk about scrimping.

It was scorching hot, and we soon realised why people did this walk in the early morning, not at 2 in the afternoon, like us. That may have been my fault, but let’s not dwell on that…

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Near the start of the trail, in the field of a thousand Buddhas

Twenty five minutes in, Nick consulted his faithful companion, his phone’s GPS, and announced that we were half way there.  Spurred on by this news, we accelerated our speed, just about managing to say “mengalaba” (hello) to each person who was descending. There were 100s of them, each smiling and greeting us, perhaps wondering why we were the colour of lobster and quite so drenched. A great deal of them had children with them, who they were carrying in their arms or in slings. I couldn’t imagine many English families hiking that far with their children. But comparatively speaking, we are a nation of weeds, socialised to take the easy route. Or maybe I’m speaking for myself.

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That pagoda is where we're heading. And the path goes almost straight up.

After 50 minutes, it was clear we were nowhere near the top, and I was cursing the misinformation from Nick’s phone. The summit of each winding staircase only revealed, in turn, another: just as steep and with no clue as to how many more proceeded. My “had enough” moment came 2 sweaty hours in, just as two tourists appeared round the bend. “It’s about 5 minutes,” one said. “Ten,” corrected the other. Pffff. We did as any sane person does for motivation – we put the Lion King soundtrack on the phone and sang Hakuna Matata til we reached the top. I’m sorry Nick – being married to me is doing nothing for your street cred.

So, what was the point of all this? At the top stood a monastery, and apparently you could sleep there. Images of monks silently moving through stone archways conjured in our minds. It sounded quite special, and something we might not be able to repeat, so we would do it.

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Our bathroom facilities
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Sunrise

It must have been “wear what you like” day that day. Either that or there was only one actual monk living there. There was a beautiful moon that night, and we had some nice company. Nick was happy taking photos and pottering about, but a small part of me was gutted to find out that there was a festival…at the bottom of the hill!  Lights dotted the landscape below and music echoed through the valley, but we would have our special night in the monastery, even if it did have only one Monk. Did I mention that he snored like a bear? It was definitely fairly far removed from what we had expected, and yet, it was at least memorable.

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Our room for the night. Check the monk's portrait on the right

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MYANMAR – First impressions & misconceptions (2 of 2)

(Written by Nick)

-Politics
“Don’t instigate conversations about politics or religion” warn the guidebooks. “Stay away from political gatherings.” What ridiculous advice. To visit someone’s country and not want to hear their views doesn’t seem very caring or engaging to me. Especially in a country that is going through a big change and opening up to the world. Attending an NLD rally a week before the 8 Nov 2015 election was the most incredible experience. The atmosphere was charged with happiness and expectation, and we witnessed interest in us like we’ve never seen before. People were so glad of the support and the recognition that outsiders were aware of what was going on in their country. Being British I was surprised to see no negative or ironic placards, no smearing of opposition parties, and no obvious vilification of the current government. We learnt a huge amount about the people in that one afternoon.

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Although we didn’t see it, we read in the news about some of the dark sides in the run-up to the election. The Muslim Rohingyas of Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh, have been violently persecuted for the last few years, mostly just for being Muslim. Stories of citizens and soldiers setting fire to houses with people inside and of monks beating innocent elderly people to death are frightfully not uncommon. A small historic islamist insurgency coupled with a larger ongoing Rakhine independence movement sowed the seeds for what is apparently now just racism, disinformation and distrust.

The Buddhist national party has grown both in size and extremity and has spread hateful propaganda via influential monks, blaming Muslims for all the problems. The normally peaceful image of Buddhism is being tainted with charges of hate speach, terrorism, and even ethnic cleansing. There has been little attention or help from the international community despite these Muslims being denied legal citizenship and the vote in the recent “fairest election in Myanmar in half a century”.

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-SIM cards
Buying a SIM card in India, Nepal and Bangladesh required submitting personal details as well as photos and a copy of my passport. Myanmar has none of these paranoid restrictions. Just like in England we were able to buy a SIM from a street stall without having our identities monitored and for only 1000 kyat (£0.60)

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-Driving
Unlike the other former British colonies, here they drive on the right. The curious thing is that the steering wheels are placed on the right side of the vehicle also. This adds another level of difficulty to overtaking. Again expecting to have my identity logged before being allowed on the roads, I was pleasantly surprised.

Motorbike rental shops (which are mostly guest houses) will give you a bike without checking any documentation or logging any detials with the authorities. In fact vehicle regulations are so lax that driving licenses are not required and neither are number plates. The shops are so trusting that not once was I asked to put down a security deposit and not once did they examine the condition of the bike when I returned it. Of course, they didn’t usually check the condition before they hired it out either and dodgy brakes were common. The cost was normally 10000 kyat (£6) per day for a 125 or 150cc scooter with gears and maybe 8000 for a smaller automatic. Sometimes they provided you with a full tank and you could return it empty.

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The road etiquette is similar, and riding a motorbike is not a problem if you are familiar with the asian rules of the road. It’s worth noting that, although antics on the road can often be comical, they should still be respected and expected. Driving as you might back home could be dangerous. Caution around the police and military proved unnecessary. They were helpful with directions and generally unconcerned about us. We rode in one area which travel forums said was closed to foreigners, and the locals said was not possible due to militant activity. Again we had no issues with riding past the militants/army, who sometimes looked curious but never enough to actually stop us.

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MYANMAR – First impressions & misconceptions (1 of 2)

(Written by Nick)

Ever since I peered down into the country from the Mizo hills and across the water from a boat in Teknaf, I had dreamt about visiting Myanmar, a country with such poetic and exotic sounding names. The relatively low number of visitors and the fact it was impossible to visit for so long, of course only added to the appeal of exploring a relatively unspoilt land.

Before arriving I tried hard to research what it might be like to travel in this country. I read a lot of newspaper articles, blogs and internet forums and kept an occasional eye on the news coming out of the country.

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Whenever I got excited about the possibilities of exploration, I was brought back down with a jolt by constant reminders about how strict the government were and how difficult it could be to undertake your own self-guided tours. On top of this was the warning that Myanmar was a lot more expensive that its neighbouring countries and that tourists had to pay different rates and even a different currency (US dollars) than the locals. Reports of motorbike tours requiring multiple special permits nd high fees put me off trying to go down that route.

Constant double-page spreads in The Times and The Telegraph advertising luxury tours and other travellers’ calls to “go before it’s too late” made me skeptical about whether it was already too late

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My persistent desire to visit had not exactly been shared by my wife, and now I was doubting whether it was going to live up to my initial high expectations.
It took just the first day for the doubts to be cast aside and to start to fall in love with the country.

-Immigration and customs officials at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy border with Thailand were genuinely friendly, helpful and inviting. There was no body search, no searching of bags, no frowning. There wasn’t even a general air of distrust. We were given seats inside the booth while waiting and were allowed to walk to the ATM even before we received our entry stamps. The exchange rate we were offered for Thai Bhat seemed reasonable, as was the taxi they helped us arrange (about 4h to Hpa-An for 10,000 Kyat each (£6.70) for 4 people)
The immigration officers were so friendly to us we were half expecting to receive facebook friend requests from them. Was this really an international border??

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-Food
Stopping for a toilet break on that first taxi ride, I caught sight of the enormous spread of dishes on a family’s table in the roadside restaurant. It didn’t take much to convince our fellow taxi passengers (2 French guys with Poirot-esque mustaches) to stop for a very early breakfast. We ate small bowls of mutton curry, fish curry, soup, bamboo shoots, green veg, chilli salsa, fermented chilli sauce, pickled vegetables, and great mounds of raw snake beans (really long green beans), lettuce, cabbage, lemon leaves and other herbs. We thought we’d just ordered a meat or fish curry each but side dishes kept arriving and filled the table with small bowls.
It was bloody fantastic and ended up being one of the best meals we ate, but we were concerned at how much the bill would come to with all these extras. We needn’t have worried; the bill came to 1000 Kyat each (£0.60)
How is that even possible?! I’ve died and gone to heaven – that’s what I was thinking.

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The freebies: Chilli sauce, snake beans, cucumber, lettuce, watercress, lime leaves etc
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A different meal from above, this was king prawns, fish curry, soup, veg, fermented chilli sauce, rice and herbs. It was still 1000 Kyat each (£0.60)

The standard was set too high we were to find. More often the free vegetables offerings had been sat wilting at the table for too long, cast aside by the previous customers and covered by a fly net if you were lucky. The vegetable dishes were often seasoned with fermented fish, and the meat and fish was served luke warm or cold.
It was hit or miss whether the curry contained liver or intestines.

The food was a lot more varied than that, though. A huge influence from China was appreciated by us as well as samosas, parathas, steamed buns, vermicelli, noodle soups and tons of seafood.

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Shan noodles with fried onion soup
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Prawn salad

MYANMAR – Welcome to Hpa-an

Na-na na-na na-na na-na BAT CAVES!!

(Written by Steph)

Nick and I love to ride. Ok, so let’s clear that up – Nick likes to ride, I like to be a passenger, and how better than with a motor? No exertion required. Perfect.

We had been in Nepal for 6 weeks before arriving in Myanmar, and the petrol crisis had meant that we had accrued a total of about 30km by bike. Hashtag, firstworldproblems.

As Nick wrote, our preconceptions of Myanmar were largely based on the internet, and a couple of my mum’s friends who have been going there for years. But this is a country on the move; no sooner is information posted, it changes. So we really weren’t sure how much we were going to be able to ride bikes here.
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We needn’t have worried. Our guesthouse hosts were only too happy to rent us a bike. Nick has a licence, but even if it were me that wanted one, I don’t think it would have been a problem. We hadn’t much idea about this town, it was just on the route, but our guesthouse owner was ready with a map of the sites and some broken English. Caves seemed to be the big thing here. We would explore by bike the next day.

The next day came and it was baking, but we soon discovered relief in the lush, foresty shade. I often dream of living in a wooden hut in the forest, and here people were, doing exactly that. A whole forest community, smiling and waving, welcoming us to their country. We were off to a good start.

Now, my idea of a cave, is a huge stone entrance that’s dark and wet inside. I was half right. This cave had bats – noisy ones. It also had giant buddhas. And so the theme would continue.
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The Buddhists really like their Buddha statues, and this cave had quite a few ginormous ones inside, but this was not my favourite thing. Tiptoeing through the cave with our head torches, we felt like we were intrepid adventurers. I was none too convincing as I squealed everytime a bat flew overhead.

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Out the other side we hopped on a row boat to take us back to the entrance, ducking our heads as we passed through the underneath of the cave. “Crocodiles?” we asked him jokingly. He looked puzzled, so I whacked out my charades skills. He smiled and nodded his head, the same way everything that is not understood is reacted to here. We would assume he wasn’t aware of the international mime for big jaw snapper.

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We had had an amazing day chipping about on the bike, and had even gone swimming in an outdoor pool we happened upon on the way home. Loads of kids were swimming, and one asked me to come in. I’ve got no swimming clothes, I thought. Not that that matters in a country like this. Everyone goes swimming in their day clothes and lets the sun do what it’s best at afterwards. Including us. Apart from humiliating myself with the world’s longest build up to an underwater handstand (which was more of a roly poly in the end), it was the perfect end to a sticky day.

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“One day. Only one cave?” Our guesthouse owner seemed confused by our obvious lack of speed. There were two other caves on the map, as well as a sunset spot, where you could see the bats come out at night. We would be more efficient with our time the next day, we thought.

Day two:

The following day came and we were determined to tick off some more caves to save us from the quizzical look of our guesthouse owner. We set off with a drawn map, and some vague idea of how to say one of the names of the caves. At least that’s what we thought. Our pronunciation was obviously lacking in finesse, and we were still discovering what we should have already known – people just don’t speak English here (there was to be the very odd exception to this, but that comes later). So, out came the charades again. “Bat” and “cave” being somewhat more advanced than “crocodile,” it took a while. But, eventually we made it to the caves, and to the Buddhas.

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We were joined by a huge swarm of young monks, doing what you imagine all young monks to do – take selfies with the buddhas, duh. It was not long before they turned their attention on us. Here we were, serial photographers, having the tables turned. It was to be the first of many times we were treated like celebrities, and a reminder that this was a country where tourism was still very, very new.

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After seeing the sum of two bat caves in the daytime (a 50% increase on yesterday’s total), we decided we should explore some of the foresty villages that surrounded us. More than monuments or statues, I loved meeting the people. And the people here were just incredible. We stopped off for a tea at the side of the forest (much harder to get here than I imagined!) and were then lured in by the mystery of the network of houses there. If the people of Hpa-an hadn’t seen that many tourists before, they certainly hadn’t seen any brazen enough to walk right into their shaded sanctuary. Feeling slightly obtrusive, we weren’t exactly sure how people would react, but we needn’t have worried.

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After happening upon a full size snooker table in the middle of the forest (they really love this sport!) we had a communal place where we didn’t feel like we were encroaching upon their space. We had no means of communicating verbally, but we laughed and played with a boy – equally ecstatic and nervous that these alien people were by his house, and his grandmother brought us drinks and snacks, refusing to take any money. She even wanted to take us on a tour of her house, but we had to go – the third bat cave that day awaited us.

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Now, this last cave was not one we were going to go in. This was a one way system, and at this time, there were due to be lots of bats, coming OUT. I don’t know how many I expected to see, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer amount that suddenly started swarming out. It was quite incredible! Painting a wavy path across the dusky sky, a continuous stream of black, tens of thousands of them exited for what must have been near half an hour. Buddha only knows how they all fit in one cave. All I can say is, as a Brit, and lover of organised queues, these bats were really quite something.

THAILAND – a transit stop off

This is the (Khao San) road to hell…

(Written by Steph)

Air Asia, I salute you. Best meal I’ve ever had on a plane. This was Thailand and everything was about to get shinier…and wierder.

We had barely arrived in Bangkok, and we had already seen several sights that Thailand is famed for – a large group of lady boys (one of them was pretty convincing, but her cover was blown by the more muscular company she kept), massages on the streets and THE most amazing street food.

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I knew little else about Thailand. It had been done to death by tourists; that much I had heard, but I hadn’t quite realised what that meant in practice. I was about to find out…

“Have you heard of Khao San Road?” Nick asked me.

I must’ve been living in a bubble, probably a wedding one, because everyone on the planet had seemingly heard of Khao San road, and half of them were actually there.

We made the sensible choice to stay in a hotel nearby, but far enough away that we wouldn’t be kept awake by the madness on the actual street. We had read a whole heap of guesthouse reviews where the unsuspecting tourists had not been so informed or so lucky. Thank goodness for Nick and his googling.

Our hotel was the nicest one we had stayed in by a mile. Clean and modern, with a balcony and a swimming pool. My best friend, Claire, would approve I decided. We would use the money she and her boyfriend, Wayne, gave us as our wedding present, and would have enough left over to try and mend my broken body with one of those famous Thai massages…

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Thai massage:

“OHMYGOD!!” I blurted out before I could stop myself. The guy had sat behind me, crossed-legged, squeezed his arms around my upper body, and twisted it backwards, right to the floor. I was a wet dish cloth being rung out, and it hurt. A lot.

The next day, I had let Nick off the leash to go and take photos while I got my massage. We would both be happy. I was led upstairs to a dark, empty room, with several sponge mattresses laid on the floor, and silently giggled to myself nervously about happy endings. It felt a little strange, even though I knew perfectly well it was fine.

Not as strange as the massage, though. I mean, it was great, but I just wonder what it might be like if you *aren’t* flexible. I was pushed and pulled from top to bottom in positions I had yet to attempt even in advanced yoga classes.

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By this time, there were more people getting massaged in the room, separated only by thin curtains. I let out a scream. The masseuse next door took this as her cue to giggle uncontrollably. Then I started. Oh dear…

I have to say, save that moment when I thought I might be pulled apart at the waist, this was the most renewing massage I’ve had. All my joints felt liberated and my muscles much less knotted than before. After 2 weeks rubbling I knew it was going to take more than one massage to sort them out. That was fine, though. At a fiver an hour, I could afford to get another one at a later date.

Khao San Road:

That evening,  Nick convinced me we should check it out. We had mistakenly thought that we were on this road last night. “This is crazy,” I thought. Not as crazy as the real Khao San road, apparently.

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We knew we were approaching the road as music from the cafés got harder and noisier, and the staff uniforms got tighter and shorter. Suddenly it was hard to move – tourists dressed in bermuda shorts and carrying beach buckets full of booze filled the street, jeering noisily. Looky-looky men jossled past, squeeking toys in your face. Were we in Tenerife? I wondered.  The stalls of deep-fried insects answered that. No, this was definitely Thailand.  Of course, Nick, being the kind of man that deems stranger to be better, had to partake in the national delicacy. First a grasshopper. Next a scorpion.

“Steph, can you just get a picture?”

It was a big ask. I don’t have the stomach for dairy, let alone scorpion.

Then the finale. A cockroach. Known as “The Cockroach Killer” when I lived in Tenerife, I was none too fond of these bastards, but the thought of eating one..? Eeugh!

Click, click.

“That’s your lot Mr.”

Taking those snaps for my darling husband was testament of my love for him.

Let’s go, I thought, before he goes for the bloody tarantula.

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I was hoping that had satisfied Nick’s curiosity about Khao San road. Literally every bar blasted out Oasis, The Chilis or Nirvana, each doing their best to appeal to the tourists and competing to be the loudest. Don’t get me wrong, I like this music, but you’d be forgiven for thinking the last 20 years had never happened. Furthermore, I didn’t know how anyone could enjoy sitting in front of any of these bars, terraces marred by the incessant sound-combat.

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But there weren’t just tourists there. Young Thai girls made up about 40% of the socialisers. I have to say, the stark contrast between the modesty I had noted in other parts, and the scant and tight clothing in this crazy headache of a place, wierdly, shocked me. This was a place for the young, drunk and uncouth, and I wanted out, dahhling.

Fast forward 3 hours and I was sat in a bar, Nick and I sharing our 3rd strawberry mojito bucket. Well…what’s that saying?  When in Bangkok…

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NEPAL – 8 Things you’ll have to get over as a westerner in Nepal

I’m a legal alien, I’m an English girl in Nepal…

(Written by Steph)

1)The spitting

Now, we aren’t talking about your regular mouth-spit here. This is a full-on, collecting every inch of phlem from the back of the throat, kind. If you’ve ever been to Spain, and heard the way they pronounce their Js (the jota), you’ll catch my drift. I’ve coined this kind of spitting the “Jota Spit,” and it happens everywhere in Nepal – on the streets, in guest houses, even in restaurants, juuuust as you are about to put that tasty morsel into your mouth. It’s worth being aware of in case you need to jump out of the path of the spit’s trajectory suddenly.

To start with, this habit may go against everything you know about “manners,” and it may even put you off your food momentarily. The thing is, you’ll notice that when anyone spits here, none of the locals take a blind bit of notice – it’s something that is considered normal here, and not in the least bit rude. The Nepalese people simply adhear to another set of norms. They may be similarly revolted to be offered something from your left hand!!

2) The Traffic

Whether you are a pedestrian, a cyclist or a passenger, you may not have encountered travelling quite like it in your home town. You know that story in the Bible about fitting a Camel through the eye of a needle? Kathmandu is full of opportune drivers and cyclists trying to do the same with their vehicles, and if your toes are in their way, you better move! Much like Delhi, for example, the lanes of traffic all overtake each other to the soundtrack of beeping horns, quite often venturing onto the other side of the road, and almost always without indicating. In fact, indicating could be a sign that it is ok for the person behind you to overtake. Confusing?  Never! 

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Face masks are worn by vast amounts of people in Thamel, Kathmandu, said to be one of the most polluted cities in the world

I had enough trouble keeping my tootsies in tact, but I did note a number of westerners getting on their bikes (push and motor) and giving it a go.  Why not?  If you do want to, be sure to get into the mind set – all the rules that you hold dear in your own country (unless you live in Italy, for example) will mean little, if nothing, here.

When you venture out of the city, it will certainly be much less hectic and there will be much less traffic to negotiate. You may also be able to breathe!  Hurrah! However, just be aware that drivers don’t only cross to the wrong side of the road in busy cities – this happens a lot on windy roads in mountain areas.  Use your horn on every corner. On our 7 hour bus ride back from Dunche, we witnessed two collisions that looked like they were down to this.

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A collision in the mountains

3) The Toilets

If you are staying in Thamel (tourist hub in Kathmandu), or Pokhara (home of the Annapurna trek) you will likely be well catered for as a westerner, and will have Western toilets to match. The rest could be a bit hit and miss. On our trek to Gosaikunda Lake, we only had one Western toilet on the way, but we were mega chuffed with this find to be honest.

As for the drop toilets, we had some clean ones, and a few you wouldn’t send your worst enemy into. I even got sent into one extremely questionable one that had no light…and a step in it. As I closed the door behind me, I prayed for my life that I didn’t slip or trip!

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A typical squat toilet. Thankfully the actual toilet was cleaner than the walls

I would advise taking the following –

a) toilet paper – the Nepalese have a different system involving water and their left hand.

b) flip flops/shoes that slide on and off – we didn’t take any on our trek, and it got pretty annoying lacing up shoes everytime we wanted a wee. Believe me, you’ll want something between that floor and your feet!

c) antibacterial gel – if you are worried about germs, carry some with you.  Not all of the toilets have soap and some of the door handles etc might be contaminated.

Another tip is to get used to squatting before you travel – maybe do some achilles stretches so that when it comes to the “real deal,” you don’t feel like you might fall in the toilet!

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4) The Hard Sell

“Namaste. Where are you from?”

To our unfamiliar tourist ears, this seems like a friendly and innocent enough question. When followed by one hundred “come into my shop”s, it can wear a bit thin. Now, I’m the first one to admit that I am a difficult person, ahem, shopper. If someone wants to stand over me while I’m looking at their wares, I’m inclined just to walk out of the shop. I’ve  been inclined to walk out of a few shops in Nepal.

The running commentary on things you might be looking at is another thing you have to get used to. Nick and I had fun trying to discuss whether a blue or a yellow Tibetan wall hanging would go better with the things we already have to decorate our house, whilst trying to ignore the persistent chirping of, “Blue nice colour,” and, “Yellow also nice colour.” Such nice colours, the shop keeper got to keep them both.

People may also tell you that things are “No problem,” when, actually, you have assessed that they are – like a stain on a piece of clothing or something not fitting. There’s nothing that winds me up quite as much as being told what I should think.

Having said that, and bearing in mind that I am just a grumpy old man in a 34 year old woman’s body, I appreciate that this is the way of selling here, and possibly desperate times call for even more desperate selling techniques. It didn’t work on me; I definitely would have loved to put more money into the shops if I could have done it with a bit more peace, but lots of (more patient) people seem to go for it. It’s worth noting that not all of the shop owners were like this. I did actually go into a couple of shops, coming away with a book, some postcards and some clothes that had no stains, that fit me, and that I had assessed to be “No problem.”

If you like to barter, there is certainly a bit of room for that, but if you’re like me and prefer to know what’s what before you buy, there are the occasional shops that have “fixed prices.” Here you can browse with no more than a “Namaste,” a smile and a pair of eyes. Bliss.

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A rare moment of browsing with no observation

5) Being hassled on the street

Leading on from no. 4, shop keepers aren’t the only ones that will try and speak to you on the streets. Taxi drivers, drug dealers & fruit sellers are the ones you can see coming, and you can decide for yourself whether you want something or not. They aren’t pushy.

However, you’d be forgiven for thinking that lots of random people are just really curious about your plans for your trip. Starting with the same opener of “Namaste.  Where are you from?” The conversation almost always leads to asking if you are going trekking. Sadly, every second person here seems to be a trekking guide, and probably because of the time we have come, only 5 months after the earthquakes, there are very few trekkers. I felt bad about that, but we had limited time, and if we had gone trekking with everyone that tried to sell us their services on the street, we would never have been able to leave the country!

6) The food

If you don’t like spicy, you may be excited to see Western options on the menu. Beware, however – things are not always as they seem. Hash browns may be fried potatoes, sausage may be chicken, jam may be neon in colour and taste like cherry cola bottles and pizza may be like rubber. It even took us a while to figure out that curry in the hills is not like the home style curry that our Nepalese friends in England make; it’s more like a watery soup. The best thing to do is to either order the type of food you think they will be good at in a particular restaurant, or if you want something Western, get recommendations where they do it well. We did both and had a few successes in the end:

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A lovely Samosa Chaat we found on the streets of Thamel

Kathmandu:

Buddha Bar – the buffalo momo here (a bit like dim sum) are amazing. You can have steamed, fried on one side (my fav), deep fried or in a spicy soup (Nick’s fav). This is also a pretty modern bar, with funky decor and chilled out music

Momo Star – a basic cafe. We had some lovely chicken momo here at a quite cheap price.

Al Madina – if you like meat curry, this is the place! It’s a basic muslim cafe, so you won’t get much atmosphere or any beer, but you will get amazing food! Someone recommended us the fried chicken. I expected a KFC type deal, but got an amazing dish – dry and spicy with lots of ginger and tons of zing! The lamb kebabs were also scrummy. If you are vegetarian, or you don’t like spice, this is not the place for you. Otherwise, you’ll love it.

Maya bar and Restaurant – amazing Mexican food, albeit at Western prices.

Pokhara:

Maya Pub (not bar & restaurant) A popular name! – Indian style curry. Tourist prices,  but well worth it. We paid them 2 visits (would have been more if we had had more time!) and we ordered Saag Paneer (blended spinach curry with Indian cottage cheese), Kadai Chicken (a fairly spicy curry) and Chicken Butter Masala. All “meeto cha” (delicious) as they here in Nepal.

Double View – small and simple place. We went here more because we wanted to enjoy the terrace view than because we were tempted by the cuisine. We were pleasantly surprised by their English breakfast, though – it was actually pretty good! The bacon was real bacon (!) and was nice and crispy, the mushrooms were lovely, the hashbrown did actually resemble something of a hashbrown, and they were the first place to serve English breakfast with beans! It won’t be the most amazing cooked breakfast you’ve ever had, but considering we are in Nepal, it was a damn good imitation!

Godfathers – pizza place. Now, think of everything I have said about not being able to get Western food that tastes good here, and then forget it!! This was one of the nicest pizzas I’ve had outside of Italy…and it even beats a couple of those!  Cooked using a wood burning oven, this pizza was thin and crispy and full of flavour!  Highly recommend!

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No pictures of their food, but this is the outside of Al Madina, where we had many tasty meals

7)The dogs

“It’s coming at us again – quick! Grab a rock!”

Never a sentence I thought I’d hear myself say. I love most animals…as long as they aren’t trying to tear my arm off.

However, dog lover, hater or indifferent, you are going to have to get used to the fact that dogs here are different. Rarely kept as pets, the vast majority of dogs here are strays. Like the Mafia, they have their own set of rules, and as amicable as they may appear on the surface, they are to be approached with caution. Generally they sleep through the day, when the humans rule the roost, but come dusk, they start trotting about in packs, marking their territory, and defending it. We were unfortunate enough to witness a couple of terrifying dog fights between packs. In one case, we were far enough away to be able to avoid them, although it scared the royal crap out of me; the other fight happened right in front of our path. Luckily for us, but not for the dogs, there were some kids throwing stones at them to try and break it up. I don’t think they actually hit the dogs, but they certainly weren’t afraid to. It was right on their doorstep and something they have to deal with daily. A friend of ours was also bitten by a wild dog in Nepal and ended up in hospital with a few extra rabies shots. She’s fine FYI.

That’s not to say that all the dogs we met were aggressive.

“Ahh, look – he’s following us!”

One particular dog in the mountains was a complete softy, following us for ages. These dogs aren’t stupid. You might be flattered, thinking that the dog has taken a shine to you. Actually, this happens a lot with foreigners. The people most likely to give scraps of food are exactly that group, and the dogs know it. I’ve heard of dogs following foreigners for hours, even days. If you give them any attention, they are unlikely to leave you alone, so this is best avoided. This particular dog seemed very friendly and as he was outside of an area with other dogs, was likely of a more placid nature than other dogs.

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A street dog in pretty good nick. Most had patches of skin missing and various scars from fighting

8) Guilt

A small and dirty child with a sad face and outstretched arms walks up to you as you sit down for a lavish meal and a beer. What do you do? At first it seems obvious, right?  You give them something, RIGHT?! Or is that actually the right thing to do..?

Their parents have likely sent them out begging because people are a sucker for children, and while that child is successful at bringing something home for the family, those parents will continue to send them out being instead of sending them to school. It’s a dilemma I was faced with many times in Nepal, and one that really bothered me. In Western culture, basic schooling is a necessity if you want opportunites.

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This young boy works as a bottle collecter. Because of his caste, schooling or no schooling, he may not be allowed to escape this trade

However, I’ve read enough books about slums in India to know that school doesn’t equal opportunity for everyone.  Maybe begging is survival, and who can argue with that? It’s what we are all programmed to do, afterall. Having to confront those issues & make decisions with no background information was hard. The times when I didn’t give anything, I felt harsh and undeservedly spoiled.

The hardest thing, though, was the realisation that I am part of the “one percent” – the richest people in the world.  That was something that felt alien to me, always having been surrounded by other westerners with varying, but similar incomes. I wondered how those people with nothing viewed me and the other tourists, and how it felt for them being confronted with other people’s wealth and privilege. It was uncomfortable, but I guess that’s a first world problem I had to get over as a westerner in Nepal.

NEPAL – Leaving Nepal

And as the sun sets slowly in the west, I bid you a fond farewell…

(Written by Steph)

The next morning came and Jenny, Nick and I were all surprised to find Anees and his friend waiting for us at the gate of the base. They had come to carry our bags for us! Knowing that our bags were really heavy (did I mention the iron?) we were stuck between the English mentality of being too polite to accept, and knowing that these boys had come all this way to help us. We quickly conferred before gratefully handing over some hand luggage.

As we got to the bus, that awkward but inevitable question came…

“When you come Nepal?” Anees asked expectantly.

Honesty is the best policy, I assured myself.

“I don’t know, Anees.” I replied, hoping that would be the end of it.

“You come back Nepal?” he pressed.

Don’t say “maybe”, don’t say “maybe,” I repeated in my head like a mantra. As much as I wanted to say it, as much as I thought it MIGHT be true, I knew better than to hint at something I couldn’t guarantee. I had had it before with the kids I had volunteered with in India. If you say that to a kid that has been let down in their life, you’d better mean it.

“I really don’t know, Anees.” At least he had a wonderful family, so my answer was of less consequence to him. He looked a bit disappointed, but smiled again and nodded in receipt of the information. Anees and his friend waved us goodbye, and Nick and I climbed onto the roof of the bus to secure our bags.

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Anees on the last day on site

“I hope that guy isn’t our driver!” Jenny joked, as we plonked ourselves in our seats. At that moment, *that* guy staggered over to the bus, stoned out of his face, and got into the driver’s seat.  It was 9am. It was 9am and we were waiting for the next bus. The roads here were scary enough without a driver that didn’t have control of his faculties.

Just enough time for some breakfast then, we thought. We can relax a bit before checking out driver number two. We sat down in the cafe next to the bus and were greeted with something everyone wants to see when they eat breakfast – a severed goat’s head on the adjacent table. Mmmm. I moved my chair so as not to make eye contact and was confronted with its long-lost body. Oh well. Head down and all that…

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A different goat's head as seen in Thamel

It was to be the first of many goat heads on that bus journey home, so much so that we lost count after a while. It made a pretty good game, not that that was much consolation to the goats. We had forgotten that the festival of Dashain focuses on sacrifice. All families, no matter how poor, would sacrifice a goat over these few days. No wonder we had seen so many reluctant goats being dragged around the town that morning.

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Streets covered in blood; people gather to pray after a goat has been sacrifed

We arrived back in Thamel, City of Smog, to the same guesthouse we had stayed in previously, where the guestowner was in the middle of feeding his car…with fruit. This was another tradition of Dashain Festival, and apparently a way to bless the car and make sure it would not break down. I was dubious whether putting a banana in the bonnet was exactly the best way to ensure this. I wasn’t entirely convinced about circling the petrol tank with a naked flame either.

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Our guesthouse owner blessing his car
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Trucks and buses weren't left hungry either

So, we had seen some evidence of the festival, but we knew that this festival was largely about family. There would be no dancing on the street or fantastical parades. We decided that now was as good a time as any to bid farewell to this fasinating country, and head off to Myanmar, via Thailand. So, after a glorious and indulgent pizza gorge out with our All Hands gang, we booked our flights and set off for destinations new…

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From left to right: Sandra, Jenny and me enjoying a drink in Thamel
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With no work for 3 days, many volunteers took the 5 hour bus journey to Thamel to spend Dashain there. Here we are looking much cleaner than before!

NEPAL – Volunteering in Melamchi part 5 – Our last day

Dance,  dance,  wherever you may be…

(Written by Steph)

Our last day in Melamchi came earlier than we had hoped due to everything stopping for three days for Dashain Festival. It seemed we were not destined to get our full whack of volunteering time in Nepal. It couldn’t have been better timed though – today, after 5 and a half days of rubbling this site, we were due to finish. It would be an achievement and a pleasure.

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Sweaty and dirty, but ecstatic to have completed the site
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Nick and I stood on the pile of rocks we had salvaged and moved

The previous day Anees had been really excited to find the cord to an iron poking out of the rubble, only to discover the iron was completely wrecked. Unlike other sites, we really hadn’t found anything of value at all. They would have a flat surface, but little else. So, we decided to buy them an iron and a few bits and bobs for the kids. We couldn’t decide if it was a good thing to be giving gifts when we were wearing tshirts from an identifiable organisation – would we then be setting an unfair precedent? Possibly, we thought, but the desire to help them out, even with some small gesture, won out. Plus, it would be like a thank you for the hard work the kids and her husband had put in, and for all the tea, biscuits and papaya she had showered on us in our week there.

By 3pm, an hour earlier than finishing time, the site was complete. After the exchange of the iron, friendship bracelets and hugs, the family surprised us with their own gifts – the scarves and flowers given at Dashain Festival were passed along to all of us, and red tikkas marked on each of our foreheads as a blessing. They had nothing, and yet, they were overwhelmingly generous from start to finish.

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João getting the flower treatment

Cue photos of us with the family followed by 100 more variations with all taggers-on. The group had been nagging us to do our first wedding dance all week, and although I was reluctant, protests of “I can’t dance on a rubble site” and “People will think we’re showing off,” faded from my mind, caught up in the buzz of one whole heap of good feeling. The house was done, Anisa was finally chatting and smiling, and the sister’s house had been approved for clearance next, an idea put forward by João. Now was not the time to be insecure. And so, we queued the music and began to dance…

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After our blessing, and with all the kids, plus some neighbours

NEPAL – Volunteering in Melamchi part 4 – The Mud Site

You got mud on your face…and everywhere else…

(Written by Steph)

Y’know Glastonbury, that year when it pissed it down so hard that people’s tents got swept away in a river of mud? Well, I was there that year, and still it had nothing on this site. I’ve never seen so much mud in all my life. Now, if there had only been mud, not a problemo. Get the shovel out, fill the wheelbarrow, transport the mud to new destination, and voila, site cleared. This mud, however, had been used between massive stones as walls of the house that once stood there. Now these walls stood only a couple of metres high, and the stacks of mud were full of enormous, heavy stones.

A) We would have to pic-axe the remaining wall,  salvaging as many stones as possible and relocating them, for the family to reuse.

B)We would then have to dig down to the foundations, removing stones and mud and then relevel the surface.

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The Mud Site - before. We had to dig down about half a metre below ground level, retrieve any rocks, and then fill in the hole
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The Mud Site - after we had levelled the ground and completed the site

We had to try and find any belongings of the family that we could – they had lost literally everything in the earthquake, including a family member. The house owner, Surita, lost her sister, who had lived next door. Surita had since taken on her two nieces and nephew – their father had found his wife’s death so traumatic that he had left and had scarcely returned home.
As is often the case in Nepal, finding out who is actually related to another by blood is complicated, and usually involves several conversations, several miscommunications, and a whole lot of sign language. When you use the terms “sister” and “brother” to refer to your friends, things are bound to get complicated.  Still, Surita’s sons, Anees and Uwer, were around, and chatty, and even joining in where they could, so much so that we got Anees his own pair of gloves and safety glasses in the end…

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Anis with a newborn baby goat. On his back you can see his safety glasses he was so proud of.
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The lovely Surita, bringer of tea and smiles

But there was a girl of 11 there, subdued and removed from the hub as we set about our work. I was curious as to who she was and what she was about. Her name was Anisa, and it turned out, she was one of the daughters of Surita’s sister that had died. Jeez, I thought. No wonder she was so quiet. The earthquake had happened 5 months ago, and her life would never be the same again. Here we were, coming to remind her of the event that took her mother’s life. We could clear the houses, and maybe All Hands would even rebuild there when they started the 50 Homes project in Melamchi the following month, but here was something we couldn’t fix, and it was a big reality check.

I made it my business to try and speak to her everyday. To try and pay her some attention, in the small hope of diverting the negative with some positive. But what did I know? I’m not a psychologist, nor was I more than a stranger to her. If I’m caring, I’m 10 times more naive. Still, I reassured myself with the knowledge that things could have been a lot worse for Anisa – so many children in similar situations are said to have been victims of child trafficking, taken by opportunists that promise them a good life, and then sell them into slavery or the sex trade. It’s a massive problem here. At least Anisa had someone to take her under their wing, and her auntie Surita was one of the nicest, sweetest ladies I’ve ever met. She was constantly around, with her smiles, her tea, and her gratitude, and I think we all fell in love with her and her family just a little bit.

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From left to right - me, Anisa, her best friend Deepa, and cousin Anees, our little helper

NEPAL – Volunteering in Melamchi part 3 – The Geriatrics

Young at heart…

(Written by Steph)

Like a good Dhal Baat, you need the right combination to make a team work…

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Jenny was one of the first people we met in Melamchi, and I knew she would be easy to get on with – a loveable Essex girl, she had the best games and was just really easy to be around. Not only this, the kids flocked to her – possibly because of her blonde hair, and definitely how great she was with them. A primary school teacher, she also taught me some of my times tables, which I still didn’t know, despite getting a B at GCSE! But my favourite thing about Jenny had to be that she brought hair straighteners AND an iron with her backpacking. I made sure Nick knew this too – suddenly I wasn’t the excessive packer that I had previously been labelled. 😉

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Jenny with her biggest fan

João, or John, as he kindly let us call him, was our team leader. A youthful Brazilian with a playlist that ranged from Pearl Jam to Celine Dion, and the vocals of a dying cat, he took great pleasure in highlighting our inadequacies. He thoughtfully named me “lettuce hands” – a slightly more insulting version of butter fingers. No matter – as a true Brit, and lover of all things banter, I felt it only right to give as good as I got!

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João pretending to be hardcore

Vanessa was cool and understated and declared she was socially inept. I always thought I didn’t like Americans, but I met one or two that I thought were amazing in Barcelona, and here I was liking more. Her job in the U.S. was climbing over fences, hunting down mosquito nests and destroying them at the source. That sounded pretty bad-ass to me. When we said goodbye, she was also just so sweet and complimentary about us. So much so, I thought she maybe had us confused with another couple.

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Vanessa being bad-ass with a shovel

If Danielle were an American Indian, she would’ve been named, “Little Teapot.” She did everything with one, or two, hands on her hips. Including hoovering. She was, without trying, one of the funniest people I think I’ve ever met. Sassy New Yorker, ex-army, down-to-earth and intelligent; she was a hoot to be around. Between her and Vanessa, they could’ve opened a drug store..with several storeys.

Thomas came late to the team, replacing Andy, our Hollywood Stud and super nice guy, who went to be a team leader on another team. Thomas was a witty German, and was quickly welcomed into the group after his playlist initiation, which featured 90s grunge and Ace of Base. He was perfect for the team.

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Dream team - left to right: Vanessa, João, Jenny, me & Andy