A Walk in the Woods

What was the monkey thinking about?

On our first full day at Chitwan, our naturalist, Tulsi, suggested a jungle walk. “Wear good hiking shoes, long trousers, no bright colors, bring water, and don’t forget: lots of bug repellent.” We did so, then realized that our brightly colored day packs spoiled the intended effect.

We canoed to the start of journey inside the national park. The dugout was manned by two locals fore and aft with long sticks. The river was swift albeit shallow. When we landed at the trailhead, Tulsi (“to see”) gave us the jungle trek lecture, as we quickly spotted the tracks of deer and a tiger:

At the time, I didn’t appreciated how important that lecture was, but if I had done my due diligence of research on Chitwan, I would have found that tiger and rhino attacks are not uncommon:

Perhaps if I had known about those dangers, I might not have enjoyed the walk as much as I did. Watching for bird life, spotting the tracks of deer and wild boar, learning the difference between the droppings of elephant and rhino, the distant growl of the tiger (yes!), interesting bugs that loved the deer dung, and did I mention RHINO. Here is a video of the rhino:

Fortunately that video was atop an elephant the next day. But could you imagine if we had come across that rhino and her calf while on foot? They are so well camouflaged that you are on top of them before you know it, and we too could have been a headline.

Back to the walk….

The only creature that caused me harm was the leech. He nabbed me in the ankle somewhere on the journey and I didn’t notice it until I stripped off the bloody sock in my room. Here is a picture of our guide talking about the leeches during the walk:

Fascinating (for me!) were the small red bugs that were sucking on the dung of the deer. They were not dung beetles, but actual Hemiptera, that normally you see sucking plant juice.

Iphita limbata?

Our guide was extremely good. We saw two types of deer, forest hens, and a wild boar. We also saw numerous birds.

Barking Deer

Then, just past the park headquarters we walked up a bridge to see the sunset. Then we actually did see a rhino in the water.

Really! That is a rhino in the water.

I spotted a goat at the edge of the water. On closer inspection, we realized that the goat was in the jaws of a crocodile!

As we were ending the hike on the bridge, I noticed a solitary monkey. Sitting on the railing, watching the sunset. He was murmuring to himself. Was he lamenting the fate of the goat below, or contemplating the bending of light near large gravity wells?
What was the monkey thinking about?

Kathmandu Driving Test

Here’s a little test of your powers of observation while traveling by taxi through Kathmandu.

Watch this video first… No cheating. Do not go ahead and read the questions. Then scroll down to the questions to test your powers of observation.

scroll down ….

scroll down ….

scroll down ….

scroll down ….

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Did the man carrying the crates on his back have shoulder straps?

Did you see what happened to the little school girl’s umbrella?

How many cows did you see on the road?

Did you see the hand trolley being pushed along the road?

Did you see the roadside barbershop?

Did you see the bicycle riding through the middle of the traffic?

Answers are down here……

Answers are down here……

Answers are down here……

Answers are down here……

Did the man carrying the crates on his back have shoulder straps? No. In Nepal the porters use just a strap on their forehead called a namlo. You will see them on treks and in the city carrying some incredible loads. It is suppose to be very efficient, however I don’t think you will see backpacks with that design in REI anytime soon.

Did you see what happened to the little school girl’s umbrella? A caring adult closed it for her.

How many cows did you see on the road? Just one. A rare event… seeing just one!

Did you see the hand trolley being pushed along the road? Reminds me of the sign in Abu Dhabi “Beware of Road Surprises”.

Did you see the roadside barbershop? Ok, it was hard to see. But each day they take up residence near the river.

Did you see the bicycle riding through the middle of the traffic? There was one. Because of the traffic density they don’t make any better time than cars.

Here is an edited version of the video with the answers:

If you managed to pass the test the first time, you are ready to drive in Kathmandu. Me, I will continue to use a taxi.

This Chariot is Not for Racing!

It started as a normal weekend. A little shopping, getting our haircuts, and a chance visit with friends at a cafe, but it ended with a great discovery. Such is life in Nepal.
In fact this post started in my head as a description of my experience with haircuts in 8 countries around the world but better material was revealed.

Delim, my barber at the Annapurna Hotel does a great job of cutting, followed by a thumping of my head (some call it a massage), trimming my Vulcan eyebrows, and clearing a passage through the brush of my nose. All for only $2.50, not including the relatively large tip of a dollar.

At least a 10x difference from Tony, the big Lebanese barber who by the end of our tenure in Abu Dhabi made house calls.


With Winnie in April 2011

Linda was getting her hair done at the American Club. We usually go our separate ways when doing this except in Malaysia, where our good friend Winnie took care of both of us.

Her brother is Eddie, a blind masseur, who will take care of any tightness, even if it doesn’t exist. Eddie drives a BMW (reading test: look back to the last sentence).

Back to Kathmandu. Linda and I planned a rendezvous at the Himalayan Java Cafe in Thamel. It is a great location above the traffic at the entrance to a part of town filled with travelers. I had trouble getting the free wifi, only because of my inability at spelling mochacafe, “It is not mokacafe, duh!” I had just started my second cup of soy cappuccino when friends from school joined me. Kathmandu may be the capital of a country, but in so many ways it is a small town. Chance encounters with squeals of “Mrs. Willis” are the norm.

When Linda and I completed our rendezvous, we had our lunch at the cafe and then headed by taxi across town to our favorite supermarket in Lalitpur near the edge of the ancient city of Patan. Just before we reached the supermarket, a large crowd had blocked part of the road. We told the taxi to stop and we jumped out.

It was the beginning of the month-long festival of Bunga Dyah Jatra! For a month, the statue of Bunga Dyah will be pulled by rope through the city on a large chariot, built with no nails. Misfortune will befall the city (and the poor person on top of the spire) if the chariot tips.

They were putting the final preparation on the large chariot. Large bundles of rope and branches added weight to the base, but the spire itself supported a man at the very top. People climbed up and down the sides adding branches.




Note the base

Here is a video of what I saw of the construction:

Here’s a link to the Wiki article on the Bunga Dyah Jatra and the concluding ceremony of Bhoto Jatra, which has to do with a farmer’s lost vest! Lots to learn about this fascinating culture.

An interesting week in Kathmandu

The monkeys have been very bold of late parading about school and on the electrical wires outside of our house. But I’ve always had a fair distance between them and me. That is until this week when I returned to my classroom after lunch to discover two monkeys walking down the hallway on the third floor. I quickly ran into my room to get the iPad to take a picture of them but they were gone. So I slowly walked down the hallway and saw two more out on the window ledge overlooking the Pre-School playground. I think they were eyeing the “monkey bars” No sooner did I snap this shot when another monkey hidden by a pillar starts climbing over the railing just two feet from me! Aaaaaaaa! With my heart pounding I quickly ran back to my room and shut the door. Fortunately the custodian came by to tell me to stay in my room while he shooed the monkeys away! 

That evening I searched for 5 rupee bills (5¢) for the morning. The start of the festival Shivaratri began early in the morning with children stretching rope across the roads. In order to pass by you need to pay them some money. They were delighted with the 5 rupees I gave them. I only encountered 2 groups along my way to school. They use the money to buy wood for the bonfires they would light later that night. They sit vigil around the bonfires at the various Shiva temples throughout the town.

Today was a school field trip to one of the Tibetan monasteries near the school. We sat on our cushions on the floor and watched the monks perform traditional dances to send away all the negative energy from the past year to welcome in the new year beginning tomorrow. The dances went on for 2 hours and the kids were all troopers sitting for that long.

The costumes were fascinating with beautiful embroidered brocade and papier mache  masks. We had front row seats in front of some lovely elderly Tibetan women.

It would have been a great week but one thing was missing. My sweetie! He is in Mumbai at a tech conference.

So as Dorothy said to Toto, “We are not in Kansas anymore!”


Election Day

Election day in Nepal was a holiday. More than that, the Election Commission decided it was a vehicle free day. The only vehicles on the road were police, emergency, or army.

good day to walk the cows
The road never looked so large
Badminton on the road

No traffic means clear skies

Election Season

It is election time here in Nepal.

The country is electing an assembly that will draft the country’s constitution. The country was ruled for over 200 years by a monarchy. The monarchy was abolished in 2008 as part of the resolution of a civil war that lasted over 10 years, . Since then, the government has struggle to create a constitution. The first elected assembly failed to complete the task and now a new group is being selected.

And what a choice! There are over 150 parties in Nepal. Thirty-three of the parties, lead by one of the Maoist factions, have formed a coalition to boycott the election. They are doing whatever they can to prevent people from campaigning and promise to make life difficult on voting day. For the ten days leading up to the election, they called for a transportation “bandh” or strike.

We were told to stay away from work on the first bandh day, but since then it has been business as usual, except for a lot less traffic. We were also told to avoid using taxis, so we have been staying at home more. The election is Tuesday and we have been told to stay home.

One bonus of the bandh is less traffic. Less traffic means clear skies. Just at a time when the mountains have lost their cloud cover.

From our rooftop today

Even with the traffic bandh, the other parties are out campaigning. In our neighborhood, that means vehicles with loud speakers passing by, or small groups with flags.

This afternoon I found a sample ballot on our driveway. The ballot has symbols that represent the other 122 parties that are participating in the election. Not only is there the hammer party and the sickle party, but also the hammer and sickle party.

We have not lived in a participatory democracy for 21 years. Interesting times ahead. The election is Tuesday and we have been told to stay home.

Gods, Games, and Alcohol

We entered into the last part of the festival season, Tihar, the festival of lights. A five day festival that starts with the day of the crows in which offerings are made to the birds. That was a work day, at the end of which the local staff put on a wonderful party for the whole staff that featured gambling, a powerful local liquor, raksi, and dancing. After working for twenty-eight years in Islamic countries, it was quite a contrast.
Flashing wads of money…. 10 Nepal Rupees is about 10 cents in the US

I have no idea what caused money to change hands, but it involved a pair of dice. In the previous week in Bhaktapur, we saw a very serious game of Sorry played with stacks of money.


Gambling is not illegal in Nepal, in fact many of the major hotels have a Casino, however it is just not a common sight to see gambling on the street except during the festival season.

Card game in Paten
I was served the local liquor, raksi, in a small cup. I wasn’t sure what it was at first. The same cup holds the small flames that surround the Mandalas during the holiday. Indeed, the liquid in the cup was ignitable, and burned as it went down.
Pouring Raksi

Raksi is the general term for a number of home brew recipes, depending on the location, family, and the available materials. You should be thinking “Moonshine!” I have found recipes online for versions made with millet, rice, and even mulberries. When trekking it is not uncommon to find backyard stills. You never will catch dysentery from drinking raksi in a remote village… you may go blind, but odds are the liquid will warm you up and give you a pleasant glow.

A Raksi still we saw on trek in 2010
The Nepali staff entertained us with song and dance, and then fed us a wonderful meal. A very pleasant way to start the holiday.
During the Tihar festival families welcome the Goddess Lakshmi to their homes. She is the goddess of prosperity. People light up their homes and create elaborate Mandalas in front. This is a time-lapse film from our rooftop on the second day of the festival.
The homes also have garlands of marigolds strung over the doorways.
A home we passed in Patan
We used the holiday to finally go to Patan, a mere twenty minutes down the road. It is another one of the ancient capitals of the Kathmandu valley. We actually had been to Patan many times, but to the section with all the trendy restaurants, not to the ancient center, or “Durbar” square.
Durbar Square in Patan
As it was time for lunch, we climbed the six flights of stairs to a restaurant high over the square. It was a great location to catch the sights below.
Lots of colors to choose from
Looking down on the fruits and vegetable stand
Close to the square are many tea houses, coffee shops and craft shops. We particularly liked the one below:
Notice the garlands for Lakshmi

Then we walked down a lane with lots of copper and brass. Many tempting pieces but we didn’t buy….yet!

How do they keep them so shiny?
We started the festival season with rain in Bhaktapur, but that quickly ended and we enjoyed beautiful weather, in time for Lakshmi’s arrival.

Did she bring prosperity? She already did for me, over thirty years ago. What other great gifts are coming our way? Let me sip some raksi and think about it…

A rainy visit to Bhaktapur

Palace Square in Bhaktapur
It was the start of the festival season in Nepal, Dashain followed 15 days later by Tihar, and according to local knowledge, it never rains… well almost never. That was before a powerful cyclone slammed into the northeast coast of India and splashed onto the Himalayas.
We had the week of Dashain off. It is a time for Nepali families to gather together. Cities empty as many of the people go back to their villages. A great time to explore the treasures around the Kathmandu valley, or so we thought.
We reserved a nice room at the Pagoda Guest House. A nice family run establishment with a good restaurant. The room was on the top floor overlooking the Nyatapola Pagoda.
from our balcony

We went out in the soggy day to explore the ancient former capital of the Malla kingdom in the Kathmandu valley.

The ancient city is brick and timber. The brick foundries can be seen as you drive into the town. The rice famers become the brick makers during the dry winter months. The wood is finely carved, every corner we turned a new wonder, even in the rain.
Close up of a door
Nyatapola Pagoda
We followed a band as we left the guesthouse. We saw many bands marching through the streets, even late at night when the rain was at its most miserable. The march was part of a “puja,” or ritual that is common in Nepali Hindu ceremonies to honor deities, important people, or guests.  Click below to hear a sample.

Dashain is a long festival that lasts over a week, we were in Bhaktapur during the blessing of all forms of transport: Bicycles, cars, motorbikes, tractors, vans, and buses. Goats were sacrificed for the blessing, their blood was used in the markings on modes of transport. It took us a while to realize that it wasn’t a balloon wrapped around the bumpers of some of the vehicles.
The tractor was richly blessed. This reminded me on the time I studied human physiology in university. I remember noting that we are just worms with appendages.  I didn’t fair well in that course.
Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is mainly pedestrian and easy to walk around. The people of the city, like most of the Kathmandu valley are Newari. An ethnic group that has ruled the valley for over a millennia.
Getting water from the well
Along the narrow roads (more like paved paths) we came across vendors selling fruits, bells, and souvenirs.

In Potter’s Square we came across a number of Newari men sitting together. At first, I didn’t notice the instruments. Then the oldest of them, holding a young sleeping child, began to sing. I took out my digital audio recorder and placed it nearby, stepped back, and enjoyed the song as all of the men played instruments and sang. It was one of those magical moments you wish on all travelers. The young child slept through the whole performance. Click below for the performance:

After watching the performance, I realized the true treasure of Bhaktapur was not the bricks, or the carvings, or the multitude of festivals. It was, like my other experiences in Nepal, the people.

A Journey Through Space and Time

It is about space and time.

After 17 years in one spot, an eternity for global nomads, we have moved to a new country. So much to do, so much to learn, so much to process, and so little time to do it in. Or at least it feels that way.

It has been a big adjustment moving to Nepal. Life literally moves at a different pace, a new rhythm to live by. (Just now the power went out, as if on cue).

We walk 5 minutes to and from work each day. Passing a Kumari shrine, a carpentry shop, one beige cow and its very ancient handler, a construction project on a house that would not pass code in California, at least four dogs, numerous motorcycles, a few cars and vans, all along a path that is not more than 6 shoulder lengths in width and a distance of less than 100 yards. It is pleasant, but it can be a challenge.

We wait for space to clear on our road near the back gate of the school and the Kumari Shrine. One of the trucks is moving goods from the carpenter’s shop.
We wait for space to clear on our road near the back gate of the school and the Kumari Shrine. One of the trucks is moving goods from the carpenter’s shop.

The road gets ridiculously narrow as it winds past the corner of the school and down to the main road which leads to the school’s entrance. Fortunately we have a key that lets us in the back gate. However, we have had the misfortune of being on that road in a vehicle as another vehicle comes around the corner and the two face-off. It can quickly turn into a scene from “Soylent Green,” which Science Fiction readers will know was based on the book “Make Room” by Harry Harrison. A simple journey can take a long time.

Make Room! Note the car behind the motorbikes and the pedestrians. We backed up.

Another day, and another adventure in space and time in Kathmandu. According to Google Maps, we could have walked for 40 minutes to our director’s house for a mid-term celebration, but it was Friday, it was raining, and I still had my school bags.

So we took the bus with many of the other teachers instead. Did I mention it was Friday, or that it was raining? Plus, it was also the first weekend of Dashain, a Nepali religious festival that like so many cultures involves a lot of shopping. The roads were jammed.

Every inch of the road was filled with metal and humanity.
We had left at 4:30
Lots of good stories were told. Some watched the latest episode of Downton Abbey. We got to know our fellow teachers a little bit better and we were richer for it. At least we had a seat to ourselves. A few inches from us, another bus, balancing precariously between the pavement and drooping shoulder tried to pass us and almost tipped over in slow motion. I got a picture of one of the passengers.
Not blown-up or shot with a telephoto
Space and time were on the side of the passengers….. this time.
We reached our destination and it was a wonderful party, but as it has been said before, it is the journey, not the destination that will be remembered.

An Auspicious Day

I think this was an auspicious day.

I flew to Kathmandu today for brief visit with my new school.

At the very busy Abu Dhabi Airport I shared a table at the Costa Cafe outside my boarding gate. I noticed my table mate was also eyeing the gate. “Going to Kathmandu?” he asks. “I am,” I reply. Then I ask, “What takes you to Kathmandu?” “I’m climbing Everest.”

Turns out I’ve met a professional explorer named Mark Wood.

A very pleasant gentleman who literally goes to the ends of the earth, sharing his experiences with a community of Skype Educators. North Pole, South Pole – been there, done that. In fact he did it solo. He showed me the gear bag he will be taking to the top of Everest that will allow him to conduct an interview from the top of the world to schools around the world.

I have been to one place that Mark could not go. As we were entering the plane, the stewardess told Mark, “You sir go to the right,” then she looked at me and said “Mr. Willis, you go to the left.” Instant bump at the gate! Sweet!

You know your not in economy anymore when you see the usual notice:

but it ends with:

I did enjoy that full horizontal position after a wonderful meal. My choice for first course a nice Arabic mezze:

Followed by Arabic lamb:

I skipped the 3rd course. By then I was ready for sleep.

What did I learn? Going to Nepal means I will meet interesting people while being treated like a prince.

Well at least today that was true.