Saturday, March 27, 2010

Notes from the Village: a mini-saga

I wrote this first by hand in my journal and it totalled 31 pages. I really spent some time with it, thinking before I wrote, then editing and re-writing like a pro.
Take your time with this one!


Early morning start...
Don't forget yer towel...
I woke up at 5:05am and went upstairs to use the bathroom, wash my face and shave. When I came back down the door was still closed and there was no sound coming from Yung Dung's room, so I gave a hard knock as I told him I would when we agreed the night before that he would accompany me to the bus stop. He responded with a sleepy, "Yo...," something that I think he picked up from me. He was up in a flash and ready to go. I gave my room a last going over to see if I had forgotten any one important, vital thing that I couldn't do without. As I was stepping out my door, still looking around, I noticed my green camp towel sitting on top of the little wicker book shelf. I closed the door and stood there, suddenly struck by an image of my mom saying in a stern, motherly tone, "Danny, don't forget your towel!" My mom and I share a deep fondness for The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, in which two very crucial pieces of knowledge are offered in a humorous light though we take it quite seriously. The first is a 2-word phrase that is applicable to all situations, but definitely more so when traveling, and still more definitely so when hitchhiking. Don't Panic! Thats all you need to know, and if you apply it the world is yours. The other piece of knowledge also makes for a good phrase, and that is "Don't forget your towel," or "Always know where your towel is." This one takes a bit of explaining, which I won't go into here, but just know that in The Guide about 8 pages are devoted to explaining and describing the wonders and benefits that come from traveling with a towel.

The image of my mom reprimanding me, and knowing the reasons which backed here, I promptly re-opened my door, walked over to the wicker book shelf and snatched up my towel, sticking it under my arm and walking out. Now I felt satisfied and certain that we could depart. AT the bottom of the stairs we ran into Karma, who was hoping we could have tea before heading off. It was 5:30 now and nothing sounded better than sitting down to some tea, but I needed to be at Sukidara (nearest bus stop to Karma's) by 6:00 and it is about a 30-minute walk. Sukidara is where we would catch the bus that would take us to the next bus stop, where we find a bus heading out of Kathmandu, about 3 1/2 hours to Dhading Beshi.

The bus dropped us off in one place, and lucky Yung Dung was with me, we figured out we needed to be in another. We found and confirmed the appropriate waiting area and ordered some chai while waiting for Rajan to show up. At 6:30, our scheduled departure time, I gave Rajan a call and found that he had just gotten off his bus and was also a little confused and unsure of where he was supposed to go. I walked out towards the road while trying to describe my surroundings over the phone to him. Nothing was getting through, I couldn't find any distinct obvious thing to make it clear where I was. The road noise was maddening, buses with custom horns that play short little diddies, crazy yelling from the Road Warrior type characters hanging on the sides of the buses, and the cell phone reception was cutting out. Then I heard Rajan desperately say, "Is there a Nepali you could hand the phone to?" With that I gave the phone over to Yung Dung and watched as his head snapped to the left and honed in, as if catching the scent. A few words exchanged then he handed the phone back to me and trotted off in the direction of his gaze. I followed, phone back to my ear, and as I stopped to watch Yung Dung dart across the busy intersection, I suddenly heard Rajan saying directly into my earhole, "Ah! There you are, okay, haha..." I spotted him just as Yung Dung made it to his side, and then they both came back over and we exchanged good mornings and went to the check the bus status. It was due to leave at 7:10 so we sat down for another cup of chai and a bread roll. Yung Dung talked to Rajan about his Tibetan origins, since Rajan is quite familiar with Tibet, and then Rajan told Yung Dung about his Yoga Center and how he would love to have a Tibetan monk give some teachings and instructions there.

Then Yung Dung, after shaking our hands and tying a kata onto my shoulder bag, took his leave. We squeezed into our seats and prepared for the ride. As soon as we started rolling Rajan turned to me and explained (as if it was my first time here) the up and downside of Nepal. The downside is that it is an incredibly poor country with trash in the streets, smog in the air, and 12 hours a day (in the dry season) of no electricity, not to speak of the corrupt government. The upside, as Rajan explained, is that the people are somehow able to maintain a happiness and contentment in their personal lives, something that most people in even the most developed countries often can't seem to do. As soon as he started this spiel I knew this would be his main point. It is the thing which draws people to this country, and keeps people like me coming back again and again. As we rode along, on our way out of the city, I kept rolling this idea around in my head. Out of my window I admired the paint job on a passing bus. On the bumper the words "Love Me Tender," had been painted in vibrant colors. The next truck that passed had a mural of a bleeding rose with the caption, "Love Hurts." Yes, clear as can be and simply put, love is what we love about Nepal. Nepal is rich with love. There seems to be a collective understanding here that love is one thing that cannot be taken away. A country that has been deprived of everything and yet still flaunts its abundant love is truly a beautiful country.

The Silt Road...
The Sea of Silt,
Could you add some silt to that?
Now in Dhading, I stood in the road next to a gnarly looking diesel jeep as Rajan discussed with the driver where we would sit and for how much. We were standing in the same road and had even just finished eating at the same restaurant as last summer when we made the first trip out to the village of Darkha in the Dhading district of Nepal. Dhading is the hub, the transit center for all the surrounding remote villages. On certain streets there are lines of big, burly diesel jeeps with tough cigarette-smoking drivers. You walk up and down these lines asking each one if they are going in the direction of your village. If they are you negotiate the price based on the quality of your seat and the price of fuel. As far as seats go the first and second rows are the best, then the back (two bench seats facing each other) is next, and then the bargain seats, the matinee, is on the roof. It is also not uncommon to pay for the privilege of hanging on the side when there is absolutely no room left. Space is precious and every passenger means more gas money. This in mind I wasn't entirely surprised when Rajan informed me that we would be sharing the front passenger seat, the driver simply refusing on basic principle to sell it to just one person. We cozied up to each other and settled in for the journey. We made one stop for fuel and then headed out of the bustling streets and straight for the mountains. The last bit of asphalt road belonged to a short bridge spanning a trashy, polluted river. On the far side of the bridge two dirt roads forked off in opposite directions. The one going left was flat and ran along next to the river, and this, Rajan reminded me, was the one we took last time. The other road immediately began a steep ascent, and would be our chosen path, the so called "high road." Before crossing the bridge we stopped to let a truck descend the steep section that we were about to attempt.

Staring out the windshield I was shocked at the spectacle of this descending truck, which was almost completely engulfed in a cloud of thick, heavy white dust. When the truck hit the bridge it emerged from the fog, and a cloud of white trailed it across to where we sat waiting. As the truck passed us the drivers exchanged looks that suggested nothing to the effect of concern of disgust about the road conditions. Now it was our turn, so we crossed the bridge and hit the dirt. What I had taken for a dusty dirt road was in fact something more like a sea of silt. Immediately our tires seemed to sink at least 6 inches, and out of my window (which was tightly shut) I could see a spray, a thick wake of dust being flung up towards the back of the jeep. As we continued crawling up and up this steep trail I really had the feeling of being on a boat, and outlaw Himalayan mountain boat. The movements of the jeep, like a delayed steering and soft rolling, and the way the road ahead seemed to be constantly shifting as soon as we drew close, it was not hard to imagine that we were really in a rugged ship sailing up a waterfall.

For about an hour and a half we struggled through the silt. Sitting next to the window it was my job to decide which was the lesser of two evils; the dust of the heat. I seemed to be in the constant action of rolling the window up when we hit a particularly nasty section and the dust began to spew, and then rolling it back down again as soon as the dust settled so we could breathe and get refreshed by the cool breeze. Yes, so this lasted for about an hour and a half, at which point we stopped for a tea and pee break. First everyone spent a while patting themselves down, letting the dust fall off, then going to the tap to wash their faces. The dust I was caked in was nothing compared to what the folks in the matinee (on the roof) had to go through. When they climbed down we found them to be uniformed in brown from head to toe.

Stones Into Steps...
Stairway to the Himalayas...
The last hour of this four hour journey was spent navigating the rocky bottom of a dry riverbed. Last summer the river had been raging, and we had to cross it on foot by means of the many swinging bridges around these parts. It was pretty cool to now be able to drive right down into the huge riverbed, and like this we were able to make it all the way to the mountain where the village is. Waiting for us at the place where the jeeps stop were two good friends of Rajans, classmates from childhood days in fact. I had met one of them, Gopal, on the previous trip and was excited to see him again. Last time he had asked us to come see his home, meet his family, and have a meal with him but he lives the furthest up the mountain, about an hour hike uphill from where the location of our school will be, and we were lacking in time and energy and told him we would have to pass. I was very happy now to have the opportunity to take him up on his offer; we planned to stay at his place that night. The other person who greeted and welcomed us I had not yet met, but right away I took a liking to him because he reminded me so much, in looks and his way of speaking, of a young Hunter Thompson. His name is Deepak and I was happy to learn that he was on our school committee. Gopal insisted on carrying my backpack so the only extra weight I was left with was my shoulder bag with a book, a scarf, and my cd player in it; the essentials for any Nepali jeep ride.

Immediately upon getting out of the jeep I was overcome by the peace and tranquility of where we now were. No more noisy traffic and crazy horns, no more yelling voices, no more dust and pollution in the air, and no more trash covering the ground. We began our hike up the stone step trail at a leisurely pace. Whenever we passed a home settlement we would stop to exchange a few words with the Nepali women who were always outside washing clothes and dishes, preparing food for themselves or their animals. There were always chickens running about around these homes, and also water buffalo were often tied up in their own shelters, and sometimes goats and dogs. We continued hiking up and up, step after step after step, my calves were beginning to burn. We took a break at one point at someones place who seemed to be a friend of Rajans, but then again everyone up to this point and everyone from this point on seemed to be a dear old friend of Rajans, asking how his business and family were doing. We rested here for a bit and I found the vibe among these village folks much different than the people around the city. Their movements were slow and careful, they spoke softly and took every step to make their guests comfortable. At first I wasn't sure how to act in their presence. Their English was very limited so Rajan had to translate for me whenever I wanted to address a person directly. Mostly I stuck with just saying "Namaskar," (the respectful version of namaste) and thank you, dhanyabad, and okay, I will see you again, thank you so much, namaskar, bye bye. People seemed please with this and would respond with many, "yea yea yea's," and also repeat my words back to me; okay, see you again, namaskar, okay, bye bye.

The Warm Welcome...
We continued climbing up the funky stone steps, up and up the never-ending staircase. Finally we reached the area where the land which was given to us for the school is. Last time we were rushed and only got to quickly see and pose for a picture on this potential site for our school. We only saw the front part, the part that is directly off the trail, and we were happy to know that we had at least this much secured. Now I was taken around to the backside of this same spot and shown exactly how much our donated land had expanded. I was shocked and thrilled as Rajan pointed to a group of trees high up on the left side and explained that our land reached from there all the wayover to another batch of large trees high up on the right side. Really an incredible, sizable chunk of land. All the land, all the mountains in this region are terraced for harvesting rice and corn, so it is difficult to compare its size to anything that would give a clear picture, but I would say all in all that it is about the size of two full-length swimming pools, reaching up about 5 terrace levels. I took some pictures and let everyone know how astounded I was by this wonderful surprise. Land would no longer be an issue.

When we got back on the trail we took only a few steps before running into a few people, important people at that. One of them was the appointed president of our school committee. I gave him a whole-hearted namaskar and took his hands in mine. He was a great guy, a true gentleman, and I feel good knowing he is in charge of the village-side of our operations. The other man was also part of our committee, another voice to help decide what the best way to go about things will be. We continued on a few more steps with our new companions in tow, and soon Rajan pointed out that the old school buildings which we had visited before were now in view. The buildings are perched out a ways on a kind of ledge, and the most spectacular view belongs to this spot. As I gazed in the direction of the rugged stone school building I noticed a crowd of people in blue school uniforms gathered there. Before I could question what was going on Rajan turned to me with a smile and said he had called ahead to inform all the students who would be attending our new school, as well as their families, that we would be arriving around this time. My heart began to flutter, I was overtaken and in disbelief staring out and across to where this crowd of students had gathered and were now laughing and waving to us. The closer we got the more I could see them excitedly moving about, getting into position, and the more the I began to wonder what in the world they would think of me when I came lumbering up, towering over all of them, the human skyscraper. As we got closer our companions ran up ahead to join the crowd, and Rajan and I walked up on our own. The closer we got the quieter the crowd became. When we were within 20 feet Rajan slowed down and let me walk up on my own. I walked into the midst of everyone. On my left was a line of the boy students, on my right a line of the girls, they were lined up according to height. Behind them stood the parents and families. I walked right in between the two lines, to the middle, still silence around me. Then I folded my hands and said, "Namaste!" Somebody seemed to give the signal and then everyone let loose a warm applause. As I stood there turning in circles thanking them, hands still folded, the children began coming up one at a time and very shyly gesturing for me to bend down so they could place home made flower leis and kata scarves around my neck, and Rajans too. When the leis stacked up to about my mouth level the clapping subsided and then we posed for several pictures, with me kneeling down and all the kids swarming around me.

About half of the official committee was there, and the rest we would be meeting in the morning for our first official meeting at the new school site. But for now we all sat down in the 4 or 5 provided chairs and briefly discussed our aims and goals, with an audience of about 30 people, children and adults, all gathered around listening intently. This was when I learned that there were 82 students in total who would attending our school, which will be for grades 1-3. I was also introduced to the 2 teachers of the old school who would continue to teach the same students in our new school. I cannot describe my exaltation upon meeting these two incredibly sweet women and learning how many students were ready to attend. Until this moment all our work and all our plans had been wrapped in a veil of uncertainty for me. I was truly prepared for the worst, like having to seek out people to help, hunt down and pay generously someone to be the teacher, and bribe politicians, police officers, and soldiers who would surely be looking to get their share. But no, so far everything was falling into place with amazing accuracy.

Rallying for Support...
The Politicians March...
During our discussion I said a few things to represent my motives, and they seemed completely satisfied with that, just thrilled that I was actually serious about doing this. It was too much effort to speak through Rajan, who was struggling to translate what I was saying, and, as I learned, Rajan is an incredible spokesperson so I let him do pretty much all the talking. He has a cool way of saying certain words and phrases in English, like things that don't translate well into Nepali, like catch phrases. While he was rattling off in Nepali at an insanely high speed, he would drop these occasional lines in English, and like this I was able to piece together the gist of his speech. He started off by explaining the work I and my family had gone through to create the NGO HANDS in Nepal, and how we spent so much time raising money by giving talks, selling t-shirts and Nepali bags, having "Dal Bhat" parties (at this everyone cracked a smile), and selling Nepali and Tibetan tea. I was listening closely but a bit off to the side, and every once in a while I would get a curious look from one of the committee members, as if they were silently asking, "Really?! Is this true?!" To which I would respond with a dead serious nod, to show them I meant business. Rajan kept on going, now explaining the importance of our work. "Education is the key," was one of the English lines dropped at this point, then he would take off on a rant in Nepali, and then repeat, "Education is the key!" Quite a spokesperson indeed, I believe he could instigate a riot if he wished it so. After stating our budget for all the work, he went on to describe the future possibilities of tourism in the village. He related his own idea of setting up treks to the nearby Himalayan peak of Ganesh Himal, and having them end in the village with a Nepali home stay and some volunteering in the new school. He also mentioned the possibility of turning the old school house into a guest house for trekkers and school volunteers to stay in. Around this point, when describing the wonders of the tourist industry, he beautifully slid in an anecdote, a direct quote from the Buddha to be exact, in which the English catch phrase was, "No one will walk your path." Then back again into Nepali at a hundred miles an hour, then again, "No one will walk your path!" At first I wasn't entirely clear on this, but by the second and third time he repeated it, fist clenched and bouncing on his knee with every word, I realized he just meant, "No one will walk your path for you," and not that no one would walk their path because it was straight up stone steps for miles and miles!

His fiery speech wound to a close with a quick description of what the building itself would look like and include. Essentially a 3-room building, built with traditional stone/mud walls and a tin roof, a separate bathroom, and an elaborate water spicket. And, provided we have funds for it, we would like to have a small building at the entrance of the compound which would serve as a library/office/kitchen. Rajan expects all this to cost somewhere in the range of $6,000 but we declared a budget of $5,000 so nobody would get any funny ideas about us being a wealthy American NGO. We did, in actual fact, raise about $9,000 in all, so if we end up with extra funds we will think of improvements and additions, as well as saving it for future maintenance and upkeeping. Or we could donate it to the larger, secondary school (like a junior high and a high school combined) up the hill from us that is also struggling to maintain itself. Or there is also the option of helping out the Buddhist Child Home (BCH) orphanage, the place I volunteered at when I first came to Nepal and still visit from time to time; 55 children living in a small, small compound. A vast amount of possibilities arise when trying to decide what to do with extra money. For the record, all the money donated to us by supporters like you is going directly to cold, hard building materials. I am paying for my travel and living expenses on my own dime, at least for this project. My goal is to find a way in the future to have my travel expenses, and a monthly stipend paid for. Ahhh, my dream job.

Anyways with this Rajans fiery speech was concluded and he quickly re-capped the major points for me in English, though I had been able to follow fairly well. We stood up and started again the hike up the mountain stairway, and for the first quarter mile we had a trail of kids following us; made some really cool pictures of that. Now we were reaching the heart of the village and stopping more frequently at friends' homes for tea, always having to refuse the many offers for a meal and a bed for the night, explaining that we had already promised Gopal that privilege. At this they would turn to Gopal with a look of like, "ah you sly devil you," and Gopal would just smile and give a little laugh. As we hiked on, now walking by ourselves, Gopal exclaimed that Rajan and I looked like polotical leaders with our stacks of flower leis and katas still around our necks. A couple of Maoist leaders roamnig the countryside in search of loyal supporters. With this thought he almost hit the ground laughing.

Good Night, Bad Morning...
Drunk for no reason...
The Power of Drinking Water...
Eventually we reached Gopal's home which had been built only 3 years ago. A very nice, very traditional house with a lovely family inhabiting it. His two children, Naresh and Hamani, were awesome and we got along right away. They will also be attending our school. So we sat outside in teh cool evening air, surrounded by spectacular mountains and purely natural sounds. No electricity in the house, but they had a small solar panel which powered a couple of dim light bulbs. We had our dal bhat dinner on the floor of their kitchen. Low ceiling, mud floor, open fire, very cave-like feeling. I ate with my hands to fit-in and get the full experience. Afterwards Rajan and I were shown to our rooms. We each had our own, something I was really surprised about, and they were up on the second level. Possibly the coolest room I've ever slept in, just a straw mat on teh mud, adobe-like floor, sloping ceiling, and two short wood-carved doors opening like French door style. I layed down as peaceful and contented as could be and I slept wonderfully with some great dreams.

In the morning I woke up naturally around day break and felt good, but for some reason I hesitated to get up. I was concerned about getting sick the whole time now that I was forced to eat what was offered, which may or may not be entirely clean, and my weak American stomach could only handly so much I knew. So I decided to stay in bed for a bit, feeling a little too heavy to get up, but I checked myself several times and had no symptoms of the usual stomach illnesses that one is almost guarunteed to get at some point. The sun was slowly coming out a little more and I now heard voices outside. I decided it was time to get up. I sat up and was perplexed at my condition. As far as my body went I felt 100%, strong and everything, but my head, my vision even was acting very funny. I stood up and found it difficult to balance, and when I turned my head it took a second for my vision to catch up. I took a few unsturdy steps and couldn't help but notice that I had a feeling like that of being drunk. Feeling strong but disoriented. I layed back down and the room began to spin and I began to get worried. It took all my effort to steady my gaze, lying on my side and staring at the wall. I felt like motion sickness was setting in. I was sick at sea.

Our first official meeting with the committee was due to take place sometime around 8am, and I wondered if I would be able to make it. How awful to miss this first meeting, but without my health I would be completely useless. I just layed there, staying calm and fighting off "the spins." Then Gopal appeared in the doorway, asking if I was awake and would I care for some tea. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, especially in cases like this when I feel incompetent, in an attempted casual tone I told him that I felt fine lying down, but really dizzy when I stood up. He immediately ordered me to drink all the rest of my treated water in my water bottle, and hurried off to boil some more for me, he was convinced immediately. I didn't quite believe that this was just dehydration and I was already mentally preparing myself for a day of lying sick in bed. But low and behold, with every liter of water I downed my dizziness lessened. In about 30 minutes, having drunk about 3 liters of water, I felt sturdy enough to climb down the wooden ladder and step outside. I was still staggering though, and occasionally when I moved a little too fast, especially when I stood up too fast, I was hit by a serious dizzy spell and would have to reach out to grab something solid to stabalize myself. I have never experienced such severe dehydration. We waited around for my condition to get better, finally hitting the trail around 8:15. We would be late for our first meeting but at least it wouldn't be cancelled.

Rolecall...
Official Mountain Meeting...
When we arrived at the school site the whole committee was there, completely unconcerned with having to wait almost an hour for us to arrive. These people have a much different, and, in my opinion, a much more natural concept of time. Rajan explained what had happened to me and everybody was sincerely sympathetic. I reassured them that I felt fine now, and then we were underway, gathering in a large circle on the ground to proceed with the discussions. Our future teacher (I forget her name now) sat with a large ledger book taking notes on who was present and which points were decided upon and which ones would be post-poned until a certain amount of work had been completed. Again Rajan dove straight into a fiery, passionate speech to get those who had missed out the day before up to speed. Now I recognized even more the points he was covering, but overall it was just an elaboration on the first one.

The meeting lasted for about 2 1/2 hours, and at one point everyone got up to walk around the land and visualize how the finished product might look. In the end 3 main points were recorded in the official ledger book: 1, a dozer tractor would be hired to make the land ready, and HANDS would pay for the cost of fuel up front to later be reimbursed when a local government meeting would be held. 2, an official "Dhanyabad," a thank you to Danny and his family for their work and efforts. And 3, it would be up to the committee to see that work would begin as soon as possible. With that the book was passed around so everyone present could sign their name. My name was the only English in the whole thing, and I relished the look of my signature among the otehrs. Everyone stood up now and chatted and laughed. Then Rajan and I shook hands with all our comrades and made our way back to the trail to begin our descent, hoping to be able to catch ride back to Dhading for the night so we could make an early break for Kathmandu in the morning. Rajan needed to be back rather soon for a meeting with some clients of his. Luckily wer were able to get a seat (same as before, sharing the one front passenger seat) on a jeep leaving at 1:30.

A Very Important Game of Badminton...
We made it to Dhading, dusty and worn-out from the crazy ride, in the early evening and went to Rajans good friend and former classmate's place to stay for the night. This guy was an eye doctor and his home was in the same building as his personal eye clinic, The Dhading Community Eye Center. His work includes going into the mountains and setting up temporary clinics to work with people in the remote villages. It was really interesting to hear about that and explain our own work to him. In the morning we accompanied him to his formal, daily badminton game at a nearby government compouond equipped with a badminton court out back. Here we found a gathering of Dhadings most important people. I was introduced to and treated to tea by the Chief of Police, who had a decent technique with handling the racket. Unfortunately the CEO, as Rajan called him, the chair person for the whole Dhading district had just left, having had his fill of badminton for the day, so I didn't get the chance to meet him but Rajan assured me that he is good friends with him and sometime in the future we will definitely meet.

So currently the land which our school will be built on is being prepared and will hopefully be ready for building in about 2 weeks time, at which point I will make another trip out with my dad; the expert custom home builder who could whip up a school design by merely glancing at the possbile space available. This first trip was very enlightening for me, and a definite confidence booster. I feel like I went expecting the worst and was treated to the best. That this project is now manifesting and actually working out is altogether too amazing for me to fully appreciate right now. My head is already overflowing with new knowledge and experience. Of course I will definitely continue to proceed cautiously, and Rajan and I have agreed to take all possible measures to avoid complications, and we are still very aware of the possibility of failure, whatever that might mean at this point. I'm really looking forward to getting back to the village so I can get to know my new friends and environment better. It has become very clear to me that I have a lot to learn from these people and their way of living.

I will try to add things to the blog that happen around Kathmandu, though I find it difficult to write about such boring things after the excitement of traveling to the village. Any news of further work, advancements, and going ons with HANDS I will definitely post, and anytime I go out to the village I will try to write something similar, but probably not as in-depth, as this. This might be like a one time thing to set the mood for the rest to come, unless some more amazing events and experiences take place and I feel compelled again to write it all out in story form.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

It's Business Time

Living here is an experience I can liken to nothing else, so I am always a little intimidated to write about it, when it comes to this point, when I am settled and living here. The traveling is fun and adventurous and always makes for a good story. But now I am living a fairly uneventful life, but of course there is a lot to tell, but I just can't figure out how to like set the proper mood to make it interesting.

There is a funny thing that happens to me every time I come here and I always sort of forget about it until it happens. Its really a strange feeling though. That is that when I go to bed at night, all worn-out from walking everywhere, I fall into a deep sleep and have really great dreams, and I always seem to dream really well when I'm here. But then I wake up in the morning and lay there absorbed in whatever weird tangent I was off on in my dreams, and there is always a moment when I have to remind myself of where I am. I dream about things that I'm used to, like being with friends, and in familiar-ish American cities, or even skateboarding some times, and then I wake up and my mind is completely unprepared for the reality of being in a totally foreign environment. Here, on my own, and having to learn a new way of daily living. Of course now that it is somewhat familiar it comes back quickly, but it is still really odd. Its like my very foundations are shaken and my whole being quivers. The very base thing that usually ties my nights and days together is changing. In the states I would have a great dream, get up and head off to do things that I know how to do, like with a learned eye, and here I get up and stumble about for a bit, having to feel out what works and what doesn't. Ahh, its so hard to translate something like that, I definitely didn't do it justice. There is culture shock, and then there is this breaking off from some fundamental continuity. By the end of a day I know where I am, what I'm doing and how best to do it, then I go to bed and in the morning when I wake up I am struck, almost like a panic, I have forgotten where I am and what I'm doing, and will have to re-learn again. This usually lasts for 2-3 days and then I am integrated. Maybe this is culture shock, but that term doesn't fit quite right for me.

Now I've been here for over a week and I am totally re-established with my Tibetan family and I'm all set up in my old bedroom. It really feels like my room now, like hardly different from my room in California. Every morning I sleep until around 8, but actually I've really let go of keeping track of time so it could just as well be 7 or 9 on a given day. Then I walk up the stairs to the toilet which sits up on the roof, and there I brush my teeth while sometimes gazing at the complex interlocking web of buildings and dusty streets below. Karma's house is fairly high up on a hill so there is a good view in all directions, despite the terrible smog pollution which seems worse now than I've ever seen it. Then I go back down the stairs to the kitchen which is on the very bottom level, and depending on when I happened to get up and whoever else also happens to be up, I will eat in company or alone, an egg and several chapatis, and enjoy a cup of tea that never reaches below the half-way mark before it is filled up again by Amma, or whoever happens to see it getting low. Our Tibetan son and brother, named Yung Dung (the "u's" pronounced like "oo's"), whom we have been supporting through yak blanket sales, has taken it upon himself to move into the room across the hall from me and attend to my every need. At first I was not into this, and had to really get it through to him that I don't need a servant, in fact that is the last thing that I would want. But he is so grateful for the help we have given him, that nothing could make him happier than serving me, at least a little from time to time, which is alright with me. Now that we've been around each other for almost a week things are really working out. Whenever I go shopping I bring him along and he patiently waits, and helps with translating my questions to the shop dealers. Than when I find what I want I simply hand it to Yung Dung and let him bargain the right, fair, locals price for it. Sometimes I will ask what the price is, then turn to Yung Dung who will be shaking his head with a smirk on his face, and he whispers in my ear the appropriate price and I go back to bargaining with confidence and determination. This is really fun. He is like a personal guide to the interior workings of Nepal, and really now he does feel like a brother.

When I first got here I mentioned the idea of buying a Nepali cell phone so I could keep on top of business and stay in touch with everyone. A few days later he brought me home a brand new one, which he was able to get for about $40.00, a months time paid on it, and about $7 a month from here on out. Ever since then it has been a huge joke whenever my phone rings. Its just too funny for the family, and Yung Dung never tires of calling me from the next room and listening to my surprised and excited reaction, then realizing its him and going off to find him to see whats up. Usually he will be sitting in the next room, like in the kitchen and when I walk in he just bursts out laughing. I don't know, the idea of a foreigner with a Nepali cell phone is just too much I guess. Its been really sweet having one though, and if anyone is feeling like paying a pretty penny, I am only a phone call away. 980-851-6105 is the number to call, I got a call from my parents this morning, so fun!

I feel like I am at a loss for words or stories right now. To write everything that has happened in the one week I've been here would be a long and slightly boring tale. So now I will resort to my journal, and I will just copy a few of the things I have written down in there about when I first arrived and then the plans for the school work:

My first day I slept until almost 1pm, sooo tired from the trip, and I hadn't slept well for the previous 2 nights so it was wonderful now to sleep and wake up in the peaceful sanctuary of Shechen. I only realized how late it was when I tried to order breakfast and was laughed at by the waitress. So I ordered a sandwich and coffee, then got a bag ready and headed off for the stupa. I was in ultra slow bliss mode, doing kora, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds of Boudha. I went to the Saturday cafe to get a latte and check out the selection of books. Almost broke down and bought "Stones Into Schools," thinking that now its time again to get in the promoting education, building schools and saving lives frame of mind. Decided to hold off on that, at least until I finish Henry Miller's Sexus. The upper rooftop seating area was quite full so I took a seat with a cool looking chick, and after ordering my extra large latte we started talking about what we were here to do, and how long we planned to be doing it, etc. It was through her that I first learned of the new power cuts that are taking place now. Instead of the old 3-4hour daily power cuts, it is now up to 12, that is 12 hours a day with no electricity. The times that it is on it is spread out and divided up at about 2 hours intervals. Usually there is power throughout the morning, and then again late at night when its of no use. I'll be laying there, about to fall asleep, when suddenly the red indicator light on the switchboard lights up, letting me know that the power is back on and ready to be used. There is something really cool though about being a big city, even if a very poor developing city, without power. A strange hollowness seems to take over. (end of that entry)

(next one.. a few days later now)
I'm now in Thamel sitting at the Northfield Cafe after getting my fill of the book and music shops that are so fun to check out. And before that I went by to check in with Rajan and discuss the school plans. Ahhh, so nice to speak to him in person and clear up all the points that got a little confused in the e-mails. So, he has already been to the village and even created a committee there to work with us on the school. They actually took the initiative to design a plan of how they were looking for things to go, and soon we will get a chance to go over that, and integrate our own plans into it. Rajan and I have decided that the goal should be a 3-room school for grades 1-3, which with the given location will create a better opportunity for younger children to attend. Not so far of a walk as it is to the current primary school, which is generally for older students. So we will make our first trip out on the 22nd, have a meeting with the committee on the 23rd, and then return to Kathmandu on the 24th. Just a quick trip to set things in motion. Rajan is a very busy person and has to be back in his office on the 25th to meet with some clients. After this initial trip though I will be able to make more frequent trips, on my own or with our friends Ram and Gopal who live in the village. So there will be work going on while we are away, namely digging the foundation for the school and bathroom. Dad arrives on April 4th, and then we will go back and spend probably 1-2 weeks in the mountains, helping and overseeing the work. Nate will also be arriving around this time, April 2nd I think, and will probably spend some time touring around Kathmandu, getting his fill, and then making a trip with me later on.

During the village stays I will be living with Gopal or Ram, but more likely Gopal since he has the largest home, even though he is much further from the school location than Ram, who is a mere hop and a skip from the site. The only fear that Rajan related to me was the status with the current government, since the constitution is in the process of being established, after a drawn out 2 year wait. This could cause some turmoil, like protests, uprising and the like, but there are some hopeful signs, and the village is pretty far out there, so we think we will be okay. Other good news is that the road currently reaches all the way to the base of the mountain where the village resides. So transporting materials, which we think we will do from Kathmandu, will not be as difficult as imagined. Something to think about and seriously consider is buying a decent camera to document everything for myself. Just now thought of the idea of making Yung Dung (our Tibetan son and brother) my camera man.... that would give him something to do, and he is in the perfect position for it. I wonder how much a camera goes for here? (end of transmission)

Thats about all that is written in my journal up to this point. Tomorrow we are due to make the trip out to the village, and I will be taking detailed notes, both mentally and physically, of everything that happens, so I when I get back I will have more to work with as far as the blog goes. Thank you to everyone for taking the time to read this, and supporting us and everything!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Making it To Nepal

Varanasi seems so far in the past now. I remember leaving late at night from my guest house, and waiting in the train station for a long time before my train pulled in. I boarded it at around 11:30pm, and found out that I was assigned to the top bunk seat, bleh. I have never been up there before and don't think I ever want to go back. Traveling alone has its ups and downs, as everything in life does, but one of the most difficult things about it is that I have to be with my luggage at all times. Especially in India and extra especially on an Indian train you have to be on your toes and ready to defend yourself and your posessions at all times. So I tossed my big old backpack up onto the bunk seat, which is about 2 feet, maybe 2 and a half feet wide, and then also my trusty mandolin, and my shoulder bag whichI threw to the back of the seat deciding it would be my pillow. Then I climbed up to find that I was left with no more than the bare minimum of space required for a person to lie down. I could lie with legs stetched out, on my back, and that was about the only position available. But, for some reason I was feeling incredibly giddy, if thats the word. Like just fundamentally good, and everything, no matter how challenging, was sounding good and fun to me. I layed there, too wound up in my thoughts to fall asleep. India had been an extrordinary adventure, a good challenge that I felt I had come out on top of. Now I was heading to the Himalayas, these plans that I had been fantasizing about while working back in California were actually manifesting, and it was a surreal feeling to be there making it all happen.

Lying in the top bunk you can't see out, so you have to judge the speed you're traveling at by the amount of rocking that occurs, and the amount of braking that happens when we would come to another station. I spent the entire night, which sounds crazy to me now, wrapped up in thoughts. For some reason, I decided while laying there, being in transit, especially in that mode of transit, gives me the most insane feeling of clarity. I have learned and have become good at letting go and just going with things when it comes to this type of traveling. And it must be that sort of freedom that always puts things into that striking clarity. I was remembering things that had happened years ago, and was re-living them and observing them openly. I was breaking down different points that had confused me, etc. I was really enjoying all this, and occasionally I was putting on my head phones to listen to any number of really good cds that I had burned before leaving Germany. It was a fun ride, despite being locked into a somewhat uncomfortable position.

The morning came all too sudden, and before I knew it I was back on the streets again, weighted down with my bags and fending off taxi and rickshaw drivers. I was in desparate need of chai, and even though I knew I should be concentrating on finding a bus or jeep to the border as quickly as possible, I couldn't resist stopping at a chai stand to let my eyes open a little more. I stood sipping at my little cup and surveying the other tourists who had been on the train with me. They were running around trying to figure out who was telling them the truth, and what the proper price would be for a jeep. I finished my drink and went to ask an Israeli couple what they had figured out. They said the bus was really cheap but really packed, and that there were lots of jeeps but that they were asking ridiculous prices. I knew that the jeeps were probably the way to go, and that last time when Maxy and I were coming the opposite direction we paid 80rs for the 3 hour ride, definitely a good deal. I found a jeep that had about 5 people already in it, and I argued a bit trying to get a seat for 70rs, but since the other 2 tourists in this one had paid 150, or so I was told, I should be happy to pay only 100. I agreed and my bags were tied on top and I sat down in the back seat. The guy sitting next to me was Nepali and we began talking about all sorts of things. This is also when I learned an important lesson; I would have to come up with another story for what I am doing in Nepal, because as soon as I told him I am part of a small NGO, he would not leave me alone until I promised we would do some business together in the future. He made me repeat this several times and he gave me his information, but never asked, and I definitely didn't offer, mine. He was kind of a goofy guy, and I couldn't take him seriously, and was happy to split off from him at the border.

On the Indian side of the border you have to get authorized, and they try everything possible to get some last bit of money off you before you are out of their jurisdiction. At the immigration booth I was filling out my departure card with another western woman, when some Asian travelers came up, and blatantly and openly bribed the crusty old official immigration officer. The western woman turned to me and said "Its unbelievable, the corruption is right out in the open!" I just laughed, and hoped I wouldn't have to pull out a bribe. After checking my passport and immigration card the officer threw it with disgust down on the table, to which I gratefully picked it up and thanked him, and took off to the other side. Walking across the border in the presence of a small army, scattered about and heavily armed, is an excting rush. On the other side I remembered how different things immediately become. It took a while to re-establish my trust in other people, like that the Nepali boy who was trying to get me a seat on a bus to Kathmandu was actually working for a bus company, and not looking for direct handout. He got me a seat, and even though I was prepared to give him something, he asked for nothing and quickly went away before I could give him a small tip for arranging my ride. My seat was in the very back, squeezed in among 3 other passengers, and the bus was actually a min-van that in this part of the world, is used as a common bus, transporting sometimes up to 30 people. On this trip, there were maybe 12. The trip was strenuous to be sure, and it was only after my legs and behind went numb that I could relax. The road seemed to be a non-stop washboard. And the driver seemed determined to get the wheels off the ground.

I listened to music for most of the drive, and when we stopped I got out and stretched and stretched, and drank lots of water, and savored every second before having to climb back in. Eery time I got out I also admired the look of this whole set up. This little white mini-van bus, gear piled on top and tied down in a funky manner, inside everybody packed in like animals, the driver up front with fire in his eyes. I would look at this set up and think, "We are headng to Kathmandu...." and I would get lost in that, letting it ring in my ears. I really felt, more so than flying could ever relate, that I was on my way to Kathmandu. The road, as I said, was rocky, and soon it began to wind up into the mountains. At some point, my sleeplessness caught up with me and I dozed off, only to be woken up by the old Nepali man and his wife sitting to my right, offering me some delicious sugar cookie. Earlier I had boughten a bag of Lays chips, and promptly offered some to my neighbors on both sides, and I think this made an impression on the elderly Nepali couple, who were so humble and sweet. On and on we drove, the road to Kathmandu is long and bumpy.

Finally, in the dark we arrived at some place that looked semi-familiar, and I had to assume it was Kathmandu. My Indian aggressive, defensive, trust-no-one attitude was still with me, so when the taxi driver said it would be 700rs to Boudha, I practically slapped him. I made a fuss, and then asked where the bus was. No bus at this hour I was told, and then I asked the two Tibetans who were on the bus with me if they were going to Boudha. They were, so we decided to share the cab fare, which turned out to be in fact, about 600rs. We were a lot farther away than I thought. This was when I told myself I needed to calm down, not in Gorahkpur anymore, now you can trust people and be friendly, even when bargaining. We got to the Boudha area and the Tibetans told the driver to turn down a road leading behind the Stupa. It was late and I wanted to get to the Shechen guest house as soon as possible to find out if they would have a room, so I skipped the Stupa for now, promising it that I would be back as soon as possible. I walked through the gate to the Shecehn Monastery, and immediately felt a little too unclean for the environment. I walked up the steps that lead to the Gompa, and saw many monks hanging around. Followed the familiar path back to the guest house where there was a calm, inviting atmoshpere of low lights and quiet conversation. Walking up to the registration desk I felt so relieved and exasperated from the journey, that I couldn't contain myself, so I said in half-desperation, "Do have any rooms, or like a bed, or anywhere I could sleep?" And the mild-mannered Tibetan women, looking baffled, picked up a key and led me right away to a sweet little room, on the ground level so the door was opening right into the garden, and I was not more than 5 paces away from the cafe. A lovely room. I asked her when the kitchen closed and she said at 9, and it was 8:45 at that moment, so I just dumped my bags on the floor and found a seat in the cafe. Sitting down I couldn't suppress my ridiculous smile from taking over, people looked at me strangely, but I just couldn't believe I was sitting there after that journey, waiting to be served a delicous and hot meal, and surrounded by a warmth and cozyness I can only relate to home. I quickly pulled a book to avoid attention, and devoured my meal when it arrived, topping it off with a piece of cake.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Kali doesn't play the flute!

Last night I stumbled into an unusual situation, which tends to happen here all the time, hence why I love coming here. I was walking towards the Ganges trying to find a passage to get off the street and down to the river, and I happened to see a sign pointing down a dark narrow ally, saying Ganges this way. Without hesitation I stepped in and attempted to avoid all the cow dung and sleeping dogs, and wound my way through to a massive staircase leading down to the riverside. At the top of the stairs I slowed down and took everything in, then walked down a ways, then took a seat to check things out even more. In no time I was joined by an Indian who seemed like he just wanted to talk, and I was happy to have some company so I got comfortable and starting asking and answering all the usual questions about where is this or that, and how is it living here, etc. He asked me where I was staying and asked me if I had heard about this place just perched at the top of the stairs above us. I had no idea, so he filled me in, explaining that it was an Ashram, and that they allow foreigners to stay there for free, even feeding them only asking for a donation, with this he motions to his heart and says, "whatever your feeling you can give." I was really interested and when he offered to show me I was ready to see it for myself.

Walking through the gate we were greeted by the head priest, or main disciple, not sure what to call him, but I have to assume he was the caretaker of the Ashram and he gave me the rundown about the baba who it belongs to, and the problems they are facing. He gave me a tour of the shrine, showed me the place where the baba, whose full name is Lali Baba, attained his awakening, and then showed me a dark little cave-like room in which two skulls of previous babas were placed on the floor, surrounded by colorful powders and burn spots where incense and candles were being lit. While in the cave room, in the company of these relics, this main disciple took it upon himself to test my knowledge, after telling him that I study Buddhism and showing him my Shanti Deva text which I carry in my bag, perfect for times like this. He pretty much went through all the Hindu gods, saying one and then waiting for me to respond with the correct counterpart, "...Shiva and..... shakti... and Vishnu and...." when I wouldn't respond he would sternly tell me the correct answer. I really enjoyed this. He asked me if I knew of Sounarath, and that being a Buddhist this is something I should know and should have visited by now. I didn't recognize the name at first and he seem pleased to finally catch me, proving I am just a typical westerner who knows nothing. Then I guessed that this was the place in Varanasi where the Buddha first gave his teachings, and he, a little baffled, said yes, and then continued on trying to find other points I was in the dark about.

In the end we were on good terms, and he invited me to watch his ceremony, his puja to the Ganges which happens every morning and evening, each ashram having their own stage situated right at the rivers edge. I thanked him and lingered around a bit while he starting getting prepared. The guy who first drew me in, who I first talked to on the steps was now with me again, and explained that there were two German foreigners staying at the Ashram and I could come back and meet them later. It sounded great so I told them I would go for a walk along the river, check out all the ceremonies and then come back. Before I went I showed him that I had a gnarly blister on my foot from walking so much in my sandals, and he quickly sent someone off to get a bandage for me. It was perfect, my foot felt as good as new, so I thanked him, gave some ruppees and then took off for a great walk.

I cam back after about an hour, and still the puja ceremony was going on, and still the foreigners were not back so I sat again and watched the ceremony for a while, talking casually to the people hanging around about hollywood and best movies and actors. Then I went back to the tourist area to get some food at the Mona Lisa cafe, a place Maxy and I were happy to find on our last trip because they advertised "real" coffee, as opposed to instant nescafe that everyone else sells. I had my veg fried rice, cheese parantha, and pot of milk tea then again headed back for the dark ally that I first stumbled upon. Now I went inside the ashram gate and was led to a room in the back where I was told to wait outside while my friend went to talk to the German, Mr. Gon they called him. He came back and waggled his head letting me know that I was alright to stay. I was told there would be a special ceremony at the ashram tonight, and then he pointed to a pile of chopped fire wood and a fire pit. I definitely wanted to see what was going to happen so I patiently waited, and waited.

Then a young, energetic white skinned guy came through the gate, followed closely by an Indian who was pestering him. The white man was dressed in Saddhus clothes, just a simple white and red wrap, and he had a small beard, and very bright eyes. He came over and sat next to me and continued to haggle, in English, with this Indian. He was saying, "I have no money, no food, look I am preparing for a ceremony, a Kali invocation, and she is already here, I can feel her coming, and I am fasting, so no I don't have any food, not even for myself, but here please take some money, I don't even have my own money but here take whatever is in my wallet." He opened his wallet and handed the Indian a wad of 10 ruppee notes. The Indian was saying that he heard he could eat here, etc. etc. Then he finally got the picture and went away. Then the white saddhu turned to me, and in a very calm, sensitive voice he said, "So Shubas (the guy I originally talked to) tells me you want to stay here?" And I said no actually, I have to leave tomorrow, but he said that people can stay here, and also eat. But no no, the sadhu informed me, this was wrong, only people who want to take up the robes, cast away all material wealth were taken in. It felt really cool to be considered, even if just for a second, someone who might want to "stay" here. I imagined myself as taking that seriously, what it would be like, what circumstances I would be under, to come here with that intention. He then explained what was happening that night. They were to do an all night sitting ceremony, including a very serious Kali invocation. They were doing this to regenerate the energy of the Ashram, something to that tune. He was explaining that it was a troubled place, and that there was a burning ghat, place where people are cremated in the open public, just below it, and because of that it was getting a lot of powerful energy, and needed to keep up so to speak. The baba who usually lives at the ashram was away for a long time, and apparently not doing so good health wise. So they were going to sit all night and send positivity to the baba in hopes to heal him. "When the baba is strong, the Ashram will be strong again," he said.

So he said it was not the best time for some outsider like me to just sit and observe, but that I could stay for a little while, like half an hour, before I would have to leave. I told him I completely understood, and again sat waiting for the activities to begin. More saddhus showed up, and a few more foreigners in robes. As the time drew nearer and more and more preparations were made, the power went out. It was hard to not take it as an auspicous sign. Candles were lit, and one Indian saddhu, super cool looking guy, also very young, began to decorate the fire pit with powder colors. He was using his cell phone light, holding it in one hand, to see what he was doing with the colors in his other hand. I stood up and offered to hold my light over the whole area and he greatly appreciated that. Then straw mats were placed around the pit and I took a seat behind to see what would happen next. Soon they all gathered around and Mr. Gon began asking each person if they knew what they had to do, like who was in charge of fire wood, who would sit in which position, and did each person have a candle and enough light to read the mantras by. Then just as it was starting to get really happening, the air seemed to change and I suddenly really did feel like quite and outsider, these 5 or 6 people concentrating their minds so intently, that I was compelled to take my leave. Mr. Gon stood up and said he would have to ask me to go, to which I agreed and thanked him for letting watch to this point. I stood up, slipped on my sandals, put my hat firmly back onto my head, and folded my hands and bowed to the group, thanking them. I walked out, Mr. Gon wished me a safe journey to Nepal and asked that I come back for a visit another time. The gate was locked behind me, and I took a few steps, stopped and turned in disbelief to let all that soak in.

Walking back I realized that it had gotten pretty late, all the shops were closed and the crowded streets were empty and dark. I got incredibly lost finding my way back to the guest house. It must've taken an hour to get back, and the whole time I was feeling weird and funny from witnessing that mystic ritual, knowing that they were back there immersed in a world I knew so little about, sitting up all night intently concentrated, not to be disturbed. When I made it back it was midnight, and there was still some people up in the rooftop cafe. I sat down and took a drink of water, and then asked an employee if I could get the lights on in my room, they had a generator going, but would have to hit the switch for the individual rooms to have power. I went to my room, dropped my stuff on the bed, then took a cold shower, then just laid down in an exhausted wonder until I fell asleep. Oh and one of the people up on the roof was playing a flute and explaining to someone else how to play and and make notes, etc. Thought that was really cool.

So this morning when I got up and went up to the cafe for some coffee I first sat down at an empty table in the sun, pulled out my book and chilled. Then I was told to move, the table was needed for a larger group coming up, and I was directed to sit with another guy in a table under the awning in a corner. This was the guy playing the flute the night before. He was Swiss, and told me he was really tired from spending four hours driving around on a motorcycle looking for a particular flute. He explained that he had been playing for 18 years and collected flutes from around the world, South America, Africa, Asia, he had flutes from all over. He explained that the best ones were made of aged wood, wood that had been sitting for 10 years or more before being shaped into a flute, and these had the best sound and were what he was searching for. He said in Varanasi he could buy one of these top quality flutes for about 800 ruppees, less than 20 U.S. dollars. Then back in Switzerland he puts on concerts and talks and exhibitions about the details of flute playing. We had a great conversation, which took a fun turn when at one point he said, "and thats why I hate Americans!" We got into politics then, I had told him I came from Germany, and that I would be returning there, and we discussed the differences in Governments of these places. He was proud to tell me about the direct democracy they have in Switzerland, where they vote on everything, at least once a month. He was a cool guy, fun to talk to, and he was traveling with his wife and their 3-year-old girl, which I was amazed by. I asked him all about the difficulties of traveling with a child, and he said that of course there are risks, but there are risks everywhere, and they have been traveling with their kid for a few years now and haven't come across too many problems.

Today I took a quick tour of the sweet spots in Varanasi. Checked out the Hindu University, which is enormous, supposedly one of the biggest in the world, but not exactly a typical university, more like a city sprawled out with many diverse families and businesses going on there. The institute of technology was for sure the most grand establishment, of course. Afterwards stopped off at a few temples, lost a lot of small ruppee notes to all the leechers and lurkers hanging around them, then got back to the tourist area where I had a yak cheese sandwich and some coffee for lunch. So now I will take my last walk around, and then head back to my guest house to get my backpack and mandolin, which are waiting in the lobby since I already checked out of my room. Then I get a ride back to the train station, and catch my train to Gorahkpur at 11pm. Hope to arrive there bright and early so I will make it across the border and into Nepal around midday, with hopefully plenty of time to find a bus to Kathmandu. Once I arrive I am to call my brother Yung Dung and let him know that I have made it and am safe, then I will check into the beloved Shechen guest house, if there is availability, oh I hope I hope. Shechen a famous Monastery rebuilt in the same design as the original one in Tibet was, before it was destroyed by the Chinese re-education, cultural revolution. It is a Nyingma Gompa, and the home of one of my favorite Tibetan teachers Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, whose books first inspired me to take Buddhism seriously. The guest house is an incredible sanctuary, right there just off to the side of the Gompa itself. Looking out of the guest house windows and in to the windows in the building next door you can see monks sitting around, doing their thing. Its a wonderful place, and they also happen to have an amazing vegetarian cafe, can't wait to be there. And only a minutes walk from the great stupa, it has everything!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

How far to Kathmandu brother!?

There is seriously no way to avoid the scam artists of New Delhi. Even when you're expecting them, they will you surprise you and trick you, and even when you call them on their blatant lies, they some how convince you that they're doing you a favor. I arrived at the New Delhi Indira Gandhi international airport at 2am, and ended up crashing on the floor there, finding many other people also doing the same. I woke up around 6am, had my first cup of chai (i lost count at 70 now that its been 2 days...) and then arranged a pre-paid taxi to take me to the train station. On the way there we made some unexpected stops. Once pulling into a tiny ally I was told to get out, and here is the tourist office where I buy train tickets. I knew this one, and I clung to my bags kicking and screaming like a child avoiding the dentist. "Don't make me go in there, I don't want to goooo!!!" And they obliged and saw that I was determined on this. Then again, telling me we go to this other, better train station, and me yelling and making a fuss. And then finally when we came within half a mile, and I could see the main station looming off in the distance, and they told me here I get out. I said "uh uh uh, take me all the way," and again somehow they agreed. I got away with only having to give them a small tip, but just barely, pretty much had to grab my bags, hand over the 50 note bill, and flee. At the station I was swindled and duped more than 4 times. Eventually though I figured out the game, and took care of my ticket on my own. The train to Varanasi left at noon, and I breathed a deep sigh of relief when I found my seat and de-shouldered my bags at 11:45. I was entirely spent, all my energy evaporated into the madhouse of Delhi.

The fellow sitting across from me, sharing my seat made no attempt to speak English at me, and I was beginning to think I had to lay down as soon as possible or else go insane, exhaustion getting the best of me, so I took it upon myself to move to the next empty bench seat, sprawl out, and lapse into a wonderful sleep, lulled and cradled by the relaxing rocking of the train. When I got my fill of rest it was sometime in the late afternoon. I had estimated a total travel time of about 9 or 10 hours, thinking I would get to Varanasi in the late evening and get to a guest house just in time for a cup of chai and then bed. To my surprise the train just kept chugging and chugging along, and soon I was asked what I would like for dinner, veg or no veg, and then it was lights out, and people took their positions for sleep. I soon realized I must have been mistaken, or maybe had just found the slow train, since it was making a lot of stops, almost every 20 minutes it seemed. Anyways I arrived, weary and groggy, at 5:30am. Like 15 hours travel time.

Stepped off the train, in slight disbelief. I hadn't slept all that well. Almost immediately a taxi dude latched on to me and started rattling off questions and suggestions. I looked at him and put a finger to my lips and said "shhhh shhhh, no no, shhhh." He got it, and quickly became silent but still following me. When we reached the main entrance I pulled out my journal where I had written down the names of a few nice sounding guest houses. At this point the taxi guy was joined by an older, calmer and much more helpful taxi gentleman. On the train I had been hoping that I might find somebody like this. Last time I was here in Varanasi, last summer, Maxy and I had the good fortune of getting picked up by someone as gracious and intelligent as ever. It was such a relief to feel like we were in good hands, and not being entirely mislead.

So after getting into the taxi (a 3-wheeled go kart like contraption, usually called a tuk-tuk) I began to feel more and more that this was in fact actually the same guy that Maxy and I had came across last time. By the time we were under way it was around 6am and our first stop was at a chai stand for morning chai. The more we chatted the more sure I became that I knew this dude, but I wasn't sure how to go about asking him if he was him. Surely he wouldn't remember me, his job is escorting tourists, he must see hundreds of mes. As we drove on he soon asked if he could take me to a particular guest house called Sundaya, and thats when it became absolutely clear. He had asked the same question to Maxy and I last summer, and that is the guest house we spent several days being sick in, and that I eventually fell down the stairs and smashed my head in at. So I told him NOOOO! I do not want to go there, how about somewhere else, closer to the Ganges. He agreed and took me to a really cool place, and upon entering one of the employees came down to greet us. When this guy stood in front of me he just sort of gazed into my eyes, into my soul, then his eyebrows twitched a little, and in a very resolute voice he said, "I know you..." and then I realized that he did in fact look quite familiar and that I probably knew him so I said to him, "Yes I know you too," and then turning to the taxi driver and tapping his shoulder, "and I definitely know you too!" The hotel employee, it turns out, used to work at Sundaya guest house, and absolutely remembers me because of the incident with the stairs and my head getting stitched, apparently he is still laughing about it and enjoyed re-telling the story with awesome hand gestures many times to other people in the hotel. It was a really surreal moment to find myself in almost the same scenario as last time, and at that early hour in the morning. After deciding on a room and price, my two friends took me out to a chai stand for another cup of tea. Then I headed for the bed and fell asleep until around 5pm when my friend knocked on my door telling me to get up, get dressed, and have some food. I obliged, then took off for a walk around, to feel out my surroundings. Completely got lost and then it got dark and if I wasn't so awake and energized and down for walking I would have gotten a bit worried. But I actually enjoyed exploring all the crazy, narrow passage ways, using my handy LED light on my key chain (thanks Jamie!) to light the way.

Back at the guest house I found most everyone already asleep, or making their way to bed, so I climbed the stairs to the roof and found that they actually had cold beer, so I grabbed one and sat down to read my Henry Miller book. At midnight I retired to my room, still couldn't fall asleep so turned on the TV and found a Tarantino movie, Planet Terror. Had fun watching that, and afterwards just laid in bed until I finally fell asleep around dawn. Today my friend again woke me up, at about 10am, and I told him I needed a few more hours, and so around 11:30am I forced myself to get up and stay up until bed time tonight, so I can get on the proper India time schedule. Right now it is 5:30pm and I am still feeling good, definitely going to sleep right tonight. I've spent the day sitting in various cafes and wandering the streets, having fun buying cool little things. I arranged a train ticket to Gorahkpur, closest city to the Nepal border, for tomorrow but it doesn't leave until 11pm, an overnight ride getting me there at 7am, which will be perfect. So tomorrow I will do a little sight seeing, I really want to check out the world famous Hindu University, and also the Sanskrit University, and of course a few of the hundreds of temples and historic sacred sites. So from Gorahkpur I will find a bus or jeep to take me the few hours to the border, where upon I must say goodbye to India, and walk across the border (a really cool feeling doing that) and then find a bus to Kathmandu. "How far to Kathmandu brother!?" (this was the title of one of my Nepali language learning cds, and I've been repeating it ever since I first heard it)