Sunday 12 November 2023

Tigers, eagles, and time to come home

Farewell, Nepal.

I’m safely home - it was an interesting journey. Priority was given, rightly, to getting relief supplies to the earthquake area; I’m not so sure that the international media, having taken their disaster photos, should have been able to barge their way into flights home. But I’m back.

And before I came back? I made it to Bardia - a national park in the south-west. It’s hard to reach, and so far away from the main tourist trail. Animals are less disrupted by the army of jeeps that career around Chitwan. It’s easier to see tigers …

These footprints were made by a tiger about an hour before we passed on the jeep. Shall we follow on foot? Let’s not. I’ve been too close to a tiger before and it’s an excitement I don’t need to repeat. Though we did see fairly fresh tiger poo further down the path, so the chances are he’d eaten and might not be looking for another dinner quite yet.

Sorry, no photo of tiger poo. The things you can learn from poo! Rhinos stand still to poo while elephants can do it while they trundle along the path. And langur monkeys (like howler monkeys) think it’s funny to pee on tourists who stop under their tree to take photos. (You will understand why I didn’t hang about with my camera.) Eagles, however, are more interested in searching for unsuspecting rodents.

For me, the quiet of Bardia was the point. We stopped for lunch with a view over a blue river, wending its warm way along a sandy valley. No river dolphins, no rhinos coming to drink. Just the heat and the dust and the chirrup of crickets. After lunch we paused by countless watering holes like this - some of my fellow travellers on the jeep were disappointed there were no animals coming to drink, only that wet woodland smell with a hint of animal. But frogs leapt about in the shallows, and the reflections clear and glittering.

I could have lingered, but with  30 day visa my time was almost up. Back in Kathmandu I had one day to potter about before coming home. 

Kathmandu was devastated by the earthquake in 2015. The city itself appears to have recovered: markets are thriving, streets are clogged with motorbikes, festivals (Dashain and now Diwali) are celebrated with as much joy as ever. But looking closely … not all the temples in Durbur Square are fully restored. There are still heaps of rubble and buildings hidden behind scaffolding. And, in the corners where people are living, some buildings have been beautifully restored and look down on grateful shrines, while the homes next door are still leaning on props to stop the building collapsing. 

And so I’m home. I have clean water and predictable traffic and shops full of Christmas razzmatazz. Back in Nepal they are lighting candles for Diwali. It will take me a day or few to relocate myself.

Sunday 5 November 2023

More mountains, and another earthquake.

I need to start with the most recent earthquake. Tremors are common here, and surely we all remember the devastation in Kathmandu and beyond in 2015. Three days ago, the earth shook in the remote north-west of Nepal. People have died; you will have seen pictures of people sleeping in the streets for fear their houses will collapse on top of them.

The relief effort will be challenging: this area is hard to access and supplies may need to be carried on the back of porters - most of whom, at this time of year, are in the mountains with the trekkers. But the Nepali are extraordinarily resourceful. They will not be wringing their hands and waiting for help to trudge over the mountains: that will take time. Meanwhile these villagers will be busy looking after each other. They will harvest what they can and cook over open fires. They will share blankets and any available shelter. 

Meanwhile, I was asleep and felt nothing. And, in true Nepali fashion, my hosts continue to insist that life for tourists must carry on as if nothing has happened. My plans remain unchanged and I’ll be home by the end of the week. Do I feel guilt? Of course. But even if I could reach the stricken region I’d be a hindrance, not a help. 

So let’s backtrack. My last post was written just after I left Lumbini. I had a week or so in Pokhara, pottering by the lake, wandering in and out of shops, lounging in cafes with my notebook. 

Twice I went higher into the mountains. Trekking is off the agenda on this trip, and so Tika drove me to a ridge hotel, where I could watch the sunrise over Annapurna. 

Later in the day, when clouds play in the mountaintops, this is a view down the valley:

My pottering also took me into a little temple by the lake. Hinduism remains a mystery to me (I’ve tried), but half-forgotten temples are peaceful places; I understand the appeal of peace. Though did smile at the pigeon that paid no respect to this sacred bull:

There’s a huge, new Shiva temple high on the ridge above Pokhara: this was full of visitors and an altogether noisier place. Shiva, however, looked down on it all without flinching.

And, across a little valley is a smaller temple. This is the mountains (again - can there be too many mountains?) framed by an archway of bells.

If only ringing a bell could help those rebuilding their earthquake-flattened homes.

Saturday 28 October 2023

Lumbini and beyond.

Lumbini is beautiful, and complicated. It is the birthplace of Buddha, and so a very sacred site. A building marks the birthplace itself; it is comparatively simple: a large white structure over the remains of an ancient temple.

Around it lie the walls of the old monastery, and a holy tree. Prayer flags flutter against a gloriously blue sky. Pilgrims from all over the world are quietly reflective. 

But this huge site is, so much more than this original temple. So many countries have built temples here. Are they trying to outdo each other in beauty or complexity? Two temples stand out - this is ceiling of the German temple:

It is surrounded by an immaculate garden, with giant prayer wheels and sculptures like this telling the Buddhist story:

And this is one corner of the huge Thai temple:

Is one more perfect than the other? More important? Evidence the generosity of the countries that built them? They are the most dramatic temples, and draw the biggest crowds. Smaller, less remarkable but still beautiful, many temples are passed by as tourists crowd in the more famous buildings.

But the one that touched me most - and where photography was not allowed - was the Nepali temple. It is a simple dome, with minimal decoration outside and inside just a huge wooden Buddha. Around the walls are long wooden benches, for the pilgrim (or weary tourist) to sit and reflect on why there were there. Nothing gets in the way of thinking. That, for me, is what Lumbini is really about.

(And while we were there we had a very small earthquake. Barely enough to make the earth move. But one of us was sitting on the toilet at the time …the Buddha was looking out for us!)

I’m back in Pokhara now - which meant Tika drove up the Siddhartha highway. It is a notorious road: beautiful and, according to the BBC, one of the world’s most dangerous roads (but they did drive it during the monsoon). I’ve been on the road before - I was driven down it, in the dark, after a cyclone. So I was understandably wary this time. Not without reason - it clings to the mountainside for mile after mile after mile. Bend after bend, steep drop after steep drop, landslide detour (those are interesting) after landslide detour.

But it is, as promised, beautiful. Photographs don’t show the scale of it - and the sun was fierce that day and so many of my pictures are bleached. But this bridge hints at the size of the valley (with apologies to at least two people who will be having a fit of the vapours at the thought of it):

I’m in Pokhara for a few days now. But one last picture from Lumbini: this is the Peace Flame, lit in 1986, and with in a Buddhist prayer that all peoples and faiths can find harmony together. It feels needed more than ever now.

Monday 23 October 2023

Lakes, mountains, forests …

l left the mayhem of Kathmandu for the relative peace of Pokhara. I’m staying with Tika and his family - he has built a self-contained studio flat on the top floor of this house, so I can potter about on the balcony and be well out of their way. The first night Tika and I went to the supermarket so I could stock up with breakfast bits. But before I could pour a single cornflake into a bowl Tika’s daughter knocked to tell me that I had bought the wrong milk. I must have breakfast with them. And supper. And breakfast the next day …

Lakeside isn’t the retreat it was when I first came here (there’s a KFC here now, and even a casino), it’s s short stroll to the waterside and the quiet of Fewa Lake. When Shobha asks what I’ve been doing, sitting by the lake sounds as if I’ve been idling. But there’s something reparative about being by water, the gentle lap of it. And how could anyone tire of looking at this:

I tear myself away for a day in Chitepani, Tika’s village in the mountains. There’s a road all the way there now, complete with random zebra crossings one of which has been adopted by the monkeys as their crossing place. (Though they don’t stop to look before leaping out.) The village itself is much the same, as is the welcome. The villagers are as generous as ever with their time and their cups of tea. And the view - the mountains kept there summits hidden in the clouds, but the view across the valley as green as I’ve ever see it, with houses dotted along a well-worn path.  

We would have lingers but for rumbling thunder. I’ve learned the hard way not to get caught in the mountains in a thunderstorm.

Pokhara is addictive, but there’s so much more to see. So we trundled off to Chitwan National Park - this was nothing more than a village when I first came but it’s highly commercialised now. But that doesn’t detract from the magic of the jungle, with its chorus of birdsong, the smell of damp foliage and occasional scat of animals. (I can still tell the difference between rhino and elephant poo - travelling can be so educational!) I’m happy just chugging through the jungle in a jeep, or paddling down the river. Just being in the jungle is a joy. But it’s wise to take note of the animals - and this crocodile was further away than it looks in this picture:

And then Tika snapped this magnificent deer:

On to Lumbini - the Dashain festival is is full swing and has shaped the timing of these last few days. As we were leaving the lodge a man arrived with a goat. ‘We will cut it,’ the owner told me. I know what he means: part of the festival involves the celebratory sacrifice of a goat, which is then skinned, cooked and eaten. 

(Tika and his family don’t do the goat-thing anyway, but their celebrations are muted this year by a recent bereavement.)

Of course I find the whole thing repellent, but maybe that’s a little hypocritical. Most of us in the west are happy to collect our turkeys, plucked and gutted and wrapped in plastic, from the supermarket shelves. Rarely a passing thought for the bird that once strutted round a shed. Nor the man or woman who killed it. Not so different from the festive killing of a goat?

Tuesday 17 October 2023

It’s been too long.

Oh Kathmandu, it’s been too long. But let’s not linger on the challenges of the last few years. For now I’m here.

And I’ve had a hiccup on the camera front, so no photos this time.

Has it changed? The pandemonium of the arrivals hall up at Kathmandu airport hasn’t changed. The traffic mayhem is, if anything, even worse. The only way I can cross the busiest roads is to find someone else looking to cross, tuck in behind them and follow as they weave through lines of traffic. (And especial thanks to the young man who spotted me looking hopeless and steered me across the road like an old person. Without him I might still be there). The air is so thick with diesel I could taste it.

The welcome in my hotel is just as warm. The pomelo tree in their lovely courtyard, set back from the chaos, gives a dappled shade: my refuge from the streets.

But there are changes. The earthquake in 2015 did such damage here; while most ancient temples have been repaired many buildings collapsed completely and new structures have emerged. A new temple is being built where a school once stood. Swanky new hotels rise, incongruously, in the ancient streets of Thamel.

It is obligatory to get lost in Thamel - which is how I stumbled on the garden behind the Museum of Nepali Art. There js a cafe in one corner, and I sat under a jacaranda tree with my coffee. The frangipani will smell sweetly in the evening. It is mercifully quiet.

The rest of the space is divided into quarters. At one edge, a small plaque with a quote from Rumi: ‘Somewhere beyond right and wrong there is a garden. I will meet you there’. I wander on. Not a blade of grass is out of place; such a contrast to the chaos of the streets outside. There is a large, bronze vajra (it is a religious symbol. If I’d taken time to google I could tell you more). And some fibreglass statues - a reclining woman, an androgynous man. I’m trying to find a word other than peaceful to describe it, but for now that will have to do.

Surrounding the garden is a hotel, small shops and spa. Along one wall there is a series of photographs that tell the story of this space. Before the earthquake, this had been an unremarkable courtyard alongside a hotel. In 2015, within minutes, the site was destroyed. Nothing but a sea of rubble. Buildings alongside at risk of total collapse.

I don’t know who took the decision, but this rubble was cleared and the garden planted in only three months. There is a photograph of the gang of workers, dusty and disheveled and rightly pleased with themselves. I know that there were still people living in tents at the time (I visited and saw them), and you could argue that homes could have taken priority. But the men and women who survived the trauma of the earthquake and rebuilt Nepal also needed a restorative space; and here it is. I love it even more now.

Saturday 8 February 2020

Hot springs and spiders.

I dragged myself away from Cuenca, and spent a few days in the spa town of Banos. Oh those spas! There are thermal baths on every corner (not quite, but you get the picture). Banos is built on the side of a volcano - an active volcano. About once every five years residents evacuate the town by wading crossing the river (or queuing for the bridge) and running up the opposite mountainside. Which makes it a bonkers place to build a town - except rumour has it that the Virgin has blessed a waterfall and nearby thermal baths (heated by magma bubbling not so far below). Local people travel for miles for the delights of sitting in warm water until they look like crones. 

Did I join in? Of course. I can’t say I felt touched by any blessing from a Virgin, but flopping about in warm water (even with raindrops prickling my face at one point) was fun. And sorry, I didn’t take my camera into the pools - though did see someone drop her phone in the water while trying to take a selfie.

But I do have photos of the waterfalls. This is just one of them (I think the Virgin left this one alone, but it’s still spectacular).

From Banos I had one day in Quito before heading for Mindo and the Cloud Forest. I’ve not been there before and so the main road to my lodge was a bit of a surprise. 

Once safely on dry land I could begin to enjoy just how different this environment is. It’s high (high enough to be in the clouds) but because it’s so close to the equator the forest is dense and lush. It’s hard to photograph, given all that green, but this will give you an idea.

I had four days (and a birthday) here. It’s bird-heaven - from tiny fluorescent hummingbirds to huge turkey vultures. There are yellow birds and turquoise birds and scarlet birds - and you don’t even need to trudge miles to see them (I spent one morning in a hammock, watching the birds in one tree - and lots count of the numbers I saw). 

And not just birds. There are orchids - huge rude orchids and tiny orchids with a huge smell. Leaf-cutter ants parade across pathways; soldier ants march for miles. And, one evening, on the way back to my cabana, a tarantula stood guard on the path. Should I take a photograph and risk upsetting it with the flash? I decided against, gave it a wide berth, and made sure the door to my cabana was firmly shut!

It’s all gone so fast! By the end of next week I’ll be home - but not before a visit to the huge market it Otavalo. I’m not a shopper, but even I’m tempted by stalls like this!

Saturday 1 February 2020

And so to the cities.

I couldn’t flop about watching crabs forever. And so I packed my bags and headed to a big city for a couple of days. Guayaquil has a history of piracy and general skullduggery, and so the relative safety the Malecon (the waterfront) is a significant achievement. I say ‘relative’ - there is a metal fence between the Malecon and the street that Trump would be proud of, and security bids at every turn. Even so I saw a pickpocket try his luck (and fail) with a woman’s handbag. Which might explain why this fellow was taking any chances

Two days was long enough for Guayaquil. Besides, I wanted, more than anything, to be reminded of why I love Cuenca. It was quite a drive - the views through the mountains are stunning (they would have been even more stunning if we weren’t in cloud for much of the way). I’ve stayed in Cuenca before; it’s a significant city, but the historical centre is compact and easy to explore on foot. This is the heart of the old colonial city and it’s extravagant and full of stories and crumbling in places:

But it’s much more than that. The Pumapungo museum is home to a succession of tableaux celebrating the cultures of indigenous peoples who were here long before the Spanish. I love it - it’s where Ecuadorians step aside from all things Spanish and recognise those who came before. As a museum it’s crude in places, but succeeds in exploring the ethnic diversities of Ecuador without being patronising. (Nor, being honest, does it recognise that indigenous peoples still have a tougher time here than those of Spanish descent. But that’s a complicated story that I am ill-equipped to tell).

There’s no photography allowed in the Pumapungo museum, sadly. However, I also dropped by a private collection of artefacts going back 15,000 years - much of it evidence that informs current anthropological research here. Among them was this huge pot (it’s about 1500 years old, and I have no idea why it has an extra face. But it made me smile!):

And then there’s Ingapirca, a bus ride away. This is an Inca settlement constructed on top of an older CaƱari site. This photograph doesn’t do justice to the significance of this site (and anyone who has been to Machu Picchu - I haven’t - might scoff at it) but, from Ecuador’s perspective, it’s the most impressive evidence they have of the might of the Incas here. And the llamas seem happy

All very interesting and educational. It was time to saunter through hot streets and remind myself of why of its Spanish magnificence. And to decide if I should have an ice cream ... Maybe not from here

I have no idea how this is kept cold on a hot afternoon in Cuenca. Ecuadorians innards may be immune to any bugs that have made merry in the sunshine. Better for retreat to a pavement cafe for a cup of tea