Retro Nepal

Caught up might be a strong way to put it but here we are, finally talking about Nepal, where we’ve been ever since Mar 24 if you can believe it. Hey, as they say, deadlines are for newspaper columnists, celebrity gossip writers and funky smelling condoms. I’m free to be as lazy as I choose, in exchange for making no money, ever. Fair trade, I’d say. Anyway, all winter we’ve been looking forward to our second visit to Nepal, the wonderfully mountainous little country perched up there on India’s northeastern corner like a bumpy, pulsating goiter. But despite many similarities to India the Nepalese have gone to great lengths to make sure there is no way to possibly doubt their unique sovereignty – just check out the radical fifteen minute time difference! So, just to clarify, when it’s 6:30 AM in Delhi it is actually….wait for it….6:45 AM in Kathmandu. Ay caramba! It’s like landing on the moon. Consider it Nepal’s version of colouring their hair blue or piercing their nipple. One more difference, probably not of their choosing, is that they are apparently even worse at cricket than Canada, which also sets them proudly apart from the new World Champions south (and east, and west) of the border.

Kathmandu

The most difficult thing about returning to a country we loved the first time around is to temper our expectations – we both enjoyed it so much last time that we tend to only remember the good parts (Bhaktapur’s haunting Durbar Square at night, breakfast under a looming mountain before starting a day of hiking in the Annapurnas, white water rafting on the Kali Gandaki, $2 hotel rooms) and conveniently forget about the less pleasant aspects (all manner of barking dogs, bland food, prolific spitting, barely enough electricity to keep Martha Stewart’s favourite “neck massager” charged up)

This time around we are also traveling with Lyle and Nadine as opposed to just a heavy dose of uncertainty and a mediocre Thai tan. Traveling with others always changes things somewhat and serves to push us out of our comfortable little rhythms.

Pros:

More social

The pleasure of shared experience

Cons:

Splitting restaurant bills

Cryptic notes slipped under our door every day at 5:30 AM (“ON THE ROOF” – Who’s on the roof? What do they want with us? Is this Nathan Portman again? Because I already explained that that picture of my nipple was intended for someone else.)

Old Bhaktapur

Not a lot to say about Kathmandu – I would probably say that it “serves its purpose”. Everything you could ever need for your further travels in Nepal is readily available in the chaotically condensed tourist area of Thamel:

Trekking shops

Travel agencies

Junk food

Restaurants serving excellent facsimiles of Western food

A starter version Durbar Square – a warm up for the better ones in Bhaktapur, Patan, etc.

Cheap replicas of brand name items: sunglasses, clothing, erectile dysfunction pills – in at least two of these cases your friends at home will never notice the difference.

Now for our “arguably supernatural Kathmandu experience”:

Laynni washed her panties in the shower with a bar of soap and industrial scrub brush, like frugal Norwegian maid servants in the 1920’s are wont to do, and hung them on the balcony of our hotel room to dry. A couple hours later we returned to find them hanging on the doorknob in the hallway, black and damp like some mischievous instrument of evil cowering from the light of the sun, or a friendly warning that behind that door are a bra and pair of soiled boxers up to no good. She blames it on the wind and suspiciously helpful male staff members – I’m sticking with paranormal heavy petting.

Durbar Square under a pending storm

Bhaktapur

Welcome back to Laynni’s “favourite city in the world”, circa 2008. Would it live up to the hype, or perhaps even thrive, thanks to self-improvement techniques such as periodic canicide and amateur duodenectomies for repeat offender spitters? Or collapse under the weight of lofty expectations like a child named Thor?

One thing we had forgotten about Bhaktapur, all of Nepal really, is their daily allotment of between two and three hours of electricity per day. Good for creating evocatively dark evening cityscapes, not so good for finding out who will get naked next on Season 3 of True Blood.

Textile Bhaktapur

Conclusion: Not as surprising but just as enjoyable. Some of the highlights:

Eerily glowing lights emanating from shy Nepalese teens huddled in pairs around the darkness of Durbar Square as they text their friends across the square.

Young kid hammering on our door, looking panicked and out of breath, struggling to communicate to us in his rudimentary English “Come down! Fuel, leaking is fuel!” Of course, Laynni dutifully passed this along to me as I stood in the bathroom in only a towel with just under ½ my face shaved, the rest looking dapper under its generous coating of shaving foam, leaving me to decide which was more idiotic – running out into the street nearly naked and looking like I had just been getting intimate with the Pillsbury Dough Boy, or being the idiot that doesn’t make it to the opening credits because he’s washing his face and rummaging for clean underwear when the bomb goes off. Well…..turns out a motorcycle parked outside had a small gas leak. And the kid had the wrong room. And some old guy took care of it with a coin and some packing tape. For a change it was nice to feel justified for putting on pants.

Kicking off a rather hopeless last ditch effort to get in shape with just over a week until the start of another Annapurna trek, Laynni and I climbed 45 minutes up a hill south of town to a viewpoint with no view, just several couples looking annoyed at the disturbance and an odd group of 20 year old guys picking flowers.

After doing our best not to complain about all the stairs we had to climb to get to our hotel room, to every restaurant in town, and apparently everything else worth seeing, doing or eating in Nepal, we were fascinated to watch the woman across the alley in a 4th floor flat acquiring her breakfast supplies from the ground floor confectionary with the help of a very basic rope and pulley system. She’s completely changed the way we think about needing legs.

When our visit was almost over we suddenly realized that while we continue to search obsessively for a photo that accurately captures the subtle beauty, traditional architecture and regrettable smell of Bhaktapur’s dim narrow alleys we almost forgot to get a couple shots of the highlights (i.e. Nyatapola Temple, Royal Palace, me pretending to jerk off a statue at the Erotic Elephants Temple)

Other than that we love the people in Bhaktapur – there are a lots of eager guides who approach in hopes of giving you a private tour but they tend to get distracted with talk of nationalities and cricket as you wander off, many diligent guards who conversely eschew small talk and stick diligently to the business at hand, checking our tickets six to eight times per day, and unexpectedly nonchalant sales people who catch your eye almost fleetingly, seem about to approach, then apparently think better of it, give a small wave toward the interior of their shop, then shrug and sink back onto their small wooden stool.

Bandipur

Bandipur

For Laynni and I, this was the first new stop in Nepal (for Lyle and Nadine it was all equally new, baffling and hazy, much like a burning department store. Regardless, the first thing we all noticed and, for a change, agreed upon was that after two weeks spent more or less entirely in cities, here in the foothills of the Himalayas you could practically taste the difference in the air. In the space of just a couple days our sinuses began to clear up, our photos got crisper and my knuckle hair started growing back. Obviously, we were all thrilled.

Bandipur is a tiny mountain village perched precariously on a handful of uneven ridges high above the Marsyangdi River valley. It is an intriguing mixture of picturesque traditional charm and shrewd business acumen. They’ve banned vehicles from the scenic, rambling main street, turned every second antique two story Newari building into a guest house and discovered the potency of tied selling through the unlikely combination of t-shirts and ice cream. Walking around the town after a rain was almost magical in a “stepping back in time” sort of way (as opposed to the less appealing “touchless organ harvesting” way).

The view from our balcony – the clouds still settled well below us, the sun slowly rising above them to illuminate the distant Himalayan peaks. Wow.

Sounds wafting up through the clouds from several kilometres away that seemed to be closer than an ethical solution to human cloning. Wow.

Clouds rolling up at sunrise

Giant fig trees overlooking a completely flat ridge with stunning views of valleys on either side. Wow.

Electricity at three in the afternoon. Wow.

In keeping with our unlikely attempts to achieve physical perfection in ten days (let’s face it, there will only ever be one James Garner) on our first full day in Bandipur we tackled the short but extremely vertical hike waay down to Siddha Gufha – a huge, labyrinthine cave reputed to be the largest of its kind in Nepal, not to mention the coolest place you could find to deflower the most popular girl in school’s unattractive friend who ends up looking surprisingly like Elle McPherson when she finally takes off those ugly glasses and lets her hair down in the midst of a stiff breeze. A satisfying side benefit to the workout we endured hiking back up. I figure that we combine that excruciating climb with a supper of soup and popcorn and before you know it you’re not sure if you’re looking at Dean and Laynni or Martin Short and Andrea Martin in 1988.

View from roof - Pokhara

Pokhara

In recent times we’ve become masters of the unplanned hangout, where we get a bit lazy, briefly misplace our ambition, find a restaurant we like and suddenly drop two other towns from our itinerary to spend a week reading, napping and helping develop the local cockfighting infrastructure. Well, believe it or not, there was actually a time when this was unusual for us and Pokhara may have been the first place without a beach that sucked us in that way. Chalk it up to good food, accessible internet and barbers that make me feel just so special with their unabashed desire to lay their blade on my face. The mood is practically giddy when I pass by looking naive, impressionable and slightly unkempt like a drunk girl who just might be convinced to take it up the Latvian Lasso.

Quick weather report: It’s been raining every day for the past week, usually just for a couple hours at a time, and mostly in the late afternoon or night. Nothing that should put a serious “damper” on trekking itinerary as long as a person plans ahead. Back to you, Phil.

Somehow over the last couple years of having kids thrust at us from all directions we had lost track of just how unreasonably cute Nepalese kids are. Fat little moon faces with Asian-y eyes – I’m telling you, if you ever needed somebody for a baby food ad, or a “Wanna Have a Baby With an Asian” website, these would be your kids. Unfortunately, a couple of ill timed jokes have now set off a whole running conversation about taking a Nepalese kid (or two) home. The questions are whether to purchase one on the black market, also referred to as “fee based international adoption”, or to instead try to lure them of their own accord using any number of incentives such as RESPs, universal health care, car seats, a stick with a Sony DS on the end or the promise of endless opportunities to drown gophers. But before anybody gets too excited we have rationally assessed the situation and determined that, regrettably, there is simply not enough room left in our bags. Maybe we could get one of the skinny ones in our carry on, but then we’d have to lug them up to Scotland on the train, and we’re probably going to wanna sleep on that one so…nah.

Other than that we’ve been spending the last couple days preparing for our pending ten day hike to Annapurna Base Camp (also known as the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek). Now that it’s so close our excitement is starting build, that is, whenever we get a chance to think about it in between filling out permit forms, purchasing waterproof gloves, looking at maps, meeting porters, charging up electronics and showering hourly to build up as much of a reserve of cleanliness as possible before venturing back into the mountains and their challenging inclines, disappointing buckets of cold water and unappealing squat toilets. Worth playing for? Yeah, of course, Jeff.

Talk to you in a couple weeks.

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