Nepal: Riding on Elephants, Buddhist Monasteries and Masala Tea

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There is something special about traveling somewhere with zero expectations and no idea of what it will be like. It’s the feeling of simultaneously experiencing something so new and yet so similar that it’s like a paradox fully enveloping your body. That is what Nepal is. A place of paradox on a geographically sandwiched between India and Tibet.

Breathing the air of a new place is always an odd experience, and Nepal was one of the strangest. I arrived in Kathmandu, the city capital of Nepal located close to the Annapurna mountain range (part of the Himalayas), on the night of the thirteenth of September. Jet-lagged and sleep deprived, I spent my first four days in the district of Kathmandu called Thamel. It’s basically the most touristy area of the entirety of Nepal condensed in a network of tiny bustling streets. Every morning I woke up to an orchestra of new sounds; the harmonious sound of two people hawking a loogie at the same time, various car horns and beeps and the altogether random sound of an actual orchestra marching the streets at five in the morning.

My initial wave of intense shock came when walking the streets of Thamel and breathing in the air for the first time. It was thick, heavy, pungent and hard to inhale until I got used to it. The streets and buildings simply put me in awe. How any of the maze-like, brick and random other material, buildings were built I will never understand. I learned the hard way that ‘beeps’ are literally the traffic laws of Nepal. With various objects, people and cars coming from every which way, Thamel was at first very overwhelming and different from any city in the U.S. Thats why I loved it.

Once I had down the art of haggling for an item, saying no to hashish dealers and moving when I heard a car beep, I was all set to lead a life in the city.

The first adventure outside of Kathmandu that my group and I took was up to one of the most rural mountain villages in Nepal.

The village was called Gaun Sahar and it spanned over the top and side of a mountain. To get up to the village we had to take a pink vintage bus, zig-zagging up the mountain on something that would not be classified as a road in the U.S. The air there tasted like a refreshing cup of masala tea. We were greeted in the village by young children with red rice to put on our foreheads, cloths put around our shoulders and some of the sweetest smiles I’ve ever seen.

My eyes have never had a lovelier visual feast than the view of the mountains during the week I spent in Guan Sahar. My group and I stayed at the home of a local principal of a school that we were to volunteer at. During our first full day in Gaun Sahar we washed our clothing in the river.

I have never been more humbled and happy to do what is usually such a mundane task, to be washing my clothing with such simplicity. It was continuous cultural experiences like this that keep me asking myself why, in the U.S., it seems we need so much.

Volunteering with the children was  unforgettable. They were like any other children; wild, brave, clever and happy. Their school is made up of a few different classrooms consisting of wood posts,some metal sheet roofs and a chalkboard lacking chalk inside. Even with all these obstacles, these kids were more eager to learn and play a game with us then any I have ever met before. They loved asking what my name was and I immensely enjoyed getting to know them.

One of the hardest things is seeing children with sores covering their bodies and knowing that they don’t have a doctor to make sure they will be okay. I helped tutor two young girls that had many blistering sores on their legs, arms and around their mouths, but even if it hurt to smile they did not show it. It was here in Gaun Sahar that I began to really realize how babied I felt in the U.S. from all these problems people have to deal with all over the world.

The people there are happy, no matter how sick they are or how heavy the load they may be carrying is,  they truly would share a smile with anyone at any time. Some people are just phenomenal.

In many ways I was hesitant to leave Gaun Sahar; it felt home-like and I could not see how anything else could put me in such a state of awe every day. But it turns out I was in a perpetual state of awe no matter where I was on my trip. The next stop was Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city. It differed from the city life of Kathmandu greatly. It was a much more calm and quiet city, with great restaurants and stores to check out. My group and I even went to a dance club called O-Zone one night.

During our couple of days in Pokhara I spent much time wandering about, learning Nepali and thinking about a couple of questions the trip leader, Blake Boles, had asked us in Gaun Sahar. He had asked us why the U.S. has so much material wealth and a need to look like it does, why Nepal does not have that need, and whether or not it matters. These questions were constantly on my mind throughout the rest of the trip.

Pokhara is situated next to a lake called Phewa Tal.  The lake  is stunning and used as the local shower and laundry service for people in Pokhara. On one of the days we spent there, we took a boat ride across it to nearby hill that had a hike to a World Peace Bogota. It was unfortunately closed, but the view was worth the hike.

After Pokhara came trekking, and I could not have been more in love with anything for four days. My group and I did one of the easier treks to Ghorepani Poon Hill, climbing to only about a 3210m altitude. On the first day of the trek we were in a wide river valley following the river upstream, passing through little trekking stops and stopping to look at the mountains across the valley.

Our guide would point out and say “We will be over there tomorrow.”

The first trekking stop where we stayed the night was beautiful. Hannah, a trip leader and I went down to the river to journal, read and explore. I have never heard a  river that roared more ferociously. It had waterfalls that cascading down onto a rocky river bed and rapidly rushed down and out of sight. Unfortunately Blake, a trip leader, got very sick the first night so the next day he had to stay behind while most of us hiked up to the next spot.

Stairs, stairs, stairs. Try to imagine a staircase that for some reason someone decided to build all the way up and around a mountain or two, because that is what we hiked the second day of our trek. It was lovely, sweaty and filled with interactions with mules coming down the steps. We would hit a little teahouse or trekking village around once an hour and between them was beautiful, almost rainforest-like jungle.

As we hiked up in elevation the air got colder and colder until we reached the village we were staying the night in. The coldness called for cuddling, warm curries and lots of tea. The view from the teahouse was looking right at the Annapurna mountain range.

The next morning we all got up at 4 a.m. to hike up Poon Hill and watch the sunrise on the mountains. Under a starry sky and in the freezing cold we started our hike with eager anticipation of catching the sunrise. We arrived at the top of the hill half an hour before the sun rose, so we just cuddled and looked at the slowly lightening sky starting to silhouette the mountains.

I don’t know what it was about that sunrise, but it changed something in the way I was seeing things. It made my point of view really change from “I’m going to Nepal to say I went to Nepal”, to “I’m in Nepal and I could just stay here”. The sunrise was vivid orange, gold and pink and as the morning progressed a light blue appeared over the Annapurna range.

One strange thing that happened to me while I was away was that my perception of time turned into such a moment by moment life that in many ways I was never worried about the next leg of the experience. However, after trekking, the next chunk was to be spent at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu participating in a ‘Discovering Buddhism’ course.

This made me nervous because it was going to be in the same place for so long after moving around the country so much. Plus, the retreat called for at least half of every day to be in complete silence, no form of communication.

To get myself to be able to do it I decided to do the entire ten days completely silent, and that was the best decision I have made in a long time.

Kopan is on a hill, slightly isolated from the busy city aspects of Kathmandu. The schedule for every day was very rigorous from dawn till dusk. In my free time, without being able to communicate to the other 150 or so retreat members, I explored the grounds and did perhaps, if it’s possible, even too much yoga. A stupa garden lay to the left of the dining hall and after every meal I would go and relax there, give myself time to think about what I was going to do when this was over; a thought I did not care to think about, but had to be pondered.

My absolute favorite place at Kopan was a little, man-made hilltop with stairs leading up to a smooth, grassy top open enough for many people to fit around and do what they pleased. I journaled there every morning, afternoon and night.

I cannot quite describe what using no words outwardly gave me. After just taking  time to get to know myself it was like a new door had opened to meeting new people, and basically for the rest of the trip I could never stop smiling.

I now know that I am not a Buddhist because some of the ideas did not sit well with me, but the experience of learning about it from a monk who devoted her life to the religion in an actual monastery in Nepal felt like a once in a lifetime learning experience.

The next adventure, after our group reconnected to the internet and gorged on MOMO’s, a nepali dumpling that tasted magical, we headed to Chitwan National Park, a place known for elephants, rhinos and many many bugs. It’s located in a lower valley region of Nepal, towards India, and its beauty almost resembles the grasslands of Africa.

One of the trip members and I stayed in a little hut right over the river, and the first thing they told us was “Be careful at night. There are crocodiles that come on land below you.” But, being used to strange surprises by now, I would say we handled this very well by getting so excited we tried to look for them at night.

The first planned activity we took part in was the most touristy thing I’ve ever participated in: an elephant safari.

It was so magical to be perched atop the magnificent animals, however it was a hard thing to see how the elephants were treated.

But that is how things are there and it was just one more thing I would have to get used and know I couldn’t immediately try to change in their culture.

After the bumpy and thrilling elephant ride, what else would be logical to do except take a shower on one. In a river near our hotel there was a thing called ‘Elephant bathing,’. Basically, whilst the elephant cleansed itself, I was on its back, getting sprayed by its trunk with water.Touching a creature that powerful is something I knew I would not get to experience very often so I soaked in every moment quite wholeheartedly. Chitwan was definitely one of the most relaxing portions of the trip and when it came time to leave I found I was hesitant to leave such comfort, knowing that the next thing entailed me jumping off a bridge 160 meters in the air or 524.934 feet.

The Last Resort, 14 kilometers away from the Tibetan border, was one of the most powerful places I have ever been. To get to the resort we had to cross the bridge people bungee from and, looking down at the raging river below and feeling the strong fresh breeze coming through the canyon, I realized just how crazy I was for signing up to bungee jump. The resort was extremely nice and it held the perfect adventure feel. The mountains surrounding it were lush and bright green. The resort offered jobs and training to local people in nearby villages, helping to increase education in this more rural area.

When it came time to bungee, my stomach was in knots. Being on the lighter weight end of the group I was jumping with, I had to jump last of everyone I knew; that meant watching everyone in front of me jump. Focusing on the breeze and beauty of where I was mostly kept me from really realizing I was going to have to get myself to fall off a bridge in just a few minutes. All I could do was breathe, so that’s what I did.

When it came time for me to step forward the man putting the harness on me said “If you back out you feel regret, if you do it you have fun.” His broken english convinced me I simply just had to do it and that I was beyond excited. So the ‘bungee master’ took me out on the little platform and said “3, 2, 1 bungee!”

Before I knew what I was doing my body was facing the far away river below me, then everything sped up and the wind roared in my ears. Being bounced upsidedown is actually quite enjoyable and a pretty satisfying adrenaline rush. If I had the chance I would jump again and see that beauty I saw and felt the first time.

Once the bungee was done, my group had one relaxing night there, and then our final days in Kathmandu before heading back to the states. This scared me. I had just answered some of my own questions and was ready to ask more and now it was almost time to leave. Still, there was that question Blake had asked all the way back in Gaun Sahar nagging at my mind.

Does the material wealth the U.S. puts out as an image matter? For me, seeing a new place where that image just simply is not possible to reach, I see no need for any single country to generate an image that holds it above another.

I now understand why when people come back from third world countries they always ask how can the people there be so happy while the people here have so much and just talk about wanting more. I know there are health issues and various other problems in places like Nepal, but with all these challenges I have never been so in awe of a group of people everyday. There wasn’t a moment where their living conditions, lack of resources and health conditions would stop them from opening up their heart to you and telling you about the happiest things they felt in life.

There is too much to say on this topic, but I know for sure that without getting out of the valley, I still would not truly comprehend the lives of others and how bad some things are. Its important to see these things for myself so I can understand a wider variety of problems and be able to have compassion for anyone I run into in life.

Travel is to me a way to help unify and solve our world’s current issues, because without experiencing them first hand it’s hard to completely empathize with other places. It also creates families everywhere such as the one I traveled with and will always be connected to. So just as the principal who hosted my group said, whilst drinking a nice cup of masala tea, “we have to live for each other.”

-Chloe Zehr

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