Monday, 21 October 2013

Chitwan – The Real Nepal Experience

So, the time for wandering around the city has come to an end. It’s now time to head down south to Chitwan National Park, where our host family live and where we will be teaching. We will be heading back to Kathmandu in a months time, spending between 1 and 2 weeks seeing the rest of the city and the surrounds.

An overturned truck on the road from Kathmandu to Chitwan.

One of the many butterflies in our garden.
Harry and our host Bhim having a Nepali tea.
Our bus trip there was interesting. We had to get up and be on the bus by 6:45am, which was hard enough, and then we actually sat in the cab of the bus, right next to the driver. There were 4 of us, Marta, Harry, Ania and myself, as well as the driver, and also a man and his son. It was cool to start off with, but after about 6.5 hours, fun wasn’t the word. If you have ever been to Asia, you will know what the drivers are like – Vietnam is particularly bad. Our driver was good – he avoided every bump and slowed down for ditches and stray dogs and chickens – but he didn’t think twice about driving on the other side of the road (here they are supposed to drive on the left), constant beeping, and insane over-taking. On the road south, it was very mountainous, with windy roads, small bridges and a lot of traffic and pedestrians. We saw many overturned vehicles; some vans and buses with their front-end smashed in, and even saw a recent accident where someone had gone off a cliff. We were on the wall side there – not looking forward to the trip back where we will be on the cliff side…

We have met our host family, and have been living with them for 3 days now. The food is wonderful, but as it is pretty much the same everyday, I will be craving bacon and eggs very soon I’m sure (and maybe a burger or pizza!!!). The staple is rice, 2 kinds of vegetables, and a spicy plate (today it was spicy cucumber - YUM!!) and some dhal to mix with your rice. It goes down a treat with a beer, but beer here is not cheap due to the high government taxes.

2 baby elephants playing.
The first day here, after we got off the bus, we washed up, changed, and headed straight out for a walk. We live a 5 minute walk to the river, and if you follow the river, in another 10 minutes you are in the jungle. The river has plenty of crocs, but I haven’t seen any yet – but I am sure no one sees them until they get attacked, so maybe that’s a good thing! We passed a small village of about 10 families, all living in dried mud huts, and all the children came out to see us and to talk to us. They were so happy to walk with us, talk to us, and just speak English – they were dirty but happy children. They may appear poor these families, but they have what they need by growing it or making it themselves, and they have a real community spirit, so they are happy. Simple is good. Many people in the Western World just don’t know how lucky they are, and they have far too many ‘things’ and don’t realise you don’t need much to be happy.

The male rhino just before he started chasing us.

A spider in our garden.
One of our new housemates.
Day 2 was into the jungle. We cycled in, and after 15 minutes on the bikes we were in the heart of it – and had to stop for a soft drink as we were sweating buckets! There was an abundance of wildlife – birds, monkeys and insects were everywhere. We had high hopes of seeing Rhinos, and just as we were cycling back, where got our wish! Our host, Bhim, stopped us on our bikes, and pointed to patch of trees about 200m away and said, “rhino.” Sure enough there they were – a female and a big male. We clicked away, and watched them, but before long realised that there weren’t just standing there, but the girl rhino was giving the boy rhino a piggy-back ride. I don’t think they were too happy about us taking photos of them in this position, so they come up onto the road to scare us away. Some other tourists came up to that part of the road just as the rhinos came up – the tourists dropped their bikes and ran for their lives. I laughed at first, as the male rhino growled at them, sounding like a chainsaw almost, pushing their bikes over, but then he turned in our direction. If was nearly a life or death situation – I quickly scrambled up a tree after Harry, half hoping that they would come close so I could take photos, and also half hoping that they wouldn’t come over and knock down the not-so-strong tree we sought refuge in.

The young elephant (middle) is being trained to take tourists around the National Park.
Elephant coming in from the jungle for the night
A man fishing in the traditional style
Today was a little more relaxed, as we went to visit the elephant nursery. Here they have lots of elephants, and breed them to use in the National Park for work and for tourists. We saw a few baby elephants, running around and playing with their brothers and sisters, and always ‘smiling.’ I love how happy elephants seem to smile! We couldn’t get close enough to pat the babies (I just have to pat everything), but we got quite close, and just enjoyed seeing these amazing 5-tonne creatures. If you know elephants, you will know that Asian elephants are slightly different to African elephants. African elephants cannot be trained and used like Asian elephants; Asians also have smaller ears than their cousins, and well as having only 1 ‘lip’ on their trunk compared to two.

The river and the jungle, just down the road from our house.
We start teaching in a day. I am a little nervous, as the classes will be very big, no paper or resources, and of course very, very hot. I enjoy teaching kids, and just need to get back into the swing of it – it has been a little while since I have taught!

The children here are so beautiful and happy.
 We have had a great few days here. We have done plenty of walking and seeing things, including wild animals in the jungle. Our village is so quiet and beautiful. People are extremely friendly and happy. We can see the snow-capped Himalayas on the walk to town – what else do you need I ask you.

Friday, 18 October 2013

First Days in Nepal

After saying our goodbyes, Marta and I left Catalonia on our long trip back to Sydney, Australia. It was tough saying goodbye, as it always is – there are always two sides to the coin though. It is sad saying goodbye to family and friends, but on the other hand it is exciting and motivating to also be saying hello to all of the new opportunities that await.

Our first meal in Kathmandu - with tradtional 'Tongba' beer which is served hot like Sake.

Traditional puppets
The flight from Barcelona to Istanbul went without a hitch, apart from the ‘technical difficulties’ that the plane experienced before we took off. I don’t mind a 1 hour delay, as long as they get it right before we take off. I always imagine the worse, like fuel leaking, or the doors aren't closing properly, or maybe the instruments are playing up because the person in the next row is still buggering around with their iPhone. We did take off, fly, and land with no problems in the end – and that’s what counts!

A man selling pants.

Istanbul airport was far more chaotic than I remember it! There were masses of people everywhere, bright shop lights, people lugging around huge duty-free bags full of perfume, and surly airport staff. We got on our flight though and off we went. We were on an overnight flight, landing in Kathmandu at 7am. Unfortunately I didn't get a window seat – you know Im a little camera mad, and I love taking pictures out of the window of planes – especially if you are going to see the sunrise over the Himalayas. I was upset, tried to sneak to another seat, and was politely told ‘I want to see the sunrise too’ by the seat-owner, but it turned out that all you could see were clouds in the morning. Take that miss ‘this is my seat.’ How do you enjoy your mountain view now!´ 

3 days in Kathmandu later, things are great. We have eaten local food, seen some of the sites, meet some very friendly and open local people, and we haven’t had any toilet emergencies yet. Yet. We have eaten nothing but veggie food and stayed away from the tourist traps that advertise pizza, hamburgers and other Western food.

Holy Men in Kathmandu. They begged for money after this photo...
Sleeping in Kathmandu is another story! 3 nights in Kathmandu, and I have barely slept. Strange noises in the night, motorbikes and beeping horns to name a few. The first night, from about 10pm (until the early morning), I heard a noise that at first I thought was a monkey. Are there monkeys in the city I thought. I worked it out the next night when I heard it again - it was a cat on heat... the third night, it must have had some satisfaction, and I didn't hear it. Dogs are always barking on the streets at night, and rove in wild packs during the day. Pillows are rock hard and lumpy, and the beds are an inch of "matress" and then a solid plank of wood... but surprisingly comfortable! I am looking forward to a soft sofa though!!!

A monkey with a view.
On out last day in Kathmandu before we head off to Chitwan National Park and our homestay, we visited the Monkey Temple. It is on a hill above the city, and it provides probably the best view of Kathmandu you´re ever going to get. Yes, it is full of monkeys – monkeys playing, monkeys picking fleas off each other, and monkey hanging around waiting for food from the tourists – a rustle from a bag brings monkeys, and if you get too close, or are too slow with the treats, they will screech at you and show all their lovely sharp little teeth. I don’t like monkeys.

Monks in Kathmandu.

The Stupa at the ¨Monkey Temple.
A baby money at the temple.
Known as the Monkey Temple, it’s real name is Swayanbhunath. Both a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Nepal’s most sacred Buddhist temple, it truly is a wonder. According to legend, the Kathmandu valley was a lake, and this temple emerged from the lake. This legend has now been backed up by geological evidence (the part about the lake anyway). It’s a bit of a climb to see the Bodhnath Stupa, the large white dome that actually forms the temple, but it was well worth it. 

Like many tourist sites here, the Westerners have to pay steep prices compared to other tourist that look like they live here (and these lucky people can usually just wander in for free). So if you have a North Face jacket on and a camera slung around your neck, be prepared to get your purse out. We reached the top, just in time to see monkey feeding time, and the sunset. This place, although a $4 taxi ride away, it is definitely a ‘don’t miss’ site for Kathmandu. If, like us, think “oh, there are five of us, we need 2 taxis,” think again – we squeezed in there like a clown car! The car was tiny as well – some Sort of little Daihatsu hatchback. Great!

The Stupa at the top of the ´Monkey Temple.
That was only 3 days in Kathmandu, and now it is off south to Chitwan National Park. We are staying with a family, and will live with them for a month. We will also be teaching in local schools, and working with the community. This is going to be an amazing experience – really helping people, meeting and staying with local people and experiencing their day-to-day lives, and seeing part of the country you don’t get a chance to explore on the tourist trail.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

5 days in L'Escala Part 2 (AKA Last Days In Catalunya)

If you've read the last post, we are trying to live the last few days in this country in style. We are staying in L'Escala for 5 days, getting the last bit of sun and warmth before we venture off to Nepal.

The small town of Montgo with its Torre on top of the hill.
It has been a busy few days, and yet, at the same time, very, very relaxing. For the first time in a long time, I have just picked up a book and reclined on the sofa and read for hours - so simple, but so pleasurable! I have been able to space my time out to part walking and seeing things, part taking it easy in the morning and having a slow breakfast, and part just laying in the sun near our pool and reading.

I won't bore you with the parts about me napping in the afternoons, what's happening in my book, or how my elbow seems to get more sun than the rest of my body... I will try to keep your interest with some things that I have seen in the area. I will start with Empuries.

Roman mosaics at the ruins of Empuries.
Many towns around the area are called 'something de Empuries.' This is the name of the general area, but what I want to talk about is the actual ruins of Empuries. The town of Empuries was originally founded in the 6th century BC by Greek settlers, and later occupied by the Romans. The town was abandoned in the Middle Ages due to it being prone to pirates. Damn pirates. Although I didn't go in this time (and I was tempted at only 3 Euros!), I did visit the ruins a few years ago, as I am a big fan of anything the Romans did (what have the Romans ever done for us I ask you??). The excavations started in 1908, and have uncovered absolute treasures. You can still clearly see original Roman mosaics, gardens, stone walls and even pottery and statues. It is a wonder just to walk around - and it doesn't take much of an imagination (although I have plenty...) to imagine the town thronged with sailors, merchants, tradesman all going about their business, and maybe even a few soldiers marching through the streets.
Intact Roman mosaics - not hard to imagine how it looked in its day.
Just 500m from the site, there is the tiny village of St Marti de Empuries. I have no idea how many people actually live in the village, but its has about 3 streets and you can walk right around it in under 5 minutes. It has beautiful little stony houses, pretty private gardens and a few restaurants in the main placa looking at the church. Although a little pricey (for me) to sit and have a meal, it is a wonderful stop for a cold beer and to just soak it all in.

The different sized church bells of St Marti.

The church of St Marti.
The rocky Costa Brava.

We did a bit of walking along the coast, following the Cami de Rhonda. The path runs all along the coast, and is part of the GR walking paths. Easy to do, and beautiful scenery at every turn. Normally quite busy during warmer months, we didn´t come across anyone, and there was just something about being able to look out over the sea, breath in the salty air, and hear nothing but the waves and wind. I have done part of the coastal walk before, between Calella and Palamos, and enjoyed it greatly. If you are looking for real Mediterranean coast, and cant make the trip to Greece, well this is it right here - sparkling blue water that you can see right through, rocky shores and secret beaches.

The water of the Costa Brava.
That's about all we had time for here on the Costa Brava this time. It is always a lovely place to come and relax, enjoy the sun, and walk along the coast. I feel that this has been a quiet yet perfect goodbye to Catalonia.
The medieval town of Pals.
Now, when I say 'Goodbye,' I don't actually mean goodbye. I don't do goodbyes. I should actually say, in true Australian-Style 'See ya later.'

Monday, 7 October 2013

5 days in L'Escala

The view of the Illes Medes from the Castle of Montgri.
The time for leaving is drawing near, and as we don't have a house for the next week, we decided to rent an apartment in the beach town of L'Escala on the Costa Brava.

Looking over at Ampuries from L'Escala beach.
The Costa Brava is a 60 km stretch of coast from Barcelona all the way up to the French Border. All along its coast are small towns and villages, from fishing towns to tourist towns. L'Escala is a mix of the two really. Famous for its anchovies, L'Escala has a long history of fishing the tasty little snacks, and many bars in town have old black and white pictures showing the town as it was decades ago.

Anchovies like you´ve never seen them before!

It has become a popular tourist destination in recent years. It's sunny, on a lovely part of the coast and also Girona airport is very close by. If you don't realise it while walking around town, just turn the TV on in your hotel room, and all you get is TV in French and German. This weekend was the annual L'Escala Anchovie Festival. I know that doesn't sound very exciting - but being Catalonia, it is all about eating! From midday on Sunday, people moved from bar to bar, tasting the best anchovy tapes conjured up by each bar. 1 bar - 1 unique tapa. We joined in the festivities a little late, but enjoyed a few - my favourite fishy tapa was a base of bread, then on top was diced onion, tomato, avocado, anchovy sprinkled with finely crushed nuts on top - soooo good!

Although mentioned in a previous post, I didn't actually get the chance to climb up to the Castell de Montgri. This time I did. We stopped in the village of Montgri for a quick snack, then I started out at around 1:30pm to reach the castle on its rocky perch overlooking. Not a great time to start of steep climb of a rocky hill - the hottest part of the day - but it did have its benefits... everyone else has on their way to have lunch! I climbed up, taking just over an hour, and enjoyed a spectacular view of the region of Emporda.

La Senyera with El Castell de Montgri sitting on it's hill in the background.
The castle itself is unfinished. It was started in 1294, and abandoned in 1301. It was a show of power by the Count of Barcelona over the Count of Empuries. Their little dispute ended after some dirty name calling, and the winner (The Count of Barcelona) no longer needed to build a huge stone castle on the hill. Now, tourists climb the steep hill to see the castle. A straight-forward square castle, 4 walls with a cylindrical tower at each corner, in the style of the Crusaders in the Middle East.

The unfinished castle of Montgri.
There is so much to do around this area, and never enough time. There is still 2 more days here, and I won´t be sitting around idle! On the agenda - part of the Cami de Rhonda, the Medieval town of Pals... and who knows what else!

Sunset over L'Escala.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...