Saying goodby to Nepal.

On our last day in Nepal our plane ddidn’t leave until after 9 PM. The good news is we had a full day and didn’t have to be anywhere at dawn.  But we are tired and ready to head home. We arranged for a late check-out and rescheduled our final touring to make the day as relaxing as possible.

We spent our last hours visiting the oldest of the ancient Durbar Squares at the UNESCO site of Bhaktapur. We saw so much of the same type of intricate wood carving found in our hotel and enjoyed walking trough the winding streets. We searched for (and found) the famous peacock window, watched the ceremonious arrival of some sort of VIP delegation, shopped, and people-watched. 

Our final stops included the most significant Hindu and Buddhist sites, Pashupatinath and Bodnath, respectively. At Pashupatinath, cremations were underway and aggressive monkeys were absolutely everywhere. When temple workers came out to feed them big clumps of bread it was like being in the middle of a surreal movie scene with hundreds of monkeys running in from all sides. Last week our guide Kanchan had a client bitten by a monkey who “just came out of nowhere,” so we did our best to stay our of their way. The nearby massive stupa at Bodnath is a focal point for the area’s Tibetan Buddhists and is surrounded by a ring of lovely shops and galleries.

At around 6 PM we were dropped at the airport for the long journey home with 24-hours of flying time. The international airport at Kathmandu is pretty awful. There is a shared lounge for business and first class passengers.  You have to walk up 24 steps to get to it. Once there you can have a slice of cheese on white bread.  Everyone is corralled into one gate area, loaded on a bus and driven out to the plane en mass.

But once on board our Etihad flight, we were homeward bound, another great adventure tucked into our memories.

Nepal explorations.

 

 

We ventured to the nearby village of Bungamati, a 16th century Newari village, and were lucky enough to stumble upon a major religious festival for women. Surprisingly, they don’t mind visitors wandering through. 

Kumari of Bungamati, Krupa Bajracharya.

They also have their own village Kumari here. Unlike the primary Kumari we saw yesterday, this is one of several others that live with their parents in surrounding villages. We were allowed to photograph her, so you can get a good idea of how they dress. She was out for the festival, to give blessings; I’m guessing about three, she seemed to really want to get the makeup off her face.

We spent some time in Patan, founded in the third century BC and home to 55 temples and 126 monasteries, as well as another Durban Square.  This square was in much better shape than the one in Kathmandu and it was so interesting to have a better idea of how the temples looked. They had good examples of interior restorations. The town is pretty large and we enjoyed a bit of retail therapy as well as a light lunch, and a mini-treatment with a healing bowl (did not cure our coughs) before heading back to town.

Our corner of Dwarikas Hotel.

I need to say something about our interesting hotel – Dwarika’s Hotel is one of my favorite venues of the trip. The founder (Dwarika) salvaged wood pillars, windows    and artifacts from temples, buildings, and homes that were being destroyed. Pieces date from the 13th – 18th centuries. Locals were tearing them down for firewood.  Dwarika provided regular wood for fires and stored these treasures for years until finally incorporating them into his heritage hotel, adding to it through the last few decades.  Terracotta bricks are locally crafted and restoration and reproduction work is done on-site. It’s a roomy, elegant, rustic, refined, relaxing property. There are 5,000 pots of flowers; that’s not a typo – 5,000.

As I write this I can hear a choir of birds outside our windows, local flute music and traditional dance performers will start soon. A group of about 20 black-suited Asian businessmen and women are conducting a quiet meeting under the trees (each staring at a phone), people are resting in poolside cabanas.  We just got back from the spa and will have a traditional Nepali meal tonight to celebrate the last exotic dinner of our adventure.

 

 

Looking for Yeti.

Wanting to visit Nepal has always lurked in the background of my mind.  Whether it was the required reading of Siddhartha in high school, the intriguing media coverage of the 70s rush to enlightenment on the streets of Kathmandu, or maybe just my penchant for Himalayan cats, I’m not sure.  But here we are – in Kathmandu.

My primary objective was to see the famous Himalayan mountain range and Mt Everest. A fly-by seemed just our style. Flights leave at 7 AM, so it’s another 5 AM wake-up. It was dark and hazy and at 6:30 they decide if the mountain is clear.  If it is, you go, if not, you try again the next day. November is reported to be the best month to do this and we had a perfect day, heading out with 14 other passengers in a Buddha Air, 16-seat Beech 1900D.

Everyone has a window and the helpful flight attendant passes out souvenir maps and points out key mountains along the way. Looking out the windows was fine, but pictures weren’t good because the windows are scratched.  We got to visit the cockpit twice during the flight and the friendly pilots helped us get better shots from their perfectly clear vista.  They must never get tired of flying that route. 

The Himalayan range is so imposing.  It’s so big and looks so unforgiving. Brown where not snow-covered and barren. I can’t even imagine trekking.

Kumari appeared in the center window.

After regrouping, we headed off on a city tour to Durban Square.  Nepal is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2015 and pretty much everything is under renovation. The temples and palaces in the square included. Local efforts are slow, but funds from US, China and Japan have made a huge impact and the people here are grateful. Today Chinese dignitaries are in town and there was a bit of a “show” on their behalf to look impressive.  Notice the new hard hats on the workers sitting on the ground.  Apparently no one actually wears a hard hat to do anything.

Partly because of the construction it is incredibly dusty here. Temps are chilly and humidity very low. Traffic seems like nothing after India.

It was interesting to visit the house of the “Living Goddess” Kumari. I’ve seen TV features about this unusual tradition of selecting a child as the goddess.  A role she keeps until puberty when she returns to a normal life and a new goddess is selected. She did make an appearance and no pictures are allowed; she is about four and a chubby little thing with a lot of elaborate makeup. It’s a huge honor to be a Kumari, but I just felt sorry for her.

Visiting the Monkey Temple at Swayambhunath was nice.  A revered Buddhist site its origins date from about 500 BC. It has great views looking over the city and is the oldest stupa in Nepal.  There are Rhesus monkeys everywhere. 

Of note: we did not see a Yeti and I do know that Himalayan cats are not from the Himalayas. 

The Imposing Himalayas of Nepal & Mt. Everest.

 


Slumdog Millionaire.

In a space 1/2 the size of Central Park over one million people live in the Dharavi slum. A few years ago an enterprising group decided to launch Reality Tours & Travel to show people the truth behind the slum and dispel misconceptions. Our young, energetic guide Javed grew up in Dharavi and still lives there. It was eye-opening and more than a little disturbing to see how all these people live in these cramped conditions, but they seemed content. Men were working, women shopping, kids running around just doing what kids do. Of note, everyone has a cell phone. They have Wi-Fi with a password and satellite dishes are mounted on the upper floors of many of the buildings. There are banks, a large shopping district with a farmer’s market, lots of motorbikes, and even their own police force. There are public and private schools, and since 1995, electricity and plumbing – I didn’t expect that.

Primarily Muslim and Hindi they live together as friends.

I also didn’t expect to learn that they are producing $665 million in official annual revenue (and who knows how much of unofficial). They are recycling plastic, tanning leather, pottery, dying fabric and making clothes worthy of being sold in Neiman’s. The labor is cheep and dangerous, there are no safety standards. There is a high incidence of cancer and a short life span for many. It does smell – in big part because the open sewage of Bombay is running in nearby canals. There is a fair amount of debris around, but nowhere as much as I expected.

A slum is defined as an area of government-owned land, on which people build and own their own homes and businesses, illegally. In Bombay 65% of the people live in one of 2,000 slums. It’s such an intertwined relationship for dealing with street people (who collect the recyclables and bring them to the slum) and the business community (all those companies reselling the goods) it’s hard to imagine how the city could survive without slums.

One fact, they never label their products with their exact location, they simply state “Made in India.”

They ask that you don’t take pictures, we did get permission to take just one.

And, yes, this is where they filmed Slumdog Millionaire.

Bombay or Mumbai?

Gateway of India.

I know today it’s officially Mumbai, but many still call it Bombay – a name given by the Portuguese in 1534. I prefer the exotic promise of the name Bombay, so that’s what I’m going with.

In Bombay I had a bit of a meltdown – came down with a cold (again). So I missed a few planed adventures, but got some much-needed sleep, good meds, and the caring attention of the butler staff at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and am back in action.

Bombay is the financial capital of India and downtown (Colaba) the city felt and looked much like New York. Imposing British Colonial architecture is prominent and I was surprised to learn they have one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings outside of Miami.

The long Marine Drive is lovely and it’s nice to see the water again. It’s very hot, humid, and tropical, much like Miami.

My friend Sarah soldiered on while I was asleep and spent the evening visiting street food locations and seeing Bombay at dawn visiting fish, vegetable, fruit, and flower markets as well as other very early morning enterprises.

During her street food tour, Sarah got to the beach for some Pav Bhaji, a dish of thick vegetable curry, fried and served with a soft bread roll. Her opinion “not bad.”

Stamp it out.

 

We learned about the centuries-old craft of block print stamping on fabrics.

Our first female guide of the trip, Meetu, took us about a half hour outside of Jaipur to the Chippa village of Bagru. 250 families have been in this business for 400 years. It was particularly interesting to learn how they got the reverse process by using mud stamps before dying the fabric in indigo. Then we tried our hand, each making a small red and green piece. Even the stamping is much harder than it looks. I have a whole new respect and understanding of this process.

The blue is a finished piece.

Tonight we went to a cooking class at Dera Mandawa, another example of a family that now takes in guests to be able to keep their large, 110-year-old home. I think the most interesting thing was being able to try the bread baked underground and partly cooked with fuel made from cow dung. We had seen piles of the fuel source stacked by village homes. There was no oder at all. As far as the cooking class, I liked the class I took at Fairchild Tropical Gardens better.

Bon appetit.

Jaipur – not really a pink city.

Jaipur looks like the India of my imagination. Opulent, luxurious, and a bit of mystery.

We drove more than four hours through farmland and small villages of Rajasthan to arrive at the “Pink City.” It should really be called the Coral City since the buildings in the old city are all a lovely, soft terracotta color. Signs are all in black and white, resulting in a very organized look among the throngs of people crowding the streets. 

After Indian independence in 1947, many aristocratic and royal families converted

Entrance to our heritage hotel, Samode Haveli.

their properties to hotels and resorts, often living in just one section. Our heritage hotel was the city residence of a nearby royal family, built by a man who later was Prime Minister of Jaipur. Two of the brothers still live there. Bizarrely, we checked in to the soft sounds of Kenny Rodgers playing in the background on the hotel sound system. 

With our guide Ajit, we spent a day exploring the Amber Palace, Jantar Mantar observatory,  and the City Palace Museum. Built in 1592, the Amber Fort features one entire area, walls and ceilings, covered in designs made with tiny mirrors.  It was done to mimic starlight when reflecting candlelight and I can only imagine how magical it must’ve been. From the palace ramparts you can see the surrounding Aravalli Hills.

Sarah with some of the school kids.

The observatory was where we posed for pictures with school kids. The 12 gigantic instruments were built to be used by local residents for astronomy and astrology. Astrological information is a prominent factor in arranged marriages. The enormous sundial tells time to the second.

The City Palace is now part textile museum and it was very entertaining to see the clothing worn by the various rulers through the centuries, including one who weighed 500 pounds – that was one large piece of embroidered fabric. Still the residence of the royal family and the current collage-age king, an art museum with artists demonstrating their work in also on-site. The royal family was immersed in scandals when the king’s daughter ran off with the palace cashier, it is their oldest son, who was adopted by his grandfather, and is now king. Most of the family’s very substantial wealth comes from their hotel chain, Taj hotels. The commoner husband has recently been photoshopped out of official family pictures, but I haven’t been able to get details on that topic.

Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal), a five-story, one room deep building for royal women to watch activities on the streets below.

“PR” in Jaipur.

 

Can’t escape the media.  Our guide from yesterday was very excited when he called this morning. . . . .

Ironically, (because I’ve had a career in PR) he was telling us my picture was in today’s local paper.

We’ve been in Jaipur for the last few days and were visiting Jantar Mantar, one of several observatories built by Sawai Jai Singh II, and completed in 1734. Since it was a holiday there were lots of school children visiting and quite a few were asking to take pictures with us.

I have no idea who took the picture. I’m told the story is about visitors adding color to the area. Go figure.

Tiger Trek.

Spoiler alert – we did not see a tiger.  As disappointing as that was, our visit to Ranthambhore National Park was a wonderful experience.  

The weather was beautiful, clear, low humidity, blue skies, and cool. The scenery was so much more varied than I imagined.  We traveled through dense forest and open fields, around huge lakes, along sandstone cliffs, forded rivers, and saw more types of vegetation than I will ever sort out.

Birds were plentiful and we saw many of the species we see in south Florida as well as bright blue flycatchers and huge owls. There were plenty of spotted deer, and huge Sambar deer, both good prey for the 60 tigers and 80+ leopards that inhabit the Park. Marsh Crocodiles and monitor lizards reminded us of our American Crocs and iguanas. On our third drive we spent a long time waiting in hopes of seeing a tiger because the deer and the monkeys were all sounding their warning calls repeatedly.  I just know the big cats could see us . . . even if we didn’t see them.

We went on three safari drives, in zones 1, 5 and 3 respectively; each about four hours in length.  The Park is divided into 10 areas based on tiger territories and drivers are assigned zones by the Park officials for each entry.  We had made sure to stay in a lodge that could provide a private vehicle and driver (otherwise visitors travel in a 20-person hulking monstrosity). The smaller group is really the best way to enjoy this experience.  We shared our comfortable Jeep-style ride with a British couple from Switzerland, our expert guide Yad and driver extraordinaire, Shankar. I say comfortable because the ride was as nice as possible, but you do bounce – a lot.  At times I felt like I was riding a horse. You ride open air, so it’s very chilly during early morning drives and when returning late in the afternoon.  We piled on the fleece, ours and those belonging to the camp. We were advised to have a scarf due to dust and that was excellent advice. The camp provided clear eye protector glasses to keep out the dust as well as binoculars and water. 

I must say a word about the camp.  We stayed at Sher Bagh and it was an amazing experience.  Our luxury tent was super comfortable, with a large private bath and every detail you’d expect to find in a first class hotel. It’s a Relais & Chateaux property and as you can guess, the food does not disappoint. The entertainment was really special and we were honored to celebrate the annual Diwali festival while there. 

Performer on left played a khartaal, a pair of wooden clappers held in each hand that sounded exactly like castanets.

Ranthambhore was a real enhancement to our Indian journey – an experience not to be missed.   

Happy Diwali.  

Tip: If you arrange a full-day drive your driver and guide will be able to access any zone they want, a real bonus. Had I known that distinction, we would’ve done a full-day drive.

Lounge at camp.

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