Ode to Nanjing

Nanjing (南京), it means “south capital” but to me in the traditional Chinese fashion of associating long-winded English translations to a few characters it means “long weekend getaway from the sinking morass of endless visa adjudications.”

It had been 14 weeks since returning from my two-week May getaway. Fourteen weeks through a historically-busy, record-breaking crazy visa application summer. I needed a break.

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View of Nanjing from the 45th floor of the Zifeng Tower

I know this falls into the realm of a “first world problem” and that even at home there might be quite a few people who would roll their eyes at my whines regarding lack of vacation time, but to me I really and truly had reached a breaking point.

“Capture of Nanking Rain and a windstorm rage blue and yellow over Chung the bell mountain as a million peerless troops cross the Great River. The peak is a coiled dragon, the city a crouching tiger more dazzling than before. The sky is spinning and the earth upside down. We are elated yet we must use our courage to chase the hopeless enemy. We must not stoop to fame like the overlord Hsiang Yu. If heaven has feeling it will grow old and watch our seas turn into mulberry fields.” ~Mao Ze Dong, April 1949

I could not find a pretty quote about Nanjing. Despite its significant role in Chinese history it is its more recent history, the brutal subjugation of the city in 1937, that it is perhaps most famous for. The weekend might also have been an odd choice of destination considering it immediately followed China’s newest national holiday – “Victory Day” – marking the 70th anniversary of victory in WWII. Although it was announced by the Chinese government in May it did not occur to me as I was buying the train tickets in early August that perhaps the location of one of the greatest atrocities inflicted on the Chinese as part of the larger WWII conflict happened in Nanjing. I wondered why some of the trains were already booked full (though it could have as much to do with a multi-day holiday as anything else, most people were given both Thursday September 3 and Friday September 4 off).

Regardless, our mini holiday in Nanjing became my reward, my focus, my mantra.

Nanjing! Nanjing! Nanjing!

And the trip finally arrived – and I remembered how I love to travel and learn about new places, the history, the culture, and especially to see another place in the country where I serve. I also was reminded how it can be a wee bit challenging to travel with a toddler especially when I insist on trying to do things certain ways.

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The Zifeng Tower. Our room was waaaaaaaaaaay near the top

Like taking public transport. But I packed light and we were able to use not only the Shanghai metro line to reach the Hongqiao Railway station, get ourselves onto the bullet train to Nanjing (less than 2 hours – 300 kilometers or about 186 1/2 miles), then we easily maneuvered our way through the Nanjing metro system. Well, as easy as one can with a duffel bag, stroller with one malfunctioning wheel, and a preschooler. But then they made it easy for us – touch screens, choice of English, plenty of easy to read maps, and a direct 10 stop trip from Nanjing South Station to Gulou, our stop.

I booked us a room at the Intercontinental Nanjing, which occupies the lobby and floors 45-81 of Zifeng Tower, the tallest building in the city (at 1,480 feet tall). Regular guest rooms are on floors 49 to 71 and through a series of events we found ourselves with a room on the 71st floor! As we rode up the elevator, beginning on the 45th floor I thought that we were already well above the 19th floor I live on in Shanghai, which already seemed rather high up.

It was a bit of a cloudy day and our view was sometimes very nearly obscured during our visit – because sometimes we were inside a cloud.

After settling in we headed to the very old Jiming (Rooster Crowing) temple, one of the oldest in Nanjing. It was within walking distance of the hotel and I figured a worthy first stop. Because 3 ½ kids love old, historic Buddhist temples, right? She might have liked it more if we had not had to pass the Paleontology Museum on the way. Posters of cool-looking cartoon dinosaurs and a nearly full glass wall revealing some equally cool dinosaur skeletons just had to be on display. Any interest C might have had in Chinese/Nanjing/Buddhist history was quickly gone (I give my kid the benefit of the doubt). Then I had to keep hearing about the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs, the dinosaurs for the rest of the block.

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Entrance gate to Jiming Temple, with a view of the Zifeng Tower in the background.

Thank goodness the temple included three large incense sticks in their ticket entrance price. C took these to be drum sticks, specifically her drum sticks and the temple as her castle and was placated for a little while. She was even okay with climbing up all the stairs. Particularly as once on the third or so level she could look down and yell at her subjects. “Hey, all you all down there! This is C! This is my castle. I am the police! Please listen to me! Stop what you are doing!” When I asked her why she kept yelling she said it was because no one was listening. I pointed out she was yelling in English and that most, if not all, of the people coming in to the temple were Chinese. So she switched to yelling random Chinese words of her choosing. Good thing the Chinese generally like little kids.

At the top level, just below the pagoda, we enjoyed some time joining the crowd throwing coins into the large Chinese urn for good luck. C likes this kind of activity. Then I showed her where everyone was placing their incense sticks and demonstrated how we would do the same. She seemed completely on board until we actually lit them and placed them standing with the other incense. Then she lost it. As luck would have it (perhaps the temple gods were smiling down on us?) we turned a corner as she sobbed and found three perfectly nice incense sticks lying on a temple step. The day was saved!

We headed back down and then on to Ming Dynasty City Walls, apparently one of the largest city walls ever constructed in China and still with large portions intact. C was not impressed. She made it clear that she did not want to see any walls but instead wanted to see dinosaurs! It started to rain. It was around 4 pm and we were just up the street from the Paleontology Museum and so made the correct mom decision to return to the dinosaurs.

C skipped up the steps happily right into the arms of a museum curator who informed us the museum closed at 4. What? Who closes a museum at 4? Smart little C immediately broke into huge sobs accompanied by the word dinosaur in both English and Chinese. As the door was wide open and other kids and their parents were still in the museum, he relented and said we could just visit the dinos in the foyer. C perked up immediately – though this was short lived when she learned after ten minutes it was time to go and she walked out, lip pouted, shoulders hunched, dragging her feet. The curator told us to come back that weekend – open 9 am to 4 pm Saturday and Sunday!

An hour at the hotel pool and another 30 minutes in our awesome tub and C forgot all about dinosaurs.

The following morning we took the metro to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall. Yeah, I sure do know how to pick the family friendly locations. But C is a good traveler and she was very good here as well.

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Outside the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.

It was a Saturday and the one after the new Victory Day holiday, so there was a long line, but with the exception of a few line jumpers it was managed very orderly and well. I have long wanted to visit Nanjing and I knew that when I did I would visit this memorial hall. This is a sobering place and is on par to visiting the Holocaust Museum in DC or a concentration camp like Auschwitz or the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park or the Killing Fields of Cambodia – all of which I have visited. It is a hard place to visit yet also a “must-see” to understand a time in history and serve as witness to the horrors humans are capable of committing, appreciate the resiliency of survivors, and resolve in your heart to never allow this again.

We spent most of our time in the park area and not in the museum, though we did have some thirty or forty-five minutes inside. In theory I could have spent longer there – the displays are well-done and informative – but given the subject matter our total hour and a half at the memorial hall was all we could take. C demanded lunch and then either dinosaurs or elephants.

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Elephants, even stone ones at a Ming Dynasty mausoleum, are cool.

After consulting C elephants it was. And those elephants would be the large stone ones, along with several other stone animals, flanking the Sacred Way to the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located at the foot of Purple Mountain. Thank goodness for those animals and the lovely shaded walk – C approved! She also did not mind the other walk with large stone soldiers flanking the way and climbing through some large gateways. She did show some rebellion at the Golden Water Bridge. The carved dragons, though I pointed out they looked like a bit like dinosaurs, did not impress her in the least. Arms folded, she delivered me a few pointed raspberries in my direction, but agreed to soldier on.
The Mausoleum is huge. We passed through archways and walked through or around memorial halls finally to the large palace-like building at the end and we climbed up all those steps too. Little C bounded up them like a champ.

Although there might have still been time to make it over to the Sun Yatsen Mausoleum, had I still been a single woman, I called it day. C agreed this was an excellent decision. We still had to make our way all the way back from the tomb and find a way back to the hotel. This proved to be much more difficult than I expected as every single taxi driver I saw refused to stop. Finally we found a bus stop that took us to the metro and we were back to the hotel for the evening.

On Sunday morning I did try to reward C with a trip to the Paleontology Museum, after all she deserved it for being such a good sport the day before. But wouldn’t you know it we arrive at the museum around 9:30 am and they tell me it is closed all day. Poor little C. She was disappointed. I owe her some dinosaurs for sure.

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View towards Xuanwu Lake and Purple Mountain from the Nanjing City Wall.

We continued on to the Nanjing City Walls. C made it quite clear she did not want to see the “stupid walls.” She’s 3 and did not really use the word “stupid” but it was so implied in her huffy attitude. I insisted and she plodded alongside me, heavily sighing, shoulders hunched. It became warm – our hottest day so far and we were exposed up on the wall. And I began to think that maybe seeing the walls was okay but walking along them just might have been “stupid.” Sometimes mommy is wrong.

We did eventually make our way to the next gate, Xuanwu gate, from where we could descend from the walls and found ourselves in the middle of Nanjing’s Sunday matchmaking market. There are few things that matchmaking grannies and grandpas like to see more than a 3 year old, curly-blonde haired girl. C handled it pretty well.

Back at the hotel enjoying our welcome (farewell?) drink at the café while a hostess played peek-a-boo with C seemed a good way to end the trip. We successfully navigated ourselves back to the train station with the metro and onto the bullet train to Shanghai. Nanjing has a lot to offer and I think we will back. Maybe next time we will finally see the dinosaurs.

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I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Twelve Vietnam, the Finale

A few days before departing Kathmandu A&P asked me what destination I had planned next. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, but I really was not sure. They were heading next to Vietnam and asked if I had no other plans, would I want to join them? I had worried that I had become a bit of a third wheel – but they liked me, they really liked me. I agreed.

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Vietnam snake wine – not for the faint-hearted (and not for me either!)

I flew out of Kathmandu a few days before them so that I could secure my Vietnamese visa and flights from a Khao San Road travel shop. So I did not learn that P had visited an American clinic in Kathmandu and learned she was suffering from both dysentery and food poisoning – and I likely had had the same – until after we met up in Bangkok for our flight to Ho Chi Minh.

Welcome to Vietnam! My friends A&P and I hung back at bit at the airport a bit hesitant to throw ourselves into the throng of people waiting to whisk us off. One guy in particular was persuasive so we went with him. We get to his cab and it’s not a cab. It’s his private car. Oh well, his price sounds reasonable so we put our things in the trunk. He purposely leaves the trunk open as he strides to the front door. We don’t like that – what if we stop at an intersection and someone opens the trunk and makes off with our bags – so we shut the trunk. Oops – the driver just realized his key broke off in the trunk lock. He cannot open the car doors or the trunk; we cannot get our bags out of the trunk. The guy sends a friend on a mission – he returns with superglue to try to glue the key back together…and amazingly it works. We switch to a real taxi, the friend of the first guy. We ask him if it is the same price. He doesn’t answer. He switches on the meter. We ask him again. No answer. Alright. We arrive and the meter says 48,000 dong. We pay 48,000 dong and he is upset we do not pay double. Why use the meter then? And suddenly the guy speaks English. We grab our bags and walk away. We are already tired and we have only been in the country about an hour.

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I try to get into the spirit of things at the Cu Chi tunnels

Our first full day is an adventure, but not for the lighthearted. We take a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong dug some 250 kilometers of underground tunnels. We watch an old movie about the brave Cu Chi people killing Americans and winning “American Killer Awards.” We get to walk (or rather stoop) our way through the tunnels and see some innovative torturous traps build by the Cu Chi people. The tunnels are only about 40 centimeters wide and 80 centimeters high, but also join to meeting rooms, kitchens, sleeping rooms and such, as well as consisting of three levels. It is an amazing display of what people can endure to fight for what they believe in. It is also very sobering. The weapons they fashioned from recycled American weapons were clever and terrifying. Then we arrive at a shooting range where tourists can shoot a couple of rounds of an AK-47 or an M-16 or some handguns for just $1 a bullet! I decline this amazing opportunity and put some tissue in my ears. On our way back we visit the War Crimes Museum, now renamed something like the War Remnants Museum.

We had wanted to leave the following day north to Nha Trang but the bus that day was full, so we instead took that day to rest. We had also heard that people get hassled on the beach in Nha Trang so we first headed to the quiet beach town of Mui Ne for two days to rest up. At Mui Ne we stayed in tents on the beach and it was indeed quiet. Just sand and surf and a few backpacker areas.

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A statue at the Cham ruins, My Son. Yeah, that is the name of the temple complex, I’m not saying “my son.” Nope, I’m not.

Nha Trang was crowded. The touts were out in force. It was near impossible to relax on the beach without being pestered. I refused to take the much touted all-day backpacker boat trip. Given that I have very fair skin, do not eat sea food, a healthy fear of the ocean, and have a low tolerance for stupidity, I could not stand the thought of spending hours on a boat, likely burning to a crisp, with a bunch of boozed foreigners, swimming in the ocean and then being “treated” to a seafood lunch. Instead P and I both had traditional Vietnamese dresses made and we all visited the Cham ruins and the Ba Ho Waterfalls.

The waterfalls were cool – both the scenery and the water – but the problem of unwelcome requests, even demands, for money took away from the enjoyment.  A boy started carrying P’s bag at the waterfall. He just appeared out of nowhere and we surmised he was our guide included in the entrance fee. I started to wonder whether he was going to ask for money but seeing as hour our guild for the day tolerated him, I thought maybe it was okay. But when we arrived back at the entrance the boy demanded 10,000 dong from each of us, although he had carried only one of our bags. As usual it seems a good time cannot be had without the locals asking for some money, often for nothing to do with us. And everyone is in on it from little children to seniors.

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At the Ba Ho waterfalls – and the amazing part is that I leaped in from the ground above. Sometimes I am rather badass.

I completely understand the desire for everyone to try to make some money, not only to make ends meet but to provide extra for their families. I tried very hard to keep this in perspective, but there are times when too much of it day after day can wear down even the most generous of travelers. In retrospect, I read these complaints in my diary and recall some of them with the trigger to memory, but for the most part I forgot these annoyances and remember mostly that I enjoyed Vietnam immensely.

A&P and I parted ways for a few days as they had a week longer in Vietnam than I did. I headed from Nha Trang to Danang of China Beach fame, then the lovely and quiet Hoi An with its unique Japanese covered bridge and on to historic Hue. There I took a tour on the Perfume River visiting three royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty, a temple, and Thien Mu pagoda.
Next I took an overnight bus from Hue to Hanoi. We departed at 7 pm and it was to take us some 14 hours to get to Hanoi, or so the brochure said. I wondered about our two drivers, it seemed only one was a driver and the other one had the job of keeping the driver awake as he seemed too young to have a license. That should have given me pause, and well it did, but not enough to get off the bus.

At some point in the night, around 4 am we were all jolted awake with some pretty loud thumbs and crashes, some screeching breaks, and finally our bus falling into a large ditch in the middle of the road. It would seem there was a road block of sorts set up for repairing the road, but the driver (and his assistant) were a little too tired and/or the road too dark to see the several “road closed” signs and we crashed through several barriers before landing in the two to three foot hole. We were lucky no one was seriously injured!

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At a temple somewhere in Vietnam.

We all climbed out of the bus to survey the damage but it was pitch-black, middle of the night, and little could be seen. As luck would have it a small road side restaurant happened to be just across the street from our accident site – and even at that early hour was open. It was simple, coffee and tea, very basic bathroom facilities, and once 6 am came around they offered simple Vietnamese breakfasts that involved French bread, eggs, rice, and the like. During our forced rest stop, the driver, assistant, and some random locals worked to free the bus. It took several hours and it was probably 8 am before we were back on the road again. However, the driver must have been keen to make up time and he barreled down the roads, emboldened by daylight and coffee. I was exhausted but a little afraid to fall asleep. Just as I was doing so the driver plowed right into a dog on the road. There was no hesitation, no reduction in speed; he did not swerve at all. I just wanted off that bus.

Once in Hanoi I booked a three day, two night trip into Halong Bay. This was a fairly big deal for me as I knew I would be trapped on a boat with some party-types for some period of time but it seemed the best way to get out to the bay.

Yesterday before the five hour trek through Cat Ba National Park we stopped at a cave which had been transformed into a base of operations for the Viet Minh. The cave was built into a bunker with the help of the Chinese from 1960 to 1964. Inside the cave we had a local guide, a man who had served in the war. He sang us a military song and demonstrated how he took out enemy planes by shooting his arm up and down toward the ceiling while making blast noises. I realized though that he is a veteran of war just like any other veteran; he is probably pretty happy retelling his stories of valor and excitement to foreigners.

What I recall most of the Halong Bay adventure was the giant black and white mosquitoes I referred to as Zebras who buzzed and bit relentlessly during the hot and sweaty five hour hike. I also remember that the swim in the bay was nowhere near as bad as I had anticipated and I got in and swam despite my fear. I thankfully forgot how much travel time the whole thing took – at least a four hour drive from Hanoi to Halong City and then a four hour boat ride from Halong City to Cat Ba island.

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Cruising in the beautiful Halong Bay

Back in Hanoi I reunited with A&P – we rendezvoused to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chin Minh and to see a show of the traditional Vietnamese art form of water puppets. We saw Uncle Ho and the Puppets and decided should we ever form a band that this would be an excellent name. It was kind of creepy to see Uncle Ho because he has been dead for 30 years, but it looks like he is just taking a nap. The puppets were enchanting and really unique.

We also visited the Ho Chi Minh museum, Quan Thanh temple, and the Temple of Literature.

And then it was time to depart; it was not only the end of my three weeks in Vietnam but it ended my eleven months of travel from Finland through the Baltics, then Eastern and Central Europe, the Balkans, to North Africa and finally to Asia. So many border crossings and currencies and cultures. Planes, trains, boats, buses, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cyclos, camels, horses and elephants, and lots of walking long distances on my own two feet. I was swindled and threatened; I was the subject of a lot of male harassment; I was attacked by dogs; I developed a lifelong intestinal condition; I had food poisoning. I also made friends, heard some incredible stories, saw amazing sunrises and sunsets, visited places of extraordinary history and/or beauty, fell in love, and pushed myself physically and mentally on a remarkable journey of a lifetime.

I did return to Bali for two more weeks to collect my things, do some final shopping, and make some promises I could not keep, then it came time to head to Monterey, California to begin graduate school and start the next chapter.

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With my trusty backpack

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Eleven Nepal

Nepal was so different. It was an enlightening breath of fresh air and exciting and just a tad crazy.

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Kathmandu’s Durbar Square

My first days in Kathmandu were interesting to say the least. I stayed in Thamel, the tourist mecca section of town, in a simple guesthouse. I loved wandering the streets heading down to Durbar Square. I stopped at small flower markets at traffic circles (none of which were actual circles, more like traffic triangles where narrow roads come to meeting point), watched Nepalese Sadhus, waited outside the temple of the Living Goddess for her appearance, and just soaked it in. I visited the temple of Swayambhunath, taking in the prayer flags, monks, and prayer wheels, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Bhaktapur, with its astonishing temples and palaces (I took a rickety old bus missing several floor boards to the city; it was awesome).

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Happy in the rickshaw before setting out, before the driver cursed me and my family.

In my first few days in the country the Maoists, who at the time were becoming quite a problem for the government, staged a strike in the capital. Most stores closed up, pulling down corrugated metal doors at their storefronts to prevent break-ins and looting. As I had heard most buses and cars were also to be off the road I hired a bicycle rickshaw driver to take me to Patan, another of the UNESCO World Heritage Site cities of the Kathmandu Valley. It was only 5 kilometers away and the rickshaw driver agreed – he had taken me to Swayambhunath the day before. The trip to Patan and back was fine. It was after he dropped me at a hostel in Thamel and it came time for payment that things went horribly wrong. I know we fixed price beforehand but upon returning he wanted more than we had agreed on. I said no. He refused to take the money. He spit on me. Cursed me. Cursed me and my family and our next generations. He wished me dead. Even though I was not actually staying at the Hotel Backpackers Inn, I hid in their lobby/lounge area as they had armed guards. From the parking lot entrance the rickshaw driver screamed obscenities at me for at least 20 minutes.

That sure was interesting.

I took a public bus to Chitwan, where I headed to the National Park. It was a pretty awful ride. It seemed to take forever although we took turns or precipitous cliffs with breakneck speed and had to stop for awhile as a large boulder the size of a rickshaw had rolled onto the middle of the road. It was exhilarating!

I had an awesome time at Chitwan!

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A&P and I having a “bath” courtesy of this cute elephant.

Yesterday was very eventful. After breakfast we had a canoe ride for about an hour, followed by a three hour jungle walk. The guidebook had said these were not very safe. One of the hotel staff had informed us that just ten days before a Nepali tourist had been killed by a rhinoceros and that usually 1 to 2 people are killed annually. This was not comforting news. After getting out of the canoe the guide briefed us on evasive techniques were we to encounter any of the parks three dangerous animals: sloth bear, rhino, or tiger. [I still remember these techniques: if you see a bear, make noise. If you see a rhino, climb a tree or run in a zigzag. If you see a tiger, pray.]

We walked with two guides, one at the front and one at the rear, armed only with four-foot long sturdy sticks. The first animal we came across was a four foot long gharial crocodile sunning itself on a sandy area in the middle of a stream. Then we came upon many piles of rhino dung, some of it fresh. I wanted to see if I could climb a tree and found myself a rather poor climber…I saw myself likely being trampled by a rhino as a result.

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I am sure this was totally safe, teetering atop elephants among rhinos.

Rhinos were spotted and so up into the trees [I had to have someone boost me up]. After ten minutes they trotted off and we climbed down and continued our walk. Only five minutes later we were running through the brush to see four rhinos together, just over 50 meters away (and few good climbing trees in sight.) It was very exciting. We saw no more rhinos but we did see monkeys and heard what might have been a bear quite close to us. After lunch we began a five hour jeep safari. On this trip we saw one bear, 12 rhinos, several crocodiles, wild pigs, wild chickens, deer, a monkey and a wild cat.

It was here I met British-Finnish couple A&P, with whom I would travel the next five weeks with. This morning a British couple and I went to the elephant breeding center by bicycle. Later we paid extra for an elephant bath. We also took an elephant safari ride together for a few hours. The elephant ride was a bit bruising and slow in parts, but we saw many rhinos up close and even saw two fighting.

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Pokhara town center type of entertainment

We next headed to Pokhara, a lovely little town that serves as a base for trekking trips into the Annapurna Mountains. Here I met Tsering, a Tibetan refugee woman, in the center of town selling jewelry. I bought several pieces from her and got to talking. The following day A&P and I took a taxi out to the Tibetan refugee village several kilometers outside Pokhara to visit Tsering at home. She gave us a tour of the village and welcomed us into her home with many cups of yak milk tea (delicious!) and stories of her family. I stayed in touch with Tsering for many years, sending clothing for her five girls and exchanging letters and the occasional email.

A&P and I signed up for a four night, five day teahouse trek. From the first day in Nepal I had seen trekkers and I had wanted to do one but as a solo traveler did not see it as something realistic. But after meeting A&P they too revealed they wanted to do a trek but not just on their own. We joined forces and had an incredible, and at times tedious and exhausting and dangerous, time.

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The views are totally worth the hike

Day One. April 14 2001. We left on our trek the first day of the Nepali New Year 2058. It seemed a nice way to start off the New Year. Our guide Ram and our porter Bhim, met us at our hotel with a taxi at 7 am. With five of us it was pretty crowded and the one hour drive to Naya Pl was not the most comfortable. But we were beginning our trek and we were excited. We walked from Naya Pul to Birethani for breakfast and the beginning of our trek. Ram told us the first day would be about six hours and pretty hard as it is all uphill. We did pretty well though making it to Ghandrung in four and a half hours even with rain for the last hour. I was absolutely thrilled with the first day because my legs held up and we made great time. I was all smiles. We played a few games of billiards at a local place, had dinner, and went to bed around 8:30 pm.

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That’s me, the hiker of the Annapurnas

Day Two. We were up around 6 am to see the sun rise and the peaks were absolutely stunning. The walk that day was short (three hours) and pleasant, through a wooded area. But we arrived before noon, thankfully before the rain, and had almost nothing to do for hours. The stop, Tadapani, consisted of a few lodges and restaurants and Tibetans selling handicrafts. It was cold and both P and I bought Tibetan shawls [I still have mine!] It was a long day and I would have preferred a little more walking to have something to do.

Day Three. From Tadapani to Ghorapani was about a six hour walk and we did not shave any time off this day. It was a lot of up, up, up and we were tired. It was on this day that Ram the guide asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend. I told him sorry, but no. He had been peppering me with questions about a boyfriend and dating situations in the west from day one. Before we had started our trek he had helped me set my departure date with Thai Airways and he was trying to convince me to stay longer in Pokhara where he could show me around. I wish it had never happened.

We made it to Ghorapani, at around 2800 meters, with six hours of walking and one hour for a lunch break and rest. We made it just before the rain and hail started. Ghorapani is quite charming, with most buildings painted a bright blue with gorgeous vies of the Annapurna mountain range. It’s big drawl, and the reason we had chosen this trek, is its proximity to Poon Hill. At 3200 meters one can see at least fifteen peaks of the beautiful Annapurnas.

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P and I atop Poon Hill with some hot cocoa and wearing every bit of clothing we had with us.

Day Four. We all woke up at a quarter to five in the morning to walk up Poon Hill in time for the sunrise. A was not able to make it up because of some scary drops [he is scared of heights] but P and I made it with Ram. It was a 40 minute climb up. We stayed at the top for about an hour, then the 40 minute climb down, breakfast, and then we set off for Tatopani.

Earlier in the trip Ram suggested that we might be interested in extending our trek one day to add in Tatopani where there are hot springs instead of heading down to Tirkedunga. He said it was an easier route and that it would be easier for A as it would be a lot less steep.

Ram was not much of a guide for the first part, usually going ahead of us or still trying to chat me up. If we got ahead of A&P and I wanted to stop and wait he would tell me they would just catch up. So when I walked more with them Ram seemed to lose interest in us all. This bothered us a bit but I was secretly happy for the time away from him. We made it to Sikha in three hours and stopped an hour for lunch. The trail then had been mostly easy, wide undulating roads. But about an hour later, just after Ghara, an archway opened into a steep cliff face. I was ahead of the others and just knew A would hate it. It was not at all what we had been promised.

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On the bridge that would lead to Tatopani. I am sure this is totally safe.

I was happy to be away from Ram and could feel the excitement of being on my own. I could have waited but I thought it was not far from Tatopani and decided to make a go of it. There was a lone girl and her porter a little way ahead but I had soon overtaken them. I started to feel apprehensive about being on my own as I still could not see the others and in fact did not see any other trekkers. The wind was picking up and a storm coming so I decided to go on. I knew the bridge across the river was not far and Tatopani was to be 30 minutes beyond. I signed in at the police checkpoint and crossed the bridge. I began to worry I was not going the right way but I asked locals and they all pointed in the same direction. I arrived at Tatopani at 3:45 pm, seven hours after we had set off. I waited at the first café for the others who arrived about 50 minutes later.

Day Five. We were off to another late start this day. It was 8:45 am by the time we left and it was already raining. Ram told us that once we crossed the bridges and the police checkpoint, the walking was easy along wide roads and without drop offs. That was not true, and the rain only made the narrow, muddy trails (often only 2 feet wide) worse. A was terrified and P was angry. I too was tired. I did not like being lied to and wanted to distance myself as much as possible from Ram. He had told us it was a five to six hour walk to Galeswor and then another two to three to Beni. His plan was for us to stay in Galeswor another night and then on to Beni where we would catch a bus or cab to Pokhara.

After walking several hours [a hard, miserable slog through thick muddy trails] we asked Ram if it were possible to push on through to Beni and be back to Pokhara that night but Ram said it was impossible. It took us nine hours to reach Galeswor. We had resigned ourselves to another night so we just sat down, took off our shoes, and rested. However at dinner two Canadian women told us it was only another 30 minutes on to Beni. That night I was curled up in bed reading when there was a knock on the door. It was Ram and he wanted to sleep in my room. He said the guide room “smelled funny” but I said no. What a creep!

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The pathway on our final long day. Just a small traffic jam. Notice the narrow ledge. I am sure this was totally safe too.

Day Six. After breakfast we made the walk to Beni in a 50 minute leisurely pace. We waited 30 minutes for a taxi and then had a rough three and a half hour journey back to Pokhara.

The trek was amazing. Absolutely. It was a challenge but the stunning views and backdrop were worth the temporary physical pain. But it was marred by the incompetence, lies and harassment on the part of the trek guide. After returning to Pokhara we learned the company was likely only registered to sell treks but not to actually lead them. Sitting in the office of another trek company, we noticed their comprehensive trek board that listed the names, passport numbers, and citizenship of their trekkers, the guide posted with them, the trek and approximate days. Our trek company had nothing of the sort. When we went to complain to the company they met us only with stares and recriminations. An hour or so after leaving the office we stepped in to another company to book our flights to Kathmandu and on a hunch I requested to re-confirm my flight on to Bangkok and learned that someone had called on my behalf had cancelled my flight. The only other person who had that flight information was the person who had helped me book it in the first place – the trek guide Ram!

Back in Kathmandu we took a one hour scenic flight including a view of Mt. Everest. On our next to last evening we all went to dinner together and the next day I woke up sick as a dog. I could barely move but I dragged myself up to A&P’s room to learn that P too was incredible ill. I spent my last day curled up in a fetus position on the narrow, thin mattress of my cheap guesthouse room.

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The view from the scenic flight. One of these peaks might be Mt. Everest.

Even departing Nepal turned out to be an adventure as my inbound plane was temporarily diverted to Calcutta when Maoists set fire to the one and only runway. Thai Airways put all the passengers on the bus and took us to a nice buffet lunch while the fire was put out and we departed four hours late.

Whew.  Nepal was almost enough adventure for a lifetime.  Almost.

I Love You Backpacking Long Time – Part Ten Still in Bali

I haven’t had a hot shower in over a month. I wear flip flops every single day. I wake up when the roosters start crowing. I have mango or papaya or pineapple or water apples or mangosteens or rambutans or some other exotic fruit every day (though durian, soursops, and snake fruit are not to my liking). I feel fairly busy every day although the next day I couldn’t tell you what I did. It is quite lovely.

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A stack of Balinese offerings. I made a whole bunch of these one day. Not great for the allergies, but a great way to feel like one of the women.

The bus dropped me off at Lovina Beach, in the village of Kalibukbuk, a suburb of the town of Singaraja, in the regency of Buleleng, Northern Bali on Christmas Eve. There I met a cute guy and decided to stay a bit longer than a few days. After some more days I moved my departing flight back a week. A week later I moved it back even further, checked out of my guesthouse and moved in with the cute guy and his extended family. It was my Eat, Pray, Love move before there was an Eat, Pray, Love.

When I say his extended family, I really mean just about everyone. He lived in a fairly traditional multi-family compound home. The entrance to the home was to the north, towards the beach. As you enter the gate in the center is an open courtyard. To the right of the courtyard there are three rooms. The first is a roofed area, walled on three sides and completely open on the fourth. It is an all-purpose room, there are simple wood benches, and there is a loom. Later, after I have been here some time, I sat with a group of women here to make hundreds of Balinese flower offerings. The second and third rooms are kitchens. I learn later that it is this way because the cute guy’s mother does not get along with one of her daughter’s in law and they refuse to use the same kitchen.

To the south at the back of the courtyard were two bathrooms. They were two large rooms each with a concrete floor, a squatting toilet, and a large cistern with buckets to use to wash or to flush the toilets.

I have to take a deep breath before I throw a bucket full of cold water on me. Usually a few buckets later and I feel quite nice, but I can never quite get over the shock of that first bucketful. And the toilet paper, or rather the lack of it, is rather a mystery to me. No one else uses it but how they accomplish this feat without soaking themselves is beyond me. I can observe the eating with hands (or rather hand, only the right) and sort of copy it and get some of the food within the range of my mouth. But I cannot exactly observe the mysterious toilet paper-less feats. So every week I buy myself another roll or two and continue to look somewhat like an idiot clutching my paper as I make my way to the bathroom.

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Seemed like a good reason to stop traveling for awhile…

The left of the courtyard had the living quarters. The southwest portion housed cute guy’s third oldest brother, his pregnant wife, and their two daughters. From their section, the next room was that for cute guy’s parents. The was then a long open hallway where the family gathered for watching television and eating sitting on the floor; it wrapped around with more hallway and two additional bedrooms, one for cute guy’s second oldest brother, his wife, and their daughter, and then cute guy’s room.

Cute guy is named Kadek. Though I usually try not to give away names, because of Balinese naming convention, this actually gives away little. Names in Bali. You can call me Putu. If I were born in Bali that would be my name as I am the first born. In Bali children are named by their birth order and then given another name. If you are first born then you are called Putu or Wayan. If you are the second child you are Kadek or Made. The third is Komang or Gede. The fourth is Kutut. If you are the firth child, then you are Putu or Wayan again. And so on. The names are for males and females. Kadek is named so because he is the sixth child, but he also has a nickname. However while in school he was called Made because there were already enough Kadeks to go around. His second name is Partama, but until the age of 5 it was something else, until his uncle said it was a stupid name and it was changed. There are no family names. The second name, the given name, is also chosen depending on caste, but it is changing was some children have foreign names. Some people are called by their birth order name, some by their second name, and some by a completely different nickname.

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Heading to the temple with the family.

It was amazing to live with this family. I learned a lot about Balinese culture and incredibly was welcomed by and became woven into the lives of the family.

Kadek’s third oldest brother’s wife gave birth to their third child while I lived there. One morning they roared off on the motorcycle to the hospital and a few hours they roared back with a newborn.

Nearly every day for four months I watched Kadek’s second sister-in-law Ngah, from the village of Tenganan famous for its double ikat weaving, sit at her simple wood loom, pumping her legs and snaking her arms in an elaborate and fluid dance until she produced a beautiful piece of finished purple cloth with gold threads. When she, with her sister in law, came to my room to offer me the piece at the family and friends price, I readily accepted it. I felt I belonged.

It took a little time for the children to warm to me, but soon I felt like part of the family. Bodoh tai tunglep, which translates from Balinese to “you are as ugly as chicken shit” is a fond taunt of little children. All the children from three and up regularly call themselves and their friends UACS (ugly as chicken shit). It is a sign of my acceptance by the children that they now fondly call me the same. It is very touching and often brings a tear to my eye to be called ugly as chicken shit, have the child smack me, and run away giggling. Progress it is!

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At the community temple wearing the beautifully woven skirt from Ngah.

In my time in northern Bali I had the opportunity to attend a wedding ceremony, a cremation, a tooth filing ceremony, a child’s naming ceremony, and a Balinese wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance as part of a wedding reception. I also was able to attend important festivals in the Balinese calendar.

Bali is gearing up for the big festival of Galungan, when the deified ancestors return to the family temple and must be entertained with food. This week the family has been busy. Sunday was the day to prepare the bananas. Monday was the day to prepare the caked of rice and today is the day to kill the pig. Ah, nothing like a good animal sacrifice. Okay to be truthful I am not all that comfortable with the animal sacrifice. It unnerves me to hear the squeals of pigs or squawks of chickens in their death throes. It is more unnerving to step outside and see a just roasted pig on a spit leaning up against the kitchen door or to have a chicken with its throat cut trying to make its last getaway throw itself at my feet.

So the deified ancestors are coming and will be around to party for about three days. Three being an auspicious number for the Balinese, as it is for many Asians. I will probably borrow some temple dress from Kadek’s sister-in-law again. Although the last time I was tempted to stuff the top with toilet paper as my bust is a bit smaller than the average Balinese woman’s.

I also experienced the Balinese New Year. This Saturday is New Year’s Eve and Sunday welcomes the New Year 1923. Yesterday there was a procession from the family temple to the community temple and then finally to the beach (or lake in other parts of Bali) to cleanse in preparation for the New Year. I was in my traditional temple clothing, my handmade sarong from Kadek’s sister-in-law. Today people are generally getting the house ready and heading to their home villages if they have not already. Tomorrow there will be a festival of giant monster effigies called Ogoh-ogoh. They were built in competition between villages. They will be paraded through the streets and then burned. Then on Sunday people stay home to welcome the first day of the new year. Traditionally people do not eat, drink, work, smoke, or go outside the home compound, although generally the guidelines are not so strict anymore. Eating and drinking will be practiced in many homes and some people, probably me included, will sneak out for a little while just to see what it is like out on the streets with no one else about. Happy New Year 1923.

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An amazing demonstration of a village-made Ogoh-ogoh

It was not all festivals and celebrations of life events. Many of the days there was little to do; it rained every single day in February. But I went on walks, several dolphin sighting trips with snorkeling, I learned to play pool pretty well as that was one of the few pastimes in the local bars and I memorized all the songs to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication because it was the primary soundtrack and go-to playlist for the bars and bands in the area.

Ultimately it did not work out between Kadek and I, though I am very grateful for the time I was able to spend with him and his family and the people I met in Lovina. However, it was time to stop putting off the final legs of my around the world journey.