Archive for the ‘Nepal’ Category

Exit Wounds.

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

It’s difficult to know where to begin. I wrote a piece about my drive into Nepal, I thought it appropriate to pen something on my drive out. As you may or may not be aware, the model of motorcycle I’m driving is a Royal Enfield Bullet. And one thing about bullets, for all you CSI fans out there: the exit is always messier than the entrance.

After my trek and some time living it up in the supremely touristy Pokhara, I slipped off to the small hilltop village of Bandipur. I’d had it recommended to me by a few locals along the way (as well as a few tourists, and the Lonely Planet) so I checked it out. It was nice, a quiet place with nothing to do but walk in the fields and hills around town or sit at a table on the flagstones and drink tea. A little too popular with the domestic tourists, however, who fill the village square and play ringtones on their mobiles well after the power is shut off and everyone is sitting around by candlelight. Such is travel in Asia.

From there I zoomed south and east, making for the border. A few hours out from Birganj, the border town, I heard a noise. Ignoring it (optimistically), I continued until I was sputtering to a stop on the side of the road with nothing in sight but rice fields and water buffalo and a single lonely farmhouse. Standing in front of this farmhouse was a young man, in his late teens perhaps, staring at me. I began checking the few things I know to check when the engine stops – spark plug, petrol line, air filter, carburator. Everything seemed in order. The young man sauntered over and asked if there was a problem. Assuming the worst (correctly), I asked after a mechanic. A few kilometers further down the road, he said, in the next little town.

Walking down the road slowly while trying to stay upbeat, I realized a few km is quite a ways in the midday heat. A farmer on a tractor came up behind me with another villager perched on the back. I flagged him down hopefully and, without much hesitation, he pulled over so I could hop on. I smiled and mimed motorcycle mechanic to them (to do this, stick out your hands like you are holding handle bars, then twist your right hand as if revving a throttle, then mime a wrenching motion). They nodded and on we went.

There was no mechanic in the next town. I asked two different men who both spoke some English and they were both quite confident I was out of luck. Both said the same thing: only in Parsa, 7 km back the other way. Sighing, I flagged down a local bus and hopped aboard. We puttered down the highway, passing the farmhouse with my bike sitting lonely out front. Seven klicks and five rupees (about seven cents) later, I was in Parsa at a mechanic.

The mechanics there were busy, and none of them seemed too excited about having to go four or so kilometers to look at some stupid tourist’s Bullet. They rarely, if ever, get Bullets driving through this part of Nepal (though they’re not unheard of in richer Kathmandu) so these guys probably weren’t too comfortable working on them. I sat there watching them poke around a little scooter for twenty minutes and started getting impatient. I asked about going and checking it out and was told to ‘just wait’ a few times. Two of the mechanics were just sort of watching the main wrench doing all the work, so again I asked if we could get moving. ‘Just wait.’

Eventually I got fed up and walked off looking for another mechanic. I found one, but he wouldn’t go take a look down the road either. ‘Bring you bike here,’ he said. Yeah. I stood on the side of the road for a minute. I’m not sure why I didn’t go back to the original shop and simply wait patiently for them to come with me to take a look. I had already walked off, so returning would have been admitting defeat, or something. Immature, I realize. Seeing another local bus heading back up the road, I impulsively flagged it and took it back to where my bike was waiting. Trying again to fix it myself I began getting frustrated and hot.

This is when that same young man, clearly trying to help, turned on a Nepal-Pop ringtone on his phone and held it out, about six inches from my ear, for me to listen. I asked him, with as much polite patience as I could muster, to please turn it off. He did. I struggled with various parts of the bike. I think at one point I threw my screwdriver into the dirt in disgust. He then suggested I go see the mechanics who have a shop only a few hundred meters back up the road. I suppressed the urge to ask the obvious question: WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T YOU MENTION THEM BEFORE??. I just borrowed his bicycle and went to find them. We ended up towing my bike into their shop.

It took me a few hours, but I finally realized that these guys had never seen the inside of a Bullet before. The sun was setting, the sky darkening, and they were trying many of the same common issues I had been looking at. After ruling out electrical or petrol flow problems, it had to be something inside the engine. So they opened her up.It was at this moment, when they were pulling out pieces and looking at them like some previously undiscovered dinosaur bones, that I asked them to please stop working. I was putting the bike on a truck for India, where Enfields are common enough that mechanics don’t have to assume the role of amateur archaeologist.

That night, thanks to a helpful local man, I slept in a guest room at the local agricultural development bank. It was a training base for more than just farmers, I quickly found out, as it had walls and barbed wire and a big gate and 24 hour security. Yet I spent the evening there with the cook, her husband and their two daughters. I sat quietly at a table, watching her prepare dhal baat for me and her family. The administrator, who spoke passable English, came in with his son and we chatted briefly about my plans and Nepal in general. His son was studying at an English boarding school so he pressured the shy kid into practicing English with me. I drank tea and watched all of them pour over a local newspaper so they could order new ringtones on their phones. They were all very impressed with my terrible Nepali and the fact that I ate the rice and soupy dhal with my fingers, as they do.

The next morning I was standing on the side of the road with a half dozen local men flagging down trucks. It was tough to find a driver willing to load my bike in the back who was also heading to Birganj. Eventually the locals started trying to flag buses. I questioned the logic of loading my bike onto the roof of a bus, rather than the back of a truck. There is the obvious difficulty of loading (bus roofs are higher than truck beds) and the fact that the bike would have to lie on her side, rather than stand up straight. Oil leakage would be inevitable. Eventually they got a bus to stop and the driver seemed eager to get me on board, but luckily another local had flagged a big Tata and for 700 rupees (ten dollars) they would drive me and the bike three hours to the border town (but not the border).

There I was, for the second time, riding up in the cab of a truck with my bike riding in the back. The wingman, Raz, was twenty-one and spoke a little English so we hit it off. They had picked up a few other locals who use trucks like buses, and I bought forty rupees worth of peanuts and bananas and shared them with everyone. The driver, a gruff older guy with a terrible sounding cough, wasn’t too excited to have me around and didn’t partake in the mini picnic.

We stopped every so often for no obvious reason. To a puncture wallah to top up the tire pressure. At the side of the road to talk to a few other truck drivers for a few minutes. Less than 10km from our destination we stopped for lunch. I remained patient and paid for all three dhal baats. On we went. We stopped for diesel and something I didn’t catch happened, but it ended with Raz grabbing a hose from under the seat and leaping out the door. We sat on the side of the road waiting. I got out to look for him, but the driver honked and waved me back in and we drove off without him. I never got to say goodbye to ol’ Razzy.

In Birganj, finally, the driver was eager to be rid of me. He tried several times to boot me out on the outskirts of town, but I knew the words for ‘let’s go!’ (jam jam!) and kept waving toward the center of town. He would grunt and grumble something and drive on. One time he tried flagging down a bicycle rickshaw, as if we were going to balance my 200kg bike on his little cushioned rickshaw seat. Eventually, as the traffic got thicker and we were clearly close to the core of the city, I allowed myself to be hustled out. We got a couple passersby to help unload my bike and there I was, back on the side of the road in the afternoon heat. I stood there helplessly for a few minutes, trying to figure out how I was going to get this bike the final 5km to the border.

A teenager on a bicycle saw me standing there and came over to speak with me. He was studying engineering and so spoke good English. He went off to see if there were any small trucks or auto-rickshaws to take me to border. I noticed a mechanic working on a couple of 100cc bikes so went to inquire. No, he didn’t know anything about Bullets, but there was another mechanic just down the road…

And so this, miracle of miracles, was how I ended up being unceremoniously dumped out of a truck on the side of the road in a Nepali border town within 100 meters of an amazing Bullet mechanic who, thanks to three years of working in a Malaysian factory, spoke decent English. I would spend about seven hours sitting in the dirt in front of his shop as we took my bike apart, replacing rocker pins and both valves. The mechanic and his father were both jovial bike lovers and I had a great time joking and wrenching with them.

The next morning I roared out of Nepal and, some unplanned days and rupees later, into India.

Ahh, India. It was good to be back. I won’t go into detail just yet but there is something intangible about India and her people. I flew south, along a bumpy, potholed highway past more rice fields and water buffalo and smoky bamboo hut villages. I wandered through one of these villages in search of bananas, getting some pretty surprised stares from everyone. I eventually found the market and got a dozen little bananas for 10 roops (about 22 cents). I triumphantly showed them off to all the perplexed villagers as I strolled back to my bike.

I was now in Bihar, India’s poorest state. It is beset not only by poverty but also a Maoist political rebellion and a corresponding campaign of violence. Indian newspapers contain stories of bombed schools or government buildings almost daily. I wasn’t too worried. Cruising through the wonderfully named Muzaffarpur, choking on dust and truck exhaust in the intense traffic, I asked directions. More than a few locals told me I was on the right road. I wasn’t. I wanted to get to Patna, the state capital, but they had sent me down the indirect road that would take me to Patna eventually, rather than the direct but smaller highway. I managed, thanks to my road map and my willingness to ask everyone for directions, to find a little back country road that connected my wrong way highway with the right way highway. The road was, for the most part, smoothly paved and weaved it’s way pleasantly through fields and villages. I got plenty of stares and smiles as I went. Mostly stares. I’m not claiming that these locals have never seen foreigners before, but I guarantee it’s been a while since one went chugging past on an Enfield.

Patna is a small Indian city of to million people, bustling with the urgency and endless horn honks that are ubiquitous in any settlement of decent size. Struggling in the traffic, I wove through town asking endless directions from police and older gentlemen who looked likely to speak English. My system is simple: I roll alongside a man on a bike or bicycle or perhaps standing roadside, and offer a polite paisahb, which means ‘sir.’ I then name the town I’m looking for with a questioning tone. They usually indicate a direction with hand motions and some broken English. Eventually finding the road south, I ripped toward Bodhgaya.

I was about 35 kilometers out of Patna when I crashed. More on this soon.

Into Nepal

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

Well, sorry for the vanishing act again. I’d like to blame Nepal’s IT infrastructure issues, but really it’s my fault. I’ve been enjoying myself here and can’t be bothered to sit and write for hours. I understand that you’ve probably lost interest in my site as a result. This is especially unfortunate because of how much fun I’ve had over the past few weeks. I wish you were here.

From Rishikesh, the site of my last post oh so long ago, I drove for three and a half days to the Nepal border. I spent some time in smaller places generally void of tourists. The road was in the mountains so wonderfully curvy. It was fun but slow driving, especially considering how often I stopped to admire the views. Highlights included the always entertaining conversations with local men about my bike, my trip, and my opinion of India. One evening was spent drinking vodka-Fantas and watching an Australia/India cricket match with the hotel owner, his son and brother on the reception desk TV. Their English was good enough for us to discuss cricket (which I now appreciate as a decent, if slow-paced, sport), motorcycling, and the sporting culture in Canada (i.e. “No, in Canada we play ice hockey, you know? Yes, very cold. No, no cricket.”)

And on into Nepal. Crossing the border was fairly painless. The Banbassa-Mahendrager gate is so little used it’s almost comical in its laid back-ness. Indian immigration was just a couple of old desks under a concrete awning. The desks were lazily draped in purple felt to lend an air of officialdom, but it seemed more like signing up for the three legged race at the company picnic than checking out of the world’s largest democracy. After crossing the purgatory that dwells between nations, I drove right past Nepali immigration because it was, again, a little concrete shack down off the road with very little indicating I was supposed to stop there. The police had to stop me at the gate and point me back to the “office,” otherwise I would have driven right into the country with no visa. The bike had to get a visa as well, at a cost of 113 Nepali rupees (75 Indian rupes, or about $1.65) per day. The customs guys who looked over my paperwork were very interested in the bike, but more out of personal rather than professional motivation.

Yes, she is pretty. I finally had her painted and put on a new seat. She also has a name, now. More on that in another post.

Stamps and handshakes and forms in triplicate later, I roared into the country. The main highway burned east dead straight and flat. Southern Nepal is mostly level, hot plains much like central India. I immediately noticed a few differences, however. The people are much more Mongolian in their facial features – resembling Tibetans or Bhutanese rather than Indians. On the plains, however, they maintain the dark, rich skin tones of their southern neighbours. The people are, in a word, beautiful. Cruising on a motorbike on a busy roadway (buses and tractors and goats, oh my) is dangerous enough without gaping at a group of young women double-riding rickety bicycles. They giggled to each other when I smiled at them and I swerved around a cow I saw at the last second.

Nepal is also much, much poorer than India. Simple shacks dot the rice fields, water buffalo roll in muddy pools, and little half-naked kids run out onto the roadside to wave to me as I pour past. Enfields are rare in Nepal, especially in the poorer south of the country. When the kids hear one coming, and there is no mistaking that sound, they know it must be a foreigner and so come running out of their shacks and up onto the raised roadway. My wrist was tired from waving.

I spent my first night in a small safari style bungalow operation on the edge of Bardia National Park. There I met an American guy who was doing NGO work in the isolated mountains in the north. The next day we went tiger/rhino/elephant spotting in the park and, except for a semi-domesticated rhino that hangs around the park entrance, saw none of the above. We stumbled into plenty of rhino and elephant tracks and took photos of the tiger claw marks and prints we saw all around us, but no actual sightings of the animals. Still, a great day walking in the jungle.

The next day I flew east toward Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. It was another long, hot day counting kilometers and hoping I’d get there before dark. I didn’t. The last hour was spent anxiously watching the sun dip behind the rice paddies. As the sky darkened, it filled with bugs. It was like driving through the rain only, you know, with bugs. Above me flew fruit bats bigger than crows, silhouetted against the pastel purple of the late evening sky. It was a frustrating, beautiful, hilarious scene. I couldn’t wear my sunglasses because of the darkness, so bugs were flying into my eyes and mouth and, when I’d look up in awe at the massive bats, nose. Every so often a big one would bounce off my forehead or cheekbone like a bullet. I’d swear loudly and scare some villager carrying a load of straw down the road.

But I got to Lumbini. The next morning outside the temple built directly on the auspicious spot, I sat down under a tree to meditate. Soak up the energy of the place, etc. Ten minutes later a tour group of a hundred Indian Hindus showed up and ended my meditation session. As with the Buddha, who is revered in Hinduism as an incarnation of Vishnu, the Buddha’s mother, Maya Devi, is worshipped as a goddess in her own right.

I spent the day riding my bike around the site, which is dotted with Buddhist monuments built by the governments of Buddhist countries. The whole place had this unfinished feeling, as if the Nepali government had only just last week realized the potential tourist gold mine it was sitting on. Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims aside, there really wasn’t much in terms of visitation to the area. It made my time at some of the temples quite special, as here were these massive monuments and temples lying empty in the hot sun. A few times I was the only one strolling the grounds or examining the murals. I met a young Thai family in the Royal Thai Wat and luckily remembered my sawadee kraaps and sabai dee mais.

From there, I sped back along a busy, intense highway toward the hills that make Nepal famous. Eight of the ten highest mountains in the world are at least partially in Nepal (Everest, the world’s tallest at 8848m, is on the border with Tibet and Kanchenjunga, the third tallest at 8598m, is on the border with Sikkim in northeast India), making it easily the most ridiculously mountainous country in the world.

In these hills I would join the reams of travelers who trek for weeks beyond road and rail (though, as I would find out, not beyond WWE wrestling) and into the snowy peaks. Where multicoloured prayer flags flutter above French tour groups clad in gore-tex. Where bearded hippies dodge herds of yaks. Where the temperature drops, the air thins, and people who have never seen more than inch of snow cross an 18,000 foot pass in a blizzard on Friday the Thirteenth.

More soon. I promise.