Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Last Days in India and an Adrenaline Filled Welcome to Nepal

Well, never a dull moment on the road. As last post, I am still in Kathmandu. One day I am staying with a new friend in India, the next I'm bungee jumping in Nepal, then staying with my CouchSurfing host here in Kathmandu, and the next I'm postponing my Everest trip because I'm too busy sitting on the toilet and puking in potted plants. Extra, Extra! Read all about it!

So anyways, Manali. After my wonderful ski trip and my all too short time in northern India, it was time to pack up and leave India because my visa was expiring. Were that not the case, I'd stay another month and a half.... I walked from Old Manali into New Manali through the park of deodar cedars which was pretty nice, found where the bus stand was, and then had a few hours to kill. I hit up a local restaurant, then spent the next few hours sitting in another park reading my book, 'How the dead live'. I finished it, but sort of grudgingly, because I never really enjoyed it.

At around 3:45 the overnight bus took off for Delhi, and we drove through some really nice countryside, through a kind of crazy tunnel (the kind of 'primitive' tunnel you would never see in the states) and along a dangerous, winding road high above a river. Guardrails what??? Late in the evening, the bus was stopped by police, and three or four of them boarded the bus. As the only foreigner in the seats, I could see them all pointing to and looking at me. They came up and asked to see my luggage, to which I handed them my day bag. I guess they were looking for drugs, but the search would have only found anything if I had a brick or something, because it was pretty brief. On top of that, my big bag was in the cargo area in the back of the bus, where drugs would be if I were actually trying to smuggle them...

At the dinner stop, I met two other guys on the bus who had bee sitting in the drivers cab since there were no other seats. One was Sam, from outside Delhi, and the other was Dio from Greece. They had been hanging out together for a few days, and Sam invited me to hang out with them before my flight the next day. I was not looking forward to going to Delhi at all, so this was a very welcome improvement in circumstances.

Yep, back in Delhi alright... looks beautiful huh?? We arrived about 7am, and for once I got some decent sleep on the bus. Sam and Dio were not so lucky, and instead witnessed the dangers of riding some of the buses in the developing world since they sat in the cab with the driver: all night, the driver was flying down dark winding roads, talking on his cellphone and smoking hash. Safe!

We were a ways away from Sam's house, so we took the metro rail on a 45 minute ride out to Gurgaon, which is actually where Sazzy (my friend from Seattle, and who I came to see here in India in the first place) used to live! The train was packed, but did a good job of getting us where we needed to be cheaply.

Anyways, the three of us showed up at his house and met his mother, who cooked us a wonderful breakfast. Once again, Indian hospitality never fails to impress.

Sam is a marine engineer, working on container ships out at sea and he and his other friends in the program just returned from 9 or 10 months out at sea on training. I asked if there was any way I could get on board one of the ships and take it back to the States when my trip ends, but that idea was shot down because they never take passengers:(

After eating, we set off in Sam's car to pick up his sister from school. Both Dio and I know how crazy driving in India is, and mentioned it to Sam who assured us he was a 'slow driver'. I knew better than to believe that, and before you knew it we were flying down the roads at full speed weaving between cars, autos, rickshaws and tractors. It was all good fun, however it might have been nice if I’d actually had a seat-belt!

As we were driving, I suddenly recognized exactly where we were, because I'd been in the exact same place with Sazzy and Hunter two months earlier when I first came to India! Before I knew it, we turned down another road that I knew as well, and we were driving past the house Sazzy used to live in back when he lived in India, and where the three of us had spent the night a few times earlier in the trip! After passing Sazzy's house, we ended up going to Bikanervala for lassi, the same restaurant that Sazzy and his uncle had taken Hunter and I too! It's amazing how in a place as big as India, and as big as Delhi and it's surrounding areas how small the world can be sometimes huh?

We spent the afternoon driving through the incredible sprawl and confusion that is the Delhi/Gurgaon area hanging out at a friends place for a while. In the evening Dio took off for his flight and I joined the crew for a game of basketball at another friends apartment complex. I didn't play of course because I'm completely lousy at basketball, but it was fun to watch. After the game we all headed off for fruit shakes.

Sam's family owns a chain of three restaurants (Angithi Restaurant and Takeaway), and after dinner we stuffed our faces with some delicious Indian food. After dinner, we returned to the house where we hung out watching some Youtube videos before going to sleep on his floor. Sam also arranged a taxi to pick me up and take me to the airport in the morning.

At about 8am, the taxi showed up (how taxi drivers can navigate in these confusing cities is beyond me) and I said goodbye to my new friends. Sam, thanks for the hospitality, it was a lot of fun to hang out with you and your friends, let me know if you ever find your way to Seattle ;)

I had a few hours to kill at the airport and a few extra Indian rupees to spend so the obvious thing to do was eat, haha. The Delhi airport is like any other airport, where everything is stupid expensive. I sat down to a buffet breakfast that was probably the most expensive meal I had in two months in India, 350 rupees! Because of that I stayed for more than an hour, getting my breakfast, lunch, and a little extra in.

The flight itself was only about an hour and a half, and pretty uneventful. I ended up falling asleep right after takeoff and waking up right as we were entering Kathmandu. One thing I was excited about Nepal for was that it was “Nepal Tourism Year 2011” and I had heard that because of that there was no fee for the visa. When I got to the very small and basic airport, I discovered this was not actually the case, and I had to pay $40 for a 30 day visa... I plan on staying a month and a half, so I'll have to renew, but I'll deal with that later... Anyways, I was now in Nepal, and super excited!

I took a taxi from the airport into the Thamel area, the tourist district in Kathmandu. There got a hotel that was way nicer than I'm used to, and sat in the lobby to check my email. Earlier in India, I'd registered for CouchSurfing, and had found a host, Birendra, here in Kathmandu for two nights. Rather annoyingly, one of the hotel guys was reading over my shoulder, and said “I know this guy.” I wasn't scheduled to meet and stay with him until the next day, but they gave him a call for me anyways.

We met in a Tibetan restaurant down the stairs from his travel business, had tea together and got to know each other a bit. Birendra has a trekking business here in town called 'Adventure Club Treks & Expedition' and that combined with his connections to some volunteer opportunities made him seem like a perfect host here in Kathmandu. As we talked, I told him I was interested in bungee jumping, he made the call, and I was signed up to do it the next morning! We then had dinner at the same restaurant with some other clients of his, where I tried my first Everest Beer (beer is expensive in Nepal, so I'll pretty much abstain) and had a very tasty Tibetan noodle soup.

I returned to my room where I experienced one of the facts of daily life here in Kathmandu: only 10 hours of electricity a day (talk about a major way to stifle growth). You will be walking down the streets, and suddenly almost everything gets dark. Some shops have batter backups for a few lights, others light candles, a few have generators (including my hotel, which rumbled and shook and echoed through the whole building) but many places simply shut down. I had a nice hot shower, and went to bed with an alarm set to wake up early.

At 5:45am I met up at the office of The Last Resort, the operator of the bungee jumping and canyon swinging out here, as well as canyoning and other outdoor activities. There was more people than I'd expected, probably 50 or so, and we boarded two mid-size buses for the 3+ hour drive out to the resort and the site of the days activities. The drive was less scenic than I'd hopped but it was interesting anyways just to see a new area.

Our drive was finally over and we all found ourselves at The Last Resort, which is 12km from the boarder with Tibet and standing on a suspension bridge over the Bhote Kosi river, 160m below us. We walked across the bride, signed in, got weighed and put into groups. I had only intended on doing the bungee jump, but for something like $28 more I could do the canyon swing and well, I couldn't pass it up.

Out at the bridge, I found myself first in line for the canyon swing. I really didn't know what to expect or what exactly was going to happen, but I put on the full-body harness and stepped towards the edge. Here is how they describe it:

Jump off the 160m high bridge, then free fall 100m into the dramatic gorge before the twin lines swing you 240m at 150km per hour. The canyon swing at The Last Resort is the worlds highest and certainly not for kids!

The free-fall felt huge and well, I guess it is! You literally just step off into space, and fall for about two seconds, before the ropes gently catch you and the swing begins. It shoots you down the canyon in a massive swing at high speeds, and you pretty much just swing back and forth a few times while you lose speed, then you grab a rope and pull yourself to land. The free-fall part of this was more intense than sky diving from 15,000 feet I felt, probably because you can really see and feel the perception of the ground (and canyon walls around you) coming closer to you.

And here is a video of me doing the swing. I had no interest in paying them any more money than I already had for a video I'd watch twice ever, so when they weren't watching I 'bootlegged' it with my camera filming it playing on their laptop, haha. I was kicking my legs because I felt off balance and was trying to right myself, but it turned out to be unnecessary. Instead, it was just poor form, haha.

After the first rounds people went back to the lodge and talked about how it felt and we were served a pretty decent lunch of pasta salad, potatoes, meatballs and veggies.

Once that was all done, it was time for my bungee jump! I kept my camera with me this time and got pictures of the setup, but of course didn't get any pictures of my actual jump. Here they are hooking me up.

Bungee Nepal at The Last Resort may be the most spectacular jump on the planet. At 160m high Bungee Nepal is Nepal's ultimate rush and one of the longest free-falls in the world. The stunning natural surroundings so close to Tibet make the jump an almost magical experience.”

A video of one of the girls jumping. Yah, it's a long ways down for sure. So how was the jump? It was a lot of fun, but I thought the swing was more intense. The best part about the bungee is you can just do a head-first swan-dive off the bridge, which is a cool feeling, but the free-fall was much shorter. Someone complimented me on my calmness and total silence as I did my jump, I guess I just didn't have much to scream about, haha Maybe it wasn't as exciting because I've seen it so many times and knew what to expect, or maybe because the swing sort of 'desensitized' me since it was first. Either way, both were a lot of fun.

And here is looking up at the bridge from the bottom after my jump. (that barrel is a counterweight for pulling the bungee cord back up by the way)

Once you stop bouncing and swinging, they lower you the rest of the way down while still hanging headfirst above the river. This part was a bit uncomfortable really, as it takes a bit of time and you have all the blood rushing to your head. Once you are low enough you grab the bamboo pole they have, and you are pulled to the ground and laid on a bed of sorts where you are unhooked.

Once everyone had done their jump, or jumps, we watched the videos and saw the pictures which they tried to sell us for the usual exorbitant fees (almost $30 to burn a CD? Yah freaking right...). While my technique was a bit lacking on the swing, my form was perfect on the bungee!

So overall both were a lot of fun, but probably not something I'd do again. Just like skydiving, they were all things on my to-do list, and all are things I'm glad to have tried. However, the rush on all of them is so short, and they all feel so safe and controlled to me that I honestly get more out making turns and hitting jumps on a ski run. These activities are just too expensive to justify doing more than once for me. I'm not sure what it says when sky diving, bungee jumping and canyon swinging are not exciting enough for me, so come to your own conclusions ;)

After the long bus ride back to Kathmandu, I met up with Birendra back at his office and hopped on the back of his motorcycle to his home. There, he fed me some soup and I got to meet his two kids. His daughter was particularly friendly and curious, and as always it is great to stay with and get to talk to local people.

Birendra has hosted dozens of CouchSurfers, and had a nice little room for us visitors to stay in. This will be my room for the next two nights. Thanks Birendra!

In the morning I set out to do a little exploring, but the highest priority on my list was to find a place with wifi so I could take care of some business online and write and post my last blog entry about the ski trip since I was behind. Luckily Kathmandu is a ridiculously tourist-friendly place and it was easy to find a nice restaurant with free wifi where I could sit down for a few hours eating and working on my computer.

Once I'd finished my business on the computer and had a good breakfast (and chocolate milkshake) I set out to explore the area a bit and look at the shops. The main tourist drag is full of only a few different kinds of businesses: restaurants, travel agencies/trekking companies, tourist junk and outdoor gear shops. The gear shops were of particular interest to me since I need a fair bit of new cloths for the Everest Base Camp trek I would be leaving for very soon. That's right, I'm off to see Mt. Everest!

As I got a little beyond the tourist strip, I found myself in the part of town where the locals actually go, and as always, the little shops and food sellers were very fun to look at. There may not be a ton of fish this far inland, but the dried-fish lady sure had them by the bucket-full, including these evil little eel things!

A little further on my wanderings took me to this temple south of the Thamel area. I'm honestly not sure which one it is though...(Ikha Pokhari?). I think I was told it was the third largest in Nepal? It looks about the same as the largest of them, the Swayambhunath temple, but is not it. Anyways, the square was full of interesting smaller monuments, pigeons, and something I got an extra kick out of, a group of kids about 9 years old break dancing. It's amazing where you find B-Boy culture, haha.

In the evening, I returned to Birendra's office to take care of paperwork for the Everest trek. I guess I haven't talked about it yet,so here is the story: There are two 'classic' treks here in Nepal that are the major draws, the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna Circuit trek (and yes, there are endless numbers of other amazing treks as well). Both take you two to three weeks, bring you through amazing Himalayan scenery, and have guesthouses and restaurants the whole way meaning you don't even need a tent or to carry food. I chose the Everest trek because honestly, I want to see Everest, that's the main reason. But also, it should have a few less people on it and takes you slightly higher in elevation, up to 5545m!

The way you do it is by flying from Kathmandu to Lukla, hiking about a week through villages to where you get the best view of Everest and to the base camp (where you can't actually see Everest from!) and then taking about a week heading back towards Lukla where you then fly back to Kathmandu.

Because I've spent all but two weeks of my trip thus far in the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and southern India, I have almost no warm cloths with me. Obviously, I need to fix that and Kathmandu has just what I need. You can rent, but I decided to buy a bunch of things because I can always use them back at home, and I certainly will. Pretty much all the gear here is fake, but that also means pretty cheap. That said, they usually still use real Goretex, goose down, and Windstopper, so you can get some decent buys.

I ended up with a bunch of things: a big warm down jacket, a nice soft shell, some goretex pants, goretex gloves with removable liners, poly long-sleeve and t-shirt, and fleece top and bottoms. All are items I can use on the trek and other adventures here in Nepal, and all are things that will get some good use back at home as well. All this gear cost me about $160. (I am renting my sleeping bag)

I started to feel uncomfortable at dinner, but by the time I was walking back to Birendra's house to sleep for the night the stomach pains started to get bad. Yep, I was truly sick. My gut was rumbling like a Harley Davidson and I couldn't do anything but lay down. Then the frequent trips to the squat toilet began. Just like the only other time I've truly been sick in the Philippines, why does this have to happen when I'm staying in someones house!??! Haha... I told Birendra how I was feeling, and depending on how I felt the next morning I might have to postpone the Everest trip.

The next morning I wasn't feeling any better, and luckily Birendra was able to reschedule my flight without any extra fees. Talk about a great CouchSurfing host! I laid in bed between visits to the toilet for a few hours, and by 10 or 11am felt brave enough to venture out and find a hotel room since my two nights with Birendra were up. My flight to Lukla and the start of my Everest trek has been rescheduled for the 5th by the way.

The place didn't have a room ready when I'd arrived, and I spent an anguished half an hour waiting for a bed to lay in and a toilet to sit on. While I was waiting, I got that great feeling of doom, and rushed out onto the deck to puke in a potted plant. I was too hot, I was too cold, I was exhausted, I was in pain and I just needed a room to lock myself in and rest. I finally got it, rushed to the western style (!!!) toilet, and then collapsed in bed. I spent the rest of the night laying in bed sleeping, visiting the toilet, sitting downstairs using the wifi and watching episodes of Futurama on my computer. By the time I finally went to sleep for the night, I was actually feeling quite a bit better.

So now it is the next morning. I've had a much needed shower, done some laundry and spent the bulk of the morning laying in bed writing this post. I feel much better than yesterday, but no way am I 100%. I do feel well enough to go outside for the first time in over 24 hours, and I might even eat something! I'll spend the rest of today resting and doing a little planning for my time here in Nepal (but not too much planning, if you've been following my blog for any amount of time, you know planning just isn't my style!). Maybe if I'm feeling well enough tomorrow I'll explore the city a bit more, and I still have more prep for the trek as well.

I may or may not have another post before I leave very early on the 5th for the trek. If not I could be out of internet contact for two or two and a half weeks, don't worry if you don't hear from me! If there is a way to get online during the trek, I may try and post a picture and a few sentences, but I can't promise anything. The major writeup and photos will obviously come once I return to Kathmandu, so you will just have to wait until then!