Paradise Found - Pokhara, Nepal

 "N-E-P-A-L ... Viva Nepal!"  - Eddie Murphy, The Golden Child

Greetings from Nepal, we have landed in a paradise and will wax poetical. Pokhara, the second largest town in Nepal (with a population of 70,000) is nestled in the foothills of the Annapurna massif of the Himalayas. Nepal shares the lofty heights of the Himalayas with Tibet to the north, and the flat plains of the Terai with India to the South. It is a tiny nation with a population of only 22 million, and it is desperately poor. 95% of the population live rurally, while 75% is illiterate. Most people survive on subsistence farming, basically growing just enough to eat. Aside from a few wealthy individuals living in the urban centers and catering to the tourism industry, most live very isolated lives in the hills and valleys, and little of the outside world. Tourism is definately changing the face of that, at least on the current beaten paths.  

fruit seller on Simalchaur road in New Bazaar, Pokhara

Pokhara, seems to be just that sort of place. A city carved from tourism and set 'plunk' into the most amazing location. From our hotel window, you can glance across the placid waters of Lake Phewa and the surrounding green foothills to the picture-perfect peak of Machapuchre, aka Fishtail, a mountain, to rival the Matterhorn. The main tourist drag is lined with endless restaurants, bars, and travel agencies touting mountain treks, white-water rafting, and jungle safaris. And the food ...  

Arriving in Nepal, we were extremely protein deficient, and longed for the taste of real beef. The first night out, we perused the menu and came across buff steak. Was this another language miscommunication? Turns out, the locals, devout Hindus that they are, offer this delightful substitute. Water buffalo, casually abbreviated to Buff is everywhere, but, in steak form, it turns out to be a chewy, stringy imitation. The ubiquitous buffsteak, buff fry, buffburger, buff burrito, and buff on a stick. Better off waiting for the real deal, which we found at the Everest Steak House. They import it, they cook it, they serve it, but they donít eat it. Beef, the holy grail of the Indian subcontinent, and they have it in spades in Nepal, for the right price. Our search for the meaty elexir landed us at the Infamous Everest Steak house, a joint solely devoted to serving massive quantities of the practically illegal substance at comparitively rock-bottom prices and it was GOOD! The best $3 steak we have ever had, and this was no diner steak and eggs. It was a full-bodied, cooked to order, hunk of meat.  

But aside from T and Doug's insatiable appetite for meat, we all came to love dudh chiya, Nepali's version of chai, a silky sweet, ginger-tinged, milky steaming cup of tea. Made on every street corner for a mere 5 rupees, start your day off right. Step up to any women working in front of a fire-stoked clay stove and ask 'euta dudh chiya dinus' and if she replies 'chinni?' you must answer 'chinni rhaaknus' Better yet, grab some biscuits to dip. Nepalis have a fascination with biscuits in all forms, sweet, salty, chocolaty, creamed and whatnot. But the alltime best has got to be the aptly named 'glucose.' It's 12 rupees of delight, and slightly reminiscent of vanilla wafers.

Viva Nepal!  

Say Nameste to Haji, my Nepali Hajuraama, 'grandmother'

No doubt, much of our joy and love of Nepal sprung from our violent reaction to Varanasi and the trip over. Nepal, in contrast to the harsh reality of India, seems so much more at peace. While as painfully poor as India, the people are more family oriented. There are no homeless people sleeping in the gutters, atop their rickshaws. While there are always touts, there seem to be more genuine people wanting to help, even if they don't know the answer. (Beware of getting directions) And people are quick to laugh and express joy here. There is something special about Nepal...Viva Nepal!

Nameste - the traditional Nepali greeting loosely translates to 'I bless the divine in you' Namaskar if you want to show extra special respect.

One of our main objectives in Nepal was to trek. While out talking to the different trekking agencies, we noticed all the rafting trips available. Seems that Nepal is also a hotbed of white-water rafting, with the numerous rivers that flow out of the Himalayas. We chose a three-day trip down the sacred Kali Gandaki River, which means death to foreigners. Joke...Actually, it was closer to the truth, as the river is classified as a class 4+. The plus is all the more important because it indicates a level of difficulty that is very significant post-monsoon when the rivers are really pumping. I think we were in over our heads, as all three of us have never rafted before. The first day by the side of the river, we got our first safety and paddling demo. It lasted all of twenty minutes. The river looked extremely menacing and flowing very fast. Our first challenge occurred almost immediately. Two of the hardest rapids, one right after another, occurred within the first fifteen minutes. As we pushed off, we wondered what we had got ourselves into. But then we immediately paddled to the other shore and stopped. Our group was big. Twenty one people plus eight staff. We were comprised of three rafts, one supply raft, and three safety kayakers, VERY IMPORTANT! We were all wondering why we stopped when we heard from the other boat that two girls had begun to cry and wanted to be let out. They walked home.

And we went on. Going into the first rapid, it was critical that we not flip. Well, that's always critical but this time more so, because if we did, we would all be washed into the following rapid which is potentially very dangerous. And we made it. I think we were all so excited that maybe we lost our head going into the next rapid, because we hit a big wave, and the guy in front of me just disappeared. But those safety kayakers were great. Our guide signaled and they just swooped in and saved him. After talking to him, I decided that I didn't want to ever get separated from the raft, because going downstream in a raging river is not fun. After a good afternoon of rafting, we camped on a sandy beach and slept under the stars. The next day was a full day of rafting and uneventful except for T almost drowning. It was on a rapid named Evil Refund, quite apt. We hit the rapid sideways, very bad and due to our incompetent paddling, and then we were all desperately clinging to hang on. When we next surfaced, one side of the boat was gone. Doug and I were still hanging on, but then we realized that T was nowhere to be seen. Our guide was screaming at us to paddle lest we lose everyone else, and we did, all the while looking for our friends bobbing heads. Of course, the safety kayakers got them all, but not before T described a harrowing ride underwater in which he thought he was actually drowning. The onslaught of continual rapids only allows you to surface just enough to gulp another breath of air before forcing you back under for what seems an eternity. But we were all safe and sound in the end and T lost only a toenail. OUCH

We would highly recommend white-water rafting in Nepal and it is unbelievably inexpensive. In general, trips cost about $25 a day for all equipment and food and camping gear. Excellent fun!  

Once back in Pokhara, we set out to set up our trek. Pokhara is the main jumping off point for the highly popular treks into the Annapurna region of the Himalayas. Trekking (fancy term for hiking) basically takes you to places where no roads have ever gone. For aeons, people have lived in these beautiful, isolated foothills and mountains, and as such, have beat well- trodden paths. Much of the appeal of trekking lies in walking these same paths and meeting the extremely friendly locals along the way and, for a moment, slowing down to their pace of life and of course, getting up close and personal with the highest mountains in the world.  

While many will come for the mountains, most will return for the people. This must be the start of a love affair with an entire country.  Viva Nepal!

Next time, Doug and Ann's complete guide to trekking!

Ten four good buddies

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