Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Nepal, the antidote to India

I moved a comforter on a shelf and a lizard hopped off slithering under the cupboard. Welcome to Nepal where lizards patrol the ceiling, monkeys scramble in trees and elephants stop by the restaurant for potatoes.

Rick and I enjoy geckos and look forward to finding them on our walls but when one jumps out from a blanket that’s a different thing. Even so this is by far the nicest place we have stayed.

Called the Sapana Lodge, it is operated by Dhura Giri, the general manager, the person who has calmed our life, fed us well, given us a comfortable room and arranged for us to visit a local village, the source of our eggs, bread and vegetables and the place where Sapana Lodge will establish a medical clinic and school.

It’s been a wonderful day in Nepal, a country I can heartily recommend as a marvelous destination. This morning we rode a jeep to the Rapti River and boarded dugout canoes for a trip down the river looking for crocodiles, birds and rhinos and then hiked back. We saw 2 crocs sunning on a bank, birds everywhere, a monkey in a tree and the very coolest of red bugs, a cotton bug. Wonderful.

The river was dressed in mist so it seemed we must fall off the end of the earth. The water constantly gurgled over in swirling eddies while bird calls filled the air.

It was so tranquil and quiet that the stress of India fell into the water melting away.

After almost an hour we reached an area where our heavy western butts pushed the canoe into the stone river bottom so the boatman brought the boat to the bank to let us out. The bank was velvet soft sand undercut by the current in this area so before everyone was out of the canoe a huge chunk of land broke loose and smashed into the water and canoe sending one chair tumbling, nearly rocking Gordon overboard and splashing me with mud. Could have been worse.

The return trip was a jungle walk and those start with safety lessons. If a bear finds us come together in a group and make noise. For a tiger, make eye contact and walk backwards. If it’s a rhino climb a tree or hide behind a tree or run in a zigzag pattern while tossing a piece of clothing to distract it.

Coming down our narrow path was a mahout on his elephant. We all pushed into the plants along the path to make way and suddenly realized that her baby walked behind. They were out looking for elephant grass, a disappearing plant.

It seems that 9 years ago someone brought a vine from Africa and it is now going wild here. A true invasive plant, it grows over the elephant grass, the shrubs, the trees and everything else killing the native plants and removing habitat and food as it grows. Nothing eats it; nothing kills it. The people call it minute mile – because of its rapid growth.

After lunch most of the group went off for an elephant ride but Rick and I walked to town where we found everyone was incredibly pleasant. Children visited with us and this crazy guy asked us to take his photo. Shop keepers didn’t beg us to buy and carried on long conversations with us about where we live and what grows in our home.

The street had no roaming cows, no beeping horns, no tuktuks, no begging rickshaw drivers – only two bull carts, a collection of bike riders and many pedestrians most of whom smiled to say Nameste. By the time we were half way to the river we were waving and saying Nameste to everyone. Very cool.

We went to a store with fair trade items made by women’s collectives and a leprosy camp. The owner was very pleasant and proud of what he had to offer and how the art work was original and how fair prices went to his clients. Nepal is not India.

Our third big event was a visit to the Tharu village nearby. It was a bit of a mess because today is a festival in honor of Shiva. People come from about a 15 km radius to pray at Shiva’s temple and then gamble, eat, shop and visit. It’s a special day for the young girls to dress in their best clothes and meet young men from neighboring areas. The girls were gorgeous but the traffic was worse than in Delhi.

We had to cross a narrow bridge, a narrow bridge completely filled with people and bikes. The jeep drove slowly through the crowd that flowed around it almost like the river moved around our canoe. At one point a car came from the other direction but we made it then another jeep came. There wasn’t more than an inch clearance between the two. Wow.

We visited a house with a bio gas system. The put water buffalo dung into a vat and mix it with water. This goes into an underground storage tank and gives off methane. The methane is captured and piped into the house where plastic tubes take it to burners for cooking. It must seem like heaven to the woman there because she no longer has to search for fire wood. It also means less smoke in the house. Slick.

The houses by the way are mainly built of elephant grass covered on both sides with a mixture of buffalo dung and mud which dries into a hard coating. The floor is made of grass mats covered in buffalo dung and mud and it is hard enough to walk on and smooth enough to sweep. Just now homes have gotten a fresh coating of dung and mud to make them clean and they have been painted with handprints, prints of the foot of god and flowers. The paintings are there to invite the god of wealth to enter and bless the family.

The paintings are particularly concentrated around the doors to make certain the gods know where to enter. It’s a type of competition because the gods only go into the most inviting homes.

We went into a small house with only two rooms with most of the space filled with sacks and baskets of rice. The harvest we have seen across India is the same as in Nepal. It’s the rice for the family for the next year.

If they don’t thresh all the rice now they pack it into cylindrical stacks outside their doors and collect the rest of the rice later. The rice straw is animal food and is also used to make a sort of beer.

Near the homes are gardens for vegetables, darting chickens, goats, cows and bulls. Cows for milk and work and bulls for work.

One man was ripening bananas. He buried bananas under some loose dirt and then had on one side of the dirt pile an opening where he placed some rice straw. When we were there he lit the rice straw to get a smoldering fire and then covered the fire with more dirt. The smoke would surround the bananas and make them ripe in two days.

A woman held a curved knife with her foot while she sliced julienne potatoes as quick and even as any chef on Food TV and another woman showed us her tattoos. Women must have tattooed right arms before they are allowed to cook and serve food. Their arms must be beautiful when they had food to guests. Where do traditions originate?

Everywhere children played and people talked and laughed. Nepal is so not India.

Some of the houses were brick and some, mud or brick, had electricity. Many had water pumps but NONE had toilets. Washing is done in the river and squatting is done in the field between the village and the river. The central government provides nothing here. Even the roads and bridges are locally built.

This hotel was financed by a Dutch NGO in an effort to change things. They hired Dhurba Giri because he was born here and knows all the people but has business knowledge and is dedicated to using hotel resources to help the village.

Hotel furniture was made locally and the hotel buys food from villagers. There are nine workers living here and every one of them speaks English well and is skilled and organized. (I so missed organization in India.) The hotel opened only 2 months ago so this is the start but when it becomes profitable the money will be used for the local people.

As the perfect ending, two little lizards are now scuttling up the yellow wall with little, round, sticky feet so I will choose to believe one is the creature who startled me this morning and survived his fall and will eat mosquitoes all night.

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