Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Nepalese Wedding

I usually write my blog after I have visited a country but this weekend an exceptional thing happened.  Avid readers will note that I do a cooking class in almost every country I visit, and with my return to Nepal I wasted no time finding one in Kathmandu.  More on that later.  What I was not expecting was to be invited, along with my fellows cooks Dominique & Yvonne, to the wedding of the brother-in-law of Amrit, our host.

The day before heading out to the celebrations we had a bit of preparation work to do.  Dominique & Yvonne had been able to borrow saris from Amrit's wife, but I needed a dhaka topi, a traditional Nepalese hat.  These are commonplace in Kathmandu, but finding one with an even remotely tasteful design takes a bit of work and a helping hand (always take a woman with you when shopping for random clothes for weddings!).

Additionally we needed a large supply of biscuits and sweets as a present to the grooms mother as a thank you for inviting us into their home, and of course a present for the happy couple.  Some good haggling in the lanes of the Thamel area of Kathmandu saw us walking away with a simple picture frame with a peacock motif.  Not knowing exactly what we were doing, I thought we had done pretty well.

In the morning we met Amrit and his daughter, Anu, and got an early bus for the 3 hour ride to Falante, a small village where the grooms family lived.  There we met Amrit's wife and his sons, Aksh and Asis, the groom, Birendra, and his brother, Bimal.  We were treated to a welcoming plate of fresh buffalo curd and celebration bread, a local delicacy only made on special occasions.  The houses were stone with dirt floors comprising few rooms, beds everywhere, a simple kitchen but large compared to others in the village.  Animals were kept outside, unlike villages I had been to in other countries, and they had a garden with lychees, mangos, bananas, coffee and much more.  In addition they had a flock of around 700 chickens.  Clearly well to do in the community.

We were taken to visit Amrit's sister-in-law and her children, who were very excited to meet us, before the rest of the village arrived to begin the celebrations.  A feast was laid on for the whole village to celebrate the marriage as only the men and close female relatives were to attend the actual ceremony the next day.  Dominique & Yvonne were indeed privileged to witness the following days ceremonies.  The food was plentiful and delicious - mutton curry, potato curry, bean stew and much more, washed down with Nepalese tea, thick, heavily spiced and brewed over a wood fire for a unique flavour.  The children were fed first and then the adults, scattered around the buildings anywhere we could find a seat.

After dinner we were shown the rest of the village and the school.  We were joined by what seemed every child in the village eager to talk to us and practice their English.  They were very good, although conversation was generally limited to 'what is your name?', 'where do you come from?'.  They loved to play and act for our cameras, loving the photos we were taking when shown.

One girl was so taken by us she asked if we would come back to her house for tea and to meet her family, which we more than happy to oblige, the pleasure it gave her to be taking the westerners to her house truly heartwarming.  It was a smaller house, with only a couple of rooms but clearly a house full of love.

With an early start the next day and little to do in the village we had an early night.  Due to the number of people staying in the house at the time, this meant that Aksh and I had to sleep outside on the balcony.  Thankfully the night was neither cold nor wet.

Then it was the morning of the big day.  While Dominique & Yvonne were dressed in their saris by Anu, I dressed in a smart shirt and trousers (for a backpacker I am unusually prepared for these occasions) and donned my topi.  We were decorated with tikkas on our heads before being introduced to the groom.  Birendra looked suitably nervous as he began his marriage rituals  Before he left his home to go to his brides village, he paid respect to his ancestors for peace and received gifts from his family, and of course the picture frame from his honoured guests.

Then it was time for us to board the party bus for another 3 hour journey to the brides village, Bhorle.  This was really entering rural Nepal as the roads gradually turned from tarmac, to dirt and gravel.  Arriving at a couple of roadside huts we waited a short while.  Music could be heard approaching down the road - this was the welcoming party from the brides family come to carry the groom to the brides house on a palaquin.  It was quite a sight as we wound our way along a forest path to the small collection of houses, a very beautiful setting halfway up the hillside.

In a small yard outside the house there was a buzz of activity, the brides family and villagers having already gathered awaiting the groom, the women all dressed in their finest saris, the priest preparing the jagya around which the various parts of the ceremonies would take place.  And without much fanfare at all the bride, Chamedi appeared.  The ceremony takes several hours, as the groom is welcomed to the brides family, the bride given to the groom thus joining his families lineage, and their feet washed by any people.  Birendra was still looking a but nervous but Chamedi was clearly delighted.  As these rituals take some time another feast was held, fairly similar to that at the grooms house but much more richly spiced.

In the meantime the happy couple had preceded indoors for their own meal and further rituals, and so the band started playing and the local villagers entertained us with dancing.  Soon the final stages of the ceremony commenced, with the bride and groom making offerings to a fire in the centre of the jagya.  Armit explained that all this was in order for the bride to say goodbye to not only the traditions and beliefs of her family but also to her family itself as she was now a member of her grooms family.  The time had come for her to leave her home and journey back to Falante.

Now comes possibly the daftest part of the proceedings.  Aksh convinced me to ride on top of the bus.  It is not comfy and the roads are fairly bad.  Hanging on for dear life as the bus wound its way up and down the hillsides, through clouds of dust thrown up by the preceding marriage car, ducking and dodging tree branches and low hanging power cables, I was somewhat concerned I may end up at the bottom of one of the 100ft cliffs that loomed below me.  How the 30 or so Nepalese boys riding up there with me acted so nonchalant I will never know.  And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse room was made for the grooms wedding gift - a wardrobe and a bed.  In all honesty it was great fun and I would happily do it again, but I'd like to have a cushion.

Back at the grooms house we were greeted by children chasing the bus and singing and dancing from the women who had been waiting for the arrival of the married couple.  A short ritual was performed to welcome the bride to her new home and family.

By this time it was late and we were all tired.  We had another early start in the morning to return to Kathmandu.  It was emotional in the morning.  We said farewell to the family who had welcomed us into their home and honoured us by inviting us to this special occasion.  The ceremonies were not over for Chamedi however.  She would perform more rituals to be worship the ancestors and deities of her new family and their ways an traditions.

I am truly grateful to Amrit for inviting us all to participate in this joyous occasion.  I will never forget the children who showed so much joy in our presence or the generosity and hospitality shown to us by the families and friends.  In a way it was a privilege in their customs to have us as guests, but I felt much more privileged at the opportunity to experience real Nepalese culture.  This was one of the most wonderful experiences of may travels so far.

Monday, 19 May 2014

How To Spend 5 Weeks On An Island Doing Not Very Much...

Indonesia.  South East Asia's largest country.  The worlds largest archipelago with over 17000 islands.  So how on earth did I only see 5 islands in 7 weeks!?  And not even any of the big ones!

We start this mystery in Kuta Bali, a beach resort mostly populated by Australians as it is closer to them than anywhere else and has plenty of surfing, which they seem to like. I was only planning to be here for a couple of days, meet up with a friend, Gunnar, who I had met back in Mandalay outside a temple.  In waiting for him though, I ran into an unusual problem - Nyepi.  Balinese New Year.  New Years Eve was celebrated in style with a 'monster parade', where statues of monsters, or Ogoh-Ogoh, made by the townspeople, are taken through all the towns on the island supported by a band and dancers to ward off the evil spirits for the coming year before being burned.

This was pretty exciting stuff, and a nice surprise to walk into.  New Years Day however was a different issue.  This is a day for self-reflection.  Silent Day.  No sound must be made, lights, TV's, radios are not turned on.  No one is allowed to leave their homes.  Even tourists.  For 30 hours we were confined to our hostel.  While we could go out on the terrace, we could not get close to the railings in case we were seen by the few police officers who enforce the proceedings.

For the couple of days following this we enjoyed what Kuta had to offer - mainly the beach, before heading north into the hills and rice paddies to Ubud.  My summation for Ubud is it's OK.  It's nice.  This may be because I have been a bit spoilt so far.  When you've seen 2000 year old rice terraces you know it's going to take something special to impress you.  The same goes for temples.  Especially when you can't go around them, which seems to be a trait peculiar to Bali.  The food, though, was turning out to pretty damn good.  So nice as it was we turned our attentions to the next island, Lombok.  Or to be more accurate the Gili's.

Our lack of real exploring was partially due to Gunnar being at the end of his travels and he wanted to spend his last days mostly relaxing.  After having travelled Malaysia, Myanmar and Philippines pretty much solo I was tired too and was generally in agreement.

We headed to Gili Trawangan for a few days first.  This is the largest of the Gili's, 3 islands (or Gili) located to the north west of Lombok.  It is supposed to be the party island, and while definitely busier than the rest we did find it difficult to find any late night parties.  We also tired quickly of the horse carts, locals selling dubious substances, and the general clientele.  I did however find a cooking school here which was very good & cooked so much food I had to get Gunnar in to help eat.  Which he wasn't complaining about...

So we soon got the boat to the Gili Air.  And as soon as we stepped off we knew we were home.  Smaller (but not the smallest) Gili Air can be walked around in about an hour.  Accommodation is a bit more expensive, food and drink cheaper.  It is also quieter.  So we settled in.  At this time I found out that Sandra & Saskia, who I had met in Sagada, were also heading here.  Liking the idea of more friendly faces I was not inclined to leave my little paradise.  After  few days of lazing around they arrived.  On Gili T.  I headed back for a day to celebrate Sandra's birthday before convincing them life was much more fun on Gili A.  They followed me back and seemed to agree, staying for a number of days.  It was through them I found H2O Yoga, somewhere which was to become very important to me.  They also brought with them Laura, a lovey, crazy, Italian girl who was to join me in a really fun adventure.  And a really adorable one.  This one first!  We went on a snorkel trip around the islands hoping to see one of the many turtles that live in the waters here.  We saw 8.  I got to touch the shell of one as it swam below.  But even this didn't come close to what happened on my first trip to Gili Meno.  One day every 6 months they have a turtle release, where for a donation to the islands hatchery and conservation program you can release a baby turtle into the sea.  This was that day.  I felt like a proud father as I placed Myrtle, her little flippers wrapped around my fingers, into the sea, saw her get hit by a big wave and disappear.  I really hope she's ok...  Right, now the other adventure.

Fully visible on Lombok is Mount Rinjani, an active volcano.  Sat on the beach on Gili Air I had stared at Rinjani for days, slowly becoming more and more entranced by her.  I just wanted someone to join me, share the experience.  Laura was mad enough.  So the day after we said goodbye to Gunnar, Sandra and Saskia, we ventured off Gili Air (not an easy thing to do) and went to Senaru at the foot of the volcano.  The trip was 3 days.  It started badly.  As soon as we set foot on the trail it tarted to rain heavily.  It barely let up for 2 hours.  It was hard work going up through the forest on the lower slopes, but even worse higher up with minimal visibility.  When we finally found the tents for that nights base camp it took ages to found which was ours, they were so spread out in the low cloud.  Finally in the tent it started to rain again.  I checked my bag.  All my clothes were soaked through.  This did not bode well for the early morning climb to the summit in two days time.  We shivered through the first night...

To find a beautiful morning.  We had camped close to the rim of the volcano.  A quick peek over the top revealed a wonderful sight - the cone of the new volcano in the bottom of the old, surrounded by a lake, and opposite the rising peak of Rinjani.  The days trek was much nicer.  First we went down into the crater for a swim in the lake, then around the shore to natural hot springs for a quick dip.  The weather was sunny and warm, and a few wardrobe changes got all my clothes dry before lunch.  The afternoon saw us climbing back up to the rim, to base camp below the final ascent.  We were treated to an almost otherworldly sunset as clouds drifted through the crater below us.  But as we got back into our tents for the night the ominous patter of rain started once more.

At 2:30am it was still raining.  The guides said it was up to us to decided to attempt the summit or not.  They felt it was too dangerous.  Occasionally you have to know when to accept defeat.  We went back to bed.  At 4:30am I was awoken by what sounded like an army marching past the tent.  A German couple in the next tent 'knocked' on ours.  It had stopped raining.  The clouds had gone.  Laura was enjoying her sleeping bag but I decided to have a run at it.  And run we pretty much did.  It should take over 3 hours to reach the top from where we were.  It took us 2.  We scrambled in the dark up the side of the crater to the rim, chasing the last torches in the distance and just kept going along it.  Sunrise came just as we hit the final climb and it was impressive enough to halt us for a few moments.  Then the last slog.  600m up a 30 degree slope.  Thankfully the rain had caused the ash surface to compact under all the other feet before us making it easier than we had been led to believe.  Eventually the summit was achieved and the view was spectacular.

All the way to Bali in the west and Sumbawese in the east, my beloved Gili Air clear far below.  And then down.  All the way.  2 hours back to the tents (to find Laura had gone down ahead of me), and a further 4 to the village below.  My legs and feet were screaming in agony at every step, but I felt nothing but joy at what I'd done that morning.  Unfortunately, stealing a summit like that comes at a price, and Rinjani proceeded to chuck it down on us once more for the final hour leaving everything, once again, soaked.  And cold.  This was my second mountain, and much more difficult than Mount Kinabalu but also a much more enjoyable experience.  I liked camping out rather than staying in the lodge, and much preferred the almost untouched climb of Rinjani to the manicured steps and staircases of Kinabalu.  And there were more of us all chatting together through the days and nights, keeping the jokes going between us all the way back to the boat to Gili Air.

And so we did return to Gili Air.  Laura left me the next day.  After such an intense experience together there were plenty of tears.  I climbed both mountains with a Laura.  I highly recommend people take a Laura with them when they climb a mountain.  They were both amazing fun and kept everyone going through their inexhaustible positivity.

Before going on the volcano I had just managed to get my passport in for a visa extension before the first ran out.  There are two ways to do this.  Either go to the main town on Lombok, Mataram, and apply in person (250,000 IDR for a couple of days turnover, 400,000 for same day), but this means at least a couple of days doing not a lot in the town.  Or you can give your passport to one of the many travel agents on the islands who for 600,000 will sort it out for you in 3 days.  This option would seem a bit daft if you're on a budget, but if you time it with a 3 day trek, thus negating any extra accommodation, travel and food costs in going to Mataram it becomes a very canny idea.

This should have been the end of my stay on Gili A.  But news had filtered through of another imminent arrival.  And one which I was not going to miss out on.  I had met Katie 8 months before in Xi'an and again in Pai.  Now she was slowly crossing Indonesia towards Lombok and Gili Air.  So I waited.  Although it was starting to become a bit of a joke with everybody: 'How long have you been here?  Doing what?  Are you ever going to leave?'

To pass my time in this period I started doing yoga every day.  H2O is a fantastic place.  The teachers, Sarah and Anya, are brilliant, never taking themselves seriously but always there with help and advice.  It didn't take long for my weary body to start feeling the effects.  I was starting to feel much better.  My mind slowly followed and a zen like state was achieved for the first time since Pai.  I didn't care that I wasn't seeing more of Indonesia.  It's a big place.  I was going to have to come back anyway.  I was doing what I had to do at that moment.  This, I realised, was what I had come to Indonesia for, even if it was not what I had imagined when I got off the plane on Bali.

And finally Katie arrived.  Wifi is bad on Gili Air so no messages were sent.  I was having dinner with some Aussies who had taken pity on me.  I had just sat down and looked across to the next table where an almighty laugh could be heard.  'Er, hi Katie!'  So the final couple of weeks were spent doing equally not a lot with Katie and her travel buddies, Chris, Florian and another Katie.  Ok, I'll be honest.  Mostly with the other Katie.  The stories, as amazingly beautiful and amazingly innocent as they are, are ours alone.  To say that saying goodbye to her at the harbour the morning they left was the hardest yet is a massive understatement.  You'd have to go all the way back to when I said my last farewell at Norwich airport to even get close to this. Maybe saying goodbye to my Dad...

But with their departure I felt nothing was keeping me here and it was time to leave.  I only had 1 week left of my extension anyway, so no time to really go anywhere.  The last couple of days were spent hanging out with the guys at H2O, now as much friends as teachers, and wandering around having  few 'lasts' - last ice cream (amazingly good - at the start we had one nearly every day), the last dinner and happy hour at Zipps (our regular haunt - only on one day did I not spend any time there), playing in the sea under the stars...  Everything held fantastic memories, but was also tinged with sadness.

Just as with Pai, Gili Air was as much about the people I shared the experience with as the experience itself.  Not only did I make new friends but to get to meet so many friends that I had had fun with before was fantastic.  And this time it was for days on end rather than just a few hours.  It is true what they say, that if you travel long enough you will meet the same people again and again.  I just don't think anybody meant it to happen so much on an island barely a mile long.  Here's an example of how small the travelling world is: when I was staying at Bedbunkerz in Kuta a few days after arriving in Bali there was a girl in the bunk below me, Ramona.  We spent a great couple of days with Gunnar and Peter drinking and relaxing, going through the usual retelling of our travel stories.  It was only when we finally got around to adding each other on Facebook that I noticed an anomaly.  3 mutual friends?  Well, Gunnar & Peter I understood.  But who...?  Oh yeah... that'll be dear old Katie...