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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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NEPAL (A User-Friendly Interlude for Weary Travelers)



We had a pretty hellish bus ride from Varanasi up to Sunauli, the town on the Nepalese border where we ended up on our first night. Our bus was a far from "luxury" vehicle this time but the twelve-hour ride across the plains of Uttar Pradesh was pretty interesting. I kept seeing scenes that looked as if they came straight out of Biblical times. I saw water buffaloes being used to till fields, tiny rural settlements of simple houses, beautiful brickwork kilns with red bricks heaped and scattered like Lego blocks and plenty of temple-shaped stacks of drying cow dung patties. Everywhere there were people and still more people to be seen. All India was very crowded and rural India seemed slow and primitive and to belong to some long past era.

We came to call Sunauli, "the Helltown", for it was merely a strip of horrible dirty restaurants and little hotels which had sprung up to take advantage of the travelers who were often stranded there overnight. We had to go through two checkpoints before checking into the truly dreadful Nepali GuestHouse where we took a dormitory room for five for the night. The walls were painted a filthy green colour, the decor could only be described as 'post-public toilet' style and there were squadrons of huge mosquitoes waiting to dive-bomb us all night. We even managed to get into a row with the owner because we went next door, where it looked marginally cleaner, to eat dinner. We ended up drinking gallons of tea and burying ourselves under sleeping bags to escape the killer insects. Nepal!

In the morning we had a desperate scramble to get out of Sunauli on the early bus when we discovered that we had to pay money to the Immigration Dept. and had to change dollars into Nepali rupees at the local bank. Talk about captive customers! The bureaucratic paperwork took forever (why on earth should they want to know my father's profession -in triplicate?) but we finally managed to do it and scrambled onto the bus just before it left. By ten o'clock, we were on the main northeast road to Katmandu. It was another long, dusty and uncomfortable day but we traveled through some stunningly beautiful countryside. Our bus followed a winding river for hours, crossed swaying wooden bridges and then climbed incredible terraced mountains. At times the landscape reminded me of my travels in North Africa.

We finally reached Katmandu well after dark and walked the short distance to Freak Street, the notorious "hippie traveler" area of the city. There we checked into the very funky Century Lodge, which was clearly left over from the Sixties, and looked like it hadn't had a penny spent on it since then. It was a huge, low-ceilinged, rambling place with cardboard walls but would do us for now. Catherine felt ill and crashed early but I went out exploring with the others and found Katmandu an interesting city. Walking around the town, the streets and squares looked like they might have come from a Star Wars movie set, with every style of architecture under the sun. There were very modern office buildings full of glass, classical temple-styled buildings and some of the most foreign and exotic buildings I had ever seen. Domes and cupolas covered with gold, minarets and towers, spires and statues were everywhere. All the stores seemed to cater to the traveler and we were surrounded by restaurants offering every kind of food imaginable, incredibly elaborate desserts and cakes, second hand book shops, trekking equipment shops, clothes shops and music stores. We were offered every drug under the sun as we walked along the dirty littered street. I reflected on how "user friendly" Nepal was and how quickly it had developed to provide all these services to the intrepid tourist. I had also heard that Nepal was in fact far dirtier than India although that was frankly hard to believe and that many people got food poisoning here in Nepal. I resolved to be extra careful about what and where we ate but I thought it was going to be fun to stay and play here for awhile.

We took a bus out of Katmandu one day to visit a Tibetan Refugee camp. The camp was based around a hand-woven carpet factory where smiling Tibetan women graciously allowed us to watch what they were doing and to take photos of them. They all seemed extremely friendly as they sat cross-legged on the floor, whipping their shuttles from side to side as they worked away at the brilliantly coloured carpets. Outside the shop that we visited when we first entered the camp, an older woman hid from me as I tried to take her photo. I thought that, considering the seeming hopelessness of their situation politically and the fact that there was very little support globally for their cause, the Tibetans appeared to be relatively happy and contented. I wondered if it was all a facade for the tourists or if the Tibetans were really lovely pleasant people.

We spent a few days in Katmandu with the others, mostly exploring the city and its restaurants and other amenities. Catherine managed to trade her old jeans for a lovely traditional Nepalese woolen jacket. I went through the long frustrating process of applying for a new visa so that I could go back into India in a couple of weeks. As usual there were long queues and waits at the Indian Embassy and more long forms to be filled in. Why on earth should the Indians want to know my mother's place of birth and details of her education (in triplicate, needless to say)?

Catherine, Tai and I moved on to Pokhara after a few days and though we were not actually in the mountains, we came a lot nearer to them. Actually, it was the end of the trekking season and the mountains were invariably covered in cloud. We were only able to catch a glimpse from time to time of the distinctively shaped "Fishtail" peak of the Annapurna range. Pokhara was almost one hundred miles NW of Katmandu, was at a much higher altitude and was basically a small resort town built around a lake. It was the base camp for a lot of Annapurna treks and reminded me of one of those instant rest and relaxation boomtowns built in Northern California in the last century to accommodate the men seeking gold and to relieve them of some of their earnings in the process. There wasn't really very much to the town. Pokhara had one main street, a long series of little restaurants, bookshops, clothes stores and shops selling and renting used trekking equipment. There were lots of little guesthouses with names like the "Lonely Inn", "Solitary Guest house" or "Isolation Bed and Breakfast" which we found very funny. Here, it seemed, privacy and space were highly valued. I suppose that they catered to trekkers who having returned from a couple of weeks in the mountains, needed peace and quiet for awhile.

We saw a lot of trekkers walking through, generally they seemed to be surrounded by Nepalese or Tibetan guides and porters who carried huge packs and massive amounts of luggage on their backs for the Westerners. It made me very angry for most of these trekkers were only walking from village to village where they were housed and fed every night. They could surely have traveled with less "stuff". I didn't want to think what damage such heavy loads would inflict on the porters but assumed that they would run themselves into the ground and die early in pursuit of those Western dollars. We even saw one porter carrying a great zinc bath on his back, making me think of those early African explorers who liked to keep up their high English lifestyle under all and any conditions. Indeed, the British have a lot to answer for in the world although they are now really paying for the cynical and ruthless exploitation of their colonies.

We started off staying in a little guesthouse but walked around the edge of the lake one morning and came across a nice house outside of the town. We were able to rent the top floor with its two bedrooms, its big balcony and its giant rats as we later discovered, for only twenty rupees a day, The house was pretty basic with beautiful red clay terra-cotta walls and had no toilet or running water which had to be carried up from the lake. But it had a spectacular view. We liked being able to escape the town and its user-friendly trekker services and only went down to Pokhara for our meals.

I found Nepal a lot more relaxing than India for the Nepalese were genuinely friendly and were trying to build up their tourist trade. Ultimately I preferred India with its fiercely uncompromising nature and the challenge that traveling there presented. But it certainly was pleasant to sit on the balcony of our terra-cotta house on a sunny afternoon in December and look down on that stunning landscape, the blue water of the shimmering lake with those big waterlilies growing around the shore and the asymmetrical rice paddies coming down to the water's edge. The day before we had watched hangliders swooping down like great birds from the hills above the lake and the next afternoon, saw hawks wheeling around below us, playfully diving at the ducks on the lake and frightening the poor birds. There were tiny figures all over the landscape, women carrying huge bundles winding their way across the rice paddies, children down there playing soccer as they do all over the world and water buffaloes idling along being passed by impatient young men on bicycles. The long road into Pokhara wound away from us. Far along it, I could see our beautiful but sullen landlady dressed in her bright red, gold and turquoise sari as she walked into town to do her food shopping. The air was warm and balmy, smelt faintly of jasmine and was filled with the sound of many voices.

We got into the habit of eating our breakfasts at the Namaste Restaurant in Pokhara. It was a simple open structure built out of straw and wood. We sat cross-legged on the straw mat on the floor and ate a fabulous thick porridge made with different heavy grains and flavoured with spices and dried fruit. Reggae music was big in Nepal, as it is all over Asia and Africa, and the songs generally came from Bob Marley and Tracey Chapman that winter. We spent long lazy afternoons rowing around Pokhara Lake with Tai.

Catherine and I twice got up at dawn to climb Sarangkot, the high hill overlooking Pokhara in order to get a clearer, closer look at the Annapurna Range some twenty miles away. It was a stiff, steep two-hour climb to the top along a narrow winding path past little groups of houses and the occasional small cafe. There were spectacular views all the way. Perched on the stone wall of the high lookout tower at the summit of the hill, we saw the "Fishtail" peak white with snow, standing out clearly against the early morning brilliance of the blue sky. The trip to Pokhara suddenly made much more sense as we marveled at the size of the mountains towering over us. But as we watched, the first whispy clouds of condensed water began to form and by the time we had had breakfast at the restaurant strategically placed near the top, the mountains were already starting to be obscured by clouds. There would be no more treks into the mountains until Spring. Already, Pokhara was starting to close down until the next wave of intrepid trekkers arrived several months later. Sally and Erin had meanwhile rejoined us and spent a couple of days with us before we all headed back down into India en route for Bombay and Goa with Tai in mid December.

This time, we were amused by the Nepali at the bus station who admitted that our bus wasn't exactly a first class, luxury video coach but an old vehicle which had seen quite a bit of action. Actually when we boarded the bus at 4.30 in the morning, we found that it was really an old wreck with a very low ceiling so that one couldn't stand fully upright in it. The trip back into India, where we were finally dropped at the train station in Gorakhpur, was pretty nightmarish with breakdowns, police searches of several passengers and chronic overcrowding all the way. Sharing my seat built for two small Indians with at least four other passengers, I felt excruciatingly uncomfortable and grew very tense, I remember. Just as I was beginning to think that I had reached my limits on that long bus journey and that I should scream, smash the bus window and make a break for freedom, one of the Indians sitting knee to knee and nose to nose with me suddenly reached out and took my hand. He lifted it up, shook it and let it fall again and I felt immediately better and also grateful for the little lesson. India was almost always about learning to live with people at very close quarters. Perhaps the hardest thing for a Westerner to deal with, being used to having privacy and a certain amount of personal space at all times (except in a Subway train at rush hour) was that abdication of personal boundaries which seem so important in our individualist society.

Gorakhpur was marginally more pleasant than Sunauli, that little blight on the face of India, but for us was only another transit point. We checked into the Indian Railway dormitory there, which we had found to be one of the very best deals that the Railway System, a relic of the British Raj and one of India's crowning glories, had to offer. We usually got a large room, comfortable beds complete with mosquito nets, which I always found very romantic if not always necessary, and the accommodation was cheap.

After a good night's sleep there, Tai, Catherine and I bought second class third tier tickets on the Bombay Express train. It was a long two-day journey down to Bombay on the West Coast. We spent the time looking out at the Indian landscape as we flashed by in our old steam train and talking with a young Captain in the Indian army called Subodh. He was only too happy to tell us about life in the army and how he would be able to retire and go into business in a few more years. We were able to discuss the vast differences in the relationships between Indian men and women and those in the West. Marriages were still almost all "arranged" in India and were familial and economic alliances rather than relationships based on love. It seemed as foreign to us as our emotional ties seemed to Subodh. But I came away with a much greater understanding and appreciation of the Indian system than I had had before.

We finally reached Bombay in the evening and feeling rather frayed and tired, took a taxi straight to the Seashore Hotel. It was on the fifth floor of a building overlooking the Harbour and the three of us checked into a large room there. As usual, after a shower and a good thali meal, we all recovered quickly. We went out for a drink at Leopold's Cafe which was huge, very cosmopolitan and filled with fascinating people from all over the world. There were wealthy Indians, Arabic Sheiks, French junkies, slim Senegalese and incredibly beautiful women. Everybody was watching everybody else and there was a strong feeling of international intrigue in the Cafe. Leopold's was my kind of place and I found myself liking Bombay very much although it was the most expensive place that we'd been in India.

Bombay seemed generally more affluent than other cities that we'd seen and was famous as the Hollywood of India. Almost one thousand movies are made in Bombay every year, for the Indians love the cinema. Their films took a bit of time to get used to and their movie stars even longer, for the Indian ideal of male beauty would be Elvis in his final debauched, Las Vegas days. Most Indians were small and very slim and so their stars were large and fleshy in appearance. They leered down at us from massive, hand-painted billboards all over the country. In fact we even saw advertisements for films starring American actors like Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in which the pictures of those stars had been actually touched up and fattened up to bring them more into line with Indian ideals. It was hard to avoid seeing Indian "Masala" movies, (so named for their spicy mix of genres) for most of the buses ran endless videos on all our road trips and movie music blared out of almost every cafe. Indian movies were very different from the sophisticated and fast moving Hollywood films that we were used to. They were usually a slow moving melange of action, love and music with lots of high-pitched singing and dazzlingly lovely actresses pursued by large, heavily jowled, male stars. Fights literally sometimes lasted for fifteen or twenty minutes. Pow! Bam!! Sock!!! Smack!!!!, the gritty realism to which we've become accustomed went right out the window as two men beat each other endlessly. The love scenes were pretty tedious too. Kisses were chaste, framed only from the shoulders up and often lasted for ten slow minutes. They might be suddenly intercut with shots of the couple riding along beaches on horseback or, worse still, on camels. The actress might spend ten minutes chastely sponging her lover's mighty shoulders as they stared besottedly into one another's eyes. Editing seemed to be at a minimum, dances and songs were elaborate and lasted forever and most movies seemed to have roughly the same plot. A tyrant has taken over the village (town, state, country) and only the male lead can lead the revolt or struggle to free the people. He is almost always brutally beaten early in the movie but makes a comeback later, just in time to see his wife die tragically at the villain's hands. At the end he naturally wreaks a bloody revenge on the baddie. Now I come to think of it, they have the same plot as seven out of ten Hollywood movies. The Indians donít seem to be able to get enough of these movies and having learnt the habit from the English, are content to wait in line for hours to see their favourite stars. Speaking of queues, we were happy to discover that one of the very few advantages of being a woman in India was that they were for some reason permitted to go to the front of any line. That was often very nice for us in crowded bus and train stations.

On our second night in the City, we managed to talk our way into a Concert of Song and Dance sponsored by the "Times of India" newspaper which was celebrating one hundred and fifty years of existence that year. The concert was held in the open air in front of the Gateway of India, a monumental arch facing west at the Harbour built by the Raj in Victorian times. It was a literally fabulous setting for the show as a nearly full moon rose up over the sea. We were treated to all kinds of traditional dance and music performed by the best artists in India and enjoyed it enormously. But we found the constant movement of the audience, who were continually socializing together and getting up and walking around looking for better seats, rather distracting. And I dropped my camera also that night and couldn't get the light meter to work again until much later in the trip.

We saw a lot of terrible poverty and cripples also side by side with this Bombay affluence. There were beggars everywhere. Whole families performed acrobatic shows on the streets for money, the father, the strong man, the mother collecting the money and the children doing acrobatic tricks and feats. We were actually adopted and targeted by such a family who attached themselves to us up in our fifth floor room. They would leap into action and start their act as soon as any of us appeared on our balcony or left the hotel. After awhile we felt that we were under siege. I also saw snake charmers in Bombay and the profoundly disturbing sight of a man flagellated his bloody bare torso while his wife passed the hat around. I think I saw the worst poverty anywhere in India as our train from the North came through the suburbs of that city where hundreds upon thousands of penniless Indians lived in appalling slums. There were huts and shacks built out of garbage, there was dirt everywhere and people who literally owned nothing. They would never even be able to begin to access the basic necessities of life, which we found terribly depressing and sad.

Soon it was time to move on and we resolved to come back to Bombay and to spend more time there later. There seemed to be a lot to see and do there. But we had all decided to spend Christmas in Goa and found ourselves lucky to find three tickets on a night bus down the coast. The bus was packed and I remember that the center aisle had been fitted with tiny wooden stools so that twelve more passengers could be fitted in there for the trip. It was an uncomfortable bumpy ride down to Goa, the videos were the worst yet and we could hardly breath for the bus was so full. But I expect that we had a better trip than the unfortunate twelve Indians did in the center aisle who had no support at all and had to lean against each other all night.


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