Archive for the ‘culture’ Tag

The Himalaya (Finally)   Leave a comment

Since I just started blogging not long ago, I am going to start an occasional series on recent travels, where I wrote only for myself.  I don’t journal on my laptop while traveling, only with pen and paper.  I carry a small netbook simply for photos and internet acces while traveling, but the idea of burying myself in a computer for my journal is anathema.  I would much rather sit at a cafe and people watch while writing.  I simply can’t do this when on a computer, plus nearly all screens are unsuitable for outdoors.

Alpenglow on Mount Everest from the 5400-meter high viewpoint of Kala Pathar in Nepal.

I’ve traveled pretty extensively over the past few years, at least for me.  As soon as I got the chance, I went to Nepal.  The Himalayas were at the top of my list.  I just did not want to wait until I was too old to see the highest mountains in the world.  Nepal was the obvious choice, but I went to north India as well.  I actually went twice in one year, once in Spring and once in Autumn.

The great stupa at Boudhanath, near Kathmandu, Nepal, draws Buddhists from all over Asia.

I traveled to Delhi, then to Kathmandu.  An amazingly chaotic and energetic city is Kathmandu, and I loved it.  My favorite was renting a mountain bike and doing a big loop up into the upper valley.  I definitely recommend this way of seeing the other face of the Kathmandu Valley.  It’s not all traffic and movement, as in the city.  The children run after you yelling Namaste! and if you stop they shyly smile and hide behind each other.  Utterly charming.  And such a great ride.  Do it if you find yourself in Kathmandu.

Another must if  you’re in Kathmandu is the pilgrimage site of Boudhanath (image left).  This is a huge stupa (temple) in a suburb of the city.  Just grab a taxi there and prepare to soak up an absolutely amazing atmosphere.  This could be spiritually transformative for you, it’s that powerful.  I’ve been three times, and will never miss it on any future trip to Nepal’s capital.

I stayed in Thamel (of course) and I found a nice little guiding company.  I just clicked with the woman running things in the office.  I still consider her a friend, and very much hope that she will be able to visit the USA someday, where I will be so happy to show her around.  She has been experiencing much trouble getting a visa to visit, since U.S. immigration assume every person from a 3rd world country wants to come to stay.  Even though she has a company, a family, a life in Nepal, they still think she wants to escape.  Amazing!

I arranged a trip with her company, Equator, now called Himalayan RST Expeditions, to head to western Nepal.  I was to spend a week rafting the Karnali, one of the world’s classic river runs.  Then I would visit Royal Bardia National Park.  I first traveled to Pokhara.  My hikes were only dayhikes, no trekking this time.  Also, I rented a motorbike to head into the rural areas around the touristy Pokhara.

Once you get into rural areas, you start running into folks who have walked in to markets from the surrounding countryside.  Back in the foothills of the Himal, where no roads travel, there are small villages of people who subsist on the edge.  They are very poor and very beautiful people.  Many are Muslim, but the majority of Nepalis are Hindu.  Buddhism is also prevalent.

The bus ride out to western Nepal took two days over the worst roads you can imagine.  It was a bone-jarring ride.  If you do this trip, unless you enjoy bus rides from hell, I would fly.  We arrived on the banks of the upper Karnali in the late afternoon.  Villagers joined us in our preparations, but they barely distracted me from the river.  It was utterly gorgeous, a beautiful turquoise color and cold!  The Karnali originates on one of the world’s most sacred mountains, Mount Kailash, in Tibet.  And this water certainly was heavenly.

What a river trip!  Seven glorious days on a river with huge and fun rapids in its upper stretches.  It calms somewhat in the middle stretch, and wildlife is abundant.  The lower part widens out and there are bigger villages.  We had company at most of our riverside camps.  The children were so adorable.  This was only my second encounter with true mountain people (the first in the Andes), and I was amazed at how hard they have to work to survive.  The women especially!  I saw women of short stature carrying huge, heavy loads of firewood on their heads and a baby in their arms.  Tough to do on any terrain, but they were going straight up extremely steep slopes.

A lone farmstead in Nepal’s HImalayan Mountains lies in spectacularly rugged country.

The effect of these small villages is easy to see.  The entire undergrowth of the surrounding forests iscompletely stripped bare.  The people burn to spur more growth, trying desperately to provide their goats with forage.  The big trees are still intact, thank heavens, but the forest is borderline ugly.  I took hikes every evening after our rafting, and I was the only one of the group to do so.  I will never understand my fellow tourists.  They tend to hang out with other white tourists if at all possible, eschewing real contact with either the local people or with nature.  This of course is a general observation that doesn’t apply to everyone.  But it is true worldwide.

I also visited the Royal Bardia National Park, along with one of my fellow rafters.  The park is very near to the takeout on the Karnali.  This park is beautiful, much more like northern India than Nepal.  It lies on a low, hot plain, and hosts a healthy population of one-horned rhino, elephant, leopard, and best of all, tigers.  I didn’t see the big cat, but I did see the biggest snake I’ve ever seen in my life.  It was a rock python, well over 20 feet long and FAT.  My guide said it was the biggest snake he had ever seen, and he grew up in the area.  It had recently eaten a deer, and that explained its girth.

There was a party our first night at Bardia, and I drank a bit too much wine.  One of the guides, an Indian fellow, was drinking pretty heavily too.  I danced with the local Nepali women, and had a great time.  Later that night, in my tent (I camped in their garden), I was woken by someone unzipping my tent.  I saw the silhouette of a man, and reacted on adrenaline.  I burst out of the tent and caught him by the throat, demanding to know what he wanted.  He either did not or could not speak English.  But he was nonetheless convinced that I did not want any company.

Then, in the middle of the night, I had another visitor.  This time it was the English woman from the rafting trip.  She wanted to take shelter in my tent, because someone had tried to get into her room.  She was pretty sure it was the Indian guide, who had been pursuing her much of the previous day.  She was very frightened, and I let her sleep in my tent.  Next day the manager of the lodge was pretty blase’ about the whole thing.  So I wrote an email to the tour company, and they ended up discontinuing their relationship with that lodge in Bardia.  In this part of the world, women do not have the power they have in the west, and so I felt I had to do some sticking up for her.  It made a big difference, let me tell you.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

So this trip was near its end.  I got stranded for a night in the town of Nepalganj.  I noticed there many men dressed in the peculiar drab green that says “marxist”, and was reminded that this region is often the seat of unrest in the country.  I was the only tourist I saw, and I enjoyed the authentic look at the life of Nepalis.  The people of Nepal are some of the warmest, friendliest and most unaffected folks I’ve ever met.  Though I spent about three weeks there, I felt I did not have enough time to do the country justice, certainly not to take a major trek.  But the rafting trip was definitely the best of my life.  I was to return to Nepal with more time later that year, and that’s the subject for the next post.

Malawians   Leave a comment

Mmm gooood! A greater bush baby in Malawi’s Vwaza Marsh Reserve samples some sap.

A couple village kids along Lake Malawi’s coast only accessible by boat.

            Before leaving aside Malawi and moving on to Zambia, I need to give a shout out to the people of Malawi.  Poor they are, as a rule, and with a corrupt government, but they are by far the nicest people I met in my recent travels to Africa.  I met some real characters, including this greater bush baby, one of a pair who played and snacked (and wailed like babies) in the tree I camped under in Vwaza Marsh Reserve.  The people I met along Lake Malawi puts to mind what the Caribbean must have been like before the resorts and yachts came calling.  The two boys at right were present at the lively soccer game we played on the beach nearby.  Malawi is a warm place, and as I mentioned above has a definite hippie/caribe vibe.  The fellow below is a woodcarver I met at Chitimba along the northern shore of Lake Malawi.  Before you draw conclusions about him, realize that every morning when Iwas camped on the nearby beach, as the sun was rising, I heard him chopping away, cutting the large pieces of wood he turned into art.  He is one industrious stoner.  Unfortunately for him, all his best salesmanship couldn’t get me to buy a woodcarving that would take up half the space in my luggage.  Please realize this image is able to be licensed for use at my website (clicking on it will take you there), so please don’t use it.  Any images you click on that don’t take you to my site you are free to use for personal use.

A woodcarver at Lake Malawi relaxes with his drum & a smoke.

 

Malawians share much culture with Zambians directly to the west.  They are very different from Tanzanians (much warmer) to the north and even separate from Mozambiquans to the west.  In fact, if you pick up words in Zambia’s main tribal languages, you are very likely to be understood in Malawi.  In fact, if Zambia had an enormous, warm blue lake taking up half the country like Malawi, I think they would be as charming instead of almost as charming as Malawians.  The lake defines the country, and very well I might add.

In the image below, I was walking the steep road from the lakeside at Chitimba up to Livingstonia when I ran into some villagers.  I got the younger woman in the background to show me around for a couple dollars, and she took me down to a gorgeous waterfall (where I took a much-needed natural shower).  Then we met the woman who is seated in the picture.  She was pounding casava, and at first said no to pictures.  I asked her why, and offered to give her a wallet-sized print (I carry a pocket-sized printer).  She came around, but not before telling me that she was afraid I would show the pictures when I got home, making fun at all the “monkeys” in Africa.  I couldn’t believe it.  I explained that most of us are better people than that.  I tried my hand with the large pestle, and they couldn’t stop laughing, since they NEVER see men pounding casava.  I told them they would need to work at changing that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

Hard-working Malawian women prepare casava in a northern Malawi village. They’re laughing because I am asking why I don’t see men doing this.

Livingstonia is one of Africa’s oldest mission towns, and is named for David Livingstone, the famous Scottish explorer.  To avoid rushing, it is an overnight walk, and I recommend just staying at Mushroom Farm, perched on the edge of forever with the lake far below.  It is geared toward camping but has simple huts as well.  It is quite basic, and has a hippie flair, with friendly young people running it.  You can also get a taxi up, or drive if you have your own 4×4.  It’s cooler up there, being on the edge of the Nyika Plateau (see previous post).

Moonlit Lake Malawi on a warm evening.

These two girls were happy to pose for me, but then they insisted on grabbing a shot of the photographer (but no way I post that, I’m still sensitive about losing my youthful looks)

Malawians are fun and friendly, and unlike so many “friendly” people around the world, they don’t first think of how they can sell you something, or otherwise separate you from your cash.  For example, while walking along a rural road, I was stopped several times by locals who simply wanted to chat for a few minutes.  This never happens in America believe me.  I at first thought it was because I was white, but then I started noticing this happening between the locals as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image below was captured at Mayoka Village, a nice place popular with backpackers that is right on Lake Malawi at Nkhata Bay.  The staff were a happy bunch, and one night we had a pizza party.  While the tourists partied in the bar above, I stayed below with staff, steps from the warm waters of the lake, as they had a ball making pizza and playing with the camera.  I learned how to play bow, the game you see everyone playing with small stones and a wooden board of small depressions.  Sometimes it’s best to avoid your fellow travelers I’ve found, since almost all of them will naturally avoid contact with locals, no matter how much they claim otherwise.

A Malawi-style pizza party in Nkhata Bay, along the shores of beautiful Lake Malawi.

 

The day before I left Malawi, I stayed at a pension-style place in Mzuzu, and this lovely young woman, a friend of the owner, was there.  I asked to take her picture, and she grew shy and uncertain.  But then after I shot a few, she began to open up, and that’s putting it mildly.  She became a fashion model before my eyes, and we moved into the garden as she assumed many stylish poses, constantly flashing that huge Malawi smile.  I felt fortunate to have made the spur of the moment decision to come here (it was not in the original plan), and realized I would miss it dearly.  If you are planning to go to Zambia, or another nearby country, do not miss the opportunity.  Stay and play by the lake, go up on the Nyika, and enjoy the genuine warmth of Malawians.

Yet another smiling Malawian, in a garden at Mzuzu in northern Malawi.

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