Nov 16 2010

Ayurvedic Torture

Note to inquiring parents: we’re actually in Cambodia right now, about to leave for Thailand. I’m just way behind in blog posts!

The first activity we did in Nepal was to spend five days at a yoga retreat set on a hill overlooking Kathmandu. It was a lovely experience that included yoga and meditation classes, good food and, best of all, a daily “therapy” session for which we got to choose between a massage, an oil treatment, or a steam bath. On our first day at the center, Peter and I both opted for the oil treatment.

It’s called shirodhara, and is an Ayurvedic therapy in which a stream of oil is slowly poured onto your forehead over your so-called third eye. The idea is that having constant light, dribbling pressure on your forehead will help your concentration and give you a point of focus on which to meditate. It’s definitely a little weird. Nonetheless, this same treatment is offered for several hundred dollars at the Hyatt and other luxury hotels, so I was grateful to get to try it for free.

But while the concept is the same, I’d imagine the setting is a bit different at the Hyatt – at my scheduled appointment time, I was led into a small, concrete-floored room next to the kitchen, with a massage table-like bed at its side. At its head sat an oil-soaked, heart-shaped pillow, above which dangled a round pot with a small hole at its bottom, suspended from the ceiling by several chains. There were no flowers or pleasant scents or new age music soundtracks gently playing in the background. Just me, the doctor in charge of the yoga center, and the table.

I took off my glasses and lay down. The doctor carefully placed two gauze pads over my eyes, released my hair from its bun, and rearranged me so that my neck up was squarely on the pillow. Then he began massaging my face, vigorously rubbing my temples and the bone around my eye with such intensity I worried there’d be a bruise.

Next came the oil itself. The doctor filled the bowl above my head and as it began to stream on my forehead, he carefully repositioned me so that it would hit the right spot. I could feel it drip down my head and into my hair, steadily drumming against my skull. Then the doctor walked out of the room.

This was the moment when I realized my mistake: it turns out that I don’t like being blindfolded and having oil dripped on my head for forty-five minutes. I couldn’t open my eyes because of the gauze, so I had no idea what time it was, how much time there was left, or why the temperature of the oil kept changing (I thought my mind must have played tricks on me but I later learned that the doctor returned to mix warm oil into the cool batch and vice versa). My senses were limited to one main thing: the feeling of a stream of oil being poured onto my face, dripping through my hair, and tinkling into a basin on the floor.  I was supposed to be relaxed and meditative, but instead, I kept comparing the experience to what it would be like to have someone squat over your face and urinate on your forehead.

On and on it went, the flow of the oil, the unpleasant feeling of it dripping through my hair, the doctor occasionally coming back to refill the supply or readjust its aim, sometimes moving the bowl slightly to trace figure eights on my forehead. Instead of relaxing or mediating, I split my time between trying not to fall asleep, and becoming obsessed with how I was going to get the oil out of my hair. Please tell me it’s just flowing over my scalp and dripping right out, I said to myself. Please tell me my hair is not entirely saturated with oil.

Unfortunately, it was saturated. Root to tip, it was completely covered in oil – so much so that when the doctor returned to finish the treatment, he had to wring it out. Three showers later, it still felt greasy.

My hair, post-treatment.

But it still might have been better than the steam box. In that one, you stripped down naked and sat in a white wooden box with a hole cut out the top for your neck. The therapist then lit a propane stove in the corner to heat up herb-scented water and piped the steam into the box. It looked like I’d gotten trapped in some primitive version of a top-load washing machine.

I should have just stuck to the massages.

Nov 10 2010

The day after the elephant bathing, we headed to Bandipur, a small town between Chitwan and Pokara that had been recommended to us as a great place to see local Dasain festivities. Here’s what the owner of our guest house told us we had to look forward to: “A sacred sword from Khadga Devi Temple is taken out on a procession by the head priest from the temple to the town square, where a sheep is sacrificed, igniting a tug-o-war between rival villagers to get hold of the sacrificed sheep – considered as a catch of pride.” What’s more, he said, there were festivities in the streets and all-day animal sacrifices at the local temple. This is not the way I usually like to celebrate holidays, but you know how the saying goes: “When in Rome, play tug-o-war with a sheep.” Or, at least watch other people do so. We rearranged our itinerary to be in town for the main event.

But it’s not all fun and games in Bandipur. When we arrived in the town – which is a Newari village with stunning views across a valley to the Himalayas (and which has a blissfully traffic-free main street) – we were greeted by one of the most bizarre signs we’ve encountered on our travels so far – a large billboard that said “Heartly welcome to you in open defecation-free V.D.C. Bandipur.”

I’ve thought about this for a while and still have no idea what it means. I suspect, though, that we may have inadvertently stumbled upon a clue: just before reaching Bandipur, our driver stopped at a waterfall on the side of the road. It was a lovely setting, except that people appeared to use it as a dump. Scratch that. People used it to take a dump – a fact Peter and I learned when we both stepped in an enormous mound of moist human feces. We never identified its original location, but perhaps this type of open defecation was the inspiration for Bandipur’s sign.

Regardless of the motivation, Bandipur’s streets – if not our shoes — were defecation free. But that’s not to say it was clean. As previously noted, it was a day of animal sacrifices, and we saw numerous people, often small children, walking down the street holding on to the feet of freshly slaughtered, headless chickens, blood dripping onto the pavement. We traced the blood drops to the source – the temple – where the steps were bright red and sticky, with clumps of matted feathers fluttering in the breeze. In the courtyard below the entrance, a room of the temple had been turned into a temporary abattoir where an old, guru-like guy, topless, a white robe tied around his waist, was holding court as younger men (also topless and spattered head to toe in blood) killed chickens as he blessed them. I have never seen (or smelled) anything like it.

Back in town we asked a young man when the sheep tug-o-war was scheduled and were both disappointed and a bit relieved when he said that it had been cancelled. Last year, things had gotten violent, he explained – which isn’t particularly surprising, considering that it was an opportunity for inebriated young men from rival towns to show their manhood by pulling apart an animal. Instead, at the scheduled time for tug-o-war, the temple guru simply carried the sword down from the temple, accompanied by a crowd of people and a marching band of helpers banging cymbals and drums, and then carried it back up again. Villagers crowded around him tossing money in his path, which was quickly snatched up by kids.

There was supposed to be a dance performance – held on a stage directly outside our bedroom window – but just before it began, the power went out (we’ve calculated that out of 15 days in Nepal, we only experienced 2 full days of electricity). The delay lasted till just before we went to sleep, at which point the lights came surging on, a cheer erupted from the crowd (which had just waited for the hour and a half of the outage, sitting outside in the dark) and loud Bollywood music began echoing through the street, giving Bandipur the impressive title of the loudest place in Nepal in which we’d spent the night.

The view across the valley.

We were so tired that we somehow managed to fall asleep during a stand-up comedy routine. The next morning we woke up without an alarm at 5:30, and came downstairs just in time to hear the horrible sound of a water buffalo having its head cut off by either an unskilled executioner or a very blunt knife. How do I know that’s what it was? Well, first, there were only so many creatures in town large enough to make that kind of noise. And second, when we mentioned the sound to the guide who was taking us down to the bus stop, he said, “Oh yes, a water buffalo! We cut off the head! There is another. Right there!” He pointed behind us, where a water buffalo stood in an open shed overlooking the valley, several men standing around it with knives. “You want to wait?” asked our guide with a friendly smile. We politely declined.

Luckily, on our way down the hill to the bus stop, we had a Dasain experience that we actually enjoyed. From a kid’s (and therefore our) perspective, one of the best parts of the holiday is when villages around the country erect homemade bamboo swings and wooden Ferris wheels in fields and yes, on hilltops, to play on. Children gather starting around seven in the morning and stay there day long. We found this wheel on the side of the road and asked our driver if we had time to take a break. We did – and he even convinced us to give it a try.

We saw swings like this all over the country.

Nov 8 2010

Sucking Diesel and Swimming With Elephants

Considering the epic post I wrote about our overland journey between Ulan Ude in Siberia and Ulan Bator in Mongolia, I am hesitant to regale/bore the five devoted readers of this blog with a play-by-play of our 8.5 hour journey from Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park. But since I’m on the subject of Nepali roads, there are some highlights worth pointing out:

–        The distance between Kathmandu and Chitwan is approximately 150 kilometers. Not miles. Kilometers.

–        The journey took eight and a half hours.

–        It was our 2-year wedding anniversary.

–        Our seats were in the back row of the bus, on the right side. This is significant because the exhaust pipe was also on the right side of the bus, directly in front of our window. The bus ran on diesel, the kind that produces smoke so black and noxious that in the States it’s released out of the top of trucks’ cabs so that no one has to breathe it.

–        We were breathing it.

–        After noticing black grit settling on my Kindle, I put on my industrial-strength face mask, the one I’d bought for eight euros in Helsinki to protect myself from the smoke in Moscow caused by this year’s forest fires. I still ended up with a sore throat. (Also, Moscow’s smoke was much more pleasant – it smelled kind of like the entire city were cozying up next to a wood-burning fireplace, as opposed to sucking on a diesel exhaust pipe.)

–        During the two hours it took to get out of Kathmandu, the bus was moving so slowly that food vendors were actually hopping on the bus, working the aisle, and then hopping off the bus. This sounds treacherous, but given our speed, it was less dangerous than getting on a moving escalator.

–        This turned out to be one of the relatively fast-moving parts of our journey, since as soon as we got out of the Kathmandu Valley, the traffic completely stopped. As in, engines were turned off, people got out of their cars, and we moved forward by 10-foot intervals for about two more hours, staring at a line of parked cars, buses and trucks snaking down the entire valley. I seriously suggested that we should walk back to Kathmandu. We decided not to, only because being back in Kathmandu actually sounded worse than being in a parked bus on the side of a mountain.

Please note the cars snaking down the hill in the background.

It all turned out okay, though, because the next day, we got to go swimming with elephants. You know the quote in Ferris Bueller’s Day off where Ferris says, in reference to Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up”? I could give a shit about cars, but when it comes to elephants, I strongly agree. We were staying at the Island Jungle Resort in Chitwan National Park, and every day, the lodge’s elephants get led down to the river to bathe. Guests are invited to join them. Unable to wait, Peter and I scampered down to the riverbank several minutes before their scheduled bathing time, and soon found ourselves sitting on their backs, legs wrapped around their backs, as a handler stood behind us on their bottom yelling commands – one of which translated to, “Please shoot a trunkful of water into the tourist’s face.” It was like a firehose – and left us both completely giddy.

A different handler invited me onto his elephant, and then things got a little more confusing. This elephant didn’t know the water-spraying trick. Instead, it was kneeling in the river, and its handler kept shouting, “Madam, hold on! Hold on, Madam!”

“To what?” I tried to ask him. This was bareback elephant riding, and there were no obvious handles. So instead I gripped more tightly with my legs and did my best to hold on as the elephant, again listening to some indecipherable cue from its handler, began to roll its head from side to side, nearly tipping me off into the river. (This was not a big deal, since we were already basically in the river, but I was worried the elephant might continue to roll – and no one wants to go swimming under an elephant.)

“Hold on, Madam!” the handler yelled again. I looked at him, confused. “Ears!” he shouted. “The ears!”

As soon as he said it, I realized that there were actually two obvious handles – they were flapping in front of me. The top of each ear was thick and fleshy, with long dark hairs that provided a good grip. No sooner had I grabbed on than the handler shouted a different command and this time, the elephant dunked its entire head under water.

Peter and I have since debated what I should have done in response, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Let go? Go under? Here’s what I did: for the first two or three dunks, I arched back and tried to keep my head above water, which sometimes required letting go of the ears and thus risking tumbling off. Eventually, I figured that the dunking was part of the point, so I kept hold of the ears and let the elephant pull me under, figuring that, as two land-dwelling mammals, we’d both have to come up before too long. But that was before I realized, thanks to Peter, that one of us actually had a built-in snorkle.

Nov 3 2010

Hitting the Road

See that guy on the right? With the ducks? They're alive.

The remainder of our stay in Nepal was a bit quieter, though much bloodier, than our first week – we were there during the Dasain festival, one of Nepal’s biggest celebrations. It involves two weeks of festivities devoted to the goddess Durga, the highlight (or lowlight) of which is the day when hundreds of thousands of animals across the country are sacrificed to the gods. I’m not exaggerating. Chickens, goats, even buffalos are slaughtered, usually by chopping off their heads. I spent a good part of our trip debating how killing another creature really counts as a “sacrifice” – it seems the only one giving anything up is the goat. But that didn’t seem to bother people. The worst sound of the trip, by far, was a buffalo being decapitated across the valley from the deck where we were eating breakfast. I’ll leave it to you to imagine that soundtrack.

How convenient that I happened to match my outfit to the blood. (That's not paint.)

Most families kill at least one animal, and it’s also common to give an animal to your preferred means of transportation. According to a woodcarving salesman we met in the city of Bhaktapur, motorbikes get a chicken, cars might get a goat, trucks a buffalo. Our guidebook claims that Nepal Airlines actually sacrifices a goat for each one of its planes. On the runway. Granted, they only have about seven planes – but still? Can you imagine something like that going on at JFK?

Given the number of head-on collisions we saw – not to mention trucks driving down the road with suspiciously head-shaped holes in their windshields, or overturned vehicles lying on valley floors, or overcrowded public buses with upwards of 20 people clinging to the luggage rack (I am not kidding – and sometimes they shared the space with a precariously perched goat) – I have some suggestions for road safety that I might propose implementing before, I don’t know, chopping off a chicken’s head and dribbling blood on your handlebars. Like, perhaps, helmets. Or seatbelts.

We saw minibuses with about twice this number of people on them.

Interestingly, no one denies that road safety is a concern – most public buses and trucks had signs painted across their front bumpers that said things like “SPEED CONTROL” and “SPEED LIMIT 40 KMPH” (and, in one distressing instance, simply “OH! GOD”). But having been on Nepal’s roads, I don’t think speeding is really the issue. The roads are too crowded and in too poor of a condition for anyone to go too quickly. And if/when trucks do adhere to a low speed, it actually makes things more dangerous – cars and motorbikes simply leapfrog past them on tortuous mountain roads, putting themselves at risk of head-on collisions. I thought it was funny that instead of wearing her seatbelt, our Tibetan guide made sure to sprinkle some barley on the dashboard as we left Lhasa, just to be safe. But in retrospect, maybe I should have been more appreciative. I’d much prefer an offering of grain to a dead rooster.

Good luck?

It seems that windshield decor often takes precedence over the driver's ability to see.