Testing 1..2.. This thing still on? Father, it’s been 2 months since my last confession..
Howdy friends, it’s your old pal, Grady. I’m back. After a strange and bumpy two month ride, Spaceship India (with a Nepal sidecar) just pulled over for some diesel, chai and samosas. Seemed like a good time to update you on the madness before I jumped back on for two more months.. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gents.
Last time we spoke, I was freezing my ass off in Kathmandu. After squeezing nearly every drop out of the Nepali experience, I decided it was time to head south for warmer climes and a change of scenery. I talked my trekking pal Julian from Atlanta and two recent Israeli Army “grads”, Dotan and Shira, into joining for a bit of wildlife spotting down in Southern Nepal before I jumped the fence solo to India.
Leaving the heaps of rotting trash on the streets of Kathmandu behind, we took a bus bound for Chitwan National Park (formerly “Royal” CNP, truncated after the King was recently deposed by the Maoists, shortening the names of formerly Royal operations all over the country including Royal Nepal Airlines, removing his likeness from all currency etc). By the way, Chitwan means “leopard” in Nepali. Something I would learn later in the trip, when it became important..
Checking into our hotel, the mosquito nets hanging above the beds brought a smile to my face. Mosquitoes require warmth to survive. After weeks of heatless rooms in very cold conditions, we (the royal ‘we’..) now like warm a lot.
We spent the first night wandering down dirt roads through the local village, past thatch roof huts w/brightly painted handprints adorning their mud walls, buffalo and goats wandering, children playing in the street and running after us bare-bottomed (them, not us) and asking for “photo!?”, and very drunk men taking dirt naps.
Just as the sun started to set, illuminating vast fields of brilliant yellow mustard plants on both sides of the road, I started to realize how much better life was for these people just a few hours but seemingly a world away from the North. That morning, we’d seen people living on the street huddling around garbage fires in Kathmandu. And here, elephants waddled down the road like taxis. Not sure what huge mammals have to do with quality of life but they’re nice to look at. Anyway, we followed the behemoths’ path down a dusty road, past the town’s elephant polo fields (yes, seriously – we’d just missed this year’s international competition by two weeks) to an elephant breeding center near the edge of the park and watched as baby elephants nuzzled up to moms and munched on dinner: green plants and something they call ‘elephant cookies’ handed out by tourists. Not a bad scene for a sunset. Unfortunately, the chains tied around their ankles tethering them to nearby poles provided the reality check. But what do I know about elephants? Maybe they like wearing chains while they eat? Like earrings or something. Right..
We spent the next morning paddling through fog-shrouded waters in a one piece dugout canoe (carved by locals from a single tree) led by a local guide, looking for birds, Indian crocodiles and anything unusual. The walking safari that followed was a bit more productive. We saw langurs (funny looking white-whiskered monkeys), a croc, several beautiful species of birds including brightly colored kingfishers, cormorants and egrets, and all sorts of bizarre looking insects.
Back at the hotel a few hours later, the manager barked, “your elephant will pick you up here at 3:00”. I’ve had reservations for pickup from all sorts of things – cabs, supershuttles, homely women. But never a pachyderm. And right on time, she rolled in.
All 5 tons of her. Head adorned with powdered paint common in Hindu areas, she bent down to let all 4 of us climb on. In total, there were 5 humans sitting on this poor creature’s back, some of us feeling more like sadists than David Attenborough.. The “mahout”/driver who didn’t speak a lick of English plus the rest of us, spread rather uncomfortably around a “howdah”, the wood and burlap riding ‘platform’ that sits on the animal’s back. Uncomfy and probably not the nicest thing to do to the animal, but not a bad vantage point for the adventures that lie ahead.
As we lumbered down the road toward the park’s edge, a frantic village woman barked something up to the mahout. Clueless, the rest of us just hung on as the elephant suddenly picked up speed. Next thing we knew, the elephant was practically running down the street. As we turned the corner, we saw a mass of humanity gathered next to a field in between some homes in the edge of the residential part of the village. Turns out a leopard had been spotted in the area. Not only are leopards incredibly elusive (nearly impossible to spot in the wild), they’re not exactly good for the livestock or the safety of the kiddies running around.. The town was in a tizzie over it. People screaming and pointing, dogs barking.. Just like that, we’d been swept up into a leopard hunt. For the next 10 minutes, our mahout directed our elephant to trample through any patch of thick foliage we could find in the area it had been spotted, with the four of us nearly tossed out of our seats a few times but exhilirated to be actually sitting on the search party. Just when we’d all given up hope, there it was. The leopard jumped out of some brush right in front of us, ran back and forth a few times in confusion and then darted out into the street, through a yard and back into the safety of the park. We all just stared at each other in amazement. Were we really just a part of that?? As we made our way back into the throng of people in the street, our mahout beaming proudly, the energy was incredible. People clapping, elephants honking/shrieking (whatever you call that loud noise they make) so loud it vibrated my soul, dogs barking. Relief and celebration that the potential threat had been flushed out.
And then we carried on the rest of the safari as if nothing had happened. We saw a few rhinos, spotted deer.. Ah, who cares about them. The leopard thing was f*&^ing cool.
On the way back to the hotel, we mentioned to the mahout that we wanted to stop and buy some fruit on the way home. He quickly “pulled over” next to a market where the owner just handed some bananas up to us on the end of a pole. As if it happened every day. We didn’t even have to get down from the beast. I got a kick out of that.
After we’d signed a few autographs in the town (we were heros after all), I said my goodbyes to my fellow leopard-hunters and jumped on yet another bus for my final stop in Nepal. Enjoying my last rooftop ride for a while (frowned on in India – possibility of death or something stupid), I lay back on sacks of grain and watched the world go by between my feet.
I rolled into Lumbini, near Nepal’s southern border with India with an interest in learning a bit more about Buddhism. Like a lot of Westerners, I’d read things here and there and enjoyed what I’d learned but knew I was still clueless in the grand scheme. I’d grown more interested after seeing the Tibetan-ized version up North and wanted to have a closer look. You see, Mr. Siddhartha Gautama aka ‘Buddha’ was born in Lumbini. And he’s still sort of a big deal there.
Immediately after getting off the bus in town, it was clear that there was something special happening. It might have been my own anticipation but there was a palpable sense of serenity and contemplation there. Like the collective good vibes power of the thousands of pilgrims that came every year had colored a special aura over the entire area. Whatever it was, it felt good.
A massive flat tract of beautiful green forested land had been converted into a sanctuary after archaeologists had confirmed that the exact spot where Buddha had been born was right there next to town. As I walked down a pedestrian pathway toward the sanctuary, I passed monks with shaved heads wrapped in flowing red and saffron robes and others pedaling old Indian bicycles deep in thought and smiles. As I made my way through the entry area toward the temple and bought my ticket, I had a fun Grady/Western moment and had to laugh at myself. After paying for an entry ticket, I was asked if I had a camera and told I’d have to pay another dollar or so if I wanted to bring it in and take pics. For some reason, it absolutely infuriated me that they’d ask for more money just because I wanted to take pictures. I gave the woman at the ticket counter a hard time, puffing about how ridiculous it was and that I just wouldn’t take any pics etc. Here I was, not 10 paces from the entry to this very special monument to peace and mindfulness, something I’d traveled hours to see and celebrate, and I was freaking out over something trivial and stupid. I literally smiled when it hit me. And then walked in.
The place was all I’d imagined. With thousands of prayer flags tied between massive bulging green trees flapping Om Mani Padme Hum into the wind, it was truly beautiful. Pin-drop quiet and tranquil. More monks wrapped in orange robes sat cross-legged on wooden meditation platforms wrapped around tree trunks as they counted prayers on strings of beads and chanted to themselves, others deep in meditation at the foot of a reflecting pool before the temple itself. It was something to behold.
I just sat and watched it all. An old female monk, bent over and literally hobbling by in a red robe and clean white socks and sandals stopped near me and sat down to take a breather. She didn’t speak any English but didn’t have to. She just looked at me and smiled a very weathered smile, saying something I took to mean hello and motioning with her hands toward one of the monasteries in the distance. I’d learn later that there was an all female monastery in the area where she probably lived.
The temple at the center of it all was more of a cover than anything. A structure to cover the remains of the spot where Buddha was born. A pile of shoes and sandals marked the entry way as devotees from around the world filed in silent and barefoot to get a glimpse of the archaeologists’ dig and a plaque marking the very spot.
How they determined the exact 2’x2′ area is beyond me but I’ll take it. It felt amazing to be standing there, in that very special place with all of those people focusing such positive energy and thinking together.
On the way out, I stopped back at the ticket counter to pay the extra buck. I had taken pictures..
I spent the next day pedaling through the northern wooded end of the sanctuary stopping at each of the nearly 30 Buddhist monasteries erected over the years by Buddhist groups from all over the world – Germany, Austria, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand etc. They were all exquisite and unique, with different architectural styles, intricate detailed designs and beautiful coloring, mandalas and depictions of Buddha in different states.
Sort of like what it would be like for us Westerners to wander through a life sized church museum, where the finest churches from all over the world had been plopped down next to each other, subtle influences from each area apparent when you look at them side by side. Another very special place. Incredibly ornate and massive structures punctuating this very quiet forest, with little paths laid here and there to ride my bike in silence, crunching acorns as I rode from place to place.
That afternoon, with just a few hours left on my two month Nepal visa, I stood on the corner of the main intersection in Lumbini and waited for a bus to India. Standing on the other side of the street was a local man with his back up against a pole, wearing traditional Indian dress with close cropped hair and the single long lock of long hair hanging down from the middle of the back of his head that marked him as a Brahmin, the highest caste in Hindu Nepal. Facing the other direction and resting her back on the same pole was a Muslim woman, covered from head to toe in a traditional black burka, with only her eyes showing. Here, in this tiny little town known for Buddha, a devout Muslim standing back to back with a devout Hindu. I wish I’d taken a photo.
Next stop? A slightly less tranquil place. A little country called.. India.