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Monday, 3 November 2014

“Please, can you give Discount?” – Traveling India/Nepal

Upon arriving in India, I initially wrote that Hanga and I entered the big leagues of backpacking. After one month, our travels have matched the billing and the hype, and far exceeded the ease and comfort of my 10 month trip across Europe, which included somewhat challenging Russia, Turkey and Morocco.

I shall now follow up my recent cultural dissertation of India and Nepal with an account from a traveler's point of view. While these two blogs were written separately, to me they are two parts of one blog, complementing and providing insights into one another; essentially summarizing my singular experience from dual perspectives.

The Good

Over one month Hanga and I traversed northern India and central Nepal. It sounds like a long time, but we felt rushed for most of it. Transportation is slow so travel times really added up, plus the grind of two treks took up half of our trip.

Nature has always struck a chord with my soul - Chanderkhani Pass, Himachal Pradesh, India
Those treks were arguably the highlights though, particularly the 10-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp. Hanga and I are both nature lovers, and I have wanted to get more into trekking and there's no better place to do it.

Climate wise, we came at the best time of year, in late September just after the end of the monsoons. It's still hot and humid in the lowlands, and actually quite cold in the foothills of the Himalayas. The other recommended time of year to visit is February to April, prior to the start of the monsoons around May.

Sunsets occur much earlier here, around 6 pm. This meant shorter trekking days. But it also meant better opportunities to see sunsets and starry nights which, with my accompanying star map, I have learned some of the constellations.
To live among hills is to live humbly in the mercy of Mother Nature
We really enjoyed the natural setting of towns like Shimla and Pokhara. In Pokhara, we woke up to views of the snow-capped Annapurna mountains, where we later trekked close to, from our Couchsurfing host’s home.

Surely though, we didn’t go to India and Nepal just for the nature.
Religious devotion should never be mistaken for anything other than a force of good
The Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas have been particularly awesome in Kathmandu, which has the one of the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any city in the world.

We also saw the main temple complex where the Dalai Lama currently resides in Dharamshala. Seeing religious devotion has a powerful effect on me. It’s moving to witness such devotion, even if I’m not religious.
The presence of animals freely in the city indicates harmony with living creatures
For those searching enlightenment, there is plenty of yoga, meditation and massage therapy available in the form of single sessions, retreats or even teacher courses, particularly in Rishikesh. Hanga and I did a few yoga lessons, which cost only around $5 CAD per session, and I got a decent massage for about $10 CAD, a fraction of the cost back home.

And if you’re looking for fun activities, activities such as river rafting and paragliding are available, of which Pokhara is renowned for. Hanga did the paragliding.

We haven’t gone to many museums as they tend to have poor English and are not well organized. The Tibet Museum in Dharamshala was really moving as it shed light on the plight of Tibet due to Chinese government oppression. The International Mountain Museum and Gurkha Museum in Pokhara were pretty interesting too.
Something must be done about climate change beyond inconvenient films and museum exhibits
The food so far has really been amazing, and consistently good even at its worst. The amount of spices used in the food here produces amazing flavours and, due to growing up eating spicy food, I have handled it well and loved every bite.

Nepali food has less vegetables, colour and variety than Indian food. Dal bhat, the meal synonymous with Nepali cuisine, has its own t-shirt with phrase “dal bhat power, 24 hour.” Though this very yellow and starchy meal quickly became predictable, its redeeming quality is that you get free seconds, which came in handy during the trek.

Everywhere I visited, I searched far and wide for cheap local joints with little or no fanfare, often without menus and specializing in just a few items. One of my favourite local joints in Kathmandu, far from tourist friendly area Thamel, spoiled me with momos (Tibetan dumplings), pakoras (deep fried veggie things), chow mein, curried chickpeas, and potato curry with roti, all in one meal for just 150 rupees, less than an individual dish of chow mein in Thamel!
Deep fried pakora, sweet orange jelobi and oily gurung bread are three reasons to live
I have become addicted to street food, and tend to lose all self control over deep fried samosas and gurung bread, sweets such as jelobi (orange shiny flower), and baked goods such as the twisty pastry “mafa” which my family makes back home.

And the guilt typically associated with gorging is absent, since I spend only $3-5 CAD per day on food. This could easily be $5-10 CAD per day eating in tourist areas.

In fact, traveling in the Indian subcontinent is generally very cheap. Nepal has been slightly more expensive due to the fees and costs associated with trekking in remote regions but, over one month, we averaged about $14 CAD per person per day, excluding cost for visas.

The Bad

Of course travelling India and Nepal is not without its challenges. It’s humid, chaotic, noisy and claustrophic, particularly in the big capital cities of Delhi and Kathmandu. Poverty is everywhere, hygiene is poor and infrastructure is in disrepair - roads and sidewalks are uneven and dotted with cow poop.
Nepal needs to clean up its act by cleaning up its streets
Nepal is comparable with India for the above, but trumps India in terms of its terrible roads and, thus, inefficient and uncomfortable buses. Unlike Nepal, India has trains, but they are ridiculously crowded. Nepal also seems dustier and has a bigger garbage problem, a lot of which can be seen burning in piles in the streets in the morning.

The culture shock of the entire sensory experience is too much for many people to handle, and took Hanga and I quite awhile to adjust. By now, I don’t blink at these things anymore.
Can you see the mountains in the distance? Big as they are, they can still play hide and seek
The one place which takes exception to all of these issues is Pokhara, Nepal, particularly the touristy area Lakeside. The heat and humidity is tolerable, and Lakeside is peaceful, orderly and clean. Though staying in Lakeside was a nice respite, after a short while the experience felt too washed out. The food was too international, expensive and lacked flavour, and left me wandering off again in search of truly local eating experiences.

Especially in touristy places like Lakeside and Thamel, prices are inflated but nearly everything can be bargained down generally to around two thirds the asking price, even toilet paper. I was lucky to have Hanga with me because my bargaining skills are meek by comparison. But bargaining is a piece of cake in comparison with getting around.

In India, particularly Delhi, there are many deceptive locals who appear helpful, but are really directing you to certain businesses instead of where you really need to go. My initial encounters here initially eroded my trust in the locals. This trust was thankfully restored in northern India and Nepal, where people generally leave you alone.

Hanga and I adapted out of necessity by learning to search out which locals to ask for help. Asking is, in the end, the only way we got anywhere since information is unbelievably scarce and unreliable, and streets and bus stations are not labelled. We narrowly avoided missing several buses simply by asking everyone we could, and aggregating their scattered answers.
Even the greatest philosophers couldn't answer the question... why did the chicken cross the road?
In Kathmandu I rented a bicycle for one day and rode to four temple sites, winding up and down many local pathways, and witnessing Nepalese life along the way. I knew I would get lost of course, and I did, but I simply asked locals, who are milling about everywhere in the city, every time I was unsure of the way.

The Indian subcontinent also lacks many amenities that are standard in the western world. We haven't stayed anywhere with heating or air conditioning. Daily water supply is restricted, pressure is low, and hot water is also rare. I have taken just one hot shower my entire trip. Washing machines are rare and dryers are entirely absent, which meant hand washing.

In Nepal rolling power outs left us without electricity for several hours once or twice a day, which really only hindered access to Wifi internet. Internet is hard to find and when I find it, the bandwidth crawls as fast as a caterpillar taking its time.

The Ugly

There can only be one thing to label “ugly” - the overall lack of hygiene deserves honourable mention. India is smelly and, particularly in Delhi, the stench of human and animal waste is almost unavoidable. Thankfully, Nepal is not very smelly.
Worship a cow, and how does it return the favour? By blocking traffic and leaving large piles of poop in your path
The combination shower and toilet rooms are smelly, damp and mouldy, sometimes to the point where "do nothing" is a better option. There is no toilet paper. Hanga always brought a roll everywhere with her and, since parting ways, I have failed to carry on this tradition. Fortunately I don’t need to take showers often, and have adapted to washing my tush with water, in accordance with traditional custom, whenever I go “number two.”

The Wrap Up

There seemed to be no more appropriate blog to use “The Good, Bad, and the Ugly” format. India and Nepal truly encompasses the full spectrum of stimulation of the senses, and confirms that you can’t have the beautiful without the deplorable, or the intriguing without the repulsive.

If you are thinking of traveling to either of these countries breath a small sigh of relief because some of the experiences Hanga and I had can be avoided by paying more money for guided itineraries, hotels, taxis and coach buses. But with it comes a more sterile and scripted experience, leaving no room for error.
At nature's whims, trekking requires flexibility in the face of unpredictability; flexibility not pictured here!
For example, during the day the typhoon affected the Annapurna Region, many trekkers with paid guides and pre-booked accommodations couldn't risk falling behind schedule and had to hike in the intense rain and wind. Hanga and I trekked independently and with a flexible timeline and were thus able to patiently wait out the typhoon.

Another example is staying at the amazing House-for-Everyone in Pokhara, which is open to travelers on Couchsurfing. We got to stay there free for almost one week, hang out with some really cool people, and share hearty home cooked meals together. It’s not easy sharing a house with up to 8 people at once, but the friendships made and inspiration shared outweigh the sacrifice of comfort and privacy.
Inspiration from the walls of Kopan Monastery, Kathmandu
Basically, Hanga and I chose the lower budget options, to save money, yes, but also in order to get a spontaneous, immersive and real experience, living like the locals, meeting interesting people (locals and travelers alike) and gaining appreciation for the comforts which we take for granted in the western world, such as running water, and the ability to wear shorts and t-shirt indoors on a cool evening.

It’s the time worn argument of traveler vs. vacationer, time vs. money. I consider myself rich, not in money, but in time, which allows me to travel and just live life in the most fulfilling way possible.

Here’s a recent blog with similar themes, written by my fellow Canadian, friend and travel addict:

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