Thursday, March 10, 2011

Changing gears in Kathmandu

When we set out from Delhi to Kathmandu, we not only had in mind a ride through a kaleidoscope of sights and terrain, but a mission to support a cause that Alison is involved with, namely to raise funds for a program to help kids in various parts of the world have educational supplies. Alison calls her mission Kinder Kit Fundraiser: B.I.K.E = Bicycling In Aid of Kids Education and thus far she has raised more than $3000 but I am sure she would be delighted by additional contributions, which can be made by following the link

After a couple of days of sightseeing, being in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we shifted into a neutral gear an became tourists. There are in Katmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur literally thousands of temples, stupas, monasteries scattered around narrow alley ways and the famous Durbar Square which dates back many centuries. Besides the Nepalese Buddhist and Hindu temples, there are a large number of beautiful Tibetan temples with lamas in Burdgundy robes, all in a setting of east meets west and everything in between. As might be expected there are countless shopping and eating opportunities and the gamut of places from simple rooms in guest houses to five star hotels, all in a valley that on a clear day seems magical and on others, it’s easy to see, or should it be not seen why it’s one of the most polluted cities in the world.

While we did a lot walking, riding buses and taking an occasional taxi, we changed gears, not that of bicycles, but immersing ourselves in a humanitarian organization from Israel, called Tevel B’Tzedek that is doing some marvelous work here. We have literally moved in with them over the last six nights, since Alison in particular wanted to learn about the organization and to participate in trips that started very early in the morning to see firsthand in the field the fruits of their labour which indeed are impressive. Alison also had some meaningful input into some organization development issues with TbT, which is one area of her expertise.

Their achievements to date are substantial in terms of empowering youth and women, education, agriculture and early child development which can be seen from the numerous school and extra-curricular programs, arts activities, women’s groups, farming, bio gas, sanitation, water supply and health education programs which they have established.

TbT adopts a holistic approach by working closely with established community leaders and partners, and has 23 Nepali staff who manage and operate programs throughout the year. Each year, TbT operates both long and short term volunteer programs. The four month ‘’Full Program’’ operates twice a year with two cohorts and the 5 week ‘’Backpackers’’ program consists of 6 cohorts between October and May. TbT conducts extensive orientation sessions for the volunteers to prepare them for their placements including Nepali language, culture, history, site visits, workshops and discussions on Jewish values and responsible volunteerism.

During our field visits we saw terraced fields of various crops that only a couple of years ago were dormant. TbT brought water from nearly a half kilometer, introduced wells, toilets that are linked to a system to produce bio-gas for cooking year around, concrete enclosures for animals, and a new fishpond. We met with various youth, womens ‘groups, saw programs for blind kids, day care centers, school programs and much more that were TbT’s initiatives. Perhaps most moving was our living and at times participating with 20 young very energetic and enthusiastic Israeli’s who are going through a one month intensive training program, that includes learning Nepalese, prior to them going into the field for three months.
After a couple of days’ delay, which in large measure was due to the need to get an extension of our Indian visas, an entirely unpleasant bureaucratic experience, as of the time of writing, we are planning to leave from Daman, a hill town at an elevation of 2,300 meters, unless we continue in neutral gear at the urging of our hosts and stay for Shabbat.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Pokhara to Kathmandu and the 99% solution

The distance from Pokhara to Kathmandu is only 200 kms but when traveling by bicycle, these measurements can be deceptive, since they don’t take into consideration the terrain and that we have been on the road for over two months, with hardly a rest day, which as rare as they are consist of hours of walking and climbing, as fueled by the inexhaustible sights at the expense of depleting our energies. All this as an introduction to the conclusion that after 2,069 kms, and having reached the village of Naubise, we decided to cover the last 26 kms to the city of Kathmandu by hitchhiking in the back of a small pickup truck, a bumpy and hair raising experience as we crawled up the steep mountain, leading to the rim of the Kathmandu valley. The road is steep and tortuous, but what makes it daunting, is the continuous stream of trucks, buses, cars and motor cycles fighting for space on a narrow road traveling in both directions, often slowing to a crawl, and at each hairpin turn we could see the traffic ahead of us snaking up and down, like a train, hardly an inviting experience for two loaded, and admittedly tired cyclists. While disappointed, I was not entirely unhappy to have opted for the one per cent solution.

After Pokhara it was 71 undulating kms to the foot of the hill town village of Bandipur, the last 8 kms of which is straight up hill and we had already done about 30kms of climbing, we took the local shuttle truck which to our delight was just leaving. The village perched on a level portion of a high hill, became one of our favourite stops, as we enjoyed not only the uninterrupted views of the Himalayas in the distance, but the fact that this one street village with a handful of guest houses, with no car or motorcycle traffic, is a well preserved “museum” like Newari community, carrying on life as it has done so for centuries, warm and welcoming, almost oblivious to even to the in-your-face, small group of Japanese tourists, who with giant telephoto lenses, were taking pictures in unison one afternoon.

Apparently Bandipur for centuries was an important trading center on route from Tibet to India, and traders built two to four storey dwellings from local and imported hard woods, with shops on the main floor and accommodations above. Some 70% of the buildings in the village are original and many are well preserved, even though some 50 years ago, the highway below diverted the traffic, which has led to the community’s decline, hence a magical window onto the past, with women carrying heavy loads of wood or fresh grown produce, children playing amongst the handful of temples and the occasional goat or cattle that passes by. We explored the track up several hundred meters to get the best view of the snow-capped Himalaya and the lows down the valley, with verdant agriculture. The two nights spent in a family home with a marvellous view of the valley were fair compensation for the basic nature of the facilities.

The early morning ride downhill to the main highway was exhilarating in the cool mountain air with the clearest views of the high Himalayas, taking nearly an hour to cover the eight kms. The constant breaking and the alternating coolness in the shade and warmth in the sun invited us to stop frequently. As competitive as I can be, I did not mind being beaten by the many groups of young kids on the way to school who raced us running downhill but had the advantage of taking the near vertical footpaths as we slowly followed the serpentine road.

While in Pokhara, the manager of our first class hotel recommended that we stop in Malekhu, where there were fine accommodations and we were looking forward to a goodnights sleep, as more than half of the 76 kms we covered were uphill. Alas, the first place that looked somewhat inviting was full and we were forced to settle at the Midway Garden Restaurant, in a room with cold shower, that I will leave to the imagination, although at about three bucks a night, was decent value.

The upside of the Midway Garden was that its restaurant opened at 5 a.m. for hungry truckers so that we were able to get going early in the morning, in anticipation of riding to Naubise, the last stop before Kathmandu. Although only 46 kms with lots of steep short hills, we were ready to settle for the night and it took some searching and the intervention of a very friendly English speaking man, who took it as a principle of national pride to ferret out for us the two potential places to stay for the night, both of which seemed worse than the room the night before since they had no nearby toilet facilities and were no doubt appeared darker and dingier since most days, electricity is unavailable for about half the time.

We had a late lunch to consider our options, and as the day was at its warmest and our mood at the lowest, we decided to flag a bus or truck down, when a driver for a local hospital picked us up and we covered the last one percent of our journey, in the back of his truck. Not entirely out of altruism, he dropped us at a guest house, no doubt anticipating a commission, but after a near two hour in ride we were happy to settle near the heart of the main tourist district in Kathmandu, the Thamel, and I managed to salvage some of my pride by striking a hard bargain and we moved out the following morning to a comfortable hotel next door, after carefully considering a myriad of options.

Still, for the first day, having been dropped in a middle of this teaming metropolis, I went through a bit of emotional adjustment asking the question “where am I?” an experience I am sure many tourist ask as they travel on organized tours and not having been connected to the land that they traverse. The experience reminded me of the many times when we took walks in the evening in the small villages of India, when many a local out of amazement would ask, “where are you from?”, as if we were Martians who have landed on the planet. When we told them we are from Canada, they probed further to find out how we got there and to be even more surprised to be told that we came on bicycles.

Happy cycling or being where ever you find yourself or others find you,