Sunday, June 30, 2013

Traveling with my Sister

I have been traveling with my little sister for a month. That's 30 days of togetherness for the first time ever.  And it has gone SO well!

While eating dinner on our last night in Nepal, two men asked to join us. Oh umm no thanks!  (We responded politely.) You'd think, after so much Mollie-Bridget time, we'd want some new faces in the mix. But we don't. We really just enjoy each other. Which got us thinking about how much togetherness it's been...

Me: Well there was one time I went to an internet cafe and left you at the guest house...
Sister2: Yeah, but I think that's all? We have literally been in the same room as each other this whole time!?

Because when I say we've just spent a month together, I don't mean one month of seeing each other every day. I mean one month of being literally next to one another 24/7.

We share hotel rooms and bus benches of course. All our meals are together (and since it's the off season, we're almost always the only two customers in the restaurant -- private restaurant, candle-lit dinner for two?). And for meals we usually get two things and go halfsies to maximize the things we can try. Our activities are together -- we just finished a private yoga class (again, no other tourists!). And we've also done a number of spa treatments (so cheap here!), which are always couple-style haha -- massages, mani-pedis, facials, and waxing, all done on tables next to one another (I guess we could request some separation in that situation, but neither of us actually care).

Sister2: Yeah, I was surprised that they put us in separate rooms just now for my haircut!
Me: True, but then  you did come join me for the end of my leg wax. I guess it would have been normal for you to have waited in the waiting room instead...

We're both kind of surprised by this awesome turn of events. From our India experience two years ago, we know we travel well together, but we each expected to get annoyed with the other at some point over the course of a month. The nice thing about traveling with family is that we can get mad and then easily get over it...but it just hasn't happened! 

Bridget: Soooo we're awesome and win at traveling together?
Me: Yup. High-five, go team!

Some people can tell we're sisters, but a shocking number don't see it! We tell people (usually it comes up when explaining that we're from the same place, Where from? being the first question everyone asks.), and the interaction  goes something like this:
Sisters? Really? Same mother?
Yep! Same mother same father! 
Ohhhh hmm I see now. Same same but different!
That's us!

"Same same but different" is a phrase used all over Asia to explain, well, everything. And it very accurately describes Sister2 and me. She's three years younger than me and graduate college just over a year ago. We're equally silly and serious, so we have deep conversations, but also will sing enthusiastically in public and laugh over random movie quotes for hours (i.e. Muppet Treasure Island). Siblings are great because you get the same obscure references!

After Nepal, Sister2 is heading back home to join the real world (she's been in Asia since last October!), and I will go on to Thailand to meet up with Andy. I'm excited for the rest of my trip, but so sad to see her go!

Travel Tips for Nepal

In my month in Nepal, I've gained a reasonably quantity of traveler wisdom, which I now I feel the need to bestow on the internet. Because travel planning is difficult, and it's so hard to know in advance what the right things to do/places to stay/foods to eat are! So if you go to Nepal, here are my recommendations. (Trekking not included -- I will write a detailed how-to-trek post eventually.) And please comment or email me if you want more details on anything I've done -- I am more than happy to help you plan a trip!

First things first, some notes on how Sister2 and I travel (because you should know our style before you take our recommendations):

--- Medium-cheap, within reason. So in Nepal that means hotel rooms for 2 with attached bath are about 300-600 rupees ($3.50ish -$7ish US), and meals for two (no alcohol) are around 400-1000 rupees ($5ish-$11ish US).

--- The exchange rate while we were there was about $.91 US = 100r.

--- We don't like hanging with all the other foreigners. I didn't come to Nepal to make only American friends...

--- We're day people, i.e. we get up relatively early and don't stay out late.

--- Though in America I like living in cities, Kathmandu is VERY polluted and not really my jam. I am definitely not a developing country city person.

--- We're here for the month of June, aka OFF SEASON. We had restaurants and hotels literally to ourselves the whole time. Nepalis say it is really different in tourist season (October-December) and everything is a lot more expensive. Also, everything (including shopping) is significantly cheaper in off season, and as the only potential customers around, our bargaining power was HIGH.

In Kathmandu:
We stayed on the edge of Thamel (the neighborhood where everyone stays), near the Garden of Dreams.

Best food:
--- OR2K Mediterranean. For serious, do not miss this! So much fresh veggies! Get the OR2K Platter (hummus, baba ganoush, etc., 550r/$6 US) which is enough for 2 people and the best Mediterranean food I've ever had. And/or the Stuffed Vegetable Special (550r/$6 US), also huge. The first time we went, Sister2 and I ordered one of each and clearly finished it all like the champions we are...but it was way more food than is reasonable or necessary.
Directions: It's in the main area of Thamel and everyone knows it, so just ask.

--- Spice Garden for amazing Indian food. Get the fish curry (285r) and Chana masala (195r) and naan (95r). Bonus: great (/hilarious)American pop music playing. 
Directions: Turn left at Hot Bread on  Chaksibari Marg, (when you're in Thamel this will make sense to you) and walk for maybe 5 minutes (maybe less), it's on the second floor on your left.

Coffee: Himalayan Java. Best coffee I have ever had, free refills until 11 am and real coffee mugs (i.e. American-sized). The breakfast combos are a great deal, and the fruit/curd/muesli is delish!
Directions: On Trevedi Marg before you get into thamel, kitty-corner from Garden of Dreams on the second floor.

Best Spa and Yoga:

Radiance Spa. We got a number of massages and treatments through our time in Nepal, and this one was by far the best. It felt like a real spa, not just curtained "rooms" of questionable cleanliness. The staff is SO nice, and the facials are amazing.
Directions: On Chaksibari Marg, two minutes down from Spice Garden on the opposite side of the street. Look for a restaurant called Brezel.
Note: Spas have menus with prices listed, but you can definitely bargain. We paid about 1,000r ($11ish US) per massage throughout Nepal. 

Yoga:  Also at Radiance Spa! They will schedule the class whenever you want, 2 people at a time (it's a small room), 400r ($4ish US) per person per hour. They will give you a cotton yoga outfit to wear, and they have a shower for afterwards if you want. A legit teacher comes and gives you basically a private yoga class, a mix of ashtanga and vinyasa yoga (so maybe that would be 'power flow' in the US?). And this was LEGIT. We're in it for the exercise, so we were super-psyched when the teacher said he would give us a "good hard exercise yoga" instead of a more spiritual yoga. (I'm sure you could tell him what you want though if exercise isn't your jam.) 


Everest Trekking Gear. We became real-life friends (Facebook official!) with the guys at the gear shop right next to Marco Polo Guest House on Trevedi Marg (on your left if you're heading into Thamel from the direction of the Royal Palace and Garden of Dreams). 

They helped us plan our trek, told us what we needed (but didn't up-sell us), and gave us very useful directions and information throughout our time in Nepal. Stop by, drink tea with them, and make friends!

Also, don't assume shops only have what's on display -- they have WAY more than what you see on the shelves, you just have to ask. 

Sleeping Bags (and other gear): Ok so I don't know the name...walking on Trivedi Marg into Thamel, the street kind of ends (it's a big open intersection), take a left, and go to the first gear shop on your left. They are very knowledgeable and have really nice sleeping bags and other gear. Sister2 bargained herself two VERY nice down bags for about $70 US each.

Tourism things worth doing in Kathmandu:

Buddha Stupa -- go, walk around, sit at a rooftop cafe and enjoy the view.

Monkey Stupa -- walk there from Thamel (25 minutes).

Bhaktipur -- ancient city about a 1-hour city bus ride from the Bhaktipur Bus Park near Thamel (just ask for directions from someone). Admission is expensive (1,100r/$12ish US). The architecture is cool, and we didn't regret going, but I wouldn't call this a MUST-see. But if you have an extra day, go for it.

In Chitwan:

Guide: Binda's Animal Adventures. Office across from Sweet Memories Restaurant (there's only one main street in Sauraha).

Hotel: Hotel Orchid. Clean and well-lit. We bargained it down to 700r/night.

Breakfast: Sweet Memories. Get the organic coffee and banana pancake with honey (it comes like a crepe). They also have really good strong milk tea.

Dinner: Holy Restaurant, next to the river (where they do elephant bathing). The fish is really good, as is their "Mexican" food (for some reason, Mexican is a popular cuisine type around Nepal). Also a good place to get tea and watch the sun set.

In Pokhara

Shop at the women's development stores. The prices are totally reasonable, and they have REALLY cute purses and bags and wallets. And it's for a good cause.

Transportation in general

Whenever possible, go to the bus park yourself to buy your tickets. Travel companies tack an additional 1,000r ($10 US) onto the price, which is pure bs. Also, then you can see what you're getting into bus quality-wise before you commit).

Note: Nepal's roads are TERRIBLE, so even if you take a nicer tourist bus, don't expect a smooth ride. And sit near the front, unless you enjoy getting air when the bus hits holes and bumps.

Food in general:
Street-side tea and donuts. So cheap. SO GOOD. Everywhere.

Ok that's all I can think of for now. Again, comment or email me if you have questions. Happy traveling!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Chitwan National Park: Elephant Baths! Wild Rhinos! Crocodiles!

I'm hesitant to indiscriminately throw around the phrase Best day ever! but well, ELEPHANT BATH! Aka we did so many awesome things today and I'm super-psyched to tell you all about it!

We're in Chitwan National Park, which is about a 6-hour bus ride from Kathmandu and (after trekking) one of the main things tourists do in Nepal.

Per usual we had nothing pre-booked, and only a vague sense of how things work. We got off the bus yesterday and a guide approached us "Come with me! This taxi will take you to the center of the town and you can pick out your hotel there yourself! Yes! Yes please, good!" Ummm yes that is exactly what we want. So we found a nice, clean, well-lit room (three of our main criteria) at Hotel Orchid (if you go to Chitwan, I recommend it).

Apparently during tourist season all the hotels here are FULL, but as it has been for our entire Nepal experience, we're pretty much the only ones here.

That same guide became our fixer for the trip. And I will take this moment to strongly recommend him -- Binda of Binda's Animal Adventure, whose office is across from Sweet Memories Restaurant (get the organic coffee - french press! - and a banana honey pancake. You're welcome). Binda's office is under construction now and Sister2 and I just came up with that name for it upon request. So if you DO go to Chitwan and see it, please report back? I would be SUPER excited!

Anywho, we started this morning with a canoe ride down a river in the park. Of course there's no guarantees when seeing wildlife (recall our Bardiya experience), but even though it was raining we saw four crocodiles along our 30-minute way!

The canoe ride ended at the Elephant Breeding Center. I should pause right now to tell you that elephants are, and always have been, my favorite animals. They're big and kinda dinosaur-ish, but also super-smart and graceful. They have families and a matriarchal society and they mourn their dead. And have you seen their trunks up close? So cool!

So we watched baby elephants for a while. The mothers are used for elephant safaris and owned by the government, the fathers are wild jungle elephants, and any male babies born are given to the Nepalese army for patrolling.


It's something they do every day at another part of the river. Trainers wash their elephants, and let tourists watch and/or join in for tips. So much fun!!! Our elephant kept sitting down, i.e. throwing us into the river, like the largest bronco ride ever.

In the afternoon the awesomeness continued with an elephant safari. We sat in a saddle/platform this time and meandered through the jungle and across a few rivers. AND WE SAW A WILD ONE-HORNED RHINO 10 FEET AWAY. (I am fully aware of my excessive use of all-caps in this post but I feel the situation deems it reasonable.)

First we saw the rhino across an open field and were pretty excited about that. Then the elephant driver kicked us into gear and we followed the rhino into the jungle. We got up parallel to it, then two other elephants (with drivers and tourists) helped us surround it. We had our doubts about the safety of this situation, as cornering an very large animal with one giant horn does not strike me as particularly advisable, but I guess an elephant trumps everything, so we were safe on it's back?


Day 2

Today was much less activity-filled than yesterday, and involved a lovely quantity of reading and eating and card-playing and countryside walking.  But we did the most important thing -- i.e took ANOTHER elephant bath. Because we could and therefore we should.

This time Mohammad, our elephant's driver, had us stand up on our elephant's back! Second time was just as awesome as the first well duh. I could do this every day.

The elephant bath sounds like a tourist stunt, but it's mostly not. The drivers do this regardless of audience and we sat and watched them scrub and play with their elephants for a while. (A driver is paired with his elephant for life.) 

Binda explained that for about $5,000 you can own a Nepali elephant. I won't pretend I haven't considered it and/or becoming the first and only white/female elephant driver in Chitwan...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Jungle Walking Report and Bored in Bardiya

Ok so in a day of "jungle walking" (which actually involves mostly sitting in various locations waiting for animals to show up) we didn't see any tigers and it's a bit of a sore subject. But we did see wild rhinoceros, herds of deer, a wild pig (that we thought was a tiger coming crashing through the underbrush), and we saw tiger footprints and heard it roar. And it was beautiful, and not at all what we expected to see in Nepal!

And the night before out jungle walk we went to an elephant breeding center and met a 4-month-old elephant!!! Aka my life might now be complete.  


Pouring pouring pouring. It's monsoon in Nepal and it hasn't stopped raining all morning. We slept in to rain, and awoke to more rain. We read in bed to drip-drop-drips on our tin roof, and breakfasted to the thunder of a downpour. We played Gin as the four paths leading to our umbrella'ed table island became cobble stone-bottomed canals, and read our books watching the water fill the four-squared garden to flooding.


The power here works maybe 20%of the time, which means that dinner is romantically candle- and headlamp-lit, despite the constant deluge outside our water inside doesn't run, and the advertised wi-fi hasn't produced a glimmer of activity since we arrived.

I'm not going stir-crazy yet, but we'll see how long I last on my 9-foot diameter circular island in the storm.

We couldn't leave Bardia today because some sort of election-related Maplst civil unrest is under way, closing the roads and scaring bus drivers from their routes (as a student of armed conflict, well-aware of nepal's recent 10-year civil war, this concerns me more than just a little bit). But our tickets are booked on the 5pm A/C overnight tourist bus (after our experience getting here, the "overnight" loses its bite when combined with "A/C" and "tourist"...let's hope the bus lives up to its promised splendor) to Kathmandu tomorrow, so hopefully the roads are open then!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Getting to Bardiya National Park, Western Nepal

For the second time this trip, we bought tickets for what we thought was a tourist bus, only to learn upon arrival at the bus station (i.e. dirt parking lot full of buses and tea stalls) that it was, in fact, a local death-trap bus. (I'm not exaggerating, google "bus crash Nepal" if you deem to doubt.)

Sister2 and I looked at one another, skeptical. Should we do this? Or should we cut our losses and walk away? We want to get to Bardiya National Park, in FAR western Nepal, because we've been told that it's tiger season and we're almost guaranteed to see tigers and rhinoceros in the wild.

So we weighed the pros and cons as locals pushed past us onto the bus... Death trap bus? But tigers. No a/c, no reclining seats? But tigers. Sixteen hours? Rhinos too!? This is going to be incredibly miserable? RHINOS AND TIGERS!

Needless to say, here we sit, bracing ourselves around hairpin turns on rocky pot-holed roads through the mountains at break-neck speed, perched on a bus that may have been built in the '70s and has absolutely no suspension. The horn sounds constantly as we careen around curves, warning (?) anyone coming around the other way.

In the first three hours we got a major flat (I could hear the sharp hisssss of deflating dreams). But instead of stopping, the solution was for everyone to get back on the bus QUICK to speed to the next town (so we could fix it before it completely deflated? I have no idea...the logic on that one is beyond me). [Oh and that happened two more times throughout the night.]

On the bus with us is a young Nepali  visiting home from university in Canada, who gleefully pointed out, "When I saw you two I was so surprised! I thought, wow! Caucasians?! That is unexpected on this bus!"

Yup, two of these things are not like the others. Which is fine, except that these two things are praying particularly HARD that ourselves, the bus, and everyone on it, reaches Bardiya in one piece.


At 5am were shaken awake and practically throw off the bus, "Abachar Town! Go now please! Abachar NOW!" Dazed and half-asleep we jumped off of the slowed (but still moving) vehicle. Alright here we are.

The trekker who recommended this trip to us said that there would be people waiting at the bus station to take you to their guest houses, but since we arrived 5 am on a local bus, we had our doubts...

Turns out (God bless desperate guest house proprietors) that part was 100% true! Within 5 minutes of being so rudely awoken, we were on the back of a kid's motor bike (him, Sister2, me, backpack) puttsing our way along a dirt road to his family's guest house. A little questionable...but actually not. 

We arrived 30 minutes (!) later at a very nice "resort" of cottages that is, in fact, Lonely Planet-listed. He made us "welcome tea" and we sat outside amidst papaya trees learning about him (just graduated high school, works for his aunt and uncle), about the park, hotel, and all the animals we can see.

So we're here! And staying until we see tigers and rhinos because there is no way that 16-hour transportation experience is ok otherwise!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit: Last (Lost) Day!!!

This is the last (6th) of a few blog posts that are after-the-fact transcribed from my trekking notes. Some are more complete posts, some are more thoughts along the road as Sister2 and I take on Nepal for a month!

Day 10

We spent our last day trekking completely lost. A last lost day that included going up and over a pass, through a canyon, down a rock scree cliff face, Oregon Trail-style across a river, through gale-force winds and sandstorms, and A LOT of rage.
The view made it worth it.
It started out nice enough. We breakfasted on delicious Tibetan fried bread and honey and milk coffee on the roof of our hotel in Mukinath, and around 9:15 started what we expected to be a nice gradually downhill leisurely final hike.

On our way out of the town, we caught up with another group of trekkers and fell into line with them -- our first mistake. Because when you're cruising along in a group, collective wisdom (or lack thereof) kicks in, and people (me and Sister2) stop looking closely at road signs.
The view from our window in Mukinath.

We started up a pretty steep hill, groaning all the way (still SO SORE), but we accepted it, assuming that this was just an uncomfortable blip in the net-downhill trail.
We soon reached a spectacular pass and took some pictures that were totally worth the climb.

Leaving Mukinath.

Then down down down we went, our quads and calfs screaming from remnants of yesterday's (and the day before's and the day before's) exertions.  Sister2 and I have concluded that jogging (baby steps) downhill is equally as hard as walking but twice as fast, so we left the other white people in the dust and skittered our way down the mountain.

We were following signs to Lubra, and reached it around lunchtime. And after lunch is where true disaster struck. We left the town and started walking along the river, but we didn't see any blue trail markings, so I scampered back to ask directions to Jomsom, our day's (and trek's) destination. "Yes yes Jomsom, river." Alright, if she says so. 
Damnit Lubra!!!
We walked along the riverbed for 15 minutes or so, still no markings, until we saw a suspension bridge waaaaaay up above us. (This was especially odd because the way into the town was SO well-marked. We realized after the fact that Lubra wasn't supposed to be on the trek at all, and clever entrepreneurial villagers marked the way into their town super-well so that people like us would come. And clearly they didn't care to mark the way out...)

Uh oh, I think we're supposed to be up there? Damnit we got wrong directions!!!
(This happened in India sometimes too...for inexplicable cultural reasons people would rather give wrong directions than say they don't know. And us unsuspecting tourists get screwed.)

So we backtracked to the village to ask again. This time we were pointed along a hillside trail. A trail that took us through thorn bushes, and eventually petered out into nothing. NOT AGAIN!!! At this point we were frustrated, hot, tired, had spent an hour trying to get out of this stupid village, and were threatening to punt a chicken and drop-kick a wrong-direction-giving villager at the soonest opportunity.

We saw what appeared to be the correct trail about 50 meters below us, and unwilling to backtrack again, we started slip-sliding down the steep rocky scree face.

That trail was A trail...though not really the RIGHT trail. We stood looking across the bridge and saw something that looked like the correct trail on the other side of the river far below, with our fellow trekker friends making their way along it. I'm not going to lie, at this point obscenities may or may not have been screamed into the Himalayan wind...

Riverbed of death
"What's the easiest way to Jomsom? Oh cool well we're bad-ass so clearly we're taking this completely different and way harder way on purpose -- no big deal," we joked to each other to keep our rage in check.

We followed our trail along the cliff for a ways, and eventually made it to the river. Phew. Home free! But soooooo not.

The river's erosion cut off the trail, so we had to take off our boots and Oregon Trail-style ford the rocky current. Final obstacle? Kind of...

And then, joy of joys, we were on the jeep road to Jomsom! And it was an epic wind tunnel! Along a sandy and rocky river between cliffs! Whose legs and faces and any and all exposed skin don't need an arduous hour of natural exfoliation?!?!

We put our heads down and hiked as fast as humanly possible through the desolate landscape, dreaming of the Snickers bars we'd splurge and treat ourselves to upon arrival in Jomsom.

We are now at our final Annapurna Circuit Trek guest house, showered, wind-burned, and ready for our early-morning flight to Pokara tomorrow.

Though the last day was far more epic than expected, trekking the Annapurna Circuit was such a fun and beautiful and amazing experience! I will blog a detailed how-to-do-it-like-we-did post soon because I now have so much wisdom to share on the trekking front, and I think everyone should try this!