Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Namaste from Nepal

Day 1:

After a nice leisurely morning in Varanasi, we headed to the the airport to travel to Nepal. I was clearly enjoying the trip and not worrying about anything because as we were sitting at the airport Praveen came and asked if someone left a cell phone in our room. I checked my bag and sure enough, I left my iPhone on the bed in the hotel. He arranged to have it sent to our hotel in Nepal and I thanked him profusely. He said he knew he was doing his job if a young lady leaves her cell phone somewhere and doesn't even realize it. I had to agree with him 100%!

So meanwhile, at the airport, we had been wanting to try a "Thums Up" which is an Indian cola which apparently has a ridiculous amount of both caffeine and corn syrup in it. It apparently makes you crazy naturally we needed to try it. Jason finally found some in the airport after looking for it in a few different places. definitely did not taste good. It tasted like Coca-Cola with a curry after taste...blegh! But we can mark that off our bucket list ; ). We only finished half the can between the two of us and even that small amount gave me heart palpitations. Haha!

It should also be noted that when I got sick a few days prior to this, I swore I would eat nothing but plain rice and drink only bottled water the rest of the trip because I did not want to feel that crappy ever again. Well you can see that lasted a super long time... ; )

When we landed in Kathmandu it felt like a different world. The mountains and valleys are gorgeous. It was hard to believe it was only a 45 minute plane ride away from the streets of Varanasi. We would soon discover that Nepal felt like a whole different trip in and of itself. It was safe for us to walk around alone (and we did! miles upon miles!), there were lots of awesome things to see close by, and we had a plethora of free time.

We were greeted with a hail storm as we stepped out of the airport which was actually rather awesome. We got to enjoy the cool breezes under a canopy until our bus arrived.

By the time we made it to our hotel it was sunny. This hotel was the best one as far as quality on our entire trip. And that's saying a lot because they were all very nice.

 The lobby:

After unpacking a bit Jason and I decided to venture into the city alone and check things out (with our guide's enthusiastic approval...yay!). We quickly realized that Nepal is a lot more westernized than northern India. The women wear western fashion and they even had a big mall that sold flat screen tvs, appliances, etc. These are things we never saw in India.

We had researched some good restaurants nearby and attempted to find them without really knowing exactly where we were going. We walked a good distance and decided that we should turn back and just get dinner in the hotel. We were hungry! We figured we'd orient ourselves to the city more the next day when we had more daylight.

We relaxed on the hotel's bar patio with a delicious glass of red wine (or 2) for me and a Nepalese beer for Jason. We chatted with Joan, a nice lady from Michigan who was in our group. It was a lovely way to relax!

After finding the restaurant in the hotel, I was incredibly pleased to find out that not all people in Nepal find cows sacred. I was dying for a burger at this point and that is exactly what I got (I even indulged in cheese!). It was ridiculously good and I'm pretty sure it was more than a half pound patty...I finished every last morsel.

As usual we went to bed early because we had to be up at the butt crack of dawn the next day...but as always, for a great reason!

Day 2:

We chose an optional excursion to take a small plane to fly over the Himalayas and to see Mt Everest. This was one of the main things Jason was looking forward to on the whole trip. It was a really cool experience! We got nice and close and it was unbelievable how mountainous it was. We lucked out with having clear, sunny skies as well! The pilot even let us in the cockpit to get a better view and take pictures. The pictures aren't the best because the windows were kind of dirty but you get the idea : )

 Man he's cute:

 Out the cockpit gorgeous!
 Mt Everest is the peak on the left:

 Again Everest is on the left:

Everyone in our small group was very satisfied with the excursion and talked about it for the rest of the day! : )

After that we enjoyed breakfast outside at our hotel. I.Love.Breakfast.

Later that morning we started our short tour for the day. We started off in the Boudha Stupa area which just happened to be what we had been searching for the evening before. It's this gorgeous little oasis mostly populated by Tibetan refugees. There are shops and restaurants surrounding a big Buddhist Stupa (which essentially means statue). I was instantly in love with this area. There are adorable old Tibetan couples walking around together. Monks everywhere in their awesome red uniforms playing on their cell phones. And people just generally enjoying themselves. It just made me grin! It was clean, beautiful, and the shopping opportunities were plentiful!

 The stupa which is in the center of the circular village:

 I love all the prayer flags:
We saw some local Tibetan artists making Thanka paintings. I never knew what they were until we learned about them. It is a free-hand drawing made on a cotton canvas. The amount of intricacy and detail that goes into these paintings is unreal. It can take over a month to complete a small painting. We both loved the Kalachakra Mandala paintings (as seen below) so much that we decided it would be a great thing to frame in our bedroom to remind us of our fabulous trip. The painting is a bird's eye view of a stupa and each color layer represents different universe element (like fire, air, water, etc.). It is also used as a centering guide for meditation and since Jason and I are both very interested in meditation it seemed like the perfect choice!

Jason inspecting our painting:
After this, we went to see a Buddhist temple in the same village area. It was gorgeously painted and had a giant prayer wheel. It also had a nice upper level balcony that looked out into the stupa area.
 Beautiful painted ceiling:

 The balcony:

We also got to see a Tibetan monastery. It was beautiful and had two rooms full of candles which I found to be both eerie and gorgeous. There was a monk practicing a song on the drums and singing in the back room of the monastery while we were there and it was awesome. It spread throughout the whole room.

After that, we left the stupa area to see one more site for the day.

Jason holding my sunglasses for me in the bus:

Nepalese people cremate their dead along the banks of their river (which meets up with the Ganges) in a very similar way to the way Indian people do. We happened to be there when a member of the royal family was being prepared for cremation. There is a particular spot on the river bank for people depending on their societal status. We watched as family members blessed the body with holy water. It felt strange and somewhat intrusive to watch this process, but people from all around the city were there watching. It was very interesting.
 A woman watching the cremations (you can kind of see the shrouded body on the banks of the river below in yellow/red):

Along the river banks there was no shortage of interesting characters...both of the animal and human persuasion.

 Oh behave! ; )

 This cow walked back and forth over the river bridge over and over while we were there:
 And these troublemakers....smoking all sorts of something!
After this, we headed back to the hotel and ate a small lunch before venturing out on our own. We decided that we felt comfortable getting to the stupa on our own and were confident we could find the way this time : ) It was an easy walk from our hotel....dangerous to my wallet but totally awesome!

As we were walking we were on the verge of getting another large storm. We weren't sure if we'd make it in time as the sky darkened and thunder started. We made it before the rain came down and started off our afternoon by getting foot massages at a place recommended by Praveen. The two little Tibetan women charged us $3 each for a 30 minute foot massage. We were off in a back alley in a dark room but all turned out well in the end. One of the the girls told us (in very limited english) that her boyfriend lives in Minnesota and that she is moving there soon...small world eh?! Good times.

After that it was time to shop! The rain had let up but the sky was getting very dark so I had to move from store to store quickly. I had no problem picking things out.

As the sky got even darker and the stupa started looking angry we decided we were ready for a light meal. The restaurant we were hoping to go to wasn't going to be open for 3 more hours so we walked around looking for an alternative.

We happened upon this ADORABLE place called La Casita. Now at this point a little spanish food was sounding pretty damn amazing. We had eaten plenty of curry and were happy to have a break. This place was in a tiny narrow building and the restaurant took up 4 levels. One for the kitchen, one for the little eating area and coffee bar, one for a small patio, and finally the rooftop patio. It was painted in all sorts of bright orange and green and made me instantly happy. We sat inside due to the rain. The woman who owned the restaurant was behind the bar and she was a beautiful, hippy-like, spanish women with a thick accent. She was constantly smiling and reminded me a bit of Penelope Cruz. The whole scenario made me happy...headline in my mind reads: single woman finds happiness in a small village in Nepal bringing a bit of Spain to Kathmandu.

We shared an egg dish that was to die for and I had a lemon ginger honey tea...check out how glorious that looks!
 I thoroughly enjoyed chatting with my cute husband while he drank his espresso...

Our entire bill was less than $4. Gosh I love Nepal.

And I snuck a quick picture of the bar/seating room because I never want to forget it!
We walked back the hotel in the rain and in the dark. When we got back we decided to check out our dessert options. We aren't usually dessert people but we both were in the mood for something sweet. When we checked out the buffet restaurant we were informed we could just pay for the dessert buffet if that's what we wanted...what lovely news!!! It was delicious. Ice creeeeam! (and how hilarious/messed up is it that our desserts cost 3x as much as our dinner....but totally worth it)

It was one of those perfect evenings where things just fell into place. An evening I loved so much I wanted to squeeze it. We spent the rest of the late evening reading and relaxing. Just awesome.

Day 3:

We got up the next day to see a few more sites. We enjoyed another tasty breakfast buffet in the hotel and headed out for a partial day tour. We saw a group of temples shared by Hindus and Buddhists which I found to be interesting and refreshing. It was in an older area of Kathmandu which was quite a ways from our hotel. There were celebrations going on and bands playing everywhere since it was Saturday. It was a pretty lively crowd!

 Monkey god:
The studsband:
 Everything is so detailed and ornate!

 Downtown Kathmandu:

My favorite spot with a view that we visited came next. Swayambunath Stupa aka the Monkey Temple sits high on a hill overlooking Kathmandu Valley. There were, as you may have guessed, monkeys everywhere too! But the best part was the view. It's just breathtaking! There were thousands upon thousands of prayer flags strung up from the top of the hill to the bottom. The five colors of the flag represent the five elements: sky, wind, fire, water, and earth. Tibetans believe all of these elements must be balanced in order to have health and harmony.

After we climbed up back down from the stupa we met a rude monkey who had just stolen someone's ice cream cone. I was obsessed with this monkey and couldn't get enough pictures. I found it hilarious.

The visit to the Monkey Temple was the last of our guided tours for the entire trip. This was a sad realization but we also knew we had the whole rest of the day and the following morning to have fun. That's where more awesome comes in.

Where did we go next you ask? Back to the Boudha Stupa that we loved so much? Absolutely.

It was on the verge of raining again and this time we had some even more exciting plans lined up. Our tour guide had introduced us to a Buddhist meditation guru the day before. We told our guide that we were interested in learning more about meditation while we were in Nepal, but we didn't expect to have the chance to meet with an actual guru one on one! We were able to get an appointment with him to do a one hour session. Being fully present and aware are just a few of the benefits that we hope to get from starting a meditation practice. So necessary in our busy's so easy to just go through the motions.

We arrived a couple hours early and walked around the stupa area. We then decided to check out the restaurant that had been closed the night before because it came highly recommended. It happened to be open for lunch and it also happened to be in the same building as the meditation center so that's exactly where we ate! As we walked inside it started pouring, thundering, and lightening. We got our food just before the power went out...whew! It was so freaking tasty. We each indulged in a coke from a bottle (we love having a few on vacation because the kind made with real sugar vs. corn syrup seems to taste so much's a good treat!) and watched the rain outside. We had a nice window seat overlooking the stupa area. It was perfect.

After stuffing our faces, we went upstairs to the meditation center. All the lights were off (either because the power was still not working or that's just the mood lighting!) and the long haired Nepalese guru Abhit met us at the door. He guided us into the meditation area which was facing the stupa and all the windows were open and you could hear the rain. There was another man sitting there named Santa. They asked us questions about ourselves and talked to us about meditation and making it more of a permanent part of our lives. It was very helpful information. He then guided us through a meditation session. It was very relaxing and Jason and I both felt much more present and aware at the end of the session. We talked about our experiences afterwards and he answered a few more of our questions. He was so patient, honest, and present. It was a really great experience. We found out that the meditation center is also an Inn where you can come and stay for retreats from anywhere from a few days to several weeks. That is something I have always been interested in doing so I am scheming a way I can get back there to do some meditation and also some hiking! It was an awesome, unique experience that we are so thankful we had : )

By this time the rain let up a bit and we decided to walk around a bit more before heading back. When we got back to the hotel we started packing up and got ready for our farewell dinner. We were taken to the older part of Kathmandu by bus and enjoyed some local liquor and some traditional Nepalese food. They also had a local dance show that put on performances throughout the night. It was fun but also sad because we knew we'd be parting ways from each other the next day. During our dinner everyone raised their glasses and said cheers...and someone yelled out, "cheers to cipro!"...because by this time everyone had the horrible shits at one point or another and had been cured by cipro. It was too funny.

We met a lot of awesome people on our trip but our favorites by far were Mike and Barb. We met them as we got off the plane when we got to India. They are from Chicago and they are a riot. Barb is a spitfire and Mike is a quiet, sweet guy. We bonded instantly in the baggage claim area because we had the same exact brand and color suitcases. Barb and I had orange and Jason and Mike had green. We had great chats, sat together for a lot of meals, and helped each other out when each had our ill moments. We miss them so much already and are planning to meet up with them when they come to MN later this year and hopefully we can make it to Chicago to see them sometime this summer!

Day 4:

The next morning we knew we had a little time to enjoy one last meal in this awesome city. We loved La Casita so much that we decided to enjoy a breakfast on their rooftop patio in our favorite area of the city : ) The sky was dark and we made to the stupa before the rain again.

View from the rooftop:
 Our cute little seating area:
 The menus are all hand written and so thoughtful:

We didn't quite make it to our breakfast before it started pouring. So we ran inside to save our poor waitress from getting drenched. We both got fresh squeezed orange juice (we heard her juice each orange in the juicer...doesn't get fresher than that) and had some amazing fresh pressed coffee and espresso. Here is a photo of the meal we were obsessed with. Homemade fries, bacon, and eggs with a small balsamic salad on the side. It had garlic aioli dipping sauce which really brought it all together. Sounds so simple but it was to die for!

It was the only logical way to end our stay in Kathmandu and it was awesome. We talked at breakfast about how amazing the trip had been. We were proud that we rarely knew what day of the week it was and were able to really live in the moment each day. The trip was the perfect amount of time and didn't seem to go by too fast or too slow. We felt as if we squeezed every possible experience out of the trip that we could have while also having some relaxation time. It felt like the trip of a lifetime while still having a lifetime ahead of us. We feel so fortunate.

We walked back hand in hand under our umbrella in the rain winding past all the little shops in the back alleys and kids with their backpacks heading to school.

We gathered our things and headed to the airport for a long day and night of travel.
Jason was nice enough to carry around both his and my ridiculously heavy backpacks so I could carry the camera stuff and all our souvenirs.

We made it home safely and are adjusting to getting back to a "normal" life now. I feel like this trip has changed me but I haven't quite figured out how yet. Jason and I made a date for next week to go out for dinner, eat a burger, and talk about the trip and how it's affected us in our independent lives.

India and Nepal is a trip we will never forget. The vast difference in the culture, the kindness of the people, and the memories we made will always be with us. Thank you for sharing the journey with us  : )

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