Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunkosi River and into India

The rafting trip was a really cool experience. It was a mixture of rafting, nature, culture, adventure, relaxation, teamwork, and campfire bonding.
The group consisted of 6 tourists and 6 crew members (2 of which were training). We had 2 rafts. One for all of our gear and the other for us. Then 2 safety kayakers.
I am always a little weary signing up for multi day group ventures. 10 days on a raft with people that suck would not be a fun scenario. Fortunately, the group came together well.
The first girl I met was a Canadian named Danica. We had a lot in common because she had also been traveling solo for a year and was on her last month. We instantly got along and exchanged travel experiences and compared emotional feelings such as getting through homesickness and the excitement of learning about new cultures. We had some good laughs right off the bat. Especially about how unattractive traveling can make you. If only men knew our potential beauty with a hair dryer, make-up, manicures, and form fitting cute clothes. But hairy legs, dirty clothes, and bug bitten out of shaped bodies were our lives right now. It was just humorous and refreshing to meet someone on the same wavelength as me.
Then there were 2 New Yorkers named Dan and Mike. Dan had been traveling and working abroad for 2 years. He has no intentions of going back to the States anytime soon. Mike just quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to meet up with Dan and live the traveler lifestyle as well. They were both really nice guys and it is always a pleasure to meet cool travelers from the US. Matt was this Aussie bloke that was on the last leg of his 16 month around the world trip. He had been all throughout the Middle East so it was interesting to here his stories and perspectives on those countries. He carries a guitar with him and wrote some cool songs during his travels. We spent almost every night listening to jam sessions around the camp fire. When Matt is not being a singer songwriter, he is a "wordsmith". He is very clever at combining 2 words in almost any case scenario. For instance, Brandy and Tang is a wonderful campfire drink that he coined "Brang". There was also the horrendous "wand" which is wind and sand combined and becomes very annoying when attempting to set up camp. Last, but surely not least was cute little Eimear. She was an Irish girl who had been working in the United Emirates for a year teaching English and was finishing up a 4 month trip through India and Nepal. She was one of those people who had he odd ability of retaining what she calls "useless information" such as song lyrics, movie quotes and any other corky thing you can imagine. I spent a lot of time laughing at her random blurbs about some movie made in the 1980s that none of us had ever even heard of. The group dynamic was pretty cool because we were all around the same age and all on long term travel trips.
We loaded up our rafts and got a safety briefing. We were all a little nervous since 2 people had died on the river a week ago. The rapids were rated up to 4-5+ so we were not sure what to expect. However, the first 3 days were pretty calm which gave us time to build our confidence up. Finally, we were off on the Sunkosi River and going out into the wild.
10 days sounds pretty intense for rafting, but most of the river was pretty calm with sporadic rapids here and there. Much of the time was spent floating down and enjoying the peacefulness. The river runs straight down the middle of Nepal and by the end of the trip we rafted almost 300 kilometers. All along the river we passed small villages and were able to catch a glimpse of the real Nepalis life. We were miles away from roads, tourist agencies, or guesthouses. Throughout the trip we passed villagers bathing themselves with river water, women washing clothes, kids swimming, and men fishing. The fisherman were hilarious because they would always be wearing small underwear. Some of them strapped a wooden box to their back with a battery inside and electrocuted the fish. Their friends would stand around with nets and collect the ones that floated up. One time we passed a crowd of people surrounding a pile of logs that were burning on the river bed. Our raft guide, Denish, explained that the villagers were cremating a dead body, as they do in the Hindu culture.
The river and the scenery were beautiful and I was looking around in awe trying to soak up the nature around me. Since we were on the water most of the time, I wasn't able to take a lot of pictures.
Each afternoon we would pull up to a white sandy beach to set up camp. It is pretty unique how many untouched beaches Nepal has with being a landlocked country. We joked at how we couldn't wait to go back home and be like...."yeah, some of the best beaches are in Nepal..." and then wait for people to be like....ummm there isn't an ocean anywhere?
A few days into the trip, we approached the 5+ rapid where the people had died. We pulled over to check out the rapid and see if it was something we could do or not. You could tell the crew was a bit nervous. One of them named Cita was having a hard time because it was her friend that died there. After 30 minutes of discussion, the guides decided it was too dangerous to go down. There were 3 major holes in the rapid and if the raft where to get stuck in one it could be extremely dangerous. We understood the circumstances and agreed to walk around. The rafts, however, needed to be guided by ropes through the rapids as they were far to heavy to carry around. When the crew attempted to get the first raft down, someone slipped and the current grabbed the raft. There were 2 people still in it as it headed straight for the rapid. Instantly, the crew went into action as the ran along the raft with safety ropes and watched as the 2 on board navigated around the holes. Luckily, they made it down safely and everyone cheered from the sidelines and sighed with relief. Everyone was super cautious with the next raft and it ended up getting lodged into a rock and stuck for a good while. We ended up having to unload a lot of things and carry them down to get the raft out of its position. All in was an eventful rapid even though we didn't officially go down it.
After a few days we were getting a bit comfortable rafting and maybe even a little too confident. There was a 4+ rapid that we were up against and we were ready for something exciting. Matt was in front next to Danica and I was behind him. We hit this massive wave straight on and the raft went up almost vertical. Matt was almost swept away with the water, but we all managed to stay in the boat. As we rounded the wave we were all excited and cheering and even taunting the rapids to give us some more. Out of nowhere the raft nailed a rock and all of a sudden Matt went flying out of the boat. It all took us by surprise and I don't think I will ever forget the look on his face as he went soaring into the river. I started laughing hysterically and even almost peed my pants, but I knew that we needed to do a safety rescue to get him back in the boat. Danica and I had our paddles all over the place and as we lifted him back in we rammed his face right into the handle of the paddle. Still, we were laughing and Matt ended up dragging himself into the boat pretty much. All this happened in about 10 seconds and just goes to show that you never know what can happen. Fortunately,there were no major injuries during the trip.
I shared a tent with Danica and we spent a lot of time talking and hanging out. I noticed that she was running out of energy quickly and not feeling 100% during the trip. In talking, she confided with me that she was actually diagnosed with breast cancer before she left to travel. She is only 23 and it is an odd case since she is so young. Back home, she had a lot of crazy things going on in her life at that time with her family and past relationships.....then with the diagnosis on top of that, she felt a need to get away for a bit and spend a year abroad. My first reaction was why didn't she immediately start getting treated for it. She explained to me that it was in the first stages and even though her doctor didn't recommend traveling, she didn't think much would spread over a years time. Danica is taking medicine weekly to stabilize the cancer. Normally she rests a lot and takes naps to combat the side effects, but there wasn't too much time for that during the rafting trip. I couldn't believe it when she told me and it put all my travels and experiences in perspective. How differently you would look at things if you had cancer while traveling.....
Danica chose not to tell anyone in her family and only her doctor and a close friend back at home know about it. She has told a few people in traveling. She isn't scared to talk about it, but just doesn't want people to treat her differently for it. Traveling was a choice she made and she wanted to get away for a bit before dealing with the treatments and the other issues going on in her life. Once I knew the whole background, it made more sense to me why she needed to get away for awhile. I asked her if I could talk about it in my blog and she said it was ok. In fact, she enjoyed talking to someone about it and getting it off her chest. I find peoples stories and reasons for traveling so interesting and I wanted to emphasize the unique individuals I have come across on my journey. I only knew Danica for 10 days, but she has a wonderful soul and a compassionate energy. I hope all of her treatments go well and her future is filled with many more trips and experiences ahead.
The Sunkosi River trip happened at a perfect time for me. I had been having a wave of homesickness and it was really refreshing to be around people who were on similar trips as I was. Being surrounded by nature really does something for the soul and I was feeling nice and refreshed when it was over.
Our group parted ways and it was sad to say goodbye. Sharada, the woman at the tourist agency that I worked with, invited me to stay at her home for my last night in Kathmandu. It was really nice to be able to be invited into a locals home. She made an amazing dinner and we sat around her kitchen table talking about my trip and the Nepali culture. This will not be my last time to visit Nepal...there are so many other places I want to explore. And a little thing called the Mt Everest base camp that I need to hike someday :)

I am now 4 days into India...
India was the whole reason I started this trip. I had wanted to visit a place so different then anything I had ever known and India seemed to pop in my mind anytime I visualized that place. Since I couldn't take too much time off of work, it was my desire to visit this country the led me to save money and leave my life in ATX for awhile. Then, trip turned into this wild and crazy round the world expedition, but here I am the place that started it all for me. My mind is mixed with so many emotions and I can't believe that I am finally here.
Eimear, the Irish chick who retained useless information, happened to be on the same flight as me into Delhi. Thank goodness for this because she had already spent 4 months traveling in India and knew how it all worked. For the first day and a half I walked behind Eimear as she whisked me through the streets and haggled for cabs and hotel rooms. She told me about the ins and outs and it really helped me to get my barrings straight. When we arrived our first night, it was right in the middle of the big Hindu festival called Diwali. I am not sure the whole background of this holiday, but it is translated into the "Festival of Lights". People drape lights all over their homes like we do for Christmas, and then they shoot fireworks all over the place throughout the night. It all sounds lovely, right? Well, fireworks combined with India equals WAR ZONE!!!!!!! The first few hours of being in Delhi consisted of me running and dodging fire crackers (more like fire missiles) flying down the streets. As we were checking into our guesthouse, the men at the reception stopped in the middle of our check-in and went into Hindu prayers for about 15 minutes while we sat there. I was like...what the heck is going on?.. we are in the middle of checking in and these guys stop to chant and light incense and hold hands. Eimear didn't seem the least bit surprised and gave me the "Welcome to India" look. After sorting out the cost of accomodation and waiting for them to finish their prayers we finally got situated into our rooms. We met some really cute Dutch and English boys who invited us out to dinner and to check out the Diwali festival. Once again, we were back in the streets and I felt like we were in the Desert Storm War with fireworks and dust surrounding me. Honestly, I was scared that one of us was going to get hurt. There was no police or safety people around and clearly no regulations on how to shoot off the fireworks. All I could think to myself was.."welcome to India Andrea...this is what you asked for....a place far different then you even know!"

I had signed up for a 21 day tour through the tourist areas of India. I was hesitant about doing it because I knew I was going to be spending far more money then I would if I were on my own. But a few months ago when I signed up for it, I was intimidated about traveling alone in India. I said goodbye to Eimear and went to meet up with my group. There were only 3 other people in the group. Emma, a girl from England and then Steve and Debra, a couple from Australia. They are all very nice and I think we will get along great.
After only 2 days on the tour, I realize that it was a good idea. India is very intense and there is so much going on around you at any given moment. I am glad that I can just follow a group around and enjoy getting used to my surroundings for a few weeks. It can get really exhausting and frustrating having to figure out directions, prices, transport, and everything else when you are alone for the first time in a new country. So....I am looking forward not having to worry about that crap for a bit and just enjoying the country.
Our first day, Digvijay, our guide, took us to a few places around Delhi. Our first stop was the largest Muslim Mosque in India. It was beautiful, but I was a bit put off at the entrance. There were all these men barking at us to pay rupees for every little thing. We had to pay to bring our camera in, pay to have them watch our shoes while we go inside, pay to wear the mandatory robe around our clothing and so on. I decided not to bring my camera in because it wasn't worth the $6 it would have cost and I didn't want to give them my money anyways. After the Mosque, we went to a Sikh temple. This was a completely different experience to the Muslim Mosque. We were asked to take our shoes off and put a scarf over our head, but no one asked for any money for it. Once we were inside, we were invited into the worshipping area and we were able to sit down a listen to the live music and watch the Sikhs praying on their knees. It was such a lovely and peaceful setting and I could have sat there for hours watching the people coming through to pray. I honestly don't know too much about Sikhism, but my guide describe it as a mixture of Muslim and Hinduism. Obviously, there is much more to it, but I won't try to explain it all in this blog. Besides the religious aspect, the Sikh community is well known for opening their doors to their own worshippers and outsiders as well. Behind the temple was loads of dormitories and apartments that they open to people for free or small donations. Also, there is a large dining hall where they serve meals for free or small donations. We were able to go into the kitchen and help the ladies bake bread and see the huge pots used for cooking for 100s of people. Mainly, it is other Sikhs that come to use these facilities. And you will never see a Sikh begging on the street for food or money as they are always taken care of at the temples. Apparently, they are a very wealthy religion and put the money back into its worshippers in this way.
The traditional Sikh men are very intimidating at first because they wear stark white linen clothing with blue turbans. Most of them have long facial beards. Across their shoulders they wear a knife much like you would if you had a sword. This is the traditional dress and both men and woman would wear the knife in the past for protection. Nowadays, the knife is simply worn for traditional reasons. When I would walk by these men I was scared to make eye contact, but when I did their faces lightened up and they gave me a head nod and gentle smile. Unfortunately, I connect men in turbans with war and terrorism, which is a terrible thing for me to think. Obviously, there were so many good people around the world practicing different religions and it was really neat for me to have a peak.
I realize that them welcoming outsiders in to view their religion is a way to gain followers and spread their word. Don't worry...I am not planning on converting into Sikhism. However, I was very impressed with the temple and facilities they provided. It was also nice to not have to pay to learn about and view these things as the previous Mosque had done. Pictures were allowed to be taken, but I felt that it would be disrespectful. It would be like someone walking into a Catholic church mass and snapping I just walked around admiring this religion that is so foreign to anything I have ever seen before.
We took a 17 hour train ride to a city in Rajasthan called Jaisalmer. This is the largest city closest to the Pakistan border and is smack dab in the middle of the desert. The town is actually a huge fortress that was built in the 12th century. Today, the fort is still in tact and one of the few forts in the world that is still inhabited. 1/3 of the city still lives and works within the fort. Our guesthouse is inside the fort and we are literally sleeping within the walls of this ancient city. It's sand colored and the light of the sun reflecting of the sandstone is a site to see. Tomorrow we will spend a few hours learning about the history of the fortress. I am so excited to finally be in India....I think the next few weeks will bring many interesting experiences. Well, that's it for now...hee hee....sorry for the long blog :)

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