Saturday, 28 April 2012

Nepal (April 13-26, 2012) An empty office, a zoo and a hospital!

Hello from Kathmandu...

...and not from the retreat! If you've been loitering facebook you may have noticed that I didn't end up volunteering at the Vipassana retreat. I packed up my bags on the morning of the 13th, checked out of my hostel, walked to the office and it was closed for Nepali New Year! I stood and stared at the locked door for a good 5 minutes trying to decide what to do next. In the end I just walked back to my hostel and explained that I would need my room back, lol. I emailed the Vipassana people, but I never heard back from them (which is just as well I suppose because my banking situation and my intestines then proceeded to fall apart).

After checking back into the hostel I went to email Mom to let her know what had happened and I had an email from her saying that my bank had called to say my debit card was compromised. Now, if you've been following along you will remember that my Visa card was compromised a few weeks back and I've not been able to use it since. Back to the phone booth for Vicki! I was able to get in touch with Scotiabank, who assured me that there had been no bizarre activity on my card and that they didn't know what I was talking about. This made sense after some confusing emails back and forth with Mom where I realized it was CIBC that had called. Back to the phone booth! The confusion had been that Mom had tried to wire me money from my CIBC account to my Scotia account and CIBC had flipped their lids. In all my great wisdom, I explained this to the CIBC lady:
CIBC lady: "So your Mom wired you money from her CIBC account?"
Vicki: "No, from my account."
CIBC lady: "How did she access your CIBC account?"
Vicki: "I gave her the password."
[in hindsight I should not have said this]
CIBC lady: reprimands Vicki
Vicki: ...
CIBC lady: "Why didn't you just do the transfer yourself?"
Vicki: "Because I haven't wanted to access my CIBC accounts or online banking from Nepal in case they are compromised."
CIBC lady: "Well, that's not a problem, you are protected from internet fraud. Simply download our software protection program before you access your online banking."
Vicki: "I am using public computers. I can't download anything."
CIBC lady: "Oh."
Vicki: "THAT'S RIGHT!"

I didn't say this last bit, but I wanted to. In any case, my CIBC accounts are now of little use to me and I am down to a single debit card, lol. It was at this point that I realized I was not going to be able to withdraw enough money daily to make it through Jordan, and I would have had no way to book an emergency flight or pay for a large hospital bill in Jordan (here at least I have friends and know where the nearest Western Union is, lol). After a few days of deliberation I decided to cancel the Jordan leg and book a flight straight to London (and by "book" I really mean "get my Mom to book" as the airline only accepts Visa cards, lol). So now I am in Kathmandu until May 8th and go straight to London to stay with a fellow volunteer I met in Pokhara

The next day I spent the day at the Patan Zoo, which was actually pretty awesome, considering I'm in Nepal. My favourites were the massive griffons and the sloth bears. To the first, I always thought that griffons were fairytale creatures, so it was exciting for me to discover that they actually exist (and are huge and ferocious looking). And sloth bears had become celebrities among the other volunteers and I. Before we went to Chitwan, we had read that these were the most feared creatures in the jungle, that they had large claws and always attack the genitals and the eyes. We didn't see any in Chitwan (mercifully), so it was super exciting to see them at the zoo (and yes, their claws are impressively long... though I did not see them used on any genitalia that particular day). After leaving the sloth bear exhibit I watched the zoo keepers bring out an elephant to wander through the park. The Nepali mothers dress up their children and take pictures of them with the elephants ("because the elephant is their God" the zoo keeper whispered to me, lol). By the end of the day I had a pretty bad fever and after returning to Kathmandu passed out with dreams of sloth bear attacks (not really). It was time for my small intestine to strike!

Vicki wakes up. Oh man, I have to pee! What time is it? Only 5:30am?! I'm totally going back to sleep after this [Vicki is peeing]. Oh dear lord, what is happening?! [Vicki discovers that her intestines have just decided to loose themselves]. Well that was bizarre, I hope that doesn't happen again. Oh man, I have to fart. It wasn't a fart!!! It was NOT a fart!! Was it the bananas? I didn't notice any mould on them... was I really checking though? Oh no it is happening again! Repeat for 48 hours, lol (I think that was just enough detail!). On the third night I had the most debilitating bloating of life (small intestine is waging war), I expanded 5 inches in diameter, and that is no small feat! I lay (laid?) there feeling like a bloated balloon until midnight when I decided "enough of this, I am going to the hospital!" I did a quick check of my Lonely Planet Guide and found two hospitals in the Kathmadu Valley... there was the Patan Hospital and the Bir Hospital, the latter of which carried the description "Where terminally ill Nepalis come to die. Not recommended." Patan it is! I left the guesthouse and walked down to one of the other guesthouses with 24-hour desk service. Unfortunately the staff were incredibly high and unable to interpret "please call me a taxi!" Luckily there were a few taxis loitering around Thamel, so I was on my way. I would like to contest that taxi rides in Asia are more terrifying at night when there is no traffic around (this may run counter to intuition). At one point the spedometer hit 130 and I was acutely aware that neither one of us were wearing a seat belt... are there ever even seat belts to wear?! (Dear God, please keep the Nepali dogs and cows on the side of the road). Luckily we both made it alive!

I will note here that the description for the Patan Hospital in the guide was "Arguably the best hospital in the Kathmandu Valley." Mighty sneaky word play on the part of the authors. The reception area is connected to triage, where seas of stretchers are filled with groaning Nepali people. I was the only Western person there, and maybe the first they'd seen give that I was instantly THE most interesting thing to watch (what is this bald white lady doing here? I don't know, let's stare. Good idea.). Your brief consultation with the doctor takes place in the triage centre, so everyone knows what everyone else has. I believe most Nepali people there don't speak much English, but even they would have gathered that I had diarrhea and bloating given my strange waddle, lol. I was told to go to counter 13 and 20 and then left to fend for myself. The rest of the hospital was pitch black, so I wandered the dark corridors trying to find these rooms (made more difficult because all the numbers were written in Nepali, lol). Eventually I went back to triage and made one of the nurses take me to them. The pharmacy was first where they gave me rehydration salts, the laboratory I could have found if I had simply followed my nose. I will not relate the details of my stool sample, but I will say that it is a small miracle they didn't find anything there and if I ever decide to donate to the hospital I will suggest that they invest in a sink and soap, because how can you not have that?! The nurse then told me that the sample wouldn't be run for another 9 hours, but I could stay in the hospital and wait? That would have meant sleeping in the dark corridors filled with Nepali men, so I opted to taxi back and eat cookies all through the night (because if my intestines aren't going to function and I have to be bloated, I might as well take the opportunity to ingest delicious calories that won't be absorbed, am I right?).

The next morning I taxied back to the hospital (which is much more inviting in the daytime) and waited in the triage area for the nurse to tell me they didn't find anything, but would I like some medication for the bloating? At that point a motorcycle accident swept through the doors and I was quickly forgotten (which is just as well, because the amount of blood was about to add "nausea" to my list of symptoms). Back to Kathmandu! I wish I could add something interesting to the next week, but I basically sat on the toilet and ate cookies. Oh! I did move to a new hotel, because it seemed imperative that I move to a room with its own toilet (I'm sure the people sharing my bathroom were getting suspicious as to why the door was always locked and why when they could access it the floor was littered with plastic cookie box liners). I'm now staying at a place called Hotel Radiant and it's great, I even have a TV! (though it works only when the power is on, and if you've been to Nepal you know that that is rarely, lol). I even got to watch an episode of Dexter the other night (and if I leave the door open I can even see the TV from the toilet.WIN!). The owner of the hotel is this old Nepali man with the fattest dog I have ever seen (poor thing has cataracts and barks at anything that moves). The staff members are really nice and all my favourite restaurants are within 2 minutes walking distance!

A few days ago I went to watch Battleship in the cinema (throw some popcorn in there to mix up my cookie diet, eh), it was so deliciously terrible! The best part was that I found 2 other cinemas on the way to the right cinema, and I believe that's a talent. The other day someone in a cafe asked me if I knew anywhere good to see a movie; not only could I tell him where all 4 were, I could even name all the movies currently playing and the showtimes... by cinema. I am a walking Nepal encyclopedia. On the 25th a fellow volunteer got back from the Vipassana retreat, it's been so nice to share experiences! I signed Mariah and I up for the canyon swing at Last Resort, which took place yesterday, but I will dedicate a separate post to that! Stay tuned for my embarrassing footage... 

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Nepal (April 3-12, 2012) leaving for my retreat tomorrow to volunteer!

Hey everyone!

I leave tomorrow to volunteer on the Vipassana retreat, so I won't see you again until April 25th :) Prepare for this drive-by shooting of a blog post!

On April 3rd Peter, Nora and I went to the Cinema to see Mirror Mirror. It's an adaptation of Snow White with Julia Roberts as the evil queen. It was really cute, and it definitely ended with a Bollywood dance number (which seemed extremely fitting for Nepal). That evening there was a torrential downpour and after soaking my shoes I decided I needed to buy sandals. I went to a little stall down the street from my guesthouse and got totally hustled by the shop owner's 9 year old son. He was ruthless, I'm pretty sure I got ripped off. But I love my sandals!

The next 9 days pass by in a blur of food, so let's give you the rundown of that. I have tried the fruit salad at at least 10 different places, cardamom chai tea, 2kg of grapes from a slightly seedy street lady, mint lemonade (i.e. lemonade with actual mint leaves ground in), Nepali tea with milk of questionable expiry (at the highest rooftop terrace in Thamel), rice pudding with dried fruit, delicious buttery palau, kashmiri palau (palau with fresh fruit!), epic banana splits, iced peach tea, battered deep fried tofu (that was an accident) and veggie platters from an Israeli restaurant, Italian restaurant and Thai restaurant (boiled vegetables get me excited). I won't tell you how many Cadbury chocolate bars I've had, because that's a secret (my pants know the answer). Two more volunteers, Mariah and Shane, have arrived in Kathmandu, so my dinner date group keeps growing. Mariah is going to participate in the Vipassana retreat, so we're going to have to try very hard not to communicate with one another! It's going to be nice to have a familiar face around (even if I can't look at it, lol).

April 5th and 6th were the only days I can say I actually did something touristy. On April 5th I woke up really early with a huge coughing fit (the perpetual Nepali sickness), so I decided to get out and go for a walk. I ended up running into Peter who said "here, I want to show you something!" We wandered down some back alleys past all the Nepali vendors selling their food and trinckets from blankets on the ground, got lost, then eventually came to this little opening in the wall that lead to a courtyard with the most beautiful temple! It turned out to be the Seto (White) Machhendranath temple, dedicated to the Hindu god, but because he is considered by Buddhists to be the incarnation of Avolkitsevara (the Bodhisattva of compassion), the temple is a great mix of both Hindu and Buddhist sculptures and carvings. The whole temple is encased in a giant brass cage, and the courtyard is filled with so many pigeons that you can actually feel the beat of their wings on your face. Everywhere there are ladies selling offerings of rice and colourful flowers and the smell of butter lamps fills the air (that and pigeon poop, if we're being honest). This so far has been my favourite temple and I've been back a number of times.

The next morning I got up early and left for Swayambhunath, also known as the monkey temple (can you guess why?!). There was a large Buddhist festival here this day, so the place was packed with thousands of Nepalis. Everywhere there will little groups of people huddled around Buddhist statues, praying and offering food and butter lamps to the gods (which is funny, because the only place the food actually goes is into the hands of waiting monkeys). After a slow and crowded climb to the top, I made my way clockwise around the Swayambhunath stupa. The legend goes that the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake, and the stupa grew out of the water as a large lotus flower. It's a very important site for Tibetan Buddhists. Against all odds I actually ran into Nora and Peter amid the sea of colourful saris and it was fun to spend the rest of the time exploring the small shrines around the stupa with them.

Boudhnath and Bhaktapur are still on the list of things I need to see, but they will have to wait until after the retreat! Wish me luck!

Love from Kathmandu,

Monday, 2 April 2012

March 27- April 2 (Thamel and some Durbar Squares!)

So, it's been two days since I got back from the Vipassana retreat and at this point I am alone in Kathmandu and basically spending my days eating and napping (I mean this is the most excited way possible, it is such a blessing to be able to do nothing. When I was in Pokhara I remember a fellow traveler saying to me "always remember how lucky you are, most people will never get the chance in their life to do nothing."). Mom emailed me to let me know that my Visa company thinks my card might have been compromised and that I have to call them (the only thing worse than waiting on hold for your bank is having to pay for every minute you're on hold). In any case, we discover that yes, someone has made a purchase of a whopping $1.00, and that it wasn't me. Card canceled! Not to worry though, my bank assures me that they can mail me a new card to my home address (ever helpful, lol). So I sit down, observe the sensation of descending panic (lol), and decide that I really don't need my Visa anyway. My Mom has been so kind as to book my hostels for Jordan using her credit card, and I do have a backup visa (that I will now only use to book a direct flight home, if it comes to that). Over the course of these three days I also manage to get my flydubai crisis sorted out, and I am rebooked to fly out of Kathmandu on May 1rst, complete with 23 hour layover in Dubai! (which I keep saying will give me time to try all the Baskin Robbins flavours in the airport). I tried to book a visa for Dubai, so I could leave the airport, but they rejected me (apparently Dubai has started a recent hate-on against all Canadians that are not businessmen? Who knows, whatever, they're not invited to my Birthday party).

The next few days are a bit of a blur, suddenly everyone seems to be in Kathmandu and I'm spending most of my days in White House Kitchen, Thakali Kitchen or OR2K having breakfast/lunch/dinner with friends. I am convinced that OR2K is the hub of Thamel, I run in to so many people there (OR2K is this great Israeli vegetarian restaurant).

On March 29th I decide to do something with my life... so I go to see a movie! During one of my visits to the flydubai office, Takendra (my bff there) tells me I should go to the Civil Mall to see Hunger Games, the only English movie playing there at the moment. And so here I am, in a VERY Western-looking mall, and I've paid 190 NPR for my ticket, 55 NPR for a medium popcorn and 70 NPR for my Fanta (that's $3.91 CAD). Ballin! And what's that, there's an intermission for me to go pee and get more popcorn? Even better! So yes, excellent movie experience in Kathmandu, I'll be back (by the way, for those of you wondering, the Second Second Assistant Director was John Nasraway... of course I stayed!). On the way back I take a detour to a cheap bookstore near the Central Immigration Office and pick up Eat Pray Love, The Alchemist, One Hundred and One Days and Outliers. I mean really, this day couldn't go better... but then it does. I go to the White House Kitchen for dinner and meet a guy named Walter. And what is Walter doing in Nepal? Building water sanitation systems. Bacteria chat ahoy! I also book a cheaper room down the street, buy some nice white T-shirts and a hot pink Pashmina. March 29th, raving success.

The next day I have breakfast at my now favourite place, Thakali Kitchen, where I get the Nepali set (all-you-can-eat rice, lentils, veg curry, spinach, spicy sides and curd; it's 130 NPR, which is $1.60 CAD). I so very much love dal bhat, I definitely picked the right country. I move down the street to Friendship Hostel, where I'm now paying 400 NPR/night ($4.90 CAD). After unpacking and doing some reading I head to OR2K for a salad (fresh greens with shredded beets, carrots, cucumber, radish and topped with cashews, peanuts and sesame seeds). Then I finally make it to the Garden of Dreams! The garden was built in the 1920s by Kaiser Shamser, because his palace needed a garden. For less than $2 you can spend all day in this green oasis, smack in the centre of Kathmandu. I sat here for awhile, feeling very much un-coupled (this is one of the few places in this city where you can openly cuddle/kiss/lie on top of each other, it is therefore more aptly named "Garden of Canoodling Couples"). It started to rain though, so I fled to the internet cafe, where I ran into a volunteer I met once in Pokhara, Jack. At first he doesn't recognize me with no hair (I love this, lol), and then we get chatting about his 52 hour flight back to New York in a week. "Yeah, I have a 23-hour layover in Dubai" I tell him. He asks me where I am flying to. Jordan. "Hey, I lived in Jordan for 5 months!" Of course you did. And of COURSE we need to meet tomorrow at OR2K so you can impart me with all your knowledge. March 30th, raving success! The next day I spend 5 hours with Jack and Nora in OR2K, and then buy the Jordan Lonely Planet guide that Jack finds for me in the bookstore across the street (I've only been trying to find one for the last 3 months). And then for some reason I decide to have a hot chocolate, chocolate covered strawberries, ice cream and 2 Snickers bars. And then I spend the most uncomfortable 2 hours in my room trying to will my stomach to digest all this crap, telling myself "how are those cravings going for you Vicki? Very Buddhist." Shut up brain. Still, March 31rst, raving success!

My next journal entry for April 1rst starts: "I achieved Enlightenment!" Happy April Fools (everyone knows it's impossible to do that with a candy store churning around in your large intestine, durr). Today I go to Patan with Nora and her friend Peter (from Ottawa!). Patan is a small city outside of Kathmandu, with one of the three Durbar Squares in Nepal (Durbar means "palace," so there are three Durbar Squares in Nepal that were built across from their respective palaces. Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur used to be kingdoms, not cities). The Patan Durbar Square was really beautiful, though it's so difficult to figure out which temple you are actually looking at! The first one we went in was covered in blood from a recent sacrifice. This leads me to ponder how barbaric Hinduism often seems to me, how time consuming and expensive it must be to appease these gods (and there are a lot of them!). Of course, I am so fortunate to be experiencing this new culture, but it's hard to remember that when you are overcome with the hot, wet, iron smell of blood. Oh my gosh, this is the worst introduction to Patan ever. Really, it's magnificent! After exploring the square we headed to Cafe Du Temple, a small rooftop cafe that overlooks Patan. This was really lovely :) The Patan Durbar Square is quite small, so it doesn't take long to wander through it, soon we were back in Kathmandu and I was in my guesthouse waging war with my large intestine (I'm betting it was the 200g of dried figs I ate...)

On April 2nd I made myself go somewhere new for breakfast, the Thamel Brasserie. The Thamel Bra?! No, apparently "Brasserie" is a French word for a nice restaurant? Anywhoodle, I had the Spanish omlette and banana porridge and delighted in the cheapness of this meal. And then, because the Universe was smiling on me, I actually caught Khalid on facebook! You don't realize, it's been so long since we chatted in real time. So that was an excellent start to the day! After lunch I went to the Durbar Square here in Kathmandu. I had been warned that it was not as nice as Patan, but I loved it! The steps to the Shiva temple by the entrance of the square are filled with Nepali women selling marigold necklaces that you can adorn the shrine statues with. Across from that there is a large carving of Kala (Black) Bhairab, an incarnation of Shiva (who likes to adorn himself with skulls and trample dead bodies). There is also a Seto (White) Bhairab, but his face is hidden behind a lattice fence, and the fence is only opened once a year. The Hanuman Dhoka (Hanuman museum) was gorgeous, filled with lots of intricate chowks (courtyards). Here I climbed nine stories and got a great view of Kathmandu as well! On the way out of the Hanuman Dhoka I spotted a carving of Vishnu as a man-lion, "disemboweling a demon" (so says the Lonely Planet guide). Again, can't we all just wear marigold necklaces and be friends? My favourite place in Kathmandu Durbar Square was the Kumari Bahal, House of the Living Goddess. Every few years in Nepal, a young girl (Kumari Devi) is selected as the reincarnation of the goddess Durga and lives in the Kumari Bahal until she reaches puberty (at which point she is given lots of money and becomes bad luck to marry). The Kumari Chowk, the inner courtyard, is absolutely gorgeous, every window and crevice has been intricately carved. I also happened to be in the square at the exact time and day that the chariot for the Seto Machhendranath festival was about to be launched into the streets! It's hard to describe this thing, so check out my pictures. With a blast of a cannon (that scared the crap out of me, and about a thousand pigeons), men begin pushing this chariot through the streets of Kathmandu (for the next four days? That's what I heard). After watching the chariot be launched, I was getting up to leave when I noticed that a small crowd was gathering around the Kumari Bahal. I joined the fray, and 30 minutes later they brought the Kumari Devi outside to carry to the Seto Machhendranath temple! It was really exciting, I suppose you don't get to see her all that often. I would have followed the procession, but I got distracted by a small sweets shop where I found burfi (these diamond shaped milk sweets I have been raving about since the Vipassana retreat where I got to try one). I bought a bunch and then sat on the temple steps and ate them (I shared the rest with the owner of The White Kitchen, and the young boys who live at my Guesthouse). I spent the evening on the rooftop terrace of this restaurant called Krua Thai, where I had Kloy Bouchee. Kloy Bouchee is banana rice pudding with coconut milk that tastes like heaven (and will probably send you there, given the fat content).

I'm about to meet up with Nora to go and see Mirror Mirror now at the cinema! Talk soon :)