Northern adventure

Goa was fun at Christmas despite being a bit tacky. A piss up at the Hard Rock café in Calangute was the ticket for us and friends. A large of gathering of largely English expats spent time hoovering up more alcohol than food. There were only a few isolated scenes of public disgrace. Then back to some friends’ place to party on into the early hours. All jolly fun really and very pleasant. New Year was a bit more low-key. This was seen in by a suitably anarchic fireworks display on Candolim Beach. Never respecters of timetables, the Indians let rip from at least 11:30 onwards with floating lanterns and what was ultimately quite a number of entertaining pyrotechnics. These became a little more dangerous as freelancers joined in the festivities with their byo incendiaries.

It was now time to head north. An annoying three leg plane journey was required to get to Kathmandu. Of course, the plane left Goa quite late and threatened our connecting flights. Jet Airways excelled themselves on this occasion by whisking us off the plane in Mumbai to the flight to Delhi. No security check required. We got off on the tarmac and were the first to board the plane. It was a long day as expected and we didn’t make it to Kathmandu until after midnight. The visa on arrival process was long winded with the soon to be familiar standoff about paying by credit card. This became a common theme in Nepal as they were always keen to get their hands-on cash – US dollars preferably or failing that, Nepalese rupees. Reverting to the cash economy has become a bugbear of the Indian sub-continent, as for years I had become so used to paying for even the smallest things with plastic.

Nepal, Kathmandu and Pokhara especially, was not really recognisable from my last visit. This is hardly surprising given that I was last there in 1976. The worst aspect of this was the air pollution. Kathmandu was grim in this regard. The smog from increasing numbers of cars and bikes made it sometimes hard to breathe at street level. We also encountered in other places, such as Pokhara and Chitwan, a talcum powder-like fine dust that, quickly covered all footwear and inevitably forced its way into the lungs. In India we have to deal constantly with dust, smog and garbage. The management of all this may seem like a first world luxury but it really is very serious. When you see the air pollution in Mumbai it is truly shocking. Delhi is reportedly even worse and was bad the last time I was there nine years ago. Reports of increasing levels of lung cancer in younger people in north India are becoming increasingly common. It’s a tragedy and something that must be addressed on an individual level as well as at a state and national level. Much of this must start with a serious public education campaign. There was a time in western countries when littering was not particularly considered such a bad thing. The longer I stay in India, the more I am gobsmacked at the indifference to rotting piles of garbage and other detritus strewn everywhere. In such a magnificent country, with incredible natural beauty and centuries of the most fantastic art and architecture, to be confronted constantly by the simultaneous environmental desecration everywhere is almost heartbreaking. India cannot be completely singled out in this regard as it happens at some level everywhere but when there are a billion plus people acting in this way, it brings home the level of environmental destruction in the world. It is harder to retain the same level of optimism that humanity can invent solutions to our impact that we can in our smaller, richer and tidier homelands. My attempt to clean up the entire Arabian Sea by myself has of course ended in failure. I love the chaos and swarm of humanity in India. The sensory assault is exciting and I will never lose my love of it but at times I am saddened by the mess left in its wake.

It was lovely to see the beauty of Nepal. The backdrop of the mountains is phenomenal. No, we didn’t do any trekking which I now have to confess would be to see it at its best. The beauty of some of the temples and other structures was a joy to see even as the 2015 earthquake had taken a dreadful toll of many of these. Foreigners were asked to cough up substantial admission fees with the promise that this was part of the restoration project. In that case I can’t complain. What I had forgotten from my previous visit was the preponderance of beautiful women. I probably shouldn’t remark on such things in this day and age but I can’t divorce that from the overall natural beauty of the country.

Not being able to face the bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara, we splurged out on a fight. Despite the chaos at the airport we finally got on our rather small plane and were rewarded by fabulous views of the Himalayas on the 25 minute flight. It sure beat a bus trip of up to ten hours on bone rattling roads.

Pokhara had grown out of all recognition since my last visit. The only point of reference was the lake. It is still a pleasant place, bearing in mind we were there in the off season. We were afflicted by cloud covering the spectacular mountains on a couple of days which was a pity as it is a lasting memory of the place last time I was there. We climbed to the Peace Stupa which I’m sure was not there last time I was there and got beautiful views of the lake. We walked down the hill and visited the Devi Falls and a Tibetan refugee village. We hired bikes to ride around but they were fairly uncomfortable and that diminished some of the reward from that venture.

Off to Chitwan next. The bus journey was unpleasant and uncomfortable but we got to the the park at around three in the afternoon. Our first walk to the river yielded some good views of the rhinos which were far bigger than expected. I expected some Asian midget ones but they were huge. It was worthwhile doing the elephant safari. Off in the early morning mist was great and avoiding the noisy Indians and Nepalese on the other elephants was peaceful. I did some research on the way elephant were treated before undertaking this. Apparently it is greatly improved and they are managed very well. You can’t help thinking they would rather be doing something else. Three of us come in at over a quarter of a tonne so it can’t have been too much fun. The jeep safari later in the was disappointing by comparison but the boat ride down the misty river amongst some respectably sized crocs was also a highlight.

Then it ended and we were back to Mumbai, so often the hub of all our activity. We stayed near the airport in the suitably noisy (that is a given really) and mad Andheri area. Not many foreigners around there but I barely raised an eyebrow when I walked down the street. Max unfortunately was afflicted by a vomit inducing stomach complaint which blighted our last day together and wasn’t much to fun to take with him on the flight home. A tearful goodbye at the airport and our boy (or should I say 6’5” man) was once again gone. What a joy to spend that time with him. Six lovely weeks and then heartache once again.

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