#16 Crash, bang, wallop - let's go rafting

Sent: Monday, November 26, 2001 3:32 PM

Let's start with the important stuff, a big thank you to Sausage's family, Neet and Nome, Raj and Emma, Ilka, David and Martin, Jodie and Stuart, Lizzie and Kui and Susan who sent birthday greetings in one form or another. It was great picking up birthday cards from Poste Restante in Kathmandu. Opening them the miles between here and home disappeared for a few minutes.

Unfortunately despite shutting my eyes really tightly, clicking my heels three times and wishing as hard as I know how it appears that this 'old knacker' as Sausage has taken to calling me will not be able to celebrate in the usual fashion by painting London my own peculiar shade of red. In an effort to compensate Hindus worldwide are celebrating Diwali, the festival of lights, on my burfday, which promises a different kind of fun, but I'd swap it in a minute for a night on the town with my mates.

But that's enough about getting old, what about the last 3 weeks in Nepal? Let's go back to the beginning..

Refreshing is, and isn't, the word that captures the essence of our first few hours in Nepal. The innocuous 20 minute drive in from the airport through the manageable European-high-summer midday heat fails to prepare us for the excitement of the next three hours.

We accept a room in the first hotel room we look at, shut the door, join hands and start bouncing up and down with excitement. After the privations of India all it takes to get us jumping for joy is: carpet on the floor, proper mattresses, pillows filled with something other than concrete, and, most miraculous of all, a plug in the bathroom sink.

It is a valuable insight into how small and skewed are the concerns of travellers that the ability to retain water in a sink can bring such happiness.

Our excitement continues unabated as we go for a stroll round Thamel, the tourist enclave in the Northwest of Kathmandu city. The 4 blocks that comprise Thamel are given over completely to servicing tourists. The narrow streets are a hugely colorful patchwork quilt of shops, hotels, restaurants, hoardings and banners. We walk around nudging each other at each new find, shops with glass shop fronts! And lights inside! Edible looking cakes! Hundreds of branches of 'The Travellers Dressing Up Box" clothes shop! ATM'S! proper Pizza! > As we start to acclimatize to the buzz and clamour other realizations sink in. We're not being hassled, the locals are smiling at us, it's only the 234 dope dealers who offer their wares as you walk up the street. After the relative quietness of parochial Goa the concentrated focus of Thamel is a refreshing and enervating shock.

Less refreshing is the pollution that covers the city like a heavy woolen blanket, smothering everything and making the distant mountains appear as though obscured by a sheet of muslin.

The next morning we set off to the Post Office for our first trip to collect Poste Restante. The contrast between tourist Thamel and the rest of Kathmandu is very stark. As local shops for local people replace Internet cafes and pashmina shops so the roads become unsurfaced, the streets narrower and the journey more interesting.

We pass through the meat processing district which is like watching an art-house horror-flick where each passing shop front takes the narrative forwards, each low-slung opening into a dimly lit cubby hole of a shop offering a different segment of the process, there is Billy goat gruff standing blinking in the morning sun, seemingly oblivious of what is about to happen, there is his cousins head, still tied to the post in the street, but no longer attached to his body which is being skinned on the pavement. There is his uncle his carcass being cauterized with a blowtorch, and other relatives being disemboweled, chopped up and placed on the slab. It is a no-holds-barred, this-is-where-your-meat-comes-from Nepalese skin flick and it is grimly fascinating.

We try and figure out what meaning we should imply from each butchers different display arrangements for their cows trotters. All four in a row pointing in the same direction looks like 'ballet cow' daintily defying gravity en pointe. Four trotters in random arrangement looks like Picasso in his little known nature period and two facing forward, two backwards looks like "ballet cow' has climbed gracefully into the air, completed her pas-de-deux but crash landed with a resounding splat.

The post office is chaotically, dustily effective, and we amble back through streets no wider than alleys where the four storey townhouses, a mixture of crumbling brick and dusty old wood, block out the sunlight and the streets teem with tiny Nepalese leaving me feeling a bit like Gulliver in Lilliput.

After auditioning a couple of rafting companies and booking our white-water rafting trip to depart a couple of days hence we set off to see Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple.

This is our first big Buddhist temple, though we will see many more in South East Asia in the coming months. To reach the temple we must first climb the 400 steps and 175 metres to the top of Padmachala Hill. As we slowly climb the monkeys play around us, continually searching for opportunities to nick something, coming audaciously close and jumping backward only when we shout and wave at them. On both sides of the steps are steeply sloping smooth concrete ramps and the monkeys slide down them as though in a water park, which helps to explain the hugs callouses on their otherwise bright pink backsides.

Eventually two red faced travellers, mostly without callouses, reach the top of the stairs and in line with Buddhist belief we walk clockwise round the stupa.

In the centre of a large crowded courtyard, on top of a plinth sits a large white dome, 20 metres wide and 10 metres high, shaped like the cloches they use to cover food in restaurants. The various tiers of the plinth and dome represent the elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. The void contained within the dome symbolizes that everything comes from nothing and the dome supports a 13 tiered spire representing the 13 levels of consciousness leading to the ultimate goal of Buddahood represented by the small Buddha at the top of the spire.

Around the circumference of the stupa are a long sequence of prayer wheels, small heavily engraved metal cylinders, hung vertically, which are set spinning by devotees as they circulate around the stupa. Above and behind the prayer wheels are five heavily gilded, ornate copper recesses each containing a different meditational Buddah. Four are located at the main compass points while the fifth actually points East-South-East while symbolically residing central to the other four images. If the overall impression is striking this is partly due to the fact that this is ecclesiastical architecture very much designed for it's environment being something that you walk around in the open air rather than a place that you enter.

The rest of the irregular shaped courtyard is filled with small shrines and a couple of monasteries and when we have seen enough of the intricately carved woodwork of the surrounding buildings we turn around to survey Kathmandu far below, through the muslin sheet of pollution, laid out before us across the gently rolling valley floor. Outside of the old town the architecture is anonymous in the extreme consisting of innumerable repetitions of square buildings of poured-concrete frames filled in with bricks and then garishly finished in faux crazy-paving. The homogeneity is caused by cost considerations and by the mass rebuilding required after the massive 1934 earthquake whose overdue repeat performance the buildings look ill equipped to withstand.

It is an early start the day of our rafting trip and we are still wiping the sleep out of our eyes as the Himalayan Encounters bus coughs like an asthmatic horse and pushes out onto the already seething road.

We are lucky enough to be in Nepal for two major festivals, Dasain and Tihar of the two Dasain is the most important, ten days of evolving devotion. We set off at the beginning of day nine when Hindus everywhere make animal sacrifices in the hope of future prosperity. There is a stark divide in Nepal between the Hindu lowlands and the Buddhist mountain areas, and as the suburbs roll by every other house has a crowd of up to a dozen people in front of it clustered around a dead or soon-to-be dead goat. It is a bloody, for-one-day-only, domestic repetition of the commercial carnage we saw on our walk through Kathmandu.

We climb up and over a shallow pass and make a steep, twisting descent into a very different landscape. Where Kathmandu nestles in a broad, high valley (1340 metres above sea level) we are descending into a sharply-snaking valley whose river occupies the only vaguely level piece of terrain. The road reflects Nepal's lack of resources being pot-holed and clinging avidly to the mountainside, making use of bridges only when absolutely necessary and lacking any of the tunnels and embankments that alpine roads use to overcome particularly difficult rock faces.

It is a real roller-coaster ride offering sheer 100 metre drops into white water on one side and vertiginous slopes covered in trees that I'm sure must all be roped together like climbers for safety.

I'd like to say that the bus driver reacts to the harsh conditions, busy road, dodgy old bus and heavy load by making stately safe progress. But this is about as likely as Tony Blair announcing the renationalistation of the coal industry or Sausage declining chocolate, so we hunker down, grip the backs of the seats in front and take the opportunity to enjoy the taste of our breakfast for the second time in less than two hours.

As we emerge, tight-lipped and green-skinned from the river valley we turn a corner and come to an overly abrupt halt. In front of us on a long straight section of road is a short queue of traffic and beyond them a huddle of people in the middle of the road.

I get down and wander up the road to the huddle of people. There has been an accident, a car has hit three pedestrians right outside their family home and other family members have immediately blocked the road with concrete fence posts. Welcome to instant roadside justice, Nepalese style.

Over the course of the next three hours the crowd grows as fast as the tailback and an ever changing subset of those delayed mills around the crash scene. Two people have been injured and are taken to hospital in cars, their horns blaring. One adult has been killed, something I only discover when I glimpse the body being moved outside the family home which sits back from the road.

A teenaged member of the dead man's family races around the road, utterly distraught, screaming at the driver of the car, brandishing a large knife before being restrained and dragged off by the other family members.

After an hour the Police arrive at which point the purpose of the roadblock becomes clear. The police begin by interviewing everyone involved and then start to negotiate a settlement between the various parties. The road is blocked because the family of those injured and killed have only this one opportunity to obtain justice (whatever that means in this context) and reparation. As the temperature climbs the crowds mill around and the senior police officer moves between the driver, the witnesses and the family of those injured and killed.

Eventually, agreement not having been reached, the road is reopened after scuffles involving the riot police who have been stood on the sidelines for an hour. Within minutes the tailback evaporates and the family are left alone with their grief.

It is a shocking reminder, if any were needed, that the uniformly aggressive driving style we first saw in India which is repeated here in Nepal has far more serious consequences than twice-enjoyed breakfasts.

Rafting: Cast > Gopal: River Guide A scrawny bundle of fun whose high-pitched voice regularly abuses local songs and all rafters with equal aplomb. > > Durga: Cook and Safety Raft Pilot Terse, dour, but a Wizard with a pan in the middle of nowhere > > Dawa: Trainee River Guide - that means general dogs body > > Malcolm: Rafter Whiskery Canadian who hasn't cut his distinctly sporadic facial hair for 20 years or his barnet since leaving Canada in July. Every single sentence he utters starts with 'When I was in ....." and never continues "Solihull" or '.....teresting" (think about it) but instead entails another meandering monotone tale of Mongolia, Tibet or I've-been-everywhere-ville. When silent he is reasonable company.

Colette, Leanne and Julie: Rafters Three final year Belfast medics on a sharply-accented rampage after a 5-week stint working in Kathmandu's Children's Hospital. Good value all of them. They love playing with kids who appear every evening at the riverside. Baggsy I don't get treated by Leanne who is lovely, but colorblind and makes mistakes like 'is that a man, oh, no, it's a flag' > Dave and Sarah: Rafters He from the Black Country, she from South Wales although she has foregone her soft Welsh twang for a much nicer Crossroads style Black Country burr.

At the rafting safety briefing the previous evening we had copied Dave and Sarah's entry on the registration sheet passed round at the beginning of the meeting: where it asked for next of kin and they had put "the British Embassy" presuming that (having already supplied N.o.K details twice) they had been told to put any old rubbish. Only when we get chatting to them do we find out that they are here on holiday because Dave's sister is working at... I don't need to say it do I? > We are rafting down the Seti Khola. The second least scary rafting river in Nepal. Given Sausage's previous lack of confidence relating to all things aquatorial I was more than happy to be setting off on a river with rapids of grades 2 and 3 (out of 5, since you ask). The Seti Khola had been sold to us rather like it were the older roller coaster that languishes now outmoded, in the corner of most theme parks I have visited, once proud, but now perceived as somewhat genteel. A pleasant experience, an interesting ride, with just a frisson of excitement. > > But before we would test our mettle against the raging torrent (nerves always amplify the risk I think) there was first the matter of carrying the gear down a steep flight of stone steps from the road far above to the shingle riverbank below.

On arrival in Kathmandu we had been collared in the hotel lobby by it's pet Adventure Consultant who had offered us rafting at $20 per person per day. We had auditioned other companies and picked Himalayan Encounters to whom we had each paid $100 for the three-day trip. I had signed the Visa Voucher wondering whether we would see and feel the benefit of the extra expense we had incurred. The question is fulsomely answered before we even leave the riverbank.

While Gopal and Dawa unpack and inflate our two rafts, Durga sets up two long trestle tables and produces a filling lunch of five different salads and a homemade quiche.

Alongside us another rafting group are also inflating and eating. Their cook, without a table, produces jam sandwiches and crisps.

Our expedition consists of two large inflatable rafts, the safety raft, traditional grey, solid and in good condition, carries all the camp equipment and is controlled by Durga using a pair of oars, our raft, bright blue and yellow, carries the 8 paying guests, four on each side, Gopal at the back and all of our personal luggage in large dry bags tightly affixed to a webbing trampoline in the middle of the raft.

Our neighbors fare less well. They have one raft, older, smaller, much repaired and packed to the gunwales with all their equipment, in addition they have a spotty adolescent in a battered kayak riding shotgun. We leave feeling like we have already experienced the difference that paying a little extra can bring.

For my birthday in November last year we went to New York and after a week of pre-flight nerves on Sausages behalf we climbed abroad a helicopter and ascended to fly around the Manhattan skyline at night. 45 seconds after take-off Sausage, seated next to the pilot and beaming from ear to ear turned to me and shouted 'next time I want to go in a FAST helicopter!' So it is with rafting too. At the end of 3 enjoyable days cautious Sausage would recommend a first rafting trip of grades 3 and 4 rather than 2 and 3.

As promised the river is scenic, gently (too gently!) descending through a steeply sided valley far removed from any road and most habitation.

The first surprise about rafting is that there is very little paddling to do. Gopal occasionally asks us to amend our position, lining us up for the next rapid, and sometimes we paddle through a rapid but aside from that it is a question of sitting back, enjoying the view and waiting for the next ripples of excitement.

The rapids force the placid wide water through slightly narrowed gaps sending it slaloming from rock to rock, curling into waves where it meets larger rocks and circling in eddys where the river broadens. The first tiny rapid provokes squeals of excitement and broad smiles of relief, a pattern that is repeated as we pass through subsequent minor disruptions.

Having lost 3 hours to the car crash we fit in only an hours rafting before hitting the shore and setting up camp.

Durga and Gopal perform wonders to which we will become lazily accustomed, providing tea and coffee and fantastic food. In a pattern that will be repeated the next night no sooner have our rafts hit the beach than kids appear out of the apparently impenetrable forests which line the steeply sloping valley sides. The kids tireless enthusiasm greatly outlasts my interest in playing with them but fortunately Julie is on hand, keen to practice for her future career, 'what are you thinking of specializing in Doctor Julie?' 'I'm gonna have 20 kids as soon as possible!' With her limitless patience and maternal smile she's made a good choice.

Days two and three pass much as day one with irregular mild adreneline surges, and occassional permission from Gopal to jump in the river and float downstream buoyed along by our lifejackets > In one rapid Dave and I are sat at the front, most likely to get thrown around, least things to hold on to, when the raft slams down vigourously onto a large swell. Dave shoots upwards and I am left with this vivid picture of him 2 clear feet above the raft, but still in his sitting position with his paddle at the ready. He seems to hang there like a cartoon character before realising that gravity will have its wasy with him and he comes crashing and splashing down into the raft, his face an absolute picture.

All in all rafting was great fun and definitley something we'd both do again. Sauage has upped the ante for the next trip to grades 3 and 4, whilst I'd happily take on any grade. The organsiation of the trip was excellent, but on the downside we had a total of only 5 hours rafting in 3 days, which is taking the mickey really. Next time I'll want to know how long each day we'll be on the water and how many rapids we will see. You live and learn.

Lots of Love
The Travelling Sausages