Reflective times in A Bay

So, after a truly epic week of surfing with Bandulla we headed to the birthplace of surfing in Sri Lanka – Arugam Bay. Bandulla and a few of his friends were headed there anyway so we hitched a lift in their truck. We got to chat to Bandulla about all sorts of things and stopped several times for some pretty awesome street food. One thing we chatted about a lot was the tsunami. Arugam Bay was particularly badly hit by the natural disaster and has been slowly rebuilding itself over the last 10 years. Bandulla said the tsunami came almost 2km inland from Arugam Bay, wiping out several communities. It was a pretty sobering thought as we pulled into the bay. Clearly this was not such a sobering thought for the owners of ‘The Tsunami Hotel’ which we passed on the way into town. The board advertising the hotel had a painting of the Tsunami with people screaming beneath it. Poor taste? We thought so.

On arrival we saw a bustling tourist town and the lovely arc of the bay itself. We got dropped at our hotel called Coco Bay and quickly settled into our lovely air conditioned room just 100m or so from the beach.

Our few days in Arugam Bay consisted of the following:
– Eating
– Sunbathing
– Eating
– Sleeping

You may notice no mention of ‘surfing’ in the activity list above – odd given the previous comment about the ‘birthplace of surfing’. Would you believe it Jess and I were a bit surfed out after Bandulla put us through our paces for a week. Plus the point break closest to us was a.) small and b.) being surfed by around 50 people at a time!

I think both Jess and I were feeling quite reflective in Arugam Bay. Because we’d decided to have proper chill time our thoughts did start to turn to the fact it was nearly the end of our trip. I certainly spent many a moment trying to soak up everything around me, conscious that we were unlikely to be this well travelled, well rested and well sunned for quite some time (no sympathy expected).

In between these moments of travelling reflection we did manage to meet a brilliant couple from Austria called Laurenz & Julia. Laurenz definitely had the coolest job of anyone we had met on our travels so far – he and his family owning a jam making business – hmmm jam. These guys were staying at the same hotel as us and we enjoyed many an evening drinking lion beer, eating delicious curry and talking about jam. Happy times. We hope to pay them a visit (not just because of the promised tour of their jam factory) in Bregenz soon.

So, after a very relaxing week or so in Arugam Bay we headed for Ella and the train through the central highlands and tea plantations back to Colombo. More to come on this and our last few days of what has been the most glorious 5 months imaginable.

You may be pleased to hear this is probably the penultimate smug travelling post.

Love to all.
R&J xx

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Surf’s Up

We were quite relieved to put The Hill Club behind us, after our disappointing venture into Sri Lanka’s colonial past and we ended up paying over the odds for a guy to drive us to our next location. Luckily it was worth it! We spent a night at a great place called Kalu’s Hideaway (randomly owned by Sri Lankan World Cup cricketing legend Romesh Kaluwitharana) on the edge of Udawalawe National Park. As dawn was breaking the next morning, we took a jeep safari into the park itself. There are approximately 550 elephants in the 119 square mile reserve and we saw them right up close, which was amazing. Many of the elephants we’d seen in Nepal had been chained up, so it was lovely to see them wondering around freely.

That afternoon we set off for the coastal town of Tangalle for a whole week of surfing. We stayed in a place called Nugasewana Eden which had its own tree house! We slept up in the tree for a night, but the lack of air con forced us into a more conventional room for the rest of our stay…!

Rob & I both describe ourselves as ‘surfers’ but I have never before attempted to surf for 7 days in a row so I was slightly worried I wouldn’t be able to move afterwards…! Our surf instructor / guide, Bandula picked us up bright and early the next morning along with his driver, Samantha (a man). We drove to the imaginatively titled ‘Blue Beach’ (!) and proceeded to demonstrate to Bandula how we normally ‘popped up’. This essentially means trying to get to your feet quickly when a wave’s coming. He said Rob & I both followed the ‘Western’ style surfing technique and he showed us his own tried and tested method. This he described as the ‘chicken wing, lizard leg, Robin Hood’. I kid you not! Basically, think about the shapes you would make if you were trying to imitate having chicken wings or a lizard leg or doing a pose like Robin Hood. Then imagine throwing those shapes on a surf board and you’ve pretty much got it! I have to say it actually proved very effective for me, although I think it was a bit too basic for Rob! Meanwhile, Rob was slightly preoccupied with a phone interview for a new job. We were nearly at the end of our trip and that interview certainly brought it home…! But despite being in holiday mode, he still managed to impress them enough to be asked in for a face to face chat when we returned to the UK πŸ™‚

After a couple of days surfing at the Blue Beach, Bandula took us to Unakuruwa Beach. It means ‘U-Point’ and it’s a perfect right hand point break. Incredibly, we had it to ourselves for five days! If this had been pretty much anywhere else in the world, we would’ve been fighting for waves. After several days of non-stop surfing, we were both aching from the paddling and had very bruised ribs and battered knees. But Bandula was such a fantastic, patient teacher and a throughly nice guy and he made it his mission for us to keep improving. Anyway, following in Coldplay’s footsteps, we knew we were in good company….that’s right – did I mention he taught Chris Martin to surf?!

While we were in Tangalle, we also visited the nearby Rock Monastery, a giant golden Buddha statue and a natural blow hole, where sea water shoots into the sky from a cave below. But the trip we’ll remember most fondly happened after dark… Along with a lovely German couple called Sarah & Matthias, we piled into a tiny taxi and went a nearby beach where the turtles lay their eggs. It’s a pretty strange sight; we were part of a group of about 20 tourists, all slowly creeping along the sand. For obvious reasons you’re not allowed torches, so you feel a bit silly! Then, when instructed by the guide you just wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually, the turtle is deemed to be in a ‘trance-like state’ and one by one you can come and see her laying the eggs. What surprised most is the size of these turtles. They’re as big as a wheelbarrow or a smallish kitchen table! They’re very impressive and unusual creatures and I will always remember that strange night on the beach!

On our last day Bandula invited us over to his house for lunch and to meet his family. His wife Imalka cooked the best Sri Lankan curry we’ve had and it was lovely to feel so welcome – they truly made such an effort. Bandula was pretty much the pioneer of surfing in the Tangalle area back in 1991, when he was given a board by some Australian lifeguards. He’s now in his early forties (although he looks about 25) and really seems to want to give something back to his community. He’s trying to raise money for a community pool to teach the local kids to swim and he obviously wants to encourage more tourists to an area badly hit by the Boxing Day Tsunami more than a decade ago. After a week we considered him a good friend and I hope one day we’ll be back πŸ™‚

J & R xx

Little Britain

Although small, Sri Lanka is a very varied country – and that includes the vast changes in temperature. When we arrived in Colombo it was almost unbearably hot, so after our stay in Kandy, we headed for the hills to cool off. The Hill Country rises up in the centre of Sri Lanka to about 2,000 metres above sea level. With the gain in height, the temperature significantly drops. The temperate climate, combined with Sri Lanka’s colonial past and the miles and miles of tea plantations means the area is now known as Little England. We were quite excited about our few days in what we assumed would be vaguely familiar surroundings.

We had heard about a place called The Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya, which was built and owned by Brits connected to Sri Lanka’s colonial past. Unfortunately we discovered it’s a bit of a novelty. The Hill Club is a throwback to a bygone era where men wore dinner jackets and women weren’t allowed to participate in social occasions. Unfortunately the hotel has kept rather too many of the ‘traditions’ and has refused to modernise with the times. Rob was made to wear a jacket and tie to dine in the restaurant, which he obviously didn’t have with him as we hadn’t had many occasions to be smart during our 5 months of travels! However, he was shown to a room and told to pick something to wear from a various collection of old fashioned garments. I had one beach-type dress with me, so together we looked pretty funny πŸ™‚ However the strict dress code for the restaurant is particularly ironic as the food itself is pretty terrible. It reminded us of bad English restaurants 20 years ago – or school dinners! Everything was overcooked. Unfortunately many of the staff were also rude, and whereas I respect that the club has a history which didn’t include women, surely in the 21st Century things have moved on a bit?! I got pretty fed up with being ignored as every question was directed at ‘Sir’. It was as if I didn’t exist. I am absolutely not a raging feminist (!) but it’s just common sense that you’re polite to all your guests, male or female.

No trip to the Hill Country is complete without going to a tea plantation, and we hired a driver who took us to a tea factory, surrounded by miles of green leaves. It really was a tea lovers paradise. The factory itself was pretty old school; many of the machines hadn’t been updated since it opened more than 100 years ago and I’m sure health and safety would’ve had a fit. But the smell of the freshly rolled tea leaves was divine – and we even got a free cuppa afterwards! On the way to the factory, the driver insisted on taking us to what seemed like every known waterfall in the Northern Hemisphere (!) but some of them were admittedly spectacular.

One of the redeeming features of The Hill Club was the fact that they had a huge DVD collection (mostly of copied DVDs….!) and so after our last faux fancy dinner we ended up watching The Queen. Even if the old colonial hotel hadn’t lived up to its past reputation, we still had HRH to make us feel at home πŸ™‚

J&R xxx

Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth

Sri Lanka – our final stop. How had this happened? At the start of the year we were basking in the smug glory of 5 months off work. Now, we had just 3 precious weeks left 😦 I can’t imagine any of you feel hugely sympathetic πŸ˜‰

However all was not lost. For Sri Lanka is the land of sun, surf, smiley people and epic curry. We flew into Colombo and spent the night in a nice place with a sea view. After a hearty breakfast in the calm of a converted tea factory we headed for the local train station and CHAOS ensued. We had chosen the day before the Buddha’s birthday to try and travel to Kandy – apparently 90% of the Sri Lanka population also had the same idea! The 38 degree heat added to a sense of meltdown as we ventured off with our heavy bags to try and find a bus instead. Buses in Sri Lanka are a little different to the UK – for starters the doors are always open and people literally jump on and off as the thing is moving (young, old, male, female, they slow for no one). They are also never really full. There is ALWAYS room for one more!

So after 5 fairly hair raising and sweaty hours we made it to the city of Kandy. The first thing we noticed was it is a very attractive city. The main area is based around a lake and nestled into a number of small hills. It’s very green and has plenty to do and see – from temples and botanical gardens to viewpoints, tea factories and giant Buddha statues.

We had booked into a place overlooking the lake called Villa 49. We were met by our host (Jess and I have both forgotten his name – I’m sure you’re all itching to know so we’ll send an update when we remember πŸ™‚ and shown to a giant, nicely furnished room with the air con set to freezing. Perfect πŸ™‚

Arguably one of Kandy’s biggest draws is The Temple of the Tooth Relic. I quickly decided this would make a great name for an Indiana Jones film hence the title of this blog. We wondered there at sunset and again were joined by most of the Sri Lankan population. The temple houses an actual tooth of the original Buddha and believe me when I say this tooth has had quite the history. It has caused fights, been taken by the British (surprise surprise), been moved around the country and had countless temples built in it’s honour. It is revered by the Sri Lankans and the queues to see the little golden temple it sits in were absolutely enormous (you can’t see the actual tooth – we can’t imagine it’s in great nick!). The dress, the music and the whole atmosphere there was pretty extraordinary!

We’d read that our hotel did excellent food and I’m happy to report that our fellow travellers on trip advisor were not wrong. Our first taste of proper Sri Lanka curry will stay in our minds for some time- healthy, delicious and vast quantities. Brilliant.

We had arranged a tuk tuk tour for the following day. Our friendly driver whizzed us around some of the sights I’ve mentioned with brace and poise – two crucial things for navigating Sri Lankan roads! The botanical gardens were incredible – loads of trees and plants, some native, some imported. We took particular note of the bamboo which was the tallest growing bamboo in the world – our friend Nalty has a strange obsession with the stuff so a selfie in front of it seemed appropriate. The giant Buddha statue was also a highlight – it sits overlooking Kandy and up close it makes the Statue of Liberty look like a garden knome. Impressive stuff. Our final stop was a tea factory – apparently tea is not made on the Buddha’s birthday so we didn’t see the machines working but it was fascinating nonetheless. Jess’ mum would have been in seventh heaven in this place – even she couldn’t drink all the tea they had on offer here.

We ate another sublime meal at Villa 49 and got really keen the following morning and went for a run round the lake. I don’t get the impression Sri Lankans exercise for fun. We got some pretty unusual looks from passers by as we jogged along. Or they may have just been concerned for our well being given how much I was sweating. We didn’t stop to ask.

So all in all Kandy was fantastic and highly recommended. And just in case George Lucas or anyone else involved in the Indiana Jones franchise is reading, I want crediting if you decide on The Tooth Relic as the next instalment.

For now,
R&J xx

Leaving Nepal

So the time had come for us to move on from Nepal. It’s fair to say this conjured mixed emotions for us both. On the one hand we had the most amazing time in what is a truly wonderful country – on the other we witnessed horrible suffering at the hands of the massive earthquake that ended up killing almost 8,000 people.

We had been told that both domestic and international flights were operating so we set off from The 3 Sisters Guesthouse (our home for almost 2 weeks – massive thanks to all there who made us so welcome) and headed for Pokhara airport. Immediately we saw half a dozen Nepali and Indian helicopters busy taking aid packages to some of the remote villages between Pokhara and Kathmandu.

We eventually took off for Kathmandu really not knowing what to expect when we got there. The flight took us over the glorious mountains but really we were looking around for signs of the devastation having been relatively sheltered from it all in Pokhara. Arriving into the Capital we were almost surprised that from the air things looked almost ‘normal’. The situation on the ground was anything but. Kathmandu airport was chaos – every inch of space was filled with travellers, embassy officials, news crews and relief workers – the runways were jammed up with aircraft from at least half a dozen nations and the mood of the place was understandably sombre.

Two faces among the crowds stood out – our gorgeous Australian friend Renee and her fiancΓ©e Ben had been hiking back from Everest Base Camp when the earthquake hit and had thankfully made it back to Kathmandu after being helicoptered off the mountain. Seeing them was so special and a real lift at a difficult time for everybody. We only had precious few minutes with them (they managed to get an Australian airforce flight out to Bangkok) but seeing them, knowing they were ok and congratulating them on their engagement was magical.

Jess and I were meant to have an early flight out to Doha the following morning, but on arriving at the desk we saw it had been cancelled. The advice was to stay in the airport and not risk going to a hotel – but seeing people sprawled out in every corner of the airport and knowing we would have to stay for almost 24 hours, we decided to chance our luck and see if we could get away earlier. Qatar airways were brilliant and put us on an earlier flight. They said a night in Doha airport was likely to be better than a night in Kathmandu. As it turned out they were very right as the airline kindly put Jess and I up in a hotel for the night.

It felt very strange taking off from Kathmandu – relief at being safe, guilt at leaving a country on it’s knees. Jess did a lot of good work in Pokhara doing pieces for the BBC and helping to ensure people at home knew about the devastation and what they could do to help – especially for some of the more remote villages which suffered horrendously but weren’t getting the aid they needed due to accessibility issues and a lack of resources. We donated of course but ultimately we felt a bit redundant without medical/search and rescue skills. I don’t think either of us said much for the first few hours of the flight.

We’ll remember our time in Nepal for the rest of our lives but not really because of the earthquake (as strange as that sounds). We’ll remember amazing, hospitable, humble and resilient people, beautiful scenery, precious time spent with family and chance meetings with friends from down under. I don’t think the people of Nepal would want it any other way.

More soon.
R&J xxx

Earthquake

The last few days have been very sad and very surreal. We’ve been travelling around Nepal for nearly a month, meeting many of the amazing local people and climbing some of the highest peaks. Nothing prepares you for an earthquake.

We were very fortunately in the best place – out in the open. After our climb to Annapurna Base Camp (which we will write about another time) we headed back to Nepal’s second-largest City, Pokhara for some R&R. We were very lucky that we had booked to go on a white water rafting trip which left Pokhara on Saturday morning.

We were just about to get into our raft on the Kali Gandaki river when the 7.8 quake struck. We were about 100-150km from the epicentre, about 3 hours north of Pokhara at the time. It felt completely surreal. The ground – which a minute before had been rock solid – felt like it had turned to jelly. Vehicles nearby were shaking from side to side and we saw lots of rocks falling from the cliffs down to the waters edge. I can honestly say it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

We felt an aftershock at our lunch spot, but it was only when we got to our camp for the night that we turned on our mobile phones and received worried messages from our families – that’s when we realised how bad it was.

The next day we went past several funerals being held on the riverbank (in Nepal they traditionally cremate the bodies of their dead next to the river) and that was a very sobering site.

We are definitely not in the worst-affected area so we haven’t witnessed that much damage. But almost everyone we’ve met knows someone who’s been affected. One of our guides on our rafting trip said his whole village – not far from Pokhara – had been completely destroyed. A young woman who works at the hotel where we’re staying in Pokhara is originally from the historic city of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. Her family are ok but her home has been completely flattened.

Our thoughts are now with those who have died and the huge challenge the rescue teams face. Obviously Kathmandu has been badly affected, but some of the worst hit areas are actually remote mountainous villages, which rescue teams haven’t even reached yet. In many cases even helicopters can’t land. There are reports from a senior official in the Gorkha district, which was at the earthquake’s epicentre, that 70% of houses there have been destroyed.

Here in Pokhara, which hasn’t been badly affected, many people are choosing to camp outside instead of sleep in their homes or hotels. We did stay in our hotel last night, but I have to confess I didn’t get much sleep and I felt another tremor early this morning. Apparently it was 4.5 on the Richter Scale and it was worst felt near Kathmandu. I expect many people will be sleeping outside again tonight.

Since we got back to Pokhara, we’ve been reading every article we can get our hands on to find out the latest information. The United Nations estimates 8 million people have been affected. The latest figures show at least 4,400 people have died and more than 8,000 have been injured. But, officials are warning those numbers may rise dramatically as rescue teams reach some of the more remote mountainous regions, where it’s feared whole villages may have been buried in rockfalls.

As you can imagine it’s pretty devastating and there is a very sombre atmosphere in Pokhara. Rob & I are trying to work out the best way to help but as yet the rescue efforts seem very uncoordinated.

Thank you so much for all your kind messages. We will keep you posted.

The ABC

After our week of ‘training’ with Jude & Simon, Rob & I were keen to do a longer trek. Along with Mum & Harry we took a travel-sick inducing minibus to Pokhara and stayed at The 3 Sisters Guesthouse. It’s owned and run by Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chhetri, who are also pioneers in providing female trekking guides in the Himalayas. It’s a simple but very homely place and we ended up staying there on and off for about two weeks. Mum & Harry had a couple of days of their trip left so we explored the local highlights; hiking up to see the Peace Pagoda overlooking the lake and heading up to the little village of Sarangkot for sunrise, to see the incredible view of the Annapurna mountains. We waved Mum & Harry goodbye as they drove away to the airport in a typically tiny Nepali taxi. Rob and I were going to have to rely on each other’s company again…..;)

But we didn’t have time to dwell on their departure; the next day, we began our long hike to Annapurna Base Camp….!

Day 1: Phedi to Landruk (6 hours)
– there’s no easy start; the trail climbs steeply from Phedi to Dhampus, then up through forest to Pothana.
– we missed the views promised on the map as we climbed up to Pittam Deurali then down through Bhedi Kharka and Tolka, because the mist came down and it rained!
– stayed in Maya Guesthouse in the Gurung village of Landruk (1565m) where we were the only customers!
– spent the evening being tormented by the owner’s young daughter who kept showing off while we were eating; dancing on tables, etc – not very relaxing!

Day 2: Landruk to Chomrong (4 hours)
– set off before 7am and walked down to the river past grazing cows and jumping goats.
– crossed over the fast-flowing water on a very long, extremely rickety wooden bridge, before going through the hamlet of New Bridge.
– climbed steeply up to Jhinu, then up even higher to Chomrong (2140m) where we got a room at the International Guest House.
– met an Aussie lady called Judy who managed to scare us into thinking we weren’t prepared for the higher altitude!

Day 3: Chomrong to Dovan (5 hours)
– neither of us felt very well so it was a difficult and slow climb down to another river and then back up to Sinuwa.
– walked through a Bamboo forest to get to a village called Bamboo!
– we were made to feel stupid here by several guides who said it was really busy further up the trail (with one group of 44 people) and we should’ve booked a guide (!) to ensure we had a place to stay…!
– despite that we managed to get a room at the Tip Top Guesthouse in Dovan (2505m) which was good because it rained all afternoon.
– the staff insisted on showing WWF Wrestling on an ancient TV all evening!

Day 4: Dovan to Machapuchre Base Camp (5 hours)
– both woke up feeling horrendous but decided to get a bit further up the trail, especially as it was good weather.
– whizzed through the village of Himalaya, spotting monkeys en route and then surprisingly arrived at Deurali about an hour ahead of schedule (it was 10am).
– we bumped into a group of Malaysian doctors who we’d met the day before (Ana, Ana, May, Sheila & Puven) and decided to carry on to Machapuchre Base Camp, or MBC (3700m).
– after navigating some avalanche-prone gullies, we made it to MBC before the afternoon rain set in and stayed in the Ganga Purna Hotel.
– met a lovely Canadian girl called Hye-Yeon (originally from Korea) who gave us some antibiotics for our upset stomachs – the perfect traveller gift!

Day 5: Machapuchre Base Camp to Annapurna Base Camp – then back to Dovan! (6.5 hours)
– the big day had arrived; we set the alarm for 4.45am and set off for Annapurna Base Camp, known as ABC (joined by Hye-Yeon and two Swiss girls called Jasmine and Manwella).
– it was dark when we left but you could just see the shadow of the huge mountains surrounding us. The climb wasn’t that steep but difficult under foot; we mostly trekked on snow and ice.
– about halfway up we met a large group of male and female porters coming down – one was wearing flip-flops so we couldn’t really complain!
– reached ABC (4,130m) at 6.45am and just in time to see a stunning view as the sun rose over Machapuchre (also known as the Fish Tail Mountain).
– we were surrounded by these incredible peaks with a natural amphitheatre (carved out of the rock by a glacier) below. Annapurna South and Annapurna 1 made a very brief appearance through the high clouds before the mist crept quickly up the valley. Within five minutes we found ourselves in a whiteout! But we’d seen what we came for, and we slipped and slid our way back down to MBC for a welcome bowl of porridge feeling on top of the world πŸ™‚
– the adrenalin helped us to trek on down the trail and we arrived at Dovan again by early afternoon, not quite escaping the rain…!

Day 6: Dovan to Ghurjung (6 hours)
– around the communal breakfast table, one Nepali guy insisted on telling us about every person who’d died doing the ABC trek. I’m extremely glad we didn’t meet him on the way up!
– unscathed, we set off with Hye-Yeon to Bamboo, then down through Sinuwa, before climbing up the very steep and long flight of stone steps to Chomrong.
– we’d been dreaming about a so called ‘German Bakery’ there which sold real coffee, so that’s what we had as our hill-climb reward (along with a rather stodgy chocolate danish).
– said our goodbyes to our Canadian friend (what is it with us and Canadians?!) and turned right to Ghurjung, getting to the Green View Lodge in time for a late lunch.

Day 7: Ghurjung to Ghorepani (7 hours)
– we thought we’d done the hard bit but this was the most difficult day by far as we climbed up for about 6 hours!
– after about 2.5 hours we reached Tadapani and were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the mountains we’d been so close to a couple of days before.
– I had a bit of a sense of humour failure when the map proved to be inaccurate…!
– after going down and up through yet another valley we reached a seemingly never ending hill; up and up following a river and then along a ridge. Rob threw his poles out of the pram (!) but we eventually made it to the top and spotted Ghorepani ahead.
– collapsed thankfully with a welcome Dhal Bat at the Snowland Lodge.

Day 8: Ghorepani up to Poon Hill then down to Nayapul (6.5 hours)

– our ‘good nights sleep’ didn’t happen – mainly due to paper thin walls and a very noisy family!
– got up at 4am and walked up to Poon Hill (a local lookout point) to see the sunrise over the Annapurna region. Luckily the view was worth it, and we were down again in time for breakfast.
– we’d squeezed what could’ve been about four days into two and by this stage we were running on adrenalin and mars bars.
– it was 95% downhill today, which was a good contrast after the previous day, but our knees were not best pleased! We sped down the mountain trail and by the time we reached Nayapul we were fairly euphoric.
– really fancied a good meal to celebrate but after waiting an hour for food at one place, we gave up and settled for some dusty crisps and a bottle of fanta to share!
– it was heaven to arrive back at The 3 Sisters Guesthouse in Pokhara; have a shower, eat a pizza and drink a beer!

I’m not going to lie – the trek was tougher than we both thought. But the challenge was worth it. There’s something very satisfying about completing an extended hike to the base camp of a proper mountain – following in the footsteps of so many adventurers and pioneers. I think this may be just the start of our ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ phase (to quote the legendary Tina Turner…!) πŸ™‚

J&R xxx

The Hills

The time had come to move on from crocodile farms and charging rhinos, and head to see Jess’ Aunt and Uncle, who are currently living and working in Nepal.

We had another fairly spine altering journey to a place called Besisahar where Simon and Judith Hill are based. They are nine months into a two year VSO project – Jude working with young girls to try and get them to stay in school and Simon working with farmers trying to improve their practices and productivity.

Besisahar is a little off the tourist trail – it’s really only trekkers you see if at all (in fact I think we saw two other westerners all week). Jude and Simon live in a nice flat with a temple on the roof (all the rage in Nepal) and welcomed us with open arms into their home.

What we didn’t know when we arrived was that they had drawn up a gruelling schedule for our visit – mostly consisting of long walks, local cuisine and competitive evening games. Before we knew it we were being whisked off to a tea party with Jude’s colleagues and getting an early night to ready ourselves for Trek 1.

I’m pretty sure Trek 1 was described at one point as being an ‘easy one to get you started’. Not a word of it. Jude marched us up over the hills to one of the schools she works with, before making sure we ate our body weight in dal bhat (Nepali staple that includes rice, dal, greens and potato curry) and marching us down again. A puny 7 hour trek to get us started πŸ™‚ The trek was of course amazing: incredible mountain vistas, traditional Nepali villages and a running commentary on everything we saw.

Out for the count by about 7pm, we woke the following morning thinking today would have to be a little easier. However, Simon returned from Kathmandu the previous evening and had a glint in his eye that could only mean one thing – more walking.

Trek 2 took us over the nearby river and up through various gorgeous Nepali villages. We stopped at one home in particular that Simon and Jude knew from buying some blankets from there before. The ladies in this small village are weavers and damn fine ones at that. They are also incredibly welcoming and funny. We sat with them for a couple of hours drinking tea and watching them work. They even managed to recruit Jess to do some weaving with them. I don’t speak Nepalese (and thankfully neither does Jess) but I’m pretty sure they were telling Jess to ditch her odd looking husband and come and work for them…. We had another magnificent dal bhat at the top of the next village then walked down via yet more fantastic scenery – some monkeys even dropped in to say hi and we met one of Jude’s ‘Little Sisters’ – girls helping to spread the word that girls dropping out of school is not ok.

That night we sat down to play some ‘games’. Scrabble wasn’t doing it for us so we decided to spice things up by playing the name game. This wasn’t a game Simon and Jude were familiar with but suffice to say that by the end of the week they were hooked – tears, laughter, screams and all.

Trek 3 involved a castle, stolen pigeons, an orange grove, more dal bhat, bubbly Nepalese women, Harry and I adopting 2 goats and a spectacular walk back down to Besisahar – it had it all. I won’t even attempt to explain all of the above but a specific mention must go to the Nepalese women who were just brilliant – they, like everyone we met on our walks, were nothing but genuine, fun, warm and desperate to ask us as many questions as possible (thankfully Simon and Jude speak really very good Nepali). For Jess, Fiona, Harry and I to be able to get out and meet these people was special and only made possible through Simon and Jude’s life out there.

Exhausted from the previous evening’s name game battle, Simon and Jude took it easy on us for trek 4. A mere four hours. We bussed it down the valley and walked back to Besisahar on the opposite side of the river. This was made particularly brilliant as we got to see Simon at work. Much of what he has to do to get his message across to Nepalese farmers is to go to their farms and explain as simply as he can that by changing some age old practices they could exponentially increase their milk yield. We watched on as he showed a local farmer (by drawing him a graph) how he could do things differently when it came to his cow/buffalo – the farmer was ready to appoint Simon Prime Minister by the end. Amazing to see. That afternoon involved some retail therapy for Fiona back in Besisahar followed by our final evening meal and the name game decider (let’s just say the best team won).

Our time with Simon and Jude was so special for all sorts of reasons. Jess, Fiona, Harry and I want to thank them for hosting us and we all think that what you’re doing is amazing. We can’t wait to see you back in the UK in July.

Love to all,

R&J xxxx

Crocodiles, elephants & a charging rhino

We left the high-tech, spotless and highly efficient Japan and headed for Nepal. Our long-winded journey involved going from Tokyo to Abu Dhabi airport (where we sat on the runway for about 2 hours) and then back to Kathmandu (which was about twice as far as we needed to go)! But it didn’t matter because we were meeting my Mum and youngest brother Harry πŸ™‚

Kathmandu is an assault on the senses; it’s noisy, busy and has a lot of interesting smells. The drive from the airport to The Kantipur Hotel was pretty hairy. Cars, buses, motorbikes, cyclists, pedestrians and cows all vie for space on the narrow dusty roads and there is a wilful abandon of road safety. But eventually we arrived at the hotel, run by the infamous Dr Shakia. He’s a friend of Rob’s brother-in-law, John and seems to be a bit of a local celebrity. He’d already given Mum & Harry the grand tour of the city and they in turn showed us around the local area. It was so great to see them! We hadn’t really spent long periods of time with other people in Japan – partly due to the places we stayed – and it was lovely to see some familiar faces.

Mum & Harry had just under two weeks in Nepal, so to try and cram in as much as possible, we boarded a bus to Chitwan National Park the following morning. Six hours later, with matching bruises on our lower backs and sweat pouring off us, we hopped out at Chitwan and into an open-top jeep which took us to the Rainbow Safari Lodge. We had no idea what to expect, but we’d been told you can see all sorts of animals if you’re lucky. They gave us lunch and then we headed straight out on a nature walk. This also took in the government’s elephant patrol centre. The huge animals are mainly used to frighten off poachers. They’re all male elephants with massive tusks and our guide, Roshan proceeded to point out the one that had killed six people and another elephant recently. We kept our distance. Further down the trail (and very near several cafes and lots of people) there was a crocodile casually lying on the bank. In the water, another lay still with just its nostrils visible – lying in wait for an unexpected tourist. “Don’t worry” we were told, “only one or two people a year get eaten”….! A beer watching the sunset soon chilled us out. Later that evening, we piled into the jeep again and were whisked away to a cultural evening of dancing and music. It was great to see the traditional moves and we even got on stage at the end to join in! But the highlight was when a man dressed up and performed a peacock dance; hysterically funny and also very realistic!

At the crack of dawn we had breakfast and then all got into a very dangerous looking canoe. They’re hollowed out from huge trees and they look beautiful. However, they sit very low in the (crocodile infested) river, so you constantly feel like a giant mouth full of razor sharp teeth is going to leap out of the shallows and drag you into the water. Despite the threat of crocodiles, it was absolutely stunning paddling downstream and watching the wildlife. The tranquil illusion was once again shattered though when we got out the canoe to find a massive croc sitting on the bank. I am pleased to say we escaped with all our limbs.

The packed day also included going to an elephant breeding centre, where we saw some gorgeous babies. They’re currently trying to extend a project where more of the elephants can wander around freely instead of being tethered. I highly approve. In the afternoon we crossed the river in another canoe (!) before getting in a pretty smart-looking jeep and heading for the more remote areas of the park. There are deer hiding in every bit of undergrowth, peacocks perched on the trees and within half an hour we’d already seen a wild rhino bathing in a pool. That was exciting enough, but a bit further on we spotted another rhino behind some scrub. Just at that moment, a patrol elephant being ridden by his trainer walked past, startling the rhino. In a split second we were in its path and two tonnes of rhino was bearing down on us! Our jeep driver jumped in to start the engine and at the last minute the rhino swerved and careered off through the bushes. That’s an experience we’ll never forget!

The lodge packed in the activities and the next morning after breakfast we rode an elephant! They are amazing creatures and up close don’t really seem real. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about riding elephants but I think you should try everything once. Our elephant was just about the biggest of the lot. You get on by climbing some wooden stairs and stepping onto her (all the tourist elephants are female) back. The four of us sat in a little wooden box (!) and it felt like we were miles in the air. I have to say the ride wasn’t very comfortable, but it was an amazing experience. Our first safari experience was pretty action packed and we were very pleased we could share it with Mum & Harry. We then got on another bone-shaking bus and headed north to stay with some long lost relatives πŸ™‚

J & R xxx

That bloody fish market

So we’d come to our last full day in Japan. We decided to head back to Tokyo and tick a few things off the list that we didn’t get to do last time round.

First on the list was the Tokyo Fish Market – the Lonely Planet’s top pick. An auction takes place at 5am whereby all the top restaurants bid for the best quality fish caught that very morning. You can view this from a gallery then tuck into what is apparently the best sushi in town.

We were told to get there before 5am as the queues can build up. We’d missed it first time round due to a public holiday so this time we were determined to see it and got there before 4am to be safe.

I think some divine force didn’t want us to see the fish market that day or any other day – some eager beavers had got there at 3am and all of the 120 available slots had gone by the time we got there!

Jess remained fairly sanguine about it whereas I got a little grumpy… We retreated back to our hotel and woke up feeling like our second fish market disappointment was all a bad dream.

Thankfully the rest of our final day in Tokyo was great – a quick trip to trendy Shibuya and an authentic Japanese meal called a ‘cheese burger’ to round things off πŸ™‚

Japan was fantastic from start to finish and we both wished we could have stayed longer. But our flight to Nepal would wait for no man (or woman) so onwards we march.

Love to all
R&J xxx