Same subcontinent, totally different country
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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Even though we start the day less than 100 metres across the border, we have already noticed differences betwen India and Nepal. The first is the relative lack of noise. Nepalis don't honk their horns as though their life depends on it and you could actually stand on the road for three seconds without being guaranteed a rickshaw or truck up your backside.
The other thing we notice straight away is the people. Half of Nepalis are Arian - like Indians - with hairy and pointy-nosed faces. The other half are Mongolian-looking - much rounder faces and less hirsute. Their English, interestingly, is a lot easier to understand than that of your average Indian, and they seem a little more friendly and outgoing.
The bus from the border to Kathmandu has a lot fewer tourists, as most of the foreigners have headed off towards Pokhara, Nepal's second city. The scenery changes quickly, from the flat, brown, dusty fields we grew used to seeing in India to winding, mountainous roads. We are not all that close to the Himalayas yet but the mountains are still more grand and steepling than most others in the world. Tiny houses are dotted along the sides of the hills; we wonder how and why they build them there and how difficult they must be to access.
We arrive in Kathmandu on a chilly afternoon. Our contact here, Rajesh, is the director of CDN Nepal, the organisation we are volunteering through and he picked us up in his van and drove us out into the thick traffic. Actually, he isn't just the director, he basically is the entire organisation, although he always refers to himself as 'we' to make it sound like there are more people involved.
Rajesh is a very outgoing guy in his early 40s with a carefully coiffed head of hair, a thin moustache and the beginnings of a middle-age spread. He looks a bit like Lando Calarissian from Star Wars. Our first stop is at Rajesh's house to drop off some stuff. His house, in Kathmandu's wealthy area, is absolutely massive. It is three storeys high with thick doric columns leading into a spotless marble foyer with symmetrical staircases on either side that wind up to more enormous rooms. Servants scurry around the house as Rajesh gives us the mini-tour, including the portion where our classes will be conducted. Outside on the large front lawn is a bed of red flowers arranged, Richie Rich-style, into an 'S' for Shrestha, his last name. I inadvertantly say what is on my mind, "Gee, Rajesh, this is a big house". Rajesh is a lawyer and businessman as well as director/sole employee of this volunteer organisation, so he is clearly not struggling financially. There is quite a contrast between the enormous, almost opulant, multi-storey mansions of the city's well-to-do and the tiny shanty huts and dirt roads that exist in their shadows.
Rajesh takes us to our accommodation for the next two nights, a private guesthouse hidden behind iron gates in the suburb of Gaushala. He is friends with the owner and we are quickly seated in the empty restaurant and served a large helping of dhaal bhaat. I guess you could say that dhaal bhaat is the local specialty, but that would imply that there are other options. Nepalis eat dhaal bhaat for breakfast and dinner and would also eat it for lunch if they had room. It consists of an enormous plate of rice, a small bowl of greyish lentil soup and helpings of spinach, potato and/or cauliflower curry. You mix it all up together and are supposed to eat with your hands. We are not quite ready for that yet.
Including us, there are only three guests in the hotel. The third guest is Shanna, the third member of our volunteer class. Shanna is from Nashville, Tennessee and has apparently recorded a couple of albums as a singer/songwriter. We are looking forward to hearing her play. She has already been in Kathmandu for four days and was ready to start the programme yesterday but was delayed by our problems in Varanasi. Fortunately she doesn't mind at all and offers to show us around the city tomorrow.