We returned to civilization last night after two days in the jungles of Chitwan National Park, staying at the "Rhino Safari Lodge" (or was it "Rainbow"?; we never figured it out) courtesy of yet another one of "Jeny's dad's friends" (connections here are everything, absolutely everything).
We arrived late in the evening after a harrowing five hours on highways (this after hours on dirt roads in a Jeep; it is hard to decide which is scarier). Hundreds and hundreds of trucks barrel down the barely-two-lane highway between Nepal and India -- Nepal is landlocked so everything that comes in comes on a truck. We ate a small dinner at a firepit outside the lodge's restaurant listening to elephants in the not-too-far distance and watching the same half-moon that shined over you eleven hours later.
The next morning, early risers that we are, we were climbing onto elephants by 8 am, and had spotted a mother/baby rhin pair by 8:03. The rest of the hour ride we saw tons of deer, wild little bright red chicken-hens, and a couple of monkeys. All this before breakfast!
Then off to our "reason for visiting" -- the annual elephant races and soccer game. Yes, I'm not kidding, we got to watch races -- first between chariots (think "BenHur" with small horses) and then elephants first race each other and then elephants, yes elephants, play soccer with each other. It turns out that just like with hockey and with soccer, the goalie rules the game.
We ate great festival food (they can make 50or 60 momo at a time! I was in heaven) and then eventually, mid-afternoon, headed off for the highlight so far of my trip -- a visit to the Nepalese Cancer Hospital in Bharatpur. It was (to me) the holiest temple we've visited so far, and more about it later.
Right before dark we went to "Jeny's dad's friend's" factory. It was an incredible thing to see a rudimentary factory (they make cooking fuel cylinders) in the middle of mustard and wheat fields. It was also very humbling to see what a difference a tiny factory can make in people's lives -- the factory employs 80 people who are paid between 75 and 500 dollars/month and it UTTERLY TRANSFORMS THEIR LIVES. We sat in the darkness outside the factory, drinking our fifth or sixth cup of tea that day (brewed by the female tea lady reminiscint of Slumdog Millionnaire) and watched the welders' sparks fly into the starry starry night.
Another night in a far-away lodge, another perfect beer. But first we actually managed to stuff in one more activity and went to a "Tharu Cultural Show," a group of intensely energetic (and thin!) young men dancing their bums off to old drums and ancient stories. Then back to the lodge for that lovely beer and bed where we were just about to drift off when the very same "Tharu Cultural Show" showed up in the lot adjacent to our rooms, hired by the lodge to provide entertainment to a group of bussed-in tourists. So we groaned, wrapped the pillows around our heads, and fell asleep to the sounds of ancient tribal sounds and lots and lots of drums. While rhinos meandered somewhere near us in the jungle.
The next day up and out early again, driving like banshees to the Mankamana Temple accessible only by two-day uphill trek or cable car; we chose the latter. It was just a super thrill for the kids -- mom kept her gaze averted from the spectacle of being in the second highest gondola in all of Asia. (Robin's Cardinal Rule: "Never. Look. At. The. Bolts.") We weren't allowed to enter the temple but seeing the action around it (including various sacrificial rites) was amazing. Then of course (giving that we're traveling with Cooper) Mandatory Souvenier Buying ensued followed by a lovely cliffside lunch of yak cheese balls and etc; at a certain point I don't ask. ;:)
A very long ride back to Pokhara and then an evening that was a little bit lost to illness (all recovered today and only the second real problem on the trip) but also included the three of us lying curled up in bed with mom reading aloud from "Forget Kathmandu," a brief history of how the heck Nepal can be all these things at once -- crazy elephant rides, Maoist strikes, hill tribe wisdom, terrifying highways, endless terraced farms, unimaginable hospitality, ubiqitous gorgeous temples everywhere, incense wafting, horns honking, polycultural food, grinding poverty, neon Buddhist shrines....
Need to stop, don't want to lose this. Don't want to lose ANY of this!