Sunday, 12 March 2017

Nepali Motorbike Adventure

Today we started our adventure away from touristy Nepal; we were off to visit Nirmal and his family in their village and celebrate Holi with them.

There were a few options for getting there.  Nirmal thought that the busses would be sold out, as everyone was going home for the holidays. He offered to ride and pick us up on the back of his and his brother's bikes, but we were a bit worried about that option as it was a long way to go doubled up with backpacks. So we decided to rent bikes from a guy in Chitwan and drive ourselves. Luckily we had managed to find a helmet big enough for Michael, and I got one with my bike. There was only one person in the whole of Sauraha that had bikes to rent, so we didn't have much choice but to pay his price and take two of the three bikes he had on offer, a 125cc motorbike for Michael, and a little scooter for me.

Bag strapped down a little after 8am and we were off. The quiet road from Sauraha, to Sauraha Chowk  to get us used to the bikes and the road. At Sauraha Chowk we initially head in the wrong direction to get some petrol, which means we have to travel further along this section of road. Which is currently under construction; it is black and wet and muddy, and incredibly bumpy, and so somewhat of a baptism of a fire for me, having never ridden on roads like this before. Soon we are onto the more smooth highway, although it is somewhat potholed and we are constantly being over taken by buses and bikes, so are unable to fully appreciate the stunning surroundings. It's a long steady push to the place we are due to meet Nirmal; it is hard riding, but I again I feel so lucky to be here experiencing this. We stop in a few places to have a stretch and check directions. We have been noticing along the way lots of people wearing bright white Happy Holi t-shirts, but at one particular stop we notice that the shirts are no longer white, but instead covered in bright colours. And then we notice a group of giggling young teenage girls walking towards us, also covered in paint, and before we know what is happening our faces are being covered in paint too. Luckily for me I have left my glasses and helmet on, so there is limited space for them to smeer the colourful powder. Michael, however, is helmet and glasses free, and so has paint everywhere; hair, beard, forehead, cheeks and all down his t-shirt. We wait for selfies to be taken, and then they are off to find their next 'victims'. We are in fits of giggles, and can't believe we have just been ambushed like this as we didn't think it was Holi until tomorrow. Back in the bikes before we get hit again, shedding pink and red and purple dust as we go, past the giggling girls and then out of the built up areas into the countryside once more. I am freezing; the sun keeps disappearing behind clouds and this it causing me to tense up and my shoulders and upper back are already aching. Another town, another stop to check directions and another load of Holi paint, first from a group of girls who cross the busy road to dust our faces, and then before we can get off a group of boys smear our faces, this time with white and green. We are quite a sight.

On the whole the roads are good, but occasionally the concrete gives way to gravel or there are huge potholes to be avoided, or both. There are many rivers to cross and the bridges are in poor condition, with uneven ramps up and then bumps and dips all the way across. We don't get to enjoy the views of the hills or the people bathing or washing clothes in the water. We also have to avoid the langurs at the side of the road, beeping as we pass to make sure they don't run out. There are signs warning of wild elephants and, while I would love to see one, I don't actually fancy coming face to face with one on this little bike.

Nirmal is waiting to meet us and as luck would have it there is a tap nearby where we get to wash our faces. Warm hellos and then we are off in convoy to Malengwa where he is currently staying with his aunt.

He warns us it is 25km away on gravel roads once we leave the highway. This is news to me, as I hadn't really considered that this would be an option. Still I follow on as we eventually turn off the paved section, Nirmal leading us at a steady pace. I handle the gravel ok, but in my nervousness I am gripping the handle bars far too tightly. We have been on the road since 8am and it is nearing three. My back aches, my arms ache and we are covered in dust, both Holi dust and dirt from the road. A couple of times I fishtail on the gravel and I have to remind myself not to grip so hard. I need to stop, so I pull over for a rest, seeing me the others stop too, and I am relieved to hear we are only a few km from our first destination. Arms shaken out we are off again and we are soon in a busier area with more buildings, down a few side streets and we are soon parking outside a concrete building. There is a small gate to go through but my legs are seized up and shaking, and I struggle to bend them to get through the small door.

Nirmal is a wonderful host and his aunt has prepared us a delicious meal. The big tray that our meal has been served on is only half empty when he piles on more food, which we hungrily accept. After a short rest we are back on the road to make it to his village before dusk. From here the roads are smaller and mainly mud with gravel in places, the mud is hard but uneven and it is hard riding. We pass through countless villages on the way and it is fascinating, adults going about their business and children playing. There are goats and chicken and dogs and the occasional pig. Buffalo and cows tied with short ropes outside many houses. I am concentrating too hard on the road to notice, but Michael tells me later that we are getting many stares from people as we pass, and I wonder how many non-Nepali people have traveled this way. The children are confused too, they don't smile or wave, they just stare agog. Through village after village we ride the roads, twisting and turning and forking off one another, none of these villages are marked on Google Maps, so there is no way we could have navigated this without Nirmal. Between the villages the landscape is breathtaking, the sun is getting low and casting an incredible light on the rice paddies and fields of vegetables around us, mainly mustard and wheat and sugarcane. The road is so uneven and I try to follow the path that Nirmal has picked out in front of us. We avoid bicycles and people and all the animals, and the puddles of wet mud and the craters in the ground. Again I stop when I can't go any further, so much pain in my back and my arms ache over every bump. Mouth dry and full of dust and wishing I had a bigger, better bike with a more comfortable seat. Not far to go and soon we are navigating through the busy market in Nirmal's village, so dense with people and bicycles and other scooters that we have to beep and push our way through. I'm too tired now to appreciate it all, and no one would see me smile anyway below the dust mask I am wearing. Nirmal pulls over and it's only after he starts filling our tanks with plastic bottles of petrol that are we introduced to his brother who owns the shop. There is a strike on and so petrol is scarce at the moment l, so there is some discussion about whether there will be enough to get us home again. Then we are whisked across the little street to meet another relative who runs a medical store and no sooner have we said hello than we are back on the bikes for the last few hundred meters to Nirmal's house.

We pull off the road into a wide patch of dirt, to one side are some low buildings that we learn are for the solar power equipment that the family are selling. Then behind the gate at the far side is the house. We park the bikes and, legs wobbling, we start meeting people. Brothers, uncles, village brothers, village uncles. Two chairs are produced and we sit for a while. Not much English is spoken, but there are lots of smiles and nods and namastays. Some children come through the gate, nieces and nephews but we lose track of which brother or sister they belong to. Next we are taken through the gate and meet Nirmal's mother, an elegant lady in a dark yellow sari, and his sister who has the most beautiful, genuine smile that reappears every time she sees one of us. There is a small courtyard, with two huge piles of drying mustard crops to the left and then to the right the kitchen and store room. Simple concrete rooms with a bamboo and tile roof. We don't go in the kitchen, it is customary for guests to not enter the house, but there is a single fire on the floor in the centre where the cooking is done. At the back of the courtyard is the house, maybe 5 simple rooms and a concrete staircase that currently leads to the open roof. Maybe there are plans to add another story at some stage. We put our bags into the room we will be sleeping in. There are two simple beds. We will be in one and Nirmal will use the other. The bed is like a table covered in a mat and thin mattress and a mosquito net overhead. It is all bare concrete, walls, floor and ceiling and there is no other furniture at all.

Nirmal explains that there are two toilets, one way back in the garden is for men to use in the day. And one behind the house for women to use in the day and anyone to use at night. This is to give the women more privacy. Outside our room is the family's cow, Nirmal explains she is two months pregnant and she already has a nice big belly.

We take a walk through the village and every child we walk past stares, not sure what to make of us. I wonder if they have ever seen a white person before, we must look like aliens. As we walk along I hear a lot of chatter behind us, all the village children are following as we walk and there is quite a crowd of them. Today has been surreal. We walk, through the Muslim section of the village to the edge of the village and the leave the children behind. Nirmal tells us more about the village and Holi and we get as far as a small river before turning back.

Next we go to meet the village leader, he welcome us and I wish we had asked Nirmal more about how he is chosen or if it is a responsibility passed through generations. It is dark now and an uncle's house is just next door. More chairs are produced for us. And we sit like awkward royalty in front of a small group. A little English is spoken but mainly we are just confused and don't know what is going on. The women don't come out to meet us, it is the custom that they stay in the house, so we are surrounded by boys and men and lots of serious children. A plate of homemade sweets is produced for us and we dutifully try them, feeling so uncomfortable being the only ones eating in front of this audience. Michael is teasing the children who seem to find it funny when he points at them, they giggle and retreat as he does so. And then more food, this time pakora. Delicious vegetables in some kind of spicy batter and then fried. So we eat in front of our audience again.

Soon we are nodding our thanks and goodbyes as Nirmal take us back to the house. The chairs are moved into the inner courtyard for us and we sit. There is no electricity in the village, but Nirmal's family have four solar panels which provide light and power. They are also acting as an agent for the solar company, hence the shop out front and the supply of batteries and distilled water. Nirmal decides that Michael needs to wash the remaining colour out of his hair, so we are led to a further courtyard behind the house where the female toilet is. There is also a water pump here, so Michael strips off his shirt and squeals as the freezing water is poured over his head while Nirmal's sister and I watch and giggle.

Then we are back out to our chairs and a meal is brought to us. I find it very strange to be the only ones eating. And the women emerge into the doorway of the concrete kitchen to watch us eat. We knod our appreciation, as it really is delicious, but feel slightly awkward as we don't fully understand Nepali hospitality. On the large stainless steel round tray we have two vegetable dishes and a pile of roti and a stainless steel dish of milk. Nirmal explains that we should soak the bread in the milk and then use it to scoop up the vegetables, we clumsily follow his instructions and once again he tops up the food on our plates as we eat. Once the food is finished we are instructed to drink up the milk, it's only after we have done so that we find out it has come from the buffalo at the neighbour's house less than an hour ago. So that is a first for me!

What a day, 8 hours of riding, three of which were on unmade roads. We are exhausted. We have met so many people, all of them welcoming us into the village and home and treating us like royalty even though they have never met us before. So humbling to see how they live and how generous they are. And Nirmal is so attentive and caring.

Time for bed, and so to use the squat toilet in the dark, clean our teeth at the hand pump by the road, climb onto the hard bed and pull the mosquito net down and welcome sleep.