Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Shipping from Kathmandu to Bangkok, Oriental City

In addition to our one day of touring Durbar Square, we also arranged to ship our motorbikes and ourselves to Bangkok. Since Burma is still closed to all overland travelers, and since it costs 300 bucks a day for a government escort if you want to ride through China, we have to fly if we want to move eastward. I assume that because of the above two reasons, it's pretty easy to ship out of Kathmandu. Colin read about other riders' experiences and who to use as a shipper before we arrived. Our first full day in the city, Monday, we walked to Eagle Eyes Exports, the recommended shipper, and met with Jeewan. He had a binder full of air waybills dating back thirteen years of just his motorcycle shipments. He was able to tell us, line by line, what the charges would be, and when the bikes would go. Eagle Eyes and Jeewan seem like a well-oiled, shipping machine. Confident that this was the way to go, we left a deposit with Jeewan and arranged to meet at his office on Thursday morning before riding to the airport to crate the bikes. On our walk back to our guesthouse, Colin noticed the sign for another shipping company, on the same street, called Eagle Exports, which said on the sign that they ship motorbikes. Wondering if we just made a mistake, and with a somewhat queasy feeling in our guts, we went into Eagle Exports, and met Suraj and his wife, Sara. Yes, they ship motorbikes to Bangkok, yes, they have many, many delighted customers, and yes, the rate would be...exactly the same. When Colin said the rate was the same as we were quoted by Eagle Eyes Exports, Suraj said that Jeewan was his brother, that they had been in business together, and that Jeewan was dishonest. Suraj would reduce the rate by 20 USD for us if we shipped with him. We said we'd think about it and left. Unfortunately, before we left, we mentioned where we were staying. Later Monday evening, Colin received both an email and a hand-delivered note from Suraj which said he could reduce the rate by another 50 USD if we ship on Friday, but if we could ship the bikes on a day when he had four other bikes going, he could drop it a further 135 USD. Not exactly sure how Suraj could do this, we decided to return on Tuesday morning to speak with Jeewan at Eagle Eyes. To add another twist to the plot, Colin received another email, this one from Jeewan, saying that Colin left his “Griffin” in Jeewan's office and that he could retrieve it any time. This message left us totally confused, since neither of us had a clue what a Griffin was. The next morning after breakfast, we walked back to talk to Jeewan and find what Colin left in his office. It was his iPhone. We walked back to the guesthouse, planning to get cleaned up after switching to our new room, and then go to do some touring in Kathmandu. Shortly after we arrived and got settled into our room, there was a knock on our door. It was Suraj and Sara, offering to ship our bikes for an even lower rate (they were now down 220 USD from their original quote). I told Suraj that Colin and I would need to discuss our options and we would let them know later in the day. Suraj pressed me to make a decision right then, and said to use his service even if it meant losing the deposit we'd left with Jeewan. I again told him we'd think about it and let him know. They left, rather disappointed, and I told Colin what had just transpired. Instead of sightseeing, we marched back to Jeewan's office to try to find out what the deal was. We told Jeewan about the radically lower rate Suraj at Eagle Export had given us and asked if it was possible. He pulled out recent air waybills and again broke down the rate for us, line by line, and offered to return our deposit in full if we would rather ship with Suraj. Since the only way Suraj could give us the low rate was if he built us a free crate and didn't pay the builders or grease any palms at Customs, and paid Thai Air part of their charges out of his own pocket, we decided to keep our business with Jeewan and Eagle Eyes Export. We walked back to our room, satisfied with our decision to stick with Jeewan.

The Italian RTW couple also going to Bangkok
On Thursday, we rode to Jeewan's office and then followed his brother's motorbike across town to the airport cargo facility. When we arrived, he motioned for us to pull into the warehouse, where we found several men working on several bike-sized crates. The base of ours was complete, as were our side panels. Colin and I shifted into disassembly mode and removed the front wheels, fenders, and handlebars, and disconnected the batteries in about forty-five minutes. With the help of several of the craters, we lifted the bikes onto the crate base, and Colin strapped them in place. As the craters attached the sides, I loaded the various bits and pieces inside, before they nailed down the top. We were finished, our paperwork was completed, and we were ready to leave shortly after 1:00 pm (and this was with an hour delay while waiting for the Customs official to return from lunch and sign our Carnets!). The other bike-sized crates that were being built were for four other bikes. They were the customers that Suraj had tried to get us to ship with for the lower rate. We met Stefano and Annamarie, an Italian couple who are riding around the world, and Brian and Tanja, who were the couple Colin met in Pokhara when we landed from our paragliding adventure. They were all flying to Bangkok on Friday (as were we), but their bikes weren't flying until Sunday. We watched as they loaded their bikes onto the crate bases and removed a whole bunch of stuff from their bikes to make them fit within the width of their crates. After seeing the problems the four of them had crating their bikes and finding out that they were actually supposed to do it the previous day (but for the strike, which was announced ahead of time), we were glad we stuck with Jeewan. We exchanged email and blog addresses and said goodbye until the following day, and then we took a taxi back to town. We headed Jeewan's office, paid him the balance, got our receipt and the air waybill, and thanked him very much for the smooth process. Once business was done, we enjoyed a cup of tea, and Jeewan filled us in on some of the background with Suraj. Yes, Jeewan and Suraj are cousins, and Suraj worked for Jeewan at Eagle Eyes Export for ten years before leaving the business to open a very similar one right down the street with a nearly identical name. He never said anything bad about Suraj, but did say that they are no longer on speaking terms. Again, after leaving his office, we were both glad we stuck with Jeewan.


Narrow streets of Kathmandu
Afraid that we would no longer fit in our riding gear, we had to leave. After five lovely and relaxing nights in Pokhara, we waved goodbye and headed to Kathmandu. The morning was cold and clear leaving Pokhara, and we had a beautiful view of the mountains leaving the city. As we rode, we descended into a valley that ran along a river. The sky turned foggy, the air colder and gray. The damp soaked through our gloves, leaving our fingertips numb, but even with the discomfort, it was a gorgeous ride. The gray sky set off the lush greenery of the valley, and everything looked vaguely surreal in the mist. After about fifty miles, the sun returned and we warmed up. We were still riding along a river, which was the distinct blue-green of limestone. As we neared Kathmandu, the road climbed up and around a steep hill for about ten miles to reach the city. The pavement was in horrendous condition, but unlike the roads in India, which were potholed, this one seemed to be in the process of sliding off the hill. It wasn't that the pavement was broken, it had just sort of slumped and left an irregularly undulating surface without guardrails. There is only one road between Pokhara and Kathmandu, and we joined the slow conga line of trucks, buses, cars, and motorbikes proceeding to the capital city. It was only about ten miles, but this last leg of the journey took about an hour to finally reach the edge of Kathmandu. After another two and a half miles of dodging and weaving in city traffic, we made it to the Thamel district and to our guesthouse.

I climbed the four flights to the guesthouse (it is the fourth floor of an office building), only to find that it was overbooked, but they put us in a nice room in a small hotel across the street. We thought this arrangement was fine until I tried to take a shower later that evening, only to discover that there was no hot water, only a tepid trickle dripping from the shower head. Since I was already more than half wet, I was committed to finishing the job, so I washed the road grime off, dried as quickly as I could, and took a flying leap to get under the blankets to warm up. Colin, having witnessed the shower's effect on the proverbial canary, decided to forgo a shower that evening in hopes that the water would be warmer in the morning. Unfortunately, it wasn't, so at breakfast the next morning, we told the proprietor of our desired (and reserved) guesthouse about the water situation and asked what to do. He gave us two options: a) we could move to another of his hostels, or b) we could stay put until the following day, when we could move across the street to our reserved room. We looked at the other hostel, which was very nice, and considered moving there until we spoke with another guest, who said that the water there didn't get exactly hot either. In the end, we stayed put for another day and discovered that the optimal time of day to shower in Kathmandu is late afternoon, when the solar water heaters have had maximum time to work.

Pigeons in Durbar Square
One major problem in Nepal is power supply. The endemic fuel shortages in the country mean that the power is only on for between six and ten hours each day. Most businesses (and I assume, homes) have gigantic truck batteries with an inverter to run a few lights and whatever other essentials they need. So things like water heaters are either solar or gas powered (which is very expensive), and I don't even know why people bother with things like televisions, since they're rarely usable. Around the first of the year, there was no diesel and very little petrol available in the Kathmandu valley. Nepal imports its petroleum from India, and the government sets the prices. The Nepal Oil Corporation was basically selling its products at a loss because of the government-set rates, and didn't have enough money to buy enough petroleum to meet the country's demands. Now, the government has allowed them to raise their rates, much to the chagrin of the Nepali people, but there is still not enough fuel to power the country. While we were in Kathmandu, there was a general strike one day to protest the petrol/diesel rate hikes. Nearly all business were closed, and people marched in the streets. The day of the strike was the day we decided to do some sightseeing in Durbar Square, which is an old section of the city that is filled with Hindu and Buddhist temples and palatial buildings. The streets were devoid of traffic besides pedestrians, and very few shops were open. As we walked, we heard groups of people chanting as they marched in the street. When the shopkeepers with open doors heard the approaching crowds, they slammed down their roll up doors before the marchers arrived. We saw nothing more than marching protesters, thankfully, since the newspaper reported that several students had threatened self-immolation.

Waiting for the Kumari Devi to show herself
We did our sightseeing in Durbar Square, which is filled with really pretty buildings dating back hundreds of years. Many of the temples have pagoda-like roofs and beautiful carved wood door and window frames. The buildings themselves are red brick. It wasn't at all what I expected (not exactly sure what I did expect). In addition to the interesting architecture, we also got to see the Kumari Devi, or Living Goddess. She is a young girl (between four years old and puberty) who is chosen to fill the role until she has her first period or other even that results in massive blood loss, at which time she is sacrificed and eaten by her replacement (No, no, no, no, no. I am just kidding. She returns to her normal life). While we were in the Kumari Bihal (her home during her reign) a man announced that she would make an appearance momentarily. We stood and waited with a number of other tourists until she appeared at an upstairs window. Photographing her is absolutely forbidden, so you will have to look for a picture of her on line. She looked to be somewhere between eight and ten years old and like she would have rather been somewhere else, playing with her PS3. She stood at the window, looking down without expression at her admirers for several minutes, before she disappeared again. We all clapped at her performance, but some people were practically in hysterics, with tears and all, when they saw her. Neither of us was that overcome with emotion, but it was kind of a treat to see her, nonetheless. We also spent some time in the Tribhuvan museum, which traces the history of the Nepali King Tribhuvan and his progeny, with displays of everything from portraits to hunting rifles to his personal photo developing equipment. We learned waaaay more than we ever knew we wanted to learn about the personal life and hobbies of Nepal's royal family, but not why their history ends abruptly in 2001.  None of the displays date later than 2001, and a placard for a palanquin says it was used as a funeral palanquin to carry (I believe) the Queen's body.  I had a vague recollection of some murder involving the Nepali Royal family, so later, I looked it up.  On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his parents and eight other members of the royal family before shooting himself.  It supposedly was over a woman, the Crown Prince's choice of brides, of whom his mother disapproved.  Wacky.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I'm Flying!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sarangkot from above with Himalayas through the clouds
While the wheels didn't actually come off the bus in Pokhara, we did, temporarily, lose some forward momentum. Our initial impression of the city was right- it really was a nice place to spend some time, and we ended up staying for five days to continue our “India recuperation” and to enjoy a bit of a vacation. 

One thing Pokhara is known for is its ideal conditions for paragliding, which is something we've both wanted to try for quite some time. We looked into the many companies offering tandem flights and settled on Frontiers Paragliding, which is one of the two original operations in Pokhara and has highly experienced pilots. They offer two tandem options- a half hour introduction and an hourlong, “cross country” flight. After weighing the options, we decided to go for the one hour flight, so we made a reservation for 11:30 am, peak flying time due to the warmer air and thus, more thermals, on Thursday. 

Looking super sexy and ready for takeoff
That morning, we got up, had another hearty breakfast at our guesthouse (Two eggs, a small loaf of warm brown bread, fried potatoes, and a bowl of fresh fruit, muesli, and curd, and coffee or tea. Really, more than any reasonable person should eat in a morning sitting, but we aren't reasonable. And we've been sick), and walked up to the Frontiers office to meet for the jeep ride to Sarangkot, from where we would fly. On the way, we stopped in to see a chemist who did consultations and asked about my cough and snot-filled respiratory system. She seemed to think that I had an infection and recommended an antibiotic and more cough syrup, which I purchased and started taking immediately. We got to Frontiers, filled out the necessary paperwork, and sat down to wait for our ride up the mountainside. When they announced it was time to go, I really figured that one or both of us would start feeling a bit nervous, but surprisingly, it didn't happen. We got in the back of the truck and held on for dear life for the terrifying ride up a very narrow, rutted, steep road to the launch site at Sarnangkot. When the jeep stopped and someone said, “We're here,” I again thought we'd be feeling some butterflies, but we both climbed out and followed the leaders up the path without feeling even a flutter. About halfway up the hill, I started experiencing some major difficulty catching my breath and thought, “Here comes the panic,” but I slowed down my pace and realized that it wasn't an emotional reaction, I really was having a hard time breathing since my lungs must have been about half-full (not half-empty. I try to be optimistic) of mucus. 

That's Colin and Ivan!
At the launch site, I sat down on the hill and caught my breath after a few minutes of coughing and felt just fine. Colin was the surprise- he's petrified of heights. He hates it when I lean over railings, edges of cliffs, Victoria Falls. He hated looking out the windows at the top of the Arch in St Louis. If a job requires a ladder, it's got my name all over it. But Colin let himself be strapped into the harness, put on his helmet, and I saw not a glimmer of terror, only excitement on his face. He and his pilot, Ivan, walked off the edge of the hill first and drifted away while I waited with my pilot, Serge, for a good wind. When Serge felt the wind was right, he said to start walking, and to keep walking right off the edge. Somehow, it seemed like a perfectly natural thing to do! As the wind caught the wing, we were lifted into the air. Oh my GOD it was AMAZING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 

My foot over Lake Fewa!
For countless years I have had dreams in which I could fly, well, more like, float. In my dreams, all I have to do is scoop the air with my hands, and I lift off and can move like Charlie and his grandfather in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Paragliding is as close as I can imagine to that feeling. Serge said we'd climb when we found thermals and to shift my weight to the left in my seat. When he instructed me to do so, I did, and we circled and climbed, higher, and HIGHER, until we were the highest of the bunch. To look out at the horizon and see the Himalayas, to see the vultures and kites (and Colin!) flying below us, to feel the breeze hit my face and hear nothing but that gentle wind (and Serge occasionally humming) was the most wonderful thing I have experienced in a long time. I smiled and smiled a big, goofy smile the entire time we were up. With the end of our flight nearing, Serge said that to land, I should put down my feet and stand up. We descended over the lake and circled around, and the ground got closer. At the end, Serge said to stand up, and I put out my legs, and we landed. I, on my butt. Fortunately Serge has done this once or twice (he's been flying for 38 years), and it was a gentle landing. On my butt. Once I was unharnessed, I had to go sit down. Colin was already unstrapped and had found a couple of other motorcyclists who were watching the landings to talk to, and I went to a chair under some trees and tried to absorb what I'd just done. It was truly an incredible experience, and I can't wait to do it again. Neither can Colin.

The Himalayas at last light from our guesthouse roof
Since our time in Pokhara was our vacation from our trip, we spent the rest of our time finding new spots to sit and enjoy the mountain and lake vistas in the sunshine.  On one particularly beautiful afternoon, we actually rode our bikes to one of the paragliding landing sites and watched them come down.  We read (for pleasure!).  We walked through the streets, looking at all the North F(aux)ce trekking gear, yak wool shawls, and knitted hats for sale.  We strolled along the lakeside, enjoying the scenery and stopping for coffee and pastries when the mood struck. It was pretty wonderful.

Colin's porcine pleasure of beloved bacon
The other thing we did in Pokhara was eat. We both regained our appetites (with a vengeance), and my sense of taste gradually returned as well. Since many of the travelers in Pokhara are returning trekkers, who apparently get tired of eating rice and lentils for three weeks straight, there are a lot of restaurants that serve western food. Since we were also kind of tired of rice and lentils, we partook of some really fine meals as well. We actually indulged in a couple of monstrous, two-inch thick (beef!) steaks our first evening in town (it was one of the goals Colin set for the day), accompanied by some really good, crisp fries, and sizzling hot vegetables. Another night, we found a Chinese restaurant and had amazing Gong Bao pork, Ma Po tofu, garlic green beans, a mixed vegetable dish, and fried wontons (we ordered way too much food and ate way too much of it, but man, it was tasty). Our meal there was so good, we returned a couple nights later for more Gong Bao pork (for me), duck with black mushrooms and baby corn in oyster sauce (for Colin) and more green beans. We also found an open air Italian restaurant with fireplaces that made some kick-ass wood-fired pizzas (try a light tomato base with fresh pesto, walnuts, sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and yak cheese sometime. A slice of it is a little slice of heaven).

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Slow and Easy Ride to Pokhara

Misty morning leaving Lumbini
After four nights in Lumbini, we felt ready to move on. I was, however, feeling a bit uneasy about riding. Even though traffic lightened and the level of politeness increased once we crossed into Nepal, the thought of getting back out there in the scrum made me nervous. Colin assured me that if it was too much, we would stop part way to Pokhara. Knowing that made me feel a little better, so the next morning we rose early, loaded the bikes, and were on the road by 8:00 am in the cool, misty air. The traffic was very light, and the road was mostly smooth.

The view on the Siddhartha Highway
As the morning wore on, the sun broke through the mist and it actually got warm! The road we took to Pokhara is the Siddhartha Highway, which follows a river gorge for a while, winds up and around the mountains, and is just a beautiful stretch to ride. We stopped several times just to admire the scenery. As we rode, I actually smiled and felt myself becoming more and more at ease. We made it to Pokhara by around 3:00 pm and easily found the guesthouse where we had booked a room. We got ourselves checked in, unloaded the bikes, and then sat on the rooftop patio absorbing the sun and the scenery while we figured out where to go for dinner. Both of us have been longing for some meat after so many vegetarian meals in India, and Pokhara is supposed to have some excellent food options including meaty ones. So we found a steakhouse for dinner and enjoyed some two-inch thick slabs of medium rare, real, grilled beef. Our appetites waned with our maladies, but they returned with a vengeance tonight!

Fewa Lake at Pokhara
Pokhara is the second largest city in Nepal after Kathmandu. It's farther west that Kathmandu and is at a lower elevation. It sits on a gorgeous lake, Fewa Tal, and has the Himalayas as a backdrop. The area is stunningly beautiful! The weather is temperate in the winter (right now, it's about 70 degrees and sunny, and at night it drops into maybe the 40s). The sky is clear, the air is fresh, and the general atmosphere of the town is laid back. We decided to stay for a while. Our guesthouse is great- the room is comfortable, the shower very hot, the proprietor and his family are extremely warm and welcoming, and they have a great dog named, Munu. The “heavy breakfast” they serve is delicious, and the view from the rooftop is spectacular. I can see the wheels coming off here big time.

Recovering at the End of the Buddhist Trail in Lumbini

Something to think on
Thanks, in part, to some quality earplugs, Colin slept rather soundly on his snot-filled mattress (it's like a gel bike seat pad), but I had a fitful night of uncontrollable coughing. We finally got up after hitting the snooze for at least an hour and assessed our post-India conditions. I seem to have a severe case of Indian Lung Death, and Colin is suffering from his up close and personal meetings with the Indian pavement. Colin's muscles seized up, bruises appeared, and those ribs are definitely cracked. After a morning filled with hacking and groaning, we made our way, very slowly, across the Buddhist Development Zone and into the Lumbini Bazaar to look for some lunch, more cold medicine, and paracetamol. On the way to the bazaar, we stopped to look at a large group of people waiting for something to appear on an empty stage. The proprietor of our guesthouse said there was some festival today at which the Nepali President would make an appearance, but all we saw was a bunch of security personnel keeping a close eye on the crowds. 

Colin enjoying a bowl of "buff" thanthuk
We continued to the bazaar and found an open air, upstairs restaurant for a lunch of buffalo momos and thanthuk. Momos are Nepali or Tibetan dumplings (like gyoza or potstickers) filled with vegetables, meat, or cheese and either steamed or fried. Thanthuk is a Tibetan soup with thick noodles that are very similar to what is called, “slippery dumplings,” in the southern US. Colin says that everything was absolutely delicious, but unfortunately, with my Lung Death went my sense of taste. The sensation of eating something requiring some teeth was wonderful to me, and I was able to discern a note of mustard (I think) in the accompanying sauce. The momos were so good, we ordered a second plate of them for dessert. After we finished eating, we stopped across the street at the pharmacy for more cold tabs and paracetamol before making the slow amble back to the guesthouse. We cut through the Development Zone again, walking along a pond filled with ducks and herons on one side of the path and grassy field on the other. As we walked, motion in the field caught our eyes, and we spotted three foxes or wolves(?) hanging out, waiting for something to happen. They were beautiful, with very fluffy tails. It is such a nice change to be where you can hear the birds, see some wildlife, and have a moment's peace.

Does anyone else see the humor in the name?
We actually ended up spending three whole days in Lumbini not doing much of anything but recuperating. My head and chest are filled with goo, and I have very little energy. On one of our trips into the bazaar, we bought bottle #2 of cough syrup, having downed the bottle Colin found in Gorakpur. The one I got has guaifenesin in it, so I have high hopes that it will help me expel some phlegm, despite its dubious name- Brica BM (I hope it's not a side effect). Colin's right side took the impact, and his hip and shoulder are particularly sore.

We did make it to the Maha Devi Temple, which is built on the site of Buddha's birth. The temple itself is a modern and not very lovely building covering the excavated remains of old (back to the 3rd century) temples marking the exact spot of his birth. Once we made it through the temple, we strolled the manicured lawns and talked about the trials of the past few weeks. Our time in northern India was so hard, and we both felt so beaten down by the time we got to Nepal, we're having a difficult time leaving it behind us. As we walked, we came to the meditation park, where we sat on a pallet under a large tree and meditated for a while. Scaattered throughout the grounds of the temple are quotations by Buddha, and one in particular resonated with both of us: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” This is what I thought over, and over, as we sat under that tree. Before we left the grounds, we stopped to watch some Tibetan women at the pool where Buddha's mother bathed before giving birth. They would climb down the steps and sit at the edge, dipping their fingertips into the water and then wetting their faces with it as they prayed. It's been interesting visiting the various Buddhist sites and seeing the differences in worship styles of the many cultures. 

Lumbini was a great place to decompress after our recent time in India.  Our guesthouse was in a tiny village across the Development Zone from the bazaar, so once the sun set, nothing happened.  We sat on the rooftop during the late afternoons and watched the farmers bring in their teams of oxen and the buffaloes, looked out at the fields, and listened to people going about their daily business.  It was a good antidote.

Friday the 13th Part: INDIA

After nearly an hour-long search for chicken soup and nearly crying when I finally found a place among the stalls of big metal pots of dhal and whatever was the vegetable curry of the day last night, we decided that we needed to get out of here. Colin's 101 degree fever broke sometime yesterday, and we both woke up feeling well enough to ride. So after loading our gear on the bikes and my pockets with snot rags and cough drops for the ride (after an unsuccessful search this morning for more cough syrup since I polished off an entire bottle already), we began our ride to Nepal on Friday the 13th (not a good idea, as it turned out). It was about 9:30 by the time we left, and traffic was heavy and chaotic in the city.  

We had to ride through Gorakhpur to get to the highway to Nepal, and traffic was insane. Before we could make it to the highway, I was struck by another motorbike. We were riding on a (barely) two-lane road and I was hugging the left edge of the pavement since everyone was overtaking everywhere. I noticed a motorbike pull up on my right side and match speeds. After riding for eight weeks in India, I really do not like it when other vehicles ride next to me because it cuts off some of the few options I have. Consequently, I tried to shake him. I sped up, he sped up. I slowed down, he slowed down. And then, the inevitable. Right in front of us, an oncoming bus pulled out to pass, and the rider to my right swerved to avoid becoming a grill ornament. Unfortunately, he swerved into me at about 35 mph. I felt the lurch from the back of the bike and suddenly found myself to be a passenger on the Ohshitthisisgonnahurt Express. Surprisingly, it didn't hurt that much. I came free of the bike before it hit the ground and gently glided through the air until I reached my final destination. I landed face down, fairly flat, and thankfully, no one ran over me. I hopped up, checked myself over and heard Re yelling to see if I was okay. I told her I was, and Re and a couple helpful folks got my bike stood back up. The other guy had picked himself off the ground and I just shook my head at him, while Re screamed at him. He looked rather stunned and actually may have been, since I am sure he hit the ground as hard as I did, but of course, his helmet was made of a scarf. Dumbass. I checked over my bike and found, once again, that Symbas crash well, just a slightly bent right footpeg.

I must say, I don't like turnabout.  In his many years of roadracing, I never saw him crash, I only heard about it secondhand and saw the aftermath when he'd come riding to the pits in the bed of the crash truck with the bike. This is the first time I have actually witnessed one of Colin's crashes. I was right behind him when the other rider passed me and rode alongside him, hating every second of it. I saw the other rider swerve to avoid the oncoming bus, right into Colin, and heard myself screaming, “What the hell are you DOING?!?” to the other rider as they made contact, wobbled, and hit the ground. I asked Colin if he was alright, he said yes, and then he asked if I saw what happened since he wasn't sure what hit him. I'm sure I was screeching like a banshee as I yelled the answers to who, what, when, and where and pointed at the guy sitting on the ground in front of his bike trying to figure out what broken plastic went where. I was so afraid Colin was hurt, but he said he was okay, everything worked, and he just wanted to get the fuck out of this country.

We made it out of the city, and the highway opened up some. Traffic was still very heavy, and we had to take to the shoulder several times to avoid oncoming traffic. Maybe thirty minutes after my crash, while passing through Small Town number elebenty billion, we came upon a truck stopped perpendicularly across both lanes. He didn't appear to have plans to move any time soon, so I rode onto the shoulder and went around the rear of the truck. When I glanced in my rearview mirror, I saw Re had apparently hesitated before deciding to follow me. Unfortunately, by the time she pulled behind the truck, the driver woke up/put down his cellphone/had an idea/I don't know, and started backing up. Re was valiantly blowing her horn and trying to get past, but didn't make it. The good news was, she was going less than 5 mph when the truck backed into her.

This one really made me mad.  I made the choice to follow Colin by riding behind the truck instead either riding in front of the truck, putting me directly into oncoming traffic, or waiting for who knows how long for the driver to figure out what he was doingI hit the horn and stayed on it, made what I thought was eye contact with the driver to be sure he saw me, and then went for it.  When I got behind him, he started backing up.  I rode onto the dirt shoulder to avoid, but he just kept coming.  He hit me and knocked me over, I swore A LOT, and the ubiquitous couple of bystanders helped me pick up the bike.  I had checked it over and restarted it when Colin got back.  And once again, the truck driver vanished into thin air (fancy that). 

I saw her tip over, jammed on the brakes, and spun around. I was a few hundred yards up the road when I turned around and rode back going the wrong way against traffic on the edge of the road since all the oncoming traffic was stopped by the now leaving truck and the crowd that had gathered around Re. I wasn't too concerned about it until I spied a motorbike riding in from the dirt “parking” area on the right. He was riding from my right to left, from the dirt to the paved road while texting. I quickly realized that I was riding too fast for conditions, and that if I did not avoid him, we were going to collide. In my haste to get back to Re, I did not realize how fast I was going until I hit the brakes. I was not slowing fast enough on the pavement, so at the last minute, I eased right, onto the dirt. What I did not do was let up on the front brake when I transitioned to the dirt. The front end immediately snapped right, and I found my head striking the dirt, followed by my shoulder, the rest of me, and then the bike. I estimate I was going somewhere between 20 and 25 mph when I hit, but I hit hard. I was dazed for a second, but eventually noticed that my right foot was trapped under the bike, and I could not get up. Once again, the helpful passersby in India, who must do this several times each day, came over and lifted the bike off me. I'd had the wind knocked out of me, so it took a few seconds to recover. I stood up and found that while my shoulder and ankle both hurt, they seemed to work okay. I took off my helmet, checked it for damage, and saw none. I looked over the bike and found that the front brake lever was slightly bent and that the ball end had snapped off, but amazingly, no other apparent damage. I re-situated the load that had shifted and looked for Re. She was still lost in the crowd a few hundred feet further down the road, and I didn't know her condition. I hopped on my Symba and it fired right up, and I rode back to Re. She was okay, no damage, just double extra ready to get the fuck out of India – like me. She said she had checked over her bike and everything looked hunky dory, so we kept riding. 

In the first few miles or so, I did find three problems. The first and most minor (but irritating nonetheless) is a shattered right mirror. The second and more problematic is that my rear brake lever is, once again, bent, and it sounds like my rear brake might be dragging. I discovered the third and most problematic bit of damage when I hit the first pothole and felt the unmistakeable pain of fractured ribs. When I fell, I landed on my right side with my arm trapped under my body. It appears that the impact was hard enough for my trapped arm to fracture a couple of ribs. Having had a similar landing after a crash at Road Atlanta many years ago that resulted in fractured ribs, I recognize the sensation. I pulled over to have Re run her fingers over my ribcage to see if she could feel any displacement of the bones, and she found none. It ain't an x-ray, but she is an x-ray tech (amongst other things). By now I had also noticed the tip of my pinky on my right hand was numb as well. She felt for a boxer's fracture and thankfully, found nothing. Since we still had an hour and a half or so to the border, it was time to ride. When I used to roadrace, we had a phrase at the track that was, “Nut up, shut up, and ride.” While I did ride, I will admit that there were more than a few whimpers inside my helmet as we bounced through the potholes and broken pavement to the border. Shortly before 1:00, we reached the outskirts of Sunauli and stopped to fuel up. I had read that Nepal was suffering from a petrol shortage that began just before the New Year, and I wasn't able to find anything that said it was over, therefore, we made sure the bikes were full and that our fifteen liters of jerrycan space was also full. That would give us plenty of fuel to make either Kathmandu or Pokhara depending on what we found. As expected, the border was chaotic on the India side, and the Immigration post is a series of card tables inside an open shopfront with four guys just sitting around. A guy ran out in the road and yelled that we needed to pull over for Immigration. Re and I stopped, looked at the setup, and both immediately thought that it was some sort of scam. But no. we got through Immigration, changed our India rupees for Nepali rupees at a kind of bad rate, and then, went to Customs. Here is where the wheels came off. Apparently, today was training day, and they directed me to a guy who had never done a Carnet before. For the next hour, he read what little there is to read in the way of instructions in the Carnet itself, flipped through the souches, folded the covers of our Carnets, asked if I wanted any tea, had a guy draw some pencil lines in a ledger eventually started filling out stuff in the ledger, but several times, he asked me what stuff I thought should go in there. After an hour or so, another Customs official came over and finally told our man how to finish. That's India. With everything stamped and souches torn out, we crossed into Nepal. The Nepal side was no more professional, but they were faster and very friendly. At Immigration, we paid our 40 USD each for 30-day visas and were in and out in under ten minutes. At Customs, I had to wait a minute or two for the guy who does Carnets, but twenty minutes later, everything was stamped and we were good to go. Other than the 80 USD for visas, there were no fees on either side of the border. 

We were riding again by 3:30 pm (which is actually 3:45 pm Nepal time, since they are fifteen minutes ahead of India) and made Lumbini in about an hour. My ribs and I were happy to find that the roads in Nepal are in much better shape and have much less traffic. One problem we are going to have with Nepal is that we do not have a current guidebook for it. Oh, we have a copy of the latest edition of Lonely Planet Nepal sitting in a storage room in Portland. Why, you ask? While planning for the motorbike trip, we purchased a copy but then decided that winter in Nepal seemed like a stupid idea, so we left the book at home. Now that we're feeling stupid, we don't have it. We do have the 2006 edition in PDF format on the laptop, but it's not very handy to use while riding. The accommodations in Lumbini are spread out over a large area around the Development Zone, so we were riding around looking for something likely. In front of a not very likely looking location, I spied an Enfield and its western rider. While Re pulled out the laptop to try and figure out where we needed to be, I rode back and spoke with Patrick. Patrick gave a halfhearted recommendation of the place, so I called for Re to take a look while Patrick and I chatted. Re came back and said the room was basic and relatively clean, with a hot shower, and wonder of all wonders, wifi in the room. I could tell by the rivulet of snot running out of Re's nose that she was feeling worse. My ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, and ribs were all also voting for not riding anymore. So for about 9 USD, we checked in for the night. We talked with Patrick for quite a while longer since he had ridden in Nepal before and had just come down the Siddhartha Highway from Pokhara today. He was a wealth of information on what to expect in Nepal and a very interesting guy to boot. He's French but has been living primarily in India for the past several years supporting himself by playing online poker. We unpacked and had dinner in the room. The room came with two beds, and Re and I decided that between her coughing and my battering, that we ought to make use of both of them. Re was kind enough to dig out my Big Agnes pad and blow it up for me for some extra comfort tonight. Given her respiratory problem, it was a very nice thing for her to do (I am, however, concerned that my Big Agnes is now filled with 80% air and 20% snot).

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Really Awful Ride to Kushinagar and then to Gorakpur

Buddha on his deathbed
We are basically following the Buddhist trail right now. Once we left Bodh Gaya, we went to the town of Kushinagar, the sight where Buddha died and was cremated. We started off in the fog again, getting terribly lost in the city of Gaya on the way. Our GPS maps of India are grossly inadequate in some places, and this city is one of them. Colin finally found our way out to the main road after about a half hour of winding through alleys. The road was a nice one- well paved but only about a lane and a half wide. We enjoyed it while it lasted though. Some amount of time into the ride, the GPS got lost and we spent about a half hour backtracking until we found the right road. The trip remained uneventful until we came to a line of traffic stopped at a small village. Assuming it was yet another truck collision or tip over, we rode up to the head of the line and saw a large group of people standing in the middle of the road. We slowly rode around them to the open road on the other side. When we looked back, we saw a tiny body covered in a dirty piece of cloth, with an arm and leg sticking out. Some child had apparently run out into the road and was hit by yet another truck going too fast for road conditions judging by the scene and the angle of one of the trucks. I couldn't even cry (you probably think I'm cold and heartless). All I could think was that this was probably one of a hundred and fifty similar incidents in this stupid country today alone.

I know that no road is “safe.” Accidents happen all the time, everywhere. But when you see countless, mangled, overturned trucks, cars with windshields that were obviously shattered by two distinct heads, delivery vehicles crunched to half-size with blood puddles on the ground in front, and then someone's dead child lying in the middle of the road, it's difficult not to get angry. Especially when you have just ridden close to 4,000 miles and not only witnessed countless close calls but been involved in several with completely careless drivers. We have both complained about the road conditions in India since we got here, but the greatest problem is really the drivers. They simply do not care, as far as I can tell, and I don't know what anyone can do to fix that. 
Anyway, with that sobering sight, we plodded on to Kushinagar. We arrived after dark again, found the government-run tourist hotel and checked into a damp, musty, but relatively clean room and got some dinner at the attached restaurant. We both felt cold and shivery, so we locked the bikes and went in to take a hot shower before climbing under the covers to sleep. 

When we woke up the next morning, I had a sore throat accompanied by a dry cough. My general level of aches was normal, and the shivers were gone after a night under heavy wool blankets, so we headed out to grab a quick breakfast and see the sights. After a disappointing breakfast of eggs and not toasty toast, we stopped at a chai stand for some of the good stuff before going to the Mahaparinirvana Temple. At this site sometime in the early 20th century, they uncovered a large Buddha statue in a reclining pose that dates to the 5th century AD. A new temple was built over it some years later. The guidebook says it's one of the most moving images of Buddha in the world, and honestly, it is. You climb the steps to the doorway and the statue takes up the entire room. He is lying down, on his deathbed, on his right side, with his head on a pillow, looking very much at peace. There were several foreign pilgrims there when we were, praying and rubbing small squares of gold leaf on the exposed feet in quiet offering.

From there, we next walked to the Mathakuar Temple, the site where Buddha gave his last sermon, to see a Buddha statue carved from a local blue stone that dates from the 6th century AD. It unfortunately was in a locked and very dark shrine, so it was difficult to see. You could pay one of the guards some “bakshish” for him to call somebody to open it, but we declined. We then continued to the Ramabahr Stupa, which marks the spot where Buddha's body was cremated. There wasn't much to see but another large mound of bricks, but it was still moving to see a single monk meditating at the base of the stupa. I need to learn more about Buddhism, because somehow, whenever I am at a Buddhist site, I feel calmer than I was before. We are considering the idea of stopping to take a course in meditation sometime. Neither of us feels particularly settled in ourselves, nor do we know what to do with our lives. Maybe learning how to meditate and spend time focusing on what exactly is important would help.

We left Kushinagar at around noon for Gorakpur to hopefully do a little research before heading to Nepal. It was a very short ride, only about 35 miles on good road. We found the railway station and the hotels that inevitably go with it. I checked out several rooms at one facility and reported back to Colin that we had a room and to start unloading the bikes while I registered. While I was filling out the paperwork (they use so much carbon paper here! And so many forms! Just to stay in a hotel!) I started to feel lightheaded and vaguely nauseated, so when Colin came into the lobby, I asked him to finish the paperwork because I needed to sit. We got to the room and I had to lie down. I was freezing, shivering in my clothes under a heavy blanket, my body ached, my skin hurt to the touch, my throat really hurt, and my cough was dry and uncontrollable. I just wanted to sleep for a while. Colin went out to find cough syrup, analgesics, and something to eat. He returned after walking all the way up and down the street and through the train station looking for a pharmacy (there was a chemist counter in the station!) with everything on his list along with some cold tablets. I took some of the syrup, a cold tab, ate a veg puff, and went back to sleep. I got up long enough to call for dinner (the hotel has cheap room service) and eat, wash out some of our nasty clothes, and then I got back into bed.

I spent the next day mostly under the covers, seized by coughing fits (at least they were more productive- in the yellow spectrum), but at least my fever subsided sometime in the previous night. Man, I felt like crap. I felt better mid-day, so we walked down the street to look for some lunch. We stopped and ordered thalis, but I couldn't taste anything, and all I could feel was the heat from the chili peppers in my mouth. All of a sudden, I didn't feel so hot, so we paid and left (this is the first time in a very long time that my meal went uneaten). We got back to the hotel after stopping to buy some oranges and more cough drops, and I went back to sleep. Neither of us was hungry last night, so we ate oranges for dinner and went to bed. This morning, I felt better. I still have a cough, the underside of my nose looks like that of a five-year old with snot encrusted nostrils and a rivulet of glossy yellow slime on my upper lip (I am certainly living up to my nickname), and I feel run down. Colin on the other hand, slept all day. He was up long enough to eat a bowl of cereal for breakfast and then climbed back under the covers. He had a cough, a fever, aches all over, and as icing on the cake, diarrhea. We are quite the pair! So we stayed in Gorakpur, in a “holding pattern” for Nepal until we felt well enough to move on.

Bodh Gaya

The 80ft Buddha
We decided to head for Bodh Gaya the next morning. It's a short (150 miles) ride on the highway that runs between Delhi and Calcutta, so the journey sounded promising. We enjoyed the serenity of Sarnath and really hoped that Bodh Gaya would be at least equally so. We were on the road by 7:45 am after speaking with a group of American tourists who must have just gotten off a train or bus that morning. They had taken a taxi, which dropped them off at the guesthouse where we stayed and asked us questions about the town. We told them how we enjoyed it, that it's on the Buddhist trail, and one of the men in the group asked if we'd seen them burning any bodies here. Um, no... that's in Varanasi, about 8 miles back. They didn't even know where they were. I have no idea how they ended up in Sarnath instead of Varanasi, but I hope they found their stay to be pleasant in any case! 

Tibetan prayer flags at Maha Bodhi Temple
The ride to Bodh Gaya was on a smooth divided highway, but in many areas, the road was choked to one lane by the continuous string of trucks parked in the other lane. We made good time anyway and got to Bodh Gaya by 1:00 pm, where we were greeted by an absolute mass of humanity, most of them in monks robes of saffron and maroon. The road entering town was filled with people and vehicles trying to get into town. We pulled off the road and got out the book to call for a room someplace, and everyone said the same thing- we're full. When I called the local tourist office, we discovered why. We knew that December and January are high season in Bodh Gaya because many Tibetan monks and nuns make pilgrimages at that time of year. What we didn't know was that at this time, the Dalai Lama was also in town for the 32nd annual Kalachakra Initiation and was to give his teachings the following afternoon. So every room in every hotel everywhere in the area was full, the tourist office informed me.

Monks at Maha Bodhi Temple
I relayed the good news to Colin, and we decided to head for the much larger city of Gaya (about 7 miles away) to look for accommodation. On the way back out of town, Colin spotted a hotel that didn't seem to have a full parking lot, so on a whim, he stopped. I went in to inquire about a room and was told that it would be 5,000 rupees (a hundred bucks). I said thank you, turned around, and walked down the stairs and got on my bike. A young man came running after me and asked what our budget was. I told him 1,000 rupees. He smiled, told me to wait, and ran back inside. The gentleman returned a few minutes later and asked me to follow him. We walked to a building on the dirt road behind the hotel, went inside, and he showed me the one room that could be had in our budget range. It was small, but it was en suite with hot water, and we could pull the bikes inside the gate at night. I asked if it would be 1,000 rupees, and he said 1,500. I thanked him and walked back toward the bikes, and he said okay, okay, okay 1,000 rupees. Sign me up! 

After we got checked in and unloaded, we walked toward all the activity, stopping at a busy street vendor's stand for two plates of vegetable momos and chai for lunch. The momos were 20 rupees for a plate of ten, and the chai was 10 rupees, so for the equivalent of about $1.20 for both of us, we sat and ate a delicious and filling lunch. The rest of the afternoon we spent wandering through the crowds in the bazaar and the Tibetan refugee market, looking at their wares, and people watching, since it was virtually impossible to get anywhere near the temples. When dinnertime rolled around, we decided against finding a real restaurant and instead hit another of the popular street vendors' stalls for some veg fried noodles and chai, sitting amongst a group of Tibetan monks who were also enjoying their dinner of boiled eggs and noodles. As the cook pulled the eggs from the pot, he spun one on a plate. The monks looked puzzled, so the man took a raw egg, spun it, then spun the boiled one again so they could see the difference. The entire row of monks smiled and laughed (I guess they learned something new that day). Then, since our momos were so delicious, we split another plate of them for dessert!

Two very professional chapati bakers
The next morning we stopped at the noodle vendor's stand for breakfast. He was dishing up some perfectly fried eggs for a monk along with a pair of fresh, hot chapatis as we sat down, so we decided to ask for two of the same and two glasses of chai. While the man cooked the eggs, his wife (?) and daughter (?) who appeared to be about 10 years old made the chapatis. The little girl would pull a piece of a large ball of dough, flour it, and roll furiously before handing it off to the woman, who then cooked them one by one on a tiny griddle. Oh, were they delicious! I asked the girl if I could take her picture, so she let me snap a couple photos of her working. I showed them to her for her approval, which she gave in the form of a great big smile. Once our hunger was sated, we walked to the Maha Bodhi Temple, which is the place where Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. The atmosphere in town was more carnival-esque than we expected. And they have some small, sad rides set up for the kids. We stopped to look at a merry-go-round with horses made out of slabs of wood hung from chains that was operated by a hand-crank and noticed the Sri Rama Break Dance, a“tilt-a-whirl” type ride in the background with a group of very grubby little kids looking longingly as one well-dressed little boy paid for his ticket. One girl in the group stepped up to the counter to pay and the others all hung back.  We often think we are simpatico, but at the very moment Colin was pulling money out of his pocket, I leaned to Colin and asked, “Do you wanna make some kids' day?” So we walked up to the ticket counter and asked a little girl if she wanted to ride. She smiled and nodded, so we asked the man at the counter how much for a ticket. This got the attention of the other kids, and Colin asked each if they wanted to go on the ride too. All nodded yes with great excitement. When all the tickets were bought and handed out, we had spent 160 rupees (about 3 bucks), and eight very happy kids selected their seats. We watched them spin and whirl and smile and cry and hide their faces for a couple of minutes before we reentered the crowd. That was the best money we spent in all of India. The level of poverty in India is unbelievable, and seeing the children having to beg is especially hard. To do something that for us is no big deal, to give them something they certainly didn't ask for but obviously wanted, and just, out of the blue, offer to pay for a turn on a crappy carnival ride, it made us both smile and feel pretty good.

Flower offerings line every hedge in the temple grounds
We continued our walk toward the Maha Bodhi Temple, and all along the way to the temple, the streets were packed with people sitting down, listening to the Dalai Lama's voice over the loudspeakers and watching him on the giant monitors. As we neared the temple, the walkable area of the street was narrowed by all the people sitting down. The lines of people trying to get through slowed to nothing, and then, someone started pushing. Colin and I were standing at the left edge of the walkers, right behind the last row of sitters. When the pushing began, I was nearly lifted off my feet and almost fell on a seated man. Colin's experience was similar. Nobody could go! A group of very tiny, elderly people were pushed through the crowd, and we followed in their wake (since it was the only open space). We finally made it to the temple grounds and went in to find another festival type atmosphere. 

We made our way through the grounds, sitting next to the lake where Buddha meditated, walking along the path he walked and meditated, and stood under the massive bodhi tree which is a descendant of the bodhi tree he sat beneath and achieved enlightenment. It would have been quite moving but for the thousands of other people around us. Even though we both had hoped for it to be a more thoughtful and peaceful experience, it was still pretty amazing to be in the same place where Buddha was over 2,500 years ago. Once we made our way around the temple, we headed out to see some of the many Buddhist temples that have been built by other countries in Bodh Gaya. It was interesting to see them back to back to note the stylistic differences between them. We immediately recognized the Thai Wat from its steep roof (even though it wasn't covered in mirrored tiles like many in Thailand are). The interior of the temple was painted in watery scenes with koi and mythical sea creatures. It was stunning. The Bhutan Temple more resembled a pagoda and had a more vividly painted and carved interior. I think the Japanese Temple was my favorite. From the outside, it looked very plain, painted a pale, sage green, with natural wood. On the inside, it was also very simple, but the ceiling was covered in paintings of cranes and various flowers, including irises, peonies, and roses. The walls had painted scenes of Buddha's life, from his birth to enlightenment. It was stunning. After we'd toured the temples, we rejoined the crowd and did some more people watching for a while before making our way back to our favorite spot for some more noodles for dinner.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Entering the Buddhist Trail at Sarnath

We eventually did make it to Sarnath, but it involved riding the last hour-plus in the dark, on extremely busy, rough roads through Varanasi (I only got sideswiped by a motorbike once in this stretch, and that was because NOBODY LOOKS BEFORE THEY PULL OUT INTO TRAFFIC IN THIS COUNTRY, and I beeped and moved over as far as I could without getting hit head-on. It was only just a love tap this time) and out the other side, through smoke and dust (they make a lot of bricks in the area, and all the chimneys were a-smokin'). 

When we finally arrived at our destination, it was blissfully quiet, with little traffic, and no horns. We found, quite accidentally, the guesthouse where we hoped to stay, and they had a room available. We checked in and asked the proprietor about dinner. He gave us a couple of recommendations, so we hoofed it down the street to have a rather disappointing meal. But the walk was pleasant. It felt good to be off the bikes and able to walk in a straight line unhindered by any traffic but the occasional cow. After dinner, we walked to the very dark center of town (since everything shuts down by 9:00 pm) and managed to score some cookies and soda water. Having polished off our bedtime snack, we pulled the wool blankets up to our noses and fell sound asleep.

Sarnath is an interesting town. It's more or less a suburb of the city of Varanasi, which is a tourist destination for those who want to see the burning funeral pyres on the Ganges River. In Hindu culture, it is the most sacred of all the rivers in India and is the place to be cremated if your family can make it happen. We decided to bypass Varanasi because, although it would be interesting to witness these rites, we couldn't bear the thought of dealing with another big, dirty, crowded, Indian city. So instead, we went to Sarnath, which it on the Buddhist pilgrimage trail. It is the place where Buddha met the first of his disciples and gave his first sermon. The morning after we arrived was socked in with fog, so after a hot, steamy shower to loosen the sore muscles from yesterday (no injury but a small bruise on my right forearm where my jacket armor must have hit), we had a leisurely breakfast of coffee and buttered toast with homemade mango marmalade on the guesthouse verandah. The guesthouse is built on a huge courtyard filled with beautiful flowers, vegetable patches, and fruit trees. Overhanging the door to our room was a starfruit tree, covered in ripe fruit. The owner asked if we would like to try one, to which I wholeheartedly said please! He had one of his workmen climb up on the roof to find a nice one for us which we enjoyed immensely. When you buy them in the States, they seem to be good only as decoration on a fruit tray, but here, they are just huge and so juicy and sweet!

Chaukhandi Stupa
Once we realized the sky wasn't going to get any clearer, we headed out to see the sights. Our first stop was the Chaukhandi Stupa, where Buddha met his first disciples. The stupa is now largely just a humongous pile of bricks upon which a Mughal tower was constructed in the 16th century. Re and I walked the path around the mist covered stupa, and while there wasn't much to see, we both found the site very peaceful. We sat and talked for a while before continuing on. Next we walked to the Archaeological Museum and discovered that it is closed on Fridays, and we were there on a Friday. So we instead stopped for a yummy thali lunch at a little shack of a restaurant with canvas walls that was doing a hopping business. Once we were finished eating, we continued to the Damekh Stupa, which is where Buddha gave his first sermon.  

Damekh Stupa and monastery remains
The grounds surrounding the stupa contain the remains of a huge old monastery and the Ashoka Pillar. The stupa was an impressive sight at nearly a hundred feet high and was striking in its simplicity compared to Hindu monuments. The only colorful thing here were the thousands of Tibetan prayer flags and the gold leaf that pilgrims rub on auspicious spots. Next we stopped at the Mulgandha Kuti Vihar, which is a modern Buddhist Temple notable mostly for its bodhi tree. This tree is said to be an offspring from the original tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment. 

High goat fashion in "plether."  PETA would approve
The atmosphere is so much more calm and peaceful here than at any of the Hindu sights we've visited. The pilgrims and the tourists are respectfully quiet (for the most part) and the touts stay outside the grounds (again, for the most part). It's quite a nice change to be able to stroll and think and talk without being hounded to buy something. Once we'd visited the sights, we stopped and bought some fruit on the way back to the guesthouse, which we ate in the now sunny courtyard. Later on, we wandered back to the same spot where we had lunch and enjoyed an equally good dinner.

The best year of my life

2012 is shaping up to be the very best year of my life. "Why," you ask, "isn't it a bit early to make that judgment?" My reply is a resounding, "No. It is most definitely not too early to tell."  Because, in the first week of this year, I survived getting hit by a big, yellow bus. Twice. And both I and my bike remain relatively unscathed by either incident. “Just what the hell are you doing to provoke them?” you might ask. “Riding in India,” I'd reply. 

The first occurred on our way to Khajuraho. We were creeping through a particularly rough and potholed section of road at no more that 5 mph, and I was trying to pass a tractor in the few seconds when there was no oncoming traffic. I began my pass, and the next thing I knew, I felt myself being pushed from behind.  Thankfully, I managed to keep the rubber on the road (since I was going so slowly, I would guess). I looked back over my shoulder and saw yellow. I apparently wasn't moving fast enough for the tour bus that was behind me, and the driver attempted to punt me out of his way so he could go round both the tractor and myself. I gave the bus (since I couldn't see the driver's face) the stink-eye and then turned face forward and continued on my way. Colin and I stopped to refuel shortly thereafter, and I told him rather proudly that a bus had hit me, but that I and the bike stayed upright and were fine, just annoyed. I think it must have only caught the spare tire strapped on the right rear side, because there were no marks anywhere. 
My second run-in happened three days later (our next day of riding), leaving Khajuraho for Sarnath. The day started out just fine. The weather was cool, the air so full of condensation that everything appeared to glow gold, and we were on the road early. The first section of the ride was through beautiful farmland and a nature preserve, so the scenery was nice, but the pavement left a lot to be desired. 

Once we were through the nature preserve, the road surface improved dramatically, so we made good time for the next couple of hours until we got to the outskirts of the city of Satna (I have nothing to recommend it). The traffic load increased as we headed into the city. I was riding behind Colin in the usual pack of other motorbikes at the left edge of the road, when a bus with a most impatient driver approached from behind, blasting his horn, and attempted to pass the pack of traffic that included us. It apparently made it around some of the vehicles, but I, once again, felt myself lurching forward. This time, I was going faster, probably between 15 and 20 mph and was unable to keep it upright. I don't honestly remember the few seconds (or however long it was) before I hit the ground. The next thing I do recall was feeling the impact. I landed, tangled under the bike (it landed on its left side) and my head snapped forward and I hit the crown of my helmet on the pavement. I did a quick extremity check to make sure everything worked before I looked up to again see YELLOW. Another goddamned fucking bus in a hurry. And this one was slowly driving past me. He wasn't even going to stop. Nice, really nice. Colin heard the distinct sound of plastic bodywork scraping behind him, stopped, and yelled to ask what happened (since for once, he didn't witness my mishap). I yelled back, “that bus hit me!” He asked if I was okay, and I said yes.

Colin then got off his bike and ran alongside the bus, yelling and pounding on the plexiglass window to make the driver stop. Colin apparently grabbed hold of the door handle and tried to get on the bus. But the driver wouldn't stop and only picked up speed, so Colin let go after giving the window another hard punch and ran back to me. In the ensuing matter of seconds, a large crowd formed and picked my bike off of me and then helped me up. Colin was very soon back at my side asking if I was alright and where on my body I landed. I told him I hit my head and my right arm/shoulder (again), and showed him that everything was working fine, I was just a bit sore. About this time, a very kind man emerged from the crowd and motioned for me to sit on the ground and remove my helmet. Not really knowing what else to do at that particular moment and needing some guidance since I was really shaken, I did what he wanted. He then gently squeezed and massaged my head while Colin looked over my bike. 

After a few minutes, I'd calmed down enough to stand up and get moving. But one young gentleman in the crowd kept asking what happened. I told him that the bus hit me from behind, and all he could do was chastise me for riding on the road (apparently I should have taken to the shopfronts instead?) and for not learning to speak Hindi before coming to India, since the other men in the group were unable to understand English. Since I really didn't need his “encouragement,” we got back in our saddles, after I again assured Colin that I was fine, and rode away. 

A couple miles down the road, I started gasping and sobbing when it actually occurred to me what had happened and just how badly it could have turned out. My crash in Namibia was my own fault through inexperience. When I hit the wall in front of the hotel in Thanjavur, it was also my own fault due to inexperience and my short fuse. But this time, I did everything I possibly could to ride safely- I checked my mirrors, did head checks, I used my horn to signal, I stayed with traffic, I rode at the edge of the pavement to give all the bigger vehicles room to pass, and still, I got rear-ended by a bus. I am extremely thankful that we have such good quality protective gear, because without it, the situation could have ended in a whole lot more tears than the few I shed in my helmet. Colin noticed that I was lagging behind and pulled over to see what was wrong. I told him what I had been thinking and how shaken I was by the morning's events. He said that from Varanasi, we could put the bikes and ourselves on a train to either Delhi or Calcutta and fly home. He would totally understand and not be disappointed in me if that's what I wanted to do and said to think about the option. I only had to think for about ten seconds before I said no. I did not want to let this beat me. If we went home, I would always wonder what amazing things we missed by cutting the trip short. Plus dammit, I want to go to Nepal! Colin assured me that there was time for me to think about it and decide, it didn't need to be right that minute, and we continued on down the road. Oh, and the best part of all? As the bus pulled away from me, I saw that it was... a schoolbus. Nice, supremely nice

We stopped a couple miles down the road at an Indian Coffee House for coffee and to take a few minutes to decompress.  As I got off my bike, I asked Colin to take a picture of me post-bus wreck.  I took the camera out of my jacket pocket and handed it to him.  He turned it on and said, "Oh no."  It was at that moment we discovered the only casualty in the accident- the camera.  The LCD screen on the back has fracture lines and no longer displays.  We shall see if the camera works at all and if the screen can be replaced when we are someplace with access to better electronics (or anything other than those made by Bajaj or Tata).  What a bummer!  In the meantime, we'll have to live with photos on my iPod.