I think it all began with this book. I read it maybe 8 years ago but its provocative theory felt compelling. Work four hours a week, delegate tasks, make some phone calls, travel the world and become rich. Tim Ferris claims: It works. Four hours, not per day – per week! The rest of the time: Unwind! Who would say “No” to that?
The idea has taken a back seat in my life in the last years but now it is on the surface again, with power. There is nothing wrong about working less. Why do I have to have a reason for it, like family and kids? We work more and more to accumulate more and more stuff we don’t need. “I want to preserve my standard of living”, many might say. “I have to”. Is that so? I try not to take part in that race and I do not want to give any reasons for that other than “slowing down”, just for the sake of it.
Freedom. Independence. Love. Trust. Achievement. Authenticity. Belonging. These are, according to my Indian coach, my most important values. Freedom is a theme that appears again and again in everything I do. I never noticed how important it is for me. And it is one of the best ingredients in my current job as a journalist. That is presumably why I have always been drawn back to my profession – even in times of turmoil. Because being a news journalist has changed in the last ten years and it will probably change again profoundly in the next decade, with more of what is called “Social Media” and accelerating news cycles. Still, I want to be part of it. I want to write, I want to report, I want to tell the truth, I never want to lose my curiosity.
When I read an ad on Facebook some months ago, I was thrilled. Some digital experts teach others how they themselves might become digital experts, “digital nomads”. Their slogan: “An idea is worth nothing without taking the first step”. But: Do I even have an idea?
Is there anything that hasn’t been done before? Is it a childlike dream to sit in front of my laptop in a beach café, do some writing and earn a bunch of money? Is it a myth? Is anybody really doing that or do Facebook and Instagram just make us believe that these people exist? The initiators of the “Nomadweek” shall tell me. 20 people, seminars, workshops, inspiration. I will spend several days with the “cool guys”, the kind I always admired, envied. Who are they?
Laura. She writes the travel blog “Placeless” . She decided to quit her job and exchange five holidays a year for one big journey around the world. With not more than carry-on luggage. Her motto: “Karma and love instead of money”.
Olli. He is a freelancer, traveler, blogger, podcaster – with his site “Wolfsmilch” – and still part-time citizen of Hamburg. He will talk about branding, “slow travels” and working self-determinedly.
Daniel. He travels Latin America, blogs and podcasts about it here: “Southtraveler“. He also writes blogs for others and promotes non-profit projects.
They seem to be what is called “Lebenskünstler” in German. Could not find a proper translation for that. Maybe a hedonist mixed with a tumbler? Somebody who always lands on his or her feet. Is this a skill, an art of living, or is it just a question of karma and a different perspective on the ups and downs in life?
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
The “Nomadweek” in Lourinhã, Portugal, wants to address our fears. I “fear” several days are not enough to list all of mine. The timetable promises sessions such as “Your personal hate list”, “Where do you want to be in five years?”, “WordPress”, “Online Marketing”. It gives me the creeps when I hear expressions like “unique selling point” and I rather put “advertising myself” on the hate list. I will never be an “influencer” in the current sense. If I influence one or two out there, for the better, enough for me. Aside from all the self-discovery, there is also free time for surfing and yoga (yeah!). This program must have been invented just for me!
I will arrive in Portugal on Sunday with a lot of pragmatic questions about a blogger’s life but also one, that Kyle Chaka asks in the following NYT article: What if being a working nomad and keeping yourself afloat kills the magic of traveling? Does it?
Am I to old-fashioned to be a “digital hipster”? Do I really speak the language of the new era in journalism, the language of blogs and FB and Insta?
Not long ago the head of a leading radio program in Cologne turned me down for a job with the words: “We are looking for somebody who is greedy about new technologies, you know. Well, we missed this greed in you.” This feedback really helped. My disappointment vanished. I do want to be a greedy person, not financially and not in the figurative sense. I am who I am. I am no “early adopter”. If I have to be one to compete – bye bye. I want to have less and do less. I believe that minimalism can unveil power in you.
Lourinhã might lead to clear outcomes. Possible, that I return to Germany with no more envy because I decide that I am not one of the “cool guys” and do not want to be. Process of elimination. Possible, that I get a starting point to turn my life around. Or something in between. I have always been good with the latter. Lourinhã might leave me torn and that is also ok.
Sometimes it can be good if a dream stays a dream. Because in my imagination it is just perfect. Reality never is.
Laid-back is probably the word that describes Tromsø the best. No rush, no noise, few people – aside from quite a bunch of tourists. The frostiness and the snow seem to calm everything down.
Our first adventure is planned for the morning after our arrival. We are brought to a site a little outside of the city to experience dog sledding. More than 300 Alaskan huskies are waiting for tourists – they are named after different themes. There are even some Social Media guys – “Twitter” and “Insta” – others are called “Amazon” (the river) and “Nile”.
The “working dogs” seem eager to pull us through the snow. From time to time one of them starts barking and the others join in. After the meet and greet the sleds are ready. I team up with Jamie from Nashville, USA, and our musher is Nadja – from Nürnberg, Germany. She works in Tromsø in the winter time and loves the dogs. She has even adopted some of the old ones who cannot run anymore. The wildlife center also breeds dogs – the strongest run near the sled, the clever minds become leading dogs in the front. The best ones take part in races as long as 1.200 kilometers. We drive not more than two or three and wonder whether our leading dog really listens to the “Gee” and “Haw” from Nadja or just runs after the other sleighs and takes a shortcut here and there.
After a lunch with reindeer soup and chocolate cake in a Sami tent we take off our heavy and extra warm snow overalls and head back to the city. To maximize our chances to see northern lights we decide to book a northern lights tour for the same day. After a hot shower and some rest we board the van of Brynjar. He is very optimistic that we will see “aurora borealis” – even thought the KP index is low for the night like on our first day.
But the sky is clear and Brynjar does not give too much about forecasts. I am already freezing in the van so I hope “aurora” does show up as soon as possible. We drive around and stop several times – but no lights, neither northern nor artificial. Brynjar repeats again and again that he does not believe in numbers. Even on our first night we could have seen northern lights: they just came out later than usual – around midnight when we were already asleep. On our tour we do not have to wait so long: Around 10pm we spot a long white tail in the air, not to far from our heads it seems, and Brynjar gets excited. This is it! So, aurora comes in an unspectacular white dress and dances around the clear black sky, like cotton candy. Where is the green? On the photographs. It is spooky: On every picture the cloudy tail appears green, even red or purple. But aurora is not strong enough to reveal its green to the bare human eye. It is like a scary movie: taking a photo and suddenly there is somebody else in the picture. 👻
I tried to understand what nature is doing and, as a fan of short stories, I found this metaphor the best explanation of the northern lights: The sun is blowing us a kiss. It is a solar storm consisting of particles full of energy. They are caught by the magnetic field of the earth, hit the atmosphere and are thus stimulated to glow. I return to the hostel terribly cold and tired but happy.
On day number 2 we take he public bus to the cable car of Tromsø. In five minutes we are brought to the viewing point Storsteinen, 421 meters above the city.
Needless to say that it is awfully cold up there. So cold, that I cannot manage to take a selfie without a big tear in my eye. The wind is almost killing us.
We wait in the viewpoint’s café for the cable car back down. We walk through the residential area with all its neat and mostly wooden Norwegian houses in different colors. Porches, balconies and frozen hammocks directed to the sunny south. Are people ever outside in t-shirt or bikini or having a barbecue? It seems unimaginable.
We reach the arctic sea cathedral, a lutheran church in triangular shape, with one of Europe’s largest mosaic windows. The glass is not as illuminated as we hoped since the sun only shines through in the mornings and the view to the mosaic is partly concealed by a white wall. Anyway, we relax a minute in the quietness and refuel a little warmth, I light a candle and out we go. We walk all the way back across the bridge, “Tromsøbrua”. At the handrail couples have hung up love locks.
After a siesta and warming up at our hotels we get ready for another excursion: a hike with snow shoes. We meet our guide Matthias from Tromsø Outdoor and we drive to Charlottenlund – something like a central park (“friområde”) of Tromsø. We put on our snow shoes with spikes, grab walking sticks and follow Matthias. I feel a little dumb and “overdressed” with snow shoes and spikes while there are people just walking normally or skiing through the park. But soon we leave the official tracks and walk up and down through dark and snowy forest. We see a snow grouse, nordic birch trees and we enjoy the magnificent view from Tromsøya (Tromsøs central island) to the mainland.
A lot of people are doing langlauf in the park, instead of jogging. Their are quite fast and we have to watch out for them flying by and also for their slopes (do not step into them!). The funny noise their ski poles male in the firm snow helps to notice them – it sounds like chewing halloumi cheese. We pass the scientific center that measures the probability of northern lights and soon after that we return to a small shed with a fireplace. While Svenja, Clara and me spend some time being a child again and ride toboggans down a small hill, Matthias lights the fire. He later tells us that he came from Sweden to live in Tromsø because the climate is a little milder than at home (really?) and now he lives on a sail boat with his girl friend – no luxury, no TV. What an outdoor guy. We drink glogg out of paper cups and eat Norwegian cake – a pressed pan cake with a buttery filling. Suddenly, Matthias points to the sky. Northern lights! Directly above our heads, despite all the lanterns of the city. The lights even shimmer green – other than than the evening before. No chasing, no waiting. In a moment you least expect it, things can unfold just the way you might wish. Nature’s lesson! We watch the greenish smoke in the air for some time and soon clear the fireplace. After so much fresh air we fall rather early into our beds.
Day 4 is time for seeing the seals! We visit Polaria and watch bearded seals and smaller harbor seals. You can walk beneath their ocean water pool…
…and the trainers feed them breakfast. Bearded seals have not been studied that extensively yet (that’s what they do at Polaria) and there have never been born any in captivity. The two massive ladies are quite cute – one of them cuddles with the wall after she has eaten up all the fish. Movies take us on a cruise through the fjords. We also learn about climate change, the melting of the polar ice and the life conditions of polar bears that get harsher and harsher. In the souvenir shop I am tempted by a wooden key chain in shape of a heart. The wood feels so smooth and we wonder what it is. A German speaking forest ranger behind us knows: It is “karelian birch”. Aha. Although I cannot memorize the name easily: From now on, it is my favorite wood. Polaria is also known for its architecture: The building looks like ice floes washed up to the shore.
In the afternoon I decide to educate myself in the field of booze, at Mack’s brewery. The main beer production has moved to a new building out of Tromsø but they still have a micro brewery. And if you come across the beer topic it is inevitable that is has something to do with Germany. Mack was founded by a guy from Braunschweig! During the Nazi time in Germany they even were the main vendor of beer to the German troops – and they used this for a special kind of resistance. They told the British government what amounts of beer they delivered to which places, so that the Allies could estimate where the most German soldiers are positioned. Today, Mack has quite unique ideas to push sales numbers. During the brewing process they play a certain kind of music – a range of Vinyl albums and a record player stand next to the tanks. Once the beer is finished, they print the song collection on the label of the bottle.
At Ølhallen next door, I taste some of their different brands – 1877 is a really good one! Tromsø is also a culinary experience – Norwegians know how to eat.
Norway! No way! When Svenja told me about her next journey with Clara, I got jealous. I have never been to “real” Norway, only to Oslo, and I felt my heart jumping up. I needed one night to gather my guts: “Can I come with?” Although it seems like such a natural question it feels awkward to ask. Even, if it is one of your closest friends. Why? It always catapults me back into teenage days, struggling to be part of something. Without being asked. “If they want my company, they would have asked, right?” Maybe yes, maybe no. But should it feel humiliating to invite yourself to a party? No. It is just an easy question. So this time, I did not avoid asking it and the answer was: “Yes, come with!”. Maybe it is all about being prepared for a “No” and not contemplating too much about it. It does not make any difference. In that case, destiny would have taken me to some other place instead or nowhere and who knows what would have happened. Anyway: Norway is on. Where the heck is Tromsø? And how do I write this slashed “o”? (It is “alt”+”o” on the Mac by the way).
Svenja has made some research already and Tromsø seems to be a fridge filled with fun activities. We decide to book snowshoeing, a guided tour to see the northern lights and dog sledding. Yee-haw! When it comes to pricing this also justifies a “Yee-haw”: Norway empties your pockets. At least it is easy to see that: just divide NOK by ten. In order to be reasonable with my budget, I booked a hostel called “hotel” – let’s hope “nomen est omen”. The weather forecast could hardly be better: Bare sun for five days with freezing temperatures around minus five degree Celsius at day time. I hope it does not drop much further – I have experienced minus 25 degree Celsius once in Ammarnäs, Swedish Lapland, and I am not at all equipped for this kind of arctic extreme. I have never been so way up north. Tromsø’s degree of latitude is that of North Alaska! And it is one of the most important spots to start a polar expedition (I am out).
So, what is this northern lights tourism all about? Tromsø is allegedly one of the best places to see “aurora borealis” (sounds like a severe disease). The city is in the middle of an oval ring where the probability is highest. With clear skies you might not even have to go far to be lucky. There is no guarantee to catch northern lights but there is a forecast. The best time of the day is supposed to be 9.30pm to 1am. Oh dear. Why do I always chose holiday options with little sleep? Some travelers might chase or hunt northern lights. I am not such a good hunter, even less talented with “nature event photography”. So, I hope we make this more about searching a wonder than finding one. It is not predictable anyway. Besides, I do not have a camera that can capture such epiphanies at night time. Why do we take pictures anyway? Ok, yes, for this blog and for Instagram and for Facebook and for the relatives and so on and so on. Perhaps, I am simply a bad photographer but most of the time, when I look at my pictures or videos, I feel like they are a cheap copy of reality, far from real beauty, phony. Which shot does finally show the magic? Neither. Still, I will be standing there, in freezing cold Tromsø, staring to the sky, holding on to my mobile and waiting for the perfect shot that never comes. Will I have have the strength to just leave the camera in the suitcase instead, enjoying the moment? My resolution for Tromsø: Take pictures with your heart! Besides, there is nothing that hasn’t been done before, thank you Youtube and Vimeo.
Ok, so, some more random (fun) facts of Tromsø, some of them worth learning more about during the trip:
The city is home of the “arctic council” – a board that balances the interests of the arctic neighbors and indigenous people
Tromsø is smaller than my home town Gütersloh – in terms of residents
The most important employer of Tromsø is the university hospital (I might need it. As I said once before: No holiday without seeing a doctor. But this is only 5 days…so pull yourself together, Yvonne). The university itself has a good reputation and attracts international students. Reminds of my good old days at Stockholms universitet…nostalgia!
The average maximum temperature in March in Tromsø is minus 0.4 degree Celsius. The average temperature year-round is plus 2.5 degree Celsius.
In 1940 Tromsø has briefly been the capital of Norway
There is a cathedral with Europe’s largest glass mosaic – the “Ishavskatedralen”
Tromsø is not connected to any railroad. And some streets in Tromsø are heated to free them from ice. Really???
Not far from the city you can find a post of an EU authority: the “European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association”. Whaaat? The seem to do research on atmosphere and climate with radar. Incoherent radar. Aha.
Tromsø has the world’s northernmost brewery (“Macks Ølbryggeri”) with its pub “Ølhallen”. Well, we might pay them a visit. Furthermore, some people claim that Tromsø has the highest density of pubs per resident in Europe. I doubt it. Something, we should prove wrong. Or prove.
Tromsø has the world’s northernmost philharmonic orchestra. Well, I won’t pay them a visit but: Cool!
To get the right tune for this journey, I went through old photos of my time in Ammarnäs in February 2007. The pictures remind me of how fast my hands and feet freeze and how awfully tired a day out in icy temperatures makes you. The pictures also brought back the remembrance of arctic “supermarkets” at the end of the world. It was the first time I ate something like beef jerky and dried reindeer. Generally, the people in Lapland ate a lot of meat and “korv” (Swedish for “sausage”) and “biffar” (Swedish for beef steaks…yeah, we actually got served some kind of “köttbullar” = meatballs). I also learned something about Sami culture (need an update on that) and bathed in a hot tub outside, next to a frozen and snow covered lake.
Digging into old photos is the best. The first thought is: Oh my God, look how I looked back then! How different! The second thought: Overall, I haven’t changed a bit. Which is good. Ok, I would not wear a bikini with tiger design anymore, true. And that is also: good. Ammarnäs was not the first time I rode a horse but it was the first time that I got in touch with a special gear of Icelandic horses: “Tölt”. It is a smooth trot and allegedly more comfortable for the rider – assumed the horse is not stubborn. But I do not want to put the blame on the horse here.
So, my warm socks are packed and I am curious what I will find trotting around in Tromsø, together with my travel companions Svenja and Clara.
Alarm at 5:15 am. Why should my last day on this journey start any different from the ones before? I have never slept longer than 6 to 7 hours a night. But I do not want to leave Pokhara without having seen the sunrise from a supposedly stunning viewing point on the top of a hill, half an hour away from our hotel. When we reach the Sarangkot viewpoint we are greeted by souvenir vendors and groups of Asian tourists. They are already gathered on one of the two platforms, taking selfies and videos, climbing on chairs to have a better view, although there is nothing fantastic in sight yet – besides the mountain panorama of course.
The sky is cloudy this morning and when the sun gradually starts to work its way up we are awarded with the most beautiful reddish paint that a sunrise can offer. The light touches the top of the mountain range and dips it in yellow first, then in a light red. Marie and I take our snapshots and are ready to go. B.K. hold us back: „But the sun has not come up yet!“ We are exposed as nature idiots and smile about it. A few minutes later a red fireball is appearing at the horizon. Before the Asian tourist bus passengers realize this fact I have reserved my first row spot on platform 2 and take a video, with Chinese subtitles though.
Some hours later we catch a flight to Kathmandu. I help myself to an A-seat at the window facing the Himalayas. Half an hour time to say „goodbye“ to those beauties.
My final afternoon in Kathmandu deserves the label „disturbing“. But I would not want to miss that experience. We treat ourselves to 20 minutes rest at the hotel and then take a taxi to the cremation temple Pashupatinah. Hindus believe in reincarnation and express this in a very special funeral ceremony. They burn their dead loved ones and throw them into the river that flows into the holiest of rivers: the Ganges. Thus the lost ones are able to step into their next life. Family and friends must not cry and drop tears during the ceremony – this is regarded as bad luck and an obstacle to reincarnation. Up to 60 people are burned next to the Pashupatinah temple every day. The process lasts several hours. The bodies are burned completely so that everything can be given to the Bagmati river.
There are two sections at the river: One for the ordinary population, one for richer people and royals. Tourists may cross the river to go onto the side where the fires are lit, but we abstain from that. It is already intense enough. We walk over to an ongoing ceremony and watch it from the opposite riverside. The dead person is wrapped into a scarf covered with marigold flowers, people are surrounding the death bed. It is usual that the oldest son must dress in white and light the fire. Nowadays also daughters are allowed to do that if there is no son around.
I am actually watching people burn. For real. I have to inhale the smoky air. And I have my camera ready, afraid it might drop into the dirty river. This whole situation is disturbing, in an way. But on the other hand, it is not. The dead ones’ relatives are taking pictures with their smartphone. Nobody cries, people wear colorful clothes. They all seem very concentrated on the procedure itself. Monkeys are jumping around, vendors sell water and pineapples. Many spectators stare at the death bed. Once the fire is lit we have seen enough. We walk to the exit, silent, and drink a lemonade. As if nothing had happened.
Our next destination is Kathmandu Durbar Square – where Nepali kings have been crowned and where beautiful temples, shrines and palaces were built. We take the only taxi that is standing in front of the Pashupatinah area and hope for the best. The driver claims to know where we want to go – after 20 minutes it is obvious: He does not. Danielle confirms with her GPS map that we are not getting any nearer to Durbar Square so we make him stop the car and walk. Through a busy street that reminds me of Old Delhi. It is so crowded that I have to jump away several times to avoid rolling a motorbike over my feet. We also pass a rally of the democratic party – the speaker is shouting, seems to be close to a heart attack.
If we do not arrive soon, we might collapse too. But Danielle’s map saves us. We find the square that is officially called “Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square” – that is probably why the driver did not understand what we wanted. Many buildings, hundreds of years in age, have suffered from the 2015 earthquake and are still under construction, financed by UN programs.
We are heading to a three story temple where the “living goddess” resides – the Kumari. She is an infant of three years, chosen to be a goddess, caged in a room in the temple and guarded 24/7. There is not only a Kumari in Kathmandu but also in some other major cities. She may not leave the room – if she does, she is carried so that she does not touch the floor. Nepali citizens may get an audience with her and for others, she shows up at her window twice a day – in the morning and in the afternoon. We hope to see her – and wait under her window, together with other tourists. We hear her voice and a dog barking upstairs, then a man with a wool cap suddenly appears at the open window. Guides remind the crowd to not take photos of the goddess before she shows up at 4 pm. She appears for not more than one or two minutes. People shout “Namaste” up to her. The girl, dressed in red, looks down at us, points twice with her finger in what seems to be our direction (probably every visitor thinks that way) and is pulled back inside. “Kumari” means virgin. The girls are chosen as toddlers and have to be “brave”. They may not cry when they see the slaughter of a buffalo. Once their first menstruation comes they have to “retire” and get a pension of roundabout 25 dollars per month. So, with about 12 years these girls are released into freedom – without ever having seen or talked to other children or been in the real world and without much of an education. A stolen childhood – what a cruel practice. This is worse than seeing dead people burn.
„Are you excited to go home“, Danielle asks me on the evening before my departure. „I am not sure“, I answer. It is a „yes” and and a „no“. I am looking forward to familiar faces, my bathroom, traffic lights, safe water, salad, privacy. I am not looking forward to going back to usual. I’d rather be in the “great wide open”. As soon as that happens again, I let you know.
e drive up and down on winding roads. Today we have to conquer about 70 kilometers through the mountains alongside a river to reach our overnight stop midway between Kathmandu and Pokhara: the Summit River Lodge in Korintar. After a while we enter a construction zone. Workers, some in flip flops, are carrying stones, small excavators and steamrollers are making noise, the ride gets really bumpy. The government decided to broaden the street – from one lane to two. In such conditions, at least nobody can speed, that makes it a safe journey. After lunch the road is getting better, the news worse. There has been an accident on the main road in the morning and we have to pass the accident site. A bus has crashed into a truck and fell all the way down into the river. Seven people died. Although the traffic jam has cleared many trucks and cars are still lining up in both directions, people are standing on the wall beside the road and watch the rescue team. One man in a life vest and some military personnel are running around. A rubber dinghy lies at the bank of the river. The bus sank completely, there is nothing visible other than brown-green-gray water. Getting people to hospitals is not an easy task – and an even bigger problem for remote mountain villages. If they have to deal with something that cannot be solved with prayer or Ayurveda it can take them days to get to a doctor. Health care is not free in Nepal – unlike in India – but Nepalese can pick up some common medicine from the pharmacy every three months for free, like paracetamol. Also birth control is free of charge. However, many people do not want it. Talking about remote areas in the Himalayas, I have to catch up on an interesting lecture we heard in Kathmandu, supported by the Himalayan Indigenous Society.
Upper Mustang: This is an isolated region in the very north of Nepal. The inhabitants live in heights up to 4.000 meters. It is a semi-independent kingdom! With polyandry (women married to several men)! To warm up and stay “fit”, they drink yak butter tea. We are invited to try – not many of us are able to finish their cup (I am a finisher). It tastes like salty buttery milk with a hint of Earl Grey. In winter the Lhowa people leave the cold for some months. They speak Tibetan or Nepali, most of them are Buddhists. We learn about their weaving culture with self-spun wool and colors made of natural ingredients (even neon pink).
We reach our parking spot in Korintar. Today we walk the rest of the way. Sherpas carry our day packs. A suspension bridge leads us across the river into the mountains and we pass a small village. 450 people are living here, mostly farmers: for example Chepang, Magars, Brahmans and Chhetri. They have their own city council (11 members) and live a self-sustaining life. Most of them are “middle-class”, as B.K. tells us.
The Lodge overlooks the river and is a real hideaway – with cold water in the shower but Wifi. We sit beside the bonfire, the water roars deep down in the valley and we have a Chinese dinner.
The next morning we continue our trip, to the Barahi Jungle Lodge. Safari time in the national park! We take a boat ride on the river to spot crocodiles. And we do see some, resting at the bank. “I promise you a rhino as well”, our ranger says, “otherwise I will cry”. There is no need to do that. Ten minutes pass and we see the silhouette of a leathery butt. There it is! I give up taking pictures with my smartphone camera but Danielle zooms in.
We see the sunset on a small peninsula and are brought back to the lodge via jeep, listening to Nepali music.
The next day we go on a jeep safari through the amazing vegetation on the other side of the river. The military strictly controls the area because of illegal hunting. We spot a lot of deer and capuchin monkeys jumping from tree to tree or just hanging out.
The park has all shades of green in it, high grass and after a while we reach a dead end: am meadow with wetland and water lilies. Another rhino seems to be grazing in the far distance – as soon as it hears the second jeep, it is gone. Anyway: The scenery is peaceful, birds are singing and there is a soft mist over everything, dancing with the sunlight. When we head back it is already getting very chilly again – temperatures rise and drop quickly in the beginning winter time.
The lodge is not far from a cluster of the village “Bhangha”. Around 300 people are living there, some of them work at the lodge. So this is the deal, B.K. tells us: They get some money out of us visiting and in return we are invited to see their daily life. Whether everybody of them is ok with that, I don’t think so. But they take it with a smile. We are there, intruding, sniffing around, taking pictures, walking onto their porches. The simplest houses are made of elephant grass mixed with cow dung and mud. They stay warm inside in winter and cool in summer. Kids are playing (it is a muslim holiday today, so no school), women are washing clothes, a farmer sells cauliflower. One family invites us in to see their home. It is basic and so clean. Many people here have converted to the Christian confession or to Buddhism since 2008 to avoid further discrimination by the Nepali caste system. It is abolished, officially, and there are penalties for violators of law but the way out of Hinduism is obviously the better option.
A villager tells me, that he has worked in Malaysia to make some money and he has come back to live here for good. Children go away to earn money abroad – Dubai, India, Malaysia – and send it back to their parents or their family. A woman is stepping on what seems to be hay. But it is not. It is rice. She extracts corns from the plants.
Several generations live together, with their children and grandchildren. There is free birth control in Nepal but women would have to go to hospitals to get pills. Most of them do not go into that hassle. Election posters are hanging on the walls of some houses. It is rally season – with the elections coming up on the 7th of December. A first phase has already taken place. It is the first time since 1999 that a new parliament is elected. Citizens have to vote in their home district so some parties even offer free bus rides to secure votes, writes a Kathmandu paper. There is no such thing as a postal vote. During the last election voters threw acid in ballot boxes to destroy votes – and thus alter the results in their favor. Local candidates are fighting for votes – especially the communists have gone up in popularity. “The ruling democrats, Nepali Congress, have promised too much”, B.K. says, “and did not keep their promises”. There is a lot of political arbitrariness – above all in the rural regions. Families who are still recovering from the earthquake haven’t seen any money from the government. Others have received several thousand dollars to rebuild their houses. Nepal has had 26 government changes in 27 years. The federal system exists since 2008 but it is not fully in place yet – especially with regard to decentralization and the employment of civil servants on the local level. So with this election people also vote for Provincial Assemblies in the seven provinces. “It is so exciting to see all these changes happening here”, Louisa has said to me when I asked her whether she wants to stay in Nepal. But it is also true that it is not a smooth ride. Since mid November there have been more than 100 incidents of explosions in the country. These attacks probably targeted local politicians. There is a lot of military personnel in the streets and escorts rallies while we are driving in our comfy tour bus and are faced with an “eating challenge” at the jungle lodge (so much good food!).
Overfed we leave for Pokhara – about 150 kilometers and a 7 (!!) hour drive away from the Chitwan area. We make our way back through the construction zone next to the Trishuli river and finally switch to a proper road next to the Marshyangdi river. Pokhara is a starting point for many trekkers who want to climb the Annapurna mountain – a 8091 giant in the Himalayas. We check into our hotel, the Temple Tree next to the Phewa Lake. The city seems to be placed in front of a wall paper of mountains, including the “Fish Tail” – the sacred Machapuchare – that is forbidden to be climbed. There is no time for trekking anywhere anyway, so Marie and I choose the comfy version: helicopter to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).
The activity turns out to be a lecture in cultural mentality, apart from the natural experience. Our pick up from the hotel is 20 minutes late. Once a small van drives up we hop in. At the airport we have a slight assumption that something is not going as planned. Several girls from a flight agency make us fill out boarding passes in their small booth. The sheet of paper does not show a helicopter but a powered paraglide. We drop the sinal word “helicopter” several times but the girls are caught in their routine. Finally we figure out the misunderstanding (me, imitating a helicopter). But it is too late for the first morning flight. So we have to wait another 90 minutes, concerned that the good visibility with clear sky might change. In the end we board a helicopter with five other guys – Dave, originally from Dublin but working in Dubai – is sitting next to me. He is afraid of heights. “You can grab my hand if you want to”, I say rather facetious. After two minutes of a very (!!) smooth flight he accepts the offer, breathing heavily, once in a while taking pictures with his smartphone without looking outside the window. In my other hand I also have my smartphone handy, take pictures, and after 15 minutes we reach the ABC. The peaks of the mountains are covered in snow (the snow is that is there year-round, no fresh snow yet), the basecamp itself is surrounded by brownish grass. We sep out and feel the altitude of 4130 meters. Fortunately, we have no issues with altitude sickness but I feel a little short of breath with every step. 40 minutes time for pictures – should be enough. A small bunch of trekkers is sitting in front of the guest house. Buddhist prayer flags wave in the wind. What a majestic scenery.
On the flight back I get the seat next to the pilot.
Dave thanks me for holding his hand, we pay and we get back to the hotel. The schedule is tight. We are expected in a Tibetan refugee camp for lunch (momos!), established by the United Nations in 1964 as a temporary settlement for the large number of people fleeing Tibet because of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. B.K. gives us a small introduction on the bus. More than 500 former refugees and their families live in this steady camp but we are not invited to their homes. Instead, we have a rather commercial experience. We are let out in front of souvenir shops. A fraction of the revenues goes to the refugee community and to their monastery. We peek into a photo exhibition about the Dalai Lama, about his “career” and his values. And I spend too much money on “stuff” I do not need but is so “nice to have”:
Even the 411 steps to the World Peace Pagoda are framed by souvenir stands and I definitely have an overkill. The view from the stupa at the top on the Phewa river and Pokhara is magnificent though.
The last 24 hours of my Nepal journey deserve a separate post. They were quite intense and need to settle in my head. Enough for today.
B.K. has a Bachelor in Buddhism and once you ask him anything on that topic, he gets passionate. So passionate, that in his waterfall of words I can only manage to distinguish Lama and Dharma. We have arrived at a place where his lectures flourish like a lotus flower: the Neydo Tashi Choeling Monastery and its guest house, set on a hill, 1.800 meters high, overlooking the Kathmandu valley.
From my balcony in the guest house I see young monks passing by with their shaved heads and their typical deep red and yellow robes: the Bhikkhu. They are laughing, chatting, one eats crackers, another walks with an open study book in his hands. “Do not give them the hotel’s Wifi password“, B.K. reminded us several times. There is a small spot on the monastery site where they could “illegally” grab the signal.
Short before 5 pm we walk towards the temple – soon there will be a chanting session. A monk burns herbs in a fire outside. Today is a special day: They worship Guru Rinpoche who meditated and found enlightenment near the monastery. Listen to B.K.’s explanations and chant with the monks ⇒ In the middle and back of the hall sits a giant golden Buddha, below there are colorful blinking chains of lights – what a kitsch but very cosy and welcoming. In the left corner there is a photo of the Dalai Lama and the third most important Lama of the Buddhist world: the Karmapa Lama. The second highest Lama, the Panchen Lama, is a controversial figure, B.K. says – therefore not displayed here.
We enter the temple barefoot. B.K. urges us: “Only go clockwise! And do not cross the empty middle of the hall.” I get stuck in the left corner of the temple (how shall I go back without breaking the rule?) and sit down cross-legged behind some of the very young monks.
In the temple a leading chanter murmurs into the microphone. All monks are sitting on both sides on cushions on the floor, a wooden row of low tables in front of them. They have a pile of lengthy cards lying with mantras on them (a few monks have books) and they recite the chants and turn the cards – one after the other. Some monks are rocking back and forth.The youngest member of the monastery is 8 years old – that is the minimum age to join. After about 20 minutes, tea is served to warm up (it is chilly and a slight breeze is going through the temple) and monks spread out food: crackers, an apple and packed juice. One monk pours holy water (a sugary, alcoholic fluid) into everybody’s hands. The monks first drop it on their lips and then rub their head with it. We are invited to do the same. Well, I do not want to be a spoilsport. The fact that I forgot to bring my hairbrush to this journey and the fact that you avoid washing your hair when there is only cold water further feeds my bad-hair-day-situation that already lasts more than two weeks.
After the chanting session the monks rush to their dinner, we take a walk to the home of the nuns nearby, cross a field and enter through the garden door. ⇒ We climb up to the top floor of their house and join their chanting for a while. Their shaved heads make them look like boys. What an ascetic life that many of them haven’t chosen so willingly – which is also true for the little monks.
After boiling water and doing a hot wash of at least my feet in the sink, I switch off the reading lights earlier than the monks and nuns that night: at half past 8. It was a very long day and I want to attend the chanting in the morning which means: getting up at 5 am. Again. And with joy. When did that happen in Germany recently? I wake up at 4:15 anyway, do some yoga and take my seat in the temple at 5:30. The monks walk in speedily, some with socks, some with warm red sweaters over their robes. Two of the monks place themselves left of me and start praying – falling on their knees and getting up again. I thought they might stop after some rounds – but they continue. For the whole chanting half an hour. Each of them has to do it 500 times, I learn later from B.K. Oh dear!
Danielle, my “roomy” (as the Aussies in our group say) joins me after some minutes in the back of the temple. We also want our mantra flags get blessed that we bought the day before. B.K. takes the packages and brings them to the table with the monks who are celebrating the chanting. Some minutes later the flags come back – in their sealed packages. “Well, at least the packages are blessed”, Danielle says and we try not to laugh (medium success in that). Monks can be pragmatic.
The chanting is over and the hall empties quickly, breakfast time I get a chance to talk to one of the older monks who introduces himself as “Rinhsinsinje”. He is from India, is the second of three male children (parents usually send their second son) and joined the monastery when he was 12 years old. Now he is now in his early twenties. He says, he just wants to feel and give compassion to all and thus kind of make the world a better place, a peaceful place.
We already said our goodbyes but meet again in front of the dining hall and walk one round around the temple (clockwise!) before it is finally time for breakfast – at least for the monks. I have to wait another hour. In front of the hotel I meet Marc from the Netherlands. He has quit his job at home at Campina producing milk pouder (“ethical reasons”) and now travels the world. He came from Indonesia to Nepal and decided to live with the monks for a while. He helps the English teacher with his lessons. “I try to live in the moment. I return to the Netherlands once my money has run out – no sooner – and I do not know what will be next.” Bold move! We talk about the western way of “accumulating stuff” that does not make anybody any happier. Does the simple life? I think about longing for hot water, coke, clean air, garbage collection, solid walls. I could not image replacing my neat German lifestyle and the many choices we have in favor of the Indian or Nepali way of living. Or could I? Could you?
The monks had chick peas, potatoes and deep fried Tibetan bread for breakfast. We are served a buffet with fresh fruits, porridge, scrambled eggs, peanut butter, naan and yoghurt. Then we have to get ready to leave – a multi-hour drive is ahead of us. And one of the roads is “under construction”.
Less garbage, less cows. That is the first thing that strikes me when we drive from the airport of Kathmandu to our hotel: Traditional Comfort. It is a brand new building and stands out of the others. Many are damaged, some are ruins. The rooftop terrace with the typical buddhist mantra flags gives us a first idea of the city.
In the afternoon, there is time for wandering. It is a more or less walkable city – thank God. The fourth ATM works and I decide to the area that B.K. – our new CEO in Nepal – calls downtown: Thamel.
The district resembles Old Delhi a tiny bit but it is in the hands of shopping lovers and tourists. The first dinner is a total immersion into the Nepali kitchen. We have a six course menu at the speciality restaurant Krisharpan. Prince Charles has dined here, former German president Roman Herzog and Demi Moore. Sitting on low chairs with a huge napkin on I feel a little strapped but after the first course I do not want to move an inch. Delight! Crunchy rice and crunchy lentils, momos, broccoli soup, black rice, chicken curry, spinach, lukewarm carrot pudding – yum. And everybody gets an individual paper menu and a heavy schnapps (“rakshi”) in between. Afterwards everybody gets a brick as a souvenir. A “heavily” awkward souvenir – but nice. The next day we walk around Bhaktapur, pass medieval buildings, restored temples and ornaments that were destroyed during the earthquake in 2015, we make our way to Nyatapola Temple (schoolkids are sitting in front of it, painting lesson) and we reach Durbar Square where the German government – former chancellor Helmut Kohl – has sponsored a small temple and where one temple is showing scenes from the Kamasutra. In all this architecture loaded with history there are numerous shops that sell souvenirs, papers, spices, vegetables and fish, clothing, paintings, knives and last but least: wooden artwork.
Enough architecture for the moment – time for some social education. We visit a non-profit organization called “Sisterhood of Survivors“. They help girls who are victims of human trafficking. All of the members of “Sasane” have themselves been abused. After a warm welcome we are given a cooking class in how to make the typical Nepali “momos“. Misanti Gurun has been in the Sasane program for only three months and she explains the momo recipe. The folding is complicated but crucial: If the bags of dough do not survive in the steamer all work is for nothing. The dumplings need between 15-20 minutes in the steamer – depending on their filling (meat fillings might take a little longer). While we prepare what we think could be momos, we eat the dumplings the girls have already prepared for us. I like that – should be like that when I cook! After this first course we have a full Nepali lunch and then we go deeper into what Sasana is doing. They rescue poor girls from the traffickers – with the help of local police and other social organizations. “Girls, humans, can unlike other drugs be sold several times”, Lakshmi says. “That is why human trafficking is increasing – not only in Nepal but worldwide. Most of the girls come from poor mountain villages, they hope for a better life in the city and do not realize what they are going into or their parents sell them to get some money. Then they are forced to work in night clubs and prostitution and there is no way back. Making momos with us – what a contrast. What must they have gone through?
The founder of Sansara (established in 2008) is Indira Gurung. Unlike others who still recover from what they have experienced recently, she is ready to share her story.
Sansara’s aim is to empower girls, educate them and provide a paralegal training. Thus the girls are able to work at police stations and help other victims by giving them legal advice for free. Because affected women often do not dare to speak out or go to the police and they do not have the resources to pay a lawyer. With the help of Sansana they are educated and learn English. The fact of trafficking is just one peak of abuse and discrimination women are facing in Nepal. As B.K. tells us, women are suppressed in their marriages and are expected to subdued by men. For example, they are believed to be unclean during their menstruation. They are not allowed to leave the house, in some remote villages they are caged into a barn together with the animals until their period is over. Some even die. This is shockingly backward. How does this go together with the many good values of Hinduism and Buddhism?
About 15% of the Nepali citizens are Buddhists. After leaving the Sansana house we go to one of the largest Buddhist temples (“stupa”) in the world: Boudhanath. Two giant Buddha eyes greet us. “Go round the stupa only clockwise”, B.K. says. Ok! People are walking in circles turning prayer wheels with their right hand (the “clean” hand), incenses are burned everywhere and shops play the soothing Buddhist mantra:
Flags with that mantra are stretched all over he place and flutter in the air. They are supposed to take the evil away.
In the evening I meet Louisa who has been working and living in Kathmandu for several years. We talk about the hardships of helping a country like Nepal, NGO work work ethic and mentality, Nepals shift towards a democratic (and less corrupt) state (there are elections happening right now), water trucks that do never clean their tanks (“better brush your teeth with drinking water”) and what’s living in the expat community is like. We sit on cushions on the floor and indulge in modern Nepali cuisine at a place called “Places“: Fries with banana chutney, Momos with pumpkin filling and chili chocolate sauce, crackers with a kind of tomato tatar and lemon-ginger-tea. Unfortunately, I have to go to bed early. The alarm is set for 5 am. Six of us are taking an Everest flight.
We are not the only ones who want to see the highest mountain on earth a little bit closer. The waiting hall at the airport is packed with people. Our flight is delayed, they are waiting for an update on the weather conditions. We are lucky: The flight is not cancelled (that happens regularly) and we board the Yeti airlines plane. Window seat for everyone! After half an hour we get closer to Mount Everest. But still the stewardess only points out which mountain is NOT Everest. Bad timing – I am invited to the cockpit last when we are obviously just crossing Everest. I get lost in a small talk with the co-pilot and do not realize that we were only about 20 kilometers away from the giant. But the scenery is majestic anyway – my eyes get wet in view of the beauty the Himalayas have to offer.
Everything is over so fast. We are already on our way back. Champagne is served. Maria: “It is eight o’clock and we have already seen Everest – how can this day get any better?”, Well, it can. On the agenda for the afternoon is the visit of a monastery. This might be mind-blowing. But that’s another story, to be told soon. Bonfire is lit, dinner is almost ready – gotta go.
Tuesday. “You know why people in India feed monkeys on Tuesdays?”, our local guide in Agra, Amit, asks. “Because they believe that they are blessed by God if they do”. There is a special feeding day for every day of the week. Overall, feeding animals in India seems to be a divine duty. Not only cows seem to have quite a good life. On the other hand, there is some cruelty when it comes to tourism. Jai tells us, that the men who seem to “conjure” snakes in the streets and take money for photos tame the snakes by ripping their teeth out to make them non-poisonous. And there are elephant rides to sights – for the “fun” of the tourists. Hideous!
We walk towards the “best palace” – in other words: the Taj Mahal. It is early morning, some minutes after eight, before the tourist crowds arrive. Amit tells us a lot about the world wonder. So, here comes the story, short version: The mogul Shah Jehan is heavily in love with his wife who is going to die. She asks him to show his love with the means of architecture after her death, so that he gets over the loss. The mogul decides to build a marble palace of love for her. It lasted 22 years. But time did not do the job for him. He never stopped loving her. Isn’t that romantic? This was ❤️️-story number one (the second one follows further down…).Some more sheer facts of Taj Mahal: There are four water channels in the garden, symbolizing paradise in islam. The cypress trees stand for sadness and death. The buildings are all symmetrical and the tomb is also right in the middle axis. The main architect of Taj Mahal is from Turkey. The building is about 300 years old and not one stone has been replaced. Around the Taj Mahal there is no industry allowed and the stones are regularly cleaned – to prevent deterioration. I sit down on a bench and let the white wonder work its magic. What does it prove? Love, desperation, grandeur? Does love need demonstration? One cannot deny, that the construction has something mighty on it and you feel humble in its presence. My sun bath and my thoughts are once in a while interrupted by Indian tourists who either “need the space” for taking pictures or want me IN their picture. The site starts to get busy with selfie-stick-holders and couples. We leave – perfect timing.
The Taj Mahal has a sister – the “Baby Taj”. The mausoleum is way smaller but it is a little treasure box – and to my mind much more impressive than its big counterpart once you are inside. The ornaments are just beautiful and it is a delight to walk – barefoot of course – across the flowery floor.
On our Iist is another monument in Agra: the big fort. It is made of red sandstone and marble which both seemed to be the state-of-the-art materials hundreds of years ago. The Agra Fort is another Unesco world heritage and it was the main home of the moguls in the 16th century. Only 20 percent of the whole fortress is open to the public because the Indian army is still using the premises. The gate and the ramp through which we enter are already impressive – back then elephants and horses came up here. After two palaces. The nicest tiny fact: There is fountain inside that splashed pure perfume. Not any more though. What a shame. I start having a “sandstone-marble-history-overload”- my hard drive and my RAM are fully occupied. So I switch to relaxation mode and let all the views and viewers just float past.
After a Samosa-lunch I decide not to take a nap and join a shopping group instead. They look for a rug – and I have never been to a carpet shop in my life. These are the shops you normally pass extremely quickly – like shops where you buy mattresses or cell phone covers. But not this time.
The shop owner has seen many tourists – he explains the whole production procedure without hesitation and without any stumble. Of course the rug is not “burnt” completely. They just remove surplus fiber and the carpet is washed. 2500 families around Agra are working for the rug shop in a kind of cooperative. If children are involved? Who knows. One might fear: yes. The shipment of a carpet to any country is subsidized by the Indian government – for the buyer it is free.
Late afternoon several Tuk tuks line up in front of the hotel. A Sundowner with a view of the Taj Mahal? Ok! Who would say „No“ to that? Jai leads us to a rooftop bar („only drinks! the food is crap! don’t eat it, you will be ill.“). The place is called “Maya” and has a remarkable service system. Many of us order beer – but there are only four left, because of “elections”. Elections? What do regional elections and beer have in common? In India: a lot! Jai explains that there is a shortage of alcohol during the campaigns because there should not be the suspicion that any of the candidates buys votes by making it easy for people to get alcohol. Maybe not too far fetched. “Free beer” might work as an election booster anywhere in the world. The waiter also serves severel sprites that nobody ordered. The remark “Well, I want a coke” is answered with: “Yeah, but this is sprite!” As if it was more precious. A funny logic! And the waiter might just think: “Strange people”.
The next day starts with ❤️️-story number two. Not only in Delhi, also on our drive between cities we have seen many weddings. Apart from the death ceremony it is one of the biggest ceremonies in Indian families – with lights, fireworks, music, flowers, neat and opulent dresses. All this starts with something something very unromantic: arranged marriages. That is common in India. Jai tells us that that are 90 percent of all marriages are arranged. It is still common (although forbidden by law) that the family of the groom demands a dowry. The sum depends on the „value“ of the groom. The dowdry can be like a million rupees (so approx. 100.000 Euro). Families start saving for this as soon as the daughter is born. Jais sister was 23 when her father looked around for a husband. At the age of 25 she was finishing her master and in the eyes of the parents: time is running out! So, the caste system is still a major factor in India though unjust, illogical and officially “abolished”. And there are so many things that show the character of India as a developing country. Many people have no access to a toilet. This is obvious since I have never seen so many men urinating in public (not even during carnival celebrations in Cologne) and there is so so so much garbage. Like: everywhere you look. Not in dark corners, not in dumping grounds: everywhere. People live with it and they live in it. And they do not seem to care. People do their laundry in dirty rivers.
“The government is doing a lot to improve the situation”, Jai says, “but often they is too less awareness. People just keep on doing what they always did. Like throwing garbage on the floor even if a dustbin is right beside them”. Cows, sheep, dogs, pigs, pigeons, rats, monkeys, squirrels – they all run and sniffle through garbage, searching for a bite to eat. And in the middle of all this? Tourists, like me. Asking for water bottles, cokes, tissues, adventure. Paying “foreigner prices” which means: a multiple of the local price but still cheap compared to Euro standard.
On Wednesday we head out of Agra to see Fatepuhr Sikri. Mugal ruler Jalal-ud-din Mohammad Akbar built bis own little kingdom there and one small palace for every wife he had – a Hindu one, a Muslim woman and a Christian woman. So much red again!
When we leave the area, Jai shows us a Tamrind tree and we can try a bite from the fruits. They look like sugar snap peas and taste like a very very sour apple.
Now we leave the state Uttar Pradesh and drive to Rajasthan, the driest state in India. We want to see one of the biggest step wells of the country: the Chand Baori in the village of Abhaneri. Built in the 9th (!) century it has been a water source centuries ago and now it is not only used for tourism (yes, there are a lot of vendors outside) but also for community events – like Holi or Diwali. Many broken parts with ornaments and figures are laid down around the well’s hole. One of them shows Shiva for example: a lord half male, half female. He is just one of 33 million gods the Hindus worship. The water 30 meters down in the well is all covered with a greenish blanket. Same quality as all the rivers and lakes. The stepwell has been in a movie (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, says Wikipedia) as has the big fort in Agra (one edition of Sherlock Holmes).
Next “door” there is a temple – open air this time. An old man is sitting in front of a kind of chapel – guarding a statue of Lakshmi, the goddess of happiness. Happiness is female! The man offers a yellow powder as a “Bindi” – a dot in the middle of your forehead, where the “third eye” is supposed to be. I can always use a little bit of happiness, so surely I let him do his job. Happiness for only 20 rupees – a bargain.
Whenever we exit the tour bus vendors – many of them children – surround us. They offer the same things again and again, for only 100 rupees. Jai told us to rather not buy. One time, I cannot resist. I take sparkling pens and give some of them to other kids in Abhaneri who waited in front of our bus and who claimed to go to school – good! Whether I did any damage to the system – I do not know. It is not “helping” either. It just feels brutal to ignore them.