Friday, 13 July 2007

blogging from the road.

I've hired a car and driver. Flight to Dhaka cancelled. We've been on the road nearly 2 hours. I have to check in in 7 hours time. Should be ok. Flagging now, i've worked or travelled at least 12 hours a day for the last 12 days solid. I'm running out of energy in this 40 degree heat and 90% humidity.

Sent using a Sony Ericsson mobile phone

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Leaving Kathmandu

Said goodbye, hugged Ganga and jumped in a taxi at 1pm to check in at 2. Perfect timing.

"That's hand luggage? Too big." Says a miserable man at the desk. I look surprised.

"Oh really? I always take it on as hand luggage."

"You must check in."

"OK", I smile.

I start pulling the security seal off it.

"But I have to take my camera out... and my video camera... and my laptop..." I'm really making a big deal of trying to get the strap off to open it.

"OK, take it through." He gives up and waves me through.

The usual thorough hand luggage search on leaving KTM failed to find my stash. Phew. But then the army guy says: "Photograph?"

"Yes", all smiles.

"You are photograph businessman?" He's not smiling. Mmmmm mine was supposed to be an infectious one.

"Oh no! No... tourist!" I laugh.

Going to prison, Tamghas style

You watch Midnight Express and vow to be really careful of foreign prisions so I approached the idea with some trepidation when RB suggested I go to Tamghas prison to buy some nice stuff to take home. But It sounded interesting so we strolled through the gate and spoke to the guard.

"Yeah, we just want to buy some stuff", he jumped up and brought us to the bars of the main door.

He gets a cut of whatever the prisoners make in there and in turn helps them get the materials inside.

I look through the bars and see smiling prisoners, men and women together at weaving looms and carpentry benches working away. One particularly rough looking guy come up to the gates looking like he's going to grab one of us as a hostage... then he pulls out some really nice woven rugs and offers then through the bars for us to take a look.

very trusting.... but I suppose the guard will stop us running off with the goods and we'd end up inside with him for theft... which would be a bad idea. Interesting court case though, shoplifting from a prison. I buy something, and haggle the price down - he's not going anywhere - it's beautifully woven.

language problems and the god of fig tree

"Which god is this temple for?" I asked Asok.

"Manakamana, the god of big tree"

"Big tree?" I said.

"Oh thats nice." said Rob B, old hippy.

"No, no, fig tree." replied Asok.

"Fig trees?' I said.

"No'" Asok laughed, "Vic-tory, Manakamana is god of victory".

Snapshots of travel day

It's 5.30pm and we are at last averaging more than 5km/h as we climb out of the kathmandu valley. We set off an hour ago. In my mouth is a hard cube of churpi. Smoked Yak cheese with the texture of plastic. I've been told it will melt. It is disintegrating very slowly. It doesn't taste of much except the slight smokiness... it's not especially cheesy. The road is a long slow snake of traffic winding upwards, the pollution and dust is terrible but the heat means having the windows open.

With us is Kamela, a girl with an amazing singing voice who lost both arms and a leg when she flew a kite into a powerline. She has been fitted with prosthetic arms and a leg. Her sister Sangeeta is with us too. They are really excited to be travelling, as neither has been out of Kathmandu before.

We're going along a bit faster now, about 20km/h overtaking highly decorated loorries on hairpin bends. My bum is numb, it's getting dark and I have a cube of churpi in each cheek. Sangeeta bought it in the market and thinks it's funny that I appear to like it, so she keeps offering it to me.

We stop at a roadside shack. Kamela and her sister stay in the van despite my trying to tempt them out. Asoka doesn't seem bothered.

"Do you like fish?" says Asoka.

We sit down and to my great relief he orders three bottles of beer. Carlsberg, brewed in Kathmandu. A plate of fried fish arrives, heads, bones and all, like whitebait but kind of goldfish sized.

"How do you eat these?" I said stupidly.

"I'll teach you..."

Asoka very slowly picked up a fish between his fingers and very deliberately put the head in his mouth, bit it off and chewed it. Then he started laughing.

It was silly question.

The fish were nice enough but even Asoka and Praladh left the one with the really big eyes staring up at us. Prawns were good, eaten in the same style, all shell and head.

I think Kamela is embarrassed to come out, she looks normal because of the prosthetics but of course she can't use the rubbery fingers to eat. I wish there is something I could do.

Six and a half hours after leaving KTM... Another roadside shack.

"We no time for dinner at hotel when we get to Butwal," says Asoka.

We sit down again: me Praladh, Asoka and Sangeeta... again Kamela stays in the van. She hasn't taken a piss since 4pm either, I can see it must be awkward.

We sit down to eat and plates of food arrive: dhal, rice, vegetable curry, green vegetable, and a dish of lumps of something meaty.

I'm offered a spoon but try eating like everyone else, with my hand. My technique causes much laughter. I tend to tilt my head back and drop the food in, eating like a baby bird, they say.

I try a lump of meat. it's liver. It's full of gristle too. I pick another bit attached to bone... instantly the texture feels wrong, rubbery, spongy, like lung or something. I discreetly spit it out.

12.00am we speed past Lumbini, birthplace of Gautama Buddha. asok and the driver are sneezing and coughing up lumps of something they spit out the window.

Streets are quiet.

Arrive at the kandala Hotel, Butwal. On the floor of the lobby a man is sleeping next to some burning incense. It's basic. At first it looks like I will be sharing with Asok as there are not enough rooms... luckily he goes off to find another hotel. I like him and everything but I really need my own time here. I open the door to the bathroom and get hit with the stench of sewage. I have a cold shower, roll up a little one and go to sleep.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007


Didn't feel too awake this morning thanks to the 22 hours travel time from the UK to Kathmandu.

After washing down a breakfast of parathas and sambal with loads of juice and coffee, I still didn't feel too special. Jetlag maybe, but I don't usually suffer from it at all.

The guest relations manager started giving me the spanish inquisition as I waited in the lobby, she was asking too many questions so I lied and told her I was on holiday, like my visa says, meeting friends in Nepal. Then going on to Bangladesh with my big tripod to do some work.

"what are you going to do while you're here?"

"Oh y'know... see people."

"What? You mean casually?" She sounded surprised that a sex tourist would be so honest. I blushed when I realised what she thought I'd meant.

"No, no... see people, people I already know, who live in Kathmandu."

S showed up and off we went to his office which is also the home he shares with extended family. His father is 96 and the mother looks 30 years younger but is 89. Nice people.

The garden is filled with reflective solar cookers of different designs and briquette making equipment, presses and drying racks.

S is lovely and shows me around, explaining his mission to make Nepalese people self sufficient in energy and not dependent on LPG and kerosene.

One of the solar cookers has a clear lid and some sweaty looking chicken kebabs in it (it's not very sunny). When S explains that's lunch, I start to work out if I'll still be sick for the 10 hour road trip on Saturday. I'm sure it's fine and I'm being old fashioned but I'm not sure about eating chicken that's never been near a flame...

He fires up a briquette stove, it turns out the chicken was just pre cooking in the solar box, my stomach relaxes as the chicken lands in hot oil and sizzles.

It's delicious.

I was warned this guy wanted to show me a powerpoint thing and the dreaded moment came after lunch. He left the room and I made a call to the managing agents of my block of flats where the tenants have been without gas for three days. It crosses my mind to offer to bring them back a stove next time the girl calls... on second thoughts... no.

A taxi took us around KTM to film rubbish dumped at the side of the road. The highlight was a big pile of cow legs by the river. No hassle from the authorities. As S said, the politicians are too busy with politics to do anything else, I reassured him it was the same elsewhere too. Thank God.

Back at the hotel to do some more phone calls about the flat... it only happens when I'm away. Last time it was a blocked toilet and I was under a mosquito net in a hut somewhere in Sri Lanka.

I'm not a worrier... but since a friend caught cerebral malaria on one of these trips and ended up nearly dying in the London Hospital for Tropical Medicine, I've been careful to take anti-malaria tablets. I thought I had loads left, so I didn't bother going to see the travel clinic this time. I have about 8 one a day tablets and a 14 day trip. I need a strategy.

I could wait to see if I get malaria then blitz it with 4 pills a day for two days, but instead I think I'll do a risk assessment as I go and take them when I'll need them most. It's OK in the city, I'm sure. But tomorrow we're driving out of town to a leper colony so I just know I'm going to feel itchy on the way back.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Security Alerts

I arrived early at an airport surrounded by hastily erected concrete blocks. Thye always do this, shut the stable door after the horse is long gone.

I faced my usual problem, that my one piece of hand luggage - the camera bag - is too big. They started getting strict recently and I've even been made to try to fit it in the size measurer. It never quite fits and I always have to smile a lot.

Since there was an attempted suicide bombing of an airport yesterday, and everyone is really following rules like it's going to save them... I will have to do a lot of smiling today before i walk on board with my laptop and camera gear.

A woman with too much makeup from Qatar Airlines worked her way down the queue giving out the all important "cabin baggage" tags.

"That looks heavy", she said, "If it's more than 7 kg then you'll have to check it in."

I smiled at her.

"But you don't have much other luggage... Hmmmm... when you get to the counter, see how much it all weighs." She wasn't going to make the decision.

I practised smiling at a few random people as I waited. Airline people don't get many smiles. Especially on days like this. I'm on a roll, the woman taxi driver refused to take any money from me this afternoon too, because I was "nice". I never had that happen before.

Soon a guy from the airline comes up and ushers me over to the first class check in. Sadly not an upgrade, but a queue jump, at least. Obviously, the first class check in guy didn't even look at my hand luggage except to see where to put the tag :)

Upstairs, the impact of extra security is clear. It takes an hour to get through passport control. They are x-raying shoes and belts, checking laptops and limiting liquids.

I queued at the forex counter to buy dollars and a guy pushed in.... just came and stood in front of me. He looked like an arrogant fucker too, dressed like a banker on holiday. Fat arse squeezed into some chinos and a pair of loafers that have only ever seen tarmac or marble. Open necked short sleeved shirt with a button down collar. Of course.

When the people in front of him finished, I just stepped in front of him and took my rightful place at the counter.

"Hi", I smiled at the woman.

He was too shocked to say anything, but could hardly complain.

I bought 400 USD, I know I'll need at least 300 to hire a 4x4 in Nepal, I now have a 10 hour drive from Kathmandu to this Tamghas/Gulmi place, rather than the internal flight. I'm not sure which is statistically safer, but I'm guessing it's the plane, probably not such fun though. If I pay for the hotels with my card, that should be OK. I don't want any USD left over.

Within minutes, I had food and I'd logged right into the middle of a muddy field on the last day of Secondfest.

I waited till the screen said "boarding" before getting up to go, but it was lying. Another security alert meant one of the terminals was evacuated, apparently, and the crew were unable to get through.

There are some honeymooners, I suppose because it's a Sunday in June, They have carefully thought out their coordinated "traveller" outfits. And have shiny new rings on their fingers.

Take off was an hour late. It's really hot in the plane, unusually. Now it's 1.45am UK time and we're over Iraq. I should sleep the old guy next to me has had two cans of Heineken and is singing along to Hotel California. Next stop Doha, I should make the connecting flight, with a bit of luck.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

On the Road

This mad dash to the airport via the office to pick up camera gear is becoming a horrible habit. I write this on a sleepy Sunday train into central London. Two hours ago I left a restaurant on the south coast before everyone else had even started eating to drive flat out down the motorway. I made it home in 56 minutes - not bad considering the driving conditions. My speed bought me nearly half an hour at home before the taxi arrived to take me to the station. I had to pack the last bits of stuff and double check documents.
A taxi to the airport is impossible as last weeks botched terrorist attacks have prompted the usual chaos. No cars allowed to drop off or pick up at the airport. I'm trying to get there early as I remember last year's chaotic scenes after the exploding water/toothpaste/suncream/hairgel scare. I should have about half an hour in the office to repack the carry on bag with the camera, laptop and the absolute essentials. At least two of my flights are on those little planes that will no way take the bag in the overhead locker, so I'll just have to try to wing it.