Thursday, October 20, 2011
It turns out that they are reading LOTR as a family each night (just like we did 2 years ago), and they just finished hiking the Annapurna Circuit last week!!! "Wow, that's awesome!!! We hiked the AC last year with OUR girls!" "Really?,"asked John (their dad), "did your family have a blog?" Yes.... "And are your girls 2 blondes and a redhead?" YES???? "Oh right, your blog really helped us over the Pass! People thought we were crazy to bring the kids, but we read your blog a few times and felt much more confident and relaxed about doing this trek..."
What great coincidence to meet the fun and wonderful Vazey family, here in Kathmandu on a random Tuesday in the crowded Immigration office, and what a treat to hear that our adventure helped to inspire theirs. We, in turn, have been so inspired and encouraged by other families and friends over the years. It is fantastic to know their are tons of people out there, sharing this wonderful world with their kids! That's what the planet needs... more good stewards, respectful travelers, active adventurers, and curious cultural ambassadors. Teach the children well!
Due to the great success and enthusiasm for Karen's birding program at the Kailash Hostel last year, the HYF (Himalayan Youth Foundation) invited us to return. Our goal is to work with the students, continue their training & education, and help them to create a long-term sustainable bird-watching "Eco-club." We are so grateful for the energy and passion that these students have shown us, and also incredibly thankful for HYF's support in bringing us back to Nepal!!!
For more updates, details, and photos from this current trip, check out the New Blog at: http://birdingnepal.blogspot.com/
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Our flights home were smooth and easy... Wonderful grandparents met us at the airport with hugs galore... Driving was a snap, even after spending 4 months on the "wrong" side of the roads.
So here we begin the next adventure, and try to process and truly appreciate these past several months of incredible experience. Transitioning back home to our "normal" life is always challenging for me. We'll try to go slowly, and take it step by step... All in good time...
Monday, January 3, 2011
So now we are finally here in "tropical paradise," hoping that Thailand will meet their lofty expectations. The fruit & food is exquisite, plentiful, and delicious. Mangoes, star fruit, dragon fruit, mangosteens, pineapple, papaya, etc. etc…. Pad thai, green & red curries, tom yum and tom kha gai, spicy green papaya salads, chicken satay on the streets, ice cold beer and soy milk and fresh fruit juices…. Ahhhhh… It is SO wonderful to just eat here! And the parasailing bit? Will it be possible on Koh Chang? We came here because it’s not too far away from Bangkok (5hrs.), but still has some mellow quiet affordable places to stay… But on our first day splashing in the waves, we saw parachutes way down the coast, so we boarded our scooters and zipped down to check it out. Oh yes! They do parasailing, and such a deal too… 700 Baht per kid ($23 each). Each of them got a 20 minute ride, out around some smaller islands, and managed to land safely back on the “launching pad” raft. Lupin was so light that they sent an extra boy up with her to add some weight…. He just grabbed on, dangling from the slings, and upon takeoff, scrambled up into the rigging to sit above her harness. They all came down smiling and giggling and squealing with joy! Fantasy fulfilled, and on the first day at the beach!
The motorbike bit has also been a blast! The girls were begging us to ride scooters or motorcycles in Nepal, but egads, Kathmandu traffic is pretty daunting with kids! Even down in mellow rural Chitwan, we couldn’t find scooters to rent, as the entire town seemed to have only 3 rentals, all of them constantly booked up. Here in Koh Chang, scooters are like an extra appendage… everyone rides them everywhere, sometimes a family of 4 on one unit. It was so much more fun, efficient, and economical to zip around the island by scooter, as every pickup-truck taxi ride runs about 50 Baht per person… that’s 200 baht ($7) for the family one-way every single ride! Yikes… but the scooters go for 150 ($5) per 24 hours, which must be 10 to 20 times cheaper than shared taxi rides.
One great ride was up a quiet side valley, with a hike to Klong Phu waterfall… plenty of tourists on the trail, but also plenty of tarzan vines, snakes, and cool jungle trees. The slot-canyon waterfall was cool and exciting… and it was so nice to swim in fresh water for once! So far so good… parasailing, tropical waterfalls, fresh mangoes, motorcycle riding, snorkeling, rope swings over the sea, and luscious sunset swims every evening… I think they’re loving Thailand so far!
We are “suddenly” on Koh Chang in the Gulf of Thailand. Sipping a cool Singha beer, with the tingly fire of green curry and tom yum soup on my lips, while the kids take turns on a rope swing hanging from a palm tree over the waves. I’m reclining on comfy triangular cushions with Karen, listening to smooth Thai pop love songs wafting from the bar. The girls have just located a friendly dog to play with, as well as a nice young Dutch boy to attempt communication... A shirtless Sammy Hagar look alike is hanging out by the bar, and several European couples are also hanging out nearby, enjoying the sunset with lungfuls of tobacco… the dang French! They all still smoke!
After a couple sweaty nights in our claustrophobic Bangkok guest house “cell,” it was wonderful to board a comfy bus bound for Trat… We were headed for Koh Chang, a huge island down near the Cambodian border, to get some beach and snorkeling time before we head home to ski season… Karen and I were here about 12 years ago, back when the bumpy one-lane road only went part way around the island. Back then we walked past the end of the dirt road to find several cheapo bamboo cottages for a few bucks a night. Well nowadays this place has exploded with development! There are hundreds of places to stay now, from plush 5-star resorts to a few hold-out crusty “budget” bungalows in the $20-30 range. The main road is now smooth & freshly paved, and lined with countless souvenir & dive shops, restaurants, pharmacies, and 7-Elevens… There are ATMs everywhere! Times change, especially with Thai island tourism!
Nonetheless, we walked 10 minutes down a quiet dirt side road, to find some mellow beach huts. The kids are literally flipping out with glee, as we now have warm water, sand, shells, coconut palms, cool breezes, papaya, mango, and pad thai in abundance. They don’t care about what this island “used to be like.” They are thrilled to just hang out, swim, and play on the beach for several days! And so are we…
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
We can start the day off nicely, according to this Thai menu, because “breakfast is the nice start to day. You can mix energize food for make good taste and a healthy.” How about a cup of “Cffe” to go with your “Scream Bleed Egg on Toast.” Or do you prefer “2 eggs any stole?” I hear their “Dabble Egg Pupcake” is delicious!
Fancy some fresh bakery items? How about a “Shinamon Rool, Brouned Role, or Aple Sturoll?” If you’d like something sweeter, try their “Aple Croumble” and “Choklete Coreation,” and finish it off with a hot slice of “Choklete Cock” if you dare!
Main courses? Oh yeah baby… every menu in Boudha has a “fing” section, which is, we think, a rice noodle type dish. We often ate “Fing Tank,” and “Buff Fing.” Others we didn’t try included, Spicey Flat Fing, Clocked Pork Fing, and Charpi non-Mushroom Fing. A few others that we steered clear of were the Ox Tripe Gastric Wall, Red oil with Ear Piece, Crips Pork in Screen Bowel, Salad Tongue, and our all time favorite delicacy, Seweage Drop Egg in Soup! I wonder how many foreigners order that one!?
Oh I’m sorry, you are a “vageterian.” In Nepal, that’s no problem! There are lots of vagetarians here… You can always go for the Vagetable Frird Race, 3-Silk Vage with Red Oil, Cassarool of Fish in Sour Vage, or Big Meat with Vage Sauce.
Had enough? Still hungry!? Chapattis are a staple all across south Asia, so you won’t be disappointed if you choose Chaparie fried Chapati, plain Chaparle per pics, or Egg-Fred Chaparle per pics. I always order my Chaparles by the Pics!
Do you like fish? I love fish… Let’s try the Splash with Spice Fish! Or perhaps the Dong-pu Fish with Thai Big Piece? If you’re extra hungry you should definitely get a “Steam Hole Fish.” If you catch one yourself, I’m sure they’ll ‘cock’ it for you! Or ‘clock’ it? Whatever….
I prefer a cold beer, but a “Hot Dronke” can be great after your meal… Karen loves sipping a nice Red Wine (by the Gass)… we never did order the “Spy Wine.” Hmmm…
Tomorrow I think we’ll splurge on a huge feast and share the Sir & Turf, Fried Baby Cord with Chicken, Frid Meat Sice with Silk of Ckenich, and Baked Crap with Prawn! I just love that baked crap!
To give the kids a bit more time to spend with their friends, we organized a little farewell party at our guest house. 20 or so wonderful girls came over, and we enjoyed take-out pizza, cake, fruit, and loads of silly games together! Our girls also taught them a new obsession which enthralled them for several hours -- weaving friendship bracelets!
The next morning (the day before departure) we were invited on the school’s winter holiday picnic… We began at 6am (yes that’s right!) at the school to board 70 students on the buses, then drove to Godvari forest preserve to cook a picnic breakfast… It was a wonderfully out-of-control event, with kids rampaging every which way, and stuffing their mouths with junk food from the moment we began. Then we fed them all breakfast and tea until they were “full.” Minutes later they dug in their packs and pulled out more chips, candy, nuts, and cookies! As Tsultrim said, “Oh yes Sir Paul, we Tibetans love to eat!” Karen and I automatically kicked into Outdoor Ed. mode to harness some of that great energy, teaching them blob tag, elbow tag, etc… Then we went down to the National Botanical Garden to “see the park.” Again, it was chaotic and loud and totally unorganized, but the students were all having a blast just being outdoors together. At a lovely little waterfall in the Japanese garden section, some of the kids started a water fight, which soon involved plenty of teachers as well… Such joyful playful fun times together! Amidst the chaos, we did manage to spot several awesome birds, including male and female scarlet minivets! There were also a few bright inquisitive students who continually grabbed my hand and pulled me aside, “sir Paul sir Paul, why does this fern plant have small spots on this leaf?” or “Sir Paul, tell us the cactus and why is that spine so sharp?” “why is this tree smooth, and that one so very rough?” I would LOVE to have a nice small group of 10 or 12 of them out on an all day naturalist walk… they are so genuinely fascinated by the natural world, but they rarely get out into it.
We packed that night, jamming things tightly into huge duffel bags, and ate one last gorgeous breakfast looking out over the stupa. Then rushed off to the airport… extra early to ensure our selves plenty of window seats on the left side! The flight was originally listed as an 8am departure, but was rescheduled for 1pm… but then there was a major technical delay. So we enjoyed 5 or 6 extra hours in the airport, including a delicious complimentary buffet dalbaht, while I anxiously watched the clock and the setting sun… If we flew out just after dark, missing the view of the Himalaya, I was going to have an absolute fit. But fortunately we boarded right at sunset, and as we took off and ascended out of the filthy air of the Kathmandu Valley petri dish, we were blessed with just enough pink and orange light to see the alpenglow on all the giants… Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, Langtang, Dorje Lakpa, Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu… and Kanchenjunga way over on the border with Sikkim. Phew!!!! What a lovely and tearful farewell to our beloved Nepal.
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Landing in Bangkok is a shocker… After lil’ ol’ Kathmandu, the massive new sparkling BKK airport blew the kids mind! As did the smooth roads, seatbelts, 7-elevens, and overall cleanliness. They commented in the taxi ride, “this looks just like America!” I did some late night Christmas Eve shopping, while the kids hung “stockings” on the towel rack with care. Actually they were my old socks, tied on with some string… but functional!
Then we set out to ride the river taxis around Bangkok, enjoying the breeze and proximity to water, and avoiding the notorious traffic jams. Amazing temples…. Luscious street food at every corner… nice cold beer…. We enjoyed the intricate temples of Wat Pho, including the humongous golden reclining Buddha, then found a fine riverside restaurant to enjoy our Christmas dinner.
Green Curry, Tom Yum soup, fresh guava and coconut juice, spicy green papaya salad, Pad Thai..... aaaaahhhhh, what a feast! We sure miss our families back home, but it was a wonderful celebration with loved ones over here. Then back to the hotel room for the 3rd (...or 4th?) shower rinse of the day! Enter room, strip, enter shower & rinse, lay on bed under ceiling fan, evaporate... rinse.... repeat....
The most unusual and appreciated Christmas present, believe it or not, was the "Fish Spa" treatment that we gave to the girls! They wanted to try it sooooo badly, so what the heck, we'll buy a 10 minute nibble! You get your feet washed, and then sit on benches with your legs in an aquarium. And no, I am not making this up... the little fish are "dead skin eating fish," and they really go to town on old smelly feet. Our kids fed those fish well! Totally ticklish, but they LOVED it, and are begging to go back again for the full half hour option! So that's the Christmas news from Thailand! Hope y'all are cozy and celebrating with loved ones.
We had 3 full days to spend here, and decided to do whatever it took (aside from staying at Tiger Tops!) to show the kids as much wildlife and birdlife as possible…. Multiple elephant safaris? What the heck! Merry Christmas girls!!! So the first task was to avoid the many pushy guides and agencies in town, and find the best birding guide. It only took a couple of stops… United Jungle Guide Services has a few offices in town, and when I strolled inside to ask about finding Chitwan’s most experienced birders, Anil was working on his Facebook page. He was editing some photos from a few weeks ago of 2 Brits who he himself had taken birding, and asked if I knew who they were. Nope… didn’t recognize their faces, but I did recognize their names (Carol & Tim Inskipp) as the authors of all the best birding guidebooks for India, Nepal, Pakistan, etc.! I’d found our man!
Anil set us up with several wonderful outings, and truly provided us with expert guides! We did a full day jungle jeep drive on our 1st day, which allowed us to see a large amount of the park. Most visitors do a half-day drive, but therefore only get half as far into the bush… and with 10 or 15 jeeps driving that same “1st half” roundtrip, there is a lot more noise, disturbance, and less wildlife! Our driver was also an hour late, which at first was upsetting, but it turned out to be a blessing. By leaving an hour after the crowds of other jeeps, we had the dirt roads to ourselves for several hours and saw heaps of birds, deer, crocs, a wild boar and other critters. Krishna took us through many diverse habitats, and really worked hard to spot a wide variety of birds… We visited the gharial captive breeding center, a critical facility that is trying to save this rare crocodile. The kids oohed and aaahhhhed at the “cute” reptiles! A lunch break at a truly remote and somewhat ramshackle observation platform gave us a full 45 minutes to quietly watch a one-horned Rhino and her 2 offspring slowly graze by… The “baby” was about 6 months, and the 2-3 year old was still hanging around the pair. Momma was pretty pushy and aggressive with her “teenager,” grazing together but firmly keeping it away from the baby. It was such a thrill to catch glimpses of these massive creatures, just 100 yds. away, so well camouflaged in the dense elephant grass! The afternoon brought us past several oxbow lakes, and we finally exited at Kasara, the park HQ, to drive at higher speed outside the park back to Sauraha. This allowed us to linger longer inside the further away less-visited parts of Chitwan. On the way back, in the buffer zone “community forests,” we spotted our best Rhino yet…. Just 10 yards away in a creek drainage. We parked on the tiny bridge, with the engine humming just in case, close enough see her nostrils flaring and hear her sniffing us! What amazing animals! As a sweet unexpected treat, we enjoyed the “huge red ball sunset,” and the alpenglow on the Himalaya, about 80 or 90 miles to the north…. We could pick out Annapurna, Manaslu, and Dhalagiri, where we trekked just a few months ago! Ahhhhhh…. So lovely!!!! And it was pretty amazing to be seeing such an astounding span of altitude, viewing the 27,000-foot peaks from the 500’ Terai!
The next day we decided to take an hour-long canoe ride, and visit the elephant breeding center. Drifting in the dugout canoe down the Budhi Rapti gave us up-close views of crocodiles and gorgeous birds like herons, egrets, storks and several species of iridescent kingfishers. The birds don’t seem to recognize a floating boat full of humans as a threat, so they rarely flew away as we drifted by. Had we been on foot, we would have spooked them…
Elephants can move safely and efficiently through the jungle, and the breeding center raises and trains them for jungle patrols, park service work, wildlife surveys & research, and for tourist rides! The kids literally flipped-out over the baby elephants, and are already making plans to study zoology & “elephantology” so they can work with elephants someday. The 2-year old brothers living here are apparently the first surviving pair of twin elephant babies born anywhere in the world… pretty cool! After the elephants all headed out to graze in the jungle with their parents and trainers, we took a few hours to stroll back to town. Tharu villages are scattered around the area, surrounded with brilliant yellow mustard flowers that they harvest for the oil. The houses and barns are built with mud walls plastered on a framework of grass that’s harvested once a year from inside the Park. We saw bundles of elephant grass everywhere, drying in the sun, waiting to be used for walls and to repair and re-thatch their roofs. Thousands of cuuuuute baby animals thrilled our kids, and made the miles roll by quickly.
That evening we actually got to board our elephants, rocking & swaying through the community forest for couple of wonderful hours… again, we saw tons of birds, and a couple of species of deer; chital & barking deer. You ride on a square wooden “howdah” perched 10-12 feet high on the elephants’ back. The “mahout” sits on the elephant’s neck, and drives it by pushing his bare feet into the huge floppy ears. The occasional corrective whack on the elephant’s head with a stick disturbed our kids, but our mahout was relatively gentle with “Ranikoli.” The constant wave-like swaying and rocking made me wonder if people ever get “elephant-sick.” Do mahouts ever take Dramamine? We thoroughly enjoyed the meditative swaying pace of the elephant, and the kids were quieter than usual, carefully scanning the thick vegetation for deer and birds from their elevated perch…. What a ride!
Sunset from the back of the largest land mammal on the planet puts everything into perspective. It seemed as if we could see the curve of the earth from up there as the big red ball settled into the soup for the night.
On our last day we had planned to do another morning canoe float in a new area, and then have a more relaxed afternoon…. but several of the best experiences were yet to come! The canoe ride down the Jan Khola (?) was even better than the first, with far more exquisite birds and surprisingly clean clear water! The kingfishers were stunning in the morning light… my new favorite color is “kingfisher blue!” There were also several crocs, including a 6-footer who slipped into the river, swam straight towards our canoe, then disappeared under the water grasses directly under us…. “That was REALLY cool… but a little scary too,” said Sylvie.
We got back to Sauraha just in time to see the mahouts bringing their elephants down to the river for their daily bath, and everyone is welcome to join in for a good scrub… for 50 rupees! The kids went bonkers, and gushed repeatedly about this being “the BEST thing I’ve ever EVER done in my life!!!!” They were required to wear huge life jackets for “safety,” but that was the only precaution… this is definitely not OSHA approved! 3 or 4 people scrambled up on the elephant’s back as they kneeled on the ground. The kids struggled to cling to each other and to its backbone as the beast lumbered and jerked up to it’s feet, then tromped on into the river… then it was splashing, laughing and elephants spraying everyone with their trunks for an hour. Eventually the animals would lay down in the river (more like squatted and fell over into the water), and the riders tumbled off too. Then they got to scrub the bristly elephant hides and backs with stones they’d picked up off the riverbed. Having such playful & close physical contact with those massive creatures made our kids giddy with joy! I was a bit worried one might roll over and squash someone, but no one got hurt… And we were the only ones around for an hour or so… until a huge crowd of 30 Nepali teenage boys showed up, stripped to their black undies, and rampaged around the river screaming, splashing, and tossing rocks and yelling as they pushed each other off of elephant backs. The final judgment, from Dawn & Maya, was “that was even better than swimming with dolphins, and that cost us $170!”
On our last evening, Anil and Krishna took us on an evening bird walk