A couple of hours later, the car began lurching and sputtering, giving Ramas just enough time to pull over to a relatively wide spot after a hairpin turn. A quick assessment revealed that this was a classic out-of-gas situation, but why it had happened in the first place made less sense. Ramas hoofed it back to the town that we had fortunately passed only a few kilometers before--without stopping for gas--and we pieced it together. For whatever reason, he did not have any money with him, having asked us to front the police ticket fee and then asking again for money to buy gas. He was hoping to make it to Pokhara before filling up, but perhaps due to the engine leaking some gas the day before, subsequently fixed with a string, it was lower than expected. He returned with a gas canister and the car started right up. (We later learned that our travel agency had given him sufficient cash funds before departure, but he somehow forgot it at home. Regardless, we were easily reimbursed for the ticket and gas!)
As we eventually approached Pokhara, I began eyeing the sinking sun. We had only one night to stay at the Peace Dragon Lodge up on the ridge line overlooking Phewa Lake with an imposing panorama of peaks beyond it. To arrive in the dark would defeat the entire point, which was why I was so insistent we got a much earlier start than I ever imagined would be necessary. It looked like we were going to be okay until Ramas drove right past the road leading up to the World Peace Pagoda, despite me telling him that our hotel was up there. Wondering if there was another approach to the ridge line, I waited until it was clear that he was taking us in to town before inquiring again. Rather than taking my word for it, he wanted to call the hotel, so I dug up the reservation, but of course the phone number on it did not work. I finally convinced him that his instructions to take us to Lakeside were a mistake and that I was sure the hotel was up on the ridge line. I do understand why he was hesitant; only certain vehicles are licensed to take tourists to sightseeing locations in the Pokhara area and our hotel drop-off point was the parking lot of one of those attractions. We had had enough trouble with that already that day!
It was still daylight as we unloaded the car, but the golden hues indicated that sunset was imminent and we were not at the hotel yet. We still had hundreds of stairs to climb! Kindly, a cafe owner, who had the correct phone number, rang the hotel and they sent down two strapping young men for the luggage. I raced ahead with the remainder and Matt cracked the whip behind Esther and Mike. They would see this sunset if it was the last thing they did! Once at the Peace Dragon Lodge, we forced them up three more staircases without pause. If they had not already been breathless, the view they were hit with from the rooftop terrace would have definitely made them so. The mountains were the clearest we had ever seen them, bathed in subtle yet gorgeous sunset colors that were reflected on the lake. Perhaps because it was literally an all-day uphill battle to arrive at this moment just in the nick of time, it felt that much more valuable.
We rose for sunrise as well, beautiful of course, but not nearly as stunning as the sunset the evening before. Phew! After breakfast, we climbed up to the World Peace Pagoda that can be seen from Pokhara and learned a little bit about the movement to build these monuments across the globe. Then we enjoyed the rarity of a leisurely morning until our sanctioned transport arrived to take us to the Annapurna Eco-Village in the village of Astam, tucked away in the foothills at the base of the grand peaks looming over the region. It was a pleasant surprise to get stuck behind a small street parade promoting organic agriculture as we left Pokhara.
Astam was one of the few places on our Kohncation tour that is not designated as a UNESCO site, but I believe the charming village would be deserving of the title. The team of brothers and their wives running the Annapurna Eco-Village are certainly doing their part to keep village life vibrant and self-sustaining, which we would learn from our hosts is an ever increasing challenge in the face of urban and international migration of primarily young men to take exploitive work in Kathmandu, India, the Middle East, and beyond. With little to no support from the government for basic services, increasing cost of living with limited opportunities to generate income, and technological connectivity creating a dissatisfaction with traditional rural life, the integrity of villages throughout the Himalaya is at risk. With pro-active efforts to strengthen the village's assets, perhaps Astam will become an example of not just adapting to inevitable change, but ending up the better for it.
After enjoying a tasty lunch featuring produce from their own garden, Bishwo Adhikari, one of the founding brothers, toured us around the property to point out eco-friendly features such as a sand water filtration system, solar panels, and the aforementioned organic garden. All the while, a front-row view of Macchupuchre, Nepal's sacred Fishtail Mountain, competed for our attention. It seemed so close that one could reach out and prick a finger on its pointy double summit.
We then continued down the hill to the local school to which Annapurna Eco-Village lends support. This was particularly exciting for Esther and Mike who spent their entire career as dedicated teachers and school administrators. The younger grades had already been dismissed, so we got to peek into the basic classrooms and meet some of the teachers, as well as play with a couple of youngsters hanging around outside.
A basketball court, of all things, was under construction, and a relatively well-equipped computer lab was the after-school hang out where kids surfed the web and practiced typing using a program. Both of these resources, as well as a library of donated books, are the result of collaborating with international groups for aid. "Government schools," as they are called, are typically the only option in rural villages, yet the inept government can not be relied upon to provide adequate or consistent funds to operate. The success of a school and quality of education falls to resourceful teachers and committed community members to pick up the slack. No doubt, this sounds all too familiar to underserved communities in the United States and around the world, but considering Nepal's government is believed to one of the most corrupt in the world, I would hazard that they take educational injustice to an unfortunate extreme.
It is amazing how quickly the time passes when relaxing in a peaceful place. It seems we were just getting in to the rhythm of greeting the day with sunrise on Macchupuchre, sipping the signature herbal "Eco-tea," taking walks through the village, and playing bagh chal--a Nepalese board game involving tiger and goat pieces.
Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Pokhara, where we had a day of being typical tourists doing what tourists do best in Lakeside: eating! Much to Mike's delight in particular, Pokhara abounds in some decent Western food options that we did not hesitate to indulge in. We did take a break for some "exercise" by taking a hilarious pink paddle boat out on the lake, followed by a nap-inducing happy hour along the sunny lakeshore, as well as the inevitable T-shirt shopping that comes with traveling with Mike. Mid-bargaining session, a minor earthquake shook the shops and many people ran out into the street. We waited for aftershocks, but everything returned to normal. However, the last time we had traveled with Esther and Mike, we had also felt an earthquake. If it happens on the next trip, it will be an official tradition!
We completed our counter-clockwise loop through central Nepal the next day when we returned to Kathmandu, only wishing we had longer than our lunch break to spend at Bandipur en route. The side trip to the historically preserved gem of a town resulted in our arrival to Kathmandu in the thick of rush hour, which was eye-opening as to just how congested the city can get and how there are really no rules of driving conduct whatsoever. Luckily for us, we had Ramas to calmly negotiate the chaos. The next three nights were a treat to spend at the eco-conscious completely plastic-free Kantipur Temple House, serving as a safe haven from the craziness of bustling Kathmandu.
It was a full day of sightseeing the next day when we took a local taxi to neighboring Patan to compare its Durbar Square with those of Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. It was "same, same, but different," to borrow a ubiquitous pan-Asian phrase that appropriately describes our reaction. The compact square had more densely clustered temples, which resulted in a more dramatic effect. We were equally fascinated with the multitudes of plastic jugs lined up behind a barely trickling water spout at an adjacent public tap in use for centuries. Young girls and women must have been waiting for hours for their turn to fill, indicating that many homes lack running water despite being in the center of Nepal's urbanity. After some street wandering that led to a lovely modern-meets-traditional lunch at a boutique hotel, we were ready to move on to Swayambhunath, more commonly known as The Monkey Temple.
Esther and Mike dubbed it Mt. Everest, and there were indeed as many steps as monkeys, which to say there were a lot of both. Conveniently, watching the antics of the urban monkeys provided a good excuse to stop every few steps, as long as you have nothing that resembles food or food packaging in which case you had better run up the stairs before the monkeys attack you. Even without this form of motivation, we successfully made it up to the stupa which was also "same, same, but different" from the one we visited in Boudha three weeks prior. However, the views of the expanse of Kathmandu capped in its own layer of smog were captivating and as always the people-watching was half of the experience.
That evening we invited our trekking guide Dawa to join us for dinner at the Thamel House, which features Newari food with a traditional dance show. He brought his adorable six-year-old son Karma Dorje who added to the entertainment of the evening as well. It was particularly fun for both Dawa and Matt's parents to meet in person since they had seen each other via FaceTime when we were trekking and had a good enough internet connection for a video chat.
Kohncation was soon coming to a close and we were all feeling a bit worn out, but we pushed through the next day with some Kathmandu street exploring heading toward Durbar Square. By the time we actually reached it, we were on sensory overload and instead opted to take one last form of transport for the trip. Esther had joked about our multi-modal journey: planes, minivans, hiking, horse riding, elephant riding, jeeps, tiny taxis, canoes, bicycles, and a paddle boat. The list would simply not be complete until we added the bicycle rickshaw. With Mike and Esther in one and Matt and me in another, the guys pedaling seemed to be racing until their dude got off and began pushing the rickshaw on the slightest of inclines. Whether Big Mike was actually too much to handle or this was a ploy to get sympathy for charging extra money, I'm not sure. (We were already paying a generous "tourist rate" and our guy ruined any chances of a tip for either of them by unsuccessfully trying to switch the total price we had agreed upon to the price for each rickshaw when it came time to pay.)
The rickshaws dropped us off at the Garden of Dreams, restored with historical accuracy in mind from its glory days during the reign of the Ranas. While we could still hear the horns of traffic blaring on the other side of the wall, the garden felt like we had suddenly stepped into another elegant world of yesteryear, at least for royalty and the elite. Mike and Matt relaxed on cushions spread out on a terraced lawn, I wandered and Esther took it all in from a classic park bench. That evening we celebrated Esther's birthday at an eclectic sort-of-American-sort-of-European themed restaurant. Totally unprompted, the staff put on a recording of the birthday song in English and clapped along while bringing out a dessert on the house. The accuracy of the tradition surprised all of us.
After running a few last minute errands around Thamel the next morning, Mike and Esther squeezed in to one of the more decrepit tiny taxis we had ever seen and we waved goodbye, hoping that they did indeed make it all of the way to the airport. It had been nearly a month of amazing adventures that had gone by so fast while at the same time each day felt so full. We were impressed with how wholeheartedly Esther and Mike took on the challenges of travel in a country very different from our own, whether it was trying spicy food, using squatter toilets with a bucket flush, or say, riding an elephant. Their willingness to try anything we put them up to resulted in a rewarding and enriching experience for all of us. Simply put, we were proud of them.
On the other hand, we had been so focused on living Kohncation in the moment that we had not made any plans for what would happen when it was over. That same afternoon, we settled in to a cafe to begin to figure out our next move. I opened a very timely email from my sister Danielle and read, "Hey...Erik and I are going to be traveling in Thailand in a couple of weeks. Want to join us?" I looked over at Matt and said, "Well, our decision-making process could be very straightforward if we want it to be. My sister is wondering if we can meet up with her in Thailand." Matt was quiet for a little while, then simply said, "Sure, why not?"
I guess we won't be needing those three-month visas for Nepal after all...