We made a bit of a crazy decision. After our volunteering position in Zimbabwe turned from three weeks to one we had to basically change all our plans. We’d intended on spending a couple weeks volunteering in Botswana and then Namibia but seeing how challenging the construction jobs were in the heat and knowing how much hotter it’s due to get we realised we just wouldn’t have fun…and that’s the reason we travel so if we’re not enjoying something we need to make a change. Africa has proven to be too challenging for us to travel on a budget and safety concerns have been quite exhausting. The buses only go to towns and cities so it’s impossible to access the national parks and points of interest if you don’t have your own car or pay for an expensive tour. So after our crazy shared taxi ride from the village we were volunteering in we reached the nearest main town three hours away, headed straight to a cafe and tried to figure out a plan of where to go next. The damn cafe didn’t have WiFi though so we had to go and buy a SIM card with data so we could do some research. Our original plan was to fly to Zanzibar island and enjoy a bit of beach life and see a little of Tanzania but the flights were so expensive and took convoluted routes to get there. The rooms weren’t cheap and we’d also have to pay for a visa so it was looking like it would be quite an expensive trip. So we looked at other flights and for less than flying to Zanzibar we could fly all the way to Dubai. It involved a 12 hour layover in Nairobi and we didn’t know if we’d need a transit visa for that leg which caused us more headaches. Anyway, Dubai sounded like the best plan as we could go anywhere else in the world from there.
So, we headed to the bus station and found one leaving straight away to Harare, the capitol of Zimbabwe. It was pretty much full but there were a couple of seats right at the back – on the axles so it was a very uncomfortable ride. I was next to a large lady, which seems quite common in Southern Africa, they’re not fat at all, just a little chubby and big boned so they’re sure to take up more of the designated seat and it drives me mad. To make matters worse the driver was an absolute hooligan, occasionally the road turned to gravel and he’d continue at the same speed and when he hit potholes everyone in the back would literally fly up in the air and feel what it’s like to have zero gravity in space. He was driving as if he was in the formula one and kept swerving across the road to overtake other cars or buses but he did it at such a speed that on a few occasions everyone onboard thought the bus was going to flip over and our only hope on surviving an accident like that was if it flipped on the left side, if it went to the right the two heavy ladies would be piled on top of me, Craig and a thin mum with her little baby.
After 5 manic hours the bus finally arrived at a very rough bus station in Harare. As soon as the bus stopped our white skin was quickly spotted by the taxi men who started shouting at one another, at which point they all ran to the bus door and tried to grab our bags and escort us to their car. We didn’t want to get in any of these unknown taxis so we walked up the road to a gas station where we were able to use the mobile data we bought earlier to use Zimbabwe’s equivalent of Uber. We had to wait a good 20 minutes for it to arrive and in the meantime we were getting a lot of looks from some rather suspicious looking characters but eventually we were picked up and on our way to the airport.
Now we had to find out if we needed a visa for Kenya as we didn’t want to book the flight if that was the case. The Kenya airways office was closed so we asked at the information desk where a very kind staff member lent us her personal mobile to call them and within five minutes we had confirmation that the visa was not required and we booked the flight to Dubai straight away!
We had 8 hours in Harare airport until our flight so we headed to the only eatery in the departure area. Everything was ridiculously overpriced but we needed to eat so we ordered a couple of drinks and after taking a sip the waiter (who was constantly chewing a wooden tooth pick) told us that 95% of the menu was unavailable. Brilliant. We found something to eat though and they had comfy seats so we spent a few hours there before going through security. It was a horrible flight as it departed at 2am and arrived at 5am so we barely got any sleep.
Then we became Tom Hanks in The Terminal movie as we had 12 hours in Nairobi airport. We spent our time strolling around looking for eating options, plug sockets and a place to sleep. There was a nice quiet area downstairs with lounger chairs which looked way more comfortable than they actually were. The time flew by rather quickly, we ate twice and had a Kenyan coffee before making our way to the gate and realising we’d somehow missed a whole section of the airport which had much more affordable food goddamit! I had the windowseat on the flight and Craig was next to a guy from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m not sure if it was his first flight but he asked for help a few times as he couldn’t figure out how the tv worked or how to open a packet of peanuts. Craig was making the most of the complimentary alcoholic drinks so he was probably a tad tipsy when our Congo friend opened a milk powder sachet and it exploded all over him. His lap was covered in powder which looked like cocaine and Craig couldn’t control his laughter. The guy was giggling too, it was a choice of laughing or crying I think so he fist-pumped Craig and then proceeded to clean himself while Craig continued to roar with laughter.
We arrived in Dubai at midnight. We’d booked a hotel near the airport which offered a free shuttle service but then we were told it didn’t collect from this terminal so someone suggested we walk there instead. It was only about 1.5km and it felt so good to be able to walk at night and feel completely safe. Doing that in Southern Africa would be absolutely unheard of. There weren’t many people on the streets as everyone seems to drive in Dubai but even still we felt totally safe. The only downside was the heat which was sweltering, albeit the maximum in October is 35° compared to 48° which we had on our stopover in July.
We checked in and had a well needed shower after 48 hours or travel and then Craig realised he’d left his key inside his padlock and it was now missing. So at 3am I was trying to poke a safety pin inside to pick the lock which was unsuccessful but I did manage to put my padlock key in at an angle and finally we heard the lock ping open. Time for bed! We opted for a full day in Dubai to recover from the transport and were rudely awoken at 11am for room service. The day flew by and before we knew it we were back at the airport and boarding a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Fly Dubai had modern TV sets onboard but they charged to watch anything so Craig spent the entire 5 hour flight watching free trailers for every movie available. We arrived at dark but once again felt totally safe which was delightful. We got cash from an atm without fear of someone following and mugging us afterwards. There were lots of taxis outside which we had to try and barter with to get a good price and it was harder than we expected but our bartering power was dwindling as it was late at night. We eventually found a ride in a little white taxi with a yellow roof and headed for the city.
As soon as we checked into our room I spotted a small cockroach running across the bed. I didn’t have time to think and killed it with my bare hands. Eww. Then we spotted a medium sized roach that managed to escape us by hiding in a crack. Not a good start but I guess for $13 a night including breakfast I couldn’t really complain. Anyway, we were shattered so headed straight to bed.
The following day we were excited to head out and explore Kathmandu. We started our morning with complimentary breakfast which wasn’t very good. I forgot how the bread in Asia is always sweet which pairs terribly with an omelet. Then we set off on a stroll through the touristy Thamel area. It was way more chaotic than I remember, it was made up of narrow roads and lined with shops selling souvenirs and knockoff outdoor gear. Walking through the area was a challenge as there wasn’t any pavement so we had to navigate our way around cars, scooters, people and the odd cow. In typical Asian style the electricity cables were tangled up on each street corner like a giant ball of black wool. We walked all the way south through the winding streets which gradually changed from tourist shops to local shops selling fresh fruit and veg, Hindu offerings and saris. We eventually made it down to Durbar Square which we thought was a free area to visit but they tried to charge about $10 entry per person!! For locals it was less that $1 so we refused to pay and left. We decided to hop on a local bus and make our way to Pashupatinath Temple instead. It’s a very important Hindu sight where locals are burnt on the banks of the river.
We opted to take a back route via some jungle tracks to avoid paying the hefty tourist fee, I’m happy to pay if it’s the local price but I don’t think tourists should be ripped off when they want to visit religious sights. Monkeys were jumping through the trees, a rather unexpected sight in a city centre and after 15 minutes of walking we arrived at the temple complex. There were concrete platforms above the river where fires were made so bodies could be cremated. It was a bit of a shock to the system to see death so publicly. Bodies were being carried down to the river on bamboo stretchers. They were wrapped in orange and yellow cloths and placed on a slanted concrete ledge right above the water, it was at such a slant that it looked like the body could just slip straight into the river. When we visited there were three bodies on the banks of the river and a big crowd of people. Loved ones came down to the body on the slanted rock, placed a yellow shawl over them and a few splashes of river water. Many of the women were hysterically crying which was hard to watch. While the bodies were covered the face was on show to everyone and family members wrapped chains of marigolds around their heads and across their bodies until the body was lifted up and carried down to a platform with a fire.
A young local guy came over and started talking to us, he wanted to offer his guiding services which we said we weren’t interested in but we had a nice chat with him and learnt a lot. He said some of the bad rules in the Hindu religion are being banished, for example just 100 years ago it was tradition for the wife to jump on the fire which her husbands body was burning in. He also pointed to the white building above the river and said it was a hospice so people can come directly to the river once they die as they are all burnt within 24 hours of death! Sometimes family members don’t even have time to travel across the country to be at a funeral.
At the temple complex were Sadhus, known as holy men. I never wanted to pay for a photo in India so I figured this time I’d get my photo. It’s a shame as it’s become more of a money maker for these men and I’ve heard that some demand $10 or $15 for a photo which is outrageous. They’re holy men which means they don’t have possessions and should only really need money for food so the money for the photo is just a nice gesture. Sadly many tourists pay too much and it’s made them realise they can make a lot of money from posing for photos and it makes you wonder if they are all actually holy men or if they just dress up as them. Anyway, we saw two tourists palm them 2000 rupees, about $18!! I took some photos and sat down next to them while they blessed me by chanting, giving me a red tika on my forehead and tapping my head with a feather. I opted to give them 300 rupees but they looked rather disappointed even though they’d just received $18 which is probably more than the average Nepali earns in one day. We also spotted a local man, I’m not sure if he was some sort of sadhu but he had scruffy grey dreadlocks and a beige sarong around his waist but it was tied up so poorly that we could see his balls dangling in the daylight.
By the time we left the temple it was well past lunchtime and we were starving so we just stopped in a miniature eatery selling deep fried delights. It was a tiny place like a narrow wardrobe with a few little tables scattered with crumbs and curry sauce. We got a glass bottle of Pepsi and the bottles in Nepal are in pretty rough condition. You shouldn’t really drink out the bottle as rats are known to pee all over them so we tried to pour the drink from a height into our mouths which is very common in India and Nepal, in fact the locals are absolute masters at it…sadly I didn’t have those skills and I spilt the drink across my face and lap at least two times. Then we hopped on another bus and headed to Baudhanath which is a huge Buddhist stupa. Each bus has a man collecting the money and running alongside the bus while shouting the destinations. On this bus the ‘man’ was just a young boy, maybe only 12 years old.
There was another ticket booth for the stupa but it’s just ridiculous, you shouldn’t have to pay to visit a religious sight thats set in a public square with shops and cafes around it. So we just explained that we didn’t want to go inside and we walked away, following the locals in a clockwise direction. The stupa had prayer wheels all around it which the locals spun and made wishes. One Tibetan lady was bowing on the floor when a stray dog shoved his head up her skirt. Then the dog kept getting in someone’s video so I called it towards me and the damn thing started humping my leg! The bus journey back took over an hour and I would like to say we were happy to get back to our guesthouse but we were welcomed by more cockroaches. Things got worse when I woke up at 1am to go for a wee and saw a huge roach on the wardrobe. Before I could kill it the fucker ran behind the wardrobe but then I spotted another one…and another one. Oh my god the room was infested with them. And these weren’t the small ones we were seeing before, these ones were 2 inches long and Speedy Gonzales. As I scanned my torch around the room, not quite sure which one to kill first I saw the shadow of antennas hiding behind the desk and another one crawling across Craig’s bag and that’s when I had to wake Craig up to help with the massacre that was about to unfold. We’ve stayed in hundreds and hundreds of hotels and some have had a lot of roaches but this one was the official winner. We had to sleep with the light on to try and keep them away which gave me flashbacks of the rough hotels we stayed in while backpacking through Indonesia, power cuts were common and the fear of the lights all going off still makes my skin crawl.
The following day was spent trying to plan a long hike for our time in Nepal. When we visited ten years ago we did the Annapurna circuit hike but this time we wanted to explore the Everest region. Most people fly there but at $160 for a one way ticket it was out of our budget but luckily you can reach the start of the hike on foot which takes about 3 days. In the end those plans all went kaput when our insurance company told us it would cost an additional £450 for cover up to 5000 meters and that wouldn’t even get us up to the Everest base camp or Gokyo Lakes. So with all those plans out the window we searched for hikes up to around 4000m and opted for the Annapurna Base Camp hike. We bought a few essentials in Thamel like gloves, matching woolly hats for just £1.30 each and colourful water-bottle holders. As soon as Craig started wearing his hippy water bottle holder everyone in Thamel began offering him weed which was hilarious.
To get to the start of the trail we needed to catch a bus to Pokhara. We’d asked our hotel if it was possible for breakfast at 5:30am but when we went upstairs the lights were all out and everyone was sleeping. Seeing as that plan failed we went back to bed for 30 minutes but I couldn’t sleep as there was a strange noise behind my wooden headboard. I sat up to try and focus on the noise when a huge cockroach ran across the bedside table. I guess that noise was the millions of roaches discussing an escape plan due to the lights being on for 48 hours.
The bus was said to take 6 hours but it took a whopping 9 hours to drive just 200km. The roads were atrocious and I think we were on gravel and mud more than we were on tarmac. Weirdly the bus conductor moved us from the front to the back, saying that’s where our seats were and he did the same to the two other tourists on board. It felt like he was giving us tourists the worst seats on purpose which was really strange, especially as we pre-booked a ticket and were first onboard. We were sat right on the axle and it was so bumpy that I couldn’t even write in the notes on my phone as it kept thinking I was using the shaking function for the ‘undo’ question. The bus stopped so many times on the journey, for a snack break, a lunch break and toilet break. Each one was for about 30 minutes but eventually we arrived in Pokhara, ready to set off on our hike the following day.