It was harvest season in Pokhara Valley. During our trek of the Annapurna circuit the rice fields surrounding our camp had changed from neon green to gold. Harvest season was the most time critical event of the year and everyone was cutting down the rice paddies with their sickles, beating the rice off the ends, and stacking the dried grass in heaping mounds.
Past our campground and over a suspension bridge lay the majority of the rice fields and once our legs had recovered from trekking we began short explorations to the other side. Beyond the valley steep hillsides rose into low elevation jungle with a few trails that wound between the two contrasting terrains.
Besides it being harvest time, it was also Nepal’s holiday season. The holiday of Dashain had just ended and Tihar, a five day festival celebrating reverence for all things, was now in full swing.
The bamboo swings characteristic of Dashain were still up and the one for the village of Pame Bazaar stood as a temporary landmark adjacent to our campground. The swing never stopped moving as children and adults continually came and went, sometimes performing solo acrobatic tricks and other times doubling up and swinging together.
The third day of Tihar is Gai Tihar; the day when cows are garnished with marigolds and fed the best grass. In the morning Brad left on a shopping run into the village and when he returned he proudly showed me the mess of red powder and rice on his forehead. “I love this place,” he said, “When I was walking back an old man was applying tikka to his cow’s forehead. He invited me into his barn and after he was done he gave me one as well.”
On the evening of the third and fourth days the docile village of Pame Bazaar awoke from its slumber and broke out into all night dance parties. We listened from our campsite, knowing that we’d have our own party to attend to in a few days on account of an invitation that had been delivered to us by one of the village kids.
The following afternoon we decided to walk beyond the rice fields and into the jungle. As we came around a bend in the valley we happened upon a group of villagers working in the rice. From amongst them a young boy emerged. He had a heaping bundle of rice tied to his back and when he approached he stopped us in the trail.
“Where you go?” he asked.
We didn’t really know. “Just walking,” we said, and pointed behind him.
“No. You go back. Danger.”
He stared at us and then clawed at the air with his hand and attempted a shrill roar. “Today we see.”
Brad and I looked at each other. “You mean you saw a tiger?”
“Yes, big tiger.”
What!? A TIGER? At that moment I remembered a story that a German overlander at the campground who had recently passed through the Middle East had told us. He had been traveling alone and seemed to have a knack for bad luck.
“Iran was very bad times for me,” he had told us. “One day someone kidnapped my dog and held him ransom for a bottle of alcohol. I had a bottle in my truck so I gave it to him to get my dog back.”
His crystal blue eyes were framed by a beehive of purple tinted dreadlocks and he stared at us intently, clearly pissed off at the Iranian kidnapper. “But I was so angry! I went to the police to report this man, and when I did, the police arrested me for possession of alcohol! They threw me in jail for seven days!”
“Where’s your dog now?” we had asked.
“I don’t have my dog anymore.” He looked down at the ground and then pointed up at the hills. “Four weeks ago I was up there looking for a site to teach a meditation retreat. My dog was with me, and out of the trees a tiger jumped out and ate him.” This seemed to displease him a great deal, especially after having spent a week in Iranian prison on the dog’s behalf.
We had believed the story, at least up to the part where his dog had been eaten by a tiger, but then it seemed to get a little outrageous. Your dog was eaten by a tiger? Right here?
Now, I was standing in front of a village boy who was validating the German’s story.
Up ahead the villagers seemed unconcerned and continued swinging their sickles and beating the grain from the husks. Despite the absurdity of the claim, it seemed prudent to take the warning seriously. His message had been very clear. We thanked the young boy and turned around, following the valley in the opposite direction and down a trail that traced the line between the rice paddies and jungle. As we skirted along the valley, I kept an eye pointed into the jungle’s undergrowth, and soon I was overcome by paranoia. We were way too close to cat territory; like a vulnerable gophers aimlessly strolling in a garden, until BAM—it falls victim to the conniving house cat.
“You know” I told Brad, “I watched a show once where an elderly man in Florida saw that a crocodile was going to attack him. He didn’t have a chance to get away and he knew he’d die unless he was able to kill the crocodile with his bare hands. Just as the crocodile jumped on him he grabbed its throat and held onto it until the animal suffocated. I’m just letting you know in case that tiger is watching us.”
The valley seemed to continue on forever and eventually we turned back. As we walked back Brad told me that he felt ready to head back to Kathmandu. I suppose I was too.
And with that we decided we’d skip the Pame Bazaar dance party and go to Katmandu the next morning. We packed up Nacho in the evening and I decided to do some research on Pokhara Valley tigers just to see if the danger had been real. It turns out that while tigers do live in Nepal, they don’t live in the Pokhara Valley. It is rather the panther that lives in the area—an aggressive cat known to kill several villagers in the valley each year. Dodged a bullet there.
Our drive across Nepal on the fifth day of Tihar turned out to be the most spectacular people watching day. It was Brother’s Day, the day when sisters honor their brothers by blessing them with multi-colored tikka marks on their foreheads and presenting them with necklaces made of marigolds. All of the men from Pokhara to Kathmandu, both young and old wore marigold necklaces, forming a steady stream of orange out the passenger window.
When we arrived at the Rai house the windowsills and doors were decorated with marigold and chrysanthemum garlands, while the patio was painted with a beautiful decoration. We drank tea and ate selroti, a special Tihar bread made of rice flour and sugar, and recounted our Annapurna trek to the family. In the evening a group of kids sang Tihar songs on the street and fireworks exploded across the city.
We spent the next week in Kathmandu visiting with our adoptive family. I took solo walks to the historic district of Patan, Auntie Durga gave me cooking lessons, and Brad worked on building a custom shield to protect Nacho’s oil pan during our upcoming drive into the Himalayas. One afternoon he crawled out from under Nacho with a complex shield he’d fashioned out of sheet metal, and then walked into town with Pesal to have it replicated in iron by a team of pre-teen welding boys.
At the end of the week Pesal accompanied us to Bhaktapur, a place described as Nepal’s best preserved medieval town. It would also be the starting place for a two week adventure with our friends Nathan and Claire, whose arrival we had been anxiously awaiting. Surprisingly, Pesal had never been to Bhaktapur and we were thrilled to have him along to share in the experience.
Once a stop on the early trade route to Tibet from the 14th to 16th century, it was the most powerful Malla kingdom in the valley with 172 temples and monasteries, 77 water tanks and 152 wells.
The place buzzed with activity and was nothing short of unreal. It was like every historic square and temple I had worked so hard to see in Katmandu’s massive network of streets had been mashed together in one compact location. Everything added to the town’s mystique: the cobblestoned streets, the ancient brick buildings with carved wooden door and window frames, the monumental squares and five tiered temples, the shrines, and the stone sculptures. But amid it all life went on as usual; locals gathered in momo shops, uniformed children walked to school, and the craftsmen made pottery and beaded jewelry. At the communal ghats women collected water and washed clothes, while corn and beans dried on the rooftops.
At 10 in the evening we walked down Bhaktapur’s main cobblestoned street to where Nacho was parked. The tourists had gone for the day and most of the locals were asleep. A group of old men sat huddled under a veranda singing and playing their instruments in unison, a concert for nobody but themselves. We threaded our way out of town toward the airport to pick up Nathan and Claire.