A Travellerspoint blog

June 2010

Meghan's Take Two

Reflections of Nepal


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Meghan’s Second Entry!

Thanks to all the positive feedback, I thought I would give this challenge another go. Peter and I have been in Pokhara for just about a week now. Pokhara is the gateway city to the trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area and boasts a lively touristy area with adjacent lake all overlooked by the Himalayas to the North and a Peace Pagoda to the south. We thought we would take a few days to max and relax before we reenter the intensity of India. In addition, India just happened to change their visa rule December of last year and any tourist that leaves the country must wait a minimum of 2 months before reentry regardless if you hold a double entry visa like we do. Great India, thanks a lot, oh well we will continue to spend our money in Nepal and enjoy the cool air and beautiful views. We could legally reenter India on the 28th so we made plans to bus to the boarder, stay a night in Lumbini (Birthplace of Buddha) and cross on the 28th. Only to make the connection last night around 7pm that today (May 27th) is the birthday of the “Enlightened One“. After a few phone calls we came to discover the accommodation would be very difficult to find. Ooopppps. Instead we leave tomorrow the 28th, bus to the border, another bus to Gorakhpur, train to Lucknow, another train to Amritsar (north of Delhi, close to boarder with Pakistan and home of the Golden Temple, the Mecca equivalent for Sheiks). where we will be greeted with 45 degree weather, and for those of us not up on the Celsius to Fahrenheit conversion we are looking at about 115 degrees! What are we thinking? Really this will be just a quick stop before venturing into the Indian Himalayas and possibly more trekking and a more agreeable climate. But today, gives us yet another day to ‘hang out’.

I thought I would do like I did last time and scour all tens of hundreds of pictures that we have taken in the last two months and offer a “behind the story” take on Nepal. Most of the pictures will come from the trek. What a highlight that was, how can I not continue to talk about it!!
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Here is Mr Munson working away on a blog…..these take a lot of time. If only we could get paid, then we may never come home!

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Touristos walking the strip in Thamel, Kathmandu. We affectionately call such areas the TZ (the tourist zone) and they are the same everywhere and every country. The stuff being hawked and the type of tourist changes slightly, but not by much. Coming to Nepal, I made an observation there where a lot of Sunnto Watches, leather hiking boots and technical fabric pants on the plane from Delhi.

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Kathmandu was firmly located on the “Hippy Trail” of the 1960s and 1970s and Freak Street was its epicenter. Today Freak Street is one stop shopping for today’s “hippy trailers”. Hippies flocked to Nepal for its cheap chilled out vibe and, well lets be honest, for its abundance of dope. Although today it is illegal (most of the year) one doesn’t need to trek far before walking through fields of it.
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We have come to understand why this plant is also called “Weed”. It grew everywhere! I mention that it is illegal most of the year, it is legal during a Shivarati Festival in Janurary/Feburary. Cannabis is used in many different forms as an offering to Shiva, one of the many gods of Hindu (but one of the more popular ones), Many Sadhus (holy men) smoke charras of hash in observation of Shiva.

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Up until 2006, Nepal was a “Hindu Kingdom” ruled by a Monarchy. Nepal was proud to be the worlds last Hindu nation. Since then, the government has been turned up side down. The monarchy was ousted in 2006 after very problematic 5 years prior. In 2001 the heir to the throne massacred the king and queen and 8 other family members before turning on himself in one horrific murder suicide. One theory suggest Prince Dipendra had been drinking and high and merely erupted while others believe that it was a conspiracy by Gyanendra (next in line for the throne after Dipendra) and China’s equivalent to the CIA. (people question whether it was really a suicide). Regardless of the truth, the people of Nepal were rocked and the government has been in shambles ever since. The Maoists (Nepal’s Communist Party) took the opportunity of the massacre to increase its anti monarchy stance and increased its hold in Nepal. Today, the Maoists are very vocal against the current prime minister. On May 1st, their Labor Day they held massive protests in Kathmandu and starting May 2nd called an indefinite strike. Unlike strikes that we know at home, when the Maoists call a “general strike” they mean everything is shut down. If you happen to open your shop or drive your taxi you risk violent reprimanding from a Maoist supporter. We personally have only heard really negative things against the Maoists and not one person has come out to say they support them. However, they are out there, and literally had shut down Nepal for 8 days. Many tourists where left with out taxi or busses for their use and had to take to walking to and from the airports and trekking trail heads (sometimes 10 miles!). Fortunately, we where trekking and didn’t have any impact from the shut down.

Nepal is home not only to Hindus and many Buddhists as well. And as I have already written, Nepal is home to the birth place of Buddha. The Buddhism seen on the highland is greatly influenced by the Tibetan form. In addition, there are many Tibetans living in exile in Kathmandu, Pokhara and the highlands.
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Women Spinning Tibetan Prayer Wheels. Inscribed on the cylinder are mantras and spinning in a clockwise rotation releases them. (hey Pops, see the prayer beads? Thought you would like that!)

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Taking my turn….
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Yep, you got to love the trusty guide book.
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More prayer wheels. We literally passed thousands during the 24 day trek. I tried to spin most of the them. In some villages, the wheels were merely coffee cans. Not too sure why.

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These stone structures where found along the trail with paths leading down both sides. On them are the inscribed stone slabs, again with mantras. One should walk with it on your right for your right side of you body is you pure or clean side. This is also true when circumnavigating stupas and other temples (true for Hindu temples as well)

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Monk on a horse….yes peter did ask permission and happily he said yes.
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These cheerful women were encountered on the trail returning from a festival The older lady was dancing and singing and full of enthusiasm. I would not be too surprised if they had been drinking the local “wine” Raksi. Women’s lives are much easier in the hills as they are unencumbered by caste and less tradition bound then the orthodox Hindus of the plains.

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While trekking, you encounter information boards when entering most of the villages. It gives you an idea of how set up they have made this trek.
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This guy trekked the entire time with a Russian Flag hanging off the back. Not too sure why, never asked, simply assumed he would summit the pass with it and leave it there. Nope, saw him down the other side with it the next day. Peter and I chuckled and wonder what others would say if we had done it with an American Flag. (Plenty of Stupid American jokes I am sure) A German hiking buddy also shared in the jest stating she could never get way with it.

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So on the trail one comes across a variety of trekker. He was a group leader of a large group of Germans that we leap frogged with for the first week. This picture was taken the first time we came across the group and I couldn’t help insisting Peter take a picture.

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The best view from the guest house window. Doesn’t it feel like you can just reach out and touch a 25,000plus foot mountain.

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I really loved the head adornment on the donkeys. In addition, the donkey wore bells around their neck of varying size. Some were down right huge and heavy but made the most beautiful sound when a troop of the them passed. I think we got some video recorded just to remember what it sounded like.

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This is a porter for a trekker. In his case, three trekkers. We crissed crossed with this red bag for a least a couple of days. I am not sure what we more impressed by, the bag to man ratio or the fact that a back pack that size exists! Take note, he doesn’t wear the waist belt and in his hand is the rope he will place around his head to carry the bag with.
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A porter brings up lumber for construction of a new guest house.
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A porter lugging up a new REFRIDGERATOR! Fortunately this was only a one day hike from the nearest road, but who know how far is was going. Surprising, the little villages on the trail had more electricity from solar and micro hydro projects then Kathmandu!

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Peter and hiking buddies playing a lunch time game of cards. We introduced the game “Oh Hell” to many people along the trail. Thank you Casey and Liz!

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Baby yak vs. baby cow……which one is cuter? I take the Yak!
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This was how logs were once cut by hand…here they still implenet this technique. Talk about patience.
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Many homes and guesthouses had one of these, a solar cooker. There is an ever present concern of deforestation up in the hills. They request trekkers to select guest houses that do not use wood to cook with. Unfortunately, those were not easy to find after a couple day hike from the road. Some day soon there will be a road that travels up the valley and maybe (we will see) over the pass to connect with the road down the other side. This will destroy this trek, but allow plenty more bus happy tourists access. I feel that the trekking tourism some of the villages know will not be the same once the road is built, but the road will allow for kerosene to be shuttled up to use in place of wood. Oh, one of the many developmental conundrums Nepal faces.
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How most food is cooked.
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Building of the road…

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Map of the trail
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Himalayan Dogs. Very different looking then your typical mountain dog. Obviously desendents of the Tibetan Terrier. (Do you think this is where Toby gets the long body?)

Posted by pmunson 23:07 Archived in Nepal Comments (2)

Back to India

Golden Temple to the Dalai Lama


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Over landing from Nepal to India, we knew we where in for some long arduous bus journeys. We left Nepal on the morning of May 28th for an 8-hour bus ride to the border town of Sonauli. Walked across the border and boarded another bus for three more hours that brought us to the city of Gorakhpur. This city was the closest railway station to the Nepal border and allowed us to trade the cramped hot bus for the much more comfortable train. Our train left the next morning, so we over nighted in the absolutely dirtiest “hotel” yet. I guess when you are located right across the street of the train station you do not have to do much to bring in the customers. At 6:45 the next morning, we boarded a train that led us to Lucknow and the very busy capital of Uttar Pradesh. This is India’s most populated state and the capital reflected it. With a four-hour layover, we contemplated between leaving the train station for some sight seeing and lunch or just hanging tight. The temperature was easily above 100 degrees and with sweat dripping down our faces and horns and rickshaw drivers accosting us, we quickly decided to wait it out in the train station. A quick look around found us a waiting room with air conditioning for those traveling upper class. Technically, we did hold ticket for the AC upper class, but this was not checked and we were waved on in. The train left only 1.5 hours late (not too bad), we boarded and settled in to the 17 plus hour journey to Amritsar. Located in northwestern India, in the state of Punjab, Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine.

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The Golden Temple

Upon arriving to Amritsar, we followed our trusty guide book to the free bus from the train station to the temple. Getting on the free bus was crazy. In the typical India fashion their was no queue and people just crammed on in. It reminded me of trying to get on the parking lot shuttle at a Phish concert at Sugarbush in 95! We got as close as we could and when the time came we just pushed. Meghan felt like her arm was going to be torn off and I thought that I might loose the small backpack that I was wearing on my front but we made it on board and proceed to get crammed in like an overfull suitcase. Fortunately it was a short ride to the temple. Sikhism has a come one come all nature and the temple provided free lodging for both Sheiks and foreigners alike. Getting off the over packed bus, we found ourselves on the street surrounded by thousands of sheik pilgrims. We started our aimless wondering when we were whisked away by a very helpful women and her two kids. She quickly located the accommodation for foreigners and we were led into a long narrow hall that had beds lined up side to side running down one end. It had AC, and was a welcomed refuge from the heat. We dubbed this place the “tourist enclave” and compared to the lodging for the pilgrims, who spilled out onto mats laid out in the open courtyard, it was Shangri-la
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Laid out in the enclave

Inside the temple priests chant in Gurmuhki from the Sikh holy book. These chants are broadcasted over loud speakers through out the temple complex.

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A marble walkway surrounds the pool.

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The Golden Temple (Check out the line of pilgrims waiting to enter)

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Father and son taking a ritual bath in pools surrounding the temple.

In the 15th century, Guru Nanak of present day Pakistan founded the religion of Sikhism as a way to revolt against the misgiving of both Islam and Hinduism. Sikhs number about only about 1.9% of the total population (Hindus number 82% and Islam 12%). Principally, the belief of one God, rejection of the worship of idols, belief in rebirth and Karma and in an equality of all being (regardless of “caste” or creed) makes up the
basis of this religion. Many Sheiks don’t cut their hair or beard as a symbol of saintliness (heads are covered in tightly wound turbans with long beards often braided or twisted and tucked up into them), wear a kirpan, a sword signifying power and dignity and a steel bangle representing fearlessness.
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In Sikhs temples and shrines across the world, the ritual of langar is practiced. Langar is when people of all walks of life (religion, caste, creed, nationality etc.) sit down together and share a common meal provided by temple volunteers. Here in the Golden Temple, 60,000 to 80,000 people are served a day! It was truly an amazing feat of organization and commitment.
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Stockpile of metal plates

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Peter waiting for his grub in the required headwear

How do they serve up to 80,000 people a day?!?
There are two dining halls, upstairs and downstairs. Both sat about 800-1000 people on rows of long mats. Plates are handed out and people file into a “cleaned” hall. Servers come by with pails of rice, curry, Dal (lentils) and just slop it on to the plates. Other servers come around with hot Chapatti (flat bread) fresh from the Chapatti making machine! We all eat quickly, with 2nds and 3rds always on offer. As you finish you stand and file out to the dish washing station. Here, more volunteers take your plate and loudly thrown then into a giant basin when they are then moved to the dish washing area. Once last people are out of the room, the floor is wetted down and squeegee clean. In the downstairs hall they even have a zamboni type vehicle that makes laps cleaning the floors. When one hall is being cleaned, pilgrims are eating the other. It goes back and forth like this from dawn to 10:30 at night!
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Filing out after eating

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Pilgrim volunteers wash dishes

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Not your ordinary soup spoon…Stirring a vat of Dal (lentil soup)

Yet another long bus ride, a pattern that will develop in our travels through Northwestern India, brought us to Dharamsala. Unfortunately we were not done yet and had to catch a 2nd bus that would bring us another 45 minutes up windy mountain roads to the small town of Mcleod Ganj. This has become a destination in India since around 20,000 Tibetan refugees have moved here, along with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Today, Tibet runs its government in Exile and quiet little McCleod Ganj is no longer so quiet. We climbed out of the bus to find the typical TZ (tourist zone) lined with the typical shops and tourists. It was a big change from Amritsar were the domestic tourists and pilgrims far outnumbered the foreigners. As the epicenter for Tibetan Buddhist activity, people from all over the world are attracted here for different reasons. Many come to volunteer with the refugees, others come to meditate and take in the spiritual side of things, while others come to see what the fuss is all about. We found ourselves is the latter category. While a beautiful setting, the overwhelming noise from traffic and the shear number of spiritual tourists we found ourselves disappointed with the whole experience. One nice experience was seeing monks in maroon and saffron robes everywhere. In every café and restaurant, which there were plenty, one would see a monk chatting with a westerner in what looked like a deeply spiritual English lesson. In addition, we visited the Tibet exile museum and took in two documentaries that educated us more to the plight of the Tibet people and government. If you are interested please visit www.thetibetpost.com

Posted by pmunson 04:47 Archived in India Comments (3)

Kashmir

Srinigar, Dal Lake, and Trekking


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Ahh Kashmir! The name itself self drew me to this place before I learned more about its massive mountains and long valleys. From Dharmasala we had a seven hour bus ride that brought us to Hindu city of Jammu, where we befriended a Polish girl, Kasha, who had been traveling in India for five months mostly on her own. We overnighted in Jammu, and woke the next morning for a nine hour jeep ride up into the Kashmir valley. Here, the “summer” capital city of Srinagar would be our first stop. Kashmir, with it Sufi- Muslim people are culturally and ethnically different then the rest of India. Unfortunately, since India’s independence in 1947, this valley has been scared with three wars with Pakistan and the people are divided in their allegiance. The valley itself is actually divided by an arbitrary “line of control” in which the northern section is ruled by Pakistan and the southern by India. Many Kashmiri people identify with Pakistan while others want a complete independence from both India and Pakistan. India has a HUGE military presence in the valley and although peaceful while we visited, it is not hard to see the tension in the air. We visited Srinagar to spend some time on a houseboat on beautiful Dal Lake

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Houseboats on Dal Lake
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Meghan, Kasha, and Guza look at some photos on the veranda

The tradition of house boats started back during the British rule when Srinagar was used as a summer retret. In keeping with the fashion of the original boats from the1930’s, some of the house boats sport ornately carved verandas with lavishly appointed sitting rooms adorned with chandeliers and over carved wooden furniture.

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Sitting room inside a “deluxe” boat

Over 600 boats form a city in an large outlet area of the lake with more lining the broad river that runs through the town. At first it appeared that they we not more than a tourist destination but after a few days it became clear that families live aboard, usually occupying a smaller boat behind the one that is for rent.

We found ourselves the “Moon of Kashmir” which was actually a group of houseboats. We stayed in a nice boat that had two bedrooms and a nice sitting area. It was not in the “super deluxe” class of houseboats but Golum, the proprietor, gave us use of his nicest boat’s veranda. It was a family run operation and his son Guza would come to spend much time showing us around the lake and town. Our first morning on the boat I woke early and sat on the veranda to take in the scene on the lake. There was still mist coming off the lake and on a small boat a fisherman, his wife, and two small children were starting their day. The man was smoking tobacco from a large water pipe in the center of the boat and the woman had a stove going with tea boiling. The puffs of smoke and the steam from the teapot mixing with the mist rising off the lake created a magical morning moment. Throughout the day many boats would pass in front of our view including floating salesmen hawking anything from chips and beer to jewelry and pashmina shawls.

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The convenience store boat - One came buy about every ½ hour

Gondola like shikaras were readily available for hire and out on the lake in force. The Shikaraa were brightly colored and decorated with beautiful drapes around a comfortably upholstered chaise lounge. Happy couples and family’s were ushered through narrow canals lined with shops, past wide aquatic boulevards, and out in to the open water of Dal Lake beneath the Pir Panjal mountains.

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Shikaras waiting for tourists
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Lakeside lounging

We spent 5 days on the boat and in Srinagar. We took in a interesting early morning floating vegetable market were men congregated to buy and sell all sorts of fresh veggies from their small boats.

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Moon of Kashmir
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Heading out through the canals of the old town to the morning vegetable market
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Floating Veggie Market
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Early morning conversation at the veggie market

Srinagar is home to lavish gardens of the Mughal Era. The lake is surrounded by huge beautiful gardens with water features, large shady trees, and an abundance of beautiful flowers. Finding a nice place to sit outside and relax in India is a challenge so this was a nice treat.

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Roses
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Meghan in the Garden
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Mughal Gardens
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[i]Flowers

The canal lined old town still had some old buildings that survived a terrible earthquake in 2005. The old wooden buildings had interesting architecture. We spent a day getting lost in and around the old town. During this we visited an old mosque with 4 wooden spires that looked like it could accommodate thousands of worshipers.

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Old Town
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A solo boatman paddles at the front of his ship through old town
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Prayer mats and archways inside the mosque

We also took a day trip out to Gulmarg which is one of India’s ski destinations. Their was a gondola that whisked you up to over 12,000 feet. Wealthy Indian tourists collided on the ticket line in the usual chaotic fashion to buy a $20 USD ticket to the top. As most Indians do not ever see mountain weather rental shops outfitted them with rubber boots for the snow and fake fur jackets for the cold. The result was hilarious! After some discussion we decided to buy the overpriced ticket and sent Kasha to get in the shorter women’s line. She fought her way up the line for about 20 minutes and just when she was the next in the “line” they shut down due to bad weather and a lunch break. Go figure. We walked around for a disappointing hour or so before heading back top the jeep for the bumpy 2 hour ride to the lake.

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Indian winter wear
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Gulmarg

Posted by pmunson 04:48 Archived in India Comments (3)

Kashmir Trekking


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In addition to owning the houseboat we stayed on in Srinagar Golam lead pony treks into the surrounding mountains in the Indian Himalayas. We set out with him for 6 days of tent camping. Our party consisted of a 4 ponies, two pony men, a cook, Golam, Kasha, Meghan, and myself. We traveled by jeep for three hours to a small village at the end of a rough dirt road. The first night we camped along a nice river that was only a kilometer or so from were we left the jeep. This left plenty of time for fishing. Golam provided a curios set up that was a mix of spin and fly fishing. He had a spin rod, a fly real, and tackle that was a mixture of the both. Regardless of the weird set up it was not long before I had my first rainbow trout.
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Riverside Camp
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Golam looking for Trout

From our riverside camp we would climb out of the valley the next day through pine forests to a high meadow that was home to hundreds of sheep and nomadic Gujar sheepherders. We made camp with a spectacular views of high snowcapped mountains and lush valleys. From this base camp we spent the next two days exploring and then had a rest day. We were above tree line but still on green grassy terrain that made for open hiking and remarkable views. The first day we climbed to two lakes. In between the two we had to cross a wide stream. The water was freezing cold and it took a good time before I regained any feeling in my feet. We were able to catch a few fish in the lake to have with our dinner. The next day we climbed high up onto the snow, over a ridge, and to a frozen lake beneath an impressive mountain. I had fun sliding down the snow on my feet skier style while Kasha used her rain cover as a sled. She accidentally collided with Meghan and the two of them came sliding down the mountainside on top of each other!
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Morning Mist viewed from camp
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Gujar sheep herders
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Meghan, Kasha, and Golam making their way up towards the lakes
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Lower Lake
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Golam rigging his tackle with a dry fly trailed by a Mepps spinner? And we still caught them on the not so “dry” fly.

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Meghan up on the snowfield

On our way back to camp we took shelter from rain in one of the nomadic Gujar tents. They offered us tea and chapattis to pass the time. To warm themselves they would take coals from the fire and place them in a clay pot surrounded by a whicker basket. This would then be tucked under their woolen poncho keeping the entire body warm.. The whole family took part in smoking tobacco from a large hookah. They would take coals from the warming basket and place them on top of the huge bowl of tobacco and puff away. It was one of those amazing moments that catch you completely of guard. At one moment I was completely frustrated over the rainy weather and at the next I was awed by the generosity and hospitality of people who have practically nothing. While all this was going on Golam was down at the river catching us more fish for dinner.
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Incoming Weather
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Our Friends at the Gular tent
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Unfortunately we could not escape the weather. It rained every day and on our last day it rained almost all day. A huge thunder cloud settled right above us delivering lightning and hail. We huddled in the tent covered in blankets and all of our warm gear for the entire afternoon as we did every afternoon. The clouds rarely lifted to expose the grandeur of our surroundings. Despite all this we still were able to have a really enjoyable experience. Tarig, the 18 year old pony man, was really nice and in his limited English we were able to get to know him over the 6 days. He lived in the mountains and his family were sheepherders. He spoke a local dialect that even Golum did not understand. He hiked the entire time in a pair of loafers with a disintegrating rubber sole. Even with this he was agile on the snow and had no problem crossing wet rock gardens and passing through deep mud. Our cook was also very nice and spoke a good amount of English. He had been a camp cook for 30 years in Kashmir and had his routine down. The food was consistently good and the trout was just fantastic.
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Mist in the pines
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Too much tent time
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Ajmer serving up dinner in the mess tent
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Tarig and Meghan

Coming from Colorado and having so much experience backpacking it was difficult being catered to and seeing the huge impact on the land. The concept of “leave no trace” camping does not exist here. Impacted camp sights were everywhere and all of them contained their fair amount of trash. We picked up after ourselves and encouraged our guide to do the same but we could tell the concept was not there. It was sad to see the land being polluted and we both felt guilty for contributing to it. If anything we hope that by showing that we wanted to pack out our trash we influenced Golam to do the same.

Posted by pmunson 04:56 Archived in India Comments (2)

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